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229.  MEN'S VOICES, RAISED

William was actually the name he was born with.

He'd taken holy orders, back in New Orleans, a very long time ago.

He'd been given the name of one of the many, many saints, and then he went off to war, and wartime stripped him of much of what he'd believed.

He wore butternut, like his comrades -- at first, he wore a well tailored grey uniform with officer's piping and the ornate sleeve decoration, but time, weather, sweat and labor will wear even the hardiest of cloth, and by war's end he wore butternut and a bummer's cap, and a hollow, almost defeated expression.

He'd grown up the son of Southern nobility; he had the advantage of an excellent education, he had a sense of honor, of honesty, he'd participated in a duel in college -- his opponent's shot missed, and he dropped his pistol's muzzle and fired into the ground:  when pistols were exchanged for blades, he and his opponent strode boldly toward one another and he caught the incoming wrist, hooked his leg behind, pulled:  they landed, hard, his blade against the other young man's throat.

The insult was, he realized through the lens of surviving wartime conflict, actually quite trivial: a word, a glance, a girl, but enough to bristle the other fellow's sense of uncertainty:  a challenge given, a slap, a return slap, and they met at dawn, and now they were on the ground, one's wrist pinned to the ground, the other's blade to the pinned man's throat.

He'd risen, tossed his knife carelessly to the side, extended his hand.

"For any offense I have given," he said loudly, that the witnesses may hear, "my apologies."

The other -- realizing that his foolishness had very nearly gotten him killed, twice over -- accepted the hand.

Honor was satisfied, their seconds brought their coats and their hats, and the two parted, never to see each other again.

After the War, he'd gone back to Seminary, but ritual and study and prayer seemed hollow, ineffective: wiser heads than his own suggested that his parish may lie to the west, in the new land where men were without spiritual guidance, where a young man of the cloth who'd seen the world and knew it for what it was, might be of immense assistance.

He went West with little more than a change of clothes, with the Host, with a precious few books and more money than he'd seen in the entirety of the War.

He had no idea where to go, and so he wandered:  a Sky Pilot, as clergy of any stripe came to be known, was welcome in every town, at every doorstep: he never abused the hospitality extended him, and often found himself carrying letters, or writing letters for those "who forgot their glasses" -- he knew they could neither read nor write, and so read any correspondence they'd received, and wrote their replies, and saw them at least sent, if not delivered.

A fortunate meeting with the Acalde of the rancho Vega y Vega resulted in his being declared Prior and Abbot and eager men of wealth and means showed him land they imagined would be suitable, rolled out plans they'd sketched on precious sheets of paper, and after three days and three nights of prayer and meditation, the man realized that his shattered faith was being rebuilt, and here, here where these border country folk believed in their Faith with absolutely no doubt, where theirs was indeed belief and faith as a little child ... here, he realized, here is where he belonged.

He was brought here to heal, and he was brought here to do what good he could, given his training and given his experience, and yes, even given the unbearable pains he'd known in wartime.

Thus it was that in a little town called Rabbitville, close to the border of Colorado and New Mexico, saw a monastery raised: it was of stone and of baked clay, it was of sweat and honest labor:  its structure was well built, of quarried stone instead of simple field-stone, cemented with mortar instead of adobe; its roof was well laid and proof against the weather, the interior was generous and well laid out, and William not only oversaw particular details of the construction, he asked that his cell be constructed first, that he may have a place into which to withdraw, and to stand up on his knees, and to commune with the Almighty and implore His guidance.

A dream prompte him to have the ornate Altar constructed with secrets.

He dreamed of a woman all in white, a woman riding a horse with great white wings and a shining black coat, a woman who flew through the walls as if the walls were mere fog, a woman who trotted her huge black horse up to him with the sound of hooves on the stone floor echoing in the silence of the unfinished Sanctum, a woman with a white veil over her face and a silver Lance socketed in her right stirrup.

He saw the Lance in a finely made box, long and slender to contain this artifact, and he felt, in his dream, a hand grip his shoulder and whisper, "This is the Lance of Saint Mercurius, and our Sister will have need of it," and he saw the hidden chamber behind the Altar where the Lance would sleep in its finely finished box.

When Brother William woke, he spoke in quiet tones to the Italian craftsmen who were building the Altar:  they smiled and nodded, for they had built similar hides in cathedrals in Europe, and they knew just how to secret such a place, or several such places.

William stood in the Sanctum, when it was finished, after its consecration; he raised his arms and sang the Psalms, as he did multiple times a day, and the Brethren, ranked behind him, raised their arms and sang as well, and without the walls of the Rabbitville monastery, the people gathered, silent, marveling with delight at the sound of men's voices, strong voices, raised in Adoration.

William found later that, for each of the Psalms, the villagers gathered round about would recite the Paternoster, for these men within were closer to God than they, and they wished to draw near to the Divine themselves, and so they recited the Our Father each time the Brethren recited a Psalm.

William knew this is how the Rosary was invented, as a means of counting the prayers, so that none may miss a prayer and possibly miss passage on the train to Eternity, though he was satisfied that their holy Mother would intercede with Her Son to prevent that from happening.

Brother William, as he'd called himself, became Abbot William:  as Prior, his was the operation and the overall management of the Abbey, of their Monastery: the demands were many, and he found that long walks, sometimes longer than he intended, were necessary for him to maintain a clear mind, and one such long walk found him in a surprisingly well-kept town called Firelands, where he met an old and dear friend, a pale eyed man he'd encountered at the end of that damned War, and with whom he'd made a fast friendship.

But the story of their reunion is, perhaps, better told at another time.

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230.  AND PLANS ARE LAID

 

The prospective mother-in-law sat with the prospective daughter-in-law: their heads were inclined toward each other, and they spoke quietly, smiling often and giggling on occasion.

The emerald green wedding gown was finished, hanging, ready: it had been test-fitted one last time and was pronounced perfect.

Shelly still wore the shoes she wore to try on the gown, the shoes she'd intended to wear to Prom and didn't, the shoes her Mama bought years ago for her own wedding, and through some fluke of chance, got mixed up with a pair a size too big: she'd put them, unworn, in the top of her closet and said to her new husband, "If we have a daughter, maybe she'll wear them for her wedding," and Shelly remembered her Papa telling her this, sat with her stockinged ankles crossed, wearing her Mama's heels and blushing a little.

 

The prospective father-in-law sat with the prospective son-in-law, looking at the open jewelry box: Linn frowned a little as he turned the heavy gold band between his fingers.

"That belonged to Saddles' grandmother," Crane said.  "This one" -- he handed Linn a thin, delicate band -- "belonged to her mother. She was so afraid it would wear through and break, but it never did."

"Has she said if she'd want to wear either?"

"She said she'd like to wear them both."

Linn stared at the wide, thick band, held it up to eye level, leaned back a little, regarding the fine scratches that even the best cared for rings will acquire.

He looked at Crane and smiled.

"I know what I can do," he said.

 

Up on Daine Mountain, Gracie Daine leaned back against the woodpile and looked up at the snowy peak that rose behind their ancient house.

She'd been to its summit multiple times -- at first, as a bullheaded child, solely because her brothers forbade her to follow; later, for the sheer joy of climbing.

She'd freeclimbed several times before she ever heard the meaning of the word -- or even the word itself -- and now, as she tucked her curly-back fiddle under her chin and tapped the bow delicately to dislodge any excess rosin, she wondered if that great and ancient mountain was perhaps not a very long lived, very patient creature of living stone, and that perhaps when she came out here to play her fiddle, that ancient mountain might, perhaps, maybe ...

... perhaps she would bring it some joy with her playing, and someday, perhaps, maybe, it just might smile, a quick, hidden smile, just for her, there, and gone ...

Gracie smiled herself at this little girl's fancy, one she'd held onto since she first thought it as a schoolgirl in pigtails.

This might be the last time she would play for the mountain.

She'd won an award to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, thanks to the Sheriff and her influence, and her intent was to fly:  when her brothers jeered and said she'd never get closer than wash-this-down-sailor to a Piper Cub, she'd torn into them with fists and feet and a stovewood stick, until her Papa seized her wrist and picked her up and took her behind the shed.

He'd told her in his quiet, patient Papa's voice that she must never, ever hit with her fists:  she'd lowered her eyes and she'd lowered her head and she'd whispered "Yes, Papa," and he continued, "When you hit, here's how you do it," and she looked up, eyes wide with surprise, and her Papa taught her how to fight without driving forward with her knuckles: he taught her chops and palm-strikes, he taught her to strike with the elbows, he taught her how to use her legs, her feet, her knees, he taught her that her short stature was a powerful advantage because she was lower to the ground and stable, because she was faster than a tall man (her brothers were all tall) and that she should fight with her mind and not with her knuckles.

He'd taken her hands in his and looked at them for a very long time, and then he very carefully, very delicately, lifted his little girl's knuckles to his lips:  he'd kissed the knuckles of her right hand, then her left hand, and he'd taken both her hands in his, and patted them, and said that if she fought with her knuckles she could break a knuckle and grow a fine crop of arthritis, and then where would her poor lonely fiddle be, and she'd giggled, and he'd traced his finger down the back of her hands, one, then the other, and said if she broke a bone in her hand it would ache forever, and he'd done that and his does, sure as thunder, and Gracie remembered all this, leaning against the wood pile, her bow poised above her curly-back fiddle's strings, and she smiled at that memory too.

She knew which dress she'd wear to the wedding, the wedding where she'd been asked to provide the music: she'd played for weddings before, she routinely played for their square dances, and she looked up at the mountain and whispered, "Do mountains get married?" and she heard the curious voice of the little girl she used to be, whispering out of her lips, and she giggled again.

Gracie closed her eyes and she began to play.

She played for the wedding that would be, and she played for the mountain and for her childhood and for her Papa, and her Papa, as he did when she played by the woodpile, stopped what he was doing, and closed his eyes, and remembered another Daine woman, another woman who wore work boots and her hair in braids, a woman he'd loved with his very soul, the woman who birthed his fiddler daughter and now lay cold and still in the family graveyard nearby.

 

Linn returned and showed Crane the ring.

He'd had a jeweler roll a groove around the circumference of the heavier ring; the jeweler had crimped the slender, delicate ring into the groove in the heavier: his work was precise, the fit was exact, and the two men smiled as they each in turn examined the work.

"My suit is ready and hung up," Linn said, "my boots are polished and I've reserved the church. Mama has the reception arranged -- it's in the Silver Jewel," he'd grinned, then leaned back, running thoughtful fingers around the combined ring -- "I've arranged for Fiddler Daine to play at the wedding. We'll honeymoon elsewhere" -- his expression became uncertain -- "I wanted to rebuild a line shack that used to stand above the Museum, but I can't take the chance."

"Oh?"

"Mama is Sheriff and I'm a lawman. If I'm distracted with my bride, what better time for an attack."

"I see."

"Better to go somewhere else and be anonymous. I'm quite good at becoming the Grey Man."

Crane nodded:  he, too, appreciated the Grey Man philosophy.

Linn rose.  "Just wanted to stop in and show you this."

"I'm glad you did."

The two shook hands.

The time was near, the plans were laid.

 

 

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231. HELLO, CAPTAIN

 

Firelands at one time or another saw people from most parts: it wasn't unusual for a hard rock miner to stand shoulder to shoulder with a miner and a rancher, for settlers passing through to stop at the general store, if nothing else, just to look at the merchandise: there were men wearing funny European caps, women in babushkas or scarves and shawls, ladies in fine gowns of the latest Parisian style, men in suits and men in rough ranch wear.

It was not usual to see a man wearing what looked like an ankle length nightshirt, tied with a length of rope, a possibles slung across his chest and a wrist thick staff tall as his balding head.

And sandals.

No man wore anything but boots, whether the tapered boot of a horseman, the square toed boot of a dandy, the sturdy brogan of the miner or the common working man: still, here was a stranger, his face and hairless scalp tanned, a blanket around his shoulders and pinned at the throat.

Few there were that recognized this was a man of the cloth: those that did, were either from further south, where Mexican was the lingua franca and Catholicism the prevailing religion, or from overseas, where monks and friars were not an uncommon sight.

Brother William, as he preferred to be called, stopped and leaned on his staff:  he looked around with the eyes of a man who'd known the world, a world that was hostile, and out to kill him: those who saw him saw the look of a man who would not give, not one inch, and none were inclined to try him.

He took a few more steps, crossed the railroad tracks, walked down the little roadway between the depot and the main street, and stopped again:  he was stopped, as was his preference, with a wall to his back: he looked slowly around, then up the street, and the weathered creases at the corners of his eyes tightened a little.

He strode toward the boardwalk, his step purposeful now: he paced off on the left, his stride was military-correct; his bullhide sandals were silent on the boardwalk, but his staff was not:  he had a goal, he had a purpose, he was bound for a destination, and he intended that his destination should know he was coming.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller dipped a wire in the little bottle of whale oil, touched it delicately to the inner working of his disassembled Colt revolver: long practice and a natural efficiency saw the revolver reassembled, quickly:  he cycled the action a few times, nodded ever so slightly with satisfaction at the sound of machined parts chuckling to themselves as the hammer came back to full stand, as the cylinder rolled into index and locked.

Half-cock and loading gate open:  load one, skip one, load four, cock, he chanted silently as he thumbed shining brass cartridges into waiting chambers:  he cocked the hammer, double checked to make sure, then eased the hammer nose down on an empty cylinder.

His head came up: something caught his ear, something rhythmic, something ... cadenced.

He'd heard it before.

Sheriff Keller rose, holstered his left hand revolver, his right hand going to its symmetrically opposite compatriot: the sound was louder, distinct, passing in front of the little log fortress that was the Sheriff's office.

He, too, paced off on the left, strode for the heavy, tight-fitted plank door:  he was two arm's lengths from it when the door sounded a deep, woody note -- three distinct knocks, precisely spaced.

Linn reached for the latch, lifted, swung the door open.

Two old veterans of That Damned War looked at one another, and each man saw the other as he had been, and as he was now.

Brother William spoke first.

"Hello, Captain."

 

The Sheriff in his black suit hoisted a brandy snifter to his white-robed guest.

"I knew you'd gone to Seminary," he said quietly. "I didn't know if you'd go back to it after all we'd seen."

The Abbot nodded.  "I didn't know where else to go," he admitted, "and it wasn't ... it didn't satisfy."

"I understand that."  Linn took a small sip of his brandy, savored the distilled sunshine as it warmed him clear down to his belt buckle.  "Where are you now?"

William smiled -- a little sadly, Linn thought.

"I am Prior of the Rabbitville Monastery."

Linn's grin was slow, but it was broad:  he rose and offered his hand, which the Abbot took:  each man gripped firmly, but not crushingly, and each felt the calluses of honest labor in the other's palm.

"Well done, sir," Linn said, his smile warming his voice:  "very well done indeed!"

"Thank you. The job found me, I'm afraid. I honestly did not set out from New Orleans with intent to stop in Rabbitville and start a monastic community."

"Rabbitville!"  Linn declared delightedly.  "If I'd known that, I'd have had you do the honors when I married Esther!"

"I'm not sure you're ready for the rigors of a Catholic wedding," William smiled, feeling the brandy relaxing him, "but I'm sure I could've done the honors." 

He emptied the brandy snifter, leaned his head back, closed his eyes.

"Looks like you could use a good night's rest."

"I had a long walk."

"You walked all the way from Rabbitville?"  Linn's expression was stern, his eyes concerned, assessing.

"It took me a few days," William admitted.

"Tell you what," Linn said bending a little and relieving his old war buddy of the empty brandy balloon.  "I'm like an old b'ar myself, I get my belly full and I get warm, and I go to sleep.  Why don't you sack out here, we've an extra room and the bed's turned down waiting on you."

William opened his eyes, smiled a little.  "I don't want to be a bother."

Linn laughed.  "If you and I were sleeping on hard ground again, now, that would be a bother!"

William nodded, rose slowly, grimacing.

"Bedroom's this way.  Let's get you some rest."

 

 

 

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232.  AND HIS MOTHER SANG

 

Gracie the Fiddler could make her curly back fiddle sing in foreign languages.

She dearly loved the lively tunes she played for square dances, she'd made her fiddle weep when people wished to be sentimental, she made it laugh when people needed to smile, and today, for this wedding, she sang in an unnamed European tongue.

She knew it was properly called "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," and she played it with the stately grace it was written, the way a concert violinist might play:  there was that imp on her off shoulder, however, that kept whispering, "Faster! faster!" and she had to discipline herself most sternly not to play it as she'd played it in the past, the way she'd heard when she was off to college back East.

She thought it was called Joy, played better than double time, but for here, for today, she did not.

As a matter of fact, she had a few things waiting; as she played, she looked at the front row, at a pair who sat side by side -- the widower, father of the bride, and the widow, mother of the groom.

She'd heard somewhere it was against the law to enter into a conspiracy, but for this one, she honestly did not care, for she was conspiring with a fire captain and the County Sheriff.

Gracie drew out the last note like she was spinning gold:  the Sheriff and the Captain stood, and the pale eyed woman in the tailored suit dress nodded to her, and Gracie played the few bars of introduction, and it was the first time Firelands had ever heard their pale-eyed Sheriff sing.

Linn stood at the front, two men beside him:  they were in suits, they stood with the easy posture of men who are used to standing and waiting, carefully looking casual, yet missing nothing: all three men stood with their strong forearm over the handle of a holstered sidearm, hidden beneath the suit coat, completely unremarkable to the untrained eye, but fairly screaming "COP!" to those who knew what they were seeing.

The pair rose, and three sets of lawmens' eyes swung to them, and Willamina drew a good breath -- she breathed to her center, to the hara, and for the first time in all the years she'd lived in Firelands, she sang so others could hear her sing.

     "Where are you going,

          My little one,

               Little one,

"Where are you going,

     my baby, my own?

"Turn around

     and you're two,

"Turn around

     and you're four,

"Turn around and 

     you're a young man,

          headed out of my door."

Linn bit his bottom lip and felt his eyes sting.

He remembered this was a solo, sung by one of his classmates at their high school baccalaureate, and his Mama teared up when she heard it:  she'd clung to her husband's arm and pressed a lace-edged kerchief against one closed eye, then the other.

Now ... now that Linn was standing in front, a tall young man about to be married, it was his Mama who sang these words, his Mama whose voice soared in a flawless alto.

Linn looked away from his Mama -- his quick eye caught movement -- he saw Shelly peek around the corner at the far end of the aisle, surprise and delight in her expression, and Linn raised his chin, and smiled a little, and paced off on the left.

Instead of the bride coming up the aisle, the groom went to meet her:  behind him, a flawless, resonant bass, backed by a curly back fiddle.

 

"Where are you going,

          My little one,

               Little one,

"Where are you going,

     my baby, my own?

"Turn around

     and you're two,

"Turn around

     and you're four,

"Turn around and 

     you're a young woman,

          headed out of my door."

Linn took Shelly's hand, put his arm around her waist:  together, as his mother, and her father, sang in flawless harmony, as a curlyback fiddle spun silver notes in the well-filled sanctuary's hush, the pair danced down the aisle:  each counted, silently, one-two-three, one-two-three as they waltzed, as they whirled slowly, as the world turned around them, and they saw only one another: they reached the front, circled slowly in each other's arms as Gracie's fiddle sang to a stop.

Linn released her waist, and bowed:  Shelly released his shoulder, curtsied:  the Parson raised his chin and asked, "Who giveth this woman in marriage?"

Crane was obliged to harrumph, and wipe quickly at his eyes, before he could finally say, "I, her father."

"Please be seated."

Crane handed the lace-trimmed kerchief back to the Sheriff:  he swallowed, nodded, not willing to trust his voice:  Willamina winked and nodded, shallowly, once.

The service was mercifully brief; there were the usual references to the bride on the left, symbolic of the heart that lies in the left of the breast, the seat of the tender affections, and the groom, on the right, the strong right hand of their union -- at which point there were several smiles in the congregation, including beneath the bride's veil, and beside her father, for Shelly was also one of Willamina's Valkyries, and perfectly capable of right-handing any threat to their household on her own, thank you very much.

The vows, too, were as the vows traditionally are, as were the rings, and the Ring Lecture that accompanies:  unremarkable, too, was the conclusion, where Mr. and Mrs. Linn Keller were formally presented, and this is where tradition ended.

The groom held up a finger, looked at Gracie, who smiled quietly, for the Sheriff was not the only one with whom she'd engaged in a conspiracy.

Linn turned to look at his Mama and his new father-in-law, and he asked in a resonant voice, pitched to carry to the last pew in back, "Are you two going to sing again?" -- which rippled a little laughter through the congregation, and Willamina and the Captain looked at one another and shook their heads.

"Good," Linn admitted.  "It's the girls that are supposed to cry at weddings but I was close."

His grin and his chuckle were contagious; many shared both, and Linn whispered, "Ready?" and Shelly whispered "Ready," and they took one another by hand, by waist, by shoulder:  instead of a stately waltz, they bounced and spun, delighting in a brisk "Turkey in the Straw" from behind them as they danced back down the aisle.

Willamina and the Captain waited until they were most of the way, then they, too, stood and began to dance, laughing and whirling their way down the aisle of the little whitewashed church that had seen this exact same thing done for more than a century, and generally involving folk with pale eyes who danced remarkably well.

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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233. NOT MY HUSBAND, DAMN YOU!

 

Linn's indrawn breath was Shelly's cue that something was not well.

His quietly profane pronunciation that followed was confirmation.

He'd managed to hide his Jeep from those good natured folk who would have decorated it with streamers, tin cans, slogans and certain (ahem) toys (ahem) intended to allude to the newly wedded state -- decorations which Linn was determined to avoid, and thanks to a rented vehicle, which he took out of town well over the speed limit, honestly outrunning the pursuers intent on following them to their honeymoon destination -- as Linn four wheel drifted around corners and Shelly shrieked with delight -- they came to what looked like a shadowed cliff face.

Bride and groom jumped out of the idling Dodge Charger; Linn seized the corner of the tarp, ran across its face, pulling it to one side and tied it off, revealing a large, dark gap in the cliff face:  one hand on the handle of his revolver (old habit, you understand), he shot the beam from a powerful but compact light into the cave, illuminating the passenger side, underneath, then the driver's side:  satisfied his Jeep was safe, he started it up, eased it out far enough to back in the Dodge: he dropped the tarp back over the hide, raked aside dried leaves to reveal a plastic coffee can.

He dropped the keys in the can, replaced the lid and the leaves; he had a trusted adjutant who would retrieve keys and return the rental, but for now -- for now, his intent was to double back, head up the road to their little airport, to the Lear Jet that was probably on approach for landing.

Shelly gathered her skirts and climbed awkwardly into the Jeep, still laughing: she was no stranger to a heavy foot on the throttle, but an ambulance is not a machine intended for speed, especially the high center of gravity, truck framed squads in modern use, and she'd never ridden with her pale eyed husband during a police pursuit.

Linn's bottom jaw slid out and he shook his head.

"No help for it," he muttered.  "The one thing I didn't think of."

Shelly looked at him, surprised.

"I didn't get gas."

"Oh."

"Five minutes to the All-Night," he said aloud, accelerating:  Shelly felt his temper pushing her deeper into her seat as the Jeep pushed hard through the night.

Linn slowed as they approached the brightly-lit gas pumps:  he picked up his radio mike, keyed up.

"Dispatch, PD Two," he called, waited for Sharon's quickly-stifled surprise:  "I need backup to the All-Night, suspect vehicle from yesterday's assault is at the pumps and it looks like they've just arrived."

Linn pulled up to the far island, putting both pumps between him and the suspect vehicle.

Shelly saw him lean down, pull up his trouser leg:  he thrust the handle of a small frame revolver toward her and she took it silently.

No communication was necessary.

Shelly watched as Linn eased out of the Jeep, as he waited, hovering behind the brick pillar holding up the broad roof, waiting until the right moment to cross and prepay for his tankful:  she watched as he strode -- quickly, but not too briskly, managing to look as un-remarkable as a man in a Stetson and a tailored black suit can appear -- and Shelly saw the driver of the suspect vehicle look up, surprised.

Shelly's hand pulled the Jeep's door handle, her blood cooling several degrees:  she watched the suspect pull a tire tool from under his seat, start after the tall, lean lawman.

Shelly reached down and seized Linn's war club, as he called it -- he kept a three-C-cell, aluminum-barrel flashlight in his Jeep, sleeved with a bicycle inner tube "so the prosecutor can't claim I belted someone with a length of pipe" -- the suspect started to follow Linn, and Shelly ran up behind him, revolver in one hand, a death grip on the flashlight with the other, her lovely, feminine hand welded around the light's head:  her step was swift, silent, and as the fellow started to take a longer stride, she swung, and she swung hard.

Linn turned, shifted to the side, his hand blading under his coat: he saw his bride on her follow-through, saw the man he wanted falling in slow motion, just as headlights and red-and-blues came around the turn a mile distant, headed their way.

Blued steel revolver whispered out of the floral carved, background dyed holster under his tailored black suit coat:  he scuttled outside in a running crouch as his bride stepped back, his war club in one hand, working his three-inch J-frame into the fold of her skirt to hide it.

Linn registered the ringing impact of tool steel hitting concrete; he came out, circling behind his wife, revolver held muzzle-down in a two-hand grip, threat-scan 360 as he did:  the Sheriff's cruiser came to a fast stop behind the suspect vehicle just as Linn's revolver came up and Shelly backed up another step, hearing her husband's hard, commanding voice instructing someone to do some thing.

She wasn't paying much attention to him.

The man she'd belted above the right ear was starting to move, starting to mutter, starting to push up off the ground, and she heard him groan, "I'm gonna kill that damned cop," and Shelly raised the flashlight again to belt him a good one.

A strong hand caught her wrist and a familiar voice said "He's mine," and she backed up a little more as a blocky, hard-eyed Sheriff's deputy seized the downed man, picked him up, planted him firmly against the brick side of the store's window frame.

Shelly waited until the man was in irons, until Barrents turned with the prisoner held by the upper arms, waited until the prisoner's eyes were on her, and then she put the butt of her flashlight under his chin and lifted it a little.

"No," she said grimly.  "You're not going to kill him," then she leaned a little closer and snarled, "NOT MY HUSBAND, DAMN YOU!"

 

Linn called the office at their local crash patch, asked to speak to the Lear's pilot:  he told the man there's been a problem, he'd have to cancel the flight, but he would pay full price for man-hour and machine-hour:  Shelly was no stranger to paperwork and to forms, but the intricacy of a police report, of an interview, of the sworn statements, was something she didn't expect.

She did manage to discreetly return her husband's revolver, she conveniently omitted its presence from her statement, and the two finally left the police station very little short of midnight.

Linn opened the Jeep's door for his bride; she climbed in, leaned her head back against the headrest, closed her eyes.

Linn considered for a long moment, looked over at his beautiful bride.

Even exhausted, she was beautiful: he reached over, gripped her hand lightly, and she squeezed back, just a little.

Linn drove a short distance, stopped; he got out, removed two suitcases from the back of the Jeep, one large, one smaller:  he went into the Silver Jewel, went up to the big, old-fashioned hotel counter, reached for the bell.

The girl looked out from around the corner, smiling from behind the pigeon holes.

"I thought you had an airplane!" she exclaimed.

"I did," he said ruefully,"but I've a wife who clobbered a criminal, and we ran out of time."

Linn signed the register Mr. and Mrs. like he'd done it all his life, and he looked up and said, "If you could get the door for me," and the desk clerk smiled and nodded, and Linn went outside and picked up his bride, brought her out of the Jeep:  he managed to push the door lock, elbowed the door shut, carried her up the solid, heavy plank steps to the board walk, and into the frosted, swirled glass windowed doors that had seen better than a century of residence and use:  he carried his bride upstairs, with the desk clerk packing his suitcases and following, and he whispered as she unlocked the room and pushed open the door, "I've got my hands full, can I tip you tomorrow?" and she smiled and patted his arm and whispered "Yes," and Mr. Linn Keller carried his tired bride across the threshold, waited until the door shut behind him, the he managed to awkwardly pull back the covers, lay her down, pull off her shoes, and carefully, gently, cover her up.

Linn sat down in the chair beside the bed, leaned his head back, stared at the ceiling.

He remembered the reception, smiling ...

He remembered how his bride kissed him quickly, whirled from him, before the dance started: he'd eaten little -- he'd felt terribly self-conscious, sitting at the center of the head table, with the most beautiful woman in the world beside him -- and he'd been surprised when Shelly got up, giggled her way around the end of the table, worked through the mostly seated crowd, disappeared down the hallway that led back to the kitchen.

It wasn't until the heavy burgundy stage curtains drew back that he remembered there was a stage door back there, and he turned his chair a little, and several in the Jewel turned theirs as well.

There was the commanding snarl of castanets.

Two masked dancers -- one in a shimmering, emerald dress with the traditional lobster tail, a woman that might have been carved of lifelike, colored marble, stood at one side:  her counterpart, in a matching flamenco dress, but of shimmering scarlet, stood on the opposite side of the stage:  behind them, an old man who looked to have been carved of ancient oak, with a face like a dried apple, caressed the double strings of a deep-voiced guitar.

Linn had long appreciated the flamenco, and delighted in its performance.

He knew his Mama danced the flamenco, it was a particular favorite of his late father, but this pair danced as if they were each a mirror of the other:  he recognized the tune -- Malaguena -- and he marveled at the pair, seducing the crowd with their utter, overwhelming femininity, their grace, the bonelessness of their moves: long practice, a lifetime's practice, showed in their skill.

They absolutely owned that stage.

The old man drew magic from his guitar, the women commanded rhythm from castanets and heels alike, and Linn was honestly surprised when a set of portable stairs he hadn't noticed before, allowed them their dancing descent among the guests.

Linn looked toward the father of the bride, and was surprised to realize --

His mother's chair was empty.

He looked back at the approaching pair as they danced, as they wove their magic, as the flamenca in the emerald green dress she'd been married in, came in behind him, whirling, bending backwards at an impossible angle, the music coming to a finger-burning crescendo, her castanets snarling like angry teeth, then --

Silence.

As abruptly as if sliced off with an executioner's sword, music, heels, castanets ... 

Cut off.

Silence.

Linn rose, and the dancer straightened,

He carefully, delicately, lifted her feathered mask, looked into the eyes of the one woman in the world before whom his heart was willing to leap to the earth and lie there panting in adoration.

Linn sat in the chair beside his exhausted, sleeping bride, smiling, remembering, and he too relaxed, and slept.

Sometime in the night he woke:  Shelly turned back her covers, looked over at her husband, who was just opening his eyes and smiling at her.

Linn rose, turned, went to one knee, took her hand.

"Mrs. Keller," he said gently, "you are a fine looking woman."

"Mr. Keller," she replied, "I shall need your help getting out of this dress."

Linn rose as his wife swung her lovely legs over the side of the bed.

"I think," he said, "that can be arranged."

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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234.  WE WERE THERE FIRST

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna had a smile that would light up a shadowed room.

Sarah had a laugh that would tease a smile from a stone statue, she had an openness, an innocence, that led people to relax in her presence, to let their guard down, and she discovered she had these gifts while she was still a little girl.

Like pretty little girls everywhere, Sarah grew, and she grew into a truly beautiful maiden -- so much so that her Mama used her as a model, when displaying her gowns for the San Francisco buyers: she took exemplars from France, freighted across the new railroads directly to her dress-works (thanks to Esther Keller, owner and general manager of their own Z&W Railroad), exemplar dresses that were carefully scaled and tailored for the porcelain-headed dolls on which they were sewn: she would take these exemplars and scale them up, and the very first up-scale of each dress was sized and proportioned to fit her lovely young Sarah.

Sarah Lynne McKenna was a bright and intelligent child, a curious child, and she discovered the theatre near the hotel where her Mama held her fashion shows:  theatres contain actors and actresses, and players live for the play, for the adulation of the audience: when the audience is a quiet, very attentive child, actors become teachers, and so Sarah learned the tricks of face paint, of makeup, of costuming:  she put what she learned to very good use in modeling for her Mama, and though but ten years of age, presented herself on stage with the gait, the poise, of a beautiful young woman and not the girl she really was.

