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Linn Keller 11-20-09

 

Jacob rubbed Rose o' the Mornin's ears.
The mare blinked, content to be fooled with, while her colt was busy satisfying its appetite.
Angela held her Daddy's hand and giggled, knuckles to her mouth: she wanted desperately to ride the little horsie-puppy but she knew it was much too small.
Besides, Jacob hadn't gotten her a saddle!
"She'll give you about a week to stop that, you know."
"Yes, sir." Jacob's expression was considerably softened.
"Angela heard her two nights ago, when we had that driving thunder storm."
"The one that burnt down Caleb's barn?"
"Yep." Linn folded a saddle blanket, used it for a pad and sat on a nail keg: running his hands under Angela's arms, he drew her onto his lap and she cuddled happily back against her warm, solid Daddy.
"Daine?" Jacob asked, the question complete in one word.
"Yep."
Jacob turned from the mare, looked upward.
"They're up there."
"Yes, sir."
"If I hadn't put lightning rods up before his got hit, I'd surely put 'em up after!" The Sheriff shivered. "Did you notice the new ones I have on either end of the house?"
"I did, sir."
Angela put her little hands on her Daddy's big hands, spreading her fingers in a vain attempt to cover as much area as his.
"Sir, Annette was asking if Charlie had taken care of the --" He looked at Angela, hesitated.
The Sheriff's eyes lightened noticeably and he was quiet for a long moment: finally, reaching into a vest pocket, he withdrew a carefully folded envelope, handed it to his son. "It's taken care of. You might like to read this."
Jacob raised one eyebrow, then removed the letter from the handmade envelope: he turned to catch the light through the chaff-flecked window and read:


To Sheriff Keller, Firelands, from Firecracker Mel, care of the Firecracker Ranch:
My dear Sheriff, I regret we are unable to sell you the horse you request, nor can we provide you with a saddle suitable for your little girl.
A first horse is a special horse and one cannot simply mail order something this important.
Both Santos and Eduardo are arguing over who will solve this conundrum, and I believe it will result in a formal sojourn.
You may expect four of us.


Jacob looked up at his father.
"Sir, the date on this ..."
"Is today, and the train arrives in an hour." The Sheriff stood. "Shall we go?"
The Sheriff swung Angela up and cradled her in his arms. His daughter giggled and reached up to touch his mustache.
"Angela, I need you to change clothes."
"Yes, Daddy," Angela said, and Jacob's ear twitched a little: there was almost a note of disappointment in her voice, as if she had done something bad.
"Do you remember that riding skirt your Mommy made you?"
Angela's eyes widened, comprehension or at least desperate hope illuminating her young face: she squirmed powerfully and her Daddy set her down, and Angela sprinted for the door.
"She could likely outrun a horse right now," the Sheriff 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 11-20-09

 

Mick was a solid built man.
Mick was Irish, and Mick was a sergeant, and Mick was only just in town, and naturally his first stop was the Silver Jewel, for his keen Irish ears could hear volumes of good drink calling his name, just begging to be poured liberally down his parched Irish throat, and of course it would be inhospitable to the Wee Folk -- or whichever other excuse might be handy at the moment -- to ignore the pleading of their several voices!
And so Mick, with one dusty booted foot up on the shining brass rail, looked around, delighted that his good friend the Colonel -- "Sheriff," he corrected himself, "he's no' the Colonel, he's the Shire Reeve" -- gave a happy, beery belch, and poured another shot of Mr. Baxter's distilled lightning into his beer mug.
Mr. Baxter watched the big Irishman with patient tolerance. He'd known men of many kinds and his gut told him the big Irishman might get loud and even obnxious, but he would not cause trouble.
He would very definitely finish any trouble handed to him, but he would not cause it.
Mr. Baxter knew the evening was going to be anything but dull when the ornate doors were hauled open and a laughing group of gaudy celebrants stormed his kingdom with all the delicacy of a cavalry charge, though at a considerably lesser velocity.
A half dozen cavalry troopers looked up from their steaming hot meals, looking first at the noisy invaders, then at their Sergeant: if their auburn haired chieftain took offense, the entire troop would happily engage in mayhem, to whatever degree the newcomers wished, and then some: but when Mick raised his mug in salute and roared something loud, Gaelic and rather obscene, the half-dozen relaxed and happily returned their attention to taters and gravy and good back strap beef.
Santos seized the Irishman's hand and pounded him companionably on the shoulder; Eduardo pulled Santos away and assumed the suddenly-abandoned hand, at once distressed and delighted at the strength of the callused Celtic paw companionably crushing his own: insults were happily exchanged as each called the other something truly horrible, in his native tongue but in good fun and to a man's face, it was understood as the celebratory meeting of warriors.
The Sheriff, too, was in for his share of hand wringing and back pounding, and as Mr. Baxter poured glasses of distilled lightning and mugs of froth-headed beer, the piano player struck up a lively air.
Santos thumped a bag of gold dust on the bar, shouting to be heard over the confusion: Tilly stood, holding up her register-book and tilting her hand: will they need rooms? she asked wordlessly.
The Sheriff took a quick inventory, held up one finger: the three Mexican guests would likely bunk in the same room, Mick would bivouac with his men -- he refused to sleep in a comfortable bed if his men were sleeping on the ground -- and Tilly nodded, giving the Sheriff a sympathetic look.
Eduardo seized the Sheriff's face between his hands.
"La Senora Firecracker sends her love and she says to give you this!" Eduardo laughed, kissing the Sheriff soundly on the lips.
The Sheriff's eyes went wide and he nearly dropped his beer.
Mick pounded the polished mahogany bar, his head thrown back, roaring his merriment to the ceiling: Santos bent double at the waist, cackling like a hen laying a paving brick, young Miguel de Vega y Vega was happily holding onto the corner of the bar, giving full, teary-eyed vent to his mirthful feelings, and the Sheriff took the Mexican by the shoulders, shoved him back to arm's length, declared "Why I didn't know you cared!" -- then spun Eduardo around, bent him backward and pretended to chew on his exposed throat.
"Ayudame! I am being eaten!" Eduardo screamed, just in time to behold a set of startling emerald eyes and the descending bar of a closed fan.
Esther whapped the Sheriff loudly on the back of his head. "You two-timer!" she snapped. "You cad! And you!" The Sheriff straightened quickly, a guilty look on his face, and Esther glared at Eduardo as he tried to regain both equilibrium and dignity. "You home-wrecker! Shame on you!"
And so saying, Esther seized Eduardo's face and laid a big kiss on him, full on the mouth.
It was Eduardo's turn to go wide-eyed.
The troopers had abandoned all hope of a meal; they were laughing too hard at the floor show, Mick was by this time slid down the bar and sitting on the floor, head tilted back against the bar, his beefy-red face absolutely florid and tears runnig out the corners of his eyes.
Even Mr. Baxter was giving vent to some good guffaws.
When the uproar died down somewhat, Santos protested loudly, "Por Dios, what must a poor man do to get a kiss from a lovely lady?" and Esther, smiling, replied just as loudly, "You have to kiss the Sheriff!"
Mick, at this point, gave up all hope of ever breathing normally again; he'd pulled his neck cloth loose and was using it to mop his eyes.
"I would rather kiss a brindle mule!" Santos wailed, at which point they heard the whistle and "aaaw, EE-aaaw!" from without, which nearly sent poor Mick into respiratory arrest.
Esther glided over to Santos and kissed him delicately on the cheek.
"My dear Santos, have you been well?" she murmured, and Santos' ears turned a quite remarkable shade of scarlet: had he been wearing his ornate sombrero, instead of holding it two-handed in front of his stomach, it would probably have scorched and probably even smoldered, so caloric were his external auditory pinnae.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-20-09

 

On the verge of stepping through the door to join the festivities, Charlie, with Fannie on his arm, heard something said about kissing a brindle mule and promptly threw back his head and gave vent to his finest imitation of a lovelorn pack beast. He heard Mick's own bray of helpless laughter and couldn't help but join in as he and his lovely bride stepped into the Jewel. Both found themselves in a sudden whirlwind of greetings from the three vaqueros, and, from his place at the foot of the bar, the large Irish sergeant.

Between guffaws, Mick called, "Well, an' if it ain't me favorite Federal man and the nightingale of me eye! Welcome, my friend!" Fannie was seized by the hand and had said appendage soundly bussed while Charlie's own paw was wrung unmercifully.

"To what do we owe such a greeting?" Charlie asked of his three sombreroed assailants.

Santos looked him in the eye and said in an undertone that carried well to Charlie's ear in spite of the din, "I believe you were in Mexico earlier this year, senor?" Charlie nodded. "Need I say more?"

"I reckon not," Charlie answered in the same tone. Then the leather bag on the bar caught his eye and his voice thundered out above the hubbub. "Mister Baxter! The money of these three destitute peons is no good in this saloon! Drinks are on me!" As his words registered with those present he stepped aside to avoid being trampled in the sudden stampede of thirsty souls in their sudden hurry to stave off death by dehydration.

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Linn Keller 11-23-09

 

Angela solemnly eyed the brindle mule.
The brindle mule blinked and eyed Angela.
Angela tilted her head.
The brindle mule switched its tail and blinked like a sleepy cat.
Angela looked around the brindle mule's sizable schnoz and watched her big brother Jacob unwind the reins from around the hitch rail.
"He's a riding mule" Jacob said. "Would you like to ride him?"
Angela looked waaaaay up at the mule's back and shook her head.
"You used to ride Hijo del Sol," Jacob said reassuringly. "This fellow is a hand shorter."
Angela shook her head again, curls bouncing vigorously with the effort.
"Well, come on, then," Jacob said gently, stroking the mule's nose, and Angela was not sure whether he was talking to her or to the mule, but as Jacob and the mule were heading across the street, she tagged along, industriously keeping up with her brother's long-legged stride.
They went down the broad alley beside the Jewel , just in sight of the livery, and Angela stopped suddenly, blinking in surprise.
"Ja-a-acob," she said, and there was a little strain in her voice.
Jacob said "Ho," and the mule ho'd, and Jacob squatted down, looking under the brindle's chest at his wide-eyed little sister.
"Don't tell Pa," he whispered loudly. "It's a surprise!"
Angela's eyes were huge and she nodded with a vigor that matched her earlier negative response.

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Linn Keller 11-27-09

 

Tom Landers snatched the gambler out of his chair by the back of his coat. A stranger, a townie, he thrashed and protested loudly, at least until he realized he was being held with ease by only one hand, and the others at the table were regarding him with an appraising eye.
Of a sudden the stranger felt like a side of beef hung up in the slaughter house.
"You know that cheatin' at cards is a hangin' offense," Tom Landers said quietly.
The happy cascade of fiddle music added a surreal note to the stranger's perception of the moment: in the main room of the Jewel, tables were being pushed back, the troopers had hastily assembled their dirty dishes and piled them in one luckless bluecoat's arms before pulling tables and chairs out of the way: the one trooper, staggering a little with the effort of balancing plates, cups, saucers and flatware, managed to weave carefully through the throng and reached the quiet shelter of the back hallway just as Fiddler Daine put bow to rosin-block and some fellow just in off the stage began checking his double strung banjo for tune.
The pale faced young fellow with the ruffled sleeve garters was seized and hauled away from his piano, the bench shoved under the upright's keyboard and there were whistles and applause as the Sheriff and his green-eyed bride stepped to the center of the floor.
"You can't just hang a man!" the gambler protested, at least until Tom Landers bent him rather abruptly over an adjacent table and stripped the coat off him.
Miscellaneous cards fluttered to the ground; a cable holdout mechanism was strapped to the man's right forearm, a queen of diamonds still in its metallic jaws.
The gambler was working with a partner, who at the moment was sitting very, very still.
"Now I reckon your winnings here tonight are all crooked," Tom Landers declared. "You have won nothing tonight except maybe your life."
The gambler's partner's hand was slipping surreptitiously into his open coat.
A hard-fingered hand seized the partner by the chin, hauled his head back and to the side, and the cold edge of something very sharp stung into the man's neck.
Jacob looked up at Tom Landers and his eyes were very, very pale.
In the other room, the waltz had started: the Sheriff and Esther were working their magic on the floor: the Sheriff had said it wasn't so much he danced with Esther, as he danced and Esther was a feather on the breeze, and so it was: Annette was appropriated by Santos, Miz Fannie lay a gentle hand and smoldering eyes on her husband, and there was a general scramble and rush to find available ladies with whom to parter.
"Tom," Jacob said, "do you want to hang this one, or should I just cut his throat here and now?"
Tom Landers hauled the gambler up and let him take a good look at his partner.
There was a trickle of blood just startling to dribble down the man's neck, and the honed Damascus blade fairly glowed in the lamp light.
"The house seizes his pot." Tom Landers threw the gambler's coat into the man's arms. "Get out of my gambling hall and don't you ever think about coming back."
Jacob twisted sideways to avoid the knife-stroke, turned his blade and thrust it vertical down behind the man's collar bone. He held the head back, twisted hard, lifted the dying man off the floor, at least until his legs quit shaking and he quit flailing.
The gambler's partner had tried driving his knife like an icepick into Jacob's thigh.
Later that night Doc Greenlees dipped his quill into the ink bottle and wrote a few carefully considered words into the official record.
"Coroner's Report," the sheet read across the top; on the line where he wrote, the form read "Cause of Death," and Dr. John Greenlees considered the words he'd just written, still gleaming-wet and not yet dried.
"Terminal stupidity."

