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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 6-19-09

 

The Sheriff was not a happy man.
The Sheriff's eyes were lighter now, noticeably lighter, and he brought his chair slowly upright, stood.
Jacob stood before the man, his own hat in his hand, assessing the Sheriff's posture, the set of his jaw.
"Go on," the older lawman said quietly, and Jacob knew the quietness of his voice was in and of itself a warning.
"I back trailed him a ways and found his handiwork." He laid a wallet on the Sheriff's desk. "He killed a fellow, lifted his wallet, took his revolver but left the leather."
The Sheriff blinked slowly, like a sleepy cat.
Jacob noted the man's shoulders were both back now, not just the one: anger was providing him the strength to assume his usual posture, overriding the pain of the healing back ribs.
Jacob reckoned the man could take considerably more pain than this, judging by the anger he saw building.
"The man's name was Nicer. Drifter, saddle bum, he'd worked here and there, good man by all reports."
"And this fellow killed him."
"Didn't just kill him, sir." Jacob blinked, remembering the scene by the dead camp fire. "Cut his throat to the bone. Looked like one stroke."
The Sheriff nodded. He'd seen as much from time to time.
"Do we know the murderer's name?"
Jacob laid a second, more worn wallet on the desk. "No, sir. This one had fifteen dollars in Yankee green backs and nothing else. I ran across two ranchers on the way in, they didn't recognize him either."
The Sheriff nodded. "Have Fiddler Daine sketch him for us."
"Might be a bit difficult, sir."
The Sheriff's raised eyebrow was question enough.
"Sir, Annette took a meat maul to him --"
The Sheriff raised a forestalling hand.
"You're sure she's all right?" he asked.
Annette came through the door, her step light, her heels loud on the puncheon flooring. She crossed the room and raised up on the balls of her feet, pecking a kiss on the Sheriff's smooth-shaven cheek.
Jacob suppressed a smile as his father's ears turned a remarkable shade of red.
"I'm fine," Annette said, squeezing the gray-mustached lawman's forearm and smiling, "but I could use some help."
The Sheriff turned to her and laid a gentle hand on hers.
Annette saw his eyes darken just a bit, and later she recalled how sad his eyes were in that moment.
"My dear," he said in a gentle but slightly husky voice, "I can deny you nothing."
Jacob's mental gears were grinding.
His father had taught him to look deeper than the surface, look behind the spoken words, to look for patterns, look for motive ...
He'd seen that same look when his father spoke with Bonnie.
And Sarah, and Angela ...
Sorrow...? he thought, then he remembered something else.
He'd heard that same note in his father's voice before.
He'd heard it when Duzy died.
"Still waters run deep," his mother had told him once, regarding his Pa: he'd asked why the man had locked his grief away and hadn't let it out.
"Oh, he grieves hard," Esther had told her son, brushing his hair back with motherly fingers. "He goes off by himself to do it."
"You've seen it, then?" he asked, immediately regretting the impulse.
Esther nodded and he saw the same sadness in her eyes.
Now, looking at his father, he realized where he'd gotten his own deep well of feelings.
Annette raised her chin. "Jacob is a perfectly competent instructor," she said, her diction clear and precise, "but I would like you to teach me to shoot."
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow, looked at Jacob.
Jacob nodded, once.

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Linn Keller 6-20-09

 

Daddy and Mommy had been talking quietly, while little Joseph cuddled for his Mommy-time, under the shawl Mommy covered him with.
Daddy sat in his big Daddy-chair and Mommy was in the rocking chair.
Angela liked the rocking chair, especially when Mommy pulled her up into her lap and they rocked, and Mommy talked Mommy-talk to her, and cuddled her close. Mommy always smelled clean and smelled like lilac water.
Michelle was in the kitchen, fixing supper, and Angela was sitting on the back porch, her feet down on the first step, Bup beside her.
Bup had been on his back, begging for attention, and Angela had rubbed his furry belly, giggling as Bup kicked when she rubbed his tickle-spot.
Daddy and Mommy had been talking in serious, grown-up words and in serious, grown-up tones, something about Annette and scoundrels and a meat maul.
Angela knew what a maul was. She'd seen her Daddy using a maul to drive stakes with, and she puzzled over the term "meat maul" ... she imagined a steaming beef roast on the end of a broom handle, and her Daddy swinging it hard overhead, driving stakes with it.
Angela giggled.
Silly! she thought. It would just fall apart and get all dirty and they would have to give it to Bup!
The back door opened and Angela looked up, turning a little to see who was coming out the back door.
Michelle was drying her hands on her apron. "Angela," she called gently, "come in for supper, and wash your hands!"
Bup had been about an inch and a half from being completely asleep, but at the smell that followed Michelle -- and Angela's quick response to the sibilant, two-syllable word he'd come to associate with food! -- Bup curled up and rolled over, quickly, before he was completely awake, and ended up rolling and bouncing down all four steps.
Angela giggled as Bup landed, came up on all fours, shook his head and looked around as if puzzled how this all happened so quickly.

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Linn Keller 6-20-09

 

"Was it George again?" Esther asked quietly.
Joseph, cuddled against her under the shawl, nursed steadily and with good appetite.
The Sheriff nodded.
"How bad was he today?"
The Sheriff smiled, a little sadly, a little tired.
"Tom Landers sent a boy for me shortly before Annette and Jacob came in," he began.
Esther tilted her head, smiling a little.
"Poor old George was missing his wife terribly." The Sheriff frowned at the floor, for he too was a man who had lost a beautiful young wife.
"He was drinking?" Esther prompted.
The Sheriff nodded, slowly.
"Mr. Baxter has cut him off in the past when he's had too much, or when he's gotten unpleasant, but this time he was quiet. Just looking off into the distance and drinking."
There was a tap on the door. Michelle opened it a bit, smiled. "Sorree to bothair," she said in her accented tones, "but suppair will be readee in pairhaps a half hour."
The Sheriff looked up and smiled again. "Thank you, Michelle," he said, and Esther smiled down at young Jacob, who was in the middle of an absolutely huge yawn.
"I think Joseph has had enough of supper," Esther said very quietly, arranging the cloth over her shoulder and placing the relaxed little boy-child in burping position.
Esther looked at the Sheriff, eyes bright and curious. "George?" she prompted.
"George," the Sheriff grunted. "He was filthy today. He's one of the best farmers in the territory but he hadn't bothered to clean up before he came in to drink."
"That bad," Esther murmured sympathetically, arranging the shawl to cover not just herself, but Joseph as well. She patted her child's back, gently, rubbing his back and his bottom.
The Sheriff heard the tiniest of sighs as his son, contented, surrendered himself to slumber.
"George kept drinking and he kept Mr. Baxter's palm plied with coin.
"Mr. Baxter kept him supplied with drink as long as he behaved.
"Tom Landers was watching him too. He's known George since the man moved into the territory. Matter of fact it's Tom that told me about George losing his young wife to the fever and how he was heart broke, and threw himself into farming.
"Phenomenal crop yields but the man works himself to death, and not a moment of joy in it."
Esther's eyes expressed her understanding. She, too, had lost people before their time, and understood grief and loss a bit too well.
"Finally George started getting mean again. That's when Tom sent a boy for me.
"Jacob and Annette had already gone home so I walked over to the Jewel.
"Tom was behind him, doing a fine job of being invisible, and I walked up toward George from the front.
"George," I said, "I think it might be time to go home."
George leered at one of the saloon girls up on the stage. "Naw, I like it here," he said. "I need more to drink."
"You've had plenty," I said, and I let my voice say more than my words.
George allowed as he was going to drink some more and I said "George, you recall the horse shoe?"
Esther blinked. "The horse shoe?"
The Sheriff grinned. "First time George ever came in to drink I allowed as he'd had enough. He allowed as how he hadn't. I handed him a horse shoe and asked him to bend it.
"He did.
"I then laid a hand on the man's shoulder and said, 'Were I to take you on, you could likely tie me in knots and then drive me through the floor like a fence post,' and it tickled him and got him to laugh. Once I got him to laugh I had him, and he let me take him home."
Esther smiled. Her husband had used humor and gentle persuasion to good effect in the past, and this was another instance, just one she hadn't heard about before.
"I asked him if he remembered the horse shoe and he kind of sagged a little.
"'Sheriff,' said he, 'I don't want to drive you through the floor.'
"I allowed as I didn't believe I would enjoy the experience either.
"I took his arm and we headed out the back like we always do. I figured it was better to take him out back, out of the public eye. His wagon was out back.
"Once we got out back, George came to the livery with me but he saw Shorty taking a nip from his flask and decided he was still thirsty.
"Now George," I said, "you've had enough," and George allowed as he hadn't.
"As good luck would have it, we were near the end of the horse trough.
"George half stumbled and I kind of helped him a little but I hollered 'George watch you don't fall into the' SPLASH!" -- and the Sheriff's hands described a fountain of water -- "headlong he went right into Shorty's prize watering trough!"
Esther's eyes were bright and laughing as she pressed shawl material against her lips in a vain attempt to keep her mirth quiet. When she was able to control her merriment she dabbed at her eyes, laid a gentle hand on little Joseph's back and cleared her throat delicately. "What did he do?"
"Do?" the Sheriff grinned. "Why, he come up out of that trough stone sober, spouted water like a whale, coughed once or twice and shook his head and asked why I did that!
"Shorty was behind me and I could hear him hawk and cough and I knew he was trying to keep from laughing, for I'd used his horse trough on drunks a time or three before.
"Why, George," I said, the very image of wounded innocence, "you tripped on that-there board! I didn't do a single thing!"
George waded toward me and bent over a little, squinting at the offending board. He was still shin bone deep in water, with water running off his elbows and his chin, and he allowed as I was right, he must have tripped, so I give him a hand out of the horse trough, Shorty brought out Rose o' the Mornin', we tied her off on the back of his wagon and I took him home."
"I'm very glad he did not try to drive you through the floor," Esther murmured, bringing Joseph down into the cradle of her arms and standing. "You would make a poor fence post, my dear."

