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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 11-21-13


Sean was everywhere.
The big Irishman in the red-wool bib-front shirt was grinning, laughing, shaking hands, slapping backs, for all the world like a politician on campaign: he came over to me and dealt me a blow to my back that like to knocked the teeth out of my mouth, and had it not been for the quick reflexes of one of the bystanders, my hat would have surely hit the dirt, so brisk was his blow.
Little Joseph grinned up at me and declared, "Grampa, Pa tied me a Windsor knot!" and so I squatted down, a move I immediately regretted, but I did not even try to rise until I'd looked at Little Joseph, and me down to his level.
I tilted my head and nodded at his necktie, neatly tied in a Windsor knot -- I'd shown Jacob how to tie that one, I always did like it -- and he'd puffed the tie out a little underneath, again a trick I showed him -- then I frowned at how much skinny wrist stuck out from Joseph's coat sleeves, and I looked at how much boot top was showing, and I realized the lad must've grown a good shot the night before, for that suit fit him fine the Sunday before.
"A good hand blacked your boots," I observed. "That is a fine job."
I suspected it had been Jacob blacking his own boots and I was right, the lad's chest swelled until I feared a button would fly off his coat like a swan shot.
I set my teeth and put more weight on my cane than I wanted but I stood up and under my own power, and I leaned against it for a long moment: Sean rested a huge hand on my shoulder and raised an arm and his voice: "Way there! Make way f'r the second most important man here!"

Alfdis chattered constantly, keeping up an encouraging commentary: Esther's water broke, she was laboring, she was working with the contractions: she laughed a little and said, "I'm an old hand at this now," and Alfdis laughed with her as she worked a clean sheet under Esther's backside.

Sarah's entourage were given the Parson's parlor for the final details that are always needed before a wedding.
Sarah stood like a beautiful statue, motionless, staring straight ahead, as her swarm of supplicants tucked, tugged, brushed, adjusted, assessed, tilted, patted, arranged and finally drew back in adoration at this vision of beauty among them.
Angela, too, stood for her share of attention, as did the twins; Angela managed to thrust a single yellow rose into the middle of Sarah's bouquet, and nobody plucked it out, and Angela drew back with the twins, and accepted her own single flower: only one of the twins would have the rose petals, and she would walk with Little Joseph, who would carry the rings.
Angela frowned and looked at Polly, then at Opal.
Polly leaned over and whispered, "She was pretty when she got here," and Opal added, "She doesn't look any different," and Angela tilted her head and considered her Aunt Sarah and said "She looks very nice."
The three children nodded their heads, once, in unison, affirming the veracity of their several observations.

Esther's hands closed into fists; she closed her eyes, bore down.
"You're doing fine, we have bulging, a little show, you're doing fine, keep it up ..."

Daciana and the violinists waited.
Parson Belden sidled into the packed church, nodding, smiling, speaking, shaking hands; he paused and spoke to the Sheriff, to the red-shirted Irishman, to the big Irish sergeant of cavalry: he looked around the packed church: every pew was filled, there were folk standing along the walls on either side: if the little whitewashed building hadn't been made of seasoned lumber, it would surely have bulged from the crowding of humanity it contained.
Parson Belden walked briskly down the aisle, his tread quick, silent, and at his passage, the murmuring dropped to a whisper.
Parson Belden smiled as he assumed his place at the head of the aisle, before the altar.
Of all the official duties of the sky pilot, he loved weddings the most.

Three violins spun their magic in unison, their pure notes spinning the familiar melody of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring," further stilling the crowd.
Bonnie, peeking through the cracked-open door, looked into the church sanctuary.
She swallowed a dry throat and turned, her eyes big, and she nodded, once.

"Showtime," Sean murmured, his hand warm on my shoulder, and I nodded.
I drew my spine straight, raised the cane, drove its black-steel ferrule into the floor ... thump, thump, thump, three spaced blows.
We paced off on the left, marched down the aisle: the Lawman, the Chieftain, and the entire Irish Brigade.
We men flowed to our side, turned.
I crossed my palms casually on the cane's gold head and waited, looking at the door: Bonnie opened it a little and nodded.
I turned and shook Sean's hand, then I raised the cane.
Three times I drove its tip into the floor, then, alone, I marched back down the aisle, back to the rear rank, where the Cavalry stood, tall, proud, military-neat.
I stopped and raised the cane like I would a rifle, saluting Mick, and he snapped me a salute that would've done his father proud.
The back door opened, to my left, and it's a good thing I had that cane to lean on.
My little girl stood in the doorway, and she was beautiful.
In that moment I saw her as she'd been the first time I'd seen her, an underfed waif in a patched dress, holding her Mama's hand one dark night in front of the Silver Jewel.
I saw her as a child, laughing and running, and I saw her laughing and leaning over a horse's neck, driving across a mountain meadow faster than could be done without wings, and I saw her now, a beautiful young woman in a shimmering emerald dress and had I not that cane to lean on, why, like as not I would have fallen over from ... well, from realizing ... she was grown, and a woman.
Sarah bore a box, and she opened the box, and I withdrew the white-jade oval and I put it gently about her neck, making the clasp fast at the back.
I came around and stood beside her and Sarah laid a gentle, gloved hand on my arm, and I felt my legs quiver some and I wondered, How in the hell did this happen so fast?
Sarah looked over at me and whispered, "Papa, I love you," and I looked at her and smiled a little and I whispered, "I don't believe we've been properly introduced, my beautiful young lady. I am the Sheriff, and I am looking for a little girl named Sarah. She's about waist high on me."
Sarah laughed, and the violins spun out to their final note, holding it for a long moment; there was an extended silence that ran for about a year, or three heartbeats, whichever it was.
Daciana, at the piano, began the opening notes of the Wedding March.
Sarah and I turned our faces to the altar, raised our chins.
I drove the black-steel ferrule into the floor three times.
I walked on wooden legs, walked my little girl down the aisle.

The child came with surprising speed.
Alfdis's breasts ached as the baby squeaked its first breath: she turned it, cleaned it, drained its little airway and the dusky, wiggling little girl-baby took a breath, took another, began to cry.
Alfdis began to cry too.
"It's a girl," she laughed, and Esther gasped, "Oh, let me see!"

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Charlie MacNeil 11-21-13


The congregation stood, and all eyes were on the belle of the ball. Sarah floated, or so it seemed, the length of the aisle, her fingers resting lightly on her Papa's sleeve, her every step and gesture that of a gueen accepting the homage of her subjects. She nodded regally at those nearest the aisle, with special smiles for those several who were most dear to her heart. As she passed Uncle Charlie and Aunt Fannie in their places in the front row she smiled, white teeth flashing, eyes of deepest blue sparkling behind her veil. Her lips moved as she whispered, "Thank you!" to the couple then faced front once more.

As the Wedding March ended Sarah and the Sheriff came to a gliding halt before the Parson. Daffyd Llewellen stepped forward; Linn relinquished his little girl's hand to her man and took one long step back. With a twinkle in his eye Parson Belding addressed the room in a rich baritone that carried beyond the farthest spectator in the rear ranks. "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?"

"Her mother, her family and I do!" Linn boomed in reply, his face set in an expression of mixed joy and sadness. Then, more softly, "Her mother, her family and I do." With military precision he about-faced and strode, ramrod straight, to his seat in the front pew next to Charlie, who nodded and winked as his friend and blood brother lowered himself to the cushion.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-21-13


The congregation stood, and all eyes were on the belle of the ball. Sarah floated, or so it seemed, the length of the aisle, her fingers resting lightly on her Papa's sleeve, her every step and gesture that of a gueen accepting the homage of her subjects. She nodded regally at those nearest the aisle, with special smiles for those several who were most dear to her heart. As she passed Uncle Charlie and Aunt Fannie in their places in the front row she smiled, white teeth flashing, eyes of deepest blue sparkling behind her veil. Her lips moved as she whispered, "Thank you!" to the couple then faced front once more.

As the Wedding March ended Sarah and the Sheriff came to a gliding halt before the Parson. Daffyd Llewellen stepped forward; Linn relinquished his little girl's hand to her man and took one long step back. With a twinkle in his eye Parson Belding addressed the room in a rich baritone that carried beyond the farthest spectator in the rear ranks. "Who gives this woman to be married to this man?"

"Her mother, her family and I do!" Linn boomed in reply, his face set in an expression of mixed joy and sadness. Then, more softly, "Her mother, her family and I do." With military precision he about-faced and strode, ramrod straight, to his seat in the front pew next to Charlie, who nodded and winked as his friend and blood brother lowered himself to the cushion.




Edited by Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580
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Linn Keller 11-21-13


Daffyd marched down the aisle, centered in the red-shirted Brigade: he alone wore a suit, somber black in the middle of spirited crimson, and he remarked later he felt like a man being taken to his execution ... but never did a man face a hangman's noose with such bright eyes and such a broad grin.

Angela took careful, mincing steps, daintily sprinkling rose-petals as she went: Joseph, beside her, pretended to an air of disdain, carrying the green-satin pillow with its two rings as if he were carrying an infant, or delicate china.

Fannie's arm gripped Charlie's; they were seated, near to the front, and Charlie grinned at the memory of Sarah whispering in his ear that she wished most sincerely that he, too, could walk her down the aisle, but -- and he chuckled silently at how her face reddened, and then she laughed -- but they'd have to saw the church down the middle and widen it out some, for with two big men escorting her, the aisle was far too narrow, and besides, with two such warriors coming down the aisle, what groom would not be intimidated?
Fannie looked over at Charlie: they shared a look, and a look was all that was needed, for the pair were so well matched that communication was efficiently done without words, more times than either kept track of.

The infant nursed with a good appetite, wiggling and grunting a little, and Alfdis nodded her approval.
"A good strong child," she said briskly, covering mother and daughter both: "good lungs, she feeds well, her color is good. You've delivered the afterbirth and it looks complete, you're cleaned up and you've a fresh gown."
Esther looked up at Alfdis, her eyes glitter-bright.
"She's beautiful," she whispered.
"Have you a name?"
"Her name," Esther murmured, looking down at the child, "is Dana."

Daffyd gasped, a quick loss of breath as if wind were sucked from his lungs, and his knees went weak for a moment.
The Sheriff stood, tall and severe, driving the ebony cane into the floor, three distinct blows to alarm all present that the Bride had arrived.
And what a bride she was!
He'd seen Sarah many times and in many ways, he'd seen her as a trousered horsewoman, as a gowned maiden, he'd seen her prim and he'd seen her proper and he'd seen her with her feathers hackled up, but never -- never! -- had he seen her so ... so ...
"She's gorgeous," he heard a voice whisper, and blinked, for the voice was his own.
Sean laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezed.
"Aye, lad, she is," he half-whispered. "She is indeed!"
Daffyd noted the glowing white oval at her throat, then looked at her smile, and the world faded and retreated and he saw only his bride, his wife, this beautiful, unearthly creature, coming slowly down the aisle, to be formally given, gifted, to him.
Daffyd swallowed hard, took a deep breath, let it out slow.
This, he thought, is a gift such as no man has ever had.
God let me do her justice!

Alfdis chattered happily as she tucked the covers in, the freshly-bathed infant across her Mama's bosom.
Alfdis was a wet-nurse and she was still with milk; it was normal in those days for a household to maintain at least one servant-maid, and generally two, and a wet-nurse was an added bonus.
"Alfdis," Esther whispered, her face shining, "do not let me forget."
"Yes?" Alfdis looked up. "I've bathed the wee one, she has your silver dollar on the cord and the belly-binder wrapped nice and snug, she's clean and she is perfect! Ten fingers and ten toes --"
"The letter," Esther whispered. "For my husband. It's on his desk. Do not let me forget."
"I will help you remember," Alfdis soothed.
Esther relaxed.

"Please be seated." The Parson spread his arms, palms up, the smile on his face like sunrise itself.
"Friends, kindred and brethren," Parson Belden began, "we are gathered here for the happiest reason we can come together as family and friends, and that is to join a man and a woman as husband and wife."
Daffyd looked at Sarah, looked almost shyly; he swallowed again, afraid to move, and he noticed the oval at her throat was not a featureless white, as he'd originally thought.
There was a scarlet tracery of some kind -- faint, as if a drawing that was but sketched by a beginning artist.
Dear God, he thought, I am the happiest I have ever been, and what a journey we begin today!

Dear God, Esther thought, I am the happiest I have ever been, and what a journey I begin today!
She smiled at the child nursing at her breast, and she looked up, puzzled, for she distinctly heard hoofbeats.

"You stand on the right," Parson Belden addressed Daffyd, "as the strong right hand of the marriage. Yours is traditionally the role of protector and provider, the strong sword-arm of the union. And you" -- he turned with a gentle smile to Sarah -- "as you stand on the left, you symbolize that which is gentle and kind, for as the heart is in the left of the breast, so is the wife on the left, that seat of the tender emotions."
Daffyd heard the man's words but they seemed to come from a very long way off.

Esther heard Alfdis, but from a very long way off.
She sat up and looked, puzzled, at Edi.
Edi, she thought, what are you doing here? -- then, Why is a horse in my bedroom?

"Every facet of the wedding service is symbolic and has an overt or a hidden meaning.
"We meet thus together before friends and family, that none may say 'They were ashamed' or 'They sought to remain hidden' -- and in like wise, we wear the visible ring, that outward and evident symbol of our lawfully wedded state."
"And she has a yellow rise in her bouquet," Angela added, her voice clear, carefully pronounced, and high-pitched as a little girl's voice is.
Parson Belden always was quick on his feet; fortunately, he paused for a moment, for Angela continued, still speaking in a high and clear voice, "My Daddy got yellow roses for Mommy 'cause he married his bestest fwiend an' that's why Sarah has a yellow rosie in her bouquet 'cause she's marrying her bestest friend."
Angela's emphatic nod, the pressing together of her lips, signaled her emphasis of what was an evident truth to this little girl.
Parson Belden never missed a beat.
"The Sheriff did indeed marry his best friend," he said, "and his union is strong and unshakable. This proves the man is smarter than he looks."
The chuckles that were politely muted when Angela made her extemporaneous declaration, were released at the Parson's pronouncement: the Sheriff raised and eyebrow at his little girl, but she could see the smile in his eyes, and she knew she wasn't in too much trouble.

Do you remember when you rode me into town, when you heard someone shot the man you were to marry?
Esther heard Edi's voice inside her head, as clearly as if spoken, but richer, fuller, and she raised a hand -- a tentative hand -- she stroked Edi's nose and her eyes widened: "It is you!" she breathed.
Of course it is me, Edi replied. Do you remember that ride?
"Of course I remember. You fairly flew across --"
Do you remember we cut across the field and beside the bridge but not over it?
Esther blinked.
She'd forgotten ...
The bridge was after a curve in the road and Edi surged to the left, left the roadway, gathered herself and sailed across a broad chasm, one far too wide for a horse to jump: Esther's thoughts were ahead, on the man she knew she was to marry, and in the moment she simply accepted that they crossed, and they continued, and they arrived, and in all that followed, she'd honestly forgotten that one glorious moment of impossible flight.
Did you ever wonder how that was possible?
"No," Esther whispered.
There was a sudden booming sound, the sound of wind coming into canvas gone suddenly taut: wings, snowy wings, wings wider than the bedroom, snapped open, and Esther felt the air of their opening.
It is time you learned.
Daffyd looked at the jade oval at his bride's throat.
The lines were clearer now, distinct, blood-red ... they joined, flowed, formed a rose, a lifelike rose, gleaming, fresh, with drops of morning's dew gleaming on their petals.

"Now look at one another, don't look at me," the Parson said gently. "You're marrying her, not me, and besides, she's better looking."
Daffyd chuckled nervously and there were several appreciative grins from the congregation.
"Daffyd Llewellyn, do you --"
"I do!" he blurted nervously, and there was general laughter, to which he turned a scarlet that would do credit to the scrimshaw rose at his wife's throat.
"Read the contract before you sign it," the Parson counseled, at which the entire Irish brigade laughed, Daffyd included.
"Do you take this woman whose face you see before you and whose hands you now hold, as your lawful wedded wife: to have, and to hold, to love, honor and cherish ..."

It is time.

Esther looked back at the bed.
Her little girl slept, fed, peaceful; she saw her body, looking tired, but contented, and she realized that she was no longer in her body.
She turned, stroked Edi's velvety nose, rested her forehead against Duzi's horse's forehead, caressed the engraved silver roses on her bridle.
"I'm ready," she whispered.

The ring slid on Sarah's finger, and the Grandam's diamond after it: Daffyd barely heard the Parson's intonation as with raised palm he pronounced them man and wife.
All he knew was that this woman, this amazing creature, this glorious gem of Creation, was now bonded to his soul.
Carefully, delicately, he leaned forward: taking her in his arms, he placed his lips on hers.
Neither bride nor groom heard the shouts of approval, the applause, the whistles: theirs was a moment separated from the world, best described with the heartfelt "Yahoo!" generally invoked when a swimmer leaped from a high dive and experienced a glorious, if momentary, sensation of flight.

Edi gathered herself and launched through the bedroom wall, wings snapping out and stroking strongly against the mountain updraft, and Esther saw the world fall away from her, and she, too, gave voice to the glorious sensation of freedom, of relief from the world and all of its cares, and she too screamed, "Yahoo!"

Alfdis came into the room.
She looked at the still figure on the bed, the sleeping child lying across it: carefully, slowly, she bundled the child and brought it to her own breast, then drew the covers reverently over the still, darkening face.

Jeremy grinned at the golden stallion colt, grunting and just struggling up on spindly legs: he laughed and toweled it off with burlap, rubbing it and letting Cannonball sniff it and lick it and get acquainted with it, and like any male newly arrived in a strange place, the stallion colt got its pins under it and began looking for a good meal.
Only then did he hear the nursemaid's summoning voice from the porch.

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Linn Keller 11-21-13


I watched Sarah and Daffyd.
Each one had eyes only for the other and I think they heard the parson only from a distance.
I know that moment.
I remembered when Esther and I jumped the broom.
The world shrunk to just us, and I was King of the World, and Esther, my Queen, and in that moment, nothing could be better.
It felt good.
I wished Esther was a-settin' beside me, but I sat with family anyway: Jacob and his young, at least one of 'em: Joseph stood with the men up front and I dandled his youngest on my leg, and Annette smiled at us from the piano bench.
I haven't been this happy for a very long time.
About then I felt something ... something wasn't right and I eased the young'un over on Jacob's lap and turned.
Jeremy was coming up the aisle, trying to be quiet, and I did not like the look on his face.
He saw me and stopped so I stood, shoving hard on the cane, worked my way careful-like through the forest of legs and into the aisle.
I bent my head to hear what he had to say and that's when the bottom dropped out of my world.

I don't recall much of the rest of the day.
I looked down at Esther, laying dead and still in our bed, but it wasn't Esther.
It was a cold and dead thing that only incidentally looked like my wife.
My wife was warm and real and moving and laughing and her eyes were shining and her hands were kind and this dead clay was what she used to occupy.
I remember going downstairs and setting in the swivel chair in front of my desk and just ... setting there.
About a year later -- it could have been ten minutes or ten hours, I didn't know and didn't much care -- I looked at something I'd been staring at.
An envelope.
I blinked and realized it was addressed in Esther's handwriting, and it was addressed to me.
I reached for it, or I tried to, but the hand that I saw move into view wasn't mine.
It was a palsied claw that belonged to an old man.
I picked up the envelope and cracked the seal, I drew out the page and I read the words.
I swallowed hard and closed my eyes and I felt a breath of air, something gentle brushed my cheek, like the stroke of a feather, and I heard ...
I heard what sounded like ...
I opened my eyes and looked around.
I'd heard that before.
I one time surprised a golden eagle and it took out and on the first hard stroke I heard its wings in the air and that's what I heard, but there was no bird in the room.
The door opened, cautiously, slowly, and Angela looked in: she saw me and she made a scampering beeline for me and I reached down and picked her up and set her on my lap and Angela leaned into me, rubbing her eyes and wiggling until she got comfortable.
I don't reckon either of us said a word.
Sometimes what's said between a Daddy and his little girl is said best with what we had, with her on my lap and my arms around her.

