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Linn Keller 10-22-09

 

Maude looked apprehensively at the green-eyed matron smiling at her across the counter.
"Aren't you afraid ...?" Maude hazarded, her eyes sliding to the front windows.
"Indeed not!" Esther declared. "I have absolutely nothing to fear." She adjusted the drape of her wrap, a short cloak extending to just below her hips. "Besides, people must know that we are not living our life in fear!"
Angela nodded once as she declared, "Hooglians!"
In spite of her misgivings, Maude couldn't help but laugh at the little girl's firm, if slightly mangled, declaration.
"The mail came in yesterday, and ... yes, here it is."
She handed the envelope to Esther.
Esther's expression saddened as she saw the black border.
"I think Linn has been expecting this," she murmured.

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Linn Keller 11-22-07   Jacob and I took turns out back, splitting wood and hauling in kindling and fire wood, for the days were chll and the nights more so, and a November mist had started:

And that, loyal readers, is the original story of the town and people of Firelands as told by a variety of folks over a long space of time both modern and old. I hope that you have enjoyed our small e

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Linn Keller 10-23-09

 

I knocked as I always did, hesitating at the back door of Lil's palace.
Lil's wasn't the grandest House on Myers Street, but it had the best reputation for its hospitality, its gentility, the quality of its soirees, and the ladylike properties of its ... ladies.
Lil waved me in.
She looked tired, as she always did after a soiree: they were by invitation only, they invited the monied, the influential, the important: her girls were well treated and well paid, but then Lil got her cut of all the action, whether the discreet games of chance, or the discreet sporting of the more ancient nature.
"Coffee, Sheriff?" she said with a fatigued smile.
"Yes, thank you." My hat was in my hand and I drew out a chair.
"Mae, could you fix the Sheriff something? -- what'll it be, handsome?"
I chuckled. "Lil, you could charm a politician out of an election!"
"Oh, I've done it," she purred, looking at me rather wickedly from under her full and curled eyelashes.
"I don't doubt it a bit."
Mae tilted her head curiously. She'd not seen me before and something told me she wasn't one of the working girls.
"If I could trouble you for a couple of eggs," I asked, "and bacon if you have it."
"He'll need a half dozen eggs fried up and a pound of bacon crispy," Lil translated, "and slab him off half a loaf of that good fresh bread!"
Mae poured coffee and brought it over.
"Mae here can't talk, but she understands everything," Lil said.
Mae smiled quietly and turned to her cooking.
"So, Sheriff." Lil folded her hands on the table top. "You never come over for just a social call."
"You're right." I shifted in my seat, frowning.
"Your back?" Lil asked sympathetically.
"Broke my tail bone some time back," I explained.
Lil made a face, nodded.
Mae set a plate in front of me with half a dozen thick slabs of still-warm bread, and beside it a plate of butter, pressed into decorative flowered pats.
I buttered a slice, bit into it.
Few things are quite so good as good fresh still warm bread with butter thick on top.
"Sooo ...?" Lil spread her hands, her brows raised interrogatively.
I set down the slice of bread and saw Lil straighten just a little as I did.
"Lil, I'm lookin' for information." I reached into my coat and drew out an envelope. "How much they ringin' you for this month?"
Lil waved a hand. "The usual."
I slid the envelope across the table.
"Don't you want to know if there's information first?" Lil asked, something between amusement and surprise on her face.
I shook my head.
"Lil, it is a principle of American business that we pay someone for what they know." I took a breath, frowned. "I'm here pretty much on business and I'm payin' for your time."
Lil put one hand on her hip. "Darlin', when a man pays me for my time, he usually has something in mind."
I glared at her.
"Okay -- okay," she said quickly, raising both palms toward me. "It's your show."
"Lil, someone tried to take my little girl."
Lil dropped her sociable facade like a dirtied kerchief.
"Angela?"
I nodded.
Lil's fists closed and her eyes half-closed as well, kind of like a sleepy looking cat will flex its claws right before pouncing on a tender morsel.
"And?"
"They came into my house, Lil. They came after my wife and my infant son. They came after my daughter in law and they came after Caleb Rosenthal's girl." I leaned against the table top, the good fresh bread forgotten.
"Lil, this was no accident and this was no small operation. Someone wanted to hit the money. Someone wanted to take children and maybe my wife as well, someone picked on the two wealthiest families in Firelands."
I paused.
"Have your girls heard anything?"
Lil turned her head a few degrees. "Why come here, Sheriff? Why not the cribs or the cheap houses?"
"Because this is not a cheap operation, Lil. I'll make inquiries on down the line but I'm starting here. Men talk and men drink and the low mix with the mighty. Word travels, gossip spreads. There's a good chance if someone knows something it'll be talked about to a pretty girl."
Lil closed her eyes. Her lips were pressed together and she was making an effort at keeping something under control.
"I'll find out." Her words were less promise than threat, and it wasn't me she was threatening.
Lil knew something, or maybe she knew some one.
Whichever it was, I didn't care.
"The Rosenthal girl," Lil finally said.
"Sarah."
Lil nodded.
"She is ... ten?"
I nodded.
Lil closed her eyes again and I saw her shiver.
She opened her eyes and slid the envelope back toward me.
I raised an eyebrow.
"Do you remember a girl name of Frazee, lives on east of Firelands about a day's ride or better?"
I blinked.
"I met her, yes."
Lil nodded.
"You did her a kindness once."
I nodded again.
"You gave her a stake and more than a stake, and you told her to take it as a blessing on an old man who missed his little girl."
My mouth was dry of a sudden.
"I did."
Lil nudged the envelope toward me with the tip of one finger.
"Take that and make it into something good for Sarah."
Lil looked at me and her eyes were hard, agate-hard, and ocean-deep.
"Do that for me."
I looked at Lil for a long time, and I saw her hard eyes soften.
"Do that for someone who misses her little girl."

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Linn Keller 10-23-09

 

"Hey, Soapy!"
I reined the black to a halt.
My belly was smiling from the excellent breakfast I'd had earlier, my mind was busy with information I'd gathered and my pocketbook was lightened a bit by what I regarded as business transactions with the ladies of my acquaintance: the only commodity an employee can trade for a paycheck is time, and if I was going to impose on the ladies who ran their Houses, I was not going to be so churlish as to expect them to donate their time for free.
Even if it was much less strenuous work than they were accustomed to delivering.
So far, in addition to Lil's excellent breakfast (and a hand-written note her cook slipped under my plate with the second round of bacon and eggs, thanking me for being a gentleman), I'd had pie or cake at each House I stopped in, I'd been propositioned three times, kissed twice and was proposed to, complete with a very colorful description of exactly what I could expect to discover upon arriving home, should I leave my wife and take up with the ... lady ... doing the proposing.
I declined these offers.
Now, though, I regarded the grinning loafer with a grin of my own.
"You're a ways from home," I greeted him.
"Yeah, well," he shrugged, "wanted some new scenery."
Walking the Black-horse over to him, I leaned casually on my saddle horn.
"Now you know that I am a lawman," I said, and the loafer tilted his hat back, delighted at the prospect of having his leg pulled.
"Yes, I 'member somethin' of the kind," he affirmed.
"Now a lawman deals in ... information."
"Is that what they call it now?" he asked, blinking his eyes and trying to look as utterly innocent as possible.
He nearly achieved that goal.
Me, I've been practicing that innocent expression for better'n a half century and it had consistently eluded me.
I raised an admonishing finger. "I have to make sure I have the facts straight," I admonished.
"Get what straight now?"
I glared at him.
"Let's say you're new in town and you don't know anyone and you don't have two nickles to rub together."
"Hell, that's me all the time!"
"What ye do," I said in the voice of a teacher in front of the classroom, "you go to one of these houses -- you always go to one of the better ones: not the best, they only want fellows with pockets full of money, and not the worst, you'll get bed-bugs -- but you go to the middle houses and knock at the back door.
"The ladies will take you in and feed you and give you a cot until you're on your feet and making money.
"They won't give you," I paused, "anything else" -- this with a wink -- "until you're making a regular wage."
I straightened.
"You see, young fellers often times look at my gray hairs and think they see wisdom and experience. They'll ask my advice and it behooves me to tell 'em the truth, and to guide 'em in the path they'd ought to walk."
"Well now if that ain't a right purty story," the loafer drawled. "S'posin' I tells your lovely wife where you been?"
"She'll thank you for it, right before she cuts your heart out. She knows I'm here and she murdered the last two men who tried to stain my character."
"She did?" The loafer looked at me suspiciously. "Then how come she ain't in jail?"
I grinned.
"They needed killin'," I grinned, laying the reins against the Black-horse's neck.
I left the loafer scratching the back of his neck, not entirely sure that I was pulling his leg.

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Linn Keller 10-24-09

 

Jackson Cooper had his ten-bore broke down and in pieces on the desk. From the rags and other paraphernalia he was giving it a general wipe down and looking at.
"I'm tryin' to think of a good smart remark to make," I said, regarding the laboring deputy, "but the mind just went blank!"
Jackson Cooper laughed quietly, reassembling the components.
"Did you do any good?" he inquired, hooking the barrels into the frame and closing the action with a surprising gentleness.
I sighed and patted my happy belly.
"Well, I got fed breakfast, I had pie, I had enough coffee to water every fence post between here and there, if that counts."
"Hmp." Jackson Cooper picked up the fore end, snapped it in place.
"As far as finding out anything useful, no. I listened to a bloody ton of belly ache complaints about the Cripple mayor, the Marshal, their council, taxes, fees, assessments, graft and payola, not necessarily in that order."
I belched, trying without success to muffle the eructive with the back of my hand.
"But I did maintain a goodwill association with them."
"That ort come in handy," Jackson Cooper nodded, opening and closing the action a few times.
"Now Charlie had information to work with." I sat down in a chair across from my own desk and bent the arc out of my lower back. "I would reckon he'll find quite a bit more than I could."
Jackson Cooper frowned at me. "The look on your face says that didn't feel good a'tall. You a'right, boss?"
I waved a dismissive hand. "Just fine," I lied.
Jackson Cooper didn't believe me, I could tell that by his face, but he gave me the charity of not debating the point. He chewed his upper lip and finally allowed as Charlie did have a way of finding things out.
"You reckon we'll hear from him any time soon?"
I shifted in my seat. "When he's ready. He'll either send word or show up with a prisoner or three."
"Scalps is easier."
Memory, unbidden, roared over me like a rogue wave at sea: I was a young lieutenant, looking at naked, mutilated bodies: unspeakable things had been done to them, the least of which was scalping.
It was my first real battle.
I'd led my men well, directed their fire, ordered a flank attack: when we overtook the enemy position we found we hadn't been fighting Rebs, we were exchanging fire with a small unit of deserters who'd taken prisoners, and killed them slowly.
I spent some time on my knees heaving my guts up.
My hands clenched tight on the seat of my chair and my heels was set wide apart so I would not dizzy up and fall off the chair.
I blinked to clear my vision, gagging a little.
I could smell blood.
Jackson Cooper's voice carried through the haze, and I seized it with both hands as if clutching desperately at a lifesaving line tossed from a rowboat.
"Boss, you don't look so good. May be you'd oughta sit there for a bit."
I shook my head and got to my feet, quick-like.
I just made it to the edge of the board walk and bent over the hitch rail and heaved up everything I'd et that morning.

