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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 10-24-13

 

The Sheriff's weight was casually on his good leg, the crescent butt plate of his engraved '73 rifle resting on his muscled thigh.
He regarded the street with slow, methodical sweeps of his pale blue eyes, not looking over at the lean, weathered lawman leaned up against the sun warmed boards beside him.
"You know what's wrong with what you just said, Charlie?" the Sheriff asked slowly.
Macneil waited, knowing this was a rhetorical question, and that the questioner would supply his own answer.
"Nothing," Linn continued. "Not one damn thing."
Macneil waited, knowing he'd spoken his piece, now it was his friend and Brother's turn.
"What you saw when you first laid eyes on me standin' here ... what you saw was pride."
Macneil nodded slowly.
"I wasn't about to let anyone see me hobblin' on a cripple stick, nor ridin' out in a buggy."
"Buggy your sorry backside," Macneil rumbled. "I lined up an Army ambulance."
"I will unscrew your head and shove it down a field gun."
"Pack a lunch and bring some help."
"You are a hard headed obstinate contrary --
"Flattery," Charlie interrupted, "will get you everywhere."
"Yeah."
Jacob leaned against the far corner of the building, far enough away to be discreet, elaborately ignoring the pair at the other corner.
"I wanted to show 'em I was still alive and capable."
"Like I said," Charlie murmured.
"Yeah." Linn coughed, spat. "You're right and I admit it. Happy?"
Charlie turned his head, glared at his old friend.
"Yeah," he growled. "You're alive and I intend to keep you that way."
Jacob sauntered casually toward the pair, stopping and leaning back against the building beside Charlie.
The Sheriff sighed, resignation in the wordless exhalation.
"I," he said finally, "am a damned fool."
"No," Charlie said. "You actually give a good damn."
"Jacob."
"Yes, sir?"
"You payin' attention?"
"Yes, sir."
"Good. First off, never be afraid to learn from someone else's mistakes."
"Yes, sir."
"Second, remember that Charlie was not the least bit bashful to call a spade a damned shovel."
"Yes, sir."
"Only a friend would boot my backside like that."
Jacob hesitated, considering the two lawmen, both looking impassively out across the street.
"Yes, sir," he finally said.

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Linn Keller 10-25-13

 

I did some hard thinkin' once the prisoners were shuffled off to court.
Charlie is right.
Dead ... dead, I will do nobody any good
.
I closed my eyes and took a long breath, flinched: my chest still hurt when I tensed up or breathed in too deep.
I oughta go heal up.
Leave now ... show 'em you hurt the Sheriff, he'll run and hide
...
I glared at the voice whispering between my ears.
This was not my first poor idea.
God knows I've messed up plenty of times.
Did I mess up here?
Yes ... no.
No, I did what I had to do.
They tried to bush whack me and damn near did.
Was it not for that nice friendly horse trough to jump behind, I'd likely be occupyin' that fine fancy coffin I put in the root cellar against the day I'd need it.
Warn't nobody to back my play.
I was the only one to take care of me so I did and I come out on top, least wise until that other pair of bush whackers across the street laid into me.

Now Cripple Creek was a mining town and like most boom towns it grew fast and it grew cheap and likely once the gold played out the place would be tore apart and lumber carried off to build another boom town, unless the place burnt down, of course ... but I'd looked over assays and reports and engineers' letters and I didn't figure the gold would run out in my lifetime.
It wasn't easy to get, bound up in hard rock like it was, but I figured it would be steady, so I invested ... a wise move, as time proved.
With that thievin' lawyer in front of the Judge, I thought, this'll show the world you can't slicker your way into my gold ... I proved you can't bush whack me out of the way so you can slicker the records ...
A buggy drew near, stopped in front of me.
"Sheriff?" the Chief of Police said deferentially.
I looked up, casual-like.
"Sheriff, the Judge asked me to give you a note."
I nodded.
I steeled myself for putting weight on my tore up leg and somehow managed to take two steps without a limp or collapsing.
How, I don't rightly know, that leg wasn't worth a whole lot in that moment and Charlie was right, I needed to concentrate on healin' up, but I needed to see what His Honor had to say.
I broke the seal, unfolded the foolscap, read.
"Will there be a reply, sir?" the Chief asked, and I could tell the man felt like he was walking on egg shells.
Apparently Charlie and company managed to put the fear into more than the criminal element.
"My compliments to the Judge," I said, slipping His Honor's note into my coat pocket, "and my thanks."
"Very good, sir," the Chief said, touching his cap-brim, then he clucked to the gelding and flipped the reins.
I made my way around the jail house and got back to the doc's office by the back alley, taking my time, just sauntering along, rifle across my arm, looking around like nothing in the world troubled me, least until I got back into the doc's office, where I shut the door behind me, took two steps and leaned against the wall for several minutes, my eyes shut tight, shivering a little and sweat popping out on my forehead.
Macneil was more right than he knew.
I felt Doc's hands, firm on my upper arms.
"I give up," I whispered. "Take me home."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-25-13

 

"Hear ye, hear ye, this courtroom is now in session, the Honorable Judge Donald Hostettler presiding. All of you stand up and be quiet," the honest officer from the jail, in his role as court bailiff, called over the buzz of conversation in the room. There wasn't actually a courtroom in Cripple Creek, so the one decent hotel's dining room had been dragooned into service. The tables had been stacked against one wall except for one which the Judge had chosen as his "bench", the chairs arranged in rows. A trial was considered quality entertainment in any Western town, but this one was especially attractive considering who the guest of honor was planned to be.

The officer, whose name was Leland Brentwood, looked disgustedly across the still chattering crowd, picked up the heavy cast-iron skillet and the steel spoon he had already sited on the Judge's bench, stepped up on the "witness chair" and began to beat the skillet with the spoon quite enthusiastically. In a matter of moments he had the undivided attention of everyone in the room.

"All you boys get on your feet! This courtroom is now in session!" Chairs scraped and boots thumped as those sitting rose to their feet. "That's better! Now all of you shut up!" As Brentwood stepped down from his perch Judge Hostettler entered the room, trying mightily to hide the grin that threatened to burst through his solemn facade. He sat behind the "bench" and picked up his gavel. He rapped the gavel on the tabletop twice, said, "You may be seated" and waited while the crowd settled into their seats. He nodded to Brentwood, who stepped forward to pick up a sheet of paper from the tabletop.

"Firelands County versus Milton Stoakes! The charges are:
Assault on an officer of the law with intent to commit homicide
Forging of mining claim documents and fraud
and Resisting arrest."

He returned the sheet of paper to its place on the table and stepped back to fold his hands behind his back.

"Step forward, Mister Stoakes!" the Judge ordered. Stoakes pushed himself from his seat in the front row with his uninjured hand and strode arrogantly forward. Even from his cell he'd managed to get his suit cleaned and pressed and he knew he looked good. This was not his first time in a courtroom, though he'd never before been involved in a trial as the defendant. Hostettler pointed toward the witness chair. "Sit down, Mister Stoakes." When the lawyer was seated, the Judge went on, "You have heard the charges, Mister Stoakes. How do you plead?"

"I plead not guilty on all charges, Your Honor," Stoakes answered confidently. His confidence stemmed from the fact that he paid out a considerable sum in gold each month for cooperation from the denizens of Cripple Creek's less savory environs, so he was sure he'd have plenty of "witnesses" to his innocence. What he didn't know was that the majority of his paid witnesses had left town already, and all but one or two of those still in town were sitting at the station waiting for the next stagecoach to anywhere. And that remaining one or two were maintaining the lowest possible profile. "And I will be acting as my own attorney."

"Are you sure about that plea, Mister Stoakes?" the Judge asked. "These are very serious charges."

"I'm positive, Your Honor," Stoakes replied.

"Well, in that case, please return to your seat, Mister Stoakes." When the attorney had resumed his original seat, Hostettler, acting as prosecutor as well as judge, called, "I call Charlie MacNeil to the stand." He smiled slightly as he saw the confident smirk on Stoakes' face falter for a moment. Charlie strode from the back of the room, spurs jingling, Greener in hand, crossed bandoleers of gleaming brass on his chest. He tipped his hat back to hang by the stampede string and sat down. He handed the Greener to Brentwood, who grasped the shotgun with is left hand as he stepped forward with a Bible in his right. Unseen by the crowd, he grinned at Charlie.

"Place your right hand on the Bible," he ordered. When Charlie had done so, he went on, "Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"

"I do," Charlie answered. Brentwood returned to his place behind the witness chair, laid the Bible on a nearby table, and stood with the shotgun at port arms across his chest.

"Please tell the court what happened in the office of Milton Stoakes on the morning in question," the Judge ordered.

"With pleasure, Your Honor," Charlie replied. He launched into a concise description of the events in the attorney's office, mincing no words while wasting none. The crowd sat silent except for an occasional cough as the Marshal told his story. Stoakes didn't speak through the entire narrative, which painted him in quite an unfavorable light. When Charlie had finished speaking, Stoakes rose to his feet and strode forward.

"Mister MacNeil..."

"Marshal," Charlie interrupted.

"Excuse me, Marshal MacNeil," Stoakes said with a smirk. "What exactly is your authority in Cripple Creek?"

"I'm a United States Marshal, Mister Stoakes," Charlie replied. "I have blanket authority over this part of country."

"Really." It was a statement, not a question. "Blanket authority? How is that possible?"

"It's possible because my boss says it is," Charlie replied with a cold lift of his lips. Someone out in the crowd snickered.

"And what exactly did this faceless "boss" tell you?" Stoakes sneered.

"His words were, verbatim, 'Get that place cleaned up, and don't be gentle about it. I don't care how you do it, just do it. And make an impression that won't be forgotten for a while.'" Chuckles and outright laughter erupted from the crowd now. The Judge rapped his gavel on the table.

"Quiet, or I'll have this room cleared!" he ordered. The room went quiet. Nobody in his right mind wanted to miss what they were sure would be coming next.

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Linn Keller 10-25-13

 

I don't know who or how but I got spirited onto the train.
At least they had a bunk set up for me in the stable car.
I could lay down there and nobody could see me.
I don't know which of the nurses rode with me and it don't matter.
I was feverin' up again and weak as a kitten and Charlie could see it even when I was not about to: there are none so blind as will not see, and I was bound and determined not to see just how whipped I was.
Thank God Charlie was there to belt me over the gourd with plain words.
Much as I wanted the world to see the Sheriff was alive and well and on the job, it would have been far the worse for the world to see the Sheriff collapse in the street.
I lay there and shivered like a wet dog.

"Mommy?"
"Yes, sweets?"
Angela frowned at the yellow yarn that comprised her rag doll's hair.
She had multiple of the fine ceramic dolls -- they still worn the French exemplar dresses her Aunt Bonnie scaled up and sold -- and even though Angela was getting to be a Big Girl, she still liked the rag doll her Mommy made her ... mostly because ... well, it was her Mommy that made it, and she made it especially for her little girl.
"Mommy ... " Angela looked up at Esther, not quite sure whether she should say what was on her mind, but realizing she'd already pushed her sled over the lip of the snowbank and was ready to go whistling downhill.
"I miss Daddy."
Three simple words, spoken in the voice of a sad little girl, words Esther knew well; she'd spoken them herself, both as a wee child, and many times in the years of her growing-up; even yet, she missed the warmth, the strength of her Papa.
"I know, Sweets," Esther said sympathetically. "I miss him too."
"Mommy?"
"Yes, Sweets?"
"When is Daddy coming home?"
"He's on his way home," Esther said, blinking as if she realized something surprising. "This very moment. He is coming home."
Esther smiled at her daughter.
"He's on the train. Would you like to go meet him?"
"Yaay," Angela cheered, bouncing up on her toes and clapping her little pink hands, her face all rosy and pink-cheeked and smiling.

"The Judge," I whispered.
A cool, damp cloth wiped slowly across my forehead, sizzled as it traveled down one cheek, then the other.
"The Judge has the papers. He's got the forgery. The evidence."
"I know," the nurse soothed, her voice coming from a distance.
I could see a set of telegraph wires running into the stock car and trees growing inside with cannon set between them.
"Charlie," I whispered.
"He's fine," the gentle voice said, and I closed my eyes and drifted in a hot sea, an invisible sun baking me as I floated on transparent wavelets.
"Your fever will break soon enough," I heard, but I paid no attention.
I was watching apples walk up the tree branches and down the trunks and line up in neat ranks behind the cannon.
I could see them clearly through closed eyelids.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-27-13

 

"Mister Stoakes, are you quite finished with this witness?" Judge Hostettler asked.

"I am, Your Honor," Stoakes replied.

"Very well, you may step down, Marshal," the Judge ordered. Charlie rose from his seat, reclaimed custody of the Greener from the bailiff and stepped back to stand against the wall near Brentwood, the shotgun held broken open and hanging from his forearm as he slouched against the whitewashed boards.

"Mister Stoakes, you may call your next witness."

"With pleasure, Your Honor. I call Mister Cecil Wallace to the stand," Stoakes replied smugly.

He stood confidently scanning the crowded room for sixty very long seconds before someone in the crowd called, "I think Cecil just left on the mornin' stage ta Denver, him an' a whole passel of others!" A momentary flash of anger could be seen on the attorney's urbane features before he got himself under control once more.

"Your Honor, my witness does not seem to be available. May I call another?" The Judge nodded his consent and Stoakes called another name. Over the course of the next five minutes, his confidence dwindling rapidly, the attorney called a long list of names, none of whose owners seemed to be present in the room and most of whom were not present anywhere within the town's environs, having left town by whatever means were available over the course of the past two days. As each name was called, and as each man failed to present himself for testimony, Stoakes demeanor became more and more desperate.

"Your Honor, I seem to have run short of witnesses," Stoakes at last said in a much subdued and diffident tone. "I shall take the witness stand on my own behalf, and end this farcical mutation of justice once and for all!" He strode forward and seated himself. Brentwood swore him in and he began to speak in his own defense.

History has not recorded the words Stoakes fairly spouted, flourished and embellished on his own behalf as he strode to and fro before the Judge's bench. History does record that the catcalls and laughter swelled with each listing of injustice done to his person and deeds of aid and succor for others reputedly done by him, none of which seemed to have been noticed by his fellow citizens. After some forty five minutes of dissertation, Stoakes began to wind up his testimony.

"And further, Your Honor, the claim of falsification of documents and fraud is completely and totally without merit. Those documents deeding me all rights to the gold claims of Sheriff Linn Keller are true documents and will stand up in any court of law!" Stoakes strode forward, his confidence restored, and seated himself with a flourish in the witness chair and gazed expectantly at the Judge.

Judge Hostettler stared wordlessly back at the attorney for several moments before speaking. "That was quite an inspired speech, Mister Stoakes," Hostettler began. "Too bad it's total poppycock." Stoakes sucked in a breath and opened his mouth to speak, but the Judge held up a restraining hand. "Don't bother to object, Mister Stoakes. It will do you no good whatsoever. And regarding your allegation as to the veracity of the gold claim documents, this is one court of law in which they will not stand as true documents." He picked up a thin sheaf of paper from the table in front of him.

"I have known Sheriff Linn Keller for quite a long time, Mister Stoakes, and there is no way on God's green earth that he signed these documents. They are obvious forgeries, and you are an obvious blackguard who deserves nothing less that the worst possible punishment that I can mete out!" His voice rose.

"Regarding the charge of assaulting an officer of the law, that one stands on its own merit. Marshal MacNeil's reputation for honesty precedes him..."

"Yeah, he's pretty good at breakin' arms, too!" an anonymous jokester called from the back of the room, obviously referring to the plaster that burdened the attorney's right forearm.

Ignoring the interruption, Hostettler went on, "...whose testimony I would take as gospel truth any time. Consequently, I have decided on your punishment." Stoakes stared at him, as stunned as if someone had walked up and handed him a live rattlesnake.

"Get ready, 'cause that hothead is gonna jump the judge when he hears what Hostettler's got to say," Charlie whispered to Brentwood. Marshal and bailiff stepped quietly forward, Charlie leaning the Greener against a chair near the wall before moving up behind Stoakes.

"But, but, Your Honor!" Stoakes sputtered, leaning forward.

"Silence, Mister Stoakes!" Hostettler thundered. Stoakes wilted back into his chair. "I hereby sentence you to ten years in the Territorial Prison in Canon City, Colorado on each charge, to be served consecutively." He struck the table with the gavel. "This court is adjourned!"

"No!" Stoakes suddenly screamed. He launched himself from his seat, his clawed fingers aimed for the Judge's throat. Hostettler stared at him calmly as the former attorney suddenly became entangled in the chair's legs, assisted by Charlie and the bailiff, and struck the floor with a resounding THUMP! that drove the air from his lungs. Before he could gather the wits scattered by the impact the two officers were on him, pinning him to the boards to yank his wrists behind him and clamp the manacles on him.

They unceremoniously hoisted him to his feet, where he sagged between the two men until Charlie leaned over and hissed in his ear, "Stand up or I'll stand you up!" Stoakes forced himself upright, head hanging in despair. All that he'd worked so hard for, all his ill-gotten gains, were gone in an instant. He was sure that he would never come out of the prison alive.

