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200. A HAUNTED EXPRESSION

 

Saddles stood on the apron in front of the ambulance bay, binoculars in hand:  she was using the Sheriff's trick of gripping the barrels with all but her index finger:  she placed the eyepieces against the top of her bony orbits and pressed her forefingers against the sides of her forehead, and found it steadied the glasses to a surprising degree.

Her breath steamed in the still, cold night; the sky was clear as a bell, the stars shocking in their brightness, but Saddles was not looking at the glory above.

Saddles was looking across town and uphill a bit, looking at the old section of their graveyard, looking at something she could not quite figure out.

She felt more than heard someone behind her; strong hands rested gently on her shoulders, and a voice whispered, "Wha' d' ye see, lass?" and she smiled a little, leaning back into the reassuring strength of a man's muscled body:  his hands never shifted, but remained on her shoulders, warm, strong and feeling like big, strong Daddy-hands ought to feel.

"There's something in the graveyard," she said slowly, "and I can't quite make it out."

"I see it.  A shadow, like."

"No.  Not a shadow, it moved, and ... there it is, coming out from under those pines."
Saddles leaned forward just a little, as if to will her soul through the polished lenses and shoot it like a discerning arrow across the intervening distance.

"I see it, lass."  She felt the chuckle, deep in the man's belly, and she could not help but smile, for a little girl, warm and safe under her Daddy's big strong hands, will giggle when she feels her Daddy's laugh ... even if the little girl is a woman grown, and a veteran paramedic, and her Daddy is crowding retirement age.

"That," she whispered, "is a buffalo."

"Aye, lass, it is that."

"There's a boy with it."

"Aye."

"I heard there were woods buffalo reintroduced into Alaska, but where did this one come from?"

She felt the flat, muscled belly behind her shake again, and she knew there was silent, masculine laughter behind the intervening insulation:  "It's Christmas Eve, lass.  Things happen this time o' year."

 

Bruce Jones pressed a rapid series of buttons on the back of his camera:  he focused on the pair on the firehouse apron.

He'd killed the flash.

He wanted this shot with the natural light.

He'd set the suction cup mount on the roof of his car, he framed the shot, he set the timer, pressed the release, held his breath.

The image on the little screen on the back of his camera froze, and he smiled a little, for it perfectly framed the man with the handlebar mustache and the pressed-leather helmet, the man in the red, bib-front shirt and knee-high black boots, his hands resting protectively on a pretty, younger woman's shoulders, a woman in blue jeans and saddle shoes and a bulky uniform jacket with patches on front and shoulder, a young woman studying something intently through her binoculars.

 

Half a world away, somewhere in a mountainous area in Germany, an American diplomatic attache was indulging his love of archaeology by visiting what had been a forensic dig at the site of a ruined noblemen's schloss.

His German counterpart was as enthusiastic about the subject as the American, and the two were deep into a discussion of the findings; they were reviewing detailed drawings, rolled out on a portable table:  bored, the attache's daughter looked around, tilted her head curiously, walked toward the overgrown pile of rubble that -- her Daddy said -- used to be a fine lodge, very little less than a castle.

Susie tilted her head curiously, blinking:  everything was brush and low mounds of dirt with jagged corners of rock sticking out here and there, but now that she'd come around one pile, there was a smooth, level path, and there was a light, and she thought she heard laughter, and music.

Susie skipped ahead.

Her Mommy insisted she dress like a little Lady, because they were Representing Their People, and her Mommy said appearances were important, and so Susie wore a pretty dress and white tights and pretty shiny slippers, her hair was done up with a ribbon bow and she wore a skirted coat with furry trim around the sleeves and collar like the one her Mommy wore, and that was good 'cause it was chilly out here, and Susie took a few more steps and her eyes widened with delight.

Her Daddy told her the schloss was a ruin and just dirt piles and rocks and trees growing where it used to stand, and her Daddy must not have been here before, because it was shiny and clean and there were big pictures on the wall and people all dressed up and dancing, women in long dresses and men in fine suits and someone took her hand and said "May I have this dance?" and she jumped a little, startled, and then giggled, because the voice belonged to a boy about her age, a pale-eyed boy in an old-fashioned black suit with a funny tie like they wore in TV westerns, and he wore a cowboy hat and she blurted "I don't know how to dance," and he changed hands -- he pulled her arm up and out and ran his arm around her back -- "It's easy, like this," and Susie's breath caught, and she was dancing -- dancing, the way she'd imagined she might, some day -- they whirled and spun, just like the dancers around them, and Susie's head tilted back and she laughed with delight.

The music ended, finally; he bowed, still holding her hand, and she curtsied awkwardly, the way she saw the other women doing, and he said "C'mon, I want you to meet somebody," and they slipped between the couples and she was suddenly in front of a truly beautiful woman in a shining emerald gown.

Susie blinked and said "Hi," and the woman laughed, and sat gracefully in a velvet-upholstered chair, motioned her closer.

Susie saw she had pale eyes, almost white eyes, but as she looked at the attache's little girl, the pale eyes turned a shade of light blue.

They were gentle eyes, very kindly eyes, and Susie knew she need not fear.

The woman reached behind her neck, unfastened her old-fashioned choker necklace.

"This is yours," she said, and Susie's eyes widened again:  her hand extended automatically, and the woman placed the necklace in her hand.

"Look closely," she whispered, and part of Susie's mind realized the music was far away, and the woman's near-whisper was clear, distinct: her attention, though, was on the beautiful necklace draped across her palm.

The center was white jade -- oval, polished, glowing ... there were four emeralds spaced around the oval, and the ribbon was black silk.

Engraved into the jade was a rose -- flawlessly executed -- beautifully inscribed in precise black lines ... lines that suddenly shot through with color, and Susie took a sudden, delighted breath as a living green shot up the rose's stem and into its leaves, as the blossom streaked and then glowed red, lifelike, beautiful.

"That's what I said the first time I saw it," the pale eyed woman said.  "Here, let's see how it looks on you."

Susie raised her chin as the woman slipped the silk ribbon around her throat, under her hair at the nape of the neck:  it fit her perfectly and she felt a little click as it fastened at the back.

The woman turned, accepted a hand mirror from a stiffly-uniformed maid:  she held it up and Susie looked at herself, with the white-jade choker about her neck, her fingertips going to the jewel:  she looked up at the woman and whispered, "Thank you," and her father's voice called "Susie!"

Susie turned and it was suddenly almost dark again, and she was alone among trees and brush and low piles of dirt, and her father was coming through them toward her.

"Did you decide to go exploring without me?" he asked, and she nodded uncertainly:  he laughed and said "That's my girl," and hugged her quickly, then drew back and looked around.

"I think this was the grand ballroom," he said thoughtfully.

"I would absolutely love to have seen it, back when."

"It was very, very nice," Susie said softly, and her Daddy smiled indulgently, for little girls sometimes have big imaginations.

He took her hand and they made their way back to the car.

"Nice necklace, by the way," he commented.  "Christmas present?"

"Yes," she said shyly, and as he opened the door for her, she saw a little boy in a black suits, a little boy in a funny necktie and a cowboy hat, a little boy sitting on a big spotty horsie, a little boy who raised his hat as the horsie reared and windmilled his forehooves, and then disappeared.

 

A day or two later, Saddles and her Daddy were sitting at the firehouse table, working on breakfast, when Fitz came in, rubbing his eyes and tossing the paper casually onto the table.

"Ya made the front page," he mumbled, "you're buyin' the doughnuts," and Saddles riposted, "In your dreams, big boy," and she reached for the paper.

She unfolded it, frowned:  the Captain saw her take a closer look, then she turned and nearly ran for the equipment bay, began sidestepping rapidly down the row of portraits ... portraits of men who'd served the Firelands Fire Department, portraits dating back to its inception in the mid-1880s.

The Captain, curious, picked up his coffee cup and sauntered over to where his daughter was alternately looking at the front page of the paper, and then up at one of the portraits.

He stood behind his daughter and rested strong and fatherly hands on her shoulders, and she leaned back into his flat belly, feeling the reassuring warmth of her big strong Daddy, and she held up the newspaper and pointed to the front page picture, and then at the portrait.

"That," she said slowly, "wasn't you the other night."

"No," he said, just as slowly:  "no, darlin', but I'd say you have good taste in men!"

They stared at the portrait of the very first fire chief, an Irishman with a gloriously curled, absolutely black mustache, a man in a pressed-leather helmet and a red bib-front shirt.

 

Half a world away, a little girl in the back seat of a Mercedes limousine, a little girl wearing a pretty outfit and a delighted expression, sat beside her big strong Daddy, and secretly pressed delicate fingertips to her throat and the jade oval that rested in the little hollow between her collarbones.

In a firehouse in beautiful downtown Firelands, Colorado, a paramedic leaned back against her big strong Daddy and stared at a print made from the original glass plate, stared at Sean's image, a haunted expression on her face.

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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201.  JUDGEMENT CALL

Sheriff Linn Keller shaved bacon into the frying pan.

His guest stared hungrily at the bounty as it fell away from honed steel, as it got arranged beside its fellows in the hot stamped steel skillet, as the smell of a half dozen frying strips of bacon filled the air and reminded him of just how well filled his belly hadn't been for the past several days.

Linn set the bacon down on a clean spot, stobbed the knife in beside it, reached into his saddlebag.

"Catch," he said quietly, and a sweet roll, followed by a second, described an arc across the tiny clearing, to be eagerly caught by his guest's dirt-lined hands.

His guest uttered not even a grunt for thanks:  he was too busy driving his teeth through this welcome bounty.

Old Pale Eyes took no offense at the man's lack of gratitude.

He knew what it was to march on an empty stomach.

Matter of fact, he and this man had done just that, together, back during that damned War, back when they were both considerably younger.

The wind sent cold fingers curling into their shelter; the two men worked together, earlier, to drive aspen stakes into the ground, as best they could, then weave branches between, as a snow catcher and wind break:  it was working, and their horses, not far up-hollow, benefitted by this effort as well:  the wall curved a bit overhead on the Sheriff's side, bent in some on his guest's side, with the net effect of stopping almost all the falling snow:  the Sheriff knew it was bridged off, overhead, and though they lost most of their light, they gained in that it wouldn't drop cold flakes on them until thaw, and that wouldn't be for a few months yet.

Hinkle stared as the Sheriff produced four eggs from somewhere.

Eggs were a rare thing on the trail, unless you raided a bird's nest:  these were honest to God brown hen's eggs, and good sized ones they were, too:  the bacon was fried up well and just on the edge of crispy and the Sheriff brought them out, sizzling and dripping, laid them on the two tin plates he had in close to the fire:  Hinkle's jaws watered as the Sheriff cracked the eggs with a light chop of his knife, dropping the contents neatly into the sizzling bacon grease, then sprinkled on ground pepper from a little metal vial with a screw lid.

"Now I know why you made rank so fast," Hinkle grunted.  "You thought way ahead and prepared for what might come up."

Linn chuckled, used his knife to splatter hot bacon grease over the eggs.  

It wasn't until two hungry men set into their bacon and eggs, not until they sopped up egg yolk and bacon grease from their plates with the last of the sweet rolls, not until they'd chased their meal with sinner's-heart coffee, that either man spoke again.

"Hinkle," Linn said quietly as he added two thick chunks to the fire, rolling them together so they'd burn long into the night, "you look like a man livin' on the dodge."

Hinkle took a long breath, considered, then nodded.

"Yeah," he said, his shoulders falling a little as he did.

"Was I to sort through a stack of wanted posters back at the Sheriff's office, would I find yours among 'em?"

Hinkle smiled with half his mouth.

"It ain't likely," he admitted.  "Wanted dodgers don't get printed unless there's a good cash reward."
The Sheriff nodded.

"You haven't pulled anything in Firelands County, now, have you?"

Hinkle blinked, surprised. "Whereinell's Firelands County?" he blurted.

"Colorado. High country. Cripple Creek, Carbon Hill, over that-a-way."

"Oh hell no," Hinkle shook his head, relief untwisting his belly a little.  "No, I ain't set foot in Colorado yet."

The Sheriff's eyes tightened a little with amusement.  "You've been in Colorado for the past week."

Hinkle's visible dismay was not affected; his was genuine surprise, genuine fear.

"No," he said at length.  "I ain't done nothin' that wasn't on the up-and-up for a month anyway."

Linn nodded.  "Good."

They ratted up some more wood, enough to make sure the fire would last the night: the two chunks Linn rolled together would burn down, and unless they kept it fed, it would not keep them warm -- and only their having set up a reflector gave them more than a very little heat.

Hinkle, Linn knew, would very likely respond like an old b'ar, and the pale eyed Sheriff was right:  the man got his belly full, he curled up on one blanket and covered up with another, and slept like a man exhausted, which he very likely was.

Linn slept light, as he always did; he added the last of the wood not long before light started coming in around the wind screen they'd woven.

 

"Daddeee!"  Angela called, delight in her young voice:  she bounced on the balls of her feet, the way she did when she was happy, and Esther, inside their strong, well-built home, smiled to hear it:  Angela was on the front porch, wrapped in her cloak, impatiently awaiting her father's arrival:  Esther honestly had no idea when the man would be home -- he'd given no estimate, and he'd sent no word ahead -- but when she smiled a little, and then looked at her daughter, Angela knew that her pretty green-eyed Mama was going to tell her to get her wrap and watch from the front porch.

Linn grinned as he rode up to the house, dismounted:  he handed his horse off to the hired man with a quiet word of thanks, pulled the saddle bags free, slung them over his shoulder:  he waded two steps through the snow, then up the steps onto his front porch, pausing to kick the snow off his boots before going to one knee and embracing his giggling little girl.

Esther looked up at the swirl of cold air that preceded the tall, lean lawman coming through the door:  Linn hung his snow-dusted Stetson on its peg, set Angela down and shucked out of his coat, handed it to the maid and winked at the Irish girl, the way he always did:  he turned to Esther, strode boldly up to his wife, took her hands in his and raised them both to his lips.

Esther lowered her head a fraction, looked at him through her long, curved eyelashes.

"Mr. Keller," she said, her voice low, musical, "have you found that for which you have so long wrought?"

Linn laughed, released his wife's hands, embraced her:  his was the enveloping hug of a man who treated his wife as if she were fine china, and likely to break if he squeezed her too hard.

"I did, my dear," he said firmly, "and I thank you for packing those eggs as you did!"

Esther smiled a little, tilted her head.  "And did you find the desperado you were looking for?"

"No," Linn admitted frankly, "but I did find another in his place."

"And have you remanded this law breaking scoundrel to a place of just confinement?"  Esther asked, giving him a knowing look, and Linn laughed.

"I did worse than that," he confided, closing one eye in a slow, knowing wink:  "I introduced him to someone who will set him up in business in one of the new silver boomtowns!"

"Mr. Keller!"  Esther declared, planting her knuckles on her hips and batting her lovely eyes in mock dismay.  "If you keep turning criminals into honest, hard-working and decent folk, whatever use shall we have for your good offices?"

Linn laughed.  "Darlin'," he said, "it was a judgement call.  I could have brought him back and put him up in the Crossbar Hotel, or I could punish him even worse, and so I decided being an honest businessman would be punishment enough!"

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202.  HYPOCRICY

Sheriff Willamina Keller kicked open the door.

The door opened outward; she wanted to go in; the door swung open, but not fast enough to suit her, so she drove it a good one with a backheel kick:  the door slammed open against its stop, shivered with the violence of its stop:  the door was heavy and well made, and none who heard -- and felt -- its SLAM doubted the power that went into that kick.

The Sheriff stood in the doorway of the Spring Inn, a slight built woman in blue jeans and boots, a denim coat and black Stetson, a black vest and a Winchester rifle balanced in her off hand:  her pale eyes glared at all who looked her way, and none who saw the white fire in those glacier-cold eyes could hold her gaze for more than a second.

Except for Jelly.

Jelly, or Gelato as he was more properly known -- it wasn't his given Christian name, it was one he was given as an insult by a personal enemy, a man he strangled with his bare hands when he was old enough, after which he kept the name as a trophy -- Jelly hefted an old fashioned, worn, bung starter:  he glared at the Sheriff, raised the bung starter threateningly and bellowed, "CLOSE THE DAMNED DOOR, IT COSTS MONEY TO HEAT THIS PLACE!"

Sheriff Willamina Keller turned her pale eyed glare toward the barkeep like a battleship swings a gun-turret to bear.

Jelly was one of the only men who could address the Sheriff in such a manner, probably because he was one of the only men who could meet her glare:  she stepped across the threshold, her boot heels loud on the oiled planks:  she paced, slowly, her hard-heeled paces like distant concussions:  men drew back as she passed by, as if to give Death itself a wide berth, as if the merest graze of her coat-tail might touch them with damnation and perdition itself.

Jelly reached for a bottle -- a particular bottle he rarely touched -- and a water glass:  he knew the meaning of that dead slow pace, he knew why she came here, rifle in hand, and he knew with a grim satisfaction that there was a little less evil in the world now.

He knew the Sheriff had killed someone who richly deserved it.

He knew the killing may or may not be entirely according to the Law, but he was satisfied, without a word spoken, that society in general was better off for this pale eyed deathstalker's swift and deadly stroke.

Nobody said a word; cards were forgotten in men's hands, beer stood in sweating glasses, bubbles forming unnoticed inside heavy glass mugs:  Jelly's tread was nearly silent as he paced to the very back table, to the table the Sheriff always chose, to the table with the Winchester rifle laying across it, with the pale eyed woman glaring from under the black rim of her genuine beaver felt Stetson.

He placed the glass very precisely in front of her.

Normally she would wait a moment, then she would stand, seize the glass and down the contents on one breath, slam the glass to the table hard enough that half the time it broke -- somehow she was never cut -- and then she would shout, "I SENT ANOTHER ONE TO HELL TODAY!" -- she would kick over the table -- she would stride out into the darkness and mount up, and she would be gone.

Jelly waited.

Willamina said "Sit" -- a single snake's-hiss of a sibilant -- and Jelly turned, gripped the back of a chair, spun it around, sat.

Willamina's head tilted up just enough to let her glare at the barkeep.

"I," she said quietly, "am a hypocrite."

Jelly waited.

"No."  Willamina frowned with half her face.  "Not  a hypocrite."

Jelly saw the Sheriff's shoulders rise as she took a longer breath.

"I am a DAMNED hypocrite!"

Her voice was low, little more than a snarl, and her hands closed into white-knuckled fists:  she'd opened her hands, then seized the empty air, as if to seize an enemy's throat -- a move Jelly knew and understood -- he'd done the same himself, and he remembered the feel of the man's throat in his hands and how he squeezed, and how he watched the increasingly bloodshot eyes, how he watched the tongue protrude, how he watched lips and tongue and finally the face itself enpurple.

Strangulation, manual strangulation especially, is not a fast way to die.

Jelly found it a very satisfying means of murdering a personal enemy, someone who'd managed to earn his whole hearted hatred.

Jelly waited.

Willamina looked into the man's eyes, as if staring through his muscle and bone to glare intently at his very spine, looking for any trace at all of yellow, then her eyes fell to the water glass, full and amber on the table in front of her, as if her eyes were too heavy to hold up any longer.

"I demanded my son's badge," she said, "and a girl's mother backhanded me when I did."

Jelly nodded, a little; he'd heard about it -- everyone had -- but this was the first the Sheriff said as much to him.

"My son," she began, took another breath, inhaling through her nose, "killed a man who was about to do something very bad."

Again Jelly's careful, shallow nod.

"I did the same thing tonight."  Only her lips moved:  her face was pale, drawn tight over high cheekbones, her fingertips splayed out on the tabletop, her hands like pale spiders on either side of the glass of distilled sledgehammer.

"I knew there was no chance of conviction and I knew this one was guilty as sin, and so I sent him to boil in hump fat forever and a day."

"Did you enjoy it?"  Jelly asked quietly.

The Sheriff looked up at Jelly again: he saw something deep in her pale eyes, saw something in the back of her soul, something he understood.

"You're damned right I did," she said quietly.

Jelly picked up the glass, saluted the Sheriff.

"I, too, enjoyed mine."  He drank, placed the glass in front of the Sheriff.

She took it, turned it, studied it, then drank -- she drank as he did, three swallows -- and she placed the glass down halfway between them.

"It is good that we two should speak of these things."

Jelly nodded.  "It is good that we two can do what must be done."

Jelly drank half of what was left, the Sheriff drank the other half:  both rose.

"And what of your son?"

"He gets his badge back."

"Then you are not a hypocrite."

Willamina glared at him as if she'd like to reach in under his wishbone and rip his heart free of its moorings.

"No," Jelly agreed.  "You are not a hypocrite.  You are the most fair individual I know."

Willamina picked up her Winchester, stood it up on the table, the tarnished brass crescent butt firm on the green felt:  "Don't tell anyone," she said softly, and Jelly saw her pale eyes darken the barest shade, becoming ever so slightly blue.  "Tell someone I'm fair and you'll ruin my reputation!"

Jelly winked solemnly, picked up the empty glass.  "Your secret," he nodded, "is safe."

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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203.  AND SHE RAISED HER VEIL

 

When an important and wealthy man's son seizes the Abbott's hand, and drops to one knee, even the Abbott pays attention.

When an important and wealthy man's son drops his head in abject misery and groans as if he were being tortured, as if his living soul were being stretched and twisted on a torturer's rack, even the Abbott will tighten his grip and go to one knee as well.

And when an important and wealthy man's son, a man tanned by sun and wind and toughened by honest work, a man who has looked down an enemy's gunbarrel and laughed, a man whose face bears a fine, pale line from the kiss of a fast-swung knife that barely missed slicing his cheek to the bone -- when this man, tempered in the very forge of life itself, raises his head as two shining, crystal tears fall from lean cheekbones and fall to the stone floor, even the Abbott knows it is not a trivial matter that delays the chief cleric from Christmas service.

This man, this Baudilio, a younger son of the family Vega y Vega, was at the morning mass: he and his brothers each gave generously, as they always did, both to the poor-box by the door, and to the Brother tasked with gathering of these offerings, and he and his brothers listened with silent intensity to the Readings, to the Message: the Abbott himself delivered the words that were spoken that morn, and he'd noticed nothing unusual among the faces he regarded with an old soldier's practiced eye.

Until now.

"I am a man torn," this son of Mexico grated from between clenched teeth:  "Good Senor Abbot, the voice of an angel has seized my heart and I cannot breathe!"

The Abbot gripped the Baudilio's other hand: the hands he held were as browned as his own, though more callused: the older man rose, drawing the sufferer to his feet.

"Speak to me of this angel," the Abbot said softly:  his eyes were understanding, his hands fatherly as he gripped the younger man's shoulders.

"She sang this morning," Baudilio began:  "she sang at Mass and her voice soared like la golondrina, and my heart wept with joy to hear it."

The Abbott nodded, for he too was entranced by the singer's voice.

"I know it is a sin, my Abbott-- forgive me! -- but I wish to have such a woman, I wish this woman, for my wife."

Baudilio slumped back against the smooth coolness of the adobe wall, sank his face into his hands, shook his head slowly, like an old bear swinging a massive head left, then right, then left again.

"She is one of the Sisters," Baudilio whispered, "she is a bride of El Senor Cristo, she is sacred and she is pure and she is untouchable --"

The Abbott waited patiently, knowing there are times when a sufferer will find his own answer, if only the listener will wait to hear it.

"I shall surely die," Baudilio said, grief edging his voice, "but if it will not condemn my poor soul to el infierno ..."

The Abbott waited.

"I would look upon her face, if but once, that I may carry it forever in my heart."

 

Polly followed dutifully beside her Mama's skirt, Opal mirroring on Bonnie's left:  uncharacteristically, they were attending Christmas services in Rabbitville, at the monastery:  Sarah swore them both to secrecy, for she would be singing there, but she would be singing in secret -- she would be hidden -- "because everyone believes the Sisters do all the singing," she explained, kneeling with her arms around her sisters' waists, drawing them close so their heads nearly touched in this hatching of a sisterly conspiracy.

"They have a truly beautiful soprano, but she is ill and she cannot sing, and everyone will believe she is among them, singing."

Sarah looked from one twin sister to the other twin sister:  the three nodded solemnly, then all three giggled, and Sarah rose, and not long after the family drove their fine carriage to the depot and then took the steam-train to Rabbitville for services.

 

Baudilio turned, startled, at the joyfully-chorused "Baudilio!" and the sound of running feet:  Bonnie looked after her twin daughters with a distressed expression as they ran down the hallway, seized the gaudily-dressed Mexican in happy, enthusiastic and absolutely undignified embrace:  once again the son of a wealthy man went to his knees, his black eyes bright, white teeth flashing, as he embraced two little girls, hugging them close to him.

"And where is your beautiful mother?" he declared happily.  "Such beautiful children should be in the company of someone who will keep them safe, eh?  And your mother is la tigresa, no?"

Sarah and Bonnie came down the hall, two beautiful women in carefully crafted, matching gowns:  they'd long known Baudilio, so introductions were unnecessary:  the Abbott turned, lifted his chin a fraction:  Sarah murmured to her mother, turned, and walked with the Abbott down the hall, slowly, her head inclined toward the tall, tonsured cleric.

Baudillo released the twins, stood and kissed Bonnie's hand with all the easy, cultured courtesy of a gentleman born:  he shook Levi's hand with a delighted "Senor Rosenthal!" and Levi smiled and nodded, for Baudilio was well known to him, and well though of.

The Abbott and Sarah had returned, unnoticed until Sarah said, "I understand you wish an introduction."

Baudilio hesitated, blinked, his mouth suddenly dry:  Sarah took his arm, steered him free of her family, walked slowly down the hallway, speaking in low voice.

"This is a matter of some delicacy," she almost whispered.  "You understand that."

"Lo entiendo," Baudilio affirmed.

"The Abbott was a young man once," she continued, "and he knows how a young man's heart can ache for that which he can never have."

Baudilio nodded miserably.

"You are about to be given a secret," Sarah continued, turning to face him squarely:  her eyes, her face, her voice were all equally serious as she said sternly, "You will be given a knowledge that no man may ever share.  In this, you are being trusted, more than any of your family has ever been trusted before."

Baudilio's mouth felt like a desert and his throat was too dry to to swallow.

"If you cannot keep this most important matter secret, then say it now, for once it is entrusted to you, more than your mortal soul will be in danger."

Baudilio considered this carefully:  he frowned a little as he studied the opposite wall, and then he looked at the pale eyed young woman whose intensity had not lessened one whit as she waited.