Jacob directed the removal; his mother's coffin was stored below and needed only a dusting-off to be ready.
His father was a planning man and he'd purchased his box and hers long years before, and stored them away against the fell day when they would be needed.
Jacob led the slow march upstairs, and he led the slow march back down.
Bonnie and Fannie and the women tended the body and got it ready, and Jacob knew Bonnie was crying over her opened Bible and a letter she held: he held his own grief in check, though he knew his grief would emerge later, whether he wished it or not: he did not wish it yet, he would grieve in his own time and in his own way.
His mother wished to be buried before sunset, after the Jewish custom, on the day of her death: he sent word to Digger, and he knew the man would have the hole ready by the time he got there, for it would take some time to get his mother prepared.
The parlor was cleared of most of its furniture, sawhorses set up and draped, and the coffin set on them: as was custom, the box was closed.
The yellow roses, in a vase, were on the polished cherry-wood coffin lid.
Jacob knew when they removed Esther's pillow, a jewel-handled dagger lay crosswise beneath her pillow, and he knew his mother had it placed there, for a blade under the pillow cuts the pain of birth-labor.
He asked the women, when they prepared Esther for this last time, that they fold her hands and place the hilt of the dagger in them, with the blade down, and they did: he knew the dagger, it was a gift from his father, a fighting-knife which Esther could use with an efficient beauty that was a marvel to see.

Bonnie folded the emerald material from Esther's wedding dress.
She'd cut the back from the skirt, as Esther instructed in the letter she'd put in the front cover of her Bible: the material would become a christening gown for her newborn daughter.
Sarah was among the women, preparing one of their own for this final honor: she bathed this woman she'd come to know and to love, she put her in the emerald gown she'd worn on the happiest day of her life, she fixed her hair, she folded Esther's hands for the last time and helped lift her into the coffin: it was Sarah who closed the coffin's lid, and it was Sarah who turned the screws in the lid, securing it in place.
It was Sarah who held her tears until Esther was in the box, and it was Sarah who asked the ladies to step back, and it was Sarah who pressed a hidden stud and opened a slender cabinet.
Sarah took a Schlager-bladed sword in each hand and struck their tips together, three times, before advancing on the still figure in the polished cherry-wood box.
"Stay back," she cautioned, raising each blade before her, then snapping them down in a sword-fighter's salute.
Sarah closed her eyes and raised the blades slowly, at arm's length, toward the high ceiling, then she began to spin them, weaving them in a deadly silver web: Damascus steel whispered a deadly promise as Sarah stepped to the side, a light, dancer's step, circling the coffin, steel gleaming half-seen and shining beside the box and above the box: Sarah circled the box sunwise, stopping where she began: she froze, blades crossed over the coffin, then she drew them slowly, rasping against one another, until the tips separated.
Sarah stepped back, raised them in salute, forearms crossed, and bowed, deeply, from the waist.

Someone steered me out the door.
I think it was Jacob.
I climbed into the carriage.
I was numb.
We rode in silence, we rode in slow procession, Digger's black hearse and Esther's coffin inside, my son with reins in hand and Angela and the twins in the seat behind me.
I don't know how I knew this.
I didn't look back.
I didn't look around.
I looked at that hand rubbed cherry wood box.
I looked at my life and everything I ever loved and I looked at what had been and I sat there numb.
We drew up at the grave and Jacob was here and Jacob was there and Jacob spoke quietly, arranging, directing; part of me saw this and approved but the rest of me stared at that polished cherry coffin.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, I felt words against my ear.
I recognized Charlie's voice.
I recognized his hand.
Another hand, on my other shoulder: Jackson Cooper, wordless, but his squeeze said what his throat could not.
The Parson stepped up with his book in hand and he spoke the service.
It was brief and his words were fine and well polished, of that I am sure, but I did not hear a one of them.
Finally they hoisted the ropes and pulled out the boards and lowered my heart into that hole in the ground, that hole beside our first child, in front of the stone that already bore our names.
Jacob stood on the other side of the hole and he held a paper in his hands and I recognized it.
I'd written it.
I'd written years before, in a solemn moment, what I wanted to say when this dark day arrived, words I now had no voice to frame.
I swallowed and I stared at the smooth squared sides of that deep, cold hole and I heard Jacob speak my words.

Jacob looked around, holding the paper by its top and by its bottom, as if he held a Medieval scroll.
No voice spoke; there was wind in high, barren branches, the distant sound of far-off industry, but here, save a cough or a sniff as a mourner tried not to interrupt the solemn moment, there was nothing.
"My father," Jacob began, then stopped and cleared his throat, turning his head a little to grip his feelings in an iron claw of utter control, "my father wished to speak these words.
"I speak them for him."
He looked at the paper and swallowed, and he read his father's careful, regular script.
"And Solomon, King of Israel, was an old man and full of years: he went into the Sanctum as was his habit at high twelve, to offer up his devotions to the Ever Living God.
"And Solomon, in his grief, prayed that he not grieve over what was no more, but that he may rejoice at all that had been, and that he remember these things instead.' "
Jacob lowered the paper and looked at his father.
He'd never seen the man look so utterly lost in all his life.
"Mother," he said, "did not want a preachy funeral and she surely didn't get one, but there is one Scripture that bears mention."
His father raised his head, curiosity in his expression; Sarah, still in her emerald wedding dress beneath her black cloak, held onto her husband's arm and looked sharply at her brother, intrigued.
"We read in the Book that we are not to grieve as do the heathen," Jacob said, his voice clear, distinct in the high mountain air: "we are not to mourn as those who have no hope."
He paused and looked around.
"Nowhere in Scripture does it say, 'Don't Mourn.' "
He paused to let this sink in, then continued.
"We grieve because we have loved, and we grieve hard because we've loved deeply."
He looked around, took a long breath of cold air.
"It rained last night, and so will I."
Nobody there missed his meaning with that phrase.
He looked at the paper and swallowed hard.
"We feast this day," he declared firmly. "My mother was full of life and she loved to laugh. We miss her and wish she was among us yet, and so we celebrate the memory of all she was and all she did."
Sarah raised her chin and spoke.
"On behalf of our family, we invite you all to the Silver Jewel, where a feast is laid and ready. There will be music and there will be dance, and we will celebrate that which was, and that which is, and that which has yet to be, for life is short and we rejoice whenever we can."
Angela stepped forward and looked into the hole.
She dropped her three yellow roses into the hole and looked around, suddenly uncertain, then she blurted uncertainly, "My Mommy loved rosies an' yellow rosies mean friendship an' my Daddy gave her yellow rosies 'cause he said he married his bestest friend!"
Nelson Bell, standing behind the Sheriff, watched as Bonnie's daughters stepped up and dropped their yellow roses into the hole as well.
Nelson Bell, Texas Ranger, looked to the fellow Rangers on his left and on his right, and he nodded, once, and they began to sing: men's voices, united in song, is a powerful thing, and these men gave their fellow lawman the only thing they could, and that was a salute to a woman they knew and respected.
"There's a yellow rose in Texas
That I am goin' to see,
Nobody else could miss her,
Not half as much as me!"

Jacob smiled a little as he saw Mick signal his cavalrymen, and another rank of men's voices joined the first rank:
She cried so when I left her,
It like to broke my heart,
And if I ever find her,
We never more shall part!"

Men's voices boomed out over the cold landscape, voices united in open rebellion over the misery of grief, voices who sang of love lost and love to be regained and of the greatest love of a man's heart.
As the last stanza faded, Jacob whispered, "Goodbye, Mother," and Sarah saw the first silvery-wet streak run down his reddening cheek as he turned from the grave.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-21-13


Charlie stood close by, offering comfort with his presence, knowing that words would go unheard until his friend had time to come to terms with his grief. Instead, his voice joined with that of Ranger and cavalryman, lifting on the breeze, doing their part to send a beloved friend to heaven on the wings of their song. Scripture enjoins us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and though the song was one of farewell it was also a paean of joyous love for the departed.

The song drew to a close, one last refrain echoing from hill and dale. All heads bowed as Parson Belding spoke again, his baritone felt by all and sundry. "We bid farewell to one who was a pillar of our community. But more than that, so much more than that, Esther Keller was the bedrock upon which was built so many lives. She led us, she cajoled us, she disciplined us, she set an example that all of us have ingrained in our very souls. She will be missed, yet she lives on in all whose lives she touched.

"Jacob said that there is no prohibition against mourning in the Bible. He is right. We are allowed to mourn, but we should do our mourning with an eye not to the past, and what we are losing, but to the present and what we have gained by the presence of Esther in this place at this time. The power, the purity, of her love continues. We partook of her strength that we may be able to go on. And go on we must, though we feel as if our world has ceased to turn on its axis. Life, love, family, all go on, and we must go on with them. She would want it so. Esther Keller was never one to look back over her shoulder; instead, she was constantly looking to the future.

"This day is a day of joy, a day of the joining of two souls in the bonds of love. Esther would want that celebration to continue. Sarah has invited you all to the Jewel to feast and to remember. Remember the best and put the worst behind us. That is my admonition to you this day: remember the best. Remember the love, the guidance and the strength of Esther Keller." The Parson folded his hands over his Bible and looked around at the solemn faces of the mourners then bowed his head. "Let us pray."

"Heavenly Father, we commend to you this day Esther Keller, beloved wife and mother. We ask your blessings of peace, comfort and strength on those of us who were left behind, and thank you for your presence in our lives this day. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen."

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Linn Keller 11-22-13


Strong but gentle hands steered me here, steered me there.
I was in a carriage, out of a carriage, I went here, I went there.
I was numb.
I set down and stared at nothing.
It took a little for things to soak in but I finally realized I was in the Silver Jewel, and it was decorated, and there was music, and a voice in my ear murmured something about dancing with the bride.
I woke up.
This I could do.
I knew how to dance.
Sarah stood before me and she was beautiful.
Her face glowed, she smiled at me half-shyly, the way a grown-up little girl will, and she dipped her knees and bent in a proper, ladylike curtsy, and I took her hand and bowed gravely.
A stentorian voice boomed something about the first dance with the Father of the Bride, and Sarah spun lightly on her toes, her gloved hand above her head, and I twirled her and pulled her into my arms the way I did Esther, the first time we danced there at the Jewel.
My arm went naturally around behind her shoulder blades and hers went properly to my back; we knew the music and we knew the dance and we cleared the floor, the two of us -- or would have, were there any other dancers about.
There should have been a great arc light shining from high rafters, showing the world Sarah and her beauty and her grace, for though I'd danced with her many times, and many's the time she showed how well and how light and how smooth she danced, I never in my life recall that she danced so well.
We knew the music; it spun off the Daine fiddle, an old and well loved tune, and I knew that halfway through there was a pause, a few bars where the music slowed, and that's where I would stop, and surrender my little girl forever to her husband, for though she was my little girl she was now another man's wife, and this was the public surrender, the final time she would leave my arms for another's, and I did not want it to end.
My throat seemed full and I harrumphed quietly and swallowed hard and had to do it again and finally I was able to whisper a little, and when the music slowed, we stopped, and I looked down into those amazing pale eyes and I saw into a young eternity, and I whispered, "I am very proud of you," and then Daffyd came up and I put my hand on Sarah's shoulder and my other on his, and I drew them together, and stepped back.
I took two steps back and I watched them fall into each other's eyes, and I watched them dance, and my face felt odd.
It took me a bit to place what I felt.
I was smiling.

Angela went skipping up to the table where Nelson Bell sat.
She looked at the man sitting to his right and said "My daddy has a Drag-Boom," nodding and bouncing her curls, and the men laughed and the one she was addressing gave her an appraising look and said, "What can you tell me about the drag-boom?"
"Daddy feeds it grains," she said, "and nickles."
They laughed again and the Ranger opened his coat and drew out his big Dragoon revolver.
Holding it low, so as not to alarm the assembled, he said "Now little lady, I'm kind of confused, just what are you talkin' about?"
"Here," Angela said impatiently. "I show you."
She pulled his coat back, reached in and thrust her hand into the leather pouch at his belt: withdrawing the powder flask, she carefully pressed the gate, tapped the spout delicately against the tablecloth and spilled a few grains of FF: nodding, she turned the flask spout-up, pressed the cutoff again to drop any powder back into the flask, replaced it.
She reached in again, frowning, trying one leather pocket and another, until she triumphantly brought out a gleaming silvery-lead bullet between thumb and forefinger.
She placed this base-down on the table beside the tiny pinch of powder, then with a third exploration, came out with a round ball.
"Now," Angela said, as if lecturing a classmate, "Daddy puts sixty grains in his Drag-Boom." She brushed the powder, separating the shiny black grainules with a little pink finger, and she frowned.
"He puts sixty of 'em in his Drag-Boom but he doesn't even use tweezers. That looks hard."
Her expression was so studious, her expression so serious, that the Rangers hid their smiles.
Angela put a finger on the ball.
"That," she said, "is a pistol ball."
The Rangers nodded in solemn agreement.
She put her finger on the pointed projectile beside it.
"And that," she said triumphantly, "is the nickle!"
"Conical," Nelson Bell as he realized what she meant.
"That's what I meant," Angela declared, planting her knuckles on her hips. "A nickle!"
Nelson Bell threw back his head and laughed, and his Rangers laughed with him.
"Young lady," Nelson Bell declared, "I always did like educated women! May I have this dance?"
Angela laughed with delight as Nelson Bell stood up: one big forearm under her backside, his other hand held hers out to her arm's length, and Angela scattered delighted giggles all over the dance floor as this big, strong Texas Ranger spun her in dizzying circles.
As if a dam crumbled, the floor filled quickly, and grief flowed away through the floorboards and was replaced with celebration.

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Linn Keller 11-22-13


Esther leaned forward and patted Edi's neck the way she used to.
They looked down into the Jewel, hovering at ceiling height, smiling as the couples took the floor and the waltz took the moment.
"She dances well," a voice said, and Esther jumped a little and gave a little squeak of surprise, and her niece Duzy smiled at her.
Esther's mouth fell open and she turned without dismounting -- she didn't stop to wonder how she did it -- but she blinked and seized Duzy's hands and looked her up and looked her down and then she abandoned all propriety and hugged her, hugged her tight, and Duzy was solid and real and warm and laughing, just the way Esther remembered her.
"How," Esther squeaked, and Duzy's eyes smiled: she leaned back and looked approvingly at Esther.
"I love that gown," she murmured. "Turn around, let me see --"
Esther's eyes widened, her hands went to her mouth.
"I, oh dear, oh, no," she murmured.
Don't worry, Edi commented dryly.
Duzi laughed, took Esther's hand.
"Step over to the mirror," she smiled, and Esther followed her over to a large, multi-panel mirror, the kind a woman will use when she wants to see herself in the back as well as the front.
Esther's mouth fell open and her eyes grew large and round.
Duzi laughed.
"They're called wings," she giggled. "Go on. See how they look!"
You used mine often enough, Edi grunted. It's time you tried your own.
Esther spread her wings.
They were twice as wide as she was tall, gracefully curved, and a bright, shining, rainbow-tinged, emerald.
Angela looked up, her eyes widening: she'd been sitting for a little bit after being danced by Nelson Bell, and she sat with Polly and Opal against the side wall, under the stage where the fiddler was playing the dancers with his fiddle.
Angela looked up at her Mommy, her face shining with delight as her Mommy put her finger to her lips, and folded her great, shining-green wings.
You must not tell, not yet, Angela heard whispered in her mind, and she nodded her understanding.
Edi looked at Angela, and spread her wings as well, and Angela laughed and Edi heard her exclaim "I was right!" and Angela felt Edi's approval.
We women keep many secrets, Angela heard her Mommy's whisper as Esther descended into the room: Angela felt her Mommy-touch, feather-light, on her cheek.
Remember what the Parson said last week, Angela heard. We are surrounded by a great cloud of believers.
Angela looked around, wondering why nobody paid any attention to her Mommy, and the beautiful woman with her, the one with sunset-pink wings.
Or the horsie with big white wings.
They can't see us.
"Oh," Angela said aloud, as if that satisfied everything.
Sarah looked up, and smiled, and opened her mouth as if to say something, then she closed her mouth and gave a little wave, as if she was shyly saying hello to someone without wanting to appear conspicuous.
Angela felt a surge of delight.
Sarah saw her too! she thought, and hugged herself with delight.

Jacob danced with his sister, and with his wife, and he arranged the minor distraction as Sarah and Daffyd slipped out: the party was in full gear, food was being eaten and drink was being consumed, pretty girls were being danced, and Jacob slipped away as well.
Angela was starting to droop so I slipped out as well, and my little girl with me, and I picked her up and carried her home.
It wasn't that far and I needed the walk.
I stopped and looked toward the cemetery hill and I recognized Jacob in the moonlight and I knew he was going to his mother's grave.
We went in the house and I carried Angela to the kitchen.
I sat her in her chair and I heard the maid approach and I selected a knife that satisfied me.
The maid baked a cake earlier and iced it and decorated it and I was not going to let it go to waste.
"Angela," I said, "this is your Mommy's Happy Birthday cake."
Angela nodded solemnly.
I sliced into the cake.
"Happy Birthday, dear heart," I whispered.

Later that night I sat on the side of the bed.
Our bed.
The bed we'd shared since we were married.
The bed where she birthed our newest child.
The bed where she died.
I groaned and lowered my head into my hands.
I'd gotten Angela in her flannel nightgown and got her tucked in and kissed her forehead, then I came over here and hung up my coat and my vest and pulled off my boots and that's all the strength I had.
I sat there and listened to the silence.
The bedroom was empty ... utterly, completely empty.
"How will I manage?" I whispered.
"I don't know how to raise a little girl."
I looked at the closed door.
"Our son needs you ... hell, I need you!"
I swallowed, took a long breath, and the door opened.
Angela came in, rubbing her eyes, her rag doll locked in her elbow.
"Daddy," she mumbled, "I can't sleep."
"I can't either," I admitted.
Angela climbed up on the bed beside me and leaned over against me.
I laid down, still clothed, and Angela laid down with me.
She rolled over and cuddled up against me and I ran my arm around her and pulled her in close.
Alfdis would have the baby, I knew, but for now ... I knew I needed my rest, and so did Angela.
"Happy Birthday, dear heart," I whispered.

