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Linn Keller 3-27-13


Shorty was a single man.
Shorty was a simple man.
Shorty was an uncomplicated man.
Shorty made his home at the livery.
When the Chinaman opened a laundry, Shorty rejoiced, for he detested beating his knuckles raw on the washboard.
When Shorty took his meals, they were at the Silver Jewel, which meant he did not have to cook.
Shorty's furniture consisted of a bunk and his office chair and the over filled roll top desk, and one other rather decrepit chair for guests: the other chair had four different styles of legs, but the repairs were well done and solid, in spite of its odd appearance.
Shorty appreciated the simplicity of his life; Shorty thanked the Almighty at least weekly and generally more often, that he had the foresight to build a livery where he did, and when he did.
Shorty was content.
This particular morning, though, Shorty was more content than usual.
Shorty looked out the window at a snow covered world, at an ocean of white, at gentle rolls of crystal-sparkling snow extending as far as the eye could see.
Shorty turned to one of the cats.
The cat blinked sleepily, content on the guest chair, near to the stove.
"Cat," said Shorty, who was as extravagant in naming his animals as he was extravagant in his life style, "I don't believe the place has looked this clean in quite a while."
The cat washed a paw.
"No, no, out there, not in here."
The cat looked at Shorty and gave a little rusty-gate meow.
"Don't look at me, Cat. You know the way out. You're hungry, go catch mice."
Cat jumped down and slid under a loose board: Shorty knew Cat would emerge out in the livery and would tend to its breakfast.
Shorty stretched and scratched and wondered how much of an appetite he'd build up, fighting drifts between the livery and the back door of the Jewel.

Bill laughed as The Lady Esther drove into another drift.
Snow exploded outward from the engine and the world was featureless and white for several long moments, until they drove through the cloud of their own making: the snow plow replaced the cowcatcher, and the snow plow was doing good work.
The fireman let the cast iron butterfly doors BANG shut, leaned on his shovel, grinned at the engineer.
"I do believe," he declared, "you are enjoyin' yourself!"
"You're damned right!" Bill laughed, leaning out and looking ahead. "Here we go again!"

The Sheriff stepped out on the porch, hesitated.
Snow was porch floor deep, and that meant belt buckle deep and more, and the Sheriff was a long legged man: his belt buckle was better than a yard off the ground.
Angela looked out at the ocean of white.
"Ooohhh, pretty," she laughed. "Daddy, can we play in it?"
The Sheriff laughed.
"Dear heart," he said, "it's kind of deep, don't you think?"
"Oh," Sarah said, disappointed. "But I wanta play innit!"
The Sheriff picked her up, held her over the porch rail.
"I could drop you in it," he said.
Angela wiggled and laughed. "No, Daddy!" she giggled, and the Sheriff brought her back, held her close to him.
"Let's see how deep this is," he said.
"Okay, Daddy!"
The Sheriff walked off the porch, wading into the fluffy stuff: he nearly missed the middle step, stumbled, turned: he went over on his back, Angela clasped tightly to his front, landing deep in the snow: he held his breath, eyes screwed shut, as he went under, as if he were falling into deep water.
The Sheriff fought to his feet, snorting: his hat was gone, snow was shoving itself down the back of his neck: he shook his head, puffing snow off his mustache.
Angela, too, was snorting, batting at her face: she opened her snow-gilded lashes and looked at her Daddy, and laughed at snow in his muts-tash and on his eyebrows, and the Sheriff said "Well, now, that ain't quite the way we planned it, is it?" and Angela laughed and crowed, "That was fun, Daddy! Do it again!"

Jacob waded patiently out into the snow.
He had stock to feed; he had sufficient wood laid in near to hand, but hay was in the barn and had to be forked out to his horses and the cattle pastured nearest the house.
Boocaffie stood and looked at him, his long horns limned in pristine white.
Jacob waited until he'd forked hay over the fence before he whistled the bull over to him.
"Come here, you bum," he said, and Boocaffie lowered his head and snuffed at Jacob's extended hand, happily taking the stale light rolls from the slender deputy's palm.
Jacob looked around, kicked snow off his boots, nodded.
It was quiet, what with snowfall and distance from town, and in this silence, Jacob was content.

Sondra Mae woke, confused, unsure whether she was hearing her grandfather, or whether she was dreaming.
Sondra slipped from under warm quilts and thrust bare feet into chilly slippers, bundled her robe about her, made her way downstairs.
It was cold ... it was cold downstairs, the door stood wide open, and her grandfather's tracks started on the snow-covered porch and led out into the snow.
"Dear God," Sondra breathed, "not again!"
Sondra ran out on the porch, calling, looking wildly left, then right.
It was snowing again: Sondra's heart sank as she saw how fast and how heavy the snow was falling.
"Grandpa Miller!" she called, drawing the robe tight about her. "Grandpa Miller!"
Her voice was swallowed by the snowfall; it did not even echo the way it usually did.
Sondra ducked back inside, pulled the door to: she ran to the stove, held out a hand: warm, it was still warm: she opened the fire door, threw in a couple chunks, then ran upstairs.
An older woman came from her back room.
"Miss Miller?" she called. "Miss Miller?"
Sondra froze at the top of the stairs, turned.
"He's gone," she bleated, panic in her voice. "I heard him calling for 'Little Sandy' and I knew he was looking for me again!"
"Oh, no," the housekeeper murmured, raising apron to lips.
"I'm getting dressed. I'll turn the men out."
"I'll get them a meal."

Old man Miller was fully dressed.
He was dressed for the weather.
He'd lived most of his life in these mountains; he knew enough to have insulation about him, and he had a bundle under his arm, a cloak and a scarf sized for a little girl, sized for his little Sandy, his darling granddaughter, bright-eyed and pigtailed and eight years old, a beautiful child, the image of her Mama ... his daughter ...
Miller raised his lantern.
"Sandy!" he called.
He heard a faint voice, a little girl's voice.
"Sandy, sing out! I hear you!"
Miller held the lantern up, waded out into the snow, off the roadway, following the little girl's voice.
Wind swirled about him, playing tricks with his hearing.
He pushed through the snow, one step, another: he was tiring quickly, but he kept following the voice, the voice, his little granddaughter's voice, she was out here, she was lost, he had to find her, find her, find her ...
The wind dropped for a moment and he saw her, her back to him.
She's not dressed for the weather, he thought as her pigtails swung in the freshening breeze. Good thing I brought her wrap.
"Sandy!" he called.

Sondra Mae looked after the men as they disappeared into the blowing snow.
They were on foot; the old man could not move as quickly as they, the old man could not have gotten far: his tracks were disappearing quickly, but they followed as best they could, and Sondra watched from the porch, her apron pressed against her mouth, dread weighting her belly.
The housekeeper laid gentle hands on her shoulders.
"Come inside, dearie," she soothed, "you'll catch your death out here," and Sondra shuddered to hear the word.
Sondra Mae turned and went back into the house.

"Mr. Miller!" the foreman called. "Mr. Miller!"
Wind threw snow in his face, reached into his muffler-wrapped neck's warmth with chilly, snow-gritty fingers.
"Mr. Miller!"
The segundo reached over, swatted the foreman's shoulder, pointed.

"Sandy!" Miller called, smiling, tension running out of him like a punctured waterskin.
He reached for his little girl, heard her giggle.
His foot found empty air and he was falling, falling for an eternity, falling through space and time.
There was an explosion of pain, a burst of light, then he was suddenly warm and absolutely at ease ... he was standing on top of the snow, looking at a crumpled body with a lantern beside it, the globe broken, the little flame extinguished.
He tilted his head, curious, for the blood was bright, so very bright, and the old fellow laying there looked so old, so worn out, so skinny ...
That poor fellow needs a good square meal, he thought, then, Wait a minute.
That's me!

Surprised, he looked up, and a young woman stood smiling at him, a young woman in a wedding gown, a young woman with the bloom of youth and health on her cheeks, and she reached out a hand.
"Hello, Daddy," she said, and Miller blinked.
"Mary?" he asked. "Mary ... how?"
He reached for her hand.
It was solid, real.
"It's time to go home, Daddy," Mary said. "I've missed you so!"
"I've missed you too, darlin'," Miller said, his mind spinning. "How ... you're ... we buried you ..."
The wind slowed, died; the snow quit and he saw his men come to the edge of the cliff above, look down at the unmoving figure on the rocks below.
Mary caressed his cheek, tears bright in her eyes.
"Let me look at you," she whispered. "I have someone you'll want to see."
Miller looked at his daughter.
"I'm dead?" he asked.
She nodded.
"Time to see the Judge?"
She nodded again.
Miller hugged his daughter, felt her solid and real in his arms, smelled soap and lavender the way he always did, then he looked down one last time at the shell he used to occupy.
He looked back at his daughter.
"Time to go," he said.

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Linn Keller 11-22-07   Jacob and I took turns out back, splitting wood and hauling in kindling and fire wood, for the days were chll and the nights more so, and a November mist had started:

And that, loyal readers, is the original story of the town and people of Firelands as told by a variety of folks over a long space of time both modern and old. I hope that you have enjoyed our small e

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Linn Keller 3-28-13


Emma Cooper looked up, smiling, as Sarah came in, shaking her cloak outside the doors before pulling back and closing the doors against the slight breeze.
Sarah turned, hanging up her wrap, taking a fast inventory of the student body.
Four students turned, only four: Sarah laughed and set her knuckles on her hips.
"How in the world," she declared, "did you four get here?"
"I walked," one little boy offered.
"I did too."
"My Pa hitched up the sleigh."
The fourth little boy wrinkled up his nose, disappointment plain on his face.
"Pa said Ma ought to fly me in on her broom," he said.
Sarah looked at Emma Cooper, not daring to smile, not able to keep from it: she looked at the downcast young fellow and said "He, ummm ... you didn't fly in?"
"No ma'am," he said. "I had to ride the mule and he wasn't nearly as fast!"
"I see," Sarah replied, cautioning herself against being inquisitive, but too interested in what happened next to stop: "And did the mule do well in snow?"
"Oh yes, Miss Sarah," the little fellow brightened, "even if I couldn't reach the stirrups. Pa was in an awful hurry to get me on that mule. I think Ma must have wanted to try flyin' that broom 'cause I saw her come out of the house with the broom held up in both hands, and Pa looked kind of funny when she come out the door like that!"

If one wished to find out all that transpired in a territory, one need only plot the area on a map, calculate its center, then find the tavern, saloon, beer joint or other place of common drink nearest that point: whatever happened, for good or for ill, would be mentioned, spoken of, cussed, discussed, kicked around and otherwise tossed out on the air to see what it sounded like.
In this case, the Sheriff listened with amusement to the description of one fellow who swore he watched a woman drubbing her husband briskly with a broom, shouting something about riding it and she'd show him, and Shorty came in, snow to his belt and higher: the Sheriff leaned against the bar, relaxed, looking around and listening, and accepted a steaming mug of coffee from the Daisy's girl that winked at him and asked if he'd like a bite of something.
Jacob came in about an hour later, discussed the rustling-that-wasn't with his father; the Sheriff nodded slowly as Jacob laid out the chronology of his discoveries, but offered no comment until Jacob spoke of his return to the ranch house and described the wrestling match with old man Miller, and his granddaughter's hopeful words that followed.
The Sheriff considered all this, frowning.
"You handled that one just right," he said quietly. "Texans are a touchy lot. Sounds like you trod carefully." He smiled a little. "Well done."
"Thank you, sir."
"Sondra Mae ..."
The Sheriff frowned.
"There's something else going on there, Jacob. Did she talk about her grandfather?"
"No, sir."
"The old man isn't all there," the Sheriff said quietly. "Hasn't been since he buried his daughter. He's gotten worse over the years. Sondra Mae told me she had to go a-chasin' after him at night. He'd go out with a lantern, hunting Little Sandy."
The Sheriff smiled sadly.
"Old Man Miller and his brother were physicians, and good ones," the Sheriff explained. "His brother died some years ago and he carried on but when he couldn't save his own daughter, he gave up medicine for good. The only thing that kept him sane was his little granddaughter. He called her Little Sandy."
"I see, sir."
"I would not be surprised," the Sheriff said tiredly, "if he wandered off and fell off a cliff or something. I've seen it happen before."
"Yes, sir."
"God help me from getting soft minded in my old age." The Sheriff shook his head. "I hope to work into old age and the day of my retirement I want to walk in on a bank robbery and get shot right between the eyes." He tapped a thumb against his forehead between his brows. "Lights out. Done. No old age insanity, no crippled up old man, no fallin' over with apoplexy unable to move one leg and one arm."
"Yes, sir."
"On t'other hand, what do I know, eh? I'm just a poor dumb hillbilly!"
Jacob frowned, shaking his head a little.
The Sheriff's eyes shifted to the windows at the front of the Silver Jewel.
"I'll venture to guess," he said, "an awful lot of houses are warmer now."
"This snow?" The Sheriff grinned. "Deep as it is, it'll shut off drafts. Few houses are tight built, Jacob. Most of 'em, why, snow blows in through the cracks ... all this snow built up on the outside will shut that off and houses will be nice and warm!"
Jacob chuckled. "Yes, sir."

The fireman swatted the engineer's shoulder.
Bill looked over and saw fear on the engineer's face.
The engineer thrust a stiff finger toward his window and screamed, "AVALANCHE!"
Bill shoved the throttle wide open, pulled the sander lanyard.
"Come on, girl," he shouted, "show us what you've got!"
The Lady Esther surged forward on the slight down grade, her whistle screaming defiance at the white wall that cascaded down-slope toward them.
The fireman drove his shovel under the coal and turned, stomping the air valve to open the boiler doors.
He got one shovel of coal in and had another ready when the cab filled with white.

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Charlie MacNeil 3-28-13

Charlie stamped the snow from his boots, used his hat to sweep the worst of the white stuff from his britches and slipped his arms from the sleeves of his blanket-lined jacket. Grabbing the stiff canvas by the collar the ex-marshal rattled the garment free of snow as well before hanging it up. "It'd be nice if spring would decide to get here," he grumbled under his breath.

"Spring here soon, then you cuss the mud," Cat Running's amused voice came from behind Charlie, where the old man stood in the track that Charlie had broken from the house to the barn when he went to feed the broodmares. "White man ain't never happy, always want different."

"You'd best be careful, old man, or this white man'll lock your scrawny carcass out of the kitchen," Charlie warned, his smile belying the words. He sniffed. "And I smell bear sign."

"Huh," the old man grunted. "Least your woman got good sense. Man needs bread to get warm from inside."

"She ain't got that much good sense," Charlie replied. "She married me, and she lets you live here." He grinned at Cat Running as he wedged his first boot into the boot jack and levered the boot from his foot. He followed that with the second then strode into the kitchen in his wool socks, leaving the mud room to the old man. "I hope the coffee's on to go with that bear sign," he called.

"It might be," Fannie replied, her tone saucy. "Or I might let you make it yourself."

"No problem," Charlie replied. "I make damn good coffee, if I do say so myself. A lot better than what that there sheriff makes, leastways."

"Don't take much to make better coffee than Sheriff," Cat Running replied as he stepped into the kitchen. "His coffee good for strippin' hair offa rawhide for braidin'. Fer sure not good for drinkin'."

"And you know this because?" Charlie asked, one eyebrow raised.

"Done it," the old man answered with a grin.

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Linn Keller 3-29-13


Lightning frowned, touched the black telegraph key's flat, round knob, frowned some more.
Dead, he thought.
He looked at the Regulator clock, patiently biting off the seconds, checked his pocket watch.
He stood, went to the door, hesitated.
He came back, touched his key again.
Still dead.
He opened the door, stepped out, looked down the tracks.
Bill was punctual; Bill knew The Lady Esther like a man knows his wife's body, Bill could bring The Lady Esther to life under his hands like an experienced lover could an impassioned partner.
Lightning waited three minutes past arrive time, then in accordance with Miz Esther's instructions, he whistled up the boy and had him carry the message to the Sheriff.

"Aw, c'mon, Miss Sarah!"
Sarah smiled and shook her head.
"Aw, please? Just once?"
Sarah laughed, spreading her hands.
"How can I refuse?" she smiled. "Okay. Just this once!"
Sarah opened the desk drawer and pulled out something -- two somethings -- rounded and dark; she did something with her hands, then she froze, looking at the few students.
Something hard, almost metallic, began to clatter, to snarl.
Sarah set up a mesmerizing rhythm, the castanets chattering with a life of their own: somehow she made her split riding skirt as graceful as a flamenco dancer's gown; her smile, bright and maidenly, showed the love she held for the dance: her heels, loud and surprising, punctuated the castanets' purr as she turned, raising an arm gracefully, turning --
Sarah froze as the doors opened in back and the Sheriff almost leaped into the room. He was snow nearly to his waist and his face was serious.
"Sarah," he said, his voice as grave as his expression, "avalanche. Need your help."
Sarah's eyes paled immediately and she turned, dropping the castanets into the desk drawer: she did not run, but her purposeful stride would have done credit to a soldier on the march.
A path was broken to the Silver Jewel; Sarah and her father plowed through the broken path, climbed to the clean-swept boardwalk, kicked snow off their feet before going inside.
"I'll change," Sarah said, seizing her skirts and running up the stairs.
Jacob looked after her disappearing hemline, then at his father.
"Sir," he said, "I know she's willing, but is this wise?"
The Sheriff's expression had not changed since the grim news arrived at the Jewel.
"Her Snowflake can break trail better than any horse in the territory," he said, his words clipped. "Right now we need that big oat burner and she's part of the package."
"Yes, sir," Jacob said. "You're right."
The Sheriff considered whether to recruit the Irish Brigade for whatever rescue might be necessary.
He needn't have wondered.
Word, especially of fell deeds, travels fast in a small town.
Sean shoved into the Silver Jewel, shovel in hand, and half the Brigade with him.
"I can spare half the men," he said, his voice tight. "Where d'ye need us?"


Bill shook his head, wiped his eyes.
"Bill, you hurt?"
Bill shook his head, snorted snow out of his mustache. "No, by the Sachem!" He wiped wet-beads off the steam-gauge. "We've still pressure ..."
The Lady Esther panted quietly like a great animal breathing, the way she did when she sat idle with her steam up.
"I'll climb back and see what's left."
Bill nodded and the fireman scrambled over the tender, wallowing and slipping on the layer of new snow sluiced over the car by the passing snow wall.
He got as high as he could climb, stood, looked back.
"Well?" Bill yelled.
The fireman stared for several moments.
"I'll see if I can rouse the express car!"

Sarah came downstairs as fast as she'd gone up, but all in black now, from hat to boots and britches and long black coat: her eyes were as pale as her father's as she looked at the room full of solemn faced volunteers.
"I'll need a shovel," she said crisply and the Sheriff said "No you don't. You are attached to me. Shorty!"
"Right here, Sheriff," a voice said at the Sheriff's elbow, and the lean lawman with the iron-grey mustache jumped, started.
"Jee-sus Katy Kee-rist, don't scare me like that!" he exclaimed, flinching: "We'll need --"
"You leave that to me," Shorty cut him off. "This is my department."
Shorty turned and stomped down the hall to the back door, the Sheriff and conmpany forming a single file behind: they shoved their way through snow, each following the man before, Shorty in the lead following the path he broke on his way to breakfast.
Sarah got Snowflake saddled, outside, ready: the Sheriff followed with Outlaw, and Jacob with his Apple-horse: the Irish Brigade, in wool trousers and black wool coats, shouldered their shovels and fell in as Sarah led the way, Snowflake muscling through snow near to belly deep in most places.
The Bear Killer, rested after a peaceful night in Shorty's livery, loped through the broken snow right behind the big black Frisian.

It feels like I'm floating, he thought.
Am I dead?
He opened his eyes.
All was white -- indistinct, unfocused white.
He tried to move and realized he was cold ... he was cold, and he ached.
I can't be in Heaven, he thought, I ache ... I can't be in Hell, I'm cold ...
I must be alive.

The fireman thumped on the roof hatch.
"Hey in there!" he yelled. "You alive?"
"Yeah, we're alive," an irritated voice replied. "Why are we settin' cockeyed? How come we're stopped?"
"Avalanche," the fireman yelled.
The muffled response from within was neither repeatable in polite company, nor did it consist of more than ... oh, maybe ten syllables or thereabouts.
The fireman walked carefully down the length of the car -- he was good at it, he'd been a brakeman years before, walking the plank of the narrow walkway atop railcars in order to set or release the hand-wheel brakes -- and he looked beyond the end of the express car.
The fireman's jaw hung open and he stared.

Emma Cooper smiled as she held the buckeye-colored castanets in gentle hands.
"The trick," she explained, "is to make them a mystery."
"A mystery?"
She nodded, eyes bright and merry behind her round lenses spectacles.
"You don't ever show them," she explained. "You keep them hidden -- keep your palms turned toward your body, until you move your arms.
"You use your right hand, first ... you hit the clapper with four fingers, like this: one-two-three-four" -- the gleaming, burnished wood clacked loudly, four times, "then with your left hand" -- click! she closed her hand -- "the left hand is like a heartbeat" -- click-click, click-click, click-click.
"Now when you dance them," Emma Cooper continued, "bring up your left arm when you bring out your right leg, then the right arm with the left leg.
"Bring your hands up, curve them like this -- both of them -- and directly overhead" -- a loud double-clack -- "rap them together. Bring them down beside you, both of them on your left" -- again the loud double-clack -- "or the right side.
"But never forget the basic I showed you." Emma Cooper turned her hands to show the palm-side, showing the castanets. "Keep them hidden and keep them a mystery, then with the fingers of your right hand, one-two-three-four, and your left, one."

The work train whistled, its low-pitched whistle almost an animal moan in the cold air.
The Irish Brigade, three horsemen, one bear killing Dawg and a double handful of willing volunteers climbed into the cars of the rescue train.
Last in the lineup, the steam crane, facing backwards.
The engine moaned again and the engineer threw the Johnson bar, opened the sanders, and the freight locomotive with the oversize boiler thrashed against the rails, fighting for traction until crushed sand did its work and she started backward, toward the avalanche, toward the derail.

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Linn Keller 3-30-13


Sarah rode in the stock car with Snowflake, standing, holding the black mare's bridle: she was quiet, her spirit confined within her young body: at one time even the Unlearned would be able to feel her raging strength at twenty feet, but Sarah was learning to discipline her fighting soul: it was not until the Sheriff laid a hand on his arm -- and jerked his hand back like he was burned -- that he realized his daughter was nowhere near as placid as she looked.
Jacob looked over at his father, his own eyes quiet, almost sleepy, and the Sheriff wondered if his son, too, might have a similar effect, should he reach out and lay his palm on the lean young man.
The Sheriff flexed his hand, opened it, decided he really didn't want to try.

