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Firelands-The Beginning

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Charlie MacNeil 9-5-10


"Jacob's," Fannie answered curtly, eyes never ceasing their constant movement. The Greener was no longer a weapon, it was an extension of her will; it was a familiar ally from her past, and had served her well. Charlie knew some of the story, having been there early on; still there were chapters only Fannie and the dead knew the reality of, and she intended that said chapters would indeed remain in the past.

"Sarah, get our horses and the buggy from out back," Fannie ordered before turning to look at Linn with a wry smile. "Excuse me, Sheriff, I didn't mean to..."

Linn held up his hand, a hard grin quirking his lips up at the corners. "Don't worry about stepping on my toes, Miz Fannie," he told her. "I've got big feet, and I'm only usin' the bottoms anyway." He took a long step down from the porch and gathered Outlaw horse's reins. "I'll just go along and help Sarah, if you ladies will excuse me." He led the black horse around the corner, following Sarah's lead. A scurrying pair of minutes later he reappeared, leading the buggy horse, Sarah behind him astride her chestnut and leading Fannie's livery horse.

Bonnie closed the house door then wordlessly stepped into the buggy, gathering the reins and waiting as Linn and Fannie swung astride their horses. "Miz Fannie, if you'd lead the way, Sarah and I will pull rear guard," the Sheriff said. Fannie heeled her mount out and down the driveway toward the road. Bonnie clucked to the buggy horse and followed at a trot.

The trip to Jacob's house went without incident. The little cavalcade stopped well short of the front door, and Fannie called out, "Halloo, the house!"

"Is that you, Fannie?" Annette called.

"Yep!" Fannie answered cheerfully. "May we come in?"

"Light and set," Annette answered. Fannie smiled at the traditional western invitation as she stepped down. As Bonnie set the buggy brake, wrapped the reins around the lever and climbed down, the door flew open and a pair of miniature tornadoes appeared.

"Mama!" the girls called in unison, then Bonnie was nearly bowled off her feet by her two young daughters. She knelt and gathered them in her arms, holding them so tightly that they began to squirm. Sarah slipped her rifle into the scabbard under her knee and leapt to the ground herself to join her mother and sisters.

The girls were dragging Bonnie to her feet. "Come see Joseph!" they said in unison. Bonnie smiled at their innocence and enthusiasm as she allowed herself to be dragged toward the house.

"I'll see to the horses," Fannie said, gathering the reins in her left hand, right hand wrapped around the stock of the Greener.

"Miz Fannie, I..." Linn began.

"Don't go gettin' all chivalrous on me," Fannie told him. "I live on a horse ranch, you know."

"What I was going to say is that I need to get back to town," the Sheriff said soberly. "If I could have Outlaw's reins?"

"Sorry, Sheriff, I didn't think about that," Fannie told him ruefully. "And I should've." She handed him the black horse's reins.

"No harm done," Linn assured her. "You'll watch out here?"

"We'll watch out here, Uncle Linn," Sarah said firmly from behind him. She lifted her Winchester from the leather. "Don't worry about us." He looked at Sarah, seeing her new-found maturity and inwardly mourning the change. Despite her age, Sarah was no longer the sweet young girl she had been. The events of recent days had conspired to change all that.

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Linn Keller 9-6-10


We set us a good trot for town, nothing strenuous, just steady.
Outlaw could lope along all day like that.
My mind was running in two or three directions at once.
Part of me was still grinning at the twins' enthusiastic emergence from the house, and their happy swarming all over their Mama, and for an unguarded moment Sarah had that same happy look, but it only lasted a moment.
She was taking her lead from Miz Fannie.
This was new territory for her but she had a strong bent in that direction anyhow.
Who wouldn't, I thought, what with being raised the way she was, then orphaned --
Orphaned? I corrected myself.
More relieved than orphaned, if I'm any judge.
She's always been a sweet girl and she's every bit the young lady.
I squinted to the horizon.
Like Fannie, my eyes were busy, busy.
I threw a thought-switch on my mind's railroad and my train of thought chugged industriously onto another track.
Levi can fill me in about the deceased, I thought.
He will have gotten a good look at them. He was on the boardwalk with everyone else after Jacob punched their tickets and he can tell me who Bonnie's attacker is once I fetch that one in town for him to gander at.
I drew Outlaw to a halt where a side-hollow came down from higher ground, carrying a sweetwater creek with it.
I was dry and I reckon Outlaw was too.
I side-stepped him in ag'in a little bit of brush and we just set there for a time, listening.
After several minutes I dismounted and we both drank.
Leaves are startin' to turn, I noted.
I'll have to look at the back field again, my wheat crop ought to be about ripe. I know the hay's ready to cut and bale.
I'll stop in and ask Caleb about renting his baler again --

I froze, jaw slack, listening.
Nothing was out of the ordinary.
It was just the realization that Caleb was dead and I'd thought of him as if he were still alive.
Normal, I chastised myself. Either that or his shade stopped by to say howdy.
I patted Outlaw's neck.
"I just had me an idea, fella," I murmured.
"Bonnie can make herself some money by renting out farm equipment. She can rent out a baler or a thrasher or that shiny new McCormick harvester and make a dollar without ever raisin' a callus."
Outlaw paid me no mind.
He never did have much of a business head about him.

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Linn Keller 9-8-10


I trotted slowly down the main street.
School was started: an odd child buzzed in or out of the whitewashed, clapboard building, like restless bees from an early fall nest.
I'll have to talk to Miz Emma, I thought, and let her know Sarah will be along in due time.
I smiled at the thought of our little Angela going to school next year, and for a moment I felt surprise.
I shouldn't have.
Sarah was growing and growing fast -- I politely brushed aside recent events and thought only of the sweet girl I'd known -- men tend to do that, you see -- and I considered Angela, sprouting like she was a good crop in well watered soil, giggly and coltish and noisy until she ran down like a clock ...
I blinked.
Daydreamin', I chastised myself. Woolgatherin' will get you killed, son!
I made a pasear the length of town, circled back behind the hospital and the church and the schoolhouse and stopped to talk to Shorty: no, Shurf, he said, chewing on his ever present soggy stub of a cigar, no strangers since that last batch, an' by the way where in the cotton pickin' is his rent-out rig?
I promised him its return and thanked him for his kindness and asked if his chaw had caught fire or had his see-gar drowned out, and he glared at me.
"Cain't get a good see-gar no more," he muttered. "This'un ain't over two weeks old!"
Come to think about it, I never saw the man with a lit-up stogie save in winter, when he was in his office up ag'in that tin stove: his office was as near to fire proofed as he could make it, the chimney was tin, with rock and mortar laid up around it, for the man was deathly afraid of fire.
I dismounted, tying Outlaw to the hitch rail outside the Jewel: anyone who needed me would see where I was by the location of my horse, and I took the stairs two at a time.
It had been a troubling day, and I had need to see my wife, to feel her in my arms and hear her voice again.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-9-10.


"There is coffee ready," Annette said. She, Fannie and Sarah followed the enticing scent of fresh-boiled Arbuckle's to the kitchen table. The homey aroma of fresh bread and soft sugar cookies reminded Fannie that cold biscuits soaked in campfire coffee do not a lasting breakfast make. Annette set loaf, knife and butter crock alongside honey and jelly on the red-checked tablecloth, followed by four blue granite-ware cups. She filled three of the cups with the steaming black brew, laid spoons and saucers alongside each then seated herself. "Don't be shy, ladies," she said with a smile. "Help yourselves."

Gratefully, Fannie carved a pair of slabs from the fresh loaf, lavishly slathered both with butter, handed one to Sarah and took a big bite of the other. "Mmmmmm..." echoed through the kitchen, and Annette burst out laughing. When she had chewed and swallowed, Fannie asked a touch indignantly, "What's so funny?"

"You sound just like Twain Dawg!" Annette answered, chuckling.

"Well, it has been a while since breakfast," Fannie told her with a sheepish grin. "And it's for sure been a busy day." She took another, smaller bite, following it with a swallow of coffee. "And you make good bread!"

Her hunger partially satisfied, Fannie looked at Sarah. "Would you please ask your Mama to come in here, Sarah? Preferably without your sisters, if that's possible." Sarah slipped from her chair and left the kitchen. During her absence, Fannie hurriedly gave Annette a quick update on the day's occurrences. She barely finished before Sarah and Bonnie stepped into the kitchen.

"The girls are asleep, thank goodness," Bonnie said. "They're snuggled down with Twain Dawg like a bunch of puppies," she finished with a smile. She dropped into a chair and reached for a cookie as Sarah brought over the coffeepot and filled her cup. "Thank you, dear."

"You're welcome, Mama," Sarah murmured. When the pot was safely back on the stove she sat demurely, hands folded in her lap, eyes sparkling in anticipation of being involved in an "adult" conversation.

Her green eyes bleak, Fannie pinned Bonnie and Sarah in their chairs with a gaze like drill steel. "You two got lucky today!" she began without preamble. "Neither of you should have gone home alone!"

Bonnie drew in a breath but before she could speak, Fannie went on harshly, "You had no idea what was happening. Bonnie, you should have checked with the Sheriff and found out where your family was. Sarah, it was only your quick thinking, and Jacob's pistol, that let you do what you did. What would you have done if that gun hadn't been there?" She answered her own question. "You and your Mama would have been hurt, possibly even killed, leaving your sisters alone in the world!"

Seeing the stricken looks on both women's faces, Fannie's tone softened. "You both did what you thought best, but unfortunately you didn't think it all through, and until this whole situation has been resolved, you have to think three jumps ahead of the bad guys. That's the only way you'll survive." She took a long swallow of coffee. "I won't tell you what to do. I believe you already know. What I will do is to make you a proposition."

"Once this is settled, I would like for Sarah to come live at the ranch for a while."

"Whatever for?" Bonnie's voice was ragged, her thoughts still on how the faceoff at her house could have ended.

"She needs to learn," Fannie said simply.

"Learn what, Aunt Fannie?" Sarah asked, then a thoughtful look crossed her face.

"Learn to make yourself the victor and not a victim!" Fannie declared. "Between me and Charlie, we've got a lot of years of trailing, shooting, and hunting, but more importantly we've got a lot of years of experience in when not to shoot. We can teach you to survive in the wild and in the drawing room. But it's up to you. Remember that decision I told you that you would need to make? The first step is this one. Are you ready for it?"

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Lady Leigh 9-9-10


Was Bonnie hearing right? Did Fannie just indicate taking Sarah away?

It is true when they say a million plus one thoughts go through the human mind in a matter of seconds.

Thoughts from, “You must see me as a total ninny, so you think it is better to take my daughter away from me.” to, “I have failed as a mother” to “Hell! I failed as a wife, too ….” Now I am sure the reader is telling Bonnie to stop feeling sorry for herself, and yes, that may be true enough. But let us look at what Bonnie has gone through. For the last decade or so, life has not gone as planned. When does life go that way, one would suppose.

Parents raise their children to live within certain social standings. In Bonnie's case, her parents were in the wealthy merchants class, even though her father, Angus had not begun that way. And through a series of unfortunate events, Bonnie's life changed to one of hardships and loss. Just when she thought she had regained a semblance of a life style she had been raised for, she finds the man she loved and trusted wanted nothing more than to rob her of her business and ultimately kill her to obtain it.

