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167. IT'S WHAT I CARRY

Sheriff Linn Keller leaned against the post holding up the awning roof in front of the log Sheriff's office.

"I can hear the gears turning, Papa," Sarah said quietly, giving her father a knowing look.  "Out with it. What's got you thinking?"

The Sheriff shifted -- if he stood too long, his back still gave him grief -- and frowned a little, his eyes distant, searching.

Sarah saw his gaze wander to the graveyard, well up the hill across and back, and she suspected he was thinking of war dead.

He tended to do that, and when he did, he got really quiet, and he was really quiet this morning.

"Was it the Lieutenant?" she asked quietly, and the Sheriff's eyes tightened a little at the corners -- the hint, the barest hint, of a smile, the way a teacher does when a student makes an incisive and very correct conclusion.

"Yep."

"And others?"
"Yep."

His gaze lowered; he blinked, considered the little whitewashed church, looked up at the steeple, remembering the night his son and the Parson used the bell tower as a firing-point, driving Sharps lead into the lawless: his son took a slug through the shoulder and was bleeding to death, and that was the night he pressed a blade into his beloved niece's hand, he pressed Duzy's hand with the blade against the bubbling wound, and he pressed her hand hard down against the carmine-flowing hole while he spoke the Word, and the bleeding stopped.

He'd intended to teach Duzy how to stop blood with the Word, he'd intended to teach her how to blow fire, he'd intended to teach --

Sarah saw him blink and turn his head a little, and she knew he'd just dismissed a train of thought; she saw the pain in his eyes, and she placed a gloved hand on his forearm, searching his face -- not as the schoolmarm, but more like a little girl, worried about her big strong Papa.

"Tell me," she whispered.

The Sheriff's jaw slid out and he looked back up toward the cemetery, considered.

"Walk with me."

Sarah's hand went from warm, on top of his forearm, to gripping him from under the forearm: it was a maxim that a Lady did not leave a room unless she was on the arm of a gentleman, and manners and courtesies were elaborate and commonly practiced:  the two of them paced slowly across the cold, packed dirt of the Firelands main street, diagonally, heading toward the Silver Jewel.

"I had to teach men how to ride horses," the Sheriff said slowly, and Sarah blinked, listening closely.

She knew that her Papa had been in that damned War, that he'd been part of an Ohio volunteer cavalry outfit, and she knew that he'd had to teach men to ride, and he had to teach horses to be ridden.

As utterly foreign as the idea was to her, she knew that -- back East -- people didn't ride.

They drove.

Drove carriages, drove buggies, drove wagons, but nobody rode, not unless they rode mules in the hill country, or unless they were from that far-off and foreign nation called Texas, or that equally distant and mysterious foreign country called California.

Things were different now, though; neither Texas nor California were foreign countries, and riding horses was known back East, but she knew her Papa had to teach these green recruits a skill they lacked, and all this went through her quick mind like an express train on a down grade.

"I had to teach men to ride and I had to teach their horses to be ridden."  She felt his smile without having to see it.  "It's a good thing I was young, as many times as I hit the ground, working those horses!"

He felt her hand tighten on his arm and he smiled, just a little, and then his smile faded and she heard his voice change.

"I had to teach a number of them how to shoot."

Sarah turned her head, looked up at her Papa, strong and resolute, the way he was when he gave testimony in court.

"They used what I taught them.

"I recall ..."

He hesitated, took a long breath, considered.

"After our first battle ... after we went forward and looked over what we'd done, some of our men were ... sick."

Sarah nodded, once, listening closely.

They reached the board walk, stepped up off the street.

The Sheriff turned, took both his daughter's hands in his own.

"I recall ..."

He shook his head.

"Sarah, they were just dirt farmers like me, none of 'em had any likin' for killin', hell, I think I was the only one who'd killed a man before that first battle ..."
His voice trailed off and she saw a deep sadness -- but only for a moment, only until he blinked again.

"They ... I took each one of them aside and I told them that I was in command -- I'd taught them how to stop the enemy, and that's how I put it, stop the enemy -- and it was on my order and with my training and it was entirely my responsibility.  Not theirs."

He took another long breath.

"I don't think it helped. Some of 'em blamed themselves for ... hell, for as long as I knew 'em."

Sarah looked up at her Papa, attentive, silent, listening very closely to the words the man spoke, and listening for the deeper meanings behind his carefully chosen words.

"I carry every man's soul that was killed under my command, Sarah. Both blue and grey, their souls are my burden and I will answer for them at the Judgement."

He looked down at his daughter, then bent a little, embraced her quickly, fiercely, the way a protective Daddy will do on impulse.

"Sarah, darlin', every death was my fault, and I will carry that to the day I fall over dead!"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked up from the old Journal, her eyes pale as she swept her gaze across the Valkyries, sitting cross legged in the sawdust in the big round barn under the cliff.

"I want you to remember that," she said.  "Just as the Old Sheriff took responsibility for every death that occurred under his command, I and I alone am ultimately responsible for the burden Wilma should not carry."
She closed the Journal, set it aside.

"That's all the history we'll teach today, but I wanted you to hear the words of a man who's been where I am now."

She stood, easily, gracefully.

"Now let's practice our knee kicks again.  Remember, ladies, the knee is a vulnerable point.  Kick with the edge of your foot, drive forward and down -- the legs are the strongest part of your body -- kicked just under the kneecap, the joint will dislocate and kicked from the side, it'll fracture, and this with only 35 pounds' pressure.  Line up in front of the dummies, one to a customer."

Sheriff Willamina Keller paced down the line of cheerleaders, grim-faced young women who'd attended every hearing, every legal proceeding that followed Wilma's attack:  Willamina had them attend, because she wanted them to see the legal ramifications of a shooting, even -- especially -- an absolutely justified shooting.

"By the numbers, ladies, just as we've practiced," Willamina called, then her eyes went hard, the flesh over her face tightened and her voice took an edge that sliced through the still air in the barn like a guillotine's blade.

"VALKYRIES! SET, ONE!" -- and pretty young ladies with carefully-styled hair, high-school girls wearing freshly-polished saddle shoes, brought their knees up and then drove the edge of their feet into the practice dummies' green-plastic knees.

 

Mrs. Kincade sat back, in the shadows, watched as Willamina worked her Valkyries, as she went from one to another, demonstrating a strike, a kick, slow-motion with the individual mirroring her moves:  she was patient, she was quiet-voiced when working one-on-one, and the other cheerleaders paid very close attention -- closer, Mrs. Kincade knew, than they paid their cheer coach.

Mrs. Kincade knew it was really the Sheriff that arranged the detective who debriefed her daughter; she knew the Sheriff used this same debrief when there was a catastrophic event that affected the emergency services there in town, and she came up to the Sheriff later and thanked her for her words:  "I didn't know how Wilma was going to carry that ... memory," she admitted.  "She's always been such a sensitive girl."

"Had she been victimized, it would have shattered her," Willamina said flatly.  "She's too sweet a girl to be a victim.  Now that she knows she can say NO and mean it, her soul is much stronger."

Mrs. Kincade had the uncomfortable feeling that the Sheriff just might be speaking from personal experience.

She was right.

 

That evening, Willamina was engaged in what she called "Saddle Therapy," and her ride took her through the Firelands cemetery.

She drew up before the double stone, the one with Old Pale Eyes' name, and she stared long at the quartz monument.

"That's the difference between you and me," she said thoughtfully.  "You carried every one of those souls."

Her smile was sardonic, half her mouth pulling up a little as she spoke.

"I don't.  I said I did, I looked that girl and her Mama in the eye, and I lied through my teeth."
She looked up at the flawless blue sky, then back down at the stone.

"It made them feel better and she'll sleep better at night.  Job well done."

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168.  THE OUTLAW, THE DOCTOR, THE PARSON, AND ME

 

The Parson, for whatever reason, went a-rattlin' out away from Firelands on some errand or another, I reckon he might have heard someone was ailin' or the like, or maybe he got invited over for a meal,  or hell maybe he went fishin', 'twas none of my business so I never pried into it, but when he come a-rattlin' back I was on my way back too and he didn't seem to be in no screamin' hurry and neither was I, so we drew up in the shade and I looked over my horse's hooves and his as well and we set and et what we'd brought and talked the way men will when they don't have any pressin' matter to tend to.

The Parson, he said that was a fine lookin' black horse I had, and I said "Outlaw? Yeah, he's a good horse and I'd like to've seen his colts but he's been trimmed," and the Parson allowed as that was a shame, and we chawed on back strap and et sweet rolls and drank crick water.

That's when the water was still good, before beaver fever corn-taminated all the crick water in the mountains, I guess it come down south out of Canada and warn't no warnin', just of a sudden a man took a good drink of good cold sweet mountain water and an hour later or so his guts was emptyin' themselves out with or without his let-be and 'twas a miserable experience, and it kilt some that got it.

Water was okay if you b'iled it first and I generally made coffee as a matter of course but this was before the water went bad and besides I'd no wish to pizen the Parson with my coffee.

I realized just how bad I made the stuff when Esther asked me to b'ile her up a pot of the stuff, for she needed to peel varnish off a rockin' chair.

Anyway I told the Parson about Angela, how she was a little girl and she shook her Mommy-finger at attair Outlaw-horse and declared "Bad horse! Dead!" and Outlaw he just plainly hit the ground and laid there like he'd been head shot.

He'd do the same for me, I reckon he'd been beat for he was deathly afraid of bein' hit especially if you drawed back your fist and come at his face, his eyes would wall and he'd hit the ground just colder'n a foundered flounder, only if I did that with him -- and I only got mad and cocked a fist torst him one time -- oncet I saw what it did, I taken pains not ever to do that ag'in, and I treated him careful, and he did all right long as I did all right by him.

Anyway the Parson laughed at the thought of little Angela, all big blue eyes and curly blond hair and ruffles and lace shaking her finger at a horse well more than twice as tall as she was and declaring him dead, and he'd hit the ground and she'd h'ist her nose in the air and "Hmpf!" and turn around and stomp off and then attair horse would get up and follow along behint her for all the world like a love sick puppy.

I allowed as that's proof positive I could never figger wimmen, even the young ones, and the Parson he allowed solemnly that I was right, only he couldn't hold that solemn look for no more'n a minute and then he was laughin' and his ears was red, and so I piled it high and deep and shoveled more bull roar on the man, I allowed as I come by that Outlaw-horse honest, as I'd kilt the fella that rode him into town and whilst I could have the dead man buried it seemed a waste to bury the horse with him, besides I didn't want to pay good money for a coffin big enough for a standin' horse and one that was still alive to boot and by then the Parson he was makin' the noise of a chicken layin' a paving brick so I thought maybe I've tormented the man enough, and his face was red and his eyes a-leakin' by the time them giggles kind of coasted to a stop and we et the last two sweet rolls, one apiece, and headed on into town.

Now my errand was for naught, the fella I went a-lookin' for was home all right, trouble was he was a few feet under the sod when I found him and as I saw no need to dig him up and haul his exanimate clay before His Honor the Judge, I give the widow my condolences and she planted her knuckles on her belt and allowed as she hoped he was b'ilin' in buffalo fat over them selfer coals for he'd left her alone and a ranch to run and she carried on in a voice that sounded like one of Sarah's students scratchin' his Finger Nails down her Black Board, and so I lifted my hat and mounted up and told attair black Outlaw horse that we'd really ought to go somewhere the company was better, and as I passed by the man's grave I allowed as I didn't blame him one bit dyin' to get away from her, for she stuck me as the kind that would screech and holler at a man somethin' fierce, and I can't abide that.

'Twas after that, maybe an hour or so, I come acrost the Parson and we had our powwow and our palaver and then we headed on back into Firelands and Doc was in a good mood, he was down't the livery for some reason or another and we got to talkin' and he got to laughin' and he said he'd been flagged down by the serving-girl and she wanted him to take a look at a new baby's belly button so he did.

He said this was when he was still a green physician and that was before that damned War so that was a good while ago.

He allowed as when he went up to the baby's crib he accidentally kicked the leg of the crib and that startled the little one and the lad threw his arms wide and Doc he grinned and allowed as the little fellow picked his life's vocation already, he was goin' to be a fisherman the way he threw his arms wide as if to say the fish was thiiis big.

The notion tickled Doc but he said that young mother was settin' up in bed in her nightcap and her arms crossed lookin' like he'd just offered her a chunk of dog meat or somethin'.

He unpinned the little baby boy's diaper and Doc said, "Now Sheriff, you've had children, when the air hits a little boy's, umm ... anatomy ... the valve opens," and I allowed as that's so, and Doc said the stream caught him right between the eyes and it struck him as funny so he backed up a step and wiped off his face and his spectacles and allowed as the lad just might have a second profession in mind, the ministry.

Methodist, he said to the mother, they baptize by sprinkling.

He was laughing to himself and looking at the lad's umbilical stump and the young mother said in a voice that would freeze ice on a moving stream, "My husband is a Methodist minister," and Doc said he could have crawled under the floorboards and slunk off.

This long after, though, 'twas entertainin' to him, so we both had a good laugh out of it.

Now oncet we got back to the Sheriff's Office, Doc come on in with me and Jacob he had his brand new baby boy with him, he was packin' the little fellow around, all wrapped up in a blanket, and Annette she had two in tow and she was watchin' Jacob all patient-like the way an understanding wife will, and Jacob he unwrapped the little boy on my desk and he was allowin' as how he was a fine, strong lad, and he felt the diaper and frowned and allowed as maybe he'd ought to change it and Doc and me we looked at one another and neither of us said a word, we looked at Annette and she gave a patient sigh and shook her head and sure enough, when Jacob fetched out attair diaper pin and pulled down the flat and the air hit that little boy baby's ... ummm ... anatomy, and damned if that high pressure stream didn't catch Jacob square between the eyes.

Annette handed Jacob a wet wipin' rag and nudged him aside and me and Doc we looked at one another and I reckon my face was red as his and he jerked his head and turned for the door and I followed and once we got outside we couldn't help it.

I didn't want to laugh in Jacob's face but oncet I was acrost the threshold I couldn't help it, for that same little boy baptized me the same way not two nights earlier, and there the two of us stood a-leanin' ag'in that dusty front log wall, laughin' like a couple damned fools.

 

 

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169.  DISQUALIFIED

Nancy leaned forward, one hand on her knee, the javelin balanced in her other hand.

She stood.

Blond haired, blue eyed, slender, she raised her chin, rolled her shoulders:  she was representing the Firelands Falcons at the home-field regional meet, her chosen event was the javelin.

She raised the tapered, balanced, custom made shaft and began her run.

A whistle: she stumbled, slowed, the shaft still held along her forearm, along her cheek:  she dropped the shaft, turned, knuckles on her belt, glared at the referee who broke her concentration, destroyed her rhythm.

Her coach strode over to the referee, as did a second referee, and the assistant coach:  Nancy reached back, drew her long braids over her shoulders so they hung down in front, waited.

She knew she was the subject of discussion; the referees kept turning toward her, gesturing toward her, turning back.

Nancy's bottom jaw slid out and her blue eyes slitted nearly shut.

She did not let whatever this was, discourage her, nor to intimidate her: if anything, it added fuel to her resolve.

Finally her coaches walked over to her, frowning, shaking their heads:  Nancy strode toward them, took one by one shoulder, the other by his other shoulder.

"Nancy, I'm sorry," Coach Jerez almost snarled, his tanned face dark with repressed anger:  "they want to disaqualify you because you're wearing the necklace."

"Thor's Hammer?"  Nancy asked.  "Are they discriminating on the basis of religious faith?"

"Just ... could you  ..."
"I'll be back," Nancy snapped.  "If they don't like this demonstration of my belief, I'll be back in one hour.  Will that do?"
The assistant coach jogged over to the judges; a quick conference, a return.

"All you have to do is --"

"The javelin will be thrown this afternoon, it's in the schedule.  I will throw then."

Nancy was normally soft spoken and compliant:  that her blue eyes snapped as she spoke, as her arms stiffened and ended in fists,  as she glared defiance at her coaches and the news they bore, she gave the impression that they would have better luck talking a miser out of his gold than talking her out of whatever it was she had in mind.

The judges turned and watched as she ran for the school's locker room door:  she ran easily, hands open and bladed, ran like a panther, ran like a warrior-maiden.

"It's a shame she didn't take track," one murmured.  "She's a fine sprinter!"

Coach Jerez laughed.

"Sprinter, hell," he retorted.  "She can keep that up from here to Carbon Hill, and at that pace.  She's done it!"

 

The football team looked up as a whistle shattered their conversation.

A tall, slender, blue-eyed cheerleader with long blond braids planted her knuckles on her hips.

Her jaw was thrust out, her fists were on her belt, at least until she reached over and plucked a staff from the corner:  at the end of the staff, a triangular pennon, red in color, and on the pennon, in silver, the shape of a human skull without the lower jaw.

"Til Valhal!" she shouted, her voice sharp, edged:  "Warriors, I need your help!"

It was unheard-of for a cheerleader to set foot in the guys' locker room; it was unprecedented for a cheerleader to marshal the forces of the football team, and it was probably one of the best ideas the Firelands Falcons football team had heard since they carried the coach's compact car to the roof of the schoolhouse and left it there.

 

Coach Jerez consulted his phone, checked the time.

"She ought to be coming any time," he murmured.

The assistant coach tapped the Mexican's upper arm with the backs of his fingers.

"I think she's coming now."

The judges turned, frowned, then stared.

Two lines of spears advanced toward them.

Beneath the spears, conical helmets with bronze nasals: beneath the helmets, leather armor, and beneath these, cross-gaitered, knee-high, animal-fur boots:  roundshields, painted in Viking runes, bosses and rivets gleaming in the sun.

Two rows of Viking warriors, advancing at a trot, each led by a red pennon with a silver totenkopf, and between each row of warriors, a horse.

A very large horse.

A shining, black, truly huge horse, and atop the horse, a warrior-maiden with blue eyes and blond braids, a maiden wearing a shining breastplate and a white silk gown, a warrior-maiden with a Thor's-hammer necklace and a roundshield bearing the Thor's hammer insignia, a spear socketed in her right stirrup.

Competitors, judges and coaches parted as the columns approached:  they ran in step, they chanted in a language that could almost -- almost! -- be understood.

As one, they stopped:  the Maiden threw up a leg, cascaded from the saddle, fell in a cloud of white silk, landed lightly on the balls of her feet.

The Firelands football team ran, as did any football team, to condition themselves, to improve their wind; they learned to move as a team, to fight as a team, to operate as a team, and when one of their own, when their blue-eyed Nancy came to them and asked their help, not a one of them hesitated to get into the warriors' armor each made, himself, custom fitted to his lean young body.

Each one of them practiced with Nancy, each practiced throwing javelin, but while Nancy's practice shaft was the aerodynamic, streamlined, scientifically contoured competition javelin, Willamina's Warriors threw hand made, ash hafted, iron headed war spears.

Nancy walked up to the judges, glared coldly at them, then handed her coach the silver headed spear she carried, took the javelin he held for her:  "I believe I am next," she said firmly, as Willamina's Warriors spaced themselves, formed a lane.

A tall, lean Norse goddess paced to the end of armed and armored warriors:  she turned, closed her eyes, took a long breath.

As one, the Warriors turned inward, shields presented:  they beat their spearshafts on leather and wood, shouting, chanting.

Strong young men, chanting to war, firing their souls as warriors have done for millennia, chanting for one of their own, for their very own, pure blood Viking.

Nancy drew her arm back, gripping the wrapping as she'd done ten thousand times.

Her arm was extended far back, the shaft lying along thumb and forearm and over her shoulder and along her cheekbone.

She dipped her knees, just a little, not more than an inch:  once, then twice, letting the Warriors' chant soak into her soul like cool water down a dry throat.

"TIL VALHAL!

"TIL VALHAL!

"TIL VALHAL!

"TIL VALHAL!"

Nancy ran.

Nancy ran, swift, light, like an arrow from a drawn bow:  she cross-stepped, launched, the shining blue lance splitting a hole in the air as it shot in a perfect decaying parabola, as it soared and arced and dropped and finally landed.

 

That night, as the Sheriff stood in the Main Street drugstore, stood among happy, laughing, chattering humanity, as she stood surrounded by the joking, talking crowd of high school kids that were at once "Her Boys" and Willamina's Warriors and the Valkyries and the Firelands football team and the cheerleading squad, she listened to multiple accounts of the same story:  finally, when she was able, she pulled Nancy aside:  as they each sampled an ice cream sundae, there in the chrome-and-mirrored old-fashioned drugstore, Willamina asked, "So tell me, did you win?"

"No," Nancy smiled, and it was a wicked, I-did-something-naughty smile, and she saw approval in the Sheriff's eyes at the beholding of her expression:  "no, I was disqualified."

"Any particular reason?"

Nancy's hand went to her necklace and she nodded.

"Kind of a combination."

"Oh?"
"Their legal counsel told them they couldn't discriminate against me because of a religious belief, which meant they had to reverse themselves and make me a very public and very formal apology, which made 'em mad.

"It made 'em mad when I out-threw everyone else there today."

"And ... ?"

Nancy took another bite of ice cream, savoring the chocolate sauce before answering.

"They disqualified me for throwing a javelin in a white silk gown!"

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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170. SMELLS GOOD, DON'T IT?

 

Joseph sat on a skint-bare chunk of saw wood, hunched over a little, holding the bread over the fire.

He'd mixed it up in the frying pan, then scoured the kneaded dough out after he'd peeled it loose, tore off strips and wound them around three green sticks and set them aside: once the frying pan was free of bread dough, he sliced bacon off their slab, he set the frying pan between the two laid together chunks, and commenced to fry up some pig for the two of them.

He sat now, eyes busy, not looking at the fire; he knew smoke and smell would carry a surprising distance, but he also knew the cave he was hunkered in would act like a reflector and would let him hear any hostile approach.

Joseph was satisfied with his skill with a revolver: he practiced with his Pa, he shot side by side with his pale eyed Grampa, but his toughest teacher and fiercest competitor was his Aunt Sarah.

She'd been teaching him dirty tricks of killin' ever since he could remember, admonishing him that he would need these skills once he was grown; the boy had yet to see his twelfth year, and already he was known among a select few as absolutely deadly, a snake with a sixgun or a sharpened blade either one.

Right now, though, right now he was frying up some pig for his Pa and himself, and baking twist bread for them both.

He'd gotten pretty good at the bread: on the rare occasion when it was still kind of doughy, his Pa ate it without comment, and that was troubling to young Joseph, for his Pa was not bashful to tell him when he'd done something right.

Joseph was kind of like a Beagle dog, he was forever hoping for his Pa's approval, and though he might have a solemn expression when he received it, inside he was wiggling like a happy pup when it's petted.

 

Jacob rode a slow circle, eyes busy: caves were rare in this part of the country, and it was not uncommon for travelers to shelter in one. He'd found two knapped flints in this one -- a long, leaflike spear blade, broken, a third of it gone; the other, an arrowhead, simple but functional, and with edges sharp enough to bring blood even yet.

He stopped as the wind eddied slightly, bringing the smell of wood smoke and frying bacon, and he smiled, just a little.

He had memories of being younger ... about his son's age, matter of fact, and he and his pale eyed Pa were in that same cave, only 'twas his Pa frying the bacon.

Jacob's eyes wrinkled a little at the corners with the memory.

His Pa could not fix decent coffee to save his sorry backside, and when he tried frying bacon, more often than not he burnt it, and he'd burnt it sure enough that day he was fixing it for Jacob and himself, and he'd been short tempered afterward, but Jacob preferred his bacon done up well and not limp and greasy like he'd had to endure elsewhere.

He rode on in, Joseph looked up and grinned as his Pa walked through soft, weathered sand, stepped over the little meandering finger of the cold, narrow mountain stream:  Joseph held out a golden brown twist bread and Jacob took it by its stick, held it up to his nose, flared his nostrils and breathed deep, savoring the smell.

The two ate; a little more wood, a little more pig in the frying pan, a little more frying time, and they ate again:  the water here was sweet and clean and not known to give a man the scours, and so they drank.

Contented, they spread their blankets on a bed of soft sand.

The rain started not long after, just after their horses drifted in, some instinct prompting their seeking shelter, following their desire to be with the herd when weather arrived: when Joseph woke, he woke with a smile, for the first thing he saw was his Appaloosa, silhouetted against the streaked, lightening sky, and he smelled the washed-clean morning.

His Pa opened his eyes, listening, his eyes rolling over to the horses, gauging their responses, their alertness, then he looked over at his son, sat up.

