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132.  ONE OR THE OTHER

Sheriff Willamina Keller stared at the nighttime ceiling, one hand across her mouth, the other gripping her husband's blunt-fingered mitt.

He was warm beside her, solid, reassuring, and just as awake as she was.

Beneath her hand, her face tightened; Richard felt his wife shake a little, and he rolled up on his left side, laid a hand across her flat belly and muttered, "All right, Keller, out with it, what's up?"

"I don't know which was more impressive," Willamina murmured, bringing her hand down and laying it on her husband's hand.  "The Bear Killer looking that man in the face, or your taking him by the throat and slamming him into the back wall."

It was Willamina's turn to feel her bed partner shaking a little, and she realized he'd felt her silent laughter, just as she was feeling his.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller and her husband flew back from Ohio in a chartered Lear jet:  each wore a black suit, as befit the occasion:  they held hands as they flew, Richard occasionally looking over at his wife's solemn expression, but not wishing to intrude on her thoughts.

They'd flown back to Guernsey County, they'd shaken hands with men in uniform and men in blue jeans; there were smiled, there was quiet laughter, there was a display board with pictures of a heavy set man in a black uniform shirt and a uniform Stetson, leaning on the front fender of a white Plymouth police cruiser.

They listened to the less than competent preacher -- a man in his nineties, hired out of Akron, a man who didn't know the deceased, a man who managed to offend Willamina to her core when he said that he would give the graveside portion of the service here, as he had to leave: Willamina stepped up to the coffin as it was drawn from the hearse, she paced ahead of the pallbearers and their solemn burden, reciting "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life:  he that believeth in Me shall not die, but shall have everlasting life."

They bore the shining bronze casket past a row of saluting officers, both law enforcement, paramedics and firefighters:  Willamina spoke the final words over her old and dear friend's box, and after she gave the final prayer, the fire chief came up and shook her hand.

"You might not remember me," he said, "but I'm Heath Beal.  I became a fireman and a paramedic because of what I saw in you."
Richard looked at the man in surprise, then at his wife:  he'd been told at one time she'd been a fire paramedic, back East, but he didn't have any particulars on that part of his wife's past.

"I remember you," Willamina said softly.  "You've improved."

Chief Beal laughed, for the last time they'd seen each other, he was a skinny kid on a bicycle, admiring the hell out of everything his beloved firefighters did, and now he was just over six feet tall, a man grown in his own right.

They flew back to Firelands in the Lear, and took a taxi from what Willamina affectionately called the "Firelands International Crash Patch," and had the driver take them to the Silver Jewel.

Richard knew his wife had to eat something; he knew he was hungry; he knew she would not feel like fixing supper, and he knew she would be comforted by the familiar surroundings.

Besides, after attending the funeral of her old and dear friend, she could probably use a drink.

They nodded to the girl in the old-fashioned gown, behind the old-fashioned counter, with the old-fashioned pigeonholes behind:  the Silver Jewel was as old as the town itself, and the hotel and saloon had been restored, thanks in no small part to Sheriff Willamina's research, encouragement, the occasional arm twisting or favor calling, and with a substantial amount of behind the scenes funding from her personal accounts.

The Jewel was also a premier restaurant, a reputation it acquired in the early days, when Firelands was still a frontier town: they slipped between the tables and the few other diners, settled themselves in the Lawman's Corner:  a blocky, broad-shouldered man in a tailored, black suit, and a slender woman with pale eyes, in a tailored black suit dress:  they sat in the corner, each with their back to the wall:  each could see the interior of the Jewel, each knew the distance to the little stage, to the door, the bar, to the inch:  each settled comfortably into their chair, unobtrusively positioned so each could, if need be, access their hidden hardware and execute a clean draw therewith.

Old habit, you understand, with each of them:  Richard was retired FBI, and of course Willamina was the Sheriff.

The barkeep came back with two shot glasses on a tray, each filled to just barely below the brim with a payload of amber sledgehammer:  he set one in front of each, spoke quietly with them, nodded:  the couple knew their order would be placed immediately, and would be forthcoming very soon.

The pair waited until they'd eaten:  filet, a baked potato with trimmin's, green beans with bacon, onion, garlic and some other spice Willamina could almost recognize ... something not entirely unfamiliar, but whatever it was, enhanced the flavors delightfully.

Willamina really didn't have much appetite, at least not until she took her first bite, then she realized she was actually starved out, or near to it.

When they'd cleaned their plates, after they'd eaten the garlic-buttered sourdough, they picked up their shot glass of concentrated detonation.

"Here's to Town Marshal Robert Beymer," Willamina said, "good friend, damned good partner and the only man in Guernsey County to ever outshoot me."

Richard took a cautious sip of his.

Willamina knocked hers back, took it down without a breath:  she drove the heavy glass base into the tabletop, her eyes pale.

Richard set his down, only half consumed:  his look was one of concer, hers was one of murderous intent, and a diner at a nearby table said -- a little too loudly, a little too intentionally -- "What kind of a woman would drink like that!"

Richard reached for his wife's hand, too late.

Willamina was on her feet and on the move, and her voice was low and tight as she said "Do you really want the answer?"
The fellow stood, sneered.  "Yeah," he said.  "I would."

Willamina's hands closed into fists and Richard gauged his distance and his approach, watching the man's hands, hearing his words, planning his next move, thinking fast.

"I just buried my best friend," Willamina hissed.  "I buried the man who saved my life, and I saved his.  I just buried the man who knew my deepest secrets and right now I'm not feeling very generous, so why don't you sit down and apologize."

"Or what?"

Willamina's hand tightened on her husband's as they lay side by side in bed that night, and each felt the other's silent laughter:  Willamina spoke first.

"Richard," she said, "I believe that is the first time I've seen you defending my honor."

"It's the first time I took a man by the throat and ran him backwards until his head hit the wall," Richard admitted.

"I've never seen you move that fast."

"I'm just full of surprises."

Willamina quivered again, her laughter silent, enveloping, as she remembered The Bear Killer slipping in beside the police chief, streaking across the Jewel, shoving in under Richard's arm and planting his forepaws on the offender's shoulders, his wet black nose and shining ivory teeth on a level with the prisoner's wide and very concerned eyes.

"I don't know which troubled him more," she admitted.  "The fact that you bounced his gourd off the wall hard enough to shake the building, or the Police Chief saluting and addressing me as Sheriff."

"One," Richard agreed, "or the other."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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246.  CONSPIRACY, WITH A CADILLAC   John Burnett inclined his head a little, the very image of what Sherlock Holmes called "peering benevolence" -- he was the Firelands hospital's chaplain,

(blush) I, um, thank you, that is, ahhhh ... (ears turn red) (shoves hands in pocket) (kicks dirt) I took the cover photos for all three books. The cover model is my neph

This is an experiment. I want to see if I can write a short story. (Try no to laugh -- me, brief? -- well, miracles do happen!) When I wrote Willamina's original tale, she reached out o

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133. THIS SIDE OF THE LEFTMOST BOULDER

Finding the boy was a stroke of luck.

John Fitzer was an Easterner, a man who led a quiet and undistinguished life, a man who did the best he could and provided well for his wife and family.

He was a man who'd outlived his family, and now the doctors said his heart was failing, and other than the quack who swore that a compound of laudanum and mercury would put him to rights, the general agreement was that he should go home, put his feet up and wait for his aging carcass to stop breathing.

He'd divested himself of his earthly goods, sold his house and property, he'd given his few acquisitions to his nephews -- his sons were dead -- and he'd quietly disappeared.

Why shouldn't he.

He was one of those colorless fellows who works hard, provides, goes to church, never distinguishes himself with any outstanding achievement; he knew his absence would not be terribly missed, and that suited him just fine.

He had no family now, he had no great wish to lay his bones with his ancestors; something -- restlessness, maybe -- prompted him to purchase a ticket, to take the train West with a single valise, and now he was alone in the mountains.

The air was thin here, and he tired easily anyway; he'd stepped off the moving train when it was going slow, up a grade, he hadn't planned this, but when the train slowed as it approached the crest of a high saddle, he'd picked up his grip and slipped quietly out the back door:  the other passengers, what few there were, were facing forward, drowsing for the most part as best they could in the uncomfortable wooden benches: it was not uncommon for the men to step out on the back platform and get rid of secondhand coffee, and so his exit, his quit closing of the door after him, went entirely unnoticed.

He stumbled as he came off the bottom step, took a quick, running step to keep from falling:  he watched the car depart, and he felt no regret.

John Fitzer, Easterner, looked around, having no destination, having no plan.

He reasoned that the evening was approaching and he may wish to find shelter of some kind, and so he headed for some truly huge rocks not far from the tracks.

He ate the sandwich he'd bought earlier that day, enjoying the taste, looking around, marveling at the wild beauty this high up: the sun was starting to paint the hillsides and the mountaintops scarlet, wringing the colors out of the landscape, and John felt something he hadn't felt for a very long time.

He felt regret.

He looked at this fiery beauty, the utter richness of the colors, and realized he had never seen anything this truly gorgeous in his life.

He considered the futility of speaking aloud, of voicing his regret that he'd never come West to see this before, but he realized that opportunities lost are useless to contemplate:  yesterday was gone, and no help for it, and all his yesterdays were behind him, and he might not live to see sunrise.

He was almost surprised at how easily he accepted this fact.

 

The boy was tall for his age, but he was still a boy: his chores done, he gave leave to his restlessness to saddle up and head for the mountains, not with any particular destination: he rode with rifle in scabbard and a Colt's revolving pistol on his belt, despite his few years: he'd learned early, very early in his life, that a man may have need to speak with authority, and there was little that wished to argue with a .44 caliber gun muzzle.

When equine ears swing forward, when a saddlehorse stands stock-still and then stretches out a curious muzzle, sniffing loudly, the horse is sending a signal, exhibiting a curiosity, and the boy knew his horse and its moods:  he slid out of the saddle, Winchester rifle in hand, dropped the knotted reins over the saddlehorn and motioned his horse, flat palm up:  Stay.

He knew this section of the mountain, knew it well; the tracks were in sight, he and his father had dismounted very near here a few times, sometimes while in the saddle, the train's progress was so leisurely: at one point the ground rose high enough beside the tracks, their horses leaped easily from stock-car to sod.

The lad cat footed around the rocks, remembering the times he'd sheltered there, curious: there was neither scent of smoke, nor a rising blue haze.

He smelled a cologne, stopped, breathed in again, recognized the scent.

Bay rum.

A man, then, and a man who went to a barbershop fairly recently, but why no fire?

His tread was silent, his progress stealthy, steady:  he stared long at the interloper, this stranger, this sleeping man, unaccustomed to the high altitude and as a result, dead to the world.

The boy went down on one knee, watched steadily, his gaze across the fellow's middle, a trick he'd used before to gauge whether someone was breathing, or perhaps dead.

He saw the belly rise, and fall, and rise again.

Alive, then.

Easterner by his clothes, and not prepared at all.

The boy considered for a long moment, then returned to his horse.

 

Fitzer woke.

The blanket was warm and most welcome, a small, almost smokeless fire huddled in a small, tight ring of rocks; a blackened frying pan atop the fire sizzled, a blue-granite coffee pot beside it steamed, adding its fragrance to the moment, and a boy squatted behind it, stirring something that smelled like bacon.

Fitzer took a few moments to gather his thoughts.

"You looked cold," the boy said bluntly.

"How long ... "

"You slept all night, mister.  Reckoned you needed your rest."

Fitzer stood up, stuck his legs straight out, folded the blanket clumsily:  "Thank you for this."

"Might want to keep it wrapped around you. It's chilly this morning."

He picked up a stick with something golden wrapped around it.  "Here.  Start with this. Don't have any butter but you can dip it in bacon grease if you've a notion."

Fitzer accepted the bread -- the dough had apparently been twisted around a stick and baked over the fire, it was still warm -- and in short order he was sipping tongue-scalding coffee and eating the best bacon he'd ever tasted.

"Might as well fry it all up," the boy said, slicing more into the pan:  "I don't want it to go bad."  He looked up and Fitzer was struck by the amusement in the lad's eyes.  "Mama taught me that waste is a sin, and I don't want to grow up a sinful man."

"No," Fitzer agreed, hesitated:  "My name's John."

"Jacob."  The boy's grin was quick, ready:  he rose, reached across the fire, they shook.

"You haven't asked me why I'm out here."

"None of my business, mister."

"Yet you are sharing your breakfast with me."

The boy nodded.  "Tryin' to make Paradise when I die," he explained.  "Feed the hungry is part of it.  Now I don't know about you" -- again that amused look -- "but morning always makes me hungry!"

Fitzer accepted the fried, sizzling bacon, draped over his extended bread twist:  bacon, bread and coffee and he was quite ready to agree that he'd brought his appetite with him.

The boy watched as Fitzer's hand rose to his chest, as he turned his head and looked uncomfortable:  he took a long breath, took another.

He saw the boy watching him closely and he smiled a little.

"You remind me of someone," he said.

"Yes, sir."

"Your eyes ..."

Fitzer's hand closed, tightened:  he frowned, a pained look about him, he took another long breath:  a few more deep breaths and the pain eased.

"I knew a Captain," he said faintly.  

The boy's head turned a little, as if bringing a good ear to bear.

"Old Pale Eyes, sir?"

Surprise looked out the Easterner's eyes.

"You know him?"
"He's my father."

Fitzer nodded.

"Can I do anything to make you more comfortable?"  the boy asked.

Fitzer shook his head.

"No.  Thank you for asking, but no, I can't ... be helped."

"The doctors told you you're dying."

Fitzer nodded.

"You believe 'em?"

Again the nod.

"If a man believes he's going to die, he'll generally find a way to make it happen."

Fitzer took a few more breaths and the boy saw the corners of his mouth tug upward, just a little.

"Your father used to say that."

"Yes, sir."

Fitzer relaxed; he opened his eyes and realized the fire was out, the boy had put away his cook kit, but the blanket was still around him.

The boy was beside him now, down on one knee, a hand on the man's shoulder.

"There's a special comin' up the tracks right now. If you like we can get you on board and have you see Doc Greenlees."

Fitzer blinked slowly, as if his eyelids were much heavier than they should be.

"No, son.  I don't think it'll do much good."

The boy gripped the man's shoulder.  "Rest now," he said, and Fitzer did.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller and his son Jacob rode their horses off the flatcar onto the raised earth, the way they'd done any number of times before.

Jacob turned his Appaloosa stallion and led his father across the tracks, toward the rocks that looked like a petulant giant's child had thrown them there a thousand years before.

They found the dead man, still under Jacob's blanket.

When they removed the blanket, they found the letter in Fitzer's hands, and a leather wallet.

 

Captain --

Your son is a fine young man and I thank him for his kindness.

Give him this wallet.

It's all I have left.

Pvt Jno. Fitzer, Hemlock, Ohio

 

The tour guide wore a McKenna gown and a gentle smile, and gestured at the huge stones, looking like great, monstrous balls thrown there by a giant.

"Travelers would shelter in those rocks," she said, "and one was a man from back East, named Fitzer.

"The Old Sheriff you've read about buried him here, and had a stone set.  You can just see it -- there, on this side of that leftmost huge boulder.  It's kept mowed off around the stone, and once a year a spray of flowers is laid on the grave, and a Grand Army of the Republic flag holder stands beside the marker, its flag replaced when the flowers appear."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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134.  A BOY'S DECISION

Joseph Keller remembered how his father jumped his stallion over the fence, how he jumped his stallion across the gully, how Apple-horse didn't jump, he soared -- he floated -- he flew, on invisible wings, he launched from the earth and rode an unseen rainbow, describing a beautiful, shining arc, steel-shod hooves light as they landed.

Joseph Keller wanted to do that too.

Joseph Keller turned his two-year-old gelding, rode parallel to the gully:  they walked down a sandy wash, into the bottom of the gully, then they splashed upstream, until they reached the place he remembered his father jumped his Apple-horse.

Joseph Keller sat and looked up for a long moment, then he ran his eyes down the weathered wall, down dirt and sand and rock, until his eyes found water, and a carcass.

He lifted his head a little, curious: they walked upstream a little more, the odor of rotting meat strong in his nostrils.

He paid the smell no mind.

Rotting carcasses stank and that's just the way it was; it was a fact Joseph accepted, and discarded as unimportant.

He studied the dead beef for some time, then turned and squinted upward again, gauging the fall.

Joseph turned and rode downstream, slowly, eyes busy.

The smell followed him for a surprising distance.

Joseph rode with his hands on his thighs -- like all his Pa's riding stock, the gelding was knee trained -- Joseph didn't like to bit a horse, and so his mount was bitless, the reins knotted and dropped over the saddle horn.

Once, and once only, had someone tried to seize his horse's cheekstrap:  it was a moment of very bad judgement, for Jacob was as good a teacher as his father, Jacob was as prone to plan ahead as the pale eyed old lawman with the iron grey mustache, and like Sheriff Linn Keller, chief deputy Jacob Keller taught his young in various less than gentle ways of making his neighbor, peaceful.

Among the many lessons was that there is no such thing as a fair fight; when in doubt, cheat; and he, Joseph, is the weapon, and everything else in God's creation is a weapon for his use.

Especially his horse.

The short sighted soul who seized the gelding's cheekstrap earned the instant rebellion of the horse, the immediate ill temper of  its rider:  instead of seizing the young leg and boosting the boy out of the saddle, the would-be thief found himself hauled off the ground by the rearing horse, a coil of plaited reata swinging a tight arc and beating him about the head and shoulders:  a moment later and the honed edge of a knife seared out of nowhere, laid the side of his neck and his shoulder open, bringing a yell of pain, an immediate surrender of the cheekstrap, a stumbling retreat:  this did not satisfy either horse or rider, both of whom agreed the correct course of action was over top of the attacker, and the net result was not salutary.

Not in the least little bit.

As a matter of fact, by the time Joseph Keller got half a hundred yards away, came about in a tight arc, the way a good cutting horse will, with the horse's ears laid back and the rider's left hand still gripped around the bone handle of his skinning knife and his good right hand welded around the walnut handle of a .32-20 Colt revolver, the horse thief's eternal soul was just parting company with its bloodied and hoof-broken carcass.

This had been a couple of months ago: the memory was distant, past, done: Joseph reported the event to his pale-eyed Pa; father, son and grandson returned to the scene; the eldest Keller stood up on a rock, studied the tracks, the story written in the sandy dirt: he considered the dead man's reputation and he recalled the other witness statement, and his report to His Honor the Judge resulted in a no-bill decision: what happened was necessary, the deceased had it coming.

Joseph Keller rode back to the top of the deep gully, considered the smooth ground approaching the gap, recalled his father's grin, remembered hard hooves drumming against hard ground, a sight that painted speed across the sunlit landscape, a cadence that sang power in a commanding voice, a leap that tickled the young boy's belly just to watch it, the sudden silence as Apple-horse sailed across the void, mane and tail streaming, his Pa bent forward, as if to will his own energies to keep them in flight.

Joseph Keller walked his gelding to the rim and looked down.

He sat there for several long minutes, considering, then he pressed his left knee against the saddle skirt, shifted his weight: they turned, and they walked away from the broad crack in the earth.

Twice a hundred yards they rode, and once they turned:  they looked back, and Joseph's pale eyes regarded the approach, his head nodding ever so slightly, an unconscious action that gave him a triangulation, an exact distance, and then they turned again and rode away from the chasm.

"Nope," Joseph Keller said out loud.  "It ain't worth it."

 

Not far away, the shining brass tube of a telescope was draped with black cloth to hide its shine: a pale eye, steady behind the spyglass, tightened a little at the corner, tightened in approval, for the watcher could read lips, and the watcher had a clear view of the lad's face when he decided against the run, decided against the jump.

Sarah Lynne McKenna was not sure, but she was pretty certain.

Very likely she'd just seen young Joseph's first mature decision.

 

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135. THAT MEAN OLD BILLY GOAT

Sullivan Maxwell was a man who demanded obedience -- whether of his wives (he'd had three so far, two wore out and died from child bearin', the third was big and pregnant right now), whether of his thirteen boys, or whether 'twas his team.

One time, and one time only, did one of his horses step on his foot.

Sullivan took a singletree and genuinely beat that plow horse to its knees.

Sullivan was not a terribly kindly man -- he was not deliberately mean, nor was he intentionally unkind, he'd had a hard life and he'd had to scratch for everything he had, and he was of a notion that it would be his way or he'd make it that way.

In spite of such a stack of young, the wood box was perpetually needing filled, and so Sullivan set a chunk on the splittin' stump and he bent over to pick up the broad ax the boys left layin' on the ground.

He bent over and stretched forth his hand, making a mental note to take his razor strop to as many backsides as he could run acrost for leavin' the ax on the ground like that.

He might have heard the rapid patter of cloven hooves behind him, and if he did, he either paid it no attention -- he was a man in his own yard, tendin' his own business, no ill fortune would dare visit itself up on him! -- or if he did hear, he had not time to react.

Whichever the case, when that mean old billy saw Sullivan bend over to pick up the ax, why, he lowered his head and came acrost that bare dirt like he was loosed from a drawn bow, and he drove that old man right square in the backside.

A full grown billy with a set of them curled horns hits like a freight train, and he did, and Sullivan launched over the woodpile and scraped his arm and shoulder on stacked wood as he went over:  he rolled in mid-air, hit the ground, rolled, came up on all fours.

That mean old billy goat shook his head and laughed, then turned and trotted away, clearly content.

That was it.

That was the proverbial, absolute, it.

Sullivan Maxwell took a little time to work the stiff and sore out of his bones.

He'd worked his whole life, his shirt sleeves were as full of arm as an oilfield driller's, his bones were strong from a lifetime of use, and so he hobbled around the wood pile, picked up the broad ax, and hobbled toward the billy, which was contentedly working on some stray grass tufting up around the base of a locust fence post.

Sullivan Maxwell gripped the ax with both hands, his jaw set:  brothers and half-brothers, seeing the Old Man's face, made themselves scarce: they knew this mean old billy goat -- mean because they were the ones that tormented it and made it that-a-way, mean to the point it humped up to water on its own beard so it would stink, mean such that it watered all over Sullivan's good S.D. Meyers saddle and saddlebags, the ones he used when he rode all over Monroe Township with a saddlebag full of pints of whiskey, and the other full of quit claim deeds, getting the farmers drunk and getting them to sign over the rights to the coal under their property.

Sullivan Maxwell thought of that good saddle he'd paid good money for, he regarded his own stove up and sore carcass, and Sullivan Maxwell spun that hand sharpened broad ax in a fast, tight arc, and clove that mean old billy's head off at the shoulders, with one stroke.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller sauntered over to the worn looking dirt farmer leaning against the bar, laid a companionable hand on the man's shoulder.

He accepted a fresh beer from Mr. Baxter, slid it in front of the lean old man.

"How's your stove up and sore?" he asked quietly, so only Sullivan could hear, and Sullivan glared at him, then looked at the beer and frowned.

Linn raised a finger, accepted the sandwich on a plate:  he took half, slid the other half in front of the stubbled old man.

"My Granddad run a-foul of a billy goat once," the pale eyed lawman said as Mr. Baxter slid him another beer.  "All he had was a shovel, though, that billy treed him in a shed so he come out with that shovel and figured to peel that goat with the edge of the blade and bust his skull."

Sullivan Maxwell considered this, and considered the unexpected bounty in front of him.

He picked up the sandwich, took a bite, found it to his liking:  the beer, too, was cool, fresh tapped from the keg below the saloon, where 'twas always pleasantly cool:  he chewed thoughtfully, took a noisy slurp, looked at the Sheriff.

"Did it kill him?" he finally asked.

"Nope," Linn admitted.  "Granddad beat on that goat all afternoon and finally that goat's head was just red with blood, and one horn was cut plumb off.  Once that tight curly horn fell out of the fur and hit the ground, why, that-there goat allowed as it had enough and it went off somewheres, and Granddad was able to come out of that shed finally."

Sullivan nodded.

"I got no likin' for goats," he muttered.

"No," Linn agreed, taking an equally noisy slurp on his own beer, then dashing the foam off his iron grey handlebar:  "me neither."

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136.  CRAZY HERMEY

 

The Blaze Boys never knew Hermey when he first hired on with the gold mine.

Hermey was a chemist, back East, a man of education who sought to use his education to further his personal fortune.

There was gold in the West, and where there was gold, there was mining, and where there was mining, there was a need to move dirt and rock, which meant explosives, and Hermey knew how to make explosives.

He knew how to make one particular explosive that made him valuable, and that was a volatile liquid called nitroglycerin.

Hermey set up in a little shack, out away from everyone, with a nearby stream that provided a nonstop source of cold water to wash the acid out of the nitro:  it was also very cold water, and that made his product that much less volatile:  an acquaintance tried to use nitroglycerin to blow up ice in a lake, and found that it would not do a thing at freezing temperatures.

When Hermey hired on, he was a bright, tidy, likable, good natured fellow.

Time, and the stresses of his profession, changed this:  the most notable change was after Chinese laborers were killed when trying to blow rock in a tunnel:  nobody really knew what went wrong -- Hermey preferred to set his own charges, but he was overruled, as there was too great a delay between manufacture, transport and placement:  use of the explosive was delegated to the cheap, easily replaced Chinese laborers.

The mines saw them as a disposable commodity, cheap and easily replaced.

Hermey saw them as people, and when six were killed outright and four more died of their injuries the next day, why, he never got over it.

When the Blaze Boys crept up on his shack, they saw a hollow-eyed, unknempt, unshaven man with his collar askew, without a necktie, badly in need of a bath, with white-shot hair and a hand that trembled when he stopped, and pulled out a flask, and took a long pull at what he called nerve tonic, before continuing his labors.

The Blaze Boys were known for the mischief they made, for such hijinks as blowing up a water barrel, as skating a cannon cracker under a team of draft horses, as launching a skyrocket into the storm-darkened heavens, and being blown themselves by the lashing return-stroke of a lightning-bolt that rode the skyrocket's smoke trail to earth.

This is why the Blaze Boys had a white streak in their hair -- one on his left side, one on his right -- and this lightning-seared blaze was how the Blaze Boys acquired their durable nickname.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller was turning, having shaken a man's hand and wished him good hunting, when a sharp but distance-softened detonation shivered the air.

His Cannonball-mare walled her eyes and danced, shaking her head:  a stray dog gave a startled, high-pitched yip, windows rattled, and men looked around, looked at one another.

Linn reached for Cannonball's cheek strap with his left hand, soothed his shivering mare's neck with his right:  "It's all right, girl, you're fine," he murmured, "you'll be just fine, now, shhh, there's a good girl," and he pulled a boot back before a restless forehoof came down where his own hoof had just been.

His son Jacob came up the street at a spanking trot, drew up in front of the Sheriff's office, his Appaloosa stallion dancing:  he looked at his father, saw the Sheriff shake his head ever so slightly:  no words were needed:  the pale-eyed son had inquired as to the cause of the alarm, and the pale-eyed father indicated that he did not know.

 

An hour later, two boys and a staggering man made it down the mountain trail, and across the railroad tracks, past the Depot and down the alley.

The boys each had a white blaze, one on one side of his head, the other boy, on the opposite:  they were unsure where they should take the sufferer, so they turned to the one man they'd known to be absolutely fair and even handed in all that he did, and that was their pale eyed Sheriff.

 

Doc Greenlees opened the door to the waiting room, stuck his head out.

Sheriff Linn Keller and Deputy Jacob Keller rose as the door opened; each man turned and approached as the lean physician crooked a summoning finger.

"I want you two to take this man somewhere," Doc said quietly, "I want you to dunk him in a bathtub and have him scrubbed down.  Have one of the girls give him a shave, and he'll need a new suit of clothes, and I need to send a telegram."

Hermey's eyes were wide and staring; the Sheriff knew the look well -- too well -- and Doc Greenlees gave the Sheriff a long look and said "I will fill you in later."

He watched as the two lawmen steered the sufferer toward the front door, waited until it closed behind them before returning to his own medical sanctum.

"That poor man," Nurse Susan murmured, taking a step nearer the thoughtfully-frowning physician.  "You've seen this kind of thing before."

"I have," Doc Greenlees nodded, blinking.  "Many times.  During the War, and after."

He turned to his desk, hesitated, then drew out the chair and seated himself.

He had a pad in the upper right hand pigeon hole:  he kept a half dozen pencils whittled and ready in the drawer, and with pencil in hand, he began to write.

 

"We went up to see him, Sheriff," one of the boys said, his eyes wide and sincere:  "we were hoping he'd show us how to make nitroglycerin --"

The other elbowed him in the ribs.  "You weren't supposed to say that!"

"He said it already," Linn said quietly.  "Then what happened?"

"He didn't look so good, Sheriff, so we didn't go near him.  He took somethin' over to the stream and he was real careful how he carried it and how he set it down in the water, and he slugged out of that bottle til it was dry."

"Go on."
"He got halfway back to his shack and it blew up."

"How far were you when it blew?"

The boys looked at one another, looked back at the Sheriff, looked around.

"About as far as from here to the Mercantile."

"Where was Hermey when it blew?"

"No more'n here to Digger's place."

Linn whistled.  "That's close," he murmured.  "No wonder he's dazed."

"Is he gonna die?"

Linn gripped a youthful shoulder with his left hand, gripped another youthful shoulder with his right.

"I don't believe he'll die today," he said in a quiet and fatherly tone.  "It was good of you two to bring him to me.  You done good."

Linn looked up at the Jewel.

"I believe Daisy might have some pie that's not been et yet.  Interested?"

 

Doc Greenlees joined the Sheriff not long after the two boys departed the Silver Jewel, having sated their appetites with half a pie apiece.

The physician looked back toward the Lawman's Corner, saw the Sheriff's raised hand, came over and sat.

"Give the man what he's havin'," the Sheriff said quietly to Daisy's girl, and the dark eyed hash slinger with the sweet smile looked at the neatly-dressed physician:  "Doc?"

"Just coffee, thank you," he said quietly.

She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.  "Are you sure?" she asked, concerned:  "if you'd turn sideways, you'd not throw a decent shadow," and Doc sighed, reached up and patted her hand.

"Bring me the special," he said tiredly.

"She's right, you know," Linn said as the girl sashayed across the floor toward the back hallway.

"Did she sashay?"  Doc asked, looking knowingly at his old friend.

"Doc, I don't think she can't sashay."
"She does it well."

"She does that."

"I'm prescribing a change of scenery," Doc said without preamble.  "I've seen men shocked by war and that's what he's showing. I don't want him anywhere near a mine or an explosives-works, ever again."

"Wise, I'd say."

"He'll be lucky if he doesn't crawl inside a bottle and die there."

"He might.  I've seen that too."

"I know you have."  Doc frowned.  "We've both seen it.  If you were a drinkin' man I'd have laid odds you would have too."
The Sheriff nodded.  "Likely you're right."

"Likely, hell.  After all you've been through?  It's a wonder you're not screaming at shadows in a lunatick asylum!"

"A lot of men survived that war, Doc."

"A lot of men lost their minds from it."

"Along with rest of self."  Linn leaned back as the hash slinger rested the edge of her tray on the checkered tablecloth, set coffee in front of each of the men, drew back, then skipped away like a happy little girl.

"Do you reckon she thinks I'm handsome?"  Doc asked, amused, waiting for the Sheriff to slide the sweating-cold cream pitcher over to him:  they'd drunk coffee enough to float a New England whaler, but they'd both come to prefer it with a little cow drizzled in to take the edge off.

"Hell yes she thinks you're handsome," Linn grunted, taking a noisy slurp and frowning.  "Hot enough to scald the hair off my tongue!"

"Where's Hermey now?"

"He's upstairs."  Linn set his heavy ceramic mug down.  "Jacob is with him.  He's still shocked, or was when I was up there, just staring and letting them do anything to him."

