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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 8-24-10

 

Sarah turned the Sun-Witch and touched her heels to the mare's ribs.
Bruja stepped out, following Jacob's Appaloosa, and Sarah gave a little "oooh" as she realized just how smooth this mare's gait was.
I can see why Uncle Linn likes this horse! she thought.

Linn beat on the Rosenthal door again, this time hammering it hard.
"Sarah!" he shouted, stepping back, rifle at high port.
The house remained silent.
Butter and Jelly switched their tails, looking up from their graze in the dew-wet pasture.
Linn seized the door knob and twisted, hard.
It opened easily.
"Sarah!" he shouted. "Sarah!"
The echo of his own voice was his only reply.
Oh God, no! he thought, I'm too late! -- he surged through the door, rifle up and tucked, ready to shove the muzzle toward any threat, any intruder --

It had been too long since Jacob had his Apple-horse under him, and too long since Apple had Jacob on board: each was so pleased that neither protested at the lack of a good bucking-out that was Apple's usual greeting.
Jacob rode with rifle in hand, propped up on his thigh, and so did Sarah.
They descended to the roadway that parallelled the Z&W's twin tracks, both horses breathing easy.
Jacob's eyes were busy, as were Sarah's: she had never been of the mindset that someone was out to take her life, but things were different now, and she picked up on Jacob's attentiveness, her feminine intuition telling her to pattern her reflexes, her responses, after his.
They cantered into Firelands, and down the main street, and through town: it was not far beyond, not more than a mile, that Sarah's home stood, strong and square, with meadow surrounding and mountains beyond.
Jacob reckoned they could make it to Sarah's house, allow her a change of clothes and still make it back to the Inquest.

The Sheriff ascended the staircase at little less than a run, taking the steps two at a time, half-twisted and looking up and around: he knew a stairway was a killing zone, and an ambusher above would have a definite advantage.
He shoved one door open, then another: "Sarah! Polly! Opal!"
Silence and neatly-made beds were all he found.

Jacob saw his father's black Outlaw-horse ground-reined in front of the Rosenthal ranch.
He leaned forward in the saddle, dropped the knotted reins over the saddle horn.
Apple-horse leaned joyfully into a gallop.

Sarah brought her rifle down into a two-hand grasp.
She was not familiar with her Uncle's method of riding a horse without using reins: she held the reins in her left hand, along with the checkered fore-end of her rifle: happy accident kept her from putting tension on the reins, and though she didn't realize it, she'd just given Bruja del Sol free rein to pursue the suddenly-speeding Appaloosa, and the Sun-Witch took this freedom with a glad heart.

The Sheriff heard hoofeats -- two horses, coming fast, he thought --and automatically assessed the best defensive position in the house, affording the most advantageous field of fire and the best bullet stopping construction.
He headed downstairs two at a time, stopped at the foot of the stair and went to one knee, rifle level at the front door.

"Father!" Jacob shouted, his voice loud in the cool morning air.
He turned. "Sarah! Stand fast here, watch both sides of the house!"
Jacob leaped off his Apple horse, sprinted for the front porch, flattened his back against the outer wall.
"Father!"
"Jacob!" The Sheriff's voice from within held a definite note of relief.
Jacob relaxed a little. "Sir, is all well?"
"Where's Sarah?" The Sheriff came to the front door, his '73 rifle balanced easily in his off hand.
"She's yonder." Jacob pointed with a thrust chin, "straight out from the corner of the house, covering these two sides."
The Sheriff stepped out, beckoned Sarah in.
"Sir, I have information," Jacob said in a quiet voice.
"Uncle Linn!" Sarah's smile was genuine as she swung down from the Sun-Witch and spun the reins around the hitch-rail. "I have to appear at the Inquest today!"
"I know, dear heart," the Sheriff said in his reassuring Daddy-voice. "I'll be there too."
Sarah skipped up the three steps and into her Uncle's arms.
Linn bent a little and gave his niece a quick hug.
"I have to change!" Sarah whispered urgently and disappeared inside, her feet quick on the stair treads.
Jacob waited until Sarah was upstairs before turning again to his father.
"Sir, Sarah was telling me --"
"--about Caleb? I know." The Sheriff laid a hand on his son's shoulder. "Caleb has been murdered and Bonnie's hurt."
The Sheriff saw his son's eyes grow cold: Jacob raised his chin a few degrees and the Sheriff saw the muscles tighten in his son's jaw.
"Levi warns the girls are in danger. Can you put them up at your place?"
"They are there now, sir. The twins are happy to help Annette with Joseph and she is grateful for their company." Jacob looked inside the open front door, then back to his father.
"What danger, sir?"
"Unknown." The Sheriff's eyes narrowed. "Levi is not the kind to cry wolf."
He turned and scanned the fields, quartering them and scanning them near to far.
"Your house is the most defensible. No one is to know they are there."
"Yes, sir."
"Oh, and your rifle is in."
"Thank you, sir."
"Until the dust settles you might hand Sarah your .40-60."
"Yes, sir."
Sarah came scampering downstairs with two bags in hand.
Somehow she'd managed to change clothes and pack two bags, one for her and one for her little sisters, and do it in record time.
"We'll tie those on behind your saddle like a set of saddlebags," the Sheriff nodded. "Mount up, dear heart. We have an appointment with the Judge. Have you two had breakfast?"

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Linn Keller 8-24-10

 

I don't know what Esther said to Sarah in the anteroom, and it really doesn't matter.
I do know when Sarah and Esther emerged, Sarah looked ... well, not comfortable -- anything but! -- good Lord, she'd never testified in court before! -- but she didn't look like she wanted to bolt and run, either.
Her upper lip was a little more moist than her lower, and that told me she'd had a sip or two of water.
Good, I thought. Enough to dampen her throat, not enough to throw up.
I had asked His Honor, as a personal favor, if he might put Sarah's case first on the docket, and confided in him what had transpired, and the need to get Sarah to safety.
His Honor was happy to oblige me in this little matter.
Sarah took my arm.
Esther drew open the door for us and the smell of varnish and cigar smoke greeted us.
I looked down at Sarah and smiled a little.
"Showtime," I murmured.
"Uncle Linn," Sarah said quietly, "I'm going to kick you right in the shin," and she raised her chin, and we stepped into the courtroom.
I had a hard time keeping a straight face.
Something told me Sarah was, too, in spite of her apprehension.
Jackson Cooper was serving as bailiff, as he generally did; he and I, or he and Jacob, took turns, unless Tom was available: today, though, it was Jackson Cooper, and glad I was for it.
Sarah was comfortable with Jackson Cooper.
His Honor was already seated: nevertheless, as Sarah crossed the threshold, the dignified old gentleman rose, prompting Jackson Cooper's "All rise," and the entire courtroom came to its feet.
We stopped a little short of the witness stand.
"Sarah," I said, my hand on hers, "you will do fine."
Sarah looked at me a moment longer than was necessary.
"Thank you," she whispered, and I winked at her.
Jackson Cooper came over as Sarah released my arm: extending the Bible, he raised his right hand, and Sarah placed her hand on the Book and raised her own as if she'd done it every day of her life.
I returned to my seat beside Attorney Moulton.
Jackson Cooper nodded and smiled, lowering his hand after swearing Sarah in: he nodded to the witness chair, then addressed the assembled: "Please be seated."
All present, myself and His Honor included, waited until Sarah was seated before we, too, sat.
"Miss Rosenthal," Judge Hostetler said in the tones of a kindly grandfather, "I have read the Sheriff's report and associated affidavits, including your own." He shifted through a few sheets of paper. "May I congratulate you on your hand writing, Miss Rosenthal, and on your grasp of the written word."
Sarah opened her mouth, closed it and cleared her throat delicately, then said in a clear and confident voice, "Thank you, Your Honor."
"Now Miss Rosenthal," Judge Hostetler said, "could you tell us what happened on the day in question."
"Yes, Your Honor."
Sarah looked at Esther and at me and took a deep breath, let it out, swallowed.
Judge Hostetler chuckled.
"Now, Miss Rosenthal, don't be nervous. I'm not going to butter you and swallow you like a biscuit."
The Judge's voice was kindly and gentle and no one could mistake the twinkle of fatherly, or grandfatherly, affection in the man's eyes: a ripple of laughter chuckled through the courtroom, and Sarah colored as delicately as any maiden.
She licked her lips, raised her head.
"Your Honor," she said, "a man shot at me and my cousin. We both heard the bullet pass between us." Her simply spoken words rang in the sudden quiet, and jury-box and audience alike both leaned forward to hear her words.
"I had no means of keeping my cousin from being harmed from a subsequent shot, save only to stop the man who had shot at us already.
"I presented my rifle and determined that I would stop him by the only means at my disposal."
His Honor nodded. "And tell us how this was done."
Sarah's left hand twitched, as if handling a set of reins.
"I drew my father's grey horse to a halt and stood him side-on to the man."
"And your purpose in doing so?"
Sarah's mouth twitched briefly at the corners. "Your Honor, I was preparing to shoot from horseback. If I shot directly over my horse's head, I might deafen him, or frighten him so he might be gun shy for the rest of his life.
"He might also throw me, or seize the bit and run away.
"I turned him sidewise that I might have a steady shot and not harm my mount."
Esther leaned over and whispered, "She sounds just like her mother!"
I patted Esther's hand in agreement.
"And were you successful?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
"And what was the result?"
"I fired six times, Your Honor." Sarah's voice caught momentarily and she cleared her throat again. "I hit four of six, and Uncle Linn hit him twice as well."
His Honor sorted through his papers again, referred to one, then another, running a neatly-manicured finger down the lines of script: finally he nodded.
"Miss Rosenthal, this court is satisfied that your actions are reasonable and lawful. It is evident that you acted in the saving of two lives: your own, and that of your young cousin, and in addition to the lives you might have saved in future if this murdering outlaw had been allowed to escape." He picked up the gavel, rapped it once on the hardwood circle near his right hand. "You may step down, Miss Rosenthal, and may I extend my condolences on the death of your father, and my hopes that your mother's injuries are few and easily healed."
Sarah had gotten halfway to her feet when the Judge's words froze her in place: I could see the color drain from her face like red ink squeezed from an eyedropper, and her knees failed her, slowly.
I was on my feet, striding across the room toward her.
I shot His Honor a look and I don't think it was any too friendly, and I saw the dismay in the man's face.
He hadn't realized that Sarah didn't know.
I'd kept it from her so she could testify with a clear mind, unaffected by grief, and it had worked, but I had this terrible feeling that I had just betrayed a young girl's trust.
I went to one knee before her and reached for her hands.
Sarah clutched my hands and stood, and I stood with her.
I turned and she took my arm: she raised her chin, and together we walked out of the courtroom.
Not a soul in that room said one single word as we left.
Not a soul in that room missed the tears cascading down her pale cheeks.

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Linn Keller 8-25-10

 

I took Sarah's face between my hands and kissed her on the forehead.
"Sarah," I said, "I am proud of you!"
Sarah shivered a little, uncertain whether to put her hands on my waist or flat on my chest, and she settled for wrapping her arms around me and holding me, squeezing with a surprising strength for such a slender frame.
"Thank you," she whispered. "I was so scared!"
"You should have seen Jacob the first time he testified," I said quietly. "He had a genuine set of the clanks. I think he dropped his hat three times before His Honor asked what was wrong and Jacob blurted something about being sure he was going to be buttered and et like a biscuit."
Sarah drew back, blinking. "No!"
"Oh, yes," I nodded.
"That's why the Judge --"
"Yep. It tickled his fancy and he's kept it ever since." I looked over Sarah's head at Esther, beckoned her with a tilt of my head.
Esther's hands were gentle on Sarah's shoulders and Sarah went with Esther into the anteroom again.
Me, I went back into the courtroom.
His Honor had not yet called the next case, so I timed it just right.
"Your Honor," I called, my voice a little sharper than I wanted, but it served to hush the courtroom and draw Judge Hostetler's blue-eyed gaze.
"May it please the court, I would borrow the floor for a moment."
His Honor looked at me over his spectacles, then with a tilt of his hand, gave me leave to proceed.
I did not know quite what was in the wind but I wanted to be ready.
I turned and addressed the assembled.
"My friends," I said, "I'm not the kind to ask favors but I'm asking now.
"Caleb Rosenthal is a man I called friend and he's been murdered.
"You all know -- knew -- him, and you all know Bonnie.
"Well, Bonnie has been hurt and I have it from the Pinks that their girls are in danger."
I let the words hang on the smoke-stratified air for a few moments.
"Someone intends harm to Sarah, to Polly, to Opal."
I felt my jaw crowd out.
"I don't know who yet, nor why -- yet."
I bit off the word, continued.
Pointing to the bank manager, I said "Miz Beatrice, if anyone inquires in any way about the Rosenthal accounts" -- I shifted my finger to the liveryman -- "Shorty, if anyone asks directions to the Rosenthal ranch" -- I swung my arm toward the barkeep -- "Mr. Baxter, if anyone should ask what Bonnie or the girls look like" -- I turned again and addressed Jackson Cooper's wife, our schoolmarm -- "Miz Emma, if anyone asks about the Rosenthal children, whether they are in school" -- I lowered my arm.
"Remember it is no sin to lie to an enemy. Lie like a rug, like like a mangy hound dog with a full belly, lie through your pearly white teeth. Make it believable, send them in the wrong direction, then come and get me!"
I did not realize how intense my feelings were until I realized my good right hand was now a fist, and my fist was shaking a little.
"Get word to Jackson Cooper or to Jacob or to myself. I need to know who is asking and what they want to know.
"People I care about have been hurt," I said, and my voice had an edge, a hard edge I'd heard before, right before I became really unpleasant with people who richly deserved my displeasure.
"And I don't like that."
I turned and nodded to His Honor.
"I thank the court for its indulgence."
I turned to leave.
"Sheriff?"
I stopped immediately, turned to face Judge Hostetler.
He'd spoken gently, but he was a man to be heeded.
"If you could convey my apologies to Miss Rosenthal," he said, and there was a heaviness to his voice.
"I shall, Your Honor," I said, "and my apologies to yourself as well. I should have let you know that she had not been informed."
We each nodded, once, a gesture of mutual respect, then I turned, settled my Stetson on my head, and headed outside.
My gut told me there would be unpleasantness and I intended to be ready.

