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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 5-20-09

 

Black snot ran down Sean's face.
The man blinked as smoke burned his eyes.
The brass nozzle was cool in his gloved hands as he spun the straight stream against the ceiling, big looping circles to break up the water stream.
Cool the fire, turn water to steam, smother the hungry beast, he chanted silently: he could take but two legs from the triangle: fuel, air and heat were needed to make flame, he knew, and taking any one leg would collapse the triangle and extinguish the fire.
The fire didn't know this yet, and ate hungrily at walls and furniture.
Sean's partner reached back, dragged more hose into the room.
They advanced.
Hot filthy water rained down on their black-rubber coats as they struggled forward, foot by hard-won foot.
Sean reached up, twisted the doorknob, pushed hard.
The door slammed open. The air within was clear, but only for a moment, but a moment was all he needed. Sean handed the nob to his partner and, belly-down on the once-clean floor, crawled into the room, reaching under bed and furniture, searching blindly, hoping against hope he would find what he came for.
His hand felt something that wasn't furniture.
He worked closer, his hand closing on a leg.
"I'VE GOT ONE!" he bellowed, dragging a limp form from under the bed: strength surged in his big Irish frame and he yanked off a glove, swearing and praying at the same time, unfastening the snaps on his coat and pulling the child's limp body against his sweat-soaked red uniform shirt.
Pulling the coat around the child, he powered ahead to the window, grabbed the sash, threw it up.
For a miracle it opened easily.
Sean leaned out, searching, panting in the clean air.
"I'LL HAVE YOUR GUTS FOR GARTERS, DAMN YOU! GET THAT LADDER UP HERE, NOW!"
His roar carried the whiplash of command. Though he carried the rank of firefighter, he was a natural leader, and had been marked for advancement.
At the sound of his voice heads turned, necks craned: arms thrust, fingers pointed: "There! Second floor! Get a ladder up there, MOVE!"
Eager hands seized the ladder; the team ran toward the brick home, ramming the foot of the ladder into the sod, raising it at speed, the footman three rungs up as it crossed vertical and fell toward the window.
Sean leaned out and handed off the unmoving child.
Daisy was across the street, hands against her breast, thrilling at the sight of this dashing young fireman braving death itself to rescue a little child from the horrors of immolation.
Just then the floor collapsed.
Sean fell back, back into the room, and flame gouted out the window, the curtains crisping and flaring brightly just before the window shattered and fell in bright, tinkling shards.
"SEAN!" Daisy screamed, sitting bolt upright in bed: sweating, shaking, she panted heavily for a few moments, blinking in the darkness, finally realizing she was not in Cincinnati, she wasn't a young girl anymore, and Sean was curled up on his side, snoring.
Daisy balled her fists and slammed the big Irishman in the ribs.
"DON'T YOU EVER SCARE ME LIKE THAT AGAIN!" she screamed, coming up on her knees, hands fisted and shaking.
Sean snorted and came up on one elbow. "Daisy?" he muttered, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand.
His big arm went around his wife's waist; he lay back down, holding her as she shivered and cried. "Sshhh, sshhh, there's my dear, now, there's my darlin'," he soothed. "'Twas just a dream, just a bad dream, now, nothin' to it, darlin', just a dream!"
"No it wasn't a dream!" Daisy declared, raking her flannel nightgown sleeve savagely across her cheeks. "Don't you dare go back to Cincinnati!"
"What?"
"You heard me, you great Irish lug! You stay right here wi' me an' your children!" Tears started again and she began crying harder.
Sean was utterly lost. He'd been wakened out of a sound sleep, his wife had just beat him in the ribs and accused him of running off and now she was dissolving in tears.
He scratched his head.
Daisy was his beloved, but she was a mystery, now even more so, and then he realized what she'd just said.
"Daisy," he said cautiously, "we have but one child."
"No," Daisy sobbed, falling into her husband's arms. "We've another. He's just no' finished raisin' yet."
Sean held his wife tight. "A baby?" he whispered, kissing Daisy's quivering lips. He tasted salt, felt tears, kissed her again.
"Yes," Daisy whispered back.
Sean bounced out of bed, seizing his wife up and spinning about, laughing with delight. "Daisy, me dear!" he declared. "You are the loveliest woman in two worlds!"
Daisy started to laugh.
Laugh or cry, Sean realized, mystery or not, she was the one he loved more than any other, and still the most beautiful woman in the entire world!

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Linn Keller 5-20-09

 

Dr. Flint studied Dr. Greenlees' resection.
"Very nicely done," he murmured. "I expect there will be full function?"
"In time," Dr. Greenlees said distractedly, his concentration on reuniting the damaged muscles overlying the injury. "He'll have trouble reaching back with that right arm but he should recover use fairly quickly."
There was silence for a time.
Steel shone in the bright lamplight as the surgeon plied his curved needle.
"Almost done," Dr. Greenlees said finally. "One row of stitches to close and we're through."
"I should hope so," a hoarse voice gasped.
Dr. Greenlees' hands stopped.
"How long have you been awake?" he blurted.
"Long enough."
Dr. Greenlees noted a fine sheen of sweat on his patient's skin and mentally kicked himself. He should have picked up on it and didn't.
"You're a strong man, Sheriff," he said at length.
"Hurts too much to move."
"It'll hurt for a while, I'm afraid."
"Good."
"Excuse me?"
"Keeps me awake. Too easy to let go."
Dr. Greenlees considered the effects of laudunum and the possibility this was the narcotic talking, and continued his neat row of stitches across the incision line.
"You will have one ugly scar, I'm afraid," he said. "I did the best I could."
"I won't be showing my back much."
"No." Dr. Greenlees drew the last suture taut, held it as Dr. Flint snipped the tag end. "I suppose not."
As he had periodically through the surgery, Dr. Flint applied the stethoscope's metal cone to the Sheriff's chest, in a set pattern: like Nurse Susan, he compared the good lung with the injured one. The operation had been done with the good lung down, a calculated risk; bleeding could collapse the injured lung, forcing it over and collapsing the good lung, but it was not possible to perform the work needed if the injured lung were down.
Fortunately there had been no complications.
Dr. Greenlees wiped the finished suture line with a carbolic-dampened bandage, dropped it in the discard bucket and fitted a clean bandage over the wound. "I'm afraid we'll have to keep you up on your side for a day at least," he apologized, then: "How long have you been awake?"
"Too long," the Sheriff husked.
Dr. Greenlees shook his head. "You are a tough old bird!" he muttered.
Dr. Flint poured fresh water in their hand washing basin. "Shall I go out?" he asked.
"No, I'll do it," Dr. Greelees said. "Thank you for offering."
He took his time washing his hands, ordering his thoughts, considering what to say, depending on who was waiting in the outer room.
Drying his hands on a towel, he hung the towel neatly on the rack, turned to the door, hesitated.
He opened the door, leaned his head out and looked around the waiting room.
That walking mountain of a deputy was sitting there looking miserable, with a felt sausage twisted up in his hands; Dr. Greenlees watched as the man un-twisted it and tried to re-form it into something that may have been a hat at one time.
Three heads turned and looked at him.
Dr. Greenlees crooked a finger at Esther.

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Linn Keller 5-21-09

 

It took the Sheriff a long moment to focus on the colored shadows before him.
He recognized Esther's scent, the feel of her gloved hand in his.
He curled his fingers around hers.
"Jackson Cooper," he grated through a dry throat.
"Right here, Sheriff." Lighter areas in front of the fuzzy darkness that must have been Jackson Cooper's middle moved up and down a little.
Had the Sheriff's eyesight been better in that moment, he would have seen Jackson Cooper's sad remnant of a hat being twisted into a spiral, wool-felt mass again.
"Jackson Cooper." The Sheriff paused for breath. "I appoint you acting Sheriff." The effort of speaking was tiring and he hesitated again.
"Nossir," Jackson Cooper declared. "You're the Sheriff and you're comin' back once you're healed up. I won't be Sheriff, no sir, won't do it."
"I thought as much." The Sheriff closed his eyes, opened them. "Dry."
A wheat-straw was put to his lips and he drew on it, grateful for the squirt of cool water that soaked into his tissues. He drew twice more, long, steady, swallowed: not a drop hit bottom, it all soaked into his parched throat on the way down.
"Thought you might say that." The Sheriff's voice was almost a whisper now.
"Top right hand drawer. Right hand side, my desk. Blue cloth. Yours."
Jackson Cooper frowned, filed the words for use within the half-hour.
"Jacob."
Esther's left hand was under his; she rubbed the back of his hand with her right. "He's not here, dearest."
"Denver," the Sheriff rasped, his throat drying again. "Annette, lecture. My blessing. He needs to see the City. Needs to know why we don't live there."
The backs of Esther's fingers were gentle on his now-stubbled cheek. "Rest, dear. Everything is fine here."
"Drink."
Esther put the wheat-straw to his lips again. He drew on the small straw, swallowed.
"I love you, Esther," he said, and closed his eyes, exhausted.
It had cost him the last of his strength to speak those last four words, but he would have spent his very life's force to utter them.
Esther leaned down and kissed his shadowed cheek. "I love you too, dearest," she whispered, gloved hand on his arm.

Less than a half-hour later, Jackson Cooper, mountain of a man, muscled and strong, scarred veteran of too much unpleasantness for too much of his life; Jackson Cooper, proud husband of the town's schoolmarm, apprehender of criminals and killer of men when the need arose, swallowed hard as he looked at the blue cloth now unfolded in his callused palm.
A brand new badge shone in the evening's last light.
Custom made, ordered from back East, six-pointed, with the words CHIEF DEPUTY hand-engraved in the center.
"You knew I'd refuse," he said, his throat suddenly tight.

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Linn Keller 5-23-09

 

Jacob, like his father, invested cautiously.
He'd invested with his mother in the brick works, and was realizing a steady income as the works began selling loads of fired brick.
He'd inherited a share in the gold mine and had purchased a sizable share of the railroad from his mother. Half the share he divided evenly between Angela and Joseph, interest bearing accounts in the local bank, without telling his parents.
They knew, of course; it's not possible to keep secrets in a small town, but they respected his discretion and never let on that they knew.
Jacob invested in his land and his crops. The ground was fertile and he'd grown wheat, rye and barley, all three, the year before, as well as corn: the wheat became flour, corn became corn meal -- well, half of it anyway, the other half went in a bin to grain his horses -- rye and barley he sold to the Daine Brothers, for they had a steady demand for grains they could sprout and grind and turn into their liquid lightning.
Jacob rode easy, a quiet smile tightening the corners of his mouth and his eyes: he was a young man and full of fire, in the cool of a morning and on a good horse.
He drew up in sight of his house and looked, pleased with what he saw.
His ranch was tidy and well tended, his house tight and well made.
Half the sun had pushed up over the ridge line, coating everything with a rich, reddish glow.
It was a fine day to be alive, he thought, reveling in the moment.

