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263.  AND IN THE FOG, THE EYES

 

"I need to see him," Shelly said quietly, her voice tight.  

"I'll see what I can do."

"Thank you."

Shelly eased herself down into a molded plastic chair, a little surprised to feel herself shaking.

She'd just eased her full weight down on the seat when she heard a door open.

"Doctor, there's a --" the receptionist said uncertainly, her voice cutting off abruptly as the lean physician raised a hand.

He walked quickly over to Shelly, squatted in front of her, tilting his head to look at her healing leg.  "What happened?"

She extended her leg, exposing the purpling incision line -- Dr. John Greenlees laid gentle fingers on the incision line, closed his eyes, seeing with his fingers:  he pressed, gripped, twisted ever so slightly, looked at his patient, his expression as perpetually serious as always was.

You could give him a thousand dollars, Shelly thought, and he'd look just as concerned as if he'd been handed a ticking bomb.

"Hurt?"

"No.  No, I'm fine."

"You're a poor liar."

"It's Linn."

"Ah."  He looked down at his handiwork, nodded. "I understand he's been admitted."

Shelly nodded, leaned forward.  "How soon before I can bear full weight?"

"A little impatient, are we?"  Doc asked, his voice gentle, taking the sting out of the words.

"I have to be healed," she whispered.  "He ... I woke up and he was burning with fever, and I'm afraid he's going to lose more muscle tissue than he can afford and one of us has to be healthy and I'm scared."

Dr. John Greenlees rose, dropped heavily into the seat next to hers.

"Sounds like you have every right to be scared."  

She turned her head, shot him a look.

"Not what you expected to hear?" Dr. Greenlees deadpanned.  "You wanted me to tell you about the Olympic runner who was badly burned as a child and ran as therapy, rebuilt his legs with sheer will and determination."

"Something like that."

He patted her hand, nodding.  

"I won't lie to a fellow medical professional."

"Thank you."

"Stand up."

Shelly reached for her crutches.

"No.  I said stand."  He rose, swung around in front of her, took both her hands.

"Stand.  Now.  Equal weight, both legs."

She rose, most of her weight on her good leg, then eased her weight onto her healing limb.

"Just stand for a moment, you haven't borne weight for some time.  It'll probably be painful."

Shelly eased her feet a little further apart, willing herself to not hurt.

It didn't work.

"Okay.  Now sit down."

Dr. Greenlees rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"We need to start putting weight on your leg again.  Not much and not frequently, but we need to stress the healing osteoblasts."

 

Linn floated a little, smiling.

He was riding his Apple-horse, riding from mountaintop to mountaintop as smoothly as riding a stick of butter across a glass plain.

A very big stick of butter.

With fur.

Somewhere, very distant, he felt a tug at his left leg, some pressure, a few bright sparkles of almost-pain, then he fell off the stick of butter and floated, down, down, like milkweed floating down a cliff face.

Something looked at him through the fog that surrounded him, something with a black nose and yellow eyes, something very ancient, something very, very wise.

Linn blinked.

I'm listening, he thought, his whisper echoing in the fog.

Follow me.

Linn walked toward the eyes.

 

 

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264. LET ME DRIVE

 

His breathing was fast, his hands clenched the steering wheel, he stomped on the brake pedal.

He felt it fall slowly to the floor.

He reared back his left boot, stomped the emergency brake, hit it hard enough to drive it through the floorboards and it bent like it was made of putty.

I have to do something even if it's wrong, he thought, cranked the wheel left, scraping the sides of the box truck against the brick walls on either side of the narrow, brick-paved alley, trying desperately to slow down, slow down, slow down, unable to keep from ramming anyone who came out of any intersection ahead of him --

The nurse looked at him, alarmed, as he stomped the footboard of the bed:  his hands were fisted, sweat stood out on his face:  he reached up, grabbed for something, batting at the empty air like he was searching desperately for something --

Downshift, I need to downshift, he thought, his hand passing through the shifter as through a shadow --

His hand closed around his Mama's, he seized her in a death grip, shook her arm back and forth.

"Linn," she said, "what's going on?"

"No brakes," Linn gasped, and Willamina gripped his hand with both hers.

"I'll drive," she said firmly, and Linn opened fever-bright eyes, reached over the chromed siderails, seized his mother around the waist and hauled her easily up, and over, and down beside him:  Willamina landed heavily, bounced, and Linn collapsed, shivering.

"Take it," he gasped, and relaxed.

Willamina raised a finger, an eyebrow, looked at the nurse:  Wait, she said without words, and the nurse nodded.

 

Linn looked around, then turned: his arms were up, ready to punch, to block, to grapple: he turned easily, on the balls of his feet, listening, smelling --

Welcome.

He smelled sulfur, felt heat, lowered his hand to his belt --

Nothing.

He felt his mustache rub his lip as he smiled, and the smile was not pleasant.

He'd been to Hawaii, once in his young life, and he'd waded out into the shallows on the north coast of the Big Island, up to shirt pocket depth: he wore swim trunks, of course, and he grinned with delight as the waves came in, and picked him up, and set him down again.

Something long and dark came at him, fast:  he felt sandpaper rub his calf, and it was gone, and he turned, looking, and here it came again, a charcoal torpedo in the green waves --

Inventory.

Weapons?

He felt his mustache rub his lip as he smiled, and the smile was not pleasant.

He had one weapon, and this was the time to use it.

He drew his fist back to his ear, cocked it, prepared to drive every erg of energy in his very living soul through the thunderbolt of his good right arm, he intended to hit that shark hard enough to turn it inside out --

Wait.

Wait.

Wait.

NOW!!!!!

He drew power from the earth itself, focused it through the lens of his diaphragm, channeled it through his good right arm and through the sledgehammer at the end of his wrist --

His arm drove into the green ocean -- 

He came wading out of the waves, triumphantly bearing the empty plastic, charcoal grey, trash sack back to the beach.

 

Linn turned in the fog, feeling the dry sand underfoot warming:  the fog was reddening and thinning now, and the whisper again ...

Welcome.

The smell of sulfur was stronger now.

He turned, turned again, froze.

A figure sat on a rock the size of an easy chair, grinning at him: it was almost manlike, if a man had black, cracked hide, glowing red in the interstecies, if the man had fangs, if the man had three claws instead of hands.

"You came," he heard, a dry hiss in his mind.

"Why am I here?" Linn asked suspiciously.

"You are here to stay."
"I don't think so."

"Neither do I."

A woman's voice this time, a familiar voice, his mother's voice.

It wasn't his mother.

His mother did not have a hole in her breastbone you could stick three fingers in, and he'd never seen his mother wearing a ruffled mob cap and a dress that belonged in the American Revolution's era.

The woman eared the striker back on the Brown Bess musket.

"You remember me," she said -- a statement, not a question -- another voice, "And you remember me too."

This was a little girl's voice.

Linn lowered his cocked fist, glanced left, glanced again.

A little girl in a frock that didn't look too unfamiliar -- she was a pale little waif, she wore a flat straw hat, and she turned to look at him.

He blinked, looked at her, turned and looked at the woman with the flintlock musket.

They both had pale eyes.

He heard smoothed wood whisper on laminated horn, turned the other way, saw a black haired maiden wearing a brief tunic, her recurved bow at full draw, the arrow pointing very directly at the demon's heart.

"You remember me, too," she said quietly.

Her skin was tanned, her hair was ravens-wing black, but her eyes, like those of the waif and of the Colonial woman, were all ice pale.

"You remember me."

Linn looked at movement past the seated demon: a woman wearing a skin tight white something, a skinsuit with a six point star embossed over the left breast, and beside her, a pretty young woman in what he recognized as a McKenna gown, and they both had ice-pale eyes:  the woman in all white drew something from her belt, a weapon, from the way she handled it, and the young woman in the McKenna gown reached over her shoulder, brought out a watered-steel blade with a crossguard hilt.

The demon turned its featureless face toward Linn.

"You are mine," he heard, and it sounded like snake scales slithering across desert-hot rock.

He felt something smooth pressed into his hand:  he gripped it tightly, it was a smooth wooden shaft, and he felt his soul flow into the weapon, and his lips peeled back from his teeth again.

The pale eyed women screamed -- not a panicked shriek, but rather a battle-scream, the sound of warriors at the moment of contact --

Linn was running, the spear coming down level, the silver head shining star-bright in the red darkness --

He felt the consecrated silver spearpoint part the tough hide, grind between the ribs, he felt it penetrate the chest wall on the far side --

The demon convulsed, there was a scream like a steam-whistle being strangled --

 

Willamina lay her hand flat on Linn's sweat-damp chest, felt his heart hammering, listened to his sudden, deep intake of breath.

Linn's eyes snapped open, and they were no longer fevered eyes:  they were clear, and he turned his head, saw his Mama laying in the bed with him.

He raised his hand, slowly, pressed his palm down on the back of his Mama's knuckles.

He was breathing like he'd just run a mile in the high altitude.

"You were there?" he whispered, and his Mama smiled.

"Yes I was," she whispered back.  

Linn blinked, confused.

"How'd you get in bed with me?"

Willamina smiled gently.  "A mother knows when she's needed," she whispered back, "but if you will forgive me, I need to go dispose of some second hand coffee."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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265. DIVE, DIVE, ALL DIVE!

 

Shelly sat beside her husband's bed, holding his hand:  two IVs competed for attention, one, then the other of the IV pumps beeping petulantly, and ever time, when the nurse came in, she ended up checking the site, the tubing, the distal circulation; she pressed a penlight against his skin, illuminating the flesh for a little depth, looking for the telltale glow of an infiltration; finally, she glared at the pumps, muttering "There is no occlusion, now shut up!" -- at which point Shelly would offer her a crutch with which to beat the offending device.

Linn was asleep again, if you could call it that; his wishes that narcotic analgesics were a last resort were noted on his chart, and so he was not receiving the trickle of chemical somnolescence he would normally be given.

Shelly felt him shiver, felt his hand tighten, just a little, right before he released her hand and seized the siderail, grabbed it hard: his eyes were wide, his teeth bared, he was making a sound like an animal with its teeth locked in an enemy's throat.

Shelly laid her hand, cool and gentle, over his knuckles:  "I'm here," she whispered helplessly:  "Linn, let me help!"

He released the shining, chromed siderail; his hand fell, limp, his strength spent, or so it seemed:  he blinked, looked around, smiled a little.

"Good morning," he whispered.

"Are you okay?"  Shelly whispered back.

"Yeah," Linn replied.

"What happened?"

"Oh, you know," he said carelessly.  "Fighting monsters."

 

Chief Deputy JW Barrents knocked gently at his boss's door.

"In," he heard:  he turned the knob, stepped in, shut the portal behind him.

Willamina looked up.  "Speak your mind," she said bluntly, shoving her paperwork aside and giving her chief deputy her full attention.

"Your son," he said, "is attacked."

"I know."

"You were there."

"Several of me were there."

"He'll need somebody else."

"Who can we get?"

Barrents turned his head, looked at the prints behind their glass fronted frames.

"I think I know who to call on."

Willamina raised an eyebrow.

At one time she might ask skeptically if he was in the habit of raising the dead, but he was pure blood Navajo, and she'd been to places on Earth where white man's science ran into local magic and came out in second place -- and she herself had been to a red underworld where demons tried to harvest human souls.

"Why Linn, and why now?"

"They could not get to his wife unless they take him first."

"And why his wife?"

"She carries a child with pale eyes."

Willamina frowned.  "She's just a link in the chain."

"She carries a very important link."

"I see."

"One of your selves" -- he took a few slow, measured steps, reached up, tapped a gentle fingernail on a glass pane -- "Her."

Willamina looked at the woman who could be her twin.

"She ... was critical enough that they tried to strip her soul when she was a child."

"I remember her story."

"They tore half her soul away and took it to their realm. She went back to reclaim it but the struggle was ... difficult."

"It was the fight of her life."

"She nearly died."

"I know."

"She made her return to establish her victory."

"She what?"  Willamina blinked.  "She didn't just snatch the other half of her eternal soul and get out of Dodge?"

Barrents shook his head, took a long breath -- a planned, measured breath, or so Willamina gathered -- "No.  No, she had to go back and whip 'em good, on her terms, and so completely that they would never come after her again."

'She did that by herself."

"No.  Not by herself."  His hand moved a little to the side, his neatly trimmed fingernail tapping delicately once more.

"Old Pale Eyes."

"He and the Macneil.  They swung swords together in an earlier lifetime."

"Linn lives on the old Macneil ranch."

"And he looks like Old Pale Eyes."

"So who is his Macneil?"

Barrents considered for a long moment, then:

"I don't know."

 

"Go home," Linn whispered.  "Get some rest."

"What about you?"

"I'll be fine.  Pretty nurses to torment, plenty of food, dancing girls, all the beer I can drink --"

Shelly gripped his siderail, stood:  she gathered her crutches, glared at her husband.

"You, sir," she said quietly, "are full of second hand horse feed!"

"The Pope is Catholic," he called after her retreating backside, "what else is news?"

He dropped his head back on the pillow, chuckling, then grimaced:  he waited until his wife was out of the room before pressing the nurse call.

"Can I help you?" the tinny voice replied and he said "I give up. I'll take some pain killer if I could, please."

"I'll be right there."  A click, but something didn't disconnect, and he heard the muttered, "It's about time!"

Yeah, it is, he thought.  

It was all I could do not to ask for it while Shelly was here!

"The phrase you are looking for," a man's voice said, "is 'Prideful Fool.' "

"Yeah, that's it," Linn muttered, then turned, squinted.

An older man in a black suit, a man with an iron grey mustache, stood beside his bed.

"I understand you've got a fight on your hands."

"Yes, sir, you could say that."

"Powerful enemies?"

"Yes, sir, you could say that too."

"Good."  He nodded.  "A man ought to have at least one powerful enemy in his lifetime.  Builds character."

Linn raised an eyebrow, but either wisdom or politeness kept him from riposting with the smart remark that rose in his throat.

A rap on his door; the door opened, a nurse bustled in, all efficiency and green scrubs:  he watched as she wiped the injection port, attached the needle, pressed the piston.

I could like this stuff way too much, he remembered thinking, right before he relaxed more completely than he had for a few days, and his eyes closed.

 

"Not what I would expect," Old Pale Eyes murmured, looking around the cramped interior.

"She's snug but she's home," Linn said uncertainly.  "Systems are automated, one man can run her. She's a nuclear attack sub, fully armed.  I'm taking the fight to the enemy but on my terms."

"I like your idea," the lean old lawman nodded, "but are you sure this will work?"

Linn reached up, twisted a switch marked DIVE:  hatches slammed shut, booming the length of the grey unterseeboot, and a klaxon groaned tiredly as a recorded voice chanted "Dive, dive, all dive," and dark waters closed overhead.

"I figure if they are creatures of the Inferno," Linn explained, "and the cold ocean waters flood their domain, they won't be as effective in their attack."

The boat bucked under them, rolled:  Linn realized he was hearing steam explosions, steam clouds boiling up through the cold saltwater, slamming their steel submarine.

"This might not have been my best idea," he muttered.

"We can always try something else," Old Pale Eyes suggested.

"I'm listening."

They were suddenly in the netherworld, but a world suddenly much cooler:  the air was warm, damp, and creatures that would normally have slithered, flown or skulked, lay soggy and weak, coughing saltwater from what passed for lungs.

Old Pale Eyes was no longer a man in a black suit and polished boots.

He was a hard eyed warrior in leather and scale armor, he was a hard-muscled man with a roundshield on his off forearm and a yard of sharpened blade in the other hand.

Linn wore a man-portable minigun with a backpack of ammunition, boots, fatigues:  his helmet was a Second War steel pot, and he glared about him with hard and pale eyes.

Two men, alike enough to be twins, save for the difference in their age:  they stood back to back on a low rise, listening to water drip from stalactites, peering into the utter blackness.

Linn pulled a flare gun from somewhere, broke it open, dropped in an illumination round:  he fired at a long angle, launching the burning magnesium payload into a distant corner of the infernal cavern: he loaded, fired again, again:  a half dozen magnesium flares hissed and burned, bringing stark, glaring incandescence into the infernal black.

Nothing moved.

They waited.

Finally Linn said, "I don't think this is going to work."

"No," Old Pale Eyes agreed, and just that fast, they were in the hospital room again.

Linn remembered shaking the older man's hand and thanking him for his company, before he relaxed further, and slept:  when he woke, he distantly remembered someone asking how those black-sandy footprints got there on the clean tile floor.

 

Chief Deputy JW Barrents tapped delicately at the Sheriff's office door.

"In."

He turned the knob, stepped in, closed the door:  he paced over to the framed prints on the Sheriff's wall, looked at the image of Old Pale Eyes, nodded.

"Well?"  Willamina finally asked, "did it work?"

Barrents turned.

"It worked."

 

It took another week before Linn was discharged to home again.

He was most pleased to sleep in his own bed, and he laughed a little as he lay beside his bride, and held her hand as he did as they were relaxing to sleep, and he admitted he was ready for a night's sleep that didn't have some really strange dreams.

 

 

 

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266.  A SPRING MORNING

 

Linn woke.

He blinked, looked around, blinked again.

His wife's hand was in his; he felt her animal warmth against his right arm, and he allowed himself a secret, inward smile.

He was under his own roof.

He was in his own bunk.

He had to get up, as his need was great.

Linn started to open his left hand, started to grip the bedcovers, hesitated.

He hadn't moved yet.

What the hell, he thought.

Got to do something even if it's wrong, and damned if I'm going to wet the bed!

He eased back the covers, powered up his legs, bent his knees ...

... they worked ...

... he slipped his hand from his wife's, sat up, hung his legs over the side of the bed.

His feet found the fur lined moccasins he favored.

He took a long breath, took another, stood.

So far so good, he thought, pushing the pain from him.

He walked almost normally, around the bed, out the door, down the stairs.

Dear God, he thought, I'm weak.

Wonder how much muscle meat they had to cut out to get all that infection!

No help for it.

I've got to work with whatever I've got left.

For all I know it's all there, or mostly all.

He looked down at pristine white bandages.

I could peel these back, take a look.

He considered, advancing slowly toward the front door:  he stopped, flat-palmed the age-darkened, varnished trim board around the doorway, leaning heavily against the door frame.

Linn set his teeth, snarled.

Now by God! I have been puny long enough! he thought rebelliously, and stepped out on his front porch.

It was chilly, his breath steamed a little, but he grinned and took a long, deep breath.

Dear God, he thought, and it was more a prayer than a profanity, that smells so GOOD!

A stray memory, one of the few times his Mama spoke of it, but something he'd read in the Journals ... how Old Pale Eyes died, and was sent back because his work wasn't done, and his Mama, the same, but what came to mind was the description they both gave of the Valley.

"We read of the Valley of the Shadow," he'd read in Old Pale Eyes' oldest Journal, "and we imagine a dark and foreboding place.

"It's not.

"The Valley is green, and it smells of a thousand green growing things.  It smells of springtime, and of fiddlehead ferns uncoiling and raising their heads toward the sun, and there is a spring there: the water is cold and sweet, and I have drunk it."

Linn took another long, deep breath.

Long, tall, lean waisted wearing a pair of undershorts and moccasins, he stepped carefully down off the front porch and walked slowly around the house, toward the barn and the open front shed.

He walked carefully at first, then with greater confidence:  he stopped at the cast iron hand pump, ran his finger through the handle of the tin cup that lived on a bent wire hook on the pump, and he ran the handle several strokes until cold, clear water splashed on the concrete pad, bright-cold drops hitting his bare shin bones, bringing a happy, boyish grin to his face.

He caught a tin cup of good cold well water, drank thirstily, pumped another, drank the second more slowly, savoring its tooth aching cold, delighting in the highly mineralized water.

"You don't get that in a hospital," he whispered, hanging the tin cup back on the recycled coat hanger hook.

Apple-horse came pacing slowly toward the fence, head bobbing, ears swinging.

Linn walked over to the board fence, leaned more heavily on it than he'd like to, but he made it there under his own power.

He reached up and rubbed the stallion's jaw.

"I'll need your help, old fellow," he murmured.

"I've got to build these legs back up."
Apple-horse blew, rubbed his cold, wet nose against Linn's bare belly, causing a flinch and a grunt.

"I know.  No bribes, sorry about that."  He patted Apple's broad, warm neck.  "No pockets on the birthday suit."

He stood there until he got cold, talking to his stallion in a soft voice, breathing the spring air, feeling morning's sun warm his bare hide, while upstairs, a feminine hand drew a curtain back, watched her husband, damned fool that he was, standing almost naked at the whitewashed fence, talking to his horse.

Shelly bit her knuckles and gave a little hiccup, then wiped her face on the flannel sleeve of her rose-and-white nightgown:  her lips pressed together and she turned away, gripping the bedpost, then sat down on the side of the bed, grabbed a bunch of bedsheet, pressed it against her face.

Somewhere, a stray memory swam into her turmoil, a woman's whispered voice.

"Tears," she heard a motherly voice counsel her, "are the prayers we offer when we have not the throat to frame the words."

Shelly nodded, giving up all control, letting her prayer soak into the sun-dried cotton.

Had she the words, they would have been simple, but profound, offered from the depths of her eternal soul:

"Thank You."

Until she regained full control of her throat, she knew, tears were the best she could offer.

Somehow she knew they were enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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267. SPEAK YOUR MIND, SON

 

Sheriff Linn Keller stood in front of the hand made altar.

The church was empty, silent: his thoughts filled it with memories, echoing off the unadorned wooden interior.

He stood, tall, relaxed, his Stetson in hand: he wore his black suit, as he usually did, his boots were polished, as they usually were, and as usual, he ached.

A man hid his hurts.

It was expected.

A man worked, a man got hurt, a man healed, a man ached:  it was part of life, it's all he knew.

A man did not dwell on the pain:  he chose to dwell on good memories, and he preferred to recall the comical moments, those times that threatened to draw his face up into a smile, though he more often than not hid these as well.

Some years ago, he thought, I stood and stared at that self same Altar.

His jaw eased out as he remembered.

 

He'd come to hate the smell of blood.

He'd smelled it often enough, back during that damned War.

Now, now here in his county, his county! -- his railroad! -- well, his wife's, but he'd bought it, and gifted her with it, and --

He shoved his thoughts viciously aside, seized the side of what used to be a passenger car.

A rail whipped free as the cars passed over, the end of the iron rail snapping up, driving into the floor of the car:  the rail did not move, but the passenger car did, and the car was ripped down its belly, gutting it, tearing wood and steel and human flesh, and now -- now, as he stood in the ruins, he felt a rage he hadn't felt since he stood looking over the butcher's yard of a battlefield, looking at good men and true, men he knew, men now dead --

He squatted, seized the side of a passenger car, rage powering his moves:  he hoisted the shattered wood, saw a still, little form, a little unmoving form with bright blue eyes and blond curls, and a rag doll locked in the bend of her arm --

Dear God, NO! he'd screamed, the words locked in his throat with the clench of his jaw:  he threw the shattered wood to the side, reached down, tearing at the remainder like a madman, excavating the still form of a little girl.

He saw his own little girl, he saw the child his wife bore, the little girl who grew up having seen her Daddy only once, he remembered how pale, how fragile she looked, speckled with the Small Pox, fevered and dying:  he remembered how tiny she felt, wrapped in the quilt that covered what had been the marriage bed, when he and his wife first built their cabin on the shores of the Sweet Sea.

He knelt beside this little girl, pale, still, unmoving, a smear of blood on one shining-white tooth; he ran gentle arms under her, picked her up, rolled her into his chest:  all the grief he'd kept hidden from losing his only child came roaring out of his soul like a volcano.

Sheriff Linn Keller, a hard man, tempered in the forge of war and battle, threw his head back, a little girl limp and dead in his arms:  his scream was fit to freeze the blood in a listener's veins, for it carried all the power, all the grief, all the loss, all the rage, that only a father can feel when he holds the dead, still, unmoving form of what had been a living, breathing, laughing little girl with bright eyes and a child's happy laugh.

The pale eyed Sheriff stood in the little whitewashed church and remembered the moment, remembered what it was to feel her move:  he'd looked down and saw her take a breath, and take another, and then she looked up and reached for something, like she saw someone she knew, above her:  she blinked and looked at the Sheriff, and he remembered what it was to see her smile, and he could not help himself.

He'd hugged her to his breast, and that's how they found him, when the relief train made it in from the roundhouse.

He'd been standing, holding the child, his face buried in her frock.

He stood, now, still staring at the handmade Altar, remembering.

He'd found documents, letters, he'd found where she and her dead parents came from, and he knew she might have family back home that would want her returned.

He and his wife took her in, this little blue eyed angel, this Angela: she and her rag doll were inseparable, until Esther talked her into surrendering it so she could fashion a dress for the doll that matched the dress she'd just made for little Angela, and she'd felt something odd inside the doll.

She'd opened it, carefully, when the child was not looking, and found a young fortune in tightly rolled Yankee greenbacks.

None of that mattered to the pale eyed Sheriff.

His wife smiled as she looked into his study, and found her husband reading aloud with the pretty little girl on his lap, and her cuddled into him like she belonged there.

He'd gone to their little whitewashed church, and stood in probably these very selfsame bootprints, and he'd stared that that same altar, with his hat in his hand just like he'd done then.

He remembered he'd stared at the rough Cross on the back wall, then the Altar, and he'd tried to figure what he wanted to say to the Almighty -- it was an important enough matter, he figured it was important to come in here to say it -- and for all his effort, for all his careful crafting of the words, he tossed all of it aside and declared, "Almighty God, I want to adopt Angela!"

He'd felt his heart turn over as a deep, resonant voice boomed, "AND SO YOU SHALL!" -- and for once in his lifetime, Linn tasted copper and felt fear, as a man ought when he hears the voice of God.

It wasn't God, of course.

His Brother and boon companion, his best friend and confidante, Charlie Macneil, rose from behind the Altar, and Judge Hostetler from behind the piano, and they laughed at the look on Linn's face: the three men laughed together, and the Judge informed that he'd had due inquiry made back East, and not only did Angela had no family, he'd arranged the adoption.

Sheriff Linn Keller stood and looked at the Altar, remembering, and he dropped his head a little, stared at the floor, then looked up at the rough Cross on the back wall, and at the Altar, and he spoke his piece.

"Thank You."

He turned and walked slowly back down the aisle, and out the door, settling his Stetson on his head as he crossed the threshold.

Esther and Angela were waiting in their carriage, and Linn felt his heart lighten as his ladies both smiled at his approach.

 

 

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268. MR. JELISON

Linn drew up in front of the Spring Inn.

He'd heard the stories, of course: how his pale eyed Mama, the very first time she was driven into Firelands County, told the deputy behind the wheel to respond to the barfight call.

He'd heard how she'd hit the release and brought the shotgun out of its upright rack, how she'd slammed open the door and beheld an entire beer joint, fully involved in a good old fashioned knock down drag out brawl.

He'd heard how she'd shucked a round of 00 buck into the Remington pump's chamber, how she'd driven a hole through the ceiling the size of four fingers clustered, and how it absolutely froze everybody there -- almost like one of those Saturday morning cartoons -- somebody yells HOOOOOLD IT!!! and everyone freezes in mid-punch, mid-fall, cream pies skid to a stop in mid flight.

All but the core of the boil, so to speak, the root cause of the Red Knuckle Conflagration.

Two women in back were going at it like the Kilkenney Cats, and Willamina tossed the shotgun to the deputy, stomped back through slack jawed and staring men with fists slowly lowering; she seized one woman, spun her around and introduced her face first into the back wall, turned as the other grabbed a beer bottle and broke it on the edge of the table.

His Mama's laser grip .45 automatic whipped across the woman's eyes, lowered to center chest, and Willamina's voice was loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to be considered raised.

"Drop it," she'd said, "or I drop you."

The broken beer bottle hit the floor.

Linn sat easy in the saddle, smiling a little, remembering the stories; there were but two vehicles out front, this time of day, which suited him.

He sidled his horse up to the mounting block:  God alone knows what this place was before it became a cement-block shoebox of a beer joint, but whatever it had been, there was a cut granite block out front that nobody saw fit to remove.

Linn came down out of the saddle, grateful for the block's presence:  he patted Apple-horse's neck and murmured "Stay," and the spotty stallion blew and shook his head.

Linn turned, walked over to the front door, hauled it open.

Three sets of eyes turned toward him:  he met each pair, his pale eyes turning theirs away, uncomfortably:  he well knew the power of his pale eyes, and used it to his advantage when necessary.

He stepped inside, pulled the door to behind him.

It had been some time since Jelly stood behind the bar.

His name was not Jelly, it was Gelato; that wasn't the name he'd been born with, but it was the name he used, until his death, and his ashes were shipped back East, per his wishes:  Linn heard the Spring Inn had been sold, and was reopened, and so he came out to take a look.

He wasn't cleared for duty, he was still rehabbing his legs: he felt he was fit for duty, but the Powers that Be disagreed, and as he'd learned the futility of arguing with his wife, his mother, and his physician all at the same time, he put himself to recovering the best way he knew how:  riding, and work.

