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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 9-1-09

 

Bill glared at the checker board as if it were a personal enemy.
Mac leaned back, grinning.
Bill's bottom jaw thrust out and he rubbed his chin, considering; he reached for a checker, withdrew his callused, work-stained fingers, narrowed his eyes and looked up at the chuckling Mac.
"It won't work," Mac said, shaking his head. 'I got you boxed --"
Bill's fingers closed on the checker and he jumped one of his own, then one of Bill's. He knew the move was the end of the game, but it was the only move open to him, and he took it.
Mac laughed triumphantly, seized his red checker, hopped it merrily about the board and collected every one of Bill's checkers in the process.
Bill drew a deep breath, shook his head.
Mac deftly set the board up for another game.
"Now why did you do that?"
"Do what?"
"You could have just give up."
"I don't just give up."
"You did once."
Mac bit off the tail end of the word, but too late: he saw the hurt in his old and dear friend's eyes and knew that he'd just wounded him as surely as if he'd driven a spearman's dart into his friend's chest.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said --"
Bill cut him off with a gesture. "I did give up, and God forgive me for it!" he said quietly. "I give up on God and the people that believed in me and I give up on me." He glared at Mac.
"I ran like a coward."
Mac leaned his elbows on his knees and arched his back over the checker board.
"You ain't no coward!"
"Then why'd I run?"
"You were in love, you damned fool!"
"A priest can't be in love!" Bill turned his head, pain creasing his face.
"And why the hell not?"
Bill's expression was complex, changing, as he went from anger to surprise to disappointment to surprise again.
"Mac, you know why not! A priest just can't -- we are oathed to celibacy --"
"And you show me in that-there Bible you and I both adore where it says you gotta be celibate!"
Bill shook his head. "I failed them and I failed me."
"Yeah, an' you ain't never quit runnin' neither!"
Bill looked sharply at Mac, his face pale. "I won't take that!"
"You'll take it and like it!" Mac stood and so did Bill: the checkerboard spilled off the barrel, red and black wood discs bouncing onto the boardwalk and a few spilling onto the dirt street.
"I NEVER RUN!"
"Yes you did and you ain't quit runnin' even when we been sittin' here warmin' our backs in the sun --"
Bill lunged at Mac and Mac dodged the punch.
Bill stepped around the barrel, fists up, and Mac tucked his elbows in, hands open, relaxed.
"I oughta pound you into the boards for that," Bill husked, his face reddening.
"Come on and try!"
Bill hesitated, lowered his fists and hung his head.
"I can't even do this right."
Mac took a long stride toward Bill and seized his shoulders. "You know why you can't?" he asked, his voice low and urgent.
Bill looked at him with eyes full of misery.
"You can't stand the thought of hurtin' someone that looks up to you!"
Bill blinked, surprised.
"You're still beatin' on yourself for what happened twenty, thirty year ago! It's past, you can't yank it back and fix it, all you can do is raise up your head and try ag'in!"
"How?" Bill's expression was bleak. "How do I try again?"
"Look at Abraham. He tried an' failed and he tried again and he landed flat on his face and he still was God's friend. Remember the scripture? He founded three great religions and he's known as the father of all of 'em! He failed but he picked up an' tried ag'in and darn if he didn't make it!"
"If I knew that for certain," Bill whispered, his language reverting to an earlier time, a time when he was well and widely read, wearing a Roman collar, sent by Archbishop Jean-Marie Odin from the New Orleans archdiocese to the Charleston diocese, where he was parish priest, and where he fell madly, desperately in love --
He shook his head.
"I failed them," he whispered again.
Mac put his hands on his hips and glared at his old and dear friend. They'd known each other since those days back in South Carolina; their friendship was deep and solid, and each could say anything to the other and get away with it. Neither took this for granted, but when it was necessary, neither cut the other an inch of slack. It had gotten them through some rough spots in years past, and it was standing them in good stead here, on the board walk in front of the Mercantile, with a checkerboard face-down on the dusty, warped boards and checkers scattered across the boards and down onto the street.
"What will it take to get through your thick head that you are still needed?" Mac shouted.
Neither of them noticed the rapid patter of youthful footsteps; their attention was wholly on one another, at least until Bill felt a tug on his coat tail.
He looked down to find Angela looking up at him, curious.
Bill sat down and put his arm around Angela's waist, and Angela gave him a quick hug. She smiled over at Mac and giggled, "Hi, Mr. Mac," and raised a hand shyly in front of her mouth.
Bill blinked at what he took to be a beaded necklace in her grasp.
"Mr. Bill," Angela asked, "Daddy said this was a rosy an' you could tell me what it's for."
Angela held up the necklace: its beads were in groups of ten, polished torquoise, silver mounted; the crucifix was silver and heavy, the workmanship exquisite.
Bill felt the world lurch under him.
It had been a very long time since he explained the Rosary to a child.
He took the crucifix between thumb and forefinger, trembling a little, then he picked Angela up and set her on his lap.
"Where did you get this?" he asked, for the child was carrying a young fortune in her pink-scrubbed hand.
"Daddy said a Texican gave it to him the winter he learned Spinach."
Bill and Mac looked at one another, amused by a little child's interpretation of the world around her.
"So your Daddy learned Spinach from a Texican who gave him a rosy."
"Yes!" Angela said, nodding her head once in emphasis, setting her finger curls a-bounce around her smiling face.
Bill looked at Mac and grinned.
"I think something just got through my thick head."

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Linn Keller 9-2-09

 

Jacob tossed a saw-cut chunk, grinning in the sun.
He'd unloaded most of the wagon himself.
Sven had brought in a full load of fire wood for the schoolhouse. He'd been looking at his horse's off forehoof when Jacob rode up.
Jacob dismounted, ground-reining his stallion, and squatted beside the woodcuter.
"Why don't you take her over to Shorty," Jacob offered. "I'll take care of this."
Sven nodded. "I doan' wan' you should unload da whole t'ing," he protested.
"You need your mare taken care of," Jacob said gently. "I'll put a dent in this. You can finish up when you get back."
Sven saw the merit in Jacob's argument; he unharnessed the mare and led her toward the livery.
If anyone can take care of that hoof, Shorty can, Jacob thought. I don't know what ails her but he can figure it out easy enough.
Now Jacob seized another stove length chunk, tossed it out on the pile.
The pile would have to be stacked up neatly, of course, then most of it would have to be split: not today, of course, but the work would have to be done, and the bark knocked off the chunks would be used to roof the stack to keep off rain water.
Jacob labored steadily in the welcome sunshine: the days were getting shorter, the nights cooler: he'd wakened to a heavy dew outside, and most of a full moon: the moon was on the wax, his hay was about ready to cut, but it wouldn't be ready for another day, and in the meantime he was still a deputy, and he needed to report to the Sheriff.
Jacob picked up the last chunk and tossed it free of the wagon.
Straightening, he dusted his gloved hands together and announced, "That's the one I've been looking for!"
Emma Cooper, the schoolmarm, had been tidying up in the little white washed schoolhouse: she came to the front door and called gently, "Jacob, could you use a broom?"
"Yes, ma'am, I surely could," he grinned, clapping his hands together and then extending them: Emma tossed him the broom and he caught it neatly, sweeping the wagon free of wood chips and bark.
Jacob put a hand on the side rail and jumped easily from the wagon bed, landing light on his feet, rejoicing in the green strength of youth: he handed the broom back to Miz Emma with his thanks, then set himself to stacking the pile of wood in some semblance of neatness.

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Linn Keller 9-4-09

 

A man doesn't really appreciate what he has until it's gone, I reflected.
The black was a good enough horse and it looked really good with that black Mexican saddle with the silver furniture and turquoise foo-far-raws, but it wasn't smooth like Hijo had been, and it sure didn't move like Rose o' the Mornin'.
Matter of fact the one thing it did best was look good.
Still, it was a horse, and a horse was faster than walking.
The black had a hard mouth and didn't know at all what my knees and my seat were telling him, at least not at first.
I figured it would take a while.
Patience, I thought, and he would eventually answer to knee pressure.
Once it figured out what I wanted, the black would try to please me: the more I worked with it, the more it would try to please, until finally it decided for sure that it liked being fooled with and brushed and talked to.
The outlaw, likely, had near to ruined the horse by yanking on the reins hard. I've seen men do that and never liked it. A horse has some brains, but they're like people, some are smarter than others and others are just dumb as a sled track.
This one wasn't dumb.
Angela wanted to ride the black horsey, so I set her up in the saddle and took the reins in my hand and started walking.
The black stopped and turned his head, sniffing loudly at her little stockinged leg.
Angela giggled.
"Come on, girl," I murmured, and the black followed, docile and patient.
Angela's little legs were far too short to reach the stirrups; she didn't have any difficulty staying in that big saddle, but she wasn't really content.
Angela needed an Angela-sized horse.
If Eduardo and Santos are able, I thought, you'll have a fine, blooded Paso Fino and a saddle to fit you both.
I thought of Santos and Eduardo, and the Firecracker Ranch.
I thought of the Firecracker Ranch on the Texican border.
I thought of the border and then of Mexico.
I thought of Charlie, and of Miz Fannie, and wondered if all was well with them.
The black nudged me, lipping at the twist of tobacco it knew I carried.
"You bum," I scolded gently, slicing off a few slivers from the molasses soaked twist.
The black's lips were velvety-soft on my palm as it licked up every sweet shred.

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Linn Keller 9-5-09

 

Esther's dapple trotted smartly up the slight grade to the Z&W's shops, harness-bells jingling happily in the high altitude sunshine: Esther, erect and proper in the driver's seat, couldn't help but smile as she drove.
The Lady Esther was undergoing teardown and inspection. Esther remembered the abused Baldwin that had burned through the crown-sheet and then ran low on water, resulting in a boiler explosion, and as she was no in charge of all rolling stock, she had seen to it that every engine, every boiler was regularly taken off line and checked over by people who knew what they were doing.
It wasn't cheap. She had to hire them on a short term contract from the Baldwin factory back East, but when they came out, they were more than happy to teach her people all they knew -- and teach they did, whether they realized it or not.
The Z&W shops had gained a deserved reputation for the quality of their work, and their ability to fix a problem and fix it right.
There were bigger railroads interested in the Z&W, but Esther was not of a mind to sell, at least not yet: she was a business woman, and regarded the railroad more as a business and less an heirloom: it had been a wedding gift to her from her husband, but he'd given it with the understanding that it was hers, to do with as she saw fit, and his hands were off the project.
Esther drew up in a shady spot. Setting the brake on her carriage, she smiled and thanked the lean young man who came to her buggy, offering his hand to help her down.
Esther was more than capable of dismounting from her buggy, but she was a woman -- more than that, a lady, in the finest sense of the word -- and she appreciated gentlemanliness.
Not an hour later she was driving back to town, satsified.
She'd made a personal visit to speak with two of the men who'd made an emergency repair to one of the mine locomotives, when time was of the essence, when every hour the engine was down cost the mines money: Esther knew that praise was priceless in maintaining morale, and she also knew that crossing a man's palm was almost as effective as setting a well filled dinner plate in front of him by way of reward.
The two men involved had each been given a small poke of gold, as had their foreman: Esther thanked them for their good work, and spoke briefly but knowledgeably about the particular task they'd undertaken, and in which they'd succeeded.
Esther made sure she spoke her words of praise in earshot of as many of the men as possible, and in so doing, further entrenched their loyalty to her.
They did not work for the railroad.
Every man there worked for the red-haired, green-eyed lady with the quick smile and the gentle voice.
Every man Jack of them worked for "Miz Esther," and when they spoke the name, it was with respect.

Esther swung into town at a brisk trot. The dapple had been a racer, and had a smooth, even pace; Esther let the mare set her own pace when the road was good, and spoke to her as she came into town from the far end, down near the fire house.
Esther's eyes were busy. She nodded to Sean and two of his men, who raised their hands and caps in salute as she passed; the new firehouse was next to completed, and would be dedicated later that week; she took pride in knowing their fine new firehouse was built of brick -- her brick! -- that had been made here locally.
Esther looked up the street and drew back a little on the reins. "Ho, girl," she called, and the dapple slowed.