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Linn Keller 10-27-13

 

Angela rapped her Papa's skull experimentally with her curious, young and surprisingly sharp, knuckles.
Linn flinched and grunted, then opened his eyes, blinking to clear the sticky from them: he reached up, rubbed his eyes, squinted at Angela, who stood expectantly beside her Daddy's bunk.
Esther sat patiently in a chair on the other side, hiding her amusement in her crocheting.
Linn wasn't sure what to make of the sudden rat-tat on his gourd; Angela saved him the trouble of formulating a question as she said brightly, "Mommy said you have a very hard head. I wanted to find out."
The Sheriff smiled a little, then he smiled a little more, and he very carefully, cautiously, allowed himself a chuckle: he pressed his upper arm down against his knitting ribs and laughed again.
"What did you find out, Princess?" he asked, stopping to harrumph his throat clear of a gob of sticky unpleasantness.
Angela blinked almost sadly at her supine Daddy.
"Mommy's right."
Angela backed up a small step, curtsied, then skipped down and around the foot of the bed and out the door, singing "Camptown Ladies sing this song, doo-dah, doo-dah," and clattering happily down the stairs.
"How long," Linn hazarded, coughed, winced, cleared his throat and opened his mouth to try again.
"Three days," Esther said quietly: it wasn't until Linn squinted again and studied his wife's face that he realized how tired she looked.
"How much sleep didn't you get?" he asked slowly.
Esther's slience was its own answer.
"How did I get here?" he hazarded.
Esther lowered her crocheting into her lap and bit her bottom lip.
"Six stout yeomen carried you in at shoulder height," a familar voice snapped.
Sarah stepped around the foot of the bed, looking severe in her schoolmarm's dress and spectacles: "and poor Aunt Esther slept not one wink since you got home."
The Sheriff's eyes narrowed.
"Six men, at shoulder height ..."
Sarah's eyes were pale and she glared at her Papa.
"I should be angry with you," she said finally, "and I probably should say words that would cut a stone statue and bring blood from carved marble."
"So say it," the Sheriff replied, his voice hardening.
"No."
Sarah stood, very proper, very severe, very forbidding, or as nearly so as she could manage.
"No, I won't. I am guilty of the same as you, only I did not fever as severely. Do you know why I said six stout yeomen, and shoulder height?"
"It's how a coffin is carried."
"Yes." Sarah considered, then sat on the side of her Papa's bed. "It actually took two men and a military litter to pack you upstairs."
"What about the six?"
"Their names were on a list, and Parson Belden was prepared to task them with their solemn duty."
"I was that close, then."
Sarah pulled the cover aside far enough to expose her Papa's hand: she seized his big, callused hand in her small, soft hand, lifted it, pulled the covers back into place and squeezed his hand with both hers.
"I am going to ask something of you," Sarah said, her voice a little lower.
"Ask, then."
"I want you to live for a while longer."
"Oh?"
"In case you'd forgotten, I am due to be married in less than a month."
"And I promised to walk you down the aisle. Charlie already reminded me."
"I'm reminding you again." Sarah pursed her lips, tilted her head, considered the man.
"You knew you wouldn't die, didn't you?"
Linn shrugged, flinched, immediately regretting the move.
"You know the future can be changed."
"So now you're an expert?"
"Let's just say I have ... an insight."
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow.
Sarah released her right hand from her two-hand grip, leaned forward a little, laid her hand on his shoulder, still holding his hand with her other.
"I'll make you a deal."
"I'm listening."
"You don't die and I won't either."
"Don't hold me to something I can't keep."
"I can't either."
"I'm confused."
"No, you're needed. Here. On this earth. We've got people depending on you. We've got people who enjoy your company. You've got work to do yet. You've done much good but much remains.
"Think you're up for the challenge?"
"What work?" Linn grunted, sinking back into the pillow. "Haven't I done enough?"
"Nope." Sarah stood. "Not yet."
The Sheriff looked over at Esther, who was patiently working her crochet hook.
"Dearest?" he asked gently. "What say you?"
Esther lowered her crocheting again and regarded her husband with loving and patient eyes.
"Who am I to argue with a schoolteacher?" she asked innocently.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-28-13

 

Cripple Creek had been relatively quiet for several days. Charlie had put the word out that he was looking for recruits for the police department, and ten men had applied. They were miners, farmboys, and a townie or two, all "between the ages of twenty and thirty, in good health, of stout constitution and not afraid of work". Now it was time to do some training and see if any of them would make what Charlie thought of as good law officers. Today was stick training. He and Jacob had made believers out of more than one hothead in the past week using nothing but a pick handle.

"Any idiot can use a shotgun, and any idiot can swing a stick and whack somebody on the noggin," Charlie told the recruits. "That is, unless that somebody has a stick or something of his own and blocks it. You!" he pointed at a young man half again his size. "Stand up, pardner, grab one of those pick handles, and whack me upside the head with it."

"But, Marshal, I, uh..." the young man began.

"Just do it!" Charlie ordered. He stood apparently relaxed, a pick handle of his own lightly clasped in both hands at waist level, his hands shoulder width apart. I hope you ain't bit off more than you can chew, old man, ran through his mind as the big ol' kid picked up a stick, raised it to shoulder height in his right hand and stepped forward.

With the step, the length of seasoned hickory came down in an arc whose speed should have set up a whistle in the air. At the last second Charlie swung his own pick handle up, catching the descending stick with a crash of wood striking wood, sweeping it aside and pushing it and its owner to Charlie's left. As the two handles separated Charlie swept to his right, using his momentum to punch the end of the stick in his hand under the younger man's suddenly outstretched arms and into his gut. As the recruit folded like a dirty shirt over his aching belly Charlie stepped back, released the stick with his left hand and belted him across the back of his left knee just hard enough to fold the knee and drop the comparative youngster to the ground.

"Now that he's down, I could've done him some serious damage if I'd'a been of a mind to," Charlie told the rest of the recruits over the groaning carcass of his recent attacker. "You'll all be able to do that," he tapped the young man on the shoulder with the stick, "when we finish with you. One thing to remember: never, if you have a choice, use a stick for a club. Always, unless you don't have a choice, use is to thrust. Aim for the biggest piece of your opponent, and punch it into him like you're tryin' to cram his belly button out past his backbone." He chuckled. "The only exception to that rule is if you have a clean shot at his crotch. Then swing that stick like you're tryin' to drive his cojones out through the top of his head. If that don't put him down, then it's time to run like hell 'cause you're outnumbered. Any questions?"

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Linn Keller 10-29-13

 

Word passed, and quickly, about the Sheriff being back shot in Cripple.
Rumors were thick, of course.
He'd been killed.
He killed ten men with a dull knife, skinned them with a soup spoon and picked up a stage coach and flung it into a riotin' crowd, and Old Nick hisself come a-boilin' up out of a hole in the ground only to get his nose flattend, his pitch fork broke and his tail wrapped around a cannon ball and the cannon fired back down that smokin' hole in the ground.
There were other rumors, of course, that were so farfetched as to be not believable.
There were even one or two that allowed as when Death rode in on a pale horse he took one look at that-there Sheriff kicking backsides up between shoulder blades that he whipped that-there white horse around and galloped out of town in one all fired hurry.
And as usual, as the Sheriff was the subject of these rumors and speculations, he himself knew nothing at all about them.
Sarah, on the other hand, heard them from her students, and from the ladies about town, and did nothing at all to dispel them: she knew the value of a reputation, and she knew she enjoyed a reputation for honesty, and so she played on what she was hearing, and shortly the Sheriff was painted as a rip snortin', two fisted, fire breathin' harvester of teeth, a steam powered engine of such ferocity that if he were turned loose on a mountain he would reduce it to gravel with his bare fists, or pound a tunnel through its middle with only an occasional kick thrown in to alleviate boredom.
Jackson Cooper had little trouble maintaining order in the Sheriff's absence; little happened out in the county, Firelands was for the most part smart enough not to cross the big Marshal (beside whom the Sheriff looked almost diminutive) and besides ... everybody knew that once he was healed up and back to his usual self, why, the man had a good memory and would likely track down any miscreants who raised hell during his convalescense ... and nobody wanted to earn the man's ire.
He had, after all, held that cannon barehand above that hole in the ground right before he fired Old Cloven Hoof back to Hell, hadn't he?
Folk passing through might be forgiven if they had the mental image of a man tall as the church steeple and big around as the church, striding across his desmense with seven league boots and speaking with the voice of a steam horn.
This giant of destruction, this fearsome figure of justice and order, by the afternoon of his second day home, managed to make it down to his own front porch, where he was content to set in a rocking chair with his healing leg propped up on a little stool, and watch his Cannonball horse pacing along the fence, impatient for a good run.
"Daddy?" Angela asked, regarding her Papa with big and innocent eyes.
The Sheriff looked at her, smiling a little.
"Daddy, can I rideada Cannonball horsie, pleeeeease?" she wheedled.
The Sheriff smiled, raised his big Daddy-hand to caress his little girl's smooth cheek.
"Princess," he said gently, "Cannonball is carrying a foal. How would you like to ride my Outlaw-horse instead?"
The Sheriff raised his chin.
At his summons, the hired man ambled over to the porch.
"Justin," the Sheriff asked, "would you be kind enough to shorten up the stirrups on my saddle, and saddle my Outlaw horse for Angela?"
"Really?" Angela breathed.
The Sheriff winked, crooked his finger at his little girl.
"Angela," he murmured confidentially, winking at Justin, "do you think you can handle the Outlaw?"
Angela nodded solemnly.
"Okay."
Angela leaped delightedly into her Daddy, seizing him around the neck, shoving her young belly into his healing side; her sudden impact rocked the man, causing him considerable pain, but somehow the joy of a happy little girl made it worth it.

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Linn Keller 10-31-13

 

Esther, like most late term women, was restless.
The child within her was not happy when Esther lay on her back, or on her side; the child was not content when Esther walked, or stood, or sat; Esther finally found that if she sat with her feet up on a very high stool, her knees bent, that not only did it ease her lower back, it also seemed to bring a little relief to the restlessness beneath her heart, this living soul who chafed against the confinement of a maternal womb.
"Soon," Esther whispered, her hand on her belly. "Soon, my dear."
She leaned her head back against the back of the high, upholstered chair, looked out the window.
It was beautiful out, as it usually was this time of year; Esther did love the mountains so, just as she'd loved the mountains as a girl at home, but here ... here, the mountains were yet young, raw, harsh, sharp edged, not like the weathered, rounded, aged Appalachians.
Esther smiled, remembering.

Angela lifted Outlaw's reins and leaned forward in the saddle, her breath catching in her young throat as the black gelding surged beneath her: Rosebud was fast, Rosebud was quick, but Outlaw, like Cannonball, was taller, longer legged, and frankly more experienced at responding to a rider's demands, and Outlawl leaned into a long-legged gallop ... a gallop that took Angela faster than she'd ever gone before in all her young life!
A rider will respond in one of two ways when she finds herself astride an express train with four hooves and a mane: either with fear and shrinking, or with a silent, glorious shout as her soul swells and spills all over the horse and flares out into a set of etereal wings, to catch the air and ride the wind itself!
Outlaw was a horse who loved to run, and Outlaw ran often and for the sheer joy of running, and Angela locked her legs tight against the gleaming black barrel and willed herself to an even greater speed and Outlaw-horse bore straight for the head tall painted board fence and Angela screamed for absolute joy as the earth fell away from beneath their hooves and for a moment, for an eternal, unending, glorious moment, Angela was one with the birds and angels, Angela was a creature of the air and of the sky and Angela knew the magic of the ancients, of those glorious few who rode creatures of the air, who pushed hard with great feathered strokes and soared over the earth where lesser beings plodded ...
Outlaw touched down light and easy and galloped on across the field, and two sets of eyes followed her; one pale blue, in a grinning face, and the other pair, emerald-green, smiling gently as she recalled what it was to be a young girl astride a fine horse on a sweet-smelling fall morning in the mountains.

Sarah glared at the knotted rope.
She wore her underthings and stockings, she wore rubber soled athletic shoes, she wore a pair of thin leather gloves, and she wore an expression so fierce the rope almost quailed away from her.
Sarah seized the rope a little above head height, jumping a little to grab it; she clenched her teeth, then found a matching knot with her feet.
Daciana knew better than to caution Sarah to a less strenuous effort.
Sarah wheezed a little, pulling herself up: she deliberately threw her feet apart, took a quick breath, and with a growling snarl, suddenly began climbing, hand over hand, fast, charging as hard as she could, straight up.
She ran out of air and energy about the same moment, when she reached the top, but somehow, somehow she kept a hard two hand grip, grabbed a knot with her feet again, pushed slowly another foot, and slapped the beam overhead as if slapping somebody who offended her.
Daciana laughed, clapping her hands: "Goot," she called, "sar goot! Now downkommen mit you, ja?"

The Sheriff's effort was less spectacular to view, but no less an effort was required for his own performance.
He got his weight on his good leg, his aching, throbbing leg swung wide as a brace, the rest of his weight on the cripple stick he held in front of his belt buckle: with a sustained grunt, he stood, paused for a long moment with his weight on three legs, then slowly, deliberately, he walked to the edge of the porch, leaned heavily on the porch post and grinned as Angela cantered back across the high pasture, laughing and waving.
"Daddy!" she shouted, her voice high and excited on the morning air, "Daddy, did you see? Did you see us? Did you see Outlaw jump? Daddy, that was fun!"
The Sheriff tossed his cane in the air, caught it at midpoint and pumped it overhead, signaling approval, and Angela galloped the Outlaw easily the rest of the way, slowing her as they approached and stopping her in front of the broad, roofed porch.
Angela's hair glowed in the sunlight, her apple cheeks bright and healthy, her smile absolutely lovely, and for a moment the Sheriff saw a good hint of the beauty his little girl would become.
"Have Justin bait him a little corn," the Sheriff said, nodding: he stepped down with his bad leg -- one step, two steps, a third and the ground: he leaned heavily on the cane, twisting a little as he walked.
He reached up and laid a big, strong, warm Daddy-hand on his little girl's soft, cool, daughter's-hand and grinned.
"You," he said quietly, in the voice of a proud Papa, "ride the Outlaw very well, and I am proud of you!"
Angela laughed, throwing her head back a little, and the Sheriff would remember for a very long time that moment, when her glowing hair and laughing face were silhouetted against a flawlessly autumn- blue Colorado sky.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-31-13

 

"I think that went pretty well," Charlie commented over elk steak, beans and bread the evening after the stick training session.

"Went pretty well? You're kidding, right?" Jacob asked incredulously.

"Why, Jacob, what ever do you mean?" Charlie "answered" with a disingenuous grin.

"I mean we ended up with a broken arm and six broken fingers out of ten men!" Jacob declared.

"So we still have eight effectives for your pistol class tomorrow. The broken fingers were all on their left hands, except for that one feller. He wasn't so lucky. So I think it went pretty well. Definitely coulda been a whole lot worse."

Jacob snorted. "Yeah, I suppose you're right. Well, night all. It's gonna be an interesting day tomorrow." He swabbed the last of his supper from his plate with a thick slice of bread, chewed and swallowed it in three bites, stood and strode out of the room.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The remaining eight healthy recruits, accompanied by the two men whose injuries precluded handling anything related to a firearms, filed out of the ramshackle jailhouse. Jacob strode ahead, turned the corner into the alley that ran alongside the jail and stepped out onto a makeshift shooting range he had set up at the foot of the juniper-covered ridge that flanked the town. A wooden case of .44-40, grudgingly provided by the mayor and the town council, sat beside another similar box filled with brass-cased buckshot loads for the mule-ear doubleguns the men carried broken open and draped over their arms. Jacob reached the firing line and turned to face the group as they spread out to either side.

"You men can lay the shotguns on that table," Jacob told them, pointing to a long makeshift table put together from sawhorses and planks that stood beyond the end of the line of targets. When the shotguns were all on the table, he addressed the group.

"How many of you men were in the war?" Jacob asked. Only one man, somewhat older than the rest and several years older than Jacob, raised a hand. Jacob looked directly at him. "What's your name, mister?"

"Rack Weller," the recruit answered, stepping forward with his thumbs hooked in his belt.

"So can you shoot, Rack Weller?"

Weller grinned. "Yep."

"How well can you shoot, Rack Weller?"

"Damn well, Mister Deputy!" Weller declared with a cocky grin.

"We'll see about that, Rack Weller," Jacob replied with a cold smile. "Back in line, mister." He waited, but Weller didn't move. "What are you waiting for, Weller?" Jacob barked. "I gave you an order!"

"I don't need to take orders from no boy!" Weller snapped.

"Excuse me?"

"I said..." Weller began.

"I heard you," Jacob interrupted. "I just couldn't believe you said it. But since you did, you can leave." He turned to address the remaining recruits. "Can any of the rest of you..." Weller stood stock-still, anger etched on his rapidly reddening features. Jacob paused to favor him with a cold stare. "You're still here?"

"Damn right I'm still here!" Weller growled. "An' I'm stayin' here until you..."

"Until I what?" Jacob interrupted him a second time, stepping forward. "If you won't take orders, you've got no business here. So get out. And leave the pistol. It's city property."

"Damn you!" Weller snarled as his right hand snaked toward the walnut grips of the Colt on his hip. He suddenly froze in mid-draw as something hard and cold pushed his chin skyward. None of the group, least of all Weller, had even realized that Jacob had moved.

"You were saying?" Jacob said in a conversational tone as Weller swallowed loudly, Adam's apple bobbing, bumping against the ejector rod of the pistol in Jacob's right hand, its muzzle tilting Weller's face upward. With his left hand, Jacob lifted the pistol from the older man's holster, slipped it behind his own belt then unbuckled the other's belt and let it drop to the ground. Lowering the hammer on his Navy Colt Jacob stepped back and holstered the pistol.

"You were saying?" Jacob repeated.

"Nothin'," Weller answered in a sullen tone as he lifted a hand to the underside of his chin.

"Then I'm going to give you a choice, Rack Weller," Jacob told him. "You can take orders, or you can get out of town. You have thirty seconds to decide. Starting now."

"But I got property in Cripple!" Weller protested.

"That's not my problem, Weller," Jacob answered. "And you now have twenty seconds to decide. What's it gonna be?"

"I reckon I'll stay," Weller muttered.

"What's that? I can't hear you!"

"I said, I reckon I'll stay!" Weller answered, much louder now.