Angela tilted her head a little, curious, as Emma Cooper showed her how the castanet's thumb loop ran over her tiny little thumb and tightened, the second loop over the end of the thumb just ahead of the joint, at the base of her thumbnail.
Angela regarded the glass-smooth, close-grained wood sadly.
"My hand's not big enough," she pouted. "I have to grow up first."

The German Irishman's head came up.
He opened the passenger car's door, faced the chill air; they were traveling backwards, the steam crane in the lead, the big snow plow hastily bolted on what was now its leading end peeling snow back like a chisel through soft wood.
He raised a hand, a finger, turned his head toward the faces suddenly turned to him: "Listen."
In the distance, a locomotive whistle -- a familiar whistle.
He looked at Sean, his face brightening.
The steam crane replied, its shrill whistle harsh, loud; in the stock car, the horses startled, danced, their riders soothing them with hand and with voice as the steam-whistles talked to one another.
Their own locomotive, pushing the willy-worm from behind, replied with a coded series of deep-throated hoots.
The rescuers had pretended to a nervous calm; now, pent up too long, every man came to his feet, ready to go to war.

Sean and the Sheriff, separated by several feet and a couple walls, nevertheless had the same thought at the same moment.
"The doctor," they both muttered, swearing: "I should have gotten the doctor!"
Jacob muscled the stock car's sliding door open, leaned out, getting his bearings, gauging his landmarks.
He swore, bitterly, powerfully.
"Where in two hells ARE we?" he shouted, frustrated.
The Sheriff walked over, Outlaw walking with him, the lawman's gloved hand hard about the gelding's black bridle: man and horse looked out at white-carpeted woods and mountainsides.
"We'll get there," the Sheriff said quietly, confidently.
Jacob glared at his father.
"Yes, sir," he snapped, biting off the words, then looked down beside the slow-moving stock car, and the Sheriff could surmise his son's thoughts: The roadbed is below us, it'll be narrow, a dropoff should be evident but the snow will hide traps that could break a horse's leg --
Sarah petted Snowflake's nose, whispering to her.
The Bear Killer looked up at Sarah.
His hair was bristled up the length of his back and his eyes glowed red.
Sarah looked out the door and her own eyes were like deep-set coals, and the whip-scar blazed like a streak of living red fire diagonally down her face.

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Linn Keller 3-30-13


The steam crane whistled a warning and the engineer threw the air valve, stopping the rescue train.
“Move,” Sarah said harshly, and she, Snowflake, and the Bear Killer jumped in a black cascade into the snow.
Sarah seized the saddlehorn and jumped, flat-footed, into polished black leather: her eyes blazed and she snarled a little as Snowflake came about, dancing in the belly-deep snow.
Sarah’s eyes flared and she was on the red plain again, teeth bared, eyes ablaze.
She raised her hands, opened her fingers: balls of red fire flared into life on her palms, hot, searing hot, but not harming her.
Sarah raised her hands and flame shot in two jets, a deep, inviting snarl, melting sand into glass, melting rock into glowing puddles.
What’s hell if you can’t use it? a voice whispered, and Sarah’s heart soared with the feeling of power.
It’s yours, the voice whispered.
You can have it, all of it.
Think of the good you could do.
Melt snow from under that tipped over car, bring it back level on the tracks, nobody hurt, no one crushed when the car comes down level, so much work you could save them …

Sarah felt the seduction of power, tasted the intoxication it promised, closed her eyes and took a long, shivering breath, reveling in the feeling, bathing in the knowledge that she had power, she had authority, she could make things happen, all she needed do …
She glared around her at the half formed figures slithering and flowing toward her.
“You want to come to me?” she smiled.
Sarah opened her eyes.
Sarah seized herself and yanked herself back, hard, back to the mountains, back to avalanche and snow and winter's chill ...
Sarah drew winter’s cold in from around her.
Sarah washed hell’s intoxicating heat from her soul with the winter-cold that surrounded her: she drew on the purpose in these men’s hearts, washing herself clean of power-lust with their knowledge, their utter, pure conviction, that these men scrambling forward with shovels and pry bars, chains and jacks and props, these men were right, and they were doing what they did unselfishly, because it was right, it was the right thing to do, it was doing good.
“I choose good,” Sarah whispered, inhaling deeply of winter cold, of snow, of ice, of frost.
“I choose GOOD!”
Then she exhaled.

Sarah sat astride a death-black mare, frost sparkling in her hair, lightening her eyebrows, her eyelashes.
Beside her, a black hell-hound the size of a pony, snow spraying as he shook himself, little ice-balls frozen to the tips of his thick black fur.
Sarah opened her mouth, opened ice-pale eyes: as she exhaled, powerfully, forcefully, cold roared from her mouth, washing the infernal landscape in frost and in chill and in snow, searing red sand with purity of purpose and with a clean that comes only from the mountain winter.
Somewhere on a hell-red plane, Boschian creatures screamed in agony at the touch of cold, at the touch of good, grinding yellowed and crooked teeth in frustration at the knowledge that they failed yet again.
For just a moment, for one brief moment, it snowed in Hell.

Sarah bent double in her saddle, shaking; she gasped, feeling like she’d been gut punched, but she straightened, grunting air into her: she felt … she felt cold, but … clean.
Sarah blinked, looked down.
The Bear Killer was shaking himself, throwing off water, as if he’d been steam-bath hot when he leaped into the snow.
The Bear Killer looked up at Sarah and gave a powerful WOOF and began snuffing, then digging in the snow.

He’d fought for a little air space around his head: somehow he managed to wiggle an arm up hard against his chest, to his face, and pushed more snow back.
His world was small, no bigger than the brim of a man’s hat, and featurelessly white.
It was also very, very quiet.
He shivered a little: he was almost wet, he realized, especially his legs.
He thought back, trying to remember.
Something … something hit the passenger car and it went over, then it was dark, he was picked up and tumbled about and something hit his head, or maybe his head hit something … and when he came to, the world was still, unmoving, and utterly, heart-stoppingly silent.
He fought the snow, pushing back a little, a little more.
His breath melted the snow, then it froze, and he started to shiver, harder now, and he knew he had to get out.
Don’t panic.
Panic will kill you.

He twisted, twisted some more, the snow holding him as if he were bedded in sand, but he tried anyway, gaining a fraction, a fraction again.
He stopped, frowned.
What was that? he thought, straining his ears.
He heard it again.
A whistle?
An answering whistle and close, by the sound of it …
He began struggling hard.
If help was that close he was not going to give up!

Sarah felt a firm hand grip her wrist.
“SARAH!” the Sheriff shouted.
Sarah opened her eyes, took a breath, another.
Her eyes were blue, their normal light blue.
“Are you back now?” the Sheriff asked, his voice tight.
Sarah nodded.
“Seductive, isn’t it?” the Sheriff said, his voice low, pitched so only she could hear.
Sarah nodded, swallowed, wondering if her stomach was going to rebel.
“Are you back now?” the Sheriff repeated.
“Yes,” Sarah gasped.
“Good. We need you.”
Sarah straightened, looked around.
“Break trail for us, darlin’. Both sides of the track, both sides of that passenger car.”
“What passenger –“ Sarah asked, then her mouth opened and she gaped at what used to be a Z&W passenger car.
Its back half was blown open as if by an explosive charge; its rear truck was swept from the tracks and hung down hill.
The Bear Killer thrust his head up through the snow and he woofed, loud, imperative, then dove again.
“Sarah!” the Sheriff said.
“Yes, sir!” she replied, shaking her head to clear it. “Up, Snowflake!”

The Irish Brigade waded through the path Snowflake broke for them, chest-deep snow threatening to collapse in on them: they fought their way in the big Frisian’s wake as Sarah wallowed her mare back and forth, then around the displaced car: she walked Snowflake back and forth the length of what used to be the car, talking to her, cautioning her when she knew she was close to a rail.
Snowflake worked her way around the down hill side of the car, and along the tracks on the other side, to the quietly breathing locomotive.
“We’re here,” she called up to Bill and the fireman.
“Glad we are for it,” Bill replied, hung out his window up to his belt buckle, looking back. “The telegraph set was in the rear of that car.”
“Lines are down,” Sarah frowned. “I don’t know how far.”
“How many are hurt, do we know?”
Sarah shook her head. “We don’t know.”

The Bear Killer dove into the snow, digging like a swimmer boring through ocean surf: he stroked powerfully, thrusting against the surrounding snow, working his way toward someone he’d never met.
When The Bear Killer’s face popped into the little ice-rimed air space around the man’s head, both rescuer and rescued blinked with surprise, then The Bear Killer licked the fellow’s chin in greeting and woofed.
If he’d had enough room his tail would have been whipping back and forth.
The Bear Killer clawed and swum, straight up, breaking surface again, then he dove, dug back down and found the man’s coat sleeve, began tearing at the entombing snow.
Man and dog broke surface in a small geyser.
“WOOF!” the Bear Killer announced, and the man, cold, shivering, grabbed a handful of thick black fur and held on.
Part of his mind noted the thousand little ice-balls, as if a microscopic crystal sphere were welded on the tip of each strand of hair.
The Bear Killer began thrashing through the deep snow, half clawing, half swimming, and the man thrashed against the white stuff as well, fighting his way uphill, toward the dark figures he could just see.

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Linn Keller 3-31-13


Sarah thrashed, romped, slid, stumbled, kicked, surged, fell, wallowed, plowed and otherwise broke a free trail around the entire scene: the downhill side was difficult, dangerous and almost led to a Nantucket sleigh ride: Snowflake was sure-footed, aye, but working blind through a layer of snow, a layer that hissed as she broke it loose on the downhill side and slid in flat, liquid layers, dissolving bonelessly and running downhill like a sheet of white water.
The scene was surprisingly quiet.
Men labored with shovels, attacking the white stuff as if a personal enemy: they fought to the passenger car, boosted one another aboard the ruined aft end, seized broken boards with gloved hands and tossed them to waiting hands, who cut, chopped or broke them into working lengths and stacked them for cribbing, shoring or firewood as may be necessary.
They did not clear snow from under the tilted over car, but they did shovel snow from the car itself: the passenger benches were still bolted securely to the floor and they had to proceed carefully, for fear a careless shovel-thrust might cut chilled flesh yet hidden in the snow-packed car.
The Sheriff was first to find a hand.
He froze, remembering a derailment, a scene of carnage and destruction, and a tiny little hand in a tiny little dress sleeve, and the little girl to which it was attached ... the child that became his little Angela, his own daughter.
He took a long breath, shook his head, brushed snow away from the little hand and bit the middle finger of his glove, yanking his hand savagely from its leather work cover: he pulled the other glove free, dropped it, sandwiched the tiny little hand between his own.
It was cold, cold as death and just as still.
"No," he whispered, and part of him saw his hands start to shiver.
He felt the little hand twitch.
"That's all I need," he whispered: seizing his gloves, he swatted snow from them, thrust his hands inside and began burrowing, digging with his hands like an enraged badger, mined snow from around the child.
He seized the girl under her arms and groaned, leaned back: she slid from her form fitting white coffin and he handed her to a pair of anonymous arms, dove under the seat, thrusting his arms through the snow, searching, knowing if there was a child, there was probably family.

One of the blurry figures wobbled closer and the man felt hands grip his upper arm, press on his back: he staggered, a man at the very limit of exhaustion, but he managed two more steps before he fell.
He was floating now, floating on a light sea, his dory rocked by the waves; there were voices, distant voices, and then his eyes rolled up in his his head and he went limp.
Part of him heard voices, shouted voices but from a very long way off.

The Bear Killer's tail whipped a great arc, throwing snow up on either side, then he shoved his nose into the snow, snuffed loudly, reared up on his hind legs and dove into the deep white stuff like a penguin going after a seagoing fish.

Sarah muscled the ramp into place, got the iron hooks into their sockets so the ramp would be absoloutely secure, then led Snowflake up and into the stock car.
"Stay, girl," she said, pouring a bait of corn into the trough and grabbing a burlap: "stay, now," and she rubbed her precious mare down, quickly but thoroughly: she drew the stock car's door halfway shut but no more, then fought through the snow, fought through laboring men and stifling snow, through the path that she and her greathorse broke, and to the engineer.
"Bill!" she shouted up. "Bill, we have survivors!"
The engineer looked like he'd aged ten years: he nodded, pausing from his sweeping: when the cab filled with snow it melted quickly, and he and the fireman took the opportunity to sweep out the slush and the water, not just to keep their feet dry, but to get rid of the inevitable coal dust and working dirt that gathers in an open back locomotive cab.
"Bill, the stock ramp is down on the stock car. It'll have to be removed before the train can be moved."
Bill nodded. "I'll see to it," he said tiredly.
"Thank you!" Sarah called, then she slogged to the front of The Lady Esther, looked ahead of them, then turned and slogged down the other side and back toward the cockeyed passenger car.

The English Irishman crawled under the passenger car, dragging the wire line with him: thick as his thumb, it was kinked, dirty, twisted, and he knew if he wasn't wearing leather gloves, the wire wickers that stuck up from the weave would lacerate his hand in several places.
He ran it around the exposed frame of the passenger car, swore, took a two hand grip on the line behind him and braced his feet, pulled another six feet of slack, then ran it around the frame and back on itself, pulled line through the loop far enough to get the bolt through.
"Tighten up now!" he yelled, rolling out of the way, snorting as snow fell in his face and down the back of his neck.
The steam crane hissed, gears chuckled and drums hummed as they turned and the wire line tightened, slowly, carefully, just enough to stabilize the car, just enough to keep it from over-balancing and sliding down the mountain.

A cowboy and a gandy dancer stopped and looked at one another, then looked back at the passenger car, listened.
Every time two or three men carried a still form back to their rescue train, work stopped momentarily, hopeful and anxious and tired and determined eyes followed then: here and there a hat was lifted and lips were seen to move, but none took note nor offered comment, for in such a moment the intercession of the Almighty is implored, and a hard man might lift his cover out of respect when addressing his Deity.
The horseman and the railroader looked at their passenger car, there not far behind the steam crane.
A woman was crying.
The two -- two men from different worlds, one a professional railroad laborer, the other a free soul on horseback that chased steers and the Texas wind -- clapped one another on the shoulder and grinned, for they'd found an entire family, and the family was together now, alive and safe -- if chilly and wet -- and holding one another, clustered around the passenger car's stove.
Willing hands dug snow from inside the wrecked car, gloved hands plunged into snowy masses, breath steamed on the cold air.
Sarah crawled under the benches, punching her lean, strong young body through packed snow, fighting through the white, praying, panting: a foot, a leg, an arm, once a woman's hat: each find prompted excavation, Sarah digging like a prairie dog or a groundhog until she found its owner, or the rest of the human carcass, or in the case of the hat, nothing at all: a final push, a final surge and she found the curved end of the car.
Sarah had penetrated two-thirds the length of the passenger car, under the benches, burrowing snow every foot of the way.
She was tired.
Sarah lay in her snow tunnel, rested her forehead on her coat sleeve: distantly she realized it was wet, it was cold, but she was hot, hot from working, hot from her labors.
Sarah turned, worked her way into the aisle.
Almost immediately she found a high-button shoe and a leg inside it.
Somewhere roughly behind her she heard the woody sound of a door being demolished, the scut of shovels, hard and profane voices.
Sarah fought to her feet, rose from the snow like some genie from the desert sand, swayed and nearly fell.
"Here," she said. "I found some right here."
Sarah saw Sean's eyes go big and he surged toward her and she fell, suddenly weak, shivering.
"You're all done in," he murmured, pulling her free of the snow: Sarah felt cold, suddenly cold, and weak.
She'd gone to the very limit of her young strength and beyond, she'd given absolutely all she had, and her body had nothing more to give.
Sarah's head fell back, her mouth open, eyes vacant.

The Bear Killer bayed, loud, long, then he began an angry, chopping bark: he began jumping in the snow, challenging the stupid two-legs on the mountain above, raging at their stupidity, their deafness.
Jacob stopped, thrust his shovel into the snow, squinted.
"I need two men!" he yelled, shoving straight downhill toward the raging canine, not caring if anyone followed him or not: he would lead, and if they did not follow, they could go to hell.
Jacob tripped and went face first into the snow: his face landed on material of some kind and he thrust both arms ahead of him.
Jacob grabbed vest and belt and hauled an umoving figure free of the avalanche.
"I GOT ONE!" he yelled. "GET ME SOME HELP!"

Sarah choked, coughing: something liquid and fiery burned her lips, seared her throat.
Gasping, she rolled over, sat up.
Throwing the blanket from her, she blinked tears from her eyes, then seized the flask and took another drink.
It burned all the way down, hit bottom with a minor explosion, and hurt bad enough Sarah used it to fire her boiler and got to her feet.
"Thank you," she wheezed; she did not think her voice would ever recover, but in the moment, as long as she could draw air past the fire in her craw, she was going to get some work done.
Sarah staggered for the door.

The crane operator dogged everything.
The single wire line was just taut, but no more: he did not want to move the car -- not yet, that would come later -- he just wanted to keep it from shifting, from moving, from sliding on down hill.
He almost felt guilty.
He had a quadruple layer of burlap between himself and the cast iron John Deere seat he'd installed to replace the original; he was warm, there near his boiler, he only had to operate his controls, while his fellows were out in the snow, wearing themselves out, getting wet, getting chilled.

Sarah climbed back into the ruined passenger car.
She was beyond exhausted; her face was pale as her eyes and her eyes were almost the color of the snow around her, and she burrowed under the rearmost bench on the other side of the passenger car.
Nobody noticed anything until someone looked up to see her boot soles disappear.

"Da Pwincess found me," the little girl whispered.
Her mother held her, rocking a little, both of them draped in a blanket: her husband's arms were around them both, and they gratefully soaked up the stove's warmth.
"I'm nearly dry," he said. "Let someone else near."
He stood, helped his wife up: he bent, picked up his little girl.
She blinked, cuddled against him, and they stepped back, letting another few people close in to the stove.
The conductor murmured politely, worked his way through the chilled passengers, added wood to the stove and adjusted the draft: he pulled aside a sliding plate under the stove, shook down the ashes, letting them fall through the hole in the floor to the snow below.
"No danger of starting a fire today," he said cheerfully, then closed the sliding trap and adjusted the stove's draft and damper a little before withdrawing.
"Papa?" the girl whispered.
The father drew her tighter, laid his cheek against hers.
"Papa, the pwincess found me."
"How's that, honey?" he whispered back.
"She's be-you-tee-ful," the child whispered, her cheeks standing out, red with cold: "she has a white dwess and a big black horsie and a big black dog and she rode me on her horsie."
"I know," her father whispered reassuringly. "Hush, now, there's my big girl."
"A black horse," the mother whispered, remembering. "She has pale eyes, and she would not let us cross the river."

Sarah punched through snow, punching into the shovel-cleared aisle: she worked steadily, methodically, pushing through her exhaustion, damning the weakness that stopped her earlier: she was shivering, she was wet, she refused to recognize that she needed to stop and rest.
Sarah was on the up hill side of the car: when the avalanche came down, it blew in the uphill windows, over-pressured the car's interior and blew its aft end apart, blew out the downhill windows: people were blown out the back, blown out the windows, tumbled under the benches: it was not until Sarah probed every last bench, not until she'd personally cleared the entire passenger car, that she allowed herself a moment's rest.
Sarah rolled over on her back in the middle of the aisle, looked up at the ceiling and groaned.
She felt the car shift under her.

"BEAR KILLER!" Jacob roared.
The Bear Killer launched out of the snow like a killer whale after a seal, throwing frozen spray around him as he roared into the frosty daylight, chopping his jaws and snarling.
Jacob waded through snow, his legs shaking and weak: he'd been at this as long as any and had made too many trips down the mountain and back, either steadying, dragging or carrying passengers: thankfully, the manifest survived and was found, and there was but one not accounted for.

Sarah rolled her head to the left.
She'd penetrated the downhill row of benches, but only a single tunnel.
Someone could still be there, she thought.
Rolling over on her belly, she wallowed with elbows and hips, drove into the packed snow and almost immediately ran her hand into a cold, unmoving face.

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Linn Keller 3-31-13


The two in the express car spread their hands, soaking in the warmth of their tin stove.
"You reckon they'll get us level sometime this year?" one asked.
"Dunno," said the other. "Was we level we could make coffee."
They looked sadly at their coffee pot, laying on its side, the lid near it: neither bothered to go pick it up, as it was pretty well mashed where the day safe rolled to the down hill side of the car.
It hadn't busted through the car's side wall but they reckoned it proof tested the wood construction when it hit.
"Least we got a little heat."
"Yep," the other agreed. "We got that."

Sarah let two Irishmen help her to her feet, staggered back to the open, ruined back of the car: strong hands reached up to help her down.
Jacob took her around the chest and steadied her -- "Hold onto me, Little Sis," he murmured, and Sarah muttered "Watch who you're calling little, bird legs!" -- to which Jacob laughed and allowed as he'd ought to turn her over his knee and swat her bottom.
Sarah stopped, cocked a fist and invited him to try: her expression was fierce, her glare hard and icy, and Jacob's grin was as broad and genuine as Sarah's face was hard: she relaxed, laughing, and stumbled a little, falling against his heavy coat.
Part of her was surprised he was so solid.
The rest of her was just plainly tired.
All of her was cold and pretty well wet and she gave up and let them put her in the rescue train's passenger car, and someone wrapped her back up in the same blanket she'd been in earlier, and this time she drew herself up into a ball and leaned against a bench and closed her eyes, breathing into the blanket tented around her, jealous to lose the least bit of heat.

"We can draw the passenger car back to the spur and leave it there, then bring the crane back for the express car."
"Nah. I think we can dig out and let it fall back of its own weight."
"Let's take a look and make sure the trucks are still railed on the downhill side."
"She is, I already looked."
The gandy dancer leaned on his shovel like a dandy leans on a cane, his wrist bent and fingers limp: "My good man," he said, shoving his nose disdainfully in the air, "why ever do you stand there wasting my time? To work, you lout!"
"I'll lout you," his compadre snarled, hefting his shovel, then the two laughed and swore and shouted for more men to help them dig out from under the surprisingly undamaged express car.

