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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 12-2-08

 

"Parson," I said quietly, "that was lovely."
"Yes, she was," Parson Belden agreed.
I looked at the man and smiled. "You do speak a good service."
Parson Belden looked at the floor and seemed almost sad.
"I wonder how many folks actually hear the words," he said softly.
I laughed.
"Parson, I know of three right off the top of my head. I'd be willin' to bet on two more, and every one of us could recite it word for word under oath in court!"
"Oh, that's right," the Parson nodded, his eyes following the crowd out the back. "Lawmen."
"And Miz Fannie. She was a badge packer too."
Parson Belden blinked. "You're right," he said thoughtfully. "I knew she was a steady woman and not easily excited ..." He let the thought taper off.
Angela came running up the aisle with a delighted "Daddy!" and I bent and swept her off her feet, spinning her around and holding her at arm's length overhead. She giggled and hid her face behind her ever present rag doll, which wore a new frock for the occasion ... matter of fact it matched the new frock Angela was wearing, which matched the new dress Esther was wearing.
Esther came gliding up the aisle and sat on the front pew, watching Angela and me making faces at one another.
Angela reached a tentative finger toward my nose and then stroked my graying mustache. "Moose-tash?" she asked, and I kissed her finger.
"Yes it is," I said, lowering her to the floor. She stood and looked up at me, then ran over to Esther, flat leather soles loud in the suddenly-quiet church.
I looked over at the Parson.
"You realize we have each seen a once in a lifetime event, don't you?"
Parson Belden was honestly puzzled, and even Esther gave me an odd look. "Now how's that?" the Parson asked, scratching his head, other hand still clasping his Bible.
"Did you see the Tail End Charlie swat Miz Fannie across the backside with the flat of his saber?"
The Parson's eyes lit up. "Oh, yes! I saw that, yes indeed!"
I looked back at the spot where it happened. "Kind of the Cavalry's way of saying she's one of them now, I think ... but it was probably the only time in recorded history that anyone ever smacked Miz Fannie across the backside, and lived to tell the tale!"
Parson Belden laughed aloud.
I walked over to my beautiful bride and offered my arm.
Esther was a bit pale today but she managed a brave smile and allowed me to pull her to her feet.
"Just getting used to my ... condition," she murmured, embarssed.
I took her in my arms and looked squarely into the emerald oceans that were her eyes.
"My dear, I love your condition." I kissed her delicately. "Feel up to walking to the Jewel?"
Esther smiled, nodded.

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Mr. Box 12-2-08

 

The Silver Jewel was as quiet as an empty church when I got there but within a few minutes it was bustling like a train station in St. Louis! The mood was joyous. People were getting drinks so they wouldn't be caught behind the rush. I had a case of champagne up from the spring room ready to start serving. When Sean came to the bar I asked him, "Remember how to do this stuff?"
"Aye! And I'll have me Ladds give a hand! It'll take more hands than yours and mine to serve these friends!"
"Thanks, Sean, I appreciate your help. Let's give these folks a good sendoff."

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Linn Keller 12-3-08

 

His Honor the Territorial Judge could be a stern figure when presiding over his courtroom, and generally was, but here at Charlie and Fannie's reception, he was anything but: he could have been anyone's kindly old grandfather, or uncle.
He leaned over and tapped his cheek and Miz Fannie kissed him, then she laid her hand on the same cheek and tilted her head a little to the side.
"Thank you," she said, just loud enough for him to hear, and Judge Hostetler gave her an affectionate look. He ran his arm around just under her shoulder blades and gave her a fatherly hug and whispered, "No sense in me rattlin' around in that rail car all by my lonesome. I don't know your plans, but if they involve gettin' out of town, it's stocked up and ready for the both of you!"
Miz Fannie's eyes were luminous, her lashes long, and the color in her cheeks betrayed the emotions that were building. She was no stranger to conflict, to the deprvations of the trail; she was a warrior in her own right, she'd seen conflict and bloodshed aplenty in her time ... but she was a woman, and kindness upon kindness was something she'd not had since ... well, for a very long time, and the Judge's offer touched her.
Charlie, of course, knew about the good jurist's offer, but he played his cards close to the vest, and besides, he liked the look in Miz Fannie's eyes when he gave her a good surprise.
Not that it was easy to surprise her: it wasn't: after all, she knew what it was to wear a star, and a badge packer learns real quick to look below the surface ... and her womanly instincts made it doubly hard to pull off a surprise.
She glanced over at her husband, who was shaking hands and grinning and he looked over at her and winked, and somehow Charlie MacNeil managed to look completely, utterly innocent.
Miz Fannie lowered her lashes, and her eyes promised much, but her smile told him that she knew something: His Honor's nod told Charlie that Fannie knew about his offer of the private railcar.
Jackson Cooper made a final pass through the Jewel and took the opportunity for a big mug of vanilla coffee, partly to get the taste of his own brewed batch off his tongue, but mostly so he could dawdle and make sure no skulkers or troublemakers had come in to spoil the festivities.
Satisfied, he waited until the church bell began its joyful announcement and the whitewashed double doors opened, and humanity poured in a well dressed stream down its steps and up the street and toward the Jewel: he made his escape past Mr. Baxter's gleaming mahogany bar and down the hallway past the kitchen, and tugged his hat brim in greeting when he looked in and saw Daisy and the ladies laboring like giants.
Just before he opened the back door, he reached in and snagged one of Daisy's light rolls, for all the world like a mischevious schoolboy snagging a doughnut.
Jackson Cooper stepped out the back door and closed it quietly behind him, took a bite of hot roll and cradled the double ten in the bend of his elbow.
Smiling as he chewed, he listened to the Jewel filling up, then he walked over to the livery to say howdy to Shorty, or at least to one of the cats.

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Mr. Box 12-3-08

 

I started setting champagne glasses on the bar, then I'd look at the growing crowd, then I'd set more glasses on the bar. We'd laid in a pretty good stock of them and it looked as if we might be about to need them all. I passed a few drinks as I was doing it, but there wasn't much interest in the bar just yet. Most people were just gathering around to congratulate the handsome couple.

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Linn Keller 12-6-08

 

"My friends!" I called.
The hubbub in the Jewel drowned my words as effectively as if I'd shouted down a well.
"My friends!" I called more loudly, not wanting to launch a full-voiced shout.
Miz Fannie put two fingers to her lips and cut loose with a most unladylike, but equally effective, whistle: her high, piercing note cut through the voices, the laughter, the restlessness, and the silence that followed was nearly as loud as she.
I raised a champagne glass.
"Folks, if I spoke of all Charlie has been and all the good he's done, I would be here for a week and a half," I began with a grin. "Don't know about you but I reckon you-all have other plans!"
There was appreciative laughter, and Mr. Baxter's neat ranks of champagne glasses began disappearing at an alarming rate.
"Let me say instead that he is a good and trusted friend, a man to ride the river with, a man who has called me brother and who I call the same." I looked over at Charlie and my throat tightened a little. It's not often I speak with such frankness for an honest affection, but now was the right time to do it.
Miz Fannie lowered her lashes, hands gentle on Charlie's arm.
"Now Miz Fannie," I said, raising one eyebrow, and chuckles rippled through the Jewel -- "now Miz Fannie is a lady I have come to admire greatly. She is an artist and a Lady in the finest sense of the word, with much more to her than meets the eye. Why, did you know --" I hesitated, and the crowd held its breath, waiting for a feline to slip out of the burlap.
I hesitated, and frowned a little, and then continued, "No, I can't tell you that about her, it could impede an investigation. Let me say instead --"
Again I made a show of hesitating.
"No, I can't tell you that, either, even though the guilty party was hanged last week.
"Let me say instead --"
Again I stopped, and looked at the floor, and then looked up, smiling.
"Well, I can't tell you that, either, save only to say that her career behind the badge has been exemplary, effective and honorable."
I raised my champagne glass. "To Charlie and Fannie, man and wife!"
There was a general roar of approval.
Champagne glasses, shot glasses and beer mugs were hoist, throats were slaked: Sean came up for air first and added loudly, "Man and wife and about time too!" -- to the general laughter of all assembled.
Fiddler Daine began coaxing the first smooth notes from his fiddle and some fellow I never saw before set down beside him with a double-strung, five-string banjo, and directly the Jewel was a-swirl with ladies and men and high good spirits.
Charlie was in much demand from the ladies, and Fannie from the men, and
when finally Annette sat down to the piano and began playing a Strauss waltz, with Fiddler Daine smiling a little and riding along on her music, for all the world as if he'd spun a skiff of violin music and was floating on the ocean of her perfection, Miz Fannie made her way over to me and laid a gentle hand on my arm.
I gave her a half-bow and hand-kissed her. "My Lady," I said formally, "may I have this dance?"
She dropped an absolutely perfectly cursty, and mein Gott! I have never danced with a better!
It wasn't so much that we danced -- it's more like I danced, while Miz Fannie floated.
Esther is good, make no mistake; she and I have long delighted in each other's arms, whether a waltz, a square dance, a reel, or any of the others we've turned to -- but never in my life have I had a partner in my arms who was so smooth, so graceful, so absolutely light on her feet, that she more floated in my arms than anything!
When the set was finished and we crossed the hall back toward Charlie, Miz Fannie leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, and I'm afraid my cheeks turned a distinct shade of scarlet.
"Thank you," she whispered, and I felt as tongue tied as a clod kicking schoolboy.
But then Miz Fannie could have that effect on men.
Charlie had managed to dance with most of the ladies in the hall, and continued to do so; at one time or another I waltzed with schoolmarm, proprietress, schoolgirls, my own little daughter -- well, not so much waltzed, as I had her sitting on my forearm and I danced while she giggled -- Jacob's Annette and the Parson's wife, Bonnie and Sarah and Tilly and Daisy, and at one point I thought I saw a shadow, a face, and for a moment I knew the ache of someone who wasn't there.
Esther was in my arms by then, and she looked at me with a knowing, so I smiled the grief off my face and kissed my beautiful bride, and the sun made the rest of its journey unheeded.
Life could be short, life could be hard, and when there was reason to laugh, and love, and dance with the women we love, we did, and we surely did that night!
Word had passed that His Honor the Judge had put his private railcar at the happy couple's disposal, and so when Fannie and Charlie disappeared -- which they did, without being noticed -- no one was sure whether they went out the front, or out back, upstairs or by wagon to the depot: the only thing of which we were sure, was they they'd gone, and we hadn't finished celebrating.
Annette, apple-cheeked and laughing, returned to her piano, and the music lasted long into the evening, and into the night.

