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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 3-12-09

 

Hiram was several hours' ride into the mountains before he stopped.
It was a good place to stop. He had brush behind, and a broken hillside, rough enough to break his contours; his clothing, his gear was all a neutral color. He'd stopped with a little low brush before him and knew that if he held still, if his mounts did not move, to the casual eye he would be all but invisible.
Hiram enjoyed being invisible.
He sat his riding mule for several long minutes, as was his habit; his mule knew this was his habit, and was pleased, and showed its pleasure by drowsing a little, as did the pack mule tethered behind.
Hiram thought back to the morning before.
The Sheriff’s hospitality was a welcome change.
Hiram, accustomed as he was to the privations of the mountains, had decided he was going to revel in civilized decadence.
To that end, he decided he was going to enjoy something he had not had in quite a very, very long time.
Hiram decided he wanted a bed with clean sheets, and a nice, hot bath.
The next morning, after a good night's rest, Hiram was happily lathering himself in the biggest tub in the house, with the assistance of a willing lass whose willingness in other venues we will not discuss here; let us be charitable and discreet and say simply that when the man had finished bathing, he was squeaky clean, relaxed, and quite happy he had come to town.
Having thus spent a delightful evening and night, Hiram regarded his homespun with surprise and approval, for the worn places had been replaced with new cloth, the torn places carefully and tightly mended; the garments had been laundered, and by a considerate soul, for the soap they used was neither perfumed nor spiced, and even to his sensitive nose held but little scent.
Guided further by his discerning proboscis, Hiram descended the stairs, his belly insisting that his throat had been cut, and proceeded to pay close attention to a remarkable number of plates of Daisy’s good kitchen works, even though Daisy herself had not yet arrived:
He was working on another round of bacon and eggs, hotcakes and biscuits and gravy and good black coffee, when Sean and the Irish Brigade descended upon the quiet dining room: Sean had a laughing girl-child on one shoulder, a laughing boy-child on the other, and a quietly smiling wife ready to catch either one: behind them, a lad not much more than belt buckle tall, obviously not the Irishman’s get, and behind him, the rest of the Irish Brigade, laughing and quarreling and shouting greetings to Tilly and Mr. Baxter, and extending their raucous good-fellowship to Hiram as well.
They had occasion to settle rather near Hiram’s table, and Hiram found himself the subject of the older boy’s frank study.
Hiram regarded him with amusement, his light-blue eyes a-twinkle with merriment, for Hiram was a man who loved to laugh, and he had a magical way with children.
The lad slid from his chair and approached Hiram, half-hopeful, half-fearful.
“Sir?” he asked, and Hiram inclined toward him, his expression kindly and welcoming.
“Sir, are you Santa Claus?”
Hiram stroked his near-white beard and laughed, even white teeth flashing: he stroked the lad’s hair with a callused hand and said “No, son, I’m not Santa Claus.”
Disappointment claimed the lad’s eyes.
Hiram continued with solemn and guileless assurance:
“I’m Santa’s brother, Julius Claus.”
The lad’s eyes went as round as his mouth and he fairly jumped back: it would become local legend that, upon arriving at home, he came bouncing into the house exclaiming, “Ma! Ma! I met Julius Claus!”
This, however, was later, after the lad arrived at home: let us not get our tale out of order.
Hiram finished breaking his fast and leaned his chair back against the railing, happily contemplating the feeling of contentment that comes with a good woman-cooked meal, and a bath, and … well, he considered briefly that civilization might not be so bad after all, if taken infrequently and in small doses.
Hiram listened, as any lonely man does, to the conversations around him. His quick ear picked up Sean’s account of the Kolascinski lad’s journey through the snow, to deliver the blue-glass Rosary: he read the note aloud, and Hiram could tell by the man‘s voice -- though the speaker‘s broad back was to him -- the gift had touched the man.
Hiram knew where the family lived, and considered the distance the lad had traveled; he considered the depth of snow, he assessed the boy’s height and approximate weight, thought for a moment, smiled.
Hiram slipped out the back, down the hall and past Daisy’s kitchen, out the back door, and the short distance to the livery.
Shorty knew Hiram was a guest of the Sheriff, and declined payment: “No, now, keep that,” he’d replied, “the Sheriff would have my hide if he knew I’d let you hand me cash money when you’re his guest!”
Hiram nodded, his eyes smiling; a kindness is like an investment, he considered, and someday he’d have a chance to return this kindness, both to Shorty for being an honest man, and to the Sheriff, for being a gracious host: for the moment, though, he was intent on saddling his riding-mule, for he had some material to gather.
Hiram was not gone long. He knew where the right woods were to make a set of snowshoes; he returned to Shorty’s livery and quickly, efficiently, made a pair of round snowshoes: Bear Paws, they were called, as opposed to the long, tear drop shaped snowshoes of more northern tribes.
Hiram never liked the longer ones. They took too much material to make, and they were unnecessarily heavy.
No, he preferred the round snow shoe, and as he laced withies and leather piggin strings, he smiled a little, for the lad had to have labored mightily to break his own trail through snow that was near to waist deep most of the way, and more in the drifts..
All for a gift for the child.
Hiram did not judge the monetary worth of the gift; he knew there was often more value than the intrinsic, and so it was here.
Hiram showed the lad how they laced onto his feet, and how to take them off, and put them back on: delighted, burdened with a pack from Daisy and the hearty good wishes of the entire Irish Brigade, young Master Kolascinski set off for his own cabin, delighted at being able to walk atop the snow instead of slogging through it.
Now, looking back on the past couple of days, Hiram nodded.

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Linn Keller 3-12-09

 

Jacob leaned forward, standing in the stirrups, willing his lighter, more nimble mount to greater speed through the snow.
His father's golden stallion was taller and had a longer stride: the Appaloosa was tough, with an endurance that had never failed either his own wants, or his rider's: the Sheriff's mount was equally durable, and the two galloped as hard as they could through the snow.
They were neck and neck as they made the turn at the far end of town, neither wanting to grant the other an advantage: father and son, at once equals and rivals; each mounted on a stallion, likewise equals and rivals: if the riders were unwilling to grant quarter, their horses were even less so.
Hijo del Sol drew on a deep reserve and lengthened his stride a bit, and gained: an inch, another: Jacob, for the first time in his life, took the tag end of his reins and smacked the Appaloosa across the hinder.
The result was spectacular.
The Sheriff shot on ahead, slowed, turned back in time to see Jacob going bootheels-over-strawberry in the snow, throwing up a big cloud as he tumbled to a skidding stop.
The Appaloosa stallion was kicking, bucking and throwing what could be called a Stereoptical Fit in the middle of the street.
The Sheriff cantered back, grateful for his mount's exceptionally smooth gait, softened even more by the snow underhoof.
The Appaloosa's ears were back and at the big stallion's approach, reared, bared his teeth and whistled a shrill challenge.
The Sheriff was very erect in his seat as Hijo del Sol reared in response, windmilling his forehooves, inviting his wilder brother to a fight.
The Sheriff patted his mount's neck.
"Not now, boy," he said quietly, and Hijo's ears came up, swung back to the familiar voice.
The Sheriff gave Hijo his knees. "Yah," he said, and Hijo del Sol picked up his pace, just short of a gallop.
The Sheriff leaned down, extended a hand.
"Jacob! With me!" he shouted, clamping his teeth against the pain in his ribs, his belly.
He and Jacob had practiced the move a hundred times, several hundred, and Jacob responded according to his training: he came to his feet, checked his Colts -- secure! -- took two running steps, jumped and grabbed his father's arm, and swung up behind him.
The Sheriff yelled "YAAH!" and Hijo felt his balance change.
Hijo del Sol lived for these moments.
Hijo's ears snapped back, his nose stuck straight out, and he went from a fast canter to a wide-open, hard-as-he-could-run gallop in a tenth of a second or less.
The Appaloosa turned and struck as they shot past, but too late: hooves and teeth found only the air of their passage, and he whistled a frustrated challenge.
The king stallion drew up, swapped ends, reared.
Jacob clung to his father, and Hijo's barrel: the Sheriff was one with his mount, secure in his seat even in this rearing, come-on-and-fight challenge, and then they were off again, head-on, nose into the wind.
Jacob knew what was coming, and was ready.
Hijo del Sol was pounding down the right side of the street.
The Appaloosa charged, ears back, tail streaming in the wind of his passing, aiming like a launched arrow for the rival.
At the last moment Hijo jinked to the left, leaving the Appaloosa to pass on the wrong side.
They drew up again.
This time it was the Sheriff who whistled, two fingers to his teeth, Hijo dancing, wanting to run, held by his master's knees and the lightest draw on the reins.
The Sheriff turned his stallion and they trotted with an insulting slowness the last hundred yards to the hospital.
The Appaloosa followed, muttering and shaking his head.
Jacob slid to the ground and seized the trailing reins, then his stallion's headstall. He began soothing the restless horse, with voice and hands and an easy manner.
The Sheriff tied Hijo off on one side of his buggy. Bonnie and Michelle had come to the hospital by one of the back streets, while he and Jacob were occupied; Jacob tethered his stallion on the other side of the buggy.
So separated, and by mares, both rivals were content.
The Sheriff grinned at his son, and his son grinned at his father.
They kicked the snow off their boots and went inside.

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Linn Keller 3-13-09

 

Bill had crossed to the Jewel, intending to recruit from the Unorganized Militia, so to speak, for assistance in moving the new furniture surreptitiously to the Keller household.
He hadn't counted on the Irish Brigade's natural love of a good party.
Sean declared drinks for the house, which delighted the house: Mr. Baxter knew the man was good for the expense, and so was instantly overwhelmed by customers, thirsty customers, taking Sean up on his kind largesse: he kept a fast tally of what-all was dispensed, or tried to: the Jewel was filled to near capacity with gamblers, loafers, miners, two local ranchers and just short of a half-dozen range hands, most of whom were engaged in the serious business of either skinning his neighbor out of his eye teeth at pasteboards, dice, or roulette, or at the very least, seeing who could out-lie the other -- with an absolutely straight face, of course.
One enterprising fellow had just described, in glorious detail, the sensation of riding a bull buffalo at the leading edge of a stampede, at least until they came to the rim of a canyon, and as the blindly-galloping bull sailed off into the gulf, a giant eagle -- disturbed from its nest by the falling, flailing wooly-shouldered native bovine -- snatched him from the air and deposited him in its nest, while the rest of the herd cascaded over the precipice like a cloven-hooved waterfall.
There were those listening who -- liars themselves, and good ones -- admired the skills necessary to tell a good tale.
There were those who listened with the full intent of picking the story apart, for their kind live for conflict and contention.
And there was a gullible Easterner who, fueled by a few shots of Kentucky poured surreptitiously into his beer when his attention was distracted, listened with gaping mouth and flushed ears as the Daine boys' distillate warmed his soul and loosened his sensibilities.
"Yes, sir, there I was, in that-there eagle's nest, set down beside eggs near belt buckle tall on a tall man -- and I ain't short! -- no sir, I knowed was I there when them-there eagle chicks hatched out I'd be as easy a meal as a worm in the springtime!"
The Easterner shoved his derby back on his head, taking a pull on his beer; leaning forward a little, he was the very image of rapt attention.
He was also the object of a few pointing fingers, elbows pressed into ribs, knowing grins.
"Why, I had me some piggin strings with me -- never know when you'll have to tie a calf! -- an' them-there was giant eagles, y'see" -- heads nodded solemnly, knowingly, and the Easterner took a long pull on his beer -- "them giant eagles shed giant eagle feathers, just like big chickens, y'see --"
The Easterner's beer mug was near to empty. Anonymous hands relieved him of the empty, pressed a full one in its place.
The Easterner, gazing raptly at the speaker, took another pull.
Now that is an unusually good beer, he thought.
"I tied four of those feathers together and figured I could flap 'em like wings.
"Wellsir, one of them-there eagle eggs started to crack, an' a beak the size of -- oh, it musta ben that long" -- he held his hands apart like a fisherman describing a prize catch -- "come chippin' outta that-there egg shell an' I figured Katie bar the door here we go, an' I jumped!"
He paused for dramatic effect, and to take two long swallows of his own beer.
The Easterner leaned forward a little more, jaw hanging, eyes fixed on the speaker.
"Here! -- someone get this man another drink! -- out with it, man! What happened? What happened?"
Knowing grins were discreetly hidden from the tenderfoot; a fresh beer was passed to the speaker. The chuck-a-luck rattled, the croupier sang "We have a winnah!" and a happy shout went up.
"What happened?" The speaker shoved his Stetson clear to the very back of his head. "Why, I fell so fast there warn't no way I had strength to flap them feathers! All I could do was hold 'em out an' when they caught the wind I started to glide like a buzzard! I tilted up one way an' up the other an' got the hang of it and, why, directly I come to the bottom of the canyon an' slid to a stop in some nice soft sand!"
He stopped for another swallow. "And don't you know, there was the prettiest rancher's daughter just a-waitin' on me! She'd seen me spin out of the sky an' come a-ridin' over to see who this was that flew like a bird!"
There was a great roar of laughter; callused palms pounded adjacent backs, the Easterner's wind was almost knocked out from the force of horny hands applauding on his shoulder blades, and he slopped half his mug's contents before he recovered, downing the remainder of the precious beverage before the next assault deprived him of any more.
He came up for air just in time to hear -- "And then she shot me in the hinder for trespass!"
The Easterner was borne to a corner by willing hands, for the floor had grown decidedly unsteady underfoot; his face bore an expression of drunken happiness, and in truth, a man could have extracted teeth, performed deep abdominal surgery, introduced flaming splinters under his fingernails, or painted his nose red and his ears green, and he would have felt nothing at all.
The assembled parked the man in a convenient chair, made sure he was stable and not likely to fall, and returned to their entertainment.