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Linn Keller 10-24-09

 

I shoved my face down into the horse trough and sloshed off as best I could.
I came up quick-like, slinging water and blowing: I seized the pump handle, gave it a few brisk strokes and drank of the cold, sweet water, drank again.
Cold water on the face always did help settle down my stomach.
I stood there for a couple of minutes, shivering, trying to get the pictures out of my head, remembering how I'd written them while I was numb, shocked, not really feeling, but the feelings I didn't allow myself instead ran through my pen and into my wartime journal.
That was a long time ago, I told myself.
Too long to worry about.
I looked over at the mess on the dirt street.
I'll have to shovel that up and get rid of it.
Jackson Cooper came from noplace and hesitated beside me.
"You gonna be all right, Sheriff?"
I nodded, quickly, too quickly.
Jackson Cooper's big had was warm and reassuring on my back.
"You just stand fast for a minute."
I coughed, spat.
"Didn't mean to distress you. You know that."
I coughed again, gasped: I must've inhaled when I shouldn't have, my throat was burning and my chest hurt some.
"'Twas that damned war," I gasped, and coughed again.
Jackson Cooper sought to help matters along by smacking me open-handed across the back, which is to say, he nearly swatted me over into the horse trough. As it was, he like to knocked the wind clear out of me but it did knock loose whatever was troubling my wind pipe, and I spat it out.
It would be a very long time before I would want bacon and eggs again.
The sun peeked shyly out from behind a cloud, went back behind its modest veil.
"We ain't supposed t' have rain, now are we?" I asked, squinting upward, and caught two fat, cold drops right square between the eyes.
"Reckon so," Jackson Cooper muttered, squinting up the street at an advancing curtain of precipitation.
"Rat nuts," I swore.
I took three long strides toward that Black-horse and stepped into the saddle.
Black was only too happy to swap ends and power us into a gallop, toward the open and inviting doors of Shorty's livery, on down the alley past the Jewel.
It wasn't that far but by the time we got there I was soaked to the hide and starting to chill.
"Hell," I muttered, "I'm wet already, might as well just head for home."
Black-horse shook his head. He didn't particularly care to go back out in that cold rain, but I persuaded him, and we set a brisk trot for home.
I managed to get him unsaddled and rubbed down and his bridle off and hung up, and I even forked him some fresh hay and a scoop of grain before I just plainly petered out.
It was all I could do to get myself to the back porch, and drip my way through the kitchen.
There was a strange woman in the kitchen, I had to squint my eyes to figure out who she was and I had no notion a'tall why she was there, until she bent and wrote something, quick-like, on a slip and turned it around so I could read it:
Lil said you need help around the house.
Her amusement turned to concern as I started to shiver hard.
I'll heat water. Strip down and dry off.
"I'm damned if I strip in front of a strange woman," I muttered, squaring my shoulders and pacing off on the left.
I intended to undress in my bedroom with the door shut.
I remember Esther coming into the room and yanking a chair out of my way and the floor coming up towards my nose in one rippin' hurry.
It felt like I fell seven miles at least before I hit bottom, and when I hit bottom, I bounced ...

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Linn Keller 10-24-09

 

Esther hadn't practiced rough-and-tumble with a family full of brothers for nothing.
She seized her husband's wet coat with both hands and pulled, hard, falling back.
Instead of planting her feet in his gut and throwing him overhead -- a move she'd perfected at first in play, then in earnest -- she fell with intent to roll down the length of her leg and her bottom and slap the floor with the flat of her back, bringing her husband on top of her.
It worked almost to perfection.
Linn's face landed square in her belly and nearly knocked the wind out of her: grimacing, she worked out from under her husband's limp form, then worked her skirts out from under her so she could stand.
"No," she waved at the wordless inquiry, "he's too heavy for us to carry easily."
She looked at the new girl, surprised.
A disapproving glare was the wordless reply.
"I suppose you think we can."
The reply was a squat, a quick roll of coat material in each hand, a tentative lift: Esther, not to be outdone by hired help, matched her move for move.
A nod, a lift: they hauled the Sheriff's form up with their legs.
It was a weight, all right, and they had a flight of stairs, and both with full skirts: they made for the stairway, short stepping, and laid the Sheriff on his back at the foot of the stairs.
Both women released his coat and shook their hands, trying to work the strain out of delicate fingers.
Esther looked up the staircase.
"Can we do it?" she asked rhetorically.
Personally she didn't think they could.
Worst case scenario, they could seize him by his collar and drag him upstairs, though this would be a laborious, one-step-at-a-time process.
There was a knock and the front door opened.
"Mother?"
"Jacob, you're just in time," Esther said with relief in her voice. "Your father is not well and we must get him upstairs."
Jacob had slung the water off his hat as best he could before coming inside: he left a circle of water drops as the runoff fell from the hem of his poncho.
"Here," he said. "Let me." He shucked out of the poncho and hung it on a peg.
Striding to the foot of the stairs, he sized up his shivering father, seized him by the front of his coat, then released him and laid the back of his hand against the older man's cheek.
"He's fevered, Mother."
"I know."
"No, ma'am." Jacob straightened. "He's hot."
Esther's eyes flared concern and she squatted, laying a palm on her husband's forhead.
She jerked her hand away as if burned.
"Whither away, Captain?" Jacob asked, his eyes lightening as he spoke.
Esther considered, then decided, pointing with a thrust of her chin.
Jacob squatted, hauled his father up a bit, up one step, two: he bent, knelt, got a shoulder into his Pa's belly and worked his weight into position.
He rolled backward, standing, and groaned.
"Good Lord," he gritted, "Charlie was right. He is solid!"
"Can you do it?" Esther asked, concern in her voice.
"Watch me," Jacob hissed.

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Linn Keller 10-25-09

 

Angela rubbed the itchy behind her ear.
Her curious fingers explored the soft place hidden by her right earlobe.
She frowned.
Something was unusual, something was odd, something was raised up like a bump ...
She pressed it firmly.
Something gave a little *snap* and her finger was wet and it stung, like putting a finger on an opened blister.
Angela went skipping over to her Mommy.

Word spread through town almost as fast as the chicken pox.
Nobody knew where it came from; the school children were quickly examined -- at least as far as could be decently done -- nobody else was affected: Dr. Flint and Dr. Greenlees agreed that it takes some time after exposure for the disease to manifest, and so Angela, or someone near her, had to be either a carrier, or infected, perhaps as early as two weeks before.

Angela, meanwhile, was stripped down, bathed and tucked in her own bed, where she chafed impatiently: she felt fine, just itchy, and there were funny little bumpies on the inside of her arms, and her back itched a little, but she wasn't sleepy.
She laid there and looked at the ceiling, bored and wide awake.
Finally she threw back the covers and padded barefoot over to her Daddy's room.
Daddy was in bed too and he wouldn't be asleep. It was daylight and Daddy didn't sleep in bed in the day time. He might doze in his big chair downstairs, and Angela loved to climb up in his lap and get Daddy-cuddles.
She turned the knob, eased the door open, looked.
Daddy was in bed, with his covers pulled up, but he didn't look right.
Angela's nose twitched and she made a face.
She walked around to Mommy's side of the bed and with an effort climbed on top of the covers.
Daddy didn't smell right.
Angela worked her way under the covers and cuddled up against her Daddy.
He was shivering a little -- no, not shivering ... what was it Mommy called it?
He was riding a night mare.
Angela giggled.
Riding a horsie in bed! she thought. Silly! There's no horsie here!
Her Daddy said something she didn't quite understand, then groaned.
Angela was but a little child; she had neither medical training, nor any formal education in the psychology of the human animal.
She did, however, remember her Mommie talking with Aunt Bonnie, and Angela remembered what her Mommie said.
Angela laid a hand on her Daddy's chest.
She giggled as her Daddy's hand snapped up and pressed down on hers, big and warm and Daddy-strong, and she felt him shiver again, and then relax ...

It was war, and he was on a battlefield.
This wasn't the South.
It was too dry ... desert-dry, rocky ... it was night, and here and there fire flickered around angular, broken, twisted things he didn't recognize.
Here and there, running figures, shouts, shots ...


Dr. Flint smiled as he saw the little girl curled up against her Daddy, sound asleep.
Esther swept around him, her lips pressed together disapprovingly. She came around, laid a gentle hand on her daughter's shoulder.
Angela woke, rolled over on her back, blinked.
Esther put her finger to her lips, folded the covers back and slipped her hands under Angela's arms. Angela reached happily for her Mommy.
"You are getting so big!" Esther groaned. "It won't be long before you will be picking me up!"
Angela giggled, one finger to the corner of her mouth.
Esther carried Angela to her room and tucked her in again: Dr. Flint placed his bag on the side table, opened it, then frowned at the Sheriff.
He was sweating again, but his tremors were not from chills.

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Linn Keller 10-25-09

 

There were more people in the house than Mae had expected.
She was busy fixing a meal, anticipating how many more plates to set.
There was a sound behind her; she turned, wiping her hands on a towel.
Jacob nodded. "You'll be Mae?" he asked, his face impassive.
Mae was struck by how pale his eyes were.
Pale as his father's eyes, she thought.
Mae nodded, rolled her hand, palm up, fingers together: And you? the gesture asked.
"Jacob Keller," the slender young man said. "Firstborn son."
Neither his eyes nor his voice smiled.
Mae nodded, extended a hand to the coffee pot.
"No thank you." Jacob shifted his weight. "Pa ... would you have some tea?"
Mae smiled a little and held up one finger.
She explored a half-dozen tins before she found what she was looking for: scooping a perforated metal acorn into the shredded black leaves, she screwed on the cap, placed it in the tea pot, added water from the kettle on the stove.
She glanced at the clock, held up three fingers: Three minutes.
Jacob nodded.
Mae tilted her head, then stepped over to the side counter and motioned to a cooling pie.
Jacob's expression was a little on the sad side. "No thank you, but it's kindly of ye to offer." He leaned against the door frame, trying hard to look casual, and succeeding in looking as casual as a cat in a coyote convention.
Mae turned to the stove, stirred the fragrant, simmering stuff in the frying pan: Jacob recognized the smell and his belly reminded him he hadn't eaten in at least a half hour.
"Elk and gravy," he said, and his mouth watered.
Annette made gravy with elk tenderloin, and it was one of his favorite meals ... along with anything else Annette fixed him ... he watched, his mind elsewhere, as Mae picked up the boiling pot of potatoes, poured off the water and dumped them in a big bowl.
She set to work with a heavy wire masher and began reducing them.
Jacob turned and looked toward the upstairs landing.
Mae put the bowl down and turned back to the tea pot.
She looked at Jacob.
Jacob was still looking at the landing.
Mae reached into her apron pocket, drew out a small bottle, removed the cork.
Carefully, precisely, she added three drops of something colorless to the teacup.
Jacob was at her elbow.
His hand shot out like a striking viper and he seized her wrist.
"What's that?" he demanded, his voice as cold as his eyes.
Mae pulled away from him and Jacob seized the bottle, twisting it out of her grip.
Mae kicked at him and reached for a knife.
Jacob punched her hard in the low ribs and took two long steps backward, setting the bottle on the table and drawing his right hand Colt.

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Linn Keller 10-26-09

 

Esther swept down the staircase with the fluid grace of a waterfall, and just as unstoppably.
The scene in the kitchen had frozen, if you consider the frozen statues were breathing: Jacob, slowly and rigidly controlled, and Mae, gasping, her hand to her ribs, mouth open, in obvious pain.
Esther stopped in the doorway, folded her hands, assessed the situation.
"Jacob," she said formally, "report."
Jacob thrust his chin at the bottle on the table.
"Take that to Dr. Flint," he said in clipped tones. "She put two drops in a teacup."
Esther's left eyebrow raised, and she regarded the gasping cook through veiled eyes.
Mae glanced at her, looked at the floor; her hand sought the back of a chair, turned it.
She sat down slowly, painfully.
Jacob holstered his Colt and Esther reached for the bottle.
Curious, she took a sniff.
Jacob started forward as his mother wobbled a bit: he stopped as she lowered the bottle and set her jaw, taking a few deep, rapid breaths.
Jacob seized the back of a chair, spun it around, brought it in behind his mother, just touching the backs of her legs with the edge of the seat.
Esther was dizzied: she sat, her free hand descending to the edge of the chair, seizing it to keep herself from twisting out of it and falling to the floor.

