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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Mr. Box 7-15-09

 

"Glad that pup wasn't any bigger!" I told Shorty.
"Yep, tain't no easy job no matter how big they are. Suppose that little girl's gonna be OK?"
"Nothin' a little sasparilla won't fix. Come on inside, I'll pull you a beer."
"Thank ye kindly, that'd taste good right now."
"Believe I'll join ya. I appreciate the help, Shorty. I hope Sheriff Keller don't want them horses buried!"

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Linn Keller 7-15-09

 

Mr. Baxter's grasp of the working of a child's mind was better than mine.
Angela had pattered up the alley beside the Jewel and hugged me, then ran over and hugged Esther, and ran back down the alley.
I looked at Esther and she gave me that little hand-motion that meant All's well, let her go, and I relaxed.
I didn't know what had transpired until we adjourned into the Jewel.
I knew Michelle would have supper on the table when we got home -- matter of fact, knowing how punctual she was, it was likely ready right now, but I felt the need to set down and have a slice of pie and collect my thoughts.
If a man needs killin' I can punch his ticket: hands, blade or bullet, it matters not, dead is dead -- and then I can go to bed that night and sleep soundly.
Reckon that comes of the war.
I felt some different about today.
Not because of that fellow I'd shot. He drew on me, he had it comin'.
No, I listened to Esther's measured syllables as she recounted Mr. Baxter's fortuitous response to the hubbub without: I felt the color drain from my face as she spoke of Angela's legs being thrown sideways by the brush of a passing beef in the moment Esther seized her by the back of her frock: I must have turned the shade of wheat paste, for Jackson Cooper laid a hand on my shoulder and gave me a look out from under one eyebrow.
I hadn't known exactly what transpired on this side of the street until Esther put it into words.
Now you have to understand, words are powerful things.
I one time stayed a week with an old fellow who'd raised a wolf cub from near birth. He'd tamed it down until there was as much wild in it as a lady's silk handkerchief. Matter of fact it was a little less than half grown but still figured it was a pup and as we sat at the table and lied outrageously to one another, the pup got excited and let out a sharp, high pitched yip that went through my ear like a dagger.
I reached out a hand and tapped it on the end of its black nose and said, "Hush."
The wolf ducked its head and looked at me with wounded eyes and I was instantly ashamed of myself.
My host, on the other hand, proceeded to turn the air blue with verbal sulfur.
I will omit his exact lexicon and say simply that he called me seven kinds of a fool.
I protested: "He yipped, it hurt, I tapped his nose!"
"YOU DAMNED FOOL, YOU JUST BACK HANDED A WOLF!"
His words ran cold water down my spine as if an unseen hand dumped a pannikin of ice-melt down my back.
I pulled my arm in and tugged at my shirt sleeve to make sure I had a hand at the end of my arm and not a bloody stub.
Until he put it into words I didn't realize exactly what I'd done.
Until Esther put the events into words I hadn't a complete grasp of the situation.
Angela was sitting at the table with us, swinging her legs, looking around with bright and curious eyes and drinking sarsparilla from a grown-up glass, and Mr. Baxter came over with the coffee pot in one hand and a gentle smile on his face.
He filled my heavy ceramic mug and inquired if I'd like another slice of pie.
"Mr. Baxter," I said, "what I'd like is to thank you."
He brushed my thanks aside with a wave of his hand, ducking his head and turning scarlet around the ears. "My mama tried hard to beat some manners into m -- I mean," he interrupted himself with a self-effacing grin, "I mean she tried hard to teach me some manners!"
"Then I am grateful to your Mama," Esther said, her hands properly folded in her lap.
Mr. Baxter looked at me, and looked at Angela, and then at Esther.
There was something in his eyes ... a satisfaction, and almost a sadness.
He's a deep one, I thought.

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Linn Keller 7-15-09

 

Rose o' the Mornin' paced alongside the carriage.
Angela rode beside her Mommy, looking around, smiling a little: she knew it was coming onto suppertime, and in spite of having had an Angela-sized slice of pie and a big glass of sarsparilla (which went through her with a remarkable speed, the way it always did), she was still looking forward to supper.
As they came in sight of the house, Angela saw the front door open quickly.
Michelle, in her starched-white apron and cap she always wore, seemed agitated: Angela didn't have time to contemplate this new development, for her Daddy said something low and rough and Rose o' the Mornin' launched away from the carriage like a cannonball.
Angela looked over at her Mommy.
Her Mommy's face was funny, somehow ... it was white and kind of pinched.
Angela blinked and looked back toward their house.
The mare never altered its pace, and Esther never urged it to any greater speed.
Daddy leaped off Rose-horse and was up the steps in one long-legged stride: Angela had the eyes of a young child, and clearly saw him take their maid-servant by the upper arms, then he disappeared inside, and the maid dropped her face in her hands.
Angela was curious now.
"Mommy?" she asked, laying a little pink hand on Esther's forearm.
Esther was stiff, almost wooden, her eyes straight ahead, her spine absolutely straight.

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Linn Keller 7-15-09

 

I blessed Mick and his father for the breeding that went into Rose o' the Mornin' and her antecedents.
Rose o' the Mornin' loved to run and run hard, and when I gave her my knees, hard, she responded with a will.
I saw Michelle on the front porch, in obvious distress: the only thing I could think of was young Joseph.
Perhaps it's because we came so close to losing Angela.
I will admit to my stomach dropping down that same mine shaft my heart had fallen down earlier in the day.
Rose came to a sure-footed but abrupt stop in front of our porch: I was out of the saddle and up the stairs on one long stride.
Michelle was white-faced and crying: "L'enfant, c'est mort," she sobbed, sagging.
I took her by her upper arms. "Stay here," I whispered, and strode into our home.
"JOSEPH!" I bellowed, as if the infant could hear and respond. "JOSEPH!"
The lighting was less than it was outdoors, of course, and Michelle had not lighted a lamp yet, but Joseph looked dark, looked wrong.
I refused to accept this.
"JOSEPH!" I roared, thrusting one hand under his rounded bottom and one under his head, and brought him out of the crib and into my arms.
He was limp, still, unmoving.
I held his little face before mine and screamed.
"JOSEPH!"
I heard Esther's step behind me, heard her sharp intake.
Joseph shivered a little in my grip.
"JOSEPH!" I barked. "REPORT!"
Joseph took a quavering breath.
"JOSEPH, YOU GET BACK HERE, RIGHT NOW!"
Joseph took another breath, wiggled a little in my hands, then he breathed again and grimaced.
I bounced him a little, just a little, and in a voice I would use to address a misbehaving child that just chased a prize chicken around the house three times, I said, "YOUNG MAN, DON'T YOU EVER SCARE ME LIKE THAT AGAIN!" and Joseph took another couple of breaths, and screwed his face up, and he wasn't near so dark now, matter of fact he was getting kind of pink and he started to cry.
I stood there and held my son and leaned him against my chest and felt him push against me and kick his fat little legs and protest the indignities I'd heaped upon his sparsely furred head.
Esther came up beside me and reached for her son, her mother's instinct knowing what was needed, and Joseph, feeling the sympathetic hands of his dear mother, took a deeper breath and cut loose with a caterwaul twice as big as he was.
Angela was watching me, head tilted a little, curious.
I picked her up with one arm and hugged Esther with the other, and surrendered little Joseph entirely to Esther's grasp.
Angela and I went back out on the front porch.
Michelle was on her knees, with absolutely the most sorrowful look on her face I've seen for a long time. She looked utterly lost.
I went down on one knee in front of her.
"Michelle?" I asked.
She neither replied, nor did she move.
I set Angela down and placed a finger, gently, under her chin.
"Michelle, it's all right. He's fine."
"C'est mort," she whispered. "L'enfant, your son --"
Then my words sank in.
"L'efant," I said. "Vive l'enfant!"
I have no idea if it was grammatically correct or not, or even if it made sense. I don't speak French, I don't pretend to, and those few words exhausted my entire French vocabulary, other than "Sacredamn!" which I heard was PGT Beauregard's favorite profanity.
Esther came out on the porch, young Joseph wiggling and making impatient little baby-sounds in her arms.
I put my hands under Michelle's elbows and eased her to her feet.
"But, how? -- mais non, he was not --"
Joseph began to cry now, a healthy, strong cry.
Angela looked at Michelle with an expression of absolute, utter innocence.
"He's very noisy," she said, nodding as she spoke.

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Charlie MacNeil 7-15-09

 

Bathed and dressed in clean drawers, wool socks and much-patched buckskin hunting shirt, Charlie sat at table, what remained of his hair still damp from the tub and slicked back from his face. A steaming porcelain mug that smelled of Arbuckles’ best sat cheek by jowl with the jug of the Daine Brothers' corn squeezin's the tired horse rancher had slugged from earlier. His weary voice was winding down, the words coming slower as he neared the end of his tale. "So after I put that young one down, I decided enough was enough, and turned the buckskin for home," he rumbled softly. Fannie squeezed his hand where it lay on the table, calloused palm up.

"I agree, Sugar," Fannie said equally as softly. "We only lost one mare, and the wolves are gone north. There was no need to kill 'em all."