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Linn Keller 11-23-13


Jacob blinked and realized he'd been woolgathering.
"Yes, Joseph?"
Joseph was still in his getting-too-small-for-him suit and he frowned as he puzzled over how to frame his question.
"Pa, what's it like to die?"
Jacob held very, very still, and he frowned a little, and Joseph shrank back a little, for he could feel the change in his Pa.
Finally Jacob motioned his son closer, put a hand on his shoulder, and the two went out into the kitchen.
Annette turned away from them, for she didn't want them to see her wiping her eyes; neither of her men paid attention to her quick move.
Jacob gestured to Joseph's chair, and Joseph seated himself at the kitchen table, and Jacob went to the pie safe and pulled out what was left of a dried-apple pie.
Normally he would not have taken such liberties here in his wife's desmense but there are times when pie is the proper medium of discussion and this night was one such.
Jacob sliced the remaineder in two, slabbed the halves onto two plates and fetched the discussion medium and a couple forks over to the table.
Annette appeared with a cold glass of buttermilk from their nearby springhouse, the glass beading with sweat, and Jacob poured himself a shot of coffee.
The two set at the corner, Jacob at the end of the table and Joseph on his right, and Annette sat at the opposite end, sipping good cold well water and listening and doing her best to remain invisible.
Jacob considered for several moments while the two took a couple bites of the pie, then Jacob put his fork down and so did Joseph and the two crossed their arms in front of them and Jacob began to talk.
Annette smiled to see the resemblance between father and son.
Had Joseph's question not been so solemn she might have laughed to see father and son, each with the same slouch, each leaning both forearms flat on the table, crossed at mid-forearm, Joseph looking seriously at his Pa, and his Pa looking with a kindly expression at his firstborn.
"It's often times a surprise," Jacob admitted. "It feels kind of like falling off a cliff into a pool of deep, cold water."
Joseph blinked, imagining the sensation, and his father continued.
"Hitting that cold water is a shock but it ... it doesn't feel like the smack! of hitting water in a dive." Jacob brought his hands up, slapped the back of one into the palm of the other to illustrate the smack! -- "and then you're weightless, floating, turning, you look up and it's light above you and you swim toward that Light without moving. You choose to go, and you do."
Jacob hung his head a little, his eyes closed.
"You don't want to come back," he whispered. "You carry the weight of all the worlds on your shoulders while you're alive. Every word you say here has an importance in this world and in a world unseen, Joseph" -- he looked sharply at his son -- "which is why we are taught to be curcimspect in our language.
"Do you know what circumspection is?"
Joseph, big-eyed, shook his head solemnly.
"It's made of two words: circum, meaning circle, or around, and spect, like inspect."
Joseph nodded his understanding.
"To be circumspect is to consider everything surrounding something. If I'm going to burn off a brush pile I have to be circumspect -- I have to look around and consider the wind, is there other trash around that will fire and spread, can I burn the brush pile without burning off a wheat field or burning down the barn. Things like that."
Joseph nodded again.
"We must be circumspect in our language, Joseph, for what we say has an effect in a world unseen." Jacob picked up his coffee, took a sip, waited a long moment before he swallowed. "I don't pretend to understand what I just told you, son, I only know it is so."
Joseph nodded again.
"What's it like to die?" Joseph repeated slowly. "It's a surprise. It's like that dive into a deep, cold mountain lake. It's like shedding this body like an old worn cloak and having a brand new one that's absolutely weightless."
"Is that what happened to Grandma?"
Jacob swallowed and nodded.
"Sometimes it takes a while to shed out of this earthly body," Jacob said slowly, "and sometimes the body we're in here on this earth is hurt or sick or troubled and it takes a while to shed out of it, but when we do it feels so much better, and that's a danger." He looked sharply at his son, his eyes pale.
"Remember this, Joseph. We can never go because we are just tired of being here or bored with being here. We're put here for a purpose, we're here for a reason, it's very important that each and every one of us is here. We are assigned a task before we're born and we have to stay until it's done."
Joseph did not quite understand what his Pa was saying, but he knew what his Pa said was fact, because his Pa was always right, and besides the boy had his Dear Old Dad on a pedestal high enough to cause the man nosebleed.
Father and son finished their pie in silence.
As Jacob tucked his son in for the night, Joseph rolled over and looked at his Pa.
"Yes, Joseph?"
"Pa, will Grandma still see us?"
"I reckon she will, yes."
Joseph frowned, considering this, then:
"Yes, Joseph?"
"Will we see her?"
"Like as not we won't, Joseph. If we do, it will be ... something secret ... that only we recognize, and nobody else will."
Joseph nodded.
Jacob's hand was warm and Daddy-strong as he gripped his son's shoulder through the quilt.
"Night, son."
"Night, Pa."
Later that night, as Jacob undressed for bed, Annette came to him and took him by the shoulders.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Jacob slipped his hands gently around her the way he always did -- for a tall and strong man, he was unfailingly gentle when he touched her -- and he grinned, "For what, Sunshine?"
Annette wet her lips, dropped her eyes, clearly troubled.
"I don't think I could have ... answered ... Joseph when he asked ... that."
Jacob nodded.
Annette's fingers traced over a puckered scar high on his chest.
"When you told him what it's like to die ..."
Jacob waited.
"You did, didn't you?"
Jacob took a long breath.
"More times than one," he admitted. "Father and I both."
Annette seized him, fearfully clutching him to her.
"Please don't die," she whispered. "I don't want you to go."
"I," he mumbled into her hair as he squeezed her hard, "don't plan to!"

Joseph was restless.
He slid silently out of his bunk and wandered into the front parlor, looked out the window.
His eyes got big and he remembered what his Pa told him:
It will be something secret, that only we recognize.
A white wolf sat not ten feet from the window, looking at him, blinking sleepily ... then it dissolved, and was gone.
Joseph's eyes were big and his mouth was open and round with surprise and he looked on the windowsill just outside the hand-blown glass.
Jacob heard the front door open, heard his son's sharp intake of breath.
Jacob rolled out of the bunk, snatched up the double gun, wiped the hammers back to full cock and reached for his bedroom door with his off hand.
He heard Joseph's bare feet running up the stairs and the door thrust open, hard.
"Pa," Joseph exclaimed, his eyes shining with delight.
Jacob stared at the bright-red rose in his son's extended hand.

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Linn Keller 11-24-13


"You know the Shivaree."
Daffyd looked blankly at his bride.
Sarah put her finger to her husband's lips.
They stood beside a boulder, Snowflake behind them, hidden: Joel, their hired man, met them as instructed and traded their fine carriage for the big black Frisian.
"My dear," Sarah whispered, "you will carry me across our threshold, but not tonight."
Daffyd's eyebrows puzzled together, but with Sarah's finger to his lips, he remained silent.
"Trust me," Sarah whispered, and Daffyd nodded.
"There is a barbaric local practice," Sarah whispered again, "it's called a shivaree and it dates back to pioneer days. The young couple would be carried to their wedding bower and put into bed and then they'd come back and check on them to make sure the union was consummated."
Daffyd drew back his head a little, kissing Sarah's finger as he did, and Sarah closed her eyes and hummed with pleasure, her arm around her husband, pulling him tight and close.
"And tonight they intend to raid our house and interrupt us," she whispered, her finger tracing slowly across his lower lip, "and I do not wish to be interrupted with tin pans and whistles and yells."
Daffyd licked his lips, slowly, and Sarah felt his breathing change, and she knew her husband ... desired her.
"Trust me," she whispered again, then made a kissing sound, looking beyond him: Snowflake paced up to her and Sarah turned the great black horse, hiked her emerald gown scandalously high, thrust her foot into the stirrup and looked over her shoulder.
"I'll need a boost," she said, and Daffyd, grinning slowly, grinning wickedly, put both his hands on his wife's firm backside and squeezed.
"Hey, sailor," Sarah said, her voice low and musical, "none of that now! Boost me up!"
Daffyd shoved and Sarah swung her leg over and she was in the saddle.
"Now step up on that rock and climb up here behind me."
"But what about our house?"
"The maid has the fires lit and the bed turned down," Sarah explained, "the carriage is put away and I had her light one lamp in the upper bedroom, where it'll be seen. The world will think we're in the house."
Daffyd straddled Snowflake's broad back, a sensation much like trying to straddle a kitchen table, and the huge black horse floated up the rocky trail, following its tortured, narrow path as sure footed as any goat.
They rode in the increasing darkness, Daffyd marveling that the horse could see where he could not: his arms were around his wife, and he delighted in holding her, holding her closer and longer and more fully than he ever had, feeling her shifting her weight, her musculature changing as the big Frisian walked, and scrambled, and trotted at times, and he felt Sarah's hands, warm and caressing on his ... her fingertips drawing glowing lines of anticipation across the backs of his own hands.
Daffyd looked up, up beside the granite monolith on his left, looked at the milky spill of diamond-dust overhead, he bent a little to lay his cheek in her hair ... he smelled her hair, her cologne, the soap she used ... his fingers twitched and he realized he did not want the moment to end, ever.
It did, of course: he saw the squared shadow of a bunkhouse, in a high, hidden meadow: he heard cattle, he heard horses, he saw sky and stars and he looked around as Snowflake stopped beside the bunkhouse.
"Slide off," Sarah said softly, and Daffyd did, falling at least a hundred feet off that tall horse: it was only a couple feet to the ground but in the full dark he didn't know exactly where the ground was, but to his credit he didn't land on his backside.
Sarah's dismount was less awkward, and he heard her busy with something: Daffyd was not a rider, and he was not familiar with saddling or unsaddling a horse, but he figured out what was happening when the near stirrup flipped up and missed his right ear by a finger's width.
Daffyd waited, blind in the darkness; he heard Sarah's footsteps retreat, and in a few moments, return; quiet, almost inaudible hoof-falls as Snowflake walked slowly her own way, then Sarah's hand grasping his: "Come on," she whispered, and Daffyd, stumbling a little, followed.
"Put out your hand," Sarah whispered as they stopped: she let go of his left hand, grasped his right wrist, pulled it another inch forward and he felt wood, a finished angle: a door frame, he realized.
The woody sound of a latch opening, a little creak of an opening door, and Sarah's hand on his again, drawing him inside.
The door closed, shutting out even the faint milkiness of the stars.
Sarah's hands were upon him now, unbuttoning his coat: she ran her hands along his ribs, around his back, drawing him closer.
Daffyd needed no further invitation.
His mouth found hers and they explored one another, eagerly, thoroughly: Sarah's fingers curled with pleasure as they broke, momentarily, coming up for air, and then dove into their lake of mutual afffection, still standing just inside the door.
Sarah drew a hand back, patted her husband's chest.
"Mr. Llewellyn?" she said softly.
"Yes, Mrs. Llewellyn?"
"Mr. Llewellyn, if I were blind, I would describe you as all mouth and hands." She giggled, then drew him forward a step. "I have something for you."
She disappeared from his touch; he waited, mouth open, his lust-fires stoked and his desire rising like a hill-country flood.
A match scratched into life, flared into a blinding sulfurous flame: Sarah touched match to the kerosene lamp, turned the wick down so it didn't smoke, replaced the chimney.
The table was laid, a meal awaited, cold beef and bread and good homemade pie, and a bottle of wine with delicate, long-stemmed glasses of the finest crystal, a gift from Charlie and Fannie.
"Mr. Llewellyn," Sarah said, and Daffyd saw something in his wife's eyes he'd never seen before, something that fired his strong young heart.
He saw an unbridled desire, and he echoed that desire in his own expression.
"Mr. Llewellyn," Sarah said, her hands on the back of a chair, "my mother tells me that a man's expression is the same when he is lustful, as when he is hungry.
"I offer to sate your appetite."
She ran her tongue slowly across her bottom lip.
"I give you your choice, sir."
Sarah straightened, waving a delicate, graceful hand to indicate the well-laid table.
"I can satisfy your appetite for food and drink," she said, her voice low and inviting, "or we can satisfy ... another appetite, as you wish.
"If you would eat, sir, we shall need the lamp, but if you wish to satisfy a fleshly appetite" -- her hand, palm-up, fingers curled a little, indicated the room beyond -- "then we shall not need the lamp."
Daffyd Llewellyn swallowed, and he looked at his bride, young and beautiful, her cheeks glowing with life and good health, her young body shaped like a woman's should be; he saw the light in her eyes, and he cupped his hand around the lamp's chimney-top, and he puffed his breath hard down the chimney and blew out the flame.
If Snowflake were fluent in the language of the two-legs, she might think agriculture was the topic of what very little discussion followed that night, for the only words uttered, the very few words that were spoken, mentioned a fertile field, and a good seed, planted deep.

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Linn Keller 11-25-13


Daffyd Llewellyn woke to sweat-matted, auburn hair spilled over his chest, and something warm, soft and feminine laying across him, and a big, contented smile on his face.
Sarah woke when he did, and she moved a little, glorying in the feeling of strong, protective arms around her, and a manly chest furry under her, and she wiggled, slowly, gently, and felt his response.
Daffyd reached up and stroked her hair, gently, slowly, blinking like a sleepy cat, like a well-sated tomcat, and were any to see, his sleepy smile was that of someone utterly contented with this moment in his life.
Sarah hummed a little, a quiet note of feminine contentment, she took a long breath and sighed it out, and he felt her breath warm on his flesh and his smile grew a little more.
"Mr. Llewellyn?" she whispered.
"Yes, Mrs. Llewellyn?" he replied, rubbing the softness of her back, exploring the curve of her spine with his fingertips.
"Mr. Llewellyn, I believe I like waking up with you."
Daffyd curved his fingers and scratched her back, slowly, gently, and Sarah arched and twisted a little. "Purrrrr," she hummed, smiling sleepily, her ear flat on Daffyd's manly chest. "Oh that feels good," she whispered.
Daffyd closed his eyes in pleasure, thoroughly enjoying the feeling of soft femininity twisting slowly as she lay across him.
Sarah giggled, raised her head, her expression somewhere between raw lust and a mischevious child.
"Mr. Llewellyn, have you been misleading me?" she said, and he saw the merriment in her eyes.
"Mrs. Llewellyn, why would you say that?" he inquired.
"Mr. Llewellyn, recent developments lead me to think you less a fireman and more an oil driller, for you've raised your mast to sink a shaft, or perhaps you're a sailor, for your mainmast seems prominent."
"Nay, lass," he chuckled, and Sarah heard the deep echoes of his voice rumbling through his chest wall. "I am a fireman an' a guid one."
"Not today." Sarah raised her head, smiling through a veil of fallen-forward hair, which Daffyd very gently brushed back so he could see her lovely eyes.
"Today, sir, you are my husband, and I want very much to know you better."

Daffyd marveled at his wife's planning and organization.
Upon their return to the fine stone house -- minus any interfering or interrupting celebrants that might've shown up the night before -- the maid had their bed turned down and waiting, she had a huge tub of steaming-hot water ready, pressed cakes of soap and plenty of hot water and fluffy clean towels, she had their clothes laid out and ready: Daffyd discovered this as he carried his smiling bride over their threshold, then he carried her through every room in the house, turning so she could admire and exclaim in delight and survey from his arms, that which had been made to her specification.
They explored each room thusly, with Sarah in her proud husband's arms, and not until they'd been in every last room in the entire house did Daffyd set her down.
Sarah held both his hands and looked up at her husband with shining eyes.
God Above, Daffyd thought, I have never seen a woman happier!
Sarah jumped a little and seized her husband around the neck, hugging him with a fierce joy, and Daffyd seized his wife in a crushing embrace and picked her up off the floor, and the world shrunk to the dimension of each other's arms, and neither in their entire lives could remember being quite as happy as they were in that moment.

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Linn Keller 11-27-13


The Sheriff leaned on his gold-headed cane and listened, smiling a little.
He was in the Mercantile, half hidden behind one of the displays, and two of the town's women were discussing as women will: one asked, "Did you go to the Llewellyn's reception?"
"Oh yes!" the other gushed. "That young Sarah Llewellyn has a house fit for a Vanderbilt!"
The other sniffed. "Vanderbilt! No such thing, I'm afraid. No self respecting Vanderbilt would live in such a desolate and remote place!"
"Mrs. Llewellyn looked very composed," the first offered.
"Oh, I don't doubt that," the other waspish soul buzzed, ruffling her feathers and looking indignant: "the poor soul was probably worn out and too sore to take a step!"
"Oh, so you didn't stay for the dancing?"
"Is that what they call it now?"
"I do declare, Christina, you are positively vitriolic this morning!"
"Hmph!" the wasp sniffed, tossing her head, and the Sheriff looked around the draped cloth display at the disapproving expression: "I had to start my married life in a dirt floor cabin, and she has a stone house and a maid, and lace curtains! And she not but a child!"
"She is older than you were when you married," was the gentle rejoinder.
"I can see where your loyalties lie!" Christina snapped, shaking a black-gloved finger at her neighbor: "Mark my word, a child who begins with luxury will come to ruin!"
The Sheriff debated whether to run his cane between her legs as she stormed out, and had the momentary mental image of the old bat face first on the floor, a-sprawl and awash in humility: he stifled the urge, reminding himself that women were an entirely different breed of cat, and where a woman may sound like she was ripping the hide off another's back, she might simply be venting her own admiration and disguising it as jealousy ... unless, of course, she was actually ripping the hide off the other's back.
He waited, silent, watching, listening, something he did well; the Sheriff had the gift of invisibility ... not actual invisibility, but he could blend in and seem so inconspicuous that people not looking for him would not generally see him.
He waited until the soft spoken neighbor paid for her purchase and departed, string-wrapped parcel under her arm, and the door closed with the cheerful dingle-ding of the door's bell.
"I'm sorry you had to hear that, Sheriff," a gentle voice said just behind his left shoulder, and the Sheriff jumped a little, for he honestly had no idea anyone was in that quarter.
He turned and the proprietor's blind wife smiled and laid a gentle hand on his chest, patting him like an affectionate grandmother might her tall son.
He shifted his cane to the other hand and reached out, grasped her elbow gently, gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"Water off a duck's back," he murmured.
"Bushwah," the proprietor's wife smiled. "When it's your child it's like darts to your heart."
The Sheriff sighed and nodded.
"I'll bet you'd like to have taken a switch to the old girl."
The Sheriff laughed quietly. "Yes ma'am, but I'd have to lift her skirts to apply it and that would not be a gentlemanly thing to do!"
The blind woman laughed, her milky eyes half-closed; she was a good looking woman with a little scarring around the eyes, legacy of whatever tragedy took her eyesight. "Gentlemanly ... no, perhaps not, but she was certainly no lady."
"Yes, ma'am," the Sheriff nodded, releasing her elbow. "You know, few people can slip up on me like that. You are silent when you move!"
"I'm wearing felt soled slippers, Sheriff. I often do here in the store."
"I see."
"I could feel you here, just standing, and I was curious what you were doing. When I smelled you ..."
The Sheriff's expression fell and the blind woman laughed, reaching up a gentle hand, finding his lapel, his collar, his mustache: she explored his face with her fingertips, nodding.
"Please don't look so shocked," she said finally. "I can tell from the look on your face." She tilted her face up as if she were actually looking at him -- a move, he knew, she did to reassure the sighted world who might be uncomfortable with what they saw as a disability, a cripple, a tragedy.
"You have a unique scent, Sheriff. You smell of leather and of horses and of the soap you use -- two soaps." She tilted her head, smiling a little. "I do like the new shaving soap you use. It smells better on you."
"And you could tell this from ... arm's length and more?"
"Just over arm's length. When I came abreast of the red flannel."
The Sheriff looked helplessly over at the one-armed proprietor, who was grinning at the exchange. "Don't look at me," he laughed. "She sees more than I do, and I have good eyes!"
The Sheriff caught the woman's hand in mid-air, raised her knuckles and kissed them gently, and she giggled like a schoolgirl as his iron-grey mustache tickled the backs of her fingers.
"Sheriff," she smiled, "you and my husband are the only two men who are gentleman enough to do that."
The Sheriff nodded. "Your pardon, my Lady," he murmured, releasing her hand: he went over to the counter; there was a short conversation, the exchange of money -- good gold coin, the Sheriff's preferred medium of exchange -- then his courteous, "Good do to you, ma'am," his retreating footsteps and then the door, opening, and closing with the ding-a-ling of the spring-mounted bell.
She approached her husband, laid gentle fingertips on the counter.
"What did he say, my dear?" she asked gently.
"Beyond squaring up his account?"
"He does that every Monday."
"He told me ..."
She felt the one-armed man's hand settle, warm and reassuring, on her hand, on the brand-new display case, in the newly-rebuilt Mercantile, and she delighted in the touch: "He told me to cherish my wife, for I'd found a good one."
Her hand tightened under his.
"That poor man," she whispered.