Sarah's curiosity and quick eye led her to places a respectable young lady should never go, such as a gypsy's tent, a tent where black-eyed men with lust in their hearts moved to seize her, until Sarah looked at the old woman -- looked at her with wide eyes, and the old gypsy-woman saw Sarah's ice-pale orbs, and she hissed a single word in a tongue Sarah did not recognize, and the men drew back, quickly, as if stung.

Sarah knew more languages than her native English; she spoke in surprisingly good Polish -- it was the old gypsy-witch's turn to look with wide eyes -- she whisked Sarah into the back of the tent, sat her down at a cloth-covered table, took Sarah's soft young hands in her old, wrinkled, misshapen hands, and looked at her over a cloth covered projection in the middle of the small table.

The Gypsy witch closed her eyes and muttered something -- incantation, perhaps, prayer, maybe, Sarah was not sure -- then the old woman lifted the cloth and revealed a flawless crystal sphere, about five inches across.

Sarah's hands rose, as if on their own: her hands were slightly cupped, she lifted her chin, looked at the gypsy witch, then as if both their eyes were seized and pulled down, their gaze fairly drove into the crystal, and they felt themselves fall into another world.

How long they were there, neither was certain: mere moments passed in the world where the two sat, one on either side of the small table:  they rose together -- more like the two floated up from their lightly-upholstered chairs -- the old gypsy woman carefully draped the crystal ball, lifted it with reverent fingertips, raised it to her forehead, then handed it over to Sarah.

Sarah raised it to her own forehead, lowered it, held it protectively against her belly.

"Daciana ist comink," the old Gypsy witch whispered:  "giff to Daciana," and Sarah blinked, surprised.

She studied the back of the tent:  the canvas was still, taut, without any movement.

She stepped around the little cloth covered table, looked around, wondering where the old woman had gone -- she'd been here, she'd handed her the crystal ball, she'd disappeared --

Sarah remembered the men out front, the men who looked at her with disapproval, and with something darker in their hearts -- Sarah was a good judge of men, and she saw something in them she did not like -- she swallowed, whisked the cover off the crystal, stepped into the front of the tent.

The two looked at her, looked at the crystal she held:  they backed away, backing to the sides of the tent, getting as far away from her as they could, moving clear of her escape.

Sarah Lynne McKenna, a child of ten years, wearing the gown of a grown woman, with face paint and foundations completing the illusion, glared with cold eyes at one, then the other, the ancient crystal sphere shining in her gloved hands:  she spun the silken kerchief, draped it over the orb, paced out of the tent as if she were the Queen, and they were her groveling servants.

It took every bit of her self-control not to run back to the hotel, back to her Mama, where she would be safe.

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna grew, as girls all grow; she was blooming into a beautiful maidenhood, the high altitude and regular activity giving her cheeks a healthy glow, so unlike the fashionable pallor of city women:  she was a child of the mountains, as equally at home in a fine gown and a carriage, as she was in a rough coat and britches, astride a galloping horse, streaking across the countryside like a living arrow, ribbon-tied braids floating behind her as they flew at ground level.

There were other children under their roof, as time progressed; twins came, or all supposed them to be twins:  one was the get of her Mama's brother, who chanced upon ill fortune and died, leaving this motherless child for his sister to raise:  Polly was the get of an Oriental mother, and she inherited that delicate beauty -- but in spite of the epicanthic folds clearly declaring her Chinese ancestry, she resembled Bonnie well enough that none doubted she was of their blood.

The twins adored Sarah, and Sarah adored the twins:  Polly and Opal may not have looked alike, but their words, their voices, their intonation, their gestures, their step, all were the mirror of the other: twins not of birth, but twins in fact, if there is such a thing, and both of them would look at Sarah and tilt their heads a little, the way interested little girl-children will, and they would ask a question in one beautifully harmonized voice.

The twins marveled at Sarah's huge black horse with the feathery feet.

Sarah knew the twins were watching her as she stood on a peach crate, reaching up as far as she could to groom her shining black Snowflake-mare, and though they stood behind her, she could feel them tilt their heads a little and she smiled, knowing they were about to ask a question, and having a good idea what that question was.

"Sawwah," they chorused, "how come you rides your black horsie so fast?"

Sarah smiled, paused in her grooming, turned:  her smile was open and welcoming, and she stepped down, sat on the peach crate, motioned them closer.

"Would you two like to know a secret?" she asked, lowering her head and regarding them through long, curled eyelashes:  the twins smiled and giggled and nodded, leaning in closer.

Sarah put her hands between their shoulder blades, drew them in until their heads touched.

"Ladies," Sarah almost whispered, "there are things that only we women know."

The twins giggled happily.

They had no idea what women's secrets were, but it sounded like fun, and they listened as Sarah spoke.

"Do you want to know why I ride Snowflake the way I do?"
She felt their eyes widen, she felt their heads nod.

"Come with me."

Sarah turned Snowflake into the pasture, hung the curry back on its peg, set the peach crate back against the wall where it belonged:  she leaned a little to the side so she could see out the side door, nodded.

Sarah pulled a key from its hiding place, well down in the bodice of her corset: she brought it out, leaned forward, brushed aside some hay, inserted the key in the lock of a mostly hidden chest.

The twins' breath drew quickly inward as Sarah brought out something covered with a silken kerchief, then whisked it off to reveal a crystal ball.

She went over to the peach crate, brought it back: one stool for Polly, one for Opal, a bale of hay for herself, and the three sat around this shining artifact.

"Put your hands here, like this," Sarah said, and the three cupped their hands around the crystal ball.

Sarah closed her eyes and took a long breath, the twins did the same.

 

Polly's breath caught as the world fell away from her.

She opened her eyes, surprised:  she was astride the big black horsie, she wore something on her head, she had a big board thing on her left arm --

You are wearing a helm, she heard, a voice whispering comfortingly in her mind:  she had the instant impression of her face, a shining helmet with a flared nasal down its front, a pattern not commonly seen since ancient Greece:  she saw herself in knee-high greaves and soft, black, knee-high boots, a skirt of steel strips, no longer than her knee, a curiasse from jawline to her belt:  she carried a shield on her left arm, a lance was socketed in her right stirrup and she felt it bear against the side of her right leg and the side of her foot.

This was surprising enough.

Girls of this era wore short skirts; she'd never worn shorter than mid-calf, and so this skirt of metal plates was astonishing, as much for its ... its normalcy ... as its appearance.

This is not what truly amazed her.

She was astride Sarah's shining-black Snowflake-mare.

What was genuinely astonishing was the she was as high in the air as the mountains are tall, that Snowflake had broad, white wings, and that she absolutely delighted in the fell of wind in her face, a sense of speed, the realization that she was flying.

She was flying!

Snowflake's wings strokes slowly, powerfully:  Polly felt her soul flow into the mare, through her wings, she felt the speed and the power and the raw strength, and she laughed, delight lifting her soul:  she looked around at clouds and clear air and up at the sun and down at the earth, and Snowflake snapped her wings out and banked, circled, dropping:  Polly leaned forward, slitting her eyes against the wind, and Snowflake's great white pinions whistled shrilly as they pulled up, skimmed blue wave-tops:  Polly felt her wings beat powerfully, suddenly as they reared, as she lowered her legs, galloped down the beach, folding her wings, and Polly felt sun and smelled salt water and she laughed with an innocent child's genuine delight.

Polly and Opal felt Sarah's hand on theirs, and they each took a long breath:  the three raised their heads and looked at one another, seated around a peach crate with a silk-draped lump between them.

Sarah rose, placed the treasure back in its chest, locked the lid:  she replaced the camouflaging planks, the concealing straw, she came back, gathered the twins into her.

"Have you ever dreamed what it would be like to fly?" she asked quietly, and the twins nodded, their faces solemn, their eyes bright and happy with the memory.

"You will both live long enough to read in the newspapers about men building a machine so they can fly."

Sarah hugged them, smiled, kissed each on the cheek.

"We women have our secrets," she whispered, "and now you know one of mine, why I ride the way I do."  

"Our secret," Opal said wonderingly, and Polly completed her thought:

"We were there first!"

 

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235.  FLA LA LA

Captain Crane was breathing deeply, through his open mouth.

He leaned against the wall, feeling himself shaking a little inside, where no one could see it.

A nurse stopped, gave him a concerned look.

"Sounds like you made a good save," she said.  "Are you okay?"

Cap blinked, swallowed.

"He's so young," he whispered.

"I know.  You got to him just in time.  He's in good hands now."

Cap nodded.

"I understand your daughter just got married?"

The Captain blinked twice, confused for a moment: he was still running on adrenaline, and it took a moment for him to shift his mental gears and turn his thoughts from a basketball player with a collapsed lung, to his daughter, newly wed and gone East on honeymoon.

"Yes," he finally said.  "She did."

 

Shelly snarled as she seized the soldier's blue coat, tried to rip it open: the buttons were well sewn, and only one slipped its buttonhole:  her anxious fingers danced down the row -- too slow, too slow, an inner voice chided her:  she saw the red-edged hole, bubbling with foam from a lung shot, to one side of the fallen man's gig line.

A dirt-lined hand reached toward her, shivering: she saw the man's color go steadily, rapidly, first pale, then dusky.

She laid the coat open, reached into her jeans pocket, pulled out a lockback: the hell with buttons, she thought savagely, sliced open shirt and Union suit, laying bare the man's lightly-furred chest.

Linn stood over them, revolver angled down:  he was crouched, turning slowly, breathing deeply, eyes busy:  they'd heard the shot, another, something howled between them like a miniature, very angry and very powerful bumblebee:  Linn's eyes were searching -- if I were trying to kill me, where would I hide? he thought, and he felt his face draw taut across his cheekbones as the color drained out of his own face and something savage and powerful thrashed its scaled tail deep in his soul and roared to be let off its leash.

Shelly tore open a Vaseline gauze, pressed it against the entrance wound:  she seized the man's shoulder, rolled him over, sliced through material to reveal the exit wound, plastered her only other Vaseline gauze against the exit:  she rolled the man up on his wounded side, held him there, pressed two fingers against his temple, searching for the pulse, searching for a quick and dirty blood pressure check:  "if he has a temporal pulse," she remembered her instructor telling her, "the systolic is at least 80."   He'd grinned and added, "We learned that working the Free Clinics at Haight-Ashbury.  You're too young to remember those."

Shelly looked around, pulled out her cell phone, swore.

No signal.

"Hear that?"  Linn asked, crouching a little.

"Hear what?"  Shelly's fingers went for the man's carotid.

Linn's head turned, his lips peeled back:  his eyes were pale, hard, his face looking more like a horribly animated skull, death on two legs, more than willing to dispense Eternity to anyone who chose to partake.

Shelly felt the man's throat move a little:  "Save yourself," he managed to whisper.

"We're not going anywhere," Linn and Shelly both snarled, and the man shivered a little, just as Shelly felt someone behind her.

"You," Linn whispered.

"Me," a woman with pale eyes smiled:  behind her, an immense black horse was just folding its white wings.

She knelt, laid her hand on Shelly's:  her hand was warm, firm: "I have him," she whispered, then ran her hands under the man in Union blue.

She stood, easily, picking up the dying man:  color returned to his face, he took a long breath, coughed:  his uniform shed its sweat, its dirt, its stains, its damage:  Shelly stood as well, Linn glancing over his shoulder, still turning, still seeking an enemy.

The woman lowered the man's now-new-looking brogans to the cold, frost-brittle grass underfoot.

"What happened?"  the man asked, puzzled, then he looked down at the ground, saw the stain of his life's blood, saw his own discolored carcass, his uniform sliced open, a bandage on his wounded chest --

"Come home, Warrior," the Valkyrie said quietly, and laid a hand on his shoulder:  she wore a winged helmet now, and a shining curiass, she wore a skirt of plates and knee-high boots, and she took his hand:  she looked at Shelly, nodded.

"Well done, Healer," she said, then she looked at Linn:  "We'll speak again," and as the newly wed couple watched, woman, horse and soldier evaporated, faded, disappeared.

Linn took a long breath, holstered his revolver, looked down.

The grass was still mashed and darkened where a body had lain; blood was darkening, but as they looked, the grass turned frost-white again, and the blood disappeared, and they were alone.

 

Captain Crane shook the coach's hand, then the principal's.

"You both made the right call," he said.  "It's not unknown for an athlete to have a hidden cardiac problem.  You applied the AED" -- he thrust a bent foreknuckle at them -- "and you made the call."

"What happened?"  the coach asked.  "It never told us to countershock."

"If you'd hit the shock button, it would not have," Cap nodded.  "His lung collapsed."

"What?"

"Not unknown with a young fellow that skinny. The lung can collapse spontaneously -- no prior injury, nobody hitting him in the chest, just pop and down she goes.  Hurts like homemade hell, too."

The coach grimaced.  "It must have. He's got a high pain tolerance ... when he yelled and grabbed his chest I thought his heart was attacking him."

"I would've thought the same thing," the Captain admitted.  "Now for the official diagnosis you'll have to talk to the Doc.  He'll be able to tell you more than I can, but then" -- he grinned -- "he's younger, smarter and better looking than me, not necessarily in that order."

 

Linn and Shelly looked at one another, looked at the Park Ranger.

"That happens sometimes," he said, nodding slowly.  "I would not admit it if you weren't law enforcement" -- he grinned -- "but you've probably seen a few things."

"Youuuuuu could say that," Linn said slowly, nodding, and the Ranger saw the look the newlyweds exchanged.

"O-kaaaay," he said, "you've got a story and I've got the time.  What happened -- over and above the soldier you found today that evaporated as you approached?"

"There's a haunted railcar on the Z&W Railroad back home," Linn said, leaning his backside down on the corner of a desk, "and my mother found it in an old, blasted-shut mine shaft." 

He grinned. 

"There's an engineer who loved his steam locomotive so much he sometimes shows up in the roundhouse.  I've seen him, his name's Bill, and I have his watch."  Linn pulled a serviceable, nickle cased railroad watch from his vest pocket, unbuttoned the watch chain from his vest, passed it to the Park Ranger.

The Ranger pressed the stem, smiled as the case snapped open, nodded as he read the engraving inside the front cover:  he handed it back and said quietly, "Times like this, I wish we could get it to talk!"

Shelly laughed quietly.  "I've said that myself sometimes!"

Linn stood.

"Thank you for your hospitality," he said, almost formally:  "we'll be on our way, now that we know our sanity is not in question."

"You didn't happen to see anything else...?" the ranger asked carefully.

Linn looked at the man, considering.

"Like maybe a pretty woman on a great black horse spiraling down out of the sky, picking up the dead and bearing them off to Valhalla?"

The Ranger swallowed and he grew a few degrees more pale.

"No," Linn finished.  "Didn't see anything of the kind."

The Park Ranger stared after the pair as they departed, as they drove away.

He turned, went to a file cabinet, sorted through the jackets, brought one out:  he laid it open, ran his fingers through the papers, came up with a photocopy:  he read it, read it again, looked once more at the door they'd gone through.

He looked at the paper again.

It was a photocopy of a letter, a soldier's account of lying wounded on the battlefield, of seeing a great black horse with pure white wings spiral down out of the sky, of a woman picking up his best friend and telling him he'd died protecting his friend, he was worthy of Valhalla -- and then looking at the injured man and said "Your time is not yet," and she and the horse and the dead man disappeared like fog in morning's sun, and he passed out at that point.

The Ranger put the paper back in the jacket, filed the jacket in the drawer, closed the drawer, went back to his desk, sat down.

"How?"  he whispered to the empty room.  "How did he know?"

 

Linn maintained a scrupulous velocity in the park.

He'd known too many young fire eating lawmen who would write a ticket for two over the speed limit, and he didn't want to give anyone an excuse.

Shelly looked over at him and asked, "What was it you heard?"

"Hm?"

"When you asked me if I heard it.  I'd just pulled out my cell phone and there was no signal."

"Oh.  That."  Linn frowned.  "Nothing."

"Linn Keller," Shelly said, doubling up her fist and shaking it threateningly at him, "you heard something, now out with it!"

Linn took a long breath.

"Some time ago a schoolteacher took  a group of schoolboys to the battlefield," he he explained, "and he put one at each fencepost along a particular road, and had them write down their impressions.

"One group -- I think it was four fence posts' worth of boys, far enough apart so they couldn't communicate -- they all wrote that they faintly heard men shouting "Fla La La."

He looked over at her, looked back at the road.

"Those fence posts were where the Irish Brigade went though."

Shelly waited impatiently.

Linn let the silence grow for several moments, then explained, "The Irish Brigade attacked with a battle cry."

"Which was?"

"Faugh a Ballagh."

"Which means?"

"Get out of the way."

"And you heard it."

Linn took a long breath, nodded.

"Yes, Mrs. Keller.  That's exactly what I heard."

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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236. MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller had been a combat Marine.

She'd earned the respect of her fellows, both with the ferocity of her personal assault on the enemy, and for her dedication to her fellows:  more than one owed his life to this diminutive, pale eyed package of determination and surprising strength: she entered into legend by stacking enemy bodies into a small breastwork, protecting a wounded ally and laying down covering fire from behind this improvised cover, allowing Doc time to run in and begin treatment.

As Sheriff, she'd had to make her mark fast and on occasion, violently: she never once shied from a fight, she fought fast, hard and dirty as hell, and very quickly established a reputation as someone you really didn't want to cross.

Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned back in her high back office chair, closed her eyes, allowed herself the rare luxury of lowering her defenses, of allowing herself to relax.

Hidden speakers began playing a favorite tune, one that brought a smile to her face: a song she'd sung to her husband when they'd been newly wed, a song she'd sung gently, quietly, something about being on top of the world and looking down on creation.

She remembered the moment: she'd stood behind her husband, her arms draped around his upper chest, she bent a little for he was seated, and she sang with her cheek laid over on top of his head, sang for the joy of feeling what she never thought she would ever feel again.

She sang because she was happy, and she remembered the moment, and she smiled.

 

"Sure, I'll try it!"

Linn reached into his coat, withdrew a wallet: he handed a bill over to the smiling young lady at the cash box, accepted his change, and a numbered ticket.

It was a fire department's fund raiser: Linn had known many such, over the years, whether it was a soup bean supper, or a fish fry, whether it was a darts tournament, or -- in this case -- a karaoke contest.

He handed the ticket to his bride, who skipped away like a happy little girl, and Linn looked around, pale eyes sizing up the crowd.

He was in Kentucky, not Colorado: they'd left the Pennsylvania battlefield behind them, come down here to take a look at The Monument.

Shelly knew her husband well enough, she knew his family's history well enough, she did not have to ask whose monument it was.

They'd been to the Lexington Cemetery, and Linn had gone into the cemetery with his usual circumspect watchfulness -- turning as he walked, eyes busy, listening with more than his eyes.

He'd studied General John Hunt Morgan's memorial for several long minutes before drawing himself up to correct military attention, and slowly raising a hand in salute:  he held the salute for a long count, then lowered it.

His action did not go unnoticed.

The fundraiser was for an outlying fire district; Shelly thought it might be fun, and Linn was always in favor of his local fire department and emergency squad, knowing too often they were short funded: he looked around, raised a summoning finger to an apple-cheeked teen-ager in a cheerleader skirt and sweater, a girl taking orders and bringing refreshments:  he asked if he might have coffee, and pressed a bill into her hand, and she giggled and skipped away.

He made his way to a small, empty table, knowing that a man in a black suit, with a Stetson on the tablecloth before him, would not be hard to spot.

The competition started with introductions, an announcer who fancied he was God's gift to the microphone -- probably a good enough fellow in everyday life, Linn considered, but with no real idea how to handle himself with a life mike -- but he tried, and Linn accepted coffee, and asked for a bowl of popcorn, and waited for the show to begin.

Four locals sat at a table with a poster board hand-lettered and taped to its front:  JUDGES, it read, and they looked at the wheeled platform that would serve as the stage:  a fellow in back had his electronics ranked and ready, headphones down on his collar bones, adjusting switches and otherwise looking competent and busy, not necessarily in that order.

 

Two girls were clinging to one another, each one feeding off the other's panic.

Shelly had seen this before.

She came quietly up beside them, took each by the arm.

"What were you going to sing?" she asked one, then the other, and each confessed that they were so nervous they didn't know if they could remember the words.

"How about if you sang with someone?"

The two swallowed, looked at one another, looked at her, nodded.

"How well can you harmonize?"

She saw two sets of eyes widen, she saw new confidence:  "We do that all the time!"

"Good," Shelly smiled.  "Now let's see if the deejay has the music I need."

 

"Contestant Number One!" the announcer declared.  "No names, no names, we're judging the contestants on their merits!  Contestant number one!"

Shelly stepped up, tapped her mike, smiled.

"Let's save some time," she said as the other two flanked her.  "We're running one, two and three at the same time!" -- she turned, thrust a finger at the deejay, turned back, lifted her chin as the house lights dimmed.

Linn nodded to the pair who came over -- "Mahnd if we sit heah?" the asked, and Linn gestured, palm up:  the two sat, turned their chairs to face the featured attraction.

Linn caught the cheerleader's attention:  "Give these two what they're having," he said quietly, and she smiled and winked and said "Sure thing, sugar!" -- and Linn turned his attention back to the ladies, to the two Kentucky girls, one on either side of his wife, as she opened her mouth and surprised him yet again.

     "Such a feelin's comin' over me,

           "There is wonderment in ev'ry thing I see,

                  "Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes,

                        "And I wouldn't be surprised if it's  a dream!"

Now Linn had certain loves in his life, and popcorn was one of them, but his hand stopped in mid reach and his eyes radar locked on his new wife, and it was sheer force of will alone that kept his jaw bone from swinging in the breeze and sagging down to belt buckle level.

He'd never heard his wife sing, at least not like this ... pitch perfect, flowing with the music, swaying just a little as she sang, as if she'd grown up on stage and performing.

The Kentucky girls flanking her flowed in with flawless, utterly perfect harmony -- so much so that one of the judges hit a button, sounding a raucous buzzer:  "Wait, wait, wait," he protested.  "That's a tape, that's too real, that's --"

Another judge pulled off his new-looking John Deere ballcap and smacked the first one, hard.

"Let 'em sing," he snarled.

"That ain't singin', that's a tape, nobody's that good --"

Linn watched Shelly put two fingers to her lips:  she whistled, a rising, commanding note, sharp and shrill and just the right thing to absolutely shatter the judge's train of thought.

She turned to the DJ:  "Four bars of intro, from the top, the cut it" -- he nodded -- the music started again, and three voices merged in flawless harmony, as gentle, as flawless, as they had been with the music track backing them.

Shelly was the anchor, she was the engine; the others hung onto her for support, at least figuratively; neither was showing as much apparent ease as the paramedic in the old-fashioned, full-skirted dress, but their singing was flawless.

Shelly sang for the house, but she sang for one who was in the house, and her eyes kept tracking over to the only man there in a suit, a man who sat with a gentle smile on his face, a man with very, very light blue eyes, a man who was absolutely delighting in the show.

Shelly didn't see him summon another who was working the crowd, but she saw the fruit of his labors at the end of the show, when the three were declared the winners:  Linn came up to the stage and handed the Kentucky girls each a bouquet, but the bigger of the three bouquets he gave to his wife, just before he swept her up in his arms.

Shelly reached for the microphone, which was passed to her, and she said to crowd and judges alike, "Give my share to the ones I sang with."  She smiled at Linn and declared, "I've got my prize right here!"

It was not the first time Linn kissed his wife soundly in public, and it would surely not be the last time, but it was the only time they got a good round of applause for their efforts.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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237.  DEAD MAN'S CHEST

 

The rental car was almost soundless as they drove to the little regional airport.

He handed the keys to a man he knew, he loaded his luggage and his wife's into the Lear: he shook hands with the grinning pilot and thanked him quietly for his kindness.

"Hey, I'm flying machine parts out to a drill site anyway," his old and dear friend shrugged, "why shouldn't I offer?  Besides" -- he winked -- "call it a wedding present.  You paid for one flight and got cheated out of it, why not let me help out, eh?"

 

The lights never went out in Intensive Care.

There was always movement:  sometimes quiet and purposeful, sometimes urgent and focused: there was sound, always sound:  cardiac monitors, the hiss and sigh of ventilators, an IV pump beeping petulantly.

There was the sound of a man's hoarse whisper.

"My chest hurts," he grimaced, moving a hand toward his breastbone:  "who it me?"

His daughter smiled, bit her bottom lip.

"A complete stranger, Dad."

 

Linn and his bride settled into the contoured seats, fast up their belts: his buddy grinned back at them -- "All good?" and Linn waved a casual go-ahead, then gripped Shelly's hand lightly as the Lear's engines began to whistle, then sing, as the ship started to turn, as she transformed from an ungainly, ground-lumbering metal beast to a swift-running bird, coming up on her toes, then soaring quickly into the night sky.

Shelly felt her husband's hand tighten, just a little, and she knew his eyes were just a shade darker.

She knew his eyes got less icy, less pale, when he was pleased, and at the feel of being thrust through the atmosphere at an increasing velocity, she knew he was as pleased as a little boy with a new toy car.

 

"What happened?" the man whispered.

"Hush, Dad, save your voice," his daughter soothed, and he grimaced, shook his head.

"I wanta know what the hell happened to me!"

Something white loomed beside him and a man's voice said, "I think I can answer that," and the daughter looked up at her father's cardiologist, grateful for a familiar face in this frightening location.

The man felt a familiar hand rest on his shoulder.

"Jack, my boy," he heard, "if you had to fall over dead, you picked the right person to fall in front of."

"What do you mean, dead?" Jack rasped, grimacing.  "And why does my chest feel like I've been stomped on?"

"Because you were," the cardiologist said bluntly.  "CPR is hard on the ribs and you've got several that cracked under pressure."

"Whattaya mean, CPR?"
"Dad," his daughter interjected, wringing his hand between hers, carefully avoiding the IV site, "you were dead."

 

The tall, lean, grinning young man in the old-fashioned suit put the lovely, long-skirted woman down, and they held hands as they worked their way through the crowd.

Linn and Shelly both froze as a man right in front of them sagged in his chair, turning a dusky color with surprising speed:  he started to fall, slumping sideways, and a strong set of hands caught him under the arms, pulled, kicked the chair out of the way, laid him down flat.

Saddles reacted out of habit, out of long training.

She was on her knees beside him, down listening for breath, practiced fingers pressing into his carotid groove:  Linn was on his feet, powering through the crowd, seized a red box hanging on the wall:  he shouldered his way back, thumbed the latches and opened it with a vicious effort.

Saddles seized the man's shirt, tore it open: Linn snapped open his lockback with a practiced twist of his thumb, ran two fingers under the neck of the supine man's T-shirt, unzipped the shirt down to the belt buckle with a smooth, swift stroke:  the knife snapped shut, surprisingly loud in the shocked hush, and Saddles landmarked, planted the heel of her hand on the man's breastbone, laced her fingers together and shoved forward so her arms were vertical-down.

She chanted as  she compressed, quietly, precisely:  Linn peeled the paper off the stickum, placed the pads as he'd practiced and practiced and practiced again:  the AED was on, the screen was lit up, and when it started talking, Linn said "Off" and Shelly drew back, coming up on her haunches, quivering like a hound on a hot scent.

"Shock advised."

Linn reached for the red button, looked around:  "Fire one," he said quietly, pressed firmly:  the man's body twitched as current screamed through his chest.

"Continue CPR."

Saddles was back on the man's chest, merciless in her compressions:  she'd qualified for ER duty, she was capable of two strokes a second for three minutes with full depth compressions -- such speed was only on doctor's order and only in a hospital setting, but she'd certified and she had the paper to prove it -- her rhythm was steady, her compressions regular, smooth, her voice a confident chant.

She shoved the voices aside, the voices that always surround a scene -- did someone call 911, somebody make the call, I already called, they're coming, they're not coming -- Linn raised a hand and Shelly came off the chest again.

"Shock advised."
"Fire two," Linn declared, mashed the button.

Shelly breathed deep, deep again, staring at the box, damning the limitations of the AED, wishing mightily for the EKG strip --

"CPR not indicated," the voice said, and Shelly was back on his carotid.

She looked at her husband:  "He's back," she said curtly, then seized the man's head, cranked it back again and placed her mouth on his.

Linn saw the man's belly rise as his wife blew life into his dead lungs.

Another breath.

One every five, Linn thought, and he could hear the whistling alarm of an approaching siren.

Saddles gave a brief, succinct report to the EMTs:  she identified as a Colorado paramedic, witnessed arrest, AED and CPR right away with countershock x 2, no vitals, unknown meds or allergies.

They helped load the patient onto the cot.

As the squad was BLS -- basic life support -- they took the AED with the patient, promising Shelly they'd bring it back:  Linn was busy with a fast canvas, finding anyone who knew the man, connecting them with the EMTs to try and get at least a little information on this Jack Doe.

 

The Lear leveled off, drawing its roar in the cold night air behind it, as Linn sat and held hands with his wife.

 

"Who witnessed his collapse?"  the cardiologist asked Jack's daughter, and she shook her head slowly.

"I don't know," she admitted.  "I know they looked like they stepped out of a Western novel, but ..."
She shook her head again.

"What'd they do, shoot me?" he father growled.  "Feels like they stomped on me or something!"

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238.  MY OWN ROOF

"Mama, could you get the door for me?"

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled a little and skipped quickly forward, seized the storm door and hauled it open, pushed open the inner door: she stepped back as her twin brother, Chief of Police Will Keller, carried the luggage in, set it down just inside the parlor to the right.

He waited while the pale eyed Linn Keller picked up his bride, kissed her lightly, carefully, delicately on the lips, and whispered "I love you, Mrs. Keller," and she giggled and whispered back "I love you too, Mr. Keller," and Linn paced off on the left and carried his bride across the threshold.

Willamina followed them in, closed and latched the storm, closed and locked the solid inner door.

"Now that you're home," she said, "Will and I have business to discuss with you both."

"Yes, ma'am," Linn replied, his hand finding Shelly's easily, naturally.

"Let's take care of necessaries first," Willamina said, sharing one of those unspoken communications between women, and Shelly's eyes thanked her as she scampered out of the room.

"I expected her to yell 'Dibs!' " Will murmured.

"You're okay?"  Willamina asked, looking at her son, whose ears reddened a little, at least until he grinned at his Uncle.

"I'm fine, ma'am," he said gently.  "If need be I can go out back and water a fencepost."

"Please do that before the attorney gets here."

"Yes, ma'am."

They adjourned to the kitchen ... to the familiar kitchen Linn had known since childhood.

He and his sisters often stayed out at Uncle Pete's, and Linn had memories of the man, and good ones they were:  Aunt Mary died of cancer some years before Pete breathed his last, but they both left good memories to their following generations.

Turns out Pete left more than that.

"I lived out here for some time," Will said thoughtfully, "but now that Crystal's gone ..."

He took a long breath, frowned, glared at the floor, then looked up at Linn, his expression as fluid as running water:  now he was almost smiling, for good memories will push through grief at times, and his did.

"Living here after she died was like living in a mausoleum.  I rattled around in this place like a rock in a five gallon bucket.  Man's going to live here, he'd ought to have a wife."

Linn's eyebrow quirked up, his mind busy behind those pale eyes of his, gauging what the man was not saying, or at least trying to.

Crystal came down the hall, her heels loud on polished hardwood:  she sighed, "That is so much better," and looked around.  "What did I miss?"

"Nothing yet," Linn said.  "Grab a chair."

Willamina turned the wheel on the old fashioned coffee grinder -- it was a modern reproduction, and it could turn out a small batch instead of the volumes of the old general-store variety -- the coffee pot was soon gurgling and steaming on the counter, and shortly all four had their hands wrapped around heavy ceramic mugs full of steaming, fragrant friendship.

Linn's head turned slightly, as did Will's:  Willamina saw both men's move, smiled into her mug: the two were so very much alike -- if they were dogs, their ears would have stood up and swung around at the sound of a car coming up the drive.

Linn was on his feet, silent, moving to the front door, a little to the side: he nodded.

"Kid Mike," he said, then opened the door in greeting for the newcomer:  the two shook hands at the doorway, and Kid Mike, all three hundred plus pounds of neatly suited attorney, came in with his briefcase and his broad smile.

