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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 8-8-09

 

Jacob had younger eyes but the Sheriff was a more experienced tracker.
Each realized at some deep, hidden level that he was competing with the other.
Each was secretly pleased: the father, for the father rejoices as his son excels; and the son, for the son always wants to both outstrip and out-do the Grand Old Man, and yet wants to make the Old Man proud.
The followed what little sign Charlie had left, until the fading light robbed them of their pursuit.
"We could project a course, sir," Jacob offered.
"We could," the Sheriff admitted.
They sniffed the night wind, listened to the quiet.
"I dislike the delay," the Sheriff finally said, "but we're closer than we were. We can resume come daylight."
"Yes, sir."
Rose-horse leaned forward a little, walked down hill.
The Sheriff let her.
Jacob and Apple-horse followed: well, it was more like Apple-horse followed and Jacob offered no protest.
Both men knew their mounts had senses they lacked, and both were right.
There was a little trickle of a stream, with enough water for the horses.
Jacob and the Sheriff let their mounts water, then set up a cold camp.
Jacob took first watch.
The Sheriff, accustomed to a warm bed and a wife beside him, had some little trouble getting to sleep with a blanket for a mattress and a saddle to pillow his head.
Jacob reckoned it was all of thirty seconds before his Pa was asleep.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-8-09

 

Chaos reigned. Men were yelling curses, and men were screaming in pain as knife and fang together did their deadly dance through the unwashed ranks of the horse thieves. A shot blasted the night, drawing no blood but searing the retinas of those unfortunate enough to be looking toward the one who pulled the trigger.

The sound of fading hoofbeats indicated the flight of the only escapee, and that one was severely wounded, not unto death but enough so that the shadowy figure was clinging to, rather than riding, Robbins' still-saddled horse.

After the sounds of battle the sudden stillness was deafening. Fannie flicked blood from the blade of her knife before wiping it on the clothing of the one called Balch and slipping it back into the sheath in her boot top. Dawg sat on his haunches nearby, licking the last of the blood from his black-furred jowls, a look of distaste pasted across his muzzle.

"I know how you feel, Dawg," Fannie panted, her heart rate and breathing just beginning to return to something resembling normalcy. Dawg went to the small spring nearby and plunged his muzzle deep before wiping it as best he could on the grass near the pool.

One of the tattered heaps of bloody clothing moaned in pain. Thunder rumbled deep in Dawg's chest as he flowed to his feet, ears cocked toward the sound and lips wrinkling away from blood-stained ivory. He took a step toward the sound. Fannie laid a restraining hand on the ruff standing up on the great dog's neck. "Wait. We'll see how badly he's hurt. He may be able to stand trial." She walked to where Robbins lay, breath coming in shallow gasps, and knelt to roll the redheaded outlaw onto his back. After a moment, she looked at Dawg. "I think this one'll live," she said disgustedly as she reached toward the small nearby pile of firewood and tossed a handful of pitch-crusted slivers onto the flickering embers of the small fire...

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Linn Keller 8-9-09

 

The Sheriff's eyes snapped open.
He looked around, wide awake, moving only his eyes: all was still, the firmament overhead riot with stars, enough to dimly illumine the ground.
He found Rose o' the Mornin' and could tell from her attitude that she'd heard something.
He felt Jacob squat beside him.
"Report," he whispered.
"The horses hear something, sir."
"You?"
"No, sir, nothing."
The Sheriff rolled onto his side, came to his knees, his feet. "The time?"
Jacob drew his watch from his pocket, pressed the stem, squinted at the face as he rocked it back and forth, trying to pick up enough light to see.
"I'll take next watch. Get some rest."
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff gave his son a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder: picking up his '73 rifle, he eased his hat onto his head and kissed at Rose.
She came over, anxious to be fooled over, petted, rubbed: horses are herd animals and Rose had long ago accepted the Sheriff into her herd.
The Sheriff stroked her velvety muzzle.
"What did you hear, girl?" he whispered.

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Linn Keller 8-11-09

 

Jacob lay down on his Pa's blanket and rested his head back against the saddle.
He felt his spine relax and expand a little as it always did.
He was asleep in about the same length of time as it had taken his Pa to snooze. Like his father, he slept the untroubled sleep of the clean of conscience.
The Sheriff was restless, and walked a circle round about their camp site.
Rose-horse walked with him.
The Sheriff was not displeased with this arrangement.
Her senses were keener than his; her instincts were closer to the primitive, not dulled with civilization as were his own.
The Sheriff reckoned he'd slept about three hours instead of the two he'd planned on: resting a hand on Rose's neck, he smiled, for his son had kindly given his old man an extra hour's rest.
He could return the favor, and did.
Sunup was just pushing at the clouds on the far horizon when the Sheriff squatted at his son's shoulder.
Jacob was awake the moment his Pa's hand rested, warm and firm, on his collar bone.
Jacob reached up and laid his hand on his Pa's, and they remained so for a long moment: then the Sheriff stood, and so did Jacob.
They resumed tracking when there was light.

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Linn Keller 8-11-09

 

"I'd say these are Charlie's mares, sir."
The Sheriff looked at the hoof prints in the patch of soft ground.
"Most are, I'd say."
Jacob tilted his head. "How many shod horses, do you reckon?"
The Sheriff turned Rose, back trailed a couple hundred yards, came back: he kept the sun between him and the tracks, using their shadow for enhancement, but even this was not as helpful as he'd hoped.
"I can't tell," he admitted.
The Sheriff was still puzzling out the story the ground held for him when Jacob rode ahead a ways, then rode back.
"Sir," he began, and the Sheriff looked up.
Jacob's voice held a serious note.
"Sir, I reckon some things are worth killin' over."
The Sheriff turned his head a few degrees, his eyes half-lidded, lazy: Jacob was not fooled, he'd seen that calculating look before, and he knew his Pa was sounding out several reasons why Jacob might be opening a discussion with that particular line.
None of those several reasons were particularly pleasant.
"Show me," he said.
They rode ahead, generally in the direction the running mares had gone.
Only one or two buzzards were there this early.
"Ho," the Sheriff murmured, and Rose ho'd.
Jacob saw his Pa's jaw thrust slowly forward, saw the man nod once.
Wordlessly he turned Rose back to the path the mares had taken.
Jacob followed, looking down at what used to be a great golden stallion, before giving Apple-horse his knees.

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Linn Keller 8-13-09

 

"Sir?"
"I see him."
The rider was laid over the saddle.
Two sets of blue eyes, one very pale and one almost so, scanned the terrain on either side and beyond.
They spread out a bit, halted in front of the walking horse: it was lathered, it had been run -- or scared, perhaps -- and was more than willing to let the Sheriff gather in its reins.
Jacob started to dismount but stopped at the Sheriff's upraised palm.
The Sheriff dismounted and handed his reins and those of the sweating, bit-chewing mare to his son before stepping over and taking the rider by the hair of the head and looking at his face.
The Sheriff took the man's hands and stripped them free of their grip and shoved.
The injured man went over backwards, landed flat on his back.
The Sheriff ducked under the mare's belly and landed on Balch's belly.
Cocking a fist, he drove his knuckles hard into the man's face, rolling his head sideways.
Between the lawman's backside driving the wind out of him and a young anvil sailing out of nowhere into his mandible, Balch was suddenly awake and wishing he wasn't.
The Sheriff stood, opening and closing his good right hand.
Jacob scanned the horizon, quartering his fields, eyes sweeping near to far.
"Balch," the Sheriff said quietly, and his voice carried all the more menace for its quietness, "I told you to stay out of my territory."
Balch rolled up on his side, half sick.
The Sheriff looked at the gaping wound across the front of his thigh. It was bleeding again.
"Who'd you bully now, Balch?"
"You got no call," Balch gasped through a clenched jaw.
The Sheriff bent and seized the man by the front of his vest, hauled him upright.
"Balch, I beat you once and beat you pretty bad," the Sheriff hissed, his eyes the shade of a glacier's heart. "You killed that woman and I know it. I couldn't prove it but I swore I'd cut your throat next I saw you."
"Like hell," Balch hissed.
The Sheriff drove his knee into Balch.
The outlaw folded like a losing poker hand.
The Sheriff shoved him hard and let him hit the ground, stomped over to him.
"WHAT IN THE HELL HAVE YOU DONE THIS TIME, YOU SHEEP HERDING HORSE THIEF? TALK, BEFORE I CUT YOUR GUTS OUT!" There was the whisper of steel from the Sheriff's boot top and he had the blade pressed against Balch's belly.
Jacob cleared his throat.
The Sheriff drew back a long step, looked up.
"Rider, sir." Jacob's forearms were lazily crossed over his saddle horn.
"Do I understand you know this fellow?" he asked laconically.
The Sheriff nodded.
"Yeah," he said, and his voice held the rasping quality of a snake slithering across sandstone.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-15-09

