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Linn Keller 4-23-13


His Honor the Judge woke in the darkness.
Something ... something wasn't right ... he felt it or smelt it or perhaps the hair on the back of his neck stirred as if tickled with a feather ... but something wasn't right.
His Honor was rolled up on his side, as he usually slept; his arthritic back could not stand lying flat and so he had a triple tick under him, otherwise his hip pained him, for there was not much meat on his bones these days, and not much padding inside the hip joint itself.
His left hand was relaxed; slowly, cautiously, he straightened his fingers, began a careful slide under his pillow, for the pistol he kept there --
"I wouldn't," a voice warned.
Judge Hostetler came to full wakefulness, his eyes snapping open in the dark, only to squint painfully shut as a match flared into sizzling life.
Sarah replaced the globe on the kerosene lamp, adjusted the wick down, waiting politely for His Honor to decide whether to decamp the warmth of his bed for the chill of the private car.
"You could get shot doing that, you know," he said quietly.
"I was nearly shot the way it was," came the low voiced reply: he saw her lay two rectangular plates on the side-table.
"Are those --"
"Yes," she replied, and picked up a wooden box the size of a pistol case.
"You may find this interesting as well."
His Honor decided the chill air was more than a bargain, if she'd brought him what he thought she'd just brought him.
"Careful," she warned him. "Pick them up by the edges only, if you please. They are evidence."
His Honor drew his hands back from the engraving plates: he reached instead for his spectacles, hooked the wire ear-pieces in place, frowning at the plates without touching them.
"Magnifying glass," he said, extending his hand.
Sarah placed the black wooden handle of the man's six-inch lens in his outstretched palm with the precision of an operating room nurse.
His Honor the Judge examined the counterfeiter's plate closely, turning it a little but not picking it up: he examined the second with an equal care.
He looked up at Sarah, sitting a little away from the lamp, her form shadowed; she used the irregular lines behind her to break her outline, further camouflaging herself.
"Does he know?"
"Barnes?" Sarah said, her voice dull. "Yes, he knows, and he's already put the word out. Scour the countryside. Ask every rider. Bribe, beat or bully whoever you have to, but find the boy on that big black horse!"
Judge Hostetler carefully placed the lens on the chair and looked at Sarah, his face grave.
"Is that all he said?"
The Judge's voice held a concern that Sarah had heard before; she was touched that the greying jurist's lined face was almost fatherly as he looked at her.
"No." Sarah shifted a little. "I had four white stockings on Snowflake and a whitewashed patch on her off hip.
"I know a few tricks about riding hard ground, but they did too.
"I also knew there was a flatcar on the passenger train.
"Snowflake and I practiced a running jump onto a moving train before, but never in the dark.
"I thought that if I had to, we could run up the little incline I knew of, onto the flatcar and off the other side, for the rails run through a little cut, no more than six feet deep."
"Andy's Canyon."
"The same," Sarah nodded, and the Judge recalled the little notch in the ground through which the rails ran; he'd heard the Sheriff practiced riding his copper mare onto a flatcar at that location, where the train was slow on an up grade, but he never imagined Sarah would try anything so reckless.
Especially in the dark.
"Once we were on the car I knew we were exposed.
"I also knew the quilts I left there would be waiting on me, and I was right.
"I threw them over Snowflake and washed the whitewash off her legs, then off her hip. We passed through into town without difficulty and dismounted the flatcar halfway to Cripple Creek."
The Judge considered this, then looked over at the clock: it was a naval clock, more at home on a gunship than in a railcar, but it suited him, for it reminded him of an old and dear friend, long dead now, sleeping forever in the wheelhouse of a sunken Yankee cruiser sixty feet below the North Carolina's saltwater breakers.
"You said something about nearly being shot," the Judge said slowly, "and of riders and hard ground."
Sarah took off her hat, scaled it across the room.
Judge Hostetler caught it, turned it, ran a finger through the long, half-inch groove cut in the black-felt crown.
"I lay wait for the tail end rider. I ran out in front of his horse and startled it and they both went over backwards.
"I had the truth out of the fellow and then left him senseless under the stars."
"You didn't kill him?"
"He wasn't trying to kill me." Sarah hesitated. "Actually he did try but I did not want him dead.
"Once I booted him twice in the gut and drove the pommel of my knife hard against his kidneys he went down breathless.
"I let him recover enough to gasp out his answers and held my blade's edge to his throat and I asked him some questions.
"He'll have a few shaving nicks across his Adam's apple, but no, he's not dead, and yes I can husky down my voice so I don't sound like a girl."
He looked up at Sarah, his eyes somewhere between stern and sad.
"My dear," he said carefully, "I prefer a universe with you in it!"
Sarah laughed, her teeth bright: "As do I, Your Honor. And now you may wish to examine the box before you."
His Honor felt the catch, turned it, raised the lid.
"May I present the finest set of coin stamping dies this side of the San Francisco Mint. Please note the presence of some half dozen coins. These are all of his manufacture."
The Judge nodded.
"You have drawn the viper's teeth," he said thoughtfully, "but how do we capture the viper without exposing you?"
"Simple," Sarah said. "We bring the viper to us."

Ernst Barnes, counterfeiter: a man known for the care he took in making his bills, stamping his coins, sometimes of gold but most often of an amalgam of his own making -- an amalgam that took on the appearance of gold, at least at first, until handling wore through the thin veneer and showed it for what it was -- fake -- but not until the maker had distanced himself from the fraudulent currency with multiple anonymous and untraceable transactions.
As far as paper money, it was as good as the US Treasury's bills, but fake currency was not at all unknown, and much of it was of far lower quality than Barnes' work.
For his part, Barnes was tired of being a small fish in a big pond, and wished to be richer -- far richer -- than he'd ever been. Greed will do that to a man, green and opportunity, and so he began printing and stamping and eventually came to the attention of those persons he wished most sincerely to avoid.
He'd expected Pinkertons, he'd expected Macneil, he'd expected ... well, that's really not important, because it was not a man grown who threw a railroad spike into the working gears of his money machine.
It was a slender, active boy, or a small man, lithe and quick and utterly silent, wearing a black kerchief across his face, a black hat pulled low, and it was only by sheer chance that Barnes saw this figure swing onto a huge black horse with white stockings and a white blaze on its hip and ride slowly, casually away, that his suspicions were roused.
He went to the secret room and found a small wooden plaque hanging from the handle of the safe ... his safe, the one with the door hanging wide open and his plates and his precious coin stamps, gone.
He snatched up the hand painted shingle, then snarled and flung it across the room, then ran to the wall, slid open a hidden panel and pulled out a long-barrel, single-shot rifle.
Running to the door, he threw the rifle to shoulder and drove a thumb sized slug at the retreating rider.
At the rifle's report, the rider leaned over the horse and their departure was considerably more hurried than their casual walk of but moments before.

He came back into the room, shaking, and swore as he stepped barefoot on the now-broken shingle.
He picked it up and looked at it again, his lips snarling in the faint light.
Painted in red letters, the legend, OUT OF BUSINESS.

Sarah explained Snowflake's disguise; knowing full well her big Frisian would be impossible to hide, her plan was to have Snowflake on parade and on display at every opportunity ... minus the telltale whitewash, of course.
"I have been taking great care," Sarah continued, "to appear in public dressed as a lady. I do ride Snowflake, but in a divided skirt. I have not been seen in trousers in some long time and never in black for longer. I have presented the face of a proper young lady of fashion and genteel upbringing."
"Except for driving your knife into that fellow's eye," the Judge muttered.
"And out the back of his head," Sarah added innocently. "It was most instructive."
"Yes, yes," the Judge shook his head, "but hardly the work of a lady!"
Sarah laughed.
"I was also wearing black, and trousers, it was nighttime, and he did pull a gun on me!"
"And if there hadn't been a witness to support your claim --"
"Your eyes are as good as mine in the dark," Sarah said, "and you could hardly refute the evidence of your own eyewitness testimony."
Judge Hostetler glared at Sarah.
"And it did stop a murderer from killing another bank teller."
"Yes," the Judge agreed. "I cannot argue that fact." He looked sharply at Sarah. "See here, young lady, just how do you propose to keep from being assassinated? If the man is making his own money, very likely he has plenty to pay off whoever he has to. I know his temper. He will not rest until he has found and filleted this insulting thief."
Sarah chuckled.
"Your Honor," she said, "the best place to hide something from a man, is in plain sight. I shall not hide, nor shall I cower nor run. I shall be Miss Sarah, the schoolteacher, riding her great black mare that is more pet than mount."
"Until it comes time to turn her on someone," the Judge countered. "I've been watching your practice. You are turning that horse into a weapon, my dear Agent!"
"I am sharpening a tool," Sarah explained, "just as I practice throwing knives at fence posts as I ride along our fence line, just as I practice hitting hand thrown marbles with rifle and pistol, and just as Jacob and I spar with wooden knives."
"How," the Judge said slowly, shaking his neatly barbered head, "can someone so absolutely beautiful, be so utterly deadly?"
Sarah's face was not smiling now, and neither was her voice.
"If this were still the War, Your Honor," Sarah said, her voice barely above a whisper, "you would not ask that question."

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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 4-24-13


Judge Hostetler told me about the counterfeit raid the next day.
Apparently His Honor was having an attack of conscience about having recruited Sarah.
Maybe he was concerned he'd made a monster.
He did seem inclined favorably to taking a touch with me, and the distinguished old jurist was not at all reluctant to occupy the chair across from my desk for some little time.
He looked up at me with a tired expression.
"How did she learn how to crack a safe?" he asked at length, his words slow, thoughtful, as if asking a deep secret of himself.
I leaned cautiously back in my chair, considering my reply carefully.
"You should know, Your Honor."
"Yes, sir."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Yes, sir."
"How ... no, no, no ... it's not possible."
"Oh but it is, Your Honor. It is."
"How?" His voice was tight, rough. "There are so many safes --"
"And there is only one Wilfred Palmer."
The Judge was rubbing his face, at least until he heard the name.
"Yes, sir."
"Palmer the cracksman."
"Yes, sir."
"Palmer the Ghost."
"The same."
"Palmer, who could walk through walls, raid a bank vault and leave no trace of his ever being there ... only an empty vault."
"That's the man."
"He's dead."
"Over a year now."
"But ... Sarah?"
"Do you remember her telling you how she was chained to a chair and left by her classmates?"
The Judge looked at me for a few long moments before nodding.
"It wasn't the first time she was chained."
"There was a certain detective."
"He arranged to have her locked in a cell with him."
"You seem to be repeating yourself, Your Honor."
"Wait," the Judge interjected, waving his hands in front of him and squinting his eyes: "wait, wait, wait!"
"Wilfie Palmer was dying and he knew it," I said quietly. "Sarah was in irons and in a cell with him.
"You know ..."
I hesitated, smiling a little.
"You know how she can use those eyes."
The Judge glared at me.
"She told him her neck was about to be stretched, once they found out who she was and what she'd done, and she really wished to get out of there.
"Wilfie said he would need a good pair of picklocks and a pry to get them out of the cell.
"Sarah slid two fingers down her collar and came out with a key.
"Wilfie was kind of skeptical and wanted to know where she got it.
"Sarah reached up a sleeve and withdrew Wilfie's watch, dangled it in front of her, smiling a little, her hands cuffed and those eyes, those lovely eyes working their magic.
"Well, they got out. Had to cold cock a Sergeant to do it. Sarah knew there was only one policeman between themselves and freedom so she put Wilfie beside the door with a ceramic vase in his hands and she screamed."
"She screamed 'Oh God! Murder! My husband is murdered!' and the policeman of course came running in."
"And he ran into the vase, I suppose."
"Something like that."
"They escaped."
"They escaped."
"And ...?"
"Sarah got them into the back door of a mercantile.
"Wilfie was wearing prison rags, of course, and she was dressed like ... well, like someone trying to look elegant and not quite succeeding.
"She rifled the merchandise until she came up with a suit of clothes for him, and he went for the safe for traveling-money for them.
"Sarah watched as he cracked the safe and she whispered she wished she could do that, and that's how it started."
"But ... Wilfie ... Palmer ... how did Sarah get out of her irons?"
"The same way good old Wilfie got out of his, he picked the locks."
"Picked the locks."
"With the picklocks Sarah had in her stocking-top."
His Honor the Judge scrubbed his face with his hands, then shook his head.
"No," he muttered, shaking his head, "no, no ... no, no, no!"
"Oh, yes," I replied.
"And just how did she explain her carrying such things about her person?"
"She explained it." I shrugged. "Damned if I know how."
"And so ... Sarah ... sweet little Sarah with the angel's voice and the beautiful face ..."
"It gets worse."
The Judge sagged in his seat.
"Since old Wilfie went to that great safe house in the sky, Sarah burgled her way into the Firelands bank's vault."
It wasn't often the Judge was nonplussed, but this time he surely was: his jaw hung slack, his eyes were huge, round, his head was thrust forward, the very image of a man teetering on the brink of belief.
"You'll remember, Your Honor," I intoned, "Sarah disappeared for about a month."
"Yes, I remember," he nodded.
"She was learning from the old cracksman, learning his secrets, the tricks, the slights, learning how absurdly simple most locks really are
"Including," I admitted not entirely happily, "our own bank's."
The Judge groaned.
"It gets better."
The Judge just looked at me.
"You know how boys are," I said. "Inquisitive. Nosy. Ornery."
The Judge made no reply.
"Two of them slipped into the back of the bank and one locked the other in the vault.
"Beatrice sent a runner for me and Sarah came running along behind me.
"I got the story from Beatrice and calmed the mother and told her I knew who to wire to get a safecracker here pronto.
"Sarah came out from behind the counter with two very chastened little boys in tow and suggested innocently that they behave themselves, that it was too easy to get their fingers mashed in an iron door.
"Nobody there really knew what happened.
"Hell, I didn't know what happened, not until after, when Sarah admitted it to me."
"Oh dear Lord," the Judge murmured, his face a shade more pale.
"I sat her down and we had a good heart to heart talk and that's when she told me about dear old Wilfie, that's when she told me how she set it up with the detective and paid off the sergeant to allow her to put a lump on his head, how she swindled that old swindler and got him to succumb to the charms of a pretty girl.
"Wilfie had no heirs and who knows. Maybe he wanted to pass along his skills to someone, why not to a good looking lass with a criminal bent?"
The Judge thrust to his feet and paced left, turned, paced right, stopped.
"Sheriff," he said, "you do realize she just burgled her way into the most famous counterfeiter's very home, she found and opened not only his secret room but his safe, she took his plates and coin stamps and she got away."
"I know that, Your Honor. I helped set it up."
"You what? Why wasn't I told about this?"
I smiled. "It wasn't your operation, Your Honor. We saw the opportunity and she took the chance."
His Honor the Judge looked at me as if I were masticating a raw sheep head or something.
"Your milk of human kindness ran dry some time ago," he said coldly.
"No, sir," I said quietly. "I had to help her or she would have gone in on her own."
The Judge took a long breath, sighed it out, shaking his head.
"You know what this means."
"She's just stirred up a hornet's nest."
"If a hornet should come through the door," I said quietly, stiffening and easing my hand down to my side, "just keep quiet and hold still."

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Linn Keller 4-25-13


Jacob came into town a little after twelve noon.
"You were right, sir," he said quietly as he wrapped Apple-horse's reins around the hitch rail.
I nodded, eyes busy, looking up the street, back along his back trail.
"He cleared out that night. Nothing of any account left. He even fired the house after he pulled his freight and loaded his goods."
"Typical," I grunted. "What are you hearing?"
"He's offering an unholy reward for the boy or young fellow who burgled his house. He's not saying why, but he did say if the thief is found with anything unusual in his possession, the reward would be doubled."
I grunted. It wasn't even a half-chuckle.
"Reward." I snorted again. "He's got nothing but counterfeit and now that we know how to spot it ..." I shook my head. "But there will be those idiots who hear a figure and run bayin' after the money like a coon dog on a hot track."
"Yes, sir."
I sighed.
"Spread the word," I said quietly. "Everyone with a black horse is to ride it. I want so many black horses hereabouts that they'll have to light a torch at twelve noon just to see for all the black around."
"Yes, sir."

One thing about the Secret Service.
When you send them a wire and say anything at all about counterfeit, they waste no time getting into town.
His Honor the Judge passed the plates and coin stamps on to me, along with all the fake bills and coin Sarah purloined; I kept one bill and two coins -- I needed examples for comparison -- and didn't tell these unsmiling fellows in their well-fitted suits.
They were most pleased when I presented them with the plates, and told them the name of their former owner; they did not ask how I got them, nor did they seem to think that "how" was particularly important.
They were disappointed, I think, that there was no warm (or cooling) body attached to these items, but that was about all.
I was able to give them a good physical description for Barnes; I told them his house had been emptied and fired before daylight, and it was anyone's guess which way he went, how far, or how fast.
I offered the pair a meal at the Jewel, but they were intent on getting the goods back to wherever they'd come from, so I bade them an uneventful journey and slouched against the porch post after they left.
I tend to slouch when I think, either that or pace, or ride: at the moment I had a sunny spot, there wasn't much wind, and I slouched.

