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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 12-26-09


Inge Kolascinski brought a steaming-hot, bubbling, fragrant pie out of the oven.
She'd already rapped a few sets of knuckles, keeping light rolls and pastries from disappearing, to the yelp and distress of her dear husband and miscellaneous children: the meal was shaping up nicely, it was Christmas Day, and her family would eat well.
The Rosenthal girl had been out the night before.
It had snowed -- suddenly, heavily, unexpectedly -- and they looked at one another, then out the door, at the sound of muffled hoofbeats and the happy jingle of harness bells.
The apple-cheeked girl had dispensed hugs and baskets, moving fast and talking faster and not affording Inge any chance to protest; she was back aboard the sleigh and departing before astonishment subsided enough to allow Inge's mouth to close.
She and the girls immediately set about exploring the baskets' contents and planning the next day's meal.
Sarah, feeling warm and delighted inside, did not see the oldest Kolascinski boy -- nor could she have seen him if she'd tried -- for about the time she was leaving, he was just dragging back to the house.
The lad had gone out with the muzzle loading shotgun, intending to bring back something for the pot, and instead had been stalked by half-seen shadows: wolves, come down from the high country, not particularly aggressive, but sizing him up as a potential meal.
Wolves are smart.
They prefer weak prey, they prefer prey that can't, or won't, fight back, and they recognized the lad as able to hurt them, so they contented themselves with ghosting along on either side, hoping to snatch an unwary rabbit kicked up by the lad's less than stealthy progress.
Other eyes watched his cautious progress along the high country path.
The Kolascinski boy, himself, did not feel the yellow eyes that squinted, looking at the back of his skull.
It wasn't until he turned quickly, warned by some ancient sense, that things happened, and happened fast.
He'd practiced with the old gun and had it at full cock as he turned: the cat was in mid-leap when he drove its muzzle into the cat's open mouth, and exactly which slivered second saw the hammer fall and detonate the shining copper cap on its corroded nipple, is neither recorded, nor is it even important.
The shot charge went the full length of the cat, cleaning out most of the major vessels, the heart, part of both lungs and the rear portion of the spine.
Momentum, however, carried the cat heavily atop the lad: unable to stop the fall, he threw himself backwards: he had a death grip on the shotgun, so when he went over backward, the gun did too: the butt hit the ground beside him and the cat's intertia carried him over the boy like an insane pole vaulter.
A pole vaulter with all four hands full of slashing, clawing, sharpened sickles.
Old man Kolascinski was at the door, peering into the darkness, when his son came dragging in: the boy stomped carelessly across the sled tracks that were only just filling with snow and the old man profanely demanded of his son just where he'd been.
The boy shouldered past his father and went into the house.
His father came in behind him, swearing, shouting that he would not be ignored, that he, his son, would give an account of himself, and he would do it NOW!
The boy very carefully, very precisely, hung the shotgun back on its pegs, un-slung the possibles bag and the powder horn from his shoulders, and hung them up too.
He turned to face his father.
So incensed was the man he never noticed the twin slashes under the boy's right eye.
The boy bent, reaching into the gunny sack, seized something and thrust it suddenly into his father's face.
His father found himself eyeball to eyeball with the snarling visage of a mountain cat.
It took him several moments -- in fact, not until he'd fallen over backwards and scuttled back, crab-like -- that he realized the cat's pelt hung limp from the head.

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Linn Keller 12-26-09


Twain Dawg loped steadily through the snow.
His beloved Mistress had departed without calling him and he was not sure why not, but he was sure he was going to catch up with her.
Unknown to Twain Dawg, his sire was traveling a parallel path ... not to be a fellow warrior with his get, nor to join the young lady in question, but rather because he loved to run.
Sarah was almost warm, but not quite; she was not shivering beneath her buffalo robe, but she wasn't entirely comfortable ... consequently she was a bit more alert than she normally would have been.
She saw shadows parallelling her course, skulking forms that drew her stomach back until it wrapped around her spine.
She held the reins in one hand and reached under the seat, frowning.
Like most men in Firelands, her father participated in the after-church shooting matches; unlike most men in Firelands, her father used an antique, muzzle loading buggy gun, and he kept it under the seat of the buggy ... or, now that it snowed, in the sleigh.
Sarah pulled the box out and set it on the seat beside her.
The brindle mule trotted steadily through the snow.
Sarah had loaded the gun before; she drew the hammer to half cock and puffed a quick, short breath down the bore.
Empty, she thought, and capped the saw handle pistol's nipple: she cocked the hammer, aimed it at the snow dusting the seat, pulled the trigger.
The percussion cap went BLAP, surprisingly loud, but blew snow away from the muzzle: she capped and fired once more, guaranteeing that her warm, moist breath had not condensed in the nipple to kill the fire when she needed it most.
She looked up, shivered.
One of the wolves was looking at her, squarely at her, through the trees.
Sarah seized the powder flask, turned it up, pressed her gloved finger over the end of the measure and pressed the cut-off: she dumped 40 grains of Black Diamond powder into the measure, then down the bore: her father preferred greased patches, and so Sarah pressed a greased patch over the muzzle, a ball with the sprue carefully up, and she thrust it firmly against the powder with the short, pistol length ram rod.
She replaced the ram rod in the case, removed the shoulder stock.
It slid easily into its metallic slot in the back of the saw handle.
Sarah worked her fingers, picked up a percussion cap, dropped it.
She looked up at the trees, looked at the brindle mule.
A wolf crossed the roadway in front of her.
The brindle mule hesitated, muttering, shaking his head.
"Yup, boy," Sarah encouraged him, pressing the percussion cap onto the nipple and bringing the hammer to full cock.
She had not infrequently out-shot her father with this very buggy gun.
Another wolf crossed the road, paused.
The brindle mule went HAAAW and stopped abruptly.
Sarah stood, looking around, the buggy gun in hand.
It was suddenly very, very quiet.

Jacob saddled with the Mexicans, rode with them as far as the main street.
Dawg looked at him, loped away: Jacob remembered Caleb complaining that his little girl was running off again, taking Christmas cheer to an outlying family.
His gut told him to follow Dawg, and he did.
Not to be out-done, Miguel swung away from the main group, glad to be moving, for he too was feeling the cold.

Wolves eat according to their hierarchy: those too low in the pecking order don't eat, and have to fend for themselves: they were not going to attack a proven warrior, one who had vanquished one of the mountain cats and had the killing stick in hand even yet, and so they went in search of less dangerous prey.
They began watching the mule and its driver.

"Ho," Sarah called, and the brindle mule ho'd.
Sarah wasn't sure quite what she should do, but she was certain she would not make it home, not with the wolves surrounding her.
There weren't as many wolves as her imagination said there were, and so her response was probably not the best choice.
Sarah laid the buggy gun on the sleigh's seat and jumped to the snow.
She stripped the mule of its bridle and bit, removed harness and collar, then she climbed back into the sleigh, gripping the buggy gun, shivering.
"Ho," she said quietly, and the brindle mule stood fast, ears swinging, tail switching lazily, snow buildling up on its mane.

The first wolf came in fast and silent.
The brindle mule went for the wolf, stabbing with its forehooves: the wolf dodged, right into Sarah's sights.
The buggy gun barked, driving the .45 caliber round ball squarely through its spine between the shoulder blades.
The wolf squalled and fell and the brindle mule's hooves finished the job.
Sarah grabbed the powder flask and dumped another charge down the octagon barrel.
The brindle mule danced sideways, eyes walling white, clearly unhappy.
"Ho," Sarah called, and the brindle mule came back to the sleigh's side, at least until two wolves came in.
Sarah's eyes were big as she fumbled another grease patch from the box. Her breath was coming fast, puffing quick clouds into the cold air.
She thumbed another ball hard onto the grease patch, not bothering to center the sprue on top dead center: she thrust it hard down onto the powder charge, dropped the ram rod into the polished-cherry box, dumped the box of caps into the form fitted recess.
She picked up a cap, thrust it onto the nipple, cocked the buggy gun's hammer, stood, looking quickly around.
Sarah's legs were shaking.

Jacob heard the mule's HAAAWW and other sounds he couldn't really identify, but he didn't like what he heard.
Jacob shucked his Winchester, cycled the lever.
The Appaloosa stallion took this as his cue to stretch out into his flat-out gallop.
Not to be out-done, Miguel seized his engraved Henry, hauled it from the scabbard and spurred his tough little mestena after the Appaloosa.

Sarah brought the buggy gun to shoulder.
Her nostrils were flared, her face pale, and her legs felt weak, but the front sight was steady on the wolf's chest as it climbed over the back of the sleigh.
The buggy gun barked a second time.

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Linn Keller 12-27-09


Something black as death and just as silent brushed Sarah's left elbow.
The brindle mule's HAAAAWWW was distant in her ears, coming from far away, as Sarah saw Twain Dawg collide with the wolf: grey fur and black fur disappeared over the back of the sleigh and to her left there was a horrible noise, something that sounded like ten dogfights at once, and the brindle mule's hoof grazed the sleigh and she turned her head to see a grey-furred streak running away and another broken and bloodied in the snow.
Sarah dropped the buggy gun and reached inside her sleeves, drawing two long, slender knives at once: they were secret gifts from her Aunt Esther, something "just between we girls" ... something with which she had drilled Sarah, in the privacy of their barn, teaching the child, training the child, laying down muscle memory and training nerve pathways and programming reflexes.
Sarah was beyond terrified.
She had never been in danger before, never like this ... there had always been her Papa, or her Mama, or her Uncle Linn or Mr. Baxter or any of the many, many men she knew, who were nearby to keep her safe and keep her from harm, and now she was alone, alone with a mule and a buggy gun she knew she could never reload in time.
Sarah turned, blades bright in the thickening snowfall, lips pulled back and teeth bared, ready to receive an attack.
Twain Dawg's head poked up above the back of the sleigh: his face was white with snow, then he fell back and a moment later launched himself into the sleigh's upholstered back seat.
Twain Dawg cocked his head a little and gave a curious little ow-wow-wow sound, his pink tongue wobbling the way it always did, and Sarah closed her eyes and took a long breath and slid one knife, then the other, into the forearm sheaths.
There were muffled hoofbeats, galloping horses approaching: Sarah reflexively drew a blade, turned.
Sarah sat down hard.
Shivering now, she was barely able to insert the tip of the sleeve-knife into its sheath: it took all her concentration to insert the honed Damascus into its leathern home, and she realized she was sitting on the stock of the buggy gun.
She seized the octagon barrel at its muzzle and turned it up, dropping the polished silver crescent butt plate between her high-button shoes, and picked up the powder flask.
Jacob extended a hand to the mule. "Ho, boy, ho," he soothed, and the mule danced a little but stood.
Miguel circled the sleigh, Henry at the ready, and read the story in the trampled, bloodied snow.
"Por Dios," he whistled admiringly.
Dawg looked up at Jacob and whuffed.
"Dawg, you okay?" Jacob asked.
Dawg rumbled deep in his scarred chest, licked his chops.
Jacob could see fresh blood on the older dog's muzzle.
Twain Dawg hung his head over the back of the front seat and whined.
Sarah drove the patched ball down on the powder charge with a savage thrust of the striped ram rod.
She was shaking so hard now she could barely replace the loading stick in its recess in the finely-finished cherry box.
"Jacob," she quavered, and her voice was very much that of a scared little girl, "I can't pick up a cap," and instead she reached up and laid a violently trembling hand on Twain Dawg's shoulder.
Twain Dawg licked the tears off her young face, his tail whisking the huge flakes as they wobbled through the cold mountain air.
Miguel was dismounted, examining the lupine carcasses: his black eyes did not miss the bullet holes, their precise placement, and he stood to look at the muzzle loading, single shot, buggy gun still clenched by the muzzle in the crying girl's left hand.
"Dios Mio," he whispered. "And with such a gun, she did this?"

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Linn Keller 12-27-09


The story was told, and re-told in the border country, a tale of a little girl with golden hair, a child of exceptional beauty who would become a woman to break men's hearts: a child who stood alone in the snow, with but a single knife in her hand, who shot an ancient pistol until she ran out of powder and then single handedly killed half a dozen wolves with a steel blade, a knife of ancient craftsmanship that sang as it worked its deadly trade: tales were told of twin dogs, hounds from the depths of hell itself, black as sin and just as deadly, long of fang and merciless in nature, dogs that fawned at the beautiful child's feet, dogs fit to tear the living throat from a bear, or rend a wolf with a single snap of muscled jaws.
The tale grew with each telling, though its original recounting was accurate: young Miguel correctly described what had happened, but a good story grows legs, and this one walked tall across the barren desert and grew as it went, until finally when the story returned to the country of its origin, no one recognized any facet thereof: by that time, it had assumed legend status, much like Paul Bunyan or the north-country hidebehind, Pecos Bill or the ubiquitous hatchet hound that skulked about lumber camps and ate hatchet handles while men slept.
Only two men in the border country realized the truth of the story.
One was a young man and full of fire, who vowed that this maiden would become a wife and mother, and would wear his ring and his name: the other was the young man's grandfather, who had fallen deeply, hopelessly in love with the young daughter of a Spanish nobleman and who had waited for the child to mature before he swept her from her feet and pled his undying love for her, and so won her hand.
If the old man had told the whole truth, he also bribed the young girl's duena to be less than attentive while he courted the nobleman's daughter, but that would be worthy of a tale in and of itself, for the nobleman had spies, this then-young man was found out and pursued across the desert, and he was obliged to kill three of his pursuers lest they kill him ... but, as I said, that would be worthy of its own tale.