Jacob took a long breath, his head tilted back a little, and he grinned over at Joseph and asked quietly, "Smells good, don't it?"

It was a memory Joseph carried with him the rest of his life.

 

 

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171. TO THE MOST DANGEROUS

Bruce Jones, editor, reporter, photographer and broom pusher for the Firelands Gazette (executive editor was still listed as D. Wales, est. 1887), was a man who took pains to know his sources.

He knew the Sheriff was busy enough that a random visit wouldn't be terribly wise, but he also knew she scheduled to slots each day for miscellaneous callers, and after a quick check with the dispatcher, he held the heavy glass doors open for a woman in a McKenna gown, and her little girl in a frilly-skirted frock and high-button shoes.

Willamina was in the conference room with coffee, milk and doughnuts: she received the editor and his guests with her usual pleasant courtesy, which changed to focused attention when Mrs. Llewellyn slid a box across the table.

An old box.

A box made with exquisite craftsmanship, a box the Sheriff picked up, a box the Sheriff turned over and read aloud the cartouche on the bottom.

"M. Rodney, Watchmaker," she read aloud:  she spread a paper napkin on the tabletop, very carefully placed the aged wooden box on textured paper and carefully opened the lid.

Editor Jones raised his camera and captured the expression he was hoping for, the expression that flowed from focused concentration to wide-eyed delight.

She looked quickly at Mrs. Llewellyn, then at Editor Jones.

"All right," she said, a smile hiding just behind her eyes, "fill me in!"

 

The man's name was -- well, the name he gave, is not the name with which he was born:  he was Irish, or so he claimed, though it was believed he'd been born and possibly raised on the Continent:  some said -- especially the police -- that his family had some Bohemian association, that they must have been sympathetic with certain anarchist groups, for though the man gave his profession as "Clock Repair," it was generally believed that his actual trade was the making of bombs.

In truth, he was skilled at both.

His clockwork mechanisms were at once simple, rugged, and reliable; his bombs were straightforward, easily hidden, easily activated.

He'd crossed the Atlantic knowing full well he would be followed from the Continent:  he laggarded a bit in what a doctor would later call "that great cesspool of humanity, London,"  that great gathering of idlers from all over the Empire.

It was a good place to be completely anonymous.

His move to Ireland was a risk, he knew; he missed the greenswards and fields of his youth, and imagined Ireland to be wild, uninhabited, populated perhaps by Druids and shepherds, a pastoral nation: he wasted no time in boarding a steamer for the Americas, as the Irish reality was far from his supposed ideal.

West he went, and further West, until finally he ascended a mile or so among the Shining Mountains, and managed to lose himself in a place called Denver:  there he fixed clocks, there he sold clocks, there he worked with an old German named Rodney, who he suspected had been originally named something else:  it was not at all uncommon for a man to go West, leaving who he'd been laying on a riverbank like a discarded cloak, taking up a new name, a new identity.

It mattered not to the man: he had a new start, he had money in his pocket and food in his belly, he had a roof overhead, and he was content.

 

Mrs. Llewellyn carried a carpet bag, and in the carpet bag, a three ring notebook:  she stood, opened the notebook, paged through it, turned it around.

Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned forward, interested: anytime someone organized old pages of anything, it meant they were interested, and if this woman in particular was interested in something old, the Sheriff was, too.

"Sheriff," Mrs. Llewellyn said, fingertips light on the plastic covered page, "do you remember reading anything about the Black Agent and a bomb maker?"

 

Somehow -- whether it's the way a man talks, or carries himself, perhaps an invisible, indefinable something, but something -- will alert kindred spirits, and sure enough, there were those who wished to do very bad things to personal or professional enemies, and a bomb was the ideal tool:  anonymous, unexpected, with nothing to connect the deceased with the murderer, and so it was that this man who repaired clocks in this new land, was asked to construct a clockwork mechanism that could be used to ignite an explosive.

He refused.

He was not a trusting man; he found one such device, quite by accident, and was able to stop it from dropping a percussion hammer on a percussion nipple:  the second device he found because he was looking for it, and so he delivered both to the individual who'd asked him to make such a bomb, with the quietly voiced sentiment that if he chose to make a bomb, the man he refused would never know it until he found himself dropping, scorched, singed and with ringing ears, onto the trap door at St. Peter's feet, with the Gatekeeper's hand on a lever that would drop the scorched soul into a much warmer reception.

It was less than a week later that he had an appointment with a man who ran the Denver crime enterprise, a man he wished to persuade that he should be left alone, that he'd left all such things long behind him.

He'd been stalled, delayed, until he realized the building he was in, was empty:  he crept up a set of stairs, hid behind a velvet drape as men carried a chest upstairs, men grinning with evil curling their lips and tugging their brows together.

The bomb maker followed them, silent, timing their footfalls with his own, waited until they were into an upstairs chamber he knew was the Boss's office.

He waited; the door was not completely shut.

He looked through the gap; all eyes were on the chest as it was being turned, lowered.

He slipped through the door, stood behind two men with the air of someone who belonged there.

 

"It says here," Mrs. Llewellyn said softly, "that the Boss -- you are familiar with him?"

"Oh, yes," Willamina nodded.  "I wrote a treatise on the early organized crime in Colorado, and that particular boss was chapter two."

"I'd like to read that."

"I'll arrange it.  Do continue."

"It seems the Boss claimed he'd divined the identity of the Black Agent, and determined that she should be killed, but she was too great an asset to be murdered alone."

Willamina looked up, raised one eyebrow.

"He'd planned to chain her naked to a torturer's table and kill her very slowly."

"So far that's not news."

"The table had a bomb under it."

"Mmm.  Seems like overkill."

"Not really."  Mrs. Llewellyn turned the page.  "Here is the bomb maker's statement."

"What?"  Willamina thrust out of the folding tin chair, knocking it over in her eagerness.  "I have been looking for corroboration for ten years!"

Mrs. Llewellyn smiled quietly as Willamina planted her hands on either side of the notebook, devouring the yellowing page with hungry pale eyes.

 

The bomb maker lowered his head a little, thrust out his lower jaw, adopted a scowl:  the man in front of him, the one to his right, turned:  seeing what appeared to be a kindred spirit, muttered "You lookin' forward to this as much as me?"

"You're damned right I am," the bomb maker snarled, knowing he had to be One of Them in order to be accepted:  he had no idea what was going to happen, but he didn't want to be part of whatever their problem was.

He was riding a razor's edge, gambling with life itself, tasting the thrill that comes only with staking absolutely everything you have on one throw of the dice.

If he was found out, he too would be killed, but if he was not discovered, he would get away with the greatest deception of his entire life.

The chest was unlocked, the latch pulled back, the lid opened.

 

"I remember there was a firefight," Willamina said.  "They were betrayed, triple crossed by one of their own who was in turn being played like a fiddle. 

They thought they'd kidnapped a mere girl, a rich woman's daughter, someone who would be terrified, compliant: that she would scream, beg, sob, would make their tortures all the sweeter:  her agonies would be muffled by stuffing her own torn petticoat into her mouth to keep her quiet while her clothing was cut from her pretty young body, while she was chained, naked, while she was shown the knives and little sharpened hooks and the pliers with which they intended to describe her tortures before demonstrating them.

They planned to remove her mouth stuffer about the time they slid the wire hooks in beside her eyeballs, about the time they drew her eyeballs out of her skull, when her screams would be the most shrill, the sounds of her agonies, the most penetrating:  they would throw open the windows, and the police would come running to the rescue of whatever was happening, and they would rush the unlocked doors, charge the unguarded stairs, and find a bleeding, helpless victim, blinded and half skinned alive.

The manacles were easily released, and would be, and when the victim was lifted from the table, a mechanism would start, and after a brief delay, a detonation, enough to blow the walls from the top floor and drop the roof a full story, killing as many as possible.

That their victim was not actually the Black Agent mattered not to the Boss.

He needed someone young and strong, someone who would scream loudly enough, and powerfully enough, and long enough, to bring the maximum number of rescuers.

The greatest number of victims.

That, at least, was their intent.

 

Willamina read, fascinated, seeing the action unfold on the screen behind her forehead.

She saw the lid thrown back, she saw a figure in black unfold like a spring from the chest.

She saw a slender young woman with pale eyes, a woman with her hair in a tight walnut on top of her head, a woman with a pair of cut down shotguns -- one barrel, two, two men flew back, blood and gore blasting out their backs:  she dropped the first cut-down double gun, picked up another, turned:  there was no hesitation and no mercy to her actions:  two more shots, the targets chosen, the second gun dropped, and she leaped from the chest, landing in a crouch, a Bulldog revolver in each hand.

The clockmaker watched, his jaw hanging, as she turned like a gun-turret placing her shots quickly, accurately, taking full advantage of her surprise:  the clockmaker was stunned by the concussion of a sawed off 12 gauge in a closed room; it was not until the men on either side of him reached into their coats and took a step forward than he moved.

The clockmaker drew a small pistol from his own pocket, fired once, twice:  these two fell, a bullet through the backs of their heads, the report of his little .32 lost in the rapid concussions of the black-shirted figure's stubby .44s.

A pause: the clockmaker glanced toward the door, took a fast sidestep, gripped the edge of the door, slipped through it and pulled it shut, then ran downstairs, hearing gunshots again, not knowing and not caring whether the girl in the chest was continuing to address the criminal gathering, or whether they were attempting to unleash retaliation upon her.

He heard footsteps, shouts, fell back into an unlocked room:  he saw a blue coat hanging on a halltree, snatched it up, spun it about his shoulders, part of his mind thinking it wise to appear somewhat more respectable:  men ran past him, shouting, and he joined them, charging into the room.

They seemed to know the individual who was now standing, still in the chest:  the girl with the walnut of hair on top of her head opened each pistol in turn, dumping in fresh rounds, thrusting the reloaded revolver into a holster, somewhere under her coat:  she seemed to know the policemen, and they seemed to know her, and in the ringing silence, he saw one of them pull a body off the waiting table, and heard a distinct metallic click as the body came off and hit the floor.

 

"I," Willamina breathed, "never read this account."

Mrs. Llewellyn smiled, just a little, the smile of a woman satisfied with having surprised someone with a reputation of seldom, if ever, being surprised.

 

"GET AWAY FROM THE TABLE!" he yelled, driving through the startled, blue-coated policemen.

"LET HIM THROUGH!" Sarah barked, swinging her legs out of the chest, running up beside him.

They both ignored the bloody man on the floor, diving under the torturer's table, lying on their backs and looking at the deadly trap beneath.

"Don't touch it," the clockmaker ordered.  "Get everyone out!"

"THERE'S A BOMB UNDER HERE!"  Sarah yelled, rolling out and sitting up:  "EVERYBODY OUT!  OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT GO GO GO!"

"HOW CAN WE HELP?" a red-faced Sergeant roared back, and Sarah looked at the clockmaker.

"GI' ME A PAIL OF COAL OIL AND A FAST WAGON!"

The Sergeant nodded, once, looked directly at The Black Agent, then turned and ran after his retreating men.

"Now for it," the clockmaker said thoughtfully, laying on his back and looking over the mechanism.  "Don't touch a thing, now, this is rigged ... oh now, that's clever .."

He reached into a pocket, pulled out a small, slim knife, reached up and cut a string, tied it off:  another cut, another turn around a convenient nail.

"Now.  Here's the timer, and how does that ... oh, yes, both of these.  You see this rod?"

"I see it."

"Reach up and grasp it firmly.  Do not let it slip.  I need to disconnect it from this ... yes, just like that.  Hold that still."

 

"So this is the bomb maker's statement."

"No. No, he was a bomb maker back in the Old Country, but he refused to make them here."

"I see."
"He offered his services to the Denver Police Department -- via the Black Agent -- but they didn't have any use for him."

Willamina snorted.  "Typical."

"After the Black Agent helped him disarm the bomb, they carried out the bundles in pails of coal oil and then took them into the mountains and set them afire."

Willamina nodded.  "I've done as much."

Mrs. Llewellyn looked at her, surprised, then blinked and looked away.  "I'm sorry.  Sometimes I have to remind myself you are the Sheriff."

"Sometimes I have to remind people of that myself, even after this many years."

Mrs. Llewellyn nodded toward the box she'd given the Sheriff.

"That is why I brought out this notebook and had you read the bomb maker's account."

Willamina turned the wooden box so they could both see the watch.

Nihilists and anarchists traditionally favored the simple iron bomb:  often a cannonball with a short iron neck, it would be filled with gunpowder, and later, guncotton:  a simple length of fuse would be used to detonate, and the cast iron body would provide ample shrapnel to cause grievous injury and death.

The box contained a watch, a little bigger across than a silver dollar.

The watch was in the shape of an iron bomb.

Willamina pressed the short neck, opened the case.

There was engraving inside the case:  two lines, in an arc, a word, two lines in an arc in the lower half:

 

To the most dangerous

woman in the world

 

==  from  ==

The most dangerous man

in the world

 

"Sheriff, I believe we are both related to The Black Agent."

Sheriff Willamina Keller sat down, planted her elbows on the table, steepled her fingers.

"As far as nearest relative, I believe I have the stronger claim of ownership."

Willamina blinked, slowly, like a great cat assessing an opponent before a charge.

"I would like to donate these to the Firelands Museum.  They are part of the Black Agent's legacy."

"That would be most fitting," Willamina said slowly, rubbing her palms slowly together, her elbows still firmly on the table.

"The museum used to be her home."

Willamina smiled, just a little, at the surprise in Mrs. Llewellyn's expression.

It was her turn to take satisfaction in surprising someone.

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172. THE ONE THAT GIVES ME NIGHTMARES

Willamina led from the front.

When she led the Valkyries in stretches, or kicks, when she showed them how to defend against a blade or a gun, she showed them, then she had them practice it dead slow, with her circulating through their ranks, doing quite a bit of individualized teaching, then she stood in front of their ranks with a trusted adjutant and declared "With me," and -- again -- whether it was kicks, throws, blocks, chops, whether it was seizing a ballpoint pen and using it as a pressure weapon, whether she took a sharpened #2 lead pencil like a punch dagger sticking out her clenched fist -- whatever she showed them, whatever she had them do, she did it with them.

She stretched with them, she punished the heavy bags with them, she laughed and sipped water and slouched against blanket covered hay bales with them, and when they relaxed and talked, she did too.

One of them asked her, "Sheriff, weren't you a paramedic?" and Willamina took a long pull on her bottle of chilled water and nodded.

"Yes I was," she said, "I built on my experience as a medic, a firefighter and a deputy town marshal to go into nursing school."

"You were a nurse?" another voice asked, surprised, and Willamina laughed and nodded.

"I still am.  I'll give you some advice, though -- I had a hell of a lot more fun as a medic than I did as a nurse!"

Looks were exchanged, curious heads tilted a little to the side, and Willamina explained, "As a medic I had a broad and generous protocol.  Our orders were, 'Go to the situation and handle it.'  Improvise, overcome and adapt was a way of life."  She took another sip of water, swallowed.  

"As a nurse, I had to take my hat in my hand and say to the doctor, 'Mother May I' just to give an aspirin or a Band-Aid.  No," she said firmly, shaking her head, "given my druthers, I'd druther be a medic!"

"But you're still a nurse?"
"Oh, yah.  I let the medic license lapse but I keep up the nursing license."  She smiled, stretched, twisted, bringing a few muffled pops from her lower back.  "It makes a good parachute."

"Wow," one of the cheerleaders blurted, then:  "What's the worst thing you ever saw?"

Willamina's eyebrows raised a little and she looked very directly at her questioner.

"You really want to know."

The cheerleader nodded.

Willamina grabbed a hay bale, drug it out away from the wall, pulled another two out, then one more:  snapping a saddle blanket free of chaff, she draped it over one of the bales, dropped her bony backside on the blanket.

"I have a very bad habit," she declared, pitching her voice to carry to the rearmost rank:  "if you ask me a question, I'll give you the honest answer, even if it's not what you want to hear!"

The Valkyries grabbed blankets, shook them free, draped and sat; a few more bales were pulled out, the ladies ranked before her, some curious, some uncomfortable, but all listening.

"This was back in Athens County," Willamina began, "back in Ohio, the old SEOEMS system" -- she pronounced it "seems" -- "a seven county regional dispatched out of Gallipolis.  We were the prototype.  Federally funded.  We proved paramedics could perform advanced therapies under protocol, we proved the usefulness of VHF/UHF radios with repeaters, we used field EKG transmitted by radio repeaters in the squad and on ridgetops, and we made it work and work well."  She smiled, looking down, then back up.

"It was of an evening when the tones dropped.  They used a numbered code-and-signal system, I suppose they thought it was a good idea to put out signal this or code that because everyone had a scanner.  The codes boiled down to animal bite, laceration, bleeding, pediatric."

Her voice tightened a little as she added, "For a regular run we'd haul it, but for a pediatric, we'd leeeean on it that much more."

Willamina looked over the cheerleaders.

They were all paying her very close attention.

"The directions in the hill country are often interesting.  One set we got was 'Take Thirteen north to 78, turn right. Go to the Dock 2 turnoff, turn left.  Go to the oak tree with all the tin signs on it and turn left, go to the dead dog in the middle of the road and turn right, third pink cottage on the left, down over the bank."  She laughed a little.  "That was an actual set of directions, by the way.  Good directions.  Paperboy saw a man go down, he'd gotten his CPR card the day before, he started CPR.  Field save."

Willamina leaned back a little, twisted her back again, frowned, continued.

"The directions were good and we got there.  Upon arrival we saw a little girl in a sundress bouncing around the yard, chasing a butterfly, a big furry good of a hound dog bumbling along behind her, dear old Dad had a shotgun across his arm and he shook his head when he saw us and went inside, and Mama came up to us, wringing her hands in her apron, just cryin' ... she said she tried to call us off and I said, 'We're here, what happened?'

"Mothers can hear their child cry out in the middle of a working boiler factory.

"She was doing dishes and she heard her little girl and she looked up.

"The dog was standing over her and she blurted out a fear as if it were a fact -- 'The dog just bit my little girl!' -- her husband said 'No dog gonna bite my little girl,' chunk chunk and out he went with a shotgun.

"The dog had the good sense to hide.

"The little girl was chasing butterflies and fell and skinned her knee.  That's all it was.  We put a Band-Aid on her knee and to a child, a Band-Aid can cure a rainy day, she was happy, the dog thought we were wonderful, we drove back to station, mission accomplished.

"Now."  She raised a teaching finger.  "What makes this the run that haunts my dreams?"

The cheerleaders looked at her, looked at one another, lost.

Willamina smiled -- that rare, genuine smile people seldom saw.

"You see, I'd put a cake in the oven just as the tones dropped, and by the time we got back, station was full of smoke and that cake was a cinder about  half inch thick!"  She raised her chin and raised her voice and declared, "THAT gives me nightmares to this day!"

She laughed as empty water bottles sailed through the air toward her.

She'd known they wanted a tale of blood and guts all over the bobwarr fence and she wasn't going to give it to them, so she baited them along and yanked the rug out from under them, and a few empty plastic bottles tossed her way was a small price to pay for a good laugh!

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  • 3 weeks later...

173. AND A CHILD SPEAKETH

The kitchen table had been cleared off.

Salt and pepper, sugarbowl and napkin holder, all were over on the sink, the tablecloth removed, folded and placed on a chair.

Newspaper overlay the tabletop, four layers thick:  one of these layers was the obituary section, and when the boy spreading the newspaper saw it, he stopped, and he took a long breath, and then he lay a fifth layer over this.

The kettle was heating on the stove; Aunt Mary's dishtowel hung on the oven handle the way it always did, and the boy continued laying out what he would need.

Cleaning patches and cleaning rod, oil and GI bore cleaner, screwdrivers, a small nylon mallet; he lay the Garand on the table and began to work.

His hands knew the work.

Uncle Will showed him how, years ago, and he'd had this particular rifle torn down any number of times, just like he was tearing it down today, and as he worked, he remembered the stories he'd been told.

He smiled a little, for today he added one of his own.

 

Funerals are hard for anyone.

Uncle Pete was an old man, skinny and withered and ready to leave this world: Aunt Mary was long dead from cancer and Pete was never the same after her death, matter of fact he had a stroke and was an invalid for many of the years the boy was growing.

He knew Uncle Pete was a veteran -- Korea, he thought -- he knew Uncle Pete favored the Garand over the '14 that lived beside it in his gun case, and so when the boy was asked to house-sit through the funeral, he was at first profoundly disappointed, and then when his pale eyed Mama quietly explained that criminals and thieves often watch the obituaries, and they tend to raid the house of the deceased because everyone will be at the funeral -- well, with that explanation, you could not have pried the boy away from the place with a team of horses and two sticks of dynamite.

He'd waited until his Mama drove off, then he went to the gun case and looked at Uncle Pete's collection.

He did not hesitate.

He withdrew the binoculars he'd used many times, hung them around his neck, looked back at the selection of blued steel and walnut, and smiled, just a little.

He reached for Uncle Pete's Garand.

He'd drawn the bolt back, a little, enough to ensure the chamber was empty, that cartridge brass slept below the closed bolt:  he hauled the bolt back, locked it, satisfied himself there was a full clip ready to go, then he heeled the op-rod and let the action run shut, ran a shining brass round into the chamber.

He pulled the safety back, adjusted the sling, hesitated as he looked at the machined steel action.

Uncle Pete's short strip of typewritten paper was still taped behind the rear sight, so many clicks at so many yards: this rifle, he knew, had taken the thousand yard trophy at Camp Perry -- twice! -- and he remembered how proud Uncle Will was when he told about Uncle Pete competing.

The boy turned out the lights, slipped out the side door, turned the key in the lock:  he slung the Garand across his back, looked around at the steel plates set at different yardages.

He reached up to his shirt pocket, pinched the round tin in the buttoned-down pocket:  his ear plugs were there, and he had another en bloc clip in each hip pocket.

He looked around, walked slowly around the house, looking, listening.

This had always been Uncle Pete's place, Uncle Pete of legend, Uncle Pete who took in his Mama when she left Ohio and came out bold as brass and brought her suitcase, Uncle Pete who worked on his ratty old Dodge truck and the shining red Farmall tractor and the boy's Mama right beside him, handing him wrenches, reaching into the tight places the old man's strong and blunt hands couldn't fit, and he remembered his Mama telling about sitting beside Uncle Pete on the porch swing, watching the setting sun paint the mountains scarlet.

The house and the ranch were older than Firelands itself.

They'd belonged to a horse breeder named Macneil, a remarkable man in his own right; his Uncle Will and Aunt Crystal lived there, until Crystal went insane -- the boy didn't know exactly what happened, just that she became suddenly violent and hateful and there at the last had to be institutionalized, and finally died, screaming and wild-eyed, impervious to the injections the doctors tried to get into her veins.

Uncle Will had by then moved into town -- he was chief of police and found it handier to take an apartment, and the boy recalled Uncle Will telling his pale eyed Mama that the house was more like a mausoleum now -- but he'd moved back, and good memories there were.

The boy's mental musings ended and he faded back half behind a bush, watching:  he slipped the earplugs out of his shirt pocket, spit on them, thrust one into his left ear, sank to the ground.

A pickup truck was coming slowly down the highway, then turned into the driveway and stopped.

The Garand came easily off his back and he proned out, pulling off his Stetson and laying it down beside the Garand's fore end:  elbows on the ground, glass to his eyes, he watched the truck come slowly up the driveway and stop again.

Driver and passenger got out, looking, very obviously casing the place.

He thumbed a few buttons, spoke to the dispatcher in a quiet voice, read the license plate, gave make, model and color, then hung up and laid the phone down, screwed the other earplug into his right ear.

The rifle was heavy and steady in his young hands as he slipped the sling into place:  he sighed out a breath, pushed off the safety, gauged the distance to the steel plate nearest their truck.

He'd fired Uncle Pete's rifle hundreds of times in the past.

He knew the trigger, he knew the recoil; 150 grains of copper jacketed spitzer split the Colorado air and drove into the heavy steel plate.

He had a good position, he was wearing earth colors, he was close to the ground in a little bit of a swale, with the bush to break his visual signature: the empty kicked out under the bush and he watched the pair get back into the truck, watched as they backed fast, tires burning on gravel; he watched as they swung onto the blacktop, as they left several miles' worth of tire tread smoking on the pavement.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller came through Uncle Pete's front door as she always did, came in like she owned the place.

She smelled GI bore cleaner and Hoppe's, she smelled gun oil and hot water:  Richard, her husband, followed.

The boy rose:  he was all of twelve years old, lean, tall, as pale eyed as his Mama, as quiet as his Pa.