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Lady Leigh 8-25-10

 

With the help of Molly Brown, Bonnie was dressed in a comfortable gown to return home in. She looked like a true victim as she peered into a mirror. Slipping combs into a simple bun was all she could stomach doing for her hair. The mirror was not a friendly sight showing her cuts and large purple bruises. She feared her daughters would be frightened, but what could she do about it?

Actually, a lot of emotions were coursing through her on topics ranging from Levi to Caleb … which led to guilt at being in Denver in the first place when Sarah needed her more than Caleb would …. had, Bonnie corrected, and closed that moment of thought with “and never would again”.

Levi knocked on the door and then entered, “Bonnie? Are you about ready?”

Bonnie nodded

“Good,” Levi continued. “We have time to catch the last train to Firelands ….” He looked at Bonnie carefully. Her eyes were hard to read. One moment you would see anger and the next was anxiety … he did notice he had not seen sorrow. “Bonnie, it has been arranged for the hotel to forward yours and Caleb's trunks to Firelands . They should be ...”

Bonnie interrupted, “Please inform the hotel to have Caleb's sent to a charity.” She said as if making a business deal.

“Are you ..”

“Yes!” She interrupted again

Bonnie had been this way since Levi told her in as brief a time as possible of what was suspected of Caleb's business dealings. She was furious at how long he had been embezzling money from her private account. It was good she noticed things afoot and secured her business accounts and what was left of her inheritance. Levi thought s\he had seen an element of sadness when she looked at him while he told her the story, but when he came to the part of how he suspected she and the girls were likely still endangered, she took on an entirely different attitude. After she muttered “damn you Caleb” she set her jaw and straightened her back, and now it was this …. hellcat.

The door to her hospital room opened and a nurse came in with a wheeled chair, though Bonnie was not thrilled at seeing it. Her pride was rankled at having to be wheeled out and away. She could not see the need in it, “Really, “she exclaimed, “I was able to assist Mrs. Lang out of the Denver Opera House and get her across the street. Do I really need to sit in that thing to get out of here?” Bonnie's voice was matter of fact and laced with a tinge of anger … and truth be told, probably a bit of embarrassment thrown in on the side. Levi hid a smile. That was a Bonnie he had seen on numerous occasions while growing up with her.

“Hospital regulations Ma'am”.

“Fine.” Was all she could answer. She was assisted into the wheeled chair and asked to be left alone for a few minuets with Molly to stay behind.

“Molly? Would you please hand me my reticule?” After Molly handed it to her, Bonnie pulled out her Derringer. Molly smiled.

“Here,” Molly said, “You'll be needing this more than I will.” Molly lift her shirts and unstrapped her own Derringer. She tucked her own small weapon into her skirt pocket and helped Bonnie buckle the strap onto her good leg and put into the tiny holster Bonnie's gun. “There now! I reckon you'll be able to get a couple of shots where it'll count if need be!”

Molly opened the door and wheeled her friend out. Both women with a smile on their faces. Levi looked at both with a question, but all Bonnie said, was “Let's get out of here Levi. I NEED to get home.”

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Linn Keller 8-25-10

 

"Jacob, how are your ribs?"
"Fine, sir."
I gave Jacob a level look.
I knew better but if he wanted to say they were fine, I would not call him on the matter.
"Pick up that rifle yet?"
"Yes, sir." Jacob's grin was broad and genuine, the easy grin of a young man in the green strength of youth.
Jacob, thus far in his young life, had been shot, stabbed, cut, run into, run over -- like me! I thought -- but he had youth on his side, and despite the many insults to his young body, he didn't ache quite like I did.
I hoped, anyway.
"You got rounds enough to feed that new rifle?"
"Yes, sir."
I nodded.
"Train will be here about noon. I reckon Bonnie will be on it. We'll need to get her over to her place and then to yours."
"Yes, sir."
Jacob tested his saddle-girth and frowned.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, I don't reckon Bonnie is going to want to come out to my place."
I nodded. "She might not," I agreed.
"Sir, I dearly love Bonnie, but she is a hard headed woman."
I laughed.
"You noticed that too?"
It was Jacob's turn to chuckle, then his smile faded.
"Sir, I have a notion she'll want to be in her own house. I don't reckon she'll take kindly to forting up at my place even if it's a good idea." Jacob chewed on the inside of his upper lip, then looked at me, clearly troubled.
"Sir, I've got a bad feelin'."
"I do too, Jacob. There is more to what's going on than we know about."
"Tell you what." I kissed at Outlaw-horse and he came head-bobbing over to me, nuzzling my coat pocket where I kept a twist of molasses-soaked chawin' tobacker for him.
My line of thought was interrupted as I rubbed Outlaw's ears and shaved him off some tobacker, which he loved: velvety lips slobbered the thick shavings from my palm.
Jacob waited patiently, watching me.
"Jacob, my gut tells me we'll need a rose and probably a few of them."
"Yes, sir."
I looked my son square in the eye.
"Jacob, if it comes to it, I am willin' to hand out roses."
"I understand, sir."
"Here." I reached into my left coat pocket, opposite the one that held the tobacker. I withdrew a cloth sack and handed it to my tall, slender son.
Mein Gott, how did you get so tall! I thought, realizing suddenly that he was as tall as me -- in his sock feet he would look me in the eye -- and he'd been that height for some time ... it was only then, when I handed him that poke that clanked a little, that I realized his height, and the idea that he was husband and father now and a man in his own right, set down like an anvil somewhere around my stomach.
I reckon every father feels that, one time or another.
Jacob took the cloth poke, hefted it.
He pulled the drawstring loose, reached in.
He withdrew a shining brass cartridge with a gleaming yellow bullet.
The bullet was a half inch across and the cartridge was about the length of one of my .45-70 rounds.
Jacob's eyes were calm, steady as he looked up at me.
"I believe there are roses beside the church," he said quietly.
"Cut two anyway, and two for me."
Jacob looked in the poke.
"Sir, there are ..." He looked up. "Sir, just how much gold did you melt down for bullets?"
"Enough," I said shortly.
"Yes, sir."
"You see, Jacob," I explained, "if we are given a pure gold bullet, we are not inclined to waste it."
"No, sir."
He withdrew his brand-new model of 1876 rifle.
I considered the size of the hole in the muzzle and smiled a little.
Now that's a rifle, I thought.
"Shot it yet?"
"Yes, sir."
"How's it do?"
"It'll do, sir."
I nodded.
"It might do to lay in some more supplies. Children can eat a shocking amount and I don't know how well your cupboard is stocked."
Jacob smiled, thrust his rifle into its scabbard.
"Do you need anything from the Mercantile, sir?"
I considered, shook my head.
Jacob stepped aboard his Appaloosa and stopped.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
Jacob's face was serious.
"Sir, you be careful." He swallowed hard. "You're the only Pa I've got and I don't fancy speaking over your grave for a good long time yet."
Now that took me by surprise.
"Sarah is depending on you, Jacob. You be careful too."
"Yes, sir."
I looked at the stone municipal building.
Sarah and Esther were just emerging.
"Get Sarah back to your place, Jacob. Pick her up some more .32-20s, they'll come in handy if she doesn't take to your .40-60."
"Yes, sir."
Sarah came skipping up to me.
I reckon she was wearing a corset: her ribs likely would not let her dance over the dirt toward me like that unless she were corseted.
God Almighty! I thought, how did you get so big? -- and then I looked at Jacob, realizing suddenly that I was seeing them both with new eyes.
Sarah hugged me and I hugged her back.
"Uncle Linn?"
"Yes, sweets?"
Sarah looked at me shyly, from under her eyelashes -- you've got eyelashes? I thought with some surprise, looking at an amused Esther -- and said, "Uncle Linn, I'm not really going to kick you in the shin."
"I'm glad," I said gravely. "You must understand I have a medical condition."
Sarah's expression was suddenly concerned: wide-eyed, she opened her mouth, a most distressed look overcoming her face.
"I am allergic to pain," I continued, never cracking a smile.
This time Sarah did kick me in the shin.
Hard.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-26-10

 

The roan's rocking chair jog ate up the remaining miles home. Slouched comfortably in his saddle, Charlie thought about that word, home. The connotations were broad, but for him, home meant two things: a place to light after so many nomadic years, and it meant the red-haired beauty of his wife. Anything else that came his way was gravy, so to speak.

Dropping down into the ranch house hollow, the greeting nickers of the mares and their broom-tailed offspring lifted the ex-marshal's spirits even further than the sight of the small house near the spring could do. Fannie stepped out of the barn, hat tilted down on her forehead to shade her emerald eyes from the brightness of the mid-morning sun, pitchfork in hand, to see what the ruckus was about. Charlie reined up in front of her and stepped down to trail his reins in the dust and wrap her in a hug. It was only then that he realized that her Colt was strapped around her slender waist. He pushed her back to arm's length. "What's happened?"

"The wolf..." she began...

"Woke me up last night," he finished the sentence. "But instead of trying to lead me somewhere, like the last two times, it just, well, vanished. I'm not sure what it wanted."

"Something's seriously wrong," Fannie mused. "What went on in town? Anything unusual?"

He took a minute to organize his thoughts before telling her about Sarah and Jacob's encounter with the outlaws. When he ran out of words, she pecked him on the cheek and said firmly, "Saddle my horse while I get some things together. Sarah's going to need me."

"But she's got Esther..." he began. His words trailed off when he saw the look on her face. "But Esther's not been where you've been," he went on, understanding in his tone. "Sarah's gonna need something more." He picked up his reins and led the roan toward the barn as Fannie strode toward the house. A short half hour later she was cantering out of the hollow toward the town, her rifle tucked under her right leg, a Greener coach gun strapped across the pommel of her saddle and a bandoleer of gleaming brass buckshot rounds slanting from shoulder to waist. Somehow they both knew that ex-deputy Fannie Kikinshoot was going to war.

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Lady Leigh 8-26-10

 

A determined face expression etched itself on Bonnie's face. Fire danced in her eyes, Levi noted, too. She had every right to be angry. Caleb was a fool, and now Bonnie knew the extent of it. Everything Bonnie had was shared with him, but Caleb wanted lock, stock and barrel.

Now Bonnie understood the times she received offers to buy her business, but they were always turned down. Now she understood the offers were ghost offers. They were nothing more than offers from Caleb. When Caleb knew she was not going to sell out to him, he decided to put her out of business in other ways. His attempt to make her business records appear unprofitable did not work. And in the meantime, be was borrowing money to pay off gambling debts. One debt led to another …. and another. He trapped himself, and by doing so, he trapped Bonnie and the girls in a realm of danger. Levi told her these were men who meant business. And their business was making a profit off of loans to desperate fools like Caleb. Their business “always” received a return of the funds loaned along with the ridiculously high interest rate that went along with it.

Bonnie was told Caleb was expendable as there were other ways of extorting the funds, and that was from Bonnie herself. If they couldn't become financially satisfied via Caleb …. then Bonnie would be the next logical choice. If Bonnie did not render payment for her husbands loans, then they would find ways to persuade her. “Hell and damnation!” Bonnie mumbled aloud. Levi could not agree more.

The whistle was blowing and the train was slowing down. Firelands was just ahead. Home.