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Linn Keller 5-23-09

 

I ignored Doc's knife as best I could, least until he cut into me again.
He worked at the recent surgical excavation, silent, pressing here, slowly rubbing there, finally with a strong odor of carbolic he wiped off his work and said simply, "Done."
Nurse Susan handed me a tall glass of watered whiskey: alcohol for the pain, and water to keep my bowels from locking up. They'd doctored me with laudunum and it tends to constipate a body.
I had enough troublin' me without that too so I drank and drank deep.
Nurse Susan's hand was cool on my forehead. I knew I was fevered and knew I was weak but damned if I was going to lay in that bed any longer.
Soon as I set up I began to regret the notion.
Doc had to slice a hole in his good work and get out the infection that was feverin' me. I was sick enough I didn't much care what he did, least until he sliced into me with that sharp little knife of his that felt like he'd drawn a white hot line of fire across my back.
Nurse Susan went to steady me, least until I glared at her.
I recall Charlie stopped in to say howdy and I think I had a conversation with the man but bless me if I recall a single word we exchanged. I think he was talkin' about that horse raisin' spread.
Between fever and pain and that tall tumbler of watered Kentucky, I wasn't feelin' near as good as I had not a few minutes earlier.
Strong hands eased me back down in bed.
Somehow I didn't feel near so hard headed about gettin' up.
Wasn't until my head was laid down on the pillow I realized it was my own pillow and I was in my own bed and not a single idea how I'd got there.
It didn't matter. I was too tired to care.
Somewhere in the distance I heard Angela giggle and I knew things were going to be just fine.

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Linn Keller 5-24-09

 

Bill contemplated the checkerboard, one eye screwed shut, resting his clean shaven upper lip against the edge of his left index finger. His right hand, impatient, drummed on his trouser leg.
Mac glared at the checkerboard with both eyes, his hands planted on his thighs.
Bill extended a tentative finger toward a particular checker, hesitated.
"Y'know," he said thoughtfully, advancing his piece, "the Sheriff just doesn't have much sense about him."
Mac frowned at Bill's move, seeing his planned defense crumble. "He strikes me as sensible," he countered, picking up his piece and smacking it smartly on a square.
Bill picked up a checker almost immediately, jumping one of his own to jump Mac's. "Gotcha!" he said quietly.
"Well?"
"Well what?" Bill straightened, dismay on his face and innocence in his voice. "That was a fair move!"
"No, you numb skull, the Sheriff!"
"The Sheriff's move? He ain't playin'!"
Mac shook his head, waved his hands as if to flag down an errant thought. "The man doesn't have any good sense about him!"
"That's what I mean!" Bill exclaimed, thrusting a stiff finger at his opponent. "You say somethin' and then just let it hang and I wonder for a week what you're tryin' to say!"
"A week! Why, if I wait for you to finish a thought we can get a game and a half in an' harvest hay twice over by the time you're done!"
The two contestants frowned at the board again, silence covering them like a quilt.
Fifteen minutes passed before Mac finally nodded and picked up his chosen checker, moved it, leaned a little to the left and surveyed the board, leaned a little to the right and nodded again.
"There now!" he said, satisifed. "Beat that!"
Bill leaned forward, elbow digging into his knee, and he rubbed his upper lip, then cupped his hand over his mouth, the gears between his ears clattering with the effort of planning his move.
"Now like I was sayin'," he continued, "the Sheriff lacks good sense."
"Yeah, yeah, you said that a'ready!" Mac shoved his Derby hat back on his head, scratched his hair vigorously. "Now what's not sensible about the man?"
"Well, y'see, he doesn't get hurt a little." Bill picked up a checker, hesitated, jumped one of Mac's pieces.
"He goes an' near to gets himself killed." The checker was loud against the painted wooden board as he jumped a second piece. "Now if he were smarter, he would have gotten just a little bit hurt so he could heal up quicker and we wouldn't have had to help pack him up those stairs." A third jump, landing on the farthest row.
"There! King me!"
Mac glared at his partner, then chuckled and shook his head. "You're sore 'cause when we got back here I beat you!"
"I am not sore!"
"You are too!"
Bill chuckled. "My move." He picked up another checker, made four quick hops, captured all but one of Mac's checkers. "King me again!"
"Well I'd be --"
Bill made one more move, capturing the last of Mac's checkers.
"There now! I believe you owe me a sarsparilla!"

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Linn Keller 5-25-09

 

I woke up clear headed, chilled and soaky wet.
I tossed the quilt back off me left handed and set my teeth together and rolled over.
I got my legs pointing down hill and just set there for a bit, my right arm laid across my lap, silently damning the team and wagon that run over me and then backed up to see what they'd just run over.
There was a tap on my bedroom door; it opened about as wide as your hand and Michelle's hesitant, French-accented voice asked, "Shereef? Are you 'wake?"
"Yeah," I rasped dryly, my throat feeling like it hadn't had a thing to dampen it for a year anyway. My tongue felt like the entire Union Army had marched across it barefoot and my head hurt abominably. Not quite as bad as the rest of me but it was letting me know it led the Unhappy With Me Today parade.
"I get your bath, yes?" she asked and I croaked "Yes," and reached over and grabbed hold of the knob on the head board.
I hauled myself to my feet, holding my right arm tight against my sweaty carcass, fresh beads of water popping out on my fore head.
I stood there for a while, long enough for the floor to quit rocking.
"This ain't right," I muttered silently, as my throat had quit working altogether and I knowed I had to get something wet down my swaller pipe.
I took two steps toward the door and stopped. Michelle was fixing my bath. The copper tub was down stairs, I was up stairs, but I didn't have a stitch on.
Now why in the cotton pickin' don't I have my long handles on? I wondered, then realized my night shirt was draped over the chair, so I figured I'd wear that.
It took me a while to get it over my head, my right arm had neither strength nor control like it ought, but I got the daggone thing on.
I had to set down and catch my wind when I was done.
It took all I had to get my feet under me and start for the door. Michelle's quick feet were up the stairs and she'd just touched the panel with her knuckles when I drew it open.
"I have towels and mon Dieu!" she exclaimed and I grabbed the door casing to keep from falling over.
I didn't have enough wind to talk so I just stood there and gathered myself and finally set one foot ahead of the other and let go.
Don't know how I made it to the top of the stairs but I did.
Contrariness, I reckon.
Once I got hold of the hand rail -- I'd watched the Daine boys slick it down from a young pine, one piece of lumber, slick as a gut -- I knew I could get down stairs with some measure of control, and I did.
Michelle kind of hovered beside me. She knew better than to grab my right arm and she dared not run an arm around me, so she got one step below and was ready to catch me if I fell.
Right glad I did not fall. I'd likely have broken that poor little girl in half had I fell on her.
We staggered -- well, I staggered and she hovered -- over to the steaming copper tub.
I tried to fetch off the night shirt and my left arm worked fine.
It took me a bit but I got it off. Michelle never touched it, to her credit; she did take in a breath when she looked at the ruinous scar on my back.
I bent over and took aholt of the rim and stepped in.
It wasn't until I was in that I realized I had just stripped buck naked in front of a woman other than Esther.
The feel of that steaming hot water on my recent surgery was better penance than the Pope could have prescribed.
"Lean back, Monsieur," Michelle breathed, sprinkling salts in the water. I found out later they were Epsom salts, and she was using them to draw infection out of the wound. All I knew was that hot water felt pretty good and I just laid there for a long while.
Michelle must have lifted my head enough to slip a folded towel in under it, for I fell asleep in that tub of hot Epsom salts water and stayed so for some time, long enough for the water to start to cool.
Michelle offered to wash my back and I allowed as she could. She was careful but it was still touchy. I tried not to let on but when a grown man flinches and grunts it's kind of obvious. I took care of all the other cleaning, but it was kind of nice when she dipped out a few buckets full to make room to pour fresh warm water over me to rinse off the soap suds.
She went into the next room and I heard something being decanted.
Michelle came back in with one of Mr. Baxter's beer mugs, now mostly filled with beer. It was not as cool as when Mr. Baxter pumped it up out of the Jewel's cellar but by golly it went down good!

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Linn Keller 5-25-09

 

It was coincidence that day that Esther wore a deep purple gown, of such a saturated hue as to appear almost black.
It was coincidence that, seated before the window, it appeared black to her visitor.
There was no coincidence, however, in her visitor's presence.
"Mr. John Flatbush," Esther read, regarding the card she had been given.
Esther removed her spectacles.
"Please have a seat, Mr. Flatbush, and how can I help you?"
"Well, ma'am," John Flatbush said, removing his hat, "I believe I can be of help to you."
"I see," Esther said, as dignified as any Queen.
Mr. Flatbush eased himself into a chair opposite Esther's desk and paused to gather his thoughts. "I own the Bar B Bar south of here."
"I am familiar with the Bar B Bar," Esther smiled. "As I recall, you have a reputation for a profitable operation."
"Yes, ma'am," John Flatbush nodded. "I brought in good stock and I've good water and good graze. Your railroad was a Godsend."
"The Z&W found it profitable to run a spur in your direction." Esther considered the man before her, taking in the fact that he wore his best suit, his boots were shined and he appeared a bit anxious. "Your ranch is not the only customer we've had."
"Yes, ma'am, and I've heard nothing but good about the Z&W," he nodded, swallowing.
John Flatbush took a deep breath, as if readying himself for a plunge into a deep pool.
"Ma'am, I'd like to offer you the Bar B Bar, and all that goes with it."
Esther blinked. She hadn't been considering purchasing a ranch, but her quick business mind switched gears and she did what she did best: she thought on her feet, she responded to the situation.
"Just what is your net worth, Mr. Flatbush?" Esther asked in a businesslike tone.
Mr. Flatbush seemed at once surprised and pleased. "Ma'am, I am free of debt. I owe no man one red cent, or at least not until payday when I'll hand out gold to my men. Land and cattle, I figure all told, fifteen thousand dollars."
Esther considered the information available to her. Cattle alone would sell for more than this, she thought; she normally kept an informal tally of ranchers' herds, with an eye toward having enough rolling stock to handle their needs.
Esther was about to remark on land speculation in the south of the state and how it could possibly affect the appraised value of his ranch when Mr. Flatbush blurted, "Ma'am, you bein' a widow and all, you'll need a reliable man to take care of you. I'm a widower, ma'am, with two fine sons and a good ranch. I'll do well by you."
Esther's eyes grew large.
Mr. Flatbush, encouraged by this response, continued to describe the good water on his ranch -- two streams, three springs -- he waxed enthusiastic about the several isolated pastures, where cattle could be grazed in season, rotating the graze to let the land rest, and had just started on the loyalty of his men when Esther held up a forestalling hand.
"Mr. Flatbush, I think we may have a misunderstanding," Esther said gently.
"Ma'am?" John Flatbush blinked and ground to a surprised halt.
"Mr. Flatbush, I was prepared to offer you twenty thousand dollars for your ranch, where is, as is."
"You -- twenty -- I don't --"
"Mr. Flatbush, I'm terribly sorry, but I thought you were coming to me to try and sell your ranch," Esther continued in a kindly voice. "It seems we have each misunderstood the other."
"But --" John Flatbush stammered, "I don't -- you're a widow now --"
"I assure you, Mr. Flatbush, my husband is quite alive," Esther continued, trying hard not to smile, at least not too broadly.
"Oh, hell," John Flatbush muttered, sagging like a balloon with the air leaking out.
Esther stood and approached the rancher.
"Mr. Flatbush, I don't believe I've ever heard a more sincere, nor a more appealing proposal in all my life."
John Flatbush stood, face reddening.
"Were I a single woman -- were I indeed the widow you had believed -- Mr. Flatbush, my answer would have been an immediate yes."
John Flatbush looked away. "I feel like a jackass," he muttered.
"Mr. Flatbush." Esther's voice was sharp now. "I will countenance no such talk! You have the reputation of an excellent rancher and your ranch enjoys a first-rate reputation! My experience tells me a good reputation is not easily made. You, sir, have nothing -- nothing! -- to feel ill over!"
"Yes, ma'am," John Flatbush muttered. "I mean no ma'am. I mean ... oh, hell!"
"Mr. Flatbush," Esther said in a kinder tone, taking the rancher's arm, "I have an appetite, and a lady prefers to dine in the presence of a well-dressed gentleman. You have proven yourself a gentleman, sir, and I would be most pleased to hear more of your ranch. After all --" she gave him a knowing look -- "I do have a railroad to run, and part of running a railroad is knowing my customers' needs."