Willamina tilted her head a little and looked at her son, at the kitchen table, a fresh tablecloth spread; she saw the paper sack, top folded down an inch to hold it open, and used cleaning patches in the sack, and finally she looked at her son.

"Report."

"You were right, ma'am."  His chin lifted a little.  "The Philistines arrived, but I addressed them in a language they understood."

"Oh?"  Willamina smiled, just a little.

"Yes, ma'am.  It seems that my having target practice made them ... uncomfortable."

"Target practice."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied with a straight face.  "Uncle Will set steel plates here, there and yonder, and I bounced a .30-06 off one."

Willamina nodded, smiled a little.  "They caught  'em, thanks to your report."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Once they were separated and interrogated, each one ratted the other one out, so we have them both on conspiracy and a few other charges."

"Yes, ma'am."

Willamina drew out one of the kitchen chairs and sat gracefully, smoothing her mourning-black skirt under her before settling:  not until wife and mother was seated, did father and son sit as well.

Willamina smiled at them, folded her hands in her lap.

"My brother is moving back out here."

Her son nodded, solemn-faced, though his mother could see he was pleased.

Willamina tilted her head a little and her husband saw he smile, just a little.

"You'll remember I've told you about Brother Beymer."

Her son blinked, his eyes shifted a little, then he looked back up at her.  "Yes, ma'am, he was your partner back East."

She nodded.  "His father died and it kind of hurt my feelin's when he asked me to house sit -- just like I asked you to house sit here today."

"Yes, ma'am."

"His cousin and I were inside and we heard a car stop out front.

"His cousin was a city boy -- I think from Akron -- he saw me pick up a double twelve-bore and he asked if he should call the Sheriff."
Her son's left eyebrow raised a little, as did her husband's.

"I told him don't bother, I've got it covered.

"I looked out the front door glass.  It had a frosted pattern on it, very similar to the frosted glass flowers on the front doors of the Silver Jewel."

"Yes, ma'am."

"It was dark inside but daylight out and they could not see through the glass, but I could see them, and they were very obviously casing the joint."

Her son nodded, once, his move tightly controlled, his face still solemn.

"I stepped out on the front porch with the double gun across my elbow.  I never said a word, I didn't point the gun, I just stepped out the door and stood there with a double barrel shotgun in the bend of my elbow, and they burned off several miles' worth of tire tread on the chip-and-seal getting out of there."

" 'The guilty flee where no man pursueth,' " her husband quoted with an appreciative grin.

Willamina smiled, that quick, dazzling smile of hers.

"You could say that."

The front door opened and Chief of Police Will Keller stepped across the threshold, a bulky sack in each hand.

"I smell gun oil," he declared, "and I brought supper.  Fill me in."

 

 

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174.  HE QUIT

Chief of Police Will Keller sat down at his kitchen table.

It felt good to get back into the house after living in an apartment.

His twin sister had supper ready, kind of a welcome back home.

She set meatloaf and gravy, green beans and whipped potatoes and salad on the table, set the blue cheese dressing next to his knuckles, then she planted her own knuckles on the tablecloth and leaned over and glared at him.

"Out with it, little brother," she said quietly.  "Something happened."

Will looked at his sister, raised his hand, laid it gently on hers.

"I think my new hire just set the land speed record gettin' the hell out of Dodge."

Willamina's left eyebrow tented up a little and her head tilted ever so slightly to the side, and Will knew he had her by the curiosity.

"And if you don't sit yourself down, your husband will stay standing all night long and I won't get a bite eaten."

Willamina squeezed her eyes tight shut, dropped her head, trying with absolutely no success to hide her laughter -- she was quick to smile and quick to laugh, in private, away from the office, away from the public eye -- and she stood up, settled into a chair and picked up the serving spoon.

"Hand me your plate and start talking, little brother."

Richard held his peace:  he sat slowly, almost carefully:  high school football, a lifetime of martial arts and some close encounters of unpleasant kinds in his own law enforcement career meant his advancing age guaranteed his ability to forecast approaching rain:  as a side effect, he sat slowly and rose slowly.

He listened as carefully as sis sister as the pale eyed Chief of Police spoke.

"You recall my new hire."

"I recall."

"He sized up just fine, background check was clear, he had experience."

"I remember you saying."

"His first day on the job was today."

Willamina's eyebrow rose again, just a little.

"He clocked in at six this morning and he quit at six-twenty-five."

Willamina's eyebrows both rose this time, and she gave her twin brother the full benefit of her wide open eyes.

"What," she asked, her voice very direct, "happened?"

Chief of Police Will Keller accepted his plate back, set it down:  he picked up the salt shaker, turned it slowly in blunt, strong fingers, staring at it as if fascinated with the way light refracted from its faceted glass surface.

"He'd made a traffic stop on the east side of town," Will said slowly, turning the salt shaker, watching the white crystals cascade inside as he rolled it slowly:  "and he was bent over a little, receiving the motorist's driver's license."

Richard accepted his own plate, placed it silently on the table before him:  gravy steam rose and caressed his nostrils, but he did not so much as reach for his fork:  he frowned a little, listening closely to the police chief's account.

"A car went past with a ..."

Will frowned a little, considered.

"I think I know which car it probably was.  There aren't many cars on the road with a chrome trim strip running down the side anymore ... anyway, this strip was sticking out just enough, and the passing motorist was just a skosh too close, and the tip of that trim strip caught my new hire just under the hip pockets and caught the material just right."

Willamina's eyes went from artificially-wide to oh-no-how-bad wide:  Richard planted his elbows on either side of his plate, interlaced his fingers, rested his upper lip on his index finger, his frown deepening as he imagined the moment.

"He lost the seat of his trousers and I have no idea how, but he didn't go down.  As a matter of fact, he wobbled a little and then he handed Mrs. Burnett back her license and said 'Drive safe now, ma'am,' and he walked back to the cruiser, drove back to station, walked in and hand wrote his resignation."

"Dear God," Willamina whispered.  "How badly was he hurt?"

"Hurt?"  Will set the unused salt shaker down, snorted.  "Ruined his trousers, never snagged his under drawers and didn't touch flesh!"

He picked up his fork, considered his plate, and said almost to himself, "First hour of his first day on the job and he loses his drawers."

Will shook his head.

"He should have set in on a poker game or bought himself a lottery ticket!"

 

 

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175. MY MONSTERS

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller rubbed her forehead, then gave up and rubbed her face.

She stood, stretched, walked around her desk, gripped the inside doorknob of her inner office.

Her bottom jaw slid out just a little and then she turned the knob, pushed the door open.

She walked the few steps to the conference room.

She recognized the football player, one of Willamina's Warriors:  he rose as she entered, and she smiled, just a little, stopped, and looked very directly at him.

"It is a pleasure," she said, "to see there is still a gentleman in this world."

The young man's ears turned a little red and he said in a surprisingly gentle voice, "Yes, ma'am," and then added, "My Mama would beat me if I did not have proper manners."

Willamina turned as the door opened again:  a man and wife came in, looked at the boy, looked at the Sheriff, who raised a forestalling hand.

"Mr. Hall," she said, "Mrs. Hall.  Let me tell you first that your son is a gentleman, and he could have learned that from only one teacher."

She looked very directly at the young man's father and said, "Thank you for that."

This was very obviously not what this young man's parents were expecting to hear.

Coffee and doughnuts arrived not long after; almost immediately following was one of their detectives:  "Sheriff, we have surveillance from the store. You'll want to see it."

She nodded; the detective withdrew, closed the door quietly behind him.

Willamina picked up a remote, pressed a button:  she turned, looked at the video cameras, one was in plain sight and the others were hidden:  the red telltales assured her they were recording, and she'd checked the sound system a few minutes before, ensuring the system was working.

"First of all," she said, "we all know one another.  I'm the Sheriff, Mr. and Mrs. Hall, you've been known to me since I was a cheerleader, and your son Mike" -- she nodded toward the young man sitting beside his parents -- "went to school with my youngest.

"We are investigating what happened at the gas station today.  I have to read you from the card" -- she produced a small card as if by magic, peered at it, frowned, fished a pair of reading glasses from an inside pocket -- "Decrepit old age," she apologized -- then read the Miranda warning.

"And last on the list, Mike, you are not under arrest, though I don't doubt the fellow you took down will very likely try to press charges -- that's why I had the surveillance secured and I wanted to get your testimony while it was still fresh in your mind."

"Were there others in the store?"  Mr. Hall interrupted, and the Sheriff tilted a finger at him with an appreciative nod.

"There were. My deputies are in the process of finding them to secure their statements."

"Do you want a lawyer, son?"  Mr. Hall asked, and Mike shook his head decisively.

"No, sir.  What I did was right."

"Very well.  Sheriff, you may proceed."

Willamina knew she could proceed with or without his let-be, but acknowledged him with a tilt of her head, then looked at the young man who'd run with his football squad, run with the Sheriff pacing them in full battle gear.

"Tell us what happened."

 

"I'll need your ID for tobacco," the clerk said, and the restless kid on the other side of the counter snapped, "I've got it here before, lady!"

Another clerk came up beside the first:  "I'm sorry, it's policy.  We have to see your ID before we can sell you tobacco products."

Mike Hall was back a little from the customer, but when he raised his voice, Mike eased forward on the balls of his feet, his gut warning of trouble.

He was right.

"DAMN YOU, I'LL EMPTY MY CLIP INTO YOU AND THE CAR YOU DROVE IN THE PARKING LOT!" the troublemaker shouted, thrusting an accusing finger and grabbing at his waistband.

Mike stepped across and ran his arm around the kid's throat, pulled hard, throwing him over his leg:  he bore the kid to the floor, hard, knowing the move would surprise and unbalance:  he grabbed the kid by the throat, banged his head against the floor, hard, kept his hand there and drove his knee into the kid's gut.

"Stay down, boy," he hissed:  he lifted neither his hand nor his knee until the Sheriff's deputy arrived: the gas station/convenient store was just out of the corp limits, and a deputy was less than a minute away when the second clerk hit the alarm.

 

"When he said he was going to empty his clip into her," Mike said, his voice quiet, steady, "I moved.

"I saw him grab at his waist and I wasn't going to let him kill her so I threw him over my leg and took him to the floor."

Willamina nodded slowly, blinking thoughtfully.

"Did you see a weapon?"

"No, ma'am.  I heard him say he was going to empty his clip into her and that's when I moved."

"So you perceived a deadly threat."

Mike considered for a long moment.

"I ... perceived ... a threat, yes, ma'am."

"He's got a record," she said.  "Did he say anything after that?"

Mike frowned, thought for a long moment.

"No.  No ma'am, I don't think he did."

"You understand I will be reviewing the surveillance video."

"I am counting on it, ma'am."

Willamina allowed herself a very slight smile, reached for her coffee.

"I," she said, "am in the mood for a doughnut."

 

That night, at home, Richard massaged her shoulders at the kitchen table, watching her reflection in the black glass mirror of the nighttime window, seeing his wife's eyes closed with pleasure, listening to her purr as he worked the stiffness out of her muscles, her neck.

"I'll give you a week to stop that," she groaned.  "Richard, you know just what I need."

"You had a day of it today, I understand."
"Mmm.  Caught a juvenile with a warrant after he threatened to shoot up the Convenient."

Richard shook his head.  "God help us and this modern world," he muttered.

"Sometimes," Willamina admitted, "sometimes I wish I lived back when Old Pale Eyes was the law.  It was simpler then."

Richard looked at the framed print on the wall, the one with a pale eyed woman wearing an elaborate gown, her hair in a complex coiffure, standing with her hand on the back of a chair:  the man in the chair had his fire helmet formally in the bend of his arm, sat stiffly, looking very directly at the camera:  the man was in the bib front shirt and knee high boots of the Firelands fire department.

He looked at the woman in the print, a woman with pale eyes who'd married the fireman, then he looked at his wife, reflected in the nighttime mirror, and he considered that perhaps she had lived in that era, for the two images looked enough alike to be twins.

"You know, Richard," Willamina said, her eyes still closed, "between cheerleaders shooting steel plates in competition and football players who've gone into the Marines and become very effective warriors, I may have created a generation of monsters."

"Monsters?"  Richard echoed softly, smiling a little, his hands still busy, strong, gentle on the base of her neck.

"My monsters," Willamina said affectionately.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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  • 5 weeks later...

176. GRANDDAD'S GHOST

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller was no stranger to the front seat of a Sheriff's cruiser.

When administrative duties didn't demand of her time, she was not infrequently on the road, answering calls as if she were one of her road deputies.

One particular night she stopped in at the all-night gas and convenient station, and as she drizzled milk into her coffee, she raised an eyebrow and smiled at the night clerk.

"Something's on your mind."

The clerk bit her bottom lip, nodded, then raised the divider and stepped out from behind the counter, frowning:  she crossed her arms, thinking hard, and then asked, "Sheriff, do you believe in ghosts?"

Sheriff Willamina Keller tilted her head a little, then asked quietly, "What happened?"

The night clerk frowned again and looked away, raised a hesitant knuckle to her lips as if debating whether to bite herself or not.

The Sheriff sipped her coffee, waited.

"You know urban legends," the clerk said faintly, "how there's almost always something behind them."

The Sheriff nodded.  "I've heard of such," she agreed noncommittally.

"I was listening ... it was an old country song about a pale little girl someone picked up alongside the road, and she asked them to please take her home."
The Sheriff nodded, eyes busy, looking around:  they were the only two in the store at this late hour, and the Sheriff looked back.

"Go on."

"Well, the, ah, the little girl was maybe about eight or so and she was deathly pale and she ... the song said she gave an address, and the man drove her home and she wasn't there. Turns out she was killed thirteen years before, and he was the thirteenth to bring her home."
"Mm-hmm," the Sheriff hummed, sipped her coffee.  

"There has to be something behind it," the clerk said uncertainly, and the Sheriff leaned back against the stainless-steel countertop, considered.

"Let me tell you about my ghost story."

The clerk's eyes widened.

 

Willamina wore jeans and boots to the Sing.

It was a good old fashioned Welsh sing, and she'd gone with her good friend Bob Beymer and his mother, and they'd gone over to Adamsville to the Reid farm: the Reid twins went to college with Bob, and they were Welshmen with the glorious voices that only Welshmen share.

They'd gone over a few days after Bob buried his father.

His father and grandfather died within a week of each other, and under the law, each was considered to have preceded the other in death -- a quirk of Ohio law, apparently -- and after this double loss, it didn't take much effort for Willamina to convince them that yes, they needed a night out, and yes, they should accept Bill and Bob Reid's invitation, and so they went over to Adamsville and spent the evening with good and trusted friends and their family.

Willamina enjoyed the evening: she and Bob were blessed with perfect pitch, and Bob's mother Eleanor was blessed with a tin ear; her efforts were less than harmonious, perhaps, but none minded:  the three of them smiled all the way home, and none spoke, for all remembered the glorious harmonies of many voices, united.

"Once we got back to Bob and Eleanor's place," the Sheriff said quietly, "I hugged them goodbye like I always did, and I got in my car and backed out of their driveway.

"I backed into the township road and pulled the shifter into gear, and as I always did, I looked back across the yard one last time.

"Bob and Eleanor were walking up the sidewalk to their house, and Granddad Beymer was sitting on his Deacon's bench, his hands overlapping his cane, he was wearing his favorite worn out broke brim hat, and his bottom lip was hanging down the way it always did.

"I remember thinking how nice it was that Granddad waited up for them the way he always did, and then I nailed the brakes and looked back.

"We'd buried Granddad just over a week before.

"I looked back, and the Deacon's bench was empty."

The clerk's eyes were big and the Sheriff sipped her coffee again.

"I have no idea about little Mary, but I do know I saw Granddad Beymer's ghost."

 

 

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177.  SHE WAS RIGHT

Mary Jo Thrapp stared sightlessly at the big screen TV in the squad room.

She was Duty Medic for this 24 hour shift; she was senior, a veteran firefighter- paramedic, she was experienced and she was competent and she was confident and as she watched the news reports, she was the color of wheat paste, her fingers tightly interlaced and clenched.

A man's footsteps approached; she felt someone's body heat as a man sized body sat beside her, planted his elbows on the table just as hers were.

"Dear God," the voice whispered. 

Mary Jo made no reply; she stared, wide eyed, unblinking.

"Storm Surge of how much?"

Mary Jo blinked, blinked again: it was as if she came up for air as she puzzled her brows together and said, "I'm sorry, what?"

The fire captain gestured toward the tube.  "Hurricane," he clarified.  "How much storm surge?"

Mary Jo swallowed, lowered her forehead onto her interlaced fingers, and shivered.

 

Sunday Creek was well out of bank.

Two storm fronts collided, pushed against one another; the net effect was the same as two high-altitude conveyor belts, end-to-end, dumping rain in monsoon volumes onto the countryside below.

Mary Jo was junior medic on a two-man crew; their paid professional service relied heavily on those paramedics local to the area, those with an intimate knowledge of the ridge roads, the old stagecoach roads, laid out two centuries before, running the back bone of the ridges to avoid flood prone, low lying areas.

They'd run lights-and-siren, or rather just lights, as no one else was on the gravel back roads:  natives had sense enough to laager in and wait for the storm to abate, before traveling.

They'd been called to back up the local fire department, called out for a rescue, a car with people inside, washed off the roadway when the driver attempted to drive through the fast moving floodwater surging across the blacktop.

Mary Jo reached for the two-tone Motorola microphone and marked Dispatch: "Three-one signal three, out of vehicle," and hung up the mike while she reached for the door handle.

She saw the car.

It was bobbing a little and she saw something at a window.

Her partner was punching buttons on the radio -- the fire department was on the opposite side of the flood, running downstream with a ladder, with a coil of rope -- Mary Jo turned back to the rig, climbed up on the running board, reached above her passenger seat and opened a black steel box bolted to the bulkhead, pulled out a set of binoculars.

She turned, raised the glass, found the focusing knob.

"Oh God, no," she whispered, staring, frozen.

Mary Jo jumped a little as a warm, strong hand rested on her shoulder, bringing her suddenly back to the Firelands firehouse.

"Ghosts?" her father asked in his quiet, reassuring voice.

She nodded, rubbed her forehead with the back of one hand.

"Trigger?"
She nodded again, took a long breath.

"They showed ... the simulation showed two feet of water coming up around the announcer and ... two feet of water can wash away a car ..."

She turned and seized her big strong Daddy, buried her face in his shoulder.

Captain Thrapp wasn't entirely sure what she was remembering, but he did know it didn't matter:  his little girl needed her Daddy, and he put his arms around her, holding her as she whispered hoarsely, "I couldn't help."

 

Mary Jo stared, her stomach tightening, as a little girl beat her hands against the rolled up window, her mouth working, her face scared:  for a moment, for one mad moment, Mary Jo considered tossing the binoculars over her shoulder and sprinting into the brown, surging floodwaters, thinking to stroke strongly and powerfully downstream, with the current, swimming to the rescue --

Locked doors and no glass breaker, she thought, how can I hold onto the car when I get there? -- and then the car lurched, turned slowly, floated out into mid stream and out of sight.

The car was recovered a day later, and the bodies in the car were identified.

Mary Jo remembered, and she held onto her Daddy, and she was finally able to tell him the terrible memory of how she could not help, and he nodded, for he had the same memories.

He'd spoken of this very thing with the pale eyed Sheriff, when the two of them sat at this same table, drinking coffee and talking in quiet voices of the ghosts they both carried.

"It doesn't matter if the fire was through the roof before we were called," Captain Thrapp admitted.  "We lost that house."

The Sheriff nodded.

"Bodies were found on overhaul and the coroner told us they were dead before the alarm came in, but we still said we lost those kids."

Sheriff Willamina Keller nodded again.

"I remember a flood, years ago," she said in a quiet voice.  "Our fire apparatus were on one side of the flooded roadway and the squad was on the other.  The car was washed downstream and we tried to get to them ... we took a ladder and a coil of rope and it washed downstream before we could make rescue."

She'd closed her eyes and bowed her head over her steaming mug of liquid ambition.

"There was an entire family in that car. An entirely family, drowned."

She'd taken a sip of coffee, staring a hole in the opposite wall.

"There was a medic on the far bank, watching through binoculars.  I remember when she lowered her binoculars ... she had ... she looked so very lost."

Sheriff Willamina Keller took a long breath.

"I knew exactly how she felt."

She smiled a little crookedly.

"I was reading about an ancestor. She'd observed that we can't save 'em all, and she's right."

 

 

 

 

 

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178.  THE TURKEY KILLING DENTIST

Sheriff Willamina Keller ran her eyes slowly down the old double gun.

She had one much like it; this one had cloth, plugging the muzzles, and as she drew the flannel plugs from the front end, the farmer's son saw her frown a little and hesitate.

The Sheriff pulled the ramrod free, ran it down one barrel, then the other, laid the ramrod along the top of the plain, lightly rusted rib, nodded.

"She's still loaded," she murmured.  "Have you tried firing it?"

"No, ma'am," the farmer's boy admitted.  "I just found it this morning and when I saw you I thought you'd like to see it."

"I'm always interested in history," Willamina murmured, "and if I could only get this old-timer to talk!"

"Yes, ma'am," the boy replied uncertainly.

Willamina eased one hammer back a little, then the other, nodded.

"She's still capped."

"Is that good?"

"It means it could probably go bang."

"You gonna shoot it?" the boy asked hopefully, and Willamina laughed, shook her head.

"No," she said finally.  "No, I don't think so ..."
Her voice trailed off and her eyes swung toward the barn, toward the pens beside.

"Your granddad raised turkeys, didn't he?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Did he ever tell you about an airplane?"

The boy considered for a long moment, then shook his head.

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked over to her right, saw a cut foundation stone sitting by itself where it used to hold up a building of some kind.
Have a seat," she said, walking over to the smooth top rock.  "Let me tell you something about your grandfather."

 

Willamina Keller came to Firelands to stay when she was sixteen.

She walked up to her Uncle, bold as brass, and said "I'm Willamina.  I'm your niece and I need your help."

She'd been taken in as if she were his daughter; she'd been to Colorado once, and once only, when she was much younger -- her lush of a mother wanted to beg money from family, and when Uncle Pete saw through her motive, Willamina had been yanked out the door by her wrist and almost thrown into the car for the trip home.

She'd come back out when she could no longer tolerate living with her drunk of a mother; she became part of Pete and Mary's family, and she'd inherited not just family ... she inherited family history.

Willamina became Uncle Pete's right hand man, so to speak: her summers were spent in the seat of a Massey-Ferguson tractor, or elbow deep in a disassembled engine, she'd run the baler and she'd thrown bales and she'd delighted in the green strength of youth, she'd gained the respect of neighbor boys who came over to help with the hay:  when a sixteen year old girl can throw, bale for bale, with a native Colorado farm boy, she becomes someone who is treated with respect, over and above the native respect inculcated into rural youth.

At night she helped with dishes, with housework, with sewing:  she and Aunt Mary sat and sewed and talked quietly, or, rather, Willamina got Mary to talk, and she listened closely, just as she listened closely as Uncle Pete detail stripped his Garand and cleaned each part with the ease and thoroughness of a very experienced professional.

He would not talk of his time in Korea, save only to say it was damned cold, and that the tough little South Koreans he fought beside were good men and true who delighted in acquiring US GI equipment -- "they never stole one damned thing," Pete was quick to clarify, "but if we discarded something, it got snatched up and either reworked or repaired and it was always reused for something!

They rode together, uncle and niece, two natural equestrians: Willamina seldom used her reins, or rather she seldom tensioned her mount's bit: she had a special rapport with her Uncle's saddle stock, and many's the time he saw her standing in the field, three or four horses clustered around her, and he knew she would be almost whispering to them, caressing their jaws, telling them who-knows-what, and probably they were telling her things too.

He'd heard legends, when he was well younger than she, legends passed down from native shamans, legends of those with a Gift, who could hear horses when they spoke, and he suspected she might be one such.

One afternoon, as they were in almost the most distant corner of her Uncle's property, they both stopped, shaded their eyes and looked up at what her Uncle called a Beech Staggerwing.

Willamina did not know what a Staggerwing was, but she did know the pilot liked to fly, and they watched as the craft did a few quick aerobatics -- "they're not supposed to do that," her Uncle explained, "but the pilot flew fighter, and he likes to cut the rug every now and again."

He looked at her and she saw that knowing look, and she knew he had a story chambered and ready to fire, so she stepped her mare closer to her Uncle and tilted her head a little, clearly listening closely.

