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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 12-3-10

 

The Regulator clock was loud in the nighttime stillness.
Angela had long since begged a bedtime story and as usual I had got less than a half dozen quietly voiced sentences before she was sound asleep.
I know she was asleep because she rolled up on her side, the way she always did, and I pulled the covers up around her and she never moved.
If she'd been awake she would have giggled.
I'll swear, once that child's head hits the pillow, set your watch, a minute and a half and she's so sound asleep you could fire a cannon outside and she'd not stir!
Esther tells me I sleep like that.
I didn't think so until the time I had to spend a night over in Carbon, and I didn't figure I slept a bit until I went to throw the covers off and roll out of that lumpy back breaker bed, and found the plaster ceiling had fell in on me during the night.
I went back downstairs and had a good long drink of water, and then set to scribing in my journal.
Night time was the best time for me to write.
I am better able to order my thoughts, to marshal them in neat ranks so they flow well from the split tip nib of my favorite pen.
I took a thoughtful sip of brandy, worked it around my mouth, feeling it sear my gums the way it always did: I dipped the nib in good India ink and began writing again, the pen noisy and scratchy on good rag paper.

I was halfway to town when I realized I just might have messed up.
Bruja stopped and swung her ears back when I set straight up in the saddle and uttered a sound of distress: I lifted the reins and said "Yup, girl," and she stepped out again, and I thought long and hard all the rest of the way.
Sarah has been out at Charlie and Fannie's, I thought.
How much you want to bet they are already planning on teaching her to shoot?
I kicked myself and cussed myself for seven kinds of a short sighted scoundrel.
Charlie is more brother than friend and the absolute last thing in this world I wanted to do was step on his toes and here I might have done just that.
I figured to go out and make my apologies to the man, but I had too much on the hook to do it that day.
Next day bright and early I went out and seen them out back.
They two of them were laughing and Sarah had that ivory handled revolver in a second hand gunrig around her slender middle, and I must have stared a little, for she was wearing canvas britches and I'm used to seeing her looking like a lady.
She didn't see me stare and I'm glad for it.
The military allows a man to be out of uniform if he is attired for the activity in which he is engaged, which is how one of the general officers avoided a court martial when he got caught running buck naked down a hallway chasing a giggling floozie one night. Matter of fact it was the only time I ever recall a court-martial falling apart in undignified laughter, and the consensus was that if the man had brass enough to stand before the board and say with a straight face that he was indeed properly attired for that particular activity, why, they had no choice but to return him to command!


I leaned back and smiled a little.
I didn't think much about the War these days, but every now and again something funny from the past would slip through cracks in the wall I'd built, and this was one of them.
I took a long, deep breath, had another sip of brandy, dipped my pen again and wiped the excess on the inside of the ink bottle.


"Charlie?" I called, and he wasn't surprised at my hail.
I think that man could hear a flea sneeze at a hundred yards.
Charlie turned and gave me a wise look and I figured well hell, stand for your chewin' out, you've earned it, but no such thing.
"That is lovely engravin' work," he said as I dismounted.
"Charlie, I --" I began, and Charlie raised a finger.
"We've about emptied that box of .22s," he said. "The girls had to try out Sarah's new birthday present."
I nodded, fumbling with the straps on my off saddlebag. "I got two cartons right here."
I hefted a thousand rounds of rimfire, one carton in each hand.
Charlie's eyes smiled.
"I don't believe we'll shoot that many today," he drawled.
"No," I agreed.
Sarah and Charlie shared a look and my heart sank a little lower.
He's been teaching her already, I thought, and now I'm hornin' in --
"Charlie," I said, "I believe I owe you an apology --"
Charlie's eyes were quiet.
He was hiding something.
I've seen that look when he set at a poker table and run a bluff on a river boat gambler. He had two pair -- deuces and treyes -- the gambler's hand bettered his considerable, but Charlie's veiled silence so unnerved the professional that the gambler folded, defeated.
I cleared my throat and tried to start over and Charlie said, "Sarah, show your Uncle Linn what you can do." He stepped toward the row of tin cans hung from string off the fence rail and set a number two size can about twenty feet out.
Sarah waited until Charlie was back beside her.
"I'll need some more rounds," she said, and Charlie grinned -- he's up to something, I thought -- and he dumped the rest of the pasteboard box into Sarah's upturned palm.
She poured them into her vest pocket and nodded.
Sarah made the slickest, smoothest draw I have seen in a very long time.
She had that ivory handled Colt in a two hand grip and slip hammered five rounds into that tin can fast and slick and I just stood there with my teeth in my mouth.
Sarah punched out the empties, reloaded, holstered.
She did it again.
This time the can fell over.
Those little lead slugs howled into the empty distance beyond.
Sarah unbuckled that second hand gun rig and thrust it at her Uncle Charlie.
"'Scuse me," she said in a little-girl voice, and threw me an impish glance: she scampered off back toward the shed and Charlie turned, slowly, and I stood there opening and closing my mouth and blinking like a man who'd just seen a fish sprout legs and walk down the main street reciting Shakespeare.
I pointed at the tin can, then toward the shed, then back to the can.
"She -- you -- it --" I stammered, nonplussed.
Charlie's eyes tightened a little at the corners and the bare ghost of a smile pulled at the rest of his face.
Right about then I turned.
Hoofbeats, fast and coming towards us: it was Sarah's favorite saddle horse at a dead-out gallop and Sarah wasn't on it -- but --
I blinked hard, and my chin sagged some more.
Sarah was hanging on the side of the horse, one heel hooked over the saddle and her hand tangled up in its mane, she was screaming like an Apache, riding like a Mexican and she had one eye and an arm hung out from under that mare's neck -- at a dead out gallop! -- and hammered five fast shots at the tin cans hanging from the fence rail.
That warn't no .22 she was shooting, neither.
By this time my chin had descended to about the level of my belt buckle.
I reckon my eyes was the size of tea saucers as I looked over at Charlie.
The man could not contain himself any longer.
He started to laugh.
So did I.
Sarah had sailed right on by and I reckon she made a wide swing to burn off that speed and by the time she got back I had taken a two hand grip on my hanging jaw bone and levered it back up into position.
Charlie was pointing at me and laughing: his face was red and there was wet at the corners of his eyes and I took a staggering step toward him, for I too was starting to chuckle: I clapped a hand on his shoulder and bent over a little, my off hand on my left knee and I begun to guffaw and chortle and if he hadn't been there to lean on some I would have fell over I was laughing so hard.
The two of us kind of coasted to a stop and I wiped my eyes and blew my beak and looked over at where one of them strings was still swinging from the fence rail and I pointed at it and started to laugh again and we were both off.
It probably sounded like a couple of damned fools but I did not care.
Charlie had got me and got me good, the joke was on me and by God! it felt good to laugh!
Sarah rode up, smiling uncertainly, and I looked at her and looked at Charlie and I pointed at that carton of .22s and started to laugh again and this time I kind of folded up double and leaned both palms on my knees and Charlie pounded me happily on the back exclaiming, "Breathe, old hoss! Breathe now, you're turning funny colors!" and we were both off again!
It has been a very, very long time since I laughed that well and that long.
I straightened finally, blew my snot box again and managed to find a dry corner of the wild rag to mop the moisture from my eyes, and I looked at that number two tin can laying there with them little bitty holes in it and I looked at Sarah and motioned her over.
Sarah dismounted and came over very tentatively.
In those days people didn't smile much and portraits generally showed severe expressions: a smile was seen as a sign of weakness, and Sarah had likely not seen that much mirth and merriment from two strong men in her life.
I ran one arm around Sarah's shoulders and the other around Charlie's and said, "You two are standing in the presence of the damndest fool God ever poured into boot leather!"


I leaned back, shifted in my seat: my tail bone had been broke some years before and ached with a change in the weather and it was aching now, but as I capped the ink bottle and wiped the pen clean, as I watched gleaming-wet ink dry on the journal's page, I grinned, and I chuckled a little, for Charlie and I have shared many things over the years, and I believe that was the longest and the best laugh we have ever had together.

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Linn Keller 12-4-10

 

The Sheriff's eyes snapped open.
It was yet full dark.
His eyes narrowed as he puzzled at the meaning of the dream.
He'd dreamed he was a very young man, back in Ohio, back at an old and dear friend's home place: he and the man had grown up neighbors and they were more brothers than friends: his bosom chum had died while still a young man, died of the sugar they said, blind and not in his right mind, but in the dream, in the dream, in the dream ...
It wasn't uncommon for him to wake with an idea fully formed, or with the solution for a problem that he'd been studying on, whether motive for a crime, method for a crime's execution, the right argument to present in court ... but this was different.
His dear friend was alive again in the dream, alive and talking and young and strong and healthy, the way he used to be ... only he lived in a bedsheet hung on the line, like he was projected there from one of those magic lantern things.
They talked a while and the Sheriff was directed to look up, look up at the sky, and it was like looking at the water's surface.
Like looking at its surface from underneath.
A tree that never existed, now stood beside the farmhouse, the solid old homestead built by the ancestral Hugh Beymer, who'd sailed the blue Atlantic with his worldly goods and kinfolk: the highest branches, the tiny delicate topmost twigs penetrated the sky and disappeared.
He turned and his friend was gone, only an empty bedsheet waving in the summer's breeze, and he saw a number of mausoleums in the back yard ... he walked among them, peering between the locked bars, and the dead glared at him from their oval, walnut-framed portraits, glass-covered and sealed behind confining steel.
The Sheriff lay still, unmoving, listening to his wife's regular breathing: his hand was loose, relaxed, and hers was as well, but they lay within one another's grip, warm, reassuring.
The Regulator clock downstairs was loud in the nighttime silence.
It was nearly an hour before the Sheriff gave up puzzling the dream, and relaxed, allowing his thoughts to immerse once again in the dark ocean of slumber.

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Linn Keller 12-5-10

 

Jacob, like his father, was a robust and full-blooded man: he fairly strutted as he made his way to the barn, he whistled through the morning's chores, smiled quietly as he saddled his stallion: he tied Apple-horse to the hitch in front of the house, and went back inside for a little.
Annette was feeding young Joseph.
The lad was weaned from the breast, to Annette's considerable relief: Jacob had thought her efforts premature until the lad had tested a newly erupted incisor on his Pa's finger, and Jacob offered no further thought on the subject, for he imagined that strong bite on a particularly tender and sensitive part of his wife's anatomy, and the thought brought a distressed expression to his lean face.
Now, though, his expression was anything but distressed: Annette, too, had a look of pleased contentment on her own visage, and rose as her husband re-entered the house.
Jacob, lean and strong, took his wife in his arms: his desire was plain, but not demanding: had Annette demurred, he would have understood, for a young son took much of a mother's time, and she was not yet done feeding the lad.
Annette's hands caressed Jacob's back and the back of his head, and she tilted her head back, her breath coming a little more quickly.
Jacob's eyes burned, as did his soul: he was a man much in love with his wife, and she with him, and his passion was declared wordlessly, but very plainly, and when he made his statement, both were somewhat short of breath, and a little flushed.
Annette's eyes promised much; her complexion was flushed, her lips parted slightly: she licked her bottom lip, slowly, then turned, carefully and methodically fed young Joseph the last few teaspoons of his breakfast.
Jacob noticed his wife's normally steady hand was shaking a little.
"Now let's get you undressed," she murmured to Joseph as she picked up their drowsy little boy, to which Jacob replied, "Here, in the kitchen?"
Annette turned quickly, eyes smoldering.
"Mr. Keller, if you keep that up, I will undress you here in the kitchen, and that is a promise!"
It was rare that Jacob allowed his feelings to overtake him, but he allowed them free rein that morning, and when the sun was a bit higher, and he finally rode into Firelands, it was with the feeling that he could whip the world, mount it on a fine gold ring and give it to his wife as a bauble to wear on her lovely, slender hand.

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Linn Keller 12-7-10

 

Maude saw Jacob coming down the street, and smiled to herself.
There is something about a handsome young man sitting tall in the saddle, riding a fine stallion, with the morning sun glowing as it touched him: Apple-horse fairly shone, and Jacob's cheeks were bright red.
The cold, she presumed.
Mrs. Trout muttered darkly as she stacked several cans of fruit on the counter: she was not gentle, and Maude wondered which can would shatter the thick glass top.
None did, but it seemed not for want of trying.
"Your prices are too high," the peevish old woman complained, then shook a can of tomatoes at Maude with a scowl. "And another thing," she said loudly, "that Rosenthal woman should be ashamed of herself!"
Maude's eyes flicked to the front door.
Bonnie Rosenthal -- or, rather, Bonnie McKenna -- had just come in the door.
She froze when she heard Mrs. Trout's declaration, then she turned and closed the door behind her quietly, carefully.
Maude tasted copper and knew that something unpleasant was about to transpire.
Maude looked at Mrs. Trout, who was still shaking the can at her, almost in her face, and Maude decided that whatever Mrs. Trout was about to inherit, was of her own making, and the old bat could very well reap the harvest she was so enthusiastically sowing.
"Now one day of mourning! Not one!" Mrs. Trout snapped. "Why, a decent woman would not show her face in public for a month, and then only in black! And that daughter of hers! Murderess!" She shuddered. "Why she wasn't hanged with those other murderers is beyond me!"
"
Mrs. Trout!" Bonnie snapped, her voice icy, cold: the chill vapors nearly formed a mist-cloud at her lips, and her eyes were hard as polished agate.
Mrs. Trout froze in mid-scowl, then turned and opened her mouth as if to say something hypocritcally sweet, as was the old gossip's habit in such moments.
She never had the chance.
Bonnie Rosenthal was a genteel woman.
Bonnie Rosenthal was a woman of gentle upbringing and cultured demeanor.
Bonnie Rosenthal also had her good right hand drawn back just past her left shoulder, and uncoiled a backhand slap that staggered the gossip to her high button heels.
Cans clattered to the floor and Mrs. Trout, gossip and troublemaker, put a trembling hand to her wounded cheek.
She looked at Bonnie with eyes like boiled eggs, then her eyes narrowed and her lip curled as she prepared to hiss some verbal venom.
She never had a chance at this either.
Bonnie was not a fencer; she was, however, a dancer, and rather a good one: the movement of her arm was fluid, continuous; the backhand came around into a forehand, and Mrs. Trout's other cheek received the benefit of Bonnie's palm, swung almost as hard as she could.
Bonnie was not done.
Bonnie was also not herself.
There is that about a woman that will respond with anger when wronged, but there is a fierce and abiding anger about a mother whose daughter has just been wronged.
Bonnie McKenna seized Mrs. Trout about the throat and lifted her to her tip-toes, drawing her closer and looking down her nose at the old woman's bulging eyes and reddening face.
"Hear me, witch," she hissed, and Maude had never in all her years in Firelands heard Bonnie speak to anyone in any but a pleasant and ladylike tone -- "I parade not my grief for your entertainment." Her fingers bent and she pressed them, clawlike, into the old woman's windpipe.
"As for my daughter," she continued, lowering her head and bringing her nose an inch from Mrs. Trout's beak, "if you ever lay your tongue to her name I shall finish ripping your throat from its poisoned roots." She relaxed her grip, as the woman's complexion was becoming somewhat enpurpled.
The bell on the door dingled merrily as Jacob thrust it open.
Bonnie released Mrs. Trout and the old woman fell back, gasping noisily, one hand seizing the corner of the counter, the other to her wounded wind: she blinked the tears from her eyes, then seeing Jacob, raised a palsied hand:
"Deputy," she rasped, "arrest her! Arrest her! She tried to murder me!"
Bonnie lifted her chin, contempt in her expression and in her voice.
"If I intended to murder you," she said icily, "you would never be found."
"There, there!" the crone screeched, eyes bulging, backing away from Bonnie as if from a leper. "She said it, she said it! She's going to murder meee!"
Jacob looked at Bonnie and raised one eyebrow.
Bonnie raised her chin, defiance shining in her eyes.
"A word, if I may?" he asked gently, and approached Bonnie: he offered an arm, and Bonnie lay her gloved hand gently on his: they went out the door together.
Maude and Mrs. Trout watched through the wavy glass as the two spoke.
Jacob raised a hand, one finger extended, and came back inside.
Mrs. Trout pointed an accusing finger at the door, shaking with indigination.
"Aren't you taking her to jail?" she screeched.
Jacob's pace was slow, measured, his eyes pale.
"Mrs. Trout," he said quietly, "I do not hit old women, but if I did, I would knock your nasty face through that wall." His hands closed, opened.
"I am going to give you some free advice.
"Keep your forked tongue behind your teeth if you want to live a long and happy life. If you say one more word -- one more word!" -- his voice dropped to a whisper and he towered over her, mesmerizing her like a snake hypnotizes a bird just before crushing it -- "I will visit myself upon you, and I will make you suffer." He stood over her, trembling a little with anger.
"And remember, Bonnie and I are blood, her daughter is my cousin and the Sheriff's niece."
Mrs. Trout's mouth opened and closed a few times.
"Mrs. Trout, you are overwrought. Let me walk you home."
Jacob reached for her arm and Mrs. Trout blinked.
The spell broken, she bolted for the door, screaming.
The door banged open, swung a little, its bell dinging merrily, as the disagreeable old bat ran down the street at the top of her lungs, arms waving, mouth wide.
Bonnie stepped back inside, closed the door gently.
"Good morning, Miz McKenna," Jacob greeted her formally, hat in hand. "And you are looking lovely this fine morning!"
Maude decorously wadded up a big handful of apron and held it against her face, the better to muffle her laughter.
She'd never liked that old witch and it was worth paying the price of admission to see the old bat get her comeuppance!