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Linn Keller 11-28-09

 

Angela was trying hard to pout.
She was really trying hard to put on a good old fashioned, run-your-bottom-lip-out pout.
She had her arms crossed, her ankles were crossed, but try as she might, she could not muster the proper scowl and instead laughed, for she was being regarded with at least a dozen sets of eyes, all of them big and strong like her Daddy, and all of them laughing and jesting loudly with their fellows.
One set of big strong hands -- she wasn't sure whose, but she had the distinct impression of bright and laughing eyes and a blue coat and the smell of horse sweat and leather -- had hoisted her off the floor and through the air, and deposited her with a delighted laugh on the edge of Mr. Baxter's bar.
Angela had wanted to tell her Daddy what she'd seen, but Jacob had told her not to, and then she and Jacob had come into the Jewel through the back door (she stopped Jacob and checked his boots for what he shouldn't track inside -- they had been to the livery, after all -- and she had him check her shoe soles -- and after each passed the other's inspection ... well, after some judicious wiping of feet in the grass ... anyway, they'd gone inside) -- and then Jacob's voice changed and got kind of funny and hard and cold and he told her to stand right here, and he went into the next room.
Angela couldn't see quite what was happening, but she heard Tom Landers and she knew someone was being very naughty, and then there were other funny noises, and some men came and went, and finally her Daddy went in the back room with that hard look to his face, and Angela folded her arms and huffed like she did when she was feeling cross.
Unsure quite what to do next, Angela strutted out into the Jewel, past the gambling tables -- she smiled as a dealer winked at her, she waved as the croupier paused in his dice-tossing, and she laughed when a sad-looking, cadaverous fellow in a ridiculously tall top hat rolled the chuck-a-luck cage over and over and over again, intoning joylessly, "Ride the luck, see how she goes," and finally she was among many tall and strong sets of legs.
Now she sat on the edge of Mr. Baxter's bar, and someone slid a bowl of nuts up beside her, and she reached in and daintily took half a walnut and began to nibble on it.
She would rather have seized a handful and chewed with happy abandon, but her Mommy had taught her to be dainty, and her Mommy was a lady and knew these things, so Angela took a dainty nibble of the walnut and smiled at the big and strong men who'd shifted themselves subtly to form a protective shell around her.
Santos had worked through the protective layer of humanity, and had asked with a gentleman's flair if he might have the honor of a dance, and Angela giggled, which was as good as a yes: she found herself in strong Mexican arms, being whirled about the floor and passed from strong arms and hands to yet more strong hands and arms: little Angela, with her feet well more than a yard from the floor, danced a flamenco, a waltz, a clog, a shottische and something that can best be described as a stepladder teetering back and forth from left to right; she ended up with Eduardo, and somehow managed to survive being quickly traded from one exquisitely embroidered jacket to another, until she finally ended up against the wall, in a chair, sitting on a lap, and leaned comfortably back against said exquisitely embroidered jacket: and while her Daddy and her brother and whoever else was involved, took care of the things they were working on, little Angela exercised her little girl's perogative and leaned the side of her head against the slow moving chest: with a set of arms around her, and a sense that all was well with the world, a curly headed little girl fell sound asleep in the middle of Turkey in the Straw and a sea of broad grins.

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Linn Keller 12-2-09

 

It wasn't that Daisy didn't have fine and fashionable gowns.
She had them; Sean saw to that, he once scooped his bride into his arms and carried her to the waiting carriage, and over her strident protests -- which he smothered with enveloping arms and a good sound kiss -- he conveyed his Irish bride to Bonnie's shop and had her fitted with three of the latest in fashion.
It wasn't that Daisy was unattractive. Matter of fact, with her bright and flashing eyes, her quick and ready smile, her bristling temper but equally quick affection and her Irish-red hair, she was not the most beautiful woman in town, but she was certainly one of them.
No, it's more that Daisy saw herself as simple and practical, and so on this particular day she headed for the Jewel, intending to make an inspection of the kitchen which had been her home and her haven and her suzerainty for some time.
Daisy was quickly swept up in the general celebration in the Jewel: though a married woman, she delighted in a good dance, and she found herself partaking of the partnering skills of no less than two dozen men in rapid succession: finally, flushed and a little out of breath, she managed to waltz, clog and jig her way to the hallway leading back to the kitchen.
Daisy had originally arrived with a bit of an ill temper. Little Sean, like little boys everywhere, was vigorous, energetic, bright, inquisitive, noisy and into everything he shouldn't be: Daisy had finally taken him by the ear and marched him to the firehouse, where he wished to be anyway, and left him under the supervision of the Irish Welshman, who waited until the miffed mother was out of sight before pulling the lad into a corner and drawing the Barlow knife from his pocket.
Little Sean was quickly initiated into the delightful game of Mulblety-Peg, and as the Welsh Irishman just happened to have an extra Barlow about his person, little Sean joyfully entered into competition with the red-shirted fireman.
Daisy, meanwhile, had repaired herself to the Jewel with full intent to strictly instruct whoever was in charge of her pride and joy in the way they ought to be cooking: indeed, it is perhaps well that her energies were spent on the dance floor: by the time she reached the welcoming haven, her mood had improved considerably.
Daisy inspected pans, lifted lids, stirred pots of stew, tasted the gravy, whisked the mashed potatoes, peeked in at light rolls just beginning to brown in the oven: she drew back as the kitchen staff worked their magic, and smiled as the cook herself marched out onto the dance floor, gave a most unladylike whistle and announced in a loud and strident voice that if anyone wished to eat they would set the tables back in place, otherwise the beef was going to the hogs: Daisy's hand went delicately to her mouth as music ceased and boot heels hastened from dance cadence to the businesslike step of men at labor: tables were quickly returned, chairs spun in place, and Daisy joined the parade of willing hands triumphantly bearing plates, platters and tureens.
She waited until all present were served, then gave a brisk and approving nod, and returned to what she still called her kitchen.
Daisy began slicing pies and put two more big coffee-pots to heating, chunked more wood in the stove and shook down the ashes, scooped out a pile of flour and began making bread.
I might be the owner, she thought, but I'm still a pretty good cook!

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Linn Keller 12-2-09

 

Angela dreamed she was flying.
She wasn't flying, not quite: she was, however, passed gently from one strong set of arms to another, until she came to final rest in her Daddy's embrace: she cuddled up against the familiar scent, her cheek against his collar bone and her breath soft against his neck.
Linn winked at Charlie.
"I'd be interested in your after action report," he said softly, "but let me get Sweet Thang upstairs. Esther has a bunk in her office."
Charlie nodded, his eyes crinkling at the corners; his expression changed little, but the smile behind his visage was unmistakable.
The crowd parted to let the Sheriff pass and there were not a few smiles at the sight of a graying old lawman with a sleeping child in his arms and a gentle look about his expression, a look they didn't see very often.
Santos had managed to follow the Sheriff as far as the end of the bar, but apparently thought better of following the man upstairs. He turned and accepted a golden glass of tequila from his friend MacNeil.
"You look like a man with somethin' to say," Charlie said quietly, and Miz Fannie turned her head a little, turned just enough to strike a portrait-like pose: in reality she was turning her best ear toward the men, for she knew something was in the wind, and she knew the Mexican brothers had information, or at least tidings, and if they had something to say she was interested in hearing it.
Their mutual hopes of intelligece-gathering was interrupted by food, furniture and Daisy's sharp whistle, and for a short time their attention was rather comestible in nature.

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Linn Keller 12-3-09

 

"Does he know?"
Charlie had the pleased, cat-with-a-canary-aftertaste expression of a man with a secret, and Miz Fannie, smiling quietly beside him, had the ladylike look of a woman who was pleased that something was about to happen.
"No, sir, he don't," Jacob said, eyes busy penetrating the crowd, then he looked at Charlie and colored a little. "I'm sorry. No, Charlie, he don't."
Charlie's hand on Jacob's shoulder was that of a friend: "Good manners are never wasted, Jacob. Your Pa taught you well."
"Yes, sir."
"But he doesn't know yet."
Santos was practically beaming, and he and Eduardo clinked glasses.
Miguel accepted a tall mug of something water-clear from Mr. Baxter; the younger man thanked the barkeep and sipped tentatively at the colorless beverage: finding it to his liking, he took a longer drink.
Eduardo regarded Miguel's experimental foray into beverages with a noncommittal eye. He knew what it was to be young and full of fire, and he made a mental note to warn his brother that they may need to cool some hot Mexican blood later.
Up on the stage, Fiddler Daine was taking a rest, easing his good right arm and leaning back in a rocking chair with a contented sigh: one of the lasses from the kitchen had handed him a glass of water clear, and he sipped it cautiously. He'd grown up on distilled spirits and had been making them all of his life, but he treated liquid lightning with respect: once, and only once, had he imbibed to excess, and his wise and skinny Pappy had seen to it that he'd drank of firsts and lasts of the distillate run -- he'd intentionally fed the lad that part of the moon run containing fuesel oil, that grand contaminant that causes what the French call the Montgolfier, that spectacular morning-after headache that does indeed feel like the first hot-air balloon.
Tonight, though, he had just enough to wet his whistle and revive his spirits; he was of a mind to play, and those on the dance floor below were of a mind to celebrate.
Fiddler Daine stood as Miz Esther approached the stage: she dropped a perfectly ladylike curtsy to the musicians, then came to the edge of the stage and laid delicate hands on the polished boards.
"Please accept my thanks," she began, and Fiddler Daine saw a quiver about her bottom lip: she captured it between even, white teeth, and a tear rolled over her bottom lid. "Twenty years ago this night we laid my dear mother to rest, and she made me promise that I would dance again."
Fiddler Daine about fell through the floor.
He'd never considered himself a musician; he was just a poor Kentucky hillbilly that nailed boards together or sawed on a fiddle with no particular skill: like most men with an honest gift, he didn't think of his talent as others did, but with this powerful pronouncement, he stood, drawing his skinny frame up to its full six foot four, and then he began: he drew a single, pure note out, spinning out out over the floor, ensnaring everyone present, before turning it back on itself and weaving a slow Irish air, a love song, a tune he had played but once before in his life, when he was a young man and desperately in love: he'd played this tune for the woman he would later call his wife.
Fiddler Daine had never heard of the Ninja, nor of their code of bushido: still, he would have recognized their belief that when a weapon, or a tool, is right, it will feel right, because a man's soul will rush into the weapon, or the tool, and it will become part of him.
Fiddler Daine's soul roared into that curly-backed fiddle that night: he played with skill and with grace and he sang with steel strings and a horse hair bow and a tiger striped maple throat, and he sang a song of undying love to a woman long dead, someone to whom he'd given his beating heart when he was a young man, someone he missed terribly to this day.