"We used to have a dentist," Uncle Pete explained, "named KB Jackson.  Never knew what the KB stood for.  He had a two-winger" -- he thrust his chin toward the notch between the mountain peaks where the Staggerwing disappeared minutes before -- "and the man liked to fly closer to the ground than this fella we just saw.

"Well, down the road a piece, Old Man Jackson raised turkeys.

"When KB came flyin' over low like he did, them turkeys would see somethin' with a short neck and a long tail and they figured 'twas a hawk or an eagle come to tear 'em apart and the whole flock of turkeys would stampede, every last one of 'em.

"They ended up piled in a fence corner so thick, several suffocated.

"Now this old farmer, he allowed as that just wouldn't do, so he went into town and stepped up to the counter at the Farmer's Exchange.

"He allowed as he needed ball bearings like a man would use to rebuild a John Deere tricycle front end, and the fellow behint the counter said sure enough and he had that very size ball bearings in stock and he set 'em on the counter and said "Didn't know you had a Johnny Putt, what size did you get?" and the old turkey farmer said "I don't."

"O-kaaay ... just curious, you gettin' John Deere ball bearings and all."

"They old turkey farmer grinned and allowed as he was goin' to load 'em up in his muzzle loadin' shotgun and when that damned airplane come over ag'in, he was goin' to give it both barrels right through the engine, he was tired of that damned flyin' machine killin' his turkeys!"

"The fellow behind the counter turned kind of pale and said "You wouldn't do that!" and the old turkey farmer said "You're damned right I'm goin' to!" and paid his bill and stomped out.

"I reckon the man behind the counter must've known the dentist, for the next time that airplane come over, 'twas way over along the horizon line and he never, EVER come over that turkey farm again!"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller laughed a little, nodded at the shotgun.

"I'd guess she's still loaded with John Deere ball bearings."  

She tilted her head, a look of mischief in her eyes.

"We can pull the wadding with a corkscrew and find out, if you'd like."

"Can we just shoot it?"

"I'd not recommend it.  It's an old gun and I'd hate to have it blow up in your face."

The farmer's son looked at the Sheriff and he looked at the old gun and he said, "Let's try it!"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller and the farmer's son spent a good half hour scouring the dusty, weathered interior of a scrap Ford coupe with two fresh, ragged shot-driven holes in the driver's door.

Between them they recovered most of a handful of hardened-steel ball bearings.

Next day, after school, Willamina came out with a double barrel, muzzle loading shotgun of her own, and she and the farmer's son practiced the loading, the firing, and finally the cleaning, of the pair of old farmer's guns that were both well older than either of them. 

 

 

 

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179.  "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?"

Saddles looked at the clerk and the girl looked past the off-duty medic and said, "Go," and Saddles did not have to be told twice.

It was her day off and she'd been doing some shopping, but the rising whistle of the squad's electronic siren grabbed her by her ear and pulled her head around.

She turned, pushed the heavy door open, turned and leaned forward into a flat-out sprint:  the squad was going to her left, she ran to her right, ran to her car, slid behind the wheel and twisted her little Popcorn Popper into life.
She looked over her shoulder, looked ahead, turned the wheel, hit the throttle:  she knew it was quite against statute, but she pulled a U-turn right out of the parking spot, pointed her little blue car's nose downhill and mashed the pedal, hard, and for perhaps the seventy thousandth time, she damned the day she let herself be talked into a sensible, economical little car, instead of something with a monsterhorse of an engine under the hood.

She pulled her compact little car into a vacant space behind the firehouse, jumped out, hit the back door:  she bounced off the locked steel portal, turned, punched the combination into the keypad, seized the doorknob and pulled,  hard.

The squad was out, and she'd reported to station for coverage.

"Saddles, that you?"

Murph bent a little, looked under the cabinets, grinning:  "I thought you might be coming!"

"Anything for me?"

"Not yet, darlin', but you know how it goes!"

"Yeah," Mary Jo, laughed.  "If I didn't show up, we'd have two more runs before the squad got back!"

"We've got leftovers," Murph offered.  "Coffee?"

"I would murder for coffee," she groaned, swinging around the end of the counter and running up to the firefighter in the stained white apron:  she gave him a quick hug, accepted the steaming mug, walked very carefully over to the refrigerator.

"Mmm, hot," she hissed after slurping out enough scalding hot Joe to add a little milk.  "That's good!"

"Made that 'specially for you, darlin'," Murph grinned, turning back to his bread dough.  

Mary Jo Thrapp, in blue jeans and saddle shoes, a denim jacket and a contented expression, sank into a chair, planted her elbows on the tabletop and took a slow drink of coffee, her eyes closed and a contented expression coming over her face.

"Frosted last night!"  Murph called cheerfully, his footsteps approaching:  Saddles heard him stop, felt the plate hit the table, opened her eyes.

"Bless you," she sighed and set down her coffee, reaching for her fork.

She jerked her hand back like she'd been scalded.

The house phone rang, shrill, demanding:  Murph strode over, plucked the receiver from the wall phone.  "Firelands Fire Department, Murphy."
He listened for a moment.

"Okay, hold it, hold it, hold it," he said quickly, then turned:  "SADDLES!"

Mary Jo was on her feet and moving:  she reached for the receiver.  "Paramedic Thrapp," she said briskly, her voice hard, professional, then it softened:  "Linda, what happened?"

She nodded once, then again, her eyes distant:  Murph strode across the vacant bay, seized the big orange box, brought it back, set it on the table:  Saddles turned, nodded once and seized the handle.

"Talkie," she said as Murph pulled a slim, watt-and-a-half Motorola from his hip pocket.

"The half-wit, great," she muttered, and Murph blinked innocently:  "The five-watt's like shovin' a brick in me pocket!" he protested.

Saddles turned, strode for the back door.

"Whattaya got, Saddles?" Murph called.

"Diabetic!" she threw back over her shoulder as she shoved out the back door.

Saddles yanked viciously at her back door, planted the box on the back set and slammed the door -- cheap tinny son of a Bessemer blast furnace, she thought profanely, then yanked open the driver's door, slid in behind the wheel, twisted the key like she wanted to twist the column ignition out of its socket.

Saddles looked over her shoulder, backed out, pulled the chrome T-handled shifter into gear, stomped the throttle.

"RUN, YOU GUTLESS WONDER!" she screamed at the steering wheel, and the little four cylinder cheapmobile accelerated down the alley, turned to parallel the railroad tracks.

"Firelands Dispatch, Firelands medic second response enroute, house call," she chanted into the talkie's grille.

"Roger your second response, give location."

Saddles twisted the wheel, accelerated, turned again:  left, then right, another two blocks and left.

"Second response signal three, 107 Washington Street, diabetic," she called, thrusting the talkie into her inside jacket pocket.

"Roger second medic," the dispatcher said from between blanket lining and body-warmed flannel.

Saddles strode up the walk, the big orange box in her left hand:  right hand fisted, she pounded on the front door.

"GRANT!"  she yelled.  "GRANT, YOU IN THERE?"

Saddles set the orange box down, hard, threw the latches, opened the left hand hip roof, pulled out a stethoscope:  tips in her ears, bell against the door, she listened, frowning, then pulled the eartips free, threw the steth around her neck and flipped the lid shut on the box:  dog the latches, snatch up the box and run around back of the house.

Pound on the back door:  "GRANT, THIS IS SADDLES!  OPEN UP!"

She reached into her coat, pulled out the talkie, carefully hit a square pane of glass in the back door:  she knocked the glass out of her way, carefully, ran her arm inside, found the lock:  her fingers read its operation, turned the knob:  she gripped the knob, twisted, pulled, and the back door came open.

"GRANT!" she yelled as she crossed the threshold.  "GRANT, YOU OKAY?"

Mary Jo strode into the still house, looking, casting back and forth like a hound seeking a scent.

She did not have to seek very long.

A man in his twenties, a barefoot man in pajamas, lay on the floor, the phone still off its receiver.

Saddles laid her fingers in the sprawled man's carotid groove, felt life pulsing slow, strong against her touch, picked up the handset.

"Linda?" She smiled a little.  "I'm here, I'll take care of it.  No.  No, I don't need the squad.  The emergency is over when the medic arrives and I am here.  I'll talk to you in a bit."
Saddles rubbed Grant's hand, patted it briskly, called his name.

No response.

He's diabetic, she thought, and he told me he has 30 seconds when he gets up to get some orange juice in him before he goes down.

Linda said she called him.

Interrupted his routine.

Saddles had gone to school with Grant, and she knew him to be a juvenile diabetic:  they discussed his condition with the frankness of old friends, and when she became a medic, she discussed it just as frankly, but with the professional interest of the medic who knows she could get information she'd need from someone very well versed in the condition.

She rose, turned, ran lightly, almost skipping:  into the kitchen, to the refrigerator.

She opened the door, smiled.

Orange juice wouldn't be the right stuff, she thought, but this will work.

He'd drown on orange juice.

She picked up the Karo syrup.

A dip of her little finger into the cold, clear corn syrup, set the bottle back and flip the cap shut:  she skipped back to the unconscious figure, parted his lips, ran her cold-slick little finger along his gums -- left, right, then lower gums, left, right.

She pulled her finger free, wiped her finger on her jeans leg, and Grant took a little deeper breath, opened his eyes, blinked a few times.

"Take your time," Saddles cautioned.  "Not too fast."
Grant, never one to listen to sound advice, sat up and crossed his legs, looking quizzically at his old classmate.

"What in the hell are you doing here?" he asked, honestly puzzled.

Saddles laughed.  "Linda called me and said she was talking to you when you quit talking and she thought you fell."

Grant grunted.  "Yeah, I remember hearing the phone."
Saddles tilted her head, smiled a little.

"I owe your landlord a windowpane," she admitted.  "Can you take it from here?"

"Yeah."

She reached down, squeezed his hand, quickly, let go.

"You take good care," she cautioned.  "You're the only one of you we've got."

Grant watched as she rose and skipped for the open back door like a happy little girl, her twin braids bouncing as she dipped and picked up the big orange medic box:  she pulled the door shut behind her, and a moment later, he heard her little car start.

"Dispatch, second medic returning station, no treat no trans."

"Roger second medic, call for times."

Saddles pulled the cold, chrome T-handle into gear, twisted her heater knob hopefully, thrust curved fingers over her defrosters, sighed.

"Now the damned heater quit," she muttered as she looked over her shoulder, then accelerated into the empty street.

"I gotta get a better car."

 

 

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180.  A LITTLE BUSINESS

Sarah Lynne McKenna smiled ever so slightly as she touched her hair, turning her head a little to the left, a little to the right.

A very proper young lady looked back at her from the mirror, a young lady with just a trace of a line down her face, legacy of a kidnapper's whip who thought to murder a cab driver and take his unsuspecting fares that night, to be robbed, murdered and dumped out of town.

Sarah, of course, objected to the dacoit's plans;  his response to her sharp-voiced admonition was the hard-swung short whip favored by city cabbies, and Sarah's reply was a few .44 pistol balls, starting at his soft ribs and going uphill from there.

The outlaw came out in second place.

A light dusting of powder served to render the light line less than conspicuous. 

Sarah Lynne McKenna paced backwards, away from the mirror, taking a critical look the length of her McKenna gown: she turned a little to the left, a little to the right:  satisfied, her eyes shifted for the stylish little hat that went with her gown, at least until the door to her hotel room was hit by something hard and heavy.

Sarah Lynne McKenna turned -- as would any young woman, startled in what should be the safety of her hotel room -- she was, after all, in one of the best hotels in Denver, and she should be safe:  any young woman would turn, startled; any young woman would raise her hands, startled, to about shoulder height:  some might bring a knuckle to her lips, others might clutch her high stomach: Sarah, instead of turning, with a flare of skirts and then freezing, did not so much dart to her left, as she kind of squirted, as quick and as liquid as milk from a cow's teat, or blood from a severed artery.

The door burst inward and two men swarmed in, one with a short club, the the other with a pistol:  they were casting back and forth like a pair of hounds, grim-faced, looking for their quarry, looking for a slight-built little man all in black that had earned the displeasure of their employer.

Sarah spun around the corner of the doorway, a whirl of skirts and bright smile, at least until she thrust one step toward them and fired one, then the second, barrel of a short shotgun, a murderously short ten-gauge howitzer cut off at the beginning of the stock's comb, and deeply checkered,  the barrels cut just ahead of the checkered-walnut, splinter fore-end: as she spun, she thrust it forward and triggered the first cannon's concussion, driving a cloud of heavy shot into the nearer intruder's belly:  she was close enough that the shot-swarm was open about as big around as a man's hand can span, and the net effect was like being kicked in the gut. 

By a mule.

Her momentum carried her around, her second barrel discharging almost on its own, knocking splinters out of the second intruder's upraised cudgel and then through the second man's chest:  Sarah danced on the balls of her feet, still spinning, safely across the open doorway separating the hotel room's parlor from the more intimate interior room:  she broke open the double gun, daintily plucked the hot brass casings and let them drop, palmed in a pair of shining replacements, closed the double gun and wiped the hammers back with a quick sweep of her thumb.
Then, and only then, did she reappear, gun held close in to prevent a grab; swing left, swing right, and she danced across the intervening space, out into the hallway:  a quick look left and right and the she drew back, checked once more.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, daughter of one of the most successful businesswomen in Firelands County, hesitated, then took a quick, deep breath of the gunsmoke-fouled air:  she tensed her operatically-trained lungs; hearing doors open in the hall, knowing curious heads would be poking out and looking, Sarah Lynne McKenna did what any pretty young woman would do when faced with murderous intruders.

She screamed.

Downstairs, another woman, seated at a table in the dining room, froze as two deep, muffled concussions upstairs shook the floor beneath her shoe-soles:  she'd just started to lift her bone-china teacup to take a delicate sip of carefully-brewed oolong with just a touch of burgamo, her favorite blend:  her violet eyes widened and she felt something like ice shoot through her veins as an instinct -- a mother's instinct -- told her that her child, her daughter, was in danger.

Bonnie Lynne McKenna powered out of her chair, skirt snatched with her left hand, her right hand welded around the smooth walnut handle of a Colt Navy revolver, a gift from a pale eyed old lawman, a revolving-pistol she'd used in years past to defend her little girl when the absolute need charged them, greedy hands grasping and evil eyes gloating:  Bonnie charged the wide, ornate stairs, octagon gunbarrel in the lead and grim determination firing the boiler of her matronly engine:  no man could have crested the double staircase more quickly, and no warrior could have charged with greater determination did this mother tiger, running to the defense of her cub.

The hotel detective was sprinting across the lobby, first at the sound of concussions and a scream, and then at the sight of a running woman with a pistol.

The detective was a man with a bit of weight to him; he was still muscled, but he was not as swift as a lean woman:  he was running in defense of his employer's property, but he was not sprinting with the swiftness of an aroused mother knowing her child was in mortal peril, and when he pounded past curious heads, swung through the open door, he was met with a set of blazing violet eyes and a finger driving into his necktie, punching into his chest, and he ran face first into the full wrath of an incensed mother demanding to know what kind of a hotel he was running and why were these murderers allowed into the hotel and how did they make it upstairs and how could an innocent girl expect to keep her virtue when footpads and mashers broke down doors and threatened mere children with murderous clubs and pistols and JUST WHAT DO YOU INTEND TO DO ABOUT IT, punctuating her sentences with vicious stabs of her finger:  nonplussed, this retired police officer, this veteran of brawls and broken bones, knuckles and knives, found himself utterly at a loss in the face of the righteous wrath of a justly aggrieved mother:  he stumbled backwards across the threshold and the door shut with a SLAM! and shivered back open as the violet-eyed woman, her face wheat-paste-pale save only for bright red spots on her cheeks and her white-around-the lips streak of color, jerked the door open and shouted, "AND GET THESE DEAD BODIES OUT OF HERE!"  SLAM! and the house detective blinked as the door was jerked open again and the woman shoved her head out and screamed "AND FIX THIS DOOR!" -- SLAM!

The house detective stood in the shocked-silent hallway, staring at the damaged portal, wondering just what kind of a hornet-nest he'd just encountered, and then he looked to his right as the manager came worrying industriously up the gas-light-illuminated hallway, wagging his head and wringing his hands.

"How, how, how bad, bad, bad is it?" he managed to blurt, and the detective looked at the closed door, remembering the sensation of an indignant woman's stiff finger punching into his breastbone.

"It's bad," he said.  "I'll send for the police."

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181. I KNEW HER

"I'm sorry, what was the question?"

Saddles blinked, looked away:  the Sheriff reminded her of a swimmer, coming up from a deep dive, just breaking the surface and reorienting to a world not made of water.

She blinked, hesitated; the Sheriff looked gently at her and even smiled a little.

"If it's important enough to ask about," she prompted carefully, "it's important enough for me to give you my attention.  Try it again."

Saddles swallowed, nodded, cleared her throat, looked down, and finally back up, her fingers lacing tightly together, then pulling suddenly apart.

"Sheriff," she asked, her voice tense, "how do you handle the ghosts?"

Willamina raised an eyebrow.

"The ghosts," she echoed, lowering her head a fraction, a go-ahead motion.

"You know ... the ... the ghosts we carry."

Willamina's jaw slid slowly out as she considered, blinking thoughtfully.

"You're not talking about shades of the dead."

"No.  Memories."

Willamina nodded.  "I have to ask, you know," she said quietly, "for I have seen the shades."

Mary Jo Thrapp, paramedic and friend, gave the Sheriff a surprised look.  "You mean ... for real ghosts?"

Willamina nodded, smiling almost sadly.  "We're not here to talk about what I've seen.  You have a question about ... the ghosts we carry?  Can you tell me more about that?"

"Yeah."  Saddles thrust up from her chair, walked away a few paces, turned back, gripped the back of the folding tin chair, leaned heavily against it, frowning at its smooth beige seat:  she looked up, distress in her expression, and Willamina could see the younger woman was breathing a little faster than she had been.

Willamina stood, took her arm, turned her:  "Grab a talkie and walk with me."

Saddles grabbed the half-wit -- a Motorola watt-and-a-half hand-held, slim enough to ride a hip pocket easily, more than powerful enough to hit the local fire frequency repeater -- and hop-skipped a step to catch up with the Sheriff.

Willamina pushed open the man door, flooding the brick equipment bay with sunlight, and the two stepped out onto the cement apron in front of the tall brick firehouse.

"I know you told me we can't save 'em all," Saddles blurted, "and you're right, we can't."

The pair walked to the end of the apron, turned, went up-street on the broad, poured-cement sidewalk:  Willamina's heels were loud, Saddles' tread, silent:  they walked slowly, one woman in a tailored suit dress, her head up, pale eyes busy, head on a swivel; the younger woman, in denim and blue jeans and sneakers, head hung almost in misery:  Willamina put her arm around Mary Jo's shoulders, her gesture a needed reassurance for the medic's distressed soul.

"What's the worst one that troubles you?"  Willamina asked, and Saddles stopped, straightened, dark eyes wide and staring into the distance, as if through a time-gate that allowed her to see into another realm.

 

Saddles sat beside the State Trooper, staring sightlessly through the windshield of his Crown Vic:  the scene was all fire trucks and bunker coats, a cloud of smoke, the taste of burnt meat clinging to the back of her throat.

Immediately in front of them, her pickup truck, pulled well off the road, or as far off the pavement as she could arrange, given the narrow nature of the Vinton County highway system:  she knew that on the other side of her pickup, a car lay on its top, a car that used to be a beautifully restored '62 Buick convertible, now a burnt-out wreck, and she knew the wrecker would soon swing into position and roll it over onto what used to be its wheels before winching it onto a flatbed for transport.

"I was ... I was coming back from Lake Hope," she said quietly, her voice steady:  "I turned up 256 here off 50 West and I saw the Buick."

She closed her eyes and swallowed, remembering the sight of the convertible on its roof.

"It looked like she'd maybe tried to avoid a deer or something.  I could see on the shoulder where she'd gone off the road" -- her palms followed her words, describing a climbing turn, like an airplane climbing into a bank to the left -- "she ran up the side of the cut and hit something, probably, that put her over on her roof.

"When she left the road, something gutted her gas tank.  I hit the brakes and backed up to get some distance, I put on my flashers and jumped out with my extinguisher."  

Her hands lowered into her lap, her eyes distant as she narrated the reliving of the moment.

"I bellied down and looked under and I saw Brenda Watson.  She used to be our paper girl.  She was still belted in and hanging upside down and gasoline was pooling under her.  I yelled ... I yelled her name and she finally came around, it looked maybe like she'd hit her head when the car went over.

"She wasn't ... she wasn't making sense, like maybe she had a concussion or something and I yelled "I'll get help!" and I ran back to the truck.

"I grabbed my fire mic and called but Vinton County isn't on the Athens County frequency, and I tried the CB but two windbags wouldn't let me break in and about the time I gave up, the car lit up."

She shivered, seeing the sudden flare, the flash, the rising column of hell boiling toward the heavens.

"I ran toward it and yanked the pin out of my extinguisher and I might as well have spit on it for all the good I did."
She turned her head and looked at the State Trooper.

"She was still alive when it lit up."  Her expression was as haunted as her voice.  "She was screaming and there was not one damned thing I could do to stop it!"

Her hands were tight, tight and shivering, pressed hard into her thighs, her breathing deep, quick.

"Not one damned thing," she whispered, and then she blinked and she was on the sidewalk again and the Sheriff was looking at her with those eyes, those pale eyes, those eyes that could punch through and look at her very soul and her back bone, those ice-pale eyes that could see whether someone was lying, or had the least trace of yellow, or of white, down their spine.

Willamina's hands were on Mary Jo's shoulders and Mary Jo took a little step toward the older woman and the two of them embraced and Mary Jo clung desperately to the Sheriff, as a drowning man will a life-ring, and she shivered like a scared little bunny-rabbit cowering in a burrow.

Willamina waited several long moments before disengaging, before steering her toward the chrome-and-mirror-drugstore, their link to the 1950s: she lifted her chin toward the soda jerk, her fingers swift, fluid:  it wasn't the first time she'd passed a message in sign language, and the soda jerk grinned, for he'd had whole conversations with the Sheriff in this language of the deaf.

Saddles sat and planted her elbows on the table, the heels of her hands pressed to the sides of her head:  a big mug of fragrant, steaming hot cocoa with a floating gob of marshmallow slid in between her elbows, precisely placed on a napkin:  the Sheriff signed a thank-you and the grinning lad in the white apron and matching paper cap returned to his station behind the gleaming, burnished counter.

"That's the worst one," Willamina said -- not a question, but a statement -- and Saddles nodded, her shoulders rising with a long breath.

"Chocolate is therapeutic."  Willamina raised hers, took a tentative sip.

"You know ... I think every lawman I know has ghosts like that."

Saddles snorted.  "I sure do."

"You have more."

"Just one and it's not nearly so bad."  She sipped hers, sipped again, lowered her mug.

Willamina handed her a napkin.  "Mustache," she smiled, and Saddles wiped off her marshmallow mustache and giggled.

"You have 'em too," she guessed, and Willamina nodded.

"Several."  She smiled a little, and it was her turn to smile just a little sadly.  "But if I trot out mine, it'll be like one-upmanship and I'll not do that.  Yours was bad and no two ways about it."

Saddles nodded, her hands wrapped around the warm, heavy ceramic.

"How do you handle it?" she asked from behind the glazed, steaming, fragrant mug.

Willamina laughed a little.  "I find someone who has ghosts and I listen to them, and I realize I'm not alone, and that it's past and done and I can't change it, I look at it and try to figure out how I could have been better prepared, or how I could have reacted better, and if there's nothing better I could have done, I try to think ahead to what I might run across in future."

She raised a hand, flicked a thumb:  a lock back knife snapped open.

"That's why I carry this.  I needed one when I found ... well, we won't talk about what I found, but" -- she pressed the release, folded the knife, slipped it back into its hidden pocket -- "I've been first on scene and like Uncle Pete told me once, when someone drops a hot potato in your lap, you have to do something, even if it's wrong."

The two lapsed into silence, and finished their hot cocoa; they rose, Willamina leaving a couple singles under her empty mug:  they walked slowly back to the firehouse, each wrapped in her own thoughts, until they came to the man door they'd exited earlier.

Willamina turned, faced the younger woman.

"Saddles, you are well trained, you have a good level head and I would trust you with my life.  I won't tell you to not worry and I won't tell you to not doubt.  I will tell you that I do not worry, because you are pretty damned good.  I've seen you work and I used to be a medic myself, so I have some experience to draw on."  

Saddles nodded and Willamina could see her withdrawing back into herself, and knew this meant she would be digesting their conversation, analyzing it, weighing it very carefully.

