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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 7-4-13


I looked up at the sound of Esther's voice.
The maid just slid my plate in front of me and I thanked her for the bacon and eggs, we bowed our heads and I spoke the blessing: the maid stood a half pace behind me, her head bowed, respectfully still and silent until my brief benediction ended, and Angela's quick little hand shot forth and seized a strip of crispy bacon.
Esther said something and I felt my ears redden; on some level I must have either heard what she said, or divined her inquiry, for my expression felt much like that of a mischevious schoolboy, caught in the act of putting paper bags on a cat's four feet.
"My dear?" I asked, trying to look innocent and, from her expression, failing miserably.
When Florian Bruce grows some, I thought, the mental image of our little boy coming to mind,he won't be able to get away with anything!
"I said," Esther repeated, giving me that I-know-what-you're-up-to look, "did you see the Chinaman?"
My face reddened, following my ears into the Kingdom of Scarlet, and I nodded.
"And ...?"
Angela looked from her Mommy to me with bright and intelligent eyes, chomping happily on bacon; she looked at her Mommy, delicately bringing a strip of fried egg up on her fork, and realized that she was supposed to be eating, not watching and listening.
"I saw him, yes," I mumbled, taking a noisy slurp of coffee.
"Please don't slurp, dear," Esther sighed, "it sets a bad example for the children."
"Trust me to cause trouble," I muttered, picking up a thick, hot slice of toasted, buttered sourdough.
"You saw the Chinaman ..." Esther prompted.
I chewed a big bite of that good fresh sourdough, well greased with fresh churned butter, feeling my eyes tighten at the corners.
"Mission accomplished."
Esther put down her fork, favored me with a very direct look.
Now when Esther spears me with those lovely emerald eyes, I can deny her nothing, and she knows it: bless her, she's never once taken advantage of it, though she could have a number of times.
"And ...?"
I grinned.
"How would a whole wagon load suit you?"
Esther smiled and I saw a deep pleasure in her eyes.
"Good," she said.
"Now ... how do we set off all those fireworks and not burn down half the town?"
"The grass is green enough all around," I said, "we don't have to worry about catching pasture afire. I figure if we set 'em off back from ... oh, say behind the Jewel but far enough from Shorty's livery he won't have his walls kicked out from spooky horses."
"Horses are going to shy, dear."
"I know," I nodded, "but they'll shy from a stump or a shadow or a little girl's hat."
Angela looked up, surprised, clapping a hand to her elaborately braided hair.
I winked at her, cut a flap of fried egg free, folded it over and speared it with my fork.
"You can bet there will be fireworks enough today," I said, smiling. "There always are."
I was right.
I'd no more got into town than the Blaze Boys were happily tossing cannon crackers into horse troughs. About half of them drowned out but enough of them went off to send geysers in the air; the boys laughed and outran the only fellows short tempered enough to take offense to their horses' spooking, and this probably because the horses took out at a dead gallop and didn't stop til they hit the county line.
I know; my Texan friend trailed them and brought them back, but that's another story and not very interesting.
Anyway, Mr. Baxter was polishing the new front window, the one that replaced the big pane broken out by the murderous attempt on us all: the window was newly set, snugly fitted, carefully puttied, the paint around it was still tacky and strong smelling but the window was in, and Mr. Baxter was very carefully cleaning it one last time before he went back in to slake the dry throats of a Fourth of July crowd.
He heard me coming up the board walk toward him and turned, grinning.
"Well, Sheriff," he said, "how does it look?"
I nodded.
"It looks good, Mr. Baxter."
"We worked -- well, not we, but I stayed until the work was finished."
"Very late?"
"Not much short of midnight," he said, stepping back and to the side, catching a long angle reflection of the glass: bobbing his head up and down, slowly, he scanned its entire surface: satisfied it was clean, flawless, without speck or smudge, he slung the rag over his shoulder and we walked to the ornate double doors.
I hauled open the left hand door as was my habit, stepped aside; Mr. Baxter murmured a quiet "Thank you" and stepped inside.
I followed.

Jacob grinned as little Joseph, big-eyed and shivering, bounced up and down on his toes.
"Oh, I dunno," he said with feigned reluctance; Joseph chewed on his tongue, loath to offer a little boy's begging; after an eternity or two, his father relented and Jacob said, "Well, come on, then," and picked up the empty coffee can.
Jacob set the cannon cracker on the ground so the fuse stuck out straight at him, set the can over the cracker; he scratched a Lucifer into sizzling, sulfurous life, touched flame to the rolled paper fuse of the Chinese firework, stepped back.
When the fuse was just ready to disappear under the can he lit the fuse on the bundle of firecrackers he held, tossed it casually toward the can.
Little Joseph held both hands over his ears, quivering with excitement; Annette watched from the doorway, smiling at her two boys, the big one and the little one.
Annette laughed as Little Joseph's head snapped back: there was a BANG and the coffee can sailed well into the air, then the stick of Chinese dragon crackers began to snap and crackle, adding their rapid, smoky rattle to the confusion.
Joseph jumped up and down and laughed and Annette laughed with him, delighting in the open honesty of a little boy's joy.

Sean stepped out of the firehouse, a long paper wrapped tube in one hand, a match in the other.
He scratched the match against the brick face of the fine, tall firehouse, lit the fuse on the Roman candle, held it up like a magician's wand, pointed at the clear sky, laughing as it fired multi-colored, flaming balls, one after the other, high in the air.
It was the Fourth of July.

"Mornin', Soapy," the hanger-on called, loafing as he usually did against porch post. "You goin' t' compete in the buckin' bronco this year?"

I laughed and clapped my hand on his shoulder.
"My friend," I declared, "was I to set my sorry butt down on a genuine Texas bronc, you'd have to load biscuits in a cannon and shoot them at the moon, for that's how far a mesteño would throw me!"

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Linn Keller 7-4-13


The explosion knocked dust from the beams, mud from the chinks and brought the Sheriff out of his chair like he'd been stung.
It wasn't so much that he heard the explosion, it was more that he felt it, and it felt like he'd been slapped in the chest ... from the inside.
Good Christ, he thought, snatching the double gun from the rack, swinging around the corner, bringing the twin barrels up to take a look down the short row of cells toward the back wall.
Back wall's intact.
Nobody tried to blow the jail.

He looked up as something hit the roof, then another something: several somethings, a woody rattle overhead.
Eyes pale, teeth bared, he yanked open the door, stayed to one side, where heavy logs, proof against the biggest rifle, would protect against hostile fire ...
He looked outside, a quick look, another.
A scorched wagon wheel rolled into view ... from down the alley beside the jail.
Half of it black, the other half ...
Oh, no!

The Sheriff ran out the door and down the boardwalk, then turned, looking down the alley, looking at a big cloud of dust and smoke and falling straw chaff, and smoke.
Fire! he thought, and turned.
Mr. Baxter was just coming through the doors, curious faces behind, crowding, craning.
"MR. BAXTER! FIRE! FETCH THE BRIGADE!" the Sheriff yelled, his voice at battle pitch, cutting easily through the shocked silence: he didn't look to see his order obeyed, he went from a crouch into a sprint, down the alley toward the little stable he'd had built on the back of the Sheriff's Office.
Mr. Baxter dispatched a messenger to fetch up the Brigade; he looked across the street toward the Sheriff's office, at the mouth of the alley: the Sheriff disappeared into the cloud; there was a shout, an oath, a volley of oaths: it was one of the only times Mr. Baxter ever heard the Sheriff's voice raised in distress, and it was followed by a single pistol shot.
Tilly grasped Mr. Baxter's forearm and he looked round at her: her hair was done up, her face flawless -- she always had a lovely complexion, but with the sudden detonation, the gunshot, the Sheriff's voice, most of the color was gone from her face.
"What is it?" she whispered, her throat dry, and Mr. Baxter pulled back inside.
He jumped up a little to reach over his gleaming mahogany bar, seized the double gun: he came back up and strode for the door, gleaming black hair immaculately parted down the middle, curled mustache defiant in its precison: he did not know what was wrong, but by God! if it distressed the Sheriff and there had been gunfire, the man would not face whatever it was, alone!
Jackson Cooper looked down the street, his face hardening.
He snapped the reins and yelled "HAAA!" and the startled dapple responded wtih a will, hauling the buggy down the main street faster than had ever been demanded of it.

Bill leaned on the whistle, warning the grade crossing ahead of their approach: he saw the wagon and team, saw them well back from the tracks, but he wanted to give the farmer time enough to gentle his team: some horses paid no attention at all to a train, others reacted as if it were Lucifer itself screaming hell and claws after them.
Bill knew what it was to have a team of horses run away and wreck a wagon over several miles of rough terrain, and he did not wish to be responsible for such a loss.
He needn't have worried; the farmer, his team and the load of fence posts were not at all distressed by the approach of The Lady Esther, though they did not approach any closer.
Bill watched ahead, looking for the intersecting tracks.
He was right on schedule; he was meticulous with his adherence to the time table, though with dispatcher's instruction he'd gone on ahead, when unusual situations demanded.
He also knew other engineers tried to shave their times, getting in the shortest runs, the shortest times, making themselves the fastest on their routes.
Bill was not on Z&W tracks, and this alone was enough to make him uncomfortable.
He was intimately familiar with his beloved Zanesville & Wheeling -- or the Zig Zag and Wobble, as it was sometimes called, but always with affection -- he knew its every curve, grade, bend, stretch, switch, crossing, depot and signal; he knew the water tanks and coal tipples, every whistle post, and here ... here, he didn't.
He did, however, know he was within five miles of the diamond; another five miles beyond and he would be back on the Z&W.
Until then, there was the diamond.
He paused his hand over the water valve, looking hard at the sight glass.
The Lady Esther was only just out of the shop; they'd replaced the crown sheet, inspected the boiler, replaced a total of one leaking rivet, rebuilt a water pump, installed new carbons in the arc lamp and rewired the generator, she was fitted with new bearings, new pistons, new wrist pins -- in short, she was overhauled, refitted and ready to go.
Bill held her speed at exactly the limit -- not a needle's-width under, and not over by a cat's-whisker.
His fireman, leaning out the back of the cab, smacked his shovel into the deck to get Bill's attention.
Bill crossed the cab, looked out the window, swore.
A train was approaching on the intersecting track.
Bill thought fast, looked at his fireman, his mouth suddenly dry.
The Z&W -- every engine, every piece of rolling stock -- had safety couplers and air brakes, something the big railroads refused to adopt due to expense -- they could stop quickly and more safely than any railroad in business at the time, and Bill knew it.
He also knew that their velocity and their weight would not let them stop before they made the diamond.
"COAL!" he shouted. "COAL HER UP!"
The fireman didn't have to be told twice.
Bill opened the water valve a little more, grasped the Johnson bar, looked at his pressure gauge, then he broke his own cardinal rule.
He leaned on the throttle, hauled her wide open.
The Lady Esther drank the increased steam like a thirsty man drinks water; it was her life, it was her blood, and her metallic heart pumped with joy and with strength and she reached deep in her cast iron soul and gave Bill what he wanted most.
The Lady Esther pinned her ears back and began to run.

Mr. Baxter came around the back of the Sheriff's office ready for a young war.
What he saw looked like an artillery strike.
The stable was gone; what was left was afire, the Sheriff coughing, backing out of the conflagration; Mr. Baxter saw what used to be his mare.
The Sheriff held his shoutgun under one arm as he reloaded his revolver, adding the sixth round and setting his hammer nose down between the cartridge rims: his eyes were pale, his jaw set, and he loaded a sixth round in his left hand Colt as well.
Mr. Baxter felt something cold run through him as he looked at the man's pale eyes and set jaw.
The Sheriff turned, studying the scene; he saw two broken windows but no fire spread; he looked back toward the tracks, froze.
He looked at Mr. Baxter, jerked his head in a come-along, trotted toward a pile of rags.
Tilly stood in front of the Jewel, knuckles to her teeth, hissed in a breath as she saw Mr. Baxter trot out of the smoke, shotgun in each hand: the Irish Brigade was just stringing hose and running into the murk when the Sheriff emerged, a limp and bloodied boy under each arm.

A steam engine under a hard load will chant: The Lady Esther had a particular sound when she was laboring up-grade, pulling hard, steam almost cracking out her exhaust every time a piston came around.
She sang a different song on the flat, when she ran, and ran hard.
The faster a steam engine runs, the more the sounds merge, until there is no longer a distinct chant, and more of a song, something only an engineer, only someone whose soul merges with the living creature of cast iron and steam and fire, only someone who knows he is actually part of a living creature, with a soul and an intelligence and a will of her own, only such a man can know the song she sings, truly know it, to the roots of his own soul.
Man and machine merged into one creature: will and strength, power and speed, fired with hard Pennsylvania anthracite and a screaming desire to get to the diamond, cross the diamond, get across before the other train got there.
Bill looked at the steam gauge, shoved the throttle another quarter inch to the wide open, his hand welded around the cast iron handle.
He leaned out his window, squinting into the wind, saw the tracks ahead were clear: he leaned as far as he could the other way, looking out the fireman's window, saw death on the rails trying to cut him off, the onrushing locomotive's breath black and foul on the clean, high air.
The Lady Esther's breath was white and pure, her air mix was just right, the hand on her throttle caressed her with understanding and with respect, and who is to say The Lady Esther did not know this, and did not respond with a greater effort, a greater speed?
Engine roared toward engine, boilers fired to their limits, pressure gauges at the high limits, pop off valves hissing steam into the passing wind: both engines screamed defiance, neither willing to surrender the right-of-way: there at the last possible moment, the engineer took a look to his left, looked out the window opposite his, looked at the front end of the oncoming train and knowing the tale would be told in less time than he could draw in a breath.
Years later, when he was an old man with the white of many winters in his hair, he would tell his grandsons of that moment, when he saw death itself on the tracks looking straight at him, and his only salvation the engine he drove and she speed she'd built.
Whether the challenger saw the highball flags, the right-of-way flags on The Lady Esther's nose, the flags that gave her an express train's blanket right-of-way over all other traffic, may never be known: we have the testimony, after the fact, of fireman and engineer, how they labored with desperation, coaxing the last ounce of speed from their beloved engine, how she sang against the rails and shot down the tracks and how the last car in tow was across the diamond less than a tenth of a second before the oncoming engine's crossing, its deep-toned whistle howling in anger, shot across the diamond behind them, less than a sliver of a heartbeat from collision and conflagration and the daisy-chain derailment of both trains.
Bill and the fireman looked back, leaning out a little, watching the other train disappear on its track; the fireman climbed up on the tender, scrambling for a foothold, carefully stood, swaying a little like a sailor on a ship's deck: he made a quick count, slid back down into The Lady Esther's cab, clapped a hand on Bill's shoulder.
"They are all with us," he shouted, and Bill slacked the throttle, bringing The Lady Esther back down from the dizzying heights of speed to which she'd climbed.
He reckoned their guardian angel was hanging onto the last car by one hand, trailing along behind them like a gauzy kite-tail.
He made a mental note to go back to that last car and say thank you, once they were pulled into station.

The Sheriff turned with a snarl from the German Irishman, dumping the bloodied and limp lads into the horse trough.
He reached in, seized each by the shirt front, dashed them up and down a few times and hauled them out of the cold water.
The boys blew and sputtered, shaking their heads, blood trickling from noses and ears.
The Sheriff realized they were more seriously hurt than he'd thought.
"Here!" he barked, and the German Irishman took one of the wet, choking Blaze Brothers; the sheriff turned the other over, broke him over his arm like a shotgun, then brought him upright and set off for the hospital with a long-legged, businesslike stride.

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Linn Keller 7-6-13


Sean squinted a little at the inside of the jail's back wall; nodding a little, he studied the wall, the ceiling.
Water ran in a trickle through the punished roof; he could see daylight in half a dozen places overhead, in two or three cracks in the back wall.
The Sheriff's dead mare was hauled from what used to be a tidy and tight little stable.
Little remained of his wagon, nothing significant remained of the stable itself; the fire was easily contained, extinguished, and the Brigade set about overhaul with their usual efficiency and vigor.
The big, red-headed Irishman finished his inspection and turned to face the front door just as it swung open and the scowling Sheriff thrust himself inside.
He stopped, glared at the tall, hard-muscled Chieftain, stabbed a stiff finger toward a chair and snarled, "Sit!"
He shouldered past Sean, yanked viciously at the bottom right hand drawer of his desk: he pulled out his usual short, heavy bottomed glasses, set them on the desk top, reached in and pulled out a pair of tall glasses and the whiskey bottle.
The Sheriff poured both tall glasses within two fingers of the rim, corked the bottle and set it back in the drawer.
He picked up one glass and drank it down.
Not terribly fast, but steadily, and he did not come up for air until the glass was empty.
He lowered his glass and glared at the Irishman.
Sean looked coolly at the long tall lawman, finally reaching for the glass and taking a drink.
The Sheriff seized the back of his chair, yanked it back against the wall, sat heavily.
Only then did Sean sit -- slowly, his eyes never leaving the hard-faced Sheriff.
The two were silent for a few minutes, then the Sheriff turned his pale eyed glare to the Irishman and said, "I should have lied."
Sean waited, said nothing.
The Sheriff rubbed his face, slapped his palms hard on the desk top.
"DAMN them to HELL, why didn't they just STAY AWAY?"
Sean blinked sleepily; if he'd been a cat he would have switched his tail idly, waiting.
"When I came up the street," the Sheriff said, lips tight, "the Blaze boys asked me what I had in the wagon."
"What did ye have?"
"Fireworks," the Sheriff said, "and two kegs of blasting powder."
Sean considered the level of damage to the back of the building, nodded slowly.
"I left the fireworks --" the Sheriff paused, considering -- "elsewhere.
"I covered the two kegs with straw, behind the wagon."
"Did they know ye had fireworks?"
"Yeah," the Sheriff said shortly, his voice flat.
"Sooo ... the lads were hopin' t' steal fireworks."
"They found the powder."
"I'd say so."
Sean blew his breath out slowly, red cheeks puffed out.
"It's a wonder they're alive."
"How bad are they?"
The Sheriff's expression was changing; he looked lost now as he remembered too many explosions, too many lives lost, back in another lifetime, back when he wore Union blue.
"They may be deaf now," he said bleakly. "They might have busted guts or a busted lung from the explosion. They're lucky it didn't blow the eyes out of their sockets."
Sean nodded knowingly; he'd seen that very thing happen.
"When will they ... when will we know?"
"When they wake up, I reckon."
The Sheriff stared bleakly at the far wall.
"Had to shoot my mare. She was ..." -- he shook his head. "I can build a new stable but that was a good mare."
Sean nodded slowly.
"I told 'em 'twas none of their business what I had in that wagon," the Sheriff groaned. "Hell, I should'a lied to 'em and said 'twas schoolbooks. They'd never have gone near schoolbooks!"
"Boys," Sean shook his head. "Especially tha' pair. Recall they climbed th' railroad water tank an' swam?"
"I recall."
"An' they stole lead flashin' from a roof an' beat i' out thin, chased strips off it wi' a Barlow knife an' a hammer an' cut these strips int' cubes, they rolled 'em b'tween two boards to round th' corners an' loaded 'em in a pistol they made o' scrap pipe?"
The Sheriff nodded.
"An' do ye no' forget they're the ones who swung a sapling, climbed it they did, an' swung back an' forth until they swung over a gorge, th' saplin' broke an' they barely made th' other side?"
The Sheriff nodded.
"Sheriff, if there's mischief they'll find it. If there's no trouble, they'll make it. Why, man, each o' th' pair could break an anvil wi' a glass hammer!"
The Sheriff looked up at the fire chief: he nodded, he considered, he smiled ever so faintly.
"You're right," he said.
"Th' lads got int' wha' they shouldna. 'Tis their fault, not yours."
The Sheriff nodded slowly, his bleak expression returning.
"Ye've seen too much, old friend," Sean said softly, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, his expression sincere, concerned. "I saw th' look on yer face when ye came out o' yon smoke. It raised ghosts ye thought were long and truly buried."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Ye're no' th' only mon who carries ghosts, Sheriff."
"I reckon not."

Another conversation, another clink of bottle on the rim of a heavy glass, another man with a distressed expression; the glass shivered a little in his grip.
"I thought," Bill said slowly, "we were dead."
Esther sipped her whiskey from a delicate, long stemmed glass, listened.
She'd already spoken with the fireman and the conductor; she'd received the angry, accusatory telegram from another railroad's Board of Directors, and she'd made the special trip to their offices, in person, to refute their accusation, using their own timetable and their own dispatcher's testimony, and left with her case irrefutably proven: she stayed long enough to witness the Board's unanimous vote to fire their engineer for violating timetable and especially for intentinally refusing to recognize another locomotive's right-of-way flags.
Now Esther sat in her office, with her chief engineer, her best engineer, and listened to his quiet voiced recitation of events as they unfolded.
Esther waited until he'd finished before nodding a little and smiling quietly.
"If you tried to stop," she said, "your train would have come to full rest across the diamond."
"Yes, ma'am, it would."
"And if it hit any of your cars?"
"If the couplers didn't break loose, ma'am, it would have whipsawed the whole train off the tracks."
"And if the oncoming locomotive hit even your last car, while you were on the move?"
"It would have torn us from the tracks, ma'am, only with our train on the move, the cars would have twisted, splintered, tumbled ... great loss of life, ma'am, moreso than would otherwise have been."
Esther nodded.
"William," she said quietly, sipping again at her distilled pipe cleaner, "I am not an engineer. I have never driven a locomotive." Her lips curled slightly in the ghost of a smile. "I have, however, learned the value of hiring people who know things I don't.
"You" -- she looked directly at him, her eyes bright -- "are probably the best engineer I have ever known, and that holds true even now."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"Tell me, William ... do you play poker?"
"Poker? Why ... yes, ma'am, a little."
"I would bet you play quite a good game," she smiled, setting her half-empty glass on the side table and tilting her had a little as she looked at him.
"William, I hired you because you are the best there is.
"I did this because I like people who will think and who will take the actions that must be taken.
"You addressed a bad situation and you took the one course of action that was most likely to succeed. As a result you are alive, and so is every passenger that rode your train that day, not to mention my rolling stock remains intact."
"Yes, ma'am," Bill chuckled.
"I can replace rolling stock," she continued, "but I cannot replace you.
"Your pay is increased effective now." She picked up her glass, swirled it.
"Please continue to exercise your good judgement," she said quietly. "I prefer a universe with you in it."
"Yes, ma'am," Bill said, setting his empty glass on the side table and standing. "Will there be anything else, ma'am?"
Esther smiled, hesitated.
"William, my luck at poker is nothing short of terrible," she said, opening a drawer and taking out a small, blue-velvet purse.
"Would you take these, please, and bet them on my behalf?"
Bill looked at the pair of double eagles she'd just given him.
He smiled.
"Yes, ma'am," he said. "I can do that."

