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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 10-3-13


"Yes, Sarah?"
"Papa, was it fair to turn everything over to the Chief like that?"
The Sheriff towered over his daughter; she was shorter than he, barely collar bone tall on the man, if you included her hair and a hat, and though she wore a proper Victorian lady's gown, she was obviously of slender build: still, they looked as if they belonged together, despite the disparity of height and of age.
"He has to learn," the Sheriff replied, his voice resonant, the way it was when he was thoughtful about a matter. "He doesn't have much experience as a police officer and he has even less experience as a Chief. He and his men will grow together, I suppose."
"If he's not killed first."
They walked slowly down the board walk; men moved aside for them, all without exception touching their hat-brim or cap-bill, or removing their cover altogether at the sight of a lovely young lady out for a stroll with a distinguished, well dressed man; Sarah responded to each gentlemanly recognition with a quiet smile, her hand securely on her escort's arm.
One of the boardwalk's occupants,however, was neither gentlemanly, nor particularly respectful.
A peevish old woman squinted through borrowed spectacles at Sarah, then she glared at the Sheriff.
"Young man!" she snapped as the Sheriff's hand rose to his hat-brim: "You should be ashamed of yourself!"
Her voice rather resembled dragging a scythe-stone across the honed edge of a Schwanensense; her disapproval was obvious, her dislike apparent.
"Ma'am?" the Sheriff asked in a gentle voice.
"Don't you 'ma'am' me, you scoundrel!" the old woman screeched, shaking a withered finger. "Just look at you! You're old enough to be her father! You should be ashamed of yourself! Despoiling a maiden's reputation! Ruining her virtue! Why, in my day you would be horsewhipped!"
"My name is Sarah McKenna," Sarah interrupted, her tone carefully neutral, "and may I present my father, the Sheriff of Firelands County --"
"I don't care if he's the King of Prussia!" the crone snapped. "Mark my word, you -- you -- rascal, you scoundrel, you chaser of a young girl's skirts!" She opened her mouth to sear the air with some absolute vitriol when something sank through her peevish skull.
"What did you say?" she grated, squinting at Sarah again.
Sarah managed to look gentle and kindly at the old woman.
"Look at my eyes," she said patiently, "then look at my father's eyes. You will find they are the same. I am told I have a natural resemblance --"
"You're as bad as he is," the old woman spat. "Defending a cradle robber! He -- you! --" she shook her finger at the Sheriff again -- "You should be horsewhipped. Horsewhipped!"
The disagreeable old woman shouldered her way past Sarah and stumped down the boardwalk, her cane loud on the boards as she muttered and shook her head.
Sarah looked at her Papa, her face quite red, and the Sheriff's ears were darkening noticeably: the two looked at one another, then turned to gauge how far the old woman had gotten before surrendering all propriety and yielding to happy and mutual laughter.
The wrinkled harridan turned, glaring through her spectacles, raised her cane and shook it at the pair: "I heard that!" she screeched. "Scoundrel! Horsewhip! And you, young lady, you need your britches tanned!"
Sarah and the Sheriff looked at one another, then at the old woman, and neither could contain their mirth a moment longer.
The old woman turned around, drove her cane down hard on a man's foot -- he bellowed, jumped, hopping on one leg and swearing a blue streak as the old woman shook her head and muttered her way down the street.

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Linn Keller 10-4-13


Rachel looked at the freshly painted sign overhanging the door.
"McKenna Uniform Works," it read: it was skilfully painted on a smoothed, sanded plank; the letters were red, on a beige background, shadowed with black and edged in gilt.
It wasn't something Mrs. Rosenthal mentioned, but Rachel had some business acumen of her own, and she knew an untapped market could be profitable.
At least temporarily.
Grace Welker had indeed managed to assemble a few exemplars: she used one of the policemen's caps as a master and was able to make four -- she even had the patent-leather for the short, curved bills -- and the note she included with the boxed covers made Rachel smile.
The milliner lacked the gold braid-chain to trim the front so she used gold-braid cloth, and her note said this was silent and would not betray a policeman's tread.
Rachel visited the Cripple Creek firehouse and spoke with their Chief, a man far less impressive than Firelands' chieftain: the man was clean-shaven, almost unknown in that era; his uniform was worn, wrinkled and frankly, unwashed, his boots and buttons unpolished: still, Rachel was able to assess the cut of his uniform, and with the savvy of a saleswoman, she asked the Chief to come to the new establishment, because she needed his advice on the proper cut of a uniform -- and for his trouble, she would make him a new set: shirts, drawers, shiny buttons, gold trim around his bib front, because after all, he was the Chief, and he had to stand out.
After the Chief came strutting back to the firehouse in his fine new uniform -- with his boots freshly cleaned, polished, repaired and gleaming -- with two extra uniforms folded and boxed under his arm -- the Cripple Creek Fire Department wasted no time at all in earnestly petitioning the new McKenna Uniform Works for new uniforms as well; City Council visited as well, first staring at the exemplars displayed in the window, then discussing how it would improve Cripple Creek's reputation as an up and coming young city, to have its people properly uniformed: Jacob quietly arranged with a saddlemaker of his acquatinance to provide wide, heavy gunbelts and holsters, to be worn outside their new uniform coats: he reasoned that with new uniforms, new gunbelts would be better accepted than if they had their former raggedy assembly of duds and leather goods -- which was probably why the meddling bureaucrats wanted to dictate a hide-the-guns policy for their constabulary.
Jacob and the Sheriff now moved to teaching close-in fighting, and they taught the police the same way they themselves practiced: in close, fast and dirty, cheat when possible, overwhelm the opposition fast and nasty and leave no doubt at all that whosoever did the contabulary violence, begot far more violence in return than they could possibly enjoy.
The two lawmen, father and son, also carefully taught from Ecclesiastes that for all things there is a season, and there's a time to pound someone to the dirt -- and a time not to pound them into the dirt.
Sarah came out on the midnight shift, in her mousy-grey schoolmarm dress, looking very feminine and helpless; she walked with the night cops and showed them by example how to get information from casual conversation: she would often ask a trail hand, or a saloon keeper, or a hard-rock miner, if she might ask his advice, or if he'd heard of some-or-another person: she then discussed with the officer, when they left the saloon, or the restaurant, or the dance-hall or gambling-palace, how this man reacted or that man held something back, but in general if approached decently, a man would respond decently.
Even the newspaper, in the person of a pushy reporter, ended up charmed by the bright-eyed young schoolmarm: the reporter started out by insinuating her charcter was less than it should be, simply because she was out at lonely midnight hour, to which she gave him an innocent look and protested that as an educator she must have a rounded knowledge of the real world, that her students were very familiar with the reality of their immediate surroundings, and she could not teach them Cicero and Homer if she could not relate to the Diamond Dust, Lil's Palace and horse droppings on the street.
"Miss Sarah," the young officer admitted once they were on their way again, "I wanted to punch that fellow when he started talking to you like that."
Sarah smiled up at the night cop and she patted his sleeve with a gloved hand.
"I wanted to do worse than that," she admitted, "but I sing soprano and I don't like competition."
Her expression was so angelic, and so at odds with what she just insinuated, that the policeman stopped in his tracks, eyes wide, then he began to laugh.

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Linn Keller 10-4-13


"Diamond Jim."
The gambler never looked up.
"Got a minute?"
"Got gold?"
A double eagle spun and wobbled on the blue tablecloth.
"What'll it be?"
"Shuffle, cut and draw."
"High or low?"
The policeman stood back, his eyes busy: his inclination was to watch the tall lawman with the iron grey mustache and study his interaction with the gambler in the thin, black mustache and the fine suit, but the older man taught him and his fellows to watch the crowd -- watch men's hands, their shoulders, if they're going to do anything, they have to move their shoulders first -- he eased his back against a wall, his eyes busy.
Hard-eyed men noted the policeman's positioning; the hard eyes showed a grudging approval, judgements were made as to how bad these new coppers were ... "bad" in the Western sense, as in "a bad man" was a bad man to tangle with.
It was common knowledge, by now, among men who discussed such things, that the Sheriff and his lean, cold-eyed son were teaching the cops how to take care of themselves, and between this knowledge -- the Sheriff's reputation was well established and hard earned, and his cachet carried weight -- but the coppers were ... different.
They seemed far less uncertain now, they wore sharp looking uniforms now, and earlier in the day one of the day cops drew on a man who was threatening another with a gun, and took the gun away from the man he drew on.
The Sheriff sat slowly across from the gambler, his double gun muzzle down between his legs, its twin barrels between his polished boots.
"Walking stick?" Diamond Jim asked cheerfully.
"Hearing aid." The Sheriff's smile was thin. "Chin rest."
Diamond Jim paused to light a dark cigarillo, puffed it into vile life, further poisoning the already fouled atmosphere.
He shuffled the deck, thumped it onto the round table top halfway between himself and the Sheriff.
The Sheriff took the deck, cut, shuffled: he cut again, shuffled again.
"Tapered," he said.
"Yep," the gambler agreed.
"If I put on blue spectacles, would I see marks?"
"Want to try mine? Just cleaned 'em."
The Sheriff smiled thinly, thumped the deck back into the middle of the table.
"I don't make a one cut for small potatoes."
"Neither do I."
"Double or nothing, sight unseen?"
"I'm not as stupid as I look."
"This," the gambler laughed, "proves the Lord's mercy! Who cuts first?"
The gambler reached across, left handed, picked up about three cards down, held it up.
The Sheriff reached over, picked up about the same, held his up.
Each man held a black ace.
They set their cards to the side, cut again.
The Sheriff added two more double eagles to the pot, as did the gambler.
Each man revealed a red deuce.
"How rich do you feel?" the Sheriff smiled, and the man's smile was thin, hard as his pale eyes.
"You're too eager," the gambler warned. "I can smell fresh blood."
"You might win," the Sheriff nodded. "Or I might."
"Can you afford a raise?"
The Sheriff placed a final coin, as did the well dressed gambler.
Diamond Jim drew one card from the top of the remaining stack.
The Sheriff drew one card as well.
Both men held their cards face down, then each turned his card over at the same moment.
The Sheriff revealed a red queen.
Diamond Jim turned over a black queen.
"Is this a sign?"
"Are you losing your nerve?"
"How deep is your purse?"
"How deep is yours?"
Diamond Jim felt the way he did when he was young, still a youth, on his father's jumper, facing a gulf his father forbade him to jump.
He could jump it, and he would triumph, for it would be something nobody had ever done before.
He could jump it and fall short, and both he and horse would be broken and killed in the subsequent fall.
He remembered the bright October afternoon when he sat in his father's saddle on his father's jumper, and then lifted the reins and spurred the blooded racer and launched into space over the deep, narrow chasm.
The Sheriff pulled out one more double eagle, held it up, then tossed it casually on the little pile of fortune in the middle of the table.
Diamond Jim matched him, raised him one, which the Sheriff saw with a coin of his own.
"Do you shuffle, cut or draw?" the Sheriff asked quietly. "Your choice."
"As you will, then."
Men leaned closer, held their breaths.
Diamond Jim slipped off one card, the Sheriff slipped off one, and both men hesitated, looked around and looked at one another.
"Sheriff," Diamond Jim said, smiling, "the luck is to my end of the table tonight."
"I'll take my chances."
"Suit yourself."

Ten minutes later, the policeman broke the silence between them as they walked down the street together.
"How did you know?" the young officer asked.
"I didn't," the Sheriff admitted.
"You ... didn't?"
"I thought the deck was cut on a taper."
"It was."
"Then ... how did you know ...?"
"I didn't."
"You didn't know?"
The Sheriff laughed.
"Why do you think I divided the pot and gave him back his money?" His eyes were bright, amused in the daylight. "It's the gamble that's the thrill. I didn't need to win that much money, he didn't need to lose that much. Besides ..."
He looked at the younger man.
"Last time I played him, I lost twice that much!"
The policeman considered this, nodded slowly as they walked.
"Think you're ready to run the show yourself?"
The policeman laughed nervously.
"I thought I was ready before you and your son came to teach us a few things. Now I realize I know nothing, or near to it."
"That tells me you're ready," the Sheriff said. "If you were over confident I'd have to take you by the scruff of the neck and dunk you in a rain barrel a few times."
They laughed together at this, until a whistle and a yell and gunshots from ahead, and both men started to run, at least until a cowboy rode out of a beer joint, shooting into the air and whooping loudly.
The young policeman ran up, seized the man's foot and hoisted, fast and hard: the cowboy fell off the opposite side of the saddle, his horse danced nervously to the side, and the policeman grabbed him by the front of his vest and hoist him directly into the cold water of the moss-slimed horse trough adjacent.
The Sheriff stood quietly by, his double gun tilted casually up against his shoulder, the twin barrels pointed to the clear fall sky overhead, as the cop hauled the sputtering, suddenly sober celebrant out of the drink.
"Reckon you can get him to the hoosegow?" the Sheriff drawled as the other day cop came sprinting toward them.
"Yes, sir, I think so."
"Reckon we'll go home, then."

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Linn Keller 10-5-13


Sarah settled into the upholstered chair between her Papa and her brother.
'You'll never make the fashion news," the Sheriff teased gently, "unless you master the art of the fashionably late arrival!"
The private car shivered under them as The Lady Esther tightened up on her load, whistled, then started the pull toward Firelands.
"Time, tide and the Z&W Railroad wait for no man," Sarah said quietly. "It would be... small mannered... to interfere with the railroad's schedule." She looked at her Papa, blushing a little, then dropped her eyes.
"Besides," she continued, "Bill -- the engineer -- he's a good man, and he likes to do his work well, and ... I don't want to interfere with that."
"So you're being kind to an individual and not an intangible."
Sarah considered this for a moment, then smiled and nodded.
"Two individuals," she said at length. "Aunt Esther, and the engineer."
Sarah seemed to have something further on her mind; the Sheriff laid a warm, gentle hand over Sarah's gloved, clasped hands, squeezed gently, then as Sarah leaned toward him, he ran his arm around her shoulders and Jacob saw his Pa's eyes smile as Sarah leaned into him and lay her head against his shoulder and gave a long, relaxing breath.
"I'm sorry, Papa," she whispered.
"For what, Princess?" he murmured.
"I didn't ... get to teach them ... holds or throws or how to punch ..."
The Sheriff hugged her a little more.
"You taught well, dear heart. You taught useful and valuable. What you taught may well keep them alive."
"My lung," Sarah said in an annoyed voice.
"I know." The Sheriff laughed quietly. "Think of this, liebchen. They will remember you as a schoolteacher who can disarm a man. They will not equate you with Agent Rosenthal."
"I'm tired," Sarah murmured, and Jacob rose, went to a cupboard; Sarah's eyes were closed as she leaned against the warmth, the strength, the reassurance of her Papa, and she remembered the blanket settling about her, and Jacob carefully tucking it in behind her and around her and folding it soft and warm up under her chin.
The Lady Esther whistled to the high, hard mountains, and the echo whistled back.

Two men waited on the depot platform.
Judge Donald Hostetler savored a fresh Cuban, recently rescued from the humidor's isolation; he kept two apple slices in the humidor, and he fancied there was the slightest flavor of apple in the tobacco's draw: beside him, his boots freshly polished, his uniform pressed and buttons shined, a fidgety Daffyd Llewellyn stood, or sat, or paced.
He finally sat, rubbing his palms slowly together, staring at the depot's green-painted floor boards, until at length the Judge said quietly, "If you stare any harder, you'll melt the paint," and Llewellyn blinked, then laughed.
"Aye, an' it's my fault," he nodded.
"You've something on your mind."
"Aye, I have, an' it's you I'm needin' t' consult."
The Judge withdrew his Cuban, contemplated its near end. "Oh?"
"Aye, 'tis me dear Sarah."
"Hm." The Judge flicked ash off his leaf-rolled cigar, returned it between stained teeth.
"She's ... an active lass," Llewellyn began.
The Judge grunted noncommittally.
Llewellyn looked across the tracks, toward the brush and woods beyond the fork in the road where a trail went up over the mountain.
"Judge, she's also your Agent."
The Judge waited, listening.
"I willna' interfere wi' her happiness an' if she's happy teachin' school I'm delighted, an' if she's happy stayin' a' home bein' wife an' mither I'm happy an' if she wishes t' disappear in a great black coat ... "
Llewellyn took a long, slow breath, sighed it out.
"I'll no' say her no, Judge, but ... "
"But you're afraid it may not be a proper thing for a married woman? Afraid of what people will think?"
Llewellyn slashed the air with his palm as if swatting viciously at a circling horsefly. "Nah," he spat. "Th' hell wi' people." He looked at the Judge his eyes narrowing a little.
"I don't want t' bury m' wife until she's old an' grey an' wrinkled an' has twa dozen gran'children an' a clutch o' great-grandchildren!"
The Judge threw his head back and laughed, a great booming sound, and down the platform a family, waiting on the train, looked his way and smiled in reply: the Judge took the cigar from his mouth with one hand, thumped Llewellyn happily on the shoulder with the other: "My son," he chuckled, "I am delighted to hear you say that!"
He looked at the cigar, then lay it aside: the Judge leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and looked into the distance.
Daffyd Llewellyn paid very, very close attention at this point, for he had never, ever seen the decorous and proper Judge affect this casual a posture.
"I was married once," he said softly, "to a proper young woman."
His voice softened a little as he looked into the distance of the past, looking across a chasm and a gulf at a life that was.
"It was before the War, and we were newly wed, and she fancied herself a rider.
"I was visited by a cavalryman.
"He knew I was a horseman too. Back East few people rode, you know."
Llewellyn nodded; back in Cincinnati it was unusual to see someone riding a horse: generally unsophisticated rustics, in town on business, unlettered peasants according to the urban and urbane sophisticates who lived in the Queen City.
"Nobody rode, back before the War ... everyone drove ... drove buggies, drove carriages, drove wagons ... but my wife and I loved to ride ..."
His voice tapered off into a sigh and he was silent for several long moments before he picked up his cigar, tapped the ash from it, puffed it back into life.
"When they came to try and recruit me, my wife saddled our mare and took out a-gallop across the field, showing off for the Sergeant.
"He whistled with admiration to see that fine bay mare running flat-out across the field with her tail and her mane streaming, and my wife pulled her hair free and it was streaming behind her as well.
"I remember it was late in the day and the sunset was red ... her hair was a healthy chestnut and it almost looked like it was afire, floating from her head, and that's the picture I carry in my heart."
The Judge nodded, his eyes soft; he harrumphed, looked down, puffed his cigar thoughtfully.
"She got to the end of the field and the horse hit a groundhog hole.
"My wife's neck broke when she hit and the horse ... we shot the horse, her leg was mangled ... "
The Judge looked down between his boots.
"I know what it is to lose a wife, Mr. Llewellyn," he said finally. "I don't want you to lose yours."
Daffyd swallowed, blinked, rested his hand on the old jurist's shoulder, squeezed gently.
The two men sat in companionable silence, until The Lady Esther's approaching whistle brought them to their feet.