 

The blood-red sunrise slowly lit the landscape as Fannie stood and stretched the kinks from her back. Her patient's eyes were closed. He wasn't dead, but his survival would depend on how tough he was. She didn't care one way or the other whether he lived or died; he was the one who'd taken liberties while she was unconscious herself, and he was also the one who was ready to give her to his companions as a play-thing.

"Charlie, you'd better get here shortly or I may not be able to keep this one alive!" Fannie told the morning air, then went through her saddlebags looking for something to eat.

Some miles away, Charlie was in the saddle and on the trail of the broodmare band. He'd seen the buzzards circling and figured rightly that the golden stud had put up a fight and been killed; he chalked that up as one more strike against whoever had taken his mares...

At midmorning, as all the players in the game were converging on relatively the same point in space and time, Fannie stepped to where Robbins lay and rudely kicked him in the ribs. The outlaw's eyes snapped open and he stared around wildly, grunting in pain. "Time to wake up and get in the saddle there, Sleeping Ugly," Fannie said roughly. "I don't have time to nursemaid you, so get your butt in gear."

"I can't ride!" the horsethief protested weakly. "I'll die!"

"You're going to die anyway if you don't get on that horse!" Fannie snapped, pointing at a lanky black wearing somebody's saddle. "I'll kill you myself!"

Slowly, Robbins struggled from the pallet of blankets where he lay and crawled on hands and knees to the horse's side. He carefully reached up, grabbed the stirrup, and hauled himself erect. With an effort he got his toe in the stirrup and managed to swing his leg over the saddle, where he lay on the horse's neck, hanging onto the horn with both hands.

"You wait right there while I round up the mares and get them started," Fannie ordered. Robbins nodded, his gaze locked on the black's mane. A few minutes later the mares were out of the box canyon where they'd spent the night and were lined out on the trail toward home...

Charlie heard hooves on rock and pulled the young roan behind an upthrust outcropping. He was relieved to see the first of his Appaloosas come into sight and he counted noses, finding that all the mares were there and cursing when he saw what he'd suspected before: Hijo wasn't with them. Then Fannie came into sight, pushing her prisoner in front of her.

Charlie nudged the roan out into the open and Fannie's pistol snapped toward him. "Hold up there, Darlin'!" he said quickly. "It's just me!"

"Am I glad to see you!" Fannie declared. Dawg appeared and woofed a greeting as well, then resumed his herding duties, pushing the mares ahead while Fannie and Charlie talked.

"What happened?" Charlie demanded. Fannie told him the story succinctly, leaving out only the unimportant details. Charlie's eyes narrowed and his face turned to stone when she told him what Robbins had done while she was unconscious and what Balch had been planning.

She quickly told about the fight and Balch's escape, ending with, "I don't know where he ended up."

"All right," Charlie said coldly as he kneed the roan up alongside Robbins, who appeared to have passed out. He tapped the horsethief roughly on the shoulder. When he got no response, he grasped a handful of hair and yanked the lanky redhead up straight, eliciting a squeal of pain and protest.

"Who're you?" Robbins gasped.

"Her husband!" Charlie grated, his eyes locked on the bloodshot orbs in front of him. Robbins eyes suddenly widened in fear...

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Linn Keller 8-16-09

 

Jacob raised his hat, held it for a long moment, knowing he would be seen against the lighter background.
Balch squinted his eyes shut, opened them again, as if hoping the sight of two lawmen would somehow disappear.
They didn't.
The Sheriff drew back another long step from the youthful-looking outlaw and his seeping leg. The thigh was ruined, the man would be crippled -- if he lived, which between the wound and the Sheriff, didn't seem terribly likely.
Jacob's eyes were quiet as he noted the answering wave.
He couldn't help but feel a little relief when the mares came up out of a little swale, moving fast, Dawg loping along with them, tongue out, moving easy for all his years.
"Charlie, sir," Jacob reported.
"Miz Fannie?"
"Yes, sir." He hesitated. "And a third, on a black horse."
"Recognize him?"
"No, sir."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-16-09

 

Charlie loosed his grip on the horsethief's hair and wiped his hand on his chaps then slipped the leather thong that held his rawhide reata to his saddle loose and lifted the coiled rope from its perch. A few seconds later a loop just slightly larger than Robbins head was resting comfortably around the outlaw's neck while he sat rigidly, staring in disbelief at the man who had now become his worst enemy. Charlie took up the slack, snugging the hand-braided hondoo behind Robbins left ear. His features held the frigid solidity of December granite beyond timberline as he took three wraps around his saddlehorn and heeled the roan into motion behind the mares without looking back to see if Robbins followed or not. Truth be known, he didn't really care one way or another.

"What are you doin', Sugar?" Fannie asked softly, sidling her sorrel up alongside her husband and looking across his back at their prisoner.

"Lookin' for a tree," Charlie answered curtly, his eyes sweeping the terrain ahead for the means to do what he had in mind. Many a man had turned away from the flames that could rage behind those hazel eyes, but no one but Fannie, familiar as she was with his many moods, could have seen the thoughts that were writ large across his blank features. No man treats my wife the way this one has and lives to tell the tale! Fannie sat back in her saddle, momentarily unable to think of what she should say.

"You're a peace officer, remember?" Fannie reminded him after a minute, feeling at the same time that her words would have no affect.

"Not any more," came the solemn answer. Now she really didn't know what to say, and Fannie silently prayed that someone would come along who could dissuade her coldly furious husband from what he was planning to do...

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Linn Keller 8-16-09

 

Jacob drew up as Charlie approached.
The fellow he'd thought was astride the black was instead following, at the end of a rope leash.
Fannie looked from the younger man to the older.
"Charlie," Jacob nodded.
"Jacob." Charlie drew his own mount to a halt.
Jacob's eyes turned to the fellow choking at the end of the plaited leather, then to Miz Fannie.
Charlie saw the young man's eyes were a lighter shade than normal, and had narrowed a bit as he looked at the older man's wife.
"Sir, is she hurt?" Jacob asked, low-voiced, so only Charlie could hear.
Charlie's smile was that of a skull's, utterly devoid of humor.
"Nothing a tree won't cure," he said in clipped tones.
Jacob nodded once.
"I'll not stand in your way," Jacob said: touching his hat brim to Miz Fannie, he said, "Ma'am," and kneed Apple-horse about.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-16-09

 

The great cottonwood, green buds of leaves in vibrant contrast to weathered gray bark, had withstood storms, drought, twisters, all Mother Nature could throw at it, while many of its lesser brethren had gone down. It now stood in stark contrast to the nearby slab rock barrens. As the riders approached, the sweet call of a meadowlark lilted across their ears, proclaiming the beauty of the day, the glory of spring. Little did the hapless bird know of what was about to take place beneath its perch...