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Linn Keller 3-13-09

 

The Irish Brigade did nothing halfway.
The Welsh Irishman was dispatched to the hospital to check on progress, and returned with Michelle, who was fairly dizzy with all that was happening to her this day: she was recruited, she was taken to the fine lady's house, she was shown her duties; there was something between a great man and his son, then there was a rushed drive to hospital, father and son clattered in the door, cheeks bright with winter's cold, breath fast and deep with exertion and triumph: there was a conference with the starched, white, prim and very much in-charge nurse, while Michelle faded back into the far corner, wishing she could turn her gown into the same wood tones as the walls: and then the door burst open again and a mustachioed fireman stomped in, all roaring good-fellowship and hand-shaking and back-pounding, distracting the Great Man and his son from their mission to enter what Michelle knew to be -- well, sacred ground, a medical sanctum.
The three turned and regarded her, and then advanced upon her, and she shrank back into the corner, wishing the wall would open up and swallow her --
"Michelle," the Sheriff said, his eyes kindly but excited, and his grin broad -- "this is my son Jacob, and our friend here is a Llewellyn with an unpronouncable first name."
"Call me the Welsh Irishman an' everyone will know who ye mean," and Michelle tentatively grasped the warm, firm hand that was thrust at her.
"Sheriff i' this is yer maid, I must borrow her, for we've work t' be done."
"Of course." The Sheriff wasn't quite sure what he meant, but he knew the man to be honest as the day is long, and so Michelle found herself whirled out the door and back into the Sheriff's fine buggy.
The Welsh Irishman, not knowing the conflict that had begun between the rival stallions, backed the mare and the buggy, leaving but a solitary riding mare as a buffer at the hitch rail. He flipped the reins, kissed at the mare, and snow groaned as steel-rimmed buggy-wheels rolled it down with their passing.
They drew up in front of the Mercantile.
The Welsh Irishman set the brake. "Wait here, darlin'," he grinned, leaping easily from the buggy as willing hands came out onto the swept-clean boardwalk, bearing cradles and beds and handmade goods destined for the empty, waiting, upstairs room in the Sheriff's fine house.
Many hands make light work, and the Irish Brigade made it noisy work, for they were ever a bunch to laugh and jest and enliven any occasion.
The buggy rocked a little and Michelle turned and squeaked.
It was the closest she could come to a startled scream.
The Welsh Irishman, responding to her panicked grip on his muscled upper arm, turned and roughly ruffled the great black head that grinned at him.
"Twain Dawg!" he declared with delight. "Ya great beast, have ye killed any bears lately?"
Twain Dawg wagged his tail from his ears back, delighting in the attention: his pack consisted of many people, and he loved the attentions of Sarah, but Twain Dawg was young and strong and very, very alive, and delighted at times in the rougher, livelier attentions of grown men.
Twain Dawg put two paws up on the back of the upholstered seat and licked the Welsh Irishman's jaw and ear, his great plumed tail threatening to sweep light furniture from the buggy.
The Welsh Irishman laughed. "Michelle, meet Twain Dawg. Some call him Bear Killer. He ripped a grown grizzly apart by himsel' when the Sheriff was watchin' and he kilt two more when nobody saw it. All they found were little tufts of fur and some well-gnawed bones!"
Twain Dawg regarded Michelle with a completely innocent expression, laying his great head on her forearm and rolling his eyes up with a look of utter adoration.
Michelle did what any good maid would do in a time like this.
She fainted.

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Linn Keller 3-13-09

 

Michelle came to with the sting of brandy on her lips, the scald of alcohol down her throat, and the warm, strong hand of the New York Irishman cupping the back of her neck, supporting her head; thus fortified, she was able to supervise the placement of the new furniture, she put away baby clothes, stacked towels and bibs and diapers, and organized in a way she'd done before, and was happy to do again.
While the new maid was directing traffic and bring order to happy chaos, the Sheriff and Jacob sat together in the waiting room, Twain Dawg occasionally coming over to sniff and beg attention before he went back over to Sarah and Little Sean.
Sarah was being a bossy big sister, though she wasn't related in the slightest, and Little Sean was being a typical little brother, paying her no mind whatsoever; in fact, he declared Twain Dawg a mattress, and proceeded to lay down with his head on Twain Dawg's shoulder, to the amusement of Daisy and the grins of the lawmen.
Jacob turned his hat over and over and over again, shuffling the brim between long-fingered hands.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir ... my mother ..."
The Sheriff's expression was soft, distant.
"Sir, what was she like?"
The Sheriff leaned back, eyes tracking along the trim-piece running the length of the top of the wall, where it met the ceiling.
"She was crying when I saw her," he began. "She'd dug a hole, a long hole, but she'd never dug before and didn't know about roots."
Jacob grimaced. He'd dug and he knew all too well about roots.
"I rode up and looked her over and never said a word. All she had was a shovel so I rode on up to the barn and looked over what she had there.
"Her husband had good tools and they were taken care of. I taken out an ax and a mattock and a pick and I had a pair of leather gloves in my saddlebag, so I pointed Sam's nose back toward her.
"She was wore out and give up and she looked up at me when I stepped down out of the saddle.
"I looked at the hole and figured it to be a grave.
"I asked her how tall was he, figuring she had to be widowed, for if her man were alive he'd be diggin', or a son, and she said, 'My husband is about your height,' so I marked off six foot and a little more and started cuttin'.
"I dug as neat and square cornered a grave as I could.
"I started in the cool of the mornin' and it was not easy work. I hit rocks and I cut roots and I dug as neat as I could. Once I got it just shoulder deep I was about wore out myself so I figured that would do.
"She'd gone back to the house and washed her face and changed her apron. She brought me some butter milk and a plate of cold beans and I was grateful for them.
"I had buried my wife and our little girl not two days before." He looked over at Angela, then back to Jacob. "I recall how your Ma looked, Jacob, how healthy she looked in the sun."
Jacob nodded, his own eyes distant, distant with his own memories of his mother.
"I wiped off the tools as best I could and bundled 'em together and we walked back to the barn, your Ma and Sam and me.
"I finished cleanin' off the tools and wiped 'em down with an oil rag her husband kept hung up on a nail, an' she watched me as I cared for a dead man's tools.
"We went on back to the house.
"We went on inside and I saw she'd cleaned him and got him sewed most of the way up in a shroud.
"I helped her sew the rest of the way, covering his face, and it was powerful hard for her. She ..."
The Sheriff's hands closed slowly, tightening into fists, then relaxed.
"I looked out the doorway, down to the grave, and figured I could just throw him over my shoulder and pack him, but then I looked over at her and how she had looked at him, and I knowed that would not be right.
"I went on out and harnessed Sam up to their wagon.
"I drew the wagon up close to the door and bore him to the wagon like ..." The Sheriff swallowed.
"I carried him careful.
"Your Ma went back inside and changed her dress, and put on a veil.
"When she went in I got into my pack and stepped out behind the house and changed mine quick-like too. All I had was my uniform but it was clean and presentable so I put it on.
"I only had two books left, other than my Journal: one was the Masonic officer's ritual that had been give me, and the other was Scripture.
"I set the Book in the wagon, and your Ma came out, dignified and composed as the Queen herself.
"I helped her up into the wagon and walked Sam slow down to the grave.
"I buried the man with the dignity I'd have buried my own father, and spoke the Words over him."
The Sheriff's voice was distant, remembering.
"I knew your mother that night, Jacob," he said. "I was a widower and grieving, and she was a widow, grieving."
Jacob was silent for several long moments.
Their heads turned as one as the inner door opened, just far enough for Dr. John Greenlees to stick his big-eared head out and crook a finger.
The Sheriff and his son moved in unison, and were admitted into the medical sanctum.
Little Sean sat up and turned, curious, at the sound of the door's opening.
Twain Dawg rolled to his feet and scampered quickly after the lawmen, nails tik-tik-tikking loudly on the polished floor.
"Twain Dawg!" Sarah called in a scolding tone, but too late: the door was shut behind him, and she put her hands on her hips and said "Hmph!" with her bottom lip thrust out.
Angela curled her rag doll tightly in her elbow and giggled.

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Linn Keller 3-14-09

 

