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Linn Keller 5-11-09

 

Linn's head came up at the faint sound of vigorous hammering on the fire alarm.
Charlie tilted his blue granite cup up and drained the contents, figuring their leisurely talk was likely to be interrupted and wisely consuming the last of the sweetener.
Linn sighed.
Charlie looked at him, amusement wrinkling the corners of his eyes but not quite reaching the rest of his face.
From back in the cell the prisoner's voice: "Hey, what's going on out there?"
Two throats responded as one:
"SHADDAP!"

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Linn Keller 5-11-09

 

Bill thrust his broom into the rain barrel, held it down: Mac, white-knuckled, did the same.
Smoke was hazing the main street now and the population was moving with quiet purpose. Buckets dipped out of horse troughs, boys slung water in shining arcs across walls and as far up on roofs as they could reach with a good throw.
"Just like Georgia," Bill muttered, and Mac glared at him.
"Yeah."
They held their brooms underwater for another minute, letting them get good and soaked-in with water, before heading out to meet the enemy.

Esther raised her husband's binoculars and studied the advancing fire line.
Michelle was giving young Joseph a bath. The happy-baby sounds and splashing of bath water conrasted with the tension she felt, seeing the flames moving steadily toward her.
Esther lowered the binoculars and looked uphill, at the smallest branches, fat with buds about to burst into leaf. They were leaning now, swaying a little with the freshening breeze.
Esther's bottom jaw thrust out and she raised the binoculars again, frowning a little, then smiling.
"Lord, let the wind hold," she whispered.
Michelle came up beside her, a cooing, damp Joseph wrapped in a huge, soft towel. "Ma'am?" she asked.
"The wind," Esther nodded.
"The wind?" Michelle repeated, puzzled.
Esther pointed. "It's blowing the fire back onto itself. As long as it holds, the men can snuff it out. We have a chance now."
Michelle, originally from France and more recently from the East, looked out the window and for the first time realized the horizon was on fire, and the horizon was suddenly much, much closer than she had ever thought.

Sean turned and regarded the grinning urchin that had cautiously advanced to within two arms-lengths of the Irish chieftain.
"Lad," Sean said in his great voice, "can ye gi'e me a hand?"
"Sure!" Peter grinned.
Sean closed one eye, regarded the fellow solemnly. "Should ye no' be in school this time o' day?" he rumbled.
Peter turned, looking at the fire in the distance, looked back at Sean; it was reply enough.
Sean nodded.
"Lad, ma boyos are hungry. Go to th' Jewel an' tell ma dear Daisy she needs t' pack us a meal, an' bring it when she has it ready!"
"Yes, sir!" Peter grinned, his voice high and boy-like; he turned and was gone at a dead run, down beside the now-level lot where the newspaper and library had stood, swinging around toward the Jewel's back door.
"Now there's a bright lad," Sean said meditatively.
The German Irishman slung another two shovels of coal into the boiler, checked the water reservoir. The Ahrens two-cylinder pump hummed, the steam-valve hissed, the flywheel was a blur, and the stream of water broke over, fifteen feet above the roof-line, wetting the shake shingles.
Sean followed their progress with his eyes, knowing his men were competent, that anything he said at this point would be interference and not leadership.

Daisy had just finished tucking the towel into the basket when she heard quick young feet in the hallway.

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Linn Keller 5-12-09

 

Bonnie and Caleb mutually agreed that their fine brick structure would be proof against a grass fire; besides, it was on the lee side of the road, a sure firebreak if there ever was one: and so they left the home of Bonnie's fashionable labors and drove for their own home.
The grey must have sensed their urgency, for she needed no great amount of encouragement to quicken her pace toward home.
Smoke hazed the air: it was not yet thick enough to sting the nose or the eyes, but its odor was sharp and objectionable.
Bonnie's hands were in her lap, her spine erect: like her husband, the very image of propriety and dignity, but hidden from the observing eye was the racing of their thoughts.
Bonnie's eyes were on the porch, where Sarah had been doing needlework, and where Dawg had been dozing: the porch was empty, the embroidery hoop and stretched material discarded, forgotten, on the porch swing.
Perhaps she is inside, Bonnie thought, looking around.
The smoke was thicker toward town, surprisingly so, and in a moment of eddying wind currents, the smoke parted and she saw a girlish figure on the shiny-red McCormick harvester.
Bonnie's hand closed urgently on Caleb's forearm.
"I see her," he said, surprised, and swung the grey off the roadway and across the pasture toward their daughter.

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Linn Keller 5-12-09

 

"Well," I said with an exaggerated drawl, "reckon I'd best go see what's the excitement all about."
Charlie leaned back in his chair and made a show of settling his hat over his face. "Wake me when it's over," he muttered, and I set my own hat on my head, chuckling.
Charlie lifted his skypiece and looked at me and we laughed.
I went on outside and untied Hijo, brought him around, stepped into the saddle.
Hijo fairly danced under me and I patted his neck, murmuring to him.
I rode to windward, knowing I would find fire in that direction, and found the Irish Brigade instead -- or, rather, their water found me.
They were wetting roofs and the sides of buildings and I'd ridden right into a descending deluge.
For some-odd reason I was very definitely awake.
They're pulling well water, I thought. Nothing else is that COLD!
Hijo shook his head in agreement, shining droplets of water slinging off his mane as he shook.
I reined in, not wanting to interrupt Sean as he assessed the situation: instead, I looked to windward, considered the fire break Jacob and Parson Belden had cut, and read the black that told me they'd stopped the fire there.
The wind was eddying, turning back on itself: the fire was pushed back into ground it had already burned over, and was starving for fuel.
Bill and Mac were moving steadily along the fire line, snuffing out flame with wet brooms.
I rode up a little more and squinted, my eyes following the fire's arc as it followed along the scythe-cut fire break.
Firelands was now half encircled with scorched black. The third side, with the railroad, would not burn, but out toward the Rosenthal ranch, it could --
"Bonnie," I said aloud, and Hijo's ears swung back to hear what I had to say.
I swung Hijo's head to the right and we rode round the Irish Brigade, and toward the curve of burning grass that was running around our little town.
I knew if the wind steadied again and continued as it had been, it would push the conflagration right for Caleb and Bonnie's home and their dress making factory.
Hijo broke into clear air.
We were ahead of the fire now and I gave the stallion his head.
Chances are they've seen it and smelt it coming, I thought, but let's make sure!
About a mile ahead, across the broad stretch of high prairie, I saw the Rosenthals' carriage drawn up beside a shining red something I'd never seen before.
I squinted again, unsure as to what was happening.
Hijo stuck his nose straight out and flattened his ears against his head and started reaching, reaching for more ground, more ground, more ground.
We were not so much running as flying.
I was moving with him, encouraging him to greater speed. My hat fell back into the wind, the storm strap tugging at my throat as the hat dropped down between my shoulder blades and hung there.
I leaned forward in the saddle and Hijo knew what I was saying.
We pounded across the grass toward the Rosenthals.