Daffyd and Sarah returned to Firelands life a few days later; they'd taken a week to themselves, a week away from everyone else and everything else, a week the didn't talk about: when asked, Sarah would look around as if about to confide a great secret, then she would admit only that the man snored and stole her covers, which the other ladies suspected was a polite lie; the menfolk, especially his raucous brethren of the Brigade, were likewise prying and as ribald as the ladies, just more open about it: to this, though, Daffyd Llewellyn motioned them closer, and with the Brigade forming a ring much like a football huddle, Daffyd looked around and said quietly, "She's such a wee thing, but I'll say this about the lass."
He winked and looked at eager faces round about, and grinned, "She's a fine cook!" -- to which the others groaned, and laughed, and threw boots at him, calling him a scoundrel and a Lothario and anything else they could think of.

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Linn Keller 11-28-13


Everyone else was being sociable.
I didn't feel terribly social.
I set down behind my desk and looked at what used to be Esther's cane.
She never needed it for walking.
She ...
I closed my eyes and swallowed hard.
I remembered how she walked with it, how she ... she flowed when she walked and that cane was an ornament, a scepter, a veldt-marschal's baton.
But not a cane.
Esther had a way of knowing things, a knowing I could neither understand nor explain.
In time I came to accept that she had this gift, and this cane ... this cane was a potent reminder of that gift, and of her.
She knew, somehow, I would need a walking stick, she knew I would need to help my shot up leg, and she had her cane lengthened to fit my long tall frame.
"Oh hell," I grunted.
If I set there I would either lean the cane against the wall behind me ... and it would fall over.
I didn't want it to fall.
That would not respect ... the giver.
I could lay it across my desk in front of me.
Slovenly, I thought.
I frowned, pressed the tip into the floor, leaned my weight onto the cane, my other hand on the desk top, pushing myself slowly to an upright position.
My leg was healing; my leg was strengthening; I straightened it fully.
I squared my shoulders and paced off on the left and deliberately marched, tall and straight, diagonally across the office floor.
I pulled the Jewel's door open and stepped inside.
Five minutes later I left, and my mood was not improved.

One of Daisy's girls was behind the bar.
I expected as much.
Mr. Baxter was well respected and generally well liked; it was not surprising that he would be eating Thanksgiving with a family.
I knew Daisy's girl was single.
The place was almost empty; it was evident she was not only running the bar, she was also filling for Tillie ... not a strenuous task, as nobody was coming in wanting a room.
Two other men stood at the bar, nondescript fellows, nothing at all remarkable about them.
I stood up to the bar, left foot up on the rail, then I shifted my weight, switched feet.
"Damn cripple," the near man snarled.
I leaned on the cane and turned it slightly, felt the slight click.
I looked at Daisy's girl and raised my chin slightly.
"Beer," I said quietly.
The fellow nearer me was wearing a worn suit, townie shoes and a narrow brim hat -- a townie and not from here -- and he was not in a kindly mood, by the way he glared at nothing in particular, and by the way he turned and kicked my cane, hard.
I anticipated his move.
Instead of my palm resting atop the gold ball, I gripped the wire-wrapped handle, I flicked it hard sideways and the ebony sheath flew from the watered-Damascus blade.
The blade's tip pressed uncomfortably up under his jaw, a little to one side, hard against his throat.
One thrust and the blade would slice through at least two major vessels.
He knew it.
So did I.
My coat was open; I casually brushed it back to expose the scrimshawed handle of my engraved Colt revolver: the pistol's handle was between my belt and the bar, not displayed for him to see, but cleared so I could draw without impediment.
Daisy's girl drew back and looked around, reached up and tugged urgently at a dangling cord, then lowered her hand, big-eyed, wringing her suddenly damp palms in a bar towel.
The other fellow -- the one on the other side of this ill tempered soul -- followed the clattering, rolling ebony with his eyes, then looked back.
"Mister," I said quietly, "when I come back from that damned War, everything decent and good in the world was dead. My wife died a week before I got home and my little girl died in my arms the night I got back and after that I didn't care what happened to me.
"I got married and I learned all over again how good life was.
"Well guess what."
I pressed up and twisted the blade, just enough to break the skin, and a trickle of blood ran scarlet down the front of his neck.
"I buried my wife a couple of days ago."
I tilted my head a little.
"I will give you one chance, and one chance only, to get your rancid carcass out of my town." My words were slow and evenly spaced, I spoke soft because there was no need to speak loudly.
The townie opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again.
"S-s-stage," he hissed, and I nodded.
"Leaves in one hour," I said. "I'll be back in an hour and fifteen minutes."
I backed up, lowered the blade's tip.
There was a quick blur of movement behind him, the distinct ring of cast iron against a man's skull: the fellow facing me sagged against the bar, his face the color of putty, and the man behind him slumped bonelessly to the floor.
Daisy's girl stood behind him with an aggravagted look on her face and an eighteen inch frying pan in both hands.
She looked up at me -- she looked defiantly at me -- and then she stiffened her back bone and snapped, "What did you expect? He was going for his gun!"
I sauntered over to the ebony shaft lying half under a table, picked it up, then I walked over to the townie with the ill temper.
I plucked the kerchief from his pocket, wiped his blood off my blade, dipped his kerchief in his beer and used it to wipe my blade again.
I would rub it down with powdered limestone later, a trick I learned from that funny Japanese fellow who showed us what a sword could really do, back during the War, but for now I slid it back into the sheep's-wool lined cane-shaft.
I waited until the townie was rallied enough to drag his partner out of the Jewel and across the street; the two of them waited on the Deacon's bench outside the Mercantile for the stage, and I went back to the Jewel and paid for my beer.
Later that night when I went back to the house, Angela was only just returned from Bonnie's: she'd gone there for Thanksgiving dinner, and bless Bonnie for inviting us, but for the life of me I did not have the heart to be social this day.
Angela came charging into my study with a happy "Daddeeee!" and I dropped the cane and caught up my little girl and laughed as I swung her around at arm's length above my head, and she spilled happy little-girl giggles all over the floor as I spun around, and I swung her down to the floor and set myself down and I laughed too.
Angela climbed up into my lap and Alfdis came in carrying little Dana, my tiny little daughter, and my son came strutting in behind her.
I took Dana and held her while I still held Angela, and wished for a wider seat, for my boy leaned against me.
"I think," I said, "I shall need a wider seat" -- and I laughed again, and realized that maybe I actually did give a damn after all.

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Linn Keller 12-1-13


The arrow was as long as the distance from the archer's nose to his thumb: in that, it was a true "cloth yard shaft."
It was fletched with white goose feathers; the head was hand forged, long, narrow: its edges, razor honed, were not terribly wide, but they did not have to be: constructed as they were, they could pierce armor as effectively as they could transect tendons, vessels or nerves.
The bow drew just under 75 pounds and until what men would call the War to End All Wars -- and after -- it would be the most powerfully penetrating weapon invented, able to punch an arrow through a five gallon bucket of pea gravel, something the famous .30-06 would not be able to do.
The archer, of course, knew none of this future history: he knew only the feel of Spanish yew in his palm, the leather tab protecting his draw-fingers, the bracer tight-laced around his tapered forearm, and for a moment, just a moment, he smelled his native Wales, the fields and farm his Granda owned, when he himself was but a lad, learning the longbow from a past master of the art.
Daffyd Llewellyn brought the arrow quickly to his anchor point at the corner of his jaw and released instantly.
Sarah's eyes widened as the arrow magically appeared in the tight-twisted target butt, tortured straw wound into twists and plaited and coiled: the arrow penetrated the first span-thick layer, through the second and nearly through the third.
The target was a kerchief, pinned to its center, and he was ridiculously close, twenty feet.
Butcher's range.
At this distance, Daffyd explained to his admiring bride, if he aimed at all, he aimed directly at the point blanc, the white point, allowing nothing for drop, for at the arrow's velocity it flew true and straight and dropped not at all.
"Y'see how it's done," he explained, his fingers teaching as much as his words: he drew from the arrows stuck in the ground before him, as had Welsh bowmen at battle for centuries, the dirt adhering to their points guaranteeing infection in the enemy's wounds, an early example of biological warfare -- but again, the archer knew nothing of such future terms, and instead taught his rapt audience of one the utter simplicity of the bow and its application, and touched briefly on its immense complexity.
"It's gripped, so," he said, "b'tween thumb and the base of th' first off finger. A light grip is all y'need. Beginners try t' crush th' handle, it's bad f'r accuracy and tires the arm." He raised the bow, looking at the clout while sure fingers nocked the next arrow.
"Y'nock t' th' same point ever' time," he continued, raising the bow in one smooth motion, drawing it back and releasing: he was long of arm and the arrow drew back fully, the base of its steel head nearly touching the bow; the string twanged as if stung, searing along his leather forearm guard -- it would rip the hair from a man's arm with one shot and welt the skin with a second, a third or fourth could bring blood, and so bowmen wore leathern bracers, Daffyd's carved with Celtic knotwork and Welsh dragons.
"It's one move, y'see," he continued, his voice detached, distant, "one smooth move t' nock, draw an' loose."
The third arrow appeared by its fellows, less than half a finger's breadth separating them.
"And y'can be accurate f'r a fair distance," Daffyd grinned, "as long as th' wind's still, or ye're firing directly into or directly with a wind, an' it's steady an' not spinnin' or whirlin'."
Another cloth-yard shaft whispered its secrets to the bow as Daffyd drew.
"Fencepost yonder," he muttered, the string twanged again and the arrow flew, straight and true, a clean arc, driving into a fence post half a hundred yards distant.
"I'll likely play hell gettin' that'un out o' the fencepost," he chuckled, then grounded the tip of the bow on his boot toe. "Do ye wish t' try it, darlin'?"
Sarah shook her head shyly, hands clasped before her like a bashful schoolgirl.
"No, Mr. Llewellyn," she said softly, "I am content that I have a Welsh bowman of my very own. I need not try to be one myself."
Daffyd slung the bow across his back and took Sarah's hands in his own, raising them to his lips.
Sarah closed her eyes and tilted her head back a little as his mustache tickled her knuckles, just before his lips followed suit.
He took her in his arms and she returned his embrace and they stood thus for long moments, enjoying the chilly quiet of the morning, the feel of each other, knowing they were King and Queen of all they saw, or a reasonable chunk of it, and both of them just as happy as if the had good sense.
"I must be gettin' back," Daffyd whispered, and Sarah gave him another hug.
"I know," she whispered, "but before you go --"
She reached in her pocket and pulled out the oval jade she'd worn on her wedding day, held it to her throat and turned, lifting her hair with her other hand.
"Fast this for me, darling, would you?"
"For you, me dear," Daffyd laughed, "anything!"
Sarah waited until the necklace was fast before spinning quickly, reaching up and pulling Daffyd's face down and kissing him with a desperate passion that took the man's breath.
He gave her a warm look when they broke and came up for air.
"Wha' was that for, me dear?" he whispered.
"I am a potter," Sarah explained, "and the only clay with which I may work is this moment, now. The past is gone, its memory but shadows, and the future may never arrive." She held his hands tightly and he felt her trembling a little.
"I only have now, Mr. Llewellyn. That's all I have. I intend to enjoy now just as much as I can!"
Daffyd threw back his head and laughed, a great merry sound that echoed off the nearby cliff and off the distant ridge.
"We'll ha'e plenty of tomorrows, darlin'," he grinned, his eyes bright, and Sarah took a mental painting of the moment, with her husband's face red and cheerful and his eyes bright with promise, and he kissed her again and turned to step into the carriage, stopping with an oath as he remembered the bow still slung across his back.
He stepped through it, unstrung the yew and handed it down to his wife.
"I'll be back tomorrow, darlin'," he said, "th' lads a' th' firehouse must see me ever' other day or they'll think ye've worn me out!"
"I tried," Sarah replied mischeviously, giving her husband a look through her eyelashes that fired the man's belly and swelled his chest.
Daffyd clucked to the gelding and drove off into town.
Sarah turned away and did not watch his departure -- it was bad luck, she'd heard -- then she turned and watched anyway, until he was around the bend and over the rise.
Sarah's eyes were pale as her husband disappeared, then she stepped through the longbow and re-strung it.
She reached behind a chunk of wood and slid her hand through a pre-laced bracer, drew it snug; she drew an arrow from the quiver, nocked it, then holding it at an angle to the ground, drew and released with the ease of practice not conducted in this lifetime.
The Grecian warrior-maiden's arm remembered the bow, her fingers remembered the string, her eye guided the shaft, and her arrow drove into the fencepost a foot under her husband's.
Sarah was expressionless as she gathered quiver and arrows, unstrung the bow, retrieved the arrows and carried them into the house.
She opened a tall, narrow cupboard, carefully placed the Welsh longbow with its waxed string within, along with quiver and arrows and the bracer he'd handed her after he boarded their buggy: she closed the door and leaned her palm and her forehead against it, and she knew it would not be opened again for fourteen years.
Fourteen years, she thought.
That should be just right.

Daffyd sang a Welsh ballad as he drove -- loudly, cheerfully, for the man in truth had a glorious singing voice -- and the Brigade met him with oaths and shoulder-pounding, swearing at him for he sounded like a grand fire alarm coming down the street like that, or so they claimed.
He swore back at them, returned cheerful chaff for cheerful chaff, and managed to shake their hands as he ran their laughing gauntlet through the equipment bay.
An obscene question was shouted at him as to whether he could still handle a nozzle after his exertions, and he shouted with a grin that there was no doubt he could still handle a hose.
Fifteen minutes later Daffyd Llewellyn hung grimly onto the ladder wagon as they swung out of their fine brick firehouse and headed for the smoke smearing against the clear winter sky.

Sarah brushed out her hair, staring unblinking into the mirror.
The maid frowned a little; she knew Sarah normally hummed when she brushed her hair, she normally sang a few words, she normally had the contented look of a woman who was thoroughly at ease and utterly happy with her lot.
Sarah was silent as she labored, and put her hair up, and until she spoke, she made not a sound.
"I shall need my black riding dress," she said crisply, "my cavalry boots and the black hat with its veil."
The maid's eyes were big and troubled as they flicked to the closet, seeing without opening its finely finished door the hat-box within and the had Sarah had never worn.
"I will be without, saddling my mare, and I will be back in a few minutes."
"Yes, ma'am," the maid said, and Sarah heard the question behind the words.
"Please see to both guest beds and both trundles. I am expecting company."
"Yes, ma'am."

Fire ran fast through two stories of a three-story building; it was the boarding house again, and when the Brigade galloped up, its three-horse hitch prancing and restless as they were unhitched and led away, they could see the fire was hungry and fast and this would be a hard one to fight.
They'd drilled many times for this very building.
The hard suction went down into the hand dug, stone lined well, the handmade strainer on the end to keep out mud, frogs and rocks; enough hose was laid, one to the left and one to the right, to encircle the structure, and a third line, thanks to a brass Y connection, ready for a direct attack through the door.
The engineer slung two more shovels of coal into the boiler, reached up and tapped the steam-gauge delicately from its back side, and nodded: he stepped down, walked casually around the engine, ignoring his fellows screaming for water, unhurriedly opened the intake, then engaged the Ahrens two-cylinder, double-action steam pump.
Steam squirted and hissed from the relief ports and the engine began to shimmy just a little, its happy little dance as steam-pistons pounded in one direction and pump-pistons in another; water was drawn from the shallow well, pumped into the pressure-dome, and the engineer reached up and gave one long whistle to let the nozzlemen know he was about to pressurize the lines.
He turned two valves at once, but not the third: hoses to the left and right gurgled and surged and went turgid and cold water-lances hissed from tapered bronze nozzles.
Llewellyn grabbed an ax, as did Sean: the two shouldered into the first floor, smoky and warm, and made their rescue pass; nobody was within, they made their fast, efficient check under and within and looked a one another.
Wordlessly, they charged up the stairs and made their second-floor pass.

Crows cawed harshly in the clear air and Sarah halted Snowflake.
She drew her Aunt Esther's fighting blade and slashed viciously at the air beside her, then thrust it up at the circling black harbingers.
"DAUGHTERS OF ODIN!" she screamed, tears stinging her eyes. "MAKE CLEAR THE WAY, FOR HERE COMES A WARRIOR!"
Sarah sheathed the Damascus blade and leaned into her mare, and Snowflake advanced at a trot.

"DAMMIT SEAN SHE'S HOT UP HERE!" Llewellyn swore.
A figure surged at him through the thickening smoke, shoved a limp figure into his arms.
The pair turned, coughing, eyes watering; it was a relief that the snot was running freely now, for it afforded a measure of relief from the choking smoke.

Sarah's stomach tightened when she came around the base of the cliff and saw the smoke.
The intervening air was clear as a bell and she could plainly see the curve of the gleaming brass boiler, polished and shining in the morning sun.
She swallowed hard, laid black-gloved fingers on the jade oval at her throat.
The blood-red rose at her throat was beginning to darken.

Two were found and two brought out alive; one yet remained.
"YE'LL NO' GO IN!" Sean shouted.
"I'LL GO, YE DAMNED BOG TROTTER, IT'S MY TURN IN!" Llewellyn shouted defiantly.
Sean swore and nodded.
Llewllyn was right.
It was their turn for entry.
They took turns in these matters.
"WE'RE TAKIN' TH' HOSE!" Sean shouted.
"BACK ME THEN!" Llewellyn challenged, snatching up the brass nozzle and entering the burning structure at a run.
Sean swore in Gaelic, his language searing the air around him; he grabbed a double handful of limp, linen-jacketed hose and took off after the Welsh Irishman.
The smoke was thicker now and it was decidedly hotter; the third floor was an inferno, but third hadn't been cleared.
Sean fought to a window, threw it up, shoved head and shoulders out.
"DAMN YOUR SOUL, GI' US SOME WATTER UP HERE!" he bellowed, and the engineer, his hand white-knuckled inside leather gloves, pulled smoothly on the quarter-turn valve with the black gutta-percha ball at the end of its chromed-steel shaft: he heard water drive into the third line, he touched the throttle, his eyes were for his gauges and his engine, and he swung around to throw more coal on the fire.

Sarah bent double in the saddle, groaning with the fell knowledge she'd kept hidden.
She debated whether to return to her home and wait for them to bring her the news, or whether to gallop desperately in town and run screaming into the building, screaming for her husband to get out, to get away --

The fire was eating at the second floor now, eating away the floor underfoot.
Llewellyn was making his rescue pass quickly, desperately, Sean was spinning the nozzle about, attacking the fire rippling along the ceiling.
If it was not so terrible, Daffyd thought in an unguarded moment, it would be beautiful, watching the fire-clouds roll like that --

If I ride into town in mourning ... they will know.
Or will they?
Does it matter?
Perhaps I am in mourning for Aunt Esther --

"That's it," Sarah said aloud. "Snowflake, go."
Snowflake leaned into a trot, flowed into a canter, then the big black Frisian mare, bred to carry armored knights into battle, spread a set of unseen wings and began to fly across the meadow and toward Firelands.
The gully waited, yawning, patient, and had been the death of more than one hard-ridden horse.
It was not physically possible for any earthly horse to cross that gully.
Esther did it on Edi, her red hair streaming behind her, a shotgun across her saddlebow and war in her heart, and Edi flew across it and made it look easy.
Snowflake lowered her head and thrust her nose straight out and laid her ears back and Sarah leaned forward in the saddle, her hands flat on Snowflake's neck, and like her Papa in a desperate ride, she too encouraged Snowflake --
"Run -- run -- run -- run --"

Daffyd's voice was a scream.
He felt the floor start to sag underfoot and he knew what it meant.
He threw the child across the intervening distance and Sean saw arms and legs flail out and he took a half step toward Llewellyn and caught the boy just as the floor groaned and collapsed and Hell exhaled a hot breath of fire and sparks and Daffyd Llewellyn fell into the inferno.