Now Bonnie finds herself sitting at a kitchen table in a home of loved ones and friends, sitting across that same table being reprimanded by a woman, whom Bonnie has great respect for. There was merit in the words Fannie spoke. But Sarah …. “she's still a child …. not yet 12 ….” When Bonnie adopted Sarah, it was in the hopes to remove Sarah from a life her biological father had her living in . .. a life of death and filth and abandonment. Bonnie wanted Sarah to grow up not having to kill to survive. The education Bonnie had wanted for Sarah was not one to learn how to do as Fannie had just suggested. Bonnie wanted Sarah to grow within a different set of guidelines. To be a tough woman, certainly, but one who would see the edges of refinement, too. A woman who could maybe trail blaze in the areas of becoming a Doctor or a Lawyer … areas that women could obtain with spirit and gumption … and a strong mind and the ability to use it.

How could Bonnie not think she had failed ? In some respects she had. Bonnie knew she was not a Mamby Pamby, but certainly she was being perceived as one.

Bonnie put her finger tips to her temples. She knew there were words spoken around her. She could hear Fannie. She could hear Sarah. She could hear Annette. Could it just be to much to soon? Was she expected to make this choice of separation right now? Immediately?

What does one do when your whole world is once again upside down? How does one go about making the right decision? How does one go through life without Sarah?

“Damn you Caleb! …..” No Bonnie thought, don't start blaming Caleb. Bonnie should have changed things before they came to this fork in the road.

To many thoughts …. Bonnie utterly felt completely sick …

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Charlie MacNeil 9-9-10


Fannie could read Bonnie's thoughts as if they were painted on the wall in letters a foot tall. Now her words were directed to Bonnie, and Bonnie alone. "You are not a failure! Look at yourself! You've come from circumstances that would have destroyed a lesser woman, and made a home for your children and created a successful business, rising above the muck you were shoved into. No one else could have done what you did and survived!"

"But you want to take my daughter! You think I'm not a fit mother!" Bonnie flared.

"The answer to both those charges is, no, I don't," Fannie answered so softly that Bonnie had to lean forward to hear the words. "I'm not taking her anywhere; I'm asking the two of you to allow her to come and visit. You know things, and can teach Sarah things, that I can never teach. The other side of the coin is the same: I can teach her things that you can't. Between the two of us, we can give her an education that will make her a success in the real world, the world that spawns such filth as she disposed of today. All that I ask is a chance to help." Fannie shook her head ruefully. "I know that I came on a little strong there, and for that I apologize, but I had to get your attention. It's pretty obvious that I did exactly that. I hope that you can forgive me. Please."

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Lady Leigh 9-9-10


A visit …..

only a visit …..

temperary ….

other side of the coin …..

a difference ….

a chance ….


Bonnie sat up straight in her chair with head held in a fine proper Scottish manner. “Sarah?” Bonnie looked toward a wide eyed, pale faced daughter. Bonnie knew another thing …. if Sarah was with Fannie and Charlie, she would be not only be safe now, but in the future as well.

“Yes, Mama?”

“It is not every day a person is given such a chance at making a difference with ones life. A chance at a betterment that I am not able to instruct you with.” Bonnie reached her warm hand across the table and laid it on Sarah's chilled hand, “It is with a heavy heart I see you leave …..” And with a smile on Bonnie's face, “but I love you and I am always to very proud of you, Sarah. You are truly one of the greatest gifts God has ever given me, and for that I am so extremely thankful. I see now that I am learning to trust all over again, and there is no better place to start than with you,” then Bonnie looked to Fanny, “And with you as well.”

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Linn Keller 9-10-10


The boss's eyes narrowed and he shifted his expensive cigar to the opposite corner of his mouth.
This, his lieutenant thought, is not good.
"Nuttin' Boss."
"Neither of 'em?"
"No, boss."
The boss polluted the air with several huge puffs of cigar smoke: the Cuban's terminus glowed angrily as he dashed the grey ash from its tip.
"He never saw red rats before," the lieutenant offered helpfully.
The boss glared at him.
The other fellow, the quiet one cleaning his nails with a stiletto, spoke for the first time that day.
"What about your other man?"
"Now what does that mean?" the lieutenant demanded indiginantly.
"Do you trust him?" He inspected the tip of the folding dagger, wiped it casually on his lapel, folded it shut.
"What's your angle?" the boss asked casually.
His eyes were anything but casual, and pierced the smokey veil between them as efficiently as the stiletto would have.
"You trust Ricco." It was a given, a mathematical constant.
The lieutenant nodded.
"We know Ricco would not have ... absconded."
The boss grunted.
"Might he have met with some ... misfortune?"
The dagger was thrust into its hidden, slender pocket in the speaker's left coat sleeve.
"Find out."
A nod, a near-silent footfall on the carpet: the lieutenant watched as the man closed the door behind his exiting backside.
"I don't trust him," he muttered.
"You don't trust nobody," the boss said harshly. "Pour us a drink."

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Mr. Box 9-10-10


I'll be keeping an eye on whatever comes in off the Westbound train for a while. There's always someone that just doesn't fit in but not usually to the extreme that we just had. Odds are they'll stop in here first. I'm sure Shorty will be watching outsiders who rent rigs from him. Most of them townies don't want a saddle horse. They're not used to riding that much. They'd rather have a rig. I know someone from the Sheriff's office is watching every time the train or stage pulls in.

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Lady Leigh 9-10-10


Levi was not surprised Angelo Russo sent his men to Firelands as soon as he did. He was, however, surprised Ricco Conti was sent out to do field work. That alone told Levi the depth Angelo would go to regain, not only his financial status, but his pride as well. After all, even Angelo Russo had to answer to someone. Levi, the Agency and Sheriff Keller would be working diligent hours in the days and weeks to come to finally put a stop to this particular Mob Ring. Not an easy job ahead for anyone.

Levi stood at the counter in the telegraph office working on a number of messages needing to go out. He was putting off the one to Chicago as long as he could. Not the one to the Chicago Agency, but the one to his family. Not an easy task informing your parents their youngest son is dead and that his remains were left in Denver to be dealt with there. Levi did not know how Bonnie was going to deal with that one. In fact, dealing with Bonnie was certainly better than the recent past, but he felt relations should still be dealt with carefully. Bringing up Caleb to Bonnie at the moment could wait.

Levi shook his head and centered his attention back to Agency work. Much would have to be set into place. He needed to discuss with Bonnie and Sheriff Keller the possibility of using Bonnie as bait. Not a pleasant thought, that one, but it could possibly speed up bringing an end to the Ring. Levi felt fairly certain Bonnie would go along with it. He was a bit more skeptical on the Sheriffs reaction. There was a bond between Bonnie and Keller that was almost as strong as a concrete family. All Levi knew was because the ball was already rolling with Mobsters making their appearance in town already, there would have to be quick, but solid, plans made. And the sooner plans were put into motion, the better.

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Linn Keller 9-11-10


Jacob cantered to the barn.
He'd spent some time watching, listening, smelling: he'd come to his house by a little used path, and his eyes were busy.
This time of year the spiders were busy and he'd ridden through a few strings of spider web, sure signs that no one had been through for a while: the path, too, was unmarred by horse shoes, undisturbed by a careless footfall.
He'd hesitated, studied the surrounding territory, the house itself, then he relaxed a little.
Bear Killer sort of flowed into view around the corner of the house, and looked squarely at him.
He'd whuffed quietly, then sat, blinking sleepily in the sun.
Jacob waited another couple of minutes before he nudged Bruja del Sol forward and into the clearing.
He wasn't sure who was the happier to be home, he or his father's witch-horse.
He'd disposed of the carcasses per his father's instruction, down an abandoned air shaft that led to a played out section of one mine branch. A cave-in between its terminus and the main sections of the mine guaranteed it would never be re-opened; between the cave-in, and the gold vein having played out... well, no one would be excavating that shaft, ever again.
It made the perfect dump for unwanted trash.
Like bodies, he thought, and smiled humorlessly.
His father had spoken of doing as much with coal mine air shafts, back in Athens County, when he was town marshal in Chauncey.
"Someday that will be all filled in," he'd said, "and that will hide a bloody ton of evidence." Then he'd smiled, and his smile was not pleasant, and added, "Matter of fact, most of the evidence I donated was bloody."
Jacob had turned a little cold when the Sheriff spoke thusly.
It was a side of his father he did not see often.
Jacob supposed this was because the man had been in the War.
At the moment, though, his attention was on taking care of his father's Witch-horse, and getting her grained and rubbed down, the saddle and saddle blanket hung up.
There was a quiet step from without and Jacob heard the quiet huff, huff, huff of the Bear Killer's tongue-hanging pants.
"Jacob?" Sarah asked uncertainly.
Jacob turned, smiling a little, for Sarah had her rifle in hand.
He expected this.
He did not expect the gunbelt around her trim waist, nor the .44 hanging ready to hand.
Jacob tilted his head a little.
"Nice!" he nodded. "I like your outfit!"
Sarah giggled a little, then grew serious, and she walked slowly, uncertainly toward Jacob.
"I'm glad you're home," she said, and Jacob ran his arm around the small of her back as she ran hers around his neck.
Jacob noted she was trembling a little.
"It's all right," he whispered. "I'm here, you're safe."
"I know," she whispered back.
Jacob looked over Sarah's head, at the other livestock in his barn.
Jacob recognized Miz Fannie's horse, and her saddle near to it, and he knew that with Miz Fannie here, Sarah was indeed safe.

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Linn Keller 9-1410


Bad guys or no, a ranch takes work and so does a farm.
I got together the usual harvesters and we sharpened our scythes and set to cutting hay.
Jacob's stock would need feed through winter, when snow was deep and graze was not to be had, and we figured to have plenty on hand.
I'd arranged for a baler to be brought up after we'd raked the hay into windrows: we would have to wagon the bales from the baler to the barn, but it would be more efficient than simply to pile the hay and tarp over it, or just pile it and let the stock graze from the pile.
The twins were content to tag after the ladies and even happier when we made them each a corn shock doll. A good part of the town turned out for the husking bee: we'd picked Jacob's corn a little before then and it was ready to be husked out, and it was no surprise to anyone to find Bonnie and Miz Fannie and the girls there.
For all they knew, Bonnie and the girls were keeping to herself since Bonnie's becoming widowed and I saw no sense in telling them otherwise.
Bonnie divided her time between Charlie and Fannie's place, and her duties running the House of McKenna. The twins were staying with Jacob and Annette, and the twins were getting a good education on how to tend a little brother.
Twain Dawg, for his part, served equal parts vigilant guardian, and furry rug for the little ones' play: I don't think that poor old hound got any rest a'tall, for at night he prowled outside quite a bit, and through the day, why, he was wooled, wallowed, climbed on, chewed, pulled at and slept on, not necessarily in that order.
I watched little Joseph happily masticating one of Twain Dawg's ears and wondered to myself what dawg ear must taste like.
Matter of fact I asked the little fellow that very question, and all he did was squeal and laugh, and I bounced him on my leg, at least until he got all excited and dampened him and me both, but little boys are like that.

Levi held up an admonishing finger.
"I am not asking to see anyone else's telegram," he said, "unless I have to, in the course of my official duty."
"Official duty?" Fred Jerome echoed.
Fred knew Levi as a well-dressed man who kept company with the Sheriff, and who was often in the Silver Jewel, but he knew little else about the man.
"Ask the Sheriff about my bona fides," Levi said quietly, then held up a double eagle.
"I need you to watch for something."
Fred regarded the man skeptically.
A double eagle looked pretty big -- his personal exchequer was pretty slim, but he was mature enough to realize a small boodle now would potentially end his long-term, dependable income as telegrapher -- to his credit, he decided that if he must err, he should err on the side of caution.
Fred did not reach for the gold, but he listened carefully to what Levi said.
"If you get a telegram addressed to an unfamiliar name, like Ricco Conti, if you get a telegram addressed to a strange name in care of the Silver Jewel, if you get a telegram that doesn't make much sense -- or one that's composed entirely of letters or numbers, random characters -- let me know."
Levi did not wait for a reply.
He placed the double eagle on the counter and turned, settling his natty, townie hat on his carefully barbered head.
Fred looked at that double eagle for a very long time.
Finally he opened a drawer, swept the double eagle into it and covered it with a sheet of paper.
He would inquire as to Levi Rosenthal's bona fides next he saw the Sheriff.