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Linn Keller 5-14-09

 

Butter chewed on her bit and shook her head, jingling her harness with the effort. Stamping, restless, she didn't like being down wind of the fire, but she stood obediently as Caleb and Bonnie drew up.
Sarah saw their approach and had called the voice-trained Butter to a gentle stop.
The absence of the McCormick's chattering cutter bar rang like the silent vacuum following a thunder clap, the moment before its rolling echoes swarm in to fill the void.
Sarah was bent over, bottom lip between her teeth, eyes veiled: she did not want to show any pain, but her healing belly muscles had other ideas.
Caleb dallied Butter's reins around a handy upright and grasped Sarah's left arm, high up. "Lean towards me," he murmured, and Sarah, feet in the cast iron foot rests, pushed toward him, taking in a sharp breath and holding it.
Bonnie stood in their carriage, looking at the triple-wide swath their little girl had managed to cut. Bonnie had little experience with wild fire but she was not unintelligent and she realized quickly this just might be what they needed to stop the fire from reaching their home.
Caleb drew Sarah into him, running his arms behind her thighs. Sarah curled into a fetal position, or as best she could with her sore belly: Caleb felt her tremors and held her all the tighter.
Caleb lacked a woman's intuition, but on some deep Daddy-level, he knew the strong comfort of a Daddy's arms were priceless to a hurting child.


Peter came pelting up to the fire engine, breathless and triumphant: he carried not one basket but two, and had a half dozen schoolmates with him.
"What's this!" Sean roared, twinkling eyes and a broad Irish grin putting the lie to his mock sternness. "Are we overrun by volunteers, then!" He ruffled young Peter's hair and relieved him of the right-hand basket: putting two fingers to his lips, he gave a high, sharp whistle.
"Lads! Half now and half done!" he shouted.
The Irish Brigade was used to the drill, for they'd employed it more times than one back in Cincinnati: at a working fire that deprived a good man of his meal, half would fight fire and half would grab a quick bite, then each would relieve the other: firefighting never lacked and all were fed.
The schoolboys were flushed, excited, shifting from one foot to the other. Each carried a broom or a shovel, store-new, shining and unused.
Sean chewed happily on good beef between thick slabs of home made bread, thickly buttered by his dear wife's hands. Shifting the tasty cud to one cheek, he pointed to the impatient troops and assigned them:
"You, you and you" -- he turned, pointed to the right of the line -- "with Parson Belden, he'll put ye where he needs ye. Now the three o' you" -- he pointed to the other two -- "to the left wi' Shorty. Smartly, now!"
Peter stood, eyeing the hissing, laboring Ahrens steam engine with its black, hard-suction proboscis disappearing through the board cover of the well, smoke thrusting out its broad throat: his quick eye took in how the German Irishman placed his coal in the boiler, left, then right, far, then near, how he peered at the sight-glass on the water reservoir, and how he tapped delicately at the pressure gauge.
So enamored was he with the operation of the machine that Sean's hand on his shoulder caused him to jump.
"Would ye be an engineer, then?" Sean rumbled. "Well, come wi' me, ye'll need a closer look!" And so saying, he assigned the German Irishman his apprentice.

 

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Linn Keller 5-14-09

 

I knotted Hijo's reins high up and dropped them on his neck.
Hijo and I often rode thus: Esther was reading Ivanhoe the night I acquired the big stallion and she paused to read me select passages.
She spoke of those far off times, when grown men wore steel shirts and thumped on one another with dull swords a-horseback.
Me, I could never make heads nor tails of it.
Wearing a steel shirt in the West was the sign of a coward. I'd known some during that damned War that did, at least for a little while, until a musket ball busted right through it or they got tired of the heat and chafing.
The part that interested me was when Esther described the shields they carried.
Sword in one hand, shield in the other and a tin hat that even covered their face -- hell, a man couldn't even bite his reins to hold them! -- they would have no choice but to have their horses knee-trained.
Kind of like the Apache.
I'd heard it said the Apache were the world's best light cavalry, with the Mongols a close second.
Me, I'd seen Southern cavalry in action, and we skirmished briefly with John Hunt Morgan's men in Kentucky, and I'd put the Rebs up against them any day, especially Morgan's men, but that's another story entirely.
I decided to see if this big golden stallion would respond to knee pressure instead of reins and to my delight he did, easily and naturally.
Most of the time I didn't use the bit at all, just laid the reins against his neck and pressed with a knee, and away he went.
I didn't know what I was going to find at the Rosenthal place, especially when I saw what looked like Sarah up on a piece of farm equipment, and Bonnie and Caleb coming to her at a brisk trot.
Sarah was bent over and I recognized the posture.
I'd seen men gut shot bent over in that same manner.
Caleb fetched her off the machine and he had her to their carriage by the time I got there.
A wagon was headed our way from Caleb's barn. I paid it no mind, save only to note it was approaching with more than one aboard. My attention was on Sarah.
Hijo coasted to a nice easy stop -- how he could go from a wide open gallop to stopped without throwing me over his ears was a mystery I never fathomed but believe me I liked it! -- and I looked at Bonnie.
Bonnie's eyes were for her little girl, assessing her, hands busy at forehead and neck and gently on her belly. She looked at me and my ever loving God those eyes! -- I'd fallen in love with the woman the first time I saw her, when she wore a hand-me-down dress and had little Sarah with her, when that no-account attorney grabbed her arm and I cold cocked him for his trouble --
It took me a moment to shove my feelings down in the bottle where I kept them and stove the cork in tight.
I looked at Caleb, my friend, a man I respected, and felt no shame.

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Linn Keller 5-14-09

 

