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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 4-8-09


The inspection car hissed and chuffed at a respectable velocity.
Little Joseph, soothed by the rhythmic, soft chant of steam pistons and rocked gently by steel wheels on steel rails, yawned and made little sleepy-baby noises: a full belly, a warm cuddle, and life was good.
Esther was restless. While Michelle sat in perfect comfort on the tuck-and-roll upholstered seat, Esther paced forward, paced back, bending a little, peering out windows: she came forward, leaned against the window sill, almost glaring out the front windows, emerald eyes busy reading the tracks, the grade, the ballast on either side.
Esther had a writing-board in her left hand, a pencil in her right: she noted the mile posts as they passed, made quick, cryptic notes at seemingly random times.
Mr. Johnson was elaborately casual, relaxed, one hand on the throttle, the picture of ease and comfort: he was a bit stout around the middle, unlike most of his breed: this masked a quick concern for his engine, for his crew, for his tracks: he was a man who had little use for the abstraction of a namelss, faceless corporation: like most Westerners, his loyalty was to one individual, and that individual stood beside him now.
"Trestle around that next bend," Mr. Johnson murmured.
"How long until the freight passes, Mr. Johnson?"
"We'll be long gone, ma'am, but they'll be on the other track. Passenger train doesn't come through for another hour, they'll be on this track."
Esther nodded. "We'll be able to sidetrack and let them by?"
"Yes, ma'am, we've a saw-by."
Esther nodded.
"Will you want to dismount, ma'am, once we reach the trestle?"
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Johnson, I would."
"It will be a long climb down."
"I know that, Mr. Johnson. I was here when they built it."
"Yes, ma'am."
Johnson eased back on the throttle and allowed the inspection car to coast. Though Esther had ordered installation of the Westinghouse air brakes on all her rolling stock, and although the inspection car had air brakes and could stop in a surprisingly short distance, Johnson was a railroader who took pride in his work: he'd practiced bringing the inspection car to a nice easy stop, against the day when he would be piloting his boss.
His practice paid off.
They coasted down nice and easy, and Johnson brought them to a stop just short of the first trestle.
"Mr. Johnson," Esther said briskly, "keep a good eye out fore and aft. I know there is nothing scheduled for this track but I am not a trusting soul."
Mr. Johnson chuckled. "Yes, ma'am!" he grinned, touching the brim of his cap.
Esther opened a panel and withdrew a double gun, smiling at Michelle's surprised expression, but offering neither comment nor explanation: she swarmed easily down the steps, and was soon down the short embankment: one hand on a timber, she was bent, peering under, looking over, then was gone from sight.
"Now don't you worry," Mr. Johnson said reassuringly, unwinding the strap from a set of binoculars. "We've got the best seat in the house. We can see a good long ways here" -- he pointed forward -- "and just under a mile there" -- he pointed rearward -- "I've the best fireman on rails and a good engine under me. Would you like some tea?"
Michelle blinked. Civilized accommodations and a gentlemanly offer seemed somehow out of place for traveling on rails -- she'd come out in another rail line's passenger car, which was quite rude indeed compared to this inspection car! -- she nodded, and Mr. Johnson opened a cupboard and withdrew a china tea pot, a tray, four bone china cups and a tin.
Carefully measuring tea into a pierced metal acorn, he let the acorn dangle into the teapot, then went over to a convenient petcock on the boiler: slipping one hand in a leather glove, he turned the petcock's brass flange with thumb and forefinger, sending a jet of hissing, steaming water into the teapot.
"There now," he said, when it was filled to his satisfaction: "three minutes, and we shall have a pot of very good tea." He turned and nodded toward the cupboard. "We have honey, some cream ... I'm sorry we have no lemon."
"Honey will be fine, thank you." Michelle surprised herself by finding her voice.
Mr. Johnson smiled, placed theteapot on the tray.
"Johnson?" the fireman said, an edge to his voice.
Mr. Johnson snatched up the binoculars, followed his fireman's gaze aft.
He swore, quietly, passionately, then turned and hauled down on the whistle's lanyard, three times, long.

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Linn Keller 4-10-09


Sarah had to go to school that day and so could not join her Papa in examining the shiny-new McCormick Reaper. She'd seen its pictures, read its advertisements, listened to the adults talk; in her imagination it was a gleaming round beetle with a dozen arms and claws, wielding great shining blades and slicing all before it and raking the cuttings in neat windrows, which were then gathered, bundled and forked into a following wagon.
Twain Dawg, not content to wait at the schoolhouse steps, followed mysterious and invisible trails that led here and yonder; nose to the ground, he trotted happily across the street, galloped after a passing wagon, stood up on his hinders with forepaws on the edge of a friendly and overflowing horse-trough to get a drink, scratched on the back door of the Jewel and was roundly scolded by Daisy, then petted and fed a plate of biscuits and gravy. Little Sean happily mauled the sizable Dawg -- Daisy held the lad by his crossed galluses while Twain Dawg made short work of his plate -- and it was not until after the inky-black canine cleaned his plate that she allowed Little Sean to play with him.
There was but little play, as it turns out; Twain Dawg had spent the entire morning in his happy explorations with its enthusiastic bursts if investigative energy; Little Sean, as yearling boys are wont, had been industriously charging here and charging there, laughing and pattering at an alarming velocity over most of the square footage of the Jewel's first floor, to the amusement of Tilly and Mr. Baxter; Daisy had plopped the lad down in his hand-made Daine Brothers chair and fed him; now, with both their bellies full, close to the welcome warmth of Daisy's stove, each curled up with the other, Twain Dawg gave a great groaning sigh, his tail thumping happpily once or twice, before both he and the lad fell asleep.
Daisy wiped beads of sweat and a stray flour-smudge from her forehead with her apron's tail.
She looked at the massive Dawg, snoring quietly on a worn-out quilt that never quite made it to being torn apart and re-used, and her little red-headed Irishman, sound asleep, curled up against Twain Dawg's back with one little arm thrown over the furry canine's off shoulder.
I'm glad ye came along, she thought, the dear child nearly has me worn out, and the day's not but half gone!

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Linn Keller 4-10-09


Johnson opened the sand valve, waited a few moments, then rocked the inspection car ahead a few inches, then back. He tapped the steam gauge with a blunt forefinger, looked out the back of the inspection car, looked out the side.
Esther was scrambling back up the bank, her expression grim. She too looked down the tracks, then tossed the double gun up to the fireman and climbed the polished oak steps.
"GO!" she barked as soon as she had one hand on the handrail and one foot on the step, and Johnson leaned into the throttle.
Steel wheels crushed sand against steel rails, giving a good, high traction takeoff, and Esther was not aboard before the inspection car was shivering under the laboring efforts of full steam pressure against its pistons: so fully had Mr. Johnson opened the throttle, that as soon as the wheels were free of the little patch of sand, they spun and screeched against steel rails, throwing an impressive shower of sparks.
Mr. Johnson opened the sanders fully, easing back on the throttle, then forward again, slower.
Esther reached above the rear door and plucked a rolled flag from its holder: opening the rear door, she stepped onto the little platform at the rear of the inspection car and waved the flag, slowly, at the end of her arm, describing a left-to-right-to left arc: slowly, like a pendulum, the red flag bright and plainly visible against the wood facing at the rear of the platform.
The fireman checked their water level, nodded: plenty of water, he thought, and thrust his shovel into the coal-bin, scooping another several pounds of good coal. This he slung into the firebox, followed by two others: back-center, back-left, back-right.
He closed the fire door, straightened, looked back.
He, too, checked a steam-gauge, listened to the sound of the laboring pistons.
"Bacon?" he called to the engineer.
Michelle looked back at the approaching end of the freight locomotive. She did not know about timetables, or telegraph messages, schedules, washout signals, sand, throttles or anything else railroad: she knew that she was in a fragile box, that box was being approached by something bigger, heavier, and by appearances, faster.
She made a funny little noise.
Little Joseph, cuddled up and sound asleep against her, stirred a little, then went back to sleep.
Esther straightened, came back inside the car.
"Mr. Johnson, the dynamo, if you please, and the arc light," she said quietly.
"Yes, ma'am," Johnson replied, opening a valve.
Steam hissed, the dynamo spun; the fireman went to the rear platform, adjusted the carbon rods through squinted eyes -- though he was not looking into the blazing arc, he didn't want to take any chances -- and the arc light snarled and buzzed into angry life, throwing its concentrated beam to the rear. Unless the following engineer was blind or asleep, he would see this intense light.
Esther rolled the flag and replaced it in its holder above the door.
Noticing Michelle's distress, she came over to the younger woman, tilting her head a little. "Michelle?" she asked, concern in her eyes and gentleness in her voice.
Michelle squeaked, "I really have to go!"
Esther smiled, nodded, reached down and relieved her of the sleeping child. She turned, tilted her head: come with me.
Michelle rose, terrified.
Esther walked back to the rear corner of the inspection car. Lifting a padded seat, she revealed a ... well, a seat of a different variety; an adjacent shelf also raised, revealing a hidden sink. Esther opened a valve a little, showing Michelle how to run water into the basin, pointed out the soap dish, opened a lower cupboard door to reveal the towels, and finally opened what looked like a floor-to-ceiling trim piece, reached in, and began pulling a ceiling-tracked curtain, enclosing Michelle in her own private facility.
Kissing her sleeping son's head, she walked slowly to the engineer.
"Mr. Johnson, I don't believe you've met my son."
Johnson turned, gauged the oncoming locomotive's speed relative to theirs, considered the next two miles of track he knew he'd be encountering: a quick shake of his head to his fireman, then he smiled at the sleeping baby boy.
"May I?" he asked, and Esther handed him the blanket wrapped bundle.
Mr. Johnson held the child easily, naturally; he was a father several times over, and indeed had a little one about this size at home. Grinning, he bounced the child slowly, gently, studying little Joseph's features.
He handed the child back. "He's a fine looking lad!" he said quietly enough to keep from disturbing the child's slumber.
"He takes after his father," Esther said proudly.
Johnson looked back at the approaching Baldwin, eased his throttle fully open.
"Your thoughts, Mr. Johnson?" Esther asked, following his gaze.
"We'll be all right, ma'am," he said. "They haven't had time enough to get their full speed up. We can out run them easily."
"I don't want to out run them, Mr. Johnson," Esther said, and he blinked to hear the steel in her voice. "I want to walk back to their cab and ask why they are running against orders."
"Ma'am, might we do better to run on ahead to the saw-by and wait for them to pass? We can back track on the same track with no chance at all of another train, we can return to the shop and find out what in the Sam Hill that train is doing that early!"
Esther considered for a long moment.
"Mr. Johnson, you are right," she announced. "Let us do just that."