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Linn Keller 9-5-09

 

Angela tilted her head, looking at the checker board as Mac jumped one of his own checkers, then one of Bill's.
"There!" he announced. "Try that!"
Bill never changed expression: he jumped one of his and four of Mac's, effectively removing all competition from the board and ending up with his piece on the far row.
"King me," he said quietly, triumph in his voice.
Angela hadn't quite figured out the game, but she'd already decided it was at once extremely simple, and very deep, best suited for wise, older minds like Mr. Bill and Mr. Mac.
There was a commotion across the street and the three of them turned to look.
Two fellows tumbled out of the Jewel's ornate double doors: one ran out and missed his footing, landing awkwardly in the dirt street; the other was propelled through the air, Mr. Baxter's figure behind, apparently the cause of the second party's ballistic trajectory.
Angela leaned back against Mr. Bill and the former priest ran an arm protectively around her.
Angela reached up and hugged the arm into her, eyes wide and fixed on the scene at the foot of the three steps leading up into the board walk in front of the Jewel.
One of the two -- he looked to be any one of the several ranch hands that lived in the area -- got to his feet, swaying a bit, brushing the dirt off his coat sleeves: the other got up and proceeded to accuse the first, loudly, of being a scoundrel and a rascal and seven kinds of a cheat.
Their voices were not loud.
They were also within ten feet of the Sheriff's horse.
The horse walled its eyes, ears laid back; it drew back to the limit of its reins.
The pair proceeded to address each other at the top of their lungs, at least until the Sheriff crossed the street, seized one by the back of his coat and threw him into the middle of the street, and seized the other by the throat.
Angela could not hear her Daddy's words, but there was no mistaking his intent: his face was set, his movements tight, controlled; the fellow he had by the throat nodded, and the Sheriff released him, ready for a counterattack.
The first fellow managed to make his feet again, having discovered twice in as many minutes that terra firma was a bit more firma than he really could enjoy, and proceeded to speak in a loud and threatening voice toward the Sheriff.
The Sheriff took one long step toward the man and drove a haymaker into him just above the belt buckle.
It had the desired effect.
Silence, or near enough to it, once again flowed down the street and was welcome.
The Sheriff seized the second man by his greasy hair and drew him upright.
Angela saw him speak to the man.
The conversation was brief.
The two went over to their mounts and were soon on their way out of town.
The Sheriff watched them go, his hands opening and closing: he walked over to his black, and Angela saw the man's head tilt back a little, his expression soften; she could tell he was talking to the horse, his hands moving slowly, soothingly; Angela's young mind recalled how gently her Daddy could speak, and imagined he was speaking in just such a way to the horse.
The black pulled back against his reins and Angela saw the whites of his eyes.
Angela did not know horses all that well, but she knew this was not a good sign.
The black was not dancing, the black did not rear: instead it stood, and Angela saw it shiver.
The Sheriff reached up slowly, gently, as if to stroke its neck --
The black collapsed, falling over on its side.
Angela pulled out of Mr. Bill's surprised grasp and jumped off the boardwalk to the street below. She ran across the dirt thoroughfare and stopped a few feet from the black's mane.
Her Daddy was stroking the horse.
He looked absolutely lost.
"Whatever did they do to you, fellow?" Angela heard him whisper.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-5-09

 

They were deep in Mexico now and nearly to the end of their supplies. The horses, even the tough roan, were gaunt, flanks sunken from lack of quality feed; their last bait had been prickly pear with the spines burned off, and not nearly enough of that.

Husband and wife were as disheveled as their mounts; the last bath either had been able to enjoy had been enough miles in the past to be a dim memory. Their clothes were worn but both were trail-hardened, all vestiges of softness burned from the man by the desert sun. The red-haired woman retained her femininity, but the way she moved and the slide of muscle beneath the worn-thin linen of the shirt and the patched canvas of the britches was that of a hunting tigre, the great cat of the desert. Anyone so foolish as to think to take advantage would be well-advised to rethink such actions.

Now the pair lay belly-down, binoculars to eyes, on the sandstone rim of El Vientre del Oso, that declivity known as "The Belly of the Bear", a place many entered but from which few returned unless the patriarch of the citizenry gave permission. In del Oso, El Colonel Redoño reigned supreme. Behind Charlie and Fannie the last remaining rays of the sinking sun boring into the canyon would blind anyone looking their way to the presence of spies, thus ensuring that the couple could survey what lay below in relative security.

"Flushin' him outta there's gonna take some doin'," Charlie breathed. "Good thing we've got Hector's dynamite."

"I suppose you've got a plan, eh, Sugar?" Fannie asked in return.

"Not yet, but I'm sure I'll think of something," he answered with a wry smile. Just then, the Colonel himself stepped from the largest of the adobe jacales below to stand in regal splendor on the stoop. Compared to the majority of the denizens of del Oso, the man was positively radiant, his crimson wool coat decorated with flashing medals, blazing white trousers tucked into high polished boots. Aside from flamboyant, tip-waxed moustaches, he was clean-shaven. A polished, tooled belt held a nickle-plated Colt revolver high on his right hip.

"There he is," Charlie whispered, laying a hand on Fannie's arm, feeling the tensing of corded muscle under the callouses on his palm. "Remember, cold, and with a shotgun."

"You're right, of course. And besides, I want to look him in the eye when I shoot him."

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Charlie MacNeil 9-6-09

 

Dawg was doing some “observing” of his own, sniffing around the fringes of the canyon, oozing from cove to boulder, smooth as oil on water. The big dog quickly found the two main means of ingress and egress; from the abundance of horse tracks and road apples, it was obvious that there had been a lot of activity in the vicinity of del Oso in recent days. With summer well advanced, Redoño's men had been raiding far and wide, bringing the spoils of their pillaging back to the canyon. As Dawg watched from a nest of rocks, ten steeple-sombreroed riders, bristling with rifles, pistols and knives, rode single file from the canyon into the gathering dark, so intent on their nefarious business that none saw the inky shadow that followed a safe distance behind until they group passed out of sight in the descending darkness.

Dawg turned and made his way over the rocks toward Charlie and Fannie, bumping a jack-rabbit from where it thought itself hidden under a clump of cholla. Before the long-legged hare had managed three long jumps, the snap of mighty jaws ended its bid for freedom. Dawg continued on, his dinner hanging from his jaws.

Fannie and Charlie saw the cavalcade leaving the village below and traded looks. The number of fighting men in the village had just been reduced by half, and if this group followed the same timetable as previous bands of raiders they had watched, the banditos wouldn't return for at least four days. Tomorrow morning would be the time to make their move.

“That canyon they're ridin' out through is more of a tunnel than a canyon,” Charlie said as he examined the passageway in the fading light. “If we can close it, those boys'll be stuck on the outside. I know for certain it's a twenty-five mile ride to the other end of del Oso if we close that door. Shorter if they walk, but those boys won't be much for walkin'. Come on.” He snaked back from the edge on his belly and, once out of sight of those below, got to his feet. He walked to where the horses and pack mule were tied and took a pair of tall Apache moccasins from one of his saddlebags. With Fannie looking on he sat down on a rock and slipped off his boots, replacing them with the thick-soled deerskin.

“What are you planning on doing, Sugar?” Fannie wanted to know.

“As much as I hate splittin' up, I think we're gonna have to,” he answered. “I'll plant the dynamite, and you and Dawg can go in from the other end. You call Redoño out, then I'll blow the canyon and come in behind 'em. That way we got 'em in a cross-fire. They won't be expectin' a woman to come huntin'.”

“What about sentries?”

“Ain't none, or at least there never has been. They count on the desert to keep the law out. Unless you know the tanks and such, there ain't enough water for a big party.” He pointed out into the desolate distance with his chin. “The last bunch that tried is still dryin' out yonder on the rocks. What the buzzards left of 'em, anyway.”

Fannie stared at him thoughtfully for a few seconds before something occurred to her. “How do you know so much about this place?”

“I lived down yonder for a while once.”

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Charlie MacNeil 9-6-09

 

“What do you mean, you lived there once?” Fannie asked incredulously. Dawg appeared, looked from one to the other of the humans, and hurriedly decided that whatever they were discussing was none of his business. He disappeared into the rocks with the rabbit.

“It was a long time ago, before I took up lawin',” Charlie told her. “I got into a pistol fracas and had to hide out for a while. Yaqui Indian down south of here told me about the canyon and how to get in. That was before Redoño took over and organized that bunch of cutthroats.” She started to protest and he held up a hand. “It was pure self-defense, but the fella I had the disagreement with had brothers who didn't see things the same way the law did. Even desert law. So I laid low for a couple of weeks, then headed north.” What he didn't feel the need to mention was the fact that he had left two more of the pistolero's brothers belly-up in the dirt before he made it out of Mexico, his spare shirt doing fair-to-middling duty as packing for a bullet hole just above his belt on the left side...

Charlie went to the pack mule and lifted down a small wooden crate that had been wrapped in a quilt and carefully strapped down on top of the meager remains of the load on the crossbuck saddle. He set the box on a patch of sand and pried off the top, revealing neatly piled sticks of Dupont's finest. He stepped back to the mule and lifted down a canvas pouch, set it near the box and opened the drawstring.

“I don't think I want to watch this!” Fannie declared, turning away. Charlie gave her retreating back a grin as he lifted a stick from the box and began carefully boring a hole in the end with his pocket knife. He slipped a detonator from the bag into the hole and crimped a length of fuse to it. Hector had told him the burning rate of the fuse, so he clipped it where he thought should be right for the amount of time he wanted. With a length of leather string, he bound five more sticks around the loaded one then set the bundle gently aside and reached for more. By the time the moon's first light began to drift over the rim to the east he had six bundles of dynamite carefully packed in a spare burlap bag, ready to plant in the exit to del Oso.

Charlie rested back against his saddle, chewing jerky and sipping some water from his canteen, gaze more inward than outward as he waited for the moon to come fully up. He'd need the light for what he was planning to do. Fannie sat nearby, lost in her own introspection, both pondering what the next few hours would bring, each knowing that no matter what happened they could count on each other to do whatever needed doing.

With a sigh Charlie got to his feet. Fannie held up a hand and he lifted her to her feet and into his arms. She nestled her head into his chest and they stood that way for several minutes before he pushed her out to arm's length. “You know what to do, right?” he asked softly.

“Yes, I know what to do,” she answered just as softly. He bent and kissed her lightly, then gave her a wide smile as he swatted her on the behind. She yelped and rubbed the offended area.

“Then I reckon I'll see ya down yonder,” he told her. He picked up the bag and slung it over one shoulder, his rifle over the other. “Dawg, you go with her.” He disappeared silently into the rocks.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-6-09

 

Fannie watched Charlie vanish like a wraith into the forbidding sandstone. “You come back to me, Charlie MacNeil,” she breathed into the silvery light. “Or I'll never forgive you.” She lowered herself back to her blankets. It would take an hour to get into the canyon, to the “village”; she had six hours 'til first light. She knew for certain she wouldn't sleep, so she spent the time making sure her guns were ready for the dawn. Dawg stood sentry duty as she worked.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-6-09

 

It took two hours of careful padding from rock to rock, shadow to shadow, for Charlie to reach the tightest choke-point in the open-topped tunnel leading out of del Oso. The moonlight barely drifted to the sandy bottom of the passageway, but there was ample illumination for Charlie to find what he was looking for: a crack that led deep into the wall. When the dynamite blew, the force of the explosion would drop tons of rock into the trail, sealing it for all time. The sheer cliffs surrounding the blast would prevent those outside from climbing back in, even if they were close enough to the canyon to make the attempt when they heard the blast. He quickly set to work placing the charges where they would do the most good. Once the bundles were set and tamped in with sand, Charlie wound the fuses together and crimped a long tail onto the braid, leading it down toward the village. Those folks below were in for a rude awakening come first light. He figured he had way more powder planted than necessary, but he had plenty and he wanted to make sure he got their attention. Charlie checked his pistols and rifle then settled down to wait, back against a rock, for Fannie to make her entrance. From where he sat, he had a ringside seat.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-6-09

 

Horses and mule were saddled and packed; there was nothing left to do but mount up and go, Fannie told herself. She stepped into the saddle and turned the sorrel's head toward the trail into the lower end of El Vientre del Oso, shotgun across her saddle. The eastern horizon held the faintest blush of pink as the rising sun began to make its presence known. The texture of the trail was just enough different from the surrounding terrain as to make it barely visible, but it was enough.

