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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 9-28-09


A rolling blue doughnut uncoiled itself across the alley, adding to the haze from several gunshots.
Jacob's ears rang with the confined impact of several shots from his own revolver and a like number from across the way.
Three figures lay dead about thirty feet from him: at his feet, another man, half his head missing, a red stain on the pavement where the absent portion had been irregularly distributed.
Jacob's left arm had been flung out, scooping Annette behind him: now he stood, statue-still, surveying the alley, his cold, pale eyes promising death should any seek to further hostilities.
"Annette," he said, his voice as warm and welcoming as his glacial eyes, "get inside."
"Jacob," she whispered hoarsely, shaken, an arm to the bosom of her torn dress.
"Inside," he said sharply, then turned and looked at her.
Annette was pale but steady: her dead brother's Derringer was in her hand, and her hand was almost steady.
"Annette, I don't know how this will play out. Find one of the ladies with a dressing room, change dresses with her or sew yours up and leave by the front. Go to the hotel. If I don't come and get you in a day's time, go home and tell Pa."
There was a police-whistle from up the alley, running feet, shouts.
"Go!" Jacob whispered, reloading his right-hand Colt and pulling back into the doorway.
Annette disappeared into the stage door.
Jacob pocketed the empties dropped in the reloads, as calm as if he were brushing lint off his hat.
He'd just reholstered and drawn his coat over the revolver when the first uniformed officer came pounding up.
Jacob turned his lapel over to display his deputy's badge but otherwise made no move.
"Muldoon!" the copper gasped, raising a shining little pipe to his lips and shivering the air with another discordant blast. "Sergeant! It's Muldoon!"
Jacob never moved: half-shadowed, he knew there was just the off chance he would not be seen, at least for a few moments.
The stage door opened and another officer came out, pistol in hand.
Jacob seized him by his blue wool coat and threw him into the alley.
"SHERIFF'S OFFICE, DO NOT MOVE!" he shouted in a voice he'd heard his father use, a voice with an edge to it: he'd seen his father's voice cut like a blacksnake whip, and that was the voice he used now. "KEEP YOUR HANDS IN PLAIN VIEW! DO NOTHING UNLESS I TELL YOU TO OR YOU WILL BE SHOT!"
Startled, the two policement looked up at the tall lawman with a six point star on his turned-over lapel and a pair of Colt revolvers in hand.
A beefy Irishman came striding down the alley, swinging a nightstick.
"All right, then, what's this, what's this!" he shouted, frowning at the two policemen backing away from the stage door. "Now what in the name of, hello!"
"Sergeant, I am Deputy Keller from Firelands County, and those men across the way tried to kill us tonight."
"What men? -- oh!" The Sergeant turned, took a look at the carcasses sprawled in the awkward indignity of death.
He poked the nightstick at the dead, then at Jacob.
"All o' them, an' only one o' you?" he demanded.
"Eeyep," Jacob drawled.
The Sergeant squinted, lowered the accusing nightstick.
"Now just where were ye standin' when ye did this thing?"
Jacob looked around, took a half step to his left.
"Right here."
The Sergeant made it his business to know his town, and he knew this alley all too well. It was not at all uncommon for ladies of the evening to ply their trade at the back door of a theatre, even one as grand as the Tabor, claiming if caught that they were "actresses" and their erstwhile clents were "an appreciative audience."
The Sergeant counted the pock marks in the brick behind Jacob, looked at the dead again.
"How many times did ye fire, lad?" he asked, and his voice was not entirely unkind.
The Sergeant looked down at the blue-uniformed corpse, seized its shoulder, hauled it over.
"Muldoon," he said hoarsely, running his hands over the man's coat.
Curious, he turned the bloodied corpse over again.
"Shot in the back," he declared, looking over at the casualties across the way.
He looked up at Jacob.
"Lad, d'ye know wha' ye've done?"
Jacob nodded.
The Sergeant shook his head. "Nah, lad, I doubt if ye do. Those street Apaches yonder" -- the baton thrust against the night air -- "those are some o' the worst scum we've seen i' town. They've been known t' seize a woman -- or a man o' means -- an' handcuff them t' an iron fence until they come up wi' a hefty ransom!"
"That all?"
The Irishman's face darkened in the lamp light. "No, lad, it ain't." He looked down at his fallen brother in arms. "Ye've saved us the price o' a hangin', for they've killed a policeman."
Jacob considered whether to correct the man.
He thought of his father.
He thought of Charlie.
He thought of Judge Hostetler.
Jacob took a deep breath and realized that honesy might put his neck in a noose.
"Sergeant," he said, "I killed yon scoundrel and I'd do it again."
"What?" The Sergeant's head snapped up, his response like the crack of a whip.
"He laid hands on my wife and called her a whore," Jacob said quietly. "No man lays a hand on my wife. He tore the dress off her and allowed to run her in but not until he'd sampled her wares."
"Jaysus, Muldoon," the Sergeant muttered to the deceased, "did ye no' learn from th' last one?"
The Sergeant took a long breath, shook his head.
"Lad, the report will read he was killed by those dead yonder." He pointed with his baton. "Believe it or not ye've solved a problem. Muldoon here" -- he nudged the dead man's ribs with the toe of his brogan -- "was a man I was ready t' fire, an' him ready t' pension out. He'd 'a' lost his pension.
"Lad, hear me." The Sergeant glared at Jacob. "As one lawman t' another, d' ye tell me he had it comin'?"
Jacob's eyes were pale; his Colts were put away, but his coat was yet open, and the Sergeant knew a draw was a fraction of a heartbeat away from the relaxed stance.
"I tell you as a man and as a husband, he had it comin'."
The Sergeant nodded.
"I'll put down that he was killed by those yonder, an' they were put down by yourself. He'll get a hero's funeral and his widow an' orphans will get his pension."
Jacob did not relax. He had learned not to trust reassuring words; his eyes were quietly busy, assessing places that might hide a man with a rifle who was lining up a shot while the Sergeant kept him distracted.
"Jacob?" Annette's voice came from the shadowed doorway.
Annette stepped out, still holding her torn dress.
"Sergeant," she said, her chin up and her voice firm, "what my husband says is true. Your man intended to do me harm and he mishandled me." She allowed the torn material to fall free, but only for a moment, enough to show the damage the man had done.
The Sergeant's eyes widened, and not at the unexpected display of high bosom.
Annette's eye was nearly swollen shut and a trickle of blood had clotted from a cut on her cheekbone where Muldoon had slugged her.

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Linn Keller 9-28-09


The Sergeant called for a carriage: a hack was flagged, Annette and an officer placed aboard and the sergeant instructed the driver to take the lady to a particular address, and tell the Doctor that Sergeant Staves was good for it: the hack driver touched his hat-brim with the handle of his buggy-whip, whistled up the prad and clattered out to the street, and was gone.
Jacob had not moved out of his boot prints.
He knew there were ramifications to shooting a police officer, no matter how justified: this was the City, after all, and what a man knew to be right in his heart was often different here in civilization, where men lived crowded hard against one another, sharing their piques and passions and diseases.
Staves handled the reporters, declaring loudly to them that the street Apaches had killed one but been killed themselves, and that it was unwise to trifle with the law, for the law would not be trifled with!
Jacob noticed with near-amusement the Sergeant had taken Muldoon's pistol and emptied it, declaring loudly that the man would be missed -- that the Force was devastated, shaken to its core by the loss of such a fine warrior as to kill the three that sought to kill him!
Jacob faded back into the shadow, his lapel turned back to true, hiding the badge.
He would not tell a lie, but neither would he step forth and shove his neck into a hemp necktie.
The longer Sergeant Staves worked, the finer the tale became, until this one dead officer, by the time the dead-wagon came and bore his remains to some anonymous slab, he'd taken on more outlaws than Hickock, the Earps and Masterson combined, and made it look easy!
When finally the curious, the morbid, the nosy and the others drifted away, Sergeant Staves ascended the four steps to the platform at the stage door where Jacob stood.
"Will ye come wi' me, then?" he asked, and Jacob recognized a command when he heard it.
They boarded the police-wagon -- "nah, ye're up front, wi' me!" Staves exclaimed with a grin, climbing into the driver's seat: Jacob, having started for the back of the wagon -- perhaps thinking himself prisoner -- stopped, then ascended to the Sergeant's elevated position.
Jacob did not know Denver.
The Sergeant had not said what their destination was, but neither had he disarmed the younger man: they drove without speaking for some time through the gas-lit streets, until they drew up in front of a building.
Jacob recognized the insignia on the front of the building.
He looked at the Sergeant.
This was not a police station.
The Sergeant set the brake; an officer came forward and saluted the Sergeant as the stout Irishman descended.
Jacob could not quite hear what was said, but he felt chilled fingers stroking his spine.
He'd reloaded a sixth round in each revolver and set the firing pin between the cartridge rims: two more shots when he just might need them; he had a hideout revolver, and at the small of his back, the Derringer Charlie had given him. He thought of the knife in his right boot top, and the knife between his shoulder blades, and the sleeve knives.
His smile was quiet, tight.
If they wanted him, he would make them pay dearly.
Very dearly.
The Sergeant came around and took Jacob's upper arm -- not the hard, controlling grip of a lawman escorting a prisoner, but the gentle, persuading grip of an escort with an honored guest.
The heavy doors opened as they approached.
They ascended a wide staircase, their footsteps loud and echoing.
Portraits of honored men looked down on them as they climbed, turned at the landing, climbed again.
The air smelled of tobacco smoke and polish; voices came from within.
Jacob recognized the nature of this structure: puzzled, he looked at the Sergeant.
"Aye, lad, 'tis the Masonic temple," Staves nodded, "but we're no' here as Masons. No, they're kind enou' t' let us use th' place."
He paused before a door with an inset square peep-hole: Staves knocked thrice, paused, then twice, paused again, the once.
The little square door opened, then closed, and the door opened.
Jacob shifted his shoulders, guaranteeing the drape of his coat would not interfere with a draw: he'd looked around, casually but deliberately, as Staves knocked.
Nobody was behind them, beside them; he did not want to be ambushed when his attention was forward.
The door was drawn open.
Staves's hand was light on Jacob's upper arm, and released: they entered a few feet, stopped, and the door was closed behind them.
Charlie MacNeil was grinning at him from across the room: the man had tried hard to keep a solemn look about himself and failed utterly, as had Jacob's father.
Miz Fannie stood beside Charlie, holding a single red rose.
Annette stood beside Fannie, wearing a different gown; a little patch of sticking-plaster hid the cut on her cheek, and Jacob's anger surged and roared and he wanted nothing more than to go back and kill that Muldoon all over again, slowly this time, and with a knife.
He hadn't known Annette had been slugged.

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Linn Keller 9-29-09


Sergeant Staves did not know Jacob personally but he knew lawmen and he knew the indefinable something from the lad was powerful and dangerous.
"Steady, lad," he said quietly. "Wi' me."
They walked diagonally across the room.
Jacob looked boldly about, jaw thrust forward.
Every man there wore a badge on one lapel and a rose on the other, and the air smelled of tobacco and leather, of roses and the occasional trace of spirits, for it was an occasion in which good men and true met, and when such men meet, such men take a sociable drink.
A lawman in the broad alcove on one end of the room stood, a small book in hand.
"Brethren, let us pray," he intoned: every man came to his feet and bowed his head.
The prayer itself was brief, for which Jacob was grateful: he'd endured long, rambling and seemingly pointless prayer in the past and had no use for such.
His own address to the Almighty was generally brief and concise, for Jacob had the firm idea that He Who Made the Heavens and the Earth, He Who set the stars and planets in their stupendous revolutions, probably had important matters to tend, and that he, Jacob, should not waste such an individual's attention, time or effort on the trivial or the unnecessary.
Jacob saw this as a means of displaying his respect for Deity.
The assembled seated themselves, shifting chairs and boot heels, harrumphing and working their coat tails out from under their backsides: here and there a fresh cigar was taken out and lighted, adding its blue fragrance to the hushed atmosphere.
A man Jacob didn't recognize stood behind an ornate podium decorated with several gilt carvings of stone-worker's tools.
"Brethren, we are come here tonight to bring one into our fold, and to recognize another."
He looked to his left, pointed with an open hand.
"Miz Fannie Kikinshoot -- now Mrs. Charlie MacNeil," he said, "and Jacob Keller, son of Linn Keller."
Jacob blinked as applause pattered around the room, reminding him of the clapping of wings, or hail on a roof: it was brief, for the speaker was still speaking.
"You all know Miz Fannie. Often times she used her talents as a performer to mask her purpose as one of us. She served long and honorably behind the badge and is a Law Dawg in her own right. She has proven her effectiveness and her integrity a hundredfold and more."
Heads nodded around the room; there was the occasional muttered affirmation, the quiet-voiced agreement. At one time or another, most of these Western lawmen had made the acquaintance of the charming and deadly Miz Fannie.
"Miz Fannie, this night and before these assembled, the Sacred Christian Order of Law Dawgs thanks you for the excellence of your work, and we respect and admire your having gone south of the Border country to settle a particular matter in a most unmistakable way.
"For those few who haven't heard, Miz Fannie was the target of an abduction. She was to be sold to -- " -- he paused -- "well, you've heard the account already. Let's just say the account has been closed."
There was an extended chuckle; it was indeed well known that Miz Fannie had righted a long-standing wrong, for she was not the only one to be abducted by special order.
Not the only one.
Just the last.
"Brethren, Miz Fannie and Charlie have both retired from Law Dawgging. This does not mean they are no longer one of us, far from it! In pursuing that which is right, each man is a Law Dawg: in preserving honor, each man is a Law Dawg. Not all wear a badge, but all are governed and circumscribed by honor!"
Heads nodded again; muttered agreement rippled around the close-packed room, and Jacob could hear the scattered "Hear, hear!" of gentlemanly but heartfelt agreement.
Miz Fannie's face had colored steadily and to a remarkable degree.
She held the rose to her nose, inhaled, closing her eyes.
The room grew silent.
Miz Fannie opened those startling, shining eyes, and she stepped forward ... one pace, two, and turned slowly, slowly, meeting every eye in the room.
"Gentlemen," Miz Fannie said, her stage-trained voice pitched to carry to the furthest corner, "you do me too much honor, but every word you say is true." She turned quickly and looked squarely at her husband. "What I did was necessary. What I did was right!"
Few eyes missed the tightening of her right hand: not quite a fist, it betrayed the depth of her feeling, and not a man there but understood what it was to have just such a depth of rage, controlled, confined, when presenting in evidence, or elsewhere.
"If I hadn't had this Law Dawg beside me I certainly would not have succeeded."
Miz Fannie glided across the room to Charlie.
She paused in front of the man.
Charlie MacNeil, retired Marshal, scarred veteran of war and conflict, shifted his weight; his ears were a distinct red, moreso as Miz Fannie took his face between her hands and kissed him the way a woman wants to kiss her man.
Charlie was not one to mince words.
He ran his arms around his wife and made his own reply, and in the same concise dialect.
Dawg, on the other hand, drifted out from between a couple sets of legs, looked casually at the pair, gave a great yawn and laid down, closing his eyes.
Miz Fannie drew back a few inches, eyes half closed, still feeling Charlie's lips on hers.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Charlie wasn't quite so discreet.
"I like the way you talk," he declared, and there wasn't a man there that didn't find himself laughing, and most heartily indeed!
The presiding officer, the man with an Arizona Ranger's insignia on his lapel, wiped the corners of his eyes and picked up the gavel.
Laughter kind of coasted to a stop.
The Arizona Ranger didn't have to smack the gavel; the assembled had quieted sufficiently.
"May I present Jacob Keller."
Jacob looked up at the speaker, then over to his father and Charlie.
Linn gave him a reassuring wink.
"Deputy Keller has proven time and time and time again his own effectiveness as a Law Dawg. His integrity has been proven, in recent memory, by an offered bribe of ten thousand dollars."
Several men leaned forward in their chairs, interested.
Every man has his price and ten thousand dollars was a fortune.
"What did he say?" a Kansas City constable called from a back corner.
The Arizona Ranger laughed, showing a missing tooth under his broad, generous handlebar.
"He took the money from the man's hand and dropped it in a rain barrel, then he took the man by the neck tie and crotch and dunked him in after it!"
The laughter this time was unrestrained.
Every lawman knew what it was to want, to want to the very depths and recesses of his eternal soul, to drive a fist through the face of a loudmouth or an obnoxious sort, or kick a troublemaker's behind hard enough to bring his boot toe out the fellow's eyeballs: that a lawman had done this struck a most responsive chord, and all present delighted in the mental image of a townie in a fancy suit, head down in a rain barrel, kicking and thrashing and trying to get out.
"Jacob is known most especially for three things.
"First, he is fast and deadly with a variety of working tools.
"Second, he is absolutely, unfailingly fair with everyone he meets -- great or small, high or low, royal or common.
"Thirdly and most important of all" -- the Arizona Ranger paused, one finger upraised -- "he is honest."
"I can vouch for that," Sergeant Staves declared. "This night did he kill a man who was under sentence o' death, I'm ashamed t' say one of my own men." Muldoon turned, his face dark with embarrassment. "The fellow's name was Muldoon. He'd murthered ten ladies o' the evenin' an' thought Deputy Keller's wife was another t' take."
Annette turned her face away, biting her bottom lip.
"Deputy Keller saw the man seize his wife's dress an' tear it from collar t' belt as th' man declared he'd sample her wares before he ran her in."
The mutter Jacob heard brought a responding dark rage in his own soul.
A man's family was sacred, a man's wife was his queen, and not a man there would consider such an insult go unanswered.
"A gang of street thugs across th' way thought Jacob's shot was directed a' them, so they fired upon him. Jacob dropped each wi' one shot.
"When we arrived, Jacob could ha' said Muldoon was dropped by one o' them. I' fact they put a bullet int' Muldoon's back but likely he was already dead.
"Jacob did na' hide behind a lie. He told me wha' happened an' damn the consequences.
"Me brithers, this is th' kind o' integrity we want i' amongst us!"
The applause now was loud, almost harsh: cigars were thrust between teeth and clenched as callused palms pounded together in response.
The Arizona Ranger was obliged to bang his gavel several times before things calmed down enough for his words to be heard again.
Jacob Keller."
Jacob turned and faced the speaker.
"The Sacred Christian Order of Law Dogs offers you a place among us. What say you?"
It was Jacob's turn to stop, and turn, and meet every eye.
Jacob had no stage experience but he learned fast, and he was beginning to appreciate the value of the dramatic.
He took his time, turning, looking; finally he looked at the Arizona Ranger.
"I say yes."
There was utter, complete silence.
Linn and Charlie stepped forward.
Jacob turned to face them.
Miz Fannie glided up beside her husband, Annette beside her father in law.
"The rose," Linn said, indicating the flower held so delicately by Miz Fannie's strong, graceful fingers, "is the insignia of our Order. When displayed near the ceiling" -- he turned and pointed, and Jacob's eye followed: there above the central altar was a rose, hanging from a single thread -- "this indicates all that transpires is sub rosa, occurring under the Rose, and is to be held secret."
Linn paused, pleasure crinkling the corners of his eyes.
"When given, it indicates a matter of the Society. It has been used as our insignia, our calling card: we are a Star Court, and we bring justice when the wrong is beyond reach of our justice system."
Jacob nodded, once, slowly.
"It is perhaps more importantly a society for the exchange of information." The Sheriff's arm made a broad sweep, taking in every man in the room. "We here talk to one another -- freely and unreservedly, in a manner bereft of politics, petty piques or quarrels. In such a way do we exchange matters important to our profession: who a criminal is, what the criminial looks like, their pattern, their habits, their known associates. Information I have provided allowed Sam yonder" -- the Sheriff pointed, a man waved back -- "to capture two bank robbers just last week. Pete, back in the back --" again the Sheriff pointed, and Pete raised a hat in reply -- "put me wise to a fellow who planned to rob the return train of its payroll.
"We here pledge our honor and our integrity, for the benefit of all."
Miz Fannie reached in front of the two lawmen and handed the rose to Annette.
Annette took a step, another, and presented the rose to her husband.
Annette's mouth came open, then closed; she handed the rose to Jacob, who took it carefully, then ran his arm around Annette's shoulders and drew her to him.
Annette buried her face in Jacob's shirt front and whispered something and Jacob put his other arm around her, and leaned his head back, and started to laugh.
His laugh was open and honest and he shook his head, taking a deep breath.
"Brethren," he declared, "my wife just apologized because she couldn't talk!"
Jacob's laugh was contagious; there was a growing chuckle, and Jacob contined:
"This from the woman who just stood on stage in front of a packed house, talking to who knows how many hundred folk as if she were having a conversation with an old friend!"
"That's Duzy? Duzy Wales?" a voice called, puzzled.
Jacob grinned at the voice. "That's the stage name she got stuck with. Some promoter figured Annette wasn't fancy enough."
"I was there!" the voice called, louder now: "Py Gott now I could see it as she said it!"
A high percentage of heads in the room nodded and Jacob had the suspicion that this had been planned for some time.
He didn't think his father would salt the audience with a favorably biased crowd, but if the crowd were in town and Annette were the featured entertainment, why, she'd just had her first favorably critical review!
Annette sniffed, drew a lacy hankie from her sleeve and dabbed at her nose.
"You must think me a terribly weak woman," she choked.
"I think you are wonderful," Jacob whispered.
Annette drew back, biting her lip and pressing the kerchief to her eyes, wishing she could turn invisible and grateful for the visual camouflage of her father in law's stepping forth.
"Jacob," he declared, "I have the pleasure of presenting you my right hand, and with it the device and insignia of this honorable Order." His grip was firm as was his son's return grip, and Jacob felt the coin in his palm.
"On one side you have our ancient insignia: on the other, the Rose.
"My son," he said, eyes shining with pride, "welcome to the Order!"