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Linn Keller 12-8-10

 

Mrs. Trout's description of the event was accompanied by a high and screeching voice, grand gestures, a kerchief that trailed her flying hand: the Sheriff considered it a good thing that the firehouse cur had been returned to his own bailiwick, for the woman's voice would surelyl have brought the poor dog to its haunches with muzzle in the air, howling.
After another minute of listening to the old woman's histrionics, the Sheriff felt rather like throwing his head back and howling himself.
"Mrs. Trout," he said mildly, to which the woman paid absolutely no attention.
"And that deputy!" She stopped for breath, shaking her head and setting the wattle under her chin a-wobbling -- "that deputy as much as threatened to hit me! He is a public servant! A public servant!" One bony, crooked finger described a corkscrew toward the ceiling. "I will not stand for this, I won't! I want you to do something!"
"Now why is it," the Sheriff said quietly into her huffing lull, "that you expect me to read your mind, Mrs. Trout?"
The old spinster's eyes widened, then narrowed and she opened her mouth to reply: the Sheriff was across the room and had her by the elbow with one hand, reached for the door with the other.
"Mrs. Trout, leave this matter to me," he said reassuringly, and opened the door.
Mrs. Trout found herself on the boardwalk, wondering quite how she got there, for she had gathered a good lungful of air to blast the Sheriff with another lengthy diatribe of spiteful invective: blinking, she shrugged her shawl more tightly across her shoulders and glared up the street, toward the Mercantile.
"Hmph!" she sniffed, hoisting her nose and turning her back: she marched with resolute step down the boardwalk, but with her nose in the air she failed to note that she had come to the end of the walk, and rather than descending the steps in some semblance of order, she ended up in a rather undignified posture in the alleyway instead.
A boot appeared in front of her face.
At one time it had been a new and well-tended boot, and indeed there were traces of polished leather left on it: time, dust, abrasion and weather had taken their toll, leaving only the substantial structure for the most part, and only those traces of a fine finish.
The owner of the boot squatted down and brushed the old woman's hair gently aside.
"Ma'am," the boot's owner said, and his voice was not entirely unpleasant, "may I help you up?"

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Linn Keller 12-9-10

 

Mr. Baxter was a pretty fair judge of character, as was Tom Landers: both studied the stranger as he sauntered into the saloon.
Tom Landers did his best to look inconspicuous, leaning against the bar, a mug beside him and the dregs of a beer foamed in the bottom: he looked almost drowsy, a most deceptive appearance to be sure, and though not fooled, the stranger held his counsel.
Mr. Baxter buffed the gleaming mahogany with industrious strokes of his ever present bar towel.
"What'll it be, stranger?" he asked, perpetual good humor showing in his eyes, and the stranger's expression showed a similar good nature.
"Beer," he said quietly, "and a bite. What's good?"
Mr. Baxter chuckled. "That's the trouble, friend," he said, patting his middle affectionately -- none could say it was protuberant, portly or paunched, for though he took care of the Silver Jewel's thirsty customers, he was no stranger to honest labor, and odd moments had found him tending other duties out and about.
With a hand rubbing his middle he said "If it comes out of Daisy's kitchen it's good!" and the stranger nodded, accepting the beer: "That's good enough for me," he said.
Taking a long, savoring drink of beer, he swallowed slowly, feeling the cellar-cooled beverage sparkle all the way down, until it sloshed contentedly around the bottom of his belly, somewhere ten foot or so below his boot soles or so it felt.
"Reckon I'll have the special, then," he said, and looked at the high chair with the foot rests. "You got a boy that does boots?"
Mr. Baxter chuckled. "We've had that young fellow for some time now." He resumed his polishing, looking off to the right, toward the Jewel's desk. "I believe he's in school right now --"
As if magicked from a rubbed lamp, a grinning lad appeared, wood box in his left hand and a brush in his right.
"I thought you had school today," Mr. Baxter said, frowning a little, and got a big boyish grin in return.
"I seen a stranger come up the street," he said in his little-boy's voice, "and thought he might like a bath and if he wanted a bath he'd want his boots blacked an' maybe he'd want a new suit an' Maude just might have his size an' he'll want a meal an' while he's waitin' I can make a nickle!" he said, all in a rush, and the stranger and Mr. Baxter exchanged a look.
"Well now," Mr. Baxter said, and the stranger chuckled.
"Do you reckon the kitchen could hold off that meal until this young fellow and I transact business?" the stranger asked.
"Oh, I'll see what I can do," Mr. Baxter drawled in a fair imitation of a peevish old man, and both laughed. He gestured with his bar towel.
"There's a shelf on yun side of that chair for your beer."
"Obliged." He took another sip, sauntered over to the chair.
"Y'know, son," he said as he settled himself in the chair and set his hooves on the cast iron foot plates, "it's been a while since I had a good polish on these boots."
"Oh, don't worry, mister," the lad grinned. "I'll do ye a good job!"
The stranger leaned back and he felt tension, an old and long standing tension, start to unwind from around his belly.
Something told him he was safe here.
He hadn't felt this in a very long time.

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Linn Keller 12-9-10

 

Bonnie drew her hem delicately upward and stepped carefully as she walked into the barn.
She knew what she was looking for and quickly found it.
She had thought about this for quite some time, and she had examined herself closely, scrutinizing her soul as she would a bolt of cloth before undertaking an important commission.
Her eyes fell on the stump that served as a small workbench, anvil and pounding block, and above it, hung from two pegs, the maul.
She reached up and plucked the maul from its woody home.
Bonnie hefted it, nodding; she turned, swinging her skirt behind her to get the stump between her and the door.
She'd left the double doors open to admit as much light as possible, for she wished to see what she was doing.
Bonnie placed the maul on the stump, then lay a small, cloth wrapped bundle beside the maul.
On impulse she unwrapped it.
Her jaw muscles tightened and her lips pressed together as she saw the monogram in the corner of the handkerchief: CR, it read, embroidered in a fine, looping script: Bonnie had sewn those very initials in her husband's kerchief, as a matter of fact, the night before she learned about that ... that tart, that trollop with whom he'd been consorting.
She opened the spotless white kerchief fully, exposing the ornate glass bottle.
It had been a gift, given her the morning after her husband's death: a lacrymatory, a testament to the glass-blower's art; even the rubber-lined stopper was beautiful, and gleamed in the indirect light.
A widow would catch the tears of her mourning in the lacrymatory, and one year later, would pour them out on the grave of the loved one, to signify the year of mourning had ended.
Bonnie picked the bottle up, turned it slowly.
It gleamed as she turned it, rainbows sparkling in the twisting prism that spiraled around its length.
The bottle was empty.
Bonnie had thought long and hard after her encounter in the Mercantile.
She considered her motive in refusing to wear widow's weeds.
Her chin came up and hard eyes shone with defiance.
"I will not mourn that man," she hissed, and lay the tear-bottle in the center of the kerchief.
Bonnie folded the kerchief, carefully, precisely, the last fold turned back to exposed the embroidered initials.
She picked up the square-headed maul.
It had been made from Osage orange root: the twisted, tortured grain was so convoluted that when it cracked and split from drying out, and from pounding, it would not fall apart: this was not yet dried nor pounded, and was like swinging a small block of iron.
Bonnie looked at the initials on the kerchief, raised the maul overhead.
Her knees bent a little with the effort of her swing: she fully intended to drive the maul at least halfway through the stump.
All the grief, all the loss, all the anger, all the betrayal, all the fury, all was focused in this woman's two-handed swing.
The sound of the tear-bottle's crushing was lost with the slam of wood maul into smoothed stump.
One mighty blow was all she needed; one mighty blow destroyed any grief she may have had.
The kerchief was soiled now, stained with dirt from the maul, and from the stump, and the cloth was lacerated from the impact and from the crushed glass it held.
Bonnie picked it up and carried it outside, holding it between thumb and forefinger, at arm's length, as if it were diseased, or unclean.
She carried it into the house.
She used her apron as insulation and opened the door of the stove.
She tossed the refuse within, and closed the door.

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Linn Keller 12-10-10

 

About half way through his beer, he set the bottom of the mug on his right thigh.
The lad working on his boots was setting up a regular rhythm.
It felt kind of good.
It was warm within, and his belly was happy to get something in it, and in spite of not having eaten yet, he began to relax.
When a man's fist is upright and he relaxes, it rotates inward, and his did.
His was also wrapped around the handle of that beer mug.
Tom Landers saw the man's eyes drift shut and his head tilted forward very slightly, then he saw the mug begin to rotate.
The fellow woke when he felt the mug twitch in his hand.
He opened his eyes.
Tom Landers was leaned over the lad and had the mug in his grip, keeping it from dumping its remaining contents right in the fellow's lap.
They looked at one another for a long moment.
"Hello, Tom," the fellow said agreeably, the ghost of a smile in his eyes.
"Hello, Brown," Tom said. "What brings you here?"

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Linn Keller 12-11-10

 

Brown bit happily into another warm light roll.
"You don't get these over'n Cripple," he mumbled through a mouthful.
"No, reckon not," Tom Landers agreed, the corners of his eyes crinkling along old and well-established wrinkle lines.
"Phmp," Brown grunted as he gulped some coffee and washed down his current mouthful while buttering what was left of the roll.
"Yer manners are as delicate as ever," Tom observed dryly.
Brown laughed, the easy laugh of someone more than familiar with his dinner partner.
"Never did tell me what you're doin' out this-a-way."
"Me?" Brown chewed the last of the sweet roll and picked up his fork, happily regarding the taters and gravy steaming fragrantly in front of him. He scooped up some taters, sloshed it through the gravy and leaned forward a little, shoveling the tinesful of cargo into his mouth, savoring the taste as he swallowed, slowly, slowly.
Brown looked left, looked right, then leaned toward Tom, speaking in low voice, as if divulging a State secret.
"I'm lookin' for a wife," he confided with a wink and a nod.
"A wife," Tom repeated skeptically.
"Yep." Brown nodded rapidly. "I got me a notion to marry me some nice lookin' widda-woman."
"Mmm-hmm," Tom said quietly, leaning back and crossing his arms skeptically.
"I thought they was one over t'other side o' Cripple," Brown said in a disappointed tone. "I'd heard she was a widda anyhow but 'tain't the case." He frowned sadly. "Right shame, too. She plays fiddle real nice."
"Fiddle?" Tom Landers' ears twitched.
"Oh, ya." Brown sliced off a chunk of beef and chewed happily. Once he had enough room to talk he continued.
"She's crippled up or so I heered, layin' in bed healin' up an' all. I reckon she gets tired of just bein' in that-there room. Fell of a horse or somethin' an' broke her leg pretty bad or so I been told. They daggone near t' sawed it off when they saw how bad 'twas. Turns out she ain't no widda woman but ever' aft'noon, set yer watch by't, she'll have someone throw open attair winda an' she'll play violin." Brown's eyes grew distant, softer with the memory.
"Tom, you would not believe it less'n you seen it. Miners -- hard rock miners, hard knuckle brawlers, men that would ruther get drunk an' fight than annythin' ... why, they'll gather under attair winda, all silent-like, an' they'll stand there an' listen to that poor woman play."
Tom Landers nodded, silent.
Brown blinked, looking at the memory, fork forgotten in his hand.
"It's somethin'," he said softly. "She always ends up playin' Shenandoah. Ever' time." He blinked and returned to the here and now.
"And y'know somethin'?" He leaned over toward Tom again. "Them-there hard men generally has to wipe their eyes, 'specially when she plays Shenandoah. Hard men, Tom! Hard men, water runnin' outta their eyes for t' listen to it!" Brown stabbed his beef, sliced off a chunk with vicious thrusts of the knife. "I would never," he mumbled around a fresh mouthful, "I'd never ha' believed it had I not stood there with 'em an' listened."
Tom Landers nodded.
"Well, if she ain't a widda, where d'ye figure to find one?"

Bonnie had come into the Jewel through the back door so she could stop and talk with Daisy: she knew the woman had suffered a loss here of late and had no chance, with her own difficulties, to express her sentiments: the two spoke briefly, Bonnie laughing quietly as Daisy described the antics of her men.
Bonnie made it into the Jewel proper just in time to hear a stranger at a table state that he had his hat set on "that Widow Rosenthal," and she stopped for a moment.
Tom Landers looked at her and winked, and she winked back, then proceeded to a table not far away.
Tea and a light lunch arrived momentarily, and as Bonnie ate delicately and sipped daintily, she listened as this stranger built castles in the air, allowing as he intended to just plainly charm his way into the new widow's heart and sweep her off her feet.
"Now," the man said to Tom, "I ain't seen no women aroun' here in widow's weeds. Where do you rekcon I might find this Rosenthal widow?"
Bonnie smiled into her teacup, then on impulse stood.
"Perhaps I might be of assistance," she said pleasantly.
Brown stood abruptly; Tom Landers rose a bit more slowly.
"You're asking about the ..." Bonnie paused. "About the Widow Rosenthal."
"Yes, ma'am," the stranger said eagerly, thrusting out his hand. "Name's Brown!"
"Bonnie McKenna," she replied, taking his hand.
"Where might I find this poor soul?" he asked, his expression so sincere and so open that Bonnie had difficulty keeping as much of a poker face as she could.
"Mr. Brown," she began, and she felt her ears redden: "Mr. Brown, you know these widows. Mr. Rosenthal was taken back to Chicago to be interred with his family, and it's very likely that she rode beside the coffin, grieving every foot of the way."
Brown affected a dolorous expression and nodded knowingly. "Yes, ma'am, that's likely so," he agreed.
"Then there would be visitation, services, interrment ... she might be staying with family back East," Bonnie added with an absolutely big-eyed and innocent expression. "Of course, for the first year, a decent woman wouldn't be seeing any ..." She hesitated. "You understand. for the first year of mourning."
"Oh, yes ma'am, yes ma'am," Brown agreed, his expression changing to that of a man disappointed. He looked down at the table, then back up.
"So she ain't here?"
Bonnie turned, looking toward the bar and the front door, and saw Daisy leaning against the corner, arms folded, a knowing smile on her lips: Bonnie turned and looked right, then back to Mr. Brown.
"No, Mr. Brown, I'm sorry, I don't see any women in mourning here."
Mr. Brown sighed, looking like a deflating balloon.
"Well darn," he said quietly, then rallied.
"Ma'am, I do thank you."
"Where will you go now, Mr. Brown?" Bonnie asked, and Tom Landers listened carefully, for a man who might be reluctant to speak to another man, will often spill his guts for an attractive woman.
"Oh, reckon I'll head back down Kansas way," Brown said. "I used to push cattle down yonder." He chuckled. "On t'other hand, might go back to Alabama. Got a brother down there an' he says winter ain't near so bad there."
Bonnie dropped a curtsy and turned: she had to get away from the table, get away from Brown, get out of the public eye: Daisy took her upper arm and thrust a dishtowel in the woman's hands.
"You're a wicked, wicked woman," Daisy whispered as she hustled Bonnie down the hallway.
Bonnie crushed the towel quickly into a ball and pressed it against her mouth, desperate to stifle the giggles that were shouldering their way past her wards.
The two women went out the back door and fell into one another's arms, laughing.
"Ye're a wicked woman," Daisy repeated, her hands on Bonnie's shoulders, "but I'm proud o' ye!" and the two were off again.
As a matter of fact it was several long minutes before they got themselves under some semblance of a decorous demeanor.