"I reckon I'm gettin' soft in my old age," Charlie said after a moment, his words drifting through the twilight of the small kitchen.

"Not hardly," Fannie told him firmly. "You're just not as bloodthirsty as you used to be," she finished with a smile that took any possible sting from the words.

Charlie lifted her hand to his lips for a moment before he said, "I think I could sleep for a week." He took another slug from the jug of sleep enhancer then turned toward the doorway leading to their bedroom. "'Night, Darlin'."

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Linn Keller 7-16-09

 

Esther had the rocking chair.
I had my easy chair.
Esther had a quiet smile on her face and a hungry little boy busy with supper.
I had a flannel-robed little girl who wiggled a little and asked, "Daddy?"
I opened my eyes, surprised.
I must have been closer to being asleep than I'd realized.
I cuddled Angela closer and murmured, "Yes, Princess?"
Angela laid her head against my chest and sighed. "I hear your thumper thumping."
I stroked her hair. Listening to my thumper was one of her favorite pre-bedtime relaxers.
Esther tilted her head a little, then looked down at Joseph, who was apparently quite content to be in his Mama's arms and under her shawl.
"Daddy?"
"Hmmm?"
"Daddy, what does 'report' mean?"
I was nearer asleep than I'd realized again. It took a long moment for the question to sink in.
"It means to tell me what happened."
"Oh." I felt Angela's head tilt a little, which it did when she was puzzling over something, then she looked up at me with that mischevious smile.
"Silly!" Angela giggled. "Joseph can't talk yet!"
"Oh, but he can," I corrected her, very lightly touching the tip of her nose. "He can say quite a bit. He can let us know when he's hungry, or when he needs changed, or when he's tired or cranky or just wants attention."
"Oh." Angela laid her head against my chest again.
I leaned my head back against the pillow and drifted a little.
"Daddy?"
"Hm?"
"Did Joseph do something bad?"
Esther and I exchanged a look as if to say, How are we going to explain that one?
"Why would you ask that, Princess?" I asked, fishing for an out.
"You sounded very cross with him," Angela said with her emphatic nod.
"I was scared," I admitted.
Angela pushed up off my chest, her eyes big and bright and blinking.
"You were scared?" she asked in an amazed-little-girl voice.
"Oh, yes," I assured her. "Few things can stand up to a little child!"
"Really?" Angela smelled a story coming, and she was right.
"There's an old Indian legend, about a powerful sorcerer, a medicine man with magic and spells and command of dark forces."
Angela's eyes were unblinking now. She loved stories.
"This was a mighty warrior, afraid of nothing: he commanded demons and spirits to do his bidding, and on his word the very air would curdle, great bears would dance a jig and sing, and fish would stand on their tails and clap."
"Oooo," Angela said.
"One day the great Indian Chief said, 'Shaman, there is one you cannot conquer.'
The shaman puffed out his chest and bragged "There is none I cannot conquer!"
"What's conk-er?" Angela interrupted.
I frowned in mock concern. "Conk-er," I said, "has two meanings: first, it means to beat, defeat or win victory over ... and the second is what naughty boys do to one another on the playground: they hit each other in the head" -- I very, very lightly tapped Angela's skull with one knuckle -- and yell "Conk-er!"
Angela giggled again.
"This great and powerful shaman chanted a dark and powerful chant and clouds built and thundered overhead, and winds spun about, and then he snapped his fingers" -- I snapped mine, and Angela blinked -- "and the clouds and the wind were gone."
"Oooo," Angela said. "What happened, Daddy? Did he conk-er someone?"
I held up a cautioning finger.
"The old chief took him to a far cave, and within was the one he could never defeat, but the wizard had to wait for the old Chief to emerge.
"The shaman waited impatiently, thinking of the spells and conjures he carried in his medicine bag, and the Chief emerged with an Indian girl.
"He is within," the Chief said, and the wizard went into the cave.
"It was dark in the cave and so the shaman said a word and fire danced from his fingers like candle flames for light."
"Didn't he get burned?" Angela asked, her eyes widening.
"No, Princess, it was a magical flame: bright, but cold."
"Oh."
"He saw something against the wall and he spun the other hand, creating a shield out of buffalo bone and flint, and he looked closer.
"It was a baby, about Joseph's size."
Angela turned her head quickly and looked over at Esther and her little brother.
"The shaman said 'Come forth, that I may defeat you,' and the baby laughed.
The shaman had never had an enemy laugh before and he thought, 'This must be a very powerful creature!'
He said 'You will come to me,' and chanted a dark spell of power.
"Eyes glowed in the darkness as demons came to his call and the air was strung with fingers of smoke. He spelled an ancient chant of power that would drag the most fearsome spirit from its cave, but the little baby lay there and waved his arms and laughed at the pretty lights.
"The wizard grew angry and chanted louder, and louder yet, and the mountain shivered with the power of his spell, until the little baby grew tired of the man's voice, and began to cry.
"The wizard had never heard a baby cry before.
"The baby cried and waved its pink little fists and turned its face purple and cried some more, and the wizard knew he'd met his match, and he turned and ran away!"
"Oooo," Angela said, blinking rapidly.
"And that is how the wizard was defeated."
Angela laughed and clapped her hands.
I gathered her up in my arms and gave her a big Daddy-hug and said, "Now it's time for good little girls to go to bed."
Angela hugged me around the neck and kissed me on the cheek like she always did and I carried her over to Esther.
Esther reached up and caressed Angela's cheek, and Angela ran an arm around her Mommy's neck and each one kissed the other, then I leaned Angela over my shoulder like a sack of taters and bounced her all the way up the stairs. She patted my back with her hands and laughed, "Faster, Daddy! Faster, Daddy!"
I spun around quick-like once I got her into her bedroom and laid her down on her bed, then I picked her up again and turned the covers down and laid her back down and covered her up.
"Daddy?" Angela asked.
"Yes, Princess?"
"Daddy, do wiz-ards come into houses?"
"Not often, Princess, why do you ask?"
She blinked, considering her answer.
"When Joseph cries. Does that mean a wiz-ard wants to conk-er us on the head?"
"No, Princess," I said, squeezing her pink little hand with a gentle Daddy-squeeze. "That all happened a very long time ago, when the earth was young. Babies cry to remember their victory, which is why a baby will cry and then laugh."
"Oh," Angela said.
I leaned down and tickled her nose with my mustache.
Angela giggled.
I straightened up, stood.
"Daddy?"
"Yes, Princess?"
"Will the wizard try to eat Bup?"
"No, Princess," I said quietly. "Wizards are afraid of Bups."
Angela yawned, rolled over on her side.
I drew the door most of the way shut, knowing she would be asleep in less than a minute.
I was right.

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Linn Keller 7-17-09

 

Bonnie's knuckles rapped a quick tattoo on the painted door.
Sarah stood beside her, looking up at her Mama, then at the door, then down at Twain Dawg.
Twain Dawg yawned, displaying the fine collection of fighting ivories inherited honestly from his sire.
The door opened and Little Sean, red-cheeked, put his finger to his lips and stood aside.
There had been a wonderful confusion of noise but a moment ago, but now all was quiet, very quiet.
Sean had come through the door with his usual stealth, sounding not so much like a husband as a buffalo herd, booming "Daisy, me dear, how's the most beautiful woman i' the world?" -- at least until he heard Sean's yell of pain, a smack and Daisy's sharp admonition.
Sean stepped into the kitchen to find Sean, red-faced, mouth open and face screwed up, gathering himself for a child's storm, at least until he saw his Da, at which point he rubbed his belly with one hand and his stinging bottom with the other and scampered past the big Irishman.
Daisy's eyes were afire and snapping with anger.
Sean took Daisy's elbows in his hands. "Ma dear, wha' happened?" he asked in a surprisingly gentle voice.
Daisy pulled away from him, turned sharply, sharply enough her skirt flared and swung: "Ye don't touch me, ye great slob! Men! Ye're all alike!"
"Daisy?" Sean asked, tilting his head, not at all sure what this meant.
Daisy turned on her husband, nostrils flared and cheeks spotted with crimson.
"Do y'know what yon child did? Do ye know? -- of course you don't," she snapped, folding her arms and turning away as he reached for her.
"Wha'd the lad do?" Sean asked, looking toward the doorway.
Little Sean hovered at the threshold, trying to look innocent and not having much luck.
Daisy turned to her husband, thrust herself at him. "Ye can see I am wi' child," she said, her fingers delicately on her maternal belly.
"Aye," Sean said soothingly, "an' it makes ye beautiful!"
"Beatiful!" Daisy snapped, tears bright and unshed in her Irish-blue eyes. "I'm a whale! Even yon boy-child asked me 'Mama, why are ye fat?' and when I told him a wee bairn lived in m' belly, an' it would be his little brother or his little sis" --
Daisy snatched up her apron and began weeping loudly into the material.
Sean, puzzled, did what he was wont to do in such times.
He reached out and gathered his wife into his arms and held her.
"And wha' did little Sean do t' earn such grave displeasure?" Sean whispered, his lips buried in her shining hair.
Daisy shoved hard against her husband, gone from grief to anger in a tenth of a second or less.
"HE BIT ME IN THE BELLY!"
Sean's eyes grew large and he could not stop the slow smile that split his florid face.
"Oh, ye think it's funny, do ye?" Daisy snapped. "Ye men, ye're all alike! Ye'll be sidin' wi' him now,do yu' want to bite my belly too?" She picked up on her bulge, thrusting it aggressively toward him.
"Now, Daisy --" Sean began
"Now Daisy nothing! Don't you now Daisy me!" Daisy sniffed, whipped her head around with her nose in the air, lost her balance and fell sideways.
Sean's arms were around her again, strong and protective, and Daisy was somewhere between tears and giggling.
"I bit him back," she whispered, and started to laugh, and dissolved into tears yet again.
"Ye bit him ...?" Sean turned and looked, surprised, and Little Sean nodded ruefully.
"She swatted ma bottom, Pa," he added.
Sean couldn't help himself.
He held his wife close and laughed, a good Irishman's laugh, and scooped his wife up in his arms and spun her around.
Bonnie tapped delicately at the door casing with one knuckle.
"Have we come at a bad time?"

