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Firelands-The Beginning


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Linn Keller 1-29-10

 

Little Joseph sat in a polished hardwood high chair beside the kitchen table, a hinged tray before him, holding a bowl of finely chopped and tenderized version of what the ladies had for supper.
Mouth open, he threw his arms wide apart, opening and closing his pink little hands as he happily masticated his mouthful of provender.
Angela giggled, leaning against her Mommy.
Esther used the little silver baby sized spoon to pick up some dribble that escaped the corner of Joseph's mouth and re-introduced it to his busy little lips, smiling at the lad's appetite.
"I don't have to be fed," Angela announced proudly. "I'm a Big Girl!"
"Yes you are," Esther affirmed, smiling down at her beaming daughter and taking the moment to caress her curls.
"Mommy?"
"Hmm?" Esther took up another small spoonful, carefully struck off the excess on the side of the bowl, and guided the silver cargo craft toward the waiting, pink-lipped port.
"I'm glad you're home."
Esther opened her mouth to make a motherly reply but Angela continued before she could speak.
"Daddy makes ver-ry fun-ny noises when you're not here."
Joseph happily opened and closed his hands, arms still thrown wide, happily blinking his light-blue eyes.
Esther withdrew the sucked-clean spoon and looked down at her daughter.
"Daddy makes noises?" Esther asked, amused and curious.
Angela nodded briskly, her curls bouncing with the effort.
"He sounds like this," she explained, then winkled her nose up, closed her eyes and made a horrible snorting, snoring sound.
Bridget looked shocked, Esther turned an incredible shade of red and hid her mirth behind the towel she held in her free hand, and young Joseph squealed and opened and closed his hands, anxious for another bite.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-30-10

 

The roan gelding wasn't especially worried when Charlie appeared in the barn. After all, it was time for grain; if it wasn't, it oughta be. It was when Charlie lifted the rawhide hackamore down from its peg that the young horse started to get suspicious. He'd been listening to the wind blow and was content to be inside, with hay and water close at hand, and smart enough to know that outside was not a particularly good place to be.

Charlie slipped the hackamore over the roan's head and led it from its stall toward the tack room and his saddle. The sheepskin coat he wore buttoned up to his chin made him bulk larger than usual and the heavy bullhide chaps were a hazard to ground navigation, but would come in extremely handy a-horseback in a snowstorm. A wool scarf pulled his hat down solid on his head and did further duty as protection for his ears and cheeks.

Charlie was worried. From the looks of her the last time he'd seen her, the oldest of his mares was approaching her foaling time, a good deal earlier than she should have been, at least if she was bred to Linn's golden stud. More than likely she'd been found in season by some scrub range stud. Either way, she was getting close to foaling, she was out in the storm with the rest of the mares and he wanted to bring her home where he could keep a better eye on her.

The ex-marshall had a pretty good idea where the mares would hole up; the hollow held shelter, water and grass that was reachable by pawing down through the snow. What it didn't have was warmth enough for a newborn to survive; especially a premature one, if indeed this foal was a premie.

As Charlie led the roan out into the storm he heard a drawn-out, wavering howl, diluted by distance and wind-shriek, that was answered instantly from at least two additional points of the compass. He hurriedly shoved his rifle down into the boot and flung himself clumsily into the saddle; those were hunting howls. He booted the roan into a long trot across the ranch yard toward the hollow where the mares should be...

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Linn Keller 2-1-10

 

The palomino mare did not like what she was hearing.
I didn't much care for it myself, but I liked even less that I'd never fired shots off this horse.
I prefer mobility, I prefer being able to dash and dodge -- a lesson I learned as a young cavalryman -- but I also knew if this mare didn't like fighting as a team I would end up on the ground and probably hurt.
I stroked her neck, murmured to her.
She was restless under me, shaking her head.
"Stand, girl," I said, swinging out of the saddle.
I loosened the cinch, hauled off the saddle and bags, leaned my rifle over the saddle: the mare turned quickly, looking into the gathering dark, nostrils flared, blowing.
"Easy now," I murmured, reaching for her bridle. "Easy, now."
She surrendered the bit without protest and then surprised me.
She swung herself around and stood beside me.
Our backs were to the rock wall, the herd mostly on our left, the spindly little colt demanding a meal of his dam: the others were close around, none were particularly excited.
My mare started to wall her eyes, mincing the snow into the grass under her hooves, but she stood, ears back, looking into the gloom.
"You know what I'd like, girl?" I asked quietly, looking around, then looking up behind us.
Too high for wolves to launch an attack, I thought. A cat, maybe, but not a wolf.
"I'd like for Dawg to come trottin' in here."
I took a long, slow breath.
"Hell, I'd not mind Bear Killer showin' up!"
The palomino froze.
Was Dawg to show up, thought I, Charlie would be close by.
A shadow ghosted from left to right maybe 20 yards out.
I leaned forward a little, knees bent, eyes burning with the effort of piercing the falling snow.
Another shadow followed the first.
Neither one was Dawg.
I eared back the Winchester hammer one click, half cock to full cock, running my thumb forward to make sure the sliding dust cover was forward.
Habit's a hard thing to break, I thought.
The Appaloosa mares were watchful, and a good thing.
A howl, going into a snarling bark, probably intended to panic the herd into flight.
With the new foal, they didn't.
The palomino spun.
I heard the sickening thump of hooves into meat, a grunting cough: she whirled, drove stiff forelegs into something.
I took three fast strides forward, looked past the mare and the bloody grey rag she was enthusiastically returning to the earth from whence it came.
The Appaloosa mares drifted apart, forming a defensive screen: one came up on my left, one on my right.
We waited.

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Linn Keller 2-2-10

 

There is no feeling like being alone, and cold, in a wild country with a rock cliff to your back and the unknown around you.
The wolf that tried streaking in had met with an unpleasant end thanks to a Mexican mare with a short temper.
My breath made big clouds in the still air and fairly glowed as the clouds overhead cracked and pulled apart.
The Wolf Moon shone through: the biggest and brightest moon of the year, the moon to which wolves howled and sang their songs of love and of passion, the moon under which little wolves were conceived, the moon under which I stood with an engraved rifle in my gloved hands and horseflesh round about me.
I looked over the withers of the mare on my left and saw the new born colt was folded up under its Mama, with a few on either side: I delight in watching the young of any species, and would love to have just set and marveled at this little version of the big ones around us, but the clouds started to slide closed, drawing dark shutters across the lunar lantern.
The snow had thinned some and I saw a bigger shadow, just at the fringe of visibility.
"Attair's no wolf," I whispered, and the Appaloosa mare beside me swung an ear toward me, then forward.
I grinned.
It most definitely was no wolf.

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Linn Keller 2-3-10

 

Esther drew the quilt up around Angela's chin.
"Yes, sweets?" Esther's fingers were gentle as they brushed her little girl's pink cheek.
"When will Daddy be home?"
"Soon, dear."
Angela frowned, considering this typical adult reply.
"When's soon?" she asked, and Esther laughed, remembering when she herself was young, and impatient.
"As soon as he's finished."
"But what is he doing?" Angela persisted, swatting her quilt down and crossing her arms with a little-girl's pouting frown.
Esther tilted her head sideways a little.
"Come," she said, extending her hand, and Angela seized her Mommy's hand, delightedly kicking the covers back and bouncing out of her bed.
The two went down the stairs, Esther dignified, holding the hand rail, and Angela giggling, holding her Mommy's hand and her own hand rail.
Bridget folded her hands and looked disapprovingly at the pair.
"Bridget, would you be a dear and pour us some tea?" Esther asked, steering Angela toward the Sheriff's study.
Bridget's lips were pressed into a stern line as she swung toward the kitchen, distress in her step and disapproval in the swing of her skirt.
"Here." Esther hoisted Angela into her Daddy's chair.
"But I wanna sit with you," Angela whined, and slid off the seat.
Esther pretended not to notice: instead, she settled herself into the double wide seat, patting the cushion beside her.
Angela fairly launched herself off the floor, twisting in mid-air and landing beside her Mommy.
Bridget was in a moment later, tray and tea and bone-china cups, all starched apron and frowning mien: only the look in her eyes betrayed the approval she felt at seeing a patient mother taking this time with her little girl.
Bridget's own mother had done such, and she remembered how it felt.
Esther stirred a small dollop of honey into each of their cups, swirling the steaming amber fragrance without the vulgar dinging of spoon on china that was the mark of the careless, or the low-born.
Angela accepted her teacup and saucer, solemnly taking the teacup in a proper grip, with her little finger extended.
Her tongue was stuck out a little from the corner of her mouth as she concentrated on Doing This Just Right, and Esther hid her smile behind the tilt of her own bone-china cup.
Angela's little finger curled with the effort of holding the cup and finally she gave up and let it curl in against its companion.
Esther waited until they had each consumed half their tea, then placed her cup on its saucer and the saucer back on the folding table.
"Now, dear," she said in a patient Mommy-voice, "you were asking about your father."
Angela nodded, wide-eyed and solemn, hands folded in the flannel of her lap.
Esther shifted in her seat. "Your father is an important man."
Angela nodded again, her eyes bright in the Aladdin lamp's light.
"He also loves you very much."
Angela's dark lashes stood out against her fair skin and Esther realized with a mommy's funny feeling that her little girl was going to become a young woman, and one of some beauty: she had known this all along, between her ears, but this was the first time the realization had spoken from behind her breastbone.
"But where is Daddy now?" Angela asked, tilting her head.
Esther's eyes went to the window, then slowly back to Angela.
"Do you remember what it was doing outside, just before you went to bed?"
Angela nodded happily, throwing her hands up and wide: "Tssnow!" she exclaimed, white teeth shining behind red, red lips.
Esther put a Mommy-finger to her own lips and Angela clapped her hands over her own little mouth.
"Tssnow!" she whispered.
Esther nodded.
"Now, dear, what is Daddy doing out in the snow?"
"He's looking for a man," Angela said with the assurance that what her Daddy purposed, he performed.
"Right again!"
"But it's nighttime and he's not here."
"No, sweets, he's not, and that tells me he's still working."
"Oh." Angela considered this. "But when will he be done working?"
Esther looked again to the black-glass mirror that was the nighttime window.
The young cavalry officer was bent over his mare's neck.
Blood, hot and wet, stained his side, glued his arm to his ribs.
She felt the breath rasping raw in his throat, felt the crushing agony of broken ribs, felt the mare surging beneath him, running, running ...

"Mommy?"
Esther shivered, blinking.
It was a dream she'd had since childhood, a recurrent dream she'd never had since meeting her husband.
"I'm sure he's all right," she said, forcing a smile and not believing a word she said.


In another house, another set of eyes regarded the dark window: of a sudden the clouds parted, allowing the brilliance of the Wolf Moon to roar across the fresh snow, staining the bedroom with a bleached brilliance, silhouetting Jacob's night-shirted form against the window.
Annette rubbed her eyes.
"Jacob?"
Annette turned back the hand-stitched quilt, the quilt that had been a wedding present from Jacob's mother.
"He's out there," Jacob said, his voice deep and resonant, oddly so.
Annette's bare feet whispered on the chilly boards. "Who?"
"My father."
Annette looked at her husband's face, monochromatic pallor making him look like a ghost, a specter.
"Is he all right?"
Jacob's smile was tight.
"He's all right." He turned, gathered his wife into his arms. "He's probably built himself a brush wickiup and he's holding court, knowing him!"

