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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 1-6-11

 

I was mostly asleep yet when I heard the door latch click.
There was the whisper of little bare feet on the floor and a "Shh!" sound, and something tucked in between my arm and my ribs, then the rapid patter of little bare feet retreating.
I was too wore out to move and so I sunk back into a fevered sleep.
Dreams chased one another across a black prairie: Dana, my little golden-haired Dana, alive and well, laughed and ran across fur-covered hills on her chubby two-year-old's bare legs, then it went dark again, velvety black: yellow eyes glowed in the dark: something cloud-roiling and dangerous reared up in front of me and I pulled my left-hand Colt.
The hammer wouldn't cock.
I hauled and pulled and put both thumbs on it and the hammer might as well have welded itself to the frame.
The sky turned bright blue and I heard bugles and smelt gunsmoke and saw empty uniforms march across a field, silent: skeletal birds flew overhead without benefit of flesh or feather.
Rey del Sol trotted up to me, tail swinging, nudging my middle, begging for tobacco: I rubbed his nose and murmured, "You bum," and the great golden stallion, one moment solid and real beneath my hands, hissed into a shining vapor, blew away in curling wisps.
I reached for him, clawing vainly at the wind, and in the distance, Dana's giggle faded to silence and I was alone, more alone than I'd ever been.

It took me a while to struggle to the surface: I'd been swimming in the dark ocean of slumber and sleeping hard from the feel of my aching carcass: I was too warm and the sheets were damp and I must have broke a fever or sweated it out or something.
The blankets weighed about twenty pound when I went to throw them back and it was all I had in me to swing my legs over the side of the bed and set up.
I looked at the rag doll still between my arm and my ribs.
That part wasn't a dream, I thought.
My breathing still wasn't good and my chest rattled when I took a good breath to cough up some unpleasant stuff from deep down in my lungs: I hung onto the edge of the bed for the effort made me swimmy-headed, and I planted my bare feet wide apart on the elk skin rug to keep me from falling over sideways.
I bent forward and rested my fore arms on my knees and studied that rag doll.
Angela had several but this, I knew, was her favorite: it was worn in places, stained in a couple more: I knew the gravy stain was where she tried to feed her doll at the supper table the week before and a purple mark beside it spoke of another such attempt, probably with a berry pie.
I considered that doll for some time, sittin' there on the edge of the bed, then I looked over at Esther's side of our bunk.
Her side was undisturbed.
I felt kind of bad about that.
I must not have been much good company through the night.
I twisted a little, one way, then the other, and my nose brought me a faint message.
My head was still mostly plugged, my beak felt full and my left ear felt like someone had shoved cotton way deeper than the ear drum, but there it was, faint but distinct:
Bacon, it whispered, and my gut reminded me I hadn't et in way too long.
I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hand.
Got to feed the horses, I thought.
How long have I laid here?
My stomach reminded me that it had been too long.
"Time to get up," I muttered.

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Linn Keller 1-9-11

 