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Linn Keller 12-28-09


Tea steamed fragrantly from bone-china cups.
"Esther, dear, are you sure you're not taking on too much?"
Oolong gurgled happily from the white-china teapot's spout.
"After all, you do run a railroad, and you do look after the business interests here, and you have children ..."
Esther's green eyes smiled as she looked out from under curled lashes and over the rim of her tea cup.
Little Joseph rolled over on his side, sound asleep; his Mama's hand made quilt covered him against the chill, for it had gotten cold, quite cold overnight: Esther had carefully sewn patches over the bullet holes in the mattress, split the bed sheet down the middle and sewn what used to be the outer edges together to form a new center seam, a method she used to equalize wear on the sheets: her husband had quietly installed a sheet of boiler plate under the bed and covered it with a rug, something Esther quietly ignored, but something Bonnie noted and approved of.
"The town needed a treasurer," Esther said simply. "I'm just helping out."
Bonnie gave her "one of those looks" ... "Just helping out?" She sipped her tea, frowning. "Mmm! Orange?"
"I had the honey shipped in from Florida," Esther explained. "The orange blossoms flavor the honey. I find it to my taste."
"Esther." Bonnie leaned forward, putting he teacup and saucer on the small table beside her. "They'll work a willin' horse to death, to quote your husband. Are you sure you're not over-extending yourself?"
Esther shrugged. "Not so far." She looked affectionately over at her sleeping little boy. "Besides, it helps all of us."
"I understand the Irish Brigade will be getting a new steam machine."
"Yes." Esther's eyes were busy as she remembered. "The Ahrens company back in Cincinnati is buying the old machine from us. It seems they overhaul the old one and re-sell it. We get a discount on the new machine we are buying." Her expression was almost mischeveious.
Bonnie nodded. She could appreciate a savvy business deal; after all, she was a businesswoman herself.
"How is Sarah after her adventure?"
Bonnie rolled her eyes, waved a gloved hand. "Esther, you would never know anything happened! She never said anything about it, at least not until she arranged to have some scrapes fixed on the sleigh. Jacob cleaned Caleb's meeting gun and we just thought he'd been shooting it. It wasn't until Jacob mentioned a pack of wolves and how well Twain Dawg had done that we knew anything at all had happened!"
"Oh, dear," Esther murmured. "What did happen?"
"Oh, I don't know." Bonnie's voice was peevish, annoyed. "She doesn't want to talk about it."
"I understand Miguel was quite taken by her."
Bonnie's eyes were honestly surprised. "I ... what?"
Esther realized she may have let something slip that perhaps should have been kept hidden, but it was too late by then.
"Charlie MacNeil had to remind Miguel that Sarah was but ten years old. He mistook her for older."
"Oh, dear!" Bonnie's teacup clattered momentarily against its saucer and she raised a gloved hand to her forehead.
"Bonnie?" Esther's voice was gentle.
"Oh, Esther, it's my fault," Bonnie groaned. "She looked so cute in one of my dresses. I tailored it to fit her and she was so happy ... I let her wear it when she came into town ..."
"Darling, you can't keep her in a little girl's costume forever."
"I know," Bonnie groaned. "I just don't want her to grow up!"
Esther laughed and Bonnie could not help but smile.

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Linn Keller 12-30-09


Young Joseph squealed happily and crawled over my legs.
I was sitting on the floor with my back against my study's upholstered chair, with my legs straight out, and a vigorous little boy climbing over them with the determination of a mountaineer in lenderhosen scaling the Matterhorn.
Jacob stood uncertainly, hat in hand, apparently with something on his mind.
I grinned up at my son.
"Heavens, have a set, make yourself t'home!" I admonished him, and he reluctantly frowned his way into a rocking chair.
Joseph crowed in triumph, one hand on my left kneecap, before he got all excited and rolled off, tumbling to the floor and pushing himself up, looking around in surprise.
"Now why did that nasty ol' floor do that to you?" I asked, and Joseph rolled over on his back and laughed.
I looked up at Jacob and he was grinning.
"I know that look," I said. "Report."
Jacob's eyes were troubled and he spun his hat in his hand as if uncertain quite how to begin.
"Well, sir, first off nobody got hurt."
He had my attention instantly.
"Go on," I said, my voice suddenly serious.
"The Mexican delegation is on their way, sir --" Jacob stopped. "It's not about them. Nothing happened there."
I nodded.
"It's Sarah, sir."
"Sarah," I repeated. "And nobody got hurt."
"No, sir."
"Mmm-hmm." I picked up Joseph.
It's a good thing I have big hands, for the only thing that kept him from wiggling out of my grasp was the fact that my big paws pretty well circumnavigated his chest and back.
Jacob took a deep breath, his eyes to the wall above me, frowning.
"Sir, did you teach Sarah to shoot?"
I blinked.
"No ... no, I've been working with Bonnie some but not with Sarah." I frowned. "I recall she shoots her Papa's buggy gun after church on Sunday. Matter of fact she won a smoked ham last time." I chuckled. "She out-shot her old man to do it, too!"
Jacob's eyes were haunted.
"You said no one got hurt."
Joseph patted my hand, pulling at my finger, and I was at once searching for Jacob's intended message, and at the same time marvelling at how small Joseph's hand was when compared to my big finger.
"Sir, Sarah was set upon by wolves."
"Mary." I called to the maid, and she came bustling into the study, all starched apron and anxious expression. She was from back East and had been in the service of a family that fell upon hard times; she had been reccommended to us by Maude and we hired her sight unseen.
I handed young Joseph up to her.
"Jacob, one moment."
Mary discreetly drew the doors to the study shut.
I went to the stove, shook down the ashes and added another few chunks of wood, then turned to the sideboard and set out two brandy balloons.
I poured us each about two fingers' worth of good brandy and handed one to Jacob, then seated myself in the chair at my roll top desk.
We drank.
Jacob swirled his brandy meditatively, his eyes distant.
"Sir, Sarah had gone to the Kolascinski place to deliver Christmas."
I nodded.
"On the way back she was surrounded by wolves. The tracks were confused but I counted no more than four or five."
I nodded again.
"Sarah shot two of them. The mule got one, Dawg got one, Twain Dawg tore one up pretty bad."
I took a slow sip of the brandy, savoring the peach scent. I'd been fighting a sore throat for a few days and brandy was medicinal for such ailments.
"Sarah shot two of them."
"Yes, sir. With her Pa's buggy gun."
"Hm." I pursed my lips. "Kind of unusual for wolves to attack a healthy mule and driver."
"Yes, sir." Jacob hesitated. "They were young, sir, may not have known better."
"How did Sarah fare?"
Jacob chuckled.
"Sir, she imagined there were fifteen or twenty, and she unharnessed the mule. She said if it got too bad she planned to jump on bareback and ride!"
I grunted.
Jacob nodded. "That's what I thought, too, sir."
"How did the mule do?"
"She told it to stand fast and it did."
"Well, thank God for whoever trained it."
Wood popped loudly in the stove.
"Sir, when I rode up she was just picking the gun up to cap it."
I frowned.
This didn't make sense.
If she was in a fight for her life, why did she have to pick up the buggy gun?
Jacob must have divined my thought.
"Sir, she told me she had no time to finish loading. She put the gun down and drew her knives and allowed as she would stand them off from the sleigh."
I set the brandy balloon down, my jaw thrust forward.
"She did what?"
Jacob nodded, his eyes sliding to the left, toward the closed doors, and I knew he was thinking of his mother.
"The Mexicans have a saying," I said quietly.
"Yes, sir?"
" 'A knife is always loaded.' "
"Yes, sir."
I shook my head.
"Little Sarah did that?"
"Yes, sir."
"Good Lord."
I remembered Sarah as I'd first seen her, a waif holding Bonnie's hand as they walked in front of the Jewel, right before I decked that scoundrel of a town's attorney. She was so small, so small ...
I looked at Jacob, remembered how he'd looked when I first saw him, a boy in knee breeches and cloth cap, with a note from Sopris ...
I swallowed, leaned back in my chair, reached for the brandy.
"What followed?"
"We harnessed the mule back up, sir, and drove back to the Rosenthal place."
I nodded.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, Sarah asked me to cap the buggy gun for her, and I did, and she held it across her lap until we came in sight of the house."
I smiled.
"Sir, I fired the charge into a hollow log lying in the creek, to muffle the sound, and I cleaned the gun for her and put it back in her Pa's case, but she asked me to return it under the seat of the sleigh."
I nodded.
"Well done, Jacob."
"Thank you, sir."

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Linn Keller 1-1-10


Sarah Rosenthal looked out her bedroom window.
The moon was full and bright and the snow covered pasture was pristine, flawless: the horses had not yet trod its sparkling surface, no coyote had dotted the blanket with paw-prints.
Even the cluster of fence posts around the mine's sink hole wore festive white caps, glittering in the moonlight.
Sarah bent over, resting her elbows on the window sill and her chin in her hands, remembering how it felt -- how cold and alone it felt! -- standing in the sleigh, a blade in each hand, and how safe and comforted she felt when Jacob arrived, and Miguel, and how they escorted her back to the safety of her home ... how Miguel had reared his horse, waved his sombrero and galloped away into town, and how dashing he was in that moment! --
Sarah felt as much as heard the earth shiver underfoot, and a gout of dirty fire squirted out of the hole in the ground, momentarily limning the fence posts, gleaming red-yellow across the snow, then it was gone, with just a rolling cloud soaring toward the cloud-dotted stars above.

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Linn Keller 1-2-10


Daisy carried a rolling pin like the Queen carries a scepter.
Daisy was presiding over a temporary mess hall, she and two of her "Kitchen Ladies" as they'd been dubbed: at first there were some attempts on the ladies' propriety, until one miner was given a face full of frying pan, another had the handle of a rock maple rolling pin drove into his gut like a bayonet, and a third fled hastily into the street before the arc of scalding water could reach him: the shining arc was followed by Daisy, bristling like a Banty hen, all red hair and shaking first and screeching Gaelic maledictions into the clear Colorado air: though but two of those in earshot knew exactly what she was saying, what she meant was most evident by her expression, the shivering of her clenched fist, and the volume and tone with which she addressed the miscreant's retreating backside.
The Cripple Creek mine had sustained an explosion in one of its distant shafts: a stray pocket of soil gas, perhaps, waiting silently for release over centuries, or perhaps new fermentation of an organic strata: whatever the cause, two miners were dead, half-a-dozen burned, twice that knocked to the ground and injured: though the camp had three who called themselves physicians, they were more quacks than healers, and Lightning received a series of urgent missives from the ruling junta at Cripple, asking for people to heal and to feed.
Meals in Cripple had previously been neither that organized, nor that regular, and both the mine's superintenedent (the new one, not the horse's hinder who had to be educated when he and a crew came helling over into Firelands) and the mine's owners all recognized the efficiency and flexibility Daisy had shown in running the Jewel: now, with a brand-new mess tent, the biggest and finest ever seen in the rough little mining town, with new tables and chairs, with mass-fired plates and mugs and stamped tableware, with new stoves set up at one end and a hastily-recruited crew of waiters, Cripple Creek had given Daisy a dictator's authority and carte blanche, with but one instruction:
"Feed our people!"
Daisy immediately drafted from the Unorganized Militia as needed: she hired and fired and hired again until she had reliable sources of stove wood, she had clean stream water piped in for her use, she set one stove to no task but heating water, she hired slatterns to wash dishes -- these women labored behind sheet walls, separate from the mess tent, but they labored on green wood floors hastily spiked to timbers laid on the muddy ground -- normally employed in the low-end of the street, and usually engaged in what was euphemistically called "Horizontal Refreshment," Daisy offered them work where they stood no chance of being beaten, cheated or killed.
Most who worked for her bore the marks of misuse: Doc Greenlees saw one of them as his first customer, lifted broken cheek bones back into place and did the best he could, but the woman would live the rest of her life with but one eye: another's nose was healing and would be almost straight, thanks to the good Doc: he, too, worked on a green lumber in a new tent, and the man was lucky to get a few hours' sleep, so numerous were his customers.
Comparatively few were from the mining accident.
Those from the explosion were ... well, let's just say ol' Doc earned his pay and then some.
Daisy, now, Daisy's greatest strength was organization. She kept all stoves fired; the several tin chimneys all thrust through the insulated openings in the tent roof, their exhaust assuring one and all that food was here, and to be had, and for free for the duration of the emergency.
There was absolutely no lack for customers.
Daisy sent a telegram to the Sheriff, back in Firelands, asking his assistance in obtaining beef: he and his son saddled up and made a half dozen contacts locally, and soon had culled beef cattle being driven to their rail yard for transport to Cripple: the beef cars were attached to the tail of the empty ore cars, and willing hands in Cripple built a sizable pen near their own rail yard. As quickly as it was filled with beef, they were emptied just as fast, for though there were those in Cripple who mined and wrenched ore from beneath the earth, there were those who preferred to get their gold from labors on its surface: butchers were hired, a slaughter-house was hastily designated, Daisy selected its boss, dictated to him which cuts she preferred and showed a surprising skill herself in demonstrating how to get every bit of edible meat off a carcass.
Daisy expanded her staff, dividing them according to their labor: some washed dishes and cook-pots, tableware and platters; others kneaded bread, consuming flour by the hundred-pound sack -- she placed such an order as to prompt a telegram inquiring if this was an actual order, or a joke -- the mine owners themselves drafted a reply, and flour and corn meal were delivered in a steady stream, a shipment arriving daily with the return ore cars.
One of the mine's owners had a sweet tooth and had taken quite a liking for Daisy's pies: Daisy, being not only organized but also worldly, saw to it that a fresh, hot, steaming pie was delivered to the man's desk at noon each day.
This further guaranteed that what Daisy wanted, Daisy got.
Pies were quite popular but pies were, at first, rare: after a near-riot, in which Daisy fearlessly waded into the brawling throng of warring miners with rolling pin in hand, after Daisy knocked three out cold, broke two arms and four sets of knuckles (she held the rolling pin vertically, gripping the lower handle in one fist and her open palm backing the upper, using it to block in coming punches ... one hard rock miner, a known brawler and hardcase, swung blindly at Daisy, only to meet a vertical shaft of rock maple. He broke three bones in his hand and went to the ground with his wounded paw between his knees, crying like a little girl.)
Daisy was presented with one more cook stove, immediately dubbed the "Pie Stove" ... it had twin ovens and its service was immediately dedicated solely to the baking of pies, guaranteeing at least four proposals of marriage before noon every day, and generally more than that before dark.
The emergency was declared over in maybe a week, during which time Daisy was elevated to sainthood, her cooks to sub-deities, and Doc Greenlees to that of National Treasure: generous offers were extended if they would remain, but Daisy and her ladies and the good physician were all just plainly exhausted, and yearned for the quiet and polite and well mannered folk in Firelands, for streets that were well drained and not terribly muddy, and most of all they wanted an uninterrupted night's rest, without the ubiquitous swish and splat of slop pails and chamber pots' contents being slung out into the public thoroughfare.
They were well paid for their efforts, and standing invitations issued, officially and otherwise: should they wish to return, their place in Cripple's society would be assured: so said potentates and proletariat, elite and common: one fellow, broke-brim hat in hand, stopped them as they boarded the train to Firelands.
The fellow had seen better days; he was unshaven, but wearing a clean shirt for the occasion, and he said simply, "Miz Daisy, thank you," and he turned quickly and walked away, lest the revered Miz Daisy see him spill unmanly tears.
Their return to Firelands was quiet, as the lot of them were exhausted to the point of sleeping all the way home.