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Linn Keller 9-17-10


Nicoletti stopped, frowned a little, looked off to his left.
This little fly-speck has a fire department? he thought with some genuine surprise.
Like many of his kind, Nicoletti was a city man, and city men think civilization ends at the city limits, and all without is a howling wilderness, populated by grunting, unwashed savages.
The Irish Brigade was raising a ladder: the ladder was being raised against a tree, the tree was near to what must be a tidy little schoolhouse, and up the tree was a slightly less than tidy lad, dirty bare feet sticking out of his overalls, a broad grin on his face and something shaggy in his lap.
"I got Pumpkin, Miz Cooper!" he called down, his cheerful, little-boy voice carrying on the clear air, and Nicoletti, despite his dandy's disdain, smiled.
The Welsh Irishman was first up the ladder, climbing with a practiced ease:
the New York Irishman and the German Irishman footed the ladder, damping its wobble as their Welshman scampered up the hardwood rungs.
Nicoletti could not hear the conversation between the schoolboy and the firefighter, but he was struck by the sight: the little boy's shirt was mostly clean, his overalls had probably been clean that morning, before his arboreal ascent: the firefighter's red-flannel shirt was immaculate, his black-leather helmet gleaming, his boots showed a meticulous care, and all crisp against an absolutely cloudless Colorado sky: the tree, nearly leafless stood out in stark, very black contrast to the blue and the red.
Nicoletti was in town on business but he could take the time to watch the little drama unfold.
The Welsh Irishman got the lad turned, and on the ladder in front of him: he was quietly coaching the boy on how to place his hand and his opposite foot, moving smoothly, backwards: he himself had one hand for the ladder, one hand for his young charge, and together, one rung at a time, they made their careful descent to the waiting arms below.
Emma Cooper, the schoolmarm, shook her head, lips pressed firmly together in disapproval: her knuckles were on her hips and she shook her head: "Thomas," she said sternly, "you know you are not supposed to be up that tree!"
"But Pumpkin!" he protested, thrusting the orange ball of fur at the schoolmarm: in spite of herself, she reached up for the cat, and taking advantage of the distraction, Thomas wormed through the Irish Brigade and sprinted for the open schoolhouse door, to the cheers of the children watching therefrom.
Nicoletti watched, feeling momentarily wealthy, for he was stealing time, time he should be laboring for his employer, time he was supposed to invest in finding where Ricco had gotten, and whether there was any recovery of funds.
He was supposed to be laboring on his employer's behalf.
For the moment, though, for the moment he stood, hands in his pockets, indolent and self-indulgent, soaking in the morning sunshine and the sight of this surprisingly efficient fire brigade in lowering, then loading and securing, their extending ladder.
Their leader seemed familiar: he was a big man, muscled, and his language seemed equal parts profanity, and Gaelic, and Nicoletti suspected a high proportion of his Gaelic was also sulfurous in nature: he listened, he frowned, he looked and blinked and then he remembered.
Nicoletti smiled and his smile was not pleasant.
Nicoletti's knuckles were scarred, his ears were flattened and misshapen, and his nose was crooked: he had been a bare-knuckle battler for as long as he could remember, and affected the clothes and the manners of a gentleman only as long as it suited him: he knew this big Irishman, but it had been years since he'd seen him.
The man had bested him in an impromptu match on the Cincinnati waterfront, and as a result, Nicoletti had followed him onto a steam-boat, and bent a chunk of wood over his thick Celtic skull, and seeing the massive carcass hit the water and then sink, why, he'd believed his erstwhile opponent dead.
No time like the present, Nicoletti thought, and strode forward, opening and closing his hands.
This, he thought, is going to be pleasant.

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Lady Leigh 9-19-10


Bonnie's waist length auburn tresses were not yet twisted and knotted into her daily coiffed style. For that matter, Bonnie had yet to get out of her dressing gown. She was spending her time this morning with various thoughts and ponderings. Her mind was awakened with Polly's words, “Wez Papa, Mama?”

Bonnie made a private 'harrumph', but it was Opal who spoke next with her matter of fact style, “ Net say he's in Hebon.”

“Mama? Is he?” Polly questioned

“Is he what, Dear?” Bonnie knew what Polly was getting at. Bonnie knew the questions were coming. She wondered why they were not asked earlier.

“Where Opal says.”

Surly a cad like Caleb would not be allowed in Heaven. Her anger spoke silently at where Caleb was better suited to spend eternity, but spitting out such words were not necessarily what should be spoken to the girls, and just maybe it was easier following Annette's lead, “God know exactly how to take care of …. your Papa, girls. Do not worry about that, alright?” Bonnie said as kindly to Polly and Opal as she could.

Opal's responded, “Mebe God can teach Papa to behabe.”

Bonnie smiled and gathered the girls onto her lap and hugged them tenderly. Something always easier to do uncorseted. And with that thought in mind, as much as Bonnie was enjoying the laziness of the morning, it was time to dress and make contact with Linn and Levi. Bonnie still had a business to run and as long as the sun rose and fell each day, life continued. All Bonnie had to do was find out how 'her' life would continue with the mess Caleb threw her way, and now in the way of Firelands, too. How Bonnie wanted to be home. Never again would she take for granted the blissfulness of what she held so dear to her.

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Linn Keller 9-20-10


Nicoletti intended to establish himself as a hard man-about-town.
Nicoletti intended to instill fear into these primitives by thrashing a man he had almost bested a few years ago.
Nicoletti walked quickly up to Sean and cocked a fist, intending to sucker punch the man.
Sean turned and blocked the punch, turning into the attacker: his left forearm knocked Nicoletti's fist aside, his right shot forward, hand open, and closed about Nicoletti's throat.
Sean knew if he simply held the man's neck and squeezed, there would be a few seconds where the attacker could strike a blow or access a weapon, and with his good right hand closing about the man's Adam's apple, that hand would not be available to deflect a blow or knock aside a blade: no, Sean chose not to crush the wind pipe, but instead struck it hard, catching the cartilaginous bulge in the web of his hand, thrusting hard and fast and snapping Nicoletti's head forward and his shoulders back.
Nicoletti back pedaled a few steps, his own hands going involuntarily to his throat: it took several long moments before he could breathe, and the pain filled his eyes with tears, blurring the world before him.
Sean waited patiently.
The Welsh Irishman took little for granted: he quietly, unobtrusively, removed a short pike from the rack.
A fireman's pike pole has a good ash handle as thick as a woman's wrist: normally it is as long as a man is tall, and is used to hook down lath-and-plaster from walls or ceiling when fighting fire, tearing away its cover and concealment so the attack can be made to put water on the conflagration. Its tip is pointed, like a spear, with a forged hook: it can drive through a wall, then tear its way free.
The short pike is half that length and used for close quarters: it is not used as often as the full pike.
It also makes a fine fighting tool, just like its antecedents used by Medieval infantry: as a matter of fact, were the point edge-sharpened, and the inside of the hook sharpened as well, it would be indistinguishable from the hand held implement of war used during the Middle Ages.
The Welsh Irishman, though, was not a Medieval warrior: no, he'd fought shoulder to shoulder with his Irish chieftain, back in Cincinnati, and time and again he'd used the short pike to very good effect fighting close-in.
He knew just how to apply that good straight grained ash handle to its greatest effect.
The Welsh Irishman flanked to the left and smiled a little.
The German Irishman was flanking right.

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Linn Keller 9-21-10


I wasn't near so sore as I had been when I woke up.
I asked Doc Greenlees what was wrong with me.
Matter of fact I talked to the man not a week ago.
I told him "Doc, I wake up in the mornin', my joints crack and pop and I'm stiff and sore ... what ails me?" -- and Doc, in his typical, long-windy manner, looked me square in the eye and said, "Mileage."
This morning, though, Outlaw had taken care of any stiffness with a good bucking-out.
Matter of fact he come close to bucking out a little too well.
Lucky enough he run out of contrary about two and a half seconds shy of getting rid of me, and settled down and trotted off toward town like as if nothing a'tall had happened.
He felt better.
Bless her heart, Esther's hired girl had fixed us a good breakfast and I'd et to do her cooking credit.
I'd patted my flat belly afterward and allowed as my tummy was smiling, and that struck Esther as funny. Her green eyes smiled at me over the rim of her tea cup, and I saluted her with my heavy coffee mug.
Now, on a good horse, on a fine and cool morning, why, things just didn't get a whole lot better.
We paced down the main street, at least until we came in view of the school house.
Movement catches the eye quicker than anything else and I turned just as the Irish Brigade laid into some fellow.
I had planned to head for the Depot and check with Lightning as to whether he'd seen any suspicious folk, and I'd hoped to meet the morning train and cast an eyeball upon debarking passengers.
I'd also hoped to catch Bonnie's maid when she came in this morning and give her instructions.
At the moment, though, I watched as the Irish Brigade took some city feller to the ground, hard.
I leaned on the saddle horn, stretching my back out a little, feeling it pop with that wash of relief I always got.
I reached down and patted the black horse's neck.
"What say we take a look at this," I murmured, and the black horse shook its head and snorted.

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Linn Keller 9-22-10


The air had been almost silent a moment ago: now it was filled with loud and angry voices, each seeking to overpower the other: stiff fingers punctuated stiff sentences with quick thrusts, faces turned red, cords stood out in manly necks, and the schoolchildren reluctantly drew back inside the whitewashed clapboard schoolhouse.
Emma Cooper drew the doors shut and clapped her hands for attention, commanding her charges to their seats and to their lessons once again.
Outside, the Irish Brigade stood in a ring around the groaning Nicoletti: they were paying little attention to the city thug, preferring to address one another as loudly and as vigorously as possible.
"AND I SAY I COULD HAVE TAKEN HIM!" Sean roared, shaking a knotted fist.
"Sean, sean, sean," the German Irishman said less loudly, opting for a persuasive voice instead, "yon scheistkopf smells of lilac water" -- he stepped in, planted a gleaming, burnished boot on the stranger's wrist, hard -- "and he's nicht gut --"
Nicoletti bit back an exclamation of pain: his hand spasmed, released the switchblade stiletto.
Sean blinked, bent over, examined the man like he was examining a bug pinned to a cork under a magnifying glass.
"No," he breathed. "You?"
Nicoletti glared, struggling to get wind into his lungs. One hard-swung ash handle had taken him behind the knees; a second, driven end-on into his gut, had knocked the wind out of him: he was still trying to cough a little, and his throat hurt like homemade hell from Sean's stiff-armed thrust across his Adam's apple.
Sean reached down and seized the dandy by his coat: bringing the man easily off his feet, Sean raised him to eye level and shook him.
"OUT WITH IT, MAN!" he roared, the color soaring to a dangerous degree in his Irish face. "WHAT DO YE HERE, YE TROUBLE MAKER?"
The Irish Brigade drew apart a little as the Sheriff walked his black horse up to them.
Sean held Nicoletti an inch from his own nose.
Nicoletti's sneer was maddening: so much so that Sean snapped his head back and brought it down, hard, driving his scalp line into Nicoletti's already crooked beak.
There was the sound of cartilage breaking and Nicoletti jumped like a marionette.
Sean shook the man like a terrier shakes a rat, forward-and-back, then side-to-side, roaring all the time.
Blood ran down Nicoletti's neatly-trimmed mustache and spattered his shirt front.
Sean took three running steps and slammed Nicoletti into the tree from which they'd rescued young Thomas and the stranded kitten but moments before.
The Sheriff heard Nicoletti's teeth click together.
Sean tossed Nicoletti into the air, maintaining his left-hand hold on Nicoletti's coat: his right hand slapped hard into Nicoletti's crotch, seizing a generous handful of material, and he drew back as if to drive Nicoletti's head into the tree.
"Shall I see if I can put ye through yon oak?" Sean asked quietly, his voice all the more menacing for its sudden drop in volume. "Or should I simply turn me boys loose on ye?"
Sean raised Nicoletti overhead, lowered him like a barbell, pressed him easily to full extension, then threw him: Nicoletti made a little sound as he realized he was going to hit the ground, and then the earth came up and slammed hard against his back, and he saw a burst of bright lights and tasted copper.
"Chafe," the Welsh Irishman said, "th' man's a mess. I think he needs a bath."
Sean glared at the Welsh Irishman.
"Aye, lad, that he does!" Sean wiped fiercely at his own undamaged nose. "Gi'e him a bath, then!"
The Sheriff calmly watched as the Irish Brigade seized Nicoletti by arms and legs and bore him at a dead run for the nearest horse trough.