Angela blinked at her Mommy.
"What's a wickie-cup?" she asked, and Esther laughed, a good easy laugh that melted the tension around her heart.
"It's what the Eastern Woodland Indians live in," she explained. "It's also known as a lodge, and sometimes a longhouse."
"Oh." Angela considered this.
"He probably has a fire going and he's roasting meat on a spit and baking bread twisted around a branch and hung over the fire."
Angela frowned. "I'm hungry," she anounced, sliding off the seat and pattering rapidly for the kitchen.
Bridget reached for the bread knife.
She knew what it was to feed the hungry young after bedtime, and she'd suspected a wakeful little girl might just want something to eat.

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Charlie MacNeil 2-3-10

 

The brilliance of the Wolf Moon limned the trees and brush at the lip of the hollow in silver as the roan's trot brought man and mount across the prairie toward the mares' shelter. Charlie rode now with his rifle across his saddle pommel, chamber loaded and thumb on the hammer. His eyes were moving constantly as he searched for the wolves he knew had to be close by. Then, from one second to the next, he saw them, silvery grey shadows against the brightness of new-fallen snow. Even as he found them, the wary predators saw him; four turned from their quest and toward this new prey. But they were to learn quickly that sometimes the hunted becomes the hunter...

The four closed on the roan in a snarling rush, covering the intervening yards in an eye-blink. One leapt for the roan's throat, to be met with hot lead that slammed it back to earth wearing a smoking hole where its left eye had been. The others slid to a stop in the knee deep snow, suddenly wary...

Charlie hadn't known until he pulled the trigger how the roan would react to the shot; he only knew that he had no choice, and that if the roan jumped from beneath him he'd fight from the ground. But the young horse had stood fast with only a tossing of its head to indicate a reaction. Now Charlie wracked a new shell into the chamber and urged the roan forward, gaze swiveling from one wolf to the next as he moved toward them, hoping they'd give ground before he had to kill another. The roan blew through its nostrils at the blood scent in the air, but stepped forward gingerly under the tap of the spurs, ears pricked and eyes showing white...

As man and horse approached, the three remaining wolves reluctantly gave ground, lifted ruffs making them look huge against the white background of the snow even as they laid back their ears and tucked their tails. Curled lips revealed fangs that glittered in the moonlight...

Like the sudden slide of a velvet curtain, clouds slipped across the face of the Wolf Moon and the light dimmed nearly to extinction. One of the wolves took a step forward. Charlie lifted the rifle to his shoulder, taking up what little slack there was in the reins to keep the roan in check as he suddenly roared in the harshest tone he could summon, "GO ON! GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE!" He blasted a shot into the snow in front of the three, spattering them with stinging crystals, and like wraiths they turned and vanished into the night...

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Linn Keller 2-5-10

 

The grin fell from my face like I'd yanked it free and dropped it to the ground.
The shadow disappeared as moonlight seared through the trees, proving it no more than a trick of the night or wishful thinking.
It did show a wolf, still, unmoving, those yellow eyes looking right through me clear down to my back bone.
It was a magnificent creature: unusually broad of chest, well furred, intelligence and cunning in equal parts across its lupine face: we looked at one another for a long moment as the world held its breath.
Not far off, a shot, another, the heavy report of a rifle, a high-pitched yelp, and a rough voice.
I could not tell the words but there was no mistaking the throat from whence it came.
The wolf turned and looked over its shoulder, and then disappeared: it did not take a step, it did not gather itself and leap, it just ... well, it just wasn't there any more.
The palomino stood fast, shivering a little, then started sidling toward me, until she was close enough to touch: I released my hand from my '73 rifle's wrist and reached up and patted the palomino's neck.
She swung her head toward me but she had no mind to bite.
This wasn't her world and she wanted a reassuring hand.
"You're a good girl," I whispered, the sibilants loud in the cold night air.
I ducked to look under her neck, took a couple steps forward, looked around.
On the one hand I did not want to leave the protection of that good rock wall at my back.
On the other hand I am a curious man and wanted to see just how in the Sam Hill that wolf had managed to evaporate while I was looking squarely at it.
There I was in the wild country with no companion but the horses around me, wolf-song shivering on the cold air, the sound of gunshots and an angry voice, and here I was thinking about walking over to where that wolf had been.
The golden mare moved with me, stopped when I did, not more than three steps from where we'd been.
I shoved my jaw out.
"Far enough, I reckon," I said aloud, patting my hand back to her shoulders. "Back, girl."
We backed, the two of us, until we stood in the same trompled-down-to-grass spot we'd occupied a moment before.
Maybe I'm gettin' old, I thought, and stood fast, one hand on my mare's neck, one hand on the rifle.

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Linn Keller 2-6-10

 

Snow does funny things to sound, but it did nothing to mask the identity of the voice I'd heard earlier.
Charlie came riding through the pines and into the clearing.
He rode right through where that-there wolf had set and looked at me.
I know Charlie.
He don't miss a thing.
Had there been tracks and the print of a wolf butt he'd have seen it.
He give things a good looking over before he come clear out of the trees and he come ridin' over to me nice and slow.
I tried to think of a good smart aleck remark to make and daggone if my mind didn't just go blank.
Old age, I reckon.
Charlie made a head count, nodded.
"Lose any?" he asked.
I thrust my chin toward the colt and its dam.
"Gained one."
Charlie nodded.

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Linn Keller 2-10-10

 

Sarah Rosenthal was restless.
She drew her robe tightly around her and thrust bare feet into slippers: frowning, she walked slowly, silently to her bedroom window.
Her window overlooked the barn and the pasture: in the bright moonlight it was a study in black and white and a few shades of grey.
The fence posts and rails stood out in stark relief, snow glittering on their upper surfaces.
Sarah remembered the lightning strike, back in warm weather, and the fire: her father had alternately scolded her and praised her, delighted with her bravery in getting stock out of the barn and terrified that she had gone into a burning structure.
Sarah smiled.
She hugged herself, remembering the feeling of her father's arms tight, tight around her, squeezing her so hard she felt as if she were being crushed.
Sarah frowned, her young mind busy.
She looked over her shoulder at her desk, then back out the window, and smiled.
Sarah drew out her chair, careful to make no sound, and sketched out a problem: the barn here, its height represented by x: she drew in a series of fence posts, with the distance between them ... well, she didn't know what the distace was between the fence posts, nor if they were actually set with any uniform spacing ... but if they were ...
The bright moonlight provided plenty of light as she wrote out the Pythagorean theorum of a-squared plus b-squared, equals c-squared, then she wrote down the formulae for sine, cosine and tangent, and reached for her textbook.
The only sound in the silent bedroom was the quiet scratching of pencil on paper as Sarah multiplied, divided and extracted square roots, until finally she looked out at the barn and spoke a number, the height of the barn in feet, as calculated by the length of its shadow cast by the moonlight.

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Charlie MacNeil 2-10-10

 

The foal was snuggled up tight to its momma's side, ears pricked as it watched this new beast come into its world. Curious, snuffling the air currents that swirled the cold white stuff around its face, the little one took a tentative step forward, the scent of horse, man, woodsmoke and the faintest tinge of gun oil and burnt powder a heady mixture in young nostrils.

The young horse had not taken note of Linn's arrival on the palomino mare, being too busy with imbibing momma's warm milk, so the sight of Charlie stepping down into the snow from the roan came as a surprise that was met with startled backward steps that brought it once again back to the comforting presence of its dam...

Charlie slipped the Winchester into the scabbard. He gave the new arrival a quick once over, then stepped up alongside the proud momma. He took a lump of wrinkled dried apple from his pocket and held it out to the mare on his flat palm. She lipped the treat delicately into her mouth to crunch it down. She turned her head to watch her human hold his hand out for the new arrival to sniff. The baby stretched nose and neck to smell the strange two-legged creature that its momma was so familiar with, finding the scent odd but not frightening. Charlie reached forward, and the colt stepped back, but stood its ground when Charlie moved toward it to slide a hand along the snow-wet neck. Charlie slipped up alongside the colt, draped his arm over its neck, then slid his hand down its side nearest the mare, nudging the colt towards its dam with his hip, holding it between mare and man. The baby stood trembling for a moment before its uncertainty subsided and it started to enjoy the attention. When it relaxed and turned its head to snuffle at his coat, Charlie stepped carefully away again then turned to Linn. "What're you doin' here?" he asked bluntly.

"Looking for a place to hole up out of the snow," Linn answered, his eyes coursing the little hollow, still uncertain what he'd seen just before Charlie's arrival, at the same time sure to his deepest core of what had been there.

"I don't think you came too close, do you?" Charlie asked, chuckling. "I'm not sure how comfy it'd be sleepin' in this snow." Then he noticed the look on Linn's face and came to full alert again. "What's the matter?"

Troubled, Linn met Charlie's gaze for the first time since Charlie rode into the hollow. "You didn't see any wolf tracks over yonder when you rode in here, did you?" he asked, lifting a gloved hand toward where the wolf had sat looking at him.

"Nope. Why?"

"That's what I thought. I figured you'd say something if you did."

"What are you goin' on about?" Charlie asked, worried now.

"You're going to think I've done drove the train off the tracks, but there was the biggest damn wolf I've ever seen or heard of sitting in the snow over there just before you got here," Linn answered. "I saw it as sure as I'm seeing you. It was sitting there staring at me and the horses. Are you sure..." His voice trailed off uncertainly.

"There were no wolf tracks in the hollow where I came in," Charlie answered firmly. "The only wolves I saw were the ones I ran off." He gave Linn a speculative look. "Couldn't've been a shadow or something, eh?"

"No. It was a wolf." Linn shook himself. "Ah, maybe I'm just tired," he said softly, looking down at his boots. "It's been a long day." He looked up. "You want some help bringing the mares in?'

"I could use a hand," Charlie answered, more than willing to table discussion of what may or may not have been a wolf for the time being. "And you look like you could use some coffee and grub. If you'll hand me up that little critter, I'll get mounted and we'll see if his momma will follow me down to the ranch. I'm pretty sure she will, and if she goes, the rest will probably follow." He stepped into his saddle, pushing himself back against the cantle to make room for the baby.

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Linn Keller 2-12-10

 

The dam took to me with no problem but that colt was a bit reluctant.
I don't reckon I smelt like Charlie and I'd run out of apples, or maybe this little fella just thought I was ugly.
Whatever the case it took a few minutes before he gentled enough to let me run my hands down his flanks and then down his legs.
Quick-like, I fetched him up off the ground: Charlie was ready and took the wiggling little long legged bundle of fur and snort as I hoisted him up to saddle height.
Charlie needn't have worried about the dam following.
She was anxious enough to get to her little one, or at least close by, that she run her nose under my arm pit and tossed me neatly over in the snow.
It is a mark of Charlie's good breeding and good manners that he did not laugh too hard at my misfortune.
I come snorting up out of the fluffy white stuff, shaking snow off me and wiping my eyes.
If it's possible for a herd of Appaloosa mares to view a two legged critter with open amusement, they did.
My palomino mare stood tolerantly as I wiped off her back as best I could before shaking out the saddle blanket and swinging it over her back.
She made a ceremonial nip at me as I swung the saddle up and bent over for the cinch, but that's all it was, just a nip and just for show.
Charlie started out nice and easy, the dam with him, the rest of the herd following.
I counted the mares, looked around to make sure they were all on the move, then I patted the palomino's neck.
"Come on, Witch," I murmured. "Let's find someplace warm for the night."
The Sun-Witch stepped out, silent in the muffling snow.