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Linn Keller 1-3-10


Not everyone slept.
The rail cars rocked gently, the rhythmic clackety-clack of steel wheels on steel rails lulling most of the passengers and even drowsing the conductor: one set of eyes remained open, restless, excited.
He'd been looking, asking, listening, over the years: he was not hunting with the hot blood of vengeance but the patient mien of someone who hoped to close a chapter sometime in his lifetime.
He was almost ready to do just that.
His name was Dingood -- Stephen Dingood -- this was generally shortened to Ding, which he did not mind.
It was better than some of the things he'd been called over the years.
Ding was not a Western man and made no pretense to be, nor was he a lawman or a detective: no, he was a man with a cold knot of revenge in his heart, and a resignation that he would never amount to much, but he could do this one thing, this one thing for his brother, and that was kill the man that scattered his brother's brains all over a cabin wall.
Ding was traveling with a fellow named Smith, which he found amusing: the man was the son of a slave, a worker in metal and a good one, and so smithing metal was his trade: Smith was his name and Smith was his trade, and Ding found it funny.
He did have the good sense not to say as much to Smith.
Smith sat across the aisle, wrapped in a buffalo coat, his hat brim pulled down low. Unlike Ding, he drowsed: he'd taken one look at Cripple, and the filth and the mud and two knife fights while he looked out the window of the rail car, and he decided Cripple held little for him: he would move on to the next town, might be they could use a blacksmith, or not: if they could, he would stay, otherwise he would drift on, as he had done time and time again.
Ding cheated at cards, and Ding's dice were carefully loaded, but he used an honest set as well: he was careful not to win too much or too many times in a row, and he was good enough with his hands to switch dice and not be noticed.
The only time he'd been caught, he was on a losing streak, he'd switched to the honest dice in a desperate hope that his luck would change, and it did: so much so that he'd been accused of using loaded dice: examination of the dice proved them unaltered, his loaded set being secreted in a sleeve pouch: he'd come away winners, but with the stern warning never to come back, and so he left the number three saloon in Cripple and went over to number six and won another stake, at least before someone at an adjacent table accused someone else of cheating, there were shots and everyone at Ding's table snatched at the pot in a desperate attempt at getting away with their life and a little money.
Ding snatched too slow and came away with a single twenty dollar gold piece.
He'd heard about a straight joint, an honest gambling house, something rare for those times: the place was called the Silver Jewel, and talk had been of a good looking dealer named Josie -- a real looker, by all accounts, with a smile on her lips and ice in her heart, someone who would never let a man leave her table broke, but who could put a dagger through a man's eye at twenty feet.
He hoped to take a look at this Josie.
Besides, he needed to sit and listen to the talk there in Firelands.
The man he wanted to kill was supposed to be from that town.
A man with pale, pale eyes.
The man who killed his brother.

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Mr. Box 1-3-10


You could tell that Daisy was not around the Kitchen by the aromas in the air. Pies were not as common or as tasty as hers. Things were just a little quieter around the Silver Jewel this week. I gave the ladies a hand sometimes when I could because they were definitly left shorthanded. They still got the meals out but it just didn't have the flair that it usually has.

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Linn Keller 1-4-10


Denver Bup yawned, making that curious whining-yawn noise characteristic of a Beagle dog, and cuddled up against the welcome comfort of Twain Dawg's side.
Twain Dawg had already yawned.
The uninitiated would be discomfited by his display of dentistry: he was near to full grown and had inherited every bit of his sire's size and impressive ivories: he was not quite as block-muscled as Dawg, but he was out of something rangy -- maybe a wolf or a 'yote -- what he lacked in sheer muscle mass he made up for in strength and endurance.
Denver Bup did not care that his companion of the moment had locked jaws around a bear's windpipe and ripped open its great vessels; Denver Bup did not care that the black-furred cuddle buddy had broken one man's arm, ripped another's ear off and done other damage to despicable desperadoes at one time or another.
Denver Bup knew it was cold outside but warm here by the stove, and he was content.
Ding shoved open the door without preamble and without knocking, which gained him the immediate attention of two very dangerous animals.
Twain Dawg was on his feet, his ruff bristled up and teeth bared, and the Sheriff regarded the intruder with eyes the color of a glacier's heart, and with as much welcoming warmth.
"Close the door," the Sheriff said quietly.
Ding closed the door, slowly, carefully.
Ding's eyes were for Twain Dawg.
Twain Dawg's were for Ding.
"Most people knock," the Sheriff said mildly, stepping toward the cast iron stove to his right.
"I'm lookin' fer someone," Ding muttered.
The Sheriff regarded him levelly for several long moments, trying to place him.
"You got a name, mister?"
"Name's Dingood."
"You wanted?"
Ding blinked. He'd never considered that someone might want him, and the thought was uncomfortable.
"Ladies," the Sheriff said quietly, "Daisy said something about fresh pie. How about you-all going over to the Jewel and staking my claim on something fresh."
Angela giggled and slid off the edge of the desk. She wiggled her foot into her black pump. "Thank you, Daddy," she said, smiling up at her unsmiling father, and she scampered for Sarah, who sat across from the Sheriff's desk, demure and prim as the Queen herself.
The Sheriff reached into a vest pocket and drew out two coins, left handed: he extended them toward Sarah, who took them without comment.
"Angela, why don't you take Denver and have Bear Killer teach him about biscuits and gravy."
"Dad-dee!" Angela declared, planting her knuckles on her hips and tilting her head sideways. "His name's --"
The Sheriff looked at his daughter and Angela's words cut off as effectively as if they'd been sliced with a pair of shears.
"Yes, Daddy," she said quietly. "C'mon, Denver Bup!"
The liver Beagle's head came up and he hobby-horsed happily across the polished puncheons.
The Sheriff snapped his fingers.
Twain Dawg's head swung toward the lawman with the iron grey mustache.
"You wanta fight?" the Sheriff snarled, making a gesture only Twain Dawg could see.
Twain Dawg growled, deep in his chest, and turned stiff-legged toward the Sheriff.
The Sheriff repeated the gesture. "You wanta kill someone?"
Twain Dawg's lips peeled back and his growl got louder.
The Sheriff looked at Dingood. "He gets cranky when he don't have fresh blood."
"Uncle Linn?" Sarah hesitated at the door. "you know what happens when he doesn't kill something. If you get him all stirred up again, he'll either kill another buffalo or a stranger and Pap is tired of paying for graveyard spaces!"
The Sheriff looked at his niece.
Sarah's expression was mischevious, but she managed to look utterly innocent as she turned and dropped a curtsy to the stranger standing uncertainly beside her. "Come on, Angela, Denver."
Dingood waited until the girls were out the door before he spoke.
"That dog don't kill for real, now, does he?"
The Sheriff stood relaxed, ready, reading the man's hands, his trousers(thin in the knee), taking note of his hat (scuffed) and his boots (never been polished)
"You want some coffee? Made it myself."
Twain Dawg stood and walked sideways toward the Sheriff, never taking his eyes off Dingood.
"Who you lookin' for?"
Dingood's eyes slid away from the Sheriff's. "Dunno his name," he muttered.
"Got a wanted dodger?"
"Got a description?"
Dingood looked at the Sheriff and shivered.
"I'll know him."
"Hm." The Sheriff grunted. "You go accusin' a man and he ain't the one, you might just end up dead."
Twain Dawg -- or Bear Killer -- looked up at the Sheriff and chopped his jaws.
"Not now," the Sheriff said, never looking away from Dingood. "You just et a bear yesterday."
Dingood could not see the Sheriff's hand-gesture, one he'd used with the Bear Killer in the past: the Sheriff delighted in teaching Bear Killer tricks, and one was to bristle, and snarl, and make as if to rip a man's hand off clear up to the shoulder.
Twain Dawg saw the gesture, though, and began snarling louder.
"Go lay down," the Sheriff said, and this time made a visible, flat-handed gesture: Bear Killer swore in dog language, slinking back to the stove, looking back over his shoulder in obvious displeasure and ill grace. He lay down beside the stove's warmth, dividing his glare between the lawman and the visitor, apparently willing to dine on either one.
"Dingood, you a law man?"
Dingood's jaw thrust out. "Nah."
"You a detective?"
"You got a warrant?"
"Why you lookin' for this fellow?"
"My business."
"You're in my county," the Sheriff said coldly. "That makes it my business."
"This fella kilt my brother."
The Sheriff nodded. "Who was your brother?"
Dingood spoke a name, and the Sheriff was quiet for a long moment.
"Who's this fella you're lookin' for?"
"I dunno his name." Dingood's eyes slid to the side.
"I don't like bein' lied to."
Dingood looked at the Sheriff, fear changing to bluster. "Why, you --"
The Sheriff cut him off with a quick gesture and Twain Dawg came to his feet.
"You kill someone in my county, Dingood, and I will gut you like a fish," the Sheriff said quietly, his voice all the menacing for its low tones.
"He kilt my brother!" Dingood rasped.
"Your brother mighta had it comin' too!"
For a moment the Sheriff thought Dingood might do something foolish.
Dingood hesitated, apparently considering that he was inside the Sheriff's office, facing a man who wore a pair of revolvers and who wore his confidence like a tailored suit ... then, too, there was that young bear of a dog that looked like it ate draft oxen for breakfast and picked its teeth with their bones.
"This is family," Dingood muttered.
"Might be I can help. I lost family too. What's this fella look like, the one you're looking for?"
Dingood swallowed hard.
"He'd be growed now but I'll know him."
"How?" The Sheriff's voice was a whip lash across the room's quiet.
"He's got eyes like yours."

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Linn Keller 1-4-10


"What about his back?"
"This fellow you're after. Tell me about his back."
Dingood frowned, turning his head a little, his eyes never leaving the Sheriff's.
"I don't know nothin' about no back."
"Might be you'd oughta take a look at it."
The Sheriff's voice was quiet but there was no mistaking the steel in his words.
"I ain't gotta look at nothin'!" Ding flared. "He kilt my brother an' I'm a-gonna kill him!"
The Sheriff unbuttoned his coat, drew it open.
"You'll have to kill me first."
Ding tasted copper.
"I got no fight with you."
"Yes you do. There's only two men here with these eyes."
Ding's eyes widened a little.
The Sheriff saw his pupils dilate.
"I'm one."
A knot popped loudly in the wood stove.
Bear Killer's ears twitched.
"My son's the other."
Ding held very, very still.
The Sheriff pulled the tabs off his hammer spurs, drew them down.
"You don't know about his back."
"I don't know nothin' about no back!"
"You'd oughta see it." The Sheriff was still, unmoving.
There was the jingle of trace-chain outside, a whistle, a yell, the pop of a whip being snapped well over a team's head.
"His back looks like it was plowed up after a spring rain."
Ding shook his head slightly, not understanding.
"His Ma was whipped to death. Horse whipped while he watched. He was just a child, Dingood. A little boy who watched a drunken wife beater take a black snake whip to a woman because she was pregnant."
"No!" Ding hissed, the color draining from his face.
"When this little boy tried to stop your brother, he horse whipped this little boy until you could see ribs through the whip cuts."
"Liar!" Ding yelled.
He grabbed for the handle of the Starr revolver in his waist band.
He never saw the knife that drove up through his belly and into his heart.
The Sheriff thrust hard, hard again, hard a third time, the broad steel blade tasting the man's insides and parting things that should never be parted.
Dingood was pinned against the wall with the Sheriff's forearm across his throat, the Sheriff's face an inch from his own.
"NOBODY SHOOTS MY BOY!" Linn roared, his eyes very pale and his face dead white, anger carved in deep grooves down the sides of his nose and around his mouth.
It was the last thing Dingood saw on this earth.

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Mr. Box 1-4-10


Sarah came in with Angela and pulled out chairs at the table they chose. I came over and asked, "Are you ladies waiting for someone?"
Angela said, "We came for pie!"
"We haven't had too much pie around here this week."
She said, "I can smell pie!"
I hadn't seen Daisy yet, but my smeller told me she was nearby. "It might still be too hot to eat," I replied.
"We can wait, Mr. Baxter," they sang out in unison.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-4-10


It was grocery day. The runners of the sleigh, which had begun life, before winter's snows had fallen, as a buckboard (and to which life it would return once the snow melted), had squeaked a soft, melodic background to the silver harness bells the entirety of the fifteen miles to town. Baked potatoes, cooked through in the oven of the Heritage range in the ranch kitchen, then wrapped in scraps of blanket, had served double duty as handwarmer and midday meal, but Charlie was ready for some coffee. Even the nasty stuff Linn usually had suppurating on top of the pot-bellied stove in the Sheriff's office could be swallowed if a gent was careful and cut it with a little water and a lot of sugar before sipping.

As soon as they hit town, Charlie dropped Fannie at the general store to get their order placed. From there she'd go to the Jewel to get them a room for the night while he took care of putting the horses up. They'd gotten a later start than anticipated and it was cold enough that he'd rather not go home in the dark, so they'd stay the night then load up their goods as soon as the general store opened in the morning. Meanwhile, Charlie stabled the horses that had brought them to town and turned his steps toward the Sheriff's office.

Charlie had less than a block to go to the office when he met the girls and Denver Bup. "Hi, Uncle Charlie!" Angela piped. "We're going to the Jewel!"

"Hello, ladies. Hello, Bup," Charlie answered, tipping his hat. Then he saw the look on Sarah's face. "Is there something I can do for you, Sarah?"

"There's a man in Uncle Linn's office that Twain Dawg..."

"Daddy called Twain Dawg Bear Killer, an' he was grring when we left," Angela interrupted. Icy fingers suddenly raised gooseflesh along Charlie's spine.

"You girls best get for the Jewel. It's cold out here," Charlie said. "I'll just wander on over to the Sheriff's office and say my howdies."

"Thank you, Uncle Charlie," Sarah said. "Come on, Angela."

As soon as the girls were on their way, Charlie turned and stepped off toward the office. As he went he slipped off his right glove, unbuttoned the heavy wool coat he was wearing and loosened the tiedown on his Remington. He stepped up on the boardwalk, stamped some snow from his boots then tapped softly, twice, on the office door. He heard Linn's voice growl something about his son before he drew the Remington and pushed the door open.

The tableau that greeted him was carved from the icy face of some far distant hell. The Sheriff held a man pinned to the wall with forearm and Bowie, their noses inches apart, a snarl on his lips, blood cascading along Linn's wrist and onto the floor. Beside them stood Twain Dawg, hair standing along his back and teeth bared. Charlie holstered his pistol, leaned against the door frame and folded his arms. "I think that gent's done for, partner," he said softly. "You can let him go."

As if coming back from some other place, Linn looked around at Charlie, teeth bared in a grimace as he stepped back and lowered the dead man to the floor. Charlie asked drily, "You want to explain why you just gutted that fella? Not that it's any of my business, of course."