Linn stepped in, his pace slow, boot heels loud on the oiled floor.

He stopped at the center of the bar, looked very directly at the stranger behind the clear plastic top.

Years ago, probably when the place was first built, some dedicated idiot took an unholy number of new copper pennies and arranged them on the bar top, then poured clear plastic epoxy over them: the bar's top was shining, polished, surprisingly little damage done it over the years, and the pennies, protected from the air, were shining-bright under the clear plastic pour.

"I smell popcorn," Linn said mildly.

"Quarter a bag," the stranger grunted.

"Likely I'll need a beer to wash it down."

"Be a dollar."

"A man might have an appetite.  Is the grille hot?"

The barkeep stared at the pale eyed deputy for a long moment, turned, looked at the short skirted barmaid standing hipshot, looking speculatively at the long tall man in the old-fashioned black suit.

"Yeah," he said finally.  "The grille's hot."

Linn laid down a ten dollar bill.

"If you'd be so kind," he said gently, "I would take a burger and a beer, and I'd start with a bag of that popcorn if I could, please."

The two stared at one another several more moments.

"I know you."

"I know you do."

"I went to school with you."

"Same grade."

"You're taller."

"You've improved."

Linn stuck out his hand.  "My poor failing memory ain't what it used to be, so let me fall back on correct Spanish grammar and ask you how you call yourself."

He saw understanding and appreciation in the barkeep's eyes, and the return grip was firm.

"Your mother knew my father."

"She did."

The barkeep leaned over the bar, arms crossed, elbows planted, looked at the two men watching them, spoke softly so only the pale eyed lawman could hear.

"Your mother was the only soul on God's green earth who could call my Daddy Jelly and live to tell the tale."

Linn nodded.

"Call me Jellison.  Jelly's son."

Linn nodded.  "Can do," he replied softly.

"Mr. Jellison," Linn declared as he straightened, "I do believe that burger is going to taste pretty good."

The barmaid cracked her gum, threw two patties on the grille:  a sizzle, a cloud of steam and she turned, shoveled a long paper sack full of yellow-seasoned popcorn:  she carried it around the bar, handed it to the pale eyed man, smiling wickedly:  "Here y'go, handsome," she said, leaning forward a little to display her high-country terrain.

Linn touched his hat brim.  "Ma'am," he said gently, turned and winked at Jellison, then turned and looked at the several empty tables.

"I'll set back there, if I may," he said, nodding to the rearmost table, the one with a solid wall behind it.

Jellison waited until Linn was seated, waited until he started working on his popcorn, before bringing his beer.

"Those two," he said quietly, "smell like trouble."

Linn nodded, once, accepted the beer.

"I can make a call if you'd like."

"If things get interesting, please do."

"I heard tell you got burnt pretty bad."

"You heard right."

"You up for a fight?"

"Not yet," Linn admitted.  "I'll just have to kill 'em."

Jellison gave him a long look, as if trying to decide whether he believed the man or not, before turning and almost running into the barmaid and her tray.

"Here's your burgers, hon," she said.  "You're skinny enough you need a little meat on your bones."

"Thank you, ma'am," Linn said, and his voice was that of a gentleman:  the barmaid was not quite used to genuine courtesy -- she was more accustomed to Toots, Sweetheart of Gimme Another Beer, truth be told, so she turned to an adjacent table, picked up the salt and pepper shakers and set them quietly beside his plate.

Linn ate with a good appetite; he was grateful she'd brought the second burger.

He was halfway into the second burger when one of the two who'd been watching and commenting, rose and came back to his table.

"Now if you ain't the dandy," he sneered, and Linn looked up at him, his expression mild:  his coat was unbuttoned, the way a man will have it when he's eating.

"All dressed up and just so polite," he said, and then leaned on Linn's table, pressing his knuckles into the red and white checkered tablecloth.

"Your Mama dresses you funny," he said, venom in his voice.

Linn actually smiled, just a little. 

"Afraid not, friend," he smiled.  "I dressed myself funny this mornin'.  How about you?"

His tormentor seized the table, threw it aside.

He froze as Linn's revolver rolled around to full cock.

Linn turned his lapel over, displaying his six point badge.

"Do not move," he said, "keep your hands in plain view, do exactly as I tell you, or you will be shot."

His eyes were very pale now, and the skin of his face was drawing tight over his cheek bones.

"Now you just spilled my beer and my popcorn both.  I don't reckon that's too friendly a thing to do."

Linn saw Jellison raise a palm, nod, and he knew a call had just been placed:  the Cavalry was on its way.

"If you didn't have that gun --" the antagonist blustered, and Linn cut him off.

"That's right," he said, "but I do have it, and I haven't killed anyone in a week and a half, so if you want to end up with your scalp drying on my lodgepole, just keep it up.  Take one swing, take one step toward me and I will blow you so far into Hell it'll take the devil a week's housekeeping just to dig you out."

His voice was quiet:  he knew it was not necessary to raise his voice, he knew the muzzle of a .44-40 revolver made a fantastic hearing aid.

"Now that door is going to open right here directly, and my associates are going to come in, and you are going out of here in irons.  Suppose you tell me right now if you are carrying anything you hadn't ought to."

"DON'T!" a voice yelled:  startled, his tormentor turned, and with his turn, Linn drew his left hand revolver as well.

Jellison was leaned over the bar again, this time with a double barrel shotgun to his shoulder: the other troublemaker dropped the pistol he'd pulled out, raised his hands.

The front door slammed open and two deputies came in, hard faced, taking in the situation in one sweep.

"Gentlemen," Linn said loudly, rising, "Mr. Jellison just kept me from being shot.  This man here"  -- he thrust his chin at the man before him -- "is under arrest: menacing, uttering, mopery with intent to creep and impersonating a human being.  That fellow" -- he holstered his left hand revolver, eased the hammer down on his right hand single action and holstered it as well -- "assault on a law enforcement officer with weapon specification.  Aggravating conditions on him, shake this one down, if he's got more than a slip of paper on him, aggravating with weapon specification here too."

Stainless steel cuffs snarled shut around unwashed wrists, the two were searched, frogmarched out:  Linn sighed, looked unhappily at the spilled popcorn.

"Mr. Jellison," he said finally, "I have some paperwork to go tend, but I believe I owe you for a broken beer mug."

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269. THE LADIES ESTHER

 

One of the most amazing pieces of reverse engineered technology was old hat to the class.

They'd grown up with Jack -- short for Jack the Ripper -- and they'd never known a life without it.

Matter went into Jack, matter was ripped apart at the subatomic level: it was then reassembled into whatever was desired -- elements of absolute purity, compounds, objects: coupled with the station's 3D printers, with the help of some genius level tinkering, and they found they could manufacture absolutely anything they wanted.

Clothing was suddenly popular.

When every ounce of freight from Earth cost millions of dollars to get from There to Here, it was impractical to send clothing, or tools, or much of anything that was not absolutely, bare-bones essential -- but when plans could be sent in a databurst, then channeled through their modified printers, they could make anything.

Anything.

At all.

Their power was supplied with a related device that, instead of ripping matter apart and reassembling it, simply tore matter apart: fantastic energies could be released, the trick being to contain these massive releases: more discoveries of old, of alien technology, and they found they could miniaturize these generators.

Human ingenuity knows few bounds; time with the printers had to be rationed, for it seemed that everyone and their uncle wanted to make something, if only for the sake of making it.

Dr. John Greenlees had a small unit, with which he manufactured a delightful array of medical tools, supplies, medications: it was no longer necessary to radio an order back to Earth, and hope he didn't have some disaster that would run him clear out of bandages, sutures or syrups.

The Sheriff had one as well.

Sheriff Marnie Keller ran the gunbelt around her lean waist, pressed the two halves of the buckle together: a click, and the belt contracted until it fit her perfectly.

She picked up the newly manufactured revolver.

It was a twin for her .357 she'd left back on Earth.

She took a nylon mallet, tapped the frame quickly, rapidly: she set the side plate on her table top, picked up the oiler's cap, lowered the straightened paper clip into the mechanism: a voice, half remembered, an old man's voice, and his hands on hers when she was a little girl, helping her Uncle Will oil his service revolver:  "We're oiling a lockwork, Marnie, not greasing a truck."

She'd giggled when she was a little girl, and she smiled as she remembered, and she touched the end of the straightened paper clip to the contact surfaces, depositing the tiny droplet of oil exactly where it needed to be.

She tended the homemade handful of frontier justice just as she'd tended its twin, back home: reassembled, she laid her thumb on the hammer spur, cycled the trigger through a few times, delighting at the smoothness of the action.

She holstered the empty revolver: she drew, dry fired at the corner of a picture, holstered again.

In an hour, newly manufactured ammunition rode in the blued steel cylinder; she had two speed loaders on her belt, a cuff case and cuffs at the small of her back, and she smiled, just a little.

 

Directly under the Sheriff's feet was a mineshaft.

Along the bottom of the shaft, steel rails, spiked down on ersatz wood ties.

The mineshaft was wide, it was tall; it went downhill for a distance, toward a deposit they'd found useful, a deposit they'd been bringing out by the carload, material that could not be synthesized with their supremely useful Rippers, material that ran their power supplies.

Here, economy of size was not necessary: the shaft was broad enough to accommodate a standard gauge railroad track; they made the same gauge rails as would be used on a freight line back home; and by mutual agreement, with a sense of the nostalgic, the romantic, or maybe a fierce independence -- whatever the reason -- a complete shop was fabricated, and in this shop, cast iron wheels as big across as a man is tall, were printed out, inspected, sounded: connecting rods and pistons, sliding valves, cams, a steam dome and sand dome, and a whistle.

Not just a whistle.

A three-throated whistle, a tuned, harmonized whistle.

The entire colony, all of Firelands, had a hand in this.

Everyone was familiar with the Old Sheriff's journals.

Firelands, as it was in the 1880s, was a favorite destination in the re-enactments in the holographic suites, and everyone knew what it was to hear that triple-throated whistle sing against the granite mountains.

There were artisans among the colonists; their best painters detailed the engine -- pin stripes, scrollwork, the spray of roses on the side of her cab, and on her tender -- but they added something that was not found on the original.

Two somethings, actually.

On the right, an oval portrait of a red headed woman with green eyes, a woman in profile turned a little toward the viewer: it was a head-and-shoulders portrait of a woman in a gown of the late 1800s.

And on the left of the spray of roses, another oval portrait, but this of a pale eyed woman with shorter hair, wearing a white blouse and an electric blue jacket, also turned toward the viewer a little.

Beneath this, in gold leaf:  The Ladies Esther.

There were silent, powerful rail mules to haul out the ore cars; efficient, square, automated, yes, but there was something about this hand made, steam powered, living, breathing creature of iron and raw, unadulterated, power.

A community is strengthened by a common goal.

The entire Second Martian Colony had a hand in the building of their very own engine -- never mind that it used native isotopes in her belly for heat, rather than coal; never mind that she breathed steam and not smoke; she was uniquely, absolutely theirs, and everyone who saw her, who heard her, everyone who marveled at the geometric, flawless, perfect thrust of her drivers, the rotation of her spoked wheels, her smooth, majestic march down the shining rails, her arc light blazing an absolutely white arc ahead of her into the dark tunnels ahead...

... everyone who saw her, knew that part of her, was theirs.

It took them a little over two years to bring this about, but it was two years of concentrated effort, two years of setting all else aside, two years of focus on this one very special goal.

Grown men grinned like little boys, little boys jumped up and down with excitement, women and girls wore newly-manufactured gowns and frocks that would have been more at home in the 1880s, women and girls whose hair was done up in the fashion of that far-off era:  they, too, laughed, they waved kerchiefs, and when the engineer -- a grinning young man wearing a striped engineer's cap, long cuffed gloves and the delighted expression of a schoolboy who'd just been given a brand new bicycle -- he reached up, seized the whistle's lanyard, yelled "COVERRRRR!" and counted to three.

The Ladies Esther sang for her people, the triple throats harmonizing beautifully, while men and women and shrieking, jumping, delighted children held their ears against the sonic assault of a steam-whistle in a very enclosed space.

Suddenly steam locomotive simulations became very popular in the holographic suites.

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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270. PALE EYED LADIES

 

He swam to consciousness as if coming leisurely to surface in a warm, dark lake.

He was relaxed, warm, comfortable ... his nose itched, he tried to reach up and scratch it.

His arm wouldn't move.

He tried again, tried to roll over --

The pale eyed woman watched his muscles wake up, saw his eyes open a little, a little more.

He tried to say something.

The pale eyed woman smiled as she held the end of the razor strop, drew it taut, caressed her knife over the leather, finish stropping the blade with the ease of someone quite used to getting a shaving edge.

The bound, gagged man watched, awake now, realizing he was secured to a frame, maybe a bunk -- it didn't matter -- and the woman was paying him almost no attention.

He realized she didn't have to.

He was too well secured to escape.

He chewed on the cloth filling his mouth, growled like the trapped animal he was rapidly becoming.

The woman placed the slender bladed knife carefully beside its fellows, slipping the handle into a little leather loop, resting the back of the blade against a small wooden peg:  she lifted the display board, held it up, showing off her handiwork.

"You tried to kill my brother," Sarah Lynne McKenna said conversationally, smiling gently as she turned to look at him again.  "I simply can't have that, and so I have planned your death.

"These three" -- her fingers were bent a little as she indicated the bottom three blades, the longer ones -- "have a skinning edge.  I sharpened them on a coarse stone.  I prefer thelonger blades, with a coarser edge, for skinning heavier pelts. They cut very nicely through heavy skin and muscle.  These shorter blades" -- her fingers paused, caressing the backs of the shining, absolutely spotless steel spines -- "have a razor's edge. They are more useful for dicing your muscle and lifting out the pieces with a cooking spoon."

She turned, looked at her prisoner, smiled:  it was the quiet smile of a woman, content in what she was doing, and that made her all the more frightening, at least until her prisoner realized her eyes were not normal, at which point she became utterly, absolutely, terrifying.

This witch, this woman, this monster in a fashionable and well-tailored gown, had eyes like he'd never seen, eyes of glacial white, eyes that looked like they belonged in a cold marble statue.

Her face was beautiful, her smile was almost kind, but her eyes were completely the opposite.

Suddenly this quiet, beautiful, red-lipped woman seemed less warm and pleasant, and more cold, calculating ...

... murderous ...

The woman turned toward him, tilting her head as if examining a specimen on a biologist's cutting board.

"Did you know," she said, almost conversationally, "that it's entirely possible to skin a man alive?"

She blinked, her expression pleasant -- which made her expression absolutely terrifying -- he struggled, pulled hard at his bonds, feeling the leather strapping cut into his wrists, his ankles --

"I've done it before," she whispered, reaching down and caressing his stubbled cheek.

She twisted her fingers a little, a blade appeared, as if by magic.

"Hold still," she whispered, and he screamed as steel touched his cheek.

Her fingers were firm on his cheekbone, his jaw:  he felt the blade caress his skin, felt stubble chatter and die as she shaved a strip, her hand steady, the blade removing whiskers and nothing more.

She wiped the edge on his naked chest.

"I knew a man with a tobacco-pouch of man-flesh," she said gently.  "He preferred the skin of a man's chest for his tobacco.  I've never tried tobacco, so I really wouldn't know."

Her fingers caressed his bare chest -- it would have been sensual, if she hadn't been lowering her blade to his breastbone in that moment.

He screamed, strained as she drew the sharpened edge across his skin.

He felt a tug, a pull, and not the bright line of screaming agony he'd anticipated:  he collapsed, what little he could, shivering, eyes wide, whimpering in fear.

No man wishes to be utterly, completely helpless.

He was.

The woman drew the blade's curved edge in lines, deliberately, carefully:  he was too eaten alive with terror, with the anticipation of being cut apart, piece by tiny bloody piece, to realize she was contenting herself with shaving designs into his pectoral fur.

The woman tilted her head, turned, wiped her blade carefully:  she placed the knife back in its holder, picked up the display board, the razor strop:  he could not turn his head -- it, too, was secured -- the woman came back, bent over so her face was very close to his.

"The condemned man," she whispered, "should have one moment of pleasure before his death."
Her smile would ordinarily be gentle, pleasant:  in his current state, her smile brought a muffled scream of sheer terror as he strained futilely against his bonds.

"You are in the basement of a house of ill repute.

"I have arranged for one of the more experienced ladies to give you a night of evil pleasures, at the end of which, she will leave, and you will be placed in a niche in the wall yonder." 

She pointed with delicately-gloved fingers.

"You can't see it, of course, but there is a niche -- an opening -- just big enough to slide you into.

"You are secured to a broad, heavy plank; you will just fit, and that's all -- your nose will be a half inch from the rocky ceiling of your death chamber."

She blinked, smiled, ever so slightly.

"You will be slid a distance of ten feet in your little slit of a crypt, and then the opening will be laid up with stones and with mortar, to a thickness of three feet, which will leave you one foot of air.

"You will be in utter and absolute darkness, you will be cold, you will be more completely alone than you have ever been, and you will die there.

"In a hundred years, perhaps, your bones will be found, but by then you will have been forgotten, and if by some odd chance your skin has dried and mummified, they will find I shaved the word THIEF in your chest hair, and they will think you a petty criminal instead of the murderer you are."

She paced gracefully away from him, her gait so smooth it was as if she were gliding, or perhaps on wheels:  he heard a door open, he listened as the woman with pale eyes said "He's all warmed up for you, honey," and he heard a woman's hard and knowing "I know just what to do," and money exchanged hands, and a slattern came into view, smiling wickedly.

"So you're the one who wants the Special," she murmured, slipping the ruffled straps off her shoulders.

"Well, let's get started, shall we?"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller handed the veterinarian a steaming mug of coffee.

"Thank you, Doctor," she said.  "I appreciate your letting me use your mobile crematory."

"I appreciate your providing the gas supply, Sheriff."

"We've our own well, it seemed easiest."

"Mmm, now, that's good coffee," the veterinarian hummed.  "Fresh ground?"

"I have a hand grinder, yes."

The veterinarian closed his eyes with pleasure.  "Sheriff, thank you.  I'm sorry about your colts."

"I could have just dug a hole and planted them," Willamina admitted, "but I'd rather inter their ashes with their sire's."

"I understand."  The vet placed the empty mug back on the table.  "I don't anticipate needing my crematory anytime soon."  He did a quick calculation, wrote down some figures:  "Here's burn time for one colt, for two colts, and the instructions are in the little cabinet on the side, with the controls.  Have you a cremulator?"

"I have, thank you."

The vet nodded.  "Always a pleasure coming out, Sheriff, and it was absolutely delightful seeing your red mare running in the morning sun!"

Willamina laughed.  "Doctor, you are a romantic!"

She watched the man depart, watched his truck rumble down her driveway, turn onto the state route.

She went out to her barn.

Her prisoner waited, resigned to his fate.

Willamina stepped in, eyed the man:  she considered a moment, regarded the tarp wrapped post to which he was secured:  she walked up, drove her knee into his gut, quickly, viciously.

Had he not been strapped, belted in place with broad, yellow, nylon tiedown straps, racheted tight, he would have doubled over.

She seized his head, twisted it hard to the side: her other hand dipped into her pocket, withdrew a syringe: she bit the plastic needle cover, pulled the shining steel needle free, and with the practiced ease of someone who'd done this kind of thing before, she inserted the needle into his jugular, drew back the piston a bit to ensure she was in the vein, then pressed the payload into his system.

The man's eyes dilated, rolled apart, one looking east, the other west.

Willamina worked quickly.

She drove the end loader into her barn.

A tarp lined the bucket; she dumped the man into the bucket, undressed him with an absolute lack of gentleness, until he lay naked in the tarp, his clothes in a trash sack.

She waited until the fast acting agent wore off, until he started to wake:  she slapped him a few times, dashed cold water in his face: he rallied enough to see her glaring at him, knife in hand.

"You," she hissed, "tried to kill my son!"

She drove her fist into his belly, hard.

He felt her fist drive in under his breastbone, and not until the pain screamed up and under and inside and he realized he felt like he was falling, not until that moment did he realize she hadn't punched him.

She'd driven a knife into his gut and up into his heart, and he was a dead man.

He looked up at her, surprise was his last expression, and his miserable carcass was reduced to burnt bones in the veterinary crematorium, his bones were dumped out and ground to dust, and the bone dust was scattered on a lonesome Colorado highway.

His disappearance was neither pursued, not was it of any great interest.

 

The excavator chewed through undisturbed soil, then scraped against stone, again:  the foreman whistled the operator to a stop, had the rotating bucket-cutter raised, jumped into the hole, shovel in hand.

He scraped dirt away, frowned, dug a little more.

They were intending to lay a new water main here in the middle of the street, but this was an historic district, and anything that might be of significance had to be examined, and sure enough he'd found deliberately laid stones.

Now why, he wondered, would anyone have broad, flat stones in the middle of what's always been a street?

It wasn't until one of the stones was lifted, not until an empty eyed skull looked up at him, that he realized there actually was a purpose to the placement, and it was a matter of considerable speculation as to why the skeleton was tied down on a broad slab of native timber.

 

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271. SATURDAY NIGHT BATH

 

Jacob Keller cast a critical eye on his boots and allowed himself the slightest half-degree nod of satisfaction.

His son, in like manner, regarded his own burnished leather.

"Joseph," Jacob asked, "did you get your bath?"

"I did, sir."

"Good. It does well to be clean and sweet smellin' on Saturday night."

"Yes, sir."

"Joseph, did I ever tell you how I met your Mama?"

"No, sir."

Annette stopped in the doorway, regarded her husband, looked at her son, raised her eyebrows in a genteel skepticism:  undeterred, Jacob said -- with a perfectly straight face -- "Why, your Mama was ready to go to the square dance, and I asked if she'd had her Saturday night bath. She said she had not, so I grabbed her around the waist and packed her down to San Francisco Bay, and I threw her in the water and sloshed her around a while until I figured she was clean enough, then I run her up the mast of one of them-there sailin' ships like she was a flag on a flagpole 'til she was dried off, and then I took her home and married her."

"Jacob Keller," Annette said, folding her arms and tapping her foot like an impatient schoolmarm, "you will go to hell for lying!  Now Joseph" -- she looked at her son -- "what really happened, was that when your father saw my feminine beauty, he grew so warm with manly desires that I had to take him by the scruff of the neck and dunk him in San Francisco Bay just to cool him off!"

Joseph looked from his innocent looking Pa to his aggravated looking Mama, trying to decide which was closer to the truth -- he knew they were both storyin' him, and he also knew one of them was closer to the truth than the other, but at the moment he couldn't tell which it was.

"Yes, ma'am," he said neutrally:  his Pa rose and took his Ma around the waist, kissed her delicately, offered his arm:  with his wife on one arm, his Stetson in the other hand, Mother and Father led the way to the door, where the maid waited with Joseph's hat in her hand, her shawl around her shoulders:  neither Jacob nor his wife Annette were of a mind to deny the hired help, the chance to go to the square dance -- especially as they knew she was seeing a certain member of the Irish Brigade, and matrimony was being discussed between the two.

Joseph sat beside the maid, in the back seat; he was quiet for the buggy ride into town:  Jacob did not have to look, to know his young son was considering something, and sure enough, when they arrived at Daciana's Barn, as the sizable round structure was called, Joseph waited until his Pa hoisted him out of the carriage, waited until his Pa turned over horse and buggy to the designated hostler, waited until Joseph sized up the area.

"Pa?"

"Yes, Joseph?"

"Pa, I think maybe Mary Cullison might be kind of sweet on me."

Jacob smiled, just a little, then hunkered so he and his young son were more on a level with one another.

"Go on," he said gently, and Joseph frowned and shoved his bottom jaw out, he looked down, then he looked up at his Pa.

"Sir," he said, "if she tries to kiss me tonight, we don't have no San Francisco Bay anywhere near here.  Should I dunk her in a rain barrel instead?"

Jacob had a pretty good poker face; Jacob had the ability to stare down large and unpleasant folk bearing a variety of weapons, and Jacob had faced up to and faced down men who fancied themselves the meanest bull in the pasture:  his reserve was tested, however, with his son's solemn but innocent question.

"Joseph," he said at length, resting a fatherly hand on his young son's shoulder, "I would reckon if she wants to kiss you, it would be well to let her.  I know her family and I daresay she will have had her Saturday night bath."

"Yes, sir."

Jacob rose; he extended his arm, and his wife's gloved hand wrapped around it:  young Joseph waited a moment, then fell in behind his parents, dutifully following as they led the way toward light, and warmth, and fiddle music.

The family Daine was known to the community; they were a part of the community; they were also a clannish folk, but they'd proven themselves necessary to Firelands:  the men were master carpenters and timbercutters, and Daciana, the circus trick rider that made Firelands her home when her traveling circus disbanded, added to her knowledge as an herbalist with the knowledge of these mountain "yarb women" -- probably because Daciana approached them looking like a European peasant woman, and not as one of the fashionably dressed ladies of Firelands.

Outcasts have a liking for fellow outcasts; that they were different, very likely contributed to their mutual respect, and each learned from the other.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller pressed a key on her laptop; the little red light beside the built in camera came on, and she knew she was recording.

Her presentation would be compressed and sent as databursts -- several of them, as a signal tended to degrade betweeen Earth and Mars, but she had a request from Gracie Maxwell.

Willamina remembered Gracie, and Willamina always liked Gracie:  she knew Gracie joined the Navy -- she'd gone through Annapolis, remarkable for a shy mountain girl who wore long dresses and men's work boots to school -- she'd gone Aviation, she'd ended up somehow in the space program, and Willamina did not find out until after Gracie was somewhere between here and there, that she'd flown the Super Stallion helicopter like it was a fighter -- which was kind of like driving a Kenworth road tractor like it was a Formula I racer -- impossible according to the experts, but she'd managed, and she'd made it look easy.

As a matter of fact, Gracie married a Luftwaffe pilot, right after a mission where he'd come screaming in on an attack run and he'd taken out a missile emplacement right after it got radar lock on Gracie's all-black Super Stallion.

Willamina's eyes shifted right, at the portrait of a diminutive woman in flight coveralls, bug-eyed helmet under her arm, leaning back against the blunt, black nose of the hulking, massive helo:  she was slouched a little, a pose more at home with a Western gunfighter:  over her left shoulder, the insignia she'd chosen, her personal sigil, a rearing stallion with broad white wings, hind hooves standing on a spring of Edelweiss.

Beside this picture, another: the image was a little less sharp, a little grainy, but it was Gracie and a man not much taller, a man with blond hair and blue eyes, and both of them with the skinsuits and compact helmets of the Mars colonists:  behind them, a black wall that was the side of the common Mars flying shoebox, but on its side, her husband's personal insignia:  a rearing, winged stallion on a black Iron Cross.

Willamina looked back at the laptop's camera.

"Gracie," she said, "you asked me what kind of a woman your very great grandmama was."

She smiled.

"I've done some research, and she was a fiddler, like you; she knew the healing herbs, like you, and she took a bath on Saturday night, whether she needed it or not."

Willamina's eyes were a distinct blue as she said it; her eyes darkened with pleasure, or with amusement, and she'd always been amused by the phrase -- her Uncle Will, rest his soul, used to say it, along with his teasing doggerel -- delivered in a high, whiny voice --

"I've heard it said,

and I hold it to be true,

that too much bathin',

will weaken yew."

 

Gracie and her Teutonic husband sat side by side, watching the Sheriff's recording, laughing a little at her joke:  they were sharing a big bowl of popcorn, fabricated from kernels grown from a precious half-dozen seeds included almost as an afterthought on a recent shipment.

"They only took a bath on Saturday night?" Hans Lukas murmured, his arm around his bride:  Gracie cuddled into him and he felt her quiet laugh.

"I think they probably bathed more than that."

"Ah."  

Gracie reached for the keyboard, tapped a quick command, downloading the Sheriff's complete report into memory:  she would study it later, but now ... now, she was content to relax, safe and warm in her husband's arms, the smell of fresh popcorn delighting her soul.

 

Joseph Keller paired off with Mary Cullison for the square dance, as he usually did, and like the rest of the children of their age, they danced their square very well indeed that night, and when they were done, sure enough, Mary kissed Joseph on the cheek and scampered away, giggling.

Joseph watched her go, grateful that he didn't have to run after her and dunk her in a rain barrel.

That sounded too much like work.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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272.  WELL INDEED, BUT NOT AT ALL WISELY

 

The man's weight was almost painful on her shoulder.

The pale eyed woman gripped his wrist, tucked her backside, gritted her teeth:  somehow the man's legs still worked -- how, she had no idea -- but one step at a time, one foot, one yard, and she got him down the street.

They had to stop a couple of times, and the man's knees ended up muddy, where she'd eased him down in front of a horse trough:  twice she'd taken him by his carefully barbered hair, thrust his face into the cold water; it was enough to wake him, to sober him, at least for a little bit:  they stopped at a public pump, she pumped cold water, and he drank:  she had him drink again, then he bent over and heaved up a week's worth of whatever he'd eaten, and she had him drink again, and then slosh and spit and get the taste out of his mouth, and they resumed their slow, laborious journey.