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Linn Keller 5-27-09

 

Annette played slowly, gently, a Bach piece sung often as a hymn at Christmas, and a favorite of hers: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.
In her mind's ear she heard it played on a grand pipe organ, one of the only pipe organs in the entire state: she had played that piece on that same organ, the Christmas before her brother was killed and she left Denver, not knowing she was about to lose the rest of her family and her inheritance as well.
Parson Belden smiled silently in his study, taking a break from crafting his Sunday sermon to listen.

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Linn Keller 5-28-09

 

The stage was only just arrived at the Mercantile, offloading its weekly sack of mail and packages and picking up what little correspondence was outbound.
Bill and Mac honestly did not see who was on the stage, or who got off, for each was determined to skin the other out of his socks, or at least win back one of the countless sarsparillas each owed the other, and so they did not see the six dandily-dressed folk who disdainfully dismounted and sneeringly surveyed their surroundings.
School let out just as the stage drew to a halt, cheering schoolchildren pouring from the whitewashed building with the happy abandon of youth; seeing the stage's arrival, a half-dozen set their course for the Mercantile, in hopes of a penny candy from folks picking up mail.
The visitors -- four men and two women -- knew they had an hour's layover: one of the horses had gone lame, there was some unspecified repair the coach needed and had to have, and they were ahead of schedule by some two hours, so they felt safe in taking in what few sights this pitiful outpost of civilization probably didn't have to offer.
We shall not delve into these intruders' identities, nor their backgrounds: suffice it to say they were city folk, dressed as city folk do, in the lastest fashion, accustomed to the amenities of a metropolis, the culture of a capital, the press of humanity to assure them they were superior to the teeming masses crowded into swarming throngs.
Here ... they stopped and stared, honestly marveling ... here the town was ... well, on the one hand, miniscule, but on the other hand, it was ... clean!
Four of the newcomers looked at the Silver Jewel, uncertainty in their expressions. Perhaps they expected to see something dessicated, worn, bleached by sun and wind, dust-covered ... instead they saw fresh paint, bright and conrasting trim around the building's features; tall, clean windows with crisp curtains inside, glass paned doors with ornate frosted designs the equal to any they had seen in "the City" ... they four mounted the few steps to the boardwalk, and into the Jewel.
Saloons in the city tended to be dark, smoky, pretending to a grandeur: here they found a well lighted, clean, well appointed establishment of surprising quality. Good hardwoods were artfully crafted and fitted, finished and polished; glasses gleamed, brass was polished, the mahogany bar was glass-perfect under the slow, measured sweeps of the pomaded barkeep's rag.
This quarted was further astonished that their waitress, though Indian in appearance, spoke cultured and flawless English, had coffee and bread on the table less than a minute after taking their order, and their meal before them, hot, fragrant, perfectly cooked and delightfully spiced, in less than ten minutes.
One of the men sampled the wares of Mr. Baxter's kingdom and found, again to his pleased surprise, the beer was fresh, cold and most acceptable; the stronger spirits, too, were of the best quality -- not the harsh, rip-the-lining-from-your-throat distillates commonly foisted upon the public, but rather the smooth and silky stuff that goes down like Mama's milk and blows the socks right off your feet.
The remaining pair, a man and woman, strolled down the little town's boardwalk, pausing to admire the well-built church: the man had been a carpenter in his younger years, and he knew to gauge a carpenter's skill, to look at his corners.
His practiced eye told him whoever built this edifice was a master of his craft.
The woman's quick eye noted dresses as modern as her own, displayed in the Mercantile window, and a smiling woman with three little girls drove past in a carriage the equal of any she'd seen: not only was the carriage new and of the best quality, the dress the woman wore was as fashionably modern as her own, as well made and of equally fine fabric.
They paused near the schoolhouse, listening to the measured syllables from the open window, where a few had remained behind to pursue their study of Shakespeare; another was discussing the Pythagorean theorum, and they heard the click and scrape of chalk on a board as discussion became diagram.
The woman's hand tightened on the man's forearm and she raised the forefinger of her other hand.
"Listen," she whispered, tilting her head and smiling.
She'd caught a snatch of piano music, probably from the church ...
"Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring," she said, eyes soft and far-away. "I heard that ... Christmas last, or the one before ... a young woman played it on our pipe organ."
"I wonder what ever happened to her," the man murmured, raising an eyebrow as he studied the polished quartz front of the hospital.
An hour later, fed, relaxed, provisioned with a basket from Daisy's kitchen, the group resumed their journey: as the stage rattled out of town, these visitors, at least, had a distinctly different impression of Firelands than they'd presupposed upon their arrival.

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Linn Keller 5-28-09

 

It took a few days but I got well enough to ride into town.
If I were to tell you I rode easy and mounted without difficulty I would be lying and I won't do that. I'm not above stretching a tale or pulling a man's leg every once in a while but was I to say anything but I hurt, I would be not just a liar but a damned liar.
Jacob was some surprised to see me canter up the street, Hijo and me, and glad I was Charlie had not started his horse ranchin' quite yet, as Hijo had a Paso Fino's soft gait that I needed.
It still felt like ... well, it didn't feel good.
I dismounted before the Jewel and tied Hijo off at the hitch rail like I always did.
Jacob always did have a pretty good poker face but he was having difficulty keeping his face straight. I don't reckon he was about to bust out laughing but he wasn't completely comfortable seeing me ride up.
I wasn't comfortable having ridden up but it was important that the town see the Sheriff out and about and looking normal.
A leader can be wrong but he can never be in doubt, and he can never, ever appear weak, especially a lawman, for the forces of dark and evil are forever looking for that weakness.
There was something else in Jacob's eyes and somehow I knew things weren't quite right.
We went through the double doors together, two tall lawmen, hesitated in the little foyer, our backs to the side wall, looking things over.
My gut told me things weren't right.
Neither Jacob nor I had spoken a word and this was often our habit. There is a communication deeper than words that I do not pretend to understand. We had enjoyed it before and it was between us today, some knowledge, some awareness.
Tom Landers came over and shook my hand, careful-like, and I did my best to keep a straight face, for that little bit of movement pulled at my back and my fresh broke ribs ... I was healing, the bone was knitting but I knew it was fragile until it had healed a while, and the healing reminded me frequently with either a deep, maddening itch, or a pounding ache that I had to drown with a few stiff belts of Old Soul Saver, and even then it didn't do that much good.
I slept in a chair for the first week -- reluctantly, but it was less painful than laying down. Esther had a chair set by her side of the bed and I slept there, with the chair hard against the bed. Sometimes when she woke at night to feed little Joseph she would reach over and take my hand and that felt just a'mighty good.
Today, though, Jacob and I received Tom Landers' greeting, and his glance toward the bar.
We followed his look.
I knew the man. He was a known bully and trouble maker and he'd made his brags to clean my clock.
I felt that same dead feelin' in my belly I'd last felt in Chancey the night I killed Butcher Knife Joe in the middle of the street, and him fresh from gutting one man and clubbing another with a pick handle.
I paced off on the left and Tom Landers moved aside to let me pass.
Jacob had a most marvelous talent of turning invisible. I don't know quite how he did it but he could pass unnoticed if he chose, and he chose in that moment: I stepped up to the bar beside this trouble maker and raised a finger to Mr. Baxter.
"Milk," I said mildly.
Mr. Baxter raised an eyebrow in surprise and set the beer mug down. He nodded and went through the door at the back of the bar. I knew he would be heading downstairs, down into the cool of the stone cellar where we kept fresh milk, and he'd ladle me up some in a cool mug he kept down there for me.
Stoneburner turned and sneered at me, leaning an elbow on the bar, affecting an air of casualness I knew to be a front. I'd seen him sucker punch a man from just such a posture.
"Milk," he said as if the word itself were dirty.
"Good for the health," I replied with a tight smile.
"Your health ain't so good these days."
"Heard tell you'd like to make it unhealthier."
"Well, if you're invitin' me --"
I looked the man square in the eye. "It won't be a fair fight," I said. "I broke a couple ribs an' Doc had to wire 'em back up. I'm drinkin' milk to help the bones knit. I been fightin' infection and I'm fevered as I stand here but if you want to mop the floor with your nose, jump right on!"
"Oh, my," said, eyes wide with mock concern. "Broke ribs, y'say? Why, you have my sympathy!" He swung a flat hand as if to smack me across the back.
Jacob's hand shot out like a striking viper's and seized the man's wrist.
Chris Stoneburner's face turned ugly. "Let go, boy," he grated.
Jacob's grip tightened and he snapped Stoneburner's arm around and up behind the man, driving his hip into the man's hinder and the man's gut into the edge of the bar.
Stoneburner powered off the bar but Jacob still had hold of his arm, and Jacob's arm was muscled from swinging a scythe, forking hay and working his ranch.
Stoneburner was not weak but he had no leverage and as he went down there was a twisting crunch of bone and a yell of pain.
Jacob followed the man down, driving his knees into Stoneburner's ribs. He'd tried for the man's kidneys but Stoneburner was rolling, kicking to get away.
There was a flash of steel, a shining arc as the honed edge whispered out of its sleeve sheath and came around in a fast slash.
Tom Landers' Colt spoke once, and once was enough.
Stoneburner's narrow, slender blade, free of nerveless fingers, flipped through the air and its tip punched into Jacob's cheek bone just below the right eye.
Jacob seized the knife and yanked it out: furious, he took the knife in a two-hand grip and drove it through the dying man's breast bone hard enough to drive into the hardwood floor under Stoneburner's spine.
Jacob grabbed the blood-lipped Chris Stoneburner by his lapels and brought him off the floor. White-faced, teeth bared, eyes and nostrils wide, Jacob's face was the portrait of rage.
He stood, bringing Stoneburner to his feet.
The tip of the blade, shiny-clean now, barely stuck out the back of the man's vest.
"YOU CAN'T HAVE MY PA!" he bellowed with all the power in his young lungs, and the light went out in Stoneburner's eyes, and Jacob hauled his carcass to the double doors, shoved them open with a hip and heaved the body out into the street.
Hijo del Sol looked at the still form and muttered disapproval.
I felt as much as heard the heavy glass mug set down in front of me.
"Did I miss something?" Mr. Baxter asked innocently.