It took me a while to slog through the snowfall but I made it to the barn.
My doors slid to the side on rollers hung from an overhead rail.
I'd had the Daine boys overhaul the doors after listening to Caleb complain to high Heaven about how much work it was to dig snow away from his barn doors to swing them open.
Never let it be said I try not to learn from another man's misfortune.
After I'd had my doors re-hung, Caleb had his done, too, though he complained bitterly about the price.
I think sometimes the man would have complained if he'd been hanged with a new rope.
Once I was inside the barn I had to set down for a bit.
Denver Bup came digging out from under a pile of straw. He'd burrowed in and found a nice warm nest and now he was wiggling all over, greeting me with a busy tongue and a tail that threatened to swing his hind quarters right off his body.
I rubbed him and laughed and decided there were worse ways to start your day than a belly full of bacon and eggs and the happy attention of your hound dog.
It took me a while longer than usual to muck out the stalls and fork down fresh hay: I'd cleaned out the stalls ... when? Wasn't yesterday, couldn't have been.
The stalls weren't bad but then I tried to clean them every day.
I'd seen what happens to horses' hooves when they have to stand in wet muck.
Now I ain't the brightest gas light in the house but I am lazy and I'll admit that real quick, and being lazy I regard it as unnecessary work to heal up horses' hoof rot if I can keep it from happening in the first place.
On the other hand, if I know so much, why do I still work for a living?
I had to set down a number of times and I don't recall the ladder into the loft being that high, but I taken my time climbing it up, then down.
Denver Bup went galumphing out into the snow, nearly disappearing with each leap, happily romping through the trail I'd broken: I reckon he went and begged biscuits and gravy, like the Bear Killer liked to do when he came out with Sarah.
I went to the open door and Angela was standing out on the front porch, waving at me.
I waved back and put two fingers to my eyes, then pointed in a fan shape: keep good watch for me, and Angela raised a hand and nodded: it was her "Okay, Daddy," a silent acknowledgement.
I pointed to the back of the house and again the hand and the nod, and Angela disappeared into the front door, slamming the door happily behind her.
I sighed.
I don't think that child can close a door quietly.
No, come to think of it, she can, and has: but when her good spirits are bubbling, she has one speed, a dead run.
I think she runs on giggles like a locomotive runs on steam.
I went back to the horses and started grooming them.
If Outlaw-horse had been a cat, he would have purred: that horse got the most pleasure out of a good brushing: he would groan and lay his ears back and close his eyes, and he'd lean over toward me and if I did not watch it, he'd pin me against the opposite side of the stall.
I was near to done with him when I heard the CLANG of a long steel bolt on a hanging rectangle of cast iron: it was our version of the chuck wagon's triangle.
My head came up and so did Outlaw's.
I tossed the brush toward his feed trough and powered out of the stall, running for the doorway: I snatched up the rifle I kept there, yanked the rag out of the muzzle -- back in Ohio if you didn't plug the barn gun, mud daubers would nest in it and blow it up if you shot with the mud nest in place -- I swung around the side of the barn.
Something dark was streaking away, Denver Bup yammering and charging after.
I saw two other dark somethings arrowing in on an intercept course.
The Winchester came easily to shoulder and I swung the brass bead ahead of the right-hand wolf.
The rifle shoved against my shoulder and the wolf exploded, convulsing and tumbling in the deep snow.
The other wolf never slowed.
I jacked the lever.
The brass hull rang as it spun out of the action, a little curl of smoke trailing from its open mouth, and I slammed the lever shut, slapped the trigger.
The second wolf tumbled, throwing a spray of snow high into the air.
It wasn't dead but it wasn't running.
I put two more into its carcass to make sure it was down for sure.
I slogged powerfully through the snow, looking left, looking right.
It was the time of the Wolf Moon and I knew the greycoats would be down from the high country, looking for an easy meal.
The wolf was bleeding out of its nose, teeth bared in a snarl, glaring with those penetrating yellow eyes.
The Winchester spoke again and the wolf moved no more.
Denver Bup came over, bristling, sniffed cautiously at the carcass, then hiked his leg, casting his ballot on the situation.
I stood there for a while, catching my wind, looked back at the porch.
Angela clapped her hands twice. "Denver Bup!" she called.
Denver Bup went bouncing happily through the snow.
I bit back a profanity, for I did not want my little girl to hear me swear.
I wanted to swear.
Now I would have to get rid of two carcasses, and the ground froze hard.

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Linn Keller 1-12-11

 

"Naw."
The quietly uttered negative made me feel better.
I don't think any of the Daine boys -- save the youngest -- ever aged, least not visibly.
They were skinny, their faces looked like they were carved of dried apples, or probably white oak from their native Kentucky: they were rangy, wiry, their hands looked almost skeletal as they grasped the octagon-barreled flint rifles they preferred, or the hammer and saw and chisel of their vocation: Sullivan stood before me, bent a little with age and with time, but still erect, giving the impression of ... well, durability.
If a great wind swept everything from the face of the earth, I believe he would remain, eyes quietly hooded, watching, listening.
At the moment he was sizing up the area behind the jail.
He nodded once and I could almost hear the gears turning between his big ears.
"Naw," he repeated. "No trouble a'tall." He turned and regarded me levelly, his dark eyes pinning me like an eagle's gaze.
"You in any kinda hurry?"
"Sullivan," I said, twisting a little to work the kink out of my lower back, "me pappy tried to teach me at a tender age that hurry up was brother to mess it up." I frowned, twisted the other way.
"Matter of fact I proved the man right a number of times."
Sullivan grunted, stepped in behind me.
"Cross yer arms and put yer hands on yer collar bones."
Curious, I did, and felt his bony hands seize my elbows.
"Jist relax now."
He hoisted me in two stages: at first, to take the weight off my boot heels, then another inch, fetching me off the ground by that inch.
I groaned.
Something rippled the length of my back bone with a distinct crackle and something hurt, bright and sudden and then dull, in my lower back.
It hurt good.
Sullivan set me back down, easy, careful.
It was my turn to nod.
"Thank'ee kindly," I said, surprised.
Sullivan swallowed, the knob of his Adam's apple bobbing briskly between the wattled ridges of his skinny neck. He'd not shaved since first frost and had a healthy growth of whiskers: there was considerably more grey to his face fur than I remembered from the year before, but then my own chin whiskers were mostly what Esther called "Mature Blond," if I let them grow out and be seen.
"I reckon it won't be no trouble."
"Obliged." I frowned, thrust out my bottom jaw.
I'd approached him with a question: would it be too much trouble to ask him to build me a small stable behind the jail?
I'd got tired of putting my mount out of the weather in Shorty's livery, clear on the other side of the Jewel, and I did not really favor keeping a horse tethered in front with no graze, out in the cold and no shelter from the wind.
It was a relief to me that he'd allowed as they could do that, and 'twould be no trouble a'tall.
"One question."
Sullivan plucked his flint rifle from its leanin' corner like a man might pluck up a blade of grass. He favored me with a curious look.
"Do you take cash?"
I saw the amusement in his eyes.
"Yep," he said finally. "We take cash."