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Linn Keller 12-3-09

 

John Rice caressed his cards like he would caress a lover.
He'd just taken the rube across the table for every cent he had, and John was enjoying himself.
The rube licked dry lips with a dry tongue, considering what he had left to bet, and finally he named a business, a business John Rice knew was profitable.
John had never owned a business but he was tired of living a roving life, tired of riding stage coaches from town to town, wearing out his welcome in one before moving on to another; he'd had a bountiful harvest in Carbon and had moved on to Firelands, though not before a close shave with an irate poker player; John considered the nearness of the fellow's pistol shot, and suddenly owning a business seemed all the more attractive.
The rube wrote out a brief IOU and presented it: John Rice did not so much as glance at it, but instead placed it in the center of the table with what coin had been bet.
"Last card," he said, and slid a card face-down to the rube.
Caleb Rosenthal reached for it with a palsied hand.
Caleb was Mayor, yes, but he was a man who liked his cards, and though he'd never bet great sums before, the fever caught up with him and he found himself depleting his purse at an alarming rate, until the moment caught up with him -- the moment when he bet his wife's dressmaking business, her entire inventory, the building, all.
Caleb turned his card over and his heart shriveled inside him.
John Rice turned his card over and his eyes smiled.
John Rice reached for the pot, brought the coins and the note to him, drew a pouch from an inside pocket and began dropping coins into the leather poke.
Caleb Rosenthal rose on wooden legs, turned: he held onto the back of the chair as if to steady himself, then he walked like an old man out to the dance floor.
John Rice did not particularly care that he'd just ruined a man.
John Rice had ruined men before.
John Rice picked up the glass at his left and sipped absinthe from the fine crystal goblet: of all the towns he'd been in, the Silver Jewel was surely the finest, he reflected, both in its appointments and in the quality of its food, the cleanliness of its bed-sheets, and the excellence of its drink.
John Rice savored the absinthe: when finished, he rose and began walking toward the bar.
A rather attractive woman blocked his way.
"My dear," John Rice said politely, lifting his Derby hat, "another time, perhaps--"
"Mr. Rice, my name is Bonnie Rosenthal," the woman said, and though her words were softly spoken, there was a hardness to them, and he realized this must be the wife of the man he had just beggared.
"Please, my dear, the night has been long, and--"
"Mr. Rice, you are a gambling man," Bonnie interrupted. "One hand, for the highest stakes you have ever wagered."
John Rice considered this unexpected offer.
He could imagine what her wager might be: he could rent a woman's services whenever he wanted, he knew, and a woman's salacious offer carried less appeal than the business transactions he was accustomed to in such matters. Still, she did say a wager, and for very high stakes --
"The business my husband offered is not his to wager. The business is mine, and it is not for sale."
"My dear, it is hardly a matter for discussion. A bet is a bet --"
Bonnie raised her voice. "You, sir, are a cheat, and I call you a cheat to your face!"
John Rice's complexion darkened. "If you were a man, I would beat you--"
John Rice's eyes widened as he realized this woman had punched him with something more slender and far harder than her knuckles.
He looked down at the gun barrel driven into his belly.
Bonnie reached up with her thumb and drew the hammer back.
He felt the multiple clicks as it came to full cock.
"You, sir, just called me a liar." Bonnie's voice was flat, emotionless. "For that I can shoot you where you stand."
John Rice began sweating now, realizing that perhaps his choice in the matter had been less than wise.
Tom Landers loomed near, on Bonnie's right.
"Is there some difficulty?" he asked, his voice deep and reassuring.
John Rice looked down at the pistol shoved halfway to his spine, then looked at the white-mustached ex-sheriff. "Difficulty?" he squeaked.
"We were just about to play a friendly hand," Bonnie said levelly.
"A friendly hand." John Rice's voice barely rasped out a throat that was suddenly very, very dry.
"Then, please, don't let me interrupt," Tom Landers said smoothly.
"Mr. Landers, we shall want a fresh deck, unused and sealed, and if you could shuffle, please."
Tom Landers' eyebrows went up.
"I don't usually deal," he observed, "but I think this merits an exception."
"Mr. Rice, if you would be seated, please."
John Rice stepped carefully around the circular table, lowered himself into the chair as if he expected the velvet cushioned seat to detonate beneath his weight.
Bonnie replaced the pistol somewhere in her dress -- Rice wasn't sure quite where -- and his jaw hung slack as Bonnie said briskly, "We will bet everything, Mr. Rice. You will bet all that you have, and so will I."
"On one hand?" John Rice said, finding a little saliva and swallowing.
"No." Bonnie Rosenthal's face was tight. "On one card."
A crowd was gathering around the table: none got too close, but none wished to miss a word, and so they crowded in, packed tight, watching, listening.
Tom Landers broke the seal on a fresh pack of cards and shuffled the deck, the cards whispering promises of rich and of ruin as they arranged themselves under his big-knuckled fingers.
"Please place the cards on the table, Mr. Landers. We shall draw them ourselves."
Tom Landers thumped the deck solidly on the table.
John Rice jumped a little.
"Ante up, Mr. Rice," Bonnie said, her voice clear and ringing in the sudden hush.
John Rice closed his eyes, took a breath, opened his eyes with a sudden confidence.
He was a gambler, and a gambler is in his element in such moments.
John Rice removed the pouch from his coat and tossed it casually in the middle of the table.
"I have bet all there is to bet," he said. "Now, my dear, what have you?"
Bonnie's hands clasped for a moment, then drew quickly apart and she slapped her hand hard on the table top.
She held her spatulate-fingered hand flat for a long moment, then slowly rolled it up to reveal her wedding ring.
"I bet all that I have, and all that I am," she said.
John Rice looked at her, unbelieving.
"I, um, I've never," he stammered.
"You've never owned a woman before?" Bonnie said, her tone mocking, her eyes bright and hard in the white glare of the Aladdin mantle lamps.
"No."
Bonnie smiled tightly. "You may draw one card, Mr. Rice."
"One card?"
"We will determine this with one card. You may draw, or you may pass."
John Rice reached for the deck, tapped the top card, withdrew his hand.
Bonnie Rosenthal reached for the deck, slid the top card off, drew it toward her, keeping it face down.
"Draw your card, Mr. Rice."
John Rice looked at Bonnie: he looked at the pale face of her husband, staring from the crowd: he looked at the pot in the middle of the table: his pouch of gold coin and one hand written IOU, and a wedding ring that represented a woman's freedom, a woman's marriage, a woman's family, a woman's very life.
John Rice reached for the deck.
To his surprise he noticed his hand was trembling.
His hand had never trembled before in a game.
Never.
John Rice touched the card, pulled back as if burned, then reached again.
John Rice slid the card off the deck.
It came free with a papery whisper.
He slid the card, face down, toward him: he turned up one corner, took a look, then looked at the woman across from him.
He had never seen such confidence, such self-assurance, in his life.
John Rice turned his card over, flipped it to the center of the table.
"Queen of hearts," someone said.
"Well, Mr. Rice?" Bonnie said, her smile tight. "Shall I turn over my card?"
John Rice stood quickly, panic gripping him: "I concede the game," he blurted, and shoved through the crowd, fairly running across the dance floor in his haste to escape.
The crowd burst into cheers, yells, whistles: enthusiastic hands pounded the table, pounded Bonnie on the back, the shoulders: Bonnie picked up John Rice's card and slid it under her own, then she reached for her wedding ring and slid it back on her finger.
She stood, as regal as the Queen herself, and found her husband before her, his face flushed with shame.
Silence again claimed the room.
Bonnie reached into the gambler's pouch, withdrew the IOU with two fingers, read it, then slowly, carefully, precisely, tore it in two, tore it again: tossing the fragments into the air, she seized her husband's face between hers and planted a kiss on him that left absolutely no doubt of her affection.
When they came up for air, Bonnie handed her husband the winnings and took his arm.
"My friends," she called, "if you will please excuse us, my husband and I have some celebrating to do."
They left the Jewel to thunderous, vigorous and very heartfelt applause.

Later that night, Caleb Rosenthal asked the question Bonnie knew was coming.
"But you never looked at your card," he blurted. "How -- I mean what if he hadn't run away?"
Bonnie withdrew the cards from her bodice.
"This was his," she said, holding up the Queen of Hearts.
"And this was mine."
Caleb's jaw dropped as his wife held up the King of Spades.
Bonnie's smile never spread further than her eyes.
"I had the winning card."

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Charlie MacNeil 12-3-09

 

When the cheering had died down a skosh and Linn had returned from delivering his sleeping charge to her bed upstairs, Charlie stepped up alongside the Sheriff where he stood at the bar. "We need to talk, my friend," Charlie said aloud. Anyone more than three feet away would have missed the comment in the hubbub but Linn missed not a word.

"And what, pray tell, do we have special to talk about?"

"My recent trip to Chicago," Charlie answered. "I believe you'll be pleased with what I have to say."

"Then by all means, lead on, MacDuff!" Linn gestured grandly toward a trio of empty chairs near "The Sheriff's Corner" and Charlie did exactly that. When they were seated he looked at his blood brother.

"When Esther and the kids were attacked, I decided that I could find out more about who was responsible than you'd be legally allowed to," he said bluntly. "What I found out is that there's oil under this town, and an Irish brigand named Alex Callahan was responsible. He was planning to use your wife and children as hostages in return for title to the land he wanted."

Linn sat up straight in his chair and the blood drained from his face as he grated, "And just where is this Callahan now?"

Fannie laid a calming hand on a wrist whose tenseness was that of whipcord and rawhide. "He's on a ship bound for Ireland," she told him. "And he won't be back."

"How can you be so sure?" The words dripped ice sickles and hoarfrost.

"Because I put the fear of God into him!" Charlie declared.

"No, the fear of Charlie," Fannie corrected with a twinkle. "And cleaned him of every penny he had in the process."

Linn was beginning to relax. "And how much exactly was that?" he asked.

Charlie studied his fingernails for a moment then answered nonchalantly, "That was about three and a half million dollars. Wanna buy a mansion in Chicago?"