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Linn Keller 10-6-13


Criminals are often unintelligent, or at least not willing to use the brains with which they were birthed.
Criminals, on the other hand, do sometimes have flashes of insight.
No doubt criminals bethought themselves of the collection plate at Sunday worship.
Congregants came to church with intent to adore the Almighty, to offer up their devotions, to listen to the Word, preached from the pulpit, the same Word that was read in most households on a daily basis as a matter of formal routine, most commonly of an evening, after supper, by head of household.
Today, when the plate was passed in the Firelands church, it passed among those in the pews, then back to the ushers, and back to the front: the Doxology was sung in a high, pure voice by a familiar figure, standing with her family seated on either side of her.
It may be that men (and most of the women, truth be told) went their way armed, even in the house of the Lord, not because they did not trust the Almighty -- far from it, every soul under that shake-shingled roof, individually and severally, trusted their Deity with all their hearts -- no, it is that their chosen working tools were part of their daily attire, and only one who was truly deficient between the ears, would walk into a house close-packed with citizen who were universally under arms.
Even if they did sit with their backs to the door, and their attention on the man behind the pulpit.
The schoolhouse, with bright and shining faces of its eager young students, with the stout and maternal presence of the greying, quick-to-laugh schoolmarm, was also a place where evil dare not tread, even if so inclined: the presence of two hidden compartments, each with a rifle and a double gun, both loaded and ready to go, was not known to the general public -- indeed, none of the students knew of their existence, only the two schoolmarms.
One was near the teacher's desk, in front; the was near the back door, and both were cleverly concealed, so much so that even the sharp-eyed carpenters who installed them, and knew of their location, were unable to see where they'd done their good work.
On the sole occasion when an Easterner came out and stopped, looked at the quiet little town on the edge of the howling wilderness, then indulged his habit of walking into a bank, producing a little nickle plated pistol and demanding their loot, met with utter and abject failure: the natives entertained him with a metallic concerto, the half-dozen customers in the bank that day each producing a cocked pistol, and even the pretty, smiling teller raising the octagon barrel of a pistol older than she was.
Somehow the sight of a gunbarrel about a foot from the robber's wish bone was a potent argument.
Not a shot was fired; not a cross word was uttered; the Marshal later said it was the easiest arrest he'd ever made, with the bad guy thrusting his weapon handle-first at the big lawman, then seizing his sleeve and fairly dragging the badge packer out the door, pleading to be locked up so he wouldn't be shot.
It was an era when men swore powerfully and loudly when at work or at play, but never in the presence of a lady, a day when offense was swiftly and violently addressed, when two men might square off and do their level best to beat the other into the ground, and when they were done, each would pick the other up and pack him into the saloon and they would have a beer together and agree that each had one hell of a punch, and that was the end of it.
Most times.
Of course, there were exceptions, rare exceptions, and these always seemed to be the only ones that came to the attention of the Eastern newspapers.
It was a matter of ill timing that one of those Eastern newspaper fellers was in town when the lovely Miss Sarah came upon strangers to their town, strangers who wished to take her and her carriage, and the pretty daughter of society stomped hard on the dash board of her polished, pinstriped carriage, snatched up a double barrel shotgun from the spring loaded lid, and drove its butt into one's man face, the barrels into the other's mouth: again, the guilty were apprehended without a shot being fired, and the pretty daughter of local society used a rag to wipe the blood and slime off the Damascus muzzle before replacing the shotgun to its hide and closing the upholstery-camouflaged lid.
She saw the gaping stranger in the city suit staring, bug-eyed, and she smiled and said "A girl has to keep herself safe, you know" -- then she looked at the big Marshal striding up the street and added, "Until a big, strong man steps up to keep me safe."
The reporter interviewed the Marshal, not realizing until he stood in arm's reach of this mountain of muscle and bristling beard, just how big the man really was -- he discovered the pair who were so badly treated by this fair flower of the mountains, were actually escapees from the Territorial prison, incarcerated because they'd abducted and brutalized multiple women in the city.
"In the city?" the reporter echoed, looking up from the busy tip of his knife-sharpened pencil.
Jackson Cooper nodded, casually cleaning his nails with a knife the size of a Roman short sword, extracted from a sheath inside one tall boot top.
"Denver," he added. "City men. They don't do well outside the city."
"No, I suppose not," the Eastern reporter murmured faintly. "And ... just how dangerous are these men?"
Jackson Cooper looked steadily at the natty-suited reporter from beneath shaggy brows.
"They could bite your head off down to your belt buckle," he said, "skin you with a dull spoon and the start gettin' mean with you, and not one damn' thing you could do about it."
The account first appeared in the New York newspaper two weeks later.
It took half a year for the account to make it back to Firelands.

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Linn Keller 10-8-13


Jacob leaned against the side of the wagon and wiped his face with a damp, soiled wild rag.
He gripped the pitch fork and looked around, nodding his satisfaction.
The field was pretty well harvested off now, wheat was thrashed and straw mostly moved off the field -- nothing went to waste! -- and Jacob knew the flour from grinding his own wheat would come back to him in colorful print cloth sacks and the surplus would come back to him in coin.
"Joseph," he said, "climb up there and drive this wagon to the barn."
"Yes, sir," Joseph said with that bright, eager grin of his, and he grabbed the front wheel by the rim and thrust his little-boy boot into the spokes.
Jacob laughed and leaned the hay fork against the wagon, then took his son under the arms and hoisted him easily.
Little Joseph grabbed the reins, unwound them from the brake lever; Jacob climbed up behind him, nodding with satisfaction as Little Joseph released the brake, flipped the reins and clucked up the team.
Jacob's labors lasted most of the morning, with Little Joseph driving; together they loaded up as much straw as they could manage and hauled it clear across the stubbled field to their barn.
It took the entire day but by sundown Jacob was satisfied with his labors.

Angela was helping her Daddy with a harvest as well.
Angela half-carried, half-dragged and Angela-sized burlap sack of apples.
Linn picked all the apples he could reach peacefully, then brought out a heavy, folding ladder: he and his bright-eyed little girl packed apples to the cellar; the two of them sorted the apples, setting aside those with bruises or flaws: the good ones went in a thick bed of straw, layered in bushel baskets, and the Sheriff packed them down the cut-stone steps into the cellar, to join other goods stored against winter's dearth.
The Sheriff climbed out of the cellar and he and Angela returned to the double row of trees along the little wet-weather run, the dry creekbed that made a natural boundary between the Sheriff's side pasture and the next piece of ground -- which he also owned, of course.
Angela tilted her head a little and smiled, looking at the rows of trees, and her Daddy brushed his iron-grey mustache with the back of a foreknuckle and smiled, "What is it, Princess?"
Angela pointed down between the double row and said, "I remember how Sawwah wode her hor-r-r-rsie thr-r-routh the tr-r-reees."
The Sheriff waited, knowing from the frown that Angela was chastising herself for sounding like a little girl.
"I r-r-remember how Sar-r-rah r-r-rode thr-r-rough your tr-r-rees."
The Sheriff nodded, sitting cross legged on the dry grass, drawing his little girl into his lap: Angela giggled and leaned happily against her Daddy's big strong chest and cuddled as his big strong arms wrapped snugly around her.
"I remember too, Princess," the Sheriff murmured, remembering how Sarah wove in and out of the long row of trees, running at a dead gallop.
"I want to r-r-ride like that," Angela said thoughtfully.

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Linn Keller 10-10-13


"I feel like I'm stuffed," Daffyd muttered, glaring at the image in the full length mirror.
The patient woman with pins between her lips and a measuring tape around her neck, looked up at him, then went back to her analysis of his sleeve: frowning, she made an invisible mark on the material, added a couple of pins and put her fingertips on his shoulders.
Daffyd turned a little, prompted by the fingers, until another tug halted his rotation: Bonnie's seamstress tilted her head a little, regarding the man's lapels with a studious expression, and nodded.
She slipped the coat back, then off his shoulders; another pair of feminine hands grasped it from behind and Daffyd stepped forward, slipping out of the garment.
"Ye'll cut a fine figure, lad," Sean rumbled approvingly, bushy red brows wiggling a little with merriment as he watched his fireman's discomfiture.
"Is all this really necessary?" Daffyd complained, to which the Fire Chief and all three seamstresses chorused "YES!" -- with the ladies' knuckles on their waistlines -- and Daffyd chuckled a little and shook his head.
"I'm outnumbered," he groaned.
"Aye, an' ye don't ha'e t' enjoy it s'much!" he muttered.
"Don't you want to look your very best for your bride?" one of the seamstresses offered as she snipped a thread, then turned back a sleeve and inspected the lining.
"I already look good!" Daffyd protested.
"Aye," Sean agreed, "ye do strike a fine figure of a man, lad, but ye maun admit 'tis traditional for th' groom t' look like he's taxidermied!"

Sarah, too, was patiently withstanding the mercies of her own dressmakers: unlike Daffyd, she offered no protest at their attentions: rather, she silently reveled in her transformation, she rejoiced at becoming a bride -- and as a seamstress herself, she also delighted in the dress's design, for it could be easily converted from wedding-gown to day-gown: unlike those back East with great wealth, she did not feel wealthy enough to wear all white, the absolutely poorest choice for a dress, as it soiled so very easily: no, neither Sarah, nor her mother, could see the sense in a garment to be worn but once.
Sarah's dress was a rich emerald, like her Aunt Esther's had been, and was styled much like her Aunt Esther's dress.
Sarah took a careful step toward the mirror, another: she marveled at the beautiful young woman in the glass, turned left, turned right, her arms held out a little, bent at the elbow.
"Well?" Bonnie asked, raising a kerchief to her nose.
Sarah turned, her smile radiant: a tear ran down her cheek.
"Oh, Mama," she whispered, "I'm beautiful!"

Esther smiled a little as she cracked the seal.
She knew the hand in which it was addressed; the same hand continued within, conveying its message in precise, elegant script:
Aunt Esther,
Thank you for allowing us to tailor my wedding gown after yours.
It is as lovely as yours; it is the same shade of emerald as your eyes.
I only hope I can be half as lovely on my wedding day, as you were on yours.

Upstairs, the Sheriff sorted through his wardrobe.
His good suit was hung on a hook, his good hat on a peg beside it.
He'd tried them on just to make sure they fit, then hung them back up and resumed the suit he'd worn through the day.
Esther looked up as he came down stairs, as military-neat as was ever his habit: she smiled and big and pregnant that she was, she thrilled at the sight of her handsome husband, the man for whom she rose in the morning with a smile on her face.
The Sheriff bent and kissed his wife delicately, then more passionately, his arm running around her back, his other hand caressing her belly.
"Mrs. Keller," he murmured, his mustache tickling her nose, "have I told you lately how good looking a woman you are?"
"Liar," Esther murmured, raising her face and kissing him back.

"Joseph," Jacob said, "you are doing a fine job."
Little Joseph had boot polish streaking his hands and shirt sleeves; there was a black smudge on his cheek, but he looked up with a broad, little-boy grin, one hand thrust into an inverted boot, the other grasping the horsehair boot-brush.
Jacob raised his own left boot on his own left foot, resumed buffing its polished surface: Little Joseph frowned at his boot and resumed buffing it as well.
"Once you get those polished," Jacob said, "we'll try your suit and make sure it still fits."
"Why'nt it oughta fit me, Pa?" Joseph asked, surprised.
Jacob grinned. "Joseph," he said, "do you like your Mama's good cookin'?"
"Yes, sir!" Little Joseph enthused.
"What do you think happens to all those groceries you shovel in?"
Little Joseph stopped and considered, and Jacob continued for him.
"Your body uses it to make bones grow and everything else grows with your bones."
"Oh," Joseph said, as if that explained everything, then, "Pa?"
"Yes, Joseph?"
"How come I got a job for Sarah's wedding?"
"Aunt Sarah," Jacob corrected.
"Yes, sir," Joseph said, looking down, "Aunt Sarah."
"What's your question again, Joseph?"
"Pa, how come I gotta job? Can't they hire nobody to do it?"
Annette looked at Jacob as if to say Answer that one, hot shot!
"We wanted the right man for the job," Jacob said carefully. "You can do the job better than anyone we could hire. Besides" -- he looked squarely at his son -- "it will mean so much to your Aunt Sarah that you're there."
"Oh," Joseph said. He frowned at his boot, gave it a few more strokes with the brush, held it up for inspection. "How's this look, Pa?"

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Linn Keller 10-11-13


Esther insisted on her daily walks: they were rather shorter now, as she was eight months along, the size of a whale (at least to hear her tell it) and she had to rest at more frequent intervals than she really wanted, but when she did, it was with a soft smile and a gentle hand on her maternal belly.
Today, while the Sheriff and Angela gathered apples, Esther walked slowly to the pasture and past the barn, Alfdis with her; part maid, part midwife, part wet-nurse and a big part confidante and dear friend, Alfdis offered no protest at Esther's activity.
The horses grazed and slashed their tails against their flanks, shivering their hides occasionally to dislodge flies: Esther kissed her lips together and Cannonball, whose own belly was great with foal, came walking slowly over to her, head bobbing, and snuffed loudly at Esther's extended hands.
Esther fed her some tobacco and rubbed her ears.
"We shall foal together, Shining One," Esther whispered. "Our colts will be strong and fertile, and our herds will live after us."
Cannonball the Swift, Cannonball the Fleet, Cannonball of the smooth gait, closed her eyes with pleasure and whickered contentedly at Esther's attentions.

Angela frowned a little as she peeled apples.
The Sheriff left her in the good care of their kitchen staff, where apples were being prepared for canning and for saucing and (hopefully) for pies.
The Sheriff did so love a good fresh apple pie, baked in the fall with fresh harvested apples.
Linn went back out into the bright October sunlight, smiling at Esther in the horse-lot: she did so love her riding stock, and she had a special bond with his beloved Cannonball, and the Sheriff chuckled to himself to see his gravid wife with his gravid mares, and both of them huge with their young.
They're both due next month, he thought.
Cannonball should foal toward the end of the month and Esther ... well, Esther will birth our daughter when she will.
Our daughter.
Esther said she carried a girl, and we've planned for a girl, and we've picked her name.

The Sheriff's eyes stung; he blinked, swallowed hard.
She wants to name her Dana Lynne.

The Sheriff tilted his face up.
High-altitude cirrus curled their mare's-tails against the flawless blue dome overhead; following this was the spotty speckling he expected.
Mare's tails and mackerel sky,
Never long wet, never long dry.

"I hope it's this nice for Esther's birthday," the Sheriff said out loud.
"So do I," a familiar voice said, and the Sheriff jumped and turned, startled.
Sarah smiled up at him, her light-blue eyes bright behind her round schoolmarm spectacles.
The Sheriff laughed and bent a little to hug his daughter, and Sarah laughed and jumped into his embrace, and he picked up his little girl and spun her around the way he used to, picking her up under her arms, his big hands spread wide over her ribs: Sarah threw back her head and laughed as the sky spun a great, dizzying circle above her, and Esther looked up and smiled to see the Sheriff, with a delighted smile, hoisting his daughter the way he delighted to hoist Angela.
He finally set her down but kept his grip on her ribs, and Sarah rested her hands gently on his forearms.
"Dear Papa," she said, her eyes shining, then she blinked and looked down, almost shyly.
"What is it, Sunshine?" the Sheriff asked gently.
"I was fitted for my wedding gown today," she whispered, blushing a furious scarlet.
The Sheriff hoist her again, and the world played a mad merry-go-round to her senses: his great, delighted laugh filled the sky and the earth and Sarah delighted at the feeling of being Daddy's little girl, if only for a moment.
He brought her down, kissed her forehead, then eased her down until she touched the earth once more.
"Are you getting taller?" he asked, and Sarah's expression was impish.
She came up on tiptoes and raised her lips to his inclined ear, a little girl whispering a secret to her big, strong Daddy.
In that moment, the Sheriff could almost imagine her with a rag doll in her elbow again, only what she told him was far from what a little girl would confide.
"I am wearing heels, Papa," she whispered. "I have been wearing higher heels to get ready for my wedding day."
The Sheriff looked at Sarah, a laugh bubbling up inside him.
"Sarah!" he said very quietly in a mock-shocked voice. "Heels, you?"
"Of course, Papa!" she said, her eyes wide and innocent. "I have to seduce my husband, you know!"
The Sheriff took Sarah's hand and they walked together toward his deacon's bench, half a log smoothed and set in place, in the sun but out of the wind.
"My little girl, a seductress?" he said with mock sorrow, shaking his head like a great bear shaking off a spiderweb. "Where did I go wrong?"
"Papa?" Sarah stood in front of him and took both his hands in both of hers.
He looked at her and started to say something, at least until Sarah put a finger to his lips.
"Papa, please, let me speak."
He nodded, curious.
"Papa ..." Sarah hesitated, bit her bottom lip, then sat abruptly beside him and leaned against him.
"Papa, I wish I'd been your little girl."
"I wish you had, too, Sweetheart," the Sheriff replied, laying his big manly arm around her shoulders and drawing her close.
Sarah cuddled against him and sighed.
"Yes, Sunshine?"
"Papa ... I'm going to be a married woman."
"I know."
"I'm scared."
"I'm glad."
Sarah pulled back as if stung, her expression shocked.
The Sheriff looked at his daughter with gentle eyes, full of wisdom.
"You," the Sheriff said, "are probably one of the strongest and most capable souls I've ever known. You're still scared because this is a monumental change in your life. Your very soul will change when you marry this man."
Sarah's eyebrows quirked a little to hear it.
"I don't pretend to understand what I know, but I know this," the Sheriff continued. "When you marry the right one -- Esther and I both agree that Daffyd Llewellyn is indeed the right man for the job" -- his grin flashed and Sarah swatted playfully at is taut belly -- "your souls join just as your flesh.
"When we read of man and woman becoming one flesh, it's more than just the flesh, Sarah." He looked at his own wife, walking slowly back to the house, leaning heavily on Alfdis's arm. "You truly become ... one."
They sat together in the warming sun, silent and contemplative, until finally Sarah asked, "Papa?"
"Yes, Sweetheart?"
Sarah's voice was edged with sadness, with a little uncertainty.
"Papa, will I still be your little girl?"
The Sheriff gazed into the distance, then smiled and looked at Sarah.
"Sarah, stand up."
Sarah stood and the Sheriff guided her until she stood squarely in front of him.
He took both her hands in his and looked her squarely in the eye.
"Sarah, I will tell you a secret, and this is something that every Papa worth his salt knows," he said, his voice quiet, heavy with conviction.
Sarah nodded once, slowly.
"Sarah, no matter how old you get, married or not, mother or not, widow or not, you will always, always! -- you will always be Daddy's little girl."
Sarah bit her bottom lip and her eyes started to glitter and she threw herself into her Papa's arms and choked "Oh, Papa!" and for a moment she was a little girl again, and he was her Daddy, his big strong Daddy-arms were around her, and all was right with the world.