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Linn Keller 1-13-11

 

Burning red eyes regarded the clearing.
The moon was cold, the stars bright: Bear Killer's breath steamed as he breathed, quietly, easily: he was high on the mountain, well away from home and hearth, far from civilization and the veneer of domestication.
Wild blood burned hot and wild passion seared his belly.
In the distance, silver muzzles pointed toward the cold, uncaring stars and sang an ancient song, a lament, a celebration, a challenge: one wild throat, then another, picked it up, and Bear Killer was the child of generations and eons of wild blood.
He licked his chops, the taste of blood fresh and good on his tongue: his kill was not yet cooled, enough of it in his belly to satisfy him: he would return to it over the next day or two, until it was finished, unless something bigger and meaner came along to dispute his claim.
Part of him hoped that would happen.
Bear Killer's throat vibrated, his ribs quivered: his breath was quicker now, and his ears came up, then laid back, flat against his black-furred skull.
He took a deep breath, planted his backside against the snow and thrust his own muzzle toward the black zenith.
The steam of his breath carried his howl into the sky, joining that of the wolf pack.

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Linn Keller 1-14-11

 

"Pa, I don't reckon I'd ought."
Kentucky-blue eyes regarded the youngest Daine, and the look was not approving.
It was not often the younker spoke up ag'in his elders: in the past, when it happened, it generally resulted in a rather painful chastisement: this time, though, the lad thrust his jaw out and assumed the same stubborn expression of his elders.
"You heard th' wolves las' night," he said sullenly. "You don't want 'em in the pigs an' neither do I."
Blue eyes shifted, left, then right.
"The boy's right."
"He's goin' t' school."
"Young eyes an' young ears,an' he kin out shoot you."
"No he cain't!" the elder Daine flared.
"Now by golly I'll bet you cash money he kin!" came the shouted reply.
What had been an unofficial council of elders dissolved into a shoving, shouting clot of humanity: the youngest Daine slipped out of the throng, went over to his Pa's rifle, leaned ag'in the shed: bending over, he packed a snowball, packed it tight, then curled his lip and whistled.
Grey-bearded and skinny, black-bearded and just as skinny, old and almost old, every man Jack ceased his contesting and drew back, looking to the source of the alarm.
The youngest Daine launched the snowball as near to straight up as he could, with all the power of his young arm: fetching up his Pa's rifle, he took quick sight and slapped the trigger.
The Daine clan prized their long, octagon barrel flint rifles, and maintained them in fine shape: this rifle had been made by a master of the art: its lock was fast, the main spring strong, the frizzen of a high carbon alloy that threw sparks fit to scare a man: with a sn'BAM! the rifle squirted a finger of white smoke into the mountain air and the snowball blew into powder.
The entire male population of the Daine clan stood and considered what they'd just seen: snow-dust fell around them and on them, and they regarded the slender lad with his Pa's rifle, longer than he was, held two-handed like he might hold his firstborn child.
Silence grew long as the echoes of the flint rifle's report diminished in the distance.
Finally the eldest Daine spoke up.
"Boy, you like them pigs?"
"No, sir," came the instant reply. "I like pig meat."
"Good 'nuff." The eldest Daine nodded. "You got a rifle t' fit ye?"
"No, sir, but I'll make do."
The boy's father conferred with the eldest Daine; their conversation was quiet, too quiet for the lad to make out, until finally the two turned and faced him squarely.
"Ye'll use yer brother's rifle until yers is done."
It took a long moment for the full significance to sink in. Once it did, the lad grinned broad and bright.
He'd wanted his own rifle for quite some time.
He had just earned his rifle.
Even if he had sneaked a handful of shot into his Pa's rifle instead of the patched ball.

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Linn Keller 1-17-11

 