"Then pick up your belt and get back in line," Jacob ordered.

"What about that pistol?" Weller pointed to the Colt in Jacob's belt.

"You'll get that back when I think you've earned it," the younger man replied. "Back in line. You're holding up progress."

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Linn Keller 11-1-13

 

I keep a bottle of Old Crud Cutter out in the barn.
Matter of fact I went out to the barn and fetched that bottle out of where I keep it, and I held it in my hand and I leaned against the wall and stared at that bottle.
I get cranky when I'm a-hurtin' and I hurt and no two ways around it.
I'm damned if I'll use that bitter tastin' poppy juice Doc give me.
I could take a good long drink.
The Daine boys' grain sprouts, fermented and distilled and bottled up for my good pleasure, would ease my pain.
I stared at that bottle for a long time before setting it back untasted.
I closed my eyes and took a long breath, a careful breath.
Hell of a note, I thought, when too deep a breath might bust a man's lung.
I looked out the open door and considered.
It was a little chilly in the barn and I knew it was sunny outside, warm in the sun if I could get out of the wind ... but I wanted to do some thinkin' and that meant I wanted to be alone.
I closed my eyes and went back to Cripple, went back to that day on the street when I found out that crooked lawyer hired a bunch to grass me.
They figured they could buffalo me into runnin' if they set up a barricade and made me think they had a whole durn regiment just a-waitin' to fill me full of air holes.
Matter of fact if two of 'em hadn't got too anxious and fired before they were ready and give me time to dive behind that horse trough, why, they might have succeeded in their ambuscade.
I leaned my shoulder against the inside of the barn and remembered turning my head, looking back along my hip as I lay there, just as a fellow came out from the alley and looked right at me and brought his gun barrel down toward me.
He was sure enough lookin' at me, I thought, and nowhere else.
He surely was not a-lookin' over top of me toward that ambushing row of trash, tables and barrels they'd started settin' up.
I nodded, standing there in my barn, my eyes still closed as I went over it again.
I recalled how mad I got.
I recalled looking deep down into Esther's emerald eyes, looking into the depths of two bottomless wells, wells of life, wells of light, and I recalled how she felt, warm and solid and all woman when I held her against me.
I recalled Angela, laughing and scattering giggles all around us as I snatched her up and held her overhead and spun us around.
I recalled sitting at my own table with my own family under my own roof and how good coffee tasted and how that fresh pie smelled and I remembered looking across the table at Esther and seeing her quiet smile as she looked at me with so much going on behind those quiet eyes, and I got mad.
I got good and rip roarin' mad clear through.
One man, one crooked scoundrel, set these bushwhack artists to their task, and they did not care that Angela smiled like sunrise itself, nor that Esther smelled of soap and lavender water, they did not care that coffee was good and so was the feel of my office chair when I set down to write in my journal.
They did not care.
And now I lay behind a horse trough with bullets smacking into its front and a dead man bleeding on the board walk behind me and I replaced the fired round in my right hand Colt, I taken up my engraved '73 rifle and eared back the hammer, and I stopped for a moment and read the engraving on the side plate.
To my husband, I read, and that was enough.
I grabbed the side of that horse trough and vaulted over it.
It was time to go to war.

I opened my eyes and took a long breath, blew it out slow.
I recall how I was surprised to see my breath, for it was a little chillier than I realized but inside the barn, in the shady interior, I could see it plain.
I did right, I thought.
Damn near got killed but I did what I had to do.
I thought about Charlie and Jacob and felt an old guilt.
I'd started what I couldn't finish and now Charlie and Jacob had to clean up my mess.
Part of me realized that wasn't entirely the fact of the matter.
The rest of me wanted to pick up and anvil and throw it through the nearest wall.
I turned instead and Angela came bouncing in through the open door, and climbed up on a hay bale so she was some taller, and I felt my face relax.
Angela's face was flushed, her hair wasn't as neat as it was earlier, but she had this big delighted grin on her face and she threw her arms wide, and I realized the Lord looks out after fools and children, and this fool needed to be told -- through a little girl's delighted hug -- that all was still well, and this child, through her Daddy's embrace, needed to share the joy she felt at a good ride on a beautiful day.
I hugged my little girl and realized I was where I was supposed to be, and doing what I was supposed to be doing, and it felt good.

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Linn Keller 11-2-13

 

felt Angela's head move -- slightly, quickly -- and she said, "Daddy, the doggie!"
Right about then I heard a growl and it wasn't friendly.
Young, my ear told me, not full grown but that means fast.
My back was to the depths of the barn and I knew if the dog came at us we were in trouble.
A man with a knife can cover thirty feet and deliver a lethal stroke before most men can draw, target and fire.
Jacob and I practiced that a number of times.
We hung a shingle on a frame and hung it off a pulley, ran a clothes line from a fence post to another fence post and drew it fiddle string tight, hung the pulley on that clothes line ... we tied a long leash to the pulley and we'd stand well off to the side and take off a-walkin' toward the far fence post, drawing that shingle toward whichever of us was ready to shoot.
It's honestly scary to see how fast that shingle -- moving toward you at a walking pace -- approaches.
When you're in the fight and it's happening something happens to your mind and you handle the danger as it approaches but when you're in practice like this you realize -- you consciously realize -- just how fast a walking pace can be.
Then we try it at a running pace.
Damn few men can make the draw and hit.
Jacob can, and he makes it look easy.
Charlie can, and he makes it look like "What the hell just happened?" fast.
Me ... I can do it too.
I also knew inside that barn the distance was considerable shorter than thirty feet and a dog moves a hell of a lot faster than a man on the attack.
"Angela," I said quietly, "go to the house and bring me two chunks of meat wide as your hand and long as mine. Do it now."
I set her down and turned, crouching a little, scanning into the barn, trying to find the source of our mutual distress.
I heard Angela's running pace and tensed, knowing all predators have a pursuit instinct, and when I saw movement, I drew.
I'd spent quite a bit of time with my Colt tore down.
I'd carefully stoned and polished and delicately stroked the bearing surfaces until the innards were slick as jewels, I oiled it with a wire dipped in good oil, the pistol came alive as my hand wrapped around the plow handle and my spirit flowed into it and I felt the machined steel cylinder roll and lock into place and the hammer triple clicked to full cock.
Dark moved in the dark, a shadow within shadow: whatever it was, I realized, it was black as a sinner's heart.
I hesitated.
"Why hello there," I said quietly, but my gun muzzle never wavered: my other hand was already gripped around my knife's handle ... if it was close in, I like a knife, and I knew how much damage I could do with this honed slicer.
"Come on out," I said quietly, gentling my voice. "I think I know you, fella."
One step, two steps, three: it was that curly black wolf cub, The Bear Killer's get unless I missed my guess.
I eased the hammer down, slid the engraved Colt back into leather.
Squatting now, I extended my hand.
"You know me, fella," I said quietly, little above a whisper: the knife nosed itself back down into my left boot top sheath. "Come on out now."
Angela came bouncing into the barn, bringing light, life and noise with her: "Daddy, I got the meat, wheredayawannit -- Doggie!" she exclaimed.
The little -- well, it wasn't that little: it was the size of our beagle dog wed used to have ... bristled up, it was that big. If it'd been shaved off bald it would've been some smaller.
I wasn't terribly worried about shaving the critter.
I was worried about Angela.
She took a couple quick steps forward and flopped a strip of meat out toward that little bear killer pup.
"Come on, doggie,"she wheedled. "Come on, doggie. I got some meat for you."
"Set it down," I said quietly. "Set it down and back up to me."
Angela very carefully wagged the meat, blew gently on it, knowing it would carry the scent of raw elk to the curly black intruder.
I peeled out of my coat, piled it up at the base of a pile of straw and laid the second broad strip of meat right in front of it, then tented the coat over to of it.
I motioned Angela out behind me and I backed out, facing the curly black pup.
It wasn't until we were clear out that the pup crept forward, stretched its neck out and bit the end of that first strip and drug it back into the dark.
I could see white teeth and the two light tan angel eyes over top his black, shining eyes.
I turned and something big, black and furry reared up in front of me: two big black furry legs dropped massive black paws on my shoulders and The Bear Killer gave me a happy face washing, and I near to passed out from the pain in my side.
I went down to hands and knees and gasped in pain, and The Bear Killer cold nosed the angle of my jaw and whined.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-2-13

 

Once Weller got over the case of overeager ego that had nearly gotten him killed, the ex-soldier proved that he could, indeed, shoot. The same could not be said of the majority of his fellow recruits. However, by the end of the day all and sundry were able to hit a hand-sized target at twenty feet five shots out of five. But the hardest lesson was yet to come and would only come with experience: learning to shoot was relatively simple; learning when not to shoot was something that lectures could never teach.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Shotgun time, boys," Fannie drawled sweetly, breath drifting white on the cold morning air. She held a Greener hip-braced in her right hand, muzzles pointed skyward. The belt cinched around her slim waist held an even dozen brass-cased buckshot loads snugly but not so snugly as to preclude easy grab and load. "When you patrol, you patrol in pairs. Do not, and I repeat, do not patrol by yourself." One of the men raised his hand. "Yes?"

"Ma'am, won't we look like we're scared if we go in pairs?"

"Are you?" Fannie asked in reply.

"Well, uh, I guess not," the recruit replied.

"You guess not, or you're not?" Fannie asked. "Make up your mind."

"I'm not really scared," he answered. "A little nervous, maybe."

"Then you're a damn fool!" Fannie declared sharply. A few chuckles could be heard from the ranks, chuckles that cut off sharply under Fannie's laser-sharp glare. "You men seem to think that going out in the streets and enforcing the law is going to be a walk in the park, that your fancy uniform and your shiny badge is going to make people respect you. Nothing could be further from the truth, boys. And boys includes you, Rack Weller." She pinned Weller with her emerald stare. The ex-soldier stared at the ground and shuffled his feet.

"Respect has to be earned, and it's going to be earned in blood, bruises and powder smoke. And some of the blood is going to be yours. By going in pairs, you make sure that less of the blood is yours." The group was silent now.

Abruptly changing the subject, she went on. "How many of you have seen what a charge of buckshot from a gun like this one," she moved the shotgun enough to draw the group's attention, "can do to a human body?" No one moved; they hardly breathed. "Buckshot is an ugly thing," she went on. "It's messy and it's bloody. And it should only be used as a last resort, or when you're outnumbered and up close and personal."

Another hand went up. "Ma'am? There's only two rounds in a Greener. What if there's more than one man comin' ag'in ya?" Four large pumpkins could be seen perched on posts behind Fannie; she spun, the Greener coming to her shoulder as she eared the hammers back. The care-hardened buttplate hit her shoulder, the doublegun belched flame and white smoke, and two of the pumpkins were blasted clear of their resting places to shatter on the hard soil. In a series of movements the men could hardly credit Fannie broke open the gun, shucked the smoking, empty hulls, and eared back the hammers with her right thumb as her left hand grabbed a pair of shiny brass shells from the belt around her waist. She dunked the loaded rounds into the chambers, slammed the gun closed, brought it to her shoulder and fired, smashing the two remaining pumpkins. She cleared the double and turned to face her gaping observers. The entire sequence had taken less than ten seconds.

"Does that answer your question, Mister Gill?"

"Yes, Ma'am, I believe it does," Gill replied, his tone humble. His eyes were wide as he stared at her.

"Good. Anybody else? No? Then let's get started."

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Linn Keller 11-3-13

 

I ate slowly, savoring every bite.
Esther ate delicately, for all that she ate well; she was looking motherly ... she'd picked up some weight and her face was fuller, her skin was healthy, glowing, she was ...
She was beautiful.
No two ways about it.
Esther, my beautiful bride, was looking more beautiful than she's ever been.
"Mrs. Keller," I said gently, "if it would not scandalize the community, I would take you to the dance tonight."
Esther gave me a long look through lowered lashes and I felt myself fall into those eyes, those emerald lakes, and if it's possible for an old married man to fall in love all over again, I did there at our dinner table.
Head over tincup, damned fool in love, all over again.

Daffyd Llewellyn frowned at his boot.
He brushed carefully at the curve of the squared toe, nodded; he set the gleaming boot down beside its equally immaculate partner and slipped the horsehair boot brush back into the wooden box cluttered with tins of polish and buffing rags.
He stood, restless, picked up the stiff-bristled clothes brush and picked up the sleeve of his good suit.
He considered, then squinted at the suit's shoulders, its collar, and finally sighed and shook his head.
He'd brushed his suit three times now, his boots were brushed, buffed, polished and perfect.
He tossed the brush on his bunk and paced over to the textbook-sized mirror, examined his chin.
He was barbered, he was shaved, he was clean and sweet-smellin', he was ...
He was nervous as a whore in church.
Daffyd Llewellyn considered, glaring at the far wall, then closed his eyes and took a long breath.
He'd been out to their house, making the final inspections; the construction was finished, and a good tight job it was: the house was sound, it was of stone, and laid up and mortared into a unified whole: the ashlars were set on bedrock and mortared in place, the drainage was good, the walls plumb and corners square and floors all level; the roof was snow-pitched, precisely laid slate, the windows were in place and puttied in -- more windows than were usually seen, they were expensive (shockingly so!) but worth it, for his bride did so love seeing her mountains! -- most of the furniture was arrived and set in place, and he'd lingered in their bedroom, imagining what it would be to carry his bride to their marriage bed.
He stood, his ears reddening, then shook his head.
Such thoughts were not becoming to a man -- she was not his wife yet, he had no business thinking of --
Daffyd opened his eyes, threw his head back, took a great gasping breath.
"Lad?"
Sean's deep rumble snapped the spell and Daffyd opened his eyes, once more in the Brigade's second story bunk room.
Daffyd blinked, shook his head slowly.
"Just ... thinking," Daffyd mumbled.
"Aye," Sean nodded, laying a warm, strong hand on his right-hand-man's shoulder.
"Lad," he said, almost uncertain, "I wanted t' save this f'r yer weddin' but ye'll be occupied."
Daffyd looked up at his tall, muscled Chieftain, curiosity quirking his eyebrows.
Sean put both hands on Daffyd's shoulders and looked him square in the eye.
"Lad," he said, "I am but a man an' I can fall same as any."
Daffyd frowned a little, turning his head slightly, his eyes locked on the Irishman's piercing blue orbs.
"I want ye as m' assistant chief."
Daffyd felt the color drain from his face and he leaned back against the wall, his jaw dropping slack.
Sean grinned and pounded his new deputy happily on the shoulders.
"Aye, lad!" he boomed. "An' I've summat for ye! C'mon down!"
He turned and took two quick steps to the shining brass firepole, seized it: the pole shivered with the massive Irishman's impact and Daffyd leaped after him.
Sean hit the pad, stepped lightly aside.
The Brigade was drawn up in a neat rank, and at the far end, the German Irishman held something covered with a white linen napkin.
"Lad," Sean said, pacing slowly down the line of red-shirted Irishmen, "to a man we decided this. None of us will follow a man we don't trust."
The German Irishman took one step forward, executed a perfect left-face, reached up with his free hand and grasped the napkin.
He whipped it free, revealing a brand new, white fire helmet, with two vertical speaking-trumpets carved into the leather shield on its front.
"Well don't just stand there, lad," Sean boomed, grinning as broad as two Texas townships, "try th' damned thing on an' see i' i' fits!"

Angela was my daughter.
She was not the get of my loins but she was my daughter anyway, and looking at her, dozing in her chair, I knew this was a fact.
I'm like an old b'ar myself.
I get my belly full and I get set down and relaxed and I fall asleep.
I worked my way over behind her chair and carefully, slowly, gripped the back of her chair and slid her back, slow, easy, gentle.
I had to.
It hurt even though I moved slow.
I didn't care.
I bent down and slid my arms around her and under her and I tucked my butt and hoist and stood up straight.
My side and my leg called me all kind of unkind names and I felt the cold sweat pop out on my head and I bit my bottom lip but by God! I picked up my little girl and I packed her into the parlor.
Be honest I hadn't the steam in my boiler to pack her upstairs to her bunk so I headed for the next best thing.
Angela was sound asleep and she was relaxed and comfortable when I laid her down on the parlor sofa, and she hummed a little when I settled the blanket down over her.
Esther was across the room looking at me with those big lovely eyes of hers and I looked back at her and grinned.
I know she thought I over did it and matter of fact my side and my leg agreed with her.
I labored across the floor and kissed Esther and held her for several long moments, until she whispered, "My dear, forgive me, but I must sit down."
I helped her into her upholstered chair.
She sat down slowly, carefully, one hand on her belly, blowing her breath out slow through pursed lips.
I leaned on the arm of her chair and whispered, "My dear, is all well?"
Esther looked up at me and smiled, nodding.
I raised an eyebrow.
"I know that look, Mr. Keller," Esther murmured. "It's only false labor. It happens."
"You're sure ...?" I murmured.
Esther smiled again, nodded, leaned her head back against the chair back and closing her eyes.
"Oh, yes," she said drowsily. "A woman knows."
I waited several minutes before I went on out the front door.
It was a lovely noontime; I made my slow way across to the barn and went on inside, curious to see if The Bear Killer's get was still there.
I went inside and looked around, saw my coat still piled up on the floor.
I eased myself down on a hay bale and waited for my eyes to get used to the lesser light.
"You still here, fella?" I called softly.
I saw the shadowed mass of the coat move and something black flowed out of it and snarled.
I smiled a little.
"Stick around," I said. "I've even got your name picked out."