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Linn Keller 7-7-13


Sarah hesitated at the sickroom door.
The boy's mother hovered beside her, then nodded, patted Sarah's shoulder, and Sarah knocked, then opened the door.
The lad lay on his own bed, eyes mostly closed; there was a little white crescent shaped slit between his surprisingly long lashes.
Sarah opened her mouth to say something, then remembered what the mother said, about blood running from his ears, about his not hearing her voice, about how she held him as he realized he was utterly, profoundly, absolutely, deaf ... and how he shivered a little, and leaned his head on her shoulder, and let her hold him and rock him like she used to when he was a child.
He had several speckles visible, shrapnel injuries from the explosion; Sarah understood Doc pulled a horrendous number of splinters from the boy's hide -- none of them near his eyes, thank God! -- at least his eyesight was spared, she thought.
He can still read.
He can still communicate.
I can still teach him.
He can still learn.

Sarah thought of the individual little slate boards the students used, grey rectangles with wood frames ... and she remembered seeing a man on the street corner in Denver, one of the chalk boards around his neck, begging.
He'd lost his hearing in a mine explosion, and one eye as well; he wore a patch, though sometimes, the dective told her, he took it off to increase the "pity factor" and increase the coins into his tin cup.
Sarah thought of the Lance, she remembered the feeling of riding into the Vega y Vega mansion as The Faceless One, she remembered the cures ...
I did not do that, she thought.
It was not me.
It was not the Lance.
Their faith cured them.
What can I do here?

Sarah bent over the sleeping lad, took his face gently between her hands as the terrible realization sank into her soul that she, herself, was powerless.
She, Sarah McKenna, the Black Rider, the Maiden in White, She Who Rode the Wind, the Maiden of the Lance, the Faceless Nun ... she, Sarah McKenna, was just Sarah, and she was helpless, powerless, utterly unable to help this boy regain his hearing.
He turned his head away from her, not opening his eyes, and a tear fell, a single crystal drop, liquid grief falling through space and into his upturned ear.

The Sheriff sniffed, puzzled.
A whiff of ... sulfur?
From the blasting powder, likely, he thought, turning to look at the muddy, blackened ruin that used to be a little stable, and he froze.
A twisted, grotesque little girl stood in its center.
A little girl, with glowing red eyes, with one shoulder higher than the other, hair like dry, bleached straw, a rag doll in her elbow, a little flat crowned straw hat with a dangling swallowtail ribbon, and an immaculately clean gown ... spotless, in the middle of that muddy mess.
She looked up at him with eyes the color of blood and said faintly, "Hold me, Daddy," and then she disappeared.
The Sheriff felt something like cold water trickle down the middle of his back.

You can cure him.
It was a whisper -- faint, clear, understandable.
It would be an act of healing. It would be a charity.
Sarah recognized the voice.
She looked up, her face wet, from her kneeling posture beside his bed.
The lad's eyes were open; he was listening -- and from the look on his face, he heard the whisper as well.
You only have to give us a little something.
Sarah took a deep breath, another: she closed her eyes, summoning her strength, reaching deep within her, reaching beyond the moment: she reached past and future, into all her selves, and she saw the same temptation given to each of her selves, the same offer made to every one of her selves, and she gave the same answer.
Sarah McKenna, schoolteacher, kneeling by the injured boy's bedside, seized the most potent weapon in her arsenal.
You planted a demon seed in the Blaze Boys, she said to the whispering voice: you planted it knowing they would do this or they would do something and you would require my soul to save them.
You were one of us, the voice hissed, a reassuring, soft sibilant, the sound of a snake's belly scales on dry rock on an absolutely silent afternoon. Return to us.
Think of the good you can do!

A false promise, Sarah countered. Prince of Lies, Deceiver, Trickster, Gluskap, Coyote. I knew you as a child but you could never stain me.
I have already stained you.
Behold your anger, my daughter.
I am not your daughter!
Sarah lashed, feeling the rage build in her.
Yes, the Rage, the whisper chuckled, savoring its taste with her: it is sweet, is it not? Strength, speed, power ... it feels goooooood ...
Sarah threw her head back, took a deep breath.
It was time to go to war.
She closed her eyes and began to sing, "Te Deum laudamus,
Te Dominum confitemur.
The dry whisper whiplashed away with a pained "NOOOOOOO!"
"Te aeternum Patrem
omnis terra veneratur.
Tibi omnes Angeli --

Sarah's voice was pure and beautiful, the notes soaring like doves over a peaceful meadow; her eyes were closed, her hands clasped tightly, twin streams running down her cheeks: she sang the ancient words of the Te Deum as it was first meant to be sung: unaccompanied, a single voice raised in adoration and worship, a voice affirming the supremacy of the Almighty.

The Sheriff swung aboard his black Outlaw-horse: frowning, he looked around, then some instinct sent him toward a row of houses.
He came around the corner and saw Sarah's carriage.
The Blaze Boys, he thought.
Makes sense, she's their schoolteacher.
He heard Sarah's voice from within, muffled a little, and he could not help but smile, for though he could not make out the words, Sarah had the loveliest voice, and she was ranging into the soprano with the confidence of an accomplished performer.

"NOOOOO!" the voice grated, sounding like great rocks grinding together in a hellish underground mill: "HEEEE ISSSSS MIIINE!"
Sarah had the impression of adamantine claws reaching for her as the voice added, "AND SSSOOOO ARRRREEE YYOOUUUUU!"
Tibi omnes Angeli, Sarah repeated, then,
tibi caeli et universae Potestates;
Tibi Cherubim et Seraphim
incessabili voce proclamant:

Sarah was white-faced, shaking, her knuckles standing out with the strength of her interlocked prayer-grip.
Something whipsawed through another universe, hit her like a mule's kick, but she did not move: she opened her lips, tasted blood and sang,
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus --
There was the sound of wind through feathers, as if she heard a fighting hawk streaking in an attacking dive: voices not her own sang Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, and she had an impression -- fleeting, barely seen, as if a glimpse into another, hidden universe, just under our own -- blades of silver, not steel, hard-swung; blood-colored scales on something serpent-like, recoiling with an angry hiss, a heavy shiver of the air, as if a great door were slammed, confining a terrible evil.
Sarah collapsed, falling to the floor beside the boy's bed, exhausted, drained: she felt herself floating, as if on a great, soft ocean, and strong hands held her, and she knew she was safe.

The boy's mother laid a gentle hand on the Sheriff's forearm.
He carried Sarah like he would carry a little girl, close against him, safe in her Papa's strong and protective arms.
"Tell her thank you," the mother whispered.
The Sheriff nodded.
It wasn't until a few days later that both Blaze Boys began to complain that someone was ringing a church bell incessantly inside their ears, the very first sign that their hearing was not irrevocably destroyed.
The Sheriff packed Sarah down the dirt street and up the main street, and upstairs to Esther's office, where he very carefully laid her down on Esther's cot: his green-eyed wife removed Sarah's shoes, then covered her with a light weight quilt.
Esther very gently laid the backs of her fingers against Sarah's cheek, then her forehead.
The Sheriff looked up at the sound of a little girl's voice:
Thank you, Daddy, he heard, and there was the barest glimpse of a little girl with red eyes and a flat straw hat, just as she disappeared.

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Linn Keller 7-7-13


Sarah drove with her spine stiff, erect; her chin was up, she was the very image of a prim, ladylike schoolmarm.
A prim, ladylike schoolmarm who wished to be left alone.
She wasn't alone.
The Sheriff gave her a gentlemanly hand as she stepped up on the mounting block and into her carriage; she thanked him courteously, her face red, her eyes troubled.
The Sheriff mounted as Sarah flipped her reins, clucked at the mare; he waited while she went to the other Blaze Boy's bedside, casually spitting on a whet stone and touching the edge of his fighting knife.
When Sarah emerged, he again offered his hand; again she accepted, stepping into her carriage as regally as a princess might step up to her velvet throne.
The Sheriff mounted, fell in beside her as she drove out of Firelands and toward the Rosenthal ranch.
Halfway there, Sarah raised her head, heaved a great sigh, drew gently on the reins: "Ho, there, girl, ho now," she called, then hauled back on the carriage's brake and latched it.
The Sheriff drew up beside her.
Sarah didn't quite glare at her father but she wasn't far from it; her upset wasn't helped by the man's calm expression, his patient silence.
Finally Sarah pursed her lips, looked away, looked back.
"You must think I'm just a silly girl," she said, her words rushed, falling over each other in their haste to be spoken.
"Now why's that?" the Sheriff asked gently.
"I FAINTED!" Sarah flared.
The Sheriff nodded, slowly, thoughtfully.
"I reckon there was cause," he drawled.
Sarah drew a quick breath, raised her hands, dropped them to her lap.
"I go in to visit a student who's nearly blown himself apart and I faint."
Sarah fairly spat the word, her hands fisted and shaking with self-anger.
"You didn't faint."
Sarah's fists pressed into her thighs and she glared at her father.
"I heard you singin'." The Sheriff's eyes were busy, studying the woodline, the ground between here and yonder; it was ever his habit to take stock of his surroundings. "Don't know what you sang. 'Twas kind of muffled, you bein' inside and me outside" -- he looked sharply at his daughter -- "but I do know this, Sarah. It was beautiful. Your voice is as beautiful as you are."
"What are you saying?"
"I know exhaustion when I see it, Sarah," the Sheriff said, his eyes narrowing a little. "You were shaking and you were pale and white around the mouth and a little sweaty. I don't know what you did but it took the starch out of you and how."
Sarah drew breath to counter and the Sheriff interrupted.
"And I saw the little girl with red eyes."
Sarah blinked, her mouth soundlessly open.
"Sarah, you can cut the heart out of the Ace of Spades at twenty feet with four pistol balls, turn the card side-on and split it in two with the fifth ball. You are as fast and deadly with a knife as any I have seen. You ride like a Mexican, I've seen you on a cranky mustang and it looked like you were forge welded to the saddle. I saw you climb hand over hand up that rope Daciana has runnin' up to the peak of that big barn of hers and make it look easy.
"And yes I picked you up and you were limp as Angela's rag doll.
"You are a beautiful young woman, dear heart, you're ... "
The Sheriff's face turned a little red.
"It would take a blind man to look at you and deny you're ... womanly."
The Sheriff swallowed; it was not a comfortable thing to say, for Sarah was his little girl, and Daddies sometimes have trouble admitting that his little girl is become a woman grown.
"Sarah, you are neither weak nor foolish. You are one of the strongest souls I know, that I have ever known. You are ... "
He fished around for the right words, tried again.
"Sarah, I don't see you as either weak nor foolish back there nor ever as I recall.
"What you were into before you passed out, well, that's your business and none of mine, but I reckon 'twas the right thing to do, whatever it was."
Sarah wet her lips, nodded quickly, dropped her eyes.
"And once you were back on your pins you marched yourself right back over to the other of the Blaze boys and saw him too."
Sarah blinked, quickly, as if to clear her vision.
"You didn't have to see either of 'em. School's out until after harvest. You could've waited til then to see if they could hear enough to go back to school.
"You went to see 'em instead. Like as not they never knew it, but that was a comfort to their mothers, and they needed that visit."
The Sheriff grinned, teeth white and even under his iron-grey mustache.
"I'm old, Sarah, and I have to use m' spectacles to read much anymore, but I ain't that blind that I can't see the good you do."

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Linn Keller 7-8-13


Little Joseph was almost in the dead center of the pasture.
His Pa was dismounted, looking at something; his horse was a little ways from him, grazing, and Little Joseph came over to see what his Pa was studying.
He never got the chance to see.
Boocaffie was behind them, halfway to the fence; ahead of them, a newcomer, an intruder, a bull, throwing his head and bellowing a challenge.
Jacob looked up, his eyes pale.
Boocaffie bawled in reply and Little Josph laughed as his play-pet pawed and threw his head and bawled again.
Jacob said, "Joseph, we need to leave," and whistled for his horse.
Jacob was not riding his well-trained Apple-horse; he was riding one of its colts, and the colt wasn't near as steady as its sire, and at the challenge from one bull, then the other, the half-Appaloosa threw its head and decided yonder was a healthier place to be, and headed yonder at a good velocity.
Jacob swore.
The horse was his speed and his agility, his ears -- and his rifle.
Suddenly the Colt revolvers at his belt felt pretty puny.
Jacob knew how big a bull could get and when a bull's blood was up, it was a hard thing to stop, and a revolving pistol was a poor choice for a bull stopper.
"Joseph," he said, "catch my horse. Move!"
Joseph did not need to be told twice.

The Sheriff stood in the Rosenthal parlor, hat in his hand; Bonnie was smiling, gracious, seated with children about her: the years had been kind, but they left their marks, and Bonnie looked at the Sheriff with gentle eyes, soft eyes, with those eyes he'd looked into when they waltzed, those eyes he could have fallen into and swum as if in a great, dark ocean ...
Linn closed his eyes, shook his head.
Opal stood to the left of Bonnie's knees, Polly to her right; the twins regarded the Sheriff solemnly, then looked at their Mama.
"He's vew-wy, vew-wy tall," Opal said.
"He's handsome, Mama. Can I mawwy him?"
Bonnie laughed, and Linn smiled and turned a little red.
"He's married already, sweets," she smiled, looking at the Sheriff and turning a little redder.
"Oh." Polly said it in the voice of a child who accepts without question the greater wisdom of an adult.
"Sarah," the Sheriff said quietly, "has the voice of an angel."
"I know," Bonnie said tiredly, an unexpected fatigue showing through her facade.
She looked up at the almost-smiling lawman. "Is all well?" she asked, and he heard a greater depth to the question than the words normally carried.
"Yes," he said. "All is well."

Jacob rolled as he hit.
He'd read the same article as Sarah on ancient Phoenicia, looked at the same copper engravings showing youthful athletes running toward a charging bull, seizing their horns and vaulting over their backs: he knew Sarah did that once, not by choice but out of desperation, and when he was faced with the same situation, he decided such a move was so utterly outside the realm of possibility, that he wouldn't even try it.
He waited until the last possible moment to move: he cut it close, almost too close: a horn caught his gun belt, slung him spinning to the side.
The bull was too intent on the brash young challenger to pay any further attention to Jacob, which suited him just fine.
He got to his feet, made a fast inventory to make sure nothing major was broken, and hobbled across the field, whistling for his horse.

Sarah knew how important appearances could be.
She'd worn her schoolmarm dress, her hair in the severe walnut on top of her head, she even wore her spectacles for the visit: she was the schoolmarm, and she knew she had to look completely like the schoolmarm, and she had.
Now, though, she changed into something less uncomfortable, one of her Mama's designs: she spent enough time in front of the mirror to brush out and re-style her hair, then she went downstairs, to the delighted exclamations of her little sisters and the approval of her mother, and Sarah immersed herself happily in the important business of being at home with her family.

Jacob felt the broad, double thickness leather gun belt he wore.
His fingers were his eyes; his tactile vision saw the deep tear in the leather, and his belly hurt like homemade hell.
He looked up into his little boy's solemn eyes.
"Don't tell your Ma," he muttered, and Little Joseph nodded.
When Jacob finally made it through his own front door, he discovered in short order that neither he nor little Joseph had to tell her a thing.

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Linn Keller 7-9-13


"No," Jacob grated, "I ain't goin' to no doctor!"
"Jacob Keller," Annette scolded quietly, "you are not making me a young widow!"
"I ain't making you a young widow!"
"And stop saying 'ain't'! It's not even a word!"
Jacob gritted his teeth, his forearm across his belly, and bent over a little more in his chair.
"Fetch me some whiskey," he husked, and Annette's face lost a little of its color.
Jacob had never before asked her for the whiskey.
Jacob looked up, looked around.
"Where's Joseph?"

Little Joseph slid easily between the splintered fence boards.
They hadn't broken clear in two but it was a near thing.
He scampered out in the field, eyes busy, and not until he was a safe distance from the house did he call "Boo-caffie!" in his high, little-boy voice.
He looked around, climbed a rise, looked again: "Boo-caffie!"
Boocaffie -- the little boy's garbled version of "bull calf" stuck, and became the bull calf's name -- stuck a cautious nose from behind a patch of brush and looked at the lad, some distance away on the rise.
Boocaffie also saw the bull approaching the lad, and drew back into the brush.
The smarting Boocaffie wisely wanted nothing more of the stronger, meaner, older bull.

Henderson owned a ranch not far off.
Henderson was proud of his bull.
Henderson knew he was on Keller land, but he also knew he was after his stock, his stock was branded, and it was not uncommon to ride onto another man's ground to recover strayed livestock.
Two of his hands rode with him; the bull was a valuable commodity and he did not want to lose it for lack of help.
The three reined up and looked, and Henderson tilted his hat back, as did his segundo, and the three watched as their horses took a blow.
"Well I'll be damned," Henderson chuckled.

Joseph stood on the little mound, his forefinger extended: frowning, he addressed the interloper.
"You big bully," he scolded, "you should be ashamed of yourself!"
The bull approached Joseph, tail switching, ears up and curious: he extended his neck, snuffing loudly, and Little Joseph put his knuckles on his hips and declared loudly, "I'm wuff an' tuff an' hawd to bwuff!"
The bull snuffed at Joseph's middle and Joseph shook his little fist at the beast's forehead plate: "I ain't afwaida you!"
A lariat sailed out of nowhere, dropped over the bull's horns: Joseph looked up at a set of laughing brown eyes and a grinning, sun-browned face.
"Sonny," Henderson declared, "you did a good job catching my bull. Thank you for that."
"He wun after Boocaffie," Joseph declared, his little jaw set and his knuckles pressed into his hips.
Henderson and his men laughed again.
"I don't think you'd be afraid of the Devil himself," Henderson chuckled. "Come on, Hernandez."
He turned to his segundo. "Zeph, take the lad to his Pa and tell him we got the bull."
"Yes, sir," Zephaniah nodded, walking his horse up to Joseph and holding out a gloved hand. "Come on, son, let's go tell your Pa we got the bull."
Little Joseph grabbed the man's lean, muscled arm with both hands and laughed the delighted, contagious laugh of a happy little boy as he swung up behind Henderson's right hand man.
"Now, sonny," Zeph said, "where's home?"
Joseph thrust a pointing finger. "There!"
"Be home for supper, Mr. Henderson!" Zephaniah called cheerfully, then kicked his cutting horse into a gallop across Jacob's field.
Henderson laughed. "Supper my foot," he said to the other man. "They'll stuff him like a Christmas turkey and he won't be hungry for a week!"
He tugged at the lariat and the bull followed, docile as a well tamed dog.
"Come on, Hernandez," Henderson said. "Let's get you home."

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Linn Keller 7-9-13


Jacob set the short, squatty glass down, the whiskey untasted.
A dark-skinned man followed Annette into the kitchen: high cheekbones bespoke Apache heritage, straight black hair and straight, white teeth suggested a Mexican connection, and the man's bright, black eyes were a little brighter for seeing Jacob again.
Jacob rose painfully, extending his hand. "Zephaniah," he said, "how in the hell are you? Have a set, man, and give an account of yourself!"
Jacob slid his glass of liquid anesthetic to his guest, who looked at it, then at the pale-eyed deputy who was trying hard not to show his discomfort, and not having very much success.
"So our bull caught you, eh?" he said softly, shaking his head. "He has never gone for a man before."
Jacob shook his head. "'Twasn't me he was after," he said, his voice tight. "Our young bull was behind me. I was just in the way."
"Ah," Zephaniah nodded, then slid the glass back to Jacob.
"I am not a wise man," he said, "but I am not stupid. You are in pain, my friend, how bad is it?"
"It wouldn't be so bad had he not been shot!" Annette scolded, her eyes blazing. "He's shot, he's healing, he runs into a bull -- and don't you tell me otherwise, Jacob Keller, you ran into that bull!" -- Jacob looked at his wife with wide, innocent eyes, then looked at his old friend and blinked a couple times.
"I think she likes you, amigo," Zephaniah said with a wink.
"Yeah," Jacob said, picking up the glass and drinking it down: Zephaniah picked up the bottle, took a tentative sniff, raised an eyebrow.
"You, my friend," he said quietly, "are not well."
"Tell me something I don't know," Jacob gasped.
Zephaniah was not sure whether the gasp was from the whiskey or the wound.
"Indulge me, amigo viejo," Zephaniah murmured, standing, then bending: he unbuttoned Jacob's vest, unbuckled his belt, carefully drew his shirt free.
"Relax," he whispered, then pressed with four fingers flat against his belly: he pressed slowly, gently, then released suddenly: once, twice, thrice, a fourth time, and on the fourth, Jacob flinched.
"As I thought," Zephaniah murmured. "He caught you here and hooked -- no?"
"Oh yeah," Jacob gasped.
"And you were shot here, this side with the bandage, yes?"
"Give the man a cigar," Jacob nodded, his voice tight.
Zephaniah poured Jacob two fingers' worth in the glass.
There was the businesslike strut of a little boy, his feet loud, pride in his voice: "Mister Zephaniah sir, I got your horse put up and I even got the saddle hung up!"
Zephaniah turned a little to smile at the grinning boy, the swarthy man's teeth a startling white against his absolutely black mustache, then he looked back at Jacob.
"I am sorry, amigo," he said, "he does not look a thing like you!"
He handed the glass to Jacob.
"How's that?" Jacob gasped, just before he tilted the glass up and downed its searing payload.
Zephaniah looked at Annette, winked, stroked his thick mustache.
"He has nothing on his lip," Zephaniah chuckled, then stood.
"I am going to steal your wife, amigo, but she will be back."
Zephaniah stood, offered his hand to Annette: surprised, uncertain, she looked at Jacob.
Jacob nodded, made a little shooing motion.
Annette gave her hand into Zephaniah's brown, strong hand, followed him into the next room.
Zephaniah spoke quickly, his voice suddenly serious.
"He has bleeding inside, a little," he said. "It is likely bruising. He was not horned directly on the belly. Was he wearing a belt?"
Annette's eyes were wide, dark; she nodded, turned, pointed to Jacob's gunbelt, where he'd dropped it on the floor -- mute testimony to the level of his pain.
Zephaniah stooped, picked it up, examined the leather, tracing the horn's damage with three fingers.
"Por Dios," he breathed, then looked up at Annette and crossed himself.
"What does that mean?" Joseph asked, curious.
"It means, hombrito," Zephaniah explained, "your father is a very special man, and El Senor Dios does not wish him dead."
Joseph looked up at his Mama as Zephaniah looked around the door frame at Jacob.
"Had he not that belt," he murmured, "El Toro Hernandez would have ripped open his guts." Zephaniah shook his head, stepped back and looked directly at Annette.
"Senora, forgive me if I speak honestly," he said quietly. "You are a beautiful woman and any man would wish to have such a wife as yourself. Your husband speaks of you but only with the words of a gentleman, but under these words I hear the voice of a man in love.
"El Senor Jacob kept me from ..." Zephaniah sighed, closed his eyes.
"I owe him my life," he said, "and he saved my family."
He opened his eyes and Annette saw a troubled soul, a man with hard memories that haunted him long after their formation.
"Take care of El Senor Jacob," he whispered. "And tell him we have taken the bull home."
Zephaniah flinched to feel Jacob's hand on his shoulder.
"Tell me yourself, amigo," Jacob said, his voice tight, his other arm across his middle, but when Zephaniah turned, Jacob's grin was broad as a Texas township.
"I think Annette was going to try to stuff somethin' down my growlin' gut," he added. "We'd be pleased if you'd have supper with us."