Firelands grew, as do all settlements, but it grew with a grateful lethargy: families came and went, people came, stayed a little, moved on; those that stayed enjoyed varying degrees of prosperity or poverty, most times dependent on their level of personal industry.
One young couple had distinguished themselves with near-invisibility; they were polite, quiet, but unremarkable, so much so that when the young wife was out of sight for a couple of months, nobody much took note, until she reappeared with a babe in arms and a husband fairly strutting as he walked beside her.
The lad grew as babes do grow, rapidly and in spurts, until the lad was walking, then running: there were times when he tripped over the grain in the wood floor, but most times he was steady enough on his feet that he made the rounds of their house with a little boy's enthusiastic alacrity.
Little boys are curious creatures and prone to explore, so when the lad came in from the cold with his Mama, and in one unguarded moment -- well, a moment that lasted maybe ten heartbeats -- still bundled against the cold, he slipped out the un-secured door, and was gone in the swirling snow outside.
He laughed at the cold brush of snowflakes on his face, charged down the boardwalk, his rapid pace hushed and muffled by snow old and new: the snow smoothed the contours, concealed the steps, and the wee lad discovered the world was no longer solid underfoot, and he tumbled into the alley between his house and the next.
The snow was deep enough, and soft enough, that his landing was without injury nor even discomfort: his delighted laugh was carried away by the spinning wind, the same miniature cyclone that was drifting the alley rapidly shut.
He got up and ran again, grinning, ran back alongside the house and behind the next and up through a yard and back down a little path, until he was thoroughly, gloriously, completely lost, and the wind filling in the furrowed path he'd slogged through the snowfall.
The lad began to tire after a while, and was beginning to chill.
The sound of a restless horse caught his young ears and he turned and plowed slowly through the more than belt-deep snowdrift, toward the sound.
Somehow he knew horse meant hay and hay meant soft to lay down, and in his young world, laying down meant being warm, and all the above was starting to sound pretty good.
He found the stable -- wonder of wonders, a board was sprung far enough to admit his small self! -- and he crawled into the still, dark interior.
There was enough light to make out the massive, looming shadow that was the resident equine: the boy knew it to be a horse, but he found himself caught by something in his path and fell headlong into a soft pile of hay.
Flailing arms and chubby fingers found a blanket as he fell: reflexively, he seized the blanket, trying to break his fall, and ended up covered in hay with a blanket over top.
He pulled the blanket around him, burrowed into the hay and in a few moments was getting warm.
Something plopped on top of the blanket and a furry, whiskered face bent close to his own: two faintly glowing eyes blinked at this newcomer, and the lad reached up, giggling, and stroked the barn cat's fluffed-out fur.
The boy accepted the world as he found it, and he wondered not that the cat curled up with him: his hand stroked the cat's long fur, and he sighed and smiled as the cat washed the back of his hand with a rough tongue.
He was laying down, and he was warm, and the cat's purr was relaxing, and he did what little boys do in such moments.
He closed his eyes and was almost instantly asleep.

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Linn Keller 1-17-11

 

I have no idea what my black horse's antecedents were, but I blessed them: he must have been born to the high country for he labored steadily through the deepending snow, and we made our way to Shorty's livery.
From the livery I waded through the drifts to the back door of the Jewel.
Once I got there I looked for something to clear snow off the steps: finding none, I kicked the snow aside as best I could, figuring to borrow a broom from within to finish the job.
A large black head popped up out of the snow with a welcoming whuff and I stopped.
"Bear Killer," I said, "what in the world are you doin' here?"
The Bear Killer made kind of a yow-wow-wow mutter and wallowed through the snow, shook himself and produced a wonderful cloud around us both: I laughed and rubbed his ears, least until he flinched and growled and I bent over to take a closer look.
"Now holt still," I said, and he did, but with ill grace.
"Daggone, now," I said, "you been in a fight, haven't you?"
Bear Killer swung his head away and muttered.
"Well, hell, come on in, it's cold out." I opened the door and motioned and Bear Killer hobby-horsed up the steps, acting kind of stiff.
I knew Daisy kept a broom just inside her door.
As a matter of fact she had it in hand and she was preparing to address the Bear Killer: rather sternly, I surmised, for her look was not welcoming: we were both dripping snow onto the spotless floor, and then Daisy parked the broom against the side wall and said "Hold still now," and gently took the Bear Killer's face between her hands.
"Ye'll need that cleaned up," she said matter-of-factly. "And ye'll need a bite'a summat." Her hands went back along his ribs. "Ye've likely been carousin' an' picked on somebody yer own size."
I raised an eyebrow and contemplated the Bear Killer's size.
It would take a young bear to match his bulk, but I was not about to say as much: Daisy was fearful of neither man nor beast, and I doubt not she might address Lucifer himself with a cast iron frying pan, if the cloven hooved cur had the sand to show up sometime.
"Come now," she said, standing, and the Bear Killer followed her, docile as a lamb.
I shook my head, remembering the red-eyed, white-fanged warrior that launched himself for a fighting grizzly's throat.
"Don't just stand there," Daisy threw back over her shoulder. "Clean up yer mess! Men!" She turned away and I could hear the splash of water as she continued grumbling. "Come in here an' get ma floor wet, an' he leads this puir animal astray! Lilely 'twas --" She leaned back and called after me. "And what's this about a floozie?"

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Mr. Box 1-17-11

 

The door swung open and snow swirled in as Shorty stepped in. "Evening, Shorty," I said, "care for a beer?"
"Naw. Is Sheriff Keller here?" he asked.
"I haven't seen him yet. What's going on?" I asked.
"There's a lady out in the street lookin fer a young'un. She's pretty worked up!"
"Folks! Folks, there's a child outside lost in the storm!" I shouted. I turned to get my coat and saw Sheriff Keller coming from the back. "Sheriff....."
"I heard!" Linn said. "Men, if you've got a few minutes, I'd appreciate some help. Lead the way, Shorty!"