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Linn Keller 6-22-09

 

The Sheriff was in court the next day; matters of importance and matters minor were discussed; Annette, sitting erect in the witness chair, was calm and resolute in her replies to the official questions, if a bit pale: only the kerchief clenched in her hands betrayed the tension she felt.
Judge Hostetler rendered the reasonable verdict of justificable homicide, with costs to the deceased.
After court, His Honor rested a fatherly hand under Annette's elbow and congratulated her on keeping a cool head, and for dealing most justly with such a scoundrel.
The Sheriff held his tongue. He'd done some inquiring among local lawmen and found the deceased had quite an unpleasant reputation.
He saw no point in distressing his daughter-in-law further.
The Sheriff invited Judge Hostetler to supper, which the dignified justice accepted: Jacob drove Annette back to their place and the Sheriff drove the Judge to his own home.
The Sheriff, generous to a fault, extended the hospitality of his home to the fine man which he admired and respected.
The Sheriff honestly forgot that Michelle had the day off.
When they drew up in front of the Sheriff's house, talking as men will, they were startled to hear a commotion within: a domestic commotion, the Sheriff thought, puzzled, for the voices were female, and distressed, and ...
Esther's?
"Excuse me, Your Honor," the Sheriff said politely, setting the brake on his fine carriage and stepping down: he was but a moment getting to the front door, which opened as he reached for the handle.
Esther stood in the doorway, her face white, pinched, her green eyes snapping with contained anger.
Wordlessly she thrust a flour-covered Joseph into the Sheriff's arms.
Esther snatched up her skirts, descended the steps and climbed into the carriage.
The Sheriff knew things could not be good.
He looked within, almost timidly, just in time to see two little girls in what used to be clean dresses run shreiking through the house, brushing past him in a cloud of flour: something smelled to be scorching within, and the Sheriff took a tentative step, another.
Little Joseph began crying, distressed at the unpleasant vibrations in the ether ... either that, or due to other, more prosaic causes, for the Sheriff's nose wrinkled and he looked at his firstborn son with a disappointed expression.
Sarah and Angela ran around the house at the top of their lungs, laughing, and came stampeding in the back door.
Angela tripped on the threshold and went headlong onto the kitchen floor, landing in a minor nimbus of flour-dust, and what the Sheriff thought to be a pile of spilled flour suddenly jumped to its feet, wagged its tail and ran out a tongue of startling pinkness.
Snatching up a towel, the Sheriff seized the handle of the pot, smoking on the stove: he thrust against the back door with a boot and tossed pot, potatoes and all out into the yard, then he turned to survey the chaos that had once been a clean and orderly kitchen.
The girls had disappeared again, trailing flour in their wake; the path of their departure was dusted with ghostly white, and His Honor the Judge peered in the front door, trying his best to maintain a solemn expression, and failing utterly in the attempt.
The Sheriff looked down at Bup.
Bup looked at the Sheriff, stirring up a small dust-storm with his tail.
The Sheriff looked at Joseph, who launched again into a storm of his own.
"Let's start with you," the Sheriff said to his son. "Bup, can you tell me what happened?"
Bup cocked his head, his white ears perked happily, and he leaped to all fours, wiggling with delight, as Bups are wont to do. He yapped once, a sharp note, which surprised Joseph, who stopped crying and wiggled in his Papa's grasp and looked down at the floured canine.
Joseph laughed, a delighted baby-laugh, and the Sheriff, his coat showing the accumulating effects of settling dust, laughed with him.
Esther called over the Judge's shoulder. "We're going to the Jewel for supper," she said. "You get the girls ready for bed!"
About then, Angela and Sarah came laughing and shrieking through the back door.
The Sheriff stepped into the doorway, blocking their path.
The girls stopped abruptly, looked at one another, then looked around the kitchen.
Sara's expression was somewhere between crestfallen and ready-to-cry.
Angela's visage was one of utter woe and she said, "Uh-oh," in a little-girl voice.
"Sarah," the Sheriff said quietly, "Joseph will want a bath. Please draw water for that task. Angela, Sarah will want a bath. Please help her draw water for that task as well. I shall bring in wood."
Bup sat, waving one forepaw in the air, sneezed.
The Sheriff hung his hat on a convenient peg and put Joseph down on the floor: he removed coat and vest and proceeded to prepare his squealing, kicking son for a much-needed bath.

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Linn Keller 6-23-09

 

Modesty and decorum were set aside, at least for a little while: I was without coat or vest, which I hoped did not scandalize the ladies, and I hung sheets up so they could take their turns in the tub without being exposed to the gaze of a non-existent audience.
Still, there was much girlish giggling from behind the hanging screen, and it took stern command to still the splashing waters, culminating in a rumble-voiced "DO I HAVE TO COME BACK THERE AND SMACK YOUR BARE BOTTOM, YOUNG LADY!" -- not addressed to either girl in particular, but sufficient to still the shrieks and splashes.
Sarah apparently bathed first. Both girls padded barefoot, in flannel nighties, around the curtain, one damp and squeaky-clean, one not: I tasked Sarah and Angela with watching young Joseph, who was snoozing beside a snoring Bup: both were still pallid with flour-dust and I knew I would have a full night's work bringing cleanliness to the despoiled kitchen: it seems most of a sack of flour was spilt, scattered and suspended in the course of confusion.
"Daddy," Angela whined, "I'm hungry."
I realized my own belly was telling me my throat had been cut.
"Get your bath, Princess, and we'll all go eat."
"Yay!" Angela bounced and clapped and Joseph woke up, startled, looking around with light-blue eyes.
Bup woke up, too, ears perked, tail stirring the flour-dust.
Joseph reached over and explored Bup's furry leg, and Bup sniffed Joseph and licked his cheek and chin.
Joseph laughed, a happy bubbly baby laugh, and I fetched a few buckets of water out of the copper tub, carried to the back porch and slung them out into the yard: I had a bucket of water heated and steaming on the stove, I added this to what was left in the tub, then two buckets of fresh pumped well water.
I stirred it some with my hand. It was a bit warm yet so I cautioned Angela on my way past not to get into the tub yet, as it was too warm.
Joseph had been clean when I put him down on the floured floor. I knew I'd have to clean him up again anyhow -- little boys tend to leak at that age -- and his water was nearly up to working temperature on the stove.
Angela disappeared behind the screen and I heard her climb in and giggle, and while Sarah made sure Jacob did not roll over and crawl through the flour again, I began to clean up the mess.
Once Angela had bathed, I dunked little Joseph's naked wiggling form in the water, realizing too late it was too deep for this task. I ended up with him in a galvanized bucket of bath water on the kitchen table. It wasn't the best bath tub but I did not want to risk losing him beneath the water's surface.
Joseph didn't mind a bit. He laughed and splashed in a most entertaining way.
Sarah took a clothes brush and got the worst of the white stuff off my coat and vest before Angela was done with her happy ablutions: when Esther and Judge Hostetler came back, little Joseph and the girls were clean. The girls had changed into fresh dresses, had brushed each other's hair out and were sitting in a most lady-like fashion on our front porch, as absolutely innocent as if nothing at all had happened.
Little Joseph was in an ill-fitting diaper, wrapped in a blanket, on the fur rug in the parlor. Bup, damp, clean and not entirely happy at having had a bath, lay on his back, all four paws in the air, the tip of his pink tongue just visible between his ivory whites.
I offered the Judge the use of our spare bedroom.
Ever the gentleman, His Honor lifted his pearl-gray hat to Esther, thanked us most kindly for our hospitality, but he said it would not be seemly for a strange man to be in the house with an unescorted woman.
About then Michelle showed up; His Honor decided that Esther was no longer unescorted, and accepted our kind offer.
I made my apologies to Michelle for not having the kitchen cleaned up, and for having left a flat bottom shovel parked against the kitchen table. It had proven useful in removing bulk quantities of flour.
The girls and I -- and Bup -- soon occupied the carriage, and drove to the Jewel in the deepening dusk.

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Linn Keller 6-24-09

 

Mr. Baxter served my young ladies with a fluorish and a bow, setting their fine, long-stemmed glasses before them, filled with what I knew to be sarsparilla.
It was undoubtedly of the very best vintage.
I had a mug of beer with a healthy shot of Kentucky Stump Blower mixed in, for my ribs had been telling me very unkind things for the past hour.
Our meal came quickly and was of the very best quality.
I am never amazed more than when I regard children.
These two, who could be sisters or at least cousins, had been active, shrieking, running, agents of mayhem and creators of chaos, had driven Esther to distraction and made an absolute mess of both the kitchen and of their bath ... these two were now the very image of ladylike and decorous behavior.
Little boys of similar age would still be wound up like an eight day clock.
The female, I reflected, is a complex creature indeed.
Our food came quickly and was of excellent quality.
I ignored the thumping ache south of my shoulder blade and made steady inroads into my taters and gravy and good beef.
When pie arrived I thanked Morning Star for the excellence of the meal.
Her eyes flicked to the girls and I could see for a moment -- for just one, brief, unguarded moment -- an expression of affection, of approval.
We dallied over our pie as the girls chattered, filling my ears of matters of great importance, at least to them; to me it sounded like childish observations of the day, until Angela asked, "Daddy, what's a meemall?"
It took me some puzzling to figure out she meant "Meat Maul."
I took a sip of the coffee that came with my pie and considered.
"I saw you use a maul to drive posts," Angela continued. "That was a woody maul."
"Huh-uh," Sarah corrected her with the air of a big sister's superior knowledge. "That was osage orange! Wasn't it, Uncle Linn?"
I nodded. "It's a wood, yes, I made it of the root of Osage orange. It's a very twisty, knotted wood that holds together even if it splits."
"But it's wood!" Angela protested.
"Right you are, princess!" I declared with an emphatic gesture.
Angela looked at Sarah and stuck out her tongue. "See!"
"Now, ladies," I said gently, "we're in public, let's behave, shall we?"
Both girls straightened and folded their hands very proprely in their laps.
"But Daddy," Angela persisted, "what's a meemall?"
"What do you think it is, Princess?"
Angela frowned. "I think it's a big chunk of real tough beef that nobody can chew an' it's tied on a broom handle an' you beat stuff with it!"
I leaned an elbow on the table and hid my smile behind a hand, as if I were smoothing my mustache.
"Well, Princess, if the meat is too tough to chew we have to make it tender," I explained with a wink to Sarah. "If I pound it on a fence post, do you think it would make it tender?"
"Oooo," Angela said, the light of discovery in her eyes, then she looked down at the empty pie plates. "Daddy, did you use a fence post on our beef?"
"No, Princess," I said, finishing my beer. "The meat was of good quality and did not need my attention."

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Mr. Box 6-24-09

 

"Good evening, ladies, Sheriff. What brings you out this evening?"
"Fire went out in the cookstove!" Linn said as the two young ladies with him rolled their eyes up at him.
"And Bup spilled the flour!" added Angela.
"I assume that will be three for dinner then. Your usual table? Right this way."
"Thank you, Mr. Baxter." as I led them him to his table followed by two young ladies of the highest caliber. As I was drawing a mug of beer for Linn, I decided to get out the good stuff for the young ladies. I filled a couple of crystal wine glasses with sarsparilla and served to them. They sat up straight with a big smile on their faces. They knew they were out on the town!