"One more thing."  Willamina extended a hand, placed the black-checkered-handle lock back in the younger woman's extended palm.  "That might come in handy."

It did, and not a week later, but that is another story for another time.

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  • 1 month later...

182. A BLOOD RED ROSE

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller frowned a little at her computer screen.

Germany? she thought, and opened the messsage.

The communication bore the crest of the Diplomatic Corps; its format and salutation were both stiff and formal, until she came to the picture, and the message.

Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped.

Little surprised Willamina; to quote her Uncle Pete, she'd been from Boston to Austin, from Maine to Spain, she'd seen marvels that would curl the hair on a bald man's head ... but she honestly never thought to see the artifact displayed before her.

An oval, a gleaming, pure-white oval, a scrap of scorched, black-silk ribbon ... the oval was polished, a jewel, probably jade -- pale eyes scanned the accompanying text -- yes, jade -- but the design ...

A beautiful, lifelike, detailed rose, executed in black, but on microscopic examination, the design was within the stone and not engraved.

Willamina read further, entranced.

"Found during forensic archaeological excavation of a ruined Schloss," she murmured, and then she leaned back in her chair, staring at the ceiling.

She rose, paced to her private restroom, drew a glass of water, drank:  she paced back, re-read the text, stared long at the jade oval, nodded.

She picked up the phone.

 

Richard heard his wife coming up the driveway, and he knew from her velocity her mission was urgent.

He rose, opened the front door, stepped aside:  Willamina was a woman not known to be careless, so when his wife simply pulled up in front of the walkway, braked hard, bailed out of her Jeep and left the engine running and the door hanging open, when she strode for the front door, slipped past him without speaking, fairly ran to her personal library -- when she ran questing fingers over multiple volumes, selected one, pulled it from the bookshelf -- when she paged quickly though it, stopped, blinking, then looked up at him and said flatly, "I found it" -- when Richard saw these things, he knew his wife was indeed on a mission, and when she walked purposefully over to him, gripped his arm, came up on her toes and kissed him, quickly, looking very directly into his eyes and whispered, "Get your feet on, I have something" -- well, he didn't know quite what was happening, but he did know that it would be interesting.

It was.

 

Willamina composed a careful reply to the German consulate, knowing her words would be received by the archaeological team as well as the diplomatic corps.

She sat very properly at her desk, her six point star on the front of her lapel instead of pinned to its reverse; she'd chosen the camera's angle carefully, so it portrayed her in her official environment.

"Gentlemen," she continued, for the conference video was being viewed by multiple recipients, "I have the origin of the jade oval, and as you surmised, it was an artifact of the Count's American daughter-in-law."

She pressed a button:  a hand written page appeared on the screen.

"This is the personal diary of one of my ancestors, the second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado.  Let me call your attention to lines seven, eight and nine, where he describes fastening a necklace about his daughter's neck on the occasion of her wedding."

She waited; she knew screen-captures would be made, as well as the entire conversation recorded:  she also knew there would be swift translations from English to German, and she did not wish to rush these proceedings.

"Here" -- the neat, orderly script disappeared, replaced with the formal wedding portrait of a man and woman, the man seated, the woman standing behind and a little beside, her hand on his shoulder, as was the custom of the day -- "is the wedding portrait of my ancestress, Sarah Lynne Llewellyn, and her husband Daffyd, assistant chief of the Firelands Fire Department.

"This original was taken with a glass plate method.  Glass plate photography used a long exposure time and a thick photographic emulsion, which resulted in a deep and rich saturation of the image.  If we color correct the image" -- another click, and the portrait was suddenly in color, the bride's cheeks healthy, glowing, her gown a rich, shimmering emerald, her husband's ruby tie-pin a gleaming point of barbaric splendor in his shining silk necktie -- "we can see the necklace is white, with something in red.

"Because of the rich saturation of the glass plate method, we can enlarge the image to a remarkable degree."

The image changed, zoomed:  the oval filled the screen.

"I have a copy of the receipt, made out to Esther Keller, wife of the Sheriff whose handwriting you saw a moment ago.

"She had it shipped from an Oriental jeweler in San Francisco; it is described as white jade, and its mounting is described as silver, two vertical bars, semi-recessed. The fastener is also described."  Another click, another image, the script finer, more feminine, with a hand drawn diagram.

"Please note the design.  It is a rose, executed in red, and it looks remarkably lifelike.

"Here" -- the screen filled with the close-up of the jade oval again -- "is the jewel on Mrs. Llewellyn's wedding day, and here" -- the image shrank, occupying the left half of the screen -- "is a side by side comparison of the two images.

"If we superimpose them" -- another click and the two images slid over each other, froze -- "you will see they are an exact match, save only that your example is black rather than red."

She waited several moments before clearing the screen; a half-dozen faces looked back at her from her screen, and she knew hers filled their screen.

"It seems that Sarah Lynne Llewellyn was widowed, and subsequently married the wastrel son of a German count; she was killed very shortly before the First World War, defending the old Count's schloss from a murderous mob.  As a matter of fact, the German government was kind enough to return Sarah Lynne's skeletal remains, which we were able to DNA-match as my ancestress."

 

Richard smiled a little as they ate supper.

Willamina was quiet, thoughtful; Richard waited, knowing his wife was digesting more than her meal.

He was right.

Willamina raised her fork as if raising a teaching finger.

"They are sending me the jade oval," she said without preamble.

Richard nodded.

"They cannot understand how the design was placed within the stone itself."

Again the nod.

"They can't tell the pigments used; the stone is not engraved; it's as if the image of the rose grew within the stone itself."

"I've seen the enlargements," Richard said thoughtfully, spearing a chunk of meat, turning it through onion-studded gravy, taking a bite.  

He swallowed.

"It is lovely."

Willamina nodded.

"I have some silk ribbon of the correct width," Willamina almost whispered, then looked at her husband -- mischievously, he thought.

He was right.

The artifact arrived three days later.

Willamina sized her black-silk ribbon to fit her neck very precisely, sewed the clasp on the turned-back, carefully-stitched, black-silk ends, working with exaggerated care, as this link with her pale-eyed ancestress was threaded onto the ribbon.

She took a long breath, rose; her husband took a step closer.

Willamina extended the choker necklace, turned.

"Fast this up, would you, dear?" she asked, and Richard did, carefully, passing the ribbon-mounted jade around his wife's throat, very carefully, very precisely slipping the broad black ribbon's clasp together behind her neck.

 "Well?" she smiled, touching the smooth jade with careful fingertips, smiling at her husband, until she saw his expression.

She turned, quickly, looked in the mirror, and her eyes widened as she stared unblinking at the gleaming white oval at the base of her throat.

The black rose was turning blood-red, from the base of the stem upward, as if her life's blood were thrusting aside the black in the design.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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182.  NOW WHERE WERE WE?

Sheriff Willamina Keller had several loves in her life, and one of them was a square dance.

She sewed her own dresses, most of them with a full circle skirt, all of them well tailored to show off her trim and athletic form (and to minimize anything she might be wearing beneath), and she wore them with a riding corset, which was a comfort to her back.

They'd danced several sets into the night and she'd gone over to the refreshment stand,  laughing: her husband Richard came with her, and she delighted in being seen on his arm in public, at least off duty.

When she was being the Sheriff, she was very much independent, but off duty, she took pains to look very ladylike, unless the occasion might require otherwise.

There were, however, certain things she could not take off as easily as a square dancing dress, and this was very evident when a hard hand seized her upper arm and a young voice snapped, "I TOLD YOU --"

In spite of the ubiquitous cell phone, in spite of surveillance cameras, in spite of the usual crowd, nobody could really agree on what happened afterward, save only that it ended with the Sheriff kneeling on top of a high school age sort, rage on her face, handcuffs in one hand and a twisted-back teen-ager's hand in the other:  afterwards, as near as could be told -- as was entered into court testimony, with the assistance of the Sheriff and a red-suit-armored assistant, "He grabbed me by the arm and pulled.

"I responded as I have trained.

"I didn't pull away.  He was expecting that.  I shoved back into him, turned into him and drove a fist in under his soft ribs."

She demonstrated, in slow motion, her taller assistant moving with her:  her fist striking the plastic covered padding was loud in the courtroom.

"I was wearing my dancing shoes -- these ones, as a matter of fact" -- her leg came up -- "I drove my heel down onto the arch of his foot" -- she lowered her leg, slowly, continuing to turn -- "his grip failed and I seized him.

"My rising knee caught him -- so --"

Her knee came up but barely contacted the padded suit's groin, to the profound relief of the suit's wearer -- he'd fought full-contact with the Sheriff, and invariably it wasn't the pale eyed woman coming out in second place -- "which bent him over.

"I helped him" -- she seized the padded pugulist's shoulders, shoved down as she dropped her leg to the floor, toe-touched, almost bouncing off the courtroom's boards to launch her knee up a second time -- "I drove into his face -- so -- then I released" -- her hands came free, rose, her right hand fisting as she turned -- "and I drove my elbow into the back of his head."

The assistant went to the floor, a controlled fall, as opposed to the catastrophic descent of her assailant at the square dance that night.

"I dropped on top of him," Willamina continued, kneeling on her assistant's back, omitting that she'd kneedropped her prisoner that night, driven her weight through the spear of her knees into his kidneys with full intent to paralyze him with the blinding detonation of utter agony that comes with a good hard kidney shot -- "and at this point I seized his wrists and put him in a cuffing armlock."
She pushed up, stood, helped her fellow fighter to his feet, thanked him in a quiet voice.

"Unfortunately," she continued, turning to sweep the jury box, the visitors, and then the Judge, with her pale gaze, "I was there for a square dance, and I did not have my cuffs with me."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked up at the brisk rat-tat on her office door.

"Come," she called, turning off her computer's screen and sitting up straighter.

The door opened; a man in a suit came in.

"Sheriff."

"Counselor."

"My client has a statement."

"He should have made it in court."

"I agree.  He should have."  The attorney looked around.  "May I sit?"

The Sheriff nodded, indicating a chair with her bladed hand.

"It seems that my client felt he should at least tell you why he seized your arm."

Willamina raised one eyebrow but made no other reply.

"He thought you were his girlfriend."

Sheriff Willamina Keller raised her chin a few degrees, regarding the attorney with a carefully neutral expression.

"I know," the councillor said, raising a forestalling palm:  "his girlfriend is fourteen and yes, she was there that night, and yes, from behind he thought she was you."

"He mistook a middle aged woman for a fourteen year old schoolgirl?"  the Sheriff asked slowly, skeptically.

The attorney shrugged.  "I suppose alcohol may have had something to do with the error."

"Error."

"A simple case of mistaken identity."

"You'll be presenting this at his sentencing hearing."

The attorney nodded.

"You didn't present this to the jury."

"Frankly, they wouldn't believe it," the attorney said candidly, "and also my client did not divulge this to me until a few minutes ago."

"Meaning he dreamed up a jailhouse lie he thought would get him a reduced charge."

"Meaning it would be ... beneficial ... if you took this into consideration, and spoke to the Judge."

"No."  Sheriff Willamina Keller rose.  "He assaulted a law enforcement officer, but even if I was not Sheriff, I would nail his hide to the barn door."  Her eyes were hard, pale, unforgiving.

"I know what it is to be brutalized, Councillor.    I know what it is to look into a dead girl's eyes and know she was grabbed like that.  I know what it is to look into her mother's eyes and tell her that her daughter was murdered."  

She shook her head.

"No.  You will find no leniency here.  Good day, sir."

The attorney rose, nodding.  

"I had to try, Sheriff."

"You had to try."

"Good day, Sheriff."

"Good day, sir."

 

One week later, at the square dance, there were a half-dozen young women wearing newly-sewn square dancing dresses, of a pattern and material that (by some remarkable coincidence) matched the Sheriff's square dancing dress exactly.

All were wearing the identical square dancing shoes the Sheriff wore.

All six were cheerleaders.

All six danced with a variety of partners, and all six danced well, as did Sheriff Willamina Keller, and of course there were those who came to the square dance to see this pale eyed woman who bested a rival school's start quarterback, a young man accustomed to walking with hard heels over underclassmen, with great impunity.

One made the mistake of remarking that she didn't look so tough, and he made the mistake of uttering the words when the Sheriff was near enough to hear, and the Sheriff released her square dancing partner, pirouetted very neatly -- two spinning turns -- faced the speaker and seized his shirt front, jerked hard.

He stumbled forward two steps and the Sheriff curled her lip, whistled.

The half dozen pretty young cheerleaders, these six who were known as Willamina's Valkyries, spun free of their partners and came to form a semicircle:  one turned sideways, worked through the crowd, ran to a shadowed corner of the round barn:  she pulled on two cords, and two heavy, knotted ropes fell from the shadow-dark rafters overhead.

"You think you're so tough," Willamina challenged, gripping one of the swinging, twisting ropes with her off hand.  "Climb!"

Angered, caught, ashamed, his ears turning red as the band stopped playing and silence washed over the square dance crowd, he gripped the rope, grabbed a heavy knot with his feet, started to coon up the climing rope.

Willamina jumped -- seized the heavy hemp above a knot -- she brought her legs straight out in front of her, toes pointed, and proceeded to climb, hand-over-hand, rising smoothly, swiftly, to the apex -- she slapped the beam overhead, looked down, made her descent, hand over hand:  at six feet from the floor, she stopped, lowered her legs slowly, deliberately, until her toes pointed to the sawdust below:  only then did she lower herself the final few feet, until she stood, looking up, arms folded, tapping her foot, waiting.

She lowered her gaze.

"Anybody else?" she challenged.  "Anybody else think they want to grab a mere girl?"

The other rope swung as the young man with the battleship mouth worked his tadpole backside back down, having not even reached the halfway mark.

"You want to try it again?"  Willamina asked, her voice low, pitched so only he could hear it.

He shook his head, looked away.

"You want to try me, right here, right now?"

He looked around, his mouth dry:  he'd made his brags and now he was being called on it, in front of God and everybody, and as much as he hated the corner he'd painted himself into, he realized he'd just bitten off way more than he could possibly chew.

"No," he said.  "No ma'am."
Willamina nodded, seized his shoulder.

"Let me buy you a cold one," she said, steering him toward the concession stand:  "Two waters."

She twisted the lid off a bottle of water, handed it to the young man.

He was surprised at how his hand shook when he accepted it.

Willamina twisted off her lid, tilted the bottle up, drank the entire bottle on one breath, replaced the cap and handed it back across the counter.

She looked at the band, spun her finger in the air, the same gesture she'd use to indicate a throttle-up, and the square dance music started back up:  "NOW WHERE WERE WE!" Willamina called, skipping back out into the middle of the floor, and her Valkyries began to spin around her, their dance partners jogging out to join them, and the squares formed up, and the dance was on.

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Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled and tilted her head a little.

"Weren't you scared?" the little girl asked as she hugged her rag doll.

The Sheriff laughed a little.

"What are ghosts made of?" she asked gently.

The little girl blinked, considered:  she looked solemnly at the Sheriff, her blue eyes bright, and shrugged.

"What do ghosts look like?" the Sheriff prompted.

"I don't know," the little girl replied in a small voice.

Willamina and her husband were visiting friends of theirs, and in an unguarded moment, Willamina admitted to her hostess that she'd seen the ghost of either an engineer, or perhaps of the Old Sheriff, standing beside the restored The Lady Esther in the Z&W's rebuilt roundhouse.

It was one of those moments when a little child approached the Sheriff -- bashfully, shyly, looking at her as if at someone wondrous -- and asked a question, born of a child's curiosity, a child's innocence.

The Sheriff looked to the kitchen, where preparations were still being made, where her husband was laughing with their hosts, and knew she and the little girl would not be interrupted.

"Vanessa," she said, "let me tell you about a woman who killed a vampire."

Vanessa McBride's eyes widened and she sat, placed her hands very properly in her lap, and crossed her ankles.

 

Kendra Hicks felt absolute, unmitigated rage.

Kendra Hicks closed her hand around the rubber grip of a short-barreled .44 revolver, her "hand cannon" as her husband called it -- she watched the figure in black drop the child, the little boy's neck at an awkward angle, the body limp, the black-caped figure's mouth red with the child's blood, the neck bloody as he fell bonelessly to the ground.

Kendra Hicks was a mother and Kendra Hicks knew what it was to be beaten and Kendra Hicks knew what it was to take a frying pan to the man who beat her, and Kendra Hicks knew what it was to testify in court and strip her blouse and show the scars from the beatings she'd received, she described in a full-throated scream from the witness stand the outrages done to her, she pointed to arm bones forever crooked from being broken and badly set when she was kept from medical care, and she thrust her finger like a weapon at the man she'd married and told the court -- over protestations of her lawyer, of his lawyer, of the Judge's gavel -- she gave a most persuasive testimony, even if it did not keep with the decorum of the Court.

Kendra Hicks looked at a murderer and Kendra Hicks brought up a .44 revolver and Kendra Hicks coldly aimed at this pale, grinning murderer, and Kendra Hicks rolled the grooved trigger back like she'd practiced a thousand times and more, and the cylinder rolled and locked and the bobbed hammer fell and drove the steel firing pin into the Winchester primer, and she saw the surprise on the vampire's eyes as a .44 caliber freight train drove through high high center chest.

 

"She shot a vampire?" the little girl asked, her eyes widening again.

"Yes," Willamina whispered, nodding.

"Did she use a silver boo-lit?"

Willamina laughed.  "I think it was a Winchester Silvertip," she said, "but no, silver is for werewolves, not vampires."

"I thought vampires couldn't be shot."

"Oh, you can shoot them, that's not a problem."

"But don't you have to use a wooden stake?"

Willamina winked, crooked her finger:  the little girl came closer, and Willamina reached into the cuff of her blouse, withdrew a long, slim, very sharp blade.

"You can cut ghosts with a sharpened edge," she whispered, "and ghosts know this.

"Do you know why ghosts can be cut with a blade?"

The little girl shook her head, her ribbon-tied braids swinging.

"It's because we believe they can be cut."  Willamina winked again.  "That's why the vampire died when he was shot.

"You see, the vampire used magic to travel and his magic went wrong.  Instead of appearing in Europe in the 1700s, when everyone believed in vampires and believed they could be killed only in a very few ways, its magic landed it here in Appalachian Ohio about ten years ago."

"Really?"  The child's eyes were bright, fascinated.

Willamina nodded.

"Do you know why a wizard uses a wand?"
Again the slow shake of her head, the swing of her braids.

"It's because the wizard believes they need a wand to send their magic."

"Oh," the little girl said, as if that explained everything.

"The woman who shot the vampire shot him the moment he appeared and grabbed a trick-or-treater. She knew what a .44 can do and she shot him with the full belief that she was going to kill it graaaaave-yard dead."

"But didn't the vampire believe it couldn't hurt him?"

"My question exactly," Willamina nodded, "and that is a very wise question, but the vampire was here, where nobody really believes in vampires.  The woman who shot him didn't see a vampire.  All she saw was a murderer, and she was absolutely, in her own mind, utterly, completely and with no doubt at all, in the right."

"Oh."  The little girl considered this, frowned, looked back up.

"But wasn't she scared?"

Willamina laughed.

"I think she was more angry than anything."

"Oh."
Kendra Hicks came into the living room with a tray of cookies, steaming mugs of coffee, and a hot cocoa for her daughter.

"Mommy," the little girl piped, "can I go shoot some vampires?"

Kendra and Willamina looked at one another and laughed.

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184.  AN OLD MARRIED COUPLE

 

"Mr. Keller?"

Esther's whisper was warm, quiet in the stillness of the hayloft.

"Yes, Mrs. Keller?"

"Mr. Keller, you are incorrigible, you know that!"

I flexed my good right arm, rolling Esther into me.

She was warm and womanly and her mouth found mine, and neither of us said a word for several long moments.

Esther and I had ridden together to one of the more distant barns: alone, with no interruptions, we discovered that we were looking at one another in that half-shy, half-curious way that the young will regard one another -- perhaps the youth far in our past woke, and peeped out our eyes once more -- however it was, we held one another and shivered a little, and then we realized we desired one another, and fortuitous indeed it was that we were alone.

We did this kind of thing, on occasion.

I one time met Esther at the opera in Denver, as if it were a chance meeting of two strangers: a bump, an apology, an introduction: one or the other would extend a dinner invitation and we would ride in a hired hack as if we were strangers but newly introduced: a dinner, a walk, a return to the hotel: although in reality we were man and wife, this pretense that we were chance-met strangers, engaging in a deliciously wicked liaison, was most pleasant, and resulted in a memorable and very agreeable evening.

I did my best to spoil my wife, and she to spoil me, and our children, though well provided for, were most certainly not spoiled.

My boys worked with me, we split wood together and felled trees together and dragged logs together, from the earliest age my boys apprenticed themselves to me and were my step-and-fetch-its, they were my hands and my eyes: if I needed to replace a plank, we would measure the needed replacement together, and thus I taught them numbers and fractions; I would have them write down the length we needed, and the width, and then we would go select the necessary lumber, working from the list they themselves wrote: invariably boys err, and on these occasions we would sit down together and go over what we'd done, and we'd find the mistake together, and we'd correct it together -- these were lessons, where boys learn, and boys learn best by being included.

A wiser man than I said "Show me and I will forget, tell me and I won't remember, include me and I've got it forever."

I would have my boys hold the saw while I positioned the teeth in the saw set, and gave the set a rap with the maul, and then I'd trade off and have the boys run the saw set while I held the saw: I watched while young fingers tied a bowline in the end of a good hemp string, as young hands gripped the lump of chalk and we drew the string across it, as young fingers slipped that bowline loop over a peg or a nail and drew the line tight, and I watched as they frowned with careful concentration, placing the string exactly on the pencil-mark or the knife-mark and then pluck up the string and let it snap down onto the wood and mark where the cut would be made.

Esther taught our daughters in the selfsame manner, giving them the lessons that ladies require -- and we also saw to it that the boys got lessons from the distaff, while I took the girls out and taught them some things that were not considered exactly genteel.

The boys and I would be out working, and boys grow, and one of the twins one time bent over and the entire seat tore out of his britches.

We were well away from anyone so I had him take off his drawers, and we sat down on a log and I took his drawers and held them up and frowned at them, then I stuck my hand into the waist and out the tear and wiggled my finger and I frowned and looked at my boy and said "This must be repaired."

"Yes, sir."

"We'll have the maid do it."

"Yes, sir."

I stood up, looked around.

"Ho, maid," I called.  "Maid!  Patch up this tear!"

I looked around, as if expecting one of the uniformed maids to appear.

I looked at my son.

"I don't see a maid."

"No, sir."  He looked at me half-puzzled but half-grinning, for he could tell I was in a funmaking mood, and he was right.

I sat down again, frowning at the tear.

"This needs fixed," said I.

"Yes, sir."

"Who's here to fix it?"

"You and I, sir."

"Can you sew?"

His look was somewhere between uncomfortable and panic, for he'd seen his mother's sewing, and had been impressed by her skill and her precision.

"No, sir," he almost whispered.

I nodded, my bottom jaw thrust out, then I looked at him and closed one eye, leaned close as if to a fellow conspirator.

"Let's go tend this detail, shall we?"  I asked quietly.  "I understand sewing gives a man a good appetite and" -- I stopped, looked around suspiciously, leaned close again -- "I believe there is pie to be had!"

"Yes, sir!" he declared happiy with that toothy, little-boy grin, and I had him put his busted out drawers back on, and we rode home, and Esther schooled my boys, each in their turn, in such things as how to brush their coats and wash their smallclothes, how to sew up tears or split seams and how to sew on buttons.

Mary, the Irish girl, would occasionally sweep them into the kitchen, chattering and admonishing and stuffing tiny little cinnamon rolls into their mouths:  "Now ye listen t'me, lads, ye're no' always goin' t' be out on th' trail, y'need t'know how to cook on a stove, an' we've one o' th' best here!" -- and the boys learned how to fix their own provisions, for this too is something a man needs to know.

One thing I taught neither our sons, nor our daughters, was how to make coffee.

I have no idea what gods I offended, what witch I incensed, but for the life of me I can not make decent coffee.

As a matter of fact, I can rot the bottom out of a good enamel pot faster than anyone I know, and the coffee will peel most of the enamel off a man's teeth, skin the lining out of his stomach and chase hair out of his chest from the inside, not necessarily in that order, so I prevailed upon others to teach my boys how to make coffee, and of course Esther tended that detail for the girls.