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Linn Keller 1-18-11

 

I leaned up ag'in the door frame and marveled.
The Bear Killer was not happy a'tall with me explorin' his skull with my fingers and he was not the least bit bashful to warn me off with a snarling rumble.
Daisy, now, Daisy was on her knees beside him, exploring, brushing hair aside, assessing, all with a constant, half-whispered commentary: better'n half of what she said I could not understand and that's probably all to the good, as it was part Irish and part invective as she too snarled and muttered about men an' how they were always goin' out and gettin' in trouble.
She pulled a dainty little pair of embroidery scissors from someplace and snipped hair away from what must have been a long fang-slash, and cleaned this with short, gentle strokes: the Bear Killer, this fearsome warrior near to belt buckle tall on me, this ivory-fanged slayer of grizzlies that could crush a man's leg between his jaws, gave a gentle, quiet ow-wow-wow, and submitted meekly to having his wounds tended.
His hurts were superficial, for the most part, though he did favor one foreleg a little: once done, Daisy set him down a plate: it was chipped, with a crack half its diameter, not fit for customers but one she kept for the same reason she kept an Angela-sized teacup.
Biscuits, hot and steaming and torn open as neatly as I could butterfly them open with a knife; sausage gravy, fragrant and rich: Bear Killer's pink tongue caressed his jowls and his big plumed tail burnished the floor in anticipation.
"And you!" Daisy came gracefully to her feet and she set the heavy cast iron skillet on the side table: she wiped her hands on her apron, then set her left hand on her hip and shook her Mommy-finger at me.
"Now gi'e an account o' yersel', mon! Yer wee child was tellin' me ya was in bet wi' the Floozie!" Her voice was sharp, her words were harsh, but there was the devil of merriment in her eyes and somehow I knew she was having fun at my expense: as she chastised, she approached, until finally she laid a gentle hand against my cheek, my forehead.
"Well, ye're no' fevered, an' God be praised for't," she whispered, her hand returning to my cheek.
"Ye long tall drink o' water, don't ye realize there's only one o' ye?" she whispered. "Why in th' world are ye out in th' snow an' th' wind an' ye're just out'a yer sick bed?"
I blinked, surprised.
This was a side of Daisy I hadn't seen for some time. I wasn't entirely comfortable with it, and honestly I did not know what to say.
Turns out there was no time to say anything.
My head came up at Mr. Baxter's shouted summons.
"Folks! Folks, there's a child outside lost in the storm!"
I looked down.
The Bear Killer was just polishing the now-naked porcelain with his pink, enthusiastic tongue.
"Bear Killer!" I snapped, curling my lip and whistling.
Daisy drew her hand back, swept her skirts out of the way: I took a long stride into the hall and the Bear Killer fell in behind me, his nails tik-tik-tikking on the polished hardwood.
I didn't know all of what-all was going on but I knew the tone in Mr. Baxter's voice.
He'd been over the mountain and seen the varmint and when he spoke urgently it was time to pay attention.
I came out of the hallway and into the Jewel proper, eyes busy.
Mr. Baxter was leaned across the bar, Shorty standing there looking concerned, and that troubled me more: Shorty was a scarred veteran -- literally -- of more wars than one, and for him to look anything but annoyed was not good.
"Sheriff....."
"I heard!"
I considered the wind outside and how hard it was snowing.
It wasn't terribly cold but the snow was coming down to beat the band and I knew we had to move fast. Finding tracks would be hopeless but that meant searchers' tracks would not confuse our quarry's trail.
"Men, if you've got a few minutes, I'd appreciate some help. Lead the way, Shorty!"
I turned. "The rest of you stand fast. Let us get the mother in here and find out what we can before we go hell-a-tearin' outside. I don't intend to lose that child but I will not lose any of you either!"

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Mr. Box 1-18-11

 

A half dozen men followed Shorty and Sheriff Keller and me out the door and a few more were still putting their coats on. The snow was getting deep and smooth except for the faint tracks from when Shorty came in. "She was over here!" Shorty yelled. We began seeing tracks where she had been running back and forth. Even they were filling in.
"Lady!" the sheriff called, "Let's go inside."
"I've got to find my son!" she screamed!
"These men will search for him."
"Shorty," I said, "take some men that way and I'll take some this way." Shorty went right, I went left, Sheriff Keller and Bear Killer went inside. Bear Killer shook the snow off and the lady backed up against the wall! She hadn't noticed the dog at all until then.
"Don't worry, Ma'am, he's a good hunter. Where does your son sleep?"
"Over here," she motioned.
"He's a little guy!"
"Yes." she nodded, "Four...... next May... We had just come back from the Merchantile.... And then he was GONE!"
Bear killer stuck his nose in the blankets. "I'll put him outside now."
Sheriff Keller opened the door and Bear Killer trotted out into the snow. He stuck his head into the snow and came up. He went a few steps and did it again. He called out to one of the men nearby, "Follow the dog!" It looked like he was beginning to set a course for the Merchantile. "They came back from the Merchantile! He may have gone back!"
The sheriff went back inside. "We might want to build the fire up a little. He's going to be pretty chilly when he comes in."
"Oh, yeah...." She was lost in worry.
"I'll get some wood." Sheriff Keller suggested "What is his name...."

