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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 10-10-10


Jacob fisted both hands and trembled.
His father had ordered him to wait in the stock car, wait with his saddled red mare, wait with Rose o' the Mornin' and the sliding door unlatched, wait with a set of irons on the peg ready to hand and his final orders: he will bring Jacob a prisoner, Jacob is to secure him and hand him off to Levi's agents, and he will remind the agents the prisoner will be returned to Denver, to say what he saw.
Jacob strode over to his Appaloosa and hauled his .50-90 from its scabbard, strode for the door, thumbed the hammer back to full cock: he stopped, one step from the door, jaw thrust out, just as he heard his father's '73 rifle begin to speak.
He counted the rounds, listened to their rhythm: he counted ten rounds, a pause, then the sharper, louder report of revolvers, fired rapidly, regularly, a staccato metronome counting the last moments of mens' lives.
He counted the dozen shots his father's pistols contained, and he counted to five, then he hauled open his door and shouldered his rifle.
Smoke hazed the atmosphere in the aging private car, not yet settled into stratified layers of grey-blue: he held station, pale blue eye steady behind the buck horn sight, his breath short, quick: there was a moment, and his father loomed in the visual murk, stopped to pick up his rifle from the floor, and turned to swing some ragged luggage through the doorway.
Jacob did not miss the splintered door frame where the door latch used to be.
Jacob lowered his rifle's hammer to half cock and parked it just inside the stock car's end door, and reached for the man the Sheriff was bringing out like a carpet bag.
The Sheriff shoved the pale, trembling fellow into Jacob's arms.
"Irons," he said briefly, and Jacob could not but note the pallor in his father's face, how icy the eyes, how utterly skeletal his father's visage: it was as if the man's face was a skull with parchment drawn tightly over its contours.
Jacob saw the blood on his father's shirt front.
Jacob was under orders to take this fellow and conduct him safely into the hands of Levi's agents, and to instruct them to take the man to Denver, alive: as much as Jacob would have loved to rip the prisoner's heart out by reaching down his throat and tearing it loose from the inside, he could not.
He did the next best thing.
Jacob drew his skinny, hard-knuckled fingers into his palm and cocked his work-hardened right arm and focused every iota of his rage, his frustration, his distress, into one punch to the man's gut.
It did not surprise him that the man's feet came off the floor by just short of a foot, nor that the individual offered no resistance to Jacob kneeling on his shoulder blades as he closed the Darbies about his city-pale wrists.
"Jacob," the Sheriff said, and Jacob stood, remembering the blood on his father's shirt front, and noting with a mental lurch the rough and raspy nature of his father's voice.
"Give him to Levi's men. Remind them he has a one way ticket to Denver. He is to tell the other bosses what happened here."
"Yes, sir." Jacob, like his father, needed but one hand to bring the criminal to his feet.
"Then jump Rose out in the flat as we discussed, and return to the train."
"Sir --"
The Sheriff laid a hand on Jacob's shoulder.
"I am depending on you, Jacob."
Jacob swallowed hard.
"Yes, sir."
He did not much like the thought of what he had to do -- he would much rather have stood with his father through all this, and continue to do so -- but he was under orders, and orders he would follow, like them or not.
He didn't like the orders but he would follow them anyway.
The Sheriff turned and drew the door shut behind him.
Jacob turned and dragged the man the length of the stock car.
The locomotive's labors were loud and echoing agains the rock wall as they crested the grade, and Jacob noted the change in its exhaust as they crested the long, steep up-grade and came to the short level stretch at the very apex.
Jacob slammed the door and whirled, boot heels punishing the hay-littered floor as he almost ran to the opposite end of the car.
He seized the door, hauled it open, swore through clenched teeth.
The Sheriff was standing on top of the throwaway car, rifle in his good right hand, left hand raised in salute as the car rolled away, downhill, away from the rest of the train.
Jacob clutched the door frame.
"No," he gasped in a strangled voice, then he remembered his orders.
Jacob spun, seized Rose o' the Mornin's reins, stepped into his father's saddle and brought her about.
He leaned down, grabbed the handle, touched Rose's flank: she stepped sideways, the sliding door opening easily on greased steel wheels.
Jacob looked out at the ground, grassed and free of rocks, that flanked the tracks, a place he and his father had used in the past.
He touched heels to his father's mare.
Rose o' the Mornin' gathered herself and jumped.
Jacob dismounted, dropping her knotted reins over the saddle horn, smacked her across the backside.
"Git!" he yelled at the same moment his father raised an empty rifle case to his lips and blew.
Jacob turned and ran for the stock car, now the end car on the train, and as he caught the hand rail beside the single stair step, he heard the single, high, shrill whistle as the Sheriff blew across the bottle neck of the empty rifle cartridge's mouth.
He looked over his left shoulder as he swarmed up into the stock car and saw Rose o' the Mornin' trotting happily after the Sheriff, and his father standing, spread-legged, atop the departing, smoking luxury car.

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Linn Keller 10-11-10


I stood on the roof of the luxury car with my legs spread, riding the curved surface like a sailor rides a ship's deck in a rough sea.
I'd climbed the painted rungs one-handed, my rifle welded in the grip of my good left hand.
I knew I had to make the roof while I still had the strength, for that last fellow, the one I chose to spare, had been impolite enough to put a pistol ball between my left ribs and I needed to get topside before I ran out of steam.
The car was barely rolling but rolling it was, down hill and away from the departing train.
The train, too, was barely rolling for it was close to all The Lady Esther had in her to haul a train up that grade. She'd hauled heavier loads before and gotten them over the top but if she'd had a tongue it would have been hung out panting like a dog on a hot day.
Jacob's big hands clutched the door frame and he looked sick, like he'd just been gut punched.
I switched my rifle to my right hand and raised my left in salute, holding my upraised palm until our mutual downhill travels took us out of sight of each other.
Bless him, he followed orders, I thought: a young man is full of fire, and a son is loyal to the father, and I knew it was possible -- unlikely, but possible -- that Jacob's heart would override his head, and he would have followed me on this last ride.
I could not have that.
I had personally sent a dozen souls to hell and he didn't need that stain on his own soul, nor did he need any part of what was to follow.
Rose o' the Mornin' followed, walking now, for the car was going no faster than her long-legged walk, and I called down to her, encouraging her to keep up with us.
The car was going to pick up speed and I needed her in line of sight if she could manage.
I had planned this operation carefully and covered all details as best I could.
I had given Levi his orders and trusted the man to carry them out.
I had told Jacob what to do, and when to do it: he knew I would try to spare one of the Denver bunch, but only one, uninjured if possible, that the rest of Denver's lawless community may know that it was not profitable to come to Firelands.
That part worked better than I had hoped.
One fellow was clearly not cut of the same thuggish cloth as his fellows: he froze as I swung my Reaper's scythe through the crop of sinners, at least until I advanced upon him, knife in hand.
I remembered the look on the Boss's face as I took that last step into him and seized his shirt front and brought him to his feet.
Funny thing, I reflected.
He didn't feel heavy a'tall but he probably out-weighed me by a margin.
I remember my eyes and his were on a level when I drove my boot knife into his belly: in and up, the long, slender blade seeking his black heart: I hit him hard, thrust, thrust again, then dropped him back in his chair and took a step toward the pasty-faced fellow I marked as my messenger.
I was not so much surprised as disappointed when he raised a pistol -- I remember the barrel trembled as it came up, and knew he was an amateur at this sort of thing -- there was a dirty feather of flame and something hit me in the left side.
I was already mad and being shot guaranteed I stayed that way.
I seized the pistol's barrel and cylinder, two-handed, I twisted it away from me until it pointed back along his forearm and then I yanked, hard, knowing it would break his finger and probably tear it loose and I was right.
I dropped the pistol and seized the fellow by the back of his coat.
He'd gone to his knees, doubled up with his hands in his belly and I figured he'd reflexively clutched his wounded hand to his middle.
I picked him up like he was a satchel and packed him to the front of the car.
He made some funny little sounds of distress and for the life of me I couldn't figure why, until I looked around and realized what it must look like to him.
Not two minutes ago the car had been beautiful and immaculate, filled with well dressed men smoking cigars and eating and drinking, laughing and filling the air with Cuban smoke and lies and plans for the fortune they intended to seize.
Now ... now he looked at faces with holes in their front, at eyes bulged out of their sockets from being shot in the side of the head, at blood and slack jaws and the knowledge that I and I alone had done this, and now I had him off the floor, one-handed, swinging him like a carpet bag.
There is something that weakens a man's resolve when someone fetches him off his feet and I reckon that played into it too.
I packed him to the door and turned sideways a little so I could get him through the opening.
It was but one long stride to get him to the back of the stock car and into Jacob's hands.
Jacob was standing there, hands balled into white-knuckled fists, jaw set and his eyes pale, pale as high mountain ice.
I thrust the prisoner into him and said "Irons," and Jacob took any fight out of the fellow with a hay maker to the middle.
Jacob was too busy getting him in irons to see me sag and slump against the door frame.
I come near to passing out but I gritted my teeth and found the strength somewhere to stand up straight and speak normally.
I could not let Jacob know I was hurt.
That lung was collapsing -- I could feel it -- I had some downy feathers from a turkey buzzard to stuff in the wound, but not just yet.
Not yet.
"Jacob," I rasped, "give him to Levi's men. Remind them he has a one-way ticket to Denver."
I was weakening and I knew it, partly from reaction to what I had done and partly from being shot. My voice was rough and I made no effort to soften it.
The reminder I spoke was actually for Jacob.
I needed to ensure he would not rip this felon's throat out instead of hand him off to the waiting agents.
By giving Jacob an order for the agents I ensured Jacob's compliance with my orders.
I trusted my son but saw wisdom in making sure.
"He is to tell the other bosses what happened here."
"Yes, sir."
Jacob turned and dragged the fellow across the stock car floor and I made my own escape.
I stepped down, one foot on the knuckle coupler, both hands gripping the railing around the luxury car's platform.
I kicked the release rod and the adaptor released, the cars separating.
I pulled myself up, swung a leg over the rail: I held onto the rail after I got both feet under me, held on for a long moment as the world turned a little pale, like a sparkly curtain descending over my vision: it took an effort of will to make it pass, to become strong again.
I turned, squinting a little, found the wrought iron rungs bolted to the side of the car.
I had to make the roof of the luxury car while I had the strength.
It was vital the prisoner survive to tell Denver that any who sought Firelands or any part thereof would die, and die horribly.
So far my plan was working.
I went back into the smoke-darkened, steel-wheeled abbatoir and ignored the smell, the smell I remembered too well, and I reached for a cut glass brandy bottle.
I seized its ornate stopper and twisted, pulling, and it did not give.
Good Lord, man, I thought, you're weak as a kitten!
Anger surged in my belly and I twisted the stopper out, dropped it.
I tilted the decanter up and drank, took a breath, drank again.
I threw the decanter at the Big Boss's dead and bloodied carcass.
My rifle ought to be here somewhere, I thought, turning and looking down, around --
I looked to the left.
My knife.
I cleaned the blade on the Big Boss's coat sleeve, washed it off in one of the ice-melt trays, used his other coat sleeve to dry it and slid it back into my tall boot top's sheath.
I stepped out of the stench of that bloody railcar and switched my rifle to my left hand.
Seizing a black-painted rung, I paused to study the yellow pin stripe that ran its length.
Nice work, I thought, then I upped my leg and stepped on a rung and hauled myself up to the next, the next, the next.
I made the roof without incident, pulled myself upright, turned.
Jacob was used to me waving with my left hand and so I switched my rifle to my right hand and waited.
Rose o' the Mornin' was always a runner and a jumper and it was nothing for her to soar from the barely moving rail car to the grassy flat I'd planned on: Jacob, tall, slender, a born horseman, was not so much her rider as part of the magical creature that horse and rider become.
Part of me remembered Santos describing horse-breeding and horse legends, and how the natives of central America did not realize the Spanish conquistadores were horse and rider: they thought this was an altogether new species, like unto the mythical centaur.
Looking at Jacob astride my Rose-horse, I can see how they figured it.
Jacob turned Rose-horse, misery etched on his young face, and I ached to see it.
A son wants nothing more than to be with his father.
I looked down.
The front of my shirt was red.
There is no way Jacob would have missed that.
It's just as well, I thought.
If this does not work, my will is on file, he is Sheriff, and I am content.
Jacob raised a hand, smacked Rose's hinder.
His yell sounded like it came from a very long way away.
My fingers fumbled with the cartridge case I'd used when Angela and I were out riding, and I needed a whistle that would carry for a distance: I raised it to my lips and blew, gently, steadily, drawing a shrill, piercing whistle from the empty brass hull, and Rose o' the Mornin' came walking after me.
Now I stood on the roof of the slaughterhouse, grateful that Jacob was out of sight: I was weaker than I wanted to admit to myself, my breathing was labored, and I tottered like an old man as I turned to face down hill.
The rail car was picking up speed.
Not as rapidly as I had expected, but it was picking up speed, and Rose o' the Mornin' was keeping up with no trouble a'tall.
I looked into the wind and stood with my legs spread and figured it was a good time to reload my rifle.

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Linn Keller 10-12-10


Esther replaced her spectacles and nodded one time, briskly, as she always did.
"He should be running the car downhill now," she said, as if it were an accomplished fact, and resumed her seat.
She'd been standing, staring sightlessly at the clock, for several minutes, reviewing the timetable she and her husband had plotted out.
"He does nothing without planning," she murmured, "even if it does not seem so," and picked up her pencil.
The ledger book waited patiently for her attention, and there were invoices to review, checks to write, bank drafts to authorize --
Esther looked up, looked out the window.
The train would arrive in under an hour, she knew: their son would be on it and he would be understandably upset.
Perhaps I should be at the depot when he arrives, Esther thought.
She looked down at the ledger book, at the neat stacks of papers, at the tidy pigeonholed desk.
Esther placed her pencil very precisely beside the edge of the grey cloth-bound ledger book, exactly parallel to its right margin, pushed her office chair back on oiled casters, and stood.
She carefully removed her spectacles, folded the dainty, wire-rimmed lenses and slipped them into their case: the case went into her reticule, her reticule depended from her left wrist, and her right hand went to the cameo at her throat.
Her son had given her the cameo, some time back, when he'd gone back to Ohio after a prisoner and returned empty-handed, for the man was dying and not fit to travel.
Jacob had bought two cameos, one for his mother, one for his wife.
"Jacob," Esther whispered, "how you must feel now!" and she folded her hands over her high stomach, for a mother always aches for her child's distress.

Jacob had looked sharply at his Apple-horse, at his saddle: his jaw muscles stood out as he seized the sliding door's handle and hauled it shut, slamming it viciously and snarling.
He had not missed the growing red stain on his father's shirt front.
He glared at the end door of the stock car, the door that separated him from the car containing the prisoner, and his hands opened, fingers clawed, as if to seize the prisoner's neck: then he shook his head and walked over to Apple.
Apple-horse nudged at Jacob's middle and Jacob reached into his pocket and drew out a twist of plug tobacco: shaving off a sliver, he fed it to his stallion and rubbed the fiery horse's long nose.
"You bum," he murmured, and his voice was strange in his ears.
Jacob stopped and leaned back against the stall.
"Well I'll be damned," he said quietly.
He knew it had to happen someday.
He'd opened his mouth, and his father's voice fell out.