"I sent a telegram to a colleague.  I know of a place."

"So do I."

"Oh?"

"Brother William's monastery.  Peaceful.  Set routine every day.  He'll be kept clean, they'll be able to watch him, he can heal up there."

"I don't think the man was married."

"No.  Never was."

"What about the mines?"

"They'll hire someone else.  They always do.  Someone'll come out and slowly go insane from the stress, either drink himself to death or get blown up like Hermey nearly was."

Doc nodded, leaned back as a plate full of meat and potatoes, gravy and green beans set down in front of him, and its twin in front of the Sheriff:  a second girl replaced the first, placed a cloth lined wicker basket on the table, full of still-warm sweet rolls, and a lump of butter on a plate beside.

"How'd you know I wired Rabbitville?"

"I"m a lawman," Linn said with a straight face.  "I find things out."

Doc looked sharply at the pale eyed lawman.  "You're a poor liar, you know that."

Linn looked at his old and dear friend, and Doc saw a smile start to tighten up the corners of his eyes.

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

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137.  TO SHAKE THE FINGER

Mary Jo Thrapp stared into the still eyes that stared at her through glass.

That's Sean, she thought:  he looks like a linebacker.

She tilted her head a little, smiled.

"I like your mustache," she whispered.  "I can see why our guys wear theirs like that."

She turned and looked at the horse drawn ambulance, shining and polished, even the glossy-black, red-pinstriped wooden spokes showed the care given the restored apparatus.

Their firefighters, their medics, all lent a hand with its restoration: those who lacked the skills needed to bring a century-plus vehicle back to immaculately restored life, knew someone who had those skills:  a brass plaque, hand engraved, burnished and bright, shone from just under the driver's seat, on the driver's side, bearing the names of those who'd contributed to the ambulance's resurrection.

Mary Jo looked over at their beloved "Steam Masheen," that Ahrens late-generation steamer, still able to throw water with the best of them, and she remembered the old-timers who described its first trip out of town, when it was being trailered to a parade: they came across a house afire, they offloaded the machine and the horses, they fired the boiler and threw a hard suction into the swimming pool adjacent, and before the jurisdictional fire department arrived, their very own Irish Brigade, wearing the red-wool uniform shirts and black-wool trousers of the original Irish Brigade, made attack and made entry, and all agreed that, with their restored, steam powered fire engine, had the shiny red Sutphen pumper not come rolling up when it did, they'd have had the fire out on their own.

Mary Jo was a paramedic, and a good one:  she'd worn the blue star for just shy of ten years now, and more times than one she'd thought of the Sheriff's advice -- "If you want to make a difference," she said, "if you really want to do what's satisfying, don't become a nurse."
Mary Jo smiled as she remembered the pale eyed woman's advice.  Her own mother was a nurse, and found it a most satisfying career, and frankly could not understand why her daughter did not want to follow in her example:  Mary Jo, for her part, found wisdom in the Sheriff's words, and one night, when she and her mother disagreed on her choice, she snapped, "Mother, I can perform invasive therapies you can only dream of.  I routinely run cardiac megacodes, I've had to perform field cricothyrotomies, I've done emergency C-sections when the mother was nonviable and the fetus still had life.  You can't give an aspirin or a Band-Aid without taking your hat in your hand and saying to a doctor, 'Mother May I' and I will be DAMNED if I'll give that up!"

Mary Jo looked at their steam engine, and remembered that its first showing resulted in its being used as it was originally intended.

Mary Jo saw her red-shirted Brigade draw back and examine the horse-drawn ambulance with a critical eye, then the Captain looked at her and said "Okay, Saddles.  Load up."

Mary Jo dipped her knees and gripped the two big orange boxes, stood:  she stowed the go boxes inside, under benches and behind blankets; she secured two oxygen tanks, masks, tubing and cannulae.

The Captain thumbed the green button, the overhead door chuckled open:  steel horseshoes were loud on smooth concrete as a white mare was brought in, backed into the traces, harnessed up.

Mary Jo walked back over to the portraits hung on the wall, shook her finger at them.
"I don't want to have to use this," she scolded.  "You might think it was funny to make the guys use the steam engine, but I don't want to have to use this one!" -- then she turned and skipped across the bay, reached up for the extended hands, stepped onto the rear step and into the ambulance.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller told her later there are evil demons of the air that listen to every word we say.

"What's that you say?  A picnic?  ZAP! -- thunderstorms and red ants!"

Mary Jo smiled a little, and nodded, then she looked up at the portraits again, and remembered.

 

The driver was in the red, bib front shirt with the gold embroidered Maltese cross, his knee high boots burnished, gleaming:  Shotgun wore all white, with a white Bell cap, and both men had their mustaches waxed into villainous handlebars.  Shotgun managed to find black mustache wax, which suited them both just fine.

The parade started on the lower end of town, as it always did; usually the Steam Masheen appeared in the parades, but today it was this fine, restored, horse drawn ambulance:  Mary Jo and Shelly Crane had hand-painted the Maltese cross on the canvas cover, and on each of the folding canvas cots:  there was but little room inside, but that was authentic:  back in the Bad Old Days, no treatment occurred in the back of an ambulance:  it was strictly a hauler, and working room was not a priority.

The driver walked the mare; she was born and raised here, accustomed to the high altitude from birth, her blood was thick, rich, particularly suited to carry oxygen this high up:  she'd been both ridden, and hitched to wagons, exercised and toned and at least a little bit spoiled:  Sheriff Willamina Keller and her little boy took a particular delight in tending the fire department's white mares, and this one, intelligent and strong, remained a favorite.

Mary Jo's head came up when a shouted voice brought the driver's head around:  someone was run up beside the driver's box, her driver turned to Shotgun:  Shotgun snapped "Do it!" and then turned:  "Hang on, Saddles, we've got a run!"

Mary Jo's mouth went dry and she gripped the hard edge of the narrow bench:  a whistle, a yell, the ambulance surged and rattled under her as Shotgun yelled, "Cardiac run a block away! We'll get there before the squad!"

 

Bruce Jones, editor of the Firelands Gazette, scrolled through the pictures he'd taken.

He managed to cut across an empty lot, he beat the horse drawn ambulance by seconds:  camera up and finger heavy on the shutter button, he caught the white mare, mane flared to the side and hooves in mid-stride:  he caught two men in mid-leap, one in the red, bib-front uniform shirt of more than a century before, the other in the white uniform of a medical orderly of the same era:  he smiled a little at the out-of-place appearance of a modern paramedic, stethoscope around her neck, starting an IV in a householder's driveway, while the white-uniformed orderly handed the IV bag to the fireman with the immaculately-curled, absolutely-black mustache:  he flipped through a few more frames, passing images from right to left on his computer screen:  two men stood, each gripping one end of the folding canvas cot, a green oxygen bottle belted in against the patient's side, under the black canvas strap:  the blue-uniformed paramedic, braided pigtails swung to the side as she skipped along to keep up with their rapid routemarch, holding the IV bag high:  he slowed as he scrolled past the white mare swinging to the side, he stopped and took a long look into the back of the ambulance:  half the cots were pulled out, thrown to the driveway, to make room to work, and he remembered the paramedic with those long, ribbon-tied braids, arms straight, elbows locked, shoulders driving mercilessly down as she began CPR on the still form.

Had he been able to keep up with them, he knew, he would have seen the Sheriff on her shining red Cannonball mare, rearing and yelling in the middle of the street, clearing a path by sheer force of will:  vehicles, apparatus and marching band alike crowded to the side as she reared her mare, drawing an engraved Colt's revolver and punching a hole in the sky with a blackpowder .44 round:  "MAKE A HOLE, PEOPLE, WE'RE COMING THROUGH!" -- and then a pale eyed woman on a red horse led the way for the white mare, drawing an ambulance, bearing a patient to the hospital.

 

Mary Jo looked up at the framed portraits behind sheltering glass.

The mare was unhitched, taken for a cooling walk, a rubdown:  the ambulance was muscled back into the bay, into its new allocation, and men descended on it, wiping it free of accumulated dust, picking up the medical litter that accompanies running a code blue in the field.

Strong hands gripped her shoulders, gentle but strong.

She leaned back against the welcome warmth of her Captain.

The driver came in, with his Shotgun beside:  both men looked at the Captain.

"That one," Shotgun said, "bothered me."

"Yeah.  Me too."

They looked at Mary Jo and laughed.

"We don't have to ask you."

Mary Jo looked down.

Her blue uniform shirt was dark with sweat, clear in to the buttons:  the only place that wasn't wet, was the gap between second and third, and third and fourth, buttons.

Mary Jo reached up, patted the strong, masculine hand on her left shoulder, then turned, looked up into a kindly set of hazel eyes.

"Daddy," she said, "the next time I shake my Mommy-finger at the Irish Brigade, turn me over your knee and spank me!"

Father and daughter laughed as the Captain bent and hugged his daughter and picked her up and spun her around like he did when she was a little girl.

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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138.  THE SAVE

 

"I know that look."
Sheriff Willamina Keller looked up from her rolltop desk, looked across the living room at her husband, loafing indolently on their edge-worn sofa.

"Oh?" she asked archly, crossing her legs and raising an eyebrow as she leaned toward him, planted her elbow on the upper knee, and rested her chin in the V between thumb and forefinger.

"You're thinking about going up and staring at that tomb stone again."

Willamina raised an eyebrow, blinked slowly.  "So you're a mind reader now."

"It wasn't hard," Richard smiled, tossing his paperback to the side and lacing his fingers together across his flat belly.  

"Do tell," Willamina said quietly, giving her husband a look that was either of interest, lust, or preparing to attack.

He nodded toward her desk.  "You're reading one of the Journals."

"Mm-hmm."

"You've been cross referencing that Journal with two others."

"Mm-hmm."

"You've leaned back three times and frowned a little, the way you do when you're thinking something over, you've turned each time to stare at his portrait" -- he gestured with a bent forefinger to the framed print, hung on the wall above and behind her right shoulder -- "and when you do that, he's done something significant, and more often than not you'll end up going up to the graveyard and you'll stare at his stone for an hour or two."
"Oh, really?"

"No, O'Reilly, and when you do I want to tell you to drink some motor oil to keep the gears between your ears lubricated, because I can hear 'em turning when you're staring at that stone."

"I see."  Willamina allowed herself a shadow of a smile.  

"What's the skinny old hell-raiser done now?"

Willamina took a long breath, uncrossed her legs and sat up very straight:  she stood, stretched, came up on her toes and thrust her fingers at the timber ceiling overhead, wiggled them, then sat back down -- very ladylike, very proper.

"It seems you were right when you called him a hell raiser."

Richard shrugged.  "When we examined the Journals back in Quantico -- especially the first one -- they were quite popular reading.  Behavioral analysis loved 'em."
"What did they say about the man?
"

"Other than PTSD, quietly violent, no conscience, a stone cold murder machine?"

"They did not!"

"Okay, maybe not the stone cold murder machine, but they did conclude he could kill someone and sleep with a clean conscience that night."

"I've done that."

"I know."  Richard smiled a little.  "So tell me, what caught your attention this time?"

Willamina frowned, looked over at the journal, now closed, on her desk top.

"Richard," she said, "if someone walked into my office and said they were going to kill our son for interfering with their business, what would be the correct course of action?"

"Mmm."  Richard rubbed his palms together slowly, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.  "Doesn't sound like a Federal case, so state and local statute.  Menacing, I'd say, uttering ... any weapons involved?"

"In mention only, if at all."

"Charges, then, why do you ask?"

"Richard, what if I came boiling over top of my desk and seized the man by the throat, drove the back of his head into the wall and then pulled a knife the size of a Roman short sword and thrust lt like a sewing machine into his gut, in and up into the heart, pinning him to the wall with his boots a foot off the floor and my fisted hand around that wire wrapped handle, going into the man's belly up to my wrist with each thrust?"

Richard whistled.  "Never knew you to do that," he said speculatively.

"I've done some things, but never that," she admitted, then tapped the closed Journal's back cover with a neatly trimmed fingernail.  "He did."

Richard frowned with one eyebrow only, grunted.

"You might remember the name Charlie Macneil."

Richard blinked twice, thinking, then realized Willamina was referring to someone from the Old Sheriff's journal, not a case he'd worked.  

"Yes.  Yes, I do."

Willamina's eyes swung back to the desk top.  
"He was ... Old Pale Eyes was a violent man when there was need, and he killed a man in his Sheriff's office in just that manner, he killed the man who walked in and said he was going to kill the Sheriff's son Jacob for interfering with whatever it was he was doing."

"And got away with it?"

"It was a different time," Willamina shrugged.  "He might have been a hell raiser, Richard, but he was honest and he was factual.  I just read his account of the moment, even where his boon companion Charlie Macneil stopped him with a quiet voice.  He wrote that it was like a bucket of cold water dashed in his face."

"Dear Lord, what did the man say? -- he stopped a man in the middle of good honest rage, and all he did was speak to him?"

"I don't think it's as much what he said, as much as the fact that it was him that said it."

Richard frowned.  "May God provide us with wise counsel when we need it," he murmured.

"He did that day," Willamina affirmed.  "That's why I put such faith in what he's written.  He wrote in so many words when he screwed up.  He wrote that he came away from the Lake of Rage when Charlie inquired 'Use enough dynamite there, Butch?' -- and that was not the first time they had such a moment."

Richard nodded, remembering:  every lawman, at one time or another, has to decide whether to manage his rage, or to allow the rage to manage him:  Richard had such a moment, in his own career, and he knew his wife had had several.

"Off the subject," Richard offered, "I heard Pete Minnitch is going to live."

Willamina smiled, nodded.  "Yes."

"You saw the paper."
Willamina laughed.  "Oh, yes, plenty of people made sure I did!"

"You almost made the front page, you know."

"I know."

"It's not every day that a Western sheriff on a rearing horse fires her pistol into the air and clears the street!"

"Did anyone get that picture?
Richard pushed the cell phone up from his shirt pocket, tapped on the screen, smiled, then handed it to his wife.

It showed her on Cannonball, the mare in full, windmilling rear, the photo showed the engraved revolver in her hand, the expanding cloud of gunsmoke and the dirty fire-finger driving through it:  she enlarged the picture and laughed at her own expression, then handed it back.

"I like the front page photo better," she said.  "He caught that white mare with her mane thrown sideways and floating, he caught her forehooves up and her head down and it looks like the picture is going to come off the page and right at the reader!"

"It is a good picture," he agreed.  "Will there be any hell raised about not waiting for the regular squad to arrive?"

"Given the totality of circumstances," Willamina said thoughtfully, "no."

"Mm."  Richard nodded.  "I heard some talk about that.  One of the old veteran medics was drowning his sorrows in a chocolate milkshake and complaining that he'd put a quarter of a century of his life under the lights and siren and he'd never had a CPR save."

"He had one this morning."

Richard looked sharply at his wife and she smiled, blinking slowly, like a sleepy cat in a sunny window.

"I find things out, dear, and get this."  She stood and walked slowly, seductively, over to her husband, sat down beside him, molded herself to him and ran her arm around his shoulders.  

She put her lips to his ear and whispered, "It was Council President's wife, and she's going to be fine."
Richard shivered a little as his wife's lips nibbled at his earlobe.

"Madam, are you trying to seduce me?" he said quietly, his voice thick, and Willamina kissed the side of his neck, drew back, looked at him with darkening blue eyes.

"Yes, I most certainly am," she whispered back, reaching up and unbuttoning his top shirt button.

Richard stood, ran an arm under his wife's knees, his other arm behind her:  he carried her across the living room floor, stopped at the foot of the stairs, kissed his wife's lips carefully, delicately.

"I do love it when you talk newspapers," he whispered, then he carried his bride upstairs, his tread slow, measured, deliberate, ascending the steps with his wife in his arms, as had been done many times before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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139. BLACK RIDER

 

"Hello, Frankie."

Frankie Wyscinski froze.

The voice was from behind him and he did not have to look to know the quiet click, click in the shadowed predawn livery meant a double barrel shotgun was just eared back to full stand.

"I want the girl," Frankie said, his voice steady:  his mind was weighing his escapes, his defense: there was nothing behind which to take cover and at that distance, a twelve-bore would punch a hole through a man the best surgeon on earth couldn't fix.

"You'll not have her."

"I'll not stand wimmen bein' sold."
"Tell me about the girl you're lookin' for."  The voice was muffled a little, as if the speaker was trying to disguise his voice -- perhaps even speaking from behind a neck-wound muffler, pulled up over the mouth and nose, or a thick bandanna, drawn up after the same wise.

"She's cute.  Good legs.  Dances like she's got wings on her back and springs in her shin bones.  Laughs and sings and she's all woman by the look of her.  Every time Blackrider comes in town she'll dance at the saloon.  Nobody sees her until you ride in and when you ride out, she goes with you."

"You ever see her come in?"

"No."

"Ever see her leave?"

"No."

"You ever see the Blackrider before now?"

"No," Frankie admitted.  "No, a boy come a-runnin', he said 'Black rider comin'" and I knew -- hell, he must've told half the town, I never seen such a crowd at the saloon!"

There was no reply.

Something landed in the bare place between Frankie's boots, where straw was scuffed aside to reveal bare dirt.

"Pick that up and take it over to the lantern."

Frankie knew he didn't have enough in his hand to even bluff, so he bent over and picked up something dark and leathery, hoping a charge of heavy shot would not swim backwards up his nether canal and cause him grief, and for a moment he wondered:

When Saint Peter asks me how I died, how do I tell him I was shot in the butt in a New Mexico stable?

 

The barkeep had a brisk business already.

When word came of the Black Rider, men gathered, for they knew there would be entertainment.

Nobody ever saw the Black Rider: even the active young boy saw him only for a moment, saw that black figure on a huge black horse, before they disappeared in an arroyo and never came out:  the boy ran back to town, ran panting into the Sheriff's office like he was trying to blow up a burst paper bag, ran in and almost fell and half-gasped, half-yelled "Black rider comin'!" -- and then he scrambled out, arms windmilling like he was going to drop to all fours and scamper like a scared stray dog.

Word traveled fast in that dried-up little town, a town where cattlemen came and went, where farmers scratched at the dirt and tried to raise a crop and a family, where hope desiccated and dreams evaporated and nothing much happened, a place where entertainment was seized with an almost desperate impatience:  an itinerant piano tuner came through town and said he'd been paid by someone whose live was saved by a good cold beer, he tuned the piano in their weathered, unpainted, warped-clapboard church, he'd tuned the piano in their sagging saloon with sawdust thick on the dirt floor, he'd repaired two keys that hadn't communicated with the rest of the piano for more years than anyone recalled, and he set down and played a couple lively little tunes:  men drifted hopefully into the saloon on the remote -- the very remote -- chance that a cute little dancin' girl got swindled into performing on their small stage, and the barkeep sold a few more beers that day.

 

Frankie Wyscinski, the town's marshal, picked up the square leather that landed between his boots.

It was heavier than he expected.

He stepped over to the smoked-up lantern, rubbed the leather -- it was folded over, he turned it over, opened it.

He looked at the bronze shield, squinted a little, read the hand-chased engraving on the gleaming metal, and the stubbled town marshal almost smiled.

"Well I'll be sawed off and damned," he said quietly.

 

The barkeep was busy.

He'd been lucky: he'd gotten extra kegs of beer by mistake, but they were still fresh, down below, down in the hand dug cellar where he kept them: they were plumbed up to his bar, such as it was, put in by someone with more money than good sense -- why, it even had one of them fancy faucet things you stuck your beer mug under, and pulled the handle, and beer come pourin' out into the mug!

He fetched out his setting maul, banged the planks laid across two barrels and roared, "NOW HEAR THIS, YOU SCURVY DOGS! I'M GOIN' DOWN STAIRS TO SET UP ANOTHER KAG! DON'T NONE OF YOU RUDDERS THINK ABOUT PULLIN' ATTAIR HANDLE, I DON'T WANT TO GET A BATH!" -- and of course, just about the time he was ready to couple up the new kag, someone pulled the handle and ten feet of beer column came cascading down, giving the man his Saturday night bath a couple days early:  above him, he heard uproarious laughter, and below them, the roisterers heard shouted and most heartfelt profanity.

Once upstairs, with the increase in commerce, the barkeep could almost forgive them the trick they always played on him: he knew that momentary loss of dignity would translate into future business, for a man will spend good money to get a chance to pull a trick on someone, and if he got beer on him, so what.

He was a barkeep, he ran a saloon.

 

"I heard of you," Frankie said, his voice less tense.  

"I've heard of you," the voice said behind him, and he heard the very slight sound of twin hammers being released, one at a time:  he knew from the lack of a following boom that they were carefully lowered to the half cock notch, and his stomach unwound, just a little.

"Why the shotgun?"
"I like breathing."
Frankie considered, nodded.

"Turn around."

Frankie turned around, watched as a figure melted from shadow into light.

Frankie Wyscinski had been town marshal for a few years, he'd been a deputy some years before that:  he'd seen quite a bit -- all lawmen do -- but he hadn't quite seen what he was looking at right now, and it showed.

 

The piano player accepted the beer, took a long pull, set it on top of the piano:  he turned, caught the bright-red, gold-tassled whorehouse pillow as it sailed through the smoky air at him, he placed it on the round piano stool with exaggerated care, ignoring the boos and good natured chaffing of the audience rapidly filling the little saloon.

It was rare the place was crowded, but tonight it surely was:  word traveled fast in a dried up little town that starved for entertainment, and even some of the respectable women slipped in, pretending to try to be invisible:  they were close to the back, but they made sure they had a good line of sight with the little stage.

The piano player made a show of lacing his fingers together, turning his palms away, stretching his fingers until the knuckles cracked:  he unlaced his hands, delicately rubbed thumb and fingertips together, for all the world like a safecracker getting ready to ply his precision trade (truth be told, that was one of his several professions, but that's another tale altogether), and he raised his hands, looked at the curtains.

A feminine hand emerged from between the dusty drapes, waved a lacy hankie, to the loud and whistling applause of most of the men there.

The barkeep was busy filling one mug after another, collecting coin and swiping quickly at the nearly-smooth planks with an almost filthy bar towel:  he made a mental note to replace it one of these days, he'd only been using the same threadbare towel for a year now.

The piano player hammered a brisk fanfare and the steady roar of voices fell dramatically to a low muttering:  men lowered cigarillos and hand-rolled quirlies and took a quick, expectant gulp of their drinks, and every eye turned toward the opening curtains.

 

"I take it you are a Mason," she said as she parked the double gun against a stall.

He nodded.  "Yes, ma'am."

"You recognize that shield."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Blackrider said to show you this."

She handed him a slip of paper.

He unfolded it, turned to the lantern with the filthy chimney, frowned as he read:

From one lawman to another, extend my associate every professional courtesy and assistance.

It was signed with a rose, and the Masonic Square and Compasses.

"Where is Blackrider?"

"Not here, but soon."

"That's why you're hiding here."

She smiled.  "Yes."

His eyes very much appreciated the brief, saloon-girl outfit, the stocking-clad curve of her ankles, the way she stood, then he blinked, shook his head a little to dismiss this distraction from his consciousness.  

"I am kind of curious," he admitted.  "Why ... the mask?"
She tilted her head a little, the feathers on her half-mask flowing as she did.  

"Let's just say ... "

She stepped closer, laid a hand on his chest, tilted her head again, smiling as she did.

"Let's just say that some man's decent and respectable wife loved to dance, and she didn't want the other women to gossip about her in church."

"Hmp."  Frankie was unconvinced, but he was not inclined to disagree:  it was quite possible this was the case -- and besides, she was apparently in good favor with one of the most effective detectives in the territory, and the very last thing he wanted to do was get on the bad side of the famous Black Agent of Firelands.

 

The curtains hissed aside.

A moment's silence, then men roared their approval, callused palms pounding one another, pounding tabletops:  whistles, yells, catcalls, the piano's bright and brisk opening chords drowned out entirely.

The barkeep smiled.

Business was very, very good.

The woman on stage stood, one smooth, stockinged leg extended dramatically, her left arm across her belly, the right thrust heavenward:  her chin was back, her expression haughty:  she was beauty, she was grace, she was femininity.

Then she began to dance.

Her moves were smooth, sinuous, boneless:  she draped herself shamelessly across the stage, she moved with an absolutely feminine grace:  just as femininity flowed across the stage, masculinity surged and roared like waves on the shore, pounding against the edge of the stage as if against an invisible barrier.

Women were not common in the West: cowboys would ride for most of a day to a settler's house, just to sit and gaze upon the settler's daughter, sitting on her porch, sewing clothes or darning socks, blushing furiously because she knew she was the subject of an adoring gaze: the same men who would carouse shamelessly with soiled doves, would treat decent women with an elaborate and genuine courtesy.

Saloon girls were generally considered to be in the Soiled Dove category, but early in this dancer's appearances here, in this desiccated little saloon, she'd honestly kicked a man into a bloody pile when he swarmed up on the stage and tried to put his hands on her:  when two more followed, she produced a knife, drove it into one's ribs like a sewing machine, spun, slashed the other's arm to the bone:  there was a near-riot, and the offenders were beaten before they were lynched, and the town's marshal made no effort to stop the blood crazed mob:  the dancing girl disappeared, and did not return for two months, and when she did, she danced as if nothing untoward ever happened, and no man ever tried to charge the stage again.

This was the lovely soul Marshal Frankie Wyscinski found himself facing, very close-up, in the darkness of the predawn stable.

 

The dancer stopped suddenly, head back, arm up-thrust, frozen:  the piano-player had come to the end of his tune, she'd timed her sudden, freezing stop with his dramatic, terminal chord:  long moments she held statue-like, then lowered her head until she was looking directly at her silent, rapt audience:  she lowered her up-thrust arm, pointed to the banker in his townie suit and Derby hat, cigar forgotten and dead between his fingers.

"YOU!" she shouted.  "WHAT'S YOUR NAME, COWBOY?"

Now the banker was so obviously not a cowboy that both he and the rest of the assembled laughed:  he raised his chin and called, "Samuel!"

"Fellas, I'd like you to meet Samuel, I've known him for a long time now," she declared loudly, to the laughter of the saloon crowd:  "Samuel, can you play this?"

She leaned over to the side, pulled a big, double-strung Mexican guitar from the shadowed corner.

The banker, red-faced, shook his head.

"NECCESITO UN MEXICANO!" she shouted, holding up the guitar, and an old man with leathery skin raised his sombrero.

"Let that man through!" she shouted.  

Broad-shouldered, hard-muscled humanity parted, letting the dried up old man through:  strong hands boosted him to the little stage, and the woman laid a hand on his shoulder, spoke quickly, urgently:  he nodded, accepted the guitar.

"PASS ME A CHAIR!" -- her trained singer's lungs commanded to the furthest ears: several were offered, one was accepted, and the old Mexican seated himself, shifted a little, gripped the guitar's neck:  they saw him smile, just a little, his eyes half-closed, as if remembering something ... something particularly special.

His hand opened, his fingers caressed the strings like a man caresses a lover.

The dancer was gone; a wisp, a twist of smoke, she disappeared behind the curtain behind the stage, leaving the old man to weave his melody alone.

 

Frankie walked back to his drafty office, shotgun in hand, stopped in the middle of the street.

The saloon was empty now, silent; he knew the barkeep took in a healthy till tonight, he always did when he had girls on the stage.

Frankie looked to the east, where dawn was streaking the bony skyline.

"Red sky in the morning," he whispered, his breath making little steam puffs in the still air.

He turned, opened his office door, looked around before entering.

His kerosene lamp, at least, had a clean chimney -- he'd cleaned it himself, before touching match to the wick -- and for no particular reason, he took a closer look at the double gun Blackrider handed him.

He looked closer, smiled.

There was a rose, graven on the britch end of each barrel, something he'd seen before.

"Well I'd be damned," he murmured, and smiled, for he'd seen that same pattern of rose before.

Men recognized patterns:  brands were unique, men of the West had an eye for detail, and Frankie knew he'd seen that exact pattern of rose before.

 

The old Mexican did not play the guitar.

He caressed the guitar, and under his browned fingers, the guitar sang, and it sang a hypnotic, mesmerizing, soul-seizing melody that made men restless, made them want to run and reach and achieve, and then a women in a red-and-black lobstertail dress spun out from behind the back curtains and she stopped, one leg out, one arm up, chin haughtily in the air -- the very same pose of the dancer, earlier, but this dancer wore bright red paint on her lips and her hair was drawn severely back:  she wore a smaller, glitter-black half-mask without the elaborate feather plumes, and she wore black gloves to her elbows.

The old Mexican stopped, placed his palm over the strings to still them.

Strong and determined men held their breath, waiting.

The guitar began to sing.

Her heels were in flawless rhythm with the guitar's cadence, the castanuelas in her gloved grip snarled counterpoint: the guitar's cadence increased, as did her own:  properly danced, the flamenco will set a man's heart afire: desire roared in manly hearts as the woman led them, baited them, controlled them:  unlike her earlier performance, her moves were tightly controlled, but still utterly feminine:  she danced her set, the guitar came to its crescendo, as did her heels, and both stopped:  the silence was as sudden as a gunshot, and just as profound.

The loud-voiced, hard-handed applause pounded against her shoulders as she slipped behind the rear curtains again.

 

Frankie looked up at the knock on his door.

A knock at this early hour was generally a very, very late drunk, or a townie with a death notice -- the last night knuckles alarmed his portal, it was the news that a woman discovered her husband dead in bed beside her, and sent her son to the only help she could think of, and that was the town's Marshal.

Frankie rose as the door opened.

"Blackrider," he said.

The figure in black was not as big as he'd expected:  compact, yes; deadly, unquestionably.

Broad brimmed black hat, black duster and boots, trousers, vest and shirt, black wild rag:  without, he knew without having to look, Blackrider's horse, a truly huge mare, swift, strong and silent.

"Long night."
Frankie looked sharply at Blackrider, whose eyes were almost hidden by the hat brim.

The Black Agent paced silently across the floor.

"You've seen this coin."  A black gloved hand placed a silver dollar sized coin on his desk, withdrew so he could see it.

Marshal Wyscinski picked up the coin, turned it, turned it over, handed it back: a rose on one side, the superimposed Christian Cross and the Seal of Solomon on the reverse.

"Last I saw one of those," he said slowly, "an old friend of mine had one ... Old Pale Eyes, up in Firelands."

Blackrider drew back the duster just far enough to reveal the white-ivory handle on holstered Colt's revolver.

Frankie looked closer, at the engraving, nodded.

"Figured," he said quietly.  "Square and Compasses."

"Wanted you to know I'm just passin' through. I've no business here."

Frankie nodded, frowned.

"What about that dancin' girl?"

"Did you enjoy the performance?"
Frankie's smile was slow, he leaned back against his desk, sat on its edge, nodded as he remembered. 

"Yeah," he finally said.  "I did."
"Good."  Blackrider's lower face was visible, and Frankie saw the ghost of a smile.

"You said you didn't hold with women bein' sold. My Mama was and the man who did it, was killed in prison."
Frankie nodded.

"So that dancin' girl ain't ..."

Sarah Lynne McKenna swept off her hat, shook her head, let her hair fall free, pulled off her black, doeskin glove and laid her hand on the astonished Marshal's chest.

"No," she whispered, pale eyes bright in the kerosine lamp's rays:  "no, Marshal, I'm not.  I dance because I need something that will relax me, and after all I've been through this past week, I need something to help me feel all girly again."

Marshal Wyscinski watched as she twisted her hair back up, parked her broad brim skypiece over it.

"This stays between the two of us."

"Yes, ma'am."

Blackrider turned, skipped toward the door like a happy little girl, stopped, turned:  she was once again the Black Agent:  she nodded once, opened the door, and was gone.

Marshal Frankie Wyscinski stared long at the closed plank door, then he stood, cupped his hand over the lamp's chimney, puffed out the flame and stretched.