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Linn Keller 7-20-09

 

Tom Landers was asleep in his bunk, upstairs, relaxed, dreaming.
The aches of a retired man's history glowed in his bones, his joints, shining in wounds long healed, some forgotten until the weather changed; he typically rose late and went to bed late, for the Jewel's gambling tended not to start too early in the morning.
If there was trouble it was generally loud enough to rouse him; if it wasn't, one of the girls would tap-tap-tap a quick, urgent summons on his door.
This day it was not yet noon.
The previous night had been strenuous. Accusations of cheating had been made, and at more than one table; in one case, Landers was able to quietly, reasonably and logically demonstrate to the accuser that indeed the cards were not marked.
This fellow was yet sober enough to understand a rational conversation.
The second accusation, however, came from someone Tom didn't recognize: a stranger, most likely a local hand by the look of him, down on his luck and with more drink behind his belt buckle than he had good sense behind his eyeballs: Tom was obliged to seize the fellow's wrist in a painful but very effective joint-lock, which led to a fight, which led to Tom getting hit in the ribs and the belly but the other fellow got hit harder, faster and with bonier knuckles.
It wasn't Tom Landers that came out in second place.
The penitent pugilist reposed less than comfortably on a jailhouse bunk, his revolver slept in the Sheriff's desk drawer, and Esther rubbed the bridge of her nose and placed her pencil precisely beside her ledger-book.
It was time to feed young Joseph.
Esther was grateful for the break. For whatever reason, her head ached, her eyes felt like they were being pulled out to points, and she was making mistakes in her bookkeeping, annoying, simple little mistakes: though she wanted to finish her figures, she knew accuracy was more important, and so she pushed her chair back and stood, stretching.
Young Joseph was downstairs. Daisy was home with her own family and chafing at what she saw as enforced idleness: she'd complained to Esther that after churning the laundry and hanging it out, scrubbing the floor, making bread and a great kettle of stew, after bathing Little Sean (who'd discovered a very inviting puddle behind the house) and getting him into clean clothes (and instructing him sternly not to return to the back yard), she'd mopped the floors, washed the windows, gone outside and tended the garden -- why, she declared, spreading her hands in dismay, without the Jewel's kitchen to tend, she simply had nothing to do!
Esther's patient smile was belied by the laughter in her eyes; Bonnie was turning a few shades of red as she tried to hide her response behind her bone-china teacup, Sarah giggled at Angela, and Angela tilted her head, curious, watching Daisy with big and innocent eyes.
When Bonnie felt it safe to speak without laughing, she said in her gentlest voice, "Daisy, listen to yourself! That much work would kill a normal woman, and you think it's nothing!"
"But it is nothing!" Daisy protested. "I've only Sean and Little Sean t' look after, an' what woman worth her salt would do less!"
Then Daisy reviewed her litany of labors, and blinked, and she said "Oh, my," in a quiet voice, absently laying a hand on her belly.
She blinked again and looked down, pulling her hand away as if burned.
Daisy's eyes were bright and delighted, Bonnie put her hand to her lips, her own eyes huge with sudden realization, and Esther tilted her head and stroked Angela's fine hair.
"I felt the baby!" Daisy whispered, and hiccuped.
On their ride back to the Jewel, Angela was quiet for a long time, then:
"Mommy?"
"Yes, Pumpkin?"
"Mommy do babies make hiccups?"
Esther paused at the top of the stairs, smiling at the memory.
She heard Angela's voice below. Tilly, as usual, had her own child and Joseph with her; they, too, had a hired girl to tend the house and fix meals, freeing Tilly to sit desk at the Jewel: it was not at all uncommon for Little Sean and Sarah, Angela and the other young, to guest with any number of adopted aunts and uncles. This also led to Sarah and Angela acquiring motherly skills in helping with their younger mates, whether bathing the babies or changing diapers, whether soothing a skinned knee or washing off a scuffed elbow, they were learning to take care of one another.
"Mommeee!" Angela exclaimed, running for her Mama and giving an enthusiastic, knee-level hug: Esther squatted down and gave her a motherly embrace, and was soon surrounded by a swarm of happy, chattering children, all anxious for Auntie Esther's hug.
As she always did, Esther excused herself for "Mommy-time" with young Joseph; as usual, Angela pouted a little, her bottom lip thrust out, at least until Little Sean walked up to her and regarded her with a curious expression.
Angela immediately giggled and hid her hands behind her face.
Guests to the Jewel were often charmed by the bright-eyed, pink-cheeked young behind and around Tilly's counter. Grizzled old lawmen and hardened cowhands alike relaxed and smiled a little, if only with their eyes, at this sign of happy, healthy growth.
Harper hadn't, though: he'd broken his arm when the Sheriff shot his horse out from under him, and though the Doc had set the break and plastered him up, his wing was crippled up for a while at least and he wasn't much good in the meantime. He'd had enough coin in his pocket to take a room while his partner languished in the calaboose. Tilly remembered the man's expression would sour milk.
He'd come down the stairs just as Esther retired to feed young Joseph, and Harper went to the bar to do some feeding himself. After a sandwich and a beer, then a long shot of Old Stump Blower and a beer, and some pretzels and another shot of Old Soul Saver, he was warmed from the inside out, still in a foul mood, and still looking like he'd bit a sour pickle first on waking up.
Harper had been nowhere near when Palmer fired his partner. Harper suspected he too was fired but he'd not been told so. The hostler had a horse that looked quite a bit like the one he'd been riding so he bought it, threw his saddle on it and hoped to sneak back into employmet.
He intended to square up his accout with Tilly, but he intended to fortify himself for the ride first: he drained his beer mug, paid the barkeep, gave the pleasant fellow a surly nod for his trouble and proceeded to square up with the pleasant woman behind the counter.
Drink will loosen a man's tongue and give vent to spontaneous utterances that are best left unuttered.
Luck did not visit itself upon him the previous evening, when he lost more than he'd won, but it was with him today, for his dark mutterings went unheard during his walk between one building and another.
The folk of Firelands don't take kindly to maledictions uttered about their residents.

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Linn Keller 7-20-09

 

Emma Cooper frankly admired her husband.
She'd watched him splitting wood, swinging the broad ax with ease and with skill, cleaving the sawed chunks with one stroke: she'd tried hefting that ax, and doubted whether she could generate one good swing ... she thrilled to see him haul it around overhead, driving it down through the good oak like it was a match stick.
He'd washed up outside, shirtless, and Emma Cooper honestly stared at her husband through the copper-screened back door: he'd never tended to idleness, even though he spent quite a bit of time in town, working for the Sheriff: he worked their spread as hard as any man, tending all the things that demand a man's time: she worked with him, as much as she was able, or until he would protest that this was not fit work for a Lady.
Emma blushed again and dropped her gaze.
Whenever he said that, he capitalized the word:
He pronounced Lady with a capital L.
Emma went to the pitcher pump, grateful for the work it had taken to set it here, inside the house: they had water, good water, and it was so very nice not to have to draw it from the well outside and pack it in anymore.
Jackson Cooper laughed when he saw his wife's delight, working the cast iron handle, holding a hand under the flat flow of water coming out of the cast iron lip, as delighted as any child, and it wasn't until Jackson Cooper pointed it out that she realized this was a left handed pitcher pump: he had to special order it, but he did, just for his left-handed wife.
It was summer and the school children were at home, tending crops and working their ranches, laying in stores against the winter to come: one wheat crop had already been harvested, the second crop planted, and everyone hoped the hailstorms would bypass them, windstorms would go around them, cyclones would detour away from them, and lightning would strike somewhere else; prayers were uttered at planting to spare them from locust and weevil, smut and blight, to which all in attendance uttered a hearty "Amen!"
Jackson Cooper slung the towel over his left shoulder, his shirt over his right shoulder, and strode for the back door.
Jackson Cooper took one effortless step, bypassing the single stone step, and was in the back porch, having filled the doorway to its capacity with his passage, both in height and in breadth.
Jackson Cooper stopped in surprise, for it was bright sun outside and just a little dimmer within, but his dear wife was right in front of him, and Jackson Cooper was of a mind to tell her something.
He did.
He reached down and picked her up and kissed her, gently, delicately, the way he always did.
Emma Cooper's return statement was similar in nature but delivered with considerable more energy.
The excellent lunch she had prepared waited on the table for some time, for after this opening discussion, each found they wished to pursue the matter at length, and with enthusiasm.
And so they did.