Charlie stood in front of the Sheriff's office, loafing casually against a porch post, the very image of indolence and laxity.
The truth was never farther from the appearance.
Charlie lived on a hair trigger.
Had some soul been so incautious as to actually get behind him they might have heard a quiet click as the mechanism of his awareness set itself; were they so unutterably unintelligent as to touch his back, they might find themselves pinned against the log wall by a callused hand, the sharp edge of a knife pressed against their gut -- either that, or the business end of a Remington -- unless, of course, they discovered that they were suddenly on the boardwalk with a broken collarbone, no wind in their belly and a few other assorted injuries.
People didn't often come up behind the Marshal and enjoy the experience.
At the moment, though, only Dawg was anywhere near.
Like Charlie, he too was the picture of contented relaxation, if you can imagine something the size of a young bear with a mouthful of ivory sabers as relaxed.
Charlie's nostrils flared involuntarily at the smoke-smell; his eyes tracked to windward, assessing, then scanning one way, quartering the scene before him and looking near to far, then the rooftops, the wndows -- he smiled, for in one of the windows was a familiar figure, and the figure had a smile he knew: Fannie raised her hand in greeting, and Charlie raised his in reply.
Dawg sneezed.
Charlie chuckled, stepped out into the empty street.
The wind was shifting again.
Silver sprays of water splashed over the far roofline, at the windward end of the Silver Jewel, sailing over the corner and splashing into the street.
Half a dozen schoolboys ran, yelling, from the Mercantile toward the source of the water, each with a shovel or a dripping-wet broom. Maude stood in front of the Mercantile, arms folded, a worried look on her face.
She's in half-mourning now, Charlie thought, eyes shifting toward the sound of water descending onto the rooftops. Wonder when that Irishman is going to spark on her.
He shrugged mentally. None of his business.
Still ...
Charlie looked to the window again.
Gone, he thought, and felt a moment's disappointment.
God, I love that woman! he thought, then stopped, surprised.
He looked down at Dawg, who was regarding him solemnly.
"Don't look at me like that," Charlie muttered. "You know what it's like!"
Dawg took a great breath, dropped his bushel basket sized head on his paws and sighed.

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Linn Keller 5-14-09

 

I rode a big circle back, skirting the fire, gauging its progress, its probable direction of travel.
West of us the clouds were banking tall and dark.
"Storm," I said out loud.
Hijo's ears swung back, then forward again and drove his fore legs into the ground and stopped fast and hard.
This time I did go over his ears.
I tried to tuck and roll out of it and all I got done was land flat on my back.
It had been some time since I'd had the wind knocked out of me.
I don't reckon my thoughts were any too Christian in that moment. I know my words were not, for there were no words a'tall, as there was no air to form them.
I laid there, still and unmoving, struggling to get air into me.
Little bit at a time I did, slowly, painfully.
Something squirmed under me and I froze, then bowed up a little to pin whatever it was hard against the ground.
Sweat started beading up on my fore head.
I looked up at Hijo.
Hijo was backed away from me, walling his eyes and very unwilling to come any closer.
I held out my hand, rubbed my fingers together, kissed at him.
He shied away from me a couple steps.
I got a little more wind into me and the spots I'd been seeing got smaller and finally went away.
I laid still, my back bowed just a bit, holding whatever it was down with my weight. It was still struggling, whatever it was, and I had this awful feeling I knew what it might be.
I waited until I got my wind all the way back.
My hands went to my Colts. The straps were still in place on the hammers.
I drew the strap off them, pulled them down out of the way.
If I was right I would not want them impeding my draw.
I took a couple long breaths, grinding my weight down against whatever it was, then I drew up my legs, kicked hard and fairly bounced off the ground, twisting.
Something hit me right above the belt on the right hand side below my kidney.
The engraved Colt was in my grip and soon as I saw the snake the gun spoke and threw a young rattle snake in the air. I fired again when it hit the ground for I knew the concussion was a better killer than a direct hit and sure enough that big slug busted a hole in the hard ground and threw the shredded snake in the air again.
Hijo threw his head away from the noise but stood fast.
I looked around, didn't see any more.
The carcass was still moving so I stomped my boot heel on its head and sliced off the rattles.
I cut them carefully so as to get no bloody meat with them and put them in my pocket.
I walked up on Hijo, reloading as I went, and dropped the two fired casings in the pocket with the rattles.
Hijo shied away from me but stopped.
I soothed him and spoke with him and got into the saddle.
"That's gonna hurt tomorrow," I muttered, and reached behind me, exploring.
I found something embedded in my coat.
Carefully, cautiously, I drew it out.
A rattlesnake fang.
I snorted, dropped this prize in with the rattles and the empty.
"Come on, boy," I said painfully. "Let's go see Caleb."

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Linn Keller 5-14-09

 

Esther's head came up, green eyes snapping, nostrils flared.
Little Joseph, dining at his favorite topless restaurant, wiggled a little against his Mama's warmth.
Esther smiled down at her son. "You're just like your father," she scolded gently, stroking her baby boy's fine hair with a slender forefinger. "He doesn't like to have his dinner interrupted, either."
Esther blinked twice, quickly, wondering what had just happened.

 

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Linn Keller 5-14-09

 

"Marshal!" a young voice hailed.
Charlie stopped two steps short of the boardwalk, extended a hand.
Lightning's boy is getting some size to him, Charlie thought as the tall, slender lad handed him a telegraph flimsy.
"For the Sheriff," he blurted quickly, then hesitated, sticking out his hand.
"It's good to see you again, sir!" he declared, his grip firm and quick, then turned and sprinted back for the telegraph office.
Charlie's eyes crinkled up in the corners again, the way they did when something pleased him.
He looked at the telegram, nodded and slipped it in his pocket.
He'll be glad to get this, he thought. If I'm gonna borrow his stallion he'll need something to ride, and his Rose of the Mornin' is on her way back!

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Charlie MacNeil 5-14-09

 

The sound of shots where none should have been brought Charlie from his examination of the flimsy sheet of paper in his hand with a jolt. He quickly threw a sharp glance the length of the street, looking for a saddled horse, preferably one whose owner was nearby. There! A cowboy from one of the nearby ranches, one who Charlie had met in a previous visit to Firelands, had just stepped down in front of Maude's store. Charlie went at a lope along the boardwalk, boot heels thundering on scarred lumber. "Harlan! I need your horse!" he called as he closed in on the long-legged buckskin and its owner.

The cowboy recognized the voice, and, knowing the Marshal wouldn't ask without a good reason, tossed Charlie the reins. "I'll be in the Jewel when ya git back," the young man told Charlie as Charlie vaulted into the saddle.

"Much obliged!" the Marshal called as he vaulted into the saddle and booted his borrowed mount in the flanks. The animal responded instantly, hindquarters tucking as it lit out like a scalded cat, going from a standstill to a ground-eating gallop in a heartbeat. Charlie's "YeeHaw!" echoed from the buildings of the street as he headed out of town.

In the distance, Charlie could see Linn climbing back onto his golden stallion, the stiffness of his posture sounding a warning in Charlie's brain. He turned the buckskin's nose in Hijo's direction and clucked in the horse's ear, urging it to greater speed. The buckskin seemed to lower its belly to the grass as it hammered across the prairie.

Linn's head came up at the sound of pounding hooves to see Charlie reining in a lanky buckskin. "Are you alright?" Charlie called as his mount's gait matched up with Linn's.

"Yeah, just fell off my horse," Linn said sheepishly.

Charlie stared at him incredulously. "You fell off your horse?"

"He shied from a rattler, and I fell on the snake," Linn explained.

"Are you bit?"

"I don't think so," the Sheriff answered. "It just got my coat."

"Where?" Charlie asked. Linn told him. "You'd best get that coat off, and let me take a look," Charlie said.