The Sheriff knelt on top of the slaughter car.
His coat was folded and laid on the walkway.
His rifle was atop the coat.
His vest was folded and under the rifle as well, and his shirt was open: he noted absently that his flesh was pebbled with goose prickles, and part of his mind realized he was cold, but the rest of his mind swatted the realization viciously away from him, and set about stuffing the downy breast feathers of a turkey buzzard into the bubbling hole.
He'd wiped the bloody foam away with a finger and slung it from him: feathers clung to his sticky hand, and he realized if he touched his rifle with fresh blood, it would eat the finish off he metal.
Reluctantly, painfully, he descended the ladder again, this time on the opposite end of the car, the end that was leading the way on their downhill ride.
He made a face at the smell: he did not mind fresh cigar smoke, the first few fragrant clouds were rather pleasant, as a matter of fact, but stale cigar smoke -- especially with the smell of death-voided bowels and copper blood and the overwhelming, hellish odor of sulfur from the gunpowder -- well, he held his breath as best he could, washing his hands in the ice-melt tray and drying it on a dainty tea-towel of some sort that was hanging below it.
He realized he was hungry and picked up a slice of good beef: placing slices of cheese on it, he rolled it into a tube and ate, looking about at the utter destruction he had wrought.
A lesser man would have no appetite for a week, but the Sheriff had been a cavalry officer in that damned War.
When you have waded in blood up to your ankles, something as minor as this was of little consequence.
He finished his repast, made another, washed down the first with a long tilt of good brandy, then munched casually, savoring the taste.
He hadn't realized how hungry he was.
His shirt was still open.
He did not want to button the sticky, bloody linen back over his chest, but neither did he wish to discard it: he hunted nonchalantly among the bodies until he found a shirt undamaged and not bloodied, and relieved its occupant of same.
It almost fit, as a matter of fact.
Just a little big, he thought as he buttoned it. Looks brand new. I'll bet he wears a shirt once and throws it away.
Fortified now, the Sheriff stepped out on the observation platform, grateful for the clean air, and climbed the rungs once more.
He resumed his vest, his coat: he was a tidy man, not quite fastidious about his appearance, but with the military neatness that characterizes most command-rank soldiers of the era.
He stood, riding the roof of the car, standing like a ship's-captain at the bow.
The car had no brakes at all and this did concern him.
The grade was steep but the journals were bad and one was screeching and smoking, another joined: as metal ground into metal, the effect was to slow the car, slow it just enough that, though it swayed on a particularly unpleasant curve -- the Sheriff looked a thousand feet down, down to the stream far below -- she never swayed badly, nor had she tilted at all: she held the tracks.
He rode it for some little distance, building speed, screeching, until he saw in the distance the inspection car sitting on the tracks, and the spur leading off to the side.
The Sheriff picked up his rifle and climbed down the ladder.
He had planned for almost everything.
There were two things he hadn't planned on.
The two bad journals had not figured into his equation.
As friction built and heat rose, the lead babbitt began to melt, liquefying and lubricating, letting the car speed a little more, gaining what friction had cost in speed.
Levi looked up, gripped the switch handle tight, tight: he leaned backward, pulling hard, swinging the switch over, switching the coasting car onto the spur that led up the little side hollow.
The Sheriff rode the car every foot of the way, bracing himself for the turn that took him off the main line, around the sharp little turn that put the private car onto this short stretch of abandoned rails.
Levi waved the engineer forward and the inspection car chuffed forward, above the switch: he reversed, backing the inspection car onto the spur behind the private car.
He eased forward until the couplers touched.
The passenger car had the old link-and-pin coupler, the inspection car had the new safety couplers: the big cast iron knuckle bumped against the square socket and the engineer opened the steam-valve and pushed the stinking, smoke-veiled passenger car up the track.
There was a quarter mile of rail, due to be taken up the next day, but today it was being used for one final duty.
They shoved the screeching, groaning private car into a drift, a mine opening large enough to accommodate a standard gauge rail: a miner had been prosperous enough to pay for the spur, thinking he would shovel ore directly into rail cars instead of the narrow gauge mine cars common to the profession: it hadn't worked out, he'd gone bust, and the rail just sat there, quietly rusting.
Now the rolling abbatoir was run deep into the old mine drift.
They'd marked the depth with white paint, and when the inspection car, laboring hard against the burnt journals, finally -- and literally -- ran out of steam, they were just at that white paint stripe.
The inspection car's headlight was bright in the gloom as the Sheriff stepped off the platform and through the inspection car's open door.
He nodded to the engineer.
The engineer reversed, the steam engine beneath their feet hissing like an asthmatic snake: they made good time getting out, for a coal fired boiler in a tunnel fouls the atmosphere in a remarkably short time.
The Sheriff had the engineer stop when they were still fifty feet inside the drift.
He stepped out and struck a Lucifer match to four fuses: two on the right, two on the left: he swung aboard and they chuffed quietly back into the daylight, back to the switch where Levi waited.
The Sheriff offered his hand as Levi climbed aboard: the slender agent had returned the switch to normal position, closed the big brass padlock and handed the engineer back the switch-key.
Levi noted the tremor in the Sheriff's grip and made so bold as to draw the man's coat open.
He looked at the growing splotch of blood on the white linen shirt, and looked up into the Sheriff's pale eyes.
The Sheriff handed his rifle to the engineer with his right hand, and laid his left on Levi's shoulder.
"Bonnie is safe," he said, just before his eyes rolled up and his knees buckled.

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Linn Keller 10-13-10


Esther tapped thoughtfully at her upper lip with the pencil, considering.
By now, she thought, he will have lighted the fuses and mounted Rose-horse.
Levi will return with the inspection car to the roundhouse, and he will come here.

Esther replaced the pencil and closed the ledger-book.
She was of no mind to pursue the books until she saw her husband again.

Daisy looked sharply at the red-headed, green-eyed matron as she paused at her kitchen's doorway.
Esther blinked at the frown on Daisy's face.
"Aye, come in," Daisy snapped. "It's company I'm needin' though I'm no' fit t' live with!"
Esther blinked, opened her mouth to say something, and Daisy cut her off by picking up the mass of dough and slamming it hard against the flour-covered table, raising a small cloud that settled to the floor. Fisting her hands, she beat her fists into the dough, left, then right, punctuating each blow with an irritated "Oooh!" -- then she seized the dough, rolled up one edge, sprinkled flour under it, and reached without looking for her fine marble rolling pin.
Esther waited until she had floured the rolling pin and savagely flattened the leavened mass before speaking.
"Is there tea?" she asked, and Daisy raised up the marble rolling pin with both hands and slammed it down into the only remaining mound of dough.
Turning savagely to Esther, she snapped, "Do y'know what he did? Do you?"
Esther blinked, shook her head, opened her mouth, and Daisy interrupted her with an advancing, wagging, flour-covered forefinger:
"The little scamp, that scalawag, threw dirt on my clean sheets!"
She snatched up her apron, wiped fiercely at her hands, and Esther saw Daisy's forehead was sweat-beaded and a trickle of moisture was starting down one cheek.
"I washed the sheets. Washed 'em on that damned wash board an' me knuckles are raw for't, an' the rascal threw dirt on my clean sheets!"
"Little Sean ...?" Esther hazarded, and Daisy bit her lip, nodding: tears were trickling from both eyes now.
"I switched his behind, I did, an' I high-stepped him back t' the house! Switched him ever' step o' the way! I set him on a stool i' th' corner an' told him I'd put him in a dress an' make him wash th' sheets if he even stirred!"
Esther's hand closed about Daisy's elbow and her other hand stroked the distressed woman's hair, gently, soothingly: Daisy drew into the older woman's embrace and sobbed into her shoulder.
Esther patted her back, saying the reassuring, quiet things a mother says to an upset child, and rocked her just a little bit, and Daisy's arms went around Esther.
In that moment, Esther was a rock, and Daisy was anchoring herself in a tear-tempest.
Esther sat Daisy down and handed her a clean dish towel, and Daisy wiped her eyes, her face full of misery.
"Ye must think me a weak an' foolish woman," she choked, and pressed the towel to her eyes again.
Esther patted her hand.
"I think no such thing," she said quietly. "I think you work too hard, Daisy. You can afford a girl to do your washing and your cleaning."
Daisy laughed a little, blinking reddened eyes and shaking her head.
"A girl?" She took a long, shivering breath, let it out slowly.
"Me, hire a girl." She set her elbow on the edge of the table, leaned her forehead on the heel of her hand.
"Esther, do y'know, it's no' that long ago I was a cook in a whorehouse."
Esther nodded.
"I wasn't but a servant girl mesel'. A good thing, too" -- Esther carefully didn't smile as Daisy got her spirit up -- "elsewise I'd ha' been one o' th' girls upstairs!"
"But you didn't."
"No I didn't!" Daisy's back straightened and her head came up, her Irish temper clearly in charge now: "I took me fryin' pan an' I belted that no-good Sam on the noggin an' called him for the black hearted scoundrel he was, an' I cooked an' that was it!"
Esther laid a gentling hand on Daisy's trembling fist.
"How long have you known?"
"As long as you."
Esther nodded.
"You'll be due about ..."
Daisy giggled, laid a motherly hand on her belly.
"June, I think, or July." She frowned. "It'll be hot an' I'll be great wi' child, an' how will I chase after little Sean an' take care of a babe an' one at the breast...?"
Esther smiled.
"I think Little Sean has been doing wonderfully with his little brother. He'll do as well with the new one."

Jackson Cooper closed his watch, the click of the cover's latch loud in the Jewel.
He blinked as two more clicks echoed his own.
He looked up to see Tom Landers looking at him, surprised, and they two looked over at Mr. Baxter, who was checking his own railroad watch.

Esther, too, was looking at her watch, spectacles slid down her nose, and she felt the floor shiver a little underfoot.
She looked at Daisy.
Daisy looked quizzically at Esther, her eyebrows quirking a little.
He will ride in from the far end, Esther thought, he will come to my office, and he will pick me up as he always does and spin me around, and I will feel like a girl again --

The twins stopped playing, listened, their eyes tracking back and forth.
The Bear Killer came to his feet, bristling.
Bonnie felt it, a vibration, nothing more.
She looked out the window.
I would feel better if Jacob were here, she thought, then smiled at Twain Dawg.
Annette was asleep in her rocking chair, little Joseph beneath her modest shawl: Joseph had been fitful and colicky all night, and Annette hadn't slept much at all.
Bonnie had helped soothe the fussy baby, giving him a warm bath, a gentle rub down, a warm, clean diaper: the little fellow's discomforts passed sometime in the very late hours, not long before the eastern horizon lightened: as a result, Annette was fatigued, and Bonnie did not see fit to disturb her.
"Girls," she said quietly, "let us go to the kitchen," and the twins came instantly to their feet, anxious to be of help, for Bonnie always included them.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-13-10


Cold, frosty morning, clouds of steaming breath, grunting coughs, deep-chested whistle shrilling through shivering aspen leaves, smooth downward glissando to deep chuckles; in such a manner does the herd bull proclaim his dominance over all he surveys. Sweeping ivory-tipped antlers thrash nearby shrubs, shredding bark and leaves, exhibiting the wild, primal strength of the herd-master...

Sarah shivered inside her heavy coat, the gooseflesh marching along her skin less the product of morning frost, more the result of that wild declaration. The girl sat huddled behind a downed aspen, her Winchester cradled on her hat to cushion the effect of recoil, and waited for her chance to fire the shot that would bring winter's meat to the table. Utilizing the first gray light of the morning and the stalking skills that she had learned these past weeks under the tutelage of Fannie and Charlie, she had made her way into the middle of the herd. She sat now surrounded by tawny hide, the mewing of cow and calf echoing through the aspen grove around her, the bull's bugle a siren call that reverberated from tree, rock and ridge. The soft mountain breeze touched her cheek, drifting like baby's breath from herd to hunter; a fat yearling cow grazed some thirty yards beyond her ambush post, the herd bull less than a hundred. The herd bull would be the greater trophy; the fat cow, better meat.

Before daylight, over cold biscuits eaten with jam and washed down with canteen water cold enough to make teeth ache, Charlie had told her soberly, "We're here for meat, period. Pick out a fat cow or spike bull and take it down, but make sure that there ain't nothing standing behind it. Bullets have a way of passing through sometimes and going where you don't want 'em to go. If you get another shot, take it, but not until the first animal is down. You've proved that you can shoot; now we'll see if you can shoot when the pressure's on."

"What pressure?" she asked, wondering, not understanding how their could be tension in the procuring of food. "It's not like they'll be shooting back."

"Wait until that first elk's on the ground, then ask me that question again," he answered with a chuckle. "You'll see."

Now Sarah lowered her cheek to fine walnut, left eye drooping closed, right eye focusing, not on the rear buckhorn but on the front post, seeing the shoulder crease fade to blur. Then suddenly she knew what Charlie meant about pressure...

The brass bead of the sight, once solid as Gibraltar, danced as if struck by a sudden bout of palsy. Her disciplined muscles, trained from so many hours at the target range, quivered and shook; her teeth chattered softly. Even her eyelids seemed to have taken on a life of their own. The rifle muzzle began to trace a circular path along the elk's ribs, round and round the target point. Amazed by this disconcerting turn of events, Sarah tried to lock her hands tighter on stock and forearm, only to discover that the sudden tension made the muzzle's gyrations increase dramatically. She sat for perhaps thirty seconds this way, teeth gritting, until the effort was too much and she had to relax her grip. Instantly the rifle came to rest, brass bead on target.

Sarah drew in a deep breath and settled her cheek on the stock again, right thumb drawing back the rifle's hammer. As half of the volume of air in her lungs sighed softly from her pursed lips, the sensitive tip of her forefinger curled around the trigger, pressing gently on curved, checkered steel. The boom of the shot, the blooming of white powder smoke, came as a surprise, the adrenaline flowing so that the heavy recoil went unfelt. Riding the recoil's heft, using the momentum to help with the motion, she flicked the lever, flying brass glinting in the soft light, to seat another cartridge in the chamber as the cow she had shot settled to earth through the blur of white that filled the air in front of her.

The herd, momentarily stunned into silence by the sudden thunder in their midst, now burst into frenzied motion. A two year old spike bull, his antlers tall and curving in at the tips, held up for an instant, more curious than afraid; the brass bead settled on the second rib, a third of the way up from breastbone to spine, and thunder rumbled once more. The bull lay kicking as the remainder of the herd ran, hoof thunder and tree crush echoing down the mountain to where Charlie waited.

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Linn Keller 10-14-10


"Levi," I said quietly.
I felt the little steam engine beneath us working its heart out as the engineer wrung every bit of speed he could from the little supervisor's car.
Levi appeared in my field of vision, at least his thigh did: he went to one knee in front of my face.
"The charges?"
I'd rolled up on my side to get my bad lung down.
It was proably going to collapse but there was no sense in letting it crowd the other lung too.
"I'm here," the agent said, and I felt his hand tremble as he laid it on my shoulder.
"The charges," I said, and hesitated, taking a couple quick breaths. My side hurt and I knew that lung was in trouble. "Did they go?"
"Yes." He squeezed my shoulder reassuringly. "Don't talk. Save your strength."
Save your strength? I thought, annoyed. Isn't that what they tell people who've been hurt?
I'm not hurt. I'll just lay here a little and get my strength back.
Why is it so cold?
"Cold," I said, and I was surprised to hear a brittle clicking.
I was surprised because I realized it was my teeth rattling together.
Levi draped something over me and it felt good, it felt warm like a comforter, and I smelled his cologne.
Must be his coat.
"Thank you," I said drowsily, and I heard the scrape of the engineer's shovel in the coal-bin, the ring of stamped metal as he slung good Pennsylvania anthracite into the firebox.
"Can't you go any faster?" Levi snapped.
"Levi," I whispered as I fell for an eternity, dizzied with the speed of my fall. "Levi, it's all right."
I reached for the agent's hand, and the hand I grapsed was cool, and soft, slender and feminine ...
I was whirling now, whirling in circles, circles ...
Laughter, feminine laughter, the scent of lilacs, a trim waist in my arms.
Eyes, those eyes ...

She danced and so did I, one hand for her skirt lifter, one hand for my waist: we had danced so, one night, there in the Jewel, and I saw the Jewel as it was: bright, clean, sparkling: I felt more than saw the other dancers, the other celebrants, for I had eyes only for Duzy, my beloved Duzy.
"I have missed you so," I said, and she smiled, and those eyes, mein Gott those eyes! -- I could swim in those dark and lovely eyes! -- and Duzy laid her head against my chest and I held her protectively as we waltzed ...
The floor was buzzing underfoot, and the buzzing ran up my body, up my side, and Duzy pulled away reluctantly.
I reached for her, protesting: "No," I gasped, "don't go!"
"Your work is not yet done," she said.
"Duzy! I don't want you to go!"
My voice was one of a little boy, disappointed that a favorite playmate was being called away from the playground.
The floor turned under me, and spun, and I was laying on it again, and I felt the little steam engine beneath us hammering against the increased pressure, thrusting us faster against the downgrade.
"Duzy," I groaned, my hand clutching vainly at empty air.
A hiss, a loud and prolonged hiss, as the pop-off valve blew bright-white steam into the clear air overhead.
"Linn?" Levi's face came into view.
There was a thump, a metallic clank, then the sound of a lever being thrown: the little engine beneath the deck slowed and stopped, and the hum of steel wheels on steel track was all I could hear.
"Levi," I gasped.
"It's all right," he said reassuringly. "We've coupled with the train. We are the end car now."
I closed my eyes, opened them, hoping to see those eyes again.
"Duzy," my lips framed, but no whisper came from the desert of my throat.

