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Firelands-The Beginning

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Lady Leigh 11-11-10


Bonnie …..

With one hand firmly holding her stomach, hoping against hope to stay the bile that threatened to rise. Her other hand laid lightly along the small of Sarah's back. Approaching Linn was the longest walk across a room as Bonnie had traveled in a long while.

She did not mistake Linn'sface expression toward Sarah, and was slightly confused at the expression glanced her way … she did not want to know if it were pity or consolation …. or Heaven forbid, condemnation.

Right or wrong in Bonnie's eyes, Sarah did what she did. Regardless of Bonnie's immediate and initial foreboding, Bonnie's place was to support …. questioning would have to done silently for the time being.

Through the door raced Levi who stopped dead in his tracks. The situation was obviously under an element of control as he quickly scanned what was probably only moments sooner a chaos stricken room.

His eyes held fast to one person in particular. An ashen faced, tall, auburn haired woman who looked as if she were caught in the midst of two worlds. Looking over her shoulder in Levi's direction, he clearly saw one emotion laced across her face…. fear.

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Linn Keller 11-12-10


"Lock him up," I said.
I did not speak loudly.
I did not have to.
Tom Landers nodded and started to shove his way through the gawking crowd, prisoner half-thrust before him.
My face was tight and my throat was tight and I looked around.
My beer mug sat forgotten on the bloody table.
I just left it set.
I turned back to Sarah.
She looked half expectant and half fearful and Bonnie looked ...
Bonnie looked afraid.
I swung the shotgun up, set its butt on the floor and went down to one knee in front of Sarah.
This meant I looked up a little at her, for she was getting some height to her.
"Sarah," I said, taking both her folded hands in mine, "you kept me alive."
Sarah bit her bottom lip, for all the world like her Aunt Duzy used to, and like her Mama was doing right now, and I released her hand and I ran my arm around her middle and pulled her into me.
"Thank you," I said, and her arms wrapped around me as well.
I released her and leaned back a little and looked into the face of someone who'd just crossed out of childhood forever.
I stood and looked over at Bonnie.
She was looking past me.
I turned, looked at the crowd.
Levi was shouldering through the wake left by Tom Lander's departure.
Sarah and I stepped aside and Bonnie took one hesitant step, then another, and looked like she was going to faint.
I'd never in my life known the woman to faint.
Bonnie is one of the strongest women I've known.
Bonnie is one of the toughest and most capable women I've ever known.
Bonnie is a feminine woman and a lady to her core but right now I reckon she was over wrought, for she still hand one hand to her high stomach and the other started to reach forward, and Levi caught her just as her knees gave way.
The tall agent stood there with the limp woman in his arms: he'd got her around behind the shoulder blades and behind the knees and picked her up as easily as picking up a child, and now he was standing and looking at her, and his expression was that of a man holding the one most precious thing he'd ever seen.
The scene froze for a long moment.
Sarah's hand found mine and her hand was cool and trembling a little, and clutched mine tightly, the grip of a young woman whose world had been shivered to its foundations: I squeezed back, gently, knowing my hand would feel strong, dry and warm to her.
Levi looked up at me and his eyes changed.
I near to laughed when he looked at me and opened his mouth, for I have felt the way he sounded.
God be praised, I did not laugh, for the man spoke from the heart.
His voice was that of a man right next to lost.
"Linn," he said, "what do I do now?"

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Linn Keller 11-12-10


It took me a little to get things sorted out.
Esther, bless her heart, showed up like a genie out of a bottle and took Levi in hand: "Sarah, you're with me," I said quietly, and felt her nod in reply: Esther had Levi by the forearm and steered him expertly through the crowd, toward the stairs.
I saw her raise a summoning finger.
"Mr. Baxter, if you please," she called, and the crowd's murmuring diminished out of respect for the matronly woman with the immaculate hair and shimmering gown: "A bottle of brandy, and have Daisy send up tea and sandwiches."
Sarah squeezed my hand and cleared her throat.
"Uncle Linn," she began, and I drew out a chair.
Sarah sat.
"Now we reconstruct what happened."
Sarah nodded, big-eyed.
Her self-assurance had fled in the cold light of reflection: she was just realizing with horror the enormity of her act and probably she was feeling a conflict at how easily she had responded to a situation.
I spoke in quiet tones, my chair drawn up close to hers, our knees nearly touching.
I had both her hands in mine, the double ten-bore laid on the table beside me; I paid no attention to the swampers mopped up the blood, nor as they packed the table out to be cleaned outside.
I looked over at Digger and his assistant when they came over with solemn faces and artificially sorrowful voices to pick up their new customer.
"I've gone through his effects," I said, and disappointment flickered across Digger's face. He'd tried to relieve the deceased of valuables in the past -- I'd also caught him at it -- and we'd come to an understanding.
If I went through the decedent's effects and said I hadn't, Digger knew the contents were fair game.
If I lied to him, on the other hand, he was convinced that I had indeed not only gone through them, but left them for evidentiary purposes, why, he dare not touch them.
Sometimes I actually did go through the effects.
"Now Sarah," I said, "which door did you and your Mama come in?"
Sarah swallowed hard, blinked slowly as she looked into the recent past.
I walked her through the moments leading up to all the excitement.
We went back to the front door and she said in a low voice every word she'd spoken since coming into the Jewel.
Sarah came close to spilling tears when she repeated what she'd told Mr. Baxter about flattery getting him everywhere, and I had her close her eyes and pressed my silk rag against her closed lids, soaking up the excess.
Her eyes opened and I saw them lose focus of the here and now as she looked into the next moments she recalled, and described what she saw, and what her gut told her.
I listened carefully, especially to what she intuited.
I learned a long time ago women are magical creatures and they can feel more than men experience with their five senses.
I've done as much, time and again.
I made mental notes here and there, for I knew where Tom Landers must have been: he'd picked up on things and sent me that note, and I needed to cross reference Sarah's testimony with his.
We went back to the table, Sarah's face pale and taut but she had a hard hand on the reins of her feelings: I stopped and went to one knee again, and looked her in the eye and held her by both shoulders.
"Sarah," I said gently, "you are doing fine. You are doing a very difficult thing and I know it's really hard for you to go through this with me, but it's necessary."
She nodded, swallowing again, and I knew she durst not trust her voice.
She described the dreadful realization the one man was planning to back shoot me.
She spoke of how slowly his hand seemed to close around the handle of his Colt.
She described the knuckles blanching as he gripped, and his thumb was on the hammer spur and he started to draw the hammer back and the pistol was half way out of leather and she moved.
Her eyes were wide now, but the eyes of a blind woman: she was not seeing the Jewel, she saw the one most horrifying moment of the entire experience, and I knew I had to pull her through it.
Kicking and screaming if I had to, but she had to punch through that wall.
"Sarah, show me," I said, and she moved like someone in a dream: she took an invisible chin in her left hand, laid the blade and leaned down to hiss words into a non-existent ear: "Then he tried to grab my arm," she said, and jerked her empty hand -- "I drew the blade across and came up --" her empty hand rolled from palm-up to hammer-fist, ready to drive an icepick straight down -- "I ran the blade just behind his collar bone and pulled, once, then I let go and pulled back."
Her hands came up and she danced back, two light steps, crouched, her left hand open and ready to block, deflect or grab, her right ready to punch, slash or stab.
"What happened next?"
Sarah blinked, relaxed a little, straightened.
"Tom Landers," she said, then turned -- "Mama! I stood and she said no, don't go, and grabbed my arm."
Sarah turned to me, distress graving her young features. "Uncle Linn, I shoved her hard --"
"Show me." I swung around and took the seat Bonnie had occupied.
"I was here," Sarah said, "and I turned ..."
Sarah rose.
I rose and grasped her upper arm.
Sarah spun and stepped into me, driving the heel of her left hand into my breastbone.
I went back against the wall, hands splayed out to catch my balance, and the velvet overlaying the lath and plaster did not cushion me one little bit.
I struggled to get my feet under me.
My ribs hurt like homemade hell.
It felt like a sunball detonated front and back on my right side from hitting that wall but I could not let Sarah see it.
I managed a grin and a chuckle.
"What's wrong, Soapy?" a familiar voice called. "Can't take care o' your women?"
"Take care of THEM?" I gaspe. "She done took care of ME!"
I turned and winked at Sarah.
Her eyes were big and concerned and she said "Uncle Linn --" in a quavery little voice and I smiled and waved a hand. "Okay, now we know it was very important that you tend that detail. You stopped the man who was going to back shoot me. You saw Tom Landers. Show me where he was sitting, and show me what he did."
Mr. Baxter came worrying back through the crowd.
"Sheriff, can I get ye anything?" he asked, glancing over at Sarah, who was sitting again and looking kind of drained.
"Yes, thank you," I said, and shortly he returned.
I handed a shot glass to Sarah.
"Sarah, you have had a successful kill," I said. "With me, now."
Sarah looked at the clear lightning and looked at me and we both upped out glasses and downed the contents in one breath.
I caught Sarah's shot glass as it fell from nerveless fingers.
Sarah coughed, choked, bent over a little, fanned herself and wiped tears from her eyes, and I'm not sure but what a little trickle of smoke didn't hiss out of her ears.
Mr. Baxter looked at me with dismay as I handed him back the shot glasses.
"Sheriff," he said, "what did you just do to that poor girl?"
I put a hand on Mr. Baxter's shoulder and leaned over so he could hear my whisper.
"I just guaranteed that she will never, ever turn to the bottle in times of crisis."
"Uncle Linn," Sarah wheezed, and coughed out a puff of steam, "that went down like a lighted kerosine lamp!"
"You oughta taste the strong stuff," I deadpanned. "Feel like taking a walk?"
Sarah nodded. "I need some air."
The crowd parted readily as we headed for the front door.

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Lady Leigh 11-12-10


Levi followed Esther upstairs, and into her office. Esther motioned with her graceful hand to a chaise longue in the corner of her office, and it was there Levi , ever so gently, laid Bonnie down. He tried to mask the similar tugging of emotions he felt to the night outside of the Denver Opera House. He ran his hand through the side of his hair as he stood there …...

Esther took a good long look at Levi while he did not notice her doing so. “Men do not like feeling helpless … especially at a woman's expense” she though to herself.

Esther ….. The good Lord above gifted Esther with wisdom and a marveling intuition. “Hmmmm” Esther continued her thoughts. “It's a wonder I have not noticed this before ….”

She smile, “Levi?”

“Yes, Ma'am?”

“Would you please hand me the bottle of smelling salts? …... Yes, that bottle right there …... Thank you, Levi”

Levi stepped back and watched Esther wave the opened bottle back and forth under Bonnie's nose.

Esther smiled as he heard Levi's breath exhale when Bonnie's eye lids fluttered open.

However, both stood, mouth agape, as they heard Bonnie's first words, “Dear God … what kind of person kills with such ease …. especially when she is …..” Bonnie looked up at Esther with eyes pleading as urgently as any she had ever seen, “Whatever am I to do, Esther? How am I expected to feel?” Tears streamed down Bonnie's face, “How do I not fear my daughter?”

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Linn Keller 11-13-10


Bonnie was distraught.
She surged to her feet, pushing Esther aside and staggering across the room, one hand to her high stomach, a sick expression on her face.
Levi wavered.
Bonnie stumbled over to Esther's desk, leaned against it, both hands clutching the edge of the heavy oak top, shoulders heaving.
Levi stepped in behind her, hesitant, afraid to touch her and yet afraid not to.
He leaned over her a little, grasped her shoulders gently.
Bonnie let out a low, quavering cry, a wordless moan that rose in pitch until she turned and buried her grief in Levi's shirt front: she clutched the man's coat, trembling, and Levi put his arms around her.
He looked utterly and absolutely lost.
Esther looked out the window at the source of her distress.
Her husband and Bonnie's daughter were walking toward the Sheriff's office.
Esther noticed one detail that Bonnie must have missed.
Had Sarah been prisoner, the Sheriff would have grasped her arm.
Esther clearly saw Sarah's hand on the Sheriff's arm, and Esther knew that Sarah was not prisoner, but ally.
She would mention this to Bonnie, yes, but not just now.
Right now Bonnie had need of sympathetic ears and tea, and in that order.
"Levi," Esther said quietly, and together they helped the trembling, sobbing woman to an upholstered, velvet-covered chair.

Willing hands hauled the limp form of the fellow with the caved in cheek bone to the hoosegow.
Doc came and went, but not before giving the man a draught of laudunum: he wanted him pretty well immune to pain before he inserted the probe up the fellow's left nostril and pushed the bones back out as best he could.
While Doc worked on the man in one cell, the Sheriff and Sarah stepped in front of the other barred door.
The Sheriff's face was impassive, his eyes very pale.
Sarah's expression, too, was solemn.
"Now suppose," the Sheriff said mildly, "suppose you tell me what in the cotton pickin' you fellas intended on doin' in there."
The man shuddered as he watched Doc stirring around in his partner's sinus, turned away as Doc manipulated the bone, visibly bulging the purpled flesh overlaying the field of labor.
"His fault," he mumbled. "His idea."
"His idea to what?"
"Kill you." He looked through the bars, defeated. "He wanted to be a big man. He allowed as we-all could back shoot you when he braced you, catch you by surprise and he'd put one in your gut after you was hit. He'd get the reward an' split it with us."
"Reward." The Sheriff's smile was thin, cynical.
A nod, a blink: the man looked away.
"How much reward?"
"Ten thousand."
"That's all?"
"Ain't that enough?"
The Sheriff turned to Sarah. "You hear that, Agent? Ten thousand for little old me!"
Sarah frowned, looked at the Sheriff, looked at the prisoner. "He's worth more than that."
"What's it matter now?" the prisoner mumbled toward the scuffed toes of his turned-up boots.
"How many of you were there?"
The prisoner looked at the Sheriff, looked at Sarah. "Hell, you oughta know, you got all of us!" He shook his head. "Agent." He wiped his forehead with a wrinkled shirt sleeve. "You fooled us, lady. I thought you was just a pretty girl."
"She's family," the Sheriff said shortly. "Now who put you up to it?"
"Him." He nodded to the moaning patient.
"Who's payin' the reward?"
"Hell, I dunno. Dingle Berry there was gonna collect an' split it with us. Ten thousand five ways would make us well off!"
"Five to one and you still couldn't do the job," Sarah sniffed. "No wonder the agency is hiring pretty girls."
She tapped the back of the Sheriff's hand with a delicate knuckle, inclined her head toward the office.
The Sheriff followed.
Sarah held up one finger, stepped outside and closed the door.
The Sheriff could barely hear her but he knew she had just bent over the hitch rail and was throwing her guts up.