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Linn Keller 6-24-09

 

It wasn't until after we drove home -- Angela wanted to drive, but I knew this meant Sarah would want to drive also, and likely we'd end up in Cripple Creek or points beyond -- so I indulged the girls' tendency to talk, attempting to divine what really happened there in our kitchen.
Bup was part of it, all right ... but how big a part varied with which girl told the tale, and how many times the tale was told, and by the time they were done playing Pin the Blame on Somebody Else, why, Bup would likely have ripped the house off its foundations if they two had not intervened!
It wasn't until we got the girls settled in for the night and I brought in a bucket of wet sawdust to spread on the floor that Esther filled me in.
It was more the girls, it turned out, which I'd suspicioned, but Bup was a handy scape goat.
I helped get the mess reduced significantly.
Esther was able to salvage about a third of the sack of flour.
I don't know who was the more distressed, Esther at the whole incident, or Michelle, for she apparently wasn't used to the Lord and the Lady of the Manor pitching in to clean up.
Me, I didn't think it would have been fair to her if we'd just stepped back and said "You! Hireling! Clean that up!" -- though I knew folks did such things ... I'd been raised better and so had Esther, though she came from a genteel upbringing where the servants did most of the work.
Between the three of us we got the job finished not too long after midnight.
Mr. Baxter's mixture had helped my ribs some but that had long since wore off. I tried to hide it when I run my arms around Esther and give her a good squeeze.
She looked at me with those green eyes full of knowing.
Esther and I went up and looked in on the girls.
Full day and full bellies, they slept as soundly as Bup.
We went into our own bedroom.
I set down on my side of the bed, restless, and pulled off my boots, and just set there.
Memories unbidden chased themselves through my mind and my tired old carcass remembered other wounds, other aches.
Esther was plaiting that beautiful waterfall of Irish-red hair into her customary single braid when I went over and put my hands on her shoulders and squeezed, gently, my way of telling her she was beautiful and desirable.
Esther leaned back against me and purred.
I kissed her, once, gentle-like and whispered, "I'll just be downstairs."
I kissed the softness of her neck, then as if drawn, I went cat foot down the stairs and stood for a long time looking into my darkened study.
I struck a Lucifer and lit the Aladdin and opened a drawer in my roll top desk.
My journal was laying out handy for I had been scribing in it earlier that day, but that wasn't what I was looking for.
I was looking for my old journal, the one I started when Uncle Billy had me locked up in that South Carolina gaol.
My hands stopped dead when they closed on the ragged edged leather cover.
I drew back from the desk, straightened, looked at it for a long time, then I turned to the brandy decanter and poured myself about three fingers' worth in a snifter.
I sat down in the rocking chair and began to read.

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Linn Keller 6-24-09

 

My hand writing then was much as it is now, I thought, smiling a little. I'd always taken pride in my script for it was a thing my Pa had taught me as a child.
I took a sip of brandy and let it warm me for several long moments before I opened the worse-for-wear cover and began reading.
The brandy helped with a general sense of well being.
Like the girls, I had a full belly and a full day. I was under my own roof and all was well, other than a vaguely restless feeling.
I opened the cover and began to read and immediately the sense of well being evaporated like a drop of water on a hot stove-top.
I brought the Navy Colt level on the second soldier and shot him through the palm of his upraised right hand.
I threw my head back and gasped in a great breath of air as if I were coming out of a long dive into a deep, cold pool.
I remembered the shot.
One moment I was sitting in my rocking chair in my study.
The next I was in South Carolina again with a Navy Colt in my grip, a rolling blue cloud reaching out toward a blue-clad soldier falling back over the body of the man I'd just shot.
My eyes fell back to the page.
The third soldier dug his heels into the dirt and scuttled backward on his backside, away from me, like a frightened crab. His drawers were around his ankles and he opened his mouth to say something.
I remember how the waist of his drawers flapped as he scrambled back, how he wanted desperately to escape the fate that had just befallen his fellow, how he started to say something --
I wrapped my thumb around the stand-up hammer spur and brought the Navy Colt down level again, and shot him through his open mouth before he could speak.
I felt the pistol in my hand, I felt the hammer under my thumb, the vibration as the mechanism shivered into battery, the fragments of percussion cap that fell out against my wrist as I brought the hammer back and the light reflecting off the octagon barrel as I brought it down level again.
They three and some few others had savaged a girl -- brutalized her and beat her when she fought them -- the last thing I saw before my Colt spoke was the fist that smacked her in the face.
I felt rage, I felt grief, I felt fury, as if I were there, as if I were the young officer who would hang three of his own men after having shot three, rage upon rage upon rage, each compounded from every hell in that damned war, one on top of another, until I could take it no more.
My head was back and my eyes stared at the ceiling, the journal falling from nerveless fingers.
I blinked, thinking of that girl.
It was near ... where?
I leaned forward, my elbows on my knees, my head in my hands, my fingers clawing great handsful of my hair as if to rip the memory I sought from my very brain --
Wales, a voice whispered.
The Plantation Wales.
They had burned and looted one farmstead, one plantation, one barn and granary and store and mill after another, punishing South Carolina for being the first state in rebellion -- and I stopped this ravening finger of destruction, stopped them as they came to the plantation Wales.
How could I have been so utterly STUPID! I raged silently, casting my eyes upward, toward the stairs, toward our bedroom.
All the time Duzy was among us, all the years Esther and I had been together, that memory, that horrible memory, was buried, walled off, shut away --
I bent and took the girl under the arms, and brought her to her feet.
She could not have been fourteen.
She shivered in my grip like a frightened baby rabbit.

I thought of Annette, fourteen and a woman in her own right when she married Jacob: this girl was younger than Annette, or maybe she just seemed younger for being so vulnerable, for being wounded --
God help me, I remember her eyes! I thought, my own eyes again to the ceiling, remembering two little girls, asleep in bed, safe under my protection.
She shivered in my grip like a frightened baby rabbit.
I shook my head and put the journal away.
I drained the brandy in three gulps, not even tasting of it, then I went to the kitchen and seized up the water-dipper.
I had pumped the water myself not an hour agone and it was well-cold.
I drank, and drank another, and then I staggered out on the back porch and bent over the porch rail and threw up everything I'd consumed for the past week.
I came back inside and drank again, drank deeply, drank with the desperation of a man in turmoil: I washed my face and looked in the mirror hanging behind the kitchen door and a stranger's haunted eyes looked back at me.
I staggered upstairs, still shaking, and looked in on the girls.
Bup was awake, looking at me with button-bright eyes, his tail swishing back and forth on the hook rug.
I knelt beside the girls' bed, one hand on Bup, the other against my forehead, and I looked at them for a long, long time.
They were relaxed and innocent in slumber, unharmed, undamaged --
Undefiled! came the vicious whisper from somewhere within.
I breathed a prayer that night, that they never, ever know those things that I had seen, that they be safe, and then I thought of the morrow, when I promised Annette I would teach her to shoot.
I stood, put my finger to my lips.
Bup had inherited his sire's and his grandsire's quick understanding.
I'd taught him not long ago that meant silence, and silent he remained as I left the room and drew closed their door.
I'd wondered why I grew to such quiet rage when I learned what had happened there in Annette's kitchen.
Now I knew why.

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Linn Keller 6-26-09

 

Esther's eyes opened.
Her intuition told her something was amiss, but not in crisis.
Her hand sought her husband's.
Curious, she turned her head.
He wasn't there.
Esther froze, listening.
Distantly, she heard sounds of discomfort from below, then almost indaudibly, the slow tread on the stairs, and she knew Linn was not entirely well.
His step was normally light and quick, often taking the stairs two at a time, but now, now they were labored, as if he were ill.
Her brows puzzled together a little as she heard the girls' bedroom door open, then a long pause -- several minutes -- and finally the sound of the door being drawn shut, slowly, carefully, as if by a hand that wished no sound.
Their own door opened and she knew her husband was in the room.
She felt him sit on his side of the bed and she knew all was not well.
He sat for several long minutes, silent, his breathing slightly labored, before he carefully, carefully folded back the covers, so as not to disturb his wife, then he slowly, cautiously inserted himself between sun-dried sheets.
His hand sought hers: warm, almost hot, the way his hands always were: Esther had never lacked for warmth, even in winter's chill, for her husband was like a bed-warmer, fired from within.
She lay, unmoving, silent, listening to his breathing, feeling him relax, slowly, until he too was asleep.
His hand was still in hers.
Esther smiled a little, for it was common for them to fall asleep holding hands, and to wake the next morning, still holding hands.
She'd just begun to drift across the dark lake of slumber when she felt her husband shiver.
Esther was wide awake now.
Linn's breath shivered in and he groaned, a deep sound of agony as from some long-hidden torment.
Esther rolled up on her right side and lay a gentle hand on her husband's breast bone.
His good right hand shot like a rattlesnake under the covers, reflexively slapping down on hers, pressing her hand into him, and thus reassured, relaxed: she felt the tension run from him, and he began to breathe more easily.
Eventually Esther withdrew her left hand, but her right remained entwined with his, until dawn lightened the eastern horizon and she woke naturally, as she always did.
He did not wake when his wife eased from their bed, nor did he wake when, fully dressed, she and the girls made their way downstairs.
It was not until he felt a disturbance on the bed that he rolled over on his left side and mumbled in a drowsy voice, "Yuvs you."
He reached up a sleepy hand to caress his wife and felt hair, stroked the hair.
A pink tongue flicked out and licked the end of his nose.
Linn opened his eyes and realized he'd just pledged his affection to a very pleased, tail-wagging Bup.

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Linn Keller 6-27-09

 

Bup curled up where I'd been laying, just as happy as if he had good sense.
Me, I got up and got ready for the day.
I looked back at the tail thumping pup and said "I'm leavin'. How about you?"
Bup jumped up, grinning, wiggling all over and bounced across the bed and danced in front of me.
I couldn't help it.
I reached down and rubbed his ears and got a good hand washing for my troubles.
Bup charged down the stairs ahead of me and through the kitchen, scratching happily at the back door. Michelle must have let him out; I heard the door open, then shut.
I got to the bottom of the stairs.
The air was full of good breakfast smells. Michelle had been up before anyone, it seemed, and had fed Esther and the girls. Bless her, she had bacon and eggs for me too, and it wasn't until I stepped into a big cloud of friend bacon smells that I realized just how hungry I was!
Michelle set a plate in front of me and filled my coffee mug: she turned a little, picked up a little pitcher from the counter and turned back, adding cream to my coffee.
"You're going to spoil me, you know that," I said, picking up my fork and eyeing the fried eggs.
Michelle was always a bit shy around me. I don't know if she was afraid I was going to bite her, or if she was afraid I may take offense at something she said.
I could not see her ears but I'm willing to bet they were a good rich red by the time I was done eating. I don't believe we exchanged two words between my coming down stairs and my biting down on the last strip of bacon.
I leaned back, drained my coffee mug and sighed happily.
"My tummy is smiling," I said gently. "Michelle, thank you."

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Linn Keller 6-27-09

 

"Gimme that pry bar."
"You sure that's a good idea?"
"They got gold on that train! How else we gonna get it?"
The sharp edge of the pry bar bit under the flared head of the railroad spike.
"Yeah, but do we gotta wreck the whole train?"
The bar slipped out from under the spike's head.
"Yes, we gotta!"
"Why da we gotta? Ain't that gonna kill the engineer? You know how they are!"
"Who? The engineer?"
"No, you IDJUT!" The pry bar was snatched from the other's hand. "The sheriff's WIFE owns the railroad!"
"And she's gonna come after us?"
The pry bar drove into the ground a half inch from the speaker's foot. "Don' you hear what I'm sayin'? That sheriff she's married to don't give up nothin'! He gits on yer trail he's there until he's either draggin' yer carcass to the hoosegow or yer dead!"
"He can't git what he don't know about!"
"And he don't know about a derail? How you gonna hide that?"
"You got a better idea?"
"We could ride in an' rob the bank."
"Oh, that's a good one!" The speaker seized his hat, whipped it hard against his thigh, turned and waved his arms at the silent pines. "You hear that?" he shouted. "Genius boy here wants to ride right past that-there Sheriff's office to rob the BANK!"
"So where d'ya wanta rob, hah? You gotta better idea?"
"Shaddap!" A dirty, callused hand raised, forestalling further conversation.
They listened, frowning, tilting their heads a little.
Distant yet, but approaching, they heard it: the four-count chant of an approaching steam locomotive.
"We gonna do this or not?"
"Hell, we ain't got time!"
The pair faded back into the brush, behind a sheltering rock where their horses waited.
The ore train labored past, the Baldwin locomotive thrusting powerfully against the rails, pulling the cars of rich ore to the refining mill.
"Jim?"
"Yeah?"
"Was you born dumb, or did you learn it in school?"
"Now who you callin' dumb?"
"You know what that-there train's haulin'?"
"It's haulin' --" --
Jim's reply was cut off as a shovel rang against the back of his head, propelling him face first to the ground.
"YOU TOM FOOL IDJUT, THAT-THERE TRAIN AIN'T GOT NOTHIN' BUT ROCK IN THEM CARS!"
Jim groaned and doubled up, pushing off the ground and wobbling on his knees, rubbing the back of his head.
His partner, or perhaps ex-partner, mounted his sway backed, jug headed nag and frowned down at Jim.
"We're quits!" he spat, reining his jughead around.
Jim rolled over, sat up, looked at his horse.
His horse looked at him.
He looked sadly at the now-empty rails.
"You know," he said, grief heavy in his voice, "I might have to take an honest job one of these days!"