"It's been a long night," he muttered.  "Time for me to go home."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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140.  THREE MEN AND A BABY

 

The mother lay unmoving in her bed, unable -- or perhaps unwilling -- to so much as lift a finger, or even open her eyes.

A stranger had her infant son by the ankles.

A callused hand gripped both the baby's ankles, lifted its shining pink bottom off the table, slid the folded diaper beneath:  a quick dust of powder, a fold, a tuck and a very carefully inserted pin to hold the triangle in place, while two sets of eyes watched through the only window in the dry, warped shack.

The mother was on the floor when he found her.

He'd been riding for some time, knowing there were men after him, knowing his best bet lay in distance -- he'd headed for some of the roughest country he knew of, but between here and there, he'd come across a settler he knew of, or at least what used to be that settler's place.

Now there were two tomb stones and a strange horse in the little enclosure attached to the barn, and as the tired man rode up, he looked through the wavy-glass window and frowned.

His step was deliberate as he opened the door, as he called out.

Something moved inside the woman's shawl.

She lay as if dead, and in the dim light he could not tell if her skin was dusky because of dirt, shade or decomposition:  two steps, a kneel, his hand went to the side of her neck, pressed with expert fingers, right where his doctor taught him.

There.

Life pulsed, strong beneath fair skin:  vitality pressed against his fingers in a steady rhythm.

He bent his fingers, brought the backs of his curled fingers near to the woman's mouth and nose, felt the warmth of exhaled breath.

He drew aside the shawl, exposed an infant, apparently having sated its appetite:  in spite of fatigue and the urgency of travel, the man smiled a little, for he was a father as well as everything else he'd ever been.

He brought the little one out, covered the woman:  the child went on the floor for the moment, he eased his arms under the woman, rocked back, lifting with leverage instead of his back -- how many times have I done this? he thought, remembering the smell of blood, the taste of stale gunpowder smoke -- he came easily to his feet, carried the woman over to the narrow bed, laid her down:  he drew the quilt up over her, making no effort to undress another man's wife.

 

"There."

A stubbled chin thrust out; two sets of eyes regarded the ground, read the tracks the way an Eastern man might read the newspaper.

"That's him, all right."

"You know he's a slick'un."

"You knew that when we started out," the other countered.

"You sure you want to kill him?"

A nod:  "The man that kills him will have a reputation."

"Yeah, that kind of a reputation will get you shot."

"Yeah, maybe."

They lifted their reins, followed the tracks around the narrow mountainside trail.

 

"You need a baffie," the pursued man whispered, pouring hot water from the big teakettle into a pan set out, likely for that purpose:  he dippered in cold water from the bucket until it felt about right, then he carefully lowered the wiggling, pink-skinned baby in the water, smiled at the happy squeal, the toothless smile, remembering his own young as they splashed, naked and delighted, in their own bathwater.

Bathed, dried, powdered and a fresh, warm diaper, and the sleepy little baby was ready for a nap.

 

"There."

They saw his horse, ground reined near a cabin.

They dismounted, ran in haste and in silence on the balls of their feet.

The door was closed, but there was a window:  one went to one side, one went to the other:  they each removed their hats, leaned in just enough to see in with one eye.

 

The man's hand was wrapped around the baby's ankles.

He'd hoisted its shining little moon off the table and dusted it with powder, placed and folded and pinned the diaper, picked up the yawning little one and smiled -- just a little, a secret smile that no one would ever see, a smile he shared with a drowsy, yawning infant -- and then he turned and carried it over to the sleeping mother.

Two men leaned their heads in more until they just touched, watching with both eyes as the man they were wanting to kill, went to one knee and slipped the clean, warm, sweet smelling little boy-baby under his Mama's shawl, watched as a maternal hand came up, drowsy, slow, the way a woman's hand will when she's asleep but her soul feels her child being laid on her breast.

Two men drew back, blinked, looked at one another, looked toward the window.

Without a word, they turned away, walked quickly, silently back to their horses, mounted.

They sat there for a long moment, remembering the man's hands as he tended the baby, remembering perhaps children they'd had, before life and fortunes turned against them, before they took out on the Owlhoot Trail.

They looked back at the cabin, and they looked at one another, and they looked back the way they'd come, and they turned their horses away from the cabin.

Neither man spoke, not when they made a cold camp, not when they rose, not when they made a small fire of dried wood and boiled up the last of their coffee.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller debated whether to leave the woman a note, some explanation of how he came to be in her cabin, but he did not.

He slung the bathwater out, washed the pan and propped it up, he banked the stove and left his poke of sweet rolls on the table, still wrapped in the red and white checkered napkin Daisy wrapped them in before he'd set out.

He didn't know the woman, he was not a doctor, but he could not smell infection on her, he judged from her lack of fever and the healthy look of her skin that she was not ill -- and from the fatigue that was leaving her face as she slept, that very likely she was just plain wore out.

He opened the door, slipped out, drew it to behind him and drew on the latch string, brought it clear shut, eased up on the string.

Two men rode north and one man rode south.

 

 

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141.  COME AND GET ME, DAMN YOU!

 

Chief of Police Will Keller folded the newspaper, tossed it back onto the burnished, gleaming mahogany bar.

"Done with it, Chief?" Mr. Baxter asked, reaching up and turning off the big screen TV -- something he slid down into view only of an evening, when there was less frontier ambiance and more of a contemporary clientele.

"Yeah, thanks," Will sighed.

"One for the road?"

"Always."

"I'm saving that picture," Mr. Baxter said, nodding toward the newspaper.  "Good shot of that ambulance horse."

Coffee gurgled into the heavy ceramic mug; Will took an appreciative sip.

"Staff of life," he grunted.  "The Navy runs on coffee, and so do I."

"You do know," Mr. Baxter hazarded, "there's a ghost horse that runs Firehouse Lane."

"Oh?"  Will's tone was noncommittal; he'd heard rumors, fancies and imaginings before, and this sounded distinctly like another of the kind.

"Oh, yes.  They have the house officer sleeping downstairs to listen for it.  Whenever there's a fire, the Ghost Wagon runs."

Will raised a skeptical eyebrow.

Mr. Baxter paid not the least attention to the Chief's skeptical expression.  "They'll hear it coming down the alley full bore, like they're pulling the steam wagon and running for a fire!"
"Do tell."  Will took another pull on his coffee, grateful for the heat it brought to his belly.

"Don on vacation?"

"How'd you know?"  Another sip, another swallow:  hot, black, but without the edge that marked bad coffee.  This was quite good.

"You never take the late shift unless you've got a man on vacation."

"Yeah."  Will smiled, then drained the last of his mug, set the empty on a handy coaster.  "Many thanks."

"Any time, Chief."

Chief of Police Will Keller waited until Mr. Baxter turned out half the inside lights. 

The Silver Jewel would remain awake all night; coffee and sandwiches are all the kitchen would provide until about four in the morning, when the smell of bacon and eggs would attract the hungry, but until then, the lights were lowered, sweepers would run, the floor would be mopped and the Jewel would be polished until she was exactly that.

A jewel.

Will's eyes were busy as he slipped out the front door, sidestepped to get his back to the wall:  it was an old habit, one he'd acquired very early in life, one his twin sister mentioned as characteristic of Old West lawmen.

Like their ancestor, Old Pale Eyes.

Will smiled just a little, turned, eased down the thick, well made wooden steps to the alley, looked around again, used darkened windows as mirrors:  satisfied, he began to pace, silent, smooth as liquid shadow, checking doors, listening to the night.

He worked his way down the sloping street, past the little park and the schoolhouse, past the municipal building and the bank and the broad drive into their hospital, half a block back from the main street:  he crossed over, toward the drugstore, down the alley behind.

He knew the habits of the unsavory and he knew if he was going to catch one in the act, he had to go where they were, and unfortunately, his timing was off.

Nobody back there.

No matter; there would be, and he'd catch 'em.

He always did.

Will's pace was steady, deliberate, his cushioned-sole tread silent in the night:  another turn, another alley, and he was a block from the firehouse.

Will froze in a shadow, froze as something tugged at his ear like a ghostly thumb-and-forefinger:  he listened, moving only his eyes.

Nothing, he thought.

Move on.

He held station a few moments longer, listening intently, and then he heard it.

Hooves -- hooves a-clatter, loud and fast and getting closer --

Will's eyes strained in the dark, he crouched a little, turned --

It's coming from ahead, he thought, looking from one pool of streetlight to another, seeing nothing, nothing, nothing --

Trace-chains, hoofbeats, the pistol-shot crack of a blacksnake whip snapping a hole in the air, they're right on me but there's nothing there, there's nothing --

Will's teeth gleamed as lips peeled back, his thumb snapped the release open and he drew a handful of Pachmayr-gripped, blued-steel justice.

"COME AND GET ME, DAMN YOU!" he challeged, and the hoofbeats passed through him, something cold, cold as the grave itself, seared through him, and he heard the hooves and the trace-chain receding behind him, and he turned, and there was nothing behind him.

He turned.

Nothing that way.

Turn again.

Nothing this way.

Chief of Police Will Keller looked at the darkened firehouse, slid his blued steel revolver back into split-leather-lined basketweave, fast up the thumb snap.

A light came on in the firehouse, a man's shadow crossed the front door, and Will paced toward the portal.

The man door opened, a woman's voice called.  

"Chief?  Everything okay?"

Will considered for a moment, then paced over to the fireman.

"Have you ever heard of a ghost wagon driving past here?" he asked quietly, and Radar's eyes widened, and she swore, quietly, but most sincerely.

She turned, kicked out of her slippers and drove sock feet into fireboots -- the House Officer's bunk was on the bottom floor, unlike the rest of the men, who slept upstairs -- she yanked up bunker pants, hooked suspenders over  shoulders, seized the fire coat from its hook:  a spin, a shrug, she turned, fingers dancing like insane spiders up the front of her coat, securing the metal fasteners, then she plucked the helmet from its hook.

The station suddenly flooded with light, with the shattering alarm rattling off brick walls, with the dispatcher's businesslike words:  "Firelands Engine One, Engine Two, Tanker One.  Structure fire, Harrisonville Road, the Mock place, time of call zero two forty five."

Chief of Police Will Keller flattened himself against the wall as the rest of their Irish Brigade poured into the bay at a dead run:  men seized bunker gear, grunting (or maybe swearing) as they armored up against the enemy, swarmed onto the big red Kenworth pumpers:  Will waited until two engines and the slower, powerfully-snarling tanker rolled out of their respective bays and up the street, waited until the house was emptied before going from bay door to bay door, touching the red button, clattering the overhead doors closed, trapping silent echoes and Diesel exhaust as he did.

Will looked over at the restored steam fire engine, at the restored ambulance wagon, remembered the picture on the front page of their newspaper as he tossed it onto the bar, remembered that perfect photograph of a white mare, forehooves in the air and main tossed to the side, clearly on the run, shining spokes a-blur behind her:  he paced silently across the smooth brick floor, avoiding the little piles of dry detergent scattered to soak up the inevitable oil leaks.

He stopped and he stared at the restored steam engine, remembered something cold and clattering sailing through him as he stood in the middle of the roadway.

"I've never seen a ghost," he said softly, his voice hollow in the brick walled bay:  he paced over to the framed portraits of their original Irish Brigade, looked from one to another to another, smiling a little at their stiff, formal poses, nodding in approval at their absolutely black, beautifully sculpted, handlebar mustaches.

He reached up and stroked his military-trimmed mustache with the back of a bent foreknuckle.

"I've never seen a ghost," he repeated, but not he was talking to the portraits:  "I wonder if one didn't just run through me outside."

 

"Radar!"

Margaret Regan turned, looked at the Captain.

"Did you hear the ghost wagon before the run?"

"You're damned right I did, Cap," she declared firmly, pitching her voice to be heard across the back of the Diesel doghouse.  "The police chief got run over by it too!"

Cap threw his head back and laughed.  "Hell, why not!  If you're going to give us a warning, run over the Chief of Police while your'e at it!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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142.  I AM MRS. LLEWELLYN

Mother and daughter felt the air brakes hiss and set under them.

The last leg of their journey, quite fittingly, was the steam train.

The Z&W was an old line, established -- well, she had the particulars in her research; she could pull up its purchase by a certain pale eyed Sheriff, his gifting of the rail line to his wife as a wedding gift: she could almost recite the line's progress, from near bankruptcy through incredible prosperity, to eventually its sale to a main line during the Second War; it was abandoned, then purchased again, and finally resurrected and made into its current incarnation, once more a short line, handling freight and passengers and a surprising number of tourists.

The woman and her daughter wore gowns of a much earlier era, nothing really unusual for this line:  the others in the passenger car thought them re-enactors, docents, perhaps, though it was a little unusual to see a child of grade-school age acting as a docent:  the pair spoke quietly, but only to each other, for most of the trip.

"Mama," the little girl finally said, in one of the moments when silence flowed into the space between conversations, "why didn't we just fly in?"

The mother laughed, and her laugh was relaxed and easy, and the sound of her laugh brought smiles from those who heard it:  "We could have," she admitted, "but I wanted to experience what it was when your Very Great Grandfather was still alive!"

"Oh," the child said, blinking:  "does that mean I can pet the horsies?"

"If the Irish Brigade still has horsies," the mother smiled, "then yes you may."

"Yaaay," the little girl declared quietly, muting her delight and bouncing a little as she did, for she'd been admonished she must be a Proper Young Lady, and she must Act With Decorum, but children celebrate their delight with their entire being, and the mother in the McKenna gown refrained from admonishing her daughter as the delighted child clapped her little pink hands together and bounced on the barely-upholstered seat.

The pair ignored the camera phones that were turned their way, for of all the souls in the Z&W Railroad's spacious passenger car they were the only two gowned after the fashion of the late 1880s.

The pair smiled as the uniformed porter touched his cap-brim, offering his hand as they disembarked:  the lady lifted her skirts and stepped delicately down the black-painted, gold-pinstriped steps and onto the stool placed for her comfort, murmuring a quiet "Thank you" as she laid a gloved hand in the porter's extended palm:  she stepped down, turned as the porter reached up, took her daughter under the arms, swung her around and placed her carefully beside her Mama:  together, the pair paced along the front of the depot platform, looked around.

The little girl looked down the alley, eyes wide, pointed:  "Mama, look, a horsie!"

"Then that is the way that we shall go," the woman said in her quiet, musical voice:  mother and daughter walked down the alley from the steam-train, beside the clapboard side of the depot building, and made their way to the Firelands main street.

They stopped again, looked around.

The little girl skipped up to the man on the horse, looked up, blinked.  "Hi!"  she declared.  "I'm Polly Llewellyn!"

The man on the horse lifted his Stetson and smiled, and the woman saw he had a reddish handlebar mustache and a pleasant smile, and a six point star on the lapel of his vest.

"Hello, Polly," he said in a deep and fatherly voice.  "My name's Linn, and you are lovely today!"

"We're looking for a silver jewel," the little girl said, bouncing a little, "what's your horsie's name?"

The horse lowered her head, snuffed at the little girl's belly:  the child giggled, reached up to shyly stroke the mare's long, red nose.

"This is Cannonball.  I named her for her Mama."

He looked at the lovely woman behind the little girl.  "You're looking for the Silver Jewel."

"We are," she replied, lifting her chin.

"You're almost there."  He thrust his Stetson out, indicating a building diagonally across the street.  "Straight yonder.  I take it you're for the Ladies' Tea Society meeting."

The woman hesitated, then, "Yes."

"You'll be right on time, then.  I'm headed there myself.  May I walk with you?"

"Thank you," she murmured, lowering her eyes, and Sheriff Linn Keller could not help but think Dear God, it's a good thing I'm married, or I'd make a damned fool of myself for this woman!

The Sheriff dismounted; the woman took her child's hand, and the four of them -- mother and daughter, Sheriff and shining red mare -- crossed the street, paced up the empty pavement.

Linn looped Cannonball's reins around the hitch rail, stroked her neck:  Polly giggled and called "Bye Camnonball!" -- and scampered up the steps, seized the shining silver handles on the door, and pulled without much good effect.

The Sheriff drew the door open, held it:  the ladies preceded him, and he guided them back through the Jewel's interior to where two other ladies in long gowns were chatting pleasantly beside the back door, the one that went into the private meeting room.

Linn turned and slipped back outside, mounted up:  there was the clatter of hooves, a summoning fist on the man door, hurried steps across the brick equipment bay floor.

He strode over to the row of framed portraits overlooking the pumper bay, going from face to face to face until he stopped, lowered his eyes to the polished, engraved brass tag on the bottom.

"Llewellyn," he breathed, then turned, looked at the inside of the closed bay door, looking through it, looking at the memory of a woman and her little girl, a woman in a McKenna gown and a little girl in a frilly-skirted frock of a much earlier era, and then he looked back at the portrait.

He raised an eyebrow.

His pace as he left the firehouse was the slower, measured cadence of a thoughtful man, and Cannonball's gait back to the Silver Jewel was a leisurely walk.

He drew up, stared at the closed doors, and finally walked Cannonball diagonally across the street to his Sheriff's Office.

He turned Cannonball, looked thoughtfully back at the Jewel, then walked Cannonball back to her little stable attached to the rear of the Sheriff's Office.

"Cannonball," he said aloud, "if it turns out she's from Cincinnati, I won't be terribly surprised!"

 

 

 

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143. EASY RIDER

Entertainment came in several forms.

Emma Cooper led the children in singing, whether at the beginning of the school day, or during special programs, performed for the public.

Church, to a degree, was entertainment as well: Parson Belden was known to leaven his sermons with humor, in an age where the expected address from the pulpit involved fist pounding into the Scripture, shouted exhortations, threats of damnation and being roasted over slow coals while being basted with buffalo fat.

Entertainment was also the occasional parade, generally held for national holidays, significant dates, visiting dignitaries and the like: a group of townies went so far as to form their own brass band, though seven instruments and a bass drum was rather less than impressive to those used to wearing Union blue and marching ahead of or just behind the regimental brass band.

One of the schoolchildren tugged at the Sheriff's coat sleeve, after one such parade, and the Sheriff, being a fatherly sort (with a distinct soft spot for stray children and lost dogs), went down on one knee to bring his pale eyes more on a level with the tow headed lad with a curious expression.

"Sheriff?" the lad asked, with the innocent sincerity of a curious child, and Old Pale Eyes smiled, just a little, just the ghost of a smile to let the lad know this great and feared warrior of the Law, was not going to snarl and pounce on him the way he did bad guys.

"Sheriff, how come nobody was in the War is in the band?" he half-stammered, and the Sheriff thought for a moment, looking down, remembering, considering.

"Let's say I wanted to let a deputy know something," the Sheriff said thoughtfully, "right about the time the Irish Brigade and the band wagon were both close by and making lots of noise."

The lad blinked, curious, not quite understanding what that had to do with the price of onions.

"If I shout my orders, will I be heard clearly?"

The lad blinked, turned, looked at the retreating flatbed wagon, covered with painted burlap and bunting:  he looked back at the Sheriff and shook his head, just as solemn as the old Judge himself.

"What could I use to let the deputy know what I wanted?"
The lad frowned, puzzling, then admitted that he didn't know -- but his admission was ... intense, and he leaned forward a little as he said so.

"Now let's say," said the Sheriff, "that I had ... oh, say, how about a drum.  One of those rattlin' snare drums the Army likes so well. Could a man beat a tattoo and be heard over all that racket?"

"Ummm ... I guess so?"

"How about a bugle?"

The lad blinked, surprised.

"Let's say a man had one of those tin horns and he wanted to let the deputy know 'twas time to saddle up.  What if he blew" -- the Sheriff took a breath, whistled between his teeth, whistled a familiar series of notes.  "Had a man a bugle, could he be heard over all that racket, or at a distance?"

The lad grinned.  "Yeah!" he declared happily.

"That's how we pass orders in battle," the Sheriff explained.  "There's a particular bugle call for Boots and Saddles, to charge, to retreat, there are particular bugle calls for the Second Ohio only -- you have a bugle call that designates the unit, then what the unit is supposed to do, and that's how we pass orders over the confusion of battle and over a distance."

The lad nodded to show he understood.

"Now I'd say most of the men who were in that damned War, remember that 'twas the buglers, the drummers, the musicians who passed battlefield messages, who were shot whenever possible."

The lad's eyes widened and the Sheriff saw understanding in his eyes.

"I reckon if a man saw battle, he'd remember 'twas the man with the bugle that got shot early and often, and he'd not really want any part of that even yet."

The lad's eyes swung left, looking at something coming up the street: the Sheriff turned, raising one knee and lowering the other as he turned on the balls of his feet, still squatted down:  he and the curious schoolboy both beheld a truly impressive bilateral width of curved, shining, pointed horn, attached securely to a large bovine head: this in turn was bolted to a muscled bull neck, and this in turn riveted firmly to a lean and muscled beef's body, and a-straddle of the beef was a laughing little boy, happily astride a Texas longhorn, riding right up the middle of the street behind the band wagon.

Entertainment came in several forms, and was appreciated when it arrived, whether this might be an impromptu bare-knuckle match in the middle of the street, whether it was a laughing little boy astride a Texas longhorn, following the Band Wagon as docile as a pet dog, or whether it was a horseman contesting with his mount which would have supremacy that day.


 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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144.  PRETTY POLLY

It is ever the unfortunate fate of active minded children to have to sit still and be quiet while adults are about their business.

Polly was the only child of her age at the Ladies' Tea Society meeting; she was the only child there, as a matter of fact, and that she was dressed in period attire was to the general delight and approval of the assembled -- all of whom were, similarly, wearing fashions of the 1880s.

Like children of her size, Polly's bladder was about the size of a walnut, and she was obliged to slip out the door unseen, in search of relief: this being found and tended, Polly slipped back into the Silver Jewel and looked around, big-eyed and curious.

She wandered back toward the front door, fascinated by the frosted glass designs swirled into the sandblasted surface:  scrolls and sprays of stylized flower petals, with clear glass surrounding them, and she peered with one eye, then the other, through a clear patch at something that brought a quick and happy smile to her young face.

Polly lacked the strength to pull open the Jewel's doors, but she could bear her weight and push with her legs and shove the door open, and did:  a giggle and a scamper and she happily hop-hop-hopped down the three steps and laughed with delight at big and very black eyes that looked back at hers.

"Hi!"  Polly declared, and something that wasn't a horsie turned its big head and it had sticks that stuck waaaay out the side of its head and curved a little turned its big head toward her and paced ponderously over to her.

Polly's Mama pushed out the Silver Jewel's door, guided by the quietly smiling bartender who pointed her to the pretty little girl's last known position, and Polly's Mama stopped and stared, her mouth hanging open a little at the sight of her little girl feeding an ice cream cone to a big, hard muscled, cloven hooved, tail-swinging, Texas longhorn.

Polly looked up at her Mama, clearly delighted, and declared, "Mama, I found a Boocaffie!  Can I keep it?"

Sheriff Linn Keller laughed at the dismay on the woman's face:  his hand was gentle on the bull's muscled neck as the big brindle Boocaffie laid its jaw over the little girl's shoulder, eyes half-closed, content with the happy embrace of a little girl's hands, and the experienced and most welcome massage from the Sheriff's man-sized mitt.

"By the way," the Sheriff offered, "welcome to Firelands, can I help you find anything?"

 

Willamina looked up and smiled as her son hung his Stetson on its peg.

"I understand you made a new friend today," she laughed.

"Which one?" he grinned.  "Boocaffie or Polly?"

Willamina laughed.  "Someone sent me a picture of a Texas longhorn in the middle of the street.  A rancher stopped his pickup truck and the bull sniffed at it like he'd never seen one before, and then it turned and trotted up about -- well, to where you found it."

Linn nodded.  "He followed me like a pet dog.  Turns out he belongs to Piotor."

"The piano player?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Is he as much a pet to Piotor as he was to Polly?"

Linn laughed.  "Piotor pretends to be such an old crank, but you could tell when I came up his driveway with Boocaffie followin' me, why, he lit up like a hundred watt bulb.  The man made over that longhorn like he would a good dog and by golly Boocaffie let 'im!"

"Boocaffie?"

Linn laughed.  "I didn't know what to call him.  Hell, I could have called him Ho Dung and he'd have liked it as well!"

"So what is his name?" Willamina asked, raising an eyebrow.

Linn laughed and turned a little red.

"You know how big a man Piotor is."
"Mm-hmm."  Willamina nodded, recalling the big Russian's hard-muscled shoulders.

"You recall how disagreeable he is when he's drunk."

"Mm-hmm," Willamina nodded, recalling a night out at the Spring Inn when Piotor objected to being called Ivan, and two men discovered what it was to irritate a big, short-tempered Russian piano player with a belly full of vodka:  Willamina arrived just in time to see the first man flying backwards through the front window, and as she stepped out of her cruiser, shotgun in hand, a second good worthy followed the first, landing just beyond the spray of glass now flat and shattered on the ground.

Linn sighed, shook his head.

"I can't pronounce the word, but he said it meant 'Apple Blossom,' Linn said, his face reddening a little and his ears reddening considerably.

"Here you've got a big mean bar fightin' Russian, and here you've got a Texas longhorn, and the man names him Apple Blossom?"

"So tell me about Polly."

Linn laughed, shook his head.  "I'm afraid I'm falling for a younger woman," he declared in sepulchral tones.  "She's pretty and slender and she looks at me with them big adoring eyes and by golly now my wife just might take a fryin' pan to me for it."

"She's what, four years old?"

"Four," Linn nodded, trying to look serious and failing miserably.  "Hell, if she sticks around, I'll need a standin' appointment with the chiropractor just to unwind my back bone from around that pretty little pinky of hers!"

Willamina smiled knowingly.  "You're just like your father."

Linn grinned, nodding.  "Yes, ma'am!"

"Hungry?  I've got supper ready, and your wife is on her way over with the kids."

Linn turned a little, looked out the window, looked back.

"Timing is everything," he acceded:  "here they come and yes ma'am, and thank'ee kindly!"

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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145. THAT WAS FUN!

 

Jacob Keller leaned over his saddle horn, just a little, his face carefully impassive.

His Apple-horse stood very still, as if knowing any movement would make his rider hurt all the worse.

Jacob was a lean and vital man, much like his pale eyed father; he was made of rawhide and whipcord, whalebone and grit, he could walk up to anyone and look them in the eye and invite them to jump right on and make it stick.

Few men would cross him nowadays.

A few tried; those few may have marked him, but he did much worse in return, and those who sought to take his measure, found their own efforts to be far short of what it would take to bring him down.

It was not at all usual, then, to see this lean warrior sitting carefully, sitting the way a man will when he's hurt.

He'd ridden his stallion up to the mounting-block, an accessory he'd disdained to use:  not once, ever, had he ever used this adjunct to mount or dismount.

His wife's eyes were worried as she saw her husband shift his weight very carefully, then swing a leg over and come down on the smooth granite block.

He stood there for several long moments before stepping down and leading his Apple-horse to the barn.

She busied herself, she and their maid, with setting the table, with setting out supper, with the details necessary for the husband's nightly arrival, and these were not enough to occupy Annette's mind:  they were nowhere near sufficient to allay her worry.

Jacob Keller managed to walk the return journey, from barn to house, at almost his usual pace:  he opened the front door to his own house, and he just stood there for several long moments.

No, that's not quite right.

He swung the door open and took a half pace forward, he leaned his shoulder into the door frame, and he closed his eyes against the pain.

Mother, son and maid all remained on their feet until Jacob was seated.

He'd washed up outside, as was his habit; his young son Joseph stood beside his chair, regarding his Pa with pale, worried eyes.

Jacob rested his fisted hands on either side of his plate, eyes closed, head bowed a little:  Annette saw the flesh blanch a little, at the base of his fists, where he was pressing them hard into the tabletop.

Jacob looked up at the several sets of concerned eyes regarding him:  their heads were bowed a little, as if uncertain whether he was giving a silent blessing.

The maid, behind his left shoulder, leaned over and whispered, "Shall I draw you a hot bath, sir?" and Jacob closed his eyes, nodded, then turned his head slightly, as if even that act was painful.

"It can wait until after we've eaten," he said quietly.

"Yes, sir."

 

Bill was most at home in the cab of The Lady Esther.

He'd driven Diesel-electric locomotives professionally, but his first love was live steam:  he'd been a guest in the cab of a Big Boy, he'd regarded its complexity, and as he adjusted a water valve, he gave thanks to God Almighty that his beloved Lady was a simple engine and not a high-pressure compound.

The day was unusually clear, the visibility flawless and the scenery spectacular:  he tapped the speedometer's glass face, not because it was needed, but simply out of habit:  he leaned out the window and regarded the drivers, laboring steadily against the gentle grade, and his listened with more than his ears to his beloved Lady's chant.

He knew every sound she made, he knew the undertones, he knew the harmonics: he'd heard it said that when a Ninja grasped the sword that fit his hands, that the Ninja's very soul flowed into the blade, and gave it life, and that's how he felt about The Lady Esther.

The track curved a little a gentle bow left, then right, and he frowned, blinked, looked ahead:  he knew the far bend, where it went around the mountain and out of sight, was just over two miles away, a trestle between.

"Hey Sam!"

"Yeah!"  The fireman looked up, hooking the fire door closed.

"We're the only ones on the schedule!"  It was a question and statement both.

Sam blinked, confused, then:  "Yeah!"

"We've got another steamer, head-on!"

 

"My name," she said, "is Bonnie Llewellyn, and we're from Cincinnati."

The Ladies' Tea Society was interested in this stranger:  she was not one of them, but her name was; each of the Ladies knew Firelands history very well, and when Mrs. Llewellyn was first introduced, the association was instantly made with a certain Sarah Lynne Llewellyn, widow of one of the Irish Brigade, back in the late 1800s or perhaps the very early 1900s, they would have to consult their copies of the Sheriff's journals to be sure.

"I've read of your Society and Polly and I" -- she smiled a little at her daughter's sudden, shining smile -- "decided it would be appropriate to dress for the occasion."

"I helped!"  Polly declared happily, and Mrs. Llewellyn saw smiles spread at her little girl's happy exclamation.

"I'm actually here because of a ghost story I read last year.  It was in one of those dreadful muck raking magazines that pretends to be a newspaper.  I think it was the Pot Stirrer or something equally credible, but there was something about the story that led me to believe I may want to look deeper."

She swallowed, looked down at her notes, frowned.

"I understand the steam railroad has some original rolling stock."

A pale eyed woman nodded, smiling quietly:  she, too, wore a McKenna gown, with a matching hat, her hair in the elaborate coiffure of the period they mutually celebrated.

"Which ghost story are you interested in?"

Mrs. Llewellyn blinked, surprised.  "There's more than one?"

"Oh, my, yes," Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller laughed.  "Was it the one with the haunted roundhouse, the haunted passenger car?"

"N-no, actually," Mrs. Llewellyn hesitated, then turned a page, a second one, in the little notebook on the podium before her.  "It was the ghost train that prevented a wreck."

 

Bill reached up, seized the whistle lanyard, pulled.

The Lady Esther's whistle was tuned:  alone, its pitch was intended to carry, with the voice of a damned soul, lost and utterly without hope, shattering off the granite cliffs and forested mountainsides:  Bill's pull was hard, urgent, and opened a second valve, to a second whistle, tuned to harmonize with her usual voice:  it was at once lovely, and alarming, for he never, ever pulled that second whistle into life unless things were really serious.

He knew that, at two miles, and over the sound of an engine, even an engine breathing easy on a slight down grade, his whistle would not be heard, but they might, they just might see the plume of steam punch into the clear air above the boiler.

Bill was taking no chances.

He backed the throttle down, opened the sanders and began braking.

 

Jacob Keller's voice was quiet as the meal was ladled out, as his plate was loaded.

"Shorty had a gorgeous brindle coated gelding some fellow sold him, and the fellow warned that the horse liked to buck, but it was a good looking nag and so Shorty bought it."