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Linn Keller 11-13-10


Sarah cupped her hands and splashed water onto her face.
Bent over like she was, she pressed her knee into the side of the horse trough, unmindful of getting her fine dress dirty: at the moment she did not care.
Sarah brought another double handful of cold water up and washed her face, as if to wash away everything that happened, then she seized the edge of the horse trough and shoved her face into the water.
She straightened quickly, slinging water, lost her balance and staggered back.
Anonymous hands caught her, an anonymous voice said "Easy, missy, you all right?"
Sarah nodded, coughing, bent over again, hands on her knees.
"Here, missy, maybe you best set down."
The hands again, on her shoulders, steering her, turning her gently: she wiped her eyes with a bent finger, blinked as the Sheriff's door opened, and she stepped into the solid-built office.
"Soapy?" the voice called, and Sarah remembered the voice from the Jewel: where before it had chaffed her Uncle Linn in a rough but good-natured way, now the voice was gentler, a little deeper.
Sarah heard a chair scrape a little and felt it bump against the back of her knees.
She sat abruptly, not bothering to smooth the material under her backside, and she dropped her head in her hands and drove her elbows into her thighs.
The voice was beside her now, and lower, as if the man were squatted beside her.
"Missy?" he asked. "You gonna be all right?"
Sarah nodded, not raising her head from her hands. Her stomach was still in rebellion and she had the distinct feeling the world was spinning off its axle and careening wildly through Chaos itself.
She felt the heat of the man's body beside her, then the heat was gone and she heard his quiet footsteps across the holystoned floor.
"Soapy, you want I should do anything?" she heard, and the voice was quiet, the concerned words of someone who had been a father, or perhaps an uncle.
Sarah could not hear the Sheriff's low-voiced reply.
Footsteps retreated, the door closed: Sarah sat, remembering how sick her Mama looked when her Mama looked at her.
"I disappointed her," she said in a faint voice.
The Sheriff's hands were warm on her wrists: he did not attempt to draw her hands from the sides of her head, nor her fingers from where she had thrust them into her elaborate coiffure: his hands were loose, open, gentle and very warm, but they were not closed about her wrists, just laid on them.
"You kept me alive, Sarah," he said quietly.
Sarah nodded.
"You had no means of stopping him except the way you did it."
Again the double-nod, then Sarah raised her head and glared at her uncle.
Her eyes were red and bright with unshed tears, tears she was fiercely determined should not spill over her cheeks, and her eyes were puffy, but the look in her eyes was that of someone utterly convinced of her rightness in the moment -- and yet trying to make some sense out of it all.
She held the glare for a long moment, then closed her eyes and shivered.
"What about Mama?" she whispered. "She must think I'm a monster!"
The Sheriff leaned his forehead against hers.
He smelled of horse-sweat and leather, of gun oil and man-smell, the way he always did: there was a trace of some cologne or another, something subtle Sarah could never identify, but the scent, the combination of scents, was uniquely his.
"I seem to remember Bonnie defending her child," the Sheriff said quietly.
"I would pay good money to have seen her standing there in the Jewel, just before she fired my Navy Colt, a goddess in chiseled marble stopping the reavers and barbarians the only way she could."
"I remember," Sarah whispered. "Dawg had me pressed back against the wall and he was all bristled up and growling, and Mama ..." Sarah giggled.
"Mama did look like a goddess when she brought judgement upon the sinners!"
"So did you," the Sheriff whispered.
Sarah opened her eyes again and looked at her uncle.
"I don't feel like a goddess," she whispered miserably.
The Sheriff stroked her nose gently with his forefinger, the way he used to when she was a little girl.
"You don't have much choice," he said, brushing his bent finger under her nose and looking at it.
"What are you doing?" she whispered, curious.
"Checking for blood."
"Blood?" She blinked.
The Sheriff gave her his best Innocent Expression.
"You don't have much choice about being a Goddess," he explained. "Right now I have you so high on a pedestal it's a wonder you don't have nosebleed."
Sarah looked at her uncle for a long moment, then she began to giggle and wrapped her arms around him.
The Sheriff, kneeling before his niece, hugged her gently.
His knees ached, pressed into the wood floor, and his ribs were still calling him unkind names, but he would not have pulled away in that moment for all the gold in Firelands.

Not long after, there was a deferential knock on a tight-built ranch house's door.
A messenger with hat in hand made a brief, concise report, then mounted his horse and rode back into town.
Fannie turned to Charlie.

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Linn Keller 11-15-10


The season was getting chilly.
I'm surprised it hadn't got colder faster than it did: Sarah didn't have a wrap so I peeled out of my coat and draped it around her shoulders.
Her hair was still immaculate and her gown still lovely, but I am a tall man and my coat on her slender frame made her look like a little girl wearing her Daddy's coat.
I felt a fierce affection, a fierce protection for her: she stood, tugging the coat into place, and held it closed with crossed hands.
She took a step toward the door and seemed to be considering something.
I stopped and waited.
She had been through enough and too much this fine day and I did not want to add to her anxiety by hurrying her out the door, or even appearing to look impatient.
Sarah came to a decison of some kind, shifted the coat around a little bit: she held it shut with one hand, running the other arm out and laid her hand on my arm.
She looked at me matter-of-factly, eyes bright in the Aladdin lamp light, not as pale as she was earlier.
"A lady does not leave the room unless she is on a gentleman's arm," she said, as if quoting someone, and I nodded.
I took that as a good sign.
Had she simply walked beside me, it would have been with her head down: that she would maintain position beside me would be to assume a position of obedience and would give the impression that she considered herself in need of control, or perhaps even that she was a prisoner.
Instead she walked with her back straight and her head up, and she looked boldly about her: she was still troubled, yes, but she had apparently come to some decision, and her hand on my arm declared to the world that she chose to come with me -- she chose to come with me.
We crossed the street and climbed the three steps to board walk level, and stopped.
Sarah turned toward me and took both my hands in hers.
"Uncle Linn?" she asked.
"Yes, Sarah?"
"I know what I did was right."
I nodded.
"I know I had to do what was right."
Again, my nod.
"It was the only way I could keep that man from back shooting you."
"Yes," I said softly. "It was."
"Uncle Linn, am I a monster?"
I swallowed hard at that one.
I'd asked myself that same question, time and again in the past, especially when I was a young officer in that damned War.
"No, Sarah," I said quietly. "You are most certainly not a monster."
Sarah looked past me, her gaze running down the street into the purpling darkness.
"How do I know I'm not a monster?"
"Because of what you just said."
Sarah's gaze snapped back to me, her eyes bright and sharp.
Penetrating is the word I'm looking for.
Her eyes drove right into mine, or at least the look in them, did.
"If you were a monster," I said softly, "you would never even ask that question."
Sarah blinked and her expression gentled a little, and I think that's when she realized that indeed she was not a monster.
She wasn't quite sure what she was, or who she was becoming, but a monster she was not.
Sarah nodded.
"Mama is probably tapping her foot, waiting for me," she said hesitantly, and the Sarah I'd known for so long peeked shyly around who she was becoming.
"I think your Mama will understand."
Sarah's hands were still in mine: smaller, dainty, a surprising trace of callus, just a trace but enough to feel ... her hands were cool and I thought for a moment she might be using me as a hand warmer.
I've always had hot hands.
An old mountain witch took my hands once and pressed them between hers: she swayed with her eyes closed and her head thrown back and she said "Hot hands, a Healer's hands. You were to be the firstborn female and you have the Healer's gift," and she taught me to blow fire and stop blood with the Word --
I blinked.
That was a memory that hadn't visited since ... oh, hell, Jacob was just come into my life, and I hadn't thought about it from then to that damned War ...
"Uncle Linn?" Sarah's soft voice brought me back to the here and now.
"Yes, Sarah?"
Sarah bit her bottom lip and then threw herself into me, hugging me with the desperation of someone who is afraid her soul is going to blow away on a dark and frightening wind.
"Uncle Linn, I wish you had been my Papa," she quavered.
I bent a little and wrapped my arms around her, and I held her, tight, tight, the embrace of a father for a favorite daughter.
"If you were my daughter," I whispered, "I would be very proud of all that you are!"
I'm glad she had me in a high embrace, for if she'd squeezed me down a little lower, where my ribs were healing, I would probably have passed out from the pain.

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Linn Keller 11-16-10


Hasty footfalls retreated down the alley beside the jail.
The Sheriff came around as he always did and closed the shutters, blocking the barred window from common view.
The stove was fired and warming the jail cells and the Sheriff saw no use in heating the outdoors as well.
The light was poor, otherwise he might have seen two sets of boot prints in the dirt below the window.
His instincts were undiminished, though: he knew he was silhouetted against the gas-lighted street behind him.
When the figure stepped out into the alley, the figure apparently didn't know the Sheriff had painted the board fence beyond a good coat of whitewash a-purpose.
The skulking figure was silhouetted as well.
"You fast as they say you are?" came the challenge.
"Try me," the Sheriff replied.
The stranger tried him.

Two days later, over a teacup sized fire in a deep, narrow draw, men talked as they always do, of places they'd been and things they'd seen, people they'd met and those they'd heard about.
Two of the three at the fire did nearly all the talking.
There had been no introductions.
None were needed; they were three men, traveling, gathered from chance and happenstance into that wind-sheltered hollow, sharing a companionable fire and some coffee.
Finally the third one spoke.
"You recall Rusty Smith?" he finally said, haunted eyes staring into the darkness beyond their little circle of light.
"Rusty?" one said. "Yeah, I know him, why?"
"Got kilt a couple days ago."
"Nah!" came the dismayed reply. "Rusty? What happen, someone pizen his whiskey?"
"No." The haunted man gripped his tin cup, flexed his fingers, gripped it again.
"He went up against that old Sheriff."
"Old Sheriff?" the other one asked quietly. "Ain't but one old Sheriff hereabouts. You mean Firelands?"
Wide and staring eyes closed slowly, opened slowly. "Yeah," he nodded.
"I heard he's a hard man."
A shiver, the sound of in-drawn breath.
"Rusty was fast."
"Sure was."
"He warn't nothin'."
"Sho'! Do tell!"
"I seen it!" Light glinted off the scratched and dimpled tin cup's bottom as its vile contents went down an unshaven, dirt-ringed throat. "Rusty called him out an' Rusty started an' he didn't get a shot off!"
Two low, admiring whistles harmonized eerily in the night air.
"You fellas rest easy. I'm pushin' on for Carbon Hill."
"What's in Carbon?"
"Susie Nine Toes, that's what."
"Ah," came the understanding reply.

Some miles away, in the Sheriff's house, quiet words were spoken in the darkness.
Esther was warm and comfortable, cuddled up against her husband, her hand in his as it usually was.
"You should have seen Angela," she whispered. "I have never seen a child so at home in the saddle!"
"She takes after her Mama," the Sheriff murmured, giving his wife's hand a little squeeze.
"She is bred to the saddle," Esther continued thoughtfully. "She is from Kentucky, after all."
"I found out a little about her family."
"I chased her Pappy around when we tried to catch General John Hunt Morgan."
The Sheriff felt Esther's smile in the quiet dark.
"I told you."
"Yes, ma'am, you did."
"She jumped that fence like it was nothing."
"Did she steer for the fence?"
"I'm not sure. I thought she was surprised because she screamed, then she landed and she laughed." Esther laid a gentle hand on her husband's flannel-nightshirted breast. "She shouted 'Go, horsie!' and never slacked Rosebud's speed one whit!"
The Sheriff nodded.
He'd slipped, sock-foot and silent, into his little girl's room, and knelt beside her bed once he'd gotten home and tended his own mount.
Angela had been soundly, deeply asleep, and never stirred as he laid a gentle hand on hers and whispered "Thank you," before turning to his own beautiful bride, and his own night's rest.

In another house on the other side of town, two women, one asleep, one awake: the younger, with the bloom of youthful beauty fresh on her cheeks, rolled up on her side and slept the dreamless sleep of the righteous.
The other woman, older, with care wearing her face, sat alone at her kitchen table, a forgotten cup of tea cold between her hands.
The hired girl had sat up with her for a time, until Bonnie regarded her with a sad smile and said there was no sense in both of them going without rest, she will be fine, why don't you get some sleep?
The girl had stood, hesitated: "If I may, ma'am," she said hesitantly, and Bonnie nodded, once, her eyes big and soft, the eyes of a woman whose defenses were eroded, beaten down, crumbled.
"Ma'am, if she were a boy -- me brothers were the same, now -- I'd say put her in the Army an' let the Army take the starch out of her." She blinked at the memory, for it was the advice given her mother, when her brothers came of age and decided their life's duty was to whip the world.
"I don't think the Army is enlisting young girls," Bonnie said in a tired voice.
"Then, ma'am, think o' this." She took a breath and took the plunge, realizing that free advice just might get her dismissed, but realizing this woman needed a woman's ear, a woman's voice.
"You've raised her well. She's a good girl. I can't see her as anythin' but good. Ye've bent the twig an' her tree grows accordingly.
"No, ma'am." The hired girl nodded once for emphasis. "She canna' be anythin' but good, for that's how ye've raised her."

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Linn Keller 11-18-10


"Now do ye remember th' time," the New York Irishman began, to which the others chorused "YES!" -- for the New York Irishman was prone to trot out the same old stories, day after day after day: his tales never varied, save only that with re-telling, the teller aggrandized his own efforts, until he himself ripped buildings from their foundations, put out fires by virtue of spitting on it once or twice, reached up into tall trees to rescue stranded children, and once or twice reached into the heavens with a gentle hand to offer a safe perch for a tired angel winging its way between Paradise and the earth.
Undeterred, the New York Irishman scooped a gob of Standard Oil Mica Grease onto the shim shingle and began carefully, lovingly, anointing the driver's front axle stub of their beloved "Masheen."
"When the alarm came in, 'twas O'Doul, O'Toole and Clancy first down the pole, and Clancy stepped on the cat's tail --"
The New York Irishman flinched and raised a hand as three or four boots arced through the air, clumping hollowly as they rebounded from various portions of his anatomy and fell to the floor.
"Well, the cat took out an' tried t' climb the lead mare's leg, an' the mare fetched the Captain a kick --"
The New York Irishman ducked, looked around: fortunately no one had chosen to toss the cast iron stove at him, so he finished greasing the stub and worked the brightly-painted, carefully-pinstriped, lovingly-polished wheel back into place.
"And wi' the kick, the Captain let out a yell --"
Washer and bolt and locking pin, each in their turn, spun and thrust home, securing the wheel in place: the Irish Brigade put more miles on their beloved "Masheen" in maintaining their watering-points and in training than they ever did in actual use, which satisfied the entire Brigade.
"There now!" A quick wipe with his ever present rag and the Masheen was back in service and he leaned under to lower the boat jack that some dedicated idiot had hauled clear out to Colorado: massive and cast iron, it had been used in the boat yards in Ireland and could hoist a couple of tons by itself: the Masheen weighed little enough that the boat jack could hoist it and not know it was even in use.
That is, if cast iron could think.
The New York Irishman kicked boots out of the way and hauled the jack back to its alcove, under their common work bench, and wiped it down too: he was from New York (God would forgive him for that!) but he was a good man with tools, and his tools were neatly ranked and immaculate, and he dusted and polished them every single day.
The Welsh Irishman privately confided that he believed this a sign of insanity, but wisely kept his opinion from his East Coast colleague.
"All right, lads," Sean called, petting the velvet nose of the lead mare and feeding her a secret double-pinch of shaved tobacco, "let's be about our work, eh? It's chilly this mornin' so wear yer coat an' yer rubbers!"
"Yes, Mither!" came the cheerful and rather profane reply, followed by comments that compared their great, broad-shouldered chieftain to a mother hen, or a fussy schoolmarm: the jokes were rough, coarse, salty and entirely in good jest, for each man had at one time or another pulled the other's Irish hinder out of a bad one, and more times than once.
"Ladies, would ye run wi' us today?" Sean murmured, petting forelocks, patting necks, letting the three-mare hitch sniff his shirt front and nod and stamp their hooves impatiently.
The Irish Brigade swung aboard, the ladder wagon hitched on and ready -- the unknowing sometimes commented on the long and narrow profile of the fine new firehouse, laid up of locally fired brick -- and sometimes scratched their heads when they viewed the great double doors at either end, but when toured through the facility, they soon appreciated that the ladder wagon, hitched on behind, meant doors on each end allowed the Brigade to enter their Masheen in the back of the building, ladder wagon in tow, without having to back a hinged-in-the-middle rig through their front door.
It was so much handier with doors fore and aft.
Sean began humming, as he always did when he was getting ready for the morning's drive.
The mares were restless, impatient: they knew they would soon be doing what they loved most in the world, and that was to run, run ahead of the smoking, sparking, steam-whistling Masheen, with Sean standing upright and swinging his great blacksnake whip, swearing terrible oaths in Gaelic and singing the songs of an irish war-chieftain, driving his troika and his Masheen like a war-chieftain charging into battle.
"Open the doors, lads, an' let's be off!" Sean's joyful voice filled the firehouse's interior and the mares gathered themselves.
The double doors opened, the whip sang and seared through the air and Sean bellowed, "Run, damn ye, or I'll have yer guts for garters! No Irish need apply! Run, ladies, RUN!"