"Bill, how's the Lady for water?"
Bill frowned at the sight glass.
"I'll be glad when we get out of here," he admitted.
"Yeah, me too. I'd hate to have 'em shove us in like freight."
Bill shuddered at the thought of his beloved Lady, dead and cold and being pushed by a live engine.

The Sheriff and the conductor went over the manifest.
The bodies were laid out on the flat car; he'd been able to identify all but one and he was satisfied that last one could be determined by elimination.
Survivors were already tabulated and checked off against the list he held.
"Is that everyone?" one of the Irish Brigade asked, shoving his head over the Sheriff's shoulder.
"Aye," the Sheriff said, "we've made account of everyone who got on."
There was a shout, some swearing: a quick consultation among the railroaders present, a representative waded through trampled snow to The Lady Esther's cab: there was some prolonged work with a sledge hammer and two pry bars, the sharp hiss as the air line was uncoupled, some unknown labor, then The Lady Esther eased forward, drawing the tender and the express car: they pushed through the avalanche spoil, the big steel plow pushing aside snow and one tree big as a man's thigh; they chuffed on down grade and out of sight.
The Sheriff waded forward to see what was going on at the front of the passenger car.
The foreman looked up at the pale eyed lawman.
"Damned coupler is twisted," he spat. "We played hell gettin' it to let go."
"What will it take to get underway?"
"Hell, we're nearly there!" he declared. "Once we got dug out from under the express car it settled down nice as you please so they're gone. We'll pick up the back end and set 'er back on the rails, we'll couple to her and head back ... no, we'd best get on to Firelands." He looked down the track at the flatcar and its grim cargo.
The Sheriff nodded. "I believe everyone is accounted for," he said finally. "The conductor's book survived, even if he didn't."
"Henry?" the foreman asked.
The Sheriff nodded.
"Damn," the foreman swore. "The man was a drunk but he was a good drunk. Knew his job, sober when he worked." He shook his head, swore again.
"I'll let you fellows to your work," the Sheriff said mildly. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and I know just enough about the railroad to get myself in a whole lot of trouble."

Sarah was drifting, almost asleep but not quite; she was catching some heat from the stove and it was warming the blanket and warming her.
Something fell against her with a little grunt and Sarah opened the blanket, dropped it down around her neck, giving the impression of a turtle thrusting its head from its shell.
"I sowwy," a little girl said, and Sarah smiled and opened her blanket.
The child lay down across Sarah, draping herself bonelessly against the black-shirted, black-coated young woman, knowing instantly and with no doubt that she was safe; her father started to reach for her, began to apologize, but then he leaned back, a half smile on his face, and instead put his arm around his wife.
His wife pulled the blanket over them both and made a little sound in her throat and cuddled against her husband.
Under the blanket, the little girl whispered, "Did you see the Pwincess?" and Sarah's eyes opened and she smiled.
"Tell me about her," she whispered back.
"She's pwitty and' she's in a white dwess an' she wides a big black horsie an' she's got a big black doggie an' she's got weeal pale eyes."
"I see," Sarah whispered.
The chilled passengers were not as closely clustered about the tin stove now; when an enormous, sinner-black Dawg came pacing into the car, they made way, and The Bear Killer curled up beside his beloved mistress, between the stove and the wall, and laid his big head down beside her with a long sigh.
Sarah slipped a hand free and rested it on The Bear Killer's snow-wet fur.
Beneath them, the car shivered as the steam crane coupled with the crippled passenger car: a series of short whistles and they began to move.
Sarah's one arm was around the little girl, her other hand on The Bear Killer, and she was finally starting to get warm, and she started to let herself relax.

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Linn Keller 4-1-13


The Sheriff made a head count, counted again.
"Jacob," he said quietly, "I don't see Sarah."
"I'll check the stock car again, sir."
"Everyone else is accounted for."
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff's eyes narrowed as he considered the tin stove in the back of the passenger car, and the people crowded around it: his eyes slid the length of the car, slowly, taking inventory all over again, and he stopped when his eyes crossed the tin stove's dog leg pipe.
The Sheriff laid a gentle hand on a miner's shoulder, turned sideways to slip past a ranch hand, nodded to a tired-eyed roundhouse machinist: he worked his way through the crowd, came out in the little free space at the front of the passenger car.
Pale eyes traveled slowly over huddled humanity.
Between the several bodies and two stoves, it was getting a little warmer inside the car.
He almost trurned to go back to the back of the car to wait on Jacob when he saw some hair sticking out of a blanket.
Blinking, he tilted his head, and as if knowing she were watched, Sarah pulled down the blanket and said in a drowsy voice, ""Hello, Papa."

Jacob sat down on a hay bale.
Jacob's legs ached and shook a little.
Jacob was honestly wore plumb out, tired, sore, over worked ... he'd made too many trips up that God-awful grade with frozen and injured humanity hanging on him or draped over his shoulder: it was a testament to his sheer hard headedness that he managed as he had.
The Bear Killer, he knew, was thawing himself out in the passenger car, probably curled up around the stove, or rolled up next to Sarah, wherever she was.
Snowflake drowsed a little, tail switching out of habit if nothing else.
Jacob groaned to his feet, grabbing the rough timber of the stall to help himself up -- and keep himself from pitching face first to the floor -- it was almost beyond his reserve to stand, so seductive had sitting down been.
He had to report back to his Pa that Sarah was not in the stock car.
Jacob, feeling very much like a tired, wore-out old man, turned and headed for the passenger car.

The passenger car was almost silent for the trip back to Firelands.
Every last man who went out, came back: every man who'd gone, wore himself out, the Sheriff included.
He knelt in front of the front row of passenger benches; he shamelessly grabbed a handful of a man's trouser material, gauging its moisture content: when the man opened his eyes, the Sheriff said quietly, "You're drying out, are your feet warm?" and the fellow nodded drowsily and closed his eyes again.
Sarah's head was dropped back against the wall behind her.
The Sheriff gently, carefully, laid the backs of his fingers against her cheek.
"Warm yet?" he asked quietly.
Sarah nodded.
Something stirred under the blanket; a curly-headed little girl pulled the blanket down and blinked, then smiled at the Sheriff.
"Hello," she said, her eyes bright, unafraid.
The Sheriff lifted his hat. "Hello yourself," he said gently.
"I'm Www ... rrrr ... Rrrrebecca," she said, frowning a little with the effort of framing the R-sound properly.
"There. I said it. Rrrrrrrrebecca."
The Sheriff laughed. "That is a lovely name, Rebecca."
"Da Pwincess came and got me," she said happily, instantly forgetting how to pronounce her R-sound: "she's in a white dwess an' she wides a big black horsie an' she's got a big black doggie. Mama said she wouldn't let us cwoss da wivver."
"I see," the Sheriff murmured softly, turning a fold of the blanket back up to cover her exposed sleeve. "Are you warm enough?"
Rebecca nodded, looked at Sarah.
"I like her. She's nice," she said, nodding.
The Sheriff nodded. "Yes she is."
Sarah opened her eyes and smiled. "Hello, Papa," she whispered.
"Morning, Princess," the Sheriff grinned, and Rebecca looked at Sarah and for the first time saw her pale blue eyes.
Rebecca's eyes went wide and she said "Da Pwincess!" and hugged Sarah with all the fierce happiness of a delighted child.
Sarah hugged her right back and The Bear Killer snuffed loudly at Rebecca's arm.
"Doggie!" Rebecca exclaimed, and The Bear Killer snuffed the little pink hand and then licked it.
Rebecca's mother woke to the sound of her little girl's happy laughter.

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Linn Keller 4-1-13


The Z&W ran a special that night, taking the passengers on their way: they all had a good meal at the Silver Jewel and those that lost luggage, were resupplied: it was late by the time the Jewel could clean up, that the Mercantile could sweep out and close for the evening, that the McKenna Dress Works could stand down from record-setting production to clothe those whose extra clothing was stolen by the avalanche.
Firelands managed to handle the situation.
The half of the Irish Brigade that was involved in the rescue was triumphant, but subdued, and honestly exhausted: after a good meal, they wanted nothing more than a good hot bath and the bunk, and truth be told, about everyone else wanted the same thing: when Jacob staggered through his front door, Annette took one look at him and steered him toward the bath, stripping him as they went: by the time he gripped the edge of the copper tub and tried to lift one impossibly heavy leg, he was shaking like a man with the ague: once into the tub, he was not sure he could emerge under his own power, but after he immersed in the warm water, he wasn't too sure he wanted to climb out anytime in the next year or so.
The Sheriff hugged his wife and his little girl, hugged them tight, held them for a long few minutes, then he too tended his needs: a good meal, and the bunk.
Sarah was barely able to put one boot ahead of the other to make it from the barn to the house.
She tended Snowflake, rubbed her down, hung up saddle and bridle and damp saddle-blanket, she baited her with corn and forked down fresh straw, and when she parked the hay fork in the corner, her hand was weak enough she could not have gripped it one moment more.
She made her slow, pained way to the house and ascended the three steps to the front porch: she stopped and leaned against the porch post, breathing slow and breathing deep, blowing breath-steam into the air.
Lamp light glowed through the frosted window in the front door; she knew it was warm within, but from the porch post to the front door was about a mile and a half, or so it seemed, so Sarah stood there and gathered her strength for a minute or so.
Bonnie looked down the hall as the door opened.
Sarah remembered strong hands gripping her, she remembered the smell of her mother's scent, Levi's deep and reassuring voice, and she remembered floating on a cloud, a cloud that smelled of sun-dried linens, and then she surrendered to blessed sleep, safe and warm in her own bed.

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Linn Keller 4-2-13


I looked at Angela.
She was regarding me with bright and innocent eyes, the way she generally did, unless she wanted something.
When Angela wanted to wheedle me into (or out of) something, she had a particular expression ... somewhere between sly and unusually innocent.
This morning she looked curious.
"Yes, Princess?"
"Daddy, howcomwhy you makeit funny noises when you sleep?"
I blinked a couple times, puzzled: I looked at Esther for help, for to the best of my recollection I sleep as still and peaceable as a rock.
"She means you snore," Esther said gently, sipping her tea.
"Oh." I looked at Angela. "I reckon that must have been it."
"Oh," Angela said. "But Daddy, you were vewwy, vewwy noisy."
I looked at Esther, raising an eyebrow.
I'm sure if I snored that badly I'd know it.
I am a light sleeper, after all.
Esther gave me a pitying look.
"My dear," she murmured, "when you snore, the windows rattle."
I looked at Angela and she nodded solemnly, chewing on bacon and eggs.
"Oh." I picked up a strip of crispy bacon, bit off a piece. "I reckon I must have been really tired."
Angela and Esther exchanged a look and I had the distinct impression I was outnumbered in this discussion and there was no way in the cotton pickin' I was going to win.
Matter of fact, I wasn't sure what I'd just lost.
It was not long after breakfast that Esther received her chief engineer.
She'd dissolved the board of directors; we bought out their interests, gradually, and at the last, I paid more than I should have to buy out the last two holdouts -- at least I thought I paid more than I should, until I realized the railroad ran better, smoother, more efficiently and most certainly more profitably, when Esther was not only the owner but also the treasurer and the board of directors.
Funny how much better it ran once we got rid of the crooks and thieves that were quietly draining profits into their purses when we weren't keeping a close eye.
Poor old Bill looked like a man coming to his own hanging, so I gave him a belt of brandy and told a couple off color jokes before Esther came in.
Bill laughed politely, but he was still uncomfortable.
Esther came into my study and I made to excuse myself, at least until Esther took my arm and said something about feeling tired, would I mind lending her my arm for the duration, and of course when she looked at me with those deep green eyes ... if she'd asked me to sling a lariat around Granite Mountain and drag it home behind a team of wharf rats I'd have done it.
Esther walked me closer to Bill and took his hand in both hers.
"You," she said quietly, "are my most trusted engineer."
Bill swallowed and looked away.
Esther gave his hand a squeeze and went on, never missed a beat.
"You have magic in your hands, a magic most men lack. You can take a thing of cast iron and machined steel and bring it to life.
"There is only one engine that dances when it works, and she is named The Lady Esther. You have driven every engine we have, sir, and whichever engine that feels your hand on her Johnson bar, becomes a living creature.
"You can hear the engine breathe, you know her heartbeat, you can tell how hard she is working. You can tell when she is not feeling well. Do you remember the bearing nobody saw but you could hear?"
Bill nodded, and I saw him smile a little at the memory.
"There is no way you could have known an avalanche was about to let go," she said quietly, her voice intense. "I don't believe you were issued a crystal ball, and -- here, let me see something."
Esther released his hand, her grip shifting to his upper arm: she turned him, looked at the back of his coat and nodded.
"Just as I thought," she murmured.
Bill's expression was plainly puzzled.
Esther's smile was genuine. "I don't see a set of angel wings sticking out of your coat."
"I trust you," Esther said firmly. "I trusted you then and I trust you more now. You could have tried to jerk the cars free, but you very sensibly took stock of the situation, you did what good you could, and you did something very difficult."
Esther looked up at the man, directly at him.
"You waited.
"That was the right thing to do.
"We knew when you were three minutes late and the wires were down, that something happened, and on my standing orders a rescue train was dispatched."
Esther tilted her head a little.
"You were afraid I was going to fire you."
"Yes, ma'am," he mumbled.
Esther shook her head and whispered, "No."
She turned and picked up a small pouch, pressed it into his hand.
"You kept your head. I value that."
We saw him to the door; he took a second pouch with him, for the fireman: the conductor was one of the casualties, a man with no family we knew of: he was given over to the good offices of Digger's care.
Esther paid for that too.
I went on to work.
Out of curiosity, I stopped by the schoolhouse.
There were considerably more students than there had been the day before, mostly because people had managed to break a path through the snow.
Sarah was not there.
Like most of the town, Emma Cooper knew about the derailment, and of course she knew Miss Sarah came with me the day before, and I soon found myself prevailed upon to stand before a room full of bright and curious children to give my account of the previous day's excitement.
I omitted many details.
None of them needed to hear what it was like to be suffocated in an avalanche, nor did I particularly want to tell them what it was like to dig with mad desperation through a snow filled passenger car and suddenly find myself eyeball to glazed eyeball with a bluish-white face, a face with a wide mouth packed with snow, a face that would never change expression ever again.
Instead I told them how the Irish Brigade labored like giants, digging snow out from under the tipped-over cars, bringing them down gradually with the steam-crane and wire line and jacks and chains; I told them of The Bear Killer launching out of a snow-tunnel like a great fish breaching the ocean's surface, thrashing and snapping and making more noise than a grizzly with a stubbed toe that just bit its lip when a bee stung its nose -- a description that got a giggle from most of the younger children, and grins from the older.
"But what about Miss Sawwah?" one of the youngest asked, waving a hand at arm's length, and I hesitated.
"Miss Sarah," I said carefully, "found the most people of any. She saved more lives than anyone else there, she worked harder than anyone else there, and I would say she's probably still in the bunk, for she --"
The door in back shut and a voice said, "You would say wrong," and every last child there turned with a unified yell of "Miss Sarah!" and Sarah found herself mobbed by a delighted sea of excited juvenile enthusiasm.
A schoolteacher is supposed to maintain a certain decorum and maintain a certain formality and establish a certain distance from her students.
Sarah did none of these things, for it was time for The Exception That Makes The Rule: she went to her knees and I think she hugged every last child there, and a memory that warms my greying old heart to this day is recalling the look on her face in that moment.
I remember it well because later she kicked me right in the shin for turning her into an instant heroine by telling them she'd saved more lives than anyone else.
I generally object to getting kicked in the shin bone but that day ... well, I made an exception, too.

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Linn Keller 4-3-13


"Sondra Mae," Jacob said formally, "this is Mr. Steiner."
The German Irishman cracked his heels together and bowed stiffly: his German accent came out under stress, and Jacob did his best not to grin as Steiner addressed Sondra as "Fraulein" and added something else in his native Teutonic tongue.
"Mr. Steiner," Sondra said, allowing him to raise her knuckles to mustache level; she dropped a flawless curtsy and Jacob could just about see the hard headed Deutshcmann's heart fall out of his chest and lay panting at her feet.
Jacob could not but note the change in her voice: smoother, more feminine, a vocal lariat, floating over the victim and dropping neatly like a Texas cowboy floating a loop over a standing calf.
"I have wished to meet you for some time, sir, but we've never been properly introduced."
The German squared his shoulders. "Ve haff now," he said stoutly.
"Yes," she replied, "we have."
Jacob laid a gentle hand on each of their shoulders: "I have something to tend," he said, "if you two can stay out of trouble I'll be on my way."
He might as well have said nothing at all: at least, nothing is what the two heard, and Jacob backed up one step, two, easing himself out of their peripheral vision, knowing they were seeing one another and absolutely, positively nothing else.
He turned and made a little kissing noise.
Apple-horse came pacing up to him; Jacob was in the saddle, one smooth move looking more like a breeze boosted a feather than a man setting boot leather in stirrup and swinging into the hurricane deck.
Jacob rode across the street to the Sheriff's office and dismounted, ran a single rein-loop around the hitch rail, knocked at the heavy door and pushed inside.
The Sheriff was regarding the empty coffee pot rather sadly.
"Jacob," the old lawman with the iron-grey mustache said, "does the Jewel still have coffee?"
"They do, sir."
The Sheriff hung the coffee pot on a peg, rather than heat it empty on the stove; he closed the draft and walked back over to his desk for his hat.
"Weather's changin', sir."
"I felt it."
Jacob stepped aside as his father came to the door.
The old lawman looked directly at his tall son.
"You give ground too easy."
"Yes, sir."
They stepped outside; the Sheriff looked around the way he always did.
"Jacob," he said, "do you recall the day you shot that fellow yonder?"
"The one that shot you? Yes, sir. Charlie put him down."
"You put lead into him. Four out of six at that distance is respectable."
"Yes, sir."
They stepped off the roofed board walk and into the snow, crossed the street.
Apple-horse pulled free and followed Jacob, head bobbing.
Jacob collected his stallion's reins and ran one turn around the hitch rail in front of the Silver Jewel.
They mounted the broad stairs, two men of like height, lean waisted and broad shouldered: had a stranger seen them from behind, they might correctly be thought closely related: from the rear, only the grey in the older man's hair betrayed his greater age.
Tilly smiled as they came inside, and Mr. Baxter smiled and nodded, coming to the bar.
"That sounded like quite an operation yesterday, Sheriff," he hazarded.
The Sheriff nodded, his eyes quiet.
Mr. Baxter looked at the lawman's oldest son; Jacob's eyes were half-veiled, as if holding a secret.
"What'll you have this fine and chilly?"
"Coffee, if you please," the Sheriff said quietly.
"Coffee!" a cowhand sneered. "By God! you'll have a man's drink!"
"Mind your own business, sonny," the Sheriff said quietly, his eyes going ice-pale.
Jacob stepped to the side.
Chairs nearby scooted back, conversation stopped, men stepped back from the bar.
The Sheriff was leaned against the bar, relaxed, blinking slow and sleepy like a cat curled up in a sunny window sill.
The cowhand tasted copper and the sudden silence rushed in on him like a sudden pressure on his ears.
Jacob was glaring at the two standing closest to the speaker: unlike his father, he was not relaxed: his coat was unfastened, his hands casually at arm's length, but turned.
From this position, he knew, he could sweep inside the coat and have a double handful of frontier justice in well less time than it takes the victim's heart to contract one last time.
Jacob's soul was still, very still, and he saw time in bright slivers, each one less than a tenth of a second long: in each sliver he saw everything in clear detail, in rich, bright, saturated color, with an exact positioning in three-dimensional space.
He knew if these two decided to back their partner's play, he could have lead in them both.
At this distance he could pick the shirt button his first shot would punch.
The Sheriff turned, bringing glacial eyes to bear like a gun-turret coming to bear.
The stranger faded away from the bar, turning a little to square up with the threat.
The Sheriff's coat was open, loose: he too knew he could deliver payload on target, and at this distance, firing both revolvers at the same time, he could take out both the man's eyes.
Along with most of his head.
Depending on how fast the other fellow was, he knew, he would probably be hit.
At this distance it was possible to miss, but it would be difficult.
"Sonny," the Sheriff said, his voice quiet in the absolute, hold-your-breath hush, "I deal wholesale in death. I stacked carcasses like cordwood yesterday. You're just one more."
The stranger swallowed, looked from father to son, the color draining from his face.
"You're him," he whispered.
"Yes," the Sheriff whispered back, his voice a dry hiss. "I am Death, and I eat men's souls." His eyes glowed -- he's insane, the stranger thought, and his resolve ran out of his beating heart and down into his boots, leaving him cold, afraid.
"I," the Sheriff said, "am having coffee. I am not well tempered today. A friend of mine was killed in yesterday's avalanche and I'm the one that dug him out, cold, blue and dead. It troubles me that he'll be stacked in a box in the back of the funeral parlor until the ground thaws enough to dig him a hole."
The Sheriff's words were quietly spoken but precisely enunciated.
"It will not trouble me a'tall if you're stacked back there with him.
"Now make something of it or leave."
Jacob's cold eyes saw Tom Landers, rifle in hand, slouching against the wall a little to the side, behind the last row of tables: his eyes met Jacob's and Jacob knew no other threat existed, and he could concentrate on the pair before him.
The pair before him, for their part, wanted no part of what they saw, for they saw two lean, cold-eyed lawmen who looked for all the world like they were ready to punch their ticket to Hell and hand 'em sixbits change.
The stranger stepped away from the bar, moving carefully, moving slow: Mr. Baxter discreetly moved as well, the double gun just below bar-top height, avoiding the direct line from the stranger to the Sheriff: he knew the Sheriff's accuracy could be counted on, without fail, but the stranger was an unknown, very likely to miss ... and Mr. Baxter chose not to be collateral damage.
The stranger looked back and saw Tom Landers, rifle at port arms; he looked at Jacob, lean and focused as a hound on point, as ready and as deadly as a viper drawn back into a fighting S.
He looked across the bar and saw the twin muzzles of the double twelve just peeking over the mahogany.
The wise man, when faced with an unwinnable game, will fold his hand and withdraw.
In this moment, the formerly foolish stranger chose to tread a wiser path.
He and his fellows left the Silver Jewel, slowly, carefully, feeling like they were walking on thaw-rotted ice over a deep and deadly river: they made it outside the heavy hardwood doors with the decoratively frosted panes, and nearly collapsed in relief.
They looked at the Appaloosa stallion, and at the copper mare with the black bridle and saddle, and they looked at one another.
Then they sprinted for their own mounts and committed that classic military maneuver generally referred to as Getting the Hell Out of There.
The Sheriff blinked slowly, like a great cat sunning itself on the African veldt, then he took a long breath, shook his head.
"Thank you, Mr. Baxter," he said without looking, knowing the barkeep with the neatly slicked down hair and luxurious, black, curled handlebar mustache, would be just putting his double barrel persuader back on the towel-padded shelf; Jacob looked to Tom Landers, nodded once, to which Tom Landers returned the nod: the ex-Sheriff turned, a little smile on his face, and he parked his Winchester, quite pleased that his services were not needed.
Like most veteran lawmen, he hated loud noises and he hated cleaning up a bloody mess.
Jacob and the Sheriff made their way back to the Lawman's Corner; one gambler stopped them, grinning, and declared the Sheriff just won him twenty dollars, which brought the ghost of a smile to the unsmiling older man's face: father and son sat, each with his back to the wall, and Daisy's girl came sashaying back with a swing of her skirts and a saucy expression, bearing a tray with coffee and two slabs of pie.
Dolly looked at Tom Landers, her chest a little tight, for she'd watched the entire proceeding from a gap in the curtains: she'd been sure she would see men die, so sure that she didn't realize she was holding her breath until she started to breathe again.
Dolly staggered off the stage and down the stairs in back, behind the false wall, and into her dressing room: she sat down on her fainting-couch and put her elbows on her knees, lowered her forehead into her palms, and shook like she was freezing.
Jacob and his father, for their part, proceeded to work on pie and coffee, talking about Jacob's cattle herd, Charlie Macneil's roaring success as a horse rancher, and a bet the Sheriff made with Levi as to whether Bonnie's baby-to-be would be a boy or a girl.
Nobody looking at the quietly talking pair would think they'd just faced up to and faced down what could have been a very unpleasant situation.