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Linn Keller 10-26-09

 

Doctor Flint came downstairs, holding the bottle and frowning.
He addressed the strange woman, his voice uncharacteristically harsh.
"How much of this has he had?"
The woman bit her bottom lip and hung her head.
Dr. George Flint, pure blood Navajo, graduate of the Harvard School of Medicine, well dressed and a cultured gentleman, placed the bottle on the table and knelt before the seated figure.
He seized her hair and jerked her head back, hard.
"You will tell me what I want to know," he hissed, "or I will cut your eyes out. I'll start just behind your belly button and cut my way up, slowly, removing every organ and slicing it into little thin fillets while you watch. I am a doctor and I can keep you alive for a very, very long time."
His nostrils were flared, his eyes hard and glitter-bright, his knuckles twisted into her hair absolutely white and trembling a little with the intesity of his grip.
Dr. Flint held up a scalpel.
The blade was curved, sharp, no longer than the end joint of his thumb.
"I can to many things with this," he whispered, and the woman's eyes were big now, and her mouth opened, and closed, as the blade approached her chin.
"Sherman," she whispered.
Jacob looked at Esther: Esther's face was pale, hard, but Jacob read the surprise in her eyes.
"He rode with Sherman!"
Dr. George Flint placed the edge of the blade against the side of her throat.
"There is a great muscle here," he murmured conversationally. "It allows the head to turn. If I were to transect it -- here --" the blade tasted her flesh, and there was a gleaming, red line following its honed touch -- "there would be a snap like a dry twig as the powerful muscle contracted, and your head would flop back like a doll's, and you would never hold your pretty head up again."
Anger blazed in Mae's eyes, then died.
"They hanged my father in our front yard."
The tears started, scalding drops that spilled over her lower lids.
Her whisper was harsher now, halting, but she continued.
"They made us watch.
"Then they took our dog and threw him up in the air and two of them caught him on their bayonets, and they laughed.
"They hung our pig from the front porch rail and gutted it alive and made us watch, then they threw it down the well before it was dead.
"They took Mama into the house.
"I can still hear her scream.
"And he rode with them!" Her eyes blazed again and her whispered hiss was an accusation.
"He shot three of his own men for rape," Esther said coldly, "and hanged three that helped. Maybe you didn't hear about that."
Mae's face had been flushed with righteous anger: now the color drained from her face, like red ink from an eyedropper.
"Oh, no," she squeaked. "Not him!"
"I am Esther Wales, of the plantation Wales. My husband stopped Sherman's men one plantation over. Do you remember Josie?"
Mae's eyes screwed shut, tight, and she nodded.
"I remember Josie screaming in the night," Esther continued. "She saw more than you did. She didn't just hear her mama scream when they dragged her into the house, she saw it happen." Esther walked over to the bottle, picked it up.
"How much of this did you give him, and when?"

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Linn Keller 10-26-09

 

Old instincts took over, old habits came to the surface, and I was a soldier again, lost in battle, separated from my outfit.
I looked around for a horse.
There were none.
Buildings ... courtyards?
Adobe?

Occasional flashes illuminated the scene: it was foreign, chaotic: snarling gunfire came from several directions, unfamiliar: I was used to the rattle of musketry but this was different, like hard-cranked Gatlings, only faster, sharper.
I flinched as something went CRACK past my left ear, followed by a heavy buzz, like a bumble-bee, and I dove, rolling, behind something boxy, metallic, burnt out. I didn't know what it was and didn't particularly care.
The first body was a crank: arms and legs bent, a rifle of some kind lying beside it.
I couldnt' see well in the dark but I knew a weapon when I saw it and picked it up.
It was blocky, boxy, with projections out the bottom, a kind I'd never seen.
I ran my hands over it, trying to familiarize myself with this odd rifle.
The barrel -- both of them, one over the other, the top one shorter -- were warm, almost hot ... no, the short top barrel isn't a barrel, it runs into the main barrel ...
What the hell kind of place am I in? I wondered, looking around.
I felt the bottom of the rifle.
A handle?
I pressed something and a box fell away from the rifle, hit the ground.
There was an explosion, another: artillery fire, I judged, and walking my way.
I ran.
A figure rose in front of me, shouted something; I raised the rifle, slapped the trigger.
It fired once.
Once was enough: the figure went down, hard, and I kept running.
Now how in the hell do you reload this thing? I wondered, skidding to a stop behind a low wall.
Something burst overhead, hung searing-bright in the sky, trailing smoke.
I'll be damned, I thought. They've got artillery that can light up the field!
There was an explosion ahead of me and a figure staggered, raised a rifle, fired: I shook my head, confused.
Things weren't right.
I felt kind of dizzy and my eyes were swollen, and I could have sworn that rifle just fired several shots at once -- raaap -- but there's no such rifle made... not even a Volcanic or a Henry can shoot that fast! -- and a Gatling is carriage mounted, like a cannon, a man can't pack one around ...

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Linn Keller 10-26-09

 

Dr. Flint frowned at his patient.
Jacob had taken Mae away. She would be locked up, charged with attempted murder; Dr. Flint had recognized the compound and worry was evident on his normally impassive features.
"Esther."
Esther blinked.
The ever-gentlemanly physician had never addressed her as anything but "Mrs. Keller," and that with the greatest deference.
"I want you to get your favorite gun. Get something he will recognize, something he can use and use well, and return here with all speed."
Esther blinked, nodded.
She was still just a bit dizzy from the sniff of whatever was in that bottle, but it didn't stop her from gathering her skirts and almost running down the stairs.
She looked at the gun rack.
Something familiar, she thought, and snatched her twelve-bore from its place.
She knew it was loaded; she kept it stocked with bird shot, for she knew it to be effective at across-the-living-room distance, and it was tight-choked, for she loved slipping away and bird hunting on occasion: she came back upstairs, skirts in one hand, shotgun in the other.
Dr. Flint beckoned her to her side of the bed.
"Lay down here," he said, "yes. Beside him, just like that."
He held the bottle between thumb and forefinger, as if it were something dirty.
"You are the only one who can find him, Esther."
Dr. Flint's eyes were black, black and deep as the Grand Canyon Esther had heard of but had not seen yet. She and her husband had planned to sojourn there, perhaps for their anniversary. She knew it to be deep and she shook her head, her thoughts were wandering --
The glass bottle-neck was cool as it touched her phrenum, just under her nose.
"Take a long, deep breath, Esther."
She did.
The fumes curled against the inside of her skull, swirling in a glowing unreality.
"You will hear only my voice, Esther. You will hear only my voice, until I call you back."
Esther leaned back, relaxed, green eyes half-lidded now.
Her hand closed around her husband's.
In spite of his distress, her shivering husband's hand tightened on hers.
"Esther, you must find you husband. He is in a far place, a dangerous place, and only you can find him." Dr. Flint spoke slowly, reassuringly. "You can do this, Esther. Go now, and find you husband."

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Linn Keller 10-26-09

 

Esther bent over Edi's neck, whispering to the mare.
She knew her red hair was flying in the wind behind her, and she did not care.
She knew Edi hadn't worn this saddle since Duzy was yet with them, and she didn't care.
Esther willed Edi to greater speed, pounding from their little home down the dirt road toward Firelands, where her husband-to-be lay bleeding on the puncheon floor of the little log fortress they called the Sheriff's office.
Esther ground her teeth as the road stretched, and twisted, and Firelands receded into the distance...
She heeled the mare viciously and screamed, "HAAAA!"

Dr. Flint saw Esther's hand clutch her husband's hand, hard, convulsively.

The air was dusty and smelled of powder-smoke, but no smoke that she recognized; the place was dark, dirty, there were the sounds of battle, of conflict.
Esther reined Edi to a halt, looking around.
She was in danger here, she knew, she was in the open --
There was a challenge in a language she didn't recognize and Edi spun.
Esther fired one barrel, then the other: two baggy-clad figures fell back, their weapons stitching the sky with stuttering fire.
Esther heeled Edi and Edi surged forward.

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Linn Keller 10-26-09

 

There was a whistle, hoofbeats.
I turned, raised the rifle, slapped the trigger.
Click.
Swearing, I threw the rifle aside and crouched for my boot knife.
I recognized the rider.
"ESTHER!" I yelled, sprinting for my wife.
"Here!" Esther tossed me the double gun and I broke it open.
It had two empties and it was warm.
I dropped the spent hulls and thrust thumb and forefinger into my vest pocket, drew out two brass hulled rounds. I'd loaded them myself: nine pistol balls, the same ones I used in my Navy Colt: I'd found it a useful load and it would likely be so now.
"Esther, get outta here! Where's you come from?"
Esther kicked a stirrup free. "Get on! We're leaving!"
I turned.
The figure I'd seen was firing again, then there was an explosion.
This one wasn't dressed in baggy whatevers like the ones that had tried to kill me.
"Get to safety!" I shouted over my shoulder. Slapping a hand on the low wall, I vaulted it easily and scrambled toward the lone fighter.
I saw fire streaks zip past this solitary warrior, then an explosion.
This warrior had managed to kill all but two of the squad that was engaging: the explosion knocked the warrior into a broad, shallow hole.
I recognized it as a shell hole, but my God! I'd never seen one that big!
The figure fell back, rolled over, holding its side.
One of those bright shells burst overhead and I could see the figure's side was dark with blood.
The hat -- some kind of a ... helmet? -- rolled away and I could see it was a woman.
What the hell is a woman doing at war? I thought, and then I saw her face.
I saw her eyes.
Ice-blue, pale as a glacier's heart ...
I looked back at Esther.
Esther was waiting, patiently, the way she always did, but I didn't look to see if she was waiting.
I looked to see if she was still on Edi, and not at the bottom of that crater.
The woman in the hole could have been Esther's sister, or her daughter ...
A voice whispered in my ear, and the voice was familiar.
Dana, it whispered.
Duzy's voice.
You will have a child, who will have a child, who will have a child, and her name ...
The woman raised a hand.
She fired a pistol, then tossed it aside and drew a knife, screaming "COME AND GET ME, DAMN YOU!" and the grinning figure at the edge of the shell hole raised his rifle and my double gun came to shoulder.
I yanked the front trigger with one finger and the back trigger with the other.
Esther's shotgun, I thought, she's tight choked, and just as I expected, both charges of pistol balls drove into the attacker's gut, a rathole the size of my fist and he fell back, limp, as the blue smoke rolled across the shell hole.
I opened the double gun, dropped the brass hulls and dunked in two fresh.
I saw the woman look up at me.
"NOBODY SHOOTS MY LITTLE GIRL!" I roared, and I felt Esther's hand on mine, and I fell back, back, and across a broad gulf ...

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Linn Keller 10-26-09

 

Angela rubbed her eyes, the way a drowsy little girl will when she's not feeling altogether well.
"Mommie," she said, "I gotta go."
Dr. Flint's hands were warm on the child's shoulders.
"Esther," he said soothingly, "hear your child."
Angela looked up, puzzling her brows as if to ask if it was all right to talk to her Mommie.
"It's okay," Dr. Flint whispered in her ear.
Angela giggled.
Dr. Flint's breath tickled her ear.
"Mommie, I gotta go, now!" Angela said, shifting her weight from one bare foot to the other.
Few instincts are as strong as a mother's.
Esther's soul was drawn by the need of her child for her mommy, and Esther came back, back across a void and across a gulf, her hand and her husband's linked, drawn back by a mother's need for her child, by the child's need for the mother.
Esther and Linn both gasped, both took in a huge breath, both shivered.
Esther's eyes snapped open.
She turned her head and smiled at her speckled little girl.
She turned her head the other way and saw Linn's eyes open.
Dr. Flint lifted warm hands from the little girl's shoulders.
"Esther, you will hear normally now," he said, "and all is well."
Esther rolled up to a sitting position, hesitated, looked back at her husband.
"Yes," Dr. Flint said. "He has chicken pox."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-29-09

 

The lonesome shriek of the train whistle echoed through the night as the northbound express puffed its way through still another small town. Charlie stirred on the hard seat, sleepily squinting at his watch in the guttering light of a wick-trimmed hurricane lamp nearby. Three AM. He thought that should put them somewhere in Indiana, but at that time of the morning his geography skills were suffering mightily. He pulled his hat down again and tried futilely to retreat back into sleep but the crick in his back and the ache in his abused tailbone finally drove him upright to stand and stretch, swaying with the rhythmic interaction of wheel and rail.

Charlie sat back down to stare at his dim reflection in the window glass. His view turned inward as he reviewed yet again what he'd managed to glean in a week of researching Alex Callahan...

As his name indicated, Callahan was Irish, but not the poor bog Irish that came to most folks' minds at the sound of an Irish name. Callahan's family had money, land and power in the old country, Alex was the oldest son and should have inherited it all; instead he was in America on remittance because he'd left the Emerald Isle one jump ahead of severe bodily injury in the form of the retainers of a man with even more wealth than the Callahans as well as a comely red-haired daughter. He'd managed, through a combination of shrewd business dealings and outright skullduggery, to create a small fortune of his own that never quite satisfied him no matter how large it grew. Gaining control of the potential oilfields around Firelands would give him the wealth and power he felt that he deserved. Being a denizen of more genteel surroundings, he'd been sure that kidnapping the wife and children of the Sheriff and the daughter of the mayor would put him in the catbird's seat. His mistake had been to underestimate the residents of Firelands County, Colorado. And now one of those residents was coming to Chicago to pay Alex Callahan a visit.

Voluminous notes packed in Charlie's carpetbag told all the details of Callahan's life and lifestyle that Charlie could dig up by means of money, intimidation or calling in favors, many of which went back quite a few years. But burning the favors didn't bother him, as it was for what he felt was a good cause; protecting what had become his home.