I taught the girls how to saddle and how to ride, how to bridle and how to harness a horse up to a buggy or a wagon, and of course this involved the ancient and honorable art of bribery: most horses will bribe as well as any politician, and girls like to spoil horsies anyway, so that was an easy lesson to teach.

And on occasion, when being Sheriff weighed upon me, and when Esther's running the Z&W Railroad and looking after our investments and being woman of the house weighed upon her, we would slip away together, for an hour or for a day or two, and we would giggle under a blanket in the loft of a distant barn, or in a fine Denver hotel, and sometimes we would just ride off together and sit on a convenient log or a blanket padded rock, and hold hands, and say not one word, while tensions and cares sloughed off us and soaked into the ground.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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  • 2 weeks later...

185.  MY PAPA'S REVOLVER

"Shooter ready?"
The shooter raised his hands, gripped the brim of his Stetson lightly, nodded.

"Stand byyyyy ..."
The world held its breath for a year and a day and so did the shooter, and then BEEEEP in his ear and air, cool and welcome, roared into his young lungs: a quick sidestep as his hand came down and the other came to his chest, then he punched out a double handful of blued steel and drove his will and his soul down a tight stretched fiddlestring that started behind his good eye and shot over the Smith & Wesson's front sight and latched onto the first steel plate and he felt the trigger firm and curved and grooved and the action chuckled through its cycle and the handload he'd put together the night before detonated and he was moving, advancing, tracking to the next plate and the third, stepping quickly behind a short wall and firing three more rounds, barricade style, breaking three red balloons.

He pulled back behind the wall, drawing the ancient revolver close to his chest before smacking the ejector with an utter lack of mercy: a speedloader rolled between thumb and two fingers, six round noses shoved into waiting steel chambers, the speedloader peeled off the back of the cylinder as he thumbed it closed and came up and powered forward, hitting six clay pigeons on a rack before dropping behind a blue plastic barrel borrowed from the water plant, a 55 gallon drum marked FLUOSILICIC ACID CORROSIVE, and six more empties tumbled to the dirt, followed by the black-plastic speedloader: lean young legs powered the shooter from the left side of the barrel and he charged the last three targets at full speed, punching a pair of .38-caliber holes in the center of their printed paper faces.

He did not check his momentum, he thrust hard against the dirt and drove both boots heel-first into the three-dimensional ballistic dummy, driving it to the ground, spiking a long bladed knife through the dummy's eye, pinning it to the ground and rolling, a flawless point-shoulder-roll, before coming up, opening the cylinder, smacking out the empties one last time, his hand closing fruitlessly over the empty speedloader carrier on the front of his belt.

He held up the Victory Model, showing the empty cylinder's breech to the scorekeeper 25 yards away -- the scorekeeper nodded -- he closed the cylinder, holstered his revolver, walked over to the ballistic dummy and planted a well polished boot on its face, reached down, gripped the checkered maple handle and withdrew the hand-forged, carefully-honed, tempered-steel, shaving-sharp blade and casually, naturally, slid it back into its sheath, inconspicuous on the inside of his waistband.

He grinned self-consciously at the patter of applause and two enthusiastic whistles.

 

Linn looked up and grinned again as the blue-velvet Crown Royal bag dropped with a brassy jingle to the tabletop.

"One hundred per cent recovery," Chief Deputy Barrents said quietly, his usual impassivity betrayed by bright and approving eyes.  "With every speedloader."

"Thank you, sir," a twelve-year-old Linn Keller grinned, and then his ears warmed several degrees and flared an absolute scarlet as a birthday cake, candles guttering a little, made its way across the chrome-and-mirrors, 1950s-themed drugstore, and twice a dozen voices sang "Happy Birthday" to the first place winner of the Sheriff's invitational.

He waited until the cake was placed, until the obligatory pictures were taken, before taking a great lungful of air and carefully, precisely, blowing out the candles, row by row: he was given the first slice, but waited until his mother was seated and served before moving for his fork.

He knew Bruce Jones, the editor of their weekly gazette, was framing him up for a picture; it was something he endured, with the patience he'd learned from his mother:  something he'd also learned from her was to move into an attacker, and so he turned to this glass-lensed intruder and called, "Mr. Jones, would you join us, please? We've plenty!" 

Linn felt a degree of satisfaction at the surprise on the editor's face, then a genuine pleasure as the man replied, "Thank you, I'd like that!"

Cake and ice cream is a great equalizer: when everyone has a fork and a plate, when everyone is communing in the same dish at the same celebration, differences are set aside:  this, too, he'd learned from his pale eyed mother, who regarded the crowd with an understated watchfulness -- like her pale eyed son, she sat with her back to the wall, the table in a corner, and a good view of the drugstore's interior.

"Sooo ... tell me about the gun you shot today," Bruce began, feigning casualness as his fork pared off another curl of the ice cream generously dropped onto his thick slice of chocolate cake.

"Revolver, sir," Linn replied, swallowing:  "it is an antique, and it has a history."

"Not something I would expect a schoolboy to say," the editor said speculatively, looking at Willamina, who managed to look utterly innocent as she took another bite of chocolate cake with just a curl of icing.

"If you want specifics, sir," Linn continued, "it is a Smith and Wesson Victory Model.  It was made during the second world war, it was shipped under the Lend-Lease act to England, where it acquired British proof stamps, and was carried by their home guard.  It's sheer luck it made it back here in one piece, sir, as most were dumped into the North Sea after the war."

"I see ... and after its return?"

Linn grinned again and Jones was reminded powerfully of every happy little boy he'd ever seen, with that universal, quick, happy, guileless flash of inner delight that comes to the surface in rare and delightful moments.

"My grandfather bought it cheap, sir. He was a young married and he didn't have two nickels to rub together, and it was all he could afford, and he carried it as a police officer back East."

"The gun you shot today?"

"Yes, sir.  I have another just like it that I usually use, but today" -- he looked at his mother, listening silently to the exchange -- "today's my birthday, and Mama said I should compete with her father's revolver."

"It's a .38, I understand."

"Almost, sir.  It's a .38 Smith and Wesson, it's a shorter and lower powered round than a standard police-issue .38 Special. Shorter, fatter and not compatible."

"I see."  The editor frowned, considered his plate, looked up again.  "How did you get into competition?  You just outshot grown men old enough to be your grandfather!"

Linn considered this, surprised:  he took another bite of cake, considered, and finally nodded.  "Yes, sir, I did."

"And you're not surprised?"

"I am, sir," Linn admitted, "but I've been practicing."

"Practicing."

"Yes, sir."

"How much do you practice?"

Again that quick, boyish grin.

"Enough to win," he said, and Jones could see the impishness peeking out the twelve-year-old's eyes.

"Why did you kick over the last target and use a knife?"

"The match was set up for selfloaders, sir.  Standard issue pistols with standard capacity magazines.  I was shooting a six shot revolver and" -- his ears shaded red again -- "I miscounted the round count, and I was one shy.  I needed to put that target down and the rules said I could use any effective method, so" -- he shrugged -- "I decided to be effective."

"And did you learn that from your mother?"

Linn looked at Willamina, who blinked and shrugged.

Linn's bottom jaw slid out and he frowned a little.

"Sir," he said carefully, "my father taught me that there is no such thing as a fair fight.

"My mother teaches hand-to-hand and I listen carefully when she speaks, and I've seen her in practice, but no sir, she did not teach me that ... particular ... move."

"I must say it was effective," Jones murmured, then:  "And what would you like to do when you grow up?"

Linn put his fork down and looked very directly at the editor.

"Sir," he said, "everybody and their uncle asks me that, and I've been giving it some thought."

He considered for a long moment, then looked very directly at Bruce Jones, editor, photographer, reporter and broom pusher for the weekly Firelands Gazette.

"Sir," he said, "it looks like you've got a pretty soft job. I believe I'd like yours."

Sheriff Willamina Keller blew cake crumbs across the table and turned very red as she coughed violently into her snatched-up napkin.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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Sheriff Willamina Keller's husband Richard opened the large manila envelope, pulled out the Firelands Gazette and two loose sheets, and sat down at the kitchen table.

Hot coffee and leftover pancakes made a quick breakfast: he ate with one hand, folding his wife's silver dollar pancakes in two, without benefit of butter, syrup, honey, peanut butter or anything else: he chewed, he slurped noisily at scalding coffee, appreciating the light cinnamon aftertaste that told him Willamina made coffee that morning.

The front page of their weekly paper had his son in competition.

Richard smiled a little at the image of their son, the ancient Smith driven forward: he fired in mid-stride, the steel plate showing just a ghost of lead spatter from the bullet's impact, a faint discoloration just forward of the gun muzzle to mark its having just been fired:  it was an excellent picture, taken with the running figure at the left of the frame, the plate rack on the right:  this was on the left half of the page.

On the right half, the same lad, minus earmuffs and shooting glasses, a lighted birthday cake in front of him:  beneath these two photos, the caption, "FIRST PLACE WINNER, FIRELANDS SHERIFF'S INVITATIONAL. HAPPY 12th BIRTHDAY!"

Richard took another slower, more thoughtful sip of coffee.

He'd just gotten in from his consulting assignment; his flight was delayed and he missed both the Invitational and the birthday party, but he was home when Willamina placed her father's Victory Model in its carved, thumb break holster, and handed it to their son.

"Happy Birthday," she said quietly, and Linn's eyes went wide and he stared at the ancient, ancestral revolver, and then at his pale eyed Mama.

"It was your father's," he said.

"Yes, it was," Willamina affirmed.  "And now it's yours."

Linn blinked, stared at the holstered sixgun in his young hands.

"That's a lot of history you just gave me," he said huskily.

"I know."

He looked at her and Richard saw a haunted look cross his face.

"I used this to kill your assassin."

Willamina smiled, nodded.  "And I am very glad you did."

Linn nodded, wrapped the carved gunbelt loosely around the carved holster.

"My father was killed with that pistol in his hand," Willamina said, sitting down, and Linn heard something in his voice he didn't expect.

He heard a deep sadness in her words.

"My mother tried to throw it away, and the flag from my father's coffin," Willamina said tiredly.  "I rescued them from the trash can."

Her eyes hardened and so did her voice.

"I used my father's pistol not long after. Mama didn't know I had it and I never told anyone."

"Was it needful?"  Linn asked quietly, and Willamina looked at her son, then her husband.

"Yes," she finally said.  "It was needful."

Linn nodded.  "It was needful for me too."

"I know."

"When that fellow with the machine gun dumped a full mag into you it was the only thing I could do, to run around and in the back door and get the one revolver I knew best."
Willamina nodded, swallowing, her eyes closed against the memory.  "I know."

"I caught him when he changed magazines," Linn said slowly, his eyes distant, and Richard heard the same haunted tones in his son's voice he'd heard in fellow agents' voices after a killing:  he knew that, no matter how justified, a man of conscience is often tormented by the fell knowledge that he has ended a human life, utterly destroyed a soul's passage through this world.

"I caught him changing magazines and I put six into his face just the way I used to put six through the Ace of Spades at the same distance."

Willamina's hand closed over her son's, still holding the belt-wrapped holster and revolver.

"You did what was needed," she said quietly. "Grown men froze in that moment. A sneak attack is still the most effective. You didn't freeze and you kept me alive" -- half her mouth smiled, but only half -- "because if he'd have changed magazines, he would have hosed me from crotch to pate, and body armor does not cover the femoral arteries."

"Yes, ma'am," Linn whispered, his mouth dry.

Richard opened his mouth, considered, closed it, his words unsaid.

He'd been minded to casually observe that, however much Linn liked the revolver, he couldn't wear it to school.

He did not speak the words.

They would have been an insult to a young man who'd shown more responsibility and judgement in a dozen years on this earth than he'd seen in lawmen four decades and more older.

"With your permission" -- Linn cleared his throat, swallowed, tried again.

"With your permission, ma'am, I'll put this away and tend to my reloading. The brass should be tumbled out by now."

Willamina nodded, hugged her son quickly, impulsively, and Linn hugged her back, one-armed.

"That reminds me," Richard observed as Linn took the stairs two at a time, heading for his bedroom, "I need to inventory our reloading supplies."

"I scrounged lead pipe and roof flashing yesterday, and a five gallon bucket of wheel weights.  He can alloy up another batch for wadcutters."

"Good."  Richard stared at the far wall, blinking slowly, looked at his wife, smiled.

"Most sixth graders can't be trusted with a slip of paper and we're letting him mold his own bullets and load his own ammunition."

Willamina came over, swung her hips, settled into her husband's lap and laid a feminine arm around his shoulders.

She traced a delicate fingertip down his nose, smiled as he kissed her forefinger's pad.

"He takes after his father," she whispered, before bending her head down and pressing her lips to his.

Richard chuckled under her kiss and murmured, "I hope not," and Willamina drew back, smiling knowingly as Richard ran an arm under her knees and stood, picking her up easily.

"Right now I have some very impure thoughts, Mrs. Keller, and I'm not ready for him to follow my example."
Willamina leaned her head back and laughed:  she encircled his neck with her arms, lowered her lashes and said lustfully, "You, sir, are a dirty old man," and he smiled and whispered back, "Yes, Mrs. Keller, and I'd like to prove it to you!"

Linn discreetly waited until his parents' bedroom door closed before he clattered noisily down the stairs, as much to let them know he was safely out of earshot as anything.

He stopped at the kitchen table to wolf down the last half dozen of his mother's silver dollar pancakes before going on down into the basement.

He smiled, remembering how his father called him responsible, then glancing toward the head of the stairs.

Homework could wait until he was done reloading.

 

 

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186.  MY MOTHER, THE SALOON GIRL

I knew as soon as I read about it in one of the old Journals, I'd have to try it.

I was still young when I slipped into church with a box of thumb tacks in my jacket pocket and orneriment in my heart.

I'd been there plenty of times, that big empty church ... well, it's not all that big but it's solid built, and I would practice presentations and speeches from the East, but never from behind the pulpit.

That was the Parson's and I never pretended to his authority, not even when it wasn't Sunday and I was there for practice.

I'd stand ahead of the Altar and I'd speak to the back wall, I'd project my voice until it echoed back at me and I knew if I could do that with a house full of people, they'd hear me to the back row.

When Mama hired me a piano teacher, I'd practice in the church, and the Parson gave me free leave to come and go as long as I didn't let any skunks in and I shut out the lights when I was done.

Today, though, today would be an experiment.

I'd gotten pretty good on the ivory 88, and Mama didn't really know how much I'd read of all those Journals she'd collected, so when I read about a certain ornery lad who slipped into this selfsame Church and pressed thumb tacks into the felt hammers to make it sound like a saloon piano ...

... well, I just happened to have a box of thumb tacks with me.

I couldn't resist, after I'd carefully, silently, precisely tacked every last felt hammer in that upright, I set down on the ancient three legged stool and I spread my hands, and then I hesitated.

I recalled a tune I'd heard, one time when Mama was hosting a group of Civil War re-enactors, Irish, every last one of 'em, and they'd been in full uniform of their era, a beer mug in one hand and their voices raised in surprising good harmony.

They sang "The Wearin' of the Green" and as I set there in front of those yellowing keys, I shaped the tune in my head and then I closed my eyes and I lowered my hands and the music flowed out of my soul and through that piano.

There is a magic to lovemaking, to fencing, to music ... you disengage the mind, and then you caress your lover, and I reckon I caressed that keyboard, and she came to life under my fingers, and that ornery bouncy Irish tune sang with a joyful, raucous life of its own.

This was the first time I played with my eyes closed, and I played for the joy of bringing music out of that old piano, and I lost myself in the Wearin' of the Green -- the first time I ever had that happen.  Not the last, but the first, and there was magic to it.

Mama told me once there are consequences to all things.

Every word we speak, or speak not; everything we do, or do not, has its effect in a world not seen:  "I don't pretend to understand it", she smiled when she said it, "but it is true nonetheless."

Sure enough, when I tinkled out the last bars of that fine Irish tune, a hand rested gently on my shoulder, and my Mama's voice puffed gently in my ear as she whispered, "Play it again, Sam," and I did.

We came back later that night, and Mama brought a different pair of shoes, she tapped her heel noisily here and there, until she climbed up to altar level and rapped out a staccato tattoo:  she looked at me and I knew the look she gave me.

"Give me the Wearin' of the Green," she said, and right there in God's church I played a saloon piano with a grin on my face and my Mama danced like a saloon girl, danced in front of the Altar with delight on her face and music filling the Sanctuary.

 

One week later I sat on a three-legged stool in front of an ivory keyboard, playing a saloon piano, in a saloon, only this was the saloon of a genuine sternwheel paddleboat:  I wore a Derby hat, a striped shirt with sleeve garters, townie shoes with spats and a half mug of beer on top of the piano -- more for appearance than anything else.

My father sat at a table with some men he knew, fellow FBI as I recall, drinking sparingly and eating sandwiches, and on stage, a pale eyed saloon girl disported herself most shamefully -- a fellow was announcing the acts, and he declared in a stentorian voice to the well dressed audience, that women in period did not show so much as an ankle without declaring themselves a shameless strumpet, at which point Mama came struttin' out on stage in a saloon girl dress that hit her about mid calf -- quite modest for today, utterly shocking for the period -- and the fellow in the top hat and cane said we should feel free to boo and hiss such indecent folk.

The audience was free with its feelings, all right:  palms pounded table tops, lips curled in raucous whistles, Mama planted her knuckles on her hips, swung her skirt, then snapped a finger down at me like she was swinging a blacksnake whip and called, "Play it again, Sam!"

It was an annual fundraiser, and the first one we'd attended, at least as performers:  Mama danced well that night, and I understand my father was most impressed with her skill:  she'd skipped off the stage, and while she was changing into her next outfit, I played "Beautiful Dreamer," to which at least three couples danced, but when Mama came back out, a black-eyed Mexican with an impressively-large, double-strung guitar set up shop on stage, a little off center, and Mama flowed onto the stage.

Flowed. 

That's the word I have to use. 

Regal as the Queen, haughty as a dowager, sultry as any temptress, eyes bright behind her fan:  I think it was the first time my father ever saw his bride dance the flamenco, and she danced for him:  I never in my life knew castanets, the custom ordered castanuelas she'd had shipped in from Mexico ... I never knew they could be so honestly ...

... sensual.

Very likely it's because she was dancing for my father.

Very likely it's because she was seducing him in public.

Very likely it's because, that night, she wasn't the Sheriff, she was a woman, and that's exactly what she wished to be.

Very likely it's because her word shrank down to his table, and his world shrank to the stage, and me, I sat there in sleeve garters and Derby hat and honestly marveled.

I knew it was a genuine delight to dance with Mama -- it was more like I danced, and I held her as she floated -- but until that night I never knew just how powerful the dance could be.

I recall that my father carried my Mama upstairs that night.

My Mama.

The saloon girl.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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187.  YOU DON'T LOOK LIKE AN ANGEL

Sheriff Willamina Keller was many things.

She was Sheriff, she was a Marine, she was a collector of antiques and of history and lore of the Firelands County area, she was a wife, and she was a mother.

Tonight she was frustrated as hell.

Snow hit fast, hard and nasty, and she was obliged to call home to let her chief deputy know her flights were cancelled and it might be as much as a week before she could get a rode dug out so she could get to an airport and head West.

She was even more frustrated because her twelve year old son lay in the remote cottage's bed, shivering, eyes wide and glazed, his skin mottled red: he had the flu and he had a fever, and she was snowed in.

She'd tried to call for an ambulance, but cell service was so poor her call to the Firelands Sheriff's Office had to be done by text -- the signal wouldn't support voice -- and after she'd made that call, she tried to text 911, about the time cell service failed altogether.

Willamina took a fast inventory:  power was still on; if it went out, the wood stove was already lit and she had plenty of fuel -- at least a week's worth, she estimated -- water from a well, with a pitcher pump for backup, and well stocked cupboards:  her host had laid in supplies, thinking he'd be staying for a few months, and he was more than happy to let Willamina use the Morgan County cottage near Burr Oak State Park while she was visiting.

 

Linn sat up, looked around.

His Mama was asleep in the chair ... he sat on the side of the bed and was shocked at how tired, how drawn she looked.

His right ear drew back a little, almost as if someone tugged with a gentle thumb and forefinger:  adrenaline roared through his skinny young body and he turned toward the door, bladed, slightly-curved hands coming up as he'd practiced time and time and time again, and he listened.

He took one step, another, frowned:  he looked down ...

I'm dressed.

I thought I undressed for bed.

He stopped, jaw easing out, frowning again:  he looked at the foot of the bed, saw his Victory model Smith in its carved holster, strung on the gunbelt and hanging on the bedpost.

He took two silent paces toward the bedpost, slung the gunbelt around his lean waist, snugged it up, made sure the Jordan holster was in just the right position for a clean draw, and looked at the door again.

Something is out there.

He went to the door, stood a little to the side: there was no peep hole and no handy window to look out, so he gripped the revolver, unsnapped the strap with his middle finger, turned the knob, drew the door open a little and stepped back.

A hand with a coat sleeve attached pushed the door open.

"May I come in?"

Linn saw a young man, kind of on the skinny side, cheek bones sticking out and worn coat threadbare at cuffs and the shoulder seam:  Linn said "Come on in, it's cold out," and the young man thanked him politely, knocked the snow off his boots before crossing the threshold.

Linn shut the door.  "We've coffee hot," he offered, "and sandwiches."

"That would be wonderful," his visitor sighed, stepping over to the stove and spreading his hands.  "That feels so good!"

Linn set out a plate, poured coffee, set out the opened can of condensed milk, looked in the refrigerator.

The only sandwich was his, and he was hungry, but he did not hesitate: he brought it out, removed the plastic wrap and set it quietly on the table.

"Have a set," he invited.  "Are your feet wet?"

"Yeah, kinda," the skinny fellow admitted ruefully.

"Set your boots near the stove and peel out of your socks.  What size do you wear?  I've got extra."

 

Willamina opened her eyes, looked over at her fevered son, lying in the bed:  she lay a cool hand over his forehead, feeling the fever burning him from within.

A knot popped in the wood stove; the wind had stopped, and other than her son's breathing, the cottage was filled with an utter, almost profound silence, as if Creation itself held its breath.

 

Linn knelt, set the dishpan of steaming warm water on the floor.  "Here, let's get you thawed out."

He gripped the stranger's bare foot, eased it into the water.  "Too hot?"

The stranger flinched, then sighed with pleasure as his foot immersed slowly.  "Oh, that feels good," he groaned.

"Get some coffee in you," Linn said immersing the washcloth in the water and slowly washing the stranger's feet, one, then the other.  "We heat up your feet and get some hot inside you, we'll chase the cold out from two directions."

Linn carefully washed both the man's feet, leaned back on his knees, dried his hands.

"Just soak there for a little.  The water's not terribly hot, but we want to get your feet warmed up pretty good before we put dry socks on you."

The stranger nodded, took another bite of sandwich.

Linn shoved aside his own hunger.

He was inclined to look toward the bed, but something bade him not:  his own guilty conscience, he reasoned, his Mama took such pains to make the beds when they first rose, and he hadn't.

"I see you're armed," the visitor commented.

"Yes,sir.  It was my grandfather's.  He was killed in the line of duty while using it."

"I remember when that happened."

Linn's head came up and he looked sharply at his guest.

"I was there."

Linn leaned back a little too far, sat down, surprised.

The visitor raised his foot, dripping water back into the dishpan, and he smiled gently.

"You said something about dry socks."

 

Linn felt as much as heard the staccato of the machine gun, his mother's pained grunt as the stream of metallic death rammed into her corsetted armor like a small jackhammer.

Linn ran, punched in the code, yanked the door open, ran down the back hall and past the cells, around the corner and into the back corner of the lobby, shouldered through the door into his Mama's office --

He saw the revolver, in the frame, he leaped, knocked it down --

He seized his grandfather's Victory model Smith, tore it free of the frame --

He grabbed the handful of rounds that had been behind now-shattered glass, opened the cylinder, drove six into waiting chambers and swept the rest up, shoving them into his left jeans pocket --

He ran across the lobby, through the glass doors, through the outer door --

He saw the murderer's magazine fall from the buzz gun and Linn knew this was his only chance.

He raised the revolver as he'd done a thousand times in practice, he punched the muzzle toward the assassin's face and saw the sight blade bisect his nose and he felt the narrow grooved trigger under his finger and he saw the cylinder roll around and the worn checkering of the hammer as it came back and then fell forward --

He saw a man a little to the left, watching --

Watching him.

Not the assassin, not his mother, watching him.

 

Linn blinked, looked up in surprise:  his hand came up and he pulled the towel off his shoulder, carefully dried his guest's feet, one, then the other, sliding the dishpan carefully to the side, noting with surprise how tepid, almost cool, the water was all of a sudden.