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Linn Keller 4-12-09


Esther Keller did not raise her voice.
There was no need.
When a woman of such obvious quality sweeps grandly into a meeting of the mine's Board of Directors, such an appearance naturally bring discussion, conversation and arguments to an abrupt halt; when she addresses the assembled with her winning smile, then proceeds to change her infant son's diaper on the polished table in front of the board president, she acquires the attention of everyone present -- if for no other reason than the element of surprise, or perhaps utter astonishment, for such things are just never done.
Esther handed the wiggling, cooing bundle to the President of the Board, to his great surprise, having tucked the used merchandise into a hidden compartment of a bag her maid held; she spoke quietly but succinctly of the joys of bringing new life into the world, of the shining pride in her husband's eyes when he held this, the son of his loins.
Then she spoke of the net effect of a few thousand tons of freight locomotive and cargo when impacting the human body. Two men shifted uncomfortably in their seat; Esther pinned them with a look, and they dropped their own eyes, guilty as charged, to the spotless tabletop.
Finally Esther spoke of the Z&W Railroad's excellent reputation, its faithful delivery of their ore to the mill, the efficiency of their operation and the reasonable cost. She quoted figures that surprised most of those assembled: figures they thought known only to their own bookkeepers.
Finally Esther spoke of the dangers of railroading, especially the danger of overriding the dispatcher's orders, and spoke of her own experience earlier in the day, when it became necessary to honestly outrun an unscheduled freight run that put her own life, and that of her infant son, the child that had now made its way halfway around the table, in danger.
Esther had no need of harsh words, or of raising her voice; she neither accused, nor did she threaten.
She did not have to.
A little child has a wonderful way of bringing out the damned fool in grown men, and each men who held the smiling infant couldn't help but smile when young Joseph was handed to him: all but two, two who looked positively ill.
Esther thanked the assembled for their kind attention, retrieved young Joseph, and bade the Board a good and pleasant day, and Michelle closed the door quietly behind them as they left.
From that day forward, no one at the mines ever overrode the Z&W dispatch orders.

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Linn Keller 4-13-09


Jacob worked steadily, unhurriedly; he knew the value of patient labor, and labor he did.
Parson Belden labored with him. The contrast might have been amusing, if one had been inclined to stand and stare with one's hands in one's pockets, idling in the warm, dry wind: Jacob, tall, slender, rangy, made of whipcord and whalebone; the Parson, blocky, stout, made of carved oak or maybe hedge apple root: but neither Jacob nor the good Parson were of a mind to idle, nor to loaf.
They laid the dried, rising grasses low, cutting a two man wide swath in the growth surrounding their little town. No exchange of words had occurred, no plans had been made, discussed or voiced; each man cut the flammable grasses, dried by the wind, fluffed and separated by drying and by agitating breezes.
They cut an impressive amount of hay that morning, working steadily, methodically; they broke for lunch, for a needed draught of good cold water, for relief of a non-Masonic nature; they stopped often to ply scythe-stone against shining steel, then resumed their labors.
They knew it would take but little to set fire to the dried grasses.
They also knew that every foot of cut they made was that much safer their wooden town would be from conflagration.

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Linn Keller 4-15-09


I knew Angela threw her head back and laughed.
I could not see her, but I knew she did, for she was riding behind me on the saddle, astride: not the most ladylike, perhaps, but it suited her.
Her little hands clung to my coat and she was warm, warm against my back as Hijo del Sol flowed down the street: his gait was characteristically smooth, butter smooth, better than my old Sam-horse, as if he knew Angela was aboard and wanted to give her a nice easy ride. I'd headed up the street, down: the Irish Brigade was about, their engine smoking a little -- it was not fired to make steam, but it had coals in its belly, and I knew how fast these red-shirted Celts could throw water if the need arose.
Jacob and Parson Belden had set an ambitious task before themselves. I don't know what posessed them to cut weeds but they were about the task and making remarkably good headway.
Angela and I waved and made a broad circle, not out of need, but because it was a fine day with a fine horse under us, and though I wanted to be at the depot when the Lady Esther coasted in, I was not in any terrible hurry. Charlie would be headed this way, just when wasn't quite clear but I wasn't in any rippin' hurry about that neither.
Still ... it would be good to see him again.
"I miss you, old friend," I said aloud.
Angela must have felt the vibration of my voice through the back of my coat: I felt her shift and heard her little-girl voice: "What, Daddy?"
Angela had taken to growing of a sudden, the way little children will do, and her speech had grown with her legs: more often now she would speak clearly, forming her words more completely, using more complete sentences.
"You warm enough, sweetheart?" I asked.
"I'm kinda cold," she said plaintively.
I drew Hijo to a stop and unbuttoned my coat. Spinning it around, I draped it around Angela, wrapping her snugly. She worked her arms into the coat sleeves and giggled, reaching around me as best she could.
Hijo read my knee-pressure and started forward again.
The sun felt good and the air smelled like springtime, like a thousand green growing things. The grasses were greening at a surprising rate and I looked to the trees, hoping they would not bud too early. Late frost was hard on trees, especially in bud or in blossom: back East the mast would suffer terribly from a late frost, and the game population with it.
"Daddy?" Angela's voice floated over my shoulder.
"Yes, Sweetheart?" I asked, turning my head a little.
"Daddy, is Uncle Charlie and Aunt Fannie coming today?"
I laughed. "I hope so," I admitted, "but I don't know if they are or not."
"Oh," she said, and there was a trace of disappointment in her voice.
"Yes, Sweetheart?"
"Will Dawg come with them?"
I laughed again. "I don't think Dawg would think of staying behind!"
"I like Dawg," Angela said, and I felt her emphatic nod, the way she did when uttering some Great Truth.
"I think Dawg likes you too."
"Yes, Sweetheart?"
"Does Twain Dawg like Dawg?"
I considered.
"Well, I know he used to. I don't reckon he'll change his mind."
"Oh." Then, "Daddy?"
"Yes, Sweetheart?"
"Uncle Charlie said Twain Dawg was a puppy name and Twain Dawg needed a real Dawg's name."
"Yes, he said that, all right."
I reined Hijo to a stop at the end of the depot building, sidling the big stallion up against the end of the platform. It was the ideal height for Angela to dismount, and dismount she did, though she managed to step on my coat's tail and fell headlong on the platform. She rolled and came up on all fours, blinking, then raised up on her knees, examined the palms of her hands, dusted them briskly against one another and said, "Oops!"
The Lady Esther's whistle sounded in the distance and Angela pointed, coming quickly to her feet and bouncing on her toes.
I carry that mental picture with me as I write this, long years after: she is still wearing my coat, big and sacky on her little frame, and the little pink finger of her pointing hand is barely seen in the great angel-wing balloon of that man size coat sleeve. Her curls bounce as she jumps, her face is lit up and she has the look of perfect, innocent, angelic delight on her face.
"Daddy, look! Mama's train a-comin'!"

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Linn Keller 4-18-09


"Yes, ma'am!" Peter's white-blond head snapped up at the sound of Mrs. Cooper's voice.
"Peter, I want you to run over to the Sheriff's office and find Deputy Keller. You know him, don't you?"
"Yes, ma'am!" Peter said enthusiastically as he set his framed slate on the bench beside him. The lump of chalk went in his overall pocket and he was on his feet.
"Tell him to come here quickly, please."
"Yes, ma'am!" Peter threw over his shoulder as he sprinted for the back of the schoolroom, and the door SLAM'd open and SLAM'd shut with the velocity of his passing.
Mrs. Cooper shook her head and sighed. "Class," she said sadly, "that is a fine example of how not to treat our doors."
"Yes, Mrs. Cooper," came the solemn reply from every throat.
Almost every throat.
Sarah Rosenthal lay at the back of the room, curled up, clutching her belly.
Emma Cooper had covered her with her own cloak; Sarah's coat was rolled up for a pillow; Mrs. Cooper had been around children long enough to know what was very likely ailing Sarah, and she hid her worry behind a professional mask.
She had a schoolhouse of children to teach and to keep calm and she could not let her worry for a little girl with appendicitis infect the entire student body.
Young Peter, the woodcutter's youngest son, pelted over to the Sheriff's office; finding it empty, he crossed the street to the Silver Jewel; finding nothing here, he followed Daisy's suggestion and jumped out the back door, bee-lining for the laboring men cutting grass on the far side of the livery.
Daisy watched as Jacob bent to receive the urgent message from the puffing little boy: they two raced for the livery, and bare minutes later, Daisy heard the urgent sound of hooves on hard packed roadway, and saw Jacob and young Peter mounted on Jacob's Appaloosa, galloping at an angle behind the church.
Daisy knew they were heading for the schoolhouse.
Daisy did not know why they were heading for the schoolhouse, only that the matter was sufficiently urgent to warrant pulling a fair haired Swede out of his studies, a deputy from his labor, and to cause a cook to reach for her Rosary, which lived in her dress pocket, under her apron.
Daisy kissed the Cross, turned her eyes upward and her fingers followed her whispered devotions through the beaded decades.

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Linn Keller 4-18-09


There was the quick tread of heavy boots on polished wood, the great Irish voice, "Daisy, me dear! How's --"
The voice cut off and the Irish Brigade turned, curious.
The Jewel was silent, save only for urgent, low conversation in the kitchen.
Sean was a few moments in the kitchen; the Irish Brigade heard his footsteps approach with solemn tread.
"Mr. Baxter," Sean said carefully, "a round for the lads, if you please. We've been men at labor and the thirst is upon us!"
Mr. Baxter drew beer for the Brigade: indeed, he had half of the total drawn before Sean's emergence, but it was not until their Chieftain rejoined them that anyone reached for the cool, glass handle of a frothy mug.
The steins were up-ended and thirsty men drank deep.
The empties were returned to the bar and refilled, and the Irish Brigade awaited orders, for they knew something was in the wind, and they were right.
"Lads," Sean said, and there was trouble in his voice, "I'm not knowin' what is ill but me dear Daisy is in the middle of a Rosary. I'm thinkin' we should implore St. Christopher and the Virgin."
Half the Irish Brigade carried a Rosary on them; half did not, but none lacked: the Rosary is divided into decades, or groups of ten beads, and as each man had ten fingers, why, none were lacking for the ability to count their prayers.
The Brigade took a final draft and sat, devoting their efforts to Intercession on an unknown matter.
Mr. Baxter knew when they were done, for to a man, they reached for their mugs and drank deeply again.
Intercession, he thought, must be thirsty work.

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Charlie MacNeil 4-18-09


The screech of the Lady Esther's whistle opened Charlie's eyes; he sat up in his plush velvet reclining seat in the well-appointed parlor car and yawned deeply. Those chairs were probably more comfortable than they had a right to be, but he and Fannie hadn't gotten as much sleep as they maybe could have the night before they left Denver; consequently, Charlie had taken advantage of their softly-cushioned nature. He lifted his hunter-cased gold watch from the pocket of his wool tweed vest and checked the time. Their arrival was right on schedule.

"It's about time you rejoined the land of the living, Sugar," his wife's melodious voice breathed in his ear, followed by a quick kiss to his cheek. Fannie sat back in her own seat and began to tuck her sewing back into its bag. "You sounded a bit like Dawg," she told him, pointing at the great black canine beside Charlie's chair. The big dog showed her his impressive dental furnishings in a wide yawn of his own then he stood and stretched before dropping to his haunches.

"Darlin', I beg to differ with you," Charlie said with a smile. "That Dawg snores. Loud. And I don't."

"And that's your story and you're sticking to it, I suppose?" Fannie answered with a smile of her own.

"That's right."

The conductor came into the car, accompanied by a burst of cool air. "Firelands! Firelands, Colorado, next stop!" the neatly-uniformed official called as he passed through the car. Around the couple the other passengers began to gather their belongings in preparation for debarking. The train was slowing as it approached the station; the engineer brought the cars to a smooth stop at exactly the right spot on the depot platform.