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Linn Keller 9-30-09


Young Joseph was oblivious to the eyes.
Fed, clean, freshly powdered and diapered and placed in an ornately over-arched baby bed, he'd wiggled a little, given a truly huge, huge yawn and rolled up on his left side a little, waving tiny pink fists for a few seconds before plunging into instant, profound sleep.
Several pairs of eyes regarded him with affection: it was the delight of the Ladies' Tea Society to assemble and discuss matters of womanly interest; it was the thrill of the girls to be "seen but not heard" at such times, observing the manners, the interaction, the turns of conversation.
Mr. Baxter reserved the back room for the ladies on their appointed meeting days; the kitchen had tea in quantity and three matched china teapots, so it appeared as if the teapot were never empty: teacups were filled, the teapot placed on its pad in the center of the table; when its level dropped, a silent Morning Star would appear from nowhere, execute some sleight-of-hand and replace the near-empty with a near-full.
No one could quite figure how she did it, but all agreed she was very good at it.
The conversation was energetically discussing the new gas lights going up along the street, and how the town was growing, and how well Caleb was doing as Mayor: Tillie mentioned the recent overhaul of the Lady Esther locomotive back East, at the Baldwin factory; not knowing its mechanical particulars, she instead waxed delighted at the crossed roses under her number on the side of the cab, and the perfectly-executed portrait in a gilt oval, between the roses.
Esther blushed a little. The portrait had been her husband's idea, an anniversary surprise; it was overlaid with heavy glass and carefully sealed against the weather, but she held private reservations that it might fade from sun ... but she was still pleased ... very pleased.
Sarah had said little during the ladies' tea. In fact, she appeared disappointed; her eyes were downcast and she looked to be almost pouting, which did nothing to enhance her natural beauty.
Angela, on the other hand, regarded the world with big and curious eyes, giving the immediate impression that she was absolutely fascinated with whatever was being spoken.
Esther made a mental note of this, and considered that in a very few years, those big attentive eyes would have the attention of every marriageable man in the Territory!
Speculation turned to the Denver Expedition: a surprising number of folk had gone to see Annette perform, though all were agreed to visit surreptitiously, and to not be seen: they all wished to hear the educated young woman's words, most had some near-morbid dread of how she would describe their little town to these city folk: it was mostly the men who'd taken the steam-train to the city.
A shadow passed over Esther's face as Bonnie described the Tabor, its fine appointments, its lush and comfortable velvet seats, the grand stage: how it was so well constructed that a speaker need not raise the voice much at all to be heard in the far row, or any balcony -- provided the audience was quiet, of course!
Daisy's hand was light and cool on Esther's arm, between the lace-trimmed sleeve of her electric-blue gown and the white of her delicate glove.
"Esther, what troubles ye?" she whispered, her accent plain even in the sotto voce.
Esther's green eyes met Daisy's and she shivered a little.
"Ye're no' wi' child," Daisy whispered, stopping barely in time to keep from adding, "Not yet!"
Esther was the very picture of ladylike reserve; her back was straight, her face calm, all but her troubled eyes.
Daisy, on the other hand, wore her emotions on her skin: her face tightened as did her fingers, and her fair Celtic features started to line with suppressed anger.
"Esther, who's hurt?" Daisy demanded.
Esther's eyes were looking at something far beyond the opposite wall.
There was a clear, distinct hic! from across the room, and Esther stood, Daisy standing with her.
The two mothers regarded the little boy-child, awake now, looking around in surprise at that sudden unexpected noise, wondering what in the world it was.

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Linn Keller 9-30-09


Annette lay still, unmoving, staring at the ornately-decorated plaster ceiling. She'd marveled at the craftsmanship when they arrived; the porter delighted in telling them this was the same plaster-work as was done in the Old Colonial Inn in Washington, back in Guernsey County: so impressed were guests at that inn, that the artist was commissioned to do the plaster work in the White House, in a more famous city of the same name.
Now, though, now Annette lay on her back, her body stiff, fists tight around handsful of bedcovers.
Jacob was undressing for bed.
As was his habit, he'd blown out the lamp before removing his clothes; there was enough light from the street for Annette to see the ruinous crisscross of scars on her husband's back.
She never asked him about them, and he never said where, or how; she knew if she touched him unexpectedly, he flinched, right before taking her in his arms and whispering endearments.
Now, though, she lay stiff, almost at attention, the night replaying itself again and again and again in her mind ...
She'd been perfectly comfortable on the stage: well, mostly so, for the spotlight was brilliant, blinding, and it followed her like an accusing finger, pinning her to the boards like a butterfly to a display-board.
She remembered the slight hiss of the lime lights, the footlights that burned lime, producing a brilliant white light, reflected onto her: she'd walked out onto the stage, a little nervous, yes, but smiling just a bit.
Her brother had teased her when she played the grand organ, the pipe organ that gleamed and shone in the subdued light of the great church; she'd chosen to reject his teasing and revel in the feeling that these people are here for ME! -- selfish, yes, self-centered, most assuredly ... but delicious, delicious!
"I'm only the librarian," she began, her voice strong in the hush: "I arrange books on the shelves, I scold little boys who don't bring their books back on time, and sometimes boys who aren't so little any more."
There was a light ripple of laughter.
"One time I scolded an Irish giant who stood head and shoulders taller than me, and he hung his head and said 'Yes, ma'am,'" and Annette's posture slumped, her head forward, her shoulders rounded, and the audience laughed a little more.
"But my library looks out on the main street, and I see wonderful things!
"My room is above the library. I have a little alcove, almost a round, enclosed balcony, and it is my favorite place, for I can see up the steet" -- she looked to her left, pointing into the distance -- "and I can see down the street" -- she turned the other way, pointed the other way.
"One afternoon I thought a dam had burst and a great tide of muddy water was rolling into town, until I realized it was a herd of cattle!"
Annette stopped dead, hands in front of her, emphasizing the word: she painted a picture of the stampede, with cattle running up the steps onto the boardwalk, until the stairs collapsed and a steer hung awkwardly for a moment before falling back to the street and scrambling to its feet.
Her words were vivid enough the audience could feel the ground shiver underfoot, they could smell sweaty hides and dust and hear the bawl of bovine throats.
"But it's a quiet little town where nothing ever happens."
Annette folded her hands in front of her, walking meditatively across the stage.
"The men there are strong and honorable, the kind of men a woman wants to have looking at her." Her chin came up, a challenge: "I am married to such a man, and he is very much is father's son."
Annette cupped one elbow in the opposite hand, tapping her cheek meditatively with a delicate forefinger. "As I said, Firelands is a quiet little town where nothing ever happens. Why, I was in the Silver Jewel -- the Jewel is our hotel, and the finest restaurant in that part of the State --"
"How much did they pay you to say that?" a heckling voice called from the darkness.
"Fourteen dollars and forty-nine cents, two meals and a drink!" Annette riposted, to the delight of the audience.
"But as I said, I was in" -- she paused, leaned forward with her hands on her knees -- "The Silver Jewel, for fourteen dollars and forty-nine cents more!" -- again general chuckling -- "when a miner from the neighboring community of Cripple Creek decided he was well oiled enough to sample the other wares."
Annette batted her eyelashes and pouted.
"I was the other wares."
More chuckling.
"He decided he would start with a swat across the fanny, and he did" -- she smacked her own backside, briskly, the sound of the slap loud and crisp -- "but he did not know my father in law was standing beside him."
General groans were heard.
"My father, you see, is a gentleman: he is tall and slender with an iron grey mustache, the most delightful laugh and the palest blue eyes."
"The miner found himself swinging through the air from two callused hands, one about his collar and one at the back of his belt, and a cheerful voice calling, "Open the door!" -- Annette mimicked something in two hands, swinging it as if ready to toss it through a window -- "he took three steps -- one, two, three --" she strode three quick steps, bringing the imaginary burden back -- "Close the door, BASH!"
Her narratively pantomined description of cheerfully throwing a drunk headfirst into the quickly closed door was met with an eruption of mirth from the audience.
Annette bent as if taking hold of the something that had just hit the invisible door and slid to the floor: she dragged it back a little distance, made as if she were picking it up again in the same manner, bounced it once or twice, then again -- "Open the door! -- one, two, three, CLOSE THE DOOR!"
Again the invisible miscreant was thrown through the air and came to an abrupt stop by the unseen portal.
Once more Annette bent and dragged the non-existent drunk back to center stage. She stopped and commented, "He's heavier than he looks!" to another wave of laughter.
Once more she picked up the burden, "Open the door! One, two, three, TOSS!" This time she shaded her eyes with her palm, nodding her head as if watching the miscreant skidding nose-first across the dirt-packed street.
Dusting her hands together, she shook her head almost sadly.
"No, nothing ever goes on in Firelands. It's such a quiet an boring place --"
Putting her hands on her hips, she shook her finger toward the ceiling.
"Timmy, you get out of that tree right this instant!" in the sharp and scolding tone of an angry mother.
"Timmy," she explained, "is the little boy in our school who delights in climbing. The water tower, trees, flagpole, it doesn't matter, and --"
Annette looked up, cupping a hand behind her ear.
"What?" -- she looked at the audience, confused, looked up again.
"Your cat?"
More laughter.
"Timmy, the cat can take care of itself! You come down here right now!"
Her eyes followed the progress of a barefoot little boy down the non-existent tree and Annette admonished, "You get back into that schoolroom, young man! Your teacher will be unhappy if you miss your lessons again!"
Annette tapped her foot impatiently, looking up at the imaginary cat.
"Well, we can't leave it up there, now, can we?" she asked the audience.
"NO!" a half-dozen voices called back.
Annette tapped her fingers against her mouth.
"I suppose I could get a rifle and shoot it out."
She tapped her foot, tapped her fingers.
"I have it!" she declared. "I shall summon" -- she paused for dramatic effect -- "The Irish Brigade!"
"Now you have to understad," she explained, "the Irish Brigade are our fireman. We have the German Irishman, the Welsh Irishman, the English Irishman -- God will forgive him for that" -- more laughter -- "we have the New York Irishman, and we have Sean, who is Irish!"
There were loud cheers, yells and whistles, apparently from a concentrated area.
Annette shaded her eyes, peered out into the darkness.
"Do we have some firemen here?"
"We ha'e th' finest firemen this side o' the Pacific!" came the shouted reply.
Annette fluttered her kerchief at them. "God bless you for that! Only a man worthy of the name will wade into the Devil's parlor and smack him in the chops!"
More whistles, more commotion: Annette waited a few seconds to let it die before continuing.
"We brought up the Irish Brigade!" she declared. "Sean is a Celtic giant, eight feet tall and a grand mustache! He drives their steam wagon standing, reins in one hand and a blacksnake whip in the other!" At her words, her pose, an Ahrens engine and three mares galloped through the collective imaginations. "His men are hanging onto the engine and the ladder wagon, dust is flying, dogs and little boys are yelling after them! They draw up beside the schoolhouse and knock the boards off the well so they can feed the machine!"
Weathered boards flew clattering through the sunlight and a spiral-wrapped suction line was dunked into the glistening reflection below.
"The engineer has his steam up and the pump begins to clatter, the flywheel spinning like a lunatic's pinwheel, smoke and heat rolling out of the boiler's brass throat! Hose is pulled, nozzle connected, the Welsh Irishman and the New York Irishman brace themselves and the engineer opens the valve!
"The hose jumps and twists like a great snake! Water hisses from the nozzle, arcs in a great stream against the deep blue of a cloudless mountain sky!
The cat flies twenty feet in the air, sails in a graceful arc for a distance and lands on its feet!
"The Irish chieftain shouts 'Shut 'er down, lads, we've done it!' and the schoolmarm is standing on the top of the schoolhouse steps, her children clustered around her, peering around her skirts with huge eyes, and the schoolmarm is trying to say something."
Annette drops her arms to her sides and assumes a blank look, opening and closing her mouth, raising one pointing finger and working her jaw, and finally blurts in an affected tone, "I didn't mean -- I thought -- a ladder --"
At this point the audience is in full laughter.
Laughter is contagious.
Annette begins to laugh as well, and dabs at her eyes with the lacy hankie she'd used earlier.
For the rest of the evening the tension was gone.
Jacob, in the wings, marvelled at his wife, laughing quietly and nodding occasionally.