Bonnie felt her derringer under her skirts. She couldn't wait to get home and get her hands on a gun that would do some good, but first she wanted to see her girls. She wanted to make sure they would be safe from any harm to come their way. To hug them like there was no tomorrow.

Afterall, one never really knew if there was going to be a tomorrow, did they?

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Mr. Box 8-26-10

 

When the train comes in, I don't have to go to the depot to see who is new in town. If they don't have somewhere to be, they land in here. Some to get a room. Some to wet down some trail dust. Some to try their luck on a game of chance. This afternoon's load wasn't much different than any other but couple of men caught my eye. They were townies dressed in suits but they were plenty tough looking.
I stepped out the door a minute and saw a youngster on the boardwalk. "Would you like a sasparilla?"
"I don't have any money, Mr. Baxter."
"Do you know Mr. Keller?"
"Yessir!"
"Go tell him I said "Hello."
"Why?"
"He always says "Hello" to me before I see him coming and I want to do it first for a change. Then come back here and I'll give you a sasparilla."
"Er... uh...OK!"
Crossing the street pall mall only slightly winded him. "Mr.......Sheriff Keller,.... Mr. Baxter said to tell you "Hello."
"Is that all he said?" Linn asked.
"Yes.... Well, he said you always say it to him first and he wanted to win this time. And he'd give me a sasparilla!"
Sheriff Keller gave him a coin and said, "Have some pie, too."
He came running back into the Silver Jewel showing me the coin and said, "He said to have some pie, too, Mr. Baxter!"
I said, "Put that in your pocket, son. You'll need it someday. Come on in the kitchen with me."
"Daisy, fix this young man up with anything he wants. It's on me."
"Really, Mr. Baxter?" he asked.
"Anything, Sonny."
I went back to tending the bar and keeping an ear to the rail. I wasn't hearing anything in particular but I still didn't like the looks of those two. They just weren't talking much at all.
Daisy came out to me and said, "That wee ladd is eatin' everything in the kitchen that ain't breathin! I swear he's got a hollow leg!"
"That's OK, Miss Daisy, I'll cover him."

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Linn Keller 8-27-10

 

"Mr.......Sheriff Keller,.... Mr. Baxter said to tell you "Hello."
I smiled a little and regarded the urchin. He was shifting his weight from one foot to the other, not entirely comfortable, yet anxious: well, I supposed that would be normal, for a lad in the presence of the Sheriff would be a little apprehensive.
I recalled how I one time met a Senator when I was but a wee lad, and was overawed at the great man's reputation. The man himself was not terribly impressive, but from the way my Pa had talked, I expected the hills themselves to shiver every time he opened his mouth.
"Is that all he said?" I asked, and I felt my eyes tighten at the corner with the grin that was claiming my face.
"Yes.... Well, he said you always say it to him first and he wanted to win this time. And he'd give me a sasparilla!"
I reached into a vest pocket with thumb and forefinger and handed him a coin. "Have some pie, too," I said, and tipped him a conspiratorial wink.
"Thank you, Mister Sheriff!" he exclaimed, his hand clamping shut around the coin, and if the floor hadn't been absolutely, spotlessly clean, any dust thereon would have been sucked up into a little dust-devil to fill the swirling void caused by the impatient lad's swift departure.
I looked over at my desk.
A half dozen roses lay ranked on its edge.
I picked up the one with the shortest stem and threaded it through the button hole on my right-hand coat lapel, drew the blossom up and took an appreciative sniff.
An idea, not entirely my own, stepped into my mind and knocked on the inside of my skull.
Caleb. Chicago. Mobsters. Money. The quick train of associations ran ahead of me and I followed, curious.
In my mind's eye I saw men of their kind, men I'd known over the years, vicious and bullying men who would bribe their way to success when possible, buy politicians and lawmen--
Bribe.
My head came up, suddenly, as if I'd just heard a word whispered by a familiar voice, framed by lips red and rich and smiling, and for a moment, for just one mad moment, I smelled a scent, a perfume, lilac water and soap and an indefinable something, and my lips smiled and a name came unbidden from my own throat:
Duzy.
The mind is a funny thing: there is no swifter runner than Thought, and the mind is never, ever still: I remembered a discussion we'd had over supper in the parsonage, the Parson and Brother William and myself, and Brother William spoke of Celtic Christianity: a man of surprising depth of knowledge, he'd compared their beliefs with that of the Holy Mother Church, explained the underlying native Celtic beliefs, and then said something I'd forgotten until this moment.
"We read in Scripture of being surrounded by a Great Cloud of Believers. The Celtic Christian community, the Celi Dee, believe these are our honored ancestors and our loved ones, those who have stepped into the Valley before us."
If that's the case, I thought, I am in really, really good company!
I swallowed hard and my eyes stung for a moment.
I still missed Duzy.
The scent of roses touched me again and I squared up my shoulders, looked toward the door.
"All right, folks," I said to this invisible host surrounding me, "let's see how much trouble I can cause!"

Jackson Cooper's massive hand nearly swallowed Levi's at a gulp.
Levi, for his part, nodded: he surmised, correctly, the Marshal would have information, instructions, a message from the Sheriff.
Jackson Cooper's hat was in his hand: more correctly, about two-thirds of it was crushed into an indefinable mass in his left hand, for he'd snatched it from his head when first he saw Bonnie on the train platform, standing beside Levi -- but not holding his arm, he thought.
None but a blind man could have missed the set of her jaw, the hardness around her eyes.
"Mrs. Rosen --" he began, and her glare at hearing that hated name cut him off as effectively as a slap in the face.
He cleared his throat, dropped his eyes and tried again.
"Miz Bonnie," he said, "the Sheriff's compliments and your girls are safe."
"Where are they?" Bonnie asked, her words cold, clipped.
"Jacob has them. His house is stone and easily defended. The Sheriff wants me to take you there, you'll be safe."
Bonnie was a woman wronged, Bonnie was a woman wounded to her very soul, but Bonnie was also a highland Scot and her temper seethed beneath a lady's veneer.
Bonnie laid a gentle, gloved hand on the big Marshal's forearm.
Part of her noticed how he turned his head a little, how his ears flared absolutely scarlet, and for a moment she was minded of a shuffling, uncertain schoolboy who'd just tentatively, half-fearfully offered a fresh-picked wildflower to a secret sweetheart.
"Jackson Cooper," Bonnie said quietly, "thank you."
Jackson Cooper looked up at her, at Levi.
"I have a carriage --" Jackson Cooper began, and Bonnie smiled, a tight smile that he knew meant she wasn't going to Jacob's fine stone house.

I strode into the Silver Jewel, my '73 rifle swinging from my off hand: I leered at Tillie, laid my rifle on the polished mahogany bar and barked "Beer! And be quick about it!"
Mr. Baxter, my friend, I thought, please forgive me this deception!
Mr. Baxter jumped like he'd been stung, shot me a look that would melt stone, but he drew a beer and set it down in front of me.
I took the mug right-handed, picking up the Winchester in my left: taking a long, noisy sip, I declared loudly, "OHHH, that's good!"
Turning so my back was to the bar, I slouched casually against the gleaming structure, one boot up on the mirror-bright foot rail.
"Mr. Baxter," I threw back over my shoulder, "thank you for your prompt payment." I turned and leered at the man. "It would have been such a shame to have that fine, beautiful mirror all broken up!" I gestured to the frosted-figured glass in the double doors. "And you know how expensive good glass is these days!"
The pair at the bar looked at one another; one nodded.
I took another long drink, thumped the mug down on the bar top, belched loudly and worked the beer foam into my handlebar mustache.
The fellow at my right cleared his throat and opened his mouth to say something.
I glared at him. "You are strangers here. I'm the Sheriff. I keep the peace and make sure" -- I hesitated for emphasis -- business -- I paused again -- "is not interrupted."
Mr. Baxter turned away, busily polishing a beer mug. He turned toward a corner where his expression would not be reflected in the big mirror behind the bar.
I could guess why.
I saw his right shoulder drop twice, ever so slightly: it was his particular quirk, when he was stifling a laugh, and I relaxed a little, for I knew he realized I was -- if not running a bluff -- at least intentionally making a horse's hinder out of myself.

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Lady Leigh 8-27-10

 

“Where are they?” Bonnie asked Jackson Cooper, inquiring about her daughters. He saw she was not relying on Levi Rosenthal for assistance, though she probably should have. Walking seemed labored and the bruises were hard to miss. The face expression she bore would not insight anyone to inquire, however.

“At Jacobs house ….”

As much as Bonnie wanted to wrap her Motherly arms around the three, she needed to sop by her house. There were things there that she needed. Things that needed to get to Micheal Morrino's office. Things that did not need to fall into hands of less than thoughtful people where she and her now small family where concerned.

She needed to see Linn. Casting her eyes on him would greatly help her demeanor. She trusted him. He always had her best interests at heart. Her mind wondered briefly …. there was a time she thought Caleb held her heart in those type of hands. “Caleb wanted me dead …..” Levi shared that bit of news with Bonnie as well, and she had to admit, at least to herself, Levi did seem to be standing up to his promise. Time would tell if he had left anything out.

The familiar fragrance lingering in the air. Bonnie resurrected the face and the smile she knew she would never forget and always rely on.

Stay focused, Bonnie …....

“I will ….”

Bonnie looked to Jackson Cooper with a kindly smile, “Thank you for bringing the carriage, Mr Cooper.” She cleared her throat, “Also, if you would be so kind as to ….” she held her hand to Mr. Cooper, “ to help down these steps and into the carriage.” She looked to Levi, “Will you be coming along, or ...”

“I will meet you back here in town Bonnie. I want to track down Linn. I also want to know if my cover has been breached. I won't be any good to you if I was recognized while in Denver and associated to you here.”

After Bonnie was seated, she looked up into the sky and took a deep breath.

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Mr. Box 8-27-10

 

Sheriff Keller came into the Silver Jewel with a little extra flair letting anyone with an ear know he was the man about town. I just had to turn away before I let the cat out of the bag. Then Daisy came charging in, "I'll be havin' $1.83 fer whettin' yer little friends appetite, Mr. Baxter!"
"What did he have?"
"Two full meals including dessert!"
"And three sasparillas!" I added. "Is he still eating?"
"No! Thank the Lord! He said he had to hurry home for supper!"

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Linn Keller 8-27-10

 

Sarah caressed the twins' hair and whispered, "It's our secret, okay?"
"Okay," the girls giggled.
"You can't tell!"
"Okay!"
Sarah hugged them quickly, then skipped to the front door.
A box of cartridges rattled softly in the pocket of her riding skirt.
She picked up her rifle, looked over her shoulder.
Polly was in mid-yawn and Opal was quietly playing with a length of ribbon.
Aunt Esther and Jacob had brought her out to the house: Esther and Jacob had both explained to her how important it was that they stay in the safety of the stone-walled house, that there was an unknown but significant danger, that there might be those who would wish to harm them.
Sarah listened carefully to what they had to say, and she was in agreement with them, at first.
Sarah heard the distant, very faint whistle as the train came into Firelands.
Mama is on that train, she thought, and the thought of her Mama, alone, without the Papa that had been such a part of her life for so long -- well, a girl needs her mother and Sarah ached for her Mama, and so she decided she would have to go to her Mama.
Mama will have to go to the house, Sarah thought. I can meet her there.
She opened the front door, stepped outside: she looked around, then ran for the barn.