Charlie pulled the roan to a halt beneath a thigh-thick, horizontal limb, loosing the turns of the reata from the saddlehorn to toss the coils held in his hand over the branch to tumble to the ground on the other side. One of the falling coils slapped the young roan across its velvet nose; held in with Charlie's hand on the hackamore rein, the three-year old merely flicked an ear at the strange object that struck it. Charlie chuckled grimly. "Good pony," he said softly. He turned to Robbins. "You got any last requests, horse thief?" he rumbled as he coiled the reata once again and took his dallies around the horn.

"P-p-please d-d-don't h-h-hang me, m-m-mister," the outlaw stammered. "P-p-please!"

"That one don't count!" Charlie declared. He tickled the roan with his spurs and the horse stepped ahead, taking up the slack and lifting Robbins to his toes in the stirrups.

"Are you sure you want to do that, Charlie?" Linn's voice suddenly asked from the shadows on the far side of the cottonwood.

Charlie's icy gaze fell on the Sheriff. "You're damn right I am!" he told his friend decisively. He articulated finally what had been echoing through his mind all through the search for the right tree: "No man treats my wife the way this one has and lives to tell the tale!"

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Linn Keller 8-17-09

 

I looked at Charlie.
There was not one inch of give in his expression.
I looked at Jacob.
His eyes were those of a wolf ... light-colored, relaxed, ready to tear something apart with fang or claw or bare hands.
I looked at Miz Fannie.
I felt all the warm run right out of me and I turned cold, cold, as if the hand of the Reaper were laid upon my very soul.
I saw women screaming, bleeding, clutching torn clothes to their bosoms as they tried to escape Yankee marauders.
I saw a girl curled up like a baby, crying in the corner of a stall, brutalized by Sherman's troops as they burnt and reaved their way across South Carolina.
I saw a fourteen year old girl with one eye swole shut from a hard-swung Yankee fist, and I saw the top flat of the Navy Colt's octagon barrel rise in recoil as I shot my own soldiers for their act.
I looked at Miz Fannie and I thought of my dear Connie, dead and buried back in the Ohio territory, and how alive she'd been the last time I held her, and I thought of Esther's shining eyes looking up at me as we whirled and waltzed in the lamplight of the Jewel.
I saw a hurt in Fannie's eyes that went soul-deep and cut like a knife and my voice was harsh and strange in my own ears.
"Charlie," I said, "hang him."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-17-09

 

Charlie spoke not a word as he and the Sheriff of Firelands, Colorado exchanged understanding glances. In their travels both men had witnessed atrocities best left undescribed; neither felt mercy for any man, if such Robbins could be called, who would abuse a woman, good or bad. Such mercy was left to those who lived in more civilized climes, where the letter of man's law reigned rather than the Mosaic law of "eye for eye, tooth for tooth". Instead, the sudden sharp dig of spurs against horsehide was his reply. The roan lunged ahead, squatting on its haunches, powerful hindquarters bunching and powering ahead as nerve, muscle and bone responded to the summons of the steel...

They rolled the dead horsethief into the blankets from behind the black horse's saddle, tied the bundle with the lariat hanging from the saddle pommel, and unceremoniously dumped the remains in a small wash. A few minutes work caved the overhanging bank down over the bundle before they rode away on the homeward-bound trail of the Appaloosa mares...

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Linn Keller 8-18-09

 

They rode four abreast.
Dawg had coursed on ahead with the mares.
Charlie was content with this.
The mares knew where home was and Dawg would see them safely there.
The Sheriff rode outside, Jacob outside on the opposite, with Charlie and Miz Fannie between.
The Sheriff had noted with approval that Jacob had taken position beside Miz Fannie.
She was now between two warriors.
Miz Fannie was a warrior in her own right, but Jacob's action was gentlemanly.
They rode in silence until they came in sight of the cabin.
"Remember Balch?" the Sheriff asked, his voice still rough.
"Yeah."
"He said they didn't even have a buyer yet."
Charlie was a man at home in the saddle, a man who rode loose and comfortable: he hid his feelings well, most times, and had a poker face second to none ... but the Sheriff saw the man's good right hand knot up into a fist and he heard the quiet pop, pop of his knuckles,so tight was his grip on the reins.
"Did he say anything else?" Charlie asked, eyes busy at the house, the corral.
The Sheriff was quiet for several long moments.
"Dying words."
Charlie grunted.
Jacob reined back, let the others get several paces ahead before he cut to the right, his stallion galloping easy. He drew up on a slight rise and stood in the stirrups, then after a minute or so, galloped back and resumed his place.
Miz Fannie looked over at the slender young man, and he grinned shyly at her.
"Ma'am," he said, clearing his throat and trying again, "Ma'am, they're all there. Every one of 'em."
In spite of all that she'd been through, Miz Fannie still smiled at his hesitant words, and she almost felt sorry for him, for his ears turned such a hot shade of crimson she feared he might set his hat a-smolder.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-18-09

 

Charlie's hazel eyes drilled into the Sheriff's glacial blue orbs. "Tell me!" he demanded, albeit softly, glancing aside at Fannie.

"They had a buyer alright, but not for horses," Linn said softly and carefully, seeing the hazel flames beginning to flicker. The Sheriff glanced carefully across at Fannie. Seeing that her attention was on Jacob, he went on in the same careful, quiet, neutral tone. "They were going to have their fun, then take her to Mexico when they were done."

"Who?"

Linn hesitated. "He didn't say." The words burned like acid on his tongue. Balch had indeed named names.

"Tell me!"

"You can't take the law..."

"Like hell I can't," Charlie interrupted. "WHO?" he hissed, equal parts of rage, anguish and understanding coloring his low-pitched words. "Please."

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Linn Keller 8-19-09

 

I considered for about a minute.
I considered what I would do, would someone try and take Esther.
Or Angela.
Or Bonnie.
I looked over at Jacob and thought of Annette.
My jaw thrust out and I looked at Miz Fannie and I reckoned she was the first true, deep down to his bootheels happiness Charlie had come across in way the hell too long of a hard life.
Was I to hold this information to myself, what good could I do with it?
A deathbed confession is admissable in any court in the land same as if it was sworn under oath, and I had heard the names clear and unmistakable.
Was I to keep this matter to me, Charlie would be watching every stranger, every stage, every train, wondering who was going to try and take this woman from him.
A man evil enough to arrange for marauders to take a particular woman is a man not likely to stop with one try.
I turned Rose and Charlie turned with me and we stopped a little ways apart.
I nodded, chewing on my mustache.
Charlie had never said please in that way before.
I looked over at the man.
Charlie had backed my play in some tight situations.
Charlie had kept my long tall carcass alive more than once and he'd proven himself closer than my blood brother.
We had shared confidences we would never tell a wife, we had rode together and fought together and got shot at together.
"All right," I said.
I spoke the names, and I saw hell fires light up in Charlie's eyes.
Somewhere in a smoky inferno I reckoned Lucifer rubbed his cloven paws in glee, for he knew a shipment of sinners was going to be delivered, in bad shape and in not too long a time.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-19-09

 

"Thank you. I do believe I know just where to go." Charlie turned the roan once again toward home, nudging him ahead to catch up with Jacob and Fannie once more. He was already contemplating the coming days, mentally listing the necessities of a trip to Mexico, trying to figure out how he was going to keep Fannie at home and at the same time knowing that such an endeavor was going to be well nigh impossible. Once she knew where he was headed there would be no stopping her, but he wasn't about to lie; no relationship built on trust could long withstand the failure of that trust.

It was as if the Sheriff could read his mind. "She won't stay home, you know," he said.

"Yep, I know. I also know she can look out for herself and don't need a nursemaid."

"If there's any doubt about that, just ask Balch and the rest," Linn answered grimly. Charlie gave him a humorless smile.

"Can you or Jacob check on the mares once in a while?"

"The ranch'll be fine. Don't worry about it."

"I'm sorry about Hijo," Charlie said.