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Linn Keller 12-6-09

 

Miguel de la Vega y Vega watched the lawmen over the rim of his heavy glass.
He'd been sipping judiciously on the water clear beverage, content in knowing it was just that -- water -- but leaning casually against the bar, in the company of men consuming much harder spirits, he did not look out of place.
Well, actually he did, for Colorado men seldom wore trousers with a gaudy gusset in the outseam, opening it from knee to cuff with a broad splash of colorful insert: nor did they commonly wear a black gunbelt with turquoise-and-silver furniture, a red sash over an absolutely pure white silk shirt, nor a hand-embroidered vest of sky blue ... hand embroidery with pure silver thread, an art mastered by a few, highly skilled seamstresses.
Miguel de la Vega y Vega's black eyes glittered as he listened, and he watched: he wished to be a wise man like his padre and his abuelo before him: he knew they subscribed to the Masonic virtues of silence and circumspection; he knew the value of these traits, and so he leaned, and he sipped, and he listened.
He listened, that is, until a vision of beauty and purity glided through the door, a young woman of such beauty that the breath stilled in his lungs and the water lay on his tongue, untasted, unswallowed.
A face with cheeks like milk, a smile that would melt the heart of a stone statue, eyes like the skies over his native Border ranch: she was almost as tall as he, her hair shone like a mare's brushed mane, she carried herself erect, eyes shining, gloved hands daintily lifting her skirts, swinging them unconciously as she walked, keeping them from careless feet: her glance swept the Jewel, clearly looking for someone, and Miguel swallowed his water and breathed at the same time, and spent the next several moments coughing, turning away and trying to stifle the sounds of his discomfiture: blindly sliding the glass deep onto the mahogany bar-top, he felt it caught by another hand and released it, drawing the inside of his elbow hard against his mouth.
Strong and callused hands pounded sympathetically on his back.
"Strong stuff, ain't it?" a voice offered. "I did the same when I was your age."
Miguel's eyes flashed and his fingers twitched, momentarily, an impulse quickly stifled; he was young and his blood was hot, and his first thought was that he'd been insulted and his blade should be quenched in an ocean of red to quench the burn of his wounded pride: just as quickly he stifled the thought with the realization that it made him look as if he were, indeed, sipping on the Daine boys' distilled lightning.
He blinked his eyes free of tears and harrumphed, reaching again for the glass.
Mr. Baxter had refilled it and slid it into the young man's grasp.
Madonna! Miguel thought, half-prayerfully, half-fearfully.
Madre de Dios, let me not lose this maiden's heart --
He placed the glass back on the bar, untasted, and began working his way through the dancers.
The maiden, this vision of beauty, this pure and unsullied soul for whom he would drag mountains behind him with a hand forged iron chain held between his teeth, was embracing the Sheriff, and smiling at the hard man Miguel knew as Matar del Diablo, the Devil Killer, the man others called Macneil.
Miguel smiled a tight smile.
The maiden was known to men who were known to him.
He would have to tread carefully, cautiously.
They would regard this pure flower as highly as their own.
He could offer no insult to her chastity, her purity, her reputation, lest his own life be forfeit --
Miguel shivered as if his tall glass of cool water had been poured down his spine.
He had known hard men all his days; he himself was no stranger to unpleasantness and to violence, and fine scars across his belly, his knuckles, a scar across his right cheekbone attested to these hard lessons already in his young life: Miguel Vega y Vega knew the Macneil could gut a charging grizzly, cut the throat of a raging bull loose on the street, seize a bull buffalo by its horns and slam it into a rock bluff, all without breaking a sweat: though young, Miguel de la Vega y Vega was an observer of men, and he knew the value of not offending seasoned warriors, nor those of whom they thought highly.
From the softening of the hard lines around the Macneil's eyes, Miguel knew this young woman was of his tribe, his clan, his familia, and the look on the Sheriff's face led him to consider this may be his very daughter, a child of his blood.

Sarah Rosenthal, ten years old, tall and slender and wearing one of the latest creations from her Mama's manufactory, embraced the Sheriff and reached over to give Charlie's hand a quick squeeze.
She never noticed the burning black eyes who imagined her older, nor the beating Mexican heart that threatened to burst through the silk shirt and the silver-brocaded vest.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-6-09

 

"Sarah Rosenthal, ten years old, tall and slender and wearing one of the latest creations from her Mama's manufactory, embraced the Sheriff and reached over to give Charlie's hand a quick squeeze.
She never noticed the burning black eyes who imagined her older, nor the beating Mexican heart that threatened to burst through the silk shirt and the silver-brocaded vest..."

But another did. Charlie's hazel eyes had already taken notice of the advance of the young Miguel, weaving through the crowd with the sinuous grace of a prairie rattler holding a fear-frozen mouse in its sights. While his smile softened and reached out to Sarah, that softness stopped well short of the ex-marshal's eyes as he watched the progress of the hunter without watching, as it were. He was well aware that young Miguel was hot-blooded, though he had exhibited remarkable maturity in past encounters; but the look in the vaquero's own dark orbs brought Charlie's hackles to attention.

Only Fannie noticed the sudden tension in Charlie's body language, and she quickly put a calming hand on his forearm as she followed his gaze. "It's only Miguel," she told her husband softly.

"Look at his face!" Charlie answered. "If he so much as lays a hand..."

"Shush!" Fannie told him with a smile. "Haven't you ever heard of love at first sight? I'm sure he'll cool down as soon as he finds out how old she is."

"I hope so, for his sake," Charlie told her as he settled back into his chair.

Miguel strolled up alongside Linn. "Señor Keller, who is this vision, this angel? Will you introduce us, por favor?" He doffed his wide-brimmed sombrero and bowed low, lamplight flashing on the silver of his hatband and gunbelt as well as the peso conchos lining the side seams of his elaborate trousers.

Linn gave him a stern look that momentarily dimmed the flash of the young man's white teeth. "Miguel de la Vega y Vega, may I present my niece, Miss Sarah Rosenthal? Sarah, this is Miguel." Miguel took Sarah's gloved hand in his and pressed his lips to her knuckles as he bowed once again.

"Greetings, Miss Rosenthal. Seldom have I seen..."

His greeting, which was promising to be quite flowery, was cut short by Charlie's graveled growl. "La muchacha tiene solamente diez años, Miguel." Charlie left it at that and sat back with a tight smile to see what Miguel would do next...

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Linn Keller 12-6-09

 

Miguel, son of Eduardo and La Senora Firecracker, heir apparent to the Firecracker Ranch and the entire Montana de Cristo, heir to his grandfather's Vega y Vega estancia and fortune, raised Sara's knuckles to his lips.
Or at least part way.
Charlie's flawless Spanish brought the young Mexican to a sudden and very positive stop: hot blood suddenly ran cold: thinking quickly, Miguel raised the girl's knuckles to his lips, but instead of giving a seductive, sensual, seductive kiss, he gave a formal, polite kiss: the difference in his demeanor could be seen, but only by the trained eye.
The Sheriff read the change in the young Mexican's eyes: disappointment, confusion, embarrassment, then a self-effacing humor, a realization that what had happened was entirely his own fault and entirely of his own doing.
Sarah, uncertain quite what was going on, but realizing that she was being treated in a very gentlemanly manner, blushed an incredible shade of scarlet, bit her bottom lip, looked quickly at Miz Fannie and to her Uncle Charlie, and then to the dashing and handsome Mexican whose hand was lightly held in his own.
She could still feel his hand holding hers -- hot hands, burning-hot hands, she felt their heat through her glove -- and as all people do, Sarah responded as she had been trained.
She dropped her eyes and returned a perfect, flawless, ladylike curtsy.
Miz Fannie's smile was subdued.
She remembered what it was to be no longer a girl but not quite a woman, realizing for the first time that men saw something more in her than the fatherly affection for one who could be a daughter, or a granddaughter, or a niece.

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Linn Keller 12-7-09

 

Charlie never failed to surprise me.
I knew the man had connections in Mexico.
I hadn't missed the quiet voiced exchange when Eduardo and Santos came in, and the look they exchanged with my compatriot: I knew there was more information to be had, there were tidings they bore from the Border Country, but I knew these would come in time.
I was having enough trouble keeping my temper in check.
No sense in getting worked up over something that's already happened, I told myself: Charlie took care of the situation, the perpitrator is returned to Ireland in disgrace and in ruin, and the logical, thinking part of my mind knew this was perhaps more effective than if he'd been brought back in irons to stand trial.
The logical, thinking, rational part of my mind knew we would have to have proven intent and ability, we would have to make all the connections between those who tried to carry out the dastardly attacks, every one of the intermediaries, and finally the connecting links to the head of the snake, in order to secure a conviction.
I knew how difficult that could be.
Short of running a knife into the scoundrel's black heart, this was probably the best outcome, or so I told myself.
The rest of me was madder than two wet cats and I wanted nothing more than to go roaring across the water and lay ungentle hands on that misbegotten son of perdition.
Miz Fannie's fingers were light and cool on my wrist, and I realized my fist was clenched and trembling a little.
I looked into her eyes and saw understanding, and a little amusement, and God forgive me, I saw a truly beautiful woman and understood why Charlie had allowed himself to fall deeply and completely in love with her.
Sarah appeared as if by magic. So preoccupied had I been with Charlie's quiet voiced report, and so much effort did I put into reining my temper, that I never noticed Sarah coming through the crowd toward me.
Not until she was in reaching distance, not until I heard that delightful voice and I found my arms full of a lean, strong, youthful body that smelled of lilac water and soap, did I realize -- well, my first thought was Bonnie, and then Sarah, and then a moment's confusion, for I'd most often seen Sarah in the shorter skirts of a young girl, but now ... now Sarah was in what must have been one of Bonnie's creations, and God help me, if that chair hadn't been made of good oak I would have fell through the floor!
Miguel was but a step or two behind her, and I knew the look on his face.
I had been young once, and I'd fallen and fallen hard for a girl, and I knew that he, too, had been ... misled ... by Sarah's unexpectedly mature appearance.
I looked at her face and realized almost sadly she didn't look all that much like a little girl anymore, that little Sarah was growing, growing at a surprising velocity, and for a mad moment I remembered the first time I'd seen her, holding Bonnie's hand on the board walk just outside the big windows in the front of the Jewel, and I wondered if out little Dana would have grown to be such a fine young lady ...
Miguel looked at me with eyes as hot as the Mexican sun, teeth flashing as he spoke, and with a formal bow, he spoke in lightly-accented English, and suddenly I felt very, very old.

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Linn Keller 12-9-09

 

Shorty solemnly considered the brindle mule.
The brindle mule gave Shorty an equally deadpan evaluation.
Shorty had curried the mule, checked its shoes, looked at its teeth, run his hands over the mule's legs, over its back, checked for galls or saddle sores, cuts, scrapes, infected bites, stone bruises or brands: satisfied, he shoved his battered billycock back on his head and scratched enthusiastically at his somewhat less than well tonsured scalp.
The mule swung its head, sizing up the state of the world at the horizon line; finding it as uninteresting as Shorty, the mule swung its head back and blinked sleepily.
"I just might have a saddle to fit you," Shorty declared. "You're already bridled so I won't have to make you one. What say we find out?"
The mule swung its ears back, slowly, as if the effort cost it something.
"Can't fool me with that," Shorty muttered, turning awkwardly and stomping into the shadowed interior of his livery.
A palomino stuck its head out and neatly nipped the bandanna out of his bib overalls, bobbing its head briskly as if in derision.
Shorty felt the hankie slip out of his pocket and turned, snatching at the red and white polka dotted snot rag.
"Hey! You! Gimme that!" he exclaimed, snatching at the waving cloth; the palomino, with an expression of mirth, nodded its head briskly, then swung from side to side, managing to keep the kerchief from Shorty's blunt fingers.
Shorty stopped, realizing there was little dignity in his center-weighted figure jumping like a child: he fisted his hands into his hips and glared at the newcomer, and the newcomer blinked, blowing, inviting him to play some more.
Shorty "Hmph!"'d loudly and snatched up a saddle blanket from the board he'd had it slung over: seizing a saddle with the other hand, he half-limped, half-waddled out to the brindle mule.
"You feel like bein' rid?" he demanded peevishly, turning to glare at the palomino.
The golden horse nodded, waving the kerchief at its owner.
Shorty muttered something the mule didn't quite catch and spun the saddle blanket onto its back: hooking the near stirrup over the horn, he hauled the saddle around quickly and up onto the mule's back, a bit of a stretch, as Shorty was built closer to the ground that was convenient for a mount of this height -- but he got the saddle in place, the blanket tugged out straight, and everything cinched up and squared away with a remarkable velocity.
"There!" Shorty turned and addressed the palomino.
"You'd oughta have good manners like this'n here!"
The palomino dropped the kerchief, a wounded look on its face.
"Nah, that won't work a'tall," Shorty declared, leading the mule over to a cut sand stone he kept handy for such moments. "I ain't a-gonna fall for it. Had a girl that played me for a sucker years ago and I ain't a-gonna do it ag'in, nosir!"
Shorty hauled his compact form up into the saddle and frowned.
He'd neglected to shorten the stirrups.
"Ah, what the hell," he muttered. "Giddup, mule."
The mule turned, stepping out with a smooth gait, and headed for the main street.