Midmorning found him stepping off the train into the hustle and bustle of Chicago. He caught a hansom cab to a decent hotel at the edge of the business district, checking into a small room, second floor front, and stretching out on the bed for a nap before heading out on a reconnaissance mission. He was going into potentially hostile territory and wanted to know the terrain in advance.

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Linn Keller 10-29-09

 

Lil stepped out of the stage onto the quiet Firelands street, looking around, a half-smile on her face.
Willing hands carried her bags into the Silver Jewel; Tilly recognized her instantly -- Lil was known among the informed folk of the town -- and Lil found herself greeted warmly, treated like family.
This was a bit to her surprise.
Lil, too, knew the value of research; she knew Tilly was married to the town's attorney, knew she didn't have to work, knew she was also a chaste and upright woman ... and knew that usually such women would regard Lil with disdain, or with distaste, or at the very least, a curled lip and a scornful look.
Such was not the case.
Lil had been distressed and disappointed when Mae disappeared.
It had taken a bit of detective work to find that she'd taken the stage out of town; a bribe here, a smile there, and she found Mae had bought passage to Firelands: a quiet word, philtered into the saloons, gained her nothing: not until she had occasion to converse with the town marshal did she find to her surprise that Mae had gone a-purpose to be cook and housemaid for the Firelands County Sheriff.
Lil was many things: shrewd, businesslike, direct ... but also feminine, flirtatious, coy, coquettish, all when these traits suited: she could have been an actress, truth be told, but found her current occupation, as business manager (so to speak) suited her.
It also made her a great deal of money, which suited her even more.
Now, though, she settled into a spacious and well appointed room: not as grand as those in her House, but very nice: the best quality, scrupulously clean ... why, they even have gas lights! she noted with a smile.
It did not take long to find where her missing cook was.
It did take an effort to maintain her composure to hear that her cook was jailed on a charge of attempted murder.
Lil immediately began assessing the funds she'd brought, weighing whether they were sufficient to either bribe or bail Mae out of the Crossbar Hotel.
She began reconsidering when she found Mae was accused of trying to murder the Sheriff.
Lil kept a neutral expression with some difficulty.
Seated in the Jewel's dining room, she sipped tea and nibbled delicately at the pastries placed before her.
She knew she did not have anywhere near enough money on hand to buy the freedom of an accused murderess.
Lil was, however, curious.
She probably had enough to bribe the jailer into letting her speak with the accused.

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Linn Keller 10-30-09

 

A strange woman swept into the Sheriff's office behind Lil: well and fashionably dressed, she had a cameo brooch at her throat, an air of ... importance? ... about her, something Lil wasn't used to, something ... well, rival was the word that came unbidden.
Lil wasn't used to having competition.
The deputy moved with the easy grace of a big man, or more like a big panther: he was taller than most men, and Lil estimated he would have to duck to come through the doorway, unless he removed his hat and had short hair.
"We are here to see the prisoner," the newcomer said, reaching up to touch her auburn curls.
Lil noticed her eyes.
Green, Irish green, she thought, but no accent.
Who is this woman?

The deputy nodded.
"Yes, ma'am," he said quietly: reaching up, he retrieved a ring of keys from a wooden peg and preceded the ladies down the short hall, stopped in front of a barred door.
Lil's fingers went to her lips as she saw her cook, behind bars; Mae was the picture of misery, her head down, slump shouldered: at the sound of the deputy's boot heels on the puncheon floor she looked up, lethargic until she saw she had visitors.
Shame, embarrassment, surprise: Lil saw several emotions run across her silent cook's face.
"Do you know why we are here?" the strange woman asked.
Mae looked away, her face aflame.
"Look at me," the Irish woman snapped.
Lil opened her mouth to protest and the Irish woman speared her with her eyes.
Lil closed her mouth, her protest unvoiced.
"Mae, open your collar."
It was not a request.
Mae reached up, fingers trembling, and unbuttoned her high collar.
Lil had never seen her wear aught else; it wasn't fashionable, but it was not unattractive, and Lil could not remember seeing Mae without it.
"Open the collar."
Mae bit her lower lip and closed her eyes, then drew the collar apart.
Lil's mouth opened.
"They cut your throat, didn't they?" Esther asked, her voice not altogether unkind.
Mae nodded, biting harder on her lip.
"They used you and cut your throat, and they left you to die."
Tears were squeezing from between Mae's closed eyelids.
The deputy responded to the Irish woman's nod and unlocked the door.
Lil swept in and took the weeping woman in her arms.
The Irish woman remained outside the cell.
"You thought the Sheriff was one of them."
Mae nodded, her lip free of her teeth; jaw clenched, she clung to her former employer, and Lil held her, feeling the grief shudder through her former cook's slender frame.
"He's the one who stopped them."
The Irish woman's voice was cold, cold and unforgiving.
"He caught them in the act one farm over. He shot three of his own men and hanged another three, and was nearly hanged himself for it. He killed the men who hurt you, and you tried to poison him!"
"I'm sorry," Mae whispered, her sibilants raspy, choked. "I didn't know!"
"It's all right," Lil murmured. "I'll hire a lawyer --"
"Get a good one," Esther snapped. "She tried to murder my husband. He is a forgiving man, but I am not!"
Jackson Cooper stepped out of Esther's way as she whirled and left the Sheriff's office.
He'd never seen her eyes quite such a blazing shade of Irish green.

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Linn Keller 11-1-09

 

Annette swung briskly into her carriage, her chin up and her jaw set.
She flipped the reins and clucked to the mare, resolve on her face and determination in her heart.
She'd just sent a telegram to Denver, another to Albequerque: she'd cancelled her appearances at their several opera houses until further notice and she fully expected return wires of protest, threats or dismissals: at the moment, she did not care, for she was needed at home.
Jacob met her on his parents' front porch, a worried look on his face. He met his wife with a kiss and a hug, and he brushed a stray wisp of hair out of her eyes with a gentle hand.
"How is he?" Annette asked in a businesslike tone.
Jacob blinked. This was a facet of his wife he'd never seen.
Annette read the answer in his eyes, in his face: she patted his chest and swung past him, heels loud on the polished floor.
Her father in law was shivering in a slipper-shaped, copper tub: Annette dunked a hand into the water, frowned, and continued without stopping into the kitchen.
"Jacob, I'll need more wood," she called, seizing the bucket and pumping it full with quick, strong strokes. "How long has he been in that water?"
"About ten minutes," he said, slipping past her and opening the back door. "He was fevered but I durst not put him in cold water."
"You did right," she said to his retreating backside: he clattered down the back porch stairs, startling Denver Bup, who backed up into the corner and cocked his head curiously at this fast moving fellow.
Denver Bup wagged his tail hopefully, pink tongue moist and gleaming as he tried to look adorable enough for a pet, a word: Jacob, however, was focused, and stormed the stairs like an infantry charge.
Firewood clattered into the wood-box inside.
Denver Bup's head sagged and his expression was positively doleful.
There was a quick giggle from inside and Jacob's delighted "How's my baby sis!" and the immediate "I'm not a baby!" as Jacob snatched up his curious little sis and hoisted her toward the ceiling.
As she always did, Angela reached up, swinging a pink hand at the ceiling.
One day, she knew, she would be a Big Girl and could touch it when Jacob picked her up, but until then she had to put up with his calling her a baby sis.
Annette was busy stoking the stove.
The fire door swung shut, clattered as it closed, and she hoisted the pail up, dispensing a volume neatly into the half-filled pan that lived on the stove top.
"Jacob, could you fill the reservoir for me, please?" she tossed over her shoulder as she steamed under half throttle toward the Sheriff's study.
"Jacob, why is Daddy innada baftub?" Angela asked, her eyes bright and curious.
"Because he wants to make little girls ask questions!" Jacob said, kissing her noisily on both cheeks before setting her down. "Help me with this screen!"
Angela happily and rather noisily paddled over to the privacy screen: she was more in the way than of any real help, but Jacob, with the wisdom of an Older Brother, knew it was important to involve a little sis in a project rather than shoo her away: if she were Involved, she would feel like a Big Girl, and would not throw a pouting fit and be even more underfoot.
Besides, as he swung the one end of the screen around to shelter his father from the general gaze, Angela made a fine anchor on the other end: he pivoted the hinged, multi-paneled screen around, neatly isolating the older, shivering, pocked man in his copper tub.
Jacob filled the reservoir in the back of the stove. It would heat faster than water on the stove top, he knew; he'd used almost its entire volume to take the chill out of the tubful of freshly pumped water: he had immersed his father in lukewarm water, remembering from somewhere that cold was a poor choice for a fevered man, as it shut off the fine little blood vessels under the skin and trapped the body's heat deep within, with no way out.
Annette came tapping quickly down the short hallway with a brandy snifter in hand, the amber liquid slowly circling as she walked: rather than try to hold the snifter dead still, she intentionally whirled its contents, controlling its movement with direction rather than an unsuccessful stillness.
She handed the snifter to her father in law, then plucked a towel from the folded stack on their shelf, snapped it open with a practiced flip of the wrists and laid it on the water's surface.
It waterlogged and sank almost immediately, providing Linn a degree of modesty.
He took an experimental swallow of brandy, then another: he leaned his head back and groaned.
"Thank you," he said quietly, though whether the gratitude was for the concealing towel, or for the warming draught, Annette didn't really know, nor did she particularly care.
"And why are you out of bed, young lady?" Jacob demanded in a mock-serious tone.
"Because I'm tired of bed!" Angela exclaimed.
Linn did not have to see his daughter to know her arms were crossed, her bottom lip thrust out and her little foot was tapping impatiently: he could hear the quick little pat-pat-pat of her shoe sole on the floor, and grinned.
Annette's voice called through the screen.
"We'll have some warmer water in a minute," came her reassuring voice, and the Sheriff took another, longer drink of brandy.
"Thank you, my dear," he said, and his teeth rattled together.
"Sir?" Jacob's voice was low and serious: he had come around the screen and now was behind his father, at the head end of the tub. "Sir, are you all right?"
The Sheriff held up an arm, turned it over to reveal the speckled inside of his left forearm.
"I itch like seven hundred dollars, I look like a young case of small pox and I'm buck naked with company in the house," he said, shaking his head and chuckling. "Couldn't be better!"
"Yes, sir," Jacob said uncertainly.
There was a knock on the door frame, a voice: "May I come in?"
"Come on in," Jacob sang back, then: "Sir, it's Doctor Flint."
"Hell, why not," Linn muttered. "Send in a brass band while you're at it!"

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Linn Keller 11-1-09

 

Dr. Flint examined both young Joseph and little Angela, assessing the progress of their chicken pox: Joseph was fussy, warm but not as fevered as his father: the resilience of the young worked in his favor, as it did with Angela, who was restless and bouncing impatiently.
Dr. Flint persuaded the curly-headed little girl-child that she really should be in bed, even if it was boring: Annette had a light meal for her, and so Angela decided to delay bed in favor of a meal -- a move of which the good physician approved, for he knew she would sleep better with a full belly.
Little Joseph, in like manner, passed muster, in spite of being noisy and fussy.
The Sheriff was less uncomfortable as warmer water was added to the tub.
Dr. Flint questioned Jacob as to why he'd felt it so urgent to get his father in the water.
"He was fevered up again, sir," Jacob explained. He wasn't making much sense. I figured 'twas the fever that addled him so I got him down here and into the tub."
Dr. Flint pursed his lips and nodded.
"Very sensible," he affirmed. "Your logic is sound. I fear the hallucinogen to which he was exposed makes him susceptible to such."
"Yes, sir," Jacob replied uncomfortably.
"He will continue to purge the compound from his system."
Dr. Flint frowned.
"You did well, providing me with the actual compound with which he was poisoned."
"What was the stuff?" Jacob asked. "Hal ... hal-loosin?"
"Hallucinogen." Dr. Flint smiled. "That which causes hallucinations. Have you ever heard of the psilocybin mushroom?"
Jacob shook his head slowly.
"It's used in certain medicine ceremonies. Other tribes use white man's whiskey for visions and dreams." Dr. Flint's eyes were veiled. "I tried it."
Jacob frowned, turned his head a few degrees, as if disbelieving the physician's words.
Dr. Flint smiled humorlessly.
"I found devils, demons. It's why I don't drink."
Dr. Flint shivered.
"It goes down too well and it feels too good." His voice was far away, as were his eyes, and Jacob knew he was remembering.
Dr. Flint returned to the present and looked directly at the slender young man.
"Your father may or may not discuss what he saw. He may remember it as a dream, a nightmare, perhaps as a reality."
Dr. Flint's eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
"I would not be surprised if he traveled to a reality yet to come."
Esther's hands were light on Jacob's shoulders and she gave Dr. Flint a knowing look.
"It was a dry and desert place," she said, her green eyes haunted with the knowledge of what she'd seen.
Dr. Flint nodded.
"I am not surprised," he said, rising. "You realize that you alone brought him back."
Esther folded her hands, unsure as to how to reply.
"I have seen this before." Dr. Flint reached for his Derby hat. "You are a brave woman, Mrs. Keller. Few would join their husband in such a dream."
"It was not a dream, Doctor," Esther said, lifting her chin. "See here."
She turned to the gun rack and brought down her double gun.
"I keep my shotgun loaded with bird shot so I can slip out back and shoot supper. I use these." She picked up a paper hulled cartridge.
"My husband uses these."
She opened the gun and withdrew an empty, brass shotgun hull.
"When I took this gun upstairs, it had my bird shot in it." She closed the action and replaced the double gun in its place. "When I woke, the barrels were warm, and the brass hulls were in it, empty."
Jacob looked from the dignified Navajo in a tailored suit to his mother, unsure of what he was hearing.
"Again, I am not surprised." Dr. Flint placed the hat on his head at a jaunty angle. "And now if you will excuse me, I have other patients demanding of my time." He gave a half-bow to each and departed.