Sarah opened the note, her face carefully impassive.
I wish to see you, she read, at the usual time: it was signed, H.
Sarah called on the Judge at the appointed hour; instead of black and trousers, she wore a canary-yellow gown with white lacy trim, a matching hat and parasol, a cheerful outfit fairly shouting for Nature to bring on the relief of Spring after a long and chilly winter.
Sarah parked her parasol and accepted tea, and settled herself into a chair near the dignified old jurist.
Judge Hostetler glared over his glasses.
Sarah regarded him with wide and innocent eyes.
"This is not," the Judge began, "an easy moment for me."
Sarah smiled, then leaned forward and handed the Judge a finger-thick packet, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.
"What's this?" he asked.
"Open it," Sarah smiled. "You will find your political fortunes have improved."
The Judge frowned, looked at Sarah, then down at the bundle.
"There are more waiting for you at the telegraph office."
"More what?"
The Judge unfolded the paper, picked up a stack of flimsies, read one, then another, a third ... he skimmed through the rest ... his eyebrow rose to a truly amazing degree as he took in names of men of influence, offices of importance as the points of origin, words of congratulation at his achievement ... he hesitated at one particular telegram, looked up at Sarah.
"Do you know where this one is from?" he whispered.
"I have not read them, Your Honor," Sarah said: butter would not have melted in her mouth and she managed to look like the prim and proper young lady she was portraying.
"There are more, you say?"
"Yes, sir. I believe an equal amount."
The Judge carefully re-folded the brown paper envelope and placed it on a side table.
Folding his hands across one knee, he said, "My dear Agent, I find myself in an awkward position."
Sarah waited, which made his discomfort even greater.
"I ... have ... a guilty conscience," the Judge continued, unable to meet her eyes. "I fear I have ... it isn't proper for a lovely young lady --"
"Your Honor?" Sarah asked quietly.
The Judge looked guiltily at her.
"Your Honor, you are ... concerned ... that you have created a monster, that I am becoming less than a cultured young lady my mother would wish. You are fearful that I am becoming some kind of avenging angel, a wild card flung from the deck of God Almighty, sailing across the countryside to bring revenge on evildoers, and quite probably result in my own death or disgrace."
His Honor considered this.
"Yes," he agreed. "That ... is about it."
Sarah nodded, her smile fading.
"Your Honor, I understand you tread a delicate path." Sarah hesitated. "You know of ranch hands who were sent to perform a task, and upon their return, their employer would ask if they had completed the assignment."
Judge Hostetler nodded, slowly.
"And you know of those same ranch hands who replied quietly that yes, they had, and now they would ask for their time, they would draw their pay and move on."
Again the slow, considering nod.
"Your Honor, you are somewhere between insult and offense and you know it, and yet your honest concern will not let you remain silent. I understand this, but please understand me." Sarah shifted in her seat, frowning a little.
"If you do not trust me then the simplest means to draw the viper's teeth is to withdraw my agency. Without the sanction of the Court, I would be ... powerless.
"My father will not commission me a deputy Sheriff. He does not want that life for his little girl and I don't blame him. I would not want it for my daughter. Or my son, for that matter." Sarah paused, gathering her thoughts. "On the other hand, please remember that you yourself sent me out after my father's murderer.
"You believed my father was dead, and you gave it to me, to apprehend and return his guilty murderer.
"I did so, Your Honor.
"I did it with my heart made of lead, for I knew as surely as the sun rises in the East that my father was dead, gone, laid out on Digger's slab and ready for the ornate box in his cellar.
"I wanted nothing so much as avenging myself upon his killer."
Sarah's voice was quiet, but there was a strength in it the Judge had never heard before.
"I brought him in, Your Honor. Alive, if you remember.
"Now if I have violated your trust, you are most free to relieve me, sir, but if I have not violated that trust, please consider that this action I undertook, on your behalf, has just given you a wonderful status among those powers that be, that make it ... worthwhile."
"I thought you said you hadn't read them."
"I didn't," Sarah smiled. "Lightning talks to himself as he's writing them down."
"So you listened."
Sarah smiled.
"Your Honor, your stature is increased from here to Washington. I daresay your pay will see an increase as well. Your political aspirations at this point are not far from limitless, simply from the audacity, the swiftness and the efficiency by which you stopped a known counterfeiter in your district, cold and absolutely.
"And I remind Your Honor, with due respect of course, that you yourself expressed a wish that you could do exactly that.
"All I did was act on your wish."
The Judge pursed his lips and frowned at the carpet: Sarah's tea sat cooling and forgotten beside her elbow, on the little round table.
Finally the Judge nodded and stood, as did Sarah.
The Judge took a step toward the lovely young lady in fashionable canary, and Sarah took a step toward the Judge, and took both his hands in hers.
"My dear," the Judge frowned, "you have a greater flexibility as an agente confidencial than would any deputy Sheriff. Only a Macneil would have as much, and I understand he is going back into the business."
"Yes, Your Honor."
The Judge swallowed hard and looked away, then looked back.
"I will ... ask but one thing of you, my dear."
"Yes, Your Honor?"
The Judge drew her hands up to his breast and looked long into her pale blue eyes, not at all surprised that she looked steadily and unflinchingly right back at him.
"My dear," he whispered, "let Macneil take over such details. If the word of a grey haired old man means anything, please ... become a beautiful bride, a lovely young mother, leave this life of adventure to someone else."
His Honor took a long breath, let it out slowly, his eyes closed, then he opened them again.
"I prefer a universe with Miss Sarah Lynne McKenna in it, and I wish most sincerely that neither death nor injury visit themselves upon you."
Sarah's hands tightened on his.
"And I will ask one thing of you in turn."
His Honor nodded, once.
"Your Honor, I would ask but one thing and I ask this in all sincerity. If it is in the least bit in your power to grant this, I ask but one boon, and from my very soul."
Her voice was a whisper; her lips traced the words delicately onto the quiet air of the private car, her eyes never leaving his.
"Promise me a dance on my wedding day."

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Charlie MacNeil 4-25-13


The prairie telegraph moves in mysterious ways, its news to spread far and wide. A house had been burned, its owner vanishing in the night like mist on a sunny day. The former inhabitant of said charcoal pyre was wanted by the forces of good, in recompense for the evil the man had done, the injustice to small merchants and farmers, citizens of limited means, as such a practice as counterfeiting is wont to do. The news came to the ranch in the hollow by way of a traveling cowhand headed for Texas to escape from what he had dubbed "this damn never-endin' winter. I'm tired of bein' up to my hiney in cold white stuff!" The traveling cowhand had heard of the malefactor in a saloon in beautiful downtown Cripple Creek, and so on and on.

Charlie wiped the sheen of salty moisture from his face with a towel that had long since lost all ability to absorb anything further as he listened to the grizzled gent who had shown up at their barn door. "So this Barnes is on the run, eh?" he asked, puffing as his breathing slowed. He had been in the process of decreasing the blubber quotient on his soon-to-be miscreant-chasing carcass when the strange horse had darkened the barn's threshold. "That fella in Cripple didn't happen to mention a direction, did he?"

The cowhand, who had introduced himself as Barlow, grinned a gap-toothed grin. "Nope, as a matter of fact he didn't. But he did mention that Mister Barnes is a city slicker, so I kinda doubt that he's headed for the high country, ya know?" He looked Charlie up and down for a moment, taking in the ex-Marshal's sweat-soaked long handle underwear where it hung limp from his shoulders and the wet streaks around the waistband of his britches. "If you don't mind my askin', what exactly are you up to, mister? No offense."

"I'm Charlie MacNeil, Barlow, and no offense taken." He didn't miss the speculative glance Barlow threw his way. "I imagine I must be a sight. Let me just say that I'm starting a new job, and I felt that it would behoove me to be a little lighter on my feet than what I've become this winter." He grinned as he patted his just recently reduced-in-size waistline. "My wife's a good cook. Which you're gonna find out here shortly. Supper should be about ready."

"Now that sounds mighty fine, mister," Barlow replied with a grin of his own. "Is it alright if I unsaddle this nag and find him some grub of his own? He's come a fur piece and got a fur piece yet to go."

"By all means!" Charlie answered as he picked up his shirt and shrugged into the sleeves. "Put him in that stall yonder," he pointed with his chin. "If you open the back door, he can get out to fresh water. When you're done, we'll go get some coffee."

"Gracias!" Barlow led his bay to the indicated stall and its manger full of sweet smelling meadow hay. It was the work of just a couple of minutes for saddle and tack to be unbuckled, unslung and hung up. Barlow propped the outside stall door open then ducked through the poles that fronted the stall to join Charlie. "Lead on, partner!"

Charlie did indeed "lead on". The two men followed the scent of roasting meat to the mud room off the kitchen, where they hung up coats and hats and washed hands and face in handfuls of cold water then dried on the roller towel. They stepped into the steamy, fragrant kitchen.

"Darlin', this gent's name is Barlow, and he's headed for Texas," Charlie said by way of introduction as Fannie turned gracefully toward the closing mudroom door. "Oh yeah, and he's stayin' for supper. Barlow, my wife Fannie."

Barlow looked like somebody had whacked him between the eyes with a singletree as Fannie stepped toward him with her hand out. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mister Barlow," she said, her Carolina drawl pronounced as she smiled at the dazed look in their guest's eyes.

Barlow looked over at Charlie. "You're that there Marshal, ain't ya?" the cowboy blurted. He turned to stare at Fannie. "An' yer the lady that whooped up on that Mexican bandit a few years back!"

"Well, that was a few years ago, and I didn't do it by myself. I did have help," Fannie admitted with a smile. She pointed her spoon at Charlie. "From him, as a matter of fact."

"An' somewheres around here, there's a big black devil Dawg that eats horses for supper!"

With a grin, Charlie pursed his lips and whistled shrilly. He was answered with a grumbling "Woof!" from another room and the scritch of toe nails on sanded pine lumber. Dawg appeared from the couple's bedroom, stopping in the doorway to stretch and yawn, pink tongue curling over white canines for a moment before the pony-sized Dawg proceeded into the kitchen. Barlow stared, open-mouthed, as Dawg strolled nonchalantly across the kitchen toward him. Barlow pointed with a trembling finger.

"That's, uh, that's him!"

"I reckon," Charlie drawled. "Dawg, introduce yourself. Where's your manners?" Dawg slung a decidedly dirty look in Charlie's direction before stepping up in front of Barlow, dropping his hindquarters to the floor and lifting his right forepaw. Barlow looked at Charlie.

"What do I..."

"Shake hands! What else?" Charlie replied. "Barlow, Dawg. Dawg, Barlow." The cowboy gingerly "shook hands" with Dawg, who then stood, turned and strolled toward the dishpan set on the floor next to the stove and snuffled out the contents before settling in to eat the meat and biscuits Fannie had put there. Barlow looked back at Charlie. Before he could speak, Charlie said, "We're just regular folks, Barlow. Nothin' special. Ready for some coffee?" He pulled out a chair. "Have a set, and I'll get us some. Canned cow, or black?"

Barlow dropped into the proffered chair as Charlie and Fannie exchanged amused glances. "Er, uh, black, please," he answered politely, looking back and forth from Charlie to Fannie. Charlie poured two heavy porcelain mugs full of dark, aromatic Arbuckles and set one in front of the cowboy.

"Mister Barlow, you can stop looking at us like we have two heads," Fannie said after a moment. "As my husband said, we're just regular folks. Unless you've got something to hide, that is." She smiled warmly, the smile turning ice cold as she asked suddenly, sharply, "You don't have anything to hide, do you Mister Barlow?"

Barlow stared at her, mesmerized, before he stammered, "N-n-no, Ma'am! I'm just Texas cowhand wantin' ta git outta this here snow, Ma'am. That's all, honest!"

"Then you have nothing to worry about." Fannie's tone warmed. "Supper will be ready in a minute."

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Linn Keller 4-26-13


My black Outlaw horse was feelin' good that frosty mornin' and so was I.
A good thing that was.
I rode a big circle, intentionally skylining myself, showing myself to the most territory, coming back three times to the same spring.
Sure enough, two riders were waiting on me on my third return.
I was wearing an old coat and I wasn't wearin' my suit, I had an old saddle on my black Outlaw and the six point star was in my pocket.
I opened my coat as I come into view, slid it off my arms and let it fall across my blanket roll behind me. The tabs were off my hammers, I had six beans in the wheels and my blood was up and if this pair wanted something more than just howdy I was all set to give it to 'em.
I drew up and looked square at the pair.
Now they might have figured they would intimidate me but they never met me and I had my hat down low so they could not see my pale eyes too well and when the first one demaned, "Mister, where did you get that horse?" my response was a quiet, "Are you callin' me a horse thief?"
"Let's see your bill of sale," the other growled, his hand moving smoothly for his hogleg.
I cleared leather two handed and my Colts snarled back to full cock.
Now a Colt revolver coming to full stand is a symphony in steel; there is a most pleasing clickity-clickity-click-clack-click! as all the parts chuckle to one another, whispering their metallic promise of precision.
Apparently two .44-caliber barrels looking at them, that quick, gave them something of a pause.
I raised my head so they could see my eyes.
"You are lookin' for a black horse with four white stockings and a white blaze on its hip," I said, and I saw their eyes change, and I knew I'd just hit one nail square on its flattened-out head.
"You are looking on behalf of a counterfeiter. The man is under arrest and in Federal custody right now. He'll spend most of his remaining years in irons and behind bars and probably both. The only money he has is fake. Was you able to find horse and rider, and by the way I don't look like the rider, you would never be paid. Prisoners don't pay reward money."
"Now bull feathers, mister!" the one shouted, reddening and clearly unhappy -- he didn't say bull feathers, but you get the idea -- "we come all this way and we're gonna find that damned horse!"
"You might," I said agreeably. "And you might find an early grave. Whoever took those counterfeiter's plates was workin' for the Pinkertons, I'm thinkin'. Only a damned Pink would be slick enough to get in and get into a safe and get plates and coin stamps and get out and not get caught."
"Pinkerton," the other murmured: he hadn't said a thing just yet and he was clearly not happy with the way things turned.
The first one wanted to draw.
He wanted to drag iron on me so bad he could taste it.
I looked him square in the eye.
"If you want me so bad," I said, "why don't you try me?"
"Now by God! if you didn't have the drop on me I would!"
"Maybe I want you alive. Unbuckle and drop."
"You go to hell!" he snapped and I saw his eyes change and Outlaw-horse threw his head to the right and I triggered my left hand Colt just as his gun barrel cleared leather.
His partner turned white to his lips and watched as a little black hole appeared between the bigmouth's second and third shirt buttons: he flopped once and fell bonelessly to the ground and groaned once before he died.
The other fellow raised his hands slowly, wide, looked at me and swallowed, his stubbled Adam's-apple bobbing about a foot up-and-down when he did.
I holstered my right hand Colt.
"You just keep 'em up there, mister," I said quietly, punching out the fired round and feeding in a fresh: easing the hammer nose down between two rims, I holstered my left and looked long at the pale gent on the shaggy bay.
"I'm gonna let you live," I said quietly. "I need you to be able to talk."
I pulled the badge out of my pocket, held it up.
"Keller," I said. "Sheriff. Firelands County. That counterfeiter was set up in my county and now he's gone and good riddance. If it was a damned Pink that slid in and got his goods, well, I had no hand in that.
"Now you go on your way, mister, but remember this.
"You got sent on a fool's errand. There is no hope in hell of you ever findin' a Pinkerton horse, likely it's back in Virginia by now. You'll never catch that skinny little fellow with a magician's fingers that slipped locks and cracked a safe and made it look easy. He's probably on a steamboat back to England unless the Pinks are using him again. Chicago, most likely.
"Even if you found the detective and the horse both, you'd never get paid, and if anyone tried to pay you it would be in phony money any bank can spot." I walked my horse up to him, reached into my vest pocket.
"Here. Take a close look at this."
The man's hand was trembling a little as he reached for the coin I held.
I let my pale eyes bore into his; I tilted my hat brim back some so he could get a good look.
Sarah wasn't the only one who knew how to use pale eyes to advantage.
"See the coin, here, along the edge. See where it's worn? -- it's not gold."
He frowned, then bit on the coin.
His teeth left no mark.
He looked at the coin again, turned it over, handed it back.
"Now you go back to where you came from," I said. "Go on back and live a long and healthy life. There is nothin' here for you but a potter's grave. The county will plant this other fellow. Would you know his next of kin?"
"No," came the reply, with a slow shake of the head, and I saw no guile in the younger man's eyes.
I walked Outlaw back a few steps.
"By the way, son," I said, "there's an awful lot of black horses hereabouts. Damn near everyone has two or three. There was some talk of changin' the name, too." I smiled thinly. "Black Horse County."
My eyes hardened as did my voice.
"Now head on back to where you come from and don't be comin' back!"

Little Joseph had an attention span about as long as his nose.
Jacob smiled a little at the lad's efforts; they were cleaning stalls and Little Joseph was making more mess than he was actually cleaning up, but he was trying, and Jacob knew everyone had to learn sometime.
They finished the task and Jacob picked up Joseph and set him on the edge of a stall, up at eye level, and grinned at his little boy, his hands strong and warm and reassuring around his son's high ribs.
"Thank you, Joseph," Jacob said quietly. "I appreciate the help."
Little Joseph beamed and grinned and if he'd been a pup he would have wiggled and whipped his tail fiercely for happiness, for the approval of the Grand Old Man is a potent incentive for boys.
Jacob swung Joseph off the narrow board -- it was not a comfortable seat, he knew, and even a young backside would tolerate it for only a minute or so -- and, bundling his giggling package up under his arm, he picked up his lariat and headed for the gate.
A moment later and he had Nightmare in the loop.
"Pa," little Joseph asked, "howcommeaizzit you rideada Nightmare today? You mad at Apple?"
Jacob laughed and petted Nightmare's nose, and the silky black mare leaned her neck against him and groaned happily.
"No, Joseph," Jacob chuckled. "I've got another couple mares come frash and Apple-horse needs to service 'em."
"Oh." Little Joseph accepted this simple fact of ranch life as he would accept the replacement of a fence rail, or the driving or a nail, or the mucking out of a stall: just another fact of life, and once explained, no longer of interest.
Nightmare was a placid and well-behaved nag who waited until Jacob had her saddled, bridled and out in the open, before murmuring "All right, girl," with the feeling of a man touching match to a short fused bundle of blasting powder.
Matter of fact that's kind of how it felt, when Nightmare tensed up under him and then just plainly come unglued.
Joseph grinned like a kid as he bucked her out, shook herself and then paced off toward town just as nice as you please: once she got it out of her system she was just as calm as a glass of milk, but she dearly loved to show Jacob that she still had it in her, and Jacob loved the showing of it.

Jackson Cooper saddled his black horse -- it was a warmblood, of mixed ancestry, not as tall as Snowflake and as far as he knew, of no Frisian blood -- the big plow horse had feet like dish pans, she wasn't particularly fast, but she was black as the inside of a sinner's heart and steady as a granite slab.
Almost as fast, too.
Jackson Cooper never rode her unless he was in no hurry a'tall, for his Nightshade-horse only had one speed and that was slow, but this suited him.
He smiled quietly as he petted her and fooled with her and saddled her up, for he too was in on the Sheriff's plot to make Firelands look like the county seat of Black Horse County.

There were strangers in the Silver Jewel -- there most always were, as it was the Jewel's fine reputation that made Firelands known throughout the Territory and beyond -- and Mr. Baxter had two of them pegged as Pinkertons.
He knew likely there were others; he was familiar with their tactic of letting it be known that one or two were present, but a number of others would be present as well, watching and listening, letting people react to the identified pair.
Mr. Baxter casually recommended the special of the day, drew each man a beer, then quietly observed that it was a fine piece of work when the Pinkerton Detective Agency made off with that scoundrelly counterfeiter's goods, effectively running him out of the territory, and not a shot fired.
He saw the pair exchange a quick glance; through the day Mr. Baxter saw they managed to rub elbows with a select few others, who Mr. Baxter mentally marked, and watched, and identified as more Pinks.
From the scraps of conversation he was picking up, he discovered the Pinkerton's men were taking this idea and making it their own.
Mr. Baxter smiled.
The Sheriff's idea seemed to be working.

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Linn Keller 4-27-13


Sarah looked at the blank page before her.
Unlike her father, she had trouble keeping a journal, a diary, a record: her letters were a delight to read, but she had not the patience to sit and scribe for any length of time.
She sighed and laid the pen down and stared out the window instead.
It was quiet in the house; the twins were down for their nap, the maid was busy somewhere downstairs, and Sarah, restless, excused herself from school an hour early.
She'd driven to school instead of riding Snowflake; she would ride into town later, after brushing and braiding Snowflake's long mane and tail and plaiting ribbons and flowers into the glossy hair; she herself would wear a lovely and very feminine outfit, and she would carry an entirely unnecessary parasol as she rode: she wished to show any who regarded her big black horse, that it was the pampered pet of a spoiled young woman, and highly unlikely to have been used in the counterfeiter's recent burglary.
She'd carefully re-washed Snowflake in spirits to absolutely guarantee the removal of every last trace of white from the ersatz stocking and blaze: in the noonday sun, not a single bit of white remained, and Sarah was satisfied with that phase of the subterfuge.
She stared out the window, remembering her drive to where her house would be.
Sweating, swearing men had been freighting stone to the site for some time: cranes, hoists, levers, pulleys,levels, string, transits, shovels, picks and profanity were clustered at the site and her house was taking a recognizable shape already.
Sarah watched from a distance, a funny feeling in her stomach.
She watched, still, unmoving, while her dear old Butter-horse dozed in the traces, watched and imagined and projected in her mind.
"I will not go inside," she whispered, "until I am a married woman."
The dapple grey swung her ears back at the barely-heard sibilants but made no other reply.
Sarah's eyes tracked left, then right, wider with each arc: she looked overhead, she looked back along the cliff, she read the lay of the ground, following the low places -- level ground is seldom truly level, and this had texture enough a prone figure could hide at night in hollow and shadow.
Sarah drove back to town, her mind busy, and through town, and to her home, where she ascended two flights of stairs to her room, and shut the door, and seated herself.
Sarah looked in the mirror for several long moments, then stood and walked closer, leaning into the glass until her breath fogged the polished surface.
"Are you ready for this?" she whispered, a sudden feeling of inadequacy washing over her: she thought of her Aunt Esther, of her own mother, of the motherly Maude, dead and gone but still remembered, and she thought, Can I be a wife?
Can I be a mother?
Oh God ...