They found him, or what was left of him, on overhaul.
They brought a box into what was left of the boarding house and recovered as much of Daffyd Llewellyn as could be recognized, which was not much.
The box was shut and the lid screwed down before they came out, and when they did, they had the box at shoulder height.
Five firefighters carried the sixth, and they brought the box out to the small, slight built woman in black dress and veil who waited with a single red rose in her hand.
The blood-red rose that had been scrimshawed into the white-jade oval she wore, was now black.

Sarah waited three days.
Three days after the funeral, with a parade of mourners, with the Brigade in their new dress uniforms and white gloves, with the steam-engine and the three white mares a-hitch, with the ladder wagon for the hearse, they took the box up the curved road and into the Firelands cemetery.
Words were spoken, hymns were sung, and one by one the mourners left, until finally the widow stood alone by the raw earth of the freshly mounded grave, and beside her, another woman of like build and like age, also in mourning black.
Sarah laid a hand on her belly.
Daciana reached over and laid a hand on Sarah's.
Sarah reached up with her free hand, lifted the black veil.
Tears streaked her face; she pressed a black kerchief to her nose.
"Knowing," she choked, "does not make it easier."
Daciana nodded, then she looked down at Sarah's middle.
"I will name him Daffyd," Sarah whispered, then put a finger to her lips. "Don't tell anyone."
Daciana nodded, swallowing hard, and the two women embraced.
When they left, the single rose that rode the coffin now lay across the grave.

Sarah did not wait fourteen years.
She waited three days.
She tore open the cupboard, seized the longbow; she thrust her arm into the bracer, snatched up the quiver and stomped outside.
Sarah put six arrows into the fence post at half a hundred yards before speaking.
She placed a hand on her belly and bent her head.
"Daffyd," she said, "you will be a Welsh bowman as was your father."
She raised her black-gloved hand and regarded the Welsh diamond she wore, then she pulled off her black gloves and replaced the ring, parked the bow and the quiver and went upstairs, suddenly very, very tired.
She took off her mourning dress and hung it up and selected something bright and cheerful, something ... green.
"My husband was full of life," she said out loud.
"I will be no less."

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Linn Keller 12-3-13


"I went out to see Sarah," the Sheriff said quietly.
Alfdis sat in the rocking chair in his study. He'd had it brought in especially for her; he knew that rocking a fussy baby can calm it, he knew that rocking while he held a little girl could get her to sleep; he knew a rocking chair was good for his poor old back, and he knew Alfdis liked the rocking chair as well.
"How is the poor thing?" Alfdis asked, her voice heavy: the loss of her mistress hit her hard -- she was more than an employer, she'd become a good friend -- and Alfdis was only briefly adrift in uncertainty: the children were her anchor, and she needed that stability.
The Sheriff leaned back in his office chair and closed his eyes.
Angela walked up to him and tilted her head curiously.
The Sheriff didn't bother to open his eyes.
He opened his hand and extended his arm and Angela climbed happily into his lap.
"Sarah?" Alfdis prompted, and the Sheriff opened his eyes slowly and looked at the wet-nurse, noting how dark she was under the eyes.
"Alfdis, when did you get some sleep last?" he asked, his voice gentle.
She shook her head.
"I don't know, sir. It's ..." Her voice trailed off, her expression sorrowful.
Linn took a long, slow breath and he nodded.
"Yeah," he agreed, understanding in his voice.
"Sarah," he continued. "She ..."
His arms tightened around Angela.
She sat in his lap, her legs stuck out over his, her back against his chest; she leaned happily back against her big strong and cuddle-warm Daddy, her little hands splayed out over his weathered, big-knuckled hands.
"As good as can be expected given the circumstances."
Alfdis nodded.
"She has a Bible," he said slowly. "It was her mother's."
Alfdis rocked slowly, the Sheriff's son in her lap, heavy-eyed and almost asleep.
How old is he now? the lawman wondered. He's a year or a little over ... I've lost track.
Getting big, he is, long-legged like a colt.

The Regulator clock filled the silence with its metronomic voice.
"She gets it out one time a year."
Alfdis nodded carefully, not wanting to disturb the lad on her lap.
"She had it out but she had not opened it."
Alfdis watched his eyes: he too looked haggard, fatigued, looked like he could use a good night's rest.
If I haven't slept, she thought, hasn't he slept either?
"She was working on names and dates."
He paused for another long, thoughtful breath.
"Once a year she will open the cover and turn a page and fill in births and deaths and weddings, and she was working on a separate sheet to figure out what this year's additions would be."
The Sheriff did not tell her what he read when Sarah left the room.
Her geneaology was far more extensive than he'd expected.
He saw his own name, in the first third of the first page; he saw Esther's name, with her date of birth, and place of birth.
He saw their wedding date; the names and dates for the birth of their children, for the death of little Joseph; Jacob and Annette and their children, but on the second page he blinked and went back to the first.
There was a date of death by his own name.
And Jacob's.
And Annette's, and their children, and he re-read it quickly, and saw children's names he didn't recognize, and he realized their dates of birth had not come yet.
His eyebrows quirked together as he sat in his study, remembering, and he scanned down, quickly, to the last name, as far as she'd gotten.
The dates were impossibly far in the future.
After the turn of the century ...?
And a name ... two names, the last two at the bottom of the second sheet, and a third sheet yet blank, apparently her work was unfinished.
William and Willamina, twins, born Lorain County, Ohio.
William, Chief, Firelands Police Department, and Willamina, Sheriff, Firelands County, Colorado.
The Sheriff opened his eyes, looked around at the solid reality of his study: he looked at Alfdis in the rocking chair, with his son, and he remembered the date of death following his name.
He will be a man grown.
Angela stirred in his arms, made a sleepy little noise, and he remembered a branching line from her name.
He smiled a little.
There would be grandchildren, if Sarah had the Sight, as he suspected: there would be many grandchildren, and when he died, at the date she named on that first sheet, he would likely have plenty of family to carry on his name.
At the moment he didn't care about any of that; it was simply an interesting observation he made, while visiting his little girl, his daughter, the get of his loins: for all he knew she was writing an interesting work of fiction, or engaging in a clever exercise to keep her mind from locking up with grief.
"I think," he said softly, "I shall tuck this one in for the night."
Alfdis nodded, smiling a little, and the Sheriff rose, carefully, cradling Angela to him.

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Linn Keller 12-3-13


Sarah held a hand over the pages she'd written.
She felt her father's hand, warm, or rather its ghost, where it had been.
She felt his life-energy, she felt where he'd been, and she looked at the pages she'd written, and she blinked, then she picked up her skirts and marched upstairs, her tread silent -- as silent as it was when she wished to pass without a trace.
The green gown she'd chosen now lay on the bed; the figure that slipped from the house, the figure that wordlessly summoned the black Frisian mare, the figure that saddled the big warhorse, was likewise all in black -- and, just as her rider was moments before, the Frisian stepped out in utter silence.
The Sheriff never heard the figure slip up onto his porch; he never knew his front door knob turned, slowly, its faceted glass knob gleaming in the lamp light; he never heard the tread upon the stair as he stood up from his little girl's bedside and turned to her bedroom door.
The Sheriff could hear the moon slide across the sky, he could sense a grasshopper a mile distant tuning its back legs to serenade a mate, he could hear the creak as a careless foot bent a single blade of grass: he could feel the body warmth of an opponent from a hundred yards, but he never suspected this slender figure in black was in his house until a black-gloved hand spread, spider-like, over his face, another at the back of his head, and he sagged to the floor, his thoughts like a Fourth of July skyrocket bursting in a starry sky, bright, confused, searing.
Sarah waited until her Papa was fully relaxed before leaning ruby lips close to the supine lawman's ear.
"You will forget what you read on my desk," she whispered, speaking slowly, deliberately exaggerating her pronunciation: there must be no mistake when giving these instructions, too much depended on her precision! -- "you saw nothing but three blank sheets of paper. Sheets of empty paper and nothing more."
She stroked the Sheriff's cheek with gentle fingers.
"You will sleep, dear Papa, you will sleep and you will wake free of pain and free of sorrow and free of fatigue. You will be refreshed and you will be strong again, and you will know that you are not alone in this world."
The Sheriff's eyes were closed; they remained closed, and had the black figure remained to study the lawman's face, she would have seen the fatigue lines, the grief carved into weather-wrinkles, smooth out and relax, and she would have heard his breathing slow, become the regular, relaxed respirations of a man sleeping with a clean conscience.
Sarah flowed silently downstairs, down into Esther's office, and struck a light: by the beeswax candle's fragrant glow, she easily picked the lock on Esther's desk, rolled the top back and looked long at the envelope across the ribbon-tied Bible.
The envelope was addressed, To my darling husband, and under it, Open immediately.
Sarah picked up the envelope.
There was a note under the crossed, red, bow-tied ribbon holding Esther's Bible closed.
Open on the last day of March, 1914.
Sarah managed to slip the ribbon free: Esther used a silk ribbon, and silk is, ounce for ounce, as strong as steel: she'd used a drop of sealing wax to guarantee the knot would not untie, and it was a task for Sarah to work one corner free, but one corner was all she needed: she slipped the ribbon free, opened the cover, turned the first page, the second.
Another envelope, smaller than the first.
She set it aside, her lips parting a little as she read: her breathing quickened and she blinked rapidly, reading and re-reading the page.
Word for word, it was what she herself had written on her work sheets, the words she intended to transcribe into her own Bible.
Sarah swallowed hard, closed Esther's Bible, paused for a moment with her hand on the closed cover.
She carried this, Sarah thought.
She read this.
She turned to this for comfort and for learning.
Sarah allowed herself but a bare moment of loss; she knew grief would claim her if she did not control it, and so she swallowed hard and blinked her eyes rapidly, until her vision was clear again, and she worked the ribbon-seal back around the Bible.
She returned the note to its cover, secure under the crossed red silk ribbon.
Only then did she look at the envelope she'd set aside.
To Sarah, it read.
Sarah unfolded the unsealed, hand-folded envelope; there was not a note inside, the envelope was the note: she unfolded it completely, pressing it smooth and flat.
Dearest Sarah --
You will read this after I am gone and you are a widow.
I grieve for your loss.
I know what widowhood is.
Just as the death of a parent makes us an orphan, no matter how old we become, the death of a spouse makes a woman a widow, no matter how young and beautiful she is.
You gave my husband a good night's rest and I thank you for that.
Please see to Angela, and our little boy, and our little Dana, for they have no mother now.
You were deprived of your mother.
You know how deep a child's sorrow can run.
Spare my children this grief, I beg you from beyond the grave.
Accept an old woman's blessing, my child, and know that you are loved, even in your grief.
PS -- pick up your mail in the morning.

It was dated one day before Esther's death.
Sarah replaced the Bible on her desk's writing table, slowly and carefully closed the roll top: she locked it again, slipped the picklock back into her sleeve and looked at the note.
She folded the note and considered it carefully, then unfolded it, re-read it and bowed her head.
Sarah licked thumb and forefinger, pinched out the flame, snuffing even the wick's glow: sure-footed and silent, she slipped back out the front door, flowed onto the back of her waiting, four-legged shadow, and melted into the night.
Halfway between her Papa's silent house and her own silent house, she stopped and dismounted, walked to a flat rock shelf and struck a Lucifer match.
She re-read her dear Aunt Esther's note one last time and then consigned it to flame.

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Linn Keller 12-4-13


I don't know which woke me -- whether it was Angela's giggling, or my need to get rid of some second hand coffee, or whether it was an appetite that led me to consider masticating the horn of an anvil.
Whatever it was, I rolled over, pushed off the floor and stood easily, my leg only a little stiff, and the rest of me feeling better than it had for a long time.
I must've just laid down outside Angela's door last night, once I tucked her in ... normally if a man sleeps on a wood floor he wakes up stove up and stiff but I felt good.
I felt pretty darn good, matter of fact.
Angela looked up at me and laughed with that bright-as-sunrise face of a happy child and I laughed and took her hand and we went downstairs.
I was a gentleman and let her have the back house.
My need was tended elsewhere, as men often do in such moments, and I looked around the frosty yard and marveled.
It was as if I'd dropped a set of blinders.
Esther, I thought, I wish you could see this morning, and my breath steamed in the sunshine, turning almost a rose color.
I pumped some fresh water into the basin and tended my ablutions on the back porch -- Mary had water heated for Angela, but I wanted the ground temperature water, it wakes me up quickly -- then I blinked and remembered.
My little girl, twin to my son, was to come home today.
I laughed -- normally I would have sworn -- I ran upstairs two at a time and thrust open the bedroom door and looked at our bed.
Our bed.
We'd known one another as man and wife in that bed, we'd shared whispered dreams in that bed, we'd laughed together and cried together and we'd known joy in that bed and we'd held one another in grief, in that bed.
I could not bring myself to sleep in it since Esther died there.
Now ... I don't know what changed, but in that moment, I knew I could sleep there again.
I laughed aloud and stripped down to my long handles, charged downstairs again and vigorously stropped the straight razor.
If I was to have another child home today I would be freshly shaved and trimmed up nice and neat.
I remembered the note -- she didn't have tuberculosis after all, Brother William wrote, her bloody cough was something else, I don't recall what, but she was cured and that's the important thing -- Mary plied me with steaming-hot water and towels, she frowned into my shaving mug and said something about being almost out of soap and she looked just as closely at me when I laughed and told her I wanted to use every bit of it before I replaced the soap in the bottom -- Angela and I got dressed and we ate with a good appetite.
I don't recall feeling quite so good for quite some time.

It was later that day, just forenoon, with dinner in the offing, that I went into Esther's office and sorted through the keys on my ring, and unlocked her desk.
She'd said something about an envelope for me and it was time I tended whatever it was.
I opened her roll top and there set her Bible with a red ribbon cross-tied around it, the knot sealed with wax, and her rose seal pressed into it.
I smiled, ran gentle fingers over it.
Esther always did love roses.
I slid the note beneath the ribbon a little to the side and nodded.
"Do not open until March 1914," I murmured. "So be it."
The envelope I picked up, and broke the seal, and extracted the single sheet of foolscap.

My darling husband,
I am at rest now, after a life well lived.
My tasks are complete.
We are placed on this earth with certain works to tend, and I believe mine are now done.
Please see to Sarah.
I believe you may expect many fine grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and you will have much to teach them all.
Sarah knows what it is to be bereft of a mother.
Please enlist her assistance with raising our daughters.
Trust her in matters feminine, especially when our daughters become young women, which they will with a surprising speed.
My darling, you have done much good work in Firelands.
Our trust is set up and profitable and funds the Brigade in toto: your silver interest alone will account for another five years' operation, and you mentioned other mining investment: do invest, my darling, it will do well.
It's time you retired.
You can more than very well afford it and you have more than earned it.
Let your one man charge in that Cripple Creek ambush be the crowning moment of your tenure.
I could write volumes, but time draws short.
Know that I loved you from the moment I saw you, you long, tall, tough old bird of a handsome man!

I folded the paper and slid it back in the envelope, I slid the envelope under the ribbon and closed her desk.
I locked the desk top and just sat there for the longest time, remembering, until a discreet tap at the door informed me the buggy was harnessed up and ready to go meet the train.
Brother William was bringing another of my children home.
The door opened and Angela stuck her curly head through the gap.
"Daddy?" she asked anxiously, and I stood, and I stood without using that cane.
"Angela," I said, "could you fetch my cane, please? A retired man has to have his swagger stick."

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Linn Keller 12-8-13


I wasn't about to ride Cannonball yet.
Angela was all on fire to ride her Rosebud so I got them both saddled up and we took out and my twins were asleep or they'd be all on fire to ride too.
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully, considering a thought that just occurred to me.
Angela delighted in riding with me, standing upright behind me and holding onto my vest or my coat or my shoulders, and she was sure footed as a cat when she did.
Now that I had twins again -- our little girl was just awful glad to get home and hug her twin brother and he was quick to make a face and protest until we weren't looking -- typical boy -- anyway, with two of 'em ... there's no way I could ride two at once.
This would take some thinking.
Meanwhile Angela and I rode and she looked around with those bright eyes of hers and I did too, and we eventually ended up in town and I saw the Mayor.
Herb Vess was glad enough to wring my hand and bow in reply to Angela's curtsy, and I got right to the point.
"Mister Mayor," I said, "I am giving serious thought to retirement."
Herb nodded slowly, frowning a little.
"I do have one question," he said at length."
I nodded.
"What took you so long?"
I laughed a little.
"Stupidity," I admitted. "I should have retired while Esther was still alive."
Herb took a long breath and shook his head, laying an understanding hand on my shoulder.
"That's what I tell myself every morning," he admitted.
I raised an eyebrow.
"You aren't supposed to imitate my bad examples," I said quietly, and there was understanding in the man's eyes.
"How soon will you quit?" Herb asked, giving my arm a companionable squeeze.
"As soon as I talk to Jacob."
"Here he comes now."
This must be meant to be, I thought; we turned and I raised my cane in hail to my son, and he raised his hand, and steered a course for the three of us.
Jacob swung solemn faced off his stallion and Angela ran for him with an absolute and utter lack of decorum: "Jacob!" she laughed, and he seized her and picked her up , swung her down between his legs and back up higher, and Angela shrieked with delight, and he set her down.
"How's my favorite baby sis?" he declared and she planted her knuckles on her hips and shook her Mommy-finger at him and scolded, "Hey, you watch it, fella!" with such a serious mien that we all laughed to hear it.
"Jacob," I said, and Jacob dallied the unneeded reins around the hitch rail, straightened, stepped up on the board walk to join us.
"Sir?" he asked, a half-grin hiding in the corners of his eyes.
"Jacob, I believe it's time I retired," I said without preamble.
"One question, sir," Jacob replied. "What took you so long?"
I blinked, looked at the Mayor.
"Well, ya see, it's like this," I said, spreading my hands as if to convey an absolutely sincere presentation of an impossibly tall tale, then I shook my head and said, "Oh, the hell with it. I reckon the Silver Jewel makes better coffee than I do, let's get in out of the cold."
Angela daintily picked up Rosebud's reins and spun them expertly around the hitch rail, then she caressed the little mare's nose and whispered, "You be a good horsie. I'll steal you some sugar."
I made a mental note to find a lump in one of the sugar bowls so she could do just that.