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Linn Keller 11-4-13

 

I labored out to the barn and set there for a while.
The black shadow that inhabited my left-behind coat glared at me from the shadows.
I waited, patient, knowing the meat I held would be an inducement.
I was right.
Males of all kind, whether two legged or four legged, think with two things.
One is their stomach.
This fellow eventually came close enough to allow me to swing him a strap of meat, good and fresh and raw.
He grabbed it and glared at me and growled and I glared right back at him and I growled back.
I let him have it and I set there as he chewed on it and held it between his paws.
He was in arm's reach of me.
That meant a degree of trust.
I did not push things, I did not try and take it from him.
I knew that sleeping in my coat, smelling my scent, getting used to the idea that my scent meant comfort, would associate me with good things in his life.
Angela was safely in the house which suited me.
Angela did not know a stranger, whether horse, man or dog, and I did not want her premature approach to cause ... unpleasantness.
This was the Bear Killer's get.
I wanted this little fellow to take a likin' to me.

Daffyd Llewellyn stood in front of his fellows and swallowed hard.
He regarded the white helmet with the two upright speaking trumpets on the front shield, and he looked at Sean, and then he set the pressed, formed leather hardhat on his head.
The Brigade responded with a roar of approval: they broke ranks and crowded close about him, pounding his back, shaking his hand, slapping their hands in rough good-fellowship on the white Assistant Chief's helmet, uttering obscene threats and their general approbation of his having been promoted to the Second in Command.

Sarah listened carefully to the womanly advice of the inner circle of the Ladies' Tea Society, her pale eyes going from one to another as each spoke in turn, each imparting her advice on married life, each hoping her words would make the union of man and wife a bit less odious, somewhat less confining.

Mick, the big Irish sergeant of cavalry, saluted the Lieutenant in charge of the fort: his old and dear friend the Sheriff was known to the LT and Mick was given permission to take a detachment to the planned wedding of the Sheriff's daughter, that mystifiying creature they'd heard described as a combination of Joan of Arc and Lillith herself, somewhere between the Shee and Bouadicca: neither man was sure of anything much, save that it was a wedding, it was an excuse to get cleaned up and show the flag, and Sean had a thirst for the good beer at the Silver Jewel, and it would be good to see his old friend the Sheriff again.

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Linn Keller 11-5-13

 

It took time and it took patience.
Time I had and patience I had, not so much because I liked being patient, but because patience was required to get the job done.
You can't muck out a stall with three strokes and you can't fell a tree with three swings of an ax, you can't buck up a stack of firewood with two or three strokes of the bucksaw, and I knew I could not gentle down this fierce little fellow with the curly black coat and the brown angel eyes over his own shining black orbs.
The Bear Killer came around and I had meat enough to gift him as well, and the little snarling creature -- "little" is a relative term, he was the size of my old Beagle dog I used to have -- but compared to The Bear Killer, who would have no trouble standing flat footed and drinking out of my kitchen sink, well, the pup was a little fellow.
To be real honest, beside The Bear Killer, I felt kind of puny my own self!
That little pup watched really close as I rubbed The Bear Killer's ears, and The Bear Killer laid himself down and set his jaw gentle-like across my lap and groaned with pleasure as my hands worked into his fur.
I reckon it was most of an hour later -- I'd parked my backside on the sunny side of the barn, my coat I'd picked up and casually dropped on some straw, and that black pup managed to slink in under it and peek out and damned if I know how he got out there unseen, but he did -- well, the three of us set there soakin' up some sun and every now and again I looked down and saw that shiny black nose and those bright, unblinking eyes just a-fast upon me.
It felt good, with The Bear Killer warm across my lap (his jaw anyway, if he'd set the rest of him on me my poor old leg would have give up and broke off) and the sun warm on me and there's a comfort a man draws from caressin' a hound dog, and I reckon I must have relaxed more than I realized.
My left hand had fell down a-dangle, I realized later, for something cold and wet brushed against it and then there was the exploring lick of a tongue.
That pup snarled some when I opened my hand and ran my fingers real light down his neck fur, but he didn't offer to snap nor pull away.
I stroked the pup again, eliciting another fierce snarl, but he scooted a little closer so I could reach him better.
Now I reckon it was quite a sight, me a-sittin' there ag'in my barn, half asleep, with a dog big enough to ride chin-draped across my lap and looking drowsy, and a little bitty version on my left, fangs bared and snarling fit to tear a man's hand off up to his shoulder every time I rubbed his curly black fur, but making no move a'tall to draw away.
Finally The Bear Killer gave a great sneezing sigh and drew back, sat up and yawned, his jaws wide enough to catch a beer keg and swallow it whole, and that curly black pup sat up and laid his chin on my leg and I opened one eye and looked down at him.
Slow, gentle, easy, I rubbed him around the ears and across behind his head.
Black lips rippled back to show sharp, white teeth, his lips quivered with canine obscenities, he snarled threats that would put fear in the heart of a graven statue, but he seemed otherwise happy at my attentions.
The Bear Killer got up and sauntered around me, shoving his nose against the curly pup, rolling it over and giving a good face-washing, and the pup reached up and licked The Bear Killer's jaw, and I knew these two knew one another, and the pup wisely accepted what was probably his sire as the top dog.
The Bear Killer then leaned over and gave me a good washing along the jaw.
He drew back and that pup looked up at me with his head cocked a little, for all the world as if he were considerin', then he jumped up with his paws on my hip and licked me under the jaw as well -- a quick, hesitant lick, and my arm went around his shoulders and rubbed him a little.
I looked down at him and those wild ivories were a hand's-breadth from my face and I knew he could do me quite a bit of damage at this distance and not a thing I could do to stop it, but he didn't.
He let me rub his fur and he looked at The Bear Killer for all the world like he was looking for approval.

"Daddy?"
"Yes, Princess?"
"Daddy, aren't you going to the dance tonight?"
I looked up at Angela, then rose from my chair.
I took her hand, ran my arm behind her, drew her tight and hoist, and though my side called me very unpleasant names I stepped back, and around, to the side and fore, I turned, following the steps I knew so well: turn again, and I set her down, and eased down to my knees, taking both her little hands in both of mine.
"Why," I whispered, leaning my head forward until my nose just touched hers, and Angela leaned her forehead into mine, until each of us saw one big eye and we both laughed.
"Why," I said again, "should I go into town when I can dance with two of the loveliest ladies in all of Colorado, right here in my own parlor?"
It took an effort but I got back to my feet, and I saw the concern in Esther's eyes as I did, for she could likely see the pain in my own.
My knuckles were white as I gripped the back of a chair to steady myself, then I paced over to my bride and picked up her hand and kissed her knuckles.
"Angela," I said quietly, "I want you to remember this."
Angela looked at us and tilted her head curiously, blinking.
"When you find you are sweet on a man," I said, "If he does not kiss your hand and treat you like an absolute queen, walk away and have nothing more to do with him."
"Yes, Daddy," Angela said in an obedient-little-girl tone of voice, then she considered a moment, frowning.
"Daddy?"
"Hm?"
"Mommy already told me that," she declared with a huff, planting her knuckles on her waist and tilting her head to the side, still with a frown.
I laughed, patted Esther's hand in mine, and felt Esther's hand tighten a little in my own.
"Your mother is not only younger, smarter and better looking than me," I said, "she is also left handed, which means that she's a truly talented individual."
"I know that," Angela said with an emphatic nod of her head, setting her curls a-bob, and I laughed.
"Well now," I declared, turning and taking two steps toward my little girl, "maybe that's because you are younger, smarter and better looking than me too!"
I raised Angela's knuckles to my lip and kissed them.
"May I have this dance?"

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Linn Keller 11-5-13

 

"Mommy?"
"Hm?" Esther paused, looked over her square lenses spectacles at her daughter.
"What'cha wrrriting?"
Angela blinked and tried hard to look innocent: she knew she was interrupting her Mommy, she knew children were supposed to be seen and not heard, but she was a curious and impulsive child, and for better or not, Esther indulged her.
"I," Esther explained patiently, "am working with Bonnie."
Angela looked surprised, then looked around and looked back at her Mommy.
Esther laughed. "No, sweets, she isn't here right now."
"Oh."
"We talked earlier. You see, there will be many people here for Sarah's wedding."
"Yaaay," Angela cheered quietly, clapping her hands together and bouncing a little on her toes.
"And all these people must be fed."
Angela suddenly looked solemn.
"We are determining how much we must prepare."
"Oh." Angela blinked, considering. "Lots of people?"
Esther nodded.
"Lots and lots of people?"
Esther nodded again.
"Will Sergeant Mick be there?"
Esther laughed, remembering the big Irishman's laugh, his sparkling eyes, his great laugh and how badly -- if enthusiastically -- the cavalryman danced.
"Yes, sweets, he will, and so will the Texas Rangers."
Angela's eyes grew big and round.
"Will Nelson Bell be there?" she asked hopefully.
"He is planning to, sweets."
"Will Nellie Bell be there?"
Esther paused, wet her lips, then said gently, "Angela, I'm sorry. Nellie Bell passed away last year."
"Oh." Angela looked stricken. "What about Christmas Bell?"
Esther laughed gently.
Nellie Bell had come to visit and Esther took one look at her and said, "Nellie, you're pregnant!" --before Nellie knew herself.
Esther told the astonished Nellie Bell she would be delivered on Christmas Day of a fine, healthy baby girl with pink cheeks and a singer's lungs and her father's laughing good temper, and she'd been proven right: fever took Nellie less than a year later.
"I don't think Christmas Bell will be coming."
"Oh."
Angela frowned, looked at the floor, then looked up, smiled broadly and with a bright "'Bye!" she scampered out the door and into her Daddy's study.
"What'cha doin', Daddy?" she exclaimed, charging up to him and giving him a big, Angela-sized hug, which was considerable bigger than her owing to the enthusiasm of its delivery.
Her Daddy laid down his pen and turned and returned the Angela-sized hug with a Daddy-sized hug and a muts-tash tickle as he pretended to chew on her neck.
Angela giggled and her Daddy set her down and brushed her cheek with the back of his bent finger, and Angela meant her Daddy was feeling kind of soft and cuddly inside.
Angela liked it when her Daddy was soft and cuddly.
He gave good hugs when she needed them.
"I," he whispered, "am sending away for a surprise, shhhhh," and he put his finger to his lips and looked around melodramatically.
Angela looked around too, then she looked back and whispered, "Bonnie isn't here."
Her Daddy laughed and took her head in both hands and kissed her forehead.
"I know, Princess," he whispered, then picked her up and set her on his lap.
Angela loved it when her Daddy set her on his lap.
It made her feel ver-ry, very-ry special.
"Look here," he said quietly, thumping his fingertip on a sheet of paper. "Read this."
Angela turned awkwardly; her Daddy slid his chair back and turned, then slid in again, so Angela would not have to read over her own shoulder.
Angela puzzled over the regular, ornate script, frowning with concentration.
Linn could see her lips tracing the words and she stopped and looked at him, puzzled.
"Yellow?" she said, then hiccuped.
"What else do you see?" Linn whispered, rubbing her back and patting it gently.
Angela looked at the paper again, pulled her head back a little, confused.
"But Daddy," she protested, "wozes -- rrroses -- are rrred!"
The Sheriff laughed and hugged his little girl again and whispered in her clean-scrubbed, pink ear, his muts-tash tickling her as he puffed his secret through her curls.
"I found," he whispered, "and this is a secret" -- he drew back from her, put a finger to his lips, and Angela put a finger most solemnly to her own lips -- Linn winked and pulled her close again.
"I found some yellow roses!"
Angela pulled back, her eyes big, and Linn nodded, putting his finger to his lips and winking.
"There is a secret meaning to yellow roses," Linn murmured, his arm around his little girl's waist: "it means friendship."
Angela frowned.
"These," he said, thumping the paper with a fingertip, "are for your mother."
Angela's confusion was evident on her young face.
"But Daddy," she protested, "she's ... Mommy!"
Linn laughed.
"I will give you a secret, Princess, and I need you to remember this for many years to come."
"But I'm just a little girl!" Angela protested sadly.
Linn laughed, kissed Angela's fingers.
"You're in school now," he said softly, "and you'll be interested in boys, and in time you will very likely meet a fine young man and get married."
Angela's expression brightened, then she grew serious.
"I need to grow up first, Daddy," she admonished.
Linn laughed and Angela laughed with him, for she loved it when her big strong Daddy laughed: his eyes laughed first, then his face, then she felt his laugh shine like warm sunlight out of his belly and she always felt good when she heard her Daddy laugh from his belly.
"I," Linn said, his voice Daddy-soft, but Angela caught the deeper tones that meant he was saying something important, "I married by best friend. That" -- he poked her gently in the belly and Angela giggled -- "is why we are man and wife and why we love each other and that's why we have you!"
Angela blinked and was suddenly very serious.
"Daddy," she said, "Mommy is going to have a baby."
Linn tried to look innocent.
"I, um, know that," he said hesitantly.
"Daddy, what does Dana mean?"
Linn reached up and brushed the hair back from her forehead, and Angela saw a deep sadness in his light blue eyes.
"Dana," he said slowly, then he cleared his throat and continued, "Dana means Precious Pearl."
"Oh."
Angela considered this, then said, "Why don't you name her Precious Pearl?"
Linn laughed quietly and hugged Angela again.
"Do you know what Angela means?" he whispered.
Angela shook her head.
"It means 'Angel.' You" -- he brushed her nose with the delicate tip of his forefinger -- "you, my dear, are my personal angel!"
Angela looked surprised, then confused.
"Daddy," she protested, "I don't have wings!"
"Yes you do," he whispered. "You have wings."
Angela reached up, over her head, pink fingers reaching down toward her shoulder blades: she shook her head emphatically.
Linn kissed her forehead again, then lowered his head to look his little girl squarely in her lovely, shining eyes.
"Do you remember when you rode Outlaw?" he whispered.
Angela nodded.
"Remember when you took him over the high fence?"
Angela's eyes went suddenly big and the Sheriff saw the memory in his little girl's eyes, he saw the magic of that moment when horse and rider become one magical creature, riding the wind itself.
"Horses," he said, "have wings we can't see, and they let us use theirs until we get our own."
"Sawwah told me about horsies with wings," Angela said excitedly, the little girl in her shining through in her excitement. "She said his name is Peg-legs and he was greasy!" Angela frowned, wrinkling her nose.
"I think," the Sheriff corrected gently, "you mean Pegasus, and he lived in Greece."

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Charlie MacNeil 11-7-13

 

"Well, we survived all that, and didn't lose too many of 'em," Charlie commented over pie and coffee. He, Fannie and Jacob were seated at the least disgusting table in the least objectionable restaurant in Cripple Creek, taking stock of the crash course in law enforcement skills they'd dumped on the recruits over the course of the past several days. Fannie snorted a most unladylike snort, whether of amusement or derision it was hard to tell.

"We ended up with six officers who should do a good job," she added. "But we may need to do something about the ones we washed out."

"I take it you mean Weller?" Jacob asked.

"I do mean Weller," she replied. "I'm thinking he's going to be trouble for us."

"The way his temper flares, he may not last long enough to be trouble for anybody but himself," Jacob mused. "That gent is a gunfight looking for a place to happen. I just hope none of our new officers is the one he takes on."

"Me too," Charlie agreed. "Want me to have a talk with him?" He chuckled. "He might listen to me without me sticking a pistol in his face."

"It might be worth a try if it settles him down," Jacob said after a moment. He swallowed some coffee, made a face. "Dang, that's almost as bad as the coffee the Sheriff makes at home!" he declared. He pushed his chair back. "I'm off to do some mentoring. The sooner we can get these fellas out on their own, the sooner I can get back home to my wife and family," he commented drily. "See you fine folks after bit."

Charlie and Fannie watched the young deputy stroll from the restaurant, moving with the deceptive grace of a hunting cougar. Fannie turned to her husband. "Do you really think you can convince Weller to behave himself?"

"I don't know, but I aim to find out," Charlie replied. "If need be, I'll read him from the book." He smiled coldly. "Then I'll give him thirty minutes to clear out."

"That simple, eh?" Fannie queried.

"That simple," Charlie answered.

"And if he won't go?"

"He'll go. I'll see to it."

Fannie laughed and leaned over to kiss him full on the lips, unconcerned with what the other patrons of the beanery might think. "You might just get it done at that, Sugar," she drawled sweetly. "You might just get it done. Just remember, be nice."

"Oh, I'll be nice, alright," he replied. "Right up until I'm not."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rack Weller stamped angrily down the main street of Cripple Creek, his bootheels thudding on dirt, wood and stone, unheeding of who he might bump into or otherwise inconvenience. He had been the first to be told that he was unsuitable to enforce the law in the town, and it grated on his rather substantial ego. Hiring that damn farm boy instead of a man who had proved himself in battle in the war! How could they? He'd show them!

Charlie stepped outside the beanery and slouched against the wall near the doorway, watching Weller's lean form draw nearer. As the ex-recruit stepped up on the short length of battered lumber that did duty as the building's front porch, Charlie pushed away from the wall. "Mister Weller? Can we talk a minute?" he asked in a neutral tone.

Weller came to a halt, a short distance away, his heated glare burning into Charlie. "What do you want, MacNeil?" he growled. "I've got things to do."

"Care for a cup of coffee?" Charlie answered mildly, his posture deceptively relaxed.

"No, I don't want coffee!" Weller snapped. "Just say what you've got to say, and leave me to my business!"

Charlie's posture changed, his features going cold and still. "If that's what you want, then you've got it, mister!" he snapped. "You've been growling and grumbling all over town about me and mine ever since you washed out of the police department, but you haven't had the guts to come to me to complain!" Weller bristled at Charlie's words and started to speak. Charlie didn't give him a chance.

"You just keep your mouth shut, Weller, until I'm finished." He fixed the man with an arctic glare. "You think you're pretty hot stuff, but you ain't nothin' but a little man with a big ego, and it's gonna get you killed if you ain't careful. I'm telling you here and now to stand down." His voice deepened, rumbling from deep inside like boulders under a spring flood. "I don't care in the least whether or not you get yourself shot dead. What I do care about is the men we've trained, and I care about the innocent bystanders who'll get hurt if you start something you can't finish. So stand down, or leave town!"