Jacob stood to Esther's left, at her head; her husband stood opposite, on her right.
Jacob looked up at his father, surprised, dismayed.
He'd never seen his mother in any wise save prim, proper, tidy, orderly; she was fastidious about her appearance, neat about her person, collected and logical and rational and reasonable and in all ways, admirable in the younger man's eyes.
Linn stepped to the head of her bed and reached for his wife's hands.
Esther's hands shot out, seizing her husband's about the upper wrists, squeezing hard.
Linn's hands closed gently around his wife's forearms, noting without surprise the strength of her grip. Had he been so foolish as to have taken her hands in his, she would surely have caused him some injury.
Esther arched her back and dug her heels into the mattress, squeezing hard.
Jacob's eyes were large and he was a little pale, and Nurse Susan took him by the shoulders and steered him to a chair over against the wall.
Jacob sank gratefully into the straight backed chair, Twain Dawg pacing over beside him: as Jacob's full weight came slowly into the chair, Twain Dawg laid his black muzzle into Jacob's lap, looking up at him with button-bright eyes.
Jacob's hands moved to Twain Dawg, woodenly, automatically.
Twain Dawg's eyes closed and he sighed with pleasure, for Jacob knew just where to rub.
Jacob felt a little light headed. He looked up and saw a great swirl of white skirting as Nurse Susan turned, busy with something.
A voice from far away, detatched, professional: "Your water has broken, Esther."
Esther's voice, harsh, rasping: "And you think I don't KNOW?"
Jacob blinked. It was a stranger's voice, not his mother's --
"YOU DID THIS TO ME!" the voice snarled, "LOOK WHAT YOU'RE DOING TO, TOOO, RRRRRRRRRRR!"
"Bear down, Esther," the detatched, professional voice said, and Jacob saw some movement of Dr. Greenlees' shoulders, and the stranger's voice, harsh and raw, snapped "WHAT DO YOU THINK I'M DOINGGGAAAAAAHHHHHH!"
Jacob blinked rapidly, eyes stinging, half sick all of a sudden.
Twain Dawg whined, drew back.
Linn looked over as his son slid off the chair and to the floor.
"Stay with him, Bearkiller," he said calmly.
Esther's fingers were white, bent, her trimmed nails cutting into the flesh beneath his shirt sleeves.
The Sheriff's voice was calm, his face relaxed.
"I'm right here, dearest --"
"YOU'RE DAMNED RIGHT YOU'RE HERE! YOU'RE NOT GOING ANYWHERRRRRRR!"
Nurse Susan wiped the laboring woman's cheeks, her forehead, with a cool, damp cloth, and Esther relaxed, panting.
"Dilated and effaced," the professional voice observed. "I can feel the head."
"WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN FEEL THE HEAD!" Esther screamed, voice cracking. "I'M NOT HAVING A CALF HERE! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING DOWN THERE?"
The bear killing Twain Dawg curled up beside Jacob, licking the younger man's face and whining a little.
Jacob blinked, tried to push off the floor.
"Stand fast," his father said quietly: even in his unsteadied state, Jacob recognized a command when he heard it, and relaxed, his arm going over Twain Dawg's chest.
"My dear, how do you feel?" Linn asked in his gentle voice, and Esther's emerald eyes snapped wide open and she grinned, a wolfish, she-devil grin.
"I'm giving birth to a Baldwin locomotive with all the bells an whistles sticking out and dragging, WHAT DO YOU THINK I'M DOING?" -- and then her hands tightened again and she took a breath, held it, groaned with the effort of bearing into another contraction.
Her delicate, fair skin turned a shocking shade of Irish red, a shade that would do Sean credit in the height of a towering rage.
"Deep breaths, dearest," Linn soothed, and Esther tried to pull him over on top of her, screaming, "I DON'T SEE YOU TRYING TO BIRTH A CHILD! WHAT DID YOU SIRE INTO ME, A BULL BUFFALO? THIS THING IS TOO BIG TO BE A BABY! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME, YOU MONSTER, YOU MEN ARE ALL ALIKE! DAMN YOU ALL BACK TO ADAM AND PERDITION! IF YOU EVER COME NEAR ME AGAIN I'LL TAKE MY BIGGEST KNIFE AND AAAAHHHHHH!!!"
"Now I wonder what she meant by that," Dr. George Flint murmured, and Dr. John Greenlees replied, "I'm sure I have no idea," and Linn chuckled.
"Jacob, perhaps you could go out and let the ladies know your mother is doing well?" Nurse Susan said briskly, breasting the waves that blurred Jacob's vision and helping the younger man to his feet. She steered him toward the door like a sternwheeler maneuvering a tow, patted him on the cheek and whispered some matronly encouragement, shutting the door behind him, and quietly, inconspicuously, turning the key in the lock.
She steamed back across the ocean of the delivery room, briskly and thoroughly washing her hands before bringing a cloth wrapped package over to the waiting table beside the good Doctor.
"Thank you, Nurse," Dr. Greenlees said in professional tones. "Dr. Flint, could you just direct that light a little lower, thank you."
Esther's teeth were locked, until she could hold her breath no longer, then she began panting like the locomotive that bore her name, panting like a laboring engine on a hard pull.
"Relax now," Dr. Greenlees instructed from his end of the project. "Good long deep breaths, Esther."
Esther hadn't realized how much strength this last long contraction had taken out of her.
Had she the strength, she thought, she would kick that pill roller right between his cultured eyes!
"One more good push should do it," Dr. Greenlees murmured, and Nurse Susan interrupted Esther's reply with a discreet wipe of the cool, wet cloth, and something seized Esther around the middle, hard, and began squeezing, harder than she'd ever felt in her life. Her toes curled and she positively crushed her husband's forearms in her swordswoman's grip. Nostrils flared,
gasping a little, then squeezing her eyes shut, hard, Esther bore down, bore down, hard, hard --
"Push, push," Dr. Greenlees encouraged.
"I AM PUSHING WHAT DO YOU THINK I'M DOING I AM PUSHING!" Esther raged, panted twice, locked another breath behind her teeth and then threw her head back and let out a long, wailing scream as something the size of a Lima-Baldwin-Hamilton steam locomotive with bells, whistles, six wheels, a tender, boxcar and caboose, ripped its way out of her innermost self, and she took another quick breath, and pushed again, and the world went funny, and she couldn't hear quite right, but she heard the one thing, the one thing, that she knew was very right.
She heard a little, squeaking, weak, wavering, cry.
Linn looked down at the three, busy at his wife's nether end; there was order, there was coordination, there was the flash of warm, wet cloths, the passing over of umbilical ties, of sterile scissors: more movement, more something, and a bundle was carried quickly to a waiting pan of warmed water.
A splashing; Esther heard the water.
Her body was still rippling and aching with having been delivered of the child she'd carried for three-quarters of a year, and she knew something else had passed; with the fall in blood pressure, after the great exertions that had carried her blood pressure to remarkable heights, she was now experiencing the uncomfortable and sudden drop that was causing her a headache of incredible proportions -- but as nothing compared to the last long moments of delivery.
She'd just delivered the afterbirth, and lay passively as she was turned, and cleaned, and fresh sheets placed under her; her husband gently removed his aching forearms from his wife's hands, and he walked casually to the opposite end of the table.
Dr. George Flint bounced the blanket wrapped bundle a little, smiling at what lay within; he handed it carefully to the Sheriff.
"Father," he said formally, "have you a name for your son?"
Esther choked a little.
"We have a boy?" Her eyes began to sting, and the reaction was setting in.
Anonymous hands turned the sheet down and Esther's husband brought the bundle back to her.
"Let me see," Esther whispered, tears running from the corners of her eyes back into her ears. "Oh, let me see my baby!"
Linn unwrapped the blanket, carefully, slowly: he examined one wrinkled little hand, another wrinkled little hand. Esther reached up and grasped her little baby boy and drew him into her, and the pink, wrinkled little boy-child started rooting, for he was hungry, and he knew there should be something edible nearby.
He was right.

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Mr. Box 3-14-09

 

Well, rumors are starting to make their way around as to the progress at the hospital. Word should be coming soon and I'd best prepare for a busy night! No doubt there will be a lot of celebrating to be done! I'd better go find me some pie before I get too busy to eat!

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Linn Keller 3-15-09

 

I leaned down and kissed my wife's forehead.
"I love you," I murmured.
Esther looked up at me, shaking a little, drawing the sheet up to her chin, covering the cuddling little boy-child feeding at her bosom.
"I'm cold," she whispered, and I saw her teeth were chattering.
"Doctor," I said quietly, a note of urgency in my voice.
Nurse Susan bumped me aside with a hip-thrust I'm sure was never taught in any school of nursing -- but it was nonetheless effective -- she'd just drawn a warmed blanket the length of the bed, covering Esther with warmed insulation, and tucked it in clear up around her chin: the doctor had done whatever it was he was doing, down at the other end -- I was content to stay right where I was, and let him do his work -- besides, Esther's grip prevented my going anywhere, at least until our wiggling little naked boy-baby landed on her breast.
I don't think I could have gotten her hands off the child if I'd had to.
Esther squealed a little and had the damndest smile on her face -- I'll never figure women out! -- crying out of both eyes and laughing at the same time.
Well, hell.
If I'd just birthed a locomotive I'd probably do the same.
I bent down and pulled up the sheet, peeking at this little miracle.
Esther reached up and caressed my cheek.
I reckon it was my turn to grin like an idiot.
Dr. Greenlees stood, stretching, twisting his back one way, then the other: he went over to the basin of fresh, warmed water and washed his hands, dried them, and came to my end of the delivery table.
He laid a hand on my shoulder.
I looked at him.
He jerked his head a little.
I squeezed Esther's shoulders and winked as she looked up at me, then I went with Doc.
We were out of earshot of the delivery table, and Nurse Susan was sharing womanly chatter with Esther, and they were both looking at the new little baby and making the noises women always make when they are regarding a little baby.
I couldn't help it.
I was grinning like a possum eatin' on a dead horse.
Doc opened a cupboard and withdrew two glasses.
Dr. Flint had retired from the room; had he been there, he would have joined us for a drink, I knew, but he would have discreetly filled his glass with water: the man did not drink, though he did use alcohol medicinally, topically, for a disinfectant and as an ingredient in nostrums and suspensions.
Doc pressed the short, broad glass in my hand.
"Drink," he said in his usual long-winded and many-worded fashion.
I drank.
He did too.
He took the glasses, put them on a tray, closed the cupboard.
Doc laid a hand on my shoulder, regarded me with quiet, serious eyes.
"Sheriff," he said gently, "I count ten fingers and ten toes, two eyes and one head, everything is exactly where it should be and in the right number."
I nodded, the sting of alcohol good on my tongue.
"There is something you should know."
The smile fell from my face and shattered on the floor.
"This child does not look a thing like you."
I turned my head just a few degrees: I am listeing, the gesture said, and I raised a hand, palm up: Say on!
Doc's eyes were dancing with restrained mirth, and I knew the man was pulling my leg with both hands.
"I looked at that little child and I looked at you, and I'm sorry to say he doesn't look a thing like you."
He paused, and a smile threatened to hijack the corners of his eyes.
"He's got no mustache a'tall!"

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Linn Keller 3-15-09

 

Jacob craned his neck, trying vainly to see as much as he could when his father came out the door.
"Sir?" he said breathlessly.
The Sheriff laid a hand on his son's shoulder, a quiet smile on his face.
"Sir," Jacob said, concern in his voice. "Mother -- why is she shivering so hard?"
The Sheriff put his other hand on his son's other shoulder.
"It's normal, Jacob," he said. "Doc said when a woman sheds her placenta she sometimes shivers and freezes. It'll pass. It's uncomfortable but it's normal in a few, a very few cases."
Jacob hesitated, biting his bottom lip.
I do that, the Sheriff realized, and his stomach lurched a little, and realized that this wasn't the first time Jacob had shown some of his own behaviors.
The Sheriff raised a hand, for nearly every eye in the house had turned his way -- everyone but Little Sean, who was curled up on the floor with his head on Twain Dawg's shoulder, and Angela, who was curled up beside him with her head on Little Sean, and both sound asleep --
Profound silence reigned, the low chatter of women's voices ceasing as if cut off with a knife --
"Esther is fine," he announced, "the delivery was without difficulty --"
"Spoken like a man!" Daisy challenged, her smile taking the sting out of her words. "If ye've e'er birthed a child ye'd no' say that!"
Bonnie colored and giggled and tried to hide her laugh behind a gloved hand and a lacy kerchief, and failed entirely in her effort.
The Sheriff nodded. "I reckon you're right," he agreed, flexing his hand and feeling Esther's grip still smarting on his forearm.
"The child?" Bonnie offered hopefully, and Sarah bounced a little on her toes and asked loudly, "Uncle Linn, am I an aunt or an uncle?" and this got almost everyone to laugh.
The Sheriff swallowed hard and looked at his firstborn son.
"Jacob," he announced, his voice pitched so all could hear, "you have much to teach to your little brother!"
Jacob was a few years from his twentieth birthday. By Western standards, he was a man grown; he did a man's work every day and had for some long time now. He was a blooded warrior, a deputy sheriff, a husband; he was a man of substance.
He was now a big brother.
He let out a wordless laugh and seized his father in a crushing embrace, and his father wrapped his arms around him and he squeezed too, and the Sheriff felt a couple ribs pop with the strength of his son's embrace. Doc had to press them back into place later, but we're not talking about that, for he had yet to pass out that box of Cuban see-gars he'd ordered discreetly from Maude.
The spell snapped on that moment; all decorum was lost, and the ladies pressed around them, all talking at once, demanding to know about the child, and how long, and how much does he weigh, is there any hair and what color and what color are the eyes, and does he look like you, and how is Esther, is the child eating, does Esther have milk enough for the child, and it felt like a young eternity before the door opened behind the men, and the ladies swept into the room in a colorful, chattering waterfall: Esther was sitting up in bed, in a fresh, embroidered and lace-trimmed gown, her hair was fixed and she was looking very much the tidy, fastidious, organized woman they've long known and loved.
The Sheriff admitted later he had now idea how she did this in the very few minutes since she'd lay sweating, exhausted and shivering.
Woman's magic, he'd written in his journal.
"Jacob," he said, "there are cigars to pass out. We've had our time with your mother. Let's give the ladies their turn."
So saying, the two tall lawmen, father and son, went out and mounted up and pointed their horses' noses up the street, toward the Jewel.

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Mr. Box 3-15-09

 

The door swung open wide at the Silver Jewel as Sheriff Keller and Jacob came in with cigar box in hand. The entry alone had announcement written all over it! I had a couple of beers drawn by the time they got to the bar. Linn took a pull on his and turned to the waiting crowd, "IT'S A BOY! DRINKS FOR EVERYONE!" Everyone cheered and cigars began lighting up all over the place. Heck, I got one myself! If the women folk hadn't all been down at the hospital with Esther and the newborn I swear they would have opened the doors and windows to clear the smoke in spite of the temperature!

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Charlie MacNeil 3-15-09

 

When the handwriting on the flimsy paper was finally deciphered, Charlie's first thought was, Josiah needs to work on his penmanship. The second was, Now that's fine news! I wish I was there to toast the child! Instead, he was stuck in an office trying to untangle the interwoven trails that all had their terminus in the death of the young policeman.

The first of the culprits to get their comeuppance had been the chief of the Denver police department, whose minor role had been to delay the investigation. Unfortunately for Carl Thornton, his demotion to patrolman had led to an assignment on Larimer Street, where he had fallen victim to the notorious "Soap Gang". His badly beaten corpse was found in a trash bin in an alley. Few tears were shed in Denver for the man.

The cover-up ran deep. Finding Thornton's notes, which he had cached with a "friend" in case his machinations were discovered by another law enforcement entity, had been a godsend for Charlie and Malone, the Irish police sergeant he was working with. Together the pair had managed to break through the code that obscured the notes, leading them to still more of the participants in the plot to rob the Denver City Bank. It was turning out that the money was merely window dressing for the true robbery: mortgage deeds for some of Denver's choicest real estate. The plan, as the two lawmen were discovering, was to hold the city's middle class hostage. How this was to be accomplished they still didn't exactly know, but they would find out.