Charlie looked out the window. "Looks like our welcoming committee's here," he said, pointing. Fannie followed his gaze to where the Sheriff and Angela stood on the platform. Or at least Linn was standing. Angela was vibrating in place as she hopped from one neatly-shod foot to the other, clapping her hands as best she could considering the coat she was wearing.

Charlie stepped down onto the platform and was nearly bowled out of his boots by a small, curl-haired cannonball covered with what at first glance appeared to be a voluminous sheepskin-lined tent. "Uncle Charlie!" Angela squealed. Charlie picked her up and spun her around, Linn's coat flying like a sail around her feet.

"How's my darlin'?" Charlie asked the small, squirming package he held as her arms locked around his neck in a hug.

In her excitement, Angela launched into a mostly unintelligible monologue from which Charlie caught the occasional word; the flow of syllables lasted until Fannie appeared at the head of the steps leading from the parlor car. "Aunt Fannie!" the small girl screamed in his ear as his charge squirmed to be put down. Charlie deposited Angela's shoes on the scufffed planks of the platform just as Fannie's own fashionable high-buttoned footware came to earth.

"Brace yourself, darlin'!" Charlie called as Angela flew toward Fannie. In a moment the two ladies were trading hugs and kisses and Angela was talking a mile a minute. Charlie turned to Linn. "That girl's growin' like a bad weed!" he exclaimed as he shook Linn's outstretched hand. "And she talks!"

"That's the most I've ever heard come out of her mouth at one time!" Linn exclaimed, his own amazement painted wide across his features. He turned back to Charlie and slapped him on the shoulder. "It's good to see you, brother!"

"And you," Charlie agreed. By this time, Angela had begun to run down, and Fannie set back on her feet.

"Aunt Fannie brought me a pesent!" Angela told her daddy excitedly. "It's in her buggage, an' I gets to hep her fin' it."

"Then I guess we'd best get Aunt Fannie and her buggage to the Jewel, hadn't we?" Linn asked his small daughter solemnly. Angela nodded eagerly, a broad smile on her face.

It was then that the sound of pounding hooves turned the attention of all and sundry to the street beyond the station, just in time to see Jacob and a small, tow-headed boy blaze past astride Jacob's Appaloosa stallion, headed in the direction of the clapboard schoolhouse. At the same time, Dawg jumped to the platform, a rumbling growl echoing in his cavernous chest. "Trouble!" Charlie and Linn exclaimed at the same time.

Charlie looked over at Fannie. Seemingly telepathically, Fannie answered Charlie's question before he could speak. "I'll take care of Angela! You two go!" Charlie nodded and launched himself from the platform a half step behind Linn.

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Linn Keller 4-19-09


I'd never asked Hijo to carry two grown men before but he never offered any protest: Charlie swung on behind me and Hijo spun, bunching his haunches under him before launching himself like a cannon ball. We headed diagonal across the street, knowing the school house would be off to the left, and Hijo began a nice easy swing.
One thing about that sun-colored stallion, he was smooth.
A cutting horse would have thrown us hard over, relying on the sharp edge of horse shoes to secure enough bite on the hard packed earth to keep from skidding out from under.
Not Hijo.
He came around like a ship under sail, a bigger turn than the Appaloosa to be sure, but with Charlie behind me and lacking a saddle to anchor him to the hurricane deck, we made the turn in good order.
Hijo leaned into his run, his nose stuck straight out and his tail straight back in the slip stream.
I reined gently and ho'd, and Hijo ho'd, skidding a little, his hind quarters dropping some with the effort.
Charlie was off before we were stopped, swarming up the steps to the school house, ready for a young war: he near to ran square into Mrs. Cooper, who was opening the door at the sound of our approach.
I heard running feet behind and turned.
Jacob was sprinting for the schoolhouse, clearly unhappy. Our eyes met and I could see he was ready to rip someone's throat out.
Something told me to stay set in the saddle and so I did, and a good thing.
Charlie came out as fast as he'd gone in, with a little girl curled up in his arms. He came down the steps fast and handed her up to me.
Wasn't until I got her in my own arms I recognized Sarah.
She was fevered and shivering and clearly in pain.
Charlie's right hand went down to about belt level, his little finger out, and he drew a quick diagonal line on his own lower belly.
I understood.
It was sign language we'd used in the past.
I left Hijo's reins lay on the saddle horn and steered him with my knees.
Hijo pointed his nose toward our fine little hospital and bunched up his muscles and I held on with my legs, leaning forward against the sudden acceleration.
"Stay with me, Sarah," I said, my voice low and urgent. "Stay with me."

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Linn Keller 4-19-09


Jacob coasted to a stop, panting.
Charlie looked at Mrs. Cooper, at the tow headed lad hiding behind her, then back at Jacob.
Jacob looked at the lad, then looked at Charlie, and made a decision of some sort.
Jacob extended his hand. "Thank you, sir," he said.
"My father is sir, you know that!" Charlie grinned, taking the offered hand.
Jacob took a moment longer to get his wind back.
"I have news, sir," Jacob said finally.
Charlie held up a forestalling finger, looked up at Mrs. Cooper, who nodded, raised her own hand and drew the door closed, cutting off the sight of two conferring lawmen from the curious young throng that had slipped from their seats to view the excitement.
Charlie turned back to Jacob, clapped a hard hand on the young man's shoulder. "You're taller," he said, nodding. "You'll hit six foot before long."
"Yes, sir." Jacob blinked, shifted his weight.
"You mentioned news."
"Yes, sir." Jacob was somewhere between delight and anxiety. "I'm sorry, sir. Your trip -- you've been well?"
Charlie's ear twitched a little as he picked up the slightest trace of a stutter, the kind that came out only under stress. He read the disorganized statement for what it was, and understood completely. He'd been young once, and knew how hard it could be to order one's thoughts after a good shot of adrenalin.
"Fine, fine," Charlie said, turning, and Jacob turned with him.
Fannie was just arriving at the Jewel in a hired carriage, arranged, no doubt, by the Sheriff; he had a knack for such. Angela was beside her, clearly delighted; Dawg rode in back, looking like a monarch in a sedan chair ... a monarch capable of taking a man's hand off to the elbow, Charlie thought.
Jacob hesitated, looked toward the hospital.
"He'll let us know what's going on," Charlie said reassuringly. "If he needed a hand, we'd know it by now."
"Yes, sir."
"The news?" Charlie prompted gently after a long moment.
Jacob blinked, quickly reviewed his conversation of the past several minutes, and grinned broadly.
"Sir, my father has two sons!" he said, and it was Charlie's turn to be puzzled.
"Esther had twins?"
Jacob stopped, realizing what he'd said, and laughed. "No, sir! I'm his -- it's not what I -- oh, hell," he said, looking at the ground and turning a remarkable shade of red.
Charlie was doing his best to keep a poker face. It was difficult to keep from laughing at Jacob's excitement, embarassment, confusion and delight, all bubbling up at the same moment.
Jacob turned and whistled sharply and his Appaloosa came trotting up to him. He took the reins and they walked toward the Jewel.
"Sir, it turns out Pa knew my Ma," he began, and stopped.
Charlie nodded. "Go on."
"That didn't come out right," Jacob mumbled. "It was after the war --"
Charlie heard Jacob's teeth click together.
Jacob stopped, and Charlie stopped with him, turning to face the younger lawman squarely.
"Sir," Jacob said, and swallowed hard, "I'm ... I'm his son!"
Charlie took a minute to digest this and finally nodded.
"I figured as much," he affirmed.
They resumed their walk toward the Jewel.
"When Joseph came along I was ..." Jacob's ears were positively flaming now. "Sir, I was ... jealous." He spat the word as if it was a bad taste on his tongue. "I'd no right to be. Pa was ... he'd always treated ... oh, hell!" He turned and swung his gaze over the rooflines on the opposite side of the street.
"And you thought your Pa would love his own get more than someone else's."
Jacob turned and looked sharply at Charlie, his bottom jaw thrust out. Finally he took a deep breath, let it out ,nodded.
"I did. God forgive me, I did!"
Charlie grunted. "And now?"
"Sir, I was a damned fool!"
Charlie stopped. Jacob, surprised, stopped as well, staring in amazement as Charlie began to laugh.
Charlie, as a matter of fact, had not laughed so well or so heartily in a very long time.
When he finally wiped his eyes and clapped a companionable hand on Jacob's shoulder, he said, "Jacob, you don't know how many times I've called myself that same thing! This calls for a drink!"
Jacob scratched the back of his head. He didn't have everything figured out, but he knew he must not be so much of an utter dunce after all.

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Charlie MacNeil 4-19-09


The two lawmen bellied up to the Jewel's elegantly polished bar. "Welcome home, Marshal!" Mister Baxter exclaimed as he set a bottle and two glasses on the glossy mahogany. "This calls for the good stuff!"

"Home," Charlie mused. "That's got a ring to it, I'd say." He looked at Jacob with a wide grin stretching his lips. "What say you, my damned fool friend?"

"I agree, Mar... , er Charlie," Jacob replied tentatively as the golden brown liquor splashed into the glasses. Charlie reached for his, but a shapely feminine hand beat him to it.

"Forget someone, Sugar?" Fannie drawled drolly.

"Not hardly, Darlin'," Charlie answered, neatly covering his tracks, knowing all the while that he wasn't fooling a soul. "That one's yours. Mister Baxter!" the marshal called. "You neglected to bring me a glass!" The requested container magically materialized, sliding along the polished bar top to stop precisely under Charlie's hand. "Muchas gracias, my friend." He filled the small glass as he put his arm around Fannie. "To home and family," he toasted. His words were echoed by his wife and his fellow lawman.

"To home and family!"

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Linn Keller 4-21-09


Hijo del Sol was loose and ready to run.
I held him back a bit until we were just past the fire house, then I let him have his head.
It wasn't far to Bonnie's fine big building, where her ladies manufactured dresses for the Western trade. Most of her clientele, if I recalled arightly, was out toward San Frisco and that-a-way: women wanted the latest Paris and London fashions, but Bonnie's product was generally a month ahead of the California seamstresses in terms of being the Very Latest in Fashion.
I'd considered that tendency of the female creature to absolutely, positively need to have the very latest in fashion, and after turning it over well in my mind, finally gave it up for a bad job: me, I can get along fine with one color of shirt, one plain black suit, one set of work clothes ...
Hijo shook his head, reluctant to slow, but slow we did.
I swung around back of their house to where the hired man was scattering fresh straw in the stalls.
"Hank!" I barked. "Harness up your fastest trotter and fetch the buggy out front!"
Hank blinked, straightened. "But, Sheriff," he protested, his drooping mustache puffing with his speech, "I got to finish up --"
My glare was enough to get his feet in gear.
Hijo spun under me and we headed for the factory. Bonnie would be there, either in her offices or on the dressmaking floor; she was happiest when she was working with fabric, working her woman's magic, turning a bolt of cloth into something angelic.
I was out of the saddle before Hijo was quit moving.
The front door opened into a little parlor and I knew the offices were just off to my right. Caleb was working at a standing desk, one foot up on the brass rail, hand over his mouth, frowning, furrowing his brow over a ledger book.
I knocked, two quick raps, twisted the knob and shoved.
Caleb turned, annoyed, then surprised.
"Sarah," I said, opening the door wide and leaving it open.
Caleb dropped his pen and reached for hat and coat.
I was already out of the office, looking.
Bonnie spotted me first, came over with her welcoming smile.
Well, she was smiling until she saw my face.
Caleb was quick behind me and handed Bonnie a shawl. I saw her eyes change, woman-quick: fear, understanding, then a hard resolve.
Bonnie never failed to surprise me. She'd had some bad turns in her life; she'd been a lady worthy of the name, once, and was so now again: I can't help but think she became the woman she is because of being tempered in hell's fires.
She turned to an assistant, gave some quiet orders, then turned and headed for the door, as composed and regal as the Queen herself.
Caleb held the front door and we three emerged into the warm spring air.
Bonnie stopped, laid gentle fingertips on my forearm, stopping me as effectively as if Jackson Cooper had seized my elbow.
I swallowed.
"Sarah's appendix has attacked her," I said, looking from one to the other. "Doc said we've plenty of time, he'll take it out right away. Matter of fact I reckon he's working on her right now."
Hank came around the corner with a good looking chestnut harnessed up to their carriage. I'd never seen it before.
Caleb helped Bonnie into the carriage.
I saw a familiar black shape on their front porch yonder, put two fingers to my lips, whistled.
Twain Dawg's head came up, pink tongue dangling.
We headed for town.