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Linn Keller 7-10-13


Jacob woke the next morning so sore he could barely move.
It took him a while to get into his duds but me made it, somehow ... it took longer than he'd ever taken in his entire life, but he made it.
There were two matters of inspiration for his rising; one had to do with the good smell of breakfast he hadn't eaten yet and coffee not yet drunk, and the other ... well, the other had something to do with the meal he'd eaten the day before, and the coffee he'd had the night before, and their natural and pending exit from his system.
It was late -- well, late for Jacob -- he reckoned the eastern horizon was well lightened already, and breakfast smelled really, really good, and usually he was up before Annette even got started.
Jacob sat on the side of the bed, breathing carefully, controlling himself: he considered the layout of the room, then stood.
He hadn't dared the strain of pulling on boots: he wore his moccasins, which was probably a better choice, as he was not going to engage in anything strenuous for a time.
Jacob looked at the dresser, at the back of the chair; he took a long, slow breath through his mouth, blew it out, took another, gritted his teeth and stood.

Henderson and his men repaired the fence their bull busted through to get to Jacob's small herd.
Jacob's heifers were come fresh and the bull, it appeared, had taken full advantage of the situation.
Henderson slid his hat back and scratched his head, disappointed.
He'd planned to offer his stud bull to Jacob -- for a fee, of course -- he tallied up the coin he'd have made, cost per cow covered, and shook his head with disappointment at revenue lost.
He saw his Hernandez bull on the other side of the pasture.
"Mister," he muttered, "you are as single minded as some of my young hands when it comes to women!"
Hernandez the Bull was too far off to either hear him, or to make return comment; at the moment, the randy animal was too intent on the sensual pleasure of a good wallow, hooves pawing at the air as he grunted and worked dirt into his hide.

Annette waited until Jacob returned from his slow, painful hobble to the outhouse.
Annette's eyes had stung, for she'd seldom seen her lean, tall husband as anything but strong and capable and ... and uninjured.
Now -- now, having been shot so recently, and then nearly killed, murdered by horns and hooves -- that murderous beast --
"Oooh!" Annette shivered, arms stiff at her sides and her hands fisted.
She glared at the frying pan, then picked up the spatula and expertly slid it under the pancake, turned it, then flipped it out onto the stack.
Little Joseph sat patiently at the table, knowing better than to say a thing.
Annette's head turned quickly as Jacob came through the front door, his mouth open, his face pale: he moved stiffly, carefully, the gait of an injured man, but he closed his mouth and grinned at his wife.
Jacob closed the front door behind him, limped slowly up the hall -- Annette realized his left thigh was hurting him too, from the way he walked -- Jacob leaned against the doorway, slouching his shoulder against the casing with his thumbs in his belt.
"Mrs. Keller," he said, managing an ornery grin, "you are a good looking woman!"
Annette's lips were thin with disapproval as she poured batter into the frying pan; Jacob could hear the light sizzle as it spread out, and the odor of breakfast was enough to prompt his stomach to offer its opinion that if he did not shut up and sit down and eat, why, his stomach would likely commence to gnaw on his spine, as its sides were already sand papering against one another, he was so empty.
Annette set the batter bowl down and turned to face Jacob squarely.
He saw worry on her face and strength in her jaw, he saw a little smudge of flour on her cheek, and Jacob thought, God Almighty, I do love this woman!
Annette cleared her throat, as she felt driven to ensure her knowledge of her husband's condition; she knew that certain ... functions ... were impaired with a belly injury, and impairment might mean slow death from sepsis, and her eyes stung again at the thought of her tall, strong husband with that ornery grin, wallowing in his bed, sweating with pain as he rotted from the inside out.
"Jacob," she asked, her voice odd in her ears; she cleared her throat, the back of her best wrist delicately to her lips as she did, and she said again, in a stronger voice, "Jacob?"
Jacob's eyes were wide and innocent as he blinked a few times. "Darlin'?"
Annette took a long breath, looked up at the ceiling: one does not discuss certain ... functions ... especially in one's ... kitchen ... but she felt it was necessary to know.
"Jacob ... just now, outside ... did everything ... come out all right?" she asked hesitantly.
Jacob's grin widened and he chuckled; he flinched, crossing his arm across his belly and he laughed carefully.
"Everthing came out just fine," he gasped. "That smells good enough it would make a stone statue a-hunger."
Little Joseph watched, big-eyed and silent; his stomach, too, was of the opinion that breakfast should have been about four hours ago, but then like most boys (and indeed just like his Pa) he was a walking appetite on two hollow legs, and so when Annette set breakfast on the table, little Joseph waited until "Amen" was heard before tearing into his provender like an impoverished buzz saw.
Breakfast was almost silent -- in a day when meals were a serious matter and little conversation was held, Jacob's board was an exception, and their conversation was generally free wheeling and wide ranging and little Joseph was comfortable with talk, but this morning little was said until finally Jacob spoke up.
"I reckon I need to look over the herd," he said slowly. "The heifers were freshening. I reckon that's why Henderson's bull came to visit."
Annette's glare was fit to freeze running water.
Jacob smiled at his wife's warning look.
"I need to look at the herd," he said, smiling, "but not today."

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Linn Keller 7-13-13


"He's on assignment," the Sheriff said shortly.
His Honor frowned a little, delicately knocked the fluffy ash from his Cuban into a handy ashtray.
"I hope he's not gone back East?" the jurist hazarded, remembering Jacob's long trip back to the Ohio country to seize the person of a wanted man, one who'd placed more than one lawman's life in mortal peril, and all without stirring from his own picked fenced home.
"No, no," the Sheriff said slowly, adding a slow drizzle of milk to his coffee, well aware that those around them pretended not to hear, while listening closely.
"He's around, just ..." the Sheriff smiled a little, the smile of a man with a secret.
"I see," His Honor murmured, leaning back as bacon and eggs came overhead and descended to the table before him.
He sighed.
"I know I could have someone fix me breakfast in my private car," he said thoughtfully, "and at times I have, but I much prefer the company here."
"As do I," the Sheriff said frankly, winking at Daisy's girl, and the girl shot her hip out at him in an exaggerated response: she knew the man like to flirt, and she knew he was as safe as her own father, and she knew it caused no harm to flirt right back.
She also knew his wife, the green-eyed businesswoman from upstairs, and this made it even safer to flirt: Esther said once that her husband was a man and not a stone statue, and men liked to flirt, but she left unspoken what would happen if either he or any likely lady trespassed beyond due bounds.
"Your Honor," the Sheriff said quietly, "Harry McFarland sent me a note from Carbon Hill. He's got trouble a-brewin' and asked for some help."
His Honor paused in slicing up his egg. "Oh?"
"He'll have two payrolls arrive in the same day," the Sheriff said, "and Low Clay's gang is supposed to be nearby."
"Low Clay," the Judge murmured, tapping the salt spoon to sprinkle his eggs a bit, then returning the tiny silver scoop to the salt cellar: "Isn't that the gang from on south and east of ...?"
"It is," the Sheriff nodded.
"And aren't they the ones that kill the lawman first, grab a customer for hostage and kill anyone who tries to interfere?"
The Sheriff nodded, his eyes pale.
"They've never come this far West."
"Banks aren't as easy as they once were," the Sheriff shrugged, picking up a thick strip of crispy fried bacon and taking a bite. "Banks generally have guards these days, they're bigger, stronger, harder to rob."
"And Carbon's bank ...?"
"Much like our own."
The Judge looked worried.
"Money talks, Your Honor. A payroll is known well before it arrives. It's known we have payrolls come in regularly."
"Which is why you have guards in the bank."
"Which is why I have guards outside the bank as well."
"What do you plan?"
"Harry can't get anyone to guard his bank. They're too afraid the Low Clays will shoot the lawman and the guards to get to the payroll, and they just might."
"Hm." His Honor folded over his salted and peppered egg white, speared it precisely with his fork, lifted it into his mouth.
"I have an idea," the Sheriff murmured, smiling.
The Judge swallowed. "An idea."
"Yes, Your Honor. I figure that detective school in Denver owes Sarah yet for all they put her through. I propose to haul the lot of 'em out here and put 'em to work."
His Honor smiled: his eyes smiled first, then his mustache curled up at the corners, and finally he chuckled.
"Sheriff," he said, "you always did have a finely honed sense of revenge."
"Thank you, Your Honor," the Sheriff said, deviltry dancing in his eyes.

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Linn Keller 7-13-13


"He's going to take a bunch of Denver dicks out to Carbon Hill," the voice whispered.
"When?" came the hoarse reply.
"He sendin' or takin'?"
"He's ridin' at the head of the column hisself."
The unseen recipient of this good news swore.
"You idjut," he spat, "Denver dicks don't ride! City dicks! Tenderfoots!"
"Maybe the train, then," the first voice whispered.
"Find out, you fool! Find out fast!"
"Tell Low Clay I won't let him down!"
There was no reply.

Lightning raised an eyebrow,nodded the Sheriff to a chair: the lawman sat, slowly, easing the bend from his lower back: he'd got into a good knock down drag out the day before, and though he bore no visible marks, he was a bit sore from the effort.
The other fellow, he reflected, was likely saying the same thing, only moreso.
Lightning's "fist" was known to his fellow telegraphers: like a spoken voice or a handwriting example, the individual's identity was discernible by those used to hearing it, and the genuinity of his missive was not doubted.
Lightning was careful in his telegraphy, absolutely precise in his transmssion, and so he was confident that when Professor Hunt was given his flimsy, it would arrive written exactly as sent -- even with the cryptic DTM and FI annotations.
He waited until the receiving station sent acknowledgement, then turned to the Sheriff.
"It's sent," he said, and the Sheriff nodded: he leaned forward, hesitated before rising.
"Thank you," he said simply, then smiled a little.
"How is Fred Jerome and his wife getting along these days?"
"Fine, sir," Lightning grinned. "Just as happy as if he had good sense."
The Sheriff chuckled, nodded; he closed the door quietly behind him as he left.

The Sheriff fed Cannonball a couple shavings of molasses twist tobacker, patted her neck.
"Yew goin' to Carbon, Shurf?" one of the fellows called cheerfully.
"My county," the Sheriff said. "Marshal asked for some extra hands."
"How many you figure to send?"
"Oh, a whole train car load of 'em," the Sheriff said distantly, pretending to examine his cinch: he squinted a little, then looked again, ran thumb and forefinger carefully down the leather, as if looking for something. "I'll have to show 'em what to do, but they'll do fine."
"Now where you figure to get that kind of manpower?"
The Sheriff straightened, grinned.
"The Denver Detective Bureau. I've got a baker's dozen headed by train for Carbon Hill."
"You goin' with 'em, leave us here all alone?"
"You'll be fine," the Sheriff said. "Jackson Cooper to run the town, Jacob ought to be back from out East." He swung easily into the saddle. "I'm leaving Cannonball here, though. My black Outlaw-horse isn't nearly as recognizable."
The Sheriff turned, paced Cannonball easily down the street, smiling a little.
He would not have been surprised to learn that whispered words were scribbled on a slip of paper, the paper tucked in a saddlebag, the saddlebag thrown on a fast horse, and the horse walked out of town until it was safe to spur it into a gallop.
The Sheriff's pale eyes were hard and sharp as he considered Low Clay would be apprised of his plans within the hour.
Sarah McKenna waited in a little draw, out of sight of the town; the Sheriff rode across bare rock to meet her.
"Did they swallow it?" she asked, her eyes veiled.
"Hook, line and sinker," the Sheriff nodded.
"The Judge is uncomfortable," Sarah cautioned. "He thinks very highly of you, and he said that if Jacob catches the least scent of trouble, he will be here, hurt or not."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Jacob," he said, "has a wife who loves him very much." He crossed his palms on his saddlehorn, leaned his weight on his hands to stretch his lower back a little. "I am quite sure" -- he hissed in his breath a little as something popped audibly, causing a momentary burst of relieving pain somewhere in his lower spine -- after a gasp and a breath, he continued, speaking more slowly, "If Jacob were to hurt himself again, Annette would cloud up and rain all over him, and if I had a hand in it, she would probably wind me into the ground like a cork screw." He looked up at Sarah, his face expressionless, but she could see the laughter in his eyes.
"Either that or she would beat me about the head and shoulders with a large heavy object ... like a locomotive."
Sarah laughed, throwing her head back a little, and the Sheriff was struck by his daughter's unexpected beauty: he felt old, of a sudden, very old ... but he laughed a little himself.
"What else did you throw across the trail?" Sarah asked.
The Sheriff's face was solemn again.
"I told them I would be riding my black Outlaw-horse and leaving Cannonball here, that she was too recognizable."
"So they think you're riding to Carbon Hill, on Cannonball, and soon."
"You were right," he said. "I will need your help."

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Linn Keller 7-14-13


Professor Hunt looked at the lean, quiet men gathered in the empty warehouse.
All of them wore round Derbies, their long coats were an identical black, they all wore townie shoes, and the Professor knew each one was not only a graduate of his school, but was now a veteran detective, whether attached to a municipality, whether free lance, whether working for the railroad.
Two were with the Pinkertons, he knew, and had some good experience with train robbers.
"Gentlemen," he began without preamble, "you may remember hearing of the Low Clay gang."

Low Clay considered the inch wide strip of paper he'd unrolled and read.
It was written in pencil and a little smudged, but still quite clear, quite readable.
He looked up, smiled.
"Fellas," he said quietly, "I am tired of sleepin' on the ground and wearin' dirty clothes."
The more veteran of his band regarded his words skeptically; it was what he said every time he went in on a job, and they were still sleeping on the ground and wearing dirty clothes, riding stolen horses or horses bought with threat of violence if the seller didn't accept a pitiful price.
Every man knew his neck was forfeit if they were caught; unfortunately, most were young and had little experience with Clay: they only knew his reputation, or rather the reputation as it was told them.
Clay went on.
"It looks like Old Pale Eyes is gonna ride inta town like he's leadin' cavalry or somethin'. He'll have ten detectives with him. City men, city dicks, townies."
Clay's lip curled into a sneer and the sneer could be heard in his voice.
"Same as always. We kill the lawman first. In this case, lawmen.
"Count the city dicks. They won't be dressed like us. Chances are they'll ride in together. Carriages, most likely." He drawled out the word "caaar-rai-ges" with an exaggerated Eastern Pennsylvania whine, which got a chuckle out of his men: one of their favorite derisive traits was to mock the different accents they heard.
"We know that McFarland fella will be on the front porch of the bank. He's got a good loafin' spot and he loafs a lot."
"I like him already," one of the younger riders laughed.
Clay never changed expression. "Don't let that fool you," he said, never raising his voice. "He's a snake with that sixgun and hell on wheels with a rifle. I seen him tear a man's cob house down barehand, and the fella he beat bad was not small."
"How is he with a knife?"
"You'll never know," Clay replied, still not raising his voice. "We kill him and Pale Eyes soon as they're close to one another. That damned Sheriff thinks he's a hero. He'll ride right up to the bank on that black gelding o' his."
"I want the black," someone spoke up.
"He'll eat you for breakfast and belch out your spurs. Just kill the Sheriff. We're after gold, you fool, gold can buy all the horses you want!"
Clay stood. "We have the advantage of surprise. We take the high ground. Rooftops and barn lofts, same as always. Mitchell, you're the best with a rifle. I want you to lay waste to them city dicks. Martin, you take the Sheriff, you've got that buffalo gun. Smith, take the marshal. Nobody shoots until they are down.
First two shots for the Sheriff and the Marshal. After that, lay the dicks out. Once we do that nobody will interfere with our collectin' payroll."
"What about us, boss?" his segundo asked, a knowing grin on his stubbled, unshaven face.
The gang fanned back, guns in hand, as a rider came galloping over a distant crest: "Relax, boys, Smitty's got somethin' for us!"
Smitty came up the draw, bore a hard right and up a steep, narrow hollow: he did not ride direct for the camp, for he was in a hurry and unable to conceal his path, but he could misdirect anyone following, as he'd done before.
When he finally stumbled into the camp, his horse was several hundred yards away, stripped of saddle and bridle, lathered and breathing hard.
"Boss," he gasped, "we got it made!" He bent at the waist, hands on his knees, gasping for air: he was pale, he was excited, and when he raised his head to speak further, his eyes were bright, bright with news.
"Boss, that pale eyed depitty is gut shot and horse kicked! He's laid up and can't even get outta bed! They think he's dyin' of gangrene! Macneil is tied up raisin' horses on his place, ain't nobody left in Firelands but that great big town marshal!"
Clay nodded, looked around.
"I expected this," he lied, "but I wanted to make sure." He looked around at curious and hungry eyes.
"Fellas, I plan ahead and if what I suspected didn't pan out, we'd have Carbon Hill in our pockets.
"We won't do that."
He grinned with yellow and ugly teeth.
"We ain't goin' up ag'in that pale eyed buzz saw and them near-to-a-dozen townie dicks. No sense in it. They're expectin' it otherwise they wouldn't have troops on the way.
"No sir." He chuckled, drew his Remington, flipped open the loading gate and clicked the cylinder around, slowly, methodically, slipping a sixth round into the empty chamber.
"No sense in taking on twelve when we only have to kill one.
"The locals will make their deposits of a morning.
"They are an industrious bunch of folks and they don't like to burn daylight, so they'll deposit before ten o'clock.
"That's when we'll hit Firelands."
"We're not hittin' Carbon Hill?"
"You hard o' hearin'?" Low Clay grinned. "Why fight a dozen men when we only have to plug one big slow movin' dumb as a barn door town marshal?"
Clay shouldered his way through his men. "Saddle up. We got a withdrawal to make!"

"I arranged for payroll to arrive tomorrow instead of today," the Sheriff said with a wicked smile. "Beatrice got the deposits out of the bank and she quietly let the business folk know the bank won't be open until tomorrow. She delivered the news in person and swore them to secrecy, said something about having work done on the vault and it won't lock and she won't risk their funds in a vault that's not secure."
Jackson Cooper nodded, looked across the table at his diminutive schoolteacher wife.
Emma looked at him with those big eyes, those soft eyes, and Jackson Cooper nodded.
"Sheriff," he said, "I will give you something on the square."
The Sheriff's attention was instantly on his old and dear friend, sharp as a coon dog on a hot scent.
Jackson Cooper stood, walked slowly but gracefully to the staircase; he opened a hidden panel, pulled out something cloth covered.
"I'll thank you not to tell," he said, untying a string, then pulled away the protective cloth.
"Well I'd be damned," the Sheriff chuckled. "A steel shirt!"
Jackson Cooper nodded.
"Every time they shoot the lawman it's either back shot or chest shot," he said. "I had this made ag'in this day."
The Sheriff nodded.
"They usually hit after deposits are made but before withdrawals for payroll."
"About ten o'clock."
"Can you fight in that?"
Jackson Cooper laughed.
"Linn, I can cut wood, ride a horse, pull a calf and eat supper in that shirt." He rapped the contoured steel armor with hard knuckles; it made a ringing sound.
"Sounds like an awful lot of work."
Jackson Cooper's eyes were suddenly unreadable.
"I reckon they'll take the roof tops," he said.
The Sheriff nodded. "The livery is well behind the Jewel and will offer no advantage. You are not a man of regular habits, so they won't know where you will be at any given time."
Jackson Cooper nodded.
The Sheriff smiled. "Instead of Carbon Hill, I'm bringing the detectives here. I'll have them on the roof tops, each roof top will have a small hide built. We know the best place for them to take a shot at you will be from Digger's place. That false front with the curlicues at the corners make fine concealment for a rifleman."
Jackson Cooper nodded.
"I take it you have something special in mind for them?"
The Sheriff's eyes were pale and hard as he looked at his old friend, then he looked at Emma Cooper.
The Sheriff stood, went over to Jackson Cooper's wife: his hat was hung up on a peg by the door, which his hand forgot as it came up by reflex, and Emma smiled sadly at the courtly gesture, knowing the Sheriff was used to sweeping off the skypiece before addressing a lady.
The Sheriff went to one knee, took one of Emma's hands in his.
"Emma Cooper," he said softly, "I will do my level best to bring your husband home to you unhurt."
"Please do," Emma whispered, and looked with bright and frightened eyes at her restlessly-shifting husband.
"He's the only Jackson Cooper I'll ever have!"