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Linn Keller 5-28-09

 

"Pa ordered me down here," Jacob muttered sullenly as Doc Greenlees took the young man's face between his hands and tilted his head back.
"This won't feel good," he said in his gentle voice, wiping the puncture with carbolic.
Jacob's eyes winced but he held stone still.
"Mmmp," Doc grunted, picking up a probe. "Look at the ceiling."
Jacob's eyes rolled up, at least until Doc started exploring the knife wound.
Jacob's hands locked tight on the edge of the exam table and he started to sweat, a cold sweat beading on his forehead and trickling down the middle of his back.
Doc picked up something and inserted into the wound. Jacob smelled carbolic, really strong now, as Doc ran something the size of a freight wagon through his skull and three foot out the back, or so it felt like.
Jacob never flinched.
Doc tucked three neat stitches across the wound, fine little dressmaker's stitches that should heal with almost no scar.
"Done," Doc muttered. "Stand fast for a moment."
Jacob could not have stood if he'd wanted. Oh, he could have come to his feet but he'd like as not have ended up on the floor in about three seconds.
"Here. Sit on this." Doc's hands were firm under Jacob's armpits and he eased the tall young deputy to his feet, turned to his left and eased him down in a chair.
"There. Scoot back."
Jacob scooted.
"Now just sit there." Doc tilted the chair back some and slid a stool into position, lifted one, then the other of Jacob's booted feet up on it.
Nurse Susan materialized beside him with a glass of something.
"Drink," she said.
Jacob drank.
Once he got some color in his face Doc instructed him what to watch for, signs of infection, and a stern admonition to pay the preacher on Sunday, to all of which Jacob replied, "Yes, sir," and finally left the hospital under his own power.
Doc Greenlees shoved his long-fingered hands in his pockets and watched the young man depart.
"How deep was it?" Nurse Susan asked.
"Penetrated the sinus. He's lucky. A little higher and he'd have lost an eye and maybe his brain."
"He never made a sound when you probed the wound."
"I know." Doc Greenlees shook his head, muttering something about being as stubborn and as hard-headed hard-to-kill as his old man.

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Linn Keller 5-28-09

 

Digger removed the deceased under the Sheriff's watchful eye.
The Sheriff's weren't the only eyes to watch the removal; several eyes were on the street, most of them regarding the man with the six pointed star and the iron gray mustache, leaning casually against the porch post in front of the Jewel.
Those same eyes saw him look up the street, down the street, seeing everything, seeing everyone; those passing near spoke a greeting, and were in turn greeted by name and with a smile.
Watching eyes, had they continued observing the man, might have noted his looking long at the pair in front of the Mercantile, as if weighing something he wanted to ask, but decided not to.
Those same eyes would have seen the Sheriff, stifling a yawn with the back of his left hand, sojourn casually back into the Jewel, as if he hadn't a care in the world.

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Linn Keller 5-28-09

 

Rain had greened the burnt-off grasses; they grew brighter for the nitrogen ashed into the soil: fattened with the recent shower, the stems were heavy and ideal for cutting.
Caleb's hired man clucked to Butter and the McCormick reaper chattered across the valley. Regular cuttings to prevent wildfire would be a part of the man's duties from now on, Caleb had told him that morning, and after watching the conflagration march toward their little part of the world, his hired man was of a mind to agree entirely.
Sarah, for her part, was returned to school the day after her little adventure; she still moved slower than normal, but her smile was undimmed and her mind was just as quick, just as curious.
She also took a two-hand swing and belted the Johansson boy across the head with her McGuffey's Reader, for he had been deviling her, timing his aggravations for those moments when the schoolmarm's eyes were elsewhere.
The Johansson boy came up off the floor with a silly grin and cast sheep's eyes at Sarah the rest of the day, but he cast them from a distant corner, for the schoolmarm wasn't quite as oblivious as she'd let on.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-28-09

 

With the Sheriff laid up, Charlie had been forced to fend for himself, with no small amount of advice from Jacob and the Parson, regarding a place to start his horse ranch. He had taken the time to deliver his prisoner to the authorities in Denver, tender his resignation from the Marshal's service and arrange to have his and Fannie's small accumulation of belongings packed and sent to a storage facility (an empty room on the back of the Livery) in Firelands before beginning an extended perambulation around and about the surrounding area. He and Fannie were a familiar sight as they meandered across the prairies and hills, part of the time ahorseback, part of the time in a hired buggy that Shorty kept polished up for the use of what the stableman called "the gentry". Charlie was sure that he himself didn't qualify for such a grandiose title, but he would lay his watch and warrant on Fannie's deserving inclusion in such an august assemblage, should it exist.

Just this morning Charlie and Fannie had signed the papers on an acreage to the south of town, far enough out that there were no nearby neighbors, yet near enough to make a trip to town for supplies a pleasant outing rather than an epic trek. The house was cozy, the barn weather-tight and the corrals solid and well built. A pitcher pump, much in need of lubrication, lifted water from the cool depths of the underlying granite to splash in an enameled sink in the kitchen, the timbered windmill behind the barn kept a large, stone-lined stock tank full of clear, sweet liquid, and a large number of spreader dams scattered across the bluestem and timothy pastures promoted a lush crop of feed. Charlie and Fannie's first look at the place was enough. Their eyes met across the narrow expanse of cropped grass between their horses and they both nodded. They were home.

With the papers signed and the down payment made, it was time to move in. Consequently, Charlie and Fannie were at the stockyards outside of town, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the two p.m. train. The echoing scream of the train whistle lilting across the prairie announced the arrival of three oak-slatted stock cars that were bringing the couple's future to Firelands.

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Linn Keller 5-31-09

 

I glared at the serrated bread knife as if it had offended me.
The knife was not impressed.
I picked it up again, twisting a little and frowning, displeased with myself.
I stopped and stepped back away from the sideboard and took a long, calming breath.
Once more, I stepped up to the sideboard, laid a hand on the loaf of bread, and brough the knife up.
I knew what I wanted my arm to do.
I wanted to to bring the knife up and slice off a slab of that fragrant, still warm from the oven, fresh baked bread.
I got it a little more than half way up and that's all the farther it would go.
I got mad and if it's possible for a man to scream at part of himself with a voice that is heard only in the echoing recesses found within his own carcass, I did.
It worked, but poorly.
My arm came up some more and this time I did not twist my body to help it along.
I fetched up the bread knife and laid the serration on the crust and pressed a little, just a little: the hand and wrist worked fine, but the shoulder and the back of the arm didn't. It was no great trick to draw the blade back, but pressing it forward, cutting on the forward stroke, was daggone near impossible.
I closed my eyes and gathered my strength and screamed inside again.
The knife moved forward slowly, slowly ...
It took me about a half hour to slice off one slab of bread and by then my hand was shaking and my wrist ached but by God! I'd done it!
I could have sawed through that loaf left handed and made the smoke fly but I was bound to get that good right arm back in working order.
Doc had warned me it would take some time to come back to rights.
I stood there a long time looking at that one slice of bread, and finally I laid it back up against the loaf and wrapped the loaf back up.
I no longer had an appetite.

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Linn Keller 6-1-09

 

Fannie and Charlie turned to the sound of a horse at gallop and running hard.
Jacob was bent forward in the saddle with a big grin on his face, the grin of a young man in the green strength of youth, a young man who in that moment was right with the world and was moving faster than God Almighty hisself could go, for nothing was faster than a good saddle horse, and Apple was a good one.
Apple slowed with a show of reluctance, chewing at the bit and shaking his head, plainly in the mood for a good long run. Jacob had to speak to him to get him calmed down enough to turn his attention to the grinning lawman.
"Sorry I'm late!" he exclaimed. "Still need a hand movin' stock?"

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Linn Keller 6-1-09

 

Jackson Cooper was a lawman, not a cook.
Jackson Cooper's hands were better suited for the rough and heavy work that is the right and proper purview of a grown man.
Jackson Cooper was also, inside his tough and tanned exterior, a man very much in love with his wife, and so he carefully fixed their noon time meal: it was simple but it was filling and consisted of two sandwiches, good back strap beef between slices of buttered bread.
Jackson Cooper frowned at the cloth lined basket. The sandwiches were wrapped in some of that-there stuff Emma kept in the cupboard ... waxed paper, he thought she called it. The folds weren't terribly neat and it was not the tidy job she made of it, but he got them wrapped and set in there.
Jackson Cooper considered what-all else was likely, and figured maybe some peaches would be good, but they'd run through all their home canned peaches.
He packed the basket out to the buggy and headed for the Mercantile and directly came out with two cans of peaches.
He'd timed it about right. Emma was just coming out the whitewashed double doors of their tidy little schoolhouse when Jackson Cooper lifted the basket out of their buggy and picked up a blanket they kept for that purpose, and soon they were excavating the humble contents of the woven wicker basket.
Jackson Cooper's ears turned red when he realized he hadn't brought a can opener, and redder yet when he realized he'd plainly forgot a fork.
Emma tried not to smile as Jackson Cooper murdered one can, then the other open with his knife, to the delighted approval of big-eyed little boys who regarded the big deputy with awe and wonder anyway.
It was Jackson Cooper's turn to marvel as his beautiful bride ate peaches from the can, spearing them neatly with a knife and nibbling them in a most ladylike way from the blade of his knife.
They'd finished their noontime repast when Jackson Cooper's right ear twitched a little, the way it did when he heard something unusual, and he turned in time to see Jacob pounding down the railroad right-of-way: the young man was leaned forward in the saddle, his Apple-horse's nose was stuck straight out and his ears laid back, his tail was horizontal in the slipstream, and they two together looked about four feet tall and twelve feet long -- an illusion caused by their velocity, no doubt.
Emma's fingers were light on her husband's forearm and he started to get up.
Surprised, he looked at her quiet smile, the slight shake of her head.
Puzzled, he eased his weight back down.
"He's helping Charlie move some stock today," Emma said quietly, as if it were a confidence only they were to know. "I understand Charlie and Fannie have a ranch now, to the south, and they're getting in the first shipment of breeding stock."
Jackson Cooper grinned broad enough to span any two counties in Texas. Nodding, he looked toward the depot building, or what little he could see from their location.
"Be glad to see it," he rumbled, nodding.

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Charlie MacNeil 6-1-09

 

Charlie gave the grinning young man on the big Appaloosa an answering grin of his own. “I reckon we could use some help, if you think you can make that big varmint walk when we go,” he told Jacob in a deadpan tone. “I’d hate to think I spent all that money on feed to fatten them mares up only to have you and him run all the tallow off of ‘em in the first mile.” Jacob threw a surprised look at Charlie, taking a moment to realize that his leg was being held in a tight grip and given a mighty tug, at least figuratively.

“Well, I reckon we can keep ourselves under control for a bit,” he answered in kind. “But I hope this trip isn’t too long, ‘cause the bit might slip.” Charlie stepped up and offered his hand.

“We’re happy to have you along then,” he told the young deputy, while his bride chuckled softly.

“Men!” the declaration drifted on the breeze. “Just a bunch of overgrown children!”

Charlie picked the soles of her riding boots, and her atop them, from the ground in a bear hug and swung her around. “You’re darn right, Missie, and don’t you forget it!” He gave her a large kiss on the cheek as he picked her up, and a resounding smack on the behind as he planted her feet back in the dust of the street. Her answering yelp brought a chuckle as he watched her discreetly rub the offended body part. He doffed his sweat-stained “workin’ hat” and bowed low from the waist and told his bride in a totally innocent tone, “Sorry, ma’am.”