"Your honor," Sarah said carefully, "is intact and unsullied should you choose the secret, and it is equally as unsullied if you choose to never know."

Baudilio closed his eyes, he listened to that glorious voice, still singing in his young heart:  he looked at Sarah and said, "If I do not look upon her face -- if only once in my lifetime -- I shall surely die of sorrow."

"I will require your attendance in half an hour, then.  Rejoin the Abbott, and you will be summoned."

 

The half hour Baudilio waited, there in the Abbott's spartan quarters, was probably the longest year and a half he'd ever spent.

The Abbott offered him a seat, but he'd sprung from his seat in five seconds, and paced:  he would stop, stare at the wall, wet his lips, frown, pace again:  it was clear he was preoccupied with something, though exactly what, the Abbott wasn't sure.

When finally there was a tap at the Abbott's door, Baudilio jumped as if he'd been stung:  one of the Faceless Sisters waited in the hall, then turned and wordlessly led the way, deeper into the Monastery, through passages and courtyards Baudilio never knew existed.

Like most in the territory, Baudilio heard the legends, the stories, campfire tales of one of the Faceless Sisters, one of their veiled order with preternatural powers, one who could spirit the legendary and hidden Lance of St. Mercurius from its sealed container behind the Great Altar:  this mysterious Sister, it was said, rode a horse twice as tall as a man's head, a horse that grew wings from time to time and could run faster than the wind itself:  this mysterious Sister could melt doors with one touch of the Lance, heal the sick, raise the dead, stop the sun in the sky and -- according to one account -- even replace rotten teeth, though Baudilio suspected this was added in an attempt to see how gullible the speaker's audience was.

He did not expect to see the veiled Sister, standing alone, across the courtyard from him.

Momentum carried him three paces into the little enclosure, open to the sky:  he didn't realize his guide was gone until he heard a door close quietly behind him, and he turned, and realized he was alone, alone with this silent, unmoving, veiled Sister in a white habit and white silk face-veil.

No breeze stirred; the Sister might as well have been polished marble, so still did she stand:  he saw no movement, no raising of the shoulders to indicate that she even breathed.

Baudilio took a sudden, long breath of his own:  he'd realized he was not breathing, that his heart was hammering, that he was alone, alone with one of the veiled Sisters --

Her voice filled the walled patio.

To say that her voice filled the little enclosure, would be like saying water fills a pond:  this was more like a cascade of purest crystal, crashing gloriously into a rock wall, shattering, shining in the sun, filling it with life:  she sang the Ave, she sang in Latin, she sang in a flawless soprano, a voice so beautiful that the angels themselves must surely weep to hear to hear it, for Baudilio, heir to the Rancho Vega y Vega, a man grown and tried in life's forge, sank to his knees and wept like a lost child at the utter, absolute, soul-penetrating beauty of this mysterious woman's voice.

Baudillo crossed his forearms on the edge of a heavy wooden table; he lowered his forehead onto his arms, unmanly but most sincere tears soaking into his coat-sleeve:  "Senor Cristo," he choked between sobs, "take my soul now and let me enter Paradise a happy man!"

A woman's hand touched his shoulder -- light, feminine -- he raised his head, pushed back from the table.

A young but motherly hand cupped under his chin, carefully blotted his face with an unadorned white kerchief.

"I have sung for money," she said, her voice low, musical:  "but never have I been so richly paid for my voice!"

At the gentle pressure of her hand, Baudilio rose:  she took his hand between hers, tilted her head a little as she regarded him through the white silk of her facial cover.

"I am about to give you a secret."

Baudilio nodded.

"You must never divulge what I say here."

"I swear it."

"You are known to us to be a man of honor," she said, her hands tightening a little on his, "and in your word we are satisfied."

Baudilio waited, his breath coming a little quicker than it usually did.

"You have heard of The Black Agent of the Firelands courts."

Baudilio frowned, puzzled:  "Si," he nodded.

"The Black Agent is also an agente confidencial with the Holy Mother Church."

The veiled Sister heard Baudilio's sudden intake of breath as he realized just why he'd been sworn to such secrecy.

"You wished to look upon the face of one who is oathed to keep her face covered, as one of her vows."

Baudilio swallowed, looked away:  "I would not violate your vow," he said quickly.

He looked back, froze as the veiled nun lifted the silk, threw it back over her head, exposing her face.

Sarah Lynne McKenna blinked pale eyes and said, "Now you know why such secrecy is necessary, Baudilio."

Baudilio sat, suddenly, staring as the veil was replaced over the pretty young woman's face.

"You, and you alone, now know that I am the Black Agent, and that the Black Agent is not a young man, that our agente must remain hidden."

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna and her parents, with Sarah's two sisters, thanked the Abbott for his hospitality, and spoke of the impressive beauty of their Catholic service:  Sarah turned to Baudilio, tilted her head a little and smiled gently.

"I hope you liked the singing," she said softly, and Baudilio bowed gravely.

"My Lady," he said formally, raising her knuckles to his lips, "I shall carry it in my heart for the rest of my days."

A man's son and a tonsured cleric watched them drive through the Monastery's gates, down the street, around a little bend, out of sight.

"Something troubles you, my son."

Baudilio nodded, his expression thoughtful.

"Gracias, Senor Abbott," he said slowly:  "you have held up a mirror so that I may see how great a fool I am."

"Oh?"

Baudilio laughed.  "I had a young man's wish, Senor Abbott."

"And?"

"And I was granted that wish."

"Now that you are granted your wish?"

Baudillo sighed.

"I realize that having, is not as good as wanting."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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204. THE CAPTAIN'S WAGON

Two girls washed their hands in a white enamel dishpan.

Neither spoke.

Their moves were wooden, stiff, their eyes staring, wide open and unblinking:  each turned, reached for the towel thrown over their off shoulder, each dried her hands mechanically, giving little regard to the red that stained what had been a clean white cloth bare hours ago.

It can be said that they were no longer girls, not after what they'd just survived: neither in her youth had ever ... known ... a man, but today, this sundown, neither were girls anymore, but women grown.

 

The Captain sat off to the side of the surgeon's tent, leaned up against a tree:  he was bare to the waist, his chest wrapped:  he'd taken a chunk of shrapnel low in the ribs on one side, shrapnel from a burst cannon that killed a fine young lieutenant of his command.

The Captain managed to make his horse, he'd managed to ride ahead of the oncoming enemy, he'd managed to outpace them and his horse threw its head away from the sentry's grasping hand as the Captain, laid out over the horse's neck, raised his head enough to see the command tent, and give his mount knee and hand:  the Captain's vision hazed and the world rolled round him and he fell through space and through miles and he saw blue sky above and then the earth slammed up against his back.

An anxious young face bent over him, a face that wore the common uniform, with a musician's insignia on the cap, and the Captain reached up, seized the bugler's blouse and roared, "BLOW ASSEMBLY, DAMN YOU! THE ENEMY IS UPON US!" -- that is, he roared the words in his mind, but all his throat managed was a squeak, a red, frothy-lipped "Damn," and though he was screaming manfully in his mind, his body failed him, and he fell back, unconscious.

Battles are chronicled afterward, after one side or the other triumphs, battles are chronicled by some who were there, by many who were not; accounts are given, compared, lies are told to conceal bad decisions, or decisions that would be viewed as wrong, and some accounts are lost forever, or honestly forgotten.

The Captain's wagon ride was one of them.

The girls looked up as a scared-looking corporal ran into the surgeon's tent -- "RUN! RUN, THE ENEMY IS UPON US!" -- then something red and wet exploded from the front of his dirt-stained blouse.

The two looked at one another, looked toward the back of the tent, ran.

They emerged into chaos.

Men were swarming, yelling:  there were surprisingly few gunshots, mostly bayonets, rifles used as clubs; fists, knives, here a rock seized up from the earth, there a chunk of stovewood swung as a bludgeon: the two girls drew back to the only solid object that might afford somewhere to hide, and that was a twisted, lichen-spotted apple tree:  they shrank back against it, ignoring the bandaged man sitting on the ground, propped up against the trunk.

The Captain blinked, rallied: his arm clamped hard against his blood-seeping bandages, he drew his legs under, rolled over onto his knees, wallowed upright, breathing hard, bloodstained teeth clenched against the pain.

One of the girls noticed how his eyes changed, how they were suddenly ice-colored, ice-hard:  it was not many paces to the surgeon's tent and he staggered toward the rear flaps, went in.

The girls pressed their backs to the tree, one's hand finding the other:  they were ignored as the battle surged around them, as a musket fired, thrusting a dirty, accusing finger of fire toward them, followed by a sharper bark:  they turned, startled, and saw the Captain emerging from the surgeon's tent, hat on his head and a second revolver thrust into his waistband.

The first revolver was in his hand, rising in recoil, coming to zenith.

He looked at the girls and they would have shrunk back, could they have passed through the tree: they waited, frozen, as he staggered toward them, as he turned the pistol and thrust it into its issue holster.

He looked at them and he looked to their right and he said, "Ladies, with me!" and staggered for a wagon sitting at the break of the grade.

The girls looked at one another, looked at the Captain, followed.

The wagon lay with its tongue uphill:  the girls climbed in and looked around, alarmed, as men saw them anew, as men ran toward them, yelling.

The Captain seized the chunk under one steel rimmed wheel, yanked, hooked a good arm over the edge of the wagon, used its rolling momentum to swing himself aboard.

The girls shrank into a corner, as low as they could go, arms around each other, shivering, unsure what to do, but very certain that if they remained in battle, they would be killed, or worse:  the Captain stood, walking the bucking, rocking wagonbed like a bluewater sailor will walk the deck of a rolling ship:  the wagon was rolling backwards, its tongue trailing like a woody kite-tail, and the Captain drew his revolver from its holster and he pulled the other free of his waistband.

The wagon gained speed, rolling downhill:  men fought, men thrust at one another with sharpened steel and gunbarrels, men looked up as the square end of a fast-rolling wagon bore down upon them, and as men raised rifles to shoulder, a pale-eyed Captain of the Ohio volunteer cavalry cocked both his revolving-pistols and laid a steady, deadly accurate fire upon them:  men saw this rolling engine of death and its pale-eyed gunner, laying waste to those who would contest his authority, watchers stopped their fighting to marvel at the sight of a wagon with two girls in back, peering over the edge with wide and frightened eyes, with a man standing upright and firing with a brace of pistols, saw the wagon mow down those not fast enough to get the hell out of the way.

The wagon coasted to a stop, rolled into a little swale, rocked back and forth, once:  the Captain turned one pistol backwards, thrust it into its holster: he reached for the spare cylinder on his belt, fumbling at the leather flap, his fingers suddenly clumsy:  he turned around, regarded the two pale, shivering girls in the wagon bed with him.

The Captain stopped.

He lifted his uniform hat, swept it under his arm, inclined his head:  "Ladies," he said, "forgive me, I don't believe we've been properly introduced."

And so it was that one man and a wagon, with two scared, bloodied girls, broke the enemy's charge and won one of those nameless battles that happened during that damned War.

There were other battles being fought; there were others observing these other battles, and this nameless fight never made the newspapers of the day, and so the Captain's wagon ride was never addressed in any official correspondence.

Years later, the man himself would speak of it to a pale eyed grandson; years later, two women would mention it to their children, and a year after that, one of these children would meet a man with pale eyes, and this child remembered the story, but then looked away and dismissed the thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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204.  THERAPEUTIC APPLICATIONS

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller took Saddles by the elbow and steered her for the door.

"I'm taking your daughter," she called cheerfully over her shoulder, and the Captain called back, "As long as she has a talkie!"

Willamina raised a hand in reply, then reached for the doorknob.

"Come along," she said quietly, and the two crossed the squad bay's gently sloped apron, turned uphill toward the beautiful downtown Firelands, hub of industry and culture, center of business and prosperity ... and the drugstore and its excellent chocolate sundaes.

Never mind the snow on the ground, never mind their breath followed them in drifting clouds ... sometimes a hot fudge sundae was the answer, and something told the Sheriff that this was one of those times.

Besides, Willamina loved her chocolate hot fudge sundaes, and so did Saddles, and if the paramedic were plucked from her station by the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the county, no one was going to argue about it.

Willamina waited until their delicacies appeared on the table before them to lean forward and say in a confidential voice, "You looked like you were going to take a bite out of that tabletop."

Saddles picked up her spoon, turned it over a few times like some people will twirl a pencil:  she settled on taking the handle on her grip like a dagger, her hands fisting tightly as she glared at the tabletop, then she looked up at Willamina.

Her jaw slid out, slowly, as she considered, as she weighed words unspoken:  Willamina waited, for she knew something went wrong on that last squad run, and she wished to get the straight of it directly from the horse's mouth ... from the particular horse that was on scene, the one to whom something happened.

Saddles threw her head back, gasped a big gulp of air, for all the world like a swimmer coming up from a too-deep dive:  she blinked rapidly, breathing deep, powerfully, her lips pressed firmly together, and then she looked angrily at the calm, patiently-waiting Sheriff.

"I," she said, shaking the spoon at Willamina, "have ... never ... in my LIFE" -- her voice lowered, became a hiss ( a dangerous thing, Willamina knew; some women got loud when they got angry, and these weren't the ones that caused violent problems; no, it was the women who got really quiet, and Saddles was one such) --she looked down at her hot fudge confection, stabbed the spoon into it like she was driving a dagger into an enemy's black heart.

"Start at the beginning," Willamina said quietly, taking a sampling taste of her sundae.  "What was the nature of your call?"

"Knife injury," Saddles said promptly.

"Did the call come through 911?"

"No.  No, they called the old emergency number, the one that still comes over every speaker in the firehouse."

Willamina nodded.  "Go on."

"The caller said he and his buddy were wrestling and he fell and cut himself on his knife, don't run the lights and don't blow that siren but he said he had a problem."

Willamina nodded:  she knew the Captain called Sharon, the 911 and Sheriff's dispatcher, to request a deputy meet the squad at location.

"We waited until we saw the blues before moving in."

Willamina considered her sundae, calmly debating which section to sample next.

"I was first in."  Saddles lifted her spoon, dipped up some melted ice cream, tasted it, nodded, spooned up some hot fudge next.

"What happened when you made your approach?"

"I had to kick beer kegs out of the way," Saddles said ruefully, "just to get to the front porch."

"Sounds like some places I've known."

"I beat on the front door and yelled "Paramedic! Somebody call for a squad?"

Willamina looked up, understanding in her eyes:  Saddles smiled just a little and said "I wanted to let 'em know the good guys were at the door. Catching a fast moving charge of buck shot headed in the opposite direction strikes me as a bad thing."

"I'm superstitious," Willamina agreed.  "I think that would be bad luck."

"And you said that with a perfectly straight face," Saddles said admiringly, trying not to laugh.

"I play a hell of a game of poker, too," Willamina said.  "Okay, you alarmed the occupants, what followed?"

"That's when the deputy arrived so I opened the door and started to call out again."

"Started?"

"Yeah."  Saddles made a face.  "I could see all the furniture was pushed back against the walls and this fellow was naked to the waist and half drunk -- swaying, that happy drunk face, you know?"

"All to well I know," Willamina muttered darkly.

"My partner and I made entry and we set down the big orange box."  Saddles took another spoonful, giggled, swallowed.  

"I said 'Who's hurt?' and he said 'Oh, yeah,' and he turned around and dropped his drawers and HE SHOT ME THE FULL MOON!"

The back of Willamina's hand pressed against her lips to keep from spitting out her ice cream:  she swallowed, coughed, turned a remarkable shade of red:  "He what?"

"Oh, ya," Saddles nodded.  "Right there in front of God and everybody."  She took another scoop of ice cream and chocolate sauce, arranging her thoughts like a field-marshal will arrange his troops on the battlefield, considering which ones she wished to send into engagement next.

"I saw he had a laceration on his ... left cheek."

It was Saddles' turn to turn that incredible degree of scarlet.

"He said he had a sheathed knife in his hip pocket and when he and his buddy started to wrestle, he sat down hard -- the knife cut through sheath, denim, undershorts and the first dermal layers, just enough to expose the fat layer.  Not much blood but painful as hell."

Willamina nodded.  "How'd you treat that one?"

"I opened the tacklebox and pulled out a sanitary napkin.  Love those things! -- individually wrapped, made to contain a large flow, sterile, they smell nice -- but they're pink" -- she giggled -- "and he said 'Whattaya gonna do with that?' and I unwrapped it and WHAP right on his butt and I put his hand on it and said "Hold that there," and then I saw a roll of duct tape on the TV set."

Willamina's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.

"You didn't!"

"You're damned right I did, and he deserved it!"

Willamina shrugged.  "Sounds like use of available resources!"

"I thought so."

"So what happened after that?"

"His buddy was as well oiled as he was" -- Saddles went from happy giggle to angry glare in a tenth of a second or just under -- "he grabbed my braids from behind and said he'd like to ride me -- that's not how he said it, he said --"

"I get the idea," Willamina forestalled her with an upraised palm.  "I take it you decked him."

Saddles sat up very straight, shock and dismay evident in her expression.

"I did no such thing!" she exclaimed.

"No?"
"I didn't have to."
Willamina lowered her head a little, glared playfully at the paramedic:  "Sadd-lllles," she said slowly, a warning note to her voice, and the paramedic lifted her upraised palms and said, "I didn't have to do anything!  Honest!"

Willamina raised a skeptical eyebrow, lowered her head a fraction, turning it slightly to her right, bringing her eyebrow to bear like a weapon.

Saddles turned red again and stopped just short of a girlish giggle.

"Therapeutic application of oxygen," Saddles finally blurted, trying hard to look innocent and having no success at all.

Sheriff Willamina Keller raised her eyebrow again.

"Could you clarify that just a little bit?" she asked, smiling knowingly:  Saddles nodded, realizing the Sheriff probably knew the answer already, and she was right, for the Sheriff had used the same method herself, back during her very brief career as a nurse, back East.

 "My partner clocked him in the back of the head with the bottom end of the portable oxygen tank!"

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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205. WAS IT REALLY LIKE THAT?

Entertainment on the Martian colony was a serious business.

All work and no play is more than just a saying: recreation and, yes, good honest play, is necessary for good mental health: the agencies involved in boosting mankind through space and onto another planet knew this, and tried to control the videos, films, music, literature and other influential forms of entertainment, and of course that didn't work: people will get what they want, peacefully or otherwise, and the Sheriff found (to her amusement) that Westerns were suddenly a popular item -- so much so that, when she made one of her regular and not infrequent visits to one of their classrooms, she found herself peppered with questions of a surprisingly particular nature.

Clothing was not a problem anymore: certain technologies had been discovered, reverse engineered and frankly improved: now the Second Martian District's primary colony (renamed Firelands, supposedly after the extinct volcano that loomed hard and dark against the stars) but unofficially because of certain journals that enjoyed a brisk circulation in their library system -- journals reprinted from hand-written originals dating back to before the mid-1800s --this Martian colony of Firelands no longer had any waste problem, because these certain technologies allowed them to rip matter apart at the subatomic level and reassemble it into useful compounds, in any pattern they wished.

Suddenly clothing was more than the issue skinsuits, and thanks to the influence of this new viewing vogue of Hollywood westerns, grinning boys wore ornately decorated boots, girls wore long and ruffly dresses, Stetsons were a common sight, and a new excavation was made in a volcanic strata, complete with sound deadeners, holographic projectors and high-volume air cyclers.

Certain safeties were overridden, and formerly forbidden devices were being produced from the recyclers, and in this new, sound deadening chamber, the concussion of large bore revolvers and rolling clouds of sulfurous smoke were backed with delighted and grinning participants.

The Sheriff found herself surrounded, on this one particular day, by curious children, comparing their mental image of what-must-have-been with the Sheriff's accounts, and they were puzzled, beause the glowing screen told of an era of Good Guys and Bad Guys, of gunfights in the street: class projects were pursued involving holographic bad guys, using algorithms copied from the medical training section, and the effect of a .44-40 on human flesh was studied with the help of incredibly realistic computer simulations.

Sheriff Keller found herself in demand as a guest lecturer on these very subjects, and so, knowing research was the heart and soul of a good presentation, she sent a compressed data-burst back to the most reliable sources she knew of.

 

Back on Earth, another Sheriff Keller looked at the screen and smiled:  the six-pointed star with FIRELANDS across its equator dissolved, showing a pale eyed woman in a flannel shirt and black vest, looking for all the world like she was sitting in a log-walled structure plucked from a century and a half before.

"Mama," the pale eyed Sheriff said to the pale eyed Sheriff, "refresh my poor failing memory," and the pale eyed Mama looked at her pale eyed daughter's image and smiled a little, then looked over at her husband.

"I think," she said, pausing her daughter's message, "this is going to be fun!"

 

The class was silent.

The students relaxed in their contoured couches, sensory helmets in place, covering everything but their mouths and chins: as the countdown ended and their inputs began, the Sheriff saw every young body relax, go limp: they would be unable to move, for the duration of the simulation, all but their mouths, and she saw a uniformity of expressions on the eager young faces.

She saw delight, just before she, too, was relaxed, and she, too, joined them.

Each participant was no longer in an underground room, sheltered from anything on the surface: each participant was sitting on a backless bench, looking around, surprised.

There were two schoolteachers at the front of the room:  one sat behind a wooden desk, a globe of the world to one side of the desk, two books and some papers before her: the other schoolteacher stood primly at the front of the class, a handbell in her grip, turned up:  she swung it once, down, then up, its brassy note harsh, loud in the confines of the one room schoolhouse.

"Class," she said, "my name is Miss Sarah, and this is Mrs. Cooper, and we are your teachers."

A little boy's arm shot up eagerly.  "Are you the Sheriff?" he blurted, and the pretty, pale-eyed woman in the straight-skirted dress laughed, shaking her head and setting the bell back on its shelf.

"I am not the Sheriff," she said, "I am Sarah Lynne McKenna, and the Sheriff is probably throwing out another bottom-rotted coffee pot!"

She clapped her hands.  "Stand up," she commanded, "and look around at yourselves."

The students had been giving surreptitious looks at one another:  now they openly stared -- stared, for what they wore was very different from the imagined fashions that had been computer-manufactured by the recyclo:  no, what they wore now felt ... real, felt genuine.

Part of their mind knew this was an illusion, but the biggest part of their young minds accepted this as a reality, and wished desperately for this reality to last, at least a little longer.

Little boys looked curiously at one another, reached out to touch, to tug suspender straps, lifting one foot, then the other, looking at wonderfully old-fashioned shoes:  little girls looked at one another, looked down at long skirts, held out their arms, looked down sleeves, turned experimentally, flaring their skirts a little and giggling.

"Now, class," Miss Sarah said, her voice loud enough to be heard, but not so loud as to be harsh, "please go to the windows on this side of the room."
The class did, giggling again: they were used to viewscreens, but actual windows were unique to their experience: Sarah smiled as young breath fogged the wavy glass, as young fingers explored its smooth coolness, as young eyes looked out, big and round eyes taking in the sight of a Colorado town in the late 1880s.

"Horses!" a little boy whispered, and Sarah heard several young throats take in a delighted breath: they'd seen horses on their screens, yes, but here, somehow, they were ...

... these were real!

Miss Sarah said, "Let me call your attention to the door opening across the street."

The class craned, stared, saw a heavy plank door swing open and a tall, lean waisted man step out onto the boardwalk: the man had an iron grey mustache, a six point star on the lapel of his black coat, and they saw even white teeth momentarily beneath the neatly-trimmed, handlebar-curled mustache as he drew his arm back and slung a blue-granite coffeepot out into the middle of the street in what was quite obviously a moment of intense, personal anger.

They saw him look up toward the schoolhouse, they had a momentary chill as ice-pale eyes looked very directly at them, then the man turned, whistled:  a copper-colored mare paced around the corner -- the children were used to plastic and steel and 'crete walls and corners and hallways, tunnels and corridors and automatic doors -- 

"That must be an alley," one of the girls guessed, and she smiled as Miss Sarah's approving hand rested momentarily on her shoulder, warm and reassuring in its affirmation.

The Sheriff turned and looked in the opposite direction.

Something big and black and looking very much like something called a bear paced purposefully toward the Sheriff.

The Sheriff raised a fist, shook it at the approaching animal.

The animal stopped:  the children saw white-ivory fangs bared at the man's challenge.

The man took a step toward the intruder, drew back his good left fist, quite obviously cocking his fist for a hard punch.

The children could see the fir stand up on the animal's back.

Man and beast charged one another and the class let out a collective gasp:  the man bent and instead of a bloody collision, the man embraced the suddenly tail wagging monster, and they realized this was no bear.

This was a dog, and a truly huge one at that, one with a great brush of a tail that swung happily through the air in powerful, fur-trailing arcs: the man rubbed the animal briskly, and the dog, head up and mouth open in apparent delight, yow-wow-wow'd and then rolled over for a belly rub.

The Sheriff stood, kissed at his shining red mare:  the class watched as he thrust a polished boot into the doghouse stirrup and more flowed up and into the saddle than mounted: the horse trotted squarely toward them, stopping in front of the whitewashed steps.

Thanks to the magic of their sensory helmets, what followed was as if each individual student was the only one there, for each one saw the Sheriff dismount -- each heard the man's boots on the wooden steps -- each saw the schoolhouse door open, and each saw the Sheriff step inside, removing his Stetson as he did so:  each student saw the Sheriff approach that individual, whether boy or girl, and stop, and say in a fatherly voice, "So you'd like to know what it was really like."

Each individual student saw that quiet, knowing smile, felt the warm, strong, reassuring hand grip their shoulder.

"Come with me."

 

There is a magic to riding a good saddlehorse, there is something beyond merely horse and rider: there is a wonderful synergy, a sharing of life's energies, if you will: when the Sheriff steered the student out the schoolhouse door, there was not one horse, there were two, and the Sheriff boosted the wide-eyed student up into the saddle:  he guided high-button girls' shoes into stirrup leather, made a final adjustment of their length, he gripped boys' ankles and steered boots and townie shoes into their doghouse, his fingers with eyes of their own as he adjusted the stirrup length:  both stirrups, adjusted, the Sheriff looked up at the student, at the child, the boy, the girl, and to each individual student, relaxed and unmoving in a contour couch in a heat-forged tunnel well beneath the Martian surface, it was if the Sheriff and the student were the only ones there, that they were back on Earth, in a frontier town well more than a century before, and that they were sitting in a saddle -- on a real horse! -- and the Sheriff said, "My horses are not bitted.  Just put your hands on your thighs, move with the horse, and follow me."