Annette's big, lovely eyes regarded her husband steadily:  she nodded, once, carefully, as if afraid her movement might hurt him from simply seeing her head nod.

"Well, I tried him."

Annette's eyebrows raised just a little.

"And Shorty was not lying to me, not one little bit."

 

Mrs. Llewellyn read the article aloud, the clipping scissored from the scandal sheet she'd read back East.

"The locomotive was a mirror for the one they drove," she read aloud, "her voice piercing the cold, clear air, thrusting urgent fingers of steam fanning out above them, a rapidly fading signal-flag warning of the rolling danger rushing toward them."

"I've got it," a woman's voice confirmed, looking up, her finger marking the place.

Willamina, too, found it:  pale eyes swept left, right, left, right, absorbing the reprint of the hand written Journal.

 

Gloved hand gripping the air valve, Bill hauled hard, hearing air surge through the lines, feeling her slow, feeling composite shoes slam against glass-smooth steel wheels:  throttle back, jaw clenched, experienced eyes gauging the oncoming locomotive's speed.

Sam leaned out the window, binoculars to his eyes.

Gravity was their enemy, momentum their foe:  Bill knew he could throw her into reverse, thrashing steel wheels against steel rails, burning sparks as they desperately tried to stop:  he hesitated, hauling hard on the whistle lanyard once more.

The other engine, as well, screamed her warning:  she, too, slowed with all her skill, the two finally stopping:  they faced one another, stopped on their passenger line; the old gold-ore line forked off a mile on the other side of the interloper, leaving this single track that passed through what was left of Carbon Hill.

Bill opened his gloved hand, peeled off his glove, reached for one of the few modern appliances in the cab -- the talkie -- he pulled out the telescoping antenna, leaned out of the cab, keyed up, and with an utter disregard for the usual radio protocol, shouted "WHAT IN BLUE HELL ARE YOU DOING ON MY TRACK?"

Sam swatted him with his hickory stripe cap, swatted him hard.

Bill drew back, saw Sam was pointing at something, his mouth working, no sound coming out.

Bill shoved out the window Sam was leaning out of.

Both men swore, once, and most sincerely.

 

"I'll tell you," Jacob admitted as he tore his sweet roll in two and buttered it, "that horse threw me faster, harder, higher and better than any I have ever ridden!"

"But, dearest," Annette said in a worried-but-gentle voice, "after the first time, shouldn't you have let someone else try?"

Jacob laughed, remembered the sensation of being slung out of the saddle, knowing he had one, and only one, chance to land without breaking something:  he tucked, rolled, landed in a squat, boots flat on the ground:  he grunted, he stood, he turned, regarded the gelding, reached for the trailing reins and patted the horse's neck.

"Let's try that again, shall we?"

 

"The engineer said the other engine was the very twin of what he drove," Mrs. Llewellyn read aloud:  "he said every rivet, every bit of brightwork, down to the roses on the side of the cab, all was identical to his own machine.

"He said further that he looked up on the side of the mountain, and he felt the blood chill in his veins."

 

Bill and Sam watched as the landslide cascaded down the mountain, a river of boulders, dirt and timber:  they saw one steel rail flare outward, apparently struck right in a joint:  they felt as much as heard the dull rumble of mountainside that cascaded down onto their twin steel ribbons, and Bill crossed the cab, thrust head and shoulders out his own window, raised his talkie once more.

"Dispatch, here is The Lady Esther," he called.  "Close the line, we have track out one mile west of the Carbon Hill cutoff."

Sam reached over and swatted Bill again, shouted something, pointed urgently.

Bill looked ahead, past the rubble on the track, past the displaced rail.

What the man said, does not bear repeating in polite company.

It's the kind of a thing a man might say when a locomotive and its three cars,  well back from the landslide but too far from the curve to have reversed, simply disappear.

 

Jacob grinned like a little boy.

"Every time he threw me, I got right back up, and I thought I might have to give up but by golly now I bucked him out and rode him just as pretty as you please!"

"But, dearest, aren't you hurt?"

Jacob nodded carefully.  "I am, dearest, but" -- again that flash of a grin -- "THAT was FUN!"

 

 

 

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146.  I AM NOT TELLING ANYONE!

 

Jacob Keller's pale eyes narrowed very slightly.

He was bellied down behind a thin grass screen, the emaciated trunks of nutrient starved brush helping to obscure what little of him could be seen.

Beside him, just as still, a figure, all in black:  they were separated by half an arm's length and Jacob could almost imagine he felt his sister's body warmth radiating against his side.

It was, of course, his imagination: part of his mind reasoned that, if he felt anything, it was because his pale eyed sister was all in black, and the sun liked to soak into anything black:  the rest of his mind was marveling at what he saw before him.

Sarah followed her brother into the mountains; he knew she trailed him, though he could not see her:  she had the most marvelous gift of invisibility, he'd said once, and though he had no belief in the supernatural, he had to admit that when The Black Agent did not want to be seen ...
... she wasn't.
Not her, and not that big black horse she rode.
He'd dismissed her from his mind:  if she wished to catch up with him, she would, and easily:  he had meat on his mind, and he'd gone into the mountains with full intent to take a barren elk.

Sarah saw him as he slithered forward along a little swale:  she followed, bellied down in the same track he'd pressed into grasses and dirt, until she came slowly, very slowly, up beside him.

She raised her head with a painful slowness until she could barely, barely! see through the screening branches and grasses, and her eyes widened with surprise:  she looked over at her brother, and she saw this big idiot grin on his face, and they both looked forward again, breathing silently.

Jacob still had a good grip on his rifle's fore end, but its weight lay on the ground: he no longer had intent to drop an elk:  no, he had intent to watch, and to marvel, and his pale-eyed half-sister was content to help him in this effort.

The elk they were watching was big and pregnant.
Jacob arrived as the cow elk's haunches sank toward the ground, Sarah arrived as the elk stuck her neck straight out, laid her ears back, narrowed her eyes:  visibly straining, they heard the cow's labored breathing, saw the striating neck muscles.

They lay there for maybe a half hour, watching the elk labor, watching her strain:  Jacob was rejoicing inwardly, his face fairly shining with utter, absolute delight:  Sarah's face, too, betrayed her own pleasure, though she took her delight in her brother's joy, especially when she looked forward, just in time for the dam to break, so to speak.

Jacob was still, as unmoving as he'd been:  Sarah began to scoot backwards, a fraction of an inch at a time, not wanting to intrude further into the moment:  Jacob closed his eyes for a long moment, and then began his own retreat.
They worked their way backwards until they could safely rise:  Sarah rolled over, came up on her toes and fingertips, catfooted down the little draw to where she'd left her big black Frisian mare, beside Jacob's stallion.

The mare was nowhere near fresh, so she had no qualms about leaving the two together:  they mounted, walked their mounts from the scene, Jacob's shoulders sagging like a man defeated.

Sarah waited until they were well down the mountain, and around a bend, safely distant from the grassy flat where elk liked to graze.

Jacob's gaze was straight ahead, his expression that of a man somewhere between disappointed and ironic.

Sarah waited until he took a long, sudden breath.

"You might as well say it," she said quietly.

Jacob nodded, chewing on his bottom lip, and Sarah leaned back in her saddle at the same moment Jacob leaned back in his:  their bitless mounts stopped, knowing this the signal their riders wished to stop.

"Sarah," Jacob said, his voice almost tired, "I grew up in the mountains."

Sarah tilted her head a little, looking carefully at her blood kin, listening closely to what might lie beneath his carefully enunciated words.

"I have taken elk.  I have eaten elk.  I have stalked, skulked, snuck, slithered, laid ambush, bush whacked and laid wait.  I have shot elk and I never once put a bad shot into one."

Sarah nodded, slowly, once, her pale eyes never leaving his; he was looking to the far horizon, remembering as he spoke.

"I have birthed foals and calves, I have pulled stuck puppies and one time helped a mama cat birth a stuck kitten.  I one time birthed a baby beside a Conestoga wagon."

He turned and looked very directly at the Black Agent, his half-sister, blood of his blood, confidante and friend.

"I have always wanted to see a fawn birthed," he admitted.  "Is that the right ... fawn?  Hell, maybe it's a calf."

His bottom jaw thrust out and he frowned, looking for all the world just like his father.

"And today I watched a big and pregnant cow elk drop her haunches and labor mightily, and ..."
Sarah had a pretty good poker face, and she was well practiced at not letting her feelings show, but she was taxed to her utmost to keep an impassive visage at her brother's words.

Jacob took a long breath, blew it out, laughed a little, shook his head.

"Sarah," he said, "I will give you this in trust that you never, ever tell anyone."
Sarah Lynne McKenna, daughter of Old Pale Eyes, Agent of the Firelands District Court, nodded, once, slowly.

"Sarah," Jacob chuckled, "that is the very first time in my entire life that I ever saw a constipated cow elk!"

Their laughter carried far on the cool mountain wind, and Sarah collapsed against Jacob's lean-muscled frame as she shared his mirth, and finally she looked up and blinked innocently and said, "I saw it too, Jacob.  I though the same thing you did."

She laughed and patted his chest with a flat palm.

"I'm not telling anyone!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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147.  THE DEADLIER OF THE TWO

 

The cheerleader pulled open the door to the Sheriff's office, stepped inside.

She wore the purple-and-white pleated miniskirt of her profession, and the white sweater with a purple megaphone and the ornate, gold-embroidered Firelands diagonally across the speaking cone:  she walked up to the dispatcher's desk, a small case in her hand.

"Could I see the Sheriff, please?" she asked uncertainly, and Sharon looked up, smiled:  she'd known this high school girl since she was freshly hatched, as she liked to call it, and she winked and said "Sure thing, Susie, have a seat!"

Not two minutes later, Sharon drew the door shut as Susie stood in front of Willamina's desk:  Sharon did not see what transpired, nor was it important: she knew the Sheriff had been a cheerleader, and she knew people of every social strata, at one time or another, asked to see their Sheriff:  their petitions were sometimes, significant, sometimes important, sometimes they wanted a sympathetic ear or they had a question about local history.

Susie placed the case on the Sheriff's desk and opened it.

Willamina smiled a little, tilted her head.

"Colt New Police," she said, without touching it:  "looks like a .32 Smith & Wesson long."  She looked at the serious-faced cheerleader, her eyes a light shade of blue.  "Yours?"

"It was my Daddy's," Susie said.  "He said this was bought right after the Great Chauncey Shootout.  He said it was bought right after the Chauncey bank robbery.  An officer was shot from ambush and died of pneumonia and the cops carried what they had and the biggest gun in the shootout was a .32 and they were mostly .22s and .25s and the only casualty was a car door and two fenders."

Willamina nodded.  "I recall reading about that.  Happened at the Beaumont Bridge across the mighty Hockhocking."

Susie nodded, her ponytails bouncing.  "That's what Daddy said."

Susie closed the case, fast up the latches.  "I want you to teach me to shoot it."
Willamina considered, lowering herself slowly into her upholstered, high back office chair.

"I don't want to end up like Marnie."

Willamina nodded again.

Marnie had been a cheerleader.

Marnie was young and pretty, popular and smart, and now she was dead, beaten and strangled, brutalized and discarded in a drainage ditch: the murderer was caught and convicted, and her memorial service had been three days ago, attended by the entire Firelands cheerleading squad, in their pleated skirts and saddle shoes:  Willamina heard through her sources that she might be approached by a few members of the squad, and she wondered if this was the vanguard, or perhaps the only one who followed through.

"Is anyone else interested?" Willamina asked neutrally, and Susie smiled, just a little, and Willamina's eyes smiled a little in reply.

 

When a good looking high school girl in a short cheerleader skirt walks into the Sheriff's office like she owns the place, the men especially take note.

When the entire Firelands cheerleading squad -- the entire squad -- walks in, all ponytails and short skirts and well-muscled athletic legs -- well, everyone took notice.

Willamina was apparently in on this, whatever it was:  the deputies present did not know what it was, nor did they care: it was enough that they didn't have to go anywhere to do their girlwatching, the girlwatching came to them, and as one quietly commented to Chief Deputy Barrents, "I do enjoy a target rich environment!"

Sheriff Willamina Keller gestured them into the spacious conference room, looked at Barrents.

"I'm going to be teaching some young ladies some very bad habits.  Let's start with two dozen assorted and a pot of coffee, and get two dozen assorted for out here."  She turned, stopped, turned back.  "And have the prosecutor join us."

Barrents' black eyes were impassive, or at least he tried to keep them that way, but Willamina knew her segundo very well, and she saw approval in his expression.

He'd worked the murder and he knew why the cheerleaders were here.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller picked up the coat tree, carried it in between the two rows of tables, set it down:  her trademark three inch heels were loud on the polished quartz floor as she paced over, picked up the red man suit's helmet, brought it back between the tables and dunked it over the top of the hall tree:  she stepped back, planted her knuckles on her hips, then looked around.

"Kind of looks like one of my old boyfriends," she commented, and the cheerleaders giggled, a little self-consciously, a little uncomfortably.

"Okay, look, I'm the Sheriff, so I carry a gun."  She unbuttoned her suit jacket, exposed the black plastic selfloader on her belt.  "As a matter of fact, I carry more than one gun."  She opened her suit coat further, turned, showing the matching black plastic selfloader in a horizontal shoulder rig.  "And I carry more than that."  She dipped a hand in a pocket, came out with a little rounded automatic that hid nicely in the palm of her hand.  "This isn't much, it's a .32, but punch this in someone's face and pull the trigger six times and you'll stop the fight."  She returned the hideout to its fabric home and smiled thinly.  "Don't ask me how I know." 

She turned, scanning the cheerleaders.  "Someone asked me why I wear heels.  Several reasons.  I look good in heels, I dance well in heels, and" -- she spun, drove her left heel through the eye slit of the redman hood -- "I killed a man just like that, back East."

The sudden, shocked silence told her she absolutely, positively had their undivided.

"I was caught by surprise. 

I was clubbed across the back of the head. 

They grabbed me, zip tied me behind my back and threw me in a van. 

They took me to the abandoned schoolhouse on top of the hill and when they brought me out I pretended to be out cold, until my feet found the ground.

"Someone called the town cop to report a lot of screaming.  He got there and found two on the ground -- one dead, one wishing he was -- and there I was, madder than two hells and still tied up, and I don't know which made me angrier."  Her eyes were pale and her cheek bones stood out with the memory; she closed her eyes, took a long breath, the color returned to her face, but her eyes were still pale.

"I don't know whether I was madder because I'd been taken by surprise, or because I couldn't get out of the zip tie, or because I broke the heel off my shoe!"

The cheerleaders laughed, a little uncertainly, as the Sheriff smiled.

"Now.  Sports and coaches be damned, you are athletes, all of you.  I know your routine, I know your workouts.  I was a cheerleader once and I can still fit in my cheerleader's uniform -- yes, even decrepit old ladies have that vanity!"

The laughter was still subdued, but a little more relaxed.  

"Decrepit" is certainly not a term any of them would have applied to their Sheriff, for she was a known horsewoman, they'd seen her throw a bale of hay across her shoulder and pack it to where it was needed, and she'd been seen using the less than gentle Oriental arts of pacifying thy fellow man, during public exhibitions.

"Show of hands.  How many of you stretch out every day?"

Every hand but one went up; the only holdout followed, hesitantly, its owner looking uncomfortably left and right, as if caught slacking.

"Good.  I'm going to be corrupting you."  She brought her hands together, casually, in front of her, then turned, her arm snapping out:  there was a THUMP and the young ladies turned, surprised, to see a hand-forged, Damascus knife with a checkered maple handle, sticking in the left eye socket of a wanted poster's face.

Willamina walked over, wiggled the knife free and sighed, "I use up more bulletin boards that way" -- her tone so doleful, her mien so exaggerated, that she got another quiet laugh from her ladies.

"Now.  Much of what I will teach you, you already know.  You all practice high kicks" -- she held out her arm in front of her, very easily kicked her own hand -- "but kicking at someone's face is a little bit different."  Two long strides, a spin, and the redman hood and hall tree were slammed back against the edge of the table.

The door opened and a younger deputy leaned in, a string tied box in hand.  "Save the pieces," he admonished, "and do you want paper plates, ma'am?"

"Plates, napkins and we're having coffee, thank you."

"Yes, ma'am, it's almost brewed."  He placed the white-cardboard box on the nearest table, got a quick head count, nodded.  "We do have enough cups."

Willamina waited until the deputy left before continuing.

"The prosecutor will be joining us.  I'm going to have him explain the legal aspects of self defense.  I'm also corrupting your diets because I plan to work the calories off you.  I will teach you some simple and very effective methods of saying NO and making it stick."

"Will you teach us to shoot?"  Susie's hand was raised, a little, and her voice was almost that of a hopeful little girl.

Willamina's smile was predatory, her eyes veiled.

"My father was murdered in the line of duty.  I was abducted and brutalized when I was your age.  Your friend and classmate was seized, beaten, brutalized and thrown away like so much garbage."

Sheriff Willamina Keller's eyes were as warm and welcoming as the frozen heart of a mountain glacier.

"You're damned right I'll teach you to shoot."

Sheriff Willamina Keller saw approval in every set of young eyes looking back at her.

 

 

 

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148.  THUS SPAKETH THE NUN

 

The barn was spacious, round and mostly under the overhang of a granite cliff.

Its timbers were old, solid, hand crafted and tightly fitted: at one time it had been a garage, but the oil soaked soil was long since dug out and replaced with packed clay, making a tough, almost impervious surface:  this was now covered with half a foot of sawdust, and it was on this packed six inches of fragrant fragments that a dozen and a half young women stood.

They'd arrived as instructed, they'd worn sweats and sneakers, they'd come expecting to find the Sheriff, and found only the barn, its lights on, the shadows in back keeping their secrets as if jealous:  every head turned as a door opened with the slightest of creaks:  phones were lowered, eyes widened with surprise as one of the Faceless Nuns glided in.

The nun's hands were in her sleeves; the sleeves, wide, voluminous, could have held a peck basket, or so it seemed:  the little nun approached them, and they drew back a little as she came near.

"And in the beginning," the nun's voice said, her quiet words filling the shadow-roofed barn, "God created man, and God created woman.

"This sounds very simple, but we have to look at the original Aramaic.

"We have one word for 'snow' but the Eskimo have several: when God created man, the word they used means "God gobbed together dirt and spit and made Man."

The cheerleaders giggled a little uncertainly, at least until the little nun removed a hand from a sleeve and raised a finger.
"The word used when God created woman means 'He finely crafted this creature called Woman."

"So here's the difference.  Men are mashed together from creekbank clay and women are precision instruments.  Do not ever forget that.  Male and female, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but we women" -- she spread her arms, palms up, embracing them all with a gesture -- "we are those precision instruments.

"Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards, in heels."

Most of them seemed to understand the reference, but two of them looked quite puzzled, and a third one asked, "Ginger Rogers?"

 

"Do you think the Sheriff will teach them anything?"

Barrents chuckled quietly.  "She taught us, didn't she?"

"Yeah, she taught me, but you're already a Marine!"

Barrents' eyes were quiet, knowing:  "She taught me, son, and she taught me things I didn't just not know, I didn't even suspect!"

"Yeah, but they're only cheerleaders!"

"You see the legs on those girls?"

The rookie looked at the old veteran like the Navajo had a fish sticking out of his uniform blouse pocket.

"Those lovely legs aren't just decoration.  Those are the strongest muscles in the body.  When the Sheriff told me she kicked two men to death with her hands tied behind her back, she was not kidding."

The rookie's mouth opened slowly, closed, then:  "I'm sorry ... she what?"

"Oh, ya," Barrents said offhandedly.  "Drove her spike heel through one's eye socket so hard she broke it off, then she drove the other heel between the other guy's ribs and kicked him a few more times.  Caved in enough ribs he died.  I think she ruptured his liver and his spleen.  The trick" -- the chief deputy's voice was quiet in the idling, nighttime cruiser -- "the trick is to erupt fast, hard and with absolutely no holdback."

The rookie nodded slowly, thoughtfully, remembering that the Sheriff had said exactly that when she was teaching hand-to-hand.

"If anyone can turn a bunch of cute, short skirted dancers into killing machines, she can."

 

The nun floated like a ghost on the night breeze, disappeared back through the door from whence she came; a moment later, the Sheriff emerged in combat boots and fatigues, looking around, smiling.
"Are we ready to warm up?"  she asked brightly.  "Let's start with stretches, shall we, then I'll need a hand setting up some heavy bags."

 

Daciana had been a circus performer, an acrobat and trick rider:  she did showy gymnastics in the saddle of her trick pony, and she taught Sarah tricks she'd learned from growing up in the circus, tricks about performing and dancing and killing with elbows and feet and any item she could pick up, with teas and poisons and blades and poisoned needles:  she taught the Sheriff's pale eyed daughter how to be a very good assassin, and Sarah put many of these lessons to very good use, and Sarah Lynne McKenna practiced in this very barn, kicking canvas bags filled with sawdust, practicing strikes and punches and always under Daciana's critical eye, until she was fast, and she was deadly, and she was very, very good.

Sheriff Willamina Keller knew how to kill, and she knew how to not kill, and she knew -- she knew as a matter of gut intuition, with a knowledge not of this earth -- that multiple of these lovely young ladies would need the fell knowledge at some point in their lives, and so she began to teach them.

She taught them.

She did not teach them until they got it right.

She taught them until they could not get it wrong.

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149.  THE JERSEY BULL

Barrents eased the bolt forward on his M14.

It had belonged to his father, and now it was his: he preferred the larger payload to the issue 5.56, in spite of its greater weight, and the fact that its magazine was considerably bulkier.

Barrents liked results, and his '14 gave good results.

He felt the Sheriff ... he hadn't heard her, he hadn't smelled her perfume, he felt her come up beside him.

"Yes, Boss?" he asked, and she heard the ironic smile in his voice.

"We shoot qualification next week," Willamina said, her voice quiet, musical:  "I want you to bring your Fourteen."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I want to find out ... something."

Barrents placed the rifle on the table, turned, looked squarely at the pale eyed Sheriff.

"Something is on your mind," he said -- a statement, not a question.

Willamina's jaw thrust out and she nodded.

"This wouldn't have something to do with teaching the cheerleaders how to be bloodthirsty killers?"  Barrents teased, his polished obsidian eyes carefully quiet.  

"You mean the Valkyries?"  Willamina laughed.  "Dear God, if I believed half the rumors I've starred in --" 

She smiled, shook her head.

"No.  No, I'm not teaching them to ride ravens, nor how to harvest souls from the battlefield."  

"Hm."  Barrents' grunt was a little less than skeptical -- but very little less.

"I'm causing a broader net of trouble than I'd intended," she admitted.

"You?"  Barrents asked, pretending to be surprised.  "Cause trouble, you?  Perish the thought!"

"Oh, yes," Willamina sighed.  "I'm arranging for Willamina's Warriors to join us."

"Now that I can believe."

"What, that I'm joining the two?"

"No.  Willamina's Warriors."
Willamina threw her head back and laughed, a good, easy, natural laugh that brought looks and smiles from elsewhere about their Sheriff's office.

Willamina ran, every evening, with the football team -- she'd started that nightly run when she saw the football team's conditioning run past her house, and she saw they had stragglers, and she remembered stragglers in the Corps, and how their buddies would drop back and keep them up with the squad.

On the second night the football team ran past her house, she ran with them, joining their rear ranks, running in fatigues and boots at first:  her arm around a flagging runner, or pacing someone who'd fallen back and looked like he was considering dropping out:  night after night, and Willamina ran with them, every night, coming up through the ranks, pacing them, encouraging them, joking with them, then shaping them.

She began to sing cadence, chanting those deliciously obscene running songs that young men rejoice to sing; as they sang, they ran with their music, they ran in step:  Willamina shaped them, ran them in ranks, ran them in step, until finally she ran with them from their beginning, ran with them as a squad, instead of blending in with them as they passed her house.

Willamina's house was about the halfway point on their conditioning run, and her joining their ranks was seen as a good thing by the coaches; their team showed a greater cohesion, their team moved like a team, thanks to the unity she was teaching them on their runs, and so their coaches turned a blind eye to good homemade cookies and water at the halfway point, where the team stopped in their run, and sprawled in the yard, ate cookies and drank water and stretched to keep from stiffening or cramping.

Willamina ran in full battle rattle -- fatigues and helmet, boots and ruck and a rifle over her shoulder, and two canteens on her belt, and she recruited from this unorganized militia for special details:  two of their number were volunteers with their fire department's squad, which meant they became the designated medics.

The medics ran with light kits at first, then more actual medic's packs:  their experience at running as part of the football team, was woven into the fire department emergency squad's overall training.

One was a ham radio operator:  his given Christian name was John Schoendorff, but he became Commo, and ran with two cell phones, two talkies and two extra batteries for each:  Willamina saw to it that he acquired a backpack radio and deployable antenna, and that he set it up and used it, with her thumb on the stopwatch stem and his teammates yelling encouragement as he set up under pressure, and fists thrust triumphantly into the air as he made contacts over incredible distances -- the most memorable, an accented voice with an Israeli call sign, a voice who asked if their C.O. was a pale eyed Valkyrie -- which brought a sharp look from the Sheriff, and a nod, tight and carefully controlled:  "Ask him if Yoni still likes horses," Willamina asked, and when Commo passed the question, the signal faded, but not until he heard the words, "-- trail ride with Texas."

Willamina smiled just a little, and in spite of their few years, everyone listening to the conversation, everyone watching her face, knew there was a story behind that, and every quick young man's mind made a mental note to ask about it sometime.

Willamina blinked, and she was back in the Sheriff's office, sitting beside her Chief Deputy Paul Barrents, and she smiled again.

"I'm going to teach them how to waltz," she said quietly. 

"The Valkyries need to understand that they are feminine and graceful, that fighting is not the only thing they learn from me."  

She looked at Barrents. 

"What better way than to teach them a genteel and courtly dance?"

Barrents nodded, his eyes lowering to the walnut stocked rifle on the table.

"The Valkyries," he echoed, his eyebrow raising, and Willamina grimaced.

"Oh, hell, I've got to call them something!" 

She looked at the rifle on the table.

"Now about the Fourteen."  Willamina reached out, tapped the rearstock with delicate fingertips.

"Cousin Ted was in the National Guard back during the Vietnam riots.  You might remember hearing about those."

Barrents nodded slowly and Willamina felt his walls go up.

"Cousin Ted was called to duty.  They went to Ohio University, Athens, to handle the college riots, right before Kent State."

Barrents nodded, once.

"They were issued fourteens with bayonets and four-stitchers."
Willamina saw approval in her segundo's eyes.

"The four-stitcher was a plate that fit over the end of the bayonet.  Jab someone in the backside and it took four stitches to close the wound.  It would not kill but it was Jim Dandy to move rioters on down the street."

Again the slow, knowing nod.

"They were given empty rifles and the rioters knew it.  

"Cousin Ted was with the troops who formed a line across the street from Brumley Hall the the old post office."  Willamina's voice was quiet, her eyes distant as she remembered hearing the story from the participant's mouth when she was still a girl at home.

"One of the rioters ran up and heaved half a concrete block and caught Cousin Ted just under the knee cap.

"He gave a bellow like a Jersey bull, he went down on one knee and hauled back on the bolt and let it run forward."

The Sheriff's jaw slid out and her eyes were distant as she remembered her Kinsman's words, at their supper table one night, with her big strong Daddy beside her and her mother looking sour and disapproving.

"A Fourteen sounds entirely different when it runs a brass panatela into the breech than it does when it's empty."
Barrents' left eyebow quirked up; he well knew that very sound, and he'd brought the bolt back himself, with intent to use, more times than one.  The net effect was not as effective on a subject as racking a twelve gauge, but it was almost as good, and he'd worked it to his advantage.

"The lieutenant came running over, screaming at Cousin Ted to stand down, stand down, and Ted was hurtin' ... he brought the rifle to shoulder and declared he was going to shoot that rioting Communist son of a sheepherder."

Willamina's eyes were veiled and her hands closed, as if around a throat, as she added, "His language was not quite so ... kindly."

She looked at her segundo and added, "Funny thing ... when that brass round drove into blued steel, the rioters sort of melted away, really quickly."

Barrents grunted agreement.

He'd done as much himself, while he wore Uncle Sam's baggy green.

 

 

 

 

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150.  DANCER'S MOVE

Sarah Lynne McKenna was a noted dancer.

When an individual seized her upper arm and pulled hard, instead of pulling away, she shoved into the individual, spun as if spinning into his arms.

This was not what was expected.

Nor was her upraised elbow, which caught the side of the arm-grabber's eagle beak.

Hard.

Sarah was well practiced at this particular move, which also involved her kicking her foot into the back of the grabber's knee as she spun.

Pain and surprise enabled her escape; rage and retaliation prompted his punch.

Sarah Lynne McKenna raised her forearm vertical, in front of her face:  atop her forearm, a fist: in the fist, the checkered maple grip of a heavy bladed fighting knife, and vertical down from the checkered maple grips, a heavy blade, point down, edge forward.

The punch was standard for the day:  not with knuckles horizontal, but vertical, to lessen the likelihood of a boxer's fracture when punching an opponent's face.
Instead of driving work hardened knuckles into a pretty little schoolmarm's face, he drove a full-on punch into the honed blade of a hand forged, Damascus steel blade, cutting through knuckles, bones, tendons; his good right hand was ruined in an instant -- 

He'd intended to seize a snooty woman's arm, to take a kiss as he'd taken women before:  drink and ill manners are a bad combination, and a bullying nature only adds to poor decision making, and now, now a rough soul with no regard for anyone but himself, realized he'd just been crippled, his hand ruined.

The tidy little schoolteacher in her mousy-grey dress stepped back, a second knife appearing in her other hand:  she took one step back, two, blades spinning in her grip like dinner plate sized buzz saws, edge-on to her attacker, and her eyes were pale, ice pale, hard as frozen flint and as welcoming as a mountain glacier in winter.

Old habit prompted his left hand to thrust into his coat pocket.

Old habit prompted a .44 revolver to punch a thumb sized hole through his left ear canal.

Sheriff Linn Keller eared the hammer back on his engraved Colt:  he knew his shot went true -- the distance was not great, and he'd practiced shooting at small marks, up close, many times -- he turned, slowly, the flesh pale and stretched over his cheek bones:  he turned slowly, describing a complete circle, satisfying himself that no one else wished to be hostile, before he eased his revolving pistol's hammer down, then back to half cock, and replaced the fired round.

His moves were deliberate, precise, controlled:  any who knew him, knew this bespoke a deep, boiling, abiding anger.

He eased the hammer's nose down on the empty chamber and holstered, looked up at the splashing sound of a woman stirring a Damascus blade briskly in a horse trough:  she wiped the steel clean, carefully, tilting her head a little, as if she were regarding a flower arrangement, instead of the tool that separated a few fingers from their hand.

She turned, two knives in hand again:  there was the spinning flash of steel in sunlight, and her hands thrust in and down, and the blades disappeared, a magician's move.

A very deadly and most capable magician.

 

"Now ladies, I want you to pair off," Sheriff Willamina Keller said:  "gentlemen, take your ladies thusly" -- her son held his hand out and palm-up, and Willamina lay her off hand in her son's; Linn's arm went around the small of his mother's back, and Willamina's around his.

"Now.  I'm going to show you something.  Everyone in position? -- all right, ladies, lift your hand, then place your wrist in the gentleman's grip."

Linn very delicately closed his grip around his mother's wrist, smiling a little:  he knew what was coming.

"Ladies, I'm going to show you something."  She made a quick pirouette, coming out of her son's arms, pacing in among her students.