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Linn Keller 9-26-10


The Sheriff dragged a chair back the length of the short hall, between the rows of cells, until he was in front of Nicoletti's new abode.
He turned the chair, seated himself.
Nicoletti's eyes were dark, glittering, the eyes of a snake sizing up a meal.
Somehow the hoodlum managed to look almost natty, even in a jail cell.
The Sheriff studied his prisoner with an open frankness.
Nicoletti studied the Sheriff with a similar lack of stealth.
"Nice suit."
"Of course."
"A man feels better in a tailored suit," the Sheriff nodded. "Nice work."
"The best money can buy," Nicoletti sneered.
"Always did admire quality," the Sheriff drawled.
"Is that why you're here? You like my suit?"
The Sheriff's eyes were drowsy, his expression relaxed.
Nicoletti pictured the Sheriff as a cat: a sleepy expression, but with a lashing tail.
"No." The Sheriff tilted his head. "I'm a curious man." He reached into his coat pocket, withdrew Nicoletti's stiletto, pressed the release.
The blade snapped open, locked.
"You seem to like a slender blade." He looked down the length of the honed edge, gaguing how the light reflected from the worked steel.
"I could show you," Nicoletti offered.
"It may come to that," the Sheriff said, and Nicoletti's right ear twitched.
Did he just say -- he thought, then, No, the man's not that much of a fool!
The Sheriff folded the stiletto, dropped it back into his coat pocket.
"Who do you work for?"
"Work for?" Nicoletti sneered. "Who says I work for anyone?"
The Sheriff smiled thinly. "Your kind always work for someone else."
"My kind?" Nicoletti flared, surging to the front of the cell and seizing the bars. "What do you mean, my kind?"
The Sheriff powered out of his chair and seized Nicoletti's tie, yanking his face hard between the bars.
His face was an inch from the enforcer's.
Each could feel the other's breath, warm on his face.
"Your kind," the Sheriff said slowly, "skulks at the heels of a stronger man, picking up spilled crumbs and stealing what he may when the great man isn't looking."
Nicoletti's face was a carved mask of hatred. "I'll kill you for that," he hissed.
"I'll let you try," the Sheriff grated, shoving hard.
Nicoletti, despite his two-hand grip on the barred door, found himself propelled back by half a yard.
The Sheriff glared at the assassin.
"I'll make you a deal," he said.
"I let you out and give you this." He held up the folded stiletto. "You use yours and I use mine and you tell me who you work for."
Nicoletti's eyes narrowed. "If I win?"
"If you win, you win all. You get the Rosenthal estate. You get the widow, her daughters, the property, their assets, all."
"You can't give me them."
"I can." The Sheriff's face was taut. "She is my niece and she is my property. She is my blood and I own her."
Nicoletti's back tightened and it felt like someone just poured a dipper of cold water down his spine.
He'd known cold blooded men before but he'd never, ever heard anyone offer family as a prize for a knife fight.
"Think it over," the Sheriff said, smiling crookedly. "I'll give you time."
Slipping the stiletto back into his pocket, he closed a hard hand on the back of the chair and dragged it down the hall, back into the office.
Nicoletti pressed the side of his face against the bars, watching, watching.
He heard the Sheriff's boot heels, loud on the floor, saw the tall man settle his Stetson on his head, just before he left the office, slamming the door behind him.
Nicoletti's mind was busy, busy.
These primitives give their word as their bond, he thought. If I can get him to agree to that -- his right hand closed, and he could almost feel the checkered walnut handle of his beloved stiletto in his grip --
Wouldn't the Boss like it if I brought him the Widow Rosenthal and --
Nicoletti blinked, then smiled.
Nicoletti blinked, took a long, relaxing breath.
He hadn't known there were daughters
Their ages were unimportant.
There were dens of vice that catered to every taste, and whether these ... daughters ... were virgins or matrons, they would be ... profitable.
"This," he whispered, his sibilants loud in the silence, "will be even better than I hoped!"

The Sheriff fairly leaped from the black horse. He took the stairs two at a time and thrust the Mercantile's door open.
Maude looked up, surprised: the Sheriff was normally a quiet and easy going sort.
It was evident that he had a fire lit under his back side.
"Maude," the Sheriff said in a clipped, taut but quiet voice, "do you have one of these in stock?"
The Sheriff pressed the release on the stiletto, laid it on the glass counter top.
Maude blinked, then smiled.
"Why, yes, Sheriff," she said. "Here, I have two."
The Sheriff reached into his vest pocket, laid coin on the counter. "Maude, I love you from the bottom of my heart!" he declared.
"But you've got Esther and Angela in the top?" Maude completed his familiar saying, her eyes merry.
The Sheriff grinned in spite of his excitement. "I'm precictable, aren't I?" he chuckled, scooping up the two walnut handled stilettoes and folding the original, dropping all three in his coat pocket. "When is the outgoing mail?"
"In one hour, if the stage is on time."
"It's always on time. I know the driver." The Sheriff turned, halted so abruptly he almost fell: a barefoot urchin grinned up at him.
The Sheriff picked the lad up, hoisting him toward the ceiling, and the little blond headed boy laughed, reaching for the low ceiling overhead, his happy giggles filling the cozy, stove-warmed confines of the Mercantile.
"Shouldn't you be in school?" the Sheriff scolded gently, the softness of his eyes and the sudden gentleness in his voice taking the bite out of his words.
A worn-looking woman had been looking long at some canned goods, the want plain in her expression, and she looked down and bit her lip.
The Sheriff set the lad down and he scampered, giggling, over to the woman, peeking shyly from around her skirt as the Sheriff approached.
"I am the Sheriff," he said gently, "and you can tell me anything."
The woman was a stranger to him, and he a stranger to her, and she would recall later wondering how she trusted a complete stranger with what would normally be none of his business.
"My husband is dead," she said, "and we have no money for shoes." She looked at the canned peaches she held. "Nor for these."
"You have now." The Sheriff turned, raised a hand: it was unnecessary, for Maude's attention was on the tall man with the grey mustache.
"Maude, give her what she wants, two hundred dollar limit."
If he hadn't been standing right there and ready to catch her, she would have hit the floor, for at his words her eyes rolled up in her head and she collapsed.

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Linn Keller 9-26-10


The Sheriff printed carefully, addressing the package to the address Levi had given him.
The stiletto was enclosed, with no note, and no return address.
Let him stew, he thought: he slid the small package across the counter to Maude, with payment.
A moment later he was astride the black horse and galloping out of town, headed east, headed for Jacob's.

Bonnie Rosenthal's attendance in the House of McKenna was not as steady as it had been: she had trusted assistants, though, and without Caleb's interference, production had increased, and without Caleb's siphoning the assets, the profits had taken a sudden turn for the better.
Bonnie's travels from Charlie and Fannie's to and from her dressmaking business, and to and from Jacob's fine stone house, were never made alone: she drove a new buggy -- she'd refused to ever set foot in the one Caleb picked out, it had been sold and this new, better replacement obtained -- Jacob would have been happier had she ridden horseback but he recognized that Bonnie was not the natural equestrienne of his own dear mother.
Jacob rode with his rifle in hand, propped up on his thigh, and Bonnie rode with a shotgun secured beside her.
Annette, devoted wife and mother that she was, felt secure inside their stone-walled house: she had a rifle and a shotgun, and she had her dead brother's pistol, and she had Twain Dawg.
Annette heard hooves approaching and picked up the rifle, looked out the window.
"Girls," she admonished, but too late: Opal and Polly had charged the door and were boiling out the door, their happy shouts echoing in the high mountain air: "Uncle Linn! Uncle Linn!"
The Bear Killer's great brush of a tail swung in greeting as the black gelding cantered up to the house and the Sheriff dismounted to a very enthusiastic welcome.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-26-10


Charlie lay on his belly, tucked in behind a clump of rye grass. spyglass pressed to his right eye, left hand cupped over the lens to prevent sunflash. The object of his scrutiny, some hundred yards distant, slid a hand forward a few inches then ceased moving to blend into the low sage and shortgrass of the swale. A mere five yards beyond the slender figure Charlie watched, a doe with twin young of the year, noses tucked into their dam's flank, their butting nearly lifting their mother off her feet, nursed enthusiastically. A foot moved, then stillness.

Several minutes later, the doe and her offspring suddenly spooked and ran, and Sarah leapt to her feet to watch their alarmed flight, her wide grin evident in the spyglass's magnification as she suddenly turned her face to the sky and yelled, "YES!" Charlie stood to stretch the kinks from too much time bellied down in the dirt out of his back, his own grin matching that of his charge, who was racing pell-mell up the slope, mocassined feet flying. "I did it, Charlie! I did it!" Sarah screeched as she crested the slope and slid to a breathless halt next to the ex-marshal. "I touched one of the fawns!"

"Ya done good, girl!" Charlie declared. "What say we head back to the house for some more pistol practice? Besides which, it's time to eat." Sarah nodded eagerly, excited to tell Fannie of her accomplishment. The pair slipped down the back side of the ridge to where the horses were tethered, mounted and turned toward the ranch house riding side by side.