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Linn Keller 2-13-10

 

Horses are herd animals and the Sun-Witch was no different.
The Sun-Witch was of a mind to ride into the middle of the herd and stay there.
I had to have a conversation with her to persuade her that our place was riding drag, that it was okay to stop and watch our back trail, that yes I actually did want to ride over here or over there while the herd moved on.
It was snowing again, big heavy flakes and it commenced to snow cross-legged.
"Gonna snow deep again," I muttered, my words puffing delicate clouds into the cold air. "Come on, girl." I lifted the reins and gave the Sun-Witch my knees and she blew out twin plumes of steam, nodding her head vigorously and taking a couple quick steps.
I don't know what was under the snow but she stumbled and I about went out of that-there saddle but we both caught ourselves: the Sun-Witch got her hooves under her, danced sideways a little and shook her head.
She didn't like what happened and neither did I.
"Ho, girl," I murmured and she ho'd, and I clumb out of the saddle and ran my hands down her leg.
I fetched up her hoof, looking as much with my hands as with my eyes: I set her leg down, turned her a little more to get what little moon light was left and tried again.
"Well, you ain't cut," I muttered, "and you ain't broke. Figure you can walk?"
The Sun-Witch grabbed my coat tail and pulled, letting go and nodding her head.
I laughed.
"You won't never change, will you?" I patted her neck and shoved a foot into the near stirrup.
That damned wolf looked at me from about fifty yards away.
I stopped, one hand on the horn and me looking across the top of the saddle and I will never, ever forget those yellow eyes ... alive, alive even in the dimming light.
I swarmed up into the saddle and give the Sun-Witch my knee, turning her and throwing a fast knot in the reins: I dropped the knot over the saddle horn and shucked out that Winchester rifle and damned if we didn't charge that wolf.
By God! I thought, I will find out if you're real!
The Sun-Witch had to fight her way uphill and there was some loose rock under the snow: she scrambled some and about went to her knees and that wolf disappeared again.
We finally scratched our way up grade and the clouds cracked a little and that moon shot a bright finger squarely down to where I was looking and there was not a single mark on the snow.
Nothing!
There we were, alone in the snow, the moon drawing a modest veil over her face: I had seen the biggest wolf I'd ever in my entire life -- twice -- but there was no sign a'tall that he'd ever been in either spot.
Charlie was a better tracker than me but I ain't no slouch, so when the both of us say there was no track to be seen -- and with this snow, nothing is going to move without leaving a trace -- well, I had that rifle ready and my thumb heavy on the hammer.
The Sun-Witch turned under my knee's pressure: we looked, the both of us, and there was nothing, nothing out of the ordinary.
We turned back down hill, the Sun-Witch keeping ahead of herself to keep her footing and we come down to the bottom near to a gallop: she ran like she had spikes on her hooves and never slipped once, and we come swinging in behind the herd: I slowed her a little and we swung left, then right, making sure the herd was still intact.
We stopped and looked long along our back trail several more times before we got to Charlie's near pasture but I didn't see that wolf again.
I fetched off my Stetson and slung at least an inch of snow off of it, whipped it a couple times ag'in my leg and settled it back in place.
I can tell my hair is getting thin, I thought.
That snow don't have to work too hard to hit my scalp these days!

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Linn Keller 2-14-10

 

Esther's gem-green eyes met every man's at the table.
Esther sat at the head of the table, beneath a portrait of herself: it was a formal portrait, she was standing beside a marble column, a folded parasol in her left hand: as were most formal portraits, the image was unsmiling.
All but the eyes.
The artist may have been accustomed to painting solemn simulacra of living persons, but Esther's lively eyes carried well onto the canvas, and the expression of her image overlooking the table was one of tolerant amusement.
The expression Esther wore as she removed her pince-nez was one of quiet authority.
"You can see, gentlemen," she said, "that our association has been mutually profitable. I brought each of you onto this board because you have a business acumen, you have the ability to make a profit, and you know the right people." Her gaze moved steadily from face to face, missing no one, missing no expression.
"The Z&W Ralroad has, in and of itself, been acceptably profitable. The business provided by the gold mines has been even more so." She ran a finger down a column of figures before her. "And as you can see from the sheete I have passed out, our investments in the silver mines have paid well indeed."
There was a general murmuring, a nodding of heads.
Esther's eyes were momentarily unfocused: she took a long moment to steady herself, then stood abruptly.
"Gentlemen," she announced, the change in her voice commanding their instant attention, "a matter has arisen. I am needed at home. There were two other matters to be discussed but they will wait. This meeting is adjourned."
Esther scooted her chair briskly -- noisily -- away from the table and stood.
One of the men -- Adams, his name was -- leaned over and murmured to his fellow, "This is why women should not lead a company" -- then glanced at Esther, and his voice died, for Esther was glaring at him with a seriousness he had never seen before.
"Mr. Adams," Esther said, her voice cutting through the room like a striking whip, "I will not tolerate such language in my boardroom. You are relieved, sir, and your final share will be disbursed to you this day. You are now separated from the Z&W and all its subsidiaries, now and forevermore!"
Adams thrust to his feet. "You can't do that!" he shouted.
"Oh yes I can," Esther whispered, and her whisper carried the same menace as the dry buzz of a rattlesnake's tail. "If you will examine the by-laws, sirrah, you will find I hold the power of hire and fire at any time, and I exercise it at this moment!" Her eyes were wide, bright and unblinking.
"Mr. Adams, you should go home, right now."
Esther's whisper was tight, threatening.
"You need to go home, Mr. Adams. Your son has fallen from his horse and broken his neck. He is afraid and he is crying and he should have his father with him before he leaves this world!"
"You're crazy," Adams blurted, his face reddening.
"He is on the ground in front of a barn," Esther continued. "The horse has three black hooves and one yellowed. The barn has twin doors trimmed in white about the edges with black cross bucks."
Adams went from florid to pallid in a moment: he staggered back from the table, then shook himself.
"Lies!" he snarled, shaking his finger at Esther. "We'll see about this!"
Esther whirled and seized the nearest doorknob.
"Good day, gentlemen," she snapped, and the door slammed behind her.
The half-dozen men looked at one another, then at the shivered door.
"I wonder what that was --" one of them hazarded, then stopped at the sound of hurried feet in the hallway.
There was a quick tattoo of knuckles on the door, then an anxious looking young man thrust open the door, scanning anxiously.
"Mr. Adams," he blurted, "it's your son, sir. You're needed at home on the instant, sir!"
The cigar fell from Adams' suddenly nerveless fingers.

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Charlie MacNeil 2-14-10

 

The two ridden horses were unsaddled, rubbed down and munching contentedly on clean meadow hay as dessert after a generous helping of grain. Momma and baby were standing up to the new arrival's hocks in straw that Charlie had hauled in from the grain country to the north for just such an eventuality. The snug, tightly caulked log barn was beginning to feel, if not warm, then warmer from the contained body heat of the horses; Charlie could no longer see his breath in the light of the bullseye lantern, in spite of the temperature outdoors. He looked over at the Sheriff. "You ready for some grub?"

"I do believe I am," Linn replied. "It's been a while since my last meal, and it's gettin' hungry out." The two men strode toward the man-sized door cut into the middle of the leftmost of the barn's two wide swinging doors and pushed their way outside to duck chins into coat collars in answer to the rising wind that slung stinging particles of snow in their faces. Heads bowed against the storm they tramped through the rapidly falling snow toward the warm, welcoming golden light of the ranch house.

Stamping the snow from their boots and beating frozen moisture from hats and coats, the two men stepped up into the enclosed rear porch just as the interior door swung open. The golden rectangle of light was accompanied by the good smells of boiling Arbuckle's and roasting meat, and a shapely silhouette. "Well, look what the cat dragged in! You boys look like you've been out in too much snow for too long a time!" Fannie declared, the glint of her smile evident even with her back to the lamps that shed such welcoming light on the porch floor.

"That we have, darlin', that we have," Charlie answered as he hung his coat and hat on a peg beside the door. "But we brought in a new baby that mighta been wolf bait otherwise, so I guess it was worth it." He wrapped a flannel-clad arm around her shoulders. "And as you can see, I found another orphan of the storm hunkered down with the mares," he went on. "Ain't had time to find out what in the world he was doin' settin' up camp in the hollow." He looked at Linn. "Speaking of which, just what exactly are you doin' out this way?"

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Linn Keller 2-16-10

 

Charlie's barn felt just pretty darn good by the time we got done with the saddle horses and got his new foal convinced that this was a good place.
It had been born out in the open and it wasn't sure that being shut in where it was dark and funny smelling was a good thing but then its stomach got the best of it and it turned to its dam for another meal and allowed as this wasn't so bad after all.
Charlie and I grinned at the busy little fellow and we left Mama and baby to their meal and headed for the house.
It was snowing again, but not like it was before, big flakes and coming down cross legged: now it was snowing little hard pellets and it was gettin' colder and the wind drove them little icy pellets right into my face.
I cussed silently but with full and deep feeling.
I cussed under my breath and I cussed without uttering a breath.
My feet hurt and my hips ached and I was hungry and cold and I cussed the snow and I cussed the cold wind.
I cussed old man Barrows for being so mean hearted as to go out in this stuff and make his hands go find him, and I cussed him again for being dead, and I cussed him again just on general principles.
Charlie looked over at me.
I hadn't said a word but my thoughts had been distinctly un-Christian in nature.
"Brother," said he, "that is the most profane silence I've heard in a long time."
Snow squeaked under our boots as we waded through the fluffy white stuff to the house, and the door opened, and I don't know which was the more delightful, Miz Fannie's trim-waisted figure silhouetted in the lamp light, or the smell of Arbuckle's and a good hot meal.
Once we got the snow kicked off our boots and shook the show off our chaps, once we shucked out of our coats and washed our hands and faces and got set down in where it was warm, Charlie looked at me with snow-melt beads on his mustache and that ornery glint in his eyes.
"Just what exactly are you doin' out this way?"
I turned my head and coughed and wheezed some. Ever since I frosted that lung some years ago I'd been prone to the pneumonias on that side and it felt like it was tryin' to set in ag'in and I figured some medicinal alcohol ought to be of benefit, especially on a chilly and inclement night like this.
"Barrows' top hand sent a runner to fetch me," I said. "He figured that mean old skin flint was out in the snow tryin' to ketch his men high gradin' his stock, and allowed as he was so mean he'd catch his death of the live-forevers." I took a noisy sip of coffee and sighed.
"They was right. We found him deader'n a politician's promise. Not a mark on him, I reckon he died of pure meanness."
Miz Fannie set a steaming plate down in front of me and laid the back of her hand ag'in my cheek, then my forehead.
Her fingers were cool and I remember my Mama's hand as she'd lay it ag'in me in just that same manner, and the memory was a comfort.
"Darlin', you're hot," she said, and I turned a little and put my hands on hers, making a sandwich of them.
"Miz Fannie," I said, "I am a walking furnace, just ask Esther. She tells me I'm better than a bed warmin' pan."
There was a knowing to Miz Fannie's eyes as she clasped my hands in hers: it was not the clasp of a friend, not the clasp of a lover, not even the clasp of someone who knew me: it was the same I'd felt when that mountain witch back in the Carolina mountains seized my hands and muttered, "Hot hands, a Healer's hands," and for a long moment I was a green officer again, hurt and a long way from home.
Miz Fannie put her hands on her belt line and swung her hips like she was swinging a church bell on Sunday morning. "I know all about you and Miz Esther, you scalawag!" she scolded, the curve of her lips and the merriment in her eyes giving lie to her words.
Charlie chuckled. "Now, darlin', is there sometin' you ain't been tellin' me?" he teased, and Miz Fannie turned and favored him with a look that would turn a strong man's knees to water for the wanting a woman can cast on a man.
"A lady always has secrets, darlin'," she purred, turning to wink at me, then she went over to the stove and Charlie's gaze followed her, open admiration in his expression.
I'm bein' a gentleman here.
His expression was open and what was plain on his face was admiration, but there was a deeper feeling which I am not willin' to talk about, for I know I've looked at Esther in the same way ... right before I fetched her up in my arms and carried her up our staircase.
But I ain't a-gonna talk about that neither.
Miz Fannie, I reflected as I tore into that plate full of food a few minutes later, knows her way to a man's heart: the Chinese have a saying, "Any food that fills the belly is good food," and I won't admit that she could have set down a plate of oiled sawdust and it would have been appetizing, but I was hungry enough to chew the cantle off a good saddle, and that only added to my enjoyment of the excellent meal she'd set down in front of us.