"The opposable thumb," she said, holding up her hand and wiggling the aforementioned digit, "makes it possible for us to grip and to grasp.  The thumb is also the weak point.  Watch closely, this is how you break someone's grip when they have you by the wrist -- gentlemen, remember, do NOT grip the ladies' wrist firmly, this is a training exercise, not a wrestling match!"

Willamina returned to her son:  he gripped her wrist, and she twisted, pulled, slowly, so all could see:  a second time, a little faster, then:

"Linn, grab hard."

Linn grabbed his Mama's wrist like he meant it, and she broke out of his grip, seized her son and introduced him quickly and less than gently to the sawdust floor.

"Whoa," two of the football jocks husked -- they'd seen the Sheriff's son in action, they knew how tough a toe-to-toe scrapper he'd been when occasions demanded, and to see this lean, rangy deputy, a head and more taller than his mother, holding her in a grip they were familiar with, suddenly unable to maintain what they knew without any doubt at all to be a strong grip -- and then to be driven face-first into the sawdust... well, they were impressed.

"Ladies, you don't have the skill for that throw just yet, so we won't work on that.  You will, instead, work on breaking the grip.  This is not the only grip you'll learn how to break, but it is the first."

Linn came up on all fours, grinning, sawdust all down his front: as he rose, he happily slapped his flat belly, his thighs, causing a woody snowstorm.

"Linn will circulate among you and make sure you're getting it down properly, and remember, ladies, we are not learning this until we can get it right."

Curious looks and young eyes regarded her with absolute attention.

"We're not practicing until we get this right, we're practicing this UNTIL WE CAN'T GET IT WRONG!"

Willamina's expression was knowing, and a little amused.

"After which we'll study applied physics.  Show of hands, how many are taking physics?"

One hand straggled upward, was quickly lowered.

"We'll be using the principle of Conservation of Motion, and that means you will learn to waltz.  Ladies, do you remember what Sister Sarah said about women being finely crafted as precision instruments? -- well, dancing increases your combat effectiveness, because it teaches conservation of motion."  

She smiled, and they liked that smile, because it generally meant things were about to happen.

"You're going to learn how to seriously kick some backsides, and you're going to look really, really good doing it!"

The guys looked at one another, not quite sure where all this was going, but they'd learned to trust the Sheriff -- she'd arranged for a Judo instructor for the football team, and thanks to learning how to fall properly, there was a decrease in football injuries, and so they were used to surprises from "Our Sheriff," as they called Willamina.

If she was going to teach them to waltz, they reasoned silently, this might have use with the ladies ... and besides, when else would they actually have a chance at pairing off with a cheerleader, if only for a dance?

Willamina clapped her hands twice, spun into her son's arms:  "Computer!  Shostakovitch, if you please, the Second Waltz!  Now ladies, place your wrist -- gentlemen, grip gently -- and watch me, once more!"

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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151.  GRABBED HIM BY THE NOSE

I knew the man I was after did not wish to be caught.

I knew he was running, running because he was wanted, running because he'd seen his own wanted poster.

He had his own horse -- he hadn't stolen a mount -- near as I could tell he'd never stuck a gun in anyone's face to take their proud-ofs, he'd not committed any crimes in my county, but when a man sees his face on a wanted dodger, reads his name in big bold print and sees a cash reward for his capture ... well, if a man is able, he might take out and figure out out-run or out-last the warrant, and that's what this fellow did.

I reckoned this was panic, a rash decision:  he had no time to provision, a quick inquiry at our Mercantile and after he'd seen his wanted dodger, he just saddled up and left, never supplied up:  a man can make it with nothing more than what Mama Nature provides, I've done as much myself, but it's a lean and miserable existence.

It can be done but it's terribly more work than a man realizes.

I read his tracks -- he didn't try to hide his escape until he was well into the mountains and his horse started sagging, and as his horse honestly couldn't do much more than a walk, I reckon he realized he was in more trouble than he'd been, and he started thinking like a hunted animal.

I caught up with him after a few days.

You see, he'd left town a day and a half before I took out after him, he took out after an anxious looking woman with an infant all blanket wrapped in her arms come into my office, after I bade the woman lay the little one down on my desk and I heated up some water for the babe wanted changed and she did have clean diapers but she'd only just arrived, all worried and scared, and I had her set down and tend the necessaries for she was with milk and the child had an appetite and I went out back with hot water off the stove and washed out attair diaper and hung it over a fence rail to dry.

I come back inside on the Cat Foot and that poor woman was leaned back against the wall a little, poor thing, she was asleep -- she looked all pale and drawn and scared and alone, so I withdrew my foot from across my own office threshold and slipped over to the Silver Jewel and had me a quiet talk with Daisy.

Nor ordinarily she'd fix me with them sharp and lovely Irish eyes and give me billy Hell whether I needed it or not, but when I told her that a woman alone was lookin' for the man that left on the Hot Foot and her child was to her breast, she was so wore out she fell asleep in a hard back chair over in my office and I don't reckon she's seen a meal in long enough her stomach thought her throat was cut -- well, Daisy never said word one, she kind of pressed her lips together and she started throwin' some things together and she turned around and damn if she didn't have a tray all loaded up and she said "Open th' door, ya great oaf, m'hands 're full," and I fetched open the doors ahead of her and she come across the street with her nose h'isted in the air and I fetched open the door to the Sheriff's office and she stepped in like she owned the place.

I figured women handle women better than men, women can talk particulars that they would never utter with a strange man present, so I went on out and got to talking around and learned about this fellow I'd seen, how he'd taken a look at a particular wanted dodger and one of the schoolboys (you know boys, they're everywhere and they see everything -- this one gave me a good and particular description of what he'd seen, so I knew exactly which wanted poster this fellow looked at, how he turned kind of pale, how he sort of looked around and then walked with an exaggerated casualness to his horse and left) -- well, once Daisy come out I went in and talked to that woman, and that's when I provisioned up and set out after this fellow.

He'd come into town, I knew, but not from what distance, so I didn't know how fresh his horse was.

From his tracks, his horse flagged kind of quick, so that meant a tired mount to start with, or a lowland horse, not used to the high mountain air.

Either way it meant a tired horse and he would not get far:  my black Outlaw-horse was a mountain horse, and glad I was for it, for we made good time, steady time, a nice easy pace that caught up with this fellow in half a day.

I watched him for some time, studying him, studying his layout.

I figured I could approach from one of two directions:  I chose from upstream, and when I ground reined Outlaw, I reached into my saddlebag and fetched out a blue granite coffee pot and a ball of cloth that smelled suspiciously of coffee, and a bigger bundle that smelled of sandwiches.

He looked up, startled, hand on his revolver, as I walked into his little clearing just bold as brass.

"I've got coffee," said I, "and some biscuits, and I hate to eat alone."

He swallowed, removed his hand from the revolver's handle, he looked half sick and nodded.

I dipped water out of the stream and set up a couple rocks, set the coffee water to heat up, placed a red and white checkered cloth on the sandy ground beside, unfolded it.

I tossed him one of Daisy's sweet rolls:  he caught it, sniffed it appreciatively, his eyes closing for a moment, the way a man will when he retreats into a memory.

I took a bite of one -- I do love her sweet rolls -- "My Mama used to make these," I mumbled, spilling crumbs as I did, the way a man will when he's talking with his mouth full.

This fellow nodded.

We didn't talk much.

What little talk there was, I started, and his replies were mostly grunts or hmmms or nods, and little of those.

Once the water was a-boil, I dunked that cloth ball in the coffee pot -- "Ground up some frash roasted this mornin'," said I, "and I bag 'em up like that, I'll drop the whole thing in the coffee pot and let it set there and repent of its sins!"

He almost smiled at that.

Now once coffee was done and he'd got a sandwich or two behind his belt buckle, I fetched out that wanted poster and he looked kind of sick again.

"I do not like these," I said.  "Too often they'll print up -- look at that picture now, I know at least a dozen men that look kind of like that a little bit!"

He looked at me, halfway between scared and sick; he'd seen the six point star on my coat, he knew I had him dead to rights, he knew I could not be so utterly stupid as to know that poster wasn't him.

"I also know the man named on this poster was killed a month ago."

He looked kind of confused when I told him that.

"You know the name Smith is just common as ticks on a hound dog."

He nodded, hesitantly, as if reluctant to be led by someone else's reasoning.

"Hell, the name Keller is as common in Germany as Smith is here!"

"Keller," he said, his voice kind of husky, and I saw the last gear slip into place behind his eyes, as he put together what he knew about a pale eyed lawman who wore a black suit, a lawman with an iron grey mustache, the lawman sitting across from him right now, and it looked like all the ambition just drained out of him like someone pulled the cork out of his boot heel and his gumption ran out like water.

"Good thing this ain't Germany," I grinned.  "That fellow I killed was usin' this name here" -- I held up the wanted dodger -- "but 'twas not his name to use.  He claimed it to throw off suspicion in case he'd have to hit the Owl Hoot trail and he could go home and use his own name ag'in and no one the wiser."

"That --" he started, pointing, confused.

"Yes, that.  Now the way I see it --"

I folded the dodger back up, handed it to him.

"You've et, your horse is rested.  We can make it back to Firelands after dark, and there's a woman there lookin' for you.  She's got a frash little baby with her and she's askin' for you."

"Baby?" he squeaked, and his eyes got real big, and then he grinned real big, and then his face fell.

"What about -- that?" handed me back the folded dodger.

"I am contacting every jurisdiction in the book to let them know I killed that man on that poster."  I poured out the last of the coffee, offered it to him; he took it, drank, handed me back the empty tin cup.

I dumped out the coffee pot, buried the soggy ball of cloth, dug a hole with my boot heel, rolled it in. kicked dirt over it:  a quick slosh in the creek and the coffee pot was clean and ready to go, I folded up Daisy's checkerboard cloth, smiling at the thought of the sandwiches it held:  once this fellow started to eat, he realized how hungry he was, and he disposed of almost everything I'd brought, which was fine by me.

"Would that be your little one?" I asked, and his ears got real red and he ducked his head and nodded.

"Will the two of you be startin' a new life out here now?"

We worked our way back up to the horses, who were by now grazing side by side:  he talked as we saddled up.

"She was a widow woman and she was lonely, and I was too, and I reckon folks thought her ... that she was already ..."
I reached over and gripped his shoulder.

"Friend," said I, in a quiet voice, "I will tell you something I have told no man, for you alone would understand this."

He looked at me in honest surprise, one hand still on his saddle horn.

"I knew a lonely widow women once myself.  She is long dead now, but her child is now my own."

We swung up into saddle leather, looked at one another.

"What say we head back torst home.  The cookin' is better, the bed is more comfortable, and our children wish to see us."

I rode with a wanted man that night, a man wanted by a woman with whom there were plans.

Parson Belden married them and Esther and the ladies quietly ensured the community knew this was a widow-woman whose husband was killed in a fall from a barn roof, and all assumed the child was from her late husband.

Hell, it might have been, I didn't pry for particulars and it didn't matter one way or t'other, for when that fellow picked up the child and taken a long look at it, when the child made a happy little baby noise and reached up and grabbed his nose, why, he laughed and so did the child and that's all it took.

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152. "COME ON, I'M BUYING!"

 

The bugle's notes were loud, staccato, demanding, the idea of a perverted soul who disliked the electronic squeal of the remote-activated call box.

Blankets spun off what had been a relaxed sleeper, sock feet drove into waiting Wellington boots, blue jeans were seized and yanked up to half mast: a shirt spun around the shoulders and Saddles swatted viciously at the thick braid that tried to hide under her shirt collar, then ran her fingers quickly down the buttons, finally tucking in the flannel material, hauling her jeans up and cinching the belt tight.

Part of her mind was still warm and comfortable and back in the bunk, while the rest of her mind was sprinting ahead, listening to the dispatcher's voice coming through the plastic-chromed grille of the Plectron on the bookshelf:  "FIRELANDS EMERGENCY SQUAD RESPOND TO THE WOMAN IN LABOR," and Saddles strode from the room, listening to the location, mentally mapping the route, estimating she would be there well before the squad.

Her furry black fence jumper dog raised his head hopefully, then rolled over on his side, pawing the air, then yawned with an incredible stretch of jaw muscles and white dentistry: the door thumped shut behind the departing woman and the dog relaxed, smelling the outside air still rolling across the kitchen floor, black nose twitching as it read the outdoor newspaper borne on the brief breeze.

Saddles seized the pickup's door handle, hauled it open, slid behind the wheel:  clutch and throttle and a pull on the choke, a touch of the key and the stove bolt six caught, idled:  she seized the stick, pulled it to her and down, pulled the headlight switch and started rolling.

Saddles had the gift given to most medics:  she'd gone from sound asleep to wide awake in a tenth of a second or less:  her mind was running ahead of her, a moving map showing potholes, mailboxes, landmarks:  it was less than a mile from her hacienda to the scene of the call, provided the dispatcher had been given the correct location.

Polished boot leather pressed down on the throttle, her palm gripped the smooth, round shifter knob, she worked her way through three gears, grateful there was neither frost nor persistent mist to fog her windshield.

 

The buzzing alarm tone was harsh in the brick confines of the firehouse.

Men threw blankets aside, drove sock feet into polished Wellington boots, listened with part of their mind while the other part of their functioning brain attended to getting them dressed, to hauling up bunker pants and hooking suspenders over their sleep-warmed shoulders:  their fireboots and bunker pants were on the squad, as medics preferred the lighter weight Wellingtons and uniform trousers for squad runs:  two men strode for the shining, angular ambulance, waiting patiently in the far bay, polished and gleaming in the harsh fluorescent light.

Cap fisted the door opener on the way by, starting the overhead door chuckling open:  his driver hit the saddle, reached down, turned the black knob three click, engaging both batteries:  ignition to first position, wait for the light to go out, then hit the switch.

The Diesel engine's valves snarled, settled, began their patient chuckle: Cap seized the shoreline, a twist, a pull and the heavy duty electric cord was disconnected, thrown aside:  two doors slammed and a polished boot hit the throttle as two fingers wiped across the panel, wiping red rocker switches into glowing life.

Cap gripped the microphone, key down, professional voice.

"Firelands Squad One, enroute, repeat address."

He uncapped the erasable marker, wrote the address on the clear plastic overlaying the dashboard.

 

Saddles braked quickly, satisfied this was the location:  a man was standing outside the open passenger door of the tan Chevy station wagon, hands to his head, fingers thrust through his hair, the image of distress:  she shut off the engine, hook the gearbox in first gear -- that truck was going nowhere in first! -- pulled the keys, swarmed out of the cab, pulling medic's blue gloves from her hip pocket.

"Paramedic," she called, "whattawegot?"

The man backed up, eyes wide:  Saddles looked inside, her jaw thrust forward.

A woman lay across the front seat, her head under the steering wheel, eyes closed, blowing her breath out through pursed lips:  her belly was huge, her knees drawn up, sweat beaded on her forehead.

"Mother," she said, pitching her voice to be both professional and compassionate, "I'm Sue Adkins, I'm a paramedic and I've delivered babies before.  How many children have you had already?"

"Three," the woman gasped.

"We were headed for the hospital and we had to drop off the kids," the husband said from over Saddles' left shoulder, "and she said stop, the baby's coming!"

"Okay, Mother, let's undress you from the belt down.  Quickly, now."

 

Saddles saw blue-and-reds through the car's windshield, looked up as Will Keller braked to a fast stop, came striding over, iron-grey mustache immaculately curled, and part of Saddles' mind thought I wish Daddy would grow a mustache, he'd look really good in one, and the rest of her mind was screaming SHUT UP AND PUT ON YOUR CATCHER'S MITT, YOU IDIOT, THIS IS THE FOURTH AND IT'LL COME FAST!

The father leaned over Saddles' shoulder, his breath smelling of coffee and anxiety:  "Wow, man," he murmured, and Saddles straightened, took him by the arm, opened the rear door:  "I need you in here," she said, pushing him in:  "you'll have to give me a medical history" – she slammed the door, returned to the mother.

The mother was blowing her breath out through pursed lips, clearly working with her contractions.

"Raise your bottom, Mother," Susan said, her voice firm, reassuring, as she seized the woman's elastic waistband and pulled.

"Saddles whattaya need?"  Will rumbled

"Behind my seat there's a black bag," Susan replied, looking at the mother, looking at her watch, timing the contraction. "Side pocket, there's a bedsheet, I need it."

She felt the police chief draw back, heard his brisk stride:  she heard her truck's door open, then shut, she heard a zipper, then something folded, pastel and square was thrust into her peripheral vision.

"Thank you, Chief.  Mother, raise your bottom, this goes underneath," and as the sheet spread and settled under the laboring woman's backside, Susan glanced at her watch again.

Another contraction, already, she thought, not long now –

"Wow, man," the father mumbled from over the back of the seat.  "Wow, man.  Honey, you all right? – wow, man!"

If he faints on me, Susan thought, I shove him into the back seat.  Everything is padded, he's out of the way, he won't be hurt when I push him away.

"We doing okay?"  Will rumbled from behind the medic's shoulder.

"Chief, back up, we've got a trickle –"

A gush of fluid, Susan looked down at her suddenly-wet flannel shirt.

"Water's broke!"  Susan laughed – what else can I do but laugh? – and the mother raised her head, almost ready to cry:  "Oh, I'm so sorry!"

"Saddles?"  Will asked, and Susan thrust her hand under the emerging head:  "Chief, we have bulging, weeeeeee have a head we have rotation –"

The head rotated as it was supposed to, the shoulders were up-and-down: Susan lifted the emerging baby, freed the bottom shoulder, the top:  a double handful of wrinkled, ugly-slate-colored something with arms and legs were suddenly in her hands.

Training moved her hands, turned the child, drained the airway: she felt the child squirm, she heard the little mouse-squeak of the first breath, she carefully parted the legs and took a look.

The mother raised her head, tears in her voice:  "My baby?" she quavered, and Susan laughed with delight.

"Mother," she declared, "you have a fine little baby girl!  Do you plan to breastfeed?"

Susan's head turned as something red and white began beating against her eyes:  the squad was just pulling up.

Running feet, the rattle of the ambulance cot:  "SADDLES!  WHATTAYA GOT?"

Susan laughed, laid the child across her mother's belly, covered her with a blanket handed forward by the big-eyed, shocked-silent father:  "I need the OB kit, it's a girl!"

 

Two nights later, at a formal presentation in the firehouse, Susan stood at attention while her father pinned the pink stork on her uniform shirt pocket's flap:  not an hour before, the Irish Brigade descended on her pickup, threw up the hood and with drill and screws, with laughter and joking, they installed a brand new bug shield, and with their beloved Saddles between two broad-shouldered firemen, a reflective, pink stork decal was ceremonially applied to the precise center of her clear-plastic bug shield.

The Mayor shook her hand and said the words that mayors always say at times like this; her father, the Captain, gave her a big, fatherly hug, his lips an inch from her ear as he murmured "I'm proud of you, Saddles," and the pale-eyed Sheriff winked at her and said, "It's traditional to celebrate a triumph with a trip to the Silver Jewel.  Come on, I'm buying!"

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153.  LONG NIGHT

"You're working too hard," Sarah said, stepping back, lowering her arm.

"You're working me hard," Jacob grunted, grateful for the respite:  he lowered his gutta-percha practice knife, turned, picked up a lump of chalk:  rubbing it along the designated cutting edge of the "knife." 

Sarah turned as well, walked over to an upturned keg:  she placed her practice knife on the keg, picked up a coil of cord, turned.

Jacob frowned, puzzled, as Sarah spun something on the end of the cord, swinging it in a vertical circle at her side, a circle not much smaller than her own height.

"Jacob, this may help," she explained in that patient voice a teacher uses with a slow student:  "The Chinese have something they call a meteor ball.  It's a steel ball at the end of a line and a master can do truly amazing things with it."  She smiled a little, stepping back.  "I'm not a master."

Jacob flinched as the ball snapped back from his face, having come to the end of its cord -- how'd she do that? he thought, sidestepping and swinging a hand up to bat it aside, moving by reflex.

Sarah brought the child's rubber ball back, resumed spinning her vertical circle at her right side.

"Jacob, this takes a certain amount of time to make one revolution.  I have to time my moves with its position in the circle.  If I don't get it right, I might hit myself in the back of the head."

Jacob nodded, and Sarah continued.

"I have to conserve the energy in my spin, Jacob.  Just like dancing.  Constant motion, constant movement, we move from one step to another, one spin to another, we move into the Grand Right and Left, we swing our partner, we never stop moving."

The ball snapped out again, snapped back, snapped forward, resumed its vertical circle.

"If I mis-time it" -- the ball sizzled through space and across her face, barely missing her nose -- "I lose my speed and my spin and I have to spin it up all over again.  That will take me maybe one second, but how far can you move in one second?"

They both smiled a little at that, for she and Jacob practiced at what she called The Lunge -- the distance one or the other of them could cover with a knife -- a surprising distance, for until they both tried it, comparing this to the time needed to draw and place an accurate pistol round at the incoming attacker, neither realized how critical it was to know what this distance actually could be.

Of the two, Jacob was not the faster, but he was the deadlier, owing in part to his greater height, the greater length of his thrusting reach.

As long as he could maintain that distance, he knew, he would have that slender advantage, but Sarah was compact and she was fast, and she was silver death with sharpened steel.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller went down the line, personally checking every holster.

Every one of her deputies had an airgun on his side, weighted to duplicate the issue sidearm.

"I'm going to scare the hell out of you," she said.  "This is a friend of mine, his name's Larry and he's going to kill you."
A shifty-eyed, rat-faced fellow slunk out of the shadows, looking like any of the common crowd one might see in a day's travel about town: T-shirt, sacky jeans, high-tops.

"One at a time, left to right. One pace forward, stop -- no, one at a time."  She nodded like a schoolteacher, motioning three deputies back into rank.  "Larry will come at you with a blade.  You stop him."

She knew her deputies to be proficient and practiced, she knew them to be accurate and level headed, and she knew she was going to see her deputy gutted.

She was right.

Larry crossed twenty feet and sliced the deputy's forearm and across his uniform shirt, leaving a white-chalk streak:  the deputy's mouth fell open, his draw forgotten, as he looked down at his arm and realized if this had been real -- if that had been a steel blade instead of blunted, ballistic nylon -- his support arm would be worthless and his guts would be hanging out.

Larry spun his blade insolently between his fingers, turned, slouched back to the Sheriff, whistling:  he turned, charged, and this time "cut" two deputies: one had his pistol out and fired, but not until after he was "cut" -- off her entire staff, only Barrents and Phillips managed to draw and fire before their attacker's arrival, and that, because they both danced back and to the side, getting distance:  of those two, Phillips fell backwards, firing until he landed, and he landed badly:  he rolled up on his side, arm still extended, fired until the air gun ran out of plastic pellets:  his hand opened, the air gun fell to the sawdust and his hand automatically went to his ankle, his thumb driving his pants cuff up to clear the missing backup pistol from its empty ankle holster:  he froze, lowered his hand, rolled over on all fours, fighting for air.

He'd knocked the wind out of himself when he landed, and the world turned kind of sparkly, like a beaded curtain lowered in front of his gaze, until he took several long breaths and realized Barrents had him under the arms, holding him up.

Barrents' eyes were black and polished and he looked deep into the rookie's eyes, steadying him until the man nodded and said "Thanks," and started to brush the sawdust off his legs.

 

Sarah circled, moving lightly on the balls of her feet, her blade point-up, but at belt level:  her off hand came up, gracefully, over her head, her wrist bent, a beautifully feminine move:  the knife spun in her fingers and Jacob backed, suddenly, eyes pale as he parried her quick thrust.

"Hold," he said quietly.  "Once more, exact move, half speed."

At the half-speed repeat, he improved both evasion and parry:  by the end of the day, after the white lines on his carcass attested to the many times he'd been "killed" and the bruises he'd gathered attested to the number of point thrusts he'd inherited, he and Sarah finally backed up one step, raised their "blades" in salute, and agreed that their time had been well spent indeed.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller spoke with each deputy individually, speaking quietly, speaking very seriously:  she spoke of what each one did right, she reinforced what they'd learned -- and they'd learned that her weekly training sessions were indeed making them not just more effective, but more likely to go home, alive, at the end of their shift.

Barrents was last to leave:  he gave the Sheriff a grin and a wink, then thrust out his blunt-fingered, callused mitt at this Larry fellow who, he suspected, wore the name as casually as he wore his saggy britches, and could probably drop the name as easily as his sagging beltline implied he could drop his drawers.

"Thank you," he said.  "That was a lesson in humility."

"Larry" nodded and smiled a little, looking at the broad-shouldered Navajo with respect.

"Remind me never to get into a fight with you," Larry said frankly.

"I'll do that."

They watched "Larry" saunter across the sawdust covered floor, heard a car door shut outside, an engine, then the sound of a vehicle leaving.

  "Anything else, Boss?"
Willamina shook her head.  "No, not tonight, thank you.  Once I'm done with the cheerleaders, I've got payroll to attend."  She twisted a little, bringing a series of crackling pops from her lower back.  "Long night, I'm afraid."

"I'll bring coffee."

The Sheriff looked gratefully at her segundo.  "Thank you.  I'd like that."

Willamina knew Barrents would not be bringing coffee; that would be borne in, with sandwiches, by either her husband, or her son:  Barrents would give them the heads-up, she knew, but he always arranged to have family bring her meal when she worked late.

Gentleman to the core, he never, ever placed himself in a compromising position with his pale-eyed boss.

 

 

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154.  RAVEN RIDERS!

 

"I," Willamina groaned, rubbing her face, "have created a monster!"

Chief Deputy Barrents stared over the wheel of the issue Blazer, considering his reply.

"Sometimes," he said slowly, "a monster is what we need."

Willamina let her hands fall to her lap, as if they were too heavy to hold up any longer.

"I hoped," she admitted, "that they would never have to use what I taught them."

"I'm glad you did."

Willamina nodded.

 

On her attorney's advice, Bonnie Crane wore a pastel spring dress and low-heeled pumps.

"You want to look like an innocent schoolgirl," he said, "so wear what you wore to church last Sunday.  You want to look sweet and feminine and harmless and you want the jury to look at you and think soap and sunshine and a well-scrubbed face, and don't wear makeup.  You want to look young and defenseless."

Defenseless, she thought, remembering how she felt exactly like that when she was grabbed.

Defenseless.

She remembered reacting without thought, she remembered training driving her young limbs, she remembered reaching up and seizing one finger of the hand gripping her neck from behind, she remembered her hand turning to iron around it as she pulled with full intent to rip it from its native hand.

She remembered feeling something break, the roar of pain, her leg drew up and kicked back and her heel drove into something hard and there was a SNAP and she spun, blocked an incoming hand -- whether a punch, a chop or a grab, she didn't know, and she didn't care -- she drove her knuckles into the owner's throat and spun again, a twirl, a dancer's twirl, and she was out of their reach.

Rage detonated in her pretty young cheerleader's heart and she kicked again, drew her knee up to her belt buckle and kicked the choking attacker behind the knee and he too went down, and then she turned and ran.

It wasn't until she'd gained the length of a football field that her throat opened and she took a breath, another, and she didn't feel afraid until she'd gained that distance, until she was safe.

Fear seized her throat and she took a fast, deep breath and let out a shrill, shivering, freeze-the-blood scream.

 

Another pale eyed Sheriff read the accounts, nodding:  she was leaned forward, elbow on her knee, chin resting on her thumb, coffee forgotten and cooling on the recycled-plastic desk top.

"Your posture is terrible," Dr. John Greenlees, Jr. commented as he sighed and lowered into a woven-plastic chair, also spun from the station's recycle.

"Yeah, God loves you too," his wife mumbled in reply.  "I always wondered about this."

"This what?"  Dr. John leaned back, dropped his head back until he was staring at the ceiling, seeing the insides of a young boy he'd been obliged to operate on that afternoon.

"The Raven Riders."

"Sounds like a heavy metal group."

Pale eyes glared at her husband.  "Funny."

"Something's got you in a mood," he riposted.  "Out with it, Marnie, what's up?"

"When I was in school ... I never made the cheerleading squad, but I wanted to, and I always wondered why they had a black bird embroidered on the collar of their sweaters."

Dr. Greenlees raised an eyebrow.

"They were the Raven Riders and I never knew why.  Here" -- she tapped the computer screen with a neatly-trimmed fingernail -- "here's why."

"They rode ravens?"

"No."  Sheriff Marnie Keller, Second Martian District (Firelands), thrust out her bottom jaw, considered.  "My Grandma taught them how to fight."

 

The football team formed up in ranks, the hand-sewn guidon leaning on a handy bench.

"DRESS RIIIGHT DRESS!" -- arms snapped out, football players adjusted their distance, arms slapped down to their side.

Sheriff Willamina Keller paced around them, inspecting their ranks, nodded.

She turned, put two fingers to her lips, whistled.

The football players turned, curious, as they heard feet running toward them, running in cadence.

The Sheriff beckoned with a camouflage-covered arm, and the Firelands cheerleading squad ran up beside Willamina's Warriors, stopped, smiling, shifting uncertainly from one foot to another, smiling they way high school girls will when they know they're being watched by their studley football team.

"YOU'VE ALL HEARD ABOUT ONE OF OUR CHEERLEADERS BEING ATTACKED," the Sheriff declared, pitching her voice to be heard to the rearmost rank:  her voice echoed off the brick schoolhouse, telling her the voice was carrying well.

"I'VE BEEN TEACHING THESE DELICATE AND HELPLESS FEMALES HOW TO CRIPPLE AND HOW TO KILL AN ATTACKER.  I AM STILL TEACHING THEM JUST AS I'M STILL TEACHING ALL OF YOU."  She paced before them, glaring like a drill instructor.

"YOU WILL TREAT THEM WITH COURTESY AND WITH RESPECT.  DO NOT TRY THEM AND DO NOT TAKE THIS AS A CHALLENGE.  TWO MEN ARE IN HOSPITAL RIGHT NOW BECAUSE THEY TRIED TO LAY HANDS ON A CHEERLEADER, AND SHE RESPONDED AS SHE WAS TRAINED."

Willamina planted her knuckles on her belt  "DO YOU HEAR ME?"

"WE HEAR YOU SIR!" 

Willamina's eyes smiled a little at the sound of strong young men in chorus.

"ALL RIGHT YOU GLORIOUS BUNCH OF HELL RAISERS!  BREAK RANKS FOR STRETCHING!"

She looked at the cheerleaders, looking a little uncertainly at the football players, and Willamina whistled, two fingers to her lips.

"WE'RE GOING TO INTEGRATE YOU, I WANT THE RAVEN RIDERS EVENLY DISTRIBUTED THROUGH YOUR RANKS!  THEY'LL SHOW YOU HOW TO STRETCH AND I DON'T WANT ANY SMART REMARKS!"

 

"I was grabbed from behind," the cheerleader said, her voice a little shaky, her handkerchief twisted between her hands:  "he had me by the throat and I remembered how Marnie was killed --"

"Marnie?"  the attorney prompted, his voice gentle, and the pretty girl on the witness stand raised her chin and said, "She was one of our cheerleaders.  I knew her.  She was grabbed and beaten --"

Counsel for the defense objected, there was a brief exchange, the Judge allowed the remarks, and the witness continued.

"Marnie was raped and killed and I wasn't going to be ... they weren't going to do that to me."

"Can you tell me what you did?"

She nodded, her eyes big and fearful:  she swallowed and said, "I can show you if you'd like."

 

"Oh my goodness," Sheriff Marnie Keller murmured, smiling as she leaned forward and watched the video transcript of the trial.

She watched a pretty girl in a pastel dress grab the glove around her neck and break one of its "fingers," and her eyes tightened a little at the corners, tightened with approval as the girl's knee drew up and she mule-kicked straight back into the padded leg behind her:  even though the kick was expected, it was obvious that it was both powerful, effective and painful:  a dancer's spin, another kick, and then she took two running steps and ran out of room:  the witness turned and said, "I got about a hundred yards away before I could breathe again."