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Linn Keller 9-28-10


Miguel's saddle would cost a working cowboy three months' wages at least.
It was his common everyday saddle.
Miguel's gunbelt and holster would have cost another month's wage.
It was his common everyday gunrig.
Miguel's horse would have cost a small ranch in Texas.
As a matter of fact, he, Miguel de la Vega y Vega, son and grandson of landed grandees, had traded a small Texas ranch for this very stallion, this very Diablo del Sol.
El Diable, grandson of the famous Rey del Sol, get of Hijo del Sol and the equally famous Rose o' the Mornin', was a horse with fire in its heart, wildness in its eyes and speed in its hooves: a horse born for speed and toughness, a horse descended from the mounts ridden into battle by armored knights, a horse that took any other stallion as a personal enemy, and went after them with all the ferocity of his war-bred ancestors: Miguel had tamed the great stallion himself, with patience, with cunning, with trickery, with bribery.
The stallion tolerated Miguel.
Miguel knew this.
Miguel also knew that he would, in time, master the great creature, but in the meantime he rode with all the heady exhilaration of a man turning over the last card, with his last ounce of gold on the table in front of him -- the knowledge that the next moment could lead to great reward, or immense, utter catastrophe.
Miguel and El Diable turned slowly.
As far as the eye could see, from his elevated seat to the very horizon, was de la Vega y Vega land.
Miguel was given to contemplation here of late, and his father knew why.
A senorita, graceful and slim, young and beautiful, captivated his son's heart and burned his brain into smoke, until the young man could think of little else.
Miguel and his Diable had splashed through a stream, and the reflection of gleaming, flying water-gouts were the lights in her shining eyes.
He felt the breeze on his face, perfumed with flowers in the high meadows, and he felt her breath, smelled her perfume.
Miguel felt the surge and power of muscled equine beneath him and imagined how she would feel, in time, in his arms, warm and alive, alive o!
Miguel had gone so far as to picture himself wearing his very finest, riding in a saddle so rich with silver and turquoise as to blind the casual eye, saddlebags bulging with gold with which to pay the bride-price, dowering both her family and his honor with the gleaming yellow fortune.
Miguel's black eyes narrowed a little as his Diablo del Sol shook his head and clattered impatiently at the bit, turning a few more degrees to the right.
He was facing almost exactly southeast.
Miguel had thought long and had thought hard for the past week, knowing today was an important day for him.
Today Miguel was fifteen years old: in the eyes of the Holy Mother Church, a man grown for three years already: his now was an estancia half the size of his father's, with cattle, horses, servants and working hands: already it was profitable, and Miguel, though just now its owner, had a clear plan for keeping it profitable, and part of that plan lay in the acquisition of the beautiful young woman whose voice, whose glance through lowered lashes, had ripped the heart from his breast and dropped it beating before the toes of her shoes.
If I rode straight ahead, Miguel thought, I would ride across her estancia, and perhaps, perhaps she would favor me with a smile ...
These were Miguel's thoughts, fired by a young man's ambition and a young man's wants, impatient and impulsive and strong enough to override good sense at times.
There were things Miguel no longer contemplated.
A girl in el Norte, for instance, a girl for whom he'd fallen a year before, when he was but a tall boy.
The image of la Senorita Sarah was like a ghost in the back of his mind, gliding in a fashionable gown, but she was gone, just as quickly, displaced by the hot glance of a black-eyed seniorita with the heat of the summer sun in her veins, not the chill waters from the snows of las montanas Coloradas.
Miguel looked into the distance, patted el Diable's neck, and sighed.
"Soon, diable," he murmured. "Soon!"

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Linn Keller 9-29-10


Angela and Rosebud had no trouble a'tall keeping up with the black horse and I.
The ladies (of all ages) were most pleased to see her.
Esther had ridden out on Edi: she'd told me with a mischevious smile that "we old ladies have to keep our joints flexible," and I snorted.
"Old ladies" my aunt Betsy's billy goat, Esther could out-ride most men and Edi was no slouch, though she had enough years on her I didn't see any sense in straining her.
Jacob and I walked out to the barn and leaned our crossed arms on the top rail of his corral, left foot up on the bottom rail.
Later on that night Esther told me how much alike we two looked, and about a week later Angela made mention of the same, so the resemblance must have been more than I'd realized.
Jacob and I contemplated his remuda and talked ranching and farming, the way men will, and finally we two lapsed into a quiet and companionable silence.
The setting sun wasn't much warmth in the chill evening: we could just see our breath and it smelt of fall and winter's fast approach.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, we grew some pun'kins. Do you reckon Angela would want one?"
I smiled in the gathering shadow's coolness. The sun was red, bloody red on the horizon, most of it already hiding behind a drawn up veil of trees and mountain.
There was a time when such a question would fill me with sadness, but Angela had helped me heal.
My little girl -- our little girl -- had died on her second birthday of the small pox and it hurt me deep, hurt me for a very long time, and every time I looked at a girl-child I wondered if my little girl would have grown up to be as fine a child as she.
Now, though ... now Angela was our little girl, and she was growing up to be the finest little girl-child a father could ever want.
I chuckled, considering that no matter how old a little girl gets, she would still be her Daddy's little girl.
I took a long breath in through my nose, nodded.
"Yes, Jacob. I reckon she would."
Jacob nodded and we were silent for a while longer.
Jacob spoke after maybe, oh, twenty minutes or so.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, I mailed that straight razor like you'd told me."
I knew he had: Levi had told me Jacob inquired after the address, and expressed his discomfort with our challenge to the Dever mobster.
I'd regarded Levi squarely.
"I'm pickin' a fight," I said plainly. "He's not the only boss in town. There's others that will want his territory. Once word gets around -- and word always does -- why, they'll be after taking him off the board."
"This isn't a chess game, Sheriff."
"I know, Levi. This is poker, and I play a good bluff."
Levi's voice was cold, colder than I'd ever heard it, and for a moment it reminded me of the chill, honed edge I'd heard in Bonnie's voice, once she got her legs under her.
"Just how far are you willing to go, Sheriff?"
I felt a little smile tighten the corners of my eyes.
"He hurt my niece, Levi," I said, and my voice whispered like a straight razor on a fine honing stone. "He hurt my family and I don't hold with that."
Levi blinked, trying to figure a way around my argument.
"She is no blood of yours," he said, and he made me mad: it ain't often I get mad but he lit my fuse when he said that, and I drew back from him about a half a foot.
My hands were half closed, my left thumb hooked over my gun belt and my right hand on the burnished bar top.
"She is my family." My voice tone allowed no disagreement. "I have chosen her as one of my own. Angela is no blood of mine but she is my family. Jacob is blood but I knew it not for some years, and he is as much family now as he was then." My breath was coming shorter and I recognized the signs, I was getting ready to attack and it took an effort of will, a conscious effort, to stand down.
Levi's eyes were a little wider and he must have known he'd gone too far.
"Let me get you something," I said quietly, "and let us have a seat."
Levi's eyes shifted to the Lawman's Corner, then back to me, and he nodded.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-29-10


The blue mare had adopted Sarah from the start. Now, trailed by her horse colt, he of the wolf and blizzard-heralded birth, the mare galloped across the hollow, seemingly riderless. But looks can often be deceiving, unless one looks closely, at which point the attentive observer would see a leather-clad heel hooked behind the saddle cantle, a handful of fingers tangled in the mare's mane and the flash of low-lying sunset sun on blued steel beneath the pumping neck. A string of targets, mounted atop sticks of varying lengths, vanished in thunder and powder smoke as the mare flashed past.

When her pistol was empty, Sarah flung herself back atop the mare, laughing with the sheer glory of youth, horsepower and gunsmoke in the red light of the late day sun. Using only her knees the girl turned the mare on her haunches and thundered back toward where Fannie and Charlie waited, colt frolicking and kicking up its heels as it raced through the hail of clods kicked up by its dam's flashing hooves. As Sarah drew the blue mare to a skidding halt, "sticking her tail in the dirt" as the saying goes, the colt did the same, then reared on its hind feet and pawed the air, the juvenile bugle of a stallion-to-be squealing from its throat.

"That little varmint's the spitting image of Jacob's Apple horse," Charlie laughed. As if in answer, the colt tossed its head and reared again before coming back to earth and racing toward where its compatriots where alternately grazing and playing.

Sarah swung her leg across the mare's neck and dropped to the ground, reaching into the pocket of her shirt for a lump of coarse brown sugar which she held out on her open palm for the mare to lip up. "I got them all this time!" she declared proudly.

"That you did, and in jig time," Fannie answered. "You're improving rapidly!" Sarah beamed. "But now," Sarah's smile dimmed somewhat at Fannie's tone, "You've got a horse to tend to and guns to clean." She smiled at the rueful look on the girl's face. "If you play, you've got to pay, you know. Unsaddle the mare, turn her out, and come to the house. I believe somebody took the time to make some cookies this afternoon." She gave her husband a mischievous grin. "He doesn't cook very often, but when he does..."

Sarah left for the saddle shed at a trot, the mare following obediently, keeping exactly the right amount of slack in the lead...

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Linn Keller 9-30-10


You sent it WHERE?"
The Sheriff's eyes were hooded: his chair was tilted back against the wall and his expression was unreadable.
"I sent the stiletto to his boss. I sent another to his rival. I sent the other stiletto to another rival, the one that works Denver's southeast corner."
Levi stared.
"Do you have any idea what you've done?" he asked incredulously.
"I know exactly what I've done," the Sheriff said quietly, and thanked the waitress as she brought coffee and fresh, steaming bread. "I've let the Big Boss know he's not so big. I've let him know I bested his best, and I let his competitors know it as well." The Sheriff's chair thumped loudly as he brought it level. "An enemy will fight like hell on one front. The enemy is weakened if he's fighting on three fronts. I am weakening the enemy. More than that, I am weakening his resolve. I have as much as backhanded him a good one and challenged him to come and do his own dirty work. He'll come or he'll send an army and I don't give a good damn which."
The Sheriff raised his eyes from buttering a thick, fragrant slice.
His eyes were very pale.
"They can only get here via the railroad or the stage, with the railroad being the most likely, and I happen to know the owner."
The Sheriff took a bite of the warm bread, strong white teeth slicing through it as if he were biting the head off an enemy.
"Rival gangs are always at one another's heels trying to take territory away from each other. The rivals will be dogging him, thinking he's lost his nerve, lost his strength."
The Sheriff swallowed, reached for his coffee.
"Pass the honey, would you, Levi? And the milk, thank you."

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Linn Keller 10-1-10


"But Miz Esther," the foreman protested, "it's old!"
"I know that, Mr. McGee," Esther said gently.
"It's got the old fashioned hand brakes!"
"Yes, Mr. McGee, it does."
McGee blinked, then looked down at the manifest.
"Well, ma'am, if you want it, yes, we'll pick it up."
"I do want it, Mr. McGee. It will be the end car, so we won't have to worry about installing air lines under it to feed the rest of the train."
"No, ma'am."
"Now can you make the adaptor we discussed?"
"Adaptor? -- oh, yes, ma'am, to couple it to your knuckle couplers. That'll not be hard."
McGee looked down at the manifest again.
"Miz Esther, if you don't mind my sayin' ..."
Esther looked at the shop foreman with an expression of absolute innocence.
"Ma'am, it don't make sense. You've got the finest railroad, you've got the best equipment, you've got air brakes and safety couplers and the Union Pacific is fightin' tooth and nail ag'in both!"
Esther Keller snapped her fan opened, waved it delicately before her face and regarded Mr. McGee with a steady gaze.
"Mr. McGee," she said, "I understand this car was one of the finest private cars ever made."
"Yes, ma'am, it was," McGee nodded.
"And I understand it is about worn out."
"Yes, ma'am, it is The journals will need rebuilt, the frame is cracked, it'll take --"
"But it looks quite nice inside," Esther interrupted gently.
"Oh yes, ma'am, and outside. It's been repainted and the trim is detailed." He sighed. "A coat of paint will cover a multitude of sins."
"That's fitting," Esther murmured.
Esther smiled, lowered her lashes. "Nothing, Mr. McGee. Please see to obtaining the car and fitting it with the appropriate coupler, and don't worry about the brakes."
McGee chuckled. "Ma'am, the brakes on that sad old thing are about shot!"
"We won't worry about that, Mr. McGee."
"No, ma'am."