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Linn Keller 12-10-09

 

"You sure that's wise?"
There was an edge to Charlie's voice.
I looked at him and felt the corners of my eyes tighten.
We were two of a kind, all right.
"Miguel will see her safely across that sea of confusion," I nodded toward the retreating pair. "I doubt if Sarah could get through that crowd of happy dancers a second time, alone. With Miguel, now ..." The grin run down my face and stretched it into something recognizable.
I never could hold a poker face.
"Miguel would not dare anything improper, knowing to whom she is related."
"Oh, now I'm a 'whom', am I?" Charlie deadpanned.
"I reckon she's safe as if she was standin' beside us. Miguel's honor won't let anything happen."
"His stung pride, you mean." Charlie shook his head. "How'd she grow up so fast?"
"She ain't growed up yet, but she's gettin' there," I said mournfully.
Miz Fannie leaned her elbows on the table, laced her fingers together, rested her chin daintily on them: "Now why the long face, Sheriff?"
The grin run off my face like water and I took a long pull on my beer.
"Miz Fannie, a long time ago I had a wife and a daughter. Back East, on the shores of the Sweet Sea." I took a long breath, thrust out my jaw.
"I come home from the war. Connie was a week dead of the small pox, and our daughter -- Dana -- she had it.
"A neighbor was takin' care of her as best he could, an' I taken her up in my arms and we drove home, an' I held her all that night.
"She died just before sun up.
"It was her second birthday."
I gazed into the bubble-strings coming off the bottom of the beer glass, deep in the amber liquid.
"Every time I look at Sarah I wonder if my Dana would have grown to be as fine a young woman."
I looked at my brother's wife, feeling suddenly lost.
"Charlie." I changed the subject quick-like. "You skint that fella out of his eye teeth and sent him home to Ireland. Did you find any connection with that fella all y'all grassed in Mexico, or was that fellow his own scoundrel?"

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Linn Keller 12-10-09

 

Miguel, like his father, was not a tall man.
He was not particularly short by any means, but his lack of towering height was more than made up for with lean strength.
His ancestry included Juarez Apache, a people known for their lean physique and phenomenal strength, an ability to move with silence and with stealth, to see what other eyes could not, hear what other ears could not, smell like a coyote, strike like a rattler: he had also inherited Spanish blood and with it centuries of Spanish heritage and chivalry: in short, to the observing eye, he was a copy of his father: his youth was evident only in the brief moments of uncertainty in his eyes, but this was invariably masked by the whirring of gears behind those black, black eyes.
Miguel carried himself erect, proudly, yet not excessively so: he moved with a dancer's grace, an ease and a confidence not often seen in one of his few years: a man grown in the eyes of the frontier, a man of importance and of means, yet a man of education and of culture: and so Miguel, with Sarah on his arm, brought the young -- young! -- lady across the crowded and busy floor without indident, swept open the ornate door to the Jewel with a fluorish and a bow, and accompanied the vision to her waiting carriage.
Miguel held her gloved hand as she floated up the stone mounting-block and into the carriage: his heart melted yet again as she said "Thank you, Miguel," and he stood dumbstruck as she released the brake and flipped the reins and clucked the grulla into movement.
Miguel watched as she took the buggy diagonally across the street to the Mercantile, where an attractive woman in a similar dress was just emerging with a bundle in one hand, and -- Madre de Dios! -- a young bear beside her? -- and then Miguel remembered the hound from hell, the bear killing diablito that followed the Macneil like a shadow: the buggy lurched as the coal-furred creature leaped lightly aboard, where it nuzzled la Senorita Sarah ...
Por Dios, what he would not do to merit such a smile!
Miguel withdrew into the Jewel before they could catch him staring: inside the doors, he leaned back against the wall and realized with some surprise he was trembling a little.
Miguel rubbed his face, controlling his breathing with a sheer act of will.
He felt rather than heard a presence, and smelled a perfume: he opened his eyes to behold a startling pair of emerald green eyes, and a smile, and Esther's hands rested lightly on his shoulders:
"Miguel!" she declared quietly, her voice smiling as were her eyes. "You are indeed as handsome as your father!"
Miguel found himself drawn into a maternal embrace, and he ran his own arms around Esther, no longer a young man strutting forth into the world, all pride and bristling honor, but suddenly a tall boy, a long way from home.

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Linn Keller 12-11-09

 

Miguel had almost perfected the art of invisibility.
Almost.
He was not as good at it as al Sheriff Keller.
Perhaps it's because his gaudy Mexican outfit would have been hard to hide in the middle of a fireworks burst.
He slid back into a vacant place at the bar, near to his father and uncle, and Mr. Baxter winked at him and started to hand him his glass of water clear water.
One of the troopers came up and challenged Miguel: "You been drinkin' an awful lot 'a' that ta be so steady on yer feet," and Miguel smelled trouble.
He hid it behind a gentle smile, a shifting of his weight.
The trooper's fist was opening and closing and Miguel recognized a man who wanted a fight.
The trooper's brown eyes were on the young Mexican's, perhaps thinking his greater height and intense gaze would intimidate the younger man.
Mr. Baxter cleared his throat and slid the glass of water clear across the mahogany.
"I'll take that," the trooper snapped, seizing the glass and chugging it down.
Miguel might not have perfected the art of invisibility, but he did a passing fine job of employing the Innocent Expression.
The trooper's eyes bulged, his throat seized shut; his voice was reduced to a scalded squeak, and only Miguel's quick reflexes saved the dropped glass from a shattering descent to the floor below.
The trooper wobbled and it took but little imagination to fancy smoke streaming from his reddening ears.
Mr. Baxter accepted the glass, handed Miguel his preferred tipple.
The trooper wiped his eyes, coughing, clearing his vision in time to see Miguel glare a challenge ... and then tip up his glass and drain it, with an insulting slowness.
He set the empty on the bar and said clearly, "Perhaps if one cannot hold one's liquor, soldado, one should not drink."
To quote a line from the Sheriff's journal ..."and the fight was on!"

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Linn Keller 12-12-09

 

Angela descended the stairs carefully, holding the hand rail like Mommy had taught her.
It was certainly noisy.
She giggled as the piano player struck a lively air, about the time something heavy struck a wall.
Angela felt the hand rail shiver with the impact.
They must be playing, Angela thought, and if her swift child's thoughts were put into words, they would probably have been Boys are so rough!
Angela leaned against the ornate double doors leading from the Jewel, pushing them open just far enough to slip outside. It was chilly out and Angela hadn't brought a wrap, but cold holds little terror for a child: she scampered down the board walk, her little flat-soled high-button shoes noisy on the boards, and clattered down the three stairs to the alley.
She looked toward the livery.
Angela's hands went to her mouth and she giggled, and in her mind her voice sing-songed, "I know a see-cret, I know a see-cret," but she durst not put that secret into words, lest her Daddy find out too soon. Jacob had led her to understand it was a surprise and Angela like surprises!
Shorty was just dismounting from the brindle mule when Angela came marching up to him.
Shorty looked down with some surprise as a little hand tugged briskly at the side seam of his trousers.
"Why, hello, young lady," Shorty said, grinning: he had a soft spot for children, especially giggly little curly haired ones, and Angela looked at him with big innocent eyes and pointed to the mule. "Who's that?" she asked in her little-girl voice.
Shorty stroked the mule's neck. "Well, now, I don't know," he admitted. "I reckon this one has a name, but I just been callin' him the brindle mule."
"Bindlemew!" Angela exclaimed, nodding her head once, briskly, establishing the inalterable fact of the creature's name.
Shorty laughed.
Angela laughed, too, her little white teeth shining, and Shorty realized one of those rare moments in a man's life when everything, for just that moment, is right: the sun was warm on his back, the brindle mule was standing, placid, silent, contemplating the infinite nature of creation or some other weighty matter, and he'd earned the delighted approval of a little child.
"Would you like to ride him?" Shorty asked. "He seems gentle enough."
Angela shook her head briskly, her curls swinging around and making her giggle again: she shook her head once more just for the fun of it, and then put her arms out and twirled like a top until she dizzied up and staggered against Shorty's leg.
Shorty put a protective hand on her shoulder and Angela clutched the liveryman's trousers, swaying alarmingly for a few moments, giggling happily as the world tilted and rocked underfoot.

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Linn Keller 12-13-09

 

It was surreal.
Linn and Charlie were leaned over toward one another, talking louder than normal in order to be heard: Miz Fannie, between them, with her back squarely in the corner and a lawman on each side of her, had a quiet smile on her face: her demeanor was ladylike, her bearing absolutely feminine, her appearance was nothing short of utterly lovely: not ten feet from them was the margin of the bar fight, which ended where the Irish Brigade and Mick's troopers had hastily put a half-dozen tables from up front, where the center of the activity seemed to be.
Mr. Baxter stood quietly behind his mahogany fortress, bung starting maul in hand, ready to ward off any flying object that might damage his prized mirror; Tillie had snatched up her child and drawn back behind the Jewel's desk, believing it a sufficient ward against unwanted intrusion.
If that didn't work, she had a .44 Russian under the counter.
Sean, for his part, was squared off against Mick, and the two were happily taking the other's measure: the bar fight had begun with several quick, individual skirmishes, but these died down due to the crowding and jostling -- it's hard to flatten an opponent's nose when someone shoulders you hard just as you're ready to launch the punch -- and soon there was a yelling, restless crowd around the two Irishmen.
One of the spectators turned and thrust his empty beer mug at Mr. Baxter, raised a finger and his eyebrows: Mr. Baxter nodded once, set the bung starter on the shelf under the mahogany and refilled the customer's drink: he slid the coin into its drawer and soon found the crowd's attention was enthusiastically on refreshment as they watched this contest of giants.
Money was waved in fists, wagers shouted: Mr. Baxter realized a sudden upsurge in business as spectators and bettors alike decided that watching the fight was dry work, and barley water flowed one way while currency flowed the other, and each in a steady stream.
Jackson Cooper had just enough room to get to the end of Tillie's counter, which cornered with the mahogany bar with just enough room to walk between, before he came to a wall of spectators' backs: Jackson Cooper was a full head, and generally head and shoulders, taller than nearly everyone there, and so could assess the entire room.
The Sheriff raised his beer mug to the Marshal, and the Marshal touched his hat brim in acknowledgment, just as an impressionable spectator gave a yell and fired a pistol shot into the ceiling.
Jackson Cooper plowed through bodies, shoving people aside and seized the extended wrist, lifting the offender's feet clear of the floor.
Behind him he heard a breathy female voice exclaim "Angela!" and panicked feet running up the stairs.
Jackson Cooper hoisted the miscreant closer, relieved him of the pistol and then took him by the front of his jacket.
"Mister," he said, his voice echoing up from the bottom of a deep volcanic well, "you should not have done that," and so saying, turned and followed Esther up the stairs, at a considerably slower velocity than the green-eyed matron's sprint.

Back in the corner, the Sheriff and Charlie were still trying to hold a conversation when the gunshot slapped their ears.
The two lawmen were on their feet, Linn's Winchester in his fists: Fannie, too, was out of her chair, but unlike the men, she was moving: sinuous as a snake, unstoppable as a sandstorm, she flowed through the packed house, working her way toward the bar.
"Fannie!" Linn yelled and Charlie lay a cautioning hand on his fellow warrior's forearm.
They both looked after Miz Fannie.
In the shocked silence after the gunshot, they both heard Esther's "Angela!" and saw her heading up the stairs at a run, her skirt snatched in both fists and her face pale, her eyes wide.
The two hit the crowd with considerably less finesse than Miz Fannie.
Their progress through the assembled was more the technique of the freight train than the surgeon's scalpel, and was considerably slower than Miz Fannie had been.
They saw Jackson Cooper hauling some fellow upstairs by the front of his coat.
Linn's lips peeled back from his teeth and Charlie noticed the gray mustached lawman's eyes had gone pale and very, very cold.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-13-09

 

As the two men bulled through the crowd, tossing those less attentive aside like the north wind with autumn leaves, the press gradually began to thin until only a single rank of bodies lay between them and the stairway. "Make a hole!" Charlie bellowed, not slowing in the least and fully prepared to create a gap if one wasn't made by the current occupants of the space. Fortunately the final rank parted like the Red Sea before Moses and neither Charlie nor Linn slowed as they raced up the stairs two at a time. Fannie's taffeta held a distant first place in the race for Angela's safety.

