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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 8-1-13

 

Jacob rode more easily today.
He drew up and faded into what little brush there was, as was his habit: he could have just swung happily out onto the roadway and headed toward town, but life taught him caution, mostly by virtue of his very life's shivering on the cliff-edge of sudden death.
He waited, listening, hearing the approach of a tired horse.
He swung out abreast of the rider, surprising the man: he was younger than Jacob, lean, browned; dirty, corded wrists stuck out from his shirt sleeves, his coat was carelessly rolled and tied behind him, his vest was poorly fitted, he gave the impression of someone who'd known nothing but hard work and privation, and now wore the sudden chagrin of a careful man, caught with their guard down.
Jacob grinned at the stranger as his Apple-horse fell into pace with the tired nag beside.
"Headed far?" he inquired.
The skinny wristed rider grunted, clearly uncomfortable.
"Town's not a mile ahead. Stake you to a meal if you'd like. Rest your horse, take a set, looks like you've been travelin' some."
The young fellow almost glared in reply, his eyes hard beneath the round brim of his Joe Crane hat: like its wearer, the hat was worn, not shapeless but near to it, the brim sagging here and there with what some might call "character."
Jacob knew it to be dust and sweat.
He'd sagged his own share of hats to know.
"You sellin' somethin'? 'Cause I ain't buyin'!"
The voice told Jacob this rider with the lean, corded forearms was younger than he'd suspected, and that meant he would be rangy, strong and fast, not necessarily in that order.
"Friend," Jacob admitted with a laugh, "I couldn't sell a starvin' man a meal was I priced it for free!"
The skinny young fellow grunted, trying to keep up a hard faced expression.
They rode a ways further, Jacob keeping precisely abreast of the rider; they came to the little crest that overlooked Firelands, and drew up together.
"You're a lawman."
"Yep." Jacob was relaxed, deceptively so; the kid was elaborately ignoring him, looking straight ahead, eyes busy looking over the little town.
"You ain't got no claim on me."
"You're lookin' for someone," Jacob said quietly. "I know folks hereabouts. A stranger comes or goes, I hear about it. Might be I could help you find 'em."
"I'll find him."
"Be easier if you knew where to look." Jacob squinted at the young man. "Mountains are a sight bigger here than back East."
"You ain't never been East."
Jacob smiled a little, holding his counsel; he knew the lawman's trick of silence and using it to draw out what was known as a "Spontaneous Utterance."
From here they could see Firelands.
Jacob could see behind the Silver Jewel, the water pump and trough; he saw his father and another rider, and he knew from his father's posture that all was not entirely well.
Apple-horse shivered a little and Jacob felt it, and he felt his ears tighten back a little they way they did before things got interesting.
"His name --" the skinny rider said, then hesitated.

"His name was Nate Wardlaw," the Sheriff said.
"He was my uncle," came the reply as the man drew back ... he was too far from the horse to grab his rifle, but he crouched a little, obviously considering his options. "They named me for him."
"You hung him," he continued, his voice low, hard: "My Pa watched his brother kick his last and you ..."
The Sheriff nodded.
"I hung him," he said, "and some others on the same gallows." His eyes were narrow, pale, waiting for this interloper to make a move. At this distance, he knew, it would not be possible to draw and fire without the enemy would be upon him, and he had no wish to be hit by twice a hundred pounds of lean fighting meat and wrestle for a drawn gun.
"My Paw swore he'd find you."
"You found me first."
Wardlaw hesitated.
The skinny old lawman was ready.
Too ready.
Wardlaw never liked taking on a ready man, he preferred to hit from ambush, or to hit a weaker or unprepared opponent.
This skinny old feller, he realized, was neither weak nor unprepared.
"Knives or guns," the Sheriff said quietly. "Your choice."
Wardlaw's hand wrapped around the leather-wrapped handle at the small of his back.

The young fellow blurted "Uncle Nate!" and cut his horse with the tag end of his reins
The stranger's horse was game but it was not a mountain horse.
Jacob had no trouble keeping up with him; he hung back a little but maintained position.
The stranger's horse tried to jump the little gully, and almost made it.
Jacob could hear its forelegs break just before it collapsed, screaming, and the stranger rolled with a pained grunt.
Apple-horse sailed over the gully like he had wings: mountain born and mountain bred, he'd come into the world of a thin, high atmosphere, and his body was used to working a mile and more above sea level, working as hard as a lowland horse where the air was thick, heavy with oxygen: he landed light on his hooves, danced in a circle, came back to the suffering horse and groaning rider.
Jacob dismounted, went over to the horse: "I'm sorry, old fella," he said, placing the barrel of his .44 against its ear and angling the shot for an instant kill: the horse relaxed in death and Jacob looked with pale eyes as the rider got to his feet, comprehension in his eyes and fear in his pallor.
"Pale Eyes," he choked, just before he charged.

Nate Wardlaw relaxed the grip on his knife.
He'd known plenty of fights, scars marked his hide in places most men never saw; he was fast, he was strong, he was close enough to charge this cold eyed lawman with the iron grey mustache, but something held him back, some caution told him he would be walking into death's embrace.
Nate Wardlaw learned the hard way to listen to that still, small voice, and today, he listened, and today, he lived.

Jacob eared back the hammer on his Colt and fired once.
The young Wardlaw's head snapped back with the impact.
Jacob looked around, making sure no one was beside or behind him to continue the attack, then he methodically reloaded and holstered.
He looked down on what was left of the work-hardened young fellow with the dirty wrists and said quietly, "Never charge a lawman who's holdin' a gun."
He looked at dead horse and dead rider and sighed, then he whistled up his Apple-horse, rubbed its nose, swung aboard.
"I genuinely hate killin' a man's horse," he said, and looked to Firelands, then down at the dead Wardlaw.
"I'll send the dead wagon for ye," he said conversationally, then nudged Apple-horse toward town.
His gut told him his Pa was in on this too, one way or another.

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Linn Keller 8-1-13

 

"You figure you got to kill me."
"I figure."
"You got no interest in what actually happened."
"I got no interest in your God damn Yankee lies, you pale eyed --"
Wardlaw took two fast steps, until he was less than a hand's-breadth from the Sheriff.
The Sheriff smiled a little, a tight smile that told Nate Wardlaw he'd just braced up ag'in a he-coon and it was real likely that he, Nate Wardlaw, was going to come out in second place if he kept on.
"You're here for a reason," the Sheriff whispered. "You never figured to see me here. What brought you this far West?"
Wardlaw's breathing was loud through flared nostrils: he lifted his chin and turned his head a little, his eyes never leaving the Sheriff's, until he was wall-eyed, like a skittish horse: he stood, trembling, hands fisted tight, then he spun, seized his horse's reins and grunted as he swung up into a wore-out saddle.
"I'll be back to get you," he snarled. "You kilt my uncle and by God! I'll kill you!"
He yanked his horse's head around just as Jacob's rifle clicked quietly into full cock.
"I'd not do that," Jacob said conversationally.
"Meet my oldest boy," the Sheriff said. "He's got pale eyes just like me."
Wardlaw squinted venomously at Jacob, the chill finger of mortality tracing a cold wiggle-worm line down his back bone, then his head snapped to the side at the sound of a bulldog .44 hammer cranking back and rolling a fresh round into battery.
"Don't forget me, Daddy," Sarah said, eyes pale and hard as she sighted on Wardlaw's neck, right where the collar bones come together.
"You're welcome to come after me," the Sheriff said conversationally, "but remember, I got kin folk, and they're every bit as mean as I am."
"I got kin folk too!" Wardlaw barked, "and they're a-comin' this way! Ain't none o' you gonna be safe once we --"
"Once you what?" Jacob asked, his voice as smooth and oily as a greased viper's belly.
Wardlaw hauled his mount's head around and he gigged the tired gelding in the ribs.
Jacob brought the rifle's butt down and its muzzle up, turned Apple-horse with his knees.
Wardlaw quirted his mount around the corner and to the main street, nearly colliding with the dead wagon: he kicked the gelding into a gallop and kept on going.
"Sir," Jacob said conversationally, "I was obliged to punch some fellow's ticket, and I believe it may have been kin to your guest yonder."
The Sheriff looked at his son and nodded, then looked at Sarah.
"Dear heart," he said, "how could I ever forget my number one daughter?"
Sarah laughed, eased her pistol's hammer down and holstered the stubby revolver.
The Sheriff considered the horizon for a moment, then gave the pump handle another couple strokes and took another dipperful of water.
He slung the dregs out into the grass, wiped the excess from his mustache and said "Jacob, somethin' is a-goin' on and I don't like it." He looked up at his son. "Hill folk don't just come a-travelin' this far and when they start to showin' up in bunches it gives me a bad feelin'. Now why in hell would two Wardlaws be out here at the same time?"

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Charlie MacNeil 8-2-13

 

Slowly, carefully, barely breathing so as not to stir leaf or branch of any of the trees of the thicket, Charlie slipped off his boots. Thank the Lord for thick socks, he thought with a wry grin. Hat and gunbelt followed. He slipped sheath and knife from the pistol belt and wedged them in the waistband of his britches at the small of his back between the pair of Remingtons from his holsters. He slugged down the majority of the contents of his canteen then upended the vessel to dump the remaining drops in the dust of the thicket. He sent a silent, heartfelt prayer for assistance heavenward then slipped slowly, carefully into the shallow wash that meandered from his current resting place toward the knoll where Boganan waited.

Time passes agonizingly slowly when one's spine is glued to one's belly button in anticipation of the sudden rude intrusion of powder and lead. Those crawling seconds ooze away even more slowly when the spine's possessor isn't sure just how much cover said spine has over it. Charlie crawled, finger and toe, knee and elbow, along the shallow watercourse's sandy bottom, ever mindful of the slightest drag of soft cloth on sand. He was fairly certain that after the recent fusillade his assailant's hearing would be seriously degraded, but he still took no chances.

Shadows grew and spread, bathing the surrounding slopes with hazy purple light. The wash slipped into a sort of semi-darkness, and Charlie increased his speed. The wash had deepened so that he was now on hands and knees, and his current progress made the past hours' seem like the eternity they couldn't have actually been. The knoll was close now. He mouthed another silent prayer that the hillbilly was still there.

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Linn Keller 8-3-13

 

The eldest Daine stepped out of the funeral parlor just as the Sheriff stepped up on the board walk.
The Sheriff stopped, surprised.
He'd never seen the patriarch glare in such a manner and it was doubly disquieting that the glare was directed squarely at him.
"Mr. Daine," the Sheriff said civilly.
"Shurf." The old mountaineer hooked a thumb over his shoulder.
"Now wotinell you doin' with a Wardlaw?"
"Why?" The Sheriff's quiet voiced answer had an edge to it, and though he had no wish to tangle with this old man, especially with two of his sons behind him -- and none of them looking particularly friendly -- he was not going to back down either.
"We know them Wardlaws."
"Go on."
"We don't cotton to no Wardlaws."
"Do tell." The Sheriff's voice was flat; he knew the odor of trouble, and he did not care for it.
A big-knuckled, sun-browned hand descended gently on the old man's shoulder from behind.
"Pappy," a rough voice said quietly, "might ought I talk to the man."
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow.
"Might ought," the eldest Daine said.

Sarah closed her eyes, remembering the man her father braced.
He was trouble, she could tell, but he was not entirely unintelligent: intelligence and aggression made for a bad combination, she knew, and Jacob's quiet voiced announcement that he thought he'd killed someone related to the rider made her feel just a bit less comfortable.
She turned, skipped down the hall after Jacob, came up behind him, took his arm: the two fell into step, as if they were a couple, and Sarah steered Jacob around the corner, pushed him up against the wall.
"I don't like this," she whispered. "I think this is trouble."
Jacob's eyes were pale, narrowed: he considered for a moment and replied, "I think you are right."
"Course of action?" she asked, her words clipped, and Jacob wondered momentarily if that's what his father said to a superior officer as a battle was shaping up.
"Let's find out."
Jacob turned, offered his arm, and his sister took his arm with a firm grip: the two raised their chins and slipped easily through the Jewel, past the men at the bar and around the corner, past Tillie's counter and to the frosted-glass-designed front doors.

"Sheriff," Mack said, his octagon barrel flint rifle easy in his grip, "we been a long time away from Kaintuck."
The Sheriff nodded, slowly, listening.
"We had us a feud back home."
Again, the slow nod.
"We got it settled."
Again, the single nod.
"Then we heard there was trouble a-comin'. We didn't know who was a-startin' words but we heard 'twas Bogannons, Clawsons, Spearses and Wardlaws.
"Turns out Clawson got Spearsies to come after us.
"Them thievin' Spearses was trash of the worst order and they could never sneak up on us but sneak they did an' they kilt two of us.
"We went after 'em and we settled it."
His knuckles were pale as he gripped the long octagon barrel.
"Then we found they'd been gigged into it.
"Well, that tore it.
"They-all l'arned we-all found 'em out an' they run.
"We warn't about to back shoot when they run so we let 'em go an' it got knowed that we'd finish what they started was they to try ag'in.
"About then we-all come out this-a-way."
He blinked slowly, his eyes distant, remembering.
"They-all are related. Kick one in the shins an' all of 'em squall.
"Sheriff, they're like ants in the sugar bowl. If you find one you know there's more a-comin'."
The Sheriff nodded.
"I figgered as much," he said shortly.
Mack reached out and gripped the Sheriff's shoulder.
"You ain't got nothin' figgered," he said harshly. "This is a blood feud. We come out here an' lived peaceful. 'Ginst they come out here ain't gonna be nothin' peaceful." His eyes blazed and his breathing came faster.
"We'uns will be a-watchin'. They're a-goin' somewhere. If they're comin' for us it's war on the mountain an' I'm a-tellin' you don't git in between us."
The Sheriff considered this.
"I'll not have war in my county," he said slowly.
"You got no say in it. They come after us, we come after them. You'd do the same."
The Sheriff considered this.
"Yes," he said. "I would." He looked squarely at Mack. "What if they ain't a-comin' after you?"
"Come ag'in?"
"Wardlaw rode on today."
Mack froze, glanced into the funeral parlor, looked back at the Sheriff with hard, hate-filled eyes.
"They's another?"
"He and I had a ... discussion ... behind the Jewel."
"You kill 'im?"
"Nope."
"Where'd he go?"
"Left on a tired horse."
"Boys," the old patriarch called, "let's git home. Let's git ready."
Four long, tall, skinny Kentucky mountaineers filed out of the funeral parlor, mounted their riding mules; long barrel flint rifles across their saddles, they turned as one and headed back up for Daine's Peak.
Jacob and Sarah came up, watching as the Sheriff looked after them.
"Sir?" Jacob asked.
The Sheriff looked at his son and daughter.
"Jacob," he said, "how's your belly?"
"Fine, sir."
"Don't lie to me," the Sheriff said quietly, almost in a whisper. "We're shapin' up for a feud, a mountain feud. If Wardlaw or their kin show up here we need to know it."
"Yes, sir."
"Sarah."
"Yes, sir," she said crisply.
"You are eyes and ears. Use your contacts, ride a circuit of your students' families. See how they are doing. See if they've noticed strangers come through, any that look like mountaineers, any that look like Eastern hillbillies."
"Yes, sir," she said quietly, and she unconsciously drew her elbows in close to her ribs.
"If it happens here ..."
The Sheriff considered.
"The Daine clan are part of us. They belong here. Outsiders come in lookin' for trouble, we move on them."
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, I know the Daine tribe. I don't reckon if they set out for war we'll have anyone to move on."
The Sheriff nodded.
"I reckon that's right," he said, remembering how three Daine riflemen stood like Stonewall himself when a posse went after a wounded grizzly.
"What if they take their feud elsewhere?"
The Sheriff looked, surprised, at his darlin' daughter, and his expression told her he'd not considered that fact.
"Wardlaw rode on," she pointed out. "So suppose his kinfolk are riding as well but they are riding because they were called? And what if they weren't called here?"
The Sheriff nodded.
"It might even be out of our county."
"It might." The Sheriff put two fingers to his lips, whistled; his Cannonball came trotting out the alley and up to the funeral parlor.
"I'm headed for Daine's Peak," he said. "They need to know Wardlaw's horse has a bad right forehoof, likely a loose shoe."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-3-13

 

"Hey, there, Marshal!" Boganan's voice startled Charlie where he hunkered down next to an outcropping of granite. Silently he reached back and drew his left hand pistol from its place in the back of his britches. Boganan's voice rang out again. "Gittin' dark, Marshal! Think I'll build me a fire and cook me up some supper!" Twigs snapped, a match scratched, and a tiny yellow light began to flicker from behind the knoll. "Come on up an' git yerself some supper, Marshal!"

When Charlie didn't answer, Boganan muttered, "Musta done fell asleep down there. Reckon I'll wake him up." Charlie heard the oiled snick of the man's Winchester as he racked a shell into the chamber. Once again, Boganan emptied the rifle's magazine in one continuous roll of sound as Charlie knelt with his fingers stuffed deep in his ears. When the shooting stopped, he unplugged his ears and waited.

"You! Girl! Git my other canteen offa my saddle an' git some coffee started!" Charlie heard. His temper flared while at the same time his hopes rose. Now, at least, he knew where the kids were. The problem now was keeping them out of the line of fire. As quickly as his temper ramped up, it cooled and his expression turned to ice. It was time to end this.

Charlie brought his feet up under him, slipped his second pistol into his other hand, and was pushing himself upright when hoofbeats clattered on stone and sand beyond the knoll. With a silent curse he lowered himself to one knee in the darkness and listened.

A rough voice called, "Hello the camp!"

"That you, Clete?" Boganan answered.

"Yep," the voice replied. Saddle leather creaked as more than one rider dismounted. Charlie shoved the left hand pistol back behind his waistband and slid forward around the edge of the knoll hoping to catch a glimpse of, and get some sort of count on, the newcomers. He had a feeling he was in for a long night.

The fire had grown to the point of pushing long shadows across the surrounding terrain. Those shadows were complicated by the milling of three tired horses and Boganan's well-rested mule as the mounts got acquainted. Charlie pushed himself gently back behind the shelter of the rocks to think. The newcomers were loaded down with serious hardware, and here he'd stuck himself with just two pistol and a knife. This wasn't the most intelligent thing you've ever done, he berated himself. 'Course you ain't done a whole lot right all this livelong day. He was about to be in serious trouble if he didn't come up with some sort of idea and in a hurry.