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Linn Keller 10-2-10


"You're not a military man, are you, Levi?"
"Military?" Levi blinked, surprised. "Why, no."
The Sheriff nodded.
"There's a principle to keep in mind." The Sheriff took a leisurely sip of coffee.
Levi frowned, leaning forward a little.
"Choose your battles, and choose your terrain. Don't let the opponent choose either."
"Mm." Levi considered the Sheriff had been Cavalry, back during the War.
"I did not choose this war, Levi. This has been thrust upon me. I am responsible for this county. If the Denver bunch get the idea there is money to be had here, it will be an unending source of grief."
Levi nodded. "I can see that, Sheriff."
"I have one thing left."
Levi raised one eyebrow.
The Sheriff handed Levi an envelope.
It was not sealed.
Levi removed the single sheet, unfolded it, read.

I am tired of dealing with your petty lap dogs, Levi read.
From now on I will deal only with you.
I am the boss in my county.
My word is law and all business goes through me.
No one sells a cow, a horse or a woman unless I get a cut.
You have come into my kingdom with intent to do business without crossing my palm.
I do not allow that.
We can discuss this like businessmen, or I will kill you.
The former is more profitable.
Cross me once more and you die.
Come and talk business and you live.

Levi looked across the table at the calm man with the iron-grey mustache.
"This isn't wise," he said bluntly.
The Sheriff looked up from his pie.
Levi waved the paper. "This constitutes threats, in your own handwriting. You are not dealing with fools, Sheriff. If this gets into an attorney's hands it can figure into a very persuasive case against you!"
The Sheriff frowned, leaned back in his chair again, took a drink of coffee, rinsed it about and swallowed.
Finally he grunted.
"You're right." He brought his chair down and set his coffee cup on its saucer.
Reaching for the note, he folded it, replaced it in the envelope.
"I'll think of something else, then."
"Such as?" Levi challenged.
The Sheriff smiled.
"The man likes money. The man wants money. The man expects he'll get money."
"And ...?"
"Give me time. Hurry up is brother to mess it up, and I try not to hurry anyone along."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-2-10


The golden lamplight spilling from the kitchen window was the only light for miles in any direction, the sun's rising merely a scheduled event at the moment. Flame licked pitchwood in the firebox and, liking the taste, flared higher as Charlie added some larger pieces to the flickering fire. Dropping the lid back on the stove with a clang, Charlie carried the enamelware coffeepot to the pitcher pump next to the sink and pumped it full of fresh, cold water. Water drops hissed in protest as they ran down the sides of the pot and dropped onto the now hot stove.

Charlie dropped freshly-ground Arbuckle's into the pot as Sarah yawned her way into the kitchen, rubbing sleep from her eyes as she came. Fannie's voice drifted from another doorway. "Just because you're up with the hoot owls doesn't mean the rest of us have to be. Quiet down in there!"

"Yes, ma'am," Charlie answered, not the least bit penitent. He grinned at Sarah. "Biscuits in a few minutes. Wash your face and comb your hair and they'll be ready when you are." Sarah pumped the basin full and did as ordered, then set the table with two plates, two cups, a jar of jam and a pot of butter. By this time the coffee was bubbling merrily and Charlie pulled the pot from the heat, added a few drops of cold water to settle the grounds then poured the two cups full of the steaming brew. A short minute later the biscuit pan lit in the center of the table with a thump that drew a snort from the other room and a grin from Sarah.

The pair ate a quick breakfast then left to saddle their horses. When they led the roan and blue mare from the barn, packhorse trailing the roan, the first silver was just touching the horizon to the east. Behind them, in the colt pen next to the barn, the stud colt was vehemently protesting his being left behind. "I'll bring your mama back to you later," Sarah called as she stepped into the saddle. She shot Charlie a questioning look. "Why are we out here this early, anyway?"

"Meat," the ex-marshal answered.

"Huh? I mean, excuse me?"

""We're going hunting. We need meat for now, and some to put up for the winter. The hides'll come in handy, too. I'm hoping to find an elk if possible, a deer or two if not, an antelope if necessary. Have you ever gutted and skinned an elk or a deer?"

"Yuck! No!"

"Well, you're goin' to. Surely you don't think food comes from the general store, do you?"

"Well, no, but..."

"You're gonna find out first hand where it does come from, girl," Charlie said. "But first you gotta find it. Let's head for the aspen ridge, and see what you can come up with. Just remember all the stuff we taught you about tracking and such, and you'll be fine."

Charlie could see the thoughts tumbling through Sarah's head reflected in her eyes, to be finally buried under stubborn determination. "Okay then, here we go." She kneed the mare into a jog that was easy on the seat and would cover ground in a hurry, taking the lead. With a chuckle, Charlie tapped the roan with his spurs to set an equal pace. As she rode, Sarah reached to the scabbard under her right leg, seating the rifle she'd gotten from Jacob solidly in the leather.

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Linn Keller 10-4-10


The Sheriff rode out toward Cripple, riding the railroad right-of-way, thinking hard.
He was a right fair judge of men, and if he was any judge, the challenge he'd issued through a trusted assistant would be just the goad needed to bring evil to him.
His Rose-horse was glad for the ride: it had been too long since his saddle had been screwed down on her back bone and after she'd given him a happy bucking-out, she shook her head, blew loudly and set off happily across the meadow.
The Sheriff touched heels to her ribs and Rose o' the Mornin' leaned out and streaked across the earth, seizing the turf beneath sharp hooves and shoving it away behind her: she stuck her nose straight out and her tail cork screwed behind her and she headed straight for the fence on a down grade, picking up speed as she went.
Red gold she was in the morning sun and red gold was the streak she painted, and she and the Sheriff were as an arrow a-fire, and for a moment, for one long glorious moment, they two were not horse and rider.
They were one magical creature, riding the wind itself, and Rose-horse did not so much jump the fence as she sprouted great red wings and soared over it in an easy, graceful arc.
A triumphant "Yeaaa-hooo!" and the Sheriff's eyes watered and tears streaked out of their far corners and ran wet and cold down the back of his neck, and the grey-mustachioed old lawman grinned like a kid.
I should have named you Cannonball, he thought, and they pounded across the lower ground behind Firelands, towards the right-of-way, towards the grade the Sheriff wanted to look at again.
They rode out through golden aspen and across pristine streams, they rode past familiar landmarks, each with its own memories, and directly they came to the grade, and over its top, and down the other side.
They'll have to pull this grade coming from Denver, he thought, eyes busy.
He picked twenty ambush points, assessing each, then walked his Rose-horse, doubling back and looking some more.
They will be slow as a walking man along here. He squinted at timber and boulder and settled on a likely hiding place.
There, he thought. There's the place.
He patted Rose-horse's neck.
"Come on, girl," he said quietly. "Angela's waiting on us."
Rose o' the Mornin' flared her nostrils, sniffed the morning air, blew twin steam-clouds and set out at an easy trot.

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Linn Keller 10-4-10


Jacob brooded over the map.
Hand drawn and detailed, it showed the course of the Z&W Railroad.
His finger tips rested on the area where the outlaws had stopped the train, where Charlie had stopped the outlaws.
Jacob's eyes narrowed and as he traced the notations, the illustrations, the grade percentages inked into little boxes; his mind's eye saw the terrain as he himself had ridden it more times than he could count.
"I know you're up to something," he whispered.
"I know you're planning something, but what?"
Jacob's hands fisted and he slammed both fists onto the Sheriff's desk top.
The sound was loud in the little log office.
"Why haven't you told me!" he hissed, teeth locked and lips drawn back, and the crack of a pine knot in the pot belly stove was his only answer.

Well away from town, the Sheriff took sticks and string and marked out a rectangle.
Whether by coincidence or by design, it was the approximate width and length of a railcar.
The Sheriff dumped out a gunny sack, the sound of tin cans echoing loud between the rocky hillsides.
He'd chosen a narrow ravine he knew of, one where sound would be broken up before it got any distance: he intended to make noise and lots of it and he wanted as few people as possible to know what he was up to.
He thrust nearly a dozen stakes in the ground, dropped a tin can over each of the stakes: they were of varying height, but all between hat-brim and collar bone height.
The Sheriff bent, suddenly dry, went to his knees, thrust his face in the stream running down the middle of the ravine: he drank deep, drank greedily, reveling in the taste of cold, clear mountain water.
He straightened quickly, slinging water, shaking his head.
Taking a deep breath, he stood, settled his Stetson on his greying, thinning hair, and picked up the engraved '73 rifle.
He looked at the rifle for several long moments, reading his wife's words, cut into steel, durable and lasting and a testament.
I love you, dearest, he thought, and then he thought of the end door of a private railcar and, twisting, brought his right knee up against his belly.
He drove a boot heel hard into the imaginary door, came down into a crouch, firing as rapidly as he could work the lever.
He tossed the rifle onto his spread out saddle blanket, took a quick two-step to the side -- as if getting the wall of the private car behind him -- and drew both revolvers, firing alternately left-right-left-right-left-right, until both Colts were empty.
The Sheriff holstered his empty, smoking sixguns.
He was shaking a little and his mouth was dry again.
Drawing the left hand Colt, he punched out the empties, dropped them into his left hand coat pocket, and reloaded: holstering the left hand pistol, he did the same for the right, then he picked up the '73 rifle and reloaded it as well, cycling a round into the chamber and topping the magazine with one final cartridge.
He walked among the tin cans, some still wobbling a little.
Every can had at least two holes in it.

Levi read the coded message.
It was a telegram, innocuous and innocent on its face, yet by picking out the third word in the second line, he perceived its intended message:
Dozen come.
It was Levi's turn to experience a dry mouth, and he raised a finger, and Mr. Baxter slid him a freshly drawn beer.
The mobsters took the bait, he thought, and his stomach tightened with the thought.
Levi knew the lengths to which these men would go if they felt the need.
He also knew they did not leave the comfort, the safety, of their territory unless there was an important matter at hand.
He had no idea whatsoever as to what the Sheriff had communicated to them, nor how, but he knew the man could say words that would make a chipmunk fight, and he knew how fragile the mob boss's ego was, how sensitive he was to any challenge to his authority.
He laid the telegram on the spotless, mirror-polished maghogany, re-read it yet again.
Dozen come.
That would be twelve hard men, twelve shoulder-strikers, twelve brutes experienced in violence, and utterly, absolutely uncaring about who received their attentions.
I need to find the Sheriff, Levi thought, downing half his big, heavy-glass mug of beer on his first breath.
He came up for air and realized he was shaking a little.

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Linn Keller 10-4-10


Esther handed the foreman a small wallet.
In the wallet was enough money to retire, and the man intended to do just that.
As a matter of fact, he lifted his brand-new Derby hat to the woman, blushing furiously, and thanked the Z&W's owner for her kindness before boarding the eastbound passenger train.
He was for Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York and then Ireland, home of his ancestors, where a green-eyed lass waited for him: returning to the Old Sod had been a particular dream of his, and now he was going to fulfill it.
Esther watched the man leave, knowing that with him, went the secret of the railcar, the fine, gleaming, obsolete but beautiful private carriage that waited on a siding for the passenger train's return.
She, too, held a telegram, and like Levi's, held a fell message:
It was not signed.
Esther smiled as she read it, then folded it and tucked it carefully in her reticule.
She had stocked the car with wine and with brandy, with cheeses and bread, with meats and with comfortable seats for twelve plus one, in case they had one more guest.
She believed in giving the condemned a hearty meal.