Each child of the Martian colony knew what it was to ride in a short-hop shuttle, knew the delightful squeeze of hard acceleration, the belly-falling-for-miles delight of freefall, but none had ever truly experienced the sensation of speed.

Not until now.

Not until each child, grinning, leaned forward a little, their weight on the balls of their feet, hands pressed hard on their thighs and then instinctively grabbing a good handful of shining red mane, laughed or shouted or screamed with delight as the Sheriff led them in a wide-open gallop, up the dirt street, between wooden buildings and out of town, across a high meadow and then each horse at full speed launched across a gulf the child didn't know was there, and for a moment, for an eternal, glorious moment that lasted a year and a half or less than a second and a half, soared through the high Colorado air and landed easily on the other side, galloping hard, the horses' noses stuck straight out, their ears laid back, punching a hole through the air, running faster than God Almighty could fly a guardian angel, and when the children went back to their housing pods that night, as the children came home to mother's embrace and father's hugs, as they sat and ate as families (which was something essential in raising a family), the children were asked what they learned at school  today.

More than one member of one particular class was quiet for several long moments, and then they answered, "I learned that horses can fly."

 

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206. ONE DAY ON A SNOWY MOUNTAIN

I followed a familiar set of tracks.

One, and only one, horse was big enough to leave dish pan size tracks in the snow, and I reckoned that particular horse did not labor much at all getting through snow of this depth.

My golden stallion didn't have much trouble either, and the thought struck me kind of sideways and got me to laughin' ... El Rey del Sol was a sizable mount, but Sarah's black Snowflake-mare made El Rey look kind of puny, and the thought of Sarah on top of that just plainly huge Frisian was comical enough to bring me a chuckle.

She was not far ahead of me, I knew, she was not in much of a hurry and I did not know of any particular reason she'd be headed into the high country, and I didn't have anything particular to do, so I followed along, more out of curiosity than anything else.

I came on her and it puzzled me a bit, for she'd laid out a blanket -- 'twas not her saddle blanket, she must have brought another one -- she'd laid it out under a tall pine that lacked  branches for a considerable height, and she was layin' with her head torst the trunk and her feet pointed away, her hands under her head, lookin' up that tree like it was the most interestin' thing in the world.

I stopped and studied on this, and I looked to where she'd been, and that was not the first tree she'd stopped under, and as I watched, she sat up, whipped that blanket off the ground and snapped it a good one to get the dirt and snow off it, she looked around and paced over to another tree, one with thicker branches; she studied under it, then whipped the blanket out again and laid down, looking up through the branches, and I saw a quiet, satisfied smile, even at this distance.

I also noticed she laid down on one side of the blanket, then she looked at me and smiled again and patted the blanket beside her.

Well now.

My golden stallion is a hard horse to mistake and I knew Sarah to have good eye sight, and there's no way she could mistake me for anyone else:  I taken some moments to look around, thorough and careful, and then I rode on in.

She smiled up at me and said "What took you so long?" and I laughed and said "My Pa tried to teach me at a tender age that hurry up is brother to mess it up," and I couldn't help but grin as she added with me, "and it's amazin' how often I proved the Grand Old Man right!"

Well, hell, it shouldn't surprise me that she said it with me, I've said it often enough.
"Satisfy an old man's curiosity," I said, going to one knee on the blanket beside her.

"What in two hells am I doing up on the mountain, laying under one tree and another?" she asked, laughing, and it sounded like the little-girl laugh I remembered so well from all those many memories I have of her as a child, the memories an old man cherishes and keeps close to his heart.

"Papa," she smiled, "lay down here and look up with me."

I looked around again, making sure all was well, ot at least nothing was out of the ordinary:  my stallion and her mare were in easy sight of where we were, I knew her mare was nowhere near fresh so we didn't have to worry about them two payin' attention to one another and not lettin' us know if there was anything of concern on approach.

I went ahead and laid down and parked my Stetson on my belly.

Sarah's hand was surprisingly warm as she gripped mine, quickly, impulsively, and then released:  it would have been more than impolite to hold onto my gun hand, but a quick, warm squeeze was just right.

We looked up through the tree and I'll admit, I've never in my life laid under piney branches and looked up through 'em at the sky before.

Until Sarah, and then Angela, both of them when they were wee children, until they stopped and studied the back side of a flower's blossoms, I never had done that either, and that was a lesson to me.

I learned from them to see through someone else's eyes.

When Sarah had me lay down beside her and look up through the tree towards the sky like she was doing, I can't say as I found anything significant, powerful or particularly useful, but I did see beauty, and maybe that's enough right there.

I write these words long years after we laid on a snowy mountain and looked at clouds high and high overhead, I write these words near to a decade afterward and I have no idea why I did not put this memory to paper before now, but it is a good memory, and I reckon old men are like that.

Old men are full of memories and sometimes one will come to mind and it will be a good one, and I reckon I wrote this one down so it would not be lost.

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207.  THREE MINUTES

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked up at the hesitant, delicate knuckle-tap at her office door.

"IN!" she barked, leaning back in her chair:  the door opened and Saddles came in, snow beading to little shining drops on her black nylon duty jacket.

"Got three minutes?" she asked uncertainly, and the Sheriff considered the briefest of moments before replying, "Hang your jacket on a chair and sit down."

Saddles shucked her jacket, hung it on a chair, but remained standing:  she rubbed her cheeks with her palms, staring at the back wall, then looked at the Sheriff and blurted, "Am I nuts?"

Sheriff Willamina's eyebrows raised and she leaned her upholsterd, high-backed chair back several degrees.

"Anyone who hangs a star on their shirt is certifiable," she said bluntly, "and anyone who walks into the Devil's parlor with a squirtgun under their arm is insane. Grant down at the sewer plant said he had a gear loose, working with every flushed pathogen known to man, and you're exposed to about as much, you and the ER nurses."

"No -- no -- no," Saddles muttered, shaking her head and her hands:  "I mean I saw a ghost and I need to know if I'm going to the fruitcake farm for it."

"Ghosts," the Sheriff echoed, leaning forward, planting her elbows on her green desk blotter.  "I heard you got soaked on that ice rescue."

"Not that bad, just my feet, but --"

She took a long breath, looked at the prints on the wall, froze:  she paced over to the photo, made from a glass plate negative found some years ago under the stairs in the old photographer's studio, the image of Old Pale Eyes, his son Jacob, and Sarah McKenna, posed for the ground-glass eye of a traveling picture taker's box.

She raised her chin, thrust it at the framed print.

"Those two."

Willamina raised an eyebrow.  "What kind of trouble did they get into now?"

Saddles shivered, leaned back against the door frame.

"Maybe you'd better sit down," the Sheriff said gently.  "You look a little peaked."

 

Saddles snarled and kicked at the rock:  it was the size of her head and it was froze down to the sand and ice alongside the streambed.

"No, no, no, no," she groaned, dropping her backside to the ground, aiming insulated fireboot heels at the rock, driving both of them into frozen stone.

She felt the shock to her teeth, but the rock did not move.

She looked past the rock, at the still form under the ice:  for a mad moment she considered taking her talkie by its rubber antenna and swinging it like a club, but she knew it would not move the rock, and she needed the commo:  she drew back and kicked again, both legs, hard.

She looked past the broad and frozen stretch of ice and saw two men watching her.

Two men, horseback, almost hidden: the snow was light and fluffy, it was caught on branches and forks like white blossoms, it was just enough to break their outline, at least until they started to move, until their horses shuffled through shinbone deep snow toward her.

Saddles drew her knees up to her belly, kicked one last time, hard as she could manage: the rock gave a little reluctant *snap* and rocked a bit and she rolled up on her knees, seized it, tried to wrench it free.

"How can we help?" the older man asked, his voice almost rough: she thrust an arm to the unmoving figure under the ice.

"I've got to get him out! He's still viable but I've got to get him out!"

The older man turned, raised his chin.

His companion was younger, but as tall, and as broad at the shoulder:  he swung down from his Appaloosa stallion, pulled a single bit ax free from his possibles, strode over to the ice.

The older man drew a heavy, long-bladed knife: the two stopped, their heads cocked imperceptibly to the left, then each stepped out on the ice: the older man drew a line in the frozen surface with the tip of his knife, the younger began to attack the ice, swinging in tight, economical arcs: the knife rose and fell like a broad, deadly, slow-cycling sewing machine needle, the ax swung, shining in the weak, washed-out sun: Saddles twisted the rock, squinted and rose, hugging it to her:  she staggered toward the two men, walked out directly over the unmoving form under the ice, gripped the head-sized rock, raised it overhead with the last of her strength, slammed it down against the ice, hard.

It nearly broke through.

She knew she would never be able to pick it up again, but perhaps it wouldn't be necessary:  the ax's impact was shattering the ice, deep cracks visible in the crystal surface: his pace was steady, his attack brutal, shining chunks of shattered freeze spinning through the air, stinging Saddles' cheek.

She looked up at the snarl of a snowmobile, approaching:  it would be another five minutes or so before the first relief arrived, and no way of knowing if it towed a rescue sled, not until it arrived.

The older man stood, considered his work, sheathed the knife and raised his leg:  he drove a boot heel very precisely into what he'd been chipping, and a plate of ice, broken free at one end by the shattering rock, underfoot with his knife, and now cut free from the younger man's hand ax, floated for a moment.

The older man squatted, the younger pressed his ax-head into the ice, pushed down: the far edge tilted up and the older man pushed, sliding the plate of ice under the intact surface.

Saddles gave a little squeak, waded into the freezing water, drove her arms in up to the elbows and seized soggy denim before her fingers numbed into uselessness:  the snowmobile came screaming over the last rise, but she had no eyes for its approach:  she hauled, hard, dragged the unmoving, pale form free of the water.

"Gimme your ax," she demanded, seizing the handle as it was extended to her:  she placed it firmly on the sandbar, rolled the victim over on it, face down.

"Grab that end," she said, and the younger man bent, gripped the ax under the head:  she seized the handle -- "Lift!" -- they hoisted the ax, pressing up on the victim's belly, held it for a long count of five.

Clear water dribbled out the nose and mouth.

She seized freezing hair, lifted the head:  a gush of water now, more water than she woud have thought a stomach could hold:  when it was done, she said "Down," and they lowered ax and victim to the ground.

Saddles seized the victim's shoulder, rolled him over, absolutely ungentle in her actions:  her fingers hurt to the bone, they ached, she knew her grip strength was diminished, but she had work to do:  she seized the denim jacket's opening, pulled hard, the snaps surrendering to the violence of her two-handed jerk.

Saddles dropped to her knees, seized the vest's opening, opened it with an equal lack of ceremony, blessing the soul who wore snaps that day instead of buttons:  she folded her hands, drove her arms out straight, locked her elbows and got her shoulders directly over the breastbone, began compressions.

"One and two and three and four are five, one and two and three and four are five, one and two and three and four are five," she chanted, driving her weight hard onto the cold breastbone, compressing the heart beneath:  she swore silently as she realized she hadn't done a pulse check first, she stopped, pressed three fingers into the victim's carotid groove, counted aloud "Dirty second one, dirty second two, dirty second three, dirty second four, dirty second five," then she landmarked again, locked her elbows and resumed compressions.

She remembered the snowmobile coming up close by, shutting off:  she remembered her partner's voice, calm and professional, probably addressing his own talkie:  her ear tugged as she pumped, as she chanted her five-count cadence, she heard the metallic sounds of a flare gun being loaded, the sudden BANG as the shell was launched.

Her feet were cold and just starting to soak through, her hands hurt like homemade hell, but she was warm to her core, she was mad clear through and she was going to keep up compressions until Hell froze and the devil learned to figure skate --

She heard the chopping whine of a rescue copter --

-- the metallic t'ing of a grenade spoon flying free, her partner's "I am popping smoke," the windstorm as the bird made a fast, near-vertical descent:  running feet, a stretcher slammed to the ground, gloved hands and flight suits and bug visor helmets, she leaned back and fell onto her backside as her patient was loaded, as flight suits and bug visor helmets and inslated gloves ran for the bird, as the victim was loaded and the copter clattered into the air, as she squinted her eyes against snow and sand and ice-crystals, and as the bird beat its way through the air and soared into the clear sky, her partner helped her up and said "Want a ride back?" and she nodded, suddenly exhausted, and then she looked around.

"Wait a minute," she said, her eyes on the sandbar, looking back and forth like she'd lost something.

She seized up her light backpack, swung it over one shoulder, ran a few steps, looking left, looking right, looking toward a brushy thicket that no longer had fluffy snow hanging like blossoms on branch and fork --

 

"Sheriff," Saddles said quietly, "there were no tracks in that thicket."

"No tracks," the Sheriff echoed.

"They were both horseback. There should have been tracks.  No trace in the snow between the thicket and where I dragged that Jack Doe out of the water."

"Which was a save, by the way," the Sheriff smiled.  "Good old diving whale reflex.  How'd you know to pick up the vic with the ax handle under him?"

"I don't have the beef to break him over my arm like a shotgun," Saddles admitted, "so I used what I had."

"Good thinking."

Saddles looked at the picture on the wall.

"It was those two."

Willamina raised an eyebrow.

"No tracks, you say."

"None."

"What about the ax?"

"When they picked him up and threw him on the cot, the ax was gone.  Nothing under him but frozen sand and rocks."

Willamina nodded slowly, smiled a little, considered.

"You," she said finally, "just acquired your very own ghost story."

Saddles looked at the picture of Old Pale Eyes and his son Jacob, then looked at the Sheriff.

"Yeah," she said faintly.  "I did, didn't I?"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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208. HOSPITALITY

It did not surprise me that Sarah was waiting for us.

Jacob and I rode up to the line shack, thinking to fire the tin stove we knew was inside, thaw out some and fix a hot meal.

We arrived to find a light inside and smoke coming from the stack.

Sarah's big black Snowflake-mare was outside, looking at us; she was not saddled, which told us Sarah was likely inside: that she had a fire going told us it would be warmer inside than it was out here, which was a good thing.

The horses had a lean-to, built up against a sizable boulder; snow covered its tin roof and was banked up against the back wall, there was fresh straw inside for bedding and a stack of fresh hay besides.

We got our horses unsaddled and rubbed down, the saddle blankets hung up and saddles as well, and as we were turning to head for the line shack, the door opened and Sarah stepped out, one set of knuckles on her hip and the other hand raised, shaking an admonishing Mommy-finger at us:  "If you two will kindly get in here before supper gets cold!" she scolded, and Jacob and I both laughed.

It was warm and welcoming inside, it smelled of supper, and glad we were to be in where it was warm.

"I have plenty of wood cut, stacked and brought in," Sarah admonished as she dished up stew and laid out sliced sourdough and butter and a canned-berries pie, "so don't get ambitious being gracious guests!"
"She's going to have us spoiled, you know that," Jacob mumbled around a mouthful of sourdough, and I nodded: I had no words to contribute, not as long as she was feeding us.

Especially with good hot stew that she'd spiced with herbs grown, picked, dried and ground, brought here in little jars and stacked on a shelf, sprinkled into stew early in its construction.

The Bear Killer sat beside me, looking at me with big dark eyes, bumming a bite: his jaw was warm on my leg and I know Sarah noticed, but she graciously said nothing as I dipped bread in stew and slipped it under the table.

Reckon I'm just a soft touch.

Now that stew was hot and it was good, and Sarah made a good kettle of it and Jacob and I did it full justice, and there just was not much left a'tall, and we still had room for pie.

Seems like there's always room for pie.

Sarah ate with us, and she favored us with a quiet smile and finally asked Jacob if he'd picked up his ax, and Jacob gave her a long funny look and finally said "I was not about to leave it behind," and Sarah nodded.

Jacob and I looked at one another and Jacob raised an eyebrow, and I shrugged: he wondered how she knew about him usin' that ax, and I had no idea how she knew.

Women are like that.

I know Esther knows things, she knows things it ain't possible for her to know, and I will be sawed off and damned if I know how she finds those things out, but she does.

We stayed the night, Jacob and I, Sarah slept behind a bedsheet curtain and Jacob and I pulled off our boots and laid down and we were asleep, and before my head hit the pillow, The Bear Killer was slud in between me and the wall and I slept warm that night.

I recall waking sometime through the night, The Bear Killer was chasing something in his sleep:  he was warm and his back was laid up ag'in mine and I could feel him barely twitch, and I knew his forepaws would paddle a little in the dark, I knew his shining black nose would be twitching and his ears would pick up like he was after somethin', and now and again his tail would stir and I figured he had to be happy, for that tail of his to be working in his sleep.

Sarah was up early, but we were too, and bacon and eggs and flap jacks for breakfast went down really good.

Jacob and I took pains to scrub our plates and Sarah let us -- I reckon she felt like we needed to be at least a little bit useful -- once everything was cleaned up, Sarah took me by the hand and pulled me back to the table.

She looked at me with those light blue eyes and she squeezed my hand and she said "Papa, you know I am a widow."

This was like saying the sky is blue or water is wet, but I also knew she was setting up for something so I nodded.

"And you know our son ran away."

My mouth went dry and I felt my belly fall about fifty feet.

Our son.

She did not speak his name.

I nodded again.

"You know the Count has been corresponding with me."

I closed my eyes for a long moment before nodding again.

I know that German Count had come over for the hunting, and he was well more than impressed by Sarah -- she was a tall girl, almost a woman, she'd taken an elk with a flint tipped spear she'd knapped herself, and the Count knew what it was to hunt boar with a spear, and had the scar, and the limp, to prove it.

I'd gathered the Count's second visit -- when he brought his son, when they saw Sarah, a new bride, suddenly womanly and beautiful -- found she was a widow, and he'd pressed her to come marry his son.

I never took Sarah for a gold digger, and still did not -- she would be marrying into old nobility, into wealth, she'd be a Lady by title if not birth -- I knew these things, and still I did not wish her to go.

"Papa, I shall be leaving for Germany."

There it was.

I closed my eyes so she would not see my disappointment, and I lowered my head a fraction.

It's a good thing we'd already et for I lost any appetite I ever had.

"Does your mother know?"

My voice was raspy, my throat dry, and I had just an awful feeling, but I was not going to forbid her: Sarah was a woman grown, and a widow, and her life was hers, not mine.

Sarah's hand tightened over mine.

"Papa, I shan't ever see you again."

I nodded again and of a sudden I felt so terribly lost.

"Perhaps ... that's not entirely correct."  She shifted a little and I looked up at her, at those lovely eyes, at the beautiful Sarah I knew and loved and did not want to see leave.

"Papa, you have seen things not of this earth and so have I."  Sarah looked at me and I'd seen that same expression in my Esther's green eyes, the same knowing expression of a woman with knowledge not of this plane.  "But before I see you again, I will stand at the gates of Valhalla, with the blood of my enemies fresh on my blade."

I was silent for a long moment more.

"I trust your judgement," I said finally, and rose.

"Papa?"

I turned and Sarah was standing, very feminine, very proper, her hands folded in her apron.

"You do know it's St. Christopher at the gates of Paradise, not St. Peter."

"How's that?"

Sarah reached behind the cupboard and pulled out the '97 Winchester I'd gotten her the year before.

It showed signs of wear, and that did not surprise me, for she worked with it daily: she had a standing order for hulls at the Mercantile, and I would hesitate to guess how much lead she'd put through it already.

"St. Peter holds the keys to the Kingdom, but it's St. Christopher who stands at the gate, and St. Christopher is patron saint for soldiers, lawmen and warriors."  Sarah smiled. "And if a warrior stands at the gates, he'll understand when another warrior arrives."

It would be near onto two years before I knew what she meant by that.

 

 

 

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209. MY LITTLE GIRL HAS GROWN UP

The Captain watched the back of his daughter's car heading up the road.

A hand gripped his and a familiar voice said, "You look lost."

The Captain nodded.

It did not surprise him that the Sheriff appeared like that.

She tended to just appear sometimes:  she'd laughed once when he said as much and she said "In law enforcement we call it 'Star Trekking.'  It means we appear as if Scotty just beamed us down from the starship Enterprise."  She'd given him a knowing look and added, "It comes in handy."

The Captain tightened his hand around hers, momentarily, enough for a wordless acknowledgement, enough to let her know he appreciated her company in the moment: her hand released and they turned and went back into the firehouse.

The pair was silent until they'd both drawn coffee from the shining, stainless coffeemaker, and as each added a drizzle of milk to their steaming mug, the Sheriff gave the man a long look and said "Out with it," and she saw his eyebrow twitch a little -- which was what she intended to do to him:  she'd spoken in her Offician I Am the Sheriff voice:  quiet, but with authority.

The Captain ran long, slender fingers through his thick thatch, sighed:  he stared at the salt shaker like it held some deep, profound secret, then shook his head and took a noisy slurp of coffee.

"I screwed up," he muttered.

"Welcome to the human race," Willamina nodded, taking a dainty sip of her morning start-the-heart. "What happened?"

 

They called it The Old Squad.

The first-out ambulance had the modern, powered hoist so personnel would not have to perform the time honored Ferno Model 30 Clean and Jerk to hoist a patient into the rig, or to raise and lower the cot:  the Chief offered the opinion once that he didn't know a single veteran medic that didn't have a bad back, and the powered cots, the powered hoists, were a most welcome addition for that very reason.

The Old Squad had no such hoist on either cot or on the rig itself; it was still a serviceable vehicle, it was their backup squad, and when the first-out rig was at the dealership for warranty work, this was moved into its place.

"We were heading out on a run," the Captain said, hands wrapped around his heavy ceramic mug, "I came up through the doorway and told Saddles to shut off her four way flashers, nobody could see her turn signal if they were on."

Willamina nodded, light-blue eyes unblinking, boring into the Captain's hazel orbs:  he looked away, uncomfortable, for the Sheriff had a way of looking at someone that felt like it was reaching through their pupils, seizing the truth from where it was hiding behind their spine, and dragging it out of them.

"We got there and we got the patient to the hospital, and Saddles did not say one single word that wasn't absolutely necessary."

Willamina's eyebrow raised and she murmured "Uh-oh."

"Uh-oh is right," the Captain grunted.  "She's just like her mother was. When she gets quiet it means she's unhappy."

"Go on."

"We were headed back for the squad when she stepped in front of me and blocked my way."

Willamina nodded.

"She said 'A word, Captain,' and her tone of voice was not happy."
Willamina placed her mug on the table, placed her hands flat, palms down, on either side, looking very, very directly into the man's eyes.

"We went into a treatment room and she shut the door, and then she let me have it."

"Saddles?"  Willamina asked, surprise in her voice, and she turned her head a little, as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"Saddles," the Captain nodded.  "She said 'For your information, Captain,' and I never in my life heard her use that tone of voice ..."

He took a long breath, blew it out through puffed cheeks.

"She told me she hadn't been running the four way flashers.  She told me she'd been running the alternating headlights and what I heard was the relay for the headlights, not the four-ways."
"O-kaaaay."
"It gets worse."

"I thought it might."

"She looked at me and I thought she was going to pin me to the wall with her mother's glare."

Willamina nodded her understanding.

She'd been told she had that same ability, though she really didn't think so, but enough people had said so over the years that she realized she just might.

That Saddles stood up to her own father, that she stood up to a superior officer, told Willamina the young woman was most unhappy in that moment.

"She said something you've said before."

"Oh?"

Willamina's hands wrapped around her mug again. She had an arthritic finger joint, the last joint of her little finger, and it felt good to keep it warm.

"She said -- and I quote -- 'If I am in the wrong, I prefer to be corrected, but if I am not in the wrong, may God have mercy on your soul, because I will not!' -- and she stepped up so her belt buckle was against mine and she said 'I serve at the pleasure of the department and if I do not have your absolute full faith and confidence, you are free to relieve me at any time!' "

"Sheriff" -- the Captain looked lost, his eyes were staring through the far wall, seeing the memory again -- "have I just screwed up?"

"Yes," Willamina said frankly. "Have you admitted you were wrong?"

"No," he admitted miserably.

Willamina considered for a long moment.

"She's your daughter."

"She is."

"She's your subordinate here."

"She is."

"You need to tell her you were wrong, you need to make your apology and you need to do it in front of the same people who were there when you gaffed."

The Captain pressed his lips together, moved the salt shaker like it was a chess-piece, turned his coffee cup half around, half around again.

"A mistake uncorrected is a mistake that will be repeated. No maybes, no might be's, no could-be's, if you leave it uncorrected, it, will, be, repeated."  Willamina paused for effect.  "It is your place as the officer in charge to make sure everything is done right. It is your place to issue a correction so these mistakes aren't repeated."

She placed her hand firmly on his -- placed, and gripped, so he could not pull away.

"Listen to me, Clyde.  You're a father and you want your little girl to grow up well. You're doing a fine job, you're doing more than a fine job. She is a daughter to be proud of. She loves you and she is proud of you and a mistaken correction is like being hit with a willow switch when she wasn't the one who broke the window. Is she off shift?"

He nodded.

"If you call her back in to make the apology you'll have to pay her overtime, so there's that, but if you let this fester it'll get worse. I'll leave it to your good judgement whether to call her back in."

The man door at the far end of the bay squeaked open and sunlight, bright and blinding, blasted against the polished, grey-enamel floor:  the Captain squinted, and Willamina smiled.

"Something tells me you won't have to call her in after all."

The Captain rose, turned.

"Smathers!" he barked.  "Could you come out here please!"

The Captain turned to his daughter.

"It seems," he said heavily, "that I was wrong."

 

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210.  MOTHER, DO YOU REALIZE WHAT YOU JUST DID?

 

It was a point of general agreement that Grant was one of the best employees Firelands ever hired.

The man was cheerful and punctual, he was certified and competent in water treatment and wastewater treatment, and what he did, he did well.

Apparently, this included public relations, because he spoke a few soft voiced words that brought a woman's eyes very, very wide, and had he not been ready to catch her, she would have hit the ground, out cold, because of what he said.

The Sheriff heard about it, of course:  eventually, anything that happened, came to her attention: she knew Grant and liked the man, she'd investigated his boss's death, she'd spoken to Council to have him promoted to general manager after his boss's untimely death in the aeration tank, and it did not surprise her to hear that his words were quite a bit more powerful than he realized they would be.

It happened, she discovered, back during warm weather, when little girls still wore sundresses and sandals, when an old man of her acquaintance still hauled water in a cut down fuel oil tank, boomed down on the flat bed of a twice-worn-out Chevy pickup with tires that had about as much tread as the Sheriff's kitchen tablecloth.

He'd come in to their water plant to fill at the bulk station, as he not infrequently did; mining destroyed his well, he was dependent on a cistern now, and so made the trip at least twice a week with his more than worn out old half ton pickup with the homemade timber flat bed and the fuel oil tank chained down to it.