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Linn Keller 4-21-09


Dr. John Greenlees, M.D., sat at his desk, shirt sleeves rolled up, hands barely damp from their most recent washing.
He dipped his pen in the ink-pot, wiped off the excess, paused a moment, then wrote.
Sarah Rosenthal, 8, he wrote in his precise hand. Appendix, inflamed, removed, no complications.
His eyes crinkled a little at the corners. The operation had gone very well indeed. The child had succumbed to ether quickly; he was able to remove the offending organ without difficulty, and had been most pleased to discover that, although inflamed, it was not suppurating; there had been no leakage into the peritoneal cavity, and excavation of the appendix was clean and without contamination.
She would have a scar, yes; she would be sore for a little while, yes, but children are resilient.
Especially here in the West, he thought wryly.
He'd been especially careful in resecting the layers of incised abdominal muscle. This would be critical, for every move -- every stand, sit, turn, step, lift, push, pull -- every move tensions the abdominals. Even a cough or a sneeze strains the belly muscles.
Ether is not a kind anesthetic. Patients most commonly became very, very sick when coming out from under ether.
Doc's ear twitched.
From the sounds of distress in the next room, his young patient was doing just that.

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Linn Keller 4-21-09


Young Joseph did not know he was in the hospital.
Young Joseph did not know someone else was more in need of family, and extended family, than he was in that moment.
Young Joseph was used to being held.
Young Joseph liked being held.
Young Joseph waved his chubby arms and squealed, chewing happily on the edge of his blanket, then wrinkling his reddening face and letting out a surprisingly loud wail in his little baby's voice.
Something black, wet, cold and snuffy touched his hand.
Surprised, young Joseph blinked and reached for this wet, cool, snuffy-thing.
Something pink licked his hand and Joseph began crying in earnest.
Over the rim of the basket, young Joseph could see the wet snuffy-thing pointing toward the ceiling.
Twain Dawg, curious at this noisy little thing in a basket, cocked his head, puzzling up the flesh between his ears: then, as if in sympathy, he plopped his bottom on the floor, stuck his nose straight in the air and began a companionable, cheerful and yet totally mournful, "Owwooowoowoooo!"
A little girl's drowsy voice scolded, "Twain Dawg, stop that!" and several adult voices laughed.
Young Joseph began chewing on his blanket again.

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Linn Keller 4-21-09


"Do you reckon Pa will be here shortly?"
Fannie saw Charlie's eyes. Ever the lawman, they were busy in the ornately-edged mirror behind the bar: bitter experience and too many years behind the badge had taught him never to lose himself gazing into the hypnotic ripple of the amber fire, freshly topped off by the accommodating Mr. Baxter.
Charlie's voice was ... well, not distant, exactly, but he was turning over a few things in his mind: Fannie saw this and her fingers were gentle on his forearm.
Charlie's eyes tightened a little, just a little, and Fannie knew this for what it was: an intimate smile, a special expression he had for no one else in the entire world.
I'm here, her fingertips whispered.
I know, his eyes replied.
Charlie took another sip of the fine amber. "Oh, he's likely headed out to get Caleb and Bonnie. He'll hang back while they go in to see Sarah." His voice was almost far away.
"Esther will be there by now. She has a way of finding out."
Jacob swirled the amber in his half empty glass. "She always finds out," he said softly, and Charlie chuckled at the lifetime in those four words.
Jacob turned, left elbow on the bar, and faced the older lawman squarely.
"I'm glad you're home," he said. "I've missed you."

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Charlie MacNeil 4-21-09


There was that word again. Home. It echoed through his heart and through his head, resonating like the lilting notes of a song he’d thought long faded away and gone. Instead that haunting melody had been brought to sudden, vibrant life by the words of a young man Charlie admired greatly for his courage and honesty. The older man felt his eyes moisten at the heartfelt words of someone Charlie considered kin, not by virtue of blood shared but of danger faced, and faced down, side by side. Charlie could call Linn brother; therefore Jacob was the favorite nephew.

Charlie’s family was long dead, his mother from cholera on the wagon train west from the Dakota’s, his father due to natural causes in Oregon. His only sibling, a brother, had been killed when the horse he was riding slipped on a steep hillside and crushed him under the saddle. Consequently, he’d spent his years immersing himself totally in whatever job came to his hand; the last twenty years as a US Marshal. He was proud of his record, and proud of the fact that he’d never shirked his responsibilities. He was proud of the confidence that his superiors had shown in him with his selection as the district marshal in Denver. But life in Denver was lacking an indefinable something, a will o’ the wisp that teased and taunted him from the far reaches of his mind, telling him that, as much as he loved Fannie and their life together, he needed more. And now, first Mister Baxter, and secondly Jacob, had told him what that something missing could and should be. Like a bolt of lightning illuminating the depths of night, he realized that all his traveling, and all his work, had been in search of that one missing element in an otherwise fulfilling life: home. He’d found it in Firelands.

Charlie turned to Jacob and placed a calloused hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “Thank you, Jacob. You have no idea what those words mean to this old lawman,” he said solemnly. Beside him Charlie heard a soft, throaty chuckle.

“You weren’t so old a couple of nights ago, Sugar,” Fannie whispered. A smile tugged at Charlie’s lips at the memory and he winked at the strong-willed, red-haired beauty at his side.

He spoke again to Jacob. “So tell me about you and Annette. How’s it feel to be old married folks?”

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Linn Keller 4-22-09


Charlie could still marvel at amazing things in nature, and he marveled in this moment as to just how fast and how red Jacob's ears could turn, a half second before the rest of his face followed suit. He saw the young man's eyes drop and track left -- he knew from many conversations with him that tracking left meant he was recalling, tracking right, he was inventing -- several thoughts chased themselves across Jacob's face, and finally he looked up and grinned.
"It's just fine," he said quietly.
Jacob turned a little and met Miz Fannie's amused eyes. "Ma'am, I've not been ignorin' you," he blurted, "I just can't think of a daggone thing to say!"
Charlie laughed again, and easy laugh, and he winked at his bride's absolutely, utterly innocent expression. "She has that effect on men!" he agreed, and Miz Fannie batted her eyes at him and declared, "Why, I have no idea what you're talking about!"
The front door swung open and they turned to look.
The Sheriff came in, grinning.
"Mr. Baxter, if you've taken the man's money, you might want to give it back, it's no good here!" he laughed. "Could I trouble you for a shot of celebration?"
The Sheriff shook Charlie's hand again and looked at Miz Fannie. Slipping an arm around her trim waist, he said, "Miz Fannie, may I flirt outrageously with you?"
"Why, darlin'," Fannie drawled, tracing a fingertip down his cheek, "if you didn't my feelin's would be hurt!" She winked at Charlie and put her arm around the Sheriff's middle. "But what will Esther think?"
The Sheriff laughed. "Esther will approve, Miz Fannie, because she knows full well if I am in the least bit improper I'll get myself kicked north, south, east, west, up to the Texas moon and down to oil, and then Charlie will take over!"
Fannie put her hand on her hip and dropped her mouth open. "Why, I never!" she declared.
"That's right," Charlie nodded, chuckling. "She has never kicked a man to that extent. She prefers a horse whip, a noose, a knife, a rifle, a single tree ..."
Fannie shot her husband a saucy look.
"You see, Miz Fannie," the Sheriff admitted, "you are the one woman in the world of whom I am honestly afraid."
It was Fannie's turn to be surprised.
"What?" she exclaimed, covering her astonishment with a fan she snapped out of nowhere. "Afraid of li'l ol' me?"
"I respect you to the bottom of my soul, dear heart, and I love you like family, but I don't ever, ever want to get on your wrong side!"
Charlie elbowed Jacob gently. "The man's smarter than he looks," he muttered.
"Ain't the Lord merciful?" Jacob muttered back, and the two touched glasses.

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Charlie MacNeil 4-22-09


Long after the town had lapsed into star-speckled silence, Charlie lay awake under the goose-down comforter, staring at the canopy over their four-poster. This evening had been one of the most enjoyable times he had spent in recent memory. Friendship and brotherhood forged in the fires of battle and the gentle annealing of births and betrothals, of weddings and fandangos tugged at his heart as the notes of that lilting melody swelled anew in his consciousness.

Once upon a time, Denver and the challenges of being in charge had been an attractive crowning finale to an illustrious career; now the crown had lost its once-brilliant luster. He heaved a deep sigh. Beside him, his bride of only a few months, yet companion of many years of trial and triumph, stirred. "What's the matter, Sugar?" Fannie asked softly as she wrapped her arm around his waist and put her head on his shoulder. "And don't tell me 'nothing', because I know you better than that."

Charlie was silent for a time as she waited patiently, knowing that he was forming the words of his reply carefully. "How'd you like to be a horse rancher's wife?" he asked, turning his head to see the gleam of her eyes bright in the darkness of their room.

She answered his question with one of her own. "You want to come back here, don't you?" He nodded, wordlessly attempting to communicate the emotions he couldn't articulate. After a moment, she went on. "What about Denver? You're finally where you've always wanted to be."

"Or where I thought I wanted to be," Charlie answered quietly. "After this evening, I'm not so sure any more."

"I could tell."

"Am I that transparent?" he asked her with a chuckle.

"I know you too well," she replied. She paused, listening to his breathing in the dark. "Remember the part about 'for better or for worse'? I think we both meant it." He nodded, silent once more. "Marrying you was the best thing that's ever happened to me. Watching you trying to make it in the city has been one of the worst. I knew it was just a matter of time before you found a reason to come back here. And I was pretty sure you would want to stay." She laughed, the sparkling tinkle of her mirth sharp in the room. "Why do you think I haven't said anything about buying a house?"

"I swear, Darlin', you're a mind-reader," Charlie laughed as he gave her a squeeze.

"Like I said, I know you too well."

"I've got a good bit put by," Charlie said. "More than enough to get us a place, and keep us afloat until the ranch starts to pay at least some of the expenses. There's a good market in this part of the world for quality horses, and an even better market for quality mules." He was interrupted by another laugh from Fannie. "Hey!" he protested. "You got somethin' against mules?"

"Nothing at all, Sugar, nothing at all," Fannie said softly. "You really want to do this, don't you?"

"Only if you'll be my partner," he answered soberly. "I know how much you love your singing and entertaining."

