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108.  RECKON I'M JUST AN OLD SOFTY

 

Chief of Police Will Keller glared at the computer screen.

He knew the little round pinhole at top center of the screen was the built in camera, he knew he had family on Mars that would be seeing him courtesy this little camera, but he disliked the knowledge that he could not get a computer nowadays without the damned thing: he'd paid a high school kid to wire into the microphone on his computer and install a switch so he could turn it off when he damn well pleased, and he kept a strip of masking tape across the camera most times.

Now, though, the masking tape hung on the corner of the screen, and the microphone switch was on, and he was glaring at the screen, trying to think of what to say.

As he couldn't really think of anything good, he just started talking as if he were addressing the second Sheriff of the Second Martian District.

 

 

The Sheriff sat down in her spun-plastic chair, pressed a key: her favorite uncle's frowning face filled the screen and she wanted to giggle and clap her hands like an excited little girl.

Her Uncle Will dictated the very best letters, because he never dictated a letter:  he sat there and got mad at the computer and then talked to the screen as if he were talking directly to her.

"You might as well know," Will growled.  "I'm not as mean a man as some folks say I am."

 

 

Chief of Police Will Keller was restless, and he did not like the feeling.

He'd been a lawman long enough that when he was restless, something was going to happen, and he was right often enough that he almost called down to the firehouse to let them know they should stay up and drink coffee.

Almost.

No.

I've been wrong before.

Hell, maybe I had too much coffee.

He snorted:  he could drink an entire pot himself, then go to sleep without difficulty, save the wake-ups necessary to keep from dampening the bedcovers.

No, likely it wasn't his usual large volume of caffeinated indulgence.

Will drove a Crown Vic, the same model as the police cruisers; his personal car had the police radio in it, but he never installed lights nor siren -- too much liability -- no, the radio was enough:  he was a man who'd learned early and well the value of communication, and he had to have his commo.

He eased the white Crown Vic into drive and started driving around town the way he did when he was restless.

 

 

"It's your uncle?"  Dr. John Greenlees asked, smiling a little as he saw his wife's face.

The Sheriff looked up, nodded, then looked back at the screen.

Dr. Greenlees eased into another of the spun-plastic chairs, grateful for the broad webbing that supported his bony backside.  He'd had two surgeries that evening and he was tired of standing.

He saw his pale eyed wife lean forward a little, her attention fixed on the screen before her.

 

 

Will stomped on the brake pedal: he snatched up the mike without looking, his big hand wrapped around it, trigger finger up and over the top, thumb on the talk button:  he held it so his finger was just touching his nose and he chanted crisply into the speaker grille, his voice coming out beside the dispatcher's desk, and then he tossed the mike up on the dash, seized his three cell flashlight from its clip mount and shoved hard against the heavy door.

He was around the car in three long strides and he was at the front door of the house in three long-legged running strides, flashlight gripped by the reflector end like a club, and he hit the door like he meant to break it in.

"MARSHA!  MARSHA, IT'S WILL!  MARSHA, GET UP, YOUR HOUSE IS AFIRE!"

Will knew the howler would be going off in the firehouse, he knew the crew would be rolling out and shoving sock feet in bunker boots, pulling up Nomex pants, striding toward the shining brass fire pole:  he knew the same relays that turned on the lights, powered the circuit dedicated to one of two coffeepots, and the coffeemaker would begin to gurgle and hiss, and that the crew would have hot coffee when they returned to quarters.

He also mentally kicked himself for not making the call, for not warning them that he was restless.

Will threw his head back, looked at thick black smoke extruding from the attic vent, from gaps invisible to the eye, and he leaned back on one leg, drove one booted foot hard against the door beside the doorknob.

 

 

Dr. Greenlees heard the familiar man's voice say "We had a house fire tonight, darlin', and I found it while I was driving around."  

The Doctor heard a snort.

"I was restless, and you know me, when I'm restless I can't sleep,and when I can't sleep things happen, and when I saw Marsha's house was smokin' out the top story, well, I got kind of excited."

"Excited?" Dr. Greenlees asked, amused, and his wife waved an impatient hand:  "Sh!" and leaned a little closer to the screen.

 

 

"MARSHA!"

Will thumbed the heavy flashlight's switch, aimed for the stairs, bent double and fought his way to the top, breathing shallow:  his eyes started to burn from the smoke and he hit one door, then another:  "MARSHA!"

The first room, the guest bedroom, was unoccupied; the air was unexpectedly clear, for the door had been shut. 

Will took a few quick breaths before the smoke crowded in: he turned, aimed for another closed door, pushed it open:  "MARSHA!"

He saw something through the murk, bent, reached:  he caught Marsha in the belly button with his shoulder, ran his arm around the back of her thighs, stood:  she was just at the point of collapse when he caught her.

He made the stairs, he had his arm around her legs, he took the steps deliberately, one tread at a time, not wanting to yield to the excitement firing his belly, winding him up like an eight day clock:  his left hand came to the end of the hand rail at the same time his foot hit the carpet at the bottom of the stairs and he strode out the front door, coughing, swung the limp woman down, laid her on the frost-white grass.

He straightened, hearing the sound of Diesel engines under hard acceleration, seeing red-and-white lights shattering against the front of the main street buildings, and his mouth dropped open as he realized --

She's got a baby in there --

Will turned, took a fast, deep breath of cold, clear air, charged back upstairs at a dead run, letting that eight day clock spring in his belly add power and speed to his legs.

 

 

"Dispatch, Engine One on scene, smoke showing, one casualty out front."

 

 

Will drove to the top of the stairs, holding his breath:  it was hot now, hotter than he'd expected:  the baby's room would adjoin the master -- was there a baby's room, was the child in the main bedroom --

He began to circle the room, bent double, trying hard not to cough, the flashlight less and less useful --

Will's callused hand found the padded edge of a crib --

He thrust the flashlight in the back of his waistband, shoving it in at the small of his back, reached into the crib --

 

 

Chief of Police Will Keller glared at the computer screen, working his foot a little.

Kicking a door was not as hard when he was eighteen, he reflected, but he hadn't done bad for an old man.

"I kicked the door and made entry," he said, "and I went up and got Marsha out, and then I remembered her baby."

 

 

Will came downstairs faster than he had when he had an unconscious woman over his shoulder.

He positioned the child the way he'd practiced and practiced and practiced again, he'd cupped the child's head in his palm and let the baby's legs fall on either side of his forearm, the wee child laying longways on the inner aspect of his left forearm:  he shoved out into the clear air, coughing, just as the first pumper arrived.

Will laid his ear over the baby's nose and mouth, then he turned his head, took a short breath, sealed his mouth over the child's face and puffed in just as much air as his cheeks held.

 

 

Men in reflective striped coats seized lines and ran, woven-linen-jacketed hose spun cleanly from the Mattydale crosslay, heavy boots pounded the clean staircase, helmet-mounted lights pushing weakly against the thickening smoke.

"VENTILATE!" a voice roared, muffled by the air mask:  windows were thrown open, windows that opened easily, sparing the need to break them out:  rescue sweeps were negative, no living souls found, a man ran back down to the engine for the thermal camera as another pair searched the lower story, hunting for either victims, or the source of the thick smoke.

The Chief of Police pressed two fingers into the child's upper arm.

He looked up, saw the squad come to a hard-braking stop behind the pumper, started walking toward it, lowering his head every few steps to puff in just as much air as his cheeks would hold.

Two medics came toward him, one took his arm and said "Back of the squad," and Will lowered his head and puffed another breath into the child.

"The mother is in the front yard," he said, about the time a summoning voice shouted for them from the front of the house:  the pair pressed a control and the ambulance cot's hydraulic lift began to whine, lowering the cot from rig to ground.

Will climbed in, dropped his backside on the squad bench, turned his head to the side, laid his ear down close to the unmoving child's nose and mouth.

He lifted his head, turned, took another breath, then made his seal and puffed in just as much air as his cheeks held.

 

 

"You would be proud of your old Uncle," he told the screen, glaring at the blue NASA logo in the middle of the screen.

"I got that door open in one kick."

He smiled, just a little, shifted in his seat.

"I reckon the old man's got some beef in his legs even yet."

His smile faded.

"Darlin', I've heard firemen tell me for years how hot and how bad the smoke gets the higher you go, but when I run up that stair case I lived it."

He shivered.

"I got Marsha out, caught her as she was ready to pass out.  I reckon she was headin' for the baby's crib. I got her outside and laid down on the grass and I went back in for the baby."

 

"Is she breathing?"  Will asked, then lowered his head to puff another double cheekful of air into the still little form in his arms.

"She is," Connie said, her voice clipped:  she secured the blood pressure cuff, pressed a button, and the quiet plastic hum of the compressor filled the suddenly-quiet patient module.

"Is the baby breathing yet?"

Will turned his head, his ear a half inch from the child's nose, and he felt the slightest wiggle, felt a tiny sigh of air.

He rubbed the child's belly.  "Breathe," he said quietly, and the child gasped in a breath.

He rubbed the child's belly again.  "Breathe," he said, and another gasp, another wiggle, and then the child took a deeper breath and opened its eyes and wrinkled up its face and let the world in general know it wasn't Mommy doing the holding and who is this homely stranger with a mustache and teeth and I am not happy and Will looked at Connie and he felt something wet run down his cheek.

"I reckon she's breathin'," he rumbled.

 

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller, Second Martian District (Firelands) saw her uncle wipe at something shiny and wet streaking down his cheek.

"I reckon that little one didn't like someone that smelled like a man and had fur on his face, so she cut loose with a War Whoop and I reckon she'll be just fine."

Dr. John Greenlees saw his wife wipe at something wet running down her own cheek.

"Other'n that, darlin', there's not much goin' on so I'll quit wastin' your time. Keep your feet warm and we'll see you sometime."

She saw his hand loom large as he reached for the cutoff switch, but she could not help but smile at his final, unguarded words, muttered the way a man will:

"Reckon I'm just an old softy!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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109.  AND MY CHILD SCREAMED

There is no grief like burying your child.

I had to do that too often in my young life.

Part of me still ached for it was not a week since I'd buried our son Joseph.

He'd died in the crib and he'd died for no particular reason and today I'd spent some time on my knees in our little whitewashed church, for I had need to talk to God about it.

I don't recall as I actually spoke a word whilst I stood up on my Prayer Bones.

I didn't have to.

God knows our heart.

When our heart is so full of sorrow that it cries tears of grief, He knows that sorrowful language all too well.

I come out of the church with my hat in my hand and I settled my skypiece on my head and looked around.

Wasn't much goin' on so far as up or down the street, a girl was going into the Mercantile and I heard Garrison's bell go ding-a-ling as she opened the door.

Pretty girl, too.

Flour sack dress and she'd chosen the right flour sack, as I recall it had little blue flowers speckling it and I found out later that day it matched her pretty blue eyes.

Right at the moment, though, once she went inside I looked over toward the schoolhouse and as usual one of the boys shinned up the tree and as usual another one tried to beat his efforts and I stepped down off the steps and went running over to the tree and looked up just as the second boy's feet and hands both slipped at the same moment.

The world froze.

I recall my face felt funny and I wondered about that and my hands opened and my arms spread a little and I saw the boy falling toward me and I moved just a little to the side and I realized I had this big idiot grin on my face and then I leaned back a shade and he hit my chest and I wrapped my arms around him and my knees bent and I went over backwards and we hit the ground and I heard a grunt and then the boy's face came down and smacked me right in the nose and the rest of him hit my belly and half knocked the wind out of me and the back of my head hit the ground and that hat a-foldin' up behind me did not help none a'tall with the paddin' and then he hit me in the face again.

I don't reckon he really meant to do that but it hurt and I pushed him off me and set up and pulled out a clean white bedsheet hankie and pinched it over my bleedin' beak.

"You hurt, son?" I asked, and the boy he set there on his backside in the dirt, half set up and lookin' at me scared and he shook his head and Miz Emma she came a-bustlin' over and she gave me a concerned look and I had to laugh, for that-there hankie covered most of my face and she couldn't see if I was mad enough to bite the boy's head off down to his belt buckle or what, and I set my off hand down ag'in the dirt and stood up.

Miz Emma caressed the boy's head, her eyes big and worried, and I stood up and then I stood up straight for it hurt to stand and I was not about to show myself as weak a'tall and I knew I had to stand up just as tall as I usually stood.

We looked up at the other fellow who was only just looking down to see what happened.

I had to pinch my nose together for a bit to make it quit bleedin' and I patronized the pump behind the Silver Jewel to get the blood warshed off my face, and then me and my black Outlaw-horse, we rode for the house so I could take off my suit and brush the dirt off it.

The maid looked at me half scared and asked me if I'd been beating drunkards again and I laughed kind of careful, for I did not want to start my nose a-bleedin' again, and I give her my shirt to soak in salt water for it got kind of splattered a little.

Angela saw me come home and she saw I had a bloody rag to my face and she was hanging back and looking worried and once I got my face warshed off and the mirror didn't look nearly as bad when I looked in the silvered glass, why, she come up to me and stood there lookin' all ... well, she was still a child in my eyes but she was growin' and she'd picked up enough from her Mama that she stood there with her hands clasped and she managed to draw herself up and look absolutely ladylike as she lifted her chin and said "Daddy, you can be ver-ry proud of me," and I went down on one knee and I took her hands and said "Princess, I am always proud of you ..."  I reached up and caressed her glowing cheek with the back of one bent finger and asked, "What can I be especially proud of you for?"

Angela bounced a little on the balls of her feet and she looked around a little as if making up her mind, then she bent a little at the waist and whispered, "Promise you won't tell," and I turned my head a little and raised my left eyebrow.

I didn't even try to look stern at her and she knowed me well enough to figure she had me cranked around that pretty little finger of hers.

"Daddy," she whispered, "Mommy told me I should not jump my horsie."

I nodded.

"I really can."

I tried to keep from smiling.

Really I tried, I genuinely did my best not to let the least trace show, but Angela and I both knew we'd both jumped our horsies together.

"I know, Princess," I said gently.  

"Mommie doesn't want me jump my horse because she's afraid I'll fall off and get hurt."

I nodded slowly.  "Yes, Princess.  That's right."

"Daddy, I don't fall off my horsie!"

I let myself smile just a little at that one.

"Princess," said I, "ride horsies long enough and you'll fall."

"I won't," she said confidently, then she spun around and marched purposefully toward the front door.

I'd gotten myself into a clean shirt and a clean suit, the maid shook her head and tsk-tsk'd as she brushed dirt off the back of my suit and she looked at me and asked, "And I suppose the other fellow looks worse?"

I laughed and brushed the brim of my Stetson, settled it on my head, drew the back strap down the back of my head.

"The other fellow," I said, "looked to be about eight years old, but --"  I touched my swollen schnozz -- "he's got as hard a head as I do!"

The maid gave me a skeptical look but God bless her charity, she offered no further comment.

I went back in and paced slowly to the front of the house, just in time to see something with blond curls and big blue eyes and a riding dress patterned after one of Esther's outfits, something forking a shining gold mare and running at a wide open gallop, and I watched Angela, my little Angela, moving like she was part of her horse, leaning forward in her saddle a little, her boots were thrust firmly into her stirrups and her back was straight and she had this look of absolute utter DELIGHT on her face and she yelled "Watch me Daddy!" and then her Goldie-horse shot off the earth and tucked her forelegs and I still carry that moment in my heart, that moment when time stood still for the second time that day, when Angela was soaring over the board fence and her mare was soaring with her and she did what children do in a moment of delight, and I can still hear her high, pure voice as she knew the secret all who ride horses know, as she knew what it was to fly.

To the uneducated it sounded like a scream, and maybe it was, maybe the child did scream, but I knew it for what it was.

A single, sustained, singing note, offered from the throat of a child who absolutely loved the single moment of time in which she saw all of eternity, and she understood all of creation, and all of infinity was right where it was supposed to be.

That wasn't the first time she jumped that day, but it was the highest jump she made, and her dear old Daddy rode beside her when she made her other jumps, but that's the one I remember.

You'll have to forgive me.

An old man has long memories.

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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110.  IT WENT DOWNHILL FROM THERE

"You look different in clothes."

Sheriff Willamina Keller smacked her closed fan into her gloved palm, the sound sharp and loud in the Judge's chambers.

"I was giving a presentation to the Ladies' Tea Society," she said quietly, her eyes pale, veiled:  "I was presenting in character of one Sarah Lynne McKenna."

"This may be helpful."

The Judge held out a new-looking book, with an archaic, gold-impressed font embossed into the cover and on its spine.

Sheriff Willamina Keller, in the floor length gown of a woman of the late 1880s, took the book with gloved fingers, frowned at the cover, her jaw extending slowly, thoughtfully.

" 'The Black Agent, In Her Own Words,' " she read aloud, raising an eyebrow.

"Have a seat, Sheriff.  I have the provenance."

Sheriff Willamina Keller gathered her skirts and sat, looking absolutely ladylike as she did, belying her skill as a blooded warrior who was known in law enforcement circles as a good officer to have at your side in a fight, and absolutely not the one you wanted facing you when sparring.

"This came from a bank back East, which bought out a bank that had bought out another" -- the Judge frowned at the sheet in his hands, turned it over, scanned the second, then the third.

"As many hands as this went through, I'm surprised it even made it here."

Sheriff Willamina Keller's left eyebrow tented again, but she made no comment.

"It seems," the Judge sighed, "that this was placed in the care of a major bank in New York.  It was then entrusted to a branch, part of a consignment of safekeeping articles banks held in their vaults for a period of time ..."

His voice trailed thoughtfully into silence as he frowned at another few paragraphs.

"I have here the hand written note ... it seems they were cleaning out an abandoned vault and found this locked steel box, apparently forgotten.  It was supposed to have been delivered into this Court's hands most of a century ago."

"Really."

"The ... note here says they often have such time-sensitive deliveries, and if too much time has passed, families disappear or leave no forwarding address ... but the Firelands District Court was easy for them to find."

"It was addressed to the Court?"

"Yes.  'To be delivered to the Firelands District Court, Firelands, Colorado.'  Here is the original note.  I'm afraid some dedicated idiot laminated it."

Willamina took the plastic sheet, pulled out a pair of round-lensed spectacles, worked the wire hooks over her ears, raised her chin and looked down her nose at the sheet.

"The paper is ready to fall apart," she murmured.  "They probably kept it from crumbling, but they also destroyed much of its evidentiary value."

"I didn't think you'd be pleased," the Judge muttered.

"Well, it's late, but it's here.  This was in a locked metal box?"

"Yes.  Here it is."  The Judge set the box on top of his desk, lifted the lid.  "As it was addressed to the Court, and I am the Court, I had the lock drilled out."

The Sheriff nodded, rose, curious.

"I think the contents are yours."
Willamina's eyebrow quirked up again, then she looked into the depths of the box and her mouth opened.

The Judge grinned.  "I thought you'd like that."

 

Chief Deputy Barrents tapped deferentially at the Sheriff's closed office door.

She'd come in wearing a long gown, looking like she'd just stepped out of a time machine, holding a dull metal box like something precious:  she breezed past the dispatcher with, "Anything for me good I'll be in conference send in coffee" all in one breath, and the dispatcher heard the Sheriff's office door shut, and that had been two hours earlier.

"Boss?"

"In," the Sheriff said shortly, and Barrents stepped in, closed the door behind him.

"Evidence?" he asked, looking at a pair of .44 Bulldog revolvers on her green desk blotter, at three matched, leaf-bladed knives,  at an obviously old but very new-looking book.

"You could say that," the Sheriff replied.

She opened one of the blunt, blocky revolvers, considered the cartridges -- not a sign of tarnish -- "these were put away with intent to retrieve," she explained, "and the rounds were polished with beeswax.  So were the revolvers."

"I see."

"Barrents, you know I've researched the Sheriff's daughter."

Barrents laughed.  "Boss, you've run your research so far up her --"

A sharp, pale-eyed glare froze the Chief Deputy's voice in his throat and he took a mental step back.

"Yes, ma'am, you have."

"This" -- she laid gloved fingers lightly on the book -- "is her ... story."

Barrents took a step forward, leaned the heels of his hands on her desk top, looked very closely at the Sheriff, at the book and back at his boss.

"These" -- her fingertips spread, touching both walnut handled revolvers at the same time -- "were her carry pistols, and she was deadly with them by all accounts."

Barrents nodded.

"Her throwing knives. A few trifles besides."

Willamina leaned back in her chair, smiled.

"You'll never guess what the Judge said when he handed me this."

Barrents straightened, hooked his off thumb behind his belt buckle, his right arm casually over the handle of his holstered pistol, and the Sheriff saw the beginnings of a grin behind those obsidian-black eyes.

"He said 'Sheriff, you look different in clothes.' "

The dispatcher rose and started for the coffee pot.

She heard laughter in the Sheriff's inner office, and that meant there would be no explosions for the moment, and it was safe to take in coffee.

 

Linn Keller was Sheriff Willamina Keller's pale eyed son.

He was not firstborn, but he'd inherited the mantle in all but title: it was accepted that, in time, he would become Sheriff -- his older sister had a screaming fight with her pale eyed Mama and left town in an eight cylinder huff, his younger sister was entered into Naval Aviator school, and he was off duty from the Firelands Police Department, relaxed and casual in blue jeans and a flannel shirt and a long tailed denim jacket that hid his holstered revolver.

His Mama was of the habit of going into a door, then taking a fast step to the side to get a wall to her back while she looked the place over.

Linn took no such precaution.

He set one booted foot across the threshold and then surged forward, striding straight for the back corner table where he expected to find his girlfriend waiting for him:  he seized her from behind, hauled her out of her chair, kicked the chair to the side and bared his teeth:  in an instant his blood was up and he was ready to rip the horn off an anvil and beat the cast iron to death with its own avulsed component if need be.

Anna Mae's vision hazed and she barely felt herself being hauled out of her seat:  she dimly knew there were strong arms around her and she barely felt the green strength hidden inside lean, ranch-muscled arms, but she heard Linn's harsh grunts.

Linn Keller, the pale eyed son of the pale eyed Sheriff, had his fist buried in his girlfriend's belly, he had her backside against his front, and he was squeezing hard, fast, in and up, and on the third abdominal thust, something fired from inside Anna Mae's windpipe and shot across the table to splat wetly against the wall and slide to the floor.

Linn thrust up with a thigh, knowing her backside was against it -- he flipped her into the air like she was a child's doll, caught her easily -- one arm across her shoulder blades, one arm under her knees, he turned, face pale and tight and eyes blazing with white fire:  as he powered for the door, as his choking, weakly coughing girlfriend hung limp in his arms, he snapped at the shocked waitress, "THIS ORDER'S TO GO!"

The drugstore served the best ice cream in the territory, and it was a popular dish even in winter; it was a popular eatery as well as carrying the usual fare of a well stocked pharmacy, thanks to its gleaming, antique soda fountain and 1950s-esque tables, chairs and decor:  it was moderately well filled when Linn came whipping in like a Texas tornado, seized his girlfriend and packed her out at what the military would call the Quick March, and heads turned and necks craned to watch the lean young man stride boldly and purposefully toward their shining quartz hospital, not a block from the main street.

 

Bruce Jones, editor, reporter, photographer, publisher and chief broom pusher for the weekly Firelands Gazette, looked up as a familiar figure strode quickly, purposefully into the drugstore: he automatically raised his phone, pressed a key, recorded what he initially thought was an assault, an attack on a popular girl he'd known since she first smiled at him in her Mama's arms.

He stood steady and unmoving, recording the off duty officer's application of Dr. Heimlich's famous maneuver to a choking diner, he tracked Linn as he picked up his unconscious patient, checked to make sure she was breathing, and then carried her with an urgent, long-legged stride toward the door.

The camera maintained focus as Linn approached, passed; editor Jones turned, stepped out into the aisle behind the departing rescuer, watched him stride across the street, into the alley, and then lean forward into an adrenaline-fueled run.

Not until he was out of sight did Jones thrust the phone into his pocket and follow.

This was a story, and unless he was mistaken, it would be front page material for their local newspaper!

 

Willamina paged slowly through the volume, savoring the words as if hearing the whisper of a long absent friend.

From time to time she would stop, and lean back, considering what she'd just read; occasionally she looked up at the framed print on her office wall -- the print was black and white, like the original glass plate photograph, and in her desk was a colorized version, from which she had made the gown she wore today -- Willamina considered what she'd read, and she looked at the cold-eyed, unmoving image of her famous ancestress, and she nodded slowly.

"Thank you for this," she said to the still air.  "I've wanted to know more about you for a very long time."

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled, just a little, as she caught a faint scent of lilac-water, of soap and sunshine, like clothes dried on a springtime wash line.

 

Anna Mae looked up at Linn from her emergency room bed.

Her left arm was taped down to a board, an IV line ran from a bag on a pole to the inside of her elbow, and an oxygen mask covered her face, its green plastic rebreather bag inflating and deflating as she breathed.

"Linn?" she asked, her voice muffled a little by the overlying plastic, and Linn blinked, pale eyes never leaving hers.

"What happened?"

Linn smiled, chuckled.

"I made a scene," he said quietly.  "Matter of fact I'll have to talk to your mother about it."  He blinked as if momentarily troubled, then added, "I'll have to talk to my mother as well!"

The ER nurse came swinging in, all efficiency and briskness, shooing Linn out:  she smiled at Anna Mae and said "Back in a minute, ducks," and then put a hand between Linn' shoulder blades and encouraged him out the door.

The nurse drew the door to behind her and she faced the tall, lean, pale eyed young man squarely.

"Tell me again what happened," she said quietly.

"I was supposed to meet Anna Mae for lunch," he said, "and I was going to bring her flowers ..."

He smiled almost shyly.

"I got so wound up thinking about seeing her that I walked right on past the flower shop and didn't think of it until I set foot across the threshold and saw her."

The nurse saw the memory in his eyes, heard the change in his voice as he relived the moment.

"I saw her drop her fork and she started heaving her shoulders like she was trying to cough."

His lower jaw slid out.

"I was across that room fast and I bent over and took her around the middle.  I put my fist in her belly and my thumb just under her wish bone and I hit her three times just as hard as I could squeeze."

The nurse's eyes were steady on his; she blinked once, to show she was listening, and Linn took a long breath, closed his eyes, opened them again.

"It took three thrusts to dislodge the obstruction. I recall it shot several feet and hit the wall.  No idea what it was.  She coughed and started to breathe so I kicked the chair out of the way and packed her over here."

The nurse laid a hand on his chest an looked very directly, very earnestly into his eyes, her voice low, urgent.

"You," she said, "just saved a life."

Linn sagged a little, leaned back against the wall, heard a waterfall start to surge and roar inside his ears:  he swallowed hard, gripped the wooden rail that ran the length of the hallway, bolted firmly to the wall for just that purpose, and a thought came to him.

"I have to go back and pay for her meal," he blurted, and the nurse flat-handed his chest again.

"It can wait," she said.  "I think you two need some time together."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller tilted her head a little, regarded her unmoving son.

"Don't fall in," she said gently, and Linn blinked, looked up from his plate, then smiled a little.

"I'm sorry, what was that again?" he asked.

"You were a million miles away."

"Actually about three blocks."

"Oh?"  Willamina sprinkled pepper on her mashed potatoes, tried another forkful:  around them, the Silver Jewel Saloon was entertaining its supper crowd, and she and her husband and son were back in the Lawman' Corner:  Linn's back was to one wall, his parents to his right, their backs against a wall as well:  all three could see the interior, and an exit was not ten feet from their table, the doorway into the private, back room, which also had an exit to the outside.

Linn picked up his fork, set it back down.

"I recognize the signs," Richard said, reaching for his coffee.  "You've both had an interesting day.  Willa, you start.  What happened?"

Willamina looked at her son, then at her husband.  "I received a package today.  I'll show it to you both when we get home, but I think Linn's day was a bit more interesting."

Linn planted his elbows on either side of his untouched plate; he laced his fingers together, leaned his upper lip against his fingers, frowned:  he took a long breath in through his nose and lowered his hands.

"I forgot to get flowers for my girl," he said, "and it got interesting from there."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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111.  VISITORS

Linn Keller lay awake, staring at his bedroom ceiling.

Like his mother, he had a double gun parked near the head of the bed; like his mother, his gunbelt and revolver hung from the bedpost.

Unlike his mother, he could not sleep.

He threw back the covers, sat up: he frowned, looked around, said in a quiet voice, "How come I never see you?"

Silence was his only answer.

"I am blood of your blood, I live in what was your house, I am a lawman, I look enough like Jacob that once I grow a lip broom I'll be his twin, and you've shown yourself to Mama."  He took a long breath, considered, then pushed forward.

"Sarah has manifested. You have manifested. I've never seen any of you."

He looked to his left, toward the chair that generally held clean clothes.

A lean man in a black suit, a man with pale eyes and a curled handlebar mustache, looked at him with amusement.

Linn nodded.  "You look about how I expected."

"I'm glad you approve."  The voice was familiar, but only just, kind of a combination of his Uncle Will and his Uncle Pete.  "Now that I'm here, what's your question?"

Linn blinked and realized the several questions he'd had, in case he ever had the good fortune to see one of his ancestral shades, just disappeared from his mind like smoke on a stiff breeze.

"You were wondering about Esther."

Linn blinked, nodded, mentally kicking himself for not remembering it until his namesake spoke the words.

"Mama has never said anything about seeing her."

"She's not needed."

"But you are."

"From time to time."

"What about the ... no, that was you, wasn't it ... when the engineer took a shot at you in the roundhouse."

"That was me.  It was necessary.  He reported to your mother and your mother eventually got the carload of carcasses out of the drift."

"I remember when that happened."

"You asked about my wife."

Linn replayed the words mentally, searching for the guarded tone a man will take when discussing a question about his wife, and heard none.

"Am I you, and is Mama Sarah?"

Old Pale Eyes smiled under his mustache, shook his head a little.

"No.  No, you are your own man, just as your mother is a truly remarkable woman, but she is herself."

"And my sisters?"

"They are themselves as well.  Oh, there's a little of every ancestor in every one of us, but it's always that way. That's one reason Gracie Daine -- or did she change her name to Maxwell? -- that's why she is up on Mars."

"I don't follow."

"We all have a part to play in our lifetime.  She has yet to play hers. Esther will --"

The pale eyed old lawman stopped, smiled again, looked down, looked back up.

"That time is not yet.  You will know when it happens."

"When what happens?"

"Let's just say that we take care of our own."

"We who?"  Linn asked suspiciously.  "Sir, with respect, I do not like riddles!"

Old Pale Eyes stood as easily as a lean, athletic eighteen-year-old.  

"In that, sir, you are much like myself, and like your mother."  He pulled out his watch, pressed the stem, smiled.

He paced closer to Jacob, turned, bent a little to show him the hand painted portrait inside the cover.

"My beautiful bride," he murmured, and somehow Jacob did not wonder that there was light enough to see it clearly:  "this was painted within a year of our marriage."

Linn looked long at the image, remarkably lifelike -- hand painted, yes, but by a master of the craft! -- "She is genuinely beautiful."

"I never thought otherwise."  The older man straightened, closed the cover, slid the watch back into his vest pocket.

"Sir, have you any warnings or good sound advice now that you're here?"

The old Sheriff smiled a little, just a little.  "Not every ghostly manifestation is a warning, or a message.  Sometimes it's just a howdy, or today it's because you were thinking of me and you had a question."

"Thank you, sir.  It's kind of you to come see me."

Linn rose, stuck out his hand:  the Old Sheriff gripped his young namesake's hand, each assessing the other's grip, the other's calluses.

Old Pale Eyes nodded with approval.

"You could be Jacob's twin," he said.  "Grow a mustache, son.  It'll improve your appearance" -- that slight smile again, mostly at the corners of his eyes -- "and Miss Anna Mae will like it."