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Charlie MacNeil 6-27-09

 

The leggy buckskin stood hipshot at the rail, waiting patiently in the dim light of early morning. The saddle on its back was cinched just tightly enough to keep it in place until the horse's rider would emerge from the snugly-built clapboard-sided house. Charlie stepped outside, bulging saddlebags in hand and blanket roll over his shoulder, tugging his hat down tighter against the brisk morning breeze. The coolness of the morning made him glad for the wool shirt and blanket-lined jacket he wore buttoned to the top.

Ex-Marshal MacNeil slung his saddlebags behind the high cantle and quickly tied them securely in place, blanket roll atop the leather bags. He reached for the latigo to snug up the cinch as the door swung open behind him. "You be careful, Sugar," Fannie's lilting voice, which always lifted his spirits, came to his ears like the music of the breeze through the sage. He tightened his cinch then turned to his bride. He picked her off her feet and gave her a kiss on her soft full lips then, setting her back to the puncheon floor of the entry, delivered a pat on her shapely backside.

"You know me, Darlin'," he rumbled.

"I do know you. That's the problem," she answered with a laugh. "Like I said, you be careful." He gave her a wink then turned and lifted the buckskin's reins from the hitch rail and stepped into the leather, swinging his leg high over the blanket roll. With a tip of his hat he turned his lanky mount toward the brood mare pasture. He had a wolf, or wolves, to hunt.

The night before, just as the silver glow of the new moon spread across the pastures and creek bottoms, Hijo had screamed a challenge to something Charlie couldn't see from the house. The new horse rancher had run from the house in his boots and long handles, rifle and lantern in hand, to find one of his mares hamstrung and writhing on the ground in agony. He'd had to put her down on the spot. The palomino stud had the rest of the mares bunched up and backed against a low cutbank in the stream bed, standing his ground in the snarling, white-toothed face of a half-circled line of bushy-tailed canine death. Charlie's yell and the blast of the .44-40 turned assault to flight, but not before one of the smaller of the wolves turned in his direction and got a dose of lead as a reward for its bravado. Now Charlie was hunting the rest of the pack.

Charlie had nothing against wolves. They did a good job of keeping the game herds balanced, and the pups were entertaining to watch if a person got a chance to see them. The big animals had to eat too, but it was Charlie's contention that the abundant deer and elk population of the surrounding plains and mountains should provide adequate sustenance for the pack. They didn't need to prey on his horses, and he intended to teach them that lesson to the best of his ability.

Charlie pursed his lips and shrilled a piercing whistle, and an oversize shadow detached itself from the inky blackness of the barn's depths. Dawg yawned and stretched, revealing a set of pearly whites of his own that would do justice to any bear or wolf, then trotted to the buckskin's side. "Find 'em, Dawg," Charlie said simply, and the great black dog's snout bent to the breeze. A few short minutes later the pair disappeared from sight over the rise to the north of the ranch house hollow.

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Linn Keller 6-30-09

 

Sean, bare to the waist, looked like a sculpted god.
Well, almost.
Gods in physical form generally don't have a nose slightly askew from being long ago broken and healed slightly to starboard, nor have they Irish-red hair, except perhaps Mars, god of war.
Right now war was not far from his mind.
The ring was drawn in the dirt, a great circle in the middle of the street, mostly circumscribed by spectators: whistles, yells, money waved at arm's length, loudly proclaiming their champion: bets were made, bets were taken, all before the first blow was delivered.
Sean's opponent, almost equally impressive, sculpted and lean and flat-bellied, with a greased, black mustache of impressive proportions, Iron Enoch from St. Louis, boxer of renown, World Champion ten times over if you believed his promoter,which Sean did not.
Sean did not, however, underestimate the man.
Iron Enoch preened for the crowd, pacing the circumference, smiling a charming smile, nodding to the ladies, winking at the men; he wore bright-blue, flat-soled boxing slippers, a lighter blue trunk hose, a tight-fitting silk pullover shirt.
Sean boxed in his pants and boots and Union suit, with his galluses tightened a little.
Iron ENoch folded his arms, did a slow squat, stood, the stuck one leg straight out and squatted again, down, then up, a one-legged, deep knee bend.
Sean sighed patiently, his own muscled arms folded, unimpressed.
On a bet Sean had done twenty one-legged deep knee bends, ten on each leg, and that not a week ago; he'd out-lifted every one of the Irish Brigade, and they were probably the most accomplished weight lifters in the Territory.
Sean worked with the heavy bag in the back room of their nearly finished firehouse, punishing it with hard-driven, lightning-quick blows.
Now this stranger, come to town that morning, had offered to box anyone, and whoever beat him, why, he'd pay one hundred dollars in gold.
The spectators paid a fee to watch, and the promoter lined his pockets with their largesse; he and Iron Enoch were now in the ring.
The promoter was shouting his line of patter, praising Iron Enoch, giving him titles and a list of wins Sean disbelieved thorougly; finally, having glorified his champion and pretty much ignored the challenger, the promoter drew a line in the dirt and invited both to toe the scratch.
"Ye never learn, do ye" Sean muttered as they came up to the scratch.
Iron Enoch puzzled for a moment, at least until the promoter backed up and shouted, "Lay on!"
Iron Enoch expected an amateurish rush of fists, either that or a sudden retreat to arm's length, which would have suited him fine: Enoch had a long reach, and a falling-away punch was his heart's delight.
Sean did neither.
Sean smiled, slightly, a tightening of the corners of his eyes.
Iron Enoch's left shoulder dropped slightly.
Sean's left hand deflected the punch and he head-butted Enoch, following with a fast right to the man's low ribs.
Enoch caught the punch coming in, trying the same move; Sean turned, the blow skidding across his red-flannel belly.
Sean grabbed his shoulder, pushing hard and stepping back.
"Foul!" the promoter yelled, but was shouted down by the crowd.
Iron Enoch turned, surprised, raising a quick guard, but Sean wasn't there.
A sledgehammer hit him in the side of the head.
Sean didn't believe in firing a single shot; he delivered his punches in twos and threes, one high and two low, one high and one low, or three hard to the middle: Iron Enoch was good but Sean was the better brawler: Marquis of Queensbury rules or not, both men forgot the rules of polite boxing and fell back on good old fashioned, knock down drag out street brawling.
Iron Enoch back-heeled Sean, sending the Irishman flat on his back, and tried to stop the fireman in the ribs: Sean rolled into him instead of away, bowling the man over, and the two grappled on the ground, each pounding, straining, trying to hurt the other fast and severely.
The promoter fluttered over them, eaving his arms and screaming "Break! Break!" until Sean lashed out a leg and kicked the man in the shin, landing him on the ground as well: the two straining, flailing, kicking, punching fighters rolled over on top of the screaming promoter.
Sean had Iron Enoch around the neck from behind, beating him repeatedly in the face; Iron Enoch slammed a hammer fist at the fireman's crotch, missing but not by much: the pair rolled off the promoter, to the enthusiastic cheering of the spectators.
The fighters separated, scuttled crabwise from one another, stood: bloodied, panting, glaring like two rival bulls, they hesitated, then charged, roaring.
Sean picked the other man up bodily and slammed him to the ground.
Iron Enoch grunted in pain, rolled, came up on his feet and charged, driving his shoulder into Sean's middle.
Sean folded over the dirty silk torso, seized the man around the waist from behind, used his momentum and the swinging weight of his legs to bear the man to the ground.
Iron Enoch came up just in time to inherit a fist in the face: confused, blinded, he batted blindly at what he expected to be follow-up punches.
Sean stood, cat-footed to the side.
Iron Enoch came to his feet, wiped the blood from his eyes, turned.
Sean smacked the man in the face, again, flattening what was left of a broken nose, then drove a fast left-right-left into the dandy's belly, folding him over.
Iron Enoch groaned, coughed, went slowly to his knees.
Shouts, whistles, hats were tossed in the air; money exchanged hands, the promoter, dirty, disappointed, turned to Mr. Baxter, who was keeping a tally on a tablet, and handed him a purse.
Mr. Baxter began disbursing funds.

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Linn Keller 7-2-09

 