 

Willamina carefully lowered the towel into the dishpan of tepid water, squeezed out most of its watery payload:  she lay it over her son's belly and chest, waited a few moments, lay another beside it.

"I don't want to cool you off too fast," she explained, as if he were awake and actively listening.  "Too cool and your capillaries will shrink and that won't let the heat carry out of your core."

Linn's eyes snapped open, as if surprised:  he looked past Willamina and said distinctly, "You were there!"

 

Linn dried the man's feet carefully, thoroughly, then worked his own dry socks, clean and freshly removed from his suitcase, onto the man's now warmed feet.

He looked up at him.  "You were there," he said -- a statement of fact, not a question.

"Yes.  I was."

"Who are you?"

The man smiled a little.  "Me?"  He shrugged, considered, then looked back at Linn and smiled.

"I'm an angel."

"Then you'd know one of my great uncles.  His name was Jacob."

"I knew him, yes, he and Sarah and a host of others."  He chuckled.  "Jacob was well named.  I never wrestled your Jacob the way I did another Jacob."  

"You cheated on that one," Linn said in an accusing tone.  "You disjointed his hip."

"That's the only way I could keep him from whipping me!" the stranger exclaimed in mock dismay.

Linn stood, picked up the dishpan, carefully, walked over to the sink, poured it in.

He turned, frowned, puzzling.

"I never thought angels looked like chubby babies with wings," he admitted, "but I thought you angels had two heads and looked so scary people would wet their pants just to look at you."

The visitor laughed quietly.  "We also go in disguise."

"Like Sarah used to."

Again that quiet chuckle, that understanding nod.  "She had better legs."

Linn's grin was quick, boyish, then his grin faded a little and a worried expression took over.

"How come you're here, then?"

"I'm the Angel of Death."

Linn tasted copper and he took a few quick steps to the side, positioning himself between the newcomer and his Mama.

"Not my Mama," he said, and there was a warning in his voice.

"No."  The visitor stood.  "Are you willing to go in her stead?"

"I'm willing to stop you, mister, right here and right now."

"You'd try?"

"You are flesh and blood and nothing more," Linn said flatly.  "You abide by the physical rules of this world while you are in this form and I can stop you."

The visitor nodded.  "And would she do the same for you?"

 

Willamina Keller pulled the first of the four tepid-damp towels off her son, waved it a few times to shed the heat, draped it back over his thigh:  she was rotating the towels, peeling one off, waving it to cool it, then replacing it:  one leg, the other left, left chest and belly, right chest and belly.

She turned to see someone she'd seen before and she drew a Daine-forged blade from her knee high boot top.

"Don't try it," she snarled, and she felt her face tighten and her blood cool several degrees.

"Are you willing to go in his place?" the visitor asked, and Willamina crouched ever so slightly, another blade whispering from the other boottop, shining with a blue and deadly reflection along its honed edge as she hissed, "Don't try it.  I will stop you."

 

Linn opened his eyes, blinking.

His Mama sat in the chair beside the bed:  damp towels covered his nakedness.

He looked around, puzzled, not remembering how he got to bed.

Willamina raised her head, looked at Linn, smiled a little.

"How do you feel?" she asked gently.

"I had a funny dream," Linn admitted.

"Hungry?"
"I'm starved."

"I wrapped a sandwich for you, it's in the fridge."

Willamina rose, looked toward the door, tilted her head a little to the side as if puzzling over something.

Linn followed her gaze and saw an empty dishpan in the middle of the floor, with a folded, clean, dry pair of his socks in it.

Mother and son looked at one another.

"That must have been quite a dream," Willamina said speculatively.

"Yes, ma'am," Linn admitted.  "I'm lucky you didn't name me Jacob."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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188. SCHOOL DAYS

Sheriff Willamina Keller didn't look up.

"In," she said shortly, her voice loud, a little edged:  it had been one of those days:  she'd had to serve a warrant on a hostile individual, and ended up bringing the subject in, in irons: she'd had to deliver a death notice, stabilize an overdose patient until the medic squad arrived, she'd had to shoot a dog who'd been injured too badly when he ran out in front of a truck, and now she was working on the files, the cases, the reports, that are the bane of the badge packer's existence.

The door opened and Linn stepped in, balancing two cups of coffee in one hand and carrying a plastic sack that looked suspiciously like it contained food containers.

"Permission to come aboard," he said -- a statement, not a request -- and stopped just short of her desk.

"Ma'am, if you don't take one of these coffees, I'm probably going to drop it."

Willamina hissed out her breath, placed her pen very carefully, very precisely alongside the edge of her green desk blotter.

Anyone else would have thrown the pen down, or across the room:  her son recognized this as a sign she was sorely put upon, her temper short, and her fatigue great.

Willamina rose, plucked a coffee from atop its companion, reached for the sack:  "How you carried that coffee without dumping is beyond me," she admitted, and she saw the smile that almost escaped her firstborn's eyes.

"Good reflexes," he said quietly.  "The shrimp was on special."

Willamina turned back the sippy cap, took a noisy slurp of coffee, sat down, eyes closed, and tilted her head back:  she swallowed slowly, carefully, savoring the moment, the flavor, the warmth.

"Oh, God, that's good," she groaned, and it was not entirely an exclamation, Linn knew:  he'd breathed that same prayer of thanksgiving in moments of unexpected gratitude.

Linn peeled down the sack, lifted out one flat, square, white foam container:  "They're both the same. There's salt in the sack for your fries."

"Do you know me or what," Willamina said tiredly.  "Thank you."

"I heard about your day."

"I thought you might."

Willamina flipped back the food box's lid, bit the salt packet, tore off its end:  inelegantly spitting the torn end toward the trash can, she sprinkled the crinkle cut fries, tore another free, sprinkled it as well.

"The doctor asked me if I was watching my salt," she smiled, "and I said of course."  She looked up at her son and saw his understanding look as she continued, "I watch it cascade in shining crystals all over my fries, but I didn't tell him that part."

Linn salted his as well, setting his coffee close to his edge of his Mama's desk:  they turned their attention to the serious business of eating, and not until most of their repast was consumed did either one come up for air.

"I did not know," Willamina admitted, "just how hungry I was."

"Yes ma'am," Linn murmured politely.  

"How was school today?"

"I'm presenting for the National Honor Society induction."

"Presenting?"  Willamina's fingers traced the bottom of the styrofoam container, hopefully seeking a stray shrimp she'd missed:  disappointed, she stacked Linn's empty tray into hers, folded them shut, sacked them and dropped them into her trash can.

"Yes, ma'am. Tomorrow we induct and I present as Scholarship."

Willamina's eyes widened as she remembered, and Linn waited, knowing a memory was floating to the surface, and sure enough, it did.

"Robert Porter was our advisor," she said thoughtfully.

"He still is."

"He showed us the torch we were to carry when we walked out into the center of the gym floor, turned slowly to eyeball the entire student body assembled, and then raise the card and read off the name."

"Yes, ma'am.  We practiced that today."

"Did he have the torch?"

"Yes ma'am. Brand new, it's LED and runs on a cluster of AAA batteries."

Willamina almost laughed:  Linn saw his Mama relax a little more, and nod.

"Ours was a can of Sterno screwed down to a short wooden handle."

Linn raised an eyebrow.  "Live flame, in a schoolhouse?  By sixth grade we wern't allowed to have electric lights on an artificial tree in the classroom!"

"Robert Porter," Willamina said thoughtfully.  "He taught Government."

"Still does."

"I used to sleep in his class."

Linn's grin was quick, broad, understanding.

"He always watched the back of the class where the troublemakers sat.  He'd catch one of them starting to drowse and he'd call their name and wake them up, and he would strut back and forth across the front of the classroom like a rooster."  Willamina smiled again, that secret smile of hers she showed when she shared a memory.  "I sat in the very front and ... well, it was right after lunch, and I'd sleep through his class and he'd never see me."

Linn nodded, grinning.

"He showed us the Sterno torch and lit it and he went on how safe it was, and we didn't have to worry about it going out -- he whirled around to show it wouldn't blow out, and a gob of jellied alcohol flew out and hit the stage, still burning."

Willamina saw her son's eyes shift to the side and she knew he was automatically thinking of the location, and where the nearest extinguisher was.

"I went over and very carefully smothered it -- I was quick, though, saddle shoes have a rubber sole and I didn't want to melt and stick to the stage!"

"No, ma'am."

"I was Scholarship, too."  She leaned back, took a long breath.  "I remember I gripped the sides of the podium -- Mr. Porter told me to let go, it looked like I was either a drowning man seizing a life ring, or I was ready to throw it if anyone laughed!"

"You were nervous, ma'am?"

"Nervous?"  Willamina smiled.  "Linn, I was terrified."

She leaned forward a little as she admitted this long-hidden secret.

"It was the very first time I would have spoken in public, and I was scared!"

"That's why you had me present in garb and in character as Jacob Keller for tourists and museum groups."

"Bingo."

Linn nodded.  "I read somewhere that people fear public speaking more than a root canal, a used car salesman or an IRS audit."

"They do," Willamina agreed frankly.

Linn nodded again, and his mother looked up at the clock and sighed.

"I've got a meeting with the prosecutor," she said, rising, guzzling the last of her coffee.

Linn rose as his mother did, and he took her empty, hugged her quickly.

"Love you, Mama."

"I love you, too."

"I'll take Pa some shrimp, they still have some left."

"He'll like that."  Willamina looked at the files, open on her desk.  "I'll tend those when I get away from the prosecutor."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I might be late.  Don't wait up."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good night, Linn."

"Night, Mama."

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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189  YES MA'AM, IT SNOWED

 

There was a minor explosion as something big and black roared up out of the snowbank, did a complete somersault and dove headfirst back into the hole he'd come out of.

Linn thrust out of the snow, more like a periscope driving up through the waves than a Polaris roaring out of the whitecaps:  he blew like a whale, shook like a wet dog and laughed like the delighted child he was.

"Bear Killer!" he called, his voice high, piping, the voice of a nine year old boy in a moment of utter delight, and The Bear Killer swam to the surface, shook like he was shedding ten gallons of rain water, pink tongue run out in an expression of canine delight.

Linn tried to breast through the snowdrift and made but little progress -- the drift was up to his shirt pockets -- but he persevered, and made it back to the barn, where he climbed back into the loft, opened the high door, looked out at the snowdrifts below and jumped.

He timed his dive just right, rotating and landing back-first into the white and fluffy stuff, and penetrated nearly to the ground:  a struggle, a thrashing, he got his feet under him and came back to his feet, laughing.

The Bear Killer looked at him around the end of the barn, where the ground was almost bare -- he had a curious look to his face and a comical appearance to the rest of him, for his coat was well dusted with white diamonds, with an irregular cone of snow on top of his head.

Linn laughed and slogged through the snow again, working against the crystallized drifts, fighting his way into the clear and running back into the barn.

He swarmed into the loft again, but this time opened the other doors, looked down at the waiting saddle stock.

Linn laughed, seized the hay fork, charged the hay stacked in the loft:  "HAAAA!" he yelled, driving into an imaginary enemy, then going suddenly from playful child to responsible boy.

Linn forked hay down for the horses, knowing how much to put down -- his Mama showed him, and he paid attention when she showed him -- he climbed back down, scooped grain into the trough, made sure water was flowing in the watering trough.

"C'mon, Bear Killer!" he yelled happily, running out of the barn toward the house, charging back up the path he'd broken a few hours before.

 

Willamina looked up as something young, grinning, and absolutely covered in snow came stomping in through the front door:  she watched as he hooked off his boots, left them in the boot tray, shook snow over an amazing square footage of hardwood floor as he came out of coat and wet britches, then came laughing toward the kitchen, his cheeks bright red from cold and snow.

"Hungry?"  Willamina laughed, and Linn's grin grew a little broader, then Willamina, wife and mother this morning, caressed Linn's damp hair and tilted her head a little as she regarded her third-grader affectionately.

"You're cold and you're wet," she declared, "and breakfast is ready.  Did it snow out or something?"
The Bear Killer shook, slinging melt-water for a truly amazing distance, and then paced over to the cast iron stove, curling up on the warm floor in front of the mica-widowed firebox.

"Yes, ma'am," Linn declared happily.  "It snowed!"

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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190.  ON A SNOWY NIGHT

 

Bonnie McKenna looked very proper as she sewed, rocking gently in her handmade Daine rocking chair, a gift from the Sheriff: he had three made, one for himself, one for his own green-eyed bride, and one for Bonnie.

Sarah regarded the Sheriff with pale eyes, her head tilted a little to the side, and the Sheriff felt something flutter in his chest, the way a man will when he realizes that a little girl is suddenly not so little anymore.

He had a secret, one he would not divulge for a month yet, a secret found in a family Bible that was almost discarded, but rescued at the last moment.

Sarah blinked and then smiled quietly.

"I remember," she began confidently, hesitating to shoot a look at her Mama -- it was an era when children were seen and not heard, but Sarah was never one to stand on convention, unless it suited her needs -- she lifted her chin, took another breath, folded her hands in her apron and started again, turning to face the Sheriff squarely.

"I remember when you found me that winter," she said, and the Sheriff felt a smile start to tug at the flesh behind his ears, narrowing his eyes ever so slightly at the corners:  Bonnie looked over, a knowing expression, for she could tell when a smile was hiding behind the lawman's poker face.

The Sheriff nodded slowly.

He didn't have to ask which winter, for he remembered it well.

 

Bonnie's violet eyes were shining with distress as her knuckles rapped an urgent tattoo on the Sheriff's door.

Esther opened the door, her mouth open in surprise:  Bonnie's expression was one of a woman somewhere between tears, and anger: Esther seized her old and dear friend's elbow, pulled her into the house, shut the door against winter's cold and the wind-blown snow.

Bonnie spun the shawl from around her head and shoulders, handing it to the maid, allowed Esther to unfasten her cloak and unwind it from around her shoulders, and then Bonnie Lynne McKenna, businesswoman, survivor of murder and brutality, mother and soon to be married, bit her bottom lip and swayed for a moment before seizing Esther's shoulders, then embracing her with the desperation of a drowning man seizing a life-ring in a tempestuous sea.

Esther knew something troubled the woman to an unprecedented degree -- she'd never seen Bonnie so openly upset -- her husband's hand, warm and strong, rested on her shoulder and she heard his whisper, "Dearest?"

Bonnie lifted her face, tears wet and shining down both cheeks.

"It's Sarah," she blurted.  "She ran out to play in the snow and now she's gone!"

The Sheriff's eyes hardened: Bonnie had seen the man in rage and in moments of the Law's harsh judgement, and in such moments, his eyes went ice-pale, hard as the frozen heart of a high mountain glacier: his eyes were different when he heard it was Sarah: Bonnie saw strength and resolve, and she knew in her innermost heart that this man would not stop until he bore Sarah back to her Mama.

Alive and breathing, or otherwise; peacefully, or otherwise:  this she divined in that one momentary glance.

Esther steered Bonnie to a chair, knelt by the chair and soothed her dear friend, patting her hand and instructing the maid to bring them hot tea.

 

"I remember the wind," Sarah said gently, as her Mama embroidered with tiny, precise stitches, bringing a flower to full bloom on good shirtfront linen, taut in her embroidery hoop:  "and I remember how the snow kissed my cheek, how light and feathery it was."

The Sheriff nodded as well, rising as his wife came into the room with the maid:  the hired girl wore a black-and-white maid's house-gown, with a ruffled white cap, and carried a tray with tea and sandwiches:  Sarah stepped quickly out of the way, swinging behind the Sheriff's chair as Esther sat, blinking as she considered Bonnie's work.

"Oh, my, that's gorgeous," she murmured softly, and Bonnie smiled a little:  she knew it was gorgeous, but she also liked to hear other people say it.

The maid poured tea, handed out delicate, eggshell china teacups of steaming, fragrant, amber oolong on equally delicate saucers:  Sarah sat carefully, lowering herself onto the upholstered settee, thanking the maid with a smile as she received her steaming beverage.

The maid turned to the Sheriff, cup and saucer in one hand, teapot in the other.

The Sheriff tried to look innocent as the maid looked up at him with an amused expression.

"I'm not sure if I should scold you until you sit down, or thank you for being a gentleman," she said quietly, so only he could hear:  of course, everyone heard her words anyway:  Bonnie opened her mouth to comment, but Sarah beat her to it with a brisk, "I vote for the gentleman!" to which the Sheriff replied with a grave solemnity, "Flattery, my dear, will get you everywhere!"

He accepted the cup and saucer, waited until the maid curtsied and withdrew, and then sat.

"You, sir, are making my future life difficult," Sarah said frankly.

Bonnie and Esther hid their expressions behind carefully lifted teacups; the Sheriff's eyebrow raised and he asked, "Now how's that, darlin'?"

"You have set such a fine example of what a husband and father should be, that I shall be hard pressed indeed to find a suitable mate!"

Esther snorted, lowered her teacup, coughed violently into a lacy kerchief hastily seized from a convenient sleeve:  Bonnie snorted, pressing the backs of her fingers to her nose to keep hot tea from dribbling out of her snot box.

The Sheriff rose, took a step and a half, and went to one knee before Sarah Lynne McKenna:  he gravely took her hand, raised her knuckles to his lips, kissed the backs of her fingers once, delicately.

"My dear lady," he said solemnly, "I do not believe I have ever received such a fine compliment in my entire life!"
Sarah's eyes darkened a little, and she felt something new stir inside her:  she was coming into womanhood, and this was a new feeling for her, and she filed it efficiently away in a drawer for later examination:  it felt very much like it did when the Sheriff found her, a mile from home, on a snow blowing night much like this one.

 

Linn's knit muffler was wrapped around his neck, over his silk wild rag:  both were pulled up over his face, his back strap taut behind his head, holding his Stetson on:  he preferred the back strap to the storm strap commonly seen in the Border country, and he preferred the narrower brim worn by men in brushy or wooded territory:  wide enough to be useful, but not so wide as to be knocked off at every whipstitch.

He rode his Cannonball mare, following the meandering path, quickly filling, that looked like it might be made by an energetic child, or perhaps a child following a favorite dog.

The Sheriff rather suspected the latter was the case.

There was little light; snow clouds were pushed aside, he suspected by a cold winter wind, and the moon shone at a low angle, enough to show the meandering willy-worm shadowing across the sparkling snowfield:  he wasn't more than an hour finding her, not more than an hour before he came into a draw, where a fold in the tortured terrain kept the wind at bay, with an eddy of snow shallow and disturbed and marking the shadowed shelter.

"Sarah?" the Sheriff called, and he heard a familiar, canine whuff! and a drowsy little-girl voice called, "Daddy?" and the Sheriff felt at once a relief, and a grief, for he'd lost his little girl twenty years before, and still woke, imagining he could hear her voice calling for him.

Cannonball lowered her head, blowing, and a shadow flowed out of deeper shadow, came up, touched noses in greeting:  the Sheriff swung down out of his saddle, bent and ruffled The Bear Killer's ears.

"Good boy," he whispered, and The Bear Killer's great brush of a tail swung in black arcs across the white snow.

Sarah's voice sounded a little more awake and the Sheriff's eyes adjusted to the lesser light.

"Sarah," he said gently, "I like your shelter!"

"It's not very good," she said sadly, "I didn't have a knife or nothin' so I had to use what I could scrounge."

Her voice sounded so little-girlish, so rueful, that the Sheriff could not help but chuckle as he knelt, ran his arms under her, picked her up.

"Let's get you home," he whispered, his words warm as they puffed gently against her pink ear, and Sarah giggled, hugging the Sheriff quickly, impulsively.

The Sheriff bent, set her on her feet:  he unfastened his coat, then opened it, dipped his knees to envelope the little girl, wrapping his coat around her as he did:  he hugged the coat shut around her and she hugged him under the coat, she turned her face sideways and laid her head against his chest, and he felt as much as heard her sigh of contentment.

He pulled the piggin strings loose from behind the saddle, took his blanket roll, gave it a one-handed snap, then set his boot in the stirrup:  The Bear Killer tilted his head a little, watching as the lawman with the iron grey mustache hauled himself and his burden into the saddle:  he got Sarah situated, got the blanket wrapped around the both of them, then -- holding Sarah and the blanket with both hands -- he blessed yet again the good sense that bade him knee-train his Cavalry mounts back during that damned War, and ever since then.

He saw Bonnie peering out the door, he saw her silhouetted clearly against the glass, her hands cupped around her eyes:  a cloud whisked itself from in front of the moon as they approached the house, and Bonnie fumbled nervelessly at the cut-crystal doorknob, her hands suddenly nerveless and clumsy:  Esther soothed her aside, turned the knob, drew the door open and stepped aside as Bonnie stepped on the hem of her skirt and went face first a-sprawl on her front porch.

Sarah was still cuddled against the Sheriff's chest, covered up and warm, relaxed and safe: she was somewhere between sleep and awake, and she felt Cannonball's rhythm shift and slow and stop, and the Sheriff felt her twist a little and take a deep breath, the way a child will when the wake from relaxed slumber.

The Sheriff sidled Cannonball up against the porch, stood in his stirrups:  he loosed the encircling blanket, let it fall away from his shoulders:  he worked his hands under Sarah's arms, lifted her free, handed her over the porch railing to her mother, who seized the long-legged child with a little squeak of happiness.

 

Linn sipped his tea, savoring its warmth, delighting in its taste:  he drank shocking volumes of tea, but he'd learned that when the ladies offered him tea, it was worth his while to accept:  he remembered how good hot tea tasted that night, after he'd gotten Sarah home, after Bonnie whisked the drowsy child upstairs and to bed, after Esther embraced him and held him for several long moments, and finally raised her head, laughing, and looked up at her husband.

"Mr. Keller," she said, merriment in her green eyes, "I can smell another woman's perfume on you!"

"Yes, ma'am," the Sheriff said gently, smiling down at his red-headed bride.  "I've been consorting with a younger woman!"

Esther laughed, came up on her tiptoes, kissed her husband, lightly, delicately.

"I'm proud of you," she whispered, and Linn kissed her and she felt his arms tighten around her as he slid his cheek alongside hers, until his lips were even with her ear, and he whispered, "She made a shelter and had The Bear Killer to keep her warm.  I think she'd gathered enough dry stuff to have survived the night."

"What kind of things has Charlie Macneil been teaching her?"  Esther asked, surprised.

I laughed, quietly, my lips an inch from her ear. 

"Only what's necessary, dearest.  You women teach her what a woman needs to know and we'll handle the rest."

 

I blinked, realized I'd been woolgathering.

Esther and Bonnie had apparently passed that embroidery hoop back and forth, needling out ideas the way women will when they're gifted at that sort of thing.

Sarah was regarding me quietly, the hint of a smile on her young face.

"I remember how I felt when you found me in the snow," she smiled.  "If I can find a husband to make me feel as absolutely safe as you, I shall be fortunate indeed."

I raised that delicate, bone china teacup, drained the last of its contents:  the maid appeared as if by magic to take it, and the saucer, and Esther rose, and I did too.

We took our leave not long after, and I brushed the snow off the tuck-and-roll upholstery before giving Esther my hand so she could ascend to the seat.

It wasn't terribly far to home, and the road was good:  the snow was not deep yet, and what was coming down was light, dry, the kind of snowflakes that look pretty but never amount to much.

"Mrs. Keller?"  I asked, reaching over and laying my hand on her gloved palm.

"Yes, Mr. Keller?"

"Mrs. Keller, I do enjoy a snowy night with a beautiful woman!"

Esther gave me a smoldering look through lowered eyelashes and her hand tightened around mine.

"Mr. Keller," she said, her voice warm, inviting, "you are a womanizing scoundrel, and I couldn't possibly love you more!"

It's a good thing the horse knew the way home.

I slacked the reins, I ran my free arm around my wife's shoulders, and I lowered my face to hers, and we did not come up for air for a good long time, and I don't reckon either of us felt even the least little bit cold for the rest of our drive.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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191.  FLINCH LOCK

"Uncle Pete?"

"Hm?"  

Pete Keller, rancher, uncle to Linn's pale eyed Mama, looked up, accepted the Styrofoam cup of steaming-hot coffee:  he smelled the rising vapors, caught just a hit of vanilla, and smiled.

"You remembered."

"It wouldn't be polite to ask if I didn't have something to give."

Will took a noisy slurp of his coffee, grunted with pleasure, nodded.

Linn set a box of doughnuts on his Uncle's workbench.

"Bribery," the younger Keller said with a straight face, "is an ancient and honored sport."