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Linn Keller 4-4-13


Tom Landers rapped lightly on the dancer's dressing room door.
A muffled "Go away!" and the sound of a shoe hitting the door brought a smile to the old ex-lawman's face.
He opened the door and peeked in.
Dolly was sitting on her red-and-gold fainting-couch and was just lowering her forehead back down to the heels of her hands when she looked up and saw Tom.
"Oh, Tom," she squeaked, coming to her feet and skipping on her toes across the floor: Tom stepped in and collected the slender, tight-muscled dancer in a warm and protective embrace, holding the distressed young woman gently but firmly, knowing at the moment she needed held and made to feel safe and not made to feel like the desirable woman she very much was.
Tom heard hard heels and a light step in the hallway: he turned a little, opened the door.
Daisy's girl, curious, stopped, her eyes bright: Tom murmured, "Could you bring us some tea, please?" and the Daisy's girl nodded.
Tom eased the door shut and steered Daisy back over to her seat, pulled a chair up close so he was knee-to-shapley, stockinged knee with her.
Tom held her hands and leaned forward, arms resting on his own knees, kindly eyes regarding Dolly's bowed head and long-lashed face, the patient expression of an older man who'd seen much of the world and had a fatherly instinct in such moments.
Dolly bit her lip and shivered a little, then she looked up through her long, curled lashes at the old ex-lawman.
"I was so scared," she whispered.
Tom smiled a little. "Scared for what?"
"I thought ..." Dolly's forehead wrinkled and Tom Landers considered that Daisy was a pretty girl even if she was wearing too much face paint.
"I thought they ... I thought ... why didn't the Sheriff just have a drink?"
Tom Landers smiled, nodded.
"You mean when that stranger demanded the Sheriff have a man's drink?"
Dolly nodded.
"He is the law, Dolly. He can't back down. Even if it means his life the law can't back down."
"But ... he could have killed ..."
"He didn't."
"He was ready to." Dolly shivered again.
"He has to be The Law," Tom explained. "He has to show that fellow -- and everyone there -- that he is The Law and The Law Does Not Back Down."
Daisy closed her eyes, then she got up and sat in Tom's lap.
"Hold me, Tom," she whispered. "Hold me."

Sarah looked outside.
Her students were applying themselves to their lessons; one child at the front was quietly reciting the Gettysburg Address to Miz Emma, and Sarah walked quietly, walking on the balls of her feet, toward the back of the room.
She opened the door and slipped outside, stood on the top step, folded her arms: she tilted her head back and took a long breath, then looked to the horizon, looked to the west.
Sarah's bottom jaw thrust out and she looked around, looked at snow, deep in places, dirty where it was run over and trampled, rutted and drifted and shoveled into piles or windrows.
"It is going to thaw," she whispered, her words coming out in little steam-puffs. "With this much snow ..."
Sarah closed her eyes and leaned back against the closed doors, thinking of green, grassy meadows and spring flowers.
Sarah took another long breath of the cold, clean air, then turned and slipped quietly back into the schoolhouse.

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Charlie MacNeil 4-4-13


Charlie stood, one booted foot propped up on the lowermost corral pole, whiskered chin resting on sheep-lined canvas clad arms folded atop a peeled cedar corner post. His chores were done, hay pitched to the broodmares, the yearlings turned out into their own pasture to frolic and kick as they danced joyfully through the snow, though their youthful exuberance went unseen by the man at the corral. Instead, his hazel eyes peered into the distance of time, the distance of days gone by, the distance of an active past he'd thought he'd left well behind but found that he could never totally put aside. A soft hand touched his shoulder, a soft, Carolina-accented voice rousing him from his reverie.

"You miss it, don't you, Sugar?" Fannie asked, knowing what he was thinking. She'd seen these moods come over him more often of late, knowing that his self-ordained retirement at times lay heavily on her husband. He lay his own calloused hand on her softer one.

"I don't know why, but yeah, I do sometimes. Lord knows we went through some trying times," he replied, barely audible. "I'm gettin' too old to be that young anymore, ya know? Got the scars to show for it, too." A tiny grin quirked his lips as he turned his eyes to hers. "Except once in a while."

Fannie smiled her reply, remembering the night before. "Oh yes, Sugar, I most definitely do know," she said. They stood in silence for a moment before she went on, "I also know that you're not old yet. Not unless you let yourself be."

"Sometimes I feel old when I haul my carcass outta bed in the morning," he replied. "If I'da known I was gonna live this long, I mighta taken better care of myself." He heard a most unladylike snort and flashed her another brief smile before his gaze returned to the far horizon. "Did we do the right thing, Fannie?" he asked pensively. "Are we supposed to be here, easing into the so-called golden years? Or are we supposed to be out there," he pointed with his chin, "doin' what we do best?"

"Which is?" she asked, knowing full well what his answer would be.

"Kickin' butt and takin' names, Darlin', kickin' butt and takin' names!"

"You know I'll ride beside you wherever you go, Sugar," Fannie said softly. "You have to do what makes you happy, and the happiest I've seen you in a while was when Sarah was here and we were teaching her to ride, and to shoot, and to track, and most importantly, when not to shoot. It's been pretty quiet around here since then, in more ways than one."

"What about the ranch, and the new crop of colts?" he asked, more to play the devil's advocate than anything else as he began to think about where the future might possibly be leading them. "And are you sure you wanna go back to sleepin' on the ground and eatin' campfire cooking again?"

"Like I said, I'll ride beside you wherever you go. And as for the ranch, talk to Linn. That man knows everybody and his dog for miles around. I'm sure he knows somebody who could take care of this place. It's not exactly a million acres and a million head of stock. Then, when you're really ready, we can come back and settle down for real." Her lips touched his cheek, rasping lightly across the bristles there and sending a shiver down his spine the way her kiss always had, right from the very first time. "Go, Sugar. Saddle your horse, I'll pack you some food, and you get started for town. You won't be able to sit still until you do. The old man and I can take care of the horses. Go!"

"Yes, dear." Charlie wrapped her in a bear hug, kissed her soundly then turned toward the barn. "Dawg! Haul your carcass out here! We're headed to town!"

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Charlie MacNeil 4-5-13


A tired roan horse, a tired black Dawg, and a tired rider plodded down the middle of the main street of Firelands toward the livery stable. The sandwiches Fannie had packed had run out miles earlier. Turning in under the dim lantern at the livery door, the roan stopped of its own accord. Charlie stepped down, knees, neck and back crackling as he stretched and twisted, working out the kinks of the many miles in the saddle. "Dang, I need to get an earlier start next time," he grumbled softly. Dawg answered with a 'Huff' of agreement as Charlie led the roan toward an empty stall.

A pair of double clicks that sounded suspiciously like shotgun hammers earing back to full cock stopped the ex-Marshall in his tracks and his hands rose slowly to shoulder height. "Who might you be?" Shorty's voice drifted from the shadows.

"I might be the president of these here United States, but I ain't," Charlie answered with a chuckle. "It's Charlie MacNeil, Shorty. I'm just lookin' for an empty stall for me, my horse and Dawg." He turned to face the darkened doorway to the livery office, where the gaping double maw of the cut down Greener gaped their greeting. He knew for certain that those twin barrels were loaded with rock salt and horseshoe nails and he had no desire to be on the receiving end of either.

"Charlie? What in the devil are you doin' wanderin' into town at this time of night? Ever'body's abed!"

"I need to talk to the Sheriff about something," Charlie replied. "I was figuring on bedding down here and visiting him in the morning. I'll bed down up in the hayloft with the rest of the rats."

"Rats!" Shorty sputtered. "I ain't go no... Dang you, Charlie! Ya got me on that one!" The liveryman lowered the hammers on the shotgun and turned to lean it against the wall near his cot. "How's about a sip of antifreeze before you bed down?"

"I do believe I'll take you up on that, my friend. Soon's I unsaddle my horse."

"Put him in that corner stall," Shorty told him. "It's already got feed and water set out. I'll fetch the bottle and a couple of glasses while yer at it."

When the roan had been unsaddled, curried, brushed and grained, tack stowed neatly and the stall gate closed Charlie walked tiredly into Shorty's combination office and living quarters and dropped onto a chair. "Dang, it's nice to be settin' on something that ain't moving!" he declared as he lifted the proffered cup to his lips and took a healthy swallow of some of the Daine boys' best. The whiskey proceeded to start a fire in his belly as he unbuttoned his coat.

"And I repeat, what in the world are you doin' comin' in at this time of night?" his host inquired.

"Ah hell, I decided I needed to come into town, and didn't feel like waiting around 'til morning," Charlie replied. "I get that way sometimes." He tipped back the rest of the liquid in his cup in one swallow. After he caught his breath, he got to his feet. "Reckon I'll find that loft, Shorty. 'Night."

"'Night, Charlie. See ya in the morning." As the ex-Marshall disappeared up the ladder to the loft, bedroll on his shoulder, Shorty settled back on his cot and blew out the lamp.

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Linn Keller 4-6-13


Sleep came late and restless.
I laid in bed long as I could, holding Esther's hand the way I did -- often times I'd fall asleep with her hand in mine, and wake up the same way -- she was curled up on her left side, the way she commonly did when she was carryin', and I slipped my hand from hers and eased out of the bunk quiet as I could.
I went on down stairs, bare foot, warmed some water on the still-warm stove and washed my face and my neck.
I stiff-armed against the edge of the counter, my palms turned around backwards against the edge, glaring out the night-dark window.
I hadn't struck a light.
For a miracle I didn't find any furniture with my toe the way I usually do, but I took pains to be quiet, for the maid worked hard and I did not want to trouble her good rest.
Esther, upstairs, might hear the woody scoot of a kicked chair but likely Angela would not, and of course the twins slept hard -- good Lord, those two are growin'! I thought, and I felt my left ear tighten a little the way it did when a grin was a-growin' under my face hide.
Restless does not do justice to the way I felt.
I prowled carefully to my study, closed the door; I closed my eyes -- it was near to full dark but I see better in the dark if I close my eyes -- I found my chair, the corner of my desk, my fingers brought out a Lucifer match and the scratch box and I set them ready while I lifted the chimney, carefully, delicately, not wanting to crumble the delicate Aladdin mantle with a careless lift of the glass.
I lit the lamp, set the chimney back on it, feeling the heat sink through the glass -- not unpleasant, but I knew if I held it a few more seconds I would leave my finger prints on the glass (I'd done it before, to my regret!) -- and blinking painfully at the glare, I waited until my eyes were used to the light before setting my long tall carcass down in my swivel chair.
I sat there and considered.
It was quiet, quiet in the night.
I smelled the lamp and I smelled brandy, I smelled upholstery leather and I let my mind relax and expand, allowing it to turn over, to roll like waves on the ocean's shore, rolling like good black bottom ground dirt rolls off the mold board of a John Deere plow.
I remembered the Mississippi, a mile wide and a foot deep, and the Missouri, too thick to drink and too thin to plow, and how one of the officer's wives showed me their trick of adding a few grains of alum to a glass of water to settle out the water so they could drink it.
I remembered La Belle Riviere, the O-Y-O as the natives called it, the Ohio -- that arbitrary border between North and South, declared by Washington, stealing territory from the South originally demarcated by the old National Road.
I shook my head.
That war was too long ago.
Its rights and its wrongs were decided by men more powerful than myself, I knew, though no wiser: many decisions, great and small, high and low, had been so utterly bass-ackwards stupid that I shook my head at the incredible imbecility -- but I dismisssed this line of thought.
Men of all ages, in war, will look at decisions made by high command and declare them lunacy: I had a volume containing accounts of soldiers from ages and centuries past, personal letters, casual comments scribed by a correspondent after a conversation.
One other thing I noticed, studying that old volume.
Old soldiers are a restless lot, and old soldiers generally aren't terribly old.
I went into that damned war not even twenty years old and I came out an old man with grey shot through what used to be a beard of good Clan Maxwell red: my mustache was iron-grey not long after.
I was restless too and had been ever since I was mustered out.
I went back home, back to the south shore of Lake Erie, and buried the only decent and honorable thing left in a world gone insane, buried my beautiful bride and our little daughter, and I drifted south.
I was a lawman in a little coal mining town, then another, I drifted again: restless, yearning, searching for something but not willing to settle and find what I wanted.
Like many after that damned war I headed west and ended up here.
I leaned my head back and considered the ceiling.
I'd thought of putting up those stamped tin ceiling tiles but decided against it.
I liked the finished wood well enough.
I realized I was staring in the general direction of our bedroom, of Esther, quiet and relaxed in our bed, rolled up on her side because she said it was better for the baby, sleeping on her side like that.
My eyes drifted over, the ghost of my mind wandering across the hall and into Angela's room.
Angela, too, would be curled up on her side, but her right side, facing the door.
She had nightmares there for a while, until I pulled the firing pin off the hammer nose of a pistol and slid it under her pillow.
I'd pulled the bullets and dumped the powder and rubbed soap into the empty hulls and made a show of loading it while she watched, and I told her those were goblin loads, for goblins were the ugly creatures that packed nightmares into a body's room in a ragged gunny sack with a black skull-and-crossbones stitched on the side, and they dumped that sack full of bad dreams on the sleeper, but if she fetched out that pistol and drove that pointy eared scoundrel right between the lug and the horn, why, he'd poof! and disappear and be gone.
Angela looked at me with big and serious eyes and said "But Daddy, I don't want to shoot a hole in the ceiling!" and I laughed and pulled out one of those cartridges and showed her the smooth end where I'd faced off the packed soap.
"Princess," I told her, "this here is soap. It's holding in your Mommy and your Daddy's blessings. If you shoot that ugly cloven hooved spalpeen with Mommy's blessings, it'll blow it to flinders and it never will come back!"
Angela said "Oooo," and I handed her that little pistol and she looked at it and looked at me and she said "Okay, Daddy."
I kissed her forehead and slid the pistol under her pillow and she curled up, content, and was asleep on the moment.
Maybe a week later I come out of bed like I'd been swatted across the backside with a sheeting board.
I fetched up out of the bunk, twisting like a scalded cat, grabbed my double twelve and went to one knee, both barrels pointed at the door.
Every hair on me was standing straight up and my heart was a-hammerin' and I got up slow and cat footed over to the door.
I eased the knob around and cracked the door open, slow and careful, and let that twelve bore take a look outside before I did.
Nothing there.
I stepped out, cautious-like ... Angela's door was closed, all was silent, but I smelt sulfur: I swung the barrels down hill, down the stairs, went down with my tread at the edge of the stairs so they'd not squeak: I went clear through that house, furred up like a Halloween cat on a full-moon fence: once I was satisfied there was nothing out of the ordinary, I went back upstairs.
That sulfur smell was gone.
Next morning Angela was all smiles.
On our ride in to town, once we got to the schoolhouse, Angela stopped before she gave me her goodbye hug and she looked at me with bright and happy eyes and that smile that would melt winter ice and said "Daddy, I shot that mean old goblin and he's dead!" -- then she giggled and ran up the stairs, and I lifted my hat to Sarah, and fetched my black Outlaw-horse around and walked him across the street.
Curiosity just plainly et me up and I didn't even get inside the door before I was back in saddle leather and headin' for the house.
Mary, the maid, looked at me all surprised when I come a-swarmin' through the front door.
I grabbed the post at the bottom of the stairs and swung around, takin' those steps two at a time, fair to running up both flights.
I thrust Angela's bedroom door open.
It smelled faintly, very faintly, of sulfur.
I grabbed her pillow and flipped it over, thumbed the release, broke open that little five shot shooter.
I set down on the side of her bed, staring at one dimpled primer.
My mouth went dry and I lifted it out with thumb and finger nails and stared at the fired, empty hull.
I smelled it.
It smelled of burnt powder.
That ain't possible, I thought.
I pulled the other four and sure enough they were all soap loads.
I dropped them back in and then, with the gun still broke open, fetched back the hammer.
The hammer spur was still gone.
How, I thought, how in ten hells ... how did ...?
I went down stairs and took another loaded round and worried the heel crimped bullet out and dumped the powder, rubbed it full of soap, smoothed it off, cleaned her little demon killing pistol and took it back upstairs.
When the maid come upstairs she looked in but discreetly drew back, for I still had my hat in my hand and I was still standing up on my knees.
Sometimes a man just has to talk to God about things for which he's grateful.

I poured myself a brandy, there in my nighttime study, considering many things, and I looked again at that aged, leather-bound book I'd been reading.
I picked it up and paged slowly to my book mark and resumed reading, and soon found myself nodding agreement with the author's assertion that soldiers of every age, from well before the Crusades to our modern era of massed wartime slaughter -- "the battlefield abbatoir," he called it -- were a restless lot when they returned home, and remained ever thus.
"Was it not for Esther," I whispered, "I never would have stayed in one place either."

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Linn Keller 4-7-13


I poured a good tilt of Two Hit John, then I tilted the bottle back, moved it over the second short, squatty glass and poured a like amount there as well.
Funny thing about that.
Some days I knew ahead of time I could sit in that Sheriff's office and just polish my backside on that hardwood office chair, beatin' my bony butt into the cushion I've come to appreciate, just set there and doze and never turn a wheel.
Some days I'm jumpy as a cat, waiting for something to happen and most times it does.
Today ... well, today when I found myself settin' out two glasses and the pullin' the cork on some of the Daine boys' stock, why, I knew I was fixin' to have company, and I reckoned it was going to be Charlie.
I chuckled a little as distilled wallop gurgled cheerfully into faceted, heavy-bottom glass.
There is no way in the cotton pickin' I would endanger the man's life by priming him with my coffee.
I'd spilled some of that boiled bore cleaner on the floor and it bleached that close grain hard wood out bone white and it's still that-a-way.

Sarah was singing with the children, as she always did, nodding in time to the music, clapping softly to keep the rhythm visually as well as audibly, and beneath her skirt her foot was patting as well: Emma Cooper smiled as she watched the younger woman, for there was a magic when Sarah sang with the children: she had a way of reaching even the most difficult learner, she could coax the most bashful child's voice into melody and harmony.
Emma noted absently that Sarah's whip-scar was not visible now, a credit to Daciana's healing skills: Emma had come to appreciate the circus rider's skills with matters herbal, especially with the results she saw on Sarah's face ... or, rather, didn't see any more.

The Bear Killer was drowsing in the sun, lying up against the school building, out of the wind and comfortable: he had a little depression wallowed in the dirt, now buried with snow: The Bear Killer slept on the snow, thick curly fur insulating him rather efficiently from the packed cold stuff beneath.
Relaxed, stretched out, he spanned an impressive distance, both lengthways and circumferentially, although in fairness young arms often tried to circumnavigate his equator with happy and youthful hugs, to which The Bear Killer happily submitted: he dispensed happy wiggles and face-washings and tail-swingings generously when the children came to visit, and drowsed when alone until such time as Sarah emerged.
The Bear Killer gave a long, groaning sigh, a sound of utter contentment: it was warm in the sun, his belly was full of biscuits and gravy, he could hear his beloved mistress within, and all was well with his world.

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Charlie MacNeil 4-8-13


With a good bait of the Jewel's finest victuals nestled comfortably behind his belt buckle, Charlie found that all was right with his world as well. He stood on the boardwalk just outside the fine glass and walnut doors picking his teeth, digging that one last bit of home-cured thick cut bacon from the hole behind his left canine. As he probed he realized that, even though he'd spent the night in a hayloft, he was more contented than he'd been in quite some time. Seems like sometimes, once a man made up his mind to do something, it turned out he'd been wanting to do it for a while without realizing it. Or something like that. With a grin he stepped off the porch and strode across the snow-packed street toward the Sheriff's log redoubt.

Stamping some small bits of clinging snow and other, less reputable, materials from his boot soles Charlie stepped up on the jail porch, thumped the door once with his fist and shoved open the door to see Linn and two glasses of what appeared to be the Daine boys' "good fer what ails ya" sitting at, and on, the desk. "Nice to see you've got the welcome mat out," he commented as he hung his hat and coat on the pegs beside the doorway. "I reckon it's pretty much gotta be after noon somewheres in the world." He strode to the desk as Linn lifted himself out of his chair and handed the ex-Marshall a glass. "Salud y pesetas, y confusión al enemigo!" Each downed a healthy slug of the smooth liquor, and each gasped for breath as it hit bottom. "Dang that's good stuff!" they declared in unison as they dropped into chairs across the desk from each other.

"I ain't gonna ask how in the world you knew," Charlie began, indicating the bottle on the desk between them, "'cause it ain't the first time this has happened." He grinned. "So I reckon you're wondering why I called you here to day, eh?"

"I reckon," the Sheriff drawled, "except I was already here."

"But if you hadn't known I was comin', you'd more than likely have made coffee. Since you got out the good stuff, then that means this whole tet a tet was my idea, so therefore I called you here." His grin widened.