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Mr. Box 12-6-08

 

Champagne serving went a lot smoother this time and the help of the Irish Brigade made it even smoother! When it was getting near the time for the toast, I began setting bottles of champagne up on the bar. Sean had his Irishmen right there ready to go to work. "Laddies," he said, "This stuff is as touchy as blasting caps! Now watch how I handle this, and don't let go o' the plug!" A half dozen bottles were open without calamity and everyone was tipping toward the glasses. "Take'r slow and easy here, Ladds, or you'll just come up with a glass of air!"
"Nice job, Sean, not nearly as exciting as the first time we tried it!"
"Aye, Mr. Baxter, that she's not!"

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Charlie MacNeil 12-8-08

 

Their "carriage" came to a halt before the steps leading up to the Jewel's elegantly understated portico. Charlie stepped down then turned and offered Fannie his hand, while Shorty made sure that her elegant gown never touched terra firma. Fannie thanked the livery man with a smile that raised the temperature of the afternoon air by several degrees. His answering grin was bright as he bowed from the waist then stepped back into the buckboard and clucked the horse into motion.

The couple stopped just outside the engraved glass of the front doors. Charlie looked at Fannie and drew in a deep breath. I still can't believe this is truly real! he thought. He started to reach for the crystal doorknobs, then another thought occurred to him, and he smiled.

"What are you up to, Charlie MacNeil?" Fannie wanted to know.

"Oh, nothin'," he answered. He opened the doors, and put his arm around her shoulders as if to usher her inside, then bent and scooped her up into his arms. "Just thought I'd carry my bride across the threshold is all!"

"Put me down!" Fannie demanded, but her laugh rang through the afternoon like sterling on crystal. The couple swept across the lobby of the Jewel and into the grand ballroom to the cheers and applause of all and sundry present. Charlie set her back on her feet with a flourish then bowed to her as the music began.

"May I have this dance, Missus MacNeil?" he said.

The afternoon flew by on the wings of music, love and laughter. The Daine brothers outdid themselves with their playing, and Mister Baxter's champagne supply took a serious beating as one and all competed to see who could make the most flowery toast to the happy couple. Charlie danced with the ladies of the town until it seemed that his feet could take no more, then another glass of champagne would fuel still more epic journeys across the hardwood. Fannie floated about the room on the arm of every man from Sheriff Keller to Shorty; she played no favorites, but made each man feel as if he had waltzed with an angel.

Fannie's emerald gaze found Charlie's own hazel eyes from across the room, and beckoned. He excused himself from those he was talking with; the newlyweds came together in the center of the floor, and she floated into his arms. To the senses of both, it seemed that the room went suddenly silent, as if they were the last living beings there, and all the rest merely window-dressing. Her lips came next to his ear, and she whispered, "It's time, Charlie. This afternoon has been for our friends, but this night is ours."

In perfect time with the music, they waltzed through the crowd, lost in each other's gaze; then they were in the lobby and alone. They slipped out the door then moved along the boardwalk to the railroad depot, where Judge Hostetler's private car waited. The conductor helped the couple board then closed the car's door firmly behind them, shutting out the world.

A magnum of champagne, wrapped in a turban of snow-white linen, stood on a burnished mahogany side table in a sterling silver bucket freshly filled with ice. Beside it, a Swarovski crystal vase that cradled a single, blood-red long-stemmed rose stood between champagne flutes of the same crystal. Charlie looked at the champagne then turned to Fannie with a questioning look on his face. "Later!" she answered firmly. "First, we celebrate..." She took his hand and led him toward a doorway beyond the table. He stepped through the door into the closest Man can come to Paradise on this earth...

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Linn Keller 12-11-08

 

A pannikin was produced from somewhere, and a beer mug emptied into it: the Welsh Irishman, grinning, whistled and snapped his fingers at Twain Dawg, and pointed to the shallow tin dish.
Twain Dawg's head lowered as did his tail and he slunk down the hall to the safe haven of Daisy's kitchen.

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Linn Keller 12-12-08

 

Jacob touched his father's arm and nodded, and the Sheriff looked in the direction of his nod.
Two little girls sat on the side: Angela was asleep, leaning on Sarah's shoulder, and Sarah was yawning widely and rubbing her eyes.
The two men looked at one another and grinned.
A gentlemanly deed was called for.
They worked their way through the dancers: each squatted, carefully and gently, and each slid their arms behind and under a young lady.
They bore them carefully up and into them, and each of the girls cuddled, for they recognized the strong and protecting arms though they were more asleep than not, and the dancers smiled and parted and made a path.
Daisy had just finished whirling about the floor with Sean with rather less grace than enthusiasm: her face flushed, her eyes bright, she brushed a wisp of hair out of her eyes and followed Sean's gaze, toward the approaching lawmen and their precious burdens.
Daisy put a finger to her lips and beckoned.
Sean knew his own wee lad was near to asleep, safe in a corner behind Mr. Baxter's bar; he'd been provided a rolled up towel for a pillow, and another for a blanket, and Sean scooped him easily from the hard mattress and cradled the lad against his own flannel breast.
Daisy led the way into her welcoming kitchen, pointing to a small bed in the corner, where Little Sean often napped, and the girls too, on occasion; Twain Dawg was already curled up under the bed, his tail brushing a greeting across her clean floor.
It was a close fit, but with Sarah in back and Angela next, the bed was just wide enough for Little Sean as well: all three children, at the touch of a blanket covered mattress, thin though it was, knew it to be a bed, and were instantly, fastly, deeply asleep.
Twain Dawg looked hopefully at Daisy, knowing there was biscuits and gravy to be had, and sure enough, there was, and Twain Dawg too was happy.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-12-08

 

The Judge's private car was richly appointed. The velvet drapes that had been let down and now kept the outside world at bay were of the finest material, and the gold cords that tied them back during the day were woven of the most elegant product of the silkworm's trade. The damask sheets on the polished walnut four-poster were soft to the touch, and the newlyweds reveled in the feel of the fabric as they reveled in each other’s touch.

The couple basked in the afterglow of the private celebration of their nuptials, sipping the champagne that Charlie had retrieved at some point during the festivities. Charlie looked at Fannie, and smiled. "Darlin', I'm still having trouble believing this is more than a dream."

"Trust me, Sugar, it's not a dream," Fannie laughed. Then her demeanor changed. "But all good things must come to an end, mustn't they?" she asked quietly.

"Not this one," Charlie answered after a moment. "We'll just transplant it to Denver."

"Good plan!" Fannie declared. She set her champagne flute on the night table beside the bed. "But it doesn't have to end yet, does it?"

"Absolutely not!" Charlie said. He wrapped her in his arms and the outside world faded into oblivion once again.

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Linn Keller 12-13-08

 

Railroads depended on a variety of signals, and the Lady Esther bore two: flags, white flags, one on either side of her nose, high up on the boiler.
Esther was nothing if not efficient, and she'd had Lightning wire ahead, and she made the arrangements, with other rail lines that owed her favors -- for Esther was ever one to collect favors, knowing they would come in handy -- and the Lady Esther was guaranteed swift and unimpeded passage; coaling was arranged, for she was one of the few engines of the era to burn coal instead of wood; and the trip to Denver would be nonstop, save only to fuel and to water.
The conductor leaned out and waved his red flag, Bill leaned on the whistle lanyard, and the Lady Esther leaned into her burden, drawing the few cars, this special run, this VIP run, and began building her momentum for the grade to come.

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Linn Keller 12-13-08

 

The Sheriff did his level best to dance with every last one of the ladies, and he reckoned he succeeded twice over: the night grew late, and grew later, and everyone steadily wound down.
The party kind of coasted to a stop with everyone wore out but happy.
The Irish Brigade grabbed mop and bucket and had the floor clean in short order; there was little mess to clean up, and there were some last minute forays on what was left of Daisy's good cooking.
Mr. Baxter's supply of champagne was pretty well depleted. As usual, he'd planned well, and there was maybe one bottle left unopened. There was likely some set back for future celebrations, but this one bottle stood proudly on the bar, with three glasses on either side.
Tables and chairs were set back out, Fiddler Daine put his curly back fiddle to bed and Annette carefully closed the lid over the piano keys.
Sean and his lads rotated watch at the firehouse. Tonight Sean would spend the night under his own roof, rather than in the tall horse house; he'd gone back into Daisy's kitchen and retrieved Little Sean, who was limp and sound asleep, draped over his tall father's shoulder.
Caleb wrapped Sarah in a quilt they'd brought in from the buggy. Daisy had unfolded it and held it in front of the stove -- "to chase the chill," she'd whispered -- and Sarah cuddled a little as she was wrapped in the warm, fresh smelling blanket.
Bonnie smiled and carefully settled Caleb's hat on his head, as his arms were full, and they too took their leave.
Jacob retrieved their carriage and brought it around for Annette, about the time the Sheriff brought their fine carriage around, but before he went in to fetch his own wife and little girl, he slipped across the street with a tray for Jackson Cooper, who'd stood watch over the town while everyone else celebrated.
Emma Cooper was asleep in the chair across from the desk, looking somehow small and fragile in the Aladdin lamp's light: Jackson Cooper put his finger to his lips as the Sheriff opened the door, and the Sheriff looked around the door and nodded.
Jackson Cooper rose and accepted the tray from the Sheriff with whispered thanks, and set it on the desk.
They looked over at Emma.
"She always did love a dance," Jackson whispered, "and she thanks you for dancing with her." He chuckled quietly. "She came over and we left the door open so we could hear the music, and we danced too."
The Sheriff grinned. "I'm glad," he said. "A man ought to dance with his wife every chance he gets."
Jackson Cooper nodded. "I'll make a final pass and make sure things are quiet, then I'll take her home."
"You rest easy now."
"I will." Jackson Cooper hesitated. "Charlie and Miz Fannie get off okay?"
The Sheriff nodded, grinning. "His Honor put his private rail car at their disposal, and Esther saw to it they'll head straight for Denver, nonstop."
"Bless her for that." Jackson Cooper's belly growled, reminding him of the good smells slipping out from under the clean white towel covering the tray.
"Reckon you'd best eat while it's still warm," the Sheriff whispered, nodding toward the tray.
"Many thanks," Jackson Cooper whispered in return.
The Sheriff cat-footed out the door, drawing it closed as quiet as he could, and Jackson Cooper drew the towel off the tray, grinning broadly at the repast Daisy had prepared: it was enough for two grown men and a boy, which meant he and Emma both could eat.
Unless she'd eaten already, in which case he could polish it off easily.
Jackson Cooper bent over and laid his big hand warm and gentle on his wife's hands, folded in her lap, and Emma drew a long breath, and opened her eyes.
"I love you," she said quietly, the way she always did when she woke with him, and Jackson Cooper bent down and kissed her, delicately, the way he always did.