On this one particular day, he had his daughter with him, and she had her daughter, a lovely little child with big blue eyes and curly blond hair, a laughing little girl who stamped happily in the runoff water running down the concrete apron of the bulk fill station, chasing after the yellow-sulfur butterflies that came in for the moisture.

Grant was outside, tending one detail or another, when the passenger rear tire went flat.

The old man lamented that he'd play hell getting it jacked up and plugged, his water tank was nearly full and he'd no wish to just dump the tank and have to buy a second one:  Grant told him to dump it and don't worry, the refill is on the house, and so the old man did, and he headed across the gravel drive to the maintenance garage to get the wheel-mounted air compressor, to save the old man much labor on a bicycle pump.

He'd just come out of the garage, pulling the compressor behind him, when something under the flat bed went SNAP and the truck lurched a little, one of the chains flew free and the still-loaded tank of water started to slide downhill, slide down toward that flat rear tire, started to slide toward that curly haired little girl happily stamping in water with her little white sandals.

Grant let go of the compressor like it was hot:  he leaned ahead in a flat-out sprint, running as hard as he could:  his hand dipped down in the company truckbed and came up with a pry bar, he screamed across the gravel as hard as he could go, feeling like he was running through cold, clear honey, his eyes locked on that sliding water tank, on that little girl in a pretty sundress who was about to get crushed under too many gallons of trapped water.

The young mother said "Oh no you don't," the young mother seized that water tank, the young mother shoved that water tank and slid it back up on the truck bed, Grant and the old man drove their pry bars through the half rotted timbers of the flat bed, drove their spud bars down against the truck's frame and cammed that tank back up into place, and Grant held it while the old man made the wayward chain fast, set the snap binder, boomed it down good and tight.

He and the old man looked at one another and they both sagged a little.

Grant withdrew his spud bar, looked at the mother:  he leaned his weather-browned bar against the side of the truck and placed just the tips of his middle fingers against the woman's shoulders.

"Mother," he said gently, "do you know what you just did?"

He did a fast mental calculation, knowing the weight of water, knowing the tank's volume, knowing about what an empty fuel oil tank weighs; the mother's expression was a little uncomfortable, as she probably felt like she was going to get her head chewed off.

"Mother," he said, "you have just picked up, and pushed back, just over a quarter, of a ton, of water and steel."

Had Grant Johnson not been ready to run his hands under her arms, had he not been ready to catch her should she grow weak in the knees, that poor woman would have hit the ground in a dead faint.

When the Sheriff heard the story, she nodded, filing this away for later consideration, for later conversation in the right setting, but she knew that women are marvelous creatures, and in that moment, she knew, what that young mother did was the most natural thing in the world.

It wasn't until Grant put it into words that she realized just what she actually had done.

 

 

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211.  THE WISDOM OF A SALT WATER SAILOR

 

Sean was big, Irish, red-headed and good natured, and not necessarily in that order.

He was also scratching his head and trying to figure out just how in Sam's Hill these poor pilgrims were going to get that piano off its back, out of the freight wagon, and into this house.

Now excitement in beautiful downtown Firelands, Colorado, wasn't that hard to come by, most days; other days excitement was just as plentiful as eye teeth in a settin' hen's beak (it was generally agreed that, on such days as that, you could not raise Hell with two Irishmen and a quart of whiskey!), and as today was just awful slow and this freight wagon come into town and word got passed around that they had a brand new upright piano layin' on its back in this-yere wagon and no idea how to get it out, why, a grinning little boy came scampering down to the fire house to recruit from the Irish Brigade, because in the lad's youthful eyes, these brave men in their well polished, knee high boots, their red bib front shirts and curled black mustaches, were wizards and warriors and laughing, hard-muscled GODS that strode the world boldly where they would!

Sean, their hard-muscled Chieftain, gave a roar, his big hand gripping the lad's shoulder, holding him close to his side:  "NO IRISH NEED APPLY!  ALL HANDS ON DECK!  TURN TO, DAMN YOU LOT, OR I'LL HAVE YOUR GUTS FOR GARTERS!" -- and the lad's eyes widened and his heart quickened as good men and true, some still thumb-hooking their galluses up over their shoulders as they ran, charged into the equipment bay, lined up quickly, shoulder to shoulder, solemnly regarding their Chief and looking at the boy with a degree of entertainment and curiosity.

"NOW, LAD," Sean boomed, looking down at the boy, "TELL US AGAIN WHA' REQUIRES TH' IRISH BRIGADE!"

"They can't get the piano out of the freight wagon," the lad bourted, "it's laying on its back and they don't have enough people to pick it up --"

"HARNESS THE LADIES, LADS, WE'RE GOIN' TO SET THIS ONE RIGHT! HITCH ON THE LADDER WAGON, FIRE THE BOILER AND OPEN TH' DOORS!  BOOTS AND SADDLES!" -- and the boy found himself seized about the chest, swung easily into the air and into the driver's box of their shining red-and-copper Steam Masheen:  his young stomach contracted a little as men ran, as stamping, head-tossing mares were harnessed, led in a three-horse hitch out and around and backed into the Ahrens steam engine's tongue, as the hitch was made, as Sean put his arm around the boy's shoulders, hugged him close, grinned down at him.

"HA'E YE E'ER RODE A FIRE ENGINE, LAD?" he roared, his teeth white and even under his curled black handlebar, and the boy, wide-eyed and wordless, shook his head.

The doors swung open, flooding the bay with harsh, unfiltered Colorado sunlight:  behind him, something gave a throaty whoosh as the Devil's breath was thrown into the boiler, igniting the black bituminous freshly shoveled firebox:  Sean stood, shaking the blacksnake whip loose with a showy double-flip of his wrist, waiting to hear the fire door clang shut, knowing his engineer would straighten and seize two handholds immediately after:  a whistle, a yell, the whip seared through the air and snapped a hole in the atmosphere a yard above the lead mare's ears:  

"SAINT FLORIAN, SAINT CHRISTOPHER AND TWO DOZEN SAINTS, LADIES, RUN!" -- and three matched white mares thrust into polished-leather collars:  greased hubs turned on mica-lubricated axle stubs, men's hands tightened and lips drew back in delighted grins as the mares went from stock-still to a wide-open gallop in less distance than their own hitch-length, and fire engine, ladder wagon, grinning men in pressed-leather helmets and one grinning boy, clutching the tubing-steel armrest with one hand, the front of the tuck-and-roll upholstered seat with the other, charged at a skidding gallop out of the tall, brick firehouse, up the street, all sound and fury and hammering hooves and a shrill, set-your-teeth-on-edge steam whistle screaming at the clouds overhead.

It was not far to the freight wagon, nor was it long before Sean loudly and forcefully drafted from the Unorganized Militia that gathered, for any time their pinstriped, hand buffed Steam Masheen came out of the heavy double doors at a gallop, a curious crowd would follow, and quickly:  among those regarding the scene was a man with callused palms, a rolling gait and a mug of beer still gripped in one hand, his other hand half-closed, as if around a twisted hemp hawser.

Planks had been laid to get the piano up the two stone steps and into the house; the housewife laid rugs along the piano's intended path, hoping to spare her polished floor from being scarred up by the piano's metal casters, but all this was in anticipation of bringing that heavy, dead weight out of the freight wagon.

Men piled out, men climbed into the wagon, men frowned and pointed and loudly discussed how they might gain some purchase, as the piano lay on a quilt, but flat on its back in the wagon bed, and little room to grip and lift:  Sean saw the amber gleam of good beer from the corner of his eye and turned just as a hard hand gripped his upper arm.

"Ye'll need yer ladders," a rough voice said, and Sean turned to regard a man in a blue seaman's cap, a man with wrinkles in his face, the kind a man gets from squinting into the sun and from salt spray and wind.  "And if ye've good strong line, I can hoist that out o'there for ye."
"Ye've the smell of salt water about ye," Sean said slowly, nodding.  "A'right, how d'ye want m' ladders?" -- he lifted his chin, thrust it at the German Irishman.  "Dismount two ladders" -- he looked at the seaman -- "an' ge' us all th' line we ha'e."

"If you've a snatchblock," the seaman said, and Sean grinned.

"Do ye want th' single sheave or do ye want more'n that?"

Narrow eyes narrowed further with appreciation.  "A two sheave crown block and a travelin' block and that will bring her up."

The boy knew better than to remain close to men at work: he drew back and marveled, watching as two ladders were propped against one another, over the wagon; ropes were used to lash them together at the top, to hang a pulley; more rope went around the piano -- men gripped the quilt beneath the piano, raised it enough to get a chunk under the quilt, used a borrowed clothes line prop to snake more rope under the prone upright -- he watched, delighted, as men swore and hauled and hoist the piano easily from the wagonbed, as the wagon was drawn from under, as the piano was slowly lowered onto the quilt again, a quilt now laid on planks:  men gripped, lifted and slid, cheerfully profaning the piano, the wagon, the planks, one another:  the piano was carefully slid and steered to the doorway, where rugs were snatched from the floor, folded double and slid under the piano, and on this pad, slid into the hallway, into the parlor:  men set their feet and gripped the upright, lifted one end, the other end, and very carefully, very precisely, positioned the music maker right where the housewife wanted it.

The sailor looked around and saw a shy looking girl, a girl who looked away when he looked at her:  he crossed the parlor, regarded the worn-looking fellow beside the girl:  "You'd be the father?" the sailor said abruptly, and the man nodded.

"Does she play piano?"

The sailor saw both sadness and pride in the man's eyes.  "She plays like an angel," he nodded.

The sailor looked at the girl.  "We need your help," he said, his voice still rough, as if scarred from years of breathing ocean brine:  "yon's a piano that needs a voice, and it's angels that have that voice."  He gave a half-bow, thrust his arm out toward the piano.

Firemen, cattlemen, ranchers and homeowner drew back as the girl approached the piano.

She hesitated, turned the catch, lifted the keys-cover carefully, as if afraid it might break:  a piano-stool was whisked in, set in and behind her:  she felt it bump the backs of her legs, sat uncertainly.

She took a long breath, closed her eyes; her hands spread open, floated as if under their volition and not hers.

A father, not long a widower, listened as his little girl played a hymn that he'd heard last, played for his dying wife, back East, not long ago.

A housewife, her hands fumbling for a lace-edged kerchief, listened as a girl she'd never seen before, brought her Mama's favorite hymn from what was a moment before just a heavy piece of furniture.

A fire chief grinned and heard the first tune his Daisy played for him, back in Cincinnati, when they were first courting.

The world was silent as she played:  no, not as she played:  she communed with the instrument, and it sang under her gentle touch:  one song flowed into another, each one bringing memories to its several listeners:  after perhaps ... to the listeners, after only a very few minutes, after the watch in a man's pocket described most of an hour, the girl lifted her hands, her head bowed:  she closed the lid over the keys, carefully, gently, and stood.

Hands gripped her shoulders:  her father's voice whispered in her ear, a woman's hands took hers and she heard words of thanks:  as she slipped bashfully from the house, outpacing her father, more voices, more thanks, and she ran to the freight wagon, gripped its sideboard, bent over, breathing hard, shaking, her eyes tight shut as she composed herself.

She sensed more than heard someone close by her side, and she felt a callused hand rest on hers as she gripped the wagonbed to keep from falling.

"I'm sorry," she gasped.  "This is my oldest dress.  I wasn't dressed to come calling --"

The calluses lifted from the back of her hand; a man's strong hands gripped her shoulders, drew her into him:  she felt the wool and smelled the tobacco and shivered a little as a salt-wrinkled cheek laid itself across the top of her head, and a reassuring, rough edged voice spoke softly, as if to a frightened girl.

"When the Lord looks at us," she heard, "He sees us as we are inside.  We wear our best for Sunday to show due respect, but He sees the respect we carry within us, and yours looks just fine."
She bit her bottom lip and nodded, and the arms released, and she took a long, shivering breath, and then she was surrounded again:  strong, laughing men, cheerfully insulting each other as they dismounted the ladders, untied their lashing, stowed block and tackle and coiled ropes, made fast their ladders and made ready to return to quarters.

Mr. Baxter recalled the man with the pea-coat and the blue seaman's cap returned alone, setting his empty beer mug on the bar and thanking the barkeep for the libation.

He never gave any thought to the several minutes that passed before anyone else showed up.

 

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212.  STRESS

Sheriff Willamina Keller rubbed The Bear Killer under the jaw, carefully avoiding what she knew was a tender area.

The Bear Killer looked at her with liquid black eyes, his mouth open a little, an adoring expression if ever there was one; the vet carefully inserted the syringe into The Bear Killer's vein, slowly pressed the piston on the syringe.

Willamina carefully eased The Bear Killer's head down on the table.

"I will leave you to your labors," she said, "and I'll have my phone on me."

"Thank you, Sheriff," the vet and two student veterinarians chorused: it was evident they were relieved that this pale eyed woman was present while they prepped the big black Tibetan mastiff for surgery, for it was well known The Bear Killer would do about anything for the Sheriff, and they respected the reputation of the breed ... especially since none of them had met The Bear Killer before that morning.

The Sheriff went back out to her Jeep.

She closed her eyes, leaned back against the cleanest part of one front fender (she looked first), lowered her face into her palms, shook her head.

"Sheriff?"

A woman's voice, concerned:  the Sheriff looked up, rubbing her palms together.

"Yes?"

"Sheriff, is everything all right?"

Willamina smiled a little.

"Oh, just fine ... or it will be, as soon as they pull The Bear Killer's bad tooth and debride the gum."

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" -- the woman tilted her head a little -- "I know he means a great deal to you."

Willamina laughed, nodded.  "After he pulled a little boy out of freezing water, after he took down a bank robber and then stood on him, washing the man's face until we got him in irons, after he absolutely destroyed the Parson's Sunday sermon when that little baby got to crying and he started howling, which quieted the child, annoyed the Parson and got everyone to laughing" -- Willamina sighed.

"Yes, he means a great deal."

The woman laughed.  "I was in church when he started howling, and honestly, Sheriff, he sounded much better than that crying child!"

"It didn't help any that he picked the baby up out of the mother's lap and carried it to the nursery," Willamina sighed, "and the mother was too scared to object, and could you blame her?"  

Willamina spread her hands, palms up.

"Something big and black with a head the size of a bushel basket reaches over your lap and grabs your baby and packs it off, are you going to smack it across the nose and tell it no?"

"At least everyone was quiet for the rest of the sermon," she offered.

Willamina laughed again.  "I know. Everyone was listening for another howl and I don't think they heard a word the Parson preached!"

Willamina tilted her head, studied the woman.

"Something is troubling you."

It wasn't a question, it was a statement, and the woman looked away quickly, nodded.

"My Rusty.  He's ... I brought him in ..."

"It's time?"
She bit her bottom lip, nodded, her eyes squeezing shut:  Willamina crossed the intervening pavement in three long strides, bootheels loud on the cold blacktop, and she took the woman in an understanding embrace.

"Where is he now?"

"In the back seat," she whispered.

"What happened?"

"He has cancer," she whispered, "and he's in pain, and ..."

Willamina nodded.  "I understand.  How can I help?"

The woman looked helplessly at the Sheriff and gave a little squeak as her eyes overflowed, and Willamina gathered her in a motherly embrace: the woman was probably half her age, half a hand taller, and shaking with grief.

Willamina let her cry.

It took a few minutes, but the storm passed:  Willamina offered a kerchief, waited while the woman wiped her eyes, blew her nose, chewed on her bottom lip again:  Willamina looked through the windshield of the nearest car, and a golden retriever looked back at her, concerned, staring through the gap between the front seats.

"I think someone is worried about you," Willamina said, and the woman followed her gaze, and the tears started again.

 

The Bear Killer snored in the back of the Jeep.

The surgery had gone uneventfully, the offending tooth was removed, the gum debrided, a shot of antibiotic and a bottle of pills with post-op instructions, and Willamina was on her way.

She'd waited until the younger woman was on her way; she had not intruded into the other woman's grief, she followed at a discreet distance, professionally assessing the other's driving: to her surprise, the woman did not turn left toward home, but turned right, into town, and Willamina followed her to their little whitewashed church, pulled in beside her.

Willamina looked in the back of the Jeep, opened the rear door, the hatch:  The Bear Killer wallowed out, paced happily beside Willamina, slobbering a little but not looking as swollen as she'd expected.

The Parson was waiting on his side porch, concern on his face:  he gravely bade both women come in.

Willamina hugged the woman quickly, impusively: "Just wanted to make sure you got her safely," she whispered, and "Thank you" was the whispered answer:  Willamina and The Bear Killer looked at the Parson, departed.

 

Linn looked up as his Mama and The Bear Killer came through the front door.

He stood.

"I know that look," he said quietly.  "I'll get suited up."

"Yeah," Willamina said, her eyes very pale, very hard:  she was good at containing her feelings, at bottling her emotions, at controlling what she chose to feel, but sometimes, sometimes there were triggers, and when there were triggers, she dealt with them.

Willamina went upstairs, changed out of jeans and boots and black suede vest; she came out of her bedroom wearing a red padded sparring suit, and Linn came out of his bedroom wearing a matching outfit, and each of them held a laminated hardwood staff as tall as their heads.

Linn knew he would not find out what had stressed, and distressed, his pale eyed mother, but he knew "she needed to de-stress her dis-tress," to quote the wisdom of his father, and so mother and son went into the back yard, bowed formally to one another, and then each proceeded to beat the living stuffing out of the other.

Linn would admit later, after a hot shower, after clean clothes and coffee, sitting at the kitchen table, that he would not ever want to be on the wrong side of his mother's displeasure "for real" ... despite the padding, he'd taken some bruising, and he knew his mother had as well, and he had to admit his ability to handle her attack, his skill at counterattack, and indeed his own telling blows, were improving.

Willamina looked at her son over her steaming mug, held in both hands at chin level, elbows on either side of her place mat.

"You're smiling," she said quietly. "Who is she?"

Linn laughed.  "Nobody yet, Mama," he admitted, "I was just ..."

"Yes?" she prompted, sipping her hot, steaming drink, her eyes pale blue and innocent over the glazed ceramic rim.

Linn leaned back and shook his head, laughed quietly, for all the world like his father:  "Mama," Linn said, "I have to be the luckiest sod to stand in boot leather."

"Oh?  How's that?"

Linn looked at The Bear Killer, looked at his Mama.

"Who else gets to beat up on his own mother and get thanked for it afterward?"
Willamina smiled and nodded.  "It's necessary sometimes."

"I figured it was," Linn said.  "What happened?"

"I met someone at the vet's. She had to have her Golden put down.  Cancer."

Linn's face went from knowing and cheerful, to haunted:  he, too, knew what it was to hold his boon companion at such a terrible moment.

"It ... raised some ghosts," Willamina admitted, "and I had to beat them into submission."

"I honestly feel sorry for the poor ghost that gets on your wrong side," Linn said frankly.  "I know the effect on the corporeal!"

He looked at The Bear Killer.

"Surgery went well?"

"They got the tooth out in one piece. It was cracked full length and infected. They debrided, the bone was not involved, he got antibiotics and" -- she held up a pill bottle and rattled it -- "he'll get one of these every morning and one every night."

Linn nodded.  "Any after effects from anesthesia? I remember when you got your knee worked on, they gave you Dilaudid and you threw up all the way home."

The Bear Killer, as if on cue, walked over to the rubber boot tray, lowered his head and threw up.

Willamina's phone vibrated in her vest pocket; she pulled it out, frowned at the display, pressed a button.

"Sheriff Keller."

She smiled.

"Got it, thank you."  She listened a moment longer, then:  "You're welcome."

Linn watched as his mother smiled a little as she slid the phone back into her pocket.

"Psalm 36:6," she said, and Linn blinked, frowning:  he rose, paced quickly into the living room, came back with an open book, his finger tracing slowly across the thin paper, and then he stopped and smiled and looked up.

He nodded.

"The Parson told her?"

"He did."

Linn laughed.  " 'You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.' "

He grinned.

"Christ is comin' back on a white horse, as I recall," he said softly.  "This proves it, though!"

He looked at The Bear Killer, the black canine's jowls in the water bowl as he drank slowly, noisily.

"You're in luck, fella. Looks like dogs do go to Heaven!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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213. ROADSIDE DISCUSSION

Linn leaned back against the cruiser.

He wasn't afraid to lean; he'd washed the Chevy himself, he'd toweled it dry, he'd not driven five miles yet, and he'd looked to make sure it was clean before he pressed his creased uniform backside against the shining, waxed sheet metal.

He liked to stop here, partway through his shift, where he could see a good long ways.

The sun was heading for the horizon, but not in too much of a hurry; there was enough strength to it that he'd peeled out of his black uniform jacket and left it on the front seat, and so he stood in shirtsleeves, arms folded, looking to the horizon, considering.

He was a curious man, and his curiosity was stirred -- as it often was -- by the past, by artifacts he and his mother gathered over the years, by testimony from men long dead, and women as well, testimony given through glass plate photographs, hand written journals, letters carefully kept in ribbon-tied bundles in a long-forgotten trunk, in published accounts given by travelers to their high country.

He'd read Old Pale Eyes' words after the man heard Sarah sing, after she'd sung in harmony with Daisy, with the gypsy -- oh, hell, what was her name --

"Daciana," he said aloud, smiling a little, imagining her as she was when she first came to town, a face-painted, leotard wearing trick rider, disporting herself most shamelessly in a screaming, make-your-eyes-bleed canary yellow saddle set with polished silver furniture ... and at the same time, a most properly dressed matron, married and respectable, her voice blending in flawless harmony with two others ...

"Soaring like a dove on porcelain wings, glowing in the sunlight," he said aloud, or almost aloud: his throat didn't quite vibrate to form the words, yet he didn't quite whisper ... perhaps he just heard his own voice, in his mind, where he saw three women in McKenna gowns, standing in his mind's eye, before the Altar in their little whitewashed church.

"Would that I could hear that," he said aloud, and this time his voice did work.

He was silent for a few more minutes, until his head turned at the sound of an approaching vehicle.

He nodded a little and he smiled a little, and he waited until the approaching car slowed and stopped just behind his cruiser.

"I thought I might find you here," a cheerful voice hailed him, and his grin was quick, broad and most sincere.

"My secrets are found out," he called back.  "Was this one shouted from a rooftop?"

"No," Saddles laughed.  "Your mother said you might be here."

Linn nodded.  "I can't get away with anything."

"Of course not," Saddles laughed again.  "We're women.  We find things out!"

She looked up at him, her eyes bright, merry:  Linn stood, unmoving, his arms still folded.

"Dear heart," he sighed, "I am on duty, otherwise I would take you in my arms!"

Saddles lifted her chin, ran her arms around him:  "And what would you do to me then?" she teased.

"Oh, I dunno," Linn speculated, looking innocently into the heavens.  "Maybe ask you for a peanut butter sandwich?"

She swatted his creased sleeve.  "Scoundrel!" 

"There's something on your mind."

"Yes there is."

Linn looked steadily into her gold-flecked eyes, raised his eyebrows.

Silence grew long between them and finally Linn said, "My Mama can read minds, but I don't have that gift. You'll have to tell me."

"I made a McKenna gown."

Linn's grin widened again.  "And I'll bet you look really good in it!"

"And I need a date."

"Oh?"

"You've got that black suit."  It was a statement, not a question.

"You mean the one Mama made off the original patterns."

"The same."

"The one you've seen me wear."

"The one you look really good wearing."

"Flattery," he said solemnly, "will get you everywhere."

"If it gets me into the opera house," she said, "I'll be happy."

"Opera."

"They restored the one in Denver."

He nodded.

"They have an opening night just for us."

Linn raised an eyebrow.  "Just for us."

Saddles nodded, her eyes wide, pleading.

"And what could possibly entice me to the opera?"

"Me, in a McKenna gown."

"And after?"

"You won't be on duty," Saddles said mischeviously, "so you won't have to stand with your arms folded."

Linn nodded.  "Your argument," he said finally, "is persuasive."

"I understand they have restored it.  It's just like it was in the 1880s."

"Really!"  Linn turned toward her, his head tilted a little, clearly interested.

Saddles nodded.

"What else have they?"

"Opening night, if you're in period attire, you get a box seat and free admission and they have singers like they had --"

Linn raised a flat palm.  "Sold."

"Really?"

"Really."

Saddles blinked, considered, frowned.

"How come you never asked me out?"

"I'm afraid to."

"What?"  Saddles blinked.  "You? Afraid?  Of me?"

He nodded solemnly.

"I'm sorry" -- she shook her head -- "I don't ... "

She looked at him, honestly puzzled.

"Afraid?"

Linn's arms uncoiled, he faced her squarely:  Saddles recognized his body language:  he felt threatened -- his left thumb was hooked in his belt, his right down at his side, forearm over the handle of his revolver:  feet shoulder width apart, left boot slightly back, shoulders a little rounded, looking at once relaxed and yet ready to pounce like a cougar from a rock shelf.

"Dear heart," he said slowly, carefully, "I have a bad habit."

She nodded.

He swallowed, took a long breath.

"If you ask me a question, I'll give you the honest answer, even if you don't want to hear it."

She nodded again.

"You're right about me being afraid."  He swallowed, cleared his throat.  "I don't think you know how far up on a pedestal I have you."

He smiled a little and Saddles felt herself get a little fluttery when he did.

"You're so far up there it's a wonder you don't have nosebleed."  

His face and voice grew serious.

"I don't want to screw this up," he admitted.  "I don't ever, ever! want to do anything that'll hurt your feelin's."

He looked away, looked back. 

"Opera, you say?"

Saddles nodded.

"With me in my black suit and you in a McKenna gown."

She nodded again.

"I think," he said decisively, "we are going to enjoy the evening.  When is it, I'll make sure to have the time free!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

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214. AN AUTHENTIC NAVY COLT

Saddles' eyes were wide, her mouth was open, one gloved hand was pressed to the base of her throat, and for a moment, for one delicious moment, she surrendered to the feeling that she was a helpless female, being protected by her big strong man, in the face of a feckless footpad who desired her purse.

The feeling lasted but a proverbial moment, for it dissolved in the patter of gloved hands being happily clapped together in appreciation for this street performance -- for, after all, were they all not in costume, and was this not a further extension of their celebrated era?

There were three there who did not share that happy appreciation:  three they were, two of which wore the attire of the Godless and plastic age that called itself "reality" and one, a lean young man with pale eyes and a waxed, curled handlebar, a young man with pale eyes and a handful of Navy Colt:  the second was a uniformed police officer, just starting to lean forward into a broken-field run; and the third, the third was a scruffy-looking youth with a pained expression, his scream of pain frozen in his throat, the octagon barrel of a Navy Colt pressed into his forehead, utterly divesting him of any further hostilities.