Up the street, Maude had just begun arranging goods on the counter for the morning's business when she heard the piercing whistle of the Irish Brigade's steam engine.
She looked at the clock and smiled.
"Eight o'clock," she thought. "Right on time."

The firehouse dog -- they'd debated whether to send off for a genuine Dalmatian, but a local stray had won their affections and proven effective, with their cat, at keeping down mice -- ran after the steam-engine, barking, for a hundred yards or so, then turned and trotted importantly back to the firehouse.
Halfway there he stopped and looked up, tilting his head a little and quirking his flop ears up in puzzlement.
Something was drifting through the air.
He jumped, snapped at this white fluffy stuff.
It was his first snow.

Schoolchildren jumped and pointed and cheered at the sight of the Irish Brigade, out for their morning run: they were headed away from town and they knew the Brigade would describe a loop on a road specially made for their use, come back at speed and stop at a particular point: they would unhitch the team and take it a little distance from the rig, while others laid suction line into a watering pit maintained for that purpose: they would raise a ladder against an overhead beam, climb the ladder, then back down, then they would rotate, giving all hands practice and practice and practice again at raising water, throwing water, raising the ladder and climbing, then coming down at speed.
Sometimes they took a weighted dummy up on the first run, packing it back down as if it were a victim: this was done with coarse jests on the way down, and profanities on the way up, for it was less awkward to climb under load, but more awakward while less work to bring it down.
Emma Cooper stepped out of the double doors of the whitewashed schoolhouse and stood on the top step, bell in hand, and rang the children inside.

The Sheriff drew the door shut behind him, removing his Stetson while giving the interior of the Mercantile a long look as he always did.
Maude looked up as the grey-mustached old lawman came inside.
"Morning, Sheriff," she greeted him. "Would you like some coffee?"
The Sheriff grinned, a broad and boyish grin: Maude loved to see the man smile, for too often he was solemn and troubled, just like her husband WJ had been, rest his soul.
Both men had been in the War, and she could see the Sheriff suffered from it just like her dear WJ had.
This morning, at her greeting, the Sheriff's grin was broad and unaffected, and Maude rejoiced.
The Sheriff did too.
When Maude offered him coffee, it meant he had a package, and the boy in him still liked getting packages.
The Sheriff accepted the coffee, and Maude set out a loaf of bread: still warm, she sliced half of it and set knife and a lump of butter on a saucer beside.
The Sheriff groaned with pleasure.
Biting into the warm, steaming, fragrant slice of homemade sourdough, he closed his eyes and chewed happily.
Maude folded her hands in her apron and nodded approval, like a doting grandmother.
"Maude," the Sheriff murmured after a sip of coffee, "I love you from the bottom of my heart!"
Maude laid a hand on his forearm and gave him a knowing look.
"It must be crowded in there," she said quietly. "With Sarah and Bonnie and all the other women you keep there? I'm in good company!"
The Sheriff's ears flamed a bright scarlet and he looked away with a guilty expression and Maude laughed.
"Oh, don't worry," she smiled with a dismissive wave. "Your secret is safe!"
The Sheriff sighed. "I'm just an old softy," he said, taking another bite of buttered bread.
"I know," Maude nodded, laying a hand against his cheek and giving him an understanding look. "Sheriff, sometimes I worry about you. You work too hard."
Such familiarity would be unthinkable later in the day, or on the street, or anywhere but there in the Mercantile, with just the two of them there: but here, it was a conversation between two old friends, and confidences could be exchanged without fear of repercussion.
The Sheriff switched his coffee cup to his right hand and laid his hand on Maude's.
"Maude, my dear," he said softly, "I don't know what I would do without you."
"Oh, you would find someone else," Maude said briskly, turning and marching behind her counter. "You'd find someone who would listen and never tell, who would listen and not judge, and you would probably have to talk to a rock someplace" -- she turned, amusement in her eyes -- "because I'm the only one I know of that you can say anything to and it goes no further!"
The Sheriff laughed. "Yes, ma'am, you're right!"
Maude picked up a package, grunted once, set it on the counter.
"Well finally!" the Sheriff said with delight.
Maude smiled as the Sheriff stooped a little, dipping his knees to reach his boot knife: she watched as he took a short grip on the long blade, slicing delicately through the package and opening it.
When packing and padding and wrappings were all displaced and the delivery could be examined, the Sheriff had small wooden crates on the counter: Maude whisked the excess away with her usual efficiency, and the Sheriff unwrapped a revolver, gleaming blue and custom engraved.
"Oh, that's pretty!" Maude said, tilting her head a little. "What is it?"
The Sheriff picked up the Colt. "It's Sarah's," he said. "She needs to learn to shoot pistol."
"I see." Something in Maude's eyes changed, but she held her counsel.
The Sheriff picked up the model P.
Its checkered ivory grips were unique, but not terribly unusual; they were, after all, grips on a revolver: in the final analysis, grips are grips, and while pretty, they were not shockingly out of the ordinary.
The cylinder was.
The Sheriff picked up the revolver, turning it, examining it minutely from all angles.
It was a .22.
The cylinder was, to be perfectly frank, grotesque: the frame was full sized, but the cylinder was very, very short, save for the web that extended forward and covered the base pin on which it rotated, for its full length.
The barrel was turned and threaded and extended a like distance into the frame.
"Umm ... that's ... different," Maude hazarded.
"It's made for the .22 short," the Sheriff explained. "I had them shorten the cylinder so it would just fit the cartridge, then set the barrel back so there would be a minimal jump from bullet to rifling."
"I see."
"Here" -- the Sheriff unwrapped and held up a conventional looking cylinder -- "is the one for the regular .22."
Maude blinked, tilted her head, debating on whether to say anything and finally electing to hold her counsel.
"Sarah needs to learn the revolver," the Sheriff continued. "I thought to start her out on a .22 and decided if she's starting out, she'll start on the best there is." He looked over at the small wooden crates, each about the size of a shoebox. "I reckon we'll go through these in fairly short order. I'll start her out with the .22 short so she'll not be put off by recoil or report. We'll work up through the regular .22 and take it from there."
"It sounds like you've been putting some thought into this."
Maude had difficulty holding her voice steady.
The Sheriff nodded. "I don't want to start her out on my Navy Colt like I did her Mama. This should work better."
The Sheriff paid cash, as he always did, and packed his goods in the nearly-empty box before finishing another slice of bread and another tin cup of coffee.
Finally he extended his hands.
It was not the handshake of a business associate or the formal contact of a lawman with a constituent.
The Sheriff took both Maude's hands in both of his.
"Thank you, Maude," he said quietly.
"You take good care now," Maude replied, equally quietly.
She watched the slender waisted man's exit, his purchase on his left shoulder, left arm holding the box in place, leaving his good right hand free.
"I still think you work too hard," she whispered, then turned and looked at another package, one that she'd stacked beside the Sheriff's.
It was another wooden crate, this one larger than the two shoebox sized wooden cases the Sheriff had excavated from his box.
These were marked, ".44-40" and addressed to "Sarah Rosenthal, Firelands, Colorado."
It was another case of pistol ammunition, she knew.
Sarah had ordered two before this one.
Maude looked at the closed doors, saw a lone rider coming down the street: Jacob, coming in to meet his father.
"Sheriff," she said quietly, "I think you're a little bit late with Sarah."

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Linn Keller 11-18-10


Sarah was up before her Mama.
She slipped into wool socks and a union suit, canvas pants and a flannel shirt: she almost sighed with pleasure as she cinched the gunbelt around her slender middle, and shrugged into her canvas jacket.
Sock-footed and slient, she eased down stairs, carrying her boots and hat.
She made a quick bundle of bread and cheese, enough to fortify her for the ride ahead, and she hesitated as she leaned her rifle carefully against the corner inside the back door.
Sarah went to her Mama's desk.
It smelled of her perfume, and for a moment Sarah closed her eyes and imagined her Mama's arms around her, and she smiled with the memory.
The note she wrote by a beeswax taper was not lengthy, but it was important.

Mama -- You can't know how badly I needed to hear you say that what I did, was necessary.
Thank you for that.
I must go speak with Fannie so I can sort it all out.
I know I did what had to be done and I know that I was right.
I also know I must live with myself from this day forward.
I will come back to you.

Sarah folded the foolscap carefully into thirds, then leaned the beeswax candle over so it would drip on the edge. Once she had a puddle of the right size, she returned the candle to upright, took a cartridge and wiped its base across her forehead: her skin was oily there and she knew the slight film of skin oil on the brass base would act as a mold release and the warm wax would not adhere to it.
She pressed it firmly in place, held it for a few seconds, then released: the wax seal held the folded note closed.
Sarah knew it was not the durable and adherent seal of proper sealing-wax, made with a good percentage of shellac, but it would do.
Cupping her hand around the candle's flame, she puffed it out, then licked thumb and forefinger to moisten them before pinching out the glowing, smoking coal that remained bright at the end of the black, curled wick.
Sarah drew on her boots in the kitchen, picked up her rifle and the bundle of bread and cheese, and slipped silently out the back door.
A shadow melted from deeper shadow and coasted along beside her.
She leaned down and rubbed the Bear Killer's shoulders.
"I'm glad you're here," she whispered, and the Bear Killer reached up and licked her under the chin, then enthusiastically washed her face and behind her ears the way he always did, tail and hind quarters swinging vigorously in a happy canine's telegraph.
Sarah saddled her mare and led her a little distance from the house before mounting.
She did not want her Mama wakened, for she was satisfied Bonnie had been up late.

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Linn Keller 11-19-10


Jacob rode easy, relaxed, and his relaxed appearance was a deception.
He rode upright, but slouched a little, the easy posture of someone completely at home in the saddle, of a man on a good horse, confident in his abilities and those of his stallion.
If one had a more heavenly view of Firelands in that moment, they might have stretched a taut thread between Jacob, and his position on Firelands' main street, and a point in the distance, visible momentarily between the Silver Jewel and the new municipal building, a point intersecting a trail Jacob knew of: had Jacob been looking in that precise distance he might have seen the trail, but he would have dismissed it as uninteresting: Sarah's passage was not long before first light, and Jacob's shadow lay long on the street in the morning's red sun.
Sarah's beloved Twain Dawg -- or the Bear Killer, as his father had been calling the canine these days -- disappeared, and Jacob divined correctly that he'd gone back to be with his beloved mistress: as happy as he'd been with the twins, his eyes shone with absolute adoration every time he'd looked at Sarah; as protective and contented as he'd been with little Joseph, it was Sarah he followed with black and shining eyes.
Jacob could not help but smile a little, his smile tightening the corners of his eyes, but getting no further: that man was lucky indeed who knew such adoration, from any creature.
Little Joseph had not that adoring look: he had, however, been considerably less fussy since his teething was coming along.
Jacob did not realize just how well the lad was teething until little Joseph clamped down on his Pa's finger, which (to his credit) Jacob did not yank his finger from Jacob's mouth, but he did let out a distressed yelp, to his pink progeny's amusement.
"Now you know why I have been weaning him," Annette said with a knowing look.
Jacob had looked at his wife and she laughed at the profound distress in his eyes, for his eyes had gone from hers, downward, to ... well, Jacob considered the sensitive nature of her, um ... the sensitive nature of Annette's, ahhh ...
Jacob understood why Annette was weaning their son.
Now, though, riding down the main street, he nodded to Maude, standing out in front of the Mercantile, plying her broom as she always did: he touched hat brim between thumb and two fingers, and Maude stopped and smiled and waved, as she always did, and the cat was curled up on top of the barrel Bill and Mac used for their interminable checkers, at least when Bill was in town.
Since he'd taken the collar again and become Brother William, the cat had more time for her sunny perch, and Jacob's smile was undiminished as he watched the cat stretch and yawn, arching its back to an impossible degree.
Jacob saw the door of the Sheriff's office open, and his father stepped out and slung the dregs from the blue-granite coffee pot, into the street: his black horse snuffed at the wet streak, then turned its head the way it always did, as if it had just smelled something distasteful.
This time Jacob threw his head back and laughed, and his laugh was pleasant on the quiet morning air.
"Sir," Jacob said to no one in particular, "that black horse has the same opinion of your coffee as I do!"

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Linn Keller 11-19-10


The Sheriff looked up as Jacob opened the door.
"Take a look at this," the Sheriff said without preamble, tossing a folded sheet of paper across the desk at his son.
Jacob picked up the paper as his father leaned back in his chair, tracing a line in the office journal with his fingertip: the man frowned, laid his finger across his mustache, obviously considering a point.
Jacob opened the stiff paper and read.
The handwriting was regular and legible, the characters well and carefully formed: Jacob could tell from the darkness of the lines that they'd been made with a steel nib pen, traced slowly over the paper's surface: though blotted, the lines were distinct and deeply opaque.
My dear Sheriff, he read, and stopped.
"My dear Sheriff?" he thought, frowning.
He looked over the top of the paper at his father, who was still leaned back in his chair, frowning.
Jacob continued reading.
I am pleased to inform that my leg continues to heal without complication.
It will be some time before I am able to skip like a little girl, or even walk with a more dignified gait, but walk I shall.
I shall walk, and I have you to thank for it.