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Mr. Box 12-13-08

 

The place was quieting down real well. There wasn't too much to do to close up this time. I had most of the glasses washed up and it was a big help when the Irish fire brigade mopped the floor. I just had a few tubs of trash to haul out to the alley and turn the lights down. Duzy had always made it a habit to have a good stock on hand so we have always continued to do so. We've never ran out but this whing ding gave us a run for our money! I'll need to count up tomorrow and see how much to order again.

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Linn Keller 12-13-08

 

Jackson Cooper made his final round through town on foot, walking on the street instead of on the boardwalk: a big man, he knew the art of moving silently, but it's nearly impossible to walk quietly on a board walk, and so he did not try.
All was quiet; he took his time, ghosting from shadow to corner, eyes busy.
Emma was secure in the little log fortress that was the Sheriff's office; he was returned in less than a half hour.
He debated on carrying his sleeping wife, then decided against it, choosing instead to kneel beside her and rest his callused hand on hers.
She woke again with a little smile, whispering "I love you," as she always did.
It was their own private endearment. Neither spoke of it, neither had mentioned it in conversations with anyone else, but it was ever her habit.
Jackson Cooper nodded toward the door and Emma stood with that gentle little smile of hers.
Jackson Cooper opened the door.
There was a sudden gout of flame and the slap-the-face concussion of a close-up gunshot.
Emma gave a little cry of surprise and Jackson Cooper reached out and grabbed the attacker's gun barrel, and then the attacker.
Good sense and reason will abandon a man at times, and it did here: Jackson Cooper twisted the pistol out of the attacker's hand, breaking the finger and ripping it free of the assassin's hand, then he drove his fist into the would-be killer's belly, hard, intending to drive his work hardened knuckles out between the shoulder blades.
His fist did not go quite that far but it took all the fight out of the shadowy killer.
He really didn't have to hit quite that hard, his left hand was wrapped around a throat tight enough to shut off blood and wind both; nor did he have to throw the unconscious form clear into the middle of the street, but he did.
He turned, remembering Emma's cry.
He felt the color run out of his face.
Emma was lying on the floor, unmoving.
Jackson Cooper snatched up his wife and headed for the hospital on a dead run.

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Linn Keller 12-14-08

 

"This is becoming a habit," I said quietly, and Esther wrapped her hand around my arm and smiled.
"Habit?" she asked, and half-veiled her eyes with a look that promised much.
"Why, Mrs. Keller," I said with a grin, "I do believe you're making eyes at me!"
Esther sighed and leaned her head against my shoulder. "Mr. Keller," she replied, "you're right."
The habit I'd referred to was driving with Angela on my lap. She was wrapped in a blanket, sound asleep, and I held her with one arm while I drove with the other. Fortunately the mare had a soft mouth and a gentle touch was all she needed.
At the sound of our voices -- though we'd spoken softly -- Angela stirred, poking one little hand out, pointing straight up.
"Duzy!" she said in a sleepy little voice, and withdrew her pointing hand back into the blanket's warmth.
I looked up.
Overhead, the snow clouds had torn themselves apart; through a rift in their heaviness, a handful of blazing diamonds shone against the velvet firmament.
I looked at Esther, puzzled; she looked at me and shook her head, smiling a little.
It wasn't far to home and we drew up in front of the broad porch.
I set the brake and dismounted carefully, not wanting to jar Angela, and came around the carriage to give Esther my hand. She made good use of the quarried granite ashlar, a yard long and two feet wide and high, I'd put in front as an aid for the ladies to mount and dismount.
We walked up the wide front steps together, our little girl in my arms and my wife on my arm, and I opened the door for them, when I heard a gunshot from back in town, and then the sound of running feet on the board walk.
Esther swept out of my way and I was into the parlor in three long steps. I laid Angela down in a comfortably upholstered chair and headed back out the door.
The mare's head came up as I came across the porch and by the time I was in the carriage seat she was dancing and eager to run.
A whistle and a flip of the reins and she was doing just that!

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Linn Keller 12-14-08

 

Smoke hazed the interior of the Sheriff's Office.
"Jackson Cooper!" I called, my rifle's muzzle preceding me as I entered.
Nothing.
I looked around, went back to the cells. The prisoner was awake but not helpful.
I strode back out into the office and something on the floor caught my eye.
Cloth?
It was just a shred, a little bitty thing, couldn't tell much more than it was a little shred of ...
I froze, cold fingers walking down my spine.
I looked more closely at the floor, then the walls.
A bullet hole -- there! In the back wall!
I set my jaw and looked closely at the floor, out the door, down the board walk as far as the lantern light would let me see.
No blood ... ?
I found a revolver with one fired round still in it, in the alley above the Sheriff's Office, toward the Mercantile.
Mr. Baxter rolled the still figure over in the middle of the street.
"Sheriff!" he called, his voice low and urgent.
I was shaking a little now. The tray on the desk was empty -- presumably Jackson Cooper and Emma had eaten -- and I'd recognized at least the color of that little piece of cloth I'd found.
The same color as Emma's dress.
I squatted beside the fellow in the street, felt for what should be a thick, ropy pulse in the side of the neck hard up against the Adam's apple.
I found it ... slow, not as strong as I'd like but it was there, and he was breathing but breathing badly, squeaking some like a man who'd been hanged but cut down before he could strangle all the way.
I handed Mr. Baxter my rifle and scooped the fellow up.
"Watch him," I said shortly and deposited him abruptly in the back of the buggy.
Mr. Baxter and I climbed in and I pointed the mare's nose toward our humble little hospital.

Jackson Cooper was inside, but instead of in the waiting area, he was in the treatment room. Susan was protesting and Jackson Cooper was paying her no mind a'tall: instead, he seized his wife's dress at the buttoned joining and fetched it apart, spraying buttons like grapeshot.
I laid the other fellow on the other work table and raised my chin to Susan. She came over and took a close look at this fellow: alarmed, she scuttled out of the room, and I heard her quick, urgent knock.
Emma groaned.
Jackson Cooper pulled her dress free down to the waist and worked it the rest of the way off her. Susan came back in and seized a sheet; flipping it expertly over the supine woman, she tried to preserve a modicum of modesty, but Jackson Cooper would have none of it.
He seized the sheet and threw it to the floor, his strong, blunt fingers reaching for the next layer of his wife's clothing.
I laid a hand on his arm. "Jackson!" I said sharply.
He fumbled at the lacing, then reached behind his belt and brought out a short knife I knew was shaving sharp.
I squeezed his arm and said, louder, "Jackson!"
Jackson Cooper stopped and looked at me, then he looked at the knife, bright and trembling in his hand.
Susan laid a calming hand on his. "Let a woman," she said firmly, and Jackson Cooper nodded and slipped the knife back in its hand-sewn sheath.
I saw him look at the fellow I'd just brought in and his eyes hardened, and his hands fisted up tight, tight.
"Jackson Cooper, what happened back yonder?" I asked, my voice cold.
Jackson Cooper shoved me aside as easily as I might have thrust Angela aside: I landed on my back on the polished hardwood floor as Jackson Cooper seized the other fellow by the front of his coat and brought him off the table, hoisting him well into the air, their noses an inch apart.
"If my wife dies," Jackson Cooper hissed, "I will kill you myself."
"PUT HIM DOWN!" I snapped, the ring of command sharp in my voice: I intended to use my words like a hard-swung whip.
It worked a little too well.
Jackson Cooper dropped the man to the floor.
"Outside!" I barked, hooking a thumb over my shoulder.
Dr. Flint was first into the room, looking at Emma, then at the fellow I'd brought in, and Jackson Cooper and I retired to the waiting room.
I drew the door closed behind us.
"Report."
Jackson Cooper took off his hat and began to twist it in his big hands.
"He tried to way lay me. Shot once at me when I opened the door," he said simply. "I heard Emma cry out but he was close enough to grab so I did. You'll find his gun up hill in the alley. I drove him one in the gut and had him around the throat and if I'd knowed he shot Emma I woulda killed him when I had ahold of him."
Jackson Cooper normally spoke in a quiet and pleasant voice, animated and easy to listen to.
His words now were flat and utterly without inflection and somehow that was more frightening than if he were gnashing his teeth and roaring profanities.
"How close was he?" I asked.
Jackson Cooper stepped to half an arm's length from me. "This close."
I nodded. It didn't really surprise me that he'd grabbed instead of drawn and fired himself: I knew the man's quickness, and I knew his strength, and I doubted me not things happened just as he described.
"How many times did that fellow fire?"
"Once."
"Did he say anything?"
Jackson Cooper bared his teeth. I can't say he smiled.
"Never give him the chance."
I nodded.
"Best have a set. We could be here a while."
Mr. Baxter came in. "I set your brake, Sheriff, and the mares are tied off on the hitch rail."
"Thank you, Mr. Baxter."
"Anythin' else, Sheriff?"
I looked to the treatment room door and considered.
"No, I don't believe. I do thank you for your kindness."
Mr. Baxter's grin was quick and genuine. "Happy to," he said, and was gone.
Dr. Greenlees opened the treatment room door and looked over a set of non-existent spectacles at us. He crooked a finger and we stood.
Jackson Cooper's hat squeaked a little, for he was still winding it into a fair imitation of a felt sausage.
We stepped inside.
Emma Cooper was sitting up at the side of her bed, holding up her dress, regarding the damage with a mixture of distress and amusement. Apparently Susan had enlightened her as to how she'd managed to lose most of her buttons. Dr. Greenlees and Dr. Flint were working quickly, urgently on the other fellow's throat: their backs were to us and we couldnt' see what they were doing and to be honest I didn't much care.
Nor, I think, did Jackson Cooper.
Jackson Cooper looked from Susan to Emma to Dr. Greenlees and back.
"You're not shot?" he blurted, and swayed a little, and if there hadn't been a handy door frame to lean against I think the man may have gone to the floor.
Susan frowned and began looking at the dress again, taking it in her hands and examining small areas of it.
Emma looked puzzled, then her eyes widened and her hand went to her mouth. She looked at Susan.
Susan shook her head.
Emma looked at Jackson Cooper and opened her mouth to say something.
Susan made a small sound of discovery and held the dress up against Emma, something pinched between thumb and forefinger.
"We have a penetrating injury to the right sleeve," she said, and lifted Emma's elbow, squinting at the inside of her right upper arm, then her right ribs.
She looked at Emma and shook her head.
"Not a mark on you," she said slowly.
Jackson Cooper took one step to his right and sank into a hard back chair, his face in his hands and elbows on his knees, his mauled hat falling forgotten to the floor.