"It's not your fault," Linn answered, emotion coloring his voice. "But I appreciate the sentiment." A sad smile tugged at his lips. "And there'll be some of his get coming along real soon."

"Yep."

"When are you leaving?"

"Tomorrow, if Fannie's ready."

"You tell her where you're goin', and she'll be ready. I guarantee it."

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Linn Keller 8-20-09

 

Jacob squinted one eye and looked down the edge of Miz Fannie's knife.
He held the checkered handle between thumb and forefinger, the point away from him, and looked down the honed edge of the length of the blade.
Miz Fannie was an old hand at packing both swiftly and light: Jacob and his Pa hung back, pretending to look over the mares, intentionally wasting time while Charlie and Fannie conferred.
His Pa filled him in.
Jacob's eyes were lighter than the Sheriff had seen them in quite a long while and twice he'd opened his mouth, and twice he'd closed it.
Finally he shook his head and looked his Pa in the eye.
"Sir, I'd like to go but my gut tells me this is their fight and I'd be in the way."
"Two will travel faster than three," the Sheriff nodded, "and those two have worked together before. You ever seen 'em side by side in a fight?"
Jacob shook his head.
"Neither one has to say a word. Each one knows where the other is, what the other sees."
Jacob turned his head a couple degrees, as if turning his best ear toward his Pa, and his Pa knew this meant his son was listening, listening close.
"Each one knows the ground under the other's foot and if either has a bead on a target the other knows where it is and how far away. When one reloads the other covers and not a word said."
Jacob nodded.
"Kind of like you and him."
The Sheriff blinked, then nodded, slowly.
"Yeah."
"You're not goin', sir."
It was a statement, not a question.
The Sheriff's hands closed slowly, tightly.
"You want to go too, but you're the Sheriff and you can't abandon your county."
The Sheriff looked slowly around until the twin gun turrets of his pale eyes stopped on Jacob's.
"You considered it."
The Sheriff relaxed his hands with an effort.
"Yeah," he rasped.
"You'd just be in the way."
The Sheriff looked at his son, surprised at his own words being handed him, then he chuckled.
"Yes, Jacob. You're right."
They rode back to the cabin.
Jacob dismounted, knocked, went inside: momentarily he returned, with Miz Fannie's knife and a stone.
Now, several minutes later, he sighted down the honed edge.
Satisfied, he nodded, wiped the cuttin's off on his pants leg and looked at his Pa.
Their goodbyes were characteristically brief.
Jacob handed Miz Fannie back the knife and she turned it, catching the light off the freshly sharpened edge.
Her smile was not the pleasant, feminine smile Jacob knew, but rather the smile of a hunting cat.
Miz Fannie nodded, slid the knife into her boot sheath, then quickly kissed Jacob on the cheek.
"Thanks, sugar," she said, her fingertips lingering on the side of his face, and for a moment, just a moment, Jacob almost thought he saw a trace of sadness in her eyes.
The Sheriff extended his hand, his bottom jaw thrust out.
Charlie took it, frowned, looked at his palm.
There was a badge there, with a coin slid in behind the pin of the badge, a coin he knew: gold, with the Seal of Solomon and a superimposed Christian cross on the one side. He did not need to remove it and turn it over to know a rose was hand-chased on its reverse.
"If need be," the Sheriff said, "make whatever official claim you must. I'll back you as much as I can from here."
They both knew a lawman's star could mean much or mean little, but it could help if he were challenged as to why he was traveling through a particular territory.
Jacob couldn't hear what else was said.
He was having a hard enough time keeping his fury in check.
Jacob touched his hat brim to Miz Fannie, nodded to Charlie, and mounted: he hauled Apple-horse around and heeled him into a fast gallop.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-20-09

 

Blue roan and bright red sorrel look equally as dark in the wee hours after the moon disappears from the sky and before the first light of the sun limns the eastern horizon. The night before, Charlie had debated long and hard with himself before he turned the buckskin through the gate to the east pasture. He and that horse had faced trials by fire and trials by ice, but Buck was getting older and the trail ahead would be long and tough. He decided instead to take the much younger roan, which had proven itself strong and steady. Now he was saddling the riding horses by lantern light before tackling the task of getting the sawbuck and panniers on the lanky pack mule and tied down.

They were on the trail west and south before the eastern horizon showed even the faintest rim of light.

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Linn Keller 8-21-09

 

Esther knew all was not well, but she knew enough to wait, at least for the moment.
Angela only knew her Daddy was home and she came bouncing across the floor and into my arms, all giggling and bubbling and alive, so alive!
A man can't help but be warmed by a wife and a child and a warm, dry, tight house with the smell of supper on the table.
I don't reckon I talked much that night.
I know I tried to listen, to smile, to nod, and at one point found myself agreeing with Esther that buttermilk was greatly improved with a double handful of salt stirred in it.
When I looked at her, surprised, she gave me that patient, understanding look.
"Forgive me, my dear," I whispered.
Angela, ever observant, dug her spoon in the salt cellar and industriously stirred a heaping teaspoon of the stuff into her butter milk and took a big drink.
"Yuck!" she exclaimed, making the face of a stone idol. "Dad-dee!"

That night I slipped out of bed, quiet-like, knowing I probably couldn't get out without waking Esther, but knowing I was restless.
I went barefoot down stairs and set down in my armless chair, lit the lamp over my desk.
My left forearm rested on the desk, drumming impatient fingers on its felt covered surface.
Finally I reached under and up and found the little semi-circular recess and pushed.
There was a click.
A little door opened on the left hand side of the pigeon holes, clear in the back, an opening to the hidden compartment behind the square envelope-nests.
I reached in behind the pigeon holes and just caught my old wartime journal with thumb and forefinger and fetched it out.
I paged through it, reading here, skipping there, finding what I was looking for, the nightmare pages, those sheets of hell, good rag paper with too many memories scribed on them.
I read them again, and trembled as I read: my breath became labored and my hands shook as I relived what I'd seen, what I'd known.
I took the first of these twelve pages of hell and tore it out of the journal.
I tore slowly, carefully, deliberately.
I tore out the second.
And the third.
I tore out page after page until a dozen leaves were stacked neatly on the felt writing surface of the desk.
I folded them over and reached back in that hidden compartment.
Pressing my knuckles against the side, I crowded one wood panel out just a little, just enough to slide the folded pages into the gap: when I released my hand, the wood came together, binding the memories in its wooden jaws, there in the back of the hidden compartment.
I replaced the wartime journal, closed the hidden door.
I lowered my forehead into my palms and my elbows onto my knees and set there in the lamp lit study for a long time that night.

 

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Linn Keller 8-21-09

 

Jacob was a young man and full of fire.
He'd ridden home, conflicted, knowing he was right in his assessment yet flogging himself for not going off with Charlie.
Three times he reined Apple-horse to a stop, turning to look back; three times he turned again and resumed his course for home, for home and his lovely young wife.
When at last he came into the clearing and beheld their fine stone house, he knew he'd made the right decision.
He rode up to Annette, who was standing outside, hands folded patiently in her apron, smiling at his approach.
Jacob dismounted, taking off his hat, and walked slowly up to his wife.
Annette's eyes were dark in the starlight and her apron glowed white, white in the dimness, and Jacob gathered his wife to him and crushed her in his embrace.
"I love you," he whispered fiercely, and Annette's arms were as tight around him, for she had missed her lean husband.
When Jacob's arms released their encompassing embrace, Annette tilted her head back.
"Kiss me," she whispered, and Jacob did.
Passion flamed bright in his soul as his wife stoked the fire.
When finally Jacob came up for air, Apple-horse nudged him in the back, grunting.
"Go on," Annette whispered. "I'll be right here."
Jacob's fingertips were light on her cheek, reluctant to leave her, yet knowing he had to take care of his mount: he trotted Apple-horse to the barn, hung up saddle and bridle and spread out the saddle-blanket to air out and dry, and rubbed down his stallion, baiting him with a scoop of grain and checking to see the water-trough was running like it ought.
He paused to wash up, quickly, knowing he was dusty and probably in need of a bath, but wanting to return to his wife.
He looked back toward the house.
Annette had not moved so much as one foot from where she'd stood.
Jacob slung water off his hands, slicked his hair back, and strode back to where his young wife stood.
It was Annette who embraced Jacob this time, her hands at the back of his head, pulling his mouth down to hers.
Jacob bent and caught up his wife, carrying her across their threshold as if he were bearing his bride to their wedding bed for the very first time.
It wasn't the first time, but Jacob was a young man and full of fire, and he had been denied his wife for a time, and he was decided that they should make up for the absence that night.
As it turns out, Annette was very much in agreement with this effort.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-21-09