I sneered at the stranger.
He stood with hand outstretched, a folded bill in his palm.
"That won't get you the time of day," I said, contempt in my voice.
I saw his eyes change a little and he closed his hand, shifted his fingers, a magician's move: he opened his hand again and there were more bills, folded over, of a significantly higher denomination.
I took his hand, and with it, the money.
"That'll get you the time of day," I said. "Let's have a seat."
His grip was firm, then more than firm: mine was too, and apparently this fellow was accustomed to being stronger than most men he met.
He found my grip was the equal of his, and a little more.
We went to a table, sat: one of Daisy's girls came and I said "Give them whatever they're having."
"Yes, sir," she said.
"I recommend the special," I said. "It's fresh, it's good and there's plenty of it."
The two looked at one another.
I'd established which was the leader when I first saw them: it was time to learn more about them.
They ordered the special without asking what it was, and Mr. Baxter brought us three beers.
I ignored the man.
It hurt my conscience to pay no attention to my friend, but I was playing a role, and he seemed to understand -- or at least he wasn't taking overt offense.
"This is good of you," the leader said carefully. "Why would you want to do this?"
I looked at him from under taut eyebrows.
"I'm a businessman," I said shortly. "I like a profit, and I smell money to be made."
"Money?" If it's possible for a thug to look innocent, he almost did.
I leaned forward, one elbow on the table.
"No one comes or goes in this county but what I know it. No one buys or sells, no one is elected to office" -- the man blinked -- "unless I get a cut. Verstehen Sie?"
I exhausted a significant percentage of my German vocabulary with the phrase, and I sincerely hoped neither of these fellows spoke German; if they addressed me in that language, my position would be weaked -- but I knew German is particularly effective if spoken harshly.
It worked.
"You are Ricco Canti. You are here from Denver. You are on business. I have no problem with that. We're both businessmen and we're both looking for a profit. Am I right?"
Conti blinked.
I hadn't been sure which he was: now that I knew, I had another card in my poker hand.
"This is my county. I run my county smoothly. I like it when things are quiet and peaceful. I will not stand for anything ... strenuous. Am I understood?"
Ricco and the other fellow looked at one another, looked at me.
"Ricco, you were known as Straight Razor. You've got one in your right shoe top right now. You cut a broad swath in Cincinnati, until you were recruited for Chicago -- but things got too hot for you there so you went on West."
Ricco looked uncomfortable.
I raised a hand. "Your business is your own, but making money is mine. Men like you don't visit a nothing little town like this for your health. You need something and I think I can help." My smile was tight. "For a price, of course."
"Of course." I could almost hear the gears turning in Ricco's head.
I leaned back, picked up my beer.
"Sheriff," he said, "I think we can do business."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-27-10

 

The tired sorrel and its dusty rider jogged into the head of the main street of Firelands. The gelding turned of its own accord toward the livery, stopping at the water trough out front and plunging its muzzle deep into the cool, clear water. After a few swallows, the rider lifted the reins and the sorrel obediently withdrew, water dripping to speckle the gray dust around the trough. The rider stepped down, hands going to the small of her back as she bent backwards, stretching out the kinks of too many hours in the saddle.

Fannie slipped the Greener from the pommel scabbard and planted the butt against her hip, muzzles to the sky. With her left hand she slipped the ties on her overstuffed saddlebags and lifted the bags from behind the cantle of the saddle to hang over her shoulder. She was reaching for the reins that she'd let slip to the ground when Shorty called from the barn door, "Leave 'im, Miss Fannie. I'll put 'im away. You just head on down to the Jewel."

"I'll do that, and thanks, Shorty," she answered. "Do you happen to know where the Sheriff is?"

"I believe he's down yonder," the livery man answered. "I seen him go into the Jewel, and far as I know he ain't come out yet."

With a nod, Fannie strode toward the Jewel, Greener still braced on her hip, ignoring the startled looks coming her way from passersby. At the foot of the steps up to the Jewel's double doors she stopped long enough to make an attempt at knocking some of the dust loose from her chaps and duster, stamped her boots twice then stepped into the lobby of the hotel and turned toward the bar/restaurant in search of the Sheriff.

One step from the bar's polished puncheon flooring, something, some feeling, stopped her. Several tables over, Linn sat with two men who at first glance she cataloged as "city dudes". A moment's observation changed all that. She felt her hackles raise and her thumb tighten on the Greener's mule-ear hammers as she took a half-step back, emerald gaze lancing across the floor to meet Mister Baxter's eyes. He frowned, slanted a quick glance toward where the Sheriff sat then jerked his chin quickly toward the closed door to Fannie's left. She faded back out of sight and slipped into the room Mister Baxter had indicated.

 

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Mr. Box 8-27-10

 

"I don't like the looks of them!" Fannie snapped!
"Give him a chance to size them up. I don't know what kind of trap he wants to spring yet."
"Where's Bonnie?"
"She's with Levi," I told her.
"Where's Caleb?"
"He was killed in Denver. We think they're after Bonnie or the kids, too," I said.
"Not if I can help it!" Fannie snarled!
"I need to get back out front, Fannie. You be careful."

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Linn Keller 8-27-10

 

The third man was not as out of place as the first two.
He'd ridden in the second passenger car, alone in the corner, his hat tilted down a little, undistinguished in his conservative suit: his two compatriots, in their expensive, tailored attire, were in the first car, with their mark.
Ross was the name he'd been born with, and on a whim, he returned to it, though as a first name instead of his last: he'd chosen Thomas as a last name, chose it at random, partly because it was common, partly because it was undistinguished, ordinary, not memorable in any way.
He preferred to remain invisible as much as he possibly could.
He was a thinker, an arranger, a planner: in fact, he planned to take over the Denver gang, but not until the time was right.
He'd arranged the last-minute tickets for the Rosenthal couple, precisely beneath the chandelier he'd chosen as his means of pleasing his boss.
He'd arranged for its quick release while their mark was alone, directly beneath the peephole he'd drilled the day before.
Uncoupling the gas line was the only holdup: they'd released the chandelier,but they failed to consider the gas pipe feeding it: the mount had pulled loose, with a small cascade of plaster, and he'd personally seized a wrench and unscrewed the pipe union that was the only thing holding the chandelier in place.
The chandelier had fallen, but gas blasted out of the open end of the pipe, and they were obliged to retreat rather hastily from this unexpected and deadly peril.
They had only just gotten out of the attic when the built-up gas ignited from the flames below.
Ross Thomas strolled toward the building with the fine sign that read "Attorneys-at-Law" and beneath, on the left, "M. Moulton," and on the right, "M. Morrino."
Two attorneys in town, he thought. It will be easy to find which handles the Rosenthal affairs.
He looked up the street to the stone building beside the whitewashed, clapboard church.
The bank, yes, he thought.
After I consult with legal counsel, he chuckled silently, I'll have a conversation with the bank.
Ross had impersonated a variety of people in his time: he'd passed himself off as a detective, as a physician, a preacher and as a schoolteacher.
It shouldn't be hard to fool these rubes.

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Lady Leigh 8-28-10

 

Levi did not have to be in town long to see the Mob's men were already circulating. He recognized Canti as he entered the Jewel. Levi rubbed his hand over his own strong cleft chin and wondered that Caleb must be more indebted to Russo than originally thought if Russo sent Canti.

Levi ran over to Morrino's office and then the bank for quick discussions. He wanted to visit with Sheriff Keller ….. He also wanted to high tail it out to Bonnies ....

Bonnie was rummaging through her desk and about to open the floor safe she had installed, when she heard a horse and rider approaching. She grabbed the Colt she had sitting on the desk and quickly moved the desk leg over the floor safe area and stepped back against the wall next to the door opening. They would not see her, but she would see them as they entered.

The rider seemed all to familiar with the surroundings, and that make Bonnie pause.

The front door opened and the nose to a rifle slowly entered first ….. then

“Sarah!”

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Linn Keller 8-28-10

 

"Mama!"
Sarah threw her arms wide, her Winchester's forearm locked in her left hand: mother and daughter seized one another, each crushing the other to her: Sarah's eyes were squeezed shut, hard, her cheek against her Mama's, her hair and her Mama's mashed together, and she smelled her Mama's scent and felt her alive and solid and real and she held her Mama tight, tight, not wanting to let go.
Bonnie ... well, Bonnie did exactly the same thing.
It is not important how long each one held the other, for in that moment, each drew great comfort from the other: Sarah, for Mama was always there, she was always strong, she was always the bright and shining example of what she, Sarah, should become: and Bonnie, for a Mama thinks first, foremost and always of her young, and she had been so afraid, so terribly afraid, and for the very first time she admitted to herself that she had been afraid ... her eyes opened, haunted, seeing the plaster dust, the flames, the star ring on that dead hand ... she had feared, in that terrible, terrible moment, that she might not see her girls again.
Sarah felt her Mama's arms slacken, and she loosed her own.
Bonnie drew back, her hands on Sarah's arms.
"The girls? Are they safe?"
"Safe, Mama! Jacob and Aunt Esther took us to Jacob's house."
Bonnie's eyes were bright, darting to the open door, the windows.
"Why are you here?" she asked, fear adding a quiver to her voice.
Sarah reached for her Mama's face, drew back before touching the horrible bruises, the healing cuts.
"Mama, I was scared -- they said you'd been hurt, and Papa --"
Sarah, a strong young woman of the West, daughter of grief and child of misfortune, orphaned at a tender age and mothered by this wonderful woman: Sarah had a spine of whalebone and rawhide, but Sarah was still a girl, a girl who knew her Papa was dead and her Mama hurt ... Sarah, who had faced a murderer's muzzle and stood her mount still while she coldly, precisely gifted him with lead, even though she knew his return fire could kill her in an instant -- Sarah, who had held a brave front for her sisters in the face of the terrible news of her Papa's murder -- Sarah's bottom lip trembled and Bonnie saw the waters rise in her little girl's eyes, and she, too, felt her own dams breaking, and they two, mother and daughter, embraced again and had a good cry together -- a good healing cry, the kind that women have to have after something truly terrible has happened.
It took a few minutes for their relief, their grief, everything they'd held, to wash itself out: each stroked the other's hair back, and laughed a little, and cried some more, and finally they both blew their noses and touched their hair and laughed uncertainly, and Bonnie sat down and so did Sarah, and Sarah realized she still had a death grip on her rifle.
She looked at the Winchester like she'd never seen one before.
Bonnie looked out the window.
"Sarah, I need to get some things together," she said, and her voice was the businesslike, efficient voice Sarah knew so well, the voice of the woman who ran the House of McKenna dressmaking works, the voice of a woman efficient and sure of herself.
"I must get these things to Mr. Morino" -- she waved at a small stack of documents, bundled and ribbon-tied -- "and a few besides ..."
Her voice trailed off and Sarah saw her Mama's hand move toward the handle of a revolver laying nearby, on the open desk.
"Sarah," she said, her voice taking an edge, "get upstairs, move!"

Ross Thomas knew the attorney had lied to him: Morino is the one, he thought, I'll just slip in after dark and look in that file.
He remembered how Morino's eyes flicked to a particular file cabinet when he'd asked him about the Rosenthals, and Ross estimated the man's eyes had hit the cabinet about midway: it did not matter, the lock on the door was simple -- a child could defeat it! he thought, and smiled, for as a child he'd routinely defeated that exact style of door lock, several times -- but he did not want to raise any suspicions: he was reasonably sure nobody in town knew he was about, and a casual inquiry made once and not repeated would draw but little attention.
He bade the attorney good-day and continued up the street.
He debated whether to inquire of the second attorney -- this Moulton, according to the weather-faded sign -- whether he had any information, but decided the same inquiry to both attorneys might cause comment.
No, he thought, the bank may be productive, and indeed it was.
Ross Thomas was a fair judge of character and he just happened to see what he took to be a peevish old woman outside the bank.
He could not have chosen better.
Ethel Casterline was indeed a bitter old woman, and a jealous old woman: she had a scowl for everyone, and Ross did not miss how she glared at any female younger, especially younger and prettier, than she.
He approached the woman with a quiet step, gentle words and a doff of his derby: he explained that he was new in town, he was investigating corruption and crooked politicians, and he'd heard some association of the House of McKenna and a certain mayor who was reputed to be on the take.
Ethel had long resented Bonnie: she'd known Bonnie before she was widowed, and hated her for her happy marriage and her beauty: she'd taken a perverse pleasure in Bonnie's being drugged and for a time actually chained to her crib, until her sprit was broken and her will defeated, and Ethel had ground her teeth and snapped her thumb in vexation at Bonnie when she became a decent woman again.
Ross Thomas discovered, to his delight, that they had three daughters, he discovered their ages, he secured a physical description of Bonnie and the children, not from interrogation, but simply from listening: Ethel's resentment had built over many years, she was regarded as a waspish old gossip, and until this nice man came along, why, Ethel had no kindly ear into which to pour her venom.
Ross Thomas soon rattled out of town in a hired buggy, smiling.
Why should I tell Ricco, he thought, when I can get the information, when I can bring him signed documents, when I can show him in the newspaper the terrible news that persons unknown murdered the woman and her children ...
Ross Thomas knew the newspapers of the day might report they were murdered by someone with a knife.
He smiled and chuckled a little and cherished the knowledge that they would never, ever report what he did to them before he killed them.
Ross Thomas flipped the reins and the buggy rattled noisily along the road, and he saw the Rosenthal house not far ahead.
He saw a rider in the distance, someone riding hard toward town, and for a moment his blood ran cold.
No, he thought, can't be! --
Kikinshoot?
He snapped the reins, harder, and the nag picked up its pace.

"Mama," Sarah said, and Bonnie cut her off.
"Scoot! It may be nothing!"
Sarah looked out the window and saw the approaching buggy was driven by a stranger: he was too well dressed to be a local, and fear's cold claw gripped her stomach.
Sarah ran upstairs, rifle in hand.
I can shoot him from the window, she thought, and then reasoned, What if it's just a drummer, or a buyer for Mama's dresses?
Sarah ran into her room, looked around, sat down on the edge of her bed.
Indecision screamed inside her.
An idea not entirely her own blossomed in her consciousness and her hand went to her middle, where she'd thrust Jacob's Army revolver in its slender holster.
She looked across the room at the rag doll and the idea bloomed bright, and she smiled.
She could almost smell lilac water and soap as she stripped out of her jacket and blouse and riding skirt, kicked out of her boots and ran stocking-foot for the closet.