Once, a blue-uniformed police officer approached them, nightstick discreetly tucked behind the officer's forearm:  the laboring woman in the fashionable blue gown looked at him with pale eyes, leaned the suffering man against the front of the building, reached into a hidden pocket in her skirt, handed him a leather wallet.

Curious, he slipped the loop off the button, opened the wallet, revealing a bronze shield, a shield he'd heard of, but had never before seen in person.

There was also a hand written letter of introduction, its edge peeping out of the pocket behind the shield:  the officer read it, raised an eyebrow, replaced it carefully in the wallet and handed it back, lifted his billed cap, asked if he might be of assistance to the Agent.

The remainder of their journey was in a police carriage.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller knew the tricks and slights of lifting.

She bent, got the man's weight over her shoulders, straightened: her legs held the weight, her hand gripped his wrists, she packed the sufferer out to her cruiser, to the stares and astonishment of the celebrants.

The Spring Inn was the chosen location for the bachelor party, and like bachelor parties everywhere, enthusiasm reigned: anything worth doing was worth doing to excess, and when the Sheriff SLAMMED open the front door and cast cold eyes about, the entire party kind of ground to a halt, including the scantily clad lass on the bar, freezing her scandalous bump-and-grind in mid-bump.

The Sheriff strode slowly into the party, glaring left, glaring right, walked up to the groom-to-be, who stood somewhat unsteadily, smiled crookedly, and slurred, "Howdy," right before he kind of sagged and poured himself into a chair.

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked around, listened to the sudden and profound silence.

She reached for a bottle of Kentucky Drain Opener on the table, poured an empty shot glass full, raised it.

"TO THE GROOM!" she shouted, her voice sharp, penetrating:  she knocked back the shot, turned, looked at the girl on the bar.

"Honey," Willamina called, "are these fellows paying you enough?"

The girl's hand went to the short line of bills stuck in her barely-there.

Willamina looked around, placed the shot glass on the table.

She pulled a twenty out of her vest pocket, handed it to the girl, turned:  she gripped the groom-to-be's wrist, squatted, got her shoulder under his, stood.

"DETAIL!  CARRY ON!"

Sheriff Willamina Keller squatted again, got the besotted soul across her shoulders, stood:  she made for the door, she got him outside, she got him into her cruiser:  she had to stop twice to let the poor fellow empty his abused stomach, and she primed him with a bottle of water, another, wiping his face carefully with a washcloth she'd squirreled away in her issue Suburban for just that purpose, her voice gentle, her hands motherly:  she got more water down him, got behind him and held him around the middle as he bent and heaved up a week's worth of whatever he'd had, then had him slosh and spit and get the taste out of his mouth.

The poor fellow barely remembered being undressed, and the covers pulled up:  when he woke, there was a glass of water beside the bed, two aspirin, a card in an envelope, and inside the card, five, twenty-dollar bills with a sticky note:  "For the Bride and Groom."

 

The wedding, in Denver, was like many: a modest gathering, in a home, with friends and family: after the brief service, when hands were being shaken and congratulations exchanged, a stranger slipped in, an attractive young woman in a fashionable blue gown:  she took the bride's hands, pressed an envelope into her grip:  she pressed her cheek to the bride's and whispered, "You are married to a perfect gentleman," and the bride, surprised, watched the stranger depart:  she broke the seal, opened the hand-folded envelope, clapped her free hand to her mouth and gave a little squeak of surprise.

She turned to her husband, her mouth open:  "Do you know that woman?" she whispered.

Confused, he blinked, looked around:  "What woman?"

"She's right --"

The bride turned, turned back, confused.

"She was right here ... she gave us this!"

The groom's jaw dropped as he counted the young fortune in the envelope.

 

The wedding, in Firelands, was like many: it was in their little whitewashed church, it was attended by family and friends, and the bride happily received the congratulations of the ladies of the community, of friends, of relatives, and of a pale eyed woman who pressed an envelope into her hands with the whispered, "You are married to a perfect gentleman," and with a knowing look at the puzzled groom, Sheriff Willamina Keller turned and slipped through the crowd, smiling just a little at the sound of the bride's squeak of surprise behind her.

 

 

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273.  NOT BAD FOR A DECREPIT OLD LADY!

The knife came in low and fast, aiming for the soft belly, aiming to gut the victim, immobilize with the first thrust, kill with the first drive: a forearm flashed down, knocked the knife out of line, the knee came up and the elbow came down, and the attacker seemed to hang in midair for a moment before the intended victim backed, quickly, arms coming up to block, to punch, to grab:  she turned, looked at the shocked expressions looking back at her, as her attacker landed face first on the ground, out of the fight.

Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled and her smile was not at all pleasant, at least until one of the girls pointed and shouted "BEHIND YOU!"

Willamina spun, crouched:  nobody saw where she'd been carrying the revolver and nobody really saw her draw, but everyone saw five dark spots appear in her next attacker's shirt front, neatly grouped right over the wish bone.

Never mind the shot fired at her back, the shot that missed when she spun, was a wax bullet, and never mind the five she drove into her second attacker's sternum were also wax bullets:  she backed a little, turning left, turning right, another revolver appearing in her off hand.

"New York Reload," she declared.  "No faster reload than a second loaded gun!"

Her first attacker got up, dusted himself off, grinned at the Valkyries.

"Not bad for a decrepit old lady!"  he laughed.  "Remind me never to get her mad!"

Later that evening, after Willamina showered and scrubbed the day's exertions from her skin, she sat in the living room and smiled a little as a blanket wrapped form was carefully lowered into her waiting arms.

"Why hello, Princess," she almost whispered to her new little granddaughter, and the smiling, gurgling little girl happily gripped Willamina's finger, drawing it to her little pink mouth for a taste test.

Willamina was still Sheriff, she was still running with the Firelands Football Team, she was still training her Valkyries:  she was also one of the most sought after dance partners at the weekly square dance, for she did not as much dance, as she floated, and her partner danced:  she had the uncanny ability to follow anyone, as if she had a psychic link with their dancing subconscious, and it was no secret at all that she could take a mediocre dancer -- or a poor one -- and make him look really good.

She was also what she needed to be when the moment demanded.

Sheriff Willamina Keller, in her tailored suit dress and heels, was seen dragging charged fire hose, backing up the hose team when they were short handed; she pulled a panicked mother out of her car so she could reach in and yank the hood release on the woman's smoking car, she flinched back as she hauled up the hood, barely escaping the flames that rolled toward her:  the newpaper's reporter captured the moment she squirted a yellowish stream of dry-chem onto the car's burning engine:  she ran out of her Sheriff's office, waving her arms, whistling shrilly, when a pair of steers escaped a 4H project and went down the street at a trot, evading the several attempts to corral them, at least until Willamina ran out and distracted them, and two fellows with lassos each spun a lariat and captured the wayward beeves.

Willamina was also captured by the local paper's photographer changing a baby's diaper on the hood of her Suburban, a rare photograph of their pale eyed Sheriff laughing, in public:  it was hardly the image of a hard-eyed, uncompromising chief law enforcement officer, but it was an honest picture, for in that moment, she was what she had to be:  a help to an overworked young mother.

When Shelly called her, almost in tears, Willamina hit the saddle -- literally -- she was in the barn when she got the call on her personal cell, and she knew Shelly would not call unless the need was great.

The baby wouldn't stop crying, something was terribly wrong, she just knew it, she was scared, she'd tried everything, and Willamina listened carefully, nodded.

"I'll be right there," she'd said, and she'd curled her lip, whistled:  her red mare -- one of her Cannonball's get -- came trotting up at the whistle, and Willamina threw the saddle blanket, one handed, trying to catch the air and plane it in like her son did.

The blanket, of course, didn't.

Willamina set her saddle down and  glared at the offending saddle blanket, seized it and yanked out the fold and the wrinkle, then swung the saddle and got it screwed down before trusting her weight to the stirrup.

Pittipat bunched her haunches, getting ready to give Willamina a good bucking-out, and Willamina snarled, "Don't you dare," and Pittipat relaxed:  instead of coming unglued under the pale eyed Sheriff, she paced off nice as you please, and the Sheriff pointed her toward the far end of the pasture, stood up in the stirrups, bent well forward, pressed her hands against the mare's neck.

"Go, girl," she said softly, and Pittipat needed no second instruction.

She leaned out as she ran, she stretched out and skimmed the ground until she looked to be fifteen feet long and one foot tall, streaking across the snowy field like a red arrow, Willamina leaning over her neck, murmuring encouragement:  they launched over the board fence, landed easily, kept on going, throwing up a cloud of fine, dry snow as they drew a red streak across the moonlit landscape.

Shelly looked up, picked up the red-faced, arm-throwing, howling infant. 

Willamina thrust open the door as Shelly approached, cold air and fine snow blowing in around her, until she pushed the door firmly shut behind her.

Willamina stomped the snow off her boots, reached for the child.

Shelly watched as Willamina frowned at the screaming baby:  she turned a little, tilted the child, looked closely at something:  Shelly saw the Sheriff's jaw thrust out, quickly, as if she'd just found something -- though what she could possibly have found, was a mystery to the scared, desperate new mother.

Willamina looked at Shelly, lifted her chin, clearly a summons.

She led the way to their bathroom:  Willamina turned on the hot water, plugged the drain, seized an empty laundry basket, set it in the tub.

One-handed, draped a towel in the basket:  when the water was a little over a half a foot deep, she eased the stiffening, scarlet, screaming child down into water that was just on the border of a little too warm.

Shelly watched as the Sheriff scooped up handsful of water, dribbled them on her little girl's red skin, as the Sheriff wet the towel the child lay on, wrapped the wet, nearly-hot terrycloth over the twisting, howling, very angry little girl, drew it back, immersing the child in the shimmering, crystal, steaming water.

Red spots almost exploded into view all over the baby's skin.

Willamina got the child warmed clear through, asked for a dry towel:  she wrapped her granddaughter in the towel, then in a blanket.

"Let's get a diaper on her," she suggested, "and we'll give Doc a call."  

She gave Shelly an understanding look.

"She has measles."

Shelly's eyes widened, her mouth fell open:  "How did you know?" she blurted, instantly regretting what she called her "Open Mouth, Something Stupid Falls Out" moment.

Willamina smiled gently.

"Linn did this when he was a baby," she said, "and I didn't have anyone to call on for help, so I called my brother Will's wife, Crystal.  I was always a little intimidated by her" -- she looked down at the speckled little child she held -- "she's dead now, rest her soul, but I was scared and she knew just what to do." 

She sighed.

"She took one look in Linn's mouth, she looked at the roof of his mouth and saw the white spots, and that's how she knew.  She dunked him in a tub of warm water and brought the measles out, just like we did here."

 

The Sheriff rode home a few hours later, at a considerably more sedate pace than had been her approach:  she considered her evening's work, and as she unsaddled Pittipat, she laughed a little, and as the red mare turned her head to look curiously at the Sheriff's chuckle, Willamina hung up the saddle, then turned and began brushing her mare.

"Not bad," she said quietly, "for a decrepit old lady!"

 

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274. HER DADDY'S DUELERS

 

Sheriff Linn Keller glared at the rock maple miter box.

The miter box was singularly unimpressed by the pale eyed lawman's expression.

Linn picked up the length of trim board, looked from the board to the corner of the wall and the floor, ran his gaze over to the corner.

Esther watched, silent, as her husband's thoughts ran plainly across his face:  she knew him well, and she knew at which moment he decided what he wanted to do, at which moment he decided how to do it, and finally the moment when he threw his head back, took a deep breath, blew it out ... and decided to leave the work to someone who actually knew what the hell he was doing.

He looked across the parlor, raised an eyebrow, grinned that half-his-mouth grin that meant he was not going to take himself too seriously, and said "Esther, I can knock a wart off a gnat's knuckle at a hundred yards, offhand, at night, in a stiff crosswind, with a Derringer pistol, I can grab a man twice my size by his ankle and beat him on the ground like Angela would beat her rag doll on the floor, I can saddle a tornado and lasso the moon itself, but I am sawed off and damned if I can figure out how in two hells to cut the angles I want!"

Esther glided across the parlor, tilted her head, looked at the miter box, at the trim board, then up at her husband.

"My dear," she said gently, "you are one of the most intelligent and most capable men I've ever known, and I am very proud of everything you have ever done."

She lay her hand gently on his breast.

"It is the wise man who knows when to hand a task to those who can perform it well."

Linn nodded, cupped his hands gently under her elbows.

"I would not ask a blacksmith to pull a tooth," he agreed, "nor would I ask a grocer to set a broken arm."

"Have you a craftsman in mind?"  Esther asked.

Linn chuckled, nodded.  "Yes, ma'am, I have," he said, raising a finger, "and by the way I have something to show you."

"Oh?"  Esther folded her hands very properly in her apron.

Linn strode across the parlor, picked up a burnished, shining, walnut box, brought it back over, opened it.

"I will be calling upon the Daine carpenters for this work," he said, "but the Daine are gunsmiths as well, and they were kind enough to make me that after-the-meeting gun I've wanted!"

"My dear," Esther murmured admiringly, "it's lovely!"

Linn reached in, lifted out the muzzle loading percussion pistol, smiled that quiet, knowing smile that meant he was holding a memory, not just steel and wood and inlaid silver.

"My father," he said softly, "was a gunsmith, and a good one, and he made one of these ... see here, it has a shoulder stock" -- he lifted out the separate stock, turned it so she could see the simple, secure latch -- "we used to compete after church with one very much like this."

He slid the stock into its receiving notch, eased the two pieces together until Esther could hear a quiet click.

"See these lazy-moon escutcheons -- here, and here?"

Esther nodded, running her fingers delicately over the inlaid silver.

"I sketched these out for them, gave them the silver coin to use, to cut out the design."

"Your father's design?"

Linn nodded, biting his bottom lip.  "It ... was his favorite design ... that, and a long diamond."

"Like this one?"

"Yes."

Esther caressed shining wood, smiling a little.

"My father had a fine set of dueling pistols," she said softly.  "I remember he kept them on the mantel."

Linn smiled knowingly, placed the After the Meeting gun on its open box:  he raised a finger again, strode across the room, brought back a second burnished box.

"No!" Esther whispered, her hands rising to her reddening cheeks:  Linn opened the lid and Esther's hands pressed over her open mouth.

"They're probably not exactly like he had," Linn said, almost apologetically, "but they have the tapered and scrollwork engraved barrels with the cannon muzzle -- my dear?"
"Thank you," Esther whispered, her eyes bright.  "They are perfect!"

"I think there's room for them on the mantel."  Linn lifted one out of its velvet lined case, handed it handle-first to his wife.

"I always wanted to shoot my father's duelers," Esther whispered.  "I was always afraid to ask."

"You need not fear for these, dearest."

"If it was not dark outside --"

"At first light, dearest."  

Esther reluctantly surrendered the elegant, tapered barrel pistol:  Linn placed it carefully back in its fitted case, carried it over to the mantel, placed the duelers' box in the very center.

"I had them make another of the After-the-Meeting guns for Levi.  It'll ride under his buggy seat on Sunday."  He grinned.  "Like ours."

Esther's eyes went to the closed box on the mantel, and she was quiet for several long moments, then she nodded.

"It is well that we should remember our fathers," she said softly, as her husband embraced her from behind.

"Yes," he agreed, as she molded her backside against his front.  "Yes, it is."

Husband and wife stood, warm, silent, each remembering, their hands clasped in front, four hands warm and reassuring, and Esther felt for a moment like her Daddy's warm, strong arms were around her once more.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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275.  WINTER'S WOLVES

Sarah's breath caught in her throat: her pale eyes were wide, scared, and her mule gave a grunt and thrust hard into his collar.

It wasn't at all rare to hear Yodel Dogs -- Sarah rather enjoyed their songs, as long as they stayed out of her chickens, as long as they left the calves alone, and she'd stood watch and ridden the herd with her .32-20 rifle at the ready when calving season was upon them:  it was hardly the work of a proper young lady, but Sarah was not above setting propriety aside when the need arose.

When it came to protecting their depleted herd, she could set aside a ladylike demeanor with ease, for all her few years.  

She might go to school tired, but she'd never nodded off in class -- she did, however, have little trouble sleeping when her head hit her own pillow.

She'd taken the sleigh and driven out to the Kolascinski cabin with shirts and drawers and newly-knit socks, she'd made rag dolls for the girls and she'd had the Daine carpenters make jimcracks and gew-gaws for the boys, wimmydiddles and limberjacks -- it was deep into winter and Sarah knew they hadn't two nickles to rub together, and so she'd put together what she saw as needfuls and was taking it out to their isolated cabin.

She'd caught them when most were away from the house, which was a relief:  two of the younger boys came scampering through the snow as she approached, and they blurted that their Mama took Pa's dinner bucket to him over at the nearest mineshaft opening and she'd ought to be back and Sarah recruited from this Unorganized Militia to pack the needfuls inside.

Clothing and canned goods, a good slab of bacon, and Sarah crooked them nearer with her bent finger and reached into a fragrant cloth sack, handed them each a doughnut, put her finger to her lips and winked:  she placed the sack on their kitchen table while her delighted assistants devoured their unexpected bounty, and she climbed back into the sleigh and pointed her mule back toward home.

Sarah was just past her thirteenth birthday -- she knew she was marriageable, and she knew she didn't feel ready for marriage -- when she was but ten, she was modeling her Mama's gowns for the buyers in Denver, laced up in foundations, painted and powdered and her hair carefully tended:  her Mama used her as a model for her gowns, and Sarah learned early and well the tricks of the Quick Change Artist:  she learned how to look like a grown woman, she learned how to move, how to walk, how to flirt just a little, looking past the Lime Lights at the buyers in the audience, knowing they were there but not able to see them ... and she hadn't scrubbed off the face paint, nor changed out of her fashionable gown before returning to Firelands with her Mama.

Bonnie indulged her daughter, for she well remembered the delight of being all dressed up and out with her Mama, and so Sarah came into the Silver Jewel Saloon, looking considerably older than she was.

A handsome young vaquero saw her; a handsome young vaquero's beating heart nearly leaped from his chest and lay panting at her feet:  only Charlie Macneil's warning growl that she was but ten years old, cooled the dark-eyed suitor's ardor:  Sarah remembered this as her mule steered its course back along its earlier tracks, and Sarah heard the first howl.

It was different from the yodel dogs she was used to.

Winter had been harder, winter had been longer, winter had been colder:  she was young and cold meant little to her, but she knew the Kolascinski family didn't have much, thus her unofficial, charitable delivery:  now, as she drove the few miles back home, she became disquieted as a grey shadow coursed along the sidehill above her.

Sarah swallowed, tasting bitter failure as she realized her rifle was back at the house:  she carried no weapons, for she was but a young lady of few years:  she wished mightily for something with which to keep herself safe, and then she remembered the buggy gun under the seat.

The Sheriff gave it to her Papa, and they'd used it in laughing competition after church:  Sarah found it shot a little left for her, but her Papa declared it perfect, and proceeded to cut the heart out of the Ace of Spades with it.

Sarah reached under the seat, one-handed, slid the box out:  she dallied the reins around the brake handle, grabbed the cold, slick box with gloved hands, hauled it up on the seat beside her.

She opened the lid, looked up.

Yellow eyes looked back at her and her stomach shriveled.

 

The dashing young vaquero cursed the snow, profaned the cold, damned this winter to eternal hell and flames, and then he laughed:  "If I were to throw this winter into Hell," he declared aloud, "it would put out the fires, and then how would God punish the sinners, eh?"

His horse swung his ears, clearly listening, but offered no reply.

"Let us find that beautiful senorita," he laughed, "and perhaps she will consent to a visit to the Border country, no?"

His head lifted a little as he heard the first of the howls:  he knew the song of el Coyote, and this was not el coyoton:  no, this note was deeper, more powerful, and he felt his stomach shrink a little.

His eyes dropped to the sleigh tracks impressed in the snow, lifted to look at the mountain.

"Senor Dios," he breathed, "keep her safe!" -- his round-roweled spurs pressed into his mount's flanks, and the white Andalusian stallion surged ahead, throwing clouds of snow behind him as he charged up the broad, snow covered path.

 

Sarah twisted the percussion cap box apart, dropped the lid and dumped the caps: she seized up the pistol, snapped on the stock, grabbed the flask:  invert, press, revert, decant:  forty grains of Curtis & Harvey went down the bore: she placed the flask in the box's open lid, seized a ball -- as cold as it was, she did not want to risk a grease patch -- she dropped the ball in and saw the first wolf loping up behind her.

Her fingers were surprisingly steady as she snatched up a shining copper cap, pressed it down on the nipple.

Sarah stood, dropped one knee onto the tuck-and-roll leather upholstery, hooked the hammer's spur with her finger and brought it back to full stand:  the wolf took two sudden, running lunges, flowed up over the back of the sleigh, and the buggy gun fired.

 

Black Mexican eyes widened, even white teeth showed beneath an immaculately trimmed mustache:  his hand dropped down behind his thigh and he seized the checkered wrist of his '73 rifle, pulled it free.

"SAN CRISTOBAL!" he shouted, a warrior's challenge, loud and sharp and echoing off cold granite and snowy hillsides, and the stallion surged forward:  hot Mexican blood and hot Spanish blood roared from strong hearts and into warriors' souls and filled the two with that savage joy a man feels when he first runs into battle.

 

Sarah dropped the crescent stock to the floor beside her high-button shoe:  powder, a ball, seize a cap, shove it on, the second wolf was above her and ready to jump and the gun fired.

The distance was close; the lack of a patch was not a detriment, save only to the wolf, but even heart-shot, it still landed in the sleigh, and Sarah drove the crescent butt plate between its open jaws, hit him again:  the wolf fell back, rolled down behind her front seat.

Sarah reloaded with desperate speed.

A third wolf leaped, miscalculated:  it landed on the back of the mule, and the mule gave a strangled, startled sound, twisted, kicked:  Sarah heard something splinter and the sleigh jerked forward, the wolf fell off, rolled:  they were running now, the mule's ears laid back, bit between big yellow teeth, and Sarah slammed the lid shut on the buggy gun's box, pressed her palm down on it --

The mule slowed, Sarah looked above her, behind her:  she stood, shouldered the buggy gun, fired:  her shot was short, it kicked up snow in front of two pursuing wolves, and then something white and red and gaudy-trimmed black screamed past her, and she saw a white stallion half-turn, broadside to the wolves, and a sombrero with a brocade trimmed black vest fired three times, quickly:  only then did she realize there was a man under the hat, and she blinked, and she reopened the buggy gun's case and reloaded her own weapon.

The stallion danced, trampling the snow, blew, turned:  black Mexican eyes glared fiercely at the mountain above them, the roadway behind them, bloodied furry carcasses around them:  he rode up to the sleigh, looked in, crossed himself:  he swung up a leg, dropped to the ground, then swung into the sleigh, seized the carcass of a wolf with a hole through its chest, threw it:  the dead animal rolled down the mountainside for several hundred yards before skidding to a stop in a minor avalanche of soft, powdery white.

"Por Dios," he breathed, "you have killed how many, a dozen?"

"Not quite," Sarah said, standing and turning:  "I thank you -- "

Her hand went to her mouth, her eyes widened with delight.

"I know you!"

He laughed, extended his hand:  she placed her gloved hand in his and he kissed her knuckles, his eyes bright:  "And you are as beautiful as you are deadly!"  he declared.  "If I may, I would ride safe passage with you."

"It would be my honor," Sarah said carefully, dropping a curtsy, as best she could, standing up in the driver's box and facing backwards in the sleigh, but she managed:  he inclined his head with a solemn gravity, brought his rifle to the vertical and planted its iron buttplate on his thigh.

 

Bonnie McKenna looked out her window at the sound of sleigh bells, and she knew her daughter was returning.

Her eyebrows raised as she saw a handsome vaquero riding beside the sleigh, weather-tanned hand wrapped around the rifle's wrist, his carriage erect:  the Andalusian was stepping proudly, as if on parade, and Bonnie pressed her palm against the base of her throat, for a moment remembering what it was to be a pretty young lady in the company of a handsome man.

"Something?"  Levi asked, looking up from his ledger.

"I think," Bonnie smiled, "we shall have a guest for supper."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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276. THE LONELY VOICE

 

I was lost.

I had no idea where I was -- only that I was nowhere near my own men -- my horse, shot out from under me, lay two miles and more behind me.

God alone kept me from being ventilated.

Johnny Reb was denigrated, cussed, lied about and vilified seven ways from Sunday, but I am here to tell you, friend, I never come up against a single one of them that did not fight like Hell itself, and I never ran across a single one who couldn't shoot just awful damn good.

I knew as long as I drew breath that I yet lived, and as long as I lived there was the chance I would get home, that I would outlive this damned War, that I would hold my dear Connie once more, but until then my first concern was keeping myself alive.

Right now that meant being silent, that meant being a ghost, a skulking blue shadow in the woods.

I passed my coat sleeve across my face, wishing mightily for a drink of cold water: I dare not partake of the streams, they'd run pink as sassafras tea and after a few days of battle, they carried God knows what all corruption from dead bodies not yet dragged out.

I took a long breath, listened:  my revolver was still in its holster, my sabre in its sheath: I debated whether to discard it, for it was not what you'd call ... convenient ... to try and sneak through woods and brush with that damned thing at my side, but a man once told me a blade is always loaded, and right now I realized any fight would be fast, desperate and, after dark, likely close-up.

My right ear pulled back as if an invisible thumb-and-forefinger tugged at it.

My nostrils flared, I inhaled the cool evening air, smelling gunsmoke and forest floor, I smelled damp wood and gunsmoke, I heard ...

... a guitar?

Guitar.

Musician.

Appreciative audience of soldiers, wishing to relax after the day's fighting.

Not ours ... not out here.

I peered through the increasing dark.

Whither away? 

I should have headed away from the guitar player.

I should have drawn a chalk line between me and him, and gone in just as straight a line, away ...

... but I did not.

I reckon I wished for something pleasant, a moment's beauty, after the day's grief.

I cat footed toward the quiet, gently played notes, until I saw him.

There was light enough to see he was young ... as young as my own men: lean, tired looking, seated beneath a hickory twice as thick as my thigh.

I stood against another tree, knowing as long as I held still, I might appear as just another part of the trunk: I listened, and my soul wept, for it was long and long again since I had seen a thing of beauty, or heard a thing joyful:  my eyes remained dry, my ears vigilant:  this young man was alone, unarmed, speaking of a happier time with the lonely voice of six strings and fitted wood.

I eased closer, and closer yet, until I was two arm's-lengths from the tree against which he leaned, and he stopped playing.

I could almost feel his quiet smile.

"Hello, Yankee."

His voice was as gentle, as lonely, as the solitary voice of his guitar.

I came around the tree, hunkered beside him:  I reached into my war bag and felt around, found what I was looking for.

He looked at me curiously, taking in my blue uniform, no doubt reading the day's story in dirt, stains and a bullet tear on my coat sleeve.

I brought my hand out, extended it:  he extended his own hand to receive the cloth wrapped bundle.

I could see curiosity in his young eyes; he brought the bundle to his nose, sniffed, grinned.

"Thank you, my friend," I said softly.

He hefted the cloth wrapped bundle of roasted-up coffee beans, grinned.

"Was a man to try and make it back to Yankee lines," I hazarded, "what would be a good direction to head?"

"You don't talk like a Yankee," he grinned.

"Flattery," I deadpanned, "will get you everywhere."

He leaned forward a little, considered.

"That-a-way," he said, thrusting his jaw off to the left, "is where I come from, and I don't reckon you'd ought to go there.  We fit 'em all day off to the right" -- he considered -- "you might want to head back up-holler and stay on the north side of the ridge line.  Keep low enough you won't skyline yourself."

I nodded; the land of my nativity was more convoluted than this, steeper; I was a ridge runner from way back, and well more than familiar with running the deer paths -- deer like to run just below the crest of the ridge, so they can see what-all is below 'em but they can pop over the break of the ridge and be gone if something comes at 'em from below.

"Thank you," I said, and I looked around before I rose:  behind me, the lonesome voice of the guitar followed me into the gathering dark.

 

 

 

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277. " I TOLD YOU IT WOULD WORK!"

Deputy Marshal Willamina Keller sighed a little as she eased her tired backside down onto the red-upholstered stool.

Ruby's Boardwalk was one of two restaurants in town -- the other, across the street, was an extension of the bar: they were justly famous for their high quality meals, though most of their clientele preferred to guzzle their meal:  if you went in and ordered a meal with a baked potato, they baked the potato, they didn't have baked potatoes to be microwaved.

Willamina was not in the mood for a wait -- and besides, she was on duty: it would not be quite proper to sashay into the beer joint in uniform, sit down and order anything, no matter how innocuous.