It was signed with a woman's name, a name Jacob did not recognize: the signature was ornate, elaborate, and the image of a violin was worked into the curlicues underscoring the name.
Jacob's left eyebrow rose as he folded the paper again and laid it carefully, precisely, in the center of his father's desk.
The Sheriff closed the journal and returned it to its place in the top right-hand drawer of the pine desk: he closed the drawer carefully and leaned forward, taking the bend out of his lower back.
"Did you hear about that one?" he asked, and Jacob nodded.
"I did, sir."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Figured so."
Jacob grinned.
"Word does travel, sir."
"You ready for court today?"
"Yes, sir."
"How is little Joseph?"
Jacob laughed, an easy laugh, and his father could see something, a memory most likely, behind the laugh.
"He has teeth, sir," Joseph said ruefully, examining a forefinger.
His father laughed now, quietly, remembering when his own young grew fangs.
"Annette?" he asked, and Jacob's expression softened a little, the way a man's will when he is remembering something particularly dear.
"She is weaning him, sir," he replied, and the Sheriff nodded.
"Did he bring blood?"
"On me or her?" Jacob replied, then reddened, and the Sheriff's ears colored in sympathy.
"Your finger, I take it."
"Oh." Jacob looked at his own digit again. "Yes, sir. No blood, sir."
"But it hurt."
Jacob shook his finger as if to flick off a droplet of water.
"It did, sir!"
"I'm surprised Annette doesn't have him weaned off and eating good beef for a steady diet."
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff sighed.
"Well, let's get this over with."
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff reached for the key ring, hooked it free of its peg, and together, the two lawmen went back to fetch out their prisoners.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-19-10


Midmorning sunshine, spring water chill enough to make teeth ache, cheese and new bread. Sarah drew a great draught of November wine into her lungs, letting it out with a sigh. The wet black nose under her palm drew her fingers to ruffle soft black ears, digging deep at the hollow base in the great canine's favorite scratching spot. The girl's Appaloosa mare, she of the early colt, munched grass for a moment then shook mightily, rattling tack, saddle blanket easing the itch of sweaty hide cooling in the chill air. Sarah looked around at the wide expanse of prairie grass that lapped at the shores of the surrounding hills. She sighed again. Why can't life always be this simple? she wondered silently, knowing the answer even before the question was completed...

Sarah stepped into the leather, clucking to the mare, the horse stepping out into the mile-eating rocking chair jog that was one of the reasons that Charlie had brought the mare with the herd when he shipped them to Colorado. Noon dinner would be at the horse ranch.

Nickers of greeting from the broodmare band signaled Sarah's arrival to her mentors. The sorrowful shadows in her usually bright eyes warned them that this visit was more than a social call, but Charlie was of the opinion that unless the occasion was life or death, it could wait until after elk steak, spuds and gravy, sourdough biscuits and fresh-brewed Arbuckle's.

"Light an' set, girl," he told Sarah. "I'll put your horse up, and see if I can dig up a buffalo for your friend there to gnaw on," he pointed at Twain Dawg. He grinned at her and she wrapped him in a hug.

"Thanks," she said simply, then turned to Fannie. "Aunt Fannie, I..." she began.

"We know, Sugar," Fannie interrupted. "A fella from town rode out here the day it happened."

"But you don't know all of it," Sarah insisted. "Mama..."

"Shh, Sugar," Fannie said. "We'll eat, then we'll talk. We need to wait for Charlie, anyway. Come on, you can wash up while he's unsaddling your horse." She held out a hand that Sarah gripped tightly as the two ladies made their way into the house, following the welcoming aromas that drifted from the open door.

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Linn Keller 11-20-10


His Honor the Judge looked over his spectacles at the Sheriff.
Jacob had been looking around the room with an uncomfortable expression.
The Sheriff knew his son and chief deputy was looking for someone, and he was satisfied he knew who.
He also knew Jacob would not say a word as long as they two were with the prisoners.
"Mister Foreman," the Judge said, "has the jury come to its verdict?"
"We have, Your Honor." The rancher was not entirely comfortable, speaking for the other eleven, but he was resolute: he had been appointed by his fellows, and he would conduct himself accordingly.
"What say you?"
The rancher swallowed, thrust his jaw out.
Their prisoners groaned and sagged: one lowered his misshapen, discolored head into manacled hands, the other shrank as if pricked with a pin, and the air escaped.
"Guilty, Your Honor. So say we all."
His Honor the Judge nodded, appreciating the man's remembering the corrrect phrasing, obviously learned from the last week's court session, when it was used by a nervous and stuttering clerk newly hired at the bank, and appointed foreman God knows why.
"Thank you, gentlemen. You are dismissed, and the court thanks you for your duty."
The jury filed out, looking at the prisoners, most with hostility, all with distaste: few things were liked less than a back shooter, and these two were that.
Though they may have been beneath contempt, they were nonetheless held in contempt by this dozen representatives of the community.
"The prisoners will stand," the Bailiff intoned, his voice loud in the expectant silence.
Blue smoke drifted in layers in the still air of the courtroom.
The Sheriff had his hand under the near prisoner's arm, and helped him upright, Jacob in like wise hoisted his from his seat and to his feet.
"Have you anything to say before I pronounce sentence?" His Honor the Judge asked, his voice precise, each syllable clearly, unmistakably enunciated.
He saw their eyes dart back and forth, desperately seeking some escape, some wisdom, something that would spare them from what they knew was sure to follow.
"You have been found guilty by a jury of your peers of the several crimes of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, assault with intent to commit murder, attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, assault on a law enforcement officer, any one of which is a capital crime."
Judge Hostetler paused, eyes dark and yet bright beneath snowy-white eyebrows.
"I sentence you to death by hanging, sentence to be carried out at the Sheriff's earliest convenience."
The gavel described a quick, vicious arc, as if the Judge were smiting the guilty with his own hand.
"Bailiff, is that the last case to come before this court?"
The Bailiff looked about, looked at the Sheriff.
The Sheriff nodded, once.
"Your Honor, that is the last case."
"Good." Judge Hostetler smacked his gavel, much less firmly, but no less briskly. "Court is adjourned."
The Sheriff swung his chair out of the way and escorted his manacled prisoner out from behind the table.
"Sheriff?" His Honor summoned.
"Your Honor?" The Sheriff stopped, his hand firm on his prisoner's arm.
"A word, if you please."
Politely phrased, yes, but more an order than a request.
"At your pleasure, sir."
"Tend to your detail, Sheriff. Meet me here after your prisoners are secured."
"Yes, Your Honor."

Tom Landers accepted the bung starting maul from Mr. Baxter.
He took two long strides and belted the waddy across the gourd, flooring the man with one stroke.
Gunsmoke rolled away from the pair, clinging to the wall before dissipating in a general haze, and Tom Landers fumbled in his vest pocket for a Lucifer match: striking it on his boot heel, he passed it quickly near the broken stub where the gas light had been.
A huge cloud of fire appeared, rolled up toward the embossed squares of the stamped-tin ceiling before disappearing, leaving the tongue of fire shooting out of the pipe.
"Get the Brigade," he said quietly.

Sean petted the lead mare's velvety nose, letting her lip some shaved plug from his palm.
The back doors were just being drawn shut when a rapid, powerful hammering on the front doors sounded an urgent summons.

Mr. Baxter jumped back as the doors swung open and the team surged forward.
"WHITHER AWAY, SOR?" Sean bellowed from his standing perch, looking like a muscled, sculpted, Celtic war-god.
"FIRE!" Mr. Baxter shouted, caught up in the moment. "FIRE IN THE JEWEL!"
Plaited leather sang through the air: a whistle, a yell: "RUN, LADIES! NOW FOR IT, RUN!"
Mr. Baxter ran after them, the firehouse dog galloping happily beside him, tongue flopping with the effort.

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Mr. Box 11-20-10


When Tom Landers said, "Get the Brigade." I dropped everything and hot footed out the door! I yelled, "FIRE!" as I got closer to the firehouse. They must have been just inside the doors because they swung open so fast that I was almost knocked down before I could stop! Sean screamed, "WHITHER AWAY, SOR!"
"FIRE!" I replied! "FIRE IN THE JEWEL!" I couldn't begin to keep up on the way back. They had already hooked up the suction line to the hard line and nearly had steam up by the time I got there! Sean burst thru the doors and saw the fire spraying out of the wall. "IT'S A GAS FIRE, ME LADS! WE NEED TO CUT OFF THE SUPPLY!"
I went over to Tom Landers and asked, "Why did you set it afire?"
So the gas wouldn't build up in here and blow the whole place up!" he said.

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Linn Keller 11-21-10


Sean surged through the double doors, the German Irishman hard behind him: it was warm, not quite hot, and Sean's practiced eyes squinted at the jet of flame coming out the pipe where the shot-off gas light used to be.
He looked up at the tin squares that made up the ceiling.
There was a little scorch, a pattern that told him there had been a flash, brief, intense, but not lasting long enough for ignition.
Though impressive, the flame jetting out of the wall was not enough to ignite the wood underlying the tin squares.
The New York Irishman followed with a pike pole.
"Shall I take the ceiling, sir?" he shouted, although his adjectives desecribing the ceiling were sulfurous and not fit to repeat in polite company, and so have been discreetly omitted from this account, for conversations at a fire scene were invariably carried out loudly and profanely: loud, to ensure being heard, and profane, for a man's blood is up when fighting the Dragon: there is something primitive and intimidating about combating the breath of Shaitan, and a primitive response is a powerful response.
"Hold that," Sean responded. "Upstairs wi'ye, now, feel th' floor!"
"Aye, sir!" The New York Irishman leaned the pike in a handy corner and charged the floors, two steps at a time, polished knee-boots loud on the treads.
The line in their hands bulged and hardened
"About time!" Sean shouted. "Hold now, let's wait for --"
As if on cue, the gas flame shrank, its hungry whisper disappearing entirely.

Maude and Mac looked out the window of the Mercantile.
Mac groaned and Maude made a little sound of distress, hands going delicately to her lips: "Oh, no," she whispered, for they could see, over top the gleaming, smoke-blowing, whirring steam firefighting engine, the hell's-glow of fire through the front windows of the Jewel.

Bonnie's distress was dismissed with the shout of "FIRE! FIRE IN THE JEWEL!"
She came to her feet, Levi with her: Esther began opening drawers, seizing records, books: "Levi, that satchel! Yes, put it there! Quickly, now! Bonnie, take this" -- Bonnie found her arms loaded with ledgers and papers -- "Levi, you help Bonnie. Out the back, now! Scoot!"
Esther shoved a double handful of materials into the carpet bag, snatched it up left-handed, and herded Bonnie and Levi out the door.
She looked around her little office, quickly, almost sadly, convinced this would be the last time she would ever run the Z&W from this happy location: she hesitated, then skipped back over to her desk.
She opened the top center drawer and plucked a small box from the near corner, then turned and ran out, slamming the door closed behind her.
She could smell the heat as she ran after Bonnie and Levi, but she had a special treasure in her hand, safe from any conflagration.
They clattered down the back stairs, down to the kitchen, where Daisy was muttering and pounding a huge lump of dough into submission.
Her glare was enough to silence Esther's urgent warning: "I know," Daisy snapped, "you could'a heard th' man shout "Fire!" a mile away!" She turned and seized the dough, lifting it from the table and slamming it down again. "Ma husband willna' let any fire hurt th' Jewel. He'll na' let it!" -- and so saying, she attacked the dough with clawed hands, her fury at having her kitchen routine interrupted by something as trivial as a structure fire, dissipated in the energy of mauling the plastic, fragrant mass before her.
Levi thrust the door open, jumped to the ground, disdaining the three steps: he reached up, seized Bonnie by the waist, swung her down.
Bonnie's arms were full of Esther's ledgers, and they formed a bridge between the two of them as Levi's arms -- fueled by stress, fueled by feelings unleashed by the need of the moment -- pulled Bonnie into him.
Bonnie, wide-eyed, looked at Levi, then twisted out of his arms.
She carefully placed the ledgers on the ground.
Straightening, she threw herself into Levi, seizing him in her own embrace, and Levi returned the favor: Bonnie's lips found his as she molded her body hard against his tall frame, pouring her need into one, long, passionate, heartfelt kiss.
Esther squatted, quickly, putting the carpet bag down and picking up the discarded ledgers: she balanced them easily in one arm, clutching them to her breast: the other hand was free to snatch up the carpet bag, and she steered a course for the livery, not far away.

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Mr. Box 11-21-10


Sean bellowed, "EVACUATE THE PREMISES!" Which was hardly necessary since most of them nearly ran me down getting out the door as I went to get the Brigade!
Now, the shutoff to the gas supply was one thing I was not familiar with since we hadn't had any problem with the lights. We just turned them off at the fixtures. I didn't know where it came in from.
You have to admire the Irish Brigade. They were doing everything with the highest degree of efficiency! Everyone had a job to do and it was being done as quickly as humanly possible! Even with a new man on the team, it didn't change the way things were done! I'm not sure if the dog wasn't working, too!

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Linn Keller 11-21-10


Tilly flinched as the whooping cowboy fired a shot.
She belatedly thought of the revolver, holstered in the underside of the desk, but then she heard the woody thump of something solid being applied to a skull, and peeked curiously around the corner.
She could not see much, so she stood and came around the end of her heavy, wooden counter.
She frowned at the sight of the discarded bung starter, dropped and discarded, for this wasn't like Tom Landers: he had a military neatness about his person, his mustache was always very precisely trimmed, his boots were carefully polished and his clothes, though not the very best that could be had, were respectable, of a conservative cut, and brushed every day.
She saw the man fetch up his left foot and strike a Lucifer match.
Tilly's eyebrows quirked, for she was curious: Tom Landers did not smoke, what possibly could he want with a --
Tilly flinched back behind her counter as a rolling ball of fire seared across the tile ceiling and a jet of flame squirted in a steady flare out the wall.
Part of her realized it came from the broken stub of a shot-off gaslight.
Part of her froze, terrified, for one of the only things Tilly feared in the entire world was fire.
She remembered standing and crying beside her bed as heat and smoked banked down around her, and she a wee child, alone and scared in what was no longer her home, but was suddenly a throat-searing, nose-burning, choking oven.
She saw the flame squirting out of the wall and remembered the dirty glow of the fire that was eating her home from the bottom up.
Strong hands snatched her up -- she did not know whose -- her eyes were burning and swollen, and she could not keep them forced open --
She was suddenly swung under a muscled arm, held against a thrust-out hip: she heard the window open, felt cool air, and then she was dangling, dangling and screaming, terrified, knowing she was a distance from the ground, crying for her Mama, kicking, flailing --
A voice --
Her Papa's voice --
Tilly screamed, a long, drifting wail as she fell through space, fell through cold Stl. Louis air, fell and her eyes, slitted open, saw a scattering of stars above, and the window glowing yellow, and her Papa in the window, arms extended as if to catch her, to catch her --
Tilly fell all of eleven feet and six inches, into the arms of her oldest brother: hysterical, she fought his grip until he got her turned around, then she wrapped her seven year old arms and legs around him and clung, clung with the desperation of a drowning man to a life-ring, sobbing her distress into his shirt front.
There was a roar, the sound of collapse.
"FATHER! JUMP! JUMP, FATHER!" Robert shouted, his adolescent voice cracking, and Tilly turned and forced her eyes open again just in time to see flame and sparks gout out the window and her father fell back into the inferno.
Now Tilly stood frozen, seeing the same fire, feeling the same fear, her scream locked into a tight throat and unable to escape.
Mr. Baxter sprinted past her.
Tilly was deaf.
She could not hear his running steps, she could not hear the shouts, the confusion; people ran out, mouths open, faces red, eyes wide, and she knew they must be shouting, must be shouting, but she could not hear, could not hear, could not hear --
Tilly blinked, shook her head.
The spell broke like brittle glass.
Upstairs, she thought. Get everyone out from upstairs!
Tilly seized the master key.
Six rooms were occupied, only two were unaccounted for.
Tilly snatched up her skirt front and took the stairs at a dead run, two at a time, running easy, running effortlessly, hearing a little girl's scream in her ears, hearing a scream she had given when she was a child of seven and both her parents perished in the house fire back in St. Louis.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-21-10


Hot coffee, black as midnight, is a fine medium for serious discussion, if one is of a mind for seriousness. The remains of a fine repast, swabbed down to a few smears of gravy on blue enamel, were pushed aside in favor of syrupy Arbuckles whitened with canned cow. Charlie looked up from his comfortable slouch into Sarah's troubled eyes. "Spill it, girl," he said companionably. "you wouldn't have ridden out here this early in the day if somethin' wasn't wrong."