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Linn Keller 8-4-13

 

I heard the eldest Daine reading from the Book, words about the righteous smiting the wicked, and I remembered an old man with a grey beard reading the same words before my troops before we went into one of our first engagements.
We were absolutely convinced we were in the right, at least in that moment.
It took a little but I was soon disabused of any such notion.
That happens in war.
Old men lock horns and young men die because of it.
Now I set on my golden mare with my rifle across the saddle in front of me as the Daine women handed travelin' pokes up to their men, handed them rifles and possibles.
They were hard-eyed, lean, hard-bit Kentucky hillbillies, the kind of folk I'd long ago come to know as noble, honorable, honest as the day is long.
Treat them honorably and they were your best friend.
Cross them and they could be your deadliest enemy.
Lie to them one time and neither they nor any of their descendants, from then til hell froze over and the devil learned to figure skate, would ever believe you or any of your descendants.
I set there and waited and watched as their women stoically supplied their mounted men.
They rode down-trail, towards me, and I waited.
The old man was in the lead and he had his rifle in hand, balanced at its natural mid point; sons and brothers, uncles and cousins, flanked out on either side of him.
They favored the long octagon barrel, muzzle loading, flint rifles, and about half of them carried these.
The rest had what looked like Sharps rifles. Only one or two had magazine rifles.
I waited until old man Daine's riding mule was close enough to rub heads with Cannonball before I spoke, and I pitched my voice so they could all hear.
"I don't want a war in my county," I said, "but if war comes, I will stop it.
"You have done nothing wrong and I have no quarrel with you."
"We ain't gonna start nothin', Shurf," the grey-bearded patriarch said, his voice sharp-edged as knapped flint, "but we figger to stop what's bin started."
"Let me give you this, then," I said, raising my eyes to the man I knew as Cousin Jeff: he was some younger than me but the best tracker of the bunch according to Charlie, and I tend to listen when that particular man speaks.
"Wardlaw left out of here on a tired horse with a bad right forehoof. I believe a loose shoe."
"He was a-travelin' by hisself?"
"He is now."
Not a single weathered face changed expression but approval showed in every eye.
"Attair horse," Jeff asked, raising his chin: his beard was a good rich Clan Maxwell red, thick and trimmed up nice and neat, likely by his young bride.
"Line back dun, rocking R brand left hip, Dot X on the left shoulder, white stocking left rear leg and a black spot the size of your hand right hip."
Jeff grinned, a broad, easy grin, and he nodded.
I stepped Cannonball aside.
"Good huntin'," I said, and old man Daine's eyes narrowed with approval.
The men of the clan Daine filed down the path, each mounted on a sure-footed riding mule, every man Jack of them calm and unexcited in the face of a possible blood feud war.
I fell in behind.
Their path led through Firelands and beyond; mine ended in town, at my office.
Esther was waiting for me at my office, a shawl around her shoulders: she stepped out in the street and handed a double cloth poke up to the eldest Daine: he removed his weathered hat as she approached, and their column halted; I rode to the side, on the up hill side of the Mercantile, and cantered down between the back of the buildings and the railroad tracks until I could see down an alley to what was going on.
I missed most of whatever exchanged but I could see he had those two pokes -- cloth bags, sewn together at the necks so they could be draped over a mule's neck, open so a man could get into one or the other -- and I could see him thank her, his face grave but his eyes pleased -- and Esther drew the shawl tighter around her shoulders and backed up a couple of steps.
I waited until they were past, then we walked down the alley, Cannonball and me, and Esther stood, looking after them, a sad and old-memory look about her.
I swung down and stood behind and beside her, taking her shoulders in my hands; she leaned against me and I could feel more than hear her groan as she laid her head back against me.
"We are related, you know," she whispered, and something told me she did not trust her voice. "We have a common Clan Maxwell."
I nodded.
"It's little I could do on such short notice."
I held my wife as she looked after the disappearing column.
"I made them as much traveling meal as I could." I felt her shoulders lift as she took a long breath. "A man must eat, you know."
"I know," I murmured.
We stood in the street for a long moment, until finally Esther raised a hand to her forehead.
"I'm ... tired," she said slowly.
I picked her up and she ran her arms around my neck and pressed her face into my front, and I carried her to my office, Cannonball following like a pet dog.
Jacob appeared from somewhere and thrust open the door for me.
I turned a little to run Esther's feet through the doorway first, side-stepping for a few until I got her in.
Esther lifted her face, looked up at me; it was wet, as I suspected.
"Don't let Jacob see me like this," she whispered.
Jacob pulled his wild rag free and balled up the faded blue silk, handed it to her. "Too late, Mother."
I nodded to the cot, folded in the corner; Jacob lay it down, turned it over, stretched the canvas with a snap and locked it open with the spring braces: he turned it over, I lay Esther down, arranged the pillow under her head as Jacob slid a rolled up blanket under her knees.
Esther blotted at her eyes and thanked Jacob; he snapped the wadded rag out into its full size, folded it and spun it around his neck easily, naturally: he hadn't worn his suit today, nor had he since being shot.
Esther lay staring at the ceiling.
"I knew," she whispered, and I nodded to Jacob, who pulled up two chairs: he slid one in behind me and I parked my carcass, then he pulled up one and sat himself.
"I saw young men ride off like that," she whispered again, then cleared her throat, blinking: she fumbled for the little lacy kerchief in her sleeve, pressed it to her eyes, wiped at the tear that ran out the corner of her eye and trickled wetly down into her ear.
"I saw young men ride in column. It was a beautiful clear morning and there was a little mist in the orchard. They were laughing and singing and their ... the girls fluttered their kerchiefs and swooned like silly girls, and I watched, and I felt that terrible things were happening ..."
"You saw that again."
She shook her head.
"No," she said. "This is old. This is something old they need to finish."
I looked up at Jacob.
Esther had a way of knowing things.
I didn't know of any way she could know as much as she did but she sure as hell had a good handle on what was going on. She'd fixed a bait for men going to war, just as had the Daine women.
A good lawman will avail himself of available resources.
Esther's Mama tried to beat the Sight out of her.
Esther's Mama called her a damned witch.
A witch she was not, this I knew, but she had that gift that run cold willies down my back bone sometimes, but this is the woman I love and I love all of her, including what I don't understand.
I pressed her hand between both of mine.
"What is to happen, Esther?" I asked quietly. "What do you see?"
She looked sadly at me, her lip quivering.
"Ten young men one Carolina morning," Esther said "Ten rode away into the golden sun. I can see it as if I were there again."
Esther blinked, took a long breath, stared at the ceiling.
"Ten fine young men from our plantation and two others rode out. Ten fine young men, full of life and laughter." She bit her bottom lip, then continued.
"Four returned: one without a leg, one blind, one insane and ... one hanged himself within the week.
"Ten rode out this morning." Her hand tightened in mine. "Ten mules will return, but not ten riders."

Once Esther rested up a little, Jacob and I got her back in the carriage and he drove her back out to the house.
It was almost unheard of for a woman in Esther's gravid state to be seen outside the house.
I knew it was a powerful thing she'd seen that prompted her action, her coming into town, her addressing a man not her husband in the middle of the street and handing him supplies like he was going off to do battle.
It was a powerful message, both to the old patriarch and to the family as a whole, and I was at once pleased she had, but worried for her.
A man worries about his wife and I worried more since that God awful nightmare.
I dismissed the memory.
Just a dream, I told myself, another damned nightmare.
I sat down on the Deacon's bench in front of my little log fortress and contemplated the far horizon, behind Shorty's livery where mountains threatened the sky with sharpened teeth.
My jurisdiction was Firelands County.
I had no idea how far they were to travel, but I knew my travel would end at the county line, unless I was in pursuit or had a warrant.
I leaned my head back against the logs, letting my mind wander freely.
Charlie has it easier, I thought.
Territorial Marshal can travel hither and yon and not worry about the county line.
I sighed, thinking how good a beer would taste.
Wonder what Charlie's into right about now.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-4-13

 

What Charlie was into was the proverbial fertilizer stream, and he was up to his neck in its depths with no means of transport or propulsion. On the plus side of the ledger, he'd seen the kids and they seemed to be unharmed. On the negative side, from talk he'd managed to overhear it was obvious that he'd been mightily set up. Boganan had set his trap for the one and only Marshal MacNeil, figuring correctly in his hill-country, fox-cunning brain that the head honcho back yonder in the city would send his number one man in his place. And said number one man had been pretty well flummoxed right from the start, which was a state of affairs that said number one man planned to reverse as soon as possible.

The head count of the Boganan bloodlines now in the camp had risen to six: three Clawsons (Lije, Randall and Jeb), a Boganan (Billy Joe) and two Wardlaws (Clete and Merle), with, rumor had it, more of each heading this way. Figuring that discretion could oftentimes be of somewhat more value than valor, and with the dark of the moon keeping the landscape a welcoming shade of black, Charlie eased his way back to the alder copse, his Winchester and, more importantly, his horse. The gelding had died within a few short yards of the alders, and with some careful crawling Charlie figured to get to his saddlebags and their contents.

Drunken laughter echoed in the night from beyond the knoll. No doubt Boganan and his kin were entertaining each other with tales of what they would do to their "trapped" prey come daylight. But their prey had other plans, and he wasn't going to wait for daylight to implement them. If a fella was going to go to war, there was no reason to waste around. Might as well get at it and get it over with.

Dead horses that have lain in the hot sun for hours, and had various tender portions of their anatomy sampled by scavengers, tend to stink. Charlie sucked in a deep breath and slithered on his belly to where the roan lay. He quickly untied the saddle strings securing his bedroll and saddlebags then, as quietly as possible, tugged and jerked the saddlebags free. He huddled behind the roan, listening intently, but his exertions had apparently gone undetected by his enemies. Carefully dragging his prizes out of sight behind the alders, he rummaged by memory and feel through the bags, drawing out those objects he wanted most: a dark blue muslin shirt, a pair of knee-high Navajo moccasins, and a large square of black linen he kept for emergencies.

Charlie slipped his feet into the moccasins then slipped the blue shirt over his head. He'd had Fannie cut it over-sized when she made it, thinking about just such a contingency. The black linen he wrapped around and over his thinning topknot in an effort to forgo any possible reflection of starlight or any other source of illumination from his pate. He belted his holsters around his waist and returned the Remingtons to their more familiar homes. A chunk of burnt cork from his shirt pocket swiped across his cheekbones and diagonally across chin and forehead and he figured he was about as ready to take on a passel of home-grown hell-raisin' squirrel shooters as it was possible for him to be. He picked up the Winchester, as quietly as possible chambered a round, then let the hammer down to half-cock. Hero time, and not a damned one of 'em in sight. Rooting those hillbillies out of there and getting the kids back was a damn dirty job, but he didn't see anybody else around to do it so he figured he'd best get at it. Moondark wouldn't last forever. Charlie set out for the knoll, his clothing and movements a part of the landscape around him.

Twenty trips around the dial of the big hand on a dollar Ingersol watch found Charlie snuggled up to a clump of rye grass just shy of the top of the knoll. Parting the summer-cured stems carefully, he peered into the camp. The whiskey-induced laughter he'd heard earlier had been replaced by snores. He counted six blanket-covered mounds laying wagon spoke style around the faintly-glowing embers of the fire, which surprised him until he counted the number of whiskey bottles scattered about. The two kids, whose names he had learned were Clara and Harry, sat huddled against the one lone alder sharing a blanket. Both were wide awake, and obviously scared half to death, but both seemed to be unharmed. Still he waited, watching the blanket-covered forms intently and listening, making sure that none of the six adult occupants of the camp had been sober enough when the rest bedded down to make his bed then leave it to stand watch. Ten more minutes crept by as he waited for any sign of a guard.

A flicker of silent movement beyond where the kids were huddled caught his eye. He tensed, waiting for whoever or whatever it was to come closer, straining to determine the source. Once again the movement, this time a flash of silver that suddenly became his old friend the wolf. The big animal drifted silently forward to nudge Clara's arm with its nose. Charlie expected the two scared children to cry out, scream, whatever, but instead they acted like they were greeting a treasured companion. Slowly rising to their feet, Clara and Harry dropped the blanket as each grasped a fistful of silver hair and when the wolf turned and slipped from the camp, the kids went along just as if they did such a thing every day. Just before the trio faded from view, amber eyes met hazel, and Charlie heard the words, "Your turn, human," as plainly as if they been shouted in his ear.

Thanks a bunch, he thought in reply. Six to one ain't likely odds, my friend.

You are welcome, he "heard" in solemn answer. The young ones will be near your dead horse. They will be safe there. I hope that you are able to return there as well.

That makes two of us. Charlie took in a deep breath, got to his feet, and started down the camp side of the knoll with his rifle in his hands and his temper rising then just as rapidly turning to ice. It was time for a reckoning.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-5-13

 

Lije was first, by virtue of being the closest. Four inches of sun- and wind-cured alder wood descended on hard bone just abaft of the hillbilly's left ear with a muffled thud. He grunted once then relaxed into the sleep of the truly unconscious as his assailant moved silently on leather-clad feet on around the circle, taking what guns he could find without a detailed search with him. Lije's brother Jeb was next, followed by Merle Wardlaw. Each man's guns were gathered and deposited on a rapidly growing heap some ten feet from the nearest man. It was this depositing of wood and steel that led to the ensuing events. Merle's pistol slipped out of Charlie's hand...

The clank of gun barrel steel striking riflestock walnut was as loud as a bugled cavalry charge to Charlie's straining hearing. In actuality it was of considerably less volume but was still loud enough to trip even the whiskey sodden senses of men such as those who lay snoring in their blankets across the ring of blackened rocks. Clete reared up, shedding blanket and hat, gravel voice grunting, "What the Hell?" just ahead of the ratcheting clicks of the hammer of the Colt he'd kept clasped in his calloused fist as he slept. White smoke bloomed and fire flared as Charlie threw himself into a diving roll toward the tangled heap of gear behind him. Lead sang off fire-blackened rock as Clete's first shot went low, whistling overhead into the night. Charlie's Winchester blasted in return, the thud of the bullet slamming into Clete's chest somehow audible as chaos took over the camp...

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Linn Keller 8-5-13

 

Wardlaw looked over his shoulder, then turned his horse, looked long and hard back along his back trail.
His nephew -- or his son, he wasn't sure which the boy was -- hadn't caught up with him yet.
Wardlaw was uneasy.
The boy had the better horse; he also had a tendency to push his horse.
Wardlaw held stone still, his horse nearly so; he waited, silent, listening.
The mountains sounded different than what they'd called mountains back East.
These were ... these out here were raw, hard ... he thought his Appalachian hill country was a hard land.
Compared to these granite teeth, bared against the high blue skydome and topped with obdurate snow and ice ... compared to these, his Eastern mountains were soft.
Sound was different this far West.
Wardlaw felt something tighten down around his belly.
Even sound was harsher out here.
"Now where is that damn boy?" he whispered, eyes shifting; his gelding picked up on his restlessness, stamped.
"Yew waitin' fer someone, Wardlaw?"
Old man Daine rode into sight, walking his mule, his long barrel flint rifle in his hands.
"If it's the boy," Daine called, his voice strong and full in spite of his apparent age, "he ain't comin'."
"Now how d'ye know that?" Wardlaw shouted back, damning his lack of forethought: his rifle was still in its scabbard under his leg.
"I'm a-gonna kill you, Wardlaw. I'm a-gonna kill you just as dead as the boy."
"HE AIN'T DEAD!" Wardlaw screamed, his stomach seizing tight in panic.
Dead? he thought. When, and how? He was right behind me --
"Wardlaw!" the eldest Daine barked. "You recall I told you after we took care of all them Spearsies? You recall what I told you?"
Wardlaw shivered.
He was out in the open; the nearest cover was too far, too far, his rifle was under his leg --
He remembered the cold blue eye as it looked down the long top flat of the octagon barrel and the hand lapped bore yawned about as big as a wash tub and the cold Kentucky voice and how wet-chapped lips framed the syllables and he heard every word, every word, every word --
You ever trouble my family ag'in I'll come after you. You ever come near us and we will kill every last one o' you.
You started this feud.
We're willin' to end it.
Give us an excuse.

Wardlaw watched the long octagon barrel of that dreadful flint rifle swing around.
He knew the old man could clip the hind quarters off a flea at fifty yards.
Offhand.
In a stiff crosswind.
Wardlaw reached down and seized the wrist of his rifle, pulled --

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Linn Keller 8-5-13

 

Randall Clawson and Billy Joe Boganan were probably not smarter than their erstwhile cousin, but they were a damn sight luckier. As the pair of muzzle blasts rang through the camp accompanied by Clete Wardlaw's belly deep grunt of pain, the pair fumbled toward some semblance of coherent thought. In a voice that sounded tinny to his ears after such close quarters abuse, Charlie barked, "Federal Marshal! Move and you die!" followed by the racking of another round into the Winchester's still warm chamber. The two men froze, their bloodshot eyes tracking toward the apparition that rose from behind their mess of saddle packs and tack. The only sound in the camp for several frozen seconds was the moaning of the mortally wounded Clete Wardlaw.

"Who are you?" Boganan demanded suddenly, the whiskey that still coursed through his bloodstream emboldening his voice.

"I'm the man you set up to kill, Boganan," Charlie growled. "Using children for bait. That's pretty damn low even for squirrel-shooting scum like you and your kin here." The muzzle of the rifle indicated the wounded Clete and his unconscious brother and cousins. He tossed a handful of twigs and grass on the embers of the fire. Orange tongues of flame began to lick eagerly at the fuel, brightening the camp but not beautifying it in any way, shape or form. "Now unload those hoglegs you've got tucked away under your blankets... Gently," he cautioned as he saw Randall Clawson's hand start toward the blanket that still tangled around his legs and feet. "If I see anything other than those dirty fingers shucking the cartridges from those pistols, I'll plant your hide alongside of Clete's. Now get at it. And shuck your cousin's hardware while you're at it. He's in no shape to do it himself."

Grumbling compliance yielded an impressive collection of disabled firepower that rapidly collected near Charlie's feet. "That's it, MacNeil," Boganan snarled. "We ain't got no more guns."

"Now throw out the pigstickers," Charlie ordered. "And don't even think about throwing one my direction. This here rifle's faster than either one of you." Randall Clawson turned out to be more thug than thinker. His left hand streaked toward his collar, reaching for the throwing knife in its sheath at the back of his neck. He died with the blade half drawn, the soft lead of the .45 slug slamming him to his back in his grubby blankets. Charlie jacked another round into the chamber of the rifle. "Care to try that for yourownself, Boganan?"

"Not hardly, Marshal," Boganan replied, slipping three knives from various parts of his clothing as carefully as a blind man picking lint from a skunk's tail. "I ain't fixin' to die until I have a chance to settle with you and yours."

"Don't hold your breath, Boganan. I ain't likely to act as stupid as I did today twice in one lifetime. For some strange reason I underestimated you, but that won't happen again. You and the rest of your friends here are going to jail for a real long time. Except for Clete. I think he has done passed to his eternal reward."

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Linn Keller 8-6-13

 

Wardlaw lived long enough to tell the eldest Daine what he wanted to know.
They left Wardlaw's carcass for scavengers -- his kind did not deserve a decent burial, they drug the dead meat off the trail and rolled it over the mountainside, where it fell several hundred feet before busting open on the rocks below.
Old man Daine wiped his hands on his britches and muttered, "Your granddaddy took a shot at my granddaddy and I am still mad about it!"
He turned to his waiting Clansmen and said quietly, "Mount up, boys. We know where they are."

Two days later they came riding back into Firelands, headed back for their mountain: the stopped in front of the Sheriff's office, held up while the long, tall, dreadfully skinny old patriarch dismounted and walked over to the Sheriff.
The Sheriff regarded their numbers and saw that they were not diminished.
"Cousin Francis," the eldest Daine said quietly, "will be talkin' t' yew."
The Sheriff nodded, once, slowly, and the old mountaineer gave him a wink and a slow nod, then he turned and mounted back up, and their mule column walked steadily up the street.

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Linn Keller 8-7-13

 

Cousin Francis was one of the younger men, the Sheriff wrote.
It was an interesting conversation.
He leaned back in his chair and regarded the far wall, remembering the younger man's polite tone ... almost gentle, he thought, and that's unusual for them.
"We caught up with Wardlaw," he began.
The Sheriff nodded, then held up a hand.
"You know I'm a lawman," he said. "Don't tell me nothin' that might make me come after ye."
Cousin Francis gave me an odd look.
"It don't matter," he said tiredly.
The Sheriff remembered feeling his brow wrinkle a little with puzzlement.
"I've got the sugar, Sheriff. I'm dyin' of the sugar."
"Oh dear heavens," the Sheriff murmured.
"My eye sight is a-goin' and ever' now and ag'in it feels like a locust throrn run into m' foot." His right foot twitched up off the floor, an involuntary jerk. "Rattair's one."
The Sheriff nodded again.
"Shurf, come atter me if ye want but I'm a dead man already."
The Sheriff took a long breath, nodded slowly, twice.
"Wardlaw allowed as he was a-meetin' the others on ahead only when we found 'em, why, your brother had 'em all wrapped up an' ready t' take off to th' hoosegow.
"Pappy" -- the Sheriff knew he referred to the eldest Daine, who was "Pappy" to everyone in the tribe -- "Pappy, he said that McNeil fella was your brother, and Pappy trusted you so he was a-gonna trust McNeil.
"We set out t' finish a blood feud."
The young man looked at the Sheriff, a penetrating, direct, blue-eyed look, the look of a man who didn't have a thing left in the world to lose.
"They didn't come out here after us.
" 'Twas not blood they was atter -- least ways not ahrs."
The Sheriff nodded again.
"Pappy allowed as we got crops comin' ripe an' moon likker t' run so we come on home."
The conversation was interrupted multiple times by the young Daine availing himself of the water dipper, and an equal number of times, by trips out back to dispose of the water: this was a sign of the sugar, the Sheriff knew, but made no comment at the interruptions.
One of the younger brothers waited for him outside, and they rode off together.
I heard the next day Cousin Francis woke the next day completely blind.
He died this morning, in his own bed, family around him.
There at the last, he opened unseeing eyes and looked around like he was marveling at the loveliest sight in all of Creation, then he laid back and sighed, "Let me go. I seen the Valley and it's beautiful," and he closed his eyes and he was gone.

The Sheriff blotted the hand written page, waited for it to dry before closing his journal; he turned down the wick, the Aladdin lamp faded into darkness, and the long, tall lawman listened to the silence of his nighttime study.
Angela barely stirred as her Daddy's muts-tache tickled her forehead and his lips pressed against her skin before he, too, went to bed.

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Linn Keller 8-8-13

 

Linn lay awake, staring at the nighttime ceiling, remembering.
He'd stood there with his hat in his hand as the Daine clan lay one of their own to rest, with others of their blood.
The women bathed the body and sewed the shroud, the men eased what was once one of their own into the hand dug hole, and the Sheriff stood, seeing far beyond the solemn scene, as the eldest Daine read from the Book, as he'd done before ... too many times before.
The men rode to the graveyard, as was their custom, single file, the eldest in the lead, the youngest at the end, each man's wife walking beside her husband: Cousin Francis was about midway in the procession, or a little back of mid way, in the wagon, his mule with empty saddle behind: the procession was at a walk, and the Sheriff followed at a respectful distance.
The Sheriff lay in his own bed, under his own roof, with his own wife's hand in his, and he remembered how Francis's wife dropped the first dirt on the hand sewn shroud, then his sisters: the women walked a sunwise circle around the grave, their faces set and solemn as they usually were in time of grief.
The women stopped, with the wife at the foot of the grave: as one, the entire clan raised their eyes to Heaven and began to sing, and Linn's heart ached to remember their voices, for he'd heard the same voice and the same song given over the dead back East, back among hill folk, back in the mountains, twenty years ago and more ... family who buried relatives, killed in that damned War, relatives fighting neither for north nor south, killed because they were too close to a battle or were mistaken for the enemy.
The new widow's cheeks were without dampness when they began to sing.
Bright Morning Stars are risin',
Bright Morning Stars are risin',
Bright Morning Stars are risin',
Day, is a-breakin' in my soul.