Annette's fingertips were delicately to her lips and the color was up in her cheeks as she watched the two warriors brawling in the middle of the street.
She and the Sheriff stood on the boardwalk, elevated a little, with a good view of all that transpired.
The Sheriff watched impassively.
It was a fair fight, entered into with a mutual agreement; money was changing hands, yes; bets had been laid, yes; none of these things were illegal, and so the Sheriff had no problem with it.
Besides, he'd bet half a hundred dollars on the Irish chieftain with a soul foolish enough to wager on the newcomer, at two to one odds.
Shortly after, the Sheriff took his winnings with a quiet "Thank you" and he and his daughter-in-law crossed the street, the younger woman very properly on his arm, and entered the Sheriff's office.
The Sheriff opened the top right hand desk drawer and withdrew his Navy Colt: pressing the wedge out, he drew the barrel from the frame, removed the loaded cylinder.
Reaching once more into the drawer, he removed an empty cylinder and a nipple wrench.
Annette seated herself and watched as the Sheriff removed the nipples, then installed the inert cylinder and reassembled the pistol.
"We will not work from the holster, not just yet," the Sheriff said quietly; his eyes smiled with a fatherly affection at the younger woman as his hands, with eyes of their own, reassembled his old companion.
Dropping the pistol with his finger through the trigger guard, he spun it half-over, offering it to Annette handle first.
She took the revolver with more confidence than he had expected.
"I had occasion to meet some foreigners," the Sheriff said, "observers during the War, taking a look at our particular habits in wartime." He took a deep, shivering breath, his eyes narrowing momentarily -- pain? Annette wondered, but forgot her observation as the man continued.
"One fellow had been to Japan, and had a high opinion of their warrior class." He looked over toward the cold stove, the empty coffee pot. "He said their warriors -- Ninja, he called them -- believed that a warrior's spirit flows into their weapon." He smiled sadly. "I know when a tool, or a weapon, feels right in my hand. When it feels right I can do much better work with it, be it a saw, a hammer, or a sixgun."
Annette hefted the Navy.
The Sheriff drew his left-hand Colt, removed the cartridges.
"Here's what I'd like you to do," he said. "First, lay the pistol on the desk."
Annette stood, laid the Navy on the corner of his desk.
"Give me your hand."
Annette extended her hand, not quite sure what he wanted.
The Sheriff took her hand in a gentle grip. "This is what you are looking for: a nice hand shake grip. This is the whole secret: a good grip, just like this."
Annette's expression betrayed her surprise.
"Now." The Sheriff released her hand. "Point at that lamp, like this." He thrust his forefinger at the lamp.
Annette did the same.
"Now look down your finger. Is it pointing at the lamp?"
"Yes."
The Sheriff nodded. "Pick up the pistol."
Annette did so.
The Sheriff picked up his own empty revolver.
"Now point it at the lamp."
Annette thrust the pistol at the lamp.
"Is it pointing at the lamp?"
"It is."
"Okay. Let it down."
Annette did.
"I see your finger falls naturally through the trigger guard."
"It seemed the natural thing to do."
The Sheriff smiled.
"The lamp again."
Annette thrust the muzzle toward the lamp.
"And down."
The Sheriff lowered his own pistol to his side, pointing to the floor, alongside his leg.
Annette did the same.
"Now. Bring the pistol back up, like this" -- he demonstrated -- "and wrap your thumb around the hammer spur."
He demonstrated as he spoke; using his left hand Colt, he had a mirror image for her to pattern after, and it worked.
Annette's delicate, pink-skinned thumb wrapped around the Navy's hammer.
It came easily to full cock.
"Now the lamp."
Annette brought the pistol to bear on the lamp; the hammer fell with a metallic sound.
The Sheriff nodded.
"Again."
Annette cocked the pistol on its way to extension.
"Very nice. Once more."
The Navy chuckled its triple-click, then the louder click as the hammer fell.
"Good. Lay the pistol down." The Sheriff reloaded his left-hand Colt, holstered it.
"Please, be seated." The Sheriff eased himself down into his chair. This time there was no mistaking the discomfort around his eyes.
Annette was undecided: she knew the stubborn pride of her husband, and imagined his father was the same: on the other hand, he was in some little pain, or so it appeared.
She held her counsel for the moment.
"My dear, forgive me for speaking frankly, but I would much rather teach a woman to shoot than a man," the Sheriff admitted. "Women have no bad habits to un-learn!" His chuckle was interrupted by a clenched-jaw grunt and Annette half-rose.
The Sheriff shook his head. "I'm all right," he lied.
You're just as stubborn as your son! Annette thought, settling back down into her seat.

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Linn Keller 7-2-09

 

Later in the day, the Sheriff had Annette in the pasture behind his house: using a light powder charge, he started her on his old Navy revolver, with a big target, up close.
He built her confidence, slowly, not hurrying, making it less a labor and more a shared entertainment.
He was pleased to see that the young woman was neither flinching, nor fearing the pistol.
They spent some little time in the back pasture. The Sheriff did not shoot; this was Annette's day, and he did not over-tire her arm, knowing her muscles were probably not accustomed to a pistol's weight at arm's length.
They retired finally to the house, where Annette freshened up, with Michelle's amused assistance; the Sheriff finally drove Annette back to her house.
Jacob was not yet returned. He'd been investigating a theft at the far edge of the county and would likely not be back for a day.
The Sheriff accepted Annette's offer of coffee; she slabbed off a broad wedge of pie, to which the Sheriff offered no protest.
Wisely, she divined the father was much like the son, and Jacob had ever loved her pies: true to her surmise, the Sheriff was likewise pleased, and said as much.
Annette saw her father in law to the door, smiled and waved as he departed: then she opened a cupboard door, withdrew her late brother's gunbelt, spun it about her trim waist and buckled it in place.
Until Jacob returned, she had absolutely no intent of being out of reach of a persuasive friend which could argue loudly and most convincingly in her behalf.

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Linn Keller 7-3-09

 

Jacob rode easy in the saddle, smiling a little.
He'd listened patiently to the rancher's vigorous description of his thieving neighbor, tolerated the rancher's accusations against said neighbor, patiently endured the venomous description of the neighbor's ancestors clear back to Cain himself: when the rancher paused for breath, after a particularly sulfurous delivery, his foreman came in the house, hat in his hand, and announced that he'd found the missing cattle ... they were part of the lot the rancher himself had sold the week before, and here was the bill of sale.
Jacob had managed to exercise a mature diplomacy in that moment.
The foreman's appearance and timing had been slightly less than discreet and it would have been all too easy to utter words that would further embarrass the rancher: Jacob drew on his years of observing his father and instead expressed relief that all was well, the accounts were balanced, and he didn't have to go chasing after rustlers -- "that sounds too much like work," he deadpanned, and got a chuckle out of the rancher and the foreman both.
He'd accepted their hospitality of a meal.
As he prepared to depart, the foreman told him, "There's a herd of buffalo made it down from Canada, off to the east of us. They seemed a mite spooky. If you're over that-a-way you may want to give 'em a wide ride-around."
Jacob thanked the man for his counsel and touched Apple-horse with his heels; Apple, disdaining to wait for the gate to be opened, surged ahead and over the fence like a spotted waterfall.
Jacob laughed with delight, for he was a young man and full of fire, and delighted in a good horse under him, open country around him, and the knowledge that home was but a half-day's ride away.
He pointed his nose toward home and Apple-horse set his own pace: his gait was not the paso fino of his father's Palomino, but it wasn't bad, and it disposed of the miles at a steady rate.
Jacob's mind was forever busy: it was never idle, and he was in the habit of turning over matters of importance, planning, or otherwise making efficient use of his time: so busy was he with the following year's crops that he forgot entirely to consider that a migrating herd, whether of buffalo or of cattle, is not a static creature, and so as he and Apple came over a rise, the valley before them was nearly black with the big shaggies.
Jacob was close, too close: Apple-horse halted of his own accord, dancing a little, sensing danger.
It had been clouding up some. Jacob was remarkably free of injury and so had no broken bones to speak to him when the weather changed, but like a native Westerner, he was aware of changes, and a change was happening, and not for the good.
Apple-horse chewed on his bit, muttering, clearly unhappy, and Jacob felt his skin crawl.
The buffalo, too, were restless, shifting.
Of a sudden he saw it, and felt his stomach contract with honest fear.
The buffalo began to bawl, then paw, and blue fire started gathering on the points of their horns.
Jacob smelled ozone and knew that here wasn't a good place to be.
"Haaa!" he yelled, turning Apple with knee and with rein: Apple did not need to be told twice.
They turned left and went from dead stop to a wide open gallop in something less than one-tenth of a second, or so it seemed: Jacob's hat fell back, hung from its storm strap, and he leaned low over Apple's neck, encouraging his stallion to greater speed.
As if triggered by the horse's launch, the buffalo began to move.
Jacob looked behind and realized he had quite a following.
Apple-horse felt his apprehension and stretched farther and harder, hooves pounding the grassy earth, following the valley down, down, until they came to a creek at the bottom: Apple sailed over it and kept on going, climbing the other side, losing little speed as he gained altitude.
Behind them came the dull, low, muttering thunder of stampeding hooves.
Jacob hazarded a quick look back. They were maintaining their distance but it was plain the stampeding herd was not slowing down one bit.
He looked ahead, looked for an escape.
He looked back again at the thundering, muttering carpet with fire-tipped horns flowing over the landscape behind him.
He turned upstream, quartering away, then up a steeper bank, doubled back and ran the ridge line.
The buffalo stayed on the low land.
Apple-horse coasted to a stop, blowing hard.
Jacob, too, was breathing kind of hard.
He'd forgotten about the blue fire and the ozone ... at least until the first bolt of lightning hit a tree about a hundred yards from him.
Apple-horse agreed with his opinion that it wasn't healthy to be in such an exposed location.
They fell in behind the stampeding herd.

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Linn Keller 7-4-09

 

Jacob and Apple-horse coasted along in the lee of the stampeding herd; a few of the slower animals drifted back, mostly cows with calves, which Jacob wisely gave a wide berth.
By the time the rain started, they'd let the herd get a good distance ahead of them: Jacob disliked the taste of dust and a little bit of wind was sufficient to carry the ground-powder away from them.
They stopped at an abandoned farmstead and sheltered in a barn that didn't have but two of four walls missing; the roof was still upright, more out of habit than construction, or so Jacob reckoned, but it was enough to keep them out of the rain.
It didn't rain a terrible amount, really, just enough to settle the dust; it was a bit cooler after the shower, and Jacob was grateful he'd gone ahead and worn a coat.
It was just shy of low twelve when they reached their own barn.
Jacob had unsaddled Apple-horse and groomed him down, baited him a good scoop of grain and pumped fresh water: as he released the pump handle and turned, he was surprised to find his wife standing almost in arm's reach.
Jacob hesitated, for he'd not yet cleaned up from the dust and the ride, but there was no hesitation to his wife: she embraced her husband, laying her cheek against his breast with a contented sigh, her arms tight around his ribs: Jacob, smiling, held her as she molded herself to him.
Annette wore little but her flannel nightgown and slippers at this lonely midnight hour.
This seemed to work out well, as the two of them did not make it back to the house for a considerable length of time.

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Linn Keller 7-4-09

 

I woke up suffocating.
I rolled over on my right side, got my feet over the edge of the bed, my arm hard against my ribs.
I couldn't breathe.
My right chest hurt like homemade hell.
I threw my head back, gasping in air, desperate for breath: after a brief eternity, in which bright sparklies descended like a beaded curtain over my darkened vision, the pain eased off some and I could breathe again.
Air, sweet air!
I set there for a long while, laboring against the shakes, weak as a newborn, and finally lay down again, only to get back up: I hoped not to trouble Esther, but she was awake and holding me -- I don't remember feeling her move, but she had her arms around me, silent, reassuring -- and I got up, tottery-weak on legs that had no strength a'tall, and near to collapsed in Esther's rocking chair.
My head was back and my breathing ragged but after the first desperate deep breaths, the pain eased off a good bit.
Esther wrapped a quilt around me and worked a pillow in behind my head and I spent the rest of the night set up in her rocking chair.

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Linn Keller 7-4-09

 

Esther was returned home uncharacteristically early the next day.
The Sheriff was about his business in town; Esther was about hers, within her domicile, a matter which she considered most important.
Young Joseph was fed and changed, warm and cuddled, and now asleep in his own little bed. Angela, too, was asleep, napping upstairs.
Esther sat in her husband's chair, seated at her husband's desk, and held his worn, broken journal in her hands, a tear rolling down her cheek as she read:

The feather-ticks were cut open and spilled out: every picture, every looking-glass had been stolen from the walls. Not a drinking vessel nor a cook-pot remained in the house. They'd dug up the garden seeking hidden silver, they'd dumped a dead horse down the well, they'd murdered the live stock, stole the chickens and slaughtered the family's only remaining pig, hanging the carcase from the porch-rail as they eviscerated the creature before the crying children.

Esther turned the page, read further.

The stiffened arms of the dead reached up, as if clawing at Heaven itself for succor. Dead heads were raised and turned a little, as if looking about in the rigor of death, seeking whom they might drag into Eternity with the power of their hollow gaze.
I will admit my heart shriveled in fear the first time I saw it.
My mare shied, dancing around the dead, unwilling to step on a body, though the life had flown the house of flesh. Blood lay in pools between them and the iron stench of spilled life burned into my nostrils.
I shall never know another night's rest!