Thin wisps of smoke were beginning to drift from a few chimneys when Fannie drew rein at the mouth of the canyon and tied the roan and mule securely to the lone cottonwood that stood there. Dawg stood beside her, head swiveling as he sniffed the morning breeze for any sign of anyone guarding the entrance to the outlaw stronghold, but the bandits rested secure in the knowledge that no one could get to them through the waterless reaches surrounding the canyon. They would soon come to know just how badly mistaken they were. Dawg's stub tail flickered once, as his massive jaws opened in an ivory grin. Fannie looked soberly down at him then loosened her pistols in the holsters and nudged the sorrel ahead, the great black dog beside her. Whatever shooting was done would be up close and personal.

The sorrel stopped of its own accord in front of the biggest of the adobes in the village. Fannie looked around her, but the only creatures moving were scraggly hens picking through the dust for bugs or spilled grain and one slat-ribbed dog that slunk out of sight behind a building whose sagging signage proclaimed it to be what passed for a cantina in such a place. Fannie tightened her grip on the shotgun and took in a deep breath.

“REDOÑO! COLONEL ALEJANDRO REDOÑO!” Her words echoed from the canyon walls, scattering the chickens. A light began to glow behind the shuttered window beside the door.

“What do you want, woman?” Redoño's lightly accented voice came through the cracks in the shutters.

“I want you to face me, you dog!” Fannie replied coldly. “NOW!”

The door swung open and Redoño stepped outside, pistol belt buckled around his shirtless middle. “Who are you?” he asked pleasantly, but his eyes were cold and his hand hovered over his holstered Smith & Wesson.

Fannie loosened her feet in the stirrups and answered his question with one of her own. “Does the name Kikinshoot ring a bell?”

“You are Fannie Kikinshoot?” he asked incredulously, eyes widening. “You?”

“I am!” she declared. “And now you are going to die!” She threw herself from the saddle, thumb drawing back the hammers of the shotgun, as the tranquility of the morning was shattered by a rumbling blast that shook the very foundations of the world.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-6-09

 

The blast of the shotgun was drowned in the reverberations of the explosion and the grinding of falling rock in the tight confines of the canyon. Fannie saw the shot slam Redoño back against the wall, left shoulder and side a mass of blood and torn flesh. As if in slow motion, his pistol appeared in his uninjured hand and he snapped a shot at her as she rolled to his left, forcing him to turn his body to follow her with the gun. The bullet kicked up dust well to the side of her as she came up on her knees and fired the second barrel into him, knocking him back again, pistol dropping from his suddenly nerve-less fingers. He glared at her as she calmly reloaded the shotgun, snapped back the hammers, and let him have both barrels center chest. The dead bandit stood against the wall as if pinned there for a moment before sliding down the adobe and smearing it with red.

Dust boiled down the canyon on the superheated wind from the explosion. Around Fannie the denizens of del Oso were tumbling from their beds, stumbling out into the open, some with guns, some unarmed and totally disoriented. One man lifted a rifle to his shoulder, eyes locked on Fannie; before he could finish the motion Charlie cut him down from behind Redoño's house. Fannie's shotgun took down two more before the rest turned tail and ran.

Charlie walked carefully up to Fannie, keeping his eyes on the retreating bandits. Her hat was gone, and her wide, glaring eyes and wild, tangled hair made her appear to be an angel of death as she glared around her. “Come on!” she screamed. “Come on and fight!” She flinched when he laid a hand on her shoulder.

“Easy, Darlin',” Charlie drawled. “The fight's over.” Fannie shuddered and closed her eyes, then opened them and put her hand on his.

“I believe you're right, Sugar,” was all she said.

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Linn Keller 9-7-09

 

Angela squatted beside the black's head, patting its neck and chattering happily to it.
The Sheriff drew back, giving the horse no cause for distress.
His gut told him the horse had been beaten, or worse, probably to the accompaniment of loud and angry voices.
He scratched his head.
A horse that fell over in a dead faint any time voices were raised would be next to worthless in his line of work.
Angela reached over and gathered the black's reins. "Come on, horsie," she said in her little-girl voice. "Come on, horsie."
The black shivered and raised its head, then struggled its legs under and levered awkwardly to its feet.
Angela clapped her little pink hands together and jumped up and down.
"Yaaayyy!" she cheered. "You did it!"
She reached up and tried to stroke the black's pink nose and giggled happily as the black reached down and snuffed loudly at her.
Angela looked under the black's neck at her Daddy.
The Sheriff was grinning broadly.
He made a walking-motion with his fingers, then pointed down the street.
"Come on, horsie," Angela said, turning and walking down the street, and the black followed behind, happily reined to the little girl's hand.
The Sheriff waited until they'd walked maybe fifty yards, then gave a whistle: Angela slowed and stopped, turning, and the Black, curious, turned with her.
The Sheriff motioned her back, carefully using a very small hand-motion.
Angela started to skip back to her Daddy, ruffles and curls bouncing with her gait, and the black contentedly accompanied the child.
The Sheriff couldn't help but grin, and grin broadly: what Daddy wouldn't be warmed by the sight of his little girl, happy and laughing, skipping up the street?

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Mr. Box 9-7-09

 

Things are generally happy and quiet in the Silver Jewel but occasionally someone gets out of hand. I'd been noticing a little discontent in the card game when all of a sudden it exploded. I was out in front of the bar after taking a couple of beers to a table when it happened. Two guys boiled up from the game going at each other. One of the came reeling backwards towards me so I grabbed the back of his britches and collar and used his momentum steering him thru the door. The other one lunged at me and I sidestepped and used his momentum to the same advantage. I saw their welcoming party as they got off the ground. It wasn't long, they didn't have anymore fire in them. Things were barely disturbed inside. All the commotion was out the door so quick some folks barely noticed it. There was hardly any mess to clean up, too.

 

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Charlie MacNeil 9-7-09

 

Fannie's sorrel horse, which had stood statue-still in the face of rifle and pistol fire in the past, was totally un-nerved by the massive explosion up the canyon. Feeling Fannie leave the saddle, the gelding had taken the opportunity to attempt to put as much of the Sonoran desert as possible between itself and the blast. As the red horse raced past the roan and the mule, both of which were lunging against the stout ropes holding them in place, it was suddenly confronted with a great black shadow. But this shadow was one the frightened horse knew.

Dawg snatched the trailing reins in his teeth and ran beside the sorrel for some distance, gradually slowing until he could draw the thoroughly sweated animal into an ever-decreasing circle, finally bringing it to a halt. The sorrel was trembling, still frightened, but the familiar smell and sight of Dawg slowly calmed its nerves to the point that when Dawg turned back toward del Oso, the horse followed without a fight.

Back in del Oso, Charlie was searching the bandit leader's house for supplies for their trip back to Colorado while Fannie stood guard. He soon had two bags packed with staples for their return, along with adequate funding for the purchase of others when necessary. He carried the bags out to the porch and set them down sufficiently far from the dust-covered pool of Redno's blood to keep them clean. "I reckon that'll get us a long ways up the trail, Darlin'," he told Fannie. "I'll go see about your horse, and bring up the roan and the mule."

"MY horse is coming." Fannie pointed down the canyon to where Dawg had come into sight, leading the red horse. "I'll go get the others."

"And I reckon I'll just let you," Charlie told her, drawing a backless chair up next to a clean spot on the wall in the shade. "See ya when ya get back." An hour later the couple was on the trail back to Colorado, their self-imposed mission accomplished. Little was said as they rode, both engrossed in thoughts of what had just taken place. Charlie was sure the legend would spread of the red-haired warrior princess who had bearded the lion in his den, something no man had ever been able to accomplish. He hoped that would be enough to protect them on the way home. He'd had enough fighting to last him a good long while...

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Linn Keller 9-8-09

 

"I didn't make the coffee."
Jacob smiled quietly.
He knew his father's coffee would curl the hair on a bald man's scalp, and he knew his father knew, and as a kindness, had arranged for Jackson Cooper to make the pot currently hissing on the pot belly stove.
Jacob dispensed a blue granite cup of the scalding liquid and walked across the log building that stood as the Sheriff's Office.
The new mayor, Caleb Rosenthal, had offered to rebuild the Sheriff's Office and jail in the good brick currently being produced in their own brick works, but the Sheriff declined, stating the logs were better for stopping bullets than brick, and they would last longer than he, to which His Honor the Mayor muttered something about a tough old bird and fat chance, or something of the kind.
Jacob sat down in a chair, tilted back on two legs and tossed his Stetson into a vacant seat.
The Sheriff frowned and caught a stray hair from his grey mustache between thumb and forefinger, pulled.
"Hmp. Near to fell out," he grunted.
"Yes, sir," Jacob replied.
The Sheriff frowned at his coffee.
"Jacob, there's a water jug in the trap under the floor, and a jar of cream beside it."
"Yes, sir." Jacob rose easily and went to the opposite corner. Turning back a neat little trap door, no more than a foot and a half on a side, he drew out a small crock with a fitted lid: carrying this to his father's desk, he set it carefully beside the open journal, the bigger of the two, the journal that contained the office's official proceedings.
The Sheriff removed his wire rimmed spectacles and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"Thank you, Jacob. I appreciate that."
Jacob returned to his seat with his customary "Yes, sir," and resumed his tilted back posture.
The Sheriff diluted his steaming cup, took an experimental sip.
"Just right," he pronounced it. "Jacob, don't be bashful now, help your self."
Jacob added cream to his own and hummed a little with pleasure: it did improve the beverage.
"Jacob, how's that new girl over in the Jewel doing?"
"Fine, sir. She's a good cook, she keeps the place spotless. I've not seen so hard a worker in quite a while."
"Care to lay a bet on how long she'll last?"
"Sir?" Jacob's front chair legs came down with an abrupt sound.
"Jacob, every time we get a girl in the Jewel that can cook and keeps the place neat and clean, some fellow comes in and sweeps her off her feet and we get stuck until another one comes up from somewhere. Daisy has her men to tend, all ten of 'em, she can't be droppin' all that just to come in and cook ..."
"All ten, sir?"
The Sheriff waved the question away dismissively. "She's the entire Irish Brigade to mother after," he explained.
"Ah," Jacob nodded, realizing the actual figure was probably not ten, but some less, and the whole statement was more allegorical than factual.
"Sir, have you heard from Charlie?"
The Sheriff's pen stopped and he laid it down, carefully, exactly parallel to the edge of the book's cover.
Jacob knew the significance of the move, and resolved to tread cautiously.
"No, Jacob, I have not," the Sheriff sighed. "On the one hand this is good. If the famous Charlie MacNeil had been killed, the Outlaw Telegraph would have been in full celebration by now."
"Yes, sir."
"No, Jacob, I have heard not a word, not a peep, but then that's the way Charlie always worked. I think it's one reason he and Dawg get on so well ... they are pretty much alike." The Sheriff looked at his son over his blue-granite cup's rim. "Silent, deadly, swift, utterly ruthless ... and yet with a conscience deep as a canyon and tall as a shot tower."
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff shifted in his chair.
"Jacob?"
"Yes, sir?"
"Have you been in the new municipal building?"
Jacob grinned. "Yes, sir! Both floors!"
The Sheriff smiled at the younger man's enthusiasm.
"Enjoy it while you can," he chuckled. "They'll be adding a third story tomorrow."
Jacob whistled. "Three stories! Good Lord!"
The Sheriff nodded. "I had something to do with that."
Jacob looked sharply at his father.
"The third floor will be the Masonic Lodge."
Jacob's broad grin was suddenly much broader.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-8-09

 

The wire that Lightning's boy brought to the Sheriff's office the next day, receiving a nickel for his trouble, was short and left much unsaid:

Done Stop Comin home Stop Horses well? Stop

C & F


The Outlaw Telegraph was faster, but only by a couple of hours. The story seemed to drift into town on the wind.

Remember that there Fannie Kikinshoot? That singer that's 'sposed to've married some marshal over yonder in Colorado? Don't remember that marshal's name, but I shore do remember that there woman. Seen her in Silver City one time. Voice like a canary, an' plumb damn beautiful to boot. Heard she was some sorta deputy once. So anyways, she done went into some rogue Messican colonel's hideout way down yonder in the Mexican desert, all by her lonesome 'cept for a big ol' black dog, an' called that feller out. Seems he had her kidnapped or some such, an' she done killed all the kidnappers then went a-huntin', her an' that dog. They do say that she done looked that colonel fella right in the eye an' took him down with a shotgun. Blasted him ta Kingdom Come. That there's some woman...