 

Noon found ex-marshal and red-haired warrior sharing bread, hard cheese and jerky at a waterhole many miles from the ranch house. They had ridden hard but carefully, resting the horses for a full ten minutes of every hour while alternating between a walk and a trot the remaining fifty minutes. Now the horses were unsaddled, letting horseflesh and good Navajo wool air out and dry in the hot sun. Stunted junipers, black sage and rabbit brush stood in scattered patches to the horizon; boulders here and there stood shoulder deep in stem-cured gramma and bluegrass.

"We could be travelin' for a while," Charlie commented casually, watching his bride from tilted eye corner for her reaction.

"And your point is..." Fannie answered, eyebrow up-tilted quizzically.

"Just so ya know," he muttered.

Fannie stepped in front of her husband and looked up into his eyes. "Those men were going to sell me to someone whose name you seemed to recognize last night," she told him firmly. "Something like that will either make a woman resign herself to her fate, or make her mad. I chose the latter." Her voice rose. "And I don't care how long it takes! There will be a reckoning!"

"My sentiments exactly," Charlie answered calmly. "Shall we hit the trail?"

"We shall."

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Linn Keller 8-22-09

 

"I need to talk to the Daine boys," I said quietly, for young Joseph was sleeping, cuddled against Esther's bounty.
Esther smiled at me in the dim light, a mother's smile, contented in the moment, with husband nearby and infant at breast.
"I need to have them make me a bigger rocking chair."
Esther's eyebrows raised, then lowered; she didn't change expression so much as her eyes changed: Beloved, you are full of it, the seemed to say, and the saying of her eyes was gentle and amused.
My wife knows me well.
"If I have them make me a really wide rocking chair, I can hold you, you can hold Jacob, and we can all sit in the same rocking chair."
Esther's eyes darkened with pleasure.
She always did like it when I drew her to me and sat her in my lap.
Matter of fact I did that one time and the rockin' chair kind of collapsed under us, to our mutual surprise, and to my bruising ... as I recall it banged up my dignity something fierce, but we ended up laughing, the two of us, laying there in the fractured remnants of what used to be a rocking chair.
That was the last time I ever bought a stick of furniture the Daine boys didn't build.
This night, though, we were joined by the pitty patter of little bare feet, and Angela came in the room, rubbing her eyes and I think mostly asleep yet.
I swung my legs down out of the bed and reached for her and she walked into my hands.
I fetched her up into the bed with me, rolling her on top of me and drawing the covers over the both of us, and Esther smiled and came into bed with us.
I laid there and ran one arm around Angela, and held Esther's hand with my other, and with my family safe and warm and all together, I let myself relax, really relax, and the tension ran off me like water off a roof.
I slept with my child's breath warm on my neck, and dreamed of a cabin near a restless lake far away ...

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Linn Keller 8-22-09

 

Sean's eyes snapped open and his body tensed, awake, listening.
His nostrils flared and he automatically sniffed for smoke, for the breath of his old enemy: there were the scents of woman and perfume, of cooking and soap, and he reached across to Daisy's side of the bed.
Daisy was just sitting up.
"Sean," she whispered, and there was a tightness in her voice.
Sean's muscled arm threw the covers toward the ceiling and was out of bed and on his feet, moving, before they settled back to earth.
He recognized the strain in her voice.
Sean, Irish chieftain and Celt, Chief of the Firelands Fire Department -- generally called the Irish Brigade -- thrust sock feet into his boots and stood; his drawers came up with his galluses, he seized his shirt, thrust arms and head through their respective holes and hauled it down, shoved it in his pants and fastend the belt.
He was dressed and ready and around the bed in three long strides.
Daisy's face was beaded with sweat, her mouth open: the labor was upon her, but she was not going to interrupt her husband's rest until the preliminaries were over, for labor can last a good long time.
"I shouldn't have waited," she gasped.
Sean scooped his wife up. "Ye've no' broke water?" he asked, and she shook her head.
"Ye are near."
She nodded, biting her bottom lip, hard, digging her fingers into the front of her husband's red-wool shirt.
Sean strode for the bedroom door.
The man was focused, and all business: there was neither fear nor doubt in him: it was not far to the hospital and he could make better time with his wife in his arms than he could fetching around a buggy.
Little Sean heard his sire's brisk step below, listened to the outer door open, then close.
There was silence.
Little Sean frowned.
Why don't I hear the alarm? he wondered.
Curious now, he slipped out of bed and went to the window, looked out.
Their house was set back a bit from the street. Across the way was the fire house: there was a light in the window, as there always was; the brick station was nearly complete, rising solid and square beside the original, narrow wooden structure. His eyes found the hose drying tower, traced around the great double doors, searching for any sign of activity.
"There should be an alarm", he whispered.
It was Little Sean's turn to shove sock feet into his boots and haul his drawers up with his galluses: he slept as ready as his Pa, and was as quickly dressed.
Little Sean's heels were loud on the staircase as he clattered down to the foyer.
"Pa?" he called, looking about. "Ma?"
Little Sean opened the front door, sniffed the night air.
There was a trace of wood smoke but it smelled like normal wood smoke.
A structure fire smelled ... well, dirty.
This didn't.
Little Sean strutted across their porch, down the steps and into the front yard.
A shadow detatched itself from the darkness, flowed across to the lad.
Little Sean petted Twain Dawg and shook his paw, laughed as Twain Dawg washed his ears.
Little Sean had an idea.
Seizing Twain Dawg by the scruff of the neck, he said "Find Pa!"
Twain Dawg just stood there, tongue out, blinking.
Little Sean tried again.
"Biscuits and gravy!" he said. "Twain Dawg, find Daisy!"
Twain Dawg said "Whuff!" and surged ahead, Little Sean running along beside him.

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Linn Keller 8-23-09

 

Esther's eyes opened in the darkness and she smiled a little.
Her husband's hand was warm, enveloping hers, relaxed, not confining: his solid warmth beside her was reassuring, and little Joseph was a welcome weight on her bosom.
There was something else, something that brought her up from the depths of relaxed slumber, and with a woman's secret knowledge, she knew another of her kind had begun her labor, and would be delivered of new life.
Esther smiled a little and her eyes closed.
All was right with her world.

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Linn Keller 8-24-09

 

I never knew quite what I would hear at our table.
Michelle, bless her, had fried up a bunch of eggs, taters and onions, bacon done up nice and crisp just the way I like 'em ... there was warm bread, steaming and fragrant from the oven and coffee, plenty of coffee.
Angela didn't put any salt in her butter milk this time.
I listened, amused, at Angela's quiet chatter, at Esther's motherly replies; Michelle spoke but little, and did her best to be like a ghost: there, but not there, inconspicuous and yet ready with a refill for my coffee, or to snatch up a dropped fork and replace it with a clean one.
I listened to feminine voices with the gentle accents of the South, with the flavor of France, with various blendings of these; I was reluctant to say much of anything, so pleasant was this on my ear.
Finally Esther delicately wiped Angela's mouth, for there was always a streak of butter or a trace of bacon grease that escaped the child's efforts, and together we harnessed up the dapple mare and drove into town in our fine buggy.
I felt almost guilty: here I was, clean and well fed, at ease on a comfortably sprung and upholstered buggy seat with my wife and daughter, delighting in the cool of the morning and the red morning sun.
I thought of Charlie, and wondered how he and Miz Fannie were faring.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-24-09

 

The rooflines of the town of Bascomb appeared over a distant rise accompanied by the conical peak of the Southern & Western Railroad's water tower. Far in the distance beyond the small settlement, whose only claim to fame was the only stock shipping corrals in a hundred miles any direction, the steel rails glittered in the morning sun. After three long, hot, dusty days in the saddle Charlie and Fannie were ready for a break and to eat somebody else's cooking. There's only so much one can do over a campfire when that same one is in a hurry to be somewhere else.