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Charlie MacNeil 7-21-09

 

The Appaloosa mares had recovered nicely from their journey from Oregon to Colorado and from the traumatic night of the wolf attack, neither event particularly remaining in equine memory. Hijo ruled the roost with vim and vigor, covering each of “his” harem as she came in season, fathering, at least in Charlie’s hopes and dreams, a line of horses soon to be known far and wide. By now, the fenced pasture near the tidy ranch house was merely a refuge the band returned to as darkness began to cover the bluestem prairies, or to sip water from a favorite place in the creek at midday. Instead, they would wander across swale and hill, free to search out the best forage in the cool of the morning and the coolest shade in the heat of the day. A particularly favored resting place was a loosely woven thicket of alders growing tall and tangled in the dished-out side of a north-facing hill slope excavated long ago by a passing cloudburst. The overflow from a small spring-fed pool trickled through a grassy passage just wide enough to be home to a loud-voiced frog whose tenor-toned “chee-rup” would tinkle lightly on the evening breeze at the end of the day. Life was good that fine summer day, but life has a way of taking unexpected turns…

Hard blue eyes stared through the lenses of captured Union officer’s field glasses as they had for a number of days, following the movement of the colorful broodmare band and their golden leader, the brain behind the eyes taking note of the routine the horses followed in their travels. A plan was slowly evolving in that brain as the sunny hours passed.

Arlen Jordburg lowered the glasses to his chest, letting them hang by the leather strap. “You boys gather ‘round,” he ordered the rough group sprawled in the shade of another alder copse, waiting for their leader to finish watching the horses they had been following for the better part of a week. Said leader stood glaring impatiently at the men as they dragged themselves to their feet and made their way to where he waited. When all four of the hardcases were more or less paying attention, Jordburg began explaining what he had in mind. When he was finished, he pointed at the youngest of the group, a hatchet-faced ranny with greasy blond hair to his shoulders.

“Balch, you’re sure that corral’s where you said it is?”

“Yep,” the young man answered. “We built it ourselves.”

“Alright, let’s gather them horses and head that way with ‘em. You lead.”

“What about that stud?” the shortest of the quartet, a border country pistolero named Jack Lansing, wanted to know.

“If he gives us any trouble, shoot him!” Jordburg declared. “Now saddle up!”

The five unwashed bandits moved out of their hidden camp at a trot and began to circle the alder stand where Hijo and his harem were relaxing, nibbling sweet green grass and switching flies. Suddenly the golden stallion’s head came up, ears pricked warily. A moment later he was gathering the mares and herding them from the hollow onto the grasslands beyond. In spite of his caution and the speed of the band, Hijo played right into the hands of the rustlers.

As the mares and their master broke cover and attempted to turn toward home, the young blond outlaw unfurled a twelve-foot blacksnake whip, ripping the air with the dynamite snap of the braided leather. Hijo flinched away from the sound, turning north across the pasture. The mares followed in a multicolored stream of flaring mane and thundering hoof. As they ran, the rest of the rustlers closed in on either side, forcing them to line out to the north. Whenever one of the mares, or Hijo, would try to break to the side, the whip would rend the air and turn the escapee back north again. After a few miles, the run became a trot, then a walk, as the mares, fat from good grazing, tired and slowed.

A long stretch of slab rock appeared in front of the herd. As the last of the horses, ridden and driven, stepped onto the hard stone, Balch called, “Okay, turn ‘em now! We’ll lose our tracks on this here slab then head south!”

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Linn Keller 7-22-09

 

Jacob leaned indolently back in the Sheriff's office chair, his feet up on the Sheriff's desk. His hat hung on the peg behind him, his rifle was parked in the rack on the wall and his knife was in his hand.
He spit on the whet stone again, meditatively spreading it over the flat, close-grained surface: Berea sandstone, sent to his Pa as a gift, and kept here in the office for this very purpose.
He laid the stone on the desk and placed his knife on the stone.
Tilting the blade a little, he began making slow, methodical circles, whispering tempered steel against obdurate stone; his labors were precise, practiced, and in not very long he had honed the entire length of one side of the blade.
Jacob had two knives: one for skinning and one for fighting; he had a folding Barlow in his pocket he used for general purposes: the skinning knife he sharpened on one side only, finding it more to his liking for removing pelts; the Barlow he sharpened to a razor's edge with two stones, one not quite coarse, the other very fine, and he had on occasion shaved with it: his fighting knife he sharpened with a coarse stone only, finding it laid open flesh better than the fine edge of his Barlow: ground at less of an angle, the edge held a little longer as well.
Jacob took his time. He had learned patience at a surprisingly young age.
Jacob had also a curiosity, an impulsiveness, probably inherited from his sire: he'd spent part of the morning looking over his father's collection of hand drawn maps: he and his father went over them together fairly frequently, adding any changes that occurred in their county: a new ranch house, for instance, or a lake that had been missed.
Jacob had paid particular attention to Charlie's spread. He held a deep affection and a profound respect for the broad-shouldered, hard-muscled man.
Naturally, when he thought of Charlie, he thought of Charlie's wife, Miz Fannie, and his ears began reddening.
Jacob was happily married and perfectly contented with his own young wife, but he held a particular place in his heart for the red-headed woman: as a matter of fact he had installed her on a pillar, and that of surprising altitude: he thought of her less as a flesh-and-blood woman than as an ideal, a Goddess.
Time, perhaps, would reduce her to mere humanity, but for the time being, he was quite happy to maintain her in this ideal state of bashful adoration.
Jacob continued sharpening his knife. It was hand forged by a blacksmith not far from where he sat; it was not the good Damascus steel of his father's cavalry sabre, but it was good steel nonetheless, and held an edge adequately; leaf-shaped, it had a sharpened false edge, and Jacob had practiced cutting back-handed as well as fore-handed.
His mother had worked long hours with him, teaching the use of the rapier and of the main-gauche, the left-hand knife that was used to parry, or to attack; she taught him the use of the slender sleeve-knife she was never without; she taught him the vulnerable places, how to disable the extended arm, where to fillet a body when fighting toe-to-toe.
Jacob never asked, but he had the distinct impression his mother had used these skills to good effect in the past.
There is instruction that comes from being instructed, and there is instruction that comes of experience, and Jacob knew the difference between the two.
The Sheriff added his own skills to Jacob's fighting repertoire.
They two had sparred many a time, out behind their house, naked to the waist, with wooden knives, carefully dulled: each had come away marked, red stripes marking where one had gotten through the other's guard: to an onlooker it may have been unnecessarily rough, but each benefitted from sparring with an able partner: the sting of the wooden knife's edge and tip educated in and of itself: if this were steel, you would be dead, each bruise, each abrasion said, in a language unmistakable.
Jacob tested the blade, running his thumb nail slowly, delicately down the honed edge, finally nodding satisfaction and sliding the knife back into his boot top.
He wiped the stone off and restored it to its place on a shelf behind the Sheriff's desk.
Stretching, the young man lifted his hat from the peg and settled it on his head.
His beautiful bride had fed him a good breakfast but that was two hours ago and he was hungry again.
Jacob looked at his father's desk, seeing in his mind's eye the map of Charlie and Miz Fannie's ranch, and smiled, for he was blessed with an eiditic memory: then he walked over to the rifle rack and retrieved his .40-60.
Jacob headed out the door.
Pie and coffee was sounding pretty good.

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Linn Keller 7-24-09

 