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Linn Keller 1-18-11

 

Panic is contagious and so is enthusiasm.
Not a man among us wasn't anxious to go running out into the evening to find the lad.
Panic and enthusiasm are close cousins and it was all I could do to hold the group into some kind of cluster. Nobody was willing to stay inside the Jewel so I figured what the hell, we can assign once we find the starting point.
Shorty hollered for the woman and cast back and forth: she'd just been outside or so he said and now she was gone.
"Shorty!" I yelled, clapping my hand on the man's blocky shoulder. "You take these two" -- I delegated a pair from our Unorganized Militia -- "you head this way, to the right. Stay in a group, we don't need anyone separated. Mr. Baxter" -- I turned toward the barkeep, whose tall, fleece lined collar covered him to his hat brim -- "you take these two and head that-a-way. You two" -- I pointed to the remaining men -- "with me!"
We found her -- barely, for the wind was drifting her tracks fast -- back at her own house.
It took an act of Congress to get her in out of the snow and the wind.
I knew I would get no information from her out here and besides she did not need cold wet feet -- or any more cold and wet than they likely were already.
Poor soul, she was just bound and determined to find her boy, and it took all the powers of persuasion I had to convince her that we had good men and trackers out looking.
I kicked snow off my boots and swatted snow off my hat before going in, my small troop on my heels. Bear Killer came inside and then shook, throwing up a minor snowstorm of his own.
"Where does he sleep?" I asked the worrying woman, who was flitting from pillar to post, wringing her hands and keeping up a constant patter of self-recrimination and distress.
She pointed to a bed, not yet made: the rest of the house was tidy and I figure something had come up that she hadn't got to that duty yet.
She might be distressed at the unmade bed but that worked in our favor.
I kissed at Bear Killer and he trotted over.
"Little fellow," I observed. "How old is he?"
"He's four, just four." She bit her knuckle to try and keep from breaking down.
I slapped my leg and Bear Killer lumbered over: I gestured to the bed, took him by the scruff of the neck, shoved him face first into the rumpled bed linens.
"Find," I said. "Where'd he go, boy? Find him!"
I knew Sarah had played "find-it" with different things -- rag dolls, occasionally a cat -- and Bear Killer had always been able to track down whatever she'd hidden, and fetch it back, head up, eyes shining and tail wagging, just pleased as punch with himself.
Bear Killer shoved his big head under the covers and snuffed noisily, his tail spinning in a dangerous circle.
I knew better than to get in its way.
He couldn't hit that hard but he hit surprisin' which could be worse.
Bear Killer come out from under the bed covers and snuffed the air, the floor, and headed toward the front door.
I was right behind him.
We come out into the teeth of the blizzard.
"Follow the dog!" I yelled, and my two lieutenants squinted into the wind.
Bear Killer dove into the snow, plowed through it, came up and looked back at us, dove into the snow again and disappeared, came up again.
I looked inside.
I had no idea where the husband was -- likely out looking -- I knew I had to find out.
I also knew the reaction was setting in, for the mother was starting to shake.
I drew the door to and knelt beside her, taking her hands in both of mine.
Her fingers were stone cold.
"They'll find him," I said reassuringly. "Now let's get you warm. He'll be chilled when he comes in, let's build the fire up."
I hesitated.
"Your husband ... he's out looking?"
She nodded, trying to contain her fear: she snatched up her apron and pressed the balled-up material against her eyes.
"I'll go get some wood." I laid a gentle hand on her shoulder and she nodded , jerky-like.
"One last thing," I said. "What is his name?"
"Thomas," she choked. "His name is Thomas."

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Mr. Box 1-18-11

 

The men followed Bear Killer to the Merchantile and asked Maude if she had seen a little boy. "Mrs Banks was over here a couple of hours ago with her son Thomas but she hadn't seen any small boys since then." The men thanked her and bought a couple of pieces of jerky. As they were leaving Maude said, "You find him, Boy, and I'll give you one!" Bear Killer snorted and shook his head as he went out the door.
They followed him back to the house and one man stuck his head in the door and said, "He wasn't over at the Merchantile!"

Just then the other man yelled, "He's going this way now!"