"Angela!" Charlie heard the anguish in Esther's voice as a door slammed against pine wainscoting, then her tone changed to something less desperate and more inquisitive. "Angela? Where are you, baby?" The two men charged into the room to find Esther staring at an unoccupied cot covered with a blanket centered by a tattered bullet hole.

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Linn Keller 12-14-09

 

Fannie's voice was calm, her hands reassuring, and mein Gott, I have never seen colder eyes in a woman's face!
"Esther," she said, her voice pitched low, "where was Angela?"
Esther's hand was to her mouth, her other raised, trembling: one gloved finger quivered at the bullet hole.
I seized the blankets, tore them from the bed, held them up: first one layer, then another, searching: I checked one side, Charlie the other, as if we'd practiced surveying high-held blankets a thousand times.
"Nothing this side."
"Nothing here."
I tossed them aside, worked around the back side of the cot.
The hole didn't look like much, other than it had carried ticking into the air with the bullet's passing, and these had floated back down onto the spotless, tight-woven cotton sheet: I looked up at the ceiling, noted the bullet had lodged in the plaster: as we watched, the shattered plaster finally surrendered its leaden intruder, and the bullet fell.
I caught it easily.
Jackson Cooper was in the doorway, holding some fellow off the floor.
"Was she here?" I asked, my voice carefully gentle, for gentle I sure wasn't feeling in that moment.
Esther nodded, closed her eyes hard.
Miz Fannie edged a little to the side as I approached Esther.
I approached slow, for I am a big man, and a big man approaching a slim woman at battle speed is intimidating.
I have no wish to intimidate that woman.
Ever.
"Esther," I said gently, "there is no blood. There is no sign Angela was harmed."
I looked over at Charlie and I could tell he was thinking the same thing I was.
"Esther, honey, how long since you saw Angela here?" Fannie asked, the Suth'n influence smooth and comforting in her voice. I was grateful for the care she chose in her accent: she normally spoke in as close to an un-accented voice as I have ever heard, but like any good badge packer, could blend with any crowd if need be.
Esther's green eyes snapped to the big Regulator clock on the north wall.
"Forty minutes." There was certainty in her voice and I almost smiled, for Esther was a tidy and precise soul, and it would have been just like her to look at the clock after putting Angela to bed.
Esther was making a serious effort at control and winning, though not by much.
"Not far, then," Charlie growled. He turned and looked at the door frame, the door lock.
"Wasn't locked," he muttered.
I kissed Esther on the forehead. "We will find her, dearest," I whispered. "Fear you not, we will find her!"
I slid past Fannie, turned past Charlie, seized the fellow Jackson Cooper still held: my gut told me he had a hand in this and by Heaven! I would find out how!
I had a double handful of his coat and I drove him hard as I could against the back wall and I slung him around and drove him hard into the opposite wall and I remember my voice loud in my ears and I remember the tearing sensation as my voice screamed out my throat and I remember the red haze that descended like a glittering curtain over my vision and I turned to throw this murdering son of Perdition into the wall again and strong hands were on my arms and a voice shouted in my ear, "COLONEL, STAND DOWN! COLONEL, STAND DOWN!" and I was yanked back, my grip tearing from the miscreant's coat and Charlie had me up against the wall with his arm across my upper chest and yelling something and reason returned and I realized I was in the Jewel and I had to find Angela and this was Charlie, this was Charlie, this was Charlie ...
My breath was coming in short gasps through clenched teeth.
I reached up and laid a hard hand on Charlie's shoulder and I started to shake.
It's a good thing he was holding me against that wall.
I don't think I could have stood up on my own two legs.

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Linn Keller 12-14-09

 

Angela's eyes were big, big as saucers in her little girl's face: her mouth made a perfect O of surprise and of delight, and Shorty led the little palomino out into the sunlight.
"We've been planning this for some time," Shorty said, the grin evident in his voice and his eyes. "You need a horse, well, Firecracker Mel sent you one."
Angela reached a tentative hand toward the young mare. She was a yearling, not yet into her full growth; a saddle sized to fit the growing mare's barrel, but also a little girl's backside, encircled the equine's equator.
Angela bounced up and down, all excited, her hands to her mouth and her eyes shining, then she looked with distress and uncertainty at the liveryman.
"My horsie?" she asked.
"Yep. Your horsie."
Angela hugged the mare's foreleg, then drew back and petted as far up as she could reach. "My horsie!" she said, and there was wonder in her voice.
"Well? You want to try her on?" Shorty asked, and without waiting for an answer, he took Angela about the waist and swung her easily into the saddle.
"Wheee!" Angela sang, then she seized the saddle horn and giggled.
"Now let's get the stirrups shortened up for you. Won't your Pa be surprised!"
Angela nodded, her ringlets bouncing and shining in the sun.

Upstairs in the Jewel, the Sheriff was silent: the look on his face and the paleness of his eyes did as much to persuade the shooter's cooperation as Charlie's quiet-voiced questions, or Jackson Cooper's fist, which was once more wound in the fellow's coat, holding him up on his tip-toes.
"I, I, I, I don't know nothin'! I just got excited, that's all --"
"THEN WHERE'S MY LITTLE GIRL?" the Sheriff roared, taking a step toward the man.
Held in place by a giant fist, unable to move, unable to escape, he screamed, "I DON'T KNOW NOTHIN' ABOUT NO GIRL, HONEST!"
Jacob came working through the crowd that had abandoned the pair of pugilists below and were now crowded up the stairway, gawking at what sounded like another contest of giants. "Sir?" Jacob called. "Could you come out here, please!"
The Sheriff was less than a hand's span from the man. His voice was quiet, but in the stillness it was quite audible.
"My little girl was asleep on that bed," he said. "She wasn't there when you shot, otherwise your neck would be stretched by now.
"There was a plan to kidnap my wife and my children. I need to know what you did with my, little, girl!"
The Sheriff's nose was about a half inch from the shaking prisoner's eagle beak: as the threat level went up in the Sheriff's voice, the miscreant's color diminished proportionally.
"Sir?" Jacob called once again. "You want to come with me, sir!"
The Sheriff stepped back and addressed Jackson Cooper.
"Marshal, I will not tell you how to do your job."
"Thank you," Jackson Cooper rumbled, eyes half-lidded, sleepy.
"Charlie."
The Sheriff turned, stepped into Esther's office and retrieved his Winchester.
The two descended the stairs, following Jacob, and the spectators pressed back on either side of the staircase to allow them passage.

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Linn Keller 12-15-09

 

Santos and Eduardo crowded quickly in behind the two as they came to the Jewel's twin doors: their plan was to quickly flank the lawmen, a move they believed would suit their purpose.
This lasted until the doors opened.
The Sheriff took two long strides to the left, Charlie two long strides to the right: a pair of warriors ready for a young war, a confrontation, personal violence or whatever wild card Lady Chance happened to be peeling off her deck.
Neither was ready for what they saw.
Shorty was standing there, grinning like he'd just been given a poke of gold.
Shorty held a golden mare by the bridle.
Angela was in the saddle, laughing and petting the mare's mane, her own shining ringlets glowing rich in the sun, looking quickly up and exclaiming in the excited high voice of a happy little girl, "Daddy I gotta horsie!"
"SORPRESA!" Santos and Eduardo yelled together: Miguel had not been able to penetrate the throng and so was not able to add his voice to the happy salute, but he was able to step up on a chair and look over the curtain, through one of the front windows, and watch the Sheriff's shoulders sag just a little, then square back up as he realized what he was looking at.
This soon after the two had gone upstairs ready for an all-out battle, Charlie was not about to relax his guard: hard eyes restless, he automatically picked out all the points of ambush, his mind automatically assessing how much of a force it would take to overwhelm their position: born of old habit, it was automatic, taking place just under the surface of conscious thought.
It was a habit that had kept him alive, and not a few times.
Linn stepped down off the boardwalk, Eduardo and Santos spilling over the edge with him: the older man took the drop in one long-legged step, while the shorter, wirier Mexicans jumped, their great, ornate sombreros flopping happily against their backs.
"She's a good'un, Sheriff," Shorty said as the lawman walked up and put a gentle hand at the small of his daughter's back.
Angela looked down at him, one finger at the corner of her mouth, giggling.
Eduardo smacked the Sheriff heartily on the shoulder blade. "She is out of Hija del Fuego and sired by Rey del Sol himself!" he declared. "She is the purest racing stock of our entire estancia! Mi hija wished to keep her, but la pequenita has three horses already and does not need a fourth!"
The Sheriff reached up to pet the mare and barely got his hand away from her teeth in time: he felt her dentures brush the hairs on the back of his hand and jerked his hand away like he'd touched something hot.
A general laugh went up and Eduardo beat on the Sheriff's back, his gleaming teeth shining behind his drooping black mustache.
"Have a care, my friend!" he shouted. "Esta Hija del Sol hace una Hija Malvada!"
"Evil is right," Charlie muttered.
It was evident this hija malvada was indeed an evil daughter, and wanted nothing more than to masticate man-flesh.
Charlie stepped down and came up beside Santos.
"She hates men," Charlie said quietly to the wiry Mexican. "Does she hate women as well?"
"Esta pequeño caballo hace una bruja," Santos replied. "She is a witch and she hates men, but she is a witch and a woman can do anything with her."
"What about a little girl?"
Santos turned to look the man in the face: Charlie had long learned to gauge what a man was saying by the look in his eyes, the set of his shoulders: though hard pressed to describe each of the clues he saw, he could recognize their sum in an instant, and recognized a deep-seated humor, as if he himself had met with the mare's dentistry ... what he did not see was guile, nor malice.
"Una pequenita no necesite temer. Este bruja is a sleepy kitten in her hands!"
Charlie looked thoughtfully at the mare.
"The witch horse, eh?" He looked across the mare's ears at the Sheriff.
"So what is her name? Witch?"
Santos and Eduardo both laughed, leaning back a little and venting their mirth in great gusts to the zenith.
"Si! Hace la Bruja del Sol!" they chorused, each spreading their arms wide.
Bruja laid her ears back and snapped at Santos' outstretched hand: she missed the hand but she got a good mouthful of his jacket's sleeve and hauled him off the ground, shaking him and dancing.
Angela leaned down and smacked Bruja on the neck.
"Stop that!" she demanded in her little girl's voice and Bruja dropped Santos, backing up a couple steps and shaking her head. She plainly did not like being told not to chew up the man-flesh which had been so insultingly offered, but she seemed content to follow the direction of this little girl-child on her back.
Eduardo stepped up and cautiously took her bridle. "Senor Shorty, mis gracias, but we must see how she rides," he murmured: backing Bruja to the middle of the street, he released her and said "Senorita Angela, ride to the end of the street and turn la Bruja around, and come back to us."
Angela accepted the reins -- one from Eduardo and one from Santos -- and as the men backed away, Angela looked up the street.
She had seen her Daddy ride, and she had ridden with her Daddy, standing up on the saddle behind him, sometimes in front of him: she had noticed that he never put pressure on a horse's bit, or if he did, it was very gentle: she could feel his solid body beneath hers, and she knew his legs spoke for him, and she had seen him lay the reins against his beloved Hijo del Sol's neck when one leg tensed under her: as she turned her head, her little stockinged leg pressed against la Bruja's barrel, and the mare turned easily, dancing a little.
"Giddyup," Angela said, and la Bruja giddy up'd, and the Sheriff could not help but grin with delight.
He recognized the paso fino gait, and knew his little girl had just acquired a Jim Dandy saddlehorse.
Little Angela, with her skirts flowing around her, her tiny feet in the high-buckled stirrups, the reins slack, gave the happy laugh of an utterly delighted child.
Bruja del Sol began to canter.
Angela leaned forward a little, and Bruja began to run.
The Sheriff swore.
Thrusting his Winchester into its carved-leather scabbard, he powered into the saddle, pulled the reins free and brought the black horse about.
"Senor Sheriff! No! She is a racer and she will wish to race!" Santos yelled, and the Sheriff hesitated, then gave the black his heels.
"Por Dios," Eduardo swore, "he will never catch her!"
There was a general yell of approval as little Angela departed on her maiden voyage, and shouts of encouragement as the Sheriff began what apparently would be a pursuit.
Bets were made, insults offered as money exchanged hands.