The Daine boys had fetched in meat, brought down by a fifty ball from a flint rifle: hung and cooled, it was disassembled with quick, efficient strokes of hand forged knives. No move was wasted, no meat was wasted; they stretched the sinews, treated them and harvested as much from the carcass as they could.
Mountain folk, thrifty folk: if it could be turned to a good purpose, it was.
Twain Dawg watched with eager anticipation.
The Daine boys had their own dogs at home, but none had a genuine bear killin' Dawg, and they had a rough, good-natured affection for this get of the Marshal's companion.
Even if Sarah did wash him in scented soaps and tie pretty ribbons around his neck.
The meat was wrapped in cheese cloth and soaked in salt water to get the blood out; part of it would be in Daisy's kitchen before sun down, adding its savory aroma to the atmosphere: Daisy knew how to recruit the best of cooks, and the Silver Jewel, with her provender to fortify traveler and resident alike, had added as much to its reputation as had the gambling-tables, the honest card games, Mr. Baxter's jovial good nature, and Tom Landers' low keyed but no nonsense peacekeeping.
Up the street on the far side of the alleyway, the new brick building was going up: it was to be a combination library and City Hall, and already the design had been changed: instead of brick in front, it was being made of the same fine quartz as was their hospital: smooth dressed and polished, it reflected almost like a mirror.
As a matter of fact, little boys would stop and inspect their image in its surface, until they were called away by an impatient playmate, or an equally impatient parent.
The Sheriff found it convenient.
It was not as efficient as a true looking-glass, but he was in the habit of using windows as mirrors, a thing he'd discovered as a very junior lawman, and kept ever since.
The Sheriff was prowling, and Jacob knew this was not a good sign.
When the Sheriff started prowling there was trouble to be had.
Jacob considered the rifle swinging from his good right hand: mentally reviewing the moment he'd retrieved it from the rifle rack, he realized he'd chambered a round but hadn't topped off the magazine.
Jacob stopped and fished a cartridge out of his vest pocket, pressed it against the loading gate and shoved, listening to it whisper against spring tension as it went in.
The Sheriff, too, was carrying his rifle. He'd recently had a peep sight mounted on its tang, as had Jacob: the Sheriff knew his eyes were getting as old as the rest of him, and he knew a peep often sharpened the image just a bit: Jacob knew his Pa did nothing without purpose, and so followed his example.
To his delight, he found his own accuracy improved.
The two lawmen realized each was watching the other, and both laughed, for in that moment each realized the other could be his twin in height, build and stance.
Save only the difference in age, they might well have been brothers.
They turned and headed into the Jewel.
Just before they set boot to dusty wooden step, they paused; the Sheriff looking to his right, Jacob to his left, each man swinging the arc of his gaze, each knowing where the other was looking.
They had, in the past, gone around opposite sides of a building: each knew where the other was, each could feel the ground under the other's advancing foot, and when one raised his rifle to engage an opponent, the other knew it, despite the interposing bulk of the general store.
Neither pretended to understand the phenomenon.
They only knew it to be so, and were content in that knowledge.
The Sheriff had first experienced this with Jackson Cooper, when he was yet town marshal, and Jackson Cooper was a deputy sheriff, back in Athens County: in the years that followed, he'd found it with Charlie MacNeil, and now with his son.
Satisfied, the two went on into the Jewel, searching now for the pie that was insistently calling their names.

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Linn Keller 7-24-09

 

Fiddler Daine was a curious man.
Talented from birth, he could draw with a charred stick, a pencil, a pen; he could play anything with strings, or so his brothers claimed, though when the younger one suggested a lack of talent with those strings that held a lady's corset closed, there was a good old fashioned knock down drag out until finally the younger yielded to the older, admitted his error, and accepted defeat.
This was before the stage that brought strangers to town: entertainers, passing through, who had heard of the Silver Jewel, and wished to take a look at this emporium with its far reaching reputation.
They found it busy: every table was occupied with hard-rock miners, with ranch hands, with folk grand and common, all engaged in the delightful business of wagering on a poker hand, casting dice across the green felt, of betting colorful chips on the roulette table, all trying to skin one another out of their eye teeth.
A few were actually succeeding.
The stage was unoccupied: a shame, for a stage is a player's delight, and these players -- musicians and dancers -- consulted among themselves and decided to ply their trade.
What better way to assess a house for performance, and perhaps line their purses in the process?
Fiddler Daine was in the rear of the stage, having just tuned his fiddle; he was laying the bow across his rosin block when company arrived, and shortly the tall, spare Kentuckian was inclining his ear to the music they made.
The bass fiddle amused him. He knew it as a "bull fiddle" and had on occasion used it to manufacture some truly offensive sounds, though admittedly this was after he'd been sampling some of his own distillate of corn; these days he had better manners, and confined himself to his own instrument when engaging in quality tests of their trademark lightning.
These sophisticated city musicians -- two violinists, a flutist, the bassist and three dancers -- imagined themselves far superior to anything this paltry burg could offer, and regarded Fiddler Daine with tolerant amusement.
Until they began playing.
Fiddler Daine's expression was almost sleepy as he listened to the first several bars of their production: lively and brisk, it was intended to attract the attention of the patrons before the dancers presented at the front of the stage, and indeed it did: the intent was to play the first stanza, then the second stanza would be the dancers' cue to begin their own labors.
Fiddler Daine was neither urbane nor sophisticated: he regarded himself as a simple man, a pious man, a man of few vices: still, he had an appreciative eye for the ladies, and he knew this would be something new in his experience, for the ladies' skirts were unusually full, and short.
Well, they are dancers, he thought; dancing girls often wore costumes that would be shocking and scandalous on the street, but were perfectly acceptable on stage: still, he admired the turn of their ankles, and appreciated the grace with which they moved.
The little orchestra struck its lively air.
Fiddler Daine listened, his fiddle drifting to his chin.
One violinist noted this with a minor sense of alarm, sure that what was about to follow would make mating alley-cats seem harmonious.
They were playing a popular air of the time, one Fiddler Daine had never heard, though he'd heard of it: the dancers stepped out on cue, perfectly in time to the Can-Can.
The Jewel, having more patrons than it had gambling-tables, turned its general attention to the stage.
Women as a whole were respected.
Women with a talent for dance were admired.
Women in dancing-costume, skilfully disporting themselves in time to the music, were very definitely appreciated.
By the third stanza, Fiddler Daine was taking the melody, flawlessly executing this tune he'd heard but once: with the Eastern musicians backing him, he worked within the original tune, adding a trill here, a run there, never changing the original melody, but expertly adding fluorishes, signing his work with a unique perfection.
The Jewel appreciated what they were seeing, what they were hearing: their applause was loud and sustained, to the satisfaction of the players, for a player lives for the crowd's adulation.
It went so for the greater part of the afternoon.
There were but few in the Jewel who were not entranced by this new diversion.
The Sheriff and Jacob both regarded the stage briefly, then turned their attention back to the meal that they'd mutually chosen instead of merely pie and coffee: neither spoke, either before the performance, nor during: they both knew trouble was in the offing, each had that vague unease that a veteran lawman has when he knows something isn't right.
The crowd whistled and cheered and stomped as French skirts whirled and bottoms were flashed, as long and shapely legs kicked to head height, all in perfect synchronization.
None but Mr. Baxter and Tillie saw the two lawmen ghost their way behind the crowd, and out the door.

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Linn Keller 7-27-09

 

Jacob had scythed a rectangle the size of Annette's kitchen.
Jacob had scythed the grasses down until they were no more than ankle deep, and he chafed that it was that tall, at least until he took a single jack and beat the offending rock projections into powder.
He disliked trying to cut rocks with a scythe.
Once the rocks were gone he worked the rectangle yet again, halving the height of the vegetation.
Annette practiced here.
She had put together wooden frames, shells to represent stove, table, cupboard; she'd measured, sketched, laid out, and together they two had a small practice area that duplicated Annette's kitchen.
Jacob rigged a beam overhead and with a pulley and string arrangement, towed a three-board-wide target toward Annette -- scrap boards, wide as a man's shoulders -- Annette had painted a crude outline, and had indicated where the "heart" within the outline would be, until Jacob mildly inquired whether bad guys had a heart painted on their shirt for her to shoot at.
Annette painted the entire silhouette a uniform color.
Jacob, when he was at home and available, would stand behind her, holding the string; when she was ready, he would turn his back to her back and walk away from her, thus towing the target toward her at walking speed.
The first time he did it, Annette made a little "Eek!" sound: Jacob turned to find her several steps off to the side, gripping the handle of her dead brother's revolver.
She hadn't been able to clear leather.
Jacob had been understanding, patient, his voice had been gentle, his manner reassuring: few men could clear leather in such a drill and it wasn't quite fair to give her such a near impossible task so early in her training, but he wanted her to know just how fast a walking man moved, especially in the close confines of their spacious kitchen.
To her credit, Annette was a persistent and determined student: she practiced with her brother's revolver against stationary targets, boards as wide as her hand, and she practiced with Duzy's derringer, up close, knowing that as she trained, so would she respond: muscle memory is not forgotten when stress throws conscious and rational thought out the window. She practiced dry firing, remembering her father in law's use of the Navy Colt for that purpose, and Jacob had to dress her Colt's recoil shield after a time, as he hammer nose battered the opening some with her frequent practice.
Maude made sure to keep a steady supply of cartridges for both the Derringer and Annette's Colt. There was a steady business in ammunition, but the widowed storekeeper took note of the attractive young woman's new purchasing pattern, and adjusted her inventory accordingly.

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Linn Keller 7-29-09

 

Quiet eyes noted the lawmen's departure.
An ordered, methodical mind lived behind the eyes, and directed the small feet beneath to convey to the kitchen, her new domain.
Skilled hands slabbed off good beef, laid it between slices of bread, wrapped it: several of these were prepared and packed, arranged in a woven wicker kept for that purpose. Salt was poured into a square of waxed paper, folded; pepper was ground onto another square, folded as well.
A quick touch and press on the hot stove top served to seal the little packets, guaranteeing their precious contents would not spill.
A shy smile shone on the work.
Coffee pot and cooking tin went into the basket as well, each either nesting or serving to nest other components: no space was wasted, but neither was the basket over-filled, for she'd observed the lawmen for some time, and she knew when they grew restless, and they began keeping long silences, watchful silences, and when they went their way with rifle in hand, that they would soon be busy: if they were busy close by, or on the trail, they would need to eat.
She could not provide their every meal but she could give them at least one good meal, and coffee.
Coffee! she thought, setting out a larger square of waxed paper: quickly grinding some fresh beans, she folded and sealed this as well, and placed it in the coffee pot.
There.
Done!