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Linn Keller 12-12-10

 

Sarah was standing in shortened stirrups, knees bent, leaning out over her late Papa's race horse's neck, the brim of her hat turned up in front and the wind of her passing cold on her cheeks.
Sarah had never overworked the chestnut: she knew the thin air was hard on horses from back East or from the low lands beyond, and she'd patiently increased the big mount's capabilities, until today when to their mutual delight, they galloped together across the high meadow, not so much a horse and rider as one magical creature, riding the wind itself.
Sarah wore the canvas britches that caused her Uncle such dismay, and found them to her liking: "For all things there is a season," Parson Belden had said in a sermon one time, and Sarah seized upon that as justification: it was her season to ride as she loved to ride, and somehow she could not be as free with her skills when wearing the skirts of a lady.
Even the divided skirts of a riding dress.
Sarah and the chestnut drew up on a knoll, looked out over Firelands: it was maybe two miles distant, yet clearly seen in the crystal air: the chestnut was restless, anxious to run more, but Sarah patted the mare's neck and spoke to her and told her she was a good girl, we were going to walk for a little bit.
The mare was not content walking and they compromised on a slow trot, back toward town.
This lasted maybe fifteen minutes.
The Sheriff looked up at the sound of approaching hoofbeats: he could tell from the sound the horse was galloping, but galloping easy, not being pushed, and not fatigued.
He patted his own mare's neck and she thrust her nose against his ribs, begging for attention, and he chuckled and petted her velvety nose.
"You bum," he said affectionately, and she lipped a few shavings of plug tobacco from his hand.
"Uncle Linn!"
The joyful shout carried well in the chill air.
The Sheriff turned as Sarah drew up, throwing the mare's reins over her head and vaulting out of the saddle: she ran two steps and threw herself at the Sheriff, laughing, and the two embraced, though in fairness the Sheriff was obliged to take a step back and turn half-around to keep the pair of them from going over the hitch rail.
The Sheriff could not help but laugh, and he felt Sarah, solid and so very alive in his arms, and she drew back a little to look at her Uncle.
Her eyes were bright, shining, her teeth white and even: her complexion was flushed, wind-kissed and healthy, and wisps of hair peeped out from under the hat where she'd piled and hidden it.
Sarah pulled off her hat and shook her head, her hair falling down her back: she replaced the Stetson, tightened the storm strap.
"Uncle Linn, she's a jumper!" she exclaimed, throwing an arm at the chestnut.
The Sheriff nodded.
"I'd heard you cleared the fence back at your place," he said, approval in his voice and a smile drawing up his face.
"You should have seen us!" Sarah said in a rush, obviously excited at the memory: "We came up on that gully wash behind the Michael cabin, the one that burnt down two years ago, and I forgot it was there and she just gathered herself and we flew over!" She described a diver's thrust with her arms, as if leaping off a tall rock into the waters below, and her voice lifted a little as she enunciated "flew" ... he saw her pupils dilate a little with the memory, and he knew the feeling she had in her belly as she remembered, for he knew what it was to run a good horse, and to jump a good horse.
He understood what it was to be young, but he was not young anymore: with age comes many things, and his was a protective nature.
"Sarah," he said softly, and she felt his fingertips under her chin.
Sarah turned her face up to her uncle.
Mein Gott, she's becoming a beauty! he thought, and wondered for a moment whether he should take to sleeping in a rocking chair on Bonnie's front porch with a double gun across his lap, just to keep marriageable men at bay! -- but just as quickly, the thought was gone, and he realized he was just a greying old granddad with a great affection for this young and lively niece before him.
Sarah blinked at his touch, suddenly uncertain, at least until she heard her Uncle's voice.
"Dear heart," he said, "be careful when you jump."
He brushed the curve of her glowing cheek with the back of his finger.
"Sarah, in all of creation, in all of eternity, there is only one of you."
Sarah nodded, eyes big, listening.
"You are unique and you are special and you cannot be replaced."
The Sheriff smiled sadly.
"But then I'm just an old softy, eh?"
Sarah blinked and hugged her old softy uncle again, and he hugged her back and laughed a little.
"You're still out at Charlie and Fannie's?"
She nodded: he felt her head move, still pressed against his front.
"They'll teach you right, dear heart."
Sarah nodded again, the rasping of her sandwiched hair loud in her ear.
"Sarah." The Sheriff's arms loosened, and he held her shoulders lightly, carefully, drawing her away from him a little so he could look into her eyes again.
"Yes, Uncle Linn?"
The greying old lawman blinked a couple times and swallowed hard.
"I am very proud of you, Sarah," he said, and Sarah heard something funny in his voice.
It was her turn to swallow hard.
Tears stung her eyes and she didn't know why and it made her angry: she dashed them viciously from her with hard thrusts of her knuckles.
More replaced them, hotter, wetter, and she felt her face start to screw up the way it did when ... when ...
Sarah realized she was about to cry.
"I wish you'd been my Papa!" she said brokenly, and the Sheriff knew a dam had just broken, and he did the best thing an uncle could do in that moment.
He held his girl and let her muffle her grief in his shirt front.
Sarah had held in all the conflict and all the resentment, all the loss and all the fear, everything that she'd kept hid from the first time her Papa came staggering home drunk and smelling of cheap perfume and conquest, from the first time he'd cursed her and thrown a glass at her, the first time he'd backhanded her and then fell over, too drunk to stand: she'd held in all the confusion and loss and misery from knowing her Mama was hurt, and her Papa, bad though he was, killed: her Mama refused to grieve, and so Sarah refused as well, but she did not realize strong feelings, bottled up, will ferment and eventually will break free, for good or for not.
Sarah did not know these things, at least not with her conscious, thinking mind.
She did know that as long as Uncle Linn held her, she was safe, safe as if she were in a loving Papa's arms.
Sarah, a strong young woman, needed to be a young girl again, a young girl who could cry out her fear and her grief and cry for the Papa that used to be.
Uncle Linn knew what it was to be blindsided by the rogue wave of unresolved grief.
A loving uncle held his sorrowing niece on a sunny street, held her while she cried herself out.

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Lady Leigh 12-13-10

 

Bonnie received several responses to the advertisement she submitted several weeks ago, but only one held her interest.

Calving was going to begin late January, and as Caleb had always taken care of that aspect of the business, she was at a bit of a loss. The manager with whom Caleb hired to oversee the cattle had up and quit when he heard about Caleb's death. Bonnie thought it just as well. Anyone whom Caleb hired was probably up to no good anyway.

In the beginning, Bonnie thought of selling off the Herefords, but despite what Caleb led Bonnie to believe, the profits were extremely good, especially with their land being rich with grass. The herd was growing with a promising group of yearling heifers, too, and the need for additional bulls would garner a good financial turn. Bonnie just knew it! She felt it deep down inside of her.

What Bonnie needed was another manager. She knew Linn, Jacob and others would help ,... as they had been already. But if Bonnie wanted to keep this, much needed income, then she was going to have to get full time professional help. Someone who knew their way around this growing cattle business, but better yet, someone who knew the cattle industry.

The letter she held in her hand was promising … better than promising, in fact. After bouncing it off of Linn first, she fully intended to hire Sam Watson. The letter included sound references and Bonnie felt hope for the first time in a long time with regards to the cattle ranch. Yes, this was going to work out just fine.

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Linn Keller 12-14-10

 

Running a ranch is nothing short of hard work and most of it can-see to can't-see, to quote the wise man.
Charlie was working at a steady pace, forking clean straw around the stalls: he'd about finished when I came driving up, and he come out and stobbed his pitch fork into some hay and leaned on it a little, that ornery half-grin on his face.
"Was I a foolish man," he said, "I might say you'd gone soft in yer old age."
I set the brake on our carriage.
It was the best that could be had: I wanted one that rode nice and easy for the ladies, but truth be told it wasn't bad for my old bones neither, and sometimes that upholstered seat wasn't a'tall uncomfortable.
A good saddle is good, make no mistake, but sometimes some paddin' ain't bad on the back side.
I hooked a thumb over my shoulder and slouched my elbow down on my knee, taking the bend out of my lower back. "I had some cargo I need to keep level," I said, and felt my own eyes tighten at the corners.
Charlie's natural good nature was something he kept hid most of the time, but if a man knew what to look for he just might see a grin startin' to peep out his eyes, and I saw that little peep now.
"Yeah?" Charlie asked. "You haulin' nitroglycerin now that age has addled your head?"
"Might be profitable," I admitted, taking a long step down and frowning. Now that the weight was off my tail bone it was starting to ache again.
Weather comin', I thought absently.
Charlie sauntered over towards me and I turned to the back of the buggy, fetched out a towel wrapped bundle: I handed him one and brought up another and unwrapped the second one.
Charlie spread one big hand under his: it was the size of a pie plate, and still pleasantly warm.
I whisked my towel off.
The mince meat pie steamed a little in the cool air and Charlie leaned over and took a happy sniff.
"Esther took a bakin' fit," I said, "and she allowed as I'd ought to fetch these out to you so they don't sit around an' spoil."
Charlie raised one eyebrow.
"I know how you eat," he rumbled. "They'd not last long enough to spoil!"
I tited my head back and addressed the over-arching firmament.
"Does the man know me or what?"
I turned my attentions back to Charlie.
"Me dear pappy always loved mince meat pies and I didn't recall if you or Miz Fannie either one did but I figured to fetch 'em out anyways."
There was a light step behind me. "Do I smell mince meat?"
I turned and handed the pie to Miz Fannie.
"Ohhhh, I haven't had one of these ..." she said happily, then interrupted herself: "Let's try one!"
"Yes, ma'am," Charlie and I said together, and once I'd tethered off my buggy horse we went on inside.
Had to make sure that-there pie hadn't spoiled on the way out.

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Lady Leigh 12-16-10

 

Sam Watson stood up with the read telegram in left hand while right hand brushed blond hair back.

Eyes glancing up to look out of the window, and gazing out at the land Sam lived over the last 7 years ... satisfaction was felt with the prospect of a new life. Only a tinge of guilt tugged at Sam's sleeves. No doubt Bonnie McKenna had no clue who was really heading her way.

“Bridges are meant to cross only when you reach them ….”

Having said that out loud, Sam went to the door and opened it. Stepping out was the first step forward. Only one stop to make before heading to Firelands, Colorado ….. the family burial plot to say goodbye …

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Linn Keller 12-17-10

 

I drew the mare to a stop and we stood there a while, watching.
It was snowing again, snowing lightly: my poor tail bone had been predicting snow for a couple of days and I hope sincerely that it would quit telling me.
From this high point I could see a good long ways, and we just stood there, the mare and me, or rather the mare stood and I set in the buggy with a robe over my lap.
I didn't draw it over me 'til I was out of sight of Charlie's place.
Didn't want him to think I was any softer than he already did.
I grinned at the thought.
"Brother Beymer was right," I told the mare, and her ears swung back at the sound of my voice.
"He tol' me one time," I said, and leaned back, affecting his voice and manner: "Buddy Joe," I said, drawling out a nasal "Jooooeee," and laughed again.
Damn, I miss that man, I thought, then continued:
"Buddy Joe, there is two kinds of people in this world."
The mare turned her head a little, listening.
"Some folks can say good morning and you want to deck 'em, and others can tell you to go to hell and you look forward to the trip."
The mare offered no comment.
"Now Charlie is of the second variety." I flipped the reins and the mare stepped out. "He can tell me I'm gettin' soft in my old age and I can see that ornery grin hidin' behint those eyes."
The carriage rattled a little as one wheel hit a fist sized rock.
The empty pie tin rattled happily in back in spite of its being washed, dried and wrapped up again in that-there towel.
"Now that Trout woman, she's definitely of the first persuasion."
The mare lifted her tail and added her opinion to the conversation and I laughed as her road apples thumped softly to the frozen ground: apparently the mare had met Mrs. Trout, and shared my way of thinking.
I was still looking around.
Sarah was likely headed back towards Charlie and Fannie's, and I was of a mind to tell her to hustle up some, for that second mince meat pie likely was not going to survive to see morning's light.
I was grateful for my lined coat, and worked the robe under the curve of my thighs: I flexed my hands in good leather gloves and thought ahead to our nice tight barn, how it smelled of hay and horses, and how I'd taken such pains to make it as near to wind tight as I could.
"Step on out, girl," I sang to the mare. "The bunk will feel good tonight."
The mare's bells jingled merrily in the cold air, and snow brushed light fingers against my cold cheek bones as we drove.

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Linn Keller 12-17-10

 

Stupid, stupid, stupid!
If Sarah's thoughts could be heard they would have been a full-voiced shout.
Her ears burned, her jaw ached from clenching her teeth tight together.
How could I be so weak!
Sarah's back bone was stiff, unyielding: she was no longer moving with her horse, she was riding stiff, driving the every hoofbeat up her spine, intentionally punishing herself.
She pressed a sleeve against one eye, then the other: teeth bared, she felt her ears burn with humiliation.
Uncle Linn will think me a weak female! she berated herself.
How could I have been so WEAK!!!
Sarah had watched men settle differences with bare knuckles: she had never understood the attraction to square a situation with fists, until now.
She wanted nothing more than to lay violent hands on an opponent and politely beat, pound and rip the stuffing out of someone.
She considered and rejected the idea of the twin .44s belted around her slender middle: these could smite at a distance, and Sarah had enough of a head of steam up that she did not want to smite at a distance.
She wanted to lay violent hands on someone.
Sarah had never in her life felt such strong emotion and part of her was frightened, repelled, dismayed: the rest of her ran baying after it, surrendering to the feeling of power that surging anger delivers the unwary.
Sarah slowed her mare, dismounted.
The mare followed docilely, unmindful of the turbulence in her young mistress's soul.
Sarah walked: more properly, she stomped, she kicked, she seized her hat and slapped it to the ground and picked it up, beating the dirt off against her leg.
Part of her knew walking would burn off her head of anger.
Part of her knew she was experiencing something really dangerous.
Part of her knew she needed someone to help her sort it out, and that someone just happened to have red hair and a short temper and a trim waist.