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Linn Keller 11-4-09

 

Jacob chafed behind his father's desk.
He'd long thought he could run the Sheriff's office, and so far he was doing fine, but somehow ... somehow it almost felt like a little boy trying to clump along in his Daddy's boots.
Jackson Cooper had accepted the town's offer to become Town Marshal.
They'd had a frank conversation.
Jackson Cooper said in all honesty Jacob would be his first pick for deputy marshal, and Jacob had nodded.
He considered the set-to he'd had with his father and realized he'd been impulsive and ... well, he'd just plainly been wrong to address his Pa in such a way: the older man made a decision and he had a mountain of experience behind him in such matters, and Annette had healed just fine and got a new gun belt and revolver out of the deal.
Jacob hadn't swallowed his pride far enough to apologize to his Pa, least not yet.
He and Jackson Cooper had agreed that they'd worked too well together to allow politics to drive a wedge between them: that they would cooperate so far as possible, continue to share information and when possible, share resources.
Words were cheap back East, but out here, Jackson Cooper had reflected, a man's word was his bond.
Lie once and you were never trusted again.
A mistake could be forgiven; honest error could be understood; being wrong happened to everyone at one time or another, and pulling someone's leg to a ludicrous degree was not at all unknown. Matter of fact, it was an accepted form of humor.
Out and out lie, now ... that was different.
Jacob got up and paced restlessly.
He'd made his cell check, he'd had the nurse, that new girl Doc Greenlees hired, come over and check on Mae and tend to any needs she might have: Doc allowed as that new girl, the cute one, could be trusted, and so Jacob trusted her.
At least he trusted her until he went back to let her out.
When the nurse went in, her collar was down but now it was up, and she seemed nervous, and Jacob blinked and took another look before he put on his poker face.
He opened the cell door and let the "nurse" out, keeping himself between her and the doorway: he closed and locked the cell door, then seized the nurse, quickly, cranking her wrist and arm up behind her back: his move was fast, powered with honest labor and anger: he had her bent half over, rasping hoarsely in pain, as he pulled open an unlocked cell door and thrust her inside.
Slamming the door, he turned the key in the lock.
"Lady," he said to the ersatz nurse, "I was born at night but it wasn't last night." He turned to the nurse, now in Mae's clothes and in Mae's cell.
"You'll face Judge Hostetler in the morning."
Jacob's expression was grim.
"I don't know how much you were paid but it warn't enough."

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Mr. Box 11-4-09

 

"Hello, Sarah, I haven't seen you for a while."
"Good afternoon, Mr Baxter. Angela said you wanted to talk to me."
"Here, have a saspirilla."
"I don't have any money."
"That's OK, it's on the house. How are you getting along with that pony?"
"Not very good, Mr Baxter, it's really hard to handle."
"When you've got some time, go over and see Shorty and have him show Nellie to you. If you like her, maybe we can do some horse trading. I can't remember the last she was out of that stable."
"Thank you, Mr. Baxter, I will do that."

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Linn Keller 11-5-09

 

Young Joseph's chicken pox were fading, looking now more like freckles than blisters: Joseph had finally accepted that he was going to wear socks on his hands, like it or not, and contented himself with chewing the knitted fabric.
Angela, likewise, had thrown her chicken pox off quickly: it had slowed her down very little, and though still speckled, managed to slip off into town, bouncing into the Silver Jewel, chattering with anyone who would stop and listen.
Mr. Baxter had smiled tolerantly at the restless little girl and recognized a soul in need of direction: with the bribe of a short sarsparilla, he tasked her with finding Sarah and conveying his request for a meeting.
Angela happily bolted out the front door.
Had the floor not been so clean she might have left the swirl of a dust-devil in her wake.
Mr. Baxter chuckled and polished his gleaming bar.
An anonymous ranch hand upped his beer mug, drained the contents with a happy sigh.
"Cute girl," he said. "Always did think freckles looked good on a child."
"Have children, do you?" Mr. Baxter asked casually.
"Me? Nah." He thrust his chin at the front door. "I don't believe I could keep up with one, let alone several!"
He and the barkeep shared a companionable laugh at the idea; Mr. Baxter casually swiped the coin from the mahogany and dropped it in his drawer.

Not an hour later Sarah presented herself to Shorty.
She would have been there earlier, save only that her pony had other ideas, and it had taken all the skill she possessed to convince the hard-mouthed, contrary, disagreeable, sharp-toothed beast that it really should go where she wanted it to.
She hadn't resorted to the buggy-whip which stood in its socket at her right had, but she had been sorely tempted indeed.
Now, though, she and the pony were at Shorty's, with its little carriage: Shorty came out and managed not to lose a finger as the pony greeted him with its usual sweetness.
"Mr. Shorty," Sarah said, climbing awkwardly out of the too-small carriage, "Mr. Baxter said I should see you about Nelly. He said she hadn't been out for some time and we might arrange some horse trading."
Shorty rubbed the muttering pony behind its ears, working his magic: the pony responded by nipping the front of his thigh.
It only brought a little blood.
Shorty reconsidered the shaved-tobacco bribe he'd been thinking of extending in one flat palm, realizing there was the distinct possiility he might draw back a bloody stub where the hand used to be.
"Well, let's take a look at her," Shorty said, backing away from the pony.
The pony turned its neck in a rather snakelike way.
Shorty had not turned his back on the pony, and a good thing, for the pony had designs on Shorty's stern: had it been presented, his transom might have borne a fine set of equine tooth marks.
Such did not happen.
Sarah and Shorty went into the livery and emerged into the corral, Shorty carrying a saddle, Sarah leading Nellie and looking very thoughtful.
"Mr. Shorty," she said, "I don't know if this is a good idea."
Shorty saw her caressing Nellie's neck, saw the slow, contented blink of the aging mare.
"Now how's that?" he asked, tilting his worse-for-wear Derby back on his head.
"Nellie isn't usually ridden." Sarah rubbed Nellie's velvety nose. "She's used to being driven but not ridden."
"Oh, I think she might just ride," Shorty said reassuringly. "Let's find out."
Shorty pulled the saddle blanket off his shoulder, spun it and shook it, then with a practiced flip, sailed it through the air over Nellie's back.
It settled neatly in place.
The saddle followed.
Shorty was not a terribly tall man but no one would mistake him for a small man: his arms, his shoulders bore immediate testimony of the power in the man's frame: Sarah noted the saddle almost seemed to sail and hover in the air like the saddle blanket had done, and she realized this was an illusion, caused by its handler's musculature.
Sarah was beginning to appreciate certain facets of the men around her, and though she had seen such in the past, this is the first she'd ever really appreciated a man's strength.
"I don't have a side saddle," Shorty apologized. "Now let's get you mounted and we'll adjust the stirrups, eh?"
Sarah smiled.
She'd long ago decided side saddles were designed as engines of torture, and so had chosen a riding skirt before driving her mean little pony back into town.

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Linn Keller 11-6-09

 

Jacob stuck out his hand.
"Marshal, how ye be?" he greeted his friend, and Jackson Cooper returned the gesture, taking Jacob's hand in a companionable grip.
"Fine an' dandy, Depitty! And yourself?"
Jacob looked back at the jail, looked back at the Marshal.
"Jackson Cooper, I have need of a bite and I'm buyin'."
Jackson Cooper nodded and followed Jacob into the Jewel.
Tillie looked up and smiled at the two lawmen and Jacob stopped to admire the little Moulton boy, busy behind his Mama.
"Now what are you feedin' that little fellow?" he asked, honest surprise in his voice. "He's grown a foot since I saw him yesterday!"
Tillie laughed, then sighed. "It's a task keeping him in clothes," she admitted.
Jacob looked dubiously at the lad, who looked back with big, innocent eyes, one finger to the corner of his mouth as if deciding what to get into next.
Tillie laughed and the sound was pleasant on the ear.
"No, not like that!" she scolded the tall young deputy. "I mean he's growing so fast it's hard to keep him fitted!"
"Oh!" Jacob blinked, his ears reddening: he remembered the lad's tendency in his not so distant past to strip off everything he was wearing, like little Sean had been wont to do, and run laughing and buck naked, generally with a dismayed mother chasing close behind.
Jackson Cooper had looked the Jewel over when he came in.
Tom Landers drifted over, winked at Jackson Cooper and tilted a head toward Jacob, who was still talking with Tillie.
"How's he handlin' things with his Pa down?"
Jackson Cooper looked over at Jacob, then back to Landers.
"He's doin' all right."
"You know his Pa planned this."
"I don't doubt it."
"His Pa figures one of these days the boy will take over for him."
Jackson Cooper nodded. It was routine in that day and age for the firstborn son to follow his father's trade, and so it surprised the big Marshal none at all to know the Sheriff was using his unplanned illness to plan a test run for his progeny.
"How's he comin' with that gal that pizened his Pa?"
Jackson Cooper grinned broadly, leaned against Mr. Baxter's bar.
Mr. Baxter knew a story was coming and casually polished his way toward the two leaning lawmen.
"You mind that fancy woman that come in from Cripple? -- Lil, she runs a fancy-house over there?"
Jackson Cooper nodded.
"She figured she could come over here and pay off or promise off whoever she had to and get her cook out of the clink."
Mr. Baxter drew a beer, drew another.
"She made a play for young Mr. Keller there."
Jackson Cooper was not often surprised, nor was he easily surprised, but this honestly caught him unawares.
"Do tell!" He accepted Mr. Baxter's kindness and took an experimental pull at his beer.
"Oh heavens yes!" Tom Landers' eyes were crinkled in approval and amusement in equal amounts; he, too, accepted a beer and sampled the good barkeep's wares.
Jackson Cooper dashed the foam off his mustache.
"Young Jacob had divined the nurse Doc just hired was flying under false colors. He's a decent young fellow so when the nurse came over to tend the prisoner's needs he gave them privacy. Gentleman, you understand."
Tom Landers worked the foam into his own mustache, twirled the ends: his nearly white broom was full and sculpted, gleaming with blood of the grain and laying in perfect symmetry across his upper lip.
"Jacob gave the ladies their privacy and the nurse switched clothes with the cook. When she went to leave, Jacob gave her the bum's rush right into a cell, and there she's stayed."
"And the nurse ...?"
Tom Landers set his beer down. "Mr. Baxter, you got any of -- why, thank'ee kindly," he smiled, reaching for the dish of salted nuts.
Mr. Baxter retrieved the half empty beer mug, topped it off, set it back.
"Now where was I? -- oh, the nurse." Tom Landers closed his eyes with pleasure and took two long swallows of beer. "She wasn't a nurse a'tall, she looked enough like her to be her sister. 'Twas one of the girls from Lil's house. The real nurse came over not three minutes later from the Doc's office.
"Jacob went looking for Lil but she'd headed back into Cripple and him right after her. She come back in irons, mad as two wet cats and just as pleasant, and Jacob ended up hog tying her in the back of his buggy for the last five miles of the trip!"
"He didn't!" Jackson Cooper's expression was shocked and he looked at his younger friend with new respect.
"Oh yes! Yes he did, and she's over in the calaboose right now!" Tom Landers chuckled. "I reckon Judge Hostetler's courtroom would be an interestin' place!"
"Wouldn't miss it!" Jackson Cooper muttered into his mug as he washed down a mouthful of salt nuts with the cool, foaming beer.
"Oh, Lil won't be there." Tom Landers looked positively smug.
Jackson Cooper's eyebrows were more eloquent that a verbal interrogative.
"His Honor sent 'em all three back to Cripple. In irons, of course, until they got back to that-there fancy house."
Jackson Cooper frowned a little, turning his head as if to bring his best ear to bear on this curious pronouncement.
"They all three got the chicken pox," Tom Landers laughed. "His Honor figured since the Sheriff refused to press charges, why, that was punishment enough!"