She shivered, hugging herself and looking down.
Am I ready for this?
Sarah sat back down, looked at the pen, picked it up, moved it toward the open inkwell.
Her hand was shaking.
Sarah drew the tip of the pen back, fascinated, brought it up and studied it as it shivered.
Finally she lay her pen down again and took a long, steadying breath.
Sarah thought of the thrill, the delicious feeling she got from slipping the lock and creeping stockingfoot into the man's house.
She listened, breathing through her mouth, crept to the panel that released the concealed door to the secret room.
She felt as much as heard the tumblers of his ancient safe.
She remembered how cool, how smooth the engraved plates felt as she wrapped them, and how surprised she was at finding the coin stamps as well.
There were stacks of bills and she took those too, knowing some were fake and some were real, and there were two pouches of coins: these too went slowly, carefully, into deep pockets sewn into her coat for the purpose.
Finally she hung the insulting sign on the door -- it was a risk, she knew, but she intended to so incense the man as to cause his precipitous, his hasty, his unthinking action, and when the heavy bullet sliced a gouge from the crown of her hat, she very, very briefly, considered that perhaps her little plan worked too well.
I put him out of business, she thought.
The Pinks gave up on him when he disappeared and lay low.
Nobody did a thing when he started printing funny money again.
The Judge said he wished he could put the man out of business.

Sarah's eyes were a bit more pale as she looked again out the window.
Sarah smiled, a secret little smile.
I will never get credit for that little action.
His Honor is already given full credit for the operation.
That's the way an agent is supposed to work, isn't it?

Sarah examined herself carefully.
Do I want credit?

Sarah remembered the story of a Ninja warrior who slipped into an enemy chieftain's estate.
The chieftain was in the habit of taking a walk every morning, before his bath.
The Ninja slipped into his attic, and with a cord and a small bottle of poison, poured the deadly tincture into the man's waiting bathwater, then the Ninja slipped into the garden before the daimyo arrived.
Moments later the Ninja allowed himself to be spotted, chased, the alarm was raised: the Ninja escaped over the wall, everyone was accounted for, and the Daimyo congratulated his men for a job well done.
An hour later they found the Daimyo dead in his bath and not a mark on him, a casualty of the poison introduced by an invisible enemy.
The assassin was never caught, never identified.
I must remain thus, Sarah thought.
Silent, and invisible.
She smiled again, then she rose.
It is time for the Dark Rider to disappear for a time.
Sarah walked over to her black coat and reached into a pocket, removed a small wallet, and opened it.
The bronze shield gleamed darkly against its black velvet interior.
Sarah turned and walked over to the case Jacob built for her: removing a key from her necklace, she opened it, carefully placed her Agent's shield inside, then locked the case and slid it on its roller track back behind her library shelves, and stood the coat tree in front of its concealing panel.
Agent Rosenthal, she thought, has left the building.

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Linn Keller 4-28-13


Jacob surged forward in a flat-out sprint.
Time hung for an infinite moment: Sarah was pitching backwards out of her saddle, her parasol rotating slowly, slowly as it fell from her hand; Snowflake, in full rear, stood like a gleaming ebony statue in the middle of the street, shied from a little yapping cur pup as long as two hands: an empty freight wagon, frozen in time, both horses suspended with forehooves upraised, one man with his head turned to spit tobacco juice into the street, and Jacob fought this stillness in time, fought through the cloying barricade, his mind racing, sceaming, flashing faster than flesh could ever move.
The spell was broken less than a tenth of a heartbeat later as Snowflake came up, higher, almost to the vertical, her massive forehooves windmilling, screaming her distress, and Jacob remembered how her braided mane was full of flowers and almost stood out away from her from the thrust of her sudden rise.
Sarah fell, backwards, arms and legs stretched, her mouth open, fell for an eternity thorugh silence and through distance and through infinity, until the spell broke for her as well and the earth slammed into her back and knocked the wind out of her: Sarah's hair was thick enough on the back, with her elaborate coiffure, that she did not rap her head on the still-frozen ground: that is to say, she refused later to admit to seeing stars, though she did confess to seeing a couple planets and a stray moon wobble into view.
Jacob kicked at the cur pup, which streaked under the boardwalk, where it bravely snarled and yapped and then pretended a studied boredom and contented itself with a bath, pausing only to glare and growl two or three times at the street in general.
Snowflake walled her eyes at Jacob, throwing her head away from his grasping hand: swearing, he damned Sarah's refusal to bridle her beast, thus depriving him of any hand-hold: he looked around, desperate, thinking to snatch a lariat from a nearby saddle, at least until Snowflake took off at a gallop, streaking up the street and around behind the Mercantile.
Jacob bit off the profanity he nearly hurled at the black mare's retreating backside, kneeling instead beside his sister.
Sarah lay on her back, eyes wide, gasping: the fall knocked the wind out of her and knocked tears from the corners of her eyes, and she looked at Jacob, helpless, unable to breathe: she raised one trembling hand to her brother, who seized her hand, and opened and closed her mouth a few times, working desperately to get some air into her shocked system.
Jacob took her under the arms, hauled her upright, leaned her back against him and seized her elbows: swinging them out, his chin near her ear, he hissed, "Breathe, damn you! -- BREATHE!!" and Sarah got a little wind, a little bit, and choked, and got a little more in: struggling, heaving, she finally worked enough air into herself to squeak, "Snowflake!" --and Jacob's hands tightened a little more and he snapped, "Damn that horse, are YOU all right?"
Sarah got a few more struggling breaths into her chest and nodded, then wobbled: to the onlookers, she nearly collapsed, and truth be told, she almost did: a fall was not in her plans and she was not prepared to come off her horse, and as she leaned her weight back against Jacob, she tried to take a step, at least until the world went kind of hazy and sparkly and Jacob found himself holding his little sister's full weight.
The Sheriff appeared from somewhere: Jacob bent and ran his arm behind Sarah's knees, picked her up, and the two lawmen went back into the Sheriff's office, Sarah fighting for air in Jacob's arms.
Snowflake peeked around the corner of the Mercantile, looking back at the scene.
If it's possible for a horse to cultivate an innocent expression, Snowflake did: she came from around the Mercantile, plodded placidly down the street, swinging her braided and flower-laced tail: she stopped, snuffing at where Sarah fell, then turned and looked at the Sheriff's office, and finally wandered over to the little log fortress, and stepped her forehooves up on the boarwalk, and whinned at the front door.
There were eyes that regarded Sarah's approach, for she rode a very large, very black horse, and word was out to watch for such, for there was a reward for the young man or active boy who'd burgled a man's house, a slender young fellow riding a truly huge horse with a worn shoe on the right hind hoof: men read tracks in the West like men read newspapers in the East, and the type of shoe had been carefully studied and reported: there were those who drifted over to where Snowflake had been, and followed her progress to the softer ground above and just beside the Mercantile, where the ground was softer, and very clear impressions were just made: two sets of eyes studied these, and two men shook their heads, for the shoes were of a different pattern, and the rear hooves were uniformly worn, and although generally the right size, the unique characteristics that had been described were not to be seen.
The eyes that watched Sarah come into town, and fall from her lofty height, the eyes that watched the braided, ribboned, flowered, glossy, gleaming horse with mirror-polished hooves, the eyes that watched the big Frisian peek around the corner like a little boy who knew he was in trouble, the eyes that watched the greathorse walk back the scene of the crime and then to the Sheriff's office door, looked at each other, and shook their heads, for such an obvious pet could never be the mount of a clever and desperate burglar.
The eyes watched while the Sheriff's office door opened and the long tall deputy stepped out, one hand knotted into a fist: they could not hear the young fellow's words (too tall for the burglar, can't be him) but there was no mistaking the shaking of his fist and the look on his face as he addressed himself to the horse.
The horse, for her part, nuzzled his middle, and finally he reached up and rubbed her velvety ears and fed her a shaving off his tobacco plug, and not long after, the pretty young woman came out with caresses and sweet words and made over the horse like it was a lap puppy; with the assistance of the gentlemanly lawman, she was hoist back into the saddle, revealing her stylish dress to be actually divided, for riding astride: the parasol, furled, was carefully handed up to her; unfurling the entirely unnecessary accessory, the young woman smiled sweetly and turned the huge black mare, walking her back down the street.
"That ain't the one."
"Too big."
"Reckon we ought to look over towards Cripple."

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Linn Keller 4-30-13


Levi folded the letter and slipped it back into its envelope, smiling a little.
He was mostly retired these days but occasionally did a little consulting, and his consultation not only closed a case, it also enriched his exchequer to a happy degree.
He looked up as a shadow passed in front of his door.
"Polly?" he called.
Polly reversed course, came back to the doorway, looked in: as usual, she wore a lovely little frilly dress and shiny little-girl slippers, her hair was curled and styled and most attractive of all, she wore a happy smile.
"Yes, Papa?" she asked politely, regarding Levi with big and lovely eyes -- her Mama's eyes, and lashes long enough to swish through the air when she blinked.
When that little girl gets some size to her, Levi thought, I will have to detail a New York boxer as escort, just to keep the boys away from her!
"Polly, where is your Mama?"
"She's upstairs," Polly said, almost pouting: "she and Sawwah are talking about babies and girl things and getting married and they shushed us out of the room!"
"I see," Levi said, nodding wisely, and opened his arms: Polly happily scampered into his study and leaped into his arms, and Levi hugged his little girl to him, perched her on his lap and hugged her again.
"I'm glad you don't talk girl talk, Daddy," Polly sighed.
Levi chuckled.
It occurred to him he could use a good dose of man talk, and he knew just where to get it.

I looked up at the brisk double-rap on my door.
"Come on in, Levi," I called, parking the broom in the corner.
Levi came in, saw me down among the cells, carrying out the short handle shovel I used for a dust pan.
"Don't you have someone to do that for you?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Why? It needs done, I do it."
Levi stepped aside as I opened the door and slung the meager contents out into the street.
"There. Let Mother Nature recycle it."
Levi chuckled and I came back in, shut the door, parked shovel and broom in their usual place.
We shook hands and I gestured to a seat. "What brings you to my world?" I asked, opening the drawer and withdrawing the bottle, shooting an inquiring look at Levi.
He held up two fingers and I poured us each two fingers' worth.
One thing about the Daine Boys' product, it's potent but smooth: we savored that fiery glow as it seared over our gums and powered its way down, and lit a fire in each of us.
I corked the bottle, set it away and closed the drawer.
Levi hung his hat on a peg and took the indicated chair.
"What did we drink to, anyway?" I asked, looking at my empty glass.
"The ladies," Levi replied, grinning.
"Ah, yes, the ladies." I nodded, smiling a little. "How is Bonnie gettin' along with ...?"
I held a hand out from my belly, indicating a gravid curve, and Levi sighed.
"She's getting big, Sheriff. She tells me she's carrying a girl but I don't know. She's got a little fuzz on her upper lip that wasn't there before and my Mama -- rest her soul -- said that meant the mother was carrying a boy."
I nodded. "Sounds reasonable."
"How about Esther?"
I laughed.
"Mean as ever," I lied, "she beats me with regularity."
Levi threw his head back and laughed. I reckon he thought of all people in the world, Esther would be the least likely to beat anyone.
"She's not showin' much belly," I said, "but you can sure as hell tell she's pregnant!"
"That bad, eh?" Levi murmured sympathetically.
I shrugged. "It could be worse but that poor woman ..."
I sighed.
"She has such terrible morning sickness, Levi. Every time she's doubled up over the chamber pot -- she keeps two of 'em by her side of the bed -- a good amount of the morning she's lucky to keep a bite of dry bread down -- then she's fine."
Levi murmured again, frowning a little and turning his head.
"I feel so guilty, Levi." I know my eyes were bleak ... thinking of how sick Esther was just that morning, I felt bleak, wrung-out. "She's pregnant because of me. I wanted her, Levi, and I just plainly seduced my own wife, and now she's sicker'n hell every morning."
Levi nodded, almost smiling.
"Aren't we supposed to seduce our wives?"
"Yeah," I said slowly. "And she does love it."
Levi nodded knowingly, then laughed.
"I needed to get away from women and women-talk, and here we are talking about women!"
I laughed as well.
"Let's go over to the Jewel. I reckon they're talking about women there too."
"That good lookin' Dolly ought to be workin' today, hadn't she?"
I nodded.
"She's got nice legs."
"She does that."
"Easy on the eyes."
I nodded again.
"At our age, our eyes hadn't ought to be strained too much," Levi said thoughtfully.
I stood, grinning.
"Sounds like a good idea to me," I agreed. "Let's go and not strain our eyes any."

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Linn Keller 5-1-13


Jacob swore at his horse.
He'd managed to find a black horse and rode it instead of one of his Appaloosas -- his Apple-stallion was still his favorite, and this mule headed pointy eared spavined jug headed needle nose refugee from a glue factory just did not suit him at all, and he spared not the language to inform said four hoof hay burner of the fact of the matter.
"And another thing," Jacob said after a brief interval, having exhausted most of his colorful vocabulary, "you need a bath!"
The black gelding shook his head, rattling bit and hardware and slinging slobber an impressive distance.
"You do too," Jacob continued. "You need a good hot water scrub down with lye soap and a long handle brush."
The gelding muttered something deep in its chest and Jacob felt like he was suddenly sitting on a bundle of powder sticks just as the fuse sizzled out of sight down the middle of the bundle.
The black horse, however, neither rolled, pitched nor yawed: instead it shivered a little, lifted its tail and cast its ballot on Jacob's lengthy soliloquy.
"Well!" Jacob exclaimed, "if that's the way you feel about it!"
The black horse, relieved, lowered its tail and continued on its unhurried way.
"You know," Jacob said after a bit, "I do hope nothin' happens that I have to get there in any kind of a hurry."
The gelding made no reply.
Jacob came to the edge of town beside the hand painted sign, FIRELANDS, a population figure (inaccurate) and the mayor (long years out of office) and drew the black horse to a stop.
"Now horse," he said firmly, "I don't want you to embarrass me none once we get into town."
The gelding swung its ears back.
"I've got a reputation to uphold, y'see."
The black horse grunted; Jacob gave it a light touch of boot heel and the pair rode into Firelands.

Sean's eyes widened momentarily and he caught his breath.
It felt for all the world like someone just ran a long bladed dagger through his sweetbreads, and he knew exactly what the problem was.
Grasping the edge of the ladder, he leaned his weight on the ladder wagon, ran his free hand around behind him and clamped his jaw shut against the least sound of discomfort.
He felt the German Irishman's hand close about his upper arm.
"Chafe?" Llewellyn asked quietly, looking up at the red-headed Irish chieftain.
Sean's eyes were hard, his jaw muscles bulged and he made no reply.
Sean's arm was rigid under the Welsh Irishman's grip: Daffyd ran his hand back, laid it over Sean's knuckles, looked up again.
"'Tis the stone, then," he said, more a statement than a question.
Sean nodded, once: it was all he dared do.
"How can I help?" Daffyd Llewellyn's voice was low, not much above a whisper, and Sean was grateful for it: he was a man who disliked showing any weakness.
"To th' table, lad," Sean gasped, lips stuff: "and water, a full pitcher of't."
Sean raised his head, lowered his hand from the agony beginning to die down in his left flank, turned a little and paced off on the left, as befit his military background, refusing to show any pain.
Unless you knew what to look for, like the tight-clenched jaw, hands drawn up into fists, arms rigid and slightly bent, an overall stiffness to his carriage.
Sean, Chief of the Firelands Fire Department, sat himself at the table and began drinking water, and plenty of it.
He knew what he had to do to get rid of the agony that was just beginning to visit itself upon him.
Half an hour later he lay on his own living room couch, soaked with cold sweat, his feet sticking out over the end of the couch because he'd kicked the arm clear off in his agonies: he wallowed like a worm on a fish hook, he glared at his wife when she suggested the physician and he drank water and more water.
It was well into evening when his writhing ceased; he never did capture the stone that caused him such agony -- he expected to pass something the approximate diameter of a clipper ship, without realizing that even a microscopic stone will bring a strong man to his knees and even lower as it passes from kidney to bladder: when the opening in the involved tubule has a diameter of a human hair, a stony porcupine scraping through this most sensitive, muscular tube generates more pain than a woman experiences in labor: as a matter of fact, a midwife of Sean's acquaintance once told him she'd had both stones and children, and the kidney stones were the more painful.
Sean, pale, weak, shaking, leaned against the inside of the outhouse wall and cursed the woman's name most heartily, or as best he could in a whisper, for he had not the strength to speak louder.
It was near onto midnight before Sean made it back to the tall, narrow brick firehouse.
The Brigade was waiting up for him, though they pretended to be otherwise occupied: their greeting was no more than a look, a nod, a wink, but his bunk was turned down and ready and his boots had been polished and set ready by his bed, his bunker pants down over them with suspenders laid to either side, the way he like them.
Sean shivered a little as he lay down; he rolled up on his side and drew the blankets up around his chin and shivered.
Sometime in the night another quilt was added, and he very dimly remembered how comforted he felt by the added weight of insulation.
Daisy looked down on her sweat-beaded husband and looked as if she were about to say something, then thought better of it: she bent and kissed his stubbled cheek before leaving.

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Linn Keller 5-4-13


Kentucky-blue eyes regarded the mash critically; an experienced Kentucky nose sniffed the wort as the mash was stirred for the last time.
Veteran Kentucky palates had sampled a variety of creeks before they settled on one, built their stills and began production; this creek had never failed them adn though it lacked the softness on the palate of a good Kentucky limestone creek, it wasn't bad at all -- in fact, of the several waters they'd tasted, this was the best of the lot -- and so the mash was decanted into three stills, the caps settled in place and pasted down with strips of burlap dipped in wheat paste; the fires were stoked, and the run was started.
Moonshine whiskey was an art form, and the Daine boys were artisans in the finest sense of the word.
One of the Daine boys labored alone in his work shop.
"Labored" might not be the right word.
The nearest thing to genuine work he did was getting around on one leg.
No, what he did with his hands was his joy and his delight.
He was making a pair of pistols for the Sheriff.
He'd made saw handle pistols before, a muzzle loading flint pistol with a grip shaped like a saw's handle instead of the common rounded or bag shape, but this pair was not only saw handled, but under hammer.
The Sheriff came one day with a pound of coffee and a sack of flour and an idea, and after he shook the young gunsmith's hand and gave the man's wife the sack of flour and the coffee, after he bent and looked at the fellow's little boy and inquired "Son, who the hell are you and what have you done with Zachariah?" -- to which little Zachariah laughed and said "I am Zachariah!" and the Sheriff frowned and measured the lad's height against his own frame and then frowned and squatted and said "Are you sure? I recall Zachariah was just a little boy" -- he held out a hand to indicate someone about half the lad's height -- "hell, look at you, you're crowdin' up to bein' a man! You chasin' women yet?"
Zachariah and his one-legged Pa both laughed as the Sheriff took off his hat, squinted one eye shut and pretended to regard young Zack skeptically.
"You ain't smokin' cig-gars now are you? You drinkin' coffee?" He stood, his knees crackling in protest as the Sheriff settled his Stetson on his head and grinned, "That stuff will stunt your growth. Why, look what it did to me!"
Zachariah and his Pa both laughed, for the Sheriff was over six foot tall.
Even the dog warmed up to the man: the rangy hound came limping over, sniffed the Sheriff's hand and licked it a couple times, then laid down and fell asleep on the spot.
The Sheriff retired, with the one legged gun smith, into the man's work shop, and the Sheriff pulled out some drawings of what he had in mind.
He'd long wanted an under striker, he explained, that way the fire squirts right into the chamber and doesn't have to dog leg down a nipple and into the drum and turn that-a-way and change direction again to get to the powder.
The gunsmith smiled as the Sheriff's hands dipped and flew like a pair of swallows: tie the man's hands behind his back, he considered, and he couldn't talk at all.
The trigger guard, he explained, was the main spring, and all the pivot points were in steel: he had a half dozen drawings, all clear, easily understandable; he showed these to the gunsmith, explained his ideas, then he leaned back and said "Now could that actually work or am I full of something besides good sense?"
He'd left a healthy deposit and rode off, lifting his hat to the man's wife as she came out with a basket of wet laundry to be hung up, and tossing a sack of hard candy to the nearest child, with the admonition that it was to be shared, and rode off on that copper mare of his, the one he didn't bridle.
Now -- today -- the pair of pistols were done.
He'd sighted them in and found them accurate; they looked a little odd, to his eye, long and skinny without the lock work up on the side like God intended, but it was good work he did, and he had to admit the mechanism was far simpler than a traditional sidelock.
He looked at another he was making, also for the Sheriff: this was for the Sheriff's right hand, but the lock was on the left side and facing backwards, with the drum just as far back on the octagon barrel as he could possibly make it.
This one, too, looked funny ... but this one, too, was a gem of the gun maker's art.
The Sheriff, he knew, would be along today to pick up the pair of under hammer pistols, and the pistol with the lock on the wrong side and facing backwards was ready to show the man, though it was not yet finished.
The gunsmith smiled a little as a passing breeze brought in the smell of mash a-cookin'.