They released their handclasp, Old Pale Eyes lifted a hand to tick his hat-brim, and then he was gone.

 

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112.  COLD VICTORY

Sarah Lynne McKenna laughed.

Hers was a vision of beauty indeed:  the morning sun's rays caressed her cheeks like a lover, bringing out the healthy tones of a young woman in the beautiful bloom of her prime:  her teeth were even and white, her head was tilted back and a little to the side, and she looked at the young man beside her with the expression of a woman who was absolutely, positively, with not a shred of doubt in her young soul, right where she should be.

They were dressed for winter, they were dressed for ice:  it was Sarah's first time on ice skates and she laughed with delight, for there was a magic to gliding on what used to be a flowing river:  Daffyd Llewellyn grinned like a damned fool, by his own admission, for her gloved grip on his arm was light, delicate, not the uncertain, save-me-from-drowning clutch of someone uncertain on these unaccustomed, clumsy, slick, stiff ice-shoes.

Sarah glided as she turned, circled her beau, laughing:  she took his arm again, looked at him with adoring eyes.

"I have never skated before," she confessed.

"Ye could ne'er tell it!"  Daffyd laughed, his breath puffing out in quick-disappearing clouds: "darlin', you are natural!"

Around them, the chatter, shriek, the occasional fall of young couples on unaccustomed ice:  here and there, a daring boy, skating with speed and absolute abandon, one streaked across Sarah's bow with a trailing "Sorrreeee!" just before he collided with another couple, knocking all three to the ice in a tangle of blades, boots, a fallen hat and thrashing limbs.

Laughter again, and Sarah took Daffyd's hands, her dancer's reflexes learning quickly how to handle blades instead of heels:  she spun the two of them, Daffyd able to turn with her, though with a bit of a wobble:  Sarah released his hands, turned, turned again: she skated in a graceful figure-eight, then aimed for an open area, free of other skaters.

Sarah danced.

Arms spread, face tilted up, delight in her expression, her skirt flowing behind her, Sarah was an ice-nymph, a spirit of the cold, gliding like a bird on a high mountain air-current:  arms in, arms out, her laugh trailing behind and running like mischievous imps across the frozen surface.

At least until a woman's scream shattered across the ice and the skaters slowed and stopped, stared and pointed, and Sarah turned, her eyes as cold and as hard as the ice on which she glided.

Sarah's jaw thrust out, she turned, hard-glaring until she found her target, then she launched herself like a missile, driving across the ice, straight as a die straight toward the staring Daffyd Llewellyn.

She read indecision in his posture, shock in his face:  she leaned back, cutting her blades into the ice in a curving stop, throwing a spray of ice-shavings into the air, and she seized his arm:  "DAFFYD!"

He turned, eyes big, stared at her, his mouth open, helpless.

"DAFFYD, I NEED A LADDER OR AT LEAST A PIKE POLE!  MAKE IT HAPPEN!  MOVE!"

 

Two hundred yards downstream, where the current ran faster and the ice grew thin, past the sawhorse-mounted sign marked THIN ICE, a triangular hole, the splash of living water, an arm: it was shallow here, and just below:  people started for the hole, then drew back, not wanting to collapse the compromised surface.

Daffyd seized a man by his sleeve:  "WITH ME!  RUN!" -- another he grabbed in like manner, and men, startled out of helplessness, charged like an infantry assault, running off the ice and through the snow for a nearby house, for a forgotten ladder leaned against a shed.

Three men, fired with desperation, for a man's screaming need to DO SOMETHING AND FIX THE SITUATION!!!, turned, ran with the ladder over one shoulder and an arm through the rungs, charging like a Medieval assault team with a battering ram, full ready to drive right through anything -- or anyone -- who got in their way.

Helplessness was given over to action, and men are creatures of action.

 

Sarah seized the leading end of the ladder -- "RELEASE!" -- her voice was the snap of a blacksnake whip in the cold air -- "CAPTAIN LLEWELLYN! KEEP THESE PEOPLE BACK, THE ICE IS THIN AND WE CANNOT AFFORD A BREAKTHROUGH! YOU FOUR MEN -- YES, YOU! ON YOUR BELLIES! FORM A CHAIN, YOU GRAB THE BOTTOM RUN, YOU GRAB HIS SKATES, YOU GRAB HIS SKATES AND YOU GRAB HIS!"

Sarah hauled hard on the ladder, running, her blades turned out for purchase on the slick surface:  the men ran with her, matching her desperate, choppy stride for stride:  she looked at the hole, looked at the next one downstream.

"LADDER DOWN!" she barked.  "I'M LIGHTEST, I'M IN FRONT! EVERYONE ELSE STAY BACK! NO ONE NEARER THAN THE BOTTOM OF THE LADDER!  ON YOUR BELLIES, DAMN YOU!" -- and so saying, or rather screaming, Sarah bellied down, thrusting hard, skidding toward the second opening in the ice.

She shoved her face into the water, her whole head, turning --

The ice started to crack under her --

Daffyd saw her fold up like a jackknife, thrust into the freezing water --

"SARAH!  NOOOOO!"

A woman screamed, men gasped:  the guardians appointed to the task of holding humanity back from the thinning ice had their hands full, for at a disaster, humanity wants to crowd in close and view tragedy firsthand:  Sarah's blades flashed in the sunlight as they went into the water --

Daffyd Llewellyn's belly was on the ice, his hand locked around a wooden ladder-rung:  his hammering heart was suddenly slowed, he felt each muscular contraction coming slow, slow ...

Droplets of water, thrown up by Sarah's immersion, froze in mid-air, shining like round jewels as they ascended with a painful slowness --

Men's shouts, far away, distant --

 

The boy was thrown out of the water like a skyrocket launching out of a Fourth of July cradle.

He was thrown so vigorously that he almost cleared the water; Sarah thrust out, arm flailing on the ice, searching for the ladder.

"FORWARD!" Llewellyn roared, shoving hard against the ice, pushing the ladder ahead:  Sarah's arm hooked around the end rung and she pushed agaisnt the shallow, sandy, rocky riverbottom, powered into the ice, rolled over:  she seized the boy, pulled hard to break the ice trying to weld his wet body to the frozen surface, snarled in frustration as her cold fingers would not bend, as numb hands could not feel the cold-crisping coat as she commanded.

Sarah got an arm around him, hooked the ladder with the point of her elbow, wallowed toward the rescuers:  Daffyd wallowed ahead, the men anchoring him wallowing clumsily, each with a death-grip on the next man's skate blade:  "SHE GOT HIM OUT!" someone yelled, and Daffyd seized the boy, snapped himself double, propelled the wide-eyed, teeth-bared boy to the next man, to the next, to the next:  a cheer went up, whistles, hats flew in the air.

Sarah heard none of it.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, eyes pale and hard, face absolutely white and lips not much better, wallowed on her elbows, damning the skirts that tried to freeze to the ice, the clinging, burning-cold skirts that prevented her from crawling, rolled over on her back, tearing the freezing wet material free of the river's smooth ice.

Llewellyn seized her in strong arms, stood, turned, skated back toward the fire: his face was set, his face was hard, and men drew back at his approach.

A woman on the riverbank beckoned:  she had a warm bed and hot tea ready, she said, and Llewellyn followed, sure-footed in the snow, despite walking on sharpened blades.

He felt Sarah shiver, felt her breath against the side of his neck, short, convulsive, gasping, almost desperate breaths.

Sarah felt herself carried; she felt the air grow suddenly warm, felt herself fall, fall onto something soft:  anxious hands undressed her, stripped her down, toweled her with vigor and an utter lack of delicacy:  a quilt had been held up near to a glowing-hot stove, the warmed quilt draped over her:  someone was toweling her hair and strong arms ran under her shoulder blades, sat her up, propped pillows behind her.

A mug of hot tea was pressed into her hands:  it was burning hot, but she held it anyway, part of her mind knowing it felt so hot because she was so COLD! and she sat there, shivering under the warmed blanket, eyes closed:  she breathed in the warm vapors, savoring the taste before ever she dampened her tongue, and then she whispered, "Daffyd?"

"Here, darlin'," he whispered back.

"Can we go again?"

Daffyd Llewellyn, firefighter, singer, Welshman and man to be married, blinked, then he leaned back, sat down on the hook rug, looked around at faces anxious, curious, jealous and motherly.

" 'Can we go again?' " he said, and then he laughed.

"Darlin', can ye wait'll yer clothes are dry at least?"

 

 

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113.  A SUCCESSFUL HUNT

 

Mark Doerfler slogged through the snow, damning his stupidity, damning his carelessness.

He knew better.

He could have peeled aspen bark and made a snowshade, and didn't, and now he was snowblind, and he was lost.

He'd gotten himself turned around and he was alone on the mountainside, the wind was picked up and his back trail filled in, the sun was still blazing bright on the featureless white, and he'd bleached his eyeballs into uselessness.

And now it was getting dark.

Dark meant cold -- it was already damned cold, the wind made it colder, and he did not have the least idea where to find shelter, let alone home.

He heard a panting near to him, a doglike huffing:  something cold nosed his hand, a tongue licked his palm:  he reached back, felt fur, felt the fur bristle and a snarl.

"Growl if you want," he muttered, fearlessly running his fingers into canine fur, "I'm glad you're here!"

The furry creature started forward.

Mark Doerfler, stone blind in the gathering dark, gripped fur and followed.

 

Barbara Doerfler planted her knuckles on her hips, frowned at the big black dog at her door.

"Well get in here!" she scolded, "ye'll let out all m' heat!"

The Bear Killer happily crossed the threshold, shook himself, slinging bright snow-crystals into the air:  he paced over to the stove, looked hopefully at the table.

"No," Barbara said, "not until Mark gets home."  She stepped nearer the stove, stirred a fragrant pan, frowning.  "I'm worried," she told the great black canine, "he's not usually this late."

The Bear Killer's head came up as she went to the door, opened it, looked out.

"I'd hate to have to find him in the dark," she said softly, looking back at The Bear Killer.

At the word "find," his ears came up -- a memory stirred in Mrs. Doerfler's mind and she said "Find," and The Bear Killer came to his feet, tail swinging, and he chopped his jaws with a happy, quiet "whuff!"

Mrs. Doerfler's eyes widened and she snatched a coat off the peg, squatting and holding out out:  "Find him, Bear Killer!" she whispered, and The Bear Killer came across the room, tail whipping enthusiastically, and he shoved his broad, blunt muzzle into the coat, sniffed, sniffed again, looked up at Barbara, jaws open and grinning.

She opened the door and The Bear Killer bounded joyfully outside, casting about, nose in the air.

"Please find him," she whispered, closing the door and shivering:  she drew her shawl tighter across her shoulders, then returned to the stove, stirred the pot slowly, remembering how her own mother stood, and stirred, and whispered a prayer, and as a little girl she wondered why her Mama did that, for her Papa was big and strong and always made it home.

Barbara Doerfler bit her knuckle and whispered, "Mama, now I know."

 

Mark slipped in the snow, slipped on something slick, fell:  ice, he thought, ice on rocks, and his mind ran quickly through the geography near about his cabin.

No idea where this is.

He felt breath snuff at his throat, heard the quiet canine "whuff" again, reached up.

This time there was no growl when he worked his fingers into fluffed-out, surprisingly soft, fur.

He got up, staggered through the snow, blindly following this canine guide.

 

The Bear Killer bounded easily through the snow:  it was drifted here, deep, fluffy, light:  three, four, five leaps, stop and taste the wind, nose in the air, eyes slitted:  another half dozen leaps through the snow, then he came to a clean-swept area, ran across bare rock, through trees and shallow snow, stopped, nose working:  he lowered his head, cast left, cast right, began ground-trailing.

He was in the woods now, and the brush, and he made more than a mile before the snow came deep again.

 

Mark's chest ached with the cold and he could see little besides a few bright sparkles, thanks to the blasting sunlight all day:  he'd been scouting new territory for hunting, he'd been looking for elk, for mountain sheep, for something he could return and harvest, and all he'd seen was wind-blown snow and sun-glare, and now he was blind, hoping the dog was going someplace warm.

He heard panting to his left -- another dog? -- then near, near enough to make him jump, one of the dogs howled, and then another, and suddenly he was in the middle of a group of wildsong.

His heart shrank within his breast and he began to wonder if these were dogs after all.

 

The Bear Killer flowed steadily through the brush and the shallow snow, stopping to taste the wind, then lowering his head and ground-trailing as long as the scent held:  it was thin, here in the cold, but it was there, at least until snow overlaid and hid it, but he lifted his head and smelled a tease, a quick whiff, as cold wind curled overhead.

His ears pricked again at the sound of wolfsong, at the sound of his feral brethren, and he danced a little on strong forepaws, then he dropped his broad backside to snow and pine needles and gathered a great, deep lungful of cold air and raised his muzzle in joyful salute to his wild brethren:  The Bear Killer's song was as wild as theirs, but far deeper a note, distinctly different from the wolves' chorus.

 

Mark Doerfler stood, his hand still in the soft fur:  he was down on one knee and he knew his ear was not a foot from the singer's muzzle.

If I am to die, he thought, I will take one hell of a memory with me!

He felt the singer stand, and he stood as well, and then he heard it.

Another howl, as long, as powerful, but deeper, stronger, and very near.

 

Barbara pulled biscuits from the oven, held the lump of butter carefully, rubbed it over the biscuits' golden domes:  she set down the butter, wiped her fingers on her apron, plucked the biscuits with thumb and middle finger, quickly dropping them onto the plate.

She stacked them quickly, neatly, placed them on the table, removed the gravy from the stove and set it on the warming-shelf, not wanting to scorch it.

She'd raised her head earlier, looking fearfully at the door at the sound of wolves, howling, torn between the wildsong beauty, and the ancient fear that gripped her: she'd heard stories of wolves since earliest childhood, how they were ravening beasts that skulked about, seeking children to eat, and she knew her husband was a man, alone, in the mountains, somewhere:  her imagination wondered if he was injured, wounded, attacked, fallen off a cliff -- a broken leg could be a man's death -- and an injured man would be easy prey indeed.

Barbara Doerfler whispered another entreaty to the Almighty as she opened the door, and as she looked out, she froze, mouth open.

Something dark was staggering toward her, something walking bent over, and holding something ... something ... white.

Barbara did not realize what it was until she realized she saw a black nose and behind them, bounding happily through the snow, something big and black and the size of a small bear.

"Mark!" she cried, and at her voice, something white and -- a white dog? -- whirled, pulled loose from his grip, spun into the darkness, back toward grey shadows fanned out behind them, shadows that faded back and disappeared.

"Barbara?" Mark called.  "Barbara, I can't see, where are you?"

Barbara ran into the night, seized her husband:  he staggered a little, embraced his wife, and The Bear Killer looked back over his shoulder, huffing happily, turned back and watched husband and wife disappear into the cabin, watched the door shut.

The Bear Killer turned and bounded happily toward the waiting wolf pack, toward the Alpha, toward the White Wolf, waiting in the dark.

 

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

114. I CAME TO TELL YOU SOMETHING

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller sat very straight in her office chair:  she was in her Sheriff's uniform instead of her trademark suit dress and heels, and she looked at the tall boy in front of her desk with quiet and very pale eyes.

"That was fast," she said.  "I couldn't even get the team together when we got the tango down."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Tell me what happened."

Linn Keller was tall and lean --  a little more lean than his mother really liked, though she knew the men of her line started out skinny.

It was hell finding jeans for her son with an inseam longer than the waist, but she managed; Linn was an exemplary young man, excelling in school: polite, hard working, he did not shirk his chores nor dodge work as did most his age, nor did he sneak off to drink or chase girls.

Linn leaned his head back, took a deep breath in through his nose, sighed it out his mouth, then he looked very directly at his mother.

"Sheriff," he said formally, "I stole one of your gold bullet rounds."

Sheriff Willamina Keller came slowly to her feet and her son saw her eyes grow pale and hard and her cheeks took on a shade of pink, and he had the distinct feeling that he was in the presence of a stick of dynamite that just swallowed a lighted, fused cap.

"You what?" she asked, her voice low, half-husk and half-whisper.

Linn's jaw slid out.

"I used it to shoot a man in the back of the head."

He withdrew the black-stainless revolver from his holster, laid it on the desk between them, muzzle to the side.

"You stole," the Sheriff echoed slowly, "one" -- her eyes tightened ever so slightly -- "of my" -- he saw her hands start to close, just a little, like she wanted to crank them into fists -- "gold" -- he remembered every admonishment he'd ever heard that they were strictly verboten, never to be touched, handled or discussed -- "bullets."

Linn's eyes were as hard and as pale as his mother's eyes, and neither one blinked.

"Here's what happened."

 

Linn was sixteen.

He was also more at home in saddle leather than anywhere else, and his Apple-horse cantered happily across the back field behind the used car lot, clattered up the alley beside the whitewashed schoolhouse and its playground -- now the Firelands public park -- and he straightened in the saddle:  Apple-horse, feeling the change, drew up:  as usual, the reins were loose in his hands, and he dropped them over the saddle horn.

The inside of his right arm was against the handle of his revolver.

He'd bought it two years before, he'd sent off for the bullet mold and for a new, carbide sizing die: he didn't want to wear out his mother's bullet mold, nor her dies; he traded for half a thousand unprimed empty hulls, sweated in the Colorado sun helping a neighbor set fence posts to earn primers and powder, and his share of a reward for finding a runaway teenager who was actually a trafficking victim paid for new gunleather.

He'd cleaned the barn as he usually did, he saddled his Apple-horse and rode their line fence, he was on the far side of the field when a whistle summoned him.

He turned, frowning, patting Apple-horse's neck:  a figure, back at the house --

Linn frowned again, leaned back and reached into his off saddlebag, came up with a set of binoculars:  he raised the glass to his eyes and saw his Mama beckoning, a single come-here, then she raised a clenched fist and pumped it twice.

He did not need to be told twice.

He made sure the glasses were in the saddlebag before leaning forward and pressing his heels into Apple's ribs.

Part of his mind wondered why his Mama was dressed for the Ladies' Tea Society:  doesn't she work today? he thought, then let the thought fall away into his slipstream as Apple hit his stride and stretched out into the gallop he loved so well.

Apple slowed as they approached the house, then he shied:  something was not right --

"You jug head, Mama's wearin' a long skirt, you've seen that before!"  Linn swore between clenched teeth.

Apple took two steps toward the feminine figure, then shied again, twisting, dropped his head and began to crow-hop.

Linn's language was considerably less than Christian in nature.

He slammed down into the saddle twice, the shock mashing his spine clear to the base of his skull, then Apple-horse froze.

Just ... froze.

Linn grimaced, twisted his back, felt the oh-that-hurts-so-good of a half dozen vertebrae returning to their proper alignment, then he raised his head, alarmed.

His Uncle Will's voice -- Chief of Police Will Keller, his Mama's twin brother -- the voice he used when he was imparting something important to his nephew --

When in doubt, son, Linn heard, follow your gut.

Linn's mouth went dry and he swung down off his stallion, strode for the front door.

He knew where his Mama kept the half-dozen gold-bullet loads for a .44-40 -- there had been eight, but she'd used two, most recently when she left the house alone with a Winchester under her arm and her jaw set -- she never talked about that night, only to confide to her husband that the job was done.

Linn knew what she meant.

He knew the significance of the gold bullets.

He knew about the Order of the Rose, about the Rose Court, where a Star Court would be held and those the law was unable to touch, would be brought to justice, sometimes peacefully and most days, otherwise.

Linn knew all this as he opened his Mama's desk drawer.

He knew how to pick the lock -- he'd done it for fun as a child -- he opened the metal box, looked in.

Six bright-brass bottleneck cartridges, arranged on black velvet, each one with a gold payload.

Solid gold, backed by a charge of triple-F black.

Linn drew his revolver, brought the hammer back to the loading notch and opened the gate.

He removed a round, dropped in the gold bullet round, clicked the cylinder to the silent chant, "Load one, slip one, load four, cock" -- he brought the hammer back to full cock, closed the loading gate, pointed it to the floor and pulled the trigger.

The CLICK was loud in the silent room.

Linn placed his round where the gold round had been, locked the strongbox, closed the drawer.

He tasted ash and he was breathing a little quicker than he should.

Linn Keller, son of Sheriff Willamina Keller and future Sheriff of Firelands County, reached up and removed his Stetson: he slid the revolver under his vest and holstered, looked at the ceiling and said quietly, "God Almighty, whatever it is, let me do it right!"

 

"You got into my desk."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You took a gold bullet."
"Yes, ma'am."

"Do you know how much they cost?"

Linn closed his eyes, bridling his temper, then opened his eyes and said evenly, "If it means so damned much to you, have Forensics dig the slug out  of the wall.  It shouldn't be too deep, going through a man's skull like that."

 

Linn tasted copper as he strode out his front door, as he reached for his stallion's bridle.

"Look, horse face," he hissed, "you've got more native intelligence than ten men. If you pick up on something, tell me before you sling me out of the saddle, verstehen?"

The Appaloosa blinked but offered no other reply.

Linn ran his hand down Apple's neck, thrust a polished boot into the doghouse stirrup, swung aboard:  as Apple's head came about, sunlight glinted brightly off the hand-chased rose medallions on his bridle.

Linn touched his heels to Apple's ribs.

 

"So you just walked in and blew a man's brains all over the room."

"You could say that."  Linn felt his face grow tight and he tasted copper again.

"For no reason."

"For a damned good reason," Linn said, his voice deadly quiet:  he leaned forward, leaned his fisted knuckles on his mother's desk top.

"He pulled a gun on Anna Mae and said he was going to kill her and I stopped him."

 

Anna Mae took a drink of the cold, fizzy soda, almost giggling as it tickled up the back of her nose the way it did if she wasn't careful.

She'd come into the drugstore for a quick bite; she was sitting at the counter, two stools from the cash register, when she saw someone come in the front door and her stomach shriveled a little -- shriveled, as if at a premonition.

 

Linn leaned back:  "Ho now, ho boy," he soothed, and Apple threw his head, clearly disagreeing with his rider.

Linn came out of the alley, looked both ways, trotted across the street, Apple's shod hooves loud on the cold pavement.

The drugstore, he thought.

Why the drugstore ...?

He rode Apple down the sidewalk like he owned the place and brushed his vest back, clearing for a draw.

A lookout, he thought, and he was right.

The lookout turned, startled, just in time to inherit the leading edge of a surging stallion:  Apple-horse knocked him off his feet and twelve feet down the sidewalk, whirled, skidding a little on cement:  where most stallions would scream a challenge, Apple laid his ears back, reared and aimed steel-shod hooves like the weapons they were.

Linn's hand was firm on the stallion's neck, pushing hard left:  "NO!" he barked, leaping almost straight up, throwing a leg over:  he hit the ground on all fours, drove ahead, rammed a shoulder into the lookout's gut, slammed him back against the ornate, fluted base of the cast iron streetlight.

The base rang like a dull bell with the impact and the lookout went limp.

Linn raised a flat palm to his stallion.

"Bleibe," 

The stallion stopped, shook his head, blew, but made no move to step out of his own hoofprints.

Linn thrust forward on balls of his feet and his left fingertips, revolver locked in a white knuckled grip.

 

"And after you tried to bust a hole in an irreplaceable cast iron stanchion with a man's head," she said skeptically, standing and placing her fingertips on her desk top, matching her son glare for glare, "what did you do next?"

 

Linn rose where the window cornered with the thick doorframe:  he took a quick peek, another:  he gripped the time-polished brass handle, eased it open, eyes busy.

A veteran lawman would take in a volume of information with one sweep of the eyes, and that's just what Linn did:  he saw shocked expressions, he saw people frozen and uncertain, he saw the soda jerk behind the counter with eyes like saucers, hands raising, and he saw an individual raising a gun on a diagonal for Anna Mae's face and he heard "I'M GONNA KILL HER!"

Linn drove the revolver forward, focusing his rage and his hatred and all his young strength into a solid gold payload backed by a healthy charge of triple-F black.

Gunsmoke and concussion filled the drugstore and a dead man hit the floor.

 

"I heard him state his intention to murder Anna Mae," Linn said, his voice steady, but his eyes were hard, cold, pale:  Willamina had never seen her son's face go taut and white and part of her mind recoiled at the realization that his expression was as warm and welcoming as the heart of a mountain glacier, and just about the same color.

"He stated intent and he began to execute his intention."
Linn swallowed, took another breath.

"I drove my gunmuzzle against the back of his head and I blew the eyeballs out the front of his skull."

Silence hung like frozen metal in the Sheriff's inner office.

"You know we'll have to hold your revolver until the legalities are finished."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Officially I didn't hear any of this.  I can't risk an accusation of impropriety."

"No, ma'am."

"Because you are the Sheriff's son, my office can't investigate this."
"No, ma'am."

"Your Uncle is Chief of Police.  They can't investigate either."

"No, ma'am."

"It's a good thing this isn't a Federal case."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?"

"Yes, ma'am there is."

Linn raised his chin a little and hesitated, then pressed his lips together and nodded -- just like my brother, Willamina thought, and she waited while Linn gathered the courage to make his final statement.

"I wish the circumstances were different," he admitted, "but here goes anyway."  He chewed his bottom lip for a moment, then looked up at his Mama, his expression almost that of the little boy he used to be.

"Mama, I got my driver's license this morning."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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115. THIS IS WHY

It was not unusual for the school superintendent, or perhaps the odd board member, to show up at the Firelands High School teacher's meetings.

Classes were not held for Teacher's Meetings, no students were present, but the Sheriff's presence was unexpected.

He walked into the spacious lounge, leaned his backside down on the corner of the desk and deadpanned, "I suppose you're wondering why I called you here today."

His light blue eyes tightened at the corners and he could not hide the laugh that drew up the rest of his face.

"You've heard I'll be teaching CPR," he began, "and that's raised some questions, then yesterday The Bear Killer and I came in and left with a known troublemaker."

 

Chris Neilson leaned his head against his locker's closed door.

His bottom jaw was thrust out, his open hand was flat on the cool metal; he was trying without much success to still the storm in his young guts, the impotent fury, the rage against -- hell, against everything!

He felt more than heard a presence beside him: "Hey Chris, you goin' to CPR class?"

"Maybe," he mumbled, wishing to just be left the hell alone!

"I hear the Sheriff is teaching the class."

Christ turned, glared at his classmate, fury claiming his young soul:  his hands fisted and his face darkened as he screamed, "I DO NOT GIVE A HAPPY DAMN WHO TEACHES IT!" -- just as a pair of hard hands closed on his shoulders and a man's voice said "You're with me," and he was pulled away from the locker.

Chris twisted, threw his arm up to break the grip, cocked a fist.

A pair of ice-pale eyes burned into his and the Sheriff's hard expression froze him in an instant.

Chris slouched out of the Firelands high school, the Sheriff's hand on his shoulder: they were followed by many eyes, the Sheriff glared at the principal, staring open-mouthed as they approached:  "We'll be back," he said, his voice tight, and Chris thought Yeah, right, they'll throw me out of school, my Mom will kill me and my old man --

The Sheriff walked him around to the passenger side of the long wheelbase, four wheel drive cruiser, opened the front door.

Chris climbed in, sullen, the image of youthful rebellion.

His head was down, his jaw thrust out, he barely saw the Sheriff come around the front of the cruiser:  the driver's door opened, the long tall lawman with pale eyes and a reddish-brown, curled handlebar mustache climbed in.

The engine started easily, they started out of the parking lot; the Sheriff's hand floated down of its own accord, plucked up the grey GE microphone.

"Dispatch, One. Special detail, one hour."

"Roger, One."

 

"First of all, the young man and I were on a special detail," the Sheriff said, half his mouth quirked up in his well known half smile.

"It seems we had something in common that needed discussed."

"Ordinarily, Sheriff," a voice said uncomfortably, "you present to the office and we bring the student to you with due permissions --"

"I am the Sheriff," Linn interrupted.  "I act when the moment is right. It is my profession and when the matter is urgent, protocols are set aside."

"We were not informed of the exigency of the situation."

"You do not have sufficient security clearance."

 

"So what happens now?" Chris mumbled, cowed by the silent lawman's presence.

They'd driven back into town, skirted around the back side of town, and were now coming to the foot of Graveyard Hill.

The Sheriff eased the brown Blazer to a stop, set the park and shut it down.

"Out," he said, and Chris and the Sheriff both got out.

"Walk with me."

Chris had no trouble keeping up with the long legged lawman:  somewhere, he didn't see where, but somewhere that big black Bear Killer of a dog joined them, pacing along behind, silent as death and just as dangerous:  Chris had seen the Sheriff in a good old fashioned knock down drag out brawl, once before, and there was no way in two hells he was going to even think about taking on the lawman by himself -- but that dog?

He'd seen what a dog can do and he knew that big black bear killin' dog's reputation, and there wasn't the shadow of a suggestion in his mind of making any move at all toward the Sheriff.

The lawman raised an arm, pointed.

"The hangin' tree used to be there," he said.  "They called it the Tree of Truth and there was a message drop under it."

"Message drop?"

Sullen and rebellious Chris might have been, but he was curious, and the idea of a message drop evoked images of spies and secrets.

"The US Secret Service was created during Lincoln's War."
Linn did not have to look to know Chris's brow puzzled together a little.  "Lincoln's War?"

"Known also as the War of the Rebellion, the War of Secession, the War of Northern Aggression," Linn continued as they walked up the gravel drive and under the cast iron archway that marked the entrance to the Firelands cemetery.  "I believe your revisionist history books call it the Civil War."

"Oh.  Yeah."

"Agents were known before that time and ever since. Old Pale Eyes -- the second Sheriff of this county -- had commerce with an Agent, fellow named Sopris. You might recall Sopris Mountain, not far from here."  He looked over and saw Chris looking uncomfortable.

"You've been there."

"Yeah," Chris admitted.  "Once."

"And you set the land speed record getting the hell off that mountain."

Chris nodded, then looked at the lawman, surprised.  "How'd you know?"

"I've seen the ghosts."

Chris's mouth went dry and he looked ahead, at the rows of marble, ranked at the head of countless graves.  "Is that why we're here?"

"Nope."

They walked in silence for another hundred yards, then a hundred more, and the Sheriff stopped.

He turned and looked at a tombstone and Christ followed his gaze:  he was silent as the Sheriff raised his hand in salute, held it for a long moment, lowered his hand.

The tomb stone had a portrait laser engraved:  a woman's face, in an oval:  on one side, the Anchor and Globe, and on the other, a six point star that said SHERIFF.

"Your mother was killed," the Sheriff said, and Chris felt the anger again, felt the fury that burned at his young soul, and again the Sheriff didn't have to look to know what Chris was doing:  his shoulders tightened and raised a fraction as both his hands fisted up.

"You know I'm teaching CPR."

Chris nodded, then as the Sheriff was still staring at the tomb stone and not looking for a nonverbal reply, said "Yeah."

"Do you know why?"

The Sheriff turned, looked at the high school sophomore, his eyes hard, cold, unforgiving.

"It's because I can't kill what killed my mother."

Chris felt the man's fury, felt the anger he kept hidden, felt it like heat off a bonfire.

"Your mother was killed by a drunk driver. The drunk that hit her was tried and sentenced but he's still alive and your mother is dead and you can't change that."

He saw the anger in Chris's eyes and the Sheriff knew he was stepping on a very raw nerve.

"You can't bring her back and you can't kill her murderer and she's dead and why is he alive."

"WHY IS HE ALIVE!" Christ screamed, taking a half-step toward the lawman, fists tight, but not raised.  "HE KILLED MY MOM!"

"I know," the Sheriff said, his face pale, tight, grief engraving it with lines Chris never remembered seeing.

"You can't change it and neither can I, but here's what I can do."

He closed his eyes, took a steadying breath, opened them.

"Do you know how my Mama died?"

Chris shook his head, miserable.