Linn held up a hand. "Stop! That kind of logic makes my head hurt! So why are you here? I'm fairly certain that you didn't ride all the way into town just to drink my whiskey."

"No, I didn't. I've got whiskey. What I don't have is somebody to run the ranch for me when me and Fannie leave." The blunt words hung out in the open, waiting for a response. Linn's response was to gape at Charlie. His mouth wasn't quite hanging open, but pretty close. "I do believe that's the first time I've ever seen you speechless," Charlie quipped.

"Well, you've never dropped a bomb like that on me before," Linn replied. "What do you mean, when you and Fannie leave?"

"We're going back to law work. We've talked it over, and neither one of us is really happy settin' in one place all the time. So we're wanting to find somebody honest to run the ranch, take care of the mares, break the colts and keep the books. Whoever we find will get a percentage of the profits from the sale of the colts, and wages to boot. And I figured if anybody would know somebody who would fit the bill, it would be you. So here I am. What do ya think?"

"You're going back to law work," Linn said slowly. "What exactly does that mean?"

"I got a letter a while back from the head honcho of the Denver district. He's looking for somebody to take on cases when his regular deputies are all away, only I wouldn't be just working in his district. I'd pretty much have carte blanche for everything west of the Mississippi, but I'd only have to report to him. Sounds like an offer I can't refuse."

"It might get you killed, too," the Sheriff replied. "But it also sounds like it might be a whole lot of fun. There sure isn't anything really tying you down here. Except you'd better be back for Sarah's wedding, or you get to be the one who explains why you didn't make it. I'll have nothing to do with that. I'd sooner stick this here homely mug into the middle of a wildcat fight."

"I wouldn't miss that wedding for the world," Charlie replied.

"So when are you leaving?"

"After snow melt. I've been laying around getting fat this winter, and I need to do something about that. Need to burn some ammo, too, make sure my trigger finger ain't forgot what it's for." He picked up his glass and downed the remaining contents. "Besides, who wants to live forever?"

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Linn Keller 4-9-13


I drained my glass, feeling the full benefit of distilled steam drill sluicing down my gullet, then I poured us each a healthy refill.
"I wondered how long it would take you to get restless."
"Now you know."
I nodded slowly, considering, a slow grin broadening my homely face.
"It does sound like fun," I said, "but good Lord, Charlie, that's one hell of a big chunk of territory!"
Charlie allowed as that was right and I allowed as that called for another drink and as Charlie did not object, why, I poured us out another good belt of distilled sledgehammer.
This time we took a more judicious sip before coming up for air.
No, that ain't right.
Charlie took a judicious sip.
Mine was considerably more incautious.
"Now Charlie," I said, leaning back in my office chair, "I reckon I can find someone to run your ranch ... " I frowned. "Do I recall right, the Vega y Vega rancho is shipping up another one of those hot blooded stallions for you. You'll ..."
My voice drifted off and I considered the chinking in the logs on the opposite wall.
"They won't be up until after thaw, I don't reckon."
"I reckon you reckon aright," Charlie drawled, which got another grin out of me.
"Let me ask you this," I said, bringing my chair abruptly upright.
I came upright a little too abruptly.
Its predecessor took a perverse delight in kicking out from under me when I tilted myself backwards, generally banging my balding head against the back wall or sometimes the floor, with my boot heels pointing to the ceiling.
This time the newer chair kicked out from under me only backwards and my chin found itself met by a rapidly rising desk top.
I blinked the sting out of my eyes and kind of wallowed to a kneeling position and then upright.
"You got any teeth left?" Charlie asked mildly, looking at me with those bright hazel eyes, those eyes that told me he was bustin' a gut laughin' behind an absolutely placid poker face.
It's not the first time I made a damned fool of myself in front of my old friend and Brother and I hoped sincerely it would not be the last, but at the moment I was too busy running my tongue around my pearly whites.
I took an experimental sip of liquid fire and held it against teeth and gums, searching for any new agonies that might indicate a tooth cracked to the quick; finding no major flaws and no new pains, I swallowed that one and took another less than careful sip.
"Well, I didn't knock any out," I said.
"It's a wonder," Charlie grunted. "Now what do you figure to do with that chair?"
I turned and looked at the offending seat, laying face down on the floor, or as face down as a chair can be.
"I'm sure as hell not going to give it to any friend of mine," I declared. "Who do we know that we hate?"
Charlie chuckled and shook his head, then looked up at me with that ornery grin of his.
"Might be I could interest you in a dynamite case t' set on, Butch?"
I laughed.
"You know," I chuckled, "that ain't such a bad idea!"
I shook my head, slowly, twisting my neck to see if anything was out of joint there.
"What was I gonna ask you," I murmured, then looked at the lean ex-Marshal.
"What do I have that you can use?"
"I got --"
"Now horse feathers," I interrupted him.
I don't ordinarily interrupt a man like that, but after a few belts of distilled skinning knife behind my belt buckle I reckon my tongue was better lubricated than usual.
"If I got it, it's yours. You know that. You need somethin' while you're out yonder, you let me know and I'll get it to you. You know that."
"I know that," Charlie nodded.
I raised a finger to pontificate further and even opened my mouth and then the full benefit of distilled freight locomotive hit me right between the eyes.
I went over to that dumped over chair and set it back upright and I set down in it slow and careful.
"Charlie," I said carefully, "a wise old man once told me 'Son, when in doubt, follow your gut.'
Charlie nodded, trying not to grin, for my words were pronounced very, very carefully and very, very precisely.
"Right now my gut tells me I would be a wise man to sit my butt down and not say much."
I looked at that bottle of distilled steam engine and very carefully picked up the cork and eased it into the bottle's neck.
I managed to get it back into the drawer and eased the drawer shut.
"Charlie," I said at length, "your life is your own. I will miss havin' you close by but by God! a man that don't follow what he wants is a fool and a damned fool!"
Charlie set his glass back on the corner of the desk and stood.
I stood as well.
"I'll find the right men to run your spread," I said. "If you're not gone til thaw that'll give me some breathin' room."
There was a brisk double-knock at the door and Sarah thrust it open, looking quickly around, her eyes serious.
She took Charlie's hand and swung herself about, for all the world like she was dancing ... light and graceful and feminine, and I blinked, for in that moment she was utterly beautiful, a creature of delicate loveliness who glided rather than walked, floated instead of stepped.
Sarah's hands tightened around Charlie's callused paw and she raised her chin and looked squarely at the man.
"I have something to say to you," she said, her voice tight.
Charlie raised an eyebrow and somehow he looked pleased, as if he knew what she was going to say.
Sarah looked down, took a long breath, looked back up at the man.
"I had a fine speech all prepared," she whispered, swallowing hard, "and I don't remember a word of it."
"Then tell me what it meant."
Sarah nodded, then smiled.
"It all boils down to 'Thank you.'"
Now Charlie is far from hesitant when it comes to saying what needs said.
Charlie is a wordsmith in the finest sense, a storyteller without match, and a man of immense kindness and unfailing courtesy.
He replied to Sarah in probably the best worded and most eloquent way a man could respond in such a moment.
He wrapped her in his arms and held her, and she leaned against him, her arms around the small of his back, gripping him tightly.

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Linn Keller 4-10-13


One vice begets another; one entertainment begets another; betting begets betting, and those spectators to the periodic high stakes poker game, found themselves begotten to betting themselves.
One looked out over the collarbone-tall curtains on the Jewel's windows, and gave signal to his fellows; soon those not partaking of pasteboards and steely-eyed or expressionless facemaking, began laying bets as to the outcome of the little drama about to be played out, on the street outside.
It was yet cold enough for snow to pack hard and dirty on the street; it had not thawed enough to dig ruts, and so was fairly, though not entirely, flat: the principal actor in this developing drama had exited the Jewel, rather under protest, after attempting to shoot a tine off the European-mounted elk skull on the walnut plaque, hung above the bar: his descent from the boardwalk to said street was less than graceful and indeed would have been a textbook example of a decaying ballistic orbit, had any cared to study such in that moment: finding himself without the warm and welcoming interior of the well appointed fixture, and being deprived of the means with which to shoot the tines off a bull elk's antlers, the fellow came unsteadily to his feet and proceeded to shake his fist at the facade, uttering profane, obscene, rude, crude and socially unacceptable syllables toward the unresponsive building.
At the sound of a feminine voice the miscreant turned: blinking to clear his vision, he found himself facing empty space, until the voice spoke again and he realized the speaker was rather shorter than himself -- almost a full head shorter, as a matter of fact -- and wearing a mousy-grey schoolmarm's dress.
When a man is well inebritated he tends to spontaneous utterances that reveal the inner workings of his mind; these utterances are generally without guile or artifice or subterfuge and honestly reflect the actual workings of said speaker's mind in that moment.
Indeed, his spontaneous expression reflected completely and succinctly the condition of his intellect.
To Sarah's polite "Excuse me, sir, might I have a moment?" the fellow replied with a startled, "Huh?"
Sarah blinked behind her round schoolmarm spectacles and continued, "Down here."
He looked down, swayed a little, confused.
"Might I ask your help?" Sarah said, speaking clearly, as she realized the fellow was well oiled, and would probably need help understanding even simple questions.
"Uh, yeah," was the reply.
"I am making a study of cephalometry," she said, "and I wish to palpate your cranium."
"I, uh, what?" he replied, clearly confused.
"Cephalometric triangulation," Sarah continued patiently. "It is a method to correlate behavior and tendencies to the external contours of the skull."
"The skull," he repeated, swaying a little, his full attention on the very proper young lady before him: so complete was his tunnel vision that a brass band and two cannon could have paraded on either side of him unseen.
"Yes. Might I prevail upon you to remove your hat?"
"My hat?" he asked, confusion in his eyes and uncertainty in his voice.
"Your hat," Sarah repeated. "I cannot estimate your cranial capacity with six inches of felt overlying, now, can I?"
"Felt? -- uh, no, ma'am," he muttered, reaching up and taking off his hat.
Sarah sighed patiently.
"You will have to come down to my level," she said. "I am shorter than you. Please lower your head."
The fellow wobbled a little and went slowly to his knees.
Money, both coin and paper, exchanged hands; bets were made, breath fogged the window: odds were given, given again as the stranger and the schoolmarm held their tete-a-tete in the middle of the street, while Sheriff and ex-Marshal orbited quietly to either side and behind, halting just within arm's reach.
Sarah nodded. "That's just right," she said. "Now I shall examine your external parameters."
Sarah extended her hand.
There was a collective intake of breath as the Sheriff placed the handle of a slung shot in Sarah's outstretched palm, a general grunt as she belted the inebriate briskly over the gourd with the shot filled sewn leather drunk buster.
Sarah handed the flexible clobberer back to her Papa and stood back as each man took the now limp figure by wrist and armpit, and proceeded to drag him, toes furrowing futilely at the frozen street, to the hoosegow.
Sarah looked up at the faces crowding the Jewel's front window: putting a forefinger under her chin, she gave them an utterly innocent smile, dipped her knees, then with a whirl and a flare of her divided skirt, she raised her chin and marched across the street, bringing up the rear rank of a little parade that was the cause of a surprising sum in gold and greenbacks to change hands within the delighted confines of the Silver Jewel.

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Charlie MacNeil 4-10-13


"That girl do have a way with words, don't she?" Charlie commented as the pair dumped their unconscious burden into a cell and slammed the door on him. "That gent's gonna wake up with the worst hangover known to man."

"She can be persuasive at times," the Sheriff said. "There are times when I guess it pays to be short and cute. Plumb takes away a man's defenses."

"It sure did that Welshman's," Charlie replied with a grin. "Every time I see him around Sarah he looks like somebody whacked him between the eyes with a singletree."

"Hey, that's my future son-in-law you're talking about there!" the Sheriff answered with a grin of his own.

"And a dang fine one he'll be," Charlie said, his tone serious now. "He's a good man, and he'll make a good husband for her." He shouldered into his coat and turned toward the door. "Well, now that the excitement's over, I reckon I'd best get myself over yonder to the stable and get my horse saddled. I need to get for home." He turned and reached out his right hand. "Thanks for understanding, Linn. I guess I just need to make a little bit of difference one more time before I settle down to the rocking chair." The men shook hands and Charlie headed for the door once more. As he stepped through and pulled it closed behind him, he left the Sheriff with a few parting words. "You might want to find yourself a rockin' chair and get rid of that swivelin' monstrosity." The clang of an enamelware coffee cup striking sawn lumber was echoed by Charlie's laugh.

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Linn Keller 4-11-13


I made a face and raised the water dipper again.
It wasn't often I partook too liberally but when I did ... well, I didn't make too big a fool of myself, but once we got that fellow all settled in the Cross Bar Hotel, why, I happily hove that tin cup after Charlie's retreating backside and then I fetched out that envelope of powders.
I hate those damned powders.
They're bitter as a losing politician the day after election but they do their job.
I mixed them with a finger's worth of water and downed them, followed with a dipper of water, then I trotted myself around back and bent over the hitch rail and emptied my gut of whatever had gone into it for the past week.
Water, and more water, and another session of upset grief and I was purged of the good charge of copper-distilled dynamite I'd companionably swilled down.
I wiped my eyes and cleared my throat and blew my nose and turned to go back into the Sheriff's office.
Sarah was standing there, silent, patient, and like to started me right out of my boots.
She didn't say anything.
She just stood there looking at me with those unfathomable eyes ... those eyes that saw more than a man realized.
I drank another dipper full of water, hung it on the peg over the water barrel.
Sarah glided up to me -- she still didn't walk, she still ... hovered? She moved so easily a man could not distinguish that she was walking, like an earthly creature ... she wrapped her young hand around my arm and we went back down the alley and around front and to the front door.
Sarah looked up at me and frowned, then raised a careful hand and explored the underside of my chin.
I frowned but managed not to flinch, for my chin still hurt where I'd hit my desk when that chair kicked out from under me.
"You're bleeding," she murmured.
I grunted and looked dourly down at her.
"My own fault," I muttered.
Sarah raised an eyebrow.
I pushed the door open and we went on inside: I offered Sarah a chair and she settled -- she floated -- gracefully into it and I shut the heavy door.
I glared long at my chair before picking it up and turning it upside down.
Sarah offered no comment as I considered its under side, as I lay it down and studied its profile, then as I put it back upright and shook it a little, side-to-side and then to-and-fro.
Finally I pushed it back behind my desk.
Then I sat on the edge of the desk.
I don't reckon that desk will flip out from under me near as easy.
I looked over at Sarah.
"That chair," I said solemnly, "hates me."
Sarah raised an eyebrow once again, but offered no comment.
"I," I said quietly, "have ridden horses great and mild, horses fiery and calm, horses that would as soon sling a man down to earth or up to the Texas moon, but never in my entire young life" -- I never raised my voice, just spoke quiet, calm, like I was discussing shirt buttons or something -- "never have I ridden a creature as perverse, as treacherous or as prone to causing me hurt" -- I raised exploring fingers to the underside of my chin, feeling the bruise and the scabbing stubble -- "as that damned chair!"
Sarah tilted her head a little and looked sympathetic.
"Poor Papa!" she said, "would you wish another?"
I shook my head.
"No, Sarah," I said, "likely it's a mechanical problem and it's on me to fix it."
Sarah's expression was one of open curiosity and I grinned to see it.
"I reckon it's mechanical, y'see," I explained. "It has to do with the loose nut that sits in the chair."
"Oh, Papa," Sarah laughed. "You're silly."
"Of course I'm silly," I nodded. "I excel at making a fool of myself."
Sarah's expression was suddenly solemn.
"Uncle Charlie," she said.
I nodded.
"I ... should I ..." she hesitated, the seemed to come to some resolve and tried again.
"Should I ride out and ask him when ..."
"You're thinking of your wedding."
Sarah nodded, eyes bright, and she bit her bottom lip, just like Bonnie, and I felt a little funny to see it, for it's not easy for a Papa to see his little girl as grown and marriageable.
I would as soon keep my little girl in pigtails and pantalettes and keep her as a little girl forever, put her on a high shelf with a bell jar over her to keep her safe from the world... but little girls grow up, and mine surely had.
"Your wedding," I repeated.
Sarah nodded, looking more like an uncertain little girl, and I wanted nothing more than to bundle her up in my arms and hold her, but I knew it was not the moment to cuddle her, it was the moment to treat her as the adult she was becoming.
"Charlie," I said, "will leave after thaw."
Sarah nodded.
"He'll be back for your wedding."
Sarah nodded again.
"He said so, in so many words."
Sarah closed her eyes and nodded and I could see her relax a little.
I stood up and went over to her, then I went to one knee and took her hands in mine.
"Don't worry, Princess," I whispered. "He'll be there."
Sarah stood and so did I, and then Sarah hugged me, quickly, and I held her.
I might not have thought it was the time to hold her like she was a little girl, but she did, and who was I to argue?

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Linn Keller 4-11-13

Sean watched the German Irishman roll hose.
The Deutscher was a precise man, as befit his heritage; he was a tidy and exacting man, a man of military precision, whether it came to the trim of his fiercely-curled mustache, the press of his uniforms, the shine of his immaculate boots, the care he took of their beloved Steam Masheen.
The German frowned a bit as he rolled hose.
Sean knew the man was thinking and thinking hard.
Every few turns of the coil he stopped, slapping the sides like he was boxing a set of ears, getting the woven linen line more precisely aligned: he had three rolls stacked already, each one uniformly tight, each one uniformly wrapped, each one uniformly placed, the brass connection hanging an exact distance, so they presented a painfully straight line on the steel hose rack.
Sean waited until the German Irishman straightened and stepped back from the rack, until after he placed that last roll of hose beside its fellows and twitched it and tweaked it until it too hung in a precise, uniform fashion.
"Lad," he rumbled quietly, "will ye ha'e supper wi' her tonight?"
The German Irishman stopped, then turned slowly.
"Aye," he nodded. "Tonight."
"Good." Sean laid a hand on the man's shoulder. "'Tis a good thing ye do."
"It's no' charity I do," the German Irishman said stoutly.
"No," Sean agreed. "Charity it is not."
The German Irishman closed his eyes and took a long breath.
The two of them were alone; Sean turned over an empty bucket, seated himself.
The German stood defiantly as his Chieftain took his ease.
"Ha'e ye set a date?" Sean asked.
"Aye, we have."
"And after ye are married ... ha'e ye a place?"
"Aye. She has the ranch."
"And it's on t'other side o' town."
The German Irishman nodded.
"I'll have t' hire another man," Sean said thoughtfully, "and establish a schedule."
The German Irishman frowned a little.
"Ye'll ha'e to spend time at home, lad," Sean grinned. "I live close enough t' run t' th' firehouse if I'm home an' we ha'e a call, but you" -- he thrust his chin at his frowning subordinate -- "we'll no' put ye out o' work, lad, but ye'll be husband an' father."
"Aye," the German nodded, blinking.
"How does it feel, knowin' ye'll be an old married man?"
"I don't know," the German whispered.
"I remember how I felt," Sean said quietly, looking at the man with an Irish-broad grin. "I was scared t' death!"
The German looked sharply at Sean.
"Scared lily-white," Sean nodded. "Ma fears were for naught ... but good Lord, ma Daisy looked like an angel ... afraid I was t' touch her!"
The German found another bucket and turned it over, sat slowly facing the Fire Chief.
"Good God," he muttered. "And here I thought I was the only one!"
The two sat in silence for several minutes, each immersed in his own thoughts.
Finally the German stirred.
"I've the ring," he said, "and she's the dress her Mama wore. She had it tailored a bit, I'm thinkin'."
"Is she a strong girl, lad, fit t' bear a man sons?"
The German Irishman laughed, nodding. "Aye," he chuckled, "she's good hips, a'right!"
"Good. Ye don't want a girl that's too small across th' beam. Makes birthin' harder."
The German Irishman's eyes stared into an unseen distance and Sean saw a wondering smile begin to broaden his cheeks.
"Sons," he breathed. "Kilder." He looked at Sean and grinned.
"Ma grandfather," he said in the gentle voice of a man remembering something from years agone, "told me a woman's world was 'Kinder, Kilder, Kirk,' and it was a man's rightful place t' provide so she could ha'e these things."
Sean nodded.
"Ye'll raise 'em in th' Holy Mother Church?"
"Ye're damned right, mackerel snapper!"
"That's right, ye heretic, ye're one o' those Catholic Protestants that calls himself a Lutheran!"
"And what of it!" the German snarled, coming to his feet.
Sean stood and the two men squared and glared, shifting their weight until they were boxer-footed, ready for fists and whatever else may come with them.
Each one glared stolidly, sternly, until both of them began to crack a little, at the corners of their eyes at first, then they both began to laugh.
"Lad," Sean said affectionately, "I would be honored to drink to your upcoming union!"
"And I'd be honored t' buy ye that drink!"
Sean turned, walked into the middle of the apparatus floor.
There was a general scrambling charge for the apparatus floor and the entire Irish Brigade presented themselves in various stages of readiness, from fully dressed to drawers being hauled up as he ran.
"I NEED VOLUNTEERS!" Sean bellowed: clapping a hand on the German Irishman's shoulder, he glared at the Brigade, looking from man to man to man.
"Sauerkraut here is buyin' me a drink an' I am buyin' him one, for we drink t' th' health o' his upcoming nuptials! Now who's with us?"