Sarah took off her hat with a sigh, scaled it across the room into a chair: Polly and Opal were running up the steps in pursuit, delighted at their big sis's return: Sarah turned and fell backwards onto her bed with a half-sigh, half-groan, just as a little sis launched onto the bed with her.
Sarah laughed and hugged her sisters.
She'd been gone furniture shopping.
Sarah had scale drawings of the house, as it would be; she had plans and drawings, measurements and ideas, she took a carpenter's folding ruler with her and measured each piece, then borrowed a table to spread out her floor plans: she selected styles and materials, chose lamps and tables and made a very precise list of each piece, its length, its breadth, its depth, and finally, satisfied, she bargained and haggled and settled on prices and arranged for delivery on a particular day, timed to coincide with her fine stone house's being finished.
Stoves, rugs, bedsteads, pitchers and ewers and coatracks, all from her list, and all within budget: she'd planned her expedition with care, she did her research, and when she was done, she was within two dollars of her intended expenditure.
Now, back home, having ridden the steam train and navigated the City by herself, having made decisions and choices and taken another step toward becoming a responsible wife, she relaxed in her own room on her own bed with her little sisters happily chattering and cuddling, and Sarah hugged the twins and smiled a little, and when Bonnie looked in on them, Sarah was sound asleep, flat on her back, and the twins were cuddled up against her and also asleep.
Bonnie smiled sadly, considering her daughter was not going to be her little daughter very much longer; Sarah occupied the kitchen table for most of the evening before, after supper's dishes were cleared, and she and Bonnie went over what a house needed, then Sarah unrolled drawings and the pair planned room by room, sketching what would fit where, and what styles went together, and finally Bonnie asked if Sarah would like her to come along.
Sarah hesitated and finally said no, it was something she had to do herself.
But now ... now, for this moment, her daughters were all home, and Bonnie looked at them, asleep together, and laid a maternal hand on her maternal belly: within, restless, the child stirred.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-4-13


"You sure about this?" Charlie glanced over the withers of his roan horse at Cat Running.

"Don't take nobody smart ta feed a few no count ponies for few days," the old man retorted.

"Those mares ain't no account," Charlie replied. "Them's some of the best mares and colts for several hundred miles any direction."

"Says you."

"Yeah, says me, and also says the man who was through here last week and paid top dollar for that bunch of yearlin's before they were even started under a saddle. Those are dang good ponies, as you call 'em."

"Depends on how ya look at 'em," the old man replied with a grin. "That horse trader was desperate."

"Aw hell," Charlie grumbled, half under his breath. "Arguin' with you is like arguin' with Fannie. Ain't no way a man can get in the last word."

"I heard that, Sugar," Fannie put in from just outside the barn door.

"Yes, dear," Charlie replied meekly, glaring at Cat Running's wide, gap-toothed grin. "And you can just be quiet, old man."

"Don't say nothin', don't get in trouble with woman," Cat Running grunted, reaching down to ruffle Dawg's ears.

"So back to my original question: you sure about this?"

Fannie strode into the barn and let down the bars fronting her sorrel's stall. "Sure about what?"

"Him takin' care of the ranch while we're gone," Charlie replied, reaching for his saddle blanket.

"Of course he can, Sugar. Don't be such a worrywart. We won't be gone that long; and even if the mares weren't a month off from foaling, Cat Running knows as much about bringing colts into the world as you do. Probably more." She slung her own saddle blanket across the sorrel's back, smoothing the wrinkles and making sure that the heavy Navajo-weave wool was centered. "So let's us get at this job so we can get it done and get back home before the first colt hits the ground running." She lifted her saddle from its perch on the stall rail and heaved it up onto the sorrel's back, settling the double-rigged A-fork behind the gelding's withers and rocking it to make sure it was exactly right. Charlie followed suit. When roan and sorrel were cinched up and bridled the couple led their mounts to the hitch rail at the back of the house.

Charlie disappeared inside, coming out moments later with a pair of blanket rolls under one arm and two sets of saddlebags, contents straining the buckle tiedowns, hanging over the other. He handed half his cargo to his wife and slung the other half over the roan's hips behind the cantle of the saddle, tying bags and blankets in place with the saddle strings. He gathered the reins and swung himself into the saddle, reining the roan toward the trail leading north. Fannie followed. "Dawg, you stay here and help the old man," Charlie called back over a sheepskin-lined canvas covered shoulder. High as the ranch was, mornings could still be pretty crisp before the sun chinned itself on the far hills. "See you boys later." He heeled the roan into a trot. At the top of the hollow he turned in the saddle and waved. Cat Running answered with a wave of his own then turned back toward the barn.

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Linn Keller 5-5-13


Sarah looked at house plans, frowning, then turned back one page, another, a third, until she found the one she was looking for.
Sarah spent a half hour looking out the black mirror of her bedroom window, looking into the night, seeing the house as it would be ... her house, their house ...
Am I sure about this? she thought, her unspoken words as palpable in the silence as a whisper.
A wee smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, of her eyes, and her lips traced the form of the reply:
Sarah looked into the dark and in her mind built the stone edifice of the front of her house.
She was minded to pace, outdoors, in the night's chill, letting her spirit expand, flow through the dark, caress and absorb all that surrounded her: she thought again of the Ninja, and their belief that a warrior's spirit flows into the weapon he wields: the sword that is suited to the warrior, she'd been told, becomes part of the warrior, and one need not look at the blade's edge, nor its tip, to know where either was in three-dimensional space: so too it was when she relaxed, and let her soul soar farther than the limiting shell of her fleshly body.
Now I understand why widow's walks were so popular in New England seaports, she thought, remembering the railed enclosures on rooftops where women would stand, and pace, and peer out to sea, hoping against hope to sight the sails of the inbound ship that brought her husband home. Many of these widow's walks were said to be haunted by the lonely, restless spirits of those women who died, widowed, alone, their husbands lost forever, whether overboard in a storm, their boat smashed by a whale, knifed in a foreign port, or just disappeared ...
Where do I want to leave my ghost?
The thought surprised her: she snatched at it, yanked it back, held it clenched in both hands, examined it closely.
My ghost?
She smiled again; inwardly, silently, she laughed a little.
My ghost will not stay on this earth.
I have seen Paradise, and I will go back, when the time is right.

Sarah seldom allowed herself to remember the Valley, where all was green, the bright green of springtime, where it smelled of a thousand green growing things, where she touched the Eternal, where all the sons of God sang for joy that someone made it home, bypassed all the traps, rejected the Tempter ...
I was sent back because my work was not yet done.
What is my work?

Sarah blinked.
I do not know.
That was hidden from me.

Sarah smiled again.
I know why it was hidden.
If I knew what my work here was, I would bust my ever livin' BUTT! to get it DONE and get it OVER WITH so I could go HOME!!
Sarah's mouth was open; her breathing was quicker now, as she remembered dying, and falling ... no, how the Earth fell away from her, a shining blue ball falling away on a great arc, and how she was standing in the Valley -- just that fast -- no pain, no weight ... when she lived, the world's weight was on her shoulders, for every word she said or said not, every thing she did, or did not, had a great and cosmic significance, here and in a world unseen ... but in the Valley ...
I need to talk to Parson Belden.
There is one thing I can't figure out about that.

Having made that decision, she set the train of thought aside and moved on.
Would it be ... practical ... to have an upper porch hanging out the front of the house?
Not a widow's walk on the roof ...
Why not?

Sarah pictured the careful, engineer's drawing in her mind.
I need to talk to someone who knows what they're doing.
A face came to mind: black-eyed and laughing, a man with a bent back and sun-browned skin, a man with curled hair and white teeth and a ready laugh, a man with an immense capacity for wine and good food and hard work.
I will ask Tonio, she thought.
I will ask him tomorrow, and I will speak with Parson Belden as well.
Another item struck off her mental list: she returned to the original thought that made her restless, made her look out the window and wonder.
Can I be a wife?
I can be a wife.

Sarah took a long breath, folded her arms and shivered.
Can I be a good wife?
Sarah looked out the window.
She'd been up all night, wondering, thinking, considering; the eastern horizon was lightening, and she smiled a little, knowing Uncle Charlie and Aunt Fannie were going to start out on another phase of their life together, doing what they both did very well, doing what they loved.
She blinked, focused ... the moon was low, but she saw them, the white wolf and The Bear Killer, side by side, sitting, motionless, looking at her ... the white wolf, glowing now in the darkness, and The Bear Killer ... not glowing, really, but silhouetted against a frost-bright patch behind him.
Shoulder to shoulder.
Black and white, wild and not-wild, different and yet the same.
Sarah smiled a little and realized she'd just been shown her answer.
Charlie and Fannie were every bit the contradiction she herself was: each was polite and courteous and civilized, and each was when necessary able to kill, swiftly and efficiently and utterly without remorse, yet neither without conscience or feeling.
Each was a just and upright member of society and yet each was capable of being completely alone and utterly self-sufficient.
Sarah herself was all of these things.
Seeing the White Wolf and The Bear Killer brought it all into focus, and she realized that, conflicted a soul as she was, she could very well be a good wife.
"Thank you," she whispered to the window glass, and she was not sure whether she was thanking Charlie and Fannie, or the White Wolf and The Bear Killer, or perhaps she was addressing the Eternal.
It did not matter.
A grateful heart will speak, and the ear for whom it is intended, will hear.

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Linn Keller 5-6-13


Two or three fellows elbowed one another and grinned.
Lying was an art form, especially in a saloon: where a man might lie and ruin his reputation, if he lied in the right context, why, he was not a liar but a storyteller, and as such was valued and valuable and more often that not, entertaining.
Right now someone had made so bold as to inquire of the Sheriff if he'd ever been afraid.
The Sheriff regarded the speaker with calm eyes.
"Me?" he said. "Afraid?"
"Yeah, Sheriff. We heered you warn't afraid of the Devil himself!"
"What else did you hear?"
"Why ... you can out shoot any man this side of the Mississippi, you can bare knuckle anyone toe to toe, you can out-lift and out-work any man in shoe leather and make it look easy!"
"And I reckon you heard I can out grin Dan'l Boone himself," the Sheriff added dryly.
Two or three fellows looked at one another; a quick consultation and the speaker nodded: "Yeah, Sheriff, that too!"
Linn chuckled, shaking his head.
"Fellas," he said, "I am afraid you have been fed a bill of goods."
Linn kept an absolutely straight face.
"There is no man alive can out-grin Dan'l Boone. Cain't be done. Why, he set hisself down on a log one time and made to grin a coon out of a tree, only it warn't no rackety coon, 'twas a burl knot on that oak branch, but when he clumb up to see why this-here ring tail critter hadn't just give up and clumb down, why, he found he'd grinned every bit of bark off that branch!"
There was a general laughter, elbows met ribs here and there, but one was not satisfied: "Sheriff," he said, "what about bein' scared?"
The Sheriff frowned, looked at the floor, looked back at the assembled.
"Do you mean those times when grey men in ranks abreast, came marching out of gunsmoke and fog like a steel bladed machine, bayonets flashing and jaws set and their blood singing for mine? Was I afraid then, is that what you're askin'?"
Heads nodded; drinks were lowered as men leaned forward to hear.
"Or maybe the time I walked down a muddy street towards the man called Butcher Knife Joe. He'd killed three men already with a pick handle and he walked toward me with a Navy pistol in hand and started shootin' at me about twenty five foot away. Are you askin' if I was afraid when a ball sizzled through the collar of my coat and another through my new hat?"
"Yeah, yeah, was that it, was that it?" half a dozen voices replied eagerly.
The Sheriff smiled a tight little smile.
"Maybe you're asking if I was afraid when I squared off against Sean and called him a damned bog Irish troublemaker and raised up my fists, and he hit me with something like an anvil launched out of a field cannon. Are you askin' if I was afeared for that one?"
Exclamations and comments, ranging from mild to profane, rippled through the group: most of the Jewel had abandoned cards, chips and dice to listen to the old lawman's quiet, penetrating voice.
"Suppose I tell you about the one time when I was genuinely scared."
The Sheriff set down his beer, held his hands out like he was grasping a ball twice the size of a man's head.
"Her name was Mary and she was a sweet young thing."
The Sheriff considered, nodded, continued.
"We were in a stage coach back in Ohio. Monroe Township it was, and of course the coach roads run the back bone of the ridges there-a-bouts, so they don't flood out. Now" -- he stopped and grinned, looking over his eager audience -- "most times those roads are pretty good but sometimes they're as smooth as the inside of a brick chimney and this was one of those times.
"It was rainin' and there was thunder and lightnin' and we were headed for the county seat.
"I didn't rightly know what broke and it don't matter, but the driver yelled and fell off and the coach stopped going up hill and it started running down hill.
Near as I could tell, a-settin' in that rough ridin' stage coach with that good lookin' gal, why, the front axle come out from under and the front was a-draggin' and kept the front end pointed up hill kind of like feathers keep an arrow a-goin' front-end-to."
Silence as men listened and considered the greying old lawman's words, imagining themselves in a similar situation.
"Now we picked up speed and we were a-runnin' down hill and I figured we were on Fay Iver Ridge and there was a bed in the road here directly, and I had no wish to fly off the side of the ridge and fall some distance and neither did I want to run off the road and have a tree come a-rammin' through the coach and crush the two of us." He looked around, smiling wryly. "Now I wouldn't have minded gettin' cozy with that sweet young thing but that ain't quite the way I wanted to do it!"
His chuckle joined theirs.
"Well, we sailed down hill and I didn't have time to do no more than think something -- I didn't say a word but my thoughts were decidedly less than Christian in nature as we went a-whistlin' down hill -- then we flew off that curve I thought about and sailed maybe a mile and a half, or three seconds, whichever it was, until we come down in that flooded bottom ground.
"We hit and threw up enough water to cushion our landing, but once that-there stage coach felt ground under neath its wheels, why, it sunk down and grabbed hold and I don't reckon you could have hauled it out with a steam winch and a team of Irishmen.
"I ended up carryin' that cute girl out of there on my back and got soaked up to my waist and damned if her fiancee didn't show up about the time I got her back to solid roadway.
"Well, he like to wrung the hand off my arm" -- the Sheriff shook his hand as if to shake feeling back into it -- "and he was tickled as a possum eatin' on a dead horse, for I'd kept his sweetheart safe and got her back to dry ground."
"What made that fearful for ye, Sheriff?" a fellow blurted from the back row.
The Sheriff grinned.
"Let me put it this way," the Sheriff grinned. "She was cute and I was young, and I was plumb terrified we'd both be killed before I could ask her to the square dance!"

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Charlie MacNeil 5-6-13


The complete lack of tuning evidenced by the caterwauling clatter emanating from what appeared to be a piano but which sounded more like a tinware pedlar's cart tumbling down a hill was all but drowned by the equally off-key sound of, well, singing, of a sort. Charlie eased through the batwings of the Elkhorn Saloon and slid his back against the wall beside the doorway for a moment to allow his vision to adjust to the dimness of the building's interior after the brightness of the afternoon. He winced at the assault on what was left of his hearing as he quickly surveyed the population of the smoky barroom in search of a particular individual. Spying his quarry head down on a battered pine table in a corner, said quarry either asleep or enstupored by drink, Charlie sauntered cattercorner across the room, mindful of the sudden dimming of the cacophony behind him that spread like ripples on a pond.

Scraping back the chair across the small table from the shabbily-dressed man who slumped there, Charlie sat, making a point of kicking a table leg as he lowered himself into the chair. The noise behind him returned to its former level as the denizens of the Elkhorn saw that he was someone else's trouble. The sleeper snorted, belched and blearily lifted his creased forehead from the crumpled bowler he'd been using for a pillow. One eyelid ratcheted slowly open, and the fellow's sleep-blurred voice croaked, "What?" before the eyelid slipped back to the closed position and the forehead returned to its resting place on the bedraggled hat-like object before it. Charlie kicked the table leg again, harder.

This time when the head came up, both eyes managed to make an appearance. Bright scarlet formed a tangled map of veinage about watery gray as the voice grumbled, "Don't go away mad, just go the hell away." The man's forehead started back toward its earlier resting place; Charlie jerked the filthy, tattered assemblage of felt and grime away and dropped it on the floor. The man's head contacted hard lumber instead of relatively soft felt with a thunk. He jerked upright, slapping a hand to his injury. "What'd you do that for, ya iggerant son of a..." Four ratcheting clicks that seemed to echo across the room stopped the words. The muzzle of the long, blued-steel barrel of Charlie's right hand Remington suddenly coming to rest on the bridge of the fellow's snout did its part to halt the flow of verbiage in mid-stride as well.

"It might behoove you to be careful how you speak of a man's momma," Charlie said softly.

Watery gray eyes centered on the black hole before them, then lifted to make contact with the hazel eyes of the man behind the pistol. "Who are you?" their owner croaked.

"Somebody who wants to talk to you," Charlie answered. "I need some information, and I heard that you're the man who has it."

A sudden look of half-drunk cunning crossed the unshaven features. "How much is it worth to ya? I don't give that sorta thing away, ya know."

"You give me what I want, and I don't haul your scrawny behind to Utah and hand you to the Mormons," the Marshal replied. "I understand that there's a considerable price on your head over yonder."

"Mister, I don't know what yer talkin' about, and you can go plumb to... Holy Crap!" Charlie's table mate began. What he might have said suddenly left his brain completely, blasted from his mind by the lance of pain that flashed like lightning from his right foot, where Charlie's boot heel now rested, up his leg, suddenly bringing a burst of clarity to his previously whiskey-fuddled thought processes. He choked back a scream as Charlie ground the heel across the arch of the man's battered townie shoe. When he could catch his breath again, he tried to glare across the table at his assailant, but the moisture leaking from his eyes made the glare totally ineffectual. Charlie grinned.

"You were saying?" The Remington's muzzle hadn't moved one iota from its resting place.

The man drew in a breath. "I don't..."

"Wrong answer." The boot heel descended toward the toes this time.

"Alright, alright, you win!" the man gasped. "Whadda ya wanna know?"

"I want to know where the man is who's paying for the hide of the kid on the black horse," Charlie answered simply. "And I want to know yesterday. I hear you're related to him, and you're the only one who knows where he's got himself tucked away at. And before you answer, remember what I said about the Mormons."

"I'll tell ya, but not here," the man answered. "He'd kill me himself if he knew I even talked to ya."

Charlie lowered the Remington's hammer. "Fine. Lead on, friend."