Willamina drew a mug of coffee for him, knocked out the grounds and started another batch, and Mike looked at her with frank surprise:  he shook his head, looked at Will, at Linn, and admitted quietly "You know how kids in grade school will be so surprised when they see one of their teachers at the grocery store? They kind of think a teacher magically appears in class and disappears into the ether when the school day ends? It's easy to think of the Sheriff like that."  He turned, waited until Willamina was done making another batch of coffee, waited until she was seated again before resuming his seat.  "That ... I had one of those moments.  I don't usually think of the County Sheriff working in the kitchen."

"You'd be surprised what-all Mama can do," Linn admitted.  "She came wheeling in here years ago with a Pontiac Grand Am and told Uncle Pete the front brake pads needed replaced.  He told her he could changed drum brakes and adjust brake shoes and just make the smoke fly, but he'd never so much looked at disc brakes, and Mama laughed and said, "I'll show you!"

Linn leaned forward a little, winked at his quietly smiling Mama, and added, "She did, and she made it look easy!"

"Never underestimate the power of a woman," the attorney acknowledged quietly, thumbing the catches on his briefcase.

Polished brass catches snapped loudly as they released, flipped up:  he withdrew two folders, put one back, laid it on the table, reached into his inside breast pocket and withdrew three pens.

"I assume we all know why we're here."

Will and Willamina looked at one another, then at Linn and Shelly.

"Linn," Will said, "I am giving you legal title to this house and property, and everything on it.  Livestock, machinery, fences, wells, water rights, mineral rights, the works."

Linn's hand and Shelly's found each other, squeezed:  Shelly's eyes were big as she looked around, blinking, making a fast change of her mental gears and suddenly realizing -- she had to think in terms of a household, she needed to inventory what she had, she had to arrange a housekeeping schedule, she needed to size up laundry capacity and did she have a clothesline and did they heat with wood or with gas and could Linn work on a gas furnace because her Daddy had to hire theirs done and it was so expensive and --

"Will, if you would sign this, and Willamina, this one."  Mike slid the appropriate documents across the ancient, heavy table, the table that had hosted many guests, the table hand made by Charlie Macneil for his beautiful, red-headed bride, and used ever since, in this very kitchen, or one like it: the original structure was far smaller, and what stood now was the result of rebuilds and remodels:  Uncle Pete once told Willamina it was like Abraham Linoln's ax, the one that he had out in the woodpile.

"It's had about ten handles and three or four heads," he said with that knowing grin, "but it's the same old ax!"

"This will surrender all inheritance and other claim to house, property, goods and rights?" Willamina murmured, scanning the document quickly, efficiently.

"That is correct."

Willamina nodded, looked at her son.  "I can't think of anyone better suited to have this place."

Linn bit his bottom lip, squeezed his wife's hand, carefully, and she squeezed back.

Will and Willamina both uncapped the fountain pens, signed on the dotted line, slid the multi-page documents back to Kid Mike.

"This one is a bill of sale," Mike said, "and I understand you are selling all lands, goods, property and rights to this good looking young man here for the princely sum of one dollar."

"I am."

"Sign here."

The pen scratched loudly on good rag paper.

"Now, Mr. Newlywed Keller, if you would sign this one" -- Mike slid another document across, to Linn this time, with a pen -- "you will now accept ownership of this land and property, goods and rights, and I will get it filed as paid in full.  Your mother is taking care of all fees, you sign, I do the work."

Mike waited until the last signature was affixed, the ink dried, before filing the documents back in the cardboard jacket, before slipping the jacket into the briefcase, before closing the briefcase, before rising.

Linn and Will rose with him.

Kid Mike stepped around the table, thrust his hand out to Linn, who took it unhesitatingly.

"Young man," he said, "I received my father's law practice as a wedding gift.  You are receiving a gift of great worth" -- he looked over at Willamina, then at Will, then back at Linn -- "and I for one am most pleased to see this property stay in the family."

"Thank you, sir."

"Aw, now, call me sir, you'll swell my head," Mike drawled with mock bashfulness:  he inclined his head to Shelly, then to Willamina, headed for the door, Will going with him.

The moment Mike went out, a delivery came in:  Willamina skipped happily to the door to lend a hand, and she and Will came back bearing steaming, flat boxes.

"We may as well celebrate," Willamina explained, throwing back the lids and releasing the delightful fragrance into the room:  "nothing like pizza when you've just inherited a ranch for your wedding present!"

 

Shelly came downstairs in her flannel nightgown and slippers.

Linn was just closing the glass door of the gun cabinet.

"Quite a collection," Shelly murmured, hugging her husband one-armed.

"Everything Uncle Pete had," Linn agreed.  "Plus a couple.  Every last one ..."

His voice trailed off thoughtfully as his eyes walked slowly across blued steel uprights.

"Every last one has its story," he said slowly, "and I know most of them."

Shelly hugged him again.  "Good. You'll need to teach those stories to our children."

"Yes."  Linn turned, his face serious:  bride and groom held one another at arm's length, each assessing what they saw, each trying to gauge what the future would bring, the way a young wedded couple will.

"Mrs. Keller?"

"Yes, Mr. Keller?"

"It is right and proper that a man should have children."

"Yes, Mr. Keller, it is."

"I believe we should do some planning."

"I believe we should."

Linn looked around, remembering, then he looked back, drew his wife close, held her for a long moment, feeling her softness, smelling her scent, engraving this moment in his memory, this one happy moment that he never, ever wished to forget.

"Mrs. Keller, we are under our own roof this night."

"Yes, Mr. Keller, and thank God we are!"

Bride and groom kissed, and Shelly giggled, and Linn blinked with surprise.

"You're always so delicate," Shelly said, smiling, tilting her head a little to the side.  

Linn leaned his head forward until their foreheads just touched.

"Because you're worth it," he whispered, and then he picked up his bride -- quickly, firmly, the way a man will when he desires his wife, and Mr. Keller's tread as he carried Mrs. Keller up the broad steps was measured, deliberate and unhurried.

 

 

 

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239. A WOOD STOVE'S WARMTH

 

The young woman was pretty, and alone.

Pretty young women were in short supply in the West.

It was not at all uncommon for a ranch hand to put in a full day's work every day through the week, and on Sunday, after services, to ride to a settler's house, there to sit and watch the settler's daughter, sitting on the porch, blushing furiously and darning socks or sewing a quilt or patching a shirt.

That a pretty young woman, alone in the rail car, should garner men's looks, was not at all unusual, nor was it unexpected:  as a matter of fact, she was satisfied she would not only be watched and admired, but probably approached.

Like most women of the era, her attire was quite modest, though her gown was well tailored, and well made, of good material:  she wore a traveling-cloak over her gown, with the hood thrown up, and her gloves were chosen for warmth over fashion.

When a drummer approached and lifted his hat, and asked if he might join her, she gave him a frank appraisal and inclined her head:  thus encouraged, the traveling salesman sat, pretending to be interested in the snowy view out the frost-rimmed window.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller used a chunk of stovewood to hook open the firebox door:  he fed wood into the glowing interior, eased the door shut, thrust the crank in the bottom and gave it a little shake:  thus encouraged, the fire started breathing more easily, and the cast iron stove continued to radiate a welcome warmth into the Sheriff's little log fortress.

This was one of two stoves; the one in back, among the cells, was more centrally placed, and had a longer stove pipe, which the Sheriff appreciated: a long stovepipe allowed the waste heat to radiate into the room instead of whistling straight up and into the outer air -- "I want to heat the inside, not the outside," he'd commented when asked about what looked like a wastefully long run of tin chimney pipe.

The Sheriff was expecting company:  he considered a moment, then added another chunk to the stove, a bigger piece he knew would burn a bit longer: the fewer interruptions during a visit, the better, he thought, and he turned toward the door and smiled as he heard a distinctively feminine step on the boardwalk outside.

He reached for the door, lifted the latch, pulled it open:  Sarah Lynne McKenna smiled at him with pale eyes, stepped across the threshold, what looked like a small bear following loyally behind.

Linn went down on one knee, raised a fist, shook it at the sinner's-heart-black, curly-furred dog.

Black lips peeled back from shining white teeth.

"I oughta thump you," Linn threatened, glaring.

The black-furred dog's fur raised up in a ridge down its spine and across its shoulders, its black lips rippled in an obscene reply, and its snarl clearly invited anyone who cared to, to step right up and have at it.

Linn leaned forward a fraction and the black dog launched into a determined attack.

Linn wrapped his arms around The Bear Killer, and The Bear Killer happily washed the Sheriff's freshly-barbered face, the streaming brush of a tail swinging happily:  Linn went over backwards, laughing, landing flat on his back and barely missing the leg of the cast iron pot belly stove.

Sarah Lynne McKenna reached up and threw back her hood, shaking her head in feminine disapproval:  she turned and pushed the door shut, raised and then fast up the latch, turned back and sighed.

"Oh boys," she called patiently, and The Bear Killer stopped his happy facewashing at her summons:  Linn sat up, reaching for his lost Stetson, set it crookedly on his head, the other hand going to The Bear Killer's back, massaging through the thick, curly fur.

"Yes, dear?"  Linn replied innocently, and Sarah raised gloved hands dramatically to the ceiling, shook her head and gave an overly dramatic sigh.

Linn rolled over, came up on the balls of his feet:  The Bear Killer tilted his head, looked adoringly at Sarah, then followed the Sheriff as the man paced back to his desk.

He pulled a chair out.  "You may as well have a set," he said.  "You know I can't sit down until you do, and my poor old back gives me hell if I stand too long!"

"You need to have that taken care of," Sarah admonished, frowning, "though I've no idea what could possibly be done for it!"

"Unbolt this one and bolt in a new one, I reckon," Linn sighed:  Sarah lowered herself into a chair, folded her hands very properly in her apron, feet flat on the floor, spine straight:  beside her, The Bear Killer yawned, looked around, then paced back toward the warmth of the cast iron stove, lay down, curled up, gave a truly huge, yawning sigh, and dropped his blunt muzzle on his forepaws.

"Did you do any good?"  Linn asked, and Sarah's eyes smiled, just a little.

"Oh, yes, Papa," Sarah smiled.  "I was a very bad girl."

"Proud of you," Linn grinned.  "Fill me in."

"Other than the traveling salesman who wanted to marry me on the train?"  Sarah smiled.  "If I'd given him a smile I think he'd have shoved a ring on my finger, poor fellow!"

Linn nodded patiently, leaning carefully back in his chair.

In spite of the many times his chair had flipped out from under him, leaving him flat on his back with his boot heels thrust toward the plank ceiling, he still liked to lean back a little.

"Careful you don't lean too --" Sarah warned, just in time for the casters to slide, for the chair to tilt, for the back of the chair to go BANG against the floor, and Sarah Lynne McKenna very carefully did not laugh at the sight of the Sheriff's legs sticking straight up, his trouser legs sagging a little as his boot heels pointed again in the wrong direction.

"Did you hit your head?"  Sarah finally asked, and a somewhat dented Stetson sailed toward her from behind the desk.

"Yes," came the pained reply, "it kept me from cracking my gourd a good one" -- the legs disappeared, there was the sound of a chair being ungently maneuvered, then the Sheriff stood up and glared down at the offending furniture.

"I'd kick you," he growled, "if I thought it would help," and he looked at Sarah, who managed to look perfectly innocent.

Linn raised his teaching finger, shook it a little, opened his mouth, closed it, shook his head, frowned and tried again.

"My dear," he finally declared, "I can see why you have such a gift at poker!"

Sarah blinked and maintained her expression of utter, guiltless innocence.

"If you can keep from laughing when the Old Man goes over backwards yet again, dear heart, you can fool any man!"

"I did, Papa," she said, fluttering her eyelashes and putting dramatic fingertips to her bodice:  "I gulled a man out of more information than he knew he had, and made him like it, and we have enough for a warrant, an indictment, and a conviction."  She reached into a hidden pocket in her skirt and pulled out a square leather case, untied its brown silk ribbon, unfolded it and revealed several half-sheets of good cotton paper, covered with row after row of her precise handwriting.

"His Honor asked me to find out what I could," she said, "and I found out more than either of us realized!"

The Bear Killer rolled over on his back, happily stretched out on the stove-warmed floor:  paws in the air, curled and paddling a little as he dreamed, he snored gently, clearly impressed by Sarah's prowess.

Sarah smiled gently, looked from the supine canine to her pale eyed Papa.

"I'm with The Bear Killer," she said gently.  "I do love a warm stove in winter weather!"

 

 

 

 

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240. JUDGEMENT CALL

 

Shelly's mind froze.

She remembered the muzzle of the gun looked to be about three feet across and she fancied she could see the nose of an artillery shell in its depths, and she remembered how cold the air was as she inhaled, quickly, surprised.

She'd wheeled into the All-Night to gas up -- it was the middle of the afternoon, she'd been doing housework, happily tending house the way a new bride will, when she remembered her iron pony needed fuel:  she needed a gallon of milk anyway, and the All-Night wasn't far, and now ...

Now her mind was not only frozen, it was set in concrete, and it was not moving.

The rest of her was paying no attention at all to her mind.

 

"How's married life?"  the Sheriff asked casually, handing her pale eyed son a mug of steaming hot coffee.

Linn laughed quietly as she handed him the heavy ceramic mug of fragrant friendship.

"You were right," he sighed.  "It's a big adjustment."

"Don't tell me she kicks."

Linn raised one eyebrow, hesitated.

"Out with it," Willamina said.  "Your old Ma has heard about everything."

Linn nodded, took a noisy slurp of coffee.

"She snores."

Willamina took an equally noisy slurp.

"So do you."

Linn laughed again.  "It could get expensive, you know."

"How's that?"

Linn tried to look innocent and he didn't quite succeed:  he smiled into the depths of his mug, then looked up at his pale eyed Mama and said, "If we get to snorin' in harmony, Mama, we might hit resonance and rattle the windows loose, and then I'd have to re-glaze everything, and that could run into money!"

"Ah - hmm," Willamina hid her smile in another sip.

A sharp whistle interrupted their conversation:  Sheriff and son turned, lowering their mugs to the counter, their focus on the dispatcher.

Sharon rose, receiver still to her ear:  she lowered the mouthpiece, her voice urgent, her syllables very crisp, very clearly enunciated:  she did not raise her voice, but Linn felt like a bugler just blew General Quarters.

"Shelly just ran into the All-Night, she's got a gun and there's someone after her!"

Mother and son were at a flat-out sprint before they were halfway across the Sheriff's Office lobby.

 

Shelly's mind might have locked up, but muscle memory and training did not:  the moment the gunmuzzle came to bear, her hand seized the slide, pushed, her support hand coming in and wrapping over beside the first:  the pistol twisted backward, hard, she dimly remembered hearing and feeling something snap, and she jerked, hard, the way she'd trained.

She remembered more how bright red the blood was as it shot into the cold air, she remembered more the scream, right before her foot drove into her attacker's soft ribs:  she drove the edge of her sneakered foot with all the panicked strength of a cheerleader, then she turned, running before she realized she was moving, running for the inside of the All-Night.

She didn't realize until she was inside that she still had the gun in a two-hand grip.

The torn free finger fell to the floor, unnoticed.

The clerk's eyes went big, her mouth fell open:  Shelly ran around behind the counter and the clerk raised her hands, backed away, and Shelly threw the gun down onto the shelf under the register, seized the phone, punched three buttons, turned.

Outside, an individual was turning, mouth open, with no sound coming out:  he held his hand in front of him, the other death-gripped around his wrist:  he turned, tore at the car's door handle, almost fell into the front passenger seat.

The other fellow with him jumped out, ran toward the All-Night's front door, a taped-handle revolver in hand.

Shelly looked up, saw the gun coming in with a man behind it.

She dropped the phone, picked up the gun she'd literally ripped from her attacker's grip, came up in a two-hand grip:  she was cold now, cold and hard and she knew to the depths of her eternal soul and beyond that she was NOT going to allow THIS to happen to HER --

Behind her, the clerk snatched up the dangling receiver, spoke quickly, urgently into the mouthpiece.

 

Linn leaned down on the throttle -- not enough to break traction, but little short of it: the Crown Vic pushed him back in the seat and he aimed the silver Ford like he would aim a shotgun barrel.

His wife was in trouble and neither Shaitan himself nor all the hordes of Hell would keep him from his wife!

Willamina's Jeep lacked the snap-your-neck acceleration of Linn's 460 rompin' stompin' cubic inches of four barrel Ford go-power, but with Linn taking point, she knew her velocity would be sufficient.

"Suspects are fleeing," they heard the dispatcher's voice:  "red Chevy four door, crash damage driver's rear trunk with yellow bumper sticker right. Two male subjects, armed."

The dispatcher heard the Sheriff's calm, "Roger that," and there was a pause, and then Linn's voice, his words clipped, tight:  "Have them in sight."

Sharon, the dispatcher, stared at the speaker on her console.

"May God have mercy on them," she whispered, "because Linn won't!"

 

Linn knew they saw his roof lights -- they were running now, running like a scared rabbit, trying to outrun his Interceptor.

He twisted the black siren knob and twin bumper mounted speakers screamed like damned souls being boiled in buffalo fat over a sulfur flame:  the pair was building speed fast, but he had his velocity up already, and he was closing the distance fast.

He made no attempt to fall in behind, to signal them to pull over.

He was not in the mood.

He pulled up just beside their driver's rear corner, then he took the wheel hard right and back, throwing their back end out of traction and into a spin:  he recovered, hit the brakes, hard, watching while the Chevy circle spun a surprising number of times, slammed through the roadside ditch, still spinning, and finally stopped.

The Crown Vic stopped.

Linn hit the trunk release, the Sheriff's Jeep braking hard behind him:  he saw his mother run her Jeep into the ditch and out, taking it at a long angle.

Linn ran to the trunk, seized the rifle case, threw the latches, his good right hand closed around the checkered walnut wrist and his other hand grabbed the canvas bandolier.

Willamina braked hard, throwing the Jeep into a skid.

The driver's door opened and a figure jumped out, started to run.

Willamina jumped out, held her door open:  "TANK!  GIT 'IM!"

Something chcolate-brown and fast moving flowed out of her Jeep, something about six feet long and six inches tall, never touching the ground:  something brown-furred and fast-moving, something that stabilized like an arrow released from a powerful bow, something that proceeded to draw a fiddlestring-straight line toward the fleeing felon.

Linn's arm spun in the sling, his left hand gripping the fore-end; his left hand wrapped calmly around the bolt handle, lifted machined steel, drew it back, feeling lubricated, polished steel whisper its secrets to the receiver:  he felt the brass cartridge feed up into the extractor, he closed the bolt with the firmness, with the respect a good rifle deserves, and his hand returned to the checkered wrist.

The rifle rose to his shoulder as if floating up on its own.

His eye found the scope's light-pencil without effort; he saw the felon turn, saw him reach for the gun in his waistband, he saw the Malinois gather his hind quarters for the launching attack that would put the criminal on the ground with better than a hundred pounds of fanged persuasion on top of him.

Linn saw the proximate lethal danger to the canine officer and he made the judgement call.

Willamina saw Linn's hand blur as it seized the bolt:  up-back-forward-down, the rifle slammed to his shoulder, impossibly fast, BANG before the buttstock could possibly have met shoulder muscle.

The felon spun, the Malinois on top of him.

Sheriff and policeman ran, side by side:  Linn stopped at the steaming, radiator-busted car, aimed his rifle's muzzle across the steering wheel, addressed the shivering holdup artist gripping his wrist.

"You," he said quietly, "have troubled my wife, and I don't allow that."

Willamina gripped a handful of bristled-up Malinois nape:  "TANK!  OFF!"

The Malinois released the felon's arm.

Willamina raised her talkie.

"Dispatch, Firelands One."

"Firelands One, go."

"Pursuit ended, shots fired, tango down. Requesting squad and backup."

It wasn't until she released the key that she already heard sirens, and realized that the cavalry was already enroute.

 

Linn sat in the folding tin chair in the Sheriff's office conference room.

His mother sat across from him, his uncle at the end of the table: the three were close enough they could have touched one another easily, and that was intentional:  with the evidence photographs between them, they could all see them easily; they could discuss what happened most efficiently like this, and did.

Willamina turned one photograph, nodded:  it was taken in their ER, a photo of one criminal's belly.

The clear impression of a pistol was blasted into his flesh, deeply and very prominently bruised.

Another, of a hand, missing its index finger; a photograph of a severed finger, on a tile floor.

Shelly had already been interviewed, as had the All-Night's clerk; surveillance had been obtained, viewed, viewed again.

Will looked up, looked at Linn.

"Tell me," he said, "why did you shoot him in the gun?"

Linn took a long breath, looked at his Mama -- defiantly, Will thought.

"The K9 officer was in deadly peril," Linn said.  "His hand was going for his gun."  He nodded, his bottom jaw thrusting out thoughtfully.  "I shot for the greatest peril, and that was the gun."
"Hm."  Will considered the photograph.  "Good thing you were using expanding.  Ball would've gone through."

"Yes, sir."

Linn looked at his mother.  "Have you any objection to my using a rifle, Sheriff?"

Will's eyebrow twitched up a little:  he relaxed it, realizing he'd been surprised.

He knew Linn shot a rapist before the man could commit his terrible crime, and the Sheriff stripped him of his deputy's commission for it:  he remembered Linn spoke gently of it later, how he realized his mother had to demonstrate to God and everybody that she was fair and even handed, and would not hesitate to lower the boom on even her own blood.

He didn't realize until now how deeply his nephew had been stung by her action.

"No," Willamina said, leaning back.  "I have no objection to your using deadly force in defense of a canine officer."

"You had an objection to my previous use of deadly force."

Mother and son glared coldly at one another.

"And if I may be so bold, Sheriff, I was no-billed on that one.  The Grand Jury ruled it a righteous shoot.  I was well regarded by the community at large for sparing that little girl that terrible fate."

"And her mother backhanded me for taking your badge.  Yes, I remember."

Linn waited.

"You shot without hesitation today."

"Sometimes you have to."

"You didn't try to pull them over."

"Nope."

"You didn't give them a chance."

"I gave them a chance."  Linn's smile was humorless.  "When they saw me coming after them, they could have pulled over and given up."  He nodded a little.  "Reckon they just needed a little help."

"Nice move, by the way."

"I've a good machine to do it with."

Willamina looked at her twin brother.

"Sometimes you have to act," she said.  "In that, there is no argument."
Will nodded his agreement, waiting.

"A dual commission is a handy thing to have."

"It is."

Willamina looked back at her son.

"If you'll have it, your commission is reactivated, effective now."

"Thank you."

"No conditions."

Linn considered, blinked, nodded.

"Done."

"Good."  Willamina's voice was as serious as her expression.  "It'll be less difficult to become Sheriff if you are already a deputy."

"True."

"Now.  About Shelly."

Will looked from mother to son, saw the same carefully guarded expression.

"She trained well with the Valkyries" -- Willamina allowed herself a tight, lopsided smile -- "but she's the first of them to use what she'd trained, to keep herself alive."

"Thank you for training her," Linn said.  "Women learn best from women.  I could show her some moves but you're a better instructor than I am.  I'm glad you were hers."

"Don't make her mad," Willamina cautioned.  "If I trained her, she could drive you through the floor like driving a fencepost in soft ground."

"Mama," Linn said frankly, "it's rare that I've seen you with your fuse lit, but when it happens it's not safe in the same county with you.  I shall take your sound advice and thank you for it."

Will swiped the pictures together, thrust them into a cardboard file jacket.

"I'm hungry," he said, "and the Silver Jewel is open.  What do you two say?  I'm buying."

"Like the old preacher said," Linn grinned, "all donations cheerfully accepted!"

 

 

 

 

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241. FEATHER MERCHANTS

Mrs. Linn Keller was without her husband.

She was, however, in the front row of young women assembled in the cavernous, half-round barn under the overhang of the granite mountain that loomed over Firelands.

Like them, she wore loose, comfortable, fleece lined jogging pants, thick socks and sneakers: like them, she'd peeled out of her sweatshirt, letting her body heat radiate out into the still air.

Most of the young women were cheerleaders; those that weren't, had been:  they were toned, they were athletic, and they were very quiet.

Shelly felt their glances, she heard their near-whispers,and she knew she had to be there, she had to be with the Valkyries:  she was one of them, and if she didn't show up, that would indicate that something was very, very wrong.

The new Mrs. Keller was determined that nothing would be wrong.

Nothing!

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller stepped out of her Jeep.

She moved slowly, deliberately: as she usually did, she wore a tailored suit dress and heels to work: she was the Sheriff, she was an administrator, but she was most certainly not a man, and so she did not try to dress like one.

She dressed like the professional she was, and had for the many years she'd held office.

She'd testiied in court that day, as had her son, as had the Chief of Police, the squad chief, the new Mrs. Keller, the clerk, and of course the subjects that had been enjoying the hospitality of the county's Crossbar Hotel.

Sheriff Willamina Keller closed the door on her Jeep.

She closed it carefully, gently, and that was not a good sign.

When Sheriff Willamina Keller got really quiet, it did not bode well for the world in general, and for anyone who crossed her, in particular: neither was it a good sign that her pace into the barn was absolutely, completely, silent.

The Sheriff glared round about when she crossed the threshold, swinging her pale eyes like a pair of searchlights mounted on a naval gun turret:  the look on her face was not pleasant, and the Valkyries, who'd trained with the Sheriff more times than most could remember, looked at one another, suddenly a little less than comfortable.

Shelly alone returned the Sheriff's glare.

Shelly was ready for a fight and she did not particularly care if she locked horns with her mother in law or not.

The barn was utterly, completely, utterly, silent:  the Valkyries stood in loose rows, watching as the Sheriff casually peeled out of her suit dress and into the same T-shirt and sweatshirt, jeans and crew socks with sneakers as they.

They watched as she straightened from tying her shoelaces, as she straightened, raised her hands to shoulder level, opening and closing her hands slowly, as if wishing there were a throat she might seize.

She didn't have to.

A figure came in, fast, a figure with what looked like a gun, only blue, a figure that shoved it out at the Sheriff and yelled "GIMME YER KEYS!"

The Sheriff's move was fast, precise:  the gun-shaped block of plastic was seized, reversed, yanked from the attacker's grip, the Sheriff's foot drove into his gut, and her attacker did not have to act in order to fall to the ground in genuine pain -- in spite of the padded kick plate he wore under his own sweatshirt.

Willamina turned, stomped over to the Valkyries, tossed the blue colored plastic simulacrum casually to Shelly, planted her knuckles on her elastic waistband, gathered a great lungful of air, her bottom jaw thrust out, and her eyes very, very pale.

"ALL RIGHT YOU HIGH HEELED FEATHER MERCHANTS, LISTEN UP!"

Her voice was sharp, loud, demanding, commanding:  her face was pale, the color standing out almost like spots over her cheek bones, and the cords stood out in her neck as she shouted.

"YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME? THIS WOMAN IS ALIVE BECAUSE SHE PRACTICED! YOU CAME TO ME WHEN A GIRL WAS STRANGLED, ARE YOU GONNA LISTEN TO ME NOW?"

The Valkyries replied with one voice, at a full-voiced yell:

"WE WILL LISTEN!"

"GOOD!"

Willamina paced across in front of them, paced back, glaring at the sawdust underfoot, as if wrestling with her temper, seizing it and throwing it to the ground in a painful jointlock, subjugating her own feelings before proceeding further.

"My daughter in law," she said, her voice raised, but no longer at a shout, "reacted according to her training.  When she found herself faced with a carjacker her mind froze AND THE REST OF HER DID NOT!"

Willamina's eyes were hard and pale as they swung across the assembled, as she looked at Shelly, looked back.

"THIS IS WHY WE TRAIN AND TRAIN AND TRAIN AGAIN!" she shouted.  "I KNOW WHAT IT IS TO LOSE SOMEONE AND BY GOD!  I AM NOT GOING TO LET THAT HAPPEN AGAIN!"

Willamina stepped to the front row, looked closely, looked close up into every face.

She went to the next row, down the length of it, to the third row: she came back to the front, her voice quieter now, but just as intense.

"I know what it is to be ... brutalized," she hesitated:  "and it is my personal business to see that you have the tools to stop it should it happen to you."  She tossed the injection molded training gun into the air, caught it.  "When it hits the fan it is almost always when you're not expecting it.  When it hits you by surprise our natural instinct is to stand there and look at it."  

She threw her head sideways, eyes comically wide, mouth slack and tongue protruding out the corner of her mouth: the contrast was so unexpected, so silly, that several of the Valkyries giggled.

Willamina recovered, smiled.

"Shelly."

Shelly stepped forward, two steps, three, four.

"Right there.  Now look at this" -- Willamina held it up --"notice there is not trigger guard.  Why is that?"

"Ummm," one hazarded, "so, umm, we won't get hurt practicing?"

"Bingo!"  Willamina shouted happily, thrusting a stiff finger at the speaker.

"You saw it at speed -- thank you, Jimmy," Willamina called to the door her fellow demonstrator had already exited -- "here's what it looks like in slow motion.
Willamina punched the plastic lookalike at Shelly.

Shelly seized the muzzle, twisting it out of line, slapped her other hand down hard on top of the slide, then threw her weight into bringing it out of grip:  Willamina faded back as the kick drove into where she'd just been.

"Let's take that again, dead slow."
The Valkyries leaned one way, another, getting their best view of the demonstration.

"Each of you will pair off with me or with Shelly. You've all practiced this.  You're going to practice it and practice it and practice it again until it's automatic. When it happens to you, you'll react and you won't think, you'll wonder who is piloting your body because it will disarm the attacker and drive the side of YOUR foot three feet into the attacker's carcass.  You will not THINK and you will not DECIDE and you will not HESITATE and once you have the weapon in hand, what do you do if there is any further threat to your LIFE?"

Shelly's voice was surprisingly loud in the silence, despite not having raised her voice.

"I will stop the threat," she said, and there was an edge in her voice that had never been heard before.

 

Outside, in the night's still and chill air, Linn ran his window down, shut off the engine, listened.

He was a man who appreciated the sight of a lovely lass; he was, by his own admission, an incurable girlwatcher -- he'd fallen over a teeter-totter in kindergarten because he was watching a girl -- but he had no desire to enter the ancient, solid, round-front barn.

He blinked as he heard the combined shout of several feminine throats, of their united, "I WILL STOP THE THREAT!"

He knew his wife was in there, he knew his mother was in there, and he was grateful to be outside, alone:  better that he leave this detail in his mother's capable hands.

He would assist with the live-fire part of their training; his mother planned to familiarize them with revolvers and selfloaders both, which would include live-fire, up-close with cardboard silhouettes wearing old shirts:  yes, he would help with this, but his mother was far better at teaching young ladies than he, a fact which he freely admitted.

 

The Valkyries paired off, each pair with an injection-molded, plastic, practice gun: here at the last, they took turns, one disarmed the other, the other disarmed the one:  pass, and pass, and pass again, building muscle memory:  this was not the first night they'd done this, and it would not be the last.

Willamina waited until they were finished, until the Valkyries filed outside, happy, chattering, laughing, no longer a focused group of young ladies learning ungentle methods of pacifying thy neighbor, but once more young ladies, scattering to waiting cars.

Linn stepped out, The Bear Killer leaping easily from the front seat to the pavement:  they two waited, watched, made sure all was well.

His Mama was doing the same, 

Crystal came skipping over, her face flushed:  The Bear Killer reared, whirled on hind legs, hobby-horsed happily around the front of the car, slipped in beside Shelly, into the front seat, turned, dove between the front seats and into the back, barely squeezing through the gap, reaching a peck basket sized head up over her shoulder and laundering her sweaty ear when she climbed in.

Two doors slammed, two seat belts snapped into engagement.

"How'd it go, dearest?"  Linn asked, and Shelly smiled at him.

"Not bad," she said, "for a bunch of feather merchants."

 

 

 

 

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242. THE VERY BEST COMPANY

One of her names was Connie.

It was the one she'd been called most of her life, but the proudest name she wore was Mrs. Linn Keller.