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Charlie MacNeil 2-16-09

 

Plates were emptied more than once as furnaces damped down from the cold were restoked in the warm kitchen. The big blue enamelware pot full of boiled Arbuckle's made the rounds until it tipped up empty and was set aside to cool a skosh before cleaning. "Thanks for the grub, Darlin'," Charlie told his lovely bride. "Nothin' like comin' in out of a blizzard to whet a man's appetite." He hauled himself from his chair and began to gather the dishes and flatware. Linn pushed his chair back but before he could rise Charlie ordered, with a twinkle in his eye, that the Sheriff was to "just stay set right there. This won't take but a minute. Then we'll have some dessert."

"Dessert? What was that fine pie we just did such irreparable damage to if it wasn't dessert?" Linn wanted to know.

"That was indeed a fine pie, but it needs just a little something to follow it down," Charlie answered solemnly. Fannie stepped in front of him, hands on her hips and long-handled wooden spoon clenched in her fist.

"I beg your pardon?" she asked, one eyebrow lifted. "I don't believe..."

"You wouldn't whack a man with his hands full of dishes, would ya, Darlin'?" Charlie interrupted cheerfully. "I'd hate to see all this fine crockery in a heap on the floor." He gave her his most innocent grin then quickly stepped to the sink and set the dishes on the porcelain. He turned back to Fannie, picked her off the floor and planted a kiss on her forehead before setting her back on her feet and ducking away from the swipe of the spoon at his head. He reached up into a cupboard and hooked his finger in the ring handle of a jug of the Daine Brothers' finest, reaching for a trio of glasses with his other hand at the same time. The jug and its companions lit on the table with a thump and clatter that fell just shy of depositing glass shards on the red-checked damask.

"Our friend here looks a tad bit peaked, and I thought maybe he could use some medicinal tonic," Charlie finished as he dropped back into his chair. "Ow!" The spoon thumped the backside of his noggin as Fannie stepped around him to her own chair and sat.

"That'll teach you, mister!" She declared with a merry grin. "Letting me think there was something wrong with my pie! Humph!" She waved the spoon under his mustache. "Just remember, I know where you live, and you have to sleep some time!" she finished with a mock sternness in her tone that was belied by the twinkle in her emerald eyes.

Charlie gave her another grin then reached out to pull the stopper from the jug and pour a generous tot of the clear amber liquid into each of the glasses. The three each lifted a glass as Charlie toasted, "To brothers and sisters of the soul if not of the red of the blood!" The first smooth sips of good Kentucky-recipe bourbon slid across lips and palate, smooth as the finest silk, before coming to rest behind belt buckle or apron with the kindled warmth of a loved one's homecoming.

"At the risk of being whacked with that formidable weapon yonder," Linn nodded toward Fannie and her spoon, "I must say that is fine way to finish off a wonderful meal! I thank you for your hospitality, Miz Fannie MacNeil."

"You are more than welcome, Mister Keller," Fannie answered, turning the full wattage of her smile on the hapless Sheriff. "And now if you'll excuse my husband, he has something he must needs do." She gave Charlie an arch look as he pushed his chair back again with a sigh.

"There ain't no rest for the wicked!" the ex-Marshal declared. It was a matter of only a couple of minutes before he was up to his rolled-up shirt sleeves in hot soapy water while Linn and Fannie looked on and critiqued his technique...

Later that night as they lay cuddled snugly under warm, hand-tied quilts, Charlie told Fannie, "There's something bothering Linn, but I ain't sure exactly what it is. Something he saw out yonder in the snow. I was gonna ask him some more about it after supper, but it slipped my mind, probably because somebody whacked me with a spoon. Something about a wolf..."

"Maybe we need to go hunting in the morning," Fannie said sleepily, choosing to ignore the spoon comment. "I'd hate to lose any babies that might happen to be born as early as the one you brought in tonight." Charlie matched her yawn with one of his own as the warmth of the meal and the bed after the cold of the storm caught up with him with finality.

"Soon's I get the horses fed," Charlie answered through another yawn. They shared a kiss and were almost instantly asleep.

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Linn Keller 2-17-10

 

Miz Fannie had pointed me toward the extra bed.
Between good honest fatigue and a few good honest belts of Old Stump Blower, I was sagging fast, and when Miz Fannie's hands closed on my shoulders and she steered toward the bunk, why, I didn't object a bit.
I do recall feeling surprised at the strength in her hands.
I should not have been: most slender women have a goodly amount of strength about them, and Miz Fannie was no exception a'tall.
I set myself down on that-there bunk and my hips ached I was so tired.
Miz Fannie set her hands on her belt again and cocked her head the way she did with that half-smile and said "Are you sleepin' in your boots?" and I looked up at her and smiled a little.
"Miz Fannie," I said, "Angela one time patted her belly after supper and said 'My tummy is smiling.'" I rubbed my gut and said, "I know mine is."
I recall she went out of the room and I shucked down to my long handles -- it would not have been decent to peel myself out of my duds with her near by -- and I don't reckon I got my head fairly on the pillow before I was well beyond sound asleep.
I did take my boots off first.

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Linn Keller 2-18-10

 

The Sheriff rolled up on his side, curled under the blankets, arms crossed and knees drawn up, shivering.
The shivering passed and the man relaxed, breathing slower, easier in the ranch house's quiet darkness.
Outside the wind rushed against the siding, intermittently surging around the strong, tight structure before tumbling on across the sparkling landscape.
The Sheriff slept, and as he slept, he dreamed: the dream was tangled and confusing like most dreams are ...
He was lying on the floor of his study and a giant hand descended on his face, pulling his nose out to a long point while a child laughed ...
Angela, warm and alive and squirming in his arms, laughing and holding him and giggling "Dad-dee!"
Esther's eyes, warm and alive as she looked on with motherly approval, and the smell of baking bread and coffee ...
The dream changed and he was in the hollow again, but Charlie's horses were gone, as was his mare: he stood alone in the snow in his red long handles and sock feet but he wasn't cold, and that wolf was on the other side of the clearing, just looking at him, just looking ...
The Sheriff ran his hand into the boot top he wasn't wearing and came out with a thin, sharp blade: crouching a little, nostrils flared, he drew his lips back from his teeth and invited the animal to come right on, and the wolf blinked sleepily and just stood there, looking at him.
The dream faded, and was gone ...

The Sheriff, still asleep, relaxed a little, sinking into a deeper slumber.

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Linn Keller 2-18-10

 

Mr. Baxter raised an eyebrow at Tom Landers, who gave an almost imperceptible nod.
He'd noticed.
Adams was on his way to getting well likkered up but so far he'd behaved himself.
He'd even been accidentally bumped by a ranch hand without undue comment.
The hand, in fairness, apologized immediately and moved to give the well dressed ex-board member a bit more room, but despite Adams' lack of a hasty response, Mr. Baxter's experience, his "nose" as he called it, told him there was trouble a-comin'.

Jacob had ridden leisurely to his parents' house, tethered his Appaloosa out front: his emergence from the house was considerably less calm: he was in the saddle and galloping for the barn before his stallion was completely awake, for he'd started to doze, hip-shot at the hitch rail: Jacob threw the reins over his mount's head, hauled the doors open and harnessed the sleigh in something less than record time.
Esther had recently purchased a matched pair of Morgan mares and they were not entirely happy at being rousted from warm stalls in such a hasty and un-gentle manner: well trained though they were, they danced impatiently in harness as Jacob led them to the front of the house, then turned his stallion to face his mother.
"I'll find him, ma'am!" he shouted, and the Appaloosa reared, pawing its forelegs with excitement.
Apple-horse loved few things better than a good run, and a good run was clearly in the offing.
Esther's hair was precisely arranged, her hat at an exact angle on her head: her attire was immaculate, everything was in place, and she proceeded to descend the swept-clean steps with the dignity and icy control of the Queen herself, and ascended into the sleigh as if to the throne.

Miz Fannie had seen to the feeding of her men before the day's chores commanded their attention: laughter was a frequent visitor at her and Charlie's table, and more so with a guest with whom they were very much at ease: after a good healthy day starter of bacon and eggs, good homemade bread and some back strap that had somehow missed the previous night's ravenous attentions, the Sheriff took their leave in a most gentlemanly manner, kissing Miz Fannie's hand (and blushing like a schoolboy when he did) and shaking Charlie's hand rather formally.
The Sheriff rode toward town; Charlie and Fannie rode out to check their herd.

The air was clear, between the Colorado altitude and winter's cold: Jacob could see for a remarkable distance, as he was blessed with a young man's good eyes, and the faultless atmosphere: they drew up on a promontory he knew of, Apple-horse blowing plumes of steam into the cold air, Jacob straining to see the approaches.
He knew his father had gone toward the Barrows place but he'd heard nothing since then: seeing nothing, he took an extra moment to consider.
Once he gets back, he thought, he'll stop at the Sheriff's office first, then he'll go over to the Jewel rather than make coffee. Like as not he'll shoot the breeze with Mr. Baxter and if Jackson Cooper shows up they might be a while at it.
I'll go there first.