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Linn Keller 5-7-13


 Muley looked at the gleaming black flood that came pouring out of the stock car.
"Good Lord," he groaned, "where in the cotton pickin' are they findin' all these black horses?"
His partner spit tobacco juice into the cold, half-frozen mud.
"Don't know," he mumbled around his quid. "Don't care."
"Well, they ain't so wild as the last bunch."
Shiner spit again, hacked, swore as the quid escaped his stained, crooked teeth and landed in the mud.
"Here." Muley handed him a canteen and Shiner sloshed the spring water around, spit, took a drink.
"I'd do the same for an honest man."
"Yeah, God loves you too."
The pair eyed the milling, whinnying horses, a mixed lot of mares and geldings; most were black, two had white diamonds on their foreheads, three had at least one white stocking.
"Shorty wants these down at the livery?"
Muley coughed. "Well, hell, let's get 'em down there."
Two other fellows, some distance back, watched the new arrivals.
They were as poorly dressed as the two at the receiving corral; unlike the latter pair, they were being paid not to work, but to watch, and what they'd seen over the past week, was a consistent overpopulation of black horses of every size, shape, nature, breed and number and placement of decorative white fur: stockings, splashes, blazes, stripes, spots: they'd ridden around to every ranch and homestead, by appearances just a couple out-of-work saddle bums just passing through.
There was nothing casual about the way they eyed each bunch of horse flesh.
They managed to assess every last black horse in the county, satisfying themselves that the world's greatest concentration of black horse flesh had to be here, and when this most recent shipment arrived, they agreed that it was hopeless to try and locate the skinny young fellow who burgled the house, by looking for his horse.
If it was a Pinkerton, they were out of luck, and the pair had the distinct feeling that their payday was pretty well evaporated.
"Well, hell," one finally said. "This is a dry hole. I hear they're needin' regulators in Kansas."
"You go on ahead," said the other. "I'm gonna stick for a few days."
"Well, hell, I will too."

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Linn Keller 5-7-13


The Sheriff twisted his back a little, bent at the waist to take the bend out of his sway back, frowned at the muffled pops his move elicited.
Restless, he looked up the street, down the street: men, horses, wagons, a few ladies; Digger, in front of his emporium, was looking at his watch as if he had some important appointment, but then the man always looked that way when he consulted his pumper's egg: the Sheriff watched as the undertaker turned, carefully locked his emporium's double doors, and then strolled up the board walk toward the Mercantile.
The Sheriff was edgy, vaguely uncomfortable; he kept his face carefully neutral as he surveyed friend and stranger alike, comparing the faces he saw against a mental file of wanted posters: he gathered Outlaw's reins and stepped into the saddle, turned the black gelding and rode diagonally across the street to the Silver Jewel.
Perhaps, if he sought solace in a big mug of coffee, he might find the source of his discomfiture ... especially there inside the Jewel, which was one of the more productive sources of information, if a man took the time to listen, for anything a'tall happening in the county.

The Sheriff was loafing at the far end of the bar when two strangers came in: like him, they looked over the assembled; the Sheriff was casually spearing another chunk of pie and looking bored, but not looking like the Sheriff: yes, he wore his usual suit and yes, he wore both his Colts, but his coat hung over the hardware and his six point star slept behind his left lapel.
The pair ordered a beer apiece; one slouched with his back to the bar, the other leaned against the bar, one foot up on the brass rail, studying the mirror.
Neither of them paid a bit of attention to the well dressed fellow at the end of the bar with the quiet manner and the iron grey mustache.

Jacob saw his Pa's gelding over in front of the Jewel.
His expression never changed, but he registered a moment's approval; his father made the world's worst coffee, and he was pleased the Grand Old Man finally gave up on trying to make the stuff.
Jacob opened the door to the Sheriff's office, eyes sweeping the interior: even here, even in this lawman's sanctum, Jacob did not simply step into a room without taking a look-see, and it would not be until he'd had a look behind the door and gone down the row of jail cells and back that he would relax a little.
Until then, he was frosty ... not dangerously so, but he'd learned the hard way that evil can strike any time, any where, and he'd made it his business to look for the places where a man could be jumped, or surprised, like a fisherman will look for the lee of a rock in a stream where a fish might wait for something to be washed in, or a hunter might look for a path or a thicket or fruit in season, something that would attract quarry.
Jacob's eye fell on the gun rack and for no real reason he went over and picked up a Sharps rifle, remembering the story behind this particular octagon barrel working tool.

Sarah changed quickly out of her mousy-grey schoolmarm dress; she emerged from the upstairs room at the Jewel in a cheerful yellow-and-white creation with a matching hat: she glided down the back stairs, emerging near Daisy's kitchen, and slipped out the back, parasol furled and under her arm.
A moment later and she was driving her carriage from Shorty's livery, rattling up the broad alley between the Jewel and the Municipal Building; she hesitated, then turned down the main street and steered a course toward the parsonage.
Parson Belden was expecting her, and she had a matter that puzzled her, a matter she wished to discuss with a sky pilot.

"Now if you want a looker," the hanger-on wisely drawled, raising an admonishing finger, "right there on that stage, gentlemen. Her name is Dolly and she's right easy on the eyes!" He tipped the pair a wink; one frowned, looked away, the other's eyes slid toward the vacant stage.
"There is one other little ol' gal here in town that would make Solomon's lilies plumb green with envy!" He nodded like a wise man, very sure of himself. "That's our little schoolmarm, and she's lovely as Creation itself, only don't let that sweet smile o' hers fool ye ... she's dangerous as a cornered rattler!"
"Most women are," the one fellow grunted, half bent over the bar.
"Oh, I'll agree there, stranger!" the hanger-on gushed. "Wimmen are dangerous an' no two ways about it! Why, back East" -- he caught himself, harrumphed and turned a little red. "That is, women are dangerous."
"Sounds like you know about 'em."
"Oh, ya, I know a little about 'em!" the hanger-on laughed. "I know just enough to get in trouble!"
The stranger hoist his beer mug in salute. "Friend," he said, "so do we all!"
The hanger-on leaned back, looked over the curtained window.
"Why there she goes," he said reverently. "Lovely as the sunrise she is, and deadly as a shotgun to the gut!"

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Linn Keller 5-8-13


The Sheriff casually moved to the other end of the bar as the pair nudged one another and moved quickly to the front door.
It was not uncommon in those days for a cowhand to ride an entire day to a sodbuster's house, and just sit and watch the soddy's teenage daughter sitting on her front porch, sewing and blushing furiously, knowing she was watched: the cowhand would characteristically never address her and never approach her, just sit, and watch, and soak in the beauty of a woman, something he seldom beheld.
The Sheriff knew this.
He also knew he was not a trusting man.
He moved far enough in front of Tilly's counter to see the pair, still standing with the door held wide open, looking after the departing buggy: they turned to come back inside and he saw indecision and uncertainty on their faces: he swung aside to let them pass, and slipped out the door himself.
Once outside he made a quick, choppy gesture to get Jacob's attention: two fingers, then held to his eyes, a tilt of his head: Jacob nodded, thrust his bottom jaw out, then he curled his middle finger around the set trigger and hauled back, hard, before fetching the heavy Sharps hammer back to half cock and then dropping the breech block.
He fed a brass panatela into the chamber, eased the action shut, then moved over to the deacon's bench and sat down, rifle upright between his knees.

Sarah smiled a little as she drove.
She much preferred the high-button shoes she'd had custom made, over the daintier shoes her mother often suggested she wear.
Sarah was a practical young woman.
Her parasol concealed a long, triangular blade, more a spike: a twist, a pull, and she could block and parry with the closed parasol, while thrusting and attacking with the handle and its suddenly exposed icepick.
A rather long icepick.
She had four separate blades in her shoetops, insinuated between the split layers; they were not terribly big, but they were extremely sharp, and of a good temper, so as not to lose their edge quickly.
Sleeve blades were so routine for her as not to merit a second thought; she carried a .44 Bulldog revolver horizontally, very ready to hand, but very well concealed by the tailoring of her dress, and underfoot -- under her weaponized shoes -- was a lever, or pedal; should she release a hidden safety catch and then press this pedal, a panel would drop open on the dash board in front of her and she would have both a rifle and a double barrel shotgun in easy reach.
Agent Rosenthal may have become stealthy, and Agent Rosenthal may have assumed the mantle of respectability, but Agent Rosenthal had learned the same hard lessons as had her brother, and Agent Rosenthal had every intention of reaching a ripe old age.
Or otherwise.
Sarah drove up to the parsonage and drew her prad to a gentle stop.
Mrs. Parson smiled through the window at her, and Sarah smiled back.
She had business with the Parson, aye, but Mrs. Parson was a sweet soul, and Sarah did enjoy visiting with her.

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Linn Keller 5-9-13


Jacob leaned back against the log wall, his hat beside him; idly he considered the distance to the corner of what used to be the library, then swung his gaze down and past the Silver Jewel, hesitating at the corner of the door; he looked left, down the alley to the livery, and saw Shorty inside, from the thrust of his elbow, probably mucking out a stall.
Jacob's gaze drifted back to the pair that emerged from the Jewel, and then followed their gaze.
He judged the distance to them with an eye to trajectory; at that short distance, the rifle's ball would drop none at all -- the very slight uphill angle would require no correction -- indeed, had one or the other held up an ace of spades he could easily have cut its heart out with one shot.
Jacob moved nothing but his eyes.
He knew they were looking after Sarah.
Jacob's eyes were pale.

That night Sarah willed herself to relax.
She'd read of South Sea Islanders who taught their young that dreams were in a realm of reality, and that their dreams could be controlled, guided.
Sarah practiced this.
When she had a nightmare, she seized it and turned it to her will: if there was a lesson she was showing herself, she sought to learn it, but she forbade terrors and fears to rule her sleep.
Tonight she felt the vague warnings she'd accumulated through the day; she shredded the dream, tearing it apart, looking at each separate part, inspecting the remnants for facts, for certainties.
She found none.
Sarah swept up the gossamer relics of the dismembered nightmare and threw them into a steaming cauldron, plucked a yew-tree that sprouted especially for her and used it to stir the great, bubbling kettle.
She tossed the tree into a circle of darkness, where it disappeared as if it never were, bent double and puffed her breath at the muttering flames under the kettle: they went out as if they never were, and she straightened, looked into the stew's dark surface.
Two men looked back at her.
She saw them standing on the boardwalk in front of the Jewel, looking after her as she drove to the Parsonage.
She willed herself into the image: as if a ghost, she floated, turned, saw Jacob across the street, his eyes pale, hard, the Sharps rifle upright between his long skinny legs.
She turned again and saw the Sheriff, watching the pair.
Sarah looked again and the scene dissolved, and she knew there was no more.

In the Silver Jewel, the pair sat up late, talking.
"Suppose," the one said, "suppose that wasn't a small man that stole those plates."
"It might have been a boy," the other nodded, drowsy, considering how good a clean bed was going to feel.
"A boy," the first one said thoughtfully. "A boy."
He sat down, looked at the other, puzzling over an idea.
"What about a girl?"

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Linn Keller 5-10-13


Bonnie rose gracefully from the table, or as gracefully as a pregnant woman can rise, and said "Sarah, walk with me."
The twins looked at her with big and curious eyes; Levi raised an eyebrow, and Sarah, puzzled, dabbed her lips with a linen napkin and slid her chair back.
The two, mother and daughter, walked slowly toward the front door, then out onto the front porch.
It was cool that morning, cool and a little damp: easy breathing, her Papa once said in such a morning, and Sarah took a long, appreciative breath.
She'd spent enough time in the city -- very little, actually, but too much for her young taste -- and she much preferred her beloved mountains.
Bonnie folded her arms under swollen breasts, unconsciously emphasizing her gravid figure, reminding Sarah momentarily of an engraving of a fertility goddess excavated at some city near the Euphrates: heavy breasts, a great, swollen belly, the very image of life-to-be.
"Sarah," Bonnie said, frowning a little as if trying to remember a well-rehearsed speech, "I ... am concerned ... with your behavior."
"Mother?" Sarah asked, surprised.
Bonnie's head snapped around, her voice sharp -- uncharacteristically so, Sarah knew, but it did little to take the sting from her mother's words.
"Sarah, a lady does not go about draping herself with weapons or skulking in the dark, riding furiously about the countryside with a lance pretending to be the Joan of Arc!"
Sarah's eyes were wide, surprised; she was somewhere between dismay and giggle, but wisely held her tongue.
"It isn't proper," Bonnie faltered, leaning her palms suddenly on the porch rail.
"Sarah ... men take care of us ... we must let our men take care of us."
Bonnie dropped her head and took a long breath.
Sarah's hand was warm, firm, splayed in the middle of Bonnie's back, the other hand light, questing, on her tight belly.
"They've started, haven't they?" Sarah whispered. "You're in labor."
Bonnie nodded.
Sarah's hands were strong and confident on Bonnie's arms as she turned her mother, raising up on her tiptoes and still having to look up a little to see her mother's closed eyes.
"Mother," Sarah said, "look at me." Her hands tightened on Bonnie's arms. "Mother," she hissed, "look at me!"
Bonnie's violet eyes opened: the pupils were wide, dark, her eyes were deep, oceans deep, and Sarah remembered her Papa saying in an unguarded moment how he could fall into those eyes, how he could swim in the dark ocean of those lovely eyes ...
"Mother," Sarah said firmly, in her schoolteacher's voice, "we are having a baby. I belive we are having a baby this morning."
Bonnie nodded, threw her head back, took a deep, gasping breath.
"That's it, nice and deep," Sarah said soothingly. "Now blow it out, blow it out, take another, nice and deep ... there. Now let's get you inside. We have to get ready and that means we need to undress you from the belt down. We don't want to do that here on the porch, now, do we? Let's go back inside, that's right, and up the stairs now ... reach out and find the rail, that's right, good grip, raise your right foot, good, take a step up, I'm here with you, I'm right here ... that's right, take another step. Okay, stop, take another breath. How far apart are the contractions, Mother?"
The maid came bustling down the hallway and Sarah turned a little: she pantomined a great belly, squatted and grimaced, then pointed at Bonnie, who stood panting a little, head bowed and shoulders rounded.
The maid's eyes widened and Sarah said "Alfdis," and the maid nodded.
"Now, Mother, let's take another step, shall we? That's right, another, good, take another ..."
Sarah waited until her mother was situated in her bedchamber, waited until she was dressed for the occaision, the maid flying in and out of the room bringing sheets, plenty of sheets, for she knew birthing a baby was a messy business; the twins, took, packed linens and supplies scampering swiftly up the stairs and back down, and Levi brought up a bucket of hot, steaming water, went back downstairs, fired the kitchen stove more heavily and added cold water to its reservoir.
Like husbands from time immemmorial, his was the task of boiling water.
Sarah came downstairs at something between a trot and a float; Levi stood and opened his mouth to shout a question, just in time for the SLAM of the front door.
Levi shrugged, then glared at the stove.
Water, he reflected, takes forever to boil.

Sarah had a heavy carriage in the barn, a carriage meant for heavy service: she knew there would be times when a flying trip to town would be needed, possibly over hard roads, and she had this one specially made, and she had just the horse to draw it.
A piebald mare, mostly white, with great red splotches and a vicious temper: Sarah's temper matched the mare's, and each of them had voiced their displeasure with the other at one time or another, and each came to an uneasy truce, but today, when Sarah whistled and called her name, there was an edge to her voice, and the mare recognized the edge, and came at a dead gallop across the field.
Sarah seized her bridle and thrust it into the opened mouth, drew it up and over and buckled it with an urgency the mare knew, and loved: she danced under Sarah's hands as the trembling young woman backed her between the traces.
Sarah nodded to the hired man and he swung the gate wide and Sarah picked up a blacksnake whip, swung it in a great circle and snapped it a yard over the mare's ears: "ST. FLORIAN, ST. CHRISTOPHER AND DAMN YOU SOUL, RUN!" she screamed, and the mare, once a firehorse back East and a few years in the mountains, surged hard against her padded leather collar.
Sarah was thrown back into the seat, hard, and as she steered the lunging mare down the graded gravel drive and through the great, overarching cast iron gate, she felt the fierce joy Sean must have felt, coming out thte doors of their firehouse at a wide-open gallop.

The Sheriff's head came up and he rose from his breakfast table.
Esther looked at him, puzzled, then realized he was hearing the approach of hooves, galloping hooves, the crack of a whip, a whistle.
Linn powered for the front door, snatching Esther's double gun from the rack and dropping the bird shot in his haste to load two brass buck shot rounds: he stepped out on the porch as Sarah began assaulting the steel-plate alarm hung from a post with the long wagon bolt, laying into it as if with a saber.
Sarah looked up, dropped the bolt, her face pale, her eyes white, but grinning a broad grin.
"Mama is in labor," she blurted. "I need Alfids and let Aunt Esther know!"
The Sheriff turned. "Alfdis!" he shouted.
Sarah brought the buggy around, alternately soothing and swearing at the restless, head-tossing mare, barely able to hold her until Alfdis climbed awkwardly aboard, a carpet bag between her feet.
Sarah stood, whip coiled in her right hand, grinning.
"Hang on!" she shouted, and the Sheriff watched as Sarah's arm came about and the plaited leather soared into the air, a living creature, and marveled as it seared through the air, moving of its own volition: Sarah swore and invoked the saints, the mare launched into a flat-out gallop and the Sheriff laughed a little as Sarah was thrown back into the driver's seat by the vigor of the horse's thrust.

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Linn Keller 5-10-13


Sarah came through the front door with all the feminine delicacy of a hurricane.
Levi looked up, opened his mouth to say something: Sarah thrust two cloth ribbons in his hands, snapped "Boil these, wait five minutes then come up!" -- then she spun, took Alfdis by the arm and half-led, half-hauled the blond-headed Viking wet-nurse up the stairs.
Levi closed his mouth, looking at the folded cloth tapes dangling from his hand: with a long look upstairs, he turned and returned to the kitchen, muttering something about boiling eggs and boiling potatoes but he'd never boiled ribbons before.
Sarah bade Alfdis wait, then sprinted up the staircase one more floor, to her room: she shucked out of her schoolmarm's grey and snatched a white linen dress off its hanger, thrust into it, buttoned it with quick fingers: she opened a drawer, seized a stack of white linen aprons, plain, undecorated, threw one over her head and tied it around her middle, then clattered quickly down to the waiting Alfdis.
Sarah opened the door, surged inside: the maid was mopping Bonnie's forehead and Bonnie was half-anxious, half-calm, the way a laboring mother is.
Sarah seized two chairs, brought them to the side of the bed, between the bed and the doorway, then she grabbed her mother's ankles: "Mother," she said, pulling hard, "turn this way," and she rotated Bonnie so the woman was now crosswise of the bed.
Sarah pulled the skirt of her nightgown up.
"Raise your bottom, Mother. Pass me the sheet." Sarah seized the seamed top edge of the sheet, snapped it once and planed it under her mother.
"Now down." She extended a hand. "Two towels, please, one across the back of the chair. There. And one -- thank you." She flung the towel over her right shoulder, pulled her round schoolmarm spectacles down onto her nose.
"Mother," Sarah said, "how long since your last contraction?"
Sarah laid a hand on Bonnie's belly as her mother gritted her teeth and groaned.
"That long," Sarah murmured.
Alfdis opened the door and murmured something, then turned and delicately carried the dishpan of steaming-hot water over to Sarah.
"Place it on the chair, thank you, and is there soap?"
A cake of soap, offered by an anonymous hand: Sarah washed her hands, quickly, thoroughly, dried them on the towel she wore.
"Now, Mother, how does the baby feel?"
"Sarah," Bonnie gasped, "how many babies have you delivered?"
"Never mind that, Mother," Sarah said. "I read about it in a book." She shot a mischievous look at Alfdis, winked at the maid, and Bonnie groaned, pressing the back of her head against the pillow.
"Haff ve show?" Alfdis asked quietly.
"I need a washcloth, please." Sarah dunked the washcloth in the hot water, wrung it out, plied it once, carefully, then: "Alfdis, please ask Levi to come in here."
Alfdis was halfway to the door when Levi came in, steaming saucepan in hand.
"I didn't know how salty you wanted this," he said half-comically, half-sarcastically.
"Please drape them over the clean towel," Sarah said absently, one hand on her mama's belly, "and go to the other side of the bed, please."
Levi hesitated, looking at Alfdis and then his wife, as if wondering why she and not Sarah was in position.
"Levi," Sarah said, her voice sharp, "I need you to do EXACTLY AS I TELL YOU."
Levi looked up, surprised.
"Levi, please turn and remove the horse shoe from over the window. Keep the points up, if you -- KEEP THE POINTS UP, YOU BLOODY IDIOT, DO YOU WANT THE LUCK TO RUN OUT? -- that's right, now slip it under her pillow."
Levi carefully eased the horse shoe between bedsheet and pillowslip.
"Now" -- Sarah reached into her right dress sleeve and pulled out a short, very sharp blade -- "put this under the pillow as well." She tossed it up beside Bonnie's head.
Levi's mouth fell open and he looked at the knife as if it were a live snake.
"I will not!" he declared. "What do you think --"
"IT CUTS THE PAIN!" Bonnie and Sarah both shouted, their voices in an eerie harmony: Levi took a step back, as if slapped, then he very carefully, very delicately, picked up the knife with one hand and lifted the pillow with the other and placed the knife crosswise beneath his wife's pillowed head.
Bonnie's hair was sprayed out like an auburn waterfall; sweat beaded her upper lip, her forehead.
"Levi," Sarah said, her voice low, urgent as Bonnie grimaced and began to groan with the new contraction, "I need you to take her hands. Take her hands, Levi." Sarah's voice was low, compelling, almost hypnotic. "Levi, lean over her and look at her. Levi, look at your wife!"
Levi looked down at his wife's face, felt her hands squeeze his, felt her hands trying to crush his own, and part of his mind thought My God, she's beautiful! -- and part of his mind thought, She is doing this for me -- for us -- for the child!
Our child!