He stood up straight and replaced his head gear, and only he heard her whisper, “You’ll think sorry, mister, when I get you home,” but the words were accompanied by a saucy grin of her own.

Just beyond the outermost buildings of the town the train’s whistle shrieked again, announcing her arrival. The hiss of steam and the rumble of the steel wheels as the Lady Esther slowed for her arrival at the stockyards made Charlie’s heart race. Here at last was the realization of a dream that had been long in coming to fruition.

The first of the plank-slatted stock cars came to a stop at the timbered stock ramp amid the clash of couplers and the squeal of brakes. In the shadows behind the thick oak boards movement and bright flashes of color stirred, accompanied by the thump of flint-hard hooves and the snorting of the curious occupants of the car, all eager to get out and explore their new home. Ahead of the stock car, past the express carriage, the passengers in the other coaches had their heads stuck out the windows. One elegantly-mustachioed gentleman called in a querulous tone, “What in the world is the hold up? Why are we not at the depot?” as the conductor made his way toward where Charlie was pulling the pin holding the sliding door of the stock car closed.

“Special delivery!” the conductor called over his shoulder without breaking stride.

Charlie slid the door open far enough to slide sideways into the car. His soft voice was answered by welcoming nickers as the mares surrounded him, looking for the treats they hurriedly lipped from his outstretched palm as fast as he could produce them from his pockets. He quickly slipped a hackamore over the head of the lead mare, a rangy Appaloosa painted in gaudy splashes of red by the hand of nature, and pushed the door open. He led her out, followed in turn by five more equally as flashy-built animals, all dancing on delicately-placed hooves along the timbers of the ramp and into the corral beyond, where they went immediately to the water trough that stood along the far fence. He did the same with the other two cars, after which the train pulled ahead to allow the human passengers to alight. All and sundry, upon setting foot back on terra firma, hurried to the pole corral to see what the special delivery had consisted of, and even the impatient fellow with the flowing lip decoration was suitably impressed with what he saw behind the rough pine.

“My word!” that worthy declared, “I’ve not lately seen such a plentitude of high-class horseflesh! Where are they from?”

“Oregon,” Fannie answered for her husband, who was engrossed in examining all of his newly-arrived pets, for pets they were, one and all, for travel-related traumas. She slipped inside the corral and made her way through the milling horses to where Charlie waited to introduce her to their future.

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Linn Keller 6-2-09

 

A slender Mexican boy soothed the red mare, whispering to her in Spanish, stroking her velvety nose: she was restless as the Appaloosas made their noisy exit.
Quietly, intending to attract as little attention as possible -- at least until it suited him to do otherwise -- Miguel eased the stable car's door open, sliding it as far open as it would go, then he swung easily into the saddle and leaned down along the mare's neck.
He touched her lightly with his heels and the mare launched out of the open door like a cannon ball down the bronze throat of a Napoleon six-pounder.
Miguel let out a screaming yell of triumph, waving his sombrero and streaking past the startled rider on his dancing Appaloosa.
Pressing the big fancy rowels of his Mexican spurs into the mare's ribs, he turned her hard and she came about like a cutting horse, streaking up the main street of the little town.
Miguel leaned back and asked her with knees and reins to come to a halt, and halt she did, squatting a little and skidding on the hard ground.
The red mare reared and Miguel drew his Army Colt, fired a round in the air and shouted, "I am Miguel de la Montana de Cristo, first born son of Senor Eduardo del Rio! I can out-ride, out-shoot and out-rope any man this side of the Rio Grande and every man but one south of El Rio! My teeth are like fangs, my nails like claws and my eyes put the eagle to shame!" He fired another round. "Send out the Sheriff! We will see what kind of man he is!"
If the Mexican wanted attention, he had it.
Inside the Jewel, the Sheriff had been watching a fellow shuffling cards and obviously sizing up the place.
Van Dyne was not the man's name.
He'd taken it up like he'd taken up the original owner's coat and purse, as a matter of convenience, easily discarded should the need arise.
Van Dyne was a gambler and a gambler plays the card player, not the cards, and at the moment he was sizing up the Sheriff.
He knew the man by description and by reputation, and right now the man was drinking a beer, sitting alone at a back table.
He knew the man to be right handed from the way he'd shaved, but he was drinking with his left hand: not unexpected, most military men will keep the right hand free to return a salute, a habit that often follows for a lifetime: it also frees up a right-handed man's gun hand.
Van Dyne looked closer and noticed the man's eyes.
Cold, pale, the color of winter ice, they looked right through him and he felt the chill of their gaze, as if the Sheriff had weighed the man's soul and found it wanting, or looked deep into his spine and saw a streak of yellow.
There was a shot from out in the street, shouted words, and Van Dyne saw the Sheriff's eyes change: half-lidded, sleepy, like a mountain lion getting annoyed at the yapping of a cur dog.
Cold fingers traced a zigzag path down the middle of VanDyne's back and he fumbled his deck of cards in mid-shuffle.
He looked down at his cards, looked back up.
The Sheriff was walking toward him, deliberate, measured steps, and stopped at his table.
"Mister," the Sheriff said quietly, "I don't know you and I don't know a thing about you. Play a straight game and be welcome, but if you see a sharper or a cheat come through the door --" he glanced over to where Tom Landers leaned against the door frame, chewing on what used to be a cigar -- "why, Tom Landers yonder can spot a cheat from ten mile. Might warn 'em so they don't come to a misunderstanding."
Van Dyne shivered, eyes turning toward Tom Landers.
Landers! he thought. What's he doing here!
Van Dyne made a mental tally of his purse and its contents and decided he'd better win some gold quick so he could afford a stage ticket out of town.
He'd had dealings with Tom Landers years before, and had come out in second place.
The Sheriff had his Winchester fisted in his left hand, pushed the door open with his fist, and stepped out onto the boardwalk.

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Charlie MacNeil 6-2-09

 

The thunder of flying hooves on pine timber and the Mexican kid’s opening yell and pistol shot turned Charlie away from his horses as nothing else could. His left arm looped around Fannie’s waist and he hustled her to the shelter of a tall corral post; his right fist came up filled with Mister Remington’s finest as his hazel eyes rapidly found the source of the disturbance. He noticed with an approving chuckle that Fannie’s hand was filled with steel, powder and lead as she drew her own pistol from some otherwise undetectable location on her person. “Some day you gotta show me how you do that, darlin’,” Charlie said softly without taking his eyes from the street.

Outside the corral, Apple horse was sidling carefully toward the dancing sorrel and her raucous rider, Jacob’s hand out of sight under the tail of his coat. When the kid came up for air, Jacob asked softly, “I suppose you’ve got a reason for stirring up all the ruckus, eh, my friend?” The sombreroed rider drew his horse to a sudden halt.

“Si`, señor,” he said with a gleaming, white-toothed smile that ventured no further than his lips. “I wish to see the Sheriff.”

“I sort of gathered that,” Jacob answered carefully. “May I ask what you would like to speak to him about?”

“It is a matter that is only between the Sheriff and myself,” the boy answered. “Now kindly step aside. I do not wish to harm you.” Jacob’s spine stiffened and his face went deadly cold, but before he could speak both riders heard the clacking of the action of the Sheriff’s 73 and the Sheriff’s voice, both from behind the boy.

“I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced,” Linn told the boy in a voice as cold as winter on the Colorado plains.

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Linn Keller 6-3-09

 

I hurt too much to be mad clear through but I was close.
I'd been relaxin' with a cold beer with a good healthy dose of Kentucky diluting it to try and ease the ache in my back, watching what I figured was a card sharper sizing up the place, when the Whoop-Jamboreeho cut loose outside.
I stopped for a quiet word with the sharper, just enough to watch the color run out of his face, then with the Winchester fisted up in my good left hand I set my left knuckles against the door of the Jewel, gritted my teeth, and give a good shove.
I taken a look at that-there Mexican, r'ared up on the red mare he was a-ridin' and I figured this was just a bit out of the ordinary, for she was r'ared up farther than he'd expected and he was havin' just a bit of trouble holdin' on. I come down the steps about the time she come back to earth and Charlie come up quick-like. He give me a nod and I flanked off to the left.
We'd done this before.
Charlie was pretty much square in front of this fellow when he came dismountin' out of the saddle and so had both the Mexican's eyes on him.
Me, I slipped around t'other side of the mare.
Kind of out of habit I taken a long look at how she was rigged, or as long a look as I could as I cat footed around her.
She had one of them fancy Mexican saddles but I recognized the bridle.
Fancy, silver conchos, with hand-chased roses.
I grinned.
I recognized the bridle, and now I knew the horse.
Charlie had just spoken to the lad and I recognized my cue, so I levered that '73 rifle, one-handed, behind the Mexican, and in a stern voice allowed as, "I don't belive we've been properly introduced."

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Linn Keller 6-3-09

 

The Mexican youth had wisely holstered his percussion Colt before dismount, and to his credit he did not reach for it as he spun, startled at the sound of my voice.
I had the rifle's barrel laid, casual-like, up against my left shoulder, my right thumb hooked in my belt.
"I recognize the horse," I said mildly. "I take it she has proven satisfactory."
The Mexican's grin would have lit up a dark room like a dozen Aladdin lamps.
"Senor, I have won more races with this mare than I have in my entire life! The Firecracker Ranch is known in all of Tejas y Mexico as the home of the best race horses en el mundo, but this" -- he patted the mare's hinder affectionately -- "este caballito" -- he hesitated, frowning, fishing for the words.
"Senor, el stallion grande, Rey del Sol, covered her a year ago and more, and even until she became great with foal she raced the wind itself!" He reached into his gaudy-trimmed jacket, fetched out a leather poke and hefted it.
It jingled a bit.
"I am Miguel de la Montana de Cristo, and bear thanks from la Senora Firecracker, whose great pleasure it was to race twice for the honor of nos estancia!"
"I take it she won," I inquired mildly.
"Senor, she won, and she won another estancia that had been put up as a bet, she tripled our herds, doubled our land!"
He took a long look at me and shivered, his expression became troubled and he crossed himself.
"You are the Sheriff."
It was a statement, not a question.
"Sus ojos ..." he muttered, shaking his head and looking away.
"Senor, had la Senora Firecracker not warned me of sus ojos, your eyes, my heart would have failed me!" He shivered again and looked reluctantly back up at me.
I nodded.
"You are my guest," I told Miguel, "and it pleases me that Rose o' the Mornin' is once more in my stable."
Miguel's teeth gleamed again.
"El Hijo del Rey, he is well?" Miguel asked, almost tentatively.
"He is well."
"Bueno! I raise him from" -- he made a gesture, flat-handed, indicating something quite short.
I nodded.
"Travel will dry a man. We have no pulque but I believe there is tequila."
"Pulque!" Miguel spat. "Senor Eduardo spoke of your excellent beer!"
"Beer it is!" I exclaimed.
Jacob had come up from somewhere and was quietly observing, listening, and as he saw things weren't tending to the hostile, slid his .40-60 back into its scabbard, all while managing to remain invisible, or near to it.
I raised my chin. "Jacob! Rose o' the Mornin' is returned to us. Could you stable her for me, please?" Then to Miguel, "Your saddle?"