She held no illusions about the two lawmen.
She knew them to be happily married.
She was young enough to thrill at their smile, whether the older, dignified man, or the younger man, so much like his father and yet so different ... but she was matured enough to know they were untouchable, unavailable, incorruptible.
Just as both lawmen tended to put their ladies up on pillars, so did she put these two on a marble column as well.
She may not be able to express feelings -- dangerous feelings! -- but she could do this much for them.
This, she thought, is safe.

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Charlie MacNeil 7-30-09

 

Charlie was gone riding the north range, checking the springs and looking for wolf tracks, and would be gone overnight. Fannie busied herself around the home ranch, working on the myriad of small jobs that always seemed to need doing and often got left until they managed to grow into something demanding attention. She stepped out of the barn as the golden and scarlet orb of the sun touched the western rim of the hollow, looking to the east toward the horse pasture, expecting to see a scrim of dust in the notch leading to the gate. The still air would hold said dust for a good while. But the evening air was clear and clean.

She went back to her choring, keeping an ear out for the sounds of the broodmare band’s return to the home place, and grew increasingly worried as the light outside the barn dimmed toward full dark and no sign of the mares and their guardian was heard. When full dark came, and still no horses, she tried to tell herself that they had just stayed out late on some choice patch of succulent grass somewhere, but as her mind said the words her hands were packing food in a saddlebag and rolling blankets for bedding. She’d be up before dawn and on the trail shortly after, in hopes of discovering the reason for the horses to miss their normal return…

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Charlie MacNeil 7-30-09

 

The golden glory of morning on the bluestem prairie found Fannie reining her sorrel to a haunch-sliding halt down into the alder hollow favored by the broodmare band. The grass was well-cropped but green around the small spring, and the resident frog was greeting the dawn. Its "chee-RUP" brought a small to Fannie's lips that quickly disappeared when she saw the first track of a shod hoof in the mud near the spring. She quickly stepped from her saddle and knelt to slide a finger along the rim of the muddy crescent. "Yesterday afternoon," she muttered to herself as she mounted the sorrel.

Leaning from the saddle the comely redhead followed the tracks of the outlaws and their captives, slowly at first as she got a feel for the number of strange horses mixed into the melee, then faster as she grew more confident in the return of her long-unused tracking skills. She reached the sheeted, featureless gray of the caprock all too soon.

Once again Fannie stepped down, this time kneeling, then dropping prone, to look across the rock rather than straight at it. With her emerald eyes only a few inches from the ground the early sun highlighted the scars of steel-shod hoof on rock and pointed the direction of the mares' travel almost as if painted on the ground...

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Linn Keller 7-31-09

 

The kitten wasn't as long as Jacob's hand.
It was, however, furred out and fizzing like a miniature steam kettle, baring its tiny fangs and backed into the corner between the barrel and the clap board wall.
Jacob chuckled and fearlessly scooped up the sizzling little feline.
The kitten hissed so fiercely it sneezed and would have fallen over backward had Jacob not rolled it in against his shirt front.
His Pa watched with amused eyes.
He'd done as much himself.
Jacob's voice was gentle, reassuring, which did not civilize the kitten one little bit: it sat on its flat bottom, glared at Jacob, mouth wide open, and spat venom and hatred at the tall, skinny lawman, in spite of the warmth of his vest and the cradling of his callused palm.
Jacob squatted and set the little sizzle-ball down on the board walk again and it hobby-horsed a few hops away from him, turned and sizzed at him again, its tiny ears flat against its head.
The Sheriff was leaned casually against the wall at the mouth of the alley, looking at Jacob, looking away, eyes busy, never stopping: though he could take a moment for the amusing vignette, his gut was tight and he knew something, something, wasn't right.
The Sheriff shook his head and sighed.
"Like as not," he thought, "it's somethin' I et. It'll probably pass here directly."

Part way up the mountain, Annette had come to a good stopping point in her morning's chores.
She'd buckled her brother's gun rig around her middle -- Shorty pointed her to a fellow who worked leather, and he cut it down to fit her -- and with a handful of cartridges in her apron pocket, marched briskly out behind their barn, a number 2 tomato can swinging from her hand.
Annette was not the kind to waste resources and she saved what cans she could, they tended to come in handy, but she had a surplus and she had no need for this one, and besides, she wanted to put some holes in it, and that was reason enough for its sacrifice.
She did not check to see if the browned Colt was loaded. She kept it ever so; she'd determined to never have it unloaded, and thus did not have to worry as to whether there was a charge under the hammer, or whether there was not.
Annette drew the heavy revolver from its plain, worn holster and eared the hammer back.
The Sheriff had continued working with her, bringing her along slowly, not hurrying, praising her successes and letting her work through her difficulties. She'd proven an apt pupil which did not surprise the Sheriff in the least. He knew her to be graceful, dextrous and intelligent, and so he showed her one of his favorite tricks.
"Start out like this," he'd said, cocking the Navy Colt and holding it at arm's length, beside his leg.
"Now take your tin can, so." He had the can in his left hand.
Swinging the can up, he brought the revolver up with it: as the can coasted to the height of its arc, the Sheriff brought the Navy Colt to bear and BANG the can tumbled and fell to earth, a hole magically through its galvanized sides.
Annette had laughed and so had the Sheriff.
It was a simple trick, but one in which he delighted; he'd won a few bets doing such, and now was showing Annette its secret.
"How high was the can when I shot?" he asked.
Annette blinked.
The Sheriff walked over, retrieved the can. "Watch," he said, and tossed the can into the air.
Annette followed it with her eyes.
"Now how far did I toss it up?"
"No more than ten feet."
The Sheriff nodded. "See that fence post?" he asked, bending to pick up the can.
Annette nodded.
The Sheriff put the can on top of the fence post, walked away from it. "Three, six, nine, ten," he counted. "Think you can hit that from here?"
Annette laughed. "I could hit it with a rock!"
The Sheriff nodded. "Now what's the difference between hitting it here, or in the air?"
Annette puzzled a bit. "It's not moving right now," she offered.
The Sheriff picked it up and tossed it in the air, following it with his finger.
"Bang," he said.
Annette's eyes widened with discovery.
She'd just realized the secret.
As the can lost its upward momentum, it appeared to stop in mid flight.
That's when the Sheriff took his shot.
"Here." He handed Annette the lightly loaded Navy Colt. "Here's the can. Bring them up together and shoot it off the fence post, but up in the air."
Annette cocked the revolver and dropped her left foot back by its own length, then brought can and pistol up together.
A second hole punched through the can's sides.
Now, alone, Annette hefted the can and cocked her .44 and brought her left hand back, then up.
The revolver followed the can, big and slow against the clear Colorado sky.
The hole that appeared was near to a half inch in diameter and easy to see, and Annette scooped the can up and tossed it again, and holed it again.
She fired off half a box of cartridges that morning, laughing and ventilating that tin can, until it was more a collection of holes loosely held together by a tattered webbing of metal.

The tiny sizzle-cat had made its way under the board walk and was presumably rejoining its litter-mates, or its mother; Jacob and the Sheriff stood together, listening to the sounds of the town, considering.
"Sir?" Jacob asked.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, did you and Charlie ever get like this?"
The Sheriff looked over at his son. "Get like how?"
"Like we are now, sir," Jacob said. "My gut is wound up like an eight day clock."
The Sheriff's eyes trailed on up the street as far as he could see.
"Charlie never let it show," he said. "Even when we went after that b'ar he didn't show it. I knew the man was ready but by God! I would not want to play poker with him."
"Sir?"
The Sheriff smiled quietly. "He might have been wound up inside but he looked calm and relaxed on the out, and that made -- makes -- him -- dangerous."
Jacob considered this for several long moments.
"Do you know why you can see it in me?" the Sheriff finally asked.
Jacob frowned. "I can't much see it, sir."
The Sheriff chuckled. "We are much alike, you and I."
"Yes, sir," Jacob said doubtfully.
Silence grew long between them.
"It's like this in war," the Sheriff finally admitted. "Your gut tells you somethin' is up. No sound, no warning, no riders coming in at a gallop screaming of an enemy advance, no artillery barrage preceding a bayonet charge. Just one moment you're dying of overwhelming boredom and the next you're fighting desperately for your life and no idea how you went from one to the other."
Jacob's eyes wandered to the church steeple.
He remembered a night like that, a night when he'd fought from the steeple, shoulder to shoulder with the Parson, both men coldly picking off raiders, one after another after another, until a lucky slug nearly killed him.
"You heard anything?" Jacob asked, and the Sheriff knew he was asking if there had been any rumor, any word about an impending raid or robbery.
"That troubles me, Jacob," the Sheriff said, speaking slowly, forming his words carefully, as if his mind were busy and far away. "I've heard nothing. Not one single solitary thing, and that troubles me."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-2-09

 

Fannie took it slow, rifle across pommel, a round in the chamber. Her speed was not by choice; given that choice, she'd have ridden at the gallop, eager to bring back what was not others' to take. Instead she kept the sorrel to a walk, occasionally a jog, because the signs of the passage of the horses, shod and not, were few and far between and she wanted to miss none in case the herd changed directions. An occasional road apple could be seen, freshness judged by the number of flies buzzing about the fragrant sphere, but the men with the horses had taken pains even to scatter those as much as possible.