"He came here to kill my son!" the Sheriff snarled.

"Well, he ain't goin' to now."

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Linn Keller 1-5-10


Digger showed up about one minute after Jackson Cooper came through the door.
Jackson Cooper picked up that Starr revolver with thumb and forefinger.
"Now that's a shame," he murmured. "A nice old gun like that an' that blood is gonna eat every bit o' blue off it!"
"Does that just to aggravate me," I muttered, pouring Charlie and I some coffee. I opened the cupboard door and indicated the pot of honey and the sugar crock and I diluted mine half and half with water before stirring in some sweetnin'.
Didn't help much.
"Jackson Cooper, you want some coffee?" I offered.
"No thank you," Jackson Cooper said absently, taking the dead man by the hair of the head and turning his head left, then right.
"Know him?" Charlie grunted, watering his own coffee generously.
"His name's Dingood," a strange voice offered from the doorway.
The three of us looked up at the stranger, standing there with his hat in his hand.
"I saw yo' undertaker an' tho't he might'a run a bluff on the wrong man."
"You got a name, friend?" Charlie asked levelly.
Charlie and I looked at one another.
"Smith," we said with one voice, looking skeptically at the newcomer.
Startling white teeth gleamed in a face of polished ebony.
"Black smith," he said, making two words of one, and I wondered if he wasn't making a funny at his own expense.
"Here, gimme a hand with this while you're standin' there doin' nothin'," Digger snapped, the scrape of the box hollow and loud as he wallowed it across snow and boardwalk.
The blacksmith seized a rope handle, flipped it up and brought it into the office as if it were made of folded paper.
Jackson Cooper searched the body, putting the effects on the corner of my desk. There wasn't much: two decks of cards, two leather pouches, a knife, powder flask and a half-dozen pistol balls, and an empty percussion cap box.
"No wallet, no letters, no Bible?" I asked, frowning at the man's few possessions.
"Nope." Jackson Cooper divested the carcass of its belt, running expert fingers down its length: turning it inside out, he explored the inner surface, found the hidden opening, pulled the money belt's lips open.
"He was a cheat at cards and dice," Smith offered. "Got th'owed out of two saloons over in Cripple."
"How'd you know him?"
Smith thrust his chin at the far wall, the general direction of the depot. "Me an' him rode in the same rail car."
"That's all?"
Smith nodded. "Yas, suh."
Digger and Jackson Cooper swung the dripping carcass into the box.
"Smith, you got a place to stay?" I asked, and Smith looked uncertainly at my good right hand, still crimson with the dead man's gore.
"Ah, yes suh, yes suh, I stayin' at de livery."
"Got enough to eat?"
I could tell by the man's eyes he wanted to tell me the truth, but pride kept him from it.
"I need a favor."
Smith's head tilted a little, listening close.
I tossed him a gold eagle. "Across the street -- yonder, those fancy doors -- that's the Silver Jewel. Tell the fellow behind the bar, Mr. Baxter, that I'd like the girls to go upstairs and visit their mother."
"Mistuh Baxter," he said, nodding.
"Then sit yourself down and eat as much of whatever sounds good to you."
He looked at that eagle in his palm.
"Dat's an awful lot o' money jus' fer dat."
He was doing a fine job of masking intelligence with a carefully crafted facade. My gut told me there was quite a bit behind those shining eyes.
"I'm savin' my own hide," I lied. "I was expected for a meal and I'm late and if the cook has to throw out them vittles she'll meet me at the door with a fryin' pan, so if you go over and eat my share, she'll be tickled to see a customer with a good appetite!"
Smith nodded.
"Yas, suh," he said, touching his hat brim, then reaching down and taking one end of the coffin.
Digger staggered under the weight of the opposite end.
"Here," Smith said gently, bouncing the box on his shoulder a little and working his way back to the balance point: he carried it on his shoulder out to the wagon, carried it as if it weighed nothing.
I peeled out of my coat, regarded the incarnidine soiling my shirt sleeve.
"No help for it," I muttered, shucking out of the shirt as well and tossing my neck tie onto the desk.
"You got fresh?" Charlie asked, straightening.
"Over in Esther's office."
I walked back between the rows of cells, came back with a bucket and a mop.
I'd got the worst of the mess off the floor and was about to head for the door to sling that sassafrass colored water out into the street when Charlie observed quietly, "Might not wanta do that."
I'd already taken one step, so I stopped and let the bucket and my arm swing once.
"Come ag'in?"
"Look out at the Jewel."
I looked.
Three faces were crowded in Esther's office window.
I shrank back.
Charlie was right.
I did not want them to see me with a bloody hand and shirt cuff and slinging a bucket of bloody water out onto the white snow.

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Linn Keller 1-7-10


"Made a liar outta myself," I called out to Charlie.
Charlie was settin' near to the wood stove watching Digger's boy scrub that bloody floor with something that didn't smell good. Chloride of lime or some such, he'd said, same stuff they used to treat drinking water back East.
Charlie wrinkled his nose.
"They use that stuff in their water?"
"Yep." The bristle hissed briskly on the wood floor. He was doing a good job of scrubbing down between the boards too.
"Remind me not to go back East."
"Don't go back East," came the reply, partly muffled by the fellow's kneeling and bent over posture.
I washed off in back and put on a clean shirt I'd forgot I had hung up there. The other one I would sneak over to the Jewel and soak it in salt water to get the blood out.
I came to the front of the office and looked at my coffee.
Charlie had tasted his maybe once. I think he was balancing it on his knee so if it et a hole through that blue granite cup it would not scald his more valued parts.
I picked his up too and went to the open door and tossed the contents of both out into the packed snow street.
Charlie gave me a quiet look as if to say I know what you're up to and likely he did: the man could read me like one of Miz Emma's lessons chalked on the blackboard in big letters.
I set them tin cups down on the desk and pulled open the bottom drawer.
Digger's boy finished cleaning up, made a few final passes with the mop and packed both buckets of dirty water outside. He went around the side of the building before he slung the contents where they could not be easily seen from the street.
I waited until he was outside before I poured Charlie and myself a healthy volume of Old Soul Saver. Likely with that door open a chill might get us and better to have some medicinal alcohol behind our belt buckles to keep from catching our death of the live-forevers.
Charlie accepted his cup without comment.
Digger's boy came in, set the buckets back in the back, hung the mop up to dry and left without further comment, pulling the door shut behind him.
Bear Killer looked up at Charlie and whuffed, and Charlie reached down and rubbed his ears.
Bear Killer groaned, dropping his muzzle on his paws and closing his eyes, his plume of a tail rising and falling vertically.
We set there for some time, he and I, him til I was ready to talk and me til the shakes passed.
Jackson Cooper kicked the snow off his boots outside and knocked before he opened the door.
Twain Dawg -- Bear Killer, rather -- snored.
I slid my tin cup across the desk. "Have a set and take off the chill," I invited, and Jackson Cooper drew up to the pot belly: using a bandanna to keep from getting burned, he opened the door, tossed in a few chunks of wood and closed it again.
"Gettin' colder," he said, spreading his huge hands to the welcome heat.
"Figured." I took another cup off its peg, poured a healthy shot of Old Stump Blower and corked the bottle. "Still tryin' to snow?"
"It's leadin' up pretty bad over the mountain. I reckon she'll snow a bit more."
Charlie and I both nodded. When Jackson Cooper said it would snow a bit more, he meant quite a bit more.
I made a mental review of the fire wood I had cut and stacked at the house, and nodded again.
Jackson Cooper came over to the desk, picked up the blue granite cup I'd slid over toward him and took a cautious sip.
"Mm!" he grunted, blinking and shaking his head. "Now that's sippin' likker!"
"They brought in kags from back East. I don't know what wood they're made of but that-there batch is a little over one year old."
"Ag'inst they're here another twenty years, this batch ought to be gooooood," Jackson Cooper said meditatively, savoring another slow sip.
Charlie looked sleepy as a cat, and just as deadly.
"Now that the excitement is over, tell me what happened."
I sighed, tilted my chair back and propped one foot up on the corner of the desk.
"This fellow -- the deceased -- came in and said he was lookin' for someone. Said he had a blood feud, this fellow he was after had killed his brother and he was gonna kill 'im for it. I asked who he was and he allowed as it was none of my business, it was his.
"I told him I'm the Sheriff and this is my county, that makes it my business and it took him back a step. He said he didn't have a name nor a wanted poster, he was no lawman nor detective, he was just out to kill a man.
"Then he said the fellow he was after had eyes just like mine."
I let the sentence hang in the still air.
Jackson Cooper leaned forward, his face hard and set.
"I told him they was but two men in this county with these eyes, and I was one."
Charlie tilted his cup up, took a short sip, listening.
Twain Dawg snored.
"Bear Killer yonder didn't like the looks of the fellow but he behaved himself for the most part."
Jackson Cooper's eyes tightened at the corners and he could not hide the smile in the eyes. He'd seen the Bear Killer snarl stray dogs away from Angela and Sarah both.
"He said he didn't care who this man was he was after and I asked him to describe the fellow's back.
"He didn't know a thing about Jacob's back."
Jackson Cooper's eyes were no longer smiling.
He'd seen Jacob's whip scarred back.
"I allowed as maybe his brother had it coming. I said his brother had horse whipped a woman to death for the crime of being pregnant and when her boy tried to stop him, he whipped the boy unconscous, cut him to the bone.
"The man -- this Dingood -- screamed "Liar!" and went for the gun in his waist band."
Jackson Cooper nodded slowly.
"How close were you?"
"Less than arm's length from him."
Jackson Cooper nodded again.
"He knew you were armed."
"I fetched the tabs off my hammer spurs, both of 'em. I give him every chance to back down. Once he grabbed that revolver handle he was bought and paid for."
Jackson Cooper blinked and looked down at his coffee cup as if he had forgotten it was there.
He tilted it up and took three slow swallows, draining the distilled Kentucky.
"That's all I need. Justifiable as I see it."
I swirled the amber in my granite cup. "Glad you see it like that."
"Me too." Jackson Cooper stood. "You'll have to testify at the Inquest."
"His Honor is due in this afternoon. I don't think the snows are deep enough to stop the train."
"None yet. The railroad hired a couple riders to patrol the avalanche slides."
Jackson Cooper shivered. "That would be some cold ridin'."
"Not as cold as winter herdin'," Charlie offered helpfully, and I thought of him bundled in a sheepskin lined overcoat, riding his own ranch and checking on his herd of Appaloosa, some of which were very definitely going to bear young come thaw.
Jackson Cooper set the tin cup on the corner of my desk.
"Well, Sheriff, I appreciate your hospitality. Charlie," and he touched his hat brim.
Charlie touched his in response, and Jackson Cooper opened the door to the cold world outside.
Snow blew in as he stepped out.
"Reckon that snow's a-comin'," Charlie drawled.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-7-10


The first flakes drifted silently down, eddying with the passage of man or beast as the air currents carried them, dancing arabesques in the frigid dusk. Charlie drained his cup and pushed himself to his feet. "I'm glad we decided to stay in town tonight. I'd hate to be out yonder somewhere if that snow does come on to gettin' serious." Charlie rolled the last of the good sour mash across his tongue, swallowed and pushed himself to his feet. "I reckon I'd best be for finding my wife," he said. "Thanks for the use of your chair and cup." He gave the Sheriff a wry grin then slipped his arms into the sleeves of his sheep-lined coat and turned up the collar. "I would imagine you’re over it by now. See ya."

"Over it by now." Interesting comment, Linn thought. He held a hand out in front of his face, turning it slowly, looking for those faint tremors that would signal the turmoil inside as he remembered the events of the past few hours. "Yep, I do believe I am," he told the room at large.

Outside, Charlie buttoned his coat to the top against the wind as he stepped down into the wagon-rutted main street and headed diagonally across the street toward the Jewel. The stinging of the flakes on his exposed cheeks had him wishing for spring and at the same time knowing full well that such a sweet season was still months away.

As he strode purposefully toward the light and warmth shining from the windows of the Jewel, Charlie was mentally cataloging the conditions at the ranch. He figured the mares, all of which had grown up in the high country, would be alright as long as the draws and sheltered coves didn't drift in hard. There was a lot of left over grass, long and cured on the stem, that would take a good while to be covered with snow; horses were good at pawing down through the white stuff to get to feed. The creek would stay open unless it got really cold, but it didn't feel like cold, it felt like lots of snow was coming. The mares would be fine. He hoped...

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Linn Keller 1-8-10


Something told me it was going to snow quite a bit and I was right: flakes were big, thick, coming down by the ton.
I figured if Shorty and Smith had already made an acquaintance, Shorty would have assessed the fellow's skill with anvil and hammer. God knows we can use a good smith, I thought: Shorty kind of smiths at it, but he doesn't have iron in his blood. Matter of fact I can hammer out a better set of hinges than that short coupled horse hostler, but damned if I'm gonna do it.
Wouldn't hurt his feelin's if I had to.
Besides, if I got him mad, why, he might pick me up and break me in two.

I managed to hand my soiled shirt and my coat off to one of the girls -- must be getting old, I thought, I can't think of her name to save me! -- but she has a quiet smile and she's cleaned blood out of duds for me before.
I rapped gently on Esther's office door before pushing it open.
Soon as I swung the door open I know I was in trouble.
The girls were both seated and sitting properly: erect, ankles crossed, hands in their laps: their hair was brushed, they were visions of beauty, absolutely prim and feminine.
Esther gave me a patient look, then nodded to the girls: they rose and filed silently out the door.
Esther's eyes were bright and she put her finger quickly to her lips, took me by the elbow and steered me to the doorway, halted just inside.
We listened to the girls' discussion, before they went out of earshot down the stairs.
"Was Daddy naughty?" Angela asked, and I couldn't help but grin when I heard her innocent little-girl voice questioning her older and wiser cousin.
"I think so," Sarah said uncertainly.
The girls' footsteps stopped abruptly and I could almost hear Angela turn toward Sarah.
"Is Mommy gonna spank Daddy?" she asked, distress in her voice.
Sarah hesitated and I could almost hear the little frown that wrinkled her forehead before she replied.
"Papa told Mama he was going to spank her yesterday," Sarah confided, and I could hear Angela's round-mouthed and wide-eyed intake of breath.
"Did it hurt?" Angela quavered.
I couldn't help but peek out around the door frame.
Sarah flipped the hair back off her shoulder with one hand, her expression uncertain.
"Mama said if he ever tried it she would rip the head off his shoulders and roll it in cornmeal and fry it for breakfast!"
Angela giggled and the girls joined hands and skipped the few feet to the head of the stairs.
I drew back in, chewing on a knuckle to keep from laughing aloud.
Esther's face was flushed and she, too, was making an effort to keep from laughing.
I took my beautiful bride in my arms and I could feel her suppressed laughter: we gave up and had a good, relieving laugh together.
"I was concerned," Esther whispered finally, and I stopped her from making any further comment, and from the way her lips responded to mine, she didn't mind my stopping her a'tall.