"I suppose I've got thirty minutes to decide, huh?" Weller sneered, his temper raging. He took a stiff-legged step back from Charlie, not realizing that he was still too close for his own good; his right hand hovered over the walnut grips of his holstered pistol.

"Wrong!" Charlie grated. His work-hardened right fist snapped up and forward to bury itself in Weller's gut just above his belt buckle. Air whooshed out of the man's lungs in an agonized squawk as he folded forward, arms coming up to wrap around his suddenly paralyzed diaphragm. He totally forgot his pistol in his attempt to draw even the tiniest bit of air into his empty lungs.

Charlie's left hand snatched the pistol from the holster as his right hand caught a handful of greasy hair at the back of Weller's head and yanked the ex-recruit's face down to meet Charlie's rapidly rising knee. Weller's beakish snout exploded in a welter of blood as bone shattered under the onslaught. Weller hit the porch floor with a boneless thud, out cold. Charlie looked down. "Time's up." He shucked the cartridges from the man's pistol, tossed them in a nearby water trough, dropped the cylinder from the pistol into his hand and threw it behind him then dropped the empty gun on the porch floor.

Not feeling especially merciful, but at the same time not wanting the man to expire from his injuries, Charlie knelt and rolled him on his side and tilted his head back. Weller gasped through his open mouth as he began to breathe again, though still unconscious. Charlie looked around at the small crowd of miners and townsfolk who had gathered. He pointed at a boy of perhaps ten who stood gaping. "You!" The boy lifted his startled eyes to Charlie's face.

"Who, me?"

"Yes, you. Run down the street and get the doc. And be quick about it!"

"Yes sir!" the boy answered then turned and raced off down the street. Fannie stepped out of the beanery.

"Real tactful there, Sugar," she drawled.

Charlie looked up at her. "Hey, what can I say? He brought it on himself!"

"Uh huh," she replied drily. She turned to the crowd. "Show's over, folks. Go on about your business," she ordered. No one moved for a moment. Fannie drew in a breath as Charlie smiled, knowing what was coming. "MOVE! NOW!" The small gathering scattered like quail in the face of the daunting voice that roared from such a slim frame. In a moment she, her husband and her husband's victim were the only occupants of the beanery's porch.

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Linn Keller 11-7-13

 

I swung up on top of Outlaw and waited.
I felt kind of like a man who'd just touched match to a short fuse on a stick of powder.
Now when I say I swung up on Outlaw ... I'm leavin' quite a bit out.
I started by settin' my good hoof in the stirrup, or at least tryin' to.
That didn't work so good.
My right leg give out and I hit the ground flat on my back and it knocked the wind out of me.
There I lay on the barn floor, my eyes squinted against the pain, my left foot still in the stirrup and that black pup lookin' at me from behind a hay bale, all bristled up and snarlin' at me.
Outlaw never moved.
I waited til I got some air back in me, then I twisted my foot around some and got it out of the stirrup and got my elbows tucked under me and rolled over on my belly.
I lay there, my teeth set hard ag'in one another and finally I come up on all fours.
That brought me nose-to with that curly black pup all a-snarl.
I was hurt and I was short tempered so I reached up and grabbed the pup by the back of the neck and I snarled right back at him, I shook him hard and I was loud and I was mean and when I let go he kind of dropped back a little and looked at me surprised, then he crawled up toward me and reached up and licked my underjaw.
I rubbed his fur and called him a good boy and felt ashamed of my self.
On the one hand I knew I'd just established myself as Top Dawg, but on t'other it hurt my feelin's that I got vigorous with him.
Finally I give up on beatin' on myself and got both hands on the deck and took a long breath, I rocked back a little and pushed up on all fours and stood up.
It took me a while to try and get my left foot back into the stirrup.
My left leg didn't want to hold my weight and I didn't like that much.
Finally I give up and sit down and that curly black pup set there and cocked his head and looked at me and I reached out my hand and wiggled my fingers.
He came closer, sniffed my hand and licked my fingers, and I rubbed his ears.
Outlaw came over and snuffed at me.
Horses will do that but Outlaw snuffed me like a dog that knows something isn't right.
I grabbed the edge of the stall and hauled myself up on my good leg.
My lips peeled back and I growled again.
I was getting mad and I was getting mad clear through.
I hobbled over to Outlaw and I took hold of the saddle horn and got my left boot in the doghouse and thrust hard and hauled myself up until I was laid across the saddle.
My breath caught and I gasped with pain and I reached back with my right hand and grabbed my pants leg and pulled.
I dragged my leg over and dropped my butt into the seat and gasped, gritting my teeth and squeezing my eyes tight shut against the pain and the frustration.
I've always been a strong man and I've always been an able man and I've been hurt in the past but I always healed fast.
I was sawed off and damned if I was letting this most recent stop me.
Outlaw walked nice and easy and we got outside and I spoke to him and he stepped out in a nice easy trot.
Damned good thing too.
I couldn't grip Outlaw's barrel like I usually can.
I spent the morning in the saddle and once I got home I spent more time walking ... no, that's not right either ... hobbling.
I made sure I was in the back pasture.
I didn't want anyone to see me not walking well.

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Linn Keller 11-8-13

 

"Papa?"
I jumped a little inside.
I was sagged down and settin' on a rock, my head hung down and my fists doubled up, and when Sarah spoke nice and soft I like to shout out of my hide but I didn't show it.
My breathin' was not good but I breathed through my nose and I durst not make reply, for I get short tempered and snappish when I'm hurtin' and I'd deliberately over done it that morning, deliberately set myself a-hurt ... like as not to punish myself.
It took me a moment to realize Sarah's approach didn't sound right either.
I stood, grabbed a granite outcrop to steady myself and turned to look.
Sarah was not looking too good her own self.
Something told me my little girl needed her Papa so I turned some more and held out my arm and she walked a little unsteadily over to me and she run her arms around me -- very carefully -- and she leaned into my front and I felt her shivering like a scared little rabbit trying to hide out in plain sight, hunkered down in the grass.
I held my little girl and leaned back against a sharp spur of rock and figured I would just stand there and pain be damned and in due time Sarah would tell me what was on her mind.
Meanwhile I'd just stand there and keep punishing myself.
Finally Sarah lifted her head from where she'd laid her left ear against my breast and she whispered, "I'm scared, Papa," and I patted her back and murmured, "Let's find us a set, Princess, and we'll figure it out."
We turned and it was but two steps back to my settin' rock, but Sarah sized me up proper in that short trip.
"Your leg," she said uncertainly.
"It ain't what it was," I admitted, and Sarah's eyes widened in alarm.
In an era when men did not admit a disability, when even a smile was seen as a sign of weakness, to admit that a leg wasn't what it was ... well, it didn't make her feel none too comfortable.
"What brings you out here in the B&W?" I asked, keeping my voice steady as I could.
Sarah's mouth quirked a little at the corners and her brows puzzled together a little bit, then she started to smile just a little.
"B&W?" she asked hesitantly.
"Bushes and weeds," I explained. "A fine society lady like yourself could live your life on fine carpeting with servants at every hand and never leave the house." I shifted, trying to find a position that was somewhat less comfortable; it was a losing battle so I set back down and sighed out my breath.
"I ... Papa, I went to the dance last night."
"Good." I looked up, looked to the horizon, my eyes busy, then I looked over at her.
"A lovely lass like yourself should dance."
"Papa ... I ..."
Sarah's eyes dropped and she bit her lip and I saw confusion in her face.
I laid my hand gently on hers -- ladylike, she'd meant to place hers in her lap, but she ended up with one hand seized around the other, clutched together on her thighs.
"I'm right here," I murmured.
"Papa," she quivered, then she considered and took a long breath.
"Papa ... I ..."
Sarah's face turned very, very red.
"Papa, I ... danced with Daffyd ... Mr. Llwewellyn, and I ..."
Sarah took a few quick breaths and dropped her eyes as if ashamed.
"Papa ... I ... liked it."
She looked up at me, almost a challenge now.
"Papa, I ... really ... liked it."
I nodded, slowly, knowing this was dangerous territory; a young woman's heart is easily bruised -- God forgive me, I've bruised young hearts myself, and felt like a heel for decades after -- and I wished to tread cautiously.
"Papa, Mr. Llwewellyn ... Daffyd ... was the ..."
Sarah took another few breaths, raised her chin defiantly.
"He was the perfect gentleman," she said decisively. "He said nothing out of line, he did not put his hands anywhere improper and he made no comments that were not those of a perfectly honorable nature."
Sarah shivered, hard, as if chilled.
"Papa ... I wanted him."
I reached up and brushed the hair back from her cheek.
"Sarah," I whispered, "how did it feel?"
"It felt good," she whispered back. "God help me, it felt good!"
"Did you like the way you felt?"
Sarah nodded, biting her bottom lip.
"When did you feel this?"
"When he held me, Papa. When we danced. When I was pressed against him ... Papa, he's solid, he's strong, he dances well ..."
She looked at me, eyes glitter-bright, her bottom lip quivering.
"Papa ... I have never ... not since ... I didn't think I could ever ..."
I waited, knowing Sarah was sorting out something she'd kept shoved well out of arm's reach for a long time now.
She pulled a kerchief from her sleeve, pressed it to one eye, then the other.
"Papa ... can I still marry ... he thinks I'm ..."
She looked at me, misery running over her face like a muddy flood.
"Papa ... I am used goods." Her bottom lip quivered again and she started to cry, sobbing into her kerchief. "He thinks I'm pure."
I reached up, rubbed her back with my flat-open hand.
"You know what happened to me, Papa! I'm not ... I'm used ... oh, Papa, what am I going to do?"
Sarah gave up every pretense at propriety or decorum and she slung the mantle of young womanhood from her shoulders and threw it into the sandy dirt underfoot, and she revealed something she showed very few people.
She leaned into me and she was a scared, uncertain, crying little girl, a little girl who needed her Papa, a little girl who didn't know what to do.
I held her and soothed her and let her cry herself out ... not because I have any great insight into the female soul, but because I honestly didn't know what else to do, and because it gave me time to think of something enlightening, educational, uplifting and maybe mildly amusing to say.
My mind went whistling out my left ear and headed for California and there I set with both arms full of crying child and an aching heart of my own.
I don't recall exactly what I did tell her that day, I think it was something to the effect that when I tapped her between her breasts with my four stiff fingers, I told her there was a heart inside, and it was pure, because it was promised in love to only one man, and that was Daffyd Llewellyn.
I told her the body was the shell, the carriage we drive, the saddle we occupy here on this earth, that things can happen to the carcass but we inside -- again, I pressed my finger tips to her bosom, a steady pressure, not the poke-poke-poke of an angry admonition, but the careful, Daddy-touch in a teaching moment -- and it was in the heart that we are pure or we are not.
I caressed her cheek and looked her square in the eye and I told her she was pure as an angel, that she was innocent as driven snow, that she was chosen of her own free will to do good in this world, and that evil tried hard but had not left its taint upon her soul.
That set her to crying harder and I held her for a while longer, and me feeling like a genuine scoundrel for having hurt my little girl all that much more, and a year and a day after (or so it felt), Sarah slowed down and come up for air and I dried her eyes and blotted her cheeks and soothed her with quiet Daddy-words, and Sarah smiled and whispered, "What would I do without you?" and I smiled gently and said, "Make an apple pie?" and she blinked and laughed and dropped her head on my shoulder and I realized maybe I hadn't made a hash of it after all.
"Dear Papa," Sarah said, her voice thin, "whatever shall I do?"
She took a long breath.
I waited for her to arrange her thoughts again.
"Papa ..."
I squeezed her a little.
"Papa ... I know I am supposed to be a woman now ... I ... know that."
She swallowed, raised her damp kerchief to her face, wiped viciously at another stray tear.
"Papa, I'm going to be married this month."
"I know."
"Papa ..." Sarah shivered in a long breath, blew it out, puffing her cheeks as she considered.
"Papa," she said softly, "can I still be your little girl?" She looked at me and I thought she was going to start crying again.
I lay my hand warm and gentle against her flawless cheek, I considered her beauty, the depth of her eyes, and I don't think it was until that moment, when it was just the two of us together, there in the back pasture, with sky blue above her and mountains round about, that I realized just how much I loved this beautiful creature, this child of mine I never knew until her childhood was gone.
"Sarah," I said softly, "I will tell you a secret. It is known to Papas the world over but it is seldom spoken, for it is a Truth of Great Power."
Sarah swallowed and nodded me to go ahead.
"It doesn't matter how old a little girl becomes," I continued, "it does not matter that she marries, that she becomes a mother, even a grandmother.
"You will always, always be Daddy's little girl. That, Sarah, will never, ever change."
Sarah closed her eyes and the tears started again and she whispered "Thank you," and I could not help but wonder what I'd done wrong this time.
It took me a while to realize I'd done it exactly right.

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Linn Keller 11-9-13

 

Daffyd Llewellyn lay on his bunk and stared at the ceiling.
The German Irishman looked over and murmured, "Don't fall in."
Daffyd blinked, then rolled up on his left side and grinned.
"I know that grin," the German chuckled. "If I didn't know better I'd think you were sweet on a lass!"
"Aye, listen t' th' funny man," Daffyd chuckled.
"So wha' happened? Ye went, ye danced, ye didn't touch a drop, ye didn't disappear wi' th' lass ... wha' did ye?"
Daffyd's gaze was distant and he had a soft smile about his face.
"I danced wi' my wife," he said softly, then focused on his fellow fireman's face. "She'll be m' wife soon enough."
"I know."
Daffyd rolled back on his back, laid his forearm across his brows.
"I remember how she smells," he murmured.
"How does she dance?"
"She doesn't." Daffyd's smile was dreamlike as he relaxed. "I danced, an' she ... floated ... in m' arms."
"Get some rest," the German Irishman grinned as he laid back and worked his head into his pillow. "Ye've had a grand night."
"Aye."

"Daddy?"
The Sheriff looked up, smiling a little; he held his infant son across his lap.
"Daddy, do you like him better than me?"
The Sheriff laughed: he picked up his son, laid the sleeping lad up against his chest, extended an arm.
Angela didn't have to be asked a second time.
She climbed up on her Daddy's lap and cuddled into as much of his chest as was still available.
Esther smiled to see her husband snoozing with children cuddled up in his arms.
She lay a hand on her belly, looked down at her expanse and whispered, "Soon, my dear."
The child within stirred and Esther rubbed her belly.
"Soon."

Sean lay unmoving on his bunk.
Sweat gleamed on rippling arms and his furrowed forehead, and his breathing quickened a little as his jaw-muscles bulged.
He was wading through a burning room, shouting: heat seared his ears, the promise of immolation whispering from incinerating wood, promising death as it consumed all it could.
Sean cupped gloved hands around his mouth, breathed in through his nose, then shouted again, calling, his voice hoarse, unrecognizable.
The floor sagged underfoot and Sean thrust into a leaping sprint, he leaped free of the sudden cavity, seized a doorway and barely kept from falling in as heat and a glorious shower of red sparks swirled around him --
There --
The next room --
A beam, collapsed, and under it, a booted leg --
Sean roared into the room and bent and seized the beam and felt the heat through his wet leather gloves and he ground his teeth together and lifted and he felt the beam start to move and he felt his voice stripping his throat raw and the floor groaned and fell away and the trapped fireman fell into the inferno below --
"SEAN!"
Daffyd shook the fire chief's shoulder, shouting his name.
"SEAN!"
Sean came upright, gasping like a swimmer powering out of deep water, shaking his head and gripping the side of his bunk, desperately, knuckles white: he blinked, coughed, panting, looked up at Daffyd's concerned expression.
"Sean!" Daffyd said, quieter now, his hand on the Chieftain's shoulder, and Sean clapped his hand on Daffyd's, nodding: he closed his eyes as the cobwebs of the nightmare tore free and disappeared into the ether.
"I need some water," Sean muttered, throwing back his sweat-damp blankets and staggering to his feet and over to the fire pole.
Daffyd watched his chief slide down the burnished, waxed brass pole.