She'd seen the hell a Glouster police officer caught when he plucked a beer bottle out of a car involved in a main street collision, and walked casually up the center line, swinging a longneck:  it was evidence, but enough people concluded that a sympathetic barkeep handed him a cold one, that he had to defend against a formal accusation of drinking on the job.

At least he didn't get his picture in the paper over it.

Willamina allowed herself to relax, just a little.

It had been one of those days.

She'd had a new partner, a ride-along from the local community college, a fellow who scaled not much under 300 pounds: the cruiser wasn't one of the State Recovery Surplus Crown Vics ... no, the Council President just had a fit when he heard they had to replace their cruiser, and refused to allow the Marshal to go to State Resource Recovery and obtain a cycled-out State Patrol cruiser.

The State Patrol cruisers, though high mileage, were a really good buy for a small town without much in the treasury: their maintenance was first rate, they came with new rubber, new brakes, complete lubrication and oil change, new batteries in most cases: they had the dual battery system, heavy duty alternator, heavy duty cooling system, heavy duty suspension -- in short, they were set up as a patrol cruiser should be.

No, no, said the Council President:  too expensive, too expensive, too much gas, I'll buy your cruiser.

He went down to the local dealership and came back with a four door Ford Fairmont.

The Marshal, Willamina, the Mayor and the village treasurer stared at the little compact, unbelieving.

"We'll have that thing beat to death inside of a month," the Marshal warned, "those back alleys are nothing but potholes held together with a little gravel."

"No, no.  Good car, good car.  Good mileage, good mileage."

Willamina raised her head, look out the window over the short order grille, saw the cruiser backed up against the village building.

She'd had the ride-along in the passenger front seat, which meant the car rode lower than normal; they made a patrol pass uphill, above the Widow Hanson's place, they'd driven up the Schoolhouse Hill and straddled the storm drain in the middle of the hand laid brick roadway, as they always did.

The drain was just high enough to catch their muffler.

They cackled and banged their way down the hill:  Willamina shoved the shifter into park, jumped out, took a look at the muffler hanging out behind the back bumper, held by its rubber hanger.

She looked at the ride-along.

"Got a knife?"

"Ummm," the green kid blinked, "ah, no, I'm sorry --"

Willamina ran a hand into her uniform trouser pocket, pulled out a lock back: a twist of her thumb and the blade locked open, she hooked the honed edge behind the hanger, gave a vicious pull, and the muffler fell to the ground, rocked a little, until she planted her polished boot on it.

She closed the lockback, dropped it back in her trouser pocket, opened the trunk.

"Don't want to burn anything," she muttered, then bent and seized the muffler:  the newbie blinked and stepped back, alarmed, as Willamina SLAMMED the muffler into the trunk:  she seized the trunk lid, SLAMMED it shut, shook her hands, teeth clenched:  she glared at the newbie as he asked, "Was it hot?" and Willamina snarled, "NO IT WASN'T HOT! IT DOESN'T TAKE ME LONG TO LOOK AT A HORSESHOE!"

She stomped around to the driver's door, yanked it open, got in:  she closed her eyes, took a deep, calming breath, drew her door carefully, precisely shut as the newbie cautiously climbed in his side and pulled his door to.

Willamina pressed cautiously on the brake pedal, pulled the shifter out of park, looked left and right, and saw Ruby was sweeping out the Boardwalk's front door:  she tapped the turn signal lever's end, intending to give a comradely toot-toot of the grey compact's horn.

That's what she intended.

The car had other ideas.

Willamina tapped the turn signal's end and the horn went BLAAAAAAAAAAAAA, Ruby looked up, surprised, Willamina tapped the shifter's end again, then muttered "If it blows to push it in, let's pull it out!"

She gripped the turn signal lever, pulled carefully, and the ride-along stared, open mouthed, as Willamina brought her hand and the signal lever up in front of her face, staring at it, unbelieving.

He saw her jaw thrust out and she looked over at him, and her eyes were the color of winter ice.

She threw the offending turn signal lever up onto the dash, bent and yanked the hood release:  she shouldered her door open, planted her burnished brogans on the gravel, stood.

Her jaw was set, her eyes were hard, her step was precise:  she went around in front of the cruiser, reached under the partially open hood, found the safety latch, pressed it to the side, threw the hood up.

The horn's steady blare hit her in the face like a backhanded slap.

She squinted, shoved her head under to find the offending device, and the hood fell and drove her brown uniform Stetson down onto her head.

Village of Chauncey Deputy Marshal Willamina Keller gripped her three cell flashlight, drew it from her belt ring, took it in both hands like she was gripping a rifle and drove the end hard like she was driving a bayonet into a particularly hated enemy, ramming it up and into the hood of the car: she reached in, found the horn, seized the connection, pulled it free ...

Blessed silence.

She stepped back, lowered the hood, pressed it carefully into place:  her moves were measured, slow, deliberate, controlled:  she picked up the belt ring, dropped her aluminum flashlight back into place, ran her fingers over the new knot in the hood's surface.

The newbie got back into his side as Willamina got back into hers.

They closed their doors quietly, carefully.

Willamina wordlessly started the engine, pulled into gear, cleared for traffic, pulled into the street and one block later, turn in beside the Village Hall.

She turned the cruiser, backed it up against the building, automatically using the wavy, single-pane window as a mirror, and swore, quietly, but most passionately.

"What --" the ride-along asked, then bit off the question.

Willamina stopped the car, put it carefully into park, turned off the ignition, withdrew the key.

"We have no horn," she said, "nor have we a muffler.  I can't write anyone for defective exhaust. The high beams are controlled by the turn signal lever.  I can't write defective for a traffic stop if their horn doesn't work because mine doesn't.  I can't write a headlight offense.  I have no turn signals.  Now I have no working brake lights."  She took a long breath, looked at the ride-along.  "I am quitting for the day.  Thank you for riding along with me."

Willamina waited until her short term partner was on his way, probably headed back to the Community College dormitory, where he would tell exaggerated tales of the deputy that murdered her cruiser one piece at a time ... she turned to thrust the key into the village hall's front door:  she had to let the Sheriff's office know they were out of service, and that was not information she wanted to put over the scanner, so rather than a radio call, she'd crank up Kaye from the village hall's phone.

That was her intention, until the key broke off in the lock.

Deputy Marshal Willamina Keller, of the Village of Chauncey Marshal's Office, glared at the stub sticking out of the lock, then ran her hand into her pocket and withdrew her lock back knife:  thirty seconds of careful work and she'd stabbed and teased the broken off key out of the cylinder:  she placed the broken key in her uniform blouse pocket, stepped back, looked down the street.

I need to eat something, she thought.

Ruby's is open.

And so it was the Willamina sat in the cool quiet of the little Boardwalk diner, chewing happily on a Western Melt (with grilled onions) and devouring a bowl of chili (with extra onions, peppered black) and chowing through a platter of onion rings:  she'd gotten most of the chili behind her belt buckle when the door opened and Chief Hanson came in, wearing his dirty white firecoat and helmet, and a worried expression.

"We've got a problem," he said.

Willamina seized her coffee, drained it, set the empty mug on the counter, thrust a ten under her plate.

"Lead on, Macduff."

Fire chief and duty lawman strode to the corner and down the street, to where Willamina knew some work was going on with a couple of the old company houses.

"We were tearing out the lath and plaster," Chief Hanson explained as they walked, "and one of the guys said 'Hey, what if they robbed a bank and walled up the gold,' so he looked inside the wall with a flashlight and there was something in there that didn't look like gold."

"What did it look like?"

"Salt."

"Salt?"  Willamina looked curiously at the Chief.

"I'll show you."

"Is anyone still working?"

"Nah, they knocked off for lunch."

"Good."

The Chief caught the worried tone in Willamina's voice, but said nothing.

They went into the old coal mine company house, looked around; the Chief indicated the north wall.

"In there."

Willamina pulled out her three-cell, turned her head sideways to see down into the gap between lath-and-plaster and the outer wall, shone a beam down.

The Chief saw her lose a little color in her face.

"Chief," she said, "I want a full fire response on this.  I want evacuation to six blocks and I want it now."

What the Chief said in reply does not bear repeating in polite company, but it translated -- shorn of the multiple syllables and scatalogical references -- to "Okay."

Fire response became Sheriff's response, became second-in fire response, with mutual aid apparatus staged at a half mile:  in a little less than 45 minutes, the Fire Marshal's bomb squad arrived and assumed command.

The Fire Marshal looked into the wall, looked at Willamina.

"How far back is your evacuation?"

"Six blocks."

"Make it a half mile."

"Can do."

Orders were given, troops dispatched:  Willamina remained close to the Fire Marshal's elbow, talkie in hand:  an eager young fireman, in response to orders, came into the echoing-empty company house with a gallon of Diesel fuel in one hand, a brand-new pump sprayer in the other.

"Just what the doctor ordered," the Fire Marshal declared in a cheerful voice.  "Now, boys and girls, here's what I'm going to do."

Willamina turned to the young fireman:  "Get the Chief," she said quietly, and the lad, breathing deeply -- something told Willamina the eager young fellow had been moving at a dead run, and was ready to resume his velocity -- turned and disappeared, replaced in very short order by the greying fire chief.

The Fire Marshal began pumping the sprayer.  "I," he said with an eager grin, "am going to either spray this gently to make it less sensitive, or I'm going to blow us all to hell, so you two might want to pull back."

"You've done this before?" Willamina asked.

"Oh, ya," the man nodded.  "Lots."

"Your first time, then."

The fire marshal laughed.  "You got me there!"

"What is that stuff anyway?"

"This was an old coal company house."

"It was."

"Intended to stand for twenty years."

"Yep."

"It was built fast and cheap as housing for coal miners back when."

"Correct."

"Whoever built this stole dynamite from the mines but he walled it up so he'd not get caught."

"Dynamite."

"Early dynamite was considerably more stout than is used today. Much more nitroglycerin saturated into fuller's earth.  It can sweat out with time and it dries out into crystals."

"Crystals."

"Look like salt crystals."  He raised his sprayer nozzle, pointed it away from them, gave a test squirt:  he turned the knurled brass tip, tried again, until he was satisfied with a fine spray.

"What you saw looked like dirty sticks and old burlap, soaked with salt and dried out.

"You were looking at crystallized nitroglycerin, and crystallized nitro is a little more volatile than the liquid stuff."

He raised the sprayer, eased it into the gap.

"Here we go."

Willamina looked over at the fire chief, who looked like he'd just bitten into something spoiled: to his credit, he stood his ground:  the Fire Marshal took his time, carefully applying the entire gallon:  it took a while, and it took several more sessions of pumping up the sprayer, but he finally dispensed one US gallon of Diesel fuel into the affected area.

"Now."  He picked up the sprayer.  "We are going to set this thing on fire."

The Chief nodded.  "How and how soon?"

"Give me another can of Diesel fuel and a road flare."

The Fire Marshal carefully trickled Diesel fuel down the wall, puddled it on the floor, drew a broad path of shining, oily liquid across the ancient boards.

They retreated out the back door; the Chief saw to the water curtains, arranged engines in series, one feeding another, ordered the pumps to start:  if they were going to burn this structure, he did not want radiant heat setting any other houses on fire.

"HANISHEN!" the Fire Marshal roared, and one of the Fire Marshal's staff came running up.

"You were on the Ohio State track team."

"Yes, sir."

"You know how to light one of these?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good.  I want you to stand here, like this" -- the Fire Marshal positioned the clean-cut young man in the dark-blue coveralls, set him just outside the back door -- "I want you to light that fusee, I want you to toss it into the middle of that puddle of Diesel fuel, and I want you to make Jesse Owens look like a rank amateur!"

"Jesse Owens, sir?" the young man asked, puzzled.

The Fire Marshal raised his hands to the heavens, fingers spread:  "Am I working with a nation of children?" he pleaded to the overhead cumulus.  "Just light it and toss it and run as if your mother in law is after you with a frying pan!"

"Yes, sir."

"Stand by."

The Fire Marshal jogged over to the Chief.

"Your pumps set, Chief?"

"Set!"

"Pull your men back.  I'll give you thirty seconds to get distance and then we light 'er up!"

Willamina and the Chief joined the State Fire Marshal behind the blast trailer.

They waited, Willamina's eyes on the sweep second hand of her black-faced wristwatch:  she heard running feet, she opened her mouth, an old artilleryman's trick, waited for the concussion --

A stray dog wandered across a yard a block away, unconcerned; Willamina watched the hand on her watch sweep around:  at T plus sixty seconds, she and the Fire Marshal stood and peeked around the blast trailer.

They walked a little further to the right, until they could see in the door.

The fire was hot, the interior bright with rolling flames, dirty black smoke saturating through the roof slates, and then something bright blue-white started burning, fast, hot, surprisingly bright in the middle of the conflagration --

Willamina could hear a a sputtering hiss -- 

She automatically started counting --

Dirty second one, dirty second two, dirty second three, dirty second four, dirty second five --

The Fire Marshal clapped a hand on Willamina's shoulder and declared happily, "I told you it would work!"

 

Two nights later, after Willamina's broken key was replaced, after the cruiser was delivered to the dealership for repairs, Willamina sat down at the same red-upholstered stool in Ruby's Boardwalk.

Ruby came over and set a big slice of coconut cream pie in front of her, with a fork and a large coffee.

"Here," she said quietly.  "I never got to say thank you."

Willamina looked at her, puzzled.

"What did I do now?"

Ruby gave her a knowing look.  "You kept us all from being blown up," she explained.  "Besides, you overpaid the other day."  She nodded to the slice of pie.  "That's by way of thank you."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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278. I WILL REMEMBER FOR YOU

Linn held up his high school gym shorts.

They were shorts when gym shorts weren't the silky knee pants that became all the rage.

"Reckon they'll fit," he muttered, leaned his shoulder against the wall, got one foot in, hauled the light cotton drawers to half mast, then shoved his other hoof in its proper hole and brought them up to working height.

"Yep.  Still fit."

He sat down on the bed, pulled on his socks, laced on the sneakers he almost never wore.

He had need of them today.

He'd been riding, and riding is good, but he wanted his legs to be better, and that meant he had to move under his own power.

He pulled on a flannel shirt over his T-shirt, but did not button it; he went downstairs, quietly, so as not to wake his wife:  he didn't want to worry her.

She was used to him getting up at the crack of oh-God-what-time-is-it and going out to take care of the horses, and being gone for a while, for he moved slower than before since he was still healing: she wouldn't worry at his absence.

He stopped at the gun cabinet, opened the door, reached in.

His hand automatically went to Uncle Pete's Garand.

He brought it out, eased the bolt back -- chamber empty, but eight in the hopper -- he parked the old war horse beside the glass door cabinet, brought out the web belt with the cartridge pockets, hung his shooting muffs from center back, then adjusted the sling out to carry length and hung it muzzle down from his off shoulder.

He'd come to prefer the muzzle down carry:  he was faster into action from the left shoulder, and a time or two that had kept his long tall carcass from harm.

He eased open the front door, settled the ballcap on his head:  his breath steamed in the morning sun, and he walked out onto the grey-painted porch, down the steps, looked around.

A fine morning.

He could not help but grin.

He was but a wee child when Uncle Pete was still alive, but he remembered the man, he recalled a magic morning when the two of them stood out on the porch with frost furring the grass like it was this morning, and Uncle Pete nodded his approval and said "A fine morning," and Linn never forgot that strong, reassuring man's words.

He took a deep breath of the cool air, leaned forward, began to run.

 

Shelly was managing in the kitchen without her crutches.

She was not up to running with the Valkyries, but she was walking a distance, and she'd wanted to walk with her husband, but the cheerleaders generally came out and scooped her up and they didn't so much walk -- in a formal and organized way -- as they all ... well, kind of strolled, and laughed, and gossiped, and chattered, and it was more like a walking visit than it was formal exercise.

Her leg ached less every day with the walking, and she thought she might try running, a little.

Just a little, she thought, but ... not today.

She smiled a little, peeled bacon from the package, lay the strips in the cast iron frying pan.

 

Linn leaned against the fence, rubbing his burned, healing thighs.

The bandages were gone; his flesh was ugly, scarred, purplish in places.

"What the hell," he muttered.  "I don't wear a miniskirt anyway."

He swung the Garand up to port arms, looked at it again, as he often did.

"Uncle Pete carried you in Europe," he said softly.  "He never would talk about it."
He turned it over, ran his fingers over a gouge in the fore stock, his eyes going a little pale as he did.

He never talked about it, he thought, except for this one mark ...

"Uncle Pete," he'd asked -- he could not have been eight years old -- "what made that gouge?"

Uncle Pete was quiet for a long moment:  he'd turned the rifle over so he could see it, then he stood, his eyes closed.

Linn watched silently as his uncle raised the rifle, drew it back, thrust the muzzle forward, pulled: Linn saw his uncle's face in profile, and for the first and only time in his young life, his uncle scared him:  the man's normally patient face was drawn tight, his expression was fierce, the look of a man in utter concentrated fury:  he drew the rifle back to port arms, took a step back, then took a long, deep breath and blew it out with puffed cheeks and pursed lips.

He backed up two steps and sat heavily, lowering his head, grounding the rifle's butt and gripping the old war horse with both hands, a crushing grip that blanched his weathered knuckles.

"I was almost out of ammo," he whispered hoarsely, "and so were the Jerries."

He gasped in another breath, shivered.

"There at the last it was bayonets."
His fingers searched the scarred line on gunstock walnut.

"I stopped the other guy."

Linn sat on the same rock his uncle had set down on suddenly, heavily:  he grounded the rifle's butt in probably the same place his uncle had, and his fingers searched the long scar in the rifle's fore end.

"Uncle Pete," he whispered, "I remember."

He stood, wiped the dirt off the rifle's butt, slung it muzzle down again from his off shoulder.

"He only told me that one thing about the War," Linn said aloud, his voice soft.  "Mama said when they don't talk about it, they saw action."

He nodded.

"I'll remember what little he told me."

 

Shelly looked up as Linn came in the front door:  she'd never seen her husband in gym shorts -- buck naked, yes; a baggy pair of swim trunks, yes, but never in the brief gym shorts of a generation ago.

His cheeks were red, he was out of breath, he was breathing deeply:  he limped just a little, but he had the look of someone who'd done something difficult, and succeeded.

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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279. A CROSSING OF THE BLADES

Jacob Keller raised his Schlager blade in salute, his off hand knuckled to his belt.

His mother raised her blade in like manner, her off arm in the same posture.

Each lowered their blades' tips, almost to the ground, then raised them until they just crossed, a hand's-breadth shy of the tapered tips.

These were practice blades, the identical length and weight of her good blades, but the other set -- the set with identical handles, crossguard, knuckle-bow, length, pommel, balance, engraving -- the other set was sharp, both tip and edge, and she had drawn blood with her other set, and more times than one.

Esther Keller, the green-eyed wife of Old Pale Eyes, was a Lady born: the daughter of Carolina nobility, she retained her regal bearing, her immaculate manners, her incisive business sense, and as evidenced by this morning's practice with her son, she retained the feral and absolutely deadly nature of the Suth'n belle.

She'd taught Jacob years before not to think when he fought with sharpened steel, but to let his mind relax, to fence from within -- the concept of the mind's subconscious had yet to become common knowledge -- Esther intuitively knew there was something deeper than the thinking mind, and Jacob well knew how to tap into this deeper level:  that, and practice, made him a fast and utterly deadly gunfighter, and he'd found that his red-headed mother's instruction with blades short and not so short, enhanced his skills with the shortgun as well.

It was an era when gentlemen were expected to be able to dance, an era when it was taken for granted that women could dance, and dance very well:  in the game of blades, the dance was deadly, the dance was graceful, and the dance was beautiful to watch.

Mother and son tested each others' reflexes, took an experimental step to the side, and suddenly two patient opponents were united with a woven-silver spiderweb between them.

 

Linn Keller had his uniform Stetson tucked correctly under his off arm.

"Reporting for duty, ma'am."

Willamina looked up, placed her pen very precisely along the left edge of the paper she'd been working on:  she rose, paced around her desk, stopped in front of her son.

She looked him very deliberately down, then back up:  she nodded, once.

"Resume your station."

"Yes, ma'am."

 

Jacob turned, blocked the intruding blade with a swing of his own steel:  Sarah's blade was intending to come in, sideways, to smack him across the backside.

He was hard pressed to keep ahead of his pale eyed half-sister:  she was as graceful, but she was more aggressive, faster.

He was stronger, with a slightly greater reach, but she was the quicker, and as Jacob's blade thrust out to just touch her steel gorget, her blade just hit the padding under his breastbone.

Double kill.

Each stepped back, raised their blade in salute:  each tried to maintain a serious expression, and each failed utterly in the effort:  brother embraced sister and laughed, and Jacob murmured into her ear, "Thank you, Little Sis, you keep me humble!"

Sarah drew back, swatted him on the chest:  "Hey, who are you calling "little," Little Brother?"

They laughed again, and Esther smiled, for she remembered such sibling interactions, when she was yet a girl at home.

Jacob turned to Esther, raised his blade again in salute.  "My Lady?" he asked formally, as he always did -- Esther smiled, for her father used to call her "My Lady," as he had her mother, God rest her soul -- and Esther shook her head, raised her own blade in saluting reply.

"I think," she said, "half an hour is sufficient.  Besides" -- she tilted her head in approval -- "it would be difficult to enter into my ledger with a hand shaking with fatigue!"

"Ma'am," Jacob asked suddenly, and Esther stopped:  he almost never spoke after their practice sessions, and she knew something was important enough to interrupt his custom of thoughtful silence.

"Ma'am, will my skill with a blade carry down to my sons?"

Esther blinked, surprised, looked at Sarah:  she wiped her blade with the cloth she kept for that purpose, placed it carefully in its fitted receptacle in the double case.

"I think," she said carefully, "all that we are, is carried in the blood, and that at some time, our descendants will have that deep memory of what was."  She accepted her pale eyed stepson's blade, wiped it down as well, placed it beside its twin, closed the lid.

"Yes, Jacob.  I think that your skill with a blade will carry in your blood."

 

Linn Keller's vision hazed as pain detonated across his thighs.

The blow was quick, unexpected:  he'd been on guard for a different attack, but not this, not a length of dowel, a slender round stick hard-swung and catching him just above the knees, right where his burn-scar was.

Someone barked "LINN! CATCH!" and something sailed through the air toward him, and he caught it, his hand welding to turned walnut, and he knew what he had.

He backed up a step, ran his thumb through the loop, turned his hand so it lay along his knuckles, and gripped the turned-hardwood police baton like it was a short sword, and the fight was on.

Linn's moves were fast, efficient:  the attacker dropped the dowel, picked up a two foot section of black gas pipe, swung:  rather than stop it, Linn deflected it, turned, drove the handle of his baton into the attacker's gut, drew back, swung hard, coming up in a tight arc, intending to catch his attacker across the side of the thigh.

He missed.

The attacker doubled over, suddenly sick, as a sunball of absolute agony detonated deep in his guts: the lawman's return stroke, though inadvertent, was effective:  Linn stepped back, his off elbow tight to his side, the baton swinging in a fast figure-eight in front of him: he turned left, turned right, his face pale, tight:  "ANYBODY ELSE WANTA TRY?" he challenged, his voice loud, sharp, echoing off the underside of the All-Night's outdoor roof.

Suddenly nobody wanted anything to do with the lone lawman who'd stopped to see why there was a group of idlers making customers uncomfortable.

 

Linn stood in front of his mother's desk, frowning.

There was a presentation case on her desk, open: it was obviously old, but very well made, and lined with green velvet.

"This," Willamina explained, "was found beside one of the gas pumps at the All-Night after your little ... encounter," she said.  "What can you tell me about it?"

Linn turned his head a little, frowned:  he lifted the hardwood baton, test-fit it into the case ...

... a perfect fit ...

"You might want to read the plaque on the lid," Willamina suggested.

Linn frowned, closed the lid, studied the hand engraved brass plaque inlaid into figured wood.

"To Agent S. L. McKenna," he read, "with gratitude to the Pale Eyed Head Knocker."
He grinned.

"From the Denver Police Detective Bureau."

"So," Willamina said, leaning back and steepling her fingers, eyeing her son speculatively.  "Just how did something nobody has seen or even heard of in a century, suddenly appear at our local gas station?"

Linn looked at the baton, turned it, studied its butt end, lifted an eyebrow.

"You may want to see this," he said slowly, handing it handle first to the Sheriff.

Willamina accepted the baton, slipped her readers on her face, ran them halfway down her nose, frowned at the baton's end.

"SLM," she read, looked up at her son, raised an eyebrow.

"Have you reviewed the surveillance?"  Linn asked.

Willamina smiled.  "In a use-of-force investigation?  Why ever would I do that?"  She tapped a key on her computer, tapped a few more, gripped her mouse:  a move, a click, a smile.

"Come see this."

Linn came around her desk, bent a little, chuckled quietly as he looked at her flat screen.

"Can you enlarge that?" he asked.

Another few key-clicks, and what looked like an active young man in all black -- a young man clearly wearing knee high, flat heel Cavalry boots, a black Stetson, vest and shirt, came up from a crouch -- the mouth opened, apparently in a shout -- the arm came up, and something long and dark sailed through the air.

Mother and son looked at one another, looked at the monitor, looked at the baton.

"Sarah Lynne McKenna," Linn said softly.  "The Black Agent."

He laughed.

"There was a fencing instructor filling his tank when all this happened," Willamina said, leaning back and looking up at her tall, lean-waisted son.  "He said he'd never seen such fine swordsmanship."

"Swordsmanship?"  Linn echoed, and his Mama swatted his flat belly with the back of her hand.

"You did your ol' Maw proud," she drawled.  "Now get out of here and quit wasting my time."

"Yes, ma'am," he laughed, and turned to head for the door.

"Linn?"
Linn stopped, turned.

"Where was the initial blow?"

"Across here" -- he bent, ran a bent, bladed hand across just above his knees.  

"They intended to blind you with pain and bend that pipe across your head."

"Yes, ma'am."

"They knew they'd have to take advantage of your weakness, that you  couldn't be simply clubbed to get your gun."

"It almost worked, ma'am."

"So now you know."

"Yes, ma'am."

"They intended to creep a cop, take his gun, hold up the place, kill the witnesses, carjack a ride and run to the next town.  Ditch the car, toss the gun, club another cop and do it again."

"Yes, ma'am."

Willamina's pale eyes looked very directly into her son's pale eyes.

"I'm glad it didn't work."

Linn nodded slowly.  

"Yes, ma'am."

Willamina nodded, looked away.

"I'll finish the report now, ma'am."

 

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280.  IT'S NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN HERE

 

I know my namesake wore a suit as a matter of habit.

Don't feel like it tonight.

Linn glared at his uniform shirt, hung up, his uniform trousers clothes pinned to another hanger, upside down to let them air out and to let the wrinkles fatigue and disappear:  unless they were actually soiled, or he'd sweated terribly, he laundered them every other day so as not to beat them to death in the Maytag.

He bent, ran his hand into the still-warm boot, lifted the Wellington, punished its shining surface with a horsehair brush:  he had two such brushes, one with a capital D chip carved into the handle, the other with a capital P:  the D, for DIRT, was in his hand as he knocked the day's dust from his boot.

He'd wiped off the adherent mud before coming upstairs, sock feet silent in the empty house.

One boot, then the other:  his Uncle Pete, rest his soul, taught him how to polish his boots, and he'd used Uncle Pete's method ever since:  one brush to knock off the dust, then with the boots warmed to soak in the polish and get a good smooth application, a short wait to let the polish set, the second brush -- the one with the incised P for POLISH -- brought it to a good, high grade shine.

His concern was less for appearance and more for preservation.

Uncle Pete spoke of the need to polish the stitching and the seams, and Linn used a toothbrush to apply the boot polish carefully, not excessively; he wanted his boots waterproof, he wanted them well waxed, with the lanolin polish soaking into the leather to prevent leaks and cracking.

He took his time; when he was done, his boots shone:  he stared at them, considered for a long moment.

"Well, hell," he sighed, and then he rose and opened the louvered closet door:  it folded to the side and he reached in, brought out a pleated front white shirt:  his face was impassive, but he still had the expression of a man satisfied with what he was doing.

He pushed up the collar, wrapped the necktie, making sure the Velcro was at center back: he liked a proper appearance, but he disliked the idea of someone grabbing his necktie and using it as a control hold:  as a matter of fact, he had the memory of giving some fellow a gut full of knuckles while said soul stood staring at the ripped-free necktie in his hand, and he remembered the God-awful look of "I have just messed up" right before Linn's fist drove into his attacker's wind.

He tied the necktie, quickly, with the ease of long practice; it was a necktie that kind of puffed out a little, he tied that neat looking, square, Windsor knot; a silver stickpin, the handmade trousers and a black leather belt, and the shirt was carefully tucked in:  he slid into his boots, paced back to the closet, brought out the hand made, 1885-era coat, smiled as he held it.

His Mama made him that coat, and he was proud of it:  matter of fact, she'd worked her magic on the sewing machine and made him a surprising percentage of his wardrobe.