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Linn Keller 10-15-10


Jacob felt the bump, clank! of the coupling: curious, he picked up his .50-90 and opened the back door.
Curious, he stared at the polished, painted, buffed and gleaming inspection car.
Behind it, trotting faster now, Rose-horse leaned into an easy gallop, hobby-horsing alongside the tracks.
Jacob looked down, judged their speed.
His lips peeled back in a mirthless grin.
He ducked back inside the stock car, thrust his rifle into its scabbard and patted Apple-horse on the shoulder.
"Stand fast," he said, and Apple-horse muttered something deep in his chest.
Swinging out and down the stairs, Jacob looked ahead, judged the terrain: one hand for the railcar, the other went down and tugged the tabs taut on his hammer spurs.
Rose-horse, seeing a familiar face, leaned into her gallop, came alongside, pacing him easily.
"Well!" Jacob thought, realizing that if the mare's speed matched his, he had only to step into the stirrup and swing his long leg into his father's saddle.
His father's cautioning voice came from nowhere: "Sounds easy when you say it fast," but Jacob was young and Jacob was full of fire, and Jacob reached for the saddle horn and thrust his booted foot toward the swinging stirrup.
Whether because the car swayed, the stirrup bounced or evil spirits interfered, his toe hit the stirrup and swung it away from him: he was committed, his weight over center, and he leaped, shoving hard with his anchored leg, landing awkwardly belly-down on the saddle.
Jacob grabbed desperately with his off hand, trying to keep from sliding off, but it was a losing battle: wisely, he went with the fall, hit the ground and used the mare's momentum to springboard him up.
He didn't do much better on his second try.
His left hand locked onto the back of the saddle and, teeth bared, he groaned and pulled himself over center, over the mare's spine: finding himself a little less precarious, he got his off leg over.
He was on the mare, but behind the saddle.
Jacob wallowed awkwardly over the cantle, painfully compressing a particularly sensitive portion of the male anatomy: he bent over the mare's neck, half sick, then straightened.
The mare took his leaning over her neck as a sign for more speed: when Jacob sat up, she slowed obediently: Jacob readjusted ... himself ... somewhat awkwardly, found the stirrups, reseated himself.
"Dime novels be damned," he thought, fighting the pain, "that ain't so easy!"
He looked ahead.
The path alongside the tracks was without obstruction.
He looked into the inspection car, squinting against the reflection.
Can't see a thing, he thought.
The train was picking up speed and he leaned back, slowing the red mare.
No sense to wind break her, he thought, and when the path forked to the left, away from the tracks, he took the fork.
The train had to labor along the right-of-way, but Jacob knew how to get around the terrain ahead.
I'll be in Firelands well before them, he thought, and I won't have to push Rose to do it.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-15-10


Charlie looked down from the roan's saddle. Sarah was huddled inside her heavy coat, arms wrapped around her middle, the Winchester forgotten in front of her. She lifted her tear-wet gaze to his, tried to smile and failed. He quickly dropped to the ground and knelt beside her to put his arm about her shoulders and draw her to him. She was shaking as she pressed her face against the rough fabric of his sheep-lined wool coat. "It's okay, girl, it's okay," he repeated softly as he stroked her hair.

After a minute she pushed herself back, wiped her nose on her sleeve and finally managed to smile shyly. "They were so beautiful," she said quietly, "and I killed them."

"You did it right, Sarah," Charlie answered, his words barely audible over the sighing of the freshening breeze through the twitching yellow aspen leaves. "It's too bad that we sometimes have to kill in order to live, but when we do kill, we must do it as humanely as possible. You did exactly that. You should be proud of that fact." He stood and reached down to offer her his hand; she took it and he lifted her to her feet, where they stood side by side, hands clasped, heads bowed. Still softly, as if unwilling to break the softness of the morning, Charlie said, "Lord, we thank you for this food you've seen fit to provide for us. We thank you for the beauty before us and for the life that you've given us. Amen." He raised his head and grinned at the young woman beside him. "You'd best get your knife out. Those critters ain't gonna skin themselves."

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Linn Keller 10-16-10


Esther's head snapped up when she heard the train whistle its way into town.
The column of serial subtractions evaporated from her mind as she carefully, precisely, removed her spectacles and replaced them in their case.
She'd returned to her office to resume work until the train's arrival, for her husband would be on it, alive, or he would be beside the tracks and dead, and no way for her to know until it coasted to a stop.
Jacob or Levi or one of his agents would summon her, for good or for ill, and all she could do was wait.
Jacob dozed in a chair, leaned back against the wall.
Just like his father, Esther thought affectionately: they both could sleep through a thunder storm, or artillery.
Esther looked at the big-numbered Regulator clock, at the patient swing of its burnished brass pendulum.
Right on time, she thought, and felt a bit of pride: it was her railroad, and she knew the importance of punctuality, of precision: she was a tidy and orderly individual, and she ran her railroad accordingly.
Jacob had brought her the news that the deed had been done and the car uncoupled, with his father riding it like a sailor riding a ship's deck.
He admitted to seeing "a spot of red" on his father's shirt front -- he held his hand to indicate its location and size -- but said that the Sheriff did not seem terribly discomfited by the wound, and that he'd been able to climb to the roof of the car, so it probably did not amount to much.
They will need a few minutes to gird their loins, she thought, or to get my husband into a wagon: he will likely be greeting people, shaking hands, talking like he always does.
Esther smiled.
They had traveled to Cripple Creek and to Denver together, to Carbon Hill and once to Kansas City: wherever the man went, she observed, he knew people and people knew him: they could not step into a restaurant or a hotel, they could not walk down the street, without at least two and generally a half-dozen interruptions, introductions and conversations.
She'd had men awkwardly shake her hand, men hand swept off their hats in respect, a man with a British accent and monocle bowed and hand-kissed her; a German count with a fierce mustache had cracked his heels together, bowed stiffly before kissing her hand -- of the two, the German was the more natural hand-kisser, and she smiled at the memory -- occasionally women would greet him, most often of the tawdry sort, but every last one of them made a point of telling Esther that she had a good man and to take care of him, and once a young woman stopped, big-eyed and suddenly pale, as if she'd seen a ghost, and after Linn caught her under the arms to keep her from collapsing, she'd laughed nervously, obviously emarrassed: the young man with her -- her brother, Esther found out later -- explained that her husband had brought them the news of their father's death, that he'd paid off their standing debts and staked them enough for seed and a plow for the next season, and because of his kindness they had increased their fortune tenfold.
Esther stood and looked out the window.
"Jacob," she said quietly, and there was an edge to her voice.
Esther saw the wagon with her husband's grip in back, Levi was driving and the Sheriff was riding shotgun, his engraved Winchester upright between his knees.
Esther pressed her lips together as she saw the open coat, the stained shirt.
The bloody splotch was considerably bigger than Jacob's palm.
Jacob crossed the room silently, looked over his mother's head.
Esther felt him, warm and solid, his hands on her shoulders and his body pressing against her backside as he, too, saw the pair approach.
His hands tightened on her shoulders and she knew he'd noticed his father's injury.
Jacob was looking over top of his mother's coiffure: if they stood facing one another, Esther looked Jacob squarely in the collar bone, so it was not difficult for her son to look over top of her with both of them bent to peer out the slightly wavy pane.
Jacob released his mother and turned, taking one powerful step toward the door.
"Jacob," Esther said, and it was a mother's voice of command.
Jacob stopped, turned.
"Let us wait," she said, folding her hands primly. "Levi will summon us."
Jacob blinked, torn, gestured toward the door with his hat. "Mother, he's --"
Esther held up a forestalling hand.
"Your father does nothing without planning," she said. "Let him play his hand."
Jacob blinked, turned his head a little as he always did.
Esther noticed the father's frown beginning to wrinkle the son's forehead.
"Yes, ma'am," Jacob said with a nod: he did not understand quite what she meant, but he knew enough to follow orders, especially orders that had apparently been laid but not communicated directly to him.
There was the sound of feet, heavy, hurried, taking the stairs two at a time.
Levi did not trouble to knock: he thrust the door open, shut it behind him.
Esther raised her chin.
"Is he here?" she asked.
Levi opened his mouth, closed it, nodded: he leaned back against the closed portal.
Jacob read frustration on the tall, slender agent's face.
They waited.
Finally Levi stood up, looked at his hat, brushed nonexistent dust off its crown.
"Mrs. Keller," he said finally, pressing his lips together and swallowing before looking up at the green-eyed matron, "you are married to a hard headed man."
Esther and Jacob looked at one another, Jacob with concern, Esther with amusement.
"Yes, Mr. Rosenthal," Esther said, almost concealing her smile. "I know."

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Linn Keller 10-17-10


The glances had gone from curious to half fearful, mistrustful and yet ... well, folks just could not quite figure out what was going on, and like schoolboys, each wanted the other to find out what was up.
Finally one of the fellows -- not so much braver than his fellows as just a touch more curious -- decided to find out.
It was the longest walk of his life.
The Silver Jewel was absolutely silent.
A passing horse's hooves were loud on the cold, packed dirt street; Mr. Baxter's glasses clinked loudly as they were stacked with their fellows.
Alone at a table, the Sheriff picked up a heavy beer glass, left handed.
His rifle was across the table in front of him.
His hat brim was low, shading his eyes, and perhaps this was the most frightening of all.
Every man there knew his pale eyes missed nothing, saw everything: somehow every man felt that cold gaze reaching through his shirt front and wrapping itself like a skeletal hand around his very back bone.
"Soapy?" the delegate of the curious asked.
The Sheriff never moved, save only to take another sip of the heavy glass's amber payload.
He was not drinking beer and every man Jack of 'em knew it.
They also knew the Sheriff did not drink more than two or three shots at the very most, and only from shot sized glasses.
This was something they had never seen before.
His coat was open and the gleaming, wet, carmine stain on his shirt front rippled as his slow breathing caused it to pull a little, then relax, then pull again.
The Sheriff took a long, slow swallow of amber, set the beer glass down, dead slow.
The very leisure -- no, not leisure -- the deliberate slowness of his movements added to the chill.
It was as if he were looking into another reality, seeing Death itself.
The Sheriff spoke, his voice as soft spoken as always, yet loud in the stillness.
The man drew out a chair and sat.
He looked at the blood, wet on the grey-mustachioed man's shirt; he looked at the revolvers, secure in their holsters, the tabs pulled free and pulled down out of the way; he looked at the engraved '73 rifle, and he looked at the volume of distillate that had gone down the man's throat.
The Sheriff lifted the mug, dead slow, and took another swallow.
"Soapy," he said, "hadn't you oughta have that looked at?"
His voice was careful, deferential.
The Sheriff's jaw thrust forward.
"Twelve," he said.
The man blinked.
"Uhh ... what?"
The Sheriff turned his ice-pale gaze on the man, and the man felt the chill of the Reaper's hand laid on his heart.
"I just killed twelve men," he said quietly.
The Sheriff's eyes disappeared again under the hat brim and he turned his face back to the center of the table.
"Soapy --" the speaker said uncertainly, and the Sheriff raised the beer mug, slow, deliberate, planned.
"Soapy, now, daggone it, a man hadn't oughta be sittin' there bleedin' like that!"
The Sheriff took another drink.
"I ain't bleedin' on the floor now, am I?"
"Uhh, no. Don't see any."
There was a slow, delicate step on the staircase and the crowd parted to allow Esther to pass.
The Sheriff raised his beer mug in another slow, planned arc, took a swallow.
Esther crossed the floor, mindful of all those eyes burning into her shoulder blades, knowing she had to tread a careful path.
Her husband was in the public eye.
Her husband was Sheriff.
Her husband was the ultimate authority in the county, but her action was necessary in this moment.
She stopped before his table and folded her hands.
"My dear?" she said, her voice soft, musical, pleasantly modulated.
The Sheriff tilted the mug up, drained it, set the mug down and took up the engraved '73 rifle.
His shirt was wet from badge level to belt line now.
The Sheriff's step was firm and without hesitation, wobble or waver: he stepped around the erstwhile representative and offered Esther his arm.
"My dear," he said, and his speech was clear.
Esther took his arm and the crowd parted as they steered a course for the back hallway.
After they passed there was quite a bit of "Well I'll be damned!" and "Did you see that!" and "I never sen him like that before" and "He killed how many?"
Esther glanced over her shoulder.
The curtain fell to behind them and she was able to lean her husband against the hallway's fine-grained paneling.
She whirled and Daisy was there, holding the water bucket: the stamped-metal dipper's handle extended above its lip and she came out into the hall, thrust the door open, then took the Sheriff's right arm, and Esther, his left.
They got the man out the back door.
The Sheriff handed Daisy his rifle and reached for the dipper.
He drank greedily, deeply, drank another, then he bent over and heaved.
More water and water again, and he went to his knees once more, quietly emptying himself: he had never been a man to take strong drink in any amount, and he knew the small increase in volume would be sufficient for his stomach to rebel, and rebel it did.
He took yet another few dippers of water, and a third time emptied himself, after which Esther dispensed a small envelope of powders into a small amount of water.
The Sheriff drank this as well, and made a face.
"Bitter as owl pellets," he gasped, shaking his head and running his tongue out in protest at the taste.
He leaned back against the rough, weathered siding, shivering a little.
Esther looked at his reddened shirt.
"Well?" she asked. "Do you go to hospital now or do I carry you?"
"Don't let them see me," the Sheriff whispered hoarsely.
"See you?" Daisy exclaimed. "Man, ye've been shot --"
The Sheriff glared at her, and she glared right back at him.
Of all the people in Firelands, Daisy alone was not intimidated by the look of the glacier's heart: the fire in her Celtic soul was fit to melt the winter in his, and in spite of himself, he smiled a little.
"Daisy," he said, "they can't see me weak, not even a little."
"Men!" Daisy exclaimed quietly, throwing her hands in the air and fluttering them a little. "Ye're filled wi' stupid pride, ye're hard headed wi' honor an' --"
She whirled fiercely, eyes brimming.
"Damn ye anyway!" she hissed seizing the Sheriff's coat by both lapels and yanking him within an inch of her nose. "Don't ye ha'e any idea wha' ye mean t' this woman? Ha'e ye?" She shook him viciously and his teeth clicked together.
The Sheriff glared at her.
"I'll go," he said, and Daisy released him.
He looked at Esther, looked at Daisy.
"Yes," he said. "I know."
Daisy watched as the two crossed the alley and swung around behind the fine stone municipal building, and out of sight.
Daisy stood there, trembling a little, fists tight beside her hips.
"Ye great, glorious, honorable fool," she whispered, eyes filling in spite of her reserve.
"When I said this woman, I didna' mean her!"

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Charlie MacNeil 10-17-10


The horses stood hobbled, dozing side by side in the cool morning sunshine, content to stand hipshot and comfortable, taking advantage of the proffered leisure time. Sarah looked up at her mentor, where he stood over her with his arms crossed, leisurely slouched against a tall quakie. Her own arms were bloody to the elbow, there were smears on her shirt and britches and an expression of distaste on her lips. "This, this, critter, as you call it, stinks!" she declared. "Aren't you even going to help me?"

"I showed you how to open her up, didn't I?" Charlie asked, grinning down at the girl. "Besides, you've got the innards pretty well out. All you've gotta do now is reach on up in there and cut loose the diaphragm and the lungs, then you can start on the bull. Oh, and make sure you save the heart and liver, okay?"

Sarah's nose wrinkled. "Yuck! Just what I need, more blood." She sighed in resignation, straddled the propped open body cavity, and thrust her hands and knife back up inside the rib cage. A few minutes later, she brought out the rest of the internal organs and dropped them on the heap of paunch and intestine. "There! That one's done." She stood up stiffly; even a young back starts to ache just the tiniest bit after hunkering down in one spot for that long.