"And what did you do then?"

Dr. John Greenlees' eyebrow tented again, more quickly, as a piercing, cut-to-your-heart shreik screamed out of his wife's computer's speakers.

 

The football team ran in step, ran in ranks:  the cheerleaders ran with them, placed among them so they were separated, yet in sight of one another:  Willamina sang the same running songs as she always had, and voices -- young, strong, joyful voices -- sang with her, sang those delightfully rude, crude and socially unacceptable running songs in which strong young men delight -- and at the halfway point, at Willamina's house, they drew up and fell out and had water and homemade chocolate chip cookies, and Willamina walked among them, talking to each of them, watching for cramps, for signs of distress, telling them to pull their socks and check their feet:  the football players stuffed their damp socks in baggies and pulled on fresh, dry socks, as their pale eyed Sheriff -- their Sheriff! -- taught them when they started running with her.

"Sheriff?"  Shelly raised her hand and her voice with a question, and the Sheriff thrust a bladed hand toward her, nodded.

"How come we're called the Valkyries?"

Willamina laughed.  "I suppose people had to call you something, and that floated to the surface."

"What are valkyries?"

Willamina turned, sat on the bank:  young eyes regarded her, water bottles were lowered, listening for her answer.

"Valkyries are daughters of Odin who ride ravens over the battlefield," she explained, "and they harvest the souls of warriors, those found worthy to share the Allfather's table and a warrior's afterlife."

"Raven Riders," two of the cheerleaders said, looking at one another, a shared idea glowing between them, and the murmur went through the ranks:  "Raven Riders."

"All right, on your feet," Willamina called cheerfully, drained her bottle and tossed the empty into the waiting trash can:  plastic empties sailed through the air and landed in or near the trash can -- those that missed were quickly seized and slam-dunked -- ranks re-formed and the football players looked at the cheerleaders and grinned.

"Raven Riders," someone declared, and it became a chant:  "RAVEN RIDERS! RAVEN RIDERS! RAVEN RIDERS!"

Willamina let them chant, Willamina let them start to bounce, then Willamina began jumping up and down in time with their chant, screaming "RAVEN RIDERS! RAVEN RIDERS! RAVEN RIDERS!" -- and the sound of strong young voices surged through the high, cold air.

 

 

 

 

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155.  RAIN

I recognized the woman and her little girl.

They'd come into town on the steam train, and they'd been to the Ladies' Tea Society, and as I recall, the little girl ended up feeding a strayed Texas longhorn.

More soul than one came laughing to me for a week or so after, describing the sight of a little girl in a frilly frock, delighted at this big mean long horned Texas beef eating the giggling little girl's ice cream cone with a truly surprising delicacy, and how the child looked at her Mama with big and shining eyes and asking if she could keep him.

The mother and daughter were lingering in the drugstore's doorway, apparently coming out to find it raining, and distressed that they'd not planned for this.

I was walking down the sidewalk with an umbrella in hand -- I'd figured 'twas going to rain, so I pulled the umbrella out of my Jeep, I keep one between the seat and the rocker panel -- I had it extended, it was shedding water in fine shape, I walked up to them and handed the mother the umbrella:  "Here you go," said I, and she blinked, surprised, and blurted, "But what will you use?"

I laughed and ticked my hat-brim with a fingernail.  "Oilskin drover's coat, ma'am," said I, "and a matching oilskin hat. I'm wearin' my umbrella!" -- and so mother and daughter were able to stay dry, and I did too.

Cannonball was stabled in behind the Sheriff's office, under roof:  I shook off my coat and hung it up before throwing saddle blanket and saddle at the horse, and when we come out from under roof, why, that drover's coat draped out real nice and kept the most of me dry.

We rode on home, where I knew Sweet Thang would have supper hot and on the table waiting on me -- I didn't have to go back to the Sheriff's office that night, not unless something hit the fan -- and so Cannonball and I rode home through the rain, a nice light straight down gentle soaker that set the herbs in the table garden nodding like they were sleepy, the kind that soaks in and greens up the fields without fillin' the ditches.

It didn't take long to rub Cannonball down and of course a bait of grain -- she bribes as well as any politician -- I went on up to the house, swatted the rain off my hat and shook off my coat on the front porch, I hung up the coat over the drip tray and hooked my wet Wellingtons into the boot jack and padded towards the kitchen in my sock feet.

I do believe there are few sights lovelier than a good lookin' woman with her cheeks a little red from cookin', with that quiet smile on her face that tells me she's been getting things done and she's proud of having done them for me, and I gathered her up in my arms all solid and sweet smellin' and soft in the right places, I held my wife and I told her without words how much I'd missed her, and she give me that look that promised her own intentions.

We slept well that night, satisfied in one another, listening to rain on the roof.

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156. THE IRISH WIDOW'S SECRET

 

Daisy brushed at her sweaty forehead with the back of her bent wrist, muttering as she generally did:  the kitchen was constant movement, most of it hers:  stir this, flip that, pour something else, stir, mix, knead, feed the perpetually hungry stove.

The one bright spot in her life was the frying pan she'd hung on the side of the cupboard, where she could look at it, and remember.

At one time she would never, ever have considered working in a dirty saloon and whorehouse, especially one where the proprietor leered at her whenever possible (and he took the opportunity to leer at frequent intervals), he put his filthy hands on her once, at which point she thrust her hand hard into his face and shoved him away -- followed by a good drubbing with the batter-covered wooden spoon she had in easy reach -- which was in turn followed by the crock mixing bowl, dumped over his head, anointing him with cake batter, to the amusement of the drunken roisterers in the so-called Silver Jewel Saloon.

Daisy followed this a day later, after she'd mopped up her mess and cleaned up the broken crockery, by swinging her now-prized cast iron frying pan hard, two-handed, striking Dirty Sam in the face with its bottom:  he'd tried to put his hands on her again, so she laid the man out cold with a flattened nose and one hell of a headache, which was only partially relieved when a generous patron poured a mug of lukewarm beer over his upturned, bloodied visage.

And yesterday, for the very last time, Filthy Sam tried to bully her into going upstairs and spreading her legs with the rest of the women, including that poor dear he and the banker drugged, shackled by one ankle and kept until they broke her spirit, the violet-eyed Bonnie McKenna -- Daisy would have beaten Filthy Sam to death, except for that new Sheriff, that lean, pale eyed man who seized the miscreant by the front of his filthy vest and hauled him out of the saloon and across the street to their log calabozo.

The Sheriff -- he'd been deputy for only a day or two before taking over from Tom Landers -- came into her kitchen not an hour before.

He'd his hat in his hand and he knocked at the door frame, waiting for her to turn, Irish-green eyes glaring, knuckles on her hip before raising her dripping wooden spoon and shaking it at him:  "An' wha' d' ye want, ye long tall drink o' watter?"

Her voice had been sharp, her expression anything but welcoming, and she bristled for all the world like a Bantam hen when he crossed her threshold and spread out two sheets of paper on her painfully-clean table top.

"I need your signature," he said, "and I need to know what name to put on the deed."

"Deed?" she snorted.  "An' wha' deed d' ye talk about?"  She took a step closer, raising the spoon like a war club, her voice not raised, but with a sharpened, harsh edge:  "Wha' scoundrelly scheme are ye tryin' t' pull on a puir helpless woman?"

He placed a small, metal ink-pot and a steel-nib pen very carefully, very precisely above the two sheets, straightened.

"I need to know your name," he said levelly, "because I am giving you the kitchen and the restaurant part of the business."

Daisy expected to be charged with assault, she was fully prepared to fight this pale eyed interloper every step of the way as he seized her around the middle and packed her off to jail, with her kicking, screaming and laying Irish invective all over the landscape at the very top of her Celtic lungs.

Daisy expected to be arrested and punished terribly for giving Rancid Sam his just dues.

She absolutely, positively, did not expect to be given lawful title and deed to her own kitchen and business.

"I'm, ah," she began, swallowed, tried again, took a long breath.

There was a time when she would never, ever have had anything to do with a filthy saloon and a whorehouse above.

She'd had a screaming fight with her own family, back when she was a younger woman, and she'd taken what she'd saved and stormed off, headed for the nearby seaport:  she bought passage to America and sailed across the big blue water, scrapping with men who saw her as potential amusement: the night after, she drove a knife between the ribs of another drunken attacker and shoved him over the siderail, losing her knife in the process:  God be praised she didn't get blood on her hand, and she'd slid into the shadow before anyone realized the man was missing, and of course he wasn't missed for a day, for he was known to be a drunkard and a late sleeper, and it was generally accepted that he'd fallen overboard while intoxicated, poor fellow.

Daisy met a man -- a fine man! -- she'd gone to the West, to Ohio, and she'd taken a job housekeeping and cooking in the great river town of Porkopolis, named for some long-dead politician, no doubt -- Cincinnati -- and she'd met that fine man when he fought fire and she brought water and sandwiches to those brave men who charged the Devil's parlor with a squirtgun under their arm and little else.

She arranged her time off to coincide with his, and she'd fallen and fallen hard for this tall, blocky, hard-muscled, blue-eyed, red-headed, knuckle-scarred street brawler:  he'd defended her honor from a footpad, the first night they walked together in the evening's cool, by the slow-flowing, oily-surfaced river:  another time, he was in the middle of a general knock-down, drag-out street brawl, something to do with a rival fire company, and when he was done, he seized one of the vanquished enemy, hauled him to his feet, and the two grinning, bloodied warriors, their arms around each other's shoulders and grinning like schoolboys, staggered into the nearest saloon, bought one another a beer and each loudly and enthusiastically hailed the other as the hardest hitting bare knuckle brawler either had squared off against.

Daisy stared at the frying pan, then at the Sheriff, who stood at her table, waiting patiently with the little metal ink-pot and pen, the papers on the table.

Daisy remembered that tall, red-headed Irishman, that flame-eating firefighter, she remembered his arms, thick and strong and how he'd held her like she was delicate bone china, and he'd kissed her lips, once, carefully, and he'd whispered, "Marry me, ma Daisy," and her breath caught and she'd looked up at him, her eyes big and glowing and she whispered "Yes," and his mouth lowered to hers again and she never, ever wanted that glorious moment to end.

It was the next day when word came that her Sean was crimped over the head and fell from a riverboat, lost and drowned, and so she'd taken her new name and her broken heart and she'd gathered an armful of passenger car and went West yet again.

She left her given Christian name behind, and wore instead the name he'd spoken in affection.

The name she wore back in the Old Sod, she'd left back in the Old Sod:  the name she'd used in Cincinnati, she left in Cincinnati, and so she remembered the only man she'd ever loved, a man whose arms she still felt, whose kiss still tingled when she thought of it, and she lifted her chin and said decisively, "Sheriff, ma name is Daisy Fitzgerald, and I am the widow of Sean Fitzgerald of Cincinnati," and then she hesitated while the man carefully, elegantly wrote her name on the two papers.

"Now wha' are yer conditions, an' why is it you an' no' Filthy Sam would be arrangin' t' divide his business?"

The Sheriff straightened, frowned, put a fisted hand to the small of his back.

Daisy did not miss this significance.

The man was admitting a weakness to her, and this was the same as sharing a confidence in her, and this surprised her.

"I own the Silver Jewel now," the Sheriff said quietly, and somehow this was not a surprise:  lawmen not infrequently engaged in profitable businesses, generally those that were neither entirely legal, nor particularly decent, but were always profitable.

"I own the Silver Jewel.  Its only claim to success is your kitchen.  You have the best reputation for good food this side of Denver.  I am shutting down the whorehouse."

The man might as well have said he was sweeping the mountains aside with a brush of his hand.

"Ye are what?"  Daisy asked, her jaw dropping a little and her eyebrows soaring to an incredible altitude.

"Close your mouth, Daisy, you'll catch flies,"  the Sheriff replied, and she saw a hint of amusement in his pale eyes.  "No woman should ever be treated like they've been.  I'll help them find honest work or husbands, or go to wherever they'd like to go, and I plan to clean this place up and make it decent and worth patronizing."

Daisy looked over at the frying pan, hanging on its square-cut nail, looked back at the Sheriff.

"Do ye think it'll work?" she asked quietly, her mind running along an unexpected path:  My own business, my own business, my own business --

Daisy stopped, blinked, and before the Sheriff could reply, experience smacked her with an open hand and her eyes hardened.

"What's th' catch?" she asked, her voice acquiring its hard edge again.  "What's the rent, what's yer cut, how much are ye goin' t' take --"

The Sheriff raised a forestalling palm.

"No catch."  His hands lowered, he thumped a finger onto the documents on the table.  "This gives you one hundred per cent of your profits.  I've hired a new barkeep, an honest man -- try not to laugh, now" -- Daisy could not help but smile at the wise look he gave her, for amusement was peeking out his eyes like a mischievous schoolboy sneaking a look through a window -- "and he'll have the saloon part.  A town needs a good meal and clean bedsheets and good cold beer and I intend the town should have them."

The Sheriff dipped his quill, signed carefully on each document:  "Let that dry now so it won't smear."

He looked up at Daisy.

"You're the widow Fitzgerald."

A statement, not a question.

"Any relation to Sean Fitzgerald?"

The color ran out of Daisy's face like red ink out of an eyedropper.

"I just bought the town a new steam fire fighting engine, and I'm bringing in some Cincinnati firemen to run it.  The senior ranking officer's name is Sean Fitzgerald.  Does that sound familiar --"

Daisy's eyes rolled back in her head and her knees turned to water:  she twisted a little and started to go down.

The Sheriff moved quickly, seized Daisy under the arms:  he squatted a little, got her backside against his thigh, hooked a chair out quickly, sat the ghost-white woman down:  he held her shoulders, keeping her from falling over, then carefully lifted her head, whispered her name.

"Daisy?" 

Daisy looked up at the Sheriff, a little color coming to her cheeks.

"It canna' be Sean," she whispered back.  "Ma Sean was killed an' thrown off a riverboat an' they ne'er found him!"

 

Less than a week later, Sean Fitzgerald, late of the Queen City of Porkopolis, married the woman to whom he'd proposed better than a year and a half earlier:  and so it was that a red-headed restaurant owner, who left her name behind in Ireland, married the man whose name she'd chosen as her own, and in the fullness of time, it was not entirely clear if the local phrase of "The Irish Brigade" applied to Sean's firemen, or the young herd of red-headed progeny he and Daisy were raising, but that, too, is a story for another time.

 

 

 

 

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157. KABOOM

Long, delicate fingers worked soap into the safe door, crowding the slippery putty into the gap.

It was either steal the safe, take it to a remote location and murder it open, or blow the door open, grab what they could, and run like the Devil himself was after them.

After considering its weight, the need for muscle enough to move, slide, lift and secure it in a wagon stout enough to haul it, they decided to blow the door in place -- but not until they'd propped the back door open so they could sprint out with their loot, unimpeded.

Reno Norman was a dandy: he dressed well, he drank expensive whiskey, he preferred the more expensive ladies of easy virtue in the better houses of ill repute; he liked to gamble, he liked ... well, he liked money, and he did not like working for it.

His partner was quiet, almost silent most of the time, and Reno liked that:  he liked the sound of his own voice, and only the need to keep from waking anyone as they worked kept him from a steady, self-aggrandizing monologue.

Sloan -- that's the only name he used, as far as anyone knew, it's the only name he had -- watched as Reno smiled his practiced, artificial smile, as he turned, wiped his hands carefully, then reached for what Sloan knew was a very well padded wooden box.

Reno lifted the lid, smiled ever so slightly: he brought out a dynamite cap, already crimped on the fuse, pressed it into place along the bottom of the safe door, then reached into the box, lifted a thick, cloth-padded divider, looked up at Sloan.

"You may want to wait outside," he suggested.

Sloan rose, turned, paced silently across the back room's floor: his gait was as silent as his speech, his weight easily on the balls of his feet:  he hesitated at the doorway, looked around, stepped to the side.

He knew Reno would reach into the padded box with two fingers and withdraw a little steel bottle, he knew Reno would ease the stopper out and set it to the side:  he knew Reno would examine the stopper for the least trace of moisture, and if there was the least little bit of wet-shine in the dark-lantern's subdued beam, he would hold the stopper and not lay it down.

Sloan knew Reno's artificial, oily smile would not fade in the least little bit as he carefully, slowly, delicately poured liquid nitroglycerin into the little gap he'd left open at the top of the safe door, and he knew just how long Reno would wait to ensure there was enough liquid boom town to bring the door free.

Reno had, in the past, lectured Sloan on technique, use, application and anything else he could think of; Sloan patiently, silently listened, offering neither interruption nor comment, which pleased Reno to no end: Sloan had blown safes with Reno before, Sloan knew the man was a creature of habit, Sloan knew the man's hands were steady, with absolutely no tremor: his mouth would be open a little as he introduced the volatile, oily fluid into the gap, Sloan knew that the nitro would not have to reach the bottom of the safe, where the dynamite cap waited, stuck in the soap used to seal the door: he would apply just enough, just enough to remove the door, but not enough to destroy the contents.

Sloan also knew Reno's luck had been too good for too long.

There was the scratch of a Lucifer match, the hissing sizzle of the fuse, the barely-audible whisper of Reno's felt-soled slippers as he ran across the floor, out the door, ducked to the side and squatted.

Reno raised his hands to his head, ready to thrust fingers into his ears, and Sloan grimaced, turned his face away.

There were two explosions, their detonations so close they might as well have been from the same source.

Sloan looked at what used to be a well-dressed dandy, looked at what little was left of its head.

Reno forgot he still had the stopper between his fingers.

It doesn't take much to set off nitro, and the impact of that single drop on the end of that stopper was enough to utterly destroy half the man's head.

Sloan smiled a little and took three long strides to their horses, gathered one's reins, swung into saddle leather and pressed his heels into his gelding's ribs:  the concussion would wake the banker, who lived above, and in a moment the alarm would be raised:  they would find a man minus the fingers on his right hand, and missing the right side of his head; they would find the padded box, set well away from the safe, and they would find the dead man's horse.

Sloan rode through the night, not riding hard, but riding steady.

He rode with the knowledge Reno imparted, and he rode -- not away from something -- but he rode toward something.

He rode toward Firelands.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller stepped out on the board walk, pale eyes assessing the street.

He looked at an approaching rider, a smallish man with a tanned, weathered face, a man riding a good looking Morgan horse, a man who dismounted at the Silver Jewel, draped his gelding's reins over the rail -- just draped, didn't dally -- and then he turned and looked very directly at the Sheriff.

Linn's jaw slid out and he nodded, once, and stepped off the boardwalk.

Sloan was inside, one well polished boot up on the shining brass rail:  the Sheriff came in, came up beside him, raised a finger.

Mr. Baxter came over, looked from one silent soul to the other.

"The usual, Sheriff?" he asked, flipping his bar towel over his shoulder.

The Sheriff raised two fingers and Mr. Baxter laughed.

"Now if you just aren't all blabby today," he chuckled:  a moment later, both men had a good thick sandwich in front of him, and a steaming mug of coffee:  the Sheriff drizzled in some sweating-cold cream from a small porcelain pitcher, slid it across in front of the other man.

Sloan anointed his in the same wise.

The two men ate in silence, drank coffee in silence:  when both sandwiches were stowed behind their owners' belt buckles, Sloan looked at the pale eyed lawman's reflection in the big mirror behind the bar.

"Reno's dead," he said without preamble:  the Sheriff nodded, considered.

"You're for the Nation?"

Sloan's expression was unreadable as he, too, nodded once.

"Appreciate your lettin' me know."

Sloan nodded, knocked a knuckle against the empty plate, touched his hat brim, a silent thanks for the meal:  the Sheriff thanked Mr. Baxter as the barkeep refilled the lawman's coffee, very carefully not watching as Sloan left.

"Friend of yours?" Mr. Baxter asked with an exaggerated casualness.

"We've met."

"Fella like that can talk a man's ear off."

The Sheriff nodded, looked at Mr. Baxter, slid a coin across the shining mahogany.

"I reckon Beatrice will sleep better now."

"How's that?" Mr. Baxter asked, curious.

"She won't be woke up late at night."  The Sheriff winked, turned, pale eyes sweeping the well-populated interior, paced with a measured tread for the front door.

Jacob Keller was just reaching for the door when his father pushed it open.

"Sir?"  Jacob asked.  "Was that Sloan?"

"Yep."

"I will be sawed off and damned," Jacob breathed.  "Is the man as long winded as you remember, sir?"

"Every bit," Linn chuckled.  "I've got some good news for Bea Dean."

 

 

 

 

 

 

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158.  THE SCALPEL AND THE SLEDGEHAMMER

 

Deputy Linn Keller laughed, his head leaning back a little as he did:  Polly giggled and hid half her face behind her rag doll, and Mrs. Llewellyn smiled, her face coloring a little.

"Ma'am, thank you," Linn chuckled, "but my Mama is Sheriff, and I'm not even Chief Deputy.  That would be Paul Barrents and I am not a'tall sure I could ever match that man in a good scrap!"  He looked at the carriage.  "But I have brought your carriage, if you're still interested."

"When a gentleman provides such a gift," Mrs. Llewellyn smiled, "a lady does not decline."

Linn picked Polly up, swung her high and wide, scattering little-girl giggles over a good swath of pavement before placing her precisely and very carefully in the broad back seat:  he offered his hand to Mrs. Llewellyn, who placed a black-gloved palm in his before hiking her skirt and carefully, a little uncertainly stepping up on the mounting-block and then into the fine, polished carriage, all black lacquer and red-and-yellow pin stripes.

She caressed the tuck-and-roll upholstery, frowning a little:  Linn walked ahead a little, caressing the dapple's neck, her nose, feeding her a bribe of something he'd brought for the purpose:  he climbed easily into the driver's side, released the brake, flipped the reins:  "Yup, Glue Hoof," he called cheerfully:  a final glance over his shoulder, and a fine carriage with a gentleman and a lady stepped out lively, hoofbeats loud on the weathered blacktop, echoing loudly between buildings modern, and buildings restored.

 

Chief of Police Will Keller ducked, automatically scuttling behind a watering trough:  something geysered water, howled overhead, and Will swore, drawing a good handful of blued steel revolver, wishing most sincerely it was a rocket propelled grenade:  he squatted, rolled over on his side, thrust the revolver forward at the end of the leaking wooden trough, took a coldly precise sight and rolled the grooved trigger back.

He felt more than heard the concussion of a full-house .357, brought the Smith down out of recoil, dismissed his first target as the face-hooded robber dropped his gun, sagged against the bank's polished stone front: a second one came out, firing wildly, and Will fired again, marveling at how slow time was running of a sudden, amazed that his sights were so sharp, so clear, so absolutely, perfectly aligned.

Will rolled back, sat up, stood:  had he the time, he would have voiced some profound language, for two more ran from the bank, jumped into the waiting car and took out with a scream of tortured rubber.

Will saw the Sheriff shove out of her office, double barrel shotgun in hand:  she shouldered the ancient double gun, then snapped the muzzles up, unfired:  she looked toward Will, he looked at her, and they raced for Will's idling Crown Vic.

Two backsides hit the saddle, two doors slammed, Will's polished Wellington boot mashed the go pedal, and four hundred sixty cubic inches of rompin' stompin' four barrel Ford go power sang power.

Willamina reached over, slid her finger along the horizontal row of rocker switches:  the roof bar came to life, she reached down for the siren box, thumb and forefinger on the black-plastic knob, and Will's hand came down on her wrist, knocked her twisting grip free.

"Not yet," he snapped, and Willamina's pale eyes looked up:  her jaw thrust out and she had no time to nod, for they were past the horse-and-carriage like a shot, and a few seconds later Will said "Clear," and Willamina twisted the Federal Interceptor into screaming life.

 

Linn flipped the reins again, unexcited by a car passing them at high speed, then another, red-and-blue lights blazing from roof and back deck.

"My goodness," Mrs. Llewellyn murmured, her fingers going to her high bodice in reflexive surprise:  Polly stood, thrusting herself between the two, her eyes big, her rag doll dropped and forgotten:  "What happened?" she asked, bouncing a little, and Linn reached into his suit coat and brought out a black-plastic talkie, held it up to his ear, listening intently.

Mrs. Llewellyn tried to catch the conversation:  voices were rapid, clipped, sometimes overlapping:  Linn brought the grille to his lips, chanted something she didn't quite catch -- he was speaking clearly enough, but Mrs. Llewellyn was unaccustomed to the sudden surge of adrenaline that accompanies sudden, unexpected stress, and she looked almost helplessly at the pale eyed deputy as he slid the slim, black-and-chrome talkie back into his suit coat.

"Mrs. Llewellyn," he said, "I know I promised to take you to our museum, but at the moment I must beg your indulgence."

"What's indulgence?"  Polly piped, bright-eyed and adoring, staring at the deputy's profile as if he were the most interesting thing in her young universe.

"Ladies," Linn said with a smile, "an attempt was made to rob our bank.  Our police chief was fired upon, he killed two of the robbers, and now we are engaged in a high-speed pursuit."

"We are?"  Polly asked, awed.

"Yes, ma'am," Linn affirmed in a gentle voice, flipping the reins and coaxing Glue Hoof into an easy trot.

 

Chief of Police Will Keller rammed the Crown Vic through the thin Colorado air, his intent clear, his technique simple:  speed, speed and more speed:  he eased into the turns with an expert's assurance, gauging his velocity by the sound of tires on pavement, by the feel of the car beneath him, through the wheel:  a modern car is made to run fast, but a Crown Vic Interceptor is made to catch such cars, and even though his beloved cruiser was old, it was well tuned and well maintained and he knew exactly how far he could push it, and push it he did.

They came into the Kelley Stretch, and Will knew he had two miles to make his move, and he made it:  he came up fast on the subject vehicle, at least until its rear window exploded and the windshield starburst just below the rear view mirror.

Will managed not to roll the cruiser:  they went sideways, they made a slow circle spin, they stopped with two tires almost in the ditch:  the siren had been silent when they passed sixty miles an hour, the threshold at which one outruns one's own siren:  the big 460 idled quietly as Will, white-knuckled, stared straight ahead, then at the blasted windshield, then at his pale eyed counterpart.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yeah."

"You drive?"

"Yeah."

Two doors flew open, two chief officers jumped out, traded seats, two doors slammed.

Where Will had roared loudly and profanely as a warrior will when screaming into battle, Willamina eased down on the throttle until the silver-cream Interceptor had all four feet on pavement, then her polished Wellington boot came down smoothly on the throttle.

"Come on, girl," she whispered, "dance for me!"

 

"I don't understand," Mrs. Llewellyn admitted.  "We are ... how can a horse and buggy ... pursue?"

Linn laughed.

"The secret to successful administration," he explained, "is delegation."  He hesitated as two more cruisers -- one Sheriff's, one city police -- went sailing by them, all lights and speed -- "and we are delegating the high speed part to those fellows."  He thrust his chin forward rather than take the reins in one hand and thrust a bladed hand toward the departing cruisers.  "We can expect the bad guys to start throwing away evidence.  Any discard -- disguises, guns, whatever -- will be deucedly hard to see from a motor vehicle, but we're high enough and we're at an ideal enough speed that we can see them easily, mark their position, photograph in situ and then recover."

"I'm hungwy," Polly complained, running her bottom lip out, folding her arms and falling back into the back seat in a pout.

 

Willamina wiped off the roof lights, punched off the headlights:  she eased off throttle as they came over a rise she knew was there, and smiled grimly:  the subject vehicle hadn't known, had apparently lost control, and was only now tire-burning to a restart from where they too had spun out.

Will pressed the button, ran down his window, thrust Willamina's double gun out:  he leaned out, squinting against the slipstream in spite of his spectacles -- Never thought I'd be grateful for these damned bifocals, he thought, earing back the left hammer, the right, feeling the sear drop into full stand through his comb-welded cheekbone, waited.

"Come on, girl," Willamina murmured, then:  "Will, you ever pull a Pitt?"

Will saw something move in the back seat, saw a rifle's muzzle come to bear on them.

Willamina gave the wheel a quick, precise turn:  the Crown Vic contacted the getaway's back corner, breaking their traction and drifting them sideways:  she mashed the throttle mercilessly, then nailed the brakes, and the holdup vehicle slid a surprising distance before catching the shoulder and flipping, spinning three times before landing on its wheels, off the roadway.

Willamina broadsided the Crown Vic, spun her nose-on to the wreck, lit up:  two badge packers boiled out of the tire-smoking Interceptor, covering the vehicle:  Willamina worked her talkie loose, brought it to her mouth, pressed the key.

 

"There's news," Linn murmured, then looked over at Mrs. Llewellyn.

"What happened?"

"Pursuit is ended, the bank robbers lost control and are in custody."

 

Chief of Police Will Keller seized the robber by his shirt front, cocked a fist and drove his knuckles hard into the holdup's face.

"Damn you," he hissed through clenched teeth, "you hurt my car!"

 

"That looks like another," Linn said.  "Whoa up there now, whoa, girl."

He hauled back on the brake handle, dropped the dog over it, climbed down.

Mrs. Llewellyn pressed gloved fingertips flat against her lips, smiling behind this feminine concealment, trying hard not to giggle at the contrast.

A tall, lean lawman, wearing a black suit cut after the style of the late 1800s, having dismounted from a horse-and-carriage, incongrously pulling a cell phone from his pocket to take a picture of a discarded pistol.

 

"I think I owe you a set of tires," Sheriff Willamina Keller of Firelands County, Colorado, smiled as she and her twin brother Will Keller, Chief of Police of Firelands, Colorado, sat together in the Lawman's Corner that night, having supper with Willamina's husband Richard.

"She'll be in the shop for a new windshield at least," Will admitted, "and I asked Emmett to go over the drivetrain.  We pushed her pretty hard today."

"You pushed her pretty hard," Willamina corrected.  "She did just fine for me."

Willamina looked at her husband, squeezed his hand.

"Will drives like a sledgehammer," she explained, and Will laughed and added, "And Willa drives like a scalpel!"

 

Deputy Linn Keller offered his hand, and Mrs. Llewellyn placed her gloved palm in the tall, lean-waisted deputy's palm, lifted her skirt and stepped daintily from carriage to mounting-block.

Linn turned as Polly stood and happily raised her arms, rag doll dangling by the leg in one pink-fingered fist:  Linn picked her up, carefully clearing her shining patent-leather slippers before stepping back and swinging her around, grinning and she squealed happily, bringing a smile to spectators and mother alike.

He set the happy little girl down, lifted his Stetson to the black-gowned woman:  "Mrs. Llewellyn," he said courteously, "I regret very much I could not make that promised visit to the museum with you."

"Deputy," Mrs. Llwellyn smiled, "may I speak frankly?"

"Yes ma'am, you may."

"Forgive me if I am forward," Mrs. Llewellyn said carefully, "but first, you know how to show a girl a good time."

Linn's grin was quick, his quiet laugh, genuine.  "And second?"

Mrs. Llewellyn's smile faded, she took a step closer, laid her palm flat on his chest, lowered her voice to little more than a whisper.

"Deputy Keller," she said, and he saw a deep sadness claim her eyes, "please let your wife know that she is a most fortunate woman."

"Madam, I shall," he said solemnly, and the widow Llewellyn shook her head.

"No," she said firmly.  "No."  

She patted his chest for emphasis, looked very directly into his eyes.

"Deputy, you must tell her but tell her as a woman will understand.  Take her flowers, take her chocolates, sweep her off her feet, taste her mouth and let her know she is the  only woman in the world who you could ever love."

"He already does," a voice said from behind her, and the widow Llewellyn turned, startled, yanking her gloved hand off the deputy's chest as if he were hot.

"I understand you are the widow Llewellyn.  I am Mrs. Keller" -- violet eyes looked up at her husband, then back -- "and he does his very best to spoil me."  She took a step closer, took the widow's gloved hands in hers, squeezed them gently as a tear overflowed her left eye, then her right.