Now, back in their hotel, Jacob had changed into his nightshirt, and had lain down with his wife.
As they always did, they held hands, at least until Jacob rolled over and pulled Annette into him.
Annette's free arm went around Jacob.
He felt her trembling.
"Jacob, they want me four more nights."
Jacob's arm was strong and reassuring.
"I know."
"Jacob, those girls backstage told me to leave through the stage door. They said I was a performer now and I should use a performer's exit."
Jacob's jaw eased forward.
"We will speak of this tomorrow," he said quietly.
There was a long silence.
"I was so scared!"
Jacob rolled over on his back, bringing his wife with him, and ran his other arm around her.
"You're safe now," he whispered as Annette clutched the sleeves of Jacob's nightshirt.
Jacob held his wife as her reseves failed, as her dam broke, as she gave womanly vent to all the powerful and conflicted feelings of the evening.
Jacob did what a wise man does in such times.
He held his wife, and kept her safe.

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Linn Keller 10-3-09


If Annette had been shaken by the previous night's excitement, it didn't show.
The curtain fluttered, hesitated, then drew open with a fluorish, to the applause of the packed house.
The previous evening the stage had been bare, empty save for one young woman, in a fashionable gown; the tree, the street, all she brought to the audience, she spun from her words, her gestures and the empty air.
Tonight she brought props.
The curtains opened to reveal a large, ornate desk, such as would be found in a fine library: indeed, with books neatly stacked and ranked on its surface, a lamp adding its green-shaded glow, and a large sign -- about a foot tall and as wide as the desk, with the words LIBRARIAN boldly painted across its surface -- left no doubt as to what it was.
Annette, primly seated behind the desk, had her spectacles slid down to the end of her nose: she was reading the paper, daintily regarding the newsprint, giving no indication the audience even existed.
Annette turned the page, frowning a bit.
She looked at the audience, the diapproving look of a librarian, over top her round spectacles: "The news does not look very good today," she said in a librarian's voice.
Turning back to the paper, she turned it upside down and regarded it solemnly.
After several long moments and a couple ripples of laughter from the assembled, she shook her head, pressed her lips together and folded the paper carefully.
"It doesn't look any better upside down, either."
She stood, folding her hands, the very image of propriety: butter would not melt in her hands, let alone her mouth, but then butter wasn't what she was full of that evening.
"You know, being librarian in Firelands is quite nice," she said, pacing again: she'd paced the previous night, while spinning her magic, and the audience leaned collectively forward again, anticipating more of the same.
"Firelands is really a quiet and boring little town. Nothing ever happens there."
There were more chuckles; elbows nudged neighbors' ribs in anticipation.
Annette stopped and adjusted her spectacles.
"Well, there was the time some fellow tried to rob our bank."
"Was?" a voice called from the audience.
"You've never been to our bank," Annette riposed, glaring over her spectacles, and dusted her hands briskly together. "Let me tell you about our bank.
"First of all, it looks very much like a bank." She picked up a book, leafed idly through it. "It has counters, it has the tellers' windows, it has chairs, and in back it has a vault that you could not blow up with a bundle of 60% DuPont dynamite." She looked up from the book. "They tried, and we had to remodel the lobby afterward."
More laughter.
"No, this fellow comes in with a bandanna across his face and greed in his heart and he sticks a gun through the bars of the teller's window and yells" -- she thrust a finger toward the opposite end of the stage -- "GIVE ME YOUR MONEY!"
Annette turned, her forearms level and wrists turned up, the very image of a prim and feminine bank teller.
"Yes, sir," she said sweetly, "are you one of our regular customers?"
She turned, smiling at the audience, waiting for the laughter to subside a little and facing the opposite direction again, finger thrust aggressively toward an imaginary bank teller: "NO, I'M NOT A -- WHAT IS THIS? GIMME YOUR MONEY!"
Again she spun, becoming the teller once more.
"I'm sorry, sir, we don't accept robberies by any but our customers. Would you like to open an account?" Her smile, the batting eyes, the tilt of her head, all added to the general mirth from beyond the footlights.
Again the spin, again the change in personality: "NO, I DON'T WANT TO OPEN AN ACCOUNT! I WANT YOUR MONEY OR I'LL BLOW YOUR HEAD OFF!"
Annette swept over to her desk, picked up a broom.
"Now the robber did not know he was facing the bank president's daughter, and he did not know the bank president was coming out a side door into the lobby." She hefted the broom, spun it like a baton, caught it at port arms and advanced aggressively. "The bank's owner had a shotgun, you see. It wasn't quite this long --" she brought her knee up and the broom handle down, snapping it neatly where she'd had the janitor weaken it with a saw-cut backstage -- "there, that's about right. " She shouldered the broom twice, sighting along its length. "Yes, that's it.
"The Sheriff was riding past when he heard two gunshots and the sound of a body hitting the floor.
"He came into the bank to find a man on the floor, the bank president running about the lobby with her hair on fire, and the teller shouting, "Mother, stop! Mother, stop!"
"You see" -- she raised her hands -- "you see, the bank manager knocked the robber's pistol up with the shotgun barrel" -- she demonstrated with a quick upward sweep -- "she introduced the gun barrel to the bridge of his nose" -- again a fast, vicious chop -- "and when he hit the floor she was on top of him, doing her best to drive his head thorugh the boards with the butt of the gun!"
Annette pounded enthusiastically at the stage with the broom, demonstrating the technique, then she paused.
"As you can see, the shotgun is rather short, and at one point, the hammers having been cocked, one of them let go."
Annette threw her head back, tossed the broom-gun to the side, and began swatting at her head.
"The blast set the bank president's hair afire, and she began running around the room, swatting at her hair and screaming!
"So the Sheriff" -- here she stopped, pantomining a door opening -- "the Sheriff, being a gentleman, removed his coat and threw it over the bank president's head.
"The bank president, not realizing this was an attempt to extinguish her hair, thought she was again under attack, and managed to kick the Sheriff twice in the shins before she realized her error.
"The Sheriff hopped back on one leg, holding the other, fell over a chair, the bank's manager resumed her screaming orbit of the lobby, the man on the floor is begging the Sheriff to take him to jail where he'll be safe, and finally when the Sheriff was able to snatch his coat off the woman's head --"
Annette's rapid delivery, her gestures, her changes in voice to match the character under description, had the audience in stitches by this time.
"And the Sheriff" -- Annette was obliged to wait for laughter and then applause to subside before continuing -- "and the Sheriff put his coat back on, complete with a big scorch mark all out the back, picked up the robber by the belt and packed him to the hoosegow like a piece of luggage!" Annette's strut across the stage while carrying an imaginary burden at arm's length brought more sounds of merriment from the assembled, and an extended applause.
She picked up the broom, restored it to some hidden holder behind the desk, and sighed.
"But I'm afraid nothing much ever happens in Firelands."
She drew the chair out, seated herself and unfolded the newspaper again.
Shaking the pages to elicit a sharp snap, she frowned at the newsprint.
She lowered the paper, crumpling it with a sharp crackle.
"There is the time --"
Annette hesitated, tapping her cheek with one finger.
"There is the time some fellow challenged the Sheriff to a knife fight, so the Sheriff said he accepted if it were on horseback, and when the challenger went for a gun instead of a knife, the Sheriff produced a cavalry saber and --"
Annette stopped, waved a dismissive hand.
"But that's so uninteresting.
"Nothing much ever happens in Firelands."

An hour and two curtain calls later, Jacob strode out on stage with a bunch of roses and a Winchester rifle.
He presented Annette with the roses, ran his arm around her waist and kissed her soundly, then he raised his hat to the audience, not so much as a salute as a means of hushing their wild and appreciative applause.
"My friends," he called, pitching his voice to be heard, "my friends --"
He was obliged to wait for some little time before the delighted pounding of palms subsided enough for him to be heard.
"My friends, all that my wife says is true. I have seen it, or at least most of it.
"I did not see the bank's owner hair on fire, though I did wonder why she wore hats all of a sudden, and I did find out it was the hair tonic she'd applied to hide her grey that caused the conflagration."
Jacob grinned, ears reddening, at the general laughter.
"The hour grows late, and we thank you for your kind attention, but I would like to have dinner with my wife before we retire. With your permission I shall do that now."
The audience gave full and happy vent to its approbation, and Annette left the stage on her husband's arm, beaming with delight.
A woman loves getting flowers at any time.
A woman absolutely adores getting flowers where other people notice it.
A woman whose husband come on stage, before a packed house, gives her a big bunch of the choicest red roses and runs his arm around her waist -- well, Annette was a woman, and she was grateful for her husband's arm, for as giddy as she felt, she might just float off into the night, and soar as far as the moon itself!

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Linn Keller 10-4-09


"Daddeee!" Angela's delighted voice soared over the depot platform as she scampered loudly across the smooth boards, leaping off the platform's edge into the Sheriff's arms.
The Sheriff was obliged to drop his grip and a package to catch his onrushing daughter: he fell back a step, turning quickly to absorb the running momentum of a happy little girl, spinning around and corkscrewing down to one knee, laughing.
Angela's head was back, her white teeth flashing, eyes bright with delight at seeing her Daddy again: as Esther beamed from the platform above, she froze the moment in her memory, and wished for a Daguerrotype of this picture.
There was a muffled yip and Angela's brows puzzled together.
The Sheriff took his daughter's head between his hands and kissed her forehead. "Princess, I missed you!" he declared, squeezing her shoulders between his big hands.
"I missed you too, Daddy!" Angela piped, blinking. "I couldn't sleep aaaaallll night!"
Her statement, given with a child's wide-eyed innocence, carried all the solemn assurance of a sage affirming that the sun would, in fact, rise again in the east.
Esther smiled, holding her counsel.
Angela had indeed been sleepless.
She'd tucked their daughter into bed and kissed her forehead, and Angela had asked her, "Mommy, when is Daddy coming home?" and Esther caressed the little girl's cheek and whispered, "Soon, sweetest. Very soon."
"Okay," Angela said, and rolled up on her side.
She had indeed been sleepless ... but only for the length of time it took Esther to get to the bedroom door.
She'd looked back and Angela was asleep already, the deep plunge into an innocent child's slumber.
"I see," the Sheriff replied to his daughter's nodding statement. "I suppose I should give you this, then."
He ran a hand into his coat pocket and drew out a wiggling, grunting pup with a red ribbon around its neck.
"I got you a bup in Denver," he explained, and Angela seized the bup into her bosom like she used to do Bup, when Bup was but a wee thing, and the little Bup licked her cheek, and Angela giggled.
"Denver Bup," she declared, turning and holding the brown-and-white handful of wiggle and yip for her Mommy to see. "Look, Mommy! I gotta Denver Bup!"

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Charlie MacNeil 10-4-09


Charlie and Fannie stood back on the deck of the passenger car away from the enthusiastic homecoming greeting taking place on the platform. They both smiled widely at the tinkling of gilded bells ringing in Angela's laugh, and Charlie felt his eyes water just slightly (dang cinders) at the words, "I gotta Denver Bup!"

Charlie felt a twinge deep in his heart at the thought that there'd be no one left to remember him, once he'd run out his race on earth, the way Linn would be remembered. A long life of upholding the law left a man with a feeling of having done his part to make one small piece of the world better for the innocent and the weak; it did little to enhance one's own legacy to that same world, and there was a constant, niggling feeling of ache remaining. "You're too old, my friend," the ex-marshall thought to himself. "You're not as old as Linn!" another voice insisted inside his head. He looked at Fannie, whose eyes were on the tableau before them.

"Think we oughta see about getting one of those critters ourselves?" he asked lightly, soto voce, so as not to disturb the scene.

Fannie turned those amazing eyes on him. "What, a "Denver Bup"?" she asked mischievously, her voice equally as quiet. "Or the other 'critter'?"

"The other one," he answered solemnly, but with a mischievous twinkle of his own.

"Think you can handle having someone else in the house?"

He paused. "I honestly don't know," he said softly. "But I think I'd be willing to find out." He stopped, looked at Linn and his daughter, and went on with a smile, "Maybe we could borrow one for a few days and see."

Fannie just shook her head, then stepped out on the depot platform. Angela saw her and bailed off her daddy's knee to run to her adopted aunt. "Aunt Fannie! Daddy brought me a Denver Bup!" she exclaimed, holding up the wriggling bundle. "See?"

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Linn Keller 10-5-09


"Mrs. Keller?"
The Sheriff looked sidelong at his wife and the sleeping infant she held.
"Yes, Mr. Keller?"
The carriage rattled a little; the mare's hooves were loud on the hard packed main street.
"What have you been feedin' that lad? He's grown!"
"Only the best," Esther murmured, glancing back at Angela and her new Bup.
"Oh, I figured that."
Esther gave her husband a knowing look. "Do I swat you now or later?" she teased.
"Later, my love," the Sheriff said quietly, his double meaning a promise.
Esther laughed and leaned against her husband, patting his forearm with a gloved hand.
"I'm glad you're home," she sighed.
"I'm glad I'm home too," the Sheriff rumbled, switching the reins into his left hand and running his right arm around his wife.
Angela, busy petting the yawning Bup, giggled as the little Beagle dog dropped his jaw on her shoe and began to snore a delicate little puppy sized snore.
"You would be proud of Annette," the Sheriff continued.
"And Jacob?"
Esther's question was perhaps a bit too quick.
"Jacob did well also."
"He's not --" Esther hesitated. "Nothing ... unusual happened, did it?"
The Sheriff's hesitation was reply enough.
Worried now, Esther looked up into her husband's face.
"He's not hurt."
"But something happened," Esther persisted.
"Yep." The Sheriff released Esther's waist to wave at Sean, as they passed the new brick fire house.
The Sheriff gave his wife an innocent look. "Well?" he echoed. "What well?"
Esther drew back a little, looking at her husband out from under her auburn Wales eyebrows, her red-headed Wales temper starting to warm up. Her voice was just a bit sharper -- not enough to draw attention, her voice was not raised, but it was taking an edge, like steel stroked a few times against a hone.
"This will take some time," the Sheriff said, "and I'm hungry. How's your appetite?"
Esther raised one properly-gloved hand and dropped it in her lap, exasperated.
"Men!" she declared. "Mother was right!"
"Of course Mother was right," the Sheriff replied without hesitation. "Mothers are right on more things than we realize. Mine was." He smiled at his wife. "Tell me how your mother was right."
Esther shook her head. "Mother Wales once told me men are all alike," she said, wagging her head wisely: "they are all mouth and hands, they have only one thing on their mind!"
Her eyes fairly snapped as she glared at her husband.
"And what would that be, my dear?" the Sheriff asked calmly.
Esther's free hand was knuckled against her hip, at least until she shook her finger at her husband. "I asked you about our son and you said something happened, and now you want to go eat! Mother was right! You men are all mouth and hands! The only thing you think about is FOOD!"
Angela, preoccupied with watching the snoozing Denver Bup, caught an important word in the conversation and pulled herself up by seizing the back of the front seat. "Are we gonna eat?" she asked hopefully. "I'm hungry!"

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Mr. Box 10-5-09


"Good afternoon, Sheriff, Miss Esther, and how are you, Angela?"
"I got a Denver Bup, Mr Baxter!"
"A Denver Bup? What's that?"
"You know.... A bup from Denver!" "Show him, Daddy!"
"Whatever do you mean, Angela?"
"In your pocket, Daddy!"
"Oh! This little thing."
"Well, I've never seen a Denver Bup before. They look different than bups around here! He'd better stay away from Sarah's pony! He'd only make one bite!"
"He bit me the first day! And it hurt! He's not going to bite Denver Bup! He's a bad pony!"
"Yep, he's going to be a tough one to handle! Why don't you have Sarah come see me when she can."