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Linn Keller 7-14-13


Sarah hesitated at the foot of the stairs, one hand delicately lifting the front of her skirt.
Slowly, deliberately, she removed her foot from the first step, her hand from the banister; she released the skirt, composed herself and said "Yes, Mother?"
"Sarah, dear, we have the ladies' tea this morning," Bonnie reminded her.
"I am sorry, Mother," Sarah said, her voice soft, "but I fear I am ... otherwise ... engaged."
Bonnie felt a little tick of worry in her belly.
"Sarah," she said in the I-know-you're-up-to-something voice of a knowing mother, "is there something you wish to tell me?"
Sarah lifted her skirt and her chin, turned and started up the stairs.
Bonnie snatched up her own skirts and followed.
Sarah twisted her bedroom doorknob firmly, flung the door wide, but did not shut it: she knew her mother followed close behind, and it would be an offense for her to shut the door in Bonnie's face.
Sarah pulled the tag end of the ribbon in her hair, freeing the knot: a shake of her head and her hair fell behind her.
"Undo me, Mother," Sarah said, holding her arms out.
Numbly her mother reached under her hair, found the satin ribbon: she pulled the knot free, loosed the lacing down the back of Sarah's dress, helped her out of the gown.
Sarah was quickly free of dress and petticoats and stockings: Bonnie saw Sarah wore a riding corset, not the long corset that would be proper for a young lady of fashion, and she realized Sarah had some foreknowledge ... Sarah knew something was coming.
Something that she, Bonnie, did not.
Sarah pulled open a closet door, brought out a black shirt: her fingers flowed more than moved as she buttoned it, quickly, easily; black trousers and knee high socks, the knee high cavalry boots and double gunbelt and black canvas vest followed.
Sarah sat quickly, suddenly, at her vanity, held up her hairbrush.
"Braid my hair, Mother," she said quietly.
Bonnie automatically began brushing out Sarah's hair, fashioning the twin braids she preferred: Sarah tied them with short black ribbons, wound the braids around her neck, crisscrossing them and tucking them in the back of her shirt collar.
She opened the top right hand drawer of her vanity, gathered a handful of gleaming rifle cartridges and slipped them into her right hand vest pocket; closing this, she opened the top left drawer and brought out a handful of thicker, blunter rounds, just as long; these went into her left vest pocket.
She reached toward the mirror and picked up a single .45-70 round, a cartridge with no bullet; its mouth was filled with something smooth, slick, greyish-cream colored.
She slipped this into an upper vest pocket, reached into the drawer again and pulled out a single key.
Standing, she turned; Bonnie stepped back, watching her daughter's quick, efficient moves as she opened the finely finished case Jacob made and gave her some time ago.
Sarah reached in and withdrew the gleaming bronze shield, slid it into the slot in her vest front: she withdrew a Sharps rifle and her Winchester, laid these on the bed.
Sarah bent a little and fastened down her holsters, pulled the tabs free of her revolver hammers and drew them down out of the way: she removed one, then the other, loaded a sixth round in each: a Derringer went in a pocket inside the center back of her wide gunbelt, a slender bladed knife into a nearly hidden pocket in her right boot top.
Bonnie watched all this as if watching a stranger.
It wasn't until Sarah pulled out four knives -- four knives with long, leaf shaped blades and no handles -- knives meant for throwing, not for slicing meat at the table -- not until Sarah slid two of these into pockets behind her shoulders, and two into pockets in front of her shoulders, did Bonnie feel a genuine chill shiver down her spine and settle around her stomach.
Sarah wrapped a black silk wild rag around her throat, tied it quickly in a slip-away knot, then picked up her flat brimmed Stetson, kissed her Mama and whispered, "I'll be back before dark," clapped the hat on her head, picked up her rifles, and slipped out the door.
Bonnie fumbled for a kerchief, pressed it to her lips and squeezed her eyes shut as she listened to Sarah's boot heels clatter down the stairs, until she heard the twins' happy goodbyes, until she heard Snowflake's deceptively slow-sounding hoofbeats recede down their driveway.
Only then did she open her eyes.
They were the eyes of a woman afraid.
"It would be easier," she whispered aloud, "if she were slipping away to see her beau!"

The storage shed atop Digger's funeral parlor was finished; men carefully carried coffins to the roof, stacked them inside: four on the left and four on the right, with a single coffin centered inside the little shed, just inside the door.
The other rooftops all had a shed built on them as well: tight, efficient little extra storage buildings -- and one on every roof.
Apparently the Sheriff planned well: at least he knew that one building alone with a shed would look suspicious and merit a close inspection, but if every building had one, it would be less likely to be seen as a trap.
"I'll pay for any damage," the Sheriff drawled, "and you know I'm good for it."
"I shall hold you to that, sir," Digger replied with wounded dignity, but the Sheriff saw the gleam of avarice in the man's eyes, and he knew Digger would try to soak him for as much damage -- real or imagined -- as he could possibly arrange.

Sarah drew up in front of their fine brick firehouse.
"Aye, lass, he's gone," Sean said in response to her unspoken question. "Him an' that longbow o' his."
Sarah nodded, remembering how the two of them made a quiver of arrows: a full yard long they were, fletched with goose feathers: he'd shown Sarah how to split a feather, how to glue it and wrap it with good linen thread; he'd fashioned nocks from bone, arrowheads from metal scrounged from the scrap pile: "Pile points," he called them, "they'll pierce armor" -- and something in his voice told her he knew whereof he spoke.
Daffyd Llewellyn, for his part, slipped into a hide of his own making, one that overlooked the approaches used by men who did not wish to be seen: he had direct line of sight with Firelands, with the main street, with the watering trough across from the Sheriff's Office, directly in front of the Silver Jewel.
At this distance, he knew, he could hit a man's hat, five times out of five, and never mind it was well over two hundred yards.
The Welsh archer had been the world's most efficient war machine for centuries, and Daffyd Llewellyn grew up handling the longbow from his earliest age: it was a skill taught him by his father and his grandfather, a skill of which their bards and seneschals sang, a skill he maintained, even in this mountainous land half a world away from the green valleys of his native Wales.
Daffyd Llewellyn uttered a prayer in his native tongue, something he'd not done since boyhood, and ritually stuck the arrows into the ground ahead of him, the way Welsh bowmen did before loosing an arrow-storm at ranked enemies approaching.

Billy Blaze smiled as Sarah handed him Snowflake's reins: she paused to caress his cowlick, the way she always did, then she turned, pulled the saddlebags free and draped them over her shoulder, and shucked her Winchester from its scabbard.
Half of the Blaze Brothers, his ears sounding like they were full of late August bugs in a hot harvest field, walked Snowflake across the street and down the broad alley and toward the livery stable.
Sarah stopped and raised her Sharps in salute; her father touched his hat brim to her: he and a handful of black-coated men were slipping up the railroad tracks, using railcars as cover: the Denver detectives, she knew: her father would be distributing them along rooftops and in other strategic locations.
She made her way unseen into Digger's preparation room and up the stairs; it seemed larger, with his inventory of coffins on the roof instead of inside: she ignored the waiting table, tilted a little to direct fluids into the pail under its foot end: she never considered that she might occupy that table before day's end.
She was too busy cat footing upstairs and onto the roof.
She looked over the rooftop, examined the shed, opened the waiting coffin inside the door.
At least it's padded, she thought, then closing the coffin's lid, she straddled it, drew the door shut.
There was enough gap around the door that she could set a rifle muzzle against the gap and shoot at anyone laying ambush along the front of the roofline.
I don't want to fire a rifle in here, she thought, briefly imagining herself wearing a little framed slate around her neck and communicating with chalk for the rest of her life.
She opened the door, walked around back of the shed.
A pile of lumber and a tarp.
She looked along the roofline and smiled, for she'd left a package of her own: her lance, wrapped in black canvas.
She peeked over the roofline and froze.
He was watching the roof of the Mercantile.
Sarah looked over, saw two detectives: they saw the man as well, she saw one man's lip curl in a curse.
She looked back.
The man was running now, running down the alley behind the Jewel.
Sarah's eyes went hard and pale and she snatched up the lance, sprinted for the stairway.
Digger looked up at the sound of running feet coming downstairs; he stepped in front of the door just in time to be hit by something black and fast moving: he hadn't quit rolling when his front door slammed open and he heard galloping hooves, a man's voice shouting at his horse.

Jacob hobbled for the barn, moving slow, like the stove up old man he felt like.
He intended to do nothing more ambitious than muck out a stall, and muck it out slow, until he either tired out or got too sore to work, or hopefully until he finished the job.
Jacob wore his contrariness like a hat, shoved forward in the aggressive slope of a man walking to a fight.

The Sheriff went to one knee, using the open door of the Mercantile to steady his '73 rifle, waiting for the rider to come around the corner of the Jewel.
Sarah ran out in the street, lance in hand.
The Sheriff swore, quietly, viciously.

Low Clay checked his watch and smiled.
"The payroll will be there by now," he said with a note of satisfaction in his voice. "Let's go make us a withdrawal."

Law and Order Harry McFarland stood in front of the Carbon Hill bank as the first of the payroll wagons arrived.
Harry stood out in the open with a double gun in hand, wondering just how in two hells the Sheriff knew the Low Clay gang was not going to hit them.

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Linn Keller 7-15-13


Jacob considered the old double gun parked in the corner.
Old it was, older than he, but it was a good gun with a moderate choke; he kept it loaded with heavy shot: he'd replaced the nipples to take musket caps, on the theory that they would have a hotter spark, and so be more reliable for a barn gun that might go two weeks without being fired, cleaned and reloaded.
He kept the muzzles plugged with a rag at his father's behest, and he laughed at his description of an old-timer back home who went to take a shot at a skunk, fired off the right hand barrel, only to have it split, bust and curl back like a metallic morning glory, as mud dauber wasps built their adobe nest inside the barrel: at the concussion, the aforementioned stripe-back egg thief anointed the offending farmer, who then gave the intruder the full benefit of the left barrel, which got bent enough to blow the skunk off its feet but cause it little other harm: Jacob was yet a lad when his father told the tale, and added that he knew the skunk personally, and it was afraid of thunder ever after.
Jacob patiently, slowly, carefully, mucked the stalls: it took him a good while and he was pale and sweating before he was finished, but he paid attention to his belly and his general fatigue and -- rare for Jacob -- he did not push himself.

Daffyd Llewellyn nocked an arrow.
He didn't know quite what was happening.
He saw a rider come tearing around the corner of the Jewel; a slight figure, in black and with a silver headed lance, charged the figure, swung the lance, apparently intending to bring the rider out of the saddle.
He saw the man on foot go over backwards and roll, then come up, hurl the lance like a javelin, and his heart fell to about his boot tops as he realized the set, white face and bared teeth belonged to his lovely young bride-to-be.
Daffyd Llewellyn rose a little more, transfixed by the sight, and then a bullet spalled rock from behind him.

The Sheriff swung his rifle's muzzle to follow the rider, swore: he held his shot, not wanting a miss to go into a building across the street: he snapped the rifle down from shoulder, unconsciously thumbing it to half-cock as he sprinted around the corner of the Mercantile.
A moment later his red-gold Cannonball roared from the alley, pursuing the fleeing rider.

Low Clay turned in the saddle, mouth open to shout at his tail end rider, then thought better of it.
He turned his face back to Firelands.
No idea what the fool was shootin' at, he thought.
'Twas only one shot.
We're far enough away they'll just think it's someone shootin' at game
He never saw the goose-fletched arrow drive through the shooter's right eye and out the back of his skull.

Daffyd Llewellyn pulled back into his hide, nocked a second arrow.
Surprise was lost; his own life would very likely be forfeit.
He drew and released in one smooth motion, the bowstring twanged as the hand made arrow sailed in a clean arc toward Firelands.

Sarah's head turned at the woody sound of an arrow driving into the side of the watering trough.
She seized the arrow, snapped it off, held it up and waved it overhead, putting two fingers of her other hand to her lips and giving a long, shrill whistle, then she snatched up her lance and sprinted back for Digger's place.
Overhead, along rooftops and at the corners of false fronts, black-coated detectives' eyes narrowed and their hands tightened on their rifles.

The rider quirted his horse mercilessly, driving bloody spurs into its flanks, looking over his shoulder at the pursuing lawman.
His heart shriveled as he realized it was Pale Eyes himself, on a horse that God Almighty couldn't outrun.
The outlaw drew his pistol and threw a shot behind, screaming "CLAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYY! IIITTT'SSS A TRAAAAAAAAPPPPP!"
The Sheriff brought up his rifle, stood in the stirrups; knees bent a little, he thrust the rifle straight in front of him and fired once.
The man jerked a little as the .44-40 slug shattered his spine, then he fell, limp, and finally flowed from the saddle, one foot still in the stirrup.
His head lolled and banged on the rocky ground for some distance until the Sheriff could catch up with the panicked mount and grab its bridle and get it slowed down.

Sarah pounded up the stairs, disappointment bitter in her throat.
She thrust open the hatch, rolled onto the roof, closed the portal: looking around, she scampered, bent-over, to the lumber pile behind the shed, lifted up a couple boards toward the bottom and slid the lance in, out of sight.
She stopped, stood, took a long, steadying breath, closed her eyes.
When she opened them, they were very pale and very cold.

Daffyd Llewellyn had little woodcraft; he was not to the mountains born, nor was he a hillman from his homeland: still, he had a warrior's heart and a quiver of arrows, and the riderless horse continued after its fellows: Daffyd jerked the remaining arrows from the ground, thrust them into his quiver, and set out after the column of horses.
He could not travel as fast as a horse, but his arrows could travel faster, and he had yet a full quiver.

Low Clay drew up at the sound of twin gunshots: one pistol, one rifle, but a distance away.
He held up a hand; his band gathered around him, waiting.

The Sheriff disengaged the dead man's foot from his stirrup, turned him over, looked at his mauled face.
"Chuckie Smith," he muttered. "Always knew you'd come to a bad end."
The Sheriff dragged Smith into a little draw, rolled him in: he was barely out of sight, it would not fool a sharp eye, but the Sheriff was gambling the outlaws would be fixed on gold and not caution.
He mounted his Cannonball-horse and turned back to Firelands.

Low Clay raised a hand again.
They'd resumed their journey; they were two stones-throws from the far side of Firelands, in some brush across the railroad tracks.
He pointed. "You. Get on that water tower."
The man nodded.
"You two. See that fancy painted up place? That's the Silver Jewel. You'd have to shoot your way upstairs and we can't have that. Never mind it. See the building across from it? I was told they're working on it. See if the back door is still missing. I been told you can just walk in and climb right up to the roof."
"Right, boss."
"Now you two."
Low Clay grinned; his mare shifted under him, clattering her bit a little.
"Right across from that-there Silver Jewel place. I want you on this near roof and one on that far roof. The far one is the Mercantile. Go in the back, it ain't locked. Man that runs it ain't got but one arm. Club him hard, put him down, I want him quiet. Get him in back before you do. Only one set of stairs and it goes up to the roof."
He looked around, meeting every eye.
"Same as every other job. We wait until the town clown is down. When he hits the ground, the rest of us ride in, we hit the bank, we kill anyone that gives us trouble, we get the hell out. In fast, out fast."
His smile was wolfish, made all the more horrible by yellowed teeth.
"Let's ride!"

The Sheriff thundered back into town, swung behind the Silver Jewel, brought his Cannonball-horse to a stop: he jumped from the saddle, dropped her reins, put two fingers to his lips and whistled.
The back door of the Jewel opened slowly and a large, lumbering, black beast thrust a massive head out, blinked, licked gravy from its jowls and then yawned, showing an impressive spread of white ivory fangs and a startling-pink tongue.
The Sheriff extended a hand and The Bear Killer growled happily, bristling the hair up on his back ridge.

Daffyd Llewellyn stumbled once, caught himself: he ran a few more steps, coasted to a stop.
It was hopeless, he realized; he would never catch up to them.
He looked to Firelands, debated whether to loose another signal arrow: he decided against it -- he'd put the signal right where it was supposed to be, and his bride saw it, snatched it, waved it -- he'd done his job, it was time to go home.
If I am lucky, he thought, then, Grandmother, grant me a warrior's song this day!

Sarah hid in stifling darkness, closing her mouth and closing her eyes, making herself as still as possible.
She heard the little shed door open; a man's muffled "Jee-sus Christ!" and a brief discussion, then loud and hollow thumps and she realized they were stacking coffins from the side stack onto the one in the middle, making it impossible for the middle coffin to be opened from the inside.
"Just in case," a voice said, "there's anything in it wantin' to come out!"
A laugh, the slap of a gloved hand on a hard muscled shoulder; the shed door was closed, then all was still.
Sarah breathed slowly in her airless confinement, slipping a hand up her bodice, thinking fast.
She worked out from under the tarp and lumber behind the shed: slowly, carefully, the least clatter of lumber and all would be lost.
Somehow ... somehow she managed.
She wiggled sideways, clear of the tarp, rolled over on her belly, pushed up to all fours, then to her knees.
She rose to toes and fingertips, stood in a crouch, began to cat foot toward the pair.
She glanced to her right, saw a pair of eyes under a Derby brim, the black eye of a rifle barrel.
Sarah made a quick move with her flat hand: the rifle barrel lowered, but the eyes never left the tableau unfolding on the funeral parlor's flat roof.
Sarah reached up, drew a pair of throwing knives from the pockets in the front of her black canvas vest.
She took a step, a second, a third.
Her hand drew back, gleaming Smith steel shining in the midmorning sun.

Jackson Cooper looked at his watch, took a long breath.
He looked toward the funeral parlor.
"God," he said aloud, for he often addressed the Eternal as if talking with a personal friend, "I don't particularly want to take a nap in that place."
He chuckled.
"I understand the mattress is kind of hard on that bed of his."
Jackson Cooper folded the cover shut on his watch, heard it click as it latched, then he pressed the release again and looked at the hand painted portrait inside the cover.
It was his wife, Emma, and it was an excellent likeness.
Jackson Cooper shrugged a little.
Emma made pads for his shoulders, for the steel-shirt, as it was known, the armor he wore, was heavy and it chafed: even with the shoulder padding it was not terribly comfortable.
He knew better than to look up, at the rooflines.
Linn, he thought, I'm a-trustin' you now.

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Linn Keller 7-15-13


Daffyd ran with a single minded purpose.
His legs burned, his lungs burned, his throat was dry, his belly tight, but he ran without stopping: longbow in one hand, two arrows in the other, leaping across one rail, then the other, two steps and across the second pair of rails, one then the other.
He stopped behind the railcars, bent over, his breath hoarse in his throat.
Two hundred yards, he thought, it was only two hundred yards and I'm whipped, and he damned his laziness at not running ten miles a day while carrying a steam engine overhead to physically condition himself against this moment.
Llewellyn was a fireman and he could fight a fire, haul hose, drive a pike pole through a ceiling and rip it down, pick up and pack out a fallen victim or a brother firefighter, he could pick up and move aside a beam inside a fire structure to free someone trapped beneath, but one thing he'd done little of was run any distance, not since he was some younger, and it was telling him so now.
He leaned against the side of a boxcar, then pushed away, strode to the end of the car, peeked quickly around the side of the car.
The only thing he saw moving was a boy, running, a white streak of hair on the side of his head.

Billy Blaze -- half of the hard-luck, lightning-kissed, ornery pair known as the Blaze Boys -- ran with fear, ran with desperation, ran away from what he'd just seen.
His beloved Miss Sarah -- the gentle schoolmarm with the understanding voice and soft eyes, the knowing way she could look at you and know when you were storyin' her, the pretty schoolteacher who could take a knot in your understanding of a number problem and untie it and you'd understand it then -- he was running from this strange creature with her face but not her eyes, this creature that screamed in frustration when she heaved a spear and missed, this black britches beast with weapons just a-drippin' off her ... this change, both in the person and in the appearance, frightened the lad to the point that he ran from the livery, ran for the only help he could think of.
The Sheriff was gone, he'd chased after a bad guy, the Marshal wasn't around yet: the only help Billy could think of was the schoolmarm's Mama, and she wasn't anywhere near.
Billy ran hard as he could go, young legs pumping, young arms swinging, bearing his terror with him, hoping he could put it into words once he got there.

Sarah could see Jackson Cooper from her vantage.
She was close enough to the edge she could see the big Marshal check his watch, fold it and put it back in his vest pocket.
She saw one man raise a Winchester, the other take a leanin' rest with his Sharps, and she heard one say to the other, "Same as always. You take the first shot. You miss, I won't."
The man with the Sharps laughed quietly.
"I ain't missed yet," he said.
Sarah's arm flashed down before the second man could shoulder his rifle.
The knife drove into his back, hard and deep: the blade was thick, the edges sharp, the tip very pointed: it drove into his kidneys and a sunball of utter agony detonated in the kidney it transfixed, paralyzing his throat.
It hurt so bad he could not utter a sound.
Sarah passed the second blade from left hand to right, took a half step, threw again.
The blade drove into the rifleman's back, lower: she reached up, drew the blade from over her right shoulder, turned it in her hand, threw again.
It drove in a little higher and closer to his spine.
Sarah walked forward, grabbed one of the knives and pulled it out: she seized his chin, drove her knees into his back, yanked his head back and drove the lanceolate blade into the side of his neck, twisted, yanked it out, knowing she'd just cut both his carotid artery and the juglar vein.
She grabbed the barrel of his Sharps, pulled it free, dropped the breech block.
The cartridge fell to the roof at her feet.
Sarah pulled the round from her vest's breast pocket, dropped it into the rifle's chamber, slammed the action shut, brought it to shoulder, and put the front sight on the center of Jackson Cooper's chest.
Sarah McKenna, Agent of the Firelands District Court, pulled the trigger on a brother law enforcement officer.
The BOOOOOMMM of the buffalo rifle echoed off the buildings' fronts.
Jackson Cooper flinched at the slug's impact.
Low Clay's eyes gleamed and he drew his revolver, kicking his horse into a run.
Sarah cocked the Sharps hammer, dropped the breech block and kicked the empty free; she dropped in a fresh round, closed the action.
She looked up.
Jackson Cooper lay on his back, left arm thrown across the boardwalk, right arm across his belly.
He wasn't moving.