Saddles had expected Linn to pick her up in his Jeep.

He did not.

Her father answered the door, and she heard the smile in his voice:  it was a proper thing for a gentleman, calling on a young lady, to exchange pleasantries with the young lady's father; it was even more proper for the caller to be dressed for the occasion.

The Captain very much approved of a well groomed, tidy young man in a tailored suit, arriving with intent to take his darlin' daughter a-steppin'.

Saddles was finished up and ready when the knock on the door gave her a moment's breathlessness.

Her father opened the door and invited Linn in; Saddles saw the Stetson swept off his head, knew he would tuck it under his off arm -- he'd done it many times before, and she always appreciated that he was gentleman enough to do that -- her father turned to call her name, stopped, blinked in surprise at the very proper looking young lady in the floor length gown looking at him with big and innocent eyes.

Saddles may have expected to be helped into a Jeep, but such was not the case.

She found herself on a handsome young man's arm, being walked down the sidewalk, toward a waiting carriage, a gleaming, jet-black brougham with yellow-and-red pin striping, with immaculate tuck-and-roll upholstered seats, with a good looking chestnut Morgan between the traces:  she waved with a gloved hand, seeing her father's wave in return, and delighted in the feel of air on her face, at the sound of horse's hooves, trace-chain, the rumble of steel-shod wheels on pavement.

"We are not the only ones for the Opera," Linn grinned as they trotted down the main street:  indeed, as they drew to a stop at the depot, the platform was alive with ladies in McKenna gowns, men in black suits and silk toppers, or Derby hats:  The Lady Esther steamed and breathed like a great, powerful beast, waiting patiently on gleaming silver rails, and the porter placed the steps, steadied the ladies as they lifted their skirts and stepped up into the gleaming green passenger cars with the crossed-stem roses painted on the side.

Linn reached up and took Saddles around the waist -- she was grateful she'd taken the Sheriff's advice, and had herself fitted with a proper corset -- he swung her down easily, took her hand, led her back to the next car in line.

"I reserved a private car," he said, pausing as Saddles lifted her skirt and stepped up on the portable stair, then onto the shining-black, cast iron step, and up onto the private car's platform.

She waited as Linn swarmed up the steps, as he grinned at her, as he gripped the knob, turned it, pushed the door open, then stepped back and waited for his lady to enter.

The lamps were lit; the interior was a study in red velvet, and as Saddles crossed the threshold, Richard rose and the Sheriff smiled a welcome from her chair.

"Mama, Sir," Linn said formally, "I believe you know Shelly Crane."

"Of course," they murmured, and Linn squeezed her gloved hand, once, quickly, released:  "You don't think I would make this journey without a proper escort!"

A liveried porter waited patiently until everyone was settled, until the train leaned into its burden, until the slack banged out of the couplers, then there was tea, there were sandwiches; Willamina discreetly showed Saddles the ladies' room at the far end of the private car, and the Ladies' Tea Society, the Sheriff, the Chief of Police, the Mayor, two councilmen, a half dozen brother Masons and their wives and daughters, all in period attire and all looking forward to a happy night of entertainment, steamed toward Denver and the waiting, horse-drawn carriages.

Saddles would remember the night, she would remember sitting in a box, feeling very feminine and elegant, she would remember going into the Opera House on a handsome young man's arm, she would remember coming out, and being surprised by a street rat with a knife suddenly seizing her purse and demanding her surrender.

She recalled a moment's dismay, she recalled being surrounded by ladies in McKenna gowns and men in tailored suits, and she would remember being pulled, hard, then something blurred past her, a yell of pain, the snarling metallic sound of a revolving pistol's coming to full cock, and as her hand came to the base of her throat and her mouth opened in surprise, she realized the dacoit was cradling a broken wrist with his other hand, and Linn's hard and pale eyes were looking down the length of a Navy Colt's octagon barrel ... which was pressed rather firmly into the street rat's forehead.

There were witness statements to be taken, there were questions; there had been applause from the Ladies' Tea Society, pattering their gloved palms together in appreciation of what must have looked like a Theatre in the Round, played for their benefit:  the responding police officers found themselves discussing matters with high ranking law enforcement officers from another jurisdiction; Saddles was late getting home, but as the Sheriff and her husband were in the carriage with she and Linn, her father's concerns were allayed, and Linn looked somewhat red-eared embarrassed as his father described the exact wrist-breaking grip he'd used, how he'd stripped the knife from the criminal's grip, driven his boot into the dacoit's wind, then introduced the muzzle of his Navy Colt to the miscreant's frontal plate and invited him to so much as breathe.

Saddles smiled a little as Richard asked, "By the way, why did you wear a Navy instead of something more ... modern?" and Linn grinned, looking almost bashfully at the young lady, still very properly holding his arm.

"I was in period attire," he explained, "and it seemed fitting.  Besides" -- his grin was quick, almost boyish -- "I like my Navy Colt!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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215.  A PROPER GENTLEMAN

It did not trouble Linn in the least that he didn't kiss his girl goodnight.

He was putting up quite a good front, for someone who'd surfed the Adrenaline Ocean bare hours before.

He'd spoken to her father and said that he'd regretted the night did not go quite as intended, that a member of the criminal element decided a modern woman's purse was too ordinary and he wanted Shelly's period authentic warbag:  "I changed his mind for him," Linn said solemnly, then looked at Saddles and said, "I thank you for a delightful evening," and inclined his head as he did:  he turned, placing the Stetson on his head as he did, and paced back toward the waiting carriage, where his parents were politely, and elaborately, ignoring his conversation as he formally returned the man's daughter to him.

Linn climbed into the driver's seat, clucked up the gelding; he looked round behind, brought the dapple grey about, and headed for home.

Willamina and Richard sat in the back seat, holding hands; each assessed their son, both professionally, and personally:  what conversation was necessary, was conducted in the private car, on the train ride home -- thanks to modern communication, the special was able to travel without interfering with any other trains -- and both Richard and Willamina waited on the front porch while Linn took the carriage back to the barn, while he tended the gelding, wiped down the buggy, scooped grain and checked the water, before looking round about and then emerging from the barn.

It did not seem to surprise him that his parents were waiting on the front porch.

He never broke stride; his long-legged pace took him to the steps, and up the steps, and onto the porch, where he faced his parents squarely.

"You might as well say it now," he said, and his parents looked at one another -- more mother and father, than Sheriff and contract agent -- then they took a pace toward their son.

Willamina took his hand in hers, Richard laid a paternal paw on his son's shoulder.

"We are very proud of you," Willamina said.

"You showed great skill and great restraint," Richard added.

Linn nodded gravely.

"You were a perfect gentleman."

Linn looked very directly at his father, then at his pale eyed mother.

"I learned from the best," he said quietly.

 

The Captain looked at his daughter, gathered her into his arms.

"You had quite an evening," he chuckled.

"I know," Saddles said sadly, and the Captain released his embrace, drew back to arm's length, his hands still on her shoulders.

"Why the long face, sweetheart?"

Saddles' cheeks pinked steadily and she took a long, bosom-lifting breath -- something he would never have noticed, save for the cut of this very modest, but very feminine, gown.

"Daddy," she said slowly, "did Mom ever complain about you being a gentleman?"

Her father frowned, puzzled.

"I don't understand."

Saddles looked at her Daddy, then she smiled a little, and almost giggled -- almost, but not quite, the left side of her mouth climbing a little higher than her right, the way it did when she was trying to stifle a laugh.

"Daddy, he was a perfect gentleman all night," Shelly admitted, and then she smiled a little more and confessed, "I wish he'd been a little bit improper!"

Her big strong Daddy raised an eyebrow, tilted his head down just a fraction, and Saddles planted her knuckles on her cinched waist.

"Daddy, he didn't even kiss me goodnight!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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216 THE LEAKEY EXPEDITION

 

Linn's cruiser was crossways of both lanes, well back from the fire scene.

He strode boldly up the center of the street:  ahead of him, his uncle, the Chief of Police, was just positioning his cruiser in like manner, blocking all traffic while the fire was extinguished.

Linn's eyes were busy: his first concern was to keep people the hell out from underfoot, his second concern was to keep people out of harm's way: after this, after he was satisfied that both himself and the general public stood no hazard -- only after this, did he approach the incident commander, the Captain.

He came into the man's peripheral from the left, out of arm's reach, a lesson he'd learned the hard way at a fire scene two years before:  leaders like to point, as the sniper correctly observed, and he'd inherited a faceful of Firecraft glove when his intended line of march just happened to intersect a commanding gesture.

It was inadvertent, it was accidental, it was something he and the involved fireman laughed about later, but it was a lesson well learned.

Linn waited until the Captain looked at him.

"Sir, whattaya need?" Linn asked, speaking loudly, knowing the fireground often produced unannounced bursts of noise:  the Captain's eyes shifted to the right, he looked back at the ladder, braced against the stone front of what used to be the five-and-dime and was now vacant storage.

"A vacation," the man admitted with a tight smile.

"Can't help you much there," Linn replied, "but Disaster Services is bringing coffee and sandwiches."

"Good."  The Captain's eyes tried to bore through the second story wall.  "We'll be here a while."  

The Captain looked down.  "Good thing you've a good polish on those boots."

Linn looked down, nodded:  he was standing in a half inch of running water, trapped in a loop of firehose:  the woven jacket was shining with water, and streams ran downhill, toward the gutter.

"I'll get Street on the phone and have 'em salt," Linn offered.

"Don't you dare."  The Captain's eyes were along the roofline.  "No salt on my hose."

"I'll wait, then."

"Thank you."

Linn looked to his left as a boxy, red-and-white truck eased around the police chief's cruiser, came toward them.

"Looks like Disaster Services is here. Anyone living in there?"

"No. Just storage."

"Need me, holler."

The Captain nodded, raised a gloved hand in acknowledgement, his attention on the fireground.

Linn smiled at the tired-looking older man in the burgundy Red Cross jacket, raised a hand in greeting: he turned, trotted back to his cruiser, then turned, considered, and walked over to the squad.

Saddles was behind the wheel, staring at the activity in front of the old five-and-dime:  she rolled down her window, stuck out an elbow as Linn approached.

"Fancy meetin' you in a place like this," she greeted the lean waisted lawman.

"Trust me cause trouble," Linn grinned.  "Can I get you anything?"

She nodded toward the three people with trays of coffee and sandwiches.  "Some of those would be nice."

As if on cue, her father turned, thrust an arm toward the ambulance:  he raised his talkie, and Linn heard his voice through the squad's speaker, telling the crew inside that when they cycled out, there was coffee and sandwiches to be had.

"I wonder if anyone thought to bring a plastic outhouse," Linn said thoughtfully, and Saddles laughed.

"That would not be a bad idea," she admitted.  "There will be a debrief at the chapter house tonight and Daddy will be there. I think I'll go too and that will be a suggestion I'll make."

"Good."  Linn turned restlessly, scanning behind him as he always did.

"You never just stare at the action, do you?"

"I never stare into a fire, either."

"Not even a campfire, when you're out on a romantic date?"

"Especially not then," he said, his voice serious. "If I'm out on a date, I have to bring my date back alive and unharmed and that means I can't burn out my eyes by staring into a fire."

"Are you always this serious?"

"Comes of being hurt a time or three."  He nodded to a couple local boys, gestured them to the far side of the street:  his gesture was almost slow, and delivered with a quiet smile and a little nod of the head:  it was not a harsh order, but rather a friendly suggestion, and they responded as he'd anticipated, and spectated the scene from the opposite sidewalk.

"I felt very safe the other night," Shelly said, tilting her head a little."

"I intended you should be safe."

"I didn't see him come up."  She frowned a little.  "I didn't even see you move until I heard his wrist splinter."

"It was either that or shoot him on the spot," Linn admitted, "and I didn't want to risk over penetration in that crowd."  He grimaced. "It's hard enough keeping those lovely gowns clean without getting blood out of them."

"You weren't afraid you'd miss?"

Linn looked very directly at her, not answering for several very long moments.

"No," he said finally.  "At that distance, and knowing that he was the only backstop I had, my only concern was for over penetration."
Saddles felt something cold trickle down her spine at his quietly stated words, and somehow she knew with absolutely no doubt at all that he was telling the absolute truth.

She looked down at her fuel and temperature gauges, looked back at Linn, saw he was looking back toward the scene and smiling again.

"Your father said it was a good thing I'd put a good polish on my boots."

"But your boots are always polished," Saddles protested.

Linn laughed.  "It was a good thing today, though. There's enough water running down the street we could call it the Leakey expedition!" -- and then he looked at her and winked -- "and if you remember that one, you're a National Geographic geek like me!"

He turned, raised a summoning arm.  

" 'Scuse me.  I have to tell Street not to salt the Captain's hoses."

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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217. BREAKFAST

 

Steel whispered ancient secrets to the flat, spit-moistened stone:  skilled and practiced hands caressed hand-forged metal across hand-smoothed Berea sandstone, imported from back East at horrendous cost and gifted to a soul who truly appreciated its qualities.

Daisy straightened, wiped the blade on the towel that lived on her left shoulder: she turned, easily sliced through the ham, a half dozen easy strokes, a like number of thin cuts falling to the cutting board: she slid the blade beneath them, flipped them over, proceeded to slice them again, long ways, then crossways, quick, practiced cuts: she had time, she could afford the greater labor that went into properly cutting up the breakfast ham.

She slid the knife under the diced cuttings, transferred them to the hot skillet, the aroma of frying pig adding to the warm welcome of Daisy's Kitchen: she knew the smell would drift through the Saloon, to the rooms upstairs, out the open window (she kept the back door open a little and her kitchen window open, knowing it made a draft, knowing the good smells going outside would induce men to come in and eat)

She pulled the towel off her shoulder, gripped the oven's shining bar, drew it down: she nodded, flipped the towel free, reached in and pulled out four sheets of biscuits, just done: quickly, efficiently, she passed a butter-swiped cloth over them, giving them a sheen, a shine; she stacked them quickly, turned and stirred the gravy, set a little further away on the cast iron stovetop to keep it from scorching.

The finely diced ham was ready:  two eggs at a time she picked up, cracked on the rim of the frying pan, dropped into the eggs, sprinkled in the spices freshly ground in her white-marble mortar-and-pestle, stirred:  timing was critical and she was particular, and she slid her spatula under the mass, made sure it was loose, withdrew: a press, a pull, and the frying, fragrant entree was quartered, turned:  plates were loaded with ham and eggs, split open biscuits drowned in sausage gravy, and her girls began to shuttle trays of loaded, steaming, fragrant plates out to hungry men, waiting in the Silver Jewel's main room.

Daisy was a study in efficiency, in perpetual motion: no move was wasted: no sooner had she put down a spatula than she picked up a wooden spoon, the moment she set down a pan she picked up another, or bent to thrust more wood into the stove's firebox.

She turned, gathered a good lungful of air to shout at the boy to bring in more wood: as if reading her mind, he crossed her threshold before she could speak:  he stacked his teetering armload quickly, efficiently, working as much wood into the woodbox as he could easily fit:  "I've more to split," he said, and withdrew quickly, intent on his task.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna stepped off the train: she looked to be a fashionable young lady, but instead of demurely lowered eyes, she had a habit of looking very directly at people -- a habit that made some uncomfortable, for women of the era did not assert themselves, and she had the immediate impression that she would damn well assert herself if it pleased her.

Peacefully, or otherwise, and she honestly didn't care which.

She stepped down from the private care, smiled quietly as the porter took her hand:  he touched his shining cap-brim as she stepped off the little stair he'd placed for her use, watched admiringly as she climbed the wooden steps onto the depot platform.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, daughter of a Firelands businesswoman, stopped and tilted her head a little, regarding a young man who regarded her rather uncertainly.

Sarah placed gloved fingertips under the young man's chin:  surprised, he raised his head a little, looking at her with a hesitant expression.

"There is sorrow in your soul," she said quietly:  "sit here and tell me your story."

The young man blinked, surprised -- women weren't usually this forward -- but as she hadn't made an indecent proposition, as she didn't look like one of the strumpets from the shady side of the street, he sat, and she sat beside him.

"I see sorrow," Sarah prompted, "but I see amusement.  Something happened recently."

He nodded, smiling.

"I had time enough for breakfast," he began.

Sarah nodded: she knew The Lady Esther would be at station just under an hour, taking on passengers, offloading freight and taking on freight, after which she would ease ahead and take on water and coal: it was an hour in which passengers could debark, stretch their legs, conduct business as necessary.

"You had breakfast," Sarah prompted. "The Silver Jewel?"

He blinked, frowned.  "I'm ... it might have been, yes."

"Across the street. Sheriff's Office downhill and across, undertaker's directly across, the Mercantile uphill and across."

"Yes.  Yes, that's the one."

"The Silver Jewel," she nodded.  "The only straight games in three states and the best food in twice that many."

"I," he agreed, "will vouch for the food!"  His hand drifted unconsciously toward his flat middle, stopped, lowered back to his lap.  

"I haven't eaten that well since before I left home," he said softly, his expression soft, unguarded, and Sarah knew he was allowing himself a moment's relaxation, a moment's memory.

"Daisy has that reputation," she nodded.  

"Daisy. That was her name."

"You saw her?"

He laughed a little, staring out across the two sets of tracks, into the wooded slope beyond.

"She came out with a wooden spoon and she was beating some fellow at the top of her lungs. He had a lump on his forehead and gravy over most of his coat and I'm not sure what happened, but she came down the hallway after him --"

Sarah laughed, nodding, patted his hand with her gloved palm:  he jumped like he'd been scalded, apologized.  "I never found out what he'd done but she wasn't happy!"

"We've found the smile I saw hiding behind your eyes," Sarah said, "now tell me of the sorrow."

He blinked, swallowed.

He didn't usually talk to strange women, but something told him this one was safe ... he had no idea why he had that impression, only that he did, and so he nodded again.

"I was remembering my Mama's kitchen," he said slowly.  "I have not eaten like that since I left home."

"Can you go back?"

He shook his head.

"A fight, a disagreement?"

He rubbed his palms together slowly.  "No.  No, she ... the house burnt and Mama got the table out."

"The table."

"Papa made it.  'Twas heavy and solid oak, she bent double and scuttled under it, she reared up and headed for the door with it and she got the table out, then she went back in and bear hugged the barrel of flour and waddled out with it.  I'd gone in and got out as many clothes as I could find and she ..."

He hung his head.

"She'd tried to go back in and the smoke got her.  We packed her out and 'twas too late."
Sarah's hand rested on his again, tightened a little.

"I know fire," she whispered.  "He and I are old enemies."  She reached up and again placed gentle fingertips under his chin, turned his head toward her.

"You did your best," she whispered.  "You did that for her. Do you remember talking to her once you got her outside?"
He nodded, swallowed again.

"You remember the words you spoke."

He closed his eyes, nodded again.

"Know that she heard them. Hearing is the very last sense we lose. Your Mama knew you were getting her to safety and she heard every word you said when you did."  Sarah smiled.  "Sometimes when we smell something it reminds us -- especially when we smell something -- I still remember my husband ..."

It was Sarah's turn to drop her head a little.

"He was a fireman and he died getting a baby out of a burning house.  But sometimes ..."

Sarah's smile was gentle, her eyes distant, and it was the young man's turn to place a palm on hers.

"Sometimes I will smell his shaving soap, and it reminds me so very much of him."

She blinked, came back to the here-and-now.

"I'm glad you had breakfast."  She patted his middle with the back of a gloved hand.  "You're too skinny, you need a good woman to fatten you up."

Sarah stood, smiled, turned, and was gone, and a young man in a city suit, just passing through, sat on the depot bench, wondering what just happened, at least until the conductor called " 'Board!  All aboooard!"

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218.  FOXY GIRL

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller drew back a little in the saddle.

She was riding a Frisian, one of three she had on her ranch: she'd come to love the big, gentle, good natured mounts, and she'd come to respect their ability at sheer pulling power, in addition to a sensitive and responsive saddlehorse ... even if it felt like she was straddling the dining room table, as she admitted quietly to a trusted correspondent.

The Sheriff's head came up, snapped around: her legs straightened a little, pushing her back fractionally in the saddle, and Fox, her chestnut Frisian, stopped, her head coming up a little, ears swinging as her nose turned toward the sound of the alarm.

The Sheriff was more than accustomed to sizing a situation up in a hurry.

She'd been a Marine and she'd led troops in combat, she'd been a nurse, she'd been Sheriff for better than a decade: in all those professions, if you want to live, you learn to think fast, you learn to act on the swift decisions you make, and all that came into play as she saw two panicked children, as she saw busted boards on top of what she knew was an old well.

Fox turned like a cutting horse, gathered herself, steelshod hooves cutting into the ground as she launched, driving against earth underfoot with the strength and power of horses bred for centuries for muscle, horses bred to carry armored knights into battle:  Willamina stood in the stirrups, leaning over Fox's neck, her hands pressed hard to warm, shining fur, snarling "Run -- run -- run -- run!"

 

Sharon's head came up like a swimmer coming out of a deep water dive: practiced fingers hit the rectangular transmit key and she leaned closer to the desk mike.

Focused attention, professional voice:  "Firelands, Unit One, go."

"Dispatch rescue, Mingus Orchard behind Dead Horse Field, victim in a well, I'm going in."

"Roger One, stand by."

Willamina snarled "Stand by my billy goat," and tossed her talkie onto the pile -- onto her coat, her gunbelt:  she bellied down on time-dark, weak boards that sagged under her -- and shoved her face into the hole made by a falling child's body.

"Hello!" she called, her voice hollow in the dark, damp, stone-lined hole in the ground.  

She heard a splash, a cross between a choke and a cough: "Help," a scared voice quavered.

"Can you grab something and keep above water?"

"It's slimy," she heard, and she could not tell if it was a little boy, or a little girl -- more than likely a boy -- there was a splash, another cough.

She pulled back, rolled over, sat up, pinned the scared boy with her pale eyed gaze like she was impaling an insect on a cork board.

"Who's down there?"

"My, my, my sis, sis, sister," he stammered.  "I told her not to" -- he stopped, swallowed hard.

"She said I wasn't her boss and jumped up and down and then they broke and I saw you --"

Willamina took him by both shoulders, pulled him close, her eyes boring into his.

"Listen to me," she hissed. "You, did, the, right, thing!"

Her hands tightened a little as she spoke, emphasizing her message.

"You, did, nothing wrong!" -- she knew she had to get that message into his head before his blame ate more of his conscience, especially if his sister drowned before she could get the child out.

 

The Captain climbed into the passenger side, slammed the door, seized the seat belt, yanked it viciously across him.

Saddles' fingers gripped the rotary switch -- click, click, turn the ignition and wait: she hated the wait, hated the glow plugs' delay, she knew she had to wait until the light went out before she cranked the squad's Diesel engine into life -- she had no wish to cost the Department time and expense of replacing glow plugs -- the Captain, watching his daughter, wondered how long it would take her to grow so frustrated she took a bite out of the steering wheel.

Her fingers twisted the ignition, the big Cummins shivered, chuckled into life, and the Captain raised the microphone:  "Dispatch, Rescue One, enroute."

"Roger, Rescue One. Sheriff advises victim in a well and she's going in."

The Captain blinked, stared at his daughter:  the rescue eased out onto the apron, Saddles' finger wiped across the row of rocker switches:  "Light up," she said, her words clipped, and she looked at her father.

The Sheriff's dispatcher continued, "Mingus Orchard, behind Dead Horse Field."

"Know right where it is," Saddles muttered, brought her hoof down on the go pedal,  "Showtime."

 

The Sheriff shook out the plaited lariat, threw the tag end away:  it uncoiled neatly and she gave it a savage jerk, pulling slack enough to open the loop big enough to run clear around under the boards.

"Back up twelve feet," she snapped at the pale, shivering lad watching her with a scared expression:  he watched as the Sheriff swarmed into the saddle, hoisting her leg an impossible distance to get her foot into the stirrup.

Willamina spun the end of her riata around the saddlehorn:  "Back," she said gently, her heels tickling the mare's ribs, and Fox backed, drawing the braided leather taut.

"Back, girl," Willamina murmured, and the Frisian hesitated, leaned back.

Rotted wood crushed, then flipped:  the entire deck, or what was left of it, flipped up and away from the well.

 

Saddles reached up, twisted the Federal electronic into agonized life: a pair of chromed hundred-watt speakers on the front bumper screamed alarm as she approached the intersection, and her father's foot was heavy on the Allis-Chalmers tractor starter switch he'd mounted to run the mechanical siren.

Saddles reached up and hauled down on the lanyard above her left ear, and her father laughed at the absolutely wicked grin on his little girl's face:  people who ignored yelp, wail and hi-lo, people who paid no attention to the mechanical coffee grinder siren, took pains to get the hell out of the way when they thought an eighteen was about to eat them for breakfast.

Saddles swung the rescue left, then right; clear of traffic, the Cummins sang power as the rescue accelerated.

 

Willamina ran back to the edge of the well, looked down at the oily surface -- Why does water in a well always look oily? she wondered, then shoved the stray thought aside with a vicious slap of an inner hand.

She lifted her head, looked at the boy -- he couldn't be more than twelve -- "My name's Willamina, what's yours?"

"Peter Cullison," he said uncertainly.

"Peter, what's your sister's name?"

"Mary Lynne."

Willamina looked down the hole, saw something dark next to the wall.

"Mary Lynne?" she called.

"I'm here," a scared little voice called back.

"The fire department is on its way," Willamina called.  "How are you doing?"

"I'm cold," came the small voiced reply.

Willamina considered: the well was about four feet across -- huge, considering it was probably hand dug, with stones hand laid from its depth to the surface -- her ear twitched at the liquid whistle of a siren, then the harsh bray of air horns.

"Help is coming," she called down the hole.  "Not much longer, Princess!"

"I want my Daddy," Willamina heard, and Willamina had to seize her feelings with an iron claw and shove them hard down into a deep kettle, screw the lid down tight.

She knew what it was to be a scared girl, crying for her Daddy.

 

The Captain did not tell his daughter how to drive.

He did not admonish her to take it easy on the turns; she did, she coasted into a turn and gave it throttle to power around a turn, especially on the back roads, the gravel roads, on terrain where traction was borderline, where a careless driver could get in trouble, fast.

Saddles wanted to run much faster -- she wanted to swing the rescue's back end around a curve, to fishtail dramatically in a cloud of dust and glory -- but the memory of being slammed around the back of an ambulance when such a driver lost control and wrecked, when both she and the patient were injured as a result, made a deep and lasting impression.