Pale eyes met pale eyes and both Keller men laughed.

"What is it you're asking?"  Pete inquired, hand hovering over the fragrant box of goodies, descending, bringing out something fresh, still warm and apple flavored.

"How did you know?"

 

Harold Keller was a master gunsmith.

Linn Keller was Harold's firstborn son.

Linn's rifle was handmade by his father:  built in the late Bedford County style, it was light, graceful, coming to shoulder like a feather on the breeze.

The rifle irritated the elder Keller, for it galled him to be wrong on anything.

He'd sized and proportioned the rifle flawlessly for the twelve year old boy Linn was, when he began the build:  he did not finish it until Linn was just shy of fifteen, and was considerably longer, taller and more sizable than he'd been when the rifle was first  intended.

The rebuild of the rifle was in the best curly wood Harold could find:  he'd used the same barrel, he'd reused a very little of the same furniture: the stock was more robust through the wrist, the lock more rounded, blunter, a style that would be seen in the Shining Mountains they'd heard of, for this was the rifle that went West.

He handed the rifle to his first born.

Linn looked at the lock, the inletting, the escutcheons, the eight point hunter's star inlaid in the cheek piece:  his fingers traced over the familiar patch box, rendered in silver, dulled with walnut.

"I consider this my masterpiece," the old man had said, and Linn remembered his father's quiet voice in that moment, remembered the words for the rest of his entire life:  he held a father's love in solid form, he held his father's skill and talent and all the man's wishes for this, the long tall son he'd sired.

The rifle was passed on to Linn's son, and his son after that, and in the fullness of time, the rifle hung on a wall in Colorado.

The old rifle was carried up a mountain and into a workshop, the old rifle was discussed and examined, the old rifle was disassembled and reassembled, its bore illuminated and examined.

Other hands held the rifle, hands belonging to another gunsmith, hands that knew the feel of a good flint rifle: other eyes regarded the workmanship, the design: another rifle was crafted, very much like this one: instead of a hand forged barrel, this new rifle's barrel said GR DOUGLAS; unlike this older rifle, the new one had a lock work that was shipped to Kentucky, to an old man with magic in his hands, who engraved its plate, the under side of the pan, who grew scrollwork on the stained-silver patchbox lid.

A gunsmith named Daine built this new rifle, so very much like the ancient exemplar that only the honest patina of old age -- and some corrosion around the touch hole -- marked original from copy.

This new rifle was handed to a man with pale eyes, a man who appreciated a well made flint rifle, a man who knew, on some level, that this rifle -- like its ancient exemplar, now resting quietly over his fireplace mantel -- had something to teach young hands.

Uncle Pete asked his niece to come over, and to bring her boy, and she did.

Uncle Pete asked young Linn to find his Appaloosa gelding and bring him around, and Linn was all grin and long legs as he pelted around the barn and was gone.

"That'll keep him occupied long enough," Will said quietly, then he laid a hand on Willamina's shoulder.

"I have an idea, Willa, and I'd like your opinion."

 

Linn grew out of childhood into awkward adolescence, as boys always do, but his awkwardness was tempered by good honest work, at home and at his Uncle Will's:  Will knew the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a boy, and he knew Linn already cared for his Mama's saddle stock, and his own, and Will knew that young hands and a young back would be a definite help around his place.

It used to be the Macneil ranch, and this Macneil bred some of the best mountain horses around:  Will had a few head, enough for his own needs, and when he and Linn were not working on his perpetually-ailing truck, or a tractor, or forking out stalls and throwing hay, they were at the rifle range, and more often than not they had that flint rifle Will had built, up on Daine Mountain, the year Linn was born.

Willamina watched through binoculars, smiling a little at Linn's serious expression: Uncle Pete always worked from a powder horn, never a flask (he said a flask would draw condensation and dampen the powder), he always shot a patched ball, and he perpetually delighted that Linn had the gift for edging a knife on a whet stone, a talent he himself lacked.

He watched as Linn chewed thoughtfully on the end of the pillow ticking strip, pouring in the measure of 3F powder: he sucked the excess out of the patching before laying it flat across the rifle's star-engraved muzzle.

"Thim what is well chawed flies straighter to the mark," Linn intoned solemnly, to which Pete replied "That's so," and he watched Linn press the ball down with the end of his pocket knife, slice off the ticking, fold and pocket the blade and draw the ramrod free.

He'd already half-cocked and snapped the frizzen shut: ball seated, he took a second look at the ramrod to guarantee the knife-scribed line was level with the muzzle, showing the ball was fully down: he brought the rifle up, fished the priming horn from his shirt pocket (it had been the fork of an Eastern whitetail antler, bored out for the purpose) and tapped some truly ancient Curtis & Harvey 4F into the pan: he'd bought an amber Watkins vanilla bottle nearly full of the stuff years ago, and used it exclusively for priming.

Linn snapped the battery-piece shut, hesitated, blinking:  he looked out across the length of the rifle range, looked left and right, guaranteeing no live stock was anywhere near.

Will watched as Linn took a long breath, let it out, took a second, deeper, sighed it out as well, then a third:  the rifle came up, balanced in his left hand:  he brought it to shoulder, breathing deeply, steadily, and Will worked the earplugs into place as Linn reached up and hooked a forefinger around the jaw screw.

He wrapped his hand around the rifle's substantial wrist, took one final breath, sighed half of it out.

Pete waited.

He smiled just a little as the rifle fired with its usual, nearly-instantaneous lock time.

 

"I remember when you hit five hen's eggs with five shots."

"I remember."

"A hundred yards it was, and offhand."

"It was."

Linn tore a doughnut in half, dunked one of the torn ends in his coffee, and Uncle Pete did the same:  each one slurped the coffee-dripping pastry noisily, and both ended up with coffee running down their clean-shaven chins.

Linn handed Pete a napkin, pinched up one for himself, wiping the excess off his mug before doing it again.

"I hunted with that rifle."

Uncle Pete nodded, smiling.  "As did I."

"That's why I'm here."

Pete raised an eyebrow.

"Oh?"

 

Linn lay absolutely still.

His rifle was solid, reassuring in his grip.

His was the patience of the hunter.

He was hunting a man he knew, and he intended fully to kill this man, and he knew that -- given the chance -- this man would not hesitate to kill him.

He knew this because Linn was a lawman, because Linn grew up in a family of lawmen, because Linn had seen these things play out before, and when a rancher's little girl was taken and the rancher nearly killed, Linn pulled the rifle from his Jeep and took out after the abductor.

He thought like his quarry, and he'd been right: he'd paralleled the fleeing felon's course, he'd gotten a good position, then moved, reasoning that -- if he were on the dodge -- he'd be looking at all the places a man could use for a sniper's hide.

The abductor was armed, of course, but the abductor had a hostage, and the abductor wasn't sure whether to use the hostage as a shield, or simply keep the child controlled, and when they stopped, and Linn saw him lay down his pistol and pull out a length of rope, his eyes tightened a little at the corners and he settled the cross hairs on the abductor's left eye.

He'd taken three deep breaths and let them out, he'd taken one final breath and let half of it out, and he felt the curved, grooved trigger under his finger.

The abductor's head snapped back and his hands fell away, and the child pulled free and ran, ran toward the gunshot, and in part of his imagination, Linn could hear the sn'bam! of a properly tuned flintlock, and for a moment, for just a moment, he saw the flash of fire squirt out the touch hole in his mind.

 

"I brought him his little girl," Linn said quietly.  "He'll be all right now."

Pete nodded thoughtfully.

"I've got quite a bit of paperwork to tend."  Linn rose, looked at the two rifles, hung over his Uncle Pete's thick walnut mantel.

He looked back.

"I am obliged to you," he said quietly.  "You taught me when a man only has one shot, he has to make it count."

Pete leaned back and remembered, after his guest left, how his parting words hung on the still air, there in his widower's tidy, terribly empty, kitchen.

"I made one shot count."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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192.  HIGH LONESOME

High school boys, generally, chased girls or ran cars at unsafe speeds down narrow dirt roads, sneaked beer and lied about their exploits -- either to sound like they were getting in trouble, or to try and get out of trouble.

There were exceptions, those unseen, taken-for-granted, reliable young men who quietly achieve and who are often and very unjustly lumped in with their troublemaking peers.

Once, and only once, did Linn try strong drink, and of course his mother knew all about it -- she was, after all, a mother, and mothers are both psychic, omniscient and far-seeing:  she knew the need to let a tall boy make his mistakes and learn from them, as much as she might want to spare him the grief.

He did not miss school; his schoolwork did not suffer; his chores were all done, and well done, but her tall, lean-waisted son looked bad and looked like he felt worse, and when he finally brought himself to confess his sin to her -- two months after the fact -- he admitted ruefully that, after finding rum very much to his taste at first, he hadn't had a morning after, he'd had a day after -- his mother nodded and patted his hand and said quietly, "I knew you had to find out for yourself," and that's all she said about it.

He remembered this when discussion arose at the Historical Society's meeting, in the Firelands museum, about phrases used in days past.

He'd read and re-read every last one of the Journals in his Mama's library, and one phrase puzzled him.

He knew the rock shelf the Old Sheriff called High Lonesome.

He knew it well.

He'd been there many times; he'd worked his way back under the shelf, to the bigger opening within, where he'd interred his beloved Bear Killer, where ashes of his ancestors were secreted, where he himself planned to have his ashes deposited, in the fullness of time:  he knew this overlook with the narrow, treacherous goat's path access, was a favorite place for Old Pale Eyes to come and be alone, to let his spirit flow like water spreading across rocky ground, allowing stress and distress to evaporate from him.

He looked, puzzled, at the featured speaker, a professor recruited for the presentation, a researcher who specialized in linguistics and who delighted in the slang and unique language spoken during the Western era.

Linn leaned forward a little, elbows on his knees, listening carefully as this professor explained that "High Lonesome" was a phrase used to describe one hell of a drunk, something that brought a man clear through celebration into a near death condition, a drunk so utterly profound as to verge on alcohol poisoning, one that left his liver aching, his stomach in rebellion for a few days and with the general feeling of having been dipped in a vat of debauchery and left there to marinade for a while.

The presenter sorted through the documents he'd brought and looked over his half-glasses at Linn's pale eyed Mama.

"You may wish to review this," he said quietly, stepping away from the podium for a moment and handing her the manila envelope, before returning to his position and continuing with his presentation.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller frowned a little as she read, one hand relaxed, fingers curled, resting against her upper lip, the other hand holding the page a little further away then usual -- I need my glasses changed, she thought, my arms are getting short again -- and she considered the tidy, efficient hand of a long dead priest, discussing his day's journey and the work that he did.

She read and she saw in her mind's eye, and she looked up as her long tall son paced almost silently toward the front door, and she saw the revolver on his belt -- not the usual modern .44 he usually carried, but a reproduction Colt Navy revolver:  with it, a leather cartridge-box which she knew contained paper cartridges, rather than a flask and round balls, and in the smaller pouch beside, she knew he had a flat brass, snail capper.

He felt he eyes on him and turned.

"You're going to the High Lonesome," Willamina said.

It was a statement, not a question.

Linn's hand halted its rise; his fingers relaxed instead of closing on Stetson felt, and he turned to face his Mama squarely.

"Yes, ma'am."

"A moment, if I may."

Linn's eyebrow raised, his head turned slightly as if to bring a good ear to bear: he paced across the floor, gripped a chair and drew it close to his Mama's roll top desk, folded his lean frame like a man might fold a jack-knife, and seated himself, looking very directly at his quietly attentive Mama.

Willamina lay the hand written sheets on the open manila envelope.

Linn could tell their age, by their appearance; they were good rag paper, and a little yellowed, mostly around the edges, as if they'd been kept in a book, with only those yellowed edges exposed to the oxidizing air.

"Do you remember," Willamina said carefully, "seeing our ... ancestors?"

"You mean when Sarah's ghost or Old Pale Eyes' shade came to say howdy," Linn grinned.  "Yes, ma'am."

"When you go up on the High Lonesome, take a blanket to set on.  That rock is cold and hard on the backside and you'll want something you can fold up into a nice thick seat."
"Yes, ma'am."

"When you do, you'll want to listen with more than your ears."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Do not be surprised if Old Pale Eyes sits down beside you."

"No ma'am."

She leaned forward, laid her hand, cool and gentle, on her son's warm knuckles.

"Your hands are warm, like your father's," she smiled.

"Yes, ma'am."

"I'll have supper ready when you get back."

"Yes, ma'am."

 

Linn unsaddled his Paso mare, rubbed her nose, fed her a thick curl of shaved off molasses twist tobacker.

"Graze and be damned," he whispered, "I'll be back before moonset."

The mare blew and dropped her head and began working on what grass could be had.

It took Linn maybe a half hour to climb the goat path to the rock shelf.

He could have ridden up there -- he had, when he was younger and more foolish, when he had a horse with goat's hooves, a small mount more sure-footed than he deserved:  as he climbed the path, he cussed himself, again, for ever having risked a good saddlehorse on the stupidity of riding to the shelf, simply because he wanted to, because Old Pale Eyes did it, one time, because Old Pale Eyes' son Jacob had done it, one time.

He kicked a couple loose chunks of rock off into the void, made his way with the ease of the mountain born along the vertiginous path, finally relaxing just a little as he came to the wide shelf known to his ancestors, and to himself.

He pulled his saddle blanket off his shoulder, folded it, laid it where he reckoned generations of his blood had parked their backsides:  he turned, looked around, looked above him at the sheer reach of granite above, smiled a little at how dark the sky was directly over head:  he turned, sat, leaned back against the rock, his hat brim folding up a little the way it did as he leaned back.

Linn sighed out a long breath, took another, deep, deliberate, exhaled again, feeling the day's tensions flow out of him like water out of a holed waterskin.

His hand went to the reproduction Navy Colt in its slender holster, secure on his side:  he'd worked with it, changed out nipples, burnished the hammer face, he'd honestly shot the daylights out of it, casting round balls by the hundred, gaining a great liking for this natural pointing, surprisingly accurate revolver:  he had more powerful revolvers, but he had none in which he had more confidence of a clean draw, fire and hit.

The saddle blanket kept the heat from sinking out of his backside into the rock; there was enough sun, but barely enough, to warm him a little, but little though it was, it was enough.

A strong young man, having put in an honsest day's work, can fall asleep easily, and Linn did.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller sat on a folded blanket, leaned back against sheer granite, relaxed.

He'd tended his own saddle stock and other necessaries around his little rancho, in addition to everything needed in his work as Sheriff:  he'd had supper, his belly was full, and he'd described himself in the past as being like an old b'ar:  "I eat, I set down, I relax, I falls asleep!"

He did not open his eyes as he heard the whisper of bullhide on stone.

He waited until he felt his visitor's presence, then he spoke without opening his eyes.

"Abbot, what brings you clear up here?"

"You do, you long tall drink of water," Abbot William said firmly -- in another location he might have boomed the words as heartily as any Irishman, but here, the mountains inspired a hush, and he did not wish to raise his voice.

"Drag up a rock and have a set."

Abbot William gathered his cloak under him, fan folded about a third of it to set on, kept the rest of it around him.

"Don't you get cold?"  Sheriff Linn Keller asked, and William chuckled:  "After the winters we shared? Sheriff, I can roll up in my cloak in the snow and not be cold!"

"There is that," Linn admitted.  "Of course we were younger then, and full of fire."

The Abbot reached out, laid a callused palm on the Sheriff's knuckles, grunted.

"You're remembering that old mountain witch."

"The one who said you have hot hands?"

Linn opened his eyes, blinked lazily, like a cat in a sunny windowsill, then he spoke in the reedy tones of a peevish old woman, quoting what he'd been told many years before.

" 'You have hot hands, a Healer's hands,' " he quavered, and they both laughed:  "That sounds just like her," William agreed.  "That's when you found you could stop blood with the Word and that you could blow fire."

"I remember," Linn said, his voice suddenly bleak.

"You've done it many times since."

Linn nodded, remembering seizing Duzy's hand, wrapping her fingers around the hilt of his short, sharp knife, pressing her hand and the knife's crossguard against the bloody wound under Jacob's collar bone:  he taught her the words and he felt the surge of heat from Duzy and himself both, a surge of power from each of them that collided through the knife and into his son, and stopped the bleeding that was flooding his lung and draining life from his lean young body.

 

Linn's eyes rolled back and forth under closed lids:  his body never moved, but the rapid eye motion betrayed the mind's activity.

 

"I remember that Colt Navy you were given in prison."

The Sheriff chuckled.  "So do I.  I honestly thought I'd have to kill Billy Cump."

"You could have found a welcome home in Georgia if you had."

The pale eyed Sheriff grunted.

"I still have it."

"I know."

"It's still a good accurate shooter."

The Abbot laughed.  "I remember you won two quarts of whiskey, splitting playing cards edgewise."

Linn laughed quietly.  "Sure did.  I gave the one quart back unopened, and we all shared that second quart."

 

Willamina looked up as her son came through the front door.

He hung his Stetson on the peg, hooked off his boots and stacked them in the rubber boot tray.

Willamina saw he had a folded, grey-wool bundle under his off arm.

She waited.

Linn was silent on sock feet as he came across the room:  he gripped the back of the chair he'd set in earlier, then eased himself down into the seat.

He considered for several long moments, then looked up at his Mama.

"How did you know?" he asked, his voice gentle.

Willamina laughed.  "I'm a mother," she said, her voice light.  "Mothers aways know."

Linn lifted his arm, handed his Mama the folded wool bundle.  "Explain this."

Willamina frowned, stood:  she unfolded the bundle, turned it, then bent and thrust it under her desk lamp:  shuffling the hem between her hands, she examined the stitching:  she came to a fastener, a loop-and-peg, simple, heavy, serviceable.

"Stand up," she said, and Linn rose obediently.

Willamina shook it out, spun it around her son's shoulders, ran the peg through the loop:  she stepped back, nodded, then unfast the peg, brought it off him.

"Sit."

She draped it across his lap, sat, folded her hands in her skirt.

"Fill me in."

Linn considered for a long moment.

"Ma'am, I fell asleep on High Lonesome, and that was beside me when I woke."

"I see."

"No one came-- I would have wakened -- nothing else was noticeable and I was not touched."

"Go on."

"This was folded nice and neat beside me and it looked like it had been set on."

"I see."  Willamina considered.  "Did you dream?"

Linn was silent for several heartbeats.

"Yes, ma'am," he said.  "I did dream."

 

Two weeks later, Linn stepped off the Z&W at the Rabbitville depot.

It was not far from the rebuilt depot, to the Monastery:  he was received by one of the black robed Brethren, admitted into the adobe walled sanctuary:  several hours later, Linn emerged, a book under his arm:  he returned to the depot, boarded the train back to Firelands.

He and his mother paged slowly through the book, stopped:  Willamina pulled open a drawer, withdrew a magnifying glass.

She studied the picture, handed the glass wordlessly to her son.

Linn looked at the picture, lifted the glass to enlarge the image.

Willamina saw his left eyebrow raise a little, and he looked at his Mama, and then at the folded wool cloak on a nearby shelf.

"I'll be damned," Linn said thoughtfully.  "The Abbot's cloak."

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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193.  ONLY ONCE IN MY ENTIRE LIFE

 

"Sheriff?"

Sheriff Linn Keller shut off the cruiser's engine, regarded the interruption with quiet, pale eyes.

"Sheriff, I was wondering ..."

Linn raised a finger, turned the ignition one notch:  he rolled the window back up, shut the ignition back off and withdrew the key, opened the door, swung out.

His well polished Wellington boots hit the pavement, flat footed:  pale eyes made a methodical sweep, then he thumbed the door lock, shut the door, reached up and spoke quietly into his shoulder mic.

"You have a question," Linn said, "and I need coffee.  With me."

The two men circled the parked cruiser, walked the half block to the drugstore.

I always did like this place, Linn thought.

Good memories.

His pale eyes went to his usual table, the one he'd shared many times with his mother, while she was Sheriff ...

While she was alive, his inner voice accused.

"Coffee, please," he said quietly to the soda jerk, who nodded:  the kid wore a paper cap and a white apron, white shirt and a black bow tie, the very image of a 1950s soda jerk, completely at home behind his chrome-and-polished-granite counter:  he looked questioningly at the newspaperman, who nodded.

Little Bruce, as Linn knew him, waited until their coffee arrived, and with it, a pitcher of milk, a coaster and the coffee pot, freshly brewed:  the soda jerk knew his customers, and he knew the Sheriff liked his coffee, and the ceramic mug he set down in front of each man was half again bigger than standard.

Linn added a long drizzle of milk to his coffee, turned its delicate handle toward Little Bruce, who shook his head:  Linn smiled, turned the pitcher back around, raised the mug to his lips, took a noisy slurp, eyes busy over the mug's rim.

"Don't you ever relax, Sheriff?"  Little Bruce asked, and Linn's eyes smiled a little as he lowered the steaming ceramic.

"Nope."

"Well, that's plain enough," Jones muttered.

"You have a question."

"Yes."  Jones blinked, puzzling his brows together momentarily, as if to summon the straying thought that brought him to address the pale eyed Sheriff in the first place.

Linn's gaze commanded the entire interior of the drugstore, including the soda jerk's domain to his left: there was an exit out back, under law every kitchen has to have an exit to the outside, and Linn had used it, time and again, though never as a have-to escape:  still, he sat where he himself could see the front door and the entire interior, and this only other approach.

"Sheriff, I was reading -- it was a back issue of the newspaper -- where you mother asked for your badge."

Linn nodded.  "She did."

"That was right after you saved that little girl that was taken."

"I remember."

"Half the town wanted to ride you on their shoulders and give you a golden key to the town."

Linn nodded, took another long slug of coffee.

"So what's your question?"

"Sheriff" -- Jones twisted a little in his seat, clearly uncertain.

"Sheriff, I knew your mother.  I know she didn't put up with ... anything."

Linn smiled, just a little, nodded.  "You could say that."

"I was reading my father's notes.  He was contemporary with your mother, and he had a great deal of respect for her."

"And she for him."

"Thank you," Jones said faintly.

"It's hard with them both gone, isn't it?"  Linn asked candidly, and Jones looked up, surprised, then nodded almost miserably.

"It is," he agreed.

"What was in your father's notes?"

Jones took a long breath, considered for a moment -- Linn expected him to take a swallow of coffee to buy himself another moment -- but the man looked up and said, "Is it true that someone slapped your mother when she asked for your badge?"

Linn's eyes were pale and unreadable:  his lips barely moved as he replied, his voice clipped.

"Yep."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller addressed the lean deputy standing in front of her desk.

"I can't have my deputies riding out to seek their own vengeance."

"I can't stand and wait for another child's murder."

"You didn't even call in."

"I handled it."

"You can't just ride out and shoot a man!"  she hissed, her hands fisting and pressing hard against her desk top.

Linn Keller, the pale eyed firstborn son of the pale eyed Sheriff, glared at his mother.

"I can," he said slowly, "I did, and I make no apologies for that."  He leaned forward, planted his knuckles on his mother's desk, his eyes cold, hard, unforgiving.  "I've seen what he did to those other girls he took.  I was not going to let him do it again, and I would do the same thing again."

The office door opened and a woman came in just as the Sheriff said, "I can't have you running out as your own posse.  I have to ask for your badge."

Deputy Linn Keller, Firelands County Sheriff's Office, reached up and tripped the clasp on his badge, pulled it loose.

He did not place it in his mother's outstretched hand.

He placed it on her desk, quietly, gently, then he unbuckled his gunbelt, swung it around, dropped it on her desk.

"I now return the department's gun rig," he said, "and here is the radio" -- the black Motorola with the curly cord mic followed -- "and here's the shirt."

He pulled his shirttail out, unbuttoned the uniform shirt, folded it and lay it on the desk as well.

"You WILL wait until I get home to change out of the trousers," he said, an edge to his voice.

Willamina looked past her son at another figure -- Bruce Jones, editor, reporter and photographer for the Firelands Gazette -- his eyes big, his mouth hanging open.

"I came in here to thank you for saving my little girl," the woman at Linn's left said:  her face was pale, the color stood out on her cheeks, she was white around her lips, uncertain whether to be incredulous or very, very angry -- she took a step, another, came around Sheriff Willamina Keller's desk.

The Sheriff turned a little, opened her mouth to say something.

The woman backhanded the Sheriff, hard.

"HE SAVED MY LITTLE GIRL'S LIFE!" she shouted, her face reddening, the cords in her neck standing out:  "HE KEPT MY DAUGHTER FROM BEING MUDERED AND YOU DO THIS?"