"Mama's heart ... I don't know the cause, but in her later years she had ... some problem she never told me about."

"What kind of a problem?"

"Some kind of a heart defect.  Doesn't matter what it was, it couldn't be fixed.  She decided she'd live to her fullest while she was still alive, and she did, and she died riding her favorite mare."  He swallowed and bit his bottom lip and Chris was surprised to see a silvery tear track streak down this hard lawman's face.

"I found her in the pasture.

"She was gone ... it was too late ... by the time I found her she was nonviable."  He snorted, spat.  "Damned word.  Nonviable.  She was deader'n a hammer and not one damned thing I could do."

He looked at Chris.

"Your Mama is dead, Chris, but you're not.  Now you and I can take our anger and hold it like something precious and let it eat us alive, let it kill us from the inside and it will.  It'll kill you slow but it'll kill you.  Or you can make her life count for something."

The Sheriff threw his head back, took a long breath, blew it out.

"I'm teaching CPR.  Had I been there when she hit the ground I could have given her a chance."

He turned, looked at the stone, looked back.

"A damned drunk killed your Mama. I'm going to present in front of health class but I'm an adult and I'm the Sheriff and it'll be just another adult telling 'em they shouldn't drink and drive."

Chris looked at the familiar face graven in the polished quartz monument, remembered her hand on his shoulder, how her voice had been unexpectedly gentle when she spoke with him, how he'd known he could trust her.

That had been a very long time ago, but he remembered it, and he remembered how he felt when he was told his Mama was dead, he remembered looking at her still, cold form, he remembered the funeral, he remembered how hollow, how empty, how lost he'd felt since then.

He'd tried to fill the void with anger and with rage and it wasn't helping.

He'd been looking for something and he didn't know what that was.

His gut told him he just might have found something.

"You teach CPR because of your Mama."

"No."

The Sheriff turned, sat on his Mama's stone, looked at Chris.

"I teach it because I couldn't save her.  Maybe what I teach can keep someone from going through what I live with every day."

"And you think I can do the same thing."

"Can you?"

Chris looked past the stone, looked at a white wolf looking sleepily at him -- not a wolf, he thought, that's someone's white Shepherd dog --

The Bear Killer slid up beside Chris, nosed his hand, leaned warm and solid against his hip and thigh, and Chris absently rubbed the big black bear killing dog like an old friend.

"Yeah," Chris said huskily.  "Yeah, I can do that."

 

Linn grinned at the teachers and staff, gathered for their periodic, day long meeting.

"Just wanted you to know an angry young man was not in trouble, and I've drafted him to help teach something for which he is well qualified."

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  • 2 weeks later...

116.  JUST LIKE THE GOOD OLD DAYS

 

Sheriff Linn Keller snarled as something hit him in the side of the face like a fist.

The big golden stallion shied and screamed and started to buck and Linn hauled hard on the bitless reins and yelled "HOLD!" -- his legs tightened down and the stallion froze, shivering.

Linn pressed with his right heel and his right hand and the stallion sidestepped hard against the cliff face and more rocks fell, some spinning down over the ledge, a few hitting the ledge and bouncing, or like the big one, exploding.

Gravel sprayed against the side of his face, stung his ear, brought blood:  Rey del Sol's eyes walled but he dared not move, not with the firm hand hauling his head down, not with the legs locked around his barrel, not with the familiar flat palm pressed against his neck, the signal to stand, to stay --

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller had the same conversation, sometimes a few times a year:  what is it like to be Sheriff, what's it like to be a woman Sheriff, a woman in a man's world:  she smiled and took  sip of her coffee, considering her selection of stock answers.

"Being Sheriff is really no different than it was when my thrice-great-granddad was the second Sheriff here in Firelands County," she said in her gentle voice:  she looked very much the professional woman, her hair short, attractive, feminine but efficient: her blue suit dress was immaculately tailored, her posture was flawless, her gestures graceful, feminine as she raised the warm ceramic and tasted of the beverage therein.

"Really?  I would've thought ..."

The Sheriff smiled.  "Crime is crime in any era. We have to find out the who, what, where, why and how.  Investigation and interrogation is the same then as now.  Evidence is gathered and presented in court."

"But ... you don't ride horses --"

Willamina's eyes wrinkled a little at the corners, her expression one of suppressed laughter:  she reached into the slim briefcase beside her, withdrew a folder:  she sorted through the sheets it held, drew out a black-and-white 8x10, handed it to the reporter.

"That's the one that made the magazine cover," she said:  it was very obviously her -- but in a much different mood.

The Sheriff Willamina in the photograph was wearing a denim coat with her six point star just below the brown corduroy collar, she was facing two disreputable looking sorts cornered in an alley, and she had a double barrel shotgun looking at them:  the picture was taken from behind and quartering, so her horse's head, her face and the miscreants were all visible.

"We routinely travel horseback," Willamina smiled, "because there is terrain that requires it. Besides, I find I can connect with people more easily if I'm horseback.  Children want to pet the horsie and there's something about a horse that almost everyone loves."  She replaced the glossy in the folder.  "Besides, a horse has full time four wheel drive, full leather upholstery, color coordinated fur trim, internal guidance ... you'd pay extras for those at the car dealership!"

She withdrew another picture.  "Of course, some things have changed.  That's me in our restored telegraph office. That's the original telegraph set that my pale eyed ancestor used -- he had to write out the message and give it to this fellow here, who would tap it out in clicks and clatters.  We use more modern devices nowadays, so yes, that's changed."

 

Linn wet half his wild rag and cleaned the blood off his face and neck, cautiously explored the damage:  he pulled a few pieces of rock out of his face and one out of his earlobe, wiped them carefully with the wet rag and then its dry section.

"Serves me right to ride under a cliff after a rain," he muttered.  "Let's take a look at you now."
So saying, he swung down out of the saddle, started running his hands over his golden stallion's gleaming hide.

 

Willamina's head came up and the reporter saw the Sheriff's eyes go from light blue to glacier pale.

"Excuse me," she said quietly:  she rose, walked purposefully toward the disturbance at the bar.

One fellow seized a beer bottle, broke it, thrust its broken end at the other guy's face.

Something fast, black and pointed came rocketing up, hit his wrist: the shock shattered his grip on the bottle's neck and he turned, bringing his other hand up, just in time to catch a foot in the gut -- a foot driven by a particularly well muscled leg, a leg strengthened from a lifetime of living with horses:  the lead-filled, brown-leather sap described a brief, savage arc, its impact detonating a sunball of pain behind and above the man's right ear:  he sagged, went to his knees, collapsed.

Willamina stepped back, regarded the object of the first fellow's affections:  "Hands in plain view," she said quietly, somehow the more dangerous, the more menacing for speaking quietly: she waited while two city police officers came around her and reduced the pair to possession:  she laid a hand on one's arm and said "I'll be along to give a statement," and the looked at the gawping reporter, who'd risen and approached the conflict, but stopped, shocked at how fast and how violent the events had turned.

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked around, assuming a flawlessly innocent expression.

"Just like the good old days," she smiled.

Later that night, Willamina ran her hands along her golden stallion's flank, her eyes distant, a half smile appearing like a ghost and disappearing just as quickly.

She was remembering a cliff, and how she'd ridden under it, and how her stallion suddenly shied and pressed back against the cliff face.

Willamina looked around, surprised:  she heard nothing, felt nothing, saw nothing, but there was something, something that shouted at her from a great distance inside her head.

"Goldie," she whispered, "what were you seeing, what was I hearing?"

Her golden stallion blinked, then rubbed his nose against her front, bumming for a bit pinch of molasses cured chawin' tobacker.

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117. GOTCHA!

Sean was the big red headed Irish fire chief.

Sean was the broad shouldered, blacksmith armed leader of the Irish Brigade, a man who could walk up to and pick up and walk off with about anything he damn well pleased, and on occasion did just that.

Sean could beat any man bare knuckle, he'd even beat the pale eyed Sheriff the day he stepped off the steam train with his Irish Brigade and their new steam fire engine, and after the lawman shook his head and looked up from the ground and said "Well?  Give up yet?" Sean seized the man's forearm, hauled him to his feet:  they were of a like height, and so they stood with their arms around one another's shoulders and the Sheriff declared in a loud voice, "I CAN WHIP ANY MAN IN THIS COUNTY, AND THE FIRE CHIEF JUST WHIPPED ME! THIS MAN'S WORD IS LAW AND WHOSOEVER DON'T LIKE IT CAN ANSWER TO ME!" -- this marked the first occasion when the Irish Brigade invaded the Silver Jewel Saloon, and started a happy tradition of trying to drink the beer supply out of existence (they did only one time in more than a century, but that was a happy occasion indeed and we might talk about that some other time)

Right now, though, well more than five years after his arrival in Firelands, Sean lay sprawled in the middle of their dirt street, shaking his head and fighting to get some air into his shocked lungs, and his opponent stood and stared at him, apparently not entirely sure quite what to do.

You see, the entire contents of the Firelands schoolhouse was spilled out onto the street and ranked in a line behind him, including boys of varying ages, girls in flour sack dresses and ribbon bows in their hair, two schoolmarms and a truly HUGE, curly furred black dog that stood protectively in front of the smaller of the two women, and they were paying no attention at all to the Irish fire chief who'd just been knocked backside-over-tincup.

No, they were watching that bull calf that put him down.

 

Linn Keller, the Sheriff's oldest son, kept a carefully impassive face.

One of his high school teachers spoke harshly about him, without looking at him and without addressing him directly, offering his pedantic opinion that the actions of the vigilante during the attempted drugstore robbery was unnecessary, that it put people at risk, that the action of killing someone who was bringing a gun to bear on an intended victim was exactly the wrong thing to do.

Linn hadn't said a word, though his ears turned red, then positively scarlet, and finally a dark, metal-on-the-anvil shade:  he felt the eyes of every one of his schoolmates on him, and when the bell rang and the class filed out, he alone remained behind.

The teacher carefully uncomfortably avoided looking at the tall, slender student, until finally Linn stood, gathered his books, straightened and looked squarely at the man.

He stepped toward the teacher, held out a single half-sheet of paper, on which were written words scribed thereon with a steel nib dip quill, good black India ink tracing a message he'd considered worth passing along, and this was the time.

"This may be of use to you, sir," he said quietly as the teacher accepted the half-sheet:  "Theodore Roosevelt.  The Arena."

Linn turned and paced silently out of the room, but not before he heard the paper being crumpled into a ball, and the little ringing sound as it was tossed in the trash can.

Linn whistled for his Apple-horse as he came out the side door of the Firelands high school:  he'd retrieved the saddle from the boiler room, where he and the janitor often sat, warmed by the two big horizontal boilers, laughing and telling lies and outrageous lies, not necessarily in that order:  the janitor was old enough to be his grandfather, and he'd learned long ago that this wrinkled, skinny old man had just an awful lot of wisdom about him.

Linn liked wisdom, and Linn listened much more than he talked, and the two of them spent many companionable hours in the boiler room, imparting and absorbing.

The janitor knew about the shooting in the drugstore -- hell, everyone knew! -- but he'd never spoken of it, and for this, Linn was grateful, and when Linn came in after his saddle, somehow the old man knew words had been darted at this lean, pale eyed son of the pale eyed Sheriff, and the old man knew those words troubled his favorite visitor.

He wisely held his counsel.

Linn whistled up his Apple-horse, knowing there were eyes upon him: he knew those eyes glared, their faces were hostile, for the day before he'd been challenged by two upperclassmen in their hot rod cars:  "Hey Sheriff, when you gonna get something with more horsepower?" and Linn looked at them and grinned:  "You wanta race, Jack?  Drugstore, first one there buys!" -- and so saying, he whipped his Apple-horse end-for-end and set off across the side field, across the creek and up the mountain trail.

High school boys are vulnerable to a challenge, and these guys were:  they left the parking lot under heavy throttle and loud exhaust, burning off a hundred miles' worth of tire tread getting out on the highway, just in time to run into the speed zone with two cruisers running radar.

They finally showed up at the drug store; Linn and Apple-horse were long since arrived, and Linn was just finishing a vanilla cone:  "Got tired of waiting," he grinned, and their reply was less than printable.

This was the day after, and Linn was on his Apple-horse again, and hostile eyes glared at him from the street, and Linn didn't really care.

There was a shout, a yell, a man's voice raised in profane anguish, and Linn heard trouble on four hooves:  he looked right, over his shoulder -- no traffic coming -- he whistled, his legs tightening around Apple's barrel, and the stallion shot forward, hooves loud on the cold pavement, turning to gallop straight down the center line of the street.

Linn stood in the stirrups, leaned out over the spotted stallion's neck, hands pressed flat against the base of the mane, his eyes and his mount's both locked on the cause of the alarm.

Apple-horse slowed quickly, carefully, dancing a little to keep from skidding steel shod hooves on pavement (he'd made that mistake once before and never forgot!) -- Linn brought them around smartly and they gave chase as the bull calf charged by them with a bellow.

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked out the glass door just in time to see the bull calf, the spotted horse and the child of her womb go streaking past:  she opened her mouth to say something, realized the only thing she could utter would be less than ladylike, and instead turned and looked at her dispatcher.

"Get Will on the radio," she said, her words clipped, efficient:  "tell him we have a runaway on the main drag."

Sharon looked up at her, nodded once, reached for the control panel, pressed two buttons and keyed her grey desk mike.

 

Sean wrapped his arms around his middle and groaned.

He'd intended to catch the bull calf by stepping to the side and snatching it around the neck, but the Satan's spawn threw his head and drove right into the fire chief's flat middle, knocking him off the ground and driving two week's worth of wind out of his lungs in the process.

The bull calf stopped as the line of young humanity started waving arms, flapping skirts and yelling: confused, it looked around, looked for an escape, turned and started trotting for the open schoolhouse playground, and the terrain beyond.

"Jimmy!  Billy!"  the diminutive schoolmarm in the mousy-grey dress barked, her eyes bright behind round-lenses spectacles:  "You are our fastest runners!  After it, keep it moving, don't let it stop in town!  Once it get into open country, let it go!  Bear Killer!  With them!"

Neither Jimmy nor Billy needed to be told twice:  they were both noted runners, and delighted in this chance to chase after the bull calf, and steal that much more time from their lessons.

The Bear Killer bounded after them, his leaps higher than usual, for he knew there was no threat here, just play, and The Bear Killer loved to play.

 

Linn kicked free of his stirrups, planted a palm on the saddlehorn, the other palm on the back of the bottom hand:  he shoved straight up, drew his legs under him, squatting on the saddle:  Apple-horse had done this before, just never in town:  he was used to pursuit of calves in open ground, where the terrain was far less regular:  we don't know if horses laugh internally, but we do know the stallion found it easier to pursue the bull calf on the paved street.

Linn leaned, launched, dove:  he seized the bull calf, legs high in the air, then swung down, leveraging bovine, backside and a bull-calf's bawl into one rolling mass:  once down, the bull calf grunted, thrashed, tried to get up.

Linn still had it around the neck.

The bull calf managed to get up, and Linn stood beside it, the hard hand of doom on the rambunctious beef's neck.

The bull calf blinked, bawled again:  Linn murmured to it, rubbed its neck:  Apple-horse turned, came pacing back up to them, and Linn reached up, pulled his lariat free.

"You know," he said, "this just ain't cheatin' fair."
The bull calf leaned against Linn's hip, grunting with pleasure as Linn rubbed it behind the jaw.

"You wanta walk with me, little fella?" Linn grinned.  "Come on, Apple."

He flipped the coiled lariat casually over his saddlehorn and walked casually right up the center line, bull calf on one side, spotted stallion on the other.

 

"Sure an' I'd like t'turn that beast into m' supper!" Sean gasped as he got his feet under him, stood.

A familiar voice scolded, "Sure an' if ye try't he'll put ye down again, mark m' word!"

Sean turned, grinned.  "Daisy m'dear!" he greeted his wife, who shook her wooden spoon at him and scolded "Sean, ye great Irish oaf, wha' d' ye think ye're doin' wallowin' about th' dirt like a common drunkard!  I'd oughta take a rollin' pin to ye!  An' allowin' yersel' t' be folded in th' middle like a pair of store bought trousers, an' by what?  By a mere wee calf!"

Sean laughed, seized his wife under the arms, snatched her off the ground, whirling her about:  Daisy threw her head back and laughed, and Sean pressed her up at arm's length, brought her down and kissed her soundly, and suddenly his scolding Irish wife had no words to say:  when the big Irishman came up for air, husband and wife looked into each other's eyes, each regretting quite honestly that they were standing in the middle of the street, for -- married though they were, aye, and with children -- their passion for one another continued unabated, and each felt the fires of passion in that moment.

Daisy tucked her wooden spoon back along her arm and caressed her husband's cheek with her free hand:  "Later, my love," she whispered, and Sean felt that delicious tickle deep in his passionate Irish belly.

Of all the lovely lasses he'd known in his unbridled life, this green eyed Irish woman, this Daisy, was the one woman with whom he was absolutely, utterly, and most passionately, head over bootsoles in absolute, dizzying love.

 

Anna Mae's hands went to her high belly as she felt that flutter again, that feeling of a maiden beholding her swain:  she closed her eyes, bit her bottom lip, willed herself to stop feeling silly like that.

She looked sidelong, almost ashamed, at her mother, looked down.

"He hasn't even looked at you," Mona murmured.

"And he won't, Mama.  Ever since he ... the ..."
Anna Mae frowned, her mind suddenly blank.

"He won't look at me, Mama.  He wanted to wait a few days and then ask your permission to continue seeing me."

"Really!"  Mona looked at her daughter in honest surprise, then at the young man with his furry entourage walking briskly up the main street.  "I shall have to speak to his mother!"  She turned her head, smiled:  "and I shall do that right now!"

Anna Mae followed her Mama as the older woman walked the half block to the Sheriff's office.

Somehow neither were terribly surprised to find the Sheriff standing at the front door, apparently waiting for them.

Sheriff Willamina Keller and Anna Mae's mama were in conference for a surprisingly short time:  Anna Mae heard feminine laughter, she saw the Sheriff's office door open, she saw the pale eyed woman and her Mama share a look, then look at her, and share that look again, and Anna Mae's hands tightened until her trimmed nails pressed painfully into her palms.

 

Chief of Police Will Keller had a gift, as did many men of his line:  he could move with a surprising stealth, and he was near enough to two restless young men to hear their quiet conversation clearly.

"I was going to jump him," the one admitted.  "He owes me for that speeding ticket, damn him, he tricked me!"

"He won't have a gun now," the other said.

"Yeah, but I do. I could shoot that horse of his. That would hurt him."

"Better than leggin' him. You can't be charged with attempted murder for shootin' a horse."

Neither of them knew the dread hand of the law was anywhere near until Will seized their heads and banged them together.

Hard.

 

Shorty leaned on his pitchfork and watched as a bull calf went trotting past his livery, followed by two little boys, yelling happily, then The Bear Killer, jaw open, tongue trailing happily:  he followed them with his eyes, watching as the lads pursued the escaping bovine far further than was really necessarily, at least until the cl-clang, cl-clang, cl-clang of Miz Sarah's handbell called them back.

Shorty laughed a little, then went back inside, back where his little stove was doing a fine job of warming his office:  he remembered what it was to be young, and as he shook his head and reached for a bottle marked LINIMENT, he sighed "I remember what it was to be young," and then he uncorked the bottle and took a good tilt of something water clear and not over thirty days old.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller picked up the phone, smiled as she heard a familiar voice on the other end.

"He did?" she asked.  "Good. Thank you, Mona."

 

Linn waited another day before approaching Anna Mae.

Their classes kept them separated; they ran into one another as Linn was coming out of the boiler room with his saddle.

Anna Mae didn't usually exit by the boiler room door, but she knew this was his habit:  Linn rather suspected this was her motive, and as he'd almost run into her, he backed up a step, swept off his Stetson and said "Your pardon, my Lady," as he always did.

Anna Mae leaned back against the crash bar, pushing open the door.

"We need to talk," she said, and Linn's heart fell down about his boot tops:  he followed her out onto the boiler room dock, set down his saddle, replaced the Stetson on his head and took a deep breath, steeling himself against the verbal misfortune that was sure to follow those dread words that they needed to talk.

Anna Mae bounced on her toes, bit her bottom lip, looking down -- almost shyly -- before coming up and kissing Linn, quickly, impulsively:  she caressed his cheek and whispered, "Thank you for saving my life," and then she took a half-step back, waiting.

"I was afraid to talk to you," he whispered.

"I was afraid you'd never speak to me again."

"I couldn't until --"  Linn looked away, looked back.  "Until I asked your Mama's permission."

"I know.  She told me and I couldn't wait for you to talk to me so I talked to you first and it's all right and I was so scared -- "

Linn stepped into her and very carefully, as if she were delicate bone china, wrapped his arms around her, held her, laid his cheek down on top of her head.

"I was scared I was too late," he whispered.

"I thought I was dead," she whispered back, seizing him around his ribs, squeezing desperately:  "hold me, hold me, hold me --"

Linn's arms tightened around her, at least until Apple-horse muttered something, and Linn raised his head to find his stallion regarding him with a solemn expression.

Anna Mae felt his weight shift and his voice was hollow, with her ear pressed hard against his breastbone:  "Oh, no, not again!" -- she let go and leaned back, and saw a bull calf come pacing up beside the stallion, a bull calf that looked at them and bawled, slashing its tail impatiently.

Linn laughed quietly, leaned down, picked up his saddle.

"Care to help me take this fella home?" he grinned.  "Apple can carry two of us for that short trip."

They rode in silence for a few minutes, then Linn said "I'd written you something, but I gave it to that teacher that doesn't like me much.  Milstead."

"Oh," Anna Mae said, and Linn could tell from her tone of voice she thought little of the man as well.

"It was a quote from Teddy Roosevelt.  Like to hear it?"

"Mm-hmm."

Anna Mae's arms tightened around his middle a little and she lifted her cheek from his back, listening, and as men in the saddle have done for centuries, Linn indulged in a recitation.

"It is not the critic who counts," Linn recited, his voice clear, distinct in the cold air:  he always had a good speaking voice and an excellent delivery, and Anna Mae listened to his words, knowing he'd chosen them carefully, perhaps prophetically, for she'd heard of the way Milstead treated him in class, and how he'd crumpled and discarded the half-sheet of careful script without even reading it.

"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  

"The credit is to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, comes short and who strives again and again; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows that in the end, who triumphs in high achievement, and at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails in daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Linn's gloved hand pressed on Anna Mae's interlaced fingers, a living seat belt around his taut middle.

"I could not have lived with myself knowing your life was in danger and I'd done nothing."

Apple-horse moved easily under them; Anna Mae was quiet for several long moments.

Finally she raised her head, and Linn turned his head a little as if to bring a good ear to bear, to let her know he was listening.

"I," she said huskily, "am very glad you dared greatly."

 

The janitor looked out the heavy glass window at the lean waisted young man and the pretty girl behind him, riding double, a stray bull calf trotting happily along beside them.

The old man grinned, nodded, as if to affirm that yes, the world is as it should be, and then he went back into the boiler room, looked up at a faded, framed portrait, a print made from a glass plate discovered under the stairs of what had been a photographer's studio here in Firelands, a studio that went out of business just over a century before.

It was a portrait of the legendary Irish Brigade, and of the red-shirted firemen in the stiffly-posed portrait, one stood out.

The janitor looked at the man, and remembered the tale, how a bull calf butted his many times great grandfather right in the belt buckle and folded him up like a pair of store bought trousers, and how his many times great grandmother laughed when this red headed Irishman with the red handlebar mustache picked her up and spun her around and laughed as he did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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118.  WE NEED TO TALK

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller didn't have to look up from her breakfast coffee to know her son was coming down the stairs like a stove up old man.

The stairs were twice as wide as standard, built in that wise by her several times great grandfather, a man who wished to carry his red-headed, green-eyed bride up them without banging her head nor knocking the shoes off her feet:  as a result, moving furniture up or down the stairs did not involve the gymnastics usually associated with getting box springs, bed frames or mattresses up or down.

At the moment, it was her teen-aged son who was moving his stove up carcass down the stairs, gripping the hand rail like he intended to crush it.

She knew without looking that he reached up, gripped the door casing, that his head was hung a little, that his bottom jaw was thrust out: he did that when he was hurt, he'd done it ever since he was a little boy, trying not to show the pain, not to show he was hurt.

"Pancakes, hot and fresh," she said.  "I wanted to wait until you were here before I fried your eggs."

"Bless you," he said softly, and she looked up, her eyes a light blue, the eyes of a mother looking at her son:  as he watched, they turned pale again and he knew she was going to say those dreaded words.

"We need to talk."

"Yes, ma'am."

He released the door casing and straightened:  closing his eyes, he took a breath, then paced off on the left, shoulders back, moving as if he were just fine.

He pulled his favorite mug from the cupboard, poured coffee, came around the table and sat down directly opposite his mother:  he added milk to his coffee, then set the milk jug aside, left the coffee untouched.

"Will I have an appetite when we're done talking?" he asked, still in that quiet voice.

"You might not," she admitted.

"You have my undivided."

"I've punished you unjustly in the past."

"We got past that, ma'am."  His guarded tone told Willamina that her son's walls were up.

"I have no intention of punishing you now."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Witness accounts and surveillance footage all agreed that you acted properly."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You were -- in my judgement -- not out of line speaking to me as you did when you told me if that gold bullet was so damned valuable, that I could damned well dig it out of the wall and choke on it."

"I don't believe I said all that, ma'am."  His words were mild, his eyes half-lidded, but she had the impression of a boxer raising his gloves and drawing his elbows in close to his ribs.

"No," she agreed, and sipped again at her coffee, taking the heavy ceramic mug two-handed, her elbows planted solidly on the table. "Not those exact words."  She looked at her son with ... amusement? ... and smiled, just a little.

"I would have said worse."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I see you replaced the round you fired."

"Yes, ma'am. Loaded the same as the others."

"Thank you."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Your revolver" -- Willamina's voice took just a hit of disappointment -- "I'm afraid it's in evidence until all appeals are exhausted."

"That is standard procedure, I believe."

"Yes, it is.  You are welcome to one of mine."

"Thank you, ma'am, I've an extra."

Again that quiet smile.  "I thought you might."

Linn leaned forward a little planted his elbows on the table, clasped his hands and leaned his forehead on his knuckles, and Willamina felt as much as saw her son shiver.

"The indictment, ma'am?"

"The indictment."  Willamina placed her hands flat on either side of her plate, straightened.  "Again, witness accounts and the surveillance agreed that you did what was necessary, when it was necessary."

"Yes, ma'am."

"It's possible the deceased might have some family that'll try and squeeze a settlement out of you, but I hardly think someone with that criminal record can be called a Sunday School sort."

"I suspected as much, ma'am, when I saw his neck tats."

Willamina nodded.  "Rap sheet long as your arm, and he was only two years older than you."  She shook her head.  "Damned drugs."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Moving right along."

"Yes, ma'am."  Linn looked very directly at his mother, knowing she was changing the direction of their discussion.

"You hadn't spoken with Anna Mae since the shooting."

"Not until yesterday, ma'am."

"Let me tell you what you did right."

Linn leaned forward a little more, clearly very interested in what his pale eyed mother had to say.

"First of all, there could be no accusation of collusion or witness tampering, because Anna Mae could -- and did -- honestly testify that she'd not spoken to you since that day."

Linn nodded, his eyes never leaving hers.

"Second, you showed due respect to her mother by not speaking with her until after you asked her mother's permission to do so."

Linn blinked, blinked again, looked away.

"I," he began, then swallowed, leaned back, dropped his hands into his lap, looked back at his Mama.

"Ma'am, Bill is long dead.  I had no father to ask so I had to ask her mother."
Willamina waited, knowing that in spite of her son's verbal hesitation, he was not done speaking.

"It ... wouldn't be right," he said thoughtfully.  "Her Mama might have thought me a red handed monster and I will not go against her Mama's wishes."

"I know."  Willamina tilted her head a little, smiled quietly.  "She told me."

Linn's left eyebrow tented up, just like his father's in such moments.

"She ... offered no objection, ma'am," Linn said slowly, carefully, remembering the moment when Anna Mae's mother patted him gently on the chest and said, "Thank you for saving my daughter's life."

"Now."  Willamina "Just where did you get the replacement for my gold bullet?"

"I cut up some gold coin I'd invested," he admitted.

"You didn't have to do that."

"Yes, ma'am, I did."

"Thank you."  Willamina took a sip of her cooling coffee, frowned.  "Now how about you?  That was an impressive bulldog yesterday, but you're not supposed to hit the ground quite that hard."

"Yes, ma'am," he agreed.  "My poor old carcass is agreeing with you on that one!"

"You know that pancakes are good for aches and pains."

Linn nodded.  "As long as I don't have to stand up to get them, yes, ma'am."

Willamina slid the stack over to her son, then the butter and the honey.

"That is," she said, "if you have any appetite."

"Thank you, ma'am."

He did.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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119.  ONE PRECISE SHOT

 

It was no secret that the Sheriff's family participated in the Sheriff's office training.

The community regarded it as somewhere between entertainment and demonstration when Willamina's daughters and her son, in their white karate ghis and white belts, bowed formally to their much larger and much more muscled counterparts, men who wore brown ghis with a six point star embroidered in yellow on the left breast.

Willamina, in a white ghi with an embroidered star, supervised -- discreetly, of course, for she was at once Sheriff and mother, and her husband, the stout, red-cheeked, affable retired FBI agent in a dark blue karate uniform, generally stood beside her, watching closely and on occasion nodding absently.

Her children learned throws, holds, kicks, punches; when they were of sufficient size and skill, Willamina allowed them to spar with the padded, red-man-clad opponents:  her children grew up knowing tricks of leverage, knowing how to deliver a telling blow with fist, with elbow -- back or front -- with knees and feet and occasionally an impromptu hip-thrust -- his sneaky sister slammed him with her hip in an unexpected moment, knocking him awkwardly to the mat.

He gained his feet, bowed:  "Good hit," he acknowledged, then deflected her heel-kick and backed up a pace.

His blood was up and he felt anger ignite in his belly and he knew that was the absolute worst time to respond -- thus the retreat -- his sister pressed the matter, and Linn felt his eyes grow cold and white and he felt the color drain from his face and he threw his thinking mind out the window and began fighting from his hara, his center.

Willamina noticed the change.

She started to shout a time-out, but Richard's hand on her shoulder stilled her voice before it could launch into her throat: they watched as Linn began fighting smoothly, naturally, fighting from the depths of his soul instead of from his active mind.

Linn's sis sometimes bullied him, as sisters do: he once complained that there's nowhere you can hit her -- if you hit her face it'll bruise and I'll get the Board, he'd explained, and you can't hit 'em in the chest 'cause they're girls, and if you punch her in the gut she'll fold up and cry and God Himself can't save you then, and you can't smack their bottom or back hit 'em --

He'd been all of five years old when he made his doleful pronouncement, and it was all Willamina could do to keep a straight face; she and Richard agreed that formal martial arts training was a good idea, and so far it worked well.

Even if Sis did slam her hip into his and knock him over.

Linn was almost fencing -- catching a blow, deflecting it, slapping it aside: she tried a spinning back kick and he wasn't there, he was spinning as well and came in behind her leg, touched the back of her head, just enough to let her know she'd been touched, then fell back.

She pressed her attack and Linn continued, deflecting and reaching out just enough to touch her -- cheekbone, shoulder, back of the thigh -- and finally she stopped, red-faced, arms stiff at her side and yelled "QUIT CHEATIN'!" and then ran off the mat, crying.

"I'll go talk to him," Richard said quietly, and jogged on the balls of his feet, lightly, across the mat, gripped his son by the shoulders -- a light grip, and a grin, let the lad know he was not in trouble.