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Linn Keller 12-14-08

 

I gave Jackson Cooper a bit of a talk. I'm not sure how much of it he heard, but I talked at him anyway.
I told him he'd likely be inclined to sit up in a chair all night and just watch Emma, just watch her.
He nodded.
He heard that much, at least.
I laid a hand on his hard shoulder and said, "Don't do it."
He turned his head slowly, regarding me with puzzlement and maybe some irritation.
"She needs the comfort of her husband," I continued quietly. "You bein' right beside her under that blanket is more good than any ten hospitals could ever do."
He blinked, looked to the floor.
"Jackson Cooper, you are my friend. I tell you this as a friend and as a husband who knows what it is to sit in this very chair and know in my absolute heart that my wife is dead." I paused. "Once we got home I was of a mind to sit in the chair beside Esther and just watch her. She asked me to come to bed, and when I did, she held me like a drownin' man holds a chunk of wood to stay afloat."
Jackson Cooper's head came up a little and he blinked a few times rapidly.
I'd got through to him.
"She's not hurt. Scared, yes, and who wouldn't be? She'll likely talk about it off and on all night long. Now tell me, what was the one worst moment of the night?"
Jackson Cooper's expressions chased themselves across his face as he relived the entire horrifying time. "She just laid there," he said slowly. "I turned and looked and she warn't movin'."
I nodded. "What happened next?"
Jackson Cooper pushed through the moment into the next. "I turned and picked her up."
"What happened next?"
His head came up a little more. "I headed out the door and acrost the street."
"What happened next?"
Jackson Cooper smiled faintly. "I come here," he said. "I played hell tryin' to beat on the door with both arms full of Emma. I finally kicked the daggone thing."
"Then what?"
"Then we were inside, an' I had to get her stripped down so we could see where she was shot."
"Was she shot?"
I have seen that expression before, I thought. A thousand yard stare, they called it.
"No."
I patted his shoulder. It was kind of like patting a block of smoothed, shaped white oak. "I can take the two of you home. We'll tie your mare and carriage to the back of mine."
Jackson Cooper shivered like he was taking a chill.
"One thing more."
He looked at me, misery graving the lines in his face.
"One shot of whiskey will ease the knots in your gut. No more than that."
Jackson Cooper shook his head. "I'm not a drinkin' man," he rumbled.
The exam room door opened and Doc Greenlees crooked his finger again.

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Linn Keller 12-15-08

 

Esther was still awake.
I knew from the smoke from the kitchen stove, coming from the back chimney, that she was still up, and probably baking.
She did that when she was restless.
The mare was glad to get back in the warm familiarity of our barn, with straw underfoot and tight fitted and rope caulked boards proof against the winter wind. There hadn't been much wind, just enough to make us all grateful for a wind break; we'd gotten Jackson Cooper home, and Emma, wearing her somewhat damaged dress but wrapped in a Hudson's Bay three point blanket over her gray wool cloak I'd retrieved from the back of her chair in the Sheriff's office.
Jackson Cooper hadn't said much, nor did he have to.
His arm around his wife said more and better than his words ever could have.
I didn't turn to look back at them; they sat in the back seat, and my rearward glances were for their mare and buggy following placidly behind.
Jackson Cooper had carried his wife inside as easily as I might have carried little Angela, and though Emma seemed just a bit embarrassed -- I think because I was there, not because he was carrying her -- she seemed pleased.
I put his mare and buggy away, muscling the smooth rolling carriage back into its place in their barn, and had it all tended before Jackson Cooper came out the door.
He shook my hand and thanked me, and I felt the tremor in his hand -- slight, but there -- Jackson Cooper was a quiet man, but like most quiet men, he was given to deep feeling, and his feelings for the diminutive schoolmarm ran deep indeed.
Now, returned to my own hacienda, I put our mare and carriage away as well, and walked to the house through the occasional snowflakes wobbling down from the heavy clouds above.
I opened the door to the smell of good bread baking.
Little Angela was still asleep in the chair where I'd placed her, but she opened her eyes at the sound of our front door. Throwing the blanket aside with both arms, she bounced out of the chair and ran across the room with a delighted, "Daddy!" and fair to jumped into my arms.
I picked her up and gave her a big Daddy-hug and said "How's my little princess?" and she giggled, putting one finger to the corner of her mouth.
We went into the kitchen and Esther smiled as I ran an arm around her and drew her close. She hugged me back, laying her ear against my chest, and gave a great sigh.
Patting my chest, she looked up at me and admitted, "I do worry so when these things happen," and in the Aladdin lamp's unforgiving light, her face was drawn and lined.
"Princess," I said to Angela, "isn't it your bedtime?"
Angela nodded, her ringlets bobbing with the vigor of her move.
"Shall I put you to bed, then?"
Angela nodded again, trying to look solemn and failing utterly.
I kissed her forehead. "Take care of your necessaries, then, and scoot on upstairs and get ready."
Angela skipped for the back door and we heard the BANG of the outhouse door. Angela had no fear at all of the dark, it was too cold for snakes, and we had no worries.
In a very few minutes Angela was back and made a fuss and splash washing her hands in the wash basin on the back porch: I knew the water had to be close to freezing, for there had been snow earlier: sure enough, when I looked out at Angela, she was just coming in, shaking her hands, and the water froze as I watched, skinning over and trapping ring-waves as it solidified.
I'd seen such things before, in an unheated cabin: I woke and walked across the floor, and saw the vibration of my footsteps in a water bucket; on my return trip across the floor, I looked again, and it was frozen, crystallized from the brief and miniscule agitation.
Angela stopped to spread her pink and glowing hands in front of the stove, rubbing them together and turning them over to warm their backs: then she ran upstairs, her little flat soled shoes loud on the smooth and gleaming wood floor.
Esther and I looked at one another and smiled, and I drew her into my embrace again.
"There was trouble," I whispered.
I felt Esther stiffen a little.
"All is well now."
Esther drew back a little and looked up at me. I remember she looked so very vulnerable.
I drew out a chair and she seated herself with the composure of the Queen herself. She drew her dignity about her like she would draw an ermine cloak about her shoulders.
I knew this meant she was steeling herself for bad news, in spite of my assurances.
"Emma Cooper is fine," I began, and as Esther's hand came to her mouth and as I saw the change in her eyes I realized that was not the best way to start.
A knot popped in the wood box and the smell of baking bread added to the warmth and comfort of our kitchen.

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Linn Keller 12-16-08

 

The Lady Esther was at once a mistake, and an innovation.
In an age when most Western locomotives fired on readily available wood, she fired with coal: not the filthy bituminous that left cars and passengers black and filthy with its exhaust, but the hard brown coal -- cleaner burning, hotter, with far more steam per pound, per cubic foot, than either wood or bituminous.
Though she was not a high-pressure-steam nor a compound-cylinder engine, she had an outsized boiler, giving her a higher pressure and greater steam volume, which resulted in greater speed and pulling power: her wheels were neither the large diameter, flatland express wheels, built for speed at the expense of power, nor were they the diminutive wheels of the freight hog, sacrificing speed for raw pulling power.
The Lady Esther was the ideal combination for her semi-mountainous terrain.
Veteran railroaders respected this new Baldwin engine for what she could do, and not an engineer saw her but wished for her throttle under his hand.
Esther had paid a premium price for the coal that waited at prescribed intervals; this, too, was a novelty: wood was the most common fuel: it was not yet cold enough for water tanks to freeze, and so when she halted for coal, she watered as well.
The Lady Esther made good time -- excellent time, as a matter of fact -- Esther had calculated their progress ahead of time with a remarkable precision, and had come up with a timetable in conference with the other railroads she'd be visiting, for the Z&W did not reach clear to Denver.
They reached each coaling station within one minute of the calculated time, this inaccuracy due to a misunderstanding on the part of another railroad's switchman. Fortunately a supervisor was in arm's reach and snatched the red lantern from the switchman's hand, knowing the track to be clear, and raised it in the high ball signal, negating the lateral swing of the washout signal.
The Lady Esther had lost momentum when Bill saw the washout signal and applied air to the brakes, but gained nearly all back by the time they reached the next coal stop.
She set a record that night, as well she might, for as powerful as she was, she was running light: engine, tender and one car, a special, running two white flags, a priority run, to be given precedence over every other train on the line.
Telegraph messages paralleled her progress and ensured that there would be no more mix-ups on the part of switchmen who disliked the thought of another railroad's special on his lines.

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Linn Keller 12-18-08

 

Angela was waiting at the top of the stairs.
If I'd never seen her before I would have thought her an angel, swept in through the window to land at the head of my stairs, for her white flannel nightie and the wide sleeves looked ... well, I'm just an old softy, I suppose.
I swept her up off the floor and she hooked an arm around my neck.
I turned her bed down, one-handed, and swung her back and forth in my arms like she was in a summertime swing, and then swept her down into her bed, thrusting her pink bare feet neatly between bottom and top sheets.
She let go of my neck and I drew the covers up over her: they were thick and fluffy and I knew them to be warm, for ours was made the same way, and often times through the night I would have to turn them back to keep from over heating, but that is with two warm bodies in bed together. One alone, I reckoned, would be perfectly comfortable.
Angela had never once wanted to come over and crawl in bed with us. Like most fathers I'd listened carefully to talk about others' children, and I'd heard fathers and mothers alike describe how they had, with varying degrees of patience -- or impatience -- encouraged their young to return to their own beds, or how at odd hours through the night, a small form would crawl into bed, or jump into bed -- Caleb told one time of Sarah absolutely jumping into bed and knocking the wind out of him, and from the look on his face when he told the tale, she'd either done it with a sharp little knee, or caught him in a delicate place when she did it.
Either way sounded unpleasant.
Angela, now, had not even had nightmares.
It wasn't nightmares we considered in this private moment, though.
I drew the chair up beside her bed and held one of her warm little hands between both of mine, and she rolled up on her side facing me.
"Did you say your prayers?" I asked in a gentle Daddy-voice.
Angela nodded.
"Did you wash your hands?"
Again the nod, and a smile.
"Get everything taken care of?"
Another nod, and a sleepy blink, and a yawn.
"Would you like to help me pick out a Christmas tree tomorrow?"
Angela's eyes opened wide and she nodded vigorously.
I patted her hand. "Good. You know how us men are. We need the ladies to help us in such matters."
Angela nodded solemnly, assuming the mantle of a consulting female. She'd seen her Mama regarding styles and colors and she knew the importance of a lady's eye in matters of beauty, and so it was only natural that a lady be consulted for something as beautiful as a Christmas tree.
"We will have to choose two trees, you know."
Angela's brows quirked momentarily, puzzled at the idea.
"We have to pick one for us, you know. It will be in the parlor downstairs."
Angela nodded slowly, her eyes shifting as she considered how that would look.
"We must pick one for the Silver Jewel as well. We will have a Christmas party, and a tree will be essential decoration."
Angela smiled, a broad, toothy smile, and she hid her giggle behind her rag doll.
I leaned down and kissed her forehead. "Rest easy, Princess."
Angela wrapped her hand around my thumb, one quick squeeze the way she always did, then she withdrew her arm under the covers and cuddled into her pillow, and I think she was asleep before I was across the threshold.
Esther was brushing her hair out the way she always did, before she braided it for bed, and I went up behind her and squeezed her shoulders, one hand high on each of her upper arms, one gentle squeeze: it was our private communication: I used it often in public, and to the casual eye, simply looked like an affectionate gesture between husband and wife.
Esther knew it to mean, "You are a beautiful and desirable woman, and I desire you greatly."
She often colored and dropped her eyes with a quiet smile when I squeezed her in such a manner, in public.
She needed that reassurance, that normalcy, after I'd described Emma Cooper's difficulties, and Jackson Cooper's upset.
"Angela will help me choose a tree tomorrow," I said quietly. "Be pleased if you could come along."
Esther had just separated her mane into three equal parts, and now released them, letting them fall free. She stood and turned and took my hands in hers.
"I would like that very much, Mr. Keller," she said quietly, and raised her face a little.
I lowered mine to meet hers.
She tasted of Earl Grey tea and butter, for we'd had to try that fresh baked bread, and I'd taken pains to get the butter and crumbs out of my mustache.
A good thing, that.
The first kiss lasted for a little while, and the second one lasted longer than the first.
Angela was not the only lady I carried to her bed that night.