The coat was cut to let him wear certain ... items ... of less than gentle persuasion, while looking perfectly innocuous:  Linn applied these items where they would not be commonly seen, and he picked up his black Stetson, settled it on his head, stepped in front of the mirror.

A well dressed man with pale eyes and a curled, Maxwell-red mustache looked back at him.

I wonder if Old Pale Eyes had such a mirror, he wondered, then dismissed the thought:  of course he did, his wife would have had one! -- and he smiled, just a little, at the thought of the beautiful Esther Keller, in a properly tailored gown, coming up beside her handsome husband and taking his arm, before they went out in public.

Linn went downstairs, his tread almost silent on the broad, ancient staircase:  his eyes were busy as he descended, for though it was his home, though he knew the doors were secured, he did not let down his guard even here in his sanctum, for he'd learned the hard lesson very early in life that evil strikes any time, any where, and with no advance warning.

His wife was at the fire house, he knew: she'd arranged for a shift to start back to work, and her father reluctantly agreed:  Linn knew the squad went out at least once, and he knew his wife would be either bubbling like an excited schoolgirl, or she would be sullen and morose:  either way, he reasoned, it wouldn't be right to ask her to fix supper.

She would have driven to the firehouse, which meant she'd have to drive back, simply to have her car here at the house:  Linn considered whether to drive his Jeep or saddle his stallion, and as he came out the front door, Apple looked over the fence at him, and he walked over to the spotty saddlehorse and rubbed his nose.

"You bum," he murmured.  "How would you like some biscuit?"

Apple-horse pushed his nose against Linn's middle, hoping for a bribe:  he rubber-lipped the carrot chunks off Linn's flat palm, crunching happily as Linn went into the barn, picked up saddle blanket and saddle and came out the side door.

Not long later, a tall, lean waisted lawman with pale eyes, a lawman in a black suit and well polished boots, rode a strutting stallion across the back field toward the Silver Jewel Saloon.

 

Shelly hissed her breath out as she lowered herself into the chair.

Her husband held the chair; she let him scoot her in a little, waited until he was seated before admitting, "I ache."

"I'm not surprised," he said quietly.

The hash slinger came over, cracking her gum:  Linn looked up at her and smiled, just a little.

"What's good tonight?" he asked in his gentle voice and she laid a hand on his shoulder and said "Besides me, sweetheart?"

Linn laughed and patted her hand.

"Darlin', you deserve some young stud, not me.  Why, a hot woman and a cold glass of water and I'd die of a heart attack!"

She laughed -- it was a standing joke between the two -- and she recited the special:  as it involved meat, mashed potatoes and gravy and biscuits, it sounded good to husband and wife both, and Linn added -- with a hopeful look and the voice of a little boy -- "Is there pie?"

The waitress smiled, snapping her gum:  "If we don't have any, I'll run down the street and get some!"

Linn waited until she poured their coffee and swung her hips all the way back to the kitchen before planting his forearms on the table and looking very directly at his wife.

"How bad?"

Shelly dropped her elbows to the checkered tablecloth, dropped her face in her hands:  she slid her hands back, blinked a few times.

"I got my old nickname back."

"Saddles?"  Linn asked, his brows puzzling together a little.

"No."  She shook her head, crossed her arms:  "The Grim Reaper."

Linn frowned a little and turned his head, as if to bring a good ear to bear.

"When I was with FD Denver," she explained, "when I started, every day -- every day! -- we had at least one code or an overdose or both, and it only happened when I was on shift, so they started calling me the Grim Reaper."

Linn's left eyebrow raised a little.

The hash slinger leaned out from around the corner at the other side of the room, waved:  "You want whipped cream with that?"  and Linn nodded, raised two fingers:  the waitress waved again, drew back, disappeared.

"So what happened?"

"We had a code and an overdose.  Old man Chipalinski.  I don't think he made it but we had that overdose right after and we had to code that one too, he didn't make it.  I don't know what he took but it wasn't fentanyl and for all I know they cut it with wolf strychnine --"

A slice of some kind of pie, absolutely buried in whipped cream, came sailing in and landed in front of her:  she pulled back, surprised, as Linn leaned back and thanked the waitress, who laid a hand on his shoulder and said "I remember what you told me, handsome," and winked, and hip swung her way back to the kitchen.

Shelly picked up her fork, looked at her husband curiously, who grinned like a bashful schoolboy.

"I quoted my Mama to her," he explained.  " 'Life is uncertain, eat dessert first.' "

Shelly raised her fork, held it out, Linn raised his, tinged it against hers, and they tore into their fresh, still-warm blueberry pie.

"I think Ruby made this," Linn mumbled around his delicious mouthful:  "Mama could never make a flaky crust to save her sorry backside, but Ruby always does, bless her!"

Shelly grunted, forcing herself to savor her bites:  she did not realize how hungry she was, and could have positively devoured her dessert.

It wasn't until their meal arrived, not until they were halfway through, that either spoke again.

"Linn?"

"Hm?"

"How come all this happens?"

He quirked up an eyebrow, took a sip of coffee, tasted just the hint of cinnamon:  Ruby was working in back, all right, she liked to sprinkle cinnamon on the coffee to take out the bitterness, and unless you were looking for the flavor, you'd likely never pick up on it.  Linn found it to his taste and added two good shakes of cinnamon to the coffeemaker back at the house.

"How come what-all happens?"

"Look at us," Shelly declared.  "I still limp, you're burned, I got rammed at God knows what velocity --"

"Combined speed of collision was 65 miles an hour," Linn murmured, "subtracting your forward velocity from his --"

Shelly threw her biscuit at him and he laughed, clapping the flaky bread to his chest and placing it on his own biscuit saucer, then brushing crumbs off his suit.

"I get rammed, you about tear your guts open hoisting a car off me.  You had to knock the dog stuffing out of that guy after I drove the end of my crutch into his nose here a month or so ago.  We've had fires, murders, explosions, we haven't had a derailment, thank God, but I'm not going to say that too loudly because there are Evil Demons of the Air that listen to every word we say -- 'What's that about a picnic? ZAP! Thunderstorms and red ants!' " -- Shelly's expression was so intense, her gesture of slinging a bolt of lighting onto the tabletop with a stiff finger, that Linn had to discipline himself sternly indeed to keep from laughing at his wife.

"Why does all this happen here?"  Shelly asked, lowering her voice, staring into her husband's eyes. "When I left Denver, they told me this was the sticks, the boonies, the outback, nothing ever happens here, fire trucks sleep to death in station, squads die of old age with twenty miles on the clock, my skills will evaporate from disuse" -- she swallowed -- "do you know, I almost delivered a baby when I arrived at the firehouse this morning?"

"No," Linn looked up, surprised.  "No, I didn't."

"The husband brought his wife to station and said she was in labor. I wasn't on duty for another half hour and Daddy told me to sit down, I was watch officer until they got back, so I sat on phones and radio until their return."

"Does the squad get another stork?"

"No."  Shelly frowned.  "No, her water didn't break until two hours after she was admitted into OB."

"Darlin'."  Linn's voice was gentle, and he reached both hands across the table, took both his wife's hands in his.  "I don't know why this all happens here.  Yes we're the boonies and yes nothing should happen here and yes we should grow old with very few miles on the odometer.  I wish that was the case." 

His hands tightened on hers, just a little.

"Darlin', we're given choices in this life.

"When you went into the All-Night and you saw a child choking, you could have whipped out your phone and made the call, and just stood there and watched, but you didn't.  You flailed across the room like a chicken with aluminum wings and you grabbed that kid and blew the block from his throat and you, kept, him, alive."

His voice was quiet, intense.

"You made a choice, you had no advance warning, the hot potato landed in your lap and you, chose, life.

"When his father grabbed his chest and went down with a heart attack, you had another choice.

"You, chose, life."

Linn's words were measured, separated, intense.

"When I was attacked, I could have reasoned that I was still healing and I was not up to full capacity and I should just shoot the fellow who tried to blind me with pain when he swarped my burns with that stick.  I could have punched his eyes out with two shots, but I didn't, I caught a war club and reduced him to possession, to quote the game warden."  He grinned, that crooked grin she knew so well.  "There are other times when the right choice has been to punch them a ticket on the Hell Bound Train.  I don't know why all this happens here, of all places.  I don't know."  He shook his head slowly.  

"I do know this, darlin'."

His hands were warm, almost hot; his grip was firm, but not tight, and his voice was low, emphatic, his was the voice of a man who believed every word he said. 

"I can not think of anyone else -- anyone! -- I would rather be sharing my life with!"

Shelly blinked, bit her bottom lip, swallowed:  she nodded, pulled one hand free, picked up her napkin and pressed it to her eyes.

Linn felt someone at his elbow and looked up as the waitress pressed a napkin to hers as well.

She laid a hand on his shoulder and squeaked, "That's the sweetest thing I've heard today," before dropping their ticket on the table and walking quickly away, wiping her eyes, and not swinging her hips at all.

 

 

 

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281. TO GOUGE THE EYES

The Valkyries felt good.

Every last one of the young women was sweating, just a little, every one of them was stretched out and warmed up, every one of them had  charged the heavy bag and delivered hard kicks, elbow strikes, they'd practiced particularly vicious blows on the practice dummy: calisthenics, striking into the wind, sparring:  Willamina worked them hard, but she worked them efficiently, and she never worked them too long at any one thing.

She kept their interest.

Part of her success is because she worked with them at every step: she stretched out the same as they, she slammed the heavy bag harder than they, more viciously than they, when their knees were on the floor as they did push-ups, Willamina's legs were straight, and her knuckles were in the sawdust instead of her palms, and when she assaulted the dummy, it was with a snarl and an expression of utter, cold-eyed RAGE that focused through the point of her striking fist or ridge hand or spear hand or heel kick or whichever particular strike she was teaching.

One of the girls was always a little quiet, a little timid:  her name, fittingly, was Kitty, and though she was one of the Valkyries and as capable as any of her peers, she also looked like perhaps the least likely candidate for a Valkyrie.

Smaller, perhaps more delicate, a more mousy nature, quieter:  she raised a timid hand and asked, "Sheriff?"

Willamina thrust a bladed hand toward her.  "Speak!"

"Umm ... woof?"  Kitty hazarded, and then laughed nervously.

Willamina skipped toward her, stopped, crossed her legs and sat, quickly, easily:  "What's on your mind?"

Willamina's approach, her quick, Indian-legged descent, was the signal that this was an informal moment when her walls were down, when a question could be asked.

"Sheriff ... why do we have to be so vicious?"

Willamina considered for a long moment as the rest of the young ladies formed a rough 3/4 circle, coming to their own cross legged, seated posture, listening closely:  perhaps it's because Kitty wasn't the only one who wondered why the Sheriff was teaching them full-on, absolutely merciless, utterly murderous blows and techniques.

Willamina nodded slowly, framing her answer.

"I subscribe to kind of ... a clipping service," she began.  "There are agencies that scour news reports, newspapers, the Internet, looking for particular subjects."  She leaned forward a little, placed her elbows on her knees, clasped her hands and steepled her index fingers, resting her chin delicately on their tips.

"I keep track of police officer attacks."

Her jaw slid out, slowly, and Kitty expected her face to harden, her eyes to go pale, but she didn't.

She looked ... 

She looked almost sad.

"Back East," she said, "I won't tell you where ... an officer pulled an individual over for a road rage incident.  The officer is female, and when she made the stop she knew this was an individual with a temper, so she was primed for a fight.  By all accounts she was well trained, she was well armed, she knew she might be wading into a fight.

"She didn't realize the individual had a prison record and absolutely no hold-back to his temper.

"She was trained and toned but he was bigger and frankly a lot stronger and he got her down on the deck and was beating her to death with his fists.

"She was gun-side-down so she could not shoot him, all she could reach was her pepper spray, and she brought it up and gave him both eyes full while his thumbs had her eyes halfway out of their sockets."

Willamina took a long breath, her eyes staring at something she'd only read about, but could too clearly see.

"I have seen that done and it's pretty bad."

She lowered her head, looked up.

"That is why I am pushing you.  That is why I am teaching you to be fast.  That is why I am teaching you to be utterly without mercy, without remorse, without a conscience.

"If someone wishes you harm, such an individual will understand one thing and one thing only, and that is absolute, unyielding, unhesitating, violence" -- her voice was tight now, and her eyes were going pale -- "the only thing evil understands is immediate, overwhelming, utterly devastating force.

"You are not as strong as males of your size.

"You are faster than most males of your size.

"You are built closer to the ground than most males of your size, which means your leverage is better when you intend to put them on the ground.  You're pretty good with your throws -- every one of you" -- she looked around, and smiled, just a little -- "and I intend that you should be better.

"Kitty, you remember when you saw the body in the ditch."

Kitty turned a little pale, nodded.

"You could not bring yourself to go closer because you were afraid it was your friend."

"It was," Kitty whispered, her throat suddenly dry.

"That is why I want to teach you to be vicious."

Kitty nodded, slowly.

Willamina leaned forward, reached for Kitty's hands, her voice low, urgent, the voice of a mother telling her daughter some terrible truth.

"Kitty, I don't want to view your body on the coroner's slab. I've done that with too many people I've known and loved, and people I wish I'd known, people who depended on their county to keep them safe, and every last one of them looked at me with dead eyes and said with dead lips that I, personally, failed them."

She squeezed Kitty's hands, gently, then released.

"I don't ever want to fail you, Kitty."

She looked around, slowly, far left, swinging her gaze, meeting every last eye that was staring into hers.

"That goes for everyone here.  I don't ever want to fail you.  That's why I am working you so hard."

 

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282.  HIS LAST ACT OF OFFICE

 

JW Barrents was riding the last patrol of his career.

Today was his last day.

He was not looking for anything in particular, he was enjoying the lovely sunny day, the shades of purple in the mountain shadows, flowers here and there raising a rebellious, colorful head against winter's cold and spring's approach, and he bethought himself to head one township west, where Linn was working on something.

Barrents had a heavy foot and he delighted in the big block engine's performance, something his pale eyed Sheriff never, ever discouraged:  he'd wrung the Suburban out on every twisty road he could find, he'd pushed it to its limits of traction in varying weather and light conditions, finding what he could -- and more importantly, had better not -- do.

Unlike those of fewer years, he disliked a loud exhaust; his cruiser was invariably well muffled, and today he used that to his advantage, for two lads were obviously up to something as he approached.

They were concentrating on watching Linn; he eased the cruiser in behind a building, shut it off: he marked out of the vehicle, turned down his talkie and proceeded to sneak up on the pair.

The closer he got, the more he felt the skin at the corners of his eyes tighten a little, for two boys were up to deviltry, and he well remembered what it was to be a boy, up to something.

He eased down behind a water barrel, watching.

His hand reached out and down without looking, caressing the dog that came up to say howdy: Barrents always did have an affinity with stray kids and lost dogs, and the rancher's canine leaned happily against the Navajo's thigh, gave a contented sigh as strong and blunt fingers reached down and rubbed the front of its chest.

Linn looked back up at the rancher, nodded.

"I don't see as there's any crime here," he said, "but if you'd like a hand settin' those fence posts back in place --"

Barrents rose a little as one of the boys he was watching, produced a stubby, red cannon cracker: the other shook out a slingshot, the kind with those high powered yellow rubbers, the kind that would sling a marble hard enough to spiderweb a windshield, or penetrate a skull if you hit the thin bone on the side.

He eased forward, silent, uttering a wordless but most sincere wish that Linn had his mother's gift of knowing when something was about to happen.

Linn slipped the slender metal pen back into his shirt pocket.

A Lucifer match scratched into life.

The fuse started to sputter, sizzling brightly in the shadow of one boy's bent-over posture: he drew back, tossed, landing the cracker halfway between himself and the intended victim, the other pulling his slingshot's pinched pocket back to his chin, very obviously aiming for the pale-eyed deputy's back.

This could end very badly, Chief Deputy JW Barrents thought, drawing in a quick breath to shout a warning --

The cannon cracker detonated in a minor flash but a much larger BANG, just as the second lad released his slingshot.

Linn spun right before the cracker went off, aluminum clipboard held up: the marble smacked into metal -- it would have hit him in the left kidney, had he not spun as he did -- and two boys were momentarily frozen with expressions of "He just caught me!" -- and then the hard hand of doom closed, one on one boy's right shoulder, the other on the boy's left shoulder, and Barrents rumbled, "Goin' somewhere?"

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked from her son to her chief deputy, eyes bright as she removed her half-glasses, folded them, slipped them back into their brocaded case, closed the case in her desk drawer.

"So," she said.  "We have the sound of a gunshot, something smacks your clap board like you've been shot.  What did you do?"

Linn grinned.

"I saw two faces that looked like they were three feet long and the color of wheat paste," Linn grinned, "and I saw JW here with a hand on each of them, and I knew nothing I did could make them any more ... penitent ... than they were in that moment."

"You didn't think you'd been shot."

"The thought crossed my mind," he admitted, "and I got off the X in one hell of a hurry, but when I saw JW here, I knew the situation was contained."

"How badly did it dent the aluminum?"

Linn handed it over.

Willamina whistled, ran her finger into the surprisingly deep dent, looked up.

"It'll beat out," Linn predicted cheerfully, "but I wanted to show you the dent before I took the anvil to it."

Willamina raised an eyebrow.  "Glad you did."

"The boys were ... addressed ... by their father," Barrents rumbled, giving his boss that wordless but knowing look that spoke more than an hour's oratory.  "And Linn showed them the folly of surprising a gun hand."

"And how'd you accomplish that?"  Willamina asked, her other eyebrow raising to the same elevation as the first, as she leaned back in her high backed office chair, as she laced her fingers across her flat belly and looked from one deputy to another.

"We set a scrap metal plate on a fence rail," Linn replied, "and the fellow with the slingshot drove a marble into it from in front of me."  His hands were busy sketching the situation -- He's just like his father, Willamina thought:  hold his hands behind his back and he wouldn't be able to talk!

"He stood in front and hit the plate with a slingshot, I turned and fired, and his buddy had set a plate behind me while I looked forward."

"He is still a snake with a sixgun," Barrents rumbled approvingly.  "You taught him well."

"You helped."

"I did that," JW agreed, "but the student is now the master."

JW Barrents turned, thrust out his hand.

"Today I retire, and my career is no more," he said formally as Linn gripped his callused, weather tanned, blunt-fingered hand.  "Chief Deputy Linn Keller, may your career be uneventful."
"I thank you, my friend," Linn said quietly.  "I owe more than I could ever repay."

Barrents was quiet for a long moment, then he nodded, looked at the Sheriff.

"Boss, I hate long goodbyes."

Willamina came around the desk, took his hand, then seized him in a surprisingly powerful hug.

"You have been my right hand," she murmured.  "I will miss you."

Barrents meant to say something -- he'd thought of this moment and what he might say -- but somehow his throat would not work.

Retired Chief Deputy JW Barrents left by the back door, in civilian attire:  he knew there'd been a retirement party planned, or at least suggested, he knew there was a cake in the meeting room, and as he brushed a fleck of chocolate cake crumb from his flannel shirt (for some odd reason, that meeting-room cake now had a chunk missing), he looked up at the granite mountains and allowed himself a quiet smile.

He'd put the boys up to the cannon cracker and the slingshot -- as a matter of fact, he'd provided both -- because he wanted to make double damned sure, as his last act of office, that his training of the Sheriff's pale eyed son, that his faith in the Sheriff's pale eyed son, was not misplaced.

He nodded, took a deep breath, his big chest expanding to the limits of his shirt's buttons.

His trust was indeed not misplaced; his faith in their new Chief Deputy was well founded, and in this, he was content.

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283. LINNVILLE

 

The best time, the most efficient time, the easiest and most cost-effective time to make changes, is while the operation is in its planning stages.

Hoghead had not always been an outlaw: he'd turned to the Owlhoot because he saw it as an easier way to make money, and although there were occasional spectacular yields, he saw a smaller yearly take than if he'd had honest income.

He was doing what he found he was good at doing, and that was gathering information, and it was surprisingly easy.

He'd ridden into the heart of his intended strike, he'd tied his horse off at the hitch rail in front of the Silver Jewel Saloon, he'd come out of the saddle and leaned his weight on the hitch rail the way a man will when his back troubles him -- a man in pain is not likely to be a man to cause trouble, and he knew that any stranger riding into town would be watched, overtly or otherwise -- he walked slowly up the heavy, dust-layered planks that formed the steps up to the Silver Jewel's front door and the board walk in front, and he considered what he was seeing.

The Silver Jewel, he knew, had some of the best food in the territory.

It suffered -- in his opinion -- the major flaw of having straight games, of having games where the house did not shade the odds; tapered cards, marked cards, cards with lemon juice inking their backs, were quickly found out:  the wheel, the dice, all were square, without tamper or weight: the gamblers stood to actually win an honest hand.

Unheard of.

Ol' Hog looked at the brightly painted, neatly trimmed front of the saloon, saw cloth curtains inside the windows, something he'd expect to see maybe in a restaurant, but not a saloon:  once he got inside, he found the front was a saloon and in back, people were seated and eating, and the smell of good cooking reached in and seized him right around his empty stomach.

He found a friendly game and was soon dealt in, he lost a hand, he won a hand, he allowed himself the luxury of relaxing a little:  he won another, felt comfortable enough to order a beer, was surprised when a sandwich arrived with the drink:  the cute girl in the short skirt (good Lord, she was showin' her ankles!) winked at him and said a man just off the trail might need a bite to eat and she had extra, so happy birthday, and he watched her sashay back towards the kitchen.

Surprised, but not at all disappointed, he ate his sandwich and drank his beer, he'd paid for his order from his winnings, and a happy belly must have been a lucky belly, for he won another small pot.

Conversation drifted like cigar smoke: he asked his questions carefully, spacing them out, wording them carefully:  a stranger comes in and starts demanding answers is a stranger who attracts attention, and he didn't want to appear to be nosy:  no, he drifted with the conversation.

By careful inquiry, he found the Sheriff seemed to be more than the town's chief lawman.

He'd spotted the lawman working the floor:  an older man with sharp eyes, a man who nodded gravely in reply to his own nod of recognition, a man watching the games, a man who drifted the floor, half a mug of beer in his hand, a mug that remained untasted for a couple of hours: ol' Hog found the Sheriff owned the Silver Jewel in which he sat, the Sheriff, or at least his wife, owned the railroad, the man owned a controlling share of the Mercantile, a quarter-share of the funeral parlor, controlling interest in a couple local ranches and the mining operations in the area:  in short, that hard-jawed, pale-eyed badge packer seemed to be the one major player in the county, and indeed the general area, and when mention of the man washed ashore in their conversation, his reputation of being a hard-knuckled and absolutely merciless enforcer of the Law -- his Law -- came up, and was passed around, and washed back out to sea with the ebb and flow of their poker table conversation.

Ol' Hog was relaxed a little, more comfortable: he raised his chin, summoned that cute girl that brought him the sandwich, handed her a coin and asked politely if he might have another:  she winked, rested her hand on his shoulder and said "Sure thing, Sugar," and brought him another sandwich and a fresh beer:  ol' Hog considered that perhaps his fortunes were taking a better turn, if only in the short term.

The cards were kind to him that day, and he found himself winners more than losers:  he carefully slipped his winnings into his poke, rather than sit there with a big pile of coin plainly seen on the table top:  he sat most of the day and played, and when he was tired of sitting, he considered that perhaps -- as good as his luck had been -- maybe he'd best pull his freight before things turned, for luck tended to be fickle, and could turn her face from him as quickly as it had turned toward him.

He rose, thanked his fellow card players for the pleasure of their company, raked his small take into his surprisingly heavy poke: he slid his poke into a coat pocket, drained the last of his beer, drifted towards the front.

A lean waisted man with an iron grey mustache and pale eyes came in with a laugh and a rush, a laughing little girl on his shoulders:  he held her ankles in front and she held her Daddy's Stetson overhead, laughing with delight:  ol' Hog stared, surprised, asked a fellow near him who in the hell was was that, and the reply was a chuckle and a hand clapped on his shoulder:  "Friend, that is the deadliest lawman in three states! There goes a man who'd as soon kill you as look at you, a man who can out-draw, out-shoot, out-knife and out-stomp any ten men in ten states!"

Hog watched as the man galloped through the Silver Jewel and disappeared into a back room, his shoulder riding passenger happily declaring "Faster, Daddy, faster!" -- at least until the door closed behind him -- and the speaker continued, "He's going back there to have dinner with his wife," and ol' Hog said slowly, "That was Old Pale Eyes?" 

"Yep," the reply.  "That's Old Pale Eyes himself.  Death in boot leather, Judgement in a black suit, Justice in a necktie, and a bad man to tangle with."  He grinned.  "And damned if you can't help but like him!"

Hoghead nodded, staring at the closed door:  he turned, walked slowly out the front door, and down the three steps to the street:  he untied his horse, mounted:  they walked down the street, and through town, and out the other side, and Hoghead Dodson had the expression of a man in thought.

When he went past the town's edge, he found a plank with "Linnville" crudely painted:  the plank was old, weathered, discarded, like maybe it had been a joke, ornery boys or a good friend maybe:  Hoghead Dodson smiled a little and thought that perhaps the name wasn't too far from the truth.

He considered, letting his horse find some graze as he thought:  he considered the angle of the sun, the air's temperature, the contented feeling in his well fed belly.

Carbon Hill, he thought, might be easier pickin's.

He lifted his head, looked down trail, considered the distant finger of smoke that marked an active chimney in the aforementioned town.

"Yup, Carry," he said to his horse, lifting the reins:  "let's see if they've got a crooked game I can fleece."

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284. NO, THAT WAS NO GHOST!

 

Charlie Fitzgerald -- or Fitz, as he was usually known -- looked at his watch, a vague feeling of disquiet in his gut.

He never liked taking an engine out of service -- no matter how necessary -- he did, he maintained his apparatus on a strict maintenance schedule, and his small fleet of fire apparatus was kept in absolutely A-number-1 shape.

When he made Chief, he'd gone to the town fathers:  in open council, he threw up the enlarged photo, taken from the front page of a newspaper back East, a photograph of a fire truck broken in two and belly-down in the public street:  the frame broke in two on an emergency run, he explained; the firefighters had been to their City Council and laid out rust spalls the size of a man's hand, spalls knocked from the corroded frame of that same fire truck:  as usual, Fitz said, city council was made of laymen whose interest was their own political ambition, and to make themselves look good for re-election they were tight as bark on a tree with taxpayer money.

Instead of an emergency authorization, Council gave them excuses, and they got their names in the paper as a result.

Fitz said this same fire department brought a small vial of engine oil to the same Council meeting, explaining that they could send it off for testing, and the metals suspended in the oil would give them a really good indication of when an engine needed rebuilt, preventing an emergency replacement when an engine seized up or catastrophically failed.

Again, Fitz said, Council chose the path of parsimony instead of protecting the public.

He turned and faced the nine, glaring from one set of eyes to the other to the next in line, and he said in so many words that if they wanted him as Chief, if he said he needed something, the only thing he wanted to hear was "How soon and where from," and if he said something needed replaced, the response should be "Right away," and no excuses.

He said later he fully expected to be tossed out on his ear.

He was instead sworn in and formally presented with the white helmet.

Whether the Firelands City Council chose him because he was prior Navy, because he was a natural leader, or whether he was the son of Old Fitz, the Chief never knew, and it did not matter:  he confided to the Sheriff that, for all he knew, they elected him because he had a team of matched white mares to pull their restored but fully functional "Steam Masheen."

 

Shelly leaned against one of the mare's shoulders, biting her lip against the ache in her leg: weather was coming, she knew, but she really could have done without her built-in barometer:  still, if she shifted her weight to her good leg most of the time, she could get along, and she was walking with almost no limp now, and without crutch or cane to mark her a cripple.

Her pale-eyed husband offered her one of his Uncle Pete's canes -- he called it a "cripple stick" (and as a result came perilously close to getting swatted with it) -- Shelly was as bound and determined to return to pre-injury status as her pale-eyed husband, and so she was back at work, though today, she would not quite call it work.

Chief had brought his white mares to work with him.

Shelly loved the troika, as she called them:  she cooed to them, and called them sweet names, she petted them and fed them carrots and other treats, just like she did her husband's horses, and the mares responded to her, following her around like lovesick puppies.

Chief, for whatever reason, decided that -- with one engine down -- he'd have his Brigade pull the Steam Masheen out and fire it up, take it up to working pressure, maybe throw a little water:  he was an incurable romantic, and he loved the thought of actually fighting fire with their gleaming, polished Ahrens steam fire engine.

Their Brigade had, once, completely by accident: they'd been enroute to a parade, they'd come across a house fire, and they'd off loaded in record time:  Fitz hadn't been around quite yet, and he regretted very much he hadn't been there to see the Ahrens fighting fire for real.

It was a fast attack, it was a very aggressive attack, and it was a save, with most of the fire knocked down and fading fast by the time the first-in company actually arrived.

Chuck wandered into the firehouse, saw feet sticking out from under the first-out pumper:  he squatted, went down in push-up position, looked under, at the thick stream of black-as-your-hat oil flowing into the catch tub.