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Linn Keller 10-6-09


Caleb Rosenthal walked quietly through the grass toward a little brushy screen.
Sarah, behind him a few feet, stepped carefully where he did, taking great pains to be quiet.
Twain Dawg ghosted through the grasses, quartering back and forth, pink tongue hanging out. Now and then he stopped and sniffed the air, or put his nose to the ground to puzzle something out of the earth.
Twain Dawg's flowing gallop froze like ink on ice: the flesh was wrinkled up between his ears, he was looking fixedly at something: Caleb brought the twin hammers back to full cock.
Sarah could hear the crisp metallic click, click as the percussion hammers came to full stand.
"Gittit," Caleb whispered hoarsely, and Twain Dawg lunged.
Sarah's hands flew to her mouth, excited as birds fairly exploded out of the brush: Twain Dawg thrust himself after them, teeth bared, snapping at the confusion of the covey's sudden takeoff: he came to earth with a mouthful of feathers and a puzzled look, at least until Caleb's shotgun went BOOOOM, BOOOOOM, and three birds folded and fell.
"Fetch 'em, Twain Dawg!" Caleb called. "Fetch!"
Twain Dawg bounced through the grass, then cast about, dipped his head: he came up with a mouthful of brown-colored bird, trotted proudly past Caleb's extended hand and dropped it at Sarah's feet, plopping his square, solid bottom down and begging to be petted.
"Good boooy," Sarah praised him, rubbing his ears with both hands. "Go fetch! Two more!"
Twain Dawg probably could not count. Even if he could, "two more" probably wasn't in his vocabulary, but he knew this was a delightful game: he brought a fresh kill to his Mistress and he got petted and praised!
Sure enough, Twain Dawg found a second bird, and the third near to it: he managed to get both of them in his sizable mouth and brought them again to Sarah.
Caleb shoved his hat back and scratched his head.
"I shoot the birds and he gives them to you?" he muttered. "Oh, well, he found 'em anyway!"
Sarah held up one bird, then another, eyes shining. "Papa, look at them! They will smell so good on the table tonight!"
"Right you are!" Caleb half-cocked the hammers and flicked off the remnants of the spent caps: blowing a breath through each of the barrels, he poured a measured charge of powder down each, then thrust wadding in and withdrew the rammer. "Have you eaten these before?"
"Oh, yes! Aunt Esther and I have taken them --"
Sarah stopped and looked distinctly guilty.
Caleb laughed and poured a charge of shot down each barrel. "So that's how Twain Dawg learned how to hunt birds!"
"Yes, Papa," Sarah replied uncertainly.
"Good!" Caleb shoved more wadding down the barrels to hold the shot in place, then reversed and replaced the rammer.
Sarah was wise enough to hold her tongue.
It had taken her Papa six tries before he brought down a bird.
Aunt Esther had missed only one out of seven, and Twain Dawg flushed it a few minutes later and added it to their count.
Caleb kissed his daughter on top of her head and thrust the birds into his game pouch. "Do you suppose this will do for today?" he asked, smiling his broad Papa-smile.
"Yes, Papa," Sarah answered.
Twain Dawg looked from one to the other, clearly delighted to be included in anything that meant a romp.
Caleb capped the percussion nipples, set both hammers deep into their half cock notches.
"Well, then, let's for home," he said, shading his eyes and looking to the western horizon. "I should judge we've an hour's sun yet."
"Yes, Papa."

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Linn Keller 10-8-09


Esther looked over her half-glasses at her husband.
The Sheriff was leaned back in his chair, contemplating the corner of the far wall. His journal lay open on the desk, the ink-bottle was open, but the ink was long dried on the nib: he hadn't touched pen to paper in several minutes.
Esther drew the thread taut, took another stitch, smiling a little.
Young Joseph slept in the cradle beside her, though in truth he was nearly too long for it: Angela was already abed, asleep, and Denver Bup was snoozing on a hooked rug on the back porch.
Well, Esther thought, not so much on the rug as in it: Denver Bup had somehow learned to bite the corner of the rug and roll over, making himself a little shelter.
Angela had wanted to make a house dog of him, but Esther's wishes were otherwise.
Bup had been exceptionally easy to housebreak and she did not want to have any untimely accidents, she had explained; perhaps when Denver Bup matures a bit, for he is still very young.
Angela had put her hands on her hips and demanded to know why young Joseph didn't have to sleep on the back porch 'cause he wasn't housebroke neither, and the Sheriff found business in the other room: Esther knew it was because he feared he wouldn't be able to contain his laughter, and so forgave him.
Now she looked over at her husband and speculated on his reverie.
"Was it the Council meeting, dear?" she asked quietly.
The Sheriff smiled.
"You know me well," he murmured.
"Well, it's not often a town gets an entire fire department for one dollar."
The Sheriff nodded.
"You know they would have been more than happy to meet a fair price."
"They did offer."
"They said they would tender interest bearing bonds equal to the value of the building, the apparatus, and all components thereof."
"I told them that until the bonds were prepared, a dollar would do me fine."
Esther smiled quietly.
Esther was a businesswoman, and had a business mind: she knew that by accepting the Sheriff's terms, and paying one dollar, the town was now legally obligated to stand by its bargain.
Not that Council would try and weasel out of a deal: after all, they were all good men and true, but things happen sometimes, the political winds shift, and it never hurts to cover one's bets ...
"You realize you are the town's one greatest benefactor," Esther observed.
The Sheriff smiled thinly. "Me?" He chuckled. "I'm just a graying old lawman."
"Old my foot," Esther countered.
The Sheriff closed the ink-bottle and laid the pen in the crease of the leather-bound journal.
Esther rested her sewing in her lap.
"My dear, credit where credit is due," she said in a patient voice. "You provided for so much to bring Firelands to where it is --"
"So have you, and so has Maude, and so did WJ, rest his soul," the Sheriff interrupted. "So many have done and have given, and that's how a town starts and grows. Once it gets so big it takes off growing pretty much by itself." He frowned, following the edge of the braided rug with his eyes. "I'm not sure but I think we're close to that now."
"I know there are many more homes than there were," Esther affirmed, rocking a little.
"I know. Good people, mostly. A new boarding house."
"And a sporting house," Esther said neutrally.
The Sheriff nodded, grunting.
"And a saloon."
"I know."
"Have there been any more plans to establish a Marshal's office in town?"
"Yes." The Sheriff looked bleakly at his wife. "They want to hire Jackson Cooper."
"Why that's wonderful!" Esther exclaimed. "Emma will be so happy!"
"And I'll be losing a good deputy!" The Sheriff sighed, then laughed quietly.
"At least I know I'll be able to work with the man!"

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Linn Keller 10-10-09


Mrs. Parson, as I called her as often as not, was a stout soul with a quiet smile and a heart the size of a bushel basket, unless it needed to be bigger: she kept the Parson and I supplied with coffee that chilly afternoon, and I made a mental note to have a pound of Arbuckle's delivered to her the next day.
The Parson and I often discussed Scripture thusly: his study wasn't nearly as sparse and Spartan as it had been when the Reverend Sopris was among us, and he'd added a cast iron wood stove that hissed and cracked companionably when it got cold out.
This afternoon I was leaning forward in my chair, elbows on my knees and my worn but familiar Bible open to Luke.
Parson Belden was like many Western men: he was not only smarter than he looked, he was considerably deeper as well: he'd studied classical languages and delighted in translating original texts from Hebrew and Greek into our vulgar language, as he called it, then good-naturedly explained that "vulgar" correctly meant "common or everyday" instead of the unpleasant term it had become.
Today he'd just explained that when Jesus said, "Suffer not the little children to come unto me," he was saying "Let the spies in."
I set straight up in my chair and looked closely at the man.
"Parson," I said, "would you run that past me again at a slow walk?"
The Parson laughed.
"Children were spies," he explained. "In that land, at that time, children went everywhere and heard everything. They were spies, reporting what they'd seen and what they'd heard."
"The Baker Street Irregulars," I muttered.
The Parson nodded. "Exactly so!" he affirmed with an upward thrust of a meaty forefinger. "Children were used by kings, princes, potentates, the priestly class, merchants, ship's-captains, anyone who needed to know what was happening, or what a particular person was saying."
I frowned, turned my head a little as if to incline my best ear towards the man.
"He was saying, 'Let the children in. I know they are spies. Let them report what they hear, let them report what they see: there is nothing I must hide."
"A-huh," I affirmed, nodding. "Makes sense now."
"I'll bet you never knew that, Sheriff," the Parson smiled. "There is pie."
I looked up. Mrs. Parson had come into the room with two plates and since she'd gone to the trouble to cut me off a slab of good home made pie, why, it would have been impolite to refuse.
My Mama worked hard to teach me good manners and she would have been unhappy indeed with me if I'd been unmannerly in the Parson's house, so I felt honor bound to accept that slab of good home made pie.
Turns out it was Maude's pie -- she'd made it and give it to Mrs. Parson -- but it was still good, and conversation was suspended in favor of repast.
The wood stove felt pretty good and that pie was even better, and we regarded the afternoon more favorably for sharing both.
"Y'know, Parson," I sighed, thanking Mrs. Parson for her refilling my coffee mug, "that-there Doyle fellow who wrote about his Baker Street Irregulars knew what he was talking about."
Parson Belden's eyes were bright. He nodded encouragement and I continued.
"You recall yesterday we had some trouble up on the mountain."

I'd been over to Cripple Creek taking a prisoner to their town marshal and had only just got back in town when one of the lads I recognized as a schoolboy came running up to me, waving a note as he came.
I leaned down and accepted the note.
The lad was maybe eight or nine or so and he'd run near the length of the main street. He'd been on beyond the Mercantile when he saw me and he was bent over after handing me the note, hands on his knees and half sick.
I read the note and felt half sick my own self.
The lad straightened. "Sheriff," he said, "I heard 'em myself."
"How long ago?" I asked, my words clipped; the black horse felt my change and began to dance, restless, anxious to run.
I drew back gently on the reins: wait, Outlaw,, I thought, leaning back in the saddle.
Outlaw stood, shaking his head and blowing: he wasn't happy but then neither was I.
Kidnap Annette, the note read in Jacob's blocky print.
If he had an official note to write, some formal communication in his office as a Deputy Sheriff, he printed. His handwriting was measured, precise, lovely to behold, but this was block print, and with a pencil: he'd been in a hurry and wrote only enough to let me know what was happening.
The boy was more informative, and anxious to talk.
It seems he'd heard two men discussing matters quietly in the alley beside the Jewel. They two intended to kidnap Annette and extort the price of the railroad from Jacob, from us, from whoever was fool enough to put up ransom money. They'd agreed that Jacob was dangerous and would have to be killed,then they discussed killing him from ambush and ransoming Annette and claiming they had Jacob as well.
"When did Jacob leave?" I asked.
"Two minutes, Sheriff, no more."
"Did he say anything?"
The boy's forehead furrowed and he screwed one eye shut. "Yes, sir," he finally said. "He said Cape Horn, go west."
I thanked the lad and eased Outlaw's reins.
The black horse paced quickly up the street.
I began thinking fast.
Cape Horn was a particular rock outcrop near Jacob's house, a natural feature that obliged us to ride considerably out of our way. There were two paths around it: the east path and the west path, each one equally good, or equally bad, however you looked at it.
I gave Outlaw his head and he began to run for the sheer joy of running.
The black gelding stretched his neck straight out and his nose straight out and his tail straight out behind, corkscrewing in the slip stream, and I leaned low over his neck, murmuring encouragement.

Jacob drew the trembling, blowing stallion to a halt: he looked over the house, the barn, pale eyes hard, his young jaw set: if there were someone hidden in the brush watching, they might remark on the young man's slender, wiry build, or how clean-scrubbed he looked, even his jaw, and a youthful pimple that lingered on its side: but no eyes were there to see, there was no biographer to remark.
Jacob drew his left hand Colt, loaded a sixth round; he loaded a sixth in his right hand Colt, then he drew his .40-60 from its sheath.
Dropping his knotted reins over the saddle horn, he gave his Apple-horse his knees and leaned forward, nostrils flared, a warrior ready to ride into battle.

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Linn Keller 10-10-09


I hesitated, then dismounted: Outlaw was breathing deep but easy and I wanted to give him a minute to catch his wind in case there was need to travel fast and hard.
My Winchester was in hand and I eased the last couple foot up the path to where I could just see over the break-over.
Jacob's house was below. Two strange horses were to the side, not out front, but no riders visible for about a minute.
One of them came out from behind a rock, tugging at his drawers like a man does after he's tended Nature's call and he's getting everything rearranged.
I studied the man.
A patch of color behind him caught my attention and I felt my eyes narrow down a little.
Something light brown, I thought. Something out of place ...
The stranger was watching the horses, looking toward the house.
He must have figured since he'd just been behind that rock it was safe behind him.
I knew there were two paths converging behind that particular boulder.
The stranger didn't.
Jacob did, though.
I saw the brown of his shirt, then a lighter patch at the base of his throat. It was kind of like seeing a deer's eye or that shiny-black nose through the brush: once you see it and know it for what it is, the rest of it comes suddenly visible, and Jacob did.
A father will gift his son with more than he realizes.
I'd been told I have a gift for turning invisible, whether in a crowd or outdoors, and that gift must have passed from my loins to Jacob's soul, for one moment he wasn't there and the next he was, and death was upon the stranger before he knew Jacob was even in the territory.
I watched from the distance as Jacob took two long steps.
His boot knife was in his right fist.
Jacob had the man around the neck with that hand forged knife in hand and he brought the hilt down hard on this fellow's head. His move was fast and took him by surprise: between getting belted hard and having his throat yanked shut I don't reckon he made a sound.
Jacob pulled him back out of sight.
I knew the path down was steep. I'd ridden it but didn't much like it and I liked less going down on foot, for it was a distance and my help might be needed in a hurry.
I turned and rubbed my fingers together.
Outlaw came plodding up.
I swung into the saddle and gave him my heels and we were on the down hill side of the path before Outlaw knew where we were going.
He didn't much like it -- his ears come back at me but he didn't have no choice, we were going down hill, and he knew at that point if he was to keep his footing he had to play canoe and run faster than the water around him if he was to keep from being swamped.
He ran.
I come out between Jacob's barn and the house and Outlaw got his feet under him proper and I swung him towards the house in time to hear three fast shots, then two more, then one.
I jumped out of the saddle and landed wrong: Outlaw kept on going and I rolled, my teeth coming together with a distinct click and a sunball of pain where I bit a good chunk of the inside of my cheek.
I rolled once more and came up on my feet, Winchester in hand, and sprinted for the front door.
I yanked the front door open and drove the muzzle of the Winchester into a stranger's belly.
He raised his Smith & Wesson and I yanked the trigger and slapped at the pistol but he was dead before my rifle went off.
He fell out the front door and I let him.
I cycled the lever and brought the rifle up to high port.
I went in low and fast, my left hand halfway between the wood fore end and the rifle's muzzle: I did not want to risk the rifle being grabbed, and I wanted to be able to fight with it close up if need be.
"Jacob!" Annette screamed from the kitchen.
I made a fast sweep of her parlor, knowing if anyone were there, they could come in behind me when I entered her kitchen.
"Annette!" I bellowed. "Are you hurt!"
There was the woody sound of chairs violently thrown aside, a massive crash as if something heavy and solid had fallen.
"Annette!" I yelled, spinning into the kitchen, rifle up and ready.
I saw the source of the crash.
Annette had dumped the heavy kitchen table over and was behind it, the twin muzzles of a double gun shoved over its top, her pale face and absolutely huge eyes looking over the barrels.
A body lay on the floor, unmoving; one arm was under, the other extended as if reaching for the pistol under Annette's stove.
"Annette!" I shouted. "It's me! Are there others?"
"One more!" she yelled in reply.
"Where?" I turned to face the doorway, the only possible approach.
"Jacob has one outside. I counted two horses. Are you hurt?" I rose from my crouch.
Annette rose slowly, one hand on the edge of the table, allowing the shotgun barrels to point downward. She was still pale but her face was set, her eyes bright.
Blood was bright and shiny-wet on her blouse.

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Linn Keller 10-10-09


"Sir!" Jacob barked as he crossed the threshold.
I was on a hair trigger and he knew I would be.
Singing out as he did kept me from startling or sending a rifle ball his way.
I parked the rifle in a handy corner.
"Set the table up," I said, urgency lending a strength to my voice: I spoke quietly but there was no mistaking the command in my voice.
Jacob and I took opposite ends of the heavy handmade table and we brought it back up to true.
I picked Annette up and laid her on the table.
Jacob's eyes were very pale when he looked at his lovely young wife, laying there with blood bright on her blouse.
"Get me a wheat straw, Jacob," I said, opening my Barlow knife.
I kept the Barlow shaving-sharp and it parted the material of her blouse easily: I laid it open in two directions, drawing open a great flap over her wound.
"Jacob, look here," I said, and there was steel in my voice: Jacob had to learn even if it was at his wife's discomfort, for he may need the lesson this could teach.
Jacob swallowed and looked at the injury.
"Give me the wheat straw."
Jacob handed it to me.
I knew Annette had wheat straw in her cupboard. She had made a wonderfully cool and refreshing lemonade back in warm weather, and we laughed as we three sat and drank through the wheat straws, for pulp and lemon seeds kept plugging them up.
I put the straw to Annette's lips.
"Annette, take a good breath and blow through this, gently now," I said, my voice gentle.
Annette's eyes were big and frightened and she was still a little pale but she nodded. Her lips closed around the wheat straw.
"Jacob," I said.
Jacob's eyes were on his wife's face and his hands held hers.
"Jacob," I said again, "see here."
Jacob looked at the wound.
"Blow out, Annette," I said. "Now Jacob, look here. What do you see?"
"I see a rib, sir, and blood."
"Do you see any bubbling?"
"No, sir."
"We need to know this, for we have to decide what to do next."
"Yes, sir." Jacob looked up at me. "Sir, the fellow I caught, the one I chased out of the house --"
Jacob swallowed and there was anger and confusion in his eyes.
"Go on."
"Sir, he's still alive. He's tied back yonder but he said they're going after the other girl."
I turned my head, squinted.
"Other girl?"
"Yes, sir."
"Which other girl?"
"He didn't say, sir, but --"
My son looked up at me, misery in his expression.
"Angela," we said together.
I looked down at Annette, brushed the hair out of her eyes.
"Annette, can you ride?"
Annette nodded.
I picked her up.
"Wait, sir," Jacob said, drawing the worn Colt from his wife's holster.
He kicked out the empties and reloaded all six chambers, set the hammer nose down between the rims and thrust it back into its leather.
"We'll leave the wound open for now," I said. "It'll make a mess but it'll wash it out from the inside."
Jacob ran on ahead, sprinted for the barn.
I whistled for Outlaw.
It took about a minute for Outlaw to come trotting up and Jacob to come driving out from the barn.
Standing there holding Annette and knowing Angela -- and Esther -- may well be in danger, and me just standing there, was probably the longest week and a half of my entire life.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-10-09


How many times had he seen a hound, a cow dog, or even a city-bred lap dog suddenly drop tail to ground, point muzzle to the stars, and keen a woeful lament to those same heavenly lamps? Charlie was forking hay to the riding horses in the corral when he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, nape-hair at attention and feeling the march of gooseflesh the length of his spine. In a moment the roan was wearing bosal and mecate, standing patiently in the open alley through the center of the barn while Charlie feverishly slung tack aboard and pulled the cinchas tight.