Bonnie stood, regal as a queen, as the man with his hat in his hand made his offer.
She could sign over her assets -- those, with the ribbon on them, and thank you very much for gathering them so conveniently for him -- and he would let her and her beautiful daughters live.
He named her daughters, described them, their ages, their habits, and Bonnie's heart sank.
She could sign, and they could live.
Otherwise ...
The man tilted his head.
"We will be more comfortable if we sit down. May I?"
Bonnie inclined her head, gesured with a hand.
She had not missed the knife in his hand.
Bonnie knew how fast a man can use a knife: her revolver was under a sheet of paper, and just out of reach -- how could I have been so careless! she berated herself silently -- she gauged the distance between them and knew he could gut her before she could get a shot off.
Sarah, she thought, as you love me, don't make a sound!

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Linn Keller 8-28-10

 

Ross Thomas smiled as he noted the tremor in the woman's hand, the sweat-beads on her forehead.
He did not miss the handle of the revolver under the sheet of paper.
"Please close the desk," he said, threat plain in his voice.
Bonnie felt defeat claim her soul and she reached up, drew the desk top slowly, slowly down.
She considered a desperate grab for the Colt Navy --
"Mama?"
Startled, Bonnie jerked her hand back as if she were stung.
Ross turned suddenly, knife ready: he almost surged forward to meet this unknown threat, for he was not a man to let anyone approach his back.
Ross Thomas saw a young girl, a girl in a child's short skirt and patent-leather slippers, a girl clutching a rag doll to her, one hand under its bottom and the other around its middle, holding it to her: the child had a big ribbon bow in her hair.
"Well," Ross Thomas said in a oily voice. "You must be Sarah."
Sarah blinked, tilting her head sideways, looking past Ross Thomas at her Mama.
Bonnie's eyes were big, big and round, and she looked down at the gap between the desk top --
Sarah said "Are you the scoundrel who murdered my Papa?"
We should note that Sarah did not use the word "scoundrel."
I use that artifice out of a general sense of politeness.
You have to understand that Sarah was wearing a very girlish, a very feminine, a very little-girl-styled dress.
She had a big ribbon bow in her hair, the mark of the juvenile.
Sarah looked for all the world like a sweet, innocent, defenseless little girl-child.
What came out of Sarah's mouth would sear the hair off a sailor's ears.
What she called Ross Thomas was not "scoundrel."
It took her several moments to lay her tongue to words that scorched the air.
She called him a rascal, a scoundrel, a bugger, disfavored by the Almighty; a perverted lover of farm animals, illegitimate in birth and a dedicated follower of Oedipus; she opined strongly that his taxonomic designation was not Homo sapiens, but rather Sus scrofa: so shocked was Ross Thomas at such utter filth cascading from what appeared to be a sweet, innocent, pretty little girl, that he blinked, immobilized, surprised -- and unmoving.
Sarah released her arm's encircling grip around her dolly and the dolly tilted forward.
The doll's head exploded.
Shreds of rag stuffing blew in a cloud toward Ross Thomas, and Sarah saw the shining, edge-honed blade turn and gleam and clatter to the floor: Ross Thomas's hands went to his belly, his eyes wide, mouth open and tongue protruding a little.
Ross Thomas removed one hand and there was a litle spot of blood on it.
Sarah's eyes were not those of a little girl.
Sarah stripped what was left of the rag doll off the percussion Army revolver and brought the hammer back.
40 grains of FFF black detonated in the steel throat of her cousin Jacob's revolver, driving a round ball through what was left of a smoke-and-powdered-cloth cloud: the second ball caught the man just above that little spearpoint of gristle at the bottom of the breast bone, and he started falling, collapsing, his knees giving way as he pitched forward slowly, slowly, slowly.
Sarah's third shot went in behind his collar bone and drove straight down through his torso as he fell and passed the horizontal.
Sarah took a step forward.
Bonnie watched, frozen, horrified, as her little girl, in her little girl's pink and frilly dress, her innocent child, this waif rescued from a murderous and brutal father, brought the big high-spurred hammer back again, and again, and again, driving hand-cast lead balls through Ross Thomas's head, and neck, and spine.
Sarah stood there, smoke swirling slowly around her and in front of her, the smell of blood and sulfur strong in the air, and Sarah lowered the revolver, nodding slowly.
Bonnie saw her take a deep breath.
Sarah bent a little at the waist and screamed just as loud and as hard as her young throat could manage, a shout powered by anger and fueled by fear:
"YOU LEAVE MY MAMA ALONE!"
Bonnie could not move.
Bonnie felt her eyes start to sting from being wide open, unblinking.
Bonnie watched as Sarah dropped the revolver and turned and ran out the front door, and she saw Sarah bent suddenly over the porch rail, and she heard Sarah's agonies as she threw up everything she'd eaten for the past week.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-29-10

 

Fannie had kept the Greener braced on her hip during her brief conversation with Mister Baxter. When that worthy had returned to his duties she lowered the double-barrel's muzzles toward the floor and relaxed her thumb's death grip on the mule-ear hammers. She was about to make her way to the lobby to procure accommodations for the night when a sudden dazzling insight struck her motionless. The man in the buggy! She knew him! And the buggy was headed for the Rosenthal house!

"Damn!" The word burst from her lips as she went from standing stock still to sprinting in the space of less than a second. Fortunately a recent arrival left the Jewel's fine oak doors open for the fleeting instant it took for the red-haired streak of light to burst out onto the boardwalk, heels thumping on splintered pine as Fannie aimed her headlong progress toward the livery.

She slid to a stop on the packed dirt inside the livery's main alley, calling for Shorty. "I need a horse! Now!"

Seeing the expression on features that were more accustomed to smiles than fierce grimaces, Shorty answered, "Yes Ma'am!" as he tossed Fannie's blankets and saddle atop a lanky chestnut, pulled up the cinch and handed her the hackamore rein. Fannie leapt aboard the gelding and spurred it out the door and onto the road to Bonnie's house.

"Much obliged!" Fannie shouted back over the thunderous tattoo of galloping hooves.

She was nearly to the Rosenthal house when, over the pound of the chestnut's flashing hooves, she heard the rolling thunder of pistol shots, muted by the walls of the house, then saw Sarah stagger to the porch rail. Fannie yanked the chestnut to a tail-dragging slide in the grass and threw herself from the saddle on the run, thumb once again on the shotgun's hammers, eyes wide and glaring as she looked for enemies. She leapt to the floor of the porch, shotgun covering the doorway. "Sarah!" Fannie barked. "Are you alright?"

Sarah straightened, wiping her mouth with a trembling hand, "F-f-fine," she stammered. "My mama's..."

Fannie didn't wait for the girl to finish; instead, the Greener led the way into the house as she called, "Bonnie! Where are you?"

"I'm in here!" Bonnie's voice answered. Fannie's emerald eyes fastened on the gruesome tableau inside before lifting to where Bonnie stood, glazed eyes wide.

"Sarah...she shot him...over and over...she..." Bonnie stopped, as if realizing that she was making little sense; a sudden shudder ran through her and her vision cleared. "Fannie! How did you get here?"

"I saw that," Fannie pointed at the corpse at her feet, "headed this way as I was riding into town. I didn't recognize him at first or he never would have made it this far. I'm sorry I'm late."

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Linn Keller 8-30-10

 

Levi faded back, out of sight of the trio at the table: his mouth was open, his breath was coming quick, silent, shallow.
He had the terrible feeling that bad things were happening, and bad things would happen again: he knew that evil grows roots and spreads unseen, until it springs full grown into being --
He blinked, seizing the thought, shoving it from him.
Irrational. You're an agent, for God's sake, now behave like one!
He eased ahead an inch, a fraction, a fraction again, until he could just see the Sheriff conversing with Ricco.
Have a care, my friend. These men are more dangerous than you can know!

Jacob picked up one of the roses from his father's desk.
His '76 rifle leaned against the desk, ready to hand.
Two men over there, he thought, slipping the trimmed stem of the fragrant, crimson rose through his right hand lapel's button hole.
He reached into his left hand coat pocket and withdrew the poke his father had given him.
Loosening the neck, he swallowed, placed the poke precisely, carefully, on the desk, reached in with two fingers.
He removed a single cartridge, held it up, inspected it.
It was a .50-95, unremarkable from any of the others he had in the cartridge loops at the small of his back, except for one thing.
The bullet was cast of pure gold.
His father had cast that bullet.
He had cast that bullet, sized the bullet, lubricated the bullet, loaded the bullet: he knew the care his father took in hand loading his ammunition.
Jacob started at the shining gold projectile, searching his soul for doubt, his fingers for tremor, his very being for any hesitation.
Jacob had been entrusted with this insignia, this signature, of the SCOLD.
He had carte blanche to kill those who might be above the law, those who could buy or bribe or suborn the system in order to perpetuate their nefarious and criminal enterprise.
Jacob swallowed again.
He had killed, yes, and not a few times, but he did not kill at whim, nor for pleasure: no, every ticket he'd punched for the hell-bound train had been paid for by the malefactors' own deeds.
Jacob was not a judge.
He merely arranged the meeting with the Judge.
His eyes slid to the closed door to the Sheriff's office.
Two men were in the Jewel, two men he knew to be enemies most in need of Judgement.
Jacob picked up his rifle.
Its magazine was full and a round was in the chamber.
Jacob opened the action, quickly, abruptly, caught the spinning round in mid-air, dropped it in his right hand coat pocket.
He closed the action, opened it again.
The second round was dropped into the pocket to nest with its fellow.
Jacob closed his rifle's action, eased the hammer down, then back to half-cock.
Jacob put two rounds from his pouch into his vest pocket.
Two rounds are all he would need.
He picked up the pouch, returned it to his off coat pocket, looked at the roses remaining on the desk.
He picked up two of them and slipped them into the inside pocket of his coat.
Jacob was satisfied he would have need for both of them before the sun hit noon.

"If you don't mind my asking," Ricco said carefully, and the Sheriff saw something he hadn't expected.
He saw honest curiosity.
He nodded, turned a hand: "Ask."
Ricco was almost laughing and seemed a little uncertain: perhaps he realized he was a stranger in a strange land, and perhaps he recognized the Sheriff as a man he really did not want to alienate: whatever his reason, he looked uncomfortabily at his nattily-dressed partner in crime and said, "One does not think of a frontier Sheriff wearing a flower on his breast."
The other froze, eyes busy, and for a moment he knew the brush of fear, feather-light, just grazing his heart.
The Sheriff smiled, slowly, then chuckled.
"Gentlemen, we are businessmen," he said. "Today is collection day, and I must needs gather in that which is my due." He reached up and brushed the rose's petals with the back of a forefinger. "This is to signify that I am collecting today."
The pair relaxed.
"I'll have to remember that," Ricco said thoughtfully.
"This brings us to a question," the Sheriff said coldly, eyes veiled and very pale.
"Exactly what brings you two fine fellows to my bailiwick?"

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Linn Keller 8-31-10

 

The two exchanged a silent signal, one they had used in the past.
They were certainly no strangers to violence, as their faces and their knuckles, and hidden parts of their hide, showed: scars here and there, the linear scars of bladed implements, the ugly puckered scars of the occasional bullet hole, all attested to a violent association on a number of occasions.
Each had considered the Sheriff's rifle, parked against the wall.
Each had considered the Sheriff's sidearms, and the reputation of the rural lawmen in general: they were familiar, and intimately familiar, with producing a pistol from a coat pocket, or a waistband, or a shoulder holster, but neither were adept nor educated on executing a draw stroke from a belt holster when seated.
Ricco knew better than to reach down and remove the straight razor from his shoe top. The move would be far too obvious.
Manicured fingers twitched, hands moved casually toward sleeves, toward bellies: the pair relaxed a little, looking very casual, perhaps too casual.
The Sheriff picked up on this.
He tasted copper and his gut told him things were getting close to unpleasant, and he welcomed it.
"You seem to know a lot about me," Ricco said slowly.
"I make it my business to know such matters."
Ricco's quiet expression became a glare and he thrust his head forward, a blunt challenge: "Why?"
The Sheriff leaned forward himself, left elbow hard on the table top: he shoved his plate back, turning the chair a little under him and dropping his right leg: his right hand holster was cleared for immediate access.
"You are a threat to my business. You stand to interfere with my profit margin. You may well cause distress in my county and I will not have that. Now, sirrah, you will state your business here and you will state it now.
We may be able to come to a ... profitable... accord.
Otherwise," and his smile was utterly humorless, "I need to know where to send your death notice."
The Sheriff kicked hard with his left foot against the floor and went over backwards, his right-hand Colt clearing leather: he had one clear shot and he took it.
Ricco stood, nickle plated pistol in hand, hammering five fast shots at where the Sheriff had been a moment before: beside him, his partner grunted and dropped his own gun: the break top landed in his untouched mashed potatoes and gravy and he, too, started to his feet.
Ricco turned and ran, feinting for the front door, then sprinting down the hall.
He was not familiar with the Jewel's layout but he was not so much of a fool as to think the main entrance was not watched.