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Linn Keller 1-19-11

 

Bear Killer shoved his head through the snow again, snuffing, sneezing: there it was, diminished by the cold, but there ... he followed the scent away from the Mercantile, down the steps, into the alley.
The wind was blowing his fur the wrong way and running cold fingers along his hide. Instinct told him to turn down the alley, get between the buildings: he put his head down, snuffed again, shoving through the snow, almost completely covered now.
Behind him, a voice: "He's going this way now!"
Bear Killer reared up through the snow, scenting the wind.
Nothing.
He dove back into the fluffy stuff.
"Now where'd he go?"
"I dunno, he was right here."
Bear Killer shoved through the snow, tunneling now: the scent was here, suspended in the drift, neither on the ground nor on the wind, but here, trapped, waiting for him.
Bear Killer stopped, thrust his head up into the wind again, tasting.
Nothing.
He waited, listening, panting a little: shoving his bulk through snow was tiring and he waited, waited with ears drawn up and the flesh wrinkled between them.
"There he is!"
"How'd he get over there?"
"I dunno!"
"Daggone that's -- oof!" The speaker fell headlong into a drift and disappeared, to scramble out a moment later, shedding feathery white and profanity in equal amounts, to the amusement of his partner.
Another voice, Irish-sharp: Twain Dawg licked his chops, for that voice meant his favorite meal, and though he'd eaten not an hour before he could eat again.
"Now isn't that like a couple o' grown men, wallowin' about in th' snow!" Daisy scolded. "An' me a puir woman alone out here in th' weather! Well don't just stand there wi' yer teeth in yer mouth where's that no-good Sheriff?"
Bear Killer realized there would be no biscuits and gravy just yet: he thrust his blunt muzzle back into the snow and forged ahead, following the weakening scent.

The front door swung open, slammed shut: the Sheriff was just wiggling the last chunk of firewood into the wood box as the gust of cold air preceded the irate Irishwoman.
"There y'are!" she scolded, snatching the long scarf from around her head and neck, snapping it angrily to dislodge the clinging snow. "An' me not knowin' where i' the world ye've got off to! I've a mind t' take a rollin' pin to ye!" She turned to the woman of the house, offered a cloth-covered basket. "Ye're no' in a mood t' cook, or I'd no' be, I brought ye a meal. Careful when y' take off th' cloth, now, there's snow all over't." She glared over at the Sheriff, took the rising mother by the arm and steered her into the kitchen.
"Come now, let's see wha' I've brought ye ..." Her voice diminished as they rounded the corner and disappeared into the other room.
The Sheriff blinked, assuming that he'd gotten himself in trouble yet again, and quite unsure as to how it had happened: he'd brought in a load of wood, stoked the stove and shook it down, taken out a bucket of ashes and brought in two more armfuls: he knew the hardest part of any operation was the wait, and he knew he had good men out looking, and he knew he should remain, for the mother should not be alone in this moment: still, he was restless, and left to his own devices, would likely have packed in the entire rick of wood from outside.
"And I suppose ye'll be goin' out in that howlin' banshee of a storm too!" Daisy came scolding around the corner, eyes blazing, knitted scarf trailing from her left hand. She stomped over to the Sheriff, faced him squarely, lips pressed together and finger shaking in his face: finally she gave an irritated "Oooooh!" and threw the scarf over his head, drew it twice around his neck and tucked it in under his open coat lapels.
"Will ye at least wear somethin' over yer neck an' ears, man? Ye've only just come off yer sick bed an' ye've no business out in th' wind!" She turned, stomping back toward the kitchen, muttering. "Men! No' got the good sense God gave a goose!" -- and the Sheriff stood by the stove, blinking.
The door opened again.
Shorty and a stranger came in: the man was but lightly dressed, his arms crossed in front of him, clutching his upper arms, teeth chattering.
The Sheriff was across the room in three long strides.
He had no idea who this fellow could be but he was cold, the stove was warm, and he soon had the man in a chair, close to the heat, and was drawing his cold and soaky-wet townie shoes off the man's feet.
"Daisy?" he called, half-expecting her response to be preceded by a cast iron frying pan.
When the red-headed Irishwoman looked around the corner, the Sheriff asked, "Could I trouble you for a towel? This fellow's feet --"
Daisy drew wordlessly back, then reappeared in a few moments, carefully carrying a basin of steaming water: she carefully squatted, placed it at the seated man's feet, rolled his wet pants legs up and muttered, "Ye'd best get out o' those wet things but I'm no' gonna' undress ye!" -- and carefully guided the shivering man's bluish-white feet into the steaming, just-more-than-lukewarm water.
"I know, it's gonna feel like ye're scalded," she said soothingly as he flinched: his feet were cold, the water warm, and Daisy carefully dipped water with her hand, trickled it over the man's instep, let it run down.
"John!" the mother's voice quavered, and she hurried from the kitchen to her husband's side. "John, did you --"
He looked up, misery plain on his face: "I tried," he groaned. "I looked --"
"We've two parties searching now, and a good tracking dog besides," the Sheriff said in a businesslike voice. He knew they needed reassurance and the best he could do for them was a confident appearance.
The wind rumbled against the side of the house, whistled in the chimney.