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Linn Keller 12-18-10

 

Charlie and Fannie both noted with approval that Sarah took care of her mount first.
They were both familiar enough with her habits to know the length of time it took to unsaddle the mare, to rub down the mare, to grain and pet and reassure the mare, and they saw Sarah walking from the barn toward the house.
They also noticed she was walking stiff, with a wooden face.
Fannie set out another plate and fork and slid a slice of mince meat pie onto the plate.
Sarah opened the door, slowly, carefully.
Sarah walked in, turned, closed the door gently.
Neither Charlie nor Fannie failed to note the tightly controlled precision of the girl's moves.
Sarah hung her coat with a similar precision, then her hat.
Charlie's left eyebrow rose a quarter inch and he looked over at Fannie as Sarah unbuckled her gunbelt and hung it on the next peg.
Both knew this was a serious matter.
Sarah was not a young lady to take trust lightly.
Sarah was not one to shirk responsibility, nor to fail to recognize responsibility when responsibility was hers.
Sarah delighted in being trusted -- trusted to wear and to responsibly use a brace of Colt .44-40s.
Sarah turned and looked steadily at Fannie and Charlie.
Neither missed the muscle-bulged set of her jaw, nor the polished-agate coldness in her eyes.
If her eyes were light blue, Charlie thought, I'd think her the Sheriff's spawn!
Fannie hoisted the coffee pot, raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Yes, thank you," Sarah replied: blinking, she walked over to the table, drew out a chair and sat beside Charlie.
Charlie and Fannie exchanged another quick glance.
Normally Sarah sat carefully equidistant between them, so as to show no favoritism: she clamped her hand around Charlie's wrist.
Charlie laid his free hand over hers.
Sarah's grip was firm but she was trembling.
"Uncle Charlie," she said quietly, stress plainly evident in her voice, "how do you two do it?"
Charlie looked over at Fannie, tilted his head slightly: Fannie was already on her feet, circling the table, and drew herself up beside Sarah, her hand on Sarah's shoulder.
Sarah's head snapped around, eyes bright and wide.
"What happened, Sugar?" Fannie asked gently.
Sarah put her free hand flat on the table and closed her eyes.
"Let me think clearly," she said slowly.
"That generally helps," Charlie drawled, and his slow, gentle syllables melted through Sarah's ice-shield, and she relaxed a little.
"I fell apart," Sarah blurted.
Charlie slid her mince meat pie around his plate and in front of her.
Sarah leaned back, threw her head back like someone breaking water after a long, deep dive in a cold pool: she took a deep breath, another, swallowed.
"I was happy," she began, eyes distant.
"The chestnut wanted to run. I held her back most of the way. We were in the high meadow yonder, the big flat that breaks off above town."
Charlie nodded. He was familiar with that meadow.
"I did not want to wind break her nor frost her lungs."
Charlie nodded again, thoughtfully: it was not cold enough to frost a horse's lungs, but he approved of her forethought, and her consideration of good horse flesh.
"I held her back to a trot until we came to town and I saw Uncle Linn and I couldn't help it." Sarah's smile was brittle, as if it could shatter and fall from her face like a broken mirror.
"We galloped up to him and I was out of the saddle before she stopped and I nearly knocked him over!"
Sarah giggled a little, remembering strong arms around her, how warm he was as she collided with his sun-warmed front.
"I --" She gasped, threw her head back: Fannie saw tears, glitter-bright, pooled in her eyes.
Sarah slashed at the mosture and continued.
"I don't know what happened. Yes I do. No I don't --"
She picked up the fork and stabbed viciously at the pie.
"Uncle Charlie, I made a fool of myself!"
Silence rang loud in the ranch house for a long moment, then Charlie drawled, "Is that all?"
Sarah turned her icy glare on him like swinging a cannon to bear. "Isn't that enough?" she snapped.
"Oh, I dunno," Charlie said in that deceptively easy drawl. "Here I thought maybe you ripped his mustache lip off and nailed it to the barn door for a trophy."
Sarah blinked, opened her mouth, closed it, and then looked her Uncle Charlie in the eye.
His expression was so without guile, so relaxed and comforting, that the stress, the confusion, the anger, melted from Sarah's young frame and washed to the floor like melt-water, and was gone.
Sarah leaned over against Charlie and ran an arm around his back: laying her head over against his shoulder, she giggled.
Charlie ran a muscled arm around her and patted her off shoulder with a callused hand.
Fannie gathered herself as if to rise and Charlie gave a quick, abbreviated head-shake, and Fannie eased her weight back down in the chair.
Charlie's instincts were good.
Sarah turned immediately to Fannie.
"I don't know what happened," she admitted, "but I think I know why." She looked down at her front and back up at Fannie.
"Mama told me my feelings would change when I --"
Sarah looked down at herself, at her hand cupped at her bosom level, then at Fannie, and her expression was somewhere between distressed and kind of lost.
"Let's start with what happened," Fannie said precisely, the incisive law dog and the perceptive woman working in tandem, and the two of them retreated into a bedroom, for Fannie's gut told her there was woman-talk to be had.
Charlie was just as happy that the two of them removed their womanly discussion to another room.
He figured when Sarah came in the door she was mad enough to rip a cedar fence post out of the ground, and his posts had been set and tamped in the wax of the moon so they would be solid as if they'd been cemented in.
Charlie looked at his own plate, at Sarah's untouched pie.
Charlie, ever a practical sort, slid Sarah's over and began eating.
No sense in letting good mince meat go to waste.

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Linn Keller 12-19-10

 

Eyes old and eyes young regarded the winter stars.
The snow had been brief; clouds were scarce, high and thin, but a ring around the moon promised more white stuff to come.
Linn looked out the window, rocking gently, Angela sound asleep in his lap.
Esther sat in her chair, spectacles slid halfway down her nose, reading.
Linn studied the cold, glittering stars, as if looking for an answer.
He blinked as Esther's quiet words interrupted his study.
"I hear you've been carousing with younger women," she said in a teasing voice.
He looked over at his green-eyed bride and her knowing look, and couldn't help but smile and nod.
"You heard rightly, dear heart," he said. "I always was such a womanizer."
"Shame on you, you wolf," she said, closing her book and placing it carefully on the side table.
"I'm just worse than two terribles."
Esther tilted her head a little.
"How is she?"
Linn's expression softened, the look of a man in a moment of vulnerable, tender thought.
"I think she will be okay," he said slowly.
"But ...?"
Linn rubbed his nose in Angela's silky hair. The child stirred a little, cuddled against her Daddy's warm, solid form, sighed out a sleepy breath.
"I'm getting old."
Esther rocked a little, smiling indulgently at her husband.
"We all grow old, dear. You're not there yet."
"I feel like it sometimes."
Esther nodded, blinking like a sleepy cat. "I know."
"Now Sarah ..."
Esther did not miss how Linn's arms tightened a little around Angela.
Esther waited patiently for her husband to finish the thought.
"Sarah ..." He frowned. "She's ... different."
Esther waited.
"She's ... I think it's ..."
"Sarah is growing up?"
Linn's expression was almost sad and he nodded.
"That's it," he affirmed.
"And you thought she would stay a little girl forever."
Linn tilted his head and rubbed his cheek gently against Angela's hair.
"She would be about Dana's age," he said distantly.
Esther knew it was her time to wait, to listen: her husband was working this out in his own way, and hers was to be patient.
It worked.
"I never got to see so much," he said in almost a whisper. "But Sarah ... I have seen her grow ..." He looked at Esther. "I never saw Dana's first boyfriend, but I saw Sarah on Miguel's arm and I knew she was growing out of her childhood."
Esther nodded wisely: equally wisely, she kept silent.
"I watched Sarah grow and she's quite a fine young lady." His expression was troubled. "Dearest, she's ... been through so much, and ..."
"And you were there when she needed you."
He nodded.
"She surprised you."
He looked sharply at his wife.
"Yes, she did. One moment she was galloping down the street with that smile of hers and the next she was squeezing the breath out of me and telling me she wished I'd been her Papa and crying like a lost child."
"And you didn't know what to do."
Linn's expression was absolutely sorrowful.
"No. I didn't." He looked out at the nighttime sky.
"I couldn't fix it, Esther. I couldn't fix it."
"But you did," she said softly, and he looked at her, curious.
"Sometimes a girl -- a woman -- just needs someone who will listen, really listen to what they are saying." Her smile was gentle as she remembered.
"And sometimes the very best thing you can do is just hold them."
Linn nodded slowly, beginning to rock again, gently, mindful of the sleeping child in his arms.

Another house, another window, another set of eyes: Sarah considered the talk she'd had with Fannie, and she remembered Charlie, when she dropped into the chair beside him and set her elbows on the table.
He'd set a gentle hand on her back and she leaned her head over on his shoulder.
"I wasn't a fool after all," she said softly.
"I know," he rumbled.
"But I felt like one."
"Mm-hmm."
"I got mad over nothing."
Charlie sighed and leaned his cheek over on her head.
"Did you hurt your horse?" he asked quietly.
"No."
"Did you hurt yourself?"
She shook her head a little. "No."
"Did you hurt anyone else?"
Sarah took a long breath, sighed it out.
"No."
"Did you take any trees in a bear hug and rip 'em out of the ground?"
Sarah was quiet for a long moment, then she started to giggle.
"You are learning," Charlie said. "You're learning better than I did."
Sarah drew back, looked at Charlie, puzzled.
"Temper is a fast horse and it's easy to let it carry you off. You handled yours, Sarah."
Charlie brushed the hair back out of Sarah's eyes, hard hand gentle on the girl's fair skin.
"You did fine, and I'm proud of you."

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Charlie MacNeil 12-19-10

 

Sarah tilted her head, eyes crowded with questions like the rail of an arriving paddleboat with room for only one at a time at the plank. One of the questions at last fought it's way to the fore and made its way into the stillness of the room. "What do you mean, better than you did, Uncle Charlie?" She saw Charlie's gaze turn inward and retreat as if searching long forgotten rooms for the answer to her query.

He shook himself like a dog shedding rainwater at the kitchen door then softly began to speak, his words falling one by one like feathers onto the pine-plank table. His troubled gaze held the girl mesmerized. "Hard as it might be to believe, I was young once too. Way back yonder..." His voice drifted down the years to a time when he was full of spit and vinegar, ten feet tall and bullet proof, ready to take the world by the tail and swing it 'round his head...

The buckskin horse picked its careful way through the field of pushed-up, weather-eroded granite chunks, steel-shod hooves dancing from dirt patch to sage clump, ears forward and nostrils snuffling. The newly-minted star that adorned the rider's vest glittered in the late-day sunlight, highlights flickering across gray stone. His blue eyes scanned the rocks for hoof scar and manure fleck, the only signs that his quarry had passed this way. The nearly new Winchester gripped in one calloused hand lay across the saddle pommel ready for instant action. Ahead lay the canyon the locals called Ghost Gulch.

Three days previously Charlie had picked up the trail of the three men who had robbed the Belleville stage, wounding the shotgun guard and making off with $5000 in gold coin that should have been the payroll for the Sweet Mary mine north of Belleville. He'd nearly lost the track the other side of Horse Ridge; only the mustang-bred buckskin had kept him headed the right direction. Now, after so much time, the trail was getting fresher, and suddenly he realized that one of the tracks belonged to a horse that the young marshal knew like he knew his own. What he didn't know for sure was how many men had been in on the robbery...


Charlie's voice trailed off. Sarah let the silence grow until Charlie sighed and scrubbed a hand across his face, palm rasping on a two day growth of whiskers. "I knew that horse, and unless that horse had been stolen in the last week, which I seriously doubted, I knew who was riding it," Charlie went on somberly. "What I didn't know was that that fella wasn't one of the robbers; he'd joined up with 'em by accident after the robbery..."

He was only a few hours behind now. The further he rode the clearer the trail became, and the madder he got. How could Jake Berlyle do such a thing? That shotgun guard had never had a chance; they'd just blown him loose from the seat and ridden off with the gold. But now the law was closing in.

At the mouth of Ghost Gulch Charlie reined in and stepped down to examine the tracks one last time. There was no question in his mind that Jake's sorrel was one of the group. As he was about to remount, the breeze drifting down the canyon brought the scent of woodsmoke, horse manure and coffee. Charlie clamped his hand over the buckskin's nose to keep the gelding from whinnying and letting the robbers know that he was there. When the horse had settled itself again, the young marshal stepped into the saddle, reined the buckskin over onto the vein of loose sand that filled the middle of the canyon floor and went up the canyon at an easy walk.

One hundred yards. Two hundred. Three hundred. A thin blue haze of woodsmoke drifted around the next curve and Charlie levered a round into the Winchester's chamber, dropped the reins on the buckskin's neck, and suddenly spurred the big gelding into motion. They galloped around the turn. As the robbers' camp came into sight, Charlie yelled, "US MARSHAL! NOBODY MOVE!"

A pistol shot rang out and Charlie's Winchester answered, the rifle bullet slamming the shooter to the ground. He kneed the buckskin toward the center of the camp as a bullet snapped through his hat brim; another took a bite from his ear as he levered rounds into the camp.

Charlie threw himself from the saddle, suddenly remembering the tracks he'd seen. He strode into the camp, rifle cocked and leveled...


"One of the men I shot was my friend Jake." The words fell flat and Sarah gasped. "And he was innocent! I was so sure he was one of 'em, and so mad that he'd do something so stupid, that I never stopped to think about it. I just went charging in, like some kind of self-appointed avenging angel!" His gaze dropped to his hands, knotted together in front of him. "Fortunately, I didn't kill him," he went on, almost inaudibly. "The worst part of it was, he forgave me..." Charlie's voice trailed off completely. He was silent for an eternity before he said, "He should have been mad, or something, but he forgave me. I've never forgotten that, and I've never let my temper get the best of me again." He looked directly into Sarah's eyes.

"So feeling like a fool is the least of your worries," he told the girl. "You got mad, but you were sensible enough not to hurt yourself, or your horse, or anyone else. Be thankful for that."

Sarah threw her arms around Charlie. "I am, Uncle Charlie," she said, her voice breaking. "I am."

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Linn Keller 12-21-10

 