Twain Dawg showed his teeth.
Twain Dawg's jaws opened an amazing distance, wide enough to take a man's head in its grasp: he had muscles enough to crush a human skull, or a leg: his teeth were sharp enough to crush, and rip free, a man's hand halfway to the elbow.
Polly laughed and reached for his shining, wet nose.
Twain Dawg's pink tongue curled and he finished his great yawning stretch, then stood, shaking his head, and Polly hugged her beloved Dawg: Opal, on the other side, embraced the great, midnight-furred canine in an identical manner.
Young Joseph was asleep, blanket bundled and on a thick-folded quilt on the floor with them: the little girls had regarded the sleeping infant curiously, and Twain Dawg had come over and snuffed at the somnolent son of their host, and as the little one woke and waved a pink arm free of the swaddle, Twain Dawg proceeded to give the laughing lad a good tongue bath.
Twain Dawg curled up around young Joseph, protectively, and Polly and Opal leaned happily against the massive Dawg, and all were soon asleep again.

Fannie's voice was brisk, efficient: "Here, let's get you cleaned up," she said, and proceeded to unbutton Sarah's dress: she knew Bonnie's mother's instinct would kick in, and it did: Sarah washed off in cold water and ran upstairs to brush out her hair.
"Let's take out the trash," Fannie said. "I'll need an old bedsheet or a blanket or something."
Bonnie's hand went to her mouth, her other to her stomach, then she swallowed hard and nodded.
Fannie watched approvingly as Bonnie's hands met at belt buckle position and she raised her chin.
Bonnie was a little pale, but Bonnie was made of stern stuff, and Fannie knew all she needed was a little bit of a push and she would be fine.
"I have just the thing," she said, and a few moments later was returned with a quilt and a bedsheet both.
Fannie looked at the quilt and the sheet: both were near new.
"Caleb's," Bonnie said simply. "From our bed."
Fannie saw Bonnie's eyes and they were hard, hard and unforgiving, and she had a glimpse, just a glimpse into the depth of the woman's hurt and anger.
"I want nothing of that man in my house," Bonnie hissed, and Fannie nodded.
Fannie squatted, seizing the carcass at hip and shoulder.
"I'll roll him up on his side. You stuff the blanket under him and we'll get him out of here without smearing a bloody mess across the floor."

Levi powered around the end of the bar, ripping his Smith & Wesson .44 from its shoulder holster.
Mr. Baxter was crouched, just coming up, his own persuader in hand: the muzzles of his ten-bore looked over the bar a moment before he did.
The Sheriff was coming to his feet, swearing loudly and seizing the mobster by the shirt front: roaring, the cold-eyed lawman drove his elbow into the mobster's face and he threw him bodily against the wall.
Straightening, the Sheriff glared at Levi:
"Ricco! After him!" he barked, and turned back to the gut shot townie.
Levi, eyes wide, stared for a moment at the Sheriff, then looked down the hall, ran for the open back door and the fleeing figure beyond.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-31-10

 

Dawg had come to town with his mistress, easily keeping pace with the sorrel, and was comfortably muzzle-deep in a platter of his offspring's favorite food at the back of Daisy's kitchen when shots rang out from the barroom and frantic steps pounded the hardwood. With tongue-swipe and head-shake the great black predator cleared the decks for potential action.

Dawg's keen ears followed the fugitive's progress through the Jewel's entry hall toward the back of the building, black eyes gleaming and lip curled away from sparkling white. The kitchen ladies who moments before had been fawning over their gentlemanly caller now drew back, their own eyes wide as the sound of distant thunder rumbled through the room.

Ricco was rattling doors, looking for an escape; all were locked. Then one gave under his hand. He ran to the door at the end of the hall, threw it open, then rushed back to the unlocked door and stepped inside, easing the panel shut behind him and putting his back to the wall. He struck a match, momentarily lighting the linen closet he found himself in. Consciously working to control his breathing, he listened at the door for any sign of pursuit. Hearing nothing, he shook out the match and leaned back against soft linens with a sigh of relief.

Dawg slipped silently into the hall. He'd seen Levi pounding by to exit out the rear of the building, following Dawg knew not what trail, but he knew that the man's quarry had gone to ground inside the building. He sniffed the air; pomade, sweat, cigar smoke, all traces drifting on the slight breeze of Levi's passage, all ending at a particular door. Dawg stopped, sniffed at the small opening at the bottom of the door, then raised a paw to scratch delicately at the panel.

Startled, the Denver mobster jerked upright. The soft scratching sound came again and he cautiously lifted one hand to the doorknob, the other tightly grasping the razor he flicked open. Slowly he turned the knob, until the latch released with the tiniest of clicks. The door swung inward on well-oiled hinges...

Who could have known that such a deep voice could give vent to such a scream?

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Mr. Box 8-31-10

 

I had started into the hallway when I saw Dawg scratching at a door. His hackle was up. His body was like spring steel. He was silent. His nose moved closer to the door jam. Suddenly I saw an arm swing out and a flash of light reflect off the straight razor in the hand. It was a very effective technique for catching a man off guard and quickly disabling him with a slash across the neck, face, or chest but not for the canine that was much nearer the floor. The quickly extended arm was too easy of a target for the tensed up animal waiting outside the door. The straight razor fell immediately to the floor and Dawg lunged thru the door! With an ear piercing scream the door slammed shut! Now, it was obvious that there wasn't room enough in there for the both of them from all the screaming, growling, snarling, snapping, and thunderous banging and kicking around in there. Some of the screams were crisp and loud, while others were muffled but still indicating intense pain being inflicted. Dawg never yelped once. It was strictly business for him. It was pitch black in there, too which worked even more to Dawg's advantage. That poor fool never had a clue where the next bite was going to be. I couldn't have opened that door if I had to. The only way they would get out of there was if the door split wide open, which it suddenly did, and they both tumbled out into the hallway! Ricco was sprawling around on the floor tangled in a couple of sheets, screaming whenever he could catch his breath enough. Dawg wasn't slowing down. He'd latch onto a leg and shake his head. Then repeat it on an arm or buttock. I put a foot on the straight razor and slid it away just in case Ricco ever had a chance to grab it. There was getting to be a fair amout of blood smears on the floor and walls.
Levi realized he was on a wild goose chase. As he returned to the door he came out of he could hear what was happening inside but he wasn't prepared for what he saw happening!

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Linn Keller 9-1-10

 

Hard men have hard ways, and this was a hard man.
He was also a man with a hole in his belly and my forearm across his throat, pinning him to the wall.
His eyes rolled to the right as he heard Dawg entertaining Ricco.
I didn't know Dawg was in the house but somehow I'm glad he was.
"What I purpose, I perform," I said quietly, drawing the knife from my right boot top. I held it up so he could see it, see the light shine off the honed edge.
"I learned how to use this in the War." I turned it easily in my fingers drew it down my own cheek.
I held it up for him to see.
Skin oil and whisker stubble were pooled on its edge.
"I can shave with this knife," I said, "and generally I do."
I smiled and the smile had no humor in it at all.
"Now I can skin you alive, or I can just gut you right here, unless you have something I might find useful."
His face was kind of mottled and pale and his hand was pressed to the hole in his side. I hadn't got a good center shot, it was well to the side but it was still a hole in the man, and even a hard man is shaken when he's taken a .44 through the guts.
"Help me," he whispered, and for the first time in a long time -- I'm a pretty good judge of men, and my gut told me he hadn't felt this way for quite a while -- he felt fear, genuine fear.
"We have doctors and a hospital," I said, "and if you are valuable to me I'll let you live. Otherwise you'll die but I can make it last a long time." I smiled again.
"I've done it before."
"Rosenthal," he whispered, his voice hoarse.
"What about him?"
"Money," he said through bloodless lips. He was starting to shiver.
Whatever he has to say, I thought, he'd better say it fast. He's not far from passing out.
"What about money?"
"His widow," he said, and his teeth were starting to chatter. "The boss ... boss said to col ... collect from widow."
"Collect how?" I grated, laying the cool, metallic flat of the blade against his cheek.
His eyes fluttered, closed.
"Wake up," I said quietly, "or I start whittling," and I took a slice off his left ear.
Not a big one, just a quick flick of the blade, like I was slicing a strip of bark off a twig.
His eyes snapped open and he made kind of a little "nggg" sound.
"Make her sign over everything."
"What kind of everything?"
"P - p - property. B - b- business. Take her daughter."
My arm tightened across his throat and fury blazed bright in my soul.
"What about her daughter?"
"Sell, sell, sell her to a crib --"
I had heard enough.
I seized him by the shirt front and picked him up left handed, the knife hard locked in my good right fist.
I was more than mad, I was incinerated by a fury I have not felt for a very long time.
I picked him up one handed and packed him down the hall.
Dawg backed up about a yard, eyes red as hell-coals: his muzzle was crimson, his teeth a beautiful, shocking white, with red between them, and Ricco ... well, Ricco was dying.
Dawg likes his work really well.
I leaned my left shoulder against the wall, picked up my right leg and slid the knife back into its boot top sheath, then I reached down and rubbed Dawg's ears.
"Good fellow," I said. "Good boy."
Dawg snarled happily at me and looked back down at Ricco.
I packed the wounded mobster out the back door.
"Dawg," I said over my shoulder, "bring him."
Ricco screamed again as Dawg's jaws closed on an ankle and pulled him the few feet to the back door, and down the three steps.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-1-10

 

With Thomas' remains safely out of sight, Fannie started toward the stairs, intending to spend some time with Sarah. The girl was strong, but was yet a girl, and would need comfort and support. Bonnie grasped her arm. "Where are you going?"

"To see to your daughter," was the simple answer.

"I'll do that."

Fannie looked down at the trembling hand on her sleeve until the fingers opened. "We'll both go. She'll have need of a mother's love. But she's going to need more than that. She's going to need the hand of someone who's been there and done that." Fannie smiled grimly at Bonnie. "I know you've not had the life of sunshine and roses that you deserve, but neither have you been where I have been in my time. Sarah is going to go through hell, literally, and she needs a guide who can bring her safely out the other side. You've done things to save your life, things that you're not proud of; I've done the same, and more, to make a living. Life sometimes forces us to make choices, and I intend to see that Sarah has what she needs to make the right choice.

"You're one of the strongest women I've ever met, Bonnie, but Sarah is going to need more and I hope you'll allow me to provide whatever else she needs." Fannie was silent now as the play of emotions that surged through her friend was writ large on her features. Bonnie's gaze turned inward as she examined Fannie's words and what she knew of the woman's life, then stood that knowledge beside her own experiences. As Fannie had said, they had each done things in life that they weren't proud of, but Bonnie's had been for preservation of herself and her daughter; Fannie's had been for the preservation of the lives of others as well as her own. Bonnie drew in a deep breath and gestured toward the stairs.

"Shall we?"

Fannie smiled, relief coursing through her. "We shall!"

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Charlie MacNeil 9-1-10

 

Sarah sat on her bed, hairbrush forgotten in her hand, unseeing gaze directed out the window in front of her. Her blood-stained frock, speckled with Thomas' blood, lay piled in the center of the rag rug beneath her feet. Her face was white and her hands trembled in the aftermath of the adrenaline overload of the confrontation in the room downstairs. Flashing images of blood and smoke, torn flesh and shattered bone, burst like fireworks across the skies of her mind; a soft cry of anguish, not for the dead but for the living, broke the silence of the room. The brush clattered to the floor as she buried her face in her hands.

Mother and adopted aunt settled on each side of Sarah. Bonnie's arms wrapped around her daughter and the girl turned to the comfort and security that those arms offered. Sobs of sorrow for the childhood lost shook the slender frame, vying with deep anger at the dead man whose demands had taken that carefree time away.

Fannie could see the play of the emotions that battled within Sarah, could feel them in her own heart; she'd gone through a similar ordeal herself, though at a somewhat later stage in her life. Still, she knew how the girl felt and vowed that Sarah and her mother would not fight the demons alone.

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Mr. Box 9-1-10

 

I went back out to the bar after Sheriff Keller took over. A few patrons were getting curious about all the strange sounding commotion behind the scenes. I just handed them a fresh beer or whatever their preference was and said, "It's on me." They'd go back to their tables or their spot at the bar and resume their previous activities. I took a scan around the bar to see if I noticed any friends of theirs still lingering.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-1-10

 

The cascade of emotion began to subside as Sarah reached deep inside herself for some semblance of control. She pushed herself upright within the circle of Bonnie's arms and reached up to wipe away the outward manifestation of her emotional upheaval. Bonnie glanced at Fannie over Sarah's bowed head, and nodded.