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Linn Keller 10-11-13


The Sheriff looked up at the sound of running footsteps.
It was one of the lads from town; he bore a distressed look and the Sheriff rose as the boy stopped, looked about, saw the lawman and bore straight for him.
"Sheriff," he gasped, "come quick, there's a terrible fight at the Bar R!"
"Oh bloody hell," the Sheriff muttered, snatching up his hat -- "no, not you, son," he said quickly, then to Sarah, "I'm sorry, dear heart, duty calls," and kissed her cheek.
He paused, his hands firm and warm on her shoulders, and he bent a little to look deeply and powerfully into her eyes.
"I am very proud of you," he whispered, then he turned and strode for the horse lot.
Sarah watched as Esther and Alfdis turned at his approach; he whistled a single, sharp note, and his black Outlaw-horse came cantering across the field toward him.
She saw him say something to his wife, kiss her quickly on the cheek; she saw how his hand lingered, as if reluctant to part from hers, before he turned and long-legged it to the barn: moments later he rode away and across the field, his Outlaw-horse galloping smoothly across the wind-swaying grasses, until at the far end they gathered themselves and sailed easily over the whitewashed fence boards.
I'm to be married, Sarah thought, almost sadly, and a respectable woman would not go helling across the countryside like that.
Esther looked after her departing husband, remembering the time she came helling into town, galloping Duzy's paint Edi-horse, shotgun across her saddle bow and war in her heart, at the news that the man she fully intended to have as a husband, had just been shot.
Lady or no, society matron or no, she was damned if she was going to sit at home and wait for word of the outcome: no, she snatched up her favorite persuader, a stoutly loaded shotgun, and exercised the prerogative of her Celtic ancestors' blood singing in her veins.
It was not a terrible distance to the Bar R; still, the Sheriff stopped at his office long enough to grab a shotgun and extra shells, for he was a man who liked to be prepared: when he cleared the gate a quarter mile from the ranch house, he heard the first gun shot and shucked his Winchester from its scabbard, and gave Outlaw his knees, and leaned forward, willing his gelding to greater speed.
There were two groups, each loosely coalesced into an armed knot.
At the Sheriff's approach, hot words and hot tempers bridled themselves.
Between them, a beef, tethered to a post; two men stood close, glaring and bristling like a pair of dogs.
The Sheriff slowed his Outlaw horse, cantered a little, then slowed to a fast walk, gradually slowing to a stop when he reached the group.
He looked left, at a half dozen men, looked right at about eight; he recognized the Bar R's ranch owner, he recognized the Bar B foreman, and he looked at the beef with the Bar B brand.
His shotgun was pointed pretty much straight up, the checkered wood of the steel-framed butt on his left thigh: nobody missed the fact that both the shotgun's triggers were eared back to full stand.
Nobody moved; nobody spoke; in the distance, a desultory bird call, a dog barking at a shadow, a cow called impatiently to another: finally the Sheriff said, "I hear tell there's a fight hereabouts. Who's boxin'?"
One of the Bar B men started to bring his rifle around and the Sheriff thrust the octagon barrel of his engraved '73 rifle toward the offender: the .44 bullet drove into the rifle's wrist, splintered it, almost tearing it in two.
The Sheriff let the muzzle of his rifle roll down, brought it back up, knowing it was hard on every part of the rifle's action, but knowing it showed everybody with absolutely no doubt a'tall that he'd shot one handed, reloaded one handed, and was ready to shoot again.
"I asked a question," he said mildly. "There will be no gun play here today, elsewise I will harvest souls and collect carcasses." He thrust his jaw at the Bar B ramrod.
"You," he said. "Speak your piece."
"They stole our beef," he barked. "Stole it an' run an iron over't and claimed 'twas theirs!"
"Really?" the Sheriff asked mildly. "Show me."
"I'll show you!" the ramrod shouted. "I'll show you that cow's hide from the inside!"
"You kill my cow and I'll kill you!" the Bar R ranch owner roared.
"Hold it now, hold it," the Sheriff said in a conciliatory voice. "I'm confused here. If this was a Bar B beef and they used a running iron on it, how can they turn a B into an R? I can see an R running ironed into a B but not t'other way around."
"They said that was their beef and I say it's ours!" the ramrod blustered.
The Sheriff kicked his boots free of the stirrups, slung one leg up and slid to the ground, landing easily on the balls of his feet.
"Let's you two come up and take a look at this here brand," the Sheriff said.
"Leave that rifle with one of your men."
"The hell with you!" the ramrod snarled. "I say they're thieves --"
The Sheriff took two long strides and smacked the rifle's muzzle aside with his shotgun's barrels, then spun and drove the butt end into the man's nose, hard, using only his left hand, its wrist iron sinewed from constant practice with his cavalry saber.
The ramrod dropped his rifle; his hands went reflexively to his nose.
Blinded, tears flooding his eyes, he dropped one hand to his revolver and inherited two barrels in the gut for his trouble.
"Your belt unbuckles in the next five seconds," the Sheriff said conversationally. "If you unbuckle it, you'll be able to use it again. If I unbuckle it I'll do it with two charges of swan shot. Your choice."
The ramrod unbuckled his belt.
"Now drop it."
The belt hit the ground.
The Sheriff kicked the man hard in the belly, drawing his knee up to his own belt buckle before shooting his leg out sideways: the move was fast, it was smooth, it was something nobody there had seen before, and it folded the ramrod up and knocked him backward and to the dirt.
"Who's second in command?" the Sheriff asked.
Nobody moved for a few long seconds, the one fellow stepped forward.
"Come over here and look at this brand with me."
The Sheriff turned, looked at the Bar R ranch owner.
"You too, come on over. By yourself."
The two representatives came over.
"Now let's part the hair and see what's there."
Hard-callused and sun-browned hands reached up and stroked the short fur back from the burn-scar.
"What does that look like to you?"
"Bar R."
"And you?"
"Bar R."
"Does it look like it's been altered?"
"No," the two men chorused.
"That's how I see it."
The Sheriff walked over to his patiently waiting Outlaw horse, thrust his rifle into its scabbard, the double gun swinging from his left hand.
The Bar R owner saw the hammers were safely down to half cock.
He hadn't seen when the man did it, but he'd made the action safe before using the shotgun to thrust and parry.
"I am the Sheriff," the lawman with the iron grey mustache declared in a loud voice, "and I proclaim this cow to be Bar R. If any man dispute this, let him speak up and do it RIGHT NOW!"
"You ain't so tough without that shotgun," the Bar B ramrod snarled.
The Sheriff handed the double gun to the Bar R owner, reached down and unbuckled his holsters' tie-downs, then unbuckled his own belt.
He hung this over Outlaw's saddle horn and walked over to the Bar B foreman.
The foreman bent and rushed the Sheriff.
The Sheriff stepped quickly aside, kicked the back of the man's knee -- stomped it, really -- as he passed, the same move Sarah used in Cripple Creek.
The foreman went face first into the dirt.
He scrambled back to his feet, bringing up his fists, just in time to catch a hard-handed slap to the side of his head, a slap that staggered him and nearly burst his eardrum.
He roundhoused and caught nothing but air, and a fist caught him in the ribs as he over extended.
He backed away, bringing his fists up, and the Sheriff stood casually, relaxed, arms to his sides.
Wary now, the foreman brought his fists up again, advanced cautiously.
The Sheriff's eyes seemed to be on his own as he advanced.
The Sheriff saw the man's left shoulder drop and he took a quick step to the right, turning to grab the extended arm and trap it against his body: another twist and the elbow was screaming in pain, as elbows are intended to bend one way but not another.
The foreman lost all interest in his elbow when a knee came out of nowhere and caught him right under the chin.
He remembered the distinct click of his teeth coming together in a bright tenth of a second before his universe exploded in many spectacular and starlike colors.
The Sheriff fought neither fair, nor conventionally; his fighting-style was garnered from that damned War, from a lifetime as a lawman, from coaching and practice and observation with better fighters than himself, including some odd Oriental sorts whose methods looked like a ritual dance of some kind -- but buried in their dance were deadly efficient moves, like kicking the back of the knee, or thrusting the heel of the hand into the opponent's snot box, or bringing the rigid, bladed hand down edge-first on a collarbone, dropping one's entire weight into the blow.
The ramrod woke up on a travois, halfway back to his bunkhouse.
None of the men around him looked at him, none of them talked to him, and when he got back, he had time enough to wash the blood off his face and out of his nose before the Bar B owner handed him his pay and invited him to find work elsewhere.

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Linn Keller 10-12-13


Donaldson didn't look too pleased to see me and I could see why.
Donaldson just fired his ramrod.
When a man has to fire someone it's troubling ... I've had to do it, and I always felt the fault was part way mine, for not seeing that he'd not work out.
On the other hand I don't have a crystal ball.
"You come to arrest someone?"
Donaldson nodded, turned back to his bookshelf: he replaced a volume, considered for a moment, then turned back to me.
"I heard about earlier today."
"Figured you would."
"I believe you owe me a rifle."
I laughed quietly.
"No," I said, "if you want to collect, take it from the fool who raised a rifle when I was in the way."
Donaldson's eyes were needle sharp and if they'd been gimlets instead of gimlet bright, why, I'd have been speared like a butterfly on a cork board.
"My man didn't see it that way."
"Your men were backing an empty hand," I said. "Your foreman lied on another rancher. That's cause for a range war and you know it."
Donaldson sighed. "Yeah. I know it."
Donaldson had seen a range war. Matter of fact I cut lead out of the man years after, when it was working its way to the surface and proved an irritation: he asked me as a favor and I did it, and he allowed as he would use the bloodied slug for a watch fob.
"You did well to let your man go."
"I know." He looked at me again. "Is that why you come here? Tell me to fire him?"
Donaldson leaned against the back of a chair.
I could tell his leg was paining him again.
"Your daughter doin' all right?" I asked.
His head came up with a snap. "What about my daughter?" he snarled.
"Set yourself down before you fall over," I said, accepting a mug of coffee from his long-suffering wife. "God help us, I think you're every bit as hard headed and contrary as me and I thought I had a corner on the market!"
Donaldson glared at me, at least until Margaret came around behind him and set his coffee on a little table beside his easy chair.
Donaldson set down slow, the way a man will when his joints are a-painin' him.
"She's doin' fine," he finally said. "Married a banker." He snorted. A banker!"
"Takes all kinds," I said mildly, sipping the coffee. It tasted a little different, and I quirked an eyebrow at Donaldson's wife.
She smiled tiredly, laying a hand on her husband's shoulder.
"I dislike the East, Sheriff," she said, "and Arbuckle's is out of New York. That" -- she nodded to my coffee mug -- "is Hills Brothers out of San Frisco."
Margaret raised her chin defiantly.
"It is a Western coffee!"
I looked at Donaldson and relaxed a little.
"Donaldson," I said, "your wife is a wise woman."
Donaldson grunted.
"I was smart enough to marry you," she said softly to her husband, who raised his hard hand to pat hers gently.
"Yeah," he finally said.
"Donaldson, I come out to say thank you."
Donaldson's salt-and-pepper brows puzzled together and he frowned a little.
"You gave me some good sound investment advice and I took it."
"That so?" he grunted.
"Yep." I twisted a little in my chair and the leather upholstery muffled a little *pop* as a kink broke free somewhere in my lower spine.
Donaldson and his wife both made a little bit of a face to hear it.
"I was all set to invest in that silver mine we heard about and you told me it sounded like a swindle.
"It was."
I looked at him and grinned.
"I figured I might want to invest in a sure thing."
I reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a poke the size of my fist.
"You need a new seed bull and you need feed to see your stock through winter. Was you to get that new bull and thin your herd by three-fourths, then bring in fresh heifers come thaw, I'm thinkin' you could double your herd and more by this time next year."
Donaldson glared at me from under shaggy brows.
"Sounds good when you say it fast."
"I know." I deliberately dropped the poke the last half inch to the table top, where it slouched over against my empty coffee mug. "You're a damned good judge of men, Donaldson. Your ramrod made a mistake but it was a big one and you didn't have no choice but to let him go. How many times have you been mistaken about men or cattle either one?"
Silence stretched between us in the ranch house, its passing punctuated by the grandfather clock against the near wall.
"I know you, Donaldson. You're just pretty damned sharp. I'm making a safe investment here."
"It'll take more than that thousand," Donaldson said -- his voice was flat, and we both knew he was making a statement of fact.
I brought out a second poke, set it beside the first.
"There's two thousand," I said, and I saw his wife go a little pale.
I knew they'd had a difficult time and I knew they had debts, and I knew their men stayed though they'd missed a pay.
A third poke joined the first two.
"Think it over," I said. "We can rassle for the details later." I stood, lifting my hat from my knee where I'd had it parked. "Mrs. Donaldson, thank you for the coffee, and I'll ask the Mercantile to carry that brand."
"They already do, Sheriff," she smiled. "They ordered it in when I asked for it."
I shook my head and sighed, looking down at Donaldson.
"Just proves once again," I said, taking a step toward the man and sticking out my hand, "that she's younger, smarter and better lookin' than me."
Donaldson's hand gripped mine.
"I'll think about it," he said, his eyes not leaving mine.
I rode on back to Firelands, ever so grateful I'd been listening in the Jewel that night when his hands were playing penny ante to scratch up money enough for drinks.
There is an art to cheating at cards and I'm not good at it, and I'm transparent as a good grade of window pane when it comes to lying, but somehow when I folded three times in a row and shoved the pot over toward them, they believed they actually the winning hands, and as they took their winnings and traded them for beer and talked a little more freely, I learned about Donaldson's difficulties and how his plans fell through for lack of funds, and I filed that away in the Book of Useful Knowledge.
It's not the only local investment I made that turned a profit, but it was one of the more satisfying.
I kept a local rancher from the embarrassment of not being able to pay his men, and from losing his herd and maybe his ranch.

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Linn Keller 10-13-13


Jacob removed his hat and followed the maid into the parlor, where he surrendered coat and cover to the maid and lifted his mother's knuckles to his lips.
"Jacob," Esther said, affection in her voice and a smile in her eyes: "please, sit."
Jacob looked at his mother's great belly, the way she, too, sat; it wasn't until she was settled in an upholstered chair that he too lowered himself into a cushioned seat.
"Ma, is Pa all right?"
Esther gave Jacob a long look, then turned her green eyes to the maid.
"Mary, could you bring us the newspapers, please," she said, "and some tea and sandwiches."
"Yes, ma'am," the maid murmured with a curtsy; Jacob looked back at his mother, and Esther could tell the change in the slender young man.
Like his father, when he listened, he was absolutely silent: had he shifted in his seat he would have made no sound.
Jacob studied his mother: her hands, her face, the way she sat: he assessed her with the eyes of a man whose own wife had borne him sons, a man who knew intimately the changes to a woman's body when she carries new life beneath her heart.
"Mother," Jacob said carefully, "you look very... healthy."
Esther laughed a little as the maid appeared with her tray.
She waited until tea was served, until Jacob took two of the daintly little sandwiches that would scarcely fill the gaps in a hungry man's teeth, before replying, "Diplomatically spoken. My congratulations."
Jacob turned a little red, nodded.
Esther took a sip of tea and hummed a little with pleasure.
"Good black oolong," she sighed. "My own blend. I found a source of burgamo. It adds an orange-like flavor. Do you like it, Jacob?"
Jacob took an experimental sip, let the vapors float up past his soft palate, swallowed again.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, placing teacup on saucer and setting these aside. "I do."
Esther sorted through the newspapers the maid brought; selecting one, she placed it back on the stack and nodded to Jacob, and the maid carried the cargo to the young lawman.
Jacob took the paper, frowned a little.
He read, re-read.
He raised an eyebrow, looked at his mother.
"Look at the next three issues," Esther said quietly, and Jacob folded the Cripple Creek Chronicle-Telegram and replaced it, taking down the next -- and then the next.
He placed the third paper back on the stack and looked at Esther, his eyes pale.
"My father's instructions?" he asked, his voice quiet, strong, just like his father's.
Esther smiled a little to hear it; it delighted her to see, and hear, the resemblance between father and son: she gave a surprised little hiccup and laid a gloved hand on her belly.
"I'm sorry," she said, shifting a little in her seat. "I think she's restless."
"Yes, ma'am," Jacob said politely, reddening a little.
Esther laughed. "Oh don't worry, Jacob," she said. "I'm an old hand at this. Besides" -- she gave a sigh, and Jacob thought she sounded a bit tired -- "at least she didn't stomp down on my bladder this time!"
"No, ma'am," Jacob replied, looking a little more embarrassed.
Esther closed her eyes, leaned back in her chair, grimaced a little.
"Mary," she said, "could you get me another cushion, please?"
"Yes, ma'am," the maid replied, her voice as crisp as her starched apron and cap; she disappeared for a moment, then returned, slipped her hand under Esther's armpit and helped her stand: she arranged the seat cushion again, then slipped the fresh cushion on top of the stack and eased Esther back down.
"Oh, that's better," Esther sighed. "Thank you so very much."
"Will there be aught else, ma'am?" Mary asked softly.
Esther looked up at the attentive young woman and smiled.
"No, Mary, thank you. I'll call when I need you again."
"Yes, ma'am," Mary replied; dropping a quick curtsy, she turned and floated out the door, soundless as a ghost.
Jacob waited for his mother to speak.
"Jacob," Esther said, and he heard a thread of worry in his voice, "your father is gone to Cripple Creek again."
"Yes, ma'am?"
"There has been a challenge to the legitimacy of his claim to the gold rights."
Jacob's eyes went dead pale and hardened up like mountain agate.
"We are assured that his claim is indeed legitimate," Esther continued, "but there are always false claimants where great sums of money are concerned."
"His orders, ma'am?"
Esther raised a palm, wordlessly admonishing her son to patience.

The Sheriff raised his own hand at about the same moment.
The fact that it held the handle of his engraved revolver made a momentary impression on his opponent; the sudden departure of a significant part of the latter's skull interrupted any appreciation of the slender lawman's move.

"He knew you would either be apprised of developments already, or you would make due inquiry," Esther continued, "and he said" -- Esther smiled gently, looking at Jacob, seeing him tense a little, leaning forward slightly, as if from sheer will he could launch from his chair and fire himself like a cannonball through the opposite wall, and fly to his father's side -- "he said to wait for his summons."
"Yes, ma'am."

"Sheriff, you want help?" the policeman shouted.
"HELL, NO, AIN'T BUT TWENTY OF 'EM!" the Sheriff roared, surging over the shelter of the horse trough, legs thrown wide as he rolled over it, stiff-arming the damp, slick, square-edged board to clear the width of the structure: he hit the ground, spun, sprinted toward the massed attackers.
One man on a charge, firing as he came, screaming at the top of his voice: rifle in hand, thrust ahead of him, his hat suspended in the air behind him, coat open with the wind of his passing: thirty feet, twenty, ten, lead and fire hammering from his Winchester, no shot wasted, each slug finding flesh and smashing bone: the Sheriff leaped the low barricade they'd thrown up in the street and hit a man square in the chest with both boot heels and the pair went down, rolling.
The Sheriff came up with the man's shirt in one hand and a bloodied knife in the other: still screaming, skin tight and pale and drawn like parchment over a skull, he stabbed twice, thrusting the blade up and under the ribs, turning as he did -- he felt the impact as three shots hit the dead man's back, then he powered to the right, away from the barricade, dropping the body and digging the side of his boot into the ground to get a fast, attacking takeoff.
A slash, a thrust, two men grasped their throats, their eyes bulging, blood spraying in the noonday sun: the Sheriff ducked, a long bladed knife in each hand: still screaming, eyes dead pale, wide, bulging, he was among them, between them, a madman with ten arms and twenty blades: no man attacks a fortified position, no man charges superior numbers, and yet this tall lawman with the iron grey mustache did both -- he shot the skulker that sought to ambush him while he lay pinned behind the sheltering horse trough, then he soared over his cover and came at them like an entire regiment of Cavalry, and when his rifle dropped from his hands he came up with two knives from somewhere and laid in among them.
Break a man's nerve and you break the man: the Sheriff knew this, on a level far deeper than he was employing at the moment: in quiet moments he might consider how useful it was to demoralize an opponent, but when action was needed, action was taken.
Two froze, cornered against a hitch rail behind them and their wagon-and-barrel barricade on their right: they saw Death itself spinning before them, the Reaper, only instead of a long robe and a scythe, Death wore a star and carried gleaming-wet blades.
The two stood, frozen.
The Sheriff stopped within arm's reach of the pair, honed steel laid against their throats.
The sun looked very bright: across the street, the painted stripes on the barber's pole stood out, brighter, richer than either man ever noticed before.
A single butterfly fluttered down the middle of the street, uncaring for the human drama round about; the two men saw the Sheriff's eyes, wide, staring, pale, polished, inhuman, and they saw the oblong scar the size of a match head on his cheek bone.
The world held its breath for a very long moment before the Sheriff spoke.

"Ma'am," Jacob said carefully, "I hate waiting."
Esther laughed, her smile gentle and genuine, and she placed the fingertips of both hands on her belly.
"Try carrying one of these for three-quarters of a year," she said, and he saw the amusement in her eyes. "You will truly appreciate the art of waiting!"

The Sheriff's voice was soft; he did not need to speak loudly.
"Drop 'em," he said.
The two men did.
"Unbuckle and drop."
Trembling hands went to belt buckles; two gunbelts and their powder-fouled cargo hit the ground.
"Turn around and grab that hitch rail. Both hands. Don't let go."
The Sheriff saw one man's eyes change: he looked above the Sheriff's head.
Linn dropped, twisted, drew: he saw two rifles bloom with dirty yellow fire, just before his Colt came to full extension and bucked against his palm.
To his left, another gunshot and he saw the second rifleman twist.
Something like a fist hit him in the leg and he rolled over on his back, brought both revolvers down on the pair he'd apprehended.
One was draped over the hitch rail, blood frothing from his mouth; the other stood, frozen, his drawers dark and damp.
The Sheriff holstered his left hand Colt, then punched the empties out of his right and reloaded; he rolled over, scanning for further threats, holstered, and reloaded his left hand pistol.
He grasped his left thigh and squeezed hard, then reached up and yanked savagely at his necktie: snarling now, he ran a hand into a pocket, came up with a folded white kerchief, pressed it against the entrance wound.
His hands didn't want to work right.
A blue uniform appeared, strong hands pressed bandages against his leg: he saw his necktie float from around his neck to around his leg.
"It's all right, sir," a familiar voice said. "We caught the others as they ran away. The organizers are under arrest and Judge Hostetler will be seeing them in an hour."
The Sheriff coughed and tasted blood.
"Here, here, I'm a doctor," a voice said and the Sheriff drew his revolver, cocked it.
"Touch me, you fake," he coughed, "and I'll kill you."
He gasped and a hand closed around his pistol, lifted it from his weakening grip.
"It's all right, sir," the voice said, and a face floated into the air before his.
Why is he upside down? the Sheriff wondered as the police chief's voice said "We'll take care of you, don't worry."
"Greenlees," the Sheriff gasped, coughing again. "Doc Greenlees. Firelands. Only man I trust ..."