"I don't feel anything back there," Linn protested.

"Don't matter. We'd best check anyway." Reluctantly, the Sheriff reined in the big Palomino, and climbed down. He shucked his coat and pulled the tail of his shirt out of his belt. Charlie quickly examined the area indicated, and his heart seemed to freeze. "There's blood on your long handles!" he declared.

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Linn Keller 5-15-09

 

"Oh bloody hell," I muttered, unbuttoning my red flannels down to the waist and reaching back to grab the cuff to pull my left arm out.
"Holt still now," Charlie snapped, and I felt the color run out of my face. Something hurt like hell in my chest up next to my breast bone, something that was not happy with me reaching back like I did.
I felt Charlie's hands peeling my arms out of my long handles, his finger tips running down my back.
"Charlie, I think I got a rib out," I muttered, my own fingers exploring my ribs up front. Something was knotted up just inboard of my nipple that shouldn't be. "See if there's a bruise where I landed on a rock or somethin'."
Charlie muttered something about hard headed contrary don't have no more sense than God give a goose or some such, and he eased me back into my coat. "You just point your Yankee nose towards town, we're seein' the doc!"
"I ain't been a Yankee since I left that damned war," I muttered, gritting my teeth and grabbing the saddle horn with both hands. It took some effort to straighten.
I blinked to clear my vision. I ain't hurt that bad for some time, I thought.
Don't let anyone see you hurt,, a voice whispered.
Charlie was beside me. I didn't even see him mount.
"You gonna ride or do I drag you?" he snarled, and I pushed myself upright.
It hurt too much to talk.
Hell, it hurt to breathe!
Hijo started out in that nice easy lope of his.
I thought he was gonna beat me plumb to death.

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Linn Keller 5-15-09

 

"Charlie?"
"Yeah?"
"Charlie, what was those shots I heard?"
I didn't hear his reply.
I dimly remember a hand like a vise, holding the shoulder of my coat for a ways, then we was in front of the hospital.
It was hard to breathe.
I was panting now and I felt sweat starting to pop out on my fore head.
Dimly, distantly, an Irish sergeant's bellow: "Troop, DIIS-MOUNT!"
I dismounted.
I come near to draggin' the saddle off Hijo as had I not a death grip on the saddle horn I would have ended up in the dirt. My knees didn't have no strength a'tall.
I smelt Charlie but could not hear him. I knew he was talking but it sounded like a tornado in my ears and it was hard to breathe.
"Lung," I squeaked. "They got a lung."
I recall taking a step up and seeing Doc in front of me.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-15-09

 

Charlie slung his injured friend's arm around his shoulder, and through sheer brute force (Damn! The man's heavier than he looks!) got him headed toward where Doc Greenlees waited on the hospital porch. Nurse Susan was holding the door open, looking as if she were about to spring into rapid and violent action.

"He came off his horse, and landed on his back on a rattler," Charlie said curtly through clenched teeth as he steered the mostly unresponsive Sheriff toward the door. Doc turned immediately, throwing questions and orders every which way.

"Get Room 1 ready!" This directed toward Nurse Susan. "Did the snake bite him?" Charlie was next in the line of fire.

"I don't know, but there's blood on his back and a puncture just below his kidney!" Charlie declared. He dragged his charge toward the doorway Nurse Susan had vanished through. Through tight lips, he told Linn, "Hang on, brother! Hang on!" Linn's breathing caught for a moment, then steadied again. His head lolled on his neck and his movements were disjointed.

They reached the examination room, and Doc helped Charlie roll the now unconscious Sheriff onto the table on his side. They stripped off the coat Charlie had wrapped him in. "Hold him steady!" Doc ordered as he quickly scrubbed his hands then hurried to the side of the table and began to exam the wound in Linn's back.

"This ain't the time for rattlers," Charlie said, his words an obvious effort to take his mind off his friend's situation.

"I would imagine the chinook brought them out," Doc answered without looking up from his examination. He stood upright, a grim look on his face. It looks like a bite, alright," he said soberly. "I'm afraid there's little I can do for it, other than keep him warm, and pray that his constitution is up to the task of fighting off the venom."

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Linn Keller 5-15-09

 

Dr. Flint's strong hands had the Sheriff under his arms; Charlie had his legs, Dr. Greenlees had the doors.
They laid the Sheriff on the table, quickly stripped him to the waist and rolled him onto the injured side.
"Snakebite, you say?" Dr. Greenlees murmured, long thin fingers assessing the bloody back wound. He extended a hand and Nurse Susan had a wet sponge ready for him.
Carefully, efficiently, Dr. Greenlees cleansed the injury, squinting a little.
"Dr. Flint, could you take a look at this, please?"
Dr. George Flint was busy at the Sheriff's front, exploring the obvious deformity lateral to the sternum. "A moment," he replied. "On his back."
They scooted the Sheriff more to the center of the table, laid him down flat; Dr. Flint placed the heel of his hand over the deformity, his other hand atop the first, and pressed quickly, firmly.
Charlie flinched and turned his head away at the sound of the rib being reduced.
"Now back," and the physicians brought the injured man to his former position.
Dr. Flint placed two fingers on the rib cage, thumped the backs of his fingers with the tips of index and middle fingers of the opposite hand.
"Hyperresonance."
"Trochar?"
"Yes."
Nurse Susan wheeled the tray over to the taller of the medicos.
Dr. Greenlees sloshed a clear liquid over the injured area, wiped it with a clean cloth; fresh blood seeped from the caved-in wound.
"Air escape?"
"Not here."
"I have the trochar, would you do the honors?"
"Optimum location?"
"Axillary line, third intercostal space."
"Hold his arm."
Charlie had a strong stomach, but he was not in the least ashamed to look away as Dr. Greenlees placed the sharp, tapered end of the hollow trochar against his friend's hide and shifted his grip, obviously ready to push it between the ribs. He heard the sound it made, and a hiss.
"There, that's better. He should pink up in a moment."
I should hope so, Charlie thought, looking back and swallowing hard.
Nurse Susan appared from nowhere with a glass of something.
Charlie tilted it up and took three long swallows. Well water, whiskey or kerosene, it would not have mattered, he needed a drink.
It was neither well water nor kerosene.
"The lung should reinflate on its own. We'll need to water seal now."
"Hello," Dr. Flint said, and there was the sound of discovery in his voice. "Scalpel."
A slap; the metal handle was smartly placed in his open palm.
Dr. Flint made a precise incision, manipulated the flesh.
"I found the snakebite." A pause. "We have envenomation. Exploratory excision is warranted."
"I concur."
Charlie saw the handle describe a quick circle; something round and bloody dropped wetly into an enamel pan.
"Is the trochar fully inserted?"
"It is."
"I'll want to suture the flange."
"Yes, Doctor." Nurse Susan steamed industriously toward a wall cupboard, reminding Charlie of a river tug accustomed to shoving bigger ships around.
Dr. Flint bent and connected the woven-rubber tubing to an oddly shaped jar with pipes coming out the top, then to the stub end of the trochar sticking out of the Sheriff's ribs.
Charlie saw it bubble as the Sheriff exhaled.
"Much better," Dr. Greenlees said quietly, satisfaction in his voice. He placed the conical bell of his stethoscope back on the lawman's chest, moved it, listened again; he thumped here, thumped there, with the tips of bent fingers, and finally nodded with satisfaction.
"His color is improving."
Dr. Flint tied off the second trochar suture; Nurse Susan snipped the ends with a shining pair of the tiniest scissors Charlie had ever seen.
The Marshal cleared his throat.
"What should I tell Esther?" he hazarded.
"Tell her," both doctors began, then they looked at one another and laughed.
Dr. Flint looked at Charlie. "Tell her she is married to a tough old bird who's going to be just fine."
Charlie opened the door and stepped into the coolness of the empty anteroom.
"He'll be just fine," he muttered, shaking his head. "The man goes off a horse, busts a rib loose, busts a lung, lands on a rattle snake and gets bit and he's gonna be just fine!"
He turned and looked at the closed door.
"If that tough old bird don't quit scarin' me like that, I'm gonna smack him!"