"You could have decked her fourteen times that I counted," Richard said quietly.  "Why didn't you punch back?"

Linn closed his eyes, took a long breath, blew it out with a double downblock, a technique he used to dispel stress in such moments.

"She was trying to make me mad," he said at length, opening his eyes slowly and smiling, just a little, at his father.

"I didn't and that made her mad, and she defeated herself."

Richard laughed and hugged his son, one-armed, walking them back over to Willamina.

"Young Padwan already knows what it took me twenty years to learn!"  he declared proudly, and Willamina winked, her smile peeking out at the corners of her eyes.

The Sheriff also included her young in the Department's firearms qualification, and the deputies delighted in having them:  it was not at all unusual to see small heads in big earmuffs strutting back to the rear tables with a silhouette target, casually laying it out as if it was something they'd done every day ... a target with tighter groups than most of the grown men, which probably had something to do with the range set up behind the house, and the fact that they also handloaded their own ammunition, cast, sized and lubed their own bullets, set up and tore down their own backstops:  Willamina started them on .38 special revolvers, switching Linn from a clone of her own father's Victory model Smith that he'd started shooting years before.

Of the children, Linn was the most natural shot, and he would practice with the department's snipers, using the department's sniper rifles: he went so far as to custom build a good, high grade bolt rifle, but not until after lengthy and surprisingly knowledgeable discussions with the snipers, with men he knew were varmint hunters, with competitors who'd been to the legendary Camp Perry.

By age seventeen he'd built four rifles, each one an improvement on the last, the newest build also being the most accurate.

Willamina suspected he may have a reason for having an extremely accurate rifle, and she was more right than she knew.

 

Barrents, her chief deputy, was built like a fire plug and just as cast-iron tough, and like most truly strong men, he could also move with an incredible stealth: he was not terribly tall, but he was broad, and anyone who cared to take a look would find his uniform shirt sleeve was, as Linn put it as a wee lad, "Plumb Full of Arm!"

Willamina practiced his stealth, studying his moves, his walk: she was a natural dancer, and so it was little effort to learn to move with Navajo stealth, and when she slipped into a pair of moccasins and began stalking her son, she knew something was in the wind.

He'd been glassing the pasture nearest the highway for the past four days, first studying with a set of good high grade binoculars, and then shooting waypoints with a laser rangefinder:  he had  printed out maps of this exact spot, a compass, a steady hand: she'd taken a look at the maps when he was at school, and she found lines and arrows, numbers she knew must be yardage, notations -- "Brush screen" and "Defilade here" and "Down angle four degrees."

She read his precise print, done with a mechanical pencil:  "Hostile fire from this line," and a red bar ran along the highway as it paralleled their line fence.

She remembered this as she followed her son: she wore faded brown, a splotchy old ranch coat that blended easily into the countryside: she ghosted along behind, fading into a rock, a shadow, a brush when necessary.

She watched him come to a place he'd marked on his map; she crouched, invisible in her stillness, watched as he took off his own coat, rolled it up, set it as a steady rest for the Mauser's hand checkered fore end.

She saw him lift the bolt handle, withdraw the bolt, thumb in four shining hand loaded rounds -- she watched him push the bolt forward, rotate the handle slowly -- she watched him sag a little, proned out, knowing he was become one with the earth, and that he was prepared for something that might not be particularly polite.

Willamina eased forward -- a step, another -- and Linn raised a pair of binoculars with his off hand.

"Spot for me," he said, as if he knew she'd be there.

Willamina made a face -- she'd got caught -- but she took the binoculars, raised them.

"Vehicle stopping. Stand ready."

Willamina raised the binoculars turned the right eyepiece just a little, not much -- and she froze as she saw an arm thrust out of the car window, a black pistol in its grip ... and the pistol was pointed into their pasture ... 

At our horses! she thought, suddenly remembering her twin brother Will's warning that two particular troublemakers had made it known they'd get back at Linn by shooting the horses.

You can't kill someone for shooting horses, she thought, opening her mouth to protest, just as the '06 blasted its boat tailed payload into the high, thin air.

The bullet traveled faster than the rifle's report, and she saw the pistol spin out of the outthrust grip, her mind registering that there'd been a shot before her son's -- but the would-be horsekiller had no warning, not until the pistol was slammed out of his hand.

The car ran screaming from the scene, but not before Willamina took a very good look at its retreating backside.

 

Linn looked at the ruined pistol, framed and mounted on the wall in the Sheriff's office lobby.

"Nice," he said, nodding.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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120.  STATEMENT

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

Jacob Keller, firstborn son of Old Pale Eyes, parked his '76 rifle in the rack and paced tiredly over to his father.

The Sheriff waited patiently, as he always did: his son was his chief deputy, and his son as in the habit of reporting in when he returned from a special mission.

"He won't trouble us again."

The Sheriff nodded, slowly.

"Good."

Jacob sank tiredly into a withie-bottom chair, leaned the chair back until it hit timber, placed his Stetson in his lap and leaned his head back against the log wall.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Jacob?"

"Sir, when you go out and just out and out kill a man, you'll more often than not come into the Silver Jewel and have Mr. Baxter draw you a glass of liquid blasting powder."

The Sheriff's eyes were quiet as he regarded his son:  the older man's pale eyes did not miss the fatigue graven into his son's features.

It had been difficult, he knew; the contest had been desperate, he knew; the dead man was a known bad man, and the struggle had been desperate, and indeed the Sheriff's glance when his son first came through the door was sharp and penetrating -- quite frankly, he was looking for holes, cuts or blood, not necessarily in that order.

"Yes," the Sheriff agreed quietly.  "That is my habit."

"I have no such wish," Jacob said slowly.

"Then don't."

Jacob's grin was quick -- there, and gone -- it was an old joke between them:  when Jacob was a boy, he was discussing some schoolyard foolishness a classmate tried to goad him into, and Jacob declined -- I think it was swimming in the Z&W's elevated water tower -- and in discussing it later with his pale eyed father, Jacob said "I didn't want to, sir, so I didn't," and Linn gripped his son's shoulder with approval and said, "You are wise beyond your years, Jacob:  more people should realize they'd be happier if they realized that."

Jacob stopped and looked up at his Pa and Linn looked down at his son with that quiet smile he reserved for such moments and he said, "If you don't want to, don't."

"Sir, I am a curious sort."

Linn nodded.

"You do nothing without purpose, sir. I have to wonder your purpose for going into the Silver Jewel and taking that long drink of rock blaster and then allowing as you sent another one to hell today."

Linn leaned back a little -- cautiously, for his office chair tended to flip out from under him if he leaned back too far -- he looked at the wall, where it met the ceiling, considered.

"Two reasons, Jacob," he said finally, and stopped.

Jacob waited a long moment before prompting, "Yes, sir?"

"One is guilt."

"Guilt, sir?"  Jacob brought his chair back to all four legs, setting the front legs down almost silently, and turning his head a little, as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"That damned war, Jacob. That damned war haunts me yet."
"Yes, sir."

"Guilt, and I want to let the world know that I killed someone who deserved it."

Jacob considered this for a minute, turning it over in his mind, rubbing his callused palms together, slowly, making a sandpapery whisper in the hushed interior of their little log fortress.

"There is murder, Jacob. Lawmen can commit murder the same as the lawless. Then there is justice. When I announce that I'd sent another one to hell today, I let the world know that justice has been done, and that I am the hand of Justice that carried out the sentence. I don't give them any other particulars, but I let them know I am the hard hand of justice and when necessary I will stop the lawless."

Jacob considered this for several long moments, nodded again.

"Was this in the county, Jacob?"

"No, sir, it was not."

"Then it's not a county affair."

"No, sir."

"Is the jurisdictional authority aware?"

"No, sir."

"Was it justified?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good enough."

 

Linn Keller leaned back in the saddle and ho'd his Apple-horse, and the bitless stallion ho'd, blinking sleepily, tail swinging at imaginary flies.

Linn looked long at the Silver Jewel, considering, then turned his stallion:  he looked down the street, turned more and looked up:  safe to cross, he walked his stallion over to the front of the Sheriff's Office, gave the reins a single wrap around the pipe hitch rail.

The dispatcher looked up, smiled.

"She's waiting on you," she said cheerfully, and Linn nodded, not at all surprised.

 

The attack was faster than he'd expected, and he responded as he'd been trained: he hit the weapon-side shoulder, hard, seized the weapon-side wrist, his work-strong hand locking around it like an iron cuff:  he'd practiced this very move for this very attack, and as he twisted, the attacker's arm trapped under his own, the attacker's elbow bent too far the wrong way and snapped:  pain detonated the length of the criminal limb, releasing the weapon's handle as Linn seized the machete at its base.

He stripped it out of its felonious grip, threw it: shining-edged steel spun slowly through the cold air as Linn raised his arm, drove the back of his elbow into the back of his attacker's skull, driving him face first into the dirt.

Part of his mind realized he had a choice.

He could stomp the base of his attacker's skull and kill him.

He could kneedrop the attacker and break multiple ribs, collapse his lungs, kill him.

Or he could let the system do its work.

Linn drew his .44, eared the hammer back, faded back with his back to the timber wall:  he looked left, looked right:  he stepped forward, turned slowly in a full circle, satisfied himself he saw no further threat:  he lowered the hammer, holstered.

Linn pulled out his phone, pressed a button, dialed the Sheriff's cell, the one he never, ever called.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller was going over budget issues with the auditor when her cell phone vibrated.

Frowning, she looked at the screen.

The auditor saw her face go a little pale as she raised the phone.

"Sheriff Keller."

"Mother, do I recall you issued me a Special Deputy's commission two days ago?"

"That is correct," she said, her words crisp, clipped:  she seized a pen, slapped the note pad into place on her green blotter.

"Officer assist, tango down, need squad, I'm not hurt."

"Roger your tango down officer assist," she said quietly. "Location?"

Her eyes raised and the Auditor felt something like an ice-dagger drive through his middle as her glacier pale eyes swung up to meet his.

Willamina lowered the phone, stood, snatched the double barrel shotgun from the rack on the wall above and behind her.

The auditor felt distinctly like he'd just been grazed by a Texas twister as the attractive woman with Marine-short hair, the woman in a tailored suit dress and heels, swung out of his office with a double twelve bore swinging from her white-knuckled grip.

 

Linn and Willamina stood back a little as the scene was processed.

Willamina looked up at the inconspicuous, but very effective, cameras -- one under this eave, one under that -- as Linn gave a flat, unemotional recitation of facts, Willamina listened without comment:  they went through it twice more, with Linn demonstrating -- "Here. Stand here, you're me. He came at me from there" -- he pointed -- "just to the left of the fellow with the camera, I think he was waiting around the corner."

"He was," Barrents grunted. "Read the tracks."

Willamina turned hard and pale eyes to her son.  "Go on."

"Okay. You're me. He came like this" -- Linn stepped in with upraised arm, imaginary machete in hand.

"Now. Trade me places, stand here. You're the attacker, come at me with the machete, dead slow."

Willamina did and Linn stepped in, slow-motion demonstrating his counter, his hit, grip, trap, twist -- though he was careful to not over-stress his mother's elbow, which might tend to cause a misunderstanding.

"I broke his elbow and stripped his weapon, threw it -- you see where it landed."

"I see it."

"He was bent over so I drove my knee in his gut and helped him to the ground."

"Helped him to the ground," Willamina reflected.

"Yes, ma'am.  I used the back of my elbow."

Chief Deputy Barrents looked from mother to son.

"I see no problem here," he rumbled, and Willamina looked very directly at her pale eyed son.

"Let's review the surveillance."

"Yes, ma'am."

 

Jacob Keller swung down from his Apple-horse's saddle, dropped the reins.

Apple-horse snuffed at the frozen ground, experimentally nipped at the cold grass, raised his head, contemplated the horizon with the expression of an ascetic contemplating Eternity.

Jacob stopped in front of a new grave, removed his hat, went to one knee and leaned forward, placing his palm flat on the cold, raw dirt.

"I got him," he said quietly.  "He won't hurt anyone ever again."

Jacob rose, smelling sun-dried linens and soap and a trace of lilac, and he thought of his pale eyed sister, and what he'd say to her if she were here: he lifted his chin, looked at the high and shining mountain peaks.

His bottom jaw thrust out and he took a long breath in through his nose, blew it out with puffed cheeks, turned, settled his Stetson on his head.

He rubbed Apple-horse's jaw and said, "I wish I'd killed him a year ago.  Mariellen would still be alive."

Apple-horse lowered his head a little, bumming, and Jacob shaved off some molasses twist tobacker and held it out, flat palmed, a delicacy the stallion happily rubber-lipped.

"Well, that ain't the only thing I regret," Jacob grunted, then shoved his boot in the stirrup and swung aboard, "likely it won't be the last.  Let's go see what Annette's got for supper."

 

 

 

 

 

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121.  FOREKNOWLEDGE

Sheriff Jacob Keller stilled his mind and his spirit.

Like his father before him, he knew prey could feel the hunter's gaze: he'd experienced this hunting elk, hunting the other feral creatures whose senses put mere human senses to shame:  for that reason, he let his spirit flow from him, spreading in the dark, flowing along dirt and clapboard siding and a rain barrel and through the double barrel shotgun he held ready.

A man swore to kill him and swore this before witnesses, and Jacob backhanded the man and called him a damned coward, if he was going to kill him, do it right here and right now while they could see each others' eyeballs.

The man looked away and muttered something about shooting from ambush and that's when Jacob belted him a second time, hard, pulping his lips and bloodying his nose:  Jacob tasted copper and he knew the Reaper was near, very near, for he could hear bony feet walking and he could smell the grave on the scythe-swinger's robe, and the man who swore to backshoot him did not rise to the challenge.

Jacob knew the man would do just that.

He'd done it before.

He'd challenged him to a fair fight, in front of witnesses:  men drew back, shying away from the probable lanes of bullets' flight, the Silver Jewel grew absolutely deathly silent -- the piano player lifted his hands, the cute little dancing girl in the frilly short skirted outfit leaned over the edge of the stage, hands on her stockinged kneecaps, looking around the edge of the curtain toward the pair.

Jacob finally said "When you're ready for a fair fight, come over to the office and I'll oblige you," and he turned his back and walked out.

He did so in perfect confidence, knowing full well that Mr. Baxter's double gun was peeking over the edge of the bar, guaranteeing Claro would not backshoot him on his way out.

Now Jacob waited, in the dark, with one of his favorite working tools in a two hand grip.

The night was cool, the air still, he could smell tobacco and beer and horses and saddle leather, he could smell his own neatly tailored suit, washed with soap and hung on a line to dry, and he heard boot heels on the board walk, the sound of someone coming down the steps, slowly, hesitantly, the tread of a man uncertain, a man full of fear, and that was a dangerous man to face.

Fear makes a man jumpy.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller's hand was warm on her son's shoulder, and he reached up and laid his hand on hers.

"I have to know," she said softly.

"I know you do, Mother."

"You testified that you saw a deadly situation through the window and you moved to keep people alive."

"Yes ma'am, I said that."

"But you took a gold bullet."

"I did, ma'am."

"You know that those are only used by the Society of the Rose."

"I know those are used by the Star Court, ma'am, and I knew there would be a man I was going to kill, justified conditions or not."

"I know that."  She gripped both his shoulders, turned him to face her.

"I need to know how you knew."

Linn looked down into his Mama's pale and unblinking eyes, and he nodded, slowly, and Willamina was reminded yet again just how much her son resembled the framed print of Sheriff Jacob Keller, son of Old Pale Eyes.

"Ma'am, do you remember Aunt Mary talking about living in Buckingham?"

Willamina blinked, surprised:  she'd forgotten that part of her aunt's past, at least until her son's words opened the door to that memory.

"She was a girl upstairs in bed, ma'am, and she looked at the black glass mirror of her bedroom window.

"She saw a neighbor's car -- folks they knew -- it was full dark out, but she saw her neighbors driving down the back bone of the ridge road and suddenly it swerved straight downhill.

"She saw it run straight down the ridge face and she felt their fear and she felt the car ram a big old oak and Aunt Mary tasted blood and smelled fire and she felt the flames eating her alive and she ran downstairs crying.

"Aunt Mary wanted her Mama's arms and her Mama's comfort and she sobbed out what she'd seen and her Mama took a belt and welted her backside every step of the way back upstairs and she told Aunt Mary to stop tellin' stories and go back to sleep.

"Next day Aunt Mary was in the kitchen when another neighbor told her Mama about their neighbors, how the steering arm broke on their car and it swung straight downhill, how it rammed a big old oak and the couple burnt to death.

"Aunt Mary looked at her Mama with big wounded eyes and her Mama looked at her and hissed 'You witch!' and that wasn't the first time she tried to beat the Second Sight out of Aunt Mary."

"I remember," Willamina murmured.

"Mama, you recall you told me you miscarried when you hit that IED in Afghanistan."

Willamina blinked, surprised, nodded, remembering for a bright moment the concussion, the sense of being thrown in the air, of the world rotating around her, just before everything went red, then black.

"Mama, that child was female. Nobody could tell, it was too early in your pregnancy, but it was a female child, Mama.  Had it lived, it would have been the seventh firstborn female in seven consecutive generations, and a Woman of Power."

Willamina looked at her son, her expression changed:  she was still listening intently, but Linn saw something he hadn't expected.

He saw just a shadow of fear.

"Mama, I can't say I am that child.  I can say I have ... gifts ... that only women are supposed to have, and Old Pale Eyes had them too."

Willamina's mouth opened a little, then closed, and Linn pressed on.

"I can blow fire, Mama, and I can stop blood with the Word.  Those are gifts that only the female is supposed to be able to use."

"That's what Aunt Mary told me," Willamina whispered, feeling the color drain from her face.

"Mama, I don't have the Second Sight.  You've got it, I don't, but I've got just enough to scare me, and it spoke to me that day.  That's how I knew."

Willamina closed her eyes, took a long breath, let it out, looked at her son.

"Please tell me the next time it happens."

"It'll be tonight, Mama.  They couldn't kill our horses, I knew that too, that's why I set down with the rifle and waited.  I shamed one of them and now the others want blood, my blood, and they know they can't get it from me."

"Anna Mae."

"Yes, ma'am, they're going to try and get her tonight."

 

Sheriff Jacob Keller felt as much as heard the quiet tread coming down the dirt alley beside the Silver Jewel.

The shadow was deepest to his left, where he wasn't.

A man would look there.

No, he was beside some lumber stood up against the building, some lumber and an empty barrel with a burlap sack hung over its edge: shadow and texture served to break his outline, his shotgun's barrels were held at the same angle as the clapboards leaning against the side of the Silver Jewel, his hat was actually in the empty barrel to keep its horizontal brim from standing out against the vertical lines.

Claro came down the alley, hand on his gun, suspiciously studying the deepest shadow under the overhanging stairway.

He walked right past Jacob without seeing him.

Jacob never moved as Claro passed, waiting until he was a step, two steps, then Jacob made his move.

 

"Mama, I could find them and kill them before they move against Anna Mae."

"I know you could."

"It would stop them before they could hurt her."

"It would that."

"They intend" -- Linn hesitated, and Willamina could feel her son's hands tighten into fists -- she did not have to look, to know -- "they intend to  ... brutalize her ... in order to hurt me."

Willamina nodded.  

"But if I go after them and kill the ahead of their crime, I will be a murderer in the eyes of the law."

Willamina looked at her son, her face carefully impassive.

"I think I'd like to set up an ambush instead."

 

Sheriff Jacob Keller waited for the man who said he'd back shoot him in ambush.

Sheriff Jacob Keller took one silent step, two silent steps, a third.

Sheriff Jacob Keller raised the double barrel shotgun, thrust it forward, its twin tunnels of Hell taking a close up look at the base of a man's skull, and Sheriff Jacob Keller pulled the front trigger and sent a charge of heavy shot through the base of a man's skull, right where the spine runs up and connects.

The shot swarm drove through hair and flesh and bone and brain at about earlobe level.

The effect was immediate.

 

Linn Keller crouched behind a bush, a very old, double barrel shotgun in hand.

It was a shotgun well older than he, a shotgun his ancestors had used a century before.

The hammers were already at full stand; brass hulls waited patiently in Damascus steel chambers, swan shot slept on a felt bed over a charge of double-F black powder:  Linn waited for the approach of the four who planned to kick the front door, who planned to seize a pretty young woman and drag her into the darkness, four who planned to use the zip ties and short, sharp blades they'd brought with them, four who planned to use other, very personal things as well, to not only destroy a pretty young woman's beauty, but also to shatter her virtue and discard it in blood and in violence.

Linn waited while the four advanced, spreading out:  he could just see through the bush, just enough, and when Clarence was two arm's lengths from him, he stood and thrust out the double gun and said quietly, "Far enough."

The darkness surrounding him suddenly came to life, as if the dark itself grew legs and grew arms:  three were seized, thrown to the ground, cuffed, dragged away, each to a separate vehicle, also hidden from immediate view.

"Just you and me, Clarence," Linn said quietly.

"You're not so big without a shotgun," Clarence sneered, and the Sheriff stepped up, her eyes pale.

Linn handed her the shotgun, motioned Clarence closer.  "As you will, then."

Clarence's features paled and Linn saw fear chase itself across the back of his opponent's eyes.

"Jump right on," Linn invited, never raising his voice.  "I don't have a shotgun now.  Your gang isn't here to see you.  They're being interrogated.  Separately.  They're going to let you twist in the wind.  It's only you and me now."

Clarence hesitated, looked at the Sheriff.

"Don't look at me," Willamina said innocently.  "I'm not even here!"

Linn took one step toward Clarence.  "Last chance.  You're out on bail.  I take you in now, it's a mandatory prison term.  If you can beat me, you can get away."

Clarence swallowed, shook his head, took a small step back.

"In that case, on the ground, you know the drill."

 

Sheriff Jacob Keller broke open the double gun, extracted the fired brass hull, dunked in a fresh.

Judge Donald Hostetler drew on his Cuban, puffing a truly prodigious cloud into the cool night air.

"I heard him say he'd back shoot you."

"Yes, sir."

"Damned fool."  The Judge spat a fleck of tobacco leaf off his tongue.  "Open and shut case.  He tried to steal more lead shot than he could manage."

"Reckon so."

"I don't think we have any problems here, Sheriff."

"No, sir."

His Honor the Judge shook his head, sighed.

"I heard an Irishman say once that it's many a man's tongue has gotten his own nose broken."

"Yes, sir."

"If this fellow had kept his tongue behind his teeth, he'd have been better off."

"Yes, sir."

"Well, that's that then.  Good night, Sheriff."

"Good night, Your Honor."

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122.  SOMETIMES, IF IT'S IMPORTANT

 

Anna Mae tilted her head a little as she looked at the iron box.

Out here in the open it didn't look big at all; up close it was surprisingly large.

"The railroads provided these," Linn explained.  "It passed for a jail, back when. Everyone went in there, if they got locked up: no comforts, no latrine -- just a hole back in the corner -- young, old, insane, violent, they all went in."

"Even women?"

"Unfortunately, sometimes that happened," Linn said uncomfortably.  "This one has its own ghost story."

Anna Mae shivered a little:  she was dressed for the weather, but a deeper chill caressed her spine, something she hadn't felt for a very long time.

The street in the crumbling ghost town of Carbon Hill was empty, populated with debris and memories; the afternoon sun was weak, struggling through a high cloud cover:  snow was predicted, the temperature was dropping, and the two were out for a ride, the way young people will:  Linn, on his Appaloosa stallion, and Anna Mae, on a placid old plug whose spirit seemed as dull an uninteresting as her mottled grey hide.

Butter, Linn called the aging mare:  she was steady, reliable and perpetually bored, and Anna Mae laughed when he said it:  she'd worn pantyhose under her jeans, as he'd recommended -- "it's an old trick to prevent saddle sores," and she'd given him a saucy look and asked if he was wearing pantyhose and he laughed -- "Red flannel long handles with a trap door!" and Anna Mae laughed and turned a little red, for she remembered her bratty little brother, on his fifth birthday, came running downstairs for breakfast wearing just such a garment

Now they stood together in front of the old Carbon Hill jail:  Linn lifted a bladed hand, pointed -- "The Marshal's office was here.  Across the street" -- again the bladed hand -- "the saloon, above it was the whorehouse, next door was mining supplies, I think ... over here was their Mercantile, right on the corner.  Down the street there's a graveyard, that's where their Catholic church stood.  I'm told it was beautiful."

Anna Mae's gloved hand was warm in his and he felt her shift a little, looked:  she was still studying the iron patina of the old jail, the featureless metal box with graffiti on the sides and a single window, high up, and the propped open door.

"There's a ghost story here, you know."

Anna Mae looked at her tall, lean boyfriend.  "Would it involve a cheerleader?"

"It would," he nodded.  "Do you know it?"

"I know the cheerleader.  She told me about it."

"She told you about being locked in."

Anna Mae nodded.

"That's why we spragged the door so it can't be closed, let alone locked.  The lock itself is in the Firelands museum.  Is that where you read the ghost story?"

Anna Mae dropped her eyes, nodded, almost like a guilty child caught in some wrongdoing.

"Do you remember her description of the man who let her out?"

Anna Mae thought for a moment, then smiled:  she reached up and traced a finger lightly, delicately across his upper lip.

"I remember he had a mustache," she whispered:  "Linn, will you grow me a mustache?"

Linn laughed, lifted his eyes again:  Anna Mae was used to this:  his eyes were never welded to her, the way most young men will their lady: no, his were busy, his were looking, his eyes searched constantly, and Anna Mae knew this was because he intended to keep her safe, and this knowledge, this realization, made her at once warm and comforted, that he was attuned to her safety, but at the same time she wished for a time, a place, where he could regard her with that pale eyed intensity that made her shiver a little ... inside, where no one could see.

Linn laughed.  "Aren't you afraid that'll make me look old?" he teased, looking over at his Apple-horse.

Apple-horse looked bored.

"I think you would look distinguished," Anna Mae whispered.

"Sounds like flattery to me," a voice rumbled, and Anna Mae jumped and gave a little squeak of surprise:  she turned quickly, her hand jerking from Linn's warm, loose grip, and she found herself looking at a tall, slender man with an iron-grey mustache, a mustache swept up at the ends into a rich, thick handlebar -- his mustache is smiling, a stray thought whispered as she blinked, her mouth opening.

"Sounds like you're trying to flatter this young man into doing something you want him to do," the lean old man said in a quiet voice:  he was dressed much as Linn was, Stetson and boots and ... no, he was dressed better, for he wore a black suit, a suit she'd seen before --

"Have a care with his heart, Miss," the older man continued, touching his hat brim:  "he's a deep one and when he gives his heart, he gives all of his heart.  He'll treat you like a Queen and he'll keep you safe, but you have to do your part for him."

Anna Mae blinked a few times, quickly -- how does he know? she thought, for she'd been considering how to approach the subject of marriage --

She turned, looked at Linn, who was still looking down the street, arm extended:  she looked back at the lean old man with the iron grey mustache, and --

Gone.

Linn lowered his arm, turned back.

"These hills are full of memories," he said gently.  "It's said that Old Pale Eyes shows up sometimes, if it's important --"

He stopped, looked very seriously at Anna Mae, took her by the elbows.

"Anna Mae, are you all right?  You're pale --"
Linn stripped off his gloves, laid the backs of his fingers against her cheek, the side of her neck, took her face in both hands.

"Anna Mae, what happened?  You look like you've seen a ghost!"

 

 

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123.  ONE NIGHT IN FIRELANDS

Esther Wales leaned forward in the saddle, her weight on the balls of her feet, not quite standing in the stirrups but close: she lay out over the mare Edi's neck, the green-eyed woman's hair falling loose from its confinement, floating in the slip stream.

A double barrel shotgun in her white knuckled grip left no doubt as to the seriousness of her mission.

Esther Wales just got word that her intended was shot, was likely killed, and she was bound and determined that this man should LIVE!

A red-headed woman on a hard-running mare charged through the evening air like a Valkyrie riding to war.

 

Anna Mae read the account of the second Sheriff's being shot, read it with lips parted and eyes wide: it is a maxim that a reader's imagination sees in Technicolor and hears in surround sound, and so it was here:  Anna Mae rode with the Valkyrie, Anna Mae leaped from the saddle, shoved the shotgun into Macneil's hands, went to her knees beside the bleeding, chest-shot Sheriff:  Anna Mae could taste copper, smell blood, feel at once desperation and determination, she felt her palm pressing hard against the wound, she felt her lips move in the sibilants that only a woman may pronounce, an ancient formula spoken to stop blood:  her palm caressed the pale cheek of the man she intended should be her husband, and she felt her throat vibrate with Esther's words, commanding the pale-eyed Sheriff to return from the far side of the Divide, to return to the world of warmth and light where he belonged, to return to his wife and to their children.

She spoke the words only she and the Sheriff could hear, and hear them he did, and the man did live, and as Anna Mae paged further through the account, she read of this determined woman's stepping out onto the boardwalk with a Winchester rifle, driving round after round into the reavers who sought to destroy their little town, raiders with orders to do terrible things to the women, slaughter the men, burn down anything flammable and then butcher anyone remaining alive:  she addressed the sinners in the only language they understood, and at the last, when one and only one remained to do death from ambush, she shot her rifle dry into his miserable carcass, and then she leaped a hitch-rail, strode over to what was left of the ambusher and swung the rifle hard, like a club, breaking off the butt stock against his head, then beating the rifle's ruined action into what used to be a skull.

Anna Mae felt the woman's triumphant fury as she threw what was left of what had been a good rifle to the ground and spat, "NOBODY SHOOTS MY HUSBAND!" -- and raised her nose -- snatched up her skirts -- and stomped back up onto the boardwalk.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller, well more than a century after his flame-haired ancestress declared herself plainly that dark and bloody night, drew an oval: the jeweler had an idea what the man wanted, but both wanted to be very sure, for the order would be expensive, and each wanted to get it exactly right.

A pencil-drawn oval, and within the oval, the carefully printed words, CAMEO:  a larger, encircling oval, an behind it, a square:  curved lines described an encircling ribbon; at each corner of the square, smaller circles with lines marked EMERALD, and between each, three smaller circles marked RUBY.

Both jeweler and customer had discussed this piece in the past; its design was generally understood, and the drawing was insurance that both were speaking the same language.

The Sheriff had presented a photograph, a black-and-white of a pretty girl in profile, and the jeweler nodded as he studied the photograph.

He'd required it, for both men wished an accurate likeness.

The work was now done, their conference well past: the Sheriff offered no protest at the length of time it required to construct this special order, for he knew the value of good work, and he knew an artist, a true artist, can not be hurried:  he paid cash for the piece, and had it carefully wrapped, and like his ancestors before him, he wore a black suit and rode a good horse, and he turned his face to where a certain young lady, held rather high in his affections, would be found.

 

Anna Mae read of other brides, of other proposals: she read of Old Pale Eyes going to one knee on the small stage in the Silver Jewel, and presenting his red-headed bride-to-be with a diamond, a Promise Ring, he'd called it.

Anna Mae read of Jacob Keller rescuing his bride from white slavers in that wretched hub of villainy called San Francisco.

He read of other brides, other proposals, and her eyes turned to an emerald-green gown, hung on her closet door, a gown that waited for the day she, too, would walk down the aisle of their little whitewashed church.

She planned to marry Linn Keller, son of the pale eyed Willamina Keller.

He just didn't know it yet.

 

Linn Keller drew up in front of Anna Mae's house, tied off his Apple-horse, removed his Stetson and knocked on the door.

Anna Mae's mother answered, and after a brief conversation, when Linn showed her the package and its precious content, gave a little squeak of delight, covering her mouth with both hands, and hugged the lean young man in the tailored black suit.

Anna Mae came downstairs and smiled a little as she saw her visitor.

She smiled because he had no idea she intended to become his wife, and Linn smiled because she had no idea he intended to become her husband.