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Linn Keller


A diminutive nun knelt in the silence of the sanctuary.
Brother William watched from the back of the mission chapel.
It was after Vespers; the nuns had marched back to their quarters and for the moment, he and the nun and the four kneeling in Adoration were the only living souls present.
She was as still as the statues before and beside her: his tread on approach was silent, and it was not until he was quite close that he even saw her shoulders move as she breathed.
Brother William bowed to the altar, crossed himself and knelt beside her.
Each held a Rosary.
Brother William kissed the simple wooden cross, held it between thumb and forefinger; his voice could almost be heard as he recited the Paternoster, then his thumb and forefinger moved ahead one bead.
The nun's hands were still, her head bowed.
"Am I a fraud?" she whispered.
Brother William had not begun his Hail Mary: just as he knew, earlier, that he should go to the chapel, so did he know now, his was to listen to the troubled heart of this fellow traveler.
"Fraud?" he echoed, his voice barely above a whisper.
"I wear the robes of the Order," she said, her voice tight, quiet: "I marched with the Sisters, I was present when they took Final Vows and I even gave my silver ring to Sister Sarah. I passed myself off as one of them ..."
"My Sister, did you notice that no one has given a cease or desist?"
"But ... I'm not ..."
"Not what? A Bride of Christ?"
She looked up, and Brother William looked down, and she saw a man with a a quiet smile, a look of understanding: he saw a young woman in anguish, a soul in doubt of itself.
"Let me tell you about you," he said.
Sarah blinked, surprised.
"Walk with me."
Brother William pushed up from the railing, his knees protesting; they ached when the weather changed, but he accepted this, as he accepted the other changes in himself: the aches, the pains, a decreased tolerance for temperature changes ... all appropriate, he knew, to advancing age.
"You came here," he said. "Here, of all places. Do you know why?"
She nodded.
"I ... needed ... to know ... if I am ... have I damned myself?"
Brother William looked at her almost sadly; she saw an infinity of patience, an immense store of a natural kindness.
"No," he whispered. "Come."
The two turned and glided out a side door: tall and short, one in a robe of Cistercian white, one in a habit of black, with a white wimple: it was dark out, with two lamps near the gate, but no others: overhead, the stars were bright, thickly scattered, looking near enough to reach up and touch.
Brother William stopped, closed his eyes, took a long breath.
"I do love the night," he murmured.
Sarah stopped with him; she waited, hands in her sleeves, looking curiously at the tall, slender monastic.
"Do you know what they call you?"
"Who calls me?"
Brother William smiled.
"Do you know what you have done?"
Sarah -- Sister Mercurius -- shook her head.
"You are known by many names," he said.
"I am?"
Brother William nodded.
"You are the Lanceria, the White Rider, She Who Blesses." He looked down at her, his tonsure gleaming in the moonlight. "Do you know why?"
Sarah shook her head.
"I received a confession tonight," he said. "Without violating the seal of the confessional, I can tell you this much.
"He was an old man."
Brother William paused, considering.
"'And the old men shall see visions, and the young men shall dream dreams,'" he quoted.
"The Book of Acts."
"The old man saw you in a vision, and his son dreamed of you."
"He confessed this?"
"No, he told me of it some time ago, as did his son. Neither knew of the other's experience."
Brother William looked up, over the walls, searching the starry-decked firmament for something only he could see.
"You see, each saw you, riding a great black horse, charging the powers of Hell and driving them back. One saw you pouring fire from your hands, another saw you freezing the fires with winter's cold."
He looked at Sarah.
"Yesterday there was an explosion and a fire in the silver mine.
"Someone said something about a gas pocket.
"The old man and the young man were separated by the fire and each thought they were going to die, until they remembered you."
Her lips barely moved; her throat felt tight.
"They remembered you, and each walked without fear through the fires, to the other, and out a side shaft, to safety."
Sister Mercurius blinked, opening her mouth, then closing it.
"You were seen riding the hills, a vision in white with a gleaming silver lance. Children spoke to me of the Lady of the Lance chasing their nightmares.
"Because of you, one of our Sisters found a gift for teaching, a gift she never knew was there.
"Because of you, another found she could sing.
"A child with a withered leg claimed the strength of La Lanceria and chose to walk in spite of his bad leg.
"The leg will never be as strong as its mate but he will gain strength, and because of you -- because of what he saw in you -- on your great black mare, just by being you -- he walks."
Sarah blinked.
Brother William turned and they walked slowly, back to the sanctuary.
"You have done much good," he said quietly. "There are reports of the little nun -- they call you that, too" -- she saw his quick smile -- "bearing our sacred relic, the Lance of St. Mercurius. They claim it is spirited out and secretly returned, and that its touch can cure any disease, any injury."
Sarah's expression was troubled.
"You doubt."
"I ..." Sarah looked up at him, her distress apparent. "Brother William ... I haven't ..."
He raised a finger.
"Such is the mystery of the Lord," he said, as if teaching a favorite pupil. "We are tools in the hands of the Master, whether we know it, whether we wish it, or not.
"Does the Lance itself, heal?" he asked rhetorically.
Sarah's eyes went to the front of the Chapel ... where she and the other nuns marched in, when they took final Vows ... the front of the Chapel, with the Lance in its ornate cupboard.
"It is not the Lance," Brother William answered his own question.
"Do you remember what Christ said at a healing?"
"As you believe," Sarah breathed. "Your faith has healed you."
"It is not the Lanceria who heals. It is not the Lance. It is the will of God, not more, not less" -- he looked sharply at Sarah -- "but we are the lens through which He focuses His will.
"Do not doubt," he whispered fiercely, kneeling before the diminutive nun, "do not ever doubt the good you do, just by being you!"
Brother William took her hands his eyes burning into hers.
"You asked if you are a fraud.
"No." His hands tightened on hers, emphasizing his reply.
"You are to be married."
Sarah nodded, slowly, once.
"Do you know the significance of the wedding?"
"The first of Christ's miracles was at a wedding," Sarah whispered.
Brother William smiled a little; he, too, nodded.
"Do you know the significance of the wedding?"
"There are many."
"Right again," Brother William nodded. "The ... when you marry ..."
Brother William frowned.
"You asked if you are a fraud."
Sarah nodded uncertainly.
"No. You are not and here's why." He stood, his knees audibly protesting the move.
"The bride represents the Church, the Bride of Christ."
The Bride of Christ, Sarah thought. That's me.
"As a nun, you are a Bride of Christ," Brother William said quietly. "When you marry, you are symbolically the Bride of Christ, and your husband is Head of the Church -- symbolically the Christ."
Sarah nodded, trembling a little.
"You see, my dear Sister Mercurius, you stand before me as a Bride of Christ, and in a short time you will become a Bride of Christ. Do you follow me?"
Sarah nodded, slowly, biting her bottom lip as a weight lifted from her slowly un-knotting gut.
"Good." Brother William knelt again. "Have I helped you?"
"You have. Thank you."
"May I ask of you a favor?"
Sarah's eyes were bright, shining, liquid in the subdued light.
"Yes," she whispered.
"Would you sing the Ave?" Brother William swallowed. "In all my years I have heard no throat that could frame it better."
Sarah nodded, looked to the front of the sanctuary.
Sarah marched slowly down the aisle, bowed to the Altar, then turned to the statue of the Virgin.
She took a long breath, let it out, gathering herself: she raised her head, eyes closed, and began to sing.
Outside, a horse-hostler paused in his labors, leaning on the bent-tined pitchfork, listening to the sound of a single voice, raised in praise, singing of an angel's words with an angel's voice.
Brother William's view of the statue of the Virgin blurred, and the lean priest with the tanned tonsure stood in the Chapel, tears running free and unashamed down his weathered cheeks as he listened to the voice, that one voice, the only voice in his entire life that ever did justice to Ave Maria.

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Linn Keller 4-13-13


Two banditos half-staggered, half-crawled toward the mission.
Their clothes were torn, burnt in places; they smelled of scorched hair and unwashed flesh, they smelled of too many days on the dodge, running from la ley, from los soldados, running, for every man's hand was against them, but they -- they two, now, knew as they knew the peril that awaited their souls -- they knew with the desperation of the condemned that they must seek confession, they must seek absolution, and the nearest place was the Mission.
Neither felt the cold, neither felt the rocks cut their palms and their knees as they stumbled: their eyes burned and felt gritty, their throats were dry, tight, their breath loud, rasping, grunting: they were two men almost on the very teetering rim of exhaustion, and yet they sought the Mission, the Mission, for the saving of their very souls.
A lonely night-watcher saw their staggering approach; as one desperate, dirty hand clawed at the bell-pull, the left-hand gate opened and strong hands took the two as they collapsed, and bore them within.
It was a day and a night and a day again, after the fevers passed, after their lives were despaired of, then apparently restored by a power not of this earth; well after the two were divested of their filthy garb, bathed, even shaved, placed in clean beds and covered with clean sheets: Brother William himself guided the straight razor over their hollow cheeks, skillfully slicing coarse whiskers from their browned skin, guiding the honed edge around the margins of their black mustachios.
The two woke to the smell of broth, the trickle of water; gentle hands held the dipper as they drank, trembling, then greedily: they snatched the bowl of broth from Brother William's hands and drank, ignoring the spoon that fell, unheeded and unneeded, to the painfully clean floor.
It was not until sundown that the pair were recovered sufficiently to ask their silent caregivers if they might see a priest, and Brother William, hands in his sleeves, paced silently the length of the infirmary, toward the pair.
One tried to rise; he got as far as swinging his legs out of the bed before finding his legs lacked the strength to hold him: Brother William's strong hands seized the man under the arms and held him up, then eased him back down on the bed.
"Mas lenta, mi hijo," he murmured. "Slower, my son. You nearly died out there."
The man was shivering now, his teeth clattering: Brother William slid an arm under his knees, laid him back on his cot, his voice gentle, soothing: "Lie still, now, gather your strength --"
The bandito seized Brother William's arm, desperate, broken-nailed fingers digging into the lean monastic's sinewy arm with a surprising strength.
"I must confess," he begged. "Confess me, Father, before I die!"
Brother William looked over at the other robber: he lay still, pale, shivering, eyes wide, the eyes of a man who still saw whatever horror it was that brought them here.
Brother William nodded, gestured to one of the nuns: silent, eyes downcast, she brought him a chair, and Brother William sat: the nun dipped her knees and turned, gliding away in felt-soled slippers, absolutely silent.
"My sister," Brother William called, his voice low, gentle: she turned, hands in her sleeves.
"My sister, is Sister Mercurius within?"
"She has gone, Brother William."
Brother William nodded. "Thank you."
The bandito crossed himself, quickly, jerkily. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," he blurted, and what followed was a rapid account of the robber's depredations about the countryside, an account that Brother William expected to hear, up until the point where he stopped and panted, his eyes widening with panic, right before he screamed, "AND THEN SHE SENT US TO HELL!"
Brother William blinked, looked at the other robber.
The other bandito nodded, his face gone ash-white, even his lips losing their color.
The robber's hands clasped Brother William's between his own.
"We saw El Senor Diablo! We saw legions of devils, el lago del fuego, the lake of fire!" His voice raised, almost a shreik: "Father forgive us, we do not want to go back!"
Brother William's eyes were hard, his jaw set.
"Tell me," he said. "Tell me what happened."

Sarah drew the veil over her face as she rode.
Snowflake knew the way home, long ride that it was; she allowed the mare her head: she seldom bridled Snowflake, for the mare was responsive enough to hands and knees and the grip of her legs and the shift of her weight in the saddle -- Sarah had run Snowflake, at a dead gallop, between a line of fence posts before the fencing was applied: she'd put a tin can on each fence post, and she'd ridden with a sword in each hand, spinning steel around her, weaving in and out of the row, turning Snowflake hard -- hard about was her delight, and Sarah laughed with delight as Snowflake, in happy obedience to her rider, skidded a little on hard dirt and swapped ends, launching back along her former path: now, tonight, Sarah rode in her nun's habit, the white silk drawn over her face, for the night was chill, and her face was damp.
She'd sung the Ave for Brother William.
She sang well, she knew, and it felt good when she sang, and the acoustics in the Chapel were marvelous; she knew her voice carried well, and in the silence she knew her throat saturated the listeners, for the sound curved and reflected and came from every direction.
There is no surround sound like standing in the middle of a hundred-voice chorus.
Sarah had, once, in Denver: on impulse, she slipped away after modeling her Mama's creations, entered another part of the hotel, and in the confusion of the dressing room, found a costume that fit her fairly well: she was still in makeup and with her hair elaborately done, and blended seamlessly with the other singers as they filed out on stage.
She knew their song and she knew her abilities, and her voice melded and flowed, melody and harmony, matching the woof and warp of their audible weave without standing out: when done, she filed off with the singers and managed to slip back into her own attire without undue attention.
Sarah smiled as she rode, remembering the moment, glorying in the feeling of living the music -- being, for that moment, part of a magical creature, not of this earth, a creature of beauty made entirely of sound.
Snowflake shied, danced a little, and Sarah was instantly back in the here-and-now.
Two dirty fellows stood before her, one with a rifle, the other, a long knife.
"Seester," the one with the knife grinned, "we thank you for your donation!"
Sarah's knees halted Snowflake.
"We will take any other ... donations ... you weesh to give," he continued, grinning with yellowed teeth and reaching for the bridle Snowflake wasn't wearing.
Sarah backed Snowflake a few steps.
"Thou shalt not steal," she said firmly, but her voice in the chill air sounded very young and almost girlish.
The two laughed.
"It is our work, seester," the one with the rifle laughed. "It is what we do."
"Have you ever seen hell?" Sarah asked, raising her hands: she pulled the veil free.
At her touch it disappeared in a hot red mist.
Sarah's eyes flared red and the whip-scar burned hot and red across her face: even Snowflake's eyes looked like hell-coals in the dark, standing out all the more against the velvet black of her flawless fur.
Snowflake snorted, blowing out two blue clouds of sulfur smoke.
Sarah's hands opened, balls of rolling red flame forming, balls twice the size of a man's head.
The voice -- the voice was not that of the little nun on the big black horse -- it was the scream of a steam-whistle, a whistle powered from the boilers of the Inferno, a voice that knew pain and agony unending -- then the little nun threw her hands forward and red fire seared through the air and enveloped the two in red agony and they convulsed and they screamed --
The pair fell for an eternity, screaming in terror, watching skeletons and vaprous forms falling around them, hearing voices more than their own, the thousand throats of those tortured for all eternity --
They fell onto hot sand, dry sand, red sand that glowed in the blackness: terrified, the two bandiotos scrambled to all fours, spinning around like frightened crabs, eyes bulging, mouths open, their own terror locked in their throats --
"Welcome to Hell," a woman's voice shouted, sounding like the lash of a freshly-oiled whip lacerating the air above their heads.
They looked around.
A great black horse stood before them, and on it, a woman in white silk: the silk rippled and flowed, as if blown by a gentle breeze, but its ripples were red, as if blood flowed, living and hot, through the fabric: a black hell-dog snarled beside her, a dog big as a small horse, a dog with jaws that could bite a man in two with one snap: the horse -- Dios Mio, the horse! -- was as tall as two -- no, three! three men! -- with red eyes, fiery eyes, eyes that burned, and fire snorted from its black nostrils and blew blue sulfur smoke, choking and thick --
The woman extended the silver lance she held, its shining head forming a crucifix: she pointed to Matteo and said, "You are afraid of prison."
He looked around, whimpering.
"This is not prison, Matteo.
"You are afraid of prison and the cry when you first walk in chains into the cell block, the cry of 'Fresh Fish!'
Matteo collapsed to his knees, then rose with a cry: his huaraches protected his feet a little from the hot sand, but the torn knees of his ragged pantalones did not, and the sand was hot, burning hot --
"We don't call you fresh fish here," the White Rider said coldly.
She threw her head back and screamed, and the words she screamed shivered the ground underfoot and ground rocks together.
The two banditos staggered to one another, clutching desperately, then turned back-to-back, turning, eyes wide, and screamed in terror, screamed at the horrors that approached, slithered, limped, hopped toward them: puddles of corruption -- puddles with eyes -- flowed around rocks and over the sand, puddles that would dissolve flesh from bone and spit their bones out for others to use for flutes or other hellish instruments: there were creatures shambling out of their nightmares, reaching for them, slavering for the taste of man-flesh, made tender by the evil they already contained.
"Well?" the Lanceria asked. "How do you like your new home?"
The two were beyond words: they collapsed in sheer, helpless, hopless, unadulterated terror, reaching beseeching hands toward the Lanceria.
Their throats could produce nothing but a strained whimper, but she heard their hearts, and the cry of their hearts begged forgiveness, salvation.
The Lady in White raised her hands, and blue globes hissed into existence: the pair found themselves in a world of whirling snow, and fell again, and rolled as they landed.
They were once again in the desert and once again on the mountain and once again along the path where they accosted the little nun.
The nun raised the white silk veil over her face.
The great black horse she rode blinked sleepily, switching its tail as if bored.
"The mission is behind me," Sister Mercurius said quietly. "You can make it before daylight."
Then she was gone.
The pair looked at one another, looked around, then looked at one another again.
Their clothes were smoldering in places, their hair singed, and they smelled of burnt sulfur.
Their eyes grew wider, there in the cold and in the dark, and as one man they began running, running with the desperation of those who run for the saving of their very lives, of their immortal souls, running toward the Mission.

Brother William paced slowly out of the infirmary, hands in his sleeves, head bowed.
He'd received their confession, he'd listened to their story: it fairly fell from them, jumbled, confused, but the more they told, the more sense it made, and finally he believed he had the right of it.
They confessed their intent, how they saw the solitary, tiny figure on the monstrous horse, how they agreed such a beast of a horse could carry the two of them easily, after they took their carnal pleasures in its rider, and left her body among the rocks, and how they stopped the rider, not hesitating that she was a Sister.
Brother William stopped halfway across the courtyard.
Sister Mercurius stood before him, she and her horse, and he had not the least idea how they got in, or made it across the courtyard unseen.
"You wanted to see me, Brother William."
Brother William was not a man to be easily surprised, seldom was he at a loss for words: he turned, looked back to the infirmary, then back to the diminutive Sister.
Sister Mercurius drew the white silk veil from across her face.
Her skin was smooth, pale in the moonlight, her eyes bright, as they always were.
Brother William knew she'd inherited a whip-scar across her face, and if the light was just right he thought he could see it; here, in the washed out silver light, her face was flawless, her voice gentle.
"I could have left them there."
He nodded.
"They would have been condemned."
He nodded again.
"They deserved condemnation."
"As do we all."
"Which is why they are here."
"Say on."
"Had they remained, or had I killed them, they would learn nothing."
Brother William nodded again.
"They have a chance. Now it's up to them."
"And I was given a chance and a choice."
"Your choice?"
"You said it yourself, Brother William. We all deserve to be condemned but we've been given a chance. How can I do any less?"
Brother William considered this.
"My sister," he said slowly, "do you remember I said we are all tools in the Master's hand?"
It was Sarah's turn to nod.
"They are bandits. They have despoiled women, killed men, stolen from families who had little and from those with much.
"Many would say they have no purpose but tonight we saw their purpose was to test you."
The diminutive nun nodded, once.
"Even the evil among us serve the Master's plan. Now ..."
Brother William paused thoughtfully, looking again at the infirmary's closed door.
"Having seen what lies in their path -- now that they knew what will happen to them, should they remain on that path -- "
Brother William paused.
"You chose, Sister, and now so must they.
"They were the tools to try your own spirit, Sister Mercurius.
"You were tried, and you were not found wanting."

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Linn Keller 4-14-13


Bonnie looked up as Sarah swept into the room, beaming like sunshine shooting through a fractured rain cloud: the family was at breakfast and Sarah was unusually late joining them ... in fact, she was thirty seconds behind the rest of the family, which for her, was quite late.
Sarah's cheeks were flushed, her lips slightly parted, her eyes bright: she closed her mouth, smiling a little, looking at her plate, and Bonnie saw her color a bit, as if remembering some rather pleasant secret.
Sarah looked up as the maid began setting steaming, loaded plates before them: bacon and eggs, pancakes and fried potatoes smelled suddenly very, very good, and Sarah's stomach reminded her that her fare would very likely taste just as good.
The twins regarded Sarah with their usual bright and inquiring eyes: in an era where children were traditionally seen but not heard, the twins were ... well, not entirely prone to subscribe to this societal norm: conversation was easy and free around the table, as a rule, but it was not until Sarah spoke that the silence was filled with the sound of anything but Levi's murmured thanks to the maid, and the blessing he spoke.
"Mama," Sarah said, and Bonnie's quick ear twitched a little, for of late Sarah had been addressing her as "Mother."
Bonnie looked up and Sarah was struck by Bonnie's natural, unaffected beauty.
I hope Levi appreciates her, she thought. Mother is a beautiful woman in so many ways!
Sarah lowered her fork until it rested on the pancake.
"Am I a ... terrible sort?"
Sarah's expression was conflicted, but her natural good humor came to the fore.
A quirk of Bonnie's eyebrow was her reply; silent, but as plain as the spoken word, she inquired what in the world Sarah meant.
"Mama, I shall see Mr. Llewellyn today," Sarah continued, abandoning her fork and folding her hands very properly in her lap.
Bonnie looked steadily at her daughter, remembering her own feelings at that age, when she too had a fire in her heart for a special young man.
Sarah colored a little more.
"Mama ..." Sarah hesitated.
"Mama, I am ... looking forward to seeing him."
Sarah's expression was a little uncertain.
"Mama, does that make me terrible?"
"Could you excuse us, please?" Bonnie murmured to the table in general, and stood: Levi rose politely as his wife stood, and waited until she and Sarah were out of the room before resuming his seat.
Opal looked, big-eyed, at the doorway through which the pair had retreated, then looked at her Papa.
Polly, on the other hand, was industriously applying herself to fried eggs: frowning, she folded over a brown-edged piece of spiced egg white and clumsily speared it before bringing it carefully to her mouth.
"Papa?" Opal asked. "Is Mama in trouble?"
Levi took a sip of coffee, trying to hide his surprise: this was not a question he expected.
"No, no," he said quietly. "No, she's not in trouble."
"Is Sawwah in trouble?"
Levi laughed, his own cheeks pinking a little more. "No, dear heart, she's not in trouble."
"When Mama tells me I've been bad, she takes me into another room and talks to me," Polly offered.
"That is because she is a Lady," Levi explained, "and she is showing you how to be a Lady."
"Oh." Polly picked up a crispy strip of bacon and took a bite, as if satisfied his answer was the reply to every question she could ever ask.
"Yes, my dear?"
"What is Mama telling her?"
Levi laughed again, giving up on his strategic disassembly of a short stack of pancakes.
"Why, I don't really know," he admitted, "but I believe" -- he leaned over a little, toward the twins: though they were separated from him by a little distance, his lowered voice and hunched shoulders conveyed the appearance that he was confiding an important matter -- "I beleive they are talking ... girl talk!"
"We're girls," Opal offered, and she and Polly looked at one another and nodded, once, as if affirming a universal absolute.
Levi laughed, straightening in his chair. "So you are, ladies, and lovely girls you both are!"
"Do I look like Mama?" Opal asked, and Levi stopped, for Opal very clearly showed her Oriental ancestry: absolutely straight, absolutely black hair, deep black eyes, shining like polished obsidian, the epicanthic folds at the corners of her eyes -- and yet she and Polly were near identical in height and in build, and Bonnie took pains to dress them identically, and dispensed her affections between the pair equally -- so much so that Levi long ago forgot the differences and saw only his beloved daughters.
Levi frowned a little, covering his mouth with curved fingers: he studied Polly and Jade both, closely, looking from one to the other and back, and finally, frowning a bit, he nodded.
"Let's see," he said. "You both" -- he pointed at Opal, then at the doorway -- "have absolutely beautiful eyes."
Opal giggled.
"You each" -- he pointed at the twins, wagged his finger to indicate them both, the pointed again at the doorway --"have a smile that would melt a stone statue's heart."
Polly and Opal looked at one another and both giggled.
"You each" -- again the inclusive pointing finger, first the twins, then the doorway, linking daughters and mother in reference --"have a smile like sunrise on the first day of Creation."
The twins looked at Levi and blinked, their shining eyes wide and innocent.
"You both" -- he paused, pointing distinctly at the twins, then at the doorway --"conduct yourselves as ladies, in the finest sense of the word."
Levi nodded firmly.
"Yes," he said. "You both look just like your Mama!"
"Good!" the twins chorused, and all three returned their attentions to their breakfast plates.