Charlie pushed himself away from the tree. "There's one thing missing!" he declared.

"What now?" Sarah asked in exasperation.

"Hang touch a minute and I'll show you," he answered. He bent to dip his forefinger in the small pool of blood in the body cavity. He stood and turned toward Sarah with a mischievous grin. "Your face is too clean!"

"Oh, no, you don't!" Sarah declared, backing away, her hands raised in alarm.

"Oh, yeah!" he told her. Sarah turned and ran.

Sarah was faster; Charlie was trickier. She ducked around the suddenly startled horses; he slipped between them to catch her sleeve and spin her towards him. Before she could defend herself he had painted diagonal red stripes down her cheeks; he let her go, laughing. "Now you're a real hunter!" he proclaimed. She stared at him for a minute, her fists balled on her hips, before a smile creased her lips.

"I reckon you're right," she drawled. "But I'll get you," she went on with a smile. "I know where you live, and you have to sleep some time."

"Yeah, yeah," he answered. "But just remember this: I'm a better camp cook than you are, and I know for certain that you like to eat. And speaking of which, why don't you start on that bull while I get some hot grub and coffee going?"

"Alright, alright, I'm going," Sarah grumbled. "But I will get you." She picked up her knife from where she'd dropped it and began to work it on the stone she took from her pocket, fine-honing the still sharp edge before she bent to her work on the second elk.

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Linn Keller 10-18-10


"Hold," the Sheriff said, his voice strained: Esther leaned him against the convenient tree trunk toward which the Sheriff had steered them, and both were grateful for the respite.
Esther had never tried carrying her husband, and she certainly did not intend to try it now: it was work enough to help him walk, and she suddenly had a greater appreciation of Charlie's labors, on those occasions when he had found it necessary to put a shoulder into Linn's belt buckle and pack him around some.
Linn's breathing was labored: he did not seem so much in pain as annoyed, and he rolled his head around as if his neck were suddenly weak, looking toward the back of their little hospital.
"Not far," he husked.
Esther's fingers were cool against his cheek, his forehead.
"You're hot," she murmured, dropping her eyes to the wet-soaked, reddened shirt-front.
"It looks worse than it is."
"You're a terrible liar," Esther replied irritably.
"Not far now."
"No, dear. Not far."
"Here, sir, let me."
The Sheriff felt a strong hand close about his right wrist, a lean, strong body against his, half-supporting his weight.
"With me, sir."
The Sheriff's mouth was open and his expression was beginning to show the strain of bearing up a good front.
"Dry," he said hoarsely.
"I know, sir."

Esther pressed the kerchief against her closed eyes, her forehead, the hollow of her throat: her posture was proper, erect, dignified, the result of a lifetime's training and self-discipline.
Jacob showed no such reserve.
Jacob's boot heels punished the gleaming, varnished floor of the spacious, open waiting area. He paced like a caged tiger, jaw thrust forward, eyes pale and distant.
"Jacob," Esther said gently, and Jacob started.
"Yes, ma'am?" he said quickly, coming across the room and going to one knee before and beside his mother.
Esther took both his hands and tilted her head to one side.
"Dearest Jacob," she said affectionately. "Do you know just how much you and your father are alike?"
"No, ma'am," he admitted, "but I reckon there's some similarity."
Esther's smile was a little sad.
"Do you know," she said quietly, and her lashes dropped modestly as she blushed like a maiden -- "do you know, every time you were hurt, he paced in just that same manner?"
Jacob blinked, surprised.
"No, ma'am, I didn't know that."
"Oh, yes."
Her eyes, he realized, were such a startling shade of green.
"When I was laboring with Joseph -- our Joseph -- your father paced in just that same manner."
Jacob blinked, remembering his own interminable wait while Annette labored with their Joseph.
"He'll be fine, dear." She patted his hand again. "He's a tough old bird, you know."
Jacob chuckled, his ears turning red. "I've heard that, yes, ma'am," he mumbled.
"Your father has been shot, stabbed, cut, thrown from horses and a cannon blew up beside him and caved in his low ribs."
"Yes, ma'am."
"I really don't think we have terribly much to worry about."
"No, ma'am, only ..."
Esther tilted her head another few degrees, giving him her undivided attention.
Jacob stood suddenly, both hands clenched into fists and he turned away, turned back and went back down on one knee.
"Ma'am, I know all that here" -- he thrust stiff fingers savagely at his forehead -- "but I'm havin' a hard time knowin' it here!" -- he thrust the same stuff fingers into his breastbone. "And the worst part" -- his voice was quiet, fierce in its intensity, and he turned his ice-pale eyes to his mother's rich green gaze -- "the worst part, ma'am, I can't do one damned thing to help!"
"I think your father may have a differing opinion," Esther said in a gentle, wise, mother's voice.
"I think your father knows you are out here, with me, and I think he takes a comfort in knowing that."
"Yes, ma'am," Jacob said dutifully, somehow hoping there was a sliver of truth in her words.

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Linn Keller 10-20-10


"This won't feel good," Doc Greenlees warned.
"Nothin' you do feels good, Doc," the Sheriff muttered.
"The Pope is catholic, what else is new?" the long-fingered physician bantered back. "Now who told you to stuff the hole with feathers? If you sneezed you would have a cloud hanging in front of you!"
"Defensive screen," the Sheriff grunted, his voice tightening some as Doc opened the tiny pucker.
Morning Star's black eyes were impassive, expressionless as she studied the Sheriff's face.
Other than his jaw muscles bulging some, his face remained as expressionless as hers, at least until sweat started beading on his forehead.
"Now let's see what's in here."
The Sheriff's hands clawed into the mattress, slowly, powerfully, his wrists trembling a little with the effort.
Dr. Greenlees looked down, looked at the Sheriff.
"Are you holding on tightly enough?"
"I don't want to fall off and hit the ceiling," the grey-mustachioed old lawman rasped. "Now get on with it!"
Dr. Greenlees adjusted the big surgical light.

Bonnie took the pie out of Annette's oven, smiling a little at the sight of a golden crust and bubbling fruit filling: she put the pie on the cooling rack on the table and steam from the fresh-baked dessert curled up into the kitchen's still air.
Annette stirred the gravy, sniffing a little and frowning: she opened a bin, brought out a jar of something dried and flaky, and carefully rubbed a double pinch between her palms into the stewpot: she stirred it in, slowly, smelling the vapors and smiling.
The twins had insisted on "helping" and were set busy cutting out biscuits from a rolled-out lump of dough: their efforts were less than efficient and well less than tidy, but when they were done they had the satisfaction of knowing part of the evening's meal would be due to their efforts, not to mention a general dusting of flour over most level surfaces in their area of influence.
There was surprisingly little talk until most of the work was done, and it was not until the biscuits came from the oven, golden and fragrant, that conversation approached a normal level: there was no strain in the air, the women were on task, and as the work load lessened and their spirits lightened, the air filled with pleasant voices and laughter.
"Jacob should be home for supper," Annette said hopefully, looking toward the doorway: she could see young Joseph, in his crib, waving an arm and kicking at his blanket.

Jacob, his bottom jaw thrust forward, stood with thumbs hooked over his gun belt, staring at the door as if his gaze could shiver it to splinters.
Esther sat, eyes closed, relaxed; she felt tired, and had for a few days.

Across the way and down the street a little, the Irish Brigade shouted encouragement as the Welsh Irishman arm wrestled his replacement: Sean had been rotating the Brigade, sending one back to Cincinnati and getting a replacement, keeping his men trained and practiced -- Cincinnati had many more fires than Firelands! -- and the lads from Porkopolis were grateful for respite in Firelands, which they called "the vacation station."
At the moment, teeth were gritted, brows knotted, money was waved in fists and shouts of encouragement filled the strong, solid brick fire station, and the Welsh Irishman slowly, slowly bested his replacement, but not by much.
Each man drew back, grimacing and then grinning, rubbing shoulder and collar bone, for each had pretty well met his match: they shook hands, the Welsh Irishman clapped his Bell cap on his head, shrugged into his coat and picked up his grip.
The entire Brigade walked with him to the depot, laughing, noisy, arriving just as The Lady Esther was boarding for her eastward journey: hands were wrung all around, and as the Welsh Irishman swung aboard the passenger car, he thrust a stiff forefinger at his replacement and shouted, "An' I'll beat ye when I get back!"
"Ye're welcome t' try!" came the challenge in reply, as the engine whistled and the slack bang-bang-banged out of the couplers.
Llewellyn, the Welsh Irishman's replacement, worked his shoulder a little.
"Are ye a'right, lad?" Sean asked quietly.
"Aye," the new Welsh Irishman said, "but I'd forgotten just how strong th' man is!"
"Ye've wrestled him before, then?" Sean asked as the Brigade pointed themselves toward the Silver Jewel.
"Good Lord, man! Do y' not know?"
"Know what?"
The new Welsh Irishman looked up at his Chieftain, taller by nearly a full head.
"That hard headed longbowman is me older brother!"
Sean threw his head back and laughed, pounding the Welsh Irishman on the back. "Lads, that calls for a drink!" and the Irish Brigade shouted agreement.

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Linn Keller 10-21-10


The switch was genuine hickory, and how it made its way to the little whitewashed schoolhouse, no one really knew.
At the moment, Emma Cooper, the soft-spoken, kindly, gentle voiced schoolmarm, did not particularly care.
She drew back and swung it hard against the miscreant's backside: she had him bent over her desk, her hand hard on the back of his neck, his punishment in full view of the entire student body, all thirteen of them.
Thrice more, in slow succession, did the switch hum and whir savagely through the quiet air: thrice more did it meet with his britches seat with a vicious, stinging whap! -- and thrice more did the protesting howl of the guilty reinforce the authority of the quiet-voiced, kindly and soft-spoken schoolmarm.
Emma shifted her grip from bridging the back of his neck to seizing his off ear between her thumb and forefinger: lifting him to his tip-toes, she marched him to the stool in the corner, currently occupied by another sufferer, this one wearing the conical cap of shame with DUNCE printed neatly on its rolled-paper side.
"Now what have you to say?" she prompted.
"Nothin'," the prisoner sulked, at least until Emma applied another ounce of pressure.
The boy yelled, coming high on his tip-toes.
"I think you want to tell this young man something."
"I'm sorry, what was that?"
"I'm sorry I called you a dummy!" he shouted.
"Very good," Emma nodded: she eased the pressure by two ounces, but maintained her unyielding grip: she marched the offender to the opposite corner, where another stood awaited, and another, newly made conical cap sat patiently, waiting for its wearer.
"You will sit here," she said, "and you are not excused from your lessons.
"Master Herbert."
A boy not much past seven years bounced to his feet. "Yes, ma'am!"
"Master Herbert, could you bring me his board, please, and his lump of chalk?"
"Yes, ma'am!" came the eager reply, and the implements of common learning were quickly conveyed by the shining-faced lad.
"Now, sir," Emma addressed the penitent, "you will prepare your lesson for the day, from memory this time, as there is no one from whom to copy."
"Yes, ma'am," came the sulky reply.
Emma nodded her thanks to young Master Herbert and returned to her place at the front of the classroom.
Thrusting the switch back into its buggy-whip socket mounted on the corner of her desk, she turned to the blackboard and sketched a very passable cat.
"Now who can tell me," she said, "the principal uses of this animal?"

Dr. Greenlees examined the Sheriff's nails, pressed the nailbed lightly, frowned: he drew the Sheriff's bottom lid down, then felt the man's wrist pulse.
The Sheriff endured this patiently, and yet impatiently.
The good Doctor had removed the downy feathers that had helped the wound seal off, and cleaned out bone chips and infection while he was at it: the bullet, he said, was likely against the back wall and imbedded: it was not pressing against the skin on the opposite side, nor could he feel it, and he decided his best course of action would be just to leave it where it was.
The body, he explained, would wall it off, might even layer a calcium shell over it: in the meantime, he said, take things easy for a change -- he raised one eyebrow and glared over a set of nonexistent spectacles at his impatient patient -- and eat some good red meat to build his blood.
Morning Star's hands were quick, sure, as she cleaned the blood off the man's hide: he was sitting up now, feet just touching the floor, and Morning Star helped him on with the clean shirt Esther had brought.
The other shirt was soaking in salt water.
The Sheriff stood, thrusting the shirt-tail impatiently into his waist band: he stopped part way through the process, trembling a little, then resumed, and accepted the hat and coat Morning Star handed him, each in turn.
He breathed carefully, cautiously, knowing too much exertion could well collapse that lung again: a collapsed lung was a most painful proposition, and he wished to avoid its repeat if at all possible.
He paced off on the left as he always did, and nearly fell: Dr. Greenlees moved as if to catch him, then drew back at the look on the Sheriff's face.
The Sheriff walked across the room, slowed as he approached the closed door.
He stopped, turned.
"How much do I owe you, Doc?" he asked.
"I'll send you a bill."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Thank you, Doc." His words were quiet, sincere.
Doc Greenlees winked, once, quickly, and turned to thrust his hands in the waiting washbasin.
The Sheriff's hand closed on the door knob and he listened.
He heard boot heels without, and smiled.
Jacob, he thought.

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Mr. Box 10-22-10


The Irish Brigade came spilling into the Silver Jewel about as quiet as they ever do. "A round fer me boys!" Sean belted out!
I set up six mugs of beer and there was still an empty fist! "Did somebody get two?" I jabbed!
"No! We've got a replacement!"
"Somebody feelin peekid?" I asked.
"No! We'll be sending one man back to Cincinnati for retraining." Sean explained. "Is the sheriff back yet?"
I said, "He was in here for a little while. He was pretty quiet. I don't know how it went. I think he went down to see the Doc when he left."


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Linn Keller 10-24-10


Esther was not happy.
This did not bode well at all.
Jacob rode along beside us -- on his beloved Apple-horse, not on my golden mare -- he had the kindness not to put it into words, but his action spoke as loud as an utterance: he was giving me back that smooth gaited horse as it was now my ribs and not his that hurt.
Esther sat with her back absolutely straight, her head up, reins in both hands, the very image of propriety.
She said not one single word all the way home.
"Home" was not terribly far but her silence, her icy wordlessness, was as distinct a statement as Jacob's.
Jacob, bless him, was dismounted before Esther had our carriage drawn to a halt: he helped his mother out and down -- I felt my ears burn, for I was ashamed, ashamed! -- and at the same time I asked silent forgiveness for foolish pride.
On the one hand, yes, a man ought to be able to seize his bride and swing her free of the carriage, and on the other hand, I had a hole in me and I was stove up and sore.
Jacob did not take the improper liberty of seizing his mother and whirling her about like he would his own beautiful bride: he offered her a gentlemanly hand, and allowed her to dismount with dignity.
Me, I climbed out using the Asbestos method:
I got out of the carriage as-best-as I could.
Jacob had the mare by the bridle and was walking her toward the barn before I could take the first step that-a-way.
I was honestly grateful for his kindness.
Esther's hand was light on my arm and we entered our house together.
Once inside the door Esther whirled and laid her hand flat against my chest.
"Linn Keller," she said, "I could slap you!"
I took a few shallow breaths as it hurt too bad to take deep ones, and I said "Go ahead," and paused for breath, then "It's been done before."
She brushed the back of a forefinger against my mustache.
"You're not supposed to get shot," she whispered, and then her arms were around my neck and her mouth was on mine, and of a sudden breathing wasn't the most important thing anymore.