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Linn Keller 11-10-13

 

Sarah dismounted from the carriage carefully, almost uncertainly: her strength was returning and she too was healing, but she'd overextended herself far more than she'd realized.
She paused, gripping the polished, gleaming side of the dashboard, one foot on the mounting-block and one in the carriage: a most unladylike pose, but she needed to take a moment and master herself.
She brought her other leg down, breathed slowly through her nose, eyes tight shut, before she stepped off the mounting block and back to the back seat.
She reached in, picked up a slim package.
It was addressed to her Aunt Esther.
Esther received her in the parlor, her smile gentle and welcoming: Sarah kissed her carefully, almost afraid to touch the older woman's belly, and Esther laughed, tilting her head a little and looking at Sarah with obvious affection.
"My dear," she murmured, "you will make a beautiful bride!"
Sarah blinked, uncertain; Esther did not give her time to say anything.
"Open the package," she said, gripping the back of the chair: "I dare not sit down, for we have business. Open it."
Sarah drew a sharp-bladed knife from her sleeve -- Esther smiled to see it -- it was one of the fighting-knives she'd given Sarah some time ago -- and slit the wrapping.
A long, slender wooden box emerged, as broad as a man's hand but only three fingers thick: curious, Sarah clipped the inner strings, lifted the fitted lid.
"Oh, they did," Esther breathed, clasping her hands before her in a a quick gesture of approval.
Sarah blinked and studied what had been her Aunt Esther's ebony sword-cane.
Now, instead of a gold ball on the end of a black shaft, it had the gold ball -- that was still there, a sphere as big across as the open mouth of a shot glass -- the ebony cane-shaft was there as well, but the space in between was longer.
It was now a wire-wrapped handle, with a crossguard.
Sarah recognized it instantly as a sword-handle.
"Bring it closer," Esther said quietly, and Sarah held the box over to her.
Esther gripped the wrapped-wire handle, smiling as she lifted the sword-cane from the box and its padding cloth: she gave a quick little twist, drew a yard of steel from its wooden sheath, lay the ebony cane-body on her chair and backed up two steps.
Esther smiled as she hefted the blade, then lowered her arm: she turned, brought the blade overhead, backed another step, and Sarah backed up as well: she did so love to see her Aunt Esther exercising with a blade, for there was a beauty to the woman when she danced with steel.
Esther ran through a quick series of moves, weaving a silver web about her with the grace of long practice, an expertise that comes of hard work and very good tutors.
She nodded again and spun the blade quickly in hand, whipping it about in a fast arc, and Sarah blinked as she realized Esther was holding the handle out to her.
Sarah froze, shocked.
Sarah knew Esther had the Sight.
Sarah knew the Sight was passed from mother to daughter, and Sarah knew this was done by handing the daughter a blade or a scissors, and was traditionally done when the mother was on her deathbed.
Sarah's eyes were wide and she hesitated, swallowing; Esther's emerald eyes were deep, almost sad as she regarded Sarah's hesitancy.
"Take it," she whispered.
Sarah reached for the handle.
Her hand closed about the flesh-warm handle and she closed her eyes, her head falling back, an expression of almost lustful pleasure on her face.
They held, unmoving, for a long moment.
Sarah felt Esther's heart beating, slow, powerful strokes, she felt new life, restless in her belly, she saw through Esther's eyes, and she saw Esther's knowledge, shivering as it became hers --
Sarah's eyes snapped open, her breath catching in her throat.
Esther raised her free hand, a finger to her lips, and Sarah swallowed her exclamation, her protest.
"Come with me," Esther said. "Sheathe the sword, it is a gift for your father. Leave it on his desk. I have something for you."

"Parson," Daffyd said uncertainly, his round uniform cap in hand, "I'm no' a Catholic, though th' lads want me t' convert."
Parson Belden nodded, a go-ahead-I'm-listening move, and Daffyd continued.
"I know we asked you t' do th' service an' that's no' changed."
Parson Belden nodded again.
Daffyd shuffled his cap round in his hands, frowning a little.
"I don't know why I came," he muttered.
Parson Belden raised an eyebrow.
"I think," he said, "Mrs. Parson has that answer."
As if summoned by an inaudible bell, the Parson's wife came bustling into the room, bearing a tray with coffee and pie.
"I think," she said in a motherly voice, "you've never been married before, and you wish we could just get it over with."
Daffyd laughed, reddening.
"Aye, ma'am, sure an' you're right!"

The Sheriff glared at the saddle.
The saddle did not seem impressed by the man's steady frown.
His black Outlaw-horse waited patiently for the slender lawman's good pleasure.
There was little difficulty getting the saddle blanket in place.
It took three tries to get the saddle atop the blanket.
The Sheriff stepped back, almost fell back after the girth was to his satisfaction; he waited for his leg to quit trembling.
He finally took a long breath and muttered, "Oh, hell," and thrust his left boot into the doghouse stirrup.
He groaned as he tried vainly to make his right leg work well enough to get it over his gelding's rump: he finally reached back, grabbing the leg and yanking it savagely over the top.
You will work, he thought, peacefully or otherwise, and worked his burnished boot into the stirrup.
Outlaw seemed to walk with an exaggerated care as he carried the Sheriff out into the fenced lot.

Sarah gasped as Esther held out the jade oval.
It was on a choker necklace; the fit was perfect; white-jade gleamed at the hollow of her throat.
Esther smiled as Sarah spun and embraced her quickly, spontaneously, the quick, impulsive move of a delighted child: Esther took her by the shoulders, turned her and released the catch.
"You must do this," she instructed, "and promise me you will."
Sarah, puzzled, held out her hand as Esther extended the jade.
"You must wear this on your wedding day, but you may not put it on. Your father must put it on you. Promise me this."
"I promise."
"Good." Esther wobbled; Sarah, eyes widening with alarm now, guided Esther into a chair.
"I'm all right," Esther whispered, "just tired."
Sarah waited a moment before easing herself down on the side of the bed adjacent.
"Jade," Esther explained, "is ancient --" she grimaced, then looked up at Sarah, her expression unreadable.
"When you give jade you give part of yourself."

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Linn Keller 11-11-13

 

Esther sighed contentedly as she relaxed in her chair.
Sarah watched her closely, knowing the attractive, matronly woman still had something to say.
"I am so tired," she whispered, "just so very tired."
"I know," Sarah whispered back, laying a hand on Esther's; the two women clasped hands, communed in feminine silence before Esther took a longer breath and spoke again.
"Jade symbolizes life," she whispered. "We are links in a chain, a very long chain that runs back to the dawn of creation. We are part of a long, woven cord, a golden cord that runs through all eternity.
"Each link of the chain is hand forged, individually forged, hammered out of life's forge as each comes to its time of emergence."
Esther paused as if for breath, closing her eyes for a long moment before continuing.
"Each link is unique, each link is beautiful, each ... link ... connects with all that was, each ... in its turn, connects us with all that will be."
Esther looked up at Sarah: the younger woman was shocked at how tired she looked.
"We are all links in that chain. Each of us is the same as the previous link, but different, each of us is important, Sarah. Very important."
Sarah's eyes were wide, unblinking; Truth walked with cold fingers down the back of Sarah's spine.
"I give you the blessing of a mother who knows what it is to lose a daughter."
Sarah's bottom lip quivered.
Esther smiled gently.
"I know, child," she whispered. "The Sight is curse and blessing both.
"We can never tell someone when their time is to be, nor how: that is shown to us, but we must not give it voice.
"We may see our own time, and our own means." Esther's eyes hardened.
"That, we may fight."
Her hand flattened on her belly and Sarah recognized a protective gesture.
"I did not fight hard enough," she said, her voice thickening with grief, "and I lost our son."
Sarah seized Esther's hand, gripped it desperately tight.
"It wasn't your fault," she whispered fiercely. "You didn't --"
Esther smiled sadly, squeezing Sarah's tight-gripped hands in return.
"It had to be," she whispered back. "I do not know why but it had to be."
"It," Sarah whispered, her voice barely audible through the tightness in her throat, "you were" -- she swallowed -- "not, at fault!"

I labored across the short distance between the barn and the house.
My man, bless him, tended to Outlaw: I don't think I could have stood long enough to get him unsaddled, grained and brushed down: Jeremy knew from my scowl that I was unhappy at not being able to tend my own duty as I saw it, but -- wisely -- he didn't say anything about it.
I got up the three steps onto my porch, lurching like a cripple or a drunk -- or both -- I leaned against the porch post, my eyes closed, my leg quivering, my side aching, I fisted my hands and felt a fierce pride at having overcome my own weakness.
I lifted my head, glared at my front door.
I had not given up.
I could have handed the badge to Jacob.
He could have taken over and done a fine job.
No.
I was not ready to quit.
I could have set in my rockin' chair and counted my gold, I could have continued making money from careful investments.
I may be vain and I may be prideful but by God! I was not giving up.
I took a step toward my front door and my damned leg give out and down I went.
I landed on my injured side, teeth clenched and eyes squeezed shut, groaning back the exclamation that sought to give profane voice to the pain.
I rolled over and pushed up on all fours.
There was a warm breath in my ear, a warm tongue licking my under the jaw, a snarling rumble.
I opened my eyes and that curly black Dawg-pup licked my nose.
"Hello, Fibber," I said, rubbing his ears, and he peeled back his lips and snarled, sounding for all the world like he was going to rip my hand off up to the elbow.
I took a long breath, blew it out, took another and came upright.
Fibber didn't show any interest in coming inside.
I went on in and closed the door, which sounds easy when you say it fast.
I hate a damned cripple stick and I hate walking with one but it was time to run up the white flag and admit that -- prideful and stiff necked that I was -- I needed one to walk.
I opened the door to my study and froze.
Esther's sword-cane was carefully, deliberately placed on the shelf of my roll top desk.
It took me a few minutes to get over to the desk.
I studied the cane for a long time before I picked it up.
She's had a fighting handle put on it, I thought.
No.
She modified the handle that was already there
.
I gripped the wire-wound handle, smiling a little: a Japanese one time told me -- he'd watched our battles, back during that damned War -- he watched our men in camp and spoke at length with us, long quiet conversations in the field, over a campfire, with a meal -- we compared blades and techniques, and the man was more than a master with a sword.
His skill and his sword put anything I'd ever seen to absolute shame.
He told me once that the warrior's soul flows into the weapon, that a proper weapon, meant for that warrior, need not be seen to be used: that his katana was part of his heart, that he need not look at it to know where it was in three-dimensional space.
His words came back to me as I gripped the sword-cane's black-wrapped handle.
It was long enough to fit my big paw comfortably.
It now had a gold crossbar between grip and blade.
I smiled grimly.
I told Esther of an officer who knelt before a battle, his custom made Crusader's saber with just such a grip: he'd placed the blade tip-down into the sod and knelt in prayer, his sword and its cross grip making a Cross.
I know, for I knelt beside him and bowed my head as well.
It would be a while before I had enough strength in my chewed up leg to kneel without falling over, to get up without much awkwardness ... but with this ebony shafted walking stick ...
I released the blade, drew it out, admired its shining length: I gave it a few experimental swings, grinning, then slid it back into its sheathing black ebony and placed its metal ferrule on the floor.
I leaned on it.
It felt good.

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Linn Keller 11-12-13

 

Angela frowned at the red headed son of the fire chief.
"My Daddy feeds his Walker grains," she said solemnly. "And he doesn't even use tweezers!"
"You don't feed a Walker with tweezers," the eldest of Sean's clan said importantly. "You feed a Walker meat!"
"Do not!" Angela flared. "Daddy feeds his Walker grains! And nickles!"
"What kind of a dog eats nickles?" the young Irishman jeered.
Angela ran her bottom lip out, debating whether to cry, deciding against it: she hoisted her nose in the air and with a "Hmph!" turned and stomped toward the schoolhouse steps.
Sarah stood on the top step trying hard not to laugh.
She knew how the young tended to mangle the King's English and Angela had a special talent for that particular art: she made a mental note to inquire further, then swung the polished brass handbell up, then down, summoning the children to class.
The bell had a distinctly cockeyed handle.

The Sheriff knotted his tie, settled his Stetson on his head: I will take the carriage today, he thought, at least until he opened the front door and found Jeremy holding a saddled Outlaw just at the bottom of his porch steps.
Grinning, the Sheriff leaned some weight on the nob-headed cane and walked a little carefully across his threshold, across the porch, and then down the steps.

"You think the Sheriff will be back today?"
"So the man said."
"Good. I been thinkin' up a big lie to tell him."
"Since when is that any different fer you?"

Jackson Cooper squinted a little, looking down the street, grinning in the morning sunlight.
The Sheriff just rode down the little side lane like he always did, and onto the main street, and now he was riding up past the church and the schoolhouse and directly he would be at his log office.
Good, he thought.
About time he was healin' up.

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Linn Keller 11-13-13

 

Sarah lowered the bell, laughing as children stopped running about outside and instead ran toward the steps, flowing like a multicolored stream around obstructions and slower students.
She did not step aside or retreat as they rushed happily into the schoolhouse; she knew the importance of looking solid, firm, unmovable ... she was one of the limits on their world a child knew was needed.
Sarah waited until the students were in, then she looked at Emma Cooper and smiled, nodded, and slipped out the door.
Sarah lifted her skirt and stepped down to street level, turned to place the school bell precisely on the top step: she would be back, and before lunchtime: there was a matter that needed tending, and she knew her absence would not be harmful: Emma Cooper would have things well in hand.
Sarah walked across the street and down, to the fine brick firehouse; she knocked before entering, closing the door behind her, smiling again at the smell of horses, fresh straw, leather and coal, of men, a faint -- just the faintest odor of gasoline.
A familiar set of shoulders straightened up, a grinning Irish-red face looked over the wheel of the Steam Machine.
Sarah marched purposefully over to Sean and wrapped her hands around his arm.
"Sean," she said in a straightforward manner, "I need your good advice."

Bonnie nodded.
"It's settled, then," she said, holding up the half-sheet of foolscap. "This one."
"And if she doesn't want a maid, my dear?" Levi asked carefully.
Bonnie looked at him and smiled, and he saw the steel behind the smile.
"My daughter," Bonnie said, "is a woman of society and the daughter of the most powerful businesswoman in the territory. She shall have a maid."
Levi frowned, took a slow step toward his wife: thumb and forefingers in his vest pockets, he was obviously considering his words carefully.
"Mr. Llewellyn may see it as an extravagance," he began thoughtfully.
"Sarah's resources are more than sufficient to support them."
"I know that, dear," Levi agreed. "Your gifts to her and her investing those gifts has put her in very good ... stead."
Bonnie lifted her chin, challenging her husband to defy her decision: though there was steel in her spine and resolve in her expression, Levi could also see the laughter hiding in her eyes.
"I am certain," Bonnie said crisply, seating herself at her desk once again and picking up her favorite pen, "that Mr. Llewellyn will accept the idea."
She dipped her pen quickly in the ink-reservoir, and her pen began moving shrilly across the paper.

Sarah and Sean seated themselves at the big kitchen table.
"Sean," Sarah began hesitantly, "Daffyd ..."
She looked directly at the big Irish chief.
"Daffyd is a man to be proud of."
Sean grinned. "And ye're just now findin' that out?" he teased.
Sarah shook her head slowly. "He is also a proud man."
"Aye, that he is," Sean agreed, "an' he's every right t'be. A promotion, a raise i' pay, a beautiful wife-to-be, his house is a'ready built" -- he looked closely at Sarah -- "an' I understand it's paid for as well."
Sarah nodded, looking out across the length of the kitchen.
"I'd be worried if he wasn't proud o' a' this," Sean nudged.
Sarah looked back at the fire chief and he saw her brows quirk momentarily.
"Sean," she said, "my mother insists on our having a maid."
"An' what's wrong wi' that? Most households have a' least one."
"I know. Papa has a maid and the midwife. She's not ... a maid so much as ..."
"She's part o' yer family, I know," Sean grinned. "She's like that. I think she'd be welcome i' anyone's household. She's a sweet lass."
Sarah nodded, bit her bottom lip.
"Daffyd is also a thrifty and a very practical man."
Sean nodded slowly, in total agreement.
"Aye, lass, that he is."
"I'm afraid ..." Sarah's eyes dropped and her hands worried her kerchief into an irregular ball.
"I'm afraid he'll see a maid as an extravagance."
Sean made so bold as to take Sarah's hand in both his, and look her squarely in the eye -- were they not long and good friends, it would be a shocking familiarity, a serious breach of protocol and good manners.
"Lass," Sean murmured, "I ha'e i' on good authority tha' th' mon wishes t' set ye on a pedestal an' clap a glass bell o'er ye, like a collector's china doll, t' keep ye safe an' spoiled!"
Sarah giggled. "Sounds stuffy!"
"He thinks th' world o' ye, lass," Sean pressed. "I don't think he'll object t' a maid."
Sarah frowned a little, laid her other hand atop Sean's.
"Daisy is a lucky woman," Sarah said thoughtfully.
"Oh I don't know if she'd agree wi' ye!" Sean laughed.
Sarah looked at him, quirked up one eyebrow.
"She's carryin' ag'in!" Sean laughed, released Sarah's hand and slapped his knee in delight. "Th' image o' th' fertility goddess she is! I can look a' her across th' room an' boom! Belly an' child, just that fast!"
Sarah opened her mouth, closed it slowly; her face turned rather red and she felt her ears heating.
Finally she cleared her throat and said, "I am trying to think of something enlightening, informative, educational, uplifting and at least mildly amusing ... and my mind just went blank."
Sean put his hands on both her shoulders, turned her a little so each was squarely facing the other.
"Lass," Sean said, his voice suddenly serious, "if I hadna' ma Daisy, an' i' Daffyd hadna' you, I'd be hard pressed t' choose t' adopt ye ... or marry ye mesel'." He squeezed gently, very gently, and continued.
"Every man here feels th' same. Had Daffyd no' stepped up when he did, th' German Irishman would've, an' th' others in line b'hind him."
Sarah smiled a little embarrassed smile and ducked her head.
"If he sees a maid as an extravagance, lass, then it's th' kind of an extravagance a man wishes to have for his darlin' wife."
Sarah nodded.
"Do ye wish t' see him?"
Daffyd, around the corner and listening, waited for Sean's shouted summons before stepping around the brickwork and making reply.

Angela frowned, pouting a little, as she considered the work before her.
Her Daddy did too feed his Walker with grains.
He fed the Drag-Boom with grains and he fed it nickles just like the Walker.
Angela sighed.
She'd never convince those stuck-up know-it-all boys.
Angela smiled grimly.
She'd ask her Daddy to show her how he fed them.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-13-13

 

"I reckon you'd best head for home before your family forgets what you look like," Charlie drawled. His left elbow was crooked atop the battered pine plank bar of the second best saloon in Cripple Creek. It was nearing sundown, the hour after most of the daytime crowd had departed for someplace with better dining options and before the evening crowd began to trickle in, and the place was nearly deserted. A remarkably cold glass of relatively drinkable beer stood sentinel near the aforementioned elbow. He grinned at Jacob, who was maintaining essentially the same posture, albeit propping his long, lean frame up with the opposite arm, some three feet away. "My advice to you is to get your carcass on the next train bound for Firelands. There's one comin' through in about an hour," he slid an envelope down the bar toward the young deputy, "and there's your ticket."

"Are you sure we..." Jacob began, torn between his sense of duty to the Sheriff and the county and his desire to see his wife and son after too much time away, living in a seedy hotel and eating second-rate food.