You may ask (the Sheriff said as he leaned back in his office chair, a coffee cup of something hot, steaming and authoritative in hand and boots on the corner of the desk) just what a dignified older man was doing, half dressed, sitting in a chair, out in the snow.
The Eastern newspaperman frowned a little, turned his head as if to bring his good ear to bear: the man wore a brown suit, his Derby hat was cocked to one side, the way he usually wore it, his mustache was curled and immaculate, and his attitude was that of a hound, listening keenly for a distant hail.
The Sheriff had the good fortune to discover that kind and charitable hands had made coffee but moments before his arrival: to this fragrant brew he'd added half a volume of something distilled, which the newspaperman declined: "Water clear and not over 30 days old," the lawman had declared, "some Soul Saver to ward off the devil."
The newspaperman, curious, decided he'd try some of this wonderful stuff, and hazarded a cautious sip of the Sheriff's coffee.
To his credit he neither wheezed, choked nor spat: as a matter of fact his voice was almost normal as he handed the scalding stuff back with an almost steady hand.
The man had come in on the stage, having been to Cripple, covering the fistfights, the debauchery, the corruption: he'd been impressed with alleys that stank of second hand beer, men that stank of drink and of work, women of low character and equally low morals: he'd taken copious notes, scribbling in the privacy of his over priced, under served hotel room: having formed a bleak opinion of civilization, or the lack of it, west of that great mercator of decent society, the great Mr. and Mrs. Sippi River, he'd stopped in Firelands only because the stage-driver was hungry, and swore a potent oath at the newspaperman's protest: in amongst tobacco expectoration and sulfurous declarations, he'd managed, somehow, to convey his opinion that Daisy's cooking was worth the delay: not knowing whether Daisy was a damsel of dalliance, a drink or a den of iniquity, the newspaperman disembarked with a distinct sense of temerity, followed by considerable surprise.
Where Cripple's street had been a combination of frozen ruts and mud, of the slung-out contents of chamberpots and cuspidors, the Firelands main street was mostly smooth, frozen, and without the disgusting effluvium of the mining town: the board walks, though showing normal wear and the dust that was impossible to entirely eliminate with a dirt street, were nevertheless in good repair, and had been carefully constructed: fresh paint brought a cheerful color to the main street, buildings were well tended, and there was a notable lack of garish signs promising much and delivering little.
Indeed, the newspaperman had been astonished when he reached for the door-handle on something called the "Silver Jewel" and found it to be strong, tight, and actually in working order!
In his younger years he'd done a little carpenter work and had helped set and glaze windows, and he took a few moments to look at the ornate, frosted and patterned windows in the Jewel's double doors: he nodded to himself at the good workmanlike job, and entered, ready to hold his breath.
Where the saloons in Cripple stank and were stratified with choking layers of stale smoke, the Jewel's atmosphere was clear and pleasant, with the odors of good cooking: oh, there was a light haze of tobacco smoke, but nothing like the near opacification to which he'd become accustomed.
The Jewel was clean.
This, perhaps, astonished him most of all.
Instead of a dirty, unfinished, rough board floor with gaps and knot holes, this one was tight-fitted, finished lumber: there were a few spatters of tobacco juice around the gleaming goboons, but not many, and when a cuspidor was missed, a distressed lad with a short-handled mop scurried out and scrubbed up the offending spittle, then scuttled back out of sight.
The beer had been delightfully cool, and the mug was spotless, immaculate: the bar itself was utterly without flaw and its mirror was neither cracked, shot nor distressed: too, it was large -- huge, in fact, compared to the diminutive excuse for a mirror he'd noted in most of the Cripple saloons.
The beer was fresh: no surprise there: of all activities he'd seen, drinking seemed one of the most popular, and beer had no chance to grow old, or flat: this, though, was pleasantly cool.
He'd partaken of "Daisy's cooking" -- a native had explained that it was not always Daisy in the kitchen, as a matter of fact Daisy was seldom there in person anymore, but the kitchen was hers, and those she hired had to cook to her satisfaction, and she a hard woman to please! -- the newspaperman had taken this with a rather large grain of salt, but when he cut into good beef, and buttered warm, steaming light rolls instead of rude and weevilly cornbread, why, he began to think that perhaps he had not been lied to after all.
The beds were well-made and not broken down, and close inspection of immaculate and spotless sheets revealed no trace of the unwelcome, crawling little creatures that had inspired him to find other accommodations in Cripple: a widow-woman on the edge of town, he'd been told, had a boarding-house, which proved to be clean, and so it was there he'd stayed for the remainder of his little time there.
Now he sat in the Sheriff's office, a heavy ceramic mug of coffee in his hands, its warmth most welcome on the chilly morning, and he listened to the lawman with the iron-grey mustache talk in a quiet, gentle, reassuring voice.
This too had been a surprise.
Lawmen elsewhere had been harsh, suspicious, their voices steel-edged or loud or both, their manner brittle, bristling, some hostile.
This fellow, he knew, was ... well, deep.
He'd known many lawmen in his career and indeed had the lawmen's beat back East: he'd known cops good and bad, honest and not: his gut told him this man was tough as white oak, and carried enough authority that he did not have to raise his voice.
He'd not spoken of men he'd killed, of criminals he'd tracked down and fought, of hangings or shootings or stabbings.
He spoke of his little girl.
The newspaperman blinked with surprise.
"I was all relaxed in bed," the man had said, looking through the steam rising from his coffee mug, "just about asleep, and I heard my little girl's feet hit the floor.
"I figured she'd be headed for the back house so I just lay there and listened.
"I heard her take a breath and then she went pitty-patter, pitty-patter just a-runnin' towards our bedroom and I turned my head to look.
"Angela's eyes were big and she reached up and shook me and whispered, "Daddy, come quick, something's wrong with the moon!"
The Sheriff's teeth flashed as he grinned at the memory.
"I tossed back the covers and Angela grabbed my hand and pulled me torst the window."
The newspaperman's pencil was loud in the quiet. Horse's hooves clopped lazy and hollow on the frozen street outside; a wagon rumbled, but little else could be heard.
"Here, scoot up to the desk, it'll be easier to write."
"Thank you." The newspaperman leaned forward and set his coffee on the desk, then slid his chair closer.
The Sheriff slurped noisily at his coffee.
"This is better with a little cream," he muttered, frowning.
The newspaperman offered no comment.
"Anyway." He tilted his head back, smiling a little at the memory he was about to describe.
"She had me by the hand and she was just a-bouncin' on her toes, pointin' out the window and I looked.
"Last night was the eclipse."
The newspaperman's eyebrows twitched in disappointment.
He'd intended to watch the phenomenon but his bed had been clean and warm and somehow he just could not bring himself to abandon his much-needed rest.
"I looked out and the moon was a dirty red, a dark red, and a black arc out of one edge.
"Daddy, there's blood on the moon!" Angela whispered -- the old lawman's imitative whisper was surprising, coming from a throat more accustomed to command voice -- "look, Daddy, the moon is going away!"
"Let's watch," I said, and picked her up.
"I carried her in on her bed and proceeded to roll her up in her quilt and then I picked her up.
"I stepped into furry lined moccasins and got us downstairs, then I put on my hat and coat and taken up a chair in the other hand and we went out in the snow."
The newspaperman's pencil labored to keep pace with the quietly enunciated words.
"I set the chair out front and we set there out in the open.
"Angela couldn't move, wrapped up tight like she was, but she was warm and she was on her Daddy's lap and she was happy.
"We watched the black arc as it consumed the full moon."
The Sheriff wet his lips, remembering.
"Daddy," she asked me, "will it ever come back?"
I squeezed her and said "Do you want it back, sweetheart?"
"She sounded so sad when she told me she would miss it if it wasn't there anymore.
"I told her what was happening was magic and it took magic to bring it back, and she could make Moon-magic to bring her moon back to the night sky.
"She tried to look at me, all bundled up like she was, and said "Weewee, Daddy?" and I said "Yes, but it's a secret and you mustn't ever, ever tell!
"Of course little children love secrets, especially magic secrets" -- the newspaperman smiled a little and nodded, for he too knew what it was to have a little girl-child -- "and I whispered, "You have to say these words.
"She did, too.
"We set out there for a good while and watched the moon go black."
The newspaperman reached into his coat for another sharpened pencil.
"'Back the moon, back the silver,'" the Sheriff chanted, "'back the night-queen, back the moon' -- over and over, never above a whisper, for I told her good magic, proper magic was not spoken loudly."
The Sheriff smiled at the memory.
"Her breath drifted up out of that blanket cocoon as I set there and held her."
The newspaperman nodded, writing steadily.
"Up high like this, there's a surprisin' amount of star light when the snow is on."
The newspaperman nodded again.
"I remember seeing her breath drift like vapor out of that blanket cocoon.
"She whispered steadily, non-stop, through the entire dark time.
"There for a little you could just see it, a dark and dirty red, but mostly it was just a hole in the sky."
Again the single nod: yes, I'm listening, and the pencil chased their words.
"Finally when the edge turned silver and started to grow, Angela gave a sigh and said "Daddy, I'm thirsty, do I have to magic any more?" and I said "No, sweetheart, it'll coast out into the open now," and she wiggled a little.
"You cold, dear heart?"
"No, Daddy."
The newspaperman smiled a little to hear this tough old lawman affect the voice tones of a little child: the man had lines at the corners of his eyes, calluses on his hands and the eyes of someone a hundred years his senior, but he could still rejoice at an innocent little child's sense of wonder.
"Finally when the moon was back and full, we went on inside.
"I think Angela was asleep by the time I got her upstairs."
The newspaperman nodded again.
"And this morning?" he prompted, and the Sheriff grinned again.
"My wife told me her Papa had set outside with her when she was a little girl, and they watched the moon together, and she said it was a good memory he'd made, one she cherished for the rest of her life."
The Sheriff was silent while the newspaperman wrote furiously for another few minutes.
"Sheriff, thank you," the man said, standing and thrusting out his hand.
The Sheriff brought his feet off the desk and rose easily, taking his grip.
"I must confess, Firelands is not at all what I was expecting."
The Sheriff nodded.
He saw the Easterner's eyes go to the clock behind him.
"When does the stage come through?"
"Maybe another hour and a half."
The newspaperman thrust folded paper in one pocket, pencils in another, frowned.
"I wonder if I have time for a meal."
The Sheriff clapped him on the shoulder. "We'll have that meal," he declared, "and we'll have Daisy's girls fix you something to eat on the way."

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Linn Keller 12-22-10

 

The Sheriff sauntered back into the Jewel, having seen the newspaperman on his way: the man had been delighted at the cloth-wrapped package of dainties he'd been given, and he thanked the Sheriff most courteously for his hospitality.
The man's luggage had been secured atop the coach: a whistle, the snap of a whip, and the coach rocked and jostled on its way, bearing its human cargo to destinations known only to them and the stage company.
Leaning his elbows on the bar, he put one foot up on the brass rail and worked the bend out of his lower back, twisting slowly right, then left.
"Lumbago?" Mr. Baxter asked quietly, burnishing the mirror-polished mahogany.
"Mileage," the Sheriff half-grinned, half-grunted.
"I knew you weren't too comfortable."
The Sheriff nodded. "I'm kind of transparent, aren't I?"
"Oh, I dunno," Mr. Baxter replied cheerfully, turning his attention to a row of beer mugs that hadn't been polished up yet. Picking up one, he began stuffing the bar towel down its voluminous throat and energetically twisting it to make sure he'd gotten clear down into the bottom corners of the mug.
"You've got a pretty good poker face."
"Yeah, if I'm not playing Esther."
"If you're not playing any of the ladies."
The Sheriff laughed easily. "My great downfall," he admitted. "For whatever reason, I can't fool the fair sex!"
"I could never fool my Mama, I know that for a fact!" Mr. Baxter affirmed, setting down the first mug and taking up the second.
"Say, did you tell that newspaper fella about court tomorrow?"
The Sheriff's eyes crinkled at the corners and his cheeks reddened a little.
"After tellin' him how peaceable and quiet we are here? Have him sit in court and listen to Sarah telling His Honor how she cut a man's throat right in front of God and everybody?" The Sheriff shook his head. "No sir I did not tell him anything of the kind and I'm not about to!"
Mr. Baxter nodded agreement.
The dime novels held that every Western town was a hub of mischief and villiany, home to scoundrels and crooks and a howling wilderness all about.
"That might not be as good an idea as you think, Sheriff."
"How's that?"
"If that newspaper man lets it out that we're a nice quiet place with a good school and upright, moral, God-fearing folk as far as the eye can see, why, we might have a stampede of Easterners wanting to settle here!"
The Sheriff nodded.
"Reckon that will happen anyway."
Mr. Baxter began working on a fresh mug.
"Yes, it could."
The two were silent for some time, but it was a companionable silence, the kind in which only old friends can be comfortable: finally Mr. Baxter spoke up.
"Sheriff?"
"Hm?" Linn raised his head, blinking to clear the reverie from his eyes.
"How bad did you and His Honor lock horns last court?"
The Sheriff smiled slowly.
"Not bad." His expression saddened a little. "It could have gone real bad, though."
"I heard he wanted you to bring Sarah to court in irons."
The Sheriff nodded.
"That would be bad," he said.
"Yes it would."
"Bonnie would never forgive you."
""Bonnie, hell," the Sheriff retorted. "I would never forgive me!"
The Sheriff took a long breath, sighed it out.
"Well, reckon I'd best go confer with Sarah. She might want to dress up for the occasion."

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Linn Keller 12-23-10

 

Sarah's mouth was dry.
She'd testified in court before ... one time.
She hadn't known quite what would happen.
She'd known only that what she did, was right.
A man had shot at her and her little cousin and she replied in kind.
Her action was right -- for her, for her cousin, and His Honor had seen the rightness of her action.
Now, though, as she faced the closed door to the courtroom, she felt fear.
Charlie had put his finger tips on her shoulders, and looked her square in the eye, and said quietly, "Sarah, did you do what needed to be done?" and she'd answered, simply and honestly, "Yes, I did."
"Was there any other way to have kept your Uncle Linn alive?"
Sarah thought for a long moment, hind sight shining bright and uncompromising on her memory.
"No, sir. There was not."
Charlie nodded once, then he leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead.
She'd stifled an impulse to throw her arms around him and cling, trembling, like a frightened child: she knew the days of her childhood were behind her, and she had to be strong now, and answer for what she'd done.
Fannie had asked her the very same questions, in a quiet voice: she had taken Sarah's face in a gentle hand, cupping hers under the girl's jaw, and regarding her with sadness.
"Sugar, I remember so many times when I had to answer for what I'd done.
"When you take a life it's hard" -- she shook her head a little as she spoke -- "it marks you, here" -- she'd touched the tips of her fingers to her breastbone -- "but we all have to answer for what we've done, or held back and not done."
Sarah swallowed, took a long breath.
Jackson Cooper opened the door, nodded.
"His Honor will see you now," he said, his face impassive, and Sarah's gloved hand tightened a little on her Uncle Linn's arm.
"Showtime," Linn said, and Sarah squeezed his arm again.
Her throat was too dry for her to say she was going to kick him right in the shin for saying that.
The Sheriff walked with an abbreviated step, for though Sarah was getting some height to her, she was still well shorter than he; she was in a dress, and he did not want her to think he was rushing her into the lion's den.
His Honor was alone in the courtroom, to Sarah's surprise.
"Miss McKenna," he greeted her, rising. "Please have a seat."
"Thank you, Your Honor," she said in a strong voice, surprising herself: releasing her Uncle Linn's arm, she took two more steps, her heels loud on the varnished floor, and stepped up on the witness platform: she arranged her skirts, seated herself, folded her hands properly in her lap and looked straight ahead, feeling very much like a turkey at Thanksgiving.
"Miss McKenna," Judge Hostetler began, shuffling through the papers on the table before him, "you remain under oath as you were in your previous testimony."
Sarah cleared her throat nervously. "Yes, sir," she said, and her voice squeaked a little.
She raised delicate fingers to her throat and cleared it again, feeling the cameo her Aunt Esther had placed about her neck that morning.
"Your cousin Jacob gave me this," she whispered, fastening it at the back of Sarah's neck: "it always brought me luck," and Sarah stared in the mirror: somehow the cameo made a difference ... she didn't look so much like a tall girl wearing Mama's dress anymore.
The cameo made her ...
She'd blinked, shaken her head a little, unwilling to admit that she looked ... well, womanly.
Esther had fussed with her hair, just like her Mama had done not an hour before, and indeed Bonnie had a soft and vulnerable look about her as she watched that subtle change in her little girl standing in front of Aunt Esther's full-length mirror.
Bonnie and Esther slipped in the side door and seated themselves almost silently in the visitor's chairs.
Bonnie ached to see her child, her little girl, suddenly so very alone: she wanted to rush over, to stand between the Judge and her daughter, to demand to speak for her, to assume any penalty that might be levied on her child --
Esther's hand was in Bonnie's and Bonnie realized she was trembling a little.
Esther gave her a reassuring squeeze.
The Judge placed the papers precisely before him, neatly stacked, and he turned his chair to face the wooden-faced young woman on the witness stand.
"Miss McKenna," he said, and Sarah jumped a little.
Judge Hostetler chuckled.
"Miss McKenna, please turn your chair to face me."
Sarah's expression was fearful, but she rose: carefully, slowly, she picked up the chair, turned it to face the Judge, then seated herself again.
The Judge waved a hand over his table.
"Miss McKenna, if you take a look at my desk here" -- he reached up and removed the cigar from between his teeth -- "you will see that I have several papers."
"Yes, sir," Sarah said in a small voice.
"Nowhere among all these papers do I have any butter."
Sarah blinked, opened her mouth, then closed it.
"I understand from the Sheriff that your action in the Silver Jewel was instrumental in saving his life."
Sarah shot a look across the room at the two most important ladies in her young life.
Bonnie saw her daughter was biting her lower lip.
Bonnie realized with a little surprise she was biting her own lip in the same identical manner.
Sarah looked back at His Honor, took a long breath.
"Yes, sir," she said, looking the man in the eye.
"It is a bit unusual," His Honor said, looking over a pair of non-existent spectacles, "to have a young lady before me again to explain her part in the taking of a life."
"Yes, sir."
Sarah's hands, no longer folded, clenched: her right, a fist; her left, enveloping her right.
"However, the circumstances seem to augur in your favor."
"Yes, sir."
"Miss McKenna, can you tell me how you determined this man was going to kill the Sheriff?"
The Judge saw a change in Sarah's eyes.
Her voice was not as tight now.
"I saw the man grip his revolver," she said. "He'd set there with half a beer and he hadn't touched it. He sat scooted over to the side of his chair with his leg bent to allow an easy draw.
"I saw him begin to draw and he had the revolver's hammer back to about half cock and his eyes were on Uncle Linn."
"And your conclusion?"
"He intended to shoot the Sheriff." Her eyes went again to her Mama, then back to the Judge.
"And your action?"
Sarah shivered a little.
"I moved in behind him and took his chin in my left hand." Her eyes were far away, seeing something besides the interior of the courtroom. Her gloved hand cupped, rose, as if seizing a chin and hauling a head back and to the side.
"I put my blade to his throat."
Sarah's free hand rotated and the sleeve-knife appeared as if by magic: His Honor blinked in surprise: he had not seen her remove it from wherever it had been hidden.
"I put the edge to his throat and told him that if he so much as breathed, he would die."
"I see."
Judge Hostetler took a thoughtful draw on his cigar.
"Then what happened?"
"He released the revolver and reached for my arm."
"Your action?"
"I cut his throat."
Her words fell like lumps of clay, flat, emotionless: it was a statement of fact.
Judge Hostetler saw more in her eyes than what her words conveyed.
Her eyes were haunted, remembering the fell moment when life's blood was spilled, when she felt Damascus steel slice through cartilage and tendon, when the smell of blood, hot and fresh, filled her nostrils and she danced back to avoid the red fountain she'd released.
Sarah shivered and blinked and took several calming breaths before carefully sliding the shining steel blade back into its forearm sheath.
His Honor considered her words carefully, leaning back in his chair, puffing on his hand-rolled stogie.
"Miss McKenna," he said finally, "is there any other way you could have prevented this fellow from what he was obviously planning?"
Sarah consulted her memory.
"Had I shouted a warning," she said slowly, "I might have distracted the man, but Uncle Linn would have to react and he probably wouldn't be able to see the danger until after he was shot. I could have shot him if I had my revolvers with me, but I was in a dress and didn't have my gunbelt on." She blinked, looked back up at the Judge.
"No, sir. I used the only means I had at my disposal to save Uncle Linn's life."
Cigar smoke rose lazily in the still air.
"Miss McKenna, this court finds your actions justified. We hereby return a no-bill on your case."
"Yes, Your Honor," Sarah said uncertainly, not entirely certain what a no-bill was, but encouraged by the Judge's tone.
"You are free to go, Miss McKenna, and you have the court's thanks."
He fixed her with a stern look.
"And you have my thanks, young lady. You saved a man's life." He looked at the Sheriff. "I would hate to attend his funeral."
"Yes, sir," Sarah said.
The Sheriff rose and walked over to Sarah, offered his arm.
Judge Hostetler swung his gavel, struck the table once.
"Court is adjourned."