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Linn Keller 1-10-10


Miz Fannie was upstairs yet when I set down with Charlie.
He gave me that quiet, half-lidded look as if to say, Whenever you're ready, old hoss.
I thanked the girl as she set coffee down in front of me.
Charlie never did miss much and I reckon he didn't miss the tremor as I picked up the coffee cup, left handed, and tilted my chair back on two legs until I was back ag'in the wall.
Coffee was good.
I swallowed slow, letting it warm me clear on down.
I took another sip, the thick ceramic warm and comfortable against my bottom lip.
Charlie waited, patient-like, and finally I come down on all four legs with a thump, my jaw bone shoved out.
"Charlie, you mind when Jacob first come here?"
Charlie nodded, once.
I looked at the back of Charlie's hand: tanned, fine scars like ancient trails crisscrossing the map of his life, wandering between the young mountains of his knuckles: one of them meandered halfway up his middle finger and I wondered about the story behind it.
"You mind the day we saw Jacob without his shirt."
I didn't have to look to know Charlie nodded again, once, silent, listening.
If he'd been a cat his ears would both be forward, on me.
"When that fella -- Dingood -- said he was gonna kill the man with the pale eyes I thought of how Jacob looked that night."
Charlie's left eyebrow twitched up, a question: it settled back down and he leaned forward a little.
"Jacob started out in bed that night but he ended up on the floor, half under the bed. I did as much, once I was home after the war. I'd slept on a ground cloth so long it felt like I was falling if I tried to sleep in a bed."
Charlie's nod was slower, more thoughtful, and I reckon he'd felt the same, time and again.
"Jacob was drawed up almost in a ball, he had that blanket pulled tight around him and he was shiverin', an' I come a-catfoot into the room and went down on one knee beside him.
"Charlie, it like to broke my heart to listen to that boy in his sleep.
"I laid a hand on his shoulder, gentle-like and he near to come unglued."
I looked out across the table and across the years.
The Jewel was open before me, tables and clean linens and chairs, Mr. Baxter's polished bar on the far end, and I saw none of it.
"You ever watch a kitten or a young cat when it's gettin' ready to pounce on a shadow or a pebble? -- how it'll hunch all down and start digging its hind legs like it's windin' up a main spring? -- the tail gets twitchy and then stiff, all but the end, and if you reach down and twang that tail they'll turn a somerset and land spread-legged with that surprised look on their face wondering what happened.
"That's kinda how Jacob come off the floor when I laid a hand on his shoulder.
"I laid on the floor on that hook rug and held him for a long time that night, him all wrapped in that blanket, that and some nights after." I looked down at my coffee mug, surprised at the ripples in the liquid.
"You'd not know it to look at him now."
My voice was almost a whisper.
I could not have spoke louder if I had to.
"When that spalpeen allowed as he was gonna kill my son, I recalled those nights, an' what Dingood's brother done to him.
"Charlie, had he not laid a hand on that Starr I woulda killed him anyway."
There are times when a good friend's words are balm on a flayed soul.
Other times that friend's silence is a warm and comforting hand on a troubled shoulder.
Charlie never spoke a word, and I believe that's the most comforting thing he could have done in that moment.
He listened.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-10-10


Silence. It can be an interrogator's best weapon, and a criminal's worst enemy. It can signal disapproval, or joy. But more than this, silence is golden when a man retreats into vivid, unpleasant memory; the silence of a friend at such a time is strengthening, allowing the retreating soldier sanctuary in the midst of a battle that only he can see...

Charlie could, for all practical purposes, read the thoughts skittering like water striders on a still pond, ripples spreading and intermingling, each changing the shape of the one it contacts. He could read the soul-depth of Linn's anger and the conviction of a righteous act done in defense of kin. There was the anguish of the unearthing of memories neatly compartmented, rarely released to the light of day. And there was also pride: pride in Jacob, pride in an act done for the purest of reasons. At the same time there was an underlying tinge of regret for the taking of a life; no man, unless the most callous, the lowest dregs of humanity, does so lightly.

Charlie sat, letting his presence be comment enough on what his friend, nay, brother, was saying. He had been on the other side of the same kind of monologue of his own, and knew what Linn was going through. So he sat, quietly sipping coffee.

Eventually Linn reached an accommodation with his memories and emotions. His features smoothed, knotted fists unclenched, and he drew in a deep, cleansing breath. The glacier gray of the eye-corner glance met calm hazel across snow-white damask; he turned in his chair to thrust out a calloused paw. "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

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Linn Keller 1-12-10


The Ladies' Tea Society, if they named it, was meeting in an upstairs room.
One way or another, the Daine boys had managed to install a dumb waiter -- I think that's what Daisy called it -- one of them fancy things they use in them big Eastern hotels to fetch goods upstairs without having to pack them up the stairs carryin' 'em.
Anyway, Daisy was freighting regular shipments of hot tea and dainty little cakes and other stuff them women folks liked.
A wise husband knows when not to interfere with his wife; the wise mayor knows when not to interfere with his staff, just as a green lieutenant or a shavetail captain learns very quickly that the Sergeant really runs the outfit: keep out of the man's way, keep from interfering and he will run the show quietly, in the background, and make you look good.
Interfere at your peril.
Doc Greenlees had joked that Nurse Susan and Morning Star were like that, and he allowed them their autonomy: it saved him a pile of work and even more grief.
Doctor George Flint didn't have to say as much. The man had married Morning Star, quietly, when none of us were watching, and the two of them were just as happy as if they had good sense.
Anyway, the Ladies' Tea Society generally met to discuss thing that women discuss, though it was definitely beneficial for the town: Bonnie was not only a business woman but also the Mayor's wife, and though she may have no official or statutory authority, hers was the quiet voice to which Caleb wisely inclined his ear; Esther was the most prominent businesswoman in the community, and a noted philanthropist: we could have had a mansion on Nob Hill and liveried servants to scrape and bow as we passed, but she -- and I -- preferred to see to the welfare of Firelands a whole.
It was our home, our children were to be educated here, and besides, we liked the place.
This isn't to say we wasted our money or invested it carelessly.
Far from it.
As a matter of fact, Esther regarded her -- our -- philanthropy as more of an invesement, and we'd turned a tidy profit a time or three in the effort.
Today's meeting, though, was less about the town and more about family.
Sarah was with the women that day, in one of Bonnie's latest creations; she looked very much the young lady, and when I caught a glimpse of her going up the stairs, I could see why young Miguel had believed her of more years than she had.
She takes after her Mama, I thought, then caught myself -- Sarah's Mama had been murdered well before I ever saw the child ... she still looked quite a bit like Bonnie, though, and I figure it was either my imagination or my wishful thinking.
Esther and I often talked before going to sleep, and that night she filled me in on the main subject of the ladies' discussion.
It was Sarah.
Bonnie could not drag out of the child what had happened on that snowy Christmas day, and so the Ladies' Tea Society convened a powwow, and a palaver, and a conference, and commenced to work their womens' magic on the child.
It took some time but they got the story out of her.
I felt the uncertainty in Esther's voice at different points of her account, and in her grasp of my hand: it seems Sarah's face became distinctly mask-like and she grew a little pale, but she recited the account as if from rote memory and in almost a monotone..
She did not seem to hear the ladies' spontaneous exclamations, the oh-my's and the good-heavenses and the oh-dears; her eyes were distant, seeing it happen to someone else.
Esther had never seen Sarah like that.
I had.
I'd seen her when things got too terrifying, bolt for the hidden compartment at the end of Mr. Baxter's bar: I'd seen her streak up the stairs and dive into concealed hides only she knew about -- she later showed them to the Daine brothers, and one had been turned into the dumb waiter and another into linen storage -- and I had held Sarah after such moments of terror were gone, and listened to her wooden account of the events that had transpired, and I wondered just what hell that poor child had seen before I rode into town on my big Sam-horse and put an end to the Jewel's debauchery.
I do know that the ladies came down from upstairs, happy and chattering and bringing their bright colors and their perfume and their laughter with them.
Even Sarah was smiling and her eyes were shining as they came downstairs and into the Jewel.
Jacob had just come in -- I heard him kick the snow off his boots before he hauled open the decorative-frosted-glass-paned, left-hand door -- and I saw him stop, startled, for Sarah was right in front of him.
Jacob was looking at her as if he'd never seen her before.
My eyes flicked over to Charlie and his to me, for we'd both seen the same thing in the same moment.
Jacob looked like he'd just lost his best friend in the whole wide world.

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Linn Keller 1-13-09


"Now that's odd."
My mind set had completely changed in about a half a second or less.
I wasn't thinking of me any more.
I was thinking about Jacob -- Jacob as he was now -- Jacob the grown man.
Jacob who just went over to Mr. Baxter and accepted a glass of something water clear and not over 30 days old.
He knocked back the first one and must have asked for a beer, for Mr. Baxter drew him one and slid it across the counter to him.
Jacob paid the man and came back toward us.
Jacob looked like a lost soul wandering a blasted and barren land -- which was made all the more plain by the laughing, chattering gaiety of the ladies, who settled about a larger table like a colorful flock of tropical birds.
Jacob drew out a chair and set down, his bottom jaw thrust out.
Charlie leaned back in his chair again, his eyes half-lidded, listening with more than his ears.
I reckon I looked that way too.
Finally Jacob took a long drink -- when he set the heavy glass mug down it was a third empty -- and he said "Annette left."
My chair come down on all four legs and so did Charlie's.
Of all the things I could have anticipated, this was not one of them.
Jacob's face was the color of putty.
"She miscarried and didn't tell me. She never said she was carryin'. Doc said she was way too early to tell what she was carryin' but she packed up and left yesterday evening." His expression was that of a ship's-captain surveying what was left of his ship after a storm: rudder torn away, masts snapped off, wallowing in a hostile sea, lost, alone.
"Did she leave a note?" Charlie asked, his voice pitched low.
Jacob reached into his coat, pulled out a folded half-sheet and handed it across the table.
Charlie wiped his hand across the table cloth to make sure it was dry and then laid the sheet out flat so he and I could both read it.
I felt my belly sink when I read the familiar hand.

Jacob -- I have failed you terribly -- our child is dead, miscarried and it is my fault -- please forgive me, I am a terrible wife -- do not follow, for I do not deserve you -- with love forever, Annette

Mein Gott, Jacob whispered. "What kind of a monster am I?"
"Are you a monster?" Charlie asked.
Jacob hadn't looked at himself squarely until Charlie's question.
Jacob was utterly honest and in the face of a question put into plain words he had to take a look in the mirror to get an honest answer.
"No." He shook his head slowly. "No."
"So you're not a monster. Did you beat her?"
Again the slow head shake. "Never."
"Ever do anything a man hadn't ought to?"
Jacob leaned back and looked at the trim strip where the wall met the ceiling, up behind Charlie.
"I never knew she was goin' through this."
"She didn't tell you?"
Again the slow, miserable shake of his head.
I leaned both elbows on the table.
"Jacob, hand me your crystal ball."
He blinked, confusion plain on his face.
"Your crystal ball. Let's have it."
He shook his head and blinked again. "Sir? I don't have a crystal ball."
"Hm. Mind reading, then. Can you read minds?"
Jacob looked at Charlie and back at me. "No, sir."
"She never told you."
"No, sir."
"You can't read minds and you don't have a crystal ball, so how in the Sam Hill do you expect to know she was pregnant? She never told you about the miscarriage?"
"No, sir. I'd heard she went and saw Doc and I went and talked to him when I found this note."
"What else have you found?"
"She bought a ticket for Denver, sir."
"Who does she know in Denver?"
"Her family is either dead, sir, or she would not give them a dipper of water if they were dying of thirst." He raised a finger. "If I were to look for her, sir, I would look at that ho-tel where we stayed when she gave that lecture."
"What do you figure to do?"
Jacob's expression was guilty, haunted. "Sir, when I found this note, I just set there. I never felt so worthless in my life. Then I started trackin' and askin' around. Then I come here."
"So she's got a night's head start. Likely now she's in Denver and only just gettin' settled in."
"Yes, sir."
"Jacob, I don't have much luck understandin' the female mind, but there's the chance she wants to be found. If you are of a mind to take after her, I would and I would not waste any time about it."
Jacob drained his beer and stood.
Charlie's quiet voice stopped the tall young man and he set back down.
"When you looked at Sarah there was something in your face."
"Yes, sir." Jacob's expression was one of a man tormented by a memory.
"Sir, when I looked up I did not see Sarah."
He swallowed hard.
"For a moment I saw Annette, the way she looked the day we got married."
Jacob looked over at the table where the ladies were still chattering and having tea.
"Now she looks like Sarah."
Jacob looked sheepishly at Charlie.
"Wishful thinking, do you reckon?"
Charlie's eyes were hard.
"I reckon you're hurt more than you've been in a long time."
I slid a small poke across and bumped it against Jacob's forearm.
"You'll need funds. Need more, send a wire."
Jacob's eyes tracked left, tracked right.
"Sir, my livestock --"
"It'll be taken care of. You've got a woman to catch."
"Yes, sir."
Jacob stood again, hesitated, then thrust his hand first at me, then at Charlie.
"Thank you both," he said, his speech clipped and his jaw set.
The ship's captain now had a course to follow and the storm damage was repaired.
Jacob paused at the table to kiss his mother, quickly, briefly, his hands on her shoulders: he said not one word to her, departing on the hot foot.
I watched Sarah as Jacob stopped to kiss his mother.
She looked suddenly like a little girl playing dress-up at an adult tea party ... a very well dressed dress-up, but it was plain to my old eyes she was still Sarah, the little girl I've known for years.
Then she shifted in her seat and she was suddenly almost a young woman.
I reckon I looked surprised.
Charlie looked at me and the smile was in his eyes.
"Yes she do, don't she?" he asked, and I could not help but laugh.
It wasn't the first time one of us had thought something and the other had put it into words.