"Thank you for telling him that," she whispered, biting her bottom lip:  she released the startled widow's fingers, turned, walked quickly away.

"She knows what it is to be a widow," Linn said quietly, "and I shall take your sound advice, and thank you for it."

 

Richard, halfway through the meatloaf special, raised an eyebrow and looked from one to the other.

"Will here drives like a sledgehammer," Willamina explained.

"Yeah," Will admitted, "and you'd be proud of how she pitted that fellow out."  Will looked admiringly at his sister.  "She drives an Interceptor like a surgeon's scalpel."  Will laughed quietly.  "But then, my little sis is younger, smarter and better lookin' than me, not necessarily in that order."

Willamina swatted him playfully.  "Who's younger, little brother?" she teased, and Will tilted his head toward her, looking at Richard.

"She used to beat up on me too," he confided, to which Willamina exclaimed in mock dismay, "Did not!" -- then she colored a little and looked kind of guilty and admitted, "Well, maybe once or twice."

Will and Willamina both looked up, both raised a beckoning arm:  they were soon joined by the multiple agencies that are always involved in a bank robbery, and it was wise to have an outside agency investigate the shots-fired incidents, as it involved both the Sheriff's office and the city police department:  the investigation went well into the night, but not until everyone had a good meal under their belt, and not until there was the general, good natured agreement that the inclusion of a horse and buggy in the pursuit would make for entertaining reading.

 

The next day, on the front page of the local paper, a picture appeared:  a horse-and-carriage, with the driver, a tall, broad shouldered man in a black suit; the passenger, a woman, in a long black gown; in the back, a happy, smiling little girl in a frilly frock, holding a rag doll in the bend of her arm, her other hand rearward, gripping the back of her tuck-and-roll upholstered seat:  and the caption, FIRELANDS BANK ROBBED.  HIGH SPEED PURSUIT.

Sheriff Willamina Keller cut out the picture, laminated it, framed it and gave it to her pale eyed son with the comment, "You'll never live this one down."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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159.  UNDERSTAND ME

I was on my feet before my head came up, and my head snapped up when I heard that scream.

I'd heard horses scream before and I still heard them in the night, when I drifted halfway between awake and asleep, when I smelled gunsmoke and heard bugles and the blue ground fog crawled along the ground, and bloodied, dying men's hands rose from it, pleading for life like a drowning swimmer.

I heard horses scream as invisible bees whizzed by me, Minie balls searching for me in the dusk, and horses, horses horribly wounded, screaming ...

I was halfway across the floor when I heard hoofbeats and I recognized the hoof-falls.

Most horses sound like horses, but some horses sound like their own unique selves and I leaned over and snatched me up my rifle and I hauled open the door and my thumb was heavy on the engraved '73 rifle's hammer spur and I hauled that heavy door open like it was a schoolbook's cover and I stepped out and Snowflake turned and steered her way towards me and she pointed her nose at me like I would point a gun barrel and I stepped to the side and she ducked her head down and squirted through the doorway and I don't know how she did for she plumb filled that-there doorway and I stepped in front of where she'd just been and a man come a-runnin' towards me, yellin', and he didn't stop until I drove my rifle barrel into his gut and then kicked him hard just below the belt buckle, my foot turned sideways and my weight behind the kick.

He was solid, I'll give him that, he staggered back about one step and I punched my rifle's muzzle into his cheek bone and I bored me a hole through his living soul with my eyes and I knew how to put them pale eyes to use and he looked at me and I saw the color run out of his face and whether that's because he was looking down an octagon barrel at me or because I was lookin' as friendly as a rattle snake with a sore toe I don't rightly know and it don't much matter.

"THAT'S MY HORSE!" he screamed and I moved again and this time I spun that rifle end for end and I drove the toe of the rifle into the side of his head and split his ear and about then two boys run up, boys I call 'em for though they was men grown they looked just like him and I cocked that rifle's hammer for three to one is deadly odds and I was not feelin' particularly kindly.

"Nobody moves," I said, and my voice was quiet enough but it had an edge like I'd just honed it on good Berea sandstone shot out of a Perry County oil well:  "back up, slow, and show me them hands."

The three of them took all of one step back and I seen a little movement to my right, at the corner of the building, and Jacob give me a nod and he had a double barrel in hand and that made me feel some better.

"THAT'S MY HORSE!" the old man yelled again, I reckon he yelled because he put his hand to his split ear and come away with blood and I said "You show me a bill of sale," and he blustered up and yelled "I AIN'T GOT TO SHOW YOU NOTHIN'!" and I felt the bottom half of my face smile and I said "I ain't hung a horse thief in two days and I'm gettin' kind of restless.  Why don't we fit you with a hemp necktie and see how she fits?"

This fellow's face went a-purple and there was kind of a soggy WHACK and I looked up and Jacob, he had that double gun in his left hand and he had a single bit ax in his right and he'd just belted one of them boys acrost the back of the head with the flat of that-there ax and laid him out cold, he tossed the ax behint him and lowered that double gun torst the other and told him to shuck them suspenders off his shoulders and drop his drawers, and he did and a Remington revolver hit the ground and Jacob had that feller kick it torst him and then pull up his suspenders ag'in and that old man he warn't happy a'tall and I allowed as he was goin' to do exactly as I said or I was goin' to put daylight through him and if he lived long enough I'd hang him to finish the job.

Jacob he taken his double gun and drove the butt end into that other fellow's kidneys and put him on the ground balled up in pain and leakin' water out of his eyes and Jacob he dragged that one inside and not gentle a'tall and I said "Now it's just you and me, mister, and you lied to my face," and I seen murder in his eyes for to call a man a liar was an invitation to a killin' and we both knowed it.

Like I said, I was not a'tall happy, and I allowed in a quiet voice -- I'd never raised it a'tall -- "You can show me a bill of sale right here and right now or I will lock you up as a horse thief, and on my testimony Judge Hostetler will direct me to hang you, and them other two as accessories," and he started to swell up and bluster again and I thought Just reach for where I can't see it and I will send you to HELL! and he must have had an attack of good sense for he kept his hands where I could see 'em.

"I bought that horse fair an' square!" he shouted, his face going kind of a reddish-dark shade, and I said "From who?" and he named me a name I never heard of, and he swore up and down he just bought it up the street where 'twas tethered, and I said "What did this fellow look like?" and he dropped his eyes and shifted 'em to the right and I knowed right there he was a-lyin' to me.

"Exactly where up the street did you buy this horse?" 

He gestured and mumbled and I said "Where was that particularly? In front of which place?" and he turned to take a look and I grabbed his shoulder and spun him around:  "Don't lie to me, mister, I'm already irritated and you ain't goin' to lie to me ag'in!"

There was the metallic SLAM of a cell door closing, hard, and I didn't like what I saw in his eyes so I stepped back fast, two steps and he come at me, and that's exactly what I wanted.

Esther and I danced nearly every night, and she taught me how to turn in a dance and that's the step I used:  I was on the balls of my feet and I spun around and as he tried to rake me in with his arms he stumbled through where I'd just been and I drove the crescent butt plate right into his tenderloins and I was not in the least little bit gentle.

He give out a roar and went face first into the board walk and I stepped around him and Jacob come out, looked at the fellow wallowing in pain and trying to get up, and then he looked at me and said "Sir, do I imagine things, or are people just not very polite these days?" and then he stomped on the man's hand, hard, for he'd pulled a knife from somewhere and Jacob kind of discouraged him from using it.

I don't recall as he broke more than two bones in the man's hand.

"Jacob," said I, shaking my head sadly, "experience is a hard teacher, but a fool learns at no other," and Snowflake poked her black head out of the office door and leaned down, snuffing at the groaning figure, face first on the planks:  she stepped over him all nice and dainty, and lifted her head and she lifted her tail and she whickered a little and trotted acrost the street towards Sarah, advancing with her skirts plucked up and her schoolteacher's spectacles halfway down her nose.

I parked that '73 rifle in the open doorway and Jacob and I recht down and seized the back of this fellow's coat and hauled him to his feet.

Sarah was caressing Snowflake's long, shining-black nose and murmuring the way a mother will murmur to an infant and I turned this fellow so he could see the two of them.

"Mister," said I, "that horse belongs to my little girl.  She's had that horse for some years and she has the legal bill of sale for that horse. You saw what you thought was an easy steal and you wanted to use my little girl's saddle horse to plow with and you got caught."

Jacob paced up the board walk, stepped down into the dirt, turned the last remaining combatant over:  the fellow groaned, passed a hand over his eyes, then tried to come up at Jacob, and inherited a boot in the guts for his trouble.

"Now I reckon horse thievin' is a hangin' offense and I can't hang you but once, and that's a shame," I said casually, hauling him inside the Sheriff's office and debating which wall to drive his face into if he tried getting loose:  "was it possible, I'd hire me that Witch of Endor and resurrect your miserable carcass so I could kill it a couple more times."

He was not inclined to fight until I got the cell door open and I had to give him a good close up look of the log wall, and that three times, before he quit fightin' me:  I deprived him of some things a prisoner really hadn't ought to have, and half-walked, half-dragged him into that cell, and the third fellow was dizzy enough from having his bell rung with the flat side of an ax that he didn't fight none a'tall, and we got him locked into a cell too.

Next morning, when Judge Donald Hostetler held court, I presented the case, Jacob swore in as a witness, the fellow tried to lie his way out of it and the Judge allowed as hangin' for the crime of aggravated stupidity was not entirely inappropriate -- I managed not to smile, His Honor often used fine and fancy language that tickled my funny bone -- but he allowed as a good spell in the hoosegow and bein' deprived of a good percentage of the man's purse would be a good idea, and come to find out about a week later, some fellows rode into town and told me that fella had been braggin' he was goin' to steal that big black horse for it would make a fine plow animal and it would be an easy job for the horse was so gentle a little girl rode it for a saddle horse.

His Honor asked me if I'd like to add anything and I allowed as I though it such a shame that folks had so few manners as to try and steal my little girl's horse, and I looked right at the three of 'em when I said it, and when I took them back over to the lockup, why, Sarah was in the middle of the street waiting on us.

She smiled a little and then she underhanded a number two can of peaches high in the air and bang! she drove it one with her bulldog .44, and she blowed peaches and juice all over the street.

Sarah then pulled out a silver dollar and held it up so they could see it and we stopped for I knowed Sarah wished them to see this and she flipped that shining silver coin in the air and BANG -whinggg-  that silver dollar howled off for who knows where, it took them schoolboys three days to find it and fetch it back to her and she recht in a little pocket sewed in her schoolmarm's skirt and pulled out a clay marble and held it up for them to see, then she flipped this in the air and the gun cracked and there was a yellow puff of dust where that marble just powdered all to pieces and she tilted her head and curled her lip and whistled, and Snowflake came pacing up the alley out from between the Silver Jewel and the city building and she petted Snowflake's nose and she looked at the three and said "Snowflake don't like thieves," and then she turned and she and that big black furry footed Frisian mare walked on up the street, and we went on over to the Cross Bar Hotel where them fellows was going to be living for some time to come.

Once they was each in their own cell and I set down to enter all that into the Sheriff's official journal, I looked up at Jacob and admitted, "I don't like it when they try me like that."

"No, sir," Jacob agreed.

"Bad for a man's digestion."
"Yes, sir."

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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160.  LADYFINGERS

Sarah Lynne McKenna sat in the finest hotel in Denver, alone.

She sat at a table with a spotless, snowy-white linen tablecloth, with rolled, embroidered napkins, with genuine silver tableware; she had a long stemmed wineglass in front of her, an elegant crystal wineglass shimmering with the blood of the grape.

On her side of the wineglass she had a shot glass, and in the shot glass was amber, and it too shimmered in the light, and Sarah stared into its liquid depths as if divining a great secret from its mystic contents.

Her fingers -- delicate, spatulate, artist's fingers, fingers suited for coaxing a Strauss waltz from a grand piano, fingers suitable for brushing a wisp of hair from a little sister's cheek, fingers that could caress the back of a man's hand and stir his inner fires -- her fingers grasped the rim of the shot glass, turned it a little, and a little, and a little more.

"She's over there, Detective," the waiter nodded.  "I sent for you as soon as she came in."

"Very good, Charles," the detective said quietly, unobtrusively handing the waiter a coin.

Sarah did not look up as the chair opposite her was drawn quietly back, as a man with a curled, black mustache and a cheap suit sat down across from her.

"Detective," she said, still staring at her liquid amber.

"Agent."

The silence grew long between them.

An obsequious waiter came over, looked from one to the other.

Sarah never looked up.

"I will have," she said clearly, "the best cut of filet in the house, and I want it done completely this time."  

Her voice was flat, emotionless, but her words were very clear, and very precisely enunciated.

"The last time I was served filet, it was so red in the middle it flinched when I cut it."

"Yes, madame," the waiter murmured, suddenly a little less comfortable.

"I will have your garlic mashed potatoes and your superb gravy, and if you have green vegetables I would entertain a dish with vinegar."

"Yes, madame."

"Give the detective what he's having," she concluded offhandedly, leaning back suddenly, rubbing her forehead and dismissing the hovering waiter with a wave.

Sarah Lynne McKenna took a long breath in through her nose, dropped her hand carelessly into her lap, opened her eyes and looked very directly at the detective.

"We have them," he said quietly.

"Good.  I thought you might."

"We have you to thank for it."

"My name will not appear in your reports."

"But we must credit someone with such excellent investigation --"

"I think you will find," she interrupted, "your superiors will more readily accept a report with a man's name signed to it, than it will with a more feminine signature."  She picked up the shot glass, downed it, placed it very carefully, very silently on the little linen square from whence it came.

"Do you know how many of these I've had?"

"No."

"One."  She blinked, her expression hard, and the detective considered that if she had a softer expression, she would be genuinely beautiful ... but at the moment, she looked as if she might bite the head off a marble statue.

"I have had this" -- she picked up the shot glass, held it up, a little above eye level, turned it slowly, carefully in her carefully-manicured fingers -- "I have had this, filled with a good vintage of distilled buffalo stampede, for just under one hour, and I have consulted its liquid heart for the answers I still don't have."

The waiter appeared as if by magic, hesitating to reach for the object of her study.

"Would Madame care for another?"

"No thank you, Charles, but please return this to the saloon."

"Yes, madame."

Sarah Lynne McKenna turned her pale gaze to the detective.

"You know I have been busy today."

"I know you blew up a rainbarrel."

He saw just the ghost of a smile, and that for but a moment.

"It was the rainbarrel or most of the windows."

"You do not appear wet."

"I did not get my Saturday night bath a few days early, if that is what you refer."

The detective drummed blunt fingers on the spotless linen.

"I am given to understand that you prevented another explosion."

Sarah Lynne McKenna lowered her head a little, and it was as if her hard, pale eyes drove iced gimlets into the detective's soul.

She remembered the waxy feel of the bundle of powder-sticks in her hand.

She remembered the smell of burning gunpowder in the sizzling, waterproof fuse.

She remembered the feel of the fuse's woven surface as she seized it, pulled it out of the bundle, dropped it to the ground, turned and saw one lone stick, sizzling just out of arm's reach, the fuse almost ready to disappear into the folded, wax-sealed end.

There was no time for rational thought.

Sarah dropped the bundle, seized the individual stick, turned, threw it like she would throw a knife:  her aim was a little off, if she intended to stick it point-first into the side of the building, but perhaps that is for the best:  her throw was a little low, just at the far rim of the rainbarrel, and as the stick of powder disappeared under the water's surface, Sarah seized its author and spun, hard, throwing him out the mouth of the alley before following him, barely getting the brick corner of a disreputable building between her and the explosion.

Sarah had not blinked once as she remembered all this.

"Yes," she finally said.  "Yes, I prevented another explosion."

"I am grateful that you did."

"I spared several windows."

Liveried waiters appeared, silent, hovering with their burnished, immaculate trays:  meat, potatoes, gravy and something green, steaming and fragrant settled on the table:  a final touch, a glass of wine, the same style and vintage as stood before Madame, was placed before the detective, and the waiters bowed and withdrew, and the pair was alone once again.

The detective placed his napkin on his lap, as did Sarah:  each lifted fork and knife, each cut into their meat.

The detective sliced several times and began to eat:  Sarah leaned back, raised a summoning hand.

The obsequious waiter appeared again and Sarah pushed the plate from her.

"I believe," she said, "if I were to cut into this, it would scream with pain."

"Madame," the waiter protested, and Sarah thrust out of her chair, seized the waiter by his Windsor-knotted tie, yanked his head down until their noses very nearly touched.

"I used a knife on a man today," she hissed, so only he could hear her. "I cut him long, deep and continuously, I cut him until he was butchered like a beef, I laid him open and made him die very slowly, and that --"

She turned, yanked his face toward the cut-open filet, absolutely red at its heart, with a little pool of red juice shimmering below the incision --

"That is what he looked like inside."

Sarah Lynne McKenna pushed hard, thrust the man back a few feet:  he caught himself in time to keep from going over backwards.

"If I want raw meat," Sarah said, just as quietly, her voice as cold and hard as her ice-pale eyes, "I will carve it off the next man who offends me.  I've done it before and I will do it again, now take that back and return it as I ordered it, or I will go back and carve what I want from the cook's tenderloin and prepare it myself, on his stove!"

The detective, unruffled, continued enjoying his meal:  a sip of wine, and he sampled the garlic mashed potatoes with the excellent gravy, found it very much to his taste.

Sarah returned to her seat, her hands fisted on either side of her plate, her eyes closed, her head bowed:  at length she took another long breath, raised her head, smiled pleasantly and relaxed her hands.

"Now," she said, "where were we?"

 

 

 

 

 

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161. A LOVELY SET OF EYES

"Thank you for seeing me, Sheriff."

"I understand you were effective."

Mrs. Llewellyn smiled -- almost shyly -- she hefted her carpet bag and bit her bottom lip, waited as the Sheriff filled an insulated coffee carafe, handed her a mug, ran her own middle finger through her own stained mug and pulled a carton of half-and-half from the short cooler under the polished, stainless-steel coffeemaker:  she followed the pale eyed badge packer into the conference room, placed her carpet bag on the table, heard the door shut behind her.

"I could tell from your call that you had something good."  Willamina placed her mug on a napkin, relieved her guest of hers: a gurgle of coffee, another mug on another napkin, the carton peeled open and the spout pinched out:  "Your voice was not shaking but you sounded almost like an excited schoolgirl!"

Mrs. Llewellyn's ears, what little the Sheriff could see of them, turned absolutely scarlet as she pulled out a laptop computer, unfolded it, turned it on and laid out mouse and memory stick:  the two women sat side by side, and Willamina could see Mrs. Llewellyn's fingers were shaking a little as she keyed the silver laptop into life.

"I went to the Denver Police Department," she began, "and asked for the Records Division, just as you said, and it must have been my dress."

"Your dress?"

"That I, um, they don't usually have visitors in a floor length skirt, let alone an authentic gown."

"I see," Willamina murmured neutrally, camouflaging her smile behind a careful sip of scalding-hot coffee.

"I asked if their records of the late 1880s were computerized, and they were, and they allowed me to make a search, and I entered 'McKenna' and 'Black Agent' and 'Agent of the Court,' and they allowed me to copy the files I found."

Another key, a delicate finger on the touch pad, the lines scrolled past, slowed.

"I found a detective's account of dinner with The Black Agent."

 

The detective raised an eyebrow as he placed his fork carefully on his empty plate:  he picked up a still-hot dinner roll, tore it carefully in two, buttered its steaming interior, folded it back together.

"You didn't really cut a man up today, Agent?" he asked quietly, and Sarah Lynne McKenna laughed, a light, delicate laugh:  she hoisted her plate of mashed potatoes onto the waiter's trembling tray, followed by the offending meat course and the tureen of gravy:  she was satisfied they would be returned at the proper temperature, and that the meat would be done to her specification this time.

"Today?  No," she smiled, picking up a roll of her own and very carefully, very precisely, driving her thumbs into it as if she were driving them into an enemy's eyeballs.

"No, not today, Detective, but I will tell you something I've never confessed to anyone else."

She lifted her eyes from her torn-open roll, blinked, her long lashes sweeping the air almost audibly as she gave him those lovely, pale eyes.

"Never.  To anyone.  Ever."

She'd lowered her voice and leaned forward a little, the way a woman will when she is about to share a confidence, and the detective leaned toward her in response.

"I cannot abide meat that is not thoroughly cooked. 

"I have looked upon slaughter, sir, I have seen terrible things done to people with malicious intent.  I know what it is to kill and I have laid men open with a blade and slept with a clean conscience that night, but these terrible things have their effect on the human soul -- and as a result, I must have my meat completely done through."  She hesitated, then added, "But I cannot abide the smell of burnt meat, for I know what it is to hear someone screaming to death in a fire, and to be utterly helpless to remove them from their agonies."

The detective blinked, leaned back:  he, too, knew that smell, and he, too, knew that terrible feeling of helplessness at not being able to end a sufferer's torture.

That night, in the privacy of his apartment not far from his police-station, the detective dipped a steel nib into good India ink and wiped off the excess on the inside of the ink-bottle's stained neck:  he considered, then he began to write, for it was ever his habit to keep an account of the interesting happenings of his day, and to have a conversation with the Black Agent was ever an interesting moment.

 

"They have the digitized diary of one of the Denver detectives, and he writes of the Black Agent."

"Really!"  Willamina breathed, leaning closer to the screen.

"Here" -- Mrs. Llewellyn pointed with a black-lace-gloved finger -- "here, he expresses his surprise that The Black Agent is neither black, nor is he a man."  She turned her head, smiled a little.  "It seems her name was actually --"

"Sarah Lynne McKenna," they chorused, and Willamina laughed.  "Stay right here, I need to get something!" -- and she pushed back, quickly, almost skipping out the door:  Mrs. Llewellyn blinked, unsure if she'd somehow trodden upon a taboo, at least until Willamina came back in with a thick album.

"You spoke of The Black Agent.  Her badge is in our museum, here is its picture" -- Willamina leafed through a few pages, stopped:  the photograph was enlarged several times larger than life size:  a bronze shield simple in design, with a diagonal engravure:  across the top, the word AGENT, and on the diagonal, FIRELANDS DISTRICT COURT.

"And here," Willamina said, hesitating before turning the page, "is the Agent herself."

She looked at Mrs. Llewellyn and smiled, the kind of a smile that said "I am sharing a woman's knowledge with a knowledgeable woman," and she turned the page.

Mrs. Llewellyn gasped, her mouth falling open:  she looked from the portrait to the Sheriff, looked back, looked back again.

"But ... that's you!"

Willamina laughed.  "Step into my office, I have another one to show you."

A moment later Mrs. Llewellyn was looking from a framed print, to the Sheriff, and back to the framed print on her office wall.

"That's you," she said positively.

"I assure you," Willamina smiled, "that is most certainly not me.  That print was taken from a glass plate photograph that was found under the stairs of a photography studio.  It's our newspaper office today and the man's name is Bruce Jones -- editor, reporter, do-all and historian."

"You could be sisters," Mrs. Llewellyn breathed.

"Twins," Willamina agreed.  "Now tell me just how you managed to sweet talk their Records department into giving you a copy of that detective's diary?"

Mrs. Llewellyn paused, considered.

"Well," she said finally, "unless it was my lovely eyes, perhaps it's because I looked like I'd just come from the Ladies' Tea Society?"

Willamina laughed.

"We'll go with the eyes.  I don't think the Ladies' Tea Society is that well known!"

 

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162.  A SUMMONS

 

The Detective was a bachelor; as a bachelor, he could come as he pleased, he could go as he pleased: if he wished, he could come home well oiled, he could dine with whichever pretty lady he wished, and he had no need to explain a trace of cosmetic on his collar, or the odor of perfume about his coat upon returning to his domicile.

The Detective often worked late, for there were always cases to be worked, interviews to be conducted, the lawless to be apprehended: his long hours and hard work did not go unnoticed, and he'd been promoted -- a combination of his own hard work, and to be honest, thanks also to the hard work of a certain Agent of another jurisdiction's court, as the case she was working happened to cross jurisdictional lines -- and his own superiors recognized the efficacy of this outsider's efforts.

It was not a hardship, therefore, when the Detective received a note, folded into thirds and sealed with a wax stamp:  he recognized the impress -- a rose -- he cracked the wax seals, unfolded the note, read the feminine handwriting, examined the rectangular, printed ticket enclosed in the folded missive.

He looked up at the clock on the wall and smiled, just a little:  he had time enough to make it home, and into his better suit, and then by cab to the opera-house.

As a detective, he did not wear the Denver police uniform; it was not at all uncommon for City men to wear a suit -- indeed, that was not at all uncommon in the outlying communities as well -- and so the Detective, upon leaving Police Headquarters, was but another man on the street.

 

The Detective disliked opera houses.

He disliked public performances in general.

The Detective disliked crowds and people behind him, he disliked facing forward and no convenient means of seeing behind him, but he stifled his own dislike, though he remained watchful as he approached the Opera House, as he presented the ticket enclosed with the note:  he'd held back, casually turning so his back was to a wall, scanning the crowd as a man will when searching for a familiar face:  this was not an uncommon activity, if a gentleman were meeting someone, and so this drew no untoward attention.

Once inside, he hesitated before entering the rows of velvet-upholstered seats:  his eyes were busy, though he himself held quite still:  his gloves were in his hat, his hat was in his off hand, his coat was unbuttoned:  it would be well less than a moment's work to sweep aside the coat in order to access his sidearm, or to thrust into his coat pocket for the shot filled leather slapper.

He followed the usher, oblivious to his guest's hesitancy:  the Detective was obliged to stride quickly after the uniformed boy, and as he settled into his seat, he appreciated his benefactor's forethought:  he was near the front, at the end of the row, in easy reach of an exit he knew was concealed by a pleated, tied-back drape.  He'd made use of that very exit a few times, only once at a run, and that with his revolving-pistol in hand, and a good thing: as he came through the door, his finger tightened three times, and a man waiting with a knife and a second waiting with a cosh both inherited the gifts his heavy service pistol offered.

Tonight, though, tonight, he anticipated, there should be no unpleasant encounters.

Tonight he expected to be out rather late.

 

The Detective was not a great fan of the opera, but he did appreciate a good voice, and from the very first act, he was captivated by the Viking soprano.

Opera performers often wore elaborate costume, and this one did:  she was not of great height, but her voice made up for what she may have lacked in stature:  she wore a gleaming skirt of metal plates riveted to broad leather strips, her fur boots were cross-gaitered to the knee, and when she turned, spear in one hand and roundshield in the other, the Detective's mouth dropped open.

He'd expected the woman who wrote the note to meet him, to sit beside him, he expected his benefactress to be in a gown, as she was when he dined across from her in the fine hotel two days prior.

The Black Agent -- this deadly, effective, incisive plucker of burning fuses from blasting powder sticks, this athletic street-fighter with a remarkable skill with throwing-knives and Bulldog pistols, this quick-change artist who appeared as a schoolmarm and took a squadron of street urchins under her care and formed them into an efficient and most effective network of informants and operatives -- this surprising woman who wore a McKenna gown and conducted herself absolutely as a lady, unless she didn't -- 

The Detective's mouth fell open, slowly, as he realized this Viking with the soaring soprano voice was The Black Agent herself.

The detective marveled as the story unfolded, and he was surprised that there was actually an interesting story and not just song:  it was a romance, there was a conflict, war between tribes:  at one point the Viking woman cast her roundshield aside, spat, shouted something in a language he did not recognize but sounded very much like a challenge, and an obscene one at that:  she was charged by three warriors, one of whom she stopped with a hard-thrown spear that caught the rearmost in the chest, stopping him instantly, and the Detective's heart froze for a moment, so realistic was the effect:  hidden hands dragged the fallen warrior into the wings, and as he disappeared, the Detective saw the fallen foe open his eyes and grin, and he realized that hard-thrown spear was driven into padding of some kind.

He did not dwell upon this realization.

There was suddenly a very realistic brawl on stage:  Vikings in leather and fur-skins charged, roaring, across the boards, and the pale-eyed warrior who just threw the spear drew steel, her pure note searing upward into an utterly joyful scream:  there was steel, fury, the sounds of pain and of anger:  the only indicator that this was not genuine combat was a lack of blood -- otherwise, the Detective realized, this was so real it was genuinely frightening!

He looked around:  the audience showed the usual variety of responses: faces once bored were suddenly animated, interested:  some were shocked, dismayed, others leaned forward, eagerness in their expressions:  like any combat, the action was sudden, vicious, at once lengthy and simultaneously brief:  men dragged their wounded from the fray, ultimately leaving but two, weaving a shining web of steel between them, and the Detective realized this was not a choreographed display.

This was an honest sword fight, between two very skilled opponents.

The two thrust into one another: the pale eyed woman seized her opponent's wrist in a grip of iron, deflecting his blade as she drove hers hilt-deep into his belly or so it appeared:  part of the Detective's mind realized she'd just thrust it beside him, on the side away from the audience, though the visual effect was that she'd just driven honed steel through his belly and out his back.

They both went to their knees, slowly, the dying man's blade falling from weakening fingers:  in the sudden, shocked silence, its crash to the stage was a bright burst of sound, and the groan from between clenched teeth raised prickling hairs on the Detective's nape, for he'd heard just that same groan from dying men himself.

The heroine pulled her blade free with an effort -- bright it was, unbloodied, the only indication that this was not an actual combat and death -- she wiped he blade on the vanquished foe's jerkin, as if to cleanse it of his blood: she stood, cast hard and pale eyes over the field of battle, sheathed her blade with a bared-teeth snarl, turned.

A gasp, a shout: the audience was so drawn into the performance that a warning was shouted, but the warrior appearing with a drawn bow was too quick:  the arrow streaked across the stage, drove into the woman's back:  her head snapped back in pain, she collapsed, going to her knees, then to her face, and the lime lights drew down into their metallic recesses a little, casting twilight over the battlefield.

A moment later, they rose again: bodies lay where they fell, weapons discarded and limbs awry, but from above, from over the heads of the audience, a voice, a soprano note, soaring and triumphant:  heads turned, faces turned upward:  surprised, the detective turned as well, his mouth opening again, for above them, a horse:  from the horse, broad and pure-white wings, and as the horse drew its wings down with powerful strokes, the woman -- a woman with pale eyes, a woman with a silver-headed spear in one hand, a familiar roundshield in the other -- the woman sang a stanza of triumph, her voice pure, beautiful, inspiring:  the horse settled to the stage, danced on burnished black hooves, as the woman smiled and declared, "The daughters of Odin fly again o'er the battlefield, choosing those warriors' souls who died most honorably in combat.  Only the best and bravest warriors are worthy of the Allfather's board!" -- and so saying, she lifted her silver-headed spearshaft from its stirrup-socket, lowered it:  a flash, as if an electric arc:  "Rise, Warrior, and join us!"

The warrior who'd contested so strongly, who'd died after such a vicious fight, a fight in which neither gave quarter, nor asked, rose: one thumb hooked in his belt, his arm raised, he and this daughter of Odin, this Valkyrie, sang a duet, their voices in flawless harmony, and as the curtains swept closed, as the light changed in intensity, only then did the Detective see the trolley -- painted the same shade as the ceiling -- that cleverly suspended horse and rider and ran them, hanging from some clever harness, over the audience and onto the stage. 

 

That night, after the audience clamored and crowded around the performers, after the gleaming-black gelding's clockwork wings were dismounted, and the patient, well-trained horse led from the stage and out the back, after reporters scribbled importantly in notebooks and hands were shaken, after women fluttered kerchiefs and declared they could never ride a horse from such a height -- after all this, an armed, armored Valkyrie skipped like a happy little girl into a dressing-room, and a dignified, beautiful, modestly-gowned young woman came out, to take the Detective's arm and walk, smiling a little, out the front door of the opera-house.