The widow had a good voice, a clear voice, a steady voice, and she held the last note flawlessly, until the very end, when her voice and the dam behind her eyes broke in the same moment.
Linn gave Esther's hand a little squeeze, and Esther, sound asleep, gave a little squeeze back, the way she always did, and Linn looked at the ceiling and felt the water build in his own eyes, and silently thanked the Almighty he was in his own warm bed with his own dear wife ... he gave thanks silently, for he did not trust his voice, not even to whisper.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-9-13

 

Charlie bent and, keeping one eye on his prisoner, pulled a coil of rope from the unorganized mess at his feet. He tossed the coil across the tiny flickering fire to land at Boganan's feet. "Haul your carcass outta those blankets, Boganan, and truss up the three that're still breathin'," Charlie ordered. "And don't waste around doin' it."

"You can jist go plumb ta Hell, lawdog," Boganan snarled. "I ain't helpin' you one little bit ta take me an' mine ta jail." The hillbilly sat staring at Charlie defiantly, arms crossed stiffly across his chest. Charlie strode forward, stepping around the fire ring and up alongside the man's grubby blankets.

"That's mighty brave," he told Boganan in a conversational tone, just before he knocked the man unconscious with the butt of his Winchester. He looked down at the sprawled form. "But it ain't exactly smart." Throwing more fuel on the fire, he picked up the coil of rope and began cutting off lengths of stout hemp. He rolled Boganan to his back, yanked his hands behind his back and securely tied his crossed wrists to his crossed ankles, leaving a short length of rope between. He did the same with Boganan's three unconscious kinsmen.

Confident that his prisoners would still be there when he returned, Charlie gathered a few of the cleanest blankets he could find, picked up the remains of a pan of cornbread from the edge of the fire, and started over the knoll toward where the wolf had "told" him the children would be. When he was within a few yards of the alder copse, he called out, "Clarah? Harry? Where are you, kids? Are you alright? This is Marshal MacNeil!"

The young ones are well, human, Charlie "heard". A great silver-tinged, four-legged shadow detached itself from the blacker background of the thicket and drifted forward, accompanied by a pair of two-legged shadows. When the children saw Charlie, they released their grip on the wolf and ran forward. Charlie knelt, laid his cargo and his rifle on the ground behind him then caught the charge of two scared kids in his arms. They wrapped their arms around his neck, crying, and he closed his own arms around their shivering forms.

"Shh," he murmured over and over, his soft voice offering comfort and safety. "It's okay, now, kids. Shh."

Clarah's sobs gasped into silence. She leaned back to look into his eyes. "We heard shots. We were so scared! But the wolf stayed with us, and keeped us warm!" She paused, eyes widening in wonder. "He talked to us!" Her head turned, searching for their savior. "Where did he go?"

"He left," Charlie answered softly. "He left." Thank you, he said in his mind.

It was not for you, the faint reply came. It was for the young ones. Young ones are always to be protected.

"I brought you kids some blankets, and some food," Charlie told his charges. "Come daylight, we'll put you on a horse and get ourselves out of here."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-9-13

 

 Light spread slowly across the barren hills to limn each leaf in silver. Charlie yawned and stretched, pushing himself to his feet. He looked down at the sleeping children, amazed as always at the resilience of people so small. Stealing away silently, he went to check on his prisoners. He eased up to the crest of the knoll and peered over. Boganan was squirming against his bonds, trying to work some slack into the knots; the ones he'd cold-cocked merely lay blinking painfully like hungover owls. "You're just gonna peel the hide off of your wrists doin' that, Billy Joe," he commented drily. "Might as well just lay there."

Boganan froze in mid-wriggle to turn his face toward Charlie. "Damn you, MacNeil, I'm gonna hang yer hide from my smokehouse for this!" the hillbilly snarled.

"I don't think so," Charlie replied. "At least not for about twenty years, if I know that judge up yonder in Denver. Most folks hereabouts don't take kindly to kidnappin'." He started down the knoll, then stopped as the clink of shod hooves on rock reached his ears. He dropped behind the crest and turned toward the sound, peering into the rapidly expanding dawn.

"Hello, the camp," rang out. "Marshal, y'all here some'ere's?"

Charlie got to his feet, bracing the butt of his rifle on his hip. "Mister Daine," he called out, "you are a sight for sore eyes!"

The Daine cavalcade spread out in a side by side line. "I hear tell y'all got some old friends of our'n hereabouts," Pap Daine replied.

"If you're referring to a motley assortment of Boganans, Wardlaws and Clawsons, then you are indeed correct, sir," Charlie said. He hooked a thumb back over his shoulder. "The ones that are still alive are trussed up down yonder. Come on in." He turned and started toward his prisoners...

Some two days later, Charlie led his prisoners, and the two children, up to the jailhouse hitch rail. He stepped down, stretching to work the kinks out of his back and legs. He helped Clara and Harry down to the ground just as Marshal Thomas appeared in the doorway. The two kids ran to their grandfather, both talking at the same time, both wanting to tell grampa about the wolf. Thomas looked at Charlie over their heads, tears threatening to brim over, and nodded his thanks. Charlie nodded his understanding. Four shotgun-armed deputies appeared and took charge of the prisoners. All that's left is the blasted paperwork, Charlie thought tiredly.

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Linn Keller 8-9-13

 

Seems like there was forever work of one kind or another going on here in the Jewel.
I reckon it's because it was originally put up fast and cheap.

The Sheriff's eyes shifted; he smelled wood, fresh, seasoned wood being worked, and smiled a little.
I don't know how those long tall Kentucky men do it but they have the knack of working in wood, they have the saw mill, they have that magic that mountaineers have with wood of any kind.
He watched them for a little -- no, that's not right.
He didn't really watch.
What he did, first and foremost, was stay out of their way, then he just plainly marveled.
They worked with almost no word between them.
If you weren't used to watching them work it would seem down right spooky, he reckoned, but they were absolutely smooth in their every move: when a man extended a hand, the hadle of a short adz or a hatchet or a maul was placed in it; measurements were made, marks were placed with an almost casual flip of the wrist ... but if a man took an actual look at the mark, it was precise, it was straight and it was distinct.
None of them were in any kind of a hurry and nothing seemed to trouble them from their labors: one was busy with a maul and chisel, working out a mortise, another pair fetched up a beam with tenons in place, and about the time the party of the first part puffed a breath into the relieved opening to get rid of his cuttings and then stepped aside, why, the end of that beam went into his newly fashioned socket and the end mated into it with absolute perfection.
They didn't waste money on nails: no, they drilled very precise holes, then pegged everything together: it was tight, it was lasting, it was a common means of building.
He smiled a little and when one of the younger carpenters hesitated near him, he murmured, "You know you're good at your craft when you make all this look so easy!"
The skinny carpenter's expression never changed, but his eyes did; they smiled a little, just a little, then he carried on with his work, and the Sheriff went on down stairs.
The Sheriff didn't know if he expected them to up and drop what they were doin' and tell him what happened when they caught up with Charlie.
It matters not, he thought.
I'll find out in due time.
He stood aside as another load of timber went upstairs, borne by two ageless craftsmen, then he went on down the rest of the way and slid past Tillie's counter and turned left, looked down the bar.
Tom Landers looked over, his eyes calm; little was going on this morning, two desultory games of poker, half a dozen men bending an elbow.
Breakfast was the biggest game at the moment.
The Sheriff had eaten already so he smiled, nodded to Tom, turned to head towards the front door.
He stepped outside, looking around, stepped off to the side and stopped just short of leaning back against the green-painted siding.
He stopped just short because he didn't want dust stripes across his back.
No warrants to serve, he thought.
Court won't be today.
He looked across at Digger's funeral parlor.
Digger had a crew painting it, trimming the gingerbread around the windows in white; he had dark blue velvet drapes inside and he'd picked a medium blue, a little darker than a sky blue, for the outside.
The wind was still -- no dust, the Sheriff thought -- and he looked away, looking up the street, looked down the street.
Quiet and boring, he thought, just the way I like it!

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Linn Keller 8-9-13

 

One thing about quiet and boring.
It does not last very long.
Billy Blaze came wandering out the alley with his hands in his pockets, whistling.
I knew that was not a good sign.
I knew it was really not a good sign when I heard Sarah's voice following him and the voice was not at all happy.
I trotted down the wooden steps in front of the Jewel and onto the street and strode over to the barefoot miscreant with his lightning-white streak of hair and put my knuckles on my belt: "Young man," I said sternly, "what have you been up to?"
Now you have to understand that was a normal way to address both he and his twin cousin, the pair of 'em are ornery as ... well, there's any number of sayings I could use there, precious few of them are very polite, but you get the idea.
Billy Blaze gave me his best imitation of an innocent expression and said, "Miz Sarah wants you, Sheriff," and I looked over his head and down the alley and the scamp took out a-runnin'.
Sarah was bent over, both hands flat on the bottom of an upside down chamber pot and her face was as red as I've ever seen it, and if I read her expression aright, she was halfway between mad enough to switch the scamp's stern, and ready to bust out laughin'.
I looked around and started down the alley and Sarah shouted, "No, Papa! No closer, I beg of you!"
Her expression was a little anxious now.
"Papa, I need a broad, flat shovel, something that is as wide as the chamber pot and if you can find it, rolled up on the sides just a little, and please hurry, I am in trouble here!"
I turned to my left and legged it up the street.
The painters had the board walk blocked in front of the funeral parlor so I took out at an honest sprint for the Mercantile.
I reckon it might have amused those watching to see their old grey Sheriff beating feet like a young man, but there was that in Sarah's voice that bade me to haste: I slowed down when I come up onto the boardwalk and I was down to a decent gallop when I come through the doors of the Mercantile.
I trotted over to the Ames shovels the proprietor had stuck in a barrel, handle down, except for the shorter shovels with the D handles he had hung on a stout peg.
"Good morning, Sheriff," the white aproned storekeeper greeted me pleasantly.
I snatched a likely shovel out of the barrel, glared at him and barked "I'll be back to pay for this," and strode out the door.
I heard the proprietor's voice behind me but didn't stop to listen, I was too intent on getting back to Sarah.
By the time I got there, a half dozen idlers were in the alley and Sarah's face was red again and she was honestly getting her dandruff up.
I shoved through them, drove the square bit shovel's edge into the hard packed dirt and said quietly, "Sarah, what do you need me to do?"
"Papa," she whispered, "Billy Blaze was face to face with a skunk."
I caught a whiff of woods kitty and looked at the porcelain pot, then at Sarah, and she nodded.
"Oh, yes," she whispered back.
I dropped my head and whispered a reply in what was, to quote the Irish singer, "in a language the clergy do not know."
"Oh, yes," Sarah whispered back. "It was patting its forepaws and Billy took a step closer. The skunk did a hand stand and I snatched this up" -- she nodded at the inverted thunder mug -- "and potted it before it sprayed."
"Hey Sheriff," one of the curious called, "what'cha got?"
"I've got a wild animal under here," I snapped, and Sarah glared at me: "Who has it trapped?"
I grinned up at the men. "Never underestimate the pare of a woman," I chuckled. "Now fellas, we have us a problem here and I'd like some volunteers to help us with this little conundrum."
"Looks like a chamber pot to me," came the drawled reply, and general laughter.
"Papa," Sarah whispered, her voice tight, "step back."
She swung her backside hard against me and I was obliged to step back kind of quick to keep my balance, just as Sarah swept that chamber pot up, slinging its ill-smelling and rather angry payload squarely toward those assembled, the hecklers who'd been chaffing her while she stood, bent over, holding the combinet's square mouth down hard against the ground to prevent escape of prisoner or effluvium, either one.
Now I'll say this for Sarah.
When she sees something needs done, she does it and with enthusiasm.
She slung that skunk hard enough it sailed in a lovely ballistic arc right into the middle of them fellas, it caught one by the galluses and hung there for a moment while everyone's eyes went wide and they-all turned to run, including the fellow it hung onto, least until the skunk slipped and ended up hanging by one hind claw.
He swatted at it, he took one long step with apparent intent to launch into a gallop, when that unhappy woods puddy opened both valves.
Sarah and I were back and around the corner before its opening salvo; there was a yell, a screech, and a reeking cloud drifted down the alley and chased us before it.
I'm not the least bit ashamed to admit I ran like a yellow spined coward from that smell, and so did Sarah, and I had some difficulty keeping up with her.
We finally stopped, panting, behind the Mercantile, then I looked at Sarah, looked at the shovel and said "I reckon I'd best put this back," and Sarah nodded and whispered "Yeah," and so I went into the Mercantile.
The proprietor was looking out the front door at the source of the commotion; I heard a single gunshot and more profanity and figured the skunk had met with a swift demise, and probably before it was shot, it managed to shoot many of its enemy first.
I clattered the shovel back into the barrel, handle first, and announced, "I won't be needing this after all."
The proprietor looked out the door again, pointed, opened and closed his mouth a couple times and finally asked what happened.
I reckon that's when the wind shifted and he smelled what it was.
Sarah came out from the back of the store, looking as collected and as calm as the Queen on her throne.
I shook my head.
"Quiet and boring," I said, "just does not last."
Sarah gave me her best innocent expression, batting those lovely big eyes at me, and I could not help but laugh.
She manages to look an awful lot more innocent than I can.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-12-13

 

Charlie swung down from the saddle of his "borrowed" bay horse in front of the barn in the ranch house hollow and stretched, yawning, hands going to the small of his back. Sunset painted the crooks and swales of the hollow with soft shades of umber, red and gray. First cricket chirp drifted softly on the warm breeze accompanied by the swoosh of a nighthawk's wings. Dawg oozed out of the shadows choking the barn's center aisle, teeth bared in a welcoming grin. The bay shied away, eyes rolling white and nostrils distended. "Knock it off, knothead," Charlie growled, tugging on the reins. "Ain't you ever seen a dog before?"

"Not one big as a damn house, he ain't," Cat Running said as he followed Dawg from the barn. The old man looked at Charlie quizzically, one eyebrow raised. "Lost another horse, dintcha? Good thing ya grow yer own, eh?" He gave Charlie a gap-toothed grin that failed to proceed beyond his wide-lipped mouth, knowing there would be a story of some sort to go with the new horse.

"I was stupid, old man," Charlie grated, his voice rough and cold. "It damn near got me killed, and what was worse, it damn near got two kids killed to boot. Maybe I'm gettin' too old for this line of work."

"Old. Huh!" the old man grunted. "You just been too close ta home for too long. Too much woman, not 'nuff bad guy." The grin flickered a second time. "Need ta git out more's all."

"You're as full of it as a Christmas goose, old man," Fannie's melodious drawl said as she approached the two men. She wrapped her arms around Charlie's neck and pressed her lips to his. When the couple came up for air, she drawled, "Welcome home, Sugar. Supper's ready when you get your horse put away. You can tell me how you're getting old while we eat."

"I take care of horse. You go on," Cat Running ordered. When Charlie started to protest that he could take care of his own horse, thank you very much, the old man grinned, this one lighting up his black eyes. "us old men gotta do for each other. Go eat, talk to woman. I be there short time to hear stupid story."

Knowing when he was outnumbered and had best surrender Charlie reached up, untied the saddle strings then pulled his saddlebags and bedroll free. He handed the reins to Cat Running then turned tiredly toward the house.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-16-13

 

Over roast elk done just right, gravy from the pan drippings, flaky baking powder biscuits smeared with honey and a pot of Arbuckle's finest brew Charlie related the story of his nearly fatal blunder with Billy Joe Boganan and his kin. He spared himself not in the least, nor did he make any attempt to paint a prettier picture than what actually was. When he had finished, the three of them sat back with new cups of coffee. Charlie was staring morosely into his cup when he felt Fannie's softly calloused fingertips come to rest on the back of his hand.

"Age had nothing to do with what happened, Sugar," Fannie drawled softly. "In the end, you got the job done."

"He never should have been able to get the shot at me that he got!" Charlie declared, his voice rising.

"Why not?" Fannie barked, her formerly soft tone now rock hard. Charlie stared at her. "Since when are you perfect?" she went on, ice dripping from the words. "Who died and made you God?" Her tone softened. "Anybody can have a bad day," she went on. "And you finished the job, the kids are home with their family instead of in a hole in the ground and Boganan and his kin are in jail. I'd say you did alright."

"Woman right," Cat Running grunted. "You ain't perfect. Ain't close. Still purty good at catchin' bad guys, though." The old man grinned. "Just need to pay more attention sometime, eh? An' not lose no more ponies."

"You two are so encouraging," Charlie said with a wry grin, looking back and forth between his wife and his friend. "I have a host of friends." He pushed his chair back from the table and began to gather plates and flatware. "Let's get the dishes done up. I'm ready to sleep on somethin' that ain't got rocks built into it, and with somethin' besides a horse." He winked at Fannie, who blushed while at the same time giving him a knowing smile. After a pair of weeks apart, it would be a while before the couple actually slept. She'd make sure of that.

Cat Running rose from the table as well. "Huh." He turned toward the door. "See ya tomorra. Sleep good. We got stuff to do come daylight." He stepped outside and pulled the door shut behind him, his knowing laughter trailing behind him.

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Linn Keller 8-20-13

 

"Mama?"
Bonnie looked up, plucked her pince-nez from the bridge of her nose, and regarded Sarah with a curious expression.
For perhaps the last year or so Sarah had generally addressed her as "Mother," and affected a delightfully mature mien.
Bonnie blinked a few times, noting absently that her eyes adjusted a bit more slowly from close work to far-seeing.
"Mama, I am going to ask you a question, and please do not ask one in return."
Bonnie had a sinking feeling ... she had been Sarah's age -- not that long ago, she kept telling herself, though she really knew it had been that long ago -- and her imagination leaped forward, speculating on what mischief her oldest daughter might have gotten herself into, phrasing a question in such a way.
Sarah raised her chin and looked at the far wall, over her mother's head, taking in a long breath through her nose, as if steeling herself for something difficult, then she plunged ahead with her question, as if jumping from a high cliff into a pool of deep, cold water.
"Mother, do you smell anything ... unusual?"
Of the many questions Bonnie anticipated, this was not one of them.
"Smell ..." Bonnie blinked, tentatively tested the air, tilted her head a little to the side the way she did when she was curious.
"You don't smell anything ... odd?"
Bonnie shook her head, slowly, curiosity evident in her expression.
Sarah bit her bottom lip and clasped her fingers together in front of her and Bonnie's heart contracted a little, for it was a gesture she remembered so very well from Sarah's early childhood; Sarah bounced a little on her toes, tentatively, uncertainly, the way she used to do in such moments, and she looked down at the floor, then up at her Mama through long, dark eyelashes.
"Mama, you don't ... smell ... skunk?"
Bonnie's eyes widened and her mouth opened a little: she thrust her sewing aside, surged to her feet and took a quick step toward her daughter.
Sarah suppressed a giggle as she noticed how her Mama's nose flared as she sniffed again.
Bonnie's hand was firm on Sarah's shoulder; she buried her nose in Sarah's hair, took a quick sniff across her shoulders, picked up Sarah's skirt and fanned it a little, sniffing noisily at the air currents she stirred up, then came around in front of her daughter.
"Sarah," she said quietly in her I'm-the-mother voice, "what did you do this time?"
Sarah tried to keep a straight face, but her Mama's expression and the sound of her voice were too much like she remembered from her childhood days, and identical to the way she addressed the twins when they were into mischief: Sarah stifled a smile, then she giggled, she looked away, she looked back.
Mother and daughter both gave up any pretense at dignity, and when they had a good long laugh together, Bonnie rang for tea and seated herself with Sarah across from her at a little table, and Sarah waited until the tea was poured and they each had a sip before beginning her story.

The Sheriff, too, was discussing the matter, for the sight of a handful of men running out of an alley, flailing at something black, white, spotted and fast moving, at least until someone fetched it a .44 through the back of the head ... well, the sight of a group of men coughing, choking, stripping off clothes right in front of God and everybody, shouting and cursing at one another and scattering in several directions (two of which had to be bodily prevented from fouling the atmosphere of the Jewel) ... well, this occurrence generated comment, and held curiosity, and the Sheriff found he had no need to purchase a drink, for enough fellows at the bar wanted to hear what happened that they very gladly slid coin to Mr. Baxter in exchange for a first hand account of what happened.

"Billy Blaze," Bonnie murmured. "I should have guessed he would find something to get into!"

"Yes, sir, there she was, that cute little schoolmarm with the pencil in her hair," the Sheriff said, "all sweet and dignified and proper, and she's looking at a genuine Rocky Mountain spotted skunk all excited and drummin' the ground with its forepaws like a South Seas Islander at a war dance!"
Men lean forward a little, listening closely, grinning a little: the Sheriff was a known storyteller, and a good one.
A woman at one of the near tables, seated alone with a mostly untouched meal in front of her, looks curiously at the eager gathering: she can hear the man's words clearly, and as he speaks, in her mind's eye, she sees the black-and-white critter flipping up on its hands, the moment before it snaps into a tight back bend to deliver a payload from the twin cannon under its tail root.

"I knew Billy couldn't get away," Sarah continued, blinking; she took another sip of tea, placed her delicate china cup carefully down on its saucer.
"Mama, I couldn't let him be sprayed, but I couldn't do anything to the skunk -- I couldn't shoot it nor knife it without ..."
Sarah's face turned a little red as she paused.

The woman at the table extended a tentative hand, fingers delicately bent, palm down, until she touched the rim of her teacup: thus encouraged, she daintily picked up her steaming, fragrant tea and took a sip, listening, as the Sheriff's words painted a color portrait of the schoolteacher's widening eyes, how her bottom lip blanched a little as she bit it as she dove to the side, snatching up the porcelain combinet, how her skirt flared to the side as she turned hard, taking two running steps while inverting the thunder mug and then slamming it down as fast and as hard as she possibly could,onto the hand standing skunk.

"I stood there bent over, Mama, and I realized once I had it trapped ... I was trapped too."
Bonnie's hand went to her mouth and she laughed again; her face was as red as Sarah's and she reached her other hand out, resting delicate fingertips on the back of her daughter's hand.
Bonnie's eyes were as wide and as bright as her daughter's as she asked, her voice in a whisper, for she dare not try anything louder -- it was hard to hold back the laughter that bubbled in her belly -- "Whatever did you do then?"

"Wellsir," the Sheriff continued, taking a noisy slurp of beer and dashing the foam from his trimmed lip broom, "she looked up at me and asked for my help, and what man" -- he looked around at the assembled, including them in the moment -- "what man among us would not be moved to help a lovely lady in distress?"
Heads nodded; voices murmured, and "That's so" was heard from two directions.
The woman at the table cradled the teacup in long, delicate fingers, as if drawing comfort from its warmth; she, too, listened, her lips parted a little, the way a woman's lips will when she is enthralled with a man's voice, especially if the story is well told.

"Mama, I am ashamed of myself" -- Sarah's face fairly flamed red for a moment, then she looked shyly up at her Mama, as if a little girl peeking up to see if there was a look of disapproval directed her way -- "but when the lot of them began chaffing me, I ..."
Sarah looked down, looked back up, almost ruefully.
"Mama, I threw the skunk at them."

"And a good toss it was! Why she slung that-there chamber pot from ground to shoulder high, picked up that woods kitty and fetched it through the air and no sooner had she give it the sling than she let go and run back toward me and I grabbed her hand and we legged it around the corner!"
The Sheriff's voice was animated, the effect riveting: none present could have drawn away from the story if they'd tried: "why, that yaller cloud swirled around that alley and I'm ready to swear on Webster's Dictionary there was a set of eyes in that cloud and I'm not sure which of us run the faster and drug the other along like a tail on a kite! We fetched up along the tracks and ducked in the Mercantile and I slammed the door shut behind us to keep out the smell, and there I stood a-leanin' back ag'in that door, Sarah's wrist in one hand and that flat bottom shovel in the other and let me tell you, fellas" -- he looked around again, grinning like a schoolboy recounting how he'd gotten away with hooky the day before -- "I was a-blowin' my breath like a steam engine on a hard pull!
"I went out into the store and set that-there shovel back in the bar'l and told old One Arm I'd not be a-needin' it after all, and I reckon I still looked just a nickle's worth excited, and then here come that good lookin' school marm out of the back, not a hair out of place, just as ca'm as if she was settin' up to teach a lesson at the blackboard!"

"And that's why I asked if you could ... smell ... anything," Sarah said shyly. "I wanted to make sure I wouldn't have to spray my gown with attar of roses."

It took a while for the appreciation to die down; the Sheriff was known to stretch a tale now and then, but rarely, and when he did it was generally a good one; this, all agreed, was one of his better efforts.
The woman stood from the table; one hand raised in front of her, she worked her way slowly through the assembled, murmuring her apologies as she touched one man, then another.
The Sheriff saw her approach and saw her bump a little awkwardly into the bar.
"Ma'am," he said, removing his hat, "might I be of service?"
The woman hesitated, then came to a decision.
"I was enraptured by your account," she said firmly. "May I look at your face?"
The Sheriff's expression was clearly one of surprise: he looked around, looked back at her.
"Yes, ma'am," he said softly, "you may."
The woman moved closer, until her fingertips touched his vest: she raised her touch, finding the silk of his necktie; a little higher, and she found the smoothly barbered chin.
She raised her own chin now, her eyes seeming to look at him, but her fingers, he realized, were her eyes: he stood very still as she gently, tentatively, explored the extent of his hair, then his ears, and his jaw; she found the corners of his eyes, smiled a little as she read the wrinkles carved by time and weather, smiled again as his mustache tickled her fingertips.
"I could paint you," she whispered, laying a hand flat on his breast, barely grazing the six point star he wore, uncharacteristically, on the front of his lapel.
He saw her eyebrows puzzle together a little as she slowly lowered her fingertips down the face of the badge, realizing its symmetry, counting its six points, then she returned to its center and she frowned slightly as she puzzled over the single word engraved in its center.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, "I ... can feel the word, but I can't read it."
"She's blind," someone said softly.
She ran her hand to the side, found his sleeve, followed it down to his hand, and drew it up: she explored his hand with both of hers, nodding a little, then she held the Sheriff's hand while she ran a thumb and two fingers into her reticule.
She brought out a small brown bottle.
"I want you to have this," she said, as if she'd come to an important decision.
"Thank you," the Sheriff said politely, "but what is it?"
She closed his hand around the bottle, held his hand with both hers.
"Sheriff, I am -- I was -- a painter. I painted portraits, professionally. There was good money to be made in the city, and I did, until I took to my bed with fever and I woke as you see me now ... quite blind.
"My eyes were my life and I have ever been a lover of beauty.
"I delighted in painting children at play, puppies following a bug like puppies will, their noses to the ground and their eyes shining with curiosity. I painted flowers -- I painted them from their back side, with the sun shining on their faces, and my works hang in galleries in Paris and in London.
"This vial" -- her hands tightened around his -- "I intended to find a lonely place, far from civilization, and drink it.
"It is a vegetable alkaloid with some unpronounceable name. A few drops will bring death. Drinking the entire ounce, as I intended, would be like unto being struck by a lightning bolt."
The Sheriff waited, knowing she was not done.
She dropped her head, then raised it again.
"Sheriff, a painter with no eyes is of no value, or so I thought.
"If I could not find beauty, I could not find life, and ..."
"And you thought to leave your ghost in a lonely place."
"Yes," she said, raising her face defiantly. "Yes."
"I am curious."
"Oh?" She raised one eyebrow.
"If you're going to donate your wandering shade to some lonely rock somewhere, why give me the alkaloid?"
Her hands tightened on his again.
"Because I realized I can see."
"Ma'am?"
She laughed a little, colored as if embarrassed.
"I am ... a little confused here, ma'am."
"Sheriff," she said, "when you told of that pretty young schoolteacher and how her skirts flowed in the wind of her passing, when you described the guilty look on the little boy's face, when you spoke of the miasmatic cloud with hollow eyes surging malodorously in the funeral parlor's alley ..."
She chuckled, a rich, throaty sound, and the Sheriff felt his eyes smile as he heard it.
"Sheriff, your words showed me the scene as if it were painted with oils and hung in the Louvre!"
She patted his hands.
"I will not need that bottle, Sheriff. There is still light in the world. All I need do is listen to it."

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Linn Keller 8-21-13

 

Esther's shoulders sagged as if she'd just been handed a major defeat.
"So it's true," she whispered.
I turned, puzzled, and she looked up at me with wounded eyes and started to cry.
I took two long steps toward her and grasped her lightly by the upper arms, but she twisted away from me and turned her face from me, pushing a kerchief against tight-pressed lips.
"Esther, what happened?" I asked, my voice concerned, and Esther closed her eyes, shook her head.
I could see water squeezing from between her lashes just before she ducked her head again and her shoulders began heaving with suppressed sobs.
I knelt before my red-haired bride, fingertips light on her upper arms, and I said quietly, "Esther, who died?"
Esther pressed the crumpled lace to one eye, then the other, then she looked at me and squeaked, "How could you?"
"How could I what?"
"In front of everybody, the whole town!"
"I ... what?"
"Am I that ... am I a whale, a discard? You don't love me? Is that it? Am I ugly now?" Her hand was on her belly, her mood swinging into anger and back in rapid -- very rapid -- succession, and I stood there on my prayer bones with my jaw hanging down about my belt buckle, absolutely and tee-totally at a loss to understand what in seven cotton pickin' hells she was talking about.
"You" -- Esther's mouth was curled down at the corners, her expression one of grief and utter, absolute loss -- "you let her put her hands all over you!"
About then the lamp came on and I realized she was talking about that blind woman in the Jewel.
"Did you like it?" she whispered, then hiccupped, and I gathered her into my arms and she stiff-armed me, hard.
"Did you ... enjoy" -- she hissed the word -- "another woman? Did you take her on a poker table? How much did you pay the hussy?"
"Esther," I said, my voice firm now, "she is blind. She asked --"
"Oh, that's how blind women make their living? Out in public, spreading their wares on the table! How convenient! You take your pleasure with another woman and have a beer at the same time! Did they lay bets on --"
"ESTHER!" I barked, and she jumped, and she finally looked at me.
"If you need to hear what happened, I can take you to Mr. Baxter or to any of a number of men --"
"Who you swore to secrecy," Esther accused, "so they would all tell me the same story!"
"Then let me take you to the woman herself."
Esther turned a little pale.
I seized her wrist, pulled her to her feet.
"Come on. We're going."
I deafened my ears to Esther's protests: she tried to pull back but I was adamant, my grip unbreakable, and finally I pulled hard, grabbed her behind the knees and picked her up.
Esther broke down and began crying in earnest.
"Why are you doing this to me?" she sobbed, and I fumbled with the door knob for a few futile moments, then I gave vent to anger and frustration and I drew back my leg and kicked the door open.
Busted a good chunk out of the door frame and probably ruined the latch but I figured to tend that detail later.
"Parker!"
My voice was a commanding bark; my hired man had the carriage ready in short order and I unceremoniously slung my bride up into the seat.
"I'm not going," Esther said, her face wet, and I shoved her back in, then climbed in over top of her.
"If I have to sit on you," I said, "I'll take you to see her."
Esther sagged, defeated; I settled myself onto the tuck and roll upholstery, picked up the reins and released the brake, then I had a thought.
"Esther, do you recognize this?"
I reached in my pocket, drew out the wax-sealed, brown-glass bottle.
Esther wiped her eyes again, sniffed, looked at the bottle: she froze, then slipped two fingers into a hidden pocket, pulled out a pair of spectacles and put them on.
She studied the bottle, took it delicately from me, turned it over.
I saw the wax seal had a cartouche on top of the flat headed stopper; Esther turned it a little, tilting her head back slightly, apparently angling it to catch the light across the impress.
"Strychnine," she said, surprised.
"How may I recognize this as strychnine?"
"The bottle," she said, "is brown glass, one ounce, but its shape -- this is used only for poisons. This stamp" -- she turned it to show me the top of the stopper -- "I know this stamp."
I took the bottle from her, dropped it back into my coat pocket, clucked up the mare.
We rode wordlessly into Firelands; it was but a few minutes' drive, during which Esther worried the kerchief between her hands and finally blurted, "You must think me a fool."
"I think you are my wife," I said flatly, "and I think you are the most beautiful woman in the world, and I think you are the one best investment I have ever made. Beyond that, madam, I think you are a mystery, an enigma and a puzzle, not necessarily in that order."
I looked over at her and found she was looking at me.
"The one thing I very definitely do not think, is that you are a fool."
We drew up in front of the Jewel.
I helped Esther out; she took my arm and we went in.
The blind woman was sitting patiently at the same table: her meal was gone, as was her tea cup, and at my step I saw a little quirk of a smile at the corners of her mouth.
"Sheriff?" she asked.
I removed my hat, reached down and took her hand gently in mine.
"Milady," I said quietly, "I must beg your pardon, for I do not believe we've been properly introduced."
She blinked uncertainly, then smiled tentatively.
"I am Mrs. Jesse Ricketts," she said.
"And Mr. Ricketts?"
"Dead, I'm afraid."
"Jesse Ricketts," I said, "may I present my wife, Esther Keller. Esther, this is Jesse."
Mrs. Ricketts turned, tilting her head a little, and rose: my hand was still in hers, and she took her bearings from this light grip: she extended feather-light fingers until she found Esther's sleeve, and she asked, "May I look at your face?"

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Linn Keller 8-22-13

 

"I want him," the Judge said quietly.
"You could issue a warrant," Sarah suggested. "You have that authority."
His Honor the Judge glared at Sarah over a pair of non-existent spectacles.
"I am well aware of my authority," he said.
Sarah examined her fingernails, elaborately ignoring the dignified jurist in his padded velvet chair.
"You could have any town Marshal, any Sheriff, even the territorial ... no, this isn't a Federal matter, is it?" Sarah held out her other hand, frowned, comparing one set of nails with another. "Do you think I should paint my nails?"
Judge Hostetler blinked, taken completely aback by his agent's utter lack of concern for his words.
"Your Honor, I don't believe you really need me on this one."
His Honor considered his reply.
Something told him there were delicate matters being unsaid, and he was inclined to caution: at the same time, he had a purpose, and the purpose was to bring a wrongdoer to justice.
"If I send the law after him, in the usual manner," the Judge said slowly, "this man will not hesitate to cause as much bloodshed as possible in order to escape our judgement."
Sarah raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
"If I send you, however ..."
Sarah looked at the Judge.
"If you send me?"
"You are not the usual arm of the law."
Sarah laughed.
"Me?"
His Honor made no reply as Sarah took a deep breath, blew it out: she looked away, stared briefly at the oil lamp, then looked again at the spade-bearded Judge.
"No," she said, "you are right. I am not the usual arm of the law." She smiled a little. "Tell me what I am to do."
His Honor hesitated, considering, then asked, "How well can you seduce a man?"
Sarah lowered her eyelids slightly, looking at the Judge through her long, dark lashes.
She did not remove her modest dress, nor did she pull her hair free and shake it: no, she rose, slowly, an indefinable but definite change about her -- the Judge felt her eyes absolutely drive into his, and she walked toward him, slowly, gracefully, every joint an oiled ball-swivel; she walked with deliberation, one foot directly in front of the other, approaching the jurist with an unspoken but obvious intent.
She reached down as she orbited behind his chair, trailing her fingertips along the curve of his ear: she leaned down and whispered, "I have always been attracted to you," and placing a hand on his shoulder, she lay a warm hand on his thigh, slid it upward slowly, running her tongue slowly across her bottom lip, burning her lust into his eyes with hers.
"I prefer seasoned timber," she whispered, and the Judge felt himself respond like a man many years his junior, and Sarah raised her hand to the side of his head, caressed the back of his neck with gentle fingertips, her mouth open a little, red, moist, inviting.
"Kiss me," she whispered. "Kiss me, my love."
The Judge felt his face heat suddenly, he realized his heart was running strong and fast, his breathing was faster, his own mouth opening in response to the wordlessly promised kiss.
He realized he was responding like a love-struck kid --
Sarah drew back, quickly, spun, turning completely around: when she looked at him again, she was the cool, composed schoolmarm, with no trace of the lustful houri with sinful magic in her hands.
"Well?" she asked, amusement bright in her eyes. "Did I seduce you?"
The Judge's eyes widened; he took a quick, deep breath, looked away.
Sarah poured him a brandy, handed it to him.
He nodded, one eyebrow tented up: "I need this," he said by way of thanks, and knocked back the distilled wine, downing the short glassful in one breathless gulp.
"Oh dear God," he gasped, looking at Sarah with an almost frightened expression.
"You have any number of means to bring him to justice," Sarah said evenly. "If you believe I am the right tool for the job, then I shall bring him in alive if it is at all possible." Her chin raised a little and her eyes were lightening, her voice cooling as she spoke.
"Please remember I am a schoolteacher and have a reputation to maintain.
"I am also the daughter of a respected businesswoman and family, and I am to be married this November, on Aunt Esther's birthday."
His Honor blinked, shook his head, set the glass on the little round table at his right elbow.
"My dear," he said, "if I send warrants, men will be killed. If I send you, I believe you can insinuate yourself into his confidence, reduce him to possession and bring him to me unharmed. You've performed remarkably well in the past, even in the face of overwhelming provocation --"
"You mean when you told me the man I was after, had killed my Papa?" Sarah asked coldly.
The Judge could not meet her eyes.
"Yes," he said. "Even then."
"I trust I have proven my worth."
Judge Hostetler nodded slowly.
"If you give the order, I shall go," Sarah said, her voice as cold as her dead-pale eyes. "Please remember I have been incredibly lucky thus far. I have no wish to be killed or harmed, and the odds against that happening shorten with every apprehension I make."
His Honor stood, walked slowly over to a desk, raised the roll top.
"I have an excellent engraving of the man," he said, "description, associates, last known location, his habits, tastes, preferences."
"A comprehensive list," Sarah murmured, coming up beside the Judge.
He could feel her animal warmth: uncomfortable, he shifted his weight.
Sarah lay a gentle hand between his shoulder blades.
"Don't worry," she said. "I'm not going to try and seduce you." She accepted the papers the Judge offered, scanned them quickly.
"Very comprehensive," she murmured. "Only a trained agent could be so thorough. Why wasn't the criminal apprehended then?"
"Because he killed the agent who took these notes."
Sarah raised her eyebrows, nodding. "That ... would do it."
"He killed him slowly. We estimate it took the man four days to die."
"What did he use?"
"A knife."
Sarah nodded.
"How soon do you want him?"
"As soon as you can bring him in."
"School will start soon," Sarah said absently, "and I have lessons to prepare. I shall leave tonight."

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Linn Keller 8-23-13

 

I watched Sarah and the blind woman get on the stage together.
His Honor stood beside me, working on a half-lit cigar: court had been the day before and I wasn't sure why the Judge was still in town, and when I saw his worried cigar was in sad shape -- I wasn't sure if his chaw had caught fire, or his see-gar was about drowned out -- I knew he had something troubling him.
I was right.
We retired to the Jewel's private back room and ordered up a good tilt of Two Hit John apiece.
"Linn," he said, and if I'd been a cat my ears would have swung around to listen, for the man never addresed me by my name -- "I have created a monster."
I nodded, once, slowly.
The Judge shifted, uncomfortable, and something told me it wasn't his seat that wasn't comfortable.
"Sarah," he said.
I nodded again.
"I ... she has knowledge ..." He looked at me and I'm ready to swear the man looked guilty as a thief caught in the act.
"Sheriff, she ... Sarah ... "
The judge shook his head, his mouth open a little, his cigar dying a slow, forgotten death on a saucer.
"I ..." The Judge cleared his throat, closed his eyes, took a long breath and started over.
"Sheriff, I've asked Sarah to bring in a dangerous man."
I nodded, my face impassive: on the one hand, Sarah was my daughter; on the other hand, she was a tool of Justice, as am I and my firstborn son, and I hardened my heart to the distress I felt.
"I ... chose her ... because the man ..."
He looked at me, guilt still staining his expression.
"I did not want anyone to die."
"So you sent Sarah."
"I asked her if she could seduce a man," he said.
I blinked.
"And her reply ...?"
"She ..."
I marveled at how uncertain this experienced gavel swinger appeared.
He'd never, ever looked this hesitant.
"She ... seduced me, Sheriff ... I ... " -- he looked at me and he was almost sick -- "no, we didn't, but God help me I wanted to!"
"I take it," I said carefully, "that you believe she can seduce a man."
He looked away, his eyes wide, shocked.
"God help me," he murmured, "I have created a monster!"
"No, sir," I said gently. "A monster created her. She was raised at a very early age in a whorehouse. She knew men as a child better than most women. She observes, she sees more deeply than most folk. She is not an experienced ... working girl," I said carefully, "but she knows ... how to do the work."
"Although she herself has never," the Judge said carefully, "done the work?"
"Yes, sir, that is correct."
The Judge leaned back, blew out a long breath, cheeks puffed out: he closed his eyes for a long moment, then picked up his drink and downed it.
"God help the man she's after," he said, "for he'll probably come back on all fours with a collar on his neck and his leash in her hand, and he'll be happy for it!"

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Linn Keller 8-24-13

 

Sarah saw her father go into the Jewel with the Judge.
She looked at the blind woman, considered a moment, then pulled at her arm.
"Out," she said briskly. "Frank!"
The driver turned and looked over his shoulder.
"Frank, we're not going today. The tickets are paid, you're not losing any money, carry your cargo and God's blessing on your journey!"
"Whatever you say, little lady," Frank grinned, spitting a tobacco-brown stream into the street. "It's a shame you're gettin' married, I'd take a crack at ye!"
"You couldn't handle me," Sarah said, something in her voice the man never heard, and the blind woman shivered a little to hear: Sarah's hand was firm on her upper arm as she pulled the woman down off the stage coach step and onto the street.
There was a whistle, a yell, the jingle of harness bells and the stage departed in its usual cloud of dust and profanity.
"This way," Sarah said, her voice urgent, vibrant: "this is important!"
"But ... I, the stage, how ...?"
"Step up now," Sarah said, and Jesse plucked up her skirts: "one step, two, three, on boardwalk, hold here." Sarah came beside her; Jesse heard a door open, the jingle of a spring-mounted bell, and smelled the oiled-boards, tobacco-cloth-and-ripe-apples smell of a dry-goods store.
"Miss Sarah!" A man's pleased voice, the sound of approaching steps. "Your package arrived this morning!"
"Excellent," Sarah said, and Jesse could hear the smile in Sarah's voice.
Sarah still held Jesse's arm; her grip shifted and Jesse knew Sarah was reaching for -- someone, possibly -- and this was confirmed when Sarah slipped her hand down to Jesse's wrist and drew her hand up, and forward.
"Jesse, this is my friend Robert. He runs the Mercantile. Robert, this is Jesse, newly arrived here, and I believe we need your help."
"Of course, Miss Sarah," Robert said, his voice suddenly changed, a little puzzled, the way a man's voice will change when a woman tells him that his assistance is needed to assist a lady in distress.
Jesse felt a hand, warm and strong, enveloping hers: she tilted her head a little, intrigued: she gagued it a very capable hand, gentle, dextrous -- it was surprising how much could be told from simple touch -- and she asked in a quiet voice, "May I look at your face?"
Robert looked at Sarah, surprised, and Sarah nodded slowly, smiling a little.
Jesse looked at his face; her fingers trailed slowly down to chin level, then Sarah took her wrist in one hand, slipped her other hand behind Robert's shoulder blade, guided the two together, and Jesse's brows puzzled together as she explored what used to be a shoulder and an upper arm.
Robert froze, his breath suddenly halting and uncertain, as this woman, this stranger, this ... this blind woman ... drew her free hand from Sarah's loosened grip and applied both hands to her exploration of the man's neck, shoulder and upper chest, her eyes shifting back and forth as she processed what her fingers saw: finally she looked at him, tears bright in her eyes and she whispered, "I am so sorry."
"Robert runs the Mercantile," Sarah said. "He is a most competent businessman. He is competent, confident, organized and an excellent bookkeeper. Robert" -- she looked directly at her one-armed friend -- "could you tell the widow Ricketts here what you did before you became a merchant?"
Robert cleared his throat nervously.
"I, um," he said, then cleared this throat again and looked at Jesse -- her hands were at the end of his arm, and to h is surprise, he found holding her hands in his was the most natural thing in the world -- "I worked for the railroad. I was a brakeman."
"And what does a brakeman?"
"I walked the tops of cars of the moving train," he said, "with a brakeman's club in one hand and my heart in my throat most times."
Jesse's face came up, her eyes tracking again as if looking for him: her hands tightened a little in his.
"I would set brakes or release brakes according to the grade."
"What was it like, to walk the plank on a moving train?"
"Day or night, rain or snow, ice, sleet, blistering sun?" He laughed. "Miss Sarah, I was king of the world! Do you know what it's like to walk a narrow plank from one rooftop to another? Lay the plank on the ground and any man can walk it with confidence. Hoist that plank twenty feet off the ground and I can scamper across it like a squirrel on a tree branch! Nobody else can do that!" He laughed, remembering, and Jesse felt his hand twitch and then tighten slightly, and she knew he was re-living what he'd been.
"Miss Jesse," he said, "you ... you're blind?"
"I am, sir," she said hesitantly.
"What did you ... how did it happen?"
"In the worst possible way," Jesse said, and Sarah saw her chin come up and her shoulders square back, the way a person will when they face something unpleasantly but forthrightly.
"I did absolutely nothing. I did nothing at all. Nobody threw acid in my face, I was not in a terrible explosion, nobody tortured me and gouged my eyes out. I simply ... I had a fever, that was all, and I took to my bed.
"I awoke the next morning.
"I was quite blind, and have remained so ever since."
Jesse did not resist as Robert ran his arm around her and pulled her close, laying his cheek in her hair.
"Robert," Sarah said, "how did you ... what did you consider when you fell off that car and a steel wheel sheared your arm off?"
Robert sighed.
"I thought I'd lay my neck on the rail and let another train finish the job," he admitted. "I allowed as if the railroad too my arm they might as well have the rest of me too."
"But you didn't."
"No, ma'am."
"Tell me about your life now."
Robert swallowed.
"Well, the Sheriff set me up here. I've got a good business. It's interesting and ... "
Jesse heard the smile in his voice as he spoke a realization.
"It's a hell of a lot better work than brakeman!"
He felt Jesse take a long breath and he realized her arms were around him.
"I think," Sarah said, "you two should get better acquainted."
"Jesse," Robert said, pulling back a little and looking down in her face, "I learned something when I lost my arm. I learned how fast I can lose my life.
"Jesse, I am a man without an arm, and you are a woman without your eyes.
"Give me your arm and I'll give you my eyes."
And so it was that a woman who came to town with poison in her pocket, a heart full of grief and full intent to leave her ghost in the shadow of a desolate rock somewhere, was instead married to a successful businessman in the same town less than two days later, the woman in her traveling-dress and the man in his storekeeper's apron: the schoolmarm stood beside the woman, and a barefoot little boy with a blaze of white hair on the side of his head, stood proudly beside the one-armed proprietor of the town's general store, as the Parson raised his head and intoned the ancient and accepted words in the little whitewashed church, and united man and woman as husband and wife.

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Linn Keller 8-24-13

 

His Honor the Judge and I talked things over for a while and I could tell the fine old man was troubled.
He'd been a good officer in that damned War but he worried so about his men, he never did get the proper officer's mindset that men were a commodity, just like musket balls, mess kits and hats ... objects, things, items that could be replaced, bought wholesale and freighted in on rail cars.
God bless him for never becoming that hard.
I have and my soul suffered for it.
Maybe it's because I died and I saw how little life really matters, how unimportant the world and all things in it really are.
Hell, I don't know.
I'm just an old man with an iron grey mustache and too many scars, aches and pains and nightmares when I sleep.
What the hell do I know???

I underlined the last six words with a quick, vicious slash of my steel pen, almost tearing into the paper: I threw my pen down on the desk, leaned back, wiped my face with my hands.
I'd gone home and kissed my wife and hoisted my little girl up overhead, spilling happy giggles all over the parlor floor, I picked up my fine little son and bounced him on my knee, and he laughed and gummed at me with his little toothless mouth, chewing happily on my knuckle, and when I handed him back to the wet-nurse, my leg was wet.
I laughed, for such is the legacy of the father of a little boy.
Little boy-babies are like puppies, they are happy creatures that leak, and my son was true to both tenets.
I changed trousers and went back downstairs and wrote in my journal, at least until I threw my pen down and stood with a quiet squishing sound from my knees, and stalked over to the window.
By now Sarah and the widow Ricketts were well on their journey; they would have passed the first stage stop and would be making a steady headway.
I knew the man the Judge sent her after and I was honestly afraid.
The Judge is a good judge of character and he was right when he told me if we sent the official forces after this character it would lead to blood, and I knew in my own heart that good lawmen would be killed.
I also knew it was our job to put ourselves in harm's way for the good of the public.
I was satisfied I could bring him back, peacefully or otherwise, and personally I did not much care which.
Otherwise would be less work and I was not above putting a .44 through his gourd to pacify him for the trip, but for whatever reason, the Judge wanted him to answer for his crimes before the Bar of Justice.
I sighed, shaking my head, remembering how Sarah and I sparred the day before, with wooden "knives" with chalked edges.
She "killed" me faster and easier than Esther ever did.
I recalled how we sparred with revolvers, I pulled the cylinder out and we practiced disarming -- with a gun barrel stuck in our gut, stuck in our back, to our temple, the back of our head, under our chin: Sarah was damned fast and she was strong and there was a fire in her that didn't let her give up.
I told her before we began that she wasn't under any circumstance to put her finger in the trigger guard, and she didn't.
I didn't either.
The first time she ripped the castrated revolver out of my grip and "shot" me with it, I was damned grateful, for even when practicing she played for keeps.
I looked out the night-dark window, grateful that she wouldn't be on the job, so to speak, for another two days.
It would take that long for the widow Ricketts to get to her destination.
I didn't realize quite how wrong I was until Sarah got back.
I'd best let her tell the story.

"The court calls Agent Rosenthal."
The bailiff's voice echoed a little in the courtroom.
Heads turned a little; nobody rose.
"Agent Rosenthal!"
There was the sound of a small explosion as the door was kicked open: pieces of door lock and splinters of wood flew across the floor and the door banged wide open, revealing a figure in a black, floor length coat, a black hat pulled low, and a lowering leg in knee-high black cavalry boots.
The figure stood for a moment, then paced off on the left, marching slowly, purposefully across the floor, heels loud on the smooth, clean boards, as if carrying a much heavier weight than the traveler's build would indicate.
"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"
Agent S. Lynne Rosenthal tilted her broad-brimmed black hat slowly back, pushing up with one fingertip, her pale eyes blazing and the red whip-scar bright against her pallid cheeks.
"Do you want me to throw you through the nearest window?" she hissed.
"Please be seated," the bailiff replied, unperturbed.
"Please state your name for the record."
Sarah turned her head to glare at the Judge, and there was no trace of warmth or seduction in her hard eyes.
"Agent Lynne Rosenthal, Firelands District Court."
"Agent Rosenthal," the Judge said sternly, "the court will entertain no further --"
Sarah leaped to her feet, took the two steps to the Judge's desk and jerked a large knife from beneath her coat.
She drove it hard into the desktop, the blade passing between the Judge's thumb and forefinger, missing living flesh by no more than five-eights of an inch.
"This," she said quietly, "is the knife that killed the detective you told me about."
She reached under her coat with both hands, pulled out a pair of worse-for-wear pistols, a rusted Remington and a Smith & Wesson that looked like it'd been drug behind a stagecoach for a week or so. She slammed them down on his desk, the noise of steel on hardwood loud in the shocked silence.
"These were his," she said. "I emptied them both into him.
"He's dead," she said quietly: there was no need to raise her voice, for the courtroom was absolutely, deathly silent.
"I went there just as you told me to," she said.
"I did what you told me to do and about the time he decided I was a likely filly and he felt like a stallion, two men broke down the hotel room door and came in armed and said they intended to kill him.
"I rolled away and grabbed his pistols where he'd hung them on the bedpost and I shot the both of them and the two that followed. They were all armed and they got off a couple shots, trying to hit him until I cut loose.
"I fired four shots and I put down four men and I stood there crouched down with two cocked pistols in my fists, screaming for whoever else was out there to come and get some, the store was open and I was a-sellin' goods, and nobody came in.
I looked over at him and he had a nickle plated Owl Head in his hand and his eyes were the size of tea saucers and he said 'My God, you're the Ragdoll!'
"Do you want me to show you what he did to me, Your Honor?" Sarah screamed, the veins suddenly sticking out in her neck. "Do you want me to strip down so you can see where he shot me?"
Sarah's voice was opera-pitched, her words shockingly loud in the courtroom's dignified hush.
She took a breath, another, began again at a full-voiced shout.
"I put his soul on the hell bound train and I'd do it again and if you don't like it I don't give a good damn!"
Sarah grasped the edge of the Judge's desk, swaying a little, her pale eyes fixed on his, her teeth bared, her face dead pale save for the blazing red scar diagonal across her face.
She tried to say something else but coughed instead, coughed and bright blood spatters sprayed across his desk.
Sarah raised the back of her hand to her lips, wiped away the blood and looked at bright crimson on her wrist, her knuckles.
The Judge caught her as she collapsed.

I don't remember rising from my seat.
I remember the Judge's face was the color of putty.
I dipped my knees and said " 'Scuse me," and I scooped her up and it's funny she referred to the Ragdoll for that's how she felt, my daughter, my little girl, limp as a rag doll in my arms, boneless with arms and legs and her head all a-dangle and I don't remember takin' out a-runnin' across the courtroom but I sure as hell remember running for the hospital, running with a desperation I haven't felt in many years, running with the air burning in my chest and my arms rolling her up into me and my heart screaming wordlessly the way a man's heart will scream when he has no words to pray, and I grabbed the bell pull outside the hospital's front door and I yanked hard enough I broke something inside and I didn't care, I got Sarah inside and many hands took Sarah from me and I fell back against the wall in the surgery as they stripped her overcoat off and threw it to the floor and Doc seized her shirt and ripped it open and I remember red foamy bubbles on her chest, bright and gleaming against her fair skin, and I remember my knees sagged and I slid to the floor and stood there on my knees as they got her undressed and someone came in and tugged at my arm and I got up, slow, slow, my legs wouldn't hardly work, and I tottered like an old man out into the waiting room and a chair come up to meet my backside and I set there staring vacantly at the far wall and my jaw was a-hangin' slack and all I could see was the bubbling foam as she exhaled and I knew she was lung shot.
I lowered my face into my hands and groaned and someone laid a gentle hand on my shoulder and set down beside me and I just set there.

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Linn Keller 8-25-13

 

I rode my black Outlaw-horse with a two-horse string behind.
We traveled fast and we traveled steady.
I wanted to whip a mount into a gallop and keep it there but that's a grand way to kill a horse and damned if I'm going to kill a good horse if there's not a really, really damned good reason, and a steady gait was what Doc called "treatment of choice."
I swore in the darkness.
Even out here, riding toward that distant town, alone but for horse flesh and my own roiling thoughts, Doc's words were still audible.
I thought back to the hospital's waiting room.
Once I allowed myself five minutes to just set there all numb, why, I got up and I shook myself like a dog climbing out of a creek and I went back inside and I looked at Sarah, laying dead still and near to dead pale, just some color over her cheek bones.
Doc was working steady on that bullet hole, he'd opened it some and retched in with a long wire looking something and I looked away.
Nurse Susan, bless her, bustled over -- that's the right word, bustled, she was kind of stout built and in a previous life I'm willin' to bet she was a tow boat on a river -- she latched onto my arm and threw steam pressure to her her paddle wheels and thrashed us across the room as strong and unstoppable as a Mississippi packet.
I let her get me a few feet away before I turned my pale eyed glare on her and she let up on her throttle some and we coasted to a stop.
I recall how my good right fist tightened up when she said "We need to talk," I've heard women say that before and it never, ever boded well, so I looked at her again and said "Talk, then," and I listened carefully as she talked about Sarah, she tried to soft pedal what she had to say but I looked at my daughter and I looked at the nurse and my bottom jaw shoved out and Doc looked up at Dr. Flint and said something quiet to him.
He stepped away from the operating table and come over, wiping his hands on a clean cloth.
His words were measured, quiet, professional, and I listened to him about as well as I listened to Nurse Susan.
I stepped back away from the two and looked at Sarah laying just dead still and almost waxy pale in the harsh, focused light of that acetylene operating room lamp, and I turned and looked at Doc and the nurse and Doc started talking again and I turned away from them both and went out the door.
I had to go find out what happened.
Now I was ahorse and heading into that damned little city toward that damned little hotel where that damned little man tried to kill my little girl, and I was damned well going to find out what happened.

The town Marshal rose as I came through his door.
"We've been expecting you, Sheriff," he said congenially, his teeth white beneath an impressively thick handlebar mustache: he thrust out a hand and I took it, for I knew the man, and we both wore the Square and Compasses.
"You know my chief deputy, Samuelson" -- another handshake -- "this is Mitchell, and Perkins here" -- he thrust his chin at a small, slender man in an immaculate suit and paper collar, and a Derby hat -- "Perkins is a detective and saw the whole thing happen."
"Mr. Perkins." I swung to face him squarely and my hand closed on his like a trap on a small animal. "I believe I wish to speak with you, sir."
Perkins' eyes were bright, black, his chin smooth, clean-shaven, he had the look of a man of uncertain years -- not a youth but not aged, one of those skinny fellows who seems to age all of a sudden when he turns eighty or so, but until then he's thin as a whip and tough as plaited rawhide. His grip, too, was of surprising strength, and he smiled tightly as his eyes fell on my Arc-and-Compasses stickpin.
"Hello, Hiram," he said quietly. "I have your daughter's things over here."
I raised an eyebrow.
Few people outside my inner circle in Firelands knew Sarah was of my get.
"Have a seat, Sheriff. We've cleaned out the room and the proprietor cleaned it up, I believe it's rented out already."
"You have my undivided," I said carefully. "Have you sketches?"
"I have, sir," he replied, turning to a table brought in for the purpose.
Samuelson and Mitchell brought over freshly-trimmed oil lamps -- the chimneys were gleaming, spotless, apparently cleaned from the night before and not lit since -- they quietly set them where they light could overlap and illuminate the detective's pencil sketches of the crime scene.
"I watched events unfold, Sheriff, I had a peephole vantage at the end of the room, and I took notes.
"Here" -- he lay a sheet on the table before me, and I took it under two fingers, slid it to square it in front of me -- "is the room as it was prior to their arrival. Door here, closet, bed, one window. Coat tree here. The bed is a metal four-square, barely enough bedpost to hang a wide gunbelt.
"Here" -- he lay a second sheet atop the first -- "this shows position of bodies afterward.
"Here, here" -- his finger thumped lightly on the penciled ovals - "here, and here. These four were dead in the doorway, one gunshot apiece."
He looked up at me, his eyes hard.
"Four head shots."
I nodded.
"Body here, on the bed. He's over at the funeral parlor if you want to look at him. There's a reward, too, it's your daughter's. I understand you can collect on her behalf."
I nodded again, my jaw thrusting slowly forward again.
"Now this fellow in the bed" -- he looked up at me -- "Sheriff, he had a pistol in hand with one chamber discharged. He apparently made a bad trade."
I looked sharply at the man.
"He gave one shot and got six in return."
"Did it hurt him?" I deadpanned.
"A little," he replied, his face straight. "It looks like whoever punched him full of holes walked their shots up his ribs with the last two going in his left eye."
I nodded.
"Witness statements?"
Another two sheets were laid before me.
"You'll find this one interesting," he said, holding a third page. "I have it separate from the others."
"I see."
"These two" -- he tapped the two on the table before me with a curved finger -- "relate how the deceased, and a really good looking young woman, went upstairs. Good looking, they said, and a better woman than he's been seen with before. The witnesses both say the same thing. Footsteps in the hall, they looked out to see two men kick the door in and they and two more go in shooting until they fall back out, dead. A woman's voice screaming something, these two witnesses couldn't tell what she was screaming." He smiled thinly. "Civilians are like that. When they see a man's brains splatter on the opposite wall they kind of fade mentally."
I nodded; I'd both experienced the phenomenon myself, and seen it happen in the years that followed.
"This one" -- he waved the page -- "a woman heard her screaming something like 'Come and get it, the store's open and I'm sellin', then there were more gunshots.
"She says here she stepped out and looked in the doorway and ..."
Detective Perkins looked at the paper, then handed it to me, sliding his finger down the paragraphs until he came to the section to which he was alluding.
I read:
Then I beheld a woman with long, flaming-red hair and a silver helmet with raven's wings, holding a shining sword in one hand and a bladed club in the other. She wore a silver armored vest and scaled stockings with steel boots, and he eyes were red, as if she were made of flame with a thin coating of flesh.
The detective's smile was almost a smirk.
"Sometimes those working girls drink a bit," he suggested, "or maybe she uses opium.
"The hotel proprietor did not see anyone leave by the front and no witnesses saw her depart from the rear but nobody admits to looking in that direction after the gunshots were heard. There was no blood leaving the room, nobody saw your daughter get on the train, but the conductor did say a small fellow with a long black coat and a black hat pulled low was coughing some, and we found small blood spatters on a window, perhaps a tubercular coughed up blood while traveling."
I looked up at the man and my face was tight as I remembered Sarah coughing blood across the Judge's desk.
"You said you were at a peephole."
Perkins nodded.
"Tell me what you saw."
Perkins looked away, uncomfortable.
"My daughter,"I said, "is a special agent with the Firelands District Court. She was assigned to bring the subject in, alive, and to use her ... charms ... to do it."
Perkins nodded, as if a final puzzle piece dropped into place.
"Sheriff, she did not undress at all.
"She did not say one word that should not come out of a lady's mouth.
"She still managed ..."
He looked down, considering, looked up.
"Sheriff, I think that girl could seduce a stone statue and never move from her footprints to do it."
I nodded.
"Women have that gift," I admitted. "What followed?"
"She set down on the bed. He was already down to his red woolies, and she -- your -- the Agent," he cleared his throat uncomfortably, "was talking him into the benefits of a bath, and ... implied that she would ... help him with it."
I laughed.
"Perkins," I said quietly, "no law says we can't lie to a criminal. They lie to us all the time. Turn about is fair play."
Perkins looked frankly at me.
"Sheriff," he said, "she plays a deep game. She's ... very convincing."
"A good agent is."
"I jumped when the door kicked in. Two men came in and ran over in front of my vantage, they were at the foot of the bed, and shouted that they were here to kill him.
"She rolled off the bed.
"Apparently they expected her to lay on the floor or hide under the bed, for they both shot at our wanted man and missed.
"I didn't notice when your -- when your Agent went over the side -- he'd hung his gun belt on her side of the bed and she must have drawn his pistols when she went over.
"She came up in a crouch firing both pistols.
"They shot at her and missed.
"She didn't miss." He shook his head wonderingly. "She fired four times, Sheriff, and four men died." His eyes were steady on my own. "I am no stranger to conflict, Sheriff, but never have I ever seen such ... control.
"I cannot call it coolness under fire, sir.
"I must call it absolute... coldness."
"What happened them?"
"The man she came after," he said slowly, "produced a small pistol from somewhere. As carefully as I watched, Sheriff, I don't know where he had it secreted, nor where he plucked it from.
"I remember how shocked he looked as he looked at her.
"She stood in a half-crouch with a cocked pistol in each hand and I remember she screamed about the store being open, whoever was outside could come and get it or words to that effect, then she looked at him.
"He said ..."
The detective hesitated.
"He said 'My God! Ragdoll!" and shot her."
"You saw the shot?"
The detective nodded.
"She returned the favor, and he fired no more."
I looked over at the Marshal.
"This case," I said slowly, "is hereby assigned to the Firelands District Court. If you need further paper work I can have it served by the Territorial Marshal."
"No need," he said, regarding me curiously, "your word is good enough."
I waited.
The man had the look of someone chewing on a question.
"Sheriff," he said finally, "every man Jack of us here is under the Square."
I nodded.
"One thing we've not put in any of those reports you hold, and in none of mine here."
I nodded again.
"Right before that last six shots."
I looked steadily at the man, turning my head a little to bring my good ear to bear.
"When the man spoke a name."
I waited.
"Ragdoll."
I nodded again.
"I thought she was ... a legend, a tall tale."
I considered carefully.
Once the feline is out of the burlap there's no returning it, but these men were all brother Masons, oathed to keep the secret of a Master Mason when received by them as such.
We all knew this was one such.
"Brethren," I said, "the Ragdoll is my daughter. She is as deadly as legend would have it. As far as tall tale, she's not all that tall." I held a hand up about chin level. "I can wrap my arms around her and rest my chin sqauarely on top of her head."
"Has she turned up yet?" Perkins asked carefully.
I nodded.
"She was shot," I said, "and she collapsed across the Judge's desk after she reported to him."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-25-13

 

She was cold, so cold, and it was so dark, and the pain was deep, flowing through her very core. She despaired of ever seeing light, feeling warm. She thought she could hear the dip and swish of oars in deep, black water, the creak of oarlocks. Yet somewhere, out there, beyond her, she could feel, well, the presence of something, or Someone...

"Sarah." The voice seemed to come from everywhere, and from nowhere. It reverberated softly, melodic echoes that set her aching flesh and bone atingle, tiny ripples of being that soothed her pain and warmed her cold body. She listened, and was comforted...

"Sarah." She felt as much as heard her name repeated, felt the drawing, felt the comfort spread through her, felt that now would be a good time to let herself go, loose the bonds of earthly flesh and go beyond, go where she need never again know pain, or cold, or blackness, never know uncertainty. She prepared to step away from self...

"We may be losing her!" Doc Greenlees exclaimed, somewhere in a distant land that she found herself glad to escape...

"Sarah, your journey is not yet finished," the voice told her. "There is much that is yet undone." A soft blaze of light enveloped her as she protested...

"No, please!" She pleaded. "I am so tired. Please just let me go!"

"You are indeed tired, yet you must stay," she heard. "Too much depends on you. Your destiny is before you."

"Please..."

Even as she said the word, she knew that resistance was futile. Scenes unfolded on the blank wall of her mind, scenes of happiness, scenes of war, scenes of peace, scenes of strife and dissent. Children were born, some to live and do great things, some to never have the chance. Through it all, a common thread of silver that led through her, past to present, present to future...

"She's not breathing!"

Then suddenly she was, a great indrawn gasp that made her ribs creak as her heart resumed its rhythm, her blood flowed once more through droughted vessels, and her flesh slowly warmed...

"I don't understand it," the good doctor was to tell the Sheriff upon that worthy's return to Firelands. "We had lost her, then suddenly we had her back again. Her flesh was cold, there was no breath in her lungs, her heart had ceased to pump, yet..." His words halted there, his look that of a man who had seen something beyond his ability to comprehend. "It was a miracle. That's the only way that I know to describe it..."

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Linn Keller 8-25-13

 

Daffyd Llewellyn groaned in his sleep.
Sean set the cot up for him in the hospital's waiting room, Sean brought him supper, and Sean sat with him while he waited, pacing like a caged tiger, boot heels loud on the painfully clean floor.
After every fourth trip back and forth Daffyd stopped, staring at the surgery door; only once did he approach, once, with his hand upraised, as if to knock, but he drew his bent knuckles back, and instead touched the door with his finger tips, as if listening with more than hearing at what may be going on within.
Sean finally snapped the blankets to and told Daffyd not unkindly to pull off his boots and get some sleep -- "if ye don't, lad, then neither will I, an' Daisymedear will cloud up an' rain all o'er me!"
Daffyd smiled a little and nodded, and Sean waited until the man was laid down before he drew the blankets over the Welsh Irishman.
He paused and laid a hard, callused hand on the man's shoulder with a surprising gentleness.
"She's in th' best hands there are," he said quietly. "Here on earth she's in the best surgeon's this side o' the Mississippi, an' her soul is cradled wi' th' Almighty."
Daffyd pretended to sleep; he closed his eyes, waiting until the door shut behind the big Irish chieftain, then he lay staring at the ceiling until sleep crept up on little cat's feet and cast an irresistible spell over him.
He groaned as dreams, tortured dreams, played their evil on his restless mind, and when Nurse Susan laid a hand on his shoulder he jumped like a scalded cat.
He looked up at the nurse's face; she held a lamp, and in the lamplight he saw the wet running down her cheeks and his heart contracted hard.
"Sarah?" he gasped, fighting to sit up, shoving hard against the cot, fighting the cobwebs that impeded his waking brain: he rubbed his face hard, looked at the trembling nurse and asked again, "Sarah?"
Nurse Susan opened her mouth, then she closed it and shook her head.
Daffyd Llewellyn sank to his knees, then bent double, slowly, and rested his head on the floor, clutching his hair and gritting his teeth against unmanly grief shivering in his throat.
He put his hands flat on the floor and pushed himself up, stood, swaying, gasping, sick: he looked toward the bright wedge of light as the surgery door opened.
Dr. Greenlees' lean form was silhouetted against the surgery's lamplight, and behind him, a still form, still and pale and unmoving.
Daffyd Llewellyn staggered toward the doctor, pushed him aside, tottered across the mile wide chasm that separated him from his beloved.
Daffyd Llewellyn, grandson of warriors, descended of Welsh bowmen, lay gentle hands on Sarah's cold cheeks: choking now, his face graven with the grief a man feels when the dearest thing his heart ever knew is gone, bent down and kissed her still, pallid lips once, gently, then he straightened, threw his head back and from the depths of his warrior's soul he roared a challenge to Death itself, a battle-roar to every creature of darkness that would seek to swallow a soul, an invitation to robed Thanatos himself and the scythe he carried: it was a challenge to single combat that would never be answered, for she was gone, she was dead, her spirit fled from this earth and its light, only her cold, unmoving shell remaining, and so instead this battle challenge served to warn the Afterlife that a warrior was coming.
Outside, somewhere near, the howl of a great wolf-creature, the dark throat of a creature of the wild who chose to companion with these interesting few two-legs, sang of a warrior's passing, carrying the Welshman's grief to the stars overhead.
Daffyd sank to his knees, rested his head against the side of the operating table.
His hand, as if piloted by its own volition, rose slowly and slid under the sheet and found Sarah's: his warm, strong hand closed around her still, cold hand, and he held hers, his breath ragged, his chest aching.
"No," he groaned. "Nnooo."
Nurse Susan moved as if to approach the grief-racked fireman: Dr. Greenlees raised a palm, gave a brief shake of his head, and Nurse Susan stopped, backed away.
"Give him his grief," Dr. Greenlees whispered, and Nurse Susan dropped her eyes and nodded, then pressed a crumpled kerchief to her own cheeks.
They left the surgery and gave the man his privacy; each knew what it was to lose somebody, and it was not the first time Daffyd Llewellyn had lost someone he loved, but it was the first time he'd ever lost someone he loved more than he'd ever realized.
He whispered to her, there in the empty room, whispered his grief and his love, he spoke in halting sibilants of their house and the children they'd planned, he spoke of coming home and putting his arms around her waist and feeling her warm and alive, and he fell silent again.
Llewellyn lost track of all time when he raised his head, startled.
Imagination, he thought: imagination, I want to feel her alive, I didn't really feel her hand --
Sarah's hand twitched again, then squeezed his -- not much, but a little, and Daffyd came to his feet as if jerked by a giant's hand on his collar.
"Doctor," he quavered, eyes wide as he looked at Sarah's waxy-pale, unmoving face.
"Doctor?" he called a little louder, his hand still holding Sarah's, and as she squeezed again, he screamed, "DOCTORRRRRR!"
Dr. Greenlees came in, frowning, Nurse Susan with him, and he was apparently replying to her question: "No, I can't find the Sheriff, but I'll tell him myself, this is not the kind of news he should find out from saloon gossip --"
Daffyd was standing, eyes wide, his mouth working, and finally he pulled Sarah's hand up -- she was holding his, now -- "Doctor, she's alive!"
Dr. Greenlees took two long steps to the surgery table, practiced fingers felt her parted lips, her throat, her wrist.
Nurse Susan waited, scarcely breathing.
The poor man, she thought, he wants so much for Sarah to be alive that he's imagined --
Sarah's eyes snapped open and she opened her mouth wide and took a deep, gasping breath, the sound of air rushing into her throat loud and harsh in the nighttime surgery.
Doctor John Greenlees, physician and surgeon, jerked his hand back as if burned.
He looked up at Nurse Susan, wide-eyed and grinning.
Nurse Susan's hand rose, stopped just before her own gaping mouth.
"Doctor," she gasped, "what happened?"
"Sarah," Daffyd laughed, running his arm under her shoulders and hugged her, and Sarah let out a little sound of pain, but she ran an arm around Daffyd and hugged him back.
They were still holding hands.
Sarah breathed -- she breathed hard, but she was breathing -- Dr. Greenlees snatched a stethoscope off its peg, thrust the tips into its ears, ripped the sheet off Sarah's chest, placed the cold, tapered bell on her chest -- here, here, here again, then lower -- "Sarah, take a breath for me ... hold, hold, now let it out, take another ... that's it ... breathe normally now."
The Doctor put two fingers on her bared chest below her collar bone, tapped the two fingers with two fingers of his opposite hand, then the same under the other collarbone: a little lower, one side, then the other.
"I don't understand it," he muttered, shaking his head. "This is not possible."
Sarah looked up at Daffyd, her eyes big, imploring.
"I'm cold," she whispered. "Hold me."
Dr. Flint came in -- fully dressed, his tie knotted, brushed coat immaculate, looking as if he'd just stepped away from his breakfast -- he looked from Sarah to the astonished physician and back.
Dr. Greenlees turned to his colleague and shook his head, his mouth open.
"It's not possible," he repeated. "Not possible!"
The two physicians discussed terms like bilateral pneumothoraces and mediastinal shift, subcutaneous emphysema -- Dr. Greenlees' eyes widened and he whirled, snatched the sheet away, ran trembling fingers along the exposed flesh above Sarah's breasts, blinking.
"Nothing," he gasped. "This was rough as pebbles in a creekbed with air under the skin and there's nothing!"
Daffyd Llewellyn drew the sheet back up, covering Sarah's modesty.
"Nurse Susan," he asked, "might we ha'e a blanket? Ma fiancee's a chill."
Doctor John Greenlees walked slowly out of the surgery, shaking his head.
"It's not possible," Daffyd heard him repeating. "Both lungs collapsed, the midline organs were shoved over, she was subcutaneous emphysema from neck to legs. It's, not, possible!"
Dr. George Flint patted his old friend on the back and said something quiet, and the two men closed the door behind them as they left the room.
Nurse Susan unfolded a blanket, covering Sarah with one, then another.
"Don't leave me," Sarah begged Daffyd. "Please. Don't leave me!"
"I'll not leave ye," he said firmly, "but forgive me if I drag me up a chair!"

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Linn Keller 8-26-13

 

Why did I run?
I stood away from myself and looked on my actions with a harsh and judgmental eye.
She is my daughter.
I should have stayed.

I'd switched horses twice so far and was nearly home.
It was a common enough trick, taking three horses or more: you rode one until it was tired, then you switched your saddle to a fresh horse and the one you'd ridden went to the tail end of the string; a steady pace was the most efficient, and I kept the pace steady, not at all excessive: no one horse was excessively fatigued, and in this case mine was a three-horse journey, but both horses and rider were glad for the sight of the town's lights when I came over the final rise and beheld Firelands.
I'd ridden with an increasing apprehension and over a particular stretch of road I got the most God-awful feeling that something was wrong.
It passed in about an hour.
I don't know if someone was murdered on that road and I felt their restless shade, or if someone I knew was hurt bad or dying, or maybe it was just the imagination of a man alone, but whatever it was, it passed.
I came into town at a walk, and my little string and I drew up at the hospital.
I could not go on home until I stopped to check on Sarah.
It was late -- it was well beyond late -- and I didn't really want to disturb anyone ... but my gut told me to stop, and I did.
I learned a very long time ago, when in doubt, son, follow your gut.
I saw a cot set up in the waiting area and a pair of boots.
I recognized the boots.
I would expect him to be here, I thought, and regarded the thrown-back blankets, mostly on the floor.
Boots, and an unmade bed.
Nature's call must have been urgent.

I looked to the closed surgery door and something cold walked bony fingers down the middle of my back.
I remembered how bright that bloody foam had been on Sarah's chest, and I remember Doc fishing that wire thing through the bullet hole, and how dead pale Sarah had been last I saw her.
I hadn't thought of these things since I left, I intentionally kept them away from my mind, but here, where I saw them ...
I gripped the door knob, turned it, pushed.
Dr. John Greenlees wore his customary near-frown as he listened to Sarah's chest; she was asleep, still very pale, but her lips and cheek bones were a little better color than I'd seen them: the slender physician was bent over her a little with that stick-in-your-ears listen-thing them doctors use.
They've got a fancy name for it.
I know it's generally cold when they stick it on you to listen.
Daffyd was in a chair beside the table, a blanket over his shoulders: he had an arm laid on the edge of the bed and his forehead on his arm, and his other hand went under the sheet, and the poor fellow appeared to be sound asleep.
Doc looked up as I came in the room.
He was in his sock feet and silent as he crossed over to me, took my arm, steered me back into the waiting area.
He closed the door very quietly, struck another lamp, motioned me to a chair, then shook his head, gestured for me to follow and we went back in.
He looked with a guilty expression at Sarah and Daffyd, hesitated, then opened another door and we went down a short hall and into his office.
Doc opened a cupboard and pulled out a bottle of shining amber liquid and two glasses.
I accepted two fingers of traveling mercy and Doc knocked his back in a gulp -- something I had never, ever seen the man do.
He sat heavily in his chair, turned the glass in his long, artist's fingers, staring at its facets as if to wring some great secret from their shining depths.
"It's not possible," he said quietly.
I sipped at my pipe cleaner and waited.
"In my young life," Doc continued, "I have seen people shot, stabbed, cut, run into, run over, blown up, thrown down, crushed, clubbed ... I have seen disease, corruption, contagion, complications, childbirths, cholera, tuberculosis, the bloody flux, bad teeth, bad eyes, bad ideas and bad judgement."
He turned the glass in his fingers, still staring at it, staring down his nose at the gleaming crystal.
"Sheriff, there are certain constants, certain unchanging realities that are the corner stones of medicine.
"Air goes in and out.
"Blood goes round and round.
"If either doesn't ... "
Doc looked at the bottle, decided against a refill, set his glass down.
"Blood will leak out only so long." His smile was almost ghastly. "All bleeding stops eventually.
"Sheriff" -- Doc looked at his office door -- "Sarah was dead."
I leaned forward, turning my head a little.
"I know death a little too well," he continued, his voice quiet. "She ... her lung collapsed, the one that was shot."
I nodded, listening carefully.
"The lungs are very rich in blood vessels. Extremely vascular. A lung will collapse and it will bleed and it will crowd the midline organs" -- he indicated a line down his breastbone with an open hand -- "it will crowd them over into the good lung and progressively collapse it as well." His flat hand illustrated a pushing motion.
"I ... the incision to relieve the pressure was successful, but she ..."
Doc's hands closed, opened.
"Sheriff, she is alive now and I cannot explain it. She was without ..."
His voice faded and he blinked, blinked like a man trying to make sense of a confusing dream.
"Sheriff, she died in my hands. I was holding her when she died.
"Sheriff, she was dead for just under an hour!"
I stared at the man, my belly tightening around a lead weight I must have swallowed back on the trail somewhere.
"Nurse Susan was ..."
Dr. Greenlees' expression softened.
"The dear darling always did like Sarah and she ... I've never seen her grieve that hard, not over a patient." His eyes were hollow, haunted, and I knew Susan wasn't the only one who grieved in that dark moment.
"I did not know her fiancee waited without, and it took Susan two hours to gather herself enough to let him know."
Doc looked sick.
In all the years I've known him, in all the tough choices he's had and all the bad hands he'd been dealt, I've never known him as anything but capable and professional.
I knew now I was seeing John Greenlees, the man.
"She went out to tell him.
"He did not take it well."
Doc fell silent, and I let the silence grow. It's a lawman's trick, to remain silent, for the speaker will generally resume speaking to fill the silence if nothing else.
"Sheriff, her heart was stopped." His hand chopped viciously against his thigh. "There was no pulse" -- chop, and the meaty sound of another blow to his leg -- she was cyanotic -- again the hand striking the leg --
"You saw me auscultate her chest. Her lungs are both up. They're both fully inflated. I can percuss the chest and there is no hyperresonance." His hands absently tapped the ribs of a nonexistent patient, and I kept a neutral expression: had it been a less solemn discussion I would have smiled, for I can't talk without my hands either.
"I ... rejoice ... Sheriff, she's alive..."
I nodded.
Doc shook his head, ran long fingers through his dark hair.
"I don't understand it," he said, dropping his hands into his lap and throwing his head back. "
"We lost her, then suddenly we had her back again. Her flesh was cold, there was no breath in her lungs, her heart had ceased to pump, yet..." His words halted there, his look that of a man who had seen something beyond his ability to comprehend. "It was a miracle. That's the only way that I know to describe it..."

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Linn Keller 8-27-13

 

Sarah sat up in bed.
This took less effort than one might imagine, as she had pillows mountained up behind her and she'd slept sitting up.
She opened her eyes and blinked, closed her eyes and relaxed again.
She was at home, in her own bedroom, under her own roof.

The wolf pup was getting longer, taller, less clumsy: he'd gone from a tumbling ball of snarl and bite, worrying his littermates as they chewed and pounced him him and each other, to the biggest of the litter, dominating his siblings, following after his dam as often as he could, at least until she turned and glared at him: a rumble, a snap, a cuff with her forepaw, and he learned that The Look meant to stay in the den, which he did, though not with any great amount of pleasure.
He lay in the mouth of the den, watching the bright world without, smelling the wind, when his wet, black nose twitched: he smelled him again, and lips peeled back from shining-white teeth, and he felt a deep, rumbling snarl in his chest, stifled and hidden more by instinct than by choice.
A shadow fell over the den's opening and The Bear Killer dropped a carcass with a quiet "Whuff," and the black wolf-pup's nose twitched again, then he shot forward and seized the carcass, growling and tearing at fresh, hot, bloody meat.
The Bear Killer watched the pup, then looked across the clearing as the dam trotted toward him, a kill in her jaws as well.
The pack would feed well tonight.

Sarah opened her eyes again, reached across with her right hand, grasped her covers.
She hissed between clenched teeth at the pain it caused.
She relaxed, eyes closed, mouth open, breathing carefully, assessing the ache in her chest.
Then she remembered, and her eyes snapped wide open.

"Go to her, lad," Sean said quietly, his voice seriouis: "there is only one o' yer dear Sarah in th' world an' ye need t' be wi' her as much as ye can."
Daffyd nodded, started to turn, then stopped, faced the tall, broad-shouldered Chieftain squarely.
"Wha' about my place here?" he said. "I'll no' abandon ma post!"
"It's ta'en care of, lad," Sean replied, his voice still quiet. "Ye'll no' be losin' yer position wi' us." His grin was quick and genuine. "I'd play hell findin' someone t' replace ye. Ye are th' worst poker player we've ever had!"
Daffyd laughed with his Chieftain -- his friend -- and nodded, then he turned, and once again turned back.
"Sean --"
"Aye, lad?"
"I'm goin' to see her," he said, then looked down at his red-wool uniform shirt with the gold Maltese cross in the center of the breast. "Should I wear --"
"It's you she'll be seein', lad, not what ye're wearin'," Sean chuckled. "Go now, as ye are, an' God's blessin' ride yer shoulders!"
Daffyd grinned, turned, and was out the door in a heartbeat's space.
The German Irishman laid a hand on Sean's shoulder and observed, "I don't think he slept a wink last night."
"He slept like a bloody rock," Sean growled.
"Aye, a rock in a cement mixer!"
Sean laughed and turned, running his arm around the German Irishman's shoulders.
"Aye, lad!" he boomed. "What's fer breakfast?"

The Sheriff was uncharacteristically quiet at breakfast.
"I understand," Esther said carefully, "that Sarah is indisposed."
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow but made no reply.
Esther carefully, precisely, buttered a slice of toast, handed it off to Angela.
"There was some talk," she continued, and the Sheriff's left ear twitched, for Esther never used that particular phrase unless she knew it would be of interest to her badge totin' husband.
"It seems," she continued, buttering another slice, "that the black Agent recruited by the Judge, died of her injuries."
The Sheriff accepted the slice of toast, folded it in half and took a bite.
"Word has it," Esther continued, picking up her teacup, "it was the Ragdoll."
The Sheriff stopped in mid-chew.
"Nobody is of the opinion that this ... agent ... is our own dear Sarah," she continued. "The Agent walks like a man, swears like a sailor, smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, tosses grown men over the top rail of a fence, takes scalps and lives like a miser picks up dropped coins on the street; the Ragdoll is unwashed, uncultivated, unprincipled and utterly without kindness or mercy."
She looked up at her husband, who resumed chewing his toast, but chewing very slowly.
"That performance in court was shocking." She sipped her tea, lowered the delicate china to its saucer. "It was so utterly unlike anyone we know, that it could not have possibly been anyone we know."
An idea bloomed in the Sheriff's brain, and Esther smiled to see his bottom lip run out slightly as he nodded.
He picked up his coffee, drained it, stood quickly.
"My dear," he said, "please excuse me."
Angela watched, big-eyed, as her Daddy strode purposefully for the front door, shrugging into his coat and picking up his hat on the fly.
Angela chewed her bacon, then looked with big and innocent eyes at her Mommy.
"Daddy didn't eat his breakfast," she said.
"No, dear, he didn't."
"Mommy?"
"Yes, sweets?"
"You told me to eat my breakfast so I would grow up big and strong."
"Yes, sweets, I did."
Angela looked at the now-closed front door at the end of the hallway.
"Mommy, doesn't Daddy want to grow up big and strong?"

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Linn Keller 8-27-13

 

Cannonball was getting big with foal and I did not wish to strain her.
Packing me around was bad enough, let alone refitting the saddle girth to fit her.
No, I thought, let her have that fine little filly or whatever she's sprouting, without me troubling her.
She came over to the fence anyway, bumming, and I fed her tobacker and rubbed her ears and called her a bum, and she muttered with pleasure as I rubbed her and fooled with her and called her a good girl.
Angela's Rosebud was big enough for me to ride -- I'd ridden her enough to knee train her, and taught Angela to knee-rein instead of using reins and bit, I even laid out a course and made a small shield and a wooden sword, and we rode side by side -- I had her raise her shield when I shouted "Arrows!" and then she would swing her wooden "sword" at a melon on a post.
I made it a game, and she laughed and she loved it, and I grinned to look over at Rosebud, and remember the happy laughter of a delighted child.
Outlaw was soon saddled and we rode toward town, then crossed the tracks and took a particular path I knew of.
Half a day's ride and I dismounted, ground-reined Outlaw -- I pretty much had to bridle and bit him so he would know he was actually working instead of loafing, though the reins I almost always left slack, talking to him with knees and seat instead -- then I cat footed up a rocky path I knew of, to a hidden place I knew of.
Me, and some fellows I knew, and sure enough they'd stopped not long before.
A small fire, no bigger than a teacup, made with dead, dry wood, almost smokeless; branches overhead to help dissipate the smoke, a hidden draw that was easy to ride on past and not realize it.
I cat footed my way toward them, taking note of the only man on lookout, then I tossed a cloth wrapped ball of something soft toward the fire.
It landed beside the coffee pot with a soft noise.
Three men at the fire, froze, then one chuckled.
"That's got to be you, Keller," he called. "Get your under fed self in here and tell me a big lie!"
I stood up, grinning, and Mustache Pete turned, sticking out his hand.
"You scoundrel," I laughed, "how in the hell have you been?"
"Tired, hungry, cold and you know how it is," he shrugged. "Outlawin' is harder work than the dime novels say."
He picked up a blue granite cup, filled it from the coffee pot. "You still drink this stuff?"
"Only if I'm not the one that makes it."
"Wise man," he grunted. "I've drunk your coffee and it damn neart killed me. Peg, Jules, this here is Sheriff Keller from Firelands. He's a damned bloodhound, he's hell itself with a knife and I never seen a finer shot in my life!"
"Flattery," I grunted, flinching back from the coffee cup, spilling a little. "DamNATION, Pete, that's hot!"
Pete laughed. "It don't take ye long to look at a horse shoe, does it?" he crowed.
"Boss," Peg said, "wotinell we doin' with that Sheriff here?"
I looked squarely at Peg.
"You've got to get yourself a decent job," I said to the man. "Your reward is only two hundred dollars. Damn shame for a man of your skills to end up dead for only two hundred. Pete here" -- I thrust a chin at the named individual -- "Pete's worth five hundred and that's a little better, hey, Pete?"
Pete scowled, poured coffee back and forth between two more tin cups to drive off the scald.
"Now lookit there," I said. "Pourin' off the excess heat. Just shows he's younger, smarter and better lookin' than me!"
In spite of their doubts, the others chuckled.
"Well," I amended, "younger and smarter, maybe!" -- and I struck such a ridiculously prideful pose they could not help but laugh.
"You ain't here after us now are ye, Shurf?" Jules asked doubtfully.
"Yes and no," I said, then thrust my chin at the bundle I'd arced toward the fire. "Coffee there, good double handful too. Ground it up this mornin'."
"Wa'l now God's blessin' on ye," Pete drawled. "To what do we owe the favor of your gracious visit?"
I stopped and let my face go serious: I blew on that scalding coffee and took another sip.
"Fellas," I said, "the man that's on the dodge is the man that's on the lookout. Anyone comes by he'll see, anyone walks nearby he'll hear." I looked around, meeting each man's eyes. "I'm looking for someone and this is personal."
"What's in it for us?" Peg asked, his voice rough, and Pete glared at him for the affront.
I tossed Peg a double eagle, flipped one to Jules and handed two to Pete.
"That's for your time right now," I said flatly.
"I need to know what you saw.
"You might have heard about the fun and games in our courtroom yesterday."
The three exchanged a look and I knew they'd heard something. I did not see them in the courtroom, they must've gotten their information from hearsay, which is what I was hoping for.
It was time to plant seeds of misinformation.
"Fellas," I said, "a lot of years ago -- right after that damned War -- I was young and full of vinegar and I sired me a pair of woods colts and didn't even know it." I looked from one to the other, including each by my gaze, and continued. "Two girls. One was a sweet little thing that took to ribbons and dolls and girly things, and the other took after hell raisin' and she ain't quit.
"You might have heard of her."
"Ragdoll?" Peg hazarded.
I nodded. "The same," I grunted.
"Now that sweet girl, Sarah, she's schoolmarm and she was out a-ridin' with that good lookin' fiancee of hers, that fireman fella --"
Three heads nodded; gossip was as common among outlaws as it was among townsfolk, and such matters became common knowledge over a surprising area, for news was scarce and hard to come by, and such items were seized upon as something new and interesting.
"They were a-ridin' in the woods and she run square into a dead, broke-off branch." I poked a stiff middle finger at my upper chest, below the left collar bone.
"Punched a hole in her lung and she damn neart died.
"Now her half-sister, the Ragdoll, heard about it and she thought she'd have a good laugh. You recall Judge Hostetler."
"Oh, yeah," Pete murmured, and the other two nodded, looking from Pete to me.
"He allowed as Ragdoll would make a good agent so he deputized her for the Court and she thought it would be funny to scare hell out of the old feller.
"She come in walkin' stiff and walkin' hard, she jumped up and drove a knife into his table top" -- I spread my hand out over my squatted-down thigh, run a stiff middle finger down close to the web of my hand -- "made like she was a-gonna spike his hand to the desk, then she bit the inside of her cheek and bent over and coughed blood acrost his desk.
"Here we-all thought she'd been shot or somethin' and she was a-dyin' and she was no more hurt than I am here!" I let a little disgust into my voice and the three grinned to hear that someone fooled the old lawman.
"I'm tryin' to catch up with her."
"You gonna spank her bottom?" Peg grinned.
"No," I glared. "I'm gonna yank down her drawers and belt her backside raw, then I'm takin' her back to the Judge and let him do the same!"
There was a prolonged silence as the three considered this.
"All I have to do," I said, "is find her. She headed this-a-way on the hot foot."
The three looked at each other, then looked at me, and slowly all three shook their heads.
"I don't reckon I seen her a'tall, Sheriff," Jules said slowly.
I glared at them as if I doubted their word, then sighed and rubbed my face with my free hand.
"Any you fellas got a girl, a little girl at home?"
I knew darn good and well none of them did but it was a rhetorical question anyway.
"Boys is way the hell easier to raise than girls," I said. "That schoolmarm, now, I didn't hardly have to do nothin' to raise her once I found out she belonged to me, but that other girl ..."
I let my voice trail off and I stared into my coffee cup's black depths.
"Ah, hell," I finally muttered. "I don't know nothin'."
I stood, drained my coffee, handed the cup back to Mustache Pete.
"Obliged," I said. "You fellas ain't figurin' to hit Firelands no time soon now are you?"
The three laughed.
"With you around?" Pete snorted. "Shurf, I would rather stir hornets barehand than ride into your town and raise hell!"
I nodded. "In that case, fellas," I said, "thank'ee for the coffee, and I didn't see a one of you."
"Sheriff?" Jules called after me.
I turned.
"Which way do you reckon she was headed?"
"Nagodoches, I reckon," I said.
He nodded.
"We see her, we'll let you know."
"Thank'ee kindly."

Sarah made it down one flight of stairs before she ran clear out of steam.
The Bear Killer crowded up against her, half propping her against the wall, and Sarah's hand closed on a handful of fur and hide.
It hurt to breathe, it hurt to stand, it hurt to move and it hurt to not move, and she knew she would not be able to spend the rest of her life on a stairway landing.
She took a step, took another, The Bear Killer moving with her: she came to the first step, took two measured breaths, lowered her forward foot one step down.
The Bear Killer's ears lifted a little at the involuntary sound of pain she made.
There were voices from below, voices Sarah ignored; her world was shrunk to the stairway, the wall opposite, the warm, black, curly handful of balance that kept her from falling.
She took another slow step, trying to ignore the hurt that seared through most of her carcass.
There was the sound of footsteps, a hurried approach, a familiar voice: "Dear God, Sarah, wha' are ye tryin' t' do? -- here, le' me --"
She felt strong arms around behind her, behind her legs.
"Let's ge' ye back upstairs --"
"No," Sarah gasped, releasing The Bear Killer's nape.
"No?"
Sarah lifted her head, opened pain-clenched eyelids, looked at Daffyd's Celtic-blue eyes, only inches from hers.
"I have to use," she said slowly, her words measured, and she had to stop to breathe a little before continuing: "the back house."
Bonnie came hurrying up the stairs, skirts lifted and face worried, the maid behind her: "Sarah, dear, there's the chamber pot, you can --"
"It's too low," Sarah interrupted her. "I can't get down and I can't get back up. Please, Mother, I must do this."
"Wi' yer permission, ma'am," Daffyd half-whispered.
Bonnie stood, lips pressed together, thin and pale, before coming to a decision.
"The maid will go with you," she said briskly.
"Yes, ma'am," Daffyd nodded.
Sarah's breathing was quicker; she was a little more pale, evidently in some pain: several minutes passed before Bonnie heard the kitchen door open, the tread of a burdened man came down the hall, and Daffyd rounded the bottom of the stairs, looked up.
"Everythin' came out a'right," he said, then stopped, realizing what words he'd just used: he groaned, hanging his head, and muttered something in Welsh.
Sarah looked up as Bonnie put the back of her hand to her mouth, then both hands, and finally turned away, her shoulders quivering, and Sarah knew her Mama was trying very hard not to laugh.

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Linn Keller 8-28-13

 

The pup managed to slip far enough away that the others, seeing the escape, tried to follow.
The she-wolf was busy rounding up her scattered young and for whatever reason -- whether it was another predator coming into the area, whether it was weather, hunger, anger -- the biggest pup, the black one, was gone, following after its sire.
The pup trailed the big, curly-furred meat provider, moving swiftly, almost silently across the landscape: it moved steadily and with no particular stealth, and when finally it came in sight of the great Dawg, the younger was tired, hungry, and missing its pack.
It gave a raspy yap.
The Bear Killer's ears came up as if pulled by threads from an overhead hand: he spun, looking, and saw the pup, sitting up, panting, ears up and looking at him.
The Bear Killer turned, paced back to the pup and did what any good father-figure would do when finding its progeny so far from the den.
The Bear Killer gave it a good face-washing.

Levi and Daffyd sat and talked over coffee long into the evening.
The twins made their obligatory appearance, long enough for the obligatory (and unnecessary) introductions; they curtsied and withdrew, as proper young ladies were obliged to do, but it was an expected social interaction, and Daffyd noted the girls' resemblance to their mother -- though it appeared, from the velocity with which they were growing, that they were going to take their height from their father.
They talked of the stone house being built, of the garden Sarah sketched with her words, when last they drove out to view progress: Levi smiled at Daffyd's puzzled description of Sarah's refusal to go within: "I will not set foot in that house," she said, "until I am its mistress, and I am in your arms" -- this, he said, despite Sarah having the greatest hand in its design, its dimensions and its materials.
Levi looked curiously at Daffyd, drawing the man out, for he too was a lawman and curious, and he came away pleased that Daffyd -- who was not at all unintelligent -- recognized Sarah's design and materials choices not only reasonable, but quite sensible -- was wise enough to go with her mandates on these matters -- "especially," Daffyd admitted ruefully, "when 'twas me she consulted on t' start with, before I knew what she had in mind!"
The two chuckled over this, sharing a moment when men realize their ladies have picked their brains and then presented them with the profitable result of their consultation.

Upstairs, Bonnie held Sarah's cool hand in her own, talking quietly with her daughter.
She had to bite her tongue -- twice -- to keep from chastising Sarah in the matter of having been shot: Bonnie was not terribly happy that Sarah continued to serve as an Agent of the Court, but she knew her daughter was headstrong and might rebel, and conflicted though she was, she was honestly fearful of Sarah's leaving her.
Bonnie knew what it was to lose somebody, and the last memory she had of them, was harsh words and argument and words that burned like red-hot iron in her memory.
She did not want that again, especially with her own daughter.
"I understand your Daffyd was tempted by another woman," Bonnie said quietly, taking another tack entirely.
Sarah whispered, "Yes," but made no other reply.
"He could have ... fallen, sweets. He had the opportunity."
"Yes." Sarah's whisper was barely audible, her lips barely moved: Bonnie might have thought her asleep, or nearly so, but Sarah's eyes were open, and she was looking at her.
"Mother," she whispered.
"Yes, sweets, I'm here," Bonnie said softly, wrapping Sarah's cool hand in both hers.
"Your hands are warm," Sarah said, as if the effort of speaking was almost beyond her strength, then, blinking, she opened her eyes and said a little more firmly, "You sent that woman to tempt him."
Bonnie's eyes snapped wide and she blinked, her mouth falling open.
"You brought her in from Carbon and paid her fifteen dollars to tempt him. She went in with full intent to bring him down. You didn't think I would find out." The whip-scar on Sarah's face was darkening, a harsh slash across pallid cheeks, and she lifted her head from the pillows, looking directly at her mother, then she relaxed, as if the effort of speaking and that little movement, utterly drained her.
Bonnie's mouth was open, her eyes distressed; she did not know how Sarah found out and she had the sudden terrible feeling that her daughter was learning the meaning of the word betrayal, and in the most terrible manner.
Sarah took a breath, then smiled a little, and Bonnie felt Sarah's hand tighten ever so slightly on her own.
"Thank you, Mother," Sarah whispered, and she opened her eyes again.
"He did not fall." The corners of Sarah's mouth pulled up a little, then dropped again, as if that effort were exhausting. "He did not fall. I had to know, Mother. I had to know ..."
Bonnie studied her daughter's face, squeezing her hand again, and brought it up, rested her lips on Sarah's knuckles.
"Mother," Sarah whispered.
"Yes, sweets." Bonnie's reply, too, was whispered.
"Thank you." Sarah opened her eyes a little, just a little, and she tried to smile again. "I'm cold."
Bonnie rose suddenly. "I'll get you another blanket."

The cub tilted its head, regarding the prairie dog carcass curiously: he looked up at his sire, then pounced on the meal, snarling and tearing at fresh bloody meat.
The Bear Killer watched indulgently and waited until his whelp was finished consuming the kill before washing the pup again.
The two continued on their journey -- the smaller Dawg having no idea where they were going, only that he was with this great and powerful leader, his belly was full, and the sun was warm on his curly black fur.
The pup cuddled close to his sire, blinking sleepily, tasting the wind.
The Bear Killer lifted his ears, sniffing the wind as well, and his great thick brush of a tail stirred with recognition as a horseman came over the ridgeline.

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Linn Keller 8-29-13

 

"Mama?"
Bonnie looked up at Polly's shining, sorrowful eyes.
"Yes, sweets?"
"Mama, Sawwah won't weed to us."
Opal nodded solemnly in agreement, her rag doll locked in her elbow.
"Oh, dear," Bonnie said, plucking the pince-nez from the bridge of her nose and setting her sewing aside.
Folding her hands between her knees, she leaned forward and looked at the twins, one, then the other, and she said, "Is she in her room still?"
The twins nodded in unison.
Bonnie blinked, considering, then nodded.
"I will go have a talk with her," she said, and the twins looked at one another, barely suppressing a delighted expression, then turned back to their mother and intoned in chorus, "Thank you, Mama."
Bonnie stood and flowed from the room, the twins marching resolutely behind her.
Bonnie climbed the stairs, hesitated at Sarah's closed door.
Knocking delicately with the back of one foreknuckle, she called, "Sarah?"
She turned her head a little, listening.
There was a slight sound from within, then silence.
Bonnie raised the back of her hand to the door, prepared to tap again at the wooden panel, when the knob turned and the door opened wide.
"Sarah, dear," Bonnie began, not entirely sure what to say.
Sarah, on the other hand, had something she wanted very much to say, and she said it as precipitously and as eloquently as she could.
She wrapped her arms around her Mama's neck and buried her face in her Mama's shoulder and shivered a little, her breathing quick, shallow.
Polly waited impatiently for the two to conclude their embrace; she looked at Opal, who reached up and tugged impatiently at her Mama's skirt.

The black wolf-cub swung its backside around so it faced the intruder squarely: hair a-bristle and lips peeled back to show its fierce white milk teeth, it took its cue from The Bear Killer and made no sound.
The pup scented the wind, for the wind came from this strange creature, tall and four-legged and two-headed: it did not smell right, it smelled ... odd, a combination of scents that should not be, and yet were.
The odd creature stopped and its upper half leaned down a little and pushed part of its head back, or up: the cub wasn't sure which, and did not really care, it knew only that it was tense, its hind quarters were wound spring-tight, ready to run, rush or flee: its muzzle was wrinkled, its ears laid back and flat.
"Hello, Bear Killer," the Sheriff greeted the massive, curly-furred sojourner: "what have you there beside you?"
The Sheriff swung down from the saddle, taking a moment to swing his backside around, working the kink out of his poor old back.
The cub fell back a step, its jaws opening a fraction, a tiny, cub-sized growl escaping its strictured throat.
The Sheriff laughed and bent at the waist, accepting a happy face washing from The Bear Killer: he rubbed the big dawg's ears and shoulders, and The Bear Killer swung his tail happily, giving a little ow-wow-wow of utter pleasure.
The cub took this as his cue to release the fierce he'd held in his little chest: he gave a puppy-sized snarl, lips pulled obscenely back, inviting this strange-smelling two-legs to come in reach so he, Cub, could deliver him the delights of shining fangs and a fighting spirit.
The Bear Killer looked down his muzzle at the war-singing squirt, planted a paw to pin it down and proceeded to give it a good bath.

Sarah walked slowly around her neatly-made bed, settled herself in the chair she'd drawn up in front of the window.
The twins waited for their Mama to seat herself on the side of the bed before climbing up beside her and bouncing a little.
Sarah breathed ... carefully.
She finally raised her head, looked out the window.
"Doctor Greenlees came out to see me," she began, "and I ... dare not ... I must not cough or sneeze, I must not fall, bounce or jump, and riding a horse is simply out of the question."
She stopped and breathed a little faster, as if trying to catch up with herself.
Bonnie's eyes showed the concern she tried to hide, for never had she seen her daughter breathe like this save only when she'd been hurt.
"Mother," Sarah finally said, her voice strained, "did ... Daffyd tell you ... what happened?"
"No, dear, the Doctor said your lung collapsed and that you should rest."
Sarah closed her eyes, nodded.
"I am sorry," she whispered. "I'm so tired."
"Ladies," Bonnie said, standing, and the twins slid off the bed, stood looking up at their lovely Mama.
"Let us retire," Bonnie said in her I'm-the-mommy voice, "and Sarah will get some rest."
"Yes, Mama," the twins chorused, and followed her like ducklings swimming after a mama duck in a still pond.

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Linn Keller 8-30-13

 

"She vill see me," Daciana said, the smile in her eyes giving the lie to the firmness in her voice: she handed Bonnie a basket, cloth covered and ribbon tied, and looked up the stairs.
"Her room ist up dere?" she asked.
Bonnie and Daciana looked up the stairs together as they heard a door open.
Daciana's face was carefully impassive as the two women listened to Sarah's slow, pained descent.
They waited, unmoving, silent, as Sarah came into view, turned at the landing and sagged against the wall, closing her eyes.
Bonnie's eyes widened with alarm and she started to take a step.
Daciana's hand closed firmly on Bonnie's wrist and Bonnie, startled, looked into the younger woman's bright hazel eyes.
Daciana shook her head, then released Bonnie's wrist.
It took Sarah another full minute to make her final descent, but when she did, she took both Daciana's hands in hers and whispered, "I'm glad you're here."
"I will have tea made," Bonnie said, and Daciana and Sarah looked at her and said with one voice, "Thank you."
The twins were decorously behind their Mama, staying out of the way, but watching with bright and curious eyes as this stranger raised questioning fingertips to Sarah's cheek, drawing her bottom eyelid down, then turning her head to look at Sarah's ear: satisfied, this stranger then turned to look squarely at Sarah's little sisters.
"Undt you must be der tvins," she said, squatting: Bonnie opened her mouth to introduce them, but the twins, recognizing an opening when they saw it, took a few hesitant steps toward Daciana.
Daciana rolled her wrist, opened her palm: there were two red-and-white-striped peppermint candies in her palm, each the size of a walnut.
The twins' eyes widened and they chorused "Thank you," before looking at their Mama and waiting for her nod of permission ... then, like happy children of any era, they snatched the sweet treat from the proffered palm and scampered happily away.
Daciana stood, extended an admonishing finger toward Sarah.
"You brother," she said. "Tall. Skinny. Handsome. Needs a goot meal."
Sarah smiled and Bonnie turned a little red as she tried to suppress a laugh.
"Oh, you've not seen him eat," Sarah said quietly, and Daciana noted the look of genuine affection in Sarah's eyes.
"He has goot vife," Daciana added, her encompassing hands indicating a severely gravid belly.
"Baby shoodt haff been here. Poor girl big."
"I told her," Bonnie sighed, "but she said the child would come when it was time."
"Ist not goot to vait," Daciana frowned, shaking her head, then turned as they heard the hammer of approaching hooves.
Sarah closed her eyes, concentrating on her breathing, then slipped her hand into her gown's hidden pocket as eager feet charged up the front steps.
Anxious knuckles drummed a brisk tattoo on the front door; the vague silhouette of a man stood without, and they could just make out that he reached up and swept off his Stetson the moment before the maid opened the door.
"Mary!" Jacob exclaimed, grinning, and kissed the maid: astonished, she drew back, a hand on her cheek, mouth open as Jacob swarmed past her, his eyes fixed on Sarah.
He seized her in a brotherly embrace, laughing, then held her shoulders and thrust her out to arm's length: "I don't know whether to swat your bottom or kiss you, Little Sis," he exclaimed, a grin on his face as broad as a Texas township: "you hadn't oughta run into branches like that but you're on your feet and by God! I have news!"
"What happened?" Sarah asked faintly.
"What happened? Good Lord, Sis, I'm surprised you couldn't hear me yahoo at this distance!" He spun, seized Bonnie's free hand as she handed the basket to the glaring, red-faced maid.
"Bonnie, I'm sorry, forgive me for not speaking, but IT'S A BOY!"
Bonnie's eyes shone and her mouth dropped open, then she seized Jacob and he hugged her back, laughing.
Levi stepped into the hallway, grinning. "Is this a private party or can anyone pass out cigars?" he called, and Jacob released Bonnie and strode toward the grinning Rosenthal: wringing the man's hand, he clapped his other hand on Levi's shoulder and affected a sorrowful expression: "Levi, old man, there is some sad news with all this!" he said, and Levi, with a knowing glance toward his wife, favored Jacob with a grin and said, "Oh?"
"Oh, it's terrible," Jacob sad, shaking his head in mock sorrow: "he doesn't look a thing like me." He hesitated before adding, "No mustache!"
"Well, if he doesn't look a thing like you," Sarah challenged in a careful voice, "this shows God's mercy and you should be grateful!"
"Daciana, thank you for those herbs," Jacob nodded his acknowledgement to the acrobatic young woman: "you were right, it did stop the bleeding!"
Daciana inclined her head in acknowledgement, then took Sarah by the arm.
"Komm," she said to Bonnie. "Ve must talk."
Daffyd Llewellyn leaned in the open front door. "May I come in?" he asked tentatively, and Levi motioned him in: "The ladies just uttered that poisoned phrase that they must talk," Levi intoned solemnly, "and that means that we men must withdraw and hold our own council. Gentlemen, this way, please!"
Polly and Opal, concerned, looked at one another.
"What about us?" Polly said in a little lost voice.
"I think there's some pie," Opal replied.
"There is," the maid whispered as she leaned over the pair, a hand on each, as she shepherded them to the safety of the kitchen: "I must brew the tea, but we shall have pie!"

The Bear Killer watched indulgently as the Sheriff bribed Cub with selections from his sandwich.
Cub would not take the meat-offerings from from the man's fingers, but he would sniff at the meat if the Sheriff laid it on the ground, and after the hand withdrew, Cub would snarl and pounce on the good beef, chewing and gulping as if afraid it would be snatched from him.
"You need to teach him some manners," the Sheriff said in a gentle voice as he shared with The Bear Killer as well.
The Bear Killer's great plume of a tail indicated his pleasure at sharing food and companionship both.

"I questioned him closely," Sarah said, stopping after every fourth word to breathe, "as to what I, was allowed to do, and how soon I, could do more."
Daciana listened closely to Sarah's words, looking for what she was not saying as much as what she was.
Bonnie, too, paid very close attention to her daughter: she was still alarmed that this strong young woman, this resilient, tough, deadly and capable soul, was now a ... was now by all appearances, a frightened girl.
"I asked him if, I could shoot a, rifle or shotgun from, the shoulder."
Her expression was one of near-sorrow as she recounted the conversation.
"Not until my lungs, are both healed up, and he is satisfied, they are strong again."
Daciana turned her head slightly, asking a question without using words.
Bonnie was not so subtle.
"And when did he say that might be, sweets?" she asked carefully.
Sarah could not raise her eyes from her teacup.
"Perhaps," she said slowly, "perhaps never."
"Undt vhat aboutdt ridink mit der horse?" Daciana asked, subtlety thrown to the wind.
Sarah bit her bottom lip, blinking.
"Not until I heal."
"Undt vhat about singink?"
"I want to sing," Sarah whispered. "I dreamed last night ... I dreamed I sang, the Ave and the, Te Deum, I dreamed I sang, Jesu Joy of, Man's Desiring, and I sang it, powerfully, and strongly, and ..."
"Singink ist goot for der lunks," Daciana said firmly. "Sink you vill. Here vait."
Daciana rose suddenly, walked quickly down the hall and out the door: moments later she came back in, a black leather case in one hand, a ribbon tied box in the other: she handed the box to Bonnie and said, "Open."
She placed the leather case on the sideboard and opened it, withdrawing a violin -- smooth, glowing, beautifully figured; she withdrew the bow, drew it delicately across the rosin block, tapped it twice against the edge of the violin case.
Tossing her head to settle her hair out of the way, she tucked the violin under her chin and looked at a far corner as if listening, then drew the bow across the strings.
Bonnie's breath caught in her throat.
Daciana spun the hymn as if spinning gold on a magic wheel: Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring , slowly and in dignified quarter-notes.
She saw the longing in Sarah's eyes, she knew from Sarah's breathing she wanted so very badly to sing, and Daciana knew Sarah's range and power and control, and Daciana knew she was throwing kerosene on the fire when she did it ... she played as it was written, a leisurely, dignified piece, then she tapped her foot four times and played it again ... twice as fast.
She lifted the bow from the strings.
The magic she'd spun in the tea-scented kitchen atmosphere vibrated for several heartbeats after the music stopped.
"Vhen healedt you are," Daciana said quietly, "sing you vill." She turned and placed the Stradivarius in its case, tucking it in as if tending a beloved infant.
Closing its lid, she looked at Bonnie and smiled.
"Open mit der box," she said. "Glasses ve need."
And while the ladies enjoyed a truly excellent wine, the men sipped bourbon.

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Linn Keller 8-31-13

 

Shorty blinked chaff out of his eyes, wiped his forehead viciously with a damp bandanna: he glared around him, satisfied, for his loft was finally clean.
He cleaned out the hay loft this time of year, getting all the old hay out, checking the roof, looking things over: sometimes he found abandoned goods, a saddlebag or a sack with a change of smallclothes, or a clasp knife, never anything of any great value: transients sometimes slipped into his loft for a night's rest, departing before dawn: Shorty was never comfortable with the idea, for he was deathly afraid of fire, but it was the way things were.
Just like the sweat that plastered his shirt to his back and galded the inside of his thighs.
He glared about him, satsified that he'd removed any possible source of mouse nests or mold, limped slowly across the coarse, warped board floor.
He waited at the head of the ladder, waited for no particular reason, letting his thoughts wander for a moment as his scarred carcass reminded him yet again that he was no longer a smooth stripling, capable of working from can-see to can't-see in perfect comfort.
He wiped his face again, wondering why in hell he was sweating so much, then he grinned and looked around the echoing-empty hay loft.
You've been working yourself like a rented mule, he thought, and laughed a little.
The hell with this.
I'm dry enough to sneeze and blow dust
.
In his imagination, Shorty heard the squeak of a pump handle calling his name, and his dry throat swallowed involuntarily at the thought of some nice, cool water.

The pup whined a little, then made a little querulous sound.
The Bear Killer looked back at his offspring and gave a quiet "whuff!"
The Sheriff watched, then walked his horse again, riding back along his former path.
The Bear Killer trotted happily after the Sheriff and the tired cub walked slowly after them.
The Sheriff dismounted, walked back to the pup.
He'd come back to it four times so far and each time the pup was a-bristle and a-snarl, but each successive visit was less hostile: on the third trip, with the pup's tongue hanging out and panting, the Sheriff was able to extend the back of his bare hand for a tentative sniff, just before baring its little white fangs again.
This last time, the fourth time, the pup was almost glassy-eyed with fatigue: he offered no protest as the Sheriff picked him up.
The Bear Killer, interested, watched closely as the Sheriff offered the pup for his inspection: The Bear Killer gave the pup's ears a sniff and a laving, then the Sheriff mounted again, slipping the pup inside his coat: he rode with one arm across his belly, supporting the warm, furry little cub, and the pup, exhausted, warm, decided maybe this stranger wasn't so bad, and closed his bright, black eyes and slept.

Sarah's fingers were firm around the delicate stem of her wineglass; she turned it slowly, thoughtfully, watching the purple liquid ripple slightly with the move.
She was obviously thinking hard on something and both her mother and her friend were wise enough to let her think, knowing she would speak when the time was right.
The time was sooner than they expected.
"I have lived, and I have, died," Sarah began, speaking slowly, as if still arranging her thoughts.
"I know what, the Valley, is like." She looked up, at Daciana, then at her mother. "I have been there. I was sent back, because my work is, not yet done." She dropped her eyes to the wineglass again, her shoulders sagging a little.
"I have no idea, what that work is."
"Undt if you didt?" Daciana probed.
Sarah's eyes flashed, some of her old fire visible for a moment: "I would bust my, backside, to get it done, so I could go, back!" she said in a panting rush, or as much of a rush as her short wind would allow.
"It was ... it was ..."
She hesitated, took a small sip of her wine, set the glass back down.
"There was, no pain," she said in a wondering voice. "No stress. No ... expectations." She looked up again, her eyes troubled. "No expectations. No ... no weight, on my shoulders."
Bonnie's eyes were a little wider and she felt her chest tighten, for she'd heard almost those exact words before, and she remembered the Sheriff speaking them, in a moment when they two were sharing a meal and a quiet moment, years ago, in the Jewel's back room.
Sarah took a deeper breath and Daciana noticed she turned her head very slightly to the right.
Her right side vass hurt, she thought, she thinks to protect idt.
Sarah took a deeper breath, raised her chin, her eyes wandering on the far wall.
"What good, am I now?" she whispered. "What good? I can't sing. I can't speak, forcefully. I can't ride, or pick up, a baby --"
"Not until you heal," Bonnie said reasonably.
Sarah shook her head.
"He killed me," she said wonderingly. "He killed me, and I died. Anyone can, kill me." She wet her lips, looked at the wineglass, released her delicate grip on its fragile stem.
"Anyone can kill anyone else at any time," Bonnie replied.
Sarah smiled sadly, nodded.
"I remember ..." Sarah began, then stopped.
"I tell you zumtink you know," Daciana said abruptly, almost harshly: she looked sternly at her friend, her forehead tight with a near-frown.
"You zaid zumtink aboutdt beink link in chain. Your bloodt must condinue."
Sarah nodded, smiled humorlessly. "I am a brood sow," she said, "but I can't even do that until I'm healed."
Daciana rose, leaned over the table, her lips peeled back and her face tight: "Broodt zow you are not!" she hissed. "If you vere not hurt I vouldt zlap you!"
Daciana glared at her dearest friend, sat down abruptly, picked up her wineglass and took a deliberate swallow.
"I tink you needt your backside kicked!" she continued quietly.
Bonnie held her tongue: she knew there was something going on between friends, words and meanings that could not come from a mother.
"I komm hier a zdranger!" Daciana said, her voice quiet and pleasant now, "undt you became mine vriendt. No vun else. You. Zen becuss you, others." She nodded. "Broodt zow couldt not do zis.
"You climb rope mit me. You clean oudt Buddercup stall vhen I zick. You fidt me mit gowns undt ve talk undt I like!"
Daciana took another, smaller sip.
"Zdandt," she said, rising abruptly: Sarah looked up at her, surprised.
Daciana took Sarah's arm, pulled hard. "Zdandt!"
Sarah stood.
Daciana opened the Stradivarius case again, tucked the violin under her chin, spun a single note into the kitchen's still air.
"I vant you zink," she said, her accent thicker now: "zink zis note," and the bow coaxed the A again, hovering like a golden butterfly over the parlor table.
Sarah wet her lips nervously.
"NO, NOT LIKE ZAT!" Daciana barked, smacking Sarah viciously across the backside with her bow: she placed the bow under Sarah's chin. "Zdandt zdraight! Chin up! Mit der belly sing!"
Sarah swallowed, sweat-beads gleaming on her forehead.
"Intaken mit der breath!" Daciana barked, tapping Sarah's flat belly. "Zink!"
Daciana spun the note, casting its spell over Sarah, and Sarah took a breath, a deeper breath than she'd taken since being hurt, and opened her mouth, and sang the note.
"Gut!" Daciana barked with a brisk nod. "Again!"
She spun a higher note, a C, and Sarah sang the note, pure, flawless, matching the violin's voice precisely.
Daciana lifted her bow, nodded. "Now you vill zink harmony note!"
Daciana spun the note and Sarah sang a note a little lower, but perfectly pitched, the harmony blending as smoothly as sugar in hot tea.
Daciana lifted her bow, nodded, stepped squarely in front of Sarah, tapped her shoulder with the bow, then she glared at her dear friend, stepped close and leaned her forehead against Sarah's.
Daciana saw Sarah's light-blue eyes merge into one blurry orb, and Sarah saw Daciana's hazel eyes blur into one out of focus sphere, and Daciana said, "No broodt zow zinks so gut!" and Sarah giggled.
Daciana smiled and then laughed.
"Lunks heal fast," she said. "Ze mountains gut for ze health. You vant zink? Komm." Daciana turned abruptly, very precisely, very carefully placed the Stradivarius back in its case, closed the lid.
"Komm." She took Sarah's arm in a firm grip, the violin case in the other, and marched the frightened-looking young woman down the hallway and to the front door.
Levi opened his study door and looked out, puzzled.
"I zdealink your daughter!" Daciana shouted, jerking open the front door. "Komm!" -- and she and Sarah stepped out onto the front porch, and Levi watched the door shut, as Bonnie came up and took his arm.
"Did I miss something?" he asked.
"Yes," Bonnie said, leaning her head on the reassurance of her husband's big, strong shoulder.
Sarah took a few breaths, gripped the handle, then climbed uncertainly into the carriage.
Daciana released the brake, clucked to the grey; they drove quickly, smoothly into town, Daciana steering the grey to one side or to the other, to stay on the smoothest part of the crushed-gravel road.
The buggy-seat was well sprung, well upholstered and comfortable, but Sarah was still apprehensive, clutching the side of the seat, breathing quickly, a fearful look in her eyes.
"To not vorry," Daciana admonished her. "All vell vill be. I drusted you, you drust me."
Sarah looked at Daciana, swallowed, and nodded.
The drew up in front of the church.
Daciana jumped from the buggy, a gracefully acrobatic hop, then came around the buggy as Sarah timidly, tentatively stepped onto the mounting-block.
"Komm," Daciana commanded, snatching the violin-case from the buggy. "In."
Daciana hauled open the little whitewashed church's right-hand door, and Sarah stepped inside.
Once within, Daciana took Sarah's arm and marched her to the altar rail: she placed her violin case on a pew, withdrew the Stradivarius, laid it on the pew: she took Sarah by both shoulders and looked her square in her light-blue eyes.
"I busted mine lunks," she said. "Doo yearss before I komm hier." Her accent was very prominent, her R's flipped from her tongue like divers off a high board.
Daciana clapped her hands together, stuck her tongue out and made a rude noise: "Mine lunks busted. I fall. Landt on back." She jabbed a thumb into the side of her ribcage, one side, then the other. "Doctor cut -- hier, hier -- he gets air oudt undt lunks up again."
Daciana laid a gentle hand on Sarah's cheek.
"Zarah, you are mine vriendt. I dell you zis becuss you mine vriendt. I giff you your lunks.
Drust me!"
Sarah swallowed nervously, nodded.
Daciana picked up her Stradivarius, spun a chord into the hushed atmosphere, then began playing slowly, half-notes now, the one song she knew Sarah loved and could sing, sing like Angelus herself: she drew the Jesu from her violin.
Sarah stood there, her eyes glitter-bright, but silent.
Daciana kicked Sarah in the shin.
"Zink!" she barked, and began again.
Sarah sang, following the violin's stately, paced notes, disciplining her diaphragm as she did when signing, taking quick, deep breaths, inflating her lungs to their greatest depths: her belly was firm, not too tight, and as she sang, she relaxed: a runner will experience an endorphin rush, a fencer will enter a subconscious state of relaxation where everything falls into coordinated smoothness, and a singer, when the singer is absolutely in love with what she is singing, will lose herself in the music.
Daciana let Sarah's voice soar, layering a countermelody beneath the high, simple melody: as voice soared like a great hawk, strong and graceful on the mountain wind, Daciana wove the colorful counterpoint, supporting and boosting Sarah's over-arching soprano.
Time was lost; reality stretched, warped itself around the beauty they shared.
Sarah's voice faltered; she tried again, but her throat closed, and her chin dropped to her chest: Daciana continued playing, softer now, as Sarah began to cry, then sank slowly to her knees, sobbing.
The Stradivarius continued to sing, softer now, slower, and finally Daciana drew out the final note, letting it fade gently into stillness.
Sarah looked up at her friend, her face wet; her nose was red and she pressed a kerchief to it, closed her eyes and sobbed again.
Daciana waited, silent, letting her friend cry herself out, and finally Sarah rose, slowly, pressed the crumpled, damp kerchief to one eye, then the other.
She took a long, slow breath, felt the air sigh into her lungs, sigh out of her lungs, and she swallowed a thick lump in her throat.
"Thank you," she whispered, and Daciana nodded.
"You neededt to know," Daciana said softly, "you needed to know you vould livf." She smiled sadly. "Vhat good iss life midoudt muzick, eh?"
Sarah laughed a little and reached for Daciana, and Daciana embraced her one-armed, the Stradivarius held out of harm's way with the other.

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