"Mama's afraid of me," Sarah answered simply.

"Nonsense!" Fannie answered sharply.

"Now Darlin'," Charlie told her, "I'd like to know why she thinks that, okay?"

"But Bonnie wouldn't..." Fannie began.

"You didn't see her face," Sarah said firmly. "She was scared of me!" Her eyes filled to brimming, but with an act of will she kept the flood contained. "After I killed that man, she told me that I had done the right thing, protecting the Sheriff, but then she wouldn't look at me." She stopped to wipe her eyes. "I don't know what to do!"

Charlie and Fannie shared a look that spoke volumes. Fannie cleared her throat then reached out to take the girl's hand. "Sugar, your mama's been through a lot in her life. She's had to do some things that no one, man or woman, should have to do to survive. And now she sees you doing things that she subconsciously associates with the types of people that she's put behind her. She's afraid that you're going to turn that way, and she doesn't know what to do. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?" Sarah nodded miserably.

"But you're stronger than that!" Fannie declared. "You have the strength to do what's necessary, but you also have the strength to stay in the right! Did you have to think about what you did, before you did it?" Sarah shook her head no. "Were you upset afterward?" The girl nodded. "Did you go to Bonnie for help?" Sarah's eyes widened.

"Just when it first happened," she whispered.

"Then you need to!" Fannie told her. "You need to sit your mama down and talk to her, woman to woman. You have to convince her that you haven't changed, that you're still her daughter, and that you still need her. Think you can do that?'

"I think so..." Her voice trailed off.

"Then first thing in the morning, we're going back to Firelands, and you're going to talk to your mama and help her understand."

"Will you be there with me?"

"If you want me to," Fannie assured the girl.

"I want you to."

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Linn Keller 11-22-10


The Sheriff reduced the situation to a simple equation.
The Irish Brigade had the fire out.
The Irish Brigade had evacuated the building.
The Irish Brigade was in overhaul, cleaning up the water that had soaked out of the cloth-jacketed hose line, plaster dust and fragments from the exploratory hole around the gas pipe: their movements were quick, efficient, with no wasted motion: each had been a firefighter back in Porkopolis, each was a veteran and seasoned at that: the Sheriff was satisfied all was well here.
The Sheriff concluded that his presence within was neither necessary nor really desirable.
He'd found Esther and she'd indicated no great distress.
The Sheriff put Levi and Bonnie from his mind.
They would take care of each other.
Jacob was just coming out the back door of the Jewel, chuckling and shaking his head.
"Jacob!" the Sheriff called, and his son's head came up like a hound's at a distant whistle.
"I need to see His Honor. I'll meet you here after."
"Yes, sir!" Jacob waved and nodded once.
He'd not reacted to the sight of Bonnie, one arm around Levi, her other gloved hand flat against the man's chest: Levi's arms were both around Bonnie, and his cheek was laid over atop Bonnie's head, and he was rocking her slightly, slightly, as one would soothe a fearful child.
Jacob dismissed this from his thoughts: it was a situation that needed no action on his part.
He withdrew back into the Jewel, intent on asking Sean if he could be of help, or if he should stay the hell out from under foot.
Jacob rather suspected the latter would be the case.

The Sheriff knocked briskly on the door frame.
His Honor the Judge was reading one of the affidavits with which he'd been provided; his elbow was on the desk top, thumb and one finger on his forehead, a cigar smoldering blue and fragrant smoke into the stratified air.
"Sheriff," His Honor greeted the lawman. "Where is Miss Rosenthal?"
The Sheriff blinked.
"I do not know, Your Honor."
"I would have expected to hear her testimony."
"You have her affidavit, Your Honor."
"I have a sworn statement, yes," Judge Hostetler said, taking the cigar between stained teeth and puffing the cigar back into life. "I have the sworn statement of a minor child." He glared at the Sheriff.
"I expect Miss Rosenthal to be present one week from today." The Judge's words were quiet in the empty room, but quiet or not, they carried a power and authority that reflected his many years on the bench. "Otherwise I will direct you to present her in irons if need be."
The Sheriff felt his ears getting hot.
It was not often that he got angry in such a situation, but this lit his fuse.
"Your Honor," he said evenly, "I will make every effort to present Miss Rosenthal for this court's review."
"You do that." Judge Hostetler puffed on his cigar. "Close the door. We're not finished."
The Sheriff drew the door to, then paced across the room and stood squarely in front of his old friend.
"Now just what were you thinking," His Honor said in a low voice, "or were you thinking at all?"
The Sheriff veiled his eyes, clamped a hard hand on his feelings.
"Your Honor will have to be a bit more specific," he said coldly. "I don't read minds."
"You know damn well what I'm talking about!" Judged Hostetler's reserve was evaporating at an alarming rate.
""Your Honor, my crystal ball runs on whale oil and I can't find any whales here locally."
Judge Hostetler made a good attempt at looking stern and disapproving, and managed to fail utterly. As a matter of fact, the man chuckled and set his cigar down in a fired-clay ashtray.
"Sheriff," he said, his tone more conversational, "I have heard cases for more years that you've been --" He paused. "No, not that long. But a good long time."
"Yes, Your Honor," the Sheriff said flatly.
"You and I both carry the Rose and have sworn to the Society."
The Sheriff nodded, once.
"I have never -- never! -- in all my years, heard of audacity -- heard of such an utterly complete stroke -- Sheriff," the Judge's voice rose in pitch, as did his eyebrows -- "Sheriff, you took out an entire branch of the Denver mob in one move!" He shook his head. "Then to leave a witness ... do you realize how liable you are?"
"Miss Rosenthal helped me realize that, Your Honor," the Sheriff said dryly.
"No, no, no," the Judge waved his hand as if to swat aside the smoke layering the area. "I mean legally, Sheriff. This witness could become the center of a rather potent case -- against you -- and if the Society were exposed --"
He left the thought hang on the tobacco-hazed air.
"Won't happen," the Sheriff said shortly.
His Honor blinked. "Excuse me?"
"It won't happen, Your Honor."
"And just what makes you so certain, Mr. Whale Oil?"
If it had been anyone else, the Sheriff would have backhanded him.
The Sheriff leaned over the table, leaning his knuckles into the tabletop.
"He's dead."
Judge Hostetler leaned back, blinking.
"I do nothing without planning," the Sheriff said quietly.
"I know that," His Honor said slowly. "I don't think I quite realize just how complete your planning is."
The Sheriff's smile was thin, humorless.
"He was necessary to convey information. He did so. He was also the ..."
The Sheriff paused for effect.
The word hung on the still air.
The Sheriff nodded.
"It seems he stepped out in front of a freight wagon."
"Just stepped out."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Just," Judge Hostetler said bluntly, "stepped," -- he frowned, drawing on his hand-rolled Cuban -- "out."
The Sheriff blinked like a sleepy cat, and made no reply.
"See to it that I never hear the case."
The Sheriff nodded.
"You would have to excavate half a mountain to start finding evidence."
"Half a mountain," His Honor said skeptically.
"I don't do things halfway."
"No, I suppose not." His Honor stubbed out the cigar butt.
"Sheriff, I'll ask you as a man and not as the Judge. How is Miss Rosenthal?"
The Sheriff's eyes were troubled.
"Your Honor, she has a conscience tall as a shot tower and big around as a church. She knows she saved my life. She knows she did what had to be done. She knows she was in the right in its doing." He shifted in his seat, frowned. "She will be twelve years old tomorrow, Your Honor. She's having some trouble putting all this together." He paused. "I hope her mother will be less ... distressed ... with time."
Judged Hostetler chuckled. "And what's this about Miss Rosenthal being an agent of some kind?"
The Sheriff leaned back and laughed, a good easy laugh, and he and the Judge relaxed at the sound of it.
"We were interrogating the prisoner, Your Honor. He said he'd been completely fooled by what he thought was a pretty girl. We divined it was five of them and one of me and Miss Rosenthal said, "Odds of five to one, and you still couldn't do the job" -- with the most innocent expression!" -- he tipped a wink at the Judge, and the Judge's eyes crinkled at the corners with approval and with good humor -- "she said if five big strong men could not do the job, it's no wonder the Agency is hiring pretty girls!"
It was the Judge's turn to laugh.
"Sheriff," he said, "let me rephrase myself." He chuckled and reached for the glass of water at the corner of his desk. "If you could request Miss Rosenthal to attend my good pleasure, I would be very much obliged to you."
The Sheriff nodded. "I can do that, Your Honor."
"Now." Judge Hostetler smacked his hands together, rubbed them briskly. "I seem to have a bit of an appetite, and I am in the mood for beer and a brandy.
"By the way," he added, "what was the commotion earlier? It sounded like a steam engine and a runaway team, and I'm surprised there wasn't a brass band!"

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Linn Keller 11-23-10


"You sure that's ready?" Albert Daine asked, frowning as he tasted a bit of mash.
"If I warn't sure," Sullivan Daine snapped in his high, reedy voice, "I'd not run it now would I?"
Albert glared at his older brother, and his older brother glared back, neither one willing to give an inch, until Billy Daine said "You two fightin' dogs gonna growl an' snarl or we gonna run us off a batch?"
The still was loaded with the right amount of fermented grain: they had sprouted the grain between wet burlap sacks, ground the sprouts and set them with springwater and yeast -- "it ain't so good 'a' water as we had back in Kentucky, but it works," Albert had complained -- their set-water was warm and they had mixed in a good amount of mountain honey, something they never, ever spoke of, lest hidden ears divine their secret ingredient and duplicate their recipe.
Albert's boy Wes came pelting up the path, his pell-mell charge as tumultous as a fawn tiptoeing across a dew-wet meadow: bare feet, well callused and proof against stones and rough terrain were beginning to complain with the cold, but the snow was not yet ankle deep -- pshaw, there wasn't even a dusting this morning! -- so socks and shoes were far from the lad's consideration.
"Boy," Billy exclaimed, "ain't you supposed to be in school?"
"Aw, Uncle Billy," Wes complained, "I don't learn nothin' in school! That-there schoolmarm don't teach how many pound of nails I need to put up a barn nor nothin'!"
Three sets of hands stilled, three sets of eyes glared at the lad, who dropped his head and mumbled something in the general direction of his toenails.
"You kin speak so we-all kin hear ye," Albert warned, "or we kin make ye yell so ever'one in the county kin hear ye!"
"I said the Jewel is afire an' they need ye fer rebuild!" Wes snapped, his head coming up as he blurted the message he'd been dispatched to deliver.
"Afire, ye say?" Albert said thoughtfully. "Well, let's study on this." He dipped out another wood bucket of mash and handed it to brother Sullivan.
"It'll wait til we git this run," Sullivan said, and the other Daine brothers nodded heads in agreement.
Wes set about sizing up the wood ricked up for the still.
His would be the duty to feed the fire, and he was good at feedin' a workin' still.
He set the first chunk up and reached for the ax.
He was fussy about his wood and this wasn't quite the size he liked to feed a slow fire, the kind needed to distill off the fermented alcohol without boiling and foaming and scorching the batch.
Albert nodded approval at the lad's industry.
"One more bucket an' that'll do us ... thank'ee kindly." Mash sloshed into the still and the old moonshiner sniffed appreciateively, then thrust his chin toward the copper cone. "Fetch me over the cap."
The copper cap was set atop the boiler and pasted down with broad strips of wheat-paste-soaked burlap sacking.
Sullivan liked plenty of stripping to hold the cap in place.
Once it was down, he began the fire, slow at first: like the youngest of the Daines, he too was fussy with his fire: once he had a good even bed of coals to work with, he would turn it over to the youngest.
With the onset of age, he found it easier to let the young tend an overnight detail, for running a batch of moon was something that could be neither hurried nor shortcut.
In about two hours the run was far enough along that he felt comfortable leaving it in the hands of "them young fellers," and fetched his broke brim hat off the sawed off branch where he hung it, and allowed as he would have a look at whatever was left of the Jewel.
With that pronouncement, he fetched up his flint rifle and set off down hill, making all the commotion of a half grown squirrel climbing a Kentucky red oak.

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Linn Keller 11-23-10


Jackson Cooper hooked a finger in his collar and tugged.
"Now, dear," Emma chided gently, "don't be fooling with that again!"
"I feel like I'm being hanged," Jackson Cooper muttered, lifting his chin and submitting patiently to his wife's ministrations: cool, capable fingers straightened his necktie, gave his collar a twitch, smoothed the lapels on his good coat.
"There now!" Emma Cooper declared with a satsified nod. "Now you are most presentable!"
Jackson Cooper glared at the wood-and-brass box in front of him, hoping somehow to shoot a dart from his eyes through the single glass eye that stared, unblinking, at him.
Emma came around beside and behind her husband, laid a gentle hand on his right shoulder.
Jackson Cooper's only good hat was carefully balanced on his knee, steadied by three fingertips, and he took a long, steadying breath.
The photographer fiddled with something under the black cloth drape, then emerged, blinking like a mole, and frowned at the couple . "Yes, that's it," he said, gesturing them to stillness: "We'll start now, please hold very still!"
He removed the lens cap with delicate fingers, looked over at the Regulator clock, counted the pendulum's regular arcs: the light was just right that afternoon, Emma Cooper was just out of school and had only time to run home and change into a dress suitable for the trouble of a photograph: the young man with the tightly-curled mustache and Derby hat nodded, satisfied, and replaced the lens cap.
"There now!" he declared, "Thanks to the magic of modern photographic science, we will have your portrait by this evening!"
"There, Jackson," Emma said as if to a sulking schoolboy, "that wasn't so bad, was it?"
Jackson Cooper moved one hand as if to crush his fine new hat.
Emma Cooper snatched the hat from his lap. "No, dear," she said, "if you must destroy another hat, you have an old hat at home you may twist into a felt sausage as often as you wish."
Jackson Cooper stood with ill grace, brows knitted, until he turned and looked at his wife: at her smile, the glower melted and ran from his face, replaced by an expression of genuine affection.
He raised a hand and touched her face, barely grazing her cheek with his finger tips.
"Now, Jackson," Emma said softly, leaning her cheek into his hand and closing her eyes.
"Now Jackson nothing," he rumbled.
"Thank you." Emma gave him a shy look and he felt his hard heart melt and run down into his boots.
Jackson nodded, then turned to the young fellow who had been busy under the black drape again. "How soon --"
He found himself addressing the camera; its operator had disappeared out to his wagon to develop the plate.
"He said it would be ready tonight," Emma Cooper said, resting a hand on her husband's muscled forearm -- an arm about the same diameter as her calf.
Jackson Cooper swallowed. "That'll be a little," he said. "Do you really feel like fixing supper say no we're going to the Jewel." He looked down at his diminutive wife with a far more innocent expression than should have been possible for the herculean Marshal.
Emma Cooper looked up at her husband and smiled, then giggled.
"Why, Jackson Cooper!" she exclaimed. "I think that would be nice!"