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Charlie MacNeil 12-23-10

 

Fannie and Charlie had chosen not to enter the courtroom. Instead, Charlie was slouched on the rump-polished wooden bench that sat against the wall near the double doors that Sarah had just entered. His posture and the small smile that touched his lips belied the fact that he was as nervous as a mouse at a tomcat picnic. Fannie's heels beat a slow tattoo on puncheon as she paced, three steps up, three steps back, waiting for the Judge's verdict.

"Relax, Darlin'," Charlie drawled. "You've taught her well. She'll be fine."

Fannie's emerald stare pinned him to his seat, or tried to; he managed to survive the impact, somehow, and gave her a grin. "That's easy for you to say, you...you..." Fannie began. She realized how tense her words sounded and gave him a small answering smile of her own. "You're right, of course. I'm sure that Judge Hostetler will return a no-bill. But still..."

Man and wife jumped in unison when the thump of the Judge's gavel rang through the nearly vacant courtroom, only slightly muffled by the closed doors. "I reckon we'll know in a minute," Charlie said softly, sitting up from his slouch. The doors swung inward and Sarah appeared, her stride stately, gloved hand tightly clutching Linn's arm. Her back was stiff and Fannie could see the tiny quiver of the girl's chin. Sarah suddenly released Linn's arm and rushed to Fannie, who wrapped her tightly in loving arms.

Bonnie and Esther stepped from the courtroom. The expression on Bonnie's face spoke volumes that Fannie read easily as she pushed Sarah to arm's length. The tiniest jerk of her mentor's chin turned Sarah to her mother. "Oh, Mama, I was so scared!" Sarah told her mother.

"You were wonderful," Bonnie assured her. "I am so proud of you."

"I couldn't have done it without you there, Mama," Sarah whispered, her face buried in her Mama's shoulder. Bonnie's arms tightened around the girl's slim shoulders, and Fannie saw Bonnie's expression soften as Bonnie mouthed the words "Thank you" toward Fannie. Fannie nodded in answer, smiling.

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Linn Keller 12-24-10

 

A pair of shiny little-girl slippers and white-stockinged legs, and a lace-trimmed red-velvet skirt, stuck out from under the Christmas tree.
Most of her was underneath, looking up through the branches, marveling at the ornaments, the candy canes, the strings of popcorn.
Opal lay beside her, unmoving; like her twin sister, on quick inspection, her skirt and shiny buckle-strapped shoes and ankles were about all the casual eye could see: her little hand was relaxed in Polly's, and neither moved.
Polly's eyes were heavy as she lay on the thick hook rug.
Opal's were already closed, her breathing easy, regular.
Her Mama's maid had slid the rug under the tree and whispered to them that she used to look up through their Christmas tree when she was a little girl at home, and the twins happily tried this new idea.
The maid looked in as she tended her kitchen duties, and smiled at what she saw.
Both girls were sound asleep, waiting for their Mama and their big sister to come home on Christmas Eve.

Little Joseph squealed and reached for a shining red glass bulb.
Jacob laughed and plucked the lad from harm's way.
"You don't want that," he said in a teasing voice, and Joseph protested loudly that he did indeed want it, and wiggled powerfully in his Papa's big hands.
Jacob laughed and brought the lad in close to his chest, rocking him a little.
Joseph chewed on a finger and then thrust his own extended finger toward the ceiling.
"Walk on the ceiling?" Jacob asked, and Joseph's grin broadened, his single tooth gleaming against pink gums.
Annette came in the room in time to see Jacob, his hands around Joseph's ankles, walking the lad across the ceiling: Joseph's arms were waving and he was crowing with absolute delight.

Little Sean whispered to his brother, "Saint Nicholas is coming."
Little Sean's brother rolled over, came up on all fours, crawled toward the tree again.
"No you don't," Little Sean said quietly: standing over the infant, he seized his little brother under the arms and dragged him away from the tree.
The tree had fallen twice that week, with too many delicate glass bulbs the casualties; his Pa had promised a good switching if it happened again, and so Little Sean made doubly sure his little brother didn't try to climb the Christmas tree again.
Michael's hair and Michael's complexion marked him a true Irishman, as did his temper.
Young Michael wanted to climb that tree.
Foiled, his red face turned redder and he began to cloud up and rain.
Little Sean rolled his eyes, hearing the approaching footsteps of his mother.
"Here we go again," he sighed.

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Linn Keller 12-24-10

 

"You ready?"
Angela giggled, then exclaimed "Go, Nimbus!"
Nimbus stepped smartly out and the Yankee Clipper's broad, waxed runners squeaked a little in the new snow, and we jingled into the darkness.
I turned and waved at Esther, framed in the welcoming glow of our open door, then we looked ahead, over the grey's ears, and steered a course for the nearest house.
"Nearest house" is a relative term.
Everything is bigger in the West and I figured we had just enough time to get to the half-dozen I'd planned on, and get home, about the time the sun would come crowding up over the horizon.
Esther and I had planned this, I'd laid out maps and calculated distance and time; we'd watched the sky, gauged the wind, prayed for snow.
Now, tonight, Christmas Night, Angela and I jingled through the darkness with a sleigh full of surprises.
We knew people, good people, who were trying their best and having a hard way of it.
One thing about being Sheriff.
You learn your territory and you learn your people and you learn who is a drone upon society and who is a hard working sort who may've had a run of bad luck.
It took us a little to get to the first house.
Dogs barked in the distance as we came into view, sailed easily down their lane.
"Now, Daddy?" Angela asked.
"Not yet, sweetheart."
Angela was still under the buffalo robe but she was restless, anxious to play her part as I'd explained it to her.
The first house had two lights showing, candles by the look of them, and at our approach two dogs came bounding through snow that was near to deep as they were tall.
It's not the snow was all that deep, it's the dogs were built kind of close to the ground.
The dogs came running toward us.
"Angela," I said, "now."
Angela stood, cocked an arm: I'd coached her in throwing rocks, and we practiced throwing rocks at a fence post, and for a little girl she was pretty darn good, so when the still-warm hush puppy went sailing through the air, it bounced off one dog's back.
The other dog made a funny sound and dove into the snow after it.
"One more," I said, and another hush puppy described an abbreviated arc.
The two dogs were no longer baying a challenge: they wagged and followed, for the fastest way to a man's heart, or a dog's, was through the stomach.
I drew up in front of the house, rolled out, seized the first bundle: I had to move fast if I was to get away with this.
"Angela, one more," I said in a low voice, and a pair of hush puppies drew the dogs away from me as I ran through deepening snow and deposited the bundle on the porch.
I reached up and rapped twice on the door, then ran back around the sleigh, jumped in and snapped the reins.
"Go, Nimbus!" Angela called in a happy, little-girl voice, and the grey surged forward: we were twenty yards and retreating fast by the time the door opened.
The grey was born to the high altitude, and used to it: she set a good brisk pace and we hissed through the white stuff, the Yankee Clipper living up to its name: I'd bought it because it was the best sleigh made, the easiest to draw, the best for light, dry snow.
I'd made sure the runners were slick as a gut and well waxed, and my precaution paid dividends: we made the second house in good shape, and though it took more of our fried-up hush puppes than I would have liked, we got in and got out before the front door swung open, and another bundle, another and yet a third made it to a porch and I made it back into the sleigh, without getting caught.
That was the best part.
Make the delivery and don't get caught.
By the time we made our next to last drop, the sleigh was nearly empty: two bundles left, the hush puppies were pretty well gone, and we hadn't got caught.
"Daddy," Angela asked, her knit bonnet pulled down over her ears and her collar turned up, and I ran an arm around her and drew her close: "Yes, princess?"
"Daddy, can we do this again tomorrow?" -- and then she yawned, big and wide, and I knew my little girl was winding down.
I was too: we'd covered a lot of distance in a little time, the grey was holding up in good shape, but she and I were starting to feel the effects of the late hour.
It was snowing again and I gave Angela another squeeze. "Honey," I said, "do we have any hush puppies left?"
Angela stretched and ran her hand in the sack.
"We got thwee, Daddy."
"Good. Stand ready."
Angela threw the robe back, lethargy forgotten: she took a fried ball in hand, bobbed her hand up and down a little the way she did when she was setting the throwing distance in her mind.
"Now remember this is a big dog," I said.
"I know, Daddy. He's a nice doggie." Angela had made friends with the ranch dog some time before, but that was in warm weather, in good light, with the dog in the presence of friends and family.
"Here it comes," I said as we hissed and jingled through the open gate.
The dog came streaking through the snow like a coursing wolf, tail straight out, arrow-straight and fast.
Angela stood up, arm cocked.
"Here, doggie!" she called, her litle-girl's voice high and clear in the cold air: the hush puppy shot like a bullet squarely for the approaching canine, and the dog jumped, caught the hush puppy, landed on its feet.
The ranch house door opened and a familiar figure stepped out, rifle in hand, two smaller figures behind, peering out into the dark.
"Well darn," I thought, "we got caught!"
"Ho, Nimbus!" I called, reining up in front of their porch.
The grey blew twin clouds of steam into the very-early-morning air.
I jumped out of the sleigh, seized a bundle.
"Harry," I called, "are you as ugly as you was last I saw you?"
Harry squinted, then grinned: "You long tall trouble maker," he rasped, "what brings you out at this ungodly hour?"
"Samuel," I called, and his oldest son stepped out: shoulder high to his Pa, Samuel was the image of his old man: stout and blocky, he looked like he could pick up an anvil one handed and walk off with it.
I handed him the package and he looked at it, at me: it was blanket wrapped, near to four foot long and two foot wide, fairly heavy.
"I'm causin' trouble, Harry, you know me!"
Harry scratched his head. "Well daggone now, it's Christmas an' we ain't so much as got breakfast fixed!"
I clapped a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Harry, if I don't get home an' eat my own breakfast, Esther will speak to me about it, and I don't pa'tick'lar want that to happen!"
Harry thumped me happily on the shoulder, grinning.
"Sheriff, I never saw that woman mad an' I don't reckon it would be safe in the same county if she got that way!"
I winked at the man.
"Harry," I said, "you're right!"
"Say, what's in the bundle anyway?"
Samuel was still standing there, looking puzzled.
"Trouble!" I shouted, running around the back of the sleigh and climing in.
"Go, Nimbus!" Angela called, tossing her last hush puppy to the shaggy, tail-wagging ranch hound, and Nimbus stepped out, bells merry and loud in the pre-dawn stillness.
We set a course for home, cutting across virgin snow, the harmony of bells and leather and muffled hoof-falls hypnotic and relaxing: Angela was asleep, leaned against me, warm under quilt and buffalo robe.
Me, I don't think I have been quite that content in a very long time, for when we came up to our own house, my beautiful bride was standing in the doorway, hands folded, the smell of breakfast trailing out from behind her, and our little girl asleep against me.
I got Nimbus rubbed down and grained and taken care of in good shape, we got the sleigh parked, with Angela still in the front seat: I kept her wrapped up and carried her inside, and packed her upstairs: we got her undressed and in bed and all tucked in, and in all that handling, she yawned one time before rolling up on her left side and cuddling into her pillow.

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Linn Keller 12-26-10

 

The gloves were well padded, unusually so: Sean insisted on it and had them custom made, ordered in from Sullivan's gym in New York.
It wasn't that the big Irishman was interested in sparing his scar-knuckled fists.
It's that he wished to spare any sparring partners unnecessary damage.
Boxing was a blood sport and participants not infrequently fought one another until bloody injury made the spectacle so gruesome the bout was called off -- unless one party or the other just plainly cold cocked the other.
Sean regarded his opponent, gloves up, moving easily on the balls of his feet.
The Sheriff did likewise.
Both men were bare to the waist; they circled warily around each other in the privacy of the Sheriff's barn.
Usually the Sheriff and his son sparred there, in a variety of fighting styles, and with a variety of simulated tools of ungentle pacification: today, though, it was knuckles.
The arrangement was unusual in that the big Irishman had asked the Sheriff if he would do him the honor of a bout or three -- "just for practice, y'understand" -- and so it was just the pair of them.
They were both warmed up: in fact, their bare torsos steamed in the cold air, and their breath hung in clouds as they exhaled powerfully.
"Did ye notice the Parson wasna' his usual self?" Sean asked, then launched a right.
The Sheriff dropped his head to the side, swatted the incoming forearm and took a counterpunch in his high ribs: staggering back, he bared his teeth, stepped back in.
"I noticed."
Sean tried the same punch and took a left to his wind that he never saw coming.
The Sheriff barely had time to put up a blocking mitt: it wasn't enough, and Sean punched through the lawman's block: the Sheriff's own glove came back and flattened lips against even white teeth.
Blinking back the stinging pain, the Sheriff waited, gloves up, ready.
Sean stepped in.
The Sheriff thrust himself quickly to the left, then suddenly to the right and hit a left-right-left to the big Irishman's belly and soft ribs.
A fist grazed the side of his head and he scored a solid right to the Irishman's armpit.
"Good," Sean grunted, backing up a pace and raising his gloves.
The Sheriff raised his; they touched gloves, then wrapped their arms around each other and stood there for a moment.
Each man had taken the other's measure: both were in pain, and each recognized the other as a warrior in his own right.
"Ye're as fast as ye e'er were," Sean gasped, thumping the Sheriff on his shoulder, to which the Sheriff grunted "You hit like a Missouri mule," and they went over to the blanket covered hay bale and sat heavily.
"Misfortune will weight a man's soul," Sean said, his accent more prominent, and the Sheriff knew he was troubled by more than he was letting on.
He nodded, leaning elbows on knees, ignoring his aching ribs as best he could.
He spat blood, bright and gleaming, to the straw covered floor, rubbed his lips with the back of a glove.
That last blow had caught him for fair and for sure.
"Now th' Parson ..." Sean leaned his own elbows and worked the bend out of his back -- "there's a mon I admire."
The Sheriff nodded, turning his head a little, listening.
"He an' Brother William." Sean's voice was distant and he touched his nose carefully. The Sheriff had given a good account of himself, all right.
"The Parson was out all night."
"Didn't know that." The Sheriff looked sharply at the big Irishman. "What happened?"
"'Twas over't Carbon, a fire."
"How bad?"
Sean glared at the greying lawman. "'Twas no' good. They sent f'r th' Parson soon as it happened."
The Sheriff worked his jaw a little. "Go on."
Sean's eyes were haunted: old ghosts hovered just outside his vision, unseen but real, and he shivered.
"The family Voormann ..." he began, and his voice trailed off: he hung his big head and shuffled one booted foot in the fragrant straw.
"'Twas a two story house. I remember seein' it." He picked up a shaft of straw, turned it end for end between thumb and forefinger, dropped it.
"They got out, th' husband an' wife an' their wee child."
Sean's voice was tight, almost strained.
"The mother went back in.
"'Twas said her girls were screamin' t' death in th' upper bedroom.
"She fought her way up th' stairs an' she got t' the daughters.
"She had one under each arm an' started down th' staircase when it collapsed on 'em."
The Sheriff had known Sean for some years: he'd known the man in joy and in sorrow, in laughter and in raging, furious anger: he'd never seen Sean's hands tremble before, and he knew this was not a good thing.
Sean swallowed hard.
The Sheriff looked away quickly, for he'd seen a streak of saltwater spill down one florid cheek.
"She -- they -- " Sean swallowed again.
"When th' coals were low enough they could start t' rake 'em away, they found what was left of 'em, fused int' one lump.
"The husband ... God almighty, what th' man must'a felt! --they sent f'r the Parson, an' he was wi' the man all night long."
The Sheriff nodded.
"You've seen that before."
Sean's eyes were bleak, the look of a strong and capable man who realized his own helplessness.
"I was that man, once, back East. B'fore I was a fireman." He snorted, chuckled mirthlessly. "I joined th' Brigade th' nex' day an' I've fought th' dragon e'er since." He took a long, shivering breath.
"Yon Parson was strong enough t' keep th' man from killin' himsel' an' I don't think he got a wink o' sleep in four an' twenty hours f'r the doin' of it."
The Sheriff nodded, remembering how dark the man had been under the eyes.
"Now you," Sean said, his mood changing abruptly, his hand squeezing the Sheriff's shoulder companionably, "I don't think yu' heard word one o' the Christmas sermon!"
The Sheriff chuckled.
"We heard o' the coats an' th' clothes," he said in a quiet and approving voice. "An' the other too."
The Sheriff shook his head. "An' here I tried not to let my left hand know what my right hand did!"
"When ye include th' deed free an' clear t' the ranch an' a note that says "Merry Christmas, it's all yours," Sean declared stoutly, "it's no' somethin' people will keep under their hat!"
"I shoulda stuck to coats an' socks an' knit mittens!" the Sheriff complained good-naturedly.
"There's somethin' else, isn't there?" he asked Sean, and Sean nodded, his face troubled.
"Daisy lost th' child," he said in a hoarse whisper.
The Sheriff sighed, nodding.
He'd suspected as much, but there had been no announcement: he knew Sean would make mention of it in due time.
He just didn't expect this would be the time.
"She blamed hersel', Sheriff. Said she musta' been an evil woman t' be punished so." Sean squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head. "My fault it was, no' hers, an' I told her so.
"She took m' face between her hands an' threatened to beat me wi' a hitch rail if I e'er said as much again!"
The Sheriff stood, picked up his own shirt and Sean's as well: both men slipped into a little insulation, for they were both getting chilled.
"I don't doubt she could, too," the Sheriff said with a small smile. "I've seen her temper."
Sean grinned. "Ye've no' seen th' half o' the woman's temper!" he laughed, then melancholy flowed back into his eyes like fog off a quiet sea. "Th' Parson set with her an' listened, an' I don' know the words he spoke, but 'twas of comfort to her."
The Sheriff twisted a little, one way, then the other: he frowned as his ribs settled back into place with rather ill grace.
"She's a strong woman, ma Daisy," he said, and there was at once grief for their loss but admiration for his wife, and the Sheriff nodded.
"Aye," he said. "She is that."
Silence grew long between the two as the Sheriff shrugged slowly into his shirt and vest.
"How you holdin' up, Sean?" the Sheriff asked, and at the answering silence, he added quietly, "It is not easy to lose a child.
"No," Sean said, equally quietly. "It's no'."
Sean's fingers fumbled with their task.
The Sheriff cocked an eye toward the fire chief, who was buttoning up the bib front, red-wool shirt.
"There is one thing."
"Aye?"
Sean thrust his shirt tail into his waist band, turned to face the Sheriff.
"At church today," Linn asked.
Did I snore?"