Esther's head came up and Jacob, alarmed at her sudden pallor, came to his feet.
Esther looked at her son.
"Jacob," she said, and he heard the unmistakable note of command in her words,"get Dr. Greenlees and make for Cripple Creek."
"Yes, ma'am!" Jacob said crisply: the maid was waiting with hat and coat in hand, and Jacob was astride his Apple-horse and at a gallop in less than thirty seconds.
Esther grimaced, stroked her belly.
"It's all right," she whispered. "He'll be home soon."
"Ma'am?" the maid asked, "shall I summon Alfdis?"
Esther nodded.

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Linn Keller 10-13-13


Water trickled somewhere, cool and inviting, and he swallowed, his throat dry and sticky.
Water, he thought, but his thought never made it to his lips.
Fever burned his soul and dried his lips, sweat glistened on his tanned skin and evaporated into clean linen sheets, chilling the man until he shivered again.
Voices, the voices, far away, voices like from deep in a well, echoing, insensible ... but there, niggling at the edge of his consciousness ...
Will you kindly SHUT UP, he shouted, but his belly never tightened, his throat never vibrated, the words never came to the surface, and he floated again in darkness, until the ache claimed him again and dragged him down into a deeper layer, a strata of agony in the dark ocean of nothingness.
He was a strong man and a hard-willed man and he tried to fight free of the drag, but he could barely move.
Pain surged through him like a red wave and sweat popped out on his forehead and he was hot again, he was burning up, and something cool, cold, soft, lay over his forehead, then wiped down his cheeks and down his neck.
Water, he gasped, but again the words would not flow from his thoughts to his lips.
The voices.
I hear them again.

He listened, closer, straining to hear, then he could hear them, suddenly, with a shocking clarity, as if they stood beside him instead of skulked in the darkness in the depths of a stone lined well.

"He's a tough old bird," Dr. John Greenlees murmured as Nurse Susan wiped the Sheriff's face again.
"He shouldn't be alive!" Dr. Bennett stammered.
Dr. Greenlees looked up at the Cripple Creek dentist and made no reply.
Jacob knew this meant he did not disagree, but he knew from the look the physician gave his colleague, that the physician was not terribly happy with the pronouncement.
"You're not long in the West, are you, Dr. Bennett?" Dr. Greenlees asked quietly.
"No ... no, Doctor, I'm ... my practice is just over a year old."
"Long enough for these parts," Dr. John grunted, and Jacob saw the bare ghost of a smile in the man's expression.
He wrung out the rag, dropped it back in the dishpan, looked squarely at the dentist.
"You will find, sir," he said, "that all creatures, both plant and animal, are possessed of a remarkable vitality, very much as the creatures from the African continent. They are evolved to survive. Take honeybees, for instance."
Practiced fingers explored the Sheriff's pulses, paused before the man's mustache to assess his breathing, lay gently over his chest as he delicately thumped twinned fingers and tilted his head to listen to the chest beneath.
"Honeybees here will guard their nest, but honeybees in Africa will chase an intruder ten miles. They will pursue and attack with a ferocity and a speed which is unknown anywhere else. They have to. There, as here, creatures have to be faster, fiercer, stronger, bite harder, claw deeper and otherwise out-fight every other creature just to draw their next breath, and this is passed on to their progeny.
"I've seen men shot full of holes rise from their pallet the next day, return to ranching the day after, and put in a full day's work the day after that, and joke about being unforgivably lazy in the interim. I've seen men crushed in mines, blown up from powder or carelessly handled nitroglycerin, most died, a surprising number lived."
The Firelands physician looked down at the unconscious, unmoving Sheriff.
"Men like him don't die until they are damned good and ready, and he's not."
There was a knock at the surgery's door; a moment later it was opened, and Jacob and Sarah stepped firmly into the room.
Dr. Greenlees motioned them both to the table.
Sarah nodded to Dr. Bennett, slipped around behind him, lay the backs of her fingers against her Papa's cheek, looked up at Dr. Greenlees.
He looked at the pale-eyed young woman, then reached over the Sheriff's forehead and lay two fingers across the man's temple and nodded to Sarah.
He removed his fingers; Sarah reached across in an identical fashion, palpated the opposite temporal pulse.
"Do you feel it?"
Sarah assessed the pulse for a moment.
"Strong and regular," she said, "about sixty to seventy beats per minute, I would judge."
"You judge accurately," Dr. Greenlees smiled, then turned to Jacob.
"You're not Sheriff yet."
"Thank you, sir."
"May I introduce Dr. Bennett," Dr. Greenlees said formally: "this is Jacob Keller, the Sheriff's chief deputy and firstborn son. Miss Sarah McKenna, one of our schoolteachers and soon to be married."
Dr. Bennett reached across to shake Jacob's hand; he drew back a step, cracked his heels together and bowed after the Continental fashion, a stiff inclination of the upper torso and the head. "Miss McKenna," he said, and Sarah dropped a curtsy, then offered her hand.
Dr. Bennett took her hand awkwardly, but raised her knuckles to his lips: his mustache was stiff and bristly as he barely grazed her flesh with his lip broom.
Dr. Greenlees took Jacob by the arm and steered him to the other side of the room.
Sarah stayed beside her Papa.
Carefully, gently, she eased the sheet down until she saw the broad overlaps of bandages covering most of his chest: she brought the sheet back up, drew it up from the side to expose one leg, then the other.
"Where is his rifle?" she asked the hovering Dr. Bennett.
"His -- ah -- I'm not sure --"
"His wife presented it to him," Sarah said, her words brisk, businesslike. "It is distinctively engraved, both on the breech and the side plate." Sarah's eyes were as frank and as direct as her words.
"Doctor Bennett, what is your assessment of this man's injuries?"
Dr. Bennett drew the sheet back, indicated the snugly overlapped surcingles.
"The chest would should have killed him," he said flatly. "The blood loss alone should have killed him. The shock of being shot should have killed him." He drew the sheet back up to the Sheriff's collar bones, drew up the opposite margin to expose the Sheriff's wrapped thigh.
"The bullet passed laterally to the femur. He'll be stiff but he'll still walk. I saw the wound was a through-and-through and so there was no need to conduct a surgical exploration; I used a bulb syringe and antibiotic to wash out the wound channel."
"And a very good thing, too," Dr. Greenlees added.
Dr. Bennett started, not realizing his colleague was literally at his elbow.
"Had Dr. Bennett not irrigated as he did, with the compound he used, I am sure the Sheriff would infect and quite probably require amputation."
There was a mutter, then an animal snarl and the Sheriff tried to sit up: he threw his legs to the side with a roar: "YOU'RE NOT GONNA SAW OFF MY LEG YOU DAMNED QUACK!" and Jacob ducked a punch, grabbing his father's arm and pulling the fighting, fevered man against him as they fell backwards.
Jacob grunted with pain as he landed on the hard floor, sandwiched between unyielding pine boards and his father's lean mass: the Sheriff gasped in pain and turned dead white, and collapsed, rolling over on his back: halfway under the treatment table and halfway across his son, he lay as if dead, his eyes open, jaw slack, the image of a corpse.
Sarah bent and seized her father's bare ankles and pulled as Jacob rolled: it was crude and not the most efficient means of moving the man but they got him out from under the table: all four united their efforts to return him to the elevated, thin-mattressed pallet, and Dr. Greenlees quickly assessed his patient again.
Sarah's hand was flat against Jacob's shoulder blade.
"Jacob," she whispered, "are you hurt?"
Jacob was still working to get his wind back.
Sarah grabbed his hands, brought them together in front of him, then swung around behind, grabbed his elbows and lifted.
"Breathe in," she hissed, and he did: a few more tries and he got a little more air into his shocked lungs.
Sarah waited until he took a long breath and nodded his thanks before seizing his necktie and jerking his face down to hers, pale eyes snapping with anger.
"Jacob Keller," she hissed, "don't you dare get hurt! You're the only one of you I've got!"
Jacob took a long look deep into his sister's eyes, then looked over her head at their father, pale and unmoving on the bed.
"What about him?"
Sarah turned and glared at the Sheriff.
"I'll deal with him later," she snapped, then placed a firm hand on Dr. Greenlees' upper arm.
"Doctor, may I?" she murmured.
She pressed her thighs against the bed, placed her hands on either side of her father's face.
"Papa?" she asked, close enough the breath from her lips puffed the longer hairs of his mustache. "Papa, you have to hear me. Papa, it's Sarah."
The Sheriff's eyes were almost closed; a crescent slit of moist eyeball was visible, but no sign of recognition.
Sarah placed a gentle hand on his belly, felt him breathe.
"Papa," she said, "please say something."
She waited for half a minute.
The man's breathing was quick, shallow; his breath smelled of blood.
Jacob saw Sarah's fist close, then close hard and begin to tremble, and he heard two muffled pops as the force with which she was fisting her hand, popped two knuckles.
He'd done as much himself, time and again, and he knew she was a-mighty troubled.
"Papa," Sarah said, this time in a clear and formal voice, as if addressing an assembly, "I remind you -- I remind you, sir -- you have an appointment to walk me down the aisle. I am to be wed, sir, and as Father of the Bride, you are obligated to discharge your bounded duty and give me away in marriage."
Sarah looked across the room, looked at the calendar.
"Today is October thirteenth. You have a month and ten days, sir, and I enjoin you most strictly that you be prompt in your attentions on that day!"
The Sheriff's breathing changed.
He slowed and deepened his breathing.
Sarah grasped the man's hand, picked it up, pressed it between both hers, brought their conjoined hands to her breast.
The Sheriff struggled to open his eyes, fought to gain mastery of his voice.
"Water," he gasped.

Sarah's hand was warm and firm on Jacob's arm as they paced slowly down the boardwalk.
Oil lamps cast yellow pools of light; more spilled from windows and saloon-doors; smoke and vapors eddied or swirled in the night air.
Jacob carried his father's rifle in his right hand, his grip firm around its wrist; they walked the short distance to the best hotel in town, surprisingly elegant for the rude and temporary settlement surrounding: apparently the sight of a lawman with a rifle in one hand and a beautiful young woman on the other arm was not sufficiently unusual to cause comment, not even from the snooty waiter, who at their request, showed them to Judge Hostetler's table.

The police chief thanked the nurse and nodded to his men.
They stepped out into the night air, a thoughtful silence between them, until one of the patrolmen said, "Sir, I don't believe his attack was one of the things he showed us."
"No," the Chief agreed, speaking slowly. "I don't believe it's what I would recommend."
"Where in the hell did he learn to shoot on the run like that?"
The Chief sighed, shaking his breath.
"He was in the War, that much I do know," he said. "Otherwise ... it depends on who you ask. He does have ... quite a reputation."
"If he survives," his patrolman suggested, "he'll have a bigger one."
"If he survives," the Chief cautiously agreed.

Sarah stood in the bedroom doorway; one of the policemen's wives offered Sarah their guest room until the Sheriff was on his feet, and Sarah accepted; Jacob, with lodging elsewhere, stood outside his little sister's bedroom door, hat in hand, waiting for Sarah to finish her question.
"Jacob, if I'd done something like Papa just did, what do you think he'd say to me?"
Jacob considered a moment, looking at the carpet: he frowned a little, then looked up at Sarah.
"I don't know," he admitted, "but I would turn you over my knee and fan your little biscuits!"
Normally this would spark a sharp and good natured exchange between the two.
Sarah's eyes were sober and Jacob knew this meant she was worried.
"I don't think I can do that," Sarah murmured. "Even if I were completely healed myself I don't think I could turn him over my knee."
Jacob nodded thoughtfully.
"Good night, Jacob."
"Night, Sis."

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Linn Keller 10-14-13


The sun was just coming up.
Men stirred, swore, heartily profaned the dawn: the sun painted long red fingers against canvas tents, against wagon covers, bathing them inside and out with fairy-fire, turning the morning's ground fog into a magical forest bathed in shades of living ruby haze.
The Colonel coaxed coals into flame, added a handful of shavings, some dry kindling: he was lucky, the wood he'd hoarded against morning's cook fire hadn't been stolen through the night.
The Colonel sliced bacon into the frying pan.
He knew as soon as he began frying up, those without would drift over to him, and he -- and they -- knew he'd share until he had none left; there were times when they had, and he had not, and they shared with him.
So it was in wartime; a man would divvy his rations, his ammo, for in combat every man learned the same hard lesson: objects, things, are unimportant, save only to keep you and the man beside you alive.
There was no coffee left; the Colonel contented himself with boiled water, a habit he'd begun early in his brief military career: he'd been laughed at, and generally he would ceremonially add a pebble to the boiling water -- "I'm makin' some good high grade rock tea," he would crack right back at them -- but he was the only man among them who'd never suffered the ill effects of bad water.
He paused halfway through his third paring slice through the cured pork.
A fiddle?
No ... not a fiddle.
A man fiddles like he's sawing the instrument in two with a cross cut saw.
This ... this is a violin, not a fiddle.
He saw movement, stood, setting aside knife and bacon.
Two other officers rose as well, jaws slack, staring.
They knew the ground ahead of them was smooth, flat, bare: morning fog was still holding to the ground, thicker here, thinner there, and as a breath of breeze blew some of it aside, they saw her.
Molly Falcon, the Colonel thought, swearing at himself for being unable to pronounce her Scots Gaelic name: it meant fairest flower, and the girl surely was, and they looked sunward at this nymph, this sylph, this faerie creature with hair to her waist, swinging freely as she danced, as she danced with the violin to her chin.
It had been a hard campaign, it had been a long campaign, it had been a campaign that beat men's spirits into the ground and stomped all hope from their souls; it had been a campaign of blood and of horror and of battlefield sights and smells that would give them nightmares for the rest of their lives, a campaign that stripped everything good and decent from the world and cast it into the black pit of despair.
And now ...
And now this.
Molly Falcon's violin sang of happiness and it sang of rejoicing and it sang of the morning sunlight, clean and unsullied by the coarse earth it touched, it sang of beauty and of hope and the promise of a tomorrow free of the corruption and rot that tainted their lives today, and as the violin sang, the sunlight glowed through the sheer silks of her skirt: the girl spun, and danced, and disappeared into the mist, but her music continued for a minute longer, until it too faded.

The Sheriff turned his head, his right hand closing into a fist.
"Doctor?" a voice called, then a hand, cool and gentle, on his forehead.
"Molly," he husked, his throat dry.
Feminine hands, a woman's hands, closed about his fist, and he opened his hand to receive both of hers, and the voice, closer now:
"How do you feel?"
"Molly," he groaned, tears starting from the corners of his eyes.

He went to the plantation later that morning, went with a plucked flour and a cone of sugar.
He'd intended to thank the young girl for bringing a moment of joy to grieving men's hearts.
He saw the windows and front door were draped with black crepe, and so he removed his cover as he walked slowly up onto their broad front porch.
A servant met him at the door, her eyes red with weeping: he followed her in, a terrible feeling of dread closing about his heart, and as he came into the parlor and beheld the box and the women around it, his hat fell from suddenly nerveless fingers.
He remembered her mother thanking him for coming, and he remembered she explained that her daughter was so worried about the men camped just outside the fence, and how she wanted to play her violin for them: but the girl was crippled and unable to walk, and she'd taken a fever a few days before, and died just before sunrise.
The Colonel remembered the faerie-creature who danced for them, and played with such beauty, and he took a step forward to lay the plucked flower in the box with her.
Her violin lay across her belly, her hand draped across it, and both rested on her waist-length hair, brushed out and draped across her middle.

The Sheriff's face twisted with grief and his hands pressed gently on Sarah's, and the man shed scalding tears: his pain was as nothing compared to the loss of something so decent, so pure, so beautiful: he choked, "Molly, I'm sorry," and could speak no more.
"Fever," Dr. Greenlees said, his voice concerned: "he's hallucinating."
Sarah looked up, shook her head, but said nothing.

Later that day the Sheriff's fever broke: Sarah and Nurse Susan bathed him repeatedly, changing the bed linens as necessary, and when finally he swam to consciousness, the first thing he saw was the top of Sarah's head.
Her right hand still held his, but fatigue overtook her and she sat with her head on her left forearm, on the edge of his bed.
"Sarah," he whispered, and Sarah jumped as if stung.
They looked at one another for a long moment.
"You look tired," the Sheriff said.
"Yeah, God loves you too," Sarah said, running a hand over his stubbled cheek. "When was the last time you shaved?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "What is today?"
"Never mind, I'll get a barber in here for you."
"I'd like that," the Sheriff sighed. "Get some rest."

Sarah staggered out of the doctor's office, the back of her had to her forehead, and bumped into Jacob.
"I'm sorry," she blurted as he caught her: strong hands around her upper arms guided her to a chair.
"You've been awake a day and a half now," he said.
"Never mind me," she said, fighting to keep her eyes open. "He's better."
Jacob nodded, took a long breath.
"What about you?"
"Me? I'm fine."
"I'll fan your biscuits."
"I'll flatten your nose."
"You're wore out, Sis. Let's get you a meal and some sack time."
Sarah realized she was probably hungry enough to eat her pillow, should she decide to get some sleep without eating first.
She blinked, looked at Jacob.
"Are you still helping the police?"
Jacob gave her a long look and Sarah shook her head.
"When are you going to get some rest?"
"I can rest when I'm dead."
Sarah cocked a fist and glared at him, then sagged against him.
"There's only one of you," she muttered, "and I'm not much good until this lung heals."
"Don't worry," Jacob said cheerfully. "The Lord looks out after fools an' children."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-14-13


Once again,the prairie telegraph was alive with news, the more lurid the better, as far as those "passing the news" were concerned. Consequently it hadn't taken a great many hours for Charlie and Fannie to learn of the goings-on in the mining town to the north of the ranch; it had taken considerably less time for a council of war to occur, horses to be saddled, guns and ammunition to be gathered (who needs food? it's only a day's ride at a lope) and a lanky sorrel gelding and a chunky buckskin mare to crest the rise north of the ranch house. A pair of young, eager-to-run Appaloosa geldings trailed on horn-wrapped horsehair mecates behind the older horses, ready to take their own turns under saddle. Alongside them ran a pair of coal black mules, one unencumbered except for an empty pack saddle, the other packing enough firepower in the manties strapped to the crossbuck saddle to start or finish a small war, depending on the point of view of the observer. What ensued wasn't so much a race as a small-scale cavalry charge as reinforcements galloped north.

The ranch house was an hour and several miles behind the pair when they drew rein, pulling the sorrel and the buckskin down to, first, a jogging singlefoot, then a walk. When the animals had cooled sufficiently they were watered at a small spring-fed rill, saddles were switched to the younger horses, manties transferred to the second mule and tied down, and a scant ten minutes later the charge began anew. As he rode, Charlie munched a cold biscuit from the pommel packs that slanted across the young Appie's withers.

The wind of their passage was cold, the early October sun just beginning to slant across the rolling hills and flats. His rifle was tucked into the scabbard beneath his right leg, but the Greener double that had come to be one of his favorite weapons rode across his lap in a pommel scabbard. Double bandoleers of brass cased buckshot crossed his chest. Potential plans marched through Charlie's mind, his frown of concentration mirrored by that on Fannie's own more comely countenance as the couple worked out their approach, aided by an occasional brief sentence. Nothing concrete could be planned at this point, but all options were considered, some discarded, others added to the mental list that was forming in both their minds.

Hours and miles later, the couple walked their mounts down the last decline into the head of the main street of Cripple Creek. The Greener was hip-braced now, muzzles pointing at the first stars overhead, hammer tiedowns loosed and tucked in behind the holstered Remingtons. Beside him Fannie rode with her Winchester similarly displayed, Colts equally as loose in the leather. Golden lamplight gleamed on the still damp hides of the horses and mules as the pair led their cavalcade down the center of the street, pretty much daring all and sundry to take exception to their presence. No one did...