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Linn Keller 11-24-10


The Irish are ever an inventive and practical people: this characteristic seems bred into the race, and is seen even in their young.
Esther smiled later that night as the hired girl reported how she'd found Angela and little Sean, sound asleep in the barn; they were cuddled up together, warm in one another's arms, a saddle blanket under them and another over, and Denver Bup piled in between them, each child with an arm on the beagle.
Little Sean had made his way to the Sheriff's house and he and Angela had been playing in and around the barn. The maid hadn't heard them for a bit, so she went outside to look, and found two children, apple-cheeked and tired from play, and the dog with them, and she had not the heart to rouse them until closer to supper time: Angela had not protested at a bath, and little Sean, gone from sound asleep to wide awake, ran with a grin and a laugh for home, for his own stomach told him it was near to his own supper time.
Esther considered the Irish Brigade and how they'd set to putting the Silver Jewel aright after its excitement, working with Mr. Baxter in cleaning up plaster dust and water and installing the new gas light: they'd swarmed over the entire hotel, re-lighting those gas fixtures they found turned on, making sure the others were completely off: their efforts were not entirely altruistic, for Daisy's cooking was well known to them, and even though the woman didn't run the kitchen entirely herself, it was still Daisy's kitchen, even if she was overseeing the work instead of doing the work.
The Irish Brigade happily anticipated sitting down and having some of Daisy's work set, hot and steaming and fragrant, before their ravenous selves.
Sure enough, Daisy came fetching platters of edibles out to the Brigade, announcing loudly that she'd fixed enough to feed 'em an' they'd better eat with a good appetite or they'd answer to her -- to which the only correct answer was, "Yes, ma'am!"
It was not until everyone was fed, including those paying customers who'd been displaced by the recent excitement -- Daisy insisted they should eat, for they'd been interrupted and it was the least she could do, to see that they were treated hospitably for their interruption -- one soul, not understanding this, tried to pay for his meal and found his knuckles rather painfully addressed by a briskly-swung wooden spoon, and found himself facing a bristling, blazing Irishwoman who waved said spoon south of his schnozz and declared in a rapid mixture of the King's English, Gaelic and rather rapid Billingsgate, that she, Daisy, had declared he would eat and eat well and it was on her, and by the Lord Harry! she would not be denied!
All of this, of course, was after Esther had "drafted from the Unorganized Militia" to get her books and goods back upstairs to her office: the green-eyed woman's smile was sufficient recruitment, and she was reinstalled in her work space in short order.
She spent a few minutes returning her goods to their proper place and then decided the good smells from Daisy's kitchen were just too good to be ignored.
Esther drew her office door shut behind her and descended the stairs just as her husband and Judge Hostetler came in the front door.

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Linn Keller 11-25-10


His Honor the Judge was as courtly with Esther as he had been snappish with me.
If he hadn't been courtly with her, she probably would have drove him through the floor boards like a fence post.
No, likely not.
I was still stinging from the man's words.
Shortcoming of mine, I reckon.
Charlie one time told me I have a most marvelous gift of turning invisible.
I did so now, kind of faded back against the front wall.
The fancy double doors were to my left and the main room of the Jewel, to my right: the stair case ahead, Tilly's battleship of a desk ahead and a little to the right, and then Mr. Baxter's fine mahogany-topped bar.
My backside just touched the wall behind me and I drifted a little ahead, just enough so I would not bang my elbow on the plaster if I had to draw.
His Honor made gentle obesciance to my beautiful bride and we continued on to the bar.
It was rare that His Honor bellied up to the bar, but today he did, and Mr. Baxter drew him a beer.
I knew that the Judge would take his midday meal with us, there in the Jewel, and afterward there would be cigars and brandy.
The gambling-tables were busy, as they nearly always were, and a good-looking gal with a low cut top and a short skirt ran the roulette wheel: she had men two and three deep and I would wager a week's wage they were there for her and not for the wheel.
Didn't matter to me.
This meant profit and the house always profits in any game of chance.
I had no idea who she was, but she was a looker, young and pretty and built like a Greek goddess.
I must be getting old.
I looked to my wife, there on my arm, and the affection I felt for my beautiful bride was far greater than any rush of lust a doxy might provide.
His Honor was happily sampling his suds and Esther was quietly informing that she'd made a hasty evacuation of her office but she and her goods were returned, and she mentioned that she and Shorty had stood ready to evacuate the livery, for a fire would be more than catastrophic to that valuable business.
In a country where horsepower was provided by the original four hooved source, the man who makes a living tending said saviours of sustenance, caring for those Trojans of travel and wonders of work, why, it behooves the wise man (and the wise community!) to take care of such a fellow.
Esther did add that Shorty acknowledged the return of his ten-bore, and she repeated his surprised comment as to how good it looked once it was all cleaned up.
She delicately omitted his exact words, but I know Shorty, and his thanks would not have been as politely worded as were Esther's accounting words.
When I was a lad I borrowed a man's bronze bullet mold for a flint rifle and he told my Pa later that when I returned it, the mold was in better shape than when it had been loaned me.
I never forgot that kind word, directed at a mere lad, and it set me on a lifetime of borrowing but sledom, but when I did, on its return, whatever I borrowed was at the very least in as good a shape and generally better.
I think this was the second time -- when Shorty said that double gun looked so good cleaned up -- his was the second such remark, but a man feels pretty good when someone says that.
The dining room was well populated today: Daisy's kitchen was busy, her girls moved in a steady stream taking orders, fetching out food, and across the street I could see the stage coach just arriving: there were tables enough for its contents and the stage line allowed longer for the stop here in Firelands, to the delight of its passengers.
The Jewel had a reputation of good food at a fair price and stage passengers historically had little time to set and eat: here, though, they could set down and eat an unhurried meal, the team could rest, Shorty would be checking hooves and harness and the stage driver and his shotgun would be down and walking around, getting a little respite from the wear on their backsides.
I one time offered to have a replacement seat ready for them when they arrived.
Fitz was driving and I told him, "I'll have a whole seat made for you. Next you stop, we'll un-bolt that and bolt on one with the same padded upholstery that I have in mine" -- I pointed to our carriage, across the street in front of the Jewel -- but the old German spat and swore and allowed as if he'd do that, why, someone else would take his coach and he'd be stuck with another one with just as bad a seat as he was riding on today.
He did, however, accept the loan of a pillow, which lasted for about three miles: he found it too slippery, he kept sliding back and forth on the seat and he finally threw it to the side of the trail, where I think it was one of the Kolascinski tribe found it and took it home and they used it ever since.
I don't know how but the girls had managed to keep my table open, and His Honor and Esther and I drifted back through the crowd, to the "Lawman's Corner" as I'd heard it called: I parked my rifle and hung my hat and we set down, His Honor handing his empty beer mug to the girl that took our order.
Esther, bless her, had tea, for that was a ladylike drink, and suitable to be seen in public.
His Honor had brandy, and I had coffee: vanilla soothed my nostrils as I took a long, appreciative sniff before dribbling in some cream.
A long, tall, skinny figure came sojourning back through the crowd with a wooden tool box in one hand and a flint rifle near long as he was, in the other: he stopped and leaned the rifle against the wall, frowning thoughtfully at the hole murdered in around the gas pipe.
I left him to his work.
The Daine brothers were master carpenters and I figured he could tend that detail without my assistance.
Right about then the girl set a loaf of bread and a platter of cheese on the table in front of us, and when I smelled that hot, steaming bread, my stomach reminded me of just how long it had wanted to be fed.
Conversation had been polite up to that point, but at this point, conversation was politely suspended.
Bread and cheese did not last long between the three of us, but it held us until beef and beans and good mashed taters and gravy arrived.
Apparently His Honor had the same appetite as did I myself.

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Linn Keller 11-26-10


Jacob walked Parson Belden back to the cells and waited, eyes veiled.
"You want to go in, Parson?" he asked. "I would not recommend it."
Parson Belden looked at the pair.
Of the two, Jacob figured only one posed much of a threat -- but these men were under sentence of death.
They had absolutely nothing to lose from trying to escape.
They had positively nothing to lose by taking the sky pilot hostage.
"We'll be all right," Parson Belden said in his gentle voice, his patient good nature showing in his quietly smiling eyes.
"I'll be out in the office. Need me, holler."
Jacob unlocked the cell door, let the Parson in with the man with the swollen, discolored face.
The man was fevered and suffering: a fractured sinus almost always infected and it looked like this one surely was.
The Parson spent some little time with the man, and in due time called for Jacob: the young deputy let the Parson out of one cell, and into the other.
Jacob's gut told him this man might be trouble.
"Parson," he said quietly, "do you want me to stand close?"
"No, no," Parson Belden said with the jovial good nature of the frontier preacher. "We'll be just fine."
Jacob held his counsel, locked the door after the Parson, and returned to the office.
He was most of the way through entering the Parson's presence into the official journal when he heard the meaty smack of fist on face, two more, then the sound of a body hitting the bars.
Jacob's moves were unhurried, smooth: whatever was happeneing, had already happened, and locked in the cell, the Parson would be unable to escape.
Jacob picked up the double gun, dropped in two brass hulls and eared back both hammers before going back between the cells.
Parson Belden was standing, shaking his good right hand and frowning.
The outlaw was on the floor, just coming up on all fours, shaking his head and running the back of his hand across a bloodied cheek bone.
"Just stay down, son," Parson Belden advised the man. "Humility becomes the sinner."
The man powered off the floor, tried to take the Parson in the belt buckle with his shoulder, and ended up with a face full of the man's boot sole.
Parson Belden leaned back and grabbed one of the cell door's bars to steady himself and put all the power of his right leg into the kick.
The outlaw ended up on his back with a good percentage of his nose re-contoured, blood and tears running freely down his visage.
"Parson," Jacob drawled, "do you reckon this sinner has mended his ways?"
The outlaw rolled over on his side and groaned.
Parson Belden turned and motioned for Jacob to unlock the door.
Just as Jacob was securing the barred portal, the outlaw rasped, "Hey," and raised his head.
Squinting at the stout-built parson, he wheezed, "You ain't with that same agency as the pretty girl, now, are you?"

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Linn Keller 11-27-10


"That was a very nice photograph Jackson Cooper had taken."
The mare's hooves were loud on the cold ground: leather squeaked, trace-chains jingled, steel-rimmed buggy wheels clattered a little even at our slow gait.
I nodded. "Um-hm."
"It didn't do justice to their disparity -- Linn Keller, are you listening to me?"
"No ma'am."
Esther swatted me with her folded fan.
I looked at her as innocently as I possibly could which wasn't easy, I wanted to bust out laughing, and somehow I managed a soft, level voice: "What was the question again?"
"I said --" Esther snapped, then she, too, tried to suppress her mirth, and we both laughed.
Esther leaned on me, the side of her head laid over on my shoulder, one hand on my breast and the other pressing my back: she sighed a little, then rose back to an erect, sitting position.
"We should have a photograph taken," she said.
"We've got the Daine sketch," I protested. "It's a good one too!"
"I know. I had it framed."
"Good. Didn't know what happened to it."
"It's hanging in our parlor!"
SWAT! -- the fan again -- sounding far more vicious than it really was.
The mare's ears pricked up as she heard our Beagle dog bay a greeting.
I looked ahead and Angela was jumping up and down on the porch, waving, and the Beagle dog was safely down in the yard, looking at us with a pleased expression and doing his level best to beat the ground bare with his tail.
"Even though Jackson Cooper is seated in the photograph, he is such a giant, and Emma is such a tiny thing," Esther continued.
I grunted a quiet "Uh-huh," for my mind was not paying much attention: sunrise would see a double hanging and I did not particularly look forward to that.
Necessary, yes; just, yes; due process, of course.
It did not make it any less distasteful.
I was also worried about Sarah.
Bonnie was still out at her place, probably supervising her dress works, but Sarah had been nowhere in sight.
Sarah was characteristically as hard to nail down as a gust of wind, and just as likely to turn up anywhere: we hadn't seen her and didn't know where she was, but bad news travels fast: if anything were amiss we would find out soon enough.
I was surprised to find Angela had already had her bath, and Esther and I were rather entertained by the hired girl's account of finding her asleep, covered with straw and innocence and a saddle blanket, she and Little Sean rolled toward one another with Denver Bup between them and their arms laid over the dog and just touching one another.
Later that night Angela insisted on parking herself on my lap, which made it less than convenient to enter into my journal, especially when I realized our little girl was sound asleep and leaning her head into that little hollow just inside my right shoulder: I capped the ink-bottle, placed the steel-nib pen in an inch of spirits in a little glass I kept there for that purpose, and I just sat there for a good long while, rocking her a little bit, until finally I stood up and carried her upstairs.
When Angela slept, she slept hard: I could have tossed her around and carried her draped over my forearm like a dish towel and she would never have roused: still, I held her carefully, with both arms, and eased up the stairs, silently counting the treads until I knew I was at the top.
I laid her down and drew the covers up, around her chin, and as she always did, she rolled over on her left side, away from me.
I leaned down and kissed her cheek, once, gently, careful to make no noise: then I turned and saw Esther smiling at me from the doorway.
She was modest in floor length flannel, brushing out her long, red hair preparatory to braiding it for the night.
I cat footed out of Angela's room, grateful for the hook rugs to aid my stealthy departure.
Esther tilted her head back and I tasted her lips.
They tasted so good I tasted them again, rather more thoroughly this time.
Esther took my hand and drew me out of Angela's room, and I pulled the door carefully, precisely shut behind me.
Esther laid a hand gentle on my cheek.
Not long after, as we lay under fresh smelling sheets and a thick comforter, Esther whispered that I was a romantic old fool, and I reckoned her right.
Before I closed my eyes I could see the stars, clear and bright, and thought to myself that it would be a lovely, clear day tomorrow.
Sunrise, I thought, ought to be absolutely gorgeous!