She knew she'd be known as that, forever, or as long as carved stone lasted, and she was content:  hadn't God Almighty made this earth out of rock? -- and look how long it's lasted!

Connie was a woman of deep faith.

She'd learned to read, a little, and though she struggled with the few newspapers she was able to find, she turned again and yet again to her Scripture, to the familiar passages she and her husband read together at day's end.

Connie relaxed, smiling a little, her eyes closed.

She remembered her husband's arms, she remembered how he smelled, how he felt as they cuddled, as they laughed, as they whispered in the intimate nighttime under the hand stitched quilt, the way newly wed couples will, sharing their dreams, sharing their secrets, before they relaxed a little more, and sleep claimed them, safe and warm in each other's arms.

Connie remembered how they'd loved, fiercely, almost desperately, that last night, that final night before her pale eyed husband rode away to what he called "that damned War" -- they'd planted a good seed, and planted it deep, and Connie bore a little baby girl and named her Dana, as they'd whispered that night, damp with love's exertion and holding each other tightly, almost desperately, not wanting the night to slip away from them, wanting this moment, this last moment together, to last forever.

Connie watched her husband ride off -- tall, lean, a fine looking man, with his issued flint musket across the saddle in front of him, riding off toward the men he'd trained, men he'd laughed with and drilled with and trained with, fellow farmers who were sure they'd have the war whipped, finished and home in time for harvest.

They didn't.

And now Connie watched as her husband labored in the predawn, as he dug a hole through newly filled dirt, as he piled the dirt carefully, precisely:  he worked steadily, and as he dug his way down, the sun climbed its way up, until finally she saw him finish cleaning dirt off a wooden surface, and kneel, and she saw his pale eyes fill yet again with sorrow, and with water.

If Connie -- if Mrs. Linn Keller -- were alive in that moment, she might have heard the fluid impact of manly tears fall and spat against the lid of her coffin, but Connie was dead a week and a day from the Small Pox, and the small box her pale eyed husband eased into the hole and set on top of her coffin, held the body of their daughter, the child of that night's union, their little Dana.

She'd watched, silent, invisible in shadow, as her husband sat and rocked their fevered child, as their little girl, her eyes fever-bright, shivered in the quilt, in his arms, as he stared at the mantle, at the Bible Connie kept there, and Connie felt the memories he saw as their daughter died of the same disease that killed her Mama, and when little Dana slipped out of her body and ran laughing over to her Mama's embrace, Connie swallowed -- or tried to swallow -- and she felt her own sorrow as her husband threw his head back and gave vent to a single, full voiced scream of loss and grief, and then buried his face in the quilt he'd taken from their bed, the quilt they'd wrapped in on their wedding night, the quilt that now held their daughter's still form.

Connie stood beside her own grave and watched her husband fill the hole:  his moves were controlled, efficient, precise:  he mounded the dirt, and when he was finished, he opened the Bible they'd read together, and opened it to the bookmark he'd placed those years ago, before he left for that damned War.

"For all things there is a season," he read aloud, and she wanted so very badly to hold him, to be held by him,  but she dare not try:  somehow she knew that she could not touch him, but she wanted to, she wanted to --

"I know you do," a voice said, and Connie turned, surprised, and saw a pale eyed woman looking at her with a warm, knowing expression.

"He will be my Papa," the woman smiled, "and he will sire fine, tall sons, and he will love his red-headed wife as only a sorrowing man can do."  She took a step closer.  "My name is Sarah, and he told me that he never forgot you, and that he wanted very much to see you again."

Connie blinked:  a bright little pair of eyes looked from around the woman's electric-blue skirt, a smile lit up like sunrise on the first day of creation:

"Mama!"

Her Dana, her little girl, came scampering around from behind the newcomer, arms out, and Connie squatted, snatched up her daughter -- real, solid, laughing, warm -- she held her, hugged her, kissed her forehead, laid her cheek on her little girl's head, looked at the pale eyed woman --

"How--?"
Sarah smiled.

"He is alive," she said, nodding to the pale eyed man:  Linn Keller, veteran of Lincoln's War, of That Damned War, finished his reading aloud:  he'd been saying something about a glorious resurrection, and now he closed the Book, placed it on the seat of his wagon:  he carefully, precisely placed the shovel in the wagon bed, climbed aboard, flipped the reins gently.

"Yup, Sam," he called, and his big Sam-horse turned ponderously toward home, plodding contentedly out of the churchyard and onto the dirt track road.

"He is alive, and we ... are beyond life."

Sarah tilted her head a little smiled at the little girl.

"Hello, Dana.  My Papa's little girl is named Dana.  He named her for you."

Little Dana giggled and then got a case of the bashfuls and hid her face in her Mama's bodice for a moment.

Sarah stepped closer, extended her hand.

"Come.  It's time we went home."

 

Many years later, a woman named Dana sat at her Papa's bedside, holding the old man's hand.

The doctor had been there; he'd listened to her Papa's chest, spoken with the man, laughed at an old, shared joke, and then he'd left.

Dana saw him to the door.

"It won't be long," the doctor said quietly.  "I've seen this before. He's ready.  As soon as he lets go, that'll be it."

Dana nodded.

"Thank you, Doctor."

Dr. John Greenlees gathered the young woman into his arms:  he held her, and she felt his almost suppressed grief, struggling to escape his chest.

She felt his cheek lay down on top of her head.

"I remember when I birthed you," he whispered.  "Your Mama said to name you Dana."

Dana nodded.

He released her, patted her hand in a fatherly manner, nodded, turned, left.

Dana heard the rattle of his physician's surrey as she walked back upstairs.

"Dana?"

Linn's voice was quiet, but confident:  most old men get a reedy, raspy voice in their last moments, but his was still the strong Daddy-voice she remembered so well.

"Yes, Papa?"

"Dana, years ago when I was shot, your Mama came just hell-a-tearin' into town."

She felt his hand squeeze, ever so gently, and she squeezed back.

"She was runnin' that Edi-mare of hers and her hair was loose and floated behind her like a horse's tail."

He shivered; he stopped breathing; alarmed, Dana started to rise, and he gasped, took a sudden breath.

Dana heard a horse outside, running, running hard.

"She had a shotgun across her saddlebow and she was comin' ready for war, becase she intended I should be her husband, and she would not countenance otherwise."

The galloping hoofbeats came closer, stopped suddenly:  there were fast, demanding bootheels as someone came onto the porch in a hurry.

"The door of the Sheriff's office was partly open.

"She hauled off and kicked it open, hard."
Dana flinched as the front door downstairs SLAMMED open.

"Dana, when it's my time, I doubt me not my darlin' Esther will come and fetch me along."

Dana felt her eyes fill.  "Papa," she whispered, "don't talk like that.  I'm not ready for you to go!"

"Darlin'," Linn said gently, "you are provided for, you have a fine young man for a husband, and you are the best daughter I could ever want."  He turned blind eyes toward her; Dana bit her bottom lip as cataract-grey eyes swung her way.

Linn had been too weak to sit up for a few days, but his face brightened:  Dana's mouth dropped open as her Papa seemed to shed a decade in three seconds, and he whispered, "Esther!" and raised a hand, as if to grasp something, and then his hand fell to the coverlets and his face relaxed, and he was gone.

Dana choked, swallowed hard, gave up:  she bent over, buried her face in her dead Papa's chest, and wept, convulsively, the way a little girl will weep, for in this moment, she was a little girl again, grieving for her big, strong Papa.

It wasn't until she came up for air that she realized she smelled roses, and on her Papa's chest, where it was wet with womanly tears, there was a rose -- fresh cut, gleaming with morning dew, alive, fragrant.

"Thank you, Mama," she whispered, and for a moment, for just a moment, she thought she felt her mother's hand caress her cheek the way her Mama used to when she was a little girl.

 

Jacob stood up as Dana came down the stairs.

The parlor was nearly filled:  Dana descended slowly, almost majestically:  she looked at Jacob, her cheeks bright with wet streaks, and then she turned and continued down the hallway, toward the kitchen.

Jacob Keller's hands closed, slowly, tightly:  shivering fists raised slowly, and Sean heard two knuckles crack for the tightness of those fisted hands:  men watched in understanding, and in silence, as Jacob Keller threw his fisted arms wide, threw his head back, and with a face terrible to see -- an expression of rage, of grief, of sorrow, of anger, the face of a firstborn son in a moment of terrible loss -- once again was heard that single, full-voiced scream of grief and of loss and of a sorrow too deep to be plumbed with all the tool science could ever offer.

 

Linn stood, grinning, looking around.

Esther, he thought:  Connie, just as I remember you ...

...Dana?

"Hello, Papa," a laughing young woman said, skipping up to him and kissing him quickly, impusively on the cheek, and Linn blurted, "You've grown!" -- and Sarah looked knowingly at him and said, "We've some people we'd like you to meet, Papa.  Come, the train is waiting!"

Esther handed him his hat.

He looked down.

Instead of a long tailed flannel nightshirt, he wore his good suit, and his boots were polished.

Esther worked a fresh cut rose into his lapel, patted him on the chest and smiled, and turned, and Linn paused to look at the long tall carcass alone on the bed.

Poor fellow, he looks so tired, he thought:  he frowned, extended his arms:  he found himself with four ladies on his arm, and as they took one step and arrived on the depot platform, he declared happily, "I believe I am in the very best company!"

Sarah laughed, released his arm, whirled, her skirt flaring, a dancer's move:  she skipped toward the private car, turned, gave her Papa that warm, knowing look he remembered so very well.

"Come.  It's time we went home."

 

"Linn?"

"Hm?"

Linn blinked, set down his heavy ceramic mug.

"I'm sorry. I was on another continent.  What was the question again?"

"I asked you if you were going back to the Sheriff's office."

Linn nodded, smiling.  "Yes."

"Good."
Shelly tilted her head a little, regarded her husband with her usual frankness.

"Married life agrees with you."

Linn nodded, smiling.  "Yes, it does."

"Tell me again about the ghost."

Linn's eyebrow quirked up, just like his Uncle Will ... just like his Mama, as a matter of fact.

"Which one?"

Shelly shifted in her seat, frowning, chewed her bottom lip.

"The one that smells like roses."

"Esther Keller," Linn nodded.  "Wife of Old Pale Eyes. She's the one for whom the locomotive is named, and she's the reason the Z&W has the spray of roses for its corporate logo."

"And what does it mean," Shelly asked slowly, carefully, running the tip of her finger around the rim of her coffee mug, "when a newlywed couple find a rose beside the bed, early in their marriage?"

Shelly saw her husband's eyes suddenly drop half shut, the way he did when he was guarding a secret:  he frowned a bit, then he stood up, slowly, deliberately, and he paced around the table, went to one knee beside her, took her hand in both of his:  he squeezed her hand gently, kissed her knuckles, then he laid his hand very carefully on her lower belly.

"That," he said, "means that we have planted a good seed in fertile ground."

Shelly squeaked a little, clapping her hands to her mouth:  her eyes went big and round, and then she thrust out of her chair into her kneeling husband's embrace, bearing him over backwards, and Linn laughed under his wife's weight as she kissed him soundly, then pulled her head back, looking at him with big and delighted eyes.

"I smelled roses this morning," she whispered, and Linn grinned, and Shelly rolled off to the side and they both came up to all fours, then stood.

"Mrs. Keller," Linn said gently, "I believe you should have a conversation with my mother.  She knows about such matters.  I'm just a man, I don't know much about pregnant women."

"Liar."  She swatted at him, then hugged him again.  

Linn held his wife tight, tight, and she felt him take a long, deep breath.

"How soon should you go to the doc?" he murmured into her shining, ravens-wing dark hair.

"Not right now," she sighed.  "I have so much to do --"

Linn stepped back, took her under the arms, picked her up:  he hoisted her easily off the floor, spun her around, laughing, set her back down.

"Mrs. Keller," he declared, "housework can wait!"

 

 

 

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243.  THE TRIAL

 

Linn gripped the wheelbarrow's wooden handles, dollied the last load of second hand horse feed out to the manure pile.

Stall scrapings fermented in the pile, steaming a little in the winter air:  he scraped the excess out of the wheelbarrow, picked it up, dropped its nose a couple times on frozen ground -- try that with one of those cheap modern things! he thought, his smile never getting further than the corners of his eyes -- and he set the heavy steel Irish buggy back down on its legs, straightened, twisted a little.

He paused, looking out over the snow covered pasture, considering that his pale eyed namesake very likely stood in these very boot prints, smelled this very same odor of horse manure, and contemplated those very same granite mountains, great frozen teeth tearing at the skyline ...

His mind wandered, a little, and he thought of his wife:  young, beautiful, desirable ... and confusing.

His Uncle Will once told him he'd written a book, "Everything I Know about Women," it went to about five hundred pages, and every last page was blank.

Linn was considering that the man just might be right.

He thought of his pale eyed Mama, and how she seemed to know things, she knew when his Pa had been hurt even before she got word, she knew when he'd fallen from riding on the back of a homemade dune buggy --stupid stunt! he thought, his inner voice harsh, judgemental -- he'd broken his jaw ... somehow, somehow his Mama knew what happened, and where it happened, and how bad he was hurt, well before she heard about it from other sources.

He'd no indication that Shelly had any such gift.

He knew he had a little of it, just enough to aggravate him: it seemed that his Mama could command hers, or at least she could command it some of the time, but he had no such talent.

Still ... there were moments ...

His contemplation ended suddenly as whatever fraction of the Sight was in him, came alive.

He'd long ago learned the truth of the admonition, "When in doubt, son, follow your gut," and his gut told him something very, very bad had just happened.

Deputy Sheriff Linn Keller swatted back his lined work jacket, drew his revolver, flipped open the loading gate and half-cocked the engine-turned hammer:  he clicked through the chambers, eased the hammer down on the empty, holstered.

Deputy Sheriff Linn Keller picked up his saddle blanket, his saddle:  he curled his lip, took a long, deep breath, whistled.

The note carried, high, clear, pure, sailing across the frozen pasture:  in the distance he saw something move, he saw a spray of snow, he saw part of a horse's head thrust up and back down, and he knew his stallion, his Apple-horse, was charging toward him, throwing snow in the air like a shining, sparkling cloud.

Linn didn't care that the rest of the herd was drawn along behind him, spreading out like a living arrowhead, horseflesh charging as a single body toward the skinny two-legs standing with a thick blanket over his arm and a grim expression in his pale eyed face.

 

Shelly swam back to consciousness, fighting the darkness that tried to pull her down.

She reached up, felt her face --

Sticky.

Wet.

Damage.

Her leg hurt like homemade hell, it felt like her leg was being crushed, was being mashed by a giant turning a vise on her shin bone --

Leg.

Warm.

Wet.

Damage.

Shelly seized her panic, shoved it down into a bottle, stoved a cork in on top of it -- Where did I read that? she wondered momentarily, then swatted the thought aside and reached up, wiped her closed eyes with the back of her hand, flinched.

She reached down toward her leg, or tried to.

She smelled hot oil, she smelled hot antifreeze, she heard cooling metal going ting, ting, ting, she smelled the electrical odor that told her something was shorted, or had been.

Rammed, she thought.

Rammed from behind.

I spun, I flipped, I remember the ditch --

End over end --

Damn, this hurts, and her thoughts dissolved in a haze of pain.

Her hands reached, felt, seeking her purse, seeking the phone in her purse ...

I'm on vacation, she thought bitterly.

I don't even have a talkie with me.

Never again!

Her breath caught and she coughed, coughed again, tasted blood, and she realized she could die there.

 

Linn spun the blanket onto Apple-horse's back the way he always did, a well practiced cast, a twitch, a tug, and it was smooth:  he swung the saddle up, the near stirrup falling off the saddle-horn and hitting his coat, right over his holstered revolver's hammer spur, the way it always did.

Part of his mind reflected that this is why he carried five beans in the wheel, right before the rest of his mind slapped the stray thought to the side and he reached for the cinch.

Around him, the herd milled, restless, muttering, heads tossing, breath blowing steam-plumes into the cold air.

Linn buckled the rifle's scabbard in place, chamber-checked Uncle Pete's Winchester, half-cocked the hammer and thrust the 94 back into carved leather.

A pale eyed lawman shoved his polished boot into the doghouse stirrup and swung into the saddle.

Horse and rider pointed their noses like a man will point a gunbarrel:  Linn leaned over his stallion's neck, pressed his palms against warm, living fur, and Apple-horse dropped his haunches a little as he thrust into a launching takeoff, hooves driving through powdery snow and cutting into frozen earth, shoving it away behind him.

Horse and rider, a cloud of snow, a living waterfall of horses charging after the Herd Stallion:  could a man but have had a camera in that moment, it would have made for a most impressive photograph.

 

Pale eyes looked down at the steaming wreck, at bright red, steaming-hot blood trickling in a thin stream beside steaming-hot, black-as-your-hat engine oil:  the machine was bled out, and the machine's driver was bleeding as well.

A voice:  "Let's see if he is worthy."

Another:  "Here he comes."

 

Apple-horse gathered himself, sailed over the narrow gully, landed easily on the other side, his tail twisting behind him as he ran:  the herd, strung out a little, but not much, followed, soaring in a low ballistic arc, crystalline powder blurring their passage:  they ran swiftly, they soared easily, as if they all crossed an invisible, arched bridge.

There is a magic to horse and rider, when both are well matched:  the two souls flow into one another, each sees with the other's eyes, hears with the other's ears:  the man feels the earth beneath steel-shod hooves, the horse hears with more than their ears, and so it was here:  their path, driven through snow, in some places knee deep on a tall man, was a straight line, from their pasture across broken terrain, across a highway, a ditch, across another field, to another road.

Linn swung Apple-horse wide to the right, eyes busy:  they circled both steaming wrecks.

The herd followed, formed a rough circle around the two vehicles:  horses blew, stamped, pawed at the snow, clearly unhappy, knowing something was wrong, was very wrong, and yet standing with their Herd Stallion, and as Linn brought Apple-horse to a skidding stop, he thrust a palm hard down on the saddlehorn, kicked his feet loose, hit the ground running:  he did a perfect point-shoulder-roll, came up on his feet, slammed into the side of his wife's car.

Linn bellied down, looked in, thrust a hand toward his wife's neck.

The world held its breath for a year and a day until he felt --

There.

Pulse.

Fast, strong, it's there.

He pulled his hand back, ran it into his coat, driving stiff fingers into the inside breast pocket.

 

Sharon picked up the Bat Phone:  "911, what is your emergency?"

A pencil leaped into her grip as she skidded her hand over top of her yellow pad:  she listened, the clipped words flowing from the plastic receiver at her ear and out the sharpened point of her pencil.

"Got it," she said, "I'm on the line with you," pressed a button to put the call on speaker, turned, hit the fire department's howler.

 

"Now we'll see what he's made of," the voice said.

 

Linn's nostrils flared: he came up on the balls of his feet, sniffing --

Gasoline, he thought:  where?

His head turned, he looked at the ruined back of his wife's little compact car, and he knew there would be no hope of gaining the extinguisher that lived in her trunk.

He dropped quickly to his belly again --

"My leg is trapped," Shelly said, her voice tight with pain.

"How bad trapped?"

"Extrication."

"It's on its way."

Linn looked down, saw the trickling liquid starting toward him.

He saw his wife's nostrils flare, saw her eyes widen.

"Run," she whispered, and Linn saw something arc, saw a shower of sparks --

 

"We'll see now," the voice said.

 

Linn got his legs under him, gripped the door.

It was possible his wife was trapped by the car's weight.

If he could bring it off her --

His head snapped back, teeth bared, the cords stood out in his neck:  something detonated deep in his soul, a thrashing monster that was his temper, his greatest weakness:  part of him reached deep into his innermost self, seized the collar around the scaled beast's neck, tore it free.

Linn eased off a little, took a deep breath, screamed with rage, lifted with every bit of strength in his lean young body.

He did not even notice the sirens approaching.

 

Captain Crane's heart dropped to about his boot tops:  two vehicles involved, a herd of horses, he saw smoke, he saw someone squatted at the driver's door of the overturned car --

Rear ended, he thought, gauging the distance:  spun, flipped, we're looking at whiplash injuries, extremity and spinal injury, coup-contracoup closed-head injuries --

That poor fellow is trying to flip the car over --

He'll never make it --

 

Shelly smelled gasoline, saw sparks burst in a bright arc across her vision, felt the world rotate:  the weight came off her leg and it hurt again, hurt as badly before, and she heard a scream, a long, shrill note of a soul in utter agony, and part of her mind was surprised that her throat was making such a sound, just before she passed out --

 

Captain Crane was most of the way to the car when Linn tore the overturned car's door open:  he reached in, came out with a limp figure in his arms:  he backed away, turned, took two running steps and the wreck lit up, vapors rolling blue fire in all directions as it ignited.

Linn ran for the Captain, trailing fire:  "TAKE HERRRRR!" he screamed, and as the Captain snatched his injured daughter out of the burning lawman's arms, Linn dove into the snow, rolled over, swearing, stripping out of his barn coat and using it to smother the persistent flames eating at his thighs.

He rolled over on his back saw his father in law running for the squad:  Linn threw an arm over his eyes, his breathing ragged, gasping.

Linn raised his head, looked further down the road, saw the other wrecked vehicle, saw the Sheriff's cruiser coming in behind it.

Linn could see holes in his pants legs and he hurt worse than he'd ever hurt in his life.

Apple-horse snuffed loudly at his chest; Linn rolled over, came up on all fours, on his knees:  he seized the stirrup, wallowed to his feet, the herd milling behind him.

Linn was numb.

His hands felt cantle and saddlehorn, his boot found the stirrup, his body reacted by muscle memory alone:  his mind was screaming in pain, his vision was hazed, and whether he directed his stallion, or the stallion followed some other direction, nobody was really certain:  the second squad was on scene, two medics running toward him when he climbed into the saddle, appeared to collapse over the Appaloosa's neck, then raised up with his hands flat against the horse's muscled neck, and the Herd Stallion gathered himself and launched across the snowy field, sailing easily across the ditch, and up onto the highway, and straight down the center line of the paved road, the rest of the herd behind, spread in a living arrowhead:  and so it was that Sheriff Willamina Keller's picture appeared in the paper yet again, this time at the ER entrance of their local hospital, astride her son's stallion, leading a small herd of horses that had been milling and whinnying ever since they delivered an unconscious man, a man who smelled of burnt flesh and gasoline, a man who gasped "My wife" as he rolled out of the saddle into the arms of a Navajo chief deputy who'd known him since he was an infant.

 

"How is he?" a man's voice asked, and the ward clerk hung up her phone, looked up at a handsome, older man, a man with an iron grey mustache and pale eyes, a man in an immaculate, old-fashioned black suit:  his pearl grey Stetson was in his hand, and the ward clerk blinked, smiled.

"He's being treated now," she said, "I'm sorry, but that's all I know."

"And his wife?"

"She's in surgery. I can let you know when she's out."

"That won't be necessary, but thank you," the pale eyed man said courteously.

"You look like family," the ward clerk hazarded.  "Are you an uncle?"

The man's grin was quick, almost boyish:  "Grandfather," he said, "a few times removed."

He walked over to a woman in one of those lovely gowns the Ladies' Tea Society members favored, though this one was particularly lovely:  emerald green, a shade that matched her eyes, and it wasn't until the ward clerk and her husband went to dinner at the Silver Jewel a few days later, not until she stopped and stared openly at the colorized portrait behind the bar, not until she read the names Sheriff Linn Keller and wife Esther ...

Not until then did she realize who the family member was, that inquired after his namesake's well being.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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244.  TRANSPORT

 

Linn lay on his back, stared at the ceiling of the Firelands squad.

They were on the road, moving fast.

Linn willed himself to stillness, knowing his body was fighting a battle on several fronts.

The medic stared at the IV's drip chamber, frowning, then looked down at Linn:  he was half again older than the pale eyed deputy, and Linn said "I'd rather have an older man taking care of me."

The medic grinned.  "We almost had a fist fight to see who would take you."

"I'm not worth it."  Narcotic-wide eyes drifted away from the man, wandered across the ceiling.

"Who's driving?"

"Berkowitz. Can't you hear him?"

"Fine voice."

The medic snorted.  "Berkie?  Soon as his backside hits the seat he starts to cuss.  I don't think the man takes a breath.  The man profanes the world and every other driver, and he never repeats himself once."

"Talent," Linn whispered, tightening his fists against the pain.

The medic saw the fisting, rested light fingers on the burned man's carotid, pressed a button; the pain drifted away, the voice, the voices, drifted away as well.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller pinned the fire captain against the hospital's wall with her pale eyed glare as effectively as if she'd run a whaling harpoon through his breastbone and nailed him to the wallboard.

"How is she?" she asked, her voice tight, clipped, and the Captain looked just as directly back into those hard, cold eyes as she was glaring into his.

She saw a deep seated sorrow and a hard frustration, like ice beneath melt-water; he saw frustration, and as a result, she saw the resultant focused, concentrated, anger.

"Out of surgery and doing well," he said.  "She's got a hardware store in her leg now, two broken ribs that should heal on their own.  How's Linn?"

"On his way to the burn center."

Crane nodded.  "I've been gasoline burnt" -- he held up his hands -- "still carry the scars, there behind the nails.  I can't even imagine what he felt with all that surface area lit up."

"I asked the State Police to take over the investigation.  They'll need your statement."

"Whenever they want it."

"Later, maybe."  Willamina's eyes swung toward the closed door.  "How soon can we see her?"

As if waiting for the cue, the door pushed open and a nurse with large round glasses and a surgical mask blinked, surprised.

Willamina looked at Cap.

"You go.  A girl needs her big strong Daddy."

Crane nodded.  "Thank you," he whispered, and Willamina saw him look in at his daughter, and she heard a little sound that might have been something quickly stifled before escaping his throat.

 

"Would you like morphine?" a voice asked, and Linn glared at the ceiling.

"No."

"You must be in pain."

"Pain won't kill me."  His words were tight, clipped, controlled:  he willed himself to hold still, pushing the pain away from him, deliberately thinking of Shelly, trapped in the car, smelling gasoline, he seized the door where the window had been and remembered stories his Mama told him of women who lifted a rolled over farm tractor off their husband, women who picked up and set aside a pickup truck that fell off its jack onto their child, and he remembered his body feeling like every last muscle was tearing itself apart and the car finally went over and he was bent over double in a river of fire and he seized his wife and he pulled her out and he turned and he ran and he heard the flames laughing as they whispered and they ate him alive and he steered his course toward the Captain and told him to take her, just before he gave in to the pain and dove face first into the snow --

"There."  The voice was distant, blurred.  "I don't care what he said, he was in pain."  

 

Linn woke some time later, surrounded by stainless steel and enamel white.

He smelled disinfectant and iodine and burnt meat, and he opened his eyes, looked up at an unfamiliar ceiling.

A face leaned over him, a face wearing a surgical mask and a hair net, a face wearing wire rimmed glasses and an amused expression.

"How do you feel?"  a feminine voice asked.

Linn ran a fast inventory.

"My head hurts," he said, "so I'm not in Heaven, and my feet are cold, so I'm not in Hell."  He looked at the questioner and grinned crookedly.  "I must be alive."

"Alive you are.  What's the last thing you remember?"

Linn blinked, his eyes swung back to the ceiling.

"I was ... I rolled a car off my wife ... I was running her back to her father and I remember he took her."

"Nothing else."

Linn blinked a few times, frowned.  

"No.  No, that's it."

"Get some rest now.  You've had a time of it."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller hauled open the heavy glass door, then the inner door, and stepped into the Sheriff's office.

She walked over to the coffee pot and picked up her mug -- the one that said DAMNED IF I DO on one side, and DAMNED IF I DON'T on the other -- she trickled in a drizzle of milk, turned, looked at Sharon.

"Shelly has a hardware store in her leg," she said, "and Linn was transferred to the burn unit."

Sharon stood up, walked over to the pale eyed Sheriff.

She touched careful fingertips to Willamina's elbows and whispered, "How are you doing?" and Willamina looked at her and smiled, just a little.

"The State Police have taken over the investigation.  They'll be along for a copy of the 911 call.  They should have been here already to take custody of the prisoners."

Sharon nodded.  "They were.  Barrents made sure all was in order."

"Bless the man, he is my right hand," Willamina sighed, then took a long drink of steaming-hot coffee.

"You need to see your son."

Willamina shook her head slowly.  "No.  He's in the burn unit.  I can't risk contamination.  When he's fit to receive visitors, they will let me know."

"He needs to know about his wife."

"He'll be on drugs until they get that burned flesh cut off him, he might have skin transplants ... no," she said, draining her mug and setting it firmly down on the countertop, "my place is here.  Work to do."

 

She turned, opened her office door, stepped inside.

Sharon watched the door close quietly behind her.

A few seconds later, the door opened again, and she saw the Sheriff's arm slip through the gap and hang a file card on the cup hook centered under the frosted glass window.

The file card had a hand drawn skull-and-crossbones and the lettering, "NO!" beneath.

Sharon nodded.

She figured her boss needed some time alone.

 

Willamina hung the card, drew the door shut, turned, froze.

She was no longer in her office.

She was in the corral at the lower end of town, and it was summer -- sunny, pleasant, warm, the sun caressing her left cheek.

Her arms came up, hands curled a little, ready to punch, strike or grab:  she turned easily on the balls of her feet, she turned a complete circle, pale eyes taking the details --

"No," a voice said, "you're not."

Willamina saw the source of the voice, focused on her, glaring, ready to attack.

"You," she whispered.

"Me."

"I'm not what?"

"Insane."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why is my daughter in law hurt, why is my son in the burn unit?"

"A test."

Willamina felt that dragon that lived in her belly, the monster that was her hereditary curse, her pale-eyed temper, surge and tear at its confinement.

Had this pale eyed intruder so much as raised a hand, Sheriff Willamina Keller was satisfied she would have attacked this newcomer with full intent to murder her fast, hard and very violently.

Sarah Lynne McKenna blinked, her hands folded very properly in her apron.

"Your character is long since proven," she explained, as if teaching a class:  "that of your son had to be so proven."

Willamina felt hate, she tasted copper, she focused her quiet rage on the image of the ancestress whose face was identical to her own.

"He could die," Willamina said, her voice surprisingly steady.

Sarah nodded.  "He could," she admitted, "but he will not."

"You're sure."

"Do I detect doubt?" Sarah said, smiling, and Willamina's hand was faster than human eyes could register:  she backhanded her ancestress, hard, and she took a grim satisfaction in feeling flesh strike flesh, knowing that she'd hit a solid blow, and the fight was on.

Two women of like size:  one trained in frontier fighting, fast, dirty and effective:  the other, taught in the modern schools of the art, distilled with actual experience, and finally bearing a surprising resemblance to the frontier style of fast, dirty and effective:  Willamina's attack was focused on offense, on driving so much energy into the enemy through small-point impacts, as to incapacitate the other's ability to continue further hostilities:  Sarah's style was much the same, and both women took hard blows, each felt ribs crack, each tried to use her legs to her best advantage, though Willamina was the better practiced, and managed to fold Sarah with a gut kick and slam her backwards into the whitewashed board fence.

Willamina backed a step, arms up, hands open, breathing easy, feeling blood trickle from her nose:  she snarled a little, shifting her weight, and a black figure came into her tunnel vision from the right, a man in a black suit, a man who looked like a seasoned version of her firstborn son.

"Ladies," Old Pale Eyes said courteously, lifting his Stetson.  "Am I interrupting?"

Sarah stood easily, shook herself:  torn material was suddenly not torn, bloodied lips were no longer bloodied, red and torn knuckles were once more smooth, gloved flesh, and Willamina felt a cold wave of something shock through her and she, too, was suddenly ... unbloodied ... and undamaged.

"Perhaps," Old Pale Eyes said, turning his pearl-grey Stetson slowly in his spatulate fingers, "I might be of service."

 

Shelly gripped her Papa's hand, bit her bottom lip.

"They can give you something for pain," Crane said softly.

Shelly nodded.

Crane pressed the nurse call button:  "Could we have something for pain, please?" he replied to the metallic voice from the siderail's speaker.

"Linn?"  Shelly squeaked, a tear trickling from the corner of her eye.