The sun was approaching its zenith before her boot soles again touched rock, this time near a small pool of water trapped in a shallow, shaded basin under shelving rock after the recent rain and offering refreshment for woman and horse.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-3-09

 

"Somebody's followin' us." The words came quietly from the buck-toothed redhead on the black gelding as he rode up to where the herd rested in a small pocket of soil and dried grass in amongst standing slabs of rock. "Whoever it is, is a long ways back, but he's there." Fannie was wearing pants and riding astride, and from a long distance, sillhouetted by the sun at her back, had been mistaken for a man. Jordburg jerked as if bee-stung before leveling a glare at Balch.

"You told me nobody'd be able to follow us!" the big Dutchman snarled.

"Whoever it is must be a damn good tracker," Balch replied, unruffled. "I'll go back and take care of 'em."

"You'll do nothin' of the sort," Jordburg snapped. "Robbins, go get rid of whoever it is." Without a word, the redhead reined his horse around and left the pocket at a trot.

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Linn Keller 8-3-09

 

"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, reckon we'd ought to go find out what's going on?"
The Sheriff nodded. "Go where?"
Jacob shifted his weight, impatient as young men are.
"Until we have a course of action, we hold action," the Sheriff said quietly. "It would do no good to ride hell-a-tearin' over the country side, not knowin' where we were needed, likely missing it and not being here when word does come in."
"You really believe that?" Jacob snapped.
The Sheriff bristled. No father takes kindly to back talk from his son.
He took a long moment instead of answering.
Jacob hesitated, and the Sheriff did too: is he about to apologize? he thought. If I speak now, that would slap down his next words.
Instead, Jacob pointed with a thrust of his chin.
"The bank is secure. It's solid and we've no word of anything. You hear more than a man would expect and if it was in the wind, you would know it." Jacob turned a little, looking in his mind's eye through the building, toward the depot.
"If there was a railroad holdup planned, same thing. You would have heard something."
He looked at the Jewel. "If it was trouble at the tables we would know it by now. It wouldn't hang fire this long."
His eyes scanned the roof lines. "No sign of smoke, no fire ... what's left?"
"Who's outlying?"
"Swede and his boys. The Kolascinski family. Annette. Half dozen others. Ranchers ...."
Their eyes met.
"Charlie," they said together.
The Sheriff felt cold water run down the middle of his back, and his belly tightened.
"Saddle up."
Jacob did not need to be told twice.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-4-09

 

Charlie rode into the ranch yard just before noon, having made a circle of all his outlying range. His route out the day before had taken him past the broodmare band early in the morning; all and sundry had looked fat and happy, Hijo challenging the buckskin Charlie rode more out of habit than malice intent. Charlie had merely waved his hat at the golden stud and gone on. Now he was home, and ready for a meal and coffee.

As he stepped down in front of the barn Charlie noticed that Fannie's sorrel wasn't there to greet them. This was no cause for concern, as Fannie often rode out to do some range checking of her own. It was only when he stepped into the cozy ranch house and saw the note on the table that his blood began to run cold; when he read the words his lovely wife had written crystals of ice began to form and drift through him.

Sugar: The mares didn't come back to the pasture last night. Have gone to see where they are. Love, Fannie

The mares were creatures of habit, and never missed coming back to the home place in the evening. Something was very wrong...

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Mr. Box 8-4-09

 

Things were pretty lively at the Silver Jewel today. Sheriff Keller and Jacob were in for pie but they seemed to be preoccupied by something else. All eyes were on the stage with those ladies fluffing their skirts around and high kicking. All eyes except Linn and Jacob's. Last I saw, they were slipping out thru the kitchen and a basket was passed to them as they went out the door. They would likely not be back tonight. I hadn't noticed anything going on nor heard any rumors but they were like hounds before the hunt.

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Linn Keller 8-4-09

 

I worked one of the wrapped bundles in my left hand saddlebag.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
Jacob was busy loading his half of the basket into his saddle bag. "Who was she?"
I stopped, chuckling, and looked at Jacob.
He looked curiously at me.
"Jacob, I don't have the least idea."
It was Jacob's turn to laugh. "I thought she was a friend of yours."
I pulled the flap down, buckled it. "Young as she is? Hell, I thought she was yours!"
"Mother knows her, then," Jacob speculated, swinging easily into his saddle.
I swung up myself.
"You head on out. I'll let Jackson Cooper know we're headed for Charlie's."
"Yes, sir!"
Jacob's Apple-horse was dancing, impatient: the horse was as young and immature as the rider, yet equally old and seasoned: Apple shot forth like an arrow from a bow, and a fine sight they made, skimming across the back field.
Rose wanted to run, too, but I held her.
"Not yet, girl," I soothed her. "Come on, let's find Jackson Cooper, then you can put that stud horse to shame again!"
Rose turned reluctantly, clearly not happy with my decision, and trotted rapidly up the alley beside the Jewel.

Jacob was full of a young man's fire, and so was his stallion: they both needed a high-energy sprint, they both needed to burn off the first hot rush of youthful effort.
Jacob let him run for a few minutes, then eased him back, back, shifting his weight in the saddle, talking with his knees.
Apple-horse slowed, settled into that steady, pacing trot he had: it was not the most comfortable gait but it ate miles at a steady pace and he could keep this up the day long and into the night.
"Old man," Jacob muttered, "you'll play hell catching up with us now!"

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Charlie MacNeil 8-4-09

 

From a distance, the caprock appears smooth and featureless as it bakes under the sun of summer and freezes beneath the winter snows. Appearances, as often occurs, can be extremely deceiving. Up close, what most call the caprock is folded and crenellated, here smooth as a marble floor, there finned and creased, weathered and cracked, ready to kill the unwary or succor the knowing. It was behind one such folded fin that the outlaw named Robbins settled in to wait.

Some hours later, as the westering sun cast ever-darkening shadows across the land, the clink of steel on rock brought Robbins to sudden attention. He peered from his hiding place, rifle in hand, to see the rider he had observed earlier lean from his saddle to check for tracks. Mindset can fool a man into thinking something that isn’t true, and it was only as the rider straightened that the ambusher realized that his quarry was female. Instantly his plans for the attack were revised; Robbins’ original intent was to lever a pair of rounds into the rider’s chest, then break cover and follow up with a shot to the head. The sight of the woman’s comely form caused him to shift his aim…

The tiniest of breezes swirled and Fannie felt the sorrel suck in a breath to call to the horse he smelled on the drift of air. Her gaze jerked instantly to face what the horse’s ears were pointed toward just as a shot rang out from the rocks to her left. She was lifting her rifle to her shoulder when she felt a blinding flash of pain in her head, her world went dark, and she was falling. She never felt the impact of her unplanned meeting with terra firma…

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Charlie MacNeil 8-4-09

 

Charlie gathered food, water and ammunition in a sweep of the house that was more haste than planning. He slammed the kitchen door and headed for the barn and his saddle with a cloth sack of jerky, another of torn strips of muslin and a full canteen in one hand, a sack of .44-40 in the other. He wasn't sure which he'd have the most use for in the coming hours or days.

The buckskin had been going steadily for most of two days, and deserved a rest, so the ex-marshal roped out and soon had saddled a young roan he had picked up from a neighbor a few days before. The neighbor claimed the leggy blue-haired mount could “go for days on a handful of mesquite beans and a hatful of water”, a claim Charlie viewed with a strong measure of skepticism, but from the few rides he’d had on the horse, he knew it could and would cover ground. Less than half an hour after unsaddling the tired buckskin, Charlie was in the saddle and making a beeline for the mares’ favorite haunt, following the tracks of Fannie’s sorrel…

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Linn Keller 8-4-09

 

Rose o' the Mornin' felt put out that I hadn't let her show that Appaloosa stallion a clean set of heels.
She danced and snorted under me as I gave Jackson Cooper a quick thumbnail in the abbreviated syllables of a lawman on task.
Jackson Cooper nodded once.
Rose reared and I laughed, for a horse that's full of fire and ready to run is a joyful thing.
Rose came down to all fours and swapped ends.
Right before she gathered herself and fired herself like a cannonball, I saw a girl at the back corner of the Saloon, watching.
Rose thrust against the hard packed dirt and crossed the street and shot down the alley.
I let her run.
Matter of fact I leaned ahead, grinning, and we shot past that girl at close to Rose's high gallop.
A blind man couldn't have missed the look of worshipful adoration on the girl's face.
Rose was minded to run and run hard and I knew it wouldn't do much good to try and persuade her otherwise. She would slow in her own good time and have plenty of reserve.
In the meantime I gathered myself for there was a wet weather creek ahead, one that Rose loved to jump, and I knew she would not slow one little bit for it, and I didn't want her to slow down neither.
I gave a war whoop as we went sailing over the dry watercourse.
In that one magic moment Rose was not a horse, and I was not a rider.
I was a god in an iron grey mustache, and we were one magical creature, riding the wind itself.