Word spread fast, I'll say that for Firelands: next day we made a regular ceremony out of it.
We'd never had anything of the kind before.
When Tom Landers went from Sheriff to Deputy he handed me my badge, I handed him his, we shook hands and that was it.
This time we had a reg'lar get-together on the front steps of the fine stone Municipal Building, there beside the Silver Jewel: school let out for the occasion, Sarah held the Bible while Jacob swore the oath of office, I pinned the six point star on him and he grinned broad as a Texas township when I did, especially when I shook his hand and said, "I kinda proud of you."
Truth be told it's all I had voice to say, my throat got kind of thick in that moment.
Angela held my cane for me, watching solemnly with her schoolmates: at one point one of the boys apparently wanted to grab the cane and Angela twisted away from the miscreant, stomped on his foot and rapped him in the head with the heavy gold ball: Sarah discreetly seized the young offender by the ear and drew him aside, looking completely composed and innocent, as if she held a wiggling, red-faced boy by the ear every day and it was nothing unusual.
We retired to the Silver Jewel afterwards, but not until Sarah swatted the lad's bottom with her hand and sent him back in shame with his classmates, under Emma Cooper's watchful eye: then she ran up, thrust herself in front of Jacob and grabbed him in an unexpected and surprisingly strong hug.
She drew back a little and blinked and whispered, "I'm proud of you too!" and Jacob grinned and looked up at Annette, who was standing with one babe in arms, two clinging to her skirt, and looking right pleased with herself too, and Jacob laughed and said, "Sir, should I be worried, havin' two really good lookin' women all proud of me in public?" and I laughed and thumped his shoulder and said "Jacob, you are a wealthy man for it. Enjoy it while it lasts!" and I felt a tug at my coat tail and Angela looked up at me, big-eyed, and handed me that gold-knobbed, cross-handled walking stick, then she scampered happily after her retreating schoolmates.
We went on into the Silver Jewel, and there was general celebration, for a big part of the town followed us in.
Mr. Baxter and Daisy's girls were right busy keeping up with the jubilant atmosphere.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-8-13


The gold and brown herd meandered through the high meadow, breath smoking in the morning cold, making their way to their morning feed. Calves, the young of the year, yet nearly all as big as their mamas, gamboled in the frigid air. The herd bulls had gathered with their brethren in bachelor bands that would stay away from the cows until the following summer. Cows chirped and whistled, each maintaining her place in the hierarchy.

The predator, hunting later in the year than was his wont, watched from an alder copse, breathing through dyed muslin to disguise the smoking of his own exhalations. His rifle was cold in his gloved hands, frost rimed his week-old whiskers as he waited. His choice would be a dry cow; a yearling would be perfect. Though carrying less edible meat, the yearlings would be the best eating. He had need of several.

Charlie lifted the '76 to his shoulder, crescent butt plate settling in the cup of muscle and bone, cheek welding to stock swell, gloved finger caressing the trigger. White smoke bloomed in thunder and a cow went down. Muscle memory took over, working the lever to chamber another cartridge as his gray eyes chose the next target. The herd was frozen for an instant; thunder roared again and another cow went down. The third was struck as the herd lunged into motion, seeking the shelter of the black timber below...

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Linn Keller 12-9-13


Many hands wrung my own, many good wishes were poured over my head -- figuratively, of course -- many hearty back slaps and shoulder thumps; Jacob received as much adulation and congratulation, for the community knew him and liked him, and people don't much like change: that the new Sheriff was a known quantity, was easier for the public at large to accept, and that I was right there beside him, made it easier for the popular understanding to swallow.
His Honor the Judge showed up, puffing on a fresh cheroot, his eyes sparkling as he glad-handed us each in turn, then he took us by the arm and steered us into the back room.
The general celebration in the Silver Jewel continued without us.
"Sheriff," His Honor began, and Jacob and I both said, "Yes?" -- then we stopped and both of us turned a little red, and all three of us laughed.
His Honor smiled and removed the cheroot from between stained teeth, looked around for a cuspidor, spat out a fleck of tobacco leaf.
"I," he said, "find myself in want."
"Oh?" I raised an eyebrow; Jacob leaned back a little, almost fading into the woodwork, a tactic I perfected early in life, one that served me well for years.
"Yes," the Judge said. "In order to make a fair and impartial decision on a case I often need more information than is presented in evidence."
I raised an eyebrow and looked at the new Sheriff.
My son's eyebrow was quirked upward in like manner.
His Honor turned to face me, used the smoking, wet tip of his cigar to emphasize his quietly-spoken words.
"I need eyes, Sheriff," he said, then shook his head. "Linn. I mean Linn." He turned and looked sharply at Jacob, then sighed and clamped down on the rolled tobacco.
"This," he said softly, "will take some getting used to."
We waited.
"Sheriff, Agent Lynne Rosenthal is now a married woman."
"She was," I agreed.
His Honor nodded. "Was," he corrected himself, then continued.
"She may be reluctant to continue her Agency as a new widow." He frowned, puffed on the vile stogie. "Agency. Is that the correct ...?"
"We understand your meaning," Jacob said softly, and I felt the identical words vibrate in my throat.
His Honor turned quickly, looked even more sharply at the tall, slender, newly minted chief lawman.
"By the Sachem," he swore, "you even sound like him!"
"Can't imagine why," Jacob said mildly and with a perfectly straight face.
His Honor frowned and harrumphed and turned back to me.
"Were you ever like that?" he growled at me, the smoke from his cigar stub wafting a whiplash in the air.
"Identical," I grunted.
"God help us." His Honor shook his head.
"You're needing a working Agent."
He nodded.
I sighed.
"I don't know about Agent Rosenthal, Your Honor," I said, "but I just quit one full time job. I'm a father and a grandfather and I'd like to raise young'uns with two legs and four for a while."
Judge Hostetler glared at me.
"We did much good here," I said, "Esther and I. The Irish Brigade is still funded entirely from the trust we set up. We rebuilt the Silver Jewel and it's a going concern and has multiple owner."
"Yes, I know, I know," His Honor muttered. "Mr. Baxter owns the bar, Tillie owns the hotel, Daisy owns the restaurant and they're all quietly doing well as a result. Thanks to the two of you."
"Yes, sir," I said, remembering Esther's quiet eyes and the way she used to sit when she did the books every week. "Yes, sir, we did."
His Honor stopped and laid a gentle hand on my shoulder.
"I'm sorry," he said softly. "The memory is too raw."
I nodded, that lump swelling up again in my throat.
He patted my shoulder and nodded. "Think it over," he said. "Think it over, Colonel. I need an Agent I can trust."
"You can't trust the one you have?"
He looked at me and smiled.
"I should have said I need another one I can trust."

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Charlie MacNeil 12-9-13


Four pack horses, three laden with elk carcasses, the fourth with elk hides rolled and securely cross-bucked, one tired rider on a buckskin mare, all grateful to see the golden lamplight spilling from the windows of the ranch house in the hollow. Charlie heard the squeal of the barn door's hinges, thought, need to oil them, and turned the mare's nose toward shelter, grain and water. It had been a long trek down from the mountains, but their winter's meat trailed behind him on the pack horses. Theirs and another's...

The old man lifted the bullseye lantern. "'Bout ta come lookin' for ya," Cat Running commented with a grin. "Old man like you, not good ta stay out too late!"

"Old? Ain't that the pot callin' the kettle black?" Charlie replied with a grin of his own. He swung stiffly from the saddle, hands going to his back as he tried vainly to stretch the kinks of too many hours in the saddle from his body. "Got meat, anyway." He dropped the buckskin's reins and reached up to loose the pack train's lead rope from his saddle horn. He led the four young horses toward a nearby shed. "Help me get these carcasses hung up, wouldja?" The two men made short work of getting the animals hung up out of harm's way.

As they unsaddled the pack string and the mare in the barn, Fannie crunched through the crusted snow to the barn, sheep-lined coat buttoned tight around her. The pot of coffee in her right hand and the heavy porcelain mugs in her left were a welcome sight, almost as welcome as Fannie herself in Charlie's eyes. "Brought you a warm-up, Sugar," she drawled as she handed her husband a cup of steaming Arbuckle's. Charlie took a long slurp of the hot brew and swallowed gratefully.

"Thanks, Darlin'. I been needin' that for the last five miles." He wrapped his arm around her and kissed her. "Been needin' that for a lot longer than five miles," he added with a grin.

When the horses were groomed, grained and turned out, pack saddles hung up out of reach of pack rats and blankets set bottom up to freeze dry, the trio made their way to the house, where Fannie had dinner waiting. Charlie found himself nodding over his plate, the warmth of the room serving to weight his eyelids considerably. Finished with his second plate of food, Charlie pushed back from the table. "I can't keep my eyes open any longer," he said. "Let's get these here dishes done so I can get to bed."

"You go on," Fannie told him. "I'll clean up." She stepped up in front of him and lifted her lips to his. "Sleep tight, Sugar. I'll be in after bit."

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Linn Keller 12-13-13


Jacob rose as Sarah paused just inside the door.
"Mrs. Llewellyn," he said formally.
"Sheriff," Sarah replied stiffly. "May I come in?"
Sarah's carriage was stiff and disapproving, her spine was straight and there was no trace of welcome or kindness in her pale eyes.
Jacob gestured to a seat; Sarah smoothed her skirt, lowered herself into the visitor's chair with the regal hauteur of a crowned head of state.
A very disapproving crowned head of state.
Jacob sat behind the desk, leaned forward a little and frowned.
"I do not feel ... comfortable," he said slowly, "calling you Sis. Not since you're a married woman." He paused, considering. "And especially now that you are a widow."
Sarah's eyes were hard as she glared at him.
"I am not here on a social call," she said quietly.
Jacob straightened, put his finger tips together, regarded his sister steadily.
"Say on."
Sarah opened her reticule, took out a thick coil of heavy leather.
She tossed the coil on his desk.
Jacob frowned, looked from the uncoiling leather to the slim, diminutive woman in mourning black.
"A razor strop?" he puzzled.
"A persuader," Sarah said, her mouth curling at the corners as if she spoke words with a bad taste. "Something to make a woman ... compliant."
Jacob's eyes went suddenly pale and Sarah saw his jaw harden.
"I have done your work for you," Sarah said, almost in a monotone, and Jacob turned his head a little as if to bring his good ear to bear.
Just like his father, Sarah thought, then corrected herself:
Our father.
"I found him standing in my parlor just as big as you please. Bold as brass and twice as unpleasant."
Sarah looked like she wanted to spit.
"He introduced himself as my next husband."
Jacob clamped an iron claw over his feelings and squeezed them down, hard.
"He's out in the wagon."
"He's here?"
Sarah nodded.
"Not Digger's?"
Sarah shook her head.
Jacob stood, his good right hand closing slowly into a fist.
"The strop?"
"He told me it was to make sure bad little girls became obedient good little girls, because a married man likes an obedient wife."
"And ...?"
"I brought him here instead of Digger's."
Jacob considered this, setting aside filial rage for the cold reasoning of the designated lawman.
"What all did he do to you?"
Sarah's smile was as cold as her eyes.
"He did no more than seize my arm."
Jacob stopped, remembering, then turned to face Sarah squarely.
"He seized your arm."
Sarah nodded.
"Like I do when we practice."
Sarah nodded again.
"Like I did right before you threw me against the wall of the barn one time, and over a fence rail the next time, and into a horse trough the third."
Sarah nodded yet again, and this time Jacob could just see the deep, almost hidden laughter peeking through his sister's eyes.
"And once you ran him face first into a mountainside ...?"
"The fireplace, actually," Sarah murmured, and Jacob remembered the polished granite fireplace and repeated himself.
"You ran him face first into a mountainside."
"You could say that."
"What then?"
"I took a broom to him."
"You ... what?"
Sarah's expression softened and he saw her smile tease at the corners of her mouth.
"I worked him over with a broom. I beat all the broom straws loose and used the broom handle on him. I beat him from one end to the other and went back to make sure I didn't miss anything."
Jacob's eyebrows hoisted an amazing distance as he looked at the door separating their tranquil office from the world outside.
"I wonder," he said, "if I really want to go look at this fellow!"
"You may thank me at your leisure," Sarah said, standing: "but for now please secure your prisoner, I do wish to press charges, and I wish to return home, for it has been a tiring morning."
Sarah waited until the prisoner was secured in a cell, and Jacob returned outside, before climbing back into the wagon.
Sarah unwound the reins, eased off the brake as the Sheriff with the dark-red mustache looked curiously up at his sister.
"You don't have to call me Mrs. Llewellyn."

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Linn Keller 12-14-13


Sarah dropped the black veil to her shoulders.
It hung from the brim of her black mourning-hat, and matched her black mourning-gown: her jewelry, what little she wore, was gleaming, polished jet, all but her cameo, which she wore in the hollow of her throat: it was a bright, startling white, an oval of flawless jade, scrimshaw engraved with a black rose, gleaming dully through the concealing veil.
Her few words, her quiet manner, were attributed to her grief; she was a young widow, married no more than a week, suddenly bereaved and alone in the world.
In truth, Sarah was quiet -- not out of grief, though grief still weighed her heart -- but out of rage.
A stranger walked into her house.
Her house!
The damned cheek of the man!
Sarah's black-gloved hands fisted, slowly, tightly: she stood behind a stack of canned goods in the Mercantile and closed her eyes, taking a long breath and a long moment to collect herself.
She remembered the satisfying feeling of beating the stuffing out of the arrogant scoundrel, out of using leverage and what the Daine boys called "slights" to turn his attack into his defeat: she used joint-locks, she used throws, she used momentum, she used several very effective, very unpleasant, very painful tricks of dirty fighting to cause a great deal of immense, intense pain to the sneering intruder -- such things as a rolling hip-throw, or the simple expedient of meeting his charge by pulling him into her -- and of course the fact that her leg was stuck out and he tripped over it, was ... well, let's just say that when she introduced his face into the polished granite fireplace, she really didn't care how she did it, just that she did it.
Sarah opened her eyes slowly, turned, walked with an exaggerated slowness toward the front counter.
One of the ranchers was looking at a half-dozen knives, laid out on a towel on the glass display case's flat, burnished top.
"I don't know," he muttered, and Sarah came up beside him, laid gentle fingertips on his water-beaded coat sleeve.
"It's snowing again," she murmured. "What is your question?"
The rancher frowned at the knives, then looked at Sarah, blinked.
"Mrs. Llewellyn," he murmured, taking off his hat. "My condolences, ma'am."
"Mr. Mace, you have ever been a gentleman," Sarah said quietly. "Which knife puzzled you?"
He turned, tapped the stacked-leather handle of a curve-blade skinner.
Sarah picked it up, read the stamp at the blade's base, just forward of the small guard.
"Good steel," she murmured, hefting it: "a little awkward. I don't like it."
She lay it down, tilted her head, picked up a Green River skinner.
"This," she said, satisfaction in her voice.
"Ma'am ... that one?"
"Experience, Mr. Mace," Sarah said patiently. "The Green River Knife Works have skinned out more game than any other maker. The steel is soft enough to sharpen on a common rock, it's tough enough to take a good edge and hold it, and it's balanced well."
Sarah turned, drew her hand back over her shoulder, the knife spun three times and drove blade-first into the closed storeroom door.
"As I said, Mr. Mace," Sarah said quietly.
"Well balanced."

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Charlie MacNeil 12-14-13


Breath steaming in the predawn air, the horse herd cantered into the feed ground, capering with pent-up energy brought on by the singing of their blood and their strength. The strength of the young, the strength the mineral-rich prairie hay imparted to young and old alike. Charlie had already forked the day's rations out onto the hoof-packed snow of the feed yard before he opened the gate, and he stood now, elbows crossed on a gate post, smiling a little at the sight.

Charlie reached down for the bucket of rolled oats at his feet, the papery discs rustling against the galvanized surface. With his left hand he picked up the pair of bosal nose bands and the horsehair mecates and stepped into the feed pen. Almost as if they could sense his selection, the two geldings he planned to halter and saddle sidled into the middle of the group, eyes rolling in mock fright. "You boys are plumb whack," Charlie muttered softly. He stepped nonchalantly into the middle of the herd, pushing aside the questing noses of some of the mares, letting others grab a small bite of grain as he worked his way closer to his targets.

The first gelding tucked its nose into the bucket that now hung in the curve of Charlie's elbow. He slipped the braided rawhide noseband over the horse's muzzle, the headband behind the ears, slipped the mecate through the bosal and looped it around the neck, tying it in a bowline knot at the jaw corner. The second gelding was haltered accordingly a minute or two later, and Charlie turned to lead the pair toward the gate where Cat Running waited.

The old man and Charlie each padded and crossbucked one of the geldings, then Charlie led the packhorses to the shed where the elk quarters, well-frozen, hung. He and Cat Running loaded a pair of hindquarters on one horse, a pair of front quarters on the other, and a backstrap atop each load. They tarped and diamond-hitched the loads then led the animals back to the barn, where the saddled buckskin waited patiently. Charlie swung into the saddle and half-hitched the pack horses' mecate ropes to his saddle horn.

"Don't wait up, old man," Charlie told Cat Running. "I'll more than likely stay in town tonight. You'll see that the horses get fed?"

The old man snorted. "Yah, horse'll get fed, no worry. You be careful. Don't want your woman bein' a widow, eh?"

"I'm always careful, you know me," Charlie retorted with a smile.

"Yes, we do know you," Fannie drawled from behind him. "That's why he's telling you to be careful." She stepped up alongside the buckskin.

Charlie grinned at her and leaned down to plant a kiss on her sweet lips. He straightened in the saddle. "Like I said, Darlin', I'm always careful. It's them other fellers who usually ain't, and then they get me in trouble. I'll see ya in a couple of days." He heeled the buckskin into motion toward the trail to Firelands.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-17-13


An almost full moon, a high overcast and snow on the ground can be almost as good as daylight for lighting a weary traveler's way. Full dark, such as it was, had descended some time since, but Charlie decided to push on into town. He figured that putting the horses up in Shorty's barn, and himself in a comfortable bed in a room at the Silver Jewel was much preferable to bedding down in a snowbank and pasturing his horses on grain and spruce needles. But before any of them could settle in for the night he had a stop or two to make.

As usual, the prairie telegraph had brought him the news of Daffyd Llewellyn's demise and the Sheriff's retirement. The first he believed and he'd said his prayers for the Welshman's soul and his widow's life and future. The second he'd believe when he heard it from the old warhorse's mouth, so to speak. Consequently, when he drew rein and stepped stiffly down from his saddle, it was in front of his friend's house rather than Shorty's livery.

"You're gettin' too old for this kinda crap, my friend," he muttered under his breath as he stepped up onto the porch. He raised his hand to knock, but paused when he heard snow squeak under a boot sole.

"Who are you and what do you want?" Linn's voice challenged from the darkness beyond the house corner.

"An apostle with epistle!" Charlie replied cheerfully. "And a side of venison to boot!" He turned toward the spot the voice had come from. "Got coffee made?"

"Charlie?" Linn questioned as he stepped out into the open, lowering the double gun's muzzles to point at the frozen crust underfoot.

"Who else?" Charlie answered.

"What in the name of Heaven are you doing here at this hour of the day?"

"I'm gettin' too old to sleep in a snow cave, and I had an extra elk carcass that needed to be eaten, so here I am."

"Extra elk carcass, my Aunt Kate," Linn answered drily, feeling a deep warmth for the man standing grinning at him in the diffuse moonlight. Before Charlie could come up with an appropriate reply the door burst open and Angela flew out into the cold night with a squeal.

"Uncle Charlie!" the girl squeaked as she threw herself into Charlie's arms. Her words came out in a torrent. "Where did you come from? What'd ya brung? Where's Aunt Fannie? Whatcha doin' here? Supper's ready! Come in an' eat!"

"Hold on a minute there, girl!" Charlie laughed as he hoisted her up into his arms. Hers went around his neck in a hug then she pushed back and looked into his face. The words started again, but slightly slower this time.