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Linn Keller 11-9-09

 

Esther's green eyes snapped, her face was white, her lips pinched as she pressed them together.
I tried to assume my gentlest expression.
It didn't do a bit of good.
"YOU!"
Esther poked a stiff finger into my chest.
I never saw such fire in her eyes nor such a set to her jaw.
Even her red hair fairly crackled.
"YOU DIDN'T EVEN PRESS CHARGES!"
I opened my mouth to say something.
"She tried to KILL you!" -- poke! --"she used that infernal juice on you" -- poke! -- "she dragged me into whatever HELL that was she sent you to" -- poke, poke poke -- she was locked up in your jail -- poke, poke, poke --and YOU" -- poke! -- "LET" -- poke! -- "HER" -- poke! --"GO!! "
"It was war," I said, gentle as I could, reaching for my wife's elbows. "She had seen --"
Esther jerked both elbows back, thrust a stiff finger under my nose.
"DO YOU KNOW WHAT I'VE DONE TO TRY TO KEEP YOU ALIVE, YOU LONG TALL DIRT FARMER?" Esther raged. "DO YOU KNOW WHAT I AM WILLING TO DO TO KEEP YOU ALIVE AND BREATHING? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA AT ALL WHAT YOU MEAN TO ME?" Esther's color had gone from bone pale to flaming red; her cheeks were apple-bright now, lips drawn taut across gleaming white teeth. "I KNOW WAR! I WAS THERE, REMEMBER? I SAW WHAT THEY DID TO MY FRIENDS, TO MY FRIENDS' FAMILIES! I HELD MY BEST FRIEND WHILE SHE CRIED OVER HER MOTHER'S BLOODIED BODY AND I HELPED HER CUT DOWN HER FATHER WHERE THOSE DAMNED YANKEES HANGED HIM IN HIS OWN FRONT YARD!"
Esther's eyes were sparkling, brimming now with tears unshed: her dam was failing, and salt water spilled in bright streams down her cheeks.
She wiped fiercely at them with the back of her hand, looking away, then turning savagely back to me:
I KNOW WAR!"
Esther had moved in close now, and was emphasizing her words by beating the heels of her fists into my chest.
I ran my arms were around her and he let her beat and rage, until she finally collapsed against me, her face buried in my shirt front, a lifetime of held-back hurt coming to bright focus, breaking like a boil and spilling the corruption out of her soul.
I stood there in the kitchen and held my wife for a long, long time.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-9-09

 

Alex Callahan was a poker player, and by all accounts quite a good one. His ability to maintain a neutral expression no matter what his account books or the pasteboards were telling him made him a formidable adversary across either the walnut of a boardroom Louis Quatorze or the green baize of a high limit table in the back room of the Wellman Hotel. Charlie had followed Callahan undetected for over a week now, from lakeside mansion to downtown office, from high-dollar watering hole to white-tie-and-tails eatery, and the one constant, aside from the office, was the poker room at the Wellman. Callahan had visited there three times in the ten days Charlie had the man's shadow, each time pocketing a goodly amount of greenbacks before leaving. Tonight's game was different. The previous games were for amusement; this game was serious. Fortunes would be won or lost under the tinted shades of the table lamps.

Charlie's faintly pinstriped wool trousers were down over the tops of his gleamingly-polished boots. The tailored cutaway fit superbly, as did the watered-silk vest and spotless white shirt. His four-in-hand was perfectly tied, and he felt like a fop. He smiled wryly at his reflection in the back-dresser mirror.”You ain't in Colorado no more, cowboy,” he murmured as he tipped said reflection a one-finger salute before picking his freshly-brushed “town hat” from its perch on the brocade bedspread. Automatically he checked the cut-down Remington under his arm, the stack-barrel .41 Remington in his vest pocket and the needle-blade dagger in his forearm sheath before stepping out into the hall and locking the door. The city of Chicago was, supposedly, civilized, which to the ex-marshal merely meant that the weapons were there, but weren't carried in plain view. He reached inside his jacket to touch the paper-banded sheaf of bills in the inner pocket, said a quick prayer for assistance in the coming battle, and went to the walk out front of the hotel to catch a cab.

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Linn Keller 11-11-09

 

Ours was not the only family touched by the chicken pox.
It was usually more a nuisance than anything, but one family was clustered about a fresh grave: I watched from a little distance, my hat in my hand, as the father, then the weeping mother, then two siblings each dropped a handful of dirt onto a tiny coffin.
I knew the child, a little boy maybe five years old.
Doc said he'd fevered and the fever hadn't broke. It burnt him up.
It was on toward evening and the air was getting cool. Winter was coming, I knew, it smelt like late season and a few leaves had fallen from the oak we used for a hangin' tree.
Whisper tree, my Eastern Woodland Indian ancestors had called it, for the oak holds its leaves through winter, and the winds whisper secrets to it: if you listen close you can hear the sibilants exchanged with the passing breeze.
I was not much of a mind to listen.
I knew what it was to lose a child.
I stood there, silent, the black behind me, content to blink and stand head down, cropping in a desultory manner at the grass: ironic that the graveyard had a healthy growth of good graze, better than the surrounding territory.
I closed my mind to the reason why.
I looked around.
There were more stones here than I would like to see.
Each one represented a life, a memory: some were weathered already, others gleaming-new. There were a few zinc monuments. Digger didn't much like them -- they were considerably cheaper than good carved marble -- but even he had to admit they would doubtless out-last the carved sand stone tablets and probably even the marble and granite that populated this quiet garden of stone.
I looked at a small stone nearby.
A carved lamb on its top pronounced it a child.
I knew the family; their child had been a month old when it died.
The stone beside it was the child's twelve year old sister. It was carved with a rose.
Parson Belden told me a tombstone rose meant a favorite daughter.
My eye wandered on toward the family.
Each was taking turns spading dirt into the hole.
I'd done that, a lifetime ago ... I'd buried my little girl in the grave with her Mama, after I'd come back from the War and found her dying of small pox.
One of the stone tablets to my left had a hand relief carved in an oval: its extended finger pointed to Heaven, presumably the destination of the departed soul: I shivered as the wind picked up, and the black horse nudged me a little, begging for some tobacco.
I settled the Stetson on my thinning scalp and turned toward the arched gateway, and stopped.
Yonder is my plot, I thought, Esther's beside it, Angela's and Joseph's, Jacob and Annette the next row over, with four plots bought beside those ...
I patted the black horse's neck and fished in my pocket, shaved some molasses soaked tobacco off the plug.
"You bum," I murmured as the black horse swept the delicacy off my palm with velvety-damp lips.
I led the black horse outside the graveyard before I mounted.
We rode down the road toward town and I reined the black horse toward the hangin' tree.
There below it, in the hollow, was the stone plinth on which we left messages for Agent Sopris.
Life had been simple then.
Now I was watching every stranger, every stage, wondering who was going to make the next try for my son, my daughter, my wife, my daughter-in-law...
Annette, to her credit, had become quite the good shot, and was not at all averse to going her way armed. She knew she could rely on having one, and only one, person present should something unpleasant happen -- herself -- and she intended to be ready.
Esther was teaching her the un-ladylike art of knife fighting, and like most women, Annette found herself adept at the art.
Jacob was proving himself a competent lawman. I'd used that bout with that damned mushroom juice Lily's cook poisoned me with, and the concomintant measles and fever, to let Jacob try on the office all by himself.
By all accounts, he'd done well, even tracking down and bringing in a pair of rustlers and catching one fellow in the act of holding up the stage.
He'd admitted to me later it was pure dumb luck: he'd ridden out the road a ways intending to visit a friend of ours at a remote ranch, and just happened to come up on the holdup as he stepped out into the road: Jacob managed to ride quite close to him, unheard, as the stage clattered to a halt, its jingle and a confusion of hoofbeats perfectly masking the sound of Jacob's light-stepping Appaloosa: the holdup hoisted a shotgun and challenged, "Stand and deliver!" and Jacob's mild voice from behind him replied, "I wouldn't," to which the holdup vented a fine collection of oaths: both the stage driver, his shotgun and Jacob himself agreed that the air had turned a distinct, sulfurous color from the length and strength of the man's utterances: when finally he run down like an unwound clock, he tossed the double gun to the side of the road and turned, shaking an incensed finger at Jacob.
"Now daggone you, how's a man supposed to make an honest livin' with the likes o' you around?" -- at which point the stage driver and his shotgun looked at one another and started to laugh, and Jacob grinned, and the holdup man himself stopped and blinked and realized what he said: he shook his head and allowed as the world was goin' to hell if'n the law snuck up on a man before he'd done the deed, and Jacob had him in the hoosegow that night.
He'd done a fine job in my stead but he was not at all bashful to express his relief that I was back in circulation.
He even made coffee.
Jackson Cooper, for one, was grateful for that kindness.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-12-09

 

Blue smoke clouds drifted through golden lamplight, direction dictated by the movements of waiters and players about the luxurious confines of the room. Walnut paneling gleamed in hand-rubbed splendor offset by the subdued colors of the Persian carpets underfoot. The clink and gurgle of bottle on glass, the whisper of pasteboards on green baize and the hushed clatter of coin and chip set the stage for the battle to come. And battle it was to be indeed, though few of those present realized what was to come.

Charlie strolled nonchalantly into the smoke and chatter, eyes drawn automatically to the table where Alex Callahan held court, regal bearing in direct contradiction to his rapacious nature. Seeing that all seats at Callahan's table were full, Charlie took a vacant chair at a nearby table and joined the play. The game was stud and the betting was extravagant. He lost a bit at first, then the cards began to turn his way, and he more than doubled his stake as he waited for his chance at Callahan.

At last a portly fellow sporting an emerald pinkie ring and a bellicose manner slammed his cards to the table with a sulfurous oath. “If I had a way to prove you're cheating, Callahan...”

“Aye, Oim sure and ye would, Milton,” Callahan answered the charges with a sneer, “But Oi've nae reason to cheat a poor player such as yerself.” The brogue vanished as the businessman's voice grew colder. “And now you can leave my table under your own power, or I'll have you removed; it matters not to me.” With another oath Milton pushed to his feet and stamped off through the smoke.

The hand ended and Charlie gathered his winnings. “Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me?” He tipped the dealer an eagle and pushed back his chair. Three steps to the empty chair at Callahan's table. “May I?”

Callahan looked at him coldly. “I don't know you.”

“That's right, you don't,” Charlie agreed.

“I prefer to play with men I know.”

“Don't worry, we'll get acquainted real fast,” Charlie answered reasonably. He dropped into the empty seat and stacked his chips neatly. “Shall we ante?”

Two hours later, there were two empty seats at the table and several vacant tables around the room. Instead the crowd, sensing that something unusual was brewing, had begun to gather around the table where ex-marshal faced expatriate Irishman across the felted battlefield. The dealer had begun to sweat nervously, and even the imperturbable Alex Callahan was feeling uneasy. His stony expression was unchanged, but Charlie could see in his opponent’s eyes that he was realizing that this game was different than any other game he had ever been in. An hour after that all play around the room had ceased and Charlie faced Callahan, one-on-one, across the table.

“This game is over!” Callahan declared when the last man had left the table.

“You'll play me, my friend,” Charlie answered calmly.

“And why should I?” Callahan sneered.

Charlie regarded him with a level stare. “Does Firelands, Colorado ring a bell?” he asked softly. Callahan's eyes widened for a moment.

“Who are you?' the Irishman demanded.

“A friend of the women and children you tried to kidnap!” Charlie grated. He turned to the dealer. “Deal!” The man swallowed loudly and did as he was told...

The tale is still told wherever gamblers gather, the story of the night Alex Callahan, Chicago entrepreneur and gambler extrordinaire, was taken to the cleaners by a cowboy in a cutaway coat...