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Linn Keller 8-4-09

 

Apple-horse was breathing easy.
He'd got the initial sprint out of his system and was settled down to a good long ride.
Jacob's eyes were as busy as his mind. It would take a bit to get to Charlie's and when he did, he wanted to be ready.
Ready for what? his father's voice asked in the back of his mind.
Jacob considered.
What does Charlie have that might draw attention? Jacob mused, mentally unrolling his father's maps.
The mares, he thought. That's obvious.
Too obvious?
Could this be a revenge raid?
Charlie has made enemies enough over the years.
Hell, Pa has made enemies over the years!

Jacob slowed, turned, looking along his back trail.
The territory was still familiar but he'd developed the habit of watching his back trail: not only to remember the way back, but to see if he was followed.
There was no pursuit.
Apple grunted and slung his head as if to say Come on!
Jacob agreed.
What about Miz Fannie? Jacob thought.
She is a fine looking woman, and just as quickly as the thought came, it was dismissed with a cynical smile: anyone trying to steal Miz Fannie would find they've got a double handful of mountain cat!
Jacob's eyes widened, then narrowed.
Miz Fannie had worn a badge.
Revenge?

Jacob's expression was considerably less pleasant.
He had a profound liking for Charlie, and an absolute worship of Miz Fannie: Pa considered them family and he did too.
His Pa joked one time about lawmen and family being like a bunch of Scotsmen: step on one toe and the whole clan hollers.
Jacob felt a deep, abiding anger building.
If his family's toes had been stepped on, there would be hell to pay, and he'd just promoted himself to paymaster.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-4-09

 

Fannie returned to some semblance of consciousness to find herself slung belly-down over the saddle of her sorrel, head throbbing. Her wrists burned from the chafing of the rough cordage that bound them to both stirrup and cinch. As she took stock of her situation, she realized that her clothing was in disarray, and a bolt of rage blew the last rags of confusion from her brain. Someone would pay dearly for that affront!

As her feet were on the side of her horse nearest her captor, she took the opportunity to raise her head as far as the knotted aches in her muscles would allow in hopes of determining at least their direction of travel. The star-spangled darkness overhead, the deep dark of night after the total disappearance of the sun and before the appearance of the sliver of moon that would be rising, told her only that they were traveling west...

Full dark found Charlie at the edge of the caprock without enough light to continue on with his tracking. He stepped down from the saddle, resigned to spending a cold night without a fire. As he turned to loosen his cinch, a spot of white where none should have been caught his eye. He quickly bent and slipped a small piece of paper from beneath the stone weighting it then struck a match to read what had been printed thereon.

The tracks lead straight west but I expect them to turn south any time. Fannie

Charlie debated with himself long and hard, but in the end common sense took over and he unsaddled the roan, picketing the young horse in easy reach of feed and a small puddle of water still remaining in a pocket in the rock. He unrolled his blankets and settled down, head pillowed on saddle leather, to wait for the dawn.

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Linn Keller 8-5-09

 

Jacob had been out to Charlie's the one time, and the one time only, when they run the mares out from the railhead.
He'd been busy glorying in a long hard run with good horse flesh that he'd paid minimal attention to the countryside surrounding.
His Pa, on the other hand, was intimately familiar with the terrain.
His Pa had drawn the maps Jacob referred to.
His Pa had put in the light pen-strokes to indicate grade and slope.
His Pa knew Charlie had most likely chivvied the mares along a route that had good graze and good water, though knowing the mares, and knowing Charlie, they likely hadn't stopped to graze too terribly much.
Charlie would want to get them into the good graze of his particular pasture with the least delay.
The Sheriff smiled.
They likely would have taken this higher ground.
The Sheriff knew that way was a bit indirect.
Easy traveling, yes, but he knew a faster route.
"Come on, girl," he said, and Rose turned a little to the north.

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Linn Keller 8-5-09

 

Men drift into town, men drift out : drifting men are lonely men, and the Jewel was a beacon, shining across the empty land, gathering lonely men as they passed through.
Lonely men talk.
Mr. Baxter listened.
Mr. Baxter made note of what he heard, for information was useful, and when Tom Landers stopped to lean against the bar, Mr. Baxter leaned against the other side and murmured, "What do you know of a fellow named Robbins?"

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Charlie MacNeil 8-5-09

 

The half moon was long down when the whinny of horses signaled the presence of the outlaw camp. "Hello, the camp!" Robbins called, careful to wait and be recognized before commencing his entrance.

"Come on in!" Jordburg answered. Robbins clucked to his horse and tapped it with the spurs.

Around a shoulder of rock a tiny hatful of campfire kept coffee steaming and vaguely lit still another pocket of dried grass. The outlaws had spread their beds, and some rope, across the opening to the dead end box in order to keep the horses contained. Robbins and his captive rode into the dim light and were immediately met with curses. "What in hell are you doin' with her?" Jordburg demanded.

"She's the one that was followin' us," Robbins replied. "I thought maybe she might come in handy on the trail." He leered suggestively at Fannie. "You know, cookin' an' such."

"Cookin'!" Jordburg snorted. "That ain't what you're thinkin'." After a moment of thought, he said, "She could lead a posse to us."

"I don't think she's gonna be leadin' anybody anywhere when we git done with her," Balch said from across the fire, licking his lips...

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Linn Keller 8-6-09

 

Jacob gave Apple-horse his head.
Charlie and Fannie's place was just over the next rise.
I beat the old man! he thought, grinning, and allowed himself one prideful thought:
Old man, you're gettin' slow in your old --
Jacob's grin turned into a dropped-jaw stare.
The Sheriff was erect but relaxed in the saddle, Rose o' the Mornin' investigating the graze at the cabin's front door.
Jacob would have to have been considerably nearer to see the smile at the corners of the old man's eyes... a smile that traveled no farther than his eyes.

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Linn Keller 8-6-09

 

"Sir."
"Jacob."
The two lawmen regarded each other solemnly.
"Jackson Cooper is aware, sir?"
"He is."
"Course of action, sir?"
The Sheriff turned Rose, eyes busy.
"We could take the hospitality of Charlie's house, get a night's rest and a good meal in the morning."
"Yes, sir." Jacob hid is disappointment well but held his peace, knowing his father's ways.
"Or we could find them."
"Yes, sir."
"This was inside." The Sheriff handed Jacob a note.
Jacob read it, eyes narrowing, and he handed it back.
"What do you make of it, Jacob?"
"Miz Fannie's hand," he said without hesitation, "written in a hurry. It's wrinkled -- Miz Fannie is a tidy soul and would neither write on, nor wrinkle her paper. I would say Charlie read it, crushed it and dropped it."
The Sheriff nodded. "I would say the same."
"What else is within, sir?"
"Charlie left in a hurry."
Jacob felt something tighten well down in his gut.
Charlie was a man of passion but a man of discipline.
For Charlie to leave visible sign of his haste meant Charlie had reason to be hasty.
"Is there aught else, sir?"
The Sheriff's face might as well have been carved in wood.
"There's no sign of Dawg," he replied, "but there are buzzards yonder."
"I saw them, sir. Some distance off but yes, they are there."
"Fairly fresh kill. They're still circling high. Haven't come down yet."
"No, sir."
The two lawmen eased their horses into a walk, almost a trot, eyes busy ahead, busy on the ground.
Jacob's arm shot out, pointed.
The Sheriff nodded and they eased into a trot.
They'd just cut Charlie's sign.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-6-09

 

Robbins cut Fannie's bonds and unceremoniously dumped her to earth, soliciting an "Oof!" of expelled air as she came down. The outlaws gathered round her, unpleasant expressions on unwashed faces; it was easy for her to read the greasy, disgusting trail of their thoughts. She sat in the middle of a circle of potential disaster, her own thoughts whirling, as she worked the stiffness from limbs long encumbered. At the same time, she was working on a means of escape. She knew that Charlie wouldn't be anywhere close to finding her for some hours, and that she was on her own. Or was she?

Outside the ring of dim firelight, and the vision of the men surrounding her, a shadow moved where none should have been able. There was a brief glint of white at the height of a man's belt buckle above the ground and Fannie felt a sudden blaze of hope burn through her. At the same time, she frowned and shook her head negatively and ever so slightly, her lips silently forming the word, "Wait". The ebony mass faded back towards the horses and vanished...

"Who're you?" Jordburg questioned roughly as Balch ran his filthy fingers the length of the long red braid hanging down Fannie's back. She swatted the blond horse thief's hand away before answering, the roughness of her tone a match for that of the man towering over her.

"None of your damn business!" she snapped as she climbed to her feet. She swayed unsteadily for a moment as the blood rushed through her, then stood firmly and defiantly before the men.

"Ain't she a feisty one?" Balch's brother Zach said with a grin. He reached toward her shoulder and her own hand lashed out, slapping his greasy paw away before it could touch her.

"You'll think feisty, you scum!" Fannie snarled. Suddenly her hand dipped toward her boot top. In one motion she pulled the cut-down Arkansas toothpick from the boot sheath and slashed Zach across the thigh, razor-sharp blade carving a deep gash through cloth and muscle. She dove and rolled through the ensuing gap in the circle of human vultures, screaming, "DAWG!" at the top of her lungs. From the shadows the deep, full-blown battle roar of an enraged predator blasted across the pocket and echoed from the rocks...

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