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Linn Keller 6-7-09

 

Miguel drank an incredible volume of Mr. Baxter's beer with the only noticeable effect being his need to excuse himself periodically to get rid of its second hand byproduct.
Between necessary trips, however, he boisterously and energetically painted a picture of life on the Border Country and especially on the Firecracker Ranch.
He described races run, fortunes won and lost, dark-eyed Mexican senoritas and hot-blooded suitors, the politics of the border, and always in a way that kept us laughing.
I had to keep a tight rein on my mirth.
My ribs were nowhere near knit well and they ached abominably, more so with laughter, and I added another healthy dollop of liquid lightning to my beer, knowing it would hit me like the noon freight.
Jacob cast a concerned eye on my consumption. He'd never seen me partake of spirits in such a way.
I was still mostly sober when we rose: rested, refreshed, fed and entertained, we set our course for home.
I asked Jacob to ride with us.
It cost me to mount up, but mount I did, and little the distillate did to numb the pain: at least nothing felt like it tore, popped or came apart.
Esther was home by the time we got there: introductions were made, Miguel belied his boisterous facade with a courtly bow, kissing Esther's knuckles and sweeping the floor with his sombrero as he made an elaborate obescience.
As our guest, Miguel was shown to his room, with which he was delighted; he was offered a bath, which he happily accepted; his trunk was yet at the depot, but would be brought forthwith.
Angela, attracted by the fuss, came to the doorway. She smiled at our visitor and said brightly, "Hello, I'm Angela!"
Miguel honestly surprised me.
Going slowly to one knee, he spread his arms, and she came to him as if she'd known him all her life: he hugged her and she hugged him back: he swept the curls from her forehead and said softly, "Una Angelita, de verdad!"
Angela didn't know quite what he said, but she understood her name in another language, and giggled.
His eyes followed her as she left the room, and there was a sadness in them.
"You were in la Guerra Civil, si?"
"Si."
"You spoke over a campfire with a ..." his hand described circles as he searched for the word ... "Yanqui metal ... Galvanized Yankee!"
I nodded.
"El hombre fue del Sur, y ..." Miguel shook his head. "Siento, hace mas facil ..." Frustrated, he made a fist, tried again.
"Senor Galvanize, he was for el oeste, the west, si? -- you were con el Ohio Tereco, and you chased el General Morgan, si?"
I nodded.
"Third Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, and yes, we chased Morgan around Kentucky some."
"El Senor Galvanize, he was with El General Morgan when they ran ..."
Miguel searched for the words, found them.
"El Grande ... the Great Raid," he said with an emphatic nod.
I smiled.
I remembered the Great Raid.
"Cuando el General corre tras del Ohio --" Miguel sighed, tried again. "When el General ran across su estado, your state, he came upon a farmer and his daughter, yes?"
I sat, feeling the let-down that comes of alcohol wearing off. My back hurt but I ignored it, putting my energy instead into excavating this ancient memory.
"The Linscott farm. Perry County. Yes, I remember."
"He picked up the child and set her on the saddle in front of him, yes?"
"Yes."
"He said to the child, 'I have a little girl back home in Kentucky, and she looks much like you.'"
I smiled, for I remembered the conversation.
"He spoke of you, senor."
I blinked.
"Me?"
"Si. He say you were the only honorable Yanqui he met in the entire damned war."
I nodded again.
"Senor, pardon, pero la cerveza --"
I smiled, motioned toward the door.
I reckoned Miguel would be making a few more trips before the night was out.
I must have drowsed, sitting in that chair, for it was not until I heard Miguel's boot heels approach that I realized I'd dozed.
"Senor?" Miguel's voice was tentative.
"Senor, when la pequena came to me ..." Miguel's expression was far away. "My pequenita, mi hija Rosalita ..."
There was misery in the man's eyes, a sadness deep enough to drown in.
"Muerte?" I asked.
Miguel nodded, hesitated.
"Senor?"
I raised an eyebrow.
"Senor, mil gracias for sharing her smile."

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Linn Keller 6-9-09

 

Jacob removed his hat as he came across his parents' threshold.
Miguel had just gone out the back, laughing, his big roweled spurs jingling with his choppy charge down the back steps.
Jacob tapped lightly on the door frame.
"Sir?"
The Sheriff smiled. "Jacob," he acknowledged.
"Sir, Rose o' the Mornin' is stabled. There was a note in the saddlebag." He handed the seated lawman a hand-folded envelope, closed wih a round, red-wax seal.
"I need to get back to Charlie and Miz Fannie. They're movin' the mares."
"Take Hijo del Sol with you," the Sheriff said, his voice tired, and Jacob noticed how much darker he was around the eyes.
Jacob took a step nearer. "Sir ...?"
The Sheriff raised a hand, smiled. "I'll be fine. The mares will need a herd stallion. You're one of the few men who can handle Hijo without losing a hand."
"Yes, sir."
Jacob hesitated.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, you run a hell of a bluff."
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow.
"You are entertaining a guest and giving all the apperance of full health and strength, at least until he steps out of the room."
The Sheriff nodded.
"You'll be all right, sir?"
The Sheriff nodded. "Head on out. Charlie will need Apple's speed. If I'm any judge, those mares are clear full of fire and he'll play hell keeping them together to get out to his spread!"
"Yes, sir," Jacob said, settling his Stetson back on his light-brown hair and disappearing.
The Sheriff looked at the cut-glass brandy bottle on the shelf nearby.
It would be hospitable, he thought, standing with an effort. I do have a guest.

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Linn Keller 6-9-09

 

Twain Dawg's haunches were in the air, his forelegs and jaw on the ground, his button-bright eyes on the chicken.
The chicken's eyes were on something in the dirt.
The chicken pecked at whatever prey had caught its omnivorous attention.
Twain Dawg never moved.
"Bring it here, Twain Dawg," the cook called, hatchet in hand.
Twain Dawg never moved.
The chicken took a step toward the unmoving canine, another, its shining feathered head bobbing with each strutting step.
Twain Dawg waited.
"Chase it on over here," the cook called, impatience edging her voice. "You bring the horses in when Sarah tells you to, surely you can herd one little chicken!"
Twain Dawg's eyes were half-closed now.
The chicken took one more step, cocked its head.
The cook never saw Twain Dawg's move.
All she knew was he'd gone suddenly from prone to erect, from chest-grounded to all fours, giving the chicken a quick shake.
Silent, flopping a very little, the chicken very quickly went limp.
Twain Dawg trotted proudly over to the cook and allowed her to take it from his mouth.
The cook petted Twain Dawg and called him a good boy before divesting the carcass of its head. "Mista Caleb gonna have fried chicken t'night!" she declared.
Sarah, basket in hand, hummed a little as she found the eggs secreted here, there and yonder by the free-ranging fowl; she came skipping back, careful to keep the basket steady, and set it on the back porch.
"Miz Sarah, when are you out of school?" the cook called, quickly and efficiently dressing out the chicken.
"Yesterday was the last day of the term!" Sarah replied, delighted at the prospect of summer without books and blackboard, lessons and learning.
"Good!" Cook declared. "You can help me in the kitchen!"
Sarah's face fell about three feet and Cook laughed.
"Now don't you worry none, child. You'll like mah kitchen much betta than that schoolhouse!"
Sarah frowned, considering that there wouldn't be nasty boys that needed whacked with a schoolbook.
Twain Dawg paced over and thrust a cold, wet nose in Sarah's hand, and Sarah fondled her huge companion.
"I decleah, child, if you had a saddle you could rahd that animal!"
Sarah considered how far up her thigh Twain Dawg stood: frowning, she imagined a saddle on his back, and realized Cook was probably exaggerating.
Twain Dawg closed his eyes and ran his pink tongue out, groaning in pleasure as Sarah's busy fingers found just the right spot, behind and a little below ... there ... oh, yes, his tail said, thumping happily on the grassy ground.
Cook laughed again. "He'll give you a week to stop that!" she called, dipping the chicken carcass in scalding water once, twice.
"I know," Sarah sighed, applying both hands to the effort.
Twain Dawg leaned against Sarah's leg.
Life was good.
Twain Dawg looked up at Sarah and grinned.

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Charlie MacNeil 6-9-09

 

The first golden arc of the rising sun was painting the rims of the eastern hills with brilliant brush strokes as Charlie led his lanky buckskin and Fannie’s chunky bay from their livery stable stalls. The breaths of man and horse smoked in the chill air, drifting in wreaths of wispy vapor around their heads. The horses were tossing their manes in anticipation of what the day might bring; the buckskin loved to run, as did the bay, and both were expert cutting horses. Charlie led their mounts to where Fannie waited in britches, boots and collar-turned canvas coat, her hair tucked up under a floppy felt hat and a cup of steaming black coffee in each hand. “It’s not that far to the ranch that we need to start at o’dark thirty,” the ex-Marshal’s lovely bride groused cheerfully as she handed him his cup. He nodded his thanks then took a sip of the hot brew as he considered his answer.

“Ah hell, Darlin’, we wouldn’t wanna waste any daylight now, would we? I knew a fella up in Nebraska, name of Wil Anderson, who used to get his crews up at three thirty in the mornin’ on a drive, claimin’ they were burnin’ daylight!” He handed her the bay’s reins and stepped carefully aboard the buckskin, almost but not quite getting into the saddle with the contents of his cup intact. He muttered a mild curse under his breath as a few drops of the hot liquid sloshed out onto his hand then he reached out for Fannie’s cup. “Want me to hold that for ya?”

“Not hardly,” came the smiling answer as Fannie stepped nimbly into her own saddle. “You ready?”

“Soon as Jacob gets here,” Charlie answered.

“Then I reckon we’d best get to it, as a lawman of my acquaintance would say,” the young deputy said from behind the couple. They turned their horses as Jacob rode up on Apple horse, leading Hijo.

“I reckon you’re right,” Charlie said with a grin. He slurped the rest of the coffee, which had cooled to a drinkable temperature, and set the cup on top of a nearby corral post then turned the buckskin toward the depot corrals. As the trio rode, Charlie outlined the plan he had come up with for getting the horse herd out of town.

“Jacob, why don’t you go in the lead with that stud, at least until we clear the town limits. Take it easy, but be ready, ‘cause these mares are gonna want to run after bein’ cooped up on the train and in the pens, but they should follow okay.” Jacob nodded his understanding. “Do whatever you have to do to stay in the lead. Me and Fannie will try to keep ‘em bunched. Then once we get out on the road and they’ve run enough to settle down, we’ll let ‘em string so they can graze along the way. We’ve got lots of time to get there.” He gave Fannie a grin, and got a comic glare in return. “Sound okay?” Both Jacob and Fannie murmured agreement as they reached the corral gate. “Then here we go.”

Charlie unlatched the gate and stepped the buckskin inside, followed by Fannie on the bay. When he saw that Jacob was ready, Charlie swung the gate wide, and began to ease the mares outside. The lead mare headed for the gate, and the rest followed, their colorful hides glinting in the first rays of the sun. Soon the brood mare band was outside, and the race was on.