Charlie stormed into the house, lifting a full canteen from its peg on the mud room wall, liberating a pasteboard box of .44-40's from the ammunition safe just inside the door, and lifting his scabbarded Winchester from its customary place over the kitchen door. "Charlie! What's the matter?" Fannie asked as he raced through the house.

"I don't know!" he snapped, the ragged edge of tension coarsening his tone. "But I have to get to town!" Fannie was too sensible to waste time asking further questions. Instead Charlie suddenly found himself with a saddlebag full of biscuit, jerky, and dried fruit in the hand unoccupied by the scabbard and canteen. He hurriedly kissed her on the cheek as he stormed out the door, leaving it ajar in his wake. He almost literally leapt astride the roan as the young horse went from standing placidly in the barn to full gallop in the space of a heartbeat...

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Linn Keller 10-11-09


Parson Belden was leaned forward in his seat.
The Parson was known as a public speaker. His Sunday sermons were generally delivered with energy, with humor, with intelligence: he had the gift of bringing an idea out without beating it over the congregation's head like a club, of handing it to them as to an equal, appealing to those with a formal, unversity education as well as those educated in the School of Hard Knocks.
The Parson appreciated a storyteller and delighted in listening to a good presentation for a change, instead of giving a presentation, and so he was slid forward in his seat, forearms on his knees, his full attention on the Sheriff's quiet words.

"I run on ahead," the Sheriff said quietly, Mrs. Parson's coffee cup protectively wrapped in his big hands. "I had no idea how far back Jacob was, I had no notion what was happening back home, but I knew I had to get home and get home fast."
The Parson nodded.
"That Outlaw-horse wasn't as used to the high country as Hijo had been, or even my Rose-horse and he started to fatigue as I come in sight of town.
"I swung across the railroad tracks and down the ravine and up the other side. Outlaw was tiring now. I didn't want to wind-break him but he was all I had to get home.
"I cut across Jackson Cooper's back pasture. He had it rail fenced and the gate was well off to my left but there was one rail missing off to my right so I aimed Outlaw for it.
"He shied as we come to the fence and come around in a big circle.
"Come on, fella," I muttered and pointed him toward the gap again.
"This time I smacked him across the hinder with the reins and heeled him good and he gathered himself up and went over that rail fence.
"He is not a jumper." I gave the Parson a wry look.
The Parson frowned and turned his head a little and his eyes wandered down my seated frame.
"You're wondering how I landed," I smiled.
The Parson nodded.
I chuckled. "You've heard of Terra Firma?"
The Parson nodded again.
"It's just an awful lot more firma than I liked, I can tell you that!"
We shared a good laugh at that and even Mrs. Parson smiled, off in the next room: she was discreetly close, listening without being obvious.
"Parson, you ever come up ag'in somethin' you want to change and you just absolutely can't do a thing?"
"Oh, yes," the Parson nodded with a wry grin.
"There I am knowin' some scoundrel wants to steal my little girl or worse, my daughter in law is hurt and I'm mad enough to take a bite out of a blacksmith's hammer and spit railroad spikes and I'm layin' flat on my back with the wind knocked out of me and I can't mooove!" The Sheriff's expression, his hands-wide gesture, his distressed voice, was more than the good Parson's reserve could take: he began to laugh, he proceeded to snort and chuckle, he pressed a kerchief to his eyes and raised an imploring palm while he tried with little success to get his mirth under control.
He, too, knew what it was to land flat on his back with the wind knocked out of him, for I'd been near to him when it happened, and I squatted helpless whilst his eyes bugged out some and he gasped the wind back into him.

Sarah Rosenthal had busied herself at school: after reciting the Preamble to the Constitution and the States in the Union, she helped younger students learning to form their letters: Emma Cooper nodded approvingly at Sarah's patience, how she coaxed a lower case b from a lump of chalk grasped nervously in a six year old's hand, or how she helped active little Jimmy puzzle out the syllables of Agamemnon and Ajax and Odyssey.

Sarah's attention was on the towheaded boy's lesson; Emma Cooper's attention was on the lesson she was giving another group of students.

Neither saw the face looking through the window.

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Linn Keller 10-12-09


Esther looked up, smiling, at the sound of boot heels on the front porch.
Angela was in the kitchen, industriously sweeping nonexistent dirt off the floor with the little broom her Daddy had made for her, singing in her little-girl voice, singing a French nursery song she'd learned from Michelle.
Young Joseph was fed and changed, and drowsy in his bed, yawning and chewing on his little fist and about a half inch from sleep when Angela called, "Mommy, who's that man?"
Esther looked up as the front door swung open.
A stranger crossed the threshold.
Esther lunged for the closet, reached in: closing her hand on the sharkskin grip of her fencing blade, she slammed the closet door wide open, hard, and lunged at the stranger.
A yard and more of honed Solingen steel preceded the Irish fire in her blazing green eyes.
The stranger, distracted by the closet door's swing and bang, blinked, his concentration broken: then he realized this woman was swinging something at him, thrusting with a cane, maybe.
He swatted at it, intending to backhand it aside and maybe yank it out of her grasp.
Fire seared the back of his hand as the honed steel sliced through the tendons in the back of his hand.
He felt the edge scrape across the bones.
The stranger yelled in pain and surprise.
Esther's blade described a fast, tight circle.
Four fingers fell away from the incised hand: slowly, slowly, spinning through cold, clear honey, they fell toward the floor as red streams gouted in leisurely arcs, forming lazy crimson balls that described their own parabolic arcs toward the earth's center.
Angela threw her broom as the back door opened: she went from dead still to a full sprint in a tenth of a second or less, for things were wrong, things were very wrong, and bad things were happening, and she needed her Mommy 'cause she was scared, she was scared!
Angela saw her Mommy was involving herself with a stranger, a bad man, 'cause Mommy had a switch and she was switching his hand and that meant Mommy was busy and there would be no Mommy-cuddle to let her know everything was all right, and Angela's heart shrank and she looked into Daddy's study and remembered what it was like to sit on her Daddy's lap and have his big warm arms around her --
Angela heard her Daddy's voice.
Sometimes, Princess, her Daddy had told her, one evening when he held her on his lap and rocked her, you have to be a big, grown-up girl.
Angela knew in that flash of insight that she had to be a big girl now.
Her Mommy had hit that bad man 'cause he was doing something bad.
Angela saw her little brother and knew she had to do a big-girl.
She snatched her little brother out of his little bed, clamping him tight against her, both her arms wrapped around him: crushing the child to her, Angela streaked for the staircase, running with desperation as a fuel, fear as an accelerant, and with the deep conviction that she was being a Responsible Big Sister who was Doing a Big Girl Thing!
Somewhere about the top step a stray thought flashed across her young mind, just before she turned and scooted into her own room:
Daddy will be very proud of me!

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Linn Keller 10-12-09


"So what happened then?" the Parson prompted.
I grinned.
"That's about the time Charlie showed up."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-12-09


That instinct, that hand on his shoulder that had caused him to drive the roan mercilessly through the miles between the ranch and Firelands, caused Charlie to yank the horse to a sudden halt beyond the rise to the west of the house. Charlie stepped down and the gelding stood panting, sides heaving, lathered from nose to tail, but with its head held high and ears pricked to look at the man who commanded all the loyalty such an animal can give. Even as Charlie watched, the horse’s breathing began to slow and it reached out to nudge him with its nose as if to say, “You were in such a hurry to get here, go get it done!”

“You are some kinda horse!” Charlie declared in a fierce whisper. He slipped the bridle from the roan’s head and hung it on the saddle horn, drew his rifle from the scabbard and knee-crawled to the top of the rise, leaving the roan to its own devices and trusting it to stay where he’d left it. Just below the crest of the small hillock he slipped off his hat and laid it beside him then peered between two clumps of sage at the apparently peaceful scene below. Just when he’d about decided that he’d come here on a wild goose chase, his gaze was drawn to three horses that stood ground-tied and hipshot behind Linn Keller’s barn where they couldn’t be seen from the house. A man appeared briefly in the hayloft doorway, waved a signal to someone Charlie couldn’t see then disappeared in the shadows. That made one…

Motion draws sight far beyond what even an artificially straight line suddenly realized as out of place in its surroundings could do, and the motion of a running man even more so. Through narrowed, glacier-cold eyes Charlie watched a stocky fellow in a calico shirt trot bent-over toward the back of the Keller house. That made two…

As if by magic, what had to be the third rider, a slender gent who moved with the liquidity of youth, appeared around the house corner, peered into a window then stepped up onto the front stoop. That made three. Charlie moved…

Three men acting in such a manner were quite obviously not at the Sheriff’s dwelling on a social call. Equally as obvious was the fact that the Sheriff wasn’t at home. That meant that the three men were fair game, so to speak. The one in the barn loft could wait, and the one on the front stoop he could do nothing about without alerting the other two; the man at the back door was another story. Like a hunting cat Charlie slipped toward Linn’s house, keeping to the cover of the well-leafed line of osage shrubs that he and Jacob had planted as the beginning of a windbreak.

Charlie slipped from the shelter of the windbreak into a crouch behind the neatly-stacked line of axe-split firewood that formed a wall along the path to the necessary beyond the back porch. The calico-shirted intruder stood, postured radiating impatience, at the back door, ear pressed to glass pane and hand on cut-glass doorknob. Charlie watched him from a tilted eye corner, knowing that animals, and some men, could instinctively feel the direct gaze of the hunter on their skin. Silently the ex-marshall leaned his Winchester against the wood pile and reached down for the brass-bolstered Arkansas toothpick in the top of his boot. Silence was golden here…

Now he stood in easy arm’s reach of the intruder. He drew back the fisted knife, reversing his grip to strike with butt rather than blade; a hoarse, choking baritone scream and a barrage of curses that echoed from inside the house startled his prey into motion far too late to prevent the blow. There was a ‘chunk’ sound reminiscent of the butt of a single-bit axe striking a log and Charlie’s quarry went down in a boneless heap, blood welling from a ragged tear in his scalp. Not wanting to take time to tie the man up and not caring one whit whether the blow would be lethal, Charlie hit him again. That one wasn’t going anywhere any time soon…

Charlie stepped over his opponent’s body and eased inside the back door. A steady stream of virulent curses overlay the patter of small shoes on the interior stairs and the slam of a door in the upper story of the house. The cursing paused and he heard the swish of a blade followed by Esther’s declaration in a tone cold enough to start another ice age: “You’ll not pass beyond this door!”

“I’ll kill you for this, you…” The fourfold click of a Colt revolver’s hammer ratcheting back sent Charlie slamming through the door, boot heels pounding on good oak flooring, praying as he ran that he would be in time and knowing that no blade is a match for a pistol in such a confrontation. Desperately he threw himself into an ungainly shoulder roll into the room, yanking one of his Remingtons from the leather as he tumbled across the blood-slicked flooring between Esther and her assailant. The Colt boomed and splinters flew in Charlie’s face; he flinched and reflexively blasted a shot into the center of the white bloom of powder smoke, franticly continuing to roll in an attempt to draw the other man’s fire away from both Esther and young Joseph’s cradle. He had no way of knowing that the cradle was unoccupied, and wouldn’t have cared if he had; he was moving on pure instinct and adrenaline as he triggered two more .44’s in the direction of the dimly-seen figure in front of him.

The shooter slammed to the floor, thump of skull on hardwood enough to tip a small ceramic angel from its perch on a shelf to shatter on the floor. “Watch that one!” Charlie barked as he rolled to his feet, unmindful of the blood on his clothes, and sprinted for the kitchen. “I’ve gotta get my rifle!”

His headlong flight was interrupted by Esther’s own iron-hard, “Charlie!” He turned in time to throw up a hand; the Winchester carbine slapped into his palm and he tipped her a feral grin in thanks as he levered a round into the chamber and went to his knees alongside the nearest window that faced the barn.

Motion in the shadows at ground level drew the carbine’s front sight as the man from the loft peered around the stout upright beam to the left of the barn’s entrance. Smoothly and with no hesitation Charlie swung the rifle muzzle past the beam and levered three shots through the planks in a vertical pattern. He was answered by a yell of pain and the clatter of steel and walnut on hard-packed earth. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! I’m dyin’! Don’t shoot!”

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Linn Keller 10-13-09


"It took us some time to figure out what-all happened."
Parson Belden set his plate to the side. Only a few crumbs remained of the pie. Me, I finished the last bite and set my plate on the floor.
A long haired calico cat skulked out from under someplace hid and started sniffing at the plate.
I knew better than to reach down to stroke the calico's soft fur.
"Jacob run that one fellow out of his house. Near as we could tell, they wasn't expecting him to be home and the one that run made it look like he didn't want to fight."
Parson Belden raised one eyebrow and gave me "that look."
I chuckled.
"Parson, you can say more with that eyebrow than most men can with a speech!"
The calico cat paid neither of us any mind, preferring to clean up what little was left on my own plate. Never knew a cat to like apple pie, but then cats is different critters.
"Jacob run out after the first 'un. I don't quite know how it worked out but Jacob was in the brush when I saw him. The first decoyed Jacob out and two others was either in the house or run in right after.
"Annette had just belted on her brother's pistol when them two come in the kitchen."
Parson Belden leaned forward again, setting his forearms on his knees. He'd had his elbows on his knees but complained that the bones dug into his hide some so he put the meat of his forearms on his legs for such moments.
"She didn't let 'em say aye, yes or go to hell, she drew and fired. He took three slugs and the other fella took two slugs and a click."
Parson Belden nodded one time and made a little go-ahead gesture with his right hand.
Parson, you're gettin' thin on top, I thought.
"That doesn't tell me about you and Jacob," the Parson said gently.
I felt my ears turn red and I touched the swelling under my left eye.
"Well, that's a tale too," I admitted.
Parson Belden leaned back a little, nodded.
"Now Charlie --" I stopped and looked down at the floor and it felt like ... it almost felt like I was falling, for the full realization of all that happened was starting to sink in.

Esther's eyes blazed with green witch-fire and every mother's instinct was roaring like a boiler with the draft turned up and plenty of coal on the grate.
She rolled her wrist, aiming the tip of her fencing blade for the intruder's eye.
"I'll kill you for this!" he bellowed and Esther began her thrust and she saw the shoulder drop and heard the four-click of a Colt coming into battery and she drove her blade forward, fully intending to pierce the eye socket and run it a foot out the back of his head.
There was the sound of thunder and most of his head disappeared.
Esther's blade thrust forward: finding no opponent, she withdrew the steel, turned: Charlie was on the floor and rolling, Remington in hand.
He yelled something about getting a rifle.
Esther dropped the fencing-blade and reached up: snatching a Winchester from the rack, she turned.
The two warriors could not have been more perfectly choreographed.
Charlie fairly levitated off the floor, one hand thrusting the Remington to leather, the other floating up to catch the rifle as it meandered through the smoky air.
Esther saw the broad-shouldered savior's hand seize the Winchester.

Angela's instinct was to hide.
She hid in the safest place she could think of.
She and little Joseph were in her Mommy and Daddy's closet.
She'd yanked one of her Mommy's petticoats and it cascaded down over them.
Angela pulled the door shut as best she could and folded the petticoat mostly by feel, and laid little Joseph on it.
Joseph squealed a happy little baby squeal and Angela put her finger to her lips.
"Ssshhh," she whispered. "We have to be quiet."
Joseph chewed on his fist and kicked.
Angela wavered, hesitating, the slid her fingers under the closet door and drew it closed with a quick pull.
There was a click as the door shut.
Nodding, Angela felt for little Joseph, and laid down beside him.
Mommy's petticoat was silky and it felt good and Angela cuddled up against little Joseph.
Downstairs there were noises, big noises: she had no way of knowing what was going on, only that it was loud, and there were angry adult voices, and she was satisfied her Mommy was spanking that bad man with a cane or something.
Then there was a louder noise, several louder noises, and the sound of glass breaking.
Angela frowned.
She knew window glass was not that easy to come by, and Mommy would be very cross.
She might give whoever broke the window a good spanking.