One that kept her from imitating the event.

They were the only vehicle on the one lane road; there was no need for the siren, so she didn't run siren; when they saw the Sheriff's big chestnut, they were both grateful they were not running the electronic Yodel Dog.

A siren, they both knew, tended to spook horses, and neither of them wanted to have to chase a scared horse over mountainous terrain.

"There," the Captain snapped, thrusting a bladed hand toward the windshield, and Saddles saw the Sheriff straighten, then bend over again.

Saddles braked smoothly, bringing the rescue to an easy stop: she and the Captain rolled out, hit the ground, ran to the Sheriff.

Willamina straightened: she was on her knees beside a round hole in the ground, the ruined, shattered remnants of a wooden wellhead splintered and broken.

"Child, female, in the water less than fifteen, cold," she said, her words clipped, her eyes pale, hard: she looked at the rescue, frowning.  

"No ladder."

Father and daughter looked at one another, each making a fast mental inventory of what they had aboard.

Willamina put two fingers to her lips, whistled:  she seized the loop of her lariat, looked down the well, then nodded.

She stood.

"I'll need your pillow or a blanket," she said, "and when I tell you, walk my horse toward me until I yell."

The Sheriff stood, seized her lariat, gauged its length: Saddles recognized the knot she threw -- a bowline, which she dropped over the saddlehorn -- led her chestnut Frisian to the edge of the well.

"I need that blanket," she snapped, and Saddles was running before she realized she was even moving: she nearly collided with her father, who was coming out of the back of the rescue with two ladder belts.

Saddles ran back with a folded, grey wool, Army surplus blanket that smelled of mothballs, a blanket well older than she was, a blanket her father told her came from Civil Defense, whatever that was -- all she knew was it was old, it was warm, it was scratchy, and it was the first one she grabbed.

Willamina snapped the lariat around her booted ankles, yanked it viciously tight:  "Back her up."

Saddles reached up, rubbed the chestnut under the jaw:  "Foxy Girl, can I back you up?" she whispered, then gripped the cheekstrap:  "Back, girl," she murmured.

The Sheriff waited until most of the slack was out of the line.

"Okay. Bring her in."

"Sheriff, don't you want --"

The Sheriff turned, dove headfirst down the hole:  braided leather hissed across folded wool, laid across the edge of the hole, lowering the Sheriff headfirst down the hand dug well toward a scared, wet little girl.

"Hold!" Saddles heard.

"Ho, girl," she murmured, and though she was staring at the well, at the vibrating-tight line, at her father, one one knee beside the hole and looking down its depth, she still saw Foxy-girl's ear swing in response to her quiet voiced command.

Saddles held her breath, her palms clammy:  part of her mind ranted You are a paramedic, you're certified in high angle rescue and trench rescue, why aren't you harnessed and down that hole? and the rest of her mind saw her father lean forward a little more, then motion toward her: 

Back.

"Back, girl," she murmured, and the Sheriff's Foxy-girl backed easily, huge hooves silent on hard ground:  back, and back again, her eyes welded to her father's back, alert for the first gesture --

He raised his hand.

"Ho, girl," Saddles murmured, and Fox stopped, head lowering, blinking sleepily.

Her father leaned forward, grabbed something:  she saw his teeth set, his jaw muscles bulge, and he stood -- his hands were wrapped around a set of boots -- he hauled the Sheriff out, and the Sheriff had something in her arms, something long and wet and dark and her father staggered back, hoisting the Sheriff's booted feet up above head height.

"Stand," Saddles blurted, sprinting for her father:  she snatched the blanket from the well's edge, snapped it open, spread it:  her father held the Sheriff's ankles as high above his head as he could reach, the Sheriff held the little girl under the arms, and Saddles ducked in, took the child -- "I've got her," she grunted, and Willamina released -- Saddles laid the child down on the blanket, flipped the bottom over her legs, the sides around her, quickly, like a papoose, ran her arms under the blanket wrapped, big-eyed, shivering little girl:  "Hi," she said, "I'm Shelly, let's get you in where it's warm!"

The child looked at Saddles with big, scared eyes, then nodded.

The Captain looked down. 

"Sheriff," he said, "I'm setting you down."

The Sheriff lowered her hands.  "Down," she said:  the earth rose to press against her palms.

"Okay, let go."

She felt the man's grip release and she snapped double, came up on her feet, dusted her hands briskly together.

"I'm freezing," she declared, "and that little girl is soaked."

"Saddles has her inside and the heater's running wide open."

Willamina laughed.  "It won't be enough.  She'll be shivering in ER."

Saddles' father nodded.  "Likely, but what about you?"

"I'm tough," the Sheriff replied.  "I'll live."  She nodded to the open well.  "My coat is still dry, I'll be fine."

"You're sure."

"G'wan, get outta here," Willamina laughed.  "You've got a little girl to get home."  

Willamina looked over at the silent, staring boy, walked over to him, tilted her head a little to the side.

"Peter," she said, "ever ride a horse?"
She saw his eyes swing over to her Foxy-girl, saw a hopeful expression, quickly hidden.

Peter shook his head.

"First time for everything," the Sheriff said, fastening her gunbelt around her middle, then shrugged into her warm, dry coat.  

"Foxy-girl," she called, and the big chestnut Frisian came head-bobbing over to her, lowering her head as the Sheriff rubbed her ears, as Peter shyly stroked her nose, giggled as flaring nostrils snuffed loudly at his belly.

"She wants a bribe," Willamina explained, handing him three pieces of carrot:  "hold these with your hand out flat -- just like that --"

Peter giggled as the Sheriff's Foxy-horse lipped the treat off his palm.

"Here.  I'll help you up.  Your sister should be fine."  

Willamina hoisted herself into the saddle, reached back.  "Here.  Reach around and grab my coat.  Think we can beat the squad to the hospital?"

She pressed her knee into Foxy's side; the big Frisian turned quickly, easily.

"Come on, girl. I know a shortcut."

 

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219. LATER THAT NIGHT

 

Saddles stopped as she saw the skull and crossbones file card stuck in the Sheriff's door.

She'd come to say thank you, the dispatcher told her to go on back, she reached for the doorknob and froze.

The Jolly Roger was hand drawn on a 3x5 card, stuck into the slight gap between glass and trim:  she blinked, drew her hand back, started to turn.

The door opened.

"In," the Sheriff snapped, and Saddles turned back toward the inner office.

She saw the Sheriff walk around the end of her desk, shoulders rounded, head down a little.

"Close the door."

Saddles eased the door shut.

Willamina turned around, placed her splayed fingertips on the desk top, looked at the paramedic.

Willamina saw the medic's eyes widen and she knew this was a startle reaction at the sight of their pale eyed Sheriff with tears running down her face.

Willamina considered for a long moment, walked behind her scooted-in chair, walked around to the wall beside her front door, raised a bent finger and tapped a glass front frame with an old fashioned, slender barrel revolver on display.

Saddles turned around, took a look, saw a photograph in the frame as well:  a laughing policeman, squatted down, with a laughing little girl in a pink dress on his thigh.

"My father," Willamina said, swallowed.

"When I went down into that well, that little girl said she wanted her daddy."

Saddles blinked, waited: she knew more would follow, and she knew to not interrupt.

"I heard me, when I was a girl."

She looked at Saddles.

"Your Daddy is alive, Shelly. He's a good man. Don't ever let him forget that."

Willamina slashed savagely at her damp cheeks with a flannel shirtsleeve.

"Do something for me."

"Of course."

"Tell your Daddy thank you."  Her voice was a whisper, her eyes on her father's photograph.

Shelly hesitated, considered, nodded, took a breath.

"I came to say thank you for the doughnuts."

"Anytime."  Willamina cleared her throat, swallowed.  "Thank you is only words. I thought a box of doughnuts fresh from the bakery said it better."

"You know my Daddy," Shelly said frankly.  "Fastest way to his heart is through his stomach."

Willamina nodded.

"My Daddy was the same.  We had a bakery in Glouster. Frank Grubbs ran it and it was good."

She turned away, pressed her shirtsleeve to her eyes again.

Shelly raised her hand, hesitated, then she gripped the Sheriff's shoulders, hugged her from behind.

"You made a difference," she whispered, and the Sheriff nodded, her head bowed.

Shelly released her grip, turned, opened the door.

She closed the door quietly behind her, leaned back against the door frame, feeling her bottom lip quiver a little.

"Everything okay?" Sharon asked, looking up from her desk.

Saddles nodded, walked quickly across the lobby, stopped at the front door, turned.

"I have to go talk to my Daddy."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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220.  SO, WHAT GHOSTS ARE YOU CARRYING?

Saddles propped her elbow on the tabletop, her chin on the heel of her hand.

She regarded the lean young man in the tailored suit.

"You realize," she said, "you could wear a more modern style."

Linn stopped, looked up, surprised:  he held out an arm, regarded the sleeve, looked down at his flat belly, ran spatulate fingers over hand-sewn lapels.

"I," he said haughtily, "am the very image of a well dressed man!"

Saddles tried not to laugh, and didn't quite succeed.

"Besides" -- he winked, lowering his voice as if sharing a confidence -- "if I ever showed up in a modern suit, the earth would stop turning on its axle!"

Saddles smiled, fingertips barely caressing her water glass.

"So what do you want to talk about?"

Linn raised an eyebrow, hesitated.

"I have a bad habit," he said, and Shelly picked up on the change in his voice: he was suddenly serious.  "If you ask me a question, I will give you the honest answer, even if it's not what you want to hear."

"I see."  Her voice was serious as well.

"We could talk about the trivial and the inconsequential, and that would be a waste of your time and mine."  He took a slow, deep breath in through his nose, frowned.

"We are both ... we both have the Rescuer Mentality. We want immediate gratification. We want results five minutes ago if not sooner. We both make a difference.  Both of us carry more ghosts than anyone else realizes, so before we get any more serious, we should both be sure we want to associate with the other."

Shelly frowned a little, her eyes swinging to the left: Linn knew this was not recollection -- her eyes were traveling to where they'd driven up in a fine carriage.

He could have picked her up for "just a date," but he showed up in a suit, driving a carriage: he could have taken her someplace for fast food, but he brought her to the Silver Jewel, offered her his arm, and walked her with a confident gravity to the back room -- the room that was only used if reserved.

Shelly recognized that he was going to considerable trouble to make this special, and he was opening the door to a deeper relationship.

"Shelly," he said, and she looked quickly at him, startled: it had been so very long since anyone called her anything but Saddles, and she knew he'd done this intentionally -- not to off-balance her, but rather to show her a degree of intimacy he'd not done before.

"Shelly, I would like to see more of you."  He frowned.  "I had a fine speech all planned and my mind just went blank."

Shelly laid her hand on his, looked into his pale eyes.  

She lowered her voice to a whisper.

"I think," she said softly, "that is the nicest fine speech anyone ever gave me."

Linn nodded, swallowed.

"Good," he said finally, "because I feel suddenly inadequate."

Shelly tilted her head a little.  "I can see something stirring behind those pale eyes, Keller."

He nodded.

"We should know one another better."

Shelly nodded.  "I agree."

"I am seeing no one else."

"Nor am I."

"I snore like a freight train."

Shelly giggled.  "So does my Daddy."

"Do the windows rattle?"

"No, he had them replaced.  Do yours?"

"No, I caulked them up solid."

Shelly nodded, smiling a little.

"I am an absolute pig when it comes to chocolate chip cookies."

"So is my Daddy."

"How are your cooking skills?"

"Have you seen Daddy's belly?"

"He's not got much of a gut at all."

"You've not seen him with his shirt off."

"No."  Linn blinked, considering.  

"Are we going to start sharing deep dark secrets now?"

Linn considered for several long moments.

"That," he said finally, "would indicate a great deal of trust."

"I've known ... secrets ... that were shared ..."

"And got out. I worked a suicide from that one."

"Blackson."

"That's the one."

"I heard there was a suicide note."

"There was a Dear John letter. He'd confided something and it got back to his girlfriend.  He was ready to propose to her ... we found an engagement ring in his shirt pocket when we searched his body."

"Oh, no," Shelly murmured, her hand going to her mouth.

"Yeah. Whatever it was, was enough for his girl to break it off with him."

"I see."

"I am going to need a right hand, a first officer, a second in command, someone who can take over the household if I fall over dead."

"I'm used to that."

Linn nodded slowly.  "Ever since your mother passed."

Shelly nodded, her smile more of a stretching of her lips.

"I cried when I delivered my first baby," she whispered.

Linn laughed, leaned his head back and looked at the ceiling, looked back at Shelly.

"I did too," he admitted, "and I cry at certain music."

"Oh dear God, not you too!"

"Oh, yes. Under this lawman's shield I'm an old softy."

"No."

"I almost suicided when Pa was teaching me to drive."

"What?"  Shelly's eyes widened with honest shock.

"He'd never taught anyone to drive before. He put me behind the wheel of his brand new truck."  Linn smiled thinly.  "He'd never had a new vehicle in his life and now he was trusting me with his truck."  He took a long breath.  "No pressure, you understand!"

"Umm, yeah," Shelly said uncertainly.

"I never in my entire life had so much concentrated negative all at once."  His voice was quiet; he turned his hand over, gripped hers lightly.  "Nothing I did was right, nothing I did was good enough ... he didn't realize how much weight his words carried.

"I was numb, I think I was in shock when we got home.

"Mama had chicken soup for us ... it was hot and salty and it tasted so good ... I finished my bowl and went to my room and I wrote a suicide note."

Shelly's mouth opened, her hand tightened on his.

"I came within an ace of taking my .22 rifle and going out back and taking one through the roof of the mouth."

"Why didn't you?"

"Mama came in.  She knew something was wrong.  I pushed the note back, I turned my chair around and she sat down on my bunk and asked me what was wrong, and I told her.

"I told her ... how ... it was affecting me."  His jaw thrust out, he looked down and to the side.  "He had no idea how much weight his words carried."

"You were very sensitive," she whispered.

"Always have been.  And soft hearted.  I try to hide it."

Shelly's eyebrows raised and she blew out a long breath.  "You hide it well."

"I went downstairs ... Mama went down before I did ... she must have said something to him.

"We went back out to the truck and he handed me the keys and said, "No more criticism," and I stopped and looked at him and said "Sir, when you drive, you're driving on a lifetime of patterned reflexes."  He smiled with half his mouth.  "That's before I knew about muscle memory."

"I like your term better."

"I told him that every last decision had to go through my thinking forebrain.

"Everything.

"Every turn signal, every turn of the wheel, clutch, brake, throttle, shift, degree of turn, degree of recovery, everything, and I was overloading, and he had to realize that."  

"What did he say?"

"He ..."

Linn blinked, looked away, as if ashamed.  

"I don't remember," he admitted.  "We got back in the truck and I drove and he never offered one word of comment until we got back that evening and I was backing toward the barn."

"What happened then?"

"He gave me hell for backing up without looking."

Shelly's brows puzzled together.

"He said I had to look behind me instead of looking at him and I nailed the brakes, hard, I shut off the ignition and I said 'I am using the mirror on your side if you don't mind terribly," and then I handed him the keys and got out."

"Did he ever say anything about it?"

"No."  Linn took another long breath.  "Not until after his... Mama told me after he died that he'd admitted to her he felt like a horse's backside when he realized I was backing just like I'd been taught, and I was using the passenger side West Coast mirror and not looking at him."  Linn's jaw slid out, slowly.  "But ... no.  No, he never once spoke of it."

"He never apologized."

"No."

"Did your mother find your suicide note?"

"Yes."

"What happened?"

"We sat down and we talked it out.  We talked it all out -- how I felt betrayed, I felt browbeat, I felt like I'd just been absolutely trashed and steamrollered by a man I had so far up on a pedestal that it's a wonder he didn't get nosebleed."  He took a sip of water, harrumphed, sipped again.

"She told me later she was able to use what I told her, to talk a young man out of jumping out of a hayloft with a noose around his neck."

Shelly laid her other hand on top of Linn's -- gently, carefully, not confining, but reassuring:  he looked at her and gave her that lopsided smile again.

"At least you didn't say something like 'At least something good came of your experience.' "

Shelly shook her head.  "I ... no.  No," she said decisively.  "I won't say that."

"You know a dark secret now," Linn said quietly.  "So.  What ghosts are you carrying?"

 

 

 

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(blush)

I, um, thank you, that is, ahhhh ...

(ears turn red)

(shoves hands in pocket)

(kicks dirt)

I took the cover photos for all three books.

The cover model is my nephew Jeremiah, who is built like I was at his age: he's wearing my hat, my vest, carrying my Sharps and you can't see it for the poor contrast but he's wearing my Navy Colt.

I went back to Perry County and asked Jeremiah's advice on where would be a good place to shoot the cover photo.

He had a place in mind.

To his chagrin, the field was newly gated off and grown up with head-tall weeds.

A second location was equally inaccessible.

The sun was sliding downhill fast when he said "I know a place" and we ended up in the Millertown cemetery, overlooking my Mama's new grave.

I lay flat on my back and angled the camera up to crop out tomb stones and the Green Valley Farm in Hill's Bottom below.

(My apologies to Wallaby Jack, but Singin' Sue has always been a genuine sweetheart, and it would be unmannerly not to give her a personal reply!)
We now return to our regular series of short stories ... 

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3 hours ago, Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103 said:

(blush)

I, um, thank you, that is, ahhhh ...

(ears turn red)

(shoves hands in pocket)

(kicks dirt)

I took the cover photos for all three books.

The cover model is my nephew Jeremiah, who is built like I was at his age: he's wearing my hat, my vest, carrying my Sharps and you can't see it for the poor contrast but he's wearing my Navy Colt.

I went back to Perry County and asked Jeremiah's advice on where would be a good place to shoot the cover photo.

He had a place in mind.

To his chagrin, the field was newly gated off and grown up with head-tall weeds.

A second location was equally inaccessible.

The sun was sliding downhill fast when he said "I know a place" and we ended up in the Millertown cemetery, overlooking my Mama's new grave.

I lay flat on my back and angled the camera up to crop out tomb stones and the Green Valley Farm in Hill's Bottom below.

(My apologies to Wallaby Jack, but Singin' Sue has always been a genuine sweetheart, and it would be unmannerly not to give her a personal reply!)
We now return to our regular series of short stories ... 

 

3 hours ago, Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103 said:

(blush)

I, um, thank you, that is, ahhhh ...

(ears turn red)

(shoves hands in pocket)

(kicks dirt)

I took the cover photos for all three books.

The cover model is my nephew Jeremiah, who is built like I was at his age: he's wearing my hat, my vest, carrying my Sharps and you can't see it for the poor contrast but he's wearing my Navy Colt.

I went back to Perry County and asked Jeremiah's advice on where would be a good place to shoot the cover photo.

He had a place in mind.

To his chagrin, the field was newly gated off and grown up with head-tall weeds.

A second location was equally inaccessible.

The sun was sliding downhill fast when he said "I know a place" and we ended up in the Millertown cemetery, overlooking my Mama's new grave.

I lay flat on my back and angled the camera up to crop out tomb stones and the Green Valley Farm in Hill's Bottom below.

(My apologies to Wallaby Jack, but Singin' Sue has always been a genuine sweetheart, and it would be unmannerly not to give her a personal reply!)
We now return to our regular series of short stories ... 

:wub:

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... enough of these well deserved compliments ..... please let the man write !  :angry:

 

 

 

 

  (have you noticed that when Mr. Keller writes about a stable or barn that you can smell the hay; both fresh and second hand)   :wub:

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221.  THE IRISH BRIGADE GOES TO WAR

 

Men in red bib front shirts grinned: they wore pressed-leather helmets, well-polished, knee-high boots, their curled handlebar mustaches were immaculately shaped, stiffly waxed, and if this were pointed out as an example of masculine vanity, these men could be forgiven: their predecessors wore their lip brooms thusly, and portraits displayed in ranked in rows proved it.

A woman in an emerald McKenna gown, a woman with a cameo brooch at her throat, stood behind a podium:  her voice filled the auditorium, her words penetrated the audience's collective imagination, and from the crowded high school gymnasium and folded tin chairs, each individual soul there found themselves standing on a wooden boardwalk, watching in shock as raiders came roaring into town, intent on murdering the men, defiling the women, stealing anything valuable and burning what remained.

 

The fire chief was Irish, red-headed, hard-muscled and delighted, not necessarily in that order.

He seized the pried-up lid, tore it free by main force, threw it back, exposing the crate of factory-new, brass-framed, Henry rifles.

"Lads," he roared happily, "they're no' Beecher's Bibles, but they're Scripture for yon sinners!"

Eager hands seized octagon barrel rifles, followers whispered against springs, cartridges dropped into the tubular magazines and slid downhill into place:  levers were cycled, hammers lowered to half cock, and one more round added.

The Ladies danced in leather harness, eager to run: they knew when padded leather collars were dunked over their heads, when they were strapped into a three-horse hitch, when men smelled of excitement, the matched white mares knew it was time to run, and the mares loved running more than oats or alfalfa.

The steam boiler hissed -- the engineer tapped the steam-gauge with a bent forefingers, raised a hand, nodded, and Sean swarmed easily into the driver's box, picked up the reins in his left hand, a coiled blacksnake whip in his right.

"NOW FOR IT, LADS!" he roared, white teeth gleaming beneath his Irish-red handlebar:  "THE PHILISTINES ARE AMONG US! ST FLORIAN, ST CHRISTOPHER AND THE BLESSED VIRGIN, LADIES, RUN!

Heavy wooden double doors swung open like a castle gate's massive valves.

Irishmen with war in their hands and a fierce joy in their hearts swarmed aboard the steam engine, the ladder wagon, taking their places, ready to lay death and destruction against those who would destroy their town.

Sean swung the whip and snapped a hole in the air a yard above the lead mare's ears.

The mares surged into their padded collars, and the Irish Brigade went to war.

 

"In any age, in any era," Sheriff Willamina Keller said, her voice filling the silent auditorium, populated with townspeople, imagination and ghosts in equal measure, "there are those who would steal what is not rightfully theirs, and so it was here."  The Sheriff looked slowly around as she spoke, referring only momentarily to her very few notes, for she knew the story by heart.

"An attempt was made to buy out Firelands by nefarious means, and it was found out, and stopped; the thieves then decided to hit Firelands and steal what wasn't nailed down and burn the rest -- if they could not take it legally, they would take it otherwise, and they would burn all that would burn, they would plow the ground and salt the earth afterward."

She lifted her chin.  "The raiders were hard men, but so were the townpeople, and nobody fights quite so hard as someone defending their home.

"The Mercantile" -- she looked at a shopkeeper, a sad-faced man in an old-fashioned vest, watching her with the eyes of a man who'd seen perhaps too much of life, and wished only to live a quiet and unassuming existence -- "was run by a husband and wife, and the husband was on the roof with a rifle, ready to defend his store."  Willamina picked up an octagon barrel '73 rifle, cycled the action:  the metallic sound was loud in the darkened hush of the auditorium.  "His wife was below, in the store itself" -- she laid the blued-steel rifle on the table beside her, picked up a revolver -- "with her husband's revolving-pistol he'd carried in the War."  Willamina smiled a little.  "A woman with a gun is more dangerous than a man, because a criminal can read men like a newspaper, but women are not predictable. Unless" -- she eared the hammer back, the metallic chuckle of a percussion lockwork surprisingly clear -- "it happens to carry more than six shots, and has a shotgun barrel underneath as well!"  

 

Maude brought her husband's revolver up, brought the hammer back: the LeMat spoke with authority for her husband when he fought to clear Confederate decks of Yankee boarders, and in her hands, the shotgun barrel spoke loudly and most persuasively: her first shot caught the closest man square in the chest, her pistol balls were placed with a cold precision: suddenly the Mercantile was not as easy a prize as had been anticipated.

Maude's lips peeled back from even white teeth and she saw the pistol barrel swing toward the firepot one man drew back to throw:  she was surprised when the firepot shattered, spraying burning oil across two men and the street, and part of her mind wondered who in the world fired her pistol, and then the pistol fired three more times, the barrel aligning with angry men close up and hostile, and Maude, the sweet, kindly wife of the town's storekeeper, stood like a stalwart fired until her pistol was empty, and by then the storm was over.

 

"I wanted to take the fight to the enemy," a man's voice said, striding into the light beside the Sheriff:  he was tall, lean-waisted, he wore a black suit and carried a double barrel shotgun balanced in his left hand.  "I was in that damned War and I do not favor a defensive campaign."

He stopped, laid the double gun down beside the Sheriff's Winchester, opened his coat and hooked his left thumb behind his gunbelt, his eyes pale, cold, hard.

"Wise counsel is worth more than gold, and wise is the man who listens: Charlie Macneil talked some sense into my hard head.  We did not have troops enough to mount a campaign against the enemy, so we baited them into a trap -- into a cul-de-sac and then we poured murder itself upon them."

He picked up a sheathed sabre from the table, stared at it the way a man will when he picks up an object haunted with a lifetime of bloody memories, and this one certainly was.

"When the raiders rode in, every alley was blocked at the far end, the far end of the street was blocked with two loaded freight wagons.  They came in and we corked the bottle behind them and then the Irish Brigade cut into them like a boxer's fist into a drunkard's nose."

 

Sean sang a Gaelic war-chant, driving the steam fire-fighting engine like a Celtic war-chariot: the mares never slacked their pace as they charged the mass of mounted men:  the sight of a smoking, fire-spitting Ahrens steam engine, shrill whistle screaming, Irishmen firing from both sides, rifle fire coming from rooftops and from windows, the collision of horseflesh into horseflesh -- horses screamed, men swore, firemen fell from the collision, hit the ground, rolled:  empty rifles were discarded and the Irishmen, hired in from Cincinnati, joyfully drove into the enemy:  the Welsh Irishman seized a fire ax and laid about with mighty swings, drove the end of the handle into a man's gut before cleaving his skull from crown to teeth, the German Irishman swung his coal shovel and smacked a mounted rider's knee, hard, then drove the edge of the blade into the wounded joint, bringing a roar of pain just before a shot from across the street removed the raider from the fight.

Permanently.

White mares, screaming, rearing, windmilled steel-shod hooves, jerked the steam boiler ahead:  a steel rimmed wheel crushed a raider's arm, another man was knocked senseless by a hoof-strike, and suddenly it was over.

The boiler hissed angrily, shot an accusing finger of steam into the cool night air.

The town's residents came out, walked among the enemy.

No forgiveness was granted.