The couple reined in on top of a rise to get a look at what they were riding into. A buckboard in front of the false-fronted general store, two saddled horses in front of the bank, and four chickens scratching for bugs beside the livery were pretty much the only signs of life. "Ain't much of town," Charlie said in a matter-of-fact tone. "Never has been, and it don't seem to have improved much."

"You've been here before I take it?" Fannie asked, though she already had the answer figured out.

"Yep. Should be a gent here that I want to talk to about where we're headed. If he ain't here, somebody'll more than likely know where he is." He heeled the roan into motion and led the way down the dusty two-track road into the town.

They tied their horses in front of the only eatery, a building that was, hopefully, aptly named "CAFE", stepped down and tied their horses and mule to the rail. The stock had been watered at the crossing of a small creek just outside the town limits.

The beanery was empty when they went in, one stepping to each side of the door to survey the room and let their eyes adjust to the relative dimness after the bright sunshine outside. The young brunette waitress gave them a brief look, then took a second look before trotting across the room. "Charlie!" she said in surprise. "What are you doing here?" She wrapped her arms around him in a hug he happily returned. From the corner of his eye, Charlie saw Fannie's questioning look and winked at her.

"Just passin' through, Hazel," he told the young woman. "Lookin' for some information. Is Hector around somewhere?"

"He'll probably find you before you can find him, if I know Hector," Hazel replied. "You just sit down and make yourselves comfortable, and I'll get you some coffee."

Charlie took her hand and led her to where Fannie waited. "Hazel, I'd like you to meet my wife. Fannie, this young lady here is my goddaughter, though I'll admit I've been a trifle remiss in her education, and I'm a bit worried about her." He stopped and waited for Fannie's reaction.

"I'm very pleased to meet you," Fannie said sincerely. "Although I didn't know my husband had a goddaughter." She looked at Charlie archly as she finished speaking.

"Oops," Charlie thought.

In short order Charlie and Fannie were seated with coffee in front of them and a meal on the way.

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Linn Keller 8-24-09

 

Santos, I ask of you a favor.
My little girl wishes a horse, and I would that she had one of Rey del Sol's get.
Our child is but five years old and will need a saddle as well.
I will pay top dollar for your efforts, should you have a suitable mount for a child to learn on.
I grieve to report that Hijo del Sol has been stolen and killed.
It might be too much to ask, but I would purchase another of Rey del Sol's line, for my old bones have grown accustomed to Hijo del Sol's fine, smooth gait.
Salute me to your father, the Acalde, and to your lovely Lady-Wife, the Firecracker.

I folded the letter, folded an envelope, addressed it and sealed it: there was always a boy about, and with a coin and a wink he sped on bare feet to the depot, for I knew the man who was about to board the train west, and from Cripple would take another southward: he was bound deep into Mexico on an errand of love, for his heart yearned for a particular black-eyed seniorita, and a young man's love lends speed to his feet.
The letter should arrive at the Rancho Firecracker in less than a week.
I leaned back in my chair, easing the ache in my back, feeling my healed ribs muttering their discontent with the change in weather.
My eyes traveled about the inside of our little log fortress.
Restless, I rose, pacing to the other side of the room, the side nearest the Mercantile.
Here we commonly set up one or two cots, as needed, where the stove could warm them and reflect heat back off the wall.
Here I'd lay, close to death, a rifle bullet through my lower chest.
I looked at the ceiling.
I remembered laying on my back, on the ceiling, looking down on my long tall carcass, marveling that the fellow down there was so dreadfully thin he could use a good square meal, then realizing with some distress that it was me I was looking at.
I looked toward the door, opened the door.
There, on the street just one step down from the board walk, I'd been shot, and went down hard, my Sam-horse behind me, tethered to the hitch rail.
Jacob was but young and struggled to drag me up over the edge of the board walk and into the office, firing his Army Colt one-handed, screaming defiance, and above him, Charlie MacNeil leaned out the door and settled the affair with one well placed round from the Sharps.
I looked in, at the gun rack.
That self same Sharps still set there.
I stepped back inside, picked up the buffalo rifle, rubbed its stock with the flat of my hand.
"Charlie," I murmured, placing the rifle back in the rack, "I hope you are well."
I turned at a heavy, quick tread without: the door was still open, and Sean came in, looking about in the dim interior, then he seized me by the front of the coat and fetched me off the floor.
"YE'LL COME WI' ME!" he shouted, shaking me like a terrier shakes a rat, and I took both arms and drove up under his, kicking him in the belly and falling back against the wall.
I came up with both fists cocked and Sean let loose a drive to my jaw that didn't land.
I hooked him one in the left ear and my hand told me in no uncertain terms this wasn't the brightest thing I've ever done.
Sean's left took me in the wind and fetched me off the floor again and I kicked at him on the way down.
Sean reached down and grabbed me by the front of the coat and I shoved into him and chopped the edge of my hands down on his collar bones, hard.
I might as well have swatted him with a rag doll.
Sean dragged me out the open door and into the street.
I twisted out of his grip and took him in the soft ribs and Sean drove me one in the cheek bone that set lights to dancing in front of my eyes, and I belted him a good one with a falling-away left and his head snapped sideways and blood sprayed from his lips.
Sean's blood was up and so was mine and we set our feet and proceeded to pound on one another like a blacksmith pounds on an anvil, at least until Sean hesitated with one fist cocked back, his hand tight on my shoulder, and my fist was cocked ready to drive into his exposed belly.
We both stopped, swaying.
I was about done for.
Sean hit like a sledge hammer but then I don't hit light myself and we kind of sagged into one another.
I run my arm under Sean's right arm and took him by the back of his drawers, and Sean run his arm under my left and grabbed a good handful of the back of my coat and we pretty much packed one another into the Jewel.
A crowd had gathered.
It's not usual for the fire chief to come charging into the Sheriff's office and start a good old fashioned knock down drag out fight, and it's not at all normal for the Sheriff to be brawling in the middle of the street.
We staggered into the Jewel and both of us collapsed over the bar.
Mr. Baxter gave us both a dubious look and drew two beers.
We drank gratefully, deeply, for an Irish fist fight is dry work.
Sean spoke first.
"Sheriff," Sean said, "ye hit harder than Smitty McCoy back in Porkopolis, an' he is a known scrapper!"
I wiggled my jaw, tentatively moving it a bit to see whether or not it was going to fall plumb off and hit the floor.
"You hit like the noon freight yourself, Sean," I mumbled, for half my face was numb and my lips were as puffy as his.
I hoped they weren't as discolored.
I felt a cheek bone and realized I was going to have a blue eye.
"Dammit, man," Sean exclaimed, dabbing at a bleeding lip with the wet bar rag Mr. Baxter pressed into his hand, "do I have t' pick a fight t' get ye t' drink wi' me?"
"Drink with you?" My beer stopped halfway to my battered lips.
"Aye!" Sean's expression was one of delight, in spite of his recent experience with my skinned knuckles.
"Daisy presented us wi' a fine broth of a lad! I've another son!"
I turned to the barkeep.
"Mr. Baxter," I said quietly, "the Irish Brigade will be here soon. If any man presumes to pay I'll treat him to more than I've just given Sean!"
I offered Sean my hand and he took it, and we drew each other into a back thumping embrace.
My back still hurt and my ribs were giving me billy Hell and my face was still half numb, but in that moment, I did not particularly care.