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Linn Keller 10-28-10


There was a tentative knock at my study's closed door.
I rose, a little stiffly -- Levi's eyes were on me instantly, and did not miss my discomfort -- and I turned the knob, drew the figured walnut portal wide.
The door was heavy and solid and swung inward silently, for I kept the hinges oiled.
I can't abide a squeaking hinge.
Angela was standing there: true to her name, her appearance was that of a small angel: Esther had carefully curled her hair and her dress was fitted, clean and colorful, her eyes were big and startling.
She stood with her hands carefully folded over her apron and I drew back as she marched in.
She might have looked like an angel, but she had a purposeful step and fairly strutted into the room.
Levi stood and I smiled a little, for Levi was many things, chief among them was the honorably-earned title of gentleman, and a gentleman rises when a lady enters the room.
Angela dropped a curtsy to Levi, and Levi gave her a grave half-bow; we shared a look, and we shared a secret between us: we were both amused, and yet amazed, for this little child was the very image of feminine deportment.
"Daddy," she asked, turning abruptly toward me and putting her hands on her hips, "were you being a hooglian again?"
Levi's eyes wrinkled a little at the corners and a smile overtook the rest of his face as well: he sat down and passed his hand in front of his mouth, then reached for the brandy-snifter to further camouflage the amusement he felt at her words.
"Now why would you ask that, Princess?" I asked, going to one knee: I would pay for that when I rose, I knew, but it brought me closer to her level.
I have never liked towering over anyone.
I am a tall man and taller than most, and height can be intimidating.
I did not wish to intimidate our little girl-child.
Angela tilted her head toward me a little and shook her Mommy-finger at me.
"Mommy said you got hurt 'cause there were bad men that wanted to hurt Sarah and they won't hurt nobody no more and you took care of them and there were lots and lots of bad guys so you ran over them with a horsie and spanked them hip and thigh," she said all in one breath. "Daddy, were you being a hooglian again? 'Cause last time you were a hooglian you gottada big shiny on one eye an' Mommy had to put some steak meat on it."
Levi's other hand was to his face now, and with it, a kerchief: he pressed the cloth against the moisture escaping his eyes, and the man was slowly turning the color of a rotten strawberry, for he was listening most carefully to the little-girl voice filling the study's quiet interior, and he found it most amusing.
"I see." I rubbed my chin and frowned, pretending to study the question.
I looked up from under furrowed brows and Angela giggled.
I frowned harder, twisting my mouth to one side and rubbed the light stubble harder.
Angela giggled some more.
I rubbed my face briskly, contorting my entire face into a leering mask, rolling my eyes and cranking my head over to one side.
Angela fairly dissolved in a cloud of little-girl giggles: laughing, she reached for me, and I for her, and my arms were full of solid, quivering, laughing little girl, smelling of her Mommy's lilac-water and cologne, and I laid my cheek over on the top of her head, feeling her hair and her warmth and fairly soaked up the sound of her laughter.
I held her for a long, long time, and I did not want the moment to end.
Daddies do that.
Finally I kissed the top of her head and took her by the elbows.
Angela laid her forearms on mine, grasping the material of my coat with restless fingers.
"I would never do anything foolish," I whispered. "I have you to come home to, and I don't want to come home with a big shiny on one eye again."
Angela's eyes were bright, her expression solemn.
"Mommy was worried," she whispered, nodding.
"I know, sweets." I brushed the curve of her cheek with the back of a forefinger.
Angela raised up on her tip-toes and kissed me quickly on the cheek, then she ran out the still-open door, her shoe-soles pattering loudly on the polished floor.
The hired girl was without, wearing her ever-present starched apron and an anxious expression: "Sor, I'm sorry, she slipped in without I saw her --"
I raised a forestalling palm. "It's all right," I said, and she nodded, biting her lip.
I drew the door to and just stood there for a long moment, smiling quietly.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-28-10


The smell of fresh-killed elk liver and sauteed onion that had just recently been sizzling in a skillet well-lubricated with smokey bacon grease drifted through the small clearing, gracefully accompanied by the aroma of Arbuckle's finest. Sarah slumped wearily on an aspen stump, eying with anticipation the blue enamelware plate heaped with steaming victuals that bridged the gap between her knees. Behind her, strung by lariats from a pole wired to the trunks of a pair of parallel quakies, were the carcasses of her contribution to the winter's larder.

Charlie washed a mouthful of liver and onions down with a swallow of coffee blacker than the inside of a black cat. "You done good, girl," he told Sarah. "That meat'll last a good long time, even spread amongst your family and us." He lifted his gaze to the bright azure dome overhead. "It'll freeze good tonight, and first thing in the morning we'll pack up the meat and git on back towards home."

The tired hunter grimaced around her own mouthful of fragrant food. "I know what that means," she said, swallowing. "By the time the horses are packed in the morning, the sun might, just maybe, be thinking about coming up some time in the relatively near future." She chewed and swallowed another forkful of liver and onions, then her face lit up in a bright smile. "Meanwhile, I'm gonna finish eating, heat some water and wash my face, then I'm going to take a nap. I've earned it!" She scraped her plate clean then set it on top of Charlie's own empty one. She drew herself up imperiously, balling her fists on her hips. "And you, sir, can do the dishes!" With that, she lifted their canvas water bucket from where it hung on a stub of branch and turned toward the chuckle of clear, cold mountain water over Colorado granite that drifted from the nearby creek.

"I reckon I can handle that, ma'am," Charlie answered with a laugh. "Just as long as you clean your rifle before your nap," he told her retreating back.

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Linn Keller 10-30-10


I'm no stranger to that, Levi."
Levi shifted in his seat, brandy wobbling in the delicate crystal snifter.
"I know," he said ruefully. "You have stood up to more than any one man should ever have to." He took a thoughtful sip of the fragrant distillate and tasted summer peaches and ripening blossoms.
"Why do you do it?"
I frowned a little, considering.
Why did I do it?
I was a wealthy man.
I had gold and investments enough to tide me for the rest of my days, if I managed carefully. The Sheriff's wage didn't amount to much: frankly, if I took off the badge today, I would not be inconvenienced financially.
I stared into my brandy as if the answer might hide there.
I took a sip myself, looking elsewhere, looking deep.
No, I decided.
Not vanity.
I set the snifter down, sighed.
"It needs doin', Levi," I said finally. "Frankly, I'm the best man for the job."
Levi glared at me.
"You've done your part," he said evenly. "You've done more than your part. You've single-handedly kept the town going until it got on its financial feet. You've held the council together after my brother's murder, you've kept the government from falling into anarchy, you've been politician and peacemaker and you've funded everything from the Irish Brigade to the schoolmarm." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees.
"Why keep it up? You'll walk out your door one of these days and never come back. Esther will look out her window in time to see some young fast gun out-draw you and she'll see you stagger and fall and never rise again. Do you want that? Do you?"
The agent's hand trembled as it held the snifter. He looked down at the quaking fluid, set it on the sideboard and thrust his fingers interlaced.
I leaned back, studying the man like I would study an insect pinned to a board.
His voice had been low but intense and had quivered with passion.
It was time to find out what made it shake.
"Levi," I said, my voice equally quiet but cold, "why this sudden interest in my welfare?"
"What?" Levi blinked, surprised that I would turn his words on him.
"You want me out of office. Why? Why do you want me to step aside? Who do you want in my place? You?"
"I," he opened his mouth, closed it. "I -- no. Jacob can take over --"
"Jacob is a man of his own means," I interrupted, not raising my voice but lowering the temperature in the room several degrees. "He can make his way ranching and raising crops and children. He has made investments as well and he has bought wisely into the mines. Why should he take on that risk? He has a young wife and he has a fine son who is not yet walking. Why should he risk that to take my star?"
"I just --"
"You just?" I hissed, leaning forward, impaling him with my gaze. "You just what, Levi?"
I was pushing him and I may have misjudged him but I had to know.
"Levi, you can say anything to me. You should know that by now. Speak your mind and let chunks fall where they might."
Levi's expression was almost lost, and he was quiet for a long moment.
"Caleb was not much of a brother," he said slowly, as if admitting a distasteful truth.
"Go on."
"But he was my brother."
I nodded.
"I don't make friends that easily." His hands were busy now, twisting in one another's grasp, as if wringing out a wad of cloth.
He looked suddenly, directly, at me.
"I lost one brother. I don't want to lose another."
I thrust my jaw out and nodded, then I leaned back and reached for my snifter.
"Levi," I said, hoisting my crystal balloon to the man, "no man is so rich that he can afford to throw away a friend. I rejoice that you have learned such a lesson, and I take it kindly that you learned it from me."
Levi raised his own in return salute, and we drank deeply, until our snifters were empty.
We were silent for many long moments, each sunk in his own thoughts.
I was warm and relaxed in my upholstered chair and so was Levi, and finally the man thrust his legs straight out and crossed at his ankles.
He dresses like a city man, I thought, but he makes city clothes look good.
"Someone is going to try you, you know," Levi said finally. "Someone will want to be the man who killed The Man Who Took Down the Denver Mob."
"I didn't take down the Denver Mob," I protested. "There are plenty who'll step in and take their places."
Levi nodded.
"I know that," he said, "but stories take on a life of their own." He shook a finger at me. "Mark my word, my friend, you have a target on my back."
I shrugged.
"I pinned one on the first time I wore a lawman's star," I said offhandedly. "Tell me something I don't know."
Levi raised his eyes toward the ceiling, shook his head and sighed.

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Linn Keller 11-1-10


I saw Levi to his carriage and watched as the tall agent departed.
It was full dark and I should be tired, and tired I was, but restless.
The hired girl must have gone to school to look worried: she had the expression down pat, she looked like the weight of the world depended from her furrowed forehead, she projected distress, and if she were but a little more slender and wearing a young girl's short skirt, I could mistake her for a schoolgirl fretting over her lessons.
"Will there be anything else, sor?" she asked, twisting her hands in her apron, and I wondered how long it would be before she wore a hole in that good linen covering.
I smiled, a little sadly, I'm afraid, and I asked if there was anything left from supper.
She'd fixed a fine supper but I had little appetite.
She brightened and allowed as there was, and would I like a plate?
I told her I would, and coffee if she had any warm yet, and the doleful look returned to her pretty face.
I raised a hand. "Make that water," I said quietly. "If I have coffee this late I might wet the bed, and then Esther would beat me."
I said it in a very innocent voice, giving her my best Innocent Expression, and she colored and dipped a quick curtsy and scuttled off to the kitchen.
I plucked the double gun off the rack and went back out on the porch.
It was cool and quiet, almost chilly: summer's insects were gone but here and there a bird called or a 'yote howled, and the stars were bright, bright and hard against the clear, cloud-trailed sky.
I loved it like this, loved the silence, loved how clean the air was.
Back in the Ohio territory, especially down in the hill country, folks fired with wood and with coal and where there was a town, there was an ugly, smoky cap holding a poisoned lid down tight on the valley.
Why, I'd been told that stuff was so stout it et the mortar out from between bricks.
I shifted in the wicker bottom chair and parked the double gun against the wall behind me, and just set there in the dark.
Sarah, I thought as thoughts drifted idly through my unguarded mind.
I need to teach her to shoot a little better.
Maybe I should get her a .22 and start her out on shorts, get her to hit a tin can at ten feet and work her back to about twenty, then toss the can up and have her hit it at the peak of its rise.

I considered her skills with a rifle, both the buggy gun under the seat of their sleigh, and the Winchester rifle she'd gotten.
She was lucky, I thought.
She'll need some more work.
Why, that was probably luck that she hit the fellow shooting at her and Angela with that Sharps rifle.

Her Mama is a fair hand across the parlor with a revolver.
I reckon Sarah could be as good with some work.

There was a quiet step beside me, the smell of a most welcome plate: I balanced the plate on my leg and thanked the servant-girl, and took a long drink of water.
Adam's Ale, I thought, none better!
I picked up the pork chop and ate with a surprisingly good appetite. I honestly didn't know I was that hungry, and she must have kept this warm in case I might want some later, for it was near to as hot as when it hit the dining room table earlier that evening.
I grunted. She cooked with spices and had done a fine job on this pork chop.
About the time I laid down the clean-gnawed bone and forked up some peas and mashed potatoes, something went tug, tug on my pants leg.
I swallowed my mouthful and looked down at a kitten just surmounting the crest of Mount Kneecap.
The furball waded boldly through my mashed potatoes, seized the pork chop bone, raised it up off the plate and glared at me, and growled.
I ended up setting the plate on the porch and laughing, stroking the kitten's bristling fur with the back of one finger and talking quietly to it.
The midnight ore train's whistle blew long and lonesome in the darkened distance.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-1-10


It had been a day; a damn long day. The hunters had left their camp long before daylight, winter's red meat wrapped carefully in old quilts to retain the night's frost then carefully strapped to the sawbuck saddles, the loads well-balanced to make the packhorses as comfortable as possible. They'd made a cold stop at noon to water and grain the horses and let the riders stretch the kinks from backs and behinds, then were on the move soon after. Now it was dark, and had been for some hours, the waning moon limning the trail with silver light, the horses given free rein to find their way home as the riders dozed in their saddles.

They topped out on the rise to the west of the ranch house to see welcoming gold glimmering through the darkness. The thin breeze brought the welcome smell of boiled Arbuckles and good roast beast, more than likely beef, to their nostrils to set bellies agrowl. The horses whickered eagerly, stepping up the pace, scenting home, hay and grain.

Charlie drew the roan to a halt in front of the house, though the gelding tugged impatiently against the hackamore, much more interested in barn and corral than in letting the lady of the manor know that they had arrived. Charlie held the horse in firmly, saying, "Settle down, knothead. You'll get to the barn shortly." He raised his voice. "Hallo the house! Anybody home in yonder?"

"No, but there's somebody out here," Fannie answered, the musical words drifting from the black shadow at the house corner. She stepped out into the golden rectangle that projected from a nearby window, pistol belted around her slender waist and rifle in hand. Charlie felt his hackles rise at the sight of the guns and his hand drifted to the crossdraw-holstered Remington in front of his left hip.

"Trouble?" The single word was all that was necessary.

"Not here, but Linn's had some things happen," she told him as he swung down from the saddle to drop the mecate he pulled from his belt over the hitch rail. He wrapped her in a hug, gave her a quick kiss then stepped back.

"Nothing here, though?" he asked softly. She shook her head, no.

"Good! I'm hungry, and we've got meat to hang up. Our hunter done good."

Fannie turned to Sarah, her emerald gaze noting the full packs. "Good for you, Sarah!" she exclaimed, striding to where the girl stood with the loaded packhorses. She gave their charge a hug then turned to her husband, her arm still around Sarah's slender shoulders. "What are you waiting for, mister? I knew you'd come home with meat, so the smokehouse's ready. If you want to eat, you'd best get busy!"

"Yes, ma'am," Charlie answered with a grin. "I reckon that there just ain't no rest for the wicked." He lifted the hackamore lead from the hitch rail. "Come on, horse. The queen has spoken." He led the roan over to the packhorses, gathered the leads in his left hand and started toward the smokehouse. He passed behind Fannie, gave her a swat on the behind with his free hand then broke into a trot, laughing at the sound of the yelp he'd elicited from his lovely wife.

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Linn Keller 11-2-10


It was Sunday.
Parson Belden was pleased, and it showed in his face, and it showed in the vigor with which he directed the hymn-singing.
The man had good reason to be pleased.
Emma Cooper had been their piano player for a few weeks, and though Emma was skilled and Emma was gifted with the ability to sight-read music, playing it as if she'd played the piece every day for ten years, she played as if ... well, as if she were playing piano in church.
She could take a bawdy, raucous Irish drinking song and make it wear a shirt and tie and sit quietly in the choir loft.
Annette, on the other hand, played with joy: that's the only way to describe it, she put happiness in her music like a cook will put spices in a stew: under her skilled fingers, the most dull, staid, mundane hymn became lively, light, inspiring.
The Sheriff had greeted friends and neighbors, shaking hands, squeezing shoulders, asking about the wife and how old is that boy of yours and he's HOW OLD??, exchanging observations on the harvest and the herds and laughing politely at carefully-edited versions of who was thrown from a horse and the nature of his verbal response.
Somehow the Sheriff just could not see someone referring to a recalcitrant mount as "second cousin to a fence post." -- but it was Sunday, they were in church and the ladies were present, and the Western man's natural gentility came to the fore in such moments and edited the coarser phrases from the reports.
Esther was holding little Joseph, and of course the doting granddad had to take his turn holding the wiggling lad; Joseph thought it was great sport to reach up and tug at Granddad's mustache, at least until his Mama began to thump on the ivory 88.
Esther felt a moment of concern, for the piano was sudden and not at all quiet in the reverent hush of their little whitewashed church, but she need not have troubled herself.
About forty-two and one half seconds after Annette started to play, Joseph was sound asleep, and cuddled in close to the Sheriff's chest.
Annette was in the habit of playing piano when Joseph was sleepy, and just as he'd learned, when the piano playing started, he cuddled up and slept.
The Sheriff relaxed, holding this warm bundle of progeny, a living link to all who would come after: in this little child lay the seeds of their descendants, and the Sheriff wondered who that might be, and what kind of world they would find.
Esther looked over at her husband.
He looked tired and was dark under the eyes.
He had not slept well the night before.
His night was filled with memories and with night-mares.