The wounded were dispatched with a single shot to the head, all but the leader, the man in the rear, the well dressed man pinned to the ground by the dead weight of his equally dead mount.

 

"The dead were dragged off," the pale eyed man said as he withdrew shining steel from the military issue scabbard:  he held the curved blade up, turned it slowly, staring with fascination at honed steel.  "The street was cleared of horses and men both.  Sometimes in battle it comes down to a fight between two champions.  In this case, everyone who raided into the town was dead.  All but one."

He lowered the sabre's tip, glared about with eyes as warm and welcoming as the frozen heart of a mountain glacier.

"The man who organized this raid wished to have a particular prize, a relative: this did not happen.

"He lived, and all who followed him died, and the Sheriff gave him a choice."

He turned, slowly, the ghosts of that long dead conflict flowing through the darkened auditorium like smoke.

"He could be hanged, or he could fight.

"They each mounted -- one of the raider's horses was not injured -- each man drew back to the end of the street, and at the same moment, each charged the other."

 

The Sheriff knew his opponent would cheat.

His kind always did.

He was supposed to engage with the pistol in his right hand.

The Sheriff knew he wouldn't -- he would pull another pistol, fire from the unexpected hand.

When Sheriff Linn Keller was a lad at home, back East, his father once told him, "When in doubt, son, cheat!" -- not in the sense of illegal, immoral or sinful, but rather, take every possible advantage, and the Sheriff did.

His Cannonball- mare could turn like a cutting horse, and when he saw the other fellow's shoulder drop, Cannonball swung to her left and Linn brought the sabre into play.

 

The spotlight illuminated the ballistic dummy.

Sharpened steel described a silver arc in the still atmosphere:  the ballistic dummy's head leaped from the neck, and as Linn followed through, his bottom jaw thrust out and his mouth open a little, the ballistic dummy's head hit the ground, bounced, rolled a few feet and rocked to a stop. 

 

"The fight, however, was not over."  Willamina lifted her chin as she spotlight on the headless simulacrum dimmed, and her own spotlight increased.  "It seems that one raider remained alive.

"One raider saw the Sheriff dismount, and walk tiredly toward the man he'd just dismounted.

"The last living raider laid a rifle over his dead horse's carcass and aimed at the Sheriff."

 

Esther Keller leaned tiredly against the door frame of the Silver Jewel.

She'd made good account of herself from her upstairs, office window, she'd driven swarms of heavy shot into the massed invaders, at least until the Irish Brigade blasted into them and the fight became general -- too general to risk sprinkling their beloved Brigade with unintended swan shot.

Esther looked around at the carnage.

She heard women sobbing, smelled the smoke of her girlhood home burning; she closed her eyes and for a moment, for a terrible moment, she was once more grieving against a stately tree in a manicured lawn, while the mansion, the barns, the tobacco-sheds and cotton-sheds burned, while Yankee raiders laughed and shot pigs and chickens and dogs with joyful abandon, for the sheer joy of destruction.

Esther opened her eyes, took a quick, deep breath, saw her husband swing down from the saddle, walk over to the vanquished enemy, sabre leaned back against his shoulder.

The Sheriff looked over at his wife, nodded, once.

Esther's eye caught movement.

She looked to her left, saw a man behind a dead horse, bringing a rifle to bear on her husband.

To see, was to act:  she took two steps to the right, seized a dropped rifle:  she cycled the lever, brought it to shoulder, fired: lever again, the smoking empty flipping straight up from the action, fired again:  she took two running steps, planted a hand on the hitch-rail and vaulted it as easily as she did when she was a girl at home, running with her brothers:  she turned, fired, fired again, advancing as she did, until the hammer fell on an empty chamber.

Esther Keller seized her rifle by its barrel, swung it hard in an overhead arc, drove the crescent buttplate into the skull of the dead man she'd just sent to hell on a half dozen rounds of .44 Winchester lead:  again and yet again, until the stock was broken off, until she hammered the misshapen, bloodied mass with the rifle's gore-smeared receiver, until she threw the broken remainder down and bent at the waist and screamed at dead, unhearing ears, "NOBODY SHOOTS MY HUSBAND!"

Sheriff Linn Keller walked up toward his wife, and Esther Keller walked toward her husband:  they stood in the middle of the street, they stood in the center of death and blood, and behind them, the morning sun rose, bright and bloody-red, throwing their shadows a hundred yards downhill.

 

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222.  SHARP DRESSED MAN

Edit to add: This is the second story I've posted today.

 

 

"I remember the pictures on your mother's office wall."

Shelly's voice was quiet as they stepped outside: the air was cool, the night quiet.

People laughed quietly, talked as they left the schoolhouse, heading for their cars.

Shelly's gloved hands were warm on Linn's arm as they walked across the parking lot, toward the far end, where a horse and carriage waited.

Shelly's eyes were distant, her thoughts turned inward, comparing the mental images:  "When you stepped into the light beside your mother, you were the very image of Old Pale Eyes."  He felt her grip tighten a fraction, release:  "And now I realize why we don't have class A uniforms for our fire department."

"Bib fronts do make a fine --" Linn began, then straightened his arm out, stopping Shelly quickly and not at all gently.

A sneering stranger stepped out from between two cars, lifted his hoodie to reveal a handle taped revolver in his waistband.  "Give it up," he sneered, his other hand opening and reaching for the revolver, and Shelly blinked at the concussion that slammed into her face and her ears:  she raised her hands to her ears, then to her face as this sudden threat bent double, as Linn shouted something, and she watched in shocked, frozen horror as the stranger collapsed slowly, arms crossed over his belly.

She saw Linn move forward, saw him stomp the stranger's arm free of his injured belly, bend and quickly snatch away the weapon:  he straightened, arm extended, his voice cold, commanding and pitched to carry:  "FIRELANDS POLICE! ON THE GROUND, NOW!"

Shelly turned, saw people running toward them, turned back:  Linn backed up toward Shelly, laid the seized pistol on a handy car's roof:  two Sheriff's deputies ran up, looked to where Linn's cocked revolver was pointing, seized, cuffed and hoisted two individuals belly down on the ground.

"Separate 'em," Linn directed, "charge them as accessories. Assault on a law enforcement officer, weapon specification.  Possession of prohibited weapons on school property, aggravated stupidity, you know the drill."

"Yes, sir," the two deputies replied briskly:  the cuffed pair was frogmarched away, and Linn eased the hammer down on his Blackhawk, holstered.

He squatted.

"Saddles, I need light," he said, and Shelly fumbled in her sleeve, brought out her cell phone: it took her a year and a half to swipe the screen, punch in the numbers, find the flashlight function.

"Lay back before you die on me," Linn growled unsympathetically, jerking the waistband down and the shirttail up.

"Hmp. Look at this."

Shelly squatted, leaned closer.

"Am I gonna die?" the would-be holdup whined.

"Yep," Linn said unsympathetically, reaching for something dark and cylindrical.

He pulled it free:  the holdup yelled OWWW and Shelly's imagination added kind of a sucking sound as Linn pulled it out of the impacted belly tissue.

There wasn't much blood -- there was a little, and there was discoloration, and Linn held up a dented, bullet-ruined revolver's cylinder with thumb and forefinger.

"There'll be no doubt you had a gun," he said conversationally. "Looks like I hit the greatest threat."

"I'm not gonna die?" the holdup gasped, then twisted and tried to scramble away, at least until a lean lawman seized his hood, pulled hard, then landed full weight on his back.

It took some effort, and by the time he had the holdup in irons, his suit was no longer immaculate, and the prisoner was bleeding from more injuries than the pistol-shaped bruise on his belly.

"Darlin'," Linn said, once he was sitting on top of the handcuffed prisoner as casually as he might sit on a hogtied steer waiting for the branding iron, "could you call for a squad?  This fellow seems to be somewhat worse for wear."

 

Shelly waited at the police station until Linn was done with paperwork and whatever else went on behind those frosted glass doors.

Chief of Police Will Keller came out with him, looked at Shelly, looked back at Linn.

Shelly saw they were discussing something -- probably discussing her -- two men who looked very much alike:  they shook hands, and Linn turned toward his girl.

Shelly stood and held out his dirt-smeared Stetson.

"Now that we've had an exciting evening," Linn said solemnly, "are you sure you want to be seen in public with me ever again?"

Shelly gripped his arm again.

"Any time," she said, "and any where."

Linn nodded.

"I have a matter I'd like to discuss with your father."

"He'll be at the firehouse."

"I know.  You'd better come along."

"Linn, could you excuse us for a moment?" Will asked, and Linn nodded:  "I'll be outside," he said, and Shelly saw the uncle wink at the nephew.

They were talking about me, she thought.  

Now why does his uncle want to talk to me?

Shelly did her level best to look innocent as Chief of Police Will Keller said, "Have a set, darlin', this won't take long."

Shelly sat, and so did the Chief, and he frowned a little and considered before he spoke.

"What are your intentions toward my nephew, young lady?" he said, and Shelly knew the man well enough to hear the mock seriousness in his voice, confirmed with his raised eyebrow, and the casually dropped right eyelid.

Shelly raised her chin, assumed a properly haughty mien.

"My dear sir," she said in a cultured British accent, "I intend to corrupt your nephew's morals and lead him to a life of debauchery, depravity and utter indecency, not necessarily in that order" -- she lowered her head and leaned a little closer -- "and if you believe that one, I'm selling interest in a bridge in New York!"

Will smiled, slowly, a contagious smile she shared:  he nodded, patted her hand in an absolutely fatherly manner.

"When do you two intend to be married?" he asked quietly.

"He hasn't asked me yet," she admitted, "but I think he's close to it."

"He intends to ask your father's permission first."

"I think that's where we are headed next."

"Good."

"I'm having the Sheriff sew my wedding gown."

"She said that's what she was working on."

"Did you see the gown the Sheriff wore tonight?"

Will nodded.  "It's one of her favorites.  That one is as close as she was able to come to the gown worn by Old Pale Eyes' bride Esther."

"That's what I want to be married in."

"I reckon she will arrange it."

Will patted her hand again.  "I won't keep you any longer. If he's going to ask your father first, you'd best get down there. He'll have cooled off by now, it's chilly outside."

"Will" -- Shelly rose, hesitated, sat back down.

"Will, I've been taking dance lessons since I was a little girl."

Will nodded, lowering his head a fraction, looking very directly at her, saying without words that she had his absolutely undivided attention.

"I've been dancing flamenco since I was four years old -- at least that's when I started -- I'm told I am pretty good at it."
Will nodded slowly.  "I do love a good flamenco," he admitted.

"I asked the Sheriff to alter the gown she's making me.  I know flamencas usually wear red, but I want emerald green, with the traditional lobster tail and the mantilla, and I want to dance for him at our wedding."

"I happen to know," Will said confidentially, that right eye closing again, "that he absolutely loves a well played Mexican guitar, and castanets. Will you be using the canastuelas?"

"Oh, yes!"

Will smiled quietly.  "Last on my list," he said, "then you need to join him."

He rose, took her hands, drew her to her feet.

"Will you save your old decrepit uncle a dance?"

Shelly laughed, hugged the man quickly, tightly:  "Decrepit old man my Aunt Fanny's billy goat," she laughed, patting his flat belly.  "Linn told me your shirt sleeve is still plumb full of arm!"

"Sounds like something he'd say," Will admitted.

Shelly sobered.  "Yes.  Yes, I will save you a dance."

"Good."  Will looked up, toward the doors, back down to the good looking young woman looking back up at him.  "Now scoot, darlin'."

Shelly raised up on her toes, kissed him quickly, impulsively on the cheek, then went skipping out the door like a happy little girl.

Will raised his fingertips to his cheek, smiled, his eyes filling with sorrow:  his nephew was going to begin running in double harness, and Will would stand up on his knees for his nephew, for he too had married a woman he loved, until insanity and a brain tumor took her from him.

 

Linn stood in front of the Captain, with Shelly on his arm:  his hat was formally across his forearm, dirt and all, and the Irish Brigade elaborately pretended to be paying no attention at all to the conversation -- though all were listening, for this was something they'd been expecting.

"Sir," Linn said, "may I have your permission to ask Shelly for her hand in marriage?"

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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223.  THE PROMISE

"We were in college," Linn said softly, his hand enveloping Shelly's: his hands were always warm, she thought, and she tilted her head, speculating silently as to whether the rest of him would be just as warm.

"Her name was Dana."  He looked into the darkness, into the distance; they sat on a rock, on folded blankets he'd brought for padding, knowing where he was taking her.

They'd eaten over in Carbon Hill, at the little diner that was intermittently open (when it wasn't bankrupt), he'd driven a back road she didn't know even existed, they'd parked and walked a little distance, The Bear Killer flowing along with them like the silent shadow of Death itself.

Her eyes grew used to the low light -- surprisingly well, she reflected -- starlight and a little filtered light from a quarter moon was enough to light their way, and Linn laid down a folded blanket, another beside it.

"Have a set," he said, "we need to talk."

Shelly sat.

"First off," Linn said, "I want to know what you prefer to be called."

His hand drifted down on top of hers, gentle, not demanding; she turned her hand over, gripped his.

"I know what I want to be called," she whispered, and then she released his hand, turned, raised her face to his.

She felt him shiver.

He told her later it was the second time in his life he'd felt like lightning went through him.

He returned her kiss, carefully, then kissed her again -- delicately -- and he pulled back.

"Let me talk," he whispered.

"Okay," she whispered back.

Linn threw his head back, took a long breath.

"I need to know if you want me to call you Shelly, or Michelle, or Saddles, or maybe Late for Supper."

She laughed, squeezed his hand.  "Don't call me late for supper!"

"No, didn't think so," he agreed, then his voice became serious again and he took off his tilted-back Stetson, laid it down beside him.

"I want to be comfortable with my wife," he said, "and I need to know what to call her."

She tilted her head back, her eyes shining in the starlight.

"Call me what you will," she whispered, and her hands closed on the sides of his head and drew his face into hers again.

Linn ran his arms around her -- strong, enveloping -- his return to her passion was strong, demanding, and when he came up for air, he pulled back a little.

"Stop," he whispered.

"No," she whispered back.

Linn stood, turned, faced her:  he seized her left wrist, pulled her to her feet.

He gripped her hand, his thumb on her palm, turned it up:  he ran a delicate forefinger around her left ring finger.

"Thus far, and no farther," he whispered, then he released her wrist, gripped her under the arms, hoisted her until she was eye level with him:  she realized that he'd lifted her easily, and not until that moment did she realize just how much strength he hid inside that long, tall, skinny carcass of his.

"Darlin'," he whispered, holding her at eye level, "I would have you for my wife.  If you are willin' to throw your lot in with a lawman, I'd be pleased to have you as the other half of my heart."

"Why?" she whispered, just as quickly kicking herself for opening her mouth and letting something stupid fall out.

He lowered her until her feet touched the rocky earth, he laid gentle hands on her arms, ran them down until his hands found hers.

"Shelly, the first time I saw you, you were an eighth grade cheerleader and my heart jumped out from behind my wishbone and hit the ground panting. That was the first time I fell in love with you and I recall Aunt Mary laughed and called it puppy love when I said as much to her, so I never told anybody since then.  Not until I asked your father for his permission to propose to you."

She blinked, swallowed:  Say something, her mind whispered to her, and she was honestly not sure she could force anything past something sticky filling her throat.

Linn went down on one knee, still holding her hands:  he released her left hand, dipped his thumb and forefinger into a vest pocket, came up with a small box.

Shelly was suddenly aware of how bright the stars were, how stark the black-shadowed trees stood out against the dusting of snow they'd gotten the night before, how absolutely quiet the night was:  in the distance, she heard a steam whistle, and part of her mind wondered what the guys at the roundhouse were working on, but then Linn's voice settled around her like a warm, comforting blanket draped around her shoulders, and she heard the words she'd been hoping to hear ever since she was a cheerleader, back in eighth grade.

"Shelly Crane, will you marry me?"

Shelly stared at the ring, she saw the starlight shattering through the emerald and its four supporting diamonds, she saw the upturned face of a strong and capable man, and she felt the tremor in his hand.

"Yes," she whispered.  "Yes, Linn Keller, I will marry you."

"Accept, then, this Ring of Promise," Linn said formally, sliding the ring on her finger:  "by this token do I promise to take you for my wife, to invest in you such fortunes as I may encounter, to share my joy, to provide and to protect as a man ought."

The ring slid easily onto her finger:  the fit was perfect, and Linn looked up at her.

Shelly clapped her hands to her mouth and gave a happy little squeak, and Linn stood, and once again she realized just how strong the man was, when he wrapped his arms around her again, and picked her up, and spun her around in the mountain starlight, laughing.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller was waiting for her son when he came through the door.

She waited until he'd hung up his Stetson and his coat before speaking.

"This way," she said, and turned:  he followed his Mama, and the smells of fresh coffee and fresh sourdough.

His Mama was like that.

He'd wrecked one night, another driver came around a blind curve completely on his side of the road and he'd swung hard left to miss the head-on, he went over the bank and rolled the cruiser: it totaled the aging Crown Vic, but his only injury was a cut over his eyebrow where his badge came up and bit him above the eyebrow.

His Uncle came to ER to make sure Linn was all right, and told him don't worry about finishing the shift, he'd had excitement enough for one night and by the way they got that drunk that ran him off the road, so Linn went home and opened the door quietly -- "so I wouldn't catch that Intercontinental Ballistic Frying Pan between the teeth," he'd said -- and his pale eyed Mama was standing there waiting, and she'd said "This way," and she had fresh coffee and fresh sourdough, still warm out of the oven.

Mother and son sat, and ate hot, buttered bread, steaming and fragrant; they drank coffee, and finally Willamina smiled a little and Linn leaned back, knowing she was going to say something.

"You know Saddles' father thinks very highly of you."

Linn's eyebrow raised a little and she saw the smile he was trying to hide.

"When Shelly admitted to her Daddy that she'd kissed you -- that was a month ago or better -- and you'd gently stopped her from kissing you more."

Linn nodded, looked down at the bread plate, his expression uncertain.

"I recall," he said gently, then looked back at his Mama.

"I was scared. I ... it ..."

He frowned, looked to the side, rubbed his palms speculatively together, then place his hands flat on the table.

"Mama, it lit a fire in my boiler, and I didn't want ..."
He frowned again, searching for the words.

"Mama ... I knew if I let myself go ..."

His eyes sliced through the table, his gaze burned a gash in the very earth beneath.

Willamina waited.

Linn finally said, "Mama, I took her hand ... and I ran my finger around the base of her left ring finger" -- his finger traced around his own proximal digit as he described the motion -- "and I told her, 'Thus far but no farther,' and then I stood up and said I thought it was time I took her home, and she was real quiet and I reckoned I'd upset her."

"She was upset," Willamina nodded, "but she was afraid she'd ruined it."

Linn laughed.  "She was afraid?"  His face reddened as he looked off to the side again, his eyes trailing over the kitchen sink, seeing the falling moon through the nighttime window.  "Mama, I was afraid I'd ruined it!"

"No."  Willamina's voice was quiet, her expression was pleased.  "Her father and I talked it over and he told me that  ... oh, what were his words ..."

Her own gaze lifted and swung to the right as she recalled.

"He said, 'Only a man who knows when to stop, should be allowed to go.' "

Linn laughed, then sobered.

"I proposed to her, Mama."

"And?"

"The Bear Killer was impressed."

"I see."  She tried to hide her smile behind her heavy ceramic coffee mug, took a sip.

"About the time I slid the ring on her finger -- I had a fine speech all prepared -- why, she said yes and I picked her up and The Bear Killer yawned and started to snore."

Willamina nodded wisely.  "One should always have an appreciative audience when proposing."

Linn's smile was gentle, his expression distant as he remembered.

"She couldn't stop looking at that ring."

"I've never seen one like it."

"I remember Old Pale Eyes gave Esther what he called the Promise Ring.  It wasn't an engagement ring.  Kind of a betrothal ring, I think you'd call it."  Linn frowned.  "Wasn't that emerald?"

"I don't think so," Willamina said slowly.  "I'd have to look."

"I know Esther loved emerald.  Shelly does too.  I figured the emerald in the middle with diamonds surrounding."

"It's a lovely ring," Willamina affirmed.  "You chose well."

"I'm not sure I can sleep."

"Then don't.  You have tomorrow off.  Stay up and walk the floor, clean the barn, whatever sounds good to you."

Linn frowned, coffee mug in his left hand, right elbow planted on the tabletop, hand cupped speculatively over his mouth:  he blinked, considered.

"I asked her what she preferred to be called," he said thoughtfully.  "I think I might call her Shelly. Her Daddy calls her Saddles.  That might be ..."

He looked at his Mama.

"Might be proper if I left Saddles as his name for her, uniquely and specially his.  I don't want to tread upon his territory."

Willamina smiled gently, drained the rest of her coffee.  "I think that is a very thoughtful decision."

"Mama?"

Willamina had risen, was turning to put her mug in the sink:  she turned back, smiling that gentle smile he remembered so well.

"Thank you."

"For what?"

"You waited up on me."

She smiled, nodded.  "I knew you were coming," she said, as if that explained everything.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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224.  AND A BLANKET

"I have a question."

"Ask."

The carriage had its own set of sounds as they drove the deserted road.

"I think it's terribly romantic that you like to take me in a horse drawn carriage."

"Good."

Saddles looked over at her fiancee, at his quiet, patient expression, his curled mustache, pale eyes shadowed by the brim of his Stetson.

"I'm curious."

"Most women are."

"You know what I mean."

"My Mama reads minds, I don't. You'll have to put it into words."

The road curved here; Linn ho'd softly to the gelding, stood, turned, frowning.

"What is it?"

Linn sat, snapped the reins.  "CUTTER, GO!"

The gelding lurched hard into his collar:  Linn snapped the reins again, "YAAA!" and the gelding leaned into an outright gallop, hauling the shining carriage around the blind curve:  "GEEEEE!"  Linn yelled, hauling on the right rein, and Cutter's head swung to the right, the rest of his body following, and the carriage bounced, hard, began rattling and bouncing in the field adjacent.

Saddles had a death grip on the curved, metal armrest, on the back of the upholstered seat:  from the moment Linn's backside dropped into the upholstery and he raised his arms to snap the reins against the gelding's rump, she spent more time airborne than she did in the seat:  she planted her feet against the dash board, debating whether to snap her legs double and hook her lower legs under the seat.

"HO, NOW, HO, BOY," Linn called loudly, bringing the carriage around in a circle, and only then did Saddles realize a car had come around the blind curve behind them, a car coming at a greater velocity than was really safe, and she felt something like cold water running down the middle of her back.

Linn jumped out of the carriage, ran up to the gelding:  he was talking to the horse, rubbing under its jaw, Saddles saw the horse's head was pressed against his front, that the horse was shivering:  Linn soothed the animal, murmured to the animal, finally bribed him with a handful of carrot pieces:  he clucked at the gelding and they came about, came back onto the road, resumed their coruse for Firelands.

Saddles was silent, though her good right hand remained welded around the armrest.

"I listened for a car coming," Linn explained, "because I knew this was a blind curve."

Saddles nodded, her eyes wide, her face the color of putty.

"Mama told me about an Amish boy, killed when his buggy was rammed on a state route."

Saddles nodded again.

"I'm not going to risk that."

Saddles swallowed.

"You had a question."

Saddles blinked.

All she could think of was the sudden turn, the bounce, his voice, the sight of the horse suddenly long and lean and close to the ground, the sense of sudden, violent speed, the desperate attempt to keep from bouncing out, then the realization that a speeding car just speared through the block of space they'd occupied less than a second ago.

Linn's hand gripped hers, warm, reassuring:  they resumed their steady pace down what was now a straight stretch of road.

"That's why I put the lights on the back," Linn explained.  "There's a marine battery in back and it's wired to a bank of lights -- LEDs, nice and bright, two reds on the corners -- but they would not have been able to stop, not at their speed."

Saddles leaned into him, and he put his arm around her, held her close.

"Linn?"
"Hm?"

"Why'd you bring a blanket?"

"I didn't have a buffalo robe," he admitted.

"Hm."

"And you said you felt funny, riding in an old fashioned carriage but not wearing a proper gown, so I figured you could cover up."

"I ought to smack you."

"Promises, promises," Linn grinned, looking down at her:  "try it, darlin', and I'll handcuff you and have my way with you!"

"Not until our wedding night you won't," she riposted wickedly, and Linn laughed:  it was a rule he himself had set, and Saddles laughed with him when he threw his head back and declared his amusement to the blue sky above.

"My dear," he said, looking back down at her, "you are right."  He hugged her a little tighter, felt her cuddle into him.

"I'm glad you heard that one coming."

"I am too," he admitted.  "I think it's bad luck to get killed."  He looked innocently at her and added, "That would just plainly ruin my vacation plans!"

This time she did smack him, but it was more of a gentle swat, and all he did was laugh.

 

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225.  AND ONE MORE SECRET

Chief Deputy Barrents seldom allowed his emotions to show.

It was truly said that a stone statue was more expressive of feelings than Willamina's segundo, at least in public:  in private, he was a warm and good humored man, but when he projected his official self, he was as unreadable as a poker champion.

Today, though, he allowed the Chief of Police and the Chief's pale-eyed segundo a glimpse into his soul.

Barrents' smile was more feral than manlike, and Linn had the distinct impression of a grey wolf inside the man's face, looking out:  his lips peeled back to reveal even white teeth, and Linn was almost disappointed that the canines were not prominent.

"I am Navajo, gentlemen," he said quietly.  "I can walk in two feet of dry leaves and make no sound."

He's done it, too, Linn thought:  he looked at his uncle.

"I'll hold his attention.  Got your spot picked out?"

Will nodded.  "Rifle's in the car."

"Good.  I'll start."

Linn rose, sauntered casually out into the street.

His Uncle's car was crossways of the main street, blocking traffic:  the ambulance was crossways on the other end, isolating the center of town.

Saddles jumped out of the back of the Braun, orange tacklebox in hand:  she landed flat footed, knees bent, taking up the shock.

Linn saw her come around the squad, her stride brisk, businesslike.

He raised a hand at belt level:  

Wait.

Saddles stopped, nodded, once, laid her off hand on the corner of the idling Diesel squad's hood.

Linn turned a little, walked straight for the drugstore.

He heard a shouting voice inside as he reached for the door, hauled it open.

Blued steel whispered from the basketweave holster and he brought his revolver to bear.

A scared looking kid with a meth-pocked face took a breath -- he'd finished screaming whatever it was -- Linn looked at the cheerleader he had by the neck, at the knife he was holding above his arm, close to her throat, brought his revolver up to eye level.