He looked past the first team and saw a second team under the second pumper as well.

His mouth opened, then closed:  his stomach shrank -- both pumpers down? he thought, I didn't order that! -- and about that time, the howler went off.

Fitz rolled back to his feet, thinking fast.

They had one tanker that could pump, but without the needed hose --

He looked out the open bay doors --

"SADDLES!  HITCH 'EM UP!"

Shelly's head came up and her arm curled under the nearest mare's jaw:  she whispered "C'mon, girl," and the mares fell in behind her as she ran, awkwardly, one hand on her mare's neck for balance.

"FIRELANDS FIRE DEPARTMENT, RESPOND TO THE HOUSE FIRE, FAY IVER RIDGE, THE VAN WAY PROPERTY. OCCUPIED STRUCTURE, TWO TRAPPED UPSTAIRS."

Jesus Christ and two short legged dwarves, Fitz thought, how are we going to handle this --

Saddles backed the mares into place, one at a time, hauling the heavy leather collars over their heads, working them well back and into place:  she murmured, she pleaded, she drew the harness taut and made it fast, she hitched the tripletree to the front of the engine --

"ALL HANDS ON DECK!  NO IRISH NEED APPLY!  DAMN YOU, MOVE IT OR I'LL HAVE YOUR GUTS FOR GARTERS!" Shelly screamed, fury purpling her face:  men squirmed, rolled, scrambled from under the Kenworth pumpers, ran for turnout gear:  at Shelly's commanding voice, they ran out in fireboots and bunker pants, fire coats and helmets, knowing their pumpers couldn't be brought to bear but there was a plan, and the plan was inside this commanding figure standing in the driver's box of their beloved Masheen --

The popoff valve released, squirting a hissing white steam-finger straight in the air --

"YOU TWO! GRAB THE HOSE REEL AND STAND TO!  YOU!  LADDER WAGON!  TRIPLE HITCH, GO!"

Men seized equipment a century old and more, equipment that was old before they were born:  greased hubs turned on greased axles, gloved hands made equipment fast, men climbed aboard, the engineer threw another scuttle of coal into the firebox, closed the fire door, looked over the blunt, broad stack, waved.

Shelly clapped a pressed-leather helmet on her head, curled her lip, whistled:  reins in her left hand, she picked up the coiled, braided blacksnake whip, swung it in a big circle over her head, snapped a hole in the air a yard above the center mare's ears:  "SAINT FLORIAN, SAINT CHRISTOPER AND THE BLESSED VIRGIN, LADIES, RUN!"

 

Chief Deputy Linn Keller nailed the brakes.

Hard.

He was at the head of the street, at the uphill end, coming back into town:  he'd heard the fire call, but unless he was needed, he'd no intent of cluttering up a fire scene.

At least that was his intent, until he saw three mares abreast, a smoking cloud rolling up behind  them, and his wife standing in the driver's box of their shining, polished steam engine, screaming, her face contorted with the effort:  beside her, seated, the Chief had one hand on his white helmet, his good hand welded around the arm rest of the restored, upholstered seat:  the mares were driving hard, the whistle shot a shrill, high-pitched scream into the cool air, punctuating the warning that WE ARE COMING THROUGH, GET OUT OF THE WAY! with a pure-white streak of steam, spreading and fading behind them.

Not for well more than a century had the Irish Brigade charged at a wide open gallop up the main street; not for more than a century had men grinned like delighted little boys as they hung onto engine, onto ladder wagon, reveling in the unmatched sensation of running like hell behind genuine, living horse power, steel rims loud on the paved street.

Linn eased off his brakes, pulled to the right, stopped, and three mares, a screaming driver, a pale and paralyzed fire chief and who knows how many men with curled mustaches and broad grins roared past them in a blasting clatter of steel-shod hooves, steel-bound wheels, a whistle, smoke and steam.

Linn just sat there for a long moment, watching in his side mirror as they disappeared behind him, up and over the rise and gone.

"Did I see a ghost?" he wondered aloud, and he reviewed what he'd just seen, replaying it in his mind, watching the big red Kenworth tanker truck grinding up the street in pursuit, hauling its payload of a couple thousand gallons of water:  Linn stared at modern Diesel power, and thought of the steam-and-horsepower that preceded it, and his eyes tightened a little at the corners, smiling quietly at the memory of his wife, standing up in the driver's box, reins in one hand, the looped-up blacksnake whip in her good hand, screaming encouragement to her Ladies, more alive than he had ever, ever seen her.

Linn took a long breath, blew it out through pursed lips.

"No," he finally said aloud.  

"No, that was no ghost!"

 

 

 

 

 

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285. BRIBERY, AN ANCIENT AND HONORED SPORT

 

Salty-dog watched intently as Linn rolled the blue gel capsule in a thin strip of shaved ham.

He picked up the roleau of medication, held up a second strip of thin-as-a-Democrat-dollar meat, shook it to make sure he had her attention.

He lowered his right hand -- Salty lunged, seized the protein roleau, and just as quick, Linn lowered the other sheet of meat.

Sure enough, Salty chomped and swallowed her primary payload in her eagerness to get this second bounty.

Linn followed this with another couple strips of meat for each of the dogs, then he shook his head and signed, "Salty, you bribe as well as any politician!"

Salty licked her chops, looking hopefully at her mighty hunter and provider (Daddy leaves the house, Daddy goes to store, Daddy being home meat, Daddy great hunter!) as Linn rolled up the little package and walked over to the shining stainless steel refrigerator, set the tasty bounty inside, closed the door.

"Have to have enough for tomorrow," he admonished as Salty tilted her head and wagged.

The Bear Killer knew better than to press the matter:  he'd already eaten, but there was always room for a shared bribe, and since Salty had a minor surgery and was prescribed post-op antibiotics, why, the curly-furred black dog benefitted greatly from it.

Linn walked across the kitchen, considering the still-damp, wiped-clean sink:  Shelly kept it as orderly, as spotless, as Aunt Mary had in her day, though in those days Linn rarely saw it from this angle -- he'd been a wee child, barely able to see level with the counters, when Aunt Mary was still alive.

It wasn't until he'd grown to a man's height that he'd appreciated how well Aunt Mary kept her sink.

Linn felt the corners of his eyes tighten a little with a secret, hidden smile, with the good memories he'd long had of this place:  he walked slowly to the front porch, went outside, sat in the rocking chair he kept there.

Shelly was not long behind him:  the rocker was double wide, and when one sat, generally the other did too, and when they sat, they held hands, and so it was today.

They rocked a little, not much, just an inch forward, an inch back, slowly, contemplatively.

"You looked good driving the mares," Linn finally said, his voice gentle.

"They're good horses," Shelly acknowledged.  "Chief as 'em trained very well indeed."

"I hear you had a save today."

"Double save."

Shelly felt her husband's hand tighten a little on hers, his sign of understanding, of approval.

"Double save," he echoed, and she took a quick breath, the way she did when she was remembering something --

The Brigade seized the three-part, heavy-wood, telescoping ladder:  hoisting it free of the ladder wagon, they ran arms and shoulders through it, as they'd practiced, time and time and time again:  they ran, swung, drove the bottom end in place:  rubber fireboots footed the ladder, gloved hands seized the line, hauled it up, leaned it against the siding beside the target window.

"When Marc ran up that ladder," Shelly said, seeing it happen as her words narrated the memory, "he yelled 'Leather Lungs!' and then he took a big breath before he went through the window.

"He came out with a child, scared and squirming, he stepped out of the window two stories above ground like you would set foot on your staircase at home:  he turned, one arm around the scared little boy and one hand gripping the side of the ladder -- he kicked his feet out and pressed his insteps against the sides and down he went, zip! Nantucket Sleigh Ride!"

Linn grinned, nodding:  he'd drilled with the Brigade, and he knew what it was to kick free and scream down the ladder, barely under control:  it was strictly forbidden, it was against regulations, and every one of the Irish Brigade loved doing it, partly because it was forbidden, and partly because ... well, it was fun!

"He went back up the ladder and dove in that smoke-rolling window, and we heard him fall and he let out a war whoop, and the Chief took a step toward the ladder -- he was going to order someone up after him -- Marc came to the window again with the other child and down he came, but when he hit the ground, he handed off the little girl and then he kind of stomped around in a circle, cussing a blue streak, and Fitz grabbed his shoulder and yelled 'What happened?' and Marc yelled "THEIR TELEVISION FELL OVER AND I STEPPED IN THE BACK OF THE DAMNED THING!  SHOCKED THE HELL OUT OF ME!  IT STILL HURTS!"

"Now all this time they're putting the wet stuff on the hot stuff down below and they got it knocked down -- Insurance will never certify a 150 year old steam pump, but God help me, Linn, that old machine will throw water with our best pumper!"

Linn raised an eyebrow:  he suspected this was exaggeration, the voice of someone very pleased with the old machine's performance, but he did not see fit to call his wife on this one:  no, if it did well enough to put out the fire, if their Brigade did well enough to save two children trapped upstairs when fire ate through the furnace closet and through the staircase, why, it was a good day indeed!

"Did Salty take her pill for you?"

"Hm?  Oh ... yeah, sorry.  Yes, she did.  Your trick with that ham meat worked fine."

Shelly nodded, smiling, leaned her head back against the rocker's high back.

"Bribery," she mused.  "An ancient and honored sport."

 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

286. THE SMOKING COAT

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna was a pretty young girl.

She was not a pretty little girl.

Neither was she the pretty little feather-headed set-piece her father -- no, not her father, her mother's husband -- dismissed her to be.

He forbade her to ride horses.

Sarah immediately went to her Mama's shop and sewed a half-dozen riding dresses -- fashionable attire, proper for a modest young lady, but divided so she could ride astride, and ride she did, in spite of Mr. Rosenthal's forbidding her to do so.

She was careful not to overtly disobey Mr. Rosenthal.

She did, nevertheless, disobey, and will a glad and willing heart.

He sensed the community's quiet support of his daughter; perhaps he thought it wise to indulge the rebellious little princess, for he brought her an offensively gaudy, screaming scarlet red, gold leaf trimmed, pony-cart, and an equally offensive, quick-to-bite pony, a hateful beast Sarah refused even to name.

She thanked Mr. Rosenthal in a carefully neutral voice: at his insistence, she drove the pony-cart a little distance, but both pony and pony-driver were more than pleased to end their drive by mutual agreement once Mr. Rosenthal was returned to the house.

Sarah sold both the next day, to a rich man in Denver, and before noontime the offensive pony and pony-cart were on the train, and well gone, and Sarah took her profits and some money she'd saved and purchased a rifle and a Derringer pistol.

The rifle was a model of 1873, in .32-20: Sarah would have chosen something larger, but she needed a rifle that fit her, and she knew correct placement could make up for a minor caliber.

She knew she was quite capable of correct placement.

As Mr. Rosenthal's chief pursuits were the gambling-tables in the City, he was not home to see Sarah ride out, carved rifle-scabbard under her leg, nor was he nearby when she practiced in a distant, open shed, hanging a man sized dummy from a rafter and walking in as if she were a young woman about town on other business, suddenly producing the Derringer pistol and punching it hard into the dummy and pulling the hard, draggy trigger:  the sharp bark of the .41 rimfire was harsh in the shed, and so she took to molding bees-wax to stopper her ears before firing subsequent rounds.

This worked until the straw-stuffed dummy caught fire, and she was obliged to seize a scythe, slice the supporting rope and hook the burning simulacrum outside so as not to burn down the shed.

It wasn't much of a shed, but Mr. Rosenthal was not keeping up the ranch, and Sarah could see their cattle were dwindling in numbers -- though her mother's husband swore they were still solvent, still turning a profit.

 

Bonnie Lynne McKenna sat very properly erect in the driver's seat, her daughter sitting very properly erect beside her:  mother and daughter wore matching gowns, McKenna gowns, fashions that were selling well in the West Coast cities, and elsewhere:  the House of McKenna was a steady money maker, and Bonnie was determined that her husband -- who was steadily proving himself less than trustworthy -- was siphoning off what little she had left.

She was therefore intent on establishing a separate account, in another name, an account to which she and her daughter alone would have access.

Mother and daughter, two fashionable ladies about town, stepped into the Firelands bank, into the inky-papery-smelling lobby with the tiled floor, the smooth plaster walls, the steel bars in front of the tellers: Sarah always liked it here in the bank, for it was quiet and orderly, it had a reassuring air of propriety and permanence.

Sarah stood beside her Mama, a growing young lady, standing very properly, being very silent, at least until a man thrust himself inside, shoved her and her Mama aside and ran the barrel of a Remington pistol between the bars of the teller's station.

Sarah's hand drove into her hidden pocket, seized the Remington derringer:  her hand, her arm, her soul responded as she'd trained:  the blunt barrel drove hard into the holdup's ribs, and the report of the .41 rimfire was muffled, as the gunmuzzle was pressed hard into the man's side:  the little hollow based bullet lacked energy to penetrate a rib, but it was a conical ball and it bounced off the edge of the rib and penetrated into the lung, and more by accident than design, managed to nick a hole in the bottom of the man's heart.

The teller seized the offending gunbarrel, twisting it up:  there was a deafening BOOM and suddenly the startled young woman had a handful of gunbarrel as the holdup artist flinched back, hard, his hands going to his side:  he turned, looked with surprise at the pale eyed young woman, at her young arm drawn back, and the last thing he saw on this earth, right before the earth spun around him and he twisted and landed, face down and dead on the banks' carefully-laid floor tiles, was the approaching palm of an indiginant young woman's hand, right before she smacked him hard across the face for his impertinence.

He never felt the weight or impact of the nickel plated pistol still held tight in her young hand.

Sarah looked up as Beatrice came storming out of her office, came in behind the teller's stations, a stubby shotgun in her hands:  she looked at the shocked teller, shrunk back against the wall, holding a Remington revolving pistol by its barrel, staring at it as if she'd never seen one in her life -- Beatrice looked out through the teller's grille, looked around, "IS ANYONE HURT?" -- then she turned like a ship under full sail, came steamboating out into the lobby, a stout woman with pince-nez spectacles and an irritated expression, holding a Greener double gun as if she was ready to beat someone to death with it.

She looked down at the dead man, wide eyed and unmoving, on the floor.

Sarah Lynne McKenna opened her Derringer, carefully withdrew the fired casing: she replaced it with another, closed the pistol and rotated the latch, slipped it back into its hidden, hand-sewn pocket.

"Nobody," Sarah said, her voice as cold as her eyes, "NOBODY pushes my Mama aside like that!"

The bank filled quickly; Sarah and Bonnie drew back into Beatrice's office, more to escape the press than aught else; Beatrice parked her persuader, turned to face the door as Marshal Jackson Cooper's impressive height obliged him to duck as he came through her doorway.

"Who saw what happened?" he asked, his deep voice sounding like boulders grinding together in the bottom of a deep, stone-walled well.

"I shot him," Sarah said simply.  

Bonnie, Beatrice, Jackson Cooper and the teller with the captured pistol turned and stared at the pretty young lady.

Sarah sat very erect, very properly in a straight backed chair beside her seated Mama:  Sarah sat with her feet on the floor, her gloved hands properly folded in her lap:  with pale and guileless eyes, she looked very directly at the Marshal.

"The ruffian," Sarah said very deliberately, very distinctly, "pushed my Mama aside.  I do not tolerate that."

Her chin was lifted in defiance; her eyes turned to the teller, still gripping the captured revolving-pistol's barrel as if it were a scepter.

"He stuck a pistol through the teller's bars and that's when I tried to set his coat on fire."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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287. RAIN A-COMIN'

 

Sarah opened her eyes, rubbed the ache in her forearm.

She blinked twice, took a deep breath, closed her eyes again, relaxed.

She submerged herself in the dark lake of slumber, warm and safe in her own bed, under her own roof, and as she did, she gripped a Winchester rifle and peeled her lips back in defiance.

She was going to kill a man tonight.

Sarah was a woman grown, she was fourteen years old now: she was marriageable, and she was eligible, and as she relaxed and returned to her dreams, she seized her dream and bent it to her will instead of letting the dream dictate to her.

She was warm, comfortable, relaxed: she seized the dream with both hands, twisted it around to her will: another moment and she was sitting on the seat of a carriage, her cousin Angela beside her.

The dream had tried to nightmare her.

The dream tried to terrify her, to panic her, and she would have none of it.

Instead of being thrown from the wagon, instead of the steel-rimmed wheel running over her arm, instead of the sunball of agony detonating in her young arm as the bone broke, Sarah stood in the wagon, brought her .32-20 to shoulder, fired, and fired again.

The man she shot was an escaped prisoner, a criminal who'd panicked when he saw Sarah and Angela driving toward him:  he'd raised his stolen Sharps and fired, but he fired in panic, and like inexperienced men firing on two opponents, his rifle ball went between the girls.

Angela sat, pretty, ladylike, her hands in her lap, looking ahead with a calm expression: Sarah, on the other hand, looked like a Fury in McKenna blue:  her rifle spoke, its voice sharp, loud:  Sarah felt the mechanism chuckle as she levered a fresh round into the chamber, driving a second, a third round into their attacker's chest.

Sarah fired a fourth round.

She placed her shot, very deliberately, very precisely, a little higher than his collar bones, centered with his body, knowing the little rifle round would catch the killer between the eyes:  she felt a fierce satisfaction as the heavy buffalo rifle fell from suddenly nerveless fingers, as the would-be murderer fell, backwards, dead, over the edge of the cliff.

Sarah raised her rifle's muzzle to the vertical, laid it against her shoulder, pointing up: she dipped her knees, seized the reins, sat.

She looked at the horse's ears with pale eyes, smiling grimly.

When this happened in real life, her horse panicked from multiple rifle shots so close behind: it had seized the bit between its teeth, panicked, Sarah was thrown from the wagon, the driver's rear ran over her arm, breaking it, and the Sheriff was obliged to risk running over the precipice to turn the runaway and save his little girl's life.

This, however, was not life as it had been.

This was Sarah's dream.

The dream tried to nightmare her, tried to run her over the cliff and let her and Angela panic and scream as they fell forever and forever and forever, until she woke in a sweat, heart hammering.

"No," Sarah whispered in the dark, her lips barely moving as she addressed the skulking, black Dreambringer:  "No, you are not going to do that," and something dark turned and muttered and walked through the wall, and was gone.

In another house, a dark figure stepped through a wall, stopped suddenly.

A bright-eyed little girl sat up in bed, a pistol gripped in her little hands.

Her Daddy gave her a pistol to keep under her pillow, and he told her the pistol had very special loads meant for mean old dream monsters, and that Angela had a choice when she dreamed, and her Daddy told her that she could choose to be scared and to wake up terrified and crying, or she could put a stop to it, because those dream monsters were evil and wicked like those bad men her Daddy hanged in public.

Angela raised the little nickle plated pistol and said "Not here, monster!" and eared the hammer back, and the black dream-monster laughed and spread its hands and wings and Angela put the shiny front sight right on the monster's wish bone and pressed the spur trigger.

There was the sound of lightning sizzling down a telegraph wire, a quiet, hissing crackle, then fire shot like a shining blue spear from the little top break's barrel, driving an avenger's lance through the nightmare-man's shadowed heart:  Angela saw it fall back, shrivel, collapse, spinning into a little point of utter blackness with a pained groan, and then it was gone.

Angela hoisted her cute little nose:  "Hmph!" -- and then she turned and slipped her monster-pistol back under her pillow.

Angela Keller, the pretty little daughter of Sheriff Linn Keller, closed her startling-blue eyes, cuddled her head into her pillow, took a deep, contented breath, and was asleep again, just that fast.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller puzzled over the little break top pistol, open in his hand.

His little girl had come to him because she'd had a nightmare and she'd been scared, and he'd listened gravely to his child's fears:  he pulled her up on his lap, wrapped her blanket around both of them, whispered that he was her Daddy, and a good Daddy gave his daughters tools to fight those mean old nightmares, and he knew just what she needed.

He'd taken a little break top, he'd drifted the roll pin out of the hammer and dismounted the firing pin from the hammer:  he brought the pistol in to Angela as she was being tucked into bed.

He opened the pistol, brought copper, rimfire cartridges from his vest pocket, loaded each chamber carefully.

"Angela," he said, "I am trusting you with this."

Angela looked at him with wide and solemn eyes.

"This is a monster gun."

"Mont-ster gun," Angela repeated with an emphatic nod.

"That's right."  Linn placed the handle in her little hand.

"Fetch the hammer back," he said, "put the front sight on what you want to hit, and press the trigger."

"Yes, Daddy."  Her voice was serious, quiet.

"Aim for the heart."  Her Daddy took her free hand in both his, and Angela carefully pointed the Mont-ster Gun to the side, and saw her Daddy's approving look.

"You want to hit the center of their heart.  It's made of shadow and if you punch the shadow, you'll collapse it into a tiny, tiny little point and it'll be gone forever."

"Yes, Daddy."

"Now slip that under your pillow, darlin', and you can get a good night's rest."

"Thank you, Daddy."

Now, the next morning, the Sheriff frowned at the little nickel plated Owl Head.

It held five rounds of .32 rimfire.

It had no firing pin.

He stared at the five cartridge bases, then dumped them out in his palm.

Four rounds were intact.

One was fired.

Linn sniffed the barrel, rubbed his finger over the muzzle, saw the dark streak of powder fouling.

There was no trace of powder smoke in his little girl's room.

No holes in the wall.

He'd not come out of the bunk like a scalded hat at the sound of a pistol-shot.

His little girl had hugged him happily that morning and declared that she'd shot the mont-ster with the mont-ster gun and it worked, and then she skipped happily down to breakfast.

Sheriff Linn Keller reached in his vest pocket, found another .32 rimfire, reloaded the empty chamber: he frowned, then slipped the pistol in his coat pocket.

I'll clean it, then I'll put it back under her pillow, he thought, then on impulse, he pulled out the pistol, cocked it, aimed at the window, pulled the trigger.

Click.

"Now how," he said slowly, "did she manage that?" 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

288. ONE OF THOSE NIGHTS

 

Chief Deputy Jacob Keller regarded his uniform Stetson.

For a miracle, it and it alone was not ... contaminated.

He hung it on a peg on the porch post.

His gunbelt wasn't too bad

It could go inside with him after all.

He considered the stains, the deposits on the gunbelt, decided that it would not go inside with him.

He stripped down to his drawers right there on his front porch -- sometimes a man gets into things he doesn't want his wife to have to handle, and this had been one of those times -- matter of fact, he stripped his pockets, the badge and name tag, he piled his pockets' contents in the middle of his gunbelt, laid on the porch's swept-clean, painted-grey floor boards: when he was down to his under drawers and socks, he picked up his keys, unlocked the front door and went inside.

He took his belt gun and his two backups with him, those and his wallet:  he'd not leave those unsecured on the porch, but he reckoned the rest was safe until he'd gotten his shower.

He really, really wanted that shower!

It was early yet.

The worst ones happen in the unholy hours of darkness, or so it seemed, and Annette woke to the hum of the Maytag in the back room, chuckling industriously to itself, and the sound of her husband trying to be quiet as he put on clean clothes.

Jacob looked over as his wife stretched, rolled over, regarded him with drowsy eyes.

"Good morning, Sunshine," he said gently:  he finished buttoning his shirt, crawled across the bed, kissed her gently:  she raised her arms and he lay on top of her, nibbling her neck with his lips.

"You smell good," she murmured, giggling a little as he started to chew on her earlobe.

"Specially for you, Dear Heart," he whispered, his lips carefully below her ear:  even a whisper, this close, could be uncomfortably loud.

He felt her take a long breath.  "Bad one?"

Jacob's hesitation was uncharacteristically long, which was its own answer, even if he hadn't finally grunted, "Yeah."

"Are you okay?" Shelly whispered, and Jacob drew back, saw the worried look on his beautiful bride's face.

He kissed her -- delicately, carefully -- and sat up on the bed, the backs of his fingers caressing her cheek.

"I want to remember you like this," he said softly.

"I look a fright," Shelly groaned.

"You're beautiful."

"I'm getting big!"

"You're not even showing!"

"You're not looking, Keller!"

"Oh but I am, Mrs. Keller," he leered, "and I like what I see!"

Shelly grabbed the pillow, swung it, hit her laughing husband upside the head.  "I'm fat and it's all your fault!"

Jacob leaned back, ran his fingers down his gig line.  "My shift isn't over yet," he said, "but I had time enough to clean up, so I did.  I'll be back at a civilized hour.  Get some sleep, darlin'."

"Jacob?"

Jacob stopped, trousers in hand: he turned, looked at his wife, nodded.

"Jacob, be careful."

He blinked, nodded again, looked at the creased trousers forgotten in his hand.

"I reckon I should put these on," he said.  "I'd look funny walking into the office in my under shorts."

"At least they're not the Valentine hearts."

Jacob laughed quietly, nodding:  it was a standing joke between them:  not long ago, after a long and difficult day, he'd come home, showered, collapsed on the bed and just plainly passed out:  there was an all-hands called, he rolled out of bed, buttoned into his uniform shirt, clapped his Stetson on his head, threw his gunbelt over his shoulder, shoved sock feet in his boots and headed for the stairs when Shelly called "Are you forgetting something?" and he looked down ...

... at his bare legs ...

... he was wearing his Valentine's under shorts, and for a moment imagined himself striding boldly into the Sheriff's office, with pink hearts visible under his uniform shirttail ...

... about the time his talkie declared the disregard, all clear, and he was able to undress and go back to sleep.

Chief Deputy Jacob Keller quietly descended the broad, solid-built stairs:  he took his time cleaning off the gunbelt and holster:  his sidearm hadn't been filthied, so no worries there:  he stepped out onto the porch, picked up his proud-ofs, one item at a time, and replaced them about his person.

Clean, showered, fresh and ready to tear into it again, he went back out to the cruiser, picked up the trash sack he'd used to cover the seat, balled it up and stuffed it in its own trash bag:  his cruiser hadn't been affected by this particularly stomach turning situation, for which he was profoundly grateful.

He looked up at cold stars and a crescent moon, he listened to nighttime's near-silence, he took a long breath of clean air, truly grateful that he wasn't smelling what he'd smelled earlier:  sometimes things went well for a lawman, and sometimes you genuinely got into things you did not want your wife to have to handle, and tonight was one of those times.

He'd hang up his spun-out clothes when he got home at end of shift, then he'd run the Maytag another cycle, likely with some bleach, just to make sure he got everything out.

Shelly heard the big block engine start, heard gravel crunch as her husband departed, heard his voice, strong and confident, from the black-plastic talkie on his side of the bed.

"Firelands S.O., Two available."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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289. THE VAULT

Shelly walked carefully, deliberately: she was not walking slowly, she was instead concentrating on not walking with a limp.

She'd been working her leg, she'd been exercising her leg, in between another of her great loves.

Reading.

She'd borrowed a book on ancient Greece from the county library, she'd paged quickly through it, frowning:  she was looking for something.

She just wasn't sure quite what.

The volume she'd chosen had beautiful, full-color plates:  she paged through temples, palaces, relics, the intensity of her search reflected in the wrinkles between her eyebrows and into her forehead.

She stopped when she came to an urn.

It was Minoan, it showed bronzed young athletes throwing lances, throwing the discus:  she stopped, noted down the page and the particular plate number, then turned the page.

Shelly drew her breath quickly in:  her hand cupped quickly over her suddenly dry mouth.

She'd found it.

Shelly blinked quickly, scribbled on her pad:  she tore a blank sheet free, thrust into the book to mark the place, she closed her eyes and took a long breath:  she stopped and considered and then she turned to the book's contents, ran her finger quickly down the listing, stopped, stopped again.

The librarian watched, smiling as the intense young woman chewed on her bottom lip, staring at the book as if it were the most important thing in the world:  she wrote furiously, tore another sheet free, placed this second bookmark carefully, almost reverently, covering another Minoan vase.

She covered the curved, glazed surface, covered the story it told, covered a row of maiden-archers, virgin priestesses ranked shoulder to shoulder, bows drawn, arrows nocked: the vase showed arrows in flight, and on its reverse, enemy warriors being slain by maidenly missiles.

"Sarah," Shelly whispered, then she closed the book, carried it quickly to the front desk, laid her library card on top:  "I really need to borrow this book!"

Shelly carried the book, carefully clamped under her arm, the corner cupped in her hand.

She needed to stop at the office supply, then she'd take her prize home and she'd leave a message for her mother in law, for Shelly vaguely remembered the Sheriff telling her about virginal Greek maidens, outnumbered, defending their Temple, their Sisterhood, against an overwhelming force of enemy soldiers:  whether this was something she'd read in her extensive library of Journals, diaries, letters and other artifacts, whether it was a dream, a racial memory, something carried in her DNA ... whatever it was, Shelly had something that might corroborate the memory.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller was a nurse.

She was also chief law enforcement officer for Firelands County.