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Linn Keller 5-15-09

 

Dr. Flint absented himself about five minutes from the surgery: when he came back, he washed something bloody in a pan of water and applied it to the circular area he'd neatly sliced from the Sheriff's back.
Dr. Greenles watched as the Navajo stitched the fresh liver in place.
"Deer liver works better," Dr. Flint explained. "Chicken liver is second best and closer."
"I see."
"Tobacco works almost as well as the first two, but neither of us chew."
"I'm sure we could have gotten a volunteer cud quickly enough."
Dr. Flint looked up at his partner.
He reached down, pulled the liver free and held it up.
It was no longer a healthy red.
It was now a sickly yellow.
"No, Doctor," he said. "Not quickly enough."
He applied a second liver, stitched it in place.

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Linn Keller 5-15-09

 

I heard the Lake breathe, the way it did at night, waves caressing the beach, restless. The Sweet Sea, the Erie called it, home of the Seiche, the great lake-monster that stirred storms with its tail ...
I heard a little girl's giggle and saw a pair of dancing blue eyes, and felt a child's warmth in my arms.
The child grew hot, disappeared, vapor, gone ...

"No," the Sheriff groaned.
Nurse Susan's head came up. She turned up the Aladdin lamp, stood.
The Sheriff's eyes were still closed, his breathing slow but regular.
A quick check of his pulses, a gentle caress where the backs of her fingers rested on his cheek, his forehead; she nodded, satisfied, then noted the reddish tinge to the water seal jar.
"No worse than it was," she whispered.
Unlike most nurses of the age, she was neither given to selling what was known in the vernacular as "Horizontal Refreshment," nor was she the glorified housekeeper most nurses of the age were: no, she had served in a real hospital back East, and had her definite notions of the nurse's responsibilities.
She placed the cone of her stethoscope on the Sheriff's chest, just below the collar bone, then the other; a little lower, then the other side: she compared a good, uninjured lung with the newly-inflated lung, satisfying herself the lung sounds were unchanged from an hour before.
Satisfied, she turned the lamp down a little, and settled herself back into her chair.

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Linn Keller 5-15-09

 

"An' bless Bup 'cause he didn't have no piddles in the house, an' bless Uncle Charlie 'cause he's gonna raise horsies an' he might let me ride one, A-men!" Angela finished, leaping from her knees into the turned-down bed, curling up half-under the covers.
Esther tilted her head and smiled, drawing the covers up to her little girl's chin.
"Mommy?"
"Yes, Sweets?"
"When is Daddy coming home?"
"Soon," Esther said, caressing Angela's fine, curly hair.
"Uncle Charlie said he's a tough old bird," Angela blinked, then frowned. "Daddy isn't a bird!"
Esther laughed. "Oh, I don't know. Sometimes he's a silly goose."
"We used to have gooses back in Kentucky," Angela said with a delighted smile. "Mommy, I remember the gooses!"
"That's wonderful, dear," Esther smiled, sitting on the bed, the breath catching in her throat. First her husband, now their little girl's memory might be returning.
I might not be getting much sleep tonight, Esther thought.

Angela drifted quickly to sleep, but woke through the night when Michelle rose to tend a fussy Joseph: she knew Michelle would change Joseph and bathe him again, and then give him to Mommy to Mommy-cuddle, which Angela never got to watch. It was a secret, she'd been told, and she would understand some day.
Angela's eyes wandered across the ceiling, chasing the thoughts that filled her quick young mind.
She knew something was wrong with her Daddy.
She didn't know exactly what, but she knew it was something.
Angela remembered her Daddy's hands, big and strong as he held her, and picked her up, and how he rumbled when he held her cuddly-close and laughed, and his mustache tickled her nose.
Angela missed her Daddy.
Michelle was in Mommy's room.
They wouldn't know if she slipped quiet-like out the back door.
Angela knew the way to the hospital, 'cause that's where Uncle Charlie said Daddy was.
Even if Uncle Charlie called him a tough old bird.
Angela giggled a little.
Daddy was really warm and cuddly and he wasn't tough at all!
Angela slipped out of bed and into her slippers, and walked very carefully down the stairs, and past Daddy's study, and through the dining room and the kitchen and she slipped the latch back on the back door.
The night air was cool but she was wearing a nice warm flannel nightie and besides, it wasn't too cool, and there was moonlight to see by.
Bup wasn't on the back porch, but that was all right. Angela didn't want to have to chase him, 'cause Bup got excited and ran around and yapped a lot, and she didn't want to worry Mommy.
Angela did not see the shadow that detatched itself from the darkness under the boardwalk, that began to follow her, silently, stealthily, flowing like liquid from one patch of darkness to another.

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Linn Keller 5-15-09

 

Angela strutted down the empty street like she owned the whole town, fearless as only a child can be, confident that what she was doing was right, with no thought for any consequence of her actions.
She passed the Silver Jewel, tiring a little, and considered briefly sitting on the steps that went up to the board walk, but decided no, they were dusty and she did not want to get dirty-prints on her nightie.
She pressed on.
Once or twice Angela stopped, puzzled; she thought she heard something ... she wasn't quite sure what, only that it was ... unusual.
She turned back toward the hospital. She could see it from where she stood, gleaming not far ahead, past the school house and the church and back off to the right, almost across from the firehouse where Sean and his Irishmen kept that shiny engine and the pretty white horsies, and Sean came driving his shiny engine out swinging that whip and singing songs that nobody could understand.
Angela giggled.
Something cold nosed her hand and she jerked it back, then giggled again.
Wrapping her arms around Dawg's neck, she laid her cheek against Dawg's broad, flat skull and said "Hello, Dawg!"
Dawg's stub tail signaled happiness.
"Will you help me find my Daddy?"
Dawg indicated agreement.
"I think he's down here." Angela laid a little pink hand on Dawg's jet-black nape, and together the two completed their journey.