Jacob's eyes narrowed: Apple-horse felt the change and froze.
"Oh dear God no," he whispered.
He turned and saw his mother was just leaving their house.
Jacob had practiced a whistle, a high, pure note that carried for a remarkable distance, and he gathered in a great lung full of the cold mountain air.
Jacob curled his lip and whistled.
He waited several long moments, knowing his father would be listening to his horse, to the creak of saddle-leather, to the land around him.
"Nothing," Jacob whispered.
Jacob threw a knot in his reins, dropped them over his saddle horn.
Apple-horse shivered with anticipation.
Bunching his muscles, he waited for the signal that meant he could thrust steel-shod hooves against the cold earth.

Mr. Baxter knew something was not right.
Miz Esther was the vision of perfection -- she always was -- not a hair out of place, fashionably and attractively dressed, her speech was precise as it always was, but something ... something wasn't right.
"Mr. Baxter," she asked, "have you seen my husband?"
Adams turned toward her and Mr. Baxter knew unpleasantness was about to follow.
"You can't run a railroad and now you can't find you husband," Adams sneered.
Esther was a Wales, a woman of gentility and breeding: she was a true Belle of the old South, longsuffering and patient, but even such women have their limits.
Esther backhanded Adams across his nose: he turned, surprised, just in time to inherit the palm of her right hand on his now-exposed cheek, followed by the lashing return-stroke of the back of her right hand.
Between drink and humiliation -- Mrs. Adams had been much less than understanding of his recent dismissal from the Board of Directors -- Mr. Adams had a dangerous combination.
Mr. Adams had a very badly bruised pride, and Mr. Adams had a good load of liquid courage on board, and Mr. Adams had discarded any good sense about halfway through his last drink.
Adams moved as if to seize the dignified, auburn-headed matron.
Esther had grown up with a household of boys as well as girls: she learned early how to fight, and in a time of stress, we all respond as we have been trained: she moved into his embrace rather than shrink from it, or rather she moved in and seized Adams by the front of his coat: spinning, she turned the heavier man with weight and leverage and fell back, bringing him with her.
Esther was a horsewoman and had spent a remarkable amount of time in the saddle. She had a horsewoman's trim waist and strong legs, and she thrust her strong legs into the man's gut as he came over on top of her, and she shoved hard, throwing him over her head and into the table behind.
Adams caught the table just below the small of his back and fell to the floor in a great groaning crash.
Esther was on all fours, then in a deep crouch, legs wide apart, a long, shining blade in each hand: her hat was gone, her hair was awry, with one curl dangling in the center of her forehead: her emerald eyes were ablaze, her lips pulled back, and Tom Landers was minded of nothing so much as a stuffed tiger he'd seen once, mounted as if in full snarling charge and beginning to spring on its prey.
Adams was suddenly sober, and just beginning to realize how much pain he was in.
He made no move to rise.
Tom Landers strode over to the man and seized him by his coat front: dropping his backside and bringing Adams to his feet with leverage (Tom Landers, like most Western men, had shirt sleeves full of well muscled arms, but he'd done this many times before and knew it was easier on his old carcass if he used mechanics rather than muscles).
Mr. Baxter, ever the gentleman, kindly held the door as Tom Landers hauled Adams to the waiting portal.
Adams, recently fired from the Z&W's Board of Directors, beaten in a saloon fight by a mere woman and now thrown out like a common drunk, just lay there on the packed snow, wishing he could surrender his spirit and be done with it.

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Linn Keller 2-20-10

 

I felt my defenses wrap around me like a hard wall.
I'd dismounted in front of the new brick fire house and Little Sean came running out to meet me, laughing, followed by Big Sean, his Irish-red handlebar a match for his bare-headed thatch.
Little Sean raised his arms and I took him around the chest, snatching him up and spinning him around, a game he loved: he threw his head back and laughed, waving his arms in delight and abandoning himself to the sensation of the entire world orbiting in a dizzing blur about him.
I handed him off to Big Sean, who promptly turned the laughing boy upside down, lowering him until his head just brushed the packed snow: Little Sean patted at the cold white firmament and Big Sean swung him up, catching him neatly and perching him on a square, hard-muscled shoulder.
"Sure an' when are ye gon' ta give us another lad?" Sean boomed, his grin splitting his face. "Ye'll need ano'er t' match the one ye ha'e!"
I grinned a conspiratorial grin, such as is shared among friends in confidence, and Sean's eyes twinkled with a devil's merriment: he reached over and thumped my shoulder approvingly: "Ah, ye're workin' on it, are ye! Good man!"
"I never said a word," I protested, doing my best to look innocent.
I have no idea whether I was successful or not.
Jacob made the turn onto the main street, his Appaloosa heeled over at an alarming angle: he pounded down the snowy thoroughfare toward us, leaning back and yelling "Ho!" as the stallion skidded to a stop.
I could hear the clatter as he chewed his bit.
"Sir!" Jacob shouted, dismounting in one fluid move. "Sir, it's --"
I looked up the street.
Esther was just coming down the street in the sleigh.
She was driving with an unnatural stiffness.
A man knows his wife, and a man comes to know his wife's appearance, and Esther's was ... rigid, cold ... controlled.
Jacob saw me look, and he turned, then then turned back to me.
"Sir, it's Joseph," he said, and I saw his hands begin to shake.
I took a long step forward and took Jacob by the shoulders.
"What happened?" I asked quietly, as gently as I could, and Jacob looked absolutely sick.
"Sir, he's --"
Jacob swallowed hard.
I looked up the street.
Esther was bringing the Morgan mares to a halt in front of Digger's.
It was my turn to swallow hard.
Jacob had seen much in his young life but this was hitting him harder than he thought it would.
He needed my strength.
I wrapped my defenses around me like the walls of a fortress.
"Saddle up," I said, and my voice was strange and hard in my ears.

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Linn Keller 2-21-10

 

Esther's hand found mine as we walked through Digger's parlor.
"Yes, that's such a shame about the Adams boy," Digger intoned solemnly, shaking his head with a dolorous expression.
I think the man could look with grieved sadness upon a blooming rose, or a fine sunrise. He cultivated the sepuchural tone, the sad expression, until it was part of him: today was no different.
"Fell off that dun horse of his, he did. Cracked his head and killed him instantly."
"It was the black mare, the one with one light hoof, and his neck was broken," Esther corrected him gently: then she pointed and said, "That one."
I felt myself going numb.
Until now it wasn't real, it couldn't be real, but Esther's gloved finger pointed at a tiny silk lined coffin.
It was of figured cherry, beautifully finished, highly polished, the very best made, but it was so tiny, so small ...
Joseph-sized, a voice whispered.
Jacob was close by my right side. I felt the animal warmth of his body and reached blindly for his shoulder.
Digger was nattering about the very best quality, and brought clear from Chicago, and genuine Chinese silk lining, and Jacob and I took no note of what he said: we picked up that tiny little coffin, the two of us, then I hoisted it up on my right shoulder and looked at Digger as if I were looking down a long tunnel.
"How much?" I asked, and my voice was strange and distant.
He named a figure and Esther paid him.
Jacob opened the fine, heavy door with the etched glass panes and we stepped out into the clean air, leaving the odors of embalming fluid and thick, heavy drapes behind us.
We set that little coffin cross wise in the back of the sleigh.
Esther needed no help ascending from the board walk into the sleigh but I held her hand anyway, as I always did, and she gave me a quiet "Thank you," as she always did: she clucked to the Morgan mares, Jacob and I saddled up and fell in beside her, one on the right, and one on the left.
Jackson Cooper was watching us and his expression was troubled, then he picked some fellow up off the packed snow as easy as if he were picking up a rag doll.
I recall the man's nose was bleeding.
I'm not sure why but I looked back, just as we were ready to turn off toward our place, and I saw Jackson Cooper and the fellow with the bloody nose were going into Digger's place.
I looked at Esther.
She was driving with an absolutely erect posture, and I recall her face was pale, especially around her mouth, the cold air bringing the color out in her cheeks, but her eyes were so distant, so lost ...

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Linn Keller 2-22-10

 

Jeremiah's heart sank, slowly, as the foundation of his universe shivered and started to crumble.
Like most boys he'd grown up thinking his Old Man was the nearest thing to Jesus Christ that ever walked the face of the earth.
His Pa had survived the War and numerous skirmishes after, even to the legendary and vigorous defense of Firelands itself not many years before: a man of clear eyes and good humor, quick with a joke or a humorous story, unless someone else was present.
The Grand Old Man was positively reticent when it was more than just he and his son.
Jeremiah looked at the oval tobacco tin wedged in behind the telegraph sounder.
Jeremiah knew the contemptuous term used for poor telegraphers: they were called "lids," because they often pried the lid off a round tobacco tin and wedged it in behind the sounder: if the telegrapher were intattentive, or his mind tended to wander, this made the clicks more distinct, and penetrated the poor operator's mental wanderings a little better.
Unfortunately, the use of the entire tin -- especially the oval tin, kind of flask shaped, the kind a man could slip into a pocket -- using the entire tin wedged behind the sounder meant something else.
Jeremiah leaned over and looked in the tin, and he almost groaned.
The tin was about a third full of sand.
Jeremiah sat down in his father's chair as this constant in his universe showed itself for what it was.
This grand granite statue, strong and immune to all the harms that outrageous fortune's slings and arrows could bring, in the light of this sudden revelation suddenly ... well, suddenly Jeremiah realized that the Grand Old Man had feet made of the same clay as his own.
His Pa had added sand, a little bit at a time, until the tobacco tin amplifier, clicked on a particular frequency, a particular tone, making it easier to hear.
He thought back to mis-copied messages, to missed comments, and remembered his Pa inclining his head a little to try and hear something ... an action Jeremiah had noted as new, but immediately denied.
His Pa was becoming hard of hearing.
His Pa, Jeremiah realized with a sense of loss, was getting old.