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Linn Keller 9-9-09

 

I swallowed hard and folded the telegram in two and stuck it in my vest pocket.
Jacob did not miss my movement but then he doesn't miss much.
I slid Charlie's lengthy missive over to him.
Jacob turned it around, read it and nodded.
"I re-railed the corral to the far side," he said, hands busy indicating direction and height, "and reset two posts that were kind of rotty at ground level. The others are still solid."
I nodded. Jacob was like that.
"The mares aren't showin' yet but it's not been that long since they were covered."
I nodded again, leaning my top lip against my knuckles.
Jacob slid the telegram across the desk back toward me and set back down.
I set there for some time feeling steadily more lost.
"Sir?"
I raised my eyebrows, looked up, then raised my head. "Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, that smells of bad news. Would I be out of line to inquire ...?"
He let the question dangle.
"Just someone I knew," I said heavily.
Jacob nodded. He knew a lie when he heard one, but he also knew to be patient.
" 'For all things there is a season, and a time and a purpose to everything under the heavens,' "I quoted.
"Yes, sir," Jacob said patiently.
I looked back across many years and saw a man, a good man, someone I'd known and respected and admired, a man I used to work with and laugh with, a man with a fine singing voice and an absolutely rotten sense of humor, now laying in a hospital back East, dying.
I felt my bottom jaw thrust out, slowly, as my heart boiled and boiled over.
I stood up and slammed the bottoms of both fists into the desk top and swore, loudly, turning my face away from my son.
I strode across the room, turned, strode back, seized up the dipper and took a drink of good cold water and drank too fast and ended up coughing the gallon and a half that went down the wrong pipe.
Jacob just set there, leaned back in his chair, paying me no attention a'tall, or not appearing to.
I finally set back down and wiped my eyes. They watered when I set to coughing, you understand.
Jacob waited a decent interval before speaking.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Family?"
I smiled, a little. "No, Jacob, not by blood ... but not all brothers are born from the same womb."
Jacob nodded, slowly. "Kind of like you and Charlie."
It was my turn to nod.
"Yep," I agreed. "Kind of like that."
"Will you be heading back, sir?"
I shook my head.
"He'll be dead before I get there. He's a widower, childless, no family left but an uncle who'll bury him and take whatever he's got."
Jacob grunted.
"Sir?"
I looked at my son.
"Sir, I reckon a man ought be wise and arrange his last plantin'."
"Yeah." I shifted in my seat; my tail bone ached where it had broke some time before and never healed quite right. "Ours is. Our plots and head stones are paid for, our funeral is paid up and we picked out what we want to wear to be buried in. Esther selected the hymns to be sung and we've asked Parson Belden to speak the words."
"You've contracted with Digger, then." A statement, not a question.
I nodded. "Digger and I arranged something called a trust fund with the bank. As long as it's in business, the contract is good."
"Yes, sir."
I could almost hear the gears turning under that fine thatch of hair.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Annette and I would be pleased if you'd join us for supper tomorrow night."
I thought of Michelle and how hard she worked, and how Esther was forever laboring, between supervising the household and supervising the railroad and the brick works, her activity with the Ladies' Society.
"Thank you, Jacob. We'll do that."
Jacob nodded.

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Linn Keller 9-12-09

 

Angela folded her arms and pouted.
I had just brought the carriage to our front door and set the brake.
Esther was dressed for dinner and so was I, and little Angela was absolutely lovely as only a little girl can be.
Bear in mind this is a Daddy-memory and they tend to be ... well, I don't really want to use the word prejudiced, but she was very much my favorite.
I'd told Mr. Baxter once that while I loved whoever it was with all my heart -- I don't recall exactly who we were taking about -- Bonnie or Sarah or maybe Daisy or Tillie -- it was one of those moments when two men are engaged in humor, pulling one anothers' leg with a perfectly straight face and merry eyes -- I said, "I love her from the bottom of my heart," then added, "I've got two good looking women in the top," and Mr. Baxter chuckled, for he knew what it was to have family.
Esther was bringing little Joseph with us and had been telling Angela that she was a responsible big sister and would be helping look after young Joseph, and helping take care of him.
Angela could already change his bottom and give him a bath and do it in fine shape, but Angela was pouting: her bottom lip was pink and glistening as she run it down to about her belly button.
I winked at Esther and picked up our rebelliously-stiffened little girl.
"Princess," I said, "come with me."
Esther sat on the front porch swing, enjoying the cool of the evening; I saw her smiling down at little Joseph, a picture I hope to carry forever in my heart.
I carried Angela halfway to the barn, then I took her ankles and carried her upside down, which was guaranteed to get her to giggling: sure enough, she started to laugh, and when she laughed, the whole world brightened, so I flipped her back right-side-up and brought her up to my face and rubbed noses with her.
"Don't tell Mommy," I whispered, "but you're giggling!"
"I am not!" she giggled, and I brougth her up a little higher, my forearm under her thighs and her arm around my neck.
We went into the barn. It smelled of sweet hay and horses and Rose o' the Mornin' turned to look at us.
"Angela," I said, "what do you see here?"
"Rosie-horsie!" Angela crowed, clapping her pink little hands, her even white teeth gleaming as she smiled.
"That's right!" I said. "Now what happens when Mommies are going to have a baby?"
Angela looked at me with big, solemn eyes. "They get big bellies like this," she said, her hands sketching out a great mound in front of her, "and they walk funny like this," and she put one hand to her back and wiggled a little, and we both laughed.
"Angela, do I understand you want to ride a horsie instead of ride in a carriage?" I whispered.
Angela's eyes were now on me, big, luminous, shining: she wanted to ride in the worst way, and I knew it, and now she nodded, listening intently to my susurrant syllables.
"I have it on good authority," I puffed into her ear, tickling her with my mustache as I did, "that a horsie is going to be birthed. It will be a little horsie at first but it will grow, and you will grow with it."
Angela pulled away from me, her eyes round, her mouth round, then her hands clapped over her open mouth and she blinked, once, twice.
"Really, Daddy?" she squeaked.
I nodded.
"Really," I whispered, putting a cautioning finger to my lips.
Angela looked over at Rose, who was ignoring us in favor of drowsing, head down and hip-shot, in her stall.
"Is Rosie having a baby horsie?" Angela asked.
I smiled.
"Yes, Princess, Rose is having a little horsie."
"My horsie?"
Her voice was so hopeful that it was scarce in me to deny the plea: what father can resist such a sight, such a sound?
"A horse is a big responsibility," I cautioned her. "It takes feed and grooming, it takes cleaning the stall and bringing in hay, it takes close attention to hooves and teeth and fitting the headstall just right --"
I don't think she heard a word I said.
Her gaze was fixed on Rose o' the Mornin' and probably imagining the mare great with foal.
I sighed.
I was hoping to get a reply from the Firecracker Ranch, but in all likelihood my missive to them would be much faster than their reply to me.

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Linn Keller 9-13-09

 

Angela's eyes were shining and she fairly vibrated with excitement: I carried her most of the way back to the carriage, as I did not want her to step in a pile of second hand horse feed with her good shoes. A little child, I reasoned, would not be attentivce to where she stepped.
I checked my own boot soles to make sure I hadn't been careless either.
I hoisted Angela up into the carriage, then walked around its rear to offer my assistance to my lovely bride.
Angela handed me young Joseph, who was of a notion to nap: he did not fancy being handed back and forth, nor was he as happy with the shoulder of my coat as he'd been with the feminine softness of Esther's bosom.
Esther stepped delicately into the carriage, arranged her skirts, settled herself into the seat, as composed as the Queen herself: I handed little Joseph to Angela, who came scooting over to the edge of the back seat and extended her chubby arms to receive her little brother.
"Come on Joseph," Angela said, as gently as a little girl can say to her infant brother, "we're taking a ride!"
I climbed in, settled my coat tail behind me, and Michelle handed my rifle to me.
I handed the rifle to Esther, turned to Michelle.
"We'll be back later tonight," I told the blushing girl. "Probably not until moonset."
Michelle covered her mouth with her hand, her face positively crimson.
I'd had a discreet talk with the girl: she'd admitted she would be meeting a suitor, something Esther had known and had told me about; I knew the young man she was hoping to see, and I knew he was hoping to see her as well.
Something told me she would not be in our employ much longer.
Well, I thought, such is the way of the young: she was a fine young woman and she would make the rancher a good wife.
She would also be dowered.
I would see to that.
Right now, though, she was half afraid, half anxious.
I heard approaching hoofbeats and the rancher in question came over the rise uphill from the house, on the other side of the well I'd had newly dug. He was in his good suit, his necktie well knotted, his hat brushed and his boots polished, and a grin on his face as broad as any two counties in Texas.
"My dear, I'll be but a moment," I murmured to Esther, dismounting.
He stepped out of his saddle and thrust out his hand. "Sheriff, I'm sorry, I was afraid I'd be late!"
"You're right on time, Frances!" I greeted him.
Frances swept off his hat, looked at Michelle, then back to me.
"May I have permission to pay court to this lady?" Frances asked formally.
I laid a firm hand on his shoulder.
"You have my permission," I said quietly, looking at Michelle, who was regarding me half-fearfully, half-hopefully.
Frances looked at Michelle, then looked at me.
"May I have permission to ask this young woman for her hand in marriage?"
I smiled.
Hell, I grinned wider'n he did!
"Isn't it customary to ask me for her hand?"
Frances looked at Michelle and I'll never forget how his eyes looked in that moment.
He was looking at the greatest treasure he'd ever known.
They had a history, they had a friendship, that pre-dated Michelle's time with us: Michelle's father had died before Frances could ask for her hand in marriage, then Frances's father had died and he'd had to take over the ranch, and it had been three years or so since they saw one another last.
Now Frances was returned, a man of means, asking my permission to ask her for her hand, and I knew why.
Frances himself put it into words.
"She should make her own choice," he said, "but it is proper to ask you first."
"Oui, yes, mon Dieu, yes!" Michelle whispered, then, panicked, she looked at me, her hand falling from her mouth, flying back to it, fearful of having spoken out of turn.
I took Michelle's face between my hands and kissed her on both cheeks.
I reached into my pocket and drew out a small box, opened it.
I placed the spun-gold chain about her neck and fastened it.
The emerald pendant glowed in the hollow of her throat.
"A bride needs a dowry," I said quietly, reached into the other pocket.
I held a leather pouch and Michelle extended her hand mechanically, her other fingers touching but afraid to touch the gleaming stone.
Her eyes were bright, her lips parted a little, and her breath was coming quick and shallow.
My hands were light on her shoulders.
"Michelle," I said, "I could not be prouder of you if you were my daughter. You have my blessing upon your decision."
Michelle looked, unbelieving, at the leather poke in her hand, looked at Frances, looked at me: then with a little squeak, she jumped into his surprised arms, taking him around the neck and making funny little noises that must have been somewhere between happy tears and hiccups.
Frances's strong arms were around her and I have never seen the man looking quite so outrageously happy in my entire life.
"Michelle, Michelle, Michelle," Frances whispered, "wait, wait, wait, I have something --"
Frances managed to work one arm loose and dipped a hand into his own coat pocket.
Michelle released his neck and both hands went to her mouth as he produced an ivory colored Japanned paper box. Her eyes were brimming now, ready to spill over, and Esther came in from somewhere, lifting Michelle's hand as Michael opened the box and removed a ring.
He held it for a long moment, looking at it, then slowly, carefully, he slid it on Michelle's finger.
It fit perfectly.
"It belonged to your mother," Frances said softly. "Your father gave it to me when first we spoke of this day."
"Maman," Michelle gasped.
It was too much for the young woman.
She turned to Esther's maternal arms.
Frances looked at me, puzzled.
I nodded assurance, leaned over close to his ear.
"Females tend to leak at times like this," I whispered. "It's normal."
Angela stood up in the carriage.
"Daddy?" she asked. "Can I have my horsie now?"