"Saddles," Crane said, his other hand joining the first, holding his daughter's hand in both his, "what's the last you remember?"

"I slowed to keep from hitting a calf," she said, "it ... was just after the blind rise on Hill's Bottom, and I'd just gotten back on the gas when someone came over that rise and hit me."

Crane nodded.  "Go on."

"I was pinned, Papa."  She spoke in a scared little girl's voice, a little girl reliving a terrible nightmare, with her big strong Papa sitting at her bedside, holding her hand, letting her know it was just a dream, just a dream --

"Papa, I knew my leg was ... I told Linn --"

Her eyes went wide and she clutched his hand suddenly, panicked.

"Linn!  What happend, where is he?"

"Easy, Punkin," Crane soothed, patting her hand.  "What happened next?"

"He ... Papa, he said he was getting me out of there, and him and two other men squatted down and grabbed the edge of the door where the window was broken out, and they rolled the car off me."

"Come again?"  Crane asked, frowning:  he'd seen Linn roll the overturned car off her, and he'd been alone --

"Yes, Papa.  They all three had pale eyes, Linn and the other two."

"What were they wearing, Punkin?"

The nurse slipped the needle into Shelly's IV port, pinched the upstream tubing, eased the piston down on the syringe.

"One was in a black suit, Papa, like Linn wears," she whispered, and he saw her pupils dilate as the narcotic took hold.  "And one was in a soldier's uniform. World War I, like Great Granddad wore ..."

 

Old Pale Eyes looked from one pale eyed woman to another.

"So that was all a test," Willamina snarled.

"No."  The Old Sheriff shook his head.  "The Almighty does not cast rocks in our path, nor does He cause us grief, but He's not at all bashful to use them to His advantage."

"I don't follow you."

Old Pale Eyes frowned, raised both hands, fingers splayed as if holding a medicine ball:  Willamina could not help but smile, just a little, for she'd seen her pale eyed son do exactly that when explaining a complex concept.

"Linn had to be proven worthy of his legacy.  He had to prove he could put himself at deadly peril if the cause was sufficient."

Willamina took a step toward her Very Great Granddad's image, raised her hands:  "YOU BLOODY IDIOT," she screamed, "HE'S DONE THAT ALREADY!"

"He was willing to put himself at risk, yes, but in a ... an academic way."

"Academic my Aunt Fanny's billy goat!"  Willamina spat.

"You are thinking of the day the assassin machine gunned you in front of your own Sheriff's office, and your nine year old Linn ran in the back and got your Daddy's revolver and killed the killer."

Willamina's nod was tight, controlled, a single, shallow dip of her head, never taking her eyes off her ancestor's.

"He knew on some level he might go to prison or have a police record, and he was willing to take that risk to keep his Mama safe," Old Pale Eyes explained patiently, "but that is not the same as putting your very life at risk for an extremely painful death for the just cause."

"And your conclusion?" Willamina asked, her words shining with ice, and Sarah shivered and muttered, "I can feel the cold clear over here!"

"You keep out of this!"  Willamina snapped, turned back to Old Pale Eyes.

"Well?"  she demanded.

Sheriff Linn Keller -- the Old Sheriff, the second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado -- paced forward, gripped Willamina lightly by the shoulders:  his hands were warm, strong, the way a big strong Daddy's hands should be.

"His work is not yet done," he said softly.  "Neither is yours, and neither is the work of the get of his loins."

"Mind telling me what that work is?"

The old lawman's eyes saddened a little as he shook his head.

"I'm sorry, darlin'.  I can't do that."

Willamina felt the man lean in closer to her, embrace her in a fatherly way:  she hugged him back, not at all surprised that he was solid and hard-muscled, warm, real, that he smelled of man-sweat and horse-sweat, of whiskey and wood smoke, and then she was alone, in her office, standing beside her desk, her arms around ...

... nothing ...

... and Sarah Lynne McKenna, on the other side of her desk smiled and said, "If it was me, I'd have kicked him right in the shins!"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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245.  SECURITY, CODE BLACK

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller was no stranger to teleconferencing.

She did not particularly like it.

She much preferred to interact personally: she felt she could pick up on nuance and inflection, on the subtle cues and clues not conveyed with the spoken word, and these were too often missing when using the glowing screen.

But ... she took a long breath, slid her bottom jaw stubbornly out, pressed a key -- sometimes it was the best she could do.

She was waiting for the video transfer to the nurse's station; with luck, she could be carried in an electronic tablet to her son, see his face, hear his voice.

The screen shifted; a harried-looking nurse in scrubs and a surgical mask was looking at notes scribbled on a napkin, transferring them to a keyboard, to another screen:  Willamina waited patiently, until the nurse raised a stiff finger, stabbed the final key as if stabbing a personal enemy:  she leaned back, closed her eyes, threw her head back.

Willamina saw the surgical mask puff out as the woman blew out a frustrated breath.

"One of those days?" she asked gently, and the woman lowered her head, looked at the screen, nodded.

"When I still worked med-surg," Willamina said sypathetically, "they always worked us short handed." 

She smiled a little and added, "I told the floor supervisor I was going to bring a slingshot and my roller blades, and when it came time for pill pass I'd just dump the meds loose in my pocket and just go SCREAMING down the hallway, "HEY PETE! TIME FOR YOUR PILLS!" *whing* and launch pills under power."  

The two chuckled, a shared moment of humor between two nurses, and Willamina added ruefully, "Somehow she couldn't see the humor in my idea," and the burn unit nurse laughed a little.

"Sounds like mine," she agreed.  "How can I help you?"

"Could you carry me in to see my son?"  Willamina asked.  "Linn Keller, I'm sorry, I don't know which room."

"Oh, him."

"What do you mean, oh him?"

"Are you a relative?"
"I'm his mother."

"You have my sympathies."
Willamina could tell from the fatigue in the woman's voice she was worked to her ragged edge, her defenses were down, and she was just about at the end of her endurance.

"Is he a problem?"

The figure in scrubs and mask shook her head.  "No.  No, as far as patient care, he's a sweetheart.  The only time he hit his nurse call was when the IV pump alarmed."

"What did he do?"

"You might be able to talk some sense into him.  He refused any more pain meds."

"He what?"

"He's in pain. I can see the signs, but he refuses any narcotic pain reliever of any kind."

"Did he say why?"

"He said alcoholism runs in the family, his grandmother was not just a drunk, she was a damned drunk, and he doesn't want to take the chance."

Willamina nodded, solemn:  "My mother was indeed a damned drunk, pardon me while I spit."

The nurse turned, picked up a tablet, tapped the screen:  Willamina saw her nod with satisfaction.

"Okay.  Come with me, I'll give you the nickle tour between here and there."

Willamina watched as the nurse held the pad in front of her, giving the pale eyed Sheriff a nurse's-eye view of the sterile corridor.

They came to a door; a pause, a knock, a door swung open.

Willamina saw the foot of a bed, a figure beneath white sheets --

The view jerked, twisted, she heard a gasp, she heard running feet, the view swung, spun -- momentarily she saw a view to the rear, she saw white nursing clogs tumbling along the hallway, where the wearer had honestly run out of them --

-- a view of the ceiling, the sound of a phone's receiver being snatched up --

-- the click of buttons pressed, quickly, urgently --

"SECURITY TO THE BURN UNIT, CODE BLACK, SECURITY TO THE BURN UNIT, CODE BLACK, WOLF, WOLF, WOLF!"

"What the hell is Wolf, Wolf, Wolf?"  Willamina muttered.

 

Linn lay, sweating a little, shivering.

His mind was finally clearing.

He'd had enough sense to let it be known he didn't want any more of their damned juice.

He was liking that morphine waaaay too much, and it would be too easy to ask for it and to ask for more.

No.

I wont' risk that.

I've seen what it does.

I will not become my grandmother, damn her for hurting my Mama!

Linn swam in his pain, bathing in its throbbing agonies:  he embraced it, he reveled in it.

He punished himself with it.

He'd killed his wife.

He was a murderer.

He had murdered the only good and decent thing in this world, he'd slaughtered the one most beautiful soul in all of creation, just as surely as if he'd run a knife in her belly and split her open to her chin.

Tears stung his eyes and rolled out the corners, falling back into his ears.

He was a murderer, twice over, for he'd just murdered, slaughtered, torn the very life from his wife and their unborn child.

He'd personally burned them to death.

Damn me, he thought, damn me to HELL!!!

"I wasn't fast enough," he whispered, swallowing hard.

"I failed."
He threw an arm over his eyes.

"I killed her," he whispered hoarsely, then he bit his arm, hard, viciously, as much to punish himself as to stifle the sob wallowing out of his thick, sticky throat.

He felt a familiar weight on the bed, felt the weight shift as canine paws pressed and lifted, felt the snuff of a familiar nose.

Even sunk in utter misery, his hand rose and his fingers buried themselves in long, soft fur.

A tongue licked at what face could be reached, and Linn lifted his arm, embraced the warm, furry friend that never once ever failed him.

He did not open his eyes; he didn't have to.

The warm, furry body lay down half on him and half beside him, and Linn buried his face in the familiar fur, forbidding himself to make a sound as he grieved the loss of his pretty young wife and their unborn get.

He heard the door open a little, heard it shut.

He managed to release the warmth, the fur, turn his head, look toward the door -- 

The door was closed.

Nobody else was in the room.

He turned his head.

Yellow eyes, a black nose, pure white fur --

Linn blinked, surprised.

"How'd you get in here?" he whispered.

The white wolf faded, dissolved into vapor; a twist of fog seemed to sink into the bed, was gone.

 

It was a half hour before Willamina saw another face on the screen.

"I am so sorry," another nurse said, "we had a problem here."

"What kind of a problem?"

"Ummm," the nurse hesitated, "I, um, can't really say."

"I see.  I've been on hold for a half hour to speak with my son."

"The patient's name?"

"Linn Keller."

"Ummm ... okay, that's where we had a ... situation."

"Situation," Willamina echoed.

"It's hard to explain.  Let me check, I think I can take you ... no, I'm sorry, he's coming out now."

"Let me speak with him."

"I don't ... I'm sorry, that won't be --"

"He's my son and I have not spoken with him since everything happened."

The nurse withdrew from view; there was a quick, quiet conference, the pad was picked up, carried for a few quick steps.

Her son's face came into view.

Linn swallowed, blinked.

"Ma'am," he said.  "I'm sorry.  I killed her."

"You what?"

"Shelly.  She's dead.  I saw the White Wolf --"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on now -- Shelly is alive and well!"

Linn's face went dead white, his expression that of a man gut punched, hard.

"What?" he barely whispered.

"Her leg had surgery and she'll point to magnetic north for the rest of her life, but she's fine!"

"Oh God," Linn groaned, his head falling back:  the pad fell flat and Willamina had a fine view of the ceiling tiles.

A hand picked up the pad; she heard the cart being wheeled down the hall, a masked face wobbled into view, she saw a hand raise, a finger descend, and the screen went blank.

Willamina stared at her screen, incredulous.

"Damn those utter incompetents," she hissed.  "They never told him she's alive?"

Willamina's bottom jaw thrust out again and her eyes grew pale, hard.

She picked up the phone, tapped a quick series of keys.

"Doctor John Greenlees, please.  Yes, I'll hold."  Pause.  "John, Willa. I need some hell raised."

 

 

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246.  CONSPIRACY, WITH A CADILLAC

 

John Burnett inclined his head a little, the very image of what Sherlock Holmes called "peering benevolence" -- he was the Firelands hospital's chaplain, and had been for years.

He'd just done a wedding for a couple who had so little, they paid him with a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Now, having brushed crumbs from his suit coat and straightened his tie, he knocked at the open door, leaned in a little.

"May I come in?" he asked, and the distressed looking girl with the elevated leg attached to rope, weights and pulleys nodded.

"I'm Reverend Burnett, the hospital chaplain," he said gently.  "You asked to see me?"

"Yes, please," she said softly.  "Have a seat."

The Reverend sat, regarded the young woman, considered the healing injuries on her face: she'd either been beaten, or she'd been in a wreck:  bandages covered just over half her face, and she was talking very carefully, and she reached up as if to feel her hair -- the gesture of a woman whose short haircut is so very new as to be very unaccustomed.

"I need your help."

"However I can."

"I'm Shelly Keller.  I married Linn Keller, the Sheriff's son."

Reverend Burnett nodded, slowly, his eyes on hers:  it was evident Mrs. Keller was upset, for he'd done her wedding, and she didn't recognize him.

"Daddy said I was in a wreck.  The State Trooper said the car that hit me was doing about 90. He said they pulled the black boxes and I was doing fifty when I was hit."  She swallowed, shivered as her eyes drifted to the side, memories threatening to swamp the dinghy of her self-control.

"I ... I don't remember much about it.  Head injuries will do that.  I'm told my face won't be terribly scarred.  I guess they had a plastic surgeon work on me.  They cut my hair" -- she raised her hand quickly, searching for what wasn't there, lowering her hand to her belly with a disappointed expression. "I guess it got kind of burnt."

"That sounds like quite a wreck," the Reverend said sympathetically.

"It spun me, it flipped me, I ended upside down and my leg was caught."  She made a nose-wrinkled face, thrust her chin toward her elevated leg.  "I don't know how much metal they've got in me, but I think I'll have to carry a card or something if I ever go through a metal detector."

Shelly took a long breath, turned her head, looked very directly at the hospital chaplain.

"I need your help, Reverend."

"However I can."

"Nobody will tell me where my husband is.  He got the car off me.  He and two others squatted down and rolled it off me just as it caught fire.  I remember -- I think I remember -- it's ... confused ..."

Shelly closed her eyes, wiped the back of her hand across her forehead.

"I remember screaming and it was my voice but I don't remember doing the screaming, just that it was coming out of my throat and I wasn't doing it, and I smelled hair burning and I smelled burning meat and it hurt worse than anything I'd ever known and I saw my Daddy and then I guess I passed out."  Her words came in a rush, all run together, and she looked at the hospital's chaplain with a distressed expression.

"Nobody will tell me anything about Linn.  We're just newly wed, Reverend.  I think he was hurt but I can't find out.  Daddy told me that in the military, the Chaplain had an inside track with everyone and he said most times, the sky pilot knows people."

"I see."

"I need to find out about my husband.  His name is Linn Keller and he's a Sheriff's deputy with Firelands County."

Reverend Burnett patted her hand reassuringly.  "I'll see what I can do."

 

Linn stared at the ceiling, willing himself to stillness.

There were certain mental disciplines that helped control one's reaction to pain; he practiced them now.

Although they did not diminish his personal agonies, they did control his pulse, his blood pressure.

Mama said Shelly was alive, he thought.

She's a mother, and she's a nurse.

Nurses advocate for their patient.

She's advocating for me to stay alive.

She doesn't want me to know my wife is dead.

She does not want me to know that I just slaughtered my wife and our child.

She loves me enough to lie to me to keep me safe.

 

The man door opened and a familiar figure strode across the equipment bay.

"Howdy, Parson," Fitz greeted their departmental Chaplain:  "have you heard the one about the Farmer's Daughter and the Harley Davidson Motorcycle?"

Reverend Burnett smiled a little.  "No," he admitted, "sling it right on me."

"I can't," the Chief admitted, "I've been asking about that one for thirty years now and nobody's heard it yet!"

They chuckled over the polite, safe-for-company firehouse humor, then Reverend Burnett lifted his chin.

"I got a call from a parishoner," he said, "and I've been talking to the Sheriff."  He frowned, looked at the floor, looked up.

"Gentlemen, I need your help."

"Name it!"
"Mr. Baker, I understand you collect and restore apparatus."

"I do that, sir!"  Clyde Baker replied heartily, his voice loud and emphatic.

"Do I understand, sir, that you have recently restored a 1970 Miller-Meteor ambulance on a Cadillac chassis?"

"Yes I did!"  Clyde declared happily, "and a fine job it is!  Perfect restoration, immaculate paint, clean sheets on the cot, I've even the white milkman's hat t' wear for parades!"

"Is there coffee?"  Reverend Burnett asked hopefully.

"Is the Bear Catholic?"  Fitz shouted happily.  "Lads!  Coffee all around!  Now Parson, ye're needin' our help and you're askin' after an ambulance."  Fitz looked slyly at the Captain, then at their Chaplain.

"Do I get the feelin' we're about to be asked to pull something off?"

Reverend Burnett nodded slowly.  "You could say that."

 

The Bear Killer stared at the Sheriff with dark and sorrowful eyes.

Willamina had gone to Linn and Shelly's place to make sure all was well, and The Bear Killer went with her:  he'd galloped happily inside, casting about, scenting the air, quite obviously looking for the occupants, or at least one of them:  he came back to Willamina, sat, stared at her, looking for all the world as if it were her fault Linn wasn't there.

Willamina made a circuit of the house, checked all doors and windows with a veteran badge packer's efficiency; she made sure the heat was still on, water wasn't frozen, outbuildings were intact, she nodded with approval to see the livestock had fresh hay thrown over the fence:  finally she drew the door shut behind her, The Bear Killer flowing off the front porch and over to her Jeep.

Willamina opened the passenger door and the massive Mastiff leaped into the passenger seat, turned, faced forward, mouth open in a canine grin, his breath fogging the windshield a little.

 

The conspirators leaned forward as the plans were laid.

"Now this isn't an official transfer, like," Clyde explained.  "That would take certification and licensure and insurance and I'd have to become an LLC and that's too much like work."

Fitz nodded.  "But if it's just a friend giving a friend a lift ..."

Clyde snapped his fingers, pointed to the man with the white hat.  "Exactly!"

"And if we happen to have some extra help along the way ...?"

"So who's to say we needed a few extra hands in case I had a breakdown.  She is a '70 model, after all!"

"What are we waitin' for then?"

"We're waitin' for B shift to show up so we don't leave the house empty!"

"Besides that!"

They looked at one another.

"We'll have to look presentable now, won't we?"

"Right you are!"

"Polish your boots, lads, it's dress reds and wax your mustache, when we go in there I want it to look like 1885 has come to visit!"

 

"Dr. Greenlees?"  

Dr. John Greenlees looked up, gestured her in.

Willamina came in, past the door with the sign that said DIRECTOR, under which a smaller sign declared BIG CHEESE:  she sat while he scanned a stapled bundle of papers, frowned, straightened.

He looked up at her.  "How's Linn?"  he asked without preamble.

"He's progressing.  How soon can we transfer him here?"

"I can find out."

"Is it too early to transfer him.  He's in the burn unit.  I don't want to be premature."

Dr. John, as Willamina called him, steepled long, delicate fingers together, leaned back.

"I didn't bring my crystal ball," he admitted, "so I can't answer that just yet, but as soon as he's able to transfer, yes, we can bring him here."

"There's another matter.  His wife."

"I can tell you about her.  She is worried sick.  Nobody is telling her anything about her husband and she's worrying herself terribly."

"That's why I want to talk to you.  I don't think we can move Linn here just yet.  What are the chances we can take her to see him?"

Dr. John raised an eyebrow.  "Isn't he in the burn unit?"

"They can find a way,"  Willamina brushed the question aside, then leaned forward.

"He thinks he killed her."

Dr. John's eyebrow raised again and he looked very directly at the Sheriff.

"In his mind he is the dirtiest murderer in all of Creation.  He'll be thinking I lied to him to keep him from suiciding.  When I told him she's alive, he might have passed out, I'm not sure, but I don't think he'll believe me.  I need for him to see her, to touch her."

Dr. Greenlees leaned back in his chair, frowning a little, eyes tracking back and forth across the ceiling.

There was a tap at the door.

"Doctor, I'm sorry, but you are needed in surgery."

Dr. Greenlees grunted.  "Duty calls," he muttered.  "I'll see what I can do."

Willamina rose as the physician unfolded his lean carcass from his well padded office chair.

"Thank you, John."

 

The sight of a half dozen red-shirted firefighters with curled mustaches, knee high, well polished boots, and pressed-leather helmets, is a delight in a parade, when they are in, and on, and beside, their gleaming, polished, shining, horse-drawn Ahrens steam fire engine.

To see a half dozen of their very own Irish Brigade wheeling an ambulance cot down the hallway, moving with a military pace, obviously men on a mission -- well, this was unusual enough to draw stares, and it did.

The cot was not just a cot.

Its foot end held what looked like a minor derrick; a coffee can, quickly recruited, filled with a calibrated volume of wheel weights, spray painted a festive red, rested on the foot of the cot:  one man presented his papers at the nurse's station, while the rest of them thrust open the door, disappeared into the hospital room, rolled the cot inside.

Shelly had been dozing:  she felt the tension ease on her leg, she looked up, she blinked, her eyes widened and a half-dozen hard-muscled, veteran firemen, grinned at her:  she clapped her hands to her mouth, delighted, as Murph said "We've a traction setup for the cot, you'll lose no healing for this little trip!"  and Shelly asked, "Where are we going?"

"We're going to get you out of that bed and onto this one!"

Strong and willing hands pulled the bedsheet loose:  two on the left, two on the right, one holding the cot and one holding her leg:  "On three, lads, my count, edge of the bed and stop:  one, two, three," and Shelly giggled a little as she was lifted, slid, stopped:  two men climbed up onto the bed, standing up on their knees as they took a fresh grip on the rolled bedsheet.

"Ready?  All the way now, my count, one, two, three!"

Murph swung the little derrick around, then down:  a click, a spin of a thumbscrew, the traction was run over a crown pulley and the weight attached, tension slowly applied.

"How does that feel?"

"It feels good!"

A sheet, a blanket; they tucked their fellow firefighter in, ran the seat belts over her, sat her up a little.

"Fellas?"  

Everyone stopped:  six sets of eyes looked at her, and she looked around at the half dozen of her fellows and colleagues.

"I've given a thousand rides in my squad, but this is the first time I've been a customer!"

"Actually it's not," one of them muttered, "but I'll say I've no' had a prettier patient!"

"Flatterer!"

"Ye're damned right!" Clyde declared, striking a heroic pose.  "It's like the T-shirt says, no man, no matter his age, ever surrenders the cherished illusion that he is irresistible to the opposite sex!"

Shelly laughed.

They opened the door, dollied her out and down the hall:  one of them jogged up beside them, thrust some papers under her pillow, strode ahead to get the next door:  they were soon outside, and Shelly laughed as Murph seized the handle of the Cadillac ambulance door, hauled it open.

"You're kidding me!"  Shelly laughed, delighted.

"Not one bit," Clyde grinned:  "Down on three, my count, one, two, three!"

A click, the cot was lowered:  "Up on three, my count, one, two three!"

Shelly stifled a "Wheee!" as they raised her easily, rolled her into the immaculate interior of the restored Miller-Meteor hi-top.

"Ah, lads, hold now," Clyde said, frowning.

"She's too long."

"What?"

"Th' door won't close, it hits her traction!"

"Oh for Chrissake, Murph!  What'll it take t' shorten this up?"

"Fellas," Shelly protested.

"Ah, bother ... I can ... ah, dammit, where's m' toolbox --"

"Guys, GUYS!" Shelly raised her voice to be heard.

They stopped, looked at her.

"Just take me out, turn me around, load me in feet first."

Six bib front shirted, pressed leather helmeted, curled mustachioed, callus palmed firemen stopped, and looked at one another, and looked at her, and then laughed.

They drew the cot out, turned it about, ran her in feet first:  the relief medic climbed in, and Murph, and they closed the door carefully.

It cleared.

"Saddle up, lads," Clyde called happily, "and let's see if we can give her a proper ride!"

 

Linn looked up.

"You have company."

Two nurses in scrubs, with their hair covered and with masks over their faces, brought in an ambulance cot.

It was covered with a sterile drape.

A pair of very familiar eyes looked out from under a surgical bonnet.

The cot was rolled up beside the bed.

Linn swallowed hard and ran his hand through the siderail as Shelly slipped hers from under the sterile drape.

Husband and wife stared at one another for a very long moment, and Linn's hand gripped Shelly's, then explored it, finally gripping her around the wrist, and then returned to holding her hand as he always had.

He took a long breath, let it out.

Linn swallowed.

Shelly bit her bottom lip as her husband said in a husky voice, "You're not a ghost."

"Ummm ... no?"  Shelly said in an uncertain voice.

"I was sure I'd killed you."

She smiled.

"You got the car off me and you carried me through a river of fire."  She looked at the sheets, held off his legs with stiff bows.  "I'm sorry."

"I'm not," he said, squeezing her hand again.  "You're worth it."

"How do you feel?"

"Better now."

 

Shelly never said a word all the way back to Firelands.

Once the Irish Brigade wheeled her back into her hospital room, after they transferred her back into the hospital bed, got her pulled up and covered up and her traction restored, she held their hands, looked at each of them, and said "Thank you.  All of you." 

She swallowed.  

"I think that's the nicest thing anyone ever did for me!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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247. IMAGINATION

 

Linn Keller was the eldest son of Harold Keller, back in Perry County, back in the Ohio country: it wasn't that long after the war that tore the Colonies apart, that set the French and Indians after the Colonists, against the British, against any pioneers, against anyone but the French themselves.

Peace had finally come to the Ohio territory.

The National Road ran north of them by a day's ride and a little more.

Clay deposits and coal near to the surface meant a village sprouted: bricks were made, bricks were shipped, bricks that were in demand:  in time, there would be a railroad, then multiple railroads, railroads that hauled coal out of the earth, but that would not be for another century.

No, today it was a tall boy astride his Pa's mule, his flint rifle across the saddle bow, another across his back, a repair job for his Pa's attention.

The day before, Linn shot one man, trampled another, costing his two attackers their lives; the constable looked at the bloodied, discolored carcasses in the back of his Pa's wagon and allowed as he'd just been spared the trouble of finding the dead pair and taking them in for a hanging.

Today Linn rode back south along Sunday Creek, eyes busy, listening with more than his ears.

It had been long and long again since his days were carefree:  in those days, a boy grew up fast.

Linn was years from growing his first chin whiskers, but he'd proven himself when Death and horror came his way; he did a man's work and more, and did it every day.

He looked at the rock face to his left and smiled, a little:  before Sunday Creek washed sediment into what had been a deep hole, he'd jumped, naked, from the top of that sandstone cliff, dropped forever and a day before blasting into the cold water.

He allowed himself a moment's imagination, recalling how his belly screamed inside him, shrieking with a child's happy delight, a sound that never escaped his gut.

He'd learned that early, too.

Great joy was to be silent; grief was to be silent; celebration was to be silent; sorrow was to be silent.

He looked from the sandstone cliff to the creek, eyes scanning the banks, searching out all the places where he himself was to hide, was he to lay abuscade.

He and his Pa's mule crossed the gravel bottom ford with no difficulty, and rode on south, toward home.

 

Linn Keller lay on hard ground, under their wagon: he'd greased the hubs well before they started, his new wife and he: she slept beside him, one arm thrown over his chest, her breath warm on his neck.

They'd been married by a sky pilot near the Sugar Loaf, that great mountain near what had been a native city called Shallagotha: the white man bastardized it to Chillicothe, and roads ran to it and from it, and Linn and his slender bride Connie were taking one of these roads due north.

They would travel forever and a day, or so it would seem, and they did not stop until they came to what the native Erie called the Sweet Sea:  here they cut trees and built a home, grubbed stumps and rolled out rocks, broke soil and planted crops, and they planted crop of a more fleshly nature, and they were happy, and fertile, until a man with a German accent rode in with a slick tongue and a burning sense of duty, and slickered Linn into becoming a soldier.

Long years and decades later, Linn became the second Sheriff of Firelands County, way the hell and gone out in the Shining Mountains, far and far again from his native hill country:  he sired fine tall sons and beautiful daughters, and lived to be an old man, and died in his own bed and under his own roof, as a man ought.

Each of these men who bore the common name of a firstborn son, each of these souls, had a common trait:  each looked shockingly, remarkably like his ancestor, and each had pale eyes.

Not just pale eyes.

Ice pale eyes.

Each of them had eyes like the frozen heart of a mountain glacier, eyes that were a light blue when his mood was pleasant, but eyes that grew pale and granite-hard when he was displeased.

Each one who bore the name knew what it was to see his eyes reflected in another's eyes, at the moment of their death, when the other fellow made the mistake of provoking the pale eyed soul beyond what was generally called "Due Bounds."

In the fullness of time, a woman bore those same pale eyes, and with them, that most terrible curse that accompanied them:  a temper.

Not just a temper.

A scaled monster that lived in the belly, a ravening beast that forever wished to devour human hearts, drink the hot, smoking blood of a slaughtered enemy, a murderous beast that knew the dark power of hatred:  a seductive creature, seeking to tempt the soul it inhabited into the darkness, where it promised real power, real satisfaction.

Man and woman alike, at one time or another, stood as a guardian, a protector: when the pale eyes occurred as father and son, and then as father, son and daughter, when again there was mother and son, then daughters as well, all with the pale eyes -- when the Pale Eyes were seen even far from the earth, and birthed another child with the same eyes in a place that the first who bore the name of Linn Keller, who gazed with a child's wonder at the night sky, and saw that one of the points of light in the starry-decked firmament was red, when his father pointed it out and said it was named for the god of war, a place called Mars ... a child's imagination went to the far off place, imagining it as a red land, perhaps without trees ... and when a descendant of this wondering child walked across the treeless surface of a red planet, that descendant was a pale eyed guardian, a woman named for her grandmother, a woman who wore a six point star embossed on her white Olympic skinsuit.

And every generation, every one named Linn, every one, male or female, with those trademark pale eyes, was once a child, and had an imagination, and wondered, and remembered.

 

 

 

 

 

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248. RULE NUMBER ONE

With great authority comes great responsibility.

With great strength, must come great restraint.

Linn Keller, son of Willamina Keller and her husband Richard, learned early the need for restraint, for control.

He learned in childhood the weight and the delight of responsibility: his Uncle Pete was one of the generation raised to know hard work, and his mother Willamina worked at her Uncle's side, and he worked at his Uncle's side, though Pete was an old man now, and slow, and he stood at his Mama's side when his Uncle's long box was lowered into the hole beside the gravestone that bore both Pete's name, and his wife Mary's.

Linn learned, before he could read, the first and most penetrating dictum of a lawman, and he learned this from his mother, the Sheriff; he learned this from his father, who was retired FBI; he learned it from his uncle Will, who was Chief of Police, he learned it from the solemn and black-eyed Navajo, a deputy named Barrents, who'd taken a liking to the quiet little fellow who looked around with interested eyes the first time his Mama brought him to the Sheriff's office in a withie basket.

Linn learned this most important lesson when he stood at his Mama's side, when she wore a black uniform skirt with her blue uniform shirt, instead of her trademark blue suit dress, when he wore a black suit, when his Mama's badge was on her uniform blouse where God and everybody could see it, where she stood easy and comfortable at attention and rendered the hand salute as the coffin passed between the rows of hard-faced lawmen with a strip of black tape across their badges.

Linn listened as his Mama told of her Daddy, a laughing man who didn't have two nickels to rub together, but he had the wealth of a child's love and little else: he was a man who was killed, on duty, by a criminal bent on escape.

Her Daddy, she explained, set aside Rule Number One and paid for it with his life, as had the lawman in the shining wooden coffin that passed before mother and son and the rows of saluting lawmen.

It was two days before Linn came to his Mama with questions.

"Mama," he'd said, his young voice serious, "you loved your Daddy."

Willamina placed her pen very precisely beside the sheet she'd been writing on:  she pushed back from her desk, turned to face her pale eyed offspring squarely.

"You said your Daddy's tactics sucked."

Willamina nodded, once, her face carefully impassive.

"Mama, what should he have done?"

Willamina swallowed, took a long breath.

"Pull up a chair," she said, opening her middle desk drawer and slipping the worksheet within:  she picked up a ruler and a toy car, pulled out a sheet of paper the same size as her desk blotter.

"Here" -- the ruler went on the paper; a line, a measurement, two marks, another line, parallel -- "State Route 13."  She wrote a 13 in the upper left corner of the two lines, drew a circle around it with a built in arrowhead to indicate north.  "Here" -- a few quick lines, tight zigzags to indicate texture -- "chain link fence, surrounding a substation."
She looked over at her son's frowning attention.  "Yes, ma'am," he said softly.