Esther remembered her husband's fierce defense of women with children in the past, but she never truly understood his grim resolve until a further page:

She was pale as paste as were her two little daughters, and the three of them barefoot: their dresses had once been fine and fashionable, but with privations of their city's siege, were now worn and soiled: she begged of us some slight morsel, not for her, but for her daughters, their last meal being a teaspoon of dry meal apiece, and that a day ago.
I emptied my wallet of its rations, as did a fierce fellow at my side, who was fortunate to have yet three days' rations: the woman fell on her knees, weeping, while her daughters fell upon the bounty, famished.


There was more -- more, written with all the horror of a witness, a participant, in the most horrible chapter in a nation's young history; Esther saw men march and die, she saw young men, the bloom of youth yet on their cheeks, scream and cry and try to hold in loops of their own guts; she saw the surgeons, sick with their duty, take a long pull from a whiskey-bottle before clamping their jaw hard against their own rising gorge and taking a bone-saw to a leg or an arm. Through her husband's hand she smelt the blood and offal, she heard the screams, the cries, men begging for relief, for their wife, for their mother; she heard the sodden thump of a newly amputated limb dropping to the floor, the slosh of a water-bucket tossed over the operating-slab, washing off blood and bits of flesh, preparing the theatre for another wounded soldier.
It was Esther's turn to clamp her jaw hard against a rising gorge.
She looked about her husband's effects; with trembling hand she seized up his pen, dipped in his ink-well, and wrote in the front of his journal, the one he kept now:
My dear, I am placing your wartime Journal in the hidden compartment of your desk. Let us put those terrible memories behind us and never speak of them again!
Your loving wife,
Esther

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Linn Keller 7-5-09

 

I knew a sergeant who'd been shot in the chest with a pistol, back East, during a tavern brawl: when we were on the march he would come out of his tent, stand erect, throw his arms wide and take several deep breaths to re-inflate his lung which had collapsed through the night.
I reckoned mine had done that and hoped it would not be a habit, for it was most uncomfortable, and it had deprived Esther of her favorite seat when tending young Joseph's appetite the night preceding.
Jacob rode in to report on his trip to the eastern edge of the county, and he exercised an admirable restraint when he told of the foreman's entry, and the rancher's discomfiture. He spoke gently of having diplomatically satisfied all parties: he could have decried the rancher as feather-headed, of being a lackwit, of having as much memory as a fishing cork, but he did none of these.
My estimation of my firstborn had been high; it was more so now.
Jacob inquired if I had heard aught from Charlie, or Miz Fannie; I confessed I had not.
I reckon I could have offered some wise crack about Charlie being a gentleman rancher now, living a life of leisure while his herd did the work of increase and profit, but I could not: it would have been a lie, for ranching is hard work at best, and besides, Jacob had shown gentlemanly restraint in his comments, and I would have set a poor example indeed had I not been likewise gentlemanly.
It did cause me to wonder, though.
That had been a good looking herd of "Fire Horsies" Angela and I saw galloping across the sunrise, glowing red in the first fingers of the rising sun.

Rose o' the Mornin' was not as gentle a ride as Hijo del Sol, and my poor battered ribs expressed a general unhappiness with my choice of mounts: still, she was a good horse in a bad situation, and I was healing; a week earlier and I could not have tolerated sitting her.
We rode back to the house.
I saw the carriage was home, which meant Esther was home as well.
The presence of a bouncing, waving, laughing little girl-child on the front porch was another clue.
Bup bounced beside her, barking happily, and I don't know which celebrant achieved the greater altitude: Angela, on two legs, or Bup, on four, nor which made the most noise: I rode up to the steps and Angela climbed up on the porch rail, stepped over onto the saddle behind me and held my shoulders.
Bup, worried, yapped in concentric orbits around us as we walked sedately to the barn.
Angela stepped off the saddle as Rose stopped beside her stall, standing on the edge of the stall, holding a rough-lumber upright: she stood patiently as I unsaddled Rose o' the Mornin', divested her of bit and bridle, hung up the goods and curried her down.
Bup, meanwhile, sat in a convenient corner, tongue out, tail happily sweeping the floor free of chaff and of hay.
When I was eventually finished, Angela turned around and climbed down the side of the stall as if she were climbing down a ladder: hardly a ladylike exercise, but she and I had entered into an agreement some time ago: I wouldn't tell if she wouldn't, and Esther pretended not to know about such indelicate moments, though more than once I saw her peeking and smiling.
Angela was growing as children do, and though still too short to take my arm, she happily took my hand and we walked back to the house.
Angela and I checked each others' shoe-soles, both before and after briskly wiping them of effluvium on the grass-mat that was our front yard: after three such efforts apiece, we passed each others' inspection, and proceeded on into the house.
Esther met me with a worried expression, almost a guilty expression.

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Charlie MacNeil 7-5-09

 

Two days from home and pasture, and still no sight of hide nor hair of the wolves, other than one hide-tattered and bone-broken elk carcass, magpies, crows and a single immature golden eagle squabbling over the last of the edibles. For whatever reason, it appeared that the hunters were vacating the country.

At the edge of a spring-fed pool a few miles beyond the site of the elk’s demise Charlie stepped down from the buckskin’s saddle to stretch the kinks of two days steady riding from his back. He sipped from his canteen as the lanky gelding plunged its muzzle deep in the crystalline pool and sucked in the sweet liquid. On the far side of the pool Dawg lapped up a drink of his own, the motions delicate considering the size of the great canine. “Water up, you critters, and we’ll go into camp,” Charlie said. As were many western men who had spent time alone in the vastness, Charlie talked to his animal companions as if they were people. “Sometimes it’s the only way I get to carry on an intelligent conversation,” he would say when asked about the habit.

Such a statement often brought an un-ladylike snort from Fannie, who had been heard to mutter delicately, “Intelligent? I doubt it,” on more than one occasion, her words accompanied by a smile that removed the sting from the syllables.

Shadows drifted over the hills, filling the draws, swales and hollows with ebony first, followed in rapid turn with drifts of ink across the sweetgrass flats. Backed against a tilted slab of sandstone a hundred yards from the spring, Charlie’s fire winked and crackled cheerfully, and the snip and tear of grass as the buckskin grazed on its picket line at the edge of the pool of orange light was a comforting sound. Charlie sipped campfire coffee as he lounged back on his saddle, keeping his eyes on the darkness out away from the fire, as a man who stares into the flames, no matter the reason, is night-blind for a dangerous length of time.

Taking the last swallow from the cup, Charlie tossed the dregs aside, set pot and cup away from the fire, and pulled off his boots to slip into the blankets. Misters Remington and Winchester stood sentry close at hand, and the black mound that was Dawg lay with head cradled on paws nearby.

The quarter moon had risen, casting fitful silver across the grass, when the rumble of boulders tumbling beneath a flood of runoff echoed from Dawg’s great chest…

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Linn Keller 7-8-09

 

Michelle was introducing Angela to the fine points of making whatever it was that smelled so very good in our kitchen.
I could hear Angela's happy voice and Michelle's patient answers, tinted with her delicate French accent.
Esther had just put young Joseph down for his nap.
I gathered her into my arms.
Instead of putting her arms around me as she usually did, her arms were folded up against her chest, her palms flat against my chest; her cheek was against my breast bone, and I knew from these that she was distressed.
I kissed her forehead and just held her.
Little Joseph made a sleepy baby sound and yawned, wide, flexing his perfect little hands and turning over on his side.
I thrilled to see it.
A baby grows in stages: they turn over, they lift their head, they wobble up on all fours, each milestone an achievement, each achievement brings them closer to independence.
"My dear, I am so sorry," Esther whispered.
"My dear?" I replied.
Esther looked up at me.
I have seldom seen such misery on her face.
"I have overstepped myself."
My hands were under her elbows.
"Can you tell me what happened?" I asked gently.
A tear rolled over Esther's bottom lid.
"Do you remember the plantation Wales, in South Carolina?" she whispered, her voice failing her.
I blinked, puzzling a little.
"I remember."
"You stopped them."
My arms were around Esther now, holding her tight, tight, and it was my turn to shiver a little.
"Yes."
"You remember what ... happened ... just before ..."
I tasted copper again.
"I remember."
Esther's hands were clutched into my vest. "I do not wish to remember it again," she whispered, her syllables harsh and raspy, as if from a very dry throat. "How do I forget!"
I picked Esther up and turned her around and sat her gently in her rocking chair, then went to my right knee, holding her hands in mine.
"You don't," I said flatly. "It's always there, simmering, waiting to run you over like the noon freight. It comes less often, with time, it helps not to have reminders ... but sometimes you have to remember, you have to sort out what happened ... even these many years after, I'll remember something, and I'll make some sense out of what happened.
"It helps to be here." My hands tightened on hers. "It helps to have you, and Angela, and little Joseph."
I swallowed.
"You lost so much," Esther whispered. "I could not have carried on as bravely as have you!"
I chuckled a little, shook my head. "You've not seen me lately."
Esther's look was so guilty that I knew something had happened.
Her eyes shifted to my desk.
She looked at me.
Puzzled, I went to my desk.
My journal lay where I'd left it.
I opened the cover.
Esther lowered her face into her hands.
She looked up as I set the glue-pot back and closed the cover, turning the journal upside down and weighting it with a volume of Shakespeare.
I considered my response.
Part of me was angry: she had violated my privacy, she had intruded into a very personal sanctum --
Part of me was grateful.
I did not want to look at those horrors again either.
I knew where the secret compartment was.
I knew where the release was.
I could have pressed the little semicircular hollow, opened the door, retrieved my wartime journal.
Instead I went back to my wife, and went back down on my protesting knee, and took her hands in my own once more.
"My dear," I said gently, almost whispering, "you are as wise as you are beautiful," and I kissed her forehead.
She bowed her head and I felt hot tears drop onto the back of my good right hand.
I picked her up out of the rocking chair as if I were picking up Angela: turning, I sat myself down with her on my lap, and I held her and rocked her and soothed her.
We sat thus together for a long time, until Michelle tapped on the doors to my study and announced that "Suppair" was ready.
Esther stood and folded her hands, regarding me with those emerald eyes, those eyes I remember so well, and I didn't realize my legs were as completely asleep as they were until I tried to stand and ended up flat on my face and laughing like a damned fool.