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Linn Keller 10-5-10


Angela stroked Rosebud's red nose.
"Hm?" The Sheriff separated the rose stems, flicked the knife in an abrupt, abbreviated arc: it parted the green, woody stem without difficulty.
"Howcum why does Wozebud likeada tobacco?"
The Sheriff counted the fragrant, scarlet blossoms.
"Dad-dee!" Angela protested, one hand on her hip: the Sheriff glanced over at his little girl, at her little-girl pout and her patting foot, and the Sheriff stopped what he was doing and motioned her over.
Linn remained in his squat: picking up his daughter, he set her on the level of his thigh and gave her his best innocent look.
"Now what was that question again?" he asked, brushing a curl back from her face.
"Howcumizzit," Angela began, then stopped to take a breath: her cheeks reddened and she started to giggle.
The Sheriff widened his eyes and blinked rapidly and Angela giggled harder.
"Let's try this again," the Sheriff said in his quiet Daddy-voice. "You were asking me why-something about Rosebud yonder."
Rosebud, hearing her name, looked up from grazing, then lowered her nose back to the grass.
Angela reached up and stroked her Daddy's iron-grey mustache, and the Sheriff pretended to bite at her finger: she jerked it back with a shriek of delight, and the Sheriff hugged her, hugged her tight, savoring the moment.
Remember this day, he thought. Remember this moment, my child.
Reality ran a cold finger up his spine.
This may be the last time I ever hold you.
The Sheriff stood, easing Angela's weight onto her feet, and she looked waay up, 'cause her Daddy was much taller than she.
"Howcumizzit why does Woziebud likeada tobacco 'cause it tastes bad," she said in the rapid pattering rush of an impatient little girl, and the Sheriff threw his head back and laughed quietly.
He bent over, hands on his knees, and he whispered, "'Cause she doesn't know any better," and Angela giggled, for her Daddy's muts-tash tickled her ear, as did his warm puffy breath.
He returned to his task, bundling the cut flowers.
"Yes, Princess?"
"Can I have-a da flower too?"
The Sheriff went to one knee and stroked Angela's pink cheek with the back of his forefinger.
"How about this one?" he asked, cupping a full blossom in his hand.
"No," Angela said, shaking her head and swinging her curls. "This one!"
The Sheriff sliced through the stem, clipped off the thorns and handed her the blood-red rose with two closed buds beneath the barely-opened blossom.
"Have Mommy put that in water," he said, and Angela reached up and quick-kissed his cheek: giggling, she ran up the street, and the Sheriff knew she would be pelting up the stairs of the Jewel, to her Mommy's office.
In his mind's eye he could hear her excited voice as she waved her prize, and he could hear Esther's voice as she said the things a Mommy always says when her little girl brings her a flower.
The Sheriff's eyes stung unexpectedly.
God, keep them safe, he thought, and his mouth was dry again.

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Linn Keller 10-5-10


The Sheriff nodded in recognition when Levi raised a hand to him.
Both started across the street to the Sheriff's office.
Jacob stood in the doorway, relief and impatience on his expressive face.
"Inside," the Sheriff said shortly. "Close the door."
His last was hardly necessary, for the day held a chill, but sayig it emphasized that there was business at hand.
The Sheriff's eyes fell on the map, still open and flat on his desk, and he looked up at his son.
Jacob looked back, defiance in his light-blue eyes.
The Sheriff nodded. As his deputy, Jacob would have need-to-know which would require accessing his precious maps.
"I have just placed an even dozen roses in the special car," he said without preamble, "and you see I wear one as well."
"Yes, sir," Jacob said, his voice tight.
Levi mutely held out his telegram.
"Third word?" the Sheriff asked, and Levi nodded.
The older man nodded.
"Levi," he said, handing the flimsy back to the slender agent, "you asked about using Bonnie as bait."
He looked the man in the eye.
She is willing."
Jacob took in a quick breath, opened his mouth to protest.
The Sheriff raised a forestalling hand.
"Jacob, I will need your help."
"Yes, sir."
"I plan to engage the enemy at a time and place of my choosing."
"Yes, sir," Jacob nodded once; Levi turned his good ear toward the Sheriff, not wanting to miss a word.
"See here." The Sheriff parked his rifle against the wall behind his desk, traced a finger lightly across the hand-drawn map.
"Here is the Z&W's route. You can see the grade here" -- his finger thumped loudly against the desk as he stabbed it into the paper -- "and here, on either side of this peak."
Jacob leaned closer, his mind's eye projecting memory-pictures of the two locations.
"I will board the train here," he said, indicating the grade on the Denver side, "I plan to resolve the situation by the time the train is here" -- his finger tapped the crest, the highest point on the Z&W's route -- and I plan to dismount here, before too much speed builds."
"Excuse me, Sheriff," Levi said, "but aren't you just a bit ambitious?"
The Sheriff looked up, surprised.
"Excuse me?"
"A dozen men?" Levi asked, stress showing in his voice. "A dozen? Trained killers? Murderers and thugs? Sheriff, these men are hand picked because they are fast and violent and they don't care who they hurt, nor how badly!"
Jacob's eyes were quiet, half-lidded, and he searched his heart for any reluctance, any hesitation at what must be done.
He found none.
Jacob looked at his father.
The Sheriff's face was tight, his eyes pale.
"Levi," he said, "I know what I am getting into." His smile was without warmth, a baring of the teeth and little more than that.
"I am walking into a hornet's nest with a stick, and I intend to lay about with the jawbone of an arse."
Levi muttered something, shaking his head, and turned abruptly away from the Sheriff, shaking his head.
"Sir?" Jacob asked, gesturing open-handed at the map, "where do you need me?"
Both men stiffened as Levi rushed across the room, thrusting something knife-like at the Sheriff.
Levi froze as two Colt revolvers snarled to full cock, the .44-caliber barrels wide and unblinking and looking at a spot squarely between his own hazel eyes.
The lawmen eased the hammers down on their revolvers.
Levi did not miss the fact that each placed the hammer nose carefully between the cartridge-rims.
They're loaded with six rounds, he thought, not the customary five and an empty chamber, and he realized both lawmen were ready, prepared, mentally ripe, to engage in a war.
Still, he persisted:
"Sheriff, these men are expert with every weapon known to man," he said sincerely, holding up the rolled newspaper.
"You saw how quickly I crossed the room with a practice knife."
There was an utter lack of compassion, of emotion, in the Sheriff's icy gaze.
"They can cross a room with a knife and gut you before you can draw!"
The Sheriff's expression was unchanged; his face might as well have been carved out of white oak.
"One against twelve?" Levi shouted, his face reddening, his hands agitated. "You're committing suicide, man!"
"I need your help too!" the Sheriff snapped.
Levi hissed out a breath, his shoulders sagging as if deflated.
"Name it."

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Linn Keller 10-5-10


Twelve men waited impatiently at the platform.
Denver rose around them, solid, modern, urban, reassuring, familiar.
They were city men: most were from far larger settlements, much larger populations, but they adapted quickly, for one city was very much like another.
These men specialized in corruption, dirty politics, payoffs, strongarm tactics, the usual moneymaking techniques found in a city: over and above, they specialized in the less gentle means of debt collection and the strenuous and violent means of influencing folk to comply with their wishes.
There were a few carpet bags among them, containing items conducive to plying their unsavory trade; bulges here and there under unbuttoned coats attested to the presence of other tools as well.
The heavier of the men -- he wore a tailored suit of the very latest fashion -- blew out impatient clouds of Cuban cigar smoke and consulted a 17-jewel watch on a fancy chain, with three gold nuggets for a fob.
Another man beside him checked his own watch: a three-jewel, just as accurate, but less ostentatious.
It did not do to out-do one's superior, when one wished to eventually take over the operation.
"Seven minutes, Boss," he said.
The boss grunted.
"They're usually right on time."

Jacob groomed his Appaloosa, soothing the stallion with hands and words.
Beside him, the Sheriff groomed his Rose o' the Mornin'.
Hijo del Sol remained at Jacob's with the Sheriff's black gelding: Rose-horse had been long enough out of circulation, she wasn't immediately associated with the Sheriff, as were his other two mounts.

Levi propped his shotgun in a handy corner and sat on the upholstered bench, closing his eyes and trying to relax.
The warmth off the inspection car's upright boiler felt pretty good.
The engineer pulled on the whistle-chain and the brightly painted inspection car gave a cheerful, shrill whistle, and the little steam engine under their feet began to hiss and shove against their weight.
Glass windows blocked the wind, the doors were closed; the car was not air tight, and the boiler's stubby chimney thrust up through a hole in the curved metal roof: Levi opened his eyes, surprised, to the scent of fresh, hot coffee.
The engineer was pouring a second cup, looked over at the agent.
"We got coffee, frash and hot," he said. "Like some?"
Levi blinked, stood. "Yes, thank you," he said, reaching for the proffered enamel cup.

Annette cuddled young Joseph to her, rocking slowly in the chair Joseph had gotten for her.
The twins were playing quietly with corn shock dolls; outside, Bear Killer tasted the wind and listened to secrets whispered through the trees.
Jacob had not told Annette what he was doing, only that he would be busy, and she should not worry.
Whenever Jacob said not to worry, she worried.
Annette patted little Joseph, gently, and the baby wiggled slowly and made a sleepy little baby noise.

The Sheriff and Jacob looked at one another when the air brakes came on beneath their feet.
"Denver," the Sheriff said, and Jacob nodded.

Esther pulled her spectacles down her nose, looked at the clock on her office wall.
"They are now in Denver," she said crisply, her diction precise, as if she were lecturing a classroom.

Jackson Cooper closed the case on his watch.
His eyes narrowed and he took a long, deep breath.
Part of him noticed how good the morning air smelled.
The rest of him chafed that he was town marshal, and his old friend was too far for him to be of any help.
Jackson Cooper slid the watch back into his vest pocket and looked up as his wife Emma came out of the house, the picnic basket in hand as it always was: it was ever their habit to eat their lunch together.
Jackson Cooper took the woven withie basket and set it in the back of their buggy, then helped his wife into their carriage.