Anna Mae's mother recounted later how her daughter's eyes widened as Linn unwrapped his black-velvet package, how she turned and ran upstairs, how Linn's face fell about three feet:  she spoke of the young man's hesitancy, his sorrowful expression, how he swallowed and offered his apologies for having interrupted the evening, and how he turned to leave.

She described how he froze, misery on his face and defeat rounding his shoulders, at Anna Mae's sudden "Wait!" -- and how she glided downstairs in an immaculate emerald-green gown, a twin for the one sewn by Bonnie McKenna, a gown worn by Esther Wales when she became the wife of Old Pale Eyes.

She spoke of how Anna Mae laid gentle hands on Linn's arm and said, "If you are going to invest me with such a treasure, I should be dressed for the occasion," and then lifted her hair so that Linn could fast up the ribbon about her throat, placing the jewel-framed cameo at the hollow of her throat.

And so it was that neither he nor she knew the other intended to marry the other, but both found out the other's plan, one night in Firelands.

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124.  THE LANGUAGE OF A GROWN MAN

I am a cleanly man.

Within reason, of course: there is wisdom in Kemper Lattie's words, spoken when I was yet a beardless youth:

I've heard it said, and I hold it to be true,

That too much bathin' will weaken yew!

Now that I've said that, I near to swore off ever settin' foot in a slipper tub again.

It's not that hittin' my little toe on the claw foot of that damned tub hurt -- it did, it hurt like blue hell itself stomped on my hind hoof -- no, what genuinely hurt was not being able to talk to God about it.

Matter of fact, when I run attair little toe into that claw foot tub (that claw didn't budge one little bit!) I snapped my jaws together, I drug in a good lung full of air between my locked teeth and I tightened up my belly and I r'ared back all set to turn the air itself blue with language fit for the occasion ... and then I realized my little girl was standin' in the doorway with that little rag doll locked in the bend of her elbow and she was lookin' at me with them big blue eyes and ... well, it's a good thing I had a towel around my middle.

That's when I kind of went over sideways because I lifted up my hurt hoof and the rest of me warn't ready for it and I caught the rising edge of attair tub right under the arm pit and that didn't sweeten my temper none neither.

I couldn't help it, my lips peeled back and I felt my face warm up and I kind of growled, I reckon, and I squoze my eyes shut hard ag'in the pain.

I am no stranger to pain neither: in my young life I've been shot, stabbed, cut, run into, run over, and a variety of preachers now and ag'in have tried to save my corroded soul, but what hurt more'n anythin' else was not bein' able to cut loose with a good string of language that would blister paint off the walls and scorch the wings off flies at a hundred yards.

Somehow I managed to keep attair towel acrost my front.

Don't ask me how but I done it.

Now the maid she swung in an' snatched up my little girl and whipped around and flared her skirt out to a remarkable degree and they was gone and a little dust devil spinnin' where they'd been just the moment before, and I gathered myself and got stood up.

I looked down at the wet floor and I set my hurt foot down and worked them toes and nothin' was broke and nothin' was cocked out at a bad angle and I warn't bleedin' so I went ahead and dried off and got dressed, but it shames me not one little bit that I had to stop twicet and close my eyes and take me several deep breaths.

Comin' down on the edge of attair damned tub skint me some and 'twas burnin' where 'twas skinned and I reckoned it would be colored up some come mornin' but 'twas done and no changin' the fact.

I finished puttin' on my clean duds and slud into my boots and I went on in for supper and the ladies was only just arrived, the children were clean and shinin'-faced and my little blue eyed girl in particular was lookin' at me solemn as the old Judge and I went around the table and went to one knee beside of her, for she was still standin' beside her chair, them-all waitin' for me to arrive before they set down.

I taken her little hand and I kissed the back of her knuckles the way I did her green eyed Mama and I said quiet-like so she'd know 'twas just her and me in the conversation and I said, "Darlin', you do look good tonight," and she blinked a couple times and dipped her knees and then she looked real sad and she recht up and touched my fresh shaved cheek and she said, whisper-soft, "That hurt," and I nodded, for hurt it had, and I was not about to lie to her.

Next day was Sunday, and Sunday we went off to church and I was right about bein' bruised up and colorful, but 'twas somethin' I didn't pay no mind to a'tall: 'twas done and I'd heal from it, I always did, and once we got back to the house, why, the children knew they were expected to behave for 'twas the Sabbath, and Angela, bless her, she didn't go to the house with the rest of 'em, she followed along behint me for I wished to take a look at a frash mare I had in the barn, for I'd intended to have a particular sire for her.

I reckon her temper warn't sweetened none for bein' in attair stall.

I never even saw that hind hoof comin' at me, she caught me just under the wind and knocked me acrost into the back wall and I sort of slud to the straw covered floor.

I didn't have to worry about the language of a grown man, attair mare plainly knocked a week's worth of wind right out of me, but it did distress me some that Angela was standin' there lookin' at me with them big blue eyes.

I finally got some wind in me and I come up to my feet and worked at gettin' some more, for I was seein' spots for not havin' breathed, and Angela, she just stood there and watched my struggle.

Once I got some wind in me, I could have taken me a singletree and addressed attair mare, but I didn't:  that's just one of them lessons a man has to learn the hard way, not to come behint an unhappy mare.

Never made that mistake ag'in.

Come to think of it, I don't recall kickin' attair claw foot ever ag'in neither.

 

 

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125.  AND ON SUNDAY WE SAW A COWBOY

 

The tour group was a mixed lot; they rode in on the steam train, marveling at the restored passenger car, at the luxury of what was known as "The Judge's Car" -- a private car, used by a dignified, grey-bearded jurist back when Firelands was still a frontier town in gold mining territory.

Adults, college students, writers, wiggly little children peering out the windows with fingers spread against the wavy glass and noses pressed to the cool smoothness, giggling at their breath fogging the pane -- and the smiling young woman in a gown of that earlier era, explaining the features of the car, even the upholstered seat that folded up to reveal a toilet seat ... and the passing railroad ties immediately beneath:  "Their idea of sanitation was not quite what we have today," she said in the delicate understatement of that earlier era.

The Judge's desk was regarded, a few select drawers opened for demonstration purposes:  "And here is one of the Judge's original Journals, in which he entered notes about his case, personal observations, the occasional comment on the quality of a conversation, a meal, perhaps how cigars and brandy were more pleasant with good company," she smiled:  the drawer was closed, another opened, and an identical looking, but barely used, book was removed and laid open on the writing surface.

"Handwriting was an art in those days, an Everyman's art," she explained, retrieving a steel-nib dip quill from some hidden recess:  though gloved, her fingers were most dextrous:  a quick dip into the ink-pot, a delicate swipe on the inside of the ink-bottle's neck, and as she spoke, she wrote.

"Good handwriting was taught in school and was expected at home.  Society as a whole communicated by word of mouth and by the written word. A hand written note might invite a friend to supper, a hand written missive might summon a wrongdoer to court: good news and bad news both was placed on good rag paper by the human hand, and dispatched by trusted messengers, most often a fleet-footed boy who would deliver the message at a flat-out gallop."

Her gliding thrust of a palm-down hand, imitating perhaps the swift passage of a young messenger, punctuated her comment and drew a smile from more face than one.

"This sheet" -- she picked up a loose page, handed it off to the nearest soul on her right -- "is an example of handwriting of the period -- pass it around, please" -- she checked the watch pinned to her bodice, smiled:  her presentation was right on time -- "this was the common and everyday hand in which Everyman communicated."

"Everyone wrote like that?"

Their pretty young tour guide laughed a little.  "No, unfortunately, not everyone. Just as today, there were those so slovenly in their personal habits that they wrote with a pained scrawl, and then there were the doctors" -- that smile again -- "who, in period, actually had quite good handwriting.  It wasn't until our modern litigious age that doctors wrote so poorly that nobody could read their notes and use them as evidence in court."

"I knew there was a reason," another voice chuckled.

"But why bother with writing anyway?" an impatient teen-ager blurted.  "Just send 'em a text!"

The tour guide rose, tilted her head a little, glided toward the speaker:  the guests parted and she reached for the blushing speaker's hands.

"You," she said quietly, "are quite a handsome fellow."  Her gloved hand rose, the backs of her bent fingers caressing his reddening cheek.

"If you were to take the time and the trouble to actually write a note to your girl" -- she reached over, accepted the sheet, handed it to him -- "and it looked like this" -- his eyes regarded the regular characters she'd inscribed on the sheet earlier that day, before the tour group's arrival -- "it would tell her, 'You are worth my time. You are worth the effort it took to write this, you are worth writing in this fashion.'"

The tour guide leaned closer, eyes merry, a conspiratorial smile on her lips, and she whispered:

"I can guarantee that if you wrote your girl, like this, she would take your words as if they were the Gospel itself!"

She turned, glided around behind the Judge's desk and slid the chair back under, turned.

"We will be arriving in Firelands in about four minutes. You'll feel the air brakes in a moment, and yes, the Z&W had air brakes long before the big rail lines even considered them -- their owner wanted to keep her people safe, and so she invested in steel rails, in air brakes and in safety couplers.  It was far more economical for a small railroad like the Z&W than it would have been for the newly developing transcontinental railroads, and so the pioneering woman who was given this very railroad by her husband as a wedding gift, led the way to greater safety and greater profit."

A hand rose, a girl's voice:  "Is there a gift shop in Firelands?"

"There is," their guide nodded, "and it is well stocked: you can find many items that would be authentic to the period, along with more modern amenities: beside the gift shop, two doors down, we have a charming drugstore with lots of chrome and mirrors, a genuine soda jerk behind the counter and some of the best ice cream sundaes I've ever eaten!"

"Cowboys ate ice cream?" a big-eyed little girl asked, and the pretty young tour guide laughed.

"Why of course they did!" she declared.  "They didn't have it often, but they loved it when they got it!"

There was a hissing *chunk!* from underfoot and the car started to slow, and a moment later, the steam engine's whistle sorrowed against the cold mountain air, the ghost of her echo screaming back from granite cliffs opposite, a haunting sound of an earlier century.

"Will there be cowboys?" the same little girl asked hopefully, and the tour guide laughed, and knelt gracefully before the curious child, brushing a wisp of hair back from her forehead and taking both her warm little hands in hers.

"There might be, Princess," she smiled.  "We do have working ranches in the area, and occasionally we have horsemen in town, and one time the Sheriff had to stop a stampede with a Winchester rifle and two dogs."

She rose, her eyes meeting the skeptical gaze of the teen-age boy still clutching the sheet she'd handed him, and something told her he just might stop in the gift shop and invest in a genuine steel nib dip quill and good India ink.

 

Linn Keller rode his Appaloosa stallion right up the center line at a spanking trot.

There was no vehicle traffic to argue the point; he saw a tour group coming around the corner, apparently having just disembarked from The Lady Esther's special run: he lifted his Stetson to the tour guide, who like him was a junior in high school.

One of the local lads, seeing the pale eyed horseman, scratched a Lucifer match into sizzling life, touched the sulfurous flare to the cannon cracker's fuse, hauled back and whipped the firework out into the street.

Linn saw the blue arc from the burning fuse, leaned back with his right knee hard against Apple's shoulder: it was too late, and the tour group stopped, startled, at the concussion, and then at the sight of a spotted horse and its teeth-clenched rider putting on quite an impromptu show right in the middle of the paved thoroughfare:  horse and rider contested as to who was to have control of the moment, and ultimately some truce must have been agreed upon, for after soaring leaps, stiff-legged landings, head-down bucks and the sight of a skilled rider whipping the horse fore and aft with the tight-clenched Stetson, the stallion stopped, shivered, shook his head and blew loudly, and then trotted up the street just as nice as anything.

That night, back in a hotel room some distance from Firelands, a young man considered the shimmering pool of absolutely black ink in the newly opened bottle:  he dipped the pen carefully, delicately, wiped it off on the inside of the bottle's neck, and he wrote to his girl, back East, forming his letters carefully, choosing his words with an equal care.

Dear Darla, he began, and then he leaned back, uncertain as to how to really begin.

He lifted his eyes and blinked, looking back on the day, and he heard again the rhythmic sound of a saddlehorse at an easy trot, and the words came effortlessly to mind.

His letter arrived a few days later, and in the interim, with the impatience of youth, he called her and told her of what he'd seen -- breathlessly, almost like an excited little boy, which drew a smile from the distant lass, and Darla, in turn, wrote his words in her own pastel covered journal, smiling as she did, for she cherished hearing the delight in his voice.

Her pen was not a dip quill, but her handwriting was immaculate as she inscribed the words:

And on Sunday we saw a cowboy.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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126.  AFTER SUNDOWN

The fire chief was traditionally the first man up and the last to lay down, whether it was an uneventful day, or responding to an alarm.

The Chief bunked with his men, in the second story of their tall, narrow horse house, built on the same pattern as the firehouse the original Irish Brigade ran out of back in Cincinnati.

The Chief's bunk was nearest the firepole: the Chief's reflexes were the fastest, because unless he was out of his bunk and dressed, every passing fireman would kick the leg of his bunk on the way by, and in more than a decade as Chief, one, and only one, man ever dared kicks the White Hat's bunk.

It was a justified kick, and although Sean addressed the matter after the run in his usual red-faced, clenched-fist roar, it was to acknowledge that he was a slacker, a sluggard and a layabout, and the kick was richly deserved -- after which the entire Irish Brigade retired to the Silver Jewel, having scrubbed hose and hung it to dry, after having cleaned off and burnished their beloved Steam Masheen, after having groomed the mares and grained the ladies and having cleaned their own rubber coats and hung their knee high leather boots to dry out, and set out their second pair for use if an alarm came in before their first pair was dried out.

They'd come back from the Jewel, from eating well and drinking an incredible amount of beer, after roaring their bawdy approval at the dancing girls, having dragged the piano player away from the ivory 88 and proceeded to play rude, crude, socially unacceptable, illegal, immoral and fattening songs, their voices raised in surprisingly good harmony as they sang about the Old Sod, as they sang less than complimentary verses concerning politicians, as (on a bet) they sang a popular hymn at double speed, with keyboard flourishes more at home with a dance-hall number than a solemn and reverent paean -- and they sang it again as the dancing girls disported themselves with vigor and an utter lack of shame, for it was a bouncy, catchy, rollicky tune when played in that manner.

The Brigade each knocked back one shot of something water clear and not over thirty days old, as they always did, on their way out the door, and as each man hoist his liquid dynamite he declared to the barkeep, "Your health, Mr. Baxter!" -- down the hatch! -- a grimace, a gasp -- "Damn that's good!" uttered with a little puff of smoke from between searing lips, and then they trooped back to the firehouse, laughing, joking, bragging and declaring to the world in general and each other in particular that they were the best, the biggest, the fastest, the strongest, and they'd whip any man who declared otherwise!

Not long after, with trousers lowered over their boot-tops and galluses laid to either side, each man in his red longhandles and socks slid into his bunk and was soon asleep -- including the Chief.

Now the Irish Brigade, as creatures of the Light, lived on a diurnal rhythm: that is, they were generally awake during the Day, and generally slept through the Night, unless an incoming alarm decreed otherwise; their mares, in like wise, kept the same schedule.

The station cat, however ... didn't.

The firehouse cat was at least one cat, and sometimes several; where you have horses, you have hay and straw, and you have grain; where you have either hay, or straw, or grain, you have mice; where you have all three, you generally have several mice.

The firehouse cats earned their keep.

Now mice are nocturnal creatures; cats, as predators, are geared to the schedule kept by their prey; they, too are nocturnal, and so it was not unusual for the station's cats to drift throughout the entire station at any hour of the day or of the night, and tonight was no exception.

Each cat had its personality, and each cat had its habits, and one particular cat, an angora calico, had all the warmth and affection of the Queen herself: her name was Fuzzy, and she considered any idle hand as purposed especially for her pleasure, every open book as intended for her personal perch, and every horizontal belly to be her rightful bed.

Fuzzy-cat scampered soundlessly up the steep, narrow stairs to the firehouse bunkroom, padded fearlessly around the very rim of the firepole's opening, regarded the first bunk she saw: a crouch, a leap, and she was atop the blanket: she lowered her nose, sniffed delicately at the soap-and-sunlight smell of the line-dried weave, then she looked curiously at the head of the bed.

Sean, you see, snored.

Sean didn't just snore.

Sean would snore, snort, wheeze, strangle, harrumph, and snore again -- just like every one of the Irish Brigade -- together they made noise enough to rattle the windows, though when they slept, they slept hard, and none could remember the racket of the night before -- but Fuzzy-cat, curious, crept up Sean's chest, regarded his open mouth, and reached a paw in to try and find the source of this sound.

It is entirely possible to levitate a human body straight up off a bunk soley with the convulsive clench of the gluteals, especially if one suddenly has a mouthful of fuzzy cat's-paw: as Sean's sudden surge also raised the offending feline, they traveled at the same relative velocity, and perhaps that's the only reason he didn't end up with a badly lacerated tongue: Fuzzy-cat, finding herself boosted unexpectedly toward the rafters, responded with a howl, a yowl, a hiss:  Fire Chief and station cat landed back on the bunk, Sean sat up, sputtering, shaking his head and wondering why his mouth felt like it was full of something fuzzy, and Fuzzy-cat landed on his belly, glared at him, her soft angora fur standing straight up, making her look as big as a bushel basket:  blankets whipped off suddenly-wakeful bodies, heads turned, and in the light of two lamps that were kept burning all night, the Irish Brigade saw a cat the size of a young calf glaring at the Chief, the Chief setting bolt upright, and then the cat turned, dignified, contemptuous, trod the blankets three times and leaped delicately to the floor.

They heard kitty-paws thump to the polished, varnished wooden deck; they watched the feline matron stalk with dudgeon and dignity wrapped in equal parts around her like a traveler's cloak, and finally one, and only one, voice contaminated the nighttime hush.

"Well, lads," Sean said softly, "at least she didn't kick ma bunk!"

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127. PRIDE

 

The hammer came back smoothly, the revolver's action chuckling to itself as the machined steel cylinder rolled around and locked into place.

A man's hand thrust down, the web of his hand driving in ahead of the hammer, and only young reflexes stopped the trigger finger's squeeze.

The older man waited until the younger man's thumb reached up and held the hammer before removing his own paw.

Linn Keller eased the hammer down, brought it back to half cock, flipped the loading gate open and counted silently, rotating the cylinder, until he flipped the gate shut, pointed the muzzle downward and away from them both, and snapped the hammer on the empty chamber, and holstered.

Chief of Police Will Keller looked curiously at his long, tall, lean waisted nephew:  his left eyebrow raised a little, asking a question.

Tiny dry pellets of snow rattled off the brims of their cold felt Stetsons as Linn looked at his uncle, and then at the idling cruiser behind them.

He tilted his head toward the waiting Crown Vic and both man walked over to the aged but well kept cruiser, climbed in the front.

Doors thumped, gloves were shucked and tossed up on the dash.

Will Keller waited patiently, knowing his nephew would explain why he was about to drive a hard-cast .44 slug into a freshly-filled, neatly-mounded grave.

 

Linn stared straight ahead through the Jeep's windshield.

His mother was driving, and like most mothers, she could look at her child while looking straight ahead and driving: mothers are talented that way, not having to turn the head or shift the eyes in order to see her young.

"You're quiet," she said.

"Yes, ma'am."

"You confused Uncle Ross."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Something tells me that's not what you wanted to tell him."

"No, ma'am."

"Want to talk about it?"

Linn considered for a long moment, his jaw thrusting slowly out, then he shook his head.

"At the moment, no, ma'am.  Let me sort things out and I reckon once we get home we can set down and talk about it."

Willamina nodded.

 

"I'd just traded for this revolver," Linn said, grateful for the Crown Vic's excellent heater:  "I was waiting on gunleather I'd ordered, and we'd gone to visit Aunt Lucy, and Uncle Ross was there."

Will pressed his lips together a little and he nodded:  this was family, and he was listening carefully, listening without comment, knowing he would very likely find out why Linn was about to put a round into Uncle Ross's grave.

"I mentioned to him that I was getting a Super Blackhawk and Ross sneered that a .44 would knock me on my backside."

Will took a slow, long breath, nodding:  he understood what it was to be insulted, and his sympathy was suddenly with this lean, younger relative that looked so much like Will's pale-eyed twin sister.

Linn was quiet for moment, the he reached under his vest, running two fingers into a shirt pocket.

"I had this with me that day," he said, unfolding a one hundred dollar bill.

Will's eyebrow twitched up again.

Linn looked very directly at his uncle.

"Mama worked hard to beat some manners into m -- I mean teach me good manners," Linn grinned, and Will laughed, for they'd both used that line many times in the past:  "Mama taught me to respect my elders and I wanted so very badly to SLAP this down on the table and tell him that I was not going to call him a liar, but this hundred dollar bill is not so polite, how many times you want that?"

"Ah," Will said quietly, nodding.

Linn slipped the Franklin back into his flannel shirt pocket.  "That's what I wanted to say.  Instead I told him I was going to use .44 Special brass and load to .44 Special velocities, that the .44 Special was one of the most accurate and one of the most ballistically consistent rounds ever invented, and Uncle Ross looked confused and looked away and said no more."

"And you were going to put a round into his grave."

"Yes, sir, that be my intent."

"What then?"

"Then I will bend over and scream at the dirt, 'Didn't knock me on my backside, did it?'"

"Well," Will said slowly, "I can understand that."

He thought for a moment.

"Fired that gun yet?"

Linn's grin was quick and genuine.  "I have," he replied.  "She'll cut playin' cards in two at twenty feet no trouble a'tall."

"Have you tried it at distance?"

"I was barking rust off a diagonal fence post brace."

"The back field?"

"Yep."

"Hundred and a quarter yards."

"One-thirty-five by the laser."

"You're knockin' rust off a diagonal pipe brace at better than a hundred and a quarter."

"Six of six and did that three times."

Will chuckled, looked at his nephew.

"Two things," he said, reaching into his pocket.

"First, it's nice to have young eyes.  I used to shoot that self same pipe brace not many years ago, but I used a six inch Lawman Mark III with hard cast gas check full house .357s."

"Mama still does."

"Second" -- he held his hand out -- "you'll need these."
His hand opened to show a pair of ear plugs.

"Kind of wish you'd wrapped that hundred dollar bill around you fist and slugged him," Will admitted.  "I never liked his mouth much either."

Will was halfway down Graveyard Hill when he heard the .44's report.

Snow rattled against his windshield and he smiled a little, for in his time he, too, had addressed the grave of a personal enemy, and not just once.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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128. THE MURDERING HAND

"You've hardly eaten anything."

The woman settled into the chair opposite his: she was unusually well dressed -- fashionably so, he recognized -- her voice was pleasant and well modulated, her elbow on the table and her chin resting with an actual delicacy on her bent foreknuckle.

He nodded.

"I thought I was hungry," he admitted.  "It smelled so good when I came in."

"The Silver Jewel is well known for its provender," she agreed, looking up with a smile as the hash slinger came over.  "Tea, please, and warm this poor fellow's plate."

The miserable looking man's plate disappeared, leaving him with an empty place to stare at, instead of staring at what had been a fine meal.

"You have the cut of a medical man," his visitor said frankly. "You've seen prosperity, you've traveled a distance, you're tired, you thought you were hungry and something troubles you most profoundly."

The doctor looked up and blinked, tilted his head slightly, clearly surprised.

A cup of tea, shimmering amber and fragrance, floated down in front of the woman: the doctor blinked and looked and realized the waitress had reappeared, and was easing his warmed-up meal back down in front of him.

"Eat it while it's still hot," the young woman smiled, taking a sip of her fragrant, steaming oolong.  "Mmm, that is so good.  Just a light dollop of honey."  She smiled.  "I think you'll find the mashed potatoes to your liking. Daisy's kitchen dices onions and adds them, and the gravy is spiced just right."

The doctor looked at his plate and saw mashed potatoes and gravy, saw a good cut of beef, smelled the fragrance of gravy, hot and flavorful, and tried a tentative fork full.

After the first bite, his appetite took over and he wondered how he'd ever lost his appetite.

The young woman -- younger than he'd realized at first -- accepted a slice of pie as he finished his plate: he decided against a second helping, for the plate had been large and the portions, generous -- but he, too, decided that pie was appropriate, and he was surprised again at how good the coffee smelled as it gurgled in to refill his thick, glazed ceramic mug.

"You had the appearance of a man with a burden," the pleasant young woman said, her voice gentle.  "Sometimes it helps to talk about it."

The doctor stopped, remembering: his memory warred with the pie on his tongue, and he finally chewed and swallowed and took a sip of coffee.

"I was remembering a case," he admitted.

"Go on."  Her eyes were direct, frank, and shockingly pale -- had she not been very evidently looking at him, looking at the waitress, actually seeing, he might have thought her blind, so pale were her irises.

"I operated on a young boy."

"Appendicitis?"

He nodded.

"Necessary?"

Again, the nod.

"Had it burst?"

"I didn't think it had."

"It was intact when removed."

"It appeared intact."

"Were you able to suture the avulsed intestinal wall before returning it to the abdominal cavity?"

The doctor stopped, staring, his fork lowering slowly to his plate.  "Who are you?" he whispered.

"Just a passing stranger, like you," she smiled -- almost sadly, he thought -- "someone who knows what it is to lose people."

"So you know what happened."

"I know you are a physician, you are young in your practice, you look like your last friend just shot your dog and stole your wife and your only child kicked you in the shins and called you a sheep herder."

"I didn't think it was that obvious," he mumbled, his ears warming with humiliation.

"It wasn't. I make a practice of noticing. Few people actually do that."

"The boy died of infection," the doctor blurted, then stopped, surprised at his abrupt confession.

"You didn't expect that."

"No. No, everything looked really good --"

"And you blame yourself."

He nodded.

"That was back in Kansas, I take it."

"It was."
"What was the very worst moment of the experience?"

"When his mother laid her hand on my breast and said I'd done my best, there was nothing more I could have done."  He shook his head.  "The boy died in fever and in misery and out of his head with a belly full of corruption and it's my fault!"

His fisted hands pressed into the tabletop: part of his mind realized that, had this young woman -- this girl, really -- not distracted him, he'd not have eaten -- he had to eat -- but the memory of his failure destroyed his appetite -- that mother should have cut HIS belly open and shoved road apples in so HE would die the way her boy died --

"He'd been stabbed, did you know that?"

Her words shocked him and he raised wide eyes to meet her pale eyed gaze.

She reached into a fold of her skirt, brought her gloved hand up, cupping something in her down-facing palm: she placed something metallic on the table, rolled her hand away to expose a bronze shield that read AGENT, FIRELANDS DISTRICT COURT, then rolled her hand back over it, returned it to the place when it had come.

"I was investigating another murder," she explained, "and the boy was a material witness.  He'd been stabbed in the back with a poisoned blade. Yes, he had appendicitis, but his death by sepsis was a homicide, and yours was not the murdering hand."

The doctor stared, slack-jawed, at the pretty girl in the fashionable gown seated across from him.

Around them, pasteboards snapped and whispered as they were shuffled and dealt; the piano was played with a surprising skill, the dark burgundy curtain chuckled back to reveal a leggy dancing girl striking a pose, to the whistles and table-pounding applause of the evening's patrons.

"I am known as the Black Agent," the attractive girl smiled.  "This morning I was in pinafores and a little straw hat, skipping like a schoolgirl down the street: an hour before that, I was a severely-dressed schoolmarm, and an hour hence I shall be a small man all in black, riding off into the anonymous night, but know this" -- her smile was as cold and as pale as her eyes -- "before the moon rises, I shall have the boy's murderer in irons, and he will answer for the crime that gnaws like a rat at your own belly!"

She smiled and rose, raised a gloved finger in summons, turned back to the doctor. "Your money is no good here, good Physician: go your way and know that your work is well done."

The doctor rose as well, looking down at the attractive young woman with the fashionable gown.

"My name is Doctor Robert Allen," he said, "and I seem to be at loose ends. Is there a need for a physician?"

"Go to Cripple Creek," the young woman said, "and here is your railroad ticket. Come out of the Jewel, turn right, go down the street, downhill, until you bottom out, and turn left, you'll come to the depot and the train leaves in one hour. Cripple is a mining town and I happen to know their only doctor is a drunkard and not well liked. They'll welcome a medical man with clean hands and a habit of looking people in the eye."

She smiled, turned; he watched her depart, he watched as she paused and pressed payment into the hash slinger's palm, shared some feminine wisdom with a giggle and a smile; they both looked back at him and giggled again, and he had the distinct feeling they'd just had some mirth at his expense.

The waitress came sashaying back to him with a smile.  "Your meal's paid for, darlin'," she said, taking his arm.  "I understand you're single and so am I, and I'm tired of being pawed by cowboys and ranchers. I could use a good husband.  How about it, handsome?"

 

 

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129.  I LEFT THAT PLACE

 

Two strangers set their boot up on a tarnished, dented brass rail in front of the tied-together planks atop two topless barrels.

It was a little beer joint in a little town and it didn't amount to much, but it had beer and it had whiskey and two drifting men smelled something being fried up and they did what drifting men with empty bellies tended to do, they considered the contents of their purse, found it sufficient, and went inside the tent.

It was one of those little towns that started when gold was rumored to be found, and though gold wasn't there, something was -- these two didn't know quite what, just that it involved digging underground, and neither one found a miner's pick that fit his hands, so they plied their professional trade from the back of a horse so far as possible -- and like lonely men everywhere, once they'd washed the first layer of dust from their swaller pipes, they looked around and found a table and waited for the hash slinger to fetch them something halfway edible.

"You ever seen that Black Agent I heard about?" one asked abruptly, and the other shoved his hat back on his head, back far enough it looked like it might fall off, and he considered a moment before nodding.

"I seen him," he admitted.  "Close, too."

"Damn," the first one whispered.  "What happened?"

"Warn't much," the second one mumbled toward the plate settling down in front of him.  "He was ridin' east, I was ridin' west."

"Whereabouts?"

"Maybe half a day west of Firelands."

A shiver.  "I heard about attair Black Agent."

"Yeah."  The second plate settled to the table and two hungry men found, to their delighted surprise, that the meat was much better than they expected. "It's not many that sees him and lives to tell the tale."

"I heard he looks at a man and sees clear down to his spine, he looks deep to see if there's any yella on his back bone."

A nod.  "That's what it felt like," he admitted.  "Glad I'm not on a wanted dodger."

"Any reason you ought to be?"

A hard look in reply.  "You?" came the challenge of a reply.

A laugh, a noisy slurp of coffee, an intimate lean closer to his companion: he lowered his voice and said confidentially, "I ain't never told anyone this."

There was a hint of a smile at the corners of his eyes, there was guarded amusement in his voice: narrowed eyes looked at amused eyes and the quiet voice admitted, "I had my revenge on an uncle of mine."

"Do tell."  The reply was equally quiet, the listener, intrigued.

"I wanted to knock the face off his head, but there was always family around and then the sorry son of a sheepherder died and there I was."
"Hmp."

"The night after we buried him, I spent me some time in the saloon and drank me a good amount of beer and then I went back to the graveyard and I give his grave a good drink of second hand beer."

His dinner companion, a man of weathered complexion and lined features, a man with calluses on his hands and his backside both, a man with dust on his clothes and scars on his soul, looked across the table and across the emptied plates, and he began to grin, just a little.

In an era where a smile was often seen as a sign of weakness, the grin broadened, and two men at a lonely table in a knock-together saloon in an old Army mess tent, shook hands and shared an understanding laugh, and in the darkness outside, a slight figure in all black smiled as well, less than three feet from the pair on the other side of the canvas wall.

"You're not the one I want," the Black Agent whispered, smiling: moments later, the Agent's silent tread ended and muffled hoofbeats began, and Agent S.L. McKenna rode into the darkness, headed back toward Firelands.