Meanwhile, there was a new Keller come into the world, and that was cause for celebration! The Regulator clock in the front office chimed the hour of four; Charlie reached for his hat as he called to his secretary, "If anyone wants me, I'm unavailable until morning!" He was sliding his arms into his coat as the door closed behind him, stifling the inevitable protests.

Charlie's secretary shook her head ruefully. "He's gone again, eh?" Ozzie asked behind her.

"Yes, he got a telegram that apparently contained good news, and off he went!"

"Well," Ozzie replied jovially, "What's the sense in being the boss if you can't go celebrate once in a while?" He left the reception area whistling cheerfully.

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Linn Keller 3-15-09

 

"NOW WHAT'S THIS I HEAR ABOUT DRINKS ON THE HOUSE?" Sean boomed, the entire Irish Brigade grinning and stomping in behind him.
Mr. Baxter's neat row of just-filled mugs were reduced quickly as the Irish Brigade filed past: as noisy and boisterous as their entry, their passage was quite civilized, as each man wanted to spill no beer, and intended fully to collect on the excellent Havanas being freely distributed.
Sean lit up first, puffing grand huge clouds into the already hazed atmosphere, pounding the Sheriff happily on the back.
"Linn, ma lad," he said in that grand big voice of his, "is it a boy or a girl?"
The Sheriff bit through his cigar with the first assault on his shoulder blades, spat out the stub and decided against trying his beer, for fear the heavy glass might chip his rearmost tooth by virtue of knocking the others out of the way first.
Gasping for breath, he choked, "It's a boy," rolling his tongue in protest at the bitter flakes of Cuban tobacco burning into his taste buds.
"DO YE HEAR THAT LADS!" Sean announced in stentorian tones. "THE SHERIFF IS CHOKED UP O'ER HIS GOOD FORTUNE! A DRINK IN THE MAN'S HONOR!"
Every mug, stein and shot glass was hoisted, drained.
Mr. Baxter made swift work of refilling all he could, as quickly as he could; the Cuban puffed fragrant clouds about his head as he labored.
Not all the ladies had gone to the hospital; those few who were still in the Jewel, attracted by the happy commotion, found themselves seized, passed from hand to hand, Fiddler Daine struck up a lively air, and the ladies made the acquaintance of a surprising number of men in a very short time.
Sean and the Sheriff made their way to the end of the bar, though they were obliged to speak rather loudly just to be heard.
Jacob found himself with his arm around a lass's waist, her hand in his, and, laughing, they were cutting a fine couple in the middle of the floor, the crowd drawn back to give them room to work.
"Sheriff," Sean shouted, bending a bit at the waist toward the lawman, "ha'e ye chosen a name?"
The Sheriff nodded, picking a final fleck of tobacco from his lip and sipping cautiously at his beer. "We're down to three: Simon, Peter and Joseph."
"And ha'e ye a favorite?" Sean leaned an elbow back against the bar and regarded the older man with happy amusement.
"Peter was the Rock on which the Church is built," the Sheriff replied, his eyes troubled, "but I don't want Jacob to think I wish to build an empire on a younger brother. Jacob is my firstborn and has that birthright."
Sean nodded solemnly, turning to place his empty mug on the bar and carefully pick up a brimming stein in its place.
"Simon was a great, hard-muscled fisherman, but that one ... " The Sheriff shook his head. "I don't think that one's my favorite."
"Then let it be Joseph!" Sean declared with an emphatic nod. "Joseph was the carpenter father of his Son, the Christ. Joseph of Arimathea is my favorite saint!"
The Sheriff grinned at the big Irishman. "I thought it would be St. Florian!"
"St. Florian is my working saint," Sean corrected. "St. Florian tends my welfare when I walk about in the Devil's parlor, but St. Joseph looks about my daily welfare an' that o' ma family."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Ma Daisy has a bit o' somethin' for the child."
The Sheriff grinned, nodded. He had no idea what that might be, but that Sean and Daisy thought enough of them to have a special gift for the child, meant much to the man.
"Sean," the Sheriff said, "you've helped me decide, and I thank you."
"And what does your dear Esther think o' the name?" Sean asked wisely. "Perhaps ye'd best slip out yon back door an' consult the dear woman, else the lad will ha'e more names than a man can carry!"

Meanwhile, at the hospital, Bonnie asked Esther her son's name.
Esther smiled tiredly, looking down at the sleeping boy-child cuddled against her bosom.
"His name," she said confidently, "is Joseph."

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Linn Keller 3-17-09

 

Sean and the Irish Brigade, glowing with happiness and prolonged celebration, staggering just a bit and smelling distinctly of cigar smoke and beer, trooped happily through the snow back to their tall narrow horse-house, not feeling a bit of cold despite the late-winter chill.
Sean was shaking his head and muttering and finally voiced his complaint aloud:
"The Sheriff will no' make a guid Irishman if he'll no' let go an' get guid an' drunk!"
The German Irishman looked at his chieftain, closing one eye so he would be addressing but one of the mustachioed Seans, considering that he himself was not far from the need to hold onto one blade of grass to keep from falling off the face of the earth.
The German Irishman looked about and began to laugh.
"Now what's featherin' yer funny bone?" the New York Irishman challenged.
The German Irishman swung an arm expansively.
The Welsh Irishman ducked, but barely in time, the meaty arm whistling through the air where his head had been but a moment before.
"Have a look, boyos," he shouted. "Not a bit of grass to be seen!"
"He's right!" the Welsh Irishman declared, coming cautiously back to his full height. "Though what a man would want wi' grass in the dead o' winter is beyond me!"
The German Irishman belched, then leaned confidentially toward his cohort and said in a conspirator's tone, "It's so I don't end up among the stars, y'know!" and fell over some nonexistent obstruction, landing face first in the snow, arms thrown wide like a swimmer.
Sean seized the man's left arm and the Welsh Irishman took the man's right, and together they hauled him out of the snow and carried him the rest of the way down the street, his boot-toes dragging twin furrows in the punished snowfall; they sang loudly, cheerfully and absolutely off key, some sad ballad about a lass with shining eyes whose lover went to sea and never returned.
The German Irishman gave a good rippling belch and passed out.

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Linn Keller 3-17-09

 

I lay in the darkness, the weight of a little girl warm against my side, the weight of a near to full grown Dawg at my feet, and I smiled.
Angela's breath was easy against the side of my neck and her little arm was flung over my chest. My arm was under her and I had her cuddled into me.
Twain Dawg snored.
I thought back to earlier in the evening, in the Jewel, when Jacob and I stood shoulder to shoulder, leaning back against Mr. Baxter's bar, after the Irish Brigade had bade their goodbyes with much back-pounding and many good wishes.
Jacob's beer mug, like mine, was only about half emptied. I never knew him to tie on a good healthy drunk and truth be told I'd only done it once in my young life, on factory made whiskey that ... well, I didn't have a morning after.
I'd had a day after.
That was a very long time ago, not long after I swore into the Union army, but I was young and foolish.
Jacob and I stood there a long time, one foot set up on the polished brass foot rail, one elbow back behind, resting on the mahogany bar top.
"Sir?" Jacob asked.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, do you remember the first time you took me fishing?"
I smiled.
"I remember."
"Do you remember" -- he swirled his beer -- "do you remember tearing bark off that rotted log, showing me how to find grubs?"
I remembered.
I remembered the earthy, sharp stink of rotted bark, the crumbled texture, the white, curling grubs as they fell free.
I nodded.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, do you remember the bear?"
I took a long breath.
"Yes, Jacob. I remember."
Jacob's beer slowed to a stop, turning slowly in his heavy glass mug, forgotten.
"Sir, you put out an arm and said 'Jacob, get behind me,' and your voice was not excited at all."
I nodded.
It was sunny out that morning, the sun was at our backs and pleasant soaking through our clothes. It smelled good in the high country, birds sang riot around us, the horses grazed contentedly, at least until the wind shifted.
Rose o' the Mornin' scented the bear first and spooked. I hadn't hobbled her -- she'd always been steady and reliable -- I'd just ground reined her so she could graze, and graze she did, at least until she caught a whiff of Mrs. Ephriam. When Rose o' the Mornin' bolted, so did Jacob's Appaloosa, and with them my rifle.
I'd looked up and saw the grizzly the moment she saw us.
My left hand Colt was in hand as my right arm swept Jacob behind me.
"Stay behind me, Jacob," I said quietly. "Stay with me."
"Yes, sir," he'd said, his voice tight, and we stood our ground.
The sow grizzly stood.
I'm told a grizz has poor eye sight. A very good nose, but poor eyes, and she reminded me of an aging schoolmarm who'd forgotten her spectacles.
A schoolmarm with claws like chisels and a steam powered jaw.
I felt as much as heard Jacob's Army Colt whisper out of its sheath.
"Jacob," I said, "if she has cubs she is likely to charge."
"Yes, sir."
"Stay behind me. We are going to walk backwards, slow. I need you to turn around and watch behind us. Tell me if you see a cub."
"Yes, sir."
I began walking backwards, slow, easy, my eyes locked on the sow grizzly. I needed Jacob's eyes behind us. If a cub had circled around and we were between the sow and her young it would guarantee a charge. If the cubs were behind her, we might have a chance.
Jacob stayed with me. He reached back and grabbed the back of my belt, moving with me: we stepped together, slowly, and the sow grizzly watched, curious.
She came down on all fours and took a few tentative steps toward us.
I put two fingers to my lips and whistled, a high, pure note, liquid on the chilly mountain air.
Rose o' the Mornin' disliked bears but she had been trained by the best. At my whistle her head came up and she came to us at a gallop.
"Jacob," I said, "when Rose gets in reach, you mount up and get some distance."
"Sir, she'll charge," Jacob protested.
I knew he was right. Running from a bear will almost always trigger their charge reflex.
A grizzly can outrun a good saddlehorse in the sprint. The best I could hope to do with a revolver would be slow her down, make her mad enough at me to let Jacob get away.
I bared my teeth.
If that was the cards dealt me this hand, why, I would play them.
I heard Rose pounding across the high meadow toward us.
The sow turned her head, made kind of a groaning woof.
There was the sound of quarreling cubs behind her and two shining-red grizzly cubs tumbled into view, wrestling, squealing.
The sow grunted and swatted at them, rumbling something deep in her chest.
I heard a rifle cycle into battery and knew Jacob had made it into the saddle.
"Sir?" he said.
Something touched my arm.
"Sir?"
I blinked, once more in the Jewel.
"Sir, do you remember telling me to get some distance?"
I took a long breath, blinked again. "I remember."
Jacob turned to face me, no longer slouching against the bar. He set his mug on the bar and faced me formally.
"Sir, you were ready to stop her with your very life."
I nodded, turned to look at him.
Jacob's face was serious.
"Sir, you didn't know I was your son."
I felt a smile widen my face, slowly, slowly, the smile of a man with some deeper knowledge.
"Jacob, you were my son in every sense of the word."
It was Jacob's turn to blink.
Now, lying in the dark, warm in my own bed, I still felt Jacob's hand in mine.
He had no words for his thanks, or the depths of his realization.
He'd reached out his hand, and I'd taken it.

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Linn Keller 3-18-09

 

Twain Dawg had inherited a great deal from his sire.
His muzzle was not as blunt -- he had not the raw crushing power of the older Dawg's jaws -- but he was equally broad of chest, blunt of legs, and muscled.
Twain Dawg had inherited the absolutely, positively, unmarred and unmarked coat of utterly BLACK fur -- the black of a sinner's conscience, or of midnight's secret heart.
Twain Dawg had inherited every bit of Dawg's protective nature.
Twain Dawg had inherited many other attributes, from his dam as well as his sire, and as time and nature take their course, Twain Dawg matured as Dawgs will, and Sarah wondered at the appearance of a lighter spot on Twain Dawg's gleaming nose.
Closer inspection proved this an injury of some sort: linear, lighter colored than the surrounding fur.
Sara frowned when she saw it but wisely did not touch it, for even though healing and nearly healed, it was a bit tender.
Sarah forgot this puzzling discovery until her Papa came up from the stable and sat beside her on the porch swing.
Sarah loved the swing. Whenever the weather was fit, whenever she could escape chores and the thousand things that demand a young girl's time, it was her favorite place: here she read, here she did her lessons, here she sewed, here she dreamed.
Caleb sat beside her, his arm going around her shoulders, and she leaned into him.
"Sarah," Caleb said, "do you remember when Twain Dawg was a pup?"
Sarah giggled, looking at the panting Twain Dawg. He was lying on the porch decking with his forepaws dangling down onto the front step, surveying his kingdom like an indolent monarch on a velvet sofa.
"He was little," Sarah nodded.
"Was he this little?" Caleb asked, drawing a bundle of brown fur out from under his coat.
Sarah's eyes were suddenly big and her mouth was round with delight.
"Oh, Papa!" she exclaimed, then looked accusingly at Twain Dawg.
"Twain Dawg, what have you been doing?" she demanded in her best bossy-big-sister voice.
Caleb laughed as the furball wiggled and grunted in his grip. "He's only just weaned," he said. "Do you think Angela will like him?"
Disappointment creased Sarah's forehead. "But Papa, I want him!" she whined.
Caleb inclined his head in a fatherly way. "Sarah, you have Twain Dawg. Do you remember how happy you were when Charlie gave him to you?"
Sarah smiled again, remembering.
"Do you think Angela will like him?" she asked, reaching out a tentative finger to stroke the pup's soft, straight fur. She giggled as its quick pink tongue taste-tested her exploring digit.
"Let's find out, shall we? I have Jelly harnessed up."
"Okay!" Sarah bounced off the porch swing, excited. "I'll get my wrap!"
Twain Dawg yawned, blinking sleepily, paying no attention at all to the chickens scratching in the yard.