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Linn Keller 10-8-10


Jacob was as calm and relaxed as a cat in a dog convention.
The Sheriff snored.
Jacob's boot heels were loud on the car's floor, despite the sound of the train's travel: he paced the length of the stock car, turned, paced back.
Periodically he stopped to glare at his father, relaxed against an accommodating hay-bale and padded with a saddle blanket.
Jacob shook his head and resumed pacing.
He knew how long the train would take, from Denver to Firelands: he knew every stop for coal, for water, where they were, what time they would arrive, and how long they would be stopped: his pale eyes regarded the door that was the only thing between themselves and the car full of thuggs bent on taking the Rosenthal fortune -- in whatever form they might wish.
Jacob opened his hands, closed them, debated on whether to dispense of nervous energy by throwing his knife at the door, then decided against it.
They'd stopped once, for water and coal, and were almost to the second water stop, when the Sheriff lifted the Stetson from his face.
Jacob turned quickly, tense, alert: the Sheriff's face was relaxed, almost amused.
"Jacob," he said, "have you worn a groove in the floor yet?"
Jacob blinked, glanced guiltily at his former path.
"No, sir."
The Sheriff rose, smoothly, gracefully, as easily as a man twenty years his junior.
"I was much the same, at your age," he said in that quiet, reassuring voice Jacob knew so well.
The Sheriff picked up his '73 rifle and squatted.
He had the muzzle angled down to the floor and set his Stetson upside down to one side, then quickly, expertly, jacked the lever and kicked ten empties into the hat.
"You've done that before," Jacob said, a little surprise in his voice.
The Sheriff looked up, amused.
"You could say that."
He went over to his coat, hung on a peg, drew a poke from the side pocket.
He closed the rifle's action, eased the hammer to half cock, set himself back down on the aforementioned hay bale and set the poke beside him.
He proceeded to feed ten fresh rounds into his rifle.
Jacob did not miss the fact that all ten bullets were a pristine yellow in color.
The Sheriff cycled the action, eased the hammer down to half cock and fed one final gold bulleted round into the magazine.
Jacob watched silently as his father proceeded to drop six rounds from his right hand Colt into the upturned skypiece.
The sound was loud, crisp, as the cylinder rotated to receive the next gold-bulleted round.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, I'm --"
The Sheriff looked up at his son, raised one eyebrow, dropped in the second round as easily as if his fingers had eyes.
"Go on."
"Sir, I'd be pleased to side you on this one."
The Sheriff eased the hammer's nose down between the cartridge rims and holstered his right hand Colt.
"There won't be enough room side by side, Jacob."
He withdrew his left hand Colt and inverted it over his waiting Stetson, quickly dropped its payload in with its fellows.
"Sir, that's --"
"That's not what --"
"It's not what you meant, yes, I know." Click. "You want to be there with your old man -- click -- to make sure he doesn't get his foolish old self killed."
"No, sir," Jacob snapped, "I mean yes, sir --"
The Sheriff snapped the loading gate shut and eased his left hand Colt's hammer nose down between the cartridge rims, and holstered.
He did not slip the tabs over either of the hammer spurs.
The Sheriff stood and took one long step over to his son.
Pale eyes met pale eyes and the Sheriff looked long into his son's face.
I can see your mother in your face, he thought.
Connie would rejoice to know she had such a fine son.
"Yes, sir?"
The Sheriff turned his lapel over and fumbled with his badge.
Jacob's expression was one of open alarm.
In all his life he had never, ever known his father's hands to shake, save only in anger: now, when he should be rock steady, there was a distinct tremor as he released his six point Sheriff's star.
"Jacob, I will need this back, once we are done."
Jacob's hand extended mechanically and the Sheriff pressed the star into his palm, closing Jacob's fingers over it.
"In the meantime you are Sheriff."
Jacob's mouth was suddenly very dry.
He opened his hand and looked at the badge as if he had never seen one before.
"Sir --"
The Sheriff was carefully transferring the .44-40 rounds from Stetson to the leather poke.
"Esther knows I love her, so you don't have to tell her that."
Jacob's mouth opened and closed, once.
"You watch out after Angela. Mark my word, now, that's an intelligent child with a gift for languages. Why, she is almost fluent in French, and she's learned some Spanish --"
The Sheriff looked at his son in honset surprise.
Jacob threw his free hand in the air.
"I don't know why I bother!" he exclaimed. "You are the one most obdurate, obstinate, hard headed, contrary, mule skulled man I have met in my entire LIFE!"
Jacob swung his pale eyes to his father like a battleship swinging a gun-turret to bear.
"Sir, do you have any idea -- do you have the LEAST idea -- JUST WHAT YOU MEAN TO ME?"
Jacob's hands were fisted, his face was pale, the cords stood out in his neck.
He stopped and took one long breath.
Jacob's words hung on the air, echoing a little, and then he realized what he'd just said.
The Sheriff's eyes crinkled at the corners and he started to grin, and Jacob started to chuckle, and the Sheriff took his son in a crushing hug, and Jacob returned the favor: the stood so for a long moment, then each held the other at arm's length.
"I do believe," the Sheriff said, "that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
Jacob wet his lips, slowly, nervously, and nodded.
The Sheriff checked his watch one last time.
"Remember," he said. "Denver, when I am done."
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff clapped his Stetson on his head and picked up the Winchester.
He stepped to the door, put an eye to the peep hole, turned and gave Jacob a mirthless smile.

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Linn Keller 10-9-10


Christopher Nicholas sat, afraid to move: the agent beside him, and the one behind, were silent, unmoving: they might have been carved of wood, yet Nick, as he was known, was satisfied they would both jump him, slice him into thin little ribbons and feed each ribbon between a flanged steel wheel and the steel track, one at a time, if he so much as twitched.
Nick's pants were wet down to his knees, the cuffs were tight on his wrists and his gut still hurt where that tall skinny fellow drove a fist clear back through his belly and put a dent in his back bone: it had taken some time for Nick to get his wind back and even yet he was half sick from the force of the blow that had put him on his knees.
Nick's right hand throbbed, ached: his hand was tightly bandaged and blood was barely soaked through where his index finger used to be.
Nick's eyes were wide, unblinking, the eyes of a man in shock.
He had just witnessed hell itself.
Nick started out back East as a tradesman specializing in shoddy work for exhorbitant prices, or work done not at all for the same pay scale: he'd graduated to crooked book work, and for that reason had been summoned by the Boss: the intent was to seize as many physical assets, preferably gold, negotiable documents and sweet smelling females of whatever age, and bear them triumphantly back to Denver: he, Nick, would be tasked with perhaps a day or two of exploring their books and wringing every single solitary shekel therefrom.
Nick had been on the rear platform, taking the air, taking a break from the thick atmosphere: the dozen within were revelling in the fine supply of Cuban cigars, the cheeses and fine chilled meats arranged in neat, symmetric rows of dainty slices, on glass trays set on beds of ice: brandy and whiskey were there in shocking volumes, and the dozen, including the Big Boss himself, were partaking liberally, for all were experienced at drink, and none considered himself impaired in the least, especially when they were pursuing their professional activities.
The air was distinctly more palatable outside the car than within.
The door opened and a blue cloud billowed out, rolled up against the overhanging roof.
A rough voice profanely summoned him: deprived of its Anglo-Saxon labiodental fricatives, the summons translated as "Oh Nick, if you please, the Big Boss would hold conversation with you" -- the actual message took some four times as long to convey and discussed Nick's ancestry in terms most foul.
Nick favored the speaker with a distasteful glare, and the man with the silvery scar under one cheekbone leered lustfully at Nick, for Nick was a slightly built man, and the speaker's tastes were not those to which ordinary men subscribed.
"Anon," Nick sighed, ignoring the obscene expression on the speaker's face.
Nick sighed and turned toward the still-open door.
"Nick!" The Boss's voice was as friendly as a wood rasp. "Get in here!"
Nick stepped across the threshold just as the opposite door exploded open and thunder filled the car.
Nick's knees dropped him into a crouch and his hands came up in front of his face.
A tall slender figure stood in the doorway, advancing as he fired, rifle spitting fire left and right: the rifle was released and had fallen to belt buckle height when the figure began firing with both hands and it took a moment for Nick to realize the figure had actually drawn two revolvers and was not magically discharging brimstone from bare hands.
The concussion of so many shots in such rapid succession stunned the skinny shyster: through slitted eyes he watched heads explode, bodies fall: he could not tell if anyone returned a single shot, so loud were the successive concussions.
The hammering stopped.
Nick lowered his hands, trembling, and opened his eyes.
The slender figure was advancing into the car.
The Big Boss was still in his seat, at least until the figure seized him and hauled him to his feet.
Nick remembered the look on the stranger's face.
He looked like a skull, with white eyes -- white eyes! -- eyes that burned even yet in his memory, eyes guaranteed to haunt his sleep and his unguarded waking moments for a lifetime and longer! -- the Big Boss raised a hand, slowly, slowly, and the figure smacked the hand aside, and Nick remembered the pistol it held spun slowly, slowly, floating through the air, and Nick expected it to begin to sway like a leaf falling to the ground from a high oak branch, so leisurely was its progress.
Nick remembered a hand and a blade and the Big Boss's grunt and he realized the stranger held the Big Boss clear off the floor and had a shining steel sword in his hand, and he remembered how the Big Boss seemed to levitate a foot with the force of the blow, and Nick wondered that the blade did not thrust out the back of the man's coat by a yard at least.
Nick stood and gaped as the stranger cocked his arm and threw the Big Boss across the car, and Nick remembered how bright, bright and gleaming the blade was, and the stranger's hand, the stranger's red hand, and the stranger turned to look squarely at him and Nick felt the stranger's eyes bore clear through his soul and sear his back bone and Nick remembered the Big Boss handed him a pistol there on the railroad platform in Denver and asked "Ever use one of these?" and Nick, with false bravado, lied through his teeth and said "Yeah, Boss, all the time," when in truth he had never fired a pistol in his life.
Now he remembered that pistol and his hand closed around it and he pulled it from his pocket and he raised it slowly, slowly, and he remembered how weak his arm felt and how his hand trembled as he held it and his finger pulled back on the trigger and how surprised he was the trigger actually moved under his pull --
The pistol was loud in the sudden silence and there was a gout of dirty fire, a sulfurous finger pointing at the tall stranger, and the stranger strode over to him and seized the pistol and twisted it, ripping it out of his hand and there was a sudden ripping burst of agony and Nick cried in pain as his index finger, still wrapped around the trigger, was caught by the trigger guard, bent back, broken in the joint: the stranger hauled hard and his finger was ripped from its moorings and there was a long, sustained scream, and as Nick clutched his wounded hand to his belly and fell to his knees he realized the scream was his.
There was a hand, the hard hand of doom itself, the hand of God descended from the heavens, fit to rip a mountain out by the roots, and it closed about the back of his coat and brought him off his feet: Nick remembered being carried like luggage the length of the rail car, and he remembered the bodies, these rough men, these vicious brutes, these killers, now dead themselves, dropped, scattered, murdered: faces contorted with the impact of thumb sized bullet driven hard between the eyes or through an eye socket or just below the nose: vacant eyes followed him, bloodied and broken teeth gleamed in slacked jaws, and he remembered the smell, the horrifying, gut turning smell, of Cuban cigar smoke and gunpowder sulfur and blood, blood hot and fresh, filling his nostrils, filling his very being.
Nick was on the forward platform now, the clean air a shock to his senses: it was several degrees cooler without than within, and he wondered for a long moment whether he was going to be thrown bodily from the train.
Another door, another car: he was shoved through the opening, or rather thrown through the opening, the encompassing hand of Doom released his coat and another seized him by the throat just as a ram drove into his gut, a fist made of cast iron and fired from a cannon, a fist that penetrated the distance from shirtfront to spine in a tenth of a second or less and put a sizable new bend in his back bone.
Nick collapsed bonelessly to the hay-littered floor, gagging.
Had his bladder not emptied itself already, it would have now.
Nick hovered between light and dark as strong hands seized his, bandaged his wounded right hand, wrapping it tightly until the blood stopped; then a familiar jingle and clatter and he felt the irons tighten on his wrists, and he was hauled to his feet again and dragged the length of the stock car.
Dimly, distantly, he registered the smell of sweet, fresh hay, the scent of horses and horse manure, and then another door, another set of hands, this time tight on his upper arms.
"See that he gets to Denver," a rough voice said. "One way, and he tells the other bosses what he saw."
"You're sure about this."
So now Nick sat, trembling, afraid to move, afraid to shift his eyes from straight ahead: he found a little comfort in closing his eyes, closing them against he memories of what he'd just seen, just survived.
His gut ached and he was still sick, his hand throbbed and he knew genuine, overawing, overarching terror.
The car swayed a little under him and he barely heard the rhythmic click and clatter of the rails as the train picked up speed, down grade: they had only just crested the rise, and were now on the down grade.
"Firelands," the conductor called cheerfully. "Next stop, Firelands."

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