"Am I sure we've got this burg tamed? Don't think so," Charlie answered. He lifted his mug and took a deep swallow of his beer. "Do I think they're not gonna have more growing pains? Nope. But what I do think is that if we hold the police department's hands long enough, they'll never learn anything and the next time something happens here they won't be able to handle it. We've been giving them more and more responsibility every day, and it's about time the little birdie left the nest. So to speak." He tilted up and drained his mug, set it on the bar with a thump and called out, "Barkeep! A drought has set in. My beer seems to have disappeared!"

"Well, I would like to see my family, that's for certain," Jacob said. "This is the longest I've been away since Annette and I were married. But I don't want to bail out and leave you and Miz Fannie in the lurch, either."

Like a wraith summoned by the sound of her name, Fannie suddenly appeared beside her husband, wrapping one small, calloused hand around his wrist. "You won't be leaving us in the lurch, as you call it, Sugah," Fannie said with a smile. "The town's as quiet as a mining town ever gets, and you need to go see to your kin. So take that," she pointed at the envelope, "get your duds packed and get yourself on that train. We made sure that there's a stock car for your horse, so you can both travel in style."

"As long as you're sure?" Jacob asked. Charlie nodded emphatically.

"We're sure! Now get yourself outta here before you miss that train!"

"That's right, Sugar!" Fannie added. "Now git!" Jacob got. He ticked his hat brim with one outstretched forefinger in salute, flashed the couple a smile that showed the boy that still lurked within the very capable man, and strode out into the street, batwing doors crashing against the wall as he pushed his way outside. Fannie smiled up at Charlie. "We need to think about doing the same, you know," she said softly, stepping in front of him.

"I know, Darlin', I know, and for the same reasons that we gave him," Charlie replied. He nodded in the direction of their departing associate. "Still..."

"Still, nothing!" Fannie declared, this time with some starch in her tone. "The police here in Cripple are as ready to take on their jobs as they're ever going to be, and nurse-maiding them any longer won't help. It's time we saddled our horses and headed for home." Her emerald gaze bored into his hazel eyes. "We've got a wedding to go to pretty shortly, and I don't intend to miss it."

"Darlin', you talked me into it," Charlie answered with a smile. "We'll leave in the morning." He paused. "Might be a good idea to let Hizzoner and the Chief know we're goin', though, don't ya think?"

Fannie kissed him on the cheek. "You go break the news to them, and I'll start packing," she ordered, her eyes twinkling. "I'll see you at the hotel."

"Somehow I knew you were gonna say something like that," Charlie said resignedly. "But I reckon you're right. I'll see you in a few." Settling his hat on his head, Charlie swallowed half of the fresh beer that had arrived while he and Fannie were talking, dropped several coins on the bar, and started for the door. He stopped with his hands on the louvered batwings and said back over his shoulder, "You might order us up a bath while you're at it, Darlin'. And a big tub. I fell like celebratin'."

"You are insufferable!" Fannie snapped, but he could hear the smile in her voice that belied the frown on her pretty features. He chuckled as he pushed his way outside. His voice drifted back inside.

"That's why you love me, Darlin'."

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Linn Keller 11-14-13

 

It felt good to get out.
I rode down the middle of the street, remembering.
I looked up the street and saw ghosts and memories.
I saw the recollection of my Esther, vaulting over a hitch rail with rifle in hand, advancing and firing as she walked.
I saw the memory of the Irish Brigade at a full gallop down the street, smoke rolling out the broad, stubby stack, whistle screaming and Sean standing in the driver's seat, swinging that blacksnake whip and singing and swearing in Gaelic.
I saw friends and I saw memories and I saw where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
Here.
This town.
This county.
These mountains.
My house, my wife, my children ...
My home.
I saw Jackson Cooper.
Now there was a memory in living flesh.
I felt myself grin good and broad and I rode on up the street.
I'd been laid up long enough.
Time I got back to work.
Jackson Cooper's eyes smiled as I rode toward him and I could see the sun high lighting his beard as it come in from behind him, high enough 'twas not a glare in my eyes.

"Mr. Llewellyn," Sarah said, her hands wrapped around Daffyd's forearm, "I wish to speak of a matter."
"Then I wish to hear it."
Sarah swallowed and lifted her chin resolutely.
This was proving harder than she'd anticipated.
"Mr. Llewellyn ... it has been determined that we should have a maid."
"I think it is a fine idea, Miss McKenna."
Sarah stopped dead.
"I ... what?"
Daffyd Llewellyn looked quietly at his wife-to-be, smiling behind his great black handlebar mustache.
"I think it is a fine idea."
"Oh."
Her voice was a little surprised and she began walking again, Daffyd keeping careful pace with her.
"I was ... afraid ..."
Sarah's voice trailed off.
"You sound disappointed."
"No," Sarah said quickly. "No, no ... I ... it's just ..."
Daffyd stopped.
Sarah's grip shifted; she took his hands in hers and looked up into those amazing eyes, those laughing eyes, those Welsh eyes she could fall into and swim.
Daffyd laughed a little and patted Sarah's hand.
"You ... didn't think I would say yes?"
Sarah looked with big, innocent eyes at the Welsh Irishman, swallowed.
Daffyd lowered himself, slowly, to one knee, still holding Sarah's hands.
"Dearest," he said quietly, "a maid is the very least you deserve. I've no objection."
"But ... I was afraid ... you might ... not pay ..."
Daffyd sighed.
"Your mother already discussed it with me," Daffyd admitted.
Sarah gave him a long look, then smiled a little.
" 'Discussed?' " Sarah echoed.
"You know your mother," Daffyd said wryly.
"If you don't want one," Sarah whispered, "we don't ..."
"We do," he interrupted gently. "You deserve that an' more."
Sarah leaned her head against the Irishman's red-wool bib-front shirt.
"Thank you," she whispered.

Sarah walked to the Sheriff's office with Angela.
"Sarrrah?" Angela asked.
"Hm?" Sarah's reply was distracted; she blinked, shook her head and said "Yes, Angela?"
"When will Jacob be coming back?"
Sarah looked over her shoulder and smiled.
"How would you like to learn a magic spell?"
Angela stopped in the middle of the street and planted her knuckles on her belt.
"Now you know," she scolded, shaking a Mommy-finger at the amused schoolmarm, "there is no such thing as magic!"
Sarah raised her chin and marched on toward the boardwalk and Angela scampered after her.
Sarah knocked briskly, a quick rat-tat, pushed open the door and looked around: satisfied, she waited for Angela to enter.
Angela ran happily across the floor as the Sheriff turned in his chair and bent a little to receive her happy charge.
Sarah clapped her hands briskly together, twice, then raised one hand to the ceiling, the other toward the floor; she turned to the left, to the right, then completely round, while chanting,
"Fam'ly here and round about,
Fam'ly tall and fam'ly stout,
"Come to us and we will shout,
JACOB!"

The door opened again and Jacob grinned, clearly glad to get back.
"You called?"
Angela's eyes were the size of silver dollars.

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Linn Keller 11-16-13

 

I lay awake that night, flat on my back, staring at the ceiling.
There was a wild moon out; the wind was unhappy and sobbed like a lost child in the chimney, rumbled intermittently around the corners of the house: clouds scudded across the moon, fleeing some unknown danger, tearing themselves into gossamer wisps in their haste, and I lay flat on my back in my own bed, under my own roof, staring at the ceiling, wide awake.
Esther lay a hand on my chest and whispered, "I can't sleep either."
"I need a drink."
"I'm hungry."
I reached up and laid my hand gentle on hers, turned my head and smiled a little in the dark.
I could not see Esther's face but I knew she was looking at me, looking with those gentle eyes, those eyes that could see ten feet into a man's soul at a glance, those eyes that said so very much without her framing a word with her lips: those eyes I dreamed of, those eyes I saw before me the times my soul hovered over my carcass and debated whether to spread a new set of wings and head for loftier territories, or stick around.
I loved the feel of Esther's hand, whether on my chest, or on my shoulder and back as we danced, whether we held hands like we usually did when we laid down for bed, when she rubbed the cords out of my neck, whether she stroked my chin as she tilted her head a little and looked long at me, assaying the nature of my spirit the way a woman will when a man comes home from a hard day's work.
"There is bread," I said quietly, my voice surprisingly loud in the nighttime still.
"There is fresh cornbread," Esther added, "and we have fresh honey from the Daine hives."
"Talked me right into it." I patted her hand and she felt my belly tighten as I suppressed a chuckle. "Want me to bring it up to you?"
"No, dear," she said patiently. "I want to sit at the table with my husband."
And so the two of us slid out of our nice warm bunk and thrust bare feet into furry-lined moccasins, and I blessed the Great Architect of the Universe for giving my poor punkin' haid enough smarts to build our staircase a little more than double wide: I walked beside my gravid wife, my beautiful bride, this red-headed, green-eyed, very pregnant beacon that shone goodness and light over every facet of my entire existence.
I don't think I was entirely awake.
We got downstairs and padded silently down the hallway, our moccasins silent on the carpet runner; again I blessed the Sachem, for I'd gone over every last floor board not a month ago, and the Daine boys and I worked the squeaks out of them: I dislike a squeaky floor, I don't like anything that betrays my travel unless I want it known, and we worked on that hallway better than half a day to work three squeak-boards down solid.
The stove was still warm; Mary, our maid, was sound asleep, bless her: Alfdis, too, was asleep, and Esther and I did our level best to be quiet, for we knew Alfdis would be hovering worriedly over Esther, and Mary would be trying to anticipate anything we might want ... the two of them were more like family and less like hired help, and they needed their good rest.
I sliced corn bread and set out butter and Esther buttered hers thickly, eating with a good appetite: in polite society a woman, a Lady, picked at her food and publicly ate little: Esther, happily, dispensed with this convention while carrying -- and she never made excuses for it.
I slipped out back and visited the outhouse, Esther apparently thought it a good idea too: while she was out, I poured some coffee -- we kept some in the pot on the stove overnight, just in case, as tonight, I might have late hours or be unable to sleep -- and the teakettle was warm as well, so I set some tea a-brew.
I leaned the heels of my hand and looked out the window, studying the sky, the land, the mountains: the wind was died down when I made my trip to the backhouse, and it held off until Esther was back inside.
"I think Macbeth would call that an evil moon," I murmured.
Esther smiled. "No, dear, just a wild night."
I turned and my moccasins whispered on the floor as I made my way back to my chair.
I planted my elbows on the table, folded my hands together and leaned my stubbled chin on my knuckles.
"I love you, Mrs. Keller," I murmured.
"I love you too, Mr. Keller," Esther smiled, taking a hungry bite of cornbread.
"My dear," I said, "should I suddenly fall over dead, you have the authorizations."
"I have," she nodded, swallowing and taking a sip of tea to clear her mouth: "I have a copy in my desk, you have a copy in your desk, and should the house burn down, there is a copy in my office safe over the Jewel, and Mr. Moulton also has a copy."
I nodded.
In my experience, such redundancy guaranteed they would never be needed.
"You will be well provided for, Mrs. Keller."
"So you're saying I am going to become a rich widow?" she teased. "Is there sourdough in the bread safe?"
I rose, padded over to the bread safe, withdrew the cloth-wrapped loaf and carried it back to the table.
"Oh thank you, dear," she murmured as I sawed off a couple thick slabs.
We each buttered one and ate with good appetite.
"I fully intend," I muttered around a cud of half chewed, well buttered bread, "that you should become a wealthy widow ... but not until you're old."
Esther's quiet laugh always did relax any anxieties I might have.
"I don't figure to die until I'm about 94," I said, "and I wish my tombstone to read, 'Here lies Linn Keller, age 94, trompled to death in a whorehouse raid.' "
Esther looked at me, her eyes smiling, and she murmured, "Mr. Keller, you are incorrigible!"

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Charlie MacNeil 11-16-13

 

'Twas indeed a wild night, and the potential was out and about for an evil moon. Dawg raised his great ebony head from its resting place on his well-padded straw bed in the horse ranch barn to sniff the quickening breeze. Night-black ruff rose in a glossy wave on his thick-muscled neck, lips curled from the satiny ivory flash of incisors, boulder-crush rumble sounding from deep in the wide chest. He rose to his feet and padded to the open barn door to sniff deeply as the growl rumbled again.

"You too, eh?" Cat Running's whisper slipped from the old man's own dim corner. "Bad night out." The old man slipped from his bed and slid his feet into fur-lined moccasins and stood, picking up his rifle. He shouldered into a heavy wolfhide coat, slipping the antler buttons into their slots one-handed, loathe to put down the weapon to facilitate the task. He pulled a knitted cap down over his tufted gray hair, leaving his ears bare. The old man laid a hand on Dawg's ruff. Dawg looked up. "You that way, me this," Cat Running pointed with his chin. Dawg whined softly then slipped outside into the night, followed by the old man.

Charlie drew rein on the edge of the ranch house hollow. "Why are we stopping?" Fannie queried, senses casting out into the swirling wind. It had been a long day, but with the ranch only a few miles ahead when darkness fell, the couple had elected to continue their journey rather than make camp for the night. Now they were home, but not home.

"Something's wrong," Charlie answered softly. "I ain't sure what, but something." He reached down and slid his rifle from the scabbard and brought it up to butt-brace on his hip. Fannie followed suit, her choice the Greener for close up work if necessary. Both believed that a pistol was the weapon of choice to fight your way to your long gun, and always chose the long gun as primary weapon when possible.

Racing cirrus clouds gathered and shredded, herded by the wind then torn apart, making flickering shadows in the faded light of the last quarter moon. Charlie heeled his mount into motion, holding the buckskin to a slow walk as he angled away from the trail to the corral. The tired mare pushed her nose toward barn, grain and water, but her rider spoke softly and nudged the animal away from the obvious route into the hollow. Reluctantly at first, then willingly as she sensed the tension in her rider and the wrongness of the night, the mare eased forward. Ears up, nostrils flaring, mincing steps finding the best footing on the slope, the mare went forward.

"Ssshhheee wwwiiilll bbbeee ooouuurrrssssssss," sibilant voices, barely lifting above the threshold of hearing, suddenly hissed on the wind. "Wwweee wwwiiilll dddeeessstttrrroooyyy yyyooouuu, ttthhheeennn hhhiiimmm, ttthhheeennn ssshhheee wwwiiilll bbbeee ooouuurrrsssssssss..."

"Never!" Charlie roared into the night. He spurred his mount forward suddenly as the ranchhouse hollow shifted, twisting and changing shape and texture, the moonlight suddenly bloodred, prairie grass morphing to black sand as Charlie pulled the buckskin to a sliding halt. As he threw himself from the saddle the Winchester became a two-handed broadsword that he thrust toward the sky, the scream of an enraged warrior ringing from his throat.

Fannie stood beside him, her right shoulder near his left, heavy longbow in hand, quivers of black-fletched arrows at shoulder and thigh. To the warrior's right stood the old man, feathered war lance in hand, short rawhide-backed horse bow at his side, war paint streaking dark skin, warrior's song bursting from his lips. Beyond the old man the hell hound roared his own song of blood and fury into the teeth of the sulfurous wind, white teeth flashing blood red in the crimson darkness. The four stood with their backs to gold-flecked black rock and sang their defiance to the forces that gathered around them. The onslaught began...

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Charlie MacNeil 11-17-13

 

The old man began to sing, a guttural chanting that ebbed and flowed, his voice lifting and falling, weaving its spell of light and darkness, life and death. Beside him the hellhound's own song, bayed into the wind, gave pause to the twisted forms that move to the attack.

At the old man's other side, the warrior shouted into the wind, "YOU SHALL NOT HAVE HER! THIS IS THE FINISH! COME FORWARD AND PERISH!" His sword sang its own paean of blood and death as it clove the first of the attackers in twain to vanish as puffs of putrid black smoke. With a shrieking like that of a thousand hurricane winds, the others sprang forward...

Beside the warrior, the archer princess struck nock to string, drew and released. Her missiles unerringly found their marks, striking down the foe singly, sometimes in pairs that ventured into the battle too closely conjoined, once a triple that vanished with a chorused scream of unearthly agony. And still they came...

The old man's voice had faded now, no longer strong but still rising and falling, his quiver empty, his lance striking snake-swift among the ranks of the attackers. Where the lance touched, things died, their very essence blown away on the black wind. The hell hound stood raging his challenge, his ivory fangs blackened with the essence of those he had ravaged and sent to their destiny, trickles of blood matting his fur where the enemy had touched him only to be vanquished in the following instant. And still they came...

The ranks of evil had thinned, their numbers reduced manyfold, gaps beginning to be evident in their attack, gaps that could be exploited. The warrior paused for breath, his limbs shaking with fatigue. He drew a leather bottle from his belt and swallowed a deep draft of the liquid it contained, then another. His posture straightened, his sword arm lifted, his strength returned, and again he bellowed his challenge into the face of the enemy. "COME! LET THIS BE FINISHED! COWARDS, COME TO MY BLADE!" He handed the bottle to the archer princess who stood now with short sword in one hand, poiniard in the other, her quivers empty as well. She downed her own drink, handed the bottle to the warrior then raised her weapons and shouted her own challenge.

"YES! COME AND DIE, YOU WHO WOULD INTERFERE WITH OUR WORLD! COME AND TASTE STEEL, COWARDS!"

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Charlie MacNeil 11-17-13

 

The combatants were drained, physically and spiritually, yet they fought on, for the stakes were too high for anything else. The enemies still came, though their ranks had thinned appreciably. Beyond reach of sword and lance, the evil masses gathered for one last great effort to overwhelm the four who still stood and shouted their defiance. The roiling mass boiled and fumed, gathering strength for that one overwhelming attack that should overrun the mortals before them...