The Sheriff was dreaming.
He was the Colonel again, and his men were drawn up around a little grassy lawn, with torches and lamps for light, for tonight there was entertainment, and popular it was.

She was wearing a fitted gown with a flowing skirt, and she danced as she played.
The girl -- well, the young woman, he supposed -- had the violin under her chin: her hair was loose, held by a simple ribbon, and it swung like a horse's tail behind her: she played for the love of playing, and she spun ribbons of music from the violin's hand-rubbed and age-darkened cherry-wood throat.
Her skirt was made for dancing: as she spun, as she kicked, the material flowed around her like a flower blossoming, and the soldiers relaxed, some viewing the angelic musician with lust, most with reverence.
She played tunes they knew, tunes she'd created; she took a waltz and made it as light and airy as sunbeams on a spring morning, and not a few feet were restless with the wish to dance with someone they remembered from the happier times before that damned War landed them in union blue.

The Sheriff muttered and then shivered in his sleep and Esther rolled over, laid a gentle hand on his breast as she always did.
His hand reflexively seized hers, mashing it hard against his chest the way he always did: he shook a little, sweat beading his forehead and gleaming in the waning moonlight, and she felt his agonies as he re-lived some private torment, something he never spoke of in morning's light.
This time the Sheriff groaned as if his soul were being torn away, and he rolled over and embraced Esther, holding her as a drowning man holds a life-ring: sounds of grief, of agony beyond expression tried to gnaw their way out of his throat, and all Esther could do was make soothing little motherly noises, gentling him with her hands, feeling utterly helpless as the strong man's tears sleep-scalded through her nightgown.
Twice, then once more, the hell-dreams plagued him: finally he got up and went downstairs, and Esther heard the squeak of the pump outside, and knew that he was bathing the night-sweats off his shaking hide: he would towel off, then walk for a time, and finally return to bed.
The Sheriff dreamed.
She was altogether lovely, of marriageable age, but a youngest daughter; her twin sister stood back, shy in the shadows, protected by father and two brothers, for they were surrounded by the occupying Union army: still, the war was over, and the last campfires of the War were burning themselves out.
He'd looked at the vigorous lass dancing with her violin, singing of light and of love and the good there would be, and he wept there in the darkness: war had hardened him, dried him out like leather in the desert wind, and he was honestly surprised tears were yet in him.
He wept, muffling his grief as best he could, for beauty had been such a rare thing these past years that its sight, and its sound, wrenched his essence from the darkness that sought to claim it.
He met her the next day, as he and his men saddled up to leave: he'd paid the farmer as best he could for the provisions the Union forces had taken, and he'd looked frankly at the young woman, looking now younger and more vulnerable in the early-morning light.
The Colonel removed his hat and said "Ma'am, forgive my being forward, but I have a little girl back home near to Sandusky." He'd swallowed a lump he didn't expect, and continued.
"I hope that she will grow up to be as fine a woman as you have become."

He'd walked in the darkness, seeing ghosts he thought long and deeply buried.
A rider galloped to the head of the column, summoning him: it seems renegades had torched the farm they had so hospitably guested the night before: murder and rapine had been done, and the Colonel galloped back, bile hot in his throat and rage flaming in his heart.

The next day, sitting in their little whitewashed church with the joyful pianosong filling the room, the Sheriff's expression was haunted as he remembered the night before.
He looked at Annette.
She is beautiful, he thought. Childbirth has taken nothing from her good looks.
She looks much like I remember the girl who played Shenandoah for us.

Annette has that same magic, he realized, she was about the same age when she and Jacob married ...
Is that why I took to her like a daughter?
Doesn't matter.

Esther felt her husband shiver a little.
Face forward, he thought. Face forward and nobody will see.
She looked over and his eyes were full and spilling over, and his expression was one of a man stricken by some profound grief.
He looked at her and she had never seen him looking so utterly lost.
Esther did the only thing she could, sitting there in the front pew, with the entire town behind them.
She slid the kerchief from her sleeve and pressed it into his hand.

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Linn Keller 11-3-10


Angela, bless her heart, has the most delightful way of bringing me to earth with a solid thump.
Once we got back home she leaped from the buggy, yanked her skirts up and ran just a-pelting for the house.
I could hear her youthful charge up the stairs.
Esther and I looked at one another: I curiously, Esther understandingly: I was still moving kind of carefully, what with healing up yet, but I was able to at least look like a gentleman as I helped Esther out.
Truth be told, Esther could probably have put one hand on the side and vaulted out just like Angela, and in my mind's eye I can still see her doing that very thing (she has on occasion!) -- and after seeing her as far as the front steps, why, the mare and I took the buggy back to the barn.
Now by rights I should have behaved like a man of means on a Sunday: I should have pulled off my boots and worn those carpet slippers Esther made me, I should have peeled out of coat and vest and wrapped that soft and fancy robe around me, and parked my backside in that stuffed-up chair and reas Scripture, or maybe the Sears catalogue.
I was restless.
Restless hell, I was ... I was somewhere between ready to rip boards off the barn barehand or tear fence posts out of the ground, or pile up in a corner and cry like a lost child.
I was tore up inside and didn't know why, only that the sight of beauty, and the sound of beauty, hit me and hit me hard.
Damn that war! I thought, wishing for some stronger malediction to heap on that infernal, that political ... that damned political slaughter!
I patted the mare's flank and leaned against her side and rested my head against her fur: memories, unbidden, shivered through my eyes and I saw again, and heard again, and the smell of blood, hot and fresh, the stink of a man's guts tore open: I fell back against the side of the stall as a team of horses, screaming and terrified and running in blind panic, thundered past, the cassion bouncing and falling apart as it smacked against a tree: I heard Minie balls' sizzling thud as the man to my left, and to my right, were hit ...
My hands closed on something smooth and round and I seized the handle of the pitchfork.
I am in my own barn, I thought.
I am safe, there is no war, it's only memories ...
I remembered that girl who played Shenandoah, and then I heard Angela running toward the barn, calling for her Rosie-horse.
I blinked and the memories fled, leaving me weak, shaken.
Rose o' the Mornin' looked in through the open pasture door, and with her, Rosebud: they knew Angela's running approach generally meant a ride.
"Daddy!" Angela exclaimed as she came to the open double doors. "Wrrosie wantsa wrride!"
I laughed in spite of myself, and levered my way upright, brushing straw off my backside.
"You're doing better with your R's," I called, and I was honestly surprised that my voice was steady as it was.
"I been pwacticing!" she declared, bouncing on her toes, then she frowned and tried it again: "Pwrrrrrrracticing!"
The word was delivered with an emphatic nod, and I gestured toward Rosebud, who had slid past her dam.
"Fetch her over here," I said. "She won't saddle herself."

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Linn Keller 11-4-10


Jacob saw to it that Bonnie was never alone.
She probably didn't realize it, which is what he wanted: the servant girl was in the house with her, the other seamstresses in the House of McKenna's dressmaking works, yes, but on overwatch, there was always at least one set of eyes, one set of hands, one rifle watching, waiting.
Bonnie could not help but compare the careful and unfailing courtesy of the young man, to the memory of her late husband.
Caleb had wounded her so deeply that her recent memories tended to poison her early memories; in those moments when she remembered the days when times were good, when Caleb was sweet and decent and honorable, the realization that he had betrayed her beyond belief came roaring in and she would stop, her face coloring with shame.
She missed Sarah.
She had gone out much less frequently to Charlie and Fannie's here of late.
Sarah was blossoming there: Bonnie had never seen such color in her daughter's cheeks, such confidence in her eyes, and though Sarah was maturing and ripening as girls do when approaching womanhood, she was still growing.
Bonnie sat down in her tidy, warm kitchen, delicate fingers cupped around the bone-china teacup, and leaned her face over the amber brew, savoring the fragrant steam curling upward.
Bonnie still felt the need to have her daughter near, she still had the knowledge that a daughter learns first and foremost from her mother, but she also knew she had raised Sarah for many years, and the child's compass was already working: she was a good girl, she was a gentle child, she was creative and accomplished, or as much so as anyone in a frontier town could be: she was Emma Cooper's star student, she was a musician, she was as good a seamstress as Bonnie herself.
Her daughter was also deeper and more complex than that.
The ornate handled silver spun slowly in the teacup, stirring a moderate blob of honey into solution.
Bonnie's eyes were far away, unseeing.
Sarah was learning things she could never teach her, she knew.
Sarah would be different when she returned, and somehow Bonnie knew that, though she would return, she would again depart: back to Charlie and Fannie's, yes, but once she learned the lessons planned in that lovely horse-ranch (Bonnie had spent some little time there, and had remarked multiple times on its beauty) Sarah would very likely look boldly about and decide the world was larger than their little town.
Bonnie shivered.
She, too, had set out to see the world, a very long time ago.
She brought the teacup to her lips, using both hands, her eyes looking at a time many years before, a time when she was not as strong as her little girl had become well before assuming the full mantle of womanhood.
"Keep her strong," she whispered.
"Keep her safe."
Bonnie bit her bottom lip and blinked rapidly a few times, then in a hoarser, worried-mother's whisper, contined:
"She's just a little girl!"

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Charlie MacNeil 11-4-10


The clatter of steel-shod hooves on crushed stone outside the kitchen window, the jingle of bit chains and the sudden crash of screen door against well-fitted shiplap pine interrupted Bonnie's reverie. Before even she heard her little girls' squeal "Sarah!" in unison Bonnie knew that her daughter was home, for it was ever Sarah's habit to fling open the screen when she entered the house. Bonnie rushed to the enclosed porch to see a kneeling Sarah, slender figure clad in canvas top and bottom, britches and sheep-lined jacket, gather her sisters into a tight hug while the girls covered her face with kisses.

"Where you been, Sawah?" "Why you got that stuff on?" "Did you bwing us a pwesent?" The questions flew hot and heavy until Sarah finally released them and rose gracefully to her feet to go to her mother. Wrapping her daughter in a tight embrace, Bonnie felt the tears rise as she remembered her thoughts of just moments before. She now realized in her heart what she had known only in her mind before: that her little girl was no longer either little, nor truly a girl, but a young woman, one who would make great strides in the world.

"Mama, we brought meat for the winter! Enough to last for a long time!" Sarah told her mother excitedly.

"That's wonderful, dear!" Bonnie answered. Her eyes met Charlie's over Sarah's shoulder, and she silently mouthed the words, "Thank you!" Charlie nodded, then knelt to gather the little ones in his arms.

"How'd you girls like to go for a horse ride?" he asked his charges, knowing full well that such an enticement would be irresistible, and knowing at the same time that Bonnie would appreciate some time alone with Sarah. Both clapped their hands excitedly, struck speechless by the possibility of such an adventure; after a moment, Polly turned to Bonnie with a pleading look in her eyes.

"Mama? Can we wide Unca Chawlie's horsey?" Charlie and Bonnie shared a look that told her not to worry, he'd watch out for them. Bonnie nodded, releasing Sarah.

"Put your coats on, and find your gloves, girls," she answered. Immediately the pair squirmed to get down; when their feet reached the floor they were off, dashing to the row of coats hanging on the wall near the back door and scrambling into their wraps. Charlie helped them button up and put on their gloves, then he led them outside and shut the door.

Sarah tucked her gloves in the pocket of her jacket then slipped out of it and hung hat and coat on a nearby peg. The pistol belted snugly around her narrow waist seemed to be so much a part of her that Bonnie couldn't help but feel a pang. She really isn't a little girl any more, Bonnie thought once again. "Come, Sarah," she said. "We can have some tea and you can tell me about the meat you've brought us." She turned and led the way to the kitchen, where a platter of sugar cookies waited.

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Linn Keller 11-5-10


Jacob planned what he was going to tell his wife.
He'd seen Charlie and Sarah drive up to Bonnie's house with a wagon load of triumph if ever he did see it -- he knew the girl was Sarah, but a Sarah like he'd never seen, and Charlie with the look of a man well satisfied with his own good work.
Bonnie had not asked him to keep an eye on her place, and on her -- for that matter neither had his father -- he'd done it strictly on his own hook, and it looked like he could leave things in good hands now.
Jacob swung on board his Apple-horse and steered a course back to his father's house: he figured the Grand Old Man would be home on the Sabbath, what with healing up and all, and it would do well to let him know Sarah was home.
Besides, he missed his Pa, and his Mother as well.
He planned to visit only briefly.
Jacob worked the watch out of his vest pocket and pressed the knob, letting the engraved case flip open, displaying the watch's face and his wife's hand-painted miniature.
Dinner time, he thought. I hate to interrupt a man's noon meal.
Sure enough, his father had greeted him warmly, as did his mother, and he was invited to join them: reluctantly, as the meal smelled so very good, he declined, saying that his own dinner awaited him: but when Esther pressed a still-warm pie upon him, he could not refuse her, for a mother always wants to see her young well-fed.

Jacob grinned as he presented his beautiful bride with the fresh-baked pie.
Annette blinked as she took it, then looked over at the shelf where two more waited.
"I know," Jacob said, his grin broadening if such a thing were possible. "Mother handed it to me and ..."
"I know," Annette said quietly, her eyes smiling as she raised up on her tiptoes and kissed her husband.
"She asked me to stay for Sunday dinner ..."
"But you knew I had dinner ready."
"Yes, ma'am!" Jacob waited until the pie was placed on the table before he embraced his wife, from behind, running his arms carefully around her slender middle and nuzzling her neck. She purred and then giggled, tilting her head to allow him greater access.
"Jacob Keller," she whispered, "you are naughty!"
"I'm also hungry!" He took her earlobe between her lips and she felt his warm breath on her ear.
"Dinner can wait," she whispered, "Joseph is fed, changed and asleep."
She turned and put her arms around her husband's neck.
"I know what you're hungry for," she whispered, and tilted her head back, lips apart, inviting.
Jacob bent his head forward and accepted her invitation.

Sunday dinner was a little late that day ...