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Linn Keller 9-15-09

 

Little Sean didn't miss much.
Little Sean watched, solemn-eyed, as his Ma -- the woman he knew as Daisymedear, all one word -- rocked and hummed a little, cuddling the pink little boy-baby to her.
Little Sean tilted his head a little to the side, smiling himself, for his Ma had a contented smile, and it pleased Little Sean that his Ma was content.
He knew her as a woman quick with a laugh and a hug, equally quick with a sharp word and a swat on the bottom: she was storm and clear sky, she was comforter and correcter, she was his Ma, and he was content.
His brows puzzled together as he considered a question.
Not wanting to disturb his Ma, he turned and scampered, barefoot as were most lads his age, until he saw his Da laboring in the back field.
His Da was clearing weeds with what he called his "Hunky Scythe."
Little Sean stopped and admired the breadth of his Da's shoulders, the massive musculature of his great arms, the ease with which he swung the scythe.
Determined that his Da, who knew all things, could answer his question, he determined to walk up and tug on the man's pants leg and put his question to this source of all wisdom and knowledge.
Little Sean strutted with purposeful step up behind his Da.
Big Sean had no idea Little Sean was nowhere near.
The blade of a scythe is curved and sharp on the inside edge, whetted to a rough, sawlike edge, as coarse and as effective as a surgeon's scalpel: contrary to popular belief, a scalpel is not shaving-sharp, but rough-toothed under microscopic examination.
This mattered not to the man swinging the implement; he knew he stopped often to touch up the edge with the long, stick-like stone shoved in his bib overalls pocket.
The scythe blade mounts on its steam-curved handle with a single set screw.
The set screw has a square head, intended to be tightened down with a wrench.
The square headed set screw sticks out about ... oh, maybe 3/4 of an inch.
Big Sean was cutting with an easy rhythm, the cadence of a man accustomed to his labor, and delighting in it: swing, step, swing, step, bringing the scythe back behind him for the next slice into the standing growth.
Big Sean brought the scythe back and felt a little tunk! -- almost a woody note -- and he stopped, puzzled, and turned to see what he'd just hit.
There be no rocks here, he thought; that sounded like I hit a stump, or --
Sean tossed the scythe as easily as a man might throw a match stick.
He knelt beside his son's still form, reaching fearfully for the lad's hair.
There was a button-hole punched into the flesh beneath his eye, just over the cheek bone, and his son lay still, still ...
Sean had no memory of covering the ground between the field and his house.
His feet had wings, his shoes, eyes: his own eyes were on his son's face, unmoving, pale, all but the bright-red eye just over his little lad's cheek bone, glaring at him with unblinking accusation.
Daisy stood as she heard running feet.
Sean came pounding around the corner of the house, cleared the three steps in one long stride and stood there, his beefy Irish face the color of wheat paste, heaving for breath: his skin was sweaty and he gasped for breath.
"Daisy," he whispered in the broken whisper of a man who knows he has just done an act of horror, "I've kilt him!"
"Bring him in," Daisy said briskly, still holding the hungry infant to breast.
Sean stumbled into the house behind his wife.
Daisy snatched up a dish towel, dipped a corner in the water bucket; she wiped the small trickle of blood off Little Sean's cheek.
Little Sean's eyes struggled open and he started to cry.
"He'll be fine," Daisy scolded gently. "Ye canna' kill an Irishman!"

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Linn Keller 9-15-09

 

We drove through town as we usually did to get to Jacob and Annette's.
Angela was excited, bouncing in the back seat, crawling to one side then the other, and generally being a busy, active, happy, noisy, and absolutely normal and healthy child.
We trotted smoothly past the Mercantile, dark now; there was a light on upstairs and we knew Maude would be tending her housekeeping. I'd been up there but once and remembered it absolutely neat, spotless, meticulously in order: even the room on the far end, the one WJ had made into a second floor greenhouse, or near to it, was characterized by a military neatness.
Angela put her hands on my shoulders and bounced a little. "Daddy, what'cha looking at?" she piped.
I leaned my head back a little. "I was hoping to catch the Padre before he went home for the night."
Esther gave me a surprised look, then smiled, nodding.
"Who's that?" Angela asked, sitting down abruptly.
"Oh, just someone I know," I replied offhandedly. "I think Charlie and Miz Fannie will be coming up through Conejos and thought he might know something of the territory."
"Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!" Angela declared, bouncing happily on the upholstered seat.
"Rabbit?" I asked in mock dismay. "Rabbit? Where'd you come up with RABBIT? Young lady, you'd better get up here!" I turned and extended a hand, and Angela grabbed mine with both hers: I hoisted her up, quickly, launching her in a ballistic arc over my shoulder and catching her neatly, dropping her into my lap.
Esther gave a little hiccup of surprise.
Angela, on the other hand, was dissolving in a curly haired cloud of giggles: it was a game we played, she and I, and played it with the ease of two experienced conspirators.
"Angela, you are entirely too excitable," I admonished her, tickling her ribs: delighted, she kicked her legs and laughed, secure in my confining arms.
I brushed her hair aside and chewed on the side of her neck with lips carefully covering my teeth, kissed her on the cheek and picked her up again, setting her back down in the rear seat.
"Do it again, Daddy!" Angela called, her high, piping, little-girl voice loud in the evening's coolness.
I remember how it echoed off the buildings that night.
Esther held little Joseph and gave me "one of those looks" ... it's hard to slip something past her.
"The padre?" she murmured.
I did not look at her.
"Esther, my beautiful bride," I said, "how would you like to contract with the Italian stone cutters who built our hospital and are working on our new city hall?"
Esther could put only one set of knuckles on her hip; her other arm was busy holding little Joseph.
"Linn Keller, I know you are up to something," she said tartly, "and I have a notion what it might be!"
I gave her my best innocent expression. "My dear!" I said in a shocked voice, unable to contain the grin that broadened under my graying mustache.
"Me, up to something?"
"Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!" Angela bounced and bounced and bounced again.

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Linn Keller 9-16-09

 

The table was immaculate, the food was ready, the guests were here: Annette hung her apron just out of sight on a convenient hook she'd had Jacob install for that purpose, gave her hair a last touch, then swept to the front door to join her tall, slender husband as his parents came driving up in their fine carriage.
It would have been decorous for Jacob to remain in his doorway, greeting his parents and his sister formally as they entered.
Jacob was not all that formal.
Grinning, he danced down the cut-stone steps and seized his little sis under her arms, boosting her up to arm's length, causing her voice to go from "Jacob!" to "Whee!"
He brought her down slowly, like a circus strong-man pressing a great weight and bringing it down to just touch his nose -- only in this case, the weight was giggling and waving its arms, and the weight's nose just touched his, and he pressed her again to arm's length before setting her patent-leather slippers gently on the polished quartz step.
His father descended from the buggy and the two shook hands, a deep expression of pleasure in the Sheriff's light-blue eyes.
"Daddy! Daddy! Can I tell him, can I tell him?" Angela was bouncing on the bottom step, full of news and excitement.
The Sheriff winked at Jacob, then squatted to address his little girl.
"Angela," he almost-whispered, raising a teaching-finger, "notice how well you are dressed."
Angela looked down and seized a handful of her skirt, dropped it, looked back up at her Daddy's merry eyes.
"Now take a look at Jacob, how good he looks."
Angela looked waaaaay up, for Jacob was tall! -- and she blinked as if realizing he was wearing his good suit.
"Now take a look at Annette, and at your Mommy. Notice how very good they look?"
Angela's head turned as she solemnly assessed the feminine attire indicated.
"Now, Angela. When we have a group of people who are well dressed, how should we behave?"
Angela blinked, then looked from Jacob to Annette to her Mommy and back to her Daddy.
"We're going to church?" she asked, eyes wide and sincere.
Her Daddy leaned back and laughed, a good hearty Daddy-laugh, and Jacob laughed with them, for he was listening closely to the exchange: Jacob knew he, too, would become a Daddy, and he knew he should pay close attention, for his father had given him wise counsel in the past and his father had never steered him wrong.
Even the ladies exchanged a knowing smile.
Esther mouthed the word "Excited!" and bounced on her toes a few times, pointing to Angela, and Annette smiled and nodded her understanding.
"Angela, do you know what a formal occasion is?"
"For-mal?" Angela puzzled her brow at the unfamiliar word. "Is that where they bury dead people?"
Jacob laughed again and her Daddy grinned, his hand warm and strong against the small of her back. "No, dear heart, that's a funeral. That is a formal occasion as well." He looked up at Jacob, who was wiping his eyes, and Jacob started laughing again at the look on his father's face.
"Oh." Angela looked up at her brother, unsure whether to kick him in the shins or not and deciding she was more curious than combative.
"Formal in this case means Jacob and Annette have made a point, a special point, of inviting us for dinner."
"Yaay!" Angela clapped her little hands and smiled her gleaming smile.
"This is a very special dinner, which is why we wear our special clothes."
Angela nodded, her hands folded in the front of her frock.
"Now for a formal occasion we use formal manners, and that means we can't be all bubbly and excited like we have been," the Sheriff continued, stroking a curl back from his little girl's forehead.
"Okay, Daddy," Angela said in a subdued little girl's voice.
"That means we can't do any of this" -- the Sheriff seized Angela around the waist and launched her into the air, bringing her back down into the cradle of his arms and tickling her until her little feet kicked and she dissolved into a cloud of giggles -- "and we can't do any of this" -- he turned her upside down by her ankles, then swung her upright again, Jacob catching her under the arms and taking over --
"And we can't do any of this!" and he spun her rapidly upside down and back up again.
Angela's face was red and she was panting for breath. "Do it again!" she begged as Jacob brought her in close and kissed her on the cheek.
"Do it again?" he asked, his eyes just as merry as his father's. "Do it again?"
Angela nodded, giggling.
Jacob looked at his father and sighed.
"Sir," he asked with a deliberately exaggerated solemnity in his voice, "is this how little girls are?"
The Sheriff, in an equally sepulcheral voice, nodded: "Yes, Jacob. Children the world over are very much like this."
Esther, smiling quietly, had dismounted: drawing up her skirts, she ascended with a Queenly grace up the polished granite steps: taking Annette by the elbow, she said quietly, "Come, dear, let us leave the children to their play."
The two ladies turned with a flare of skirt material and disappeared into the fine stone house.
Jacob and his father looked at one another, then at their ladies' retreating backsides, and down to Angela.
"I think we've been insulted!" Jacob declared.
"I believe you're right!" his father agreed, the sparkle in his eyes belying his words.
"I think I shall go to the barn and sulk!"
"I think I shall join you!"
"But what about this little gigglebox here?"
They both looked at Angela, frowning.
Angela had one of her Daddy's hands and one of her big brother's hands and she began bouncing again: "Take me, take me! Please, please, please!"
Linn looked at Jacob.
Jacob looked at Linn.
Angela looked from one to the other and the ladies within heard a little girl's "Whee!" and a rattle of trace-chains, and they knew their boys had just boosted their little sister into the carriage and were taking the whole noisy, boisterous mess to the barn.

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Linn Keller 9-17-09

 

Angela rolled up on her side, curled up under the hand-sewn quilt, safe and warm in dreams and in flannel.
Her Daddy, too, was curled up on his side, cuddled with his wife.
Unlike their little girl, husband and wife were not asleep: relaxed, yes; warm, safe, content, yes; drowsy, a little, as they always were after intimacy: now, now was a time for whispered confidences, for shared dreams, for stray thoughts that drift in like night-mist over a field.
"She is very much the young lady," the Sheriff whispered.
Esther's ribs qivered a little at her suppressed laugh.
"Whatever did you say to turn her from a noisy little girl into a proper young lady?" Esther whispered, turning her head a bit to the left, the better to hear her husband's soft voice.
Linn's arms were warm and strong around her, his body at once firm and yet cuddly: uncompromising the man could be, Esther thought, but once you got through the case hardened shell, he was a fuzzy cuddle bear.
"I told her," Linn whispered, "that we have to behave ourselves, because the Horse Fairy wouldn't bring her a horsie if she was too noisy and giggly and busy at such a formal occasion."
Esther shifted her position a little, turning more on her back so she could look at the shadow that was her husband.
"The horse fairy?"
"Oh, yes," Linn said in his most innocent tone.
"What did she say?"
It was Linn's turn to shiver with suppressed laughter.
He drew his wife closer to him, spooning them tightly together, his breath puffing against the side of her neck.
"She put her hands on her hips and shook her Mommy-finger at me and said, "Oh, Daddy!" in a no-nonsense voice. "You're the Horse Fairy!"
"She wasn't fooled?"
"No." Linn sighed.
"Did she say anything else?"
"She came over and patted my thigh and said "It's okay, Daddy," then she cocked her head a little to the side and said, "Are you sure you're not a Horse Wizard? I don't know many fairies with a muts-tache."
Esther was giggling into her pillow, trying to be quiet. In her mind's eye she could just see her little girl doing just that, with the most serious look on her face!
"I asked her how many fairies she knows," Linn continued, whispering in the bedroom darkness. "She said she knows the Good Fairy, the Tooth Fairy, the Fairy Godmother and some Irish fairies that make fairy rings out of toadstools."
"Does she know any wizards?" Esther hazarded, ready to pull the pillow back across her face if the reply proved too amusing.
"Just me."
Esther pulled away and rolled over, drawing her husband to her.
"Kiss me, you old horse wizard, you," she whispered.
She did not have to repeat herself.