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Linn Keller 2-23-10

 

Jacob went home and changed into his suit.
I washed up while I had time and then went upstairs and changed into my clean suit.
The women took over as they always do when there's a death: I knew they were washing little Joseph, and dressing him and getting him presentable: the coffin had a drop down side for display, and I knew he would be laid out in the parlor, and I recall hearing Esther say something about a photographer coming to take the portrait.
I came downstairs and looked out the front door.
I felt mixed up, like a pail of muddy water all stirred, and stopped, and wondered where I remembered the phrase from.
Funny how you'll hold onto something so trivial, so unimportant, at a time like that.
I can recall a green lieutenant in his first command, in his first battle.
He stopped dead in his tracks and concentrated on getting his hat band just right.
The fool survived the battle, never even got clipped, and the men of his unit later were evenly divided: half allowed as he froze up and the other half said he was cool under fire.
He and I talked about it later and he allowed as adjusting that hat band was suddenly the most important thing he could do.
I figure he had run into something he could neither make sense of nor control, so he had to hold onto something, anything, to bring order into a disordered universe.
I don't know as that's the case.
Hell, I don't know nothin', I thought viciously.
My good right hand started to shake and I realized with some surprise it was balled up tight in a fist. I felt two knuckles pop, so tight was my grip.
I willed my hand to relax and turned away from the front door, then I stopped and looked out the front window again.
I realized I'd been staring out the window and I hadn't seen a single thing, so I took a second look to see what I didn't see the first time.
There was nothing to be seen, so I went on into my study and closed one of the two doors: I am inside, but you may enter.
I took a long look at the brandy, golden and inviting in its cut glass decanter, then I sat down at my desk and opened the journal.
I had need to catch up on recent events.
Jacob tapped at the door after a bit and came in at my bidding: I put the pen into the wooden pen holder the youngest Daine had made for me: it was shaped like a barrel, and even had the staves and bands carved in flawless relief.
I turned it a little and smiled, for he'd even managed to include rivets at the overlap of the carved hoops.
"Jacob," I said, setting down the pen holder and looking over at my son, "reach me two snifters if you would, please."
Jacob did more than bring two snifters out of the cupboard. Closing the door with its wavy-glass panel, he poured us each two fingers' worth and set the crystal flask back in its recess.
He handed me mine, then he reached around and drew his chair up close to mine.
I heard the leather creak as my son seated himself, and leaned over, forearms on his knees.
"Sir," he said softly, "I don't reckon there's anything I can say that will help."
I reached blindly for his hand.
"Jacob," I said, "I have been to more buryin's than I can count." I blinked, for my eyes stung a little. "Ever' one of them, people would speak kind words, and I've never remembered a single word they said." I looked sharply at my son. "I've never remembered one single word they spoke, but I've never, ever forgot each and every soul who cared enough to speak those words." I squeezed his hand, released it. "That you are here, speaks more volumes than an orator behind a podium."
Jacob nodded, his jaw thrust forward, and I knew there was something on his mind.
"You might as well say it," I encouraged him.
"Sir, it ain't the same, but you'll have a grandson here directly."
I turned my head a little as if inclining my good ear to him.
Jacob could not help but grin.
"Sir" -- Jacob swallowed hard -- "Annette ... she's ... that's why she run off to Denver, she got scairt an' she saw her old family doc, and ..."
Jacob's grin was broad and genuine, his joy overriding his grief.
"Sir, I'm gonna be a Pa!"
I couldn't help it neither.
My grin was broad as his, and we hoisted our brandies in salute.

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Charlie MacNeil 2-24-10

 

Fannie and Charlie were in the saddle within a bare few ticks of the clock after Linn's departure, with a couple day's worth of iron rations accompanying the blanket rolls tied behind their cantles. Charlie had thrown the mares enough hay to last even through another storm, just in case their search took them further afield than what they expected.

They rode some one hundred yards apart, one to either side of the chain of dimples in the fresh snow that were the only remaining signs of the mares' trail from the night before. The sun's dazzle on the white prairie made them squint and tug their hat brims low to try to cut the glare enough to allow distance vision as they topped the first long rise beyond the ranch.

They reined in at the top of the rise to let the horses catch their breath and to survey the surroundings as best they could in the glare. A wisp of cloud led its shadow toward them from across the hills to the east, and when the shadow had passed, the wolf was there...

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Linn Keller 2-24-10

 

We spoke quietly.
The entire house seemed to have been muffled in a funereal hush: I heard the rustle of womens' skirts as they passed, footsteps were carefully delicate, voices were almost whispered.
Funerals were not drawn out affairs out here. The dead were laid out in the parlor and next day they were buried.
Jacob and I allowed as it would be proper if we would sleigh the tiny little coffin ourselves rather than fetch out Digger's fancy hearse.
I recalled how little Joseph laughed, standing up wobbly between Esther and I, and how Angela, faithful big sister that she was, stood in back and reached over the front seat to hold her little brother upright.
I frowned at the brandy.
It might as well have been peach flavored kerosine.
I set the snifter aside.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Will the burial be tomorrow?"
I nodded. "Digger said he would have a hole for us, frozen ground or not."
Jacob nodded. He was not sure quite how the man would do it, but he had no doubt that the deed would be accomplished.
Big Sean showed up, solemn and red-faced, and accepted a brandy and a cigar: Little Sean, bright-eyed, wasn't sure why everyone was being quiet and formal, but he knew enough to turn invisible.
He looked at me from beside -- almost behind -- Big Sean's leg, and I winked at the lad.
Little Sean laughed and the laugh was good to hear.
I leaned forward. "Little Sean," I said, "can you wink?" I screwed one eye shut and Little Sean laughed again, then tried to close one eye.
"Well that's not bad," I said, "two for the price of one!"
Big Sean sighed. "He's growin'," he said, almost a lament: "I recall when th' Doc handed him to me, all wee an' red an' squallin'! By St. Florian himself I couldna' see how such a wee thing could grow an' now look at him!"
I nodded.
"Jacob tells me I'm going to be a Granddad."
"Lad!" Sean forgot decorum entirely and pounded Jacob happily on the back.
Jacob didn't spill all the brandy in his snifter, and at least the snifter itself didn't hit the floor.
"Sean, how's your other little one?"
"He's noisy!" Little Sean interjected, and before Big Sean could admonish him, Daisy swept in, disapproval fairly prickling out of her hide.
Annette, unnoticed, slipped in behind her.
"Shame be wid' ye!" she scolded. "We're grievin' out here an' ye're carryin' on like a bunch o' sots!" She planted her knuckles on her hips, then turned her Irish glare on Jacob.
"An' you!" She shook an admonishing figure at the blinking Jacob. "Just think o' wha' ye ha'e done t' that puir girl! She's gon' ta look like a cherry on a broomstraw she is, an' she's gon'ta groan and' labor an' for what? Because you wanted a son! You wanted a son! What about her? It's ne'er wha' the woman wants, it's always wha' the mon wants!"
Annette spoke quietly. "We both want this," she said, and Daisy turned, eyes snapping.
"Aye, an' ye're comin' t' rescue yer husband, an' he's no' raised a word i' his defense! Men! They put us puir women through purgatory an' here they sit smokin' cigars an' drinkin' brandy!"
I was having a really, really hard time keeping a straight face, and finally I gave up entirely, as did Big Sean: we both laughed, and the tension broke, and Daisy gave an indiginant "Oooh!" -- turning in a flare of skirting, she swung stiff arms as she steamed out of the room.
There are times when I open my mouth and something truly stupid falls out.
This was one of those times.
"Don't mince words," I said quietly, "please speak your mind!"
Sean and Jacob and I looked at one another and the laughter started again.
Annette gave me a quiet look, a smile, and followed Daisy out.
We three sat in companionable silence for a time, Little Sean deciding the best place to watch me from was his Da's lap: growing he was, but a child he was, and he fell asleep in a very few minutes, which kept Big Sean from becoming too boisterous.
There was something very steadying, watching that big-muscled, hard-knuckled Irishman holding his son, a look on his face few got to see.
Jacob cleared his throat quietly, carefully.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
Sean looked over, listening.
"Has anyone said anything about a wolf?"
I blinked.
"What did you see?"
"Sir, I was upstairs looking out, and the biggest wolf I'd ever seen was setting out in the meadow looking right square at me."
I turned my head a little, frowning as if to bring my best ear to bear.
"Sir, the moon was full and bright and there was no mistaking what I saw."
"What followed?"
Jacob swallowed, chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully and then set his empty snifter on the side board.
"Sir, he disappeared. He did not turn, jump, run ... nothing."
"Was it snowing?"
"Before, sir, and after, but when I saw him the moon was just out from behind the clouds."
"Tracks?"
Jacob looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"Sir, I had my field glasses near to hand and I took a good look with the full bright of the moon looking right where he'd set."
"There were no tracks."
"No, sir."
I nodded.
"Any stock missing over your way? Unusual wolf activity?"
"No, sir, nothing missing. There are always wolves but none close."
I nodded.
"Sir, I can't figure why there were no tracks. I rode out to where he'd been. Nothing a'tall. A mouse couldn't sneeze without blowin' a hole in the snow, sir, why weren't there tracks?"
"Jacob," I chuckled, "you're a lawman, all right. You don't like things you can't figure out."
Jacob blinked. He hadn't realized he'd been leaning forward with the intensity of his feelings.
"The Shee," Sean muttered.
"Come again?"
"The Shee. Some call her banshee. She wails at the streambank for those about t' die." His eyes were haunted.
"I heard the Shee, twice now. Both times were b'fore fires that took lives that should ne'er ha' been lost." He looked sharply at the Sheriff. "Do ye be on yer guard now. This could ha' spoke t' young Joseph's going, or not." He held Little Sean protectively in his bulging arms. "There's more t' this, mark my word now."
I looked sharply at the big Irishman.
"Have you heard the Shee here of late?"
Sean closed his eyes and shivered.
"Ma dear mother had th' Second Sight. She was th' last o' her line, the sixth firstborn female. Had she birthed a girl-child, the seventh daughter firstborn, she would ha' been a Wise Woman, a woman of the Old Ways ... but ma dear mother birthed a boy-child, an' so she grieved, for the boy children can no' inherit th' Gifts." He shivered again. "But there's times ... there's times when I hear the Shee, an' know death is a-comin', an' there's times when I can almost hear the Shee, an' it's a warning."
Big Sean looked at the Sheriff and his expression was serious.
"Do you have a care now, Sheriff. I don' know what's i' the wind but it's no' good."
We heard the sound of feminine sobbing without, and I nodded.

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Charlie MacNeil 2-24-10

 

There was nothing; then, as the cloud continued on its way, there was the black-frosted form of the great predator standing before them, tongue lolling as it calmly regarded the couple. Charlie slipped his rifle from the scabbard under his off-side knee, bringing his gloved hand to the fine walnut of the forearm; before he could lever a round into the chamber and lift the gun to his shoulder, Fannie laid her own glove-clad hand on his forearm. "Don't." Her tone drew his gaze to her face. "I get the feeling..."

"What?" he asked softly.

"That it wants us to follow." As if her words were a signal, the lithe form turned, trotted a few steps then vanished as quickly as it came. Charlie felt an icy finger suddenly slip down the length of his spine, raising gooseflesh as it traversed his skin. He shivered as he slid the Winchester into the leather then nudged the roan forward, Fannie's sorrel stepping out beside him...

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Charlie MacNeil 2-24-10

 

An hour and half later, the wolf had appeared five more times, each time turning and disappearing, by its actions pointing the way they were to go. From a rise where they rested the horses Charlie looked back at their trail, which led straight as a plumb line back toward the distant swale where the ranch sat. Turning the roan, he oriented himself along that arrow-straight track then looked ahead. This time the chill that ran up his spine, lifting the hair on his nape, had nothing to do with the wolf's appearing and everything to do with where it was leading them. The blood suddenly drained from his face as he declared, "I know where we're headed!", his fierce whisper catching Fannie's attention immediately. They both heard the sound of a deep-throated whine and turned toward where the wolf stood, less than twenty yards away. "It's leadin' us toward Firelands!"

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Charlie MacNeil 2-24-10

 

The mythology of most of the world's ancient cultures have some tradition of animals as the harbingers of death. Charlie didn't know of any such in Scots folklore but couldn't argue with the fact that this wolf that left no tracks was leading them toward the town and seemed to become anxious for them to know their destination. "We'd best be moving," he told Fannie. "There's something going on in town, somewhere, that critter thinks we need to know about." He started the roan through the snow again, dread rising in him, dread and the need to know...