"On this side" -- thick squiggles -- "a ditch, deep, steep and as wide as a car."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Past the ditch, swamp."

"Yes, ma'am."

"My Daddy was here."  Willamina opened her drawer, pulled out a dime, placed it in the middle of the hand drawn roadway: she pulled out a little red Hot Wheels car, placed it crossways of the road, drew out a second blue car, placed it at the upper end of the penciled roadway, facing south.

"There is the escaping felon."

"The one that broke out of the State Pen."

"The same."  Willamina placed a finger on the red car.  "Here's my Daddy's cruiser. It's crossways of both lanes. The bad guy can't get around here" -- the pencil's eraser end thumped to one side of the roadway -- "it's chain link fencing, with a ditch between fence and road.  Here" -- the eraser thumped on the wide, deep, steep walled ditch -- "is a deeper ditch and a swamp.  His only way out is to ram the cruiser out of the way."

"With another car?"

Willamina smiled humorlessly.  "How well do you think that would work?"

"Not at all, ma'am," Linn said, his prepubescent voice serious.  "I've seen high speed collisions."

"My Daddy was here."  Willamina placed the pencil eraser on the dime.  "He had that revolver" -- she thrust a bladed hand toward the Victory model Smith in the glass front frame --  "in hand."

Willamina leaned back.  "His intent was good but his tactics sucked.  He must have thought that a reasonable man would stop when faced with a roadblock, and a policeman with a drawn pistol."

Linn's eyes drifted across the hand drawn diagram, his bottom jaw sliding out a little as he considered.

"He would have been better served to have been behind the cruiser" -- Willamina thumped her pencil eraser beside the red car's front wheel -- "with the engine as cover and to soak up the energy of collision.  But he was here" -- Linn noticed his Mama's eraser hit with considerably more vigor -- "he was rammed and it nearly cut his legs off."

Linn felt the rage behind his Mama's words:  his reply was a very careful, "Yes, Mama."

Willamina looked at her nine year old son.

"How could he have done it better?"

Linn's eyes swung back up to the revolver in the wall frame.

"I shoot .38s every day," he said thoughtfully, "and they won't punch a steel plate."  He looked back at the red car and the blue car on his Mama's desk top.

"I'd want a Barrett, or at least a Garand.  I want to take out the lower radiator to stop the car slow, I want to take out the block to stop it right away, and I want to punch through the windshield to take out the driver."  

Willamina leaned back in her chair.  "You've been listening to Barrents again."

"Yes, ma'am."

"You're right.  If he'd been behind the car with a rifle -- if he'd had a shotgun with slugs -- he'd still be alive."

"Rule Number One."

"Rule Number One."

 

Linn opened his eyes, looked at the ceiling.

A figure in surgical hairnet, mask and scrubs sat beside him.

"Ma'am."

"Good morning."

"You're out of uniform, ma'am."

"According to the UCMJ," Willamina countered, leaning in a little, "when off duty one may be attired for the sport in which one is engaged, which is how the General and I avoided a court martial when the Shore Patrol found us running naked down the hotel corridor."

Linn raised an eyebrow and his pale eyed Mama laughed.

"Okay, it didn't happen, but it makes a good line!"

"Yes, ma'am."  Linn's ears turned a little red, and he smiled, just a little.

"How are you feeling?"

"Sore," Linn admitted.  "I need to get up and move around."

"I think that's in the cards," Willamina said, reaching over to lay a gloved hand on her son's upturned palm.  

"How soon do I get out of here?"

"When the burn specialists say you can, and not one minute sooner."

"Yes, ma'am."

"It's no wonder you're sore," Willamina said candidly.  "You lifted a car off your trapped wife."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I knew a woman who lifted a truck off her son. She managed, but it crippled her for life."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I don't want you crippled."
"No, ma'am."

Willamina's hand closed around her son's, squeezed.

"I'm sorry you were hurt," she said, her voice level, "but I am pretty damned proud of you!"

"Thank you, ma'am."

"I think there's a certain fire captain who wants to elevate you to sainthood for saving his little girl."

"That'll take a while, ma'am."

"How's that?"

"He'll have to convert to Catholicism first."

"Wise guy."

"Yes, ma'am."

Willamina rose.  

"I understand the Irish Brigade wants to bring you home."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Clyde brought your wife over to see you in a restored high-top Cadillac ambulance."

Linn whistled.

"Clyde's own restoration?"

"Yep."

"Oh, my, left, handed, goodness," Linn said slowly, a broad grin spreading just as slowly across his face.  "His restorations are his babies.  He hates to take 'em out for parades, let alone a road trip!"

"He didn't hesitate here."

"Ma'am," Linn said frankly, "if they want to get me out of here, I don't care if they throw me on the hose bed of a pumper.  Hell, they can dump me in a wheelbarrow and run me home in that!"

Willamina laughed.  "I think that might be a little drafty."

"Yes, ma'am."

Willamina leaned both palms on the siderails of his bed, bored her pale eyes into her son's as she bent her arms until both forearms lay flat on chromed steel.

"Come home to us," she whispered.  "You long tall drink of water, I was scared!"

Linn blinked, looked away, chewed on his bottom lip, looked back, then gripped his Mama's forearm, gripped hard.

"Mama," he said, "I'm sorry I scared you, but I'll be coming home all right."

He grinned a little crookedly, courtesy that broken and healed jaw bone.

"I don't reckon to go back on Rule Number One."

 

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249. "I WILL TURN HIM OVER MY KNEE AND SPANK HIM!"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller sat, feminine and pretty, in the McKenna gown she'd sewn herself: her Aunt Mary taught her the magic that hides in material, and Willamina had a particular gift for sewing, especially when she used the treadle Singer her Aunt Mary preferred:  she found it relaxing, to use the foot powered device, especially when she tried to teach her pale eyed son to use an electric sewing machine.

He'd been honestly afraid of the device until Willamina likened it to a power tool, which she admitted later was a mistake:  "He looked at me with such an expression of delight, he said 'Really?' and then he mashed his foot down on the pedal and he had one speed.  Wide Open!"

Tonight, though, tonight Willamina sat to one side at the head table, there in the back room of the Silver Jewel, waiting for the hour.

The ladies of their Tea Society were filing in, chattering quietly, shooting glances at the quiet, pale eyed woman reading from a small stack of books, jotting notes on a yellow pad; from time to time, the feminine soul in the McKenna gown would consult a delicate watch pinned to her bodice, until the wall clock hesitated in its regular tick-tocks, and then chimed the hour.

Willamina stood, yellow pad in hand, stepped behind the little podium in the middle of the front table.

"The Sheriff," she began without preamble, "had ridden to a distant ranch to consult on a theft."

 

Sheriff Linn Keller rode through the gap in the fence, rode toward the ranch house.

It was a single story, but a tall single story: the rancher who built it was from the South, where ceilings were tall, to keep the house cooler in summer weather:  here in the high country, ceilings were generally a hand's-breadth higher than a tall man wearing a hat, but no more, for ease of heating in winter.

Linn followed the man's wagon in.

He smiled a little as he considered the wagon's cargo: the man was getting rid of his fireplaces, replacing them with stoves -- Linn talked him into it -- and this brand new stove was intended for the man's parlor.

He'd guested with Linn before, in cold weather, and admired how well Linn's mica-window stove heated the room:  Linn pointed out how he'd run the stovepipe a little distance before running to the outside, he'd explained that heat rises and a fireplace shoots much of a man's hard earned heat straight up the chimney.

The wagon rattled up near the front door, Linn close behind:  he leaned forward, crossed his palms on the saddlehorn, pushed up, closed his eyes for a moment at the muffled pops as his spine stretched a little.

His eyes snapped open, suddenly very pale, as a girl's scream seared out the front door and seized him around the wishbone.

Linn was out of the saddle and moving at a flat out sprint before his weight came fully to his bootsoles:  he dove into the front door, seized something tall as he was, something burning, fast, hot, something that wasn't screaming all of a sudden.

Linn ran out, ignoring the flames that tore at his arms: he raised what had been a pretty fourteen year old girl, drove her feet first into the rainbarrel, shoving her down hard, drowning the fire that already burned away most of her gown.

Linn pulled her out, turned, laid her down on the front porch:  her hair was a singed ruin, her face red and blotched, most of the skin burnt off one side:  her eyes were wide, her mouth open, she was shivering, trying to breathe, grasping desperately at the pale eyed man bent over her.

He watched as her burnt throat swelled shut, as her tongue protruded, as the light faded from her eyes:  her mother appeared from somewhere, snatched up her daughter, held her and rocked her and grieved as only a mother can grieve, and Linn leaned back, stood:  he sagged against the porch post, walked woodenly toward his red Cannonball mare, gripped the cantle to steady himself, bent over, and threw up everything he'd eaten for the last two months.

He'd stayed to help dig her grave, he'd helped knock together a rough box for her: his expression was as lost as the father he was helping:  the father had just lost his daughter, and was burying the first child he ever had lost; the Sheriff was reliving losing his own daughter, but when he knocked together the box that held his little Dana, no one was there to share his grief.

It's been said that a friend doubles joy, and cuts grief in half, and Linn considered as they carried the box to the porch, set it up on two sawhorses, that the grief he felt was as crushing and as raw as it had been twenty years earlier -- and if his presence could cut what he was feeling, in this other man's heart, then he could bear the grief however long he had to, if it would assuage his friend's sorrow.

 

Willamina looked up, blinking:  she peered over her delicate, narrow reading glasses, worn halfway down her nose.

"Children did not have as good a chance at reaching adulthood," she said, "as we have today.  Open fires and long dresses were not a good combination, and this was not the only soul to burn to death in this manner."  She rested a hand on the yellow pad, the sheet mostly filled with her regular, very legible print.  "Unfortunately, in this modern age, our young are still hurt."

She raised her chin, looked at the silent, attentive ladies.

"Several of you asked about my child."  

Willamina stopped, bit her bottom lip.

"Let me tell you what happened."

She hesitated again, frowning, then looked up, looked at a very young set of eyes, a set of hazel eyes framed by blond finger curls:  the little girl sat beside her Mama, sitting very properly, wearing a child's dress that matched her Mama's gown, and Willamina felt a moment's ache, remembering when her own daughter was that young.

"My son," she said, "found his wife pinned under her wrecked car, and there have been several rumors and errors describing what happened.  My office is not investigating this one.  I felt that this would represent a conflict of interest, and I therefore called in the State Police."
She took a breath, blew it out.

"Here's what happened."

Her voice was suddenly flat, factual:  the silence following her words was profound indeed.

"My son swam through a river of fire demons that seized him and tried to pull him under."

She lifted her chin, took off her spectacles.

"He fought them bare knuckled to a bloody standstill, he kicked them out of his way so he could get to the car that was crushing his wife's leg into the earth.

"He seized the car, raised it above his head and threw it halfway up the mountainside, he picked his wife up as easily as a child's doll and he waded back through the river of living fire, bearing his injured wife to the onrushing rescuers.

"He strode boldly across the plain, ignoring the flames that were trying to eat the living flesh from his bones, until he could hand his bride safely to the rescuers:  then he dove facefirst into a snowdrift, seized the white blanket with both hands and wrapped himself in an icy burrito to smother the flames.  After this" -- she smiled -- "he stepped back into the saddle, lifted his Stetson courteously, and rode to the hospital, where he signed his wife in before the ambulance arrived and saved them a great deal of time."

Willamina looked around, smiled faintly.

"Rumors to the effect that he and a herd of horses rode into the main lobby are to be discounted, I don't believe any of the herd came with him when he rode his stallion through the main doors.  But" --

Willamina raised a finger --

"He did scare the blue hell out of his old Ma, and when he gets home, I'm going to turn him over my knee and spank him!"

 

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250.  NIGHTTIME

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna's pale eyes snapped open and she stared at her bedroom ceiling, listening.

It was night; the house was silent; her family and the hired girl were all abed, and she knew if she made any noise, the maid would be obliged to rise as well, and attend anything she might need:  no, Sarah held very still, breathing silently, eyes tracking sightlessly across the overhead.

No sound.

She looked to the window, looked to the starry-decked firmament, the glorious wash of milky stars spread across the cosmos, remembering how her pale eyed Papa once called it a "starry-decked firmament" and she remembered wondering where he got that phrase, or if he'd invented it himself.

Her Papa was a storyteller, and her Papa was a well-read man, and her Papa was a man who loved a smile and a laugh, and it was quite possible that her Papa came up with the phrase on his own.

Sarah smiled a little, realized that she'd woken quickly, the way she did when something was wrong; she knew she would play hell trying to get back to sleep, so she slipped from under her bedcovers, dressed quickly, silently:  she crept downstairs in sock feet, stepping to the left side of the stairs, where they were well supported, all but the seventh, which she carefully stepped over altogether, knee-high Cavalry boots in one hand, the other gripping the rail to keep herself steady: the seventh step squeaked, even if she carefully put her weight on the far left, and so she avoided that one altogether.

Not many minutes later, a figure, all in black, riding a great, black horse, paced silently through the night, riding to where Sarah's instinct pointed her.

 

Esther Keller, the red-headed, green-eyed Southern belle who'd come out West to visit her niece, and then stayed, smiled a little as a hand rested lightly on her belly.

She knew her husband's hand was splayed out; his touch was light, exploratory:  he was not asleep -- she could tell from his breathing -- but his touch, though careful and delicate, was deliberate.

She waited until the hand withdrew before whispering, "Is all well, my dear?"

She heard his breathing hesitate, and she knew he was composing his answer.

Her husband, the second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado, was a man of particular habits.

One habit was that -- if he were asked a question -- he would give the honest answer, even if it was not what the questioner wanted to hear.

Esther knew that her whispered inquiry would be met with absolute fact:  it may be at the expense of diplomacy, but given the choice, she would rather have an undiplomatic fact, than a soothsayer's false reassurance.

"I wanted to make sure you were still alive," came the slow, measured words.

Esther rolled up on her side, lay her arm over her husband's ribs, as he rolled toward her and lay his arm over hers: their noses nearly touched, and Linn kissed her carefully, delicately, and she knew his pale eyes were wide open, staring directly at her, the pupils a dilated, startling black in pools of ice-pale white.

"Why would I not be alive, dearest?"  she teased. "Given the choice, I prefer to stay here with you."

Linn ran an arm under her, embraced her firmly, the way a man will when a fear has laid hold of his heart:  he did not reply for several long seconds, but instead drew her into him, and she lay her cheek atop his, feeling his strength, his hard muscles, his animal warmth.

"I keep thinking about the Henedershott girl," he mumbled, half his mouth in the feather pillow, and he felt her nod of understanding.

"You did the best you could, dear," Esther whispered, and Linn released her, let her roll over on her back.

"I know that here," he whispered, touching a delicate fingertip to her forehead, "but I am having a hard time convincing myself here" -- his fingertips touched her breastbone, just over her heart.

"You are a man of conscience," Esther acknowledged, "and a man who is used to keeping his people safe. I've seen you grieving for men you lost in that damned War, all those years ago, and I remember how you damned yourself when Jacob was shot, defending the town from the church tower."

She felt his silent nod of agreement.

"Dearest, you have a conscience as tall as a shot tower and as big around as a church."

Again the nod, silent, but definitely felt.

"If you did not grieve as you do, you would have the heart of a marble statue, and you would not be the man that I love."
Linn's arms tightened around his wife once more, and he rolled back, drawing her over atop him.

"Mrs. Keller," he whispered, "you are the other half of my heart, and I should have great difficulty living without you."

"Mr. Keller," she whispered back, "I have no plans to leave this earth anytime soon."

They were silent for a long moment, until Linn's whisper.

"Mrs. Keller?"

"Yes, Mr. Keller?"

"My dear, please forgive me, but I find I must needs dispose of some second hand coffee."

Linn felt her amusement as she rolled off him, as she patted his chest affectionately:  "Then, my husband, let me not detain you from this most urgent detail."

 

Linn was home, and Linn was where he felt most safe, and as Linn went toward the outhouse, it was with a double twelve-bore in hand, for he'd learned long and long ago, evil strikes anytime, anywhere, and absolutely without warning:  a shadow detached from the night, flowed along with him, and he felt the corners of his eyes smile a little, for The Bear Killer was returned, as if he'd never been gone.

It was not until they both saluted a convenient bush, as males of their respective species will, not until Sheriff Linn Keller paced back toward the house, moccasined feet silent on hard ground, that he realized he was not alone.

He faded to the side, a quick move, damning his lack of foresight in not wearing a black nightshirt instead of a white one:  the shotgun was an extension of his soul as he held it ready, scanning the darkness for the prickle of primitive instinct that had kept him alive so many times in the past.

The Bear Killer yawned, then paced directly toward the house, tail swinging in greeting.

Linn relaxed:  if The Bear Killer greeted in this manner, then the Sheriff's friend-or-foe instinct was friend.

"You couldn't sleep either?" he asked.

"No, Papa," Sarah murmured.  

"Dreams?"

"No, Papa.  I woke because something did not feel right."  A shadow, taller than it was broad, detached from the side of his house, approached:  Sarah was all in black, as was often her habit, and in britches and boots instead of skirts and ribbons.

Linn held the shotgun by its wrist, allowed the twin muzzles to swing down as he ran his left arm around his get.

"Was it the girl today, Papa?"

"It was," he said softly.

Sarah hugged him again and he felt her press the side of her face into his chest.

"I am so sorry, Papa.  You did what you could."

"It wasn't enough," Linn said, just as softly, but Sarah heard the bitterness, the self accusation in his voice.

"Papa," Sarah whispered, "she'd inhaled the fire. There was nothing even Dr. Greenlees could have done."

"I know," Linn breathed.  

"Facts can be most inconvenient," Sarah said, pulling back, gripping her Papa's hard-muscled biceps, coming back to her arm's length:  "especially when we wish to flagellate ourselves with an unjustified judgement."

She released her arms, patted him flat-handed in the middle of the chest.

"Papa, on Judgement Day, let God judge you.  If you judge yourself, you will condemn yourself ten times over.  You are your own harshest critic, Papa, and it is a flaw in your nature, and" -- she reached up, caressed her Papa's stubbled cheek with a smooth, feminine palm -- "I prefer to keep you on a pedestal."

She felt her Papa's silent laughter, felt his nod:  she came up on her toes and kissed him quickly on the cheek.

"It's late, Papa.  We both have to get some rest."

"Big day for you tomorrow?"  Linn murmured, and she heard the smile in his quiet voice.

"The biggest," she nodded.  "I must preside over the marbles championship in the schoolyard tomorrow!"

Linn laughed again, silently, and The Bear Killer flowed over, leaned companionably against Sarah's booted calf.

"Get some sleep, darlin', and I will too."

"Good night, Papa."

"Good night, dear heart."

 

 

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251.  "WE'VE GOT TO STOP MEETING LIKE THIS!"

 

Shelly Crane lay in a puddle of something cold, wet, probably red, or maybe green, she did not know and she really did not care.

She lay flat on her back on a tile floor with her forearm thrown over her eyes, crying: she rolled over, stopped as she found something sharp -- broken glass, she thought, and froze.

She heard hooves a-clatter outside, on the pavement:  she heard a voice, loud, commanding, "OPEN THAT DAMNED DOOR!" and then the sound of a walking horse, and a man's pained groan, the sound of boots approaching.

She heard her husband's hissed intake of breath, felt his hand half-cover, half-grip hers, she felt more than heard his voice:  "Dearest, how bad?" and she started to cry again:  she felt strong arms lift her a little, slip under, she felt a profound silence as she was rolled up into a man's carry, at least until other voices yelled "YA DAMNED FOOL YA WANTA CRIPPLE YERSELF!" and more hands came in, and she was laid down on a clean sheet, on a mattress, on an ambulance cot, and she sniffed and rubbed her closed eyes into her shirt sleeve and pulled her forearm away from her face.

A huge Appaloosa nose filled her view.

Linn stepped back as one of the Brigade slid in sideways, between horse and cot, and explored her healing leg with fingers that seemed to have eyes:  he frowned a little, gripped here, went down her ankle, pulled gently, then very carefully unlaced her sneaker and tapped delicately, then firmly, on the very tip of her toe.

He looked at Shelly and Shelly looked at him, shook her head.

Linn looked from one to the other, knowing there'd just been some communication, some diagnostic, something he'd completely missed:  he reached up, gripped the saddle horn, his face carefully impassive, with sweat beading out on his forehead and a face the color of wheat paste.

 

Shelly was tired of taking it easy.

She and her husband, she knew, both had to heal.

They both pushed themselves -- Willamina brought the Valkyries out to Linn and Shelly's place for their twice-weekly practice, and she and Linn hung tarps and set portable heaters in the barn after they'd pulled out truck, tractors and other equipment, and Shelly fumed and watched, frustrated:  she glared at her bandaged, healing leg, she glared at her shining aluminum crutches, she tried to glare at The Bear Killer, at least until the great, black-furred canine washed her face, snuffed loudly at her ear and then curled up and went to sleep, his chin warm and heavy on her lap.

Willamina worked with her on ground fighting.

Shelly still had one good leg: she and Willamina would lay on a tarp, and Linn would hold the kick pad, and Willamina would deliver a vicious and incredibly powerful kick to the pad:  Shelly was a little awkward at first, until Willamina pointed out that her good right leg was her strongest limb, that she was a trained athlete, that she could kick a man's backside up between his shoulder blades if she planted her foot correctly, and would she kindly knock her son on his backside so his Mama could point and laugh -- at which, Shelly stopped, and laughed, and then wound up and hit the kick pad with a vicious and powerful kick that did set her husband back a step.

Linn had to report for daily dressing changes; not once did he complain at the painful procedure, not one protest did he utter:  he admitted to his Mama that the strain he'd put on every muscle in his young body, getting that car off his wife, felt like it had ruined him, though he was healing steadily and well, but not nearly fast enough to satisfy his natural impatience.

It also figured into their first fight as husband and wife, which started out with one admonishing the other to take it easier, there was plenty of time to heal; a counter-accusation that the other was not abiding by the same sound advice; each advanced on the other, until man and wife were nose to nose and Linn declared in a loud voice, his passion reddening his face, "DAMMIT WOMAN, YOU'RE THE ONLY ONE OF YOU I'VE GOT AND I'D LIKE TO KEEP YOU AROUND FOR A WHILE!" and Shelly raged back "YOU LONG TALL DRINK OF WATER I WANT TO KEEP YOU AROUND TOO!" and then they both stopped, and blinked, and realized what they'd just said to one another, and then they sat down and held hands and they were quiet for several very long moments.

Finally Linn said, "Is this where I go buy you flowers?" and Shelly smiled sadly and said "Only if you bring me doughnuts with them," and then they laughed, and the storm was past.

Shelly could still drive.

Her left leg was the repair job; she wore jogging pants more to cover the bandaged surgery, to hide her visible damage, and she found she could crutch out to the rental car, turn and fall into the front seat, her bad leg a little off the ground as she did:  so far her backside never missed the padding, though she did have a grip on the steering wheel when she turned, as much to gauge her distance as to control her fall.

She'd gone to the All-Night -- she didn't really need anything, but she had a towering thirst for their coffee with a long squirt of chocolate sauce stirred into it; Linn was in the barn, mucking out stalls, a task which he usually attacked like a tornado, but today he took his time, exploring which method caused him the least pain.

It still hurt to walk, it still hurt to stand, and likely would for some time, but he was be-damned determined to return to full function, and so he cleaned stalls with a thoroughness and a precision and a tremor of the tools in his leather gloved grip.

Shelly crutched into the All-Night:  one of the regulars hauled the door open for her, held it:  she thanked him, made it across the threshold, looked up.

She felt her stomach drop about a mile and a half and she surged forward, letting her healing leg hit the ground, shoving herself forward fast, fast, crutching with a desperate speed.

She dropped her crutches, bent, snatched up a little boy whose face was turning an ugly color of slate with an incredible speed:  she spun him, went to her knees, ran her arms around him, gripped one fist in the other with her thumb under his breastbone, and yanked, hard, in, and up.

She'd seen the child happily toss a sourball in his mouth, saw him open his mouth to take a breath to reply to a companion, she saw his eyes widen with surprise and his shoulders heave as he tried to cough out the plug.

Shelly had seen this before, and she'd trained on what to do, and she gave one fast, hard thrust and the sourball fired out of the lad's mouth and hit the floor, and shattered, and Shelly released her seatbelt grip from around the lad, steadying him as he coughed and got some wind into him, and then she looked up and she felt her stomach shrivel as the man she was with raised a clawed hand to his chest, as his eyes rolled back, as he collapsed into the slushie machine.

Shelly flinched as dispensers fell toward her and the base fell away, she spun the boy from her toward another adult, she lunged on one hand and both knees for the man -- her fingers seized the zipper his his coat, yanked savagely, laid his coat open --

-- fingers stabbed for the throat --

-- Adam's apple there, drop down, two fingers, press ...

Shelly looked around, saw the clerk staring, wide eyed and open mouthed --

"JEANNIE FOR CHRIST'S SAKE CALL THE SQUAD!"

She pulled herself in, her knees against the dead man's arm, she landmarked and put her palm on his breastbone, second hand on the first, laced her fingers, lifted, and drove, hard, straight down, using her weight and not her muscles, chanting the count out loud.

She did her level best to mash the breast bone hard against the spine with each compression:  she knew she had to, in order to get any effective compression of the man's non-functional heart.

"JEANNIE FOR CHRIST'S SAKE DO YOU HAVE AN IED!" she almost screamed, and the clerk quavered "No," and Shelly's jaw snapped shut, opened a little as she continued her chant.

The Irish Brigade's squad came screaming up, men jumped out:  a cot was wheeled in, the man's shirt scissored open, pads placed:  a hand gripped her shoulder, a calm voice in her ear, an instructor's voice, "Hold compressions," and Shelly lifted her hands, rocked back, breaking all physical contact with the patient, while the machine assayed any cardiac activity that might be happening.

Strong arms hoisted the still figure from the floor, onto the cot:  a bridge was swung over the chest, a new automated CPR device took over compressions while another medic, at the man's head, inserted his plastic guarantee that the airway would stay open:  the canary-yellow power cot was wheeled out in a confusion of men's legs and voices, the clatter of hard-rubber wheels over the threshold, as hoofbeats slowed from a gallop, assumed the sharp note of steel shoes on cold blacktop.

Shelly was ready to collapse.

She was strong, like her husband, and she'd done her best to hold everything in, to keep it from him: she hadn't told him of the nightmares, of being trapped, of burning -- though she could not feel the flames, she could smell her flesh roasting -- she hadn't told him how she'd dreamed he reached impotently through a broken out window, arms absurdly short, screaming "SHELLLIEEEEEEE!" while his T-Rex arms whipped up and down --

She hadn't told him of how much she'd hurt, and how nobody told her he was still alive, and how she'd been so afraid she was a young widow --

Everyone has their limit.

Shelly just hit hers.

She'd come across the aluminum trim strip of a threshold to see a little boy choke on a sourball, and she'd launched across the floor in a flail of aluminum crutches to seize him, and to clear the obstruction, and then his father -- who must have had a pre-existing cardiac condition, to react as he had -- went down and she had to CPR the man until the squad got there, and Shelly's dam loaded up with held-back feelings until it could hold no more, and it broke.

It could not contain having almost been killed in a wreck, almost losing her leg, almost losing her husband.

Everything she'd held back, everything she'd hid, surged away from her into the darkness, and the came roaring back, blasting through her wards, flooding over her walls.

Shelly sagged, her head dropping:  chin in her chest, she felt her very soul crumble, and she collapsed.

She laid down on the wet tile floor, she lay in spilled slushie and tears, she threw her arm across her eyes and she gave up, crying like a lost child: and when her husband's strong and manly arms lifted her, she cried all the harder, because he was the one thing in the world she wanted, and he'd come for her, when she needed him most.

It was three days before Linn could get out of bed, after picking up his wife this soon after his own injuries.

It was three days before he could stand up almost straight, and another day before he was able to come down stairs and sit at his own kitchen table.

It took a major effort for him to rise, and hobble to the door, but when he returned, it was with that crooked grin of his, and a bunch of roses in one hand, and a box of doughnuts in the other.

"Who was at the door, dear?"  Shelly called, crutching slowly down the hall toward the living room, and Linn set the squat glass vase of bright, fragrant flowers in the middle of the kitchen table, opened the white cardboard box, released the aroma of still-warm-from-the-local-bakery into their kitchen.

"I called in an order, dearest," he explained, and Shelly came around the corner, gave a little sound of distress, and then looked at her husband with big, shining eyes as he walked painfully, deliberately, over to her, wrapped his arms around her, and took a long breath.

"What's the occasion?" Shelly blurted, then kicked herself:  open mouth and something stupid falls out! she berated herself, and Linn drew back a little, enough to look at her and smile gently.

"Old man Spencer is going to be fine," he said.

"Spencer?"

"The one you CPR'd."

Shelly's mouth opened a little, then closed.

There was the sound of a car outside, a knock:  this time husband and wife both went to the door.

Shelly stood there, leaning on her crutches, staring at the keys and the brand new key fob in her hand, then looked up at the brand new car in the driveway.

"Well?"  Linn grinned.  "Are you going to open the card, or shall I?"

There was a picture inside, of a father and son:  the boy was laughing, sitting on his Pa's lap and looking up with delight at his laughing father.

Inside, a note.

You gave me back my son, and you gave me back the years to watch him grow up.

I understand your car was destroyed.

Please accept this one in its place.

It was signed John Spencer and Son

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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252.  IN TIMES PAST, THEY TOLD THE TALES

 

Linn nodded as he contemplated a secret hidden in the good dark pan gravy downing his mashed potatoes.

The potatoes were just a little lumpy -- he'd whipped them himself, and try as he might, he could never, EVER get his mashed potatoes creamy and smooth.

His mother could -- his wife could -- hell, even his Uncle Will could -- but no matter how he thrashed the stuff with a hand mixer, even if he attacked it with his wife's dough cutter (which he thought would make a nasty weapon in a barfight), he still couldn't get the lumps out. 

There were always a few.

Not many, and they were small, but they were there.

Shelly looked at her husband and smiled.  "Kicking yourself again?" she asked gently.

Linn blinked, looked up, laughed.

"Darlin'," he said, "I'm awful glad you made the gravy. With my luck, was I to make gravy, it would turn out tough!"

"You're not that bad a cook."

"I know I'm not that bad," he admitted, "but I've got to have somethin' to complain about or I'd not be happy!"

Husband and wife laughed quietly over supper, their conversation drifting with the currents, until Linn looked at his wife and said "Y'know, to hear Jeannie tell it, when you came into the All-Night, it wasn't so much you crutched across the floor as you beat your way across the tiles like an aluminum helicopter!"

"I did not!"  Shelly protested.

Linn shrugged.  "At least she didn't make me clean the horseshoe scars off the tile with my toothbrush!"

Shelly wagged her fork at him, squinted her eyes threateningly.

"Linn Keller," she said in a schoolteacher's voice, "you are incorrigible!"

"Thank you!"  Linn laughed.  "Flattery will get you everywhere!"

Shelly lowered her head into her hands, her elbows planted on either side of her gravy-streaked plate.

"If Jeannie is saying that," she sighed, "it's hard to tell what tales they're telling!"

"In years past, such tales would elevate us to hero status!"

Shelly looked at her husband with big, vulnerable eyes.

"I remember I hit my wall when I cleared that little boy's airway and his father went down. Once the pressure was off -- once they had him on the cot and out of there -- everything just hit me like a dump truck load of ... well, like a truckload."

Linn nodded, sadness shading his expression.

"I needed you, and you were there."

Linn nodded again, thoughtfully, his eyes distant, remembering.

"I felt so safe in your arms."
I felt like I was tearing every muscle out by the roots, Linn thought, but wisely said nothing.

"When you picked me up," she admitted, "you were my hero."

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller of the Second Martian District -- or, as it was more commonly known among the colonists, Sheriff of Firelands -- sat cross-legged, smiling  a little, as the children arranged themselves, sitting cross-legged in a semicircle around her.

"Shew-wiff," a little boy with big blue eyes said carefully, "will you teww us a ghostie stowwie?"

"A ghostie story?"  Willamina laughed.