-- and part of his mind thought, Good God, where did she get such strength in her hands?
"How many children has she already?" Alfdis asked, her German-accented voice gentle, soft against the background of Bonnie's panting.
"She has had three," Sarah said, watching and nodding. "Any time now --"
She caught most of the birth-water, but not all; bundling up the mess in the first towel, she dropped it on a waiting, folded sheet on the floor, snatched up the second towel -- "Raise your bottom, Mother" -- the second towel joined the first.
"The more children a voman hass, the more quicker they come," Alfdis almost whispered: her voice stopped, reverently, as the child's head peeked out at the world and then withdrew.
"Levi," Sarah said, "talk to her. Talk to her, Levi!"
Levi looked up, his mouth dry.
"What will I say?"
"TELL HER YOU LOVE HER, YOU IDIOT!" Sarah snapped. "Mother, I need you to take a deep breath -- deep, deep, now blow it out, blow it out, good, good, like that, relax, relax."
Sarah's eyes never left their work; her hands were firm on Bonnie's tight belly, then Bonnie groaned as another contraction seized her.
Levi's color was going from pink to pale to putty: only Bonnie's crushing grip on his hands kept him upright: his mouth was dry, his head was light enough to float up against the ceiling had it not been bolted to his shoulders, and he watched as Sarah's hands came together and she was close, close in, then she bent and did something and he looked down at Bonnie and Bonnie was crying and whispering something through a hoarse throat and Levi blinked and saw bright wet spots on Bonnie's face and realized they were his own tears and then her voice penetrated the buzzing hiss in his ears and Bonnie was begging him, pleading with him, and he shook his head and closed his eyes tight and opened his eyes and he gasped, "Bonnie -- dearest -- what?"
"My baby," Bonnie choked. "What ... my baby ... why don't I hear my baby?"
Sarah plucked the boiled, cooled ribbon tie from the back of the chair, spun it around the wiggling little infant's umbilical cord, carefully drew it tight, tight, tight, knotted it: she reached without looking and plucked up the second ribbon tape and Levi watched as his serious-faced daughter reached down where he could not see and did something and then she reached a bloodied thumb and forefinger up her dress sleeve and pulled out a short-bladed, very sharp knife, and sliced something, then sloshed off the blade in the dishpan and lay the knife on the chair.
Sarah turned and Alfdis held out a towel: they wrapped the wiggling little bundle and Sarah turned it over and rubbed it and whispered to it and cooed to it, and apparently this newly arrived soul didn't really care to be rubbed and held and cooed at, for as Sarah walked around the bed, as the maid drew back, eyes big and round, as Alfdis smiled and tilted her head and watched, a wrinkled little arm thrust out of the enveloping towel and there was a squeak, then another, and a couple whimpers, and then as his lungs inflated fully, the newest member of the McKenna household opened his tiny little mouth and let the world at large know that he was not terribly happy to be there.
"Levi," Sarah said formally, "have you and Mother chosen a name for your son?"
Levi released Bonnie's hands and reached for the bundle Sarah offered.
"A son," he whispered, a big idiot grin growing on his face: he looked at Sarah, his eyes shining. "I have a son!"
Young Master Rosenthal squinted a little against the sudden glare on his young eyes and opened his mouth for another general announcement, and so Levi wisely bent, and handed the wailing little boy to his Mama, and Sarah went back around to the other side of the bed and began the woman's duty of cleaning and washing up and changing sheets from under the new mother.

Jacob watched as the two strangers hesitated at the front porch of the Rosenthal ranch.
Had he been closer he might have heard one ask the other, "This where she lives?" and the other reply in the affirmative; he would have heard their brief discussion, debating whether a soul so devious could be the product of such an ostentatious background.
Jacob might even have heard one ask the other how they were going to get the girl to come out so they could talk to her and judge for themselves whether she was likely to be the sort that would dress like a man and burgle a house, when the front door banged open and a young woman in a white dress staggered out and bent over the porch rail and heaved up her guts.
Sarah retched and choked for several long moments before wobbling down the steps and clutching at one of the men's arms.
"Help me to the barn," she coughed, bending to retch again: as the dumbfounded bounty hunter looked at his surprised partner, Sarah groaned "God help me, I am never, ever going to have a baby!"
They made it to the barn pump and Sarah hauled vigorously at the handle, sloshing a washtub half full of water before shoving her face and both hands into the cold water: she came up for air, gasping, snatched up a double handful and drank, drank again, then turned and heaved this up as well.
"Ma'am," the one bounty hunter asked, clearly off-balance, "what in the hell happened in there? -- beggin' your pardon, ma'am."
Sarah snatched up her apron to wipe her face, saw it was stained with blood and myconium, dropped it and turned green.
"Oh, God," she groaned and shoved her face into the water again.
She came back up, panting, gripping the edges of the wooden tub with white and trembling knuckles.
"I just delivered my mother's baby," she coughed. "Oh my God, I am never ever going to have children!"
She looked at the men, breathing through her mouth.
"Ma'am" -- the bounty hunters looked at one another -- "we, uh, is there anything we can do for you?"
Sarah shook her head, swallowing hard, then pumped viciously at the smooth, weather-browned, cast-iron pump handle: she snatched up a tin cup, pumped it full, downed it as if parched: she pumped another, drank, then dropped the cup, allowing it to swing and bang against the pump body.
Sarah staggered a few steps away, bent over and heaved her belly empty once more.
The two bounty hunters decided this would be a good moment for their departure, and did: as they rode away, they could hear Sarah moaning, "Oh my God, I am never, ever having a baby!"
Jacob watched the pair ride off, then he mounted and cantered up to Sarah.
Sarah removed the soiled linen apron and folded it carefully: by the time he crossed the intervening hundred yards, Sarah was her composed, usual self, her spectacles on top of her head, smiling that ornery Sarah-smile he knew and loved so well.
"Jacob," Sarah said, "you are an uncle."
"An uncle?" he asked. "Sarah ... you looked sick, are you okay?"
"Never better," she smiled. "And yes you are an uncle. Mama has a fine baby boy!" She laughed. "What did you think of my performance?"

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Charlie MacNeil 5-10-13


"Tap, tap, tap." The delicate rap of feminine knuckles on whitewashed pine prompted the occupant of the room to put down the novel he was perusing in a distracted manner. As he pushed up from his chair the heavyset bald man drew his gold Arcadia watch from his vest pocket to check the time. Seeing the position of the hands brought a smile to his face. His evening's entertainment was right on time...

He drew the deadbolt and twisted the cut glass knob. The door swung inward to reveal a stunning, high-bosomed redhead whose undercut corset of bright emerald green highlighted wide, snapping eyes of the same color. Net stockings accented the tone of the legs they hid and revealed and the emerald bodice left little to the imagination. This was a man who appreciated feminine pulchritude, and this female had pulchritude in spades. He whistled softly as his eyes slid the length of her comely frame. On the other hand, his idea of a good time was to reduce said pulchritude to its lowest denomination, leaving the owner an emotional wreck and himself feeling like the king of all he surveyed.

For her part, the "high-bosomed redhead" was disgusted at the sight that greeted her when the door opened but refused to allow her expression to show her feelings. The man had bathed recently, but his vest showed evidence of at least two meals if not more, and was stretched tightly over the results of relatively few missed meals. Several chins were crammed in what had to be a painful manner into the boiled collar of a stiffly starched shirt that was frayed at the cuffs. The overall picture was that of a man of money and privilege who took advantage of that privilege perhaps a bit more than was absolutely necessary. Fannie smiled as she put out a carefully manicured hand. "Mister Barlow, isn't it?" she said in her sweetest "butter won't melt in my mouth" Carolina drawl.

"Why yes, my dear," the man, whose name Fannie had immediately decided was actually Barnes, agreed after a moment's pause. "Won't you come in?"

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Linn Keller 5-11-13


Jacob turned a little at the rattle of a carriage, the brisk cadence of the horse drawing it: his mother came through the high, cast iron arch at a brisk pace, and Jacob raised a summoning arm.
Sarah continued to smile, but when Jacob looked back, the smile was a litle strained, then she groaned and turned away and began to gag and choke again, just before she thrust her face into the washtub again.
When Jacob reached up to help his mother from the carriage, Sarah was just coming up for air: cold wellwater streamed from her chin and she coughed, groaning, and grabbed the pump to keep from falling over.
She felt Esther's hands on her shoulders.
"If I did not know better," Esther said quietly, "I would say you just delivered your first baby!"
Sarah nodded, shivering, as Esther drew Sarah in for a motherly hug.
Jacob shifted from one foot to the other, uncertain quite what he should do; he finally decided he would just stand there: the bounty hunters were long out of sight, he knew, and so he could afford to wait.
Esther murmured something, quiet, the understanding voice of a mother and grandmother, stroking Sarah's sweat-damp hair at the nape of her neck.
Sarah forbade herself to cry, she absolutely positively decided she was NOT going to cry, she squeezed her eyes shut, gritting her teeth and clenching her fists.
"Now what was that about an act?" Jacob asked gently.
Sarah breathed through her mouth, trying hard to bring herself back under control.
"Jacob," she whispered. "I lied!"
Esther slipped a gloved, bent finger under Sarah's chin and raised her head; gently, carefully, she blotted Sarah's damp eyes and kissed her forehead.
"Let's go inside, shall we?" she whispered. "I think we need some tea."

Jacob had Levi's carriage hitched up and ready.
The hired man had long ago brushed and tended and turned Sarah's piebald into the pasture, the heavy carriage back in its stall; Jacob discussed the selection of carriage-horses with the hired man, and they mutually agreed that if Levi was going to carry news of his newly arrived son to the Jewel, he would need a horse that could be depended on to return home, without fail, without the help of bit or reins.
"This one," the hired man said, rubbing a nondescript grey mare's ears. "Her name is Compass, and she's more dependable than I am!"
Jacob watched Levi closely, a habit he cultivated early and practiced faithfully: as a lawman, he needed to be able to read people, their reactions, their responses to different situations, and he was shamelessly taking advantage of Levi having just been told he had a son.
Levi found Jacob a sympathetic and attentive ear, and wasted no time in pouring forth his account of Bonnie's delivery, of Sarah's command of the situation, of the utter calm and absolute confidence and reassuring competence Sarah showed, and he even chuckled a little when he told Jacob about Bonnie and Sarah both shouting at him about the knife under the pillow.
Jacob walked his Nightmare-horse beside the gleaming carriage, and tied his mare off at the hitch rail in front of the Jewel.
Jacob raised a summoning chin to his father, who waited across the street.
Levi met the Sheriff halfway, grinning broadly as a paid-off politician, pumping his old friend's hand enthusiastically: though Jacob could not hear the words, he could imagine them, especially when he saw his father's answering grin, the hearty clap of a hard hand on the ex-Agent's shoulder.
Of all the souls in the Silver Jewel that night, few remained sober: those that did, were only about a half dozen: the Sheriff, Jacob, Tom Landers, Mr. Baxter, Dolly and Tilly.
It was not for another day and a half that Levi realized his horse's name was well chosen.

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Linn Keller 5-12-13


The Rosenthal household soon became a hub and a hive of humming womanhood; women and girls converged, smiling, chattering,
cooing over the new arrival, marveling at how fine a lad he was, how strong, commenting on his hair, his nose, the usual comments that are made about a newborn: Sarah smiled and patiently endured the many comparisons as to how he had his mother's eyes or his father's hands or how he looked like Bonnie or how he looked like Bonnie's father or how the little fellow bore a distinct resemblance to a more distant ancestor; Sarah kept a patient smile about her, nodding and murmuring where appropriate, hesitating to offer her opinion that the squinting, yawning little fellow with the healthy appetite looked very much like ... well, she thought he looked very much like a baby, and in that, Sarah was content.
Levi, for his part, was content to flee his fortress and abandon it to the sea of femininity; to his credit, he didn't get too loaded at first, though in fairness he was feeling very little pain by the time he made his escape from the general celebration in the Silver Jewel, with the Sheriff's help: he wisely (and discreetly) asked Mr. Baxter to water his beer, and managed to nurse this through the many toasts to his health, his beautiful wife, his son and heir, their cattle, the King of Norway, the price of winter wheat and anything else the celebrants managed to think of, for when a man has a son, why, the entire world wishes to celebrate his great good fortune!
The Sheriff clapped a firm hand on one of the bounty hunter's shoulders.
The man slouched, morose and hip-shot, at one end of the bar, gloomily contemplating the State of the Union as expressed by beer-bubbles; he looked up at the pale-eyed lawman's sympathetic expression.
"You look like a man that just lost his best friend," the Sheriff said. "Let me stake you and your partner to a meal at least."
The fellow chuckled and nodded. "Friend," he said, thrusting out his hand, "I will take you up on that and thank you for it."
The Sheriff took the man's hand, then turned and picked up his beer, raised a summoning finger to Daisy's girl, and led the way back to the Lawman's Corner.
He parked himself with his back to the wall as he always did; one of the bounty hunters sat on his right, the other on the left: it was less crowded here in back, with most of the noisy crowd up near the bar: Levi was laughing, doing his best to keep his half full beer mug level as he was hoist -- again -- onto the shoulders of shouting, laughing men; there was a general cheer as someone yelled "To the ladies!" and another round was poured.
The Sheriff laughed. "At this rate," he said, "the bar will have to invest in a matchmaker!" He grinned at the older of the two bounty hunters. "The more of our girls get married, the more babies they'll have, and if Mr. Baxter does this much business when a baby arrives ..."
The Sheriff shrugged and the pair laughed; they looked at the Daisy's girl as she sashayed back to the table, swinging her hips and laying a light hand on the strangers' shoulders.
"What'll it be, fellas?" she almost shouted, pitching her voice to be heard above the happy hubbub. "The beef is good, the bread is fresh and I am not the special of the day, so don't ask!"
"Darn it," the Sheriff snapped his fingers, "I lose out again!"
Daisy's girl gave the Sheriff a smoldering look. "Anytime, big boy," she challenged, and the Sheriff clutched his chest as if seizing a spearshaft that just drove through his breastbone.
"Wounded!" he groaned. "Wounded!" -- then he leaned toward the man on his right and grinned, "A hot woman and a cold glass of water and I'd die of a heart attack!"
They all laughed at that and Daisy's girl swatted at him and said "Just for that you all get the special!" -- she hoisted her nose in the air and swung around, swinging her hips more than she really had to, knowing that more than the three were watching the swish of her skirts as she made her way back to the kitchen.
The Sheriff shook his head mournfully.
"It's a har-r-rd life I lead," he said, his voice heavy with sorrow, "but someone has to do it!"
The shorter of the two bounty hunters leaned across the table.
"Mister," he said, "you don't know ... you ain't related to that pale eyed Sheriff, now, are you?"
"You might say that," Linn grinned. "Do I look that much like him?"
"I ain't never seen him," the fellow admitted, "but you might be his uncle or some-such."
"I try not to look in the mirror too much," Linn chuckled. "Spoils my appetite first thing in the morning to look at somethin' that ugly!"
"You might know ..."
One looked at the other; both nodded.
"We're lookin' for that little fellow who broke into a man's house and stole his proud-ofs."
"You fellas lawmen?"
They dropped their eyes, shook their heads.
"What's the dollar on his head?"
"Plenty," the taller of the two grunted, and named a figure.
The Sheriff whistled.
"I hear tell it was counterfeiting plates that was taken," Linn said, "and I was given to understand it was the Pinkertons that did it."
"Yeah, we heard that too. Pink or not, if we can find him ..." He shrugged. "The money's good if you can earn it."
The Sheriff nodded. "Yeah, that's like a lot of things. The money's good if you want it bad enough."
"Yeah." They leaned back as Daisy's girl arrived with heavily loaded plates.
The shorter of the two whistled.
"This is the special?"
"Yep," the Sheriff grinned as the girl slid the salt cellar closer to him.
"Oh, hell," the man murmured. "I'm gonna like this!"
The three turned their attention to their meal: the smashed taters were creamy, the gravy thick, hot and spiced up just right, the beef was tender, with the barely detectable hint of garlic and onion: the good cook knows how to enhance without overwhelming, and today's Daisy's cook was very, very good.
When they slowed down and Daisy's girl loaded their plates up again without asking, conversation resumed, though the three were obviously intent on paying due credit to the gut stretcher on the table before them.
"Say, you bein' related to the Sheriff and all," the shorter of the bounty hunters said, "might be you know everyone hereabouts."
The Sheriff looked at him, his light eyes amused.
"Well, I'm old, but I ain't blind," he said after swallowing a good fork full of meat and potatoes. "Who you lookin' for exactly?"
"That's just it. We don't know."
"Got a description?"
"Small fellow. Might even be a boy for all we know. Great big horse, black with three white stockings and a white blaze on the off hip."
"Any more description on the boy?"
They both shook their heads.
"No scars, no limp, not missin' a hand by any ..."
The Sheriff let his voice trail off, his eyes narrowing a little as he looked through the wall at something in his memory -- or so he wanted them to believe.
"Small man," he said thoughtfully, "huge horse ... you ain't the only ones to come a-lookin'. Did your ... employer ... say anythin' about shootin' at this fella?"
The two looked at one another.
"He said he shot at him."
"Didn't say a thing about drawin' blood?"
The two looked at one another again and the Sheriff could hear their mental gears grinding.
"Reason I'm askin'," he said, "they said somethin' about findin' a fella -- slight built if I recall right but I don't recall as they said he was short -- he'd been head shot, right about here" -- the Sheriff tapped the bone behind his right ear.
"Found a horse wanderin' with blood on the saddle. Big horse, black. Once they back trailed and found this fella deader'n a politician's promise, why, they allowed as that horse was fair game so they sold it to some sodbuster that had a belly full of the West and was high tailin' his way back East. He said that big black oat burner would pull a plow in fine shape."
"That black horse, did it have three white stockings?"
The Sheriff blinked. "Now ..." He frowned, pretending to think, pursed his lips as Daisy's girl whisked away his empty plate and landed a slice of pie in front of him.
"Pie too?" the shorter of the two bounty hunters said, his voice faint.
"You complainin'?" his partner snapped. "I ain't et this good since a box social ten years ago!"
"That horse," the Sheriff said, frowning a little and tapping his finger on the table cloth. "I do recall them sayin'," he nodded, and looked up.
"Every one's been lookin' for a horse with four white stockings. This one had three."
"Three!" The two looked at one another. "And that fella... dead, you say?"
"Deader'n hell," Linn affirmed. "Them Pinks were fair to dancin' in church when they got their hands on them plates, too."
"He had the plates?"
Linn laughed. "He didn't have nothin' but flies about him. No, them plates were in a poke beside him, them and some coin."
"Well, there goes the reward money."
"I was afraid 'a' that."
They looked at the Sheriff and smiled wryly. "That's the hell of this business, friend," the one said. "Kind of like drillin' for oil. You got to expect a dry hole now and then."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Where you two headed now?"
They shrugged, and the Sheriff saw no guile in their eyes.
"East, I reckon. Kansas, maybe."
The Sheriff nodded. "I been to Kansas," he said softly. "Spent a winter there once."
"Windy as a sack full of politicians." The Sheriff laughed. "I like to give them politicians hell."
The three sat there for a while longer, talking easily about inconsequential things, the way men will when their bellies are full and their guard is down; when the pair left the Jewel, it was with a cloth sack apiece, and in each sack, two meals' worth of good beef sandwiches and a small loaf of bread.
Levi staggered over to the Sheriff after the pair departed.
The Sheriff laid a hand on his friend's slightly unsteady shoulder.
"What say we go to where it's a little quieter?" he said, raising his voice to be heard.
Levi nodded.
The two men set their half empty mugs on the corner of the bar and slipped, unnoticed, out the front door.
The Sheriff saw the two bounty hunters in the distance, heading east, and felt a little tension leave his pleasantly full gut.
Levi followed his gaze,then looked with a serious expression at the skinny lawman with the iron grey mustache.
"Let's go have us a set," the Sheriff said quietly. "Some things you need to know."
"I know bounty hunters when I see them," Levi replied with an equally lowered voice. "How close are they to finding out?"
"I think I threw this pair off. The Pinks came in and gave us a good cover. It looks for all the world like the Pinks did it" -- he grinned at the frowning ex-agent -- "at least that's what more and more of 'em believe!"
They stepped up on the board walk in front of the Sheriff's office; Linn reached for the door latch just as it swung open.
Jacob grinned at the pair.
"I was just a-settin' the Sharps back in the rack," he said. "Levi, congratulations." He thrust out his hand and Levi grinned and pumped the younger man's hand happily.
"I would offer to buy you a drink," Jacob said slowly, "but maybe later."
Levi belched, nodded and apologized: "I really do beg your pardon," he murmured. "I think perhaps I should sit down."
Jacob caught him under one arm and the Sheriff under the other and they got the man into a chair before the accumulated efffects of many happy toasts hit Levi like the leading end of the noon freight.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-12-13


Fannie stepped into the hotel suite, noting as she did so the ropes that had been knotted about the uprights of the four-poster, then sloppily hidden from the casual observer. Fannie was far from casual as an observer. Behind her, she heard the rattle of the skeleton key in the lock, then the "tink" of the key falling into some sort of container. She reached into her bodice...