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Linn Keller 11-6-10


We'd been riding due west for near to an hour, a nice easy trot, something Rosebud could handle in good shape: she was born to the high country and breathed a little more easily than Rose o' the Mornin' had for some time.
I looked over at Angela, then in the direction she was pointing.
I'd seen it too, and we were making for it steadily, but in no great hurry.
We got closer and we could see it was a team and wagon, two horses, both heads down and lathered and obviously run hard: nobody was in the wagon, and as a matter of fact, it looked like half the wagon's contents had been bounced, shook or slung out.
It looked like a household's worth of goods anyway.
We rode up on the team and they were tuckered enough they raised their heads and allowed as they saw us, but neither nickered a greeting nor shied from us.
I shucked my rifle and rode a slow circle around the wagon, eyes busy.
The only thing to the horizon in any direction was fallout from the wagon: there was no sign of any one or any thing.
I rode a closer orbit to the wagon and finally stopped, studying its contents.
The seat interested me.
It was remarkable in that it was completely unremarkable.
No bullet gouges, no splinters, no blood, nothing out of the ordinary.
I dismounted and went up to the horses and fooled with them, talking quietly, letting them snuff at me, making friends.
"Angela," I said, "tie Rose-horse to the back of the wagon."
"Okay, Daddy!" she said, and rode up to Rosie: she reached waaaaay over and flipped the reins free of the saddle horn, led Rose-horse to the back of the wagon and frowned as she undid the overhand I'd thrown in them before I dropped them over the horn. She dallied the tag ends around a handy stanchion.
"Okay, Daddy," she called.
I spoke to the team and coaxed them a little and took them by their bridles: I walked them around in a slow circle, back along the debris trail, and as best I could, loaded what had fallen out, back in.
Angela followed along, keeping abreast of the team, and I walked the team for a while.
I had no idea how far or how hard they'd run, but they'd run with no hand on the reins and I reckon they'd run themselves to exhaustion.
They were still warm -- they were steaming a little as a matter of fact -- and walking them like this was what was needed, that and a good rubbing down.
A figure in the distance stood and waved, and I fetched off my hat and waved it in reply: it seemed to be on our line of march, so we made our steady way toward the figure.
Once we went through a swale and up the other side I could see more of the figure: a man, and a still pile on the ground, which tightened my belly up some.
It did not look good.
We got closer and I saw it was a woman, unmoving.
I looked over at Angela.
A father always wants to spare his young unpleasantness but sometimes there is no help for it, and maybe this was the day Angela had to see this.
The man approached us on a slow run and his every move was that of someone wound up like an eight day clock.
He shook my hand and talked fast like someone from back East that had just had the daylights scared out of them, and indeed he had.
He had stepped out of the wagon to get rid of some second hand coffee and the team bolted at a shadow, throwing his wife from the wagon.
Her leg was broke.
He considered chasing the team but chose to stay with his wife instead, and they had been there a couple of hours.
I knelt beside her.
"Ma'am, I'm Sheriff hereabouts," I said. "I'm takin' a look at your leg now."
I do not take kindly to a stranger lifting my wife's skirts and I did not like lifting hers but I had to look at the injury to know what we were dealing with.
The leg lay at an unnatural angle, bent to one side and twisted a little, and I knew both bones in the lower leg were broke. There was no blood on her stocking so it had not punched through to the outside and that was good.
"You the Sheriff?" the man asked, glancing at his wife's leg and turning kind of pale.
I looked at him, reached over and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"We have to treat ourselves oftentimes out here," I said. "I've done this before but I'll need your help. You got a bow saw on that wagon?"
He allowed as he did.
I thrust my chin toward an alder stand.
"I need some wood cut, about this big around" -- I held up a forearm and indicated the diameter of my forearm -- "long enough to go from here" -- I put one hand at the woman's armpit -- "to about two foot past her shoe sole."
The man stopped and took a long breath, made a visual measurement, then nodded.
"I'll need a second one from here" -- I indicated about two thirds of the way up the woman's thigh -- "to the same end as the other."
"I can do that."
"Ma'am," I said, "we might have to leave some of your goods here to make room on the wagon but we'll send back for 'em. I guarantee you'll get everything."
"Thank you," she gasped, her eyes following her husband as he retreated to the wagon.
"There is" -- she stopped, bit her lower lip -- "there is a violin under the wagon seat. May I have it?"
Angela rode up. "Yes, Daddy?"
"Angela, this is --" I looked down. "Ma'am, I'm sorry. This is my daughter Angela."
Angela swung a leg over the saddle, dropped easily to the ground. "Hello," she said, cocking her head a little.
"Oh, look at you," the woman said, extending a hand. "I'm Jessica."
"Angela, you stay with her. I'm going to the wagon."
"Okay, Daddy." Angela squatted beside the woman. "That's Wrrosebud."
I could hear her "rrrrr" and smiled a little, for Angela would be frowning and pursing her lips, trying to get the more mature "r" sound, and I heard the woman laugh a little.
She must be a mother, I thought.
The violin case was still under the wagon seat.
I brought it back, knelt on the woman's left. Angela was still squatted on her right.
If I'd squat that long, I thought, my knees would explode!
Jessica nodded, breathing like a woman in pain.
"Open it, please."
I drew the latches and opened it carefully.
The violin was beautiful. It glowed in the satin lined case; I heard the quiet "ahhh" of my own exhaled breath, for few things are as genuinely lovely as a well made violin.
I released the catches that held the bow, and handed her the bow and the rosin block: she passed the bow over the block once, lightly, then handed it back to me.
Tears were trickling out the corners of her eyes now.
I drew the violin from its fitted case with the care of a man picking up a newborn for the first time, and handed it to her.
She tucked it under her chin.
"This will help the pain," she gasped, tapping the bow's spine against the back of her off hand, then closing her eyes.
The violin's neck was pointed toward Heaven itself and she lay flat on her back and I would bet money she had never played violin laying down before, but you could not prove it by me.
In three notes' time she yanked me back to a darkened plantation in Virginia and a ring of torches and kerosine lamps, and a young woman who played for the love of playing, and this woman, this injured soul, in pain and supine on the cold Colorado sod, spun Shenandoah from a curled maple box.
I had to take myself firmly in hand to tend what had to follow.
Her husband and I positioned the poles, and drew her skirt up with apologies: we secured the splints from armpit to ankle on the affected side, and from mid-thigh to ankle on the inside: I wrapped a cloth stirrup around foot and ankle and with a stick for a windlass, drew enough twist on the cloth to pull her leg out straight.
The violin's voice was pure and sweet in the cold, clear air, and she bit her bottom lip until blood stained her teeth: Angela dabbed at the tears that ran from the corners of her eyes, but never once did our patient sufferer strike an off note.
The broken bone ends, drawn apart, were no longer lacerating her flesh: though painful, the agony was much reduced: we wrapped her leg as best we could, slinging it within the structure of the two poles, and after judicious excavation of the wagon's contents, fashioned a mattress of sorts for her, and got her aboard as gently as we could.
The husband chose to ride with his wife, and so I climbed into the driver's seat and clucked to the team and we made our slow and careful way back to Firelands.
I bade Angela ride on ahead and let the hospital know we were coming, and ride she did.
I found out later that she presented herself before Dr. John Greenlees and solemnly assured him that her Daddy had found a broken woman and he put her in a wagon full of violins.

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Linn Keller 11-7-10


It took us the rest of the day to get back to town.
We'd padded under the woman as best we could, we'd woven under and around her leg to keep it as straight and as unmoving as possible, and I took that stiff riding wagon just as easy as I could, but easy meant slow: by the time we got back to Firelands, Angela had rejoined us, eyes shining and her expression that of someone who'd just Done Something Very Important and She Knew It.
I never knew a little girl could strut while sitting a saddle but by golly she did.
I found out later she went from the hospital to our house and told Esther about the Broken Fiddle Lady, and a child's priorities are sometimes governed by the belly: she'd happily landed in a chair and positively devoured her meal, despite Esther's admonitions that she eat in a more ladylike manner.
"Daddy needs me!" Angela protested, eyes big and innocent, and Esther gave her a "I'm the mommy, do as I say" look, which Angela proceeded to ignore ... all while shoveling enough groceries into her to do a grown man credit.
I have never failed to marvel at how much a little child can eat at one sittin' and then come back in an hour, hungry again.
Esther thoughtfully packed a hasty lunch for three people, and she'd been obliged to address Angela rather sternly to keep the child from streaking off again to help her Daddy: Esther had packed the saddlebags and fastened them to Rosebud before patting her little girl on the leg and telling her to be safe, and not to ride too fast.
"Okay, Mommy!" Angela laughed, delight on her face and color in her cheeks, and she'd waved as Rosebud gathered herself and launched like a ball from a cannon's hot throat, and Angela screamed with delight as Rosebud disdained the open gate and instead vaulted the fence, tail cork screwing behind her, Angela's delighted laughter rippling across the meadow.
Esther sighed, folding her hands in her skirt, shaking her head.
She smiled as the maid came fretting up to her, twisting her apron anxiously between flour-dusted hands.
"I was much the same at her age," Esther murmured.
But of course I did not know any of this until I got home that night.

A grinning boy handed me a note as I dismounted from the wagon, and I thanked him and thrust it in my vest pocket. Right now my mind was on getting this woman out of the wagon and into the hospital.
Doc Greenlees had this planned out better than I'd thought.
He'd had the stone porch extended some and rolled one of them wheeled hospital carts out to meet us.
We were able to grab that padding under the woman and use a six man lift, and we slud her out onto that-there nice clean cart covered with a nice clean sheet, and of a sudden those carefully cut aspen poles didn't look quite so tidy.
It didn't matter to Doc.
He took a look at our handiwork and nodded: he looked up at the husband and asked, "Your work?"
The man swallowed hard, gripping his wife's hand. He still didn't have much color to him.
"His," he said through a dry throat.
Doc looked at me, raised an eyebrow, and offered no further remark.
Me, I figured to have the team looked after at the livery, and have Shorty take a look at the wagon in case its wild ride had caused some damage. It hadn't fell apart yet but I wanted to make sure. These folks had come clear out from Michigan at the invite of some relative or another on the far side of Cripple, and they'd planned to make it before snow.
Be a shame if their only buggy fell apart on 'em now.
I upped into the wagon seat again and clucked to the team, and we were halfway to the livery when I remembered the note I'd shoved in behind my watch.
It was from Tom Landers.
I read it and thrust my jaw out.
Well, hell, I thought, it was bound to happen sooner or later.
Angela's laugh echoed off the Mercantile and bounced back the alley between the Jewel and the municipal building.
I looked up and saw Bonnie and Sarah driving up the street.
"Shorty," I said, "if you see Jacob send him to the Jewel."
"You expectin' trouble?" Shorty squinted at me and shifted the soggy stub of his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other.
My mouth was dry.
"Here." He reached into a corner and tossed me a double ten-bore.
I nodded. "How about some shells?"
Shorty's grin was wolfish and he yanked three times on a desk drawer before it groaned open.
"Here ye go."
I shoved the handful in a long slit pocket in my vest I'd had made specially to hold a row of shotgun shells.
"You want I should come along, Sheriff?"
"I want my girls out of there," I said, and my voice was strained in my ears.

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Linn Keller 11-8-10


Sarah patiently endured the feminine rituals of getting ready to Go to Town: the tight-lacing, the brushing and styling, selecting, putting on, taking off, all the while her mother chattering, humming, clucking, exclaiming, frowning, smiling: it was at once so familiar, and yet so foreign: she'd not worn silks and frills and lace since her secondary education began, and frankly she wasn't entirely comfortable becoming again what she used to be, but when she looked in the full length mirror and an absolutely gorgeous young woman looked back at her, she could not help but stare.
She was different.
Whether it was the confidence in her gaze, the certainty in her movements, whether it was because she moved with both the grace of a dancer and the strength of a panther, she was not sure: she only knew she was different, and that difference could not be hidden in one of her mother's latest creations.
Sarah looked long at her gunbelt, that constant companion without which she felt suddenly less than comfortable.

"Charlie, could you come over here," Fannie had asked quietly,and Charlie, grinning, swaggered over to his bride and put his arm companionably about her shoulders.
Fannie leaned against her husband, closing her eyes for a moment, and Sarah knew the two shared a closeness, a connection, wordless and deep: for a moment she felt ... an ache? -- no, not quite ... but she, too, longed for a closeness like that, a closeness she saw between Jacob and Annette, between her Uncle Linn and her Aunt Esther, and yes even between the perpetually quarreling and forever laughing Sean and Daisy.
"Sarah, honey, come over beside me. Yes, right there. Now, Charlie, pick me up."
"Um, what?"
Fannie jumped up into the man's arms, her hands locked behind his neck. "Now, Sarah, put your hand on Charlie's back and the other on his belly."
Sarah, confused, had done so.
"Feel how solid his muscles are?" Fannie asked, and Sarah had pressed in, gently, marveling at how like a rippled wall the man's abdomen was.
"Okay, honey, now put me down."
Charlie leered at his bride and stole a quick kiss.
"Chaaarliieeeee," Fannie said, her voice warning and her eyes promising: Sarah drew back, her cheeks warming in spite of herself.
Fannie took Sarah's hands. "Now Sarah, honey, city men don't have that kind of a belly. They're soft." Fannie patted Charlie's shirt front affectionately. "If you hit a man hard here" -- her fingers hesitated at a spot not far below the bottom of the breast bone -- "a city man will fold up, but a man like Charlie will just look at you."
Sarah nodded, big-eyed.
"When men fight they fight with power, with strength."
Sarah nodded.
"We women must be subtle."
Fannie nodded.
Charlie grinned and interjected, "She means you cheat."
"I -- what?"
Charlie nodded, and the two of them showed Sarah how to cheat: how to use leverage to her advantage; how to use her weight and strength to her advantage, and the trick needed to use the opponent's weight and energy against him.
The lessons were daily, and frequent: Sarah and Fannie stretched several times a day, and Fannie showed her how to high-kick, how to sweep with the leg, how to draw the knee to her belly and drive a kick suddenly and without warning to the side: she learned to target an opponent's knee, whether from the side, to fracture the joint, or from the front, aiming just below the knee cap to dislocate the joint: there were lessons in the use of a blade, of a stick, of a frying pan or stew pot or a fireplace poker.
Best of all, they made it fun, and in fun there is learning, and Sarah learned well.
"One thing you must remember," Fannie had said one night, over meat and potatoes and canned green beans.
"When your gut tells you something is not right, listen to your gut."
Charlie nodded silently, cutting another slice of back strap.
"There may be a time when you know you are right and you will have to go against someone you love and respect
, but you have to do what is right!"
Charlie nodded, a haunted look in his eyes.
"It will probably be a hard decision," he added. "You will know it when it comes."

Sarah waited until her mother turned, then she slid the sleeve-knife in place, fastened it quickly: it had been a gift from her Aunt Esther: a convenient, hidden pocket received the Derringer Fannie had slipped into her hand before Charlie drew up in the wagon.
Bonnie turned, eyes big and her mouth open in surprise as she beheld her little girl, a child no longer: her head tilted to the side and she folded her hands before her.
"Oh, Sarah," she said almost sadly, "you are lovely!"
Follow your gut."
Fannie's whisper was almost audible in her memory, and Sarah followed what her gut told her to do.
She spread her arms and embraced her mother.

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Linn Keller 11-9-10


"Good morning, ladies!" Mr. Baxter exclaimed with a broad grin, white teeth gleaming under his curled mustache. "May I say you are both lovely today!"
Bonnie lowered her eyes and colored delicately and murmured, "Thank you, Mr. Baxter."
Sarah, on the other hand, put her hands on her hips and cocked her head.
"Flattery," she declared, "will get you everywhere!"
Bonnie looked at her daughter, shocked. "Sarah!"
Sarah winked at Mr. Baxter and then gave her mother an absolutely innocent look.
"Ladies, I'm sorry but the fine dining room is all over sawdust and scrap wood," Mr. Baxter said with a doleful expression. "I'm afraid all we can offer is a table here in the main room."
"That will be fine, Mr. Baxter," Sarah interrupted, shooting her mother a sharp look. "We'll just take a table in back."
"Sarah ...?" Bonnie said uncertainly, looking around: the Jewel was almost full, and she wasn't really comfortable being an unescorted woman in a saloon full of men.
"Moth-err," Sarah said in an annoyed tone, then lowered her voice to a barely audible hiss. "The Sheriff owns most of this place and he's my uncle! Now who is going to even look at us wrong?"
Mr. Baxter threw his head back and laughed, his apron jiggling with the exertion. "She has a point!" he exclaimed. "I'll let the kitchen know you're here!" Mr. Baxter strutted importantly around the end of the bar and offered an arm to each of the well-dressed ladies. "May I see you to your table?"
"Thank you, Mr. Baxter," Bonnie said, her cheeks positively scarlet. "That would be very nice."
Several eyes followed them ... in fact, almost every set of eyes in the Jewel followed them, for though they were not the only women there, they were certainly the best looking women, and they were obviously women of quality.
One fellow looked at the pair with open lust, and drew his tongue slowly across his bottom lip as he stared through half-closed eyes: his partner smacked him hard on the shoulder, said something: half-closed eyes widened suddenly and the over-arching eyebrows raised slowly as his fellow continued speaking.
The two finished their beers and left.
Another, leaned against the bar, regarded the pair casually, frankly assessing them, though not for the purpose that any observer might first believe: satisfied, he turned back to his sandwich and beer, watching the front door like a sleepy cat in proximity to a mouse-hole.

Sarah and Bonnie did not so much walk, as they glided; there is a trick to walking with a ladylike smoothness, and it involves an artificial gait, one involving a light step, short steps; Bonnie's gait was natural, unaffected, the result of an early lifetime of gentility, and in her years as a married woman, a return to the gentility with which she had been raised.
Sarah, on the other hand, moved with the smoothness of a cat.
Her eyes met those of the stranger at the bar: he touched a forefinger to his hat-brim and his eyes moved on, obviously uninterested in her.
Sarah's gut tightened and her mouth was suddenly dry.
"Trouble seldom travels alone."
Fannie's whisper was loud in her ear.
Sarah looked around, and saw the second fellow, seated at a table, pretending to be interested in a light meal and a beer.
Sarah's jaw tightened and she wished mightily for that .44 revolver she'd left hanging on her bed post.