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Linn Keller 8-25-09

 

Angela's little arms were crossed.
Angela's little foot was tapping impatiently on the gleaming boards of the kitchen floor.
Esther was just pressing a slab of cool, raw meat against my bruised and colorful cheek and eye, and she was not pressing gently: her brow was drawn, her lips pressed together, her expression altogether disapproving, and she'd just expressed her temper.
Esther, to her credit, is normally a very even-tempered and patient soul.
Esther, in this moment, wasn't.
Angela, ever the student of feminine propriety, proceeded to shake her little Mommy-finger at me and declare, "Yeah, Daddy! Shame on you! Brawling like a common hooglium!" She nodded firmly to emphasize her point, curled ringlets bouncing with the effort.
Esther stopped, blinking.
I reached up and held the meat in place on my face. It was cool and it felt good.
Esther looked at Angela, honestly surprised.
"Hooglian?" she asked.
"Yes! Hooglian! Brawling like a common hooglian!" Again Angela's little foot began its rapid pat-pat-pat on the spotless kitchen floor.
Esther sat slowly, folding her hands in her lap, looking a little lost.
"Is that what I sound like?" she asked in a small voice.
Angela blinked, too, but her look was one of innocent surprise. "Yes!" she exclaimed, which didn't help Esther's feelings any.
Esther burst into tears, snatched her apron up and pressed it against her eyes: she ran upstairs, her footfalls a brisk tattoo on the stair-steps, and we heard the bedroom door slam.
Angela looked after her Mama, then looked at me, undecided.
"Daddy," she asked, "when I'm a big girl, am I supposed to do that?"
I laid the slab of meat down and picked up my little girl, set her on my lap.
"No, Princess," I said, brushing a stray curl out of her eyes. "You don't have to. When it's the right thing to do, you'll know it, but you don't have to."
"Oh." Angela tilted her head, looked at my discolored cheek bone.
"Does it hurt?" she asked in a sad little voice.
"Yes, Princess, it does."
Angela leaned against my chest and gave me as big a hug as her little arms could manage. "I'm sorry," she said, and I hugged her back, leaning the undamaged half of my face against her hair.
I suspected why Esther might be upset, but dismissed the idea immediately.
Still ... there was a little tick of fear, somewhere deep behind my belt buckle.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-25-09

 

Steak, cackleberries, spuds and hot biscuits arrived at their table in the hands of young Hazel, accompanied by a blue enamelware coffeepot and a pot of honey carried by a slender fellow of indeterminate age dressed in washed-soft canvas britches tucked into knee high boots. In contrast to the comfortable softness of his trousers, the dark-complected newcomer’s calico shirt was stiffly starched and sporting creases sharp enough to cut the steaks on the heavy plates. Doffing his feather-decorated derby hat with a deep bow toward Fannie, the fellow asked Charlie, “You are a muy long way from home, eh señor?” His words were tempered with a smile that failed to reach his eyes. “And who is this angel?”

“That angel is my wife, you no-account!” Charlie answered sternly before jumping from his chair with a smile and wrapping the slender fellow in a rib-cracking embrace. “Damn it’s good to see you, Hector!”

“And you, amigo!” This time the white-toothed smile warmed deep brown eyes. “What brings you to my town?”

“Trouble!” Charlie declared, letting go of his friend. “But before we get into that, let me introduce you to the angel of my life. Hector, may I present my wife, Fannie. Fannie, this no-good gent here is Hector Beaupre`. He knows more about what’s goin’ on in this part of the world than dang near anybody. And he’s what passes for a city marshal in these parts.” Hector bowed from the waist, taking Fannie’s hand in his and pressing it to his lips.

“My pleasure indeed, madame,” he said in French before switching to English again. “But I must ask a question: what is such a vision of loveliness doing traveling with such a homely individual as my friend here?”

“He has inner beauty,” Fannie answered in French herself, her Carolina accent lending special music to the words. Hector chuckled at her words and at the expression of incomprehension on Charlie’s face as he looked from his wife to his friend. With a last chuckle, Hector seated himself and poured Arbuckles in the cup he had brought to the table. Now his mien turned serious.

“What is it you wish, Charlie?” he asked as Charlie reseated himself and cut into a biscuit, smearing it lavishly with honey and taking a bite.

El Colonel Redoño,” Charlie answered curtly.

“You ask for much, my friend.” The words were spoken in a musing tone. “Why now, after all these years?”

“He was going to buy my wife from kidnappers. She convinced them otherwise. One of them talked before he died.” The glacial cold of Charlie’s tone left no doubt as to his intentions. Hector looked him full in the face for a moment before turning his gaze to Fannie’s emerald eyes.

“And what say you, señora? Does your blood boil over this state of affairs as well?”

Fannie shook her head, her words coming out every bit as cold as Charlie’s had. “I don’t get mad, I get even. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and with a shotgun.”

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Linn Keller 8-27-09

 

Angela ...
Well, I almost said Angela knows not fear and so made so bold as to go into her Mommy's bedroom and climb up on the bed and offer her the dolly she still cherished.
I don't know that's what she did.
I do know Angela went upstairs, and after a bit I did too.
I considered a long hard ride but figured Esther would be more distressed by the sound of retreating hoofbeats, especially as Rose would pick up on what I was feeling and she would express these with a fast getaway.
No, I figured to wait a bit and it was the right choice to make: I went up stairs and found Esther holding Angela, so I climbed into bed and held Esther, and the three of us didn't say much.
Matter of fact, Angela was more like me than I'd realized.
I'm like an old b'ar.
Get my belly full and get warm and I go to sleep.
Angela was fast asleep, rolled up on her side, spooned into Esther's arms.
I spooned up against Esther's back and ran my arm over her, gentle-like.
The secret to good administration is successful delegation: I didn't feel much like sleeping, so Angela tended that detail for me, and after a time Esther pressed her hand on mine and whispered, "Thank you."
We slid out of bed slow and easy and Angela never stirred.
When the child slept, she slept hard.
We left her sleep; Esther drew a quilt up over her and Angela cuddled under the quilt and we left her on our bed, and went downstairs.
Michelle was cleaning up after supper when we came through the kitchen and I stopped to thank her for the excellent meal.
She colored and dropped a curtsy and a "Merci" and Esther and I went on out onto the back porch.
We stood out back for some time, holding hands and looking out at the mountains not that far away, at the apple trees I'd planted a couple years before, down along the dry watercourse.
Rose o' the Mornin' delighted in running in and out between those trees just as hard as she could go, and I delighted in riding her through them. She often gathered herself at the end of the in-and-out run and launched herself over the deepest part of the dry creekbed and God Almighty that horse can jump! -- why, if that's not the closest thing to sprouting wings and flying, I don't know what is! -- and Esther, wise woman that she is, divined my thoughts and smiled quietly.
"She is quite the jumper, isn't she?" she asked, and I smiled down at my wife.
"Yes, she is, my dear."
"Edy isn't that much a jumper. She's a runner but not a jumper."
"Edi's a good horse."
Esther turned around, leaned her backside against the heavy, squared porch rail. There was a look about her, as if she had something on her mind.
"Dearest, Angela wishes to ride."
I considered, smiling.
Back East it was rare indeed for people to ride, at least in the Yankee North.
Why, when I swore into that damned war, both the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry and the 3rd OVC had to break horses to saddle, have local saddlemakers consruct the regulation McClellan saddles, then learn themselves how to ride a horse.
Back East, unless you were a Southerner, you drove instead of rode.
There was still almost ... well, not a stigma about women riding, but it was not the rule, especially for a lady.
Esther, fortunately, was from the South; she had ridden before she walked; she was as at home in the saddle as anyone, and when she said in her quiet, understated way that Angela wished to ride ... well, it was my turn to smile.
"Dearest," I said, and I could feel the corners of my eyes crinkling up with pleasure, "do you recall the times you rode Hijo del Sol?"
Esther's head tilted up and she had the most delightful expression.
"I do," she said quietly. "I have never ridden a smoother gait."
"I have written Santos, down in the Border country, and asked his help in getting a suitable mount for Angela."
Esther tilted her head and regarded me with those startling-green eyes.
"And a saddle. I wrote that she is five years old and I wish to purchase one of Rey del Sol's get, and could he have a saddle made for her."
"Oh, I hope it is a proper saddle and not one of those side-saddle back-breakers!" Esther murmured. She had a side-saddle and detested it, though on a bet she once jumped the table at the church picnic, sidesaddle, and plucked a wineglass from my extended hand at mid-leap.
"Bonnie has purchased a pony for Sarah."
I rubbed my forehead. "Oh, no," I moaned.
"I know, dearest," Esther said sympathetically, her hand gentle on my forearm. "Ponies are ill-tempered beasts. I'm afraid Sarah will be disappointed. Perhaps she won't feel quite so bad by having a mount before Angela."
I covered my face with my hand and chuckled.
I squeezed my eyes shut and stifled a laugh.
I turned from Esther and snorted, and a smile escaped from my reserve.
Finally I turned back to her and wiped tears from the corners of my eyes: I have no idea why the idea struck me as so amusing, and I apologized to my dear wife, and explained that she'd done nothing to rouse such mirth, but ...
"My dear, do they make side saddles for ill-tempered, rough-riding little ponies?"