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Linn Keller 3-18-09

 

Bless you, Bonnie, I thought, smiling.
I watched as Michelle bathed little Angela, getting her clean while getting acquainted.
I was outside the room, but had left the door open about an inch, enough to look in.
Oh, I've bathed little ones before, mostly very little ones, and Angela a time or three, but I didn't really feel right what with Esther not back yet.
Besides, I thought, Esther will be busy with young Joseph, and Michelle will be a great help for her!
I marvelled at how Esther could command her household with the same clockwork-and-timetable efficiency as she ran her railroad, even to the last weeks of her pregnancy, but to be real honest, there toward the last I insisted it be more like she runs the railroad and I was the railroad.
Nobody in town knew it and Esther, bless her heart, never told anyone, but I'd taken care of the household when I wasn't taking care of the town.
On the other hand I think it was known. Maude gave me a knowing look when I was in the general store, and Bonnie looked at me in a way ... well, an approving way.
I looked toward the front door; there was a carriage pulling up out front.
I eased the door shut, latched it quietly.
I looked out the window and smiled.
"Caleb!" I greeted my caller, shaking his hand. Sarah was with him, smiling like she always did.
"Uncle Linn!" she exclaimed, holding her arms up, and I noticed with some surprise that I didn't have to bend over so far to hug her.
"What are you feedin' this child?" I asked Caleb. "She's grown since I saw her last!"
"I know," Caleb sighed. "Bonnie has taken to adding panels to her skirt, I think. Or curtain fringe."
"Oh, Papa!" Sarah exclaimed, coloring. "She does not!"
"Well heavens, come in in," I said. "I think Michelle has coffee hot."
"We brought Angela a present," Sarah blurted, excited, bouncing a little.
"She'll like that," I nodded, closing the door, "but she's in the tub right now."
There was a sharp, raspy YAP! and I turned quickly.
I don't know whose face was more surprised: mine, Sarah's, or the furry little visage that peeked out from her arms.
"Why, hello, fella," I said, reaching slowly down and letting the shiny-black nose sniff at the back of my fingers. "Where did you come from?"
"Twain Dawg," Caleb and Sarah said together.
I laughed.
The new arrival was busy washing my fingers, wiggling with happiness; Sarah was barely able to hold him.
"Go ahead and set him down," I said. "He might as well get used to the place."
The pup scrabbled a little on the polished floor and immediately began to cast around, his nose to the floor, searching.
"'Scuse me," I said, scooping him up and opening the door.
We made it down the steps, the pup's feet hit the ground, he turned around once or twice and emptied a bladder that must have been three times as big as he was.
Satisfied, he dug with his hind feet and hobby-horsed over to me.
I ruffled his ears, grinning, and the pup grinned back at me and yapped again.
This time he fell over backwards, surprised at the sound he'd just made.
Caleb and I laughed together. Sarah's hands were over her mouth and she was bouncing again.
We went back inside and we could hear Angela coming out of the tub. It was a few more moments before she came paddling out, barefoot, her flannel nightie dragging the floor, wet hair wrapped up in a towel half as big as she was.
If she grows as fast as Sarah, I thought, we won't have to worry about that nightie dragging much longer!
Angela laughed and came running toward me, her arms wide for a hug, like she always did, and then she saw the pup.
The brown-furred pup with the black muzzle, tan belly and tan paws cocked his head and regarded Angela curiously, the hide wrinkling up between his ears.
Angela cocked her head in much the same manner and giggled, her little pink hands covering her mouth.
"We brought you a pup!" Sarah declared.
"Bup," Angela said with an emphatic nod.
The pup ran its pink tongue out and laughed.
"No, not bup," Sarah corrected. "Pup!"
"Bup!" Angela repeated, nodding again, absolutely positive she was right.
I squatted down and stroked the little ball of wiggle and fur. "Angela, would you like to name your pup?" I asked, and Angela laughed, showing those lovely, even white teeth, and said, "Bup!"

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Linn Keller 3-19-09

 

Bonnie clucked and flipped the reins, and the Sheriff's mare eased into her collar, drawing the fine carriage easily up the street.
Esther's cheeks were pink, her eyes shining; new life cuddled against her, under the cloak, smelling of soap and baby powder like new babies often do.
The ladies chatted quietly; little Joseph, lulled by Mama's voice and the moving carriage, slept, restless but relaxed.
Twain Dawg was galloping into town, running for the sheer joy of running. The snow was packed the length of the street, hiding what would become mud once thaw came, but for today it was packed down and clean.
Twain Dawg ran with his tongue out the right side of his mouth, grinning, ears flapping like small wings as his great head rose and fell. As he breasted the firehouse, the German Irishman raised his hand and hailed a greeting, and Parson Belden smiled as the massive canine charged past, claws and paws noisy on the hard packed snow cover.
Twain Dawg galloped past the mare, circling back, coming abreast, trotting contentedly on the left side of the carriage, panting.
Twain Dawg knew Sarah was somewhere to be found.
Unless he found something else interesting to get into.
A stray cat glared at him from the mouth of an alley, hissed.
Twain Dawg looked over at it and laughed, eyes sparkling with high good humor, as the cat arched its back, furred out its tail and snarled its best imitation of a teakettle mated with an ill-tempered porcupine.
Twain Dawg chose not to investigate this phenomenon, for the wind caught his nose, and on the wind he found young Sarah.
Turning, galloping again, he pounded down the alleyway between the Jewel and what was to become City Hall, and across the back field, bee-lined for the Sheriff's house.

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Linn Keller 3-20-09

 

Michelle had done wonders.
She had both stoves fired and she'd gotten Angela dressed and her hair brushed out, she'd laid out my suit and the meal was near to ready for dishing up by the time Bonnie and Esther drew up in front of the house.
Twain Dawg had arrived well before, pawing briskly at the front door and loudly asking to come in: Sarah opened the door for him and I heard her bossy older-sister voice scolding the pup -- in my mind's eye I could see her, just a sprout of a girl, shaking her Mommy-finger at a canine that was rapidly coming to an impressive full growth.
I finished knotting my tie.
It took three tries to get the nice square Windsor knot Esther liked so well, and I think it was more by accident than design that I got it done, but I got 'er and snugged it up.
Good smells were drifting upstairs and my belly started calling me unkind names.
I walked downstairs and to the front door, and Esther smiled up at me, cradling new life to her bosom, and I strode out into the snow to welcome my wife and our new son to home.
I'm sure I struck a fine and dignified figure as I slipped in the snow and landed flat on my face, sliding about a foot under the buggy.
I came up on all fours, shaking my head and blowing snow out of my snot-box, raising up and banging my head on the under side of the carriage.
I backed out from under, to the giggling of two little girls on the porch, amused by the sight of my hinder coming widdershins out from under the buggy.
I stood, slapping snow off my lapels and my front, shaking my coat to dislodge the snow cakes compressed between coat and vest.
I looked up at Bonnie.
She was coloring nicely, trying hard not to laugh.
Esther, on the other hand, was on her feet, one hand on the back of the seat and one hand cradling little Joseph.
I tried hard not to show it, but my abused ribs were choosing that moment to give me Billy Hell, and half-healed bruises from breast bone level down to about hip level were starting to add their voices to the symphony of agony, so I tried to strike a dignified pose, puffing little balls of snow from my mustache as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
That was the last straw.
Bonnie started to laugh.
I looked at her with what I was sure was an expression of wounded dignity; it was time for the ridiculous, I thought, and struck an exaggerated pose, as if I were a monarch about to make some grand pronouncement, one hand on my hip, the other in the air, waving a finger like I was making an important point in a fine oratory.
Bonnie was in hysterics by this time, Esther was joining her, the little girls on the porch had given up all pretense of decorum.
I harrumphed, shook my suit coat again, smoothed my thinning hair.
Esther sat back down on the upholstered seat. laughing into her lace-trimmed kerchief.
Somewhere within the wraps and shawls and blankets and whatever else she'd wrapped little Joseph in, there came the intermittent protest of a young baby, the la-laa, la-laa of the newborn.
I walked around the back of the buggy and offered Esther my hand, and she descended with less than her usual Queenly grace.
She's probably stove up and sore more than I am, I thought.
Esther halted a moment, biting her bottom lip, confirming my suspicion.
I offered my arm.
Esther took my arm and, together, we walked around the front of the buggy and up the swept-clean steps, and into our home.

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Linn Keller 3-22-09

 

Jackson Cooper paced back the short hall that led to the cells.
He stood in front of the cell.
The prisoner looked at this mountain of a man and decided perhaps it would behoove him to quit raising a fuss.
The prisoner shrank back a little bit as Jackson Cooper just stood there, silent, unmoving, and finally produced a key, and unlocked the door.
"What's this?" the mine foreman asked.
"Time to go see the Judge," Jackson Cooper said quietly.
The mine foreman considered for a moment -- for only a moment -- driving hard fists into this big deputy's middle, but something told him this wasn't the man to try it with. He'd thought he could take that old gray lawman over in the Jewel, and another old gray lawman came out of nowhere and knocked the liver and lights loose from him, not to mention a couple teeth ... his gut told him this fellow could likely put him head first through the cut stone wall and not have to exert himself to do it.
His Honor the Judge had taken a dim view of those who would raise fists or other implements against the law, and sentenced the foreman to a month in the hoosegow, or a one hundred dollar fine: the foreman had come off winners from his most recent poker game and decided to part with the coin instead of languish in lockup and lose his job -- which he just might have lost anyway, having been away from his duties for a few days.
Jackson Cooper saw him back onto the train bound for the mines, and returned to the Sheriff's office, where he picked up a pen, dipped it carefully in India ink, and scribed a few lines.
Marshal --
Sheriff & Esther have a son, all well.
Advise whether to continue holding prisoner or return to Denver.
Ready to return bank proceeds on your go-ahead.
Jackson Cooper, Deputy, Firelands.

Jackson Cooper smiled and leaned back in the Sheriff's chair, considering whether to include a personal greeting, then decided against it.
He'd wait until Charlie returned to Firelands and he'd buy him a beer.