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Linn Keller 9-18-09

 

Jacob, like his father, delighted in his wife: he took to heart the Scriptural admonition to "Satisfy thyself with the wife of thy youth," and he had done a rather fine job of doing just that.
Annette was cuddled up against him, her head on his shoulder, her hand on his chest.
Jacob was not quite asleep but not entirely awake, drifting in the half-state that exists when a man is safe, and warm, and under his own roof.
He recalled how his father's eyes crinkled at the corners when he'd invited the man to his study for brandy and perhaps a cigar.
It was a private joke between the two of them: neither smoked, but each always offered the other a cigar.
Jacob knew his father's taste in liquor and kept a small stock of the man's favorite brandy, along with other distillates; the two of them sampled the strong beverages, each partaking judiciously, knowing from personal experience the ill that can come of intemperance.
"Sir," Jacob hazarded, and the Sheriff's right ear twitched: it was a change in the younger man's voice, perhaps, or the pronunciation of the "R" sound when he addressed his father: Linn recognized it as a formal opening to an important matter and turned his full attention to his son.
"Yes, Jacob?"
Jacob set his snifter on a side table and shifted restlessly in his seat, then rose and began pacing.
Linn tried to hide a smile; he was almost successful: he had the same habit himself, and had done as much with his own father, long ago, in an important moment.
"Sir, Annette was approached some time ago to give a lecture in Denver. It seems our town is the stuff of legend and a promoter tells her she can make good money speaking on stage, telling the adventures of Firelands."
Linn nodded. "Go on."
Jacob stopped and looked squarely at his father. "Sir, might I beg two weeks' leave to tend that detail?"
Linn rose and crossed the few feet to his son.
Placing a hand on his shoulder, he looked Jacob squarely in the eye.
"Jacob, you are not just a lawman. You are a damned good lawman and never forget that."
Jacob colored suddenly at the praise.
"You are a devoted and loving husband and a fine son. I could never ask for a better."
Jacob swallowed hard.
He knew -- he knew deep in his gut he had his father's love and his father's approval -- but it is a powerful thing for the father to say so, and in so many words.
"You can have the two weeks and more if you need it."
Linn squeezed Jacob's shoulder gently, then sat back down.
"Tell me more."
Jacob stood easy, ordering his thoughts.
"Sir, you recall Caleb and Bonnie went to the theater in Denver not long ago?"
"I recall."
"Bonnie was delighted with the theater and described it in glowing terms. They took in a stage show, an opera and a lecture, some fellow from back East making fancy claims about magnets and how they could draw arthritis from the body."
Linn nodded. Caleb had come back from Denver with a magnetic belt wrapped around his middle, hoping for some relief from his back pain. He'd gone for half a day not realizing some wise wag had placed half a dozen square cut nails on the back of his coat, directly over the magnets.
"Annette contacted that promoter fellow who came through here and he's still interested."
Linn nodded, swirling his brandy and tilting his head a little, listening closely.
"Here's the funny part." Jacob hesitated, uncomfortable; he was like a swimmer before a long dive into deep water.
"Sir, he wants to give her a stage name."
Linn raised one eyebrow.
"He tells us Annette Keller sounds too civilized, too much like an old maid schoolteacher. He wants something fancy."
Linn raised his other eyebrow and took a sip of brandy.
"He wants to stage name her Duzy Wales."
Linn coughed into his snifter, sending a spray around the inside of the balloon and soaking his face: coughing, he lowered the goblet and fumbled in his pocket for a kerchief.
Jacob's jaw snapped shut with an audible click, alarmed at his father's reaction.
Linn set his snifter on the floor, coughing, wiped his eyes and his face, blew his nose noisily and thoroughly and wiped his eyes again: shaking his head, he snorted, coughed tentatively and wheezed, "Forgive me, Jacob, I inhaled instead of swallowed!" -- followed by another round of coughing, this time into his balled kerchief.
"Sir, I -- we don't -- " Jacob stuttered, and his father raised a hand, halting the young man's words.
Linn cleared his throat and took a deep breath, coughed once and harrumphed.
"Jacob, I think Duzy Wales is a fine stage name!" he declared. "As far as brandy, it is better swallowed than breathed, and I beg your pardon for my clumsiess!" He was laughing a little, not only at the distress-to-relief on his son's face, but also at the thought of how he must have looked in the moment the amber explosion misted the inside of the brandy balloon.
"Is she up for the task?"
Jacob's expression was uncertain, but his words were not.
"Yes, sir," he said firmly. "She is."

Now, warm and drowsy in his own bed, under his own roof, with his bride in his arms, Jacob remembered the conversation and chuckled a little.
It's not often he had a laugh at his father's expense, but that night ... that night, he did.

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Linn Keller 9-18-09

 

Caleb knocked on the door frame.
"Sheriff?" he called.
There was a squeak and a clank from back among the cells, the sound of boot heels on the polished floor.
"Caleb! Come on in!" The Sheriff advanced with a grin and an outthrust hand. "Or should I say Mr. Mayor?"
Caleb gripped the proffered hand and patted his old friend on the shoulder. "No, no, this isn't an official call. I just thought you might like to see this."
Caleb stepped out onto the boardwalk and with a grand sweeping gesture, indicated something near the hitch rail: the Sheriff emerged into the mid-morning sunshine and raised an eyebrow.
He felt the rough log wall behind him, felt as much as heard the earth creak around him: it was dark, dark, and he was suffocating from the closeness of the walls, the low ceiling. In the distance he heard the terrible sound of another roof fall and the screaming of trapped mine ponies.
The Sheriff blinked, sook his head, pressed thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose.
"Isn't she a beaut?" Caleb gushed. "It just came in on the morning freight! I ordered it for Sarah! Won't she be surprised?"
The Sheriff took a long breath, composed himself, looking around.
It was daylight again, he was in Firelands, he was the Sheriff, it was only a dream, a waking dream ...
The Sheriff stepped off the boardwalk, cocked his head at the brushed, shining coat of the pony harnessed up to the brightly-painted wagon.
The Sheriff had learned, sometimes by the hard teacher of experience, that there were times to apply those Masonic virtues of silence and circumspection: this was one of those times, as he nearly blurted out that the paint job was making his eyes bleed.
He came almost in reach of the pony and it snapped at him.
The Sheriff pulled his hand back reflexively, took a long stride back, continued walking around the red-gold-and-green pony cart.
"This is for Sarah?" the Sheriff asked.
"Yes!" Caleb puffed up with pride and the Sheriff expected the man to hook his thumbs behind his lapels and shove his paunch out like a Chicago politician.
"This is for the Sarah that harnessed up a mare to your McCormick mower?"
"Umm ... yes," Caleb said a little more hesitantly.
"This is the Sarah that's been driving your carriage into town on errands?"
Caleb looked positively crestfallen.
"Caleb," the Sheriff continued, "I don't think there is a nicer thing a father can do than to make his little girl happy. You're doing that, and that is to be admired."
Caleb looked a little less wounded, then brightened as a delighted "Daddy!" echoed from behind the tall, gray-mustached lawman.
The Sheriff turned to see Angela pelting out of the Jewel, leaping off the three steps, landing at a dead run and streaking across the street, skirt and curls flying behind her. "A horsie!"
The Sheriff made a grab for his daughter and missed.
The pony made a grab and didn't.
Angela's shrill scream split the morning air as the pony's even, yellow teeth closed on the flesh of her right shoulder.
The Sheriff raised his arm and drove his fist straight down into the pony's nose. There was a woody sound and the Sheriff raised his fist again.
The pony let go and backed away.
The Sheriff seized Angela around the waist and pulled her back.
Caleb stood, shocked, frozen: he'd seen his friend go from good-natured and gentle to white-faced and murderous in the span of a heartbeat.
The Sheriff reached into his boot top and pulled out the knife Caleb knew lived there.
Angela was the color of paste and only her Daddy's arm kept her upright.
The Sheriff slid the knife under her collar and carefully, deliberately, split the seam to expose all of her bleeding shoulder.
Caleb staggered into the street, his mouth opening and closing, his eyes wide.
The pony had just gotten skin -- barely that -- but enough to detonate a pain-ball in the little girl's consciousness. The Sheriff assessed her shoulder, her collar bone; his fingers were slick with blood, Angela's blood, and when he looked up at Caleb it was with eyes that were cold, cold, and pale, ice blue.
The Sheriff slid the knife back into its sheath and scooped up his daughter.
"Not your fault," he husked. "Ponies are mean by nature."
He carried Angela into the Jewel and upstairs to where Esther was working.
Daddy's arms were comforting but he knew Mommy's hands would be soothing as well.

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Linn Keller 9-19-09

 

Angela buried her face in her Daddy's coat as Esther tended the pony bite.
Once it was washed off it wasn't nearly as bad as they'd feared: it had bruised, yes, it had broken the skin, but nothing was crushed and the great muscle running from the base of the ear down the side of the neck into the shoulder was minimally compromised.
This did not mean much to Angela.
She knew it hurt.
Her arm was rigidly straight out and her other arm was death-locked around her Daddy.
Her dress would need significant repair, yes, but the Sheriff's blade had parted the seam: it could be salvaged and with not too great a difficulty: though the Sheriff and his wife were prosperous, perhaps among the most prosperous in town, they were not wasteful.
Esther was a mother, and mothers are efficient planners: she had a fresh dress for her little girl and a few other things, and after shooing Daddy out the door, she bandaged the clean, treated bite and dressed her daughter in a fresh outfit.
Angela's shoulder still smarted -- under the padding bandage was some kind of a malodorous ointment that stung and the bite itself, though mostly numb, was still tender -- Angela hugged her Mommy with her free arm and sat down, staring vacantly at the far wall.
Outside the door, muffled conversation: Angela's quick ear recognized her Daddy's voice, deep and reassuring, and the worried voice of Caleb.
After several minutes there was a discreet tap.
"Safe to come in"? Linn hazarded, opening the door a hand's-breadth.
Esther, the picture of feminine composure, touched one of Angela's springy curls.
"You may come in," she said, prim as a schoolmarm.
Linn and Caleb came in, hat in hand.
In spite of her injury Angela leaped to her feet with a delighted "Uncle Caleb!" and ran across the floor, hugging the man with her good arm.
Caleb looked at Esther, surprised, down at Angela, then at the Sheriff.
He went to one knee and delicately, carefully, hugged her back, almost as if he were afraid to, as if she were of the most delicate eggshell china.
"She'll be fine," Esther said quietly. "Now if you're finished interrupting my work, I'm almost through with the profit and loss statment for this quarter."
Esther's eyes belied the semi-serious tone of her words and she made a little shooing motion with her hands.
"Go on, scoot! But don't feed any more children to the cannibal pony!"