Not terribly far off, another set of eyes regarded the stars through another such window.
Sarah had wakened from a nightmare, but a nightmare like she had never had.
Her nights had not infrequently been tormented by a little girl's memories.
It was not for nothing that Sarah knew every last hiding place in the Jewel, knew every passage between rooms, spaces within walls where a terrified child could hide.
Sarah had bitten her hand bloody to keep from screaming as she watched women beaten by customers, or savaged by customers, doing terrible things to the women who had befriended her.
In her nightmares she ran, ran through floors that turned to glue, as misshapen brutes bellowed and reached for her from behind, always from behind: concealing walls melted, revealing her huddled, trembling form, and monsters that barely looked like men reached for her with hard hands and slavering fangs, and she screamed and screamed and screamed, waking up shivering, wide-eyed, her throat locked shut, for she had to be silent, be silent, lest they find her --
Tonight, though, it was different.
Tonight she turned toward three monsters who kicked in a poorly-hung door and shambled toward her, dirty-knuckled hands reaching for her.
Sarah picked up a sword as long as she was.
The sword hummed a little in her hands and she felt her soul run into the gleaming blade.
Sarah was light, light, a feather on a breeze, a gust-borne leaf: the monsters lumbered, Sarah danced, spinning a silver butterfly about her, joyfully spinning death about her like a spiderweb of steel.
Teeth bared, she rushed, silent, and lay about with her silver cutting-web: the three fell, dismembered, but dry: she kicked their woody chunks aside and went hunting.
Sarah strode boldly through this ghostly Jewel, this dirty and ill-kept Jewel she remembered from her childhood: now it was her turn to kick in doors, her turn to bring terror, her turn at last to bring fear to those that had tortured her soul for years long and long again.
The monsters were at her back no more.
She sought them out and she looked them in the face and the blade in her hands sang as she murdered her nightmares.
Sarah came to the last room in the Jewel.
Bonnie was there, but a Bonnie much younger, a Bonnie with a black eye and a bleeding lip, a Bonnie who could still reach for her little girl.
Sarah turned left, turned right.
She saw herself in the dusty, cracked mirror, and knew this was a dream-thing she saw, this could not be her.
The Sarah she saw was taller, older, with much shorter hair and pale eyes, ice-colored eyes, eyes the color of a glacier's heart ...
Safe, she thought, and leaned the sword against the wall.
She looked at the Bonnie-that-was: wounded, bleeding, she was still reaching for a little girl who needed her Mama.
She's not afraid of me, Sarah thought, and she leaned forward, and started to run.
Sarah ran as hard as she could into her Mama's arms, relief and joy singing in her heart.
She's not afraid of me!

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Linn Keller 11-28-10


The hired girl flitted through the house like a ghost in an abandoned castle.
She noticed that Bonnie had paid particular attention to fixing her hair that morning.
The maid knew this was something she did when she was troubled.
The hired girl noticed how Bonnie had spent the day at the dress-works, supervising the House of McKenna, reviewing yet again the latest fashion dolls shipped express from Paris; she approved fabrics, inspected the work, frowned at this, exclaimed in delight at that: she was known as a demanding but extremely fair employer, and the seamstresses in her employ knew and respected this.
Bonnie knew there were tailors, and in fact she'd employed two for a time, until they moved on to Cripple Creek and opened their own businesses: her ladies knew they could move on as well, and with experience in the House of McKenna, could very likely make a success of their own enterprise: most, however, had known privation and loss, and preferred to stay with a sure thing.
Now Bonnie sat at her breakfast table, picking listlessly at cold eggs; she had but little appetite, and sipped at her lukewarm tea, eyes distant and troubled.
Her daughter had been much on her mind.
She had done her best to raise this orphaned child in an atmosphere of gentility, she had striven to make her girl into a lady worthy of the name: she had done her best to set a mother's example for her child to follow, even to the extreme of not beating in her cheating scoundrel of a husband's head with a single tree.
Bonnie's eyes narrowed and she very carefully, very precisely, very firmly, placed the delicate china teacup back on its saucer.
No, she thought.
Not a singletree.
In her mind's eye she selected a heavier, iron-banded timber, hefted it, swung it experimentally.
A doubletree would serve him better!
Bonnie swept that entire distasteful memory from her conscious thought and returned to Sarah.
She had a half-dozen gowns she would love to show in Denver, and Sarah would be the ideal model for them: she was slender, she was tall, the drape and fit would be perfect to display her latest creations, patterned after the latest arrivals from Paris: ladies of the frontier were still ladies, and though their everyday attire was attractive, it was rather plain: every woman wished to be beautiful, and the House of McKenna had a well established reputation for fulfilling this wish.
Bonnie passed a lightly trembling hand across her closed eyes, leaned her forehead against the back of her hand.
The maid spirited her abandoned breakfast plate from the table, silent, not wanting to disturb her obviously troubled mistress: she skilfully plucked the cup of cold tea from the saucer and floated them across the room and onto the counter.
Bonnie reached down just as the newly filled teacup arrived: her fingers closed delicately around the smooth white handle and she raised the teacup to her lips, took an appreciative sip of the hot, fragrant liquid.
The maid smiled and slipped from the room.
Her mistress never realized the teacup had been removed and replaced.
She might not realize for several moments the previous sip was cold and this was nice and warm.
The maid smiled, for she'd done her job.
Now, thought Bonnie, now if only the front door were to slam open and Sarah would run in laughing, the way she's always done –

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Charlie MacNeil 11-28-10


BANG! Crystal doorknob met oaken wainscoting with a thunder that startled her and sloshed tea from the newly filled cup onto the saucer and thence onto white damask. The peal of delighted laughter that preceded her daughter's arrival at the dining table brought Bonnie to her feet, a broad smile lighting her previously darkened countenance. Spur-heeled boots beat a tattoo on puncheon flooring, then Sarah was in her arms as both tried to talk at once.

"Oh, Mama, I'm so sorry you had to be afraid..."

"My darling daughter, you could never..."

"But Mama..."

"HOLD IT!" Fannie's drill-sergeant bark stilled the chatter instantly. Bonnie and Sarah turned to look at her, arms around each other, eyes wide with amazement at the volume of the command from the normally soft-spoken woman.

Smiling, Fannie went on in a softer tone that carried well to every ear, even that of the serving girl listening approvingly from the pantry. "You ladies have a lot to talk about, but this is not the time. Sarah," she ordered, "you take yourself up to your room, and change into something more appropriate for tea while I do the same." She lifted the bundle she carried. "Bonnie, if you don't mind, I would like to borrow, so to speak, a room with a mirror so that I can change into something different." She indicated her own britches, boots and chaps. "These are fine for rough country, but are hardly proper for polite society." She looked pointedly at Sarah, who hadn't moved. "Git, girl!"

"Yes, ma'am!" Sarah went from her mother's embrace to thumping up the stairs in just slightly longer than the breadth of a heartbeat. Bonnie looked gratefully at her friend.

"Thank you for bringing her back," she said simply. "I wasn't sure..."

"She's still your little girl, in spite of the fact that she's had to grow up quite a bit recently," Fannie interrupted gently. "Now if I could change?"

"Of course!" Bonnie exclaimed. "Please, use my room. I'll bring you some water so you can wash up."

"Thanks." Fannie knew the layout of the house well, and carried her bundle to Bonnie's bedroom, where she began to lay out the dress and associated underthings that she'd brought for just this reason. A discreet knock on the door brought a steaming pitcher of water, a soft towel and a cake of delightfully scented soap.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-28-10


Fannie and Sarah met at the top of the stairs. "How do I look, Aunt Fannie?" the girl wanted to know. She turned slowly so that Fannie could critique her attire.

"Like a lady," Fannie told her. "Your Mama will be quite pleased, I think." she held out her hand. "Shall we?"

When the pair floated into the dining room, skirts swirling in the breezing of their passing, the table was set with tea service and snacks. Bonnie stood near the sideboard, hands clasped at her waist. When Fannie and Sarah appeared her hands flew to her mouth. "Sarah, you look so, so..."

"Grown up?" Fannie asked.

"So beautiful," Bonnie finished. She stepped forward to take Sarah's hands in hers. "You've grown into quite a lady! I guess I've been so involved with all that's gone on lately that I failed to see it!"

"Not a monster?" Sarah asked softly. She looked into her mother's eyes, which were nearly at the same level with hers.

Bonnie avoided answering by turning toward the table. "Come, let's sit and have some tea. And I'm sure that you two must be hungry after your long ride." She pulled out a chair and slipped gracefully into it, gesturing toward other chairs. "Please, sit."

The maid appeared and poured the delicate porcelain cups full of the steaming, fragrant brew. Her back to Bonnie, the young woman lifted her chin ever so slightly toward Sarah then winked at Fannie before resuming her formal demeanor. Fannie hid her answering smile behind her hand. The maid left the room and Sarah cleared her throat. "Mama? Are you going to answer my question?" she asked diffidently.

"Yes, dear, I am, but you must be patient for a moment while I arrange my thoughts," Bonnie answered, not looking at Sarah. She sipped tea, followed by a small bite of lemon tart. When she could speak again, she let her gaze come to rest on her daughter's face. "My dear, dear Sarah, you know where I came from, and you've seen what I've been able to become. You know your own roots as well." Sarah nodded. "When I saw you kill that man in the Silver Jewel in what appeared to be such a casual manner," she raised a hand to stop Sarah from the protest she had been about to begin, "I was deeply frightened. Frightened that all I had taught you, all that I tried to help you to be, would be for naught. I was so afraid that you had become some sort of cold-blooded killer that I couldn't even let you explain, and I should have known better. I was so caught up in the moment that I couldn't listen. You had done the right thing, but I was afraid that it was for the wrong reasons.

"There is steel in you, my love, tempered with silk," she continued. A fleeting expression, more grimace than smile, crossed Bonnie's lips. "After speaking with Sheriff Keller, whose life you saved by your actions, I know now that I was wrong about you, and I ask you to forgive me. Please." Her eyes glistened with unshed tears as she finished speaking and sat looking at her daughter, her posture stiff and straight as an oak beam.

"Oh, Mama!" Sarah wailed, the stoic facade that she had tried to maintain as Bonnie spoke suddenly crumpling. She leapt from her chair and ran to her mother to bury her face in Bonnie's shoulder as sobs wracked her slender frame. Bonnie wrapped her in a tight embrace, pulling Sarah onto her lap, tears cascading down her own cheeks. She stroked the girl's hair as she whispered over and over, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

Fannie quietly pushed back her chair and started to rise. "Please, stay," Bonnie said softly, her words barely audible. "You mean so much to Sarah." Fannie settled back into her seat then lifted her cup to her lips. Her own eyes were damp as she sipped.

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Linn Keller 11-29-10


I leaned over and tried to spit the bad taste out of my mouth.
It didn't work.
Digger clucked to the mare and the dead wagon began rattling out of the draw below the graveyard.
I'd taken down the ropes and the only evidence that we used the hangin' tree was a little smooth scuffed place where each line had gone over, and a couple wet spots on the ground directly below.
Now I was headed back for my little log office to note in the journal that the court's order had been carried out, so sworn to and attested, witness my hand this fine and lovely day.
My breath followed me in a little cloud, for the mare was walking and not in any particular hurry.
We halted and I looked our town over, slowly, not looking for anything in particular, just looking.
The steam whistle in the distance counter pointed the laboring chant of the ore train in the distance, and the first passenger run of the day had already departed, promising safe travels for those on board and profits for Esther's ledger-books.
I crossed my hands on the pommel and leaned my weight on my arms, easing my back: something went pop a little north of my gunbelt and it hurt good.
My Witch-horse's ears swung back at me, swung ahead again.
I lifted her reins and she eased into a smooth trot.
Well, it wasn't exactly a trot, I don't know what it's rightly called other than smooth and easy. She was one of the nicest gaited horses I'd ever rode.
Maybe some coffee, I thought, and thought of the blue granite pot set beside the stove back at the office: the thought of making coffee and then trying to drink the stuff was not particularly appealing.
I thought of the interior of the Jewel, warm and welcoming, of Mr. Baxter's quiet smile, Daisy's admonishing finger (and her wooden spoon!) and I didn't feel particularly sociable.
I wasn't really sure what I wanted other than maybe a good cold drink.
I figured to be in the saddle that day so I draped Bruja's reins over the rail and went into my office.
I must not have latched the door.
I went back past the now-empty cells and pumped me some water and drank long and deep.
"Adam's Ale," I sighed afterward. "None better."
I hung the stamped tin dipper on the nail beside the red-enamel-and-polished-brass pump and went back out into the office.
The Irish Brigade's cur dog was setting in the middle of the floor, looking at me with those beady-bright eyes, its tail burnishing the already-polished floor.
"Why, hello, fella," I said, and the cur dog blinked and increased the polishing rate.
I went over and set down and the cur dog came over and jumped up in my lap and gave me a good face washing.
My hat, forgotten, fell to the floor: I rubbed that cur dog and laughed as he did his level best to remove a year's worth of trail dust from behind my ears.
We ended up with that cur dog laying on the floor beside the stove and my chair rolled over beside him, and the two of us just set there and soaked up some heat for a while.
I might not have felt terribly sociable after the hangin' but that-there cur dog was good company that morning.