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Linn Keller 3-24-09

 

The meeting took place in the Sheriff's study.
Jackson Cooper, Sean and the Irish Brigade, Mr. Baxter, the Reverend Belden, Lightning -- in fact, most of the men-folk from Firelands proper managed to squeeze in; the study was generous in size, but the Sheriff began to regret not having had their assembly at the Jewel instead.
Brandy was poured and tasted, cigars passed around, and the assembled found a place of comfort, whether standing, lounging, seated: Sean settled his trim backside on the hearth, warming his kidneys at the fire, the Welsh Irishman parked on the other side of the broad, flat stone; Jackson Cooper shifted his weight from one foot to the other, tugging at his collar and looking like he wished he were elsewhere.
Earlier in the evening he'd fussed and growled as Emma clucked and smiled, for it wasn't often she got to see her fine figure of a man in his suit; she tied his tie in the same neat knot Esther had taught her, to Jackson Cooper's muttered protestations; he variously opined that a necktie was next thing to a noose, and that its inventor should be strangled with the prototype, and it buried with said individual: finally Emma stood back, pleased, admiring, and Jackson Cooper's ears turned a remarkable shade of red, for in spite of his objections, he lived for his diminutive wife's approval.
"Gentlemen," the Sheriff said, "thank you all for coming." He too wore his suit, as did most of those present. The Irish Brigade wore their usual red bib front shirts, but their boots were polished to a high shine, their mustaches were waxed into fine handlebars: even Mr. Baxter had taken pains to dress for the occasion.
The Sheriff looked around, met every eye. "It isn't often a man gets to participate in his town's government to such an intimate degree. You have all indicated your respect for this effort by your very appearance, and by the decorum of your behavior."
There was a high-pitched giggle and the patter of bare feet, running: the door was half open to the Sheriff's study, and every head turned, and some leaned a little to look at the source of the disturbance: the Sheriff turned, cigar in one hand, brandy in the other, just as a naked little girl, dripping wet and shrieking with delight, went pattering by the open door, followed a half-pace behind by a distressed maid, bent over double, towel extended in an attempt to catch the fleeing fugitive.
The Sheriff cleared his throat. "As I was saying, we are meeting with a proper dignity and decorum --"
Another giggle and Angela went streaking past the doorway again, laughing, wearing nothing more than the delighted expression of a happy child.
"Gentlemen, if you will excuse me," the Sheriff said, handing his refreshments to his deputy and stepping out the door. There was a roar, a snarl, another shriek and a positive waterfall of giggles, and the Sheriff came back in the room with a laughing little girl wrapped up in a towel half as big as Firelands County.
"As I was saying," he continued, Melissa creeping fearfully into the hazy room behind him, "we meet with due decorum in recognition of the solemnity of our purpose." He kissed Angela on the forehead and said "Isn't that right, precious?"
Angela giggled and the Sheriff handed her off to Michelle, who backed from the room, drawing the double doors shut behind her.
The Sheriff recovered his brandy and his cigar, laughing quietly; chuckles rippled through the room.
"Well, so much for solemn dignity," he said ruefully, and got a good laugh.
"Okay. Now that we're here, let's talk about town. It has been suggested that we put together a formal government: Mayor, Council, treasurer, utilities, the stuff of a real municipality."
There was a shuffling of feet, a murmur. This had been discussed for some time.
"Esther has hired an architect to draw up plans for a city hall. We have contracted with the quarry to supply the same quartz block as our hospital, we are arranging masons from the quarry to actually construct the edifice."
"That will go where the newspaper office was?" Mr. Baxter asked.
"It will. The property adjacent has been purchased for that purpose."
"Who holds title to that property?"
The Sheriff smiled, blew out a fragrant cloud of Cuban. "I do."
"If ye don't mind me askin'," Sean asked with a lift of his chin, "who will own yon property once the buildin' is up?"
"Firelands," the Sheriff said without hesitation. "Once she's built, I'll quit-claim it to Firelands in perpetuity. Mr. Moulton has the paper work drawn up for that transfer."
"And your askin' price?" Sean inquired suspiciously.
The Sheriff swirled his brandy. "The price has been paid," he said quietly.
"And how much would that be, if ye don't mind me askin'?" Sean pressed.
The Sheriff took a long drink of his brandy, emptied the balloon, set the empty snifter on a sideboard and parked his cigar. He looked at the floor, thrust out his bottom lip and took a long breath, and then looked up at the big Irishman.
"Sean, I am a man who knows the value of a dollar. When I was young I farmed, grubbed stumps and rocks, swung a scythe and plowed up roots and sweated as only a farmer can. In the years since I have known joy and sorrow, gain and loss, enemies and friends.
"My price?" He smiled grimly. "Sean, my price is this:
"A woman who loves me.
"A daughter who laughs when I hold her.
"A son who is the world to me.
"Friends without whom I would be nothing.
"A home worth of the name."
The Sheriff paused, looking around again, slowly, his gaze touching every eye, one by one by one.
"That is my price, Sean. The bill is marked 'Paid in Full.'"
The room was silent for several long moments.
"And what o' the others?"
"Others?"
"Sheriff" -- Sean stood, his brandy behind him on the hearth -- "you've bought the town a fine steam engine at your own expense. Ye hired us an' pay our wage every month, a' your expense. You had our firehouse built a' your expense. The Silver Jewel is yours. Wha' o 'the other?"
The Sheriff smiled. "Sean, once the town is up and running, the fire department will be paid from the city treasury. We will have utilities -- gas and running water -- in fact we've just signed for the pipes to carry gas, and gas is drilled in not far from here. It will be heating your new firehouse and it's already fired the first batches of bricks.
"I plan to turn the new city building and its property over to Firelands, and the fire department, engine, building and all."
"Jus' like that."
"Just like that."
Sean scratched his Irish-red hair. "Ye'll no' be sellin' 'em?"
The Sheriff shook his head. "No."
Sean turned his head a little, looking almost sidelong at the Sheriff, trying to find the catch, the trick, the joker in the deck.
"Ye could sell 'em t' th' town, y'know."
"I know."
"Ye stand t' make a good profit."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Ye're just givin' 'em away."
A nod again.
"Why?"
The Sheriff considered for a long moment. Silence hung over the room as each ear waited for his reply.
There was a tap at the door: Jacob opened the panel, stepped in. "My apologies, gentlemen," he said formally, sounding remarkably like his father.
The Sheriff held up a forestalling hand. "Don't close it just yet," he said quietly.
In the hush they heard the la-laa, la-laa of a newborn's cries, and the Sheriff grinned, then nodded to his firstborn.
Jacob drew the door shut.
"That," the Sheriff said, "is one reason why." He turned to his son, laid a hand on the tall young man's shoulder, turned to face the assembled. "this is another."
After the meeting had concluded, the Sheriff had reason to appreciate Mr. Baxter's efforts in obtaining a goodly stock of fine brandy, and Maude's diligence in ordering in more cigars.
The meeting had lasted long into the night, required most of the brandy and all but two of the cigars -- but by the time they were done, they had formed up the back bone of Firelands municipal government-to- be.

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Charlie MacNeil 3-24-09

 

Charlie read Jackson Cooper's telegram. Here's my chance! he thought to himself. "Ozzie!" he bellowed.

"What?" Assistant Marshal Ozzie Smithers' voice echoed through the building.

"I'm goin' to Firelands! Wanna go?"

"Can't! Too much to do!"

Charlie drew in a breath to answer, but before he could give voice to his reply his new secretary, Alexandra Macone, popped her head through the open door. The last young lady had been unable to adapt to Charlie's sometimes rough ways. This one had no such problem. "Must you two beller at each other like a couple of buffalo bulls?" the buxom brunette asked in a tart tone. "Is it too much to ask that one of you go to the other's office?"

"What's the matter, too loud for you?" Charlie asked, his tone amused.

"I do believe you're scaring the beer wagon horses out in the street!" the young woman, who preferred to be called Alex, declared.

"It amuses me," Charlie told her with a grin.

"Then you are easily amused, Marshal," Alex told him dryly as she returned to her desk.

"I reckon you're right," Charlie said under his breath. "On both counts." He pushed his chair back and headed for Ozzie's office. He stepped inside. "Got a telegram from Firelands." he said curtly. "They want to know if we're ready for them to send back the money and the man. I think I'll go get 'em both."

"Here's an idea," Ozzie answered. "Pack up Miss Fannie, and the both of you go see that new baby you told me about. Since you'll be going on business, we can bill the train tickets to the home office."

"Mine, anyway. Good plan," Charlie said. He raised his voice. "Alex!" She stubbornly refused to answer, and Charlie gave Ozzie a grin. "I reckon I'll have to go out there. See ya." He went out into the hall and made his way to Alex's desk to ask her to arrange train tickets for himself and Fannie to Firelands.

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Linn Keller 3-25-09

 

Sarah's eyes snapped open.
All was quiet in the Rosenthal household.
Sarah knew her Mama slept in the next room with the twins, and they in their bed, wrapped and cuddled and peaceful as they always were.
Twain Dawg, however, was not so tranquil.
Sarah rolled over, slipping one flannel sleeved arm out from under the covers, and reached down toward the growling dog.
It's not that her arm was too short, really, it's that the bed was made for an adult, and she wasn't near that size: matter of fact, she was nearer eight than nine, despite the Sheriff's confusion on the matter.
Sarah tossed back the warmth of her quilts and sucked in a quick breath as her warm soles missed the rug and hit the chilly floor.
She was instantly wide awake.
Her quick young ears picked up what Twain Dawg had heard: the chickens outside were unhappy.
Sarah reached down and laid a hand on Dawg's bristling ruff. "C'mon," she whispered, and Twain Dawg stood, rumbling deep in his chest, a note Sarah had never heard, but because she'd grown so close to the canine, little he did caused her to fear.
They slipped downstairs -- Twain Dawg pulled quickly away from her grasping hand, flowed down the stairway like water down a falls, and snarled quietly at the closed back door.
Sarah looked upstairs. Her Papa was not yet home, and she did not want to disturb her Mama, but something was into the chickens and she saw it as her place to take care of the situation.
She was a big girl, after all.
Sarah went to the corner and picked up the shotgun her Mama kept behind a conveniently concealing apron. It was heavier than she'd expected, but she'd seen her Papa use it, and figured she could too.
"Sshhh," she admonished Twain Dawg, and Twain Dawg shh'd, sheathing his fangs and lowering his head a bit.
Had Sarah had light to see, she would have seen a very different Twain Dawg than she was used to: but it was dark, and her attention was on the door's latch.
She drew the latch back, turned the knob, pulled the door open.
Twain Dawg was past her, charging into the darkness.
Sarah threw the door wide, grasped the double gun in both hands, ran out onto the back porch.
There was a terrible sound of snarling and growling and Sarah turned and ran down the stairs.
The moon was out and mostly full: the ground sparkled bright with frost, and against this light and glittering background, Sarah saw Twain Dawg in a tangled malestrom of fur and fang with something vaguely doglike, very fast, and made of snarl and gleaming ivory.
Sarah looked down at the double gun's action, rested its muzzle on the ground -- it was too long and heavy to hold up -- she shoved back the left-hand hammer with the heel of her left hand, then the right hammer -- she grasped it by its fore end, tucked the comb of the stock under her armpit, raised the muzzle.
A second shadowy form slipped behind the fighting pair, seized a hen and started to slink into the darkness.
"Sarah!" Bonnie's alarmed voice called from the porch.
"You put my chicken down!" Sarah yelled, mad clear through, pointed the muzzle of the double gun at the fleeing chicken thief, and yanked the front trigger.
For a moment, just a moment, the world froze, and Bonnie would forever remember the scene as if it were engraved on a Daguerreotype plate: Twain Dawg, jaws wide and fangs gleaming, moonlight reflecting silver from his eye, a tenth of a second from his opponent's throat: Sarah, ghostly in her flannel nightie, three feet of flame squirting into the dark, a young warrior screaming defiance at a skulker and a thief; and a great cloud of dust, for Sarah's shot went mostly low and kicked up an impressive volume of frozen dirt.
The effect of her shot was instantaneous.
Twain Dawg's snarl was muffled as he clamped down hard on the coyote's throat. Despite the concussion, Bonnie heard the grisly crunch of cartilage, then the pained scream of a wounded animal.
The hazy cloud rolled out ahead of Sarah and she stepped back, absorbing the recoil, raised the muzzle again and triggered the second barrel.
This one was not low.
The chicken flapped away, shedding feathers and indignation; later inspection showed the worst of the chicken's injuries were to its dignity, and in fact the next day it proceeded to lay its usual egg, with the loud-voiced opinion that it had just birthed an entire universe and all of Creation should bow before its scaled feet in homage to this wondrous miracle.
At the moment, Bonnie's knuckles, clamped on the porch rail and white with the effort, welded her in place, but only for a moment: she swarmed down the stairs and to Sarah, squatted beside her and laid her arm across Sarah's back, her hand on her far shoulder.
Twain Dawg snarled quietly as the 'yote kicked its last, and the second coyote, the one Sarah crippled with her first, skipped shot, and cut mostly in two with her second, thrashed and gasped and snapped its jaws until it, too, surrendered its essence to the Eternal.
There was the clatter of hooves and Caleb came around back, driving their buggy through the yard, a thing he never did: he drew the mare to a halt and regarded the scene before him, realizing that whatever happened, it was over, and apparently not unwell.
Bonnie stood, surprise still on her face, but Sarah was not in the least at a loss for words.
"Papa! Twain Dawg killed a coyote and so did I!"
Caleb could not help it.
He stepped out of the buggy and took his ladies in his arms and laughed.

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Charlie MacNeil 3-26-09

 

The modest dwelling's front door crashed open and the thunder of boot heels was loud on the polished hardwood floor of the entry hall. "Fannie darlin', pack your duds, we're goin' to visit the new baby!" Charlie called, his voice ringing through the house's finely furnished interior.

"I'm already packed," Fannie told him from the entry to the parlor. "I knew you'd figure out some way to go back there on official business!"

He slipped an arm around her shoulders and planted a kiss on her cheek. "And how, pray tell, do you know this is official business?"