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Linn Keller 5-15-09

 

Jacob ached.
Jacob had been riding most of the night. He'd been out in the county chasing rustlers; he'd caught them, but not before they crossed the county line and ran head-on into the adjacent county's posse.
It didn't matter that the oncoming posse was after someone else; they wanted Jacob's quarry worse, and after examining their warrants, Jacob agreed that they had the better claim, and surrendered his claim on the pair.
He'd ridden back and rounded up the purloined beeves, chivvying them back toward their origin; he'd nearly come to a misunderstanding with the rancher's foreman, at least until the foreman realized his hand was halfway to his Colt and Jacob's had not only reached his, but had it out of the holster, cocked and steady on the foreman's more valued parts.
After this meeting of the minds, Jacob turned his lapel back and identified himself as a deputy Sheriff, and gave the Foreman to understand that the rustlers were on their way to the next county seat over, where they would be hanged on murder warrants.
The foreman could always take a picnic lunch and go watch, Jacob suggested mildly.
The foreman declined and returned to his own estancia, hopefully the wiser for surviving what came close to being a fatal encounter with his own stupidity.
Now Jacob wished for nothing more than a few more miles behind him, and his own bunk to sleep in. The ground made a poor mattress at best.
Jacob's line of march took him through Firelands, and he saw something light and irregular in the night-shadowed street.
He rode closer, curious.
"Jacob!" a familiar child's voice called, high and sweet, and Jacob could not help but grin as he reined his Apple-horse to a stop and swung down to embrace his little sister, all thought of aches and pains forgotten.

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Linn Keller 5-16-09

 

Dawg rumbled companionbly, deep in his chest, and Jacob fearlessly ruffled the scarred ears. "Good boy," he murmured.
Dawg turned his head a little, muttering as Jacob reached a particularly vexing itch that had been deviling him all night.
"You'll give me a week to stop that, I suppose," Jacob chuckled.
"Daddy's in the hop-sickle," Angela piped, bouncing a little on her toes, and Jacob blinked.
That's why you're out here, he thought, frowning.
"How come for why cause he in the hopsickle?" Jacob asked, teasing her with her own special language.
"'Cause Joseph gets noisy an' Daddy needed a good night's rest," Angela assured him, her eyes big and solemn, curls bobbing as she nodded with the certainty of her information.
Jacob smelled a lie.
A well-intentioned lie, told by an adult to keep a little girl from being afraid, but a lie nonetheless.
"If Daddy is asleep, why are you headed that-a-way?"
Angela's bottom lip hung out a little. "I miss Daddy," she said. "He didn't tickle me with his muts-tash."
Jacob chuckled. He remembered how Angela giggled when her Daddy tickled her nose with his muts-tash as he kissed her good night.
"Tell you what, Princess," Jacob said, his hands on her waist. "Why don't you ride Apple-horse, and we'll get you back to bed, and we'll let Daddy sleep, what say?"
"Will you tuck me in, Jacob?" Angela asked almost sadly.
"I'll tuck you in," Jacob nodded.
Angela reached one little finger up, traced Jacob's upper lip.
"You could wear a muts-tash," she said, eyes big and dark in the moonlight.
Jacob's eyes narrowed a little at the corners as he smiled.
Annette had suggested the very same thing.
Jacob took Angela under the arms. "Ready up?" he asked, tucking his butt and hoisting. "Up you go!"
Angela giggled, one finger to her mouth the way she always did, and Jacob sailed her high overhead and down onto the worn smoothness of his saddle.
"Hold tight," Jacob said, and Angela leaned back, grabbing the leather behind her.
Jacob kissed to Apple-horse and gathered his reins.
Apple-horse blew and followed.
Dawg flowed through the darkness until they came to the Jewel, where Dawg disappeared into the shadow once again.
It wasn't far to the Sheriff's house. The night was warm; clouds were moving in, just covering the moon.
Jacob tilted his head back, sniffed.
Rain tonight, he thought, and he was right.

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Linn Keller 5-16-09

 

The Irish Brigade had washed and hung hose in the hose tower to dry, loading fresh, dry hose line from the ready rack.
They tended their "Masheen" and reloaded her bunker with coal; they polished and scrubbed and cleaned her up again.
They tended the mares, curried them down and grained them, whispered secrets to them, that they were fine ladies and beautiful and they were so very proud of them.
They tossed their dirty red shirts and other laundry into a pile and laid out clean, and they got themselves clean last of all: finally they stomped their way to the Jewel, reveling in the feel of clean dry socks and dry boots.
Not a man among them minded a bit that it was raining a bit, just a bit, and they smiled as they ducked into the Jewel, for it started raining more.
It was a local shower but a good one. They'd beaten the fire, worked the fire line, stopped it with fire breaks and water, and then advanced on the enemy. The wind had helped, blowing the fire back on itself, starving it for fuel. The embers and tufts of burning stuff that carried into town met with wet roofs and wet walls, and died before they could do aught more than sizzle in frustration.
Shorty rubbed liniment on his back and shoulders, as best he could. He'd plied his Hungarian scythe stroke for stroke with Jacob and now paid the price for trying to keep up with a younger man.
Back in the parsonage, Mrs. Belden applied liniment to the Parson, her own comments locked in her throat as the Parson spoke them for her, observing quietly that he was foolish to try and keep up with a man who was as young as he wanted to think he still was.
The brief rain finished the job they'd started.
By morning, fresh green would be shoving up through scorched black.
The Irish Brigade, having eaten well of Daisy's good cooking, dawdled over their beer.
Sean offered no protest.
If anyone had earned it, he thought, they had! -- besides, it felt good to sit here, listening to the sharp ruffle of cards being shuffled, the spinning hiss of the roulette wheel, shouts of triumph and groans of defeat as the pasteboards turned over to reveal riches or ruin.
Finally, full and relaxed, the Irish Brigade headed back to the firehouse.
They laid down in their bunks and deep into the night smiled, for they heard more rain pattering on their roof.

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Lady Leigh 5-16-09

 

Levi was walking toward the Merchantile as he saw Bill and Mac sitting in their usual summer time spot sitting on opposite sides of a pickle barrel with a checker board set between them. He walked up the steps and sat himself into a chair beside Bill.

Walking toward them was Bonnie pushing a pram that was originally huge when he first saw it when the girls were but tiny little things. Now the pram holding Polly and Opal dwarfed in size with the girls now being toddlers. Levi chuckled as Polly was half in and half out, while Bonnie was trying to quietly instruct the child to stay put. Levi couldn't help but think that little gal was going to grow up with the same temperment as her Mother.