"You're cold. You come in an' get warm. We're havin' shepherd's pie for supper! Mary maked it, an' it's yummy! An' she made biscuits! I know you like biscuits!"

Charlie stepped forward to set Angela down inside the doorway. "I'll be in as soon as I take care of my horses, girl. You'd best get back inside and shut the door, you're lettin' the heat out."

Angela shook her finger at him as she said, "You hurry with the horsies, Uncle Charlie, 'cause it's suppertime." She stepped back and shut the door. Charlie looked over at his friend, a bemused smile on his face.

"Whew! Just listenin' to her is a job of work, ain't it?"

"And one I wouldn't miss for the world, my friend," Linn answered quietly.

"And I don't blame you," Charlie replied in words equally as soft. His gaze went far beyond his friend, back into the past. "That's something I do miss about my life," he muttered. "No kids of my own." He shook himself and looked at his friend. "We'd best get this meat unloaded and the horsies taken care of, I reckon. I done got my orders, and it's suppertime."

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Linn Keller 12-18-13


"I am obliged to you for that elk meat," Linn said quietly.
Supper was livened by Angela; in an age where children were seen and not heard, she was both: although excited by the company of her favorite uncle, she was not obnoxious, and after her initial rushing flood of enthusiastic greeting, she listened -- surprisingly well -- and listened closely, frowning on occasion and looking at her Daddy with unspoken questions, which -- again, surprisingly -- she held.
"I reckon you can use it."
"Yep," Linn nodded, smiling slowly, his eyes looking at Angela and then beyond her ... well beyond her, and Charlie knew the man's mind was not nearly as tranquil as his careful facade would indicate.
"I hear tell Sarah's husband got himself killed."
Linn nodded slowly, his mouth twisting a little, almost in distaste.
"He died a hero," he said slowly.
Charlie nodded, hearing the conflict in the man's voice, and waited, knowing that old lawman's trick to be as effective off duty as on duty.
"Him and Sean went in and got people out," Linn said, pausing for a long breath. "I understand ..."
He frowned a little and Charlie listened closely, weaving a mental net to catch any unexpected information that fell from innocent-seeming words.
"Sean said Daffyd tossed a child across the floor to him just before the floor caved in and took the Welshman down with it."
Charlie looked at Angela, raised an eyebrow.
"Is that what happened?" he asked quietly.
Linn considered his answer, staring at the gravy boat: finally he took another breath and replied, "If it ain't, it'll do as well as any."
Charlie understood.
Whether Daffyd actually died a hero's death, throwing a child free as the floor collapsed beneath him -- or whether it was a fiction, told to spare the reputation of a man who may've made one fatal mistake -- whichever one was fact, was immaterial; the dead man went to his grave a hero, and that was a blessing for the widow, if nothing else.
"How's Sarah taking all this?"
"Well enough, given the circumstances."
"Is that good?"
Linn snorted and Charlie planted his elbows on either side of his gravy-streaked plate.
"I know that look," he said quietly. "Out with it, mister!"
Linn laughed and Angela blinked, looking from one man to the other.
"Uncle Charlie," Angela said quietly, pointing to her Daddy, "is that Daddy's Innocent Expression?"
Charlie leaned back and laughed, nodding.
"Yes, Punkin, it is," he chuckled as the maid slipped in, leaned down and whispered something to Angela: Angela slipped from her chair and curtsied, then withdrew with the maid -- for a special treat, no doubt, the maid used that as a useful bait to give the men some time together.
"Now what's this I hear about you retirin'?" Charlie asked, his voice low.
Linn looked at his old friend and smiled tiredly.
"Charlie," he said, "I went to the grave yard today."
"That's not what I asked."
Linn continued as if he'd not heard.
"I've buried blood in that ground, Charlie. I've got kin folk planted up there.
"You know what I saw when I got there?"
Charlie frowned a little, looking closely at his friend's face.
"Stones and snow on the ground."
Charlie frowned a little, considering.
"The place is empty, Charlie. I buried our son and I buried my wife, I've planted friends, kindred and neighbors in that place and it's empty."
Charlie frowned a little, listening.
"There is no place colder than a grave yard in December," Linn continued thoughtfully. "Our son Joseph's grave has a kneeling lamb carved on its top. That lamb did not blink nor stand nor move around.
"I don't know if I expected Esther to fly up and land on a tomb stone and blink like a hoot owl but that didn't happen either.
"The soul is all there is, Charlie, and when that's flown ... we plant a shell and think it's them and it's not."
Charlie nodded: this was nothing he hadn't heard before, and he knew his friend was working his way to the answer, just by a roundabout route.
"I did retire from Sheriff."
Charlie never said a word, just looked steadily across the table.
"Jacob is younger and smarter and better lookin' than me. He's not got the aches and pains I do, it's time to let the younger man take over."
"Younger, smarter and better lookin'," Charlie drawled.
"Well, younger and smarter anyway."
"Just what," Charlie asked, an edge to his voice, "do you plan on doin'?"
"Other than drink beer and chase women?" Linn grinned, then his grin faded.
"I reckon," he said slowly, "I will raise my young and watch my apple trees grow."
"That's all?"
"For now."
"For now," Charlie echoed.
Linn's expression was bleak.
"Haven't I done enough?" he whispered. "Haven't I given enough?"
"What did you give?"
Linn closed his eyes and thought for several moments.
"Esther and I ... the railroad, the Z&W. Both lines, passenger/freight and the ore hauling line. Esther's brick works. The gas works, gas lights, gas stoves in the school house. The Irish Brigade -- hell, the engine and building I bought myself, I brought the Irishmen to run the damned thing and they stayed beyond the contract. I set up the trust fund that pays their wages and keeps them a going concern, I set up funding to rebuild the Mercantile -- twice -- the Silver Jewel --"
Charlie raised a hand, stopping his friend's troubled rush of words.
"So you're tellin' me we oughta change the name to Linnville."
Linn stopped, and blinked, and then he laughed and sagged a little in his chair, and finally he looked his old friend in the eye and nodded.
"One thing I can count on," he said thoughtfully. "If ever I get too big an opinion of myself, you always poke a hole in my windbag and let the hot air out."
"Happy to help."
"Like the time you told me if I know so damned much, why didn't I hang out a shingle and make a million dollars."
Charlie laughed and so did Linn; they both remembered the moment, back when Linn didn't have two nickles to rub together, when he was holding forth at length with an expert's assurance, to the point that Charlie was honestly irritated with listening to it, and he expertly poked a goose feather into his old friend's self-important soliloquy -- to their mutual laughter.
Linn shifted in his chair.
"I'm tired, Charlie," he finally said. "I'm tired of carryin' the weight. I'm tired of bein' responsible. I'm tired of mediatin' between ranchers or the Mayor and Council or between two saloon keepers. I'm tired of ridin' out with a warrant and endin' up chasin' wild goose feathers or havin' some fellow try and put holes in my carcass. I'm tired of putting a noose around a man's neck and dropping his soul into Eternity, never mind they deserve worse.
"Charlie, I just ... I want to raise my young and take care of mine and let that be it."
"So that's it," Charlie said softly. "You're quittin'."
"Already done it."
"You want to raise up your young."
"Don't you reckon Jacob wants to raise his?"
The question hung on the still air.
"You get waxed or he gets waxed, each is a tragedy. It's bad enough he's your deputy and in the line of fire every day, but now your son" -- he paused to let the words sik in --"is the only one there."

Next day, on the stone steps in front of the City Hall building, Jacob held his Sheriff's star to his ear, in his cupped hand, listening intently and frowning a little.
He passed the engraved, six pointed insignia to the Mayor, who cupped it in his hand and held it to his ear: after several moments, he nodded and looked at the elder Keller.
"Jacob and I agree," he said. "This badge is happier hanging on your shirt and it just told us both as much."
"Mister Mayor," the Sheriff said, "if that badge is talkin' to the both of you I don't reckon I'd ought to argue with it."
"No, don't argue with the badge," the Mayor said, pinning the six point star on Linn's coat lapel.
Jacob grinned.
"It looks better on you than it does on me, sir," he said.
"Yeah," Linn said quietly. "Reckon so."

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Linn Keller 12-18-13


I dreamed of horses last night.
The words gleamed, black and wet, on the journal's page.
I dreamed I rode Cannonball and she flew across a gully wider'n ought to be.
I dreamed she snapped out a set of wings right after she gathered and jumped and I dreamed I rode her and thought not a thing unusual of it.
I woke then, and the room was still, then I heard the sound of wings and something brushed my cheek.

The Sheriff considered the words he'd written, remembering, and his eyes stung again, and this time he did not try to stop them.
Water ran down his cheeks as his pen continued writing, pulling his hand along with it across the good rag paper.
I heard tell horses lend us our wings until we can get our own.
Reckon now Esther has hers.
I do believe that's what I heard, and what I felt.

He did not blot the page; he set the pen carefully aside, leaned back in his chair, blinking: he did not often admit grief, but grief will not be denied, and grief visited itself upon him that night, in the stillness of his study, with his words gleaming in good India ink on the smooth page.

Sarah, too, felt grief gripping her heart: she sat at the piano, her fingers gently coaxing a melody from the ivory keys.
She stopped, began the melody again, but more sharply: the notes came more closely together, the time quicker: Sarah stopped, threw her head back, took a long breath and then leaned forward a little and carefully drew the hinged key-cover down over the polished ivory-and-ebony keyboard.
She stood slowly, carefully, which is exactly what she did not want to do.
She wanted to thrust herself upright and dump the piano bench over, she wanted to kick it across the room and grab the piano and dump it over as well: she stood still for a long moment, then delicately, carefully, daintily, she picked up her skirts and walked with small, mincing, ladylike steps toward the stone staircase.
She walked with a cold self-control up the gleaming, polished stairsteps, coming to the landing and looking at the bedroom door, remembering her wedding night, that night of discovery and heat and a little fear, that night when she found that her young heart could indeed love and her young body could indeed respond and she could give all of her heart to a man, and she did, she did, fully and unreservedly.
Sarah opened the bedroom door, stepped inside.
The maid saw her go upstairs.
She did not see her descend.

The night air was cold.
Sarah welcomed the cold.
She'd been denied a last goodbye, kept from seeing what was left of her husband: she knew this was probably a blessing, for her last memory of Daffyd was of a handsome man, healthy, full of life, laughing.
It was a memory she cherished.
Sarah rode through the darkness on a nondescript dun gelding, on a worn, common saddle, bought from a fellow down on his luck: Sarah rode the gelding to Shorty's livery, left it tethered to the common rail out front with a little blue-velvet sack hanging from the saddlehorn.
Shorty would hear her quick knock, and he'd find the horse, and he'd take it in and take payment from the blue-velvet poke, the way he always did.
Sarah thrust her hands in her sleeves and walked quickly through the shadows.

The diminutive white nun with the white-veiled face slipped into the nave, walked quickly to the altar, crossed herself, knelt: she stayed still, very still for several minutes, then rose.
Brother William's head came up as the pipe organ began to sing: a single, commanding note, quickly cascading down the scale, and up: again, in a minor: the organist played powerfully, bringing brass and hand-pumped air to life.
Sarah played with strength, with power, her head thrown back as her slender fingers commanded the triple keyboard: she reached for the pedals, bringing soaring life to the darkened sanctuary.
Sarah could not satisfy the ache in her heart with her piano, no matter how hard she hammered the keys: the pipe organ, on the other hand, sang with the authority her grieving heart craved.
Brother William remained on his knees, listening as Sarah grieved through her fingers, as she mourned with her music, sobbed through twice two dozen brazen throats: darkness hid the wet-streaks soaking through Sarah's face-veil, her grief singing in the sanctuary, grieving for what was lost, what would never be, but rejoicing at what had been.

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Linn Keller 12-19-13


The young woman -- barely that, more a girl -- trembled in the back of the sanctuary, trying to hide in the rearmost pew.
She'd never been in a Catholic church in her life, but she was cold and scared and hungry, and she'd heard the music compelling, powerful, sorrowing and joyful at the same time: the doors, thank God, were not locked, and she slipped in out of the cold, collapsing on the polished wood bench.
She crossed her forearms on the pew in front of her and leaned her forehead against her thin-sleeved arms, her own grief dampening her sleeves; she was nearly exhausted, and so did not hear the quiet approach of a small set of feet.
She felt the warmed blanket drape gently over her; she wrapped it gratefully around herself.
"Thank you," she whispered.
A nun, all in white, even with her face veiled with a white silk drape, stood beside her, still, unmoving.
"I'm sorry," the girl whispered. "I'm ... cold ..."
The nun reached out a gentle hand, stroked the girl's chilled, reddened cheek with the backs of her fingers: her hand closed about the girl's wrist and pulled with a surprising strength.
The girl rose, hung her head: she was sure she was going to be thrown out, just like she'd been thrown out of her parents' house, thrown out the front door, hands hard and harsh on her wrist, her arm, the woody SLAM of the heavy door a harsh exclamation point to her disgrace.
She dared a scared glance at the silent nun's veiled face and her brows twitched a little with surprise, for it looked as if ...
Damp, she thought.
Damp ... has she been crying?
The nun raised a finger, brought it to her face as if to invisible lips beneath the white-silk veil: she led the girl across the back of the sanctuary, their tread silent: in front, those sitting in Perpetual Adoration neither saw them, nor heard their quiet passage: they were still remembering the glory of their prized organ, its soaring, powerful notes filling the empty church, adding its voice to theirs, its prayer in music, theirs in words.
The silent nun led the girl through a door, down a hall, into another door, across a room: she stopped suddenly, lay a gentle hand on the girl's cheek, tilted her featureless white head, then lowered her hand and placed her palm flat on the girl's lower belly.
"Yes," she whispered, sobbing as she did: the girl sank to her knees, crying quietly: "my family threw me out. Disgraced, my father said. He called me --"
She choked on her words.
The nun knelt with her; the girl felt the nun press a cloth to her grieving face and the girl gratefully buried her face in it.
The two leaned into one another, the little nun's arms warm and strong around her shoulders; the girl clung to the nun like a drowning man might clutch a buoy: they remained in the dark, thus, alone, save for the nearby stove: neither knew how much time passed, but finally the girl sniveled and blew her nose and drew back, eyes swollen and heavy with sorrow.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I ... don't have anyone ... I don't ... my family threw me out."
The girl lay a hand on her belly, looked down.
"He swore he'd marry me," her voice a choking whisper, "then he left, and I heard him bragging as he got on the train. He didn't know I was there."
The little nun listened patiently; finally she raised a finger, rose, and the girl rose with her.
The nun's hand was about her wrist again, and she drew her into the next room: there was a bathtub, towels, soap; she plucked at the girl's shoulder, then indicated pegs on the wall, and the tub, raised a finger as if to say, Remain, I will return: not long after, the girl was soaking in a deliciously warm tub of water: the strain of the past week, a week of hunger and of rejection, a week of fear and of running and sleeping in sheds and avoiding everyone's eye until she was utterly at her very end, until she either found relief from some earthly agency, or relief from stepping in front of the express train that came through town at a precise hour --
A knock; the door opened, the veiled nun came in with folded clothes in hand: she placed them on a chair with a hairbrush, withdrew.
When the girl was finished and dressed, her hair brushed out, she hesitantly opened the door.
The little nun stood patiently beside a small table, motioned her forward, laid a hand on a chair, drawn out and waiting.
The simple meal, humble though cold meat and bread and cheese may be, was the very best meal she'd ever had.
A tall, slender man in a white robe stepped into the single candle's light.
"I am Brother William," he said in a kind and gentle voice: "It is our honor to have you as our guest."
After a week of rejection, curses and slaps, after her own family threw her out, called her slut and whore and screamed at her to never come back, to never say she was of their blood and never to speak their name again, after learning the city treats its refuse as trash, the girl's reserves were utterly spent; she had neither strength nor resistance, and sank to her knees, the tears coming again, but the freshet washed the dirt and the grief from her heart, and when she rose, when Brother William steadied her with one lean arm around her shoulders, holding the soft cloth to her nose and whispering, "Blow," and she drew a breath and honked into the kerchief for all the world like a sorrowing child blowing her nose for her Daddy, she realized that maybe the world hadn't ended, and she would not have to step in front of that freight train after all.

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Linn Keller 12-21-13


The Sheriff waited beside a rock.
He sat on a folded blanket, another around him; he wore a coat, he was out of the wind, nothing could come at him from behind, and he waited.
"I could kill you," the voice said, quietly but distinctly, and he smiled.
"If you wanted me dead I would be already."
Sarah laughed.
"Be a dear and help me down."
The Sheriff smiled, stood; he let the blanket fall, reached up and caught Sarah as she jumped.
She'd stood immediately above him: had she wanted, a head-sized rock, dropped straight down, could have crushed his skull or at the least given him a size twelve headache.
The Sheriff grunted, catching Sarah under the arms, his hands spread wide, wrapping around her ribs: he broke her fall but let her legs take the shock of her landing, more steadying than stopping her.
Sarah laughed, then looked sadly at her father.
"Dear Papa," she said softly. "I learned something about grief last night."
The Sheriff's eyes smiled quietly; he indicated the thick, folded blanket, and the two sat: he worked the blanket around them both, and Sarah leaned against the reassuring warmth of her father.
"I should have worn my cloak," she whispered.
He unbuttoned his coat, carefully working out of it and slipped it around Sarah's shoulders.
"Won't you get cold?"
"Not as long as I'm under here."
Sarah leaned against her Papa and sighed as he put a strong, Daddy-arm around her shoulders.
"Tell me what you learned," he said quietly, and she giggled to hear his words rumble in his chest.
"I miss him, Daddy," Sarah said, her voice hollow.
"I know. I miss him too."
"He was ... my husband."
"He was."
"He was a good man."
"Yes, he was."
"Papa ..."
Linn waited.
"Papa, I felt ... I wanted ..."
Sarah's voice trailed off and she turned her head, rubbed her face into his shoulder.
"I wanted to seize the piano and put it through the opposite wall last night."
Linn nodded, slowly, patiently.
"It didn't ... have the voice I wanted."
Linn looked over at Sarah, puzzled. "The voice?"
"I ... wanted ... something loud."
"Not loud, not really."
Sarah paused, considering.
"I wanted something angry."
"Powerful. Something beyond a piano."
"Did you find it?"
"I did, Papa."
"Tell me about it."
Sarah shivered a little in spite of being warm.
"Papa ... do you remember the ... pipe organ ... in Rabbitville?"
"The pipe organ," the Sheriff said quietly, and Sarah heard the smile in his voice. "Yes. I do remember it."
"I played the pipe organ, Papa. I ... sang ... with its throat ... I played, Papa, I played better than I have ever played in my life. I sang in octaves and in chords and I sobbed so deeply the floor vibrated.
"I grieved, Papa. I cried and I cried hard."
"And nobody saw you? Nobody was there for Perpetual Adoration?"
Sarah took a shivering breath, pressed a kerchief to her nose.
"I was the White Nun, Papa. I wore the white veil over my face. Nobody could see me and I ... the organ ..."
"Nobody could hear you either."
Sarah shook her head.
"Go on."
"I ... played ... until I was cried out."
"There ..."
Linn waited patiently.
"Papa, there was a girl ... she ..."
"The girl in trouble."
Sarah drew her head back, her eyes wide, surprised, almost frightened.
"How did you know?" she whispered.
"I'm a lawman," Linn deadpanned. "I find things out."
Sarah relaxed against him again, as much for reassurance as for warmth.
"I went there to scream and to cry and to lash out," Sarah said thoughtfully, "and she ... came in because she heard my playing."
"Is she safe now?"
Sarah nodded.
"The nunnery?"
Sarah blinked, puzzling her brows a little as her Papa chuckled.
"Isn't that what they usually say in the stories? 'Hie thee to a nunnery'?"
Sarah laughed quietly, then stiffened.
Linn felt her move slowly, heard the muffled clickity-click of a revolver coming to full cock.
A shadow moved, just at the edge of visual range, and they heard a threatening snarl.
"It's all right," the Sheriff whispered. "It's just my wolf pup."