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Linn Keller 11-29-10


I rode over to Carbon Hill that morning, after Hound Dog and I had us a good set beside that fire.
Felt good to set there and hang my arm down and have Hound Dog under my fingers.
I have no idea what the Irish Brigade call their cur but I reckon you could call him about anything and he'd come to you.
Especially if you had something edible.
I returned the pup to the fire house and headed on out to Carbon, and once I got there, good old Law and Order Harry Macfarland was leaned up against the front wall of his office like he always was.
I don't recall seeing that man anywhere else anytime I've gone over there.
Well, no, that ain't right.
We went over to their hash house and et a time or three but that's the only time I saw the man when he wasn't doing his best to prop up the front of that building.
Harry was quiet and unassuming and if you was to paint his portrait you'd use a lot of tan and grey and buff ... he wasn't nothing special to look at, you were as likely to forget his face as remember it, but he kept things quiet in Carbon.
Not that there was ever any excitement in his town.
Why, it would take a quart of whiskey and two Irishmen just to raise hell!
I draped the Witch-horse's reins over the rail and swung down, grimacing for a moment as my weight came on my hind hooves.
"Rheumatiz?" Harry grated.
"Mileage," I muttered.
Harry nodded wisely: the man had the wisest, most sage nod of anyone I'd ever met: sometimes I though he was dumb as a sled track, but ol' Harry was always really pretty sharp, even if he cultivated a hick appearance.
We went over to the hash house like we always did and set down to the Blue Plate Special.
I don't know why they called it that, the plates were white and there was nothing special about beans and corn bread, other than I was a hungry man and they were edible.
The beans and cornbread were edible.
The plate was not edible and neither was it blue.
Coffee wasn't bad, but coffee made by anyone but me was coffee better than mine.
Harry watched me pour some cream into my coffee -- good fresh cream, its diminutive ceramic pitcher sweating, for it was nicely chilled in their spring house out back -- and drawled, "Gettin' soft in yer old age, ain't yet?"
"Harry," I said, "I tried to think of a good smart remark to make for just such a question all the ride out here, and y'know, my mind just went blank."
Harry squinted at my grey hairs.
"You ain't supposed to imitate my bad examples," he said finally, and we both laughed.
One of his girls from upstairs come downstairs.
She was pretty, at one time, but like the town itself she looked worn and tired, but she still had her hair all jacked up and a ribbon in it.
She came over and began rubbing my shoulders.
Harry looked up at her and grunted, "Y'know, he'll likely give you a week to stop that."
I set down a fork full of beans and said "Purrrrr," and the girl laughed.
"You're all tense, Sheriff," she said teasingly. "Why don't I help you relax?"
I reached up and patted her hand and said "Darlin', was you to help me relax, my wife would drive me into the ground like a fence post, and once she was done my little girl would grab me around the neck, yank me out and sling me over the nearest roof top, after which they would start gettin' mean with me!"
She threw her head back and laughed quietly, skilled fingers moving to the back of my neck.
Truth be told I was tense, but then I usually was, but what she was doing felt pretty good so I just set there a while.
"Ellie," Harry finally said, "why don't you scoot off upstairs and get yourself presentable. Likely you'll have customers today and you want to look good."
"Why, Harry," Ellie said, trailing her fingers across the back of my neck as she swung her hips and swayed over to the Carbon lawman, "don't you like my fine new petticoat?"
Harry swatted her one on the fanny and grinned, "It might have been new two years ago," and she swatted at him with a limp wrist, giving an utterly false sound of dismay. "Why Harry, shame on you!"
"Go on, now, we got business to discuss," Harry dismissed with a tilt of the head, and Ellie gave me a saucy look and a blown kiss before she skipped across the tobacco-stained, sawdust-sprinkled floor.
I could not help but compare how unclean the place looked compared to the Jewel.
"Heard you had some trouble your way," Harry muttered, his voice lower.
"Trouble?" I said mildly, picking up my coffee cup. "What trouble?"
Harry glared. "Rusty Smith, for one. He allowed to brace me an' I ordered a fine new coffin for the occasion." He took a noisy slurp of his own lukewarm brew. "And it warn't fer him!"
"Rusty Smith?" I frowned. "Don't recall his comin' --"
"That fella you out skinned behint the jail!" Harry snapped. "You oughta listen to the owlhoot, you long tall Army reject! That feller what tried you that night beside the jail was Rusty Smith an' Ansel was with him! He seen it!"
I blinked.
"That was Smith?"
"Ansel said Smith had you dead to rights an' you nailed him before he cleared leather."
I nodded, remembering.
"Hell, I didn't know that was Rusty Smith!"
"It ain't good fer a man to get a reputation like that," Harry muttered. "Was we in Kansas or south, why, you'd have to beat 'em away with a stick fer wantin' to try ye!"
"Nah." I finished my beans and picked up my corn bread left handed. "Dime novels, Harry. Somethin' some damned Yankee wrote in New York."
Harry glared at me.
"You just watch yer behint," he snarled. "I don't make friends that easy and I cain't afford to lose none." He cleared his throat uncomfortably and snapped, "An' I hate funerals!"
"Why Harry!" I gave him my best Innocent Look. "I didn't know you cared!"
He glowered at me beneath salt-and-pepper eyebrows and I looked at him with the look of a piefaced schoolboy and finally neither of us could stand it any longer and we both laughed.
"Hell, come on over an' take a look at some wanted dodgers. Might be you seen these fellas."

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Linn Keller 12-1-10


Macfarland and I went over his wanted dodgers and sipped some surprisingly good whiskey he had in a cupboard hid behind a picture of his dead wife.
Some fellows hang a picture of the President or a dance hall girl.
Harry, he was hit hard enough when Nellie passed away he had a formal portrait taken of her laying dead in the coffin and he had it framed up and hung in his office right behind his desk.
This was not that unusual in this time.
Sometimes folks only had one portrait taken and that was at a death.
Maybe that's why I wasn't that enthusiastic about Esther's suggestion that we have a portrait taken of the two of us alive and well.
Hell, we got the Daine sketch, I thought. It's good as a portrait.
Maybe better.
On the other hand, maybe Harry kind of liked having his wife watching over him like that, I dunno.
He hinged the portrait so it swung out and exposed a cupboard built into the wall, and he pulled out a heavy glass bottle of something amber with a fancy label.
Warn't bad, neither.
Matter of fact after a couple of those I kind of floated out his door and poured myself into the saddle.
Not that it was potent or anything but I'm glad I was wearin' my boots, for it went down smooth as Mama's milk and threatened to blow the socks right off my feet.
I made a few stops on my roundabout back to Firelands: I liked to visit the outlying ranches, just a sociable howdy, nothing official; a man picks up a surprising amount of information sometimes that-a-way, and I ended up helping sew up a cut, I lent a hand slaughtering a beef, helped referee a foot race between rival cousins and helped measure and cut planks for a new shed.
Normally it would have been the rancher's wife sewing up the cut, but 'twas her leg that was cut -- I think she missed a chunk with the swing of her ax, and the splittin' stump she was using was higher than what she was used to -- she bit down hard on a stick when I washed out the cut with lye soap and good cold spring water, but I told her that was the best way to guarantee it would not infect, and then I squeezed it gently to bleed it and wash out anything that shouldn't be in there.
I'd washed my hands very thoroughly before handling the wound.
I'd seen docs in the War that never did wash their hands and I'd seen too many men die of infection, and until our own physicians, the Doctors Greenlees and Flint, came to town, why, having a doc deliver a baby was a death sentence for a woman: Doc Greenlees believed most firmly that dirty hands were the main cause of infection, whether in surgery or in everyday practice, and he and Dr. Flint were both most scrupulous in their handwashing.
They been educated better'n me.
I figured to listen to them, at least on that one count.
I even stripped the horse hair between thumb and fore finger in that soapy water, and trickled a little alcohol on it and let it hang dry before I started stitching.
Doc does a better job than me and he's got them fancy curved needles to sew folks up with and I did the best I could with what I had.
It wasn't a bad job but I reckon she'd be glad she wore stockings and a long skirt, for a woman prizes her good looks and that was a nasty cut.
I turned down a meal but took some bread and back strap with thanks, and headed myself back toward Firelands.
I had a couple packages in my saddle bags.
I wanted to present Sarah with that .22 revolving pistol and maybe get her started on how to shoot a short gun.
"We're timin' this just right," I told the Witch-horse. "Today is Sarah's twelfth birthday."

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Linn Keller 12-2-10


I come to the Rosenthal ranch not long after, for there was a pass I knew of that cut some miles off my ride and I was kind of anxious to give Sarah that little revolving pistol.
The arch over their road looked different and once I got closer I saw it had been replaced.
It used to say ROSENTHAL in wrought iron work, regular square characters, functional and masculine and forged under a blacksmith's hammer.
Now it said "McKenna" and the letters were more rounded ... gentler, I thought.
They were definitely more pleasing to the eye.
I remembered some special delivery from Cripple and I recalled it was from the blacksmith Shorty had briefly employed, before the man moved on and set up shop in the mining town.
I patted the Witch-horse's neck.
"How much," I said, "how much you want to bet she had Black Smith make that?"
I'd had Smith forge me out a fine boot knife.
It wasn't Damascus steel but it was well worked and a good alloy, it held a decent edge and I'd sent back to Ohio for some Berea sandstones.
I've sharpened knives on about anything -- one time I sprinkled sand on a board and kind of murdered a rough edge on a soft steel blade -- but Berea sandstone was the best I'd ever found.
Some fellow in Amherst was selling them and I bought a dozen and give them out for gifts one year and probably twice that number of folks asked for some, so I passed this fellow's address on to Maude, and the only sharpening stones she stocked were genuine Berea sandstones.
She did a steady business, for the Berea stones' reputation sold them without need for dummers, dodgers or advertising.
I shook my head.
I get side tracked easy.
The Witch-horse eased forward, kind of coasting along, and we rode toward what used to be the Rosenthal ranch house.
I washed up out back before going to the front door.
I knew I could have just walked in the back door and been welcome, but a man likes to observe certain proprieties and it would not have been mannerly just to walk into Bonnie's kitchen.
I've known men who did such things, and one or two met a fast moving frying pan heading the opposite direction.
I am not that fine a looking a man, but I don't really care to inherit the bottom of an eighteen inch cast iron flat on my beak.
Superstitious, I reckon you could say.
I think it's bad luck to get hit with a fryin' pan.
I was halfway up the steps when the front door flew open.
BANG and that fancy glass door knob drove into the siding and Sarah came charging across the porch yelling "Uncle Linn!" and near to knocked me over backwards: I found my arms full of laughing, chattering Sarah, but a Sarah that surprised me.
I'd hugged her before, but before she was ... well, she was more of a little girl.
Now she was solid and her arms were stronger and ... well, it was like trying to hold an armful of cats, she had me by the hand and was dragging me up onto the porch before I'd got my wits properly about me, and I found myself in the parlor with Sarah towing me like a tugboat hauling a barge and me thinking my hat got knocked crooked but Sarah's birthday present was under my other arm.
This was not going the way I'd planned.
A man likes to be decent when he goes into someone else's house and Bonnie being a widow woman and all, the least I could do would be to go in with my hat in my hand and greet her in a respectful voice.
Here, though, here Sarah, apple-cheeked and laughing and looking ...
I looked at Bonnie and looked at Sarah, and Miz Fannie was seated as regal as the Queen herself, hands folded delicately in her lap, and I remember thinking how amazing that woman was: she could be absolutely the lady in one moment, proper, demure, feminine, graceful, all the things a woman should be ... and in the next, she could be a snarling, spitting, fire slinging war-demon with blazing eyes and fangs, dealing out death like a poker player deals cards.
I looked at Bonnie and I looked at Sarah.
Sarah let go of my hand and I finally was able to reach up and retrieve my galley-west skypiece.
I cleared my throat a little nervously and asked, "May I come in?"

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Linn Keller 12-2-10


Ladies did not rise for a man, men rose when a lady entered the room: Bonnie and Fannie remained seated as the Sheriff removed his cover and turned a schoolboy shade of red.
He acted like a man with a suddenly dry throat, and Bonnie smiled: he harrumphed a little and looked uncomfortable and Miz Fannie raised the delicate china teacup to hide her own look of amusement, and finally the Sheriff turned to Sarah and said, "I don't believe we've been introduced. I'm looking for Sarah Rosenthal. She's some younger than you."
The Sheriff's words were voiced in a gentle and gentlemanly tone, and his expression so solemn, that Bonnie giggled, Fannie snorted into her tea and Sarah swatted playfully at the Sheriff's arm.
"Uncle Linn!" she scolded, putting her fists on her waist, "it's me and you know it!"
The Sheriff took a great breath and let it out slowly, nodding.
"I know," he said finally, and his voice was suddenly tired, and old, that of a man realizing that time was sailing on past at a shocking velocity.
"Sarah, I brought you a Happy Birthday present."
He handed her the cloth wrapped wooden box and Sarah hefted it, smiling, then looked up at the grey-mustachioed old lawman with the bright, light-blue eyes.
"Oh, Uncle Linn," she groaned, taking the box: quickly, she came up on her toes, kissing her uncle on his cheek: then, spinning, she set the box on the table and worked it open, quickly, anxiously.
The Sheriff looked over top of her at Bonnie and winked, then looked at Miz Fannie.
Miz Fannie had managed to miss getting tea on her gown: she was discreetly placing the damp napkin on the table and settling the teacup silently back on its fragile saucer.
"Oh, Uncle Linn! It's pretty!" Sarah exclaimed, removing the Colt revolver with delicate fingers.
Her fingertips and her shining eyes explored the factory scrollwork engraved on either side of the muzzle and curling back for about an inch; she saw her name, engraved on the top of the barrel, Sarah, in delicate script: she held the revolver, muzzle-up, carefully maintaining muzzle discipline, and showed her Mama the ivory grips with the script S on the uncheckered diamond shaped panel in the very middle of the pure-white grips.
"I thought it wise to teach you to shoot pistol," the Sheriff said in a gentle, fatherly voice, "and so I had that one specially made. I thought to start you out with a .22 and we'll work our way up from there."
Miz Fannie made kind of a strangled sound and she snatched the napkin up and managed to hide her expression behind it.
"Why, it's lovely," Bonnie said uncertainly, unsure whether this was a proper gift for a young lady, but not about to burst what was obviously a delighted young lady's moment.
The Sheriff was watching Bonnie's expression, and so missed the look between Sarah and Fannie: the older woman removed the napkin to expose pursed lips, flicked a finger up to them, and Sarah gave the barest of nods: Fannie counseled silence, and Sarah acknowledged her counsel.
Sarah nestled the pistol back into its box, then spun and seized her uncle about the neck: he ran his arms around his beloved niece and picked her up off the floor.
"Oh, Uncle Linn, thank you! It's pretty!" Sarah gushed.
The Sheriff leaned his head back a little and looked into his twelve year old niece's eyes.
He'd never seen them quite so bright, quite so big, quite so ...
... quite so lovely! he realized.
He bent a little, til her feet touched the floor again, and released his celebratory bear hug: he placed gentle hands on her dress's poofy shoulders, and Sarah saw a deep sadness in his pale eyes.
"You're tall," he said quietly, nodding once.
Sarah blinked a few times, quick-like, uncertain as to what she'd done wrong.
The Sheriff brushed a curl of her hair with the back of one careful finger.
"You're not a little girl anymore," the Sheriff said in almost a whisper, more to himself than to her.
"You are a fine young woman," he said, "and I am very proud of you."
Sarah felt suddenly uncertain, but she recovered almost instantly: "Can we offer you some tea, Uncle Linn? There are lemon cakes --"
The Sheriff held up a forestalling palm. "I thank you, ladies, but I must be for my own hacienda." His smile was definitely that of a sad old man. "If I don't get home soon, Esther will send the dog out after me and we'll never get home."
The Sheriff turned awkwardly, a smile and a nod for Bonnie and Fannie individually; then he walked quietly to the front door, settling his skypiece in place as he crossed the departing threshold.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-2-10


When she was certain that the Sheriff had indeed departed for home, Sarah turned to Fannie. "It really is pretty, but..."

"But you are going to go shooting with that gentleman, and I do mean gentleman, and you are going to enjoy it!" Fannie told her firmly.

"I'm not sure that a gun is a proper gift for a young lady," Bonnie put in uncertainly.

"It is for this young lady," Fannie answered. "And coming from Linn, it is most heartfelt. If he didn't think it was necessary, he would not have gone to the trouble that he has obviously gone to." She traced the lettering on the barrel lightly with one finger.

Sarah looked at her anxiously. "But we need to tell Uncle Linn that I can already shoot!" she exclaimed.

"Yes, he needs to know," Fannie agreed. "But we need to do it gently, so that we don't embarrass him too much," she went on. "He's only trying to help. And besides, it'll be fun, and it will be good practice. A .22 is much cheaper to shoot as well. Did he include any cartridges in that box?" A moment's search revealed a small pasteboard box nestled alongside the revolver.

"Yes, he did," Sarah said. "Can we shoot it?"

Fannie looked at Bonnie. "What do you say? Shall we go try out her birthday present?"

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