Her quarry's footsteps were silent on the thick Persian carpet, but his stertorous breathing gave away his approach, as did the cloying scent of garlic and stale whiskey that wafted from "Barlow's" open mouth with every exhale. As she felt the first wisps of his foul breath on her skin, her right hand dipped into her bodice and she spun gracefully on one toe. Barlow's thick hands were reaching for her when the Remington derringer's muzzle came to rest two chins down from the point of his jawbone. He froze...

"What the hell is this?" he demanded as best he could through teeth jammed together by the force of the small pistol's twin barrels pressing into his flesh.

"This is your comeuppance, Mister Barnes," Fannie replied calmly. She raised her voice. "Come on in, Sugar!" she called. There was the sound of a key rattling in the lock then the door swung silently open on its oiled hinges to reveal Charlie and the gaping, to Barnes' startled gaze at least, muzzle of the Remington in Charlie's right hand. Barnes glared back and forth between husband and wife for a moment before his rigid stance went loose with resignation. As Charlie strode into the room, pistol rock steady in his fist, Fannie stepped away from Barnes and lowered the derringer's hammer. Charlie stepped up behind Barnes and yanked his coat down around his elbows, effectively trapping his arms behind him...

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Charlie MacNeil 5-12-13


"Who are you people?" Barnes blustered, although the fearful look in his bulging blue eyes gave the lie to his attempted air of bravado. "Unhand me, or I'll have the law on you!"

"Oh shut up," Charlie told the prisoner as he conducted a swift, expert search for weapons, producing a pocket pistol, two knives and a set of brass knuckles. He shoved Barnes toward the chair near the four-poster. The combination of Barnes' large size and the relatively limited amount of space between the arms of the chair acted for all intents and purposes as a straitjacket, immobilizing all but the man's feet and his mouth.

"Did you hear what I said?" Barnes demanded, voice rising. "I'll have the law on you."

"And I told you to shut up," Charlie reminded him. "Before I stuff something in your pie hole and shut you up."

"You wouldn't dare!"

"Wouldn't I? Why don't you just try me, then you can hide and watch and see what happens?"

"I'll have the law on you! What is this? A robbery? I have money! Let me go and I'll pay you!" Barnes continued, changing his tack, his tone almost pleading now. Without a word, Charlie bent and retrieved a bundle of cloth from beneath the edge of the bed that turned out to be a pair of soiled drawers. Sending a mischievous smile in Fannie's direction, he waited until Barnes opened his mouth to continue his tirade. When the man's mouth opened to start again, Charlie stuffed as much of the drawers into the opening as he could make fit, then tied the bundle securely in place with his own bandanna. Blessed silence reigned immediately. Fannie stepped up behind Barnes and bent to whisper in his ear.

"We are the law, Sugar." The blood drained from Barnes' florid features, leaving his skin an unhealthy combination of mottled purple and white. The couple could see the words "Oh crap!" forming in the forger's eyes almost as if inscribed there in India ink...

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Charlie MacNeil 5-12-13


 A heavy hand pounded on the door. "What's going on in there? Mister Barlow, are you alright? Mister Barlow?"

Looking toward Barnes and pressing a finger to her lips, Fannie kicked off her shoes, opened her bodice even further, and ran her fingers through her hair, ruffling it so that disheveled curls hung enticingly around her face. She strode quickly to the door and opened it just far enough for one emerald eye to peek around the edge of the panel. "Can I help you?" she asked.

"I, uhm, I'm the night manager," the man who had knocked so heavily moments before stammered, taken aback by the voice and what he could see of Fannie through the crack in the door. "We, uh, er, I mean, I, had a complaint from the lady in the next room." He pointed to his right. "She said she heard loud voices coming from Mister Barlow's room. Is everything alright?"

"Of course it is, Silly," Fannie answered saucily. "Mister Barlow just got a little carried away is all." She allowed the door to open another inch. The man's eyes greedily devoured what he could see of her figure through the opening. "You know how that is, don't you?"

"Er, uhm, yes, ma'am, I guess I do," the hotel manager was finally able to reply. "Please try to keep the noise down in the future, would you please?"

"We'll do our best," she answered, turning up the wattage of her smile a bit more. "We'll do our best. But sometimes that sort of thing can be difficult."

"Th, thank, thank you," he replied. At that moment, had Fannie been so inclined, she was relatively certain that she could have ordered the man to attempt unaided flight from the hotel roof, and he would have gladly obeyed. Instead, the fellow reluctantly turned away and walked slowly toward the stairs to the hotel lobby, glancing over his shoulder once before he began to descend. Fannie "let" the door swing open further, and the man swallowed loudly, shook his head, and continued on his way back to his office behind the hotel registration desk. She stepped back inside the room and closed the door, locking it once again.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Linn Keller 5-14-13


Sarah felt almost out of place in the sea of women; she slipped as ghostlike as she could up the stairs and to her room, the twins spying her and following; the three huddled behind Sarah's closed door, the girls eyeing Sarah with worry, and Sarah, eyes closed and shaking a little, made a visible effort to calm herself.
It was not at all unusual for the younger ladies under the Rosenthal roof to watch each other dress, or to help one another dress, and so the twins thought nothing of Sarah taking off her stained, white-linen dress.
They did blink with surprise as Sarah wadded it in a ball and threw it with a snarled grunt against the opposite wall.
Sarah turned her head to glare at the twins: her face was stern, but her eyes were not pale, and so the twins were concerned, but not really fearful.
"I," Sarah said, then hesitated; she took a breath and tried again.
"I need my hair brushed."
The twins smiled and ran toward their big sister, happily accepting a hairbrush apiece: Sarah undid her hair and let it fall, then sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes shut, as the twins carefully, quickly, expertly brushed out their big sister's hair.
Sarah listened to the hiss of the brush through the strands, heard the light crackle of static -- she'd washed her hair the night before and it was still clean, and clean hair is full of electricity -- and the twins giggled and held a hairbrush close to see the hairs float up toward the stiff bristles.

Sarah and the twins emerged from her third floor bedroom and descended to where her mother was holding court.
Their new little brother was just fed; they slipped into the room as Bonnie wiped the lad's face, and the ladies ooh'd and ahh'd the way women will, when a newborn gives a truly huge yawn: the twins adopted Sarah's silent tread, stealthily insinuating themselves among the ladies, as if they'd been there all along.
Sarah examined her feelings and was relieved to discover she did not feel in the least bit guilty about leaving her mother, after she was safely delivered of the child; she was still surprised, still distressed at the strength of her reaction to her brother's birth.
Half-brother, something whispered in the back of her mind, and Sarah planted her hand on the something's face and shoved it away, hard: in her mind there were no halfway efforts: Jacob was her brother, the twins were her sisters, this tiny little fellow was her brother.
End of story.
No halfway about it.
She found herself marveling at the size of the lad.
Sarah knew his size was average, or nearly so; she'd not been there when they put him on the meat scales to weigh him, nor stretched out a carpenter's folding ruler -- or maybe Levi's big steel carpenter's square -- to measure his length -- Sarah found herself wondering how something as big as that lad came out of something as small as ...
Sarah closed her eyes, suddenly ill at ease: she swallowed hard and took a hard hold of her self control.
"Sarah?" she heard, and the voice was gentle, the caressing call of a mother, and Sarah opened her eyes and saw her mother's eyes smiling at her: the sea of skirts parted for her and she advanced, looking at the drowsy little boy all wrapped up in his Mama's arms.
"Sarah, I don't believe you've been properly introduced," Bonnie said gently.
"Mother," Sarah said in an equally soft voice, "I think we've actually met."
Mother and daughter shared a laugh, and Bonnie handed Sarah the warm, solid little bundle.
"There, just like that," Bonnie whispered.
Sarah looked down into the broad little face, frowned at him with concentration, and then looked at her mother.
"He doesn't look a thing like Levi," she whispered.
Bonnie's eyes widened, almost with alarm.
Sarah's eyes smiled as she finished, "No mustache."
Bonnie ducked her head, not wanting to laugh aloud, for fear of disturbing the lad: she need not have worried, as this was his father's son, and she could have fired off a cannon salute outside and he wouldn't have stirred: like his papa Levi and his uncle Linn, he was like a young bear: get his belly full and get him warm and he was ready for a good sound nap.
"Sarah, " Bonnie whispered, and Sarah looked up at her Mama's questioning eyes.
"Sarah, is this ... is he really the first baby you've ever delivered?"
Sarah looked at her new little brother almost sadly.
"No," she admitted. "I've delivered calves and colts and helped reach in and turn 'em when they were stuck, and I helped Brother William in the infirmary and delivered women there."
Sarah looked directly into her Mama's eyes, and Bonnie was struck by the hard certainty of her daughter's expression.
"It was," Sarah said, "the first time I delivered, my mother, of her child."
Sarah leaned down and kissed the sleeping little boy's forehead.
"It's always hardest when you're working on someone you know," she whispered.

"Here," the Sheriff said, holding out a dipper of water. "Drink this."
Levi took the dipper, sipped at it, realized he was dry enough to sneeze and blow dust, and downed the entire dipper.
"More when you want it," the Sheriff said.
Levi nodded and the Sheriff dipped up another, handed it to him.
"Your big danger is dehydrating. Makes your head hurt. Want some powders?"
Levi made a face, shook his head.
"Works for me," the Sheriff said. "I'll let you in on a secret."
Levi drank the second enamel dipper of water a little more slowly; he finished it, then leaned forward, elbows on his knees, the dripping dipper swinging from his long fingers.
"Do you recall the times I had to shoot a man and didn't particular want to?"
Levi nodded.
"You recall how I'll go in the Jewel and get a tall glass of Two Hit John and go back in the back, lay my rifle across the table and drink that whole glass?"
Levi nodded again.
"You recall how I drink it fairly fast?"
Levi nodded a third time.
It was the Sheriff's turn to lean forward.
"Levi, we don't play the cards, we play the card player.
"I drink it fast so I can still walk.
"I get up and I walk out of there, tall and straight and my step is firm and my eye is clear and my hand is sure.
"I do that before it has a chance to hit me.
"Then I go around to the water pump and I mix me up those powders and drink 'em down and I heave up everything in my growlin' gut. It ain't pleasant but I get all that whiskey out of me and I drink more water -- I drink too much and that guarantees I throw up again -- I do it a third time and by then I am stone cold sober.
"I come back inside and mutter somethin' about goin' through me like a keg of beer and then I leave.
"It looks to everyone that I can kill a man in cold blood, drink enough to kill two men and walk off unaffected."
"You're running a bluff."
"I'm running a bluff."
"I'll be damned."
"Those powders do the trick but they are bitter as a sinner's sermon and they ain't kind on the belly. Sure you don't want some?"
Levi shuddered and shook his head.
"Drink plenty of water," Jacob offered. "Like Pa said, it'll keep your head from hurtin'. A little coffee helps too." He smiled. "Just not his."
"Nobody likes my coffee," the Sheriff said sadly, shaking his head. "Can't imagine why."
"Maybe it's because it rots out your coffee pot and eats holes in the floor?" Levi offered sardonically.
"Besides that," Linn protested.

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Linn Keller 5-15-13


Brother William watched as the diminutive little nun with the veiled face bowed before the Altar, then turned and retreated slowly up the center aisle, walking as if she had a world's weight on her small shoulders.
Brother William waited, knowing she would steer a course for him: he was right, and as she came abreast of him, she reached out and took a firm grip on his sleeve.
Silently, the tall, white-robed Cistercian followed the little nun out of the Chapel, and into the courtyard.
It was quiet in the afternoon sun, cool enough to mitigate the sun searing through the thin atmosphere.
"Walk with me," the little nun said, and Brother William did: they passed through the open gates and walked the road beyond.
An occasional peasant stopped, removing broad sombrero and bowing to the pair: Brother William signed the Cross and bowed in return, the little nun bowing with him: the pair walked some distance before either spoke.
"Brother William," Sister Mercurius began, "a Sister is a Bride of Christ."
Brother William waited, knowing this was the beginning of a line of reasoning, or of a question.
"I am to be married."
"I know."
"Will this end my ... activity?"
"In the Church?" Brother William chuckled, his voice rich, coming from deep in his chest.
"My child, there are some things you must know."
Sister Mercurius was silent for several long moments, then, "I listen."
"First." Brother William stopped, turned, faced the little nun squarely: he placed gentle fingertips on her shoulders as she, too, stopped, and turned.
"You are correct when you say the Sisters are Brides of Christ."
He frowned a little, arranging his thoughts.
"You will be married to a good man, by all accounts."
Sister Mercurius's face could not be seen for her veil, but she nodded, once, carefully.
"There are responsibilities of husband and wife," Brother William said quietly.
"The husband is the strong right arm of the union: his is the office of provider, protector, his is the arm that wields the sword of justice, the shield of protection. His is the responsibility for the marriage and for the family; he is, under law, Head of Household.
"And you will be his bride.
"The union between man and wife is the union between Church and Christ, my child." Brother William's eyes were dark, his expression kind, understanding, as he continued. "You are marrying Christ when you marry your good husband."
Sister Mercurius held very still.
"Thank you, Brother William," she said after a long hesitation.
"You were wondering if your time as Sister Mercurius ends at your wedding."
"I was wondering."
"No, my dear Agent."
Sister Mercurius's head snapped around and Brother William knew if the intervening veil were not in place, the good Sister's eyes would have been very pale indeed.
"The Church has need of those who can go, and see, and do, just as the court has need. You have been of immense benefit to the Church, and we see no reason this should end."
Sister Mercurius was silent for a longer time; Brother William turned and began walking again, and the Sister with him, and at length she inquired, "I won't be hunting down heretics, now, will I?"
Brother William laughed again, and his laughter was genuine.
"No, my dear," he chuckled. "No, most assuredly not!"
"I would that you heard my confession."
Brother William bowed his head in assent.
"I wish to confess something I have yet to do."
"That is a little ... unusual."
"Oh don't worry. I don't intend to sow wild oats and the pray for crop failure."
Brother William nodded. "Good. I would be disappointed if you did."
"Would you be disappointed if I gussied up like a dance-hall girl and did a scandalous can-can on stage before a drunken crowd of half drunk gamblers?"
Brother William threw back his head and laughed again, then looked down at the petite, modest figure beside him.
"I take it ... the life of adventure calls you ... and this is one form of adventure you wish to throw into the wind, that you may have its memory when you are a dowager."
"Something like that."
"There is something more."
"Am I that transparent?"
It was Brother William's turn to be silent.
"Oh, all right," she sighed. "The Brigade is taking my husband-to-be to Denver and they intend to waste an evening in debauchery and drink and dance hall girls."
"And you don't want one night of Venus to end in six weeks of Mercury."
"It's not that." Sarah's voice was low, quiet. "I want to seduce him myself."
"Before you are honorably wed?"
"Better me than some poxy wench!" Sarah hissed, her voice tight, and Brother William felt the waves of anger as they radiated through the immaculate habit.
"You don't trust him?"
"He is a man," Sarah said quietly. "Men succumb to temptation."
"And you will surrender your virtue to keep him from another."
"You're damned right I will!"
"You must love him deeply."
"Brother William, I was afraid ... after all I was put through as a little girl ... I feared I would never be able to love. Period. But I do. If --"
"Is there not a better approach?"
Brother William's voice was quiet as he studied the glories of the setting sun.
"I'm listening."
"My dear Sister" -- Brother William's capital S was audible in his address -- "could you not intstead have a conversation with your husband's Chieftain ... I believe his name is Sean ... and let him know that if your husband is given over to an excess of temptation, that he, Sean, will wake to find himself a gelding?"
Sister Mercurius laughed and it had the sound of tension unwinding from her cranked-up gut.
"No, Brother William," she finally said, "that won't work ... but if I personally make that statement to each individual member of the Brigade, it just might!"

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Linn Keller 5-16-13


Sarah rode back to Firelands, taking trails known to her and few others; as she rode, she thought, and as she thought, she decided.
I will not speak thus to Sean.
Nor will I address any of the Brigade in such a way.
I will do something far more difficult.

Sarah took a long breath, looked up at the hard, glittering stars.
I will trust.

"Then I hope ye enjoy yersel's," Daffyd said quietly.
Grins faded from Irish faces as the Brigade realized he'd just turned them down.
No one voice spoke; every voice raised itself, trying to climb above its fellows, and the brick firehouse was filled with shouting, arguing men, each bent on persuading the recalcitrant Welshman that he really, truly, genuinely wished to go with them for one last carousing frolic of drunkenness and debauchery.
Daffyd withstood the verbal onslaught for almost a full minute before holding his hands up for quiet: not getting this, he set his jaw, then turned and seized a chair and brought it down hard on the table, hard enough to break a rung free and shiver the dishes off the far end.
Glaring into the sudden, shocked silence, it was Daffyd Llewellyn's turn to raise his voice.
Every voice answered him, every voice worded the reply slightly differently but they all came down to the same thing:
Daffyd Llewellyn's jaw thrust out and his hard eyes glared at his fellows, traveling slowly from face, to face, to face: his spine was rigid, his belly tight, and he frankly did not give a good damn to know he'd just disappointed his most bosom friends, his colleagues, his partners.
"Because," he said in the sudden hush, "Sarah trusts me."
Jaws hung slack; fingers thrust unbelievingly through hairlines; firemen looked at one another, then back to the recalcitrant Welsh Irishman.
"Do ye go ahead an' go," Daffyd said, his voice still quiet. "Go, an' wi' my blessing. Celebrate my good fortune, eat, drink and wench t' yer heart's excess, but ye'll do it wi'out me."
His eyes were as hard as his voice.
"She trusts me an' I'll no' betray her!"