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Linn Keller 1-14-10


I'd spoke of Esther and I talking before we'd go to sleep.
We talked about the ladies' tea society and how they finally prized Sarah's tale from her reluctant lips.
Esther said they were quietly amused to realize Sarah had a size twelve crush on Jacob, but this was normal for a young girl to develop crushes, and that Jacob was the perfect gentleman, and then she asked me where Jacob was going with such an urgent manner when he stopped to kiss her but said not a single word.
I cleared my throat and shifted my position, suddenly uncomfortable.
Esther's hand had been relaxed in mine: now hers seized mine, her head turned toward me and she said "Liinnn?" in a tone of voice she did not use often.
I sighed.
She knew something was up and she needed to know, so now was as good a time as any.
"Jacob is headed for Denver," I said quietly -- quietly, for it was full dark, Angela was asleep, and there was no need to speak loudly.
"He seemed to be ... I take it he is on some urgent task?" Esther asked, treading cautiously: she knew it would be improper to pry into law enforcement business, but her woman's instinct must have told her this was likely not the case.
I rolled up on my side, came up on one elbow.
"Esther, has Annette told you anything?"
Esther's hand went to her lips. "Oh, no," she murmured. "Annette?"
"Has she said anything about a pregnancy?"
"No!" It was Esther's turn to come up on one elbow, then she came to a sitting position. Her sudden move sucked a big draft of cold air under the blankets.
I set up too and pulled the quilt up so we were both covered, and pulled the pillow up behind me against the head board. Leaning back against the pillow, my hand sought hers, but Esther's arms were crossed and I knew she was glaring at me.
"Linn Keller," she said, and her voice was cold, "you're not telling me something!"
"I just found out myself."
"And you didn't tell me right away?" she hissed.
"I'm telling you now."
It wasn't often Esther got irritated and frankly I didn't quite know how to approach things without touching flame to her fuse.
Oh what the hell, I thought, whatever I say will be wrong anyway.
"Annette miscarried."
Esther's anger melted like snow before midsummer sun and she gave a little groan and leaned over against my arm. I held her for a while, there in the dark, for miscarriage cuts a woman to her soul, and Esther knew what it was to lose a child.
"The poor girl," she whispered, and I could feel something hot and wet through my night shirt sleeve.
I kissed the top of Esther's head, my arms around her.
I felt her head turn and knew her thoughts had turned as well.
"Denver," she said curiously. "Why is she in Denver?"
"She left Jacob."
Esther seized my arm and pushed away from me, sitting bolt upright.
"What?" she said, her voice as warm and friendly as three foot of winter snow.
"She left a note. Said she was a bad wife and she'd failed him and she was leaving him, that he did not deserve her."
Esther's head came back and I knew her face was turned toward the ceiling, her eyes closed and her lips pressed together in a thin line: there was barely enough light to tell she'd turned her face up, but imagination filled in all else.
"I need some tea," Esther said finally.
I sighed.
It wasn't near time to get up yet but I knew there would be no rest this night, so I got up too.

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Linn Keller 1-15-10


I was almost right.
I got a little sleep but not a whole lot.
Esther, now, Esther could run on hot tea and hot coffee and sheer red headed Irish contrariness, and she was running with a boiler full of steam.
I don't think she said six words to me between then and daylight when she was out the door, into the buggy and into town and me beside her: I set her trunk on the depot platform and set with her until the train arrived.
Esther's green eyes were snapping and I hesitated to say much, but when the train hissed and clanged and squealed to a stop, I seized Esther's elbow in an uncharacteristically firm grip.
"Esther Keller," I said, "you are the one most aggravating and hard headed woman ever did I meet," and before she could answer I put my lips to hers, and did not stop until her knees went weak and she was melted into me.
I wanted to give her something to come home to.
We come up for air and I laid a hand gentle against her cheek.
"Do what you must, dearest, but have a care. You are the only Esther I have."
Esther's eyes were bright with purpose but also with -- what? Aggravation that I had side tracked her thoughts? Or amusement that I had made a fool of myself right here in public, in front of God and everybody else?
She ran her hand around back of my head and pulled me down to her and she kissed me right back, and before she was done I had my arms around her tight and I'd fetched her a foot off the deck.
I reckon she was promising a triumphant return.
"Don't let little Joseph eat any more dirt," Esther whispered, "and if he picks up a chicken leg, don't let him eat the bone."
The porter fetched her trunk up on a two wheel truck and set her grip on top of it, and dollied them back to the baggage car, and Esther stepped aboard the train, elegant as the Queen herself: she'd had her private car wheeled out of the roundhouse where it was stored, and switched into the train: she would travel as befit the owner of the railroad -- I saw to that -- and there was that part of me that bade me go with her.
I could not.
This was Jacob's fight.
Now Esther -- well, I trust her judgement, and I reckon if she wanted to have a discreet talk with Annette she could.
Jacob had taken three horses and headed out the day before and I knew he would switch from one horse to another, and would make Denver before the steam train.
I trusted his judgement as well.
Esther fluttered her handkerchief at the window and smiled, then turned and accepted a steaming cup of tea from the maid: I knew our maid was back at the house, and had no idea a'tall where Esther had gotten this one, but she was a woman who made things happen.
The Lady Esther's whistle screamed, the conductor shouted, gave the go-ahead signal, the engineer leaned into the throttle: steam hissed from petcocks, the bell clanged grandly and The Lady Esther shouldered into her load.

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Linn Keller 1-17-10


Jacob paid the hostler well to keep his horses groomed, grained and ready: whether it was his deputy's badge, or the gold he pressed in the man's palm, he was assured of swift and efficient service: with his mounts taken care of, Jacob discreetly took a room one floor above his wife.
He got a good night's rest before making his next move.
He breakfasted down the street, at another fine hotel, eyes busy: he seized one pickpocket by the wrist, cranking the dirty lad's arm up behind his back and introducing his face to the gaudy poster pasted on the front of a building, beside its big plate-glass window: he sent the unwashed miscreant on his way with a boot print to the backside, to the amusement of one of the local police officers, who was walking his beat when the swift transaction took place.
Jacob tugged his suit coat back into place and briefly turned the lapel so the flatfoot could see the star, then touched his hat brim and disappeared into the crowd, leaving the beat cop to wonder who had just breezed in from the wild country and efficiently disposed of one of the street Arabs that infested his bailiwick.
Jacob preferred to come and to go unseen when possible: he re-entered the hotel through a side door, smiling at the maids, helping one pick up a stack of dropped linens -- he was sure she'd deliberately toppled the stack, but she was young and she was pretty, and it was but a moment's labor to gather them up again -- and he slipped up the stairs, two at a time, cautiously opening the polished hardwood door into the hallway.
He knew which room was hers, and he stepped into the hall, quickly, silently, as a delivery boy raised his knuckles.
"Hold there!" Jacob called, his voice low and urgent: holding up a gold coin, he said "Is this the delivery she's been expecting?"
"Yes, sir," the urchin said in a boy's high voice, his eyes greedily on the gold.
"I changed my mind, son. I'll deliver it myself."
Jacob tossed the coin and the lad happily exchanged package for wealth, and scampered for the stairway, two month's wages in his tight fist.
Jacob squatted, untied the package: frowning, he withdrew an all-black gown.
"You're going to disguise as a young widow," he murmured, nodding. "Smart. Well, two can play that game, darlin'!" -- and he folded the gown carefully, wrapped it again, tucked it under his arm and headed for the stairway.
The dressmaker was just down the street.
Jacob knew if this were ordered, it would be ordered with a particular set of measurements, and if he had the measurements, he could wire Bonnie, and Bonnie could ship him a special order, on the next day's train.
He stopped at a stationer's shop and bought paper and two envelopes.
He spun a charming tale to the tired-looking woman behind the dressmaker's counter, how his wife had fled in grief believing her parents had been killed in a terrible fire, when the truth was, the neighbors had perished -- he wished to surprise his wife with the glad news, and could he have the measurements taken when the gown was ordered?
The proprietress was delighted, for another customer of very similar proportions had been in that morning asking for just such a mourning gown, and Jacob not only gave her back the gown, he paid her twice the price of a gown for the measurements: less than an hour later, there was a brisk knock on a hotel room door, and an envelope skated under the door and into the room.
Annette read the envelope: it bore the return of the dressmaker's shop, and the note within was brief:
We regret very much that your gown was sold to another customer.
Please accept our apologies, and a new gown is being made.
It should be ready tomorrow and will be delivered as specified.

Back in Firelands, Bonnie slid her spectacles to the end of her nose and contemplated the telegram she'd been handed.
Lightning's boy had taken the depot's buggy to deliver it, and had accepted a tall glass of buttermilk for his troubles: Bonnie turned to her two best seamstresses with a smile, and soon the three were hard at work, engaged in a conspiracy, happily working in cloth and in ribbon, lace and buttons.
Jacob was at the Denver depot at dawn, chewing on cold beef and sipping lukewarm coffee, waiting impatiently for The Lady Esther to come whistling into town.
He had a package to deliver.

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Linn Keller 1-18-10


Esther checked the watch pinned to her bosom.
Sipping tea and reading the paper had taken exactly the length of time she had planned: now she rose and paid her bill, made her way to the front desk, smiled at the brisk young desk clerk with the pomaded hair and the immaculate suit (she always did admire efficiency!) and proceeded up the staircase.
She had calculated the exact length of time Jacob would require to return to the hotel; she knew his pace, his stride, his temperament: she knew that, by the time she reached her destination, he would be arriving on the floor.
Esther had no doubts that Jacob would depart the depot exactly as anticipated.
He was, after all, meeting her train, and she prided herself on running her railroad exactly on time.
Exactly on time.
Esther was a precise woman who believed in punctuality, and her calculations were based on this precision, and her belief in order and in organization.
Her skirts whispered as she glided up the stairs: a lesser woman would have thrust against the stairs with one leg, then the other, fighting gravity with every step: Esther, however, was a genteel lady of the South, and had been taught to glide rather than walk: she trained as a child to move smoothly, without the perceived pace of a normal walk.
Esther achieved the first landing, the second, and came into the hallway.
She smiled quietly as the door on the opposite end opened and a familiar figure stepped into view.
Esther met Jacob at the long carpeted hallway's halfway point, precisely in front of Annette's room, exactly as she had planned.
Esther took Jacob's arm as if it had been her plan and intention, which indeed it was, and she did it so easily and so naturally as to make it look choreographed.
Esther raised her chin as Jacob knocked.
Annette opened the door, eyes at chest level, expecting a delivery boy with a package.
Her expression went from wide-eyed surprise to near-panic, then shame, and she covered her face with her hands.
Esther relieved Jacob of his package and Jacob took his bride gently in his arms, back-heeling the door closed.
Annette shivered in his arms like a frightened little bird.
Jacob rocked her a little, not holding her tightly, but rather reassuringly: occasionally he reached up to brush a wisp of her hair with the backs of his fingers.
Annette drew her face back from her hands, clasped her hands together: she did not raise her eyes from Jacob's chest.
"You must think me terrible," she whispered.
"I think you feel terribly lost, and terribly hurt, and terribly betrayed."
Annette whimpered, then pulled back from Jacob a little, forming her hands into fists: she beat them on his chest, both fists together.
"It isn't fair," she whispered, her throat thick with grief. "It isn't fair!"
"No it's not," Jacob agreed. "It's not fair, but it's the hand we're dealt. I'm here now, and Mother is here, and we'll get through this."
"You had to bring your mother?" Annette squeaked, tears spilling over her lower lashes.
Jacob chuckled. "She knew you would need her and so she came. I opened my door and there she was."
Esther's hands were light on Annette's shoulders.
"Jacob, would you be a dear and see to our dinner reservations, please," Esther asked her son formally.
Jacob saw the gears turning behind his mother's eyes.
"Yes, ma'am, I'll do that," he said. "Will we be eating here or down the street?"
"I had a delightful breakfast not two blocks south of here. I think we should enjoy supper there."
"Yes, ma'am," Jacob nodded.
He kissed Annette's forehead -- she did not tilt her head any further back -- Annette looked up in surprise at the sound of the door closing, and he was gone.
Esther steered her daughter in law toward a luxuriously upholstered chair. "I'll ring for some tea," she said, "and we'll have a nice chat."
Annette slumped forward, her face in her hands again.
"How can you bear to look upon me?" she groaned, parting her eyes and looking at the floor, her features distorted by her hands' pulling at her cheeks.
"And why should I not look upon a beautiful young woman?" Esther replied reassuringly, giving the bell-pull a brisk tug.
The staff was nothing if not quick: almost immediately there was a tap on the door.
Annette did not look up as Esther instructed the maid in the fetching-up of tea and cakes, nor did she look up as Esther settled gracefully into a chair opposite her own.
"I lost a child, years ago," Esther began.
Annette blinked, looking up in confusion.
Esther was ready with a lace-edged kerchief: she carefully pressed the folded cloth to the young woman's scarlet cheeks, then slipped the kerchief into Annette's grip.
"I was younger than you are. My sister and I married twin brothers, and fine young men they were." Esther's gaze wandered up the wall behind Annette and she smiled a little at the memory. "Handsome, too!" She colored daintily, snapped a fan into existence.
"My Bruce -- he was named for Robert the Bruce, you know" -- the fan fluttered in the quiet between her words -- "my Bruce was a strong young man, and virile, and we were soon with child, as was my younger sister.
"Whether some evil spirit poisoned our water, or whether it was some other agency, I do not know, but we were but a few months along when we were both taken with labor, and with blood."
Esther's eyes were sad now, the fan hesitating in her grip.
"My sister's husband could not countenance his wife's losing their child.
"There were words, a blow, a horse galloping in the night: my sister was convinced her husband had left her.
"She booked passage to England, and then to France, and became a Carmelite nun.
"I never heard from her again.
"My own husband ..." Esther swallowed, folding the fan slowly closed -- "my dear Bruce ... hanged himself in the barn that night."
Esther looked up at Annette.
"He left a note, and said that he had sired both children, and he could not cleanse his soul in any other way.
"I lost my child, and my sister, and my husband, all on the same black night."
The fan opened again, slowly, and Esther began fanning herself again.
"Your husband is still alive, child. He loves you enough to search for you." Esther's green eyes were bright with memory and with unshed tears. "You are your own woman, and he will not hold you if you do not wish to be held, but listen to the words of an old woman whose heart is still heavy with grief."
Esther snapped the fan shut against her gloved palm, the sound loud in the quiet atmosphere.
"Don't throw him away, Annette." Esther bit her bottom lip, a tear rolling down her left cheek.
"Don't throw away love."