It was customary, after church, for couples who were ... well, who were an item, so to speak, to either take a walk together, or to go for a drive: these were often, but not always chaperoned, and on this day, Mr. Llewellyn and Sarah went for a drive.
Sarah sat with her hands folded, her back straight; she wore one of her Mama's gowns, of the very latest fashion, and of course Mr. Llewellyn was in his good suit.
They drove out of town, their rented mare pacing easily, Shorty's best carriage rolling smoothly on gleaming spoked wheels; it was not far to the land they had been given, the land that would be theirs, under law, the moment a ring slid on Sarah's finger and they each agreed to love, honor and cherish.
Sarah waited until they were at their destination before speaking; she allowed Llewellyn to come around and help her down from the carriage, and she lingered her gloved hands long on his muscled upper arms.
They two were alone, under the great azure vault of the sky overhead; a grey granite cliff thrust hard against the sky on their right, and the ground on which they stood was level, and broad, and would do well for a home.
There was nearby pasture, and graze, and a hanging valley behind and above that would do for summer herds: here, where they stood, were stakes and cloth streamers, laid out to mark the borders of the fine stone house that was planned.
Sarah looked up at the Welsh Irishman and felt the strength, the warmth of his hands, spread out and tight against her ribs as he swung her down out of the carriage: she felt the muscles slip and surge beneath the cloth of his sleeves: she did not release her grip, nor did he, his.
The two stood still for a very long moment, holding each other, and Sarah felt an uncertain fire build within her.
I don't want to feel this, she thought.
Yes I do.
No I don't. I don't want this, I don't want to want him --
Yes I do!

"Mr. Llewellyn?" Sarah asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
"My dear?" he replied, his own voice as quiet.
"Mr. Llewellyn ... I am ... afraid."
Llewellyn swallowed.
"Mr. Llewellyn, I want ... very much ..."
Sarah swallowed.
"Mr. Llewellyn ... will you ... kiss me?"
Daffyd Llewellyn, descended from fierce Celtic warriors ... Daffyd Llewellyn, a man who waded routinely into the Devil's parlor with a squirt gun under his arm ... Daffyd Llewellyn, survivor of explosions and conflagrations and street brawls back in Cincinnati ... Daffyd Llewellyn, a man in the truest sense of the word, felt like lightning shot through him, and lit a fire in him.
Daffyd Llewellyn knelt, slowly, very slowly, releasing Sarah's ribs and taking her arms: he ran his hands down her arms, took her gloved hand and brought it to his lips.
Sarah felt his hand tremble.
"Mr. Llewellyn," Sarah said, her voice a little shaky; he saw her wet her lips.
"Mr. Llewellyn," she said again, then she threw her head back and took a great breath, blew it out, puffing her cheeks as she did.
God Almighty, this is a woman! Daffyd Llewellyn thought, just before Sarah bent a little and seized his face in her hands and pressed her lips to his.
Daffyd Llewellyn, a full-blooded man in the prime of his young life, found himself gifted with that which he had wanted for a very long time.
He had the lips of the woman for whom he would willingly sacrifice his very life.
Daffyd rose, as slowly as he'd knelt, but his lips never left hers: he stood, bending to accommodate their disparity in height: his arms went around her, and her arms went around his neck, and it was several long moments before they came up for air.

His Honor was inconvenienced, the Sheriff read, and would not be attending that week: the Sheriff was therefore authorized to levy fines and penalties as necessary, if warranted, or to otherwise detain prisoners for another week, until such time as the Judge could hold court.
The Sheriff accordingly had a Dutch Uncle talk with the fellow who tried to shoot the tines off the elk mount in the Jewel: the man had a twenty dollar gold piece and sixbits to his name, and a good looking horse with a better looking saddle: the Sheriff added up Shorty's price, what it cost the county to house the miscreant, realized this would leave said good worthy with between seven and ten cents to his name, so he turned him loose with the stern admotion not to return, and without extracting coin from the fellow's pocketbook.
The man reflected on how close he'd come to losing his purse and maybe his horse and saddle both, he remembered that little schoolmarm that bent a singletree over his head, and decided this was a bargain: less than three minutes later he was showing Firelands a clean set of heels as he set a course for yonder, and he wasn't terribly fussy about just where "yonder" was.

Sarah found herself trembling a little as she molded herself to Daffyd, her hands busy caressing his ears, the back of his neck: she looked into the man's eyes, wondering, searching her own heart, searching his gold-flecked hazel eyes, and realizing that for once in her young life, she was overwhelmingly, absolutely, utterly, flawlessly, happy.
"Mr. Llewellyn?" she whispered.
"My dear?" Mr. Llewellyn felt a little breathless: he, too, was trembling: he laid a hard hand on his feelings, pulling them back, knowing he was perilously close to ... close to encouraging this pure and beautiful creature to ... impropriety.
It would be most improper, he thought, to kiss her again.
Sarah blinked, wet her lips again.
"Kiss me again," she whispered. "Please."
Oh what the hell, he thought, and his lips found hers, and for another long moment, for several long moments, the world was very far away, and the two knew only each other.

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Linn Keller 4-15-13


I felt The Bear Killer growl, deep, powerful, way down in his chest.
My hand was firm on his ribs: I pressed in a little, curving my fingers to dig through that thick, curly black hair so he would know I was paying attention.
My journal lay open on my desk, the ink bottle beside it unstoppered, my pen beside that, forgotten: The Bear Killer leaned against my leg and I dug my fingers into his ribs and he growled again.
A dog will have several growls, just as a man has several laughs.
Rub a cat's belly, caress its jaw and its ears, and it will purr: scratch The Bear Killer's back and he will growl, and so he did now: he leaned all the more heavily against my leg until I pulled back a little and he slumped over, rolling over on his back and I rubbed his belly, scratching the under side of his rib cage, then lightly down over his guts, until he kicked happily and went from growl to yowl.
The Bear Killer was fierce, great, deadly, silent unless he wished to be otherwise; he was a fighter, he was a blooded warrior, but in this moment, in the Sheriff's office, he was one happy Dawg, rolled over on his back for a belly rub, kicking happily and making a very puppy-like yow-wow-wow of pleasure.
I'd originally set down to write some in my journal.
There had been a few things of note I wished to record and I was all set to start my pen in the ink bottle when I heard The Bear Killer scratching and yapping for admission at my door.
"Yapping" is kind of a mild word.
When The Bear Killer wants something he can't get he does yap, yes, but that's kind of like saying a stick of dynamite goes bang.
A child's penny firecracker will go bang, too.
The difference is ... well, one is bigger than the other, and you can easily reckon which will get a man's attention the more quickly.
There is something comforting about rubbing a dog, especially when his fangs are bared, his eyes are half-slitted and his hind hoppers are kicking occasionally; today, as not infrequently happened, I grew absorbed in the task, until The Bear Killer was relaxed, groaning with pleasure, and almost asleep.
The stove's warmth reached us easily: between the warmth and the belly rub, The Bear Killer was content to lay there, paws in the air, relaxed, and I was content to tend my journal.
I looked at my pen and decided I would rather page through the journal; the matters I wished to record didn't seem all that important of a sudden.
I threw back a random number of pages and read.

He was a hard man.
I've known many like him and likely will know many more, in my course as a lawman: hired gun, regulator, detective ... whatever you want to call him, he was trouble for rent and he'd been rented.
I'd heard rumors of a mine strike over at Cripple.
Apparently rumor is strong enough to panic some folk; I'd heard regulators were being hired, and sure enough, one of them passed through here.
I knew him by reputation and by description and I figured 'twas Bluebottle I saw when he went into the Jewel ahead of me.
He'd come a distance; he'd tended his horse over to Shorty and paid him with little comment, then he came in to wet his winter dried throat.
He'd set in saddle leather long enough he was comfortable to stand for a while; I let him go on inside and get comfortable before I came in and winked at Tilly on the way by, then I sashayed casually up beside him, standing on his right, for he was a right handed man.
Mr. Baxter was just setting a beer in front of him when Daisy's girl came up beside me and laid a hand on my arm: "Hello, Handsome," she purred, "what's your pleasure?"
I patted her hand. "If I could trouble you for coffee, Sunshine," I said with a smile.

The Bear Killer groaned and pawed at me, playfully, puppy-like, and I picked up the pen and laid it in the journal. I wanted to get back to that.

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Linn Keller 4-16-13


"You want me, lawman?" Bluebottle asked, his eyes quiet, steady in the big mirror behind the bar.
"Should I?" I asked, just as quiet.
We stood slouched, one foot up on the polished brass foot rail: Regulator and lawman, both of us armed, both of us blooded, both of us paid enforcers.
"You have nothing on me," Bluebottle almost whispered.
I leaned back a little as Daisy's girl set that big heavy mug of hot steaming coffee in front of me.
I added milk, took a tentative sip.
"You know, Bluebottle," I said casually, "I have done many things in my young life. I have been shot, stabbed, run into, run over and a street evangelist tried to sa-a-a-ave my corroded soul-a."
I raised a wagging finger to the ceiling, my other hand dramatically across my breast, striking a comic pose: Bluebottle chuckled, for he apparently knew the kind.
I looked at him and grinned.
"One thing I've never done is regulator work."
"It pays," he said, frowning a little, and turned back to his beer.
I turned to my coffee, took a noisy sip.
"One other thing I've never done."
Bluebottle grunted.
"I never in my life made decent coffee. That stuff I brew would rot the gut out of a grizzly."
Bluebottle looked over the rim of his beer mug, into the mirror, and I thought his look was almost pitying.
"Now this here" -- I took a noisy slurp, dashed the clinging drops from my lip broom -- "this here is good coffee." I set the mug down. "Just the right thing for a cold day like this."
Bluebottle considered his beer, took another drink.
"You're headed for Cripple, for the mine strike."
"Do tell."
"They settled the strike, Bluebottle."
Bluebottle frowned.
"They won't need Regulators. It's all settled and everyone's back to work."
Bluebottle took a long breath, blew it out.
"I was countin' on that work."
I nodded. "Thought I'd save you a little bit anyway."
I could almost hear the gears turning between his ears: I had no reason to lie to him, Cripple was not my town, I had no dog in their fight.
He took another swallow of beer.
"I," he said slowly, "do not know what I will do, then."
"I can offer you a stake."
I saw his jaw harden.
"I don't take charity."
"I don't give charity," I said bluntly. "I'm a businessman. Consider it an investment. You helped a friend of mine back East a few years back." I looked at him in the miror. "You were an engineer in the War if I recall rightly. Your bridge still stands."
"My bridge?"
I nodded. "You laid it out on butcher's paper with a yardstick for a straight edge. You made your calculations by lamp light in a tent full of bugs, you wrote out a list of timbers you needed, how many bolts and what size, you put the local black smiths to work, the local timber cutters fired up their sawmill at your order.
"You put your back to the work when they were short handed and you stood in running water to brace a timber set while it was bolted in place."
I took another long drink of coffee, grateful for its warmth, for it was still cold out.
"You laughed when a young soldier said something about an officer actually doing the work and you told him not to say a word, you didn't want him to ruin your reputation."
Bluebottle nodded, his eyes distant.
"I'd forgotten that," he admitted.

I gave Bluebottle a stake and he glared at me.
I reminded him of his bridge and he realized he could find better work than regulating.

I read the words I'd written a year ago and more, and remembered, then I picked up the envelope, re-read the address: Colonel L. Keller, Firelands, Colorado, it read: inside, a brief note:
I built another bridge.
His name is Matthew and he is my firstborn son.
My timber and steel bridges will last for years but the bridge I build of blood will last a lifetime.

I smiled.
Married, and a son: he was building a bridge into the future.
A draft accompanied the note; he repaid the stake I gave him there in the Silver Jewel.
Beside me, the Bear Killer growled a little in his sleep, and his tail brushed slowly back and forth across the clean board floor.

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Linn Keller 4-17-13


I'd put away my journal and The Bear Killer raised his head, then laid it back down.
I heard a step on the board walk outside; The Bear Killer licked his jowls and groaned as Jacob came in.
I slid my chair back ag'in the wall, not trusting to tilt it back.
Jacob shut the door, hung his hat on the peg and regarded The Bear Killer's bulk.
"Is he usually that lazy?" Jacob asked gently, smiling a little, and I chuckled.
"No," I admitted, "he's positively energetic today. Now he might take a lazy streak here directly."
Jacob nodded and went over to the stove: he opened the fire door, examined the interior, added a couple chunks of wood and shook down the ashes.
"Sir," he said, "a man might ought tile the roof instead of keepin' those shakes."
I nodded.
"Sir, last I saw you shake down ashes I was outside yet and the sparks flew bright and thick out that chimney pipe."
I nodded again.
"I might run that pipe clear around the room and then out."
"That would help, sir." Jacob grinned at me. "I am superstitious, sir. I think it's bad luck to set the place afire."
I laughed.
I reached up and scratched my scalp some.
"How's progress on the ashlars?"
"Coming along fine, sir. They hit a vein of good stone. Instead of re-routing the mine toward the gold seam, they're cutting block and bringing it out a handy slope to the railroad spur. I'd say they have a third of the stone they'll need for Sarah's new house."
I nodded.
Jacob sat, tilting his straight back chair against the front wall.
"Might have a care," I cautioned. "This-here chair hates me."
"Is that how you scabbed up your chin, sir?"
"It is."
Jacob carefully returned his chair to four legs.
The Bear Killer rolled over to toast his belly toward the stove's warmth.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir ... Sarah ..."
I waited; Jacob's jaw run itself out some and he was thinking, rearranging what he'd been ready to say.
Jacob looked up at me again, his expression serious.
"Sir, I was watching Angela."
I nodded.
"Sir, she ... did I not ..."
Jacob took a long breath, shook his head, then grinned.
"You should have seen that ornery little Joseph this mornin'," he chuckled. "Annette was ready to switch his backside and he had his hands shoved in his pockets whistlin' like he was seven kinds of innocent!"
I laughed, for I'd seen the lad do that very thing, and generally after he'd been at his orneriest.
"Sir, do you recall when he acted up and you took him by the ankles? Carried him over to the spring and allowed as you were going to dip him right in the creek?"
I nodded, grinning, for it was a good memory, a memory of a bright morning with my grandson and both of us laughing.
"He allowed as she hadn't oughta switch him, she should get Gwampa to dip him in the creek again."
Jacob pronounced it "crick" the way I did; like most men I brought my language with me when I went West, and I'll admit I don't speak the King's English: my language is mostly dialect and colloquialisms, and Jacob picked up on much of what fell out of my mouth, which is not always a good thing.
There are times when my language is that of an educated man, when my English is high, white and cold.
Often times, though, I speak in vernacular, whether of my native Southeast Ohio or that part of the West in which I happen to be.
South of here -- down into New Mexico -- the natives congratulated me on my accent, telling me I sounded nothing like the pretenders that came through; I've always had a quick ear for a useful turn of phrase, and when the locals -- especially those down by the Mexican border -- spoke of something that sounded like "gringos" I listened close.
Come to find out, after that damned War, men went across the border and started a new life, but they -- like me -- took their past with them, including their music, their songs, and one favorite among Southern forces was "Green Grow the Violets."
These men were called "Green Grows" for the words of the song, which corrupted into "Gringo" ... but it was a term of acceptance and of affection, for these men settled and were good folk for the most part.
My eyes refocused and I returned to the here-and-now.
Jacob smiled patiently; he was used to his old man's momentary revieries.
"You spoke of Sarah."
Jacob nodded.
"Sir, I look at Angela and I see Sarah at that age."
I nodded.
"You're a father, Jacob. You saw her with a father's eyes."
"Yes, sir."
"No matter how old a little girl gets," I sighed, "she is always Daddy's little girl."
"Yes, sir."
I frowned and a memory returned; my brow was troubled, I know, and I saw that realization in Jacob's look.
"I had a dream," I said slowly. "It troubled me, Jacob.
"I've had it before and ..."
I leaned back against the wall, carefully pushing the chair back to keep it from kicking out from under me.
Still don't trust that chair.
"I don't know where I was, Jacob. Buildings ... the buildings looked ... maybe adobe? -- and it was dusty, smoky, nighttime but still some light."
Jacob waited, listening; his eyes were bright, fixed on my own.
I looked into the past, looked at a memory, unsure what to make of it.
"I had your Mother's double gun but I had my heavy loads in it.
"Sarah ..."
My mouth went dry as I remembered the taste of dust, the smell of ... it wasn't gunpowder as I knew it, but there was the rattle of musketry, apparently massed ranks firing in rippling order instead of a volley ... figures running in the dark, shouts, shots, screams, curses ... an explosion, bright, staggering me back against something metallic.
I shoved from it, toward the explosion and saw a crater.
A figure half-fell, half-dove into it, a fighter who raised a weapon, fired a burst, then threw it aside with a curse, drew a pistol: the fighter came up on his knees, fired in rapid two-shot bursts, until the weapon broke -- I remembered seeing the top half separate, slide back, another explosion and the figure was thrown violently to the side, the hat came off --
A woman?
I saw a figure come to the rim of the crater, raise a weapon.
Then something bright seared into the air, hung like a little swinging sun, burning hot and bluish-white and in that garish light I saw her face --
She drew a knife, her eyes were war-white and she screamed "COME ON!" at the figure on the rim.
I raised the double gun and gave him both barrels right in his guts.
He folded and fell backwards and I looked down and Sarah was looking at me, eyes big and frightened and she rolled a little and on the front of her shirt I could see my name -- KELLER -- and US MARINE CORPS in black letters --
I looked back across the crater and roared, "NO ONE SHOOTS MY LITTLE GIRL!" -- and it was as if I were yanked back across a chasm, across a black eternity --
I blinked and shivered and was once more sitting in my office chair, leaned back against the log wall, with my son sitting across from me listening.
My breathing was quick and I still smelled the dust and the smoke and I closed my eyes and calmed myself.
"A dream," I said at length. "Just ... a dream."
Jacob looked steadily at me.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, is your middle name Horatio?"
I frowned. "No."
Jacob nodded. "There are stranger things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio," he quoted.
I harrumphed and tasted dust.
I closed my eyes, took a long breath.
"Sarah's house. Ashlars. The stones are being steadily quarried, finished and numbered. There will remain the transport, hopefully while it's still frozen. We don't want those heavy freight wagons bogging down in thaw and in mud."
"No, sir."
"I understand the stonecutting is nearly complete."
"Yes, sir."
"Sarah's wedding is far enough ahead we should have a house for them before they tie the knot."
"Yes, sir."
"Otherwise we'll have to at least have a threshold."
"Yes, sir."
I shifted tentatively in my seat.
Thus far the chair had shown no tendency to dash me sideways to the floor, but I'd learned not to trust it, and so I moved cautiously.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, you could replace that chair."
I laughed.
"Charlie suggested a rockin' chair."
"You could try a nail keg."
"I like Charlie's idea better."
"Yes, sir."


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Linn Keller 4-17-13


Daciana put her excellent hearing to very good use.
She waited until the telegraph was silent for about a minute before rapping on Lightning's door and pushing it open.
Lightning looked up and smiled, then rose as his bride came into the telegraph office.
Lightning may not have been the most intelligent man in the world, but he learned fast: his father was not terribly affectionate with his wife in public, but was rather so in private; Lightning found very early in his marriage that his acrobatic bride cared little about public opinion, and Lightning learned at the same time that the rewards for being unashamedly affectionate were ... well, worth the trouble, we'll say, and let it go at that.
Daciana regarded her husband with that mischevious, come-hither expression that did wonderfully masculine things to his insides; she paced slowly across the oiled boards and took her husband's hands in his.
Should any have chanced a look through the grilled window opening out onto the depot's platform, they might have seen husband and wife in tight embrace, intimately sharing a moment, arms round one another: none did, however, nor were they interrupted by the metallic clatter of the telegraph sounder.
Daciana ran her hands slowly across Lightning's chest, regarding him with those startling eyes of hers, and finally she smiled and whispered, "I brought you a meal."
She could have said a longhorn steer was walking down the main street wearing bib overalls and Lightning would not have cared; she had a way of speaking, whether accent or whisper or that indefinable something that makes a woman's words endearing; it took her repeating herself for Lightning to blink and smile and thank her.
She caressed his close-shaven cheek and added, "I am going to see another man," and laughed at his alarmed look.
"Don't vorry," she whispered, "I must varn somevone. For Sarah."
She pronounced it "Zarah," and Lightning smiled.
"I vill not break his heart," she murmured, "but he must know zumdinks. Besides" -- Daciana tilted her head a little and smiled -- "I made zem pies."