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Linn Keller 10-13-09


Jacob wiped unhappily at the revolver's cylinder.
His Pa hadn't bothered to bandage his injured wife's ribs, preferring to let her bleed.
Blood had stripped what little blue remained on the revolver; it would take a detail stripping and scrubbing down from the blood alone.
The gun belt and holster needed replaced anyway. Annette kept them for sentimental reasons, he realized, but they were worn and weather checky and deeply cracked.
Annette's wound was not serious. It had gouged a furrow of flesh wide enough to lay his thumb in, it had grazed a rib, it had bled freely: when Nurse Susan commented on the wound's cleanliness, probably from being allowed to bleed, Jacob turned on his heel and left the room.
His Pa hadn't tended his wife properly.
His wife!
Jacob fisted his hands, stoking his rage: a young man's anger is a precious thing to him, and Jacob embraced it with a dark and savage joy.

The Sheriff drew up as he came in sight of his house.
It would not do to run into an ambush: it would not do to dally if he was needed: the small time it took to halt, and observe, was time invested, not frittered.
A stranger was entering his front porch.
No horses, the Sheriff thought.
Why is there not a horse at the hitch rail?
He touched the black's ribs with his heels and the black advanced, moving easily into a trot.
There was a faint shout.
The Sheriff's knees tightened.
The black's gait lengthened.
There were gunshots: one, then several, and the black horse lunged into a gallop.

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Linn Keller 10-14-09


My fists were clenched, hard, and the Parson's voice was loud in my ear.
I don't know what he said only that he was far away.
I saw it again, saw it again, I cleared the front steps in two long strides and Esther turned, snatching the fencing blade off the floor.
I twisted to my left, spinning away from the doorway.
I knew what she could do with that blade.
Esther spun right after me, thrusting hard: I ducked, shouting.
The blade penetrated the crown of my hat.
I jumped straight up, slapped my hand on the porch rail and jumped.
I rolled and came up on the balls of my feet as Esther's free hand went to her mouth.
She looked at the hat and she looked at me and I climbed back over the porch rail.
"Are you hurt?" I asked, my voice low and urgent.
"No -- no," she stammered, shaking the hat off her blade.
"Inside?" I asked.
"The children," she gasped.
I pressed her against the wall, took a quick look through the doorway.
Esther's hand seized my upper arm. "Charlie's in there!" she exclaimed.
"Charlie!" I yelled. "Charlie, you hurt?"
Only then did I see the bloodied carcass on the floor, on my floor, in my house!
"Out back!" Charlie shouted and I heard boot heels on the back porch.
I stepped over the slaughter, reached up and closed my hand on empty air.
The Winchester was gone.
I swore, seized the double gun that hung under it. Yanking open the drawer, I snatched up a handful of hulls, stuffed them in my vest pockets and made for the kitchen.
I stopped, the twin muzzles covering some fellow on the back porch.
It didn't take but a quick look to know he was of no threat: someone had stove in the top of his head and he was still, still.
Charlie was at the barn, rifle to shoulder, swinging the muzzle in fast, efficient arcs as he approached the structure.
I looked around.
Another body, just below the open loft door: I closed and latched the door myself, I thought.
Anger was gathered and shoved into a bottle, and the cork stoved in tight on top.
I needed to think clearly and anger clouds the reason.
"Three horses", I said aloud, "and three dead."
I looked up the hill and saw Charlie's mount, shining wet with sweat.
We'll need to rub him down, I thought.
Hell, I need to rub Outlaw down!
Esther came out behind me, touched my arm.
"My dear?" I asked.
"The children," Esther whispered.
I looked at her.
"Taken!" Her whisper was choked.
"Stand fast," I said, and the voice that came from my throat was not mine.
It was the voice of the Colonel I used to be, giving an order and expecting it to be obeyed.
I strode for the barn.
"Nobody here!" Charlie shouted from within.
"Charlie, the children! Did any escape?"
Charlie came into the light, my Winchester in his white-knuckled grip.
"No one came out back, I saw to that."
"Esther!" I turned toward the porch. "Did any leave by the front?"
"No." Her hand was to her belly, her other hand clutched the porch post: she looked distinctly ill.
I had an iron grip on my emotions.
"With me!" I barked and Charlie and I strode for the house.
Esther drew back as we assaulted the porch steps.
Grim-faced, we went into the house.
"Joseph," I said, pointing to his little bed. "And Angela."
"No one came out the back."
"And none by the front, so they're in the house." I hung the double back on the gun rack, looked around.
Charlie was doing the same and I could almost hear the gears turning as he thought.
"I was busy here," he murmured, pointing first to the back door, then turning. "I bellied down here -- this fellow drew and I fired -- my attention was forward!"
He looked at me and we both looked up stairs.
We sprinted for the staircase.
I bellied down at the landing and looked to the right.
I could see under Angela's bed.
I turned my head to the left, looked under my own bunk.
I thrust a stiff finger toward Angela's room and turned to my own.
Charlie and I have worked thus together: we went once around a house, pursuing a fellow who'd made off with a grocer's till: I went left, Charlie went right, and each of us saw what the other was seeing, each felt the ground under the other's advancing foot, and I knew the moment he had a gunsight on the scoundrel.
It was so natural a happening that neither of us remarked on it for half a day after.
When we put it into words we stopped and looked at one another for a long minute, and then we both shivered, and then we shrugged and discussed it no more.
Charlie looked around in his room, I cast about in mine.
If I were a scared lttle girl, or a little girl hiding her baby brother, where would I hide?
Esther's feet were swift and anxious as she came up the staircase.
"They are not downstairs," she said, her voice low and tense.
I looked at our clothes closet.
"I wonder," I murmured, reaching for the knob.
Charlie came in the room behind Esther.
I opened the door.
The door fairly exploded open at my tug and a curly haired tornado raged out of the closet, all fists and fury and sharp little toes: her little fists pummeled my belly and she kicked me three times in the shin before I realized she was even there and then I realized she was screaming at the top of her voice:
"YOU MEAN OLD MAN YOU LEAVE ME ALONE! GRRR!" and a set of juvenile dentures clamped down on the back of my left thigh: Angela had delivered three swift kicks, seized my leg and was now fighting with the only tools she had, and if I may be frank, acquiting herself magnificently.
I bellowed with pain and with surprise.
I remember the look of shock on Esther's face, the beginning of what I knew was going to be a really broad grin followed by a good healthy laugh from Charlie, and I managed to catch a glimpse of a little boy, rolling over and dragging one of Esther's petticoats with him.

I looked up at the Parson.
"I do beg your pardon," I said, accepting the brandy he held: "it was an interesting time."

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Linn Keller 10-15-09


Jackson Cooper frowned.
It wasn't quite ordinary for a stranger to be peering into the schoolhouse window.
It was suspicious when the stranger looked around to see if any one was watching.
Jackson Cooper's gut alarm went off when the stranger mounted his horse, looked at his pocket watch, then fetched the lariat off his saddle and shook out a loop.
Jackson Cooper was a big man, and like most big men, he tended to plan ahead.
Something just didn't add up here and he figured to have a conversation with this stranger. He wasn't town marshal yet but he was a deputy sheriff and this was his jurisdiction, and his gut told him this needed looked at.
Jackson Cooper turned to the gun rack and considered one of his favorite working tools, a double barrel ten bore.
No, he thought, not that close to the school house.
He picked up the Sharps instead.
Swinging the buffalo rifle easily in one massive paw, he dropped a few rounds in his left hand vest pocket and turned toward the open door.
The stranger had moved a little and Jackson Cooper did not like the way this fellow was setting up.
He's going to lasso one of the school children?
Jackson Cooper's big thumb brought the hammer back to half cock and dropped open the lever. A shining brass cartridge the size of a panatela dropped into the chamber and the breech block slid up behind it.
Jackson Cooper stepped out onto the sidewalk just as the doors opened and the children surged out the door at the top of their young lungs.

Jacob's head came up as the door opened.
His father's form filled the doorway.
Jacob did not notice the slight stiffess of his father's leg, nor did he attend the tightness of the older man's face.
"How's Annette?" the Sheriff asked without preamble.
"Why should you care!" Jacob snapped, squaring off at his father.
"SHE'S FAMILY!" the Sheriff barked with an uncharacteristic sharpness.
Jacob blinked.
His father had never raised his voice in such a way -- never at him! -- part of him was taken aback but the anger he'd been stoking seized this new fuel and Jacob strutted toward the gray mustached badge packer.
"You didn't care enough about MY WIFE to so much as OFFER to bandage her side," Jacob rasped, his voice thick with anger. "SHE BLED ALL THE WAY HERE AND ALL YOU COULD THINK ABOUT WAS HAVING HER PUCKER UP ON A WHEAT STRAW!"
"I had to know if the lung were pierced," the Sheriff said quietly, quietly, the very gentleness of his reply a warning.
Jacob's eyes blazed pale; the Sheriff's were veiled.
Misdirected anger and confused rage came into bright focus, and the focus was on the Sheriff's face, and the fight was on.
Jacob took a long running step, intending to hit the Sheriff with fists and the point of his shoulder.
The Sheriff crouched a little to receive the charge: at the last moment he seized his son's vest, spun to the side and let Jacob's momentum carry him past.
Jacob and his father had sparred many times; each was familiar with the other's fighting-style; each knew the other's pattern of attack, of defense: but this was different: where before the moves were slow and controlled, now they were stoked with a different fuel: instead of reason and rational thought, Jacob fought with blind anger: the Sheriff, with controlled rage.
Jacob fired his boiler with years of loss and grief at his mother's murder, at his own many whippings at the hands of the murderous beast that had taken over his mother's household when he himself was but a young child.
Jacob throttled his engine with steam generated from fearful adoration, first of Esther, then his own beautiful bride, fearful that they too would be seized, snatched, taken from him in a hellish moment of violence.
A young man's anger will ferment and sour and in time will detonate.
The Sheriff, too, fought with anger, but his was a deeper, more controlled rage: he, too, carried a deep and fermenting mass of grief and loss and mad-as-hell memories, but his were cold, cold, not the hot and boiling anger of a young man.
The two tore into one another at battle speed.
Jacob was the younger, and faster: he turned as the Sheriff turned, but Jacob's momentum carried him across the room.
He hit the wall with the flat of his back.
The Sheriff was standing, facing him, hands up, open, relaxed.
Jacob should have recognized this.
Jacob powered off the wall, fists cocked.
Jacob's first punch slid off the Sheriff's forearm.
Jacob realized dimly that his belly was exposed and his Pa could have rammed a haymaker into his gut.
It didn't happen.
The Sheriff's arm spun down instead, deflecting Jacob's fisted forearm and pushing him away.
All thought of science, of training, of organized pugilism, evaporated like water spilled on a stove-top.
The Sheriff ducked as Jacob swung a roundhouse left, then bobbed up like a buoy in a choppy ocean and pushed Jacob again.
Jacob, infuriated now at his father's insulting refusal to fight, swung a quick left-right-left.
He was faster: his right caught the Sheriff in the ribs: the Sheriff blocked the second punch, but the third caught him under the cheek bone and though he didn't see stars, a few planets and a comet were briefly in view.
The Sheriff stepped in, throwing a punch high.
Jacob's hands came up to block.
The Sheriff's left came up precisely under Jacob's breast bone, driving the air out of the younger man and lifting his boot heels a half inch off the floor.
Of a sudden all the fight run clear out of the younger man.
The Sheriff caught him as he staggered, held him as he fought for breath.
"Set down," the Sheriff said, his voice tight.
Jacob set down.
The Sheriff settled his son in one of the padded chairs.
Jacob gagged once or twice, unsure whether to bend over to ease the pain in his gut, or straighten up to try and get some wind back into him.
The Sheriff set down as well, dropping heavily into the adjacent chair.
Both men were mostly silent for several minutes.
The fight cleared Jacob's head: anger was gone, as if it had never been, leaving behind only the aches and pains, the physical consequences of a man's rash and foolish action.
The Sheriff rubbed the back of his thigh absently.
It still hurt.
"You can be proud of your little sister," he muttered.
Jacob looked over at his Pa, pain on his face.
"She fights too."
Jacob had no idea what his Pa meant, but he nodded, jaw hanging, his wind almost restored.
There was the heavy boom of a buffalo rifle and both men's heads came up.
Father and son powered out of their chairs and made for the front door.

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Linn Keller 10-15-09


The brandy warmed me clear down to my gut.
The Sheriff swirled the fruity distillate in the snifter and saw with a little surprise his hand was shaking.
Parson Belden waited patiently for him to start talking.

"Jackson Cooper saw the stranger spin a loop out and snare Sarah Rosenthal as neat as roping out a calf from the herd," the Sheriff said quietly, with a dangerous edge to his voice. "He was riding a cutting horse and it started backing right away, keeping the line snug. Sarah fought it as best she could but it had her around the arms down about the elbows, tight in ag'in her sides."
The Sheriff took a long, shivering breath.
"Jackson Cooper saw the horse turn sideways and he knew the rider was going to take Sarah out of there fast and not at all gently, so he ups with the Sharps and shoots the shoulders out from under the horse."
The Sheriff took another swallow of brandy.
"He didn't want to shoot with the children there but he had no choice. He had an opening and he took it.
"The horse kind of folded up and Sarah screamed.
"Jacob and I both heard the scream.
"I swung into the saddle and kicked my hoof free of the stirrup."
The Sheriff looked up at the sky pilot and blood sang cold in his veins. "Jacob swung up behind me and I fetched Outlaw around and gave him my heels.
"We weren't but a minute gettin' to where the fight was a-goin' on.
"Twain Dawg was all over that fella. He'd never had experience fightin' a man but he knew to go for the arms. He'd bloodied the man from his elbows down and kep' him from pulling knife or gun and we got there with Jackson Cooper standing over him with that buffalo rifle taking a look at him from one side, Dawg a-straddle of his chest holding onto his wrist, and the children in a white faced ring around the lot of 'em."
The Sheriff's eyes were distant, wide, and very, very pale blue.
"Sarah was scared some and mad as a wet hornet and when Caleb Rosenthal showed up I had my hands full keepin' that quiet natured businessman from tearing this stranger apart with his bare hands."
Parson Belden leaned forward and poured another three fingers of distilled peach into the Sheriff's snifter. Distilled wine sparkled as it poured, gurgling happily as it dispensed.
The Sheriff looked at it like he'd never seen it before.
"I picked the fellow up one handed and drove my fist into his belly fit to fetch a foot of forearm out the back of his vest."
The Sheriff's voice was flat now, devoid of emotion, and the Parson knew he was reliving a very dangerous moment, a moment when anger and rage threatened to seize the throttle and run it well forward of where it should be.
"He didn't offer no more trouble.
"I turned to Jacob.
" 'You have a prisoner secured,' I said. 'Take Jackson Cooper and fetch him here. He is going to talk.' The Sheriff smiled and it was less a smile than the rictus of a bared, bleached skull, grinning in the sun.
" 'He will talk, peacefully or otherwise. I don't particularly care which.' "
"Jacob hesitated and I saw an idea come into his eyes.
"I took him by the shoulder and said, 'We need to know if this is all. We need to know their plan, their leader. We need to know who else is coming, who ordered this.'
"I looked around.
" 'We need to know if this is going to happen again, and they can tell us.'
"I looked from him to Jackson Cooper and back, with this fellow still hung up in my fist and his feet just off the ground.
" 'They'll talk.'
"I packed this fellow across to the hoosegow, Parson, him drippin' blood every step of the way and Twain Dawg trottin' right along with me, growling fit to bite the leg off a bear.
"I fetched the door open on the jail cell and slung this fellow ag'in the back wall just as hard as I could throw him.
"He kind of bounced when he hit.
"Once he'd slid down to the floor I went through his pockets and relieved him of a couple knives and some piggin' string and a bandanna with a big wadded knot tied in the middle of it."
The Sheriff's free hand was knotted into a fist.
He took a long, slow breath and willed himself to calm.
"Them two fetched the stranger back and he went into another cell, but I didn't put him in it so he didn't get a blue eye out of it." The Sheriff swirled the brandy absently, meditatively.
"It took us a while to sort it all out.
"This one at the school house and the ones back at my place and the three at Jacob's said they was it. No one else behind it. The three that hit my place heard I'd got my back broke in a stompede or some such, an' Jacob got shot or was crippled and Jackson Cooper run off with some painted hussy. I don't know where they got such idjut notions, but they figured to make some fast money easy."
The Sheriff's voice trailed off as he gazed sightlessly into the amber whirlpool.
"Parson, that ain't the first time Charlie has saved my bacon." He chuckled. "Along with rest of self," he added wryly.
"This time he saved more than that." The Sheriff looked sharply at the preacher.
"Parson, I am nothing. I am dust. I learned that a long time ago, but Esther and Angela ..."
He looked away, out the window, his eyes on the far horizon.
"Parson, somehow 'thank you' just don't seem enough."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-15-09


Charlie listened, out of sight and quiet, to the would-be kidnappers' stories; and didn't believe them in the least. No bunch of flea-bitten no-accounts like the ones he'd killed at the Sheriff's house and the ones in the jail could put together such an operation, let alone carry it out in concert as they had. There had to be more. Once the Sheriff and Jacob left the two men, man and Dawg paid the prisoners a visit.

"You boys tell a dang pretty story," the ex-marshall drawled, Dawg sitting beside him displaying his less-than-friendly grin, complete with curled lip and standing neck-ruff. "But I don't believe it. You're not smart enough to put somethin' like that together."