Charlie stepped out into the bright sunlight of early morning, yawning. A bank draft, a large string of zeroes inscribed thereon, rested inside his coat beside a ticket on the morning train south. As he remembered the stricken expression on his opponent's face when the final hand had been played a satisfied smile crossed his lips. Callahan was beaten, broke, fleeing home with his proverbial tail between his legs, home to a mansion he no longer owned...

Fannie was standing on the platform when the Lady Esther squealed to a stop. Charlie stepped down onto the platform and reached her in three long strides, dropping his carpetbag to swoop her off her feet and plant a kiss on her lips. When they came up for air, she asked, “Well?” Charlie set her down and reached into his pocket for the bank draft. She whistled when she saw it.

“And that ain't all,” Charlie said. He reached into his coat again and brought out a handful of land deeds.

“How'd you do that?” Fannie asked incredulously.

“I cheated!” Charlie told her, grinning. He chuckled when he saw her scandalized expression. “Not really. Callahan just wasn't as good as he thought he was.” His grin fled and he said softly, “I had to convince him afterward that he might best be served by going back to Ireland. I do believe he took it as gospel when I told him that if anything at all happened to Esther and the rest, act of God or act of man, didn't matter, I'd hunt him down and he'd take a long time to die...” His voice trailed off and he stared straight ahead for a moment before shaking himself back to reality. “Enough of that! Let's celebrate! We're off to the Jewel!” He picked up his carpetbag and held out his arm. “Shall we?”

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Linn Keller 11-14-09

 

I usually didn't have any trouble a'tall falling asleep.
Rain on the roof usually put me to sleep like a babe rocked at its Mama's bosom.
Matter of fact that's how Esther got young Joseph to sleep that night. He was fussy, he was teething, and Esther had dipped her little finger in some of the Daine boys' distilled delight and rubbed Joseph's tender, red gums with it.
Joseph made an awful face like he was trying to spit the stuff out until he realized his gums didn't hurt any more and he consented to a second dosing.
Esther was asleep beside me, now, young Joseph laying across her bosom, one little arm thrown posessively across a breast, and in the flash-powder glare of a lightning bolt, I smiled at the infant's posture.
"You're just like your old man," I thought, smiling in the dark, my hand warm on Esther's.
Her other hand was laid maternally over little Joseph.
I drew the covers up over them both, covering Joseph up to his shoulders, reached over and arranged the quilt over Esther's off shoulder. She wiggled a little and "hmm"'d like she did when she was content, and I smiled.
A man likes to makes his wife happy, and comfortable.
I laid there a bit and listened, relaxed and drowsy, leastways until I realized I was hearing something when the rain slacked off.
I couldn't really make it out, but something wasn't ... something wasn't right, something wasn't normal ...
Angela's bare feet pitty-pattered out onto the landing and down the stairs and I slipped out of bed, quiet-like, moving easy.
My gut told me to get dressed.
I got into my glad rags quickly, as quietly as I could, slung the gun belt over my left shoulder and picked up my boots and slipped out onto the landing in my sock feet.
I heard the rattle of the back door latch and I headed down stairs, all thought of stealth forgotten.

Angela was a child, and a child is spontaneous.
Angela heard Daddy's Rosie-horse.
Curious, she slipped out of bed and down the stairs.
She was a Big Girl now, she could take the stairs like a Big Girl, and she did, at a remarkable velocity: indeed, it seemed that she traveled at a full gallop, at least when she wasn't sound asleep: like most children, she had two speeds, Wide Open and Dead Stop, and no middle ground.
Now she was at the back door, reaching up for the latch in the dark.
It was raining outside but rain was wet and she had been wet earlier that evening, in the tub with Mama washing her, and little Joseph laughing and splashing in the other end of the tub: Angela had wanted to wash little Joseph, but when she incautiously baptized the lad by immersion (to Mommy's distress and little Joseph's sputtering laughter) she had been hoisted from the metallic basin by her Daddy, wrapped in a big fluffy towel and tickled and cuddled and, warm from the bath water, she had fallen asleep on her Daddy's lap, wrapped in paternal arms and warm cotton as her Daddy rocked in his big Daddy-chair.
Now Angela reasoned that rain was wet, the bath was wet, she'd been wet before, and Daddy's Rosie-horse was making funny noises and she wanted to find out why.
Denver Bup jumped up, wagging its tail, wiggling all over, delighted at the unexpected appearance of his beloved mistress, and together the two ran into the rain and splashed happily toward the barn.

I snatched up my rifle from the rack, clapped the Stetson on my head: I paused only to lay the engraved Winchester on the kitchen table so I could thrust one stockinged foot, then the other, into their respective boots: thus warded against the inclemencies and vicissitudes of the season, I seized the rifle and followed little Angela into the darkness.
Lightning illuminated the scene: Angela's white flannel nightgown glowed as chain lightning forked and rippled across the zenith, and I saw Denver Bup hobby-horsing along beside her, the lightning-flashes freezing his movement like a series of Daguerrotypes.
Nostrils flared, head on a swivel, I sprinted after the pair.

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Linn Keller 11-14-09

 

Sarah, too, was awake, and running in the rain: desperation guided her steps, fear accelerated her sprint, rain trickled down the back of her neck and she threw the bar off the barn doors and hauled the big double doors open.
Smoke rolled out as the doors came open; from within, the sound of horses, coughing, whinnying.
Sarah ran in, crouching, eyes beginning to sting, to burn.
"Butter!" she choked, calling into the hellish glow. "Butter! Jelly!"
She ducked into a stall, flattening herself against the side as Jelly swung, fearful hooves lashing at any movement.
Sarah grabbed Jelly's foreleg with the desperation of a frightened child. "Jelly! It's me!"
Jelly's head thrust down, hard, and she snuffed loudly: she too was trembling, and Sarah seized her bridle, backed her out of her stall.
Jelly reared, bringing Sarah off her feet.
Sarah could feel the heat radiating down from above.
Lightning had hit the roof, fired the hay loft: she'd heard the cannon-crack of the bolt, she'd catapulted out of bed like a bee-stung cat: she saw the fire beginning on, and in, the roof, and she dressed with a desperate speed: her blouse and vest and riding-skirt were where she'd taken them off: she took no time for stockings or button shoes, but instead thrust bare feet into pumps and ran, ran too fast, too scared to even call out and alarm the household.
Sarah swatted at Jelly's neck and yelled "Jelly! Down!" and Jelly stood, legs splayed, eyes walled in the flickering light.
Sarah hauled her outside by main force, a strength she never knew she had; the mare complied reluctantly and Sarah got her outside, released the bridle, smacked her across the backside: "Git! Git!" she yelled, her voice high and shrill, and she ran back inside.
"Butter! Nellie!"
Nellie lowered her head and muttered as Sarah pulled her out of her stall: steadier than the younger mares, Nellie allowed Sarah to toss a blanket across her back, then climbing the side of the stall, Sarah straddled the placid dapple.

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Linn Keller 11-14-09

 

Nellie lowered her head and muttered as Sarah pulled her out of her stall: steadier than the younger mares, Nellie allowed Sarah to toss a blanket across her back, then climbing the side of the stall, Sarah straddled the placid dapple.
"Butter! Get out here!" she yelled, coughing, her eyes burning now, tears streaming freely from stinging eyes. She wiped fiercely at the stream that was starting from her nose. "Butter! Here!"
Twain Dawg came galloping into the barn.
"Twain Dawg! Get her out here!"
Twain Dawg looked around, confused, unsure of what to do but certain that a fire in the upstairs was not an ordinary occurrence.
Sarah's arms were stiff, her hands fisted as she vented a girlish "Ooooh!" of anger, then she threw up one leg and slid off her mount. Running into Butter's stall, she took the mare by the bridle and backed her out as well.
Butter and Nellie came along well enough, at least until Jelly came galloping back into the barn.
Sarah gave an exclamation of pain as the mare collided with the three of them.
Twain Dawg, hearing his beloved's pain, turned from a gentle, tongue-lolling companion to a red-eyed minion of the Inferno: Sarah shreiked as big black and curly came yammering past her, slashing at Jelly's forelegs and flank, driving the mare back with fang and snarl and a promise of a fast and very unpleasant death.
Sarah's hands had locked tight on the mares' bridles.
She could not have let go of them if she wanted to.
She stood shivering for a long moment, then led the mares out, out of the barn.
Twain Dawg was bristled, snarling, inviting Jelly to take so much as one more step toward the barn.
Jelly's eyes walled back white and she danced nervously, trying to figure a way past this vision of ivory-toothed destruction so she could get back into the haven her barn had always been.
Sarah released the mares' bridles and turned quickly, swinging the heavy doors shut.
Turning, she waved her arms. "GIT! GIT OUTTA HEEERE!" she yelled, bent at the waist, her face coloring with the effort.
Butter and Nellie stood and looked at her.
Jelly, seeing her home shut off from her, turned and walked into the darkness.
Sarah reached up and took a bridle in each hand.
Crying now, she led the mares to the front porch of her house.
A lamp had been lit inside; she saw another moving, and the front door flew open.
Caleb stopped, mouth hanging in astonishment at his little girl, soaking wet and black-streaked, holding a bridled horse in each hand and crying as if her heart were irreperably shattered; he looked to the barn and seeing the glow, ran to the edge of the porch and bent over the rail.
Jelly came walking up to the edge of the porch, begging for attention.
Twain Dawg splat-splat-splatted through the wet grass and sat beside Sarah, looking up at her and quietly ow-wow-wowing his distress at her tears.
Caleb scrambled over the porch rail and onto Jelly's rain-slick back.
"Tell your Mama I'm going for the Irish Brigade!" Caleb shouted, steering Jelly with his knees and a double handful of bridle: Caleb was no horseman but desperation and panic guided his actions, and somehow he managed to point the mare towards town.
Bonnie came out the front door in gown and night-cap and lamp in hand.
Sarah looked up and sniffed.
"Mama," she said through a renewed freshet of tears, "the barn's afire," and releasing the bridles, she ran up the stairs to the comfort of her Mama's arms.

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Linn Keller 11-15-09

 

"I saw Jacob riding out of town."
Coffee chuckled as it gurgled into the blue-granite cup.
I sipped my scalding cup, frowned as it seared my lip.
I gave a grunt of pain and set mine down on the desk. "Had a report of a wagon swept away in a flash flood."
Jackson Cooper shook his head. "I'm glad Charlie made it back before that toad strangler hit. Lord, I never saw it rain like that for quite a while!"
I nodded. "Esther had the crews out checking tracks and trussles. I don't think anything washed out but they did find what was left of a wagon, busted up and washed against a trussle."
Jackson Cooper nodded, parking himself in the chair opposite my desk.
Our boots swung up onto the desk as if choreographed.
I leaned back in my chair, worked my neck back and forth and listened to something go crunch, crunch as I did.
Jackson Cooper tilted his head and regarded me with amusement.
"Hurt?"
"Nah," I lied. "Mileage."
Jackson Cooper nodded.
"How's Emma these days? I've not seen her other'n to wave as I go by."
"Oh, she's fine." Jackson Cooper frowned as he sipped his coffee. "You make this?"
"No, by the Sachem!" I exclaimed. "Jacob made that, bless his heart!"
"That's why it's drinkable," Jackson Cooper muttered.
"Yeah, God loves you too," I grinned. "Now what did I hear about Caleb losing a barn last night?"
"Yeah." Jackson Cooper set his own coffee aside to cool.
"Hot?"
"Scalded the hair off my tongue."
I nodded. My own mouth still hurt from that first incautious sip.
"Lightning hit his barn."
I frowned, nodded. "Didn't he just get a set of lightning rods in?"
"Didn't get 'em set yet."
I frowned. "He's not gonna be happy about that."
"Oh, he's not."
I looked at my former deputy. His badge gleamed on his vest, round instead of a six point star, pierced so it was a star-in-a-circle. It was just a bit smaller than mine but no points to catch or snag.
I waited.
Jackson Cooper had something else on his mind.
All I had to do was wait until the man addressed it.
"I give Caleb a ride back to his place."
I nodded.
"The man had rode in bare back to fetch the Irish Brigade. He'd rode his mare wet and him in a night shirt and slippers."
I frowned.
I knew what it was to ride a wet horse bare back.
Even through a set of drawers that tended to be hard on the hide.
"Saddle sores?"
Jackson Cooper nodded, sympathy in his eyes and an ironic smile on his lips.
"Doc give him some salve and I give him my coat and took him home." He looked down, thrust his bottom jaw out.
"That niece of yours done good."
"Sarah?"
"Yep." Jackson Cooper nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "She got the horses out. I guess that one mare tried to run back in and like to knocked her down but she had a-holt of the other two by their bridles and she kept her feet."
I nodded. "Horses is stupid sometimes."
Jackson Cooper grunted, felt his coffee cup, decided against any further heat related injury.
"He got so far as the fire house and looked back in time to see his barn fall in and he figured from that she was lost."
"Did he alarm the Irish Brigade?"
Jackson Cooper shook his head. "Nope. Figured he was too late and he'd just let 'er burn, what little was left. Figured he'd need to rebuild so just let what was left burn up."
I frowned. "What about that McCormick harvester? Was that in the barn too?"
Jackson Cooper laughed. "Nope. His hand got lazy and left it out in the field, and a good thing!"
I nodded.
"Caleb is a tight fisted man," I said thoughtfully. "He would have been really unhappy if he'd lost that new reaper machine!"
Jackson Cooper contemplated the infinity in his black beverage, then he smiled.
"I think I got him home early enough and the coat hid enough that nobody much knowed their mayor was runnin' around town wearin' saddle sores and a night shirt!"
"Never hurts to do a man a favor." I hoisted my cup in salute. "Specially when it's your boss!"
Jackson Cooper raised his own in reply and we drank.