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Linn Keller 9-19-09

 

"Hey Soapy!"
I turned and regarded the loafer who was doing a right fine job of propping up a porch post with his shoulder.
"Fed any more young'uns to that-there cannibal pony?"
I hooked my thumbs behind my gun belt and sauntered casually across the street, considering my reply.
"Friend," I finally said when I was about ten foot from the grinning speaker, "do you know how much trouble it was to find a cannibal pony?"
"Pshaw!" came the toothy reply. "Find one? Hell, everybody knows ponies bite!"
"No, no, we're talking a different kettle of fish here," I admonished, raising one finger to emphasize the point. "Ponies bite, yes. Ponies are evil and short tempered and ride as smooth as the inside of a brick chimney -- we all know this. No, now, I'm talking about an absolute cannibal, not just a biter!"
"Why, do tell?" the chuckling fellow blinked, the very image of innocent curiosity.
"Oh heavens yes," I assured him with a solemn frown and an absolutely straight face. "Clear back in Shakespeare's time there were cannibal horses. We read in Macbeth that under an evil moon the King's horses et each other."
"No!"
"Oh, yes! They were a secret military experiment, y'see, they idee was to set these English stallions loose among the Saracen mares. Instead of siring a new race of war horses, they would eat the Arab mounts, turning the enemy cavalry into infantry overnight."
The loafer nodded, appearing to consider my words.
"Well now," he said, "suppose that-there Spearshaker fellow was right an' the King's horses did eat them A-rab horses. How does that give us a cannibal pony?"
I considered a moment. "Well, y'see, it's like this," I said, making a broad, open-palmed gesture with both hands: "them-there towns in England is all squinchy and tiny and the streets are real narrow and they figured if the enemy ever makes it onto English soil, they'd best have some light, short, little bitty horse eaters that could maneuver in them little narrow streets, so they bred them big war horses down into ponies.
"That made 'em mean, y'see, 'cause they all wanted to stay big mean war horses and now they're little ponies to pull girls around in pony carts, an' it hurt their feelin's, see, so now instead of just eatin' enemy horses, why, they'll take a chunk out of anyone they can get hold of."
"Why," the loafer said, eyes wide with feigned astonishment, "of all things!"
A carriage came jingling up the street drawn by a familiar grey mare: Sarah was erect and smiling in the driver's seat, waving at us as she passed. "Ho, Butter," she called, drawing up in front of the Mercantile.
The loafer squinted at Sarah, comparing the growing soul in front of him to the memory of the brightly-painted-and-gilt pony cart.
"Hizonner got that-there pony and that shiny little pony cart for her?" he asked, thrusting his chin at Sarah.
Sarah smiled again, turning with a flare of skirts as she retrieved a bundle from the carriage. Too old to be a girl and too young to be a woman, she was an age guaranteed to melt the heart of any father: slender and graceful, she had her mother's charm, her father's diplomacy and the confidence of a heart that had never been broken.
"Yep," I replied. "Hizonner got the pony cart for her."
The loafer scratched his head and looked squarely at me.
"Soapy?"
"Yeah?"
"Is the man blind, or just stupid?"

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Linn Keller 9-20-09

 

Caleb had been puzzling over the pony cart, and over his daughter, and wondering as a man will just where time had gone.
Sarah -- his Sarah -- was a little girl, or at least she was: short and giggly and laughing, holding her Mama's hand, sitting quietly in the parlor while he and Bonnie took turns reading aloud from Milton or Shakespeare or Scripture; quiet, attentive, polite ... but a little child!
Daddy's little girl, he thought, and his heart warmed, and swelled, and he sighed.
His little girl wasn't as little as she used to be.
She was still a child, still very much a child, but she had harnessed up the mare to the mower and cut a fire break when nobody else was around to do it, and in so doing she had very likely saved their house and their barn and maybe their business.
Well, maybe not the business. It was of brick and stone ...
Caleb stopped, recalling the roof was of hand split shake shingles, and made a mental note to send back East for good slate.
He'd had a slate roofed house before and he knew slate would not burn.
Caleb rubbed his eyes and laid the quill beside the ledger book. The nib was long since dried.
He flipped the lid shut on the ink well.
His heart was not in columns of figures.
Caleb Rosenthal stood, tugging his coat straight, and paced slowly to the kitchen, drew a tall, heavy glass from the cupboard and pumped it full.
His was one of the first pitcher pumps in Firelands; the Sheriff's was the second, and both made life so much easier than drawing water by the bucket from a hole in the ground.
Caleb drank deeply, gratefully.
Good water was something he'd come to take for granted ever since leaving the city. Water there was a risky affair; there had been cholera outbreaks and he was satisfied it was due to bad water, but out here -- here, the water was cold, and sweet, and good on a man's tongue.
There was a rattle and a clatter outside, a girl's voice, raised: curious, Caleb finished the tumbler of water and walked to the window.
Caleb Rosenthal, businessman and man of the world; Caleb Rosenthal, town Mayor, Mason and college man, stared with slack jaw at the sight before him.
Twain Dawg was streaking across the field, looking more like a black-furred arrow -- he was at least six feet long but only six inches high -- hot after him was Cannibal Pony, as it had been named, and following hard after them was Sarah, bareback on Jelly-the-mare, and all at a wide open gallop.
Cannibal Pony made a snapping bite at Twain Dawg.
Twain Dawg was inspired to greater speed.
Sarah, both hands full of mane, leaned forward, drumming her heels into the mare's ribs, yelling encouragement.
Caleb set the glass on the counter top and strode for the back door, ran down the four steps from the back porch to the side yard.
"Sarah!" he called, then shouted: "SARAH!"
Caleb was treated with a fine view of their retreating backsides, and so could not fully appreciate the little drama unfolding over the increasing distance.
Sarah Rosenthal was mad and mad clear through.
Not only had Cannibal Pony bitten her friend Angela, it had tried to take a chunk out of her as well, and she had a fine, painful, and marvelously colorful bruise on her backside to prove it: she'd turned and slapped the pony three times before it let go, and when it finally did she turned and belted it hard across the soft part of the nose.
The pony had backed up, working its lips and shaking its head, clearly unhappy that its entertainment had protested being masticated: in its evil little mind it had doubtless seen the friendship between Sarah and the massive Twain Dawg, and so had determined to direct its dental displeasure toward the canine.
It was still harnessed to the pony cart, which seemed to slow it little if any: it was a well made little cart and seemed unaffected by being drawn at the pony's hard gallop across the field.
Sarah was riding not only Jelly-the-mare, she was riding a full head of steam, and anger has a way of washing away good sense, especially in the mind of the young: passion seizes the reins and rules the mind and the body follows willingly, happily, and Sarah was young, and strong, and more athletic than her dear Papa realized: the distance was too great to appreciate the detail, but he saw Sarah leap from the mare onto the pony.
"No," he gasped, and began running.

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Linn Keller 9-20-09

 

Sarah's flat heeled, high-button shoes tucked up under her as she squatted on Jelly-the-Mare's back, balancing with one hand floating a little ahead and to the side, her left still holding a clutch of mane.
Jelly-the-Mare paced the pony easily, her longer legs making the task less difficult.
Sarah had listened breathlessly to the tales of her Uncle Linn leaping from his Rose o' the Mornin' onto a moving flatcar to rescue her Mama, and she'd hidden a secret wish that she might do something equally as exciting.
She'd carefully filed away the description of how he'd brought his legs up under him, stood on the saddle, then launched the short distance onto the flatcar.
Sarah's quick mind grasped that if he were moving as fast as the flatcar, the jump was no big achievement: just a matter of feet, and she was closer to the Cannibal Pony than he'd been to the railcar.
Sarah balanced easily, passion driving all fear from her, then she jumped.
For a moment, for a long moment, she swam in cold, clear honey, the world bright and in sharp focus around her: she heard, clear and separate, each distinct hoof-fall, the rattle of chains and the thundering squeak of the brightly-painted pony-cart: she saw each hair in sharp relief on the back of Cannibal Pony, and she twisted in mid-air, her trajectory carrying her precisely where she wanted to land --
Sarah seized the pony around the neck and locked her legs around its barrel, arresting her lateral movement: secure now, she scrambled to seize the reins and hauled back on them, firmly, mindful not to hurt the wicked little animal's mouth.
"Hooo," she called loudly, leaning back, and again, "Ho, you wicked beast!"
Cannibal Pony was nearly driven to its knees by the impact: Sarah was solid and compact and when she landed, her weight drove through its front legs and nearly buckled its knees: somehow the pony kept its feet, though, and betwen the sudden burden, the impact, the voice and the bit, it began to slow.
Jelly-horse slowed with it.
Twain Dawg had made a circle and was coming up alongside, tongue hanging out, eyes bright, delighted at this new game.
Sarah kept talking to it, slowing it, until finally Cannibal Pony stopped altogether.
"Stand," Sarah admonished it, holding the traces in one hand as she slid off its back, ready to jump out of the way if it jerked ahead.
Sarah was young but she was not stupid, and she knew if the evil-minded pony jerked forward she could be run over by the circus-bright wagon her Papa had gotten as a present for her.
Sarah worked her way back to the pony cart, climbed in.
Clucking to the Cannibal Pony, she flipped its reins.
The pony cart started forward at a more leisurely pace.
Sarah put two fingers to her young lips and whistled.
Twain Dawg's ears came up and he leaped happily into the upholstered leather seat beside her.
"Come on, Jelly," Sara called, and Jelly-the-Mare paced alongside them.
Sarah drove with the reins in her left hand, her right busy ruffling Twain Dawg around the ears.
Twain Dawg laid his muzzle in her lap, closing his eyes and groaning in utter pleasure, much like his honored sire had done not many years before.
"Now why do you suppose Papa is running?" Sarah asked Twain Dawg.
Twain Dawg sighed happily.
He would give her about a week to stop rubbing his neck.

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Linn Keller 9-21-09

 

Jacob scratched his head and pondered the imponderable.
He'd figured a week in Denver and had packed accordingly.
Annette had promptly shooed him out of the bedroom with a tart, "Now, Jacob Keller, you just let me handle this!" -- something she'd never done, but as she did it with a smile and those bright, bright eyes, Jacob had not the heart to say her nay, and so retreated: now, however, he found himself faced with several satchels and two trunks, and wondering whatever in the world they could possibly need that would take up so much room!
"There!" Annette announced with satisfaction, dusting her hands briskly together. "I just know I'm forgetting something, but that always happens when you pack light!"
Jacob's eyes widened and he swallowed.
"You packed light?" he hazarded cautiously, and Annette caressed his cheek.
Jacob's knees felt funny the way they always did when Annette touched him: he needed no further encouragement to bend his head to his wife's upturned face.
Some time later, glowing and cuddled and drowsing in each others' arms, Jacob considered it fortunate that they had no hard and fast departure time.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-21-09

 

"I'm gonna sleep for a week!" Charlie declared as he stepped wearily down from the roan's back in the yard of the home ranch. The roan and Fannie's sorrel were headhung with weariness. "I know how you feel, boys," Charlie told the horses. He left the reins where they lay on the ground, tying the two worn mounts as if to stakes driven deep in the earth, and stepped to the equally worn-thin mule. He quickly unhitched the ropes diamonding what was left of their packs to the sawbuck and lifted the bags from the bony back, setting them near the flagstone stoop. He gathered reins and lead rope and led horses and mule toward corral, creek and manger.

Stripping tack and pack gear from the animals he quickly rubbed them down with a piece of sacking then turned all and sundry through the gate, swinging the panel shut behind them and hanging saddles and packsaddle on the fence. He leaned for a moment on the gate before turning toward the house, where lamplight flickered invitingly through the windows.

"Coffee's on," Fannie told her husband as he stepped through the door and tossed his hat onto a peg, followed, at a lesser rate of speed, by the buckled loop of his gunbelt. His hands went to the small of his back and he leaned back, trying to stretch out the kinks of three hundred miles on the hurricane deck of the roan.

The smell of boiling Arbuckles drifted on the slowly freshening air of the long-closed up kitchen. Outside, the last of the dusk was fading into dark as the couple stood, arms around each other, listening to the bubbling in the granite-ware pot and the snapping of pitchwood in the firebox of the cast-iron Sears and Roebuck range. "You alright?" Charlie asked softly, though it had been literally weeks since the confrontation in the desert. Fannie had been uncharacteristically quiet during the entire trip, and he had honored her silence.

"Yes, I believe I am," Fannie whispered.

Charlie gave her a squeeze. "You done good, Darlin'," he said.

"I think so." After a companionable silence that stretched for some minutes, she suddenly said, a hint of heat in her voice, "Take the coffee off the fire." He did, and she took his hand and led him from the room.