 

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130.  NIGHT SONG

 

Gracie Daine felt everything fall away from her shoulders, the way it always did when she raised her curly back fiddle to her chin.

She closed her eyes and smelled the moon and felt the mountain around her, and she smiled a little, for she knew she was not alone.

The women of her line kept secrets, and she had her secrets, and one was a knowing, and she knew she was not by herself on the granite mountain, and she was right.

There were times, when she slipped from the house, away from light and warmth and quilts and honest folk tired from a day's worth of honest work, sleeping as do the innocent ... as she slipped away from these warm pools of safety, she smiled and her belly tightened the way it always did, and she walked steadily in the full moon's light until she was well up on the mountain.

She stopped and looked around, seeing the world in stark shades of shadow and light, for the night was clear and the moon's fingers were of purest silver, and the shadows were dark, almost velvet-jet: she squatted, laid her bundle down, unwrapped fiddle and bow and then folded the blanket into a pad to insulate her bony backside from the rocky seat she intended to assume.

She turned, one leg crossed over the other as she stood, then she lowered herself, going from standing with legs crossed, to sitting cross legged like that Indian chief Mug Wump, who would set on a log with his mug on one side and his wump on the other.

A shadow slipped up beside her, a shadow with a wet nose and shining black eyes, a shadow that laid its jaw on her thigh while its great, thick, brushy tail swung happily against the rock wall, and she caressed The Bear Killer's ears and neck.

The great black canine tended to find her at such moments, and this did not surprise her:  it was something that happened and it felt right when it did, and she smiled a little as The Bear Killer got up and swung over against her and laid down again, warming the side of her leg and looking out into the night.

Gracie's eyes tracked over the little flat, and she saw another great canine, this one as white as The Bear Killer was black, and this too felt right, as if it was supposed to be:  yellow eyes, half slitted, looked at her with an expression of ... acceptance? -- no ... propriety, as if it was proper that Gracie was there.

She wated; the White Wolf came over and touched noses with The Bear Killer, then turned:  a second, a third, then a fourth and fifth came into view -- big, well furred, creatures of the wild, restless, prowling:  each came in its turn to salute The Bear Killer, who rose when the first one arrived, then reclined when the fifth greeted: Gracie waited, not wanting to shatter the night's peace with an ill-timed note, spun from her mountain fiddle.

She need not have worried.

As if on signal, The Bear Killer, the White Wolf, two greylings and the small, raised their muzzles and sang.

Gracie stared, fascinated: the wolves' fur was thick, luxurious; she would have given much to be able to feel their throats as they sang, for she saw their muzzles open, she saw the throat-fur pulse, yet she heard nothing:  vapor trailed from their muzzles, as if they sang a note only they could hear, and then they took a breath and sang again, and this time, she heard.

Gracie had been to the great opera-house in Denver, a guest of that pale eyed schoolmarm; she'd listened, enraptured, to an orchestra, her quick ear picking each instrument's voice from the chorus:  so it was here, and she marveled at the difference in each wolf's singing voice.

The Bear Killer's voice, as she expected, was deep, powerful: the wolves sang with no less power, but she imagined they sang with the same deadly precision as a fencing-master when compared with a pirate swinging a cutlass:  finesse, contrasting with muscle.

She wasn't sure how, but her fiddle rose of its own accord and settled in under her chin, and the rosined bow caressed the strings, and sang with them:  she played a sustained, single note, and with it, the wolves adjusted their pitch, and harmonized with it:  a pause, then they sang again, and she played, and as she did, her notes tumbled happily over one another in the night's breath-fogged chill, sounding like a clear stream running happy and clear down a rocky slope, and the wolves sang the mountain's counterpoint beneath them.

Gracie went home that night, went home with her blanket around her shoulders, for she'd been sitting still long enough she'd chilled a bit, and she slipped soundlessly back into the house, the silent black shadow of a Bear Killing dog pacing with her, as far as her door:  she undressed, quickly, slipped into her flannel night gown and between hand sewn bed linens, and as she relaxed and smiled in the moonlit dark, she remembered that moment of a woman's secret magic, when she sat with her back to the granite mountain, and together, they sang in the night.

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131.  ONE RAINY AFTERNOON, IN A BARN

 

Angela Keller was a little girl when she came into the Sheriff's life.

She didn't think about it too often -- matter of fact, it was only when she was floating somewhere between awake and asleep, suspended between worlds, that the memories came, but they were not scary memories.

She knew the rail broke and it broke the car and she really didn't remember her Daddy much and she was laying on her back and a wall was laying on her but she could see through the wall and her Mommy was all floaty above her and wearing a pretty white flannel nightgown and her Mommy reached down and brushed a curl of hair back out of her face like she always did and she said she was so very proud of her little girl and Angela giggled, for her Mommy was talking to her without moving her lips, and then she heard men's voices and she felt the wall being lifted and a big man seized the wall with gloved hands and threw it from her with a noise like an angry animal and she remembered her Mommy whisper "He will take care of you," and Angela felt herself being picked up and she was so very surprised ... this man was big and this man was strong and this man held her like a Daddy holds his little girl and he looked at her and she could see water running down his cheeks and she almost giggled again because her eyes were closed and she could still see it.

She always woke up hearing him, and she always remembered how he threw his head back and screamed at the heavens, and somehow she knew it was because he really, really wanted her to live and be well, and when she saw him next her eyes were open and she smiled and giggled and reached for him and he held her in his big strong Daddy-arms and she felt very, very safe.

Angela grew up as a girl-child should, learning to be a proper young lady, learning to ride, learning that her big strong Daddy would keep her safe, but she could get her big strong Daddy to do stuff for her, and even when her Mommy didn't want her jumping her horsie, why, she and her big strong Daddy would jump fences and jump gullies and they would ride together and Angela did so love these rides with her Daddy.

Long-legged colts grow into fine horses, fat and wallowing puppies grow into fine hounds, and sweet little Angela grew into a beautiful young woman:  her big strong Daddy still had that big, strong laugh, he still had that iron-grey muts-tash, and she still felt so absolutely safe when he wrapped his big strong Daddy-arms around her and held her.

Angela grew into a fine womanhood, and in time, married a fine young man: they had children, she saw her own young grow; even into her old age, when she floated between the worlds of wakefulness and sleep, she still remembered the train wreck and the very first time she saw her Daddy, and when this happened, she rolled over and cuddled up against her husband, or against the pillow where her husband used to be, and as an old woman, surrounded by grandchildren, she would tell of her Daddy, the Sheriff, and the young would sit around her, cross-legged and big-eyed, listening to the quiet words of the smiling old woman with her white hair pulled up into a walnut on top of her head, and in their young imagination, they too would ride a Goldy-horsie across a high meadow, and they would feel the tickling cascade of delight in their own bellies as she described jumping a narrow but deep gully, soaring through the high, clear air as if her Palomino had wings.

There was one memory, one special memory, that she spoke of, and that only once, to one particular granddaughter.

Angela was maybe twelve years old, near to marriageable:  she'd proved remarkably capable in the several tasks a woman had to perfect:  she could plant and harvest from the table garden, she knew her herbs and could pick, dry, grind and use them effectively; she could, and did, fix full meals, from picking the vegetables in the garden to slaughtering the chickens to kneading the dough, firing the stove, grinding the freshly roasted coffee beans ... she could make clothes, and mend clothes, and she could run the books and keep the household budget in balance, and she was pretty enough that she turned men's heads.

Though Angela was growing into a beautiful womanhood, she was always Daddy's little girl, and the special memory she cherished, that memory she only spoke of one time, was with her Daddy, one rainy afternoon, in the barn.

Her Daddy was tired and he'd thrown a saddle blanket out and another beside it, and he'd laid down on a thick mat of clean straw.

Angela laid down beside him and covered them both with her cloak, and she'd laid her head on her Daddy's chest and laid an arm across his lean, taut belly, and she'd cuddled into him and she'd given a little sigh, and the she whispered, "I wish I could stay like this forever."

She felt her Daddy's big strong arm across her back, and just before her own eyes closed, she heard his return whisper.

"Me, too, Princess.  Me, too."

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132.  THROWING A GENUINE STEREOPTICAL FIT

There had been a Sheriff Keller in Firelands County for a century and a quarter and just over.

There was even a Sheriff Keller on another planet.

Every Sheriff was known for a patient and even tempered nature, until the Sheriff's fuse was lit, and then all bets were off.

Whether this is a matter of breeding, of a particular section of familial DNA, whether it was nature or nurture or each generation realizing the benefit of building on the reputation of honorable ancestors, is best left to wiser heads than mine to determine.

Let us simply say that, in the Sheriff's everyday dealings with the high and the low, the rich and the mean, the joyful and the bereft, the Sheriff's conduct was that of gentility, understanding and longsuffering.

Except, of course, when it wasn't.

 

The Second Martian Colony was established in the wrong place.

NASA intended its location quite different, but when the autonomous lander's descent system malfunctioned and it came to rest near an extinct volcano with an ancient Grecian name, the subsequent landers followed their programming and homed in on this pioneering asset:  robotic arms and mechanical assemblers, subcomponents and systems came together as their engineers intended, habitats were established, tested, readied for their human occupants, and when the manned landers descended through the thin, almost nonexistent Martian atmosphere, the first boots on the ground belonged to a woman with pale eyes and a six point star embossed on the left breast of her pressure suit.

Certain high value minerals were discovered, a happy accident of landing in the volcanic debris field, and a lively and profitable mining operation was soon financed:  it took a few years to establish, but the minerals were valuable enough to warrant the truly horrendous cost:  gravity slings, looking like an insane, low-rise roller coaster, would launch slugs of refined mineral along preprogrammed trajectories, these would be captured by tugs just outside the orbital stations, and then stacked as cargo in a relay ship that ran three orbits around the planet, using its decaying orbit's increased speed to slingshot itself back toward Earth.

These first settlers, these pioneering souls, were carefully chosen, screened for mental stability; the Sheriff's psych profile was remarkably stable and resilient, and so she was:  she was known to every last soul there, and it seemed as if she knew every colonist, every miner, every engineer and pilot and refiner and technician, on a first name basis.

The Sheriff was also quite a good dancer, and when the nuclear rippers were finally on-line and coupled with the 3-D printers, the Sheriff's only request (at least for the first week, when everyone was asking for something) was a pair of dancing pumps, something with an ankle strap and three inches of heel, and at the nightly dances, she became a favorite dance partner.

As one of the miners said it, "It's not like I dance with her, it's more like I dance and she floats!" -- for the pale eyed Sheriff had the remarkable ability to follow any partner, whether at a waltz, a foxtrot, dip, spin or twirl.

The Sheriff cultivated a very good speaking voice, and when their preacher was unable to preside at a funeral -- he was in the infirmary with a freshly broken leg, not yet set nor cast -- the Sheriff stepped in and spoke the final words with a steady voice, a reassuring tone, and it was the Sheriff that visited the family afterwards, not as the chief law enforcement officer of the Firelands colony, but rather as a friend, someone they knew and trusted.

Entertainment was something everyone knew was vital:  their fiddler was in demand, as were others with musical talent that ranged from remarkably good to almost as bad (one poor fellow admitted he could play a radio but that was about it, and had a truly awful singing voice, but his act was so unbelievably bad as to be comical -- and so he capitalized on this, and rendered comically awful versions of popular songs of the day, comedy acts being both somewhat rare, and in high demand!)

And so it was that a play was to be presented, something set in an earlier century, a pioneering motif of the American West, and the Sheriff was to play a lead role.

The main assembly hall was actually a circular dome, underground, sliced from solid volcanic strata, a stone similar enough to lava as to earn that name; under the fires of the nuclear ribbon-fields, it cut smoothly, fusing into a glasslike finish:  unlike lava, it was quite light in color, making the dome easy to light, and under the diffuse glow of the lights, most of Firelands colony assembled, and talked, laughed a little, waiting for the change in lighting, or a musical fanfare, or a stentorian and stuffily formal announcement, to let them know the play was about to begin.

That didn't happen.

A woman came screaming into the dome from one of the exits absolutely at the top of her lungs, her long skirts hiked up, stockinged legs and high button shoes flashing:  she charged through crowded humanity that hastily drew back, until the woman SLAMMED into a tall, stocky miner who stood suddenly, dressed in denim and boots and a broke-brim hat:  the entire dome was shocked into silence as the woman beat her fists on the miner's chest, gabbling something unintelligible, and the miner did his best to soothe this hysterical soul, this woman, this twisting, screaming, protesting pile of hysteria wearing a McKenna gown and an expression of utter panic, and on the screens overhead, a face.

A familiar face that caused jaws to drop and shoulders to sag, for their sane, rational, steady, dependable Sheriff Marnie Keller seized the miner's galluses and yanked him up against her and screamed "I'VE HAD IT!  NO MORE!  I'M GOING HOME, DO YOU HEAR ME?  I CAN'T TAKE IT OUT HERE!" -- and then she turned, extended an imploring hand -- "We've been here how long?  Two year now, three?  Away from our homes, away from our families, away from everything we KNEW! HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN SINCE WE SAW HOME?"

Her face screwed up, an image of feminine misery and sorrow, crystal tears running down pale cheeks as she hiccuped and pressed a dainty, lace-trimmed kerchief against her nose, looked around.  "How long did it take to get here?  Do you remember the journey? We could have been KILLED! -- it's a wonder we weren't -- we've buried our dead here, and why?"

She sank to her knees, threw her head back, her face reddening as she raised her arms and screamed at the dome's room, "WHY???"

The silence that followed was so complete, it almost hurt the ears, at least until a woman's voice in the audience gasped, "Oh my God, that was me!"

Heads turned, eyes followed the anonymous voice.

"That was me," she repeated, pointing to the sobbing woman, still kneeling in a puddle of floor length gown and petticoats.  "I said those words!"

"What happened?" a man's voice asked, and the woman swallowed and spoke, and her voice filled the dome, for the acoustics were intentionally engineered into its construction.

"I went into the Sheriff's office," she said in a shaky voice, "because I needed someone who would listen to me -- really listen! -- and I said those exact words."

The woman in the McKenna gown wiped her eyes and blew her nose -- a noisy, inelegant HONK that echoed loudly, and elicited a little laughter -- and they watched as Sheriff Marnie Keller's dignity settled itself upon her as if poured from a bucket over her head.

"My ancestors went West," she said, "and they were scared to death. My Grandmother sent me her ancestral research and there were accounts, several of them, of people, men and women both, who gave up and went home, back East.  Others had a screaming stereoptical fit and left, or jumped up and down stiff-legged and had a screaming stereoptical fit and stayed."  She looked around, smiling, a gentle, understanding expression, the look of someone who shared their common condition.  

"My husband and I, and our daughter, went back to Earth because we had to, but we made it clear we were returning."  There was a hint of sadness shading her words.  "It's said when you bury family, that you bury them in home ground."  

She pressed the lacy hankie to her nose again, and this time the one tear that escaped her control, was not manufactured.

"I buried our daughter here," she said.  "This is home now, and I am staying."

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133.  CATCH ME FIRST!

A slender, browned hand reached for the rope, pulled it twice, then twice more:  the cast bronze bell's high, sharp note echoed within the adobe walls of the Rabbitville monastery's main courtyard.

Callused hands reached for the limp form bent over the mule's neck, strong arms received the unconscious sufferer's weight, bullhide sandals whispered against packed ground as four tonsured monks nearly ran, following a fifth, who hauled open the infirmary's heavy wooden door.

Just before they disappeared into the shadowed interior, something fell free and swung in the sunlight, sending a momentary flash of reflected sunlight to swing across the polished bronze bell, a sudden searing slash reflecting across the courtyard, a silent, visual slap in the face to all who saw it.

The reflection was off the polished silver face of a heavy crucifix, and the crucifix dangled from a rosary, the rosary was around the woman's neck: the woman's leg was bloodied, and as strong but gentle arms lay her down on a sheet-covered table, the silent, grim-faced Brethren carefully ignored the fact that the woman was naked.

 

Only one man remained alive.

How he still drew breath is a mystery: when the deputy found him, he was bent over, leaning against a boulder, the fact that his booted feet were under him more accident than design, as the rock held more of his weight than did the carved, stovepiped leather.

The man's hand was bloodied -- as a matter of fact, most of him bore the signs of a desperate fight, one he'd lost, as if he'd gone toe to toe with an enraged mountain cat -- one hand held a handful of guts, bulging from a deep slash across his belly, and his final breaths were bubbling from an equally deep slash between his ribs.

The deputy looked around with hard eyes, looking for any further combatants:  finding none, he swung down, lifted canteen and saddlebag, strode over to the sufferer.

"You," the man gasped, blood on his lips and the knowledge of death in his eyes.

"Me," the deputy grunted.  "How bad?"

A tired glare was his only answer.

"Drink?"

The dying man accepted a tilt from the canteen, nodded.  "Good," he gasped.

"Who did this to you?"

"Deserved it," came the slow, gasping reply. "Tried to kill him."

The deputy waited, hard eyes burning into the dying man's half-lidded orbs.

"Caught that Black Agent."
The deputy never moved; there was a subtle change to his face, but not a visible muscle moved:  he grew a shade more pale, perhaps, his eyes a bit harder.

"Got lead into him."  A cough, another:  he sagged, and the deputy's hand shot out and seized his shoulder, keeping him from falling over.

"The Agent," he prompted.

"Head shot. Grazed 'im. Went down like a head shot beef."
His breath was coming short now, short and gasping, almost desperate.

"Warn't no man."  A pause, several panting breaths:  "Agent's a woman."

"Where is she?"  The deputy's voice was hard edged, his hand squeezing the shoulder.

"Thought she wuz dead til we stripped 'er. She come to and she come unglued."  Unshaven jowls twisted in what should have been an ironic grin. "She took into me and t'other two. I fell back with a knife stuck b'tween m' ribs here an' she went off on them an' I dunno what all she done."

"Where?"

A dirty, bloodied chin thrust out, eyes looked across the sandy clearing, then the chest stopped lifting and the eyelids drooped.

It felt to the deputy as if the dead man shrank just a little, the way a man will when the spirit leaves his carcass.

The deputy released the dead man's shoulder and let him fall.

He stood, eyes busy, then he read where the sufferer crawled across hard ground, from where the fight had been, to where his fight ended forever.

The deputy began to backtrack.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna grimaced as she fished the slender blade deep into her thigh.

Her head pounded, cloud-filtered sunlight drove harsh fingers into her eyes, but she persisted, working the blade around in the ragged, bloodied wound, until she found what used to be part of the boulder she'd run behind, right before someone belted her over the head with a freight locomotive and the lights went out.

She came to pinned spread eagle and buck naked with hands mauling her and something detonated in her and she went from limp and motionless to full fighting fury in a tenth of a second or less:  a boot knife jumped into her hand and she tore into one, she twisted, drove a knee into a jaw and flipped the knife in her grip, pommel in her palm and blade sticking straight out in front of her fist, and she drove eight inches of slender, honed steel through a man's eye and eye socket and into the back of his skull:  a third and she didn't remember where the knife came from, she had a vague memory of seizing a man's hand and breaking the wrist and hearing a catamount screaming as it tore into someone and it wasn't until she'd sliced a man's belly open and driven the knife three times between his ribs and it stuck that she realized the screaming was her and she rolled and one man was backing away with eyes the size of china tea saucers and he was scuttling back on all fours and his mouth was open and moving and she snatched up a Winchester rifle and jacked the lever and drove a round through the bridge of his nose and he went down like he was boneless and she stood and cycled the action and turned around, snarling, her teeth bared and set, rifle thrust out in front of her, turning, turning again, seeing death, seeing justice, seeing a solitary mule looking at her.

She sagged, suddenly exhausted:  she went to her knees, drove the crescent butt plate into the sandy dirt:  a year, a day, a week later, however long it was, she managed to catch her breath and stand again and it hurt to stand and she was a wounded animal, she was hurt, she felt blood running hot-cold down her face and down her chest and she stood and the rifle fell over, forgotten, still loaded, still cocked, and she walked up toward the mule and she felt something between her breasts and her hand went to it and she felt the heavy silver crucifix and she knew.

She knew.

The mule was not saddled; she threw a saddle blanket over its back and she stepped up on a rock and she gripped the mule's mane and closed her eyes against the gorge that tried to come roaring like a red flood up out of her stomach and she willed the world to stop turning and she threw a bare leg over the mule's back.

She looked at the sun and the sky, she looked at the shadows, and she knew where she had to go.

The mule stepped out and pointed its nose and its ears due south.

 

The deputy found the others, read the story in the dirt.

He cast about like a hound, wishing he had the legendary Marshal Charlie Macneil's skill at reading the dirt newspaper:  he puzzled out the most of it, he found the Agent's black clothes, the blood, the bullet gouge slicing brim and gouging the sweat band of the hat -- a very close call, he thought, she'd ought to play poker, with luck like that -- then he swallowed hard and picked up a cocked '73 rifle, looked at a man missing part of the back of his head.

He turned him over.

Entry was right through the bridge of the nose.

The deputy's smile was tight and humorless.

He followed the bare foot prints to where they disappeared near a flat rock, read blood drops spattered on the rock, touched one.

Wet.

Fresh.

He swung his gaze to the side, the left side of his mouth drawing up a little.

Mule tracks.

He took a long breath, stepped up on the flat rock, shaded his eyes, looked into the distance.

He turned, made a kissing sound; his horse shoved through the screening brush.

He rubbed his mount's jaw, gathered the reins, swung into saddle leather.

"Come on, fellow," he said, his voice hoarse.  "I know where she's headed."

 

Jacob Keller saw his father's boots come off the corner of his desk.

The boots came down and the man stood up and his hand raised to the Stetson hanging on its peg and Jacob took two long steps to the gun rack.

When his father received a telegram and then brought his feet off the desk, there was work to be done, and Jacob slung the canvas warbag over one shoulder and pushed it behind him as he picked up his .40-60 and a double gun.

He took one step back to let his father tend that same detail.

Lightning, the telegrapher, looked up as the door swung open, as father and son stepped into his painfully-neat office.

"I need a special," the Sheriff said, his words clipped.  "An express to Rabbitville."

Lightning turned, reached for the key, and Jacob's fists tightened as he listened to the sounder's metallic voice, calling priority over the southbound leg of the Z&W Railroad's right-of-way.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna was waltzing, waltzing in a grand manor's ballroom, with crystal chandeliers overhead and well dressed men dancing with immaculately gowned women:  Sarah felt silk gloves to her elbow, she spun in her escort's grip, whirling around with the other dancers in a perfectly coordinated waltz:  violins, well played, sang the tune and Sarah felt the weight of the necklace she wore, of the heavy silver crucifix just above her breasts --

A giant's roar, a dirty-bearded bear of a man, scattering the dancers, a fence post in his hand for a club, bearing down on her --

Sarah spun her dance partner out of the way and pulled out a tiny little pistol and fired and it gave a tiny little pif! and spat out a bullet as big across as a straight pin is wide --

The giant swung his club --

"BACK!" the Abbot roared as Sarah's eyes opened and she bolted upright, somersaulting off the end of the table:  her teeth were bared, she landed on fingertips and the balls of her feet, a half-scream, half-snarl shattering the respectful hush of the infirmary's interior.

"SISTER MERCURIUS!" the Abbot roared.

The floor tilted underfoot; Sarah slapped a palm down, hard, pushed the floor back to level.

"SISTER MERCURIUS!"

Sarah squeezed her eyes shut, tight, seized the voice with both hands, seized the words and the tone as a drowning man will seize a float.

"SISTER MERCURIUS! YOU WILL SUBMIT!"

Sarah opened her eyes and shook her head briskly, as a bear might shake off rainwater, and immediately regretted the action:  the floor tilted under her, hard, fast, came up and hit her on the right side.

She curled up into a ball and groaned, then opened her eyes and saw several sets of feet, several hemlines, and a very, very clean floor.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, daughter of Firelands society, one of the Veiled Sisters and an Agente Confidencial of the Holy Catholic Church, set her hands against the floor, got her feet under her, stood, turned around, puzzling at what she saw.

She looked very directly at the stern-faced Abbot.

"Abbot William," she said, her voice quiet and dignified, "why am I not dressed?"

 

The deputy rode into the courtyard and was received by a silent, sun-browned, black-robed Brother:  his horse was led toward the stables, where the deputy knew he'd be rubbed down and grained, his hooves examined, and chances are when he came back, any worn shoes would be replaced, the hooves trimmed, he'd have been curried down -- hell, he wouldn't be surprised if some of them Mexican young'uns wouldn't braid ribbons in his jughead's tail!

He was shown to an absolutely, immaculately clean room, a room with long tables; a tall, lean man with a tanned tonsure and a white robe paced over to him, handed him a delicate, long stemmed glass containing something purple.

The deputy was never much of a wine drinker, but he had to admit this stuff was pretty good:  he'd had champagne, once, when he was considerable younger and he never liked it -- too sour -- he'd had wine a time or two since and it was always sour, but this was just a little bit sweet and no sour a'tall.

He decided he liked it.

"Your horse," the Abbot said finally as they sat, "has come a distance."

The deputy nodded.

"A lawman does nothing without purpose," Abbot William said carefully.  "You were ... searching for someone."

"Several someones," he agreed, taking another sip.

The Abbot raised a hand; a silent Brother refilled their glasses, drew away deferentially, disappeared.

"I take it you have not found them."

"Oh, I found 'em."

The Abbot raised and eyebrow.

"Are they here?"

"No."  He set his glass down, sat up straight and put both feet flat on the floor, looked very directly at the Abbot.

"I'm lookin' for a woman who come in on a mule."

The Abbot turned his glass slowly between thumb and two fingers, studying its enpurpled depths.

"Do you know," he said thoughtfully, "you can make wine from apricots?"

The deputy raised an eyebrow, leaned back a little in his chair.  "Never tried."

"And if you distill this apricot wine," the Abbot continued, "you have apricot brandy."

The deputy frowned a little, waiting.

"I am expecting a guest very soon, a man who appreciates apricot brandy. You may know him."

"I may?" the deputy asked cautiously.

"He's about your height.  Iron grey mustache.  Pale eyes."

The deputy nodded.  "I know the man."

"He knows the woman you're looking for."

"Reckoned he might."

"Deputy --"  the Abbot placed his wineglass on the smooth tabletop, turned to the deputy, clasped his hands together on his knee -- "I have received confessions from many.  I am obligated to keep all these confessions confidential."

"I heard that was the case."

"I have been told things I can never divulge."

The deputy waited, knowing the value of silence, how it often made men want to fill it with the sound of their voice -- a trick he'd used, and not a few times, to get more information.

"What, exactly, do you wish to know?"

The deputy leaned forward.

"The Black Agent saved my life," he said, his voice low, intense.  "Twice. I never saw his face, never heard his voice. He showed me that bronze shield."  He reached into a vest pocket, withdrew a small black leather wallet, opened it.

The Abbot's eyes widened as the deputy opened it to reveal a bronze shield.

"Agent, Firelands District Court," he read aloud, almost whispering the words.

"I give you this under the seal of the confidential," the deputy said. "I am given to understand the Black Agent is a woman. This must never be known."

"Of course."

"You already knew."

"Yes."

"And you know more."

The Abbot nodded again, slowly.

"I have one question."

"I may not be able to answer."

"The woman who came here muleback," the deputy said.  "Is she alive?"

 

Jacob knew from his father's silence that he was worried sick.

He knew from his father's tightly controlled moves as he saddled his black Outlaw-horse that he was ready to put his fist through an anvil and then kick the anvil over the nearest mountain peak.

He knew from his father's pale eyed look and nod when they were saddled and mounted, still in the moving stock car, as the side door was opened and the ramp set in place, that his father would rather have opened the door himself and departed at a jump and a gallop, as they'd done in the past, when there was need.

He knew from his father's rigid posture in the saddle, his absolute, hard faced composure, that the man was ready and much more than willing to seize living throats and rip them open barehand.

Father and son, two lawmen in black suits, one with a rifle propped up on his thigh and the other with a double barrel shotgun carried the same, walked their horses across the little village, toward the open gates of the Rabbitville monastery.

Jacob's eyes did not miss mule tracks, and the occasional drop of blood.

 

Sarah's pale eyes were open:  she stared, unblinking, at the ceiling, as one of the Sisters carefully snipped what very little flesh had to be removed.

She neither blinked nor did she flinch as the cleansing cloth was drawn through the wound, a folded cloth saturated in a solution of iodoform and alcohol:  although she did not yelp or pull away, a stray tear escaped the corner of her eye, the sole testament to the fresh agony on top of the other insults to her young body.

Her leg's wound was cleaned out, one more fragment of stone was found and extracted, thanks to a long nose set of pincers and the skilled hands of one of the Sisters who'd done this sort of thing before:  like the head wound, it, too, had to be thoroughly cleaned out to prevent infection, and not until the tending hands were satisfied, did the most painful ministrations end with clean, folded cloth pressed and tied in place, both around the leg, and around the head.

The sisters rose and withdrew, silently; a door opened, closed, and they were gone:  another door opened, and the Abbot and two men approached.

Sarah slipped a hand out and reached for her pale eyed Papa, on her right, and with her left, reached for her brother's hands.

"I'm glad you're here," she whispered, looking from one to the other.

Jacob gripped her hand in both his like something precious, pressed his lips to the back of her fingers.

"Little Sis," he said, his voice thick, "you  pull a stunt like this again and I'll turn you over my knee and fan your little biscuits!"

Sarah laughed, and the laughter was good to hear:  she squeezed her Papa's hand and looked at Jacob and declared, "Catch me first!"

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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134. HERESY

 

The veiled nun was notably shorter than the exceptionally tall Abbot.

Six foot two was remarkably tall in the 1880s -- there were taller men, of course -- the Abbot remembered cranking his head back as far as it would go to look up at Jackson Cooper, the Firelands town marshal ... now that was an old memory, before he'd taken up the cassock again, when he was younger by several years, when he declared, "Jackson Cooper, how's your pulse a-beatin'?" and Jackson Cooper looked DOWN at the man and boomed, "FINE, SON," and they both laughed.

The veiled nun walked with a bit of a limp, and she used a cane:  the Abbot adjusted both stride and pace to accommodate.

They walked for a distance, to the end of the little village that grew up around their walled Monastery -- more of a mission, really:  a monastery generally uses great stone walls to keep the profane world and its temptations out, while a mission had a walled courtyard more as a definition and less as a fortress, and its gates were open, offering the hospitality of the Brethren, and the Sisters, to all who wished it.

They paused under a convenient shade tree, a tree with a friendly rock, and tonsured Abbot and veiled Sister both sat.

Silence hung on the air for several minutes; Abbot William waited patiently, knowing his beloved Sister Mercurius was marshaling her thoughts in neat ranks behind that silken veil that concealed her face.

Finally she turned her head ever so slightly and the veil began to puff out a little with each spoken syllable.

"Good my Abbot," she said uncertainly, "I may be a heretic."

The Abbot gave her what might be accurately called "One of Those Looks," but he made no verbal reply.

The veiled Sister leaned back against the tree, steepled her fingers:  "You know my father has been killed."

"I've heard he was killed several times," Abbot William replied in his gentle voice.  "Fortunately, the reports were mistaken."

"You know what I mean."

"Refresh my poor failing memory."

He could feel the smile behind the veil, he could tell it was there from the very slight incline of her wimpled head.

"Papa Sheriff died and walked the Valley of the Shadow," she said, "and he was sent back because his work wasn't done."

"I remember him telling me," the Abbot said thoughtfully.  "He saw Christ.  They laughed and ran at one another and slammed into one another like a couple bull buffalo and they laughed the good laughter of strong men with calluses on their hands."

"He knew he'd done this," Sister Mercurius replied, her voice firm, obviously stating something she knew to be fact.  "He was also torn, distressed. He could not reconcile what he'd experienced with what he'd read in Scripture."