"You've seen me shoot," he said conversationally.

"I'LL KILL HER!" came the reply, causing the cheerleader to wince, turn her head a little -- which caused the meth head to jerk her more tightly.

"I can take out your knee," Linn said, taking another step, "or the elbow with the knife, or I can put one between your eyes."

"GET BACK OR I SWEAR I'LL KILL HER!"

"I don't know what you see in her," Linn said, raising his voice a little:  "she looks like an untamed ornithoid," and he saw the recognition in the girl's eyes:  she mouthed a word and he said "Yyyeppp," and Linn's sights were absolutely sharp and utterly steady, he had a bead on the hostage taker's forehead, his bullet would go through the girl's hair, but not if she did like he expected --

Barrents flowed like a blue-uniformed shadow from the kitchen: the cheerleader dropped so fast her feet left the floor, her falling weight yanked the hostage-taker unexpectedly forward, Barrents seized the knife arm at the wrist, and Linn swung his muzzle up, then flipped down and holstered, thumb-snapped out of habit and took a stride forward.

The cheerleader twisted, scrambled on all fours, dove under a table and kept going:  criminal and deputy hit the hardwood in what a pilot might call and "Unplanned Descent," and as strong as Barrents was, he genuinely had his hands full getting this Jack Doe under control and in irons:  Linn seized one arm, Barrents took the other, each man had a knee on the criminal's shoulder blade, and both ignored the screams of rage, and finally Barrents twisted his captive arm back, dropped his weight on the criminal's backside, and honestly sat on him, holding him down until the irons were tightened.

Will watched the scene through his rifle's scope, pale eyes crinkling a little at the corners, the way an older man will when he's allowing himself to feel a quiet approval.

He raised his head, saw the pretty young medic looking at him.

He nodded, raised a hand, motioned her in.

Two lawmen carried the kicking, screaming prisoner outside, one hand gripping an upper arm, the other hand, his belt:  kick though he might, he could not hit either badge packer:  the prisoner's language was less than polite, as is often the case, and the two lawmen stopped beside the horse trough.

They looked at the horse trough, and they looked at each other.

"Think we ought to?"  Linn asked.

Barrents' normally impassive face split into a grin.  

"Yes."

They upended the prisoner and dunked him in cold water, sloshed him three times, hauled him out and continued on their way to the jail, dripping water and invective in equal amounts:  Saddles took a few steps toward them, at least until they baptized the sinner, and then she stopped, looked over at the Chief of Police, crossed the street and arrived just as he was putting the rifle back in its hardcase.

Will looked at her and shook his head.

"Must've been on something," he said.  "I saw that fellow twist out of their grip and jump into the horse trough.  Must've been trying to drown himself.  Good thing they were right there to pull him out."

Saddles' mouth opened, she blinked, she closed her mouth, she looked across the street, saw the pair still carrying the shivering, screaming, swearing prisoner to the lockup.

"Are all Keller men as full of it as you are?"  she asked, and Will closed the trunk of his Crown Vic and laughed.

"No, darlin'," he admitted, "but you're about to marry the one that's as full of it as a sack full of politicians!"

Saddles laughed, nodded, sighed.  "I suppose I'd better go see if anyone else is hurt."

"And I need to get witness statements."  Will extended his elbow.  "Milady?"

Saddles took her big orange medic's tacklebox in one hand, the Chief of Police's arm in the other, and together they crossed to the drugstore to see what kind of trouble they could scare up.

 

Willamina smiled and stepped back, motioned Saddles inside.

"How's he doing?"  she asked, and Willamina said "He ate a good supper and he's upstairs.  Go on up, it's okay."

Shelly had been in the Sheriff's house before; she knew the broad staircase went up to the two bedrooms -- the one on the left, the Sheriff's; the one on the right, her son's.

"You're sure it's okay?" she asked timidly.

"Don't worry," Willamina winked.  "I've got a flyswatter with rope solder all woven into the screen in case you two get improper!"

They both laughed.

Linn looked up at the tap on the door, rose.

Shelly opened it a litle and looked in, her mouth opening with dismay.

He took off his headphones, crossed the room, opened his arms:  she hugged him quickly, tightly, looked up at him:  "What's wrong?" 

Linn pulled out a red bandanna and wiped the wet off his face.

"Have a set," he said, gesturing to the bed:  Saddles sat on the side of the neatly-made bunk, Linn eased back down into his chair.

He turned his laptop screen toward her.

"Two Irish women," Linn explained.  "A teacher and her grade school student and they're singing about Saint Bridgid's cloak."

Shelly blinked, confused.  "I don't understand."

Linn rose, came over to her, went down on one knee, taking her hand between his.

"You have just learned another deep dark secret," he said quietly.  

"I am an incurable romantic and I am an old softy."  He squeezed her hand between his, looked away, looked back.

"The Ninja could weep at the sight of a glorious sunrise, a beautiful maiden, a flawless porcelain teacup. I'm no Ninja, but ..."
He looked over to the paused music video.

"Music ... I have a gear loose somewhere, because sometimes music makes my eyes leak."

Shelly looked up at the light tap at the door.

"We doing all right?"  Willamina asked.

Linn nodded, looked up at Shelly.

"Would you believe ... I'm proposing all over again?"
Willamina laughed.  "I would believe you're as much an old softy as your father," she said, tilting her head to the side a little and giving him an understanding look.

Linn looked up at Shelly, chuckled, rose.

"I reckon I get it honest, then!"

"If you two are finished, there's pie and ice cream downstairs."

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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226.  DIAMONDS ON THE SNOW, AND A CONVENIENT FENCE POST

 

Sharon's stomach dropped about ten feet as she listened to the caller's voice.

She'd answered the shining, red Bat Phone as she always did -- "911, what is your emergency?" and a panicked young mother's voice, almost screaming, shrill, tight, panicked:  "I left my kids in the car and the engine running and I was only gone a minute and I came out and they locked the door and they won't wake up --"

"What is your location?"  Sharon interrupted, and her mechanical pencil scratched urgently at the off-white paper, the location running in her ears and out the sharpened lead.

Sharon's out-thrust thumb hit the red button and she leaned a little closer to the angular desk microphone:  "Firelands Fire Department, Firelands Squad, children locked in the car and not responsive, engine running. Kyle Addition, 474 Gaitten, time of call zero seven forty two."

Saddles' head snapped up, her empty coffee cup hit the table, hard: she powered to her feet:  beside her, the Captain placed his cup very precisely on the table, stood deliberately, took a long, steadying breath.

His head came up, he looked around:  men froze in their duties, then moved, and moved fast:  dishrags were dropped into soapy water, coffee pot unplugged, a mop dunked into its yellow bucket, the handle shoved viciously into a corner, heads turned toward the Captain.

"ALL HANDS ON DECK!  EMPTY THE HOUSE!  CHILDREN INVOLVED, MOVE!"

Saddles was already at a flat-out sprint for the short distance to the squad:  she seized the shoreline's yellow-and-black, hard-rubber connection, just aft of the driver's door, and she stopped:  she always did this, she would grip the shoreline's plug, hard, and take one, long, breath: only then would she give it a twist and a pull, throwing it back over her shoulder, only then would she open the squad's door and slide quickly in under the wheel.

Young she might be, she reflected, but she knew that passion -- uncontrolled emotion -- passion was excitement, and excitement destroyed reason, and she did not want that to happen.

Not with her father sitting beside her, not with someone depending on her, not with several young someones depending on her.

She leaned forward, reached down, turned the black-plastic battery switch:  two clicks, flip the ignition over, wait ... wait ... wait ... while the glow plug switch opened its red eye and looked at her from the instrument panel.

The overhead door started to chuckle open and Saddles heard heavy engines start to her left: in the adjacent bays, large displacement Diesel engines snarled awake:  the preheat light went out, Saddles twisted the switch, and her squad shivered into life.

"You got the location?"  her Daddy asked, and Saddles pulled the shifter down into gear.

"I do, sir," she replied crisply, and the squad rolled out onto the shoveled-clear apron, followed by the rescue and the first-out engine.

She rolled the wheel hard right and her Daddy reached over, twisted the siren switch to YELP, mashed his polished Wellington down on the tractor starter switch, winding the mechanical siren in the center of the front bumper into screaming, agonized life.

Saddles didn't usually throttle her squad hard going through town, but today ... today there were children in that car.

For adults, she reflected with part of her mind, we run like hell.

For children we'll leeean on it just that much more.

Saddles' polished Wellington mashed the go pedal and she reached up, hauled down on the air horn's lanyard, blasting alarm well ahead, a warning that she would eat anyone or anything for breakfast if they dared get in her way.

 

Linn stared at the grey-plastic speaker as if a fish were sticking its head out to take a look at him.

What he said as he listened to the fire call, did not bear repeating in polite company.

He looked up, tilted his head to the left, checked his side mirror, pulled the Crown Vic's shifter into gear.

Four hundred sixty rompin' stompin' cubic inches of four-barreled Ford go-power sang power as the cruiser accelerated powerfully down the little grade, then uphill.

Kyle Addition was not a mile away.

He reached over and almost casually pressed the rocker switch that turned on the roof lights.

 

"Engine One, Engine Two, Rescue One. Hold until I clear you."

Saddles smiled between her ears, a smile that did not extend to her face: she loved her father's confident voice, his "Radio Voice" as she called it:  his diction was precise, almost an exaggerated precision:  he'd explained to her when she was still a young schoolgirl that it was extremely important that every word spoken on radio be clear, be understandable, be very, very precise.

Lives depend on that precision, he'd explained to her, not just the lives of the people we serve, but the lives of the people under our command.

Saddles never forgot that, and she remembered it again as she wheeled the squad up the slick, snow-covered, one-lane street.

 

Linn braked gently, slowing the cruiser with care on the slick surface:  he picked up his mike, pressed the red button.

"Firelands Fire, PD two crossband, advise."

He looked down at the scanner's speaker and his eyes tightened a little at the corners as the Captain replied on the fire department's frequency.

"PD Two, Fire Two, nobody comes in behind us."

"Roger that."  Linn released the key, counted to five:  "PD, Six, on scene, Kyle Addition, traffic control with FD."

"Roger, Six, advise if you need more."

 

Saddles thrust a stiff finger to the right, then the left:  I'll turn around there, her gesture said, and her father nodded, once:  Saddles had her seat belt free and her door open just as the shifter chuckled up into park, and she and her father hit the ground moving.

Saddles sprinted ahead.

She took a mental snapshot.

Three children were staggering around, arms across their bellies: they were crying, they were staggering, one was throwing up: beside them, the tan station wagon, a brick laying on the snow, safety-glass crumbles looking like a double handful of diamonds, strewn on packed snow.

Saddles did not care.

They were getting air into them.

They're breathing, 

Move on.

Her eyes were welded to the fourth child.

A neighbor held the little girl, a neighbor with the sick expression of a man who knows he is holding a corpse: the child was draped over his arms like a rag doll, absolutely boneless, totally limp, and not moving.

" 'Scuse me," Saddles said, scooping the child up out of his shocked arms, turning, leaning forward into a sprint:  "CAPTAIN! SIDE DOOR!"

Her Daddy shoved a foot forward, skidded to a stop, turned, ran the two steps to the side doors of their squad:  one, then the other swung open, he opened his arms in case Saddles was running too hard with her precious cargo.

Saddles did not slow down.

She made a running stride, the arch of her foot drove against the running board, she levitated neatly  into the back of the squad, , laid the child down on the ambulance cot.

"IN!" she snapped, reaching up and sliding the clear-plastic door open, seized the first oxygen mask she could find.

She ripped the plastic bag open with a vicious, two-hand jerk, placed the clear-plastic, green-tinted mask on the little girl's face, ran the elastic around behind, pulled the tag ends enough to hold it in place.

Adult mask, she thought.

I don't care.

She thrust the end of the tubing over the tapered oxygen spout, reached up, turned the knob.

One liter per minute.

Three.

Five.

Fifteen.

Flush.

It's wide open.

That'll do.

She felt the squad rock a little as the Captain got in, braced her feet a little wider apart as they began to move.

"You ready?"  He turned a little, called over his shoulder.

"Go!"

He went.

Saddles tilted the child's head.

Not breathing.

A newborn will take a reflex breath of you rub the belly or tap the sole of the foot.

She rubbed the little girl's belly.  "Breathe, honey," she murmured.

The child was still as death, her eyes closed, the transparent green adult's mask covering her from hairline to below her chin.

Saddles rubbed her belly.

The child gasped in a breath.

"That's it, honey," Saddles said, rubbing again.  "Breathe."

The child took another convulsive breath.

Saddles gave her another back-and-forth with her fingertips and the child breathed a third time, then began breathing on her own.

After six or eight breaths, the child opened her eyes.

Something green and funny smelling was on her face and somebody with lots of teeth was leaning over her, and she let the world know she was not happy.

Saddles looked forward and saw her father's eyes swing up to the rearview mirror.

"SHE'S BREATHING!" she called, and she saw her father's eyes crinkle a little the way they did when he grinned, and he told her later that when she looked at him and said the child was breathing, she had tears running down both cheeks.

Somehow that did not surprise her at all.

 

The school bus was not new, but neither was it old and decrepit.

The driver was the same: matured, but not excessively so:  seasoned, experienced, soft spoken, a man who also served as postmaster on occasion.

The snow was deeper than anyone realized, but he pressed on, for he'd driven in worse:  he had maybe a half-dozen grade-school children on board, another dozen to pick up to complete his route.

He added some throttle, double-clutched down into second gear, pushing through bumper-deep snow, getting momentum for the next grade, when the road twisted a little to the left beneath the concealing snow.

It was a ridge road; it was narrow; the passenger front tire slid off packed gravel and dirt and dropped, pulling the bus downhill: the driver hauled the wheel hard left, trying desperately to bring the bus back to where the road should be, but the passenger duals dropped off as well, and the bus started to roll over ... slowly, inexorably, unstoppably.

The old farmer who owned the land was an exacting man, and when he set a row of fence posts, he used good cedar, he set his posts with a plumb line and a critical eye, and he tamped them well.

One post, one friendly fence post, is all that kept Firelands Consolidated School District Bus 14 from rolling over, from rolling down the side of the ridge.

The driver sat, left leg stiff, clutch thrust hard against the firewall, right foot on the brake, white-knuckled hands gripping the wheel, waiting for the bus to finish rolling on over, waiting to bounce down the snowy boulder field and kill them all.

He sat, barely breathing, too afraid to even shiver.

Behind him,  a dozen children, big-eyed, wondering what this new adventure was.

One little boy called happily, "That was fun, Bill!  Do it again!"

Had Bill not been so absolutely frozen with terror, he'd like to have thrown that kid through the nearest window.

 

Willamina backed her Foxy-girl between the traces, harnessed her Frisian to the sled: she climbed into the driver's seat, took a deep breath.

"Foxy!" she called.  "Yup, girl!"

Foxy-girl stepped out, stepping high, towing the sled easily across the snow.

"Foxy!" Willamina called.  "Haw, girl!"

Foxy turned very neatly onto the narrow ridge road, following the dual tire tracks mashed into the snow.

 

Bill opened the back door of the school bus, ignoring the alarm rattling in front:  he gripped the edges of the doorway, thumbs out, the way he did in jump school, then he gathered himself, jumped into the snow.

He didn't lose his balance, but he went in to his crotch, swearing silently:  he knew the snow was deeper than he'd realized, but this was considerably deeper than he'd realized.

How far off the road did we go? he wondered.

He turned, looked at eager young faces with bright and fearless eyes, regarding him with interest, looking around, looking back to him.

"Okay," he said, raising his arms.  "Mary, come on out, honey, I'll help you down."

He had most of the children off the bus when they heard the jingle of harness bells.

"Is dat Santa?" a little girl asked, pointing with a blue-and-white mitten and a delighted smile.

Bill looked up at the approaching horse and sleigh, and considered that this looked better than Santa to him!

 

Linn thrust the turner under, flipped the silver-dollar pancake: quickly, expertly, one, then another, turned, flipped onto the waiting, warmed plate:  he swirled the dipper in the batter, decanted precise volumes with a tilt of the wrist, set another half-dozen smallbore pancakes frying on the fragrant griddle.

Saddles came over, tilting her head a little, interested in his labor.

"Smell good to you?"  Linn grinned.

She laughed.  "Yes it certainly does!"

"I don't know how to fix that many things, but I can make the hell out of what I do know!"

"Don't let him fool you," Willamina smiled.  "He's a better cook than his father was."

Linn held his tongue; it was no secret -- at least within the family -- that his father had not been much of a cook at all.

"You all had more excitement than I did," Linn explained, "least I could do is fix supper!"

"Remind me to have an exciting day more often," Saddles murmured.

"This plate's full, go ahead and get started."  Linn set an empty plate where the full one had just been.  "I'll finish this and be right with you."

By the time he finished frying up the last of the batter, Saddles and her father were laughing at Willamina's description of arriving at school with a sleigh full of laughing grade-school children, then going back and using her Foxy-girl to pull the school bus's front axle back onto the roadway, then after willing hands set up a tripod, Foxy pulled the back end up as well.

Saddles described that double handful of diamonds on the packed snow, and how her patient "let out a War Whoop and let the whole world know she wasn't at all happy!" -- and her father added quietly that he'd looked back just as Saddles told him the child was breathing, but he didn't say more, and Saddles knew that's because he was used to working with guys, and guys would never admit to their eyes leaking just because a little child took off breathing like a steam engine.

She looked over at Linn.

"So what all did you do today?"

"You mean besides frying up bacon and eggs and making blueberry pancakes?"  

He shrugged.

"I sat my lazy backside in the cruiser where it was warm."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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227.  WHILE THE LADY HAS A GENUINE FIT

"I can offer you a brandy."

"Coffee's fine."

Linn nodded, accepted the kindness:  the two men relaxed into a pair of old chairs, comfortable, generously sized: both chairs were as old as the original structure, both chairs had been restuffed, reupholstered, but with an eye toward authenticity.

Linn had ground fresh coffee, brewed a pot for supper; Shelly and his mother retreated into his Mama's sewing room, and the men, to the old Sheriff's study, used by his Mama as an office, a meeting room, or for intimate visits:  in spite of her feminine nature, she'd never seen fit to change the room's character from its original general appearance.

"How did Shelly do on that run this morning?"  Linn asked, leaning forward, elbows on his knees.

Crane grinned, his eyes swinging to the right -- he's remembering, Linn thought, filing that trait for future use -- Saddles' father leaned back, set his steaming ceramic mug on the sidetable and looked up at the wood trim running along the top of the wall.

"She is a smooth driver," he said thoughtfully.  "Very ... smooooooth." 

His hand, palm down, almost described sliding a curved board across greased ice.

"She's fast when she has to be, and she doesn't take chances behind the wheel, but she does like her air horns."

"They get results," Linn agreed, and both men laughed.

"You should've seen her, Linn.  I've never seen better.  She sized up the scene with one left-to-right look and she went straight for the most critical patient that could be saved."

Linn nodded.

"I radioed the rescue to come in and get the other kids.  They were awake and they were on their feet so we knew they were less critical, but I honestly didn't know if that little girl Saddles grabbed was even alive."

"I heard they kept her overnight."

"An aunt came in to stay with the other kids when they were discharged. Their Mama stayed at the hospital with her little girl. I think she got some help, too."

Linn nodded.

"Kids in the car, engine running?"

Crane nodded.  "Cold day, keep the kids warm, go inside for just a minute and one minute becomes two, three, five, who knows how long she was inside.  Kids get restless and start playing, they hit the door lock, Mama can't get in."

"I never made it up to the scene. How'd they gain entry?"

"A neighbor took a brick to the window."

Linn nodded.  "Works."

"I'm glad he just kind of tapped the window with the corner of the brick, just enough to shatter it. I've known people to get excited and heave a brick through like a fastball."

"With kids in the car?  That could cause misunderstandings," Linn said quietly, his face serious:  Shelly's father looked at the lean lawman, surprised, then realized the solemn faced badge packer was politely pulling his leg.

He nodded.

"Misunderstandings.  You could say that."

Linn caught a movement from the corner of his eye:  "Could you come in here, please?"  his Mama called from the doorway -- "not you, Linn, you just stay there."

"Yes, ma'am."

Crane raised his eyebrows and his backside at the same time:  "I am summoned," he sighed, and Linn leaned back, reached for his coffee.

The Bear Killer, sprawled in front of the mica-window stove, rolled over to expose his belly to the warmth:  he lay with his paws curled, relaxed, nose flaring, dreaming: he gave a noisy, snuffing sigh, and went back to sleep.

It was a few minutes before his Mama's sewing room door opened, and the contents emerged; Linn was in the kitchen, washing dishes, making good use of time available:  he rinsed the plate he was holding, grimacing at the scalding heat, placed the last shining-clean plate in the drain rack.

"I think you'll like my wedding gown," Shelly said, skipping happily up to him, kissing him quickly on the cheek.

Linn turned, frowned a little.

"You think I'll like your gown," he said.  "Why?  Am I going to be wearing it?"

"No, silly," Shelly sighed, leaning back against the rounded, white-ceramic edge of the old-fashioned sink.  "Your mother just finished custom fitting it to me."

"So you're telling me you had a genuine fit."

Shelly laughed, and her laugh was contagious:  it left smiles behind as it ran around the kitchen, and she sighed, shook her head, looked at her father, and at Willamina.

"Is he always this bad?" she asked in mock dismay.

"He's generally worse," Willamina confided, "but he'd better learn that we women have to have a genuine fit every now and then."
Linn hung the towel on the oven's shining chrome handle, turned.

"There are one, two, men here," he said, "and one, two women ... why do I have the feeling that I'm outnumbered anyway?"

Crane laughed.  "Get used to it," he warned with a knowing look:  "I've only the one woman in my life now" -- he nodded toward his daughter -- "and I generally end up feeling outnumbered!"

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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228.  A REAL BULLDOG

 

Linn brought the Crown Vic to a fast halt.

He turned off the ignition and pulled the keys, he pocketed the keys and slammed the door:  two fingers went to his lips and a shrill, liquid whistle soared into the air, shimmered brightly against the ear:  he ran into the barn, seized saddle blanket and saddle, ran outside, into the fenced pasture.

His Apple-horse was running across the field, mane streaming, tail a-flow in his slipstream:  he came at Linn at a dead-on gallop, circled him, tight, fast, stopped, shivering a little, the way a stallion will when he knows there's play to be had.

Linn slung the saddle blanket with a practiced twist, catching the air, floating it up above the horse's back, and down smooth:  the saddle heaved up behind it, his hands quick,  businesslike:  Apple-horse stood stock-still, save for the excitements quivering his hide, not even bothering to suck in a good jag of air to swell his gut.

Linn thrust a boot into the doghouse stirrup, swung a leg over the kak, laid his hands on either side of the stallion's neck:  "Go, boy," he said, his voice low, urgent, and his stallion's haunches dropped, then steel shoes dug into frozen earth and the stallion laid his ears back and shot away from the barn, downhill a little, thrust away from the earth and soared easily over the collarbone-high, whitewashed board fence:  they landed easily, their noses pointed toward Firelands.

 

The Mayor, the Police Chief, the Sheriff, Tony the barber and a half-dozen others watched, drawn to the street by a man's panicked shout, the sound of hooves, the bawl of unhappy beef on the hoof:  the steer threw his head, knocking the man halfway across the street and into a parked car, and lucky he was the horn laid around the man's ribs instead of into them:  the impact would have likely driven the short, blunt horn through broken ribs and into a lung:  instead, the beef slammed him like a giant's open hand, knocking him backside over tincup, rolling him across cold blacktop in a most unwilling somersault, until he slammed into sheet metal and stopped.

Heads turned at the sound of more hoofbeats:  demanding, fast, sharp, staccato:  Linn came out of the saddle, seized the steer's horns, dropped his weight and swung his legs and exercised an absolutely flawless, picture perfect bulldog:  the steer bawled and went down, and men who knew their craft ran toward the opportunity, and the steer was quickly secured.

Linn lay on the cold pavement, a death grip on those short, curved powder horns, a pained look on his face:  a rancher told him they were going to get the beef on his feet, they had a lariat for a lead, and Linn nodded, released his grip:  the steer bawled again, raised his head, and Linn rolled out from under him, came up on his knees, reached up and grabbed the stirrup as Apple-horse sidled toward him.

Willamina's pale eyes assessed her son's movements.

She knew he was hurt and she knew he was doing his best to hide it.

No bones broken, she thought.

He'll be sore in the morning!

 

The Mayor, the Chief and the Sheriff kind of gravitated together to discuss the morning's excitement.

The Mayor expressed his satisfaction that their department could handle surprises and make it look routine.

The Chief nodded wisely and said he had good people, and that makes all the difference, and Willamina added that the hospital released the fellow who'd been neck-slammed across the street -- "his dignity was bruised," she said, straight-faced, "but he's otherwise uninjured," and Will looked at her and asked, "How is Linn? He has to have landed hard when that steer came down on him."

They looked up at the sound of steelshod horse's hooves approaching them.

Linn looked down from the saddle, his uniform less than its usual pristine self.

"Sir," he said to his uncle, "with your permission I'll go retrieve the cruiser and tidy myself up just a bit."

Will nodded his permission, the Mayor lifted his chin and declared, "That was quite a show you put on," and Linn's grin was quick, genuine, and gone.

"I wanted to contain it, sir, and I'm sorry I was too slow.  Ma'am?"

Willamina smiled ever so slightly as her son's pale eyed gaze swung from the mayor to herself.

"He's bruised a little but otherwise unhurt."

Linn nodded.  "Thank you, ma'am."

"Did you hurt anything?"  Willamina asked carefully, and Linn -- who was holding very still, not wanting to aggravate the pains he'd just acquired -- said, "I'll be sore in the morning, ma'am."

Apple-horse turned, began trotting easily up the street, hooves loud and echoing against the cold pavement.

"I hope he at least takes a hot shower," Will said thoughtfully.  "Might keep him from stiffening up too much."

That afternoon, as Linn stopped in the hardware store for a new set of rechargeable batteries for the weather radio, Jason, the proprietor, hailed him cheerfully as he came through the door.

"Throw any good steers lately?" he called, and Linn laughed, his laugh interrupted by a pain-catch that both he and Jason noticed.

"Sometimes I forget," Linn admitted, reaching for the battery rack, "that Terra Firma is a hell of a lot more firma than I remember, and then something happens to remind me."  He pulled out his wallet.  "This is for me, so that'll be my favorite credit system.  One hundred percent down and no monthly payments."

 

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