"Sarah," Fannie said softly. The girl showed no sign of hearing. "Sarah!" More urgent now; still no reaction. "SARAH!" Fannie barked, her voice pitched in the timbre of a drill-sergeant on a frontier drill field. Sarah jerked around toward Fannie, eyes downcast. Fannie gently lifted her adopted niece's chin so that Sarah's eyes met hers. "You did what was necessary to protect your mother, Sarah."

"But...but...that man..."

"That man was here to hurt you and your sisters, and to force your mother to sign away her business," Fannie said firmly. "You did what you had to do!"

"But I..."

"You what?"

"All I could think of was killing him!" Sarah blurted out.

"Were you scared?" Sarah nodded, silent. "Were you angry?" Again she nodded. "Did you enjoy killing him?" Fannie suddenly demanded, her tone rough as a horse-shoeing rasp. Both Sarah and Bonnie stared at her, shocked at both word and tone.

"What are you..." Bonnie began; Fannie's arctic glare silenced her instantly.

"NO!" Sarah shouted. "I had to protect my Mama!"

"Exactly," Fannie told her softly, frost thawing in her gaze. "You did exactly right."

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Linn Keller 9-2-10

 

Jacob stood fast in the alley.
He knew his father had resources within the Jewel.
He knew there were other dangers which may manifest.
He knew the stage was just coming into sight, and he knew those dangers may be coming in on the stage.
Jacob looked at Jackson Cooper.
The big Marshal's quiet gaze was also well beyond the end of town, where the road turned along the river's bend, to the distant team hauling the brightly-painted Concord on the packed dirt road.
Jacob's mouth twitched and he said, "Jackson Cooper, hold this for me."
Jackson Cooper extended a hand, took the rifle.
"New one, ain't it?" he rumbled, his voice as smooth and gentle as a handful of sand.
"Yep."
Jackson Cooper looked at the half-inch hole in the muzzle.
"Think it's big enough?"
Jacob smiled thinly. "It'll do until I get a bigger one."
Jackson Cooper's eyes tightened a little at the corners: the big man was smiling and Jacob knew it, though the rest of the Marshal's face was impassive.
"I've got an idea," Jacob said quietly, and started up the board walk toward the Mercantile.
Jackson Cooper faded back, letting wood crates and a rain barrel break up his visual signature: the stage passed with a clatter of hooves, the squeak of its leather suspension, the sound of trace-chains, bells, the driver's happy profaning of the team, and little boys running after the pinstriped coach, hoping to cadge penny candies if anyone was waiting to claim their mail.
The stage stopped about halfway between the Mercantile and the Silver Jewel: the board walk was wide and accommodating there, and passengers could either go one way to the Mercantile, if they had need of supplies, or more likely across the street to the Silver Jewel, for a stretch and a drink, relief of a non-Masonic nature and a meal were more than welcome, and unlike most stage stops of the West, the Silver Jewel made sure it could feed the passengers quickly and well.
"A half hour, folks!" the driver bawled. "We'll be a half-hour checking horseshoes and greasing axles! Get a bite, walk around, take in a show if you like! All the time in the world!" -- and with a flick of the reins, he turned the stage hard left, walked the blowing team down the wide alley between the Jewel and the City Building, toward the livery, and the waiting Shorty.
Jacob watched the passengers enter the Jewel, and followed them in.
His badge was on the under side of his lapel, out of sight, and he sauntered toward the ornate double doors as if he had all the time in the world.

Ricco hissed hate at the Sheriff.
The Sheriff petted Twain Dawg's bristling ruff.
"You're dying, Ricco," he said coldly. "You've failed.
"You've come to cause me trouble and I don't like that." His hand was gentle on Dawg's spiking, rippling hair.
"You see, Caleb Rosenthal was my friend. He married my niece."
Ricco's eyes changed.
The Sheriff saw recognition, hatred, then defeat.
"Niece?" his partner groaned, curled up in a fetal position on the ground nearby.
"Family," the Sheriff nodded. "And I don't take threats to my family.
"Now your kind know only one thing and I'm going to see that your boss gets the message." He stood.
"I could send your miserable carcasses back to Denver, but that might bring more problems. No, you're both going to disappear.
"No one will know where you went.
"Anyone who comes looking for you will disappear as well.
"I don't care who comes or how many come looking. They'll just disappear.
"Your boss will get the message." The Sheriff smiled and his smile was not pleasant.
"And if he doesn't, well, I can track a man in the city as well as out here."

Jacob shoved his hat back on his head.
"You fellas from around here?" he asked with the eagerness of a hick kid.
The two looked at him with disdain. "No," they said shortly.
"Aw shucks," Jacob said in a disappointed tone. "I need to find some fella named Rosenthal. He's come into some money and I been hired to find him."
"Really." The two looked at one another. "How much money?"
Jacob removed his hat, scratched his head, settled it back in place and shoved it way back again, doing his best to look like an unsophisticated clod.
"I think about ten thousand, maybe fifteen hundred."
"You got it with you?"
"Me? Nah." Jacob grinned a boyish grin. "I gotta tell him who to contact so they can send it by express messenger, he'll hafta sign for it -- him or his wife, one -- then they'll pack that-there strong box right up on his front porch for him!"
Jacob raised both eyebrows and a finger, and Mr. Baxter slid him a beer.
"You're not from around here, then."
"Me? Naw, I'm from this side of Kansas City." Jacob took a noisy slurp of beer. "Lawyer hired me to do his runnin' for him."
"We ... think we know where this Rosen ... what was his name again?"
Jacob frowned. "I don't really recall his first name nor his wife's, but likely I'd know if I heard it."
"Bonnie and Caleb Rosenthal," the other supplied helpfully.
Jacob snapped his fingers. "That's it, the very ones!" He took another swig of beer. "Where can I find 'em?"
"I hate to bear bad news," the second one said, sliding his Derby hat forward a little, "but Mr. Rosenthal seems to have ... expired."
"Aw," Jacob said, crestfallen, then: "Does his widda know?"
"We ..." They looked at one another and the first said, "We need to tell her."
"Let me slip out an' get my horse. You find where she is and ..." Jacob assumed a dolorous expression. "I ain't never broke no bad news like this before."
"It's all right," the first one said, chewing on what used to be a cigar, but now resembled a soggy stick. "We'll take care of that for you."
"Really, mister? Thanks!" Jacob set his beer down and strode quickly out the front door of the Jewel.
The first of the outlaws walked over to a table occupied by what he hoped was locals, and dropped two double eagles on the checkered tablecloth.
"Where can I find the Widow Rosenthal?"

The Sheriff thrust the rose's stem into the newly opened slit in Ricco's chest.
It was, coincidentally, just as wide and just the same shape as his boot knife.
His partner, too, was similarly decorated.
The Sheriff stood, his face pale, his hands shaking.
"Nobody goes after my niece," he whispered hoarsely. "NOBODY!"

Jacob took the rifle from Jackson Cooper.
"There's going to be a shooting," Jacob said shortly, and withdrew the gold coin from his pocket.
Jackson Cooper squinted a little and smiled.
He withdrew one of his own, holding it up between thumb and forefinger.
Both coins bore the Christian cross, superimposed with the Seal of Solomon, on one side, and a rose on the other.
Jackson Cooper handed Jacob his .50-95 and Jacob slid two golden tipped cartridges through the loading gate, cycled the action.
Jackson Cooper caught the slowly spinning lead-bulleted round as Jacob eased his hammer to half cock.
Jackson Cooper scrutinized the cartridge, turning it slowly in his big, blunt fingers.
"I gotta get me one 'a' these," he said. "That looks to be my size."

The Sheriff's head came up at the echoed sound of his son's voice: "Sheriff's deputy! Don't move!" -- followed by two heavy concussions.
Running feet, loud on the boardwalk, a confusion of voices.
Dawg looked up at him, made a questioning yoww-wow sound.
The Sheriff thrust into a sprint, running toward the alley that ran up beside the Jewel.
Shorty dropped the horse's hoof, drawing back to see what the excitement was, the driver turned and the shotgun guard grabbed his Greener and took out after the Sheriff.

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Linn Keller 9-2-10

 

Jackson Cooper stood at Jacob's back, facing away: though tall, Jacob was a head shorter than Jackson Cooper.
It's not that Jacob was that much shorter, really.
It's that Jackson Cooper was that much taller.
I'm six two in my sock feet and my son looks me square in the eye in his sock feet.
Now Esther, she looks me square in the Adam's apple, but we're not talking about Esther -- though I saw her shocked face looking out the Z&W office window above.
Dawg bounded along beside me, baying: it was like the throat of Hell itself, baying after souls and I don't doubt me one bit but the hell-throat swallowed several that day, and most of 'em sent by our hand.
"Jacob!" I shouted as I came around the corner.
Jacob nodded, tersely, once, and I remember how cold, how pale his eyes were.
God Almighty! I thought, that look could freeze a man's bones! I'd hate to have eyes like that look at me! -- and in spite of myself I shivered.
One body was half on the board walk, half dangling to the street below, the other was face up on the street, a hole where his third shirt button used to be.
Jacob switched his rifle to his left hand, reached into his coat and withdrew two roses.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-2-10

 

Now that she had the girl's attention, Fannie said softly, "Sarah, I believe that you have a decision to make that will change the course of your life even more than it has been changed over the last few days."

"What do you mean, Aunt Fannie?"

"You are a beautiful and intelligent young lady, Sarah," Fannie answered. "You can choose to live in a genteel world of elegance and beauty, the belle of the ball, so to speak." An odd, pensive expression crossed Sarah's features as Fannie went on. "However, there's steel, whalebone and rawhide in you as well; you could choose to stride hard-heeled through the world, daring any and all to dispute your right to do so. Or you could choose to take the middle road."

Sarah silently lifted a questioning brow. Fannie smiled. "I've taken such a road myself." She looked down at her fringed shotgun chaps, canvas britches tucked into high, Texas Star boots, Mexican-roweled spurs and canvas duster. "The Fannie you see before you is the one who once was a special deputy, who faced her share of outlaws and death, and who, when necessary, dealt death herself in much the same manner as you have done today." Her brows pulled together and her voice grew fierce. "But through it all, I conducted myself as a lady, and I walked only on the side of right!" she declared. "There is law, and there is lawlessness! You can give in to the darkness, or you can work to bring the light to those who haven't the strength to make that final step themselves!" Her tone softened. "Or you can turn your back on your potential and become a hot-house flower, good only for wearing pretty dresses and serving tea, or keeping house for some man who doesn't deserve you."

"I don't know," Sarah whispered. "Mama?" She looked plaintively at Bonnie. "What should I do?"

Bonnie kissed her daughter's forehead and told her, resignation heavy behind her words despite her best effort to prevent it, "It's up to you, Sarah; I can't make that decision for you. But remember, whatever you decide, I will love you. Always." She looked at Fannie, but her words were for her daughter. "You don't have to decide right now. But you will have to decide for yourself. It's your life." To ruin, she continued silently. It had been her wish that her daughter grow up as the gentlewoman Bonnie had finally been able to shape herself to be; instead she could see, almost as if she were reading Sarah's mind, that such would not come to pass. Sarah would follow a different course, one that might lead to her death. She wrapped Sarah in the last hug that she would get as a girl, and her first as the woman, young though she may be, that she had become, forged in the crucible of fire this day.

Fannie watched them, mother and daughter, sorrow in her green eyes, sorrow for the loss that both of them had suffered this day, vying with joy at the strength that she sensed in Sarah. "Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his brother" passed through her mind; she was sure that she was misquoting, but she was equally sure that she didn't care.

When Bonnie and Sarah drew apart, Fannie stood. "I've a present for you," she told Sarah. "I wasn't sure about giving it to you, but after seeing you with this," she indicated the percussion Navy that lay on the quilt, "I'm positive that it's needed. I'll be right back." She strode from the room, spurs jingling. She returned minutes later with an oilcloth-wrapped bundle which she laid in Sarah's lap.

"What is it?" Sarah asked.

"I think you know," Fannie answered. "Go ahead and open it."

Sarah drew the string and spread the wrapping to reveal a cartridge belt, brass cartridges gleaming in the beam of sunlight that crossed the room, and holstered revolver. The deep blue of the birdshead-gripped .44 shone. Sarah looked up at Fannie. "But I can't take such a gift!" she said.

"Think of it not as a gift for yourself but for your mother and your sisters," Fannie told her. "You'll be needing it to protect them."

"In that case, thank you." Sarah threw her arms around Fannie's neck. "Thank you," she whispered.