"And that was ...?"

"That no man may look upon the face of God and live."

"Ah."

"He told me that Scripture doesn't lie, but he also knew the truth of what he'd experienced."

The Abbot nodded, slowly.  "I can see why he would be ... puzzled."

"Puzzled hell," the veiled nun swore, "he was scared!"

The Abbot considered the pale eyed lawman under discussion, and reflected that this must have concerned the man greatly, if he'd confessed to his daughter that he actually felt ... fear!

"He went to a sky pilot of his acquaintance.  Preacher Post. He's dead now, rest his soul, but when Preacher Post heard him out, he said 'I can tell you are speaking truth, for I feel the Spirit move in your words,' and that was a load off Papa's mind right there."

Again that patient nod, hazel eyes on the skyline, listening.

"Preacher Post said, " 'No man may look upon the face of God and live -- but you were not a man.  You were spirit.  Spirit looked upon spirit, it was not man looking upon God.' "  He saw the veil puff out a little more as she sighed out a long breath.

"Papa said it was a great weight off his soul to know he was right, the problem was his lack of an understanding."

Abbot William nodded thoughtfully.  "He is a man of deep feelings and a mighty conscience."

"I have a similar quandary."

"I may be in trouble, then."

"You're not the heretic, Abbot, and that's why we're here, away from everyone.  The walls have ears, even in the confssional."

"You're not very trusting for one of the cloistered Sisters," Abbot William teased, for although Sarah Lynne McKenna -- alias the Black Agent, mistress of disguise, a detective, a spy, a chameleon employed by the Fireland District Court for more than just acquiring information -- although she was indeed accepted as one of the Sisters, and was the founder of the Order of the Sisters in White, her life was not devoted as a Religious.

"I have lived before," she said, "and I have died before, and not a few times."

"Tell me about these."

"I was a Grecian warrior-maiden."  Her voice was that of someone speaking absolute fact, incontrovertible, inarguable, fact.  "I wore a tunic, my right shoulder was bare" -- she thought it best not to mention that the right side of her chest was also exposed -- "and I was an archer-maiden.  There were twenty of us, under the watchful care of ... you would call her a Mother Superior, though we just called her Mother Priestess."

"Ancient Greece," the Abbot said thoughtfully.  "I have heard of such."

"I was killed in one-on-one combat with an enemy general.  My warrior-sisters were all slain, as was our Mother Priestess, but not until we'd taken a terrible toll of their ranks."

He saw her hands close, then open, involuntarily, propelled by an ancient memory and not deliberate thought.

"I was injured and he ordered that no man should lay a hand on me.

"He went to one knee before me and laid his helmet on the ground and said that only one of my fighting spirit was worthy to share the crown, and he asked me to be his wife, his Queen.

"My reply was to draw a blade and spit, and so we two crossed steel under the hot Mediterranean sun.

"I could not possibly win and we both knew it, and I died, and yet I live."

The Abbot waited; he knew she was not finished.

"I wore a Colonial cap and apron and I shot a lieutenant out of his saddle with a Brown Bess musket."  Her voice was distant, the voice of someone remembering something from very long ago.  "I fired and I ran and I almost had it reloaded when a bayonet drove through my right kidney."  Her voice grew faint, edged with pain, as she added, "It was like someone detonated a sunball of absolute agony when British steel split my kidney."

The Abbot knew well the kidney was a favorite target of the assassin:  a kidney-thrust hurt so unbelievably much that the victim was unable to cry out.

"There were more ... more ancient, some more modern ..."

She took a long breath.

"I have lived before and I shall live again, and I can't reconcile this knowledge."

The Abbot wished he'd brought a canteen; he wished for cool water, caught from a spring, or hoist from the dark shaft of a hand-dug well.

"Have you ever heard of an ancient monarch named Justinian?"

"I have."

"He ... or rather his wife, with his authority and his permission, managed to get reincarnation declared a heresy."
The white nun turned her featureless veiled face toward the soft spoken Abbot:  she was quivering a little, like a hound on a hot scent, turning to face the man squarely, listening with more than her ears.

"Before Justinian, Christianity embraced reincarnation.  I've heard it argued that Christianity makes no sense without it.  Of course these discussions were among young seminarians, exploring the several ideas the Holy Mother Church declare heresy ... but I tell you this, my Sister."

Abbot William turned to face her, and he crossed his legs under his robe, leaning forward and looking very directly at the bump on the veil that marked the tip of her nose.

"Your father has lived before as well.  He has swung swords with another man you know.  What you have seen, was given to you to see, that you might understand your importance in this lifetime.  Perhaps it was to help you understand why you survived the terrible events of your childhood."

"You know about those?"  Her voice was faint, and a little afraid.

"Your mother and I have talked.  She needed a friendly ear, she needed an ear into which she could pour the sorrows of her soul, someone safe."  His smile was a little sad.  "I shall take many things to my grave, my Sister, and your mother's words are among them, but yes, she told me of the terrible moments of her life, and of yours."

The veiled Sister almost fell back against the tree, and was still for several minutes, until the Abbot rose.

"My back side is tired," he admitted.  "I have to walk or I'll hobble like a stove-up old man."

The white nun stood, laughed:  "Papa says that sometimes, too!"

Abbot William gave her a knowing look.  "Where do you think I stole it?"  he asked in a quiet, confidential tone.  "Come along, my fellow Heretic, I believe there is a nice friendly olla waiting to grant relief to our thirst!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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125.  AN EXTINGUISHER, THROUGH THE WINDOW

 

Philip sagged back against the side of his paramedic squad, rubbed his face:  his hand closed into a fist and he took a long breath and a familiar voice said, "You look like you could bite the horn off an anvil and spit railroad spikes."

"Yeah," he grunted, opened his eyes.

Sheriff Willamina Keller laid a hand on his forearm, tilted her head a little to the side, the way she did when she was interested in something.

"Out with it, cowboy, what happened?"

Philip smiled with half his mouth, looked over the Sheriff's black Stetson at the shining-red mare standing patiently behind her.

She wasn't there when I backed in, he thought:  I didn't hear her ride up, and then he reflected he was still mad enough he'd likely not have seen a brass band marching by either.

"I'm waiting on my partner," he said quietly. "We're taking a transfer and soon as Big Linda gets here we'll go upstairs and get the patient."  He grinned, suddenly, a quick brightening that dispelled the ill humor on his red-cheeked face:  "Susie ... it looks like Susie got moved ahead on the transplant list."

Willamina's hand tightened on the medic's forearm: she knew Susie's heart was failing, she'd heard the particulars -- unofficially, but from trusted sources -- and she hugged the lean, compact medic quickly, impulsively, her eyes shining as she drew back, gripping his upper arms:  "Philip, that's wonderful!"  She blinked pale eyes and said quietly, "Now why were you looking like Storm Cloud Number Nine?"

Philip's forehead wrinkled just a little and he grew serious as he hooked a thumb over his shoulder.

"I was backing into the dock here," he said, "and a woman pulled up right in front of me and stopped."

 

Phillip Johnson, Firelands Fire Department paramedic and the town's water and wastewater operator, backed the orange-and-white Braun rig slowly, until he felt the broad step bumper just touch the rubber ER dock bumpers:  well polished boot on the brake pedal, he eased the shifter into park, marked on-scene on the radio, looked up in surprise as a car stopped quickly, crossways right in front of him, blocking an ambulance at the ER dock.

His gut told him something was very wrong.

The seat belt released with a metallic note as he pulled the door handle, swinging the spotless driver's door open:  he swung out, hit the ground flat-footed, strode to the lowering driver's window, and his stomach shrank quickly as he looked past the driver at the pale, sweaty, gasping passenger.

"Help me," the woman pleaded, "my husband had five bypasses and he's having chest pains down his arm and out his back and into his jaw!"

"Stand fast," Phillip said briskly, "let me get an ER cart!" -- he turned and leaned into a long-legged stride, just short of a sprint, up the two weathered cement steps, through the automatic door and down the hall toward the emergency department.

 

"I stepped up to the nurse's station window," he said quietly, his eyes distant, looking at something well beyond her horse's ears.

"Carol Clark was sitting desk and Karen was behind her and they were talking, and I said 'Pardon me, Carol,' and she turned and snapped, 'Can't you see WE ARE TALKING?' -- I looked at Karen and back to Carol as she turned her back to me.

"I just stood there because I didn't want to take the fire extinguisher and bust out the window so I could beat her over the head with it."

He closed his eyes, chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment.

"Actually I really, really did want to beat her with a fire extinguisher."

 

"Well?"  the overweight RN in the white pantsuit snapped.  "What's so damned important?"

Philip drew himself up to correct military attention, cracked his heels loudly together and declared, "MADAM.  YOU HAVE A CHEST PAIN SHORTNESS OF BREATH AT YOUR BACK DOCK, RIGHT NOW."

Behind the disagreeable, scowling older nurse, Karen's jaw dropped and her eyes went really, really wide.

"PATIENT HAS HAD FIVE PREVIOUS BYPASSES, PATIENT IS PALE, SWEATY, DYSPNEIC AND DIAPHORETIC.  PATIENT HAS CHEST PAIN DOWN THE ARM, INTO THE JAW AND OUT THE BACK," then he added loudly -- and with an edge to his voice -- "HAVE, A NICE, DAY!" -- and with that full-voiced declaration, the uniformed paramedic executed a correct military about-face, paced off on the left and headed for the door.

"Wait," Karen squeaked, scampering out of the nurse's station, scrambling a little on the mirror-polished tile floor and seizing the end of the critical-patient cart.  "Grab that end!"

 

"He's in ICU right now," Phillip continued, his voice quiet:  "I don't know if they'll transfer him out.  Here comes Big Linda.  'Scuse me, Sheriff."

"Of course," Willamina murmured, stepping back, and Phillip stopped, turned toward her, reached for her hands.

"Thank you," he whispered.  "I needed a friendly ear."

Willamina squeezed his hands and winked, then turned as Big Linda came hustling across the pavement toward them.

 

 

 

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126.  LAWMAN'S HISTORY

 

Sheriff Linn Keller slid the book into his off saddlebag.

His parents were both readers; he grew up reading, his father -- a retired FBI agent -- complained to him that, "My father taught me that all the knowledge in the world is contained in books, but now we've got computers," and they both laughed, but Linn never forgot that phrase.

The library at home was well stocked and extensive, and he still referred to the printed word when possible, and he was a benefactor to the local library, as his parents had been.

He hung the near stirrup over the saddle horn, swung the kak over the saddle blanket draped without wrinkle or fold over his stallion's back:  Apple-horse slashed his tail at an imaginary fly, for it was still chilly out, and well early for the pesky biting flies he hated, but it was good form for a stallion to swing his tail vigorously at such moments.

Linn patted the Appaloosa's barrel and then cinched the saddle:  he'd had horses he had to knuckle, to keep them from swelling their belly, and once -- only once -- did he ride a saddle that slid around until it hung upside down under the horse's belly and he lay on the ground feeling like the north end of a south bound equine.

Today would not be such a day.

Linn ducked a little coming out of the barn -- he always did, never mind the overhead was well tall enough he could wear his hat while mounted -- he turned Apple-horse away from the house, aimed him like he'd aim a shotgun, then leaned forward over his stallion's neck and murmured, "Go, boy!"

Apple-horse did not need to be told twice.

He neither knew nor cared, whether eyes followed him as he rode:  Sheriff he was, husband and father he was, but at the moment, he was not a man straddling a horse, neither was his Apple-stallion a horse carrying a rider:  no, both enjoyed that mystic union that occurs when horse and rider are well matched, when two souls merged, when each knows what the other wants, without words, without overt communication:  indeed, though Apple-horse was saddled, he wore a bitless bridle, a bridle handmade by the Ohio Amish, a bridle decorated with silver rosettes, hand engraved with roses, rosettes a century old and more that were made as a gift for another Sheriff Linn Keller of Firelands County, Colorado.

Linn pressed his hands flat on either side of Apple-horse's made, weight on the balls of his feet, standing up in the stirrups, his Stetson anchored with the back strap, secure against the passing wind:  they two were one magical creature, and they rode the wind itself as they streaked across frost-white grass, arrow-straight for the hill behind town.

Apple-horse did not gather himself to jump the gap where stream eroded soil:  no, he lifted off the earth, sailing as easily as if he had broad white wings, hard hooves seizing the ground on the other side, and they charged uphill, across the vacant highway, up the brick-paved roadway that was first graded and laid well more than a century earlier.

Horse and rider slowed as they came under the arched, wrought-iron gate that read FIRELANDS CEMETERY, and Sheriff Linn Keller leaned back and Apple-horse slowed, blowing, shaking his head:  he dearly loved a good run, and Linn knew that, given his head, he would have kept right on going, but he had a destination, and it was not far.

There was a section of the cemetery, the old section, with familiar names on the tomb stones, and Linn rode past stones that bore his family name, remembering each as his eyes rested momentarily on them:  his namesake, Old Pale Eyes, and his green-eyed wife Esther; their children, including the infant's grave immediately beside, a lamb for a tombstone:  there, a hand pointing up, holding a rose, symbolizing a daughter, ascended to Heaven:  there, a grave, much newer, with a shield carved in relief, a shield that said AGENT, FIRELANDS DISTRICT COURT -- he knew the bones beneath the stone were just that, bones, and incomplete, but all that could be found when a long-dead German count's burnt-out schloss was excavated.

Sarah Lynne Rosenthal, he read, and he knew from glass plate prints that she looked enough like his pale eyed Mama to be her twin.

He came to another grave, one with a woman's oval portrait laser engraved, and a six point star sandblasted immediately adjacent, and he swung down out of the saddle, reached into the saddlebag.

Apple-horse immediately slouched -- he stood hipshot, head down, the very image of a tired, broken-down, neglected nag, and Linn laughed and rubbed the stallion's velvety nose and murmured, "You bum," for both of them knew it was an act, but an act that often got the cooing attention of the ladies, and Apple-horse was, by Linn's laughing admission, "an unmitigated flirt, and a shameless womanizer" -- he'd told people now and again that the secret to administration is delegation, and his secret to a happy marriage was to leave all the womanizing to his Apple-horse.

Considering how successful the stallion was at charming the ladies (and shamelessly bumming treats from tourists), it was apparent that the effort was shockingly successful.

Linn drew the book out of the saddlebag, walked over to his mother's grave.

"Mama!"  he declared happily, going to one knee on the frozen ground, holding the book cover-down over the frosted sod, "your book just made print!"

He looked at his mother's portrait, then turned the book over, ran his fingers over the cover.

The cover was taken from one of the glass plates discovered under the stairs of the old photographer's studio, glass plates taken a hundred years and more earlier, glass plates with a thick emulsion and a long exposure time, glass plates whose image could be enlarged to a phenomenal degree without losing integrity:  the book's cover had Old Pale Eyes with one arm up, gripping the saddlehorn, standing beside his red Cannonball-mare:  beside him, his chief deputy and eldest son, Jacob; both men were in black suits, each had his six point star visible on his lapel, the Sheriff had a double barrel shotgun in the other hand, and his son, a Winchester rifle:  overlaid, the word, in an Old West wanted-poster font:

FIRELANDS

THE LAWMAN'S HISTORY

"All that work," Linn said, his voice thick in his throat.  "All that research.  All those aggravating gaps you tried so hard to fill."

He looked at his Mama's portrait and ached again:  he was a man who kept his feelings contained, but this was one he found particularly hard to hide:  he'd nearly lost his Mama when she was machinegunned in front of the Sheriff's office -- he'd been twelve years old, he'd come out with a revolver, taken from her office, he'd put six fast rounds of .38 Smith & Wesson from an old Victory model revolver through the assassin's face, he'd ripped his Mama's blouse open and tore the velcro away on her vest and he'd done desperate compressions on her trauma-bloodied chest while voices shouted at him that she was dead, to stop, and just as hard hands seized his arm to pull him away, her eyes opened and she gasped --

Linn wiped viciously at the memories running down his cheek, drove the heel of his hand, hard, against the top edge of the polished quartz, then he opened the cover and looked at his Mama's picture on the flyleaf.

He closed the book, leaned it up against the tomb stone, pulled out a paisley bandanna and blew his nose.

The harsh sound startled the stallion, who looked at him with open surprise, then went back to his imitation of a broken-down old prad.

"I especially liked your description of Jacob's boy Joseph riding Herb Vess's horse."

Linn swallowed, pushed up from the tomb stone, stood.

"I'm proud of you, Mama," he whispered, because he had no voice to say more, nor louder: he turned, kissed at Apple-horse, who brought his head up, shook off his wind-broke nag's appearance and was once again tall, proud and ready:  Linn thrust his polished boot into the doghouse stirrup, swung into the saddle.

Horse and rider turned and the sound of hoofbeats receded, down over the hill.

 

Linn walked with his usual long-legged pace back to the solid, two story log home that had been the Sheriff's residence for more than a hundred years.

He set one boot on the bottom step, a second, and froze.

A book was leaned up against his front door, a book with Old West wanted poster lettering on the front, a book with a fresh-cut, dew-wet rose laying right in front of it.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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127.  BULLRIDER!

 

Jacob Keller came grinning into the Sheriff's office.

He looked up at his pale eyed father, a lean old lawman with an iron grey mustache, gave him a speculative look.

Jacob closed the door quietly, carefully:  Sheriff Linn Keller saw Jacob's ears were darkening, as was his face, and as he extended his arm fully, his palm hard against the heavy timber door, he raised his other hand to his face, then reached up and took off his Stetson, shoving his face into the warm, recently vacated crown.

Jacob Keller, firstborn son of Sheriff Linn Keller, married man, husband and father and blooded warrior in his own right, began to laugh, trying with absolutely no success to muffle his merriment with his hat.

Sheriff Linn Keller raised one eyebrow, waited patiently: he knew his son was not given to hysterics, nor to displays of emotion: no, something had to be pretty good to tickle his funny bone to this degree.

Jacob lowered his hand and his hat, and he looked at his father and bent at the waist, all control gone:  his face was now the color of a rotten strawberry and he was making the approximate sound of a chicken laying a paving brick.

The door swung briskly open, smacking him in the backside and knocking him forward:  his reflexes were not compromised by his mirth and merriment, he dove, made a faultless point shoulder roll, came up on all fours -- or, rather, all threes, his good right hand welded to the walnut handle of his engraved Colt's revolver.

Sarah came through the door, both eyebrows raised:  "All right," she declared, "who's the wise acre trying to strangle a poor helpless Dominecker in here?" -- which only served to launch Jacob right back into the Great Lake of Hysteria, or rather, served to bring him to standing up on his Prayer Bones, pointing at Sarah and alternately snorting, choking, gasping and, yes, making the general noise of a poor helpless rooster with sinus problems and asthma, being rather inexpertly strangled.

"Breathe, Jacob," Sarah soothed, bending at the waist, clasped hands between her knees:  "breathe, Jacob, that's a good boy, in, deep breath in, now out."

Jacob raised his head, wiped the wet from his face with the back of a bent-wrist hand, wobbled to his feet, chuckled unsteadily across the floor and dropped into a chair, which cracked alarmingly as his bony backside hit the seat, hard.

Sarah looked from patiently-waiting father to scarlet-faced son, looked back at the Sheriff.

"Does he have these fits often?" she asked with a straight face.

"Not really," the Sheriff said.  "He does tend to make up for lost time."

Jacob raised a hand, thrust a pointing finger at his father:  "You," he gasped, then shook his head and laughed again:  he raised both hands, threw them out, palm up:  "You should have seen it!"

 

Joseph Keller, firstborn son of Jacob Keller, reached up and pulled the storm strap down the back of his head, anchoring his Stetson firmly on his young skull.

Jacob knew this meant he was about to get into something, and he was right.

Jacob announced at breakfast that he was taking Boocaffie over to Clarence Bourne's ranch, as Clarence was willing to pay stud fee for genuine Texas Longhorn service -- "I want some longhorn blood in my herd," he explained, "as their young will stand the winters better, this high up."

Joseph, of course, insisted on going along, which did not surprise Jacob in the least little bit.

It was an era where children were seen and not heard, where children were expected to practice those Masonic virtues of Silence and Circumspection -- but the longhorn was Joseph's pet, and Joseph did not want his boon companion to go anywhere without his going too, and so it was that father and son rode at an easy pace over to Clarence's ranch.

Clarence looked kind of worried when the pair came trotting up -- not at the sight of a Texas longhorn at a trot, not at the sight of a grinning boy straddling the longhorn, gripping those long pointed powder horns in a youthfully enthusiastic grasp.

No, Clarence's disquiet was revealed by his words, which brought Jacob's pale eyes to bear very directly on his friend and brother Mason.

"Jacob," he said, "there's another bull in my pasture and damned if I know where he came from.  The cows won't have a thing to do with him and they're bunched up and unhappy.  I won't ask you to turn yours loose until I get rid of that one."

"Any brand on it?"  Jacob asked curiously.

Joseph grinned as Boocaffie drifted silently toward the gate, swung his big head, brought one of those polished, needle-sharp horns around, hooked the gate's simple latch:  the gate swung open a little and Boocaffie pushed silently through it, raising his nose, curling his lip and grunting deep in his Texan chest.

Joseph Keller, firstborn son of Jacob Keller, not yet having seen his eighth birthday, grinned wickedly, reached up and pulled the storm strap down over his occipital bulge, anchoring his Stetson in place, then leaned forward and gripped Boocaffie's powder horns, hands shoulder width apart, leaned over the longhorn's neck:  "Git 'im," he whispered.

Boocaffie did not have to be told twice.

 

"Now you know that Boocaffie likes to open gates," Jacob said, his face shining with delight as he looked at the memory and narrated its run for his interested and pale eyed audience:  "well damned if he didn't reach out with that sharp pointed tip and hook that latch just as pretty as anything, and while Clarence and I were discussin' the lack of brand on that maverick bull, why, Boocaffie went on into the pasture."

He leaned back and took a breath, took another.

"Now goin' into that pasture was what we had in mind," he admitted, "but I didn't really want Joseph goin' in with him!"

 

Joseph Keller opened his hands, took a fresh grip, squeezed his legs a little tighter around Boocaffie's muscled neck:  Joseph's eyes narrowed and he squinted at the pawing bull, shaking his head and bellowing his challenge at this interloper.

Boocaffie made no reply.

Boocaffie lowered his head a little, but not much, and Joseph's lips peeled back as Boocaffie rolled through a trot into a full-on, battle-speed charge.

"JESUS H. CHRIST ON A CRUTCH!" Clarence exclaimed:  Jacob wasted no breath on profanity, though his thoughts in that moment were decidedly less than Christian in nature: he threw a leg up and over and kind of levitated into the saddle, a trick he'd never sought to do, but one he'd used in moments of extremity, and the thought of his son, his eldest, being turned into a sandwich between two contesting bulls, was impetus enough to go from flat footed to astride in a tenth of a second or less.

Apple-horse, like Boocaffie, did not need to be told twice:   his haunches dropped, steel hooves cut into the sod and the famous Cannonball had absolutely nothing on Apple's takeoff:  Jacob did indeed feel like he was riding a ball fired from a field gun, even moreso when Apple-horse drove hard against the surly earth beneath and launched over the solid-built fence, landing easily and leaning out into a full-on gallop:  Jacob's stallion stuck his neck straight out, aimed his nose like aiming a weapon, laid his ears back and drove hard after the two bulls and their young passenger.

Jacob's hat lifted from his head, sailed off to the side, lost and forgotten: all he could see was a small figure in a blanket lined denim coat and a black felt Stetson, leaning over Boocaffie's neck, eyes wide and mouth open -- crying out in fear, no doubt, and no wonder, with a fur  covered freight train bearing head-on toward the both of them!

 

Jacob leaned back, eyes shining, arms wide:  "You should have seen it!"  he declared.  "I was ready to feel the earth shiver underfoot like two steam locomotives ramming head-on and damned if that Boocaffie didn't come up on his tippy toes like a dancin' girl, he swung around and raked that long horn across the other bull's backside --"

 

"GIT 'IM GIT 'IM GIT'IM!"  Joseph screamed, yelling encouragement to his dear friend:  Boocaffie, for his part, spun, whipped one long horn around:  it is said that when a sword is made for a warrior, when the warrior thrusts his gaunteleted hand into the basket-hilt and grips the wire wrapped handle in a crush grip, his soul flows into the blade, and he instantly knows exactly where edge and point are in three-dimensional space, even in full darkness:  so it is with a Texas longhorn's fighting points:  Boocaffie whipped his long and rangy carcass around, whipped end-for-end, lashed the sharp, pointed tip across the maverick's hip -- not drawing blood, but drawing pain:  the maverick bawled, flinched as Boocaffie coasted a little distance away, then circled, lowering his head and leaning out into a full-on, wide-open, hooves-a-thunder-on-the-hard-packed-sod CHAAARRRGGGEEEEEE!!!! and Joseph's teeth were bared with youthful ferocity and his legs tightened and his hands did their level best to crush good horn and Boocaffie dropped his head and rammed the maverick squarely in the backside, just as hard as he could run.

Joseph's legs were strong, but not strong enough:  the force of collision slid him forward, but his legs were sticking down:  he stopped when his thighs hit Boocaffie's horns, his hands still welded to Texas long horn:  he pushed up, pushed back, tightened his legs --

 

"Joseph was like a burr on a long hair dog," Jacob declared, holding one hand out, palm toward him:  his other hand, fisted, cocked:  "and then Boocaffie took out just as hard as he could run and drove that maverick square in the backside --"

Jacob's fist launched, drove into his upturned palm, the impact loud in the little log fortress that was the Sheriff's office.

Sarah was leaned forward, elbows on her knees, her pale eyes fixed on Jacob's:  her eyes were shining, her lips parted a little, and the Sheriff saw her hands, restless, clasp one another, release, tighten into fists, interlace, as she followed her pale eyed brother's narrative, the intensity of her focus at odds with the scene she saw playing on the stage of her imagination.

 

Jacob knew once a bull gets its blood up, it just might take out after anything on four legs.

He knew Apple-horse could honestly outrun the bull, but he had no wish to leave his son a-straddle of most of a ton of fighting Texas bull, and so he leaned back in the saddle, bidding Apple-horse wait:  the stallion wanted no part of waiting, and danced in place, clearly impatient, wanting to run.

Or to play, more likely.

Boocaffie raised his head, bawled a triumphant insult to the maverick's retreat.

"Joseph," Jacob called.

Joseph's head came up, quickly, abruptly, the way a little boy's head will when he thinks he's just been caught at the forbidden.

"Joseph, take Boocaffie over to the fence and dismount," Jacob said.

"Come on, Boocaffie," Joseph called, guiding his Texas friend with the flat palm and the knee:  Boocaffie turned, Joseph leaned down and speaking into those big leathery ears, and Boocaffie grunted, and lowered his head, and leaned out into a charge.

"JOSEPH! NO, DON'T HIT THAT FENCE --"

Clarence jumped back just as most of a ton of Texas longhorn hit his board fence, blasting through it, blowing shivers of seasoned wood a surprising distance:  Boocaffie coasted to a stop, turned around, Joseph's delighted laughter spilling all over the ground.

"JO-seph!  DIIISSS-MOUNT!"  Jacob called, and Joseph swung a leg up, dropped the considerable distance to the ground:  he landed flat footed and Jacob called, "Boocaffie!  In here!"
Boocaffie trotted obediently through the newly made hole in the fence, somehow managing to look just utterly pleased with himself.

 

"Then later, after Joseph and I helped Clarence put that section of fence back up," Jacob concluded, "Clarence tried to pay me stud fee.

"He allowed as that maverick wasn't his and he didn't know whose he was, and I allowed as 'twas a shame Boocaffie busted the hell out of his fence and besides for a show like that a man would pay good money to see it, I just didn't have the heart to take his stud fee money!"

Linn grinned and nodded, then lifted his head, listened.

"Did the cows take to Boocaffie?"  Linn asked, puzzling his brows together a little, and Jacob nodded.  "I'd say the cows were takin' to him pretty well.  Joseph didn't want to leave Boocaffie. He kept telling me Boocaffie would miss him.  Why?"
Sarah rose, a worried look as she looked at the Sheriff:  Linn reached up, plucked his Stetson off its peg, strode for the door, hauled it open.

"Jacob," he said quietly.

Jacob came up behind his father, Sarah came up behind Jacob.

A Texas longhorn was leading a small herd of Clarence's cattle right up the main street.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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128.  IT WARN'T A SOFT ANSWER, PREACHER

 

Even that far inland, the influence of the Salt Water Navy sometimes manifested itself, and so it was this day.

Jacob Keller had occasion to run across a fellow he had very little interest in, and when the fellow he encountered turned out to have an over blown sense of his own importance, why, Jacob Keller decided he had absolutely no interest in him a'tall.

This was no excuse for bad manners:  Jacob was not about to high-hat the man and h'ist his nose in the air and ride on ... no, honor is a touchy thing, and he had no wish to cause hard feelings without need.

On the other hand, Jacob Keller was a practical sort, and had no wish to have his time wasted.

He had occasion to address Parson Belden on the subject, for their conversations were easy, the Parson was a quick listener, and Jacob knew a time or three, why, things he'd discussed with the Parson ended up as subject for a Sunday sermon, and he liked to be useful to the man, for he liked their good-natured Parson who willingly put up with the shenanigans that interrupted Sunday service or weddings ... things like a little girl scolding her Twain Dawg, or falling over backwards in a spray of white petticoats and a pair of chubby little-girl, white-stockinged legs, followed by happy giggles as the aforementioned canine came over to wash her face with more enthusiasm than good sense.

Parson Belden sat down with Jacob, and Mrs. Belden, a stout and motherly sort, insisted that Jacob would not cast a decent shadow in the noonday sun and would not hear of him not partaking of some nourishment, and so it was that he and the Parson shared the beaming woman's good home cookin' and her prize preserved-fruit pie, and afterward, well fed and warmed by the kitchen's diminutive but adequate cast iron stove, Jacob discussed his little adventure with the preacher.

"Now Parson," Jacob said, frowning a little, "you'll recall WJ Garrison who had the Mercantile was in the Confederate Navy."

"I do recall," the Parson nodded, blinking:  it wasn't that long ago that WJ was murdered, and he himself spoke the final words over that good worthy's box.  "He had a LeMat pistol he carried aboard ship."

Jacob grinned.  "He did for a fact," he agreed, "and he said something that stuck with me.

"Now when I ran across that fellow I was telling you about" -- he frowned, considered the space where his pie had occupied ten minutes earlier, now home to a steaming-hot mug of good fresh ground coffee -- "why, he allowed as he was God's gift to everyone and everything, he was faster, meaner and deadlier than two rattlesnakes and a sore tooth grizzly b'ar, and he could whip a wagon load of pale eyed lawmen any day of the week."

"I take it he hadn't noticed your eyes," Parson Belden speculated carefully.

"He hadn't, no, sir.  I've a way of keeping my eyes a-squint, or my hat brim low, and I did that without lettin' him out of my sight."

Parson Belden nodded, agreeing silently with the young man's wisdom.

"Not only did he have himself confused with someone important," Jacob added, frowning just a little, "why, his battleship mouth just plainly rode all over his tadpole backside."

Parson Belden nodded wisely.  "I've heard Lightning say that very thing," he agreed.  "Lightning was Union Navy, was he not?"

"He was," Jacob agreed, "and he and WJ were the best of friends."
"I remember."

"Anyway" -- Jacob considered, remembering the moment -- "I recall what you said about a soft answer turning away wrath, and it came in handy, it genuinely did."

Parson Belden laced his fingers together, rested his hands on the table, leaned forward, clearly very interested:  he nodded once and asked, "How's that?"

 

"I reckon you consider yourself one of them ed-yew-cated sorts," the stranger sneered.