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Mr. Box 11-9-10


After seating the ladies, I went to the kitchen to see Daisy. When I got there Sheriff Keller was coming in the back door quietly. I met him just inside the door and said, "One at the bar. The other two just went out the front."
"Thanks, what is he doing?"
"He's just watching the door. He's trying to not draw any attention but he looks up every time the door wiggles." I told him.
Sheriff Keller asked, "What about the other two?"
"They were sitting at a table close to him doing the same thing. They just stepped out as I came back here. Tom Landers is sitting at another table nearby."
"Maybe we can catch him alone."
"I'll get back out there and see if I can hold his attention when you come in, Sheriff."

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Linn Keller 11-10-10


Daisy's hand was light on my shoulder.
"Let me go look," she whispered.
I raised a cautioning finger. "Tell Bonnie and Sarah to get out now," I whispered.
There was the sound of breaking glass, a harshly raised voice and I knew it was too late.
I swept back the hammers on that double gun and surged past the gleaming, chuckling roulette wheel, the cavernous muzzles of the ten-bore leading my charge.

Sarah had been tense as a hound scenting the quarry, and Bonnie, though a Lady in the finest sense of the word, had known the Jewel when it was a dirty den of vice, violence and drink. She, too, tasted the tension in the air, and rose with her daughter, seizing Sarah by the upper arm.
"Sarah, no," she said in a low voice.
You must do what is right.
It will not come easy.
You will know the time.

Sarah had marked the pair: they each sat alone at a table, each facing the bar, neither really paying attention to their meal: one gripped his pistol as the Sheriff came into the room.
Sarah twisted, breaking out of her mother's grip as Fannie had taught her, breaking out through the thumb: she stiff-armed Bonnie, hard, hitting her just below the collar bones with the heel of her hand and sending Bonnie back against the wall.
Sarah moved quickly, silently, knowing her quarry's attention was forward.
He'd looked back at her and her mother and she could almost read the man's thoughts.
Two women.
No threat.

He'd gone back to watching the front of the Jewel with an affected inattention, which is exactly what Sarah wanted.
Sarah's teeth were bared in a silent snarl.
She took the sleeve-knife by its pommel, took it between thumb and forefinger, yanked it free of its hidden sheath, gripped it like an icepick.
Just like Fannie taught her.
Sarah took three long, gliding steps and seized the left-hand assassin's chin from behind, yanking his head back and to the side and she put the blade hard against his Adam's-apple and angled it back along the side of his neck, knowing its fine-honed edge was already tasting blood.
"Breathe and you die," she hissed, and the sound of her voice in the man's ear was that of snake's scales on dry sand.

The Sheriff swung the shotgun in his left hand, balancing it easily: he seized the near-full beer mug with his good right hand.
Time itself shattered into ten thousand bright splinters, and the Sheriff lived it, one-tenth of a heartbeat at a time, as if everything were suddenly slow, slow, and only he were moving at normal speed.
The man with his pistol half-drawn was focused on Mr. Baxter, his face red and angry, and the front door of the Jewel was open, one man in, one man out.
The Sheriff tasted copper and he heard a voice, ancient, from long in his past, a young man's joyful shout as he peeled the Hardee hat off his head and let gleaming-black braids swing free as he and his blue-coated fellows leaned forward and began to run, bayonets thrust forward, running into the teeth of entrenched Confederate fire: "Hoka-hey! It is a good day to die!"
I can take this fellow, the Sheriff thought, but two at the front door and two inside ...
Mr. Baxter will duck and that bar is bulletproof as a battleship.
He will be safe.
The ladies are to the back.
I can't shoot that way.
Tom Landers has one.
I don't see him.
Sarah is on her feet ... get back, girl!
-- then the Sheriff looked straight ahead, past the man who was turning, slowly, slowly, toward him.
There was someone behind this man, against the front wall, beside the curtained window ... his eyes focused on her and time ground to an absolute stop.
He saw a slender, attractive woman with liquid eyes, glowing eyes, eyes he could swim in ...
Duzy smiled that smile he knew so well and she tilted her head the way she always did, and she said, "Well? Are you going to die?" -- and in his mind's eye he saw Angela, riding beside him, wind teasing her hair, teeth gleaming with her laugh -- "or are you going to live?"
For a moment the Sheriff felt his own death, felt the thunder of gunfire and the sick-punched feel of multiple gunshots, and he felt his spirit flow out of his body and hesitate before turning, turning toward the Light ...
Then his entire soul drew back into a hard knot and roared "NOOOO!" and his voice came out of his throat, "YOU WANT ME, FELLA?" and the beer mug described a tight arc and caught the man on the cheek bone.
Beer, blood and broken glass sprayed in a glittering fan and the Sheriff whipped the double gun to shoulder.
Something tugged at his coat's shoulder and he slapped the front trigger.
The ten-bore's rib pointed like an accusing finger at the man with a bright-tipped pistol: the Sheriff watched the middle of the man's vest cave in and he moved the gun muzzle to the left and found the rear trigger and the cannon-boom of the second barrel caught the second man coming in.

Tom Landers punched his gun barrel hard against the second seated man's back: he too had his target by the chin, and had his head cranked hard around, and the man's eyes bulged as he saw his erstwhile partner being held hostage by that pretty girl they'd seen and dismissed.
He watched, horrified, as his partner tried to break her grip.
The girl yanked the blade, hard, across the man's throat: her hand moved in a quick, practiced circle, drove the blade vertical-down behind the collarbone and yanked.
An anatomist would lecture on the effectiveness of a knife-thrust behind the collarbone, and would mention the proximity of the fat, high-pressure artery that normally is hidden and protected by the bony crossmember; the antomist would remark on the lung, and how it crowds into the area, and how a blade thrust into this vicinity and stirred about ever so gently wouuld cause death from massive blood loss -- and even if the artery were missed, the lung would collapse, with death certain in either case.
Sarah was not an anatomist.
Sarah was a fast learner.
Sarah had practiced this very move on a dummy fashioned of an old shirt and overalls, stuffed with straw and sawdust and a burlap sack for a head: Fannie had coached her, had shown her, she and Sarah had taken each other in slow motion and in practice from behind, by the chin, and finally Sarah had practiced, at speed, on the dummy.
She had always used a belt knife.
This was the first time she used her Aunt Esther's sleeve-knife.
Sarah released the head and danced back, turning to the second assassin.
Tom Landers looked over at the beautiful young woman.
What he saw was pale flesh drawn taut over a grinning skull, a red blade gleaming and wet and eyes big as dinner plates.
Tom Landers had been the first Sheriff.
Tom Landers had fought criminals, back East and out West.
Tom Landers had been in the War.
Tom Landers looked at this pretty girl who wasn't a girl anymore, and Tom Landers knew the touch of fear.
The man Tom Landers held, wet himself.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-10-10


Sarah's open-palmed shove to her mother's chest sent Bonnie stumbling back into the corner, shoe-heels caught in the hem of her elegant gown. Her shoulder blades made harsh contact with velvet-sheathed lath-and-plaster; her hands spread to either side in an attempt to catch her balance. Her equilibrium restored, Bonnie watched in horror as her daughter, her lovely, lovely daughter, slipped up behind the seated gunman. The young woman moved with all the stealth and grace of a stalking cougar; she suddenly grasped his chin to twist the man's head around and apply razor-edged steel to grimy, exposed and vulnerable flesh. She couldn't hear the words that Sarah breathed into the man's ear but she could see the affect that those words had as he froze, his hand grasping the walnut handle of the holstered Colt.

The fire and thunder of the Sheriff's shotgun drew Bonnie's wide-eyed gaze to the bar. This was perhaps a blessing as it prevented her from seeing her no longer innocent daughter plunge the knife deep into her adversary's throat then dance away from the sudden spurt of arterial blood that sprayed the table as the man collapsed face-first onto the polished surface. What she did see was Sarah's "war-face", as Fannie called it; the bared teeth, the wide, all-seeing gaze, as the knife-wielding warrior, for such Sarah had become, assessed the state of the battle.

Bonnie followed Sarah's eyes. She saw the look of sudden fear that flashed across Tom Landers' face then was gone beneath the ex-lawman's usual deadpan demeanor. In turn she saw the man who Landers held beneath the muzzle of his Colt go pale as his bladder let go its restraints. Her own heart was pounding in her chest, her breath coming fast. She watched as Sarah, apparently satisfied that the battle was over, turned back to the man she had killed and calmly wiped her blade on the back of his vest, cleaning it carefully before sliding it back into its sheath. Bonnie's hands went to her face as tears of grief, not for the deceased but for the living, flooded her eyes and slid silently down her cheeks.

"Mama?" The soft hand on her shoulder, the single quiet word. Bonnie lifted her tear-filled eyes to meet her daughter's own wide gaze. She spread her hands and Sarah threw herself into her mother's embrace. "Oh, Mama!" the girl cried as she began to sob, her own arms tight around her mother's waist.

Bonnie led Sarah to the pair of chairs that had been their original destination. They sat, arms tight around each other, as the murmuring of the crowd grew to a babble of questions and exclamations. The shoulder of Bonnie's gown was wet with Sarah's tears when the girl lifted her face from the soft cloth. "Oh, Mama. What am I going to do?"

Intuitively, Bonnie knew that the question was more than the words. She softly kissed her daughter's forehead. Around them, the hubbub seemed to fade away as Bonnie began to speak. "My love, you know where I came from. Every mother wants her daughter to have a better life than she had, and so I've dreamed and planned that you would be a lady of culture and refinement. I wanted you to be a part of something fine, something beyond the brutality of the frontier. I hoped that you would be able to escape all of this sort of thing." She gestured at the room and the chaos that the Sheriff was rapidly bringing to order.

"But I see now that you have a gift. You, my dear, are indeed a lady. How could you help but be such, with Fannie and Esther as your mentors? But at the same time, you are more. You are one who is destined to make a difference, a difference in the lives of those who are less able than you to defend themselves from those who would take advantage."

"But Mama, I..." Sarah's voice broke as she indicated the man that she had killed.

"You did what was necessary!" Bonnie declared in a fierce whisper. "You saw that something bad was about to happen to someone that you love, and you moved to prevent it! Did you warn that man?"

"Yes, Mama," Sarah answered softly, swallowing the lump in her throat.

"Then he brought his fate upon himself! You gave him a choice to make, and he made the wrong one. It was not your fault!"

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Linn Keller 11-11-10


Jacob stacked wood in the woodbox, trying his best to be quiet.
Little Joseph was fussy and easily wakened.
Annette, frustrated, was walking the floor with the crying lad: Jacob stood and turned fed the stove, shaking down the ashes with regular, slow turns of the cast-iron crank.
It promised to be a chilly night again and he'd brought in wood enough for both stoves: he took several trips but he'd got the job done, and now he went out on the back porch to warsh his dirty cotton pickers.
Annette had been amused by his mispronunciation of the word, and Jacob explained that his father discovered that it was actually a very correct pronunciation, at least in the Southeast Ohio coal country.
Whether wash or worsh, the process was the same, and Jacob divested his paws of the accumulated dirt before going to the cupboard and withdrawing a familiar bottle.
He dispensed about one finger's worth of water clear into a shot glass and carried it in to where Annette paced.
"Dearest?" he asked. "Let me take a look."
Annette's eyebrows quirked a question, she gave him a puzzled look, but offered no protest when Jacob set the shot glass on the mantle and stroked little Joseph's cheek.
The fussy little boy wrinkled up his face and opened his mouth for another good howl.
Jacob turned Annette so the Aladdin lamp shone where he wanted to see, then he quickly dipped his little finger in the Daine boys' distillate and quickly painted his son's gums with the potent product.
Little Joseph's eyes snapped wide and he took a shivering breath as he worked his tongue and chewed vigorously on Jacob's invading digit.
Little Joseph also quit crying.
"Jacob, what did you just do?" Annette asked, surprised.
Jacob straightened and kissed his bride on the forehead.
"I just painted his gums with whisky," he grinned. "Mother did that with her little Joseph when he was teething."

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Linn Keller 11-11-10


I pointed toward the piano player and nodded.
The man was a veteran of his craft.
I think Mr. Baxter hired him because the fellow had played piano in some livelier towns and was looking for someplace quiet where he could live a long life and retire an old man.
When I came cat footin' out of the hallway and he saw the Damascus barrels preceding me, he waited until after I'd anointed my primary target with a good dose of beer and broken glass before he brought his fingers off the ivories and stuffed them in his ears.
Now that the fracas was done, why, he nodded back and brought his splayed hands back down on the keyboard.
Folks were still down on the floor or flattened back against the walls: I casually reloaded the double gun and strolled to the front door.
I walked to the end of the bar and looked at the front wall.
Duzy was long gone, if she was ever there in the first place.
I filed her appearance under "T" for "Think about that one later" and looked at the two carcasses just inside the front door.
Tilly was peeking up over the edge of her desk. I'd had it rebuilt and it was solid as Mr. Baxter's bar, and I made sure she knew it.
I also had a holster installed to where she could keep a pistol ready to hand.
I don't know if she reached for it or not and it doesn't matter, things happen fast when they happen and she might not have noticed anything was amiss until Mr. Baxter sloshed beer on the fellow I clobbered and then dropped a wine glass to make sure he had the man's attention.
I stepped up beside the front door, then spun out the door, shotgun first: swung left, right, then cleared the rooftops opposite: satisfied, I went back inside.
Esther was standing at the top of the stairs, Angela behind her, big-eyed.
"We're good," I announced curtly. "Angela, you stay put, honey."
I could barely hear her thin little "Okay, Daddy," but I could not miss the way her knuckles whitened as she clutched Esther's skirt.
I might also mention Esther had a double gun in hand as well.
I went back into the Jewel and Mr. Baxter had a beer drawn for me.
I was dry enough to sneeze and blow dust.
I stood there with that double ten bore in my good right hand, muzzles barely clearing the floor, and I took a long, slow, leisurely swallow, another.
I lowered the beer mug.
"My name is Keller."
I pitched my voice to hit the back wall and come back to me.
"I am Sheriff and I do not put up with this foolishness."
I raised the beer mug and took another couple of long swallows.
It might have looked like I had nerves of lead but actually my throat was still tight and mouth dry enough to raise cactus.
"Now I am a curious man."
I paced back through the crowd, for the Jewel was full. One or two fellows tried to slip out the front, another down the hall.
"You fellas stand fast."
My words anchored them like I'd drove nails through their boot heels.
I seized the hair of the man who lay across a bloody table and raised it up.
I knew from the volume of blood he'd been stuck or shot, probably in the throat, but I didn't expect to see the wide wound across his wind pipe.
Someone had sliced him crossways with a blade and from the look of it, they were right handed and made a draw cut ...
I thrust his head to the side and frowned.
There was a single, narrow puncture behind his collar bone and almost no blood around it.
I frowned.
Now that's an assassin's thrust, I thought. Not many people know about ...
I looked back toward the stairway.
Esther knows that one, I thought. Who else ...?
I felt movement on my right.
"Uncle Linn," Sarah said, and I felt her hand on my sleeve.
I turned and saw Sarah, pale but resolute, and Bonnie looking absolutely sick behind her.
"Bonnie ...?" I asked in a low voice, and Sarah shook her head.
I'd thought maybe Bonnie had killed this fellow to protect Sarah -- there is no fiercer fighter in all of Nature than a mama cat defending her cubs -- but Sarah shook her head, lips pressed together.
"He was going to back shoot you, Uncle Linn," Sarah said simply.
"I stopped him."
I looked over at Bonnie and I felt an immense sense of loss.
Somehow I'd thought everything would be as it was, Sarah would magically become a little girl again, Bonnie would become young and beautiful and --
I swatted it all aside.
The reality was that we all grow old and we all grow up and Sarah was no longer the little girl she'd been, and Bonnie ... my heart ached for Bonnie but it hardened as well, for she would have to find a way to survive, or she would die.
"His partner is there," Sarah continued, pointing, and Tom Landers stood, holstering his revolver: he divested the other fellow of his own shortgun and raised him up by the scruff of the neck.
"I believe you'd like to talk to this fellow," Tom rumbled.
"Yes," I replied, stepping in front of the prisoner. "That I would."

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