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Linn Keller 12-19-08

 

The Lady Esther coasted into the depot like a ghost, silent in the snow, exhaust big and white and pluming back over her single passenger car.
Bill grinned and eased them to a gentle stop: railroaders took pride in coming into the depot with a pure white stack, and in the precision with which they could position their passenger cars.
In this case, Bill centered the passenger car exactly where he wanted.
Miz Fannie, he thought, can step off the bottom step and right onto the board walk.
The board walk and indeed the entire depot platform were both free of snow: when a white flag train approached, hands were turned out to make sure everything was just right: if the city of Denver wasn't going to turn out with a brass band, the railroad was going to make sure this visiting dignitary would have a favorable memory of the receiving depot!

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Charlie MacNeil 12-19-08

 

Charlie and Fannie smiled at the precision of Bill's entrance to the Denver railroad depot. "You realize, of course, that what Esther did for us is at the very least gonna annoy the living hell out of some people, if it hasn't already?" Charlie asked his new bride.

"Of course," Fannie answered. "But do we care?"

"I reckon not," he told her. "I've been annoying people for a lot of years. I don't see any reason to change now. I'm too old and set in my ways."

"You certainly weren't too old a few hours ago," Fannie said saucily. Charlie had the grace to blush just a skosh before he stood up and put on his hat. He held his bent arm out to his wife of twenty or so hours.

"Shall we make our grand entrance, Missus MacNeil?" he asked.

Fannie rose and took his arm. "By all means, Mister MacNeil." The conductor opened the door then stepped down to the platform and offered Fannie his hand. She took his hand and floated to the platform with an elegance fit for a queen, then turned to wait for Charlie.

Charlie arrived at her side and the conductor said, "I'll have your bags delivered to your hotel, Marshal. And there's a carriage waiting for you out front."

"Thanks, Cecil," Charlie said. He drew the conductor aside for a moment and said softly, "I owe you a big favor."

"Don't thank me, thank Miz Esther," Cecil answered with a laugh. "She arranged it all."

Charlie reached into his pocket and drew out some bills. "I at least get to leave the tip, don't I?" he asked.

"That's not necessary, Marshal," Cecil said. "Miz Esther would have my hide if I let you do that."

Charlie pressed the cash into Cecil's hand. "It's almost Christmas, Cecil. Buy that pretty wife of yours something extra nice."

"Well, since you put it that way..." Cecil took Charlie's hand and squeezed it, hard. "Thank you, Marshal." He stepped back with a wink, and a nod toward where Fannie waited. "You'd best not keep your own wife waiting, Marshal."

"I reckon you're right," Charlie said. He went to Fannie and offered his arm, and the couple swept grandly through the station to where a gleaming, highly-polished carriage drawn by a matched pair of dapple grays stood waiting. A familiar figure stood ready to open the door for them.

"Ozzie!" Charlie exclaimed. He held out his hand. "You're looking good for a man who almost had his arm taken off by a shotgun!" The two men shook hands, and Charlie turned to Fannie. "Darlin', this is the gent I told you about, Ozzie Smithers. Ozzie, my new wife, Fannie."

Ozzie took Fannie's hand in his with a courtly bow, and brushed his lips across the knuckles. "The pleasure is all mine, Missus MacNeil," he said. He gestured to the gleaming conveyance parked at the curb. "Your carriage awaits."

"Thank you, Ozzie," Fannie said. "Charlie has told me so much about you."

"I categorically deny everything of an incriminating nature," Ozzie said with a smile. He turned to Charlie. "Marshal, everything's ready for you, whenever you come into the office."

"I'll be there in the morning," Charlie said. "And I told you to call me Charlie. Any man who takes lead meant for me doesn't have to stand on formality. And besides, you've been running the show since I've been gone, so you probably know more about the Denver Marshal's office than I do right at the moment."

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Linn Keller 12-21-08

 

Daisy shivered and chunked another wood into the stove. It had snowed and it had got cold and she was grateful to be in her nice warm kitchen. She'd turned over the Silver Jewel's duties to her lasses, as she called them, in full confidence they could keep the populace fed and well fed; she did this a few times a week, for she was a wife and a mother and she took a fierce pride in caring for her wild Irishmen.
At the moment Little Sean was running butt naked through the house, shreiking with delight, with Big Sean clamoring along behind him, making all the subtle and gentle noises of a bull charging across a field: Daisy refused to look, for when she did, she saw Big Sean's swinging arm miss the glass shade of a kerosene lamp by maybe a quarter of an inch.
The commotion dissolved into laughter, high-pitched little boy's laughter and Sean's deeper-toned riscibles, followed by Sean's steady tread into her orderly kitchen.
Daisy turned to admonish the pair not to bring their games and commotion into her suzerainty, until she saw Sean holding Little Sean by one ankle, as casually as a man might carry a slab of bacon: Little Sean was wiggling in his father's grasp, laughing and swatting at Sean's pants leg.
"Daisy m'dear," Sean said with a surprising gentleness, but merriment in his Irish-blue eyes, "would this wee thing belong to you?"
Daisy put her hands on her hips and regarded their red-faced tadpole with a mock-critical eye. "It looks like it needs a bath," she declared, which induced another cascade of laughter and protest, to which Sean responded by hoisting the lad until his wee bare foot was against the ceiling; this put them eye-to-eye -- though each one regarded the other as being inverted, relative to his own plane of existence -- Sean then seized the other diminutive ankle and, planting both his son's feet on the ceiling, said "Well, lad, ye heard th' lady, let's be off f'r yer bath" -- and so saying proceeded to walk the lad across the ceiling.
Daisy hid her smile behind the corner of her apron.
Sean stopped and looked with utter innocence at his beautiful bride. "Daisy m'dear," he said, "what'll I do wi' the ice on th' tub?"
"Oh, the tub's no' filled," Daisy said, waving her apron's hem at them. "But ye'll have t' bathe him quick-like, for I don't want him froze in th' tub. He'll be there until spring thaw!"
Sean released Little Sean's right ankle and ran his big arm behind Little Sean's shoulder blades: with a flip and a catch he had the lad upright, holding him about the ribs in his two huge hands while the excess blood ran from the lad's head, steadying his little Irishman until the dizzies passed.
"Little Sean," Sean boomed, regarding his son with fondness, "did we leave yon tub on the back porch?"
Little Sean nodded vigorously, which caused another wave of dizziness; had his father not had a good two hand grip about his chest he would have fallen. Sean realized this and maintained his grip.
"Then I'll no' dunk ye in a tub o' freezin' water."
Little Sean laughed. It had been a hollow threat anyway: he'd had his Saturday night bath for the week, and the threat of a bath in the morning had gone from threat to standing joke, and it was part of their morning ritual at least three times a week -- every time Sean was at home instead of in his beloved horse house.
Wood popped loudly in the stove's fire box.
"Well, if ye're no' goin' t' ha'e a bath," Sean declared, "ye need t' get some clothes on! Ye'll catch yer death o' the live-forevers!" So saying, he released his hold on Little Sean's chest.
Little Sean charged across the floor and upstairs, bare feet slapping happily on the polished wood, and they heard him making a great fuss of getting dressed upstairs.
Daisy looked at Sean, laughter in her eyes. Her hands caressed his flanks, and his, hers: he drew her into him, and she let him, and they tasted one another's lips, remembering the night before, and how they'd been passionate as only true Celts can be passionate.
As they lay glowing in the silence that followed, Sean whispered that he would have to check the foundation stones of the house come daylight.
Daisy whispered sleepily, "Now why would ye do that, ye great Irish oaf?"
Her hand was caressing his broad, muscled chest, and he laid his callused paw on her slender hand and replied quietly, "If the earth shivered as I felt it, we may've slipped off our foundation!" -- to which Daisy smiled, and cuddled up against her great Irish chieftain.
Content, spent, warm, intertwined, they'd slept.
Now, in the pale light of morning, with the stove warming their one side, they remembered, and they smiled.
"Daisy me dear," Sean whispered, "you are a beautiful woman."
"And you are a handsome man," she whispered back, and Sean lowered his head again, until their lips just touched.
Little Sean came thundering downstairs, carrying his shoes, his shirt tail awry and one gallus hanging. "Okay, I'm dressed!" he declared in his high,piping, little-boy voice. "Can I eat now?"
Sean couldn't help it.
He began to laugh.