"No, don't reckon, no," Jacob replied in a gentle voice:  "no, now, my little sister is educated -- pretty well, matter of fact.  She was graduated early from eighth grade and then she went to one of those academies."

"Academy," came the curled-lip reply, rolling the word across his tongue and spitting like it was unclean.  "A little girl's finishing school, I'll wager!"

Jacob knew he was being baited, Jacob's temper did not rise to the bait, and Jacob was frankly enjoying the stranger's clumsy attempts to provoke him.

"She was the only girl in the class," he continued.

"And she was your sister."

"Still is."

"What kind of a girl will be alone in a whole class full of ... what was it? Schoolboys?"

"Detectives."

 

"Now that took him by surprise," Jacob said, amusement peeking out from behind his pale eyes:  "he allowed as she must not be much of a lady, being alone in a whole room full of men.

"I allowed as they didn't much like havin' a girl in the class with 'em, especially one that was smarter than they were, a girl they tried to do dirty and she come back and made 'em look like the north end of a south bound horse, she kicked one's backside up between his shoulder blades, she taken a knife to two others and sliced 'em pretty bad ... why, she whipped every man there but the Perfesser and he was standin' up front with his teeth in his mouth just takin' it all in.

"My baby sis only had one left so she run a Winchester rifle down his throat 'til it stuck out the seat of his pants, she threw a knot in the gunbarrel, she grabbed attair octagon barrel rifle by the wrist and hung him out the third story window and allowed as he could apologize or she'd drop him.

" 'Course with a mouthful of Winchester receiver he couldn't say much, so she let go, he hit the ground and rose no more and that was the end of them fellas givin' her trouble."  Jacob shook his head sadly.  "That was also every'one in the class, so the Academy had to close down, she'd whipped, crippled or killed everyone there, so she give that up for a bad job and went to teachin' school."

The Parson was leaning his smiling face into his steepled-finger hands:  he chuckled, he laughed, he leaned back and happily pounded his thigh with the flat of his hand, not wanting to slap the table and cause coffee cups to jump and spill (he'd made that mistake before!) -- and he said, "And that was the soft answer you gave him?"

Jacob smiled, and the smile was not entirely pleasant.

"No, Parson, that's the answer I give him and I meant for him to laugh."

"He didn't?"

Jacob shook his head sadly.  "No, sir, it did not."

"What happened?"

"Well, sir, he allowed as my little sister might make a good livin' runnin' a bordello as she wouldn't have to hire no one to keep peace and order, as she could do that her own self, and about then I shoved my hat brim back with one finger and let him see my eyes and I allowed as he'd apologize or I would spare my baby sis the need to hang him out a third story window.  He allowed as he'd try to whip me and he genuinely did try."

Jacob shook his head sadly.

"His opening argument was without substance and his reasoning was flawed, and I reckon the answer I give him" -- Jacob paused, considered, took a long pull on his coffee -- "well, I answered the man."
He looked very directly at Parson Belden.

"It warn't a soft answer, Preacher."

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129.  A TINY LITTLE DRESSMAKER'S STITCH

Court in Cripple Creek was less decorous than court in Firelands.

His Honor the Judge did not bang on a bleached buffalo skull with the handle of a Peacemaker, as some writers of the day's penny dreadfuls would have one believe was common in every courtroom west of the Mr. and Mrs. Sippi:  no, he used a meat tenderizing maul of impressive size, and beat on a rough-sawn plank laid atop the jurist's bench, which was at one time a saloon's bar -- the Judge said he'd rather scar up a plank than a good bar top, it might be needed for its original purpose -- to that end, a thick fold of cloth ran the length of the plank, and did absolutely nothing to muffle the sound of the Judge's mighty swing, when occasion demanded a vigorous strike.

Court in Firelands might enjoy occasional laughter, or groans, or mutters in the gallery -- court was a local source of entertainment, as were Sunday sermons, the Sheriff's shooting demonstrations, or the occasional horseman contesting with his mount on Main Street as to who had supremacy (generally the horse won, unless it was the Sheriff or his son, then odds were about even), but in Cripple, the court might be interrupted by shouts of disagreement, laughter tended to be brash and uproarious, and there was not one bailiff, there were three, plus at least one of the city's constabulary, in the event things got too boisterous.

Judge Donald Hostetler opened the door to the Judge's chambers, puffing briskly on a freshly-lighted Cuban:  the lead Bailiff, seeing this cloud of pollution preceding the white-bearded jurist, turned and declared loudly, "ALL RISE! THIS REGUARLY SCHEDULED COURT IS NOW IN SESSION! ALL WITH BUSINESS HEREIN DRAW NEAR AND ATTEND!  THE HONORABLE JUDGE DONALD HOSTETLER, PRESIDING!  GOD SAVE THIS HONORABLE COURT!"

His Honor the Judge strolled with his usual sailor's gait -- not the result of striding a saltwater deck, but the result of wartime injuries, back when he was still a Cavalry officer -- he stepped up onto the elevated platform, turned the padded chair and glared suspiciously at his seat.

A certain pale eyed Agent of the Court once left a rag doll in his seat -- exactly why, he was not sure -- though this was well more than a year before, this made the Judge suspicious, and so he ceremonially glared at the seat before assuming his seat.

The Judge puffed briskly on the Cuban, blew out a truly huge cloud of smoke, which rose slowly to join the rapidly stratifying atmosphere above.

The Chief Bailiff walked slowly to the Secretary's desk, picked up a sheet, walked the paper back to the Bench, handed it to the Judge.

His Honor the Judge frowned at the page, blinked, frowned harder:  he puffed on  his cigar, then plucked it from between stained teeth, spat into his gleaming, flare-mouth goboon, frowned at the page again.

He looked over the paper, searching the first two rows of attendees, his eye drawn by a bald and shining head, and under it, the familiar face of someone he knew and trusted ... a man with a new line of stitches along his cheek bone, and a heavy staff in his hand.

His Honor the Judge tailored his language for the particular courtroom over which he presided, as he remembered the Scriptural admonition:

"For all things there is a season, a time for every purpose under the heavens."

In accordance with this penetrating dictum, His Honor the Judge laid down the paper, stared at the tonsured cleric and declared loudly, "ABBOTT WILLIAM, WHAT THE HELL IS THIS ABOUT YOU BEATIN' THE HELL OUT OF THREE MEN ON A PUBLIC STREET?"

 

Too many fights start out of something inconsequential, and truth be told, the reason for this public eruption is neither clearly nor truly known.

We do know that there are times when an innocent may be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and be swept into a disagreeable moment, and so it was, when Abbot William was on his way to the Catholic church, that the disagreeable detonation of flying fists encompassed him round about, and a set of knuckles drove in and impacted his cheekbone with neither warning nor moderation.

Cripple Creek was a mining town.

Cripple Creek was full of miners.

Mining was mostly underground, excavating hard rock with star drill and single jack, with explosives, with shovels to clear the broken rubble, with bank mules and mine ponies to haul out cars of ore:  men's shirt sleeves were generally well filled with arm, and a hard swung punch carried authority, and the anonymous pugulist who turned and drove fleshless knuckles against the Abbott's lean face, honestly hit like a jack mule's hoof.

When faced with sudden and unexpected stress, we revert to our original training, and so it was with the Abbot.

William, shocked to his heels by the blow, fell back into two more men, spun out of their grip:  rational thought and fine coordination joined hands and jumped out the nearest window, so to speak, and this gentle voiced, weather-tanned cleric, this tonsured leader of the Rabbitville monastery, suddenly twisted, squatted and came up with a double handful of heavy staff as if it were a bayonet mounted Enfield musket.

Abbot William, prior of the Rabbitville monastery, roared with fury and charged, driving his staff end-first into the breastbone of the man who hit him: reversing his stroke, the rising end caught the man in the gut, lifting him off the ground: another fist hit the cleric under the ear:  a roar, a twist, and in his mind, the Abbott was a soldier in blue again, in the middle of a battle he'd fought decades ago:  he drove the butt of his Enfield musket into a man's shoulder, slashed down, the bayonet's tip cutting a bloody streak down the man's front:  another reverse and thrust, and he drove shining steel into the man's gut and drove it out his back:  yelling, the Abbot lifted, picking him up off the ground, shoved him back, three ranks deep into the enemy, and then he laid about, spin and thrust and strike, until he had a circle cleared around him and bodies underfoot.

Whatever the cause of the street brawl, this was its end:  the Abbot was nothing if not loud, when he chose, and his fury chose for him:  he turned, slowly, staff held as a man would hold a bayonet fitted Enfield musket:  the Abbot's bloodied face was tight-drawn, his teeth were bared, he growled deep in his chest:  men drew back in honest fear at the sight, and it took several long moments, and a woman's voice, for sanity to penetrate the red roaring in the man's ears.

The Abbott honestly did not know the woman, nor whether she was a matron, a wife, a whore:  who she was, what she did, was not important:  the gentle touch, the soft voice, the scent of soap and sunshine, penetrated the shield of rage that roared through him and spun around him, and he sagged a little as he grounded the end of the staff, leaned heavily on seasoned, carved locust.

 

"I don't recall quite where I ended up, Your Honor," the Abbot said, his voice filling the silent room:  men and women in every rank and row leaned forward, listening closely to the man's words:  even the miners who bore bandages and bruises listened, fascinated with the cleric's plainly-stated account.

"I held still while the woman cleaned off my cheek bone" -- he raised rueful fingers to touch the stitched, bruised, still-swollen injury -- "and I remember her telling someone she was using a tiny little dressmaker's stitch."

A little boy somewhere in the rear, held up by his father and sitting on his father's left shoulder, spontaneously exclaimed, "Did it hurt?" -- and at the sincere words of a little boy's voice, jurist and cleric both laughed a little.

The Abbot searched with his eyes until he found the lad, looked very directly at him, and smiled a little.

"Yes," he admitted.  "It hurt like hell!"

Laughter was a joyful release:  men who'd been transported to the middle of the melee by the Abbot's words, laughed at the spontaneous sincerity of a little boy's words, at the equal sincerity of the Abbot's heartfelt reply.

His Honor considered for a moment, called for other witnesses:  witnesses were sworn in, testimony given; universally, nobody knew the cause, all agreed that it was a sudden detonation, that the Abbot was not involved until he was hit, and the result caused several sinners to regret the error of their way.

 

A young woman in a fashionable gown laid delicate fingers on the cut-glass stopper of a brandy-bottle:  she worked the heavy glass loose, carefully, precisely, decanted a volume of distilled California sunshine into a heavy, cut-glass tumbler:  short, squat, the tumbler held a deceptive volume, and that was the younger woman's intent.

Her companion, an attractive matron in an equally fashionable gown, accepted the tumbler with mildly trembling fingers.

Normally she sipped at her drink: today, though, she swallowed the entire volume, drinking it down like water, holding her breath afterward, knowing if the breathed, she would feel the full fire of the potent distillate:  finally, carefully, she opened her mouth and exhaled, looked up in surprise as another glass was pressed into her hand.

"Drink, quickly," the younger woman admonished, "before you take a breath" -- and she did -- and when she breathed, she tasted only the tonic-water.

The second glass was plucked from her grip, a damp cloth pressed against her forehead, then her neck, one side, the other.

Violet eyes blinked; the woman felt the sudden warmth start to spread, and she lowered her face into her hands.

"I've never stitched a man's face," she whispered.

The younger woman bent, hugged the seated woman a little awkwardly.  "You've stitched cuts before.
"Never a face," she whispered.  "Never a face."

"Those were the tinest, most precise stitches I've ever seen, Mother," came the answering whisper.  "I'm proud of you."

Bonnie Lynne McKenna looked at her pale eyed daughter with big, lovely, violet eyes; her moist-red lips opened a little, closed, and then she shivered again and whispered, "I am never, ever coming to Cripple Creek again!"

 

 

 

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130.  WINGSHOOTING

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna wore a fashionable gown and a worried expression.

Sheriff Linn Keller rose as she came into the room:  his expression was serious as he crossed the patterned rug in three long strides, stopped, laid gentle fingertips on his daughter's shoulders, lowered his head just a little.

Sarah, on the other hand, dispensed with all propriety and most of her gentility:  she was a girl who needed her Papa, she pushed through the light touch, seized her tall, lean Papa around the ribs, hugged with a desperate strength, her ear laid hard against his breastbone, wishing mightily that she might be a little girl again, a little girl who could take refuge from the world itself on his lap and in his arms.

"Help me, Papa," she whispered, shivering.  "I'm scared."

Sheriff Linn Keller, warrior, lawman, husband and father, held this shivering get of his loins and murmured, "Has somebody hurt you, Sarah? Who do I need to skin alive with a dull spoon?"

Sarah released her Papa, pushed back, looked up, surprised, imagining her pale eyed Papa flaying a miscreant with the rounded edge of a soup spoon: she giggled, she hiccuped, she bit her bottom lip and shyly lowered her eyes like an innocent maiden.
Linn ran his arm around behind Sarah, guided her to a chair, seized a rocking chair and drew it up to face her.

Sarah leaned forward, planted her elbows on her knees, laced her fingers together and brought them to her lips, head bowed:  she squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them, looked at her Papa.

"I don't want to go to hell," she whispered.

"I don't intend that you should," came the quiet reply.

Sarah shook her head.  "No," she blurted.  "You don't understand."

"You're right.  I left my crystal ball in my other valise, so why don't you fill me in, I can't read minds very well."

Sarah closed her eyes, took a deep breath, sat very straight, chewed on her bottom lip again, then looked at her Papa and said, "I have lived before."

The Sheriff nodded.

"Papa, I have lived many lives, I know that now.  I don't want to go to hell because the Church won't recognize --"

Linn held up a forestalling palm.

"I believe you spoke with William."

Sarah swallowed, nodded.

Linn looked to the side, raised his chin:  "Tea," he said, and the silent, watchful maid nodded, withdrew, closed the door silently behind her.

"And what did William say?"

Sarah swallowed.

"He told me that Christianity ... that church canon used to accept ..."

The Sheriff raised a finger.

"It used to accept it until a whore of a wife slept her way to the throne and then used the Emperor's authority to remove all reference of reincarnation from the literature."

Sarah nodded, then looked up, fearful.

"Parson Belden --"

Again the raised, forestalling, teaching finger.

"Dear heart," Linn said, taking her hands in his, "what about your death?"
"My death?"  Sarah blinked, confused.

"You died," Linn said flatly.  "You've seen the Valley.  Same as I have.  We compared notes on that one.  I was sent back because my work wasn't done and I could not figure what I didn't have figured out.  Recall that?"
Sarah nodded, hesitantly, not quite reluctantly, more ... hopefully.

"I could not justify what I saw with Scripture." 

Sarah nodded again.

"William and I were talking about it," Linn  continued, leaning back as the maid brought in a tray with two large, heavy ceramic mugs, a pot of honey, a steaming ceramic teapot.

"I died when that cannon blew up and caved in my ribs," Linn said quietly, taking Sarah's hands in his again.  "I was in the Valley.  Christ was there.  We grabbed one another in a laughing bear hug."

Linn's hands tightened.

"We read in scripture that no man may look upon the face of God and live."

Sarah nodded, noticeably more pale.  "I know," she whispered.

"William set me to right."  Linn's jaw thrust out, the fragrant, steaming mug of tea forgotten.  "He said that I was not a man, I was spirit, that it was spirit and Spirit, not God and man, and that was a mountain's weight hoist off my shoulders."

Sarah felt a similar relief; it showed in her eyes.

"Now. You've lived before. So have I. Your Uncle Charlie and I have swung swords in an earlier age. The first time we met was in battle, we fought like two men who'd sided one another for years. I saw what he saw, he felt the ground under my advancing bootsole -- and it was so absolutely natural that when it was over we didn't speak of it, because it felt so absolutely right."

Sarah shivered.

"Sarah."

Sarah looked up -- her eyes were soft, vulnerable, the eyes of a hopeful little girl, a little girl afraid of being hurt but hoping it wouldn't happen.

"Do you remember when we were out back, shooting at hand tossed dirt clods?"

Sarah's smile was quick, bright, genuine:  "I remember."

"Do you remember you couldn't hit a thing until I told you the secret?"

"Stop thinking," she whispered, remembering the moment.  "Don't think.  The target rises, so does the gunbarrel, watch the target, bang."
Linn nodded.

"That is exactly how we shoot on the fly," Linn affirmed, "and that works for so many things in our lives.  We have both lived before. Accept that. You already know you're a link in a chain, a chain made of blood, and there is blood that must join ours and be carried into the future."

Sarah nodded.

 

Joseph Keller was Jacob Keller's first born son.

Joseph Keller raised the double gun, eyes on the rising tin can, yanked the trigger.

The shot swarm drove into the can, launched it further into the air, pulled the rear trigger, kicked it higher.

Joseph grinned as his pale eyed Grampa looked at him, approval in his eyes, and nodded once, slowly.

That was the day Joseph learned to hit a hand tossed tin can with his Grampa's '73 rifle, the engraved One of One Thousand with a rose hand chased on the receiver, with the inscription from his green eyed Grandma under it.

Less than a week later, Grampa Linn had his grandson hitting a hand tossed number two tin can with a .44-40 Colt Peacemaker, and his Aunt Sarah had him using a full sized Peacemaker in .22, hitting that hand tossed can ten times, twenty times, twenty-five times without a miss, and then hitting smaller cans, and smaller cans, and finally Joseph was hitting marbles tossed in the air, and then individual dried peas tossed into the cloudless blue sky, building muscle memory that would be there and ready when Joseph went to war, and found himself obliged to use the engraved, copper plated Peacemakers given him by his Grampa, to stop hand grenades thrown his way on a World War 1 battlefield, saving the life of a man whose bloodline was already conmingled with his own, and whose descendants would join yet again with the pale eyed get of the pale eyed Sheriff.

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller snatched the shotgun from the diminutive fighter pilot's grip.

"No," she said sternly.

"Sheriff!" came the wounded reply, and Willamina shook her head.

"This will confuse you," she said.  "Wing shooting in gravity and you're working in two dimensions.  You need to think in three dimensions all the time."

"But but but," came the sputtering protest, and Sheriff Willamina gripped the smaller woman's upper arm, her lean and rangy muscles palpable through her thin atmosphere suit.

"Here," the Sheriff said.  "Come with me."

She pulled her kinswoman toward the huge, standing rock, pointed to a dump bed buggy.

"Get in back," she said shortly.

She handed the shotgun to the pilot.  "Wait for the launch," she said, "then take it out."

The buggy lurched underfoot -- eerily silent, the Martian atmosphere was far too thin to carry sound -- the driver set a straight course for one minute, the pointed to his right.

A glowing sphere shot straight up.

The plastic shotgun came to shoulder, a pale, mountain-born eye settled behind as the mountain-raised cheek bone welded to the plastic stock's comb:  gloved finger slapped the trigger, the lightweight smoothbore shoved her shoulder, the glowing, rising sphere detonated itno a cloud of dust.

The Sheriff's voice, almost gentle, in her earphones:  "Do that again."

Another sphere, another shot:  she broke open the over-and-under, dropped in two fresh projectiles, cheeked down hard on the plastic comb, imagining she could hear the capacitors in the stock sing as they charged up again, for this was Mars, and she was shooting a shoulder fired rail gun that almost looked like the over-and-under she'd shot back home in Colorado's mountains -- if you could ignore square barrels, stacked, with fins running their length on either side.

It took her a week, with the driver running the buggy either fast, or faster, or running like hell itself was after them, but this former helicopter pilot, this mountain woman with MAXWELL embossed across the swell of her left breast, and a rearing black stallion with a white snowflake on its shoulder, embossed on her left shoulder, strapped herself into the interceptor, studied the screen, smiled.

She was in Mars orbit, in a purpose built ship with more thrust than the rocket that initially lifted them out of Earth's gravity well; the ship was less important, though, than the square channel that ran its length, a channel with fins that ran its length on either side, a ship with a honkin' monster of a fast-recovery reactor, a bank of capacitors that stored more energy than she could imagine, a projectile made of impossibly dense material.

She flew the Dirty Bird:  automated defenses in far flung orbits were tasked with driving engines onto incoming meteors, there were those ships whose keel was made of neoneutronium -- almost neutronium, but not quite:  dense enough to weigh the same as an Earth battleship, with the surrounding gravity of a floating fortress, capable of drawing an incoming rock off trajectory just enough to miss impacting their colony.

Maxwell was the inner guard.

Like a trap shooting squad with designated first, second and third shots, she was the third -- the innermost layer of defense  the first two defenses, the first two trapshooters, both missed -- and a small, fast moving rock was inbound, and on a very precise course to impact the very center of their colony's main dome.  ("Small" is a relative term.  They'd managed to deflect two incoming meteors, each the size of a young mountain; this one was small, half a hundred meters across, iron and rock and some ice, the kind that shatters on impact, shatters into pieces no larger than a child's finger is long.

She leaned back, looked straight ahead, seeing the incoming meteor projected on the targeting screen inside her cockpit.

She knew her own speed had to be sufficient to overcome her rail gun's recoil -- for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction -- and so she gripped the collective, her feet on the rudder pedals, and she flew this zero-gravity, zero-atmosphere gunship as if it were a Terran helo, as if it were the Super Stallion she used to fly off a US Navy carrier.

Pale eyes tightened at the corners, gloved hands gripped the controls, her thumb flipped up the safety, her lips soundlessly traced the marker, "Gun switch to guns," and she felt the thrusters push her deeper into the seat.

A Colorado born mountain runner, a fiddle player of no small skill, taught by their own resident fiddler, a woman married to a Luftwaffe fighter pilot who manned another orbital gunship, squeezed both triggers, launched a Tirpitz, a neoneutronium cylinder that weighed as much as the German battleship for which it was named, but traveling at a horrendous velocity.

The launch cut her forward speed in half; she fired braking thrusters, checked her reactors -- the needles were buried well into their green arcs -- she'd insisted on the needle-and-arc gauges for this purpose, rather than numeric readouts:  they were phosphor displays, she knew, not real needles, not real painted arcs, but they sufficed for her purpose:  decel thrusters fired, her harness tightened as the ship slowed and her body's momentum didn't want to.

Seventeen and one half long seconds later, a flash:  her lips curled in a little smile and she said, "Guardian, this is Angel Seven, splash the Zero."

"Roger Angel Seven," came the unruffled conroller's voice.  "Analyzing shrapnel cloud."

Mountain tempered hands tightened on the collective, the throttle, then:

"Angel Seven, tallyho, free fire, I say again, free fire."

"I roger your free fire," the mountaineer smiled, seeing the big chunks of shattered rock spreading out on her scope.

She drove her gunship into the advancing sleet of destruction, joy singing in her heart, and as the first of the outrigger rails chugged silently, she whispered, "Tallyho!"

 

 A week later, the Sheriff rose as her fellow mountaineer approached her desk:  the Sheriff's Olympic grade skin suit was white, with a six point star embossed on her left breast; her visitor's skin suit was black, with MAXWELL in white, a white shield with a rampant black stallion on her left shoulder.

"I took a look at the radar track on your last sortie," Marnie smiled.  "That was some fine shootin'!"

"You were right."  Her guest dropped heavily into a woven-plastic chair, sagged, her head dropping back so she looked straight up at the low ceiling:  she sighed tiredly, lifted her head.  "You were right about wing shooting.  I had to think in three dimensions all the time.  Where'd you come up with the idea to put me in the back of a miner's buggy?"
Marnie laughed.  "My uncle Pete's father was in World War II.  He was a waist gunner on a B17," she explained.  "That's how they trained machine gunners, they put 'em in the back of a pickup truck and drove hell-a-tearin' down a straight section of road and had them hit clay birds at sixty miles an hour!"

 

 

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131.  WANNA MEET MY SNOWFLAKE?

Sarah Lynne McKenna stood just below the crest of a high ridge, far enough below the skyline to keep from silhouetting herself against the cloudless sky above, but high enough to have an unobstructed view around her.

Sarah's hands were white-knuckled as she gripped her mare's reins:  she stood still, without tremble or shiver, but beneath her black shirt, her black vest and her black duster, Sarah's young heart hammered, slowing gradually, slowing from what she'd just experienced.

Snowflake turned her huge black head, snuffed loudly at Sarah's middle, blinked lazily as Sarah's hand automatically caressed her huge black Frisian's jaw.

She turned a little to her left, found a sun-warmed rock of the right height, sat down, her pale eyes wide and staring.

 

The woman might as well have been naked.

She was obviously, very obviously -- obscenely obviously! -- female, she was about Sarah's height, but she wore neither skirt nor chemise, but something ... black ... that looked like she'd been dipped in thick black ink from the neck down.

Except for her head.

The back half was that same shining, rubbery black stuff, but round and smooth, and the front was framed with something ribbed, and a rounded, gold-tinted glass bubble covered her entire face.

The woman raised a black-skinned hand, pressed something on the left side of her ... helmet? -- the glass rose, and Sarah found herself looking at an oddly familiar face, one with pale eyes, with a faint smile that reminded her of ...

...Papa?

That's Papa's smile!

"I understand you'd like to know some things," she said, thrusting out a black-coated hand.  "Call me Max."

Sarah reluctantly looked at the bulge of the woman's left breast, at the white letters across the upper swell -- MAXWELL

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131.  WANNA MEET MY SNOWFLAKE?

Sarah Lynne McKenna stood just below the crest of a high ridge, far enough below the skyline to keep from silhouetting herself against the cloudless sky above, but high enough to have an unobstructed view around her.

Sarah's hands were white-knuckled as she gripped her mare's reins:  she stood still, without tremble or shiver, but beneath her black shirt, her black vest and her black duster, Sarah's young heart hammered, slowing gradually, slowing from what she'd just experienced.

Snowflake turned her huge black head, snuffed loudly at Sarah's middle, blinked lazily as Sarah's hand automatically caressed her huge black Frisian's jaw.

She turned a little to her left, found a sun-warmed rock of the right height, sat down, her pale eyes wide and staring.

 

The woman might as well have been naked.

She was obviously, very obviously -- obscenely obviously! -- female, she was about Sarah's height, but she wore neither skirt nor chemise, but something ... black ... that looked like she'd been dipped in thick black ink from the neck down.

Except for her head.

The back half was that same shining, rubbery black stuff, but round and smooth, and the front was framed with something ribbed, and a rounded, gold-tinted glass bubble covered her entire face.

The woman raised a black-skinned hand, pressed something on the left side of her ... helmet? -- the glass rose, and Sarah found herself looking at an oddly familiar face, one with pale eyes, with a faint smile that reminded her of ...

...Papa?

That's Papa's smile!

"I understand you'd like to know some things," she said, thrusting out a black-coated hand.  "Call me Max."

Sarah reluctantly looked at the bulge of the woman's left breast, at the white letters across the upper swell -- MAXWELL -- Sarah reached forward, uncertain whether she would be gripping a black-rubber hand, or the misty form of a ghost.

The grip was real, it was firm; pale eyes smiled inside the framing facepiece and the woman said, "Wanna meet my Snowflake?"

Sarah Lynne McKenna tilted her head back, closed her eyes:  the sun was warm on her face, the wind, almost still.

She closed her eyes and remembered.

She remembered the whining, clattering, roaring beast she was in, she remembered the woman seated beside her, wearing the funny, bug-head helmet:  she remembered looking around at acres of metal deck, of men in bug-head helmets, she gripped the metal tubing that formed her seat as the deck fell from beneath her and the roaring and the whining and the pounding sang a higher note, as they fell away from the steel field and suddenly they were above living water and it took every bit of Sarah's discipline to keep from screaming with fear and with delight and she remembered the woman in the other seat looked over at her and she remembered the knowing smile and then dear God! they were flying and they were flying beside seaside cliffs, they roared straight up and laid over on their side and went skimming along near to treetop high and Sarah felt the same soaring delight in her young belly as she felt when her Snowflake-mare soared over a yawning gulf, as she felt in those moments when it seemed her huge black mare snapped out white wings and stroked powerfully against the clear air --

A shadow cooled her face and she smiled a little.

"So this is Snowflake." 

"Yes."

"Does she fly?"

Sarah smiled, her eyes still closed.

"Yes."

"She's probably not as noisy as my Snowflake."

Sarah smiled a little.

"No."

"Want to see my Snowflake?"

"I thought I did."

"No."

Sarah felt the woman in black settle down beside her.

"You saw the Snowflake I used to have."

Sarah heard the other woman sigh a little.

"I like it here."

"Yeah."

Snowflake wandered a few paces; the two women heard the Frisian's teeth tearing at some grass.

"What kind of Snowflake was that?"  Sarah finally asked.
"She's a Sikorsky CH-53 E.  Three engines, seven rotor blades, rocket launchers, chain guns, she'll run like a skinned Indian and anyone else will tell you she flies like a truck."  Sarah could feel the other woman's smile.  "Don't let 'em fool you.  She dances like a ballerina with the right pilot."

It was Sarah's turn to smile.

"I have absolutely no idea what you just said."

"In that case, sister, you'll be lost when you see my current Snowflake!"

"Tell me something first."

"What's that?"

"I understand pistols and rifles, cannon and blades, I understand locomotives and horses and I know what it is to see into the past."

"O-kaaay."

"I know what it is to teach children and to play men for fools and to ride horses, but you showed me something far beyond anything I can understand."

There was a long hesitation.

"I hadn't thought of that."

"How far in my future are you?"

"Well ..."  Sarah could feel the other woman's brows puzzle together a little.  "We're living on Mars."

"Is it nice?"

The other woman's laugh was easy and natural.

"I hadn't expected that one," she admitted.  "But no.  No, it's not nice. We have to manufacture everything, even the air we breathe. We've had to invent and build cannon that makes your biggest coastal defense guns look puny. We've got ships with more horsepower than all your steam locomotives combined.  We have ... devices ... that can detect incoming meteors from half a million miles, computers that calculate their trajectory within half a meter at that distance, automated systems that intercept and refine and convert them into elements or compounds we can use."

"So there's not much that I would find familiar."

The pause was longer, then:  "No."

"In that case," Sarah said, her eyes still closed, "I'll just stay here."

She felt the other woman rise, felt her shadow fall cool across her face, her hands.

"There is one more thing."

"What's that?"

Sarah heard the black-suited woman's voice soften a little.

"You look so very much like my aunt."

"What is her name?"

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

Sarah pushed her hat brim up with one finger, sat up, stood.

"Sheriff?"

The other woman nodded, smiled.

"Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado.  My cousin is Sheriff of the Second Martian Colony.  Her name is Marnie and you and she could be sisters, or maybe cousins, but dear God! you look just like Aunt Willa!"

Sarah smiled, looked at Snowflake, kissed at her mare:  the big Frisian came head-bobbing over, snuffed at one woman, then the other.

Sarah's pale eyes were mischievous as she looked at this soul from the future, this self her bloodline would become.

"You let me ride in your Snowflake," she said, smiling a little, "how would you like to ride mine?"

And so it was that another woman, all in black, swung onto Snowflake's broad back, and the Snowflake-mare, running for the joy of running, charged down the mountain trail, and gathered herself, and a woman's scream of sheer joy sang and echoed off the high mountain peaks, for it felt like the great black horse snapped out a set of wings, and soared on the high, clear air.

 

Somewhere in Colorado, sometime in the 1890s or so, a pale eyed woman woke in the predawn hush of her darkened bedroom, smiling as she remembered what it was to smell burnt JP-4 and feel a Sea Stallion banking sharply as it made a simulated combat run, and at the same moment nearly two centuries later, another woman woke in her woven-plastic bed in an underground Martian barracks, smiling as she remembered the smell of leather and horse sweat and the feel of muscles bunched under her and gleaming black hooves reaching for the other side of the gully, and for a moment, for a long moment, each woman remembered something she'd read, how the ancient Romans believed the gods communicated through dreams, and each considered that this, perhaps, was a gift from the Divine.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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