Daciana waited properly at the firehouse door; she could have knocked and opened the door herself, but she was a lady, and a lady waits on a man's good pleasure, unless she wishes to do otherwise.
It was the German Irishman who opened the door; Daciana murmured her thanks as she entered, and being unfamiliar with the firehouse, asked politely vhere vhass ze kitchen table.
The German Irishman, seeing she carried a square, flat basket, wasted no time in showing her across the apparatus floor and up the two steps into the kitchen with its long table.
Daciana placed the basket on the table, then turned to the German.
"You vill marry Zondra Mae, no?" she asked, her voice low, intoxicating.
"Aye," he replied, "that I shall!"
Daciana nodded. "Gut voman she ist, ja. You find ..."
Daciana frowned, looked around.
Snatching up the cut glass sugar bowl, she opened a cupboard, found a small bowl, emptied the sugar bowl into it, then held up the cut glass at their eye level.
"Beautiful ist, ja?"
"Precious und luffly."
"If you place zis -- zo -- on der anvil, undt mit der hammer strikenzie --"
She looked up at the German Irishman.
"Zondra Mae ist luffly, ja?"
"But if zis" -- she pointed at the sugar bowl -- "if zis you strikenze mit der hammer undt it not break ... zat ist Zondra Mae." She smiled, picked up the sugar bowl and very carefully poured the coarse brown sugar back into its proper receptacle.
"Now I need zpeak mit der Velshman."
The German's eyes went to her basket and she smiled the secret smile of a naughty little sister who is keeping something from an older brother.
"Llewellyn!" the German shouted, turning his head toward an open doorway.
Daffyd Llewellyn came to the doorway, wiping his hands on a towel.
Daciana smiled and went to her square, woven basket.
Lifting the lid, she removed a towel, a pie, a wooden spacer frame, another pie, another wooden spacer frame and replaced the towel, the spacers and the lid.
Picking up the basket, she took Llewellyn's arm and steered him toward the apparatus floor. "Komm," she said quietly. "Ve talk."
Whether curiosity, telepathy or some other agency, the Irish Brigade began their trek toward the kitchen and the bounty set out on the table, all but the Welshman, who found himself steered into the vacant bay.
Daciana placed her basket on the ground and picked up Llewellyn's good right hand.
Turning it palm up, she trailed a finger across his calluses, frowned a little as she bent his fingers back very slightly: she studied his palm, nodded, then examined his left hand in the same manner.
Satisfied, she held both his hands, turned them palm down and looked the man in the eye.
"I must speak with you of Sarah," she said, almost in a whisper: her voice was barely tinted with an accent.
"Yes, I can speak like the rest of you," she smiled at his surprised look, "but it serves my purpose to be thought of as a foreigner who can't savvy the local lingo."
Llewellyn grinned and Daciana quickly added, "Did I say zat correctly?"
"Yes ma'am, you did," Llewellyn said, lowering his voice to match hers.
"Gut. Now about Sarah."
Daciana's face was suddenly grave.
"Sarah ist my friend. She not knows I here. She not know I speak of ..."
Daciana looked down, uncertainly, then back up.
"Sarah was ... badly used ... as a very young childt."
Llewellyn's eyes were steadily on hers.
"She may be ... reluctant ... to allow a man's ... touch."
Daciana's hands tightened on his.
"Even zis -- mit der handts -- if she shies like skittish horse ... ist becauss she vass hurt badly." Daciana's eyes darkened and Llewellyn knew he was seeing a deep and abiding anger through the cleft that opened in her emotions, allowing him a momentarily glimpse into her soul.
"Try not to kiss her yet. If she not want ..."
Daffyd Llewellyn brought his hands, and hers, together: very gently, very carefully, he tightened his grip.
"I thank you for telling me this," he said, his voice quiet. "I shall be ... circumspect."
Daciana nodded, sighed in what was obvious relief.
"Tank you," she whispered. "I vass afraidt ... you vould ... I was afraid you would not understandt."

Sarah straightened from tracing a word on a child's slate; standing, she closed her eyes and allowed herself a moment's memory, the memory of a man's arms around her, of his lips on hers, and for that moment she allowed herself to feed deliciously, wonderfully, naughty ... and she wished for the next moment when she might do it again.

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Linn Keller 4-18-13


It was nighttime in Firelands.
The Sheriff was dreaming.
It was the War again and he was at center of a broad line of horse cavalry, stretching to his right and to his left, to the horizon: men in uniform blue, guidons snapping in the wind, horses tossing their heads, anxious to run: behind them, another rank, and a third: he did not look beyond that.
The Sheriff -- once more the Colonel he had been -- walked his horse forward, and on his right, another rider, in a silk gown of maiden-white, with a silver headed lance socketed in her right stirrup.
The Colonel drew his saber, stood in his stirrups: with a grand, exaggerated gesture, he roared, "FORWARD, WALK!"
As one creature, the horsemen moved out, at a walk: lines straight, backs straight, steel gleaming, sabers carried correctly back against the right shoulder.
"TROOP," the Colonel called, "TROT!"
The cavalry horses began their trot, the men leaning forward a little in their saddles, their lines painfully straight over the level ground.
Ahead, a mist, and the enemy not well seen, but the enemy was there, he knew, he knew, he knew, and they were ordered to charge and engage and take the ground, and take it they would.
The Colonel waited, waited until the right moment, waited until they were across more than two-thirds of the broad field, then he raised his sabre, lowered it to point forward and bellowed, "CHAAAAARRRGGGEEEE!"
The warrior-maiden beside him lowered her lance to level, couching it under her arm, sabers up and down the line were thrust forward: of all the commands, their corn-fed mounts loved the charge best of all, and horses and riders surged forward with a will, screaming defiance, screaming from a thousand throat, screaming their attack --

Two Irishmen were dreaming, confused dreams as often happens: each dreamed himself in the arms of a woman, but a woman whose face could not be seen: each man smiled in his sleep and rolled over in his bunk, arms crossed as if holding that unknown someone.

Sarah, too, was dreaming, and she too smiled as she slept.
She was a child again, a little girl of no more than four, running through a field of columbine and grasses, laughing in the springtime morn, and a furry black pup romped along beside her, pink tongue hanging out the side of a laughing mouth.

The Colonel felt his chestnut surge beneath him and he saw the enemy begin to rise from the mist and battle-lust claimed his heart and his arm was fired with the strength of ten and he drew back the saber for the first slashing cut and the rotting skeleton stood before him, laughing, bayonet rusted on a moss draped musket and the Colonel smelled death and rot --
Esther laid a gentle hand on her trembling husband's chest, feeling his damp, feeling his clammy sweat: his face was lined and he fought to breathe, his good right arm was knotted, tense, hard as an oaken limb: at her touch, she felt the nightmare flow from him, like water running out of a sieve; his left hand thrust hard from under the covers and slapped hard on top of hers, pressing her hand against his breast bone: she felt him shiver and heard him groan, then take a long, shivering breath, and in no more than a minute, it was as if the nightmare, never was.
They slept thus, the rest of the night, Esther rolled up on her left side, her arm and hand laid over atop her husband, his hand on hers.
It was nighttime in Firelands.

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Linn Keller 4-19-13


Esther Keller held court in her inspection car.
It was not considered proper for a woman with child to be about in public, especially not proper for her to be conducting business: a lady was properly confined to her home, on light duty.
Customs change with time and with location: since time immemorial, gravid mothers have worked anyway, except those fortunate few who could afford to have their labors hired out.
Esther Keller was a lady, and a very proper lady, but she was also as hard headed and contrary as her husband, and that's saying something: many considered the Sheriff as having a corner on the market where it comes to being hard headed.
Esther arranged to have her inspection car brought to Firelands, where she boarded; she had maps of the area at her disposal, she had reports, and she had herself driven to the roundhouse, where she consulted with the most knowledgeable men under her employ.
Esther could read a map like a scholar reads a book: her husband's hand drew the map, she knew, and it was accurate, to scale and detailed enough for her purposes: two men bent over the table, following the trace of her pen's tip, which she was using as a pointer.
"Here," she said, "is the line where we had the first avalanche. Here" -- the pen hovered over another slight bend in the line -- "is the second. Fortunately we were warned of this and we were able to clear the slide without too much trouble." She smiled at the men. "Clearing that volume of snow was work, I know, but at least we did not have to re-reail several cars."
"Yes, ma'am," they murmured.
"I have a concern," she continued, "for this slope, here, and here. You see there is a rise which would split an avalanche flow. My concern is that if it splits, it concentrates the energy in a smaller area."
The men frowned, nodding.
"Ma'am," one said, "what can we do unless it lets go and slides again?"
Esther smiled.
"I propose that explosive charges be set ... here, here, here and here." She placed her pen-tip delicately on particular locations, well above the railroad track. "I want to knock it loose, make it slide when it is not terribly inconvenient for us." She looked up again. "Gentlemen, I dislike making unnecessary work, unfortunately we will have to clear the tracks whether the slide happens at our behest or whether it happens at its own whim." Her eyes hardened, but her voice remained gentle. "I do not propose to lose any more lives on the Z&W!"
One of the men looked thoughtfully at the map.
"Ma'am," he said, "I know just the man for the job."

Sarah usually drove a carriage to school: not always, but usually: she was keeping up her schoolmarm's image, and she wanted to look proper, and ladylike, and a little stuffy.
Today, though ... today she smelled the air and felt the breeze on her cheek and she opened her mouth and inhaled and she could taste the change in the weather.
Sarah climbed the fence and swung a leg over the saddle and settled herself happily atop Snowflake, smiling like a mischevious little girl that she'd a fine selection of divided skirts that looked remarkably like a mousy-grey schoolmarm's dress ... cleverly modified to become a riding-skirt if she threw a leg over the saddle.
Sarah turned Snowflake with her knees and the big Frisian mare stepped out into the morning.

The Welsh Irishman stretched and twisted his back, twisted the other way, then propped a foot up on an overturned bucket and applied the brush briskly to his boot, knocking off dust that wasn't there, adding a final burnish to his well polished hind hoof.
Satisfied, he gave a final brushing to his other boot, handed the brush to the English Irishman, who gave his a similar treatment.
Sean came muttering through the kitchen and to the apparatus floor, scratching his Irish-red hair: like his men he was freshly barbered, his cheeks free of stubble, his moustache waxed and curled.
Sean stopped and considered the English Irishman, waited until he'd finished brushing off his boots before asking quietly, "Lad, could ye pass me yon brush?" -- and he too brushed his own well polished boots with a practiced efficiency.
He set the brush back on its shelf, looked around.
"Lads," he said, "I'm hungry."
The Irish Brigade laughed and then headed for the door.
The Silver Jewel was open for business, and Daisy's Kitchen awaited their good pleasure.

Sarah timed her ride so she came abreast of the firehouse when the Irish Brigade came out the door.
The sun was just shooting its long red rays across the landscape.
Snowflake was a fine, healthy horse, shining black and rippling with red: Sarah rode erect, perfectly at home atop the great war-horse: Snowflake, for her part, paced proudly, as if knowing she was being shown off for the Irishman: her gait was cultivated, her hooves almost disdaining to touch soiled earth, springing away and curling tightly with each step, a gait taught fine coach-horses.
The Irish are justly renowned as fine horsemen; there wasn't a man among them who did not stop, and soak in the beauty of this moving poem, this red-linmned portrait of utter beauty.
Red fires rippled along Snowflake's musculature as she paced, and Sarah's light-grey gown glowed peach, and her cheeks had never held such a healthy hue.
The Welsh Irishman stopped, and sighed out a long breath, utterly captivated by the sight of his intended, this magical creature, flowing before him in the morning sunlight.

Kohl smiled a little as he looked at the thick snow lying in the little swale.
The snow was deep here, the grade was steep, it was a wonder it hadn't broken free yet.
Kohl chuckled and dug his ski poles into the snow.
He poled across the pending disaster, moved on to the next: he'd schussed down from higher up, he gave the entire area a long looking-at, he assessed the snow pack for avalanche potential, and he made his choices.
It should take no more than four of his little blasting powder booms, he knew, to knock the avalanche loose.
The passenger train was stayed until he was finished; he reached into his pack, brought out the unglazed ceramic sphere, scratched a Lucifer and applied it to the fuse.
The first boom he threw hard into the snow beside him.
Pushing off, he poled a little distance, then took a hoe handle and worked a deeper hole, wallowing it out until it was big enough for a second avalanche breaker.
He'd just thrust the second one deep into the snowpack when the first went off.
Kohl worked his way uphill, to a vantage he'd planned on, and looked down.
The first boom didn't do much.
He nodded.
It's what he expected, but he wanted to make sure: this told him how friable the snow was.
Two more explosions and the snow pack slid almost soundlessly downhill, throwing up an incredible cloud, burying the railroad track.
The oldest Kolascinski boy laughed.
He dearly loved setting off avalanche charges.

The foreman waved a red flag, signalling the engineer.
The engineer reached up and hauled down on the lanyard.
The freight locomotive's deep steam-powered howl echoed off the mountainside, alerting the work crew that the avalanche was loosed, and the work train was ready to move out.
Sand poured in a small stream ahead of steel wheels, steam surged into pistons, the engine chuffed and leaned into its load and the work train began moving.

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Linn Keller 4-20-13


Jacob stepped out his front door, Little Joseph right behind him.
Jacob clapped his Stetson on his head.
Little Joseph clapped his ear flap cap on his head and grinned.
Jacob threw his arms wide, took a deep breath.
So did his son.
Jacob beat his chest and roared.
Little Joseph pummled his own breast and let out a little-boy sized roar of his own.
Jacob turned, laughing, snatched up his son, swung him high in the air, laughing, and his little boy laughed with him.
It was sunrise, and a fine day it was.

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Linn Keller 4-21-13


The tree was tall, straight, thrusting itself toward the zenith: the Sheriff leaned against its trunk on one side; his daughter lounged with an equal indolence on the other.
Their horses grazed, saddled but not bridled: the sun beating on this wind-sheltered patch and melt-fed grass for the past few days meant it was greened up nicely.
Their breath steamed in the moonlight, but it was not terribly cold: at their feet, the world fell away, going from a level, grassy sward to a sheer drop of rock and of scree, relieved only by an occasional boulder or scrubby patch of brush and grass, then more drop, until the base of the cliff flared out and dipped its rocky toes in a fast-moving mountain creek, thickly populated with equal amounts of trout and boulders.
The Sheriff in his coat, and Sarah in her cloak, stood in companionable silence for a time, then:
"Couldn't sleep?"
Silence again, punctuated by cropping grass.
"The dreams?"
Overhead, the stars wheeled slowly, an ancient, stately dance: somewhere in the mountains, an owl hooted, its voice muffled with echoes and distance.
"Good dreams?"
The Sheriff nodded.
Silence again for a time.
The Eastern horizon cracked: they could almost hear a rippling sizzle as the yellowish-pink line seared along the rim of the world as night began to open its eye.
"Have you seen the aurora?"
"Not lately."
"I remember," Sarah began, then hesitated. "I remember hearing it."
The Sheriff nodded.
"The Esquimaux beleive the aurora are the souls of their ancestors, and if they listen hard enough, they hear their voices."
The Sheriff nodded.
Sarah laughed -- a quiet little laugh, the kind of a woman's laugh that will bring a smile unbidden to a man's heart, and thence to his lips.
"Do you remember Sergeant Mick and his men passed through yesterday?"
Sarah crossed her arms under her enveloping cloak, smiling at the memory.
"I asked the Sergeant if I might borrow his bugler.
"'My bugler?' he asked and I said 'I need to borrow his bugle but the only way I can do that is to borrow him. He's not likely to give it up, you know.'
"Sergeant Mick detailed the bugler to my good pleasure and shortly I had him in front of the class."
"What in the world was your subject?" the Sheriff asked, his mind turning over possibilities: speed of sound, sound propagation, volume, pitch, tone, rhythm ...
"The class," Sarah explained, "seems to have developed this belief that their Miss Sarah can do anything. Before they elevate me to minor deity I needed to demonstrate that there are things their dear Miss Sarah indeed cannot perform."
"I had the bugler blow a note -- an A, I believe it was -- and he did so, obligingly at low volume, for we were indoors -- then he handed me his bugle, and taking a great breath, I put the mouthpiece to my lips and blew.
"The sound," she admitted, "was kind of strangled and more wind than anything.
"I drew the mouthpiece from my lips in surprise.
"Closing one eye, I peered into the mouthpiece with the other, to the children's considerable amusement, then I turned the bugle around and looked into its depths, then I turned it upside down and smacked the back of my hand a few times -- I would not be so impolite as to smack the mouthpiece and jam it in place."
The Sheriff nodded.
He'd seen buglers profane clumsy hands that jammed mouthpieces in place, and the regimental bugler, in fact, had a small threaded device he used to winch a stuck mouthpiece free.
"I smacked my hand, then bent over a little with my eyes crossed, wagging my head back and forth as if following the descent of some nonexistent something I'd knocked free of the bugle: lower and lower I bent, until finally I straightened, lifted my skirt a little and stepped on the nonexistent whatever I'd dislodged.
"I returned the bugle with a curtsy and the bugler whirled the bugle under his arm with a fluorish, gave me a salute as if I were the Queen herself, he paced off on the left and marched down the aisle and out the door.
"I told the class that they'd just seen something their dear Miss Sarah could not do."
The shining rim of sunrise shouldered its bright arc against the distant clouds, and the Sheriff leaned forward a little to look at his daughter's face.
Sarah was looking into the distance, looking into the future: her cheeks were pink and her skin healthy and glowing in the sun's long red rays.
"Old son," a voice said in the back of his head, "you do throw good lookin' fillies!"
In truth, the Sheriff had to admit, the voice was right.
Sarah's expression was one of wonder and delight, and in the first light of the new day's dawning, she was truly beautiful.
The two stood there a while longer, then:
"The Silver Jewel will have breakfast."
"You're buying."
"For you, my dear, anything!"
The pair turned their backs on the glories in the East, whistled up their mounts, and were soon headed back toward town and breakfast.

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Linn Keller 4-21-13


The knife drove deep, drove in and didn't even quiver.
Daciana's arm came back over her shoulder: she rode relaxed, perfectly attuned to Buttercup's gait, looked at the next target: her arm flashed down, the knife spun through the air like a silver discus, and drove into that one as well.
Around the ring she rode, throwing knives into the several targets: Sarah ran from one woven-and-twisted-hay target to the next, seizing the throwing knives and yanking them out, gathering them in her palm; as Daciana came past, Sarah held them up, bundled and flat, and Daciana took them on the fly, distributing them in the little leather apron she wore for such performances.
Around the ring again and yet again, until Sarah, out of breath with running, raised a hand: laughing, she sagged to a hay-bale and watched as Daciana rode one last circuit of the ring, standing in the gaudy circus trick-rider's saddle as she had from the beginning of her little exercise.
Sarah exercised with Daciana, learning stretches and moves and tricks to keep herself limber, keep herself lithe: the daughter of a well-to-do family seldom found herself called upon to lift anything heavier than a teacup, and Sarah wished to be far more than that, and thus far in her life, most certainly had, and as Sarah learned much from Daciana, Daciana learned much from Sarah.
They fashioned earplugs from cotton batting and a half-and-half mixture of beeswax and Vaseline, elsewise Daciana could never have tolerated learning to shoot, and Sarah found shooting far more pleasant when her ears were well stoppered: Daciana learned first to shoot targets thrown into the air -- she was naturally gifted and graceful and had little difficulty with Sarah's custom engraved Colts, shooting the .22 rimfires, and hitting hand-tossed tin cans: Sarah's Marlin .22 proved as well suited in Daciana's hands, and with time and practice, each competing with the other, Sarah taught Daciana and Daciana learned from Sarah, and each would share an afternoon happily ventilating improvised aerial targets.
When both young women graduated from shooting empty sewing spools to shattering hand-tossed clay marbles, with pistol and rifle both, they realized not only were they rather good at their little game, they were enjoying themselves wonderfully, and so Daciana determined to obtain for herself a pair of pistols, and gunleather to go with them.
Sarah, for her part, tried one time and one time only to ride standing up: she wisely chose Snowflake, for the big Frisian's gait was at once smooth, and rocked the least amount underfoot: unfortunately, it was nowhere as easy as it looked, Sarah was trying this stocking-foot with a Western saddle, and she found to her chagrin that Terra Firma was every bit as firma as she remembered.
She was able to roll out of the fall as she and Daciana practiced, and that was the only reason she didn't break a few miscellaneous bones on impact, but by her own admission she was rather stove-up and sore the next morning ... for which Daciana had fragrant ointments to be rubbed into the sore places, and tea -- boneset and comfrey -- to help in the healing.
Daciana was no stranger to falls, which is one reason her riding arena was thickly covered with sawdust.
It helped.
A little.
Daciana's letter of instruction to the Colt factory was detailed and precise, and included remarkably accurate freehand drawings of the engraving she wished: she sketched the pistols in profile, and as seen from the top, and drew the engraving where she wished it placed: it would cost, yes, but she had a little help in that department, and Sarah knew of a masterful leatherworker who could not only make saddles, gunbelts and holsters, she knew one who could also custom carve the leather: Daciana again applied herself to good rag paper, listing measurements, drawing a to-scale image of her middle, with the measurements indicated by dotted lines: her wishes for the gunrig were her own and were certainly nothing Sarah would ever have chosen (or worn!) -- but when finally revolvers and gun leather both arrived, Daciana tried them on and looked at herself in front of her full length mirror, and clapped her hands with delight.
The gunrig was gaudy and showy, everything a circus performer could ever want: it was canary yellow with black-dyed floral carving, it had silver-and-torquoise accents, it flashed when she moved, and it would make a sober man's eyes bleed, but it pleased Daciana to no end.
Her pistols in like wise were heavily engraved, and the engraving inlaid with gold leaf: vines writhed along the barrels and around the cylinders, tendrils and leaves gleaming against the deep Colt blue: the ejector rod housing was gold plated, as was the grip frame: Daciana wore it out to Sarah's, wearing it against an electric-blue dress that brought out her eyes and set off the gunbelt in jarring relief.
She brought Sarah two cases of .22 ammunition as well, for the two had burned through a scandalous number of hulls in their practice, and she fully intended that they should do so again.
And they did.

The only misapprehension expressed in the Rosenthal household was when Bonnie murmured, "Levi, dearest?" and Levi looked up from the week-old newspaper.
"I ... oh, it's probably nothing," she said with a wave of her hand.
Levi folded the paper, set it aside, giving his bride his undivided attention.
"What is it, my dear?" he asked quietly.
Bonnie laughed, shaking her head.
"I expect I should have ... I should have expected something of the kind."
"You should have expected ... what, my dear?"
"Oh, Sarah. She has a new hobby."
Levi raised an eyebrow.
"And it is ...?"
Bonnie sighed.
"I just watched Sarah riding Snowflake along the fenceline."
Levi nodded sagely, considering that this didn't seem terribly unusual.
"She seemed to be throwing something at the passing fence posts.
"Levi ..." Bonnie laughed again, and sighed.
"I wonder if she will ever be a proper lady, what with throwing knives at passing fence posts. Whatever would the Ladies' Tea Society think?"

As for Sarah, she admired the skill with which Daciana could ride, standing in the saddle, throwing at a three foot wide circle of twisted, braided hay.
For her part she rode astride, throwing at cedar fence posts as big across as her thigh, and sticking with a monotonous regularity.

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