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Linn Keller 7-15-13


The Sheriff ran across behind the Municipal Building and across the empty lot, ran back of the school house and down grade a little, to the bank's back door.
Beatrice was waiting with the door open, her carriage just outside; her mare was harnessed up and ready, drowsing a little, at least until the Sheriff came running up.
Beatrice looked levelly at the Sheriff.
"They're on their way," she said, a statement and not a question.
The Sheriff nodded.
"Beatrice, get outta here!" the Sheriff hissed, listening for the gallop of approaching hooves.
Beatrice could be as angelic as your maiden aunt, or in this case, she could wear a thundercloud across her brow: "This is my bank," she snapped, "and the people here trust me with their money -- me!" She glared at the panting lawman. "And I am going to be here!"
"Fine!" the Sheriff barked, stiff-arming her inside and slamming the door. "Get behind the counter and pretend to be a teller, and when they come in, duck!"

Sarah whistled, waved at the detective on the next roof: she set the Sharps down, intending he or one of his fellows should come and take her firing position.
She turned, ran for the hatch, disappeared down the stairs.
Digger was straightening his coat and brushing off his top hat when he heard Sarah's rapid descent: he turned just in time to be run into and run over by something black and fast moving.
Digger hit the floor, flat on his back, grunting with pain.
Sarah knelt by the broad front window, breathing slow, deep, watching, her eyes barely high enough to see over the sill: she was far enough back that her shadow-shape would be hidden by the natural glare of reflection from without.
Outside, the street was still, empty: Sarah looked up hill to the unmoving figure of the town marshal, supine on the boardwalk.
She heard running feet, a harsh voice, the click of a hammer: "Don't move, you murdering traitor!"
"Oh, shut up," Sarah muttered; she turned, saw a man holding a Winchester on her, its black bore ummoving. "I shot him with lye soap."
The detective blinked.
"You what?"
Sarah spoke slowly, as if the man were slow, or addled from inheriting one too many beer bottles over the head in a bar fight.
"I pulled the bullet and dumped part of the powder," she explained, holding up a .45-70 round, "and tamped it full of lye soap. Jackson Cooper yonder" -- she jerked her head -- "is wearing a steel breast plate. He probably didn't even feel getting hit unless it splattered his chin."
The detective lowered his rifle, no longer looking at Sarah as if she were the vilest murderess Hell ever spawned.
His expression was now one of a man regarding someone with a fish sticking out of their shirt pocket.
"Well, don't just stand there with your teeth in your mouth," Sarah snapped, "get up on the damned roof and take a firing position! The enemy is nearly upon us! Move!"
"That's why your shot sounded funny," the detective mumbled, turning and running for the back stairs.
"Idiot," Sarah hissed, shaking her head: she turned, looked out the window again.
Digger was sitting on the floor, debating whether to get up or not; the atmosphere was, in his opinion, certainly less congenial than he liked, with strange men ready to assassinate someone who really looked less dangerous in a mousy-grey dress.
"Digger, I need you to stay out of sight. Your office would be a good choice. I really wouldn't go to the Silver Jewel right now."
Digger's eyes went to the windows, saw the inviting front of the Jewel diagonally across the street, and he thought how nice it would be to have a stout libation -- for medicinal purposes only! -- and he hazarded the question, "Why not?"
Low Clay and his men thundered down the street, swarming their way toward the bank.
"That's why," Sarah said.
She lifted a velvet pall, pulled her Winchester from under a concealing fold.
Digger stared: he never realized she'd slipped in to plant the rifle.
"Stay out of sight," Sarah cautioned, "and please stay low, or behind something bulletproof. I don't know how to embalm you."
Digger's eyes bulged; he staggered to his feet, tottered to his office, closed his door and sat down, dropping his weight on the thick velvet cushion he favored.
He looked around, eyes wide, then bent and opened the unlocked safe's door.
It was not a large safe, its interior chamber was no more than two feet wide and high, but it was big enough to contain what was important and valuable.
Digger reached in and pulled out what he deemed most important to him in that moment.
He pulled the cork on the bottle, tilted it up and took a long drink.

Low Clay held back while his younger members shoved through the bank's front door, yelling.
The lobby was empty.
Beatrice smiled at them from behind the teller's grille.
"Hello, boys," she said pleasantly. "Come to do business?"
"GIVE ME ALL YOUR MONEY!" one of them screamed, raising an old Starr revolver.
Beatrice pulled the trigger on the shotgun she had under the counter: there was a little shelf, just at the right height to prop the muzzle of a short persuader, and a charge of swan shot blew a hole the size of a man's fist through the wood under the counter and caught the robber just below his belt buckle.
The Sheriff rose a little: he was kneeling behind the counter, but he was a tall man, and kneeling, back straight, was just the right height to deliver rifle fire from under the farthest teller's grille from where Beatrice stood.
There was a general stampede for the door, a fusillade of fire hammering at Beatrice and the Sheriff: their covering fire was delivered in a panic, in a hurry: never before had they met with such an affront at a bank, never before had the teller blown a man's guts out his back and then raised her gun to give another robber a ticket to the Inferno, delivered with a handful of pea-size pellets ... and never, ever had there been a cold-eyed Gatling punching lead at them from the other end of the counter!
Low Clay was just coming into the doorway when the first shot went off; he was on his horse and wheeling to flee before the Sheriff sent his last round into a man's chest.
Maybe half his gang was able to mount and gallop back up the street.
Low Clay's horse reared, shied; his gang didn't wait on him, they ran -- right into a hail of justice, delivered from the rooftops.
Low Clay drove his fist down between his horse's ears, hard, hauled back mercilessly on the reins: he believed in commanding a horse, mastering a horse, beating a horse as necessary, and it was by virtue of sheer meanness that he got his mount to head the other way out of town.
He ran down past the firehouse, hauled hard across the railroad tracks, drove his spurs into his horse's ribs, and came upright with a surprised look on his face as something hit him in the chest.
Low Clay drew his horse to a skidding, head-tossing stop.
He looked down at the stick with feathers on it that appeared in his chest: he reached up and touched the feathers, looked ahead, saw a man in a red bib front shirt with what looked like the biggest bow God ever put in a red Indian's hand, drawn back, and Low Clay reached for his revolver and wrapped his hand around the grip and his thumb was pulling back the hammer as it came out of leather and another arrow hit him and he grunted with the impact and he noticed a funny roaring in his ears and a couple more gunshots behind him and his arm was heavy, so heavy, and he raised the pistol but it wouldn't cock and the world kind of rolled out from under him and he hit the ground on his side and he wondered what in the hell those feathers were doing sticking out of his shirt front.
It was the last thing he ever wondered about.

Jackson Cooper rose from the sidewalk, Remington in hand: he walked out onto the street as the robbers rode from the bank, he brought his Remington up to eye level, he pressed the light trigger and felt forty grains of triple-F detonate in the .44 cartridge's throat: he didn't look to see if the man went down, he let the pistol roll up a little and brought it back down, cocking as it came, fired at the second man, just as the shower of lead from the heavens above emptied nearly every last saddle a-headin' toward him.
"Well damn," he said, sounding unusually pleased with himself. "That's the most good I ever got out a .44 pistol!"

Bonnie Rosenthal snapped the reins on her mare.
The buggy whip was upright in its socket; it was a thing Bonnie kept for show, but never, ever used: when she was enslaved in the second floor of the Silver Jewel, back when she was drugged, beaten, imprisoned and used, she was beaten with a buggy whip: it was a reminder to her that she was better than those who used her, that she was better now than her past had been: it was a reminder that she did not do such things to anyone, nor to any horse.
As angered as she was, she did not stretch forth her hand for the whip.
Her mare set a brisk pace for Firelands.
Bonnie Rosenthal was mad clear through.
She could hear gunfire and she knew her daughter was in the middle of it, and she knew who was responsible.

Jacob leaned against the rail fence, willing the ache in his belly to go away.

One man managed to get away.
One man, and only one, was not touched by the storm of judgement sprinkled upon the lawless; one man, and only one, escaped swift and implacable introduction to the delights of the Hereafter they'd earned.
His horse hadn't been as lucky.
He took a hard turn, climbed the mountain, taking a road he didn't know, hoping against hope he could steal a horse and keep riding.
This was a bad job and he'd had nothing but empty promises.
Let me get away, Lord, he thought, I'll give up the owl hoot and go home!
Jacob pulled the cloth plugs from the double gun's barrels and eared back the twin hammers.
He walked slowly, purposefully, out into the open space between the barn and the house.
He heard a horse's approach and he knew from the sound of it the horse was hurt, and so he waited.
He'd heard the gunfire from Firelands and knew something happened -- what, he didn't really know, but the volume of fire bespoke something serious; a volley, then nothing ... not a shooting match, he thought.
The rider looked ahead, saw the tidy stone house, the neat fence, the tight barn.
He kicked his horse savagely, drew his pistol.
Jacob shouldered the double gun.
"Drop it," he shouted, feeling the pain reflect off the bottom of his belly as his diaphragm tightened with the force of his command.
The man's pistol came up and Jacob pulled the front trigger.
The musket cap went off with a loud SNAP!
Jacob swore, reached for the rear trigger, just as a rifle shot coincided with the rider's convulsing and falling from his saddle.
He lowered the shotgun, watched as the horse collapsed and fell, grunting harshly and kicking a few times before it, too, died.
Jacob walked up on the outlaw and satisfied himself the man was actually dead.
He looked up to find Annette standing on the other side of the dead horse from him, rifle in hand.
"Nobody shoots my husband," she said quietly, and Little Joseph, standing beside her, puffed out his little chest and declared, "Yeah! Nobody shoots my husband!"

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Linn Keller 7-16-13


Bonnie drew her carriage to a halt, set the brake, staring at a main street full of death.
Two horses and several men lay dead; blood stained the ground, an incredible amount of blood: and through this, her daughter, her Sarah, walking slowly through its midst, using her silver headed lance like a walking stick, casual and unconcerned ... and just as hard-eyed and as calculating as her father, the Sheriff, who was doing the same thing.
She watched as the white-faced proprietor of the Mercantile staggered from his door, a nickle plated pistol in hand, and tottered like an old man toward the nearest of the detectives: the detective carefully took the pistol from the shaking man's hand, sat him down, spoke with another man in black: a flask was produced from somewhere, a sizable volume of bore cleaner went down the pale faced storekeeper's gullet.
Bonnie grabbed the front of her skirt and swung out of the carriage as bristled up as a Banty hen, stomped over to the Sheriff and seized the tall lawman's arm.
He turned, his face hard and his eyes cold, just as Bonnie's other hand belted him right across the face.
The sound of her slap was loud, sharp, and brought everything else to a frozen halt.
The Sheriff's voice was quiet but very firm when he said, "Don't you ever do that again."
Bonnie felt something tug at her hat, then she heard the gunshot: the Sheriff pushed her, hard, and she fell backwards, arms flailing, as the Sheriff pushed three fast shots toward the railroad water tower.
Bonnie struggled up on her elbows.
She was white around the lips and ready for a fight.
Sarah started for the tower but stopped when three detectives swung down the alley ahead of her.
Sarah stopped, turned, stalked over to the Sheriff and her mother.
The Sheriff extended a hand to help her up; Bonnie ignored it, swatting angrily at her backside.
She pushed the Sheriff aside, snatched at Sarah's arm.
Sarah yanked her arm free of her mother's grip, her eyes pale, her jaw set.
"No," Sarah said.
Bonnie's eyes were wide, dangerously wide.
"WHAT did you say?"
"You heard me," Sarah said.
Bonnie drew back her hand.
"Try it," Sarah said, and Bonnie could not miss the warning in her voice.
She froze -- all but her mouth.
"How dare you challenge me," she hissed.
"I am on assignment," Sarah said, her voice as hard as her eyes: "we prevented --"
"Assignment?" Bonnie laughed -- a short, sharp bark. "No you're not!"
She turned her hand, snatched Sarah's badge from her vest.
Sarah seized her mother's hand, grasping the meat of the base of her mother's thumb: she twisted hard, back, bringing her mother over backwards.
Bonnie hit the ground flat on her back, Sarah twisting hard in a direction Bonnie's arm was not intended to rotate.
Sarah stripped the bronze shield from her mother's hand, stepped back.
"I just killed two men to keep them from killing Jackson Cooper," Sarah said quietly, dangerously. "I will kill anyone I have to."
"This is all your fault," Bonnie snapped, shoving hard against the Sheriff. "Your fault!"
"I reckon it is," he replied quietly.
Bonnie glared at Sarah.
"I want you home, young lady. I want you in a dress, and I want you to be a lady, and I want --"
"I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU WANT!" Sarah flared, the whip-scar standing out on her reddening face. "I AM WHAT I AM AND YOU'RE NOT GOING TO CHANGE THAT!"
The words shivered on the late-morning air.
Bonnie heard her words as if shouted by someone else, but she felt them still vibrating in her throat.
Her eyes went wide again, but wide with hurt, and her gloved hand floated up to cover her shocked mouth.
"If that's what you want," Sarah said quietly. "I will send for my things."
"Sarah -- I'm sorry -- no --"
Sarah was already turned and walking stiffly away from her mother.
"Sheriff," one of the detectives said, "there is a body in the back of the Mercantile. It appears the proprietor shot another of the gang --"
"I'll handle it," Sarah said, and walked straight for the Mercantile.
Bonnie turned on the Sheriff, her mouth hard and set.
"This is your fault," she hissed, then shouted, "YOUR FAULT! MY DAUGHTER IS SUPPOSED TO BE A LADY, NOT A LEGAL MURDERER --"
Sarah spun on heel, stomped back to her mother, backhanded her across the face.
Bonnie grabbed Sarah's hat, slung it aside and Sarah seized her Mama's collar, yanked: there was the sound of tearing cloth, and the catfight was on.
Two women snarled and spat, sizzling like the Kilkenney cats, tearing at hair and clothes, kicking, clawing, screaming and swearing: at one point they seized one another, threw one another to the ground, rolled in the dirt.
Men jumped back out of their way, at least until they came up against the Sheriff's boots: he reached down, seized each by the scruff of the neck and hauled them both to their feet.
He pulled quickly, he pulled hard, he took them by surprise, he brought them upright and set them down and he roared "NOW STOP THAT!"
Mother and daughter pushed hard against his chest and shouted "OH SHUT UP!" with one voice.
The Sheriff released them, raised his palms in surrender.
Sarah and Bonnie glared at one another.
Sarah snarled and tackled her mother, driving her shoulder into Bonnie's belly, folding her up and knocking her to the ground.
Bonnie grabbed Sarah's hair and kicked her hard in the chest with her knees, got her in the thigh with the pointed toe of one shoe.
Sarah clawed at her mother's face, came away with a handful of hair.
They rolled apart.
Bonnie came up on her knees, felt her head, came away with bloody finger tips.
Sarah paled a little, seized her Mama's wrist.
"Hold still," she commanded, parted her mother's hair, looked at a bloody groove in her Mama's scalp.
"Mama, you've been shot."
"No I haven't ..."
Bonnie looked at her bloody fingers, her eyes rolled up in her head and she collapsed, limp and pale.
"Oh bloody hell," Sarah swore.
She glared at the Sheriff.
"Well don't just stand there," she snapped, "give me a hand!"

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Mr. Box 7-18-13


About the time the dust was beginning to settle, Charlie and Fannie rode up and said, "Did I miss something?" Sheriff Keller's jaw dropped open absolutely speechless for once!

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Linn Keller 7-19-13


I looked around the lobby of the funeral parlor.
Digger took full advantage off moving his stock around, several of his boxes were still in that shed up on the roof and that gave him room to exhibit the Low Clay gang -- all twelve of 'em -- laid out in their boxes, cleaned up a little (but not too much) and hand lettered plaquards hung around their necks with their name and how many people they were reputed to have killed.
The figures, of course, were exaggerated.
Digger was never one to miss dramatic effect.
He had Low Clay himself right in the middle with those cloth yard shafts stuck out of his chest, and I reckon he must have split that-there graveyard suit down its back to get it on Low Clay's carcass without botherin' those arrows.
He was chargin' a dime a head to gawp and stare, five cents for the children, and he was doing a land office business, for word travels fast and I doubt me not he paid Lightning to telegraph that the deed was done, come and have a look or some-such.
Not a one of them had much of anything worth havin'.
Half their horses were dead, the other half I was satisfied were stolen; I made note of all the brands and figured to look 'em up in the stock book, see if I couild contact their rightful owners and let them know their mount was either dead or here in Firelands being tended.
Most folks are honest and if they'd honestly sold the horse they'd reply in that wise, but some few -- a mercifully few, among workin' folks -- and I had no doubt that those whose horses were stolen, would say so, and those who'd outright sold, would say that.
I figured to give Sarah and Bonnie both some time to cool down, Bonnie especially.
She'd got right touchy here of late, with Sarah fixin' to become a respectable married woman come November, and it obviously didn't set right with her that Sarah was still a working Agent.
I would have to have a talk with her about that.
Sarah, now, Sarah didn't appear to have any problem with the idea.
She jumped in and helped us clean up the street, catalog the dead and their belongings, she helped me with the sketches, and there were several, of what happened where and in what order.
We two conferred for some little time in my office, her chair drawn up beside mine, behind my desk, and we discussed how things happened in each of our little areas of activity -- Sarah would ask me questions to clarify what happened and when, and I did the same with her -- one perennial problem of law enforcement, at least the way I ran things, was writing down exactly what happened, and how it happened, and in what order it happened, because I found out the hard way back in that damned War that someone is going to question what you decided to do or to not do, and if it's not written down, why, memory gets fuzzy with time, and I didn't want some legal slicker coming back in a year or three and claim that I outrightly murdered some scoundrel when in fact it was a righteous shoot.
Digger must have thought I was unhappy with him for displaying the several carcasses for his profit, for he came down later with his hat in his hand and brought the miscreants' effects with him.
We sorted them out on the desktop, once I stacked up the papers Sarah and I so laboriously wrote out, and there was little of nothin' a man could use to identify who was who; Charlie and Fannie came into town and they went from one box to another, studying and nodding and naming each one, even the peach fuzz cheek kid that didn't look old enough to approach a straight razor.
Finally I leaned back in my chair -- I slid it back far enough to lean against the wall, I didn't want it to run out from under me again -- I rubbed my face, curled my mustache and sighed.
"Sarah," I said quietly, leaning my head back against the boards behind me, "please tell me you were not injured in all that."
I'd dropped my hands in my lap, my eyes were still closed, and I felt her hand, warm and gentle, lay over mine like a warm butterfly.
"I'm not hurt, Papa," she said softly, "but I'd like my knives back."
"Oh, bloody hell," I muttered, then I threw my weight forward to keep that chair from doing anything unpleasant and muttered, "Digger!"

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Linn Keller 7-19-13


Sarah went home and cleaned up and changed into a dress of some sort and I went home and cleaned up and put on somethin' other than a dress.
The Sheriff stayed his hand, re-reading his words, smiling a little as gleaming ink dried into the good rag paper.
It was Charlie's birthday.
Esther and Fannie had somethin' arranged.
I had no idea she was a-goin' to do it but they presented the man with one of those fancy birthday cakes, it had curlicues and sugary flowers on it, and truth be told it looked too pretty to cut into.

The Sheriff leaned back in his chair, remembering how good that cake tasted.
I was right glad to see Charlie.
Last time we had such a bunch come into town he was at my side and funneling good sound advice into my hard head.
This time I profited from his experience ... I knew he was away from the ranch and could not be reached otherwise would have hollered.
Angela looked at me with big bright eyes and asked me when my birthday was and I told her it was more than a half a year away, deep into winter's cold, when bears snored in caves and crick water ran hidden and silent under the snow.
She was disappointed.
She was hoping I'd have one of those grand big birthday cakes so she could have a good sized chunk.

I wrote carefully, I wrote deliberately; finally I ran out of page, and rather than blot the page, I weighted it at the corner with my pen, and rolled my chair back a little from the desk.
Angela was asleep on my lap, her head laid against my collar bone; I had my left arm around her and had been writing with my right, but now, now that I was finished, I run my other arm around her and laid my cheek down on her curly hair and chuckled a little.
Here I set, the big bad lawman, holdin' his little girl and smilin' like I was addle headed.
I thought again of Charlie and how he grinned at me when we hoisted a good tilt of Two Hit John, and I wished him a good birthday and he thanked me for it, and we drank.
I set there for a while longer before I packed Angela upstairs and turned her over to the women folks: Esther and Alfdis took care of undressin' her and gettin' her in that flannel night gown with the ruffles and ribbon bows on it.
If she was already in her nightie I would pack her upstairs and park her in the bunk, but I left the undressin' of her to the women.
Alfdis commented on this to Esther, she didn't know I was in earshot, and Esther laughed a little and asked if Alfdis ever noticed my ears get red when I get embarrassed, and Alfdis allowed as yes she had noticed it, and Esther said I was afraid my ears would set my hair afire was I to do such a thing.
I reckon she might be right.