Bear Killer stopped, puzzling at the combination of scents, then pressed on: the boy's smell was strong of a sudden, and his nose bumped a board.
Had the Bear Killer been a carpenter, he would have recognized the structure as the wall of a shed, or a stable; the board, as having been kicked from within, and splayed out.
A trick of the wind left a bit of a hollow in the snow.
Bear Killer squeezed into the gap, shouldering the board up and out of his way, and out of the wind.
The stable smelled of hay and of horses, of cats and mice and of the boy.
Something with glowing green eyes and spiky fur sizzled and hissed, and the Bear Killer whuffed a greeting: with a yowl, the eyes disappeared and there was the sound of claws on seasoned wood, then a sustained, menacing growl.
Bear Killer wiggled his bulk the rest of the way into the shed, shook: it was warmer within, and he opened his jaws in a great, tongue-curling yawn.
Snuffing loudly, he cast back and forth, and found a shoe.
He licked it experimentally, tasted the scent, and his tail begain to swing in a happy circle.
"Find it, Twain Dawg! Bring it to me!"
His beloved mistress had played find-it fetch-it with him, and he was delighted: he'd found what he was looking for, and now he was going to fetch it back.

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Mr. Box 1-19-11

 

I took my two men to the left. I said, "Look in every place that's big enough for a cat to curl up in! He probably not out in the open. He's plenty cold by now! Let's check around this side of the house, then the next. Look in every box and around every woodpile! Don't forget any chicken coops, either!"

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Linn Keller 1-19-11

 

Young Thomas was not entirely sure what was going on, but he knew three things for sure: something furry and warm was heavy on top of him, he was getting his face washed, and it tickled.
There is a natural affinity between boys and Dawgs, and Thomas reached up to explore this furry mass.
This rather massive mass, he discovered: when the Bear Killer felt the boy squirm under him, he rose, tail windmilling happily in the darkness, and whuffed quietly as the boy scrambled up out of his prickly nest.
It was too dark for the lad to make anything distinct out of the looming figure in front of him: he blinked, not realizing quite what was happening, until he found himself knocked off his feet.
Bear Killer had completed half his mission.
He'd found that for which he'd sought.
Now, with a swing of his short, muscular neck, his head caught the boy across the shoulder blades.
He went face first into the saddle blanket that had been his cover.
He had no time to utter a protest: Bear Killer nuzzled his back, pulled up a good mouthful of coat, and picked him up.
Thomas was four years old, but he was short, having taken after his Mama's side of the family: the Bear Killer fetched him off the ground and pushed against the loose board.
Thomas protested, his youthful "No! It's cold!" whipped away by the wind and lost among blowing snow.
Bear Killer knew the way back, and he knew the path was partly broken: he bore Thomas high, a prize to be brought back, and foundered through the drifts choking the alleyway.

"Soapy better appreciate this," came the mutter as the man wallowed to his feet: he'd gone face-first into the snow yet again, having personally located multiple obstructions to safe travel, hidden by the white drifts: two with his toes and one with his right shin.
Standing, he wiped snow from his mustache, blinked: something was fighting through the drifts like a ship breasting a heavy sea: he blinked again, trying to figure out what he was seeing.
Thin and barely audible at first, he heard it, and the grin that split his weather-tanned face would have been dazzling, had there been anyone to see it.
He was hearing the delighted laughter of a little boy.

"Soapy!" came the shout through the closed door. "Soapy, I think we found him!"

"Now bear in mind he was just big enough to run," the Sheriff said with a half-grin on his face, "butt naked, dripping water and laughing, and here I am bent double with a towel, runnin' after him trying to catch up!"
The mother laughed, seeing in her mind's eye her own little tadpole after his bath, just as energetic and with just as big a grin as he attempted what her beaming father had described as "Escape and Evasion."
They froze, turned to look at the door: a shout, and they looked at one another: his expression hopeful, hers fearful: he stood and she tried, but fell back into her chair, face pale, hands clenched.
Daisy's hand squeezed her shoulder and the red-headed Irishwoman murmured womanly reassurances that were heard but not regarded.
The door swung open and the Bear Killer trotted in, bearing a lad by the back of his coat: both were white with snow, the boy red-cheeked with cold, laughing at this unique view of the world: Bear Killer, with his unfailing sense of propriety, had first picked up the boy's scent in his bed, and it was to that bed he bore the lad.
Snow and all.
He powered up onto the bed, dropped the lad half a foot onto his own bedclothes, then dropped his forepaws to the floor, pink tongue hung out, laughing.
"Do it again!" Thomas cried happily, rolling over and sitting up, and his mother was all over him all of a sudden, and the Bear Killer looked up at this loud and confusing expression of maternal affection: he decided the climate might be less turbulent over by the stove, so he