She was a widow, a mother, she was a blooded warrior, a trainer of horses and dogs, she qualified Master with pistol, rifle and shotgun:  she ran with Willamina's Warriors, she drilled and trained and cajoled and encouraged the Valkyries:  Sheriff Willamina Keller, in short, was a complex woman, a deep woman, and at the moment, she was utterly, absolutely inadequate, and she knew it.

Under stress, the adrenalin pump will SLAM into wide-open production, the liver will dump glucose into the blood, endorphins will sing through the brain:  thought approaches the speed of light itself, muscles gain strength, reflexes quicken: in short, Willamina went from dead stop to a flat-out sprint in one tenth of a second or less, and it wasn't good enough.

To her right, Shelly was walking down the sidewalk, taking a book from under her arm, opening it.

Ahead of her, a silver-grey convertible suddenly accelerated, jumping the curb, launching straight for her daughter in law.

Shelly looked up.

Whether it was some memory residue of looking at Greek athletes seizing the horns of an onrushing bull and vaulting over their back, whether it was reflex, whether her action was planned in the bright sliver of time it took to realize she was about to be run over, whether it was sheer dumb luck -- 

-- whichever it was, we may never know.

We do know Shelly managed one running step, she planted her palms on the car's hood, she vaulted over the onrushing convertible, performing two faultless somersaults as the car passed beneath her, and landing flat footed, coming down into a deep crouch.

It would have been perhaps more perfect if she'd landed with her arms out straight in front of her, then raised in triumph as she stood, but Shelly  landed flat footed, hard, went down to take up the strain and ended up flat on her backside and rolled over onto her back, slapping her arms out to the sides, hitting the cold cement hard to break her fall as she'd trained a thousand times.

 

Chief of Police Will Keller saw the convertible accelerate suddenly, saw it jump onto the sidewalk, saw Shelly a bare instant before she made her desperate vault.

The car was not slowing down.

Will swung his cruiser hard left, mashed the throttle, the big Ford engine launching the Crown Vic on an intercept course.

His eyes were as glacial and pale as his lean-waisted ancestor with the iron grey mustache in that bright moment before the battle was engaged.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller dug her heel into the sidewalk, desperately trying to turn, trying to keep up with the speeding convertible:  she managed to turn, slowly, slowly, she saw Shelly drop the book she'd been carrying, she saw Shelly's hands plant flat on the hood, she saw her launch as if she'd vaulted a speeding car every day of her life:  she saw her daughter in law tuck and tumble and roll in shocking slow motion through the clear air, saw the car speed out from under her, saw Shelly rotate precisely and land exactly, and she turned a little more and saw the white police cruiser on a collision course and BANG two cars hit head-on and the little silver convertible's back end rose off the ground and a big cloud of steam rolled out from the cars and Willamina scrambled for traction and she was running up beside the wrecked cars, her face pale and drawn tight over her cheek bones.

The air bag was deflated, the woman behind the wheel flailing at it, screaming:  her eyes were wide, wild, she was fighting the airbag, twisting the wheel as if she were still driving.

Will muscled his door open, stood:  he walked around behind his wrecked cruiser, came down its passenger side, joined his twin sister at the driver's door.

"Step back," he said quietly, drawing his sidehandle baton:  he tried the door -- jammed -- he drew back the aluminum Monadnock, drove its short end hard against the driver's window.

The driver screamed, jerked away from the suddenly-crazed glass, then clawed at it, raking at them, insanity engraved in her face, trying to seize her tormentors.

Will seized her wrists and pulled, hard:  Willamina dove in, stabbed the seat belt's buckle with a stiff thumb, her teeth snapping shut against the pain as the driver's teeth sank into her shoulder.

Willamina pulled out, grabbed the woman's coat:  two adrenaline fueled badge packers hauled the woman from behind the wheel, and the fight was on.

The woman twisted, kicked, a living wildcat in human skin: it was genuinely all Will could do, to maintain a grip on her two wrists, and that only for about thirty seconds:  after the third kick to his thigh, she pulled one arm free:  Willamina caught the wrist coming in, knocked it to the side, seized it after it passed:  Will got the other, they crossed the woman's arms in front of her, pulled hard, Willamina stuck out her leg and they tripped her face-down onto the pavement.

Running feet approached as Willamina and Will were both raised off the pavement by the insanely strong rage-monster beneath them:  a third body landed on top of the first two, and their combined weight put the woman down flat again, knocking the wind out of her, and momentarily, taking the fight out of her.

Linn reached in, seized her hand, pulled: he got a cuff around one wrist, then with the combined strength of brother and sister, the other arm was bent up behind the prisoner's back and confined in the other metal bracelet.

Willamina got her knees on the woman's backside, knelt, her full weight on the prisoner, ready to catch her balance, knowing this was not the last of the fight:  Will still lay across the woman's shoulder blades as Linn drew back.

"Anybody hurt?"  Shelly asked, and Linn looked up, grinned:  Willamina gave her an approving look and said, "Other than she's on something, I'm okay.  Will?"

Will snorted.  "I'll have a fine collection of bruises," he admitted.  "Dear God, this woman kicks like a Missouri mule!"

"I'm not sure I want to take her to ER in a cruiser," Linn suggested, "why don't we take her by squad."

"Good idea."

 

Shelly dusted off the book, a distressed look on her face.

The squad was there, and gone: Shelly stood back as the prisoner was loaded onto the ambulance cot, made fast:  she'd fought, she'd screamed, she'd tried to bite anyone who came in range of her pearly whites, and Shelly noticed the Sheriff put a hand to her shoulder, worked her arm as if she'd been hurt.

Shelly looked around, made a little distressed sound, ran to the mouth of the alley, bent, picked up her precious library book.

"Oh, no," she groaned, feeling her stomach drop about twenty feet.

The book's cover was scraped, the lower corner was crushed: she hated to see good books damaged, and for all she knew, this was a rare copy, and the library trusted her with it, and look what happened --

Willamina bent a little, looked at Shelly's face:  "Earth to Shelly," she said gently, and Shelly looked at Willamina, her expression that of a little girl about to cry.

Willamina lay a motherly hand against Shelly's cheek.

"How's your wrist?" she asked, and Shelly blinked, surprised.

"My wrist?  Fine," she said faintly, releasing the book with one hand and working her wrist, then the other.

"How about your leg?"

Shelly frowned, balanced on her good leg, lifted the other, extended it, drew it back, set her foot down flat.

She shrugged.

"Just fine.  Why?"

It wasn't until Shelly saw the surveillance later that evening that she realized exactly what happened, and she admitted to her pale eyed husband it was a really good thing she was sitting down when she watched herself vaulting the silver convertible.

 

 

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290. THE SHERIFF'S TEXT

 

WARRIORS AND VALKYRIES FROM W.

NOW HEAR THIS!

SHELLY OK NO DAMAGE TO LEG

YES SHE LEAPED A CONVERTIBLE IN A SINGLE BOUND

NO WE'RE NOT GOING TO TRAIN TO JUMP A CAR

DON'T GET ANY IDEAS

THAT'S AN ORDER

W.

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291. ONE OF THOSE DAYS

Annette heard her husband drive up.

She'd gotten home not long before: she worked a short shift, as her father was convinced that (in spite of vaulting a speeding convertible) her leg was not yet ready for a full duty cycle, and so she and McKay got into a head to head -- or, rather, nose-to-nose, argument -- with the result being a firehouse full of happy and well fed firefighters, and a tie declared, to the mutual dissatisfaction of the mutually disagreeing parties.

Jacob came through the door slowly, his movements planned, controlled, the moves of a man who has had one of those days, or at least a very recent, very disagreeable experience, and is acting to keep himself under a strict emotional control.

He turned and looked at his wife, and she saw his badge was hanging from a torn loose strip, ripped from his shirt front, and she saw other visible indications that he'd been engaged in some very personal unpleasantness.

"My dear, forgive me," he said gently, "but I had to finish some paperwork."

"You've been through it," she murmured.  "How bad?"

Jacob hung his Stetson on its peg, walked slowly over to his wife, his boot heels loud on the immaculate linoleum:  his hands were gentle as he gripped her about the waist, looked very seriously in the eyes, and then kissed her, carefully, gently, before running his arms around her and holding her tight, tight.

"How was your day?" he whispered, and he felt his wife's suppressed snort:  "Just don't ask for pancakes," she whispered back, and he released her, took her shoulders, held her at arm's length, his expression somewhere between distressed and surprised.

"What happened?"

Shelly seized the towel from her shoulder, turned away, pressed the crumpled cloth hard against her closed eyes:  Jacob's hands were warm, firm on her shoulders, his manly belly warm against her back as he molded himself into her: he felt her stifled distress.

Shelly pulled out of his grip, took a step away from him, threw the dishtowel from her, turned, hands fisted and arms stiff at her sides:  "Is this what pregnancy is like?  Am I going to be this emotional every day?  'Cause I don't think I can take this, Jacob! I don't like not being in control of me!"

She stepped quickly back into her husband, seized his upper arms, put her nose less than an inch from his.

"Your'e hurt," she whispered.  "You don't need my hysterics.  How bad?"

Jacob reached up, the backs of his bent fingers caressing her reddened cheek.

"You don't want to fix pancakes," he said quietly, "and I don't want to see you distressed.  I can go pick up something if you like, or we can go to the Jewel."

"How about we just order pizza?"

"Got any ice cream?"

"Ice --?"  Shelly's mouth dropped open, astonished at her husband's unexpected question and at his wide-eyed, utterly innocent expression.

"I think vanilla goes well with pepperoni, don't you?"

Shelly looked at her husband, bit her bottom lip, looked toward the sink:  Linn pulled out a clean white hankie, handed to her.

"I'm being selfish," she whispered.

"You had a day."

Shelly reached out, rubbed the torn edges of his uniform shirt between thumb and forefinger.

"So did you."

Linn grinned crookedly.  "I'm going to start carrying a striped shirt in the cruiser."

"Referee?"

"Yep.  Two domestics, one sand lot ball game, one employer-employee screaming match, a fighting drunk who insisted he could still drive, never mind he'd just wrapped his front end around a power pole."

"Oh, that one. We weren't even toned out before we were cancelled."

"He ended up in ER anyhow."

"What happened?"

"He took a swing at me."

"Oh."

Linn picked up his badge, hanging at the end of a long strip of cloth, ripped from what used to be the front of his uniform shirt.

He looked up at Shelly, smiled crookedly.

"No pancakes?"

Shelly smiled, just a little.

"No."

Linn raised an eyebrow.

Shelly raised her hands in surrender:  "Okay, it's my fault."

"I doubt it."

"McKay said he could make better pancakes than me."

Linn's eyebrow quirked upward again.

"I got in his face and said he couldn't and he got in mine and said he could and the guys got to egging us on and laying bets and the fight was on.

"I made pancakes and McKay made pancakes and the guys ate pancakes until they were stuffed."

"Any runs?"

"No, thank God. I think everyone was too full to actually work."

"Who cleaned up?"
"Everyone."

"They didn't leave woman's work to the woman?"

Linn was pleased to see the rebellious glare Shelly swung his way.

"No," she finally said.

"Good."

"And yes."
"Yes what?"

"Yes I want vanilla ice cream with my pizza."

Linn nodded, stood.  

"I'm hungry.  I'll make the call."

 

 

 

 

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292. OLD PALE EYES HIT ME AGAIN!

 

"All right," Willamina said quietly, folding her arms and fixing her seated son with a cold-eyed glare:  "out with it!"

Linn reached for another chocolate chip cookie, utterly unintimidated by his Mama's impressive posture.

He'd come over after work, when he knew his Mama was also off duty (as Sheriff and Chief Deputy, they were never truly off duty -- Linn wore a flannel shirt and jeans, with a single action .44 on his belt, and his Mama wore jeans and boots as well, with a ruffly-front blouse and a stylish vest, and though Linn could not see any overt hardware, he knew she, too, was more than adequately armed) -- and, seated in his Mama's kitchen and eating his Mama's fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, he -- well, they both -- could enjoy a moment of unofficial, interpersonal, relaxation.

"Mama," Linn said slowly, "if I want to find a scripture fast, I'll go to the Parson.  The man is a walking Bible.  I can tell him a half remembered snatch of scripture, he can tilt his head back and close his eyes and then he'll look at me and quote the entire passage, he'll give me chapter and verse, and he'll reach for that soft floppy back Bible of his and whip it open like there was a bookmark!"

Willamina laughed, nodding.  "Yes, he will do exactly that!"

"Mama, you're the same way with Old Pale Eyes' journals."

"Ah, the truth comes out," Willamina murmured.  "Coffee?"

"Yes, thank you."  He stared at the bitten edge of the cookie in his hand.  "Dear God, these are good!"

"What, doesn't Shelly make you cookies?"

"She hasn't yet," he admitted with that crooked, disarming, little-boy grin of his.  "I told her for some reason they tend to evaporate right off the cooling rack, and she picked up Aunt Mary's biggest wooden spoon and allowed as she'd crack my knuckles" -- he laughed again -- "she threatens a lot, Mama, but she doesn't beat me too bad!"

Mother and son laughed again:  Shelly was probably the mildest mannered bride Willamina ever met, and Shelly -- though somewhat intimidated by her pale eyed mother-in-law, had already consulted her on various matters, such things as the care and feeding of a pale eyed husband, how to whip mashed potatoes and not have lumps, and most recently, simply because she needed a feminine and understanding ear about her own unpredictable changes that she attributed to her new status as a gravid mother.

"So what do you need from the Book of the Iron Grey Mustache?" Willamina asked, setting a heavy mug of hot, steaming coffee in front of her grateful son.

"Mama, does the Old Sheriff ever discuss singing?"

Willamina picked up her mug, frowned, set it down and reached for the plastic milk jug.

"He does."  Milk trickled in a silent stream into her vat of shimmering black, turning it into a palatable tan.  "Milk?"

Linn nodded his thanks, reached for the jug's handle as his Mama turned it toward him.

"Singing."  

Willamina's voice was thoughtful as she raised the mug to her lips, took a meditative sip, her eyes distant. 

Linn smiled, a little:  God, I love it when she looks like that! he thought:  her walls are down and I am seeing the Mama I know!

"Yes," she finally said, pushing her chair back:  "There is, and I know" -- she raised a finger, walked slowly around the table, then a little faster, as The Bear Killer looked up at her and thumped his tail  -- "I know right where it is!"

The Bear Killer looked at Linn, licked his chops.

Linn reached for a slice of still-warm sourdough, buttered it quickly, tore off a strip and held it down:  The Bear Killer rose, flowed across the floor, silent, carefully avoiding toenails on the tile:  he took the proffered strip with a careful delicacy, chomped happily, wagging his tail and hoping for more.

"I found it," Willamina said, her voice muffled, as she was speaking directly into the open book she held:  she stepped over The Bear Killer without looking, came around, reached blindly for the back of her chair, missed, tried again, drew it out.

"Oh, yes, I'd forgotten about this," she murmured softly, then looked up, her pale eyes shining with the delight of new discovery.  "Listen to this!"

 

I dipped my pen in good India ink.

I wiped the steel nib against the inside of the ink-bottle's narrow mouth, considered.

I leaned back, turned the shining, ink-wet pen in my fingers, staring at the volumes, the wisdom, the doggerel, perhaps even the mindless blather contained in its shining possibilities.

I did not wish to write anything ... insignificant.

I would read these words in years to come, and I doubted not my son would read them as well, and I wished to set a good example for my son.

I wished not to write the petty, nor the silly, but if only for my own future enjoyment, I wished to avoid a dry discussion of mere facts.

If it's not at least a little entertaining, I considered, it's not worth a man's time, and so I hesitated before putting pen to paper.

 

"Here's what he says," Willamina said sipping her coffee, placing the mug on the table, delight in her face and pleasure in her voice.

" 'I carefully sang with the masses in church,' " she read, glancing up at her son:  " 'I pitched my voice to flow as one stream in a river of many waters, my voice one with the congregation, but carefully undistinguished.  My dear Esther' " -- Willamina looked up sharply -- Linn sat with his elbows planted on the table, leaned forward, fixed on her every word:  his jaw was thrust out a little, the half-eaten, chocolate-chip cookie forgotten in his hand -- Willamina looked demurely back at the neat, India-black script, continued.

" 'Esther asked me on the way home why I did not sing for her.

" 'I looked at her and I'm afraid I laughed a little, and I felt my ears grow red:  I can deny my beautiful bride nothing, but every man has his fears, and I feared making an arse of myself with what passes for a singing voice.

" 'I have sung, for my own entertainment, a-horseback in remote country, where I feared neither man nor beast, where there was no need for stealth, nor for watchfulness:  during that damned War, we sang lustily around a fire, officers and men raising their voices in obscene celebration of the fact that we yet lived, lustily raising carols not suitable for gentle ears, as do fighting men in any era.

"We each sang without regard for how well or how poorly our voice might sound, and in those times, my own voice did not sound objectionable to my own ears.

" 'Now here, in the company of my wife and our little girl, with none other to hear, I felt my ears warming at the thought of exposing my pitiful excuse for a singing-voice, and so I begged off any such efforts.

"It was not until we were home, not until the ladies were within, and I without -- not until the tight-laid walls of the barn hid any sounds I might make -- not until there were only equine ears to be tormented by my pitiful efforts, that my own curiosity got the better of me, and so I sang.' "

Willamina looked up at her son, whose hand had slowly descended, placing his half eaten cookie on an unoccupied saucer: his coffee, forgotten on the table beneath his chin, was cooling to death from neglect.

Willamina continued.

" 'I sang a plaint I'd heard from a Southron's throat, a song of sorrow and of regret, the song of a man who'd sought silver for his true love's ring and had returned home to find the door smashed, the dog ripped open and dying, the rifle discharged and broken at the wrist, and prints of a massive bear seen without and within both -- and his young bride gone, never to be found.

" 'I am a man who takes pains to not be surprised.

" 'I sit with my back to a wall, where I can see the doors:  I listen for the approach of hooves, of footsteps, I watch my horse's ears, for my mount's hearing and senses are greater than my own, but this day my heart was carried back to those dark and lonely times, and perhaps my heart held a reservoir of regret: sorrowing men will at times relieve their hearts of grief by singing, and perhaps that's what I did.

" 'I admit the possibility.

" 'I was surprised when I turned, and looked to the door, and my bride stood within, her hands folded in her apron, her face wet with tears:  my heart fell a league, until it hit my boot tops, for the very last thing in this world I would do is cause my Esther distress.

" 'She chewed momentarily on her bottom lip, then she lifted her skirts and stepped delicately through the straw and came to me, she laid one hand on my arm, then both hands, and she lifted her chin, and she sang.

" 'I have heard her sing, in church and elsewhere, with an angel's voice:  pure, clear, soaring like a crystal dove into a cloudless sky, without flaw or imperfection:  I imagine that, upon her death, she will be promoted immediately into the Heavenly Choir, but this day, there was a tremor to her voice, an uncertain quiver, and she sang of the cabin door and of the bear, she sang of the shattered, empty rifle scattered 'pon the floor, and it was my turn to chew my bottom lip.

" 'We both sang its chorus, of the shade of a woman who wandered the mountains, a woman alone and full of sorrow, a phantom, a ghost who bore a bloody wound, with a shining silver ring upon her hand.

" 'It would not be the last time we raised our voices thusly, together, but it was the first.

" 'I suspect that Esther's voice buoyed my own, as a good swimmer might buoy a tiring swimmer.

" 'In that moment I sang well indeed, but a skilled dancer will enhance the abilities of merely a good dancer: I rather suspect that Esther's skilled voice uplifted and greatly improved my own.' "

Willamina placed the book on the kitchen table, still open:  she marked the place with an unused butter knife's blade, closed the volume.

She planted her own elbows on either side of her coffee cup, laced her fingers together, palm down, rested her chin delicately on the back of her interlaced fingers.

"Okay, Pale Eyes," she said softly.  "Out with it."

Linn harrumphed, picked up a napkin, wiped at his own eyes:  he took a sudden gulp of coffee, harrumphed again, looked away and looked back.

He looked at his Mama, swallowed, then took a long breath.

"Mama," he said, "I sang to my beautiful bride today, and it surprised me how well I sang."  

He thrust a chin at the bookmarked Journal.

"This is not the first time Old Pale Eyes hit me a good one."

"So what did you sing?"

Linn blinked, and for a moment he looked uncertain, almost ... lost.

"Mama," he said gently, and at his softly voiced words, something cold trickled down Willamina's spine.

"I sang about the shady side of Sunny Mountain, and about the silver ring, and about that bear."

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293. DAYBREAK ON SUNDAY

"Pa?"

"Yes, Joseph?"

"Pa, how come we're all dressed up but we're not in church?"

Jacob looked at his pale eyed son, restless in his good suit, looking around and curious.

He'd never been to where his Pa brought them.

The carriage was able to make it most of the way; Jacob carried Joseph's little brother most of the remainder, and Annette had the sleeping baby in her arms.

It was full dark outside the circle of light their lantern spilled on the ground, at least when they left:  Joseph's Pa and his horse must've had eyes like a cat, for Joseph could see nothing but nighttime and shadows, and what little their lantern lit up.

It took them some time to get to this place, a place where the horses were not happy:  Joseph tied off his Appaloosa stallion, and their dapple both, tied them well to good stout anchors, soothing them with hand and with voice, before he led his family the rest of the way.

Annette followed without protest, staying one pace behind her husband, Joseph bringing up the rear; where his Pa's tread was absolutely silent, where his Ma's shoes whispered on rock and on sand, Joseph himself, as a nine year old boy, was as hereditarily stealthy as a Jersey cow.

They came over a small little rise which appeared actually to be almost a bowl.

They walked ahead for maybe another forty feet, and stopped:  Jacob hung the lantern, parked his Winchester rifle against the dead snag that supported their only light.

Starlight provided Joseph's young and dark-adapted eyes with the sight of a sheer granite cliff ahead of him, almost smoothed off from a giant's ax, with what looked like a rocky stage at its base.

The place had an odd feel to it.

Joseph's little brother stood uncertainly at the base of the tree, standing in the light, looking around:  he reached out, gripped a handful of his Mama's skirt, reassuring himself with this familiar touchstone.

Jacob turned, directed Annette to a seat, produced a thick, folded saddle blanket from somewhere:  she settled gratefully onto the padding, looked curiously at her husband.

"Pa," Joseph hazarded, knowing children were supposed to be seen and not heard, knowing full well the Grand Old Man was not ever, ever to be questioned -- Joseph hazarded a question, feeling distinctly like he was dicing with dynamite as he did.

"Pa," he asked, his young voice unintentionally loud in this place's utter and absolute hush, "how come we're all dressed up but we're not in church?"

Jacob reached into his coat, pulled out a book -- or, rather, a Book.

"Joseph," he said, "do you know where we are?"

Joseph shook his head -- then, realizing how little light there still was, replied, "No, sir."

"This," Jacob said, gesturing over the sandy bowl of their natural amphitheater,  "is what the Ancients called a Place of Power."

Annette held her tongue; it felt to her like ten thousand ants were crawling under her skin ever since the horses showed their displeasure, but as a dutiful wife, she'd said nothing.

"Here is where visions were revealed, where ancient wisdom could be seen."

"Sir?"

"My grandfather came here and helped rescue Sarah when she went after the other half of her soul."

"Sir?"

"Long story, maybe later."  Jacob leaned closer to the lantern light.

"Joseph, do you remember the Easter story?"

"I do, sir."

"What is today?"
"Today is Easter Sunday, sir."

Joseph's eye caught something a little lighter, to his left, toward the smooth cliff face.

Annette saw it as well, her mouth opening in surprise.

She saw three women -- women wearing garb she'd only seen in pictures -- moving toward a dark circle in the cliff face.

The scene lightened suddenly, revealing a great stone, rolled to the side, away from the hole.

Jacob read from the Book, and Joseph's eyes widened, his palms damp and his mouth dry.

They could see the women's expressions clearly -- surprise, fear, distress -- and they heard their voices, heard the curious dichotomy of a foreign language, oddly accented, and yet hearing the meaning of the words.

They saw a figure in a shining white robe, sitting atop the rolled-aside stone, and they felt this figure's eyes on them -- a knowing look, a smile, a nod of recognition -- and they heard the question, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is Risen" -- and they heard the connotations and the deeper messages behind the words, and the scene brightened:  Joseph looked up, looked around, his young eyes wide with wonder, for he could hear music, music from a thousand throats, he heard triumph and he heard rejoicing and he looked at his Pa, and suddenly young Joseph knew why they were all dressed up but not in church.

I know why we're not in our church, he thought.

We're in way better than our church!

Jacob's voice was quiet as he read:  the story was familiar to him, and as he read, he saw it happen in the amphitheater behind his eyes.

His family saw it in this natural amphitheater, with a smooth rocky stage and a sheer, smooth granite wall behind, and a sandy depression between them and this remarkable stage, now caressed by the first pinkish-red rays of Easter Morning's sunrise.

 

 

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294. THE BOWL

"Morning, Boss."

"JW!"  

The man could hear his old boss's smile in her voice as she greeted him.

"You're looking for the Bowl."

"I am. I've been over every topo map, every satellite photo and I can't find my hat with both hands!"
Retied Chief Deputy JW Barrents chuckled, and Willamina smiled again to hear that familiar, deep-toned chuckle.

"Do you know where it is?"

There was a long pause, then:  "I do."

"Can you take me there?"

"No."

Long pause.

In his mind's eye, JW Barrents could see the Sheriff blink twice, surprised:  her brows would puzzle together a little, there in the privacy of her office, where she did not have to maintain a poker face.

"Caaaaannnn ... you tell me where it is?"

Willamina heard JW's long, patient breath, and she knew the answer was going to be a qualified "no."

"No, Boss, I can't take you there and I can't tell you where it is."

"How do I find it, then?"

"You will," he said patiently.  "You will find it, boss.  You will need to know something and that need will take you there."

"I see. Will it be my own need, or will I need to show somebody else something?"

Again that chest-deep rumble of a chuckle.  "Boss, did anyone ever call you a witch?"

"A time or two, why?"

"Never mind.  You'll find it when the time is right."

"Is it at least within a day's ride?"

"It's closer than that, Boss, and yes you will find it."

"Can you tell me when?"

"No."
"Okay."

JW Barrents waited, hearing her almost silent, deep breath.

"Otherwise, how is retirement?"

Willamina could not help but smile as a sleepy-child sound crept into the phone on the far end.

"They think I'm Papa Bear," Barrents said, and it was Willamina's turn to hear the smile in his voice: "right now I have three on my lap."  He chuckled.  "If I had a bigger lap, it would be four!"

"I'll let you get on to your important work, then."  Willamina hesitated.  "You're fortunate, my friend."

"I know.  Take care, Boss."

"You too."

 

Willamina hung up, sighed, closed her eyes, rubbed her forehead.

It has to be here somewhere, she thought.

She looked at Old Pale Eyes' Journal -- the reprint of his earliest Journal -- and considered.

It has to be within a day's ride, well less than that according to Jacob's Journal entry.

Wife and children, a wagon ... it would have to be within two hours' ride, tops, of his place.

Willamina leaned back in her office chair, frowning at the ceiling.

People don't travel the back country like they used to.

Who, in this Godless and plastic age, would know these mountains?

Willamina's eyes turned to the framed prints on her wall, those prints made from original, glass plate photographs found under the steps of the old photography studio.

She looked at Sarah Lynne McKenna, looking regal in a proper gown of the era, glaring at the camera like she would enjoy kicking it over the peak of the Silver Jewel's roofline.

She looked at Old Pale Eyes, looking stern and dangerous, one hand on his mare's saddlehorn, the other gripping his '73 rifle at its balance point.

She looked at Jacob, his hand on his stallion's neck, looking annoyed.

"You three," Willamina whispered.  "You three knew where it is."

Willamina leaned back, considering, then she smiled a little.

"How about," she said aloud, "how about a bunch of moonshining Kentucky hill runners?"

 

Gracie Maxwell smiled a little as she lifted the tea kettle off the gas burner.

"Come on eeyin, Sheriff," she called, turning toward the table.

She already had two teacups set and ready, she had fresh corn bread, still warm, cut and stacked:  hand churned butter was pressed into decorative pats, chilled, stacked on a plate, and a tiny scimitar-on-a-shaft butter knife leaned against the butter plate.

"I ben a-waitin' on ye."

Sheriff Willamina Keller was not surprised.

She hadn't called ahead, she had sent no word by trusted messenger, she'd just jumped on her mare and ridden up onto Daine Mountain, ridden the trails she and they knew, and few others, and she'd dismounted, knowing the men were about their work, likely sawing timber or busy in their carpenter shop:  her nose told her that at least one good batch of mash was fermenting, and she smiled a little: Willamina was firmly of the opinion that their distillation was none of her business, and a good law dog knows what to enforce, and what to let slide.

Willamina opened the door, stepped in, hung her Stetson on a handy peg.

Gracie was wearing her usual mid-calf skirt and work boots, giving Willamina that knowing smile, and Willamina remembered Barrents' question -- if she'd ever been called a witch -- and not for the first time, Willamina believed quite honestly that she was in the presence of a genuine mountain witch.