"Not as much as I love you, you exasperating man!" she told him emphatically. "You're willing to go back to the city for me? Not hardly! We'll talk to Linn tomorrow about finding a place!" She rolled over against him and they kissed deeply as she felt the tension in his muscles and bones seem to melt into the feather tick. As they faded off to sleep, her last thought was, It's about time!

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Linn Keller 4-23-09


Nurse Susan had gently shoo'd them out into the waiting room.
"We'll take good care of her," she said, "now shoo! You're late for supper as it is! Give us just an overnight and she should be ready to go home by tomorrow evening, at the latest, and if I know her, she'll be bouncing at the front door waiting for you to arrive!"
Caleb chuckled, and Bonnie gave him a look that would wilt a bouquet of fresh cut flowers.
Esther's hand was firm but gentle on her elbow. "My dear, might I impose upon you a moment?" she murmured, steering Bonnie without the inner door, Caleb following like a skiff tethered to a sailing-ship.
Twain Dawg looked after the departing trio, then turned and tik-tik-tik'd to Sarah's bedside. He laid down, half-under the bed, sighed.
Esther turned to face her niece squarely. "Bonnie," she said, and Bonnie pressed a lacy kerchief to her nose.
Esther's gloved fingers were gentle under Bonnie's chin. "Look at me, child," Esther said in her matron's voice, and Bonnie looked.
"My dear, could you hand me your crystal ball, please?"
Bonnie blinked, surprised. "My ... what?"
"Your crystal ball," Esther repeated. "The one you were given when you became a mother. The one you can look in to know whether a little girl is just trying to get out of a day of schoolwork, or whether something is actually happening inside her."
"I, but, I, um," Bonnie stammered, automatically opening her reticule and realizing the futility of the move.
"I'm sorry, Esther, I don't have one."
"Then how do you justify blaming yourself for not knowing?" Esther persisted. Her voice was not raised, her words were gentle, soft, for she knew they could cut if misapplied.
"You had no way of knowing," Esther said reassuringly. "You did as your knowledge of the moment, your experience up to the moment, all told you. Sarah is in good hands, she is taken care of, and that rascally appendix will never trouble her again!"
Bonnie blinked rapidly, her eyes stinging, and Esther gathered her into her arms.
Bonnie, survivor of more hell than any one woman should ever have to endure, mother and wife and mother again, manager of a successful dressmaking business with clientele in several states, this grown woman, strong and capable, surrendered in her moment of relief to the comfort of a mother's arms.
Esther held her and soothed her like she would her own child, and finally Bonnie drew back, dabbing her eyes, red-faced. "You must think me terrible," she said through her damp kerchief.
Caleb took the worse for wear cloth and pressed his own in her hand, which she accepted gratefully, for her eyes were still leaking a bit.
"I think you are a wonderful mother and an ideal wife," Esther said stoutly, lifting her chin, "and I'll personally straighten the scoundrel who dares to say otherwise!"
Bonnie smiled in spite of herself, for there was tempered steel in Esther's voice, and Bonnie had no doubt whatsoever that this Southern belle could, and absolutely would, do just that.
"Now," Esther said, "you two go get a good meal, a good night's rest, and we'll talk about tomorrow when it comes."
"Caleb." Esther turned to Bonnie's husband, her shoulders back, her chin raised, erect and regal as the Queen herself. "You have a fine wife here."
So saying, Esther winked, turned and opened the front door to their fine, stone hospital.
Caleb's arms wrapped around Bonnie, and she leaned on her husband, grateful for his strength.
"I miss my Mama," Bonnie whispered.
"I know," Caleb whispered back.

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Linn Keller 4-23-09


I remember the ill winds of village politics back in Chauncey, the Sheriff wrote, frowning as his pen moved with an uncharacteristic slowness. The letters formed were blacker for the lethargy of the steel nib.
Vox populi, vox Dei. The general feeling of the good men and true here in town are that a mayor and council are needed to govern our growing community, and who am I to say otherwise?
I have examined my soul, searching for jealousy or a sense that this is my town, that I am its ruler and wish not to share the crown.
In a way ... in a way I do feel that.
I am trusted and cannot betray that trust.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
I have had as close to absolute power as a man here could and yet I am not corrupt.

He frowned at that last line, then dipped his pen in the inkwell again, wiped off the excess and carefully drew a single line through what he'd just written.
He'd known men who exercised absolute power. Crooked governments were not unknown in the period, crooked politicians were sadly common, and he'd known good men to go bad when given a little authority.
If we do become a governed body, I will serve at the pleasure of the government I help create, he continued, his pen surprisingly loud on the good rag paper.
He leaned back in his chair, touching the pen's tip to his lip, the nib gleaming in the Aladdin's light.
There was a tap on his study's door. He laid the pen down, rose.
Esther opened the door, carrying young Joseph, bundled in his sack like dress. Angela followed, delight on her face as she sprinted forward and jumped into her Daddy's arms.
The Sheriff hoisted his little girl at arm's length overhead and stood, raising her up and spinning around, showering giggles all over the room.
"Is it bedtime, Princess?" he asked, and Angela nodded briskly.
The Sheriff kissed her on the forehead, gave her a big Daddy-hug, and set her down.
Esther's eyes shone proudly in the lamplight.
"And how is young Joseph?" the Sheriff asked, taking his son and sitting back down in his chair.
"He has a good appetite," Esther murmured. "A very good appetite!"
The Sheriff gave her a knowing look.
"I don't know how you do it, dearest," he said. "Mothering a child so young and still running the railroad, and doing all that you do!"
"Have you seen Fannie?" Esther asked, and her husband looked at her with surprise, for they'd seen Charlie and Fannie earlier in the day.
"Why, yes," the Sheriff said, blinking.
"No, no," Esther said, shaking her head and waving her hand in front of her face. "I mean have you seen her waist? How does the woman do it?"
The Sheriff stood, ran an arm firmly around his wife and drew her into him. Wife in one arm, infant in the other, he put a lip lock on his red headed wife that left absolutely no doubt at all that he found her attractive, and in no uncertain terms.
Esther's knees went a little weak.
The Sheriff leaned his forehead against hers. "Mrs. Keller," he whispered, "you are a fine looking woman!"
Esther's eyes were closed. She was still feeling that kiss on her lips.
The Sheriff sat again, for little Joseph was getting restless in his arms.
He pulled the lad's dress up and set him a-straddle of his thigh, bouncing him gently, giving him a horsey-ride. "My son," he said proudly. "My son!"
Little Jacob squealed with delight, waving one arm and chewing on the other chubby pink fist.
Esther saw the Sheriff's expression change, and he picked the lad up.
There was a spreading dark spot where the little fellow had been.
"Here, Maw," the Sheriff said, handing her the dripping infant. "Take yore kid!"

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Linn Keller 4-30-09


"... and bless Bup 'cause he piddled in Daddy's room just like Joseph did but not on his leg, amen!" Angela said with an emphatic nod, the way she did when she made a point, and Esther hid her amusement behind the back of her hand and sparkling eyes.
Angela scrambled up into the bed and Esther drew the covers up around her daughter's chin.
"Yes, dear?" Esther stroked the bangs back from Angela's forehead with gentle fingers.
"Is Daddy mad at Joseph?"
Esther blinked, trying hard not to laugh. "Why, no, dear, why would he be mad?"
"'Cause Joseph piddled all over his leg an' Daddy said 'Here, Maw, take yore kid!'" Angela thrust her arms forward as if to hand an invisible bundle to her Mama, and Esther could not contain her laughter. Angela's imitation was too accurate, and from a little child, most amusing.
"I thought maybe he wanted you to take him back or something."
Esther swung her hips to start her skirt out of the way, settling herself down on the edge of Angela's bed. "Why, dear, I wouldn't do that!"
"I hope not!" Angela said, her eyes big and sincere. "Then I won't have anyone to boss around!"
Esther tilted her head. "Somehow I can't quite see you being bossy."
Angela looked disappointed. "Aren't I supposed to be a bossy big sister?"
"A big sister, yes," Esther reassured her, pressing Angela's little hand between her own, "but you don't have to be bossy!"
"You're not bossy with Daddy, are you, Mommy?"
"No, Sweets, I'm not," Esther said tucking Angela's hand under the quilt. "I have other ways of getting what I want."
"Like what?" Angela asked, suddenly interested.
"Just never you mind," Esther said quietly. "That's a secret!"
"Ooo!" Angela said happily. "I like secrets!"
"I know you do," Esther whispered, leaning over and kissing her on the forehead. "When the time is right, I'll tell you the Woman's Secret for Getting What you Want from your Daddy!"
"Now close your eyes and go to sleep." Esther stood and picked up the lamp.
Esther turned, lowering the lamp's wick just a little.
"You don't beat him, do you?"
"Oh good heavens, no!" Esther laughed, her teeth flashing in the muted light.
"Good!" Angela's little head nodded once, emphatically.
Esther turned and reached for the door knob, to draw it shut behind her.
"Yes, Precious?" Esther puffed out the lamp and was suddenly a dark silhouette in the doorway.
"Will Bup be all right, sleeping on the porch?"
"He'll be fine," Esther said soothingly.
"Okay!" Esther saw Angela's head drop to the pillow, watched her eyes snap dutifully shut.
Esther drew the door shut, quietly, and went downstairs, one hand carrying the lamp, the other holding up the front of her skirt.

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Linn Keller 5-1-09


Fannie flowed to the window, graceful as an angel in flight.
An angel with teeth, Charlie thought, glimpsing the carbine held one-handed against her skirt.
He'd come off the chair like a scalded cat, Remington in hand: absently, as he crossed the room in three long steps, he realized he'd just drawn from the gunbelt hung over the bedpost as easily as if it were belted around his own lean waist.
Each was close to the wall, looking out the window at a long angle, looking for the source of the gunshot.
Dawg, sensing their excitement, opened one eye for a few seconds waggled his stub of a tail and went back to his nap.
"Close," Fannie whispered.
"There," Charlie grunted, pointing with a thrust of his chin.
They looked together.
"Well, well," Charlie said, "this could be fun!"
Fannie put a hand on her hip. "Sugar, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Charlie laughed. "I'm thinking someone is skinning that pilgrim out of his socks!"
It was a race to see who could finish getting dressed and out the door.
Dawg, for his part, snored.