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Linn Keller 7-8-09

 

Angela had come recently enough into the world that, if Tarquin strode the land in rawhide boots, swinging a great spiked mace, she would have accepted it as a normal part of the landscape and taken it completely for granted.
When they sat together as a family for a good supper, prepared by their servant and arranged on good china, Angela took this as normal and ordinary and accepted it at face value.
Neither the Sheriff nor Esther were inclined to take this for granted.
In the Victorian era it was common to have a servant; common enough it did not elicit remark nor comment from the community. Esther had grown up with servants as part of her daily life: nursemaids and butlers, charwomen and hostlers, were all part of her world as she grew in the genteel, antebellum South.
The Sheriff, on the other hand, had grown up in a hardscrabble part of Appalachia that regarded such affecations as the realm of the rich and snobby.
Esther had seen the utter destruction of That Which Was, and had known life without her beloved society, for so many years that she genuinely appreciated the presence of Michelle, here in the household, and she saw the value for the Sheriff's hired man who took care of the livestock, the barn, fences and fields.
The Sheriff spoke Grace with his usual sincerity and brevity.
Esther smiled quietly at her plate, remembering the time Angela spoke up and asked why Daddy talked to his plate before he ate; she looked quickly across the table at their little girl, prim and proper, washed and clean, pink-fingered hands clasped together and her head bowed.
Esther could see, could just see, that Angela's eyes were not closed.
Between her husband's gentle syllables, she heard the reason.
A whine and a scratch at the back door was just audible, and Angela's quick ear had picked them up.
Angela looked up at her Mommy, looked toward the doorway.
Esther's shake of the head was barely perceptible, but enough for Angela to see; the child looked down, disappointed, at least until she smelled the good roast beef: with the brief attention span of a child, she was now focused on the good meal before them.
Michelle took her meal separately: again, this was customary, though both the Sheriff and Esther would have welcomed her at their table. She was thoughtful and efficient and a most welcome addition to their family.
A movement from the corner of her eye caught Esther's attention, and she looked quickly over at her husband, just before his "A-men" -- he'd worked his right shoulder a little, as if trying to dispel a discomfiture, and she remembered how he'd picked her up from her seat in the rocking chair.
She blinked at the sting in her eyes, for she knew how that gesture of husbandly comfort must have cost him.

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Charlie MacNeil 7-8-09

 

Charlie's eyes snapped open and his hand went automatically to the grip of his Remington. He wrapped his fingers around the cool ivory, his thumb falling naturally on the knurled curve of the hammer spur. He slowly lifted himself to a sitting position, the blankets falling in a heap in his lap, the cool air sending invisible ants marching up his spine, raising gooseflesh under the red wool of his long johns as they went.

Charlie followed Dawg's red-eyed gaze across the grass toward the buckskin as a shadow detached itself from the inky pool of a small swale nearby. The buckskin snorted and backed to the end of its picket line, rear toward the fire ring and eyeballs rolling white in the moonlight. Charlie carefully pushed the blankets aside so as not to tangle his feet in them if he had to move in a hurry, and drew back the long-barreled pistol's hammer, muffling the clicks against his leg as best he could. The wolf ignored him, intent on bigger prey. A second and a third shadow flowed across the grass toward the horse.

Hearing his partner readying the pistol, Dawg bunched his muscles, prepared to go on the attack as the alpha male of the pack eased his belly closer to the tops of the silvered grass and slid like oil on water toward the object of his attack. White teeth gleamed against silvered fur; as his haunches dropped and he gathered himself for a leap, Dawg struck with a roar of fury.

Dawg's driving charge slammed his great mass into the silvertip male just behind the shoulder, teeth slashing toward the wolf's neck, closing on the hide behind one battle-scarred ear. The wolf was bowled aside and the two canines, one wild and one carrying a thin veneer of civilization, tumbled across the ground in a whirling mass of claws and slashing fangs.

As their leader went down beneath an avalance of black fur the following two wolves, an older female and a young male, leapt in unison toward the buckskin, the male making the mistake of going for the hindquarters and meeting a pair of steel-shod hooves head-on. One hoof slammed into his jaw, shattering bone and tearing skin and muscle, leaving it hanging slack. The other hammered the shoulder, sending blood showering as the rough steel drove deep. A .44 caliber bullet slammed the female to earth in mid-leap.

Alpha male and great dog parted at the blast and flash of the pistol shot, scrambling to their feet to face each other, ruffs standing high, teeth bared and growls rumbling. Charlie flung himself to his feet with a yell as he fired a shot into the air. "GO ON!" he roared, the words straining his throat as he poured everything he could into the words. "GIT!" Startled, the big male turned its head to look at the human as Charlie blasted a shot into the dirt at the wolf's feet, spattering it with dirt and twigs. The wolf flinched away, turning half away from Dawg, who took advantage of the wolf's momentary confusion to take a bite of the hide on the wolf's behind. A moment later, the wolf was running north, tail tucked and belly low to the ground. Scattered shadows came together into a solid mass as the remainder of the pack followed.

A movement and a whine of pain turned Charlie's attention to the seriously injured young male as it tried to go with its pack leader, broken jaw dripping blood and broken leg swinging. Another shot tore the darkness as Charlie put the wolf down.

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Linn Keller 7-11-09

 

The Sheriff and Jackson Cooper stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the little log fortress that was their office. They regarded the new brick building going up where the library and newspaper had been, brick from the brick-works Esther half-owned. Down the street, sounds of construction had ended for the evening, where the new brick firehouse was being erected.
"We're growin' up, Jackson Cooper," the Sheriff said quietly, sipping from his blue-granite cup of steaming, made-by-somebody-else coffee.
Jackson Cooper looked down at the tall lawman. He was near to a full head taller than the Sheriff. Their friendship went back many years and many miles, and he remembered how the man had twice saved his life.
"We're growin' up," Jackson Cooper agreed.
The Sheriff sighed. "They'll run gas into the new firehouse."
"Yep."
"Reckon they'll gas the new building yonder?"
Jackson Cooper swirled the dregs of his coffee, slung them out into the street. "Reckon so."
"Caleb Rosenthal stands a good chance of making Mayor."
"Who else is runnin'?"
"I've been nominated."
Jackson Cooper nodded, worked a crumb of coffee ground from between two front teeth. "You gonna take it?"
The Sheriff shifted his weight, trying to find a comfortable position.
"Nah."
Jackson Cooper's eyes were restless. "You'd make a good mayor."
The Sheriff finished his own coffee, flipped the grounds out onto the packed dirt. "I'm content where I am," he said, his voice tight.
There was a long silence between the two.
Finally Jackson Cooper asked, "Somethin' troublin' you tonight?"
The Sheriff looked at the taller lawman, surprised.
"My ribs are givin' me some grief."
Jackson Cooper nodded. "Likely they always will."
"Reckon so."
"You breathin' okay?"
"Oh, I ain't tried runnin' no foot races."
He and Jackson Cooper shared a laugh. Jacob had been challenged to a foot race over a one mile course, and had won easily: he'd been met at the finish line by their Irish chieftain, who held the younger man's wrist and hoisted him off the ground, bellowing "The winner and by several lengths! The first born son of the only man who ever fought me to a standstill!"
"You reckon to take Sean on again, one of these days?"
The Sheriff laughed this time, an easy, relaxed laugh. He tapped Jackson Cooper's forearm with his foreknuckle and replied, "Jackson Cooper, this is ugly on my face, not stupid! When I lit into the man he like to knocked the daylights clear outta me!"
Jackson Cooper said in a lowered voice, "You just plainly knocked the stuffin' out of him."
"Hm." The Sheriff's grunt was noncommittal.
"He said he'd never want to tear into you again!"
The Sheriff nodded. "Somehow," he admitted, "I'm kind of glad to hear that."
There was another long silence.
Upstairs, above the Jewel's broad windows, a lamp was extinguished: they saw it go out, and knew Esther was leaving her office for the day. She maintained her office for the Z&W Railroad in the Jewel, preferring to keep her work life physically separated from her home life.
"You reckon Charlie MacNeil is doin' all right?" Jackson Cooper asked at last.
The Sheriff grinned. "Jackson Cooper," he said, "Charlie MacNeil will prosper at whatever he turns his hand to."
Jackson Cooper grunted.
"I hope he makes an unholy profit," he said at length.
The Sheriff nodded, grinning.
He was watching the door to the Jewel, watching for his wife and their daughter to emerge.
Jackson Cooper stiffened.
"You hear that?"
The Sheriff's blue-granite cup bounced off the board walk.
Jackson Cooper took a long step off the board walk, looking up the street.
Behind him, he heard the metallic rasp of a Winchester rifle coming into battery.
"Oh good Lord," Jackson Cooper breathed, then: "GET OUT OF THE STREET! CLEAR THE STREET!" He drew his Colt, fired a shot into the air. "GET OUTTA THE STREET!"

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Linn Keller 7-13-09

 

"Mac, you hear that?"
Maude looked up from her book keeping. Something in Bill's voice carried an edge, and Maude had learned to listen to men's voices: the tone they used sometimes carried more meaning than the words they chose.
In this case, Maude looked up and past Bill's shoulders and through the far window and up the street.
Maude's eyes were big and she laid her pen down abruptly, coming to her feet.
A living, pounding waterfall of beef was stampeding their way: not the rangy forest of twisted chitin and brindle fur of the southern longhorns, but rather domestic beeves: still, cattle are cattle, herd animals with simple minds, and when pushed, they tended to pack together and run.
Mac didn't look up. He was busy sorting canned goods, or was until something heavy, several somethings, hit the steps leading up to the board walk.
Brown-and-white steers passed by the front windows, three or four of them, until the steps collapsed with the punishment and the cattle flowed around the obstruction like water around a rock.
The West was populated by old soldiers and men used to fighting hostiles of whatever kind, and such men live by reflex: Mr. Baxter had taken three long strides toward their front door and seized Esther by the back of her dress, his grip fast, hard and unyielding.
He grabbed material and pulled hard, hauling the woman back in through the doors.
Bup's yap-yap-yap held a high-pitched note of pain, then was silent.
Angela's protest was cut off just as abruptly.
Across the street, the Sheriff shoved past Jackson Cooper and leaped into the saddle, yanking the reins free of the hitch rail: Rose o' the Mornin' needed no urging to whirl and launch herself away from this onrushing tide: she easily outpaced the leaders, turning at the Sheriff's knee and swinging in behind the firehouse, letting the cattle surge on by.
Three laughing cowboys rode behind, yelling, whistling.
The Sheriff raised his rifle and swore: lowering the rifle's muzzle, he shot two of the three horses through the center chest, one shot apiece. The third one he shot at the root of the tail, aiming to break the spine on a going-away shot.
Rose o' the Mornin' danced under him, anxious to run.
The third horse collapsed, screaming; the rider rolled into the dirt with an exclamation of pain.
The other two made it maybe a couple hundred yards before their mounts, too, gave out.
The first lay on the ground, gasping, his arm broken and the fight gone out of him.
The Sheriff walked Rose up to him, his octagon rifle barrel aimed at the man's nose.
"You just lay still," he said, dismounting.
He roughly unbuckled the man's gunbelt, jerked the leather out from under him.
"You don't go nowhere. Help will be here in a minute, just lay still."
The rider swallowed and nodded. He was hurting bad enough he didn't figure to make an issue of it.
The Sheriff mounted and rode toward the other two.
The left-hand one was foolish enough to take a shot at the graying old lawman.
The Sheriff turned Rose side-on to the man and settled the matter with one shot.
He levered a fresh round into the Winchester.
"Unbuckle your belt and let it drop," he rasped, his voice harsh.
"Mister, we was just funnin'," the rider protested, hands in front of him. "We didn't mean no --"
The Sheriff put a round between the man's feet. "My little girl was in the street," the Sheriff said. "I'm gonna walk you back up there. If she's dead you're dead too."