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Linn Keller 12-26-10

 

When it was possible, the Sheriff delighted in dining under his own roof, at his own table, with his family around him.
Today was such a delightful day.
The meal was fragrant and appetizing, the table well set; they'd sent their hired girl home to be with family for a few days, and Esther slipped her a little extra with the whisper, "Don't let my husband know!" -- and not five minutes later, Linn did the same, with the sotto voce admonishment, "Don't let Esther know!" -- they knew her family was having a difficult way of it, and it was their way of letting her help without it looking like charity.
Esther was a very organized woman: she could run the railroad and manage its many facets and make it look easy; she ran her household with the same efficiency: the meal was prepared and set on the table in stages, each one dovetailing neatly with the other.
The Sheriff knew there was more to this than met the eye.
It was his experience that only those who were really, really good at something, made something look easy.
Esther made it look easy.
Angela wiggled impatiently in her chair, eyeing the pile of rolls on the plate, clearly wanting to seize one and bite into it, knowing it to be warm from the oven, steaming with fragrance, but she stayed her hand, for she was trying hard to be a Lady, or as best a Lady as a little girl could be.
Esther swirled 'round the table to her chair, settled into her seat: Linn bowed his head, his voice rich and sonorous in the momentary hush as he gave thanks.
After which he raised his head and looked at Angela.
"Angela," he said, "who do we get to play Charge?"
Angela laughed. "The boogler!" she exclaimed, and reached for a roll.
It was a standing joke between the two of them: Angela had been plainly starved one day and fought her impulse to seize some edibles, her struggle so evident that her Daddy told her he was going to get a bugler to blow "Charge" so she would know when to dive in.
"Bugler" became "boogler" -- at least for now, until a greater maturity cleared her pronunciation -- but for the moment, it sufficed.
Conversation was sparse: not out of tension, or of dislike, but because Esther knew there was something on her husband's mind, and she knew that, for the moment, he was enjoying sitting at the table with his beloved ladies.
Finally -- after consuming a shocking amount of comestibles -- for a skinny man, he ate a surprising amount! -- he leaned back with a contented sigh.
"My tummy is smiling," he said, reaching for his wife's hand. "Thank you, my dear."
"We got pumpkin pie!" Angela declared excitedly, her own full belly forgotten as she remembered dessert waiting on a side table.
Her Daddy held up a forestalling hand. "Maybe later," he said, and Angela's face fell about three feet: laughing, he relented: Well, maybe a small piece," and Angela brightnened and clapped pink hands in delight, giving a little girl's quiet "Yaaay!"
Linn helped his wife clear dishes and platters, and directly they were all seated before freshly sliced and served pie.
Esther finally looked at her husband.
"Did Sean find you?" she asked, her green eyes bright and knowing.
Linn nodded. "He did."
"Looks like he got you, too."
The Sheriff touched his lips with the back of a finger. "He did that."
Esther's look was concerned. "Is he all right?"
Linn was silent for a long moment.
"He will be."
"Daisy didn't tell anyone," Esther said in a worried tone.
"I know. He didn't either."
"They went to Brother William and had him do the service. They have a Catholic cemetery behind his church."
The Sheriff nodded. "Didn't know that."
Esther's eyes dropped to the table top. "She should have told us." She looked at her husband, misery and understanding in her eyes. "She should have told me!"
Linn nodded. "Maybe so."
"Did he say when it was?"
"No." He shook his head slowly. "I can figure about when it was --"
"No, dear, it's past now." Esther shivered. "I wonder if they'll try again."
Angela picked up the pie crust with thumb and forefinger and nibbled delicately at the finger crimps.
"Why didn't she tell me?" Esther worried.
The Sheriff smiled thinly. "He told me one time how he took an old biddy to task once. His brother died and this old bat scolded him for now showing a long face in public. He backed her against a wall with his language."
"Oh, my," Esther murmured. "What did he say?"
The Sheriff looked at Angela, bright-eyed and solemn as she regarded her Daddy.
He cleared his throat, raised both eyebrows, considered his reply.
"He said he did not parade his grief for her entertainment."
Esther nodded. "My father said something similar."
"I reckon they didn't feel like being fussed over."
"What of Little Sean and Michael?"
"Oh, they're fine. He was telling me young Michael climbed their Christmas tree."
Esther's hand went to her mouth and Linn saw the laughter in her eyes.
"Oh, no!"
"Oh, yes," he nodded. "Twice!"
Esther's eyes flicked toward their parlor and they tree she knew stood there.
"Sean said he drove two nails in the wall and tied the tree back, but most of the bulbs were broken. Daisy had the Devil's own time getting the glass up so Michael would not find it."
Esther laughed with a mother's understanding.
"Bonnie told me about the twins falling asleep under the tree." She smiled at the picture Bonnie painted, describing her and Sarah's finding two pair of stockinged legs sticking out from under the decorated evergreen. "It seems they crawled under to look at the tree from underneath and fell asleep."
The Sheriff's eyes crinkled at the corners and he nodded, picturing how that must have looked.
The Sheriff pushed his dessert plate away slowly with one thumb.
"My dear, thank you," he said quietly. "That was good."
Esther looked around her husband, peering into the kitchen. "The water's hot," she said. "Time to wash dishes." Her brisk manner and speech returned and she was once again the efficient manager.
It decreased her efficiency only a little to have a husband helping dry dishes and put them away.

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Linn Keller 12-29-10

 

"Where you fellas headed?" Jacob called cheerfully.
"Miller's Hill!" a half-dozen voices chorused.
Jacob turned in his saddle, squinted at the grade: "That's quite a hill!"
"Yeah!" "It'll be fun!" "We oughta go fast!" -- young voices tumbled over one another in a cascade of happy enthusiasm.
"Long walk up, though," Jacob observed.
"Yeah, but it'll be worth it!"
Jacob's eyes tightened as he recognized the youthful enthusiasm behind this winter day's fun: he picked up his lariat, shook it loose, tossed the tag end to the lead sled. "Make fast!" he called, "can you connect the second sled to the first?"
Shortly they began laboring up the road that slanted up Miller's Hill: it was a long grade, the road turned at the bottom, a reflex angle, back onto itself, but as happy chance would have it, the road lacked a ditch or a bank at the bottom and indeed a runaway cart had sailed down the hill and out into the sizable meadow back in warm weather.
Jacob reckoned the lads would have a long, fast ride, and be able to coast safely out into the open.
They made the crest, and Jacob helped them stomp down a circle and build a fire: he set up a wind break of branches, smoothed snow into a semi-circular wall for a reflector, and helped them gather firewood: the lads set about this with speed and much wasted effort, but a great deal of vigor: all wished to take their turn on the downhill run.
Jacob waited until the first sled made its streaking descent, the happy halloos drawn-out and echoing in the cold mountain air.
He found himself grinning, and imagining little Joseph's first trip on a sled.
"I'm gonna enjoy that," he said to no one in particular, and swung back into his saddle.

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Linn Keller 12-29-10

 

Linn put his finger to his lips.
Angela half-lidded her eyes, sank a little lower: her Daddy had spread a blanket in the snow and she was still in her dress, but she'd wanted to very badly to come with her Daddy, and now here she was beside him, belly down behind a little rise.
Her Daddy worked a set of binoculars out of an inside coat pocket, staying as low as he could: he was not on a blanket and Angela knew he would get wet if he stayed in the snow like that much longer.
She also knew that he was showing her something, and excited though she was, she could keep quiet, for she was becoming a Big Girl.
He raised the binoculars, using both hands to steady them, elbows sinking in the snow: she saw his mouth widen a little and she knew he was seeing something.
"The sun is just right," he whispered, his mouth an inch from her ear: he handed her the binoculars and pointed.
Angela rose slowly, looked, blinked, squinted a little and then she saw them.
There were three deer in a little clump.
"Look at the one on the right."
Angela looked, studied the deer on the right.
"She's fat," Angela whispered.
"Look at her belly. Watch it closely."
Angela did, then she saw it.
Something bumped her belly from the inside.
The sun was just right, coming across the deer's gravid abdomen, and a kick bulged the fur momentarily.
Angela's eyes widened and her mouth formed an O of surprise and delight.
She lowered the binoculars and looked at her Daddy, eyes shining.
She looked at the deer again, then raised the binoculars: she made a little sound of disappointment, for she'd rested the lenses in the snow and they were all wet-spotted now.
Her expressive face went from beaming delight to abject sorrow; her Daddy put a finger to his lips and winked, then slipped the field glasses back inside his coat.
He leaned close to her again, his muts-tache tickling her curls.
"Did you see it?"
He drew back and she nodded vigorously.
"It was like Rosie-horse when she was pweg-nant," Angela whispered in reply.
Her Daddy nodded. "Exactly like that."
Angela's eyes went back to where she last saw the deer.
"Can I pet it?" she asked hopefully.
Linn's smile was broad and a little sad, a knowing Daddy-smile: "No, Princess, they would run the moment they saw us."
"Oh." Angela raised up a little until she could just see over the snow-rise again, and saw the deer walking away, unconcerned.
Esther had a tub of hot water ready when they got home and she insisted Angela take a nice hot bath.
Her protest that Daddy was cold and wet, not her, was of no avail: she found herself dunked in the copper tub and vigorously soaped, for proper young ladies were clean young ladies, and besides her fingers and toes were cold, and whatever was she doing out in the snow in a dress, for heaven's sakes, and Angela replied that she watched a Rosie-deer with a thumper belly.
Her Mommy, of course, did not understand.

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Linn Keller 12-31-10

 

It was cold below the barn, there in the hand dug space underneath.
I'd had it dug out deep enough I could walk around wearing my hat and nowherere did I have to duck.
The barn was of good timber, chestnut mostly, set on hand cut stones: the stones rested on undisturbed earth, and unless someone grabbed the earth itself and turned it upside down and shook it good, I reckoned the barn would stand and stand fast for a good long time.
I'd dug out everything under the entire barn and started a tunnel that would angle up to the house.
I figured in due time to have dug out under the house as well.
A man might be able to shoot into the house and punch a hole through the wall but was I underground with a stone walled embrasure around me, I'd be pretty well proof against attack.
I do nothing without planning.
Though I had laid in a plentiful supply of wood I recognized it might not be enough, and so had a second goodly stack ricked up, off the ground so it would not rot, roofed with bark to shed snow melt and rain: it was likely twice as much as a man would need but I've known winters to run long and long again, and I dislike being cold.
We had meat enough in the smoke house to last us, Esther had preserves put up, we had a couple barrels of flour, sacks of beans, salt and sugar and coffee: in short, should winter lay a heavy hand over the territory, we could ride it out.
My eye fell on the chests stacked against one wall, there under the barn.
We had wood for the fire but sometimes fire escaped its metal confinement: should by some utter misfortune, our house catch fire and burn to the ground, we could live here under the barn and not be terribly uncomfortable: I had holes ready to run a chimney for the cook stove and for a heating stove, we had bunks that could be assembled, we had clothes -- not many and not fancy but enough to cover us and keep us warm -- I made sure Angela had a couple dolls.
Matter of fact when I put the dolls in the chest, I set there for a long time looking at them.
One of the dolls was near identical to the one she put in with little Joseph.
The ladies who sat up with his body that night pretended to be asleep when Angela went in and put her favorite doll in the box with him: it was all they could do to keep quiet when she whispered, "You'll need this," and then skipped out of the room: when they recounted the story to me, they had need to dab their eyes as they told the tale.
I set there and looked long at that rag doll before I put it in the chest.
It wasn't the same one but it was close as could be made.
The other rag doll was the one Angela had locked in her elbow the first time I laid eyes on her, in that wrecked rail car.
That, too, give me long pause.
I closed the chest slowly, fastened the latch: it was a good solid chest, well made and heavy, it closed tight and was proof against insect and rodent incursion: I entrusted it to a few other items, with the thought that if the house were fired we may have to retreat with just our nightclothes, and I wished to provide for that possibility.
That's why I built the barn where I did.
If the house went up, the barn was far enough away it would likely not catch.
I sat there for a while longer, thinking.
I'd beaten Rusty Smith, I thought.
Rusty and I had crossed before, when he allowed to beat up my brother: we were just boys, but Rusty was a bully, and a bully knows only one answer.
Unfortunately we hadn't been able to give it to him.
Our Sunday school teacher intervened.
Rusty left, shamed, plotting revenge: fortunately his Pa was already packed up to move and they left that night, leaving unpaid bills at the general store, a month's rent unpaid, a girl in trouble ...
Rusty had gone to make a name for himself, and not a good one, either.
I'd beat Rusty Smith.
Rusty had a reputation for shooting from ambush, but he'd got cocky and fancied himself a hard man.
He'd out-drawn older and slower men and probably figured I was both.
He'd figured wrong.
I've made it a practice never to under-estimate a coward.
Rusty was a coward.
The night he'd challenged me I hadn't had time to think.
Hell, I didn't know it was him for some time after.
That night, after I found out who I'd just put in a pine box, I went home and loved Esther with a fierceness I hadn't felt for some time: maybe I wanted to assure myself that I was indeed alive.
He'd caught me by surprise.
There was no thought involved.
I'd reacted.
I thought about that for a long time, there in the gloom, and finally got up and picked up the lantern.
I opened the door to a blizzard.
"Well bless me," I said, and shut the door fast behind me.
It took me a bit to wade through the fresh snow fall and return to the house.