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Linn Keller 12-22-08

 

Little Angela's expression was bright and anxious as she bounced on her toes, looking at me with a little girl's Daddy-lets-do-it-now! expression, and I put down my fork and smiled.
Picking her up, I set her on my lap and kissed her forehead.
She ducked her head and giggled but never pulled her hands out of her furry muff.
"Angela," I said, "you look like you're ready to go out in the cold!"
She nodded, smiling, her white teeth gleaming.
"Now why ever would you want to go out there? It's cold and it's snowy and ..."
"The Twee!" she exclaimed, bouncing on my lap. "The Cwifthas Twee!"
I wrapped my arms around her and gave her a big Daddy-hug and laughed, a good relaxing laugh, for it is delightful to look at the world through the eyes of a little child.
"Angela," I said, brushing a stray curl away from her forehead, "I'm an old man, and old men have to eat a good breakfast before they can go out and get a tree. I can't get up until I clean my plate, and there's lots to eat here, would you like to help me eat?"
By now the good smells of Esther's cooking had worked their magic on the little girl's stomach, and she nodded enthusiastically, so I picked her up and eased her carefully into her Angela-sized chair: she was halfway between Esther and myself, and Esther was looking at me with a quiet smile as if to say, "You scoundrel, you slickered an innocent!"
Esther had warmed the heavy ceramic serving plates on the stove before she loaded them with bacon and eggs and fried taters; they'd been sitting on the table for a few minutes but the heavy warmed plates kept them from cooling off too quickly.
Angela ate fastidiously, and for a miracle, not in too much of a hurry.
Esther and I exchanged a look and I could tell she was thinking the same thing.
"Angela," I said gently, "I am very proud of you."
She looked up at me, surprised, the tail of a strip of good thick bacon protruding from her healthy-red lips.
"When I was your age," I continued, "and we had a Christmas tree to bring in, I would have plainly inhaled my plate. You are eating in a ladylike manner, and I am very pleased."
She happily masticated the bacon, eyes shining with delight.
Few things please a little child more than the praise of a parent.
I buttered a slab of good home made bread, the worry-bread Esther had baked the night before, as Esther spoke up.
"Angela, before we bring in the tree, we must have the parlor ready to receive it."
Angela looked at her mother as she forked a big wobbly pile of taters at her mouth and, distracted, manged to miss, but she was leaning over her plate, and the avalanche was salvaged without difficulty.
"Your Daddy has to testify in court this morning. That will give us women" -- she gave Angela a look, some secret communication that the women folk use -- "us women time enough to get the parlor ready."
Angela was momentarily uncertain: she'd been counting on going out and getting a tree with her Daddy, but at the prospect of being included in the secret art of Being a Woman -- well, I thought, once she gets another ten years on her I'll have to stand at the door with a club, for that smile will flash across the continent like a lighthouse beacon,summoning eligible bachelors from as far as Frisco!
I took a sip of coffee and closed my eyes with pleasure as the warm, fragrant drink caressed its way down my throat. Esther's coffee was always good, and any coffee was better than what we had on the stove at the Sheriff's office.

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Linn Keller 12-23-08

 

The Honorable Judge Hostetler made short work of the two cases brought before his bench, sentencing the arsonist to hang, and finding no fault with Jackson Cooper's handling of the fellow who tried to kill him from ambush. The scoundrel had the discourtesy to die, but fortunately Dr. Flint listened attentively as the assassin gasped out what little he could before his soul took wing from our mortal coil.
"The Court recognizes a death bed statement as it does a sworn statement," His Honor intoned. "Dr. Flint, please proceed."
Dr. George Flint, dignified in a tailored suit, spoke in plain, unaccented syllables; his diction, his accent, his verbal cadencing and the framing of his phonemes were all indistinguishable from our own.
"The decedent," he began, "was the last surviving member of the family Carsey."
My head came up sharply.
"He thought Jackson Cooper was the Sheriff, and sought to avenge himself for his uncle's disgrace and demise."
Dr. Flint looked directly at me. "The decedent indicated that he was the last of his family. From his last words I believe there are no more to follow."
Carsey! I thought. Dead and buried and still he gets people killed!
Emma Cooper raised a kerchief to her lips, turning to look at her husband, clearly worried.
Jackson Cooper's eyes dropped to the floor halfway between his boot toes and His Honor's, tracking slowly back and forth, finally turning to bear on his wife.
I was in a fair position to watch the court: I'd seated myself off to the side, and had a good view of the two entrance doors and all assembled. Jackson Cooper looked over at me with the conflicted expression of a man who knows that he did what had to be done, but something terrible nearly resulted.
As Court was mercifully brief, I excused myself; His Honor had no pressing matters for my office, and so I joined Jackson Cooper and Emma as they headed for their carriage. It was cold and clear that morning, perfect for bringing home a tree.
Emma was still shaken by the experience. She was made of strong stuff, but the realization that someone had just made a sincere effort to murder the one soul in the world you genuinely, truly loved, had been too much for her: she'd passed out and hit the floor, and Jackson Cooper had thought her shot dead.
I was not so foolish as to think him unaffected by the experience.
Jackson Cooper helped his bride into their carriage and then turned to me, shedding the memory of that dark night like a dog shakes its coat and sheds water after a swim.
"I've cut a tree for the Jewel," he said with a grin and without preamble: "it's tall, it's thick, it's sitting in a bucket of soaky-wet sand."
I laughed and nodded. "You just saved me some work, Jackson Cooper," I laughed. "Angela and I were going to go out and cut one for the Jewel." My words formed little vapor-puffs on the still air. "We won't need two trips now. Many thanks!"
Jackson Cooper winked at me and climbed into the carriage.
I watched as he fetched out a second buffalo robe and bundled Emma up even more than she'd wrapped herself.
A light hand rested on my forearm.
I turned and found Daisy's dancing eyes regarding me with amusement.
Jackson Cooper flipped his reins and clucked at their mare, and their buggy began jingling up the street.
Daisy nodded toward Jackson Cooper's retreating backside. "Yon's a man in love wi' his wife," she said quietly.
I nodded, looking after the pair. Emma was now leaning against the big deputy, and his arm was around her robe-covered shoulders.
"He reminds me o' you an' Esther," Daisy continued.
Something soft splattered against the back of my coat and I heard Little Sean laugh; a small nimbus of snow sparkled around me, and I knew he'd scooped up a double handful and tossed it in my general direction.
Sean laughed his great Irish laugh and clapped a hand on my shoulder.
"Gi'e the lad another year an' he'll be makin' snowballs," he declared.
"I shall have a hat hammered out of sheet metal for the occasion," I laughed.
Sean's laugh matched my own. "Aye, an' ye'll need it! He's a busy one, too!"
Sean's expression flowed from laughter to puzzlement.
"There is one thing I canna' figure," he said, as if admitting to a surprising truth.
"What's that?"
"One o' the ladies that works upstairs makin' beds an' the like asked Little Sean what his mither's name is." Sean removed his wool cap with one head and vigorously harrowed his hair with the other.
"What did he say?"
Sean looked at me with absolute puzzlement. "He said his mither's name was Daisymedear!"

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Linn Keller 12-24-08

 

Angela pulled herself to a standing position behind me on the saddle, keeping her feet carefully on the broad leather saddle skirt. She wore a riding skirt, like her mother, she was bundled well against the cold, like her mother, but with the restless impatience of childhood she was not content to ride behind me on Hijo's broad hind.
Leaving her muff to dangle by its ribbon, she seized a good handful of my winter coat and with some scrambling and tugging, pulled herself up to standing height.
We were in sight of Jacob's house. Esther rode beside us on Edi, Duzy's paint mare; she loved to ride, steadfastly refusing to use the supposedly more modest side saddle -- "If God Almighty had intended for me to ride that back breaking monstrosity," she declared with a lift of her chin, "He would never have given me riding skirts!"
I had ordered her a fine side saddle shortly after we were married: fortunately, she'd made her declaration before it could be delivered, and I cancelled the order before leather was cut.
Angela raised up on her tippy toes and waved vigorously.
Jacob waved back, as best he could with one arm half loaded with wood; we were yet a quarter mile distant, but the air hereabouts had such a marvelous clarity as to enhance a man's vision over an astounding distance.
Hijo and Edi both stepped up their pace, snow falling in flat clods from their hooves, knowing the welcoming warmth of a good tight barn was just ahead, and knowing they would have a respite, if only a brief one, from winter's cold bite. It was nearing the heat of the day and not up to freezing yet; I was grateful for gloves and a good heavy coat, and we were soon in Jacob's house, the horses in the barn, and Angela laughed as I handed her down to Jacob at his front steps: her feet never touched snow, Esther dismounted on the clean-swept carriage stone Jacob had installed near his front steps, and I was obliged to kick the snow from my boots after I got the horses put away.
Annette was smiling and saying something to Angela, wiping her little red nose with a maternal delicacy while Esther looked approvingly at the younger woman's spontaneous action. Jacob shook my hand as I came in the door and hung my hat on its peg.
"We've coffee," he said, "and we've enough if you brought your appetite!"
I heard Angela's little-girl "Thank you," and Annette's modest, "You're welcome, Angela," and then Angela's flat-soled shoes went pitty-pattering across the room at nearly a dead run and she seized Jacob around his leg with a delighted, "Jacob!"
Jacob bent down and picked her up, bringing her eye level. "Now what brings you up here on a cold day like this?" he asked, giving me a knowing look.
Angela arched her back and, throwing both arms wide, announced to the ceiling overhead, "A Cwifthas twee!"
"Why, we'll just have to see about that, won't we?" Jacob said with mock gravity. "What kind of a Cwifthas twee do you have in mind?"
"A nice one!" Angela said with an emphatic nod. It's for Daddy's parlor!"
"Daddy's parlor?" Jacob asked, blinking as if startled. "Isn't it Mommy's parlor too?"
Angela nodded, sparkling eyes big and serious.
"Then we'll have to find the nicest tree in the mountains, won't we, Punkin?" Jacob asked, tickling Angela's belly, which made her twist and squeal and giggle all the more.
Jacob squatted and set Angela down, straightened.
"Got one picked out," he said to me, and I nodded.
Angela's nose wasn't the only one that started to run when we came in out of the cold. Jacob's house was well built and tight -- not a single draft anywhere, save only the good draft up the chimney -- and the welcome heat from the kitchen stove made the kitchen the friendliest room in the house.
Angela was surprisingly patient while the adults discussed adult things and drank adult coffee. Annette fixed her coffee, too, well diluted with cream -- real cream, she explained, the kind only a princess would drink, which made Angela's eyes go big and round, for her Mommy had told her about knights in armor and princesses in fine dresses, and dragons that ran around with very bad manners and had to be whacked over the head with the lances those fellows in the tin suits carried.
In her mind's eye Angela imagined shirts made of flattened-out Arbuckle's cans, laced together with piggin string, but that was fine with her, for the girls all wore fine silk dresses, and she knew what silk was, and ribbons, and bows.