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Linn Keller 7-20-13


I took my hat in my hand, I took a deep breath and I took one step.
Bonnie was just inside, and so was Levi.
I shook Levi's hand and then I reached up and parted Bonnie's hair and took a look at that bullet crease.
She gave a glare that would freeze water.
"Bonnie," I murmured, looking at the stain that told me Doc used that awful stuff that burns like hell to wipe the wound and cauterize the bleeding, "I rejoice this was no lower."
Bonnie's lips were pressed into a thin line and she crossed her arms by way of reply.
I set my finger tips gently on her shoulders; she shrugged them away.
I looked at Levi and he gave me a sympathetic look and shrugged his own shoulders; it was the only reply he could make, I reckoned, that would not get him thrown out to sleep on the back porch that night.
"Bonnie," I said, "this world would be a poorer place without you.
"Your twins would have no mother to point them in the right direction, Sarah would have no one to whom to come for grandmotherly advice on a colicky baby or a disagreement with her husband.
"Your dress-works would be a memory and may even disappear from the history books.
"Levi would take up with some good lookin' Flory Dory dancer from Denver --"
Bonnie's eyes widened, she turned to look at Levi with surprise, and Levi, bless him, managed to keep an absolutely innocent look about him.
Me, I've been trying that Innocent Expression for more years than I recall, and it has not worked.
Not even once.
Levi pulled it off, and a good thing.
Bonnie's pique dissolved as she tried to imagine her staid, stodgy husband comporting with a short skirted, face painted doxy.
I counted her laughter a hopeful sign.
She turned and regarded me with a less harsh expression.
"Come in," she said. "There is coffee."

Bonnie, over the years, cultivated the persona of a woman of means, a woman of propriety, a woman of gentility.
It would be proper to receive company in the parlor.
I knew Bonnie was thawing when she led the way to the kitchen instead.
The three of us set at her kitchen table and talked quietly, with the morning sun strong through the window, odd dust motes drifting slowly with an occasional crossing steam-sparkle from a freshly filled coffee mug or some-such.
"Now," I said, "I am a-gonna talk. I pray you will not interrupt me until I am finished, at which time you are free to tell me what a conniving, contriving, corrupting scoundrel I've become."
"Oh, I called you worse than that," Bonnie said sternly, but I could see a little lightening of the anger in her eyes.
"I doubt that not one little bit," I admitted, then I began.
Levi leaned forward, elbows on the table, hands clasped before his mouth: his mustache was pressed against bent forefingers and he frowned a little as he listened to my account.
I started at the beginning and left nothing out.
Bonnie was still pretty much in the dark; Levi, as a retired law dawg, was interested, so I laid it out in plain language.
I told them how Law and Order Harry McFarland let me know they were due multiple payroll shipments, and how he allowed as their town was open and not well defensible, and he was afeared the Low Clay gang in the area meant he was the next in line to inherit his undertaker's attentions, which would just ruin his personal plans to become the local checkers champion.
I allowed as the payroll ought to come to Carbon right on time but I would try and throw some smoke in the air.
I got aholt of the express company and told the I was going to pull a fast one; they were to spread the word the payroll deliveries would be to Firelands instead, and only their top bosses knew they payrolls would instead be diverted last minute to the original destination of Carbon Hill.
We would prepare -- here -- to receive and accommodate what was known to be a murdering gang of skulkers, slick enough our scouts could not locate them in the field.
I told them I would rather have thrown down on them well away from town, but that was not possible, so we had to meet them here.
I told them about spreading false information -- with the aid and assistance of His Honor the Judge -- knowing there were eager ears there in the Jewel.
I told them about recruiting detectives and misdirecting that I, and they, would be in Carbon Hill to guard the incoming gold.
Then I gave them the absolutely false information that two payrolls arrived in Firelands the day before, something they absolutely could not check or corroborate.
I told the pair -- Levi was listening closely, his eyes never left mine -- that the pattern was to kill the lawman, then rush the bank and kill anyone who offered the least resistance, and if nobody resisted, cold-blood someone anyway.
I told them I needed my sneakiest agent, my most capable agent, my most silent and most deadly Agent, for the most critical part of the operation, and that was keeping Jackson Cooper alive.
Bonnie's eyes hardened when I said "Agent" for she could hear the difference; the third time I said the word she could hear the capital A, and she was not happy, for she could see Sarah in her mind's eye, all in black, hard-eyed and cold, not at all what a proper young lady should be.
I leaned back, I took a long breath, and I said, "Sarah would like to fill you in on her part."
Sarah stepped into the room.
Bonnie and Levi both blinked; they did not realize Sarah was anywhere near, yet there she was, all in black, with the bronze shield on her vest and her knives' handles sticking out of their leather lined canvas pockets.
Sarah stood behind me, her left hand on my shoulder.
She described her climb to the roof, and her examination of the waiting coffin, from which my idea was she would silently assault the bush whack: Sarah admitted she had no wish to be in a coffin and so hid under the tarp instead -- a fortuitous decision, she smiled, and though she stood behind me, I could hear the smile in her voice.
She described the throw -- she drew one of the knives, hefted it in her hand, staring at it, remembering -- and said she knew the knives were heavy but she didn't know it would penetrate that well into the human carcass.
Her voice was factual and unemotional when she described how she pulled the knife from the second man's back and drove it into the side of his throat to guarantee he was well beyond irretrievably dead, and then she herself shot Jackson Cooper.
"I hoped that soap load would fly true," she said quietly. "It did, and he went down, just as planned, and the fight was on."
I reached up and laid my hand on Sarah's.
"People's lives were saved," I said, "because of Sarah. Jackson Cooper kissed his wife that night because of Sarah. Beatrice at the bank was alive to smile at you today, because of Sarah. Your savings, the town's wealth, is intact because of Sarah."
I was quiet for a long moment, took a thoughtful drink of coffee.
"Bonnie, if you wish to be angry with someone, be angry at the right one. I started this whole show, I ran it like a locomotive down a set of steel rails. If you want to raise hell with somebody, address yourself to the guilty party, because here I am."

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Linn Keller 7-21-13


Bonnie looked up the stairway, listening for a reply.
Bonnie turned slowly from the staircase: she frowned a little, stepped out on the front porch and looked toward the pasture.
Sarah's big Snowflake-horse was gone.
Bonnie sighed, shaking her head.
"Get used to it, my dear," Levi murmured, squeezing her shoulders a little: Bonnie leaned back against him, suddenly tired, tilting her head a little with pleasure as her husband massaged her shoulders with his usual gentle strength.
"It would be easier," Bonnie said quietly, "if she were ..."
"If we handed her to her husband, and he took care of her from that moment?"
Bonnie nodded, leaning back against her husband's warm, strong bulk.
She felt Levi's chuckle vibrating against the length of her back.
"She is a strong willed soul," Levi said, his voice very quiet, for his mouth was but inches from Bonnie's ear. "Just like her mother."
Levi felt Bonnie's shoulders stiffen under his hands.
"I don't think I like that," she said, and he heard the chill creep into her voice.
Levi turned his wife, stroked her cheek with the backs of his fingers.
"You, my dear," he whispered, "are every inch a lady, and do not ever doubt that.
"Your daughters -- every last one of them -- are ladies as well.
"Sarah, most of all."
Bonnie blinked.
"She couldn't have learned that from anyone else." Levi smiled a little. "She patterned herself after you, Bonnie McKenna. Her strength and her intelligence, her ... the way she walks, sits, lifts her skirt to take a step --"
Bonnie leaned her forehead against her husband's chest and sighed, Levi's arms tightening around her: she ran her arms around him, comforted by the man's solidity.
"I wanted her to be a proper lady," Bonnie groaned.
"If I am any judge of women," Levi replied, and Bonnie leaned back, looking up at the man's smiling eyes, "and I think I am -- I married you, didn't I?" -- he grinned, his teeth white and regular under his military-neat mustache -- "I would judge Sarah to be very much a proper young lady."

Levi's proper young lady grunted a little as she reached for the sapling.
Sarah was climbing a path more suited for mountain goats.
Her black Frisian mare was a couple hundred yards below, grazing contentedly in a hidden meadow, saddle and bridle and saddle blanket hung over convenient rocks: Sarah's rifle was slung across her back, leaving both hands free for climbing, and climb she did.
There was a small place she knew of, yet well above her, and she meant to reach it, for it held a significance for her.
A half-hour's labor and she reached the shelf, a grassy bench high on the mountainside.
Sarah hauled herself the last few feet, wallowed onto the grassy flat, un-slung her Winchester and rolled over on her back, looking straight up at an incredibly blue sky, feeling a moment's vertigo at the sight.
She just lay there for several minutes, catching her wind, relaxing, knowing no enemy could approach save by the path she'd taken.
She loosed the throat of the cloth sack at her belt, took out a thick sandwich, unwrapped it and ate, ravenously and not at all ladylike, but that was fine, as there was no one to see.
Besides, a good climb sharpens the appetite, and her stomach thought her throat was cut, it was so empty.
Sarah finished the sandwich, looked around a little, found a good setting place on the little grassed shelf, leaned back against a smooth rock face: she closed her eyes again and sighed, letting the tension drain from her, imagining it dripping from her fingers as if she'd dipped her hand in oil and let it drip.
She gave herself fifteen minutes to relax and think of nothing in particular, then she commenced the task she'd set for herself.
She examined what she'd done in the past couple of days.

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Linn Keller 7-22-13


I set on my front porch, waiting.
Coffee steamed in the mug at my elbow; I'd set a little table out there, and the rocking chair, and I set in the dark and waited.
It was quiet, the air smelled of summer, my wife and my family were within and warm and safe and fed, and I sat out on my front porch and waited, knowing she would be along.
I was right.
Sarah rode slowly up to the house, Snowflake's huge hooves almost silent: like many big men, this big horse was surprisingly fast, and just as quiet, and I felt my eyes smile a little at the corners as Sarah sat, considering.
My back was to the wall and I was settin' still, the rocking chair would help blur my shape and it was dark ...
"Hello, Papa," Sarah said, and I chuckled.
"Come on up, darlin'," I said. "Got another rockin' chair right here. How's your appetite?"
"I'm starved," Sarah admitted as she dismounted.
"I reckon we can scare up somethin'."
Sarah murmured something to her big black Snowflake horse and came slowly up the steps.
I rose, extended my hand, rested my fingertips ever so lightly on her shoulder.
"You doin' a'rat?" I asked, and Sarah turned and leaned into me, and I heard her sigh and felt her head nod.
"I reckon you'll sleep good tonight."
"You," she murmured as I ran my arm around her, "would not believe the climb I made today."
We stood out there in the dark for a bit, at least until my belly growled -- she had the side of her head against me so she heard it plain, and she laughed a little and said "What was it you said about food?"
"My favorite dish," I grinned. "Come on in."
Sarah ate with a good appetite, as did I: cold beef and beans never tasted so good, and if she'd climbed where I reckon she did, why, she'd have built an appetite, all right.
We set there and ate, we sipped warm coffee, and we didn't say much at first, we just enjoyed a comfortable silence between us.
Finally Sarah frowned a little and I could tell she was ordering her thoughts, arranging them like toy soldiers on a tabletop battlefield.
We'd started out setting beside one another, and Sarah leaned over against my shoulder for a while, then she moved to the other side of the table so we could see one another.
I waited.
I reckoned she wanted to talk about something, and a hunter learns patience early.
Hunters make the best lawmen, they learn to see when they look, they learn to plan and anticipate, they learn to be patient.
I waited patiently.
"Papa," Sarah began, her eyes tracking to the memory-side, "Mama called me a legal murderer."
"I heard."
"Is that what I am?"
I took a bite of beef, considering, chewed for a bit: it was my turn to arrange the toy soldiers in my mind before answering.
"No, Sarah, and here's why.
"Legal, yes: you operate under color of law, and so do I.
"As agents of the Law we operate within due bounds." My finger drew an invisible circle on the table top. "Within these bounds we operate legally; outside those due bounds" -- my finger rose over the unseen boundary, tapped the tabletop beyond the unseen pale -- "outside those due bounds we become outlaw.
"No, Sarah, you and I operate within the law.
"As far as murder -- again, no.
"Scripture does not enjoin, 'Thou shall not kill.' It actually says 'Thou shalt not do murder.' The Greek and Aramaic are both clear on that point."
Sarah nodded, her eyes thoughtful: we both listened to Biblical scholars in discussion with Parson Belden and Brother William, and their talk included actual translation of actual documents from centuries long past, documents in the language of the early scribes.
"Calling you a legal murderer was a slur, a slander, a vile calumny. It was the angry phrase of an angry woman who was thwarted in her desires."
Sarah nodded slowly, considering that I was at once convicting her Mama of being slanderous, and yet she knew the truth of my words.
"It is a failing and a shortcoming, Sarah, and it's not just women who do it.
"Men will bad mouth and slander when they, too, are thwarted; lies and calumny are the stock in trade of the mean spirit."
Sarah raised her eyes and looked at me through surprisingly long lashes.
It was another one of those moments when I realized, to my surprise, just how lovely she'd become, and I considered it a good thing that she was engaged, and to a good man -- otherwise she would be honey to an untold number of buzzing suitors.
"Your mother ..." I hesitated, frowning a little and considering, then pressing on: "your mother wants you to be a proper lady.
"I believe you are very much the proper lady.
"Your mother has never worn the badge; she has known slavery, she has known horrible abuse, she knows what it is to be done wrong in many ways ... but she has never fought back as you and I have." I looked Sarah squarely in the eye. "You, Sarah, have chosen to fight. You have chosen to fight like two hells. You made the choice to take the evils that were done you, and to turn them as you would turn sunlight with a mirror.
"You are not a murderer, Sarah."
I let that sink in for a moment.
"First, a murderer would never wonder if they were a murderer; second, there were times when you could have killed and when you were very minded to kill, but you did not -- remember when the Judge believed me dead, and sent you out to apprehend the culprit?"
Sarah's eyes were troubled and she nodded: she did remember, and it was not a good memory.
"You could have just killed him and brought in his carcass.
"You did not.
"You brought him in, alive, not badly hurt, you used your head" -- I tapped my temple with a bent finger -- "and you slickered him good.
"That is not the only time you could have killed, and chose not to.
"Those times you killed were needful, Sarah.
"We live in a time and in a place where the law isn't everywhere. I am but one man and my boots don't cover much ground." I grinned. "Hell, back in the War we used to sneak in and out of camp and go trade with the Rebs!"
Sarah frowned a little, giving me a curious look.
I nodded. "We'd slip out of camp, avoid our sentries. It was harder to avoid theirs but I managed." I wrapped my hands around the warmth of the glazed-ceramic mug. "I'd take 'em coffee and trade for tobacco. More often than not we'd sit and talk, sometimes late into the night, until one or another of them would stretch and yawn and tell me to go get some rest, they were going to whip us come morning."
I chuckled.
"Then I slipped past their sentry and past ours and got a little sleep."
Sarah nodded. "That's a lovely story," she said, "but what has that to do with what we were talking about?"
"The sentries."
"I don't understand. You were better at sneaking than they were."
I shook my head.
"The trouble with being a lawman is like being a sentry. A sentry walks a known route and he safeguards as much ground as his boot soles cover.
"A lawman does the same.
"He safeguards as best he can but he covers only so much ground.
"That's why you and I operate the way we do, Sarah. That's why Mr. Baxter has a bung starter in easy reach, to settle disputes before someone gets killed. That's why I bang a feisty drunk over the head with a lead filled sap and drag him off to the hoosegow before he runs a knife into someone's belly. That's why I ride out to a ranch and have a talk with a rancher about fence lines or boundaries or water.
"You and I --" I floundered now, trying to recover the ordered ideas I started with -- "Sarah, no lawman will ever be really appreciated. We're a necessary nuisance and many places the lawman is ... well, I was called a hired gun, a hired killer, years ago in another town, and soon as I eliminated a problem group they fired me." I shook my head. "No, Sarah. Legal you are and murderer you aren't. Now" -- I looked at her again -- "have you and Bonnie patched things up?"
Sarah nodded, her eyes thoughtful.
"Papa," she said, "I thought of those men on the roof."
I nodded.
"I rejoiced when I put my knives into them."
I nodded.
"Is it wrong ... am I wrong to ... have ... such a feeling of ... satisfaction?"
I leaned back, considering.
"Let's see," I thought out loud. "You kept one man from killing Jackson Cooper, and you did it by the only means you had available.
"You stopped the other man in the only way you had.
"You kept Jackson Cooper alive.
"Those two are dead, yes; the knives caused their death, yes, but they chose the action that brought them to their deaths."
I looked squarely at Sarah.
"They chose an action that cause their own death, Sarah. They and not you are to blame. You stopped bad men from murdering a lawman, you prevented very bad things from happening and you used the best means you had to do it."
Sarah nodded.
"That's about what I figured," she said softly. "I spent most of the evening up there, thinking about all that."
Her eyes were ... not haunted, but I knew I was seeing deep into her soul as she said, "It is not a light thing, Papa. It is no light thing to know you've killed someone."
"I know," I whispered, nodding.
"It's like ... Papa, Mama doesn't look at me the same, and ... in town, people look at me like ..."
Sarah took a long breath.
"Papa, do you remember Cain?"
I blinked, considered, nodded.
"A mark was placed up on him that no man's hand would be turned to murder him. I don't know what the mark was. Some scholars believe it was a horn, or horns, or some blotch or birthmark ..."
I nodded; the scholars who discussed Scripture's origins with Parson Belden discussed the Mark of Cain as well.
"Papa ... it feels ... like I am marked."
I nodded, took a long breath, let it out slow.
"I know, Princess," I murmured. "I carry the same mark, and we are never, ever the same afterward."

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Linn Keller 7-23-13


"You didn't answer my question, Papa."
"I get side tracked easy."
Sarah's eyes lost focus and her hand rose a half inch, remembering its journey to her shoulder sheath.
"Papa, I came up on my fingertips and my toes and then I stood and I reached up and took my knife and twirled it over in my fingers and I felt the blade come into my palm and I took a little step and drove it right into a man's kidneys."
Sarah blinked, came back to the here-and-now.
"It felt good, Papa. It felt good!"
"Tell me why it felt good, Sarah."
Sarah leaned forward a little now, the heels of her hands against the edge of the table, as if to push it from her.
"I was doing something, Papa, something I was supposed to do." She wet her lips, almost nervously. "I was doing something that was right!"
The Sheriff nodded, slowly, then reached for a sweet roll.
"How does it feel when you do something that you know is Right?"
"It feels good, Papa, like ... like a ... like a machine part that's dropped into place and it makes the machine whole again."
"You had a purpose," the Sheriff said with sudden intensity, as he too leaned forward, his forearms on the table top: "you had a purpose and you had the right on your side.
"Look at what you did, Sarah.
"You stopped an attack.
"You prevented a lawman's death.
"You did that by using what you've practiced.
"You have every right to be satsified with your actions.
"There's a difference between justifiable satisfaction" -- he held up one finger -- "and hubris." He held up another finger, then laid his hand flat on the table.
"Hubris, overweening pride, downfall of the Greeks. That's one thing. Arrogance, self importance, confusing yourself with someone important ... I saw that in a lot of junior officers."
Sarah smiled a little: she, too, had seen such, despite her youthful years.
"No. What you felt then -- what you might still feel -- is the satisfaction of a job well done.
"You practice hours with your knives.
He rasied a finger again.
"Do you show off for public adulation?
Another finger.
"Do you practice to show you're better than all comers?
"You practice, out of the common eye, you practice at differing ranges, with differing backgrounds, at differing times of the day. You practice throwing underhand, overhand, sidehand, you practice seated, standing, lying down, rolled up on your side. You practice right hand and left hand and" -- he turned his hand over, tapped a bent forefinger against the tabletop for emphasis -- you don't -tap - show -tap- it off!"
He leaned back in his chair, picked up his coffee, took a drink, frowned a little.
"Cooled off," he complained. "I get long winded sometimes."
Sarah rose, went to the stove and brought back the coffee pot, topped off the Sheriff's mug, set the pot back and set herself back down: she propped her elbows on the table, clasped her hands together, rested her chin on them and gave the Sheriff her big, lovely eyes, the very image of an attentive daughter.
The Sheriff held his mug in both hands, lowered his head a little and looked at Sarah from under salt-and-pepper brows.
"Sarah," he said, "you felt satisfaction because when it came time, you put that long and hard work to good use. You purposed, and you performed."
The Sheriff took a drink, looked at the dark, shimmering coffee.
"Not everyone can deliver when it counts."
He looked up at his daughter.
"You did, Sarah, and I am pretty damned proud of you."
Sarah shoved her chair back, surged to her feet and ran around the table: the Sheriff was able to brace himself for her impact and so wasn't knocked over when five foot two of skinny, wiry Sarah ran into him and wrapped her arms around him and gave him a hug fit to squeeze the breath out of his weather-aching ribs.
He scooted his chair back some, picked her up and set her in his lap, then ran his arms around her again and held her, just held her.
Father and daughter sat thus, unmoving, save for Sarah's intermittent shivering; for all her calm and self-possession, she was still at heart, a girl, and there are times when a girl's heart cries for the reassurance of her Papa's arms: strong though her spirit was, she still needed that paternal reassurance that she hadn't done a terrible thing ... but more than that, in a hidden place Sarah herself seldom dared look, she was still Daddy's little girl, and Daddy's little girl sometimes needs her Daddy more than she realizes.
The Sheriff held his daughter with almost a desperation, for he knew the day was approaching when she would be a woman grown, married and another man's prize, when she would find solace in the arms of a husband instead of a father, and he held her all the tighter, his face hard against her tight-braided hair, holding his little girl as if he never, ever wanted to let go.
There is that in a Daddy that always, always sees his little girl as just that, no matter how old she gets, no matter that she may be married and a mother and a woman in her own right ... and in this moment, they both knew, and they both rejoiced, in that knowledge ... that no matter how old she became, she would always be Daddy's little girl.
Two blooded warriors, keepers of the public peace, guardians of the safety at large, two swift and merciless killers whose reputations were known and feared, held one another in the silence of a nighttime kitchen, and for a little while at least, each found peace in their troubled souls.