"Because I know you!" she declared as her own arm went 'round his waist.

"As usual, you've read what little mind I have left after dealin' with all the bureaucratic nonsense I put up with every day," he told her. "I'm gonna pick up the gent that had the bank money, along with said dinero, and bring 'em both back here to Denver. I figured we might as well go see the Sheriff's new offspring while we were at it." He pecked her on the cheek once more before he turned to head for their bedchamber. "Gotta get some clothes packed."

"Already done," Fannie informed him dryly. "I told you, I knew we'd be going back there. When do we leave?"

"First thing in the morning."

"Good. Then we've got time for a bath," she told him with a wicked glint in her shining emerald eyes.

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Linn Keller 3-29-09

 

Annette's cheeks were pink, her hand was delicately in front of her mouth, her shoulders rolled forward just a bit, and she and Esther locked eyes, both women ready to bust out laughing, but neither quite willing to do so.
Poor Jacob, on the other hand, made no secret of his feelings.
Esther was offering the wrapped, wiggling bundle of baby boy: Jacob, fingers spread wide under it, had an expression of unadulterated fear as he protested in a cracked voice, "But I might break it!"
"Nonsense!" Esther said briskly, in her warm, don't-worry-I-am-the-mother voice. She tucked young Joseph back against her and took one, then the other of Jacob's forearms, rearranging them: she eased Joseph's weight into his brother's grasp, unwrapped one of Joseph's pink, kicking legs and wrapped Jacob's hand around the thigh: "There, hold this, head in your elbow. Yes. Just like that."
Jacob's breath, trapped behind his teeth, eased out cautiously, hesitantly; his eyes were locked onto the little face that yawned and smiled at him. Jacob's other hand came up, wrapping around the infant's shoulder, and he looked up at the shining emerald of his mother's eyes.
Jacob looked around, spotted a convenient rocking chair, eased his wiry frame down into the welcoming chair, and began rocking slowly, gently.
"What do I do now?" he said, his voice tight, and Annette, who had seen her husband in many states and in many situations, realized this is the closest to honest, I-don't-know-what-to-do PANIC she'd ever seen in the man!
"Now," Esther said with a schoolteacher's nod, "you do just as you are doing. You get acquainted." She folded her hands in front of her. "Jacob, this is your brother Joseph."
Jacob looked into his tiny little brother's face.
"Joseph, this is your big brother Jacob. He has much to teach you."
Jacob looked up, surprised, then began to grin.
Esther could read the thought in his eyes:
Yes, ma'am, I surely do!
Joseph, blinking sleepily, cuddled a little into the strong arms that held him and managed to work one little arm out of the blanket wrap.
Jacob chuckled a little as the tiny pink hand began exploring the lapel of his coat. He raised the child a little and nibbled the tiny, tiny fingers, and Jacob smiled with toothless gums and squealed in delight.

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Linn Keller 3-30-09

 

"Come inside, Sean," Daisy said softly, her hand gentle on his flannel shirted back.
Sean stood on the back porch of their little home, legs planted wide, his muscled arms folded: frowning, he glared out across the field behind their home, for all the world like a ship's-captain glaring a challenge at an approaching storm front.
"I don't like it," he muttered, shaking his head. "I don't like it a'tall."
Daisy came up beside her husband, one hand on his shoulder, leaning her flannel robed form into him. He put an arm around her and drew her close.
"Daisy me dear," Sean said, and his voice softened, though his frown scarcely did, "do yu' fell the thaw in th' air?"
Daisy nodded. "Mm-hmm. And do you smell it, Sean? It smells of springtime!"
"Nah," Sean spat. "It's trouble, I tell ye. Trouble, t' thaw this early." He turned and gathered his wife into both his arms. "First, now, let's be gettin' you inside where it's warm."
Sean opened the door for his sleepy wife and followed her in, but as he started to draw the door shut behind, he turned and looked out at the snowfield, bright in the moonlight.
"I dona' like it," he muttered, and latched the door shut.

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Charlie MacNeil 3-30-09

 

The mercury had dropped into the bulb at the bottom of the glass tube as if it had decided to surrender to the whims of Nature and go into hibernation like one of the great Rocky Mountain bears. The children of Firelands slept warm and snug under hand-stitched quilts, softly smiling in their slumbers, safe and secure in their beds.

Sean lay awake long after Daisy and little Sean had fallen asleep, bothered by the taste of the wind that whispered across the blanket of snow. Before coming to Firelands, he had seen his share of blizzards that buried the countryside under great masses of water-laden white. He had also seen what damage a sudden thaw could do when that water was suddenly released from its frozen prison. As he drifted off to sleep his last thought was, " 'tis a blessin' that the wind's from the north."

The running horse adorning the wrought-iron weathervane atop Shorty's livery stable was pointed steadily to the south, indicating a north wind, as Mister Baxter blew out the last of the lamps in the Silver Jewel and went to his bed. Shorty himself slept soundly in his small room at the front of the livery; one moment asleep, the next awake. He lay for a moment, blinking at the ceiling in confusion, at a loss as to what had brought him to the surface of the dark sea of dreamland. The next moment he heard it: the rhythmic squeak of a pivot lacking lubrication as the weathervane tacked back and forth in the restless wind. With a high-pitched, drawn-out squall the arrow beneath the iron stable mascot spun one hundred eighty degrees as a gust came directly from the south. After a few gradually quieter squeaks and squeals, the vane settled in and went silent.

Shorty threw back the warm blankets, shivering as his bare feet contacted the braided rug by his bed. He shoved his feet into worn leather slippers, reached for the box of matches on the bedside table and struck one alight. He held the flame to the wick of a fat tallow candle stuck in its own wax on a chipped saucer. Golden light formed a globe in the darkness of the small room. Wearing only his patched long-handles Shorty stepped out into the stable proper, listening intently. It took several long minutes, but then a small sound came to his ears: the sound of dripping meltwater. Already the air of the stable, normally warmer than that outside, had increased in temperature. Lord help us! the livery man thought. The Chinook's comin'!

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Linn Keller 4-1-09

 

Parson Belden leaned his palms on the rail of their little side porch. The parsonage smelled of frying bacon and fresh baked bread; his wife, as she always did, fixed him a wonderful breakfast, and this day he would have need of it.
She had come out on the porch with him, her shawl around her shoulders, smiling at the ground peeping up through the disappearing snow.
Mrs. Belden tilted her head back and took a slow, deep breath.
"It's waking up," she said.
"Hm?"
"The land. We'll have fiddle head ferns down in the run, and the roses should start to green up soon."
Parson Belden twisted his back slowly to the left, to the right. He was not particularly tall; like Shorty, he was as a matter of fact kind of blocky -- the build of a man who'd done honest work all his life, and still did when necessary. He'd never seen fit to get out of the habit of working for a living and could often be seen helping with plowing or harvest, forking hay or ricking fire wood.
Mrs. Belden laid a gentle hand on her husband's shoulder. "You're remembering the fire, aren't you?"
The Parson, uncharacteristically taciturn, grunted.
Mrs. Belden's hand squeezed gently, the move of someone who understood completely, and for whom words were not needed. They had been married long, and long enough that they could say more with a touch or a squeeze or even a look, than most can with several minutes' oratory.
"I'd best go have a look around," the Parson said.
"Your old boots are just inside the door."
Parson Belden turned and took his wife by the elbows, frowning memory dissolving in a twinkle of merriment. He kissed his wife and said "You, Mrs. Belden, are a fine looking woman."
"And you, Mr. Belden, have work to do."
Parson Belden went inside.
It was time to change out of his Parson's clothes and get into his work duds.


The thaw had done unkind things to the snow cover.
It warmed thirty degrees overnight and schoolboys waved their coats overhead, charging through the muddy street, unheeding of the ruin they were making of shoes and pants-legs, at least until Mrs. Cooper met them at the schoolhouse door with a very motherly expression.


Jacob knew well the need for action over speculation: he'd harnessed the gray to their wagon, loaded both his scythes and both his shovels, and like the Parson, eschewed his usual attire for common work clothes.
Annette puzzled over these preparations.
She watched as Jacob walked around their house, making a circle two hundred yards across, frowning here, squinting there, nodding to himself, pointing at something significant in his vision; she had no way of knowing he was regarding the water-flow as it ran down the cliff-face behind the house, and she could not hear the silent thanks he offered to the Almighty that he'd heeded advice and built his house of stone, with a slate roof.

Daisy sent her Sean out the door with a belly full of her good cooking and a sound kiss, one that fired the heart of the great Irishman and promised more than just a kiss upon his return. Little Sean ran up to his Papa and seized him about the booted leg, laughing, and Sean seized up the lad, raising him to the ceiling before bringing him down for a bearlike embrace.

Maude looked over her merchandise, neatly ranked on several shelves, mentally reviewed orders placed and received, and nodded with satisfaction. It was morning, a fine morning, warm with a promise that winter's back had been broke, and spring had arrived.
Maude knew better than to believe a promise false as any lover's.
Bill and Mac came clumping up the board walk and were met at the door by the proprietress. She seized each by an elbow.
"I'm tired of my own cooking," she announced. "Let's go have breakfast!"
Bill looked at Mac, and Mac looked at Bill, and they both looked at Maude.
Maude looked at one, then the other, her expression completely, mischievously, innocent.
Bill spoke first.
"Like the old preacher said," he grinned, "all donations cheerfully accepted!"
Maude locked the door behind her and they three picked their least muddy path across the street, scraped their feet on the edge of the step, wiped off on the cocoa-nut mat beside the door, and jingled the door-bell as it opened.

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Charlie MacNeil 4-1-09

 

Under normal circumstances, Fire Creek was a placid rill tinkling down from the hills above the mine to slip merrily across the wide plain between mine and town and wend its way through the town to exit beyond the little clapboard church. Its course through Firelands was a favorite place for small boys with long willow switches to bring the occasional trout wriggling into the open air. This morning the character of the creek was beginning to change...

It began as a trickle of muddy water that meandered from beneath the snow fields high in a deep-drifted canyon uninhabited by man or beast. First one, then another, small, liquid finger reached out, tasting the soil that had not frozen before the snow came and covered it with a deep, insulating blanket. At first, the small tendrils disappeared into the loamy dirt, absorbed by Nature's sponge, but as the volume of the life-giving fluid increased, the sponge began to be saturated, giving free rein for the slowly expanding rivulets to make their way further downhill, braiding together into a single flow...

The sun had risen high enough to reach the first of its warm rays into the canyon, accelerating the growth of the flow that had begun with the warm south wind and that carried more and more soil into the rocky trough at the bottom of the defile. The soupy consistency of the mixture thinned rapidly, oozing between boulders and pebbles, gaining volume from the surrounding drifts, and speed as it traveled toward the flatlands below...

The winter just past had been unusual for Firelands. As a general rule, the town's inhabitants could expect a large number of small, relatively dry snowfalls throughout the winter; this year, the snowfalls had held an unusually high volume of moisture. That moisture, locked in deep-piled drifts, was about to be released, set free by the warm Chinook winds and the sudden raw warmth of the sun's golden rays...

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Linn Keller 4-1-09

 

Abraham Lincoln is said to have spent quite a bit of time in the telegraph room of the White House during the War, lending his ear to the incoming messages clattering over the wires: Esther Keller, in like wise, lent a careful ear to the sounder, clattering on Lightning's desk, bouncing little Joseph gently as she pictured the terrain between Firelands and the mine.
She had not just the passenger line to consider, but the twice-daily ore train: longer, heavier, it put more strain on rails and trestles than the more lightly loaded passenger train.
Esther had known floods, back East, but these were slower inundations. From what she was hearing over the wire, snowmelt was causing trouble over at the mines. Mud slide, she'd heard, one slide washed out a tipple, which fell on a half-dozen houses: no one was hurt, though a fire did break out from a crushed cook stove.
If it can wash out a tipple, she thought, it can wash out a trestle, or sluice a thick fan of mud and rock over the rails, or wash a tree's roots free and drop the living timber in front of a locomotive.
There were several miles of track -- her track! -- between the mines and the mill.
Most of all, she feared for the safety of her railroaders.
Esther pursed her lips, considering, then came to a decision.
"Have the roundhouse get steam up in my inspection car," she said briskly.
"Yes, ma'am," Lightning said, reaching for the key.
"I should be there in a half hour, that should be enough to get a working head of steam. I'll want Johnson."
"Yes, ma'am!"
Esther turned to Michelle. "Are you game for a little railroading?"
Michelle swallowed.
She hadn't known quite what being a maid to a fine family meant, but the very last thing she expected was being part of running a railroad!