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Linn Keller 12-24-08

 

Mr. Baxter had recruited several willing hands and gotten the bushy, tall and gloriously full tree standing upright and braced with some carefully hidden strings going back to small nails tacked into the wall. The tree's bark had been whittled a bit to allow it to take up water and the butt stood in a bucket of sand, a finger's width from standing level full of water.
Ornaments and strung popcorn made it shine and candles, yet unlit, were tied to its branches. Sean supervised this, tying most of them himself, placing them so their heat would rise and not catch an overhanging branch afire: he'd fought too many Christmas fires, and had long been of the opinion that it's far cheaper, and much less work, to prevent a fire than to fight a fire!
Trees went up here and there that night, Christmas Eve, a night for stories and cookies and baked goods and remembering. Ornaments were brought to light for the only time in a year, held up and spoken of and remembered, carefully hung and admired. Gifts were placed, drinks were poured, and by the time darkness claimed the streets, most were indoors, and most were changing, for all knew Fiddler Daine was tuning his bow, and Mr. Baxter would have chairs stacked and tables moved out of the way, and Daisy and her cadre would have the air thick with the welcome smell of Christmas goodies.
Even the Lady Esther wore green for the season, a wreath on her nose, not too crudely made if you didn't look terribly close: Bill was a superb engineer but he was no artist, and his use of wire was more geared toward emergency repairs than it was to Yule decorating.
Lightning was standing out on the platform when the Lady Esther and her few cars ghosted into station, her exhaust pure white in the cold mountain air.
Lightning made a show of consulting his watch.
"Right on time," he said proudly.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-24-08

 

The gleaming carriage delivered Fannie and Charlie to their hotel in grand style. When the couple swept through the double doors, all eyes were on Fannie. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold, and her emerald eyes sparkled in the light of the hurricane lamps that hung on the walls. A tall Christmas tree stood to one side of the hotel lobby, the dark green of its needles in glorious contrast to the sparkling cut-crystal ornaments that spun and twinkled in the breeze from the open door.

Charlie reached back with his boot heel and tapped the door shut behind them, and Fannie slapped him on the arm. He looked at her with a shrug and a smile, as if to say You can take the boy out of the country... They stepped up to the front desk and were greeted by the clerk's smile and a silver key.

"The honeymoon suite is ready, Marshal. Top of the stairs on the right," the clerk said. "Mister Smithers told us you would be here."

"Thank you..." Charlie said. He took the key from the clerk's hand.

"Martel, Wallace Martel," the clerk answered cheerfully. "If there's anything we can do for you, just let us know. There's a bell pull in your suite. Give it a yank, and we'll have someone there to help you."

"Merry Christmas, Wallace," Charlie said. "I expect you'll be heading home to spend time with your family, eh?"

"I have no family," Wallace said softly. "I generally work on Christmas so those who do have family can be with them."

"Then you will join us for dinner!" Fannie declared. "As well as anyone else unfortunate enough to have to take care of us tonight!"

"I couldn't..." Wallace began.

Charlie stopped him with an upraised hand. "I learned a long time ago that I can't win an argument with this lady unless she wants me to," he said emphatically. "So I reckon you'd best just say thank you, and pass the word to anyone else who's working here tonight to meet us in the dining room about six. And that includes the chef."

"Thank you," Wallace said quietly. "I'll pass the word."

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Linn Keller 12-28-08

 

Angela was intrigued by the tree shushing along in the snow behind me, and the singing-taut lariat that held it to my saddle horn: she rode behind Esther, her head turned owl-like to watch the evergreen following along behind me.
We came to a grade and I ho'd Hijo, easing the wrap around my saddle horn, and paid out a bit more line before giving him the go-ahead. It was down hill and I had no wish for the tree to take on a life of its own and come ramming into Hijo's hind legs.
We started down the grade.
Sure enough, the tree began to catch up with us.
I touched Hijo's ribs with my heels.
He surged forward, a little too well, and the tree picked up speed behind us.
Hijo had been listening to the tree whisper to the snow and he hadn't liked it one bit: he saw his chance to be rid of the thing and figured to outrun it, and run he did.
The tree, unfortunately, was keeping up with him.
We came to the high meadow and Hijo had his speed up, and had hit his stride, and we crossed the meadow at a flat out gallop.
I saw this was going to become a really bad idea, really quickly, so I spun the reata from around the horn and let it fly free, then brought Hijo around.
The tree shot past us and Hijo turned to see this green pursuer sail right on by.
Edi had given chase and Esther had let her, and they drew up near to me. Angela's delighted laugh floated on the cold, clear air, and I recall how red her cheeks were, and how white her teeth.
The tree sailed for near to twenty yards and coasted to a stop.
The rest of our trip home was quite uneventful: for all its travel, the tree was undamaged, and though Angela wasn't as much help as she thought she was, she took full credit for erecting and decorating the tree in our parlor.
Jacob had chosen well. The tree was full and thick and just the right height, unlike most of the tall, spindly, sparsely branched evergreens that grew up-mountain.
It took a folding ladder for Angela and I to reach the very top of the tree, but we made it, and Angela placed the final drape of hand-strung popcorn, and the hand-blown glass bulbs on the uppermost branches.
We finished decorating in time to make the church service that evening, but only just, and I'm afraid my hands were still spotted with pine tar as we sat in the pews that night.
Esther frowned a little as I used the sharp edge of my Barlow knife to scrape the sticky off my palm, and wipe it off the blade onto my boot sole.
I don't know why she frowned.
I didn't cut myself or anything.

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Linn Keller 12-29-08

 

Angela sat very still between her Mommy and her Daddy.
Mommy always smelled of lilac water and soap. It was a good smell, a Mommy-smell, and sometimes she smelled of baking bread. She often smelled of the good outdoor air, especially when she took Edi and rode to her new brick works or to the round house, unless she took the buggy.
Angela liked it when she took the buggy 'cause that meant Angela was going too, and she liked going places with her Mommy and her Daddy.
Her Daddy sat very still, his head tilted a little, listening. Angela smiled up at him, and he looked down at her with his solemn Daddy-face, only it wasn't quite so solemn 'cause he winked at her, and his blue eyes sparkled in the candle light. There were lots of candles and it smelled of bees wax in the church.
Bees wax, and evergreen.
The church was silent for a moment, but only for a moment; there was a man in front wearing a funny robe of a coarse white cloth, almost like one of Mommy's long robes, only it looked like it slipped on over his head and went to the floor and it had long sleeves and the sleeves were big and open at the ends. His belt was just a rope, and Angela mentally compared the neat, round, bald scalp thrust up through a ring of hair with her Daddy's thinning scalp.
She imagined her Daddy in one of those funny long robes, and stifled a giggle.
Angela giggled a lot.
Angela had seen Fiddler Daine and his brothers making music and she knew this man in the funny robe with the funny bald head was going to make music, too, and he did.
The monk was passing through: Brother William, a Cistercian monk, who sought and received the hospitality of the Firelands church for the occasion, and who offered song in exchange for his keep.
Parson Belden, knowing this history of this winter's night, accepted the monastic offer, and honored his gentle request for the use of a double-strung Mexican guitar that had somehow found itself into his quarters well before he became a tenant.
The monk's voice was gentle and carried well in the expectant silence.
"Franz Gruber," he began, "was a German priest who wished to have music for his congregation on Christmas."
He smiled, his eyes moving easily over the assembled.
"Unfortunately, mice get hungry, and church mice especially, and the resident mice ate the leather bellows in the church organ.
"Franz Gruber was a musician and he played a guitar, though his wasn't quite so nicely made as this." Brother William's hands caressed the figured, shaped body of the Mexican guitar. "His was made of cold German wood, grown in the snowy mountains; it sang with a high throat, and he had to make allowances with the music he wrote as a result."
Brother William's fingers were restless on the guitar's neck, as if anxious to play.
"This guitar was crafted by strong brown hands under the warm Mexican sun, and it sings a deeper note, but I think we can get it to work."
His callused thumb coaxed a chord, another, from the deep-toned instrument.
"Franz Gruber was German, and so his song was written in German, and so I shall sing."
He smiled, began a slow series of notes.
"I'm sure you'll recognize it."
Brother William began singing, his voice soft and gentle, carrying to the furthest reaches of the silent church:
"Sille Nicht,
"Hellige Nicht ..."

Angela's hand tightened excitedly on her Daddy's finger.
She knew the song!
She began to sing, softly, not wanting to disturb Brother William, but unable to keep from joining her happiness with his ...
"All is calm,
"All is bright ..."

Something wet splatted on the back of Angela's hand.
Curious, she looked up at her Daddy.
Esther slid a lace trimmed kerchief from the her sleeve and handed it discreetly across Angela's lap, and Angela offered it to her Daddy, who was biting his bottom lip hard as tears chased one another down his weathered cheeks.

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Linn Keller 1-2-09

 

The adults were talking as adults do, there in the Jewel, and Angela wandered about, as Angela was wont to do: she and Sarah spent some time admiring the tree, and marveling at the candles lighted on the tree, and took turns making faces at their reflections in the bulbs on the tree: tiring of this, holding hands, they worked their way back toward Mr. Baxter's bar, for their parents were at a table very near the front.
Bonnie and Caleb were sitting at a table with Uncle Linn and Aunt Esther, and the man in the funny robe who sang in church.
Sarah sat beside her Mama, and Angela beside her, beside her own Mommy: being well-behaved young ladies, they listened without interruption to the adults' conversation.
Sarah had been watching closely in church and now tugged delicately at her Mama's sleeve.
Bonnie inclined an ear to her daughter.
"Mama," Sarah whispered, "why did Uncle Linn cry when the man sang?"
Bonnie bowed her head and smiled a secret, knowing smile.
"Once upon a time," she began in a quiet voice, and Angela's head snapped around, her eyes big. She slid from her chair and skipped around beside Bonnie.
Bonnie hesitated and looked at two pairs of shining, attentive eyes.
"Onceuponnatime," Angela prompted, bouncing a little, excited at the prospect of a story.
Bonnie raised an instructional finger, bidding the young ladies to stand fast.
Bonnie straightened and gently excused herself from the adults present, then stood and took two little hands, one in each of her own, and they went over to the ornate staircase and sat.
"Once upon a time," Bonnie began again, folding her hands in her lap as the girls scooted in close on either side, "there was a little girl, and her name ws Dana."
"Was she a princess?" Sarah interrupted.
"Was she pretty?" Angela seconded.
Bonnie laughed a little, remembering how her own Mama would tell her stories, and how she too would ask eager, interrupting questions.
"Dana was a lovely girl," Bonnie affirmed, "and in a way she was a princess of her own little kingdom."
Bright eyes were rapt on her own.
"Princess Dana was the daughter of your Uncle Linn, when he was a younger man, and his kingdom was back East."
Angela's finger went uncertainly to the corner of her mouth and Sarah glanced over at her Uncle, who was laughing at something her Papa Caleb was saying.
"One day Uncle Linn had to go and fight in a war," Bonnie continued, and the girls saw the sadness in her eyes. "He was gone a long time, and by the time he came back, Princess Dana and her Mama had died, and were buried.
"Your Uncle Linn was very sad, and he missed his wife and their little girl very much.
"He traveled after that, south, then west, and finally came here."
Angela's mind ran well ahead of the story. "Am I a princess?" she asked eagerly.
Bonnie placed a motherly hand on each of their heads. "You both are," she said, and the girls hugged her, and she hugged them.
"You see, your Uncle Linn went from being a very sad man, to a man filled with joy. He is married to Aunt Esther, and he has a daughter, and a niece, and he cried for happiness tonight."
The adults' table was too far away to hear what was being said, but the portrait was plain to see: a story told, bright shining faces upturned to listen.
The Sheriff raised his chin toward the ladies sitting on the staircase and Caleb turned to see.
"Caleb," the Sheriff said quietly, "I've said it before."
Caleb nodded, his eyes shining proudly.
"You're right," he agreed. "I am a lucky man indeed!"