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Linn Keller 6-11-09

 

Miguel slept soundly, a consequence of the high altitude.
Angela, however, was awake, blinking curiously at me as I leaned against her window casing, looking to the east.
"Angela," I whispered. "Come see."
Angela slipped out from under the covers, pattered over to me, put both her hands on the window sill and leaned a little, her breath fogging the glass.
Jacob was in the lead. Hijo del Sol was half a length behind him, and behind him, a living waterfall -- a small herd of Appaloosas they were fanned out a little but not much -- on either side of them, behind, Charlie and Fannie, well mounted and riding hard and the biggest grin on Charlie's face ever did I see.
I saw Fannie's hand rise and fall, coiled lariat in hand, chivvying the flankers back into the herd, one curl of Irish-red hair escaped from under her hat and shining in the early light.
Jacob was yelling encouragement to Hijo and his Apple-horse: Apple was leaned waaaay out with his nose pointed into the wind and his ears laid back and his tail twisting behind him.
Hijo glowed in the morning sun, running easy, head up. The line between Jacob's hand and Hijo's harness swung a little, the big stallion having no trouble keeping up with the swift arrow of Jacob's Appaloosa.
Angela's excited breath was quick and her warm little hand seized mine.
I looked down.
Her eyes were big and full of marvel, her lips were a little parted, her expression one of rapt wonder.
I looked back out and watched them until they were out of sight.
Angela looked up at me and I squatted down, ignoring the ache behind my shoulder.
"Daddy!" Angela breathed, awed to near-silence. "Daddy, the horsies, they were on fire!"
I nodded, bundling her into my arms, remembering how they absolutely glowed in the red rays of the morning sun.
"Yes they were, Precious," I whispered back. "Yes, they were!"

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Linn Keller 6-11-09

 

Shorty was awake, tending the perpetual labor of mucking out stalls.
He'd just dollied another wheel barrow of stall scrapings out back when he heard thunder underfoot.
Setting the barrow down, he frowned, turned, then grinned, sliding his scuffed and dusty derby back on his thatch and leaning one foot up on the corral rail.
Jacob was riding at the top of his lungs, leaned out over Apple-horse's neck, and Hijo del Sol was close up behind him, making it look like Apple was at the limit of his strength and Hijo was just kind of skipping along behind him.
Shorty knew better.
He'd bet on Apple-horse in impromptu horse races, and came out consistent winners.
"Glory," Shorty breathed as the Appaloosa mares flowed in a glowing red and white river behind them.
He raised his hat and shouted with delight at Fannie and Charlie, who were flanked out and keeping the mares together and making it look easy.
He watched them out of sight and just stood there, listening to hooves on hard ground fading in the distance, watching the back-lit dust cloud drift across the field.
Finally he scratched his head, re-set his Derby and resumed his work, grinning.

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Charlie MacNeil 6-11-09

 

After a couple of miles of jubilant running, noses to the wind, manes and tails streaming, the mares began to slow, sides heaving and steam rising from their lathered sides. Charlie grinned at Fannie across the herd. Her answering grin split the dust that coated her cheeks and glowed wide and bright. "I think they're ready to settle down," he called as Jacob circled toward him. Jacob trotted Apple horse up alongside Charlie's rangy buckskin.

"How about I turn Hijo loose with the mares?" he questioned.

"Good idea," Charlie answered. "It'll give everybody a chance to get acquainted." Jacob slipped the bosal off of the big palomino's nose, and he immediately began to bunch the mares, keeping himself between them and the ridden horses.

"Here now, you selfish bugger!" Charlie growled. "Let 'em string and graze!" With an almost visible shrug of his massive shoulders, and as if he could understand the words (who's to say that he couldn't?), Hijo backed off and let the mares string out as they caught their collective breaths and began to nose the winter-cured grass alongside the trail while they walked, occasionally snatching a mouthful of forage and moving on.

"That stud is going to be a handful," Fannie opined as she reined her bay in on Charlie's other side.

"I reckon," Charlie answered. "Somehow or other, we're gonna have to come to an understanding about who those mares belong to."

"Him!" Jacob said emphatically, and the three of them shared a laugh.

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Linn Keller 6-14-09

 

Breakfast was a dozen eggs fried up, most of a loaf of bread sliced thick, toasted and buttered with good fresh churn butter. A pound or so of bacon fried up crispy, a pot of coffee ... and that was for Miguel.
He was eating light.
It was no reflection on our hospitality that he took our leave, and his fancy Mexican saddle, and headed out on the morning train: rather, it was a particular dark-eyed senorita of whom he spoke in gentle tones.
Miguel's heart had been wounded by the death of his wife and child, but he had the love of a good woman to help him heal, and unless I missed my guess, he would be married again, and not too long.
Angela and I saw him off at the train station and waved as the cars passed out of sight.
"Daddy," Angela asked, reaching waaay up to hold my hand, "what's a sen-yo-ree-ta?"
I eased down to one knee. Angela half-perched herself on the shelf of my other, near-horizontal thigh, regarding me with incredibly bright eyes.
"That's someone very special to him," I replied. "She is a young woman who has captured his heart. She is very pretty, like you, and she is a lady, like you." I touched the tip of her nose and Angela giggled.
"So I'm a sen-yo-ree-ta too?"
"Yes, Precious, you are."
"Oh." She considered this.
"Daddy?"
"Yes, Pumpkin?"
"Does that mean I have to marry Miguel?"
I laughed. "No, Precious, it doesn't."
"Good!" Angela's nod was emphatic. "Miguel doesn't need two wifes!"
I blinked, opened my mouth, closed it slowly.
"I suppose you're right," I said carefully. "I think Miguel would agree with you on that one!"
Angela slid off my leg. "Daddy?"
"Yes, Angela?"
"Can I have a fire horsie?"
I brushed a stray curl back from her forehead, regarded her solemn eyes. "Dear heart, I doubt me not you will have a horse in due time. Your Mama is quite the rider."
"I know. She had me on Edi."
"Do you like Edi?"
"Yes!" Angela shouted, throwing her arms wide and bouncing on her toes in an explosive affirmation of absolute delight.
"Tell you what, my dear. I need to stop and see Jackson Cooper. What say we go do that, and you can drive home."
Angela's reply was to throw herself into my arms, hugging me tight around the neck, knocking my hat off and over-balancing me backwards.
I wrapped my arms around her and held her tight, knowing I was going to hit hard flat on my back and not wanting her head to slam down on my collar bone.
I saw stars when I hit and there was a minor explosion of PAIN!! just under my right shoulder blade, but Angela was safe, and while I lay there blinking back tears of agony, she was straddling my belly and laughing.
"That was fun, Daddy! Do it again!"

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Linn Keller 6-14-09

 

One of the loafers hailed me as we drew up in front of the Sheriff's office. I recognized the man from a couple years before.
"Hello, Soapy!" came the cheery greeting. "Et any good lye soap lately?"
"Angela, stay with the carriage," I said quietly. "I'll be right out." I dismounted, hiding my discomfort, hooked my thumbs in my belt and strutted importantly up onto the boardwalk.
"Why, not only have I had a good cake of soap this morning," I said in a bragging tone, "I keep a steady diet of the stuff! It cleans the teeth, improves the complexion, restores lost hair and improves the looks!" I leaned toward the fellow and added in a conspiratorial tone, "And with my looks, I need all the help I can get!"
We had a good laugh and I passed on into the Sheriff's office.
Jackson Cooper was sorting through some new wanted dodgers, a blue granite cup of steaming coffee ready at hand. "Morning, Sheriff!" he greeted me with a grin. "Coffee?"
My reply was to reach for a cup and the quilted pad we used to insulate when we grabbed the metal handle on the coffee pot. It didn't take a man but once to learn that a hot pot of coffee wasn't something you wanted to grab bare hand.
"I didn't make this batch," I said with a grin, "so it ought to be safe!"
Jackson Cooper looked quickly back to the wanted dodgers, muttering something about you got that right, and I pretended not to hear.
We both knew how bad my coffee was.
'Jackson Cooper, would there still be a clothes brush in the drawer?" I asked.
Jackson Cooper opened the drawer. "Yes, sir, right here it is."
I took off my coat.
It did not miss Jackson Cooper's quick eye that I was moving kind of stiff.
"I went over backwards a little bit ago," I admitted. "I don't think I broke anything loose but it wasn't the smartest thing I've done."
"Oh, I dunno," Jackson Cooper rumbled. "I reckon it smarted plenty!"
I picked up the coffee, took an experimental sip, scalded my lip and my tongue and seared the surface of my tonsils.
Jackson Cooper draped my coat over the back of a chair and began briskly brushing the dirt off it.
I blew on the coffee, took another sip.
Now that I'd burnt off the nerve endings it wasn't bad.
Kind of like bad whiskey in that respect.
The loafer who had jibed at me looked in the open door. "Say, Sheriff, what ever happened to that big Palomino you been ridin'? Lose him in a poker game?"
I drew my dignity about me like a cloak and harrumphed importantly.
Jackson Cooper chuckled. Apparently my imitation of a stuffed shirt politician was spot-on.
"I'll have you know," I said with a dramatic finger-wave to the ceiling, "I'll have you know I wore that poor old fellow plumb out!"
"Why, do tell!" the loafer encouraged, folding his arms and leaning against the door-casing, grinning in anticipation of having his leg professionally pulled.
"That poor old hoss is so used up and run down, why, I had to set him out for stud! He's gonna need maybe a year to recover at the very least!" I shook my head in mock sorrow. "In the mean time I'll just have to suffer along with that Rose-horse I used to ride!"
"Now what about this business of travelin' around in a buggy with a little girl, an' you a grown man and all?" he needled me good-naturedly.
I again adopted the air of a fellow conspirator. "I've always wondered what it would be like to run around with a younger woman," I said with a wink. "I figured this was the safest way to find out!"
This gained a burst of mirth and merriment from the fellow, who found great amusement in my pronouncement; when he was done slapping his leg and wiping his eye, he glanced at Angela, who had her head tilted back, apparently regarding a circling eagle or perhaps cloud formations.
"How is it, running around with a younger woman?" he finally asked between chuckles.
"Well," I admitted, "it's kind of hard on an old man's carcass. So far she's throwed me down in the dirt and wallered me around some, and once she was done jumping up and down on my chest she allowed as I was gonna have to get her a horse!"
"I understand that all too well, friend," came the mournful reply with a solemn and knowing shake of the head. "Women young and old will just plainly drain a man for every nickle he's got!"
He gave me a curious look.
"She was jumpin' on your chest?"
"With both feet," I assured him, serious faced.
He scratched his head, resettled his hat.
"Daggone, man," he finally said, "she must want that horse really bad!"

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Charlie MacNeil 6-14-09

 

Even with an early start, the day was well over half-gone when the mares and their self-appointed protector streamed through the gate into the small fenced pasture near the ranch house. A cold, spring-fed rivulet overhung with stalks of winter-cured bluestem meandered through the pasture, chuckling over its gravel bed accompanied by the “cheep-hareemp” of a frog awakened early from its winter slumbers by the warm sunshine. The mares lined up side-by-side and stuck their velvety noses down into the shadowy slot to slurp the refreshing liquid before scattering across the grass to graze.