The boy nodded.  "Fiyalan's has lost of ghosties!"

"He means old Firelands," an impatient young voice interjected, and another agreed:  "Yeah, back on Earth!" -- the Sheriff laughed a little at that last, for she never knew the word could be pronounced with such a sneer of utter contempt.

"All right," Willamina smiled, tilting her head back and looking at the corrugated-metal ceiling.

"A ghostie-story from old Firelands."  She frowned a little, lowered her head, looked at the little boy with the big innocent eyes, and frowned a little.

"Ghosties."
He nodded.

"A tale with a hero and a pretty girl."

He nodded again.

"And I suppose you want something that actually happened."

The big blue eyes widened just a little more and he blinked hopefully and hesitantly replied, "Pweeez?"

Willamina laughed, motioned him closer:  he scrambled on all fours over to her, and she took him under the arms, turned him around, sat him on her lap:  she, like they, sat cross legged on the floor.

"Oh-kay," she said, "we need a story of Old Firelands, with ghosties and adventures and I think I know just the one you'd like."

Willamina leaned her head back a little, thinking, one arm around the delighted little boy's belly, the other easing a compact but surprisingly complex remote from her pocket:  she worked the controls without looking, and the classroom faded, wavered, became a grassy field with snow-pockets and frost, with mountains behind, and with a tall, lean man cleaning out a barn.

"Once upon a time," Willamina said, then hesitated and looked around:  "What am I really saying when I say 'Once upon a time?' "

"Hold my beer and watch this!"  the entire class chorused, and guest speaker, teacher and class all laughed together:  it was something they all knew wasn't supposed to be encouraged in class, but when everyone is in on it, it's special, and the pale eyed Sheriff in the white Olympic skinsuit knew if she didn't say it, they would be disappointed.

"You see, this fellow has a pretty young wife, and he doesn't know it, but she's just been in a wreck."

The classroom shifted, turned: suddenly they were beside a roadway, turning to the right at the sound of a fast moving, noisy, something -- none of them had ever seen a car, save only in holovids.

"Now this fellow's wife is in that car" -- Willamina pointed to a vehicle, not too big, accelerating as something with four legs and fur trotted further from the shoulder -- every child jumped as the fast moving car came over the blind rise, BANG rammed the smaller vehicle, and every set of eyes widened at the slow motion sight of a car going in a fast circle, into the ditch, then end over end: they saw the young woman inside, thrown left and right like a pebble shaken in a tin can, then the car came down and they heard her scream with pain, saw her raise her hand to a bloodied face where she'd broken out the sideglass with her head from being thrown against it.

They saw the slow motion crush of the car coming down on her leg, saw her fumbling blindly for something, heard her thoughts put into words as she tried to find her phone --

They saw the lean young lawman with the pale eyes drop the wheelbarrow handles --

Each of them felt the saddle under them as he thrust a boot into the doghouse stirrup, swung aboard, each one of them felt a living horse under their young backsides, saw the herd pounding after the fast moving stallion, every young stomach in the classroom soared happily across the chasm as the horse launched across, landing easily and galloping hard --

They felt the horse's neck under their flattened palms, heard the Sheriff's voice describing what was happening, leaned a little as their stallion hauled about, circling the two vehicles --

Each child flew through the air, leaping from an almost-stopped horse, felt the impact of earth on their shoulder as they came over and up and reached into the car.

"The deputy reached for his wife's throat," Willamina's voice continued, "and he searched for a carotid pulse."

Young fingers went to young throats, finding their own great life-sign, pulsing rich and strong beneath fair, sun-starved skin.

"He knew the car was crushing his wife's leg."

"It was his wife?" a young voice exclaimed, and the Sheriff nodded solemnly.

"It was his wife, and he had to get her out.  Cars fueled with a volatile hydrocarbon --"

"Benzine!" -- an anxious hand shot up, a pink starfish at the end of a skinny arm, and the Sheriff thrust out a stiff finger.

"Right you are! In German the word is benzin, and in English it's gasoline, but chemically, that's the stuff!"

"Was she hurt?" a little girl asked in a little, distressed voice, and the Sheriff nodded.

"The fuel tank was busted and the benzin was running out and toward them. The electrical system was shorted" -- the children jumped as a tangle of wires dangled in front of them, sizzled, arced -- "and the deputy seized the car and tucked his backside, he gritted his teeth and hauled!"

The Sheriff's voice rose, her dynamics accompanying the holographic young man in the Carhartt and jeans, throwing his head back and grimacing with the effort.

"He could not do it.

"He was going to bust a gut trying and if need be he would die with his wife rather than leave her, but there is no way in the world one man is going to move that much dead iron."

"What happened, Shewiff?"

"Here's where the ghosties come in," the Sheriff smiled, closing one eye and tapping the side of her nose with a white-gloved finger.

"You see, it's really important for this fellow to live, and his wife is going to have a baby and so it was really, really important that she and the baby both live, so we had to have some help."

Two men appeared, turning slowly, as if on a turntable.

"I know that one!"  a little boy declared, loud and happy, thrusting a quivering finger at the image of Old Pale Eyes.  "But who's that?"

"Look up the image," the Sheriff said.  "What uniform is that?"
Young heads bowed over lap-screens, fingers tapped and swiped and spun circles on glass screen-faces.

"It's a sol-jer," a little girl pronounced carefully.  "First World War."

"Absoutely right.  But why these two?"

Willamina thumbed an adjustor: the faces came into magnified view, and then the deputy, still gripping the car, trying to haul it off.

The other two dropped to one knee beside him, then placed both feet flat on the ground:  wordlessly, the three hauled the mangled, mashed, steaming, smoking car off, brought it up to balance, shoved it away.

The pretty young woman remained behind.

Nobody really noticed quite how.

The young man picked her up just as the dark, spreading stream gave a dull, whispery whuff! and he was suddenly kneeling in a moving river of fire:  he came to his feet, ran.

The children suddenly realized they'd been hearing sirens, but so intent were they on the tableau playing out before them, they paid no attention; they saw the lean lawman running, fire wind-whipped on his legs, they saw him run toward a rescuer, thrust the injured woman into the rescuer's arms, then dive face first into a snowbank: nobody missed the hiss as his legs were extinguished.

"Two ghosts came to make sure the pale eyed bloodline would continue to live," the Firelands sheriff explained as the scene dissolved and then disappeared.

"But there is one more ghostie, if you will."

The Sheriff was still cross-legged on the floor, the little schoolboy still on her lap:  she raised her left hand to shoulder height:  she slipped the control back into its pocket as something large, white and furry appeared under her palm.

"When the young deputy was in the hospital burn unit, his Spirit Guide appeared to let him know all would be well."  

Willamina caressed the White Wolf, rubbing her white-gloved hand deep into its soft, white fur.

The little boy on her lap reached over, tentatively patted, then caressed the warm, welcoming fur.

The White Wolf looked around with feral yellow eyes, turned its head and snuffed loudly at the little boy, then gave the lad a companionable lick, taste testing the corner of the giggling little lad's jaw bone.

"Doggie!"  a little girl declared happily, and the White Wolf looked around, blinked sleepily, and disappeared.

They saw a wisp of fog that looked like it corkscrewed itself into the deck underfoot, and it was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

253.  "WHAT DO YOU MEAN, WE'RE DONE HERE?"

 

A pale eyed lawman shivered in his bed.

Sweat beaded out on his forehead, his nightshirt was damp, he quivered like a hound on a hot scent.

His wife knew he was very likely fighting that damned War again, reliving hell and horror that he survived on the battlefield, terrors and torments that came at night to plague a good man of good conscience.

Esther Keller rolled toward him, her belly great with child; her gravid middle weighed down his right hand, her slender, milk-white hand slipping up, laying gently on his breastbone, where his magnificent heart labored powerfully inside its bony cage ...

She knew it was coming, and she still flinched:  his left hand swept up under the bed linens and pressed hard on hers, pressing her hand flat onto his chest:  he took a great, shuddering breath, sighed it out, and she felt him relax.

The nightmares came no more that night.

Another bedroom, another pale eyed lawman, another age: his wife was not yet great with child, though she carried the fertility of their wedded union in her still-flat belly:  her husband was shivering, just a little, just enough to wake her.

Like his predecessor with the iron grey mustache, this Linn Keller not infrequently fell asleep holding his wife's hand, and woke with her hand still in his: tonight, though, he was pulled far deep into his lean, aching carcass, he was pulled back within his fleshly fortress, doing battle with the terrible things that come to a good man in lonely hours of darkness.

Shelly could not roll over, thanks to her leg: she wore a brace yet, and it was painful to roll over and haul metal and bedcovers both, but she did what she could.

She released her husband's hand, slipped her hand under his, gripped it from beneath.

Her lips parted, just a little:  hesitantly, she wet her lips, and then whispered, "I'm here, dearest."

 

Linn ran through cold, clear molasses, yelling:  his words came out of his throat like a fine stream of snowflakes, hissing almost silently onto the open air.

Two cars steamed, wrecked and crushed:  two men capered and giggled around one, shouting triumphantly at having rammed the other vehicle, and Linn drew his left hand Colt and leveled it, hatred burning his heart, he thrust a blued steel barrel at the nearer of the two and mashed the trigger, and the trigger bent, and finally thunder released in his hand and a bowling ball squirted out of the muzzle, and fell to the ground, and wobbled, and stopped.

He stopped.

This is my dream.

This is my mind, my realm.

I rule here.

I RULE HERE!!!

"Oh no you don't, cupcake," a sneering voice said, and Linn never even looked, he reached out and seized the offending throat, his hand twice its normal size:  he took a red demon about the neck, squeezed:  claws raked ineffectively at his arm and Linn said "Hold my beer," gave the hell-servant a vicious shake, and felt a dark satisfaction at feeling the neck bone break.

He whipped the convulsing carcass backwards, threw it overhand, at arm's length, like he was throwing  grenade:  the stubby-winged prevaricator sailed through the air, gasping, trailing drops of sizzling ichor, until the ground opened up to receive it and it screamed as it fell about ten million miles down an infernal elevator shaft.

Linn stopped, looked around, his jaw set.

He drew a great breath:  "THIS IS MY DREAM," he roared, "NOT YOURS!" -- and so saying, he reached down, seized his boot tops, pulled them up to his knees:  on their stovetop sides, a hand stitched legend, Seven League Boots Inc, appeared.

Linn strode over to the overturned car.

He raised a hand.

His wife's mangled, crushed car lifted off the ground; another wave, and the crushed, smoking, oil-drizzling vehicle disassembled in midair.

Another gesture:  mangled metal fell away on either side, hit the ground, a grey fog flooding over the wreckage with the hissing blast of a CO2 extinguisher being discharged:  gasoline darkened the dirt, wiring smoldered, then glowed red, then bright red as the battery went to a dead short, but contained in a minor ocean of carbon dioxide, gasolinet could not ignite, which suited Linn fine.

His wife was suspended in midair.

She was wearing her white flannel nightie with the pink and yellow roses, and Linn wondered with amusement what his wife was doing, driving in a flannel nightgown, but then he looked at her crushed and bleeding leg, he turned to his right and saw two squads rolling in, he looked back at his wife, suspended in a moment of time, hovering five feet off the ground, looking at him with big, helpless eyes.

Linn frowned, turning, took in the whole scene, nodded.

"We're done here," he said out loud, and the scene dissolved:  he was once again in his own bed, in his own house, under his own roof, and his wife's hand gripped his.

Shelly was looking at him.

He could see the shine of her eyes, where the night light reflected off the moisture of her eyeballs.

"I love you," he whispered, and Shelly giggled and asked, "What do you mean, we're done here?"

Linn took a long breath, then laughed quietly.

"Would you believe ... I just dismissed a nightmare like an unwanted servant?"

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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254.  AND SHE PUNCHED HIM IN THE NOSE

 

Linn's eyes were very pale, and very hard, and those who knew him, those who knew his mother or his uncle, knew this was a very, very bad sign.

Especially when his voice was quiet.

And his coat was open, just a little, and his hand was flat on his belly, like his guts might be troubling him.

He and Shelly had gone to the Silver Jewel for supper.

Linn was still moving slow, and Shelly knew her husband's moves and his moods, and she knew he was hiding his discomfort: she also knew he was a hard headed and contrary man, and she knew that he was using tasks like splitting wood, or carrying wood, or mucking the barn, both to rehab himself, to work stiffness out of over-abused muscles, and to punish himself.

Why, she could not imagine -- hadn't he saved her life, hadn't he done something truly heroic, hadn't he come to her rescue when she had an absolute collapse when everything came roaring in on her after she'd had to Heimlich a little boy and then CPR his father?

Still -- when he said they should eat out, that she didn't need to stand and fix supper, she agreed, and she was a little surprised that he insisted in wearing his usual black suit.

Had she reflected a little longer, perhaps she would have realized he did not wish to appear in public as any less than he was -- that he could not afford, as a lawman, to seem to be weak, in the public eye.

Absence could be overlooked, but weakness ... weakness draws predators, and he had no wish to be prey.

Shelly drove her brand new car -- "You drive, darlin'," he'd said with that grin of his, "I want to gawk" -- and so saying, he waited until she'd crutched around to the driver's side, saw her settled in behind the wheel, and gathered her crutches:  he placed them in the back seat, he walked slowly around the front of the car, climbed in the passenger side.

His face was impassive; neither expression, nor hiss of indrawn breath, betrayed any discomfort he might (or might not) be feeling.

It was not far to the Silver Jewel; there was very little traffic, and Linn's slow progress up the front steps, to the boardwalk level in front of the door, was camouflaged by Shelly's slow, deliberate progress on her aluminum cripple sticks.

Linn drew open the door for his bride, pale eyes sweeping the inside of the Jewel: he turned, looked at his wife, who murmured "Thank you" as she crossed the threshold:  he scanned the street, up the boardwalk and down the steps behind him, to the alley, with one easy, well practiced sweep.

As soon as Linn was inside, his lawman's instincts kicked in: he unbuttoned his coat button, held his forearm casually across his middle, the way a man will when he's not entirely comfortable.

The way a lawman will when his elbow is guarding the handle of his holstered sidearm, and his bladed hand is ready to sweep the unbuttoned coat aside, to knife under it for a grip and draw.

"Well, if it isn't Old Pale Eyes," a sneering voice greeted him, and Linn felt his blood cool several degrees.

If you want a fight, he thought, I can oblige you, and he turned a little, feeling his face tighten, feeling his soul chilled by the realization that a predator sensed his weakness -- whether by common gossip, or that indefinable something that draws a reaver to wounded prey.

Shelly was already past, slowing to turn, to look for her husband, who would normally be abreast of her by now.

"I heard you tore your guts open," Dodson challenged.  "You wanta try me, big man?"

"You want charged with assault on a law enforcement officer?"   Linn replied, his voice quiet.

"You ain't in uniform and I could mop up the floor with you now."
Linn's hand was flat against his belly, inched back a fraction until he just felt the hem along the opening of his coat.

"What?  You ain't man enough to try me?  You gonna shoot me, depitty?"

"I don't have to," Linn said, his voice quiet.  "There's a shotgun looking at the back of your head."

Dodson's eyes widened and he turned, quickly, just in time to inherit the rubber tip of Annette's crutch right in the end of his nose.

Linn twisted, seized the man's collar at the moment the edge of his boot kicked hard into the back of the challenger's left knee:  he went down fast, he went down hard, and Linn came down on top of him, one knee on Dodson's bicep and the other in the middle of his belly, driving every bit of wind out of him.

A set of shotgun barrels swung into the man's view as the barkeep stepped up, his double barrel bar howitzer hovering a foot away.

"Now I have rules of engagement to follow," Linn said as Dodson fought to get some air back in his shocked lungs, "but this fellow here, I don't think he does, so if you were to do something stupid like grab for his gun or something ..."

He shook his head.

"I don't think he'd be the one coming out in second place."

The front door hauled open and two men in blue uniform came in, faces hard and serious:  Linn rolled back on the balls of his feet, stood.

"That one," he said, "in irons, now.  Assault on a law enforcement officer, menacing, search him well -- if he has anything more dangerous than a slip of paper, make it aggravated assault with intent."

"There was intent," a voice offered, and three sets of lawmen's eyes turned to the fellow offering the information:  "he was bragging how he was going to beat the dog stuffing out of the deputy 'cause he'd been hurt and it would be easy."

Linn cocked an eyebrow at the older of the two policemen, who nodded to the other:  Linn leaned casually against the bar, watched as Dodson was rolled over, cuffed, hauled to his feet.

"Do you need my statement now, or can I eat supper first?"  Linn asked, looking over at his wife, standing three-legged beside an empty table.

"He might need mine too," Shelly sighed.

"Well, hell," Linn muttered, turned to the barkeep.  "How late will the kitchen be open tonight?"

 

Later that night, after he and Shelly returned home with a sack of take-out, they sat and ate reheated supper.

"I do like the way you spoke your piece," Linn mumbled around sourdough with a thick layer of butter.

"I've had to testify in two malpractice actions so far," Shelly replied, picking up an onion ring and then wiping it in the excess salt on her paper plate.  "I rehearsed for a week what I would say on the stand."

Linn nodded, then grinned.

"I think they liked it when you told them you punched him in the nose with your crutch."

"I wanted to stand behind the stage curtain and point it at him like a gun barrel," she admitted, "but there wasn't time for me to get down the hall and into the stage door and up the steps and across the stage.  Besides" --she laughed a little -- "I don't like it when someone wants to beat up on my husband!"

"Don't think much of it myself," Linn muttered.  "Darlin', I'm a lawman and there are those who wish me harm."

"Ya think?"  She bit off half the onion ring, trailed the fresh ends across the plate, frowning.

"Put someone in the pen and they don't forget you.  Engage in a pursuit and they rabbit, they lose control, hit a tree and die.  Friends and family don't forget you were the one in pursuit.  I've been to lawmen's funerals before.  One was shot through his own kitchen window, he was a Marietta detective and was murdered in ambush.  I don't know if they ever caught the murderer."

"If he'd tried to shoot you tonight --"

"I'd likely been hit," Linn admitted.  "Nobody knew we were going to the Jewel, so there was no possibility of intentional ambush, but a crime of opportunity?  I'd be behind the curve because he would see me and react, and I'd have to react to his reaction."

"I've seen your reactions, Mr. Keller.  You're pretty good."

"I know I am," Linn admitted, "and that close I would not miss."

"I know."

"Still ..."

He let the word dangle and fade in their quiet, coffee-scented kitchen.

Shelly wiped her fingers on a napkin, wiped her mouth, dropped the crumpled paper onto her empty plate, reached over and gripped her husband's hand.

"I think it's time I got that concealed carry."

Linn nodded.  "I just happen to know a really good instructor who specializes in teaching women."

 

 

 

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255.  "YOU BIG BULLY!"

 

A pale eyed lawman with an iron grey mustache made the approximate sound of a hippopotamus coming up for air, which amused his pretty little, blue eyed, curly headed daughter immensely.

He was washing up outside, as was his habit; his suspenders hung, he was bare to the waist, wet to the shoulders from the top down, and of course anything her big strong Daddy did, was of immense interest to his little Angela.

She tilted her head, curious, and read war marks on his back, souvenirs of harder times:  she pointed a little pink finger and said "Daddy, what's dat?"

Linn picked up a towel, briskly dried his face, raised his head, wiped the length of one arm, then the other.

"What's what, princess?"

"Dat," she said, pointing again, "on your back."

Linn laughed, turned and squatted in front of his little girl, ran his face in close enough to hers to twiddle his mustache on her nose and make her giggle.

"I can't see it," he whispered, and Angela planted her little scrubbed-clean knuckles on the flare of her flared frock and tilted her head a little to the side:  "Dad-deee," she declared impatiently, "it's kind of long and it's wide in the middle and it's got a thing that sticks out sideways!" -- and so stating, her finger followed her words, sketching the shape she'd observed in the air.

Her big strong Daddy frowned a little, rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then he seized his Angela under her arms, whisked her swiftly off the ground, spun her around:  father and daughter danced in a happy pirouette, Angela's head thrown back, even white teeth shining, spilling delighted little-girl-sized giggles all over the ground, and the maid and the matron, watching from the back porch, looked at one another and shared a happy smile, for each remembered what it was to be a little girl, safe and delighted in her Daddy's embrace.

Linn swung Angela up, quickly, almost tossing her in the air:  her legs came out to the horizontal and his hand released from under her arm and caught her under the thighs, and he rolled her into his chest, bringing another freshet of delighted laughter:  he reached down and nibbled the side of her neck with his lips and then whispered, "Angela, did you ever see an elephant?" and she twisted in his arms and protested, "Dad-deee!" -- because she had indeed seen the elephant, and not two days ago, as a matter of fact:  her pale eyed father wished mightily for one of those new Kodak pitcher taken boxes his niece Duzy spoke of, for the handler, hearing the wistful request of an enraptured little girl, walked the great grey pachyderm from the circus train over to her, and with the lean lawman's permission, gave a signal:  the elephant's trunk wrapped around her middle, and hoisted her into the air, and Angela, delighted, found herself perched behind the immense head of an Indian elephant, and as the ponderous beast paced slowly forward, Angela clapped her hands in delight, laughing in the sun from atop a moving mountain.

Linn squatted, set his little girl's feet on the ground:  "Now what about that thing you saw on my back?"

Daddy," Angela said sadly, her eyes filling with concern, "did you get hurted?"

"Does it look like a hurted mark?" he asked quietly, and Angela folded her hands in her apron and nodded.

Esther and the maid watched, remembering:  there is no more precious time than when a father spends time with the young, there is no more memorable moment in years that follow, than the memory of a father paying very close attention to the young:  the hired girl surreptitiously slipped a kerchief from her sleeve, dabbed quickly at the memory leaking from the corners of her eyes, glanced guiltily over at her red-headed companion, the Lady of the House, who was herself pressing a kerchief to her own eyes, and for the same reason.

"Well, y'see," Linn declared dramatically, throwing his arms wide, palms up, "it's kinda like this!"

 

Linn's red Cannonball-mare was a spirited mount.

Generally when he first saddled her of a morning, it was a contest to see who would rule that day: Cannonball would rear, buck, sunfish, spin, crow-hop and otherwise whip out a variety of shenanigans and di-does, and Linn would whip his Stetson and rake his heels fore and aft, and after his spine was stretched and snapped and his teeth clicked together at least four times from the impact of coming back to saddle leather, his red mare would stop, and shake like she was shivering a pesky fly from her hide, and then she would pace off just as nice as you please, and she was mild as milk for the rest of the day.

Most days.

This one day, unfortunately, unwise counsel was whispered in her ear by an invisible horse-devil, and she shied at something out in the field, while Sheriff Linn Keller and US Marshal Charlie Macneil were riding and discussing the state of the nation, the world, all of creation, and their jurisdictions, not necessarily in that order.

Linn was caught by surprise when Cannonball reared:  she was genuinely affrighted of something, she twisted to get away from it, and unfortunately that meant she reared and swapped ends at the same time, and Linn went over backwards and landed, flat on his back, right on top of what she'd shied at.

The object of her distress was a rock, the size of your fist, stuck up out of the ground and throwing a shadow.

Horses will shy at such things, and she did, but there also just happened to be a rattle snake at the edge of the shadow, and the snake just happened to rear up and strike at whatever was falling toward it, and Linn landed on rock and snake both.

Fangs drove into his back muscle, the rock drove into his ribs near unto the kidneys, close enough to absolutely paralyze the man with a sunball of absolute, utter, freeze-your-liver,

PAIN!!!

Only a man who's been hit hard in the tenderloins can truly appreciate the detonation of utter agony that comes with such a fall, landing on such a rock: Macneil got the man rolled over, seized the dying rattlesnake and tore it loose, then got the man's back exposed, and laid into the fang-holes with a knife sharp enough to shave with.

Linn tolerated the man's ministrations with utter silence.

Truth be told, he was seeing the world through a hazed curtain of agony, and Macneil could probably have taken a crosscut saw to the man with the same lack of response:  Linn barely remembered being picked up and laid across his own saddle, very vaguely registering his friend and Brother's grunted "I'm gettin' too old for this" as he hauled the long, tall, hard-muscled lawman off the ground and up to horse height.

 

"Did it hurt, Daddy?"  Angela asked in a distressed little voice, and Linn embraced his little girl, hugging her gently.

"I don't remember, Princess," he whispered. "When I landed on that rock, it hurt so bad and so long I don't reckon I felt much of anything."

 

Later that day, Old Pale Eyes watched, amused, as his pretty little, curly headed daughter, stomped up to his red Cannonball-mare and shook her Mommy-finger threateningly.

"You hurted my Daddy, you big bully," she scolded, and Cannonball blew and nodded her head, and the pale eyed old lawman almost smiled to see it.

 

 

 

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256.  THANK YOU, SARAH!

"Jacob?"

Jacob Keller, chief deputy and firstborn son of Old Pale Eyes, straightened from his task and looked over at his wife.

Their hired girl had the day off and was in town, likely seeing her fella (nice young man, she was sweet on one of the Irish Brigade), and Annette wore her white kitchen apron and held a wooden spoon:  she stood just outside the side door, looking at their near pasture, shading her eyes a little.

Jacob turned, following her gaze, frowned a little and started walking toward the fence.

"Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit," he murmured.  "You don't think ...?"

 

Joseph Keller's knife whispered dark secrets to the whet stone in his off hand:  he frowned a little as he plied hand forged steel across the smooth, spit-wet stone, then he wiped the blade, thrust his left arm out abruptly to expose some wrist, and made a tentative pass on the back of his arm.

Joseph Keller lifted the blade, puffed his breath across it, blew the shaved-clean hairs into the air.

"Not bad, son," a fatherly voice said, and Joseph sheathed the knife before rising and saluting.

"Forgive my caution, sir," he said, "but I'd no wish to salute you and stick a knife in my face!"

"I am a superstitious man," the Captain admitted, a smile hiding in the corners of his eyes as he returned the salute:  "I think it would be very bad luck to stick yourself with that kinife especially!"

"How can I help you, sir?"

"I was admiring the ease with which you can sharpen a blade."  He hunkered, and Joseph hunkered with him.  "I can grind steel all day and get nowhere.  My father could clamp a knife in a vise and have it sharp in three passes of a mill file."  He shook his head.  "I suppose someday a sharpener will be invented that will require no skill at all from the user, and when that day comes, I shall buy a dozen of the damned things!"

"Yes, sir," Joseph smiled quietly:  the Captain was not the first man he'd heard complain about an inability to sharpen a knife.

"Private, do I recall you're from the Colorado?"

"Yes, sir.  Firelands County."

"Firelands," the Captain said thoughtfully.  "Tell me ... is there anyone there who has eyes like yours?"

Joseph laughed quietly, nodded.  "Sir, I have pale eyes, my brother has pale eyes, my father and grandfather and my aunt all have pale eyes, and I am told it is a gift or a curse of the firstborn son.  Although" -- his grin was quick, spontaneous -- "I doubt if my aunt would admit to being a firstborn son!"

They laughed together, then the Captain favored him with an interested look.

"Your father ... I don't suppose he served with the Union?"

"No, sir, but my grandfather said he had that misfortune."

"I suspected.  My grandfather was a galvanized Yankee."

"Yes, sir?"

"He said the only damned Yankee he ever met that was anywhere near honest was a Cavalry captain with pale eyes.  Said he shot two of his own men and hanged three more for mistreating a Southern woman."

"Yes, sir, he did that," Joseph nodded, "and Billy Sherman" -- he turned his head, spat -- "tried to hang him for it."

"I know.  My uncle gave him a Navy Colt the night before he was to hang."

Joseph grinned again, nodded.  "Granddad thrust it in the middle of his back, under his coat.  He said if need be he was going to kill Uncle Billy and as many as he could before they killed him.  He said he figured to meet St. Peter with a smoking empty pistol in one hand and his boot on a dead enemy's throat."

"But he didn't."

"No, sir. Seems Lincoln himself countermanded that order, so Old Billy sent him to Washington and good riddance."

The Captain nodded slowly.  

Silence grew long between them; an adjutant came up with two tin cups of coffee, which both men accepted:  after the ceremonial burning of the lip on the rolled metal edge, each blew gently on his steaming-black brew, savoring the moment.

"Private, what's your name?"

"Joseph Keller, sir.  My father is Jacob, and Granddad is Sheriff Linn Keller."

"Joseph, what's a good memory from back home?"
Joseph wasn't expecting that exact question, and so he frowned, and looked down, considered carefully.

The Captain saw a slow smile spread across the young soldier's face.

"Sir, it would be a Texas longhorn."

The Captain took a cautious, noisy sip, took another, raised an eyebrow.  "Now that sounds interesting," he murmured.

"His name was Boocaffie and we were playmates, sir."

 

Jacob shaded his eyes again, frowned.

Annette slipped back in the house, came out with her husband's octagon barrel rifle:  she waited until he'd climbed the whitewashed board fence, then started walking toward him.

Jacob planted his Stetson on top of the fencepost, unbuckled his gunbelt and hung it as well: he peeled out of his shirt, shook it out, draped it over the top plank.

He turned, looked at the Longhorn bull with the familiar droop to his off horn.

"No," Jacob whispered.  "Can't be!"

He started walking toward the old mossy horn.

The bull bawled, threw his head, a clear challenge.

Jacob walked a little faster, his heart lightening a little, he felt younger, he felt a young man's strength surge through him again.

The bull snorted, pawed, bawled a clear challenge.

"COME AND GET ME, DAMN YOU!"  Jacob shouted right back, and leaned forward, and began to run.

The bull lowered its head and started to trot.

Annette worked through two of the boards, her dress catching on a splinter:  she yanked it free, took a few dancing steps to the side, thumbed back the hammer on her husband's .40-60, flipped up the tang mounted peep.

"Come on, damn you," she whispered, angling further left, "just one clear shot!"

Jacob let out a long yell and the bull let out a bawl and laid on the coal and the two charged one another just as hard as he could go and thundering destruction pounded across the field toward the puny two-legs, a ton of death on the hoof lowered its head a fraction and Jacob's pale eyes were burning an icy hole into the bull's boss and both hands shot out stiff armed and he kicked hard and the bull threw its head and Jacob sailed through the air, over and above the bull like he used to when a bull calf his son Joseph named Boocaffie used to play in just this manner, and Sarah laughed and told Jacob of Grecian illustrations on ancient clay jars, showing young men vaulting bulls in just that selfsame manner.

Jacob tucked, somersaulted once, twice, landed flat on his feet in a deep squat:  he rose, turned, raised both fisted hands:  "GET OVER HERE AND I'LL DECK YOU!" he challenged, and the mossy horned old bull slowed, and turned, and gave a long, loud MOOOOOOOOH! and came at him again, slower this time --

Jacob breathed deep, eyes locked on the bull, wait for it, wait for it, not yet, not ...

... the bull was slowing now ...

... Annette raised her head, her finger coming out of the trigger guard ...

Jacob reached a hand out and rubbed the bull's ear, and the bull set his head flat on Jacob's waist and rumbled happily.

 

"I used to vault him," Joseph said softly, his eyes distant.  "I remembered my aunt Sarah, the schoolteacher, discussing Grecian vases with pictures on 'em.  She said young men would practice for war by catching a bull's horns coming in and somersaulting over their backs."

"And you did."

"Yes, sir."  Again that quick, boyish grin.  "My Pa saw it and he didn't believe it, and Boocaffie come at him one day like he was playin' with me and Pa said if he shot that-there bull calf comin' in, why, 'twould break his little boy's heart, so he grabbed the bull by the horns and over he went too!"

The Captain laughed quietly, shaking his head.

"I don't think I'd want to try it," the older man admitted.

"Had I not been too young to know better," Joseph admitted, "I would never have tried it myself!"

The Captain stood, finished his coffee, extended his hand for Joseph's empty, then offered his hand.

"Thank you, son," he said quietly, his grip firm.  "I'm pleased to meet the grandson of a man my grandfather respected."

"Thank you, sir," Joseph replied:  both men saluted, and the Captain turned and paced off toward the command tent.

Joseph turned at a familiar hail:  one of his fellows raised a beckoning hand, and Joseph trotted over to him.