Charlie's cold hazel stare singled out one of the gawkers perched on the splintered boardwalk in front of the Bull's Head saloon. "Where's the doc's office?" he growled, drawing rein for a moment. He didn't have to look around to know that Fannie had the street covered. Wordlessly, his eyes bulging from his head, the grubby miner lifted a shaking hand and pointed. Charlie turned his head only far enough to glimpse the building the man indicated, turned back, grunted, "Obliged", and kneed the buckskin toward where he expected Linn to be. If his friend wasn't there, somebody could surely tell him where to look next.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-14-13


"You wanna do the honors, Darlin'?" Charlie asked his lovely bride as they drew rein in front of the office belonging to what passed in those environs for a doctor's office.

"Sure thing, Sugar," her honeyed drawl replied as she slipped lithely from the saddle, Winchester still in hand. "Watch your back."

"And you your'n," he mimicked her drawl in return. As she strode toward the stone stoop he kneed the buckskin around to face the street, eyes moving swiftly from roofline to doorway and back again. Gradually the noise level in the street returned to the level it had attained before the couple's appearance, but many of the town's bystanders warily eyed the forboding figure seated on the buckskin mare. Whispers raced to and fro along the street's false fronts.

"That there's MacNeil and that gun-slick woman of his'n," one voice opined.

"Now we'll see somethin'," another agreed.

"Dammit, why's he here, and why now?" still another questioned.

"He's here 'cause him and that pale-eyed killer yonder is friends," the next answered. "I told ya ta leave them claims alone. Now hell's come ta town."

"Hell was already here," the questioner retorted. "But it just got a whole lot worse."

Fannie first tried the knob. Finding the door locked, she knocked politely then stood waiting for someone to appear. When no one did so, she glanced over her shoulder at her husband, smiled a smile of pure, well, if not evil, then mischief and malign intentions, balled up her fist and gave the door a hearty thump that rattled latch and hinges alike. "US Marshal!" she called. "Open this door, now!" followed by the bang of Winchester butt plate steel on wood. Hurried footsteps could be heard approaching the door. A man's face appeared through the glass panes.

"We're closed!" Doctor Bennett called through the door. "Come back tomorrow!"

"Mister, if you want to keep this door intact, you'll open it now!" Fannie declared. "Otherwise my husband will open it for me, and you won't like the results! Your choice! You've got five seconds!"

"We're closed!"

"Is that your final answer?"

"Come back tomorrow!"

"Charlie! This man's being obstinate!" Fannie called toward her husband.

"Yes, dear," Charlie answered mildly. He swung his leg over the pommel of the saddle and slid to the ground, his eyes never leaving the street. "Take over for me here, would ya Darlin'?" As Fannie stepped forward to take his place, Charlie turned and strode toward the door. He thumbed back the Greener's hammers and lowered the muzzles to point at the door knob. "Mister, you'd best step back unless you want a belly full of buckshot and splinters. My wife wants this door open, and I generally try to give her whatever she wants." He grinned at the stricken countenance watching him through the glass. "And I'm only gonna give you two seconds." He paused. "NOW MOVE!" he suddenly barked as he braced the Greener on his hip, finger on the right-hand trigger. The fellow he assumed was the doctor moved, scuttling rapidly toward the inner doorway.

"Doctor Greenlees! HELP! There's a madman here to destroy my door!" Charlie eased the pressure on the Greener's trigger.

"Doc Greenlees? You in there?" he called. The doctor's familiar figure appeared in the lamplight, hurrying toward the door, wiping his hands on a towel as he came. He quickly turned the bolt and opened the door

"Charlie? Are you the madman my colleague was howling about?" he greeted Charlie with a smile.

"One and the same, Doc," Charlie answered with a genuine smile of his own as he lowered the hammers on the Greener. "I'm lookin' for Linn Keller."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-15-13


"Linn's here, Charlie," the doctor replied. "He's been shot several times. You can see him for a minute, but no longer. He needs to rest." He turned to lead the way to the lamplit doorway. "Jacob and Sarah are in town," he said over his shoulder. "Jacob escorted me here, and Sarah was here when I arrived." He stopped outside the door and quickly filled Charlie in on what he knew of recent events, then he stepped into the makeshift operating theater. "Sheriff, you have a visitor."

Charlie stepped up alongside his friend, tipping his hat off his head to hang by the stampede string. "You look like hell, my friend," he told the Sheriff without preamble.

"I feel like hell," was the whispered reply. "What're you doing here?"

"A little bird told me you were havin' a party and forgot to send me and Fannie an invite, but we decided to come anyway and bring a few party favors." He hefted the Greener that he still held in his hand. "And I can't for the life of me figure out why you decided to start without us." He grinned, coldly. "But don't worry, I'll keep that shindig you started livened up. Starting with a visit to Hizzoner the mayor and the city council, if a rawboned outfit like this has such things. You just set tight, and I'll be back after bit." The Sheriff's lips creased in a tired smile as his eyes fluttered closed.

"I really hate to miss that," he whispered again.

"What do you have in mind, if I may be so bold?" Doc Greenlees asked as Charlie turned back toward the outer door.

"It sounds like that man in yonder," he indicated Linn with a nod, "tried to use the velvet glove approach, and it jumped up and bit him on the butt. I'm not one for velvet myself, so let's just say that I'd stock up on bandages and such if I were you, Doc, and let it go at that," Charlie replied, the cold anger he had kept bottled up when he was standing alongside his injured friend beginning to bubble to the surface. "I do believe there's gonna be some folks hereabouts in need of 'em. Adios, Doc."

"Charlie!" Doc called.

"Yeah?" Charlie replied without turning around.

"I know I've already asked this once, but what are you planning to do?"

"I met a fella name of Logan Sackett one time, Doc," Charlie said. "The way he put it was, I'm gonna read 'em from the Book."

The good doctor felt cold fingers tickle their way up the length of his spine at Charlie's words. He didn't know exactly what the Marshal meant, but he was sure that those words did not bode well for someone, and most probably several someones, in the very near future. Good Lord, he thought, if that was a velvet glove (referring to the events that had led to Linn's current condition) I hate to think of what might be coming. He suppressed a shudder as Charlie disappeared out the door, closing it softly behind him.

"Well?" Fannie asked as Charlie stepped up alongside her. He filled her in on what information he had gotten from Doc Greenlees. She mulled his words over for several silent minutes before asking, "What's next?"

"Next is some dinner, then I think I'm gonna call a city council meeting," he replied with a cold grin. "After we find Jacob and Sarah, that is. Doc told me where they're staying."

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Linn Keller 10-15-13


"Pistol," Linn whispered, his throat dry, what little voice he had, smooth as creek sand on cloven sandstone.
Sarah glared at her Papa, picked up his engraved '73 rifle.
Linn raised his hand, fingers open, trembling a little, then his hand drifted back down to the bed covers, almost exhausted from the effort.
There were voices from without, a woman's, gentle at first, then sharp: a man's voice, hammering on the outer door.
Sarah's jaw was set, her pale eyes tired but hard, and the Sheriff heard the single click as his rifle's hammer went from half cock to full cock.
It sounded as if it came from a very long way off.
Boot heels wobbled through the Sheriff's consciousness.
Voices, shapes, blurred but ... vaguely familiar ...

Sarah stood at the foot of her Papa's bed.
The foot of the bed pointed toward the door.
Normally she would have taken a fast step to the side as the door opened, but she stood fast, interposed between the disturbance, and the wounded man.
Dr. Bennett thrust through the door, hands waving, mouth working, his head wagging back and forth.
Sarah's hands tightened, her eyes narrowed a little, but she made no other move.
Dr. Greenlees was next, almost a smug look on his lean face, and behind him, a familiar form.
It was Sarah's turn to sag a little, to sag with relief as Fannie swept in, wheeling to the right, and Charlie -- Uncle Charlie! Sarah thought -- Charlie strode across the room, paused to lay a gloved hand on her shoulder: he looked at her, and she looked at him, and Charlie nodded, once, his jaw hard and set: there was an understanding, an approval, and Sarah's bottom lip quivered.
I don't have to be strong now, she thought.
I don't have to be hard now.
Sarah's eyes began to sting.
She swallowed hard, looked into Charlie's hazel eyes.
"We need to talk," she said, her voice surprisingly strong as she eased the rifle's hammer to half cock.
"Where's Jacob?" Charlie asked, his words clipped, his voice tight.
Sarah's eyes hardened.
"He's trying to help that miserable excuse for a police department," she spat.
Fannie shot a look at Charlie and he saw her hand tighten on her gunstock's checkered wrist.
"Doctor Greenlees?" Fannie said, her voice low and musical, "what is our patient's condition?"
Dr. Greenlees wet his lips, then took her upper arm and guided her gently away from the patient's bed.
Charlie looked at Sarah again.
"You're ready to fall over," he said, not unkindly. "Set."
Sarah nodded, walked slowly over to a chair, sank into it, her father's rifle across her lap.
Fannie looked at Dr. Greenlees -- no, not looked: stared.
"He what?"
Dr. Greenlees nodded.
"He nearly bled out. Most men would've died from blood loss alone."
"What else was there?"
"He was hit multiple times." Dr. Greenlees looked across the room at the pale man lying down and the hard man standing beside him, looking as if he was ready to bite the horn off an anvil.
"He took one through the outside of the left thigh. Missed the bone and of course the artery that lies on the inside of the great bone."
"Of course," Fannie murmured, her eyes cold.
"His chest ... " Dr. Greenlees frowned. "I don't know if you've seen his scarring."
"From ...?"
"Old war injuries. An explosion."
Dr. Greenlees nodded, his hands encasing an invisible cylinder.
"Imagine the rib cage on the left, of a normal contour," he began, his left hand describing a smooth surface.
Fannie nodded.
"Now on the right" -- his hand sliced inward, then back out -- "he took one through the scar and one just below. As near as I can tell it didn't nick any guts. The scar lacks any rib structure, the lung was compromised but I re-opened the puncture and laid a sheet of oiled paper over it."
Fannie nodded; it was a dodge she'd used herself: the oiled paper acted like a one-way valve, sucking down against the chest wound when the patient inhaled, but allowing trapped air to escape during exhalation. Properly done, it could re-inflate a collapsed lung.
Fannie frowned. "Where did he bleed out?"
Dr. Greenlees looked over at his less skilled colleague.
"Dr. Bennett? Would you care to describe the initial care?"
Dr. Bennett hesitated, clearly uncomfortable.
"It was the police chief," Sarah said, her voice heavy with fatigue. "He just let Papa lay there and bleed. He promised he'd take care of him and then he fluttered around like a fly in a barnyard."
Charlie's eyes were cold: he closed his hardened hazels, took a long breath, then looked down at the Sheriff's pale visage.
Charlie did not say a word.
Charlie was not happy.

Jacob's eyes were hard as he strode down the board walk.
He shoved into the quarreling knot of men, seized one by the back of the neck and threw him across into another.
The policeman stumbling after him started to protest, then stopped, mouth agape, as Jacob drew and fired twice -- fast, impossibly fast -- and the fist-waving, shouting group froze, staring, shocked.
The policeman saw a man look down at his shirt front and the holes that appeared from somewhere, and the policeman saw the gun fall from his hand, and the policeman saw the man collapse, slowly, to his knees, then fall to the side.
Jacob glared round about, sweeping the group slowly with his cold, hard gaze.
"There's enough trouble without you boys adding to it," he said quietly. "Now why don't you all go home and get a good night's rest. Sunrise comes early and you've all got work to do."

Fannie's eyes shifted at the sound of two gunshots, one hammering hard on the heels of the other.
"It's all right," Sarah said drowsily. "Jacob."
Her eyes closed and her head nodded forward a little.

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Linn Keller 10-16-13


Esther was a woman who got things done.
In spite of being great with child -- in spite of looking like a cherry on a toothpick, as she described herself -- she still tended the business details of the Z&W, though without leaving the new office she'd had added to their home; she consulted with businessmen, and today consulted with Bonnie, both as a businesswoman, and as a friend.
It was Esther who -- as owner and as its most influential stockholder -- arranged for the express train that took Bonnie's seamstresses to Cripple, to set up overnight a "branch office" for the McKenna Dress Works; it was Esther who, today, looked at Bonnie with an expression of calm that absolutely baffled her slightly younger counterpart.
Esther's hand was steady as she sipped tea, her voice was calm and quiet as she told Bonnie of her continuing good health and apparently that of the active child within her, and she admitted she did not know whether she would be attending Sarah's wedding "wearing a carefully tailored hatching jacket, or whether I shall be at home, tending my own" -- she lay a gloved hand delicately on her swollen belly -- "my own little celebration here."
Bonnie's own young were growing with the usual shocking velocity that children display; she gave Esther a long look and asked, "Esther, just when are you due?"
Esther laughed and set her teacup aside.
Bonnie knew very well Esther was due toward the last of November, and she knew Esther's birthday was the 23rd of that month, and she knew that Esther joked about sharing a birthday with her little girl.
"I am a thrifty soul," Esther finally said. "Come upstairs with me, please."
The two ladies rose -- Bonnie gracefully, Esther slowly and with obvious planning, though without apparent discomfort -- and the two ascended the broad and generous stairway to Esther and Linn's bedroom.
Esther went to the clothes-press and withdrew her wedding gown.
"I fear it will not fit me in my current gravid state," Esther admitted, "but I am also ... fearful ... that when Sarah marries, I shan't be there to see it."
Bonnie lowered her head a little, as if to look over a set of non-existent spectacles. "Esther, we can make --"
"Bonnie," Esther sighed, "I tire so very easily. Carrying a child is never easy and I fear the older I become, the more ... tiring ... it becomes." She draped the emerald wedding gown over her bed and swayed a little.
Bonnie caught her shoulders, alarmed; Esther waved a kerchief as if to dispel a bad odor and murmured, "Just let me sit for a moment."
Bonnie guided her to the nearest chair.
Esther closed her eyes and tilted her head back, apparently gathering her strength.
"It is difficult," she admitted, "to appear unaffected when I am leading the business and when I am discussing with our clients, but I manage." She lowered her head and smiled, looking directly at Bonnie. "With you, my dear, I may be honest, and honestly, I am ... tired."
Bonnie nodded her understanding, her hand going to her own belly.
Esther tilted her head a little, almost birdlike with her suddenly bright eyes, and she laughed a little.
"You're having another son!" she exclaimed with delight.
Bonnie's mouth fell open and her hand flattened, splayed against her flat, corsetted middle.
"But we -- how -- just last night -- how?" she squeaked.
"A woman knows," Esther whispered, "and I can recommend Alfdis most heartily for a midwife." She took a long breath, shifted in her seat. "Bonnie, I can't abide the thought of that beautiful gown hanging unused. If you were to cut it along the side seams -- as if making a complete front half and a complete back half -- the skirt could be used for a christening gown for Dana --"
Esther waved her kerchief again.
"I'm sorry," she laughed, embarrassed. "I'm rambling."
"I did worse," Bonnie admitted, and the two women laughed together.
"Esther," Bonnie finally said, after silence grew too long for comfort, "something troubles you."
Esther looked up, nodded.
"Linn has been hurt and I have heard no report, neither ill nor good."

"Tell Esther I'm fine," Linn said faintly.
Charlie rested a hard hand on his supine friend's shoulder.
"Can't do that, pard."
"Hungry," Linn mumbled. "Good square meal and a good horse."
"You're not eatin' horse meat," Jacob interrupted.
"Good for you," the Sheriff replied, more of a sighing-out of his breath than an actual response: "makes ... faster ... grass ..."
"Get some rest," Charlie said quietly, the warm, strong voice of a strong and powerful man.
Linn could not see Charlie's other hand doubling tightly into a fist.
In the chair adjacent, Fannie could see the exhausted Sarah was fast asleep, and thank God! the young woman didn't look as worn-out and grey as she had when she sat down.
How long was she awake, tending her father? she wondered, then looked at Charlie, and Fannie felt a tight smile draw at her own features.
I know that expression, Fannie thought, and she felt the old, atavastic thrill of the warrior sear through the entirety of her shapely, attractive, absolutely feminine but taut and lean-muscled body.
What was it Linn called it?
War on the Mountain.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-16-13


"Jacob!" Charlie barked, albeit in a low tone. He'd been more than happy to see the younger man and his hard-headed sis.


"Council of war, outer room!" His voice softened further as he glanced over toward his wife. "Darlin', we need to send Sarah home. I know it won't be easy, but you're in charge of coming up with a way to talk her into it." He stepped into the aforementioned room, his footsteps lighter than should be possible for a man of his size and burdened with the quantity of hardware he carried. Jacob followed, his footsteps equally as light on the puncheon floor of the office.

Charlie and Jacob took seats in Doctor Bennett's outer office, both men perched on the edge of the fragile appearing chairs. "I see your old man's been his usual subtle self," Charlie began, lips quirking upward in a cold grin as Jacob noted the sarcasm underlying the words and reluctantly nodded his agreement with that statement. "I told my lovely bride earlier that the velvet glove technique doesn't appear to be working like it has other places. I've never been much for velvet or subtlety, myself."

"What do you propose to do, sir?" Jacob asked.

"You're the third person who's asked me that tonight. So here's my plan: I'm gonna call a city council meeting, and I'm gonna lay down the law. My law. Anybody who objects, man, woman or child, is welcome to leave town via the next available means of transportation at their earliest possible convenience. Those who stay will abide by my law or face my consequences. I'm not gonna be subtle about it, and I sure as hell ain't gonna be nice about it. I won't be doing any training, except as live fire exercises." He smiled coldly again. "I'm still working out the details in my little pea brain. You're welcome to come along to the council meeting if you want. But first I need some dinner. My belly's beginning to complain that it thinks my throat's been cut." He pushed himself carefully to his feet, hearing the chair creak behind him. Jacob followed suit.

"Do I need to remove my badge, sir?" the younger man wanted to know.

"Nope. This is all gonna be legal as can be. I'll see to that. I take it you're in?"

"As a wise man once said, 'Yep'", Jacob answered with a cold grin of his own. "I don't want to miss a minute of the fireworks. Especially the ones that are gonna go up when you try to send my sister home. That I'd pay money to see."

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Linn Keller 10-16-13


Her gown was white, draped over one shoulder; her hair, brought up and held with a golden band, lay in curls in the Mediterranean sun.
She carried a recurved bow, wore a quiver of arrows at her waist.
She turned and looked at Sarah.
Wait, she said.
Your time is not yet.
Sarah responded with a snarl.
I need to stay.
I need to take care of my Papa.
He's in good hands, another voice cautioned, and Sarah turned to see a woman that looked much like her, a young woman in plate armor and standing with a lance in her hand, and a banner near its lanceolate point.
I don't care, Sarah snapped. He needs me. He needs help --
He needs warriors, a woman in a shockingly short skirt said; her eyes were pale, hard, and she held a rifle in both hands -- a strange rifle with a very slender barrel and something square sticking out its bottom.
Yes, Sarah agreed. He does. And I am.
You're not healed.
I don't care! she screamed, and suddenly she was falling, falling --

Sarah hit the floor on her injured side.
A sunball of absolute agony detonated in her chest and her teeth clicked loudly together and her jaw slammed shut to bite back the cry that tried to shove its way out of her throat.
Her eyes were squinted shut, tears squeezing out, and she gasped and rolled over on her back.
"Straighten your legs out, honey," a familiar voice said, a voice that spoke as if she expected to be obeyed. "Straighten 'em out, honey. You need to breathe."
Sarah's breath hissed between her teeth as she straightened her legs.
"Breathe in, now, honey. Nice, deep breaths."
"Owww," Sarah said in a tiny little voice, then she started to cry -- a young woman, a strong young woman, stretched too far, a tired soul of whom too much had been asked.
"I'm sorry," she sobbed, covering her face with her hand, "I'm sorry ... Papa ... I have to take care of my Papa ..."
Her voice dissolved in tears.
Fannie saw her chance.
Maybe it wasn't fair but it was necessary.
"We've got help for your Papa," Fannie said gently. "We brought reinforcements. He'll have round the clock nurses. He'll be taken care of.
"Now we need to take care of you."
Sarah was crying too hard to reply.
Fannie waited the several minutes it took Sarah's tempest to rain itself out.
She knew it would be useless to speak prematurely.