"Here they come," the warrior growled, his voice rasping deep in his parched throat. "This is it. We defeat them here and now, or we go down fighting. We've fought the good fight. No one could ask more." He pulled the archer princess close and their lips met in a kiss, a sort of farewell that might or might not come to fruition in the coming minutes. She returned his kiss then stepped away to gather the arrows she had managed to retrieve while their foes were gathering for their final onslaught. He turned to the old man.

"Old man, there's no one I would rather have than you, here, now," he said.

"It ain't over yet," the old man replied, his obsidian eyes glinting in the orange light that was beginning to present itself from beyond the horizon, lips curled in a humorless smile. "The spirits have yet to make themselves known to those," he hitched his chin in the direction of the gathered enemy. "They don't know what they did by coming to us the way they did."

"I hope your spirits show up pretty quick," the warrior answered. "'Cause here they come!" He hefted his sword. "Whether we're ready or not!"

As the tumbling ebony mass gathered momentum, rumbling forward with the implacable power of an avalanche, the crash of thunder roared overhead. Lightning flashed and danced across the surface of the night, strobing across optic nerves, turning dark to light. The enemy shrank back as a single crackling trident slammed into the ground between them and the four warriors to stand in place, humming, turning the air to ozone. For a moment, an eternity, all was silent, even the wind ceasing its scream. Then with a roar the bolt split...

White light turned red-tinged darkness to full day in an instant. Shadows surfed the luminous waves, gaining form and dimension as they came, forming a rank that faced the enemy defiantly, confidently, angrily. Wolf, bison, bear, elk, badger, all took shape on the sand. All facing the gathered enemy. All ready to mete out punishment. The wolf stepped to the fore as the sibilant voices rose.

"HHHooowww dddaaarrreee yyyooouuu cccooommmeee hhheeerrreee?" the voices demanded. "Ttthhhiiisss iiisss nnnooottt yyyooouuurrr cccooonnnccceeerrrnnn!"

The voice of the wolf, deep and menacing, made itself felt to all. "You overstepped your bounds!" the wolf replied. "You came to the world of these," he nodded toward the four combatants. "You broke the covenant! For that you must be punished. Never again shall you be able to do such as you have done this night! Come forward, and be destroyed!" The battle began anew...

No bard will sing of the battle that took place, the battle for supremacy over a world that was still finding its way, still searching out its destiny in the universe. No poet will compose hymns in praise of the heroes of the combat. The carnage will never come to the attention of those on whose behalf the battle was joined. None will know of the sacrifice nor of the union of man and animal, human and spirit that formed that night. Only those who took part would ever know the truth of that night. But that night would become a turning point in the lives of all who fought...

The last of the evil was done, scattered, never again to amass the power that gathered and was violently dispersed during those hours. When all was silent, the battle finished, the wolf turned to face the warrior, the archer princess, the old man, the hell hound. Bison, elk, badger and bear stood in a crescent behind him. "The Great Spirit has seen your strength, He knows your hearts. We were his power made flesh this night. For all of your days remember this night, and those who battled by your side, and be thankful. Waste not, and you shall have abundance. Now we must return to your world, as must you. Farewell, brothers and sister. Farewell." Blinding light flashed, and the wolf and his companions vanished...

The warrior turned to the others. "Let's us go home, folks," he said tiredly. "Maybe now we can rest for at least a little while." He took the archer princess's softly calloused hand in his left, the old man's gnarled fingers in his right. The hell hound nosed between warrior and princess and all stepped forward, two long strides carrying them from black sand to winter-cured prairie grass. Overhead, the clouds scattered, the last waning bit of moon shone silver across the ranch yard. They were home...

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Charlie MacNeil 11-18-13

 

"Home". How sweet rang that single syllable, that one word. Though much time had passed in the battle, yet they had returned home mere moments after their departure. Though it had carried him to the site of the combat, the buckskin mare stood hipshot, dozing in the moonlight, patiently waiting for its rider to return. Charlie slipped the reins from about the animal's neck and turned toward the barn. "Come on, horse. Let's us get you unsaddled and turned out." Fannie, the pack mules and the sorrel followed.

"Good fight," Cat Running commented as if speaking about the weather or something else equally as mundane. Charlie turned his head to look at the old man.

"You've been there before, ain'tcha?"

"Yep. Many time. Kill lotsa monsters."

"Why didn't you say somethin' before now?"

"You di'n't need ta know. Woman knew." The old man chuckled drily. "You fight better dumb."

Charlie just shook his head tiredly and trudged wordlessly on toward the barn. He was too beat to try to decipher the cryptic words. Maybe after twelve hours sleep and a gallon of coffee, but not now. Methodically he and the others went through the necessary motions to unpack and unsaddle the livestock, feed them and turn them out to water. Then husband and wife headed for the house as Cat Running returned to his robes, Dawg to his spot in the hay.

Inside the house the couple left a trail of discarded boots, coats, hats and weapons from the mud room toward the bedroom, where both warriors collapsed on the bed still essentially fully dressed. They were asleep instantly...

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Linn Keller 11-19-13

 

Sarah convulsed, once, coming off her bed like a scalded cat.
She landed on her feet, blade in one hand and reaching down for the shotgun's checkered grip: she froze, pupils dilated to the point that her eyes were black, with no trace of her usual pale blue.
Nostrils flared, mouth open, eyes searching the darkness, she smelled the hot sand, the dust, she knew there were warriors at battle, she knew there was a desperate fight, a fight to the very death ...
Gone.
"What in two hells just happened?" she whispered, and then her already-wide eyes widened further as the knowledge came upon her.
"Oh dear God," she whispered, more a prayer than an exclamation.
Sarah saw the fight.
Sarah lived the fight.
Sarah felt every stroke of a tempered blade, she felt hard-knuckled hands gripped about wire-wound handles, she felt callused palms gripping the lance, she felt hackles rise and her teeth bare as the ranks of Darkness formed up against the few, and she felt four hearts sing with a savage joy, the joy known only to the warrior who faces an almost certain death, death in the face of surely insurmountable odds.
Sarah missed the shotgun's grip and closed around something slender, smooth ...
She did not have to strike a light to know the shaft and fletching were black.

Esther lay a gentle hand on her belly and regarded Sarah with a knowing expression.
"You've seen something," she said.
Sarah nodded, then quirked her eyebrows as the question came to mind: "Did you see it?"
"No, dear," Esther said gently. "I'm sight-blind now." She looked down at her belly. "So is Dana here." She looked up at Sarah and smiled sadly.
"That's why they never came after me."
"Excuse me?" Sarah's surprise was genuine, and it showed.
Esther laughed politely.
"You carry the Sight," she explained, "and it will pass through your blood. Your children --"
Sarah nodded.
"I know."
Esther felt the weight on Sarah's heart.
"The Sight is a heavy gift."
Sarah looked up at the older woman, grief in her eyes.
"I'm ... learning that."
"You've seen what Daciana carries."
Sarah nodded miserably.
"You can't tell her."
"I know."
"You've seen forward in your own life."
Sarah nodded again.
"The Sight ... is not easy."
"I'm ... finding that out."
Sarah blinked.
"You're Sight-blind?"
Esther smiled again, a sad little smile as she patted Sarah's hand reassuringly.
"I gave it to you, dear."
Sarah blinked, digesting this new realization: she knew this, somehow, but she'd not really ... realized it.
"You will be married in six days," Esther continued, "and you will wear my white-jade necklace."
Sarah nodded, tears stinging her eyes.
Esther raised a finger. "None of that, dear," she murmured. "We both know what will be and we both know you need to wear something ... old ..."
Sarah looked down at her hand, at the ancient ring on her hand, the ring Daffyd gave her.
"Something borrowed," Esther continued.
Sarah nodded, her bottom lip trembling.
"Off you go, now," Esther said in a kindly voice, "and see your husband. You need to have him tell you about using the Welsh longbow."
"But don't shoot one with him."
"He must never know you are the Warrior."
"Our son will be a bowman," Sarah whispered fiercely, not trusting her voice, and Esther smiled.
"I remember."

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Linn Keller 11-20-13

 

Esther’s expression was ecstatic.
She took a quick breath, her hands going to her belly, and she looked down at this maternal mound, then up at the watching midwife.
Esther’s eyes turned and she smoothed her expression and Alfdis knew she was thinking of her husband, who would soon be dressing for the wedding.
She shot a look at Alfdis, then blinked and shook her head.
Alfdis nodded once, solemnly.

The Sheriff rubbed Cannonball’s neck.
The mare was beginning to labor, he knew, and she was not happy he was near her.
“Don’t wall those eyes at me, lady,” he muttered, then looked over at Jeremy.
“I’ll birth her fine, Boss,” Jeremy grinned. “You go on and get that girl of yours married off!”
The Sheriff nodded; he grasped Jeremy’s hand, grunting a little as the younger man hauled him upright.
“Damn leg,” he muttered from between clenched teeth.
Charlie grinned at him from the doorway.
“Ready to run that foot race, old man?” he challenged, and the Sheriff leaned on his cane and glared in good-natured reply.
“Yeah, God loves you too,” he grumbled.
“Hadn’t you better get dressed?”
“Yeah.” He turned and looked at the laboring Cannonball.
“She’ll be fine,” Charlie grinned. “Come on, you’re short on time.”

Sarah looked at the stranger in the mirror.
The stranger's hair was a shining crown, the stranger's face glowed with good health, there was just a hint of color on the stranger's lips: Sarah was grown into a beautiful womanhood, for all her tender years, and she was honestly a beautiful young woman: cosmetics were almost gilding the lily, even if her Mama did insist on painting her face when she modeled the fine dresses in Denver when the McKenna Dress Works held its periodic fashion shows.
She leaned a little closer, as if to see deeper, further.
The image in the glass stared back, blinked when she did, drew away when she did.
There was a discreet knock at her bedroom door, then her Mama’s voice.
“Sarah? I have your dress.”

Jacob carefully knotted Joseph’s tie, frowning studiously as he turned the knot into a symmetrical Windsor, puffing the tie out under it.
“I polished my boots, Pa,” Joseph offered proudly.
“You did a fine job of it, too,” Jacob said quietly, his eyes smiling a bit as he drew the shoulders up on Joseph’s coat.
“Annette?” he asked. “Did this coat shrink up some, or did our son grow another foot overnight?”

Daciana closed her eyes, stilling her unrest the way she did before a performance.
She lay a hand against her side, willing the pain to go away: it did, finally, though she knew the relief was but temporary.
Perhaps, she thought, if I lace my corset a bit tighter.

“No,” Sarah said quickly.
Bonnie blinked, looked at the white-jade oval on the golden chain.
Polly stood back, solemn, her dress a miniature of Sarah’s: Jade, beside her, attired in like manner, waited with dark and impassive eyes, holding her woven withie basket daintily before her. The odor of rose-petals rose from its gleaming crimson cargo.
“I made a promise,” Sarah said with a catch in her voice.
“Oh?” Bonnie’s response sounded almost like a suspicious, I-wonder-what-you’re-trying-to-pull mother’s voice.
Sarah squared her shoulders, drew her chin up a little.
“I promised her my Papa would put it on me, and not until we were at the church.”
Bonnie looked at the flawless, polished oval, replaced it in its small box.
“I like this color,” Sarah smiled, looking into the mirror and turning a little. “I’ve never worn such a rich emerald before.”

“You look fine,” Esther said finally, fussing with her husband’s necktie, then patting him affectionately on the chest.
“I feel like a stuffed animal.”
Esther gave her husband a patient look.
The Sheriff looked disappointed.
“You’re not going,” he said – a statement, not a question.
“I’m too close,” she whispered. “I don’t want to run the risk –“
The Sheriff’s face reddened and he nodded.
“We wouldn’t,” he said slowly, “want to take away from Sarah’s day.”
“No, dear,” Esther smiled, leaning against her husband: Linn put his arms protectively around her.
“You handsome man,” Esther whispered, hugging him with a sudden, desperate squeeze, then leaning back from him and looking up into his light-blue eyes. “Now scoot! You don’t want to be late, for heaven’s sake!”
Angela marched purposefully up beside Charlie.
Her ever-present rag doll wore an emerald dress, just as she did; her hair was immaculately curled, framing her pink-cheeked face, and she reached fearlessly for Charlie’s browned, callused hand.
“I’d listen to the lady was I you,” Charlie drawled, and Esther laughed at the smile in his voice. She took a few careful steps and hugged him as well, laughing as she did.
“You have always been such a wonderful friend,” she choked, and Charlie shot an alarmed look at the Sheriff.
“You must forgive me,” Esther said, dabbing at her eyes with a lacy-edged kerchief. “We women get rather sentimental when we’re pregnant.”

The wolf pup watched from the alley beside the Sheriff’s office.
The wolf pup’s father, The Bear Killer, patiently submitted to a ribbon and two little girls tying it around his neck.

Sarah settled into the carriage, not hearing her mother’s nervous chatter: she felt the calm that shimmered inside Fannie, like a pool of quicksilver: steady it was, and Sarah had need of that steadiness.
The carriage rocked as The Bear Killer vaulted into its back seat, squarely between the twins.

Daffyd Llewellyn cocked a fist and roared, “THE NEXT ONE O’ YE LAYS A HAND ON ME I’LL KNOCK INT’ TH’ MIDDLE ‘A’ NEXT WEEK!”
“Wednesday or Thursday?” the English Irishman sneered.
Sean caught Daffyd’s arm as he fired the punch, then Sean seized the English Irishman’s necktie and jerked him up short.
“Don’t,” he rumbled.
Daffyd stepped back as the red-headed Chieftain released his arm.
Sean looked around, meeting every eye.
“Lads,” he said quietly, “harness up.”

Esther sagged as Alfdis took her arm.
“Help me to bed,” Esther whispered, “and bring towels and hot water.”
“It’s time?”
“It’s time.”
Alfdis looked at the door.
“Do you want me to catch your husband?”
“No.” Esther shook her head, paused, leaned against the wall, her eyes closed.
“No. He must see his daughter married. Just give me a moment.”

Mick gave the cavalrymen a hard-eyed assessment, glaring and glowering the way he did when he could find nothing wrong, nothing to snarl about, nothing over which to raise a disapproving voice.
Finally, wordlessly, he nodded, strode to his horse, swung into the saddle.
Turning the chestnut gelding, he drew a great chestful of Irish and bellowed, "MOUNT!"
The fort's small band struck up the "Garryowen" as Mick led his double colunn of trooopers through the heavy gates; they set a course for Firelands, for there was a wedding, and a wedding meant drink, and dancing, and the ladies, not necessarily in that order, and of course there would be a better grade of rations than were usually available at the fort.

Angela clutched three yellow roses from the bouquet her Daddy gave her Mommy, the bouquet over which her Mommy shed unexpected tears, explaining in a squeaky voice that Mommies sometimes cry when they're very happy, to which Angela replied with a curious tilt of her head, "Mommy, am I supposed to cry too?" -- which resulted in Esther laughing, with tears streaking her cheeks, and hugging her curly-headed little girl.
Angela rode in the back seat of the buggy.
Her Daddy and her Uncle Charlie sat in the front seat.
Angela wished she had a big warm furry Dawg to ride with her like Sarah's little sisters generally did.
That's okay, Angela thought.
The Bear Killer will be there, and Aunt Fannie will be there, and I can sit with Opal and Polly. They have Mommy-green dresses like mine. Maybe everyone will think we're sisters!
I wish I had a sister.
A little brother is okay but he's noisy and he smells funny.
If I had a baby sister I could play with her and read to her and teach her stuff.
Angela smiled, bent her head to sniff the triplet of yellow roses she held, then she raised her head and looked around, content to be with her big, strong Daddy and her big, strong Uncle Charlie.

 

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Linn Keller 11-20-13

 

Daisy commanded her small army with the efficiency of a field-marshal overseeing a major campaign.
Kettles bubbles, frying pans sizzled, stoves threw out waves of heat; cooks stirred, spiced, chopped, tasted, frowned, nodded and did all the things master cooks do when preparing a superb feast for a large number of people.
The Jewel was scrubbed, gleaming, set up for diners; Mr. Baxter wore a fine new apron, his hair slicked down; he would soon hang up the apron and leave the Jewel under Daisy's watchful eye, or one of her deputies: he did not intend to miss this wedding, and he was willing to bet Daisy would be there as well.
The cavalry was in town, they'd slaked their thirst and enthusiastically sampled Daisy's wares, collaborating in an effort to perfect a few experimental dishes: they were surprisingly well behaved, for all had been threatened with worse than two terribles if they stepped out of line.
The troop took pains top clean up after their ride, their horses were carefully attended -- just as a knight's speed and power comes from his mount, a cavalryman's speed and power comes from his own steed -- and they took the time to ensure that not only was Daisy's provender fine feed indeed, they also personally tested the quality of Mr. Baxter's beer, and pronounced it equally palatable.

Sarah took a deep breath, a steadying breath; Bonnie, in a moment of intuition, turned a little and looked back.
"Mama," Sarah said in a low voice, "did you bring your Bible?"
Bonnie blinked, her lovely eyes widening: "Oh dear, no," she groaned. "Will I really need it?"
Sarah hesitated, then said carefully, "Mama, you must look inside its front cover when you return home tonight."
Fannie looked sharply at Sarah.
"Mama," Sarah repeated, her voice urgent, "remember your Bible, without fail!"

"You," Lightning said sincerely, "look good!"
Daciana smiled, her face reddening a little; she delighted in looking good for her long, tall, skinny husband, but she delighted when her long, tall, skinny husband took pains to tell her so.
"So do you," she said shyly.
Lightning stuck out his elbow and Daciana took his arm.
"You'll be standing up with Sarah," Lightning said -- a statement, not a question.
"Yes."
They crossed the porch, he helped her into the buggy, climbed in on his side.

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