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Linn Keller 1-19-10


Jacob, having secured reservations, hesitated before going back to his hotel.
He correctly surmised that his mother and his wife would be discussing important matters.
He knew they would need time, but he also knew his presence would be important -- in due time, he smiled wryly.
He scanned the street slowly, methodically: the snow was dirty, mashed down, diseased-looking.
Even the air held a haze.
A man could die breathing this stuff, he thought, remembering the absolutely clear air of home: his quick eye picked out tramps, troublemakers and trollops, pickpockets and footpads, businessmen and "Broad Street Women" ...
Jacob shook his head.
Home was starting to look really, really good to him!
Cold held little terror for him, though he was sensibly bundled against the cold, unlike earlier when his coat had been open and the street Arab had "accidentally" stumbled into him and Jacob felt the questing hand thrust into his pocket.
Right before he educated the poor soul in the error of his way.
Jacob strolled casually up the sidewalk.
Like most cities, Denver had its vices, and one was drink: he passed a smoky saloon, the haze from a hundred stubby cigars drifting out its door every time someone entered or left; another nearby was a pool hall, and Jacob watched through the big glass pane as men in rolled up shirt sleeves and Derby hats wagered and drank and poked ivory balls with hardwood cues.
Jacob found a stranger standing before him.
"Like to play, mister?" was the invitation, and Jacob smelled stale tobacco and stale beer and stale sweat.
"No thank you," Jacob said politely, stepping around him.
The stranger seized Jacob's forearm. "I don't think you like me, mister," he said, and Jacob ducked, hooking a leg behind the stranger's and thrusting hard.
The stranger went over backwards, yelling in surprise, and a club whistled close enough to knock Jacob's Stetson to the snow.
Jacob spun, crouched, fired his right-hand Colt: the man with the club inherited 250 grains of freight train just south of his wish bone, the pistol ball traveling up and out his spine between the shoulder blades.
The gunshot rippled through the streets, shocking the pedestrians into momentary silence: the fellow who'd grabbed Jacob's arm yelled and ducked into the pool hall, and in the distance Jacob could hear the discordant screech of a police whistle.
Jacob turned quickly, scanning the sides and behind for any further threat, a habit he'd formed at his father's teaching: turning the muzzle of his revolver up, he punched out the spent round, reloaded, and loaded a sixth round: easing the hammer's nose down between the cartridge rims, he reholstered, then drew his left hand Colt and loaded the sixth round there as well.
Jacob was a lawman and Jacob was a law abiding man but Jacob also knew things could go bad very, very quickly, and if that happened, he wanted to be ready.
He shifted his weight and he felt the comforting lump of the two barrel Derringer Charlie MacNeil had given him some long time ago.
Jacob picked up his Stetson, wiped the dirt off as best he could, raised it to signal the approaching policeman.

"Now, dearie," Esther said in a comforting, motherly voice, "we mustn't let Jacob see you cry, now, can we? He's come all this way to be with the woman he loves!"
Annette handed Esther the note she'd found with the dress she'd just unwrapped.
Esther recognized Bonnie's handwriting: reading quickly, she smiled a small, secret smile: the note was brief, from one woman to another, but the last line said more than all the preceding script:
"Come home, Annette. We miss you!"
Esther dabbed the damp from Annette's cheeks. "There, now, my dear. Let's try this dress on and make sure it fits. If we need a touch here or a tuck there, I've some things in my bag, but we want to look our best for Jacob, now, don't we?"

Jacob's statement was taken at the police-station, as were the statements of a half-dozen witnesses, including a grizzled Irish cavalry sergeant and the sergeant's commanding officer.
Faced with the unanimity of witness accounts, and the facts that the deceased was a known footpad and suspected in two unsolved murders, the fact that the partner in crime had been extracted from the pool hall in irons and by virtue of holding the others in the hall at gunpoint when the objected to his taking, and considering the fact that Jacob was indeed a law enforcement officer, and best of all the City Prosecutor had seen the whole thing happen ... well, Jacob was congratulated, his hand shaken, he was told to go home to his wife, that he was in the clear.

Jacob knocked on the hotel room door.
The door opened.
Annette was standing there in her new gown, wearing the brooch Jacob had purchased back East: her eyes were a little afraid, and she bit her bottom lip the way she did when she was uncertain.
Jacob was not uncertain.
He swept his wife up in his arms and closed the door with his backside.
"I missed you so," he whispered.

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Linn Keller 1-20-10


"Mother," Jacob said seriously, "I seem to have a guilty conscience."
Esther's eyes were bright and amused as she regarded her son, and the uncertain expression on his bride's face.
"Jacob," she said gently, "have you something to confess?"
Jacob looked his mother in the eye: he had a good poker face, but the eyes are windows to the soul, and Esther could see right through his.
She saw the merriment behind his eyes.
"Jaacooob," she said in a warning tone, unable to keep the smile from her face.
Jacob tried his best to assume an innocent expression, just like his father in such moments, and just like his sire, he failed in the effort.
"I find myself eating with a good appetite," he said, and indeed he had: he'd demolished a good slab of back strap (with some fancy name that Jacob found amusing: it didn't look like no fish but they called it Fillet of Something-or-other) and two good baked taters with butter, sour cream, two or three of them little bitty loaves of bread (they looked like slightly over size sweet rolls) and most of a pot of coffee.
"And this is your confession?" Esther prompted, following her question with a dainty sip of tea.
"No, ma'am. I mean yes, ma'am." Jacob shifted in his velvet cushioned seat. "I mean, ma'am, you two are eating like ladies, and I'm ..."
"You're eating like a man should," Annette offered. "A woman likes to see her man eat with a good appetite."
Jacob lowered his hands slowly to either side of his plate.
"I do like eatin' your cookin'," he said quietly, almost sadly, and for an unguarded moment Annette saw the hurt and the lonely in his eyes, just before he pulled shutters across the back of his eyes so she couldn't see too deep.
Their mutual silence grew long and awkward, at least until the obsequious waiter came over and inquired if Monsieur and Mesdames had saved room for dessert.
Annette and Esther saw Jacob's eyes change yet again, and they saw the imp of mischief in them: with an absolutely straight face, and succeeding this time with the Innocent Expression, Jacob asked, "You wouldn't happen to have any of Daisy's good apple pie, now, would you?"

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Linn Keller 1-21-10


The railcar shivered as The Lady Esther throttled up.
Jacob swayed slightly with the car's movement, the brandy in his snifter swirling slowly in his good right hand.
Esther and Annette each held a long-stemmed wine glass.
Annette considered the taste of the good California wine. This was something new to her and she was deciding she liked its taste.
Jacob stood erect, left hand behind his back, fisted on top of his gunbelt.
Esther smiled quietly, watching her son with amusement.
He looks so much like his father, she thought, remembering the previous few hours: the hearing had been brief and to the point, during which Jacob had been sworn in, stated his case; not only did the inquest find him blameless in the shooting, the fellow who had seized Jacob's arm had been charged with complicity in an attempted murder.
Annette had leaned over and whispered to Esther, "He sounds so much like his father!" and Esther had squeezed Annette's hand in agreement: now Esther watched proudly as Jacob stood gazing out the window.
She and Annette looked at each other and smiled.
Neither had to say a word.

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Linn Keller 1-22-10


A giant hand filled the Sheriff's vision.
It was too late: he could neither block nor dodge, and the hand seized him: his nose was its first prize, clamping tightly about this facial appendage, accompanied by the triumphant cry of his attacker.
Bridget, the maid, reached over little Angela and picked young Joseph off the Sheriff: a squeal of delight became a howl of protest, and Joseph tried to stay where he was by virtue of holding onto the only thing in his grasp, which just happened to be the Sheriff's beak.
Owing to the tapered nature of said anatomic protrusion, the child's attempt at anchoring himself was not successful, though the Sheriff was willing to swear his snot box was lengthened by at least a foot before the grip was parted.
Angela was bouncing on her toes, laughing: "Daddy, Daddy, Mommy's coming home today!" and the Sheriff, his eyes watering, rubbed his pained proboscis and looked with laughing eyes at the wiggling, squealing boy-child in Bridget's intractable grip.
"I'm sorry, sor, I didn't know they were in here --" Bridget began, her perpetually-distressed face looking even more so, if such a thing were possible, and the Sheriff laughed and waved a dismissive hand.
"Don't worry about it," he grinned. "Is he safe to handle?"
Bridget looked a little less dolorous as she squeezed her young charge's bottom. "Aye, he's clean yet. I just changed him no' ten minutes agoo."
"He's all right, Daddy," Angela assured him with a brisk bob of her curls. "I sniffed him."
The Sheriff threw back his covers, swung his legs out: he slept in his red woolies with Esther gone, and so no Secrets of State were revealed: he picked up Angela and set her on his lap, then reached up for Joseph.
Bridget averted her eyes, uncertain as to how she should respond to such an unseemly action -- but the Sheriff laughed and said, "Bridget, I am a rich man today," and Angela clapped her hands and little Joseph squealed and reached for the Sheriff's face again.
Bridget hazarded a look as the Sheriff began making pained noises.
Young Joseph had a good grip on his mustache.
"Owowowowow," the Sheriff gasped, his eyes watering. "God help us, this lad had the grip of a tool dresser!"
"Now Joseph, you stop that," Angela admonished her little brother, shaking her Mommy-finger at the lad, which impressed the infant not at all: the Sheriff managed to pry his son's tight little fist from around his battered broom, turning him upside down and holding him by the ankles.
Little Joseph laughed fearlessly, swinging his arms and squealing with delight.
"My turn! My turn!" Angela shouted, sliding off her Daddy's lap and jumping up and down.
The Sheriff swung Joseph like a pendulum, landing him flat on his back on the folded back covers, to the child's loudly expressed delight: the Sheriff picked him up and handed him back to Bridget and extended his hands. "Come here, you," he grinned, and Angela leaped into his grip.
The Sheriff wallowed her awkwardly up into his arms, until she lay horizontal across his muscled forearms: frowning, he considered just how to do this, and finally settled on swinging her legs up a little, seizing her lower calf through the material of her nightdress, then the other: he stood, and Angela shrieked with delight as the Sheriff spun slowly around, once, then once again, finally swinging her up level and dropping her too flat on her back on the bed.
Angela lay there laughing as the room spun around her.
"Do it again, Daddy! Do it again!"
The Sheriff rubbed his stubbled cheek. "Honey, I think it's time for breakfast," the Sheriff said. "You have to get all pretty for your Mommy. Now what time did the telegram say she would be here?"
"Noon! Noon! Noon!" Angela bounced on the bed, timing her noons with the apogee of her trajectory.
"That's right, and we must be ready."
"Yes, Daddy!" Angela slid off the bed, seized her Daddy in a quick hug, then streaked out the door, the hem of her nightdress waving in her slipstream.
"I'm sorry, sor," Bridget began again. "I meant t' catch them before they could --"
The Sheriff raised a hand.
Bridget's words stopped as if sliced off with a sharp knife.
"Bridget," the Sheriff said, "I know what it is to lose a child. If Christ Himself could tell his people, 'Suffer not the little children from coming unto me,' how then can I say anything different?"
Bridget's expression was troubled.
"You're used to those snobby folks back East, aren't you?" the Sheriff asked gently.
"Aye, sor, that I am," she admitted.
Joseph cuddled against her and made a sleepy little baby-sound, though he was growing at a remarkable rate: somehow there is a universal comfort to mothering arms, even if they weren't the maternal arms he was used to.
"There was a time when I would have given ten fortunes for one minute of this morning," the Sheriff said sadly, and sat down on the edge of the bed. "No, Bridget, I am probably the wealthiest man who ever filled a pair of boots, and you're holding one reason why."
The Sheriff looked out the window.
"Has it quit snowing?"
"It has, sor, but it's terrible cold out."
The Sheriff nodded, interpreting the statement.
Bridget was a skinny sort and from back East: she was not used to the high country and the thin air, and she was cold when the Sheriff was ready to peel out of his shirt for the heat. It was probably just freezing or barely less.
"We have enough wood?"
Bridget's expression was haunted.
"For the now, aye."
The Sheriff nodded. That meant at least three days' supply with constant hard firing.
"Daddy?" Angela's voice called from across the hall.
"Yes, Princess?"
"Should I wear my red velvet or my blue velvet?"
"The red," the Sheriff called back. "It brings out the color in your cheeks. Or you could wear the blue so it brings out the blue in your eyes. Or you could wear green."
"Dad-dee!" Angela protested, stomping across the hall and stopping in the doorway with her hands on her hips. "I'm not green!"
"No, but I'm hungry, so why don't you get ready for breakfast?"
"Okay, Daddy!" -- and with a flare of flannel skirting, Angela spun and was gone.
Bridget headed for the door, bouncing young Joseph gently to keep him relaxed (and quiet).
"Will ye be wantin' breakfast, then?" she asked. "I've mush sliced and ready to fry."
"Bridget, you know the way to my heart!" the Sheriff replied, merriment in his eyes and denim shirt in his hand.
Bridget's eyes widened and she realized that the Sheriff was being improper again, and scooted out the door.
The nerve! she thought. Standing in front of a decent woman in his unmentionables! Why, back East, the scandal --
Bridget blinked, then Bridget smiled, and Bridget decided she like it better out here.
It wasn't near so stuffy and proper, and that, she realized, suited her.

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Linn Keller 1-23-10


Jacob had excused himself, saying that he needed to look in on his horses: he closed the private car's door quietly behind him, and was gone, and Annette looked from the closed door to her wine-glass, feeling somehow, suddenly, lost.
Esther's eyes were veiled, appraising as she looked at the younger woman: holding the wineglass delicately in her cupped hand, the stem protruding between her fingers, she sipped delicately at the blood of the grape, tasting the sun and the warmth that had grown the fruit, and the taste warmed her all the way to her belly.
With Jacob out of the way, the ladies could talk.
That, too, was part of Esther's plan.