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Linn Keller 1-1-11

 

The cast iron butterfly doors opened with a BANG.
Steel shovel scraped on steel deck, picking up egg coal: the fireman turned, easily, a practiced, almost graceful move, slung the payload into the back right corner of the firebox.
The shovel rang as the coal sailed free and into the confined inferno.
Bill adjusted the water pump, transferring from the tender into the boiler: he'd asked for a custom tender with greater capacity, pointing out that it would mean fewer stops to take on water, thus saving time, making a shorter run.
His efficiency had saved the railroad -- and their major freight customer, the mine -- enough money, and indeed enabled an extra round trip per day, that they'd listened to his request, and so his tender was reality.
Snow was falling, heavy and fast, but the locomotive paid no attention to the fluffy white stuff: they drove easily through the accumulation, throwing up billowing white clouds of pure, feather-light crystal, clearing the tracks as they went.
"She's got her blood up," Bill announced with a grin.
His fireman grinned in reply, leaning over to look out the window.
The arc light on the front shot a brilliant shaft of glare ahead of them, illuminating a silvery-white tunnel for a surprising distance.
Bill tilted his head, listening with his entire being: his very soul thrilled to this living, fire-throated beast, laboring through the darkness, her heavy chant a heartbeat: he heard every piston-thrust, every gear-chuckle, the rush of steam out the stack, the draft drawing the firebox into a bright inferno.
"You can pick out any song in the world, listening to that."
"You're right."
The Lady Esther labored powerfully through the darkness, drawing her few cars easily behind.
In one of then, Dr. John Greenlees removed his pocket watch, pressed the stem: the cover fell open, a miniature of his wife smiling quietly at him, and he smiled, too, a quiet, rare smile: normally the man had all the visible humor of a stone idol.
Susan, he thought, I'll be home soon, and glad for it.
The little metal stove pushed bravely against the chill: there was a stove at either end of the passenger car, and the conductor fed each with regularity, but this didn't diminish the good physician's appreciation of a warm coat and a hat.
He looked out the black-glass window, seeing his reflection and little else: his eyes wandered, following his thoughts, and he remembered the subject of his visit.
The Cripple Creek mine maintained their own medical facility, and hired men who claimed to be doctors: the mine soon learned that claim to a title did not a title grant, and the first few had been outright quacks; the next, incompetent; not until they contacted the Doctors Flint and Greenlees at the Firelands hospital did they get a real doctor: recommendation by a professional, then as now, is a fine way to get good help, and the doctors recommended by the Firelands medical team had turned out to be competent, and satisfactory in every way.
Dr. Greenlees had been summoned by his protoge, Dr. Davidson, as a consult on a patient Dr. Greenlees initially saw, and treated: a woman with a broken leg, badly fractured in a fall from a wagon, set and immobilized in the field: the leg was healing more than satisfactorily, and indeed the patient was beginning to put a tiny amount of weight on it -- "just enough to make it ache a little," Dr. Greenlees had cautioned her, "and Madam, let me emphasize, little!" -- to which both he and the patient shared a small laugh.
She had assured him of her full and overriding intent to gain full use of the leg, and gestured to the violin reclining in its velvet lined case.
"You see, Doctor," she explained, "I cannot get a full stroke with the bow unless I am standing. I must abbreviate my stroke if I am seated, and that does not give me ..." She frowned. "It interrupts my rhythm."
Dr. Greenlees had deferred to her greater expertise in the matter, and gravely informed her that with such determination, he had every confidence that she would regain full use of the limb: after assessing its distal pulses with a slight amount of weight on it, he pinched each toe, lightly, asking if she felt it, or if it were painful: he drew a thumbnail quickly up the sole of her foot, observing whether she spread her toes, or curled them down: satisfied, he shook Dr. Davidson's hand and announced, "My dear sir, you have brought me all this way on a fool's errand: this has been an utter and absolute waste of my time, for your excellent care has guaranteed that this fine woman is well on her road to recovery, and I have every confidence that we shall see her not only walk, but dance, and dance well."
The tone of his voice, a quiet smile and a wink put the lie to any criticism in his words: now, most of the way back to Firelands, he remembered the last few moments, in his fellow medico's private office, sharing a stirrup-cup before he braved the brief, chill walk to the Cripple Creek depot.
"Davidson, thank you," he'd said, hoisting his brandy in salute. "It's not often that I get to see a patient again after they once leave our little stone mansion."
Dr. Davidson had assured him that not only was it his distinct pleasure, it was his delight that he could assure Dr. Greenlees that he was living up to the glowing recommendation he'd given the mines, which had contributed so directly to his hire.
He must have dozed a little, for he opened his eyes to the realization that he'd heard the air brakes come on beneath his feet, and the conductor was walking down the aisle, calling "Firelands, all out for Firelands," as the train slowed to a nice, easy stop.
Dr. Greenlees looked out his window and smiled.
It felt good to arrive home.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-1-11

 

The horses were fed, the mares huddled together under the cover of the lean-to Charlie and Fannie had built in the fall. Charlie stamped snow from his feet on the slate slab that he'd set securely alongside the back porch steps. He slapped snow from his heavy sheep-lined coat, shook the accumulation from his wool cap and stepped under the porch roof. The square of golden light outlined on the planks invited him to enter. Beyond the window, Fannie bustled about the kitchen, skirts swirling as she put the finishing touches on the evening meal. A small smile touched his lips as Charlie paused with his hand on the cut-glass knob to watch his wife at her work.

He pushed open the door, wisps of snow slipping inside with him from the storm that was beginning to bluster up outside. The scent of roasting venison tickled both nostril and tastebud as he quickly closed the door and turned to remove hat and coat and hang them on their pegs. His pistol belt joined them. He unlaced the tops of his well-greased knee high elkhide moccasins and slipped them off, hanging them sole-up on the cottonwood rack beside the door, then strode across the kitchen floor in his sock feet to wrap his arms around his wife's slender waist from behind. He kissed her on the neck. "Storm's buildin'," he whispered, giving her a squeeze, noticing as he did so that there didn't seem to be a great deal of clothing between his hands and his wife's soft skin.

"It'll just have to wait until after supper," Fannie answered with a saucy grin back over her shoulder. "The roast is almost ready to eat. And your hands are cold." Charlie stared at her for a moment before he grasped exactly what she'd said. He started to chuckle as he released her, sliding his hands lingeringly over her hips.

"I meant that there's a blizzard starting to blow out there," he replied, but his mind was less on the snow outside and more on anticipation of what he now knew was to come.

"I know exactly what you meant," Fannie informed him, her green eyes flashing. "And I think you know what I meant, too." She planted a quick kiss on his cheek before she turned back to the stove.

"That I do, ma'am, that I do. I'll set the table."

******


Charlie scraped the remains of their meal, what little there was, from the blue enamelware plates into the firebox of the Monarch range then replaced the lid with a clang. Leftover potatoes and venison roast went into a covered pan and were deposited in the screen-sided cold-box on the back porch. Plates and flatware splashed into the pan of water steaming on the range.

Charlie slid his backside onto his chair after turning it at right angles to the table and picked up his coffee cup. Before he could lift it to his lips a slender hand appeared over his shoulder and took the cup away to light on the table with a small thump. Fannie slipped into his lap, put her hand behind his neck and lowered her lips to his. When they separated, he wordlessly slid his right arm under her knees, his left behind her shoulders and stood. Her arms went around his neck, her head to his shoulder. He carefully leaned forward to blow out the lamp set on the table and turned toward the back of the house. The storm was indeed "buildin'"...

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Linn Keller 1-2-11

 

The Sheriff nodded to Fred Jerome.
Fred had the mirror set up on its tripod, aimed and ready.
"What are we waiting for, Sheriff?"
The Sheriff raised a gloved finger, pale eyes scanning the horizon.

Jacob stopped at the military crest above his house: he was not skylined, but was near enough to the ridgeline to make a fast escape over the top if need be. His father had told him that's where the deer ran, back in Ohio's hill country, just below the crest of the ridge -- "they can see below, and if they have to get away, two jumps and they're gone" -- and Jacob preferred traveling that natural bench, for the same reason.
He'd snowshoed up to this point because he had line of sight with one spot near the depot, one place where he could watch.
He consulted his watch, carefully worked it back inside his coat, and withdrew a fired rifle cartridge. It was considerably smaller bore than his preferred .50-90, and he kept it in his pocket for one reason only.
He brought the case to his lips, took a long breath, and prepared to blow.

The Sheriff listened carefully.
Sound carried far and pure on cold air, and it was cold that morning: the treetops looked like they'd been dipped in liquid crystal, rolled in diamond-dust and set afire, their uppermost branches catching the red rays of the morning sun: he'd not consulted the thermometer, but he knew it was cold.
Fred Jerome looked up at the Sheriff, his hand light on the lever.
The Sheriff smiled.
In the distance, faint but distinct, a whistle.
The Sheriff looked at Fred Jerome.
"Please send," he said, and Fred nodded, began a slow, rhythmic tapping on the lever.
The clatter of the mechanism was loud in the morning air as the heliograph sent reflected sunlight in a shining arrow.

Jacob read the mirror-flashes, squinting and looking a little to the side: his face tightened a little, his smile visible at the corners of his eyes.
He whistled twice, then once more: turning, he snowshoed back around the path he'd ascended, rifle balanced easily in his left hand.
His father had signaled "Stay home," and Jacob was just as happy: there was always work to be done, and if his services as deputy weren't needed, why, he would tend to duties of his own.
He made his steady way back down the hillside, eyes busy; from the barn, the sound of horses, impatient.
He didn't blame them.
When he was hungry he was kind of impatient himself.

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Lady Leigh 1-3-11

 

“This is mighty risky, Sam.”

“I know it is, Clark ….” Remaining thoughts left private

“She ain't goin' to like it.”

“We aren't there yet to find that out for sure.”

“George always said your optimism was bound to be etchy at times.”

Sam pulled on the reins and stopped abruptly, “Damn it Clark! This is all I know to do! This all I have left in me …. I'm counting on J.J.'s words to be true …. true the very core of me.” firmly plant the Stetson back down, “Now lets get back to moving toward Firelands.”

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Linn Keller 1-4-11

 

The Sheriff scooped up some snow, held it in his mouth as he leaned against the side of the jail.
It was cold out but he was sweating, sweating and flushed: his stomach was close to open rebellion, his legs shook and he stood for a long moment, almost slumped against the dressed timbers that formed the side of the building.
Finally he worked his way to the boardwalk, wading through his own tracks: he was winded by the time he stepped up onto the boards and kicked the toes of his boots against the wall to knock the snow off.
Jackson Cooper appeared from somewhere.
It's hard to miss something just plainly big as Jackson Cooper: the man was near to a head taller than the Sheriff, and the Sheriff was just over six foot, and Jackson Cooper was proportionally broader: the Sheriff had seen the man without a shirt and there were scars in a neat row across his chest where someone had emptied a Smith & Wesson .22 into him, and the bullets never penetrated: his ribs were massive and overlapped like shingles on a roof, or so the doctors said -- and the Sheriff had never, ever had occasion to engage Jackson Cooper in a physical contest.
Jackson Cooper looked with alarm at his old friend's face: his expression didn't change much as he reached out and took the Sheriff under the arms, keeping him from falling.
"You're burnin' up," he rumbled.
The Sheriff reached up and gripped Jackson Cooper's coat sleeve.
It was like grabbing a sleeve some joker had cut off a coat and threaded over a white oak branch.
"Saddle," he rasped, swallowing. "Get me in the saddle."
"You sure about that?" Jackson Cooper frowned.
The Sheriff nodded, clamping his jaw shut.
Jackson Cooper shrugged. "Okay," he said, picking the Sheriff up and swinging him around with the approximate effort of a schoolgirl picking up a rag doll.
He set the Sheriff beside his black Outlaw-horse.
The Sheriff reached up with one gloved hand, seized the saddle horn.
Jackson Cooper did not miss the man's tremor.
"Up you go," he grated, and the Sheriff found himself boosted into leather.
Jackson Cooper unwound Outlaw's reins and handed them up to the hunched over lawman.
The Sheriff coughed, coughed again and spat, grimacing.
"I'll be home if anyone needs me," he said in the thin voice of a man who was having a hard time breathing.
Jackson Cooper ran a hand through the gelding's cheek strap and started walking across the street.
Nobody was about to see the giant of a town marshal walking, nor the Sheriff, obviously in trouble, bent over in the saddle: no eyes regarded the pair as they stopped at the livery, save only Shorty, and he scowled at the grey-mustachioed old lawman, laboring for breath as he waited.
Jackson Cooper emerged from the livery and the Sheriff's gelding followed: Jackson Cooper's horse was a warmblood, a plow horse crossed with something uncertain but big: like Jackson Cooper himself, the horse was big and the horse was fast, deceptively so, but today both mounts traveled at a nice easy walk.

The Sheriff vaguely remembered looking up and seeing his own front porch, and having no idea how he got there: he remembered strong hands receiving him from the saddle, strong arms across his back and a firm grip bunched in the front of his coat as he struggled to climb the Everest of three front porch steps: Angela watched, big-eyed and solemn, as her Mommy and Uncle Jackson got her Daddy upstairs and in bed, and she looked in briefly as Esther laid a damp wash cloth over his forehead.
Angela, like Jackson Cooper, did not miss the fact that her Daddy was shivering, trembling as if freezing.
People came and went: she greeted Doctor Greenleafs as he came to their door, and Nurse Susan, the Doctor's wife and right hand, stopped briefly to reassure the worried looking little girl that everything would be all right, her Daddy had the flu, but he would get over it.
The next day, as neither she nor her Mommy showed any sign of the malady, and her Daddy was well enough to be left in the care of their hired girl, Esther had need to travel to her office over the Jewel.
As usual, Angela went with her.
Angela, though, was restless, and so Esther sent her on an important mission: she went down the back stairway to the kitchen, to tell Daisy that she would need a pot of tea, please, and some sandwiches.
Angela dutifully skipped the length of the hallway and clattered happily down the stairs, humming a little-girl tune, and spoke briefly with Daisy, for it was Daisy's usual day to be in the kitchen.
Daisy, as usual, bustled and fussed and stirred and worried, but she always took the time to address Angela as if she were an equal: Angela, in like wise, solemnly assumed the air of a Proper Young Lady (a fact which amused Daisy to no end) -- and in their brief conversation, in which Daisy inquired as to the health and welfare of her father, Daisy blinked at Angela's reply, opening and closing her mouth a couple of times.
Daisy swept up the tray containing teapot, teacups and sandwiches, and hustled upstairs.
Angela sat at her table there in the kitchen, watching the girls busy with their tasks, nibbling on her own sandwich and drinking tea from an Angela-sized teacup Daisy kept there 'specially for her.
There was the sound of feminine laughter from upstairs.
Later that day, when Angela returned to her Mommy's office, Esther looked at her child with suspicion and with amusement, in equal volumes.
"Angela," she said, "what did you tell Daisy about your father's condition?"
Angela looked at her Mommy with bright and innocent eyes, and replied with all the devastating honesty and incomplete understanding of a little child.
"I told her Daddy was in bed with the floozie."

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Lady Leigh 1-5-11

 

The air was crisp, and the sun shining down on the snow laden ground looked like sparkling diamonds. Sam pulled the collar of the coat up higher and tight across the neck to keep the cold out.

“Mighty beautiful country. Guess this is it, Clark.”

“Yep, showtime …. This better work, Sam. I'm to damn cold to head back.”

“Quit your complaining. I have not need for it today.”

Head high.

Deep breath .

cluck to the horse.

Cantor on down toward Firelands.

Thanks a hell of a'lot, George, for dying .... was the immediate thoughts Sam held to at the moment. But as Sam had been doing for the last few months, merely pushed the thought aside. There was work to be done.

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