"Who're you?" Jackson Cooper's prisoner demanded.

"A friend of the women you weasels tried to kill!" Charlie grated, sudden ice dripping from his words. "And uncle to two little girls you were gonna kidnap." He paused, his smile a rictus that sent chills stamping north to south on the spines of his audience. He held up a key. "And I'm also the man holdin' the key to your future..."

The two men in the cells drew back in a vain attempt to push themselves between the granite blocks of the wall, all semblance of bravado vanished in a heartbeat. Charlie smiled grimly as he unbuckled his pistol belt and lowered the Remingtons to the floor by the wall. "Who wants to tell me what you men were really doin' here?" When neither immediately spoke up, he reached down and pushed the key into the lock of the door to his right. He slowly turned the key, letting the grind of the tumblers echo through the empty hallway. With a clank the lock opened and Charlie hooked a finger in the bars to swing the door open on its well-oiled hinges. He stepped inside the cell, swung the door to behind him. "Dawg! Watch!" The great black canine stepped forward to thrust his muzzle against the cell door, effectively locking it behind his partner...

Charlie stepped out on the jail's front porch, swinging the leather around his waist and settling it in place. He glanced down at his skinned knuckles, smiled to himself then stepped down to dip his hand in the cold water of the nearby horse trough before reaching for the roan's reins where they draped over the hitch rail. He had some feelers to put out and information to gather. This wasn't something for the Sheriff. This was his to handle, and his alone. Too bad about that fella in the cell falling off his bunk and bashing his face, ribs and such against the cell bars...

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Linn Keller 10-16-09


"We haven't finished this."
I looked at Jacob.
"I know."
There was a flicker, just a flicker of surprise.
"You didn't care enough about Annette to even offer to bandage her wound."
"You think that, do you?" My voice was slow, soft, relaxed.
Jacob's palms slapped the desk top, loud in the log interior: "DAMN YOU, SIR! YOU WILL EXPLAIN YOURSELF!"
I raised one eyebrow, regarding the fury in the young man's face.
My son's face.
I blinked, slow, like a sleepy cat, then I stood.
"You are my deputy," I said flatly. "You will keep a civil tongue in your head when you address your Sheriff."
Jacob ripped the badge free of his shirt, threw it to the desktop.
It bounced, ringing, flashing as it spun.
"Jacob," I said, "take off your hat."
Jacob removed his Stetson, threw it to the floor.
I stepped around the desk.
"Do you really want to do this?" I asked mildly.
Jacob hesitated.
"We don't have to, you know."
For a moment, a long moment, Jacob considered: then his arms came up, his fists tight, and I saw his shoulder drop.
We'd sparred often enough I knew where and how he would throw his first punch.
I wasn't there.
My hands were, though: I deflected the punch, seized Jacob by the shirt front and threw him across the desk.
I'll give him this, he was game: was I thrown across a desk and took the square edge in the gut, like as not it would have knocked the wind out of me and I would have been gasping like a fish out of water.
Jacob twisted and powered off the desk toward me.
This time I struck first.
It hurt me to hit my son but it was needful: I took him just below the breast bone, one punch, figuring to knock his wind out and hopefully take the fight out of him.
It worked.
I took him under the arms and turned, setting him down in a chair.
It took a minute or two for him to get his wind back.
I sauntered around the desk, set myself back down.
Jacob got enough air in him to hiss, "Damn you, sir!"
I nodded.
"Damn me if you wish."
I leaned forward, my forearms on the edge of the desk.
"She had a dirty wound, Jacob. It cut through material and carried debris into the injury. I let it bleed out so it would wash clean. She wasn't bleeding enough to be dangerous, just messy and I knew you would have her over to see Doc soon enough."
I paused, took a long breath.
"You remember the wheat straw."
Jacob's glare would have melted stone.
"When she blew out that wheat straw I looked for bubbles, for a hiss, for some sign the lung was punched. It wasn't. Had there been air I would have used that wax paper stuff she's got to seal it and I would have wrapped her up like an Egyptian mummy to keep it sealed.
"I did what was necessary, Jacob, but I wasted no time with what wasn't."
Jacob's hands closed into fists again.
"Now have you figured out what happened and in what order back at your house?"
Jacob blinked.
"We need to know who was where in what moment."
"Why? Them two are dead -- she shot 'em -- you killed one in the doorway -- the other is locked up --"
"Jacob," I said, and my voice had an edge to it, "look at me."
Jacob frowned a little and turned his head ever so slightly, his eyes on mine.
"Jacob. Look at me."
He faced me squarely.
"This is ugly on my face, not stupid."
This time he blinked, confused.
My right ear twitched.
He hadn't said "Sir?" -- he'd said What?
"Jacob, look at the timing. Three hit your house. Three hit my house. One hits the school house. Why three and three?"
"They were expecting us."
"No." I shook my head. "They were expecting someone, not necessarily us. Possibly us but maybe not."
Jacob's eyes shifted left, then right.
"But the one over here --"
"Wasn't alone." I leaned back in my chair, rocking it back against the wall.
Jacob tried to straighten up and thought better of it.
I must've gut punched him harder than I realized.
"Jacob, you've got two dead bodies to examine. Digger has 'em over to the funeral parlor with orders not to go through their effects. That's your job."
Jacob's jaw thrust forward, then withdrew slowly.
I picked up the badge.
"You'll need this."
The shining six point star spun through the air and Jacob caught it, one-handed.
"Yes, sir."

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Linn Keller 10-17-09


The man's name was Smith, and that's what he was.
Arms like twisted oak, hands half again bigger than a normal man's, his blacksmith's hammer had been a sledge at one time, at least until he sawed the handle down to a convenient length to swing one handed.
Now, though, he was working out on the narrow tip of the anvil's horn, with a much, much smaller hammer, a ball peen that looked absolutely dainty and toy-like in his massive grip.
Smith frowned as he worked, chewing on a knot of snuff that had long since lost its potency: he spat, turning his head just enough to clear the anvil, never taking his eyes off his work.
I seen this before, he thought as he tapped the young lawman's badge back into true: they git into a fight an' some fella reaches out an' grabs that-there nice shiny badge an' yanks it off him.
He frowned as he swung the pin out, laid it on the horn, and began delicately bringing it back into straight.
He didn't look up at the torn vest, ripped where the heavy pin had resided: musta ben some fight, he reflected, attair vest don't look like it'd tear easy.
He handed the star back to Jacob, turning his head and spitting out the last crumbs of the flavorless snuff.
"Thank you," Jacob said quietly. "How much do I owe you?"
Smith chuckled, more of a pained grunt: if Jacob hadn't known the man he would have thought himself abruptly dismissed, or at least ridiculed, by the noise.
"Buy me a beer when I'm 99," he muttered, half-limping and half-stomping over to a plank on the wall where a variety of small tools hung from cleverly-forged hooks. He replaced the delicate little ball peen hammer, turned back.
"You ketch them fellers yit?" he muttered, lurching back over to the anvil.
"Got some," Jacob said peevishly. "Pa thinks there's more."
"Hm." Smith's grunt was more a stifled cough that made him reach for a nearly filthy bandanna hanging from a pocket of his worn bib overalls.
"Now what's that supposed to mean?" Jacob flared, his wounded pride still tender.
Smith straightened, as best he could -- his back hadn't let him stand up straight for ten years and more -- he peered at Jacob with the scowl of an irritated gargoyle -- he read the rebellion in the younger man's eyes, felt the wall that went up between them.
Smith poked a powerful, stubby finger at the slender deputy.
"You the one that marked 'im?"
Jacob blinked. "What?"
"Yer Pa. The Shurf."
"Yeah," Jacob challenged. "Yeah, I marked him."
Smith shook his head.
"Now whattaya mean by that?" Jacob raised his voice, then immediately added, "Smith, I'm sorry. I have no quarrel with you."
Smith took another lurching step closer to Jacob.
Peering up at him with one bright eye and one partly squinted shut, he sneered with tobacco yellowed teeth and swayed a little.
"Ever' young man sometime in 'is life thinks 'ee can whip his old man."
Smith held out an arm.
Jacob could see the shirt sleeve was bulged full of hard muscle.
"I never did get t' that point. My ol' man would'a tied me in knots an' drove me int' th' groundt like a fents potes."
His pronunciation of the King's English was as ugly as his face.
"Yeah," Jacob muttered, his face darkening; his eyes went to the ground and his bottom lip thrust rebelliously forward.
"He ain't had a good time, y'know that."
Jacob looked up, frowned.
"He dotes on that pretty wife o' yours. The sun sets down an' rises in her bonnet. Give him his druthers he'd'a druther taken her for a daughter as anything."
Jacob looked at the blacksmith a little oddly.
I didn't know that.
How does this fellow know it?
Am I that blind?

"He'd trust no one but you with her." Smith peered, almost one-eyed, at Jacob, leaning one massive hand on the anvil to keep from swaying too badly.
"He trusts you."

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Linn Keller 10-17-09


Esther tucked the quilt up around her little girl's chin.
"Yes, sweets?"
"Mommy, are the bad mans gonna come tonight?"
Esther blinked.
She'd been expecting and dreading this question.
Esther turned, smoothed her skirts under her: Angela scooted over to give her Mommy room to sit down.
Esther's hand was gentle on her daughter's cheek.
"No bad mans would dare to come around here!" she said softly, her face gentle, but with an unmistakable glitter in her Irish-green eyes.

In another home, not far out of town, Bonnie Rosenthal looked in on her own daughter.
As she feared, Sarah was awake.
"Mama?" Sarah asked.
Bonnie came in, eased the door most of the way shut.
"Yes, Sarah?"
"Mama, I was scared."
Bonnie, too, smoothed her skirt under her; like her adopted cousin, Sarah scooted over to allow her Mama room to sit down.
"Mama, there was nothing I could do," and the memory surged in the child's mind and flooded her chest and of a sudden it was hard to breathe, and she felt the lariat snap taut around her upper arms, and she pulled and twisted and was yanked off her feet --
"I'm here," Bonnie whispered, the brush of her fingers on Sarah's forehead and the matronly sibilant breaking the evil spell: Sarah squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed hard and Bonnie heard a little squeak of fear.
"Mama, I don't want to feel like that again!"
Bonnie knew what it was to feel like that.
Bonnie's eyes burned in the darkness.
Someone had visited on her daughter some of what she'd felt, years ago, something she never, ever wanted to feel again ... and Bonnie realized there was a dark facet to the shining jewel of her life, a black, evil plane polished and gleaming and humming with the desire to visit evil and murder upon those who had done this to her child.
"You are safe now," Bonnie whispered, like she'd whispered to the scared, bruised little girl Sarah had been, hiding from her drunken Pa, from the men that came in and abused Bonnie and the girls.

Shorty scratched his head and frowned at his ledger book.
His heart was not in figures and numbers and so he wisely closed the book and instead opened the top right hand drawer of his chaff-dusted desk.
He uncorked the bottle, took a short tilt, and sighed with pleasure as the raw whiskey seared a pleasurable path all the way down, where it detonated in a minor sunball of heat and pain which died quickly to a comfortable glow.
Shorty thought about Charlie MacNeil and how he'd been everywhere, fast.
"Now there's a man to get things done," he muttered, leaning back and kicking one worn brogan up on the corner of the desk, then the other.
"Hell, he was ever'where, askin' this, lookin' at that, down on all fours sightin' along tracks, him an' that black Dawg --"
Shorty liked Charlie, and Dawg had tolerated Shorty well enough, especially when the old hostler had rubbed Dawg behind the ears: Dawg leaned companionably against Shorty's thigh, groaning with pleasure, eyes closed and head thrust forward: Shorty liked them well enough, but there was something about Charlie's eyes, something Shorty had seen before.
There would be blood on the mountain, he was sure of it.
His bones told him so.
His bones were never wrong.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-17-09


A word whispered in the right ear can spread far and wide. That same word shouted to the wind can roll across mountain, river and plain, the reverberations seeping deep into the most hidden of sanctuaries. And the clink of coin on slivered pine will draw a man's attention as surely as any far-flung message.

The glimmer of silver in the smoke-shadowed darkness of the run-down cantina caught the rheumy eye that blinked in solitary misery from behind its nest of wrinkles. "Wha' chew wan', Marshall?" the owner of the eye asked in a querulous tone that belied the sudden gleam of avarice.

Charlie leaned his fists on the knife-scarred tabletop. "Information," he said in answer to the "retired" bandit's question. The man had contacts literally everywhere, and would sell his own mother for the price of a drink, depending on who was asking. On the other hand, it had been mainly Charlie who was responsible for the termination of Sartain's career on the wrong side of the law.

"You can' afford what I got to sell," Sartain sneered, slurring his words as false bravado overlay the need he felt. A hand like a vulture's claw began to inch across the table toward the coin. Charlie's hand came down on the coin.

"A man should value himself as high as he can," Charlie told the old outlaw, his voice calm. Suddenly the hand not covering the coin slashed out to grip filthy silk and twist. Sartain came out of his chair, hands clawing at Charlie's wrist in a futile attempt to get some air into his suddenly starving lungs. "How 'bout we raise the stakes a little?" Charlie asked mildly. He relaxed his grip and the emaciated figure dropped back into its chair, gasping and wheezing.

"You can't do that! You're a federal officer! There's rules!" This time the words were sharp and indignant.

"Not any more," Charlie said softly. "This time there ain't no rules. Either you tell me what I want to know, or..." He brought his hand up from the tabletop slowly.

"Alright, alright! Whadda you need?"

"You heard about them boys tryin' to kidnap the Sheriff's wife and daughter in law?" Sartain nodded. "They weren't the ones that planned that raid. I wanna know who did."

"How would I know that?" the old man protested.

"Find out!" Charlie dropped another coin on the table. "Soon!" He turned and started toward the door.

"MacNeil!" Charlie turned. "How soon?" Without a word, Charlie stepped out of the darkness of the cantina and into the light of late afternoon.

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Linn Keller 10-19-09


Caleb Rosenthal sat at the center of the council table, in the council chambers, for the very first council meeting Firelands had ever held, in the new and yet-unfinished city building.
Caleb, as mayor, sat in the center, with two council on his left, and two council on his right.
Mayor Rosenthal wore a suit, as was his habit: his only concession to rank was a tuft of little blue prairie flowers, pinned to his left lapel by his daughter not ten minutes earlier.
Caleb Rosenthal, businessman, mayor of Firelands, elected by popular vote.
City council was made of men elected by the populace, men respected, looked up to, men of good repute.
The elect were chosen by ballot for their business acumen, their dignity, their gentlemanly bearing.
Right now these dignified, respected, admired representatives of the public good were absolutely crimson-faced: nearly every voice was raised, not a few fists were either waved in mid-air or were pounding on the table, and Caleb Rosenthal swung his gavel hard enough to break its turned-cherry head off the polished handle.
It was the sight of the wooden hammer's head bouncing across the polished stone floor that brought the assembled to order, for none could have heard Hizzoner's vigorous pounding of the now-split gavel block.
Court had been that morning.
The prisoners had been sullen and truculent on the stand; their cooperation was notably lacking; one complained that he'd been beaten by someone with a young bear in tow, the other that his arms had been "chawed off" -- to which His Honor mildly replied that a man with a noose around his neck had no need for arms, which ended that prisoner's protests.
Annette and the Sheriff were no-billed, their testimony had been simple and straightforward, and they were dismissed with the thanks of the Court: the prisoners were ordered held "until further investigation returns its results."
Now, tonight, City Council was starting out resembling nothing more than a crooked Chicago political convention, all shouts, threats, fists, angry voices and clouds of rich blue tobacco smoke.
The gavel's head clattered and bounced and rolled up against a pair of freshly dusted and polished boots.
The Sheriff bent down and picked it up.
He held it up to eye level, turned it over, examined it minutely, as if it were the most interesting object in the world.
Smoke drifted in lazy swirls in the suddenly silent council chamber.
"Mister Mayor," the Sheriff drawled, "is your daughter present?"
"No she isn't!" Caleb snapped. "She's at home packing for Chicago!"
The Sheriff nodded, turned the gavel's head over.
"Chicago," the Sheriff said.
"That's right, Chicago! I'm sending her to live with family for a time, until we aren't in danger here!"
The Sheriff unfolded a wanted poster, the gavel's head still in his good right hand.
"Mister Mayor," he said, "do you know how many people are kidnapped in Chicago right now, today?"
Caleb Rosenthal blinked, then flared, "Now what has that to do with my daughter?"
The Sheriff turned the wanted dodger so it could be seen. He walked over to the chairs ranked against the north wall, holding it up flat so all could see it.
The poster was a woodcut of a young woman, handcuffed by one wrist to a steel rail fence, a grinning footpad with flat cloth cap and a slung shot in hand leering over her, with a swag at his feet marked "Ransom."
"Chicago has a street gang that specializes in such matters. The French call them street Apaches. Matter of fact they have several gangs and they all play that game."
The Sheriff turned slowly, walking down the row of chairs, letting all present see this engraving of a pretty young woman, chained, threatened.
"It's popular now to seize a victim and chain them to a fence as you see here. They are held for ransom and if they don't ransom handsomely and quickly, they start breaking fingers."
The Sheriff made a slow circuit of the room, saving the Council tables for last.
"Mister Mayor," he said, his voice clear in the silent room, "how would you like to have Sarah's fingers broken?"
Caleb Rosenthal was not a man given to anger, but Caleb Rosenthal was a father.
His look would have incinerated a lesser man.
The Sheriff tossed the wanted poster on the table in front of his friend.
"Mister Mayor," he said, "Chicago is full of vice and crime and corruption. You, of all people, YOU!" -- he turned, thrust an accusing finger -- "YOU are from there, YOU should know better!"
"I'M A LAWMAN, THAT'S HOW I DARE!" the Sheriff shouted right back, leaning his palms on the table and towering over the seated politician. "I FIND THESE THINGS OUT! I MAKE IT MY BUSINESS TO KNOW!"
The Sheriff began to pace.
He'd described a slow, leisurely orbit of the council chamber, displaying the frightening poster to all present; now he retraced his steps, meeting every eye, looking in every face.
"You all know me," he said finally, "and I know most of you." He grinned. "Hell, I'll even admit to knowing the most of you."
A quiet chuckle rippled through the assembled.
"You hired me to do a job and I do that job, and I do that job well.
"One thing I don't do is read minds." He stopped and looked at the five at the front table. "I don't have a crystal ball and Esther takes care of tea leaves, generally with a shot of whiskey if I have a sore throat."
Another quiet wave of subdued amusement.
"I find things out, I handle things after they've happened, I track them down and I lay hard hands on those who have done wrong. That's my job and I do it well."
He continued to pace.
"My own daughter" -- he paused for emphasis -- "was the intended victim of these thugs.
"My daugher in law was another intended victim.
"I don't know but what they wanted my wife and my infant son and hell, for all I know, they figured to take my little girl's Beatle dog too!"
His voice echoed in the now-silent chamber. Men leaned forward to hear his words; ladies pressed uncertain kerchiefs to their upper lips.
"I do know this."
The Sheriff's voice was as hard as the polished granite on which he stood.
"They entered my home and they frightened my wife and my child, and I am not happy about it.
"I will have justice, my friends."
The threat was clear in his voice.
"I will have those who did this. Most who struck are dead, the rest locked up, but the master mind, the planner, or planners, are being ..."
His smile was not pleasant.
"They are being found out."
The Sheriff dropped the poster as if it were unclean.
"Esther has family back in the Carolinas."
The Sheriff looked toward the left hand door, where his wife and little girl were seated.
"Esther, how say you? Stay or go?"
Esther stood, and Angela stood with her.
Esther's chin came up and her green eyes snapped in the chamber's lamp light.
"I will not be run from my home," she declared, her voice carring clearly and fairly ringing off the stone walls. "The damned Yankees didn't run me off, and neither did that devil Sherman! These skulkers and hooligans won't run me off either!"
Angela's rag doll was clutched tightly in the bend of her elbow and she held her Mommy's hand with her free hand. She looked up as her Mommy spoke and then nodded once, emphatically:
The Sheriff turned and looked his old and dear friend squarely in the eye.
He said what he had to, knowing full well he was driving a wedge between them, a wedge that could destroy that friendship.
"Run if you want, Caleb. We're stayin'."