They rode into the head of the main street of Firelands. The town was quiet, with only a few of the townsfolk visible, bundled against the crisp chill of the air. Behind the general store a bull-team freighter was shuttling crates and barrels onto the dock and through the wide door into the dark interior. Charlie looked first toward the sheriff's office where only a thin finger of smoke lifted from the tin chimney. He reined up in front of the porch and stepped down, handing the leathers to Fannie to hold. He strode to the door and pushed it open; the office was empty. "We'll go to the Jewel," he said as he mounted the roan. The couple trotted up the street to dismount in front of the hotel.

Charlie held the door for Fannie then followed her in, turning immediately toward the bar. If there was any news, Mister Baxter would surely have it. He could see the barman disconsolately polishing glasses that were already spotless. As their bootheels thumped on the freshly swept and mopped floor of the barroom Mister Baxter lifted his eyes from his mechanical swabbing. His miserable frown once again sent icy fingers down Charlie's spine. "What happened?" he asked, his voice echoing harshly in the silent room.

"Little Joseph Keller is dead." The words rang like a funeral dirge as they chased Charlie's question across the twenty feet that separated them. Fannie's gasp of dismay followed as her emerald eyes filled with tears.

"Oh, no! We have to get to Esther and Linn immediately!" she declared, her voice catching.

"Thank you, Mister Baxter," Charlie told the barman as he took his wife's arm. "We'll head there." Baxter nodded as the couple hurried from the room and out to their horses, mounted then kicked the roan and the sorrel into a trot toward the Keller house.

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Linn Keller 2-25-10

 

Angela cocked her head and regarded her Uncle Charlie with button-bright eyes and a shy smile. Her rag doll was locked in the bend of her left elbow but this didn't stop her from charging suddenly ahead and seizing the man about the leg.
Jacob leaned out of the study's doorway. "We're in here, si -- Charlie," he said, then stepped out and inclined his head: "Miz Fannie."
Fannie noted Jacob's ears were steadily turning a remarkble shade of red.
She hid her smile, considering for a brief momet that she tended to have that effect on men.
Angela released Charlie's leg and gave Fannie a quick squeeze: "Aunt Fannie!"
The Sheriff heard the delight in his little girl's voice and smiled.
Children, he reflected, have two states of being: wide open and dead stop, either completely and overwhelmingly in favor of something, or they honestly could not care less. Why, even little Joseph seems to move at a dead run --
Annette saw the change in his eyes.
She didn't know what caused the change, but she knew there was a change: she moved quietly to his side of the room, and laid a hand on his shoulder, and the Sheriff reached up and patted her hand gently.
He heard Angela explaining something in the rapid-fire patter of an excited little girl, and as she and Miz Fannie passed the doorway on their way to the parlor, and the other ladies, the Sheriff gathered that she was telling Miz Fannie how Aunt Bonnie had brought her a morning gown but it wasn't morning but she was wearing it anyway and she thought it was so pretty 'cause it matched Mommy's mourning gown and she was wearing hers too but it wasn't morning yet and isn't that funny? -- and despite the solemn moment, the Sheriff's eyes crinkled at the corners, for little children have a delightful innocence in their speech.
Sarah was momentarily visible before she, too, eddied with the feminine currents into the parlor: she wore the short skirt of a girl instead of one of her mother's fashionable, woman-cut garments: it, too, was in mourning black, though it came a hand's-breadth below her knees.
The Sheriff rose and extended a hand.
"Ain't this a hell of a way for friends and neighbors to get together?" he asked, and Charlie could not help but notice that his friend suddenly looked very tired, and very old.
Jacob poured out three fingers of brandy as the Sheriff said "Can I offer you some brandy? -- and cigars if you're of a mind."
"I should see to Angela," Annette excused herself: Jacob saw his father follow the younger woman out with his eyes, and Jacob saw the sadness in them.
His father had confided in him that evening, before she'd come into his study, that every time he looked at Annette he couldn't help but wonder if his Dana would have grown up to be as fine a woman as Annette had become.
"You ain't sayin' much, old son," Charlie rumbled.
The Sheriff favored him with a long look, and finally nodded.
"Jacob tells me I'm going to be a Granddad," the Sheriff said quietly.
Charlie's eyes crinkled a little at the corners.
"I've got some thing to teach the lad," the Sheriff continued. "How to sharpen a pocket knife. How to black his boots and tie a fishing hook, how to make a whistle and carve a wimmydiddle ..."
His voice trailed off and his eyes swung to the open door.
Charlie saw the man's bottom jaw thrust forward.
"I'm glad you're here, brother. Have a set."

Another household, another grieving family: in the Adams household, the ladies were gathered in the parlor, with the coffin, and the men assembled in the study, with smoke and with drink: old man Adams had partaken liberally of both and the atmosphere was quite thick with the vapors of burnt cigar, and Adams was far from sober, though his grief and his turmoil prevented his being well and truly intoxicated.
He'd uttered a number of intemperate maledictions against the green-eyed witch who'd deprived him of his position, of his status: he blamed the red-headed troublemaker for ruining his fortunes and his future, and finally began to blame the owner of the Z&W even for the death of his firstborn son: as proof, at least in his own mind, was her description of the lad's fall and of the injury, for how could she know unless she had done it, or caused it to be done?
His words went unheeded, for the man was grieving, and was well into his cups, and none took him seriously, not even when he began to mutter something about an eye for an eye, and that he would have justice.

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Charlie MacNeil 2-25-10

 

Fannie followed Angela to the parlor, hesitating at the door to look down at herself. Her chaps, boots, canvas britches, hat and sheep-lined coat were fine for what she and Charlie had set out to do that day but hardly fitting for a day of mourning. She took a deep breath as Angela tugged on her hand, "Come on, Aunt Fannie!", and stepped into the parlor.

"I'm sorry for the way I'm dressed, but we were hunting when..."

Esther rose from her chair to stride across the room to where Fannie stood. "You've nothing to be sorry for, my dear," Esther interrupted kindly. "You had no way of knowing. And your presence here is a blessing." She hugged Fannie, squeezing her tightly in a heartfelt embrace that was returned in kind. She pushed Fannie back to arm's length and said, "I believe we can find you something else to wear, if that is your wish."

"Please, if it's not too much trouble."

"It's no trouble at all," Esther assured her. "Jacob!" she raised her voice to call. Jacob appeared in the doorway almost instantly. "Jacob, would you please go to the Jewel, and tell whoever is behind the desk to give you the small black trunk in the storeroom, and would you bring it here?"

"Yes, ma'am," the young man replied.

"Thank you." He disappeared and a moment later the front door slammed. Esther turned back to Fannie. "Knowing Jacob, you'll have appropriate clothing here in just a few minutes." Ever the gracious hostess, Esther went on, "Now, would you care for some tea, or perhaps something stronger?"

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Linn Keller 2-27-10

 

At one time or another most of the town stopped at the Sheriff's house to pay their respects.
The men naturally gravitated to the Sheriff's study; the ladies, to the parlor: the photographer came in and took the formal portrait of Joseph, seemingly asleep in the silk-lined coffin: one of the ladies commented softly that it was such a shame that the only portrait we often have of our young is the one taken in moments like this.
Esther was the gracious hostess, though the strain bore upon her; when finally the guests trickled out, leaving only Bonnie and Daisy behind, the parlor doors were closed, and the ladies settled in for the traditional overnight watch.
Bridget frowned and fussed until Esther finally consented to a light supper, and afterward, with gentle persuasion, Bonnie and Daisy convinced her that her place was with her family: they two seated themselves in the silent parlor, Bonnie with a book and Daisy with sewing: there were moments of quiet conversation, and the night ticked away, snipped into quiet slivers by the sharp escapement of the Regulator clock.
Sometime in the wee hours, both ladies, despite their best efforts, began to drowse.
The parlor door opened to the whisper of small bare feet.
Angela came into the parlor, looking from one to the other.
Both had managed to remain upright, though both were asleep.
Angela had her beloved rag doll in the crook of her left arm.
She walked up to the coffin and looked at little Joseph's still form.
Angela stood there for several long moments, then she took her faithful doll and carefully, gently tucked it into the coffin with her little brother.
"You'll need this," she whispered, her sibilants loud in the silence: then she turned and skipped out of the room, her curls bouncing, and she whirled and carefully, quietly, drew the parlor doors shut behind her.

In another household, before another coffin, a man stood before the silent form of his son.
He, too, was placing something in a coffin.
The lid had been formally closed and screwed shut as the last guests left, what very few there had been: now, at lonely midnight hour, Adams removed the screws and opened the lid.
"Witch," he hissed, placing the shotgun in with his son's cold, still form, then he closed the lid, and pressed a single slender dowel in each screw hole to hold the lid shut.
The dowels, he knew, would hold until he seized the lid and yanked it open.

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Linn Keller 2-28-10

 

Jacob had discreetly inquired of Digger when the Adams funeral was scheduled: it was after the planned interement of his little brother, so there would be no awkward excess of traffic in the town's iron-fenced graveyard.
His father stood before his youngest son's little coffin, his face unreadable, and he slowly, gently closed the polished cherry lid: a single screw was all that was needed to hold it shut, and the sound of the screw's insertion was loud in the little parlor.
Jacob stood uncertainly, a little to one side, as his father labored: he turned the screwdriver precisely, powerfully, careful not to let it slip and gouge the fine finish on the wood: then he handed the screwdriver to his son and picked up the diminutive coffin in his arms.
"My hat," he said, and Jacob placed his father's Steton, settling it in place, then strode ahead to get the door.
The ladies, pale faced and dressed in solemn black, filed out behind.
The Sheriff placed the little coffin in the back of the sleigh, his eyes troubled: he lay a hand on the small box, then straightened.
His place was with the living.
He went around and helped Esther into the sleigh, then Bonnie, and Daisy, and lastly, Miz Fannie: he took Angela about her waist and swung her up and into the front seat, to her giggles, and in spite of himself, he grinned.
The Sheriff flipped the reins and clucked to the Morgan mares, and they leaned into their collars, and the sled began squeaking through the snow.

Charlie had stayed well into the night.
His presence had been most welcome, and he and the Sheriff talked long and long again, quiet voiced, the easy conversation of two men who'd seen too much in their lifetimes.
"Charlie," Jacob heard his father say at one point, "the older I get, the more I don't know."
"Oh?" Charlie lowered the brandy snifter and looked at the graying lawman.
The Sheriff nodded, setting his snifter on the side board. Neither had partaken of the fragrant amber liquid for some time; the liquor had become more of a prop than a tipple.
"Maybe it's because of that damned war," the Sheriff said quietly. "If I am ... if a death happens and I'm there, it doesn't trouble me as much ..." His voice trailed off and Charlie waited, knowing more was to come.
"It's harder when I get that letter edged in black." The Sheriff shook his head. "When I got that one from back East ... it near to killed me ..." His voice faced and his eyes had a lost, far-away look.
Charlie nodded.
"Esther ... Esther took this so hard."
Jacob leaned forward a little, not wanting to miss a word.
"Joseph died in his sleep. Just ... slipped away. Didn't cry, didn't convulse, didn't choke ... just ... quit breathing." The Sheriff's eyes went to the study's closed doors.
"Esther said she should have set up with him, if she'd been right there she could have done something..." The Sheriff shook his head. "I reckon any mother would say the same."
Charlie nodded.
He'd known a similar situation, and the grieving mother had said almost those exact words.
That had been a long time ago, and he'd near to forgot about it, until now.