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Linn Keller 9-22-09

 

I waited a couple of days before going out to see Charlie and Miz Fannie.
I knew they were back.
I also knew they'd had a long ride and likely hadn't had an easy time of it below the Border country, and they deserved some time to rest up.
On about the third day I took a pound of Arbuckle's and a brand new grinder and headed out their way.
The black horse was responding to knee pressure -- finally -- some horses are like Beagle dogs and are just awful anxious to please and this one, once it realized I was not going to beat it within an inch of its life, decided it wanted to please.
It was so anxious to please it got kind of hard to mount sometimes.
You've probably tried stepping into the saddle when the horse was anxious and moving under you, well, most times it's because the horse is anticipating what you want and wants to deliver and just doesn't realize it's not the time yet.
I was still working on getting the black to stand still when I told him, "Stand."
Bribing him with the small, sweet apples that were coming ripe helped.
Miz Fannie saw me coming and came out to meet me.
I'll swear that woman could wear a burlap sack and look both stunning and absolutely ladylike.
I handed her the package I had under my arm and grinned as she unwrapped it.
I'd wrapped it in flour sack, some pretty print that caught my eye, and I knew she could put it to good use. It wasn't uncommon for girls from local farms and ranches to come to town with their Pa and pick out just the right flour sack for just that reason: they knew the cloth would be turned into dresses and they wanted the prettiest material.
Miz Fannie's curiosity puzzled her brows together and I stepped out of the saddle.
"Stand," I murmured, letting the reins trail, and the black stood.
"Good boy," I murmured, patting his neck.
The black turned his head, hoping for an apple.
"You bum," I scolded him gently, rubbing his nose and feeding him an apple.
Miz Fannie untied the ribbon at the top where I had it gathered and the material fell open, revealing the brand new coffee grinder.
I don't think I've seen a lovelier sight than the look on her face that morning.
"How did you know?" she asked, turning the crank experimentally, opening the drawer at the bottom, turning it and looking at it from every side.
I shrugged, reaching into the saddle bag. "Charlie said something about mashing up coffee beans on the anvil," I lied, handing her the pound sack of roasted beans. "Maude just got these in."
"You scoundrel," Miz Fannie said softly, "I should kick you, you know that."
I took that as a complement; it was delivered in her soft, musical voice and with shining eyes.
She could have told me to grab a shovel and make for China and I would've started digging with a grin on my face.
"Charlie around?" I shifted uncomfortably, for my ribs were giving me hell again: likely rain was coming, that usually happened before a storm.
"He's out checking the horses." Miz Fannie tilted her head a little. "Did Jacob repair the corral?"
"Yes, ma'am, he did." I set my foot up on a rock, easing the strain on my back like a man does when he puts a foot up on the brass rail in a saloon. "Was the work done right?"
I had seen Miz Fannie in many moods. I had seen her as a warrior, beating the snot out of an opponent; I had seen her as a woman wronged, coldly holding her feelings in check; I had seen her laughing as she waltzed; I was seeing her, now, relaxed, a queen in her kingdom, comfortable with where she was and what she was and who she was with, and it was a delight to see.
"Yes it was," she said softly. "Thank him for us, would you?"
I twisted my back a little, trying to work the discomfort out. "Miz Fannie, that's one reason I'm out here." My discomfort must have showed; her eyes changed, and I saw concern.
Miz Fannie was many things. Most women are complex and complicated and she was no exception; she was also a walking truth finder, and knew when someone was holding back. Whether this was a consequence of woman's intuition, or having been a performer and seeing people in all their states and conditions, or a result of being a badge packer, I did not know, nor did it matter.
"Sheriff," she said, and there was more behind her voice than just her words, "what are you hiding from me?"
I reached up and wrapped my hand around the saddle horn, arching my back some and not getting much relief. "Miz Fannie, we're dedicating the Masonic Lodge in two weeks' time. Be pleased if you and Charlie could come share the festivities."
Miz Fannie shifted the coffee grinder and rested it on her hip, hefting the coffee in the other hand.
She smiled a little, gentle smile and said, "You know I can't volunteer my husband."
I chuckled. "I know you won't volunteer your husband, nor would I ask you to."
She looked out from under her eyelashes at me.
Was I not a married man I would have laid my beating heart at her feet.
"We'll be there."

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Linn Keller 9-23-09

 

Years later, a pair of light-blue eyes read the Sheriff's careful, deliberate script.
A feminine hand turned the old journal's pages, pausing here, skimming there; strong yet delicate fingers traced down the good rag paper, and glacier-pale eyes studied the words, and through them, the ancestor who had scribed them.
She read of the pomp and panoply of Masonic ritual, of the Most Worshipful Grand Master in white gloves and apron, Knights Templar in swords and garb, ceremonially escorting the stone as it was brought in on a gaily draped wagon; she read of the steam powered winch and derrick that hoisted the corner stone in place, the men in top hats who carefully, deliberately tried the corner stone with a square, and pronounced it good; the speechmaking and the shining, gold-finished trowels and how skilled hands spread mortar and struck the joints; and how, finally, the ceremonial placement was concluded with cheers, steam whistles and firecrackers from two boys who were determined to liven the festivities.
The measured lines had been traced over a century before, and while the writer drank vanilla flavored coffee; now, the descendant who read them sipped Earl Grey tea and smiled.
"Great-Granddad," she whispered, "I wish I had been there."

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Linn Keller 9-24-09

 

I'd had as much of the man as I intended to take.
Sean had tried to talk to the foreman -- McGee, the man's name was -- and Sean was being reasonable.
McGee shook his head and refused to consider the Irishman's words.
I walked over to the work table and unrolled the plans, traced my finger along the planned run of pipe, and frowned.
Sean looked over at me, an expression of utter exasperation on his face, and McGee followed his gaze.
McGee stopped shouting at Sean and began yelling at me.
He shouldn't have done that.
McGee was a pipefitter and a ditchdigger and he looked well built.
My aching ribs reminded me that getting into it with the man wasn't a terribly wise thing to do.
The rest of me figured he'd caught me at the wrong time and rubbed me the wrong way and it was time to put a stop to the matter, and not peacefully.
Sean had expressed his surprise that there wasn't a shut off valve for the gas line going into the new Municipal Building.
McGee allowed as Sean would keep his bog-Irish nose out of an honest man's business and like it.
Sean reasonably pointed out the need to shut off gas in the event of a fire and the foreman shoved himself against Sean, looking up at the Irishman, calling him anything but a decent man.
I looked over at the black and saw it was trembling.
The black wasn't near so chary as it used to be. By now it would normally have been on the ground, eyes rolled back and showing white, quivering a little: I'd gentled it and fooled with it long enough to get its confidence, then we'd gone among men who were quarreling, sometimes at my request, and I soothed the black and talked quietly to it and allowed as it was a good fellow, that it should stand fast, there's a good lad, and I'd got it to where it wouldn't hit the ground.
I hadn't expected to put that to the test quite yet.
McGee yelled "Hey! You! You there! Get away from those plans!"
I turned back my lapel to show the six point Sheriff's star.
"McGee," I said coldly, "you ever had your neck stretched?"
McGee stopped and blinked, then he shoved forward, blustering. "Now whattaya mean by that, you tin packer? You think you can throw your weight around --"
I stabbed a finger at the plans. "You missed every last valve the architect called for! You did it intentionally and deliberately, and you did it to set us up to get killed!"
McGee stopped, jaw hanging: he didn't expect to be accused of a criminal action, especially not premeditated murder.
"You're going to stop work right now. You're going to go back and you're going to dig up at every one of those points and you're going to put in the valves or I am going to --"
"You're gonna do what, tin man?" he sneered.
Sean's hand was suddenly on the pipe fitter's shoulder. "Lad, look a' his eyes," he cautioned.
McGee turned to sneer at Sean, then looked back at me.
He must not've noticed my eyes.
I had a pretty good fire in my boiler by then.
I didn't like McGee from the first time I laid eyes on him.
Brother Beymer put it well when he said "Buddy Joe, there's two kinds of people in this world: one can tell you good morning and you want to smack 'em and the other can tell you "Go to hell!" and you look forward to the trip!"
McGee was not of the latter variety.
"Lad, ye don't want t' provoke the man," Sean cautioned. "I can whip any man i' the county an' the Sheriff has whipped me!"
McGee was working himself up into a fighting mood and it was time to yank that rug out from under him.
I took two steps and grabbed him by the throat, throwing him straight back,. hard.
Sean piroutetted out of my way as pretty as any ballerina and I recall thinking how big the man was and how light he could move.
I had taken McGee by surprise. He went over backwards, next to that black horse.
I began yelling and I let my anger take the lead.
I called him a soulless son of an illegitimate scoundrel, I called him a cheat and a thief and a liar to boot, I called him things that would peel paint off a stagecoach door and I did it at absolutely the top of my lungs.
I was walking up on him as I yelled and I could feel the mad prickling out my scalp and beating in waves down against my boot heels.
I ain't been that mad in a very, very long time.
It's a fool that loses control and a damned fool that loses his temper but as we read in Scripture, for all things there is a season and it was my season to blow my cork and how.
I stomped the man's ankle and kicked his thigh -- deliberately, the inside of the thigh, I could have taken him higher up but I wanted to make a point -- and my voice was loud, loud, and far away, and I felt the cords in my neck stand out.
The black horse had never heard me yelling like this and I was less than arm's reach from him.
The black horse fell half-over and half-down, pinning McGee's arm.
Now it's no light thing when something the size of a horse lands right beside a man, especially when he's got a sudden knot in his leg the size of your fist and a big man with a purple face is screaming at him.
Sean thrust a huge arm in front of me as I took a step toward the supine man.
I reckon he thought I was going to kick the head off his shoulders.
"Sheriff," Sean said in a cautioning tone.
I looked up at him and he winked.
He knew then I was running a bluff.
I could see Sean relax a little with the realization.
The big Irishman looked down at McGee.
"Y'see, now," Sean said in an amused tone, "the Sheriff here is a man famous for his temper. Why, he's killed a horse wi' one punch b'fore!"
The Irish Brigade had gathered, along with the pipe laying crew, and all were taking in the show: the Irish Brigade nodded solemnly, agreeing with Sean's statement, as if it were known fact they'd had for a lifetime.
"He's no' known t' raise his voice but once a year."
Heads nodded; voices agreed: "Yes, that's so," and "Aye, 'tis," had their contagious effect: the pipe laying crew looked uncomfortably at one another and at their foreman.
"He's a man o' his word. He's seen ye've no' installed the valves ye're tasked with. D'ye know attempted murther, witnessed by a lawman, is a hangin' offense?"
"Aye, he's done it before!" the Welsh Irishman offered, to the nodding agreement of his red-shirted fellows.
Sean looked beyond me and I heard the patter of familiar feet on the board walk.
Sean saw Angela and I saw the gleam in his eye.
I didn't know what he had in mind but I knew it would be good.
"He's a man that gi'es orders an' they're followed. Why, he can tell a little child t' get thot dead horse off ye an' she'll do it!"
I looked at Angela.
Angela was standing with her hands on her hips, looking at the black with a disapproving expression.
She opened her mouth to say something and I raised a cautioning finger.
"Young lady," I said, "raise that dead horse and take it home."
All eyes turned toward Angela -- including McGee's -- whereupon I put my finger to my lips and winked.
Angela hopped down to street level and knelt beside the black's neck.
She patted its neck and rubbed its ears and talked to the horsie in her little girl's voice.
The black was conditioned to rouse to Angela's voice: she soon had it heaving to its feet.
Willing hands hoisted her into the saddle.
"Home, horsie," Angela called, her high, piping voice echoing off the opposite store front, and the black turned at her bidding and began trotting slowly down the street and down the alley beside the Jewel.
"Even the animals fear his temper," Sean rumbled. "Now if ye really want t' try the man, why, step up an' have at him, but I warn ye --" Sean thrust a blunt finger at McGee's face -- "I warn ye, ye'll lose an' ye'll lose badly. Matter o' fact" -- he ran an arm the size of an oak branch around the pipe fitter's shoulders and steered him away from the Jewel -- "why don't we take ye t' the undertaker's an' ha'e ye fitted wi' a coffin first?"

Sean and I later shared a companionable beer, laughing with Mr. Baxter, for he'd come to the door of the Jewel and casually polished a beer mug while the show was going on.
The two of them allowed as it was one of the finest knock-down drag-out roll-in-the-street fights they'd never seen, and one of the best bluffs outside a poker championship they'd ever witnessed.
I thanked them for their kindness.
I thanked Sean for his assistance.
My ribs thanked me for not taking hostilities any further than they'd gone.

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