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Linn Keller 1-24-10


I bribed that Palomino mare with two of the wizened apples and it didn't do any good at all.
She still snapped at my hinder when I saddled her, she made an effort to masticate my hand when I bridled her and she come real near to stomping my foot when I went to mount.
All in all she hadn't improved one little bit.
Angela's little mare, now, as long as Angela was right there, why, you couldn't ask for a nicer hoss.
She let me bridle her up and cinch her down and hoist Angela into her fine Mexican saddle, and as it wasn't near as cold today as it had been, Angela wasn't wearing near as much insulation as she had in the buggy: when we drove back out to the house she had on enough clothes to supply the entire school, not to mention an over-cloak and the buffalo robe and probably a Hudson's Bay blanket somewhere in there.
I don't think much more than her nose and bright little eyes were exposed to the outside air, and that under protest.
Now, though, she was laughing, pleased, excited and anxious to ride all she could before she had to become a proper young lady again.
For all the sweet nature my mare didn't have, she did have two things I liked: that butter-smooth gait, and speed.
God help me, that horse could run!
I didn't want to run her today, though: I didn't think she was used to the thin air yet.
She'd also been in the stable or in the side lot and hadn't got a whole lot of movin' around.
No sense to lame up a good horse, so the four of us moved at a nice easy pace across the back field and then into the high country beyond, curving around and up toward Jacob's place.
Angela had enough respect for a horse's mouth not to yank on the reins, and she was concentrating on riding like a Big Girl.
Her mare was happy to follow the one I rode.
The snow was not terribly deep and we didn't have any trouble to speak of going down the hollow and back up t'other side. Ice under the snow was solid and the horses found the path up the opposite bank, sidling along the side hill on a little bit of an angle, an ancient trail used by game and Indians and now us.
The woods were still heavy with snow. I knew the trail here was wide enough we didn't have to worry about branches brushing against us and dumping a load of snow on us; Angela and I marveled at the size of the trees, the majestic hush with the snow on, and how far we could see.
We come into Jacob's clearing almost by surprise.
Angela was usually a little chatter box, but when she was riding she was concentrating: every now and again I would take a long look back at her and more often than not her tongue was stuck out between her lips and she was frowning a little, the way she did when she was focusing on something important.
I smiled a quiet Daddy-smile and wished again for a pocket Daguerrotype.
Duzy had something like that -- what was it she called it? -- a Kodiak? -- no, that's a northern bear, up toward Seward's land ... oh, daggone, I couldn't bring the name to mind to save me.
I turned back and looked across the meadow to Jacob's house.
I'd drained the water out of his stove so it would not freeze and bust, and had emptied the bucket inside as well. They had a pitcher pump inside and a dug well under the house, wasn't dug down far as the rock was shallow but it was good water, so I'd kept a fire going enough to keep the place thawed out and sure enough there was just a little smoke out of the chimney.
The mare brightened up some when she saw the barn, for barn meant hay and warm and corn most likely.
I let her have her head, which was that steady butter smooth trot, and the younger mare close behind: we got the mares into the barn and the bars up so they wouldn't wander -- not that they would -- and Angela and I waded through the snow to the house.
Well, that's almost right.
I waded and Angela giggled.
There was noplace she liked better than being in Daddy's arms, and to be real honest, there was noplace I liked better having her than Daddy's arms.

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Linn Keller 1-25-10


He is much like his father, Esther thought.
I fear he may be a bit too much like his father.
The Sheriff was at the depot to meet them: Angela scampered across the depot platform yelling "Jacob! Jacob!" and Jacob had caught her, spinning her up and around, to her delighted squeal: one pink hand waved in the air, the other clapped to her hat, already askew on her curls.
The Sheriff solemnly raised Annette's gloved hand to his lips.
"I'm glad you're back," he said quietly, and Annette saw a sadness in his eyes.
The Sheriff thrust a hand at his son.
The two clasped hands: if circumstances had been different, a little less awkward, Annette might have giggled, for each had his bottom jaw thrust out, and each nodded, once.
Only then did the Sheriff turn to his wife: taking her gently by the elbows, he said "I'm glad you're back, too," and then ran his arms around her trim waist.
"Dad-dee!" Angela protested, hands on her hips and her head tilted to the side. "Aren't you gonna kiss me too?"
The Sheriff sighed.
"I'm irresistable to younger women," he said, and Esther gave him a look: I'll show you what younger women can't do, her green-eyed flash said, and the Sheriff felt an old, familiar fire start warming him up again.
Jacob was not surprised that a carriage was waiting for them, with driver: his mother planned things out with a thoroughness that used to surprise him.
Annette had noticed with some discomfort that Jacob had been very quiet on the way home.
Even now he was saying very little.
He saw to the loading of their luggage: he took the leave of his parents with almost a stiff formality.
He gave his father a long, appraising look before offering his hand again.
The Sheriff returned his son's frank gaze.
"A bell cannot be un-rung," he offered quietly.
"I know, sir," Jacob said quietly: touching his hat brim to his mother, he turned and strode for the end of the platform, boot heels loud on the close-fitted planks.
Angela was skipping the length of the platform, intent on causing as much commotion as she could in the process.
The Sheriff's hand found his wife's and they watched Jacob and Annette departing.
Jacob's head was down and his shoulders rounded a little, as if crushed under a great weight.
They saw Annette look over at her husband, and neither missed the worry in her face.
"I shouldn't wonder that it will storm on the mountain," Esther whispered.
"I have that fear," the Sheriff replied.
There was a skid and a bump behind them: they turned in time to see Angela get up, rubbing her elbow with a little "Ooo," at least until she saw Mommy and Daddy looking: now that she had an audience, she screwed up her face and started to cry.

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Linn Keller 1-27-10


Annette looked at Jacob, shocked.
"You wouldn't!"
Jacob did his best to give her a puppy-dog-eyes expression, but the merriment behind his baby blues betrayed him.
"I don't have to," he said gently.
Annette considered the kitchen table, and the meal set out and ready: she had no idea whose hands had prepared it, but the meat was steaming, as was the gravy, the mashed potatoes smelled of butter and of spices and just the slightest hint of garlic -- Daisy's trademark, Annette thought, and her mouth watered in spite of her knotted stomach -- and the kitchen stove filled the room with a very welcome warmth.
"I believe there is pie," Jacob continued, hanging his hat on its peg and drawing a chair out for his wife.
Annette swallowed, her throat dry in spite of the wonderful smells in her kitchen.
Unsure quite what she should do, she fumbled with the ribbon holding her bonnet in place.
Jacob released his patient grip on the chair's back and reached for his bride's trembling fingers.
He held her hands for a long minute.
Annette felt his heat through her gloves.
Jacob had always been a walking furnace, just like his father; when her hands were freezing, his were hot to the touch, and many's the time she had manufactured an excuse to hold hands, just to warm hers up.
Jacob slowly, carefully, released his wife's fingers and delicately untied the ribbon bow under her jaw, and slowly, carefully, removed her bonnet.
His fingers were gentle as he brushed a curl from her forehead.
"Mrs. Keller," he whispered, "you are beautiful."
Annette quailed, wishing she could shrink and slip between the floor boards.
She would have felt better if he'd turned her over his knee and given her an old fashioned open hand spanking.
"Let's eat," Jacob whispered. "We don't want it to get cold."
He took her wrist and steered her toward the waiting chair.
Jacob took two plates off the stove's warming shelf and set them on the table: he dished up meat and potatoes, gravy and green beans, set out bread, towel-wrapped and warm, and butter: he set a loaded plate before Annette and one before the chair beside her and said, "You have to clean your plate before you get any dessert."
His delivery was so innocent -- and sounded so much like his father -- that Annette giggled.
Jacob sat down beside her.
"It's good to hear your smile," he said, reaching over and squeezing her hand.
Annette plucked at her fingers, loosening her gloves, dropping them in her lap.
"It does smell good," she admitted.
Jacob picked up a fork, pressed its edge into the meat: it was tender, falling-apart tender, and Jacob shoveled in a bite, savoring the taste.
They ate in near silence.
Jacob got up partway through the meal, retrieved a ceramic mug for himself and a dainty coffee cup for Annette, and poured them both coffee: each took a little cream as well, and Annette wondered again just how Jacob had arranged for fresh cream.
He sounds like his father, she thought, but he gets things done like his mother.
Jacob's attention turned to his plate and he ate with a single minded enthusiasm.
Annette picked at hers.
Finally she gave up and laid down her fork.
"Talk to me, Jacob," she said hoarsely.
Jacob lifted the last fork full of mashed potatoes, hesitated, set it back down.
He scooted back from the table a little and turned his chair to face her squarely.
"Of all the things you could ask," he said, "I fear that the most."
Annette blinked.
"Talking?" she squeaked.
Jacob nodded solemnly.
"But ... it's just ... talk," she said, the words coming with difficulty.
Jacob shook his head.
"It's more than that," he said. "You want me to say something about your leaving."
Annette squeezed her eyes shut.
She hadn't wanted such frankness.
Jacob leaned forward, his elbows on his knees.
"Annette, you are the dearest thing I know," he said slowly. "You are sweet and you are smart and you are the finest pianist I have ever heard.
"I dreamed you were singing last night. Did you know that?" His smile was almost sad. "I dreamed you were singing, and your voice soared like a mountain eagle, high and pure."
Jacob hesitated, swallowed.
He looked over toward the middle of the table.
"I can cut someone with my voice." His voice was bitter, hard. "I've done it. I've said things that sliced friends, good friends, long deep and made them bleed." He looked sharply at his wife.
"Annette, I'd rather take a beatin' than say something that would hurt you!"
"But I deserve it," she whispered, her eyes bright, tears ready to spill over her lower lids.
Jacob shook his head slowly.
"No." He closed his eyes. "No, dearest, you don't deserve anything of the kind." His smile was tight and humorless.
"When I came downstairs and found your note, I set down and stared at the wall. I just set there.
"It felt like I'd been gut kicked.
"Then I fired the stove and boiled up some water and made tea and I set right here and drank that tea and I thought what I'd ought to do."
His eyes were distant as he looked through her at the memory.
"Pa taught me that. He said never to strike out half cocked, to set still and boil up somethin' and think it over before you stir a hand."
Jacob's gaze came back to the here and now.
"I tried to figure what I'd done wrong."
Annette felt her stomach drop several feet as she realized it was she, and not he, who had done the wrong ... and her wrong had cost this man dearly: this man who had done nothing but love her and take care of her and set her on a pedestal, this man who had treated her like a queen.
"There were words." Jacob's eyes lightened, his expression hardening. "I come up with words that would blister paint off the wall." He looked at her and she felt the power in his gaze.
"I'm glad you weren't here.
"I was ready to say things that would have made a rock bleed."
"Then say them," she whispered.
Jacob shook his head.
"Nope. They're past. Words of an angry moment, gone." He made a dismissive motion.
"Pa said it right." Jacob nodded thoughtfully. "You can't un-ring a bell and I don't want to say anything that'll make me wish I hadn't!"

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Linn Keller 1-28-10


Old man Barrows was dead.
I felt neither good nor bad about it: I'd known the man some time ago, an irascible old trouble maker, never happy unless he was putting one against another or stirring things up somehow.
I'd had to testify in one of the actions he brought against a neighboring rancher, and on my testimony his case was dismissed, with prejudice: I don't even recall what it was over.
Some momumentally petty matter, I recalled: His Honor had been unhappy the case had gotten as far as to appear on his docket, and he'd dressed Barrows down for it.
Barrows never did like me much after that and I really didn't care.
I looked down at the carcass.
One snow flake landed on his open eye ball and just set there, six pointed and perfect.
"Been here a while," his foreman observed.
"Yup." I looked up at the man. "What was he doin' this far from the ranch house, anyway?"
"He wanted to make sure we weren't high gradin' his stock."
I shook my head.
The foreman was honest as the day is long and he'd hand picked the fellows who looked after the herd. I would trust any of them with a poke of gold and a pretty girl, and it was just like Barrows to mistrust them to this degree.
"Well, he'll not be worryin' about it any longer."
I straightened up.
Wind whipped under my coat tail and down the back of my neck, carrying cold little snow-fingers with it.
"Reckon we'll take 'im from here, Sheriff."
I nodded.
"Let's turn him over, take a look at him."
We turned the man over and I looked close for signs of foul play.
"Any idea where he wanted planted?"
The foreman shook his head, readjusted the knit scarf he'd tied over his hat and around his neck. "No idee. Reckon his wife'll know."
"Here, holt still." I shucked out of my gloves, unbuttoned the man's top coat button and tucked the ends of his scarf inside, then buttoned it again. "Ain't you got gloves?"
"Yeah, back at the bunk house."
I swore. "Here, take mine, I got an extry set."
The foreman didn't turn me down. Once your hands get cold enough to ache, it'll take a man's pride and turn it inside out. I knew him to be a proud man but he was not the least bit bashful to take the charity.
Another rider hailed us through the snow.
"Here," the foreman yelled, raising an arm.
"I got the wagon comin'. Figgered he'd be on this end of the ranch."
I looked to the palomino mare. "I'm satisfied. You fellas be all right?"
"Sure enough, Sheriff. Kin we offer you a bite? Oughta be a kettle a-bilin' in the bunk house."
I knew the quality of their stew and figured I'd as leave drink my own coffee as to eat their stew: both were equally bad, and as equally prone to scald the hair right off my tongue.
I thanked them for the offer and helped haul Barrows' carcass to the wagon.
The mare was plenty happy to be moving. She liked the cold less than me.
I pointed my nose due east, toward Charlie's spread. It would take a couple hours to get there but I'd ride through the high meadow where his Appaloosa herd pastured.
I drew my own scarf up over my nose and mouth, smiling a little behind the grey knitted wool.
It would do my heart good to see how many mares were great with foal.
We rode on through the snow, the golden mare and me, wind at our backs and mountains shadowed like ghosts: I wore my storm strap around the back of my head and a time or three the wind like to lifted my head off by virtue of picking up the back of my hat.
The mare made fair time through the snow. She wasn't happy with the high country and the cold but she was doing some better.
We had come to something of an understanding.
She didn't offer me any trouble a'tall while I was mounted.
Long as I stayed out of reach she wouldn't try to bite me, and the more I fooled with her, the less she was inclined to put tooth prints in my hide, until she settled on a ceremonial snap when I approached with the bridle, and another when I fetched up the saddle.
Past that she was pretty good.
The wind was getting colder and stronger and I figured we'd best get out of the wind so I turned her up a draw and we got out of that howling wind, right into the middle of Charlie's herd.
The herd mare whistled a challenge and my mare answered and of a sudden we were in the middle of them. The hollow was steep enough on either side the wind was almost still, with snow falling steadily and near to straight down, in spite of the wind punishing the tree tops overhead.
I eased my weight in the saddle, giving my back side a rest, and my mare grunted and danced a little.
Something was here and she didn't like it.
I squinted through the snow and saw it: a mare with her head down, grunting, and the other mares milling around her.
I couldn't see quite what was going on for a minute: a gust of wind threw a sparkling curtain between us.
I looked around, listening, and then I smelled blood, hot and fresh.
I shucked my Winchester.
The snow let up and then I saw it: a spindly legged little colt, just struggling to its feet.
"Daggone, fella," I muttered, "ain't you kind of early?"
The wind quit like it was shut off and the snow slacked for a moment.
A snowy rock wall was behind the mare and the new colt, and the others crowded in close around them.
Good, I thought. Nothing can get behind them --
The golden mare danced a little under me, her ears laying back flat against her head.
"I hear it, girl," I murmured, patting her neck and laying my thumb over the hammer of that 73 rifle.
In the distance I heard a solitary, drawn-out howl.

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