"I begged a day's leave for you tomorrow," she said quietly, "so you don't have to worry about being abed before moonset."

"You," he said, patting the gloved hand that gripped his arm with a light and ladylike grasp, "are full of surprises tonight!"

A cab clattered up beside them, the driver swarming from his seat, opening the door and bowing elaborately:  Sarah Lynne McKenna curtsied, took the cabman's hand, stepped up on the mounting-block and into the horsedrawn cab's interior with a quiet, "Thank you, James," and the Detective suspected rather strongly that there was a history between his pale eyed counterpart, and this unassuming, black-liveried cabman.

"The usual, Madame?"  James asked, and Sarah smiled her dazzling smile and replied "Yes, please," and the Detective was no more seated and the door closed, than the cab rocked a little as the cabbie climbed to his upholstered seat, and they were off.

"You said you arranged my day off tomorrow."
"I did."

"And your plans for tonight?"

Sarah Lynne McKenna leaned against the Detective's shoulder, leaned her head over against him.

"It has been a long and difficult week for us both," she murmured, "and I relax by singing, then dinner, and then dancing."

"Dancing?" the Detective asked quietly, his arm protectively around her shoulders.

"Mm-hmm," she hummed.  "I understand the waltz is particularly therapeutic."

"And I suppose you've already arranged this."

He felt her silent laughter and smiled in return.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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163.  A RUINED MAN!

 

Dr. John Greenlees, M.D., a Fellow of a variety of surgical and medical societies, rose as the attractive woman he'd seen earlier came over to his table.

The doctor appreciated a good set of legs, especially when they were supported by heels, sheathed in nylons, and protruding from a skirt.

He'd seen Sheriff Willamina Keller tens of thousands of times in such attire, but each time he considered that she had the ability to look particularly attractive at any hour of the day or of the night -- and as she was Sheriff, and he was a surgeon and an ER physician, they had occasion to encounter one another at any hour of the clock.

The Sheriff smoothed her skirt under her, sat gracefully:  Dr. Greenlees sat, looked up as the waitress came over, menus in hand.

"Filet, medium, loaded baked, house salad and blue cheese," the Sheriff murmured, "and coffee, please!"

"The same," Dr. Greenlees nodded, and the waitress smiled: "You two are easy," and Dr. Greenlees winked at the Sheriff and said "That's why I'm paying alimony," and the three of them laughed.

"I'll bring your coffee and salads and get you started."

Dr. Greenlees sighed and tilted his head back, rolling it a little from side to side.

"Long day?"  the Sheriff asked sympathetically.

"Mm-hmm," he affirmed.  "I take vacation and they work me like a rented mule on my first day back!"

 

Dr. John Greenlees, M.D., finally found a comfortable place to park his bony backside.

He'd brought a camouflaged foam seat; it insulated him from the damp ground, it was thick and surprisingly comfortable, and he was leaned back against a rock in what he thought was a good place to sit and wait.

His crossbow was cocked, laid across his lap; the bolt in place, the low-mag scope was sighted in at twenty-five yards -- he was confident of a heart/lung shot at twice that, but he was determined not to risk it.

No, better to take no shot than to place a bad one.

The Sheriff spoke of places she'd been, back in Ohio, and she spoke of having hunted reclaimed strip mining land near the Cumberland mine: he'd looked at it on maps, studied the Ohio Power pamphlets, secured his out of state licenses, gotten the permit from Ohio Power, he'd flown in, taken a motel room, rented a Jeep, followed the map, first the county's road map and then the topographic map: finally he was where he wanted to be, he settled in less than a mile from the Jeep, confident that he could gut out a deer and then drag it to the vehicle, where he could bone it out and take home only what the Sheriff called "good eatin' meat."

He sat in morning's hush, frosty ground sparkling round about:  a rustling, brisk, intermittent, and he smiled:  sure enough, a squirrel, bright black eyes regarding him suspiciously:  he made no move, watched the squirrel, moving only his eyes, as the bushy tailed tree rat scampered through the leaves, hunting for something:  finding an acorn, it ran halfway up a tree, out a branch, ran back down, dug noisily in the frost-brittle leaves until it came to dirt not yet frozen:  a quick scrabble of foreclaws and it planted the acorn, covered it quickly, looked around to make sure no one had seen it inter this treasure, and then bounced noisily away.

Doc's ear twitched as if pulled by a ghostly thumb-and-forefinger:  he'd hear the thump, thump, thump, throooommmmmm as if someone was starting a small engine that kept running out of gas, and he smiled again.

He'd never heard ruffed grouse drumming before, and he made a mental note to look up a You Tube video -- chances were good, he reasoned, that someone has caught a drumming grouse on video.

He sat still, silent, allowing his spirit to flow from his body like water, to merge with the land and with the nearby pond, the fall-dead cattails leaf-broken and browned in late fall's frost; he waited, he watched, he saw something dark swimming in the pond, drawing an arrow shaped wake, and he wasn't sure if this was a muskrat, or a beaver -- it dove and disappeared, and he thought Muskrat, reasoning that a beaver would dive with a slap of its broad tail.

Unless it wasn't alarmed, another thought cautioned.

Dr. John Greenlees, surgeon and physician, waited with a cocked crossbow on his lap, a honed knife on his belt, intent on taking an Ohio whitetail.

 

"I waited most of the morning," he told the Sheriff, between bites of the truly excellent filet:  "at least I thought it was most of the morning, but when I checked my phone it was only about ten o'clock."

The Sheriff raised an eyebrow.  "Then what happened?"

Dr. Greenlees' grin was quick, almost boyish, and his ears started to color visibly.

"Well," he said, "y'see, it's like this ..."

 

Dr. Greenlees had almost given up for the morning.

He'd intended to see the Big Muskie bucket, the only thing left of the world-famous Big Muskie shovel; he threatened to go see it sometime, but never did, and now only the bucket remained, a rusting tourist attraction in and of itself:  one of the local high school marching bands had formed up inside it -- not necessarily because the bucket was that big (it was), but because the band wasn't, which made the steel dirt digger look all the more gigantic.

He reached into an inside pocket, pulled out a bag of chips:  he pulled it open, feeling almost guilty, trying to make as little noise as possible, not wanting to profane the hush with his noise.

He pulled out a triangular chip, raised it to his mouth, ate.

He was halfway through his third crunch when he froze.

Something black was about six feet from him, black and shiny and as he looked at the black and shiny, a deer's head started to materialize around it, and Dr. John Greenlees, veteran of medical crises, deliverer of babies, pronouncer of death and wielder of the scalpel, felt his pulse pick up as he realized that a deer was closer to him than he was tall.

He stared, fascinated:  the eyes were dark, liquid -- I never knew deer had eyelashes! -- the nose moist, not twitching, flaring a little ... he heard its breath, it came closer, looking at the open bag of chips he held.

Dr. John Greenlees slowly, carefully reached into the bag.

The deer froze.

So did he.

The deer blinked, swiveled its ears, wagged its tail once, lowered it.

Dr. Greenlees slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y brought out another triangluar, salted corn chip, slowly, carefully, extended it.

He held it out.

The very earth about him held its breath.

The button buck blinked, then stretched its neck out a little, very carefully, very delicately took the chip from between the man's fingers.

 

Dr. Greenlees' eyes were distant, his voice soft as he remembered, as his quiet voice followed the memory, his words painting a living portrait in the Sheriff's imagination.

"I fed him that entire bag of chips," Dr. Greenlees admitted, "and when I was done, he looked almost disappointed, then he turned and walked slowly away, and I remember he wagged his tail from side to side -- he didn't lift it or flag it one time, and I watched until he was gone."

"What did you do then?"

Dr. Greenlees sighed, then gave her that quick, boyish grin again.

"I took the bolt out of my crossbow and held the string with one hand while I released it -- it was strong, but I have a pretty good grip."

"Yes, you do."

"I went back to the Jeep, and I went back to the motel, and I went back to the county airport and I flew back here."

"Didn't bring me any deer meat," she teased.

Dr. John Greenlees slid his salad over in front of him, pushing the empty plate aside to make room:  "Sheriff," he said frankly, drowning the lettuce and spinach leaves with lumpy dressing, "after feeding a deer a whole bag of chips, I am ruined for deer hunting!  Ruined!"

His voice was so sorrowful, his expression so utterly doleful, that they could not help themselves.

They both laughed.

 

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(Psst Wallaby ... Willamina said she had you in mind!)

 

164. ME, IN A TANK TOP

 

Twelve-year-old Linn was paging through one of his Mama's picture books.

"Picture book" really isn't an accurate term:  he'd plugged a thumb drive into the computer and was looking at pictures of his Mama at an earlier age, before she'd married his Pa, before she'd birthed him:  these were pictures his Mama brought back from overseas, when she wore Uncle Sam's baggy browns.

She never really talked much about her military time, at least not to him.

Oh, she participated in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, as a full member instead of one of the Auxiliary, as she was the veteran and her husband was spouse of a veteran (he said he'd be damned if he'd go put on an apron and cook!) -- and Linn had watched, solemn and silent, his Stetson over his breast, as his Mama, in uniform, stood in ranks as the final words were spoken over a fellow veteran's grave: he'd marveled at the easy and natural way she handled the M1 Garand they used for the firing squad, for with her height and build, the rifle looked as cumbersome as a railroad tie -- but she handled it like it was a toothpick.

Just like she handled her Great-Uncle's Garand when they ran an assault course with it.

Linn touched a key, scrolled though a few more pictures.

His mother, a dirt smudge on her cheek, grinning out the window of a Humvee; another, handing a canteen to another Marine, a big cloud of dust boiling up behind them, a third Marine just behind them caught as he turned, thrust an arm toward the approaching haboob.

Another key, he stopped, leaned forward, as intent on what he saw as a bird dog is on a hot scent:  it was three frames, apparently shot one-two-three:  the first, his Mama, powering forward in a run, the sling on her rifle rippled a little, one knee coming up, her pale eyes fixed on something with that icy intensity he'd seen before; the second, in mid-leap, jumping over a low wall that other Marines were ducking behind: a puff of dust from the top of the wall, stone spalls frozen in mid-flight, and his Mama, her rifle thrust forward, her rifle's action open, a dark rectangle where the bolt should be, and an empty brass case blurring its way out the open ejection port: the third frame, her mouth open, fury engraved on her face, and two more empties caught in mid-air as her left leg extended, toe pointed, her right tucked up behind, for all the world like a ballerina coming down from a high leap.

A ballerina in helmet and boots, a ballerina with death in her hands and war in her heart.

Linn touched the key again.

His Mama again, a tanker's helmet on her head, sand goggles down over her eyes, making her look like an insane, grinning insect: her palms were on either side of an M1 Abram's turret's open hatch, and in a yellow text box, the black letters spelling out Here's me in a tank top.

Linn grinned and nodded, just a little, and then he felt his Mama come up behind him.

Willamina gripped her son's shoulders lightly, and Linn reached his left hand up across his chest, laid it on the backs of his Mama's fingers.

"You look good in a tank top, Mama," he said, managing -- somehow -- not to laugh, and Willamina did laugh.

"Yes, I do, don't I?" she agreed.  "We were feeling silly and I had one of the guys take that one, and when I told him what I had in mind, he said 'Leave it to me,' and we went into the command tent and ten minutes later, why, my picture was on its way to my husband!"

Linn nodded again, carefully, saying nothing:  he knew she meant her first husband, the one that was killed by a drunk driver the day she left for her second deployment.

"Is that a Beretta M9, Mama?"

Linn felt his Mama's fingers tighten again, just a little.

"Yes," she said after a hesitation.  "I carried one and it never let me down until I ran out of rounds."

Linn froze -- he wanted to turn and look at his Mama, and Willamina knew if he did, his expression would be one of concern and of worry.

Linn knew what it was to very nearly lose his Mama:  she'd been machine gunned in front of her Sheriff's office, and only the fact that the assassin was a perfectionist and wanted to put a very tight, very precise group in the very center of her chest -- that, and the fact that she wore both a steel boned corset that day, and her issue body armor -- well, Linn knew what it was for a deputy to take him by the arm and say "I'm sorry, son, she's gone," he knew what it was to have come out of the Sheriff's office with his grandfather's revolver and face-shoot the assassin three times as he was reloading, he knew what it was to scream in rage and rip the velcro free from his Mama's vest, to pull it aside and feel for a pulse and then to set his hands over her breastbone and drive his weight through practice-stiffened arms and to do CPR on his Mama's trauma-bloodied ribcage.

He'd come far too close to losing his Mama to take a threat to her life anything but seriously, and his hand pressed down a little more firmly on the back of his Mama's hand.

"Is that why we put clay pigeons on the silhouette's faces?" he asked quietly, and his Mama said "Yes it is," in just as quiet a voice.

"My rifle was disabled by shrapnel and I was bloodied.  I pulled my M9 and head shot the first three that came at me and I used battlefield pickups until either artillery or an IED blew me into a shell hole, and I was flat on my back and shot that pistol until it locked back empty."

"That's when Great-Granddad showed up with Great-Grandma Esther's double gun and blew him to hell."

Willamina's breath caught as she saw it again, as she lay on her back with rocks digging into her spine, as her ears rang and she felt the pistol hard and very real in her grip as she raised it and realized the slide was locked back and she'd run through all her magazines and she tossed it aside and pulled her K-Bar as the jihadi stepped up and grinned at her and she screamed "COME AND GET ME DAMN YOU!" and there was movement above her and she looked up and a long tall lawman with an iron grey mustache and an irritated expression shouldered a double barrel shotgun and Willamina wondered What in the hell is a cowboy doing here? and then she realized he had a six point star on the lapel of his black suit coat and BOOM, BOOM, two barrels squirted fire, driving two charges of heavy shot into the enemy's belly, and she saw the AK fall from dying fingers and the man fell back and she looked up as the lawman broke open the double gun and gave it a jerk to throw out the empties and she saw him dunk in two fresh rounds and he looked down at her and snarled, "NOBODY shoots my little girl!" -- and then she saw stars through his hat-brim, and then through him, and then he was gone, and even the blue cloud drifted away like a ghost ...

"Here's me, in a tank top," Linn chuckled, shaking his head.  "Mama, you always did have a rotten sense of humor!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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165. THE MAN ON THE RING

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller stretched, twisted a little:  she brought her arms in across her front, twisted again, and the widow Llewellyn flinched at two muffled *pop* sounds that brought a momentary grimace to the Sheriff's face, then an expression of relief.

"That hurt just to listen to," she murmured, and Willamina laughed a little.

"Hereditary back," she explained. "I was born with a sway back. It seems to run in the family."  She threw her arms up, then back, tilting her head back, rolling it left, rolling it right.

"Now. You had an entire file on that detective from Denver."

"I did," the Widow Llewellyn said slowly.  "I mean yes I do, but I found something else."

The Sheriff smiled.  "I understand.  There's so very much that's interesting in our past!"

"When you showed me the Black Agent's portrait -- when you showed me you could have been her twin ..."

Mrs. Llewellyn smiled.

"The more I learn about her, the more I wonder just how ..."

She frowned, considering.

"How big a hell raiser she really was?"  Willamina prompted gently.

"Yes," Mrs. Llewellyn replied, surprised, looking at the Sheriff with big violet eyes.  "Yes, exactly!"

Willamina sighed, closing her mouth as she felt her son's approach:  his boot heels were silent, but she still felt the slightest vibration of his footsteps.

Linn paced up behind his Mama, laid man-size hands on her shoulders, began to knead her muscles, slowly, carefully:  his Mama closed her eyes and purred quietly, "I'll give you a week to stop that," and Mrs. Llewellyn could not help but smile as the tall, slender young man looked at her and winked.

Somehow she did not take it amiss at all that he wore a .44 revolver as easily as he wore his blue jeans.

"You've never seen Mama with her dandruff up, have you?" he asked, his voice as rich and strong as the hands that skillfully massaged the tension out of his Mama's neck and shoulders.

The widow Llewellyn blinked, shaking her head.

"I understand you're also a ghost hunter."

The widow Llewellyn grimaced.  "I, um, I don't use that term," she replied carefully.
"Then let me tell you a ghost story.  Mama?"

"Oh, go ahead," Willamina sighed contentedly.  "It's true, anyway!"

"You see, ma'am," Linn began, "Sarah Lynne McKenna was a walking contradiction, just like Mama here.  She was The Black Agent and she was a detective, she was a killer of those who needed killin' and she was a savior of those who needed saved.  She nursed a child at her breast and she drove a knife into a man's kidneys to kill him silently but very slowly, she chased down and captured the man she'd been told had killed her Papa -- Old Pale Eyes -- and she reduced the murderer to possession so he could stand trial, rather than kill him outright."  He paused, frowned, considering how he wanted to proceed.

"She could dance the Flamenco, and she danced it well:  she cleared the floor with the waltz, she sang like an angel, she was at once a nun and a murderess, a wife and a mother, she was a relentless and absolutely merciless hand of the Law, as much at home in a fine gown and a fine carriage, or on a well-dressed man's arm, as she was astride a huge black Frisian, or laying ambush with a long-range rifle, or crossing steel in a desperate fight for her very life."

His hands paused momentarily.

"Kind of like Mama here."

"Flatterer," Willamina groaned.

"She was also full of laughter and orneriment, just like Mama here."

"Telling all my secrets," Willamina chuckled.

"Oh good heavens, yes," Linn declared, eyes wide and innocent.  "Now that brings us to the ghost story."

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna skipped happily across the firehouse equipment bay, slipped through the short hallway, seized the rungs in the hose drying tower, climbed quickly to its apex.

She knew the English Irishman was going to follow her with the homemade, weighted dummy -- she had to work quickly, before he caught up, for he would surely try to stop her -- she reached down, seized her skirts, hauled them up and out of the way, wishing sincerely she was wearing one of Daciana's skin-tight circus leotards instead of a skirt and petticoats -- she got to the little platform on top, warmed by the sun, smelling of smoke and drying linen-jacketed firehose, and she flipped the latch up, thrust the double doors open.

The Irish Brigade was below her, just unfolding the canvas life-net:  she whistled -- "Yoo-hoo, boyos," and laughed as they looked up, surprised.

"Catch me!" she shouted, flexing her knees, balancing on the balls of her feet, drawing her elbows in and back --

"SARAH! NO!" Sean shouted, his great Irish lungs booming out the command, echoing it off the brick front of the newly rebuilt firehouse --

Hard and callused hands snapped the wood frame wide open, desperate to get it open and ready --

Sarah thrust forward, shoving off, diving headfirst, arms up and then out and then in, like a diver, the world fell toward her and the sky rotated above her --

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller thrust open the double doors at the top of the hose drying tower.

It was the Fourth of July, and just as the Irish Brigade used to practice rescues in the past, she determined to re-create an event she'd read about: with conspiracy and secret agreement with their very own Irish Brigade, and solemn assurances that if she ended up on the concrete instead of rescuing canvas, neither she, nor her heirs and assigns, would hold them responsible nor liable for any misfortune.

The man behind her on the little platform in the top of the hose drying tower, wore the red, bib front shirt with the hand-embroidered, gold Maltese cross on the breast, that was the uniform shirt adopted by the Firelands Fire Department in the 1800s, and still worn for special occasions.

Below them, the pumper was pulled out, and was parked on the far right of the concrete apron: the tanker, pulled out, and to the far left:  below her, the buff colored canvas life ring with its wooden frame, a red circle painted in its center, and around the periphery, their very own Irish Brigade, strong men in the red-wool, bib-front shirts, pressed-leather helmets and well-polished, knee-high, flat-heeled boots.

Most of the town was gathered for the event; the parade ended where it began, at the firehouse, and with ice cream and hot dog stands nearby, with the crowd watching, Willamina waved and laughed as people pointed, waved, shouted, whistled.

Willamina looked down at the small canvas circle that was her target

Willamina blinked: she'd expected four men holding the ring, one at each point of the compass.

A fifth Irishman strode out from the firehouse, took his place on the life-ring: his companions took a half-step to the side to make room for their companion.

The newcomer's face tilted up, a face Willamina did not recognize at first, and then she smiled.

"Remember," the man behind her said, "just jump straight out, not too far. You'll hit the canvas in less than a second so they won't have much time to adjust position to catch you --"

"Have you ever parachuted, Lieutenant?" Willamina asked with a smile, looking back at the man, reaching for the sides of the doorway, thumbs out.

"No," the Lieutenant admitted.  "No ma'am, I never have."

"Trust me," she whispered, kissed at him:  she turned, thrust out of the doorway, rotating forward as she did.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna fell through the clear mountain air, falling like a meteor, hair and skirts streaming in the wind, arms and legs pointing to the heavens: for a moment, for a glorious moment, she felt free, weightless, her stomach screaming with silent joy, and in that one moment, in that brief moment of utter freedom, she allowed herself to forget the earth, forget the up-rushing canvas, forget the full bluff warriors gripping the steamed, bent, sanded, varnished wood frame, and she felt only freedom, she felt only joy.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller fell through space, a century and more after her ancestress: the newspaper's editor, his finger heavy on the camera's shutter button, marveled as his mind divided itself:  part of his mind kept the subject in the viewfinder, tracked her downward progress, while another part of his mind wondered if he would ever have the guts to trust his life to a canvas circle stretched to a wooden circle, held by men's hands, while another part of his mind saw how her long skirt fluttered as she fell, and then everything but his internal steering mechanism considered the control it took to dive, to make a precise somersault, so she came down exactly where she wanted, and land exactly how she wanted --

 

"Oh dear God no," Sean groaned as Sarah thrust forward, as she tucked, as she rotated: had the life-ring's  wooden rim not been made of good white oak, he might have crushed his finger's impress into the seasoned, steam-bent wood.

Beside him, the Welsh Irishman's heart hesitated:  his feet were planted, his back straight, his lean muscles sang power, and he waited for this daughter of one of the richest woman in the territory, this child of wealth and privilege, fell through space toward the canvas life-net.

His canvas life-net.

In Daffyd Llewellyn's mind, his were the only hands on the net's frame; his was the sole responsibility to catch this falling soul, his and his alone,  the sole duty of keeping her safe, keeping her from a sure and certain death.

The image of this lovely child, falling through space, engraved itself on his very soul, and to his last breath, he never, ever forgot this moment.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller landed on the canvas, hitting flat on her back:  men's knees and arms flexed with the impact, and she rolled to her feet as canvas and muscle sagged down and then recoiled upward.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna landed on her back, feeling canvas and muscle drop under her impact -- they came up and so did she, rolling forward --

 

Feminine hands gripped polished white oak, stockinged legs pushed, the acrobat somersaulted off the life-ring, landing on the balls of her feet, one hand still gripping sanded, varnished wood frame, the other arm lifting gracefully, saluting the applause of all who watched.

 

Linn Keller grinned at the widow Llewellyn.

"There were four men on the life ring when Mama climbed the hose tower," he explained, "but there were five when she hit the canvas."

He reached for the bookshelf, drew off a thick volume, paged quickly through it, placed the open volume in the widow Llewellyn's lap.

"This is the man who ran out of the firehouse and seized the life-net."

A lean, well-formed man wearing a pressed-leather fire helmet, a man with a black, handlebar mustache, looked out of the page at the Widow Llewellyn.

Her fingers traced the name at the bottom.

Daffyd Llewellyn, she read, future husband of Sarah McKenna.

She looked up, startled, as mother and son smiled at her, their eyes pale; they both nodded, once, in unison, and Willamina said "When I rolled off the canvas, I looked around, and there were only four on the ring."

 

 

 

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166.  "JUST LIKE YOU TAUGHT ME"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller stalked into the morgue, her heels loud on the polished quartz floor.

"Ah, Sheriff.  I was about to begin the autopsy, you're just in time."

The Sheriff's eyes were pale, they were cold, they were as soft and yielding as the burnished stone under her three inch heels.

The coroner paid no attention to the badge packer's demeanor: he uncovered the body, picked up his camera, began documenting its condition.

He stopped after the first few frames, set the camera aside and took a frowning look at the bloodied face.

Picking up a probe, he explored the bloodied flesh, counting silently until he got to the third bullet track.

"Three ... four ... five," he murmured, then looked up.  "Yours?"

Willamina's bottom jaw thrust out slowly.

"No."

Sheriff Willamina Keller closed her eyes, took a long, steadying breath.

"You have another customer."

"Mmm?"  the coroner inquired as he proceeded to unbutton the corpse's shirt.

"His last victim."

The doctor's hands stopped and he looked up, the color running from his face like red ink out of an eyedropper.

"Oh, no," he groaned.  

"Yeah."

"Then he ...?"

The Sheriff crossed her arms, looked at the dead face, her jaw still displaced forward.

"If I had a bushel basket of money," she said, her voice flat, emotionless, "I would hire the Witch of Endor to resurrect this miserable spawn of Perdition so I could kill him WITH MY BARE HANDS!"

It was rare -- very rare! -- for the Sheriff to raise her voice.

When the woman bent a little and screamed into the corpse's face, Dr. Butts drew back a step, an involuntary response: in his many years as Coroner he'd never known the Sheriff to be anything but reasonable, rational and logical.

Never one, not ever, had he known her to raise her voice to anyone, or for anything:  as her shreik's echoes died in the hard-walled confines of the autopsy suite, the Sheriff looked up at the Coroner with hard and pale eyes.

"I found her," she said, "strangled and" -- she swallowed, her arms crossing again, hands doubled into hard fists -- "treated just like the last one."

The coroner was still, silent:  he knew more would follow.

"I just delivered the news to her family -- both that we got the monster that took their little girl, and that their little girl was dead."

"But you didn't kill this one."

"No."

"Do you know who did?"

The Sheriff's expression grew bleak and she turned away, considered, then turned back and looked very directly at the Coroner.

"Yes I do."  She smiled with half her mouth.  "A cheerleader who didn't want to be a victim."

 

Wilma opened the door.

Her gut told her he was trouble, but she'd been raised to be a polite young lady, and so she didn't just slam the door in his face.

"I saw the For Sale sign," the man said, turning a little and hooking his thumb toward the sign in the front yard.  "I'd like to see the interior."

"Call the realtor," Wilma said, shutting the door, at least until a sneakered foot thrust into the gap:  her response was just as the Sheriff taught her.

His knee was vulnerable.

His knee was available.

Wilma drew her leg up, shot it down and forward, hard.

She'd practiced this kick, but she was higher than she expected -- he was on the front stoop -- she caught him on top of the knee, instead of just under the knee, and he roared and drove his shoulder into the door, knocking Wilma back and off her feet.

Wilma responded as she'd been training.

Her hand went for her Daddy's pistol on her belt.

Hours of practice, hours of cycling the trigger on snap caps, hours of hearing the Sheriff's voice saying "Put the front sight where you want to hit," and she saw the shining thumbnail front sight settle on the attacker's face as he dove at her, she saw the sight at the bridge of his nose, her finger tightened, pulling a smooth Colt double action through its cycle: she knew the pistol fired, she felt it but she barely heard it and his face was still coming at her and she pulled the trigger again and she remembered how smooth it felt under her finger and the pistol fired again and the sound was distant, so distant, and a little hole appeared in the bridge of his nose and she pulled the trigger again and she was firing slowly, so very slowly, and this time his eye kind of shrunk a little and she pulled the trigger again and put the fourth shot through the corner of his eyebrow and she pulled the trigger again just before his face hit the slender muzzle of her late Daddy's .32 Colt Police Positive revolver, and then his weight fell on her and she drove the heel of her left hand into his shoulder and rolled out from under him and he rolled over and there was blood coming out the back of his head and she scrambled backwards and she heard her Mama scream and she pulled the latch and turned the muzzle up and swatted out the empties and reached for her belt to reload the pistol and then she realized her attacker was not moving and suddenly she felt really weak and kind of numb and she just sat there on the floor and stared at the man who tried to push into her house and she realized his arms were heavily tattooed, just like the one the Sheriff was looking for and then she saw the tats on his neck and she knew this was the murderer everyone was talking about and her eyes went really wide and she looked at the pistol in her hand and she reloaded, automatically, muscle memory taking over, and she got to her knees and carefully, precisely, closed the cylinder and then slid the pistol back into its holster, and she felt her thumb press the strap and felt it snap into place and she remembered saying, "I've got a mess to clean up," and then she sat down again because her legs wouldn't hold her up.

 

"What are the odds there would be two monsters this close together?"  Willamina breathed.  "What creates these beasts?"

The coroner was busy cleaning off the face so he could get a clear photograph of the shot placements, and didn't answer what he recognized was probably a rhetorical question.

"I am tired of this."

She looked at the Coroner.

"Doctor, please excuse me. I have need of some saddle time."

 

"It's called a debrief," Willamina explained. 

"It's called self-incrimination and I will not countenance my client --"

"NOT WITH ME, YOU SANCTIMONIOUS IDIOT!" the Sheriff yelled, seizing the attorney's lapels and shaking him once with a strength that comes only of pitching bales of hay -- "WITH SOMEONE TRAINED IN CRITICAL INCIDENT STRESS DEBRIEFING AND YES I KNOW SHE CAN'T TALK TO ME!"

The attorney's mouth opened and before he could formulate a retort or voice a threat, the Sheriff continued, her voice low, urgent.

"This is a detective.  She is not a commissioned law enforcement officer.  She is hired by your client's mother and she is CISM and CISD trained.  We need to debrief Wilma before that memory goes down into body memory or she will have NIGHTMARES for the rest of her bloody LIFE!"  

Willamina's pale eyes burned a hole in the attorney's corroded soul as she continued, more quietly, "I know that one firsthand."

 

"Five shots, five hits, the one that transected the brainstem must've been the last shot fired," the Coroner mused as he examined the dissected brain with a professional's dispassionate eye.  "That would have turned him into a baggie of ground meat and he would have hit the ground without so much as a twitch."  He turned to the sink, washed his gloved hands with his usual fastidiousness.

"A cheerleader did this, while she was being attacked?"

He consulted the investigator's notes, nodded.

"Cheerleaders were never like this in my day!"

 

"You're quiet."
Willamina looked up at her husband.

"You've had a rough day."

"Yep."  Her single syllable was clipped and not inviting further conversation.

"I understand we have a survivor and you are to credit."

Willamina placed her fork very precisely on her plate, looked at her retired-FBI husband.

"She did just like I taught her," Willamina said, "and a man is dead as a result. Had I not taught her as I did, she would be dead and he would kill again."

"So she is safe, and you are the reason she is safe and alive."

Willamina nodded.  "That's right."

"But you're still upset."

"I found the little girl."

Richard turned his head a little, frowned.

"You found her."

Willamina nodded, tearing open the sweet roll as if she were tearing open the skull of an enemy.

"You, personally, found her."

"Yep."  Willamina smeared butter on the lower half of the roll with what can only be described as a truly vicious twist of her butter knife.

"Oh, God, Willa, I am so very sorry!" he breathed, reaching across the table.

Willamina's hand advanced to meet his.

"I'm not. We had to find her.  Alive, or dead, we had to know."

"You blame yourself because you couldn't save them both."

"I shouldn't," Willamina admitted.  "There's no way I could've known he would come clear out here to --"
She turned her head, quickly, hiding her face from her husband.

Richard did not have to look, to know his wife was biting her bottom lip.

"I've worked the Crimes against Children section."  His voice was quiet, deep, reassuring. "That's why I transferred to Altered Documents."

He reached over, took her hand protectively in both his strong, warm, blunt-fingered hands.

"We can't save 'em all, Willa."

"I know," she admitted.  "I know that here" -- she reached up with her free hand, tapped her forehead with the handle of her butter knife -- "but do I know it here?"  She tapped her breastbone, shook her head.

"You taught a girl to keep herself safe, and she did."

"Yeah."  Willamina released her husband's hand, stood.  "Yeah, at least I did that much right."

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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