Sarah had never seen a mule.
Sarah had heard, by lucky accident, that Eduardo and Santos had brought not only their son -- her face flushed as she remembered the conflicting feelings that simple kiss on her knuckles had caused! -- but they had brought a fine saddle mare, and she had thought that, perhaps, she might beg a ride, for Sarah was desperately of the notion that she, too, should ride, and have a saddle horse of her own.
Esther was her ideal, and she remembered being in the house when Uncle Linn was shot those many years ago, and how Aunt Esther had changed into a riding skirt -- how impossibly fast she had changed! -- and how her green eyes snapped as she swept out the front door, the old muzzle loading shotgun in her hand and the possibles bag slung across her body.
She remembered standing on the porch and watching as Aunt Esther gave Duzy's paint mare the tag end of the reins, and how Edi had shot like a cannon ball down the road, and she too wished to ride like that.
Bless her father, he still saw her as his little girl, and out of his love for a little girl, he had gotten her a little-girl's pony cart and a little-girl's pony.
Sarah knew he would always regard her as Daddy's little girl, but she was growing, and she really should be able to ride.
Her Aunt Esther was a Lady, and Sarah had ever tried to pattern herself after her Aunt Esther.
Sarah drove up to the livery.
Setting the brake, she tied her dapple to the hitch ring, in reach of water and some grass, and she called into the livery's darkness, "Hello?"
A nicker was her reply.
She saw a golden palomino head thrust out of the stall, nod greeting to her.
"Shorty?"
Restless hooves were her only response.
Sarah went back outside.
She stopped and blinked.
The brindle mule blinked back at her.
"Hello, pretty thing," Sarah murmured, petting the brindle's nose.
That's Uncle Linn's saddle he's wearing, Sarah thought.
Uncle Linn won't mind if I ride.
Sarah was wearing a riding skirt, and Sarah swung up into the saddle.
The stirrups were adusted for Shorty's stubby legs and were almost a fit for her own.
Sarah took the reins in her left hand and the brindle mule came about and began trotting up the alley that led past the Jewel.

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Linn Keller 12-16-09

 

Jacob, Santos and Eduardo sprinted for the livery.
Sarah and the brindle mule had just come out on the main street when Angela and her palomino accelerated to something less than the speed of sound, and the brindle mule gave a happy HAAAW and began to accelerate as well.
Sarah had no way of knowing she was riding a racing mule.

Jacob pounded into the livery, lip curled, and gave a shrill, piercing whistle.
The Appaloosa's head came up. Shorty had him turned out into the back field and the spotted stallion paced quickly to the fence.
Jacob seized his saddle and blanket and burst out the back door.
Santos led the Sheriff's palomino mare out of her stall, murmuring to her, stroking her neck: the golden mare sensed a run was imminent, and she was tired of being cooped up in a cramped stall: she missed the Border sun, hot on her hide, she missed a good run, and Santos' manner promised a blood-warming run.
Eduardo spun the blanket on her back, Santos slung the saddle up and over: quickly, wordlessly, they saddled the mare in an impossibly few seconds.
Santos shot out the front door of the livery like a golden bullet, screaming like an Apache and firing his pistol into the air: they made the turn at the Jewel at a wide open gallop, streaking past the assembled, the mare getting her legs under her and thrusting hard against the earth as if determined to spin the sphere in a different direction.
Angela, in the lead, was somewhere between terror and delight.
She remembered her Daddy had taught her not to hold onto the saddle horn, and she didn't.
She wrapped both hands around the front of the saddle instead.
To her credit, she did not drop the reins, but she was still leaned forward, which told the mare More speed, more speed! and she thrust her nose straight out into the wind, her ears back, doing the one thing in the world she loved doing most, and that was running!
Sarah, having come behind the Jewel and up the alley beside the new municipal building and then onto the main street, wrapped her youthful legs as far around the mule as she possibly could. Were it possible, she would have run her legs clear under the beast and hooked her feet together, but though her legs were long, they weren't quite that long, so she gritted her teeth and hung on with a grim determination: she came upright in the saddle and the mule slowed a bit.
Surprised, Sarah held this posture for a long moment, then leaned forward, and the mule obliged with more speed.
Sarah saw Angela on the fleeing palomino, and to one side, the Sheriff, pushing his black horse for all he was worth, and she knew this was at the very least unusual, and quite probably, not good.
Sarah leaned forward, pressed her heels into the mule's ribs.
"Go, boy," she shouted, and the mule was a perfect gentleman.
What the lady wanted was what she got, and the mule surged forward like someone was pursuing with a branding iron.

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Linn Keller 12-16-09

 

I thought fast.
The road took a long bend, following the curve of the river: the railroad went over the river, off to the right.
If I could get ahead of Angela -- if I could cut straight across while she was still on the roadway --
I took the black off the road and across a flat, then we went down grade some and I slowed my mount, knowing we would be coming to a shallow in the river.
The black slowed a little but not much.
I knew where the crossing was and the black plainly did not care where the crossing was: he hit the water with all the grace of a falling boulder and we went into water up to my knees, throwing up a great diamond spray of cold river water.
I'm willing to bet I saw a couple fish in the geyser we slung skyward.
The black found footing and scrambled a little, lurching alarmingly to starboard: he caught himself and we surged across another dip in the river bed, then up onto the opposite bank.
I had both boots full and my legs were COLD! and the black powered up the bank.
We might just make it, I thought, we might make it --
The black pinned back his ears and grunted each time his hind hooves thrust against the grade and we came out on the level and I could see Angela just coming around the turn maybe a quarter of a mile away.
"Ho, boy," I called, and the black ho'd but he wasn't happy about it: he shook his head, shivered his hide -- I reckon he wanted to shake like a dog to get that cold river water out of his fur -- and I drew the black crossways of the road.
I'm not much of a hand with a reata but I'm not that bad, and I shook out a loop, spinning it, letting the palomino see I was intending to rope it and hoping this would make it remember being roped in the past.
I saw Angela come upright in the saddle.
It looked like she'd been clinging onto the front of the saddle but I might have been wrong, for she had reins in each hand and I saw her draw gently back: even at that distance the air was like crystal and absolutely, flawlessly clear, and I have always had good eyesight.
The palomino slowed, blowing, shaking its head, whether of its own accord, whether at the behest of its rider, or the sight of my waiting lasso I know not: I only know that Angela's cheeks were like apples and she was laughing.
Most girls would be screaming in fear or crying in distress, I thought.
Most eastern girls, I corrected myself. Western ladies of any age tend to be made of sterner stuff.
I stopped spinning my loop and brought it in, swinging it loose and free in my throwing hand. The black horse responded to my knees and we trotted up to the deep-breathing palomino.
"Daddy lookie I gotta horsie!" Angela exclaimed, and I grinned: any terror of the ride was gone and Angela was just as pleased as punch that she'd ridden her horsie!
"I see that!" I said. "We will have to thank Santos and Eduardo for their kindness!"
"You gotta horsie too Daddy!" Angela blurted, then one hand went to her mouth and an expression of distress covered her face.
"Oops," she said.
I laughed.
"Let's go see my horsie, then," I said, and walked the black up beside the palomino.

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Linn Keller 12-16-09

 

There were few things Santos loved more than a good, fast run on a good, fast horse.
This was one of the fastest he'd ever ridden.
Fast she was but she wasn't used to the altitude and started to flag long before he expected.
Santos eased up on her and she slowed to a trot, laboring to get her wind back: Santos allowed her a slower gait, satisfied that with the little one's head start, they would stand no chance of catching them.
Or so he thought.
They came around a bend and Santos saw the Sheriff, dismounted beside his black, la Angelita on the young mare ... and the mare's head was snaking out with apparent intent to masticate the lawman's backside.
Santos froze, unsure what quite was going to happen.
The air was absolutely clear at this altitude and Santos could see al Sheriff's quick swing of his hinder: apparently teeth had found flesh, for he saw al Sheriff's hand come up and slap the mare across the nose.
"Por Dios, no," Santos murmured, knowing full well what was about to happen.
As he expected, the mare retaliated with a serious bite at the Sheriff's thigh.
Santos did not need to hear the anger in al Sheriff's voice to know the gray-mustached old lawman was putting the power of his voice behind his fist, but Santos had absolutely no warning as to the result.
The Sheriff drove his left fist down across the bridge of the palomino mare's nose, and the Sheriff's black fell lifeless to the ground.

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Mr. Box 12-16-09

 

I moseyed up to Shorty and said, "Shorty, did I miss a chance to get a bet down on this race?"
"Yep! It's already over by now, I recon."
"Thanks for helping Sarah with the horse trading, Shorty."
"That weren't no problem, Mr. Baxter, but what do you want with that cannibal pony?"
"I don't but I couldn't bear to watch Sarah having to put up with that mean pony and Nellie wasn't doing anything. Next time some miner gets so drunk he doesn't remember how he got here you can send him home on it! It'll be an experience for both of them! Ha ha ha!"
"Ho ho! Are you sure you want to do that?"
"Dang betcha!"

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Linn Keller 12-17-09

 

Sarah had taken the left fork instead of the right.
Sarah realized in time she was on the wrong track.
Sarah slowed the mule, calculated an intercept course, and the mule stepped out long and lively across the field.
This was at once the most Sarah had ever ridden, the longest she had ever ridden, and most certainly the fastest she had ever ridden, and she loved it!
Sarah had no way of knowing the mule she rode was not a typical racing mule: racers tend to be of medium build, while this one was tall, unusually so: apparently the previous owners didn't realize it either, as this mule had been worked and was no stranger to harness.
It preferred to race, and it tended to be good at it.
Unlike many racing mules, though, it was steady instead of flighty.
Mule races in the American South tended to be raucous affairs, with mules taking out across the infield, or swapping ends and heading in the wrong direction; mules were also seen as the mount of "po' folk" and most certainly not of the gentility.
Sarah knew none of this.
All she knew was that she was intoxicated with freedom and with speed.

The Sheriff was in no pleasant mood.
The Sun-Witch had just taken a good bite of the front of his thigh.
The Sheriff cocked his good left fist and drove it straight down as hard as he could into the bony bridge of the mare's nasal, with a roar of pure fury and pain combined.
The black horse, having a tendency to faint at unpleasant occurrences, obligingly hit the ground.
Whether it was the knuckles to the schnozz or the sight of another horse landing lifeless and unmoving at the sound of the man's displeasure, the mare released her grip and backed up a few steps.
Angela swung a leg over and took a long, long step down, almost falling, but holding the reins firmly: she walked up to the mare's head and shook her Mommy-finger at the palomino and scolded it in her little-girl's voice, telling the Witch of the Sun that she had been a very bad girl, and she shouldn't bite her Daddy like that, otherwise she, Angela, would be very cross with her.
The Sheriff decided that he would not drop his drawers in front of his little girl to see how much meat had been bit off his leg bone, but he did take the moment to swing his leg up and pour the water out of his boot, one, then the other, without taking them off: he knew if he managed to get them off, he would never get them back on without the help of dried feet and dry socks and letting the boots dry some.
Angela and the Sheriff looked up as hoofbeats approached yet some distance away: Jacob and Santos were in pursuit, Jacob's Appaloosa keeping up but not by much: thin air or not, that mare can run!
"Daddee," Sarah said uncertainly, "can you help me back on my horsie?"
"I can do that, Princess," the Sheriff said gently, and the palomino turned her head as the Sheriff took Angela around the waist.
"Don't," the Sheriff said, warning plain in his voice, and the mare didn't.