Next morning the Sheriff touched his hat brim as Sarah drove by in the Rosenthal carriage; Sarah waved with a broad smile and a lacy-gloved hand, and no one could tell by looking at this fashionably dressed, very pretty young lady, that she was the same cold-eyed warrior who dispensed justice from a rooftop not days before.
An enormous black dawg rode with her, looking more like a bear cub, save this curly furred beast laid its chin adoringly on the fashionable young woman's lap, looking up at her with button-bright eyes.
Jacob lifted his hat to Sarah; he reined up his Apple-horse, grinning, and Sarah drew the dapple to a halt: it mattered not they were in the middle of the street, for few others were about, and even if they were, custom was to just stop and wait, for such commerce was common in the day.
The Bear Killer's head came up and he woofed a happy greeting, his tail swinging a wide arc, and Jacob extended a hand: "Hello, Bear Killer!"
The Bear Killer gave a happy wow-wow-wow, wiggling all over like a fat, happy pup.
"I'm glad to see you're back!" Sarah declared. "How's --"
She stopped herself, not wanting to make mention of his injury: it was bad form to noise about a lawman's impairment.
"My gunbelt?" Jacob asked, his hand going to his obviously damaged leather.
"Yes," Sarah nodded, releived to be off the hook so easily.
"I had another one made," Jacob grinned. "Black, like yours, only carved instead of plain."
"Sounds pretty!" Sarah smiled. "Will you show it off to me?"
"Try and stop me," Jacob grinned, strutting a little in the saddle, at least until he flinched and took a long breath.
"You be careful," Sarah said quietly, her eyes suddenly serious.
Jacob winked, nudged his Apple-horse ahead, swung around behind her and halted in front of the high boardwalk in front of the Mercantile.
It was almost a level step from saddle to boards at the front door, which suited Jacob fine.
Pain is a powerful persuader, and Jacob's healing belly persuaded him that it's easier to make a short step from the saddle and back, than a long one.
Tying off Apple-horse, he turned and went into the Mercantile.
He had a package waiting.

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Linn Keller 7-24-13


Jacob was a young man, lean and strong, with a young man's impatience.
Jacob was still healing up from being shot, Jacob was recently gored in the gut by a bull, thrown aside, and only the thick skirting of his gunbelt kept him from being laid open and killed by the horn-strike.
Jacob was a husband and father, provider and protector, Jacob was tired of laying in bed, Jacob was tired of taking life easy.
Jacob soothed his wife and promised his wife and smiled at his wife and finally managed to make good his escape; he whistled up his Apple-horse, but before he could get in the saddle, Apple spun away from him, then came back, neck outstretched and sniffing his middle like a curious puppy: apparently satisfied, Apple turned again and let Jacob mount, and as the lean lawman found his stirrups and gritted his teeth, sure and certain his mount was going to treat him to a good session of roll, pitch and yaw, not necessarily in that order ... why, his stallion sort of shivered his hide a little and stepped out in a deceptively smooth trot.
Jacob lifted his hat to his wife as he passed his front door, smiling as he did.
Annette stood there, lips pressed together in a thin, disapproving line, broom in hand, and Jacob felt a moment's gratitude that she was not a witch, lest she ride said broom right after him and address him briskly about his head and shoulders with the same implement.
Jacob rode into town, in no particular hurry; he wore his torn gun belt, knowing its replacement waited for him at the Mercantile; Jacob, for his impatience, was still a thinking man, a contemplative man, and a horse's back is a fine place for such: he considered solemnly that it was preferable to breathe air, than not to; it was good to look about and see the mountains, the streams and trees, than the inside of a box; and he smiled inwardly at the memory of his wife, warm and solid and very real, and how she looked at him in those silent moments between husband and wife when words would be an impediment.
Living, he concluded, was very much to his liking, and he fully intended to continue that particular activity.
He rode on into town, greeting his lovely sister, feeling a momentary surprise at how matured and ladylike she looked: it was almost as if she was never the same from one time he saw her, to the next; he knew her as schoolmarm, as Agent, as fashionable young lady, as a screaming, avenging warrior, he knew her as a patient, careful big sister to the twins, he knew her as a cold-eyed wrestling partner who took a particular joy in grabbing his attack and using his own momentum to throw him over her shoulder, into the padding straw in Daciana's barn... and he knew her as one of the fastest, deadliest knife fighters he'd ever seen, or practiced with, and a dead shot with any of the pistolas she carried ... and she had several from which to choose.
Jacob paid the proprietor and picked up a few other items while he was there; he'd fished a rolled up gunny sack from his off saddle bag, loaded his purchases, secured them behind the saddle, then rode down to the Sheriff's office, drew up in front of the hitch rail and took a long breath, let it out.
Don't let them see you're hurtin', he admonished himself, slipping his right boot free of the stirrup.
He swung down in a smooth, easy move, amazed at how stove up he could still feel with such a simple, common, well practiced move: he hesitated but a moment longer than normal before reaching up and hauling down the gunny sack, which brought its own agonies as punished and protesting belly muscles worked to maintain upright posture and good balance.
Jacob pretended not to notice the aches and pains; he slung the sack over his shoulder and stepped confidently up onto the board walk.

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Linn Keller 7-25-13


Esther was below me, and falling.
I could see her auburn hair streaming as she fell, her skirt was belled out a little, her arms and legs were limp, pointing helplessly toward the surface, her face pale in the depths.
The water was dark and hungry and swallowing my bride and I stroked powerfully down, down, falling headfirst, fighting the water, kicking hard.
I heard the paddleboat thrashing the water overhead and I heard a baby, a baby crying, somewhere, and Esther fell into the cold depths and I couldn't catch her, I couldn't catch up, my lungs were on fire, I was out of air --
Esther lay before me, limp, I knelt between her flaccid legs in a pool of blood, knife in hand.
Esther's face was pale, her hair wet, dead eyes staring at Eternity as I fought to keep myself from histerics: I knew what I had to do, I knew I had to do it, the knife trembled in my death-grip and Esther's last words, whispered in my ear with the very last ounce of her strength:
"Save my baby."
I swallowed, dashed the tears from my eyes with the sleeve of my nightshirt, then I clamped an iron lid down on my feelings and screwed it down tight the way I've done a thousand times when I had to, and I opened my wife's belly with a single, shallow cut, running two fingers in to lift the abdominal wall so as not to cut anything inside.
I laid open my wife's gravid belly and reached into her warm, pulsing mass and carefully slit the taut, gripping muscular sac that was her womb, and I split it open and the child fell out into my hands and I dropped the knife and threw back my head and screamed, as loud and as hard as I could:
I remember the wet-nurse bursting through the door, I remember how she turned paste-white with her hand to her mouth and how she bit off her scream and I knew I had to take her in hand before she ran screaming "Murder!" and I slashed her with the blacksnake whip of my voice, using the command voice I used to bludgeon scared troops into battle: "ESTHER IS GONE, HELP ME SAVE THE BABY!"

Esther woke, her hand going automatically to her husband's chest.
She felt his heart hammering against his ribs as if to knock free of its bony encagement, she felt his body vibrating, fighting sleep's paralysis, she felt him struggling to breathe, and more -- more she felt, she felt panic, she felt fear, she felt desperation -- Esther knew her husband, his moods, his laughter, she'd felt his anger and his helplessness and his grief, but this was deeper, a far deeper grief than she'd ever sensed.
The Sheriff's eyes snapped open and his jaw-locked mouth snapped open: he took a long, gasping breath, as if a swimmer, coming up from too deep a dive: his hand slapped down on hers, pinning her palm to his breast: the Sheriff's eyes were wide and dead pale, deadly pale, and he began to shake as with an ague: Esther, rolled up on her left side as she usually did when she slept, was afraid to move, for fear of exacerbating the terror he was living, or the terror he'd just survived.
The Sheriff threw the covers back, suddenly, violently, rolled out of bed: he hit the floor with a grunt: Esther watched, mouth agape, as he slowly came upright, swaying, hands clawed before his eyes, staring as if at an utter horror: he closed his shivering fingers into fists and closed his eyes, teeth clenched, and she saw him go to his kees, swaying, shoulders heaving.
Esther knew her husband was prone to nightmares, the bloody legacy of that damned war, the penalty of a man of conscience forced into situations a sane and rational man would run from, screaming in blind panic: she knew that dreams are the way the inner man expresses its fears, its ideas, its irrationalities ... and she knew she had never, ever, seen her husband gripped by so powerful a night-vision.
Gradually the terrors subsided and the Sheriff tottered toward the bed like a marionette puppet, guided by an awkward child: he sagged, his head fell, his breath hoarse, gasping, loud in his throat: finally he shook his head, stood up and staggered toward the window.
He grasped the window casing on either side, rested his forehead on the cool pane, his breath fogging the glass; Esther rolled over to watch him, one hand on her belly, feeling the child within respond to her distress.
"Just a dream," he gasped. "Oh God, it was only a dream!"
She watched a strong man sink slowly to his knees and lay a forearm across the window-sill, rest his forehead on his forearm, and weep like a lost child.

Next morning, the Sheriff hung a shingle on his office door, one he kept handy for such times:
If you want me, come to my place.

It was a perogative he did not exercise often, but one he exercised when there was need, and today there was need.
Earlier, at breakfast, Esther regarded her husband and noticed he looked tired: though he was habitually neatly shaven, his mustache precisely trimmed (it was too thin, he'd complained, to curl into a decent handlebar), and though he wore his neatly-brushed suit and his hat waited, brushed and ready, on its peg by the door, and though his boots were burnished and gleaming, as was his perpetual habit, he still looked tired, haggard, as if he'd put in three days' work overnight.
Breakfast was nearly wordless, at least until the final cup of coffee was poured: the Sheriff looked at his wife and spoke for the first time that morning.
"Do I recall, my dear," he said carefully, "that walking is good for the baby?"
Esther, surprised, lay a gentle hand on her belly.
"Why, yes, dear, he did."
"Walk with me."
The Sheriff stood, came around the table: Esther rose, took his gentlemanly hand, and the Sheriff led the way to the back door.
Angela watched them with big, curious eyes, then reached for the bacon plate and snagged the last strip of crispy bacon.
Alfdis was a part of their family; she tended the young; though weaned, they were still hungry, active, and took a great deal of her attention; she was not slighted that the Sheriff hadn't addressed her, as he was obviously troubled by some important matter, and so she entertained Angela, drafting from this small portion of the Unorganized Militia to handle the important tasks associated with caring for the young, at least until the Sheriff and his wife returned, and the Sheriff asked gently, "Alfdis, might I counsel with you?"
Alfdis washed her hands and, in response to the Sheriff's summons, came to his study.
The man was restless, pacing, prowling like a cat, she thought: he looked up, smiled a little.
"Please," he said, "have a seat."
Alfdis sat, a little uncomfortable; generally such a formal meeting resulted in the hired help being shown the door.
"Alfdis, I am a planning man and I try to plan ahead for what we can foresee."
He's foreseeing tight money and he can't afford me anymore.
Alfdis's hands tightened around her knerchief and she nodded carefully.
"Alfdis, have you done midwifing as well?"
Alfdis blinked.
She hadn't expected this question.
As a matter of fact, she thought he already knew she was a midwife.
"Yes," she said carefully. "Quite a bit of it."
The Sheriff stopped, took a long breath, blew it out, eyes closed.
"Good," he said, nodding.
He took another long breath, shot a hard look out the window.
"Alfdis, forgive me. I should have told you first off that you've done nothing wrong, that nothing has gone wrong." He looked at her, and she saw a softness, a sadness at the corners of his eyes.
"Alfdis, you are a wonderful addition to the family and I am very glad you are here."
He thinks a nurse is a loose woman and he's going to bed me.
It was a natural reaction, in an era when nurses were little more than glorified prostitutes; they were priceless, during That Damned War, and Clara Barton would change the public perception of females in the medical field, but the general perception was women of loose repute who performed distasteful tasks in a hospital setting, and generally the only women would so dirty their hands were those whose souls were dirtied anyway.
"Alfdis," the Sheriff continued quietly, "I am a planning man."
He stopped and stared out the window, not seeing the side field with its ripening grain waving in the breeze.
"I planned ahead and kept our bank from being robbed."
Alfdis nodded, carefully, listening.
"I planned ahead and bought a good property and it has increased me wonderfully."
Again, Alfdis nodded; she felt her thick braids slide a little as she did.
"I planned my investments and saw them profit, I planned the gift of a railroad to Esther and it has profited us wonderfully. I planned which crops to plant and they sustained us well through a long winter, and I planned this house and it has kept us warm and dry through the seasons."
Alfdis nodded again.
"I have had to plan for crop failure, for investments losing money instead of gaining, I planned for other shelter should the house catch fire and be lost."
He turned suddenly and faced the big Scandanavian wet-nurse squarely.
"Alfdis, I have to plan for Esther's death.
"She ..."
The Sheriff looked uncomfortable; he stopped, took a steadying breath, started again.
"Her previous ... when she was delivered of ...."
He stopped, looked at the rug, clearly troubled.
"Her labors were never easy, Alfdis, and I am not a man given to ... irrational fear, but I have to recognize that a woman in labor ..."
Alfdis waited.
Alfdis knew this man to be strong of will and of spirit, she knew this man to be capable and complex, she knew him to face down large and angry people bearing a variety of weapons; she knew that in his day he had been shot, stabbed, cut, run into, run over, and a street evangelist tried to save his corroded soul.
She also knew that whatever matter burdened his soul was significant enough to warrant an unprecedented meeting here, in his sanctum, in that small world that was exclusively, solely, his.
"Alfdis, women die in childbirth."
The Sheriff's voice was faint, but he still faced her squarely. "I have to plan for that. Should Esther not survive this pregnancy, I need to know if you will stay and help me with our children."
Alfdis was silent for a long moment, then she nodded again.
"I will stay," she said quietly.
The Sheriff's reply lay cold and troubling on Alfdis's heart, for this strong man could not muster more than a thin whisper.
"Thank you," he said faintly.

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Linn Keller 7-26-13


Mr. Baxter poured a double shot of Two Hit John, slid it across the bar.
The Sheriff tossed it back like water, accepted a beer, took a long swallow.
"You look like hell," Mr. Baxter offered.
"Yeah, God loves you too," the Sheriff muttered.
"How bad?"
Mr. Baxter nodded.
As the town's barkeep, he was privy to many barroom confidences: he'd heard men speak of matters deep and shallow, important and petty, matters of life and matters of trivia: seldom did he find the need to pass anything he heard to anyone else, and it was universally accepted that if a man needed a sympathetic ear, the Silver Jewel held one.
The Sheriff's single word reply told Mr. Baxter more than a five minute conversation with any other man could convey: nightmares, plural, and bad enough that this man -- who could wade in blood to his ankles, engage in a pitched battle, go home and sleep like a rock -- well, nightmares that caused such a man distress into the next day had to be potent indeed.
"More?" Mr. Baxter held the bottle ready to decant another dose of liquid sledge hammer.
The Sheriff shook his head, unsmiling, and walked slowly back to his table.

Esther smiled as she came to the door; the maid stood discreetly aside.
"Why, Doctor Greenlees!" Esther exclaimed, pleased: "do come in!"
Dr. Greenlees removed hat and gloves and handed them to the maid; he followed Esther into the parlor and accepted her offer of tea, and smiled a little as the maid brought out fresh tea-cakes as well.
They chatted as friends will, for Doctor John Greenlees was not only the town's leading physician, he was also a good friend of the family; he and the Sheriff went on hunting forays together, and the Sheriff presented him with a fine rifle the year before, engraved with the man's name, and silver wire inlay in the stock, a thing the physician admired on the Sheriff's tiger maple flint rifle.
Finally Dr. Greenlees set aside his teacup and saucer, and Esther straightened a little: it was a genteel signal that the subject was changing, and she thought she knew the direction it was about to take.
"Esther," Dr. Greenlees said gently, "how have you been feeling?"
Esther colored a little, half-smiling, and she leaned forward, as if to share a confidence.
"Do you want the truth, Doctor?" she asked in low voice, and he raised one eyebrow and nodded.
"I," Esther declared, smiling a little more, "have never felt better in my entire life!"
Dr. Greenlees nodded.
"No cramping, no spotting, no leakage, your bowels are working as they ought?"
"No, no, no, and yes they are," Esther laughed, and Dr. Greenlees smiled again: he was a man given to a solemn expression, but here, with this delightful soul, he could not but give expression to his own pleasure.
"Has the child been active?"
"Oh, my, yes," Esther said with a wave of her hand. "It has to be a girl, she feels like she's cleaning house in there!"
Dr. Greenlees laughed.
"Has your appetite been good?"
"Oh, my heavens, I could eat like my husband," Esther laughed. "I dare not, for I would be as big as a whale!" She lay delicate fingertips on her belly and her voice softened. "I will be soon anyway."
"That, my dear," Dr. Greenlees said in a soothing voice, "is an optical illusion. Women of your noble build generally look like an olive on a toothpick."
Esther laughed quietly, then tilted her head a little: "Doctor, in season we can get olives in from Caliornia. Are they at all harmful?"
"Only if you break a tooth on the pit."
"I shall take pains not to do that."
"I thank you for that care," Dr. Greenlees said with mock gravity. "We will not have a dentist in town for another month, although we have a barber again."
"Well, it's about time!" Esther declared, shaking her finger and pretending to an old biddy's tone of voice, which made Dr. Greenlees laugh again.
"There is one matter, Doctor."
"My husband."
Dr. Greenlees waited while Esther disposed of her uncertainty.
"The Sheriff ... Linn ... he has nightmares."
"I shouldn't wonder," Dr. Greenlees replied in a quiet voice.
"Last night was the worst I'd ever seen," Esther continued, worried. "He would not tell me what it was, but I have seldom seen the man so ... reduced ... with grief."
Dr. Greenlees raised an eyebrow, leaned back in his chair, considering.
"Mrs. Keller," he said, "your husband ... is a man of very deep feelings."
"I know, Doctor."
"He gives his heart and he gives it wholly. He is a man of conscience. Perhaps that is his disadvantage, that he has such a grand conscience. He spoke to me of the War and described a few things ... a very few things he saw."
Dr. Greenlees looked over Esther's shoulder, remembering the Sheriff's quiet words, the way he described a moment, a vignette from That Damned War.
"I am not at all surprised," Dr. Greenlees continued, "that he has nightmares."
He paused.
"I am very surprised that he kept his sanity. Many men did not."
"I do not fear for his sanity, Doctor," Esther said sadly, "but it feels so ... I am so helpless to ... he is a strong man, Doctor, but I am powerless to help."
"Hardly that," Dr. Greenlees said, raising an admonishing finger.
"As a physician I am privy to many confidences, but I do not think it a violation to share this one." He leaned forward, forearms on his knees.
"Mrs. Keller, your husband told me once that when he wakes in utter terror, with the shattering realism of the nightmare shrieking his soul's damnation loud in his ears, that your hand on his breast is his anchor and his salvation.
"You, my dear lady" -- he nodded for emphasis -- "you" -- are the one thing that pulls his soul away from the Abyss.
"Never doubt the good that you do, Esther. Never, ever have that doubt."
The physician stood, and so did Esther: he took her hands, pressed her nailbeds gently, one, then another; he pinched up a little skin on the back of her hand, pulled down her lower eyelid, frowning a little the way he always did when making an examination: he felt the glands under her jaw, nodded.
Dr. Greenlees placed gentle hands on Esther's shoulders.
"Mrs. Keller," he said, "thank you so very much."
Esther blinked, giving him those lovely green eyes of hers, and she murmured, "You're very welcome, I'm sure," and Dr. Greenlees' eyes smiled in return.
"It is so very pleasant," he said, "to see a patient who is in the very best of health."
"I do try, Doctor," she said. "I have a great deal to live for."
Esther saw the Doctor to the door, and he bowed before he left: "I am very much at your disposal, Esther. Day or night."
"Thank you, Doctor," Esther said gently.

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Linn Keller 7-26-13


Of the litter of pups, one and only one was absolutely coal-black as its sire.
The others were colored like ... well, like wolves: large, for their sire was a giant compared to the feral lupines, but they still clearly showed their wild heritage, in shape and in coloration.
The black-furred pup shared a trait with its litter mates.
Its eyes were a distinct yellow.
The pups growled and tumbled, play-fighting as pups will, in the safety of their den; sometimes, but not often, they got to the outside, where they were generally shepherded back into the narrow safety of their rocky den.
Occasionally they smelled their huge black sire as he came and bore bloody tribute to the dam, a fresh kill, meat she did not have to go take herself: the pups would squeal and grunt and tumble out of the burrow, they would wallow about the huge curly furred black dawg's paws and snarl and bristle and growl and either a pure-white paw, or a sinner's-heart black one, would descend to pin a pup in place, and a startlingly pink tongue would give it a thorough bath.

The Sheriff sat cross legged, looking at the blank cliff face, remembering, and as he remembered, his heart turned to water and the strength ran out of his legs.
"Esther," he whispered, and lowered his face in his hands, and groaned, the soul-deep groan of a man who knows he is going to lose the most precious thing in his life, and not one damned thing he can do to stop it.

Esther hummed a little as she made the bed; she'd declared a holiday from her office, while the office came to her: a room downstairs was being converted into the Z&W's auxiliary command center, complete with a telegraph set, her files and records, and everything but the rug from her office above the Jewel.
Esther saw no sense in being absent from her duties.
Downstairs, she heard Angela and Sarah, reading together, and Esther knew her twins would be sitting with them, reaching for the illustrated storybook, intent on extracting what they could from it -- which generally meant chewing on the book's ragged corners.
The maid saw Esther's hand go to her belly, and a funny look across her face, and the maid knew the baby just moved, or kicked, or perhaps Esther's belly tightened in a rippling contraction, the way a woman's body will, preparing itself for the labor to come in another four months.
"The bed is made," Esther said. "I believe I shall sit."
"Yes, ma'am," the maid said uncertainly.
"I shall want tea," Esther said gently, "but not for a little while."
She lay a hand on her belly and smiled.
"I just know it's a girl," she whispered, and the maid was struck by the flawless nature of Esther's complexion, the healthy color and smooth texture of her face.