Fannie waited at the depot the next morning.
Sarah stood, staring sightlessly across the railroad tracks, silent; she was pale, almost unmoving; in spite of her stillness, Fannie could almost feel the turmoil in the younger woman's slender frame.
"I feel like I'm running out," Sarah finally whispered.
Fannie turned her head, looked at her with surprisingly gentle eyes.
"I said that, once," she admitted.
Sarah turned, her eyes wide, surprised. "You?"
Fannie nodded.
"I was young once," she said, then laughed: "I was your age, as a matter of fact."
Sarah blinked, listening closely.
"It seemed like the whole damned Union army was swarming through, one way, then after the battle, they swarmed the other, and we were right in the middle of it all." Her eyes grew distant as she remembered, her voice hardening a little. "Wounded men ... men we helped as best we could ... and then the field hospitals arrived and were set up, and there were doctors and orderlies, and when we saw ... there were doctors, and surgeons, I ran."
Sarah blinked in surprise.
Fannie smiled. "Oh, yes. I ran like the scared little girl I felt like. I ran from the horror and I ran from the blood and I didn't stop running until I was most of the way across the plantation, and then I stopped and stripped off all the bloody stuff I wore and scrubbed myself with creek sand and tried to get the smell of blood off me.
"I remember hearing a voice as I turned to run, and I was surprised that it was my own voice ... I said "I feel like I'm running out," and then I took off like a scared deer."
Sarah's eyes were fixed on the deep emerald pools Fannie's eyes had become.
"I wasn't running out on anyone," she said, her voice a little firmer. "I didn't run away. I left because there were better hands than mine to do the work. I'd done my best and wore myself out and I was so tired ... so exhausted" --
It was Fannie's turn to stare into the distance across the tracks from the depot platform.
"I did not last anywhere near as long as you did, Sarah.
"If I was still healing -- as you are -- I could not have stayed half as long as I did."
Fannie lay a gentle hand on Sarah's cheek, smiled gently as Sarah blinked uncertainly.
"We need you healed up and whole," Fannie whispered. "There's only one of you has ever been made. All of Creation, all of Eternity, in all of Infinity, only one Sarah."
Fannie tilted her head and her eyes smiled.
"And I kind of like a universe with you in it."
Fannie raised her head a little as The Lady Esther's whistle challenged the station.
"Now let's get you headed for home, shall we?"
Fannie found herself obliged to take a half-step back as Sarah flung herself into the older woman's arms: she felt Sarah nod her understanding.
Fannie saw Sarah into the private car, and she saw the four crisp-uniformed nurses debark from the private car, and she smiled tightly.
Sarah is taken care of, she thought.
We have plenty of help for Linn's care.
Now it's time to take care of business
Fannie's eyes burned with a deep green fire as she took a long breath.
I didn't have to cold cock Sarah,, she thought with a tight smile.
Didn't even have to hogtie her.
That was an awful lot easier than I expected.

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Linn Keller 10-17-13


"Tea," the nurse said, offering the bone-china to Sarah, on a matching saucer: "a very ancient and civilized drink."
Sarah took the offering, sipped, sipped again.
She leaned her head back against the velvet upholstery and closed her eyes.
I could slip out the back, she thought.
Fannie saw me go in the front. I could go out --
Sarah was exhausted after a night's rest, if you could call it rest; her legs lacked energy even to tense up in a vain attempt at standing.
She opened her eyes, took a longer drink of tea.
"Do I know you?" she asked the nurse.
The nurse gave her a professional smile, the smile of a stranger: "I was hired by Dr. Flint. He sent over a group of us. I'm detailed to your care until you are safely home, then I will join the others in Cripple Creek."
Sarah's right ear twitched a little.
She was so used to her Papa's Appalachian accent, how he called it "Cripple Crick," and she herself adopted that pronunciation; this auslander pronounced it with the long E, and it grated on her ear.
The nurse tilted her head a little, frowning slightly as she studied the young woman's face.
"You look tired," she murmured. "Would you like to lie down?"
Sarah's bones cried out for rest -- her night was tormented by nightmares, she fought monsters in her sleep until sunup barely lightened the eastern sky -- but she shook her head, drained the last of the tea.
The nurse was still studying Sarah's face.
"I am seeing a ... scar line?" -- she sketched a diagonal line across her own face.
Sarah smiled tiredly. "A cabbie slashed me with his whip," Sarah said. "So I shot him."
The nurse's eyes widened and her mouth formed a surprised little O as she made a surprised little noise.
"Don't worry," Sarah said faintly. "You're safe unless you're rich enough for them to kidnap ..."
Sarah's eyes slid shut and her wrist relaxed and the nurse reached for the cup and saucer, catching them before they tumbled off Sarah's lap.
She unfolded a blanket, draped it carefully over the sleeping Sarah, tucked it in behind her shoulders and under her chin, and settled herself in to watch the exhausted soul in the mousy-grey schoolteacher's dress.
The private car swayed a little, the wheels setting up a hypnotic, rhythmic click-hiss as The Lady Esther drew them further from the turmoil of the mining town and back to the familiarity, the safety of Firelands.

"Bear Killer!" Polly called.
Something huge, dark and curly furred peeked around the corner of the house.
Polly planted the knuckles of her left hand on her hip, shook her Mommy-finger at the great canine.
"You know we're going to get Sarah," she admonished. "Now you get over here!"
The Bear Killer yawned, scratched at a non-existent itch, then shook himself with a great flapping of ears and trotted after the carriage.

Children are children, no matter their origin.
The family was dressed oddly, but then most folks dressed a little oddly if you consider it: these, however, wore the attire of their native Caucasus, and spoke one of the Russian tongues: for the most part, their young were big-eyed and silent, staying close to their parents, but when the train coasted to an easy stop at Firelands, one, then another of the youngest looked out the window, their eyes huge.
The conductor held out the red flag to let the engineer know the train could not move yet -- the conductor knew what it was to have children, and he knew how utterly spontaneous a child could be -- and when three little Russian children in their baggy pants and boots charged across the platform toward two hundred pounds of Caucasian Ovcharka -- a dog that stood as tall at the shoulder as Polly's nose -- well, the conductor held up the red flag, Bill the engineer stayed his hand on the steam-valve, and The Bear Killer, faced with a concerted charge from three strangers, did what he did best.
He turned side-on to protect Polly and Opal from the impact, and then he did his best to wash the ears off the newcomers' heads.
Inside the passenger car, near the back where they'd been since beginning their long journey, the parents exchanged a look and the father said something to the mother in a language the conductor didn't recognize.
She looked up at him and smiled.
In heavily accented English she translated, "My husband says perhaps this land is not so uncivilized after all!"
Outside, on the platform, The Bear Killer did what he did best.
He swung his great brushy tail and ow-wow-wow'd with pleasure, and three Russian children hugged him and clung to him and remembered their own great shepherding dog, back in the Caucasus, and for a moment, this strange place wasn't so strange.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-17-13


Hizzoner the mayor and his erstwhile antagonist President of Council Donald Douglas sat late in Hizzoner's office, contemplating the latest turn of events in their town involving Sheriff Keller. "That Marshal MacNeil rode in tonight," Hizzoner said into the clouds of Havana blue swirling about the soot-stained oil lamps lighting his office. The room had been silent for quite some time as each of the occupants had vainly attempted to impose order on his scattered thoughts.

"Aye," President of Council agreed.

"I'm surprised we've not heard from him yet regarding our current state of affairs in town," Hizzoner added.

"I take it you're referring to Sheriff Keller's maniacal one man assault on those men in our street?" Douglas queried.

"Aye," Hizzoner agreed.

"'Tis none of the Marshal's affair!" Douglas snarled, as fuzzed-up as a tomcat suddenly finding itself the star attraction at a dog convention. Not that Hizzoner or anyone else in city government knew it, but some of the men the Sheriff had killed had been on his payroll. "If we're to be a city of any substance, we've a need to take care of such things ourselves!"

"That doesn't seem to have worked out particularly well up to this point, has it?" Hizzoner replied tiredly. Their ruminations were suddenly interrupted by a strangled squawk of indignation and the crash of splintering furniture followed by a tinkling that the two men quickly identified as the jingle of spur rowels on wood. The office door swung slowly and silently open on well-oiled hinges and the Marshal in question appeared in the opening, Greener braced on his hip.

"See here, you can't just..." Hizzoner began.

"Looks like I just did," Charlie replied, smiling a smile that never reached his cold hazel eyes. Douglas grasped the arms of his chair and leaned forward in preparation for leaving said chair. "Don't even think about it, Douglas!" Charlie snapped. He took one long step into the room. "Yeah, I know who you are, and you'll keep your butt in that chair until I tell you to get out of it." Dismissing Douglas from his attention, Charlie turned toward Hizzoner. "How long will it take you to get the city council together?" he asked bluntly.


"That's right. Tonight. The sooner the better. We've things to discuss."

"But the council is scattered all over town!" Hizzoner protested. "It'll take hours to find them all!"

"You've got thirty minutes, and I know for a fact that there's only four of 'em besides Douglas here," Charlie drawled. "So you'd best get somebody after it. I'll wait here. In your chair."

"My chair? My chair? How dare you?" Hizzoner sputtered.

"You now have twenty nine minutes, mister," Charlie replied. Reluctantly, Hizzoner rolled his recently acquired, custom ordered leather banker's chair back from his desk and pushed himself to his feet.

"Rudy! Come in here!" he called toward the outer office as he made his way from behind his desk.

"If that's the name of that prissy fella out yonder, he's indisposed at the moment," Charlie told him as he took Hizzoner's place in the chair and laid the Greener across the gleaming expanse of hand-rubbed walnut that made up the desk top, taking no pains whatsoever to keep good weapons-grade steel from scarring the wood. "You'll have to do it yourself, you and Douglas. And Mayor?"


"You now have twenty eight minutes."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-17-13


The Regulator clock on the wall ticked off the minutes. Ten minutes after the hurried departure of Douglas and the mayor, two men who identified themselves as Horace Chase and Bart Stevens had knocked diffidently on the door frame and been admitted into the mayor's office with the admonition to "Find a chair, sit your butts down and be quiet." The two men had followed their orders to the letter, though Stevens had inquired, at one point, as to what had taken place in the empty outer office to wreck both a chair and a small table. He got a cold stare in reply that silenced him and his companion for the duration.

At twenty two minutes, Luther Johnson arrived, followed at twenty six minutes by Zeno Yearly. Both men, cautioned by whispered words of caution from the earlier arrivals, found seats and kept their mouths shut, though their inquiring glances flitted back and forth between the silent figure behind the desk, the Greener on the desktop, and their fellow city councilmen. Charlie kept his features neutral; behind his cold hazel glare, he was asking himself why Zeno Yearly, who he had known and arrested for extortion and fraud some fifteen years before as Ronald Talbot, happened to be on the city council of a gold mine boomtown.

At twenty seven minutes on the dot, Hizzoner and President of Council Douglas appeared, followed themselves by Jacob Keller, who closed the office door and eased his lanky frame back against the wall beside the door where he could keep an eye on all and sundry. The mayor and Douglas found seats as Charlie sat forward in his chair, cleared his throat and began to speak.

"I now call this meeting of the Cripple Creek city council to order, US Marshal Charlie MacNeil presiding. I believe we'll dispense with such niceties as minutes of past meetings and that sort of thing, and get right down to business. You men have been remiss in your duties." He paused, waiting for responses from the council members. When nothing was forthcoming, he went on, his tone glacial, his gaze the same, voice rumbling like boulders beneath a torrential spring runoff.

"Down yonder lies a better man than any of you will ever be, and you stood by and let him get shot down like a dog!" he grated. "Sheriff Keller tried to be nice to you all, by training your police department and running a few ne'er-do-well's out of town. Sheriff Keller's a diplomatic sort in his way," Jacob snorted and Charlie's lips curved up a fraction for just the tiniest bit of a second, "but I'm not. I'm not nice, and I don't do subtle. So here's what's gonna happen." He raised his left hand, and began to tick off points. His right hand rested on the wrist of the Greener's stock, his thumb draped over the hammers.

"One: guns are allowed in town, but they'd best be displayed where I can see 'em. If anyone's carrying a hideout, he or she had best get rid of it before I find out about it, 'cause otherwise I'll take it away from 'em and stick it some place where the sun don't shine. And I will find out about it, and when I'm done with 'em, I will run 'em out of town in the clothes they're standing there in. And that goes for the lot you as well.

"Two: if you're gonna start a fight, of whatever sort, do it outside of town. Guns, knives, fists, whatever, take it out yonder. And I do mean out. Any man, or woman for that matter, who starts a fight in one of the town's businesses or even on the street is gonna find that I'll finish it, on the spot, and I don't give a tinker's damn who started it. Everybody involved is gonna end up with a hickory-induced headache. Or shot. Their choice.

"Three: if you're running a game of any sort, whether it be poker, faro, whatever, it better be honest. Otherwise I will run you out of town. And I will know, trust me.

"Four: I have no objection to prostitution. I realize that it is a fact of life in a mining camp where the male population outnumbers the female population ten to one. However, those ladies practicing that means of making a living will not display their wares on the street in any way, shape or form. No hanging off of balconies half-dressed, that sort of thing.

"Gentlemen, I expect to see all of your policemen armed. No more of this sissified, big city, 'policemen can't be seen to be armed' garbage. I want people to know that if they don't behave, the wrath of the law is gonna descend on 'em like an avalanche. And you boys are gonna pick up the tab. Every officer will be issued a pistol, a shotgun, three hundred rounds of pistol ammunition and a hundred shotgun shells, and they will practice their marksmanship daily. When their ammo allotment runs out, they will be issued more, at the city's expense. All officers will travel in pairs. Any officer seen to take any kind of bribe or other graft will be fired on the spot and sent packing.

"You gentlemen," he looked at the councilors and the mayor, "will have those four simple rules posted all over town for all to read by daylight tomorrow morning. I don't care how you do it, but you will get it done. Period. Anyone who feels that he or she can't abide by my rules will have until noon tomorrow to get out of town, by whatever means possible. At 12:01 I will begin enforcement of those rules, and I will brook no nonsense on anyone's part.

"I assure you, there will be those who think that they are beyond following my rules. Consequently, people are going to get hurt. But when I am finished with this town, there will be law, and there will be order, and it will be safe for women and children to walk down the street. I will now entertain questions." He was greeted by stunned silence broken only by the scrape of a shoe sole on waxed pine flooring as each man in Charlie's audience pondered the Marshal's words.

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Linn Keller 10-18-13


Cripple Creek's previous physician was little more than a quack.
When the man grabbed an armful of stagecoach and left -- didn't even hang up the CLOSED sign on his door -- Dr. Bennett, the dentist, stepped in to do what little he could.
Frontier medicine could vary between very good and state of the art, or very bad and utter quackery.
Bennett fell a little on the low side of mid-scale.
To his credit he did try, and he knew enough to cause the least amount of harm; his dental practice suffered, but his rudimentary skills kept enough people patched well enough to keep a doc's office open.
When Dr. Greenlees came over from Firelands, word spread that they finally had a competent sawbones in town -- most of the folk who were able would take the steam train to Firelands for their doctorin', for that reason.
Consequently when Daciana swept up to the office doors, she was not surprised to see people in the waiting room.
She was, however, surprised that nobody stood without the outer door with a street howitzer across their elbow and a scowl on their face.
She frowned, opened the door, pushed her way in: she looked around, coolly assessing the waiting room's contents, and when the door opened on the opposite wall, Daciana made for it, chin up, basket on her forearm, as if she had every right to walk right past everyone there.
Whether it was her audacity or some residual chivalry -- most of the men there did rise when she came through the door, and those who still wore hats, removed them -- none challenged her passage, though some were obviously rather ill and one was dripping blood from a rag-wrapped hand.
Daciana turned to regard the surprised nurse.
"I looking for Sheriff," she said, patting the basket. "Supplies."
The nurse looked across the room; Daciana's eyes followed quickly and she smiled a little as she saw Nurse Susan making for her like a tugboat across a choppy bay.
Daciana was shown into the Sheriff's chamber, a chair and a small table made available to her: she unpacked the basket, asked for a stove to heat her cargo, then turned to the pale, sleeping lawman.
Daciana's hands were light, quick; she assessed pulses, tested reflexes, squeezed the man's hand, heard the change in his breathing.
"I know," she whispered. "If you didt not know I vass a voman you vould put me t'rough ze vall."
"Ja," he whispered.
"Undt you are" -- she stroked his cheek bone with the back of a bent finger -- "open mit ze eyes, ja, danke" -- she pulled down his lower lid and frowned, released it and caressed his cheek.
"I zend for ze barber, no?"
Daciana drew up one side of the blanket, her eyes busy.
The Sheriff watched her through slits.
"Everything still there?" His whisper was hoarse.
"Zo far," Daciana replied: his blink reflex was intact, she tapped a nerve junction on his forearm, saw his thumb twitch.
She turned, tilted her head a little, regarded him steadily, then reached up and placed her palm on his forehead.
The Sheriff closed his eyes, remembering how his Mama did that when he was a little boy and not feeling well.
The illusion shattered when Daciana rapped him experimentally on the skull with her knuckles.
"Ja," she sighed. "Like rock."
"Thanks," he grunted.
Daciana reached down, pressed his hand between hers.
"I feex zirkus pervormers," she said, her accent more pronounced: "big stronk men break, I feex. You I feex."
The Sheriff's eyes drifted closed.
"Not sleep yet," Daciana scolded gently. "Virst ve talk."
What the Sheriff muttered did not bear repeating in polite company; Daciana, understanding how cranky men can get when they're unwell, let the scatalogical comment pass.
She seized a chair, spun it up beside his bed, smoothed her skirts, sat and seized his hand again.
"I tell you thinks Zara can't. Esther can't. I zay tinks need zaid, hokay?"
"Why not," the Sheriff muttered.
"Virst off, you hardt headedt undt contrary. Zekond, you try feex vorld undt vorldt don't want vixed."
The Sheriff gave a patient sigh.
"You damned goot Sheriff. You too damned goot. You tryink to zee goot in effryvun else. You zet azide your broblem to feex poleece here." Daciana's eyes were sympathetic. "You not realize zey crooked like politicians. Take money."
"I know they do," the Sheriff said faintly. "Wanted to change that. Takes time."
"You no got time!" Daciana snapped. "You here findt who tryink take minerals claim. You komm, make drouble, dey go. Dey gone now. Zarah voot haff been goot to vindt out who vass, zen she tell Charlie.
"Zarah like vasser, get in cracks in rock. Charlie like big hammer, bust rock. Now Charlie busting heads. De Jutch --" -- Daciana stopped, frowned, her hand describing a circle around her limp wrist and she made an exasperated sound as she tried to remember the name -- "oooooh! Ze jutch -- Horsefeathers!"
Daciana's upraised finger thrust triumphantly into the air and the Sheriff gave her a surprised look, then he began to smile a little, and he chuckled, then flinched.
"Hostetler," he wheezed. "Judge Donald Hostetler."
"Zat vat I zay!" Daciana snapped. "He know who vass, he zend papers.
"Charlie undt Chacob, zey zdraighten dinks oudt!"
Daciana leaned over the Sheriff, her luminous eyes boring into his.
"You zuppozt haff more dan just you vhen you goes after badt guys!"
"Wasn't time," the Sheriff husked. "Got ambushed. Pinned me ... behind ... horse trough ... nearly got it ... from behind."
"I know," Daciana said, a little less harshly. "You zhot zat vun und you run like whole Hussar regiment."
"Worked," the Sheriff coughed.
"NO!" Daciana snapped, seizing the Sheriff's jaw, forcing him to look at her.
Her voice echoed for a shivering moment in the quiet of the little room; Nurse Susan opened the door, her surprised eyes taking in the sight.
"Is everything all right?" she asked, and Daciana threw her hands in the air: she spoke rapidly, fluently in her native Romanian, turning to shake her finger at the Sheriff, turning away and taking a step toward the stove: she turned back, shaking both bladed hands in the air, her head back, addressing the ceiling in a tone of voice that should have scorched the paint on the tin tiles overhead; she thrust a flat hand, palm up, at the Sheriff, her voice elevating, then she spun on her heel, shoved her nose in the air and stomped over to the stove.
She snatched the lid off a kettle, stirred its fragrant contents viciously, then turned to Nurse Susan.
"Feed him this," she said slowly, precisely, her English utterly cold and absolutely without accent: "one cup of this soup, then have him drink two cups of water, then more soup and more water. At least one cup every hour. We must build up his blood. Tomorrow start him on diced meat, boiled and soft. Very little biscuit. He is still the color of a bed sheet and good red meat is the best way to build the blood."
Daciana turned back to the Sheriff, frowning: she went back to his bedside, pressed his face hard between her hands.
"You lissen me, damn you. You vill haff grant zons. Zey vill needs zair Grampa. Zdop beink zo damned hardt headedt!"
Daciana cracked the Sheriff on top of the skull with her knuckles whirled and stormed out the door.
The Sheriff heard her swearing in one of her fluencies as she passed through the waiting room; her diatribe cut off with the slam of the front door.
Nurse Susan stared, big-eyed, at the closed door, then she looked back at the Sheriff.
"I wish," he said hoarsely, "she would just say what's on her mind."