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Linn Keller 12-18-09

 

Sarah drew to a stop and looked around.
The sun was warm on her face, the breeze cool but not too much so, and the mountain air smelled clean, a clean that she had known all her life, a clean those poor souls "down below" would never know, could never appreciate.
Sarah had ridden with her Aunt Esther, and she had ridden Aunt Duzy's paint mare: she was not a stranger to the saddle, but she was not completely accustomed to it.
She decided she liked it, though.
Every young spirit has a moment of liberation, a moment when the realize they are in fact not tethered to home and hearth, that there is a world they can explore, and they feel a yearning, an eagerness to be off and to see it, and Sarah was experiencing this for the very first time.
Intoxicated, dizzied with the delicious prospect of discovery, Sarah folded the moment like a precious letter and hid it away in her heart.
She had to find her Uncle Linn and her cousin Angela.
She clucked at the mule.
"Yup, Brindle," she said, and the mule's big ears swung back, the forward, and the mule headed for where Sarah knew the road had to be.

Jacob noticed his father's stiffness and knew something was not right.
With the Black-horse on the ground, he assumed the horse had broken a leg and had to be shot, but the black was still breathing, and its legs were all straight.
Santos, however, had eyes only for the yearling palomino.
"Senor Sheriff, she is a fast one, did I not say?" he greeted, white teeth gleaming under his thick black mustache.
The Sheriff nodded.
"Yeah," he affirmed.
Santos cocked his head, regarded the Sheriff's grounded mount.
"Either the horse is very tired or something is very wrong," Santos observed, scratching the back of his head.
"Him?" The Sheriff waved a hand at the gelding. "He's lazy, like me. Never misses a chance for a good nap." He squatted and Jacob noticed the hesitation in the move.
Only then did he see blood seeping through his father's pants leg.
The Sheriff laid a gentle hand on the glossy gelding's neck. "Yup, boy," he said softly, and the black opened its eyes and blew, and lurched awkwardly upright.
The Sheriff rubbed the black's nose and fed it one of the small, sweet apples he kept handy for such moments.
"You're not supposed to be stove up," he murmured. "I'm the one that got bit!"
"Angelita, you are a natural horsewoman!" Santos crowed, riding up on her left side, Jacob quietly riding up on her right, close in.
Jacob remembered how fiercely loyal Hijo del Sol had been to the Sheriff and he suspected this warlike loyalty just might be hereditary.
Angela put her finger shyly to the corner of her mouth and giggled.
The Sheriff got his left foot awkwardly up and into the stirrup.
Jacob watched, alarmed, as his father hesitated, then bounced three times before swinging a leg over the saddle.
Jacob never saw him bounce before.
The Grand Old Man usually flowed into the saddle in one smooth move.
Jacob recognized the bulge of the older man's jaw muscles and knew there was something paining him, but he also knew the Grand Old Man would not make it known unless he had to.
Jacob them made a mistake common to young men when regarding the sire.
He thought his father a hard headed and contrary old man, stiff necked, proud and unbending ... not realizing that he, himself, exhibited every last one of those tendencies.
It would probably be many years before he realized his own back was just as stiff, his own neck just as unbending as his father's.
There was a happy HAAAW! from across the meadow and Angela laughed.
"Daddy! Lookie! Sarah gotta Bindlemoo!"
Puzzled, the Sheriff and Santos looked at one another, then at Angela, and then across the meadow to where the slender girl was approaching on muleback.
Jacob followed their gaze and realized with surprise this was indeed his cousin Sarah.
He'd never seen his ten year old cousin astride.
He knew she'd ridden with his mother, he knew Esther had been working with Sarah in such matters, but he himself had never seen the girl on a horse.
Now, in a riding outfit and hat, with the blush of youth on her cheek and good health glowing in her face, Jacob suddenly felt ... what?
A young man sometimes has difficulty realizing that he, himself, is maturing.
Jacob felt this now.
Jacob felt something for the very first time, something that surprised him.
Jacob felt old.

Sarah waved, and received waves in return, and the brindle mule picked up his pace a little.

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Linn Keller 12-18-09

 

Jackson Cooper turned the key in the lock.
"I'll send the sawbones over to have a look at you."
The prisoner squinted at the big lawman, wondering if it was common for identical twins to work in the same town. Must be, he reasoned, there were two of them big fellers on the other side of that barred door.
"All I did was funnin' some," he mumbled.
Jackson Cooper had started to turn away.
He turned back.
"Mister," he said, his voice as warm and reassuring as ice floes grinding agains the hull of an Arctic whaler, "do you know the Sheriff?"
"No." The prisoner looked down, looked away.
"Hm." Jackson Cooper considered. "You know what town you're in?"
"No. No, I don't. Don't much care neither."
Jackson Cooper frowned. "How'd you git here?"
"Same as anyone. Stepped off the stage."
"Where you headed?"
"Not here!"
Jackson Cooper sighed.
"How about answerin' the question?"
"Conejo. Down on the state line," he replied.
Jackson Cooper grunted. "South 'a' here. You might want to keep on goin', mister, once you git out."
"Now why do you think I'd like to stick around?"
"Good people and good food, why else?"
The man coughed, frowned.
"He diddn' have no call t' throw me aroun' like dat."
"You didn't have no call to shoot the bed his little girl was sleepin' in."
"Now how was I to know that'd happen?" he flared.
"What's upstairs over at the Jewel? Rooms, offices." Jackson Cooper hesitated. "People!"
"I didn' mean nothin' by it."
"If you'd killed his little girl you'd be dead by now and I wouldn't stop it neither."
The man looked up, closed one eye experimentally, decided he didn't like the looks of the Marshal out of that eye so he closed it and opened the other.
The lawman didn't look any better that way.
"You gotta stop it. You're the town marshal."
"I'd keep you from a hemp necktie," Jackson Cooper nodded.
"Now that's right decent of you!" the stranger said sarcastically.
"I'd beat you to death myself if the girl's mother didn't stick three foot of steel through your gut before she filleted your miserable soul free of the yella spine it's wrapped around."
"Who you callin' yella!" the man flared, coming to his feet, hands tight in shaking fists. "You open that door and I'll show you --"
Jackson Cooper unbuckled his gun belt, dropped it; he unlocked the door and stepped into the cell.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-18-09

 

"You were saying?" Jackson Cooper growled, the words rumbling like boulders in a spring thaw riverbed. He stood with his hands hanging at his sides, fingers curled slightly. The stranger backed against the wall, as far from the Marshal as he could get, and put up his hands. He had some boxing experience, and even more experience in no holds barred, root hog or die, down and dirty fighting. He had no experience at all fighting an angry grizzly bear in close quarters. For all practical purposes he faced exactly such a critter now.

The stranger snarled a curse then took a step forward, leading with left foot and left hand. Before he could even think of slinging a punch in Jackon's direction, an open-handed slap spun his head nearly off his shoulders. The backhand return of the same big right hand relocated his wrenched neck and quadrupled the ringing in his ears as he staggered back to tumble against the chain-hung bunk and crash on his back on the clean wool of the blanketed bed. He shook his head quizzically as he tried unsuccessfully to restore some semblance of equilibrium to his whirling brain.

"Got anything else to say?" Jackson Cooper asked the prisoner, standing once again relaxed and poised. The man gave him a bewildered stare and shook his head, "No".

"I thought not. Now keep your mouth shut and you might just make it onto the next stage south in a condition for travel. And don't bother coming back. We don't need your kind in Firelands." The Marshal stepped out of the cell, locked the door and picked up his gunbelt, slinging it around his waist as he strode, whistling, back toward the office.

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Linn Keller 12-20-09

 

"Daddy?"
I looked over at Angela.
"Yes, Princess?"
I kept the edge out of my voice. We were moving at an easy trot, not the kindest gait on my hurting leg but I was not going to show it.
"Is this horsie really mine?"
Santos' teeth flashed white in his swarthy face.
"Yes, Princess, she's really yours."
Angela giggled happily.
"Sit up straight, honey, and hold the reins ... yes, just like that."
Angela shifted in her saddle, unused to keeping a tension on her legs.
"She's really fast, Daddy," Angela offered.
"Yes, Princess, she is, and you stayed in the saddle very well."
Angela's expression was nothing short of absolute and unmitigated delight.
If a man could invent a Daguerrotype that would fit in a vest pocket, I thought, this would be the perfect image to capture: my little girl with her bright, bright eyes, her utterly delighted smile, a good horse under her and wild country behind!
Sarah's mule was content to keep company with the lot of us.
Sarah was tiring a bit, by the look of her, but like me she wasn't about to let anyone see it. I pretended not to.
Jacob rode drag: he lagged behind, sometimes well behind, something Santos did not miss.
"Su hijo," he observed quietly, "he is a careful man."
I did not miss the connotation: the formal su instead of the familiar tu, recognizing my status as Sheriff and as host: but he also extended the formal recognition of Jacob as not only my son, but as a man grown, and a careful man.
I nodded, looking at Angela's saddle.
"You chose well with the saddle," I observed, and it was Santos' turn to be pleased.
"El Senor Dios has blessed us with a princess of our own," he laughed, "and if the saddle fit our Angelita, it would fit your Angelita."
Angela frowned at this exchange, and it was a few minutes before she arranged her thoughts into words.
"Daddy?"
"Yes, Princess?"
"Daddy, how come why does Senor Santos call me Ann-hel-lee-ta?"
I looked at Santos and laughed. "You want this one?"
Santos laughed back and shook his head.
"Your name is Angela."
Angela looked at me solemnly and nodded.
"Angela means Angel."
Angela blinked. She'd never realized this.
"Angelita means little angel."
"Oh."
Hooves were loud on the packed roadway.
"Daddy?"
"Yes, Princess?"
"When I grow up, will I be a big angel?"
I smiled, nodded. "You will always be my angel, Princess."
"Good!" Angela nodded once, briskly, establishing another fact in the foundation of her universe.
My thigh ached abominably.
One thing about it, though, I would never, ever forget to keep out of reach of that damned witch-mare!

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Linn Keller 12-25-09

 

From the Sheriff's Journal --
Our Mexican guests were with us through the holiday, and a festive time it was: our little home became the center of the social world, and our poor maid was sorely put upon to provide refreshment for all who came.
Daisy sent provender and willing hands, and none who came, left hungry or a-thirst; there was music and laughter, there were stories and jokes, and there were more friends and neighbors in and out than I have seen in one place in a very long time.
Jackson Cooper is doing a most admirable job as Town Marshal. I believe it is due to our long prior association that we make one jail do for both offices, and this without conflict.
One caveat: it has been made abundantly clear to me that I am not to make coffee
.


The Sheriff leaned back in his chair.
It was Christmas Eve.
The guests were gone to their own homes, his Mexican comrades, to their room, where heavy snores assured him that the high altitude was guaranteeing their good rest.
The Sheriff wiped the nib clean and laid his pen in the open journal, closed the lid on his ink-well, and smiled.
The marital bed was upstairs.
The object of his affection, and indeed his intention, was seated across from him, turning an Irish-red curl of hair idly about her finger, smiling.
The Sheriff rose: with a quick, silent step, he thrust strong arms beneath the warm, female form, and carried his beloved upstairs, and to the waiting bed-chamber.
Once there, he lay this vision of beauty on the mattress, and arranged the covers just so.
Then he leaned down and kissed his Angelita's forehead.
His little girl never woke up.
The Sheriff came back downstairs in sock feet, silent on the stair treads, and stopped before his wife.
Esther rose, emerald eyes bright and sparkling in the Aladdin's light.
"I love you, Mrs. Keller," the Sheriff whispered.
"I love you, Mr. Keller," Esther whispered back, and their arms were around each other: they held one another for several long moments, the Sheriff laying his cheek on the top of Esther's crowning glory.
Finally the Sheriff reached down, and in one quick move, swept his bride off her feet, and bore her, too, upstairs.

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