"And I say he's no better than any cowboy mucking about after a herd of smelly, fly-bitten range cows!"
The pilgrim wore the city's clothes and had the city's arrogance; he'd come in on the stage, apparently, and with an uncharacteristically long layover -- a full hour -- he'd decided to stretch his legs, he would probably eat or at least drink at the Jewel, and very likely -- from the sound of him -- pass a loud and harsh judgment on their little town.
Jacob, eyes half-lidded, stood before and a little to one side of the man. His coat was open; a breeze had revealed one of his two holstered Colts, which prompted the stranger's opining of the inaccuracy of the revolver, the arrogance of those who wore them, the primitive and backward nature of all who lived in such a barren and uncivilized land, and other less than scholarly statements.
A small crowd soon gathered, apparently hanging on his every word: work in town had come to a halt, for here was Entertainment: all present knew he was being suckered into a trap of his own making, and none could easily contain their excitement at the prospect of this arrogant auslander being put firmly in his place.
Annette, on Jacob's left arm, stood with all the grace of royalty. Though young, she was a married woman, a matron now and so accepted among her peers: she regarded the stranger with rapt attention, while her fingers squeezed Jacob's forearm lightly.
Jacob's eyes smiled though the rest of his face did not. His badge, like his father's, was commonly on the back side of his coat's lapel and so out of the common eye.
"Well, mister," Jacob offered mildly, "I would be pleased to show you just how inaccurate I am!"
The stranger hesitated, giving Jacob a sidelong glance. "Oh, you would, eh?" he sneered. "And I suppose you're willing to back that up!"
"Why, whatever do you mean, suh?" Annette asked in a startlingly accurate Suth'n accent. So good was her imitation of Duzy Wales that Jacob's stomach lurched.
The stranger withdrew a pocketbook and pulled out a gold eagle, held it up in front of Jacob's face. "Just how good are you?"
"I don't want to take your money, mister," Jacob said in his quiet way.
"I thought so!" the fellow huffed, putting the coin back in the purse. "You can't!"
"Didn't say that." If Jacob had a cat's tail, it would have been lazily coiling and uncoiling.
The city dude looked around. "So what'll you shoot? A window? The ground?"
"How about your hat?"
"Your hat," Jacob repeated. "Toss it in the air. If I hit it, I get your eagle. If I miss, I give you two."
"You don't have two coppers to rub together!"
"My dear?" Jacob asked, and Annette opened her reticule, took out a morocco coin purse, handed Jacob two eagles.
The stranger's eyes glowed. Easy money, they said, and around him the mutter of voices started up, bets were made, currency produced or promised.
"My hat, huh?" The stranger took off his Derby and turned it over in his fingers, then quickly scaled it into the sky.
Jacob fired a single shot, at the height of its arc, and it wobbled, off-balance, to the street.
Young Peter ran to the hat, snatched it up, held it high and ran back into the circle of spectators.
The stranger accepted the punctured billycock, brushing distastefully at the dirt.
Jacob quietly replaced the fired cartridge, pocketing the empty, and unobtrusively loaded a sixth round.
Annette stood demurely at his side, her reticule open: her hand slid into it and gripped her brother's Derringer, her thumb resting on its half-cocked hammer.
Seeing his coin disappear even before he'd surrendered it, the stranger blustered, "You can't do that again!"
"Same bet?" Jacob asked mildly, holstering his right hand Colt.
"Same bet!"
"Let's see the color of your money."
The stranger drew back as if slapped.
Charlie and Fannie had joined the crowd, invisible by long practice, a trick learned early and practiced often by the veteran law dawg: Fannie's fingers squeezed Charlie's forearm, delicately, then released: a Lady in public preferred to be on a gentleman's arm, and Fannie was, but there might be sudden need for action on one or both their parts, and Fannie had no wish to impede Charlie, should that need arise.
"Are you saying I can't cover the bet?" the stranger blustered loudly.
"I'm saying I don't want to see a man embarrassed without need," Jacob replied calmly.
The stranger pressed his lips angrily together, slapped the brim-split Derby on his slicked-down hair and yanked the purse out of his coat pocket. He withdrew two eagles, thought better of it, withdrew a double eagle.
"Double or nothing!" he snapped.
"Be sure it's what you want," Jacob warned.
"IT'S WHAT I WANT!" the stranger shouted, face reddening with the effort. "HIT THIS, DAMN YOU!" and the double eagle spun skyward.
There was the concussion of Jacob's left-hand Colt, the high-pitched whinggg! of a coin sailing into the stratosphere.
A dozen and a half pairs of eyes at least tried to follow its flight; only young Peter, with the sharp vision of a youth, kept track of it, followed its spinning arc as it fell, and was most of the way to the horse trough before the coin landed neatly in the very center of the water, marking its landing with a small splash.
There were shouts, yells, whistles, backs were pounded, money changed hands: one fellow with a long face shook another's hand and allowed as he'd just won the best cutting horse in three states and the Oklahoma Territory, whereupon the other called him a damned liar, put his arm around his shoulder and steered him toward the Silver Jewel for a beer: Bill and Mac congratulated one another, each claiming to have skinned the other out of his eye teeth, and turned happily back toward the Mercantile.
The stranger, seeing his wealth dribble out from between his fingers without even opening his purse, paled: swaying a little, he yelled, "YOU ROBBED ME!" and plunged his hand in his coat pocket.
Hard hands seized the stranger's wrist and elbow.
The crowd, suddenly silent, parted, clearing away from just behind the stranger, and just behind Jacob.
Fannie and Annette moved quickly, as if practiced, suddenly shoulder to shoulder ahead of the stranger, ten feet away and a little to his right.
From behind the stranger a cold voice said, "I wouldn't."
The grip tightened around the wrist and drew the spread-fingered and trembling hand out of the pocket.
Charlie twisted the arm up behind the stranger's back, quickly, viciously, bringing the man up on his toes with a yell of pain: running his own hand into the coat pocket, he came out with a nickle plated .32, which he held between thumb and forefinger, as if it were distasteful to him.
"Help! Police!" the stranger bawled. "Police!"
Charlie chuckled, sounding like a rusty gate hinge. "Get the deputy!" he shouted cheerfully.
Jacob had reloaded his left hand Colt: holstering the revolver, he stepped in front of the stranger and turned his lapel over.
"Mister," he said, "you have a choice. You can get back on that stage and you can get the hell out of my jurisdiction and never, ever come back here, or you can pay your bet and be welcome. I'll allow any man one mistake and you've just had yours. Cross me again and you're dead." His voice, though quiet, was flat and unemotional, and in his blue eyes the stranger saw something he'd never expected to see in one so young: an utter, absolute cold, a complete lack of emotion.
The stranger swallowed hard.
"I can go?" he squeaked, and Charlie released the man's arm.
"You can go."
"I don't have to pay?"
Jacob looked at Charlie and took a deep breath, let it out. He quickly, expertly frisked the man, finding nothing more offensive than a tin of perfumed hair grease, his purse and a cigar-case.
"Let me buy you a beer," Jacob said. "You need to know some things if you're going to keep from getting yourself killed." He put a lean, strong arm around the stranger's shoulders, locking him with a grip of iron as he walked him toward the Jewel's ornate double doors. "First of all, we don't use lawyers out here, a man's word is his bond. Lie one time, cheat one time, you are a known man and never trusted again."
Fannie touched Annette's forearm.
Annette looked at the older woman.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Fannie looked at the still-open reticule and smiled.
"Sugar, you have the right idea," she said approvingly as Charlie came up and offered his arm.

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Linn Keller 5-3-09


Annette bit her lip, seeing an ideal opportunity: she'd been mulling a question for some time, turning an idea over in her mind, and she'd progressed to the point where she wished to discuss matters with someone wiser and more experienced than herself.
She drew her reticule shut, blinking, trying to form the right words.
Miz Fannie had taken Charlie's arm, and was almost ready to turn, when women's intuition kicked into gear, and the unconscious association that often forms between two kindred souls communicated itself to Charlie, such that they each halted their turn before it began, but did it so expertly and so smoothly that nobody watching knew anything had transpired.
Annette looked up, half-fearing she would only see Miz Fannie's retreating backside, and blinked again, this time in surprise at being regarded steadily by a set of utterly lovely and somewhat amused eyes.
Miz Fannie reached out, collecting the younger woman's arm, and together the three set their course for the Jewel as well.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-3-09


The threesome strolled elegantly, at least on the part of the ladies, through the ornate double doors of the Jewel and made their way to the dining room. Charlie led the way, thinking rightly that what the lovely Missus Keller had on her mind required at least some semblance of privacy. Consequently, he flagged down the nearest of the sprightly waitresses who bustled about the room as he excused himself from Fannie and Annette. "We'd like a bit of time to just ourselves, if we may," he said softly to the young woman. She nodded crisply, and gestured toward a curtained archway.

"We have a small private dining area just over there, Marshal," she answered in a musical soprano. "If you'll come with me, I’ll see that you are not disturbed." Charlie looked at her in surprise.

"I don't believe we've been introduced, Ma'am," Charlie said cautiously.

"Not formally, at least," the slender brunette answered. "But I know you, and I owe you a debt of gratitude." She turned toward the velvet drape and pulled it aside, gesturing for Charlie and the two ladies to precede her. She quickly and expertly pulled the table away from the richly-upholstered, curved leather banquette, waited for Charlie to seat his companions, then replaced the table. "Would any of you like a refreshment before I leave you alone?" All three answered in the negative; she stepped out and lowered the heavy velvet drape, instantly blotting out nearly every sound from the remainder of the large dining room. Fannie reached across the table and took Annette's hand.

"What can I do for you, Sugar, and would you like this big galoot to step outside while we talk?" she asked.

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Linn Keller 5-4-09


Now that Annette was seated and the velvet drape sequestered the world from them, the veneer of control and elegance fell from her and Fannie felt the sudden tremor in her fingers.
Annette's other hand went out and laid itself on Charlie's coat sleeve. Her eyes were large, luminous ... vulnerable.
"Thank you," she whispered, as if her throat were suddenly very dry. "I know Jacob ... he ... I ..."
Her voice ground to a halt, but her hand closed, clenching a roll of coat sleeve material up into her palm and Charlie, too, felt her treble.
Annette closed her eyes and took a long breath.
Charlie and Fannie waited patiently, satisfied she would not fall apart -- indeed, Charlie was a little surprised, and Fannie rather pleased, that she did not collapse in a flood of tears.
There's more to this girl than meets the eye was the unspoken but approving thought.
Annette raised her head and smiled a little, bringing her feelings under control as if reining in a runaway team.
"Miz Fannie, I have been approached twice about lecturing in Denver and elsewhere," she began. "Firelands must have a legendary status." She looked directly at the older woman. "Miz Fannie, I'm ... I'm not sure I can stand in front of the lime lights and see all those people looking at me and not freeze up!"
Miz Fannie's laugh was like running water. Her gloved hand rested lightly on Annette's fingers. "Sugar, you stood ready to go after a man, knowing full well things were about to get nasty! You've played piano here in the Jewel for a packed house..." Miz Fannie touched a gentle finger under Annette's chin.
Annettee turned her head toward Miz Fannie.
"I'll let you in on a secret, Sugar," Fannie said confidentially, in the tones of a woman about to invest another woman with a secret known only to the distaff.
"I was absolutely terrified when I stepped on stage for the first time."
Annette's eyes widened. "You!?" she squeaked.
Fannie nodded. "Me," she admitted. "I opened my mouth and not one sound came out. My throat locked up tight as John Wesley's hat band!" She chuckled at the memory, smiling over at Charlie, whose arm was still prisoner of Annette's anxiety.
"I was also a full measure early.
"The piano player couldn't see me, so he didn't know I'd just frozen, but I knew everyone saw me freeze, so I did the only thing I could think of."
Miz Fannie paused, re-living the tense moment.
Annette's lips were parted a little; her cheeks were coloring up again, having lost the pallor they'd acquired as they were shown into their cozy alcove.
Charlie, surprised, realized that Annette was indeed a woman, not a tall girl -- he'd known her when she came to town, a scared girl grieving for her brother; characteristic of most men, he held that first impression as the definition he thought of when he hear the word "Annette."
Suddenly the definition changed.
She was matured, physically as well as inwardly, and perhaps for the first time, Charlie realized Annette actually had curves -- nowhere near as spectacular as Miz Fannie's sculpted beauty, but she was developed out of girlhood.
It may have been the parted, red lips, with the gleaming white teeth; it may have been the shine in her eyes, it may have been the bosom leaning over the table top, or the trim waist, or it may have been the culmination of all these realizations.
Charlie's thoughts were more of surprise and recognition than anything else. He was a man perfectly contented with his wife, his soul-mate, and so there were no improper thoughts.
If anything, his thoughts were almost ... well, if not fatherly, at least those of an uncle: a gentleman regards every woman he meets as a lady, at least until she proves herself otherwise, and despite Charlie's case hardened exterior, he was first and foremost a gentleman, as were most men on the frontier.
It was Charlie's turn to blink in surprise.
He looked over at his beautiful bride, and Miz Fannie was trying hard not to laugh, for she both realized her own first stage fright, and realized what had been going on behind her husband's eyes.
She dispelled Charlie's discomfort with a wink.
Miz Fannie had an uncanny way of knowing his thoughts.
"My heavens, what did you do?" Annette asked, hanging onto Miz Fannie's account, not realizing she'd been the subject of Charlie's brief but intense scrutiny.
"Do?" Miz Fannie brought her hand to her bosom in a theatrical gesture. "Why, sugar, when in doubt, ham it up!" She laughed again and Charlie's eyes smiled, for Fannie's laugh was the one sound guaranteed to carry across the noisiest room and tug gently at his manly heart.
"I pretended to blink and cough and tried it again, as if I were positively belting out the opening run of an Italian aria -- like this --" Fannie's head tilted back, her mouth opened and she made a graceful, wide-armed gesture, as if introducing the audience to a pure, shining note of utter purity -- "but I didn't make a sound again, so I shook my head, put my hands on my hips and glared at the piano player, tapping my foot as if it were all his fault! --and when the audience laughed I did too, and --" she snapped her fingers -- "the spell was broken! I could sing again, and sing I did!"
Miz Fannie shot a smoldering look at Charlie. "As a matter of fact, Sugar, I think that's the first time you ever saw me on stage!"
Charlie ignored his reddening ears, leaned forward a little. Annette's grasp had relaxed on his coat sleeve. He cleared his throat.
"The lecture circuit?" he prompted.