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Linn Keller 10-20-09


It is a curious fact of some men that they can leave conflicts and titles and formal associations as if they were dropped garments.
Caleb Rosenthal, Mayor of Firelands, and Linn Keller, Sheriff of Firelands, talked quietly together near the livery.
Caleb and the Sheriff had voiced their official words in Council meeting and had made their formal presentations under color of their respective offices.
Now they were two men who'd known each other long enough to be comfortable speaking frankly and honestly and openly with one another.
Caleb's fine carriage was backed up against the livery; his mare was within: Smith had shod the dapple, filed the hooves, felt her legs and checked her teeth: Caleb did not know the man that well and wasn't sure if he was twisted, ugly and ill-tempered by choice, from injury, or perhaps spawned from deep earth strata and spat out by a displeased volcano.
Shorty had assured Caleb that Smith knew his stuff, that his work was superb, that he had a way with horses: though he did not voice his opinion, Caleb wondered privately if Smith's "way with horses" involved a swing of those massive arms, a right hook that would render a horse senseless with one concussive blow!
Now, though, Caleb and the Sheriff sat on the tuck and roll upholstered carriage seat, talking quietly in the dark.
"I'm still sending Sarah to Chicago," Caleb said, his spine very straight, his Derby hat cocked forward at an angle.
The Sheriff nodded.
"She's the dearest thing I know," the Sheriff said softly.
Caleb looked over at the older man, hunched forward with his forearms on his knees, eyes busy.
"That's not what I expected to hear," Caleb admitted. "I would imagine Angela or Esther would be your dearest."
The Sheriff nodded and was silent for several long moments: looking down, he traced the pin striping on the dash board with his eyes.
"Caleb, did I ever tell you of the first time I saw Bonnie and Sarah?"
Caleb smiled.
The Sheriff never had.
His wife had, yes, but he'd never heard the story from the Sheriff himself.
"No," he admitted. "No, I don't believe you ever did."
Linn rubbed his hands together, took a long breath.
"I'd rode West on a plow horse, with a Spencer rifle and a broken heart," the Sheriff said, his voice gentle in the night.
"My Connie -- Connie Lee her name was, and she was beautiful! -- died a week before I got home from that damned War."
Caleb remained silent.
"I got home and my little girl was dying of the same small pox that killed her Mama.
"I held her as she died, and buried her in the same grave as Connie."
His eyes had tracked back and forth, and now regarded the back of the Silver Jewel, resting on the familiar edifice without seeing it.
"I sold the farm and all I had, all but my Sam-horse and what I carried with me.
"We come west, Sam and me, an' when we rode into town here" -- he pointed to the alley, up beside the Jewel -- "I walked up that alley yonder and used that window -- see the one on the right -- for a mirror."
Caleb's eye followed the Sheriff's pointing finger and he saw the black-glass mirror of the nighttime window.
"I saw Bonnie and Sarah, and Sarah was little. She was just a wee slip of a thing!"
Caleb noticed the softness in his friend's voice.
"I thought them mother and daughter, your Bonnie and Sarah holding her hand.
"That was the first I ever saw them and they looked proper together. I figured them for a Mama and her little girl."
Linn turned his head and looked Caleb sqare in the eye.
"I was tired and wore plumb out, but I would have pulled the heart out of my chest and laid it at her feet if she'd asked."
Caleb mulled this over for a minute or so.
"Do you want my wife?" he asked, and Linn looked at him in honest surprise.
"Can I adopt her?" he deadpanned, and Caleb started to laugh.
"Hell, Caleb, she's young enough to be my daughter! Do I want her, hell yes, but I've already got her --" he leaned back and tapped his breast bone with two fingers -- "right here. She's a sweetheart and when Sarah calls me 'Uncle Linn' it just plainly melts me right in my boots."
Caleb laid a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder.
"Me too," he said quietly. "Me too."
There was a nicker from within the livery, the stamp of restless hooves.
"She calls you 'Uncle Linn'?"
Caleb's laughter was bright and spontaneous and the Sheriff joined him.
Silence claimed the two men and they listened to the night bugs. Off in the distance an owl challenged the night, and a screech owl warbled from somewhere nearby.
"I have to keep her safe."
"I know, Caleb."
"I failed her."
Linn knew Caleb's bottom jaw was thrust forward as his head tilted and he looked down at his boot toes.
Linn placed a companionable hand on his friend's shoulder.
"I don't have a crystal ball, Caleb," he said. "You don't either. There's no way either of us knew that someone would try and lasso a child out of the lot of 'em. There's no way you could have known!" His voice was an urgent hiss now as he tried to convince this worried father that he had indeed not failed his child.
"Yeah." Caleb's reply was less an affirmation than it was a grunt.
Linn shifted in his seat.
"Your back?"
"Yeah, ever since I broke my tail bone it's give me hell every now and again."
"I saw you weren't comfortable sitting down tonight."
Linn nodded. "It does that just to aggravate me."
"Hey Mayor!" Shorty called from withi the livery.
"Hello!" Caleb sang back.
"You want this horse or do I water it and let it grow some?"
"I'll take it now, thank you."
Shorty led the dapple out and busied himself harnessing her up.
"Reckon the ladies have had their tea by now," the Sheriff said, twisting a little and trying to work the worst of the bend out of his lower back.
"They'll be waiting for us." Caleb accepted the reins, frowned.
"I don't have to send her to Chicago," he said.
"No need. She's safer here. A strange face rides in, we know it right away."
Caleb took a long breath, blew it out.
"I'm carrying a pistol now."
"I know."
"It's ... not much of a pistol ..." His voice trailed off and he laid a hand on the unfamiliar lump in his coat pocket.
"Can you hit well with it?"
Caleb blinked.
"I don't know."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Come on by the house sometime and bring it."
"I'll do that."
"Hey Sheriff!" Shorty looked up from tightening the last buckle. "You want yer rig too?"
"Yeah, I'd best, I reckon."
"Them wimmen folks will think you two have run off with some painted hussy from Kansas City! -- now by the by, Sheriff, I got yer mare harnessed up an' yer black horse tied on back behint."
"Thank you, Shorty."
"I'll fetch 'em."
The Sheriff slapped his hand companionably on the Mayor's knee.
"Do as you see best," he said. "A man can do no more than that."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-20-09


Chair legs scraped on hard-packed clay and Charlie lowered himself gingerly onto the seat of the rickety chair across the table from Sartain. He gave the old outlaw a feral grin. "Well?"

"All I've got's names, MacNeil," Sartain answered. "I don't know where, an' I damn sure don't wanna know nothin' else. I kinda like livin'. The man who'd hire those boys that attacked your friends ain't picky about who he kills."

"Just give me what you've got," Charlie rasped. "I'll handle the rest."

Sartain glanced around furtively, lowered his voice further and leaned forward. The stench of old whiskey and decaying teeth washed across the table as he whispered, "Alex Callahan. And some Frenchman, name of Dupre'. The Frenchman's a minin' engineer, but they ain't after gold. At least not the yellow kind. They're after oil."

"Yeah, right," Charlie answered skeptically as he leaned back and surreptitiously let out the breath he'd been holding. "There's no oil wells in this part of Colorado. And besides, I thought all you had was names?"

"What I give you is what I got!" Sartain declared. Charlie stood and dropped a gold eagle on the table. Sartain snatched the coin on the first bounce then asked, "Is that all I get?"

The second eagle rolled across the tabletop. "Twenty dollars and I don't tell anybody where I got the names," Charlie told him. "That suit you?" Sartain nodded eagerly. "Good. Oh, and one more thing. Nobody hears about this. Otherwise I send Dawg back here for a visit. And I know where you live." Charlie turned on his heel and strode from the room, thoughts already busy with plans for his next move.

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Linn Keller 10-21-09


Caleb clattered away and up the street, toward the church where the ladies were having their tea.
I think they were having a tea.
Hell, for all I knew, they were quilting or something.
Shorty came leading my two horsepower rig, complete with pusher engine, so to speak.
I fed the mare one of the sweet little apples I'd picked earlier that day, the apples Rose o' the Mornin' loved so well, and now so did the black.
Matter of fact, the black muttered at me and I had to go fool with him some and feed him a couple apples too.
"Yew know, Shurf," Shorty said, then coughed and spat wetly into the dust: "yew know that war quite a show yew an' Caleb put on tonight."
I scratched the back of my neck.
"Was I not smarter'n yer average pilgrim, I woulda said you two was fit t' rip one another's throat out."
I raised one eyebrow and regarded the hostler with what I hoped was an innocent expression.
Shorty stood there and put his fists on his hips.
"Well?" he demanded.
I shook my head.
"Shorty, am I that transparent?"
Shorty took a step toward me and looked up into my face.
"I know yew better'n that," he said confidentially.
I could smell the whiskey on his breath.
"Yew two was puttin' on a show for the folks."
I patted Shorty on the shoulder.
"I can't fool you a'tall," I said solemnly.
"Yer daggone right!" Shorty raised a blunt finger for emphasis and swayed a little. "Now yer gonna tell me how come why you done it that way the both of yew!"
I weighed the odds of the hostler's falling over into the horse trough on his own; this seemed fairly remote, though he did choose to lean his backside against the hitch rail.
"You asked the question," I nodded. "I'll give you an answer."
"A'right." Shorty belched happily.
"We've never had a mayor before."
"Nope!" Shorty agreed delightedly.
"We've never had a Council before."
"No we ain't!" Shorty enthused, swinging a fist across in front of his wrinkled shirt front for emphasis.
"Shorty, that was the very first council meeting. The Mayor had to establish he was the man in charge, and I had to show that he had no authority over me. Each of us had to stand up and show the world we were king of our own domain, that each of us could lock horns with the other, and the town could survive the two most powerful men in town rammin' heads into one another."
I hesitated, considering.
"It's new, Shorty. It's something new. People are interested in it and they want to see how their government works.
"They had to have entertainment."
"Well now they got that all right!" Shorty nodded.
"They went away from there saying the new mayor won't stand for these things going on, and saying that I would get to the bottom of it."
Shorty squinted, peering at me and turning his head a little left, then right.
"Yew shamed him, Shurf. Yew shamed the man."
"I challenged him."
"Yew might as well'a' called 'im a coward."
I took a long breath, considering.
Shorty was right.
I had as much as called the man a coward, in public.
"He's from back East, Shorty," I said finally. "If he wants to call me on it, he will. A native would have called me already and there would be blood on the moon. He hasn't and I don't believe he will."
"Ever'one will know you called him that."
"They'll know I gave him a choice."
"They'll know he backed down!" Shorty countered. "A man don't back down peaceful! Not when he's been shamed!"
There was more to what Shorty was saying than tonight's entertainmet.
I'd bet on it.
Shorty turned his head a little, regarding me with concern.
"Shurf?" he asked uncertainly.
"Yeah, Shorty?"
"Shurf, how come there's three of yu'?"
I ended up laying Shorty out on his bunk, but I rolled him up on his side and found a towel that wasn't too badly used: I folded it in half longways and laid it under his head, over the edge of his narrow pallet and down into a slop bucket.
Something told me the man would have need of that kindness before morning.

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Linn Keller 10-22-09


I raised my chin as Esther knotted my tie.
"You're uncomfortable," Esther observed quietly.
"I'm going into the Devil's mouth," I replied.
She patted my chest. "You don't have to do this, darling."
My fingertips were light on her upper arms.
"Esther, they came into my house, they wanted to cause harm to my wife, they wanted to take my child." Anger, held down with a hard hand, surged against its restraint and threatened to foment outright rebellion.
"Or children." My jaw was thrust forward and I felt my brows crowd up together.
"They tried to take my niece and they tried to take Annette."
Esther took both my fisted hands in hers.
"Do what you must," she whispered. "I understand."
I bundled her up in my arms and kissed her fiercely.
Intimacy was strong between us: I am a robust and full-blooded man and make no apologies for enjoying the natural use of my wife.
In fact I rather enjoy that natural use, and Esther joins me in that joyful and vigorous celebration.
We've both seen how short and brutal life can be, and we long ago learned to seize such pleasure as may be had.
"Be strong," Esther whispered, and I kissed her below the ear: snatching my hat from its peg, I whirled, and strode out the door.
The black was dozing at the hitch rail, at least until I came out the door: I bribed him with another small, sweet apple, then swung into the saddle.
We turned in the predawn darkness and pointed our noses toward Cripple Creek.
I was bound for Myers Street, for a particular, well-appointed house, or rather House: they had a soiree the night before, and a virgin auction, and I had need of certain information.
The madam was known to me.
Houses of that type were wonderful sources of information.
Men talk when the company of lovely ladies, and ladies were in short supply: Madam Lil's girls had been productive sources of intelligence in the past, and I hoped they would be again.
Lil and I respected one another, though neither of us trusted the other: as was the custom, she paid a "tax" to the city, which amounted to protection money, and so had no love for cripple Creek or its lawman: I, on the other hand, had never had cause to give her or her girls any distress, and so she ...
She what? I thought.
The black wasn't the smoothest mount in the world, but he was steady: I had mostly got him over fainting at loud and angry voices, mostly but not entirely, but my beloved Rose o' the Mornin' was with foal and I did not wish to trouble her with the demands a lawman might have to put on her.
"Madam Lil tolerates me," I told the black, and his ears swung back, then forward. "I think I amuse her."
Yes, I amuse her, I thought. Hell, I get her to laughing so hard she threatend to throw me out before she wet herself from laughter!
She didn't, of course, and she bade me welcome to return.
I always visited of a morning, when she was in the kitchen, having coffee and enjoying the good smell of breakfast: generally she was not of a mood to eat, though her customers, those who stayed overnight, not uncommonly were.
And I never, ever, even remotely implied that I wished to sample her wares.
She said one time that she was jealous of Esther for that very reason.
Esther seemed to take satisfaction in that knowledge, when we spoke of it later.
"I'm not as big a fool as I look, boy," I told Black-horse. "There is temptation there. God grant I get in, get information and get out!"
The black horse, a born philosopher, offered the counsel of his silence.

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