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Linn Keller 8-28-09

 

I had to admit Hijo del Sol's saddle looked pretty good on that outlaw's black.
The black was not impressed.
As a matter of fact he decided I shouldn't be on his back a'tall and it was honestly all I could do to keep from being tossed over the roof of the Jewel but somehow I hung on, and the black set back down to earth and shivered and trotted down the street as if nothing had happened.
I turned him -- he had to be reined, he didn't seem to understand knee pressure -- and I commenced to looking about on the ground.
"Hey, Soapy!" came a familiar voice and I looked up and grinned.
"You lookin' for gold bricks linin' the street?"
I laughed. "Nah, they got gold bricks over in Cripple."
"Yeah, I used to work with a few of those!" he laughed in reply. "I didn't know if you was gonna stay in that fancy saddle or not! Say, what happened to that big yella man-eater you been ridin'?"
I frowned at the ground. "He et one too many fellas that insisted on askin' questions. Et one too many and busted wide open."
"Why do tell!"
"Oh it was quite the sight," I assured him solemnly. "Every one of them fellers came scramblin' out of his inside bleached white as snow, just like Jonah crawlin' out of the whale!"
"Heavens!"
"Trouble is," I said, turning the black and looking up and down the street, "he'd et so many of 'em when he busted open he just turned into yella vapor and drifted off in the wind, and there I was sittin' in mid-air in this-here Mexican saddle!"
"Why imagine that!"
"I played hell ridin't that empty saddle til I found a horse to put it on, but I managed somehow."
"You sure you gonna keep it on that-there hoss?"
I quit scouring the ground with my eyes and looked at the grinning speaker, loafing against a porch post.
"If I have to look around so close to see if I've dropped anything I just might trade for somethin' else! You ain't seen any false teeth, pocket watches or Conestoga wagons layin' around now have you? I don't wanta lose anything out of my vest pockets!"
The black decided it wanted to investigate the contents of the water trough and I let it.
"No, Soapy, ain't seen anythin' of the kind."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-29-09

 

Hector's startled look spoke volumes. He of course had seen the weapons; he had seen women fight, for their homes and for their families; but he had never seen a woman with the determination Fannie's words indicated. His dark eyes quickly turned toward Charlie. "Si?" he asked.

"I'm just the backup, brother," Charlie answered. "Now where are we headed?"

"El Vientre del Oso." The words rang in the room. "But your badge will not take you there, amigo."

"I ain't got a badge this time. I'm retired."

"I had heard as much, but I didn't believe it," Hector said.

"The belly of the bear? What's that?" Fannie asked.

"It's a hole in the ground down below the border," Charlie answered. "Actually it's a canyon, but it might as well be a hole. The walls dang near close in at the top, and sundown comes at about four in the afternoon this time of year. It'll be darker than the inside of a black bear by six." He took a sip of coffee. "I've crossed paths with Redono before, but he generally keeps his outlawin' south of the border. This time he didn't. So this time we flush him out or call him out, I don't care which." He looked at Fannie. "It's your call."

"You've been there?"

"Yep."

"So which will work the best?"

Hector broke in with an answer of his own. "Dynamite..."

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Linn Keller 8-31-09

 

The Sheriff's pen was loud in the nighttime silence of his office.
The official journal was caught up; little had happened, little was entered: his personal journal, the one he was writing now, contained considerably more text than he'd entered in the larger book.
There was a torchlight parade tonight, he wrote: bunting and crepe and streamers lent quite the festive air to our little town. The Irish Brigade had their "Masheen" absolutely spotless, utterly gleaming, the new fire engine without even the first fine scratches on its polished surfaces.
The Sheriff gazed sightlessly at the opposite wall, ink-black nib in midair, the other end of the pen's wooden handle delicately between his teeth: his eyes tightened slightly, a smile peeping out his blue eyes, and he quickly dipped the nib in the India ink and continued.
Angela was uncharacteristically quiet. I expected her to bounce on her toes the way she does when she gets excited, but she regarded the carriages and the little marching band and the three-mare hitch ahead of the steam wagon with wide-eyed wonder.
I took note of her eyes.
I shall have to park a sizable club behind the door, for with her lovely eyes, there will be beaux from here to Frisco and beyond seeking her hand.

The Sheriff hesitated, drew his pen away from the paper; reconsidering, he dipped the nib again, drew it against the neck of the glass ink well to wipe off the excess, and made as if to write again.
A second time he hesitated.
Finally, jaw thrust forward, he finished his thought:
Angela is but a young child, and yet there is an ocean of understanding in those juvenile orbs.
I have not seen such a depth since the night Duzy and I waltzed, there in the Jewel.

The Sheriff straightened suddenly, throwing his head back like a swimmer after a long dive, coming to surface for a great draught of air.
Several minutes passed before he dipped the quill again.
Speechmaking is a fine art. Judge Hostetler spoke, as did Caleb Rosenthal. Sean had his say as well. The man surprised me: he spoke plainly but eloquently, addressing the needs of a town, the duties of its mayor and council, the responsibility laid upon the elected shoulders and the trust it represented.
He concluded by throwing a great arm out, one thick finger pointing squarely at me, nominating me in a loud voice and saying that I would be the best Mayor this town would ever have.
There were cheers, whistles; there was applause; there were shouts of approval.

The Sheriff bowed his head, closed his eyes for several long moments, remembering the approbation of his peers, the acclaim of his fellow citizens.
I declined the honor.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-31-09

 

"Dynamite..." The word seemed to echo in the room, the implications of those three small syllables growing in stature with each reverberation. Mister Dupont's product could be a force for good, or a force for evil, depending on the user. The MacNeils pondered the word, rolling it through their minds and weighing the available options. At last Charlie spoke, musingly.

"That'd work, I reckon," he said softly. "It'd for sure let us cork up some of the ratholes..." Fannie stared at him for a moment before turning her emerald gaze on Hector.

"Where?"

"There is some in town, Senora MacNeil," Hector replied. "But are you sure..."

"If it gets us where we need to be, I'm sure."

Hector turned to Charlie. "My friend, remind me never to get on this lady's bad side, alright?"

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