"I'm looking for something," Willamina said bluntly.

"I know.  Have a set."

Willamina sat, accepted the shimmering tea:  she stirred in a drizzle of honey, picked up a square of cornbread, brought it to her nose, took a long sniff, eyes closed with pleasure.

"Good memories there," she murmured.

Gracie split her own and laid a pat of butter in the middle, closed the halves, set it on her saucer as she sipped her tea, bright eyes watching her guest with amusement.

Willamina waited until they'd consumed their first square of cornbread, opened her mouth.

"You're looking for the Bowl," Gracie said -- a statement, not a question.

Willamina nodded slowly.  "I believe I am."

"You know it is a place no one can find."

Willamina raised an eyebrow.  "My old Granddad did, as did his son."

"I know."  Gracie smiled a little, sipped her tea.  "I seen 'em."

Willamina froze, looked sharply at the mountain woman with her hair pulled severely back and tied in a walnut at the back of her head:  she lowered her tea cup slowly to the crumb-dusted saucer.

"You saw them?" she echoed.

Gracie nodded.  

"When was this?"

Gracie shrugged.  "I go play my fiddle there. I like the way it sounds."

"On foot or muleback?"

"My mule won't go there.  Nor will my dog."  She leaned forward a little.  "Your dog will."

"Why's that?"

"He ain't just no dog, 'course you know that already."

Willamina considered, then:  "Yeah."

"Sheriff."

Willamina's ears twitched a bit to hear it -- Gracie was not saying a title as much as a name.

"Sheriff, you will need to go there and I reckon you'd ought to know how to git there."

Willamina nodded.  "Yes, I would."

 

Willamina's mare shied -- hard -- she threw her head to the side, sidled away from something, as if she'd just hit a wall of pure evil, or pure fear.

Gracie's mule balked at the same time, throwing her ears back, walling her eyes.

Willamina turned Cannonball, soothing her:  she kept her from bolting, God only knows how, she swung down and tied her off on a stout anchor, and Gracie did the same to her mule.

"Don't worry," Gracie said cheerfully.  "Cain't no men folk get near as close as we got."  She untied her fiddle case from behind her saddle, and Willamina pulled her double twelve-bore from its scabbard.

They advanced on foot, boots silent on sand and on rock, and they climbed the lip of a little rise, and Willamina looked out over the sandy bowl.

She'd read Jacob's description of Annette saying how she felt like there were a thousand ants crawling around under her skin, and Old Pale Eyes had written the same about Esther's observation, the one and only time he brought her here:  Sarah's accounts lacked any mention of the place at all.

"C'mon this-a-way."  Gracie walked quickly, over toward a stunted snag of a tree -- is that where Jacob hung his lantern, and read from the Book? Willamina wondered -- and Gracie turned a little, smiling as she did.

"I just love the way my fiddle sounds here," she said gently, bringing her curlyback fiddle to her chin and plucking experimentally at the strings, more out of habit than aught else: satisfied, she spun a single, shining note, then began a lively jig.

Willamina saw the look of utter delight on the younger woman's face as she played.

Willamina turned pale eyes toward the sheer, smooth granite cliff face.

It did indeed look like it was cloven smooth by a great giant's strike, whether ax or knife -- the shelf at the bottom did indeed look like a stage, and the intervening bowl was sandy, and a little lower in the center.

Willamina swallowed and decided she would not walk out into the bowl.

"I seen Sarah walk out into that," Gracie said, lifting her bow from the strings:  Willamina, surprised at the change -- the music stopped so abruptly, and Gracie's soft voice was somehow stronger here -- she blinked, turned to the dowdy-looking mountain fiddler.

"Rattair" -- she pointed with her bow -- "Sarah got swallered and she come out in Hayil and she kilt her Pa two or three times and then she come back out, an' her pale eyed Pa he'ped her out."  She looked at Willamina, and the Sheriff could see no trace of deception in either expression, voice tone or body language:  "I seen that too.

"You kin git here from yer side of the mountain too" -- she pointed with her rosined bow -- "it's a bit easier ride from there to here than from our end we jist come over.  You kin find it now."

Willamina nodded, looking around.

"Don't worry. You'll know when you need to come."  She bent, cased her fiddle, closed the scuffed, brown-leather case, fast up the latches.

"Kin you stay fer supper?  Ain't often I have women-folk come to visit!"

 

 

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295. LONG DAY

Shelly rubbed Linn's neck and shoulders, bringing a contented groan from the tired lawman.

"Darlin'," he finally said, "I'll give you a week to stop that!"

Shelly laughed quietly.  "You are so tense!"

"I hate courtrooms."
"Right there with you!"

"I'm sorry I wasn't there for your testimony. How did it go?"

"Oh, you know.  I went to the stand with my cane and told them I didn't like using crutches because my husband said I looked like an aluminum chicken flailing my way across the floor if I used crutches, and it kind of went downhill from there."

"Did it get a laugh?"

"Yes."

"Good."

Shelly's fingers worked their magic with her husband's tense musculature.

"Good that you got a laugh from the jury," he said thoughtfully. "Hopefully it'll incline them toward your testimony."

"When do you testify?"

"Tomorrow."  He took a long breath, rubbed his face, shook his head.  "I need to be working, not polishing my backside in a courtroom!"

"Your testimony will be necessary," Shelly soothed.  "We want to keep this jasper off the street.  Road.  Wherever."

"You realize if they pull his license he'll just drive without one."

"I know."

"That's why there's so much traffic on the back roads on payday. Folks want to get all likkered up and not get caught again."

"I know."

Shelly's voice was as patient as her fingers.

"I heard you caught an imposter."

Linn nodded, slowly, carefully, not wanting to disturb his wife's rhythmic kneading of his tensed-up shoulders and neck.

"You heard right."

"What did he claim?"

Linn chuckled, and Shelly smiled to hear it:  she loved her husband's quiet, suppressed laugh.

"As soon as he saw me I knew he was lyin'."

"His lips were moving?"
"You got it, sweetheart!"

"What was he trying?"
"He was weaseling information out of a seventeen year old girl who answered the door.  Her Mama got on the phone and called Sharon. I was nearby.  Caught him still at the door.  He tried to claim he was a Denver detective."

"Fake badge?"

"No badge," Linn grunted. "No police ID, just a driver's license.  I asked if he was Denver PD detective division and he said yes, so I loaded him with irons and frogmarched him to the cruiser and I was not at all gentle with him.

"I turned Mama loose on him for interrogation.

"He sang like a canary and every note was false, when we got to S.O. he claimed to be a private detective instead of a police detective -- Mama asked for his certification number and he tap danced around that, he had a hell of a slick line but nothing rang true.

"We checked with Denver P.D., we checked with the State, we tried to corroborate his claims that he was legit, and all we found was a lying sack of --"

Linn stopped himself in time; he didn't like to use that kind of language at his own kitchen table.

"He was as full of it as a sack full of politicians," he amended.

Shelly's fingers coasted to a stop, she rubbed his back, then his chest, bent over and whispered in his ear.

"Have you eaten?"

He nodded.  "I grabbed something at the Jewel.  You?"

"I did too."

"Shows you have good taste."  Linn was silent for a long moment; Shelly could almost hear the gears turning behind those pale eyes.

"Chores are done, horses are tended," he said thoughtfully, running his arm around her waist: he turned a little, pulled her down on his lap.

Shelly hesitated before putting her full weight down on what she knew was burn scar.

"Mrs. Keller," Linn said, his eyes darkening a little, "you are a fine looking woman."

"Mr. Keller," Shelly said, running her arms around his neck and lowering her forehead to his, "you are a handsome man!"

Linn lifted his face to his wife's invitation, and there was but little conversation for some considerable time -- as a matter of fact, not until he rose with his bride in his arms, and carried her up the solid built, wide stairs, and he stopped at the head of the stairs to nibble delicately at the side of her neck with his lips.

Shelly giggled; his mustache tickled.

"Mr. Keller," she murmured, "you are terrible!"

 

 

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Posted (edited)

296.   BIG BOB

"Gammaw," a little girl asked, "who dat?"

Willamina turned and smiled at her granddaughter.

"Who's who, Princess?" she asked, and Shelly's ear twitched a little to hear it:  the Sheriff's voice so seldom took on this shading of affection.

"Dat."

Marnie Keller, the pale eyed daughter of Linn and Shelly Keller, pointed one pink little finger at a framed portrait on the wall:  she turned and pointed at another, on a cabinet:  "Him same, Gammaw!" she exclaimed with the delight of a child making a discovery.

"Yes it is," Willamina smiled, picking up the second picture and running her fingers over the anti-reflection glass.  "His name was Robert, and he was my best friend."

"Bear Killer my bestest fwiend!"  Marnie declared happily, and the great, curly furred canine, hearing his name, raised his head and thumped his tail ceremonially against the hardwood, before laying back down and relaxing again.

Shelly looked at Willamina, the way one woman will look at another when she hears a story behind a story.

"Marnie," Willamina asked, sitting back down in her office chair, "do you want to hear a story about my friend?"

"Yes!"  Marnie declared happily, throwing her arms to the ceiling and bouncing on her toes:  she scampered noisily over to her Gammaw, giggled as she was hoisted off the floor, cuddled into her Gammaw's warmth.

"Once upon a time," Willamina murmured, rocking a little, "which your Daddy would say 'Hold my beer and you ain't gonna believe this!'" -- at which curly haired little Marnie giggled happily -- "I was back East and I was young and beautiful."

"You awweady byootiful, Gammaw!"  Marnie protested.

"I know," Willamina giggled, hugging the restless little girl, her forearms crossed over Marnie's flat little belly.  "I was a paramedic, and I was a deputy marshal, and Big Bob was town marshal of another town."

"Who Big Bob?"  Marnie asked, puzzled.

"This fellow in the pictures," Willamina explained.  "Robert Beymer."

"Oh."

"He was big, Marnie. He was four fingers taller than your Daddy!"

"Ooooo," Marnie replied, and Shelly's eyebrows raised a little:  she was not a short woman, but her six foot two husband was taller than she:  Willamina looked at her and winked, then said to Marnie, "He was broad, too. He could walk up to anything he pleased and pick it up and pack it off!"

"Beeeg man," Marnie murmured happily.

"Yes he was," Willamina affirmed.

 

Bob Beymer raised his shotgun to shoulder, shucked a red-plastic round into the chamber, one ounce of double-ought justice in battery and ready to go.

"You fellas," he said, "can leave peacefully or otherwise and I don't much care which!"

The pair froze: the sound of a twelve-gauge pump gun slamming into battery -- after dark, from an undetermined direction, followed by a quiet and unexcited voice -- makes a wonderful hearing aid: they dropped the bolt cutters they'd retrieved from the sedan, jumped in:  there was the sound of a racing engine, rubber squalling:  the pair left a hundred miles' worth of rubber on the township road's poor man's pavement as they proceeded to get a bunch of distance between here and yonder.

"Thayvin' bahstids," Bob growled: he waited a full minute, then flowed out of the shadow, six and a half feet of broad shouldered Guernsey County farmer.

He looked around, slowly, listening to the night; in the distance, he heard another wave of rain applauding the leaves:  he bent, picked up the bolt cutters:  he slung the shotgun across his back, checked the fuel gauge on the generator, pulled back into the shadow.

Power was out for a huge area, and little hope of its restoration for another 24 hours, or so he'd heard: as fire chief, he was kept apprised of these things: he'd also been informed that thieves were listening for the sound of generators in the unusual stillness, and were stealing them:  Bob chained his to the porch post and lay wait in the dark, for gasoline thieves had long been a problem, and he doubted not that his generator's quiet purr would be attractive to those who don't work for an honest living.

He reflected as he waited, as a thoughtful man will:  it had been a year since he was town Marshal, an office dissolved because the Mayor also ran the general store and he didn't want to have to levy fines on his own customers and thus lose business.

Easier to dissolve the village's law enforcement branch and go back to letting the Sheriff cover, than to lose customers, and besides, hadn't the cruiser been damaged when a tire blew during a pursuit?

Bob shoved the thoughts from him:  he took the bolt cutters inside, parked them and the shotgun on the back porch.

He pushed open the inside door and smiled as his mother looked up at him.

"Wash your hands, Bobby," she said with that knowing look, "pizza is ready to cut!"

 

"Bob was the last of his line," Willamina said softly, rocking a little, stroking her granddaughter's hair: "he lived in the last unbroken farm on that ridge. His Uncle Will had been a butcher and moonshiner down in Salesville, and Uncle Will made homemade wine as well.  He mixed the wine half-and-half with his moon likker to create Uncle Will's Finest."

Shelly picked up her chair and brought it nearer, so she could hear:  Marnie's eyelids were getting heavy, and Willamina's voice was getting softer as a result, and Shelly wanted to hear more about this remarkable man who was impressive enough that Willamina had his pictures as prominently displayed as her dead husband's portrait.

"I had some," Willamina admitted, looking up at Shelly and smiling a little, her defenses down.

"Bob and I were in his basement.  It was winter, the coal furnace was throwing off heat, we listened to WSM Nashville and WWL New Orleans, when it was still the clear channel trucker's station."  She smiled -- quickly, sang a few words, "Char-lie Doug-las, Road Gang!" and leaned her head back, clearly delighting in the memory.

"Bob said he had something for me to try.

"He set out two glasses -- they were mostly clean," she added confidentially -- "and poured about one finger's worth from a dusty stone jug.

"He said he'd found the jug under the stairs and as near as he could tell, it hadn't been moved for about 75 years. I must've given that paltry libation a funny look because Beymer said 'Believe me, Willa, one finger's worth is all you want!' -- and he was right!"

Willamina rocked again, slowly.

"I'll tell you, Shelly, that was indeed Uncle Will's Finest, and I have never had better in my life.

"It went down like Mama's milk and blew the ankles out of my pantyhose!"

Grandmother and mother laughed silently, not wanting to wake the granddaughter; Willamina rose, slowly, carefully:  she carried Marnie to the bedroom, lay her down and covered her up:  the child rolled up on her side, made a contented, sleepy little noise, cuddled into her pillow.

Grandmother and mother cat footed back downstairs, talking quietly:  not long after, they too went to bed, and a huge, black furred canine woke, and stretched, turned around on his hook rug and laid back down, and did not stir again for some time, when the whisper of little feet on the floor brought his ears up and his eyes open.

The Bear Killer paced happily across the floor, a little girl's arm laid itself across his shoulders:  a little pink hand managed to work the doorknob far enough to open the door, and they slipped out onto the porch.

Marnie turned and drew the door carefully to, then she stepped across the porch and stopped, her hand on The Bear Killer, and looked up at a clear nighttime sky strewn with diamonds and gems and the light, blurred shadow of high-altitude clouds.

"Prittie," Marnie breathed, and stepped down, one step, another step, a third.

 

Willamina was not given to frequent dreams, at least that she could remember, and nightmares were something she looked forward to:  she regarded them as a challenge, a personal contest of wills, and when she found herself in a nightmare, she turned it by sheer force of her own strong personality into something she wanted.

Willamina was riding through the dark on her Cannonball-mare -- her original Cannonball, long dead, but alive now beneath her -- Willamina accepted this, and rejoiced in it, for this was her dream now, and she ruled this darkness, and her lips peeled back with a fierce joy as she gripped the wrist of her English-stocked bird gun, drew the double twelve from under her thigh.

I know where this is, she thought.

This is the way to The Bowl.

Gracie said I would find it again when it was needful.

Willamina leaned forward, her hand across Cannonball's wild mane, whispered encouragement.

Horse and rider pierced the dark like a deadly, red-hued arrow.

 

Marnie was a little girl.

Marnie was a child.

Marnie forged steadily through the dark, stopping often, looking around, her pale eyes big and dark with the effort of seeing by starlight alone.

From time to time she looked up, and every time she did, her gaze wandered until she found a star she couldn't keep from finding.

A pretty red star.

Part of her young mind knew something about that star, but it was a knowledge she'd been born with, and was still mostly hidden from her:  all she knew was, that pretty ruby jewel was very important, and then she turned, and faced up the mountain, because she had to go there too.

 

Willamina came to the edge of the bowl, drew up.

Cannonball showed no hesitation:  she was satisfied she could have ridden her over the lip of the bowl, into the sandy depression, but she knew she could not do that.

She threw one leg up; part of her mind was surprised that she wore a divided riding skirt.

There was a sizzling sound, something she'd never heard before, but Willamina was a Marine and a Marine recognizes the sound of a weapon, even if unfamiliar.

She broke open the shotgun.

Brass hulls and unfired primers shone in the starlight.

She lifted the buttstock to close the action, took a few running steps, swarmed up and over the lip of the Bowl.

Someone ran past her -- ran clumsily, wearing what looked for all the world like a dirty, poorly kept astronaut's pressure suit.

The figure ran to the right of an upthrust of rock, a red rock, perhaps volcanic, the core of something truly ancient -- the figure had what looked like spears in its hand, but the ends were familiar --

Shaped charges?

What the hell is going on here?

Willamina ran across the Bowl, turned, startled:  something that looked like a flying saucer skimmed along toward the rock, and the dirty-suited figure she'd seen a moment earlier, now stood on top, heaved one of the spears like a javelin.

It curved, fell, landed nose-first on the edge of the saucer: there was a soundless explosion, the saucer flipped, skidded, stopped.

She felt more than heard certain words that any fighter will utter when something deadly comes within spittin' distance, and she blinked as she realized the words she felt -- or perhaps it was the sentiment -- had a distinctly ... feminine ... flavor.

Willamina paced this figure as it ran toward the rock.

The second running form looked like a female that had been dipped in white latex:  seamless, without wrinkle, even in the joints as she ran --

She?

Willamina blinked, realized she was seeing a six point star embossed over the left breast --

Sheriff?

What the hell is this?

The figure in the white skinsuit drew something white from its belt, something rounded, something plastic, a pistol of some kind --

She raised the weapon, aimed at the dirty-suited figure, fired --

There was no sound, just a searing bolt of something that almost instantly curved upward, as if seized by an invisible giant and flung toward the heavens.

The woman in the skinsuit ran, again, toward the rock.

The figure in the filthy astronaut's suit jumped, fell with a surprising slowness, landed, knees bent:  he straightened, couched one of the explosive tipped spears under his arm, charged.

Willamina realized she'd seen a word on the embossed six point star.

She realized what the word was.

She'd seen something through the face plate --

Pale eyes?

 A little girl's voice said It's me, Gammaw --

Marnie?

The double gun came to shoulder, quickly, the bead settling right where she wanted it:  she felt as much as heard her defiant scream, "NOBODY SHOOTS MY GRANDDAUGHTER!" and she fired, one barrel, then the other.

Her gun was choked nice and tight and two swarms of shot drove through the would-be murderer's chest, spraying blood and atmosphere into the thin and low gravity surroundings.

Willamina saw the figure in the skinsuit stop, then turn to look at her, staring, incredulous, as if Willamina were a ghost.

Willamina thumbed the lever to the side, plucked out two hulls and let them drop, smoking, to the red sand underfoot, then she dunked in two fresh rounds, closed the action.

"Nobody," she shouted, and her voice was clear and distinct in the hush, "nobody hurts my little girl!"

 

Some years later, when the first efforts were made to colonize the Martian surface, it was determined that there should be a chief law enforcement officer.

As often happens, things were found that were deemed valuable, and there were those who, tempted by the goods others had gathered, stole, and then killed in order to keep: these same criminals, having tainted their eternal souls, killed the Sheriff who came after them, and a second Sheriff was dispatched.

This second Sheriff wore a white Olympic skinsuit instead of the bulkier, clumsier atmosphere suit: she had a six point star embossed over the left breast, a star that said SHERIFF, and opposite, the name M. KELLER.

But the tales of Sheriff Marnie Keller are already known, as is the ghost story of how her dead Grandmother appeared on the red Martian sands, and shot dead a man who was ready to kill this second Sheriff.

Let us return to Firelands, and a grandmother who woke, and went downstairs, and out the front door she found ajar.

There on the front porch, a curly headed little girl, wrapped in a quilt she'd come back in the house and dragged off the couch, a little girl curled up on the porch rug with a big black curly furred dog curled around her, keeping her warm, and embedded in the curly haired little girl's shoes was a peculiar red sand that Willamina did not recognize as coming from anywhere around here.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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Posted (edited)

297. GOOD, HONEST PARANOIA!

 

"But Sheriff," Mrs. Mackie asked, "aren't you teaching them to be paranoid?"

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked at the Valkyries, standing in ranks, each holding a riot baton at port arms: pretty girls in T-shirts and shorts, faces glowing and damp, their breathing silent, controlled, deep.

Each of the Valkries had the satisfied look of a young woman who is realizing that yes, she actually CAN make a difference.

The talkie on a nearby hay bale crackled. "Dispatch, Sheriff One."

"Excuse me," Willamina said in a deceptively pleasant voice: she turned, snatched up the Motorola, keyed up.

"Dispatch, One, go."

"Assault and attempted assault, multiple casualties, scene is secure."

"Roger."  Willamina placed the talkie carefully back on the hay bale; Mrs. Mackie's phone rang.

Surprised, she ran her hand into her purse, fumbled a moment, brought it out:  "Hi, Jackie."

The Sheriff saw Mrs. Mackie blink twice, then her face paled and her mouth fell open and she blinked twice again:  "Oh my God," she stammered.  "Honey, are you hurt?"

Willamina watched the woman as she um-hmmed and uh-huh'd a few times, then:

"Hospital?" she said weakly.  "I, I'll meet you there."

Willamina watched the woman, her pale eyes calm as Mrs. Mackie fumbled her phone into her purse and she looked around like a trapped animal.

"My daughter," she whispered. "She's been ... the hospital ... I have to --"

Willamina laid a hand on her arm.

"You're here with your husband," she said.  "Let him drive."  She reached for a hip pocket, pulled out her own cell, made a quick call while Mrs. Mackie wobbled, undecided, while chewing on her knuckle, her expression one of fear, of distress.

Willamina thanked her dispatcher, thumbed the hangup button, pressed the no-butt-dial button, shoved the slender phone back into her hip pocket.

"VALKYRIES!" she shouted, her voice loud, sharp in the quiet of the big, round barn.

"FIRELANDS!" came the return shout.

"FORM UP ON ME!"

Willamina slapped Mrs. Mackie on the shoulder:  "To your husband!" she shouted, ran to the double doors, hauled them open.

Pretty young girls in shorts and sneakers executed a precise left-face; young muscles tensed, young lungs took slow, deep breaths, young fingers gripped riot batons, loosened, gripped again.

"WITH ME!"  Willamina shouted, lunging forward, her left desert boot leading:  as one, the neat ranks of pretty young women stepped out in a run, keeping formation, silent, flowing after their pale eyed warrior-chieftain.

 

"Here," Linn said quietly, handing the shaking young man a paper cup of water.

He slurped noisily, coughed, turned his head, blinking the tears from his eyes.  "Went down the wrong pipe," he wheezed.

"I've done that," Linn said sympathetically, his hand warm and companionable on the young man's shoulder.  "Get your breath.  We've all the time in the world."

His words were quiet, reassuring, his voice was gentle; his Uncle Will was interviewing another witness, while three others were being marched out in irons and loaded into police vehicles.  

Linn knew Will would have copies of the video already reserved; they would view the surveillance together, but until then, Linn wanted to get witness statements before cross-conversation could contaminate witness memories.

"Everett, he said he was going to --"  the young man hesitated, for Everett was a football star, Big Man on Campus, and a known bully -- "he ... well, he grabbed Mary Lou's, um --"

His hand imitated an upward grab, a squeeze.

"Go on."

"She came around and knocked his hand away.  She hit him hard -- she --"

He lifted his hand, stepped away from the pale eyed chief deputy, frowning at the floor:  he stood with his feet shoulder width apart -- "She hit down and away, like this.  She used a fist."

His voice held a little surprise, as if realizing that girls aren't supposed to use a fist, girls aren't supposed to hit, but she did.

"It caught Everett right about here" -- he put a curled finger to his own forearm, about three inches back from the wrist -- "and it looked like it hurt him.  He grabbed her wrist."

Linn saw the eyes swing toward the memory side of his brain, heard the voice tones consistent with recollection.

"She broke out of his grip and she just unloaded on him."

He blinked, looked at Chief Deputy Linn Keller with honest surprise.

"My God, Boss, I never knew a girl could hit like that!  She -- her face -- she was --"

"Go on," Linn prompted, his voice quiet, gentle; he nodded once, encouragement, not an order:  he knew he would get more out of this young fellow by being quietly supportive, than by being a hard nosed enforcer.

"I never saw someone move that fast.  She ... he tried to grab her and she hit him three times before he could ... he got her wrist and she snapped her hand out of his grip and I don't know how she did that and then she unloaded on him with her legs and he went over backwards right into the potato chips and made a hell of a mess --"

"I saw that," Linn affirmed, nodding again, grateful he'd long practiced a poker face:  he wanted to grin and to guffaw, but that would compromise his investigation, and so he waited.

"She kicked him square in the nose, Boss.  I mean she flatted his snot box all over his face and then she got him in the gut and I don't know what she ... she hit him in the back and down he went and she was on him screaming and someone else tried to yank her off and she cut loose on them and two other girls jumped in and it got kind of confused from there."

Linn nodded.  "Are you hurt?"

"N-no," he stammered, shaking his head:  "when it started I kind of faded back right here and just watched."

Linn squeezed his shoulder, gentle, an encouragement, an approval:  "You did exactly the right thing," he said:  "you kept yourself safe and you were a good witness."

The young man's eyes were big, bright as he saw the action playing again on the screen on the backside of his forehead.

Linn wrote down a few particulars, handed him back his driver's license.

"If you can recall anything more, here's my card."
"Yeah.  Thanks."

Linn patted his shoulder, turned, looked over at his Uncle, who raised his chin.

"You take care now."

"Yeah.  Thanks, Boss."

Linn walked over to Chief of Police Will Keller.

"Sounds like the star quarterback got his comeuppance."

"That's what I'm getting."

"What about the other three?"

"They made the mistake of tearing into a hornet nest."

Linn took a long breath.  "Never underestimate the power of a woman."

"You want to interview that little blond yonder, I'll start with the redhead with the short haircut."

"Roger that."

 

Two of the Valkyries stood at the rear of the group:  each had a half dozen turned walnut riot batons strung on her arm by the braided-leather lanyard; they stayed discreetly out of sight, as much as they could:  they'd come into the hospital lobby looking like an invading army, if an army could be made of toned, athletic young women in shorts and white sneakers.

Willamina was in a treatment room, the heels of her hands leaned on the edge of the ER gurney, her pale eyes unblinking on the young woman with half a very red face:  she sat cross legged, her fisted hands on her knees, her jaw set and her eyes closed, very obviously containing an internal rage.

"No one," she said finally, her voice quiet, almost a whisper, "no one grabs me like that!"  

She glared at her mother, glared defiantly at the Sheriff.

"What happened?"

Mrs. Mackie looked half sick as her daughter described how someone she knew seized her, laid hands upon her person in a fashion most unacceptable: she described coldly, clinically, exactly how she twisted her body to escape the unwanted clutch, how she seized his thumb in a painful, most effective takedown grip:  how she kicked him once, in the thigh, hard, getting distance, and then she moved in on him with a heelstrike to his nose, another kick to his ribs -- again, she missed, she'd aimed for the solar plexus, and her inaccuracy distressed her -- he came at her again, arms wide to grapple, to seize, and she turned and drove a heel kick into the bridge of his nose just as hard as she could hit him, and that ended the fight, at least until two of his allies tried to join the fracas, at which point her two companions tore into these attackers.

"Nobody," she whispered, "nobody grabs me like that!"

 

Willamina briefed the Valkyries once they'd run back to the barn, once they were back within its shadowed, cool interior.

"I was called paranoid for training you like this," Willamina said, her voice raised but little:  "you are going to hear rumors and speculation, you are going to hear people attributing motive, you're going to hear the intent to abduct someone into white slavery, human trafficking, cut apart while alive for organ donation on the black market.  Most of what you hear will be wild speculation, but remember this."

She looked around, meeting every set of eyes set in serious young faces.

"When it hits the fan and the opponent is bigger and stronger than you, there are no rules.  Anything is fair.  Your first job is to go home alive.  The most terrible criminal act begins with a grab, and a grab was stopped today."

"How is she, Sheriff?"

"She's shaken.  She'll likely shiver her way to sleep tonight.  She is" -- she lifted her chin a little, looked around -- "she is alive to complain about it!"

Willamina looked around, nodded.  "Enough for one day.  COMPANEEE ... DISS-MISS!"

The Valkyries went from precise ranks of serious-faced young women to laughing, chattering cheerleaders, instantly going from toned, trained warrior-maidens to Just Girls:  Willamina smiled at the change, remembering how her son murmured at the last dance ... he'd gripped his Mama's hand and squeezed a little and he said "They've changed, Mama.  There's a confidence that makes them glow, and you put it there."

Paranoid, Willamina thought.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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