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Linn Keller 10-18-13


They bore her body on a shield, carrying her body at shoulder height, her bow and empty quiver in her dead hands.
They built a pyre and placed her body with respect and with dignity at its apex, and as the fire was lighted, the warriors in ranks raised their weapons in salute this, the bravest of their opponents.
She'd stood shoulder to shoulder with her Sister-Archers, unmoving as a thousand armored warriors marched across the Grecian plain.
She stood, waiting, the tip of her recurved, laminated bow resting on the sole of her sandal between the great and second toes of her right foot.
When the marching invaders halted and sent their emissary to demand the Maiden-Archers' surrender, the chief priestess went forward to meet him.
She waited, watching the Priestess move forward to meet the emissary, her quiver of thirty arrows on her hip, her white robe with gold-and-green trim waving slowly in the sea breeze. The sun was hot on her tanned skin, warm on her coiled braids, and she stood fast with her Maiden-Sisters, knowing they were taking the last breaths of their lives.
Their warriors, nearly all the men of their city-state, marched out that morning to meet the enemy, and were defeated; none were left to stop the invaders, none were left to stand and say, "Thus far, and no farther."
None but the Maidens.
Now they stood, two ranks of ten each, spaced arm's-span apart, waiting.
The enemy emissary raised his sword in salute; the priestess bowed; they turned, returned to their troops.
The Priestess stood before her Maidens, looked from one end of the row to the other, then back, before raising her arms and her voice.
"Maidens!" she called. "We are called upon to surrender.
"Yield, and we are promised safety.
"Resist, and we are promised our death.
"How say you all?"
As one, the Maidens raised their bows, nocked an arrow, turned to blade their slim, athletic bodies toward the enemy.
The priestess stooped, picked up her own bow, slung her quiver over one shoulder, settled it centered in front: she, too, turned to blade the enemy and nocked an arrow.
The Maidens watched as the enemy formed ranks, shields locked, lances level: one thousand men, side by side, shields interlocked, polished bronze spearpoints level and aimed.
The enemy commander paced out in front of his men, drew his sword, turned and brought it down, leveling it at the waiting, white-robed Maiden-Archers.
The Maidens waited.
None could but admire the precision with which the soldiers marched; they were blooded veterans, they were perfectly synchronized, they were the most intimidating sight any of the Maidens had ever seen in their entire lives.
The Priestess raised her bow.
The Maidens raised theirs.
"Maidens," the Priestess called, "mark your targets!"
The Maidens stood, unmoving, patient, as the front rank passed the marker stones.
They were now in range.
The Priestess drew, anchored: she had the honor of First Blood.
The Maidens drew, anchored; each counted, quickly, each knew she would have to kill ten of the first rank, then ten in the second and ten in the third.
If they were lucky.
Chances were very good the enemy would be upon them before their quivers were empty.
She saw the Priestess loose, saw the arrow arc out and strike the enemy commander through the eye-space of his bronze, crested helmet.
The Maidens released.
She reached down, plucked forth an arrow, nocked, drew, released; pluck, nock, draw, release: the Maidens were well practiced, she most of all.
The Maidens fell into a steady rhythm, their arrows streaking through the late-morning sunlight, each arrow striking home, each one sending an enemy to the Elysian Fields.
Her shoulder began to tire; the steady rhythm of the Maidens fell out of their beginning, precision synchronization, but the precision of their arrow-flights was unfailing.
Men fell, but were replaced; their numbers were too great to be stopped with less than two dozen archers, and when Maiden-fingers grasped their last arrows, they lay down their bows and pulled long-bladed daggers, dropping into a fighting crouch.
The lead rank began a crouching run, charging the Maidens.
She twisted and ducked, slipping between two bronze lance-heads, running up the length of the shaft and seizing the top edge of the shield, leaping and thrusting her blade in and under the bronze helmet.
The Maidens ran in close and each Maiden drew blood, but these were girls against hard-muscled warriors; they fell quickly, until she was the only one left.
Teeth bared, pale-blue eyes blazing, she refused to fall: she bled from a half-dozen wounds, until at last she was in the center of a circle of shields, turning, snarling like the cornered beast she'd become.
The shields parted and one man stepped into the circle.
The Maiden faced him, blade up, her off hand stiff, fingers slightly curved, ready to block or grapple as necessary.
The soldier wore the purple of high command; he removed his helmet, handed it without looking to one of the surrounding shieldmen, before he drew his own sword.
He said something, but she shook her head: she did not speak their language.
She felt herself weakening, but she refused to lower her dagger: instead, she took her bearing from the distant mountains, dipped her knees and made a long slash at the ground, drawing a line in the dirt.
She stood on one side, raised her long blade in salute, then crouched into her fighting-stance.
Her message was clear.
Thus far, and no farther.
The commander looked long at her, then raised his own blade in salute.
She died, the last of the Maidens, on a sun-washed plain in ancient Greece: she died with a yard of sharpened bronze through her young heart, but for the rest of his life, their commander would carry a long scar on his cheek ... and the haunting memory of those blazing, pale-blue eyes as she snarled defiance with her last breath.

The nurse watched Sarah, whimpering in her sleep: she did not rest, she was tormented as she twitched beneath the quilt, until finally she doubled over and groaned in obvious pain, her eyes snapped open and she gasped, hands clutching her high belly as if grabbing something ... as if she'd just been speared.
Sarah blinked, shook her head, looked around: she leaned back in the chair, panting.
"Nightmare," she gasped.
"Of course," the nurse murmured.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-18-13


The exodus from Cripple Creek following the posting of Charlie's rules hadn't quite rivaled that of the Israelites fleeing Egypt ahead of the soldiers of Pharaoh's army, but it had been impressive. Horses, mules, shank's mare, a much-repaired mud wagon, even a satin-trimmed barouche pulled by matched pacing bays had served to transport the denizens of the mining town's less-savory environs to somewhere, anywhere, more free-wheeling. But those were the easy ones. Charlie knew that what was left would be much more difficult to subdue. And the grandfather clock that held court in the lobby of the Empire Hotel had just struck noon. It was time...

Charlie was fairly certain that the first hours, maybe even the first day, would be relatively peaceful while the pot simmered, so to speak. Boilover could come any time, but he, Fannie and Jacob were as ready as they were going to be. He turned to the remaining members of the Cripple Creek police department. Each man had a shotgun, a bandoleer of buckshot and a pick handle. All looked at Charlie and his companions with a great deal of reluctance. None were cowards, but all had seen the Sheriff shot down in the ambush and all had been bruised, battered and laughed at at one time or another since donning their uniforms. And all but one had received an envelope under their doors that morning. The last had made it abundantly clear that he would take no bribes and show no favoritism.

"It's time, boys," Charlie drawled. "One of you go with each of us. You," he pointed at the fourth man, the one who refused to be bribed, "you're our reserve. I want you at the jail, ready to lock up whoever gets dragged in. And if you hear me scream for help," he chuckled, "you come a-running. Let's get this circus on the road, folks." He strode toward the door and stepped out on the boardwalk. It was 12:02 PM...

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Linn Keller 10-19-13


"You look terrible," Esther murmured, placing gentle fingertips under Sarah's chin and lifting her face a little.
"You look huge," Sarah replied tiredly.
Esther laughed.
As much as she wished to hug Sarah to her, the great belly prevented any such close association, and would for another month and more: Esther smiled gently and said, "There is a question in your eyes."
Sarah closed her eyes, nodded, her shoulders sagging.
"Aunt Esther, I am so tired."
"Come, sit down. I wish to hear what you have to say."
The ladies eased themselves into comfortably padded chairs.
"I'm ... not afraid to sleep, Aunt Esther," Sarah began uncertainly, "but when I do ... I see things."
Esther looked up at Sarah, green eyes deep, mysterious, listening with more than her ears.
"Aunt Esther, you are a Wise Woman," Sarah said, and it was evident that she was not calling her Aunt Esther, a woman who was wise ... no, she spoke the ancient title, and Esther nodded as she accepted it as her due.
"Tell me what you see," she replied gently.
"Aunt Esther ... Papa was hurt ..."
Esther nodded.
"I was ... caring for him."
Again the silent, understanding nod.
Sarah's downcast eyes saw the maid's skirt, the toes of her shoes as she brought a tray; her felt soled shoes were silent, her presence betrayed only by the gurgle of tea tumbling into translucent, delicate tea-china.
"I wore myself out, Aunt Esther, and I was ashamed."
Esther tilted her head a little, interested.
"I was so worn out I fell asleep in a chair and fell out and hurt my ribs again --"
"That's what I felt," Esther murmured. "I knew something happened but I knew you were still safe."
Sarah's eyes were big as she looked up suddenly, her mouth open.
Esther laughed. "Please don't hang me for being a witch," she said gently.
"I dreamed that too."
"I was hanged?"
"We both were."
"That," Esther said quietly, picking up her her teacup and taking a moment to savor its fragrance, "is because we were. Side by side, from the same beam. Do you remember our children?"
Sarah felt a lurch underfoot, as if the floor suddenly took a strong list to starboard, then righted.
"I do ... they held them and made them watch."
Esther nodded.
"Now about the girl on the shield."
Sarah's teacup clattered momentarily against her saucer; she picked it up, took a sip to conceal her surprise.
"She stood fast even though there was no hope of victory."
Sarah nodded.
"The girl in plate mail astride the destrier, leading a charge into hopeless odds, but charging anyway."
Sarah nodded, remembering the thrill of the massive stallion beneath her, the wind through the visor of her helm, the shock of impact as couched lance drove through her opponent's thinner armor at a joint.
"And the many you saw in the very recent past."
Sarah nodded again, her tea forgotten.
"Each of these tell the same story."
Sarah looked down at her tea, carefully set it aside, laced her fingers tightly together to keep her hands from shaking.
"In each of these you proved your constancy, you proved your bravery and your dedication and you proved that, no matter the outcome, you do what is needed. You do what is right."
Esther handed her own teacup and saucer to the returned maid and looked with gentle affection at her tense, white-knuckled niece.
"Dearest Sarah," she said gently, "you are telling yourself that you didn't run out. When you took the enemy commander's sword through your heart, you could fight no more, you weren't able. When you dismounted from your charger and waded into the oncoming ranks with a hand-ax and a mace, you fell only after your very life was taken from you. Even those selves you saw who have not yet been, those selves dressed so oddly" -- Esther smiled knowingly, looking over her own spectacles as if sharing a womanly secret -- "even they, though they have yet to be, will face their duties and will face their tests.
"We are put here in this schoolyard we call the Earth," Esther continued, laying a hand on her belly and grimacing for a moment, "we are put here to learn certain lessons. Which lessons, we're never quite sure. Sometimes we finish our lesson and move on to the next, sometimes a schoolmate pushes us out of the schoolroom too early and we have to try again through no fault of our own."
Esther took a long breath, considered.
"Or it could just be an interesting series of dreams, dreams where part of your mind is telling you that you really didn't run away, and all those ... vignettes ... are a vivid imagination, nothing more."
"But, Aunt Esther," Sarah said slowly, "if that's ... just ... imagination ... how did you know what I'd dreamed ... without me telling you?"
"You said it yourself," Esther smiled, drawing her knowledge about her like a cloak: "I am a Wise Woman."

The Sheriff was a patient man.
The Sheriff was a longsuffering man.
The Sheriff was a man who tolerated much.
Except when it came to his own long, tall carcass.
Nurse Susan came in to find the man leaning heavily on the counter, straight razor in hand, his face lathered: he was also the color of wheat paste, buck naked and shaking like a dried weed stem in a stiff breeze.
Nurse Susan advanced her throttle and steered a course across the room, seizing the man's trembling hand: she guided it down, then carefully extracted the honed, stropped cut-throat from his grip.
"Let's set back down on the bed, now, shall we?" she said soothingly, in the voice reserved for sick children and old men: "we don't want to fall and hurt ourselves --"
"What's this we stuff?" the Sheriff snapped, twisting out of her grip and falling against the counter: he seized the edge, his knees collapsing, kneecaps banging painfully into its varnished cedar front: Nurse Susan heard the man's teeth snap together as he bit back an oath.
Nurse Susan was veteran at such matters; she seized the naked man about the waist, ran her thigh in under his backside such that her own knee almost hit the cabinet doors, and allowed him to collapse back on her own leg.
In this position, the bones of her lower leg were vertical columns, easily holding his weight; all Nurse Susan had to do was keep balance, his and hers alike, her lower leg bones carried all the weight: it was an old nurse's trick to keep her from destroying her back in a vain attempt at preventing a patient's fall.
Hurrying feet approached them, willing hands assisted, the jaw-locked Sheriff was helped back to his bed: a towel was produced, wiping the generous layer of shaving soap from his face.
"Don't," he groaned, secretly grateful that he was once again horizontal; they cranked the bed up, piled pillows behind him and floated another blanket over his shivering carcass.
Nurse Susan assessed him quickly with professional hands, then stopped and ran her palm across his stubbled cheek.
"You," she said gently, "do need a shave."
"The Pope is catholic," the Sheriff snapped. "Tell me something I don't know!"
"Your daughter is pregnant," Nurse Susan said with a straight face.
"WHAT!" The Sheriff's eyes snapped wide open and looked the size of Morgan dollars and his jaw hung down to about collar bone height.
Nurse Susan placed her fingertips under the Sheriff's mandible and hoisted the swinging jaw bone back into place.
"She's not really," she said, "but I'll bet you didn't expect that!"
There was a knock at the door and the barber came in, a short, swarthy Italian with a mustache nearly as wide as his cheek bones: he muttered his way up to the bedside, dropped his satchel on the table and threw his arms wide.
"Shereef!" he shouted, startling white teeth flashing from beneath a Mediterranean-black handlebar: "I see you again!" He bent a little, frowning, pushed his bottom lip up into his top lip and nodded.
"You need-a good shave," he said. "I feex-a you right up."
He opened his valise, pulled out a towel, hustled importantly over to the stove, filling the room with conversation and the impression that he was, if not wise, at least pouring forth what-all he knew, however much or however little that might be.
"I feex-a you right up, my frien'," he declared, wringing out the towel: he brought the steaming soaker over, carefully wrapped the Sheriff's face in the hot, damp towel, then enthusiastically began stropping the Sheriff's straight razor.
"That frien' Macneil," the barber declared, happily honing the straight razor's edge on one side of the strop, then the other, "he crack heads! He say-a da no more crooked games! He say-a no more girls on-a da street! You know, da fancy girls!" He paused to shake the straight razor at the Sheriff, politely ignoring the fact that the supine lawman had a face full of towel and could see nothing.
"I not-a haveta pay-a da protection!" he declared happily. "I like-a dat Macneil!"

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Charlie MacNeil 10-19-13


Crack heads, indeed! So far, a pair of recently off-shift miners who had initiated a physical disagreement over some minor point at the bar of the Buckhorn had been administered hickory anesthetic and piled in separate cells in the jail to recover at their leisure.

One cardsharp who thought he was slicker with a marked deck and a bottom deal than he was and who had argued his eviction from the town a trifle more vehemently than he could back up had been stripped of hideout pepperbox and three aces up his tailored linen left sleeve. In addition, the man had found himself tossed unceremoniously, somewhat the worse for wear, on the westbound stage.

Three half-dressed "ladies of the evening" who had incorrectly deduced that the Marshal "wouldn't dare lay hands on a woman" had found themselves sitting on the same stage as the gambler, each with a small valise "stuffed" with a change of underwear and a five dollar gold piece as a stake and each wearing a horse blanket poncho scrounged from the depths of the nearby livery stable, courtesy of Fannie, who had no qualms whatsoever about laying hands on anyone as necessary. And the clock in the Empire Hotel lobby had yet to chime the one o'clock hour...

Charlie strolled into the office of Milton Stoakes, Attorney at Law, pick handle dangling from his left hand, followed by his shadow. Stoakes stiffened in his seat for a moment, his gaze shifting from Charlie to the officer accompanying him and back before slumping back against the cushions. "What can I do for you, Marshal?" Stoakes asked, an ingratiating smile reminiscent of that of a stray dog looking for a handout pasted on his face.

"You can saddle your horse and get out of town," Charlie replied.

"What?" Stoakes squawked.

"You heard me, friend. I didn't stutter in the least. You've got thirty minutes to pack what you can stuff in one bag and get out. You're done in Cripple Creek. And if you don't have a horse, you'd best buy one, 'cause it's a long walk to Denver or anywhere else. And don't even think about going toward Firelands."

Stoakes glared at Weldon, the officer accompanying Charlie. "Are you going to just stand there and let him do this to me?" he demanded. "What do I, er, uh..."

"What do you what, Stoakes?" Charlie asked with a smile of pure malice. "Pay him for?" From the corner of his eye, he saw the policeman flinch and his own, as yet unused, pick handle start to rise. A handful of seconds later the policeman suddenly found himself curled in a ball on the polished wood floor, struggling to make his paralyzed diaphragm move enough to draw in even a cupful of life-giving air. Somehow, before he could even think of evading the blow, the Marshal had managed to drive the head of the length of hardened hickory into the officer's belly hard enough that it seemed to have scraped his backbone. Casually Charlie lifted the man's pistol from the holster and relieved him of both pick handle and doublegun.

"Stoakes, you saw the rules. You've been making folks hereabouts pay to keep their businesses from being wrecked by your thugs. The rules didn't specifically mention that sort of thing, but they should have. So I'm serving notice: the protection racket ceases right here, right now. Pick up your friend there on the floor and leave. If I see either of you an hour from now, I won't be nearly as gentle as I was this time."

Stoakes stared malevolently at the Marshal. "You can't do this!" he raged.

"I just did," Charlie replied calmly. "You'd best hurry. You're runnin' out of time rapidly."

Stoakes' hand snaked under his jacket as he surged to his feet. "You'll pay for this! No man treats me like that!" he snarled as a short-barreled Colt appeared, hammer eared back. The pick handle in Charlie's hand lashed out, knocking the muzzle of the pistol out of line as smoke and thunder filled the room, the slug smacking into the wall to the attorney's right. Before he could recover and draw back the hammer a second time, Charlie was around the desk, hickory persuader locked in both hands.

The butt of the stick of hardened wood lanced into the attorney's belly, slamming him back into his chair. The head of the length of wood crashed down on his wrist, smashing bone and dropping the pistol to floor. Hickory and jaw bone met with a thud, and Milton Stoakes world went dark. He awoke some hours later in a jail cell with a splint on his right wrist, a raging headache, and an "Assault on a law officer with intent to kill" charge hanging over his aching head.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-20-13


"Hello, boys!" Fannie called gaily as she pushed her way through the batwing doors of the Gold Bucket Saloon. The Gold Bucket was a favorite of the miners as well as those who were in the town for the express purpose of relieving, by hook or crook, the miners of what few dollars they might have in their pockets at any given time. Faro, poker, roulette, any conceivable means of lining the dealers' and croupiers' pockets with ill-gotten gains could be found in the Gold Bucket. Not to mention the long plank bar that was lined four deep with miners off-shift or preparing to go on-shift. But despite the noise in the room Fannie's entrance was heard and seen by most.