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Linn Keller 1-3-09

 

Brother William was quiet through most of the meal, listening much and carefully; what little he said was in a quiet and respectful voice, until finally pressed for conversation.
It began in a way he hadn't anticipated.
The Cistercian brethren were vegetarians, and strict adherents to the Order of St. Benedict; their hospitality was legendary, and travelers have long found hospitable accommodations with any Cistercian abbey: though they did not swear a vow of silence, conversation was minimal, and at first, if only from habit, Brother William spoke but little.
Few men, though, can withstand the charms of a lovely young lady, especially one who regards a man with bright and shining eyes.
Angela slid out of her chair and walked boldly up to the tonsured cleric.
Tilting her head a little to the side, she asked, "Why do you wear a funny robe?"
Brother William leaned his head back and laughed, partly because her question took him so by surprise, and partly because every adult's face at the table turned a profound and remarkable shade of red (all but Sarah's, but then she wasn't an adult yet, and besides, she was listening closely for Brother William's answer, for she too wondered why a grown man would wear funny clothes like that!)
Brother William thought for a moment, then looked at the tree, glittering with bulbs and decorations and shining with candles, then he looked back at the patient little girl with her hands clasped in front of her.
"I wear a robe," Brother William said, "to distinguish myself as a man apart."
"What's a mannapart?" Angela frowned, puzzled, prompting another chuckle from the monk.
"Long ago," Brother William explained, "people were very poor, and they wore very simple clothes. This is a very simple garment to make, and was the mark of a common man." Brother William blinked, remembering someone from his own past.
"Oh." Angela's expression was still puzzled.
Brother William pointed to the tree. "Do you know how we came to bring a tree indoors, and place candles on it?"
Angela turned and looked at the tree, then back to Brother William. "No," she admitted. "My Daddy got us a tree. It's in our parlor."
"And I'm sure it's just as lovely as this one."
"It's prettier!" Angela declared, bouncing a little, her smile like sunrise on her young face. "I helped decorate it!"
"Then it is surely prettier!" Brother William agreed.
"How did we get the custom?" Bonnie prompted, curious.
Brother William's smile had not faded from the moment the eager little girl first approached him. "A few hundred years ago, the son of a German coal miner was walking home. He was a priest, too, but his robe was black instead of white."
"From coal mining?" Sarah asked.
Brother William laughed again. It felt good to laugh.
"No, child. My robe is white because other Orders wear black robes, or brown robes, or tan robes. The coal miner's son was named Martin Luther, and he looked up the side of a mountain as he walked home at night."
"And that turned his robe black?"
Brother William sighed. "I fear I have confused things," he said gently. "No, he wore a black robe because priests in Germany wore black, and he was a priest. No, he looked up the mountain and he saw the evergreen trees, the mountain firs, with starlight coming through the branches.
"The sight was so beautiful, he wanted to share it with his family, so he cut a tree and brought it inside, and decorated it with lighted candles, so he could remember how lovely they looked with stars shining through their branches."
Brother William paused and took a long drink of water. He'd been offered a variety of drink, including the Jewel's trademark vanilla coffee, but he had asked for water, though it was served him in a fine cut-glass tumbler.
"How long will you be staying, Brother William?" Daisy asked.
Brother William smiled. "If I am needed, I can stay for a time. The Abbott was generous with my timetable."
"We've no priest to say Mass," Daisy explained, "and we would very much like it ..." Her voice trailed off and she looked down, suddenly uncertain of herself.
"Thank you," Brother William said, inclining his head, eyes closed as if at an unexpected memory. "I will."
Daisy looked suddenly hopeful. "There is a family nearby -- I'd like to have them come --"
"Then yes, certainly," Brother William said, standing. Folding his hands inside his voluminous sleeves, he bowed to the table.
"Forgive me, but I am accustomed to rising early. If you will all excuse me?"
"Of course," the Sheriff said, standing. He walked around the table and offered his hand. "You're staying with Parson Belden?"
Brother William shook. The Sheriff took note of the strength in the man's grip, the calluses of honest labor standing out against his own.
"I am, thank you."
"You've a place here whenever you wish, for however long you wish."
"That is most generous, Sheriff."
Brother William turned to Daisy. "My Lady, when would you wish to assemble for Mass?"
"Just as soon as I can get word to Inge Kolascinski and her family!" Daisy declared. "And ma husband Sean -- yonder, the big Irishman in the red flannel shirt -- " She waved to get his attention, and Sean came over, a half-empty mug of beer in his grip. "Sean, Brother William is sayin' of a Mass for us tomorrow. I need to get word to Inge, I'm sure they'd come!"
The Sheriff felt as much as heard Jacob approach. "Sir?" he said. "I can ride out now, if you like."
"Wait just a bit, Jacob!" Daisy summoned with a quick come-here motion. "I've fresh bread baked. If I sent you out there at this hour, I'd best send you wi' somthin' good. I've apple butter here, let me wrap this --" Daisy's happy chatter disappeared down the hall with Jacob close behind.
Annette stood. "I'd better get my cloak," she said, "it looks like we're in for a drive tonight!"
Brother William looked troubled for a moment, but the Sheriff squeezed the tall monk's shoulder companionably. "It's been long and long again since they've seen a priest," he explained. "It will mean so much to them."
Brother William pressed his eyes closed and his expression was momentarily troubled, and he nodded.
Parson Belden stood. "I need to get my beauty sleep too," he sighed. "With my looks, I need all the help I can get!"
The table chuckled at the Parson's self deprecating humor, and Brother William followed the Parson out.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-3-09

 

The honeymoon suite at the Empire House was even more opulent than Judge Hostetler's private rail car. The door that Fannie and Charlie were escorted to by the bellman was of hand-carved walnut, with a raised frieze showing a miner and his mules climbing a long mountain slope in grand relief in the upper panel. The knob was of Swarovski crystal, and the silver key that unlocked the door was inserted into the keyhole in a matching silver lockplate.

The door swung open on well-oiled hinges to reveal deep Persian carpets covering most of the highly-polished teak flooring. Though the afternoon sun still stood high outside, it was blocked by the velvet drapes over the windows. The warm glow of lamplight filled the sitting room and made gleaming highlights dance along the edges of the parquet table that held a bottle of iced champagne and a pair of crystal flutes next to a crystal vase full of velvety roses.

Once again, Charlie scooped his bride up into his arms and carried her across the threshold, to deposit her in the center of the deep carpeting. The bellman and his assistants carried the couple's luggage into the room and across the rugs to still another hand-carved walnut door. The opening of this portal revealed a four-poster with snow-white canopy, invitingly made up with creamy silk sheets and bright red down comforter. The fire in the polished pot-bellied stove across the bedchamber crackled merrily, and its flickering highlights of orange and red beckoned warmly.

The luggage was deposited in the gigantic walk-in closet. "Is there anything more I can do for you, ma'am?" the bellman asked Fannie.

She gave him a dazzling smile and waved her hand at their lavish surroundings. "If you had anything to do with all this, you've done more than enough!" she declared.

The man had the grace to blush. "Myself and others," he answered. "Your reputation as a lady precedes you." He smiled at Fannie.

Fannie blushed brightly herself then dipped into a curtsy. "You are too kind, sir," she said. The bellman tipped his hat to her, bowed from the waist, then he and his entourage left the room, closing the outer door softly behind himself.

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Mr. Box 1-3-09

 

The celebrating at the Silver Jewel is more subdued than some of the recent weddings and childbirths. It was much more reverent in honor of the great holiday at hand. There is an equal number of people here as usual, but less drinking. It's very pleasant and the smell of the fresh Christmas tree can be found everywhere. Sarah and Angela are very interested in the tree. I'm sure they will have a very happy Christmas.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-5-09

 

Charlie and Fannie looked at each other, and their smiles came simultaneously. "What..." they began at the same time. "Go ahead," Charlie told her.

"How are your cooking skills?" Fannie asked. "We've got about three hours until our dinner engagement."

"I reckon I can get by," Charlie told her. "How are your negotiating skills?" Fannie gave him a puzzled look. He went on. "You invited the chef to dinner, but how are you gonna get him out of his own kitchen, and convince him to let us do the cookin'?"

"No problem," Fannie said. She gave him a wicked smile.

"Unless he's a she," Charlie said with a wicked smile of his own.

"Good point," Fannie conceded. "I guess we'll find out, won't we? Shall we go?"

Charlie held out his arm, and she linked arms with him. "We shall."

Downstairs, Fannie led the way into the dining room and to the kitchen. The swinging door was closed, and Fannie knocked politely. The door swung inward, and a man approximately the size of a Percheron, dressed in a starched white jacket, stood there in front of Fannie. "May I help you, Madamoiselle?" rumbled an accented voice like granite boulders tumbling down a mountain side.

Fannie gave this huge fellow her brightest smile. "Actually, I believe I can help you, Monsieur," she answered sweetly. "I am here to prepare Christmas dinner for you. I assume that you were told?"

"Oui, I was told, but I did not believe it," the white-jacketed chef said gravely. "Pardonez moi, Mademoiselle."

"I am Missus Fannie MacNeil," Fannie said, "and you may indeed believe it." She looked into his eyes, matching him stare for stare. "And you are..."

"My name is Louis Fontaneau," the vast Frenchman said, "and this is my domain. I do not lightly surrender it to just anyone."

"I am very pleased to meet you, Louis Fontaneau," Fannie said. She held out her hand, and Louis Fontaneau took it in one of his own massive paws, then leaned down to brush it with his lips.

"And I you, Madame," he said. "But I still see no reason to leave my kitchen."

"My husband and I," Fannie motioned toward Charlie, "wish to return some of the kindness that the employees of this hotel have shown us. And we would like to do so by preparing dinner for everyone who is forced to be here tonight instead of with their families." She once again gave him a smile, then stood waiting as if she had all the time in the world. Charlie could see her charm starting to do its work as Louis wavered between his resolve to never give up his kitchen and the natural male urge to give in to this beautiful female before him. At last he stepped back.

"I will do so under one condition," Louis rumbled. "I, and only I, shall prepare the final course of the meal."

"Done!" Fannie said firmly. "Come on, Charlie, we're running out of time." She stepped into the kitchen without waiting for Charlie's answer.

"Yes, ma'am."

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