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Linn Keller 12-23-13


"They're all asleep," the maid whispered, smiling to see Sarah with her father.
"Good," Linn whispered back, hanging his hat on its peg and relieving Sarah of his coat, wrapped around her shoulders. He'd made do with the blanket for the ride home.
"Anything left from supper?"
The maid laid her knuckles gently on Sarah's reddened cheek and then patted her hand reassuringly.
"Sheriff," she scolded gently, "the poor thing's freezing! If there wasn't something hot I would certainly make something!"
"Oh, bless you," Sarah said in a small voice.
As the Sheriff drew Sarah's chair out for her, then scooted her in, Sarah leaned her elbows on the tabletop and her forehead against the heels of her hands.
"Chilled?" Linn asked, his hands big and warm and strong and comforting on her shoulders.
She nodded.
She nodded again.
"You can bunk here. You know that."
Sarah nodded again.
Mary lifted the lid on a kettle; fragrant steam billowed out as she stirred the rich, thick stew.
"You'll like this," she said in a motherly voice, ladling one, then another bowl full. "I thought stew might be good on a chilly night."
Fresh bread was brought and the Sheriff sawed through the golden crust with the serrated bread knife.
Sarah smiled to hear how hollow it sounded, almost like a crosscut saw.
The Sheriff smiled to see her amusement and pantomined a sawing motion in empty air: "Hee haw, hee haw," he said quietly, and Sarah smiled and nodded, for her Papa was being silly again, and she like it when he was silly.

When Linn finally laid down for the night, it was with an odd feeling of contentment.
He remembered their conversation, before they went to their separate bedrooms: he for his, and her for the guest room.
He knew Sarah learned that good comes even of grief; her tears, hidden by the white veil, were prayers when she had no words to pray: her grief, her tears, sung through the great pipe organ, drew in another in grief, another soul who needed her help.
"Life goes on," he said to her, holding both her hands in both of his: "we can choose to wall ourselves away from life or we can decide to live."
"What do you choose, Papa?"
The Sheriff smiled and his smile was as warm and welcoming as the bared fangs of the wolf pup he'd fed before they came into the house.
"I choose revenge," he said quietly.
Sarah blinked, unsure whether she'd heard him arightly.
"I ... don't ... understand," she said slowly. "Revenge?"
The Sheriff nodded, his eyes hard.
"My wife was taken from me," he said slowly, "and I intend to avenge myself against death by LIVING."
"I see," Sarah said uncertainly.
"You made the same decision."
"I did?"
Linn nodded.
"Your riding outfit. Rich, royal, dark purple. Hardly mourning black."
Sarah nodded, still not sure of her father's intended meaning.
"You may not have decided to avenge yourself against death by living, but you have chosen to live."
His hands tightened very slightly on hers.
"You chose to help a girl who needed help in a bad way.
"You told me you took her in and fed her and got her a hot bath and clean clothes. You told me you got her to a place of safety. You told me she will be taken care of and kept safe and provided for."
Sarah nodded.
"You did these things," the Sheriff said, his voice barely above a whisper. "You."
Sarah nodded slowly. "I did those things, Papa," she affirmed.
"And will you go back to teaching school?"
"Yes, Papa. I plan to."
The Sheriff lay in the dark, remembering how warm, how real Sarah's small hands were in his big, callused paws.
He remembered how slowly she walked, how she stopped in the bedroom doorway, how she turned and looked at him with the eyes of a hopeful little girl, how she whispered "Thank you, Papa," and then she withdrew and quietly closed the bedroom door.
"Esther," the Sheriff whispered, "I wish you were here," and as he always did, he reached a little to his right, to where Esther's hand had been for all the years of their marriage, and he remembered how their last words to one another were always a whispered "I love you," and they would fall asleep holding hands.
"I love you," he whispered into the bedroom's silence, and he closed his eyes.

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Linn Keller 12-25-13


Sarah adjusted her hat and nodded at herself in the mirror.
She and her maid drove to their whitewashed church and joined the community for Christmas Day service.
Sarah wore her emerald wedding gown; she had holly, bright green and festive, on her shoulder and on her hat -- a jarring note to those prudish souls who believed it proper to remain in mourning black for a full year.
Sarah, quite frankly, did not give a good damn for their opinion.
She spoke pleasantly to every one of those she knew to be nay-sayers, she went out of her way to speak kindly to every waspish soul she knew would gossip behind her back.
She smiled as her father and brother approached her, and turned to see Charlie bearing down on her, Fannie on his arm and a grin on his face.
Sarah laughed and ran her arm around her Papa's waist on the right, and around Charlie's middle with her left: looking from one to the other, she took a long breath and nodded.
"Thank you both," she murmured. "Merry Christmas!"
Charlie grinned, removed his immaculate, Sunday-go-to-meetin' hat and inclined his head, for Sarah was still considerably shorter than either the Sheriff or himself: "Merry Christmas, darlin'," he rumbled, and Sarah giggled and put a hand up to steady her hat.
They formed a laughing knot: her brother and his wife, Charlie and his wife, a variety of children coming in for their share of hugs and laughter; Emma Cooper, easily insinuating through the crowd, Jackson Cooper slowly flowing through the assembled like a great ship through a sargassum ocean.
Parson Belden, normally at the top of the stairs, worked his way down to them and found himself seized and squeezed around the low ribs, his hand wrung and his shoulder pounded: enthusiasm, it seems, rippled around Sarah like wavelets in a pool of shining water.
"My dear Mrs. Llewellyn," Parson Belden gasped happily, "you are lovely this day! Green is very much your color!"
"I refuse to be buried in grief, Parson," Sarah declared. "I could lie prone on my husband's grave and wail, but what good would it do? He is far beyond our poor powers to hurt or to help" -- she looked sharply at the sky pilot -- "and both of us know where he is now, is far better than this earth here below!"
The Parson nodded, suddenly sober: he'd seen war and he'd seen slaughter, and he himself knew what it was to set foot in the Valley. So surprised was the man that he didn't think to ask how she knew, for he'd never spoken of these experiences to anyone.
Sarah reached up and patted the man's chest.
"I choose to live, Parson," Sarah continued. "I believe in revenge and I'm going to practice it every day."
"Revenge is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord," the Parson murmured warningly.
Sarah's smile was dazzling as Fannie came up behind her and laid her hands protectively on the younger woman's shoulders.
"The Lord subcontracts, Parson," Sarah smiled, "and I am a subcontractor. Attend:
"Death took my husband from me.
"I avenge myself by living and by laughing, by seeing the glory of a sunrise and the beauty in the sunset. I smell flowers and eat good food and hug my Papa and I teach the young." Her eyes flashed defiance as she spoke.
"I do good in this world, Parson. I teach. I laugh. I ... appreciate."
She looked the man directly in the eye.
"Vengeance is mine too, Parson."
"I think I could make a good sermon from that," the Parson said thoughtfully.
"Help yourself, Parson," Sarah smiled, raised up and kissed the man on the cheek. "Merry Christmas!"
Sarah turned and grabbed Charlie's hand as he turned, looked at Fannie, who was studying her with those deep, glowing eyes.
"Charlie, Fannie -- and you too, Papa" -- Sarah leaned a little, snatched at her Papa's hand.
The four formed a closed circle and Sarah's face was suddenly serious.
"I think I am going to need all of your help," she said, and three agents of the Law attended closely to the words of the fourth.
Sarah's hand tightened on the men's calluses and she looked slowly from one set of eyes to another to another.
She hesitated, suddenly uncertain: she swallowed, then pushed forward, knowing that of all the souls in the world, these were the ones upon whom she could always, most unreservedly, depend.
"You two," she said, looking at Charlie and her Papa, "are brothers born of battle. If ever there were brothers not born of the same womb, you two are." She took a long breath, suddenly uncomfortable.
"You two fought on the Red Plane for my soul."
She was a little pale, her breath coming more quickly: Jacob slipped up behind her, concerned: he quietly assumed his station, knowing he might well be needed.
"And Fannie" -- Sarah was a bit more pallid, her lips standing out brightly against the increasing whiteness of her expression -- "you sent me into the mountain ... and I thank you for helping me ... rejoin."
Fannie's eyes spoke far more than words could have.
"Here's why ... I wanted you to know ..."
Sarah wobbled a little and Jacob thrust his bent leg under her backside, grabbed her upper arms, brought her back so her weight was on his thigh.
Sarah swallowed, took a moment to steady herself.
"I have no husband," she whispered. "I'm going to need some good men to help me raise our son." Her hand was flat on her belly.
Jacob shifted his grip, spun her about, thrust his face into hers: his hard hands around her ribs, under her arms, were all that kept her upright.
"What?" he whsipered, grinning.
Sarah nodded, biting her bottom lip.
Jacob hauled her off the ground, thrusting he up to arm's length, laughing: "YAHOO!" he yelled, his treble yelp echoing off the building-fronts opposite: he spun Sarah around, twice, then brought her down and hugged her, clearly delighted.
"Sis," he said quietly, "come on up to our place, we've got your Happy Birthday cake and everything!"
Sarah found herself enveloped by manly and maternal arms.
This is turning out to be a pretty good Christmas birthday, she thought, as she was chivvied inside, for services were about to start.

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Linn Keller 12-26-13


It seems almost ... like a wild vacation, Sarah thought, staring up at the ceiling.
A wild vacation.
Something temporary.
Glorious, happy ... and gone.

She lay still in her bed, the woman of the house, the matron, the widow, Queen of her domain: she smelled breakfast, she heard the domestic sounds of her maid, she waited one moment more, then threw back her covers and sat up.
I need to write to Brother William.

"Sean," the Sheriff grinned, shaking the big Chieftain's hand, "how many young'uns do you have now?"
Sean looked at the half-dozen swarming around him and laughed, bending down to take a young Irishman in each arm before standing again.
"He's lost count, Sheriff," Daisy declared, coffee pot in one hand and an infant on the opposite hip. "I dona' recall mesel'."
The Sheriff looked down at a big-eyed little boy and grinned.
"Did you come to help?" he asked gently and the young Irishman reddened and got a bad case of the bashfuls and scampered around behind his Ma and peeked at the grinning lawman from around Daisy's skirts.
"Have ye given any more thought to our idea?" the Sheriff asked.
"Th' horses? Aye," Sean laughed. "'Tis profitable t' sell our fire horses t' back East, Sheriff, but if I start raisin' an' sellin' wholesale, why, I'll glut th' market! Nah, better t' sell a few an' make a profit than t' cut th' head off th' golden goose!"
The Sheriff nodded, regarded the long-legged, red-headed little boy resting his head sleepily on Sean's shoulder.
"I'll trust your judgement," Linn murmured.
"Aye, an' well ye should!" Sean laughed. "I've been ever'where, I've done ever'thing, an' if ye believe that I'll sell ye the Crown Jewels!"
They laughed at this, it was an old joke between them, and the Sheriff nodded.
"What about yersel', ye long tall lawman?" Sean boomed. "Ye're gettin' a brood o' yer own!"
The Sheriff nodded. "I've got a few."
"I thought ye were gon' t' quit an' raise 'em."
"Yeah, I thought so too."
"Now wha' kind o' feyther --" Sean shook his head, grinning. "Nah. Ne'er mind. Ye're doin' a foin job, I can see that, but --"
He looked out the door.
Angela was riding up on her Rosebud-horse, wearing a sky-blue riding dress, holding a dainty, ruffled parasol, an absolutely beatific look on her face.
"Sheriff, who is tha' long-legged lovely an' wha' ha'e ye done wil' Angela? Good God, man, she cuid stand flat footed an' si'down on a wagon's gate!"

Jacob stepped up to the bar.
He'd come in as he always did, holding station with his back to the wall for several moments, sizing the place up: he nodded solemnly to Tillie the way he always did, then ghosted the few paces over to the end of the bar, eyes busy, tread silent; he smiled at the girl behind the mahogany bar and winked.
She nodded, looked down the hall: a silent signal was passed, and Jacob had a hot, steaming mug of freshly ground and brewed coffee.
Jacob glanced up at the black crape draped over the bar, he considered the apron hung on the hook where Mr. Baxter always placed it.
Daisy's girl laid a hand on his shoulder, then ran her arm around the long, tall deputy and laid her head on his shoulder.
"I miss him," she whispered, and Jacob ran his arm around her slender waist and pulled her close, leaning his cheek over on top of her head.
"I miss him too."
It may have been improper, in this age of complex manners and elaborate etiquette, for a married man to hold another woman in such a way, but Jacob was not a man to be bound by proprieties, especially when he felt the girl shivering with suppressed grief.
He felt pretty much the same himself.
He was just better at containing it.

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Linn Keller 12-29-13


Bonnie smiled as she read the hand-written note:
If it is not inconvenient, I will call today at one o'clock.
I have need of your advice.

There was no need to make a reply; it would indeed be convenient, or at least, not inconvenient.
Bonnie considered her day's tasks, rearranged her mental schedule: it would be rather pleasant to have her daughter visit.

Brother William broke the seal on his own note: he recognized the handwriting, smiling as he remembered the night not long ago when their great pipe organ sang with a power and a majesty he'd not often heard.
He read Sarah's words, nodding, then folded the letter and tucked it carefully in a pigeonhole in his desk.
He would consider his reply before touching pen to paper.

It was Sunday; church had been that morning; Sarah was there, subdued in her manner, if not her attire: she absolutely eschewed any shade of mourning, save only for the white-jade oval given her on her wedding day, that necklace Bonnie could have sworn was as vivid a red rose as had ever blossomed under the summer sun, but was now a rose scrimshawed in India ink, shades of black, lines of India ink inlaid into the polished stone.
She knew there were those who expressed scandal at Sarah's refusal to grieve publicly, to parade her grief for their entertainment -- as a matter of fact, Sarah confronted three of her most vocal critics, surprising them by thrusting herself in their face and addressing them quite frankly, informing them in words cold enough to freeze water that she did not intend to parade her grief for their entertainment, and she would grieve in her own way and in her own time, and she was not subject to their judgement, and they would kindly keep her good name off their forked tongues.
Bonnie did not see it but she heard the sharp SMACK of a backhand slap, and she smiled to hear it, for obviously one of the gossips did not heed Sarah's warning words.

The Sheriff sat in Sean's parlor with one boot on his foot and the other on his hand.
He frowned at his boot, turning it slowly, inspecting it closely.
Sean Michael regarded the Sheriff's actions, turned his own boot in like manner.
The Sheriff was demonstrating for the young Irishman the fine art of blacking one's boots, and the young Irishman was an enthusiastic student: though he paid close attention to his Da's teachings, he subscribed wholeheartedly to anything the Sheriff said, or did, and so when the Sheriff replied to the lad's question, "How do you keep your boots looking so good?" -- why, it turned into a lesson, and the red-headed son of the fire chief applied himself with the enthusiasm of the most dedicated of students.

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Linn Keller 12-29-13


The twelve-string guitar filled the room with a rich melody; it was a larger-bodied guitar and sang a deeper note, a richer harmony; the guitar's player was skilled and had a good repertoire.
An attractively dressed young woman sat in the back of the room, in the corner, beside a tall, well-dressed man with an iron-grey mustache: they were obviously a couple, though there was no overt sign of affection between them.
The man drank coffee, in volumes enough to keep the Daisy's girl coming back with a steaming coffeepot to keep his mug filled; the younger woman beside him sipped delicately from her teacup.
The Daisy's girl carried a note and a coin to the guitar player; he played for his supper as he traveled, sometimes making enough for a meal, if he was really lucky he could earn the price of a room as well: he didn't realize until late that night, when he picked up his inverted hat and took inventory of his take, that he'd inherited a double eagle ... more money than he'd seen in a very long time.
So surprised was he that he forgot the feminine hand that wrote the note:
Please continue playing, it read.

In one of the intermissions, when the guitar player rested between songs, when he took a pull on his beer or accepted the sandwich that an appreciative patron paid for, the Sheriff conversed quietly with his daughter.
"I wonder," he murmured, "if I will be chaffed again for being seen with a younger woman."
Sarah sighed, squeezed her Papa's hand.
"I'm an ungrateful slut anyway," she muttered. "I'm not parading tears and widow's weeds and that makes me a loose woman."
"That was the old bat you belted outside church?"
"One of them."
"You belted more than one?"
"I should have."
She felt her Papa's suppressed laughter shaking his rib cage: he patted her hand and leaned her lips close to her ear: "I'm proud of you," he whispered.

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Linn Keller 12-31-13


Jacob stood bareheaded at the grave.
It was night; it was dark; snow was thick underfoot and coming down hard, as was common this time of year.
He looked around, nodded.
"Snowing cross legged," he murmured. "Going to snow deep."
He looked down at his mother's grave.
"You taught me that."
He swallowed hard, breathing against the tightness in his chest.
"You taught me much," he whispered. "I miss you, Mother."
Jacob blinked against the sting in his eyes, harrumphed and wiped his hand impatiently through his thick hair.
"I'll take your leave now, if I may," he said, his voice still quiet; he turned, settled his hat on his head.
Apple-horse waited patiently for him; Jacob swept the snow from his saddle with his coat sleeve, swung easily into the kak.
He froze as Apple shifted his weight in preparation for that first step.
A white wolf looked at him from across his mother's grave ... a white wolf, staring quietly at him, blinking slowly ... a white wolf that did not turn or stand or trot into the thickening snowfall ... the wolf dissolved into a mist and was gone, just that fast.

Jacob paused at his front door, picked up the brush he kept there and brushed the snow from his sleeves and shoulders and the front of his coat, removed his hat and swatted it against his leg, brushed it as well.
Annette opened the door, smiling, a little one bundled on her hip: she took the brush from him, made a little twirl-around motion with it, and Jacob turned to allow her to brush the snow from his back.
He followed his wife inside, hugged her carefully, kissed her delicately, then he held her again for several long moments.
"Come," she whispered. "I kept supper for you."
Jacob did not release his wife: he laid his cheek against hers and whispered, "You are the sweetest thing I know."
Annette knew something happened, to cause her husband's sudden and serious mien: she did not know what happened, only that it was something, and wise woman that she was, as her husband held her, so did she hold him, standing near the warmth of their cast iron kitchen stove, under their own roof, with family safe and warm within, their stock secure in barn and in pasture and their cupboards and wood boxes and stocks and stores proof against what might come.
"It's the last night of the year," Annette whispered, and Jacob released her, kissed her on top of the head and drew her out a chair.
He sat himself, sat slowly, as if wore plumb out.
"New year tomorrow."
"Yes," Annette nodded.
Jacob sliced into elk back strap, stopping to savor its odor: eyes closed, he held the moment, willing it into his memory.
"I'm done with this year," he said, his voice quiet, rich in the kitchen's hush.
"Tomorrow starts a brand new one," Annette replied. "Shining, unsullied, new, we can make it as we please."
Jacob chuckled humorlessly.
"Nothing tarnishes quite so quickly as a new year," he muttered cynically. "I would like to be proven wrong, but ... nothing tarnishes quite as quickly."

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