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Mr. Box 7-13-09

 

Things were quiet enough in the Silver Jewel that I Jackson Cooper yell and fire a shot. I came around the end of the bar toward the door just as Miss Esther was going out the door. Then I heard the rumble! I made a quick grab at Miss Esther, whose thoughts were distracted by Angela, and jerked her back inside! Angela was trailing behind her and had not quite cleared the door. She was brushed back inside as Miss Esther's skirt swept everything back thru the door. Miss Esther was startled but quickly regained her composure as she realized how near in danger she had just been. Angela, on the other hand, could not figure out why I had suddenly been mean to her mommy and was about ready to settle a score with me! By the looks of her, I wouldn't have given myself as good of odds as we had recently given Sean!

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Linn Keller 7-13-09

 

Angela's teeth clicked together and her head swung forward, her chin driving into her chest as Esther yanked her back, hard.
Esther ended up on her backside and Angela on top of her: a child is built closer to the ground and so Angela was on her feet almost instantly: divining the situation, she forgot entirely about Bup and turned on Mr. Baxter.
"YOU MEAN OLD MAN YOU LEAVE MY MOMMY ALONE!" she shouted in a child's angry soprano, fists balled and her face turning a remarkable shade of crimson.
Esther reached up and collected her daughter, taking her around the waist and bringing her back to earth with an undignified but positive whump.
"Mom-mee!" Angela protested.
Esther was still trying to get her wind back, Mr. Baxter was standing almost straight, uncertain whether to attempt to help the ladies to their feet, and Tillie was leaning over the counter, her eyes big.
Esther raised a hand. "Mr. Baxter, if you please," she gasped, and Mr. Baxter took her forearm just below the elbow.
Esther's hand closed with a surprising firmness about Mr. Baxter's muscled forearm.
Esther came to her feet.
Angela rolled onto her side, pulled her skirt up out of the way and got her own high-button shoes under her. Only then did she remember why she was going out the door in the first place.
"Bup!" she shouted and pushed against the doors.
"Angela!" Esther snapped, reaching for her daughter: her finger tips just grazed the material and Angela was back outside.
Esther heard shouted voices, shots.
She pushed open the doors, stopped.
Angela was standing on the edge of the boardwalk, looking around, puzzled.
"Bup!" she called in a worried voice. "Bup!"
Mr. Baxter heard the rapid patter of small feet down the steps at the end of the board walk, then an uncertain, "Mam-ma?" -- followed by a child's horrified realization of what she was seeing.
Mr. Baxter closed his eyes and leaned against the wall.
He'd heard a child's anguish before.
Fists knotted against the memory, he took a moment to collect himself, then he turned with a heavy, slow tread and walked back to the store room.
There was a flat bottom shovel in the near corner.

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Mr. Box 7-13-09

 

Upon hearing Angela's reaction to what she saw, I went to the storeroom for a shovel. We had a job to do and a little heart to mend. Bup had not realized what was happening in time or more likely his curiosity had gotten the better of him. God knows he didn't have the experience to deal with this kind of thing. "Mind the store a minute, Tillie. I've got a job to do."
Angela had realized that she would not have Bup anymore. She was just sitting in the street crying. "Mr. Baxter, sniff, they tromped Bup! Sniff."
"Let's take him around back and find him a nice place to stay."
"OK, sniff sniff."
"That could have been you and your mama, too."
"Oh My!"

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Linn Keller 7-13-09

 

Jackson Cooper was standing over by Angela.
My heart fell about two thousand foot down a long dark shaft until it hit my boot tops.
I'd heard Angela and I thought dear God she's alive! then I heard pain in her voice and my hand tightened around the receiver of the Winchester rifle I carried and I looked over at the rider walking with me and his face turned the color of putty.
We got closer and I saw Angela was leaned against her Mama, clutching her like a drowning man clutches a life preserver, and Mr. Baxter was coming out the Jewel's doors with a flat bottom shovel.
Mr. Baxter squatted down and was addressing Angela. We were far too far away to hear what was being said but there was no mistaking the shine of tears on the child's face, nor the grief in her visage: Mr. Baxter's moves were gentle, his gestures kind and reassuring.
Angela nodded and said something and laid a had on his forearm: some accord had been reached and I figured I knew what it must be.
I was right.
Mr. Baxter held his action until our arrival.
I spoke first.
"This is my daughter," I said, my chin thrusting at Angela, "and my wife, Esther."
Esther turned her green-eyed gaze on the man like a cannon battery coming to bear on an enemy ship.
"Jackson Cooper, report," I said, my voice flat and emotionless.
Jackson Cooper looked at Esther.
"Ma'am?" he said, his voice rumbling up from the depths of a long, deep mineshaft.
"We were coming out onto the boardwalk," Esther said in pleasantly modulated tones, but her cheeks were bright -- just her cheeks, the rest of her face was rather pale, and I knew this a sign of her temper -- "just as your cattle came down the boardwalk as well.
"I snatched our daughter back, and Mr. Baxter snatched me back, else we should both have been lost." She looked at what used to be Bup, now a mat of fur and blood and a single, gleaming tooth laying a few inches from the mass. "As you can see, our daughter's dog was killed instantly."
Esther detatched herself from Angela's grasp and stepped to within touching distance of my prisoner.
Angela took Mr. Baxter's hand and shrunk against him.
Mr. Baxter squatted again, his arm around Angela, and Angela hugged the man, burying her face in his vest, trembling a little.
"My husband is an uncompromising man," Esther whispered.
Little will get a man's full and undivided attention as a woman's whisper.
Especially when something cold and sharp is suddenly against the man's throat.
"In matters concerning our child, I am a mother.
"I compromise even less than my husband.
"I assure you, sir," Esther continued, her whisper as sharp and as cold as the sleeve-blade she held against the warm, pulsing throat of the rider, "had our daughter died, your life's blood would be required on the moment."
"Riders," Jackson Cooper rasped, and stepped into the street.

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Charlie MacNeil 7-13-09

 

The tired buckskin's head swung in counterpoint to its steps as horse, rider and Dawg eased their way down into the hollow surrounding the ranch house and corrals. Charlie's chin was on his chest, eyelids at half mast. They had traveled almost steadily since leaving the camp where the wolves had attacked the horse, stopping only for water and to give the buckskin a few mouthfuls of grain from the sack Charlie carried in a saddlebag.

The horse drew up of its own accord at the hitch rail near the porch and Charlie wearily swung down from the saddle, hands going to the small of his back as he tried to stretch out the kinks of too many miles in too short a time. He grimaced at the popping sounds emanating from his neck and shoulders as he swiveled his head from side to side and spread his arms wide.

The white-washed plank door swung wide and Fannie stepped out to lean on the door jamb, a cup of steaming coffee in one hand and a jug of the Daine Brothers' good sour mash in the other. "Buy you a drink, cowboy?" she asked with a smile.

"You betcha, Darlin'," Charlie answered as he stepped forward and reached for the jug, tilting it over his elbow and pouring a healthy slug of the fiery amber liquid down his parched throat. After several swallows he came up for air with a cough and a deep indrawn breath. "Damn! Those boys outdid themselves on that batch, didn't they?"

"You're just out of practice, Sugar," Fannie's melodic voice reached Charlie's ears, undertones of invitation tickling inside his head. "Now how about a bath? I'd say you could use one."

"I'd say so too, Darlin'," Charlie answered. "Soon's I put up my horse."

"I'll get the water ready." Charlie watched appreciatively as his shapely bride turned swaying back into the house, bumping the door shut with a hip. It didn't take long to unsaddle the buckskin, curry him down, and turn him into the saddle horse pasture.

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Mr. Box 7-14-09

 

Around behind the Silver Jewel Angela and I surveyed the area. "How about over here?"
"That ground looks kind of hard there, Angela. Don't you think he'd like somewhere softer to sleep?" I asked trying to suggest we find somewhere easier to dig.
Angela walked over and chipped at the dirt with her heel. "That is pretty hard dirt. Maybe over there."
"That looks a lot better." As I chipped at the dirt with the shovel. "I hope it's the right sign of the moon."
"What's that?"
"Oh, just something that makes diggin' and plantin' things work better."
"How can you tell?" inquired Angela.
"Well, we can tell by how hot the handle of this shovel is getting."

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Linn Keller 7-14-09

 

The older of the two nodded. "Sheriff."
"Palmer."
I stood there, the Winchester balanced easy in my good right hand.
My back and ribs hurt and I did not care.
Esther whispered something else. I didn't hear what, but I did hear the rasp of her blade, and I knew she was dry-shaving a little patch on the man's face, just enough to show him the stubble on her honed edge, just enough to let him know how easily she could have flayed his living throat.
"Barber?" Palmer asked.
"Eeyup," I replied.
Palmer thrust his jaw out, looked around, nodded.
"Anybody hurt?"
Esther turned, bringing her green glare to bear on the man.
Few men can look at Esther's anger and not look away.
Palmer looked away.
"My daughter," Esther said in a voice that would freeze water, "was brushed by the herd. Her dog wasn't, so, fortunate."
The other fellow -- I didn't recognize him -- was looking on down the street.
"Mr. Palmer?" he said quietly, and I cut him off.
"He's dead, all right. Stupid to draw on a lawman."
Palmer's brows drew together.
"Was it a fair killin'?"
"He took the first shot."
Esther made a show of carefully, precisely, slipping her slender, ten inch long blade back into its forearm sheath.
"Was you with him?" Palmer's question was for the fellow standing very, very still beside Esther.
The best answer he could muster was to swallow hard and nod once.
"Why ain't you dead?"
The fellow opened his mouth, closed it, tried again, and finally shook his head.
Palmer looked around again. "My men, my herd. I'm good for damages. Send me a bill." He touched his hat brim. "Ma'am," said he, then, "Sheriff."
"Palmer."
Palmer frowned at the fellow beside Esther.
"Where's your horse?"
"I shot it out from under him."
Palmer glared at me.
"You goin' soft?"
My smile was all teeth and no humor a'tall.
"Couldn't shoot the rider without riskin' a round through a building."
"Hm." Palmer nodded. "That's right. You were cavalry. Take out the horse and you take out the knight."
Palmer glared at his hired man.
"Soon as you get back you can draw your final pay." He looked at me, an idea creasing his forehead. "You want him?"
I remembered the man's expression when Mr. Baxter slid the shovel under what used to be a happy, tail-wagging Bup with bright eyes and a happy bark, and how his face looked when he saw Angela watching Mr. Baxter.
"Nope."
Palmer shook his head. "Goin' soft," he muttered.

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Linn Keller 7-15-09

 

Shorty had come up with a mattock and added his efforts to Mr. Baxter's laborious efforts against the hard ground. It took considerable work with the narrow ax-head on the back of the mattock to loosen the dirt enough to cut and dig but they managed to get it done.
Angela stood, solemn and big-eyed, watching as they carefully refilled the hole.
Shorty bit his bottom lip hard and fished a worse-for-wear bandanna out of somewhere as he watched Angela squat and pat the dry, crumbled dirt.
"'Night, Bup," she said, then stood and ran toward the alley.
She got about a half dozen running steps and stopped, spun, ran back and hugged Mr. Baxter, and then hugged Shorty, and then turn and ran back toward the alley.
Shorty cleared his throat and worried at something around the bridge of his nose with the least experienced corner of his rag.
"Dust in m' eye," he muttered.
Mr. Baxter nodded.

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