Charlie closed the gate and stood leaning on the gatepost, watching the sleek Appaloosas and their golden guardian tearing off mouthfuls of the fragrant standing hay. “Now that’s a sight I’ve been wantin’ to see for a long time,” he said quietly. A soft hand touched his shoulder and he turned his head, his hazel eyes meeting his bride’s emerald orbs.

“They’re beautiful, Charlie,” Fannie said. “I didn’t realize just how much until now.”

“They’ll look even better with some of Hijo’s get tagging along beside ‘em,” Charlie answered, turning to look once again at his dream come true.

Jacob’s soft voice intruded only slightly in the moment. “I’d probably better be heading for town, Charlie,” the young deputy said.

“You’re welcome to stay for supper,” Charlie told him, turning to hold out his hand. Jacob leaned down and shook the proffered hand.

“He’s a newlywed, Charlie,” Fannie said, laughing. “He doesn’t want to have supper with us old folks when he’s got that pretty young wife waiting for him at home.”

Jacob blushed bright red. “I would imagine Annette will have something ready when I get there.”

“Then you’d best get to it, hadn’t you?” Charlie asked with a laugh. “Thanks a lot for your help, Jacob. And we’d like it if you and Annette could join us for supper some time soon.”

“We’d be happy to, Charlie,” Jacob answered. He touched a finger to the brim of his hat then spun Apple horse on his heels and tapped the big horse with his spurs. “See ya,” drifted back over Jacob’s shoulder as the big Appy launched into a lope.

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Linn Keller 6-17-09

 

Apple-horse was a bit reluctant to leave a herd of freshening mares -- he was, after all, a stallion -- but Hijo had delivered a rather painful bite to his hind quarters and a couple grazing kicks that reminded one and all just who the Herd Stallion was.
Jacob could tell where Apple's thoughts were, though: as they rode away from Charlie and Fannie's place, Apple's ears were turned back, and whenever he had the chance he would turn, and once sent a whistling challenge across the countryside.
Jacob patted him sympathetically on the neck. "Come on, fellow," he murmured. "I know just what you mean." His smile was quiet and his eyes far away for a moment, for he too was a stallion with a mind full of filly, just as Miz Fannie had surmised.

Meanwhile, back in the Jewel, Daisy sat down abruptly, tears running down both cheeks, staring sightlessly at the paper Esther had just given her.
Daisy lay a protective hand on her belly. She was not showing yet, but she was indeed with child, and this news caught her absolutely, completely and totally by surprise.
Esther bit her bottom lip, distressed at the younger woman's dampening eyes, but resolute that it was the right thing: still, a mother herself, she wasn't terribly happy to have caused such distress.
Daisy stood abruptly, her shoe soles slapping loudly on the floor and she came at Esther, stopping less than a hand's-breadth from the older woman.
Both womens' eyes were bright now, Daisy's bosom heaving with barely contained emotion, and finally she focused everything in one move.
She seized Esther in a crushing embrace and, burying her face in the green cloth of the Irish matron's shoulder, gave full womanly vent to the turmoil in her soul.
Esther, for her part, held Daisy in motherly arms, rubbing her back a little and murmuring the reassuring words that a mother uses in such moments: soothing sounds, reassuring sounds, the very words and the very sounds Daisy herself had used to soothe little Sean.
Big Sean and Little Sean, not knowing any of this was happening, stormed down the hallway with their usual absolute utter and complete lack of stealth; to the unitiated it might sound as if a troop of infantry were at routemarch on the scrubbed boards: when Sean came into the room with his cheery "Daisy me dear!" he ground to a quick halt at the sight before him.
Unused to such a torrent of womanly tears, he did what any good healthy red blooded manly man would do in such a moment.
He stood there with his mouth open.
Daisy lifted her head and handed Sean the now-wrinkled, single sheet of paper.
Puzzled, Sean frowned and read it, read it again.
"Papa?" Little Sean asked. "Let me see!"
Big Sean squatted, pulled his son up on his leg, holding the paper before the lad. Little Sean held it carefully, tilting his head a bit to the left, then to the right, puzzling at the yet-secret characters neatly inscribed before him.
He reached a tentative and slightly dirty forefinger toward a red wax seal.
"What is it?" he asked loudly, and Sean threw back his great Irish head and laughed.
"Ma lad, yer Mama is a woman o' substance!" he declared in a delighted bellow. "Say hello to the new owner!"
"It's just the kitchen," Daisy choked, quickly applying her apron to her eyes; Esther took the moment to extract a lace-edged kerchief from her sleeve for a similar application.
"Sure an' wha' does a tired mon want when he comes i' here?" Sean grinned. "Mr. Baxter's ministrations, an' yours, ma dear! Men must eat!"
"You are a full partner," Esther said as steadily as she could. She had certainly not intended to cause such an emotional response -- but Daisy was with child, and a woman with child is often expressive.
She herself had been!
"You are a wife and mother and another on the way," Esther continued. "It simply would not do to keep you here. I know you love it and you certainly do wonderfully, but Daisy, you've more than earned this! You have good people under you. You can supervise, yes, but let them do the work."
"I own a business," Daisy whispered, giggling.
This was a dream since girlhood, a dream she'd long since given up on.
Her head spun and she reached blindly for the arm of the rocking chair.
What she found was Sean's big arm, and soon the room spun for real, for Sean whirled her carefully, orbiting about Esther and laughing with the full-bodied joy that is the legacy of the Irishman.
Little Sean drew up against Esther's front and Esther reached down and held him protectively into her.

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Linn Keller 6-18-09

 

Jacob kept Apple-horse's nose pointed back toward home, back toward Firelands.
They'd come toward the MacNeil ranch at considerable velocity and Apple had run joyfully with them, for it was ever the legacy of the Appaloosa to cover ground, and cover it fast; the return trip was at a steady lope, nothing spectacular, not terribly tiring: Apple could keep this up all day, and at times, had.
Jacob rode easy. He was at home in the saddle, delighting in a good horse under him, sun shine warm on his hide, the smell of open country and the Shining Mountains on all sides.
Jacob did not push Apple, and a time or two Apple trotted down and paced along, loafing, and Jacob let him.
As much as he wanted to get home to food on the table and a willing lass in his arms, he knew he would get there in due time: in this, he took a lesson from the native tribes, who regarded time much like the Orientals half a world away: that time was a river, and one may dip liberally from it as needed.
Food on the table, Jacob thought, considering the angle of the sun: he laughed a little, reaching back and raising the flap on his saddle bag.

Partway up the mountain nearest Firelands, in the fine stone house with the Square and Compasses incised into the lintel, Annette smiled as she rolled out bread dough. The house was clean, clothes were hung out on the line, the stove was almost ready and so was the bread dough she was working.
She'd been so intent on her sewing the night before that she'd honestly forgotten Jacob would be at Charlie and Fannie's ranch; she'd barely been able to wrap two thick sandwiches and get them into his saddle bag before he'd kissed her and galloped off with a whistle and a yell, the way he always did.
I should have sent something for Charlie and Fannie, she thought, and felt her face redden with guilt. I hope they don't think me a bad wife!
She shaped the dough into a greased loaf pan, opened the stove door with her apron for a hot-mitt and slid the dough onto the oven rack.
He'll smell the bread when he comes in, she thought, dusting her hands briskly together.
A sound behind her caused her to turn, surprised: reflexively, her hands came up, almost chin-high, and she found a stranger in her kitchen, a man with an unpleasant expression and a knife.
"Well, what's this?" the fellow grinned.
Annette's stomach turned. He was dirty, his teeth were yellow and ill-kept: one was decayed, he was unshaven and she imagined she could smell him already.
"Why don't you give me some sugar and something to eat, hm?" he said, grinning wickedly and flicking the knife suggestively.
Annette's hands lowered, slowly.
She swallowed hard, her eyes on the stranger: one hand rested on the heavy table, as if to steady herself, while the other hand went to her belly, as if she were suddenly ill.
The stranger chuckled.
He'd seen this before.
"Surprise a woman", he'd told a campfire companion, "and she'll go all weak and watery on you. Her hand will go to her belly or her bosom and all the fight will run out of her -- but you've got to surprise her and have a knife in hand."
He'd drawn his own knife and turned it a little, the camp fire gleaming off its polished, honed edge, right before he seized the man around the chin, drawing his luckless victim's head back and to the side, right before that polished, honed edge sliced through trachea and artery, jugular and tendons.
The murderer had left the camp fire burning, leaving the dead man lighter by the contents of his purse, his pistol and his horse.
Now the fellow smiled wickedly at this young woman, surprised in the act of putting bread in the oven.
He did so enjoy fresh, hot bread.
Annette took a half step to her right, tottering a little, as if dizzy: she was behind a high backed chair now, pale, her breath coming in quick little gasps.
"What, what, what do you want?" she choked, eyes big and bright.
He laughed -- those filthy teeth! Annette thought -- "Oh, I think you know what I want." He drove the knife point first into the unblemished tabletop. "What I'll have!"
What he had, unfortunately, was an unpleasant surprise.
Annette knew she had to keep the man off balance.
She'd worked her way behind a chair, allayed his suspicions: behind this concealment she drew her dead brother's Derringer from her apron pocket and cocked it.
Her first shot went in just under the intruder's breastbone.
A Derringer's payload does not carry much weight and conveys even less power, but it beats bare hands, especially when the lady's hands are bare and the stranger's hands hold a knife.
The stranger looked down in surprise and disappointment, one hand going to his belly, then his other hand seized the knife -- he wrenched it from the tabletop -- and with a roar, started to come around the table.
The Derringer barked again, loud in the kitchen: the second bullet penetrated his left eye.
The intruder's roar was louder now, the sound of a man in agony: he stopped, clapped both hands to his bloodied face.
Annette dropped the Derringer, looked around: jaw set, she seized the handle of her meat tenderizing maul and advanced on the stranger.
Blinded by the injury and the pain, he never saw her coming in.
He may or may not have felt the steel toothed surface of the hardwood maul as it caved in his skull.
Annette did not care.
All she knew was that he had come into her clean kitchen with his filth and his threats and she was going to stop him and she didn't really care how she did it.
Her first stroke would have been enough.

When Jacob rode up to their front door, he stopped whistling, puzzled.
Apple shook his head, blowing: something was making him unhappy, Jacob knew, something wasn't right --
He slid his Winchester from its scabbard, stepped out of the saddle. It was long in the evening and his eyes read the ground.
A horse -- here! -- tracks, Annette's, a stranger's ...
Drag marks?
Jacob's thumb was heavy on the rifle's hammer.
The .40-60 came to full cock and Jacob reached for their front door.
It swung open before he could grasp his own door handle.
A hand shot out and seized his descending rifle barrel.
Annette stood in the doorway, pale, nostrils flared: she wore the same dress she'd worn that morning, but a fresh apron: belted over the apron she wore her brother's gunbelt, and in her hands, his Colt.
Jacob saw something in her eyes.
Annette holstered the Colt, looking down at the holster, precisely placing the worn Peacemaker in its leathern home, before releasing Jacob's rifle barrel.
"There is bread," she said, "and I have made stew."
Jacob took a step up, drew his wife into him, and her arms went around him, tight, tight.
She was shivering a little.
"I'm glad you're home," she whispered.

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