Finally situating, a now pouting two year old, Bonnie continued on to where Levi assumed the destination would be the Silver Jewel. As she walked by, Levi stood and removed his hat attempting to make a greeting. Bonnie never slowed, except the scathing face expression she threw his way.

"Looks to me, Levi, Bonnie is still holding a grudge?" Bill remarked.

Levi replaced the hat back on his head and resumed his seat next to Bill. "That face expression I just got would indicate so .... funny how my jaw still hurts whenever I see it though."

Bill placed the checker in it's spot and chuckled at Max's audible grunt, then looked at Levi, "Excuse me?"

"Bonnie was probably around the age of twelve. She, my brothers David, Caleb and myself, along with some other children in the area were playing baseball. Don't let that dignified looking woman all trussed up in a respectable looking ensemble fool you! She could bat like no ones business!" Levi laughed his rich baratone laugh and continued. "One day I was teasing Caleb that she was a better ball player than he was. I half expected Caleb to throw a punch. The punch came, but not from Caleb .... it came from Bonnie ... along with a tounue lashing that I am hard pressed to forget."

With that, Levi stood, rubbing the jaw that was the obvious spot of rememberence, bid Bill and Mac a good day and went into the Merchantile laughing and bidding Maude good morning.

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Linn Keller 5-16-09

 

Nurse Susan's head came up.
Her eyes were instantly on the Sheriff.
Standing, she spun her stethoscope from around her neck, settling the gutta-percha tips into her ears. Tilting her head a bit, she pressed the cone of the stethoscope against the man's chest.
"Diminished," she whispered, placing the cone on the opposite, uninjured side. The lung sounds were clear and distinct on the left, but very faint and muffled on the right.
She looked sharply at his face, his lips.
He wasn't pale now, he was a little dusky. Nurse Susan seized the tall lawman's hand, pressed a fingernail, watched the color change through narrowed eyes.
She took a step back and looked at the water seal bottle.
Bless you, Dr. Flint, she thought, you ordered the right table!
She reached down and took a firm grip under the Sheriff's table. He had not been moved to a bed; he was still in the surgery and on a treatment table; under her hand, a panel turned and dropped a few inches.
She seized the Sheriff at the off shoulder, threw back the covers and took him at the hip and rolled him toward her, rolling him onto his injured side.
The table's gap was in exactly the right place for the steel trochar to protrude from between the man's ribs.
Steadying him with one hand, Nurse Susan drew back and looked down at the jar.
Blood streamed into the water.
I thought so, she nodded silently. Let's see if this helps.
Morning Star ghosted into the room, hair in two black braids, obsidian eyes bright in the afternoon sun streaming through the high windows.
Nurse Susan rolled the Sheriff back onto his back, brought his right arm up, then brought him back onto his injured side.
"Bring me some pillows," she said quietly.
Morning Star opened a cupboard, withdrew two pillows, placed them behind the lawman's back. She folded them and pressed them in behind to prevent his rolling onto his back.
Nurse Susan held the Sheriff against her: thighs pressed against the table, one hand spread over the lawman's left shoulder blade, she held him firmly against her white apron as she applied the stethoscope to his back: left side, then right, high, middle and low, comparing the good lung with the injured one.
Morning Star stood, silent, the way she always did.
Nurse Susan could almost hear the wheels turning behind those black, black eyes.
"Blood was filling the space between the lung and the ribs," she explained quietly. "It will crowd the lung and collapse it and must be drained."
Morning Star stepped back and looked at the jar under the table.
"I will get the other," she said crisply, turning toward the white-painted cupboards.
Nurse Susan's eyes tracked, unfocused, as her ears searched through the rubber tubing and the shining steel cone.
Her eyes tightened a little at the corners.
Lung sounds were returning.
Caught it! she thought triumphantly.

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Lady Leigh 5-16-09

 

Sitting with Jacob on her lap, Bonnie was visiting with Esther. Esther knew the moment Bonnie walked in something was slightly amiss, but being the wise woman she was, she decided to let bonnie break the ice on that one. In the meantime, Esther poured milk into tiny glasses for the little girls, and tea into a cup for she and Bonnie.

Bonnie cooed and gooed with the baby, planting small little kisses to his chubby cheeks and neck, and then laid him down on the Ohio Star quilt Esther had beside her. There they watched Jacob stare up at his mother with eyes wide and with a suckling mouth. "I swear that child never tires of eatting." Esther exclaimed with a laugh. "Sometimes I find myself wondering when he is going to like me for me, instead of loving me for the feeding instruments God bestowed upon me." The two women laughed, and laughed a bit harder as Bonnie reminded Esther she had not to long ago stopped nursing Polly and Opal.

"Speaking of Opal, Esther. That husband of yours is going to make it difficult indeed for Opal to know what her name is. He forever calls her, Pearl, Ruby, Jade and more recently, Garnet."

Esthers eyes cocked to the side, "Well .... I'll have to speak to Linn about that. He's teasing of course, but Garnet is crossing the line a bit. He has told me numerous stories about an Aunt Garnet, and he really should not bestow that on your sweet Opal. Seems Linn and the Aunt Garnet did not always see eye to eye." Esther laughed, "Just think Bonnie, she'll be the only child in school who will answer by any name as long as it's worth a hundred dollars."

Another cup of tea poured for them each and then Bonnie spoke again, "Caleb wants to go to Denver to the opening of the Tabor Theatre."

"Oh won't that be grande! When is the opening?"

"In three weeks. I was thinking of taking Sarah with us, if she continues to heal and feels ok. Maybe seeing if Tilly will watch Polly and Opal. Lavendar will be fine with the supervision of my part of the business. I think I would like being out of town for a few days. I am needing a break from seeing Levi at any rate." The latter was said with an elliment of disgust.

"Bonnie dear", Esther began, "When will you find it in your heart to forgive him? You know as well as I do the secrecy he lived with was necessary." Before Bonnie began to speak, Esther continued, "My dear, it's time to let the dust of the past settle. It's time to forgive. What do you suppose your attitude toward Levi does to your husband? Think about Caleb. He's forgiven his brother ...."

"I know ...... I know ...... Sometimes I want to to forgive ... to forget ..... I see him in the distance, like this morning for example, and think, 'ok, today is the day', then I get close to him and I just start to fume inside. Bill has spoken to me about it too, and though I know how true the words are that you both speak, I somehow just can't ...... oh I don't know! The whole thing makes me as angry today as it did then!!! Why did he have to say yes to Caleb about staying to help with the business? Why couldn't he just go back to Chicago and do what ever it was he was doing before? The man infuriates me."

Esther had no doubt Bonnie was speaking the truth over the matter, but somehow Esther knew Bonnie had to find a way to get past it. God knew, Esther supposed, what it would take.