"Get your supper and let's get some sleep," he said.  "We're for patrol in the morning, that new Lieutenant thinks he's God's gift to catching the Kaiser."

 

Jacob Keller rubbed the longhorn's ears, patted its neck:  the bull grunted with pleasure, closing its eyes at the welcome ministrations.

"Old fellow, where'd you come from?"  Jacob murmured.  "I wish Joseph were here to see you!"

And half a world away, Joseph Keller looked at the French countryside with pale eyes and remembered how his long horned Boocaffie would grunt and close his eyes as he rubbed its ears.

"I wish I could see you again," he whispered, then shook his head and turned his steps toward the mess tent.

 

 

 

 

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257. THE WIDOW FRUITFUL

 

"You're moving better."

Linn stopped, struck a body builder's pose with great exaggeration, throwing his head in profile one way, then turning to give the opposite profile:  "Foine figure of a man!" he declared loudly, in an absolutely terrible Irish accent, to his wife's laughing amusement.

He looked at her and grinned that crooked, boyish grin she loved so well.

"Specially for you, Sweet Pea!" he added, then nodded:  "I am getting better, but that's kind of dangerous. It would be too easy to over do it and I don't want to bust a gut!"

"Please don't," Shelly said, suddenly serious.  "I like your ... performance."

She turned rather red at this admission and looked away, then peeked back:  Linn was strutting across the living room, waving an imaginary hat, using a broom as a Fred Astaire cane, looking so absolutely ridiculous that she forgot her Freudean slip and laughed again.

"What can I say," Linn said, throwing his arms wide, "I'm a commodion!"

"You're a what now?"

He grounded the broom handle, raised an eyebrow, tapped the ash from an imaginary cigar:  "Why, sweethaht, I'm so full of it I need flushed!"

Shelly shook her head, sighed.  

"I can see why they keep you around at work.  Comic relief!"

"Hey, as long as it keeps me in a paycheck!  If it works, it works!"  He parked the broom, came across to his wife, sat down -- he still sat kind of carefully, and Shelly could only imagine the particular discomforts he still felt.

He hunched over, elbows on his knees, took her hands in his.

"How's Little Pale Eyes today?" he said gently, and Shelly smiled a little, for her husband's eyes were wide, and soft, and a light blue:  his defenses were down, his walls weren't up, something few people saw, and that only rarely.

She laid a hand on her still-flat belly.  "So far, just fine.  No morning sickness, he's too small to move yet.  I'll let you know when the Quickening is upon me."

Linn nodded, reached up with one hand, caressed her cheek, his eyes growing serious.

"I was scared," he whispered.

She swallowed, nodded.  "I was, too."

"I'd like my universe to have you in it for a long time to come."

"Why?  So I can bear children?"
"That's part of my plan.  I want to raise children and horses."

"How many?"

"Oh, a dozen at least."

Shelly's eyes went wide and she sat back, her mouth dropping open.

"A DOZEN?  CHILDREN?"

Linn blinked, leaned back:  "Horses, darlin'!"

"A DOZEN CHILDREN!"  Shelly continued, riding her indignation like a cresting wave:  "WHAT DO I LOOK LIKE, THE WIDOW FRUITFUL?" -- and then she realized her husband had indeed made reply to her first question, and that he was looking at her with a distressed expression, and that she'd charged forward, riding the momentum of her initial exclamation, and she had the sudden feeling that both her feet now resided between her pearly whites.

They leaned back toward one another:  elbows settled on knees again, hands gripped once more, and husband and wife regarded each other a little uncertainly.

"We'll get through this," Linn whispered.  "Your leg and my ... guts.  Doc wants to run some more tests to make sure I'm not herniated.  If I am, I want to get repaired while I have good insurance."

"Repaired?"  He saw amusement in his wife's eyes.  "Like you're a lawn mower?"

Linn laughed.  "You're the one who told me you interned in surgery one time, and the orthopod used stainless steel carpenter's tools to install a new hip!"

"Oh, right," Shelly sighed, then she looked up again.

"A dozen children," she sighed, laid a hand on her belly again.  "It's a good thing we're started already!"

 

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Posted (edited)

258. MAN DOWN

Old Pale Eyes was, in the Western lexicon, a bad man.

He was second Sheriff of Firelands County.

He'd been a captain of Cavalry, and later a brevet-Colonel, which is to say, he was given rank instead of more pay, there at the end of that damned War.

He'd kept his jurisdiction safe from rustlers, reavers, thieves, bank robbers, cads, bounders, blaggards, crooked bankers, a crooked flesh dealing saloon keeper; he'd ridden out after wanted men, and brought them in -- in irons, or draped over their saddles.

The Sheriff was, in the common language, a bad man -- that is, a bad man to tangle with.

He and his pale eyed son, every Sunday afternoon, would practice their marksmanship in the corral on the lower end of town, hitting hand tossed tin cans, then small rocks, then coins spinning into the air:  little boys made a minor industry out of racing for the bullet-mangled coins, cheerfully donated by onlookers, and bringing them back -- sometimes encouraging a bidding war to turn over their prize to whomever wished to cross their palm.

The Sheriff, in his time, had inherited the ill effects of shot, shell, knife, fist, club and other implements of unpleasant persuasion, and in his time had given better than he'd gotten: his barehand skills were known, and discussed, and his son's skills were equal to his own, and Firelands became a place that evil men avoided -- simply because Old Pale Eyes was, in the Western lexicon, a bad man... a very bad man to tangle with.

It was rare he was taken by surprise.

There were attempts at ambush; one such, not far from town, triggered a wartime insanity, in which he charged the ambusher at the top of his lungs, his old Cavalry saber in hand:  his charge, his screams, so unnerved the ambusher that the bush whacker did what green troops the world over do when faced with a hardened enemy's charge:  he dropped his weapon and ran like a scared little girl.

It did not help a bit.

The Sheriff swung, hard, as he'd practiced many times:  he came out of the saddle, seized up the detached head by its hair, he danced a mad war-dance, bloodied blade in one hand, blood dripping head swinging from his white-knuckled grip by its hair -- then he stopped, his eyes wide and insane, and grinned and giggled and lowered the gore-streaked steel and pointed its tip at the bushwhacker's cowering partner and said, "You."

"Me?" 

"CATCH!"

The head sailed through the air, hit the companion in the chest;  he caught it, clumsily, whimpering as he realized his hands were now wet with his partner's blood --

"LET IT BE KNOWN," the Sheriff declared, one boot up on a rock, blade thrust upward dramatically, "LET IT BE KNOWN THAT I DO NOT TOLERATE A COWARD!" --he walked over to the body, wiped the blade on dirty shirtfront linen, wiped it again:  he lifted the blade, giggled like a lunatick, then turned, teeth bared -- on any other man, it would be a grin, but with flesh drawn tight over his cheek-bones, with all the color drained from his visage, with his teeth chattering slowly together, and then his voice --

"Ears," he hissed, and giggled again.  "Eeears.  I like EARS!" -- he raised the blade, made as if to charge --

A scream, the sound of running feet:  a quirt seared across a horse's haunches, a bad man's partner galloped away as fast as he could lash his mount, and the Sheriff waited until the bushwhacker's companion was well gone before he sheathed steel and looked back at the body.

He sighed.

"Might as well go through his warbag," he muttered.

 

The Sheriff's wife Esther knew her husband was not terribly happy.

He'd come home -- he was very quiet -- he kissed her as he always did, and greeted their children, but he'd asked the maid, with a gentle voice, if she might prepare the bath, as he wished to scrub the day off his hide.

It was not an ordinary thing for a man to have a bath on anything but a Saturday, and so both maid and matron knew the day was difficult:  Linn did indeed scrub the day off his hide, along with a good percentage of his skin:  he emerged from the tub showing the effects of the long handled scrub brush, applied to as much of his skin surface as he'd been able to arrange.

He dried; he dressed; he ate:  supper was subdued, the children having been hushed by their Mama: conversation was, uncharacteristically, almost nonexistent.

Linn ate slowly, allowing everyone else to eat their fill, knowing that when he rose, it would signal the end of the meal, and by protocol, everyone else would stop eating -- and he remembered what it was to be young, a walking appetite on two hollow legs, and so he dawdled over his own, until everyone else was full.

He rose, thanked the maid courteously for an excellent meal:  he paced slowly away from the table, entered his study, then turned.

A wife's concerned eyes and several pairs of little eyes were following him.

"I do not wish to be bothered," he said seriously, but he left the study door open.

He knew children were curious creatures:  his study door was normally closed, but to make a stern pronouncement, and then leave the door open, was unusual.

One, then another of the children drifted to the doorway, peeked in:  one, then another went inside, and there was shortly heard the sound of childish giggles, and the sound of an older man, amused.

Esther and the maid peeked in, to see the Sheriff, on his back on the floor, their youngest in his hands, pushing him up, toward the ceiling, as if he were a diapered exercise weight -- quickly, up, then quickly down and back up, as the happy lad giggled, and the other children wallowed and rolled over top of their supine Papa.

Esther looked at the maid and smiled, and withdrew, and drew the door shut behind her.

Old Pale Eyes may have had trouble that day, but he knew how to discharge the stresses of the day.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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259. THE ITALIAN'S WISDOM

 

An attractive young woman looked slowly, deliberately at the selection.

She paced over to the gunrack, removed a hammerless shotgun:  she broke it open, looked into the chambers, closed the action carefully, opened it again:  she turned it one way, then the other, examining the maker's stamps on the lock plates, the proofs on the barrel.

Men looked at her, for men are attracted to the sight of a pretty girl: they also stared openly, for few women it was, that would walk into what was mostly a men's emporium, and handle a shotgun as if she knew what she was doing.

She nodded, once, turned, thrust it into the hands of the approaching salesman.

"I'll take that one," she said, "and I need to see your selection of bulldog .44s."

"I, uh," the salesman said, half surprised and half offended:  women didn't usually go around giving orders to men, but this one not only looked like she was well-to-do, she had the self-assured air of a woman who just might bend those Damascus barrels over a man's head if he were to offend.

She bent a little, looking through the scratched glass countertop:  frowning, she shook her head, stepped back, squatted:  her chin lifted a fraction, and thrust forward, and she looked up, pointed.

"That one.  The Webley.  It looks new."

"Yes ma'am, it is, brand new."

"Have you another?"

"I have two others."

"I'll take all three, and a case of ammuntion, please."

"A case, ma'am?"

"Did I stutter?" she asked pleasantly, smiling with all but her eyes, and when he saw her eyes, something cold slid down the middle of his spine and settled like liquid mercury in his belly.

"A case.  Yes, ma'am."  He disappeared, came back with a wooden box, obviously heavy.  "Have you a carriage, ma'am?"

"I have, the brougham out front."  She delicately, daintily plucked a leather poke from her embroidered purse; she dropped the sack too obviously on the countertop -- her move was intentional -- it told the salesman she was paying cash, and she was paying now, and that she would not be trifled with.

"Sharpen your pencil and give me a good price," she said, "for I have a liking for the better things in life" -- her smile was thin as a Democrat dollar -- "and I like being a repeate customer."

"Yes, ma'am."  A pencil scratched on a pad as she turned, assessing more of his stock.

She thrust out her chin.  "That rifle, the '76 model.  What is the caliber?"

"A .40-60, ma'am."

"I'll take it as well, and a case of ammunition for it."

"Yes, ma'am.  And will you need anything for the shotgun, ma'am?"

"I will. Heavy shot.  These are for the Firelands court system and its agents."

"Yes, ma'am."

The shop's proprietor laid a fatherly hand on his younger partner's shoulder as the woman glided out their front door, disappeared down the boardwalk, descending the steps to street level as if she were the Queen, stepping down to greet her troops.

"You made a good sale, son," the older man said approvingly.

He felt the younger man shiver a little.

"Thank you, sir," he replied, "but ... did you see her eyes?"

"I saw the color of her coin, and that was enough for me."  He patted the other's shoulder in an understanding manner.  "Always look at the color of their money, son.  Don't fall for a pretty girl's looks."

"That's not what I mean, sir," the younger man protested, but by then the proprietor was already turned away and looking about the order sheet.

The younger man swallowed, staring out the window, remembering how the woman turned, and looked directly at him, and he felt like he'd just been speared to the back wall with a giant straightpin.

He'd never before seen anyone with ice-pale eyes, and he was willing to swear his life's blood was chilled by her very gaze.

 

Two weeks later, Sarah Lynne McKenna returned to the big city, to another shop, where a craftsman lived, and worked:  she'd been to a leatherworker's shop earlier, and she smiled inwardly as she remembered her first visit, right after purchasing the bulldog .44s.

Both men were known to her Papa, and her brother; she'd identified herself as an Agent of the Firelands District Court, and then she spelled out her needs, with description, and sketches; she'd left two of the three blocky, businesslike pistols with him, for proper fitting, she'd stripped down to her frillies and corset and insisted on precise measurement and fitting: she'd returned twice, while her orders were in process, to guarantee they would be exactly as she specified, and custom fitted, as she demanded:  now, now she was returned, and after the final fitting, she paid the man -- still in her corset and frillies -- she dressed, quickly, with absolutely no self-consciousness:  she had ordered a full length mirror delivered to his shop, which he offered to buy, but she insisted on gifting it to him:  now she turned one way, turned the other, examining her reflection.

Satisfied, she turned to the man, showed him how her fashionable gown just happened to have hidden accesses that would allow her to draw the blunt British revolvers, easily, quickly:  she paid the man well, thanking him with specie as well as her words.

He mentioned the experience to a pale eyed lawman who'd come to prefer this man's work for his gunbelts, his holsters, his saddles:  Old Pale Eyes nodded and affirmed that yes, he knew the young lady in question; yes, she was indeed an Agent of the Court, and an effective one, and yes, he himself had recommended the Webley revolvers, as they were peculiarly suited to her needs.

 

Once Sarah Lynne McKenna purchased her leathergoods, she went on to the other craftsman, a man she'd known for some years now, acquainted through the good offices of her pale eyed Papa, a gunsmith of considerable skill:  he'd taken that hammerless twelve-bore and cut it not far beyond the fore-end, he'd cut the stock off to make a pistol grip; he'd smoothed and sanded, rounded and checkered, he'd gone through the lock-works and made sure all was as it should be:  satisfied, he'd crowned the barrels, soldered shut the hole in the end of the rib, refinished the bright metalwork.

They'd talked, quietly, when she picked it up: she indicated her satisfaction, she paid the man, and she'd taken the steam train home that evening, the cut-down street howitzer concealed in a thigh sheath, beneath her fashionably flared skirt.

About a month later, Agent of the Court S. L. McKenna was carried into the heart of a criminal enterprise in what was supposed to be a locked chest -- the chest was supposed to contain a beaten, bound, gagged, blindfolded and very helpless female -- but when the lid SLAMMED open, and the female was neither bound, gagged, blindfolded, nor in the least bit helpless, came up with a very abbreviated twelve-bore, and brought David's stones to the Philistines -- between two charges of swan shot, and then laying about with a brace of .44 revolving pistols, the Black Agent tore the living heart out of Denver's criminal enterprise.

But that's a story you've heard before.

 

Two weeks after the lid to the unlocked chest flew open and Death itself roared out of its wooden confines, a Denver detective was looking over the gunshop's selection.

He lifted a hammerless twelve-bore from the rack, broke it open.

"A young woman was in here not long ago," the salesman said thoughtfully, "and bought a gun just like that."

"Really?"  the detective asked, closing the action carefully and shouldering the Damascus barrel bird gun.

"I would never have thought a woman to come in and buy a shotgun and a few pistols."  He frowned.  "I would have thought she'd have chosen something ... smaller."

The detective grinned, handed the shotgun to the salesman.  "I'll take it."  He raised an eyebrow.  "Good looking woman?"

The salesman nodded uncertainly.

"Well, you know women," the detective shrugged.  "As far as what she buys, it's like my old Italian grandfather told me:  "You pays-a you money and takes-a you choice."

 

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260. SIGNALS

 

Old Pale Eyes lived in a time when a man did not smile in public.

A smile was seen as a sign of weakness; no man wished to be seen as weak -- even eyeglasses, unless you were really good with your fists, were often considered a sign of weakness, and the wearer, subjected to ridicule and derision -- even a future President of the United States was obliged to apply the Art of Knuckle Education to a fellow who called him Four Eyes.

After this past champion of the Harvard Boxing Club bested his opponent, he was henceforth known as "Mister Four Eyes," and no further derision was expressed.

But our subject is not the wearing of eyeglasses, nor of a smile.

You see, a man's feelings were his own; men took care of their women, and women were expected to let their men take care of them:  this being said, the public displays of affection seen in centuries that followed, would have been shocking indeed.

There were other signals employed.

In the old South, ladies employed an etiquette of the fan, using the genteel air mover to signal aye, nay or go to hell; between a married couple, women were known to give a husband, or a wayward child, The Look -- and the wise individual would modify their behavior accordingly, or suffer the Wrath of She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Jacob Keller, firstborn son of Old Pale Eyes, observed such signals as he grew: the young see far more than their elders realize, and Jacob, after his own marriage, employed such a signal as he saw being employed by his father.

Sheriff Linn Keller was a man of deep feelings; he did not often display them in public, but when he did, the cause was more than sufficient:  he was a man who spoke in a quiet voice, generally a gentle voice, for he was a man who did not have to raise his voice.

There were dead men enough to attest to his abilities in matters violent, to dispute that he had no need in most cases, to raise his voice.

When in public, the pale eyed old lawman might be seen resting his hands briefly on his wife's shoulders, or sometimes for several moments.

None could see, but his wife Esther could feel:  his hands were warm, they were strong, he gave the very best shoulder and neck and back massages, owing to a combination of strength, and an almost contradictory, gentleness of touch:  when he stood behind his wife in public, he might be seen to place his hands on her shoulders, and that was a signal, for he would squeeze gently with his hands, and squeeze inward, just a little, and in this wise he would convey without words his affection for his life's mate.

Jacob, as well, might be seen, standing behind his beloved Annette:  Jacob, as well, rested his hands on her shoulders, and gripped gently, squeezed his hands together, enough to be felt, and this was his signal as well that he was most infatuated with his beautiful bride.

Another pale eyed lawman observed his stout, blunt-fingered father, standing behind his mother as she worked at her desk, long into the night sometimes: his hands rested gently, carefully on her shoulders, though it was less a grip and a squeeze, than a full-on shoulder massage, which resulted in Sheriff Willamina Keller closing her eyes and purring with contentment.

So it was that Linn Keller would stand behind his own beautiful bride, and grip her shoulders: he was fond of doing this in public, for it was their signal as well.

It was a way of saying "I love you" without uttering the words for the public world to hear.

Linn was not averse to saying the words.

He still sent his wife flowers, on random moments and for no particular reason, just as he sent his mother flowers -- "A son never needs a reason to give his Mama flowers," he explained one time -- but when he did send flowers, he made sure they were received in a public place, and he'd told a younger man, "Sending her flowers at home is good, but if you really want to score the brownie points, send 'em to her in a public place. Work, school, someplace where it'll be seen and noticed. The other women will fur up and hiss like cats --  'Eew! I hate you! My (boyfriend, husband) never does that for ME!' -- and it will please your girl to no end."

And so Linn stood behind his wife, in their kitchen: he pressed his body into hers, his hand on her shoulders, squeezing them a little as he pressed inward, and he laid his cheek behind her ear and whispered, "Mrs. Keller, you are still a fine looking woman," and Shelly leaned her head back a little and hummed with pleasure before answering, "Mr. Keller, you are a rake and a cad and if I did not have this brace on my leg I would treat you to some improper behavior."

Jacob turned his head and kissed his wife under the earlobe, and she felt his long, deep breath.

"As I wish neither of us further injury," he whispered, his curled mustache tickling her earlobe, "would the mother of my child want a banana split?"

"I would commit insecticide for a banana split," Shelly groaned.

"Insecticide?"  Linn murmured, and she felt the laughter in his belly, still pressed against her back.

"It's not as big a commitment as homicide," she explained, "and much less work."

"I'll get my boots on, then," he whispered.  "Anything special you'd like on it?"

"Everything," Shelly groaned, "and plenty of it!"

"Back in a flash," Linn declared, "but not flashin'!"

Shelly blinked with feigned disappointment as her husband headed for the stairs.

"No flashin'?" she asked in a hurt voice.  "And after I spent good money on a trench coat for you to wear!"

Linn stopped, turned, came back to his wife, rested his fingertips on her knuckles.

She was standing, most of her weight on crutches and one good leg, her other leg drawn up and toe-touching.

"My father," he said seriously, the merriment in his eyes putting the lie to his words, "went in hospital for surgery. While he was in there, he took a teddy bear I'd given him and tied it to his belly with the belt from his robe, then he put on his robe and waited.  When a nurse came in, he said 'Wanta see me bear?" -- and whipped open the robe.

"Instead of standing there buck naked, he wore his bright white boxers with the pink valentine hearts and that bear belted to his belly."

"I'll keep that one in mind," Shelly laughed.

"It'll be my signal that I'm either half lit, or feeling silly."

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261.  CONFIDENCE

 

A meek-looking young woman settled uncomfortably into the chair the dignified old jurist offered: she was the very image of uncertainty, restlessly arranging her skirts, looking away, looking a little frightened: her gown was quite proper, as was the expected for a young lady of the era, but it was not of ... well, not of any real quality, and had the look of someone who almost knew how to sew a proper ladies' gown of the era.

The young lady wore tinted spectacles, as if suffering with weak eyes; she removed the wire rimmed, round lensed glasses, folded them, placed them delicately in a little Japanned case, slid it into her cloth purse, dabbed at her eyes with a plain bedsheet kerchief.

Her demeanor was so convincing, her appearance so authentic, that it was not until Judge Donald Hostetler was settled behind his desk, not until he leaned his forearms against the edge of his desk, blunt and tobacco-stained fingers laced together over the green desk blotter, not until the young lady took a deep, decisive breath, straightened her spine, squared her shoulders and then looked very directly at him ... well, not until that moment did His Honor the Judge realize that the hesitant, soft-voiced young woman who requested a private audience, was actually his very own Black Agent.

Sarah's pale eyes smiled as the Judge pounded a palm in appreciation against his desk blotter:  "By the Lord Harry!" he declared happily, "you have done it, again!"

Sarah raised her eyebrows and innocently inquired, "I've done what, Your Honor?" and the Judge laughed and happily punished his desk blotter once more.

"My dear," he laughed, "I know you better than anyone, and for you to disguise yourself so very effectively -- and so simply!"  He nodded approvingly, smiling through yellow-stained white whiskers, reached for a fresh Cuban from his apple-scented humidor.  "Tell me, did you find something useful?"

"Your Honor," Sarah said gently, "I am not in the habit of displaying my costume for the sake of mere display."

"And right you are!" the Judge applauded.  "Now tell me, what have you this fine and sunny morn?"

Sarah sighed, shook her head, looked up at the Judge, amusement in her pale eyes.

"You and my Papa," she said, shaking her head, "sound more like one another every day!"

"I shouldn't wonder," the Judge muttered, clipping the end off his hand-rolled stogie and dropping the severed twist into the goboon behind his desk:  "he is a well-read man, and I do enjoy his company!"

"I was able to discover the counterfeiter's hide," Sarah said simply, which stopped the cigar's curving trajectory toward the dignified jurist's yellowing teeth.

He shook the Lucifer match to death, dropped its smoking stem into the shining brass spitoon, stared.

"You what?"

"The counterfeiter the Pinks were asking about yesterday."  Sarah blinked innocently.  

"Yes, yes, I remember, go on!"

"He was on the train, as I suspected.  The Pinks thought he might be in a wagon, freighting his plates overland.  I didn't think he'd be that ... paranoid."

"Really?"  The Judge leaned forward, cupping one hand in the other, cigar jutting out at an aggressive angle, unlit.

"I suspected the man to be intelligent, and being intelligent, he would know how to hide something in plain sight."

"Plain sight."

"He was known to be transporting amalgam, parts for his press, the plates."  She looked very directly at the Judge.  "You did know he was pressing coins as well as paper currency."

"No," His Honor admitted.

"Neither did the Pinkertons."

"But you did."

"I listen," she shrugged.  "Or, rather, a painted doxy of a dancing girl listened.  Sometimes a man wants the company of a pretty girl who will listen -- who will really listen to him -- and so I hung onto his every word as if it were the most fascinating thing I'd ever heard!"

His Honor nodded:  he himself had received that same attention from his Black Agent, from that pretty young woman who could be as lovely as an angel one moment, as deadly as the Reaper himself the next:  he'd seen Sarah Lynne McKenna, his very own Agent S.L. McKenna as anything from a schoolgirl, a schoolteacher, a saloon-girl, a dancing girl, he'd seen her in the silks of an Arab belly dancer, the lobstertail gown of a flamencera:  he'd seen her in black britches and boots and looking like an active little man, and he'd seen her, once, quite by accident, as naked and as shockingly beautiful as Aphrodite, rising from the waves, when he happened to ride up a mountain trail and past a particular deepwater pool.

He blinked; Thought was a most swift runner, and he turned his thoughts back to the subject at hand.

"So you gulled him in the guise of a saloon doxy."

"A doxy with secrets and a feathered mask," Sarah smiled.  "I told him I was actually a happily married woman who wanted to feel young again, if only for a night, and so I was disporting myself most shamelessly, and he laughed -- I don't think he believed me, but it gave him the idea that we both had secrets.

"I told him of an unhappy marriage, and a neglectful husband who still loved me, at least a little, and that this was actually not the first time I'd done this -- I had never strayed from the marital bed, but it was exciting to see men look at me as if I were meat on their plate, and with drink and with talk, he relaxed, and then he showed me a bill.  Here it is."

She handed him a new-looking greenback.

"Phony as a card sharper but surprisingly good quality.  He told me he could make a thousand of these and nobody would be able to tell them from the real thing."

The Judge's eyebrow raised:  to his eye, it looked quite genuine.

"I'm afraid I'm poorer by a like amount," Sarah admitted.  "I switched a real bill for this fake, but all in a good cause."  She smiled.  "The next day I sat beside him on the train -- or rather, he sat beside me, and we talked again, and I asked if he was safe, that a man of his skills had to have enemies, and he took me deeper into his confidence."

"Oh?"

Sarah reached into her bodice, withdrew a flat packet of waxed linen:  she unfolded a flap, withdrew three folded half-sheets, covered with her precise script.

"If you give this -- and that phony bill -- to the Pinkertons, I'm quite sure they'll be able to lay hands on that counterfeit man."

"My dear," His Honor murmured, "you have outdone yourself!"

"All with a mask and dark glasses," she laughed.  "Having such pale eyes is less than convenient at times!"  She rose, dropped a quick curtsy, withdrew her glasses-case from her slightly frayed purse:  hooking the earpieces behind her ears, she turned.

His Honor the Judge rose when she did, rose out of long habit: he waited until she was without his inner door before he looked at the notes, nodded with satisfaction.

He reached up, gripped a small weight, pulled:  in another room, a bell rang, and a boy scampered into the Judge's chamber a moment later.

His Honor the Judge handed the lad a pencil-written note, folded over:  "Take this to the Silver Jewel. Ask Mr. Baxter to point out the clockmaker and his brother, then give them this."

"Yes, sir," the lad grinned, running to, through, and beyond the inner door.

His Honor the Judge leaned back, staring at the closed portal.

"That," he said to the empty room, "is the reason I hired you."

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
"Thought", not "though" ... sorry, phat phingers ...
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262. YOU DIDN'T TELL ME

Shelly laid a hand on her husband's chest, jerked it away.

"You're hot," she whispered.

"I do my best," he whispered back.

"Linn Keller," Shelly muttered, struggling out of bed, "I swear, if you've --"

She bit her words off as her fingers closed around empty air, as her crutches hit the bedroom floor with a loud, metallic clatter.

Linn threw back the covers, hissed between clenched teeth as he swung his legs out, stood.

"I'll get 'em," he said, his voice husky, and Shelly stuck her healing leg out, squatted with the other -- she and the other cheerleaders used to practice one-leg squats, for which she was now most profoundly grateful -- she grabbed one of the crutches as if seizing an enemy, threw it up on the bed; the other, its broad rubber tip driven into the floor, allowed her to haul herself upright.

Linn was working his way around the bed, moving more by determination than aught else:  Shelly grabbed his upper arms, turned him -- "Sit!" she commanded, and he didn't so much sit, as collapse, on her side of the bed.

He looked up at her and said "Woof," and she shook her fist under his nose.

"Don't you move," she snarled, "I'll get the car started --"

"I need to get dressed."

"No you don't."

"I can't go to ER in my undershorts."

Shelly managed to wallow into a bathrobe, shoved her feet into her house slippers:  "Damn you, Linn Keller," she raged, "if John Wesley Hardin can gunfight wearing a hat and a sour expression, you can damn well go to ER in your boxer briefs!"

She looked down at the bandages on his thighs, at the discoloration soaking through them.

"I thought that would happen," she muttered.  "Now let's get you downstairs."

 

"911, what is your emergency?"

"Sharon, this is Shelly, Linn's legs are infected and he's fevered out of his head.  He just slid downstairs on his backside laughing like a lunatick and he's too weak to get up, I can't get him off the floor, I was going to bring him in to ER and if I didn't love him I'd beat him to death with a large heavy object" -- Sharon heard her distraught caller, almost in tears, pause for a ragged breath, then conclude, "like a Buick!"

"The cavalry is on its way, hon," Sharon soothed, pressing the button that set off the howler in the firehouse:  "Unlock the front door and sit down and take a deep breath, help is on the way.  Is he breathing?"

"IS HE BREATHING???"  Shelly raged, and Sharon could just see the distraught young woman's face in her imagination, red with distress and tears just starting to spill -- "BREATHING?  DAMN HIM, HE'S CRACKING JOKES!"

"Like father, like son," Sharon muttered, "when Richard had kidney stones he could have been putting on a comedy routine.  When the man was in pain he used humor as his defense!"

 

Linn looked up at a familiar face, at a black, tightly curled handlebar mustache and a concerned expression above:  strong and masculine hands slid under him, hoisted him onto the yellow power cot.

He felt his head raised, he looked around at the Irish Brigade and managed a lopsided grin.

"Ain't this a hell of a way for friends and neighbors to get together," he said faintly, just before his eyes rolled up in his head and his head lolled to the side.

"Lower him down halfway," Shelly said briskly, crutching quickly back to her husband.  "Here.  Tepid towel.  Lay it on any unburned skin surface."

"Good thinking," he father murmured.  "What happened?"

Shelly pulled aside the blanket, showed the suppuration shadowing through his bandaging.

"He's infected.  Spiked a fever."

Her father swore.

"Flashback," Marco declared, withdrawing the needle from the IV catheter and plugging in the air-bled tubing:  he secured the site and threw a loop in the tubing, taped it down, adjusted the rate.

"How's the airway?"

"As long as I keep his head upright, patent."

"Oxygen, three, cann."

The cannula's prongs were introduced into the man's nostrils, the green regulator knob turned until the needle pointed to the painted 3 on the dial, the cot was raised:  serious faced men rolled the cot out to the rig, loaded it with a whine of hydraulics, headed for their ER.

"Saddles darlin', do you want to get dressed?"

Shelly glared at her father.  "I can go like this!"  she snapped.

"Darlin'," he said gently, and Shelly threw herself into her father's shirt front, dropping her crutches and seizing her big strong Daddy around the middle.

"I'll be along in private vehicle," the Captain said into his shoulder mic, and he heard the "Roger" reply from the same mike:  he carried his little girl upstairs, crutches threaded over his arm, and the two followed in Shelly's brand new car.

She sat hollow eyed and silent in the passenger seat.

"I always did like driving a new car," her father said finally, "though this isn't how I'd imagined it would be."

"Linn has driven it more than I have," Shelly admitted faintly.  "He said I can sit over here and gawk."

Her father laughed.  "It's a fine mornin' for sightseein', m'dear!" he declared, and Shelly turned her head, looked toward the sunrise, where it looked like a mouthful of fire with a truly glorious sunrise behind the jagged mountain horizon.

"A fine morning," she whispered, then looked ahead, staring sightlessly through the windshield.

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