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Linn Keller 7-27-13


Jacob swung the ax in a swift arc, cleaving half-dried wood in twain: both halves fell off the splitting block, and little Joseph seized one half and grunted manfully, trying to hoist it back up on the stump.
Jacob laughed and said, "Step back, Leetle," and little Joseph released the block, backing up, his disappointed bottom lip run out about a foot.
Jacob tapped the ax into the split edge of the wood; it wedged closely enough that he was able to raise it to the block: grasping the chunk with one hand, he pumped the ax handle, freeing the head, then stepped back and swung again.
This time Little Joseph was able to handle the weight, and happily set the quarter up on the stump for his father's further attention.
Jacob nodded and Joseph released the wood; a swing, a split: "Stack those on the pile," and young hands seized the newly cloven wood and tossed it happily on the pile.
Jacob gripped the ax handle with his left hand, let the straight grain hickory slide through his hand, until the double bit hit the ground: he leaned on the handle, his right forearm going protectively across his sore belly, his back bent a little in the posture of a man whose gut gives him grief.
He looked at the wood pile with satisfaction.
It was not nearly as much as he wanted to get done, but it was more than he expected he'd be able to do.
I'm getting better, he thought.
I'm healin' up.

Mr. Baxter relaxed against a rock, watching ripples on the water, listening to wind and ripples and birdsong: the tapered fishing pole was an extension of his hand and he floated the chunk of meat through a tiny little rapid, knowing it would swirl behind a sheltering rock, a rock he hoped would also shelter a hungry trout.
He felt the strike, saw silk line sear through the water, and as he flipped the pole to set the hook, he grinned like he'd just been handed a twenty dollar gold piece.
He was right about where the fish was hiding.

The stage coach was stopped for its Firelands layover: a stage stop was usually a very brief affair in which passengers sprinted for the outhouse, then ran back to gobble down a hasty and often nearly unpalatable meal before resuming their rough and less than comfortable journey: this was one pleasant exception, while the fresh team was retrieved from Shorty's corral, while driver and shotgun both stretched their legs, where passengers streamed into the Jewel and had a good sit-down meal.
Their destination was Cripple Creek, which was not far; at times, there might be the protest that they were nearly there, but driver and other passengers generally concurred that it was well to stop, and after a good meal on cushioned chairs, after they could take their unhurried ease and perhaps freshen their persons a bit, the last leg to Cripple did not seem quite so onerous.
Jackson Cooper found himself the object of study by two of the passengers' children.
He made one of his routine saloon walk-throughs, and the boy and girl -- who looked to be somewhere around six or seven -- gave the big Marshal a frank looking-at.
Amused, Jackson Cooper came over and went to one knee, looking from one to the other.
"You're big," the little boy said, uncomfortable at the proximity of such a giant.
Jackson Cooper smiled and nodded, slowly.
"Are you strong?" the little girl asked, and her mother hid a smile: it was an era when children were seen but not heard, but they were among strangers, and an offense might not be counted among them in this far and strange place.
Jackson Cooper did his best to give the child an innocent look.
"No, miss, I'm not strong," he said. "I take a bath once a week whether I need it or not."
This, of course, got a giggle from the reddening child, and Jackson Cooper tipped a wink to the parents, then stood and placed two sticks of penny candy on the table between them: it delighted the big Marshal's heart to hear two children's voices chorus "Thank you," just before two young hands shot out to snatch up the dessert treat.

Sean, the red-shirted Chieftain of the Firelands Irish Brigade, laughed and tossed one of his several young in the air: the red-headed lad shreiked with delight as he sailed a foot above his Pa's big hands, then came down to the firm and enveloping grasp of red-knuckled Irish hands.
Daisy set one of the baskets on the long table, a weanling on her other hip: she reached down, took the basket from her eldest, who'd dutifully packed the loaded wicker at his Ma's behest, and she set the second load of good Irish cooking on the table.
Sean turned his giggling son upside down: "Should I drive a hole i' th' floor wi' ye?" he boomed, and his boy laughed, "Yeah!" and Sean lowered him until the boy's hair just brushed the bricks.
"Nah," he said, "I don't want t' pay f'r a new floor!"
He swung the boy up, caught his arm behind him, rolled him in for a big fatherly hug, then set him down and swatted his bottom: "Go help yer Ma," he boomed, and Daisy put her free hand on her hip and snapped "I've got th' work done a'ready, Sean Michael was my guid right hand!"
"And will ye be joinin' us f'r th' meal, Daisymedear?" Sean boomed, packing his boy easily over toward his wife.
"Me, eatin' wi' such a bunch a' ruffians?" Daisy scolded. "Ye'll ha'e ever'thing eaten an' no' a bit left for your hard workin' wife!"
Sean sat down his son and took his wife in both hands; the little girl on her hips looked at him with fearless bright eyes and reached a chubby hand for her Da.
Sean kissed his daughter and then his wife: leaning his forehead against Daisy's, he whispered, "Th' meal is all th' better f'r your bein' here," and she swatted his chest and laughed, "And 'tis full o' the blarney ye are!"
There was the scrape of a chair, the thrust of its edge at the back of her knees, and Daisy sat, queenly on her oaken throne: the Irish Brigade seized up Sean's children, packed them in triumph around the table at a dead run, laughing, and shortly the Brigade was seated around their table, each man laughing and grinning and the children interspersed between them.
A stranger might consider such a sight and wonder if they were not all related, if this was not husband and wife and a cluster of favorite uncles, and if they regarded how the children and the Irishmen interacted with perfect comfort ... why, maybe the idea that this was actually a family, might be more correct than they realized.

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Linn Keller 7-27-13


The Sheriff faced the featureless cliff.
There was a sandy flat at its bottom, as if a stage; the cliff could have been a curtain: indeed, the Sheriff visited this very place and beheld visions not of this world, shadows thrown by beings incorporeal, a fire that burned with no heat, and with unnatural colors.
It was a Place of Power, and he knew of such places, locations where the veil was thin, perhaps; some men drew bands around a globe, with much frowning and calculating, and where these bands intersected -- these lay lines, as they called them -- these intersections were Places of Power.
The Sheriff had little use for such notions; he knew only that the world was bigger than he was, and held more wonders than he knew of, and this was one of the things he knew of, but did not understand.
He came here to think, to seek answers, knowing more often than not, that the answer lay inside himself.
Despair ran its course; it was replaced by an increasing sense of realism, flowing into him like tide into a sheltered bay.
Esther is yet alive, he thought.
I had a nightmare, nothing more.
Was it ... nothing more, was it but a night terror, a notion?
My mother had the Second Sight.
Had I been born female, I would have been the seventh firstborn female in as many generations, and a Woman of Power.
I was not born female.
I have just enough of the Sight to scare me.
Was that a vision, was that True Seeing?

He closed his eyes, remembered the horror that was his nightmare.
His fingers felt flesh, felt blood, felt life's warmth and blood's stickiness -- all five senses were engaged -- he shuddered as he re-lived the vision, then he lived it again, looking for clues -- points, bearings, references.
It's night ... just at get-up.
Our bedroom.
Esther is wearing
... he remembered her nightgown ... white flannel, with three roses at the throat, embroidered ... no bigger than my thumbnail ...
It's the one she wears now.
Soon, then.

He frowned, took a deeper breath.
If I accept its reality.
What else?
Look around.
The bedroom is as it is now.
The time is near, then.
The child ... how big? ... Esther is not due until late November.
Babies don't come on a timetable.
Babies grow at a constant rate.
This was a baby ready for birth.
She's not ready yet.
It can't be now.

The Sheriff took another long breath.
Think, Colonel.
Colonel ...
The military man he'd been started working, whispering in his ear.
One will die and how many will live?
Who is left in your company, Colonel?
What is your troop strength?

"Troop strength," the Sheriff whispered, pale eyes snapping open.
Ruth Ann and Florian Bruce.

"What's in a dream?" he whispered aloud.
He considered the stone curtain before him.
"A man's fears, played out on the stage of a sleeping mind."
He shivered, remembering, took a long breath, blew it out through pursed lips, puffing his cheeks as he did.
"Fear is right." He shivered as if chilled, shivered again. "I don't reckon anything scares me more than what I dreampt that night!"
The Sheriff stood, picked up his Stetson, hesitated, then looked up at the darkening sky.
"Lord," he said, "that was a dream and it has not happened.
"If it does, let me be strong enough to bring our baby out alive."
He shivered again, closed his eyes, opened them again.
"If you're givin' me druthers, Lord, I'd druther not have to."
He looked around, then walked slowly up the little grade and to his black Outlaw-horse.
It has not happened, he thought.
It may well never happen.
If it does I will be ...

His grin was humorless, a momentary rictus of teeth, utterly devoid of humor.
I will not live my life in fear of what-ifs.
I left that behind after my first battle.

It was as if he'd chosen, decided, and a weight fell off his shoulders.
He looked up again, gathering his gelding's reins.
"Thank You," he said quietly, then slid his boot into the stirrup.

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Linn Keller 7-28-13


Work- and weather-scarred knuckles drove into the man's nose.
Blood squirted in two directions.
The Jewel was immediately in an uproar: men at the bar turned to shelter their drinks from the fight, nearby tables scrambled to grab a share of the pot before the table was knocked over and everyone lost everything; bets were wagered -- "Ten dollars on the tall fella!" and "Five on the blue shirt!" and Mr. Baxter, red-faced, "STAY AWAY FROM THE WINDOWS!"
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow as he came in the door: it was evident the buzz saw just bit into the wood, so to speak: the fight was only just started, and so he drew back as the pair, fists windmilling as they paused for an opening, drifted away from the bar and generally toward the door.
The Sheriff, being a gentleman, held the door open for them, and an anonymous member of the audience slid past the pair and pushed the other door open as well, and faced with this wide and generous portal, the pair set their heels and proceeded to body-drive one another several good licks.
The Sheriff watched, silent, as a blow was deflected, another one ducked; punch and counterpunch, knuckle and skull, two men evenly matched and happily hammering the dog stuffing out of one another: Mr. Baxter stood at the end of his bar, bung starter in hand, waiting to see if his intervention would be needed.
Tom Landers came drifting through the crowd, long tall and skinny, looking at the Sheriff: one nodded to the other, then they both moved, two big men with unexpected speed: each seized a pugilist by collar and belt and shoved, hard, and the two fighters sailed out the doors and down the steps, rolling and grunting as they hit the hard packed street.
The Sheriff stepped back, drew the door closed; the Jewel's decorative frosted glass doors closed, and the Sheriff looked levelly at his predecessor.
"Things quiet, Tom?" he drawled.
"Quiet," Tom nodded.
"Nothin' goin' on a'tall?"
"Quiet an' boring."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Same here."
The doors opened and the pair came back in, arms around one another shoulders, dripping water: evidently they'd availed themselves of the horse trough, and one pulled off his wild rag and gave it to his bloody nosed fellow: the Sheriff and Tom Landers watched as they made their way to the bar and bought one another a beer, best of friends once more.
"Well," the Sheriff said finally, "if I can't cause any trouble here, I reckon I'll go somewhere else."

The Sheriff re-read his journal's entry, written while befogged with that God-awful nightmare.
Damn my selfishness.
Damn me to hell!
Esther is dead.

He looked up, his eyes pale, the memory resurrecting with the words, then he shook his head slowly.
"No such thing," he said aloud, and closed the book.
He looked at the opposite wall, stretched out his long legs, crossed his ankles, remembering.
Adkins, the fellow's name was, Mark Adkins.
They'd been lawmen together long years ago, back in the Ohio country.
He'd heard Adkins was damn neart kilt, the man lay sufferin' with brain fever after he was ax clobbered from ambush.
Adkins drove into Chauncey the night before the Sheriff -- then Constable -- had to kill Butcher Knife Joe, Adkins did, and rode up to the brick cube that served as the village hall and jail.
The man dismounted and opened the door and sagged against the door casing while the color all run out of his face like red ink out of an eye dropper.
He staggered across the floor as the Constable rose.
Neither man spoke.
Adkins extended a trembling hand, withdrew it.
He swallowed, raised the palsied hand once more, slowly, and tremulous fingers just touched the Constable's coat.
Once more he raised his hand, and this time he laid his hand on the lawman's shoulder and squeezed, and his knees sagged, and the Constable was obliged to grab the man and bear hug him and wallow him over to a chair to keep him from a-hittin' the floor.
He drug up another chair and set his own back side down and just set there, and Adkins shivered and collected himself as best he could and finally he held out his hand and Constable Keller took it and Adkins cleared his throat and swallowed and tried to say something and tried it again and finally wheezed, "Well ... you ain't a ghost."
Keller stayed quiet, knowing he should listen, and listen he did.
Adkins had brain fever, he knew, after that spalpeen tried to cleave his skull and damn neart did, and it caused a false memory.
Adkins -- after many false starts -- managed to describe his memory.
He and Keller were standing shoulder to shoulder under the big lollipop clock on the Sedalia town square, and Adkins looked over at his bosom chum and brother lawman, and drew his .31 Colt, and screwed it into his dear friend's ear, and pulled the trigger ... and smiled.
He'd become what he hated most, a cop killer.
"I had to see you," he gasped through a dry throat. "I had to know."

The Sheriff rocked a little in his chair, remembering, nodding to himself.
False memories were particularly powerful, he considered, and a false dream was too.
"I will not live my life on what-ifs," he said quietly, his voice filling the study, and he reached over to flip his journal shut: it flapped shut with a woody note and the Sheriff stood.
"Bedtime," he said firmly, and he went out into the house and picked up his little girl, he kissed his wife, he packed his giggling daughter off to her bunk and tucked her in, and then he went to his own bedroom.
He went around to his wife's side of the bed.
Esther was already under the covers, watching him with bright and amused eyes.
He leaned down and kissed his wife, stroked her rosy cheek, marveled at the beauty of this woman he'd married.
"Mrs. Keller," he murmured, "may I say that you are truly a beautiful woman tonight."

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Charlie MacNeil 7-30-13


Sweat trickled down the side of Charlie's face from beneath his hat, salt stinging his slitted eyes. He lay belly down in a dog hair-thick stand of alders where he had scrambled when his horse went down in a welter of gore, the shot that killed the roan echoing across the sun-scorched hills. He had managed, somehow, to grab his canteen and his Winchester as he dropped clear of the dying gelding, but the limited amount of water in the container would go fast in the heat. He reached up to wipe the sweat from his eyes and another shot blasted, the bullet spattering him with chips of bark and bits of gravel.

"Hey, Marshal, why don't y'all come out an' play?" the derisive voice of his recent quarry questioned. Charlie wormed his way deeper into the thicket, dried leaves crunching beneath him.

"Nope, don't think so!" he shouted back. "Why don't you come over here? We can have us a palaver!"

"I weren't foaled ahint the backhouse door, Marshal!" the voice drawled. "If I was awantin' ta foller an old he-wolf inta his den, I'd pick one dat don' bite sa hard as you!" The voice trailed off in a laugh. "'sides, my cousins'll be hereabouts pretty soon, an' we'uns kin have us a shindig then, eh?" Charlie cursed, silently. One of these damn rifle-totin' hillbillies was bad enough, but Billy Joe Boganan came from a big family, and if the man's barely understandable words were any indication, pretty soon Charlie was going to be up to his hindquarters in Boganans, Clawsons and Wardlaws. Which was not a good place to be, never mind that Billy Joe was the only one he had a warrant for at the moment.

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Charlie MacNeil 7-30-13


Three days earlier...

"Oh. No." Charlie groaned, each word coming out as its own sentence. He slumped back in his chair, spurs jingling a sympathetic melody on the boss's polished hardwood floor.

"Oh. Yes." United States Marshal Taylor, senior marshal for Colorado, Wyoming and surrounding environs mimicked. "Boganan's wanted for murder, robbery and general malfeasance, among other things, and nobody's been able to even get close to him. Which is where you come in. These young pups I've got working for me now are good, damn good, but not a one of 'em can track for sour owl pellets. And they sure don't know anything about these hill country squirrel shooters like Boganan. Which is where you come in."

"Those 'pups' of yours are only young compared to us old folks," Charlie replied with a hint of a grin quirking his lips. "They just need some seasoning."

"Which you've already got, MacNeil. So suck it up and get busy. I want Boganan behind bars before he can spread any more mayhem in my territory." Taylor picked up his pen, dipped the steel nib in the pot of India ink in front of him, and began to write. After a moment he looked up at Charlie. "You're still here?"

"Color me gone," Charlie replied. He pushed up from his chair and strode toward the door. "But tell me one thing: what'd Boganan do to get your dander up this far after all this time? What 'other things' did he do?"

"He kidnapped a couple of kids," Taylor stated flatly. "He's holding them for ransom, and daring me to come get him. And them."

"How would you even know where to look? Did he tell you?"

"Yes, he did. He's holed up in the Superstitions. Now go root him out of there before those kids get hurt. The information you'll need is in the packet with the warrant."

"Whose kids are they?"

"My daughter's."

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Linn Keller 7-31-13


Jacob spit on the whet stone, passed the blade over it to distribute the moisture evenly, then began patiently, precisely, whetting the blade back to its usual razor sharpness.
Annette was cutting up meat and vegetables for stew and she complained to Jacob that she hadn't cut her finger once, the knives were getting dull, so he and Joseph retired to the work shed to tend that detail.
They sat outside now, each rolled up a chunk to set on, and each frowned seriously at the work.
Steel whispered to stone, yielding up its essence as the edge reshaped itself; Joseph, too, whetted at a blade -- "whetted at" is the more accurate, as it was about as dull when he was done as when he started, and Jacob patiently coached the lad on how to hold the knife at a uniform angle, to get a clean grind on the edge: like young boys everywhere, little Joseph soon got discouraged with something he couldn't master instantly if not sooner, and so was released to go tend important boy-stuff, like running across the pasture to run with Boocaffie.
Jacob wiped the blade, picked up the next; he worked three blades back into razor sharpness before taking the stones into the shed and Joseph's practice knife back on his work bench, then he took the sharpened knives into the house, kissed Annette's neck and hummed a little as he ran his arms around her waist.
"You don't make stew like my mother," he whispered in his ear, and Annette reached for the rolling pin.
"Yours is better," Jacob continued, never missing a beat, "but I will never, ever tell her that!"
Annette dropped her head, laughing, then turned and put her arms around Jacob's neck.
"You troublemaker," she whispered, and he laughed and kissed her soundly.

The Sheriff lowered the water dipper, squeezing his mustache to sling away the cold, clinging drops, one side, then the other.
"Adam's Ale," he sighed. "Rock squeezin's. None better."
He hung the dipper back on the wire hook, turned from the pump behind the Jewel.
A travel worn rider was looking at him from the back of a horse, and he had the look of a thirsty man.
Lawman and stranger regarded one another for several long moments, til finally the Sheriff said "If you're dry, neighbor, the water's good."
The stranger nodded, hesitated, then said with a voice that sounded like it hadn't been used in some time, "I figgerd so. You drunk it."
The Sheriff reached for the trough and swung the wooden chute toward the pump, gave the cast iron arm several brisk swings: water cascaded, clear and cold, into the trough, bringing it from about a third full to the half way mark in short order.
The man's horse walked to the trough, neck extended; like the rider, the horse was tired, dry, and inclined to partake.
The Sheriff fetched the dipper back off the hook and filled it, offered it to the man as he approached.
He had the look of a stranger to these parts, but no stranger to mountains: he was worn, scarred, weathered, likely considerably younger than he looked: it was hard to tell, the Sheriff knew, mountaineers aged different from most men.
The stranger took the dipper and drank, slowly, deeply, and did not come up for air til the dipper was dry.
The Sheriff fetched up the pump arm again and the stranger stuck the dipper back under the spout.
The Sheriff studied the man's horse but made no move toward it.
He waited until the fellow lowered the dipper and sighed, nodding his thanks, before thrusting his own chin toward Shorty's livery. "Yonder's a right fair hand with a horseshoe," the Sheriff said quietly. "Might have him look at your right forehoof."
"You know horses," the stranger acknowledged. "You ain't from Texas, now, are you?"
"No," the Sheriff admitted, "but did your Pa ever speak of a Yankee officer with pale eyes?"
The dipper clattered to the ground.

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Charlie  MacNeil 7-31-13

Don't just lay here on your belly with your teeth in your mouth! Charlie groused silently to himself. You let your horse get killed, but there's no need of letting the same thing happen to you! Worming his way into the deepest part of the thicket, Charlie turned so that his feet were pointed in the general direction of Boganan then rolled onto his back. He gingerly lifted his head and peered through the tiniest of gaps in the trunks and foliage that surrounded him, trying his damnedest to see where the outlaw had not only hollered from but, more importantly, where the man had fired from. Fired the shot that he never should have been allowed to fire.

Charlie was fairly certain that Boganan's current weapon of choice wasn't along the lines of a Sharps or other such long range firearm; if it had been, their conversation, such as it had been, would never have been possible. Fine. The weapon in question was more than likely a big bore Winchester of sorts, or possibly a .56 Spenser. Charlie thought back to the report and impact of the shot. More likely a Winchester. That put the two men on a pretty much equal footing, except for the fact that Boganan was at least ten years his junior. Oh well, Charlie thought with a grin, time for old age and treachery to take the field.

"Yo! Billy Joe! How's the weather out yonder? Gettin' hot yet?"

"I got me plenty of water here, Marshal! How's 'bout yerownself?"

"Doin' fine, Billy Joe, just fine! Nice and shady! Think I'll take me a nap 'til those no-account relatives of yours get themselves untracked and drag their carcasses up here! Then I can take the lot of you in!"

"I know what yer after, an' you ain't agonna git me riled, Marshal!" Boganan called back. "I been hoorahed by better men than you!" But Charlie could tell that the remark about the hillbilly's relatives had struck a nerve. Time to stick the needle in a little further.

"Is that worthless brother of yours comin' with 'em, or is he gonna stay home with the womenfolk where he belongs?"

"I'll show you worthless, you scum-suckin' lawdog!" Boganan yelled. Rifle fire raked the alder copse, heavy slugs splintering tree trunks and showering Charlie with splinters and leaves where he lay in the hollow he had dug among the alder roots while he heckled Boganan. Heavy clouds of white powder smoke bloomed and drifted over the sharp peak of a knoll some hundred yards downrange as Boganan emptied his rifle's magazine in one long rolling blast. Yep, Winchester. Charlie considered firing back, just to keep the man honest as it were, but he hesitated, not knowing where the hillbilly's hostages might be. Instead, he used the chaos taking place over his head as a cover for a quick survey of the nearby terrain that brought a smile to his face. Now all he needed was enough time between now and when Boganan's kin arrived to make his move.

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