With a suden knock at the door, Esther stood to answer. Hushed words spoken between she and whoever was at the door. A pale Esther turned to Bonnie, "Could you please stay and watch Jacob for me, Bonnie, I'll return soon". With that, Esther crossed through the door way and left, leaving Bonnie with a thouhsand and one questions.

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Linn Keller 5-17-09

 

Esther stopped before the mirror and regarded her image.
Her hands moved of their own accord, touching up her hair, plucking at her shoulders, shrugging under the material to settle everything where it should be.
Her eyes were restless, unseeing as she considered the words whispered urgently across the threshold: she reached for her shawl, spun it about her shoulders, and hesitated.
She turned and looked at the closet door.
On impulse she opened the closet and took out a long, slim box.
She carried this with her, out the front door, to the waiting carriage.
She stood the box between her feet and held it as the driver clucked and flipped his reins and they clattered down the little dirt road toward the nearby town.
Everything seemed unnaturally clear.
Esther's hearing was sharper than normal; colors seemed brighter; she saw the ripple of muscle under the mare's hide, saw sunlight flash on the polished harness, she could discern each individual blade of grass beside the roadway, even at a trot.
She looked up at a shockingly blue sky and saw the shades of ivory and eggshell in the towering clouds overhead.
Pressing the long box between her hands, she sat with a straight spine, swaying a little as they drove.

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Linn Keller 5-17-09

 

Esther's chin lifted a fraction.
"Doctor, let us speak frankly."
"Of course." Dr. Greenlees drew out a chair for her; the three sat.
"Can I get you something? Tea, perhaps?"
Esther smiled faintly. "Thank you no," she said, dropping her eyes. "I just had some excellent oolong and I fear if I have more, I shall have an accident."
Her gentle humor took the physicians by surprise; their laughter was more polite than genuine, but they could appreciate humor as a defense.
"Mrs. Keller," Dr. Greenlees began, "your husband is a complicated man."
Esther never lost her gentle smile. "I thought he was a tough old bird."
This time the physicians' chuckles were genuine. "That, too," Dr. Greenlees admitted, then thrust his bottom jaw out as he ordered his thoughts back into place.
"You are aware of the nature of his injury, how it happened."
"I am."
"Then you know he broke a few ribs."
"I assumed as much."
"You also know he was bitten by the rattlesnake he landed on."
Esther hesitated a long moment. Her gloved hands were properly folded in her lap, her posture was very erect; she took a long, steadying breath.
"Yes. I was told that as well."
Dr. Greenlees looked uncomfortably at Dr. Flint.
"When your husband fell," Dr. Flint took over, "he landed on a rock -- a fairly pointed one, from the look of the injury. Broken pieces of rib compromised the integrity of the right upper lobe of his lung --" He caught himself, tried again. "The punctured lung began to collapse. We were able to relieve the collapse and re-inflate the lung."
"Go on, Doctor." Esther's green eyes were steady on the Navajo's obsidian irises.
"The lung is a highly vascular tissue. Because of the injury, he bled into the space between the ribs and the lung itself, collapsing the lung further. Nurse Susan knew what to watch for and treated it as it happened, preventing the collapse, and indeed reinflating the lung a second time."
Esther nodded, slowly.
"Our next concern was the snake bite. I used excision and drawing to remove as much venom as I could. He's been fighting the rest of the venom on his own."
"How is his progress?"
The two physicians again exchanged a look.
Dr. Greenlees resumed.
"We believe he is strong enough for surgery."
"Surgery?" Esther prompted.
"We need to reduce the bone fragments, if there are any, and restore the broken ribs to alignment -- first, to keep them from cutting into the lungs again, and second, so his ribs can heal."
"Are you capable of performing the surgery?"
The question was gently voiced and carried neither insult nor doubt, for which both doctors were grateful.
"Yes, ma'am. We are."
"Then please proceed."
"There is a possibility," Dr. Greenlees hesitated.
"Yes, Doctor?"
It was the physician's turn to take a steadying breath.
"He's not a young man, ma'am. There are many nerves, that close to the spine, that may have been damaged in the fall, or that could be damaged in reducing the broken ribs."
"Let me ask you this, Doctor," Esther interrupted. "He has a chance of recovery with the surgery?"
"Yes, ma'am."
"A good chance?"
"I would say so, yes, ma'am."
"Without the surgery, what are his chances?"
Dr. Greenlees raised his right eyebrow. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees and steepling his fingers, he thought for a moment before replying.
"Without the surgery?" Dr. Greenlees nodded slowly. "The ribs won't heal unless they are brought back into alignment. They'll be like knives waiting to punch through the lung tissue again."
"I don't see any question, then," Esther said crisply. "Please proceed with the operation."
Nurse Susan had come in, silently, and waited for Esther's decision before speaking.
"Would you like to see him?" she asked, her hands in her apron.
"Is he awake?"
"No, ma'am," Nurse Susan said, adjusting the spectacles that kept sliding down her nose. "He's nearly ready for the operation."
Esther smiled and nodded approval: as a business owner and manager, she admired efficiency, and prepping the patient in anticipation of an affirmative answer was efficient.
Esther stood. "Gentlemen, will there be anything else?"
Dr. Flint shook his head and stood; Dr. Greenlees spread his big, long-fingered hands and stood as well.
"I must return home. A certain little boy is about to realize his dinner is delayed, and his sister will probably try to feed him a chicken leg." She left the room to the doctors' chuckles and entered the surgery.
Esther tilted her head, regarded her husband's face.
For the first time she realized he was getting older.
He was pale, now, and the lines in his face were more evident; Nurse Susan had considerately drawn a sheet up to collar bone level to hide the trochar and the drain line proceeding from his side.
Esther slipped her hand under the sheet and found his hand.
"You tough old bird," she whispered, squeezing his hand and swallowing.
She bent down and kissed him, once, blinking rapidly, then brushed his mustache with her finger.
"Angela missed you last night," she said. "I did too." She squeezed his hand again. "The doctors will repair your broken ribs. I'll take care of the children."
Slowly, gently, the Sheriff's hand squeezed Esther's, relaxed.
The doctors heard the brisk sound of Esther's hard heels as she left.
They began their ritual scrubbing of the hands in preparation of the labors ahead of them.
Outside, in front of the hospital, Esther lowered the tail gate of a nearby wagon, laid the long, slender box on the lowered gate, released the latches.
She opened the lid, reached into the box.
Jacob dismounted, dallying his Apple-horse's reins around the hitch rail.
"Ma'am?" he said, taking a tentative step toward his mother.
Esther turned and tossed a fencing blade to her son, thrust her chin to the empty lot beside the hospital.
"Take exercise with me, Jacob," she said, her voice husky, and Jacob saw her swallow hard.

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