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Linn Keller 5-4-09


Jacob swallowed hard.
"The lecture circuit?"
Annette nodded, knitting her fingers together in her apron, looking like a schoolgirl about to be chastened.
Jacob's eyes tracked left, tracked right: he looked from the woodbox across the ornate, spotless front of their kitchen stove, back across, then up his wife's apron, noting the stress her fingers displayed: Jacob had a mistrust of cities and a dislike of crowds: personally he was more than content to live out his young life in Firelands and in the high country surrounding.
Annette had grown up in Denver, he knew, and she'd grown up a city girl, unused to the open expanse, the mountains; on one level he knew she'd given up all she knew, for him; she'd had to learn a new life style entirely, leaving Denver and knowing she'd lost her inheritance to rascally relatives: still, his dislike of cities and mistrust of metropoli, laid a cold hand on his heart.
He considered his words carefully.
Annette was a gentle soul, with her heart on her sleeve: she'd offered this idea as if holding out something precious on a platter, fearful it would be dashed to the floor like offal.
Jacob knew he would have to tread carefully, lest he crush this young heart.
He stood, took his wife in his arms, brushed the hair from her forehead, gently, the way he always did.
"My dear," he murmured, "you know the City, and its ways."
Annette, fearful, nodded.
Jacob kissed her forehead. "The lecture circuit," he murmured. "You were asked to do this?"
Annette, numb, nodded again.
Jacob sat, slowly, like an old man: he leaned an elbow on the kitchen table, his chin on his knuckles, gazing sightlessly at the ornate cast iron leg of their kitchen stove.
"Is this," he asked, voice carefully neutral, "is this something you want to do?"
Annette nodded. "Yes," she said. "Yes, I think I do." Her voice was a little hesitant and slightly higher pitched, and Jacob read the anxiety in it: he knew it was probably due both to uncertainty about presenting in front of a crowd, and partly due to presenting to her husband.
Jacob looked directly at his wife and saw a young woman. Married to a deputy sheriff, living in a fine stone house, already monied, she had no need of work: their interest in the gold mine, Jacob's steady work and the other investments he'd made, plus his working more with running the rail road and the brick-works, guaranteed them a comfortable income.
A very comfortable income.
Jacob had known poverty as a youth and so was frugal; their wealth was not displayed beyond the house, their carriage was nowhere near as fine as the Sheriff's, or Jackson Cooper's: though plain, it was serviceable.
Annette wore the cameo Jacob had gotten her on his way home from his sojourn back East, and she wore her wedding band. For special occasions she wore Duzy's diamond ring as well.
"We don't need the money," Jacob whispered.
"I know," Annette whispered in reply.
Jacob blinked, a smile narrowing the corners of his eyes.
"Why are we whispering?"
"I don't know!" Annette husked, and Jacob stood again, gathering his wife in his arms.
"Dearest, if you wish to lecture in Denver, I will not say no!" Jacob said firmly.
"Come with me," she whispered, clinging fearfully to him.
Jacob blinked. He was reluctant to let his wife go alone -- a lady did not make such a trip unescorted! -- and he had the railroad and the brick works to oversee, for his mother had tasked him with these duties since the birth of his brother --
Come with me.
Jacob felt an apprehension, but he realized this was a chance, an opportunity, and he knew the bitter-ashes taste of an opportunity missed and gone forever.
Annette saw the smile grow on her husband's face as he smacked the table with his palm.
"Let's go!"

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Charlie MacNeil 5-4-09


Charlie sat in a tilted-back swivel chair in Linn's office, feet propped up on a spur-scarred corner of the battered old desk. Across from him, the Sheriff sat in similar, seemingly boneless repose, a cup of Charlie's coffee perched on his stomach, steaming gently. "Someday you have to teach me to make coffee," Linn said with a grin. "No matter what I do, it comes out tasting like turpentine."

"Don't do nothin' special," Charlie drawled comfortably. "Except I only put in two handsful of grounds, instead of four like you do. That way when it cooks down it's still at least somewhat drinkable."

Linn snorted then laughed quietly. "Starts out with a kick that way," he said. After a moment of silence, he looked across the desk at his fellow lawman. "Something tells me you didn't come down here just to make coffee."

"You're right, I do have somethin' else in mind," Charlie answered. "Several somethin's, actually." He blew gently on the surface of the dark liquid in his cup and took a sip. "Ah. That's good." He grinned at Linn, but quickly sobered. "Fannie and me were talking last night, and we need a favor." He started to go on, then veered off onto a different course. "By the way, thanks for takin' care of that weasel in yonder," he indicated the barred cells in the back of the building. "I know an Irish police sergeant who'll be real glad to see that fella. I'll be headin' to Denver with him tomorrow." He fell silent as Linn waited expectantly. After a moment he looked Linn square in the eye and said firmly, "Then I'm resignin' from the Marshal's service."

Linn stared at Charlie in disbelief as Charlie stared into his coffee. Linn could see the emotions rolling across his face, knowing himself what it would mean to give up his life's work, to turn and walk away from what he had been, to venture off into an unknown future. Linn cleared his throat. "I see," he commented in a neutral tone. "And you're headed where?" he then asked, already having a good idea what his friend would answer.

"Back here." The words seemed to hang in the air before drifting to a gentle landing in the middle of the paper-strewn expanse of pine between the two men. "Me and Fannie want to build something, something solid and substantial. I ain't got any kids, and I doubt I will have at my age," he grinned from under his hat brim at Linn, "but I want to build something I can pass on to the right person when the time comes. And I'm gonna need your help. I want a horse ranch."

"I see," Linn said again. "What kind of help do you need from me? You know as much about horses as I do."

"I'm gonna need help finding a place around here for the ranch," Charlie answered. Then he grinned. "And I'd like to borrow that stud of yours."

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Linn Keller 5-5-09


It's a good thing I was set down.
Had Charlie landed that on me whilst I was on my own hind hooves I would have to have set right quick.
I commenced to grin broad and then broader and finally managed to nod without slinging my neck out of joint.
Now inside every man is his hidden self. The outer man is what the world sees, the outer man is what walks and talks and eats and shakes hands and whittles pine sticks into tinder, while the inner man is the one that thinks things over and considers and figures.
Except for mine.
Mine was tossing his hat in the air and yelling something through a grin as broad as any two counties in Texas.
Sometimes it's kind of hard to keep that inner man hid and this was one of those sometimes. Only the fact that I had some of Charlie's coffee balanced on my belly kept me from expressing the jubilation I felt.
Had it been my coffee I would not have cared, except it might have burnt a hole in the floor and even then I'd not mind terribly as it would make disposing of floor sweepin's that much easier. I'd not told Charlie but Maude had taken to using my coffee to strip varnish off rockin' chairs.
I finally quit grinning at my coffee cup and looked across the desk and past Charlie's boot soles.
"Hijo is yours and welcome," I managed to say, "and if you want to cross him with Rose o' the Mornin' she'd ought to be back up from the border country here in a month or two. She was sired by Hijo's pappy -- that golden man-hater Firecracker Mel had up here -- so I don't reckon she'll object none to foaling one of Hijo's get."
I tilted my head back, considering.
"Reckon you'll want to look the land over some yourself but I know of two ranches right off the top of my head might suit your fancy."
I raised that blue granite cup and took a thoughtful swig.
Sure beats turpentine, I thought, then my mind started working again and I drug my boot heels off the desk.
"Charlie, I ain't got brain one in my head. Here we are talkin' some of the best news I've heard in years" -- I fetched open the bottom drawer, ratted around under some rags and a book I'd forgot I had, finally finding the object of my desire -- "pass your cup over here and we'll sweeten it up some!"
I held up the pint bottle. The Daine boys had a keg of Kentucky they'd freighted across the prairie with them,and they'd just tapped it yesterday: unlike most of their product they sold locally, this was amber, not water clear, and it clung to the shoulders of the bottle as I shook it gently, listening to it gurgle.
It was Charlie's turn to drag his boot heels off the scarred-up desk corner.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-5-09


The two lawmen sipped their "sweetened" coffee in companionable silence. Charlie could tell by the look on his friend's face that he'd dropped something in Linn's lap that he definitely hadn't been expecting. But the sudden gleam of delight in the Sheriff's eye as he offered more of the Daine brothers' whiskey told the whole story. Linn was tickled pink that Charlie and Fannie were coming home to Firelands.

After another sip, Linn suddenly declared, "That's the best news I've heard in a month of Sundays, my friend! But what brought it on?"

"Too many aches and pains when I get up in the morning, and too damn much city livin'!" Charlie answered firmly. "I'm tired of too much dust in the coffee, damn little sleep, and food cooked over a campfire, if you can call it food. I wanna get up in the mornin' and see somethin' out my window that ain't built by humans, and I for sure don't wanna see any other humans, except the red-haired one I married, until I'm good and ready." He grinned. "So that's why I'm quittin'. I've got enough put by to live on until I can sell the first colts, and," he paused for effect, "I've already got the mares!"

"I take it you've been planning this for a while," Linn grinned. "But I have to ask, just what kind of mares are you going to be breeding to Hijo? He's particular who he associates with, you know!"

Charlie chuckled derisively. "Yeah, right! He lets you ride him, don't he?"

"Only because I bring Angela with me sometimes," the Sheriff answered with a chuckle of his own. "So anyway, what about these mares of yours?"