A shadow moved, fading from the trunk of the pine against which it had stood motionless for the better part of an hour.
The ratcheting triple-click of a Colt revolver coming to full cock froze the shadow into motionlessness again.
"Unbuckle," the Sheriff's quiet voice said, "and drop."
The shadow hesitated, then threw itself to the side, twisting and stabbing two quick shots into the darkness.
Knowing he was hidden, the Sheriff waited: when the shadow's head came out from behind a low rock, the Sheriff fired once.
The shadow convulsed and lay still.
Half an hour later, when Sarah rode through, she brought her lineback dun to a halt; she heard nothing, saw nothing, but there had been gunshots, and she smelled powder smoke now, stale and hanging in the air, just enough to be smelt but not seen: sidewalking the tough, ugly horse into some screening brush, she listened, her good right hand tight around the checkered grip of her Smith & Wesson.
A whip-poor-will called, softly, muffled by distance, called again.
Sarah eased the dun forward, slowly, smiling a little.
"Don't worry," she heard the Sheriff's voice. "He's dead."
"Was I right?" she asked.
"You were right." The Sheriff stepped through a shaft of moonlight and back into shadow. "How did you know?"
"It's what I would have done," Sarah said quietly.
The Sheriff nodded.
"His partner?"
"He's watching the house," the Sheriff replied, almost invisible in the dark.
In the distance a yell, the savage growling of a large dog.
"Well," the Sheriff said, and Sarah could hear the grin in his voice, "he used to be watching the house."
"If they'd just gone on to Kansas like they said they were going to."
"Their kind never do," the Sheriff said tiredly. "All they can see is dollar signs. Never mind the dollars are counterfeit, never mind their employer is out of the picture for good, never mind -- ah, never mind!"
There were shouts in the distance.
"I reckon by the time we get there," the Sheriff said, and Sarah heard saddle leather creak as the man mounted, "they'll be ready for me to take possession of the prisoner." He rode his black Outlaw-horse into the clearing.
"I can see why you like a black horse."
"Your dun hides pretty well too."
"I learned from the best," Sarah smiled, even though she knew her smile would not be visible in the darkness.
"I know you did," the Sheriff replied. "Now I'm cold and if your Mama doesn't have a pot of coffee waitin' on me I'll be surprised!"

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Linn Keller 5-18-13


One thing I'll say for Levi, the man knows how to treat a prisoner.
This fellow was in irons, naked to the waist and bandaged up by the time I got there: Levi had his proud-ofs in a cloth sack for me and he'd written down what the man had to say, and had it in that sack too.
Bonnie was abed with her little one but Levi wasn't; he was still dressed and after the excitement, why, he was more than wide awake.
The Bear Killer, on the other hand, was bored with proceedings thus far; after he'd done his part in taking down the skulking scoundrel, he curled up on the porch rug, looking immensely pleased with himself.
"Levi," I said, "did I hear some disturbance a little bit ago?"
Levi looked at me and his expression was that of a man who could cheerfully beat the dog stuffing out of someone, and only a little bit of civilization was holding him back.
"Yes," he said, his reply clipped, cold: "yes, you did."
"I see the situation is well in hand."
"That dog," the fellow chattered, his teeth rattling together -- it was chilly out, not frosted but it wasn't warm, and he was still bare to the belt -- "that dog tried to k-k-kill me!"
"I know that dog," I replied mildly. "He's tore into grizzly bear before and he didn't come out in second place. If he'd wanted you dead, mister, you'd have no throat."
"Nor much of anything else," Sarah said pleasantly as she walked quietly to the end of the porch, looking down on our little scene.
"Your partner," I said, "met with a bad end. Suppose you tell me what the two of you had in mind."
"How bad was his end?"
"Well," I drawled, "most of his brains ended up on the ground. That end of him did not fare well at all and I don't reckon the rest of him is doing too well either. I'm wondering if I'd ought to go pack in his carcass or let the critters eat him."
The prisoner shivered. "Ain't you gonna help me? I'm freezin'!"
"Your friend," Sarah said, "wanted to do me harm. Why?"
"He didn't want to hurt you none," the prisoner chattered through numb lips. "He just wanted to make you talk."
"I reckon you'd better be the one talking," I said slowly.
"He already said plenty," Levi commented. "I took down his statement. It's in the sack with his effects."
I nodded as Levi handed the bag up to me.
"Good," I said. "Let's get you to the calaboose, mister. I'll come out and fetch in your friend's carcass once you're behind bars."

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Linn Keller 5-19-13


I didn't hear much out of the prisoner next day, and that suited me just fine.
He didn't look up to meet my eye when I fetched back his meals, nor when I let him out to dump his chamber pot.
He was the image of a whipped, beaten man.
Of course being chewed on by The Bear Killer will damage a man's self confidence, and when said creature is walking along at my heel ... well, I don't reckon that prisoner felt much like trying anything, seeing as how he'd been chawed on like a stray ham bone by that self same big black critter just the night before.
I might have found some amusement if I hadn't gotten that damned letter.
I was half expecting word from Charlie, but not at all surprised to hear nothing: the man had a way of disappearing for a time ... he'd just evaporate and get some good work done, then he was back like he'd never been gone, unless there was some need to communicate, then he would send a message in words of one syllable or less.
No, that ain't really fair, one syllable or less.
I know why I had such a grouch on ... hell, you couldn't have pleased me if you'd walked in and laid a hundred dollars in gold coin on the desk and told me happy birthday.
The letter lay on the desk where I read it, and laid it down, and leaned back and stared at the ceiling for a while.
A friend of mine passed away and I felt ... well, I felt like a man does when someone dies and he realizes just how long it's been since he'd seen 'em or written to 'em.
Guilty conscience, I reckon, or the child in me.
I know there's nothing we can do to hurt or to help the dead, and I know funerals are for the living and not the dead, and I know I am a child, looking around the playground that is this lifetime.
It's still daylight and there's still time to play and I don't want my friend to go but he's gone, and not one damned thing I can do about it.
I leaned back in my chair and looked at The Bear Killer and The Bear Killer kind of flowed like an inky shadow across the floor.
He climbed his forepaws up on my thigh and snuffed at my chin and licked me behind the ears the way he always did and I reached up and rubbed his ears, and that big heavy brush of a tail swung back and forth and like to beat a hole in the wall in the process.
I needed a friend 'cause I just read that letter and realized I'd lost one of the best friends I'd ever known, and The Bear Killer allowed as he was one such, and who was I to argue.
I know we are children and in this lifetime we learn as much in the schoolyard as we do in the classroom, and I know my friend was taken in from the playground by a Wise and Loving Parent, and I know that I'll see him again in the dawning of the new day ... until then my friend is safe and warm and fed and protected and ... and I look around and he's gone and I am sad.
I am a child.
I hugged The Bear Killer and I was glad it was just him and me 'cause he licked the salt water off my face and nobody else to see it and he wasn't gonna talk.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-19-13


"This man tried to kill me!" Barnes shrieked, his normal baritone voice coming out at least one, if not two, registers higher than usual. With his hands shackled behind him and his townie shoes scuffed and scraped from the grinding of the coarse hemp twine that had kept his feet in the stirrups for the last fifty odd miles to the US Marshal's office in Denver the counterfeiter could only nodded furiously at Charlie.

"If he'da wanted to kill you, he wouldn't have hauled your carcass clear up here from wherever he found you," US Marshal Billy Shackleton commented drily. He looked up at Charlie and Fannie. "You been listenin' to that caterwaulin' for very long?"

"Nah," Charlie replied, deadpan. "He was chewin' on a pair of his own dirty drawers for most of the trip."

"Really?" Shackleton asked, looking not at his free agent marshal, but at the lovely redhead on the sorrel horse beyond where Barnes sat uncomfortably esconced on the rawhide-covered tree of the unblanketed Navajo saddle Charlie had procured for him.

"Really," Fannie assured Shackleton. "He was raising a fuss, and it was the first thing my husband, who is known in some circles for his bizarre sense of humor, ran across to use to muzzle him. Seemed like a good idea to me too, actually." She smiled wickedly. "It kept him quiet at least."

Shackleton shook his head, not sure, now, what exactly he'd gotten himself into when he'd offered Charlie the job of roving marshal. Oh well, he thought to himself, it seemed like a good idea at the time, and he did bring Barnes in when not even the Pinks could find him.

"Well, let's get him inside and out of sight," Shackleton said. He looked up at Barnes. "You gonna come peaceful-like and quiet, or do we need to stuff you mouth full again?"

Barnes sucked in a deep breath and opened his mouth, fully intending to give all and sundry in the immediate vicinity an earful of vitriolic vocabulary. Instead, his first utterance was a strangled, muffled squawk as Charlie quickly thrust the well-chewed and saliva-soaked wad of the man's own drawers back between his jaws. "Guess that answers that, Boss," Charlie drawled with a grin. He swung down from his roan gelding, dropping the reins, and stepped toward the shaggy chestnut burro Barnes was seated on. He drew the short-bladed antler-handled skinning knife from the back of his belt. "You set still while I cut your feet loose, and maybe you won't have an accident gettin' down off of that fine steed, Barnes," he ordered. "Otherwise, who knows what might happen?" He cut through the rope on Barnes' right foot and stepped around behind the burro to cut the rope on the left stirrup.

Barnes slipped his left foot from the stirrup and swung his shoe toward Charlie's face. Charlie leaned back far enough for the battered shoe to miss, grasped Barnes' ankle with both hands, and heaved upward. The pudgy counterfeiter tumbled from the saddle to light with a thump and a cloud of dust, then a soggy splat, on a freshly-deposited pile of recycled horse fodder. He rolled back and forth for most of two minutes, struggling to suck enough air through just his dust-clogged nostrils to re-inflate the lungs so suddenly emptied by his impact with the soil of the street. Said rolling served mainly to spread fresh horse manure pretty much from one end of his already untidy person to the other. Shackleton looked down at him in disgust.

"You couldn't have dumped him on bare dirt?" he asked Charlie, who shrugged innocently.

"You heard me tell him to set still, Boss," Charlie replied.

"Well, lets get him up and dunk him in the horse trough, see if we can get some of that stuff off of him before we haul him inside," Shackleton said tiredly. The two men grasped the prisoner by the shoulders of his coat, which were mostly clean, dragged him over to the aforementioned trough and unceremoniously dropped him in, prompting a whole new struggle to suck in his breath due to the temperature of the water. His thrashings served to flush at least part of the manure from his clothes. After a couple of minutes the two marshals helped Barnes out of the trough and pushed him up the stairs into the Marshal's office.

"Norton!" Shackleton bellowed toward the back of the building.

"Yeah, Boss!" they heard faintly.

"Get up here and take charge of this prisoner!"

"Yeah, Boss!" Norton, the jailer, appeared from the shadows down the hall, keys jingling on the ring attached to his belt. He eyed Barnes distastefully. "Did ya have ta drag him through every pile of road apples in the street before ya brought him in here?" He glared down at the floor to where Barnes stood steadily dripping into a rapidly expanding puddle of dirty water. "And he's gettin' my nice clean floor all dirty!"

"Think of it as job security," Charlie answered drily.

"Humph!" Norton grunted. He grasped Barnes roughly by his sodden sleeve. "Come on, you!" Jailer and prisoner disappeared around the corner leading to the cell block at the back of the building, the chuckles of the pair of marshals drifting along behind.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-19-13


"Come on in, and we'll get the paperwork taken care of," Shackleton ordered. Husband and wife followed the husky Marshal into his cluttered office. "Set." He pointed to a mismatched pair of battered ladderback chairs that stood in front if his paper-covered desk. They sat. Dropping into the nearly new padded judge's chair on his own side of the desk, Shackleton pulled open the left hand bottom drawer and drew out a paper-stuffed folder. Withdrawing the top sheet from the folder, he pushed the sheet, a steel-nibbed pen and a pot of ink across to Charlie.

"I took the liberty of filling out the arrest report myself," Shackleton said. "All you gotta do is sign it."

"How did you know we were coming?" Fannie asked, her curiosity piqued.

"Hell, any time this character does anything, the whole damn country knows about it almost as soon as it happens," the boss replied with a grin. "He's what you might call famous in Marshal circles. Or infamous, I forget which." His grin widened. "Having you along kind of gets attention, too. You aren't exactly unknown yourself."

"But we're retired," Fannie protested.

"Actually, it wasn't as bad as I made it sound," Shackleton replied. He jerked his chin at Charlie. "He had somebody in that town yonder send me a telegram." He answered Fannie's glare with another wide grin.

Fannie favored Charlie with a glare of equal intensity with the one she had directed at Shacklton. "So you let me think that he," she pointed at Shackleton, "didn't know we were coming, and that we were going to "surprise" him with Barnes? I should thump you with something!"

"Easy, Darlin'!" Charlie said, raising his hands in mock defense. "I'm sorry, it just seemed like the thing to do at the time. You know me and my, what was that you called it? Bizarre sense of humor?"

"Just remember, I know where you live, and you have to sleep some time," she retorted. She flounced back in her chair, arms crossed. "I will get you for this."

"Yes, Dear," Charlie answered as he pushed the paper back across the desk to his boss. "There ya go. Now I'm ready for a drink, a bath and a meal, and not necessarily in that order. After I send a telegram to Firelands."

"You've got a standing reservation at the Denver House," Shackleton informed the couple. "Tie your horses out front, and I'll have somebody take care of 'em. I'll see you in the morning."

Later that day, Lightning recorded an incoming telegram for the Sheriff:

Barnes in jail in Denver Stop Headed back to ranch Stop Find me a foreman yet? End MacNeil

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Linn Keller 5-20-13


I watched it like it was a dream.
Hell, it was a dream.
I watched myself walk, hollow-eyed, like a man in ... shock? -- a man not himself ... walked like an automaton across the street to the Silver Jewel.
I watched myself climb the few steps and open the door.
I watched myself walk in and not even look around, and I watched myself walk up to a man who was talking loud and looking for trouble, a man who took one look and launched a punch.
I watched as my dream-self caught the fist, left-handed, stopping it easily.
I watched as my dream-self seized the man's windpipe right-handed and crushed it, and I felt the throat beneath my own hand and I felt life pulsing hard against it and I felt the cartilage crush under my grip and I smelled blood on his breath as the larynx failed and the inonimate artery was torn asunder and the vocal cords snapped shut, sealed with mucus and with blood, and the man's eyes were wide, wide and afraid as he realized he was going to die ...

I woke up when that-there office chair kicked out from under me.
I'd got drowsy after The Bear Killer give me a good face washin' and I must have leaned back all comfortable-like, and that chair allowed as it was going to have a good laugh.
I reckon it looked comical, was anyone there to see it: I ended up flat on my back, again, the back of my head bearing unhappy testimony to the velocity with which I belted my gourd against the wall and then the floor, and my boot heels pointed straight up at the ceiling.
The Bear Killer circled the desk and snuffed curiously at me, then tentatively licked my face, obviously wondering if I had taken leave of my senses.
I reached up and stroked his soft underjaw.
"I," I said painfully, "need a drink."
Once I'd assumed a less undignified posture I set that chair back up and considered Charlie's advice to get a nail keg to set on, or a peach crate or some-such.
As a matter of fact I muttered aloud, "I should have listened to the man."
The chair, for its part, said nothing.
I looked at that bottom right hand desk drawer and considered whether I'd ought to pour myself a good belt of medicinal alcohol, then I allowed as no, I'd just go on across to the school house and let their dear Miss Sarah know Barnes was found.
Then, I figured, since I was not crossing directly from here to the Jewel, it would be safe to go accept Mr. Baxter's hospitality.

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Linn Keller 5-21-13


"Thinks he's so damned high and mighty!" Stephen White muttered, glaring at his empty glass: he glared at Mr. Baxter as the man filled the glass again, grudgingly sliding coin across the mahogany and drinking the amber tonic as if it were water.
"He might be a bad man with a gun," White muttered, "but he's nothing against this!" -- and so saying, he smacked a scar-knuckled fist into the palm of the other hand.
Mr. Baxter raised an eyebrow as he looked at Tom Landers, then tilted his head toward the darkly-muttering fellow with a load on.
Tom Landers nodded, once, slid a lead loaded slung shot up his sleeve and sauntered across the Jewel, casually looking about at the various gamblers happily wheeling and dealing fortunes across cloth tablecloths.

Sarah's eyes were bright as she looked over her round schoolmarm spectacles at the Sheriff: she held both his hands in both hers, her eyes on his, carefully listening to every word the man said.
"He's caught," she repeated softly, her hands tightening a little.
The Sheriff nodded, once, poker faced, knowing that -- although they stood at the back of the schoolroom and spoke in low voice -- every ear was attuned, straining to hear any scrap of conversation, and every eye was seeking any excuse to turn and regard them.
To that end, a record number of chalks, pencils and books made it to the floor and had to be retrieved.
"Thank you," Sarah whispered, closing her eyes. "Now we need to let the word spread that ... he's caught ... there will be no reward now."
The Sheriff nodded.
Sarah opened her eyes, smiling, mischief dancing in her gaze: "Does this mean we don't change the name to Black Horse County?"
The Sheriff's poker face cracked and fell to the floor, replaced by a slow grin, and Sarah continued, "I have something to tell you."
The Sheriff nodded.
"I asked Aunt Esther's permission," she said, and the Sheriff saw her cheeks color a little, and he noticed how her breathing changed ... a little faster, she was a little excited now.
"Aunt Esther's birthday," she said slowly, and he felt a little tremble in her hands, "is November 23rd."
Sarah looked up, almost shyly, through her eyelashes, and the Sheriff was struck -- amazed, of a sudden -- at his little girl's beauty, and he realized in that thunderbolt moment just how beautiful a woman his daughter was become -- "Papa, we wish to be married on Aunt Esther's birthday!"
The Sheriff abandoned all pretense at solemnity or sternness.
The schoolhouse needed no pretense this time.
Their beloved and dignified Miss Sarah gave a squeak of delight, the Sheriff threw his head back and laughed, and every hear turned to see Sarah jump into the man's arms, and the Sheriff whirl his daughter around, laughing the good hearty laugh of a delighted father.

The Sheriff grinned all the way to the Silver Jewel.
He took the three steps from street to board walk at little short of a run; he thrust opened the door, winked at Tilly, and his left hand flashed up to intercept the incoming fist.
He caught the fist, stopped it easily: still grinning, still with a belly full of delight, he drove his good right fist into the man's gut, ramming him hard back against the corner of the bar, and proceeded to give him a swift, expert beating, using elbows and knees to knock the wind (and all the fight) out of the pugilistic drunk.
Finally, divesting the man of the belt gun he wore, he dragged said sagging soul to the door, and as Tom Landers obligingly held it open, the Sheriff took the worse-for-wear fighter in two hands, like he might an awkward luggage, hauled back and tossed him cheerfully out the door, where the man skidded and rolled when he hit the street.
Lifting his hat to Tom Landers, the Sheriff trotted down the steps, grabbed the downed drunk by the boot heels and proceeded to drag him across the street toward the jail.
The Sheriff was still grinning, even as he stopped and pulled the battered blowhard to his feet, just before shoving his head into a horse trough.
"Friend," he declared cheerfully after he'd pulled the man out by his hair and hauled him to the front door, "you are a lucky man today."
The drunk -- now mostly sober -- snorted and blew and tried an experimental swing.
The Sheriff yanked him close and drove his knee into the man's gut, again, folding him up and dropping him on the board walk.
"Now, now," the Sheriff said, "that's no way to treat a man who's just gotten some good news!"
It was not until after he'd searched and secured the prisoner that the man had wind or presence of mind to call, "Sheriff!"
Sheriff Keller stopped, turned, spinning the key ring on his finger.
"This is how you treat a man when you got good news?"
The Sheriff grinned.
"You don't want to be the man I arrest when I'm unhappy," he replied.

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