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Linn Keller 11-17-09

 

I was almost caught up with my paper work when Jacob come in the door.
I know my eyes smiled, least until I saw the look on his face.
I laid the pen down, precisely aligned with the left margin of the page I was working on, and stood.
"Maybe you'd best sit down," I said gently.
Jacob's eyes were pale, cold, his cheeks were red and his lips were white and I reckon he would like to have punched a hole through the log wall.
"I'll stand, sir," he said, and I'd not heard that tight a sound to his voice before.
I folded my long tall frame back down into that chair and gave my son, my deputy, my full attention.
"Report."
Jacob looked at his good right hand, turned it over, regarded it minutely.
I waited.
Jacob's hand closed into a fist, tight, tight, and he closed his eyes: he was mad, mad clean through.
I was interested to see how this son of my loins would handle whatever had him so boilin' mad. He'd been angered in the past but this was the closest I ever saw him to exploding.
Jacob took a long slow breath in through his nose, opened his fist, worked his fingers like he was dropping a dirt clod and working the dirt free and letting it fall.
"Sir, there has been a death," Jacob said formally.
I nodded.
"Go on."
Jacob seized his hat by its brim, tore it free of his head and slapped it hard against his leg. The sound was loud in the confines of our little log fortress.
Jacob's jaw was thrust out now and he turned his head back and forth like he was looking for something and I knew the crisis was past: he'd passed over the peak of his anger and was controlling it with sheer force of will.
Jacob hung his hat on its peg and took two long legged strides over to my desk.
"Sir, your map, if I may?"
I opened the broad top drawer of the desk. "Which one?"
"Due east, sir, the one that shows all the railroad trestles."
I removed the broad sheet and laid it on the desk.
Jacob squinted a little, tilted his head and got his bearings: he came around to my side of the desk, finger tips hovering over the map as he compared the hand drawn terrain to his memory.
"Here."
His finger stopped over Robbins Crossing.
"A wagon, sir -- a Conestoga -- tried to ford upstream -- here." His finger moved again, never quite touching the good rag paper. "'Twas swept away in the flash flood. Debris was reported here" -- his finger moved to the trestle spanning the Robbins -- "and I found four bodies."
I nodded.
"Two oxen still in harness, drowned. One man, one woman, two boys, all dead." Jacob laid a wallet on the desk. "The papers are mostly dry, sir."
"Was there any salvage?"
"None that I could find, sir. Anything loose was swept away. The wagon was broken. I don't reckon a man could salvage much unless he could find the wheels and pry off the rims, you might save the rims."
I grunted.
There was a whistle and a nasal wee-HAAAAAW from without.
I looked up at Jacob, raised an eyebrow.
"I did find a mule, sir."
I leaned over, looked toward the door.
It was chilly that morning and Jacob had closed the door behind him, so I could not see out too well, but I didn't have to look to know the mule had come back with Jacob.
"Mule worth anything?" I asked.
Jacob leaned both hands on the desk, his shoulders bowed like he was an old man, and I saw the first faint lines on his face.
You're too young for that, I thought, shocked: only old men get lines on their faces -- and then I remembered men, young men, no more than tall boys, young as Jacob and younger, tall boys in Union blue with just those same lines in their faces.
"Sir, the boys were young." Jacob swallowed hard, one hand closing into a fist again. He set his knuckles against the desk top, his eyes burning through the desk, seeing dead young faces all over again.
"Where are they?"
"Digger's gone for 'em, sir. I laid 'em out side by side and folded their arms acrost and I covered 'em with what canvas was left off the wagon." He looked at me, his eyes pale as winter ice. "It seemed ..." His voice trailed and grew faint.
"It seemed decent, sir."

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Linn Keller 11-18-09

 

The Sheriff stood and rested a firm hand on his son's shoulder.
The younger man was all whalebone and whipcord under the older man's grip: old eyes tightened in approval, but the smile never extended to the pale eyes themselves.
"There is something you must see," the Sheriff said quietly.
Jacob shoved hard against the desk with his fisted knuckles, straightened; from the back, the two men were quite obviously father and son: each moved with the same economy of effort, each reached for his hat and settled it on his head in like wise.
Each paced off on the left, each stood tall, straight.
The Sheriff paused at the door.
"Have you seen Charlie since he got back?"
"No, sir." Jacob blinked. "What did he find?"
The Sheriff grunted. "Back East? Bad air, bad food and bad people, I've a notion!"
He swung the door and looked out.
A tall, rangy, brindle mule looked back at him.
The Sheriff stopped and assessed the long eared creature with a degree of surprise.
The mule, on the other hand, fairly radiated wisdom, patience and an absolute lack of astonishment.
The Sheriff stroked the mule's nose, watchful of a snap, a bite: the mule blinked sleepily and tolerated the attention, then nosed the Sheriff's pocket.
"You bum," the Sheriff chuckled, offering one of the small, sweet apples, and the mule made a horrible death-rattle noise that both men knew indicated approval, pleasure and delight, not necessarily in that order.
The Sheriff patted the mule as he worked his way down its carcass, lifting a hoof, feeling a leg, patting a flank: he frowned at the lack of a brand.
As if divining paternal thoughts, Jacob offered "It's on t'other side, sir, a Bar Diamond Bar."
The Sheriff gave hind hooves a wide berth, not knowing how likely this particular -- he squinted -- gelding was for kicking; he studied the brand carefully, nodded.
"It won't be hard to alter," Jacob muttered.
"A good hand with a running iron can alter any brand I've ever seen."
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff patted the mule's neck, rubbed its back.
"It's been saddled."
"Yes, sir."
"A riding mule," the Sheriff said quietly.
"Sir, Bigfoot Wallace ..." Jacob let the question hang, unfinished.
"No, not his. He disdained brands."
"Yes, sir."
"Well, Jacob, that's not a bad looking mule." He looked at his son. "Do the papers you found speak of it?"
"No, sir."
"Are there any next of kin listed?"
"One letter, sir. Return address South Bend, Indiana."
"Hm." The Sheriff nodded. "Well, let's go see Shorty. Eat yet?"
Jacob grinned. If ever there was a favorite subject with him, it was food.
The Sheriff grinned back. He'd been young once.
"Got somethin' to show you, and I reckon Esther will come trottin' down out of the office once she sees us headin' for the Jewel."

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Linn Keller 11-19-09

 

Clyde Myres blinked.
Clyde represented the Board of Directors for the Cripple Creek Mining Consortium, and Clyde Myres had intended to negotiate a new contract with the Z&W Railroad.
Clyde Myres was new to his position.
The rest of the Board of Directors had carefully neglected to fully disclose the nature of the Z&W's owner: he'd been given the impression Jacob was the owner and general manager, as Jacob had been tending the company's business and seeing to its interests when his mother Esther, the real owner and operator of the short line, was otherwise occupied: and so Clyde Myres came to the main office of the Z&W thinking he was going to be speaking with a shavetail, an upstart, a beardless youth.
He was astonished when, after applying his knuckles to the Z&W's office door, it opened to show the smiling face of a little girl, bouncing on her toes.
"Hi! I'm Angela!"
Clyde Myres removed his townie hat and chuckled.
He had thought perhaps a secretary or an assistant would answer the door, but the sight of an apple-cheeked child at once surprised and delighted him.
There was a step, a voice behind her: "Mr. Myres, I presume?" and Clyde Myres found the door drawn wide open by a striking woman with emerald-green eyes, a fashionable gown and a fan dangling from one wrist. "I'm Esther Keller, owner of the Z&W. We've been expecting you, please come in!"
Clyde Myres tried to hide his surprise: "It seems assistants are getting younger every year," he smiled, for he too was a man with a wife and child, and knew what it was to be greeted by smiling eyes and a bright smile.
Esther laughed, and the sound was most pleasing on the ear.
"Mr. Myres, can I offer you some coffee, something stronger, perhaps?"
"Coffee would be very nice, thank you." He sat in the chair indicated, grateful that it was padded: time and hard work had settled the aches into his bones, and a comfortable seat was always welcome.
"Angela, could you have something sent up for Mr. Myres, please? He will have coffee."
"Yes, Mommy." Angela slipped out the door and they heard the rapid patter of her departure.
Esther studied the man's face.
It was recently enough after the kidnap attempts that she was not entirely trusting; she was also a student of the human condition, and she was a businesswoman, and she correctly divined that a man with a heart softened by a little girl, was a man who would not be quite so case-hardened when it came to hammering out a new contract.
Myres blinked, turning his attention to the woman who sat patiently before the painfully-neat, absolutely tidy roll top desk.
"I, um, had expected a young man --" he began.
"Our son Jacob." Esther nodded, smiling slightly. "He is kind enough to look after the railroad if I am otherwise occupied."
Myres shook his head a little. "If I may be so bold, Mrs. Keller, may I confess my confusion."
Esther tilted her head a bit, rotated her hand palm-up: please go on.
"I understand you own the Z&W."
"Yes."
"You ... operate it as well?" He blinked, trying to phrase his uncertainty as diplomatically as possible. "You are its general manager?"
"I am, Mr. Myres. Owner, operator, paymaster, I am the business end of the operation."
"And ... mother?" Myres' eyes went to the door again.
Esther's smile was bright and genuine. "Wife and mother, Mr. Myres. My husband gave me the Z&W as a wedding gift."
"I see." There was a tap on the door; a girl brought in a tray, placed it on the sideboard: a folding table was snapped open, placed at Mr. Myres' elbow, and he found himself facing a delightful array of coffee and sandwiches and a slab of pie that would have been a meal in and of itself.
Angela came bouncing into the office. "Mommy, Mommy!" she exclaimed with all the happy spontaneity of a little child, "Jacob's here! I gotta tell him about Rosie-horse!"
Mr. Myres laughed. He knew what it was to have a happy little girl make a delighted pronouncement. "Young lady," he said in a fatherly tone, "what can you tell me about Rosie-horse?"
Angela clasped her hands, standing still for the moment -- well, almost still: even when unmoving, she fairly vibrated -- she clasped her little hands together, bouncing on her toes, and blurted "Rosie had a horsie-puppy! It's really skinny!" -- and she bolted for the door, thundering down the stairs, her happy giggle floating in the still air behind her.
Esther sighed, smiling tolerantly. "You'll have to forgive our daughter. She does love to carry good news."
"Horsie-puppy." Mr. Myres laughed again. "Mrs. Keller, will you join me? This seems a bit much for one man ..."
"I assure you, Mr. Myres, your appetite will rise to the occasion." Esther smiled. "Had Angela remained, she probably would have told you how big steam engines give birth to little steam engines, and the little engines eat wood because they don't have teeth to eat coal like the big ones."

Jacob and the Sheriff stopped in mid-street as the door to the Jewel thrust open and Angela came pelting down the steps at a dead run.
Jacob went to one knee and braced to receive the onrushing charge.
Angela launched herself into her big brother's arms and Jacob laughed, rocking back and putting a hand behind him to brace against being bowled over.
Wiping his hand on a pants leg, he ran both arms around his little sis and gave her a big, squeeze-the-breath-out-of-her hug. Running one forearm under her bottom, he stood: Angela seized his Stetson and clapped it on her head and chattered, "Rosie had a little horsie puppy an' it's very skinny an' we don't have a saddle for it yet but I think it'll be just right for me but I don' wanna ride side saddle Jacob can you get me a regular saddle, pleeeeease?"

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