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Linn Keller 4-2-09

 

Maude's quick ear heard it first.
Faintly, in the lull in conversation that always happens in any gathering, a momentary ... well, not silence, but a coincidental, near-silence, one of those moments when odd sounds from without, penetrate easily within.
She cocked her head a little and couldn't help but smile.
She remembered WJ, and how he would stand tall and straight at harvest time, scythe in one hand, stone in the other, whistling a little as he always did as he plied the stick of shaped stone against the curve of the blade: she remembered the musical tzing, tzang, tzing, tzang, as he stroked first one side of the blade, then the other, back, forth, always stroking the stone away from him, with the ease and skill of a butcher sharpening with a steel: Maude marveled, watching him, that he didn't slice off a finger or two simply with the sharpening of this harvester's implement: then, satisfied, the stone would be dropped in a convenient overall pocket, WJ would turn the long handled tool around so it was blade-down and workwise again, and he would begin cutting grain, or cutting weeds, rhythmic, paced, spaced strokes of the shining blade, taking a half-step with each swing: he never hurried, he never tried taking too big a cut, and he stopped often to sharpen.
To his old age he had the trim waist of an eighteen year old, thanks mostly to his regular use of this particular tool.
Maude blinked. Conversation had re-started, as it always did, and the sound was lost.
She smiled again, blinking into the depths of the shimmering vanilla coffee in her cup.
The sound was lost, but her memories of WJ certainly were not.

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Linn Keller 4-4-09

 

The Irish Brigade divided their forces.
The Irish Welshman and the German Welshman, shovels over their shoulders, trooped down to the creek just below their whitewashed clapboard church and pulled the heavy wood cover off the hand dug well near to the creek.
The well had been dug, not as a source of drinking water, but rather as a source of water for fire flow: from here they could reach the edge of Shorty's livery, they could hit the back of the Jewel, they had the church and the school and across the street covered, and with a bit more hose -- which had just arrived the previous day -- they could cover the depot.
The German Welshman and the Irish Welshman probed the well with their shovels, satisfying themselves it had neither sanded in nor silted in; it had been dug deeper than a man's height, dug into a sand layer, then laid up with stone. It was dependable for wet weather, but in the driest seasons so far, as it was below creek level, it always held water, and recharged at a good rate.
They dragged the heavy cover back over the well and continued on behind Shorty's. His well was likewise deep, broad enough for a grown man to stand in it and spread his arms and just touch the walls with his finger tips and a good eight feet deep. It had required a horrendous amount of dirt being removed but it allowed a good reservoir. It did not recharge nearly as fast -- they'd pumped it down intentionally to check its recharge rate, information vital for a prolonged pumping -- though it recharged slowly, it held about fifteen hundred gallons.
"We'll have to be sparing of the water, lads," Sean had muttered, shaking his head. "Only fifteen hundred gallons."
The Irish Brigade knew how fast their fine, shining engine could throw that much water, but the Brigade knew how to get the most use out of every gallon.
Wells, cisterns, even horse troughs were examined, tested, plumbed; by the time the two were done, they were mud to their knees and their shirts were soaked to the shoulders, but they were able to report to their Chieftain the state of firefighting water supply in Firelands was still good.
The New York Irishman, meanwhile, was swearing quietly, fitting Shorty's latest gift to the Brigade on the end of their hard suction line: a forged steel cage, cleverly welded onto a short pipe nipple: it threaded on, tightly, but this meant it would not fall off, nor work loose.
The New York Irishman smiled humorlessly as he began shearing hardware cloth at a measured width.
He was wrapping the mesh around this handmade intake screen.
Stones could break the valves in their engine, and a broken valve could mean the end of fire fighting, loss of a structure, or loss of most of the town.
The New York Irishman was fiercely protective of his beloved engine.
Sean regarded the screened intake. It was a clumsy looking thing -- some foot and a half long, the full diameter of the hard suction -- but he offered no comment.
They both knew this would mean a foot and a half of water in whatever they were drawing from, would be unavailable -- but they both knew none would be available if they sucked in a stone that immobilized their engine.
The New York Irishman picked up some copper screening and carefully wrapped one layer over the hardware cloth.
He wired it firmly in place, looking up at his stern-visaged Cheiftain.
"This'll stop all but sand," he said.
Sean nodded and laid a massive hand on the man's shoulder.
"Good lad," he nodded.

 

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Linn Keller 4-6-09

 

Esther drew up their carriage at the Z&W's shops.
A year ago it didn't exist: now it stood, solid, blocky, shouldering against the mountain behind it, with the fan of tracks coming out of its three yawning doors. Two men met the ladies; Esther smiled as she was courteously helped down to the cut-granite, dismount-stone placed for that purpose when the structure and ground were built.
Michelle, big-eyed and uncertain, thanked the other man courteously, then turned and retrieved the blanket-padded basket containing young Joseph.
Esther set a brisk pace up the gravel walkway, talking animatedly with the foreman.
"I'm remembering the good work that was done building the trestles," she said. "The foundation was bolted into bedrock as I remember."
"Yes, ma'am," the foreman nodded. "I was on the crew that set the foundation. She's solid."
"What of flood?" Esther asked. "We've had quite a bit of melt-water. I'm worried about trees washing downstream, boulders washing out and tumbling down hill."
"Now never you mind about that," the foreman said dismissively, and Esther seized him by the sleeve, turning him sharply about to face her.
"Don't you ever 'never you mind' me, young man!" she snapped. "Those are my people on those rails, those are my people in that engine, those are my people depending on me to keep those rails safe, and I will NOT be told 'never you mind!' Do I make myself clear?"
The foreman, taken aback, blinked, pinned by the blaze in those emerald-green eyes. He had seen the owner's charm and courtesy before; he had never seen this side of her, and this man with both shirt sleeves clear full of bulging arm muscle, this man whose tongue could flay the hide off a bull, this man who had personally ram rodded a rough and fractous crew in the building of rail lines, realized he was up against something he really didn't want to cross.
"Yes, ma'am," he said hesitantly.
Esther took his arm again, resuming their walk as if nothing had happened.
"I will want to survey every trestle, every crossing, every place there may be erosion or undermining of the roadbed." She was silent for a few paces.
Inside the shop, a shout, a crash of metal, laughter; the rhythmic chant of a smith's hammer at labor, men's voices.
A colorful inspection car came chuffing out of the nearest portal. It looked like a passenger car, only shorter; an upright boiler was visible amidships. Dynamo and arc light bulged on the smooth, glass-widowed front. Brass gleamed, lacquer shone, and the trademark rose-and-ribbon overlaid the gilt Z&W RR on the green-painted panel under the engineer's seat.
"She's ready, Miz Esther," the foreman said, nodding to the car: "as you requested, Johnson, and we've got Charlie to fire."
Esther smiled her famous smile, and in spite of the earlier lightning-stroke of temper, the foreman couldn't help but melt in the sunshine of her charm.
"Thank you, you've been very kind," Esther said, tilting her chin up to address the engineer. "Mr. Johnson? I presume you've checked the line?"
"Yes, ma'am," Johnson replied, hanging out the window, palms on the sill. "No rail traffic for another hour. Plenty of time."
Esther stepped up on the crate that had been placed at the bottom step; lifting her skirt with one hand, she stepped easily aboard, then took the basket with her infant son while Michelle followed, a little less gracefully.
The ladies settled into upholstered seats.
"Where to, Miz Esther?" Charles grinned.
"I want to look at the trestles, Mr. Johnson," Esther replied. "The most efficient route, if you please, mindful of the scheduled."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, touching the brim of his hickory-striped cap, his eyes almost disappearing as he smiled.
The fireman opened the cast-iron door, added a shovel of coal to the left, a shovel to the right, closed the door; the pop-off valve hissed.
Mr. Johnson eased the inspection car forward.
The switch was thrown and they rolled easily onto the main line, and east.

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Linn Keller 4-6-09

 

The tiger stripe cat dug its hind claws into Shorty's leathery palm and growled, chewing with mock fierceness at his callused thumb. To listen to the feline, it was ready to rip Shorty's hand off up to the shoulder, after which it fully intended to get nasty.
Shorty chuckled and continued rubbing the cat's belly, smiling at its fierce show of ingratitude.
"Best mouse-catcher I've got," he murmured. "How come you've got to be the meanest one of the bunch?"
The tiger cat closed one eye, its chewed and ragged ears laid flat against its head, and hissed.
Shorty stood, carefully placing the ferocious creature on a convenient table.
The cat looked at Shorty, disappointed, and shoved its head into his hand with a pleading "Mrrow?"
Shorty stroked its back. "You just best catch some more mice," he cautioned. "'Ginst that wind keeps up, you'll need the fat on your bones to see you to good weather."
Shorty strolled out the big double doors, squinting in the sunlight. It was near warm enough a man could roll up his sleeves -- by golly, he thought, it is warm enough to roll 'em up! -- and so he did.
He walked to the edge of the corral, his eyes busy.
The two horses in the corral had been rolling happily in the dirt and what little grass remained; their winter hair itched and was coming out in hand-size clumps.
Shorty only glanced at his horseflesh. He was looking out across the field.
He sniffed the wind, squinted again.
"Wind's dry," he commented, as if to an unseen companion.

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Linn Keller 4-7-09

 

Caleb Rosenthal had not been idle in his investments.
Caleb Rosenthal was a townie: he was completely a stranger to the saddle, his skill with a rope could politely be described as nonexistent: still, there are those whose skills lie in judging the wind and setting sail against an ocean breeze, and some whose skill lies in judging horse flesh, and some whose gift is to know which way an axed tree will fell, or how wood will split when struck with sledge, wedge and dodger.
Caleb's gift was in business.
Caleb smiled as he watched the McCormick Reaper being drawn across the field. It was intended as a harvester of grain; it was the new marvel of the age; it would improve productivity of the fields he'd rented out, which meant more profit, which meant a better return for his investment dollar.
Caleb Rosenthal was not a farmer, nor was he a mechanic.
There is no way he could have known the reaper was not complete, that it was being taken to another barn, where the rest of its components could be installed: no, at this point it was a horse drawn cutter, with an efficient cutter bar, driven by the steel wheels, powered by the single horse drawing it along.
Caleb Rosenthal knew only that he'd made an investment in agriculture, and the sight of this shiny new machine meant more return for his investment.
Sarah, on the other hand, knew only that their Jelly-horse was the very bestest horse ever harnessed and could pull that McCormick whatever-it-was to a fare-thee-well, and she was inclined to ride on its broad, cast-iron seat and flip the reins and cluck to her favorite horsie.
It looked to Sarah like great fun, and she intended to give it a good try.

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Linn Keller 4-7-09

 

"Hey!"
The prisoner banged on the jail door.
"Hey out there!"
The Sheriff's boot heels counted a slow and measured cadence as he strolled unhurriedly back the hallway, a tray of Daisy's good cooking in hand.
"Thought you'd forgot me!" the prisoner blurted petulantly.
"Not likely," the Sheriff said mildly. "Now step back and set down. You know the drill."
The prisoner sulked back to his bunk, sat.
The Sheriff slid the tray through the opening at the bottom of the cell door. He'd kept it covered with the clean cloth, holding in the heat as best he could; it was but a short walk from the Jewel over to the jail, and though some complained the prisoners ate better than other folks, it could not be denied that the Jewel was not just the best in town, it was the only eatery in town.
"The rain falls on rich and poor alike," the Sheriff had paraphrased Scripture by way of explanation, "and the sun beats down on the righteous and the unrighteous. They have to eat, so I feed 'em."
The Sheriff twitched off the covering dishtowel. "There you be," he said. "I'll fetch up your coffee."
The prisoner made a face. He'd had the Jewel's coffee, and like anyone else, had taken a liking to the beverage: the Sheriff's coffee, on the other hand, was considerably less ... pleasant.
"I'll be back after bit to pick up your tray. Need your slop bucket dumped?"
"Nah." The prisoner stood. "Say, now, when does a man get let outta this-here birdcage?"
"Whenver the Territorial Marshal hauls your sorry butt out of here in irons."
"Yeah?" came the sneering reply. "And when's that? Hell freezes?"
The Sheriff smiled thinly. "Hadn't you heard?" came the quiet voiced reply. "The Inferno done froze an' thawed out. Springtime's a-comin'. Can't you smell it?"
"Only thing I can smell is that stuff you call coffee!"
The Sheriff grunted. "Marshal be here soon enough. Take life easy while you can."
"Take life easy!" the prisoner snorted, glaring at the Sheriff's retreating backside. "What else can I do here?"
He picked up his tray, took a long, appreciative sniff of the good meal thereon.
He sat, dug in.
He was too busy feeding his face to talk to himself, but he commented mentally that the food here was considerably better than what he'd been used to for a very, very long time.

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