"They're comin' from Oregon," Charlie told his friend. "They oughta be here in about ten days, which will give me time to get that critter in yonder back to Denver and turn in my badge. I've got twenty-five of the prettiest critters that ever wore horsehide, and some of 'em are wearin' spots."

"Spots? You mean Appaloosas?"

"Yep. If they're good enough for the Nez Perce, they're good enough for me. Some of those Appies will stand sixteen and half hands, and all of my mares are packin' enough muscle and bone to make it through a Blue Mountain winter in fine shape. They're fast and they're smart, and every one of 'em'll pack a man all day and be ready to run at the end of it. I figure that if we can get some colts out of my mares and your stud, we'll have a line that any cowboy worth the name will give his eye teeth to have under his saddle!"

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Linn Keller 5-9-09


I squinted one eye shut and contemplated the bottom of my coffee cup.
"Sixteen hands," I said thoughtfully. "You know, I've looked at Jacob's Apple-horse a thousand times and never realized just how big he was."
A grin spread slowly across my face as I considered Charlie's words.
"Those would make fine saddle horses, all right," I said slowly.
Hijo del Sol's build came to mind, and his absolutely smooth gait: with the speed and precision of an Appaloosa and the Ap's intelligence ...
"Those would make a fine cuttin' horse," Charlie and I said together.
I blinked, looked up at Charlie, and Charlie looked at me, and we both laughed.

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Linn Keller 5-9-09


Sarah's recovery was as rapid as was typical of any child raised in the healthy elevations. She was still sore, as was to be expected, but she was keeping active -- in other words, she was her typical busy self.
At the moment she was sewing impatiently on the front porch, frowning at the embroidery hoop and the taut-stretched material. The embroidery floss insisted on tangling, her needle didn't go where she wanted it to, the thimble kept slipping off her finger, and she finally wanted one thing and one thing only, and that was to fling the dratted thing as far off the porch as she could.
Twain Dawg dozed, rolled up against the decorative uprights of the porch railing, snoring a little.
Sarah frowned at him too, knowing full well that if she even shifted abruptly the snoring would stop and a beady-black eye would open to see whether her activity merited a full-bodied bounce, or just a sleepy thump of the tail.
Sarah frowned and sniffed.
She was used to wood smoke eddying around from the chimneys and she knew her Mama's hired woman would be stoking the stove and readying a meal, but this smelled different.
Sarah's flat-soled shoes came quickly to the floor, the swing vibrating with her departure, and Twain Dawg's head came up quickly.
She put a hand to her mouth.
"Oh, no," she whispered, panic seizing her young stomach, but only for a moment.
A line of bright-yellow flame was spreading in the distance.
Sarah's feet were moving before the rest of her realized where they were taking her. Uncertain quite where to go, who to tell -- the hired woman would be no help, she knew, and the hands were all occupied elsewhere, there was nothing she could do --
She stopped, willed herself to be calm, calm, to think --
Twain Dawg flowed down the steps as easily as a stream of India ink from an overturned inkwell, and he stopped beside his young charge, his nose finding her hand.
Sarah squeezed up a big handful of loose hide between his shoulders, her mind racing.
Grass fire, she thought. Too big to put out. Got to stop it before it burns the corral, the house --
Her eyes found the shed.
Her head turned a few degrees as the mental gears between her ears whirred and calculated.
Sarah seized her skirts and began a most unladylike sprint for the pasture.
"Butter! Jelly!" she called, desperation edging her voice. "Butter! Jelly!"
Twain Dawg ran easily beside her, grinning jaws open, ivory fangs gleaming in the sunlight.
"Twain Dawg! Get Butter! Get her over here!" Sarah's arm shot out, her pointing finger stiff and accusing at the mare grazing on the other side of the pasture.
Twain Dawg snarled a little and changed direction, picking up speed.
Sarah kept running for the shed.

Of the two mares, Butter was the easier to handle, and the easier to herd: Twain Dawg did not even have to nip at her heels to get her pointed toward the shed, and Sarah's urgent summonses finally sank through Butter's thick equine skull.
Sarah seized a peach crate and used it to stand on to get the harness on her mare. Her fingers were clumsy with stress and with the unaccustomed task, but she had helped her Papa enough times to know how to harness a horse: the procedure was identical to harness up to this shiny red McCormick-Deering sickle bar cutter as it was to harness up to their carriage.
Sarah climbed awkwardly into the cast iron seat, her skirts hiked up, and she flicked the reins.
"Yup, Butter!" she called, and Butter yup'd, and the McCormick-Deering harvester bounced a little on the ground, and they headed toward the advancing fire line.

Young Peter smelled grass smoke first: he was off the schoolroom bench and to a window, looking, seeking: he knew what the smell was, and his stomach tightened painfully with that knowledge.
"Peter," Mrs. Cooper admonished him, "you are out of your seat!"
Peter ran for the door, his clod hopper shoes loud on the white washed boards.
Puzzled, Mrs. Cooper looked out the window.

Sean had just settled himself down in a chair, ready to read the newly-received, month-old paper from Denver, when someone began hammering on the steel plate hung beside the door. From the sound of it, someone was intent on beating it to death.
The urgency of the metallic tattoo meant one thing and one thing only.
The Irish Brigade, as one man, was on its feet and sprinting for their gleaming, polished Ahrens steam engine. The mares, restless, moved into position of their own accord as they always did, impatient to be harnessed, for when they were harnessed they could run, and they three absolutely loved to run!
Gasoline boosted the fire in the boiler's heart, the doors were swung open and the ladder wagon hitched quickly behind, booted feet scrambled onto the tail board and Sean took reins in one hand, black snake whip in the other and roared, "COME ON, LADIES, LET'S MAKE A SHOW! ALL HANDS ON DECK, NO IRISH NEED APPLY!"
Young Peter's trembling arm, pointed as it was to the suddenly towering wall of smoke, was direction enough.
Sean brought the team about and they headed up the street: the round bell under his seat clanged alarm, Sean's black snake whip sang and cracked like a pistol shot a yard over the mares' ears, a dozen steel-shod hooves cut into the hard packed street, and the Irish Brigade headed for war.

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Linn Keller 5-9-09


Sarah drew Butter to a halt a few hundred yards from the house, gauging the direction of fire travel and its speed.
She knew she could not stop the entire fire line but she also knew the fire needed the wind-dried winter grass in order to live, and she intended to starve it.
Looking behind her, looking around, she quickly decided to cut a circle around the house and the corral.
"Ho," she soothed Butter: running around back of the harvester, she could not know that the mechanism included an automatic rake: had she known, she would not have cared
Sarah was an observant child, and bright: she remembered watching one of the hired men release the gleaming-new sickle bar and lay it down, and she knew which lever to throw to engage the bar.
She pushed up on the bar, twisting desperately at the nut holding it up.
New though it was, and clean, it would not move.
Sarah glanced over her shoulder at the devouring flames, twisted again at the nut.
It budged.
She shook her hand, took a fresh grip, squeezed and turned, and the nut spun free.
Sarah dropped the nut in her excitement but she did not care: she let the blade fall to the ground, then scrambled back into the cast iron seat.
She reached waaaaay down and grasped the red-painted handle, coaxed it into gear, then sat back up and flipped the reins.
Butter's ears swung back at the unaccustomed clatter of the sickle bar, but the sound was steady and she quickly got used to it.
Sarah began cutting a swath, knowing she would have to make at least a semi circle around the house and corral to save them.
Triangular teeth chattered happily, slicing the brittle, winter-dry grass, and the rake piled it in a neat windrow as she drove.

The steam engine hissed and clattered, building a head of pressure in the gleaming dome before the engineer opened a valve: they'd spun the home made gravel filter onto the suction line and dropped it down the well prepared for this very moment, prepared ahead of time and waiting patiently for its moment of need.
Water shot out the brass tip, describing a gleaming arc against the nearly cloudless sky, and the Welsh Irishman spun it in tight circles, wetting the greatest area possible.
They were within the scythe-cut belt Jacob and Parson Belden and Shorty had carved out of the drying grasses. The foehn was notorious for bringing a quick thaw, often with flooding, but equally notorious for drying the grass, allowing devastating, fast moving fires to clear the landscape of anything flammable: unfortunately this tended to include buildings, for fire is not a fussy eater.
The wells were spaced far enough that each arc from the hose would over lap the next: the Irish Brigade wet a huge semi-circle, nearly depleting their well, even with the swift groundwater recharge; after wetting both the close-cut fire break and as much area as they could reach beyond the break, they pulled up the suction line and moved quickly to the next, intent on stopping the conflagration before it got too close.

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Linn Keller 5-10-09


The German Irishman swore as he shoveled coal off the ground and into the hungry boiler.
"If I'd a brain in me head," he muttered, "I'd'a th'owed down some planks an' dumped ma coal on that!"
They had skipped the second watering hole and gone to the third, desperate to cover the most ground before the fire reached them. Winds were light but steady and the fire made its slow way toward them.
Overhead, the smoke went almost white against the torquoise sky; an eagle banked in the thermals, unconcerned with the men laboring below.
Parson Belden, smelling the smoke, knew what was happening, and changed back into his work clothes: sermon forgotten on his desk, the dropped pen gleaming-wet with ink, his concern was for salvation of a more physical nature.
Even as he reached for the square bit shovel in preparation for this physical battle, his whispered words were for the Almighty, enlisting as much spiritual assistance as he could possibly arrange.
Parson Belden knew fire too well.

Sarah brought Butter around and began a second pass. She was throwing her hay outward, away from her cut: this was more by accident than design, but her quick young mind realized this was the way to do it, and she murmured to her mare as the McCormick bounced a little in a rough place.
Sarah doubled over, teeth set against the pain.
In the distance she saw a buggy and knew it was her Papa, driving toward her, but she knew she had to make this cut.
Looking down at the sickle bar, she could not help but marvel at the shining-bright teeth clattering in a sliver blur as she went.


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Linn Keller 5-10-09


Shorty, Parson Belden and a half dozen like minded men formed a wide skirmish line, advancing on the enemy, shovels at the ready: the wind had died, for the moment at least, and they met the fire with vigor.
The trick in putting out a grass fire is not to swat the flame, but to run over it with the flat of the shovel, snuffing it: they moved quickly, too quickly in some cases, as hot coals or a hidden incendiary tongue came to life after their passage.
As long as the wind was still, they made good headway, snuffing several hundred yards of fire line. Coughing in the smoke, black snot running down their faces, eyes burning and watering, they labored like giants, taking the fight to the enemy.
They hit the line in its center, working outward, trying to run the fire around their settlement: not the ideal way to attack this ravenous enemy, perhaps, but the most expedient with the manpower they had.
It worked, for a while, until the wind kicked up again, and obliged them to pull back a little distance.
The Irish Brigade was almost done circling the town with a wet-down barrier, dampening both the grasses just beyond the scythe-cut strip, and the strip itself. They had time for no more than this.
The mares were routinely unhitched from the steam pumper at a fire: here they remained in harness, restless, unaccustomed to standing when they should be running.
The Welsh Irishman spent his time soothing the mares.
Sean paused, standing up on the tail board to get a better vantage.
"Pull back, lads," he roared. "We've done all we can. Pull back to the town, now, and we'll dampen the roofs!"
A gust of wind carried smoke's hot breath into their faces.

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