Now, with snow coming down again, big fluffy flakes that gathered on the Morgan's manes and the harness and the men's hats and the ladies' cloaks, they made their way to the cemetery.

Sean and Little Sean gave each other a final looking-over.
Each, satisfied with the other's appearance, gave a single, firm nod, then both laughed: it was a ritual they had, these two Irishmen, and Little Sean thrust his arms into the coat his Pa held for him: he loved the feel of his Pa's big hands drawing the coat around him, and buttoning it against the winter's cold breath.
"There now," Sean declared, settlig the fur cap on Little Sean's head. "That'll do!"
Little Sean waited impatiently at the door as Big Sean shrugged into his own warm coat, and clapped his own fur trimmed hat on his square head.
"Gloves!" he said, and Little Sean looked around, then ran into the next room and came back with two pair of hand made gloves: deer skin they were, and his were a bit big, but that was by design: he was a growing boy and he'd get more use of them if they were a bit big today.

Parson Belden kissed his stout wife and stood patiently as she fussed with the knit scarf: it was warm around his neck, tucked carefully across his chest, under his coat, and finally she laid a hand, warm and gentle, against his cheek for a long moment: it was their way of goodbye.
The Parson smelled pies in the oven, and knew that his wife would meet them afterwards at the Sheriff's house.

Sean stopped abruptly.
He and Little Sean were Irishmen, which meant the cemetery was within walking distance: a native Westerner would, of course, not consider walking -- that's why God invented horses! -- but they two thought nothing of such a walk, snow or not.
Sean listened, frowning.
"Pa?" Little Sean asked, and Big Sean raised an admonishing finger: "Sh!"
Little Sean closed his mouth, puzzled, then he heard it.
In the distance ... faint, varying with the wind ... he heard it ...
Big Sean looked down as Little Sean looked up.
"Pa?" Little Sean asked, puzzled. "Who's crying?"
Big Sean's stomach shriveled.
He hadn't heard the Shee's lament since Cincinnati.
"Make haste, lad," Sean admonished, and Little Sean labored along in the path his Pa broke for him.

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Charlie MacNeil 2-28-10

 

The solemn procession wound between drifts and shoveled banks of dazzling white snow marred here and yon with the tracks of those who had passed this way earlier in the day. Charlie and Jacob rode side by side behind the sleigh, roan gelding and Appaloosa stud stepping in perfect unison, their riders, young and not so young, sitting ramrod straight in the saddle. Fluffy flakes of falling snow gathered on shoulders and hat brims, undisturbed by breeze or gesture. Too many, Charlie thought sadly to himself, face set stolidly, too many young ones.

Many who find themselves in such a situation will question the notion of an all-knowing God of lovingkindness, a God who would take a child from the love of his family at such an age; in spite of his melancholy, Charlie would do no such thing. He felt, deep within himself, and with not a shred of doubt, that all that took place was part of the Lord's plan; Joseph's passing meant that God had a need for the boy in Heaven that far surpassed the need of kith and kin here on Earth. The pain would remain, as it always does when a young one passes, but Charlie prayed and firmly believed that the knowledge of the Lord's love that he was sure Linn and Esther carried within would mitigate the sting for them, at least enough to make it bearable.

Charlie and Linn had spoken of many things over the course of their vigil the night before. Neither had felt the need for sleep, nor had they felt the need for privacy. It is in such moments, when their elders open their memories, minds and even their hearts that the younger generation learns, not intellectually but deeply and intrinsically, the true mores of those elders. Jacob had kept his silence through the hours, sitting unobtrusively to one side, ears pricked and attention riveted on the words that passed between Sheriff and former Marshal. Each man felt that he had lived several lifetimes in his relatively short span of years; both men felt the weight of those lifetimes at times like these as something in them responded to Jacob's youth as well as his maturity. They felt a kinship with the younger man that went beyond mere blood to a nearly spiritual plane as they spoke of matters both weighty and insubstantial throughout the slowly passing hours.

The great cottonwood that some had dubbed "The Hanging Tree" stood snow-flocked sentinel at the far edge of the graveyard, arms spreading in regal majesty under the slowly falling snow. It looked down in grave contemplation at the slowly expanding gathering of mourners that came together to murmur words of condolence to the family as all and sundry attempted to take comfort in one another's presence. At last the trickling of arrivals slowed and stopped; the Pastor took his place at the head of the tiny grave, Bible in hand, and cleared his throat. "Today, we bid goodbye..."

Blurred by distance and the falling snow, a drawn-out, mournful howl, hovering barely at the edge of audibility, lifted and fled across the white expanses...

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Linn Keller 3-1-10

 

The Sheriff sat in the quiet of his study, pen forgotten in his hand, his gaze seeing through the opposite wall.
It had happened fast, so fast ...
As was customary, the immediate family attended the final service in the small stone chapel there in the cemetery: Jacob stood beside his mother, with Angela before they two; Charlie sided with Linn, and Fannie just in front of them.
The Sheriff scarcely heard the good Parson's words.
He'd spoken the self same words any number of times, too many times, over graves of family and friends, strangers and soldiers, men under his command and men he'd put into the ground: he knew them by heart, and part of him followed along, part of him remembered the laughing little boy, running naked and dripping through the house, with Esther chasing after him, bath towel spread to catch the slippery little tadpole: Joseph, climbing the vastness of Mount Daddy, pulling happily at mustache and ears and nose and laughing: Joseph, asleep in his Mama's arms.
The images were confusing, jumbled: the Sheriff saw Joseph as the bloody, wet, squalling newborn he'd first seen there in the hospital, and as the headstrong, curious, busy little boy he'd been the day before his still form didn't open its eyes at his mother's voice.
Angela stood solemnly in front of the pair, not sure whether she should hold her Mama's skirt, or her Daddy's tall boot top, and finally contented herself with leaning against Daddy's leather sheathed legs.
Father William was there as well: it still struck the Sheriff odd to see his old friend in a Roman collar, yet here he was, returned to the priesthood which had called him as a young man, a priesthood he abandoned with his broken heart, and only here of late did he take up again: holy water was sprinkled from the ornate dispencer, beads dangled from the good Father's hand as Parson Belden gave the final prayer: then Esther leaned over and drew Angela to her as the Sheriff squared his shoulders and picked up the tapered box, one last time, like he would scoop up a sleeping child in his arms.
The family plots were on the other side of the cemetery. A narrow path had been cleared, and a merciful Providence had not drifted it shut, at least not yet: it was snowing again, and the flakes stood out coldly against the hand rubbed cherry coffin lid.
The Sheriff went to one knee to lower the box to the planks laid across the tiny hole: Charlie and Jacob stepped in, each taking an end, for which the Sheriff was grateful: he would never have admitted it, but miles and years had taken their toll, and with the cold he appreciated their taking the weight of the box.
The Sheriff stood, slowly: Jacob moved as if to help him up, but was stopped by Esther's gentle touch: she understood a man's pride could be brittle in a moment like this.
Big Sean picked up his Little Sean and bit his bottom lip hard.
Little Sean looked with wonder at the water that spilled over his Da's bottom eyelid.
Jacob looked past his Pa, suprised: the Adams funeral, he'd been told, was not for another two hours, yet here they were.
He watched the coffin as it was drawn from the back of the hearse. The mourners were not well dressed. Jacob knew they were hired men: Adams was not well liked, despite his business savvy, and family back East would not give the man the time of day.
Adams turned and looked at the funeral party, gathered around the grave.
Witch! Adams thought: perfect, I can get her, I can get her from here --
Angela gave a delighted squeal and scampered, delighted, away from her Mama.

I had just made my feet when Angela took off like a shot, the Sheriff wrote.
I looked up and that wolf was on the other side of the grave not twenty feet from me.
My hand came up and opened my coat and the wolf looked sharply to its right and I knew something was wrong, something was bad wrong and I turned and drew my right hand Colt as my arm came around and got Esther solid behind me.

The Sheriff took a deep, shivering breath and looked sightlessly at the far wall again.
I saw the shot, a dirty smoldery flame at the gun muzzle, looking right at me and I felt the shot hit my leg and my chest and I fetched up my right hand Colt but the strength had gone out of my arm and I could not bring it to full cock.
My left hand come up of its own with a handful of revolver and I let go a round at the man's belt buckle just as he give the second barrel and I don't recall as I felt a thing so I brought my pistol down out of recoil and put another one just below his wish bone and he started down.
I heard a distant hammering and turned my head.
Charlie had a Remington out but that's not what I saw the most of.
I never in my life seen him so pale nor looking like a man with death in his heart.
Behind him, Jacob's Colts were both out and speaking and I turned to look at Adams and he was not yet fell down, but he was getting there.


The Sheriff shivered and then started to shake in earnest. It wasn't the fine tremors of a man remembering a moment, it was the hard, shiver the teeth out of your jaw shakes of a man who has just looked death in the eye and belted it across the face and dared it to do its worst.
He remembered Esther's choked "Angela!" and Angela's cry, and turned, and saw his little girl sprawled out on the snow.
The Sheriff dropped his revolvers and took two long steps over to his little girl.
He and Esther collided, Esther falling into a drift, rolling and coming to her feet as the Sheriff snatched up Angela.
His eyes and his hands were busy, searching, pressing, and Esther joined him: they looked at one another, and then at their crying little girl.
Big Sean had taken all of one step toward the fallen child: he'd spun reflexively to shield Little Sean, and felt the burn of a single heavy shot just above his waist, on the left side.
The Shee was suddenly silent.
Charlie and Jacob strode among the shocked, paralyzed pallbearers, who had stopped when Adams tore open the lid and yanked out a shotgun, then dropped their burden and shrank back when he raised the weapon.
They looked down at Adams.
The man gave a strangled, gurgling sound and rolled back, dead.
Jacob turned, his eyes pale and cold and utterly, completely without mercy.
Charlie, too, turned, for each had heard little Angela's cry, and both frowned, for her heartbroken wail was so completely out of place:
"I wanna pet the doggie!"
Jacob reached over and touched Charlie's arm with the back of his hand, then pointed at the coffin.
Three shot had struck the coffin's end, a fourth had burned a long splinter out of its side.

The shot penetrated little Joseph's lifeless body, but his body stopped the shot, the Sheriff wrote.
A father tries to shield his children, and an older brother seeks to protect his little sister.
Joseph was but a year and a half, and he saved his sister's life.
Not two years old and a warrior worthy of the name.

The Sheriff took no joy in the words he wrote; he took no pride in his careful scribing of the account.
He re-read the words and the grief he'd tried so hard to contain broke through the dams of his reserve.
Alone in his study, the Sheriff gave up: sobs tore their way out of his throat, tears scalded his eyes and he beat his fist hard on the hardwood desk top, finally resting his forearm on the desk and his head on his forearm.
When the racking grief-storm subsided, he dipped his quill again and wrote the final line of his entry.
The wolf was gone, and there were no tracks.

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Mr. Box 3-2-10

 

With everyone disappearing around the Silver Jewel I just scratched out a note on a piece of paper and left on the bar. "Closed for funeral."

 

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