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Linn Keller 9-3-10

 

Dawg's eyes were still blood red.
His lips peeled back as he sniffed one carcass, then the other, snarling.
I looked up.
The Jewel had pretty well emptied out, at least for the temporary.
I never saw so many good men turn so pale in my life, looking at the pair that lay bleeding and dead, and at Dawg, the very embodiment of ravening death, standing over them, fur straight up down the length of his spine and snarling deep and hard and fit to freeze a man's heart in his chest.
I'll not lie to you.
I was some scared myself.
Dawg finally hiked his leg over the nearest one, then took three running bounds and dove into the horse trough.
I watched him wallow and snap at the water and I reckon he wanted to get the taste out of his mouth and I don't blame him.
"Jackson Cooper," I said quietly.
Jackson Cooper looked at me, eyes veiled.
I could almost hear the gears turning behind his mild expression.
Don't let Jackson Cooper's expression fool you, this man was fast, and he was graceful: the Chinese have a saying, "Never give a sword to a man who cannot dance."
I have watched Jackson Cooper waltz.
I watched him waltz once with Duzy, and the pair of them cleared the floor: never in my life have I seen better, and I do love a good dance.
Jackson Cooper would have been a master swordsman, in an earlier era.
"Jackson Cooper, did you see anyone else come off that train?"
Jackson Cooper considered for a moment, frowning.
Dawg rolled over, immersing himself, four paws thrusting up out of the water.
"No," Jackson Cooper said finally. "No, I don't reckon there were."
"Bonnie and the girls. Where?" My words were clipped, short, my face felt tight.
Jackson Cooper looked me square in the eye.
"Bonnie was bound and determined to go out to her place," he said. "I told her to go out to Jacob's and fort up and she had none of it."
My left hand tightened on the Winchester I held and I ground my teeth.
Contrary, hard headed, prideful woman! I thought viciously. Why, I'd oughta bend her over my knee and --
I blinked.
"Jacob."
"Sir."
"Jacob, the girls?"
"All at my place, sir. Sarah, Opal, Polly, all safe."
I nodded, once.
"Jacob, have Shorty bring up the wagon. Tell him to throw sawdust and straw in the bottom so he don't string blood from here to yonder and load up the carcasses. These and the two out back."
"Yes, sir. The usual?"
"The usual." I took a long breath.
Dawg stood up, shook himself, slinging shining diamond drops of water in gleaming arcs.
I stepped up onto the boardwalk, squared off before two locals I knew.
"You tell 'em where the Rosenthal place is?"
The fellow held up two double eagles.
"He paid well," he said with a smirk.
I reached into my vest pocket and handed him another double eagle, and the man beside him as well.
"Thank'ee kindly," I said. "I do appreciate your help."
They both shoved their hats back on their heads and grinned.
"Now if that don't beat all!" the second man declared. "We git to lie t' strangers an' they pay us to lie to 'em, an' you pay us for gettin' paid to lie to 'em!"
I turned from the pleased pair and headed across the street.
Halfway across I turned.
"Jackson Cooper, I ain't right about this. I'm going out to Bonnie's and make sure all's well and get her the hell to Jacob's place. I'll be between here and there if anything comes up."
Jackson Cooper touched his hat brim with a forefinger, looking as relaxed as a man set down with his feet propped up on a nail keg.
I unwound the reins from the hitch rail and thrust my engraved '73 rifle into the scabbard, stepped into the saddle.
Outlaw was not as placid as Bruja del Sol had been: fact is, he was antsy, he wanted to run and I let him: I galloped him to the depot, drew up at the far end.
Young Lightning had just stepped out onto the platform and was checking his watch.
"Morn', Shurf," he greeted me with that boyish grin of his and I couldn't help but grin in spite of the tight in my gut.
"Was there any more city fellers come off the train?" I called and Outlaw reared, windmilling his forehooves, his favorite show-off trick when he was excited.
Young Lightning frowned and closed his watch carefully. "Come to recall, yes sir, there was two come off the first car" -- he turned as if looking at the cars again -- "and some minutes later another city dude come out of the second car. He looked around a bit before he stepped down."
"Where'd he go?"
"Fred said he went into town an' looked in at one o' the lawyers, an' he palavered with that old gossip that give me such a hard way to go, an' last he saw he was in the hired buggy headed --"
Young Lightning could not talk without his hands.
Soon as he pointed out toward Bonnie's place I turned Outlaw and kicked him into a gallop.
I fetched out that '73 rifle and took it two hand across me and dropped the reins over the saddle horn.
"RUN, YOU JUG HEADED HELL-SPAWN!" I roared, and Outlaw stretched out and pointed his nose straight out ahead of him and my hat blew back off my head and bounced once, the storm strap tugging at my throat.
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod, I thought, I'm too late I'm too late I'm too late --
My guts wound up in knots and I set my teeth together and I willed Outlaw to greater speed and in my mind's eye I could see Bonnie bloody and laying dead in her kitchen and Sarah gutted and sprawled on the front porch and the twins bloodied in their beds and a little girl's voice sing-songed Too late, Too late, nyaa nyaa na nyaa nyaaa, and I reckon the Almighty knows what's in a man's heart, for mine was screaming for His intercession but the only thing I could grunt out of a tight throat was "Run -- run -- run -- run!"

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Charlie MacNeil 9-3-10

 

Hoof thunder echoed from the hardpan of the road leading to the Rosenthal house...

"Sarah! Window! Now!" Fannie snapped. She'd seen Sarah's Winchester leaning up in the corner. "Don't shoot until..." Sarah's eyes blazed with indignation. "Never mind. Stay out of sight, but be ready! Bonnie, you're with me!" The two older women raced for the stairs, Bonnie lifting her skirts as she ran. The pair clattered into Bonnie's office, Bonnie snatching up her pistol from the desk as she passed, Fannie taking a firm grip on the Greener and thumbing back the hammers. She jerked her chin toward the window overlooking the road then set her back against the wall near the door while Bonnie crouched beside the window to peer through the sheer lace of the curtains.

The rider was bent low over the neck of his mount, hat flapping against his back in the wind of his passage. The black horse hammered into the yard and slid to a stop, the rider leaping from the saddle and running toward the door, head down and Winchester in a two-handed grip. "THAT'S FAR ENOUGH, MISTER!" Fannie barked. Linn skidded to a stop, nearly upending himself in the process as Fannie recognized him and stepped out onto the porch. "Linn? Where's the fire?"

"Miss Fannie? Thank the Good Lord you're here! Have you seen any sign of a city dude in a buggy?"

"He's out back, wrapped up in a blanket." She saw relief wash over the Sheriff's face.

"Then you got her in time!"

"No, unfortunately, I didn't," Fannie answered solemnly. "Sarah..."

"That poor girl," Linn said softly, shaking his head.

Bonnie appeared in the doorway, pistol hanging beside her leg. Sarah, dressed now as she had been when she arrived home, except for the .44 belted around her slender waist, came out to stand beside her mother, rifle butt braced on her hip, muzzle tilted sky-ward. "It's alright, Uncle Linn," Sarah told the Sheriff. "Really."

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Linn Keller 9-4-10

 

No buggy, I thought, swinging my gaze across as much of the Rosenthal homestead as I could.
He's hid the thing, and my gut twisted, thinking of Bonnie alone in the house with a murderous stranger.
I knew the evil those Denver men could do: lawmen talk and I'd had some long conversations with my big city counterparts and they were not chary to open up and unburden themselves to a sympathetic ear.
Something resembling reason reurned in the last moments of my desperate ride: the girls were at Jacob's, I knew, but that left Bonnie, my Bonnie --
I seized my wild imagination and slammed it down in an iron kettle and screwed a lid down tight to contain it.
You're a lawman, dammit, you deal in facts! I lashed silently, and all this happened in the short stretch between the Rosenthal's gate and their front yard.
Outlaw skidded some coming to a stop and I was out of the saddle before he was quit moving: I hit the ground running, bent over, looking, scanning --
Blood, I thought, instantly registering what I saw: three fat drops in a straight line, then I saw footmarks and a scuff and my heart tightened up some.
Blood, wet, three drops, fly one one but not the other two, a part of my mind noted clinically. Fresh, very fresh.
I headed for the front porch, raised my head --
"THAT'S FAR ENOUGH , MISTER!"
Outlaw-horse had four hooves to skid ag'in the ground to come to a stop.
Me, I only had two and I near to fell in my hurry to halt.
There is something just a-mighty sobering by the sight of a two barrel howitzer pointed at you, especially with a determined woman holding it, and there was absolutely, positively no mistaking the determination in Miz Fannie's stance.
Imagination beat on that screwed down kettle lid, trying to get out, yelling something about how her finger was turning white pulling on that trigger and it'll feel like a buzz saw cutting your middle out of you --
I kicked that iron kettle over a hillside somewhere and opened my mouth.
Fannie's head came up from where her cheek had welded itself to the comb of that Greener.
"Linn?" she asked, curiosity in her eyes but the rest of her body was tense, ready to rip into whoever was deemed a threat. "Where's the fire?"
I finished trying not to fall and I reckon it might have been a comical sight, for I am a long legged man and it took a little for me to come to a stop without ending up backside-upwards a-rolling in the dirt.
"Miz Fannie!"
My voice was strange in my own ears.
"Thank the good Lord you're here!"
I dared, I dared hope for a moment, for just a moment.
If Fannie is here, maybe nothing happened --
"Did you see any sign of a city dude in a buggy!" I demanded, looking left, looking right.
Fannie lowered the Greener, straightened.
"He's in back, wrapped up in a blanket."
Blood, I thought. Stranger's blood!
"Then you got here in time!"
"No, unfortunately, I didn't," and I saw something in Miz Fannie's face, and imagination kicked the lid off that kettle and came roaring up the cliff face I'd kicked it over.
"Sarah ..."
Bonnie's dead, gutted like a fish and Sarah is orphaned, I thought, and I felt myself go cold, like the warmth drained out of me, like you'd pour warm water out of a bottle, gone, gone.
Sarah, alone in the world, her Mama slaughtered --
I shrank away from the thought of Bonnie, dead.
Bonnie.
I loved her like a daughter, I would have gone to one knee before her had circumstances been different and asked her hand --
I closed my eyes, hard, swallowing something dry.
"Poor Sarah," I gasped.
We'll take her in, I thought. Angela will love having her cousin for a sister and Esther will --
I looked beyond Fannie.
I blinked.
Bonnie walked out her front door, my old Navy Colt in hand, and Sarah beside her.
Solid.
Real.
Ghosts don't wear blue dresses, I thought.
Sarah was beside her.
Sarah is at Jacob's.
Two ghosts?

I blinked.
They were still there.
Sarah is getting some height to her, I thought, and she's holding that rifle muzzle up like I showed her --
Ghosts don't wear a gunbelt.
Imagination faded like a wisp of smoke and some intelligence must have woke up and kicked me in my mental backside.
They're alive, you clod!
Part of me wanted to run up and bundle them both in my arms and hold them, hold them and feel them solid and warm and real, and the rest of me just kind of stood there with what must have been a really dumb look on my face.
I distantly remember Sarah's voice.
It came from a very long way off.
"It's all right, Uncle Linn," she said in that Sarah-voice I remembered so well. "Really!"

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Linn Keller 9-5-10

 

I handed my rifle to Miz Fannie without looking at her.
I could not take my eyes off Bonnie and Sarah.
I took Bonnie in my left arm and Sarah in my right.
They were warm.
They were solid.
They were real.
I took a long, shivering breath and felt their arms go around me.
Neither of them set their guns down to do it.
I looked up as Miz Fannie came up the steps and onto the porch with us.
She parked my rifle beside the front door and turned, easily, eyes busy, watching, watching.
She never said a word, bless her, she gave the three of us as much time as we needed.
It didn't take much more than a few minutes before we turned loose of one another.
I had been afraid, so afraid, and now that was gone.
Bonnie was safe, alive.
"Are you hurt?" I whispered.
Bonnie shook her head, biting her bottom lip.
I don't think she quite trusted her voice.
I looked at Sarah. "You hurt?"
Sarah shook her head, eyes bright.
"Aren't you supposed to be at Jacob's?"
Sarah looked at Bonnie.
"Mama needed me," she said simply.
"Miz Fannie." I knew Fannie's good level head would have a better handle on what had happened than I could puzzle out in a short time.
Miz Fannie looked at me.
I had her ear, though she never said a word in reply.
"Should we hold here or head for Jacob's?"
"Jacob's," she said.
There was something different about her ... she looked ... leaner? Hungry?
Her features were somehow ... sharper ... I know her eyes were more penetrating, there was something, something that marked her as different, and I knew I was seeing Fannie Kikinshoot as she'd been as a deputy.
Thank you for being here, I thought, and made a mental note to thank her once the pressure was off.

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