Fannie saw no need to carry a pick handle. Hammering things into oblivion with a stick of wood just wasn't her forte`, as it were. She preferred to make a more dramatic impression. Hence the hip-braced Greener in her right hand...

"It appears to me," Fannie drawled, honey-sweet, into the silence that had gradually followed her entrance, "that y'all," she turned her frosty emerald gaze on the many dealers, etc. in the room, "aren't doin' right by these hard-workin' fellas." She swept her left hand in an arc that took in the crowded bar as well as the tables. "So I'm here to lay down the law."

"What law? We don' need to stinkin' law 'round here! We make our own law here, little girl!" a raucous voice called from somewhere back in the crowd of gamblers.

"Come on out heah wheah ah kin see whom Ah'm talkin' to, sweetie!" Fannie said, exaggerating her drawl. The murmuring crowd slowly parted as a big man resplendent in a velvet-fronted cutaway coat, silk four-in-hand and ruffled linen shirt strode confidently forward.

"Ain't you a pretty one," he smirked. "What're you doin' with that big ol' gun, little girl? You'd best put it down 'fore you hurt somebody." He grinned around at the crowd, wanting to make sure he had their attention.

Fannie minced forward until she stood a few short feet in front of the man. She looked up. "You shuah ah a big 'un, ain'cha," she simpered. "Ah lahk takin' down the big'uns." In a flash of motion she whipped the Greener across her body, grasped the forearm with her left hand and slammed the steel buttplate of the double gun into the big man's crotch with her right. With a gassy scream of agony he doubled over, holding his injured real estate with both hands, crumpling to the floor where he lay gasping for breath. The entire crowd of miners flinched in sympathy, but no one came forward to help as Fannie lowered the muzzles of the Greener to the bridge of the big gambler's nose. His eyes flicked from the gaping double maws to the frosty green eyes behind them.

"You were right, mister," Fannie said softly, drawl totally gone. "Somebody did get hurt. Now," her voice rose and she looked around the room, "any of you fine citizens who has a marked deck in his hand or his pocket, or his foot on the pedal underneath the roulette wheel, or anything else that isn't totally honest, had best step out the back door and find a way out of town. I'm not as generous as my husband; he's been giving thirty minutes. You've got five. Starting now. And somebody drag this," she nodded toward the man on the floor, "to the jail. Don't worry about being gentle, just get him there." She lifted the muzzles of the shotgun toward the ceiling as four men came forward to pick up the big man and carry/drag him toward the exit.

Men, and a few women, began to drift, slowly at first, then faster and faster, toward the back door of the room, until all three faro tables, both roulette wheels and numerous poker tables stood abandoned by their previous overseers. The miners and cowboys who had been at the wheels and tables when their operators abandoned ship hurried to divide up the funds in front of them, arguing over who should get what until a piercing whistle shrilled through the smoky air. All eyes turned to Fannie once again.

"Divide the cash evenly, gentlemen," Fannie ordered into the silence. "If you want to fight over it, take it out of town, like the rules say. But whatever you do, do it quick, because the tables and the wheels won't be here much longer."

"What are going to do to my saloon?" the greasy-haired bartender wanted to know.

"I'm going to make sure nobody else makes a dishonest living off of any of this stuff," Fannie replied. "Gentlemen, clear out!" She stuffed her ears with wads of oddly shaped beeswax she drew from her vest pocket, strode toward the first roulette wheel, drawing back the hammers on the Greener. Tucking the buttplate into her shoulder, she leveled the muzzles at the base of the wheel and pulled both triggers. In a spectacular shower of paint, wood, smoke and thunder, she made sure the wheel never spun again. When she had done the same to the other wheel, the three faro tables and several poker tables, she strode through the gaping crowd to the bar. Pulling her ear plugs she gave the bartender a wide smile.

"You were saying?"

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Linn Keller 10-20-13


"Sir,you should have known better," Jacob said softly.
The Sheriff glared at his firstborn.
Jacob ignored the glare -- not an easy thing; he loved his father, he respected his father, he answered to his father both as son and as chief deputy, but he knew he was right and his father was ... too impatient for his own good.
"Sir," Jacob continued, "you have a job to do --"
"Dammit, don't you think I know that!" the Sheriff snapped, throwing his words as he slung his head: he got his good leg under him, rested his weight for a moment before gripping the table leg with one hand and raising to a crouch, more out of sheer hard headed contrariness than by any physical ability.
His leg hurt like homemade hell, his chest and belly thumped like a tooth ache, his son was giving him hell and in his last try to walk, his leg collapsed and he hit the floor with all the grace of a slaugherhouse beef.
He wallowed both elbows up onto the table, breathing through clenched teeth, then worked to a stiff arm somewhat upright posture and took a long, apparaising look at Jacob.
Finally the Old Man nodded a little.
"You're right, Jacob," he said. "I'm a fool and a damned fool but damned if I'll be a liar. You, are, right."
"Yes, sir," Jacob said mildly.
"You don't have to agree."
"As you say, sir."
The Sheriff sighed, looked at the pick handle Jacob parked against the wall when he came through the door.
"How is it going out there?"
Jacob's eyes were quiet.
"It's ... interesting ... working with Charlie," he said slowly. "The man gets results." The Sheriff saw amusement in his son's eyes as he added, "I can see why Sarah said the man is fast. Fast ain't the word for it!"
"He's alone?"
"No, sir. He's weeded out the cops. One man can't be bribed, or at least nobody found his price yet. I don't doubt they'll try. He's running the jail."
The Sheriff nodded. "What else?"
"One of the cops Charlie had with him ... was dirty."
The Sheriff's lips peeled back in a silent snarl.
"Charlie went in to run that crooked lawyer Stoakes --"
The Sheriff's eyes changed, his head turned two degrees more toward Jacob, and Jacob knew he'd just smacked a nerve with a ball peen hammer.
"Stoakes?" the Sheriff coughed.
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff's right hand tightened, trembling: the man raised it, slowly, opened his hand, glared at it as if it had just betrayed him.
He looked past his splay-fingered palm at his son.
"Stoakes," he said, pausing to breathe before continuing. "Stoakes. He's the one ... he tried ... he hired the bush whack ... the street barricade so they could kill me."
The man sagged, his head dropping; Jacob, alarmed, powered across the room, caught his father before the man's knees failed altogether.
Jacob's eyes widened with alarm.
"You're burning up," he whispered.
"Stoakes," the Sheriff wheezed. "Forged papers. Tried to take my gold claim. Judge ... the Judge caught him and stopped ... the Judge ..."
Jacob dipped his knees, picked his father up: for all that Jacob was lean and muscled, strong and toned, his father was a solid weight in his arms.
"Good God," he gritted between clenched teeth, "I don't wanta bust a gut!"
"Stoakes," the Sheriff groaned. "Behind it all. Find him. Find ..."
Jacob dropped his Pa the last half-foot back onto the bed.
He laid a callused hand on his Pa's forehead.
"I'll take care of it," he said in a low voice.
Jacob considered how much more to tell his impatient, short-breathing father, or whether to tell him anything.
"Fannie is doing good work too," he added, hoping it would be a comfort to the fevered lawman.
"Miz Fannie," the Sheriff corrected, half-lidded eyes fever-bright.
"Yes, sir."
"And you?"
Somehow Linn managed to raise a little off the pillow, then fell back, mouth open, his breaths loud in the quiet room.
"I stopped in to say howdy. Otherwise I'm out with them."
"I heard about Charlie's rules." The Sheriff's voice was faint.
"Rest now, sir. That's your job right now. Rest and heal."
He's done better than I could, truth be told." The Sheriff's eyes opened wide, then closed slowly.
Jacob chewed on his bottom lip, turned as the door opened and Nurse Susan and another nurse came in, one with a steaming washpan and the other with several cloths.
"He's got the experience, sir."
"I know." The Sheriff's whisper was almost inaudible. "He's done this before."
"Yes, sir."
"How's... Fannie?"
"The Red Tornado?" Jacob laughed, his face splitting into a broad and very genuine grin. "God help us, sir, I don't ever want to get on the wrong side of that woman!"
The Sheriff managed a slow nod.
"What... about... you?"
Jacob stepped over to a table and proceeded to unload better than a half dozen hideouts of various kinds: an Apache pistol, a Reid knuckleduster, two pepperboxes, knives and a lead filled sap.
"That's just one saloon," he said.
The Sheriff nodded.
"If you're not going to fall again," Jacob said, "I'd best go get back to work."
"Go," the Sheriff whispered.
"Yes, sir," Jacob nodded, turning his head to look vacantly at the ceiling.
Jacob stopped, turned back at the whispered summons.
"Yes, sir?"
"You're doing good work, Jacob. I am proud of you."
Jacob smiled a little, nodding.
"Thank you, sir. That means something."

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Linn Keller 10-22-13


Sarah sat on the rock ledge, staring thoughtfully into the distance, cross legged and unmoving.
Below her, Snowflake grazed contentedly, cropping mountain grasses and shivering her hide occasionally in the lengthening sunlight.
It would get chilly and fairly soon; the air was already cool, and Sarah knew that as soon as the sun stepped off the rim of the world and dove into starry darkness, it would get cold, fast.
She'd done some thinking.
She could not understand, at least at first, why she saw her several selves -- at differing points in time -- always fighting a desperate battle, always defeated, yet always returning.
She was not certain whether these were memories of past lives, whether these were fevered imaginings of an active imagination ...
Is there something I must learn that I keep ignoring?
Her thoughts were confused until a moment's clarity, like water suddenly dropping its sediment and becoming crystal:
What if I am showing someone else, in each lifetime, something they must learn?
Sarah blinked.
I've been just as constant in this lifetime as I was in the others.
Just not as ... dead.

She smiled, a tight, lopsided smile with one side of her mouth, then she snorted and shook her head.
It's getting chilly.
Time to go home.

She stood and her belly reminded her that it hadn't eaten in far too long ... an hour, maybe, and at that thought, Sarah did laugh, then she began her careful climb down to the little meadow.
As she picked up the saddle blanket and gave it a brisk snap, she wondered idly who in this lifetime she might have taught a lesson.
Several someones, she thought.
Maybe I can just be me from now on.
Snowflake came pacing happily over, nuzzling at her, bumming a treat.
"You're spoiled," she whispered, stroking the big black Frisian's velvety nose.

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Linn Keller 10-22-13


The Sheriff was never known for his patience.
He was never known for stupidity, either.
As much as he wished to be on the street and cracking skulls as necessary, he contented himself with sitting back, taking life easy and being thoroughly, absolutely, utterly, bored.
As a matter of fact he sat back, content, for about a day and a half.
Nurse Susan came in to find a damp, buck naked Sheriff, shaving in front of the mirror, not at all troubled by the fact that a woman just walked in on him as he scraped whiskers off his face.
Nurse Susan's eyes bulged, her mouth opened and closed slowly, and her face turned a remarkable shade of red.
"Breathe," the Sheriff said, smiling under his fluffy white lather-beard.
"I, um," Nurse Susan said uncertainly, then stumbled as another nurse, shocked, fell into her from behind.
"I shall want my clothes," the Sheriff said, unperturbed, and took another careful stroke under his chin.

"He what?" Dr. Greenlees sputtered, spilling coffee onto the tablecloth.
"Yes, Doctor, he is on his feet, he's shaving, he was -- he was --"
"Naked?" the Sheriff prompted, grinning as he stepped into the good physicianer's breakfast-chamber.
"Don't bother knocking," Dr. Greenlees muttered, setting his coffee down and shoving back from the table. "Just what do you think you're doing?"
"I think," the Sheriff said, still with a broad, I'm-getting-away-with-something smirk on his face, "that I am standing here in my long handles and hat and enough appetite to eat a bull calf, all but hooves, horns and tail." He looked at Nurse Susan with an ornery expression, reached down and snatched up two slices of bacon. "I'll need a pound of this fried up, a dozen eggs fried and a loaf of bread." He bit into the bacon, chewed, closed his eyes and tilted his head back, relishing the taste; when he swallowed, he opened his mouth for another bite, thought better of it.
"I'll need a pot of coffee as well, if you please."
Dr. Greenlees stood, slowly, frowning as he habitually did; it was not a mark of displeasure, it was simply the expression into which his face most naturally fell.
Nurse Susan looked from the physician's serious expression to the Sheriff's blissful visage, and back.
Dr. Greenlees leaned the Sheriff's head back with a cool hand on his forehead.
Drawing down the lawman's lower lid with a gentle thumb, he assessed the color, pursed his lips, released the eyelid.
"Doctor?" Nurse Susan asked uncertainly.
"He'll live," Dr. Greenlees said shortly. "Tell the maid we'll need a dozen eggs fried, tell her to fry up a pound of bacon and we'll need a loaf of fresh sourdough. You want butter with that, Sheriff?"
The Sheriff bit down on the last of the bacon slice. "Don't forget the coffee," he mumbled.

Jacob woke instantly, completely, his hand closing about the handle of his revolver.
His thumb was tense on the hammer, his finger held back the trigger: he brought the hammer back fully, slowly, then released the trigger and let the muzzle direct itself toward the door.
The knob turned slowly, carefully; he saw the door begin to move.
Jacob's mouth was dry as he flipped the covers back with the gunbarrel, extended his arm: he slid out of the bed, crabwise, on the side toward the door.
I shouldn't have trusted the lock, he thought bitterly.
I should have propped with a chair or something!
He slid closer to the wall, came up on the balls of his feet, crouched low, breathing through his mouth.
There was a sharp, sudden woody note from without, the distinct sound of hand tooled hickory meeting a skull at a respectable velocity, muffled only slightly by the intervening formed felt of the luckless wearer's hat.
The door flew open and a body collapsed into the room, the double barrel shotgun preceding it; Jacob saw the pale blur of the pick-handle's follow-through as gun and gunman both hit the floor at about the same moment.
Charlie leaned in the doorway with an innocent expression on his face.
"Rise and shine," he deadpanned, "there's work to do!"

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Charlie MacNeil 10-23-13


"And you really oughta prop something under the doorknob when you tuck it in for the night," he added, eyes twinkling, "seeing as how this gent," he tapped the unconscious would-be assassin on the back of the head with the pick handle, "fully intended to do you harm." He bent and retrieved the double-barreled Remington from the unconscious fellow's limp hands. "Oh, and breakfast is ready." He turned and stepped back out into the hall, closing the door behind himself.

Jacob stared at the portal for a moment, then quickly dressed and stamped his feet into his boots. He knelt and rolled the man's limp carcass over onto its back, just in case it might be somebody he recognized from a "Wanted" flyer or some such. Nope, nobody he remembered seeing before. He took a tight grip on a handful of grubby shirt collar, stood, opened the door and started toward the stairs, dragging his erstwhile assailant behind him, taking no care to prevent further bruises and abrasions to the man's epidermis as he made his way down the stairs following the smell of country ham and boiled Arbuckle's that drifted toward him.

As Jacob reached the dining room doorway, his "companion" began to stir and grumble. "What the hell do you think yer..." he began to growl just before his cranium made sudden violent contact with the doorframe that put him out like the proverbial light once more. Charlie appeared, a cup of coffee in one hand and several rawhide "pigging strings" in the other.

"Here ya go," he grinned as he held out the strings. In short order the man was hog-tied, gagged with his own dirty neckerchief and rolled into a closet, "out of sight and out of mind", as it were, and Jacob was tucked into a rasher of ham, fried taters and over-easy eggs, the food accompanied by copious amounts of coffee, biscuits and bee spit. Another day of law enforcement in Cripple Creek was beginning...

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Linn Keller 10-24-13


"Yonder, by the jail."
"What, him?"
"Yes, him, you damned fool! That's Pale Eyes himself!"
"What! Old Pale Eyes? What's he still doin' in town?"
"Didn't you hear? Where you been, y'idjut? Attair bunch set up an ambush an' damn neart kilt him! Hell, I thought he was dead, leastways til he come a-rarin' up off the ground all bloody sided an' run that-there shortgun 'a' his right up attair doc's snout!"
"Hee! Hee! That's a good'un! Right up his snout!"
"Ya, he's got a honker on him big enough t' take a gunbarrel! Ya shoulda seen it! He come a-rippin' int' attair barricade the set up --"
"Sho! What now? A barricade? An' he come at it?"
"At it hell! He come a-screamin' out from behind attair horse trough with a Gatling under his arm!"
One man squinted at the other and said skeptically, "Gatling. Now howinell'd he crank it, hey? You ain't pullin' my leg now are ye?"
The party of the first part glared at the party of the second part and said with an air of wounded dignity, "He had the crank on the bottom!"
"Ya, I thought them back shooters acrost th' street got him!"
"They did!" -- a hesitation -- "good Lord it ain't decently daylight yet an' they're a-draggin' another'n torst th' lockup!"
"Good Lord" -- a shiver -- "I'd not wanta be in there!"
The pair considered the rude shack thrown up around the infamous "Iron Box" used to confine the criminal; they watched that long, tall, pale eyed Sheriff, slouched against the front of the building, casually greet the pair half-carrying, half-dragging the latest criminal resident.
"Damn!" the first observer breathed. "Look at him! Ain't nothin' wrong with him! Just a-standin' there like he'd never had s'much as a hiccup!"
"You know somethin', Jake?"
"I'm jist awful glad I ain't no card sharper!"
"Yew ain't smart enough t' sharp no cards!"

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Charlie MacNeil 10-24-13


Charlie and Jacob deposited their cargo in one of the less crowded cells in the jail. As Jacob swung shut the iron lattice of the door with a clang and snapped the lock, Charlie stepped outside and leaned on the wall alongside his friend. With a smile that was purely for the benefit of the watchers across the street and in a tone that totally belied his slouched and seemingly relaxed posture he growled, "What in hell do you think you're doin'?" Jacob, choosing to exercise discretion as opposed to valor, had wisely chosen to remain inside the building. He was pretty certain that the conversation that was coming would be something he wanted no part of.

"My job," the Sheriff answered flatly, his words accompanied by a smile of his own that came nowhere near his eyes.

"Your job is to get yourself healed up, you damn fool," Charlie replied. His tone softened. "I know, you're impatient to get on with the job. But you can't do the job unless you're completely healed. Why do you think we sent Sarah home?"

"I'm not Sarah."

"No, you're not. You're her father, who has to give her away to that there fireman in a few weeks time. You're also Esther's husband and Angela's papa, and as far as I'm concerned all those things totally outweigh any responsibility you might think you have to this damn county. There ain't a one of these ne'er-do-wells," he indicated the town in general with a tilt of his chin, "worth your life, nor are they worth leaving your family without husband and father just so you can put one more of them in the hoosegow."

"What about the women and children of this town? Their my responsibility too, aren't they?"

"Yep, they are. And because of what you did before you decided to do your lone rider act, and because of your lone rider act the day they ambushed your lanky carcass, and because of what that kid of yours that's been helping me since you've been laid up has done, the streets are safe for 'em again."

"So I'm supposed to just lay by and let you, Fannie and Jacob do my job, is that it? How's that going to look to the people of Firelands County?"

"Is that pride I here talkin'? I hope not!" Charlie snapped. "I'll tell you what it's gonna look like! It's gonna look like the wrath of the law came down on 'em when they chose to ignore it! It's gonna look like if you mess with the Sheriff, you mess with more than the Sheriff. You put the fear into 'em; we just made sure that they didn't forget that fear. Between the ones you killed the day they bushwhacked you and the ones we've thumped and tucked away since then, the outlaws and cutthroats have pretty much tucked their tails and run! This town is as safe as it's gonna get!" He took a deep breath, then went on more calmly. "You know as well as I do that there's always gonna be criminals. You can't put 'em all away single-handed. Now that things have pretty much settled down, it's time to start building a law enforcement presence that can take over when we all leave. And if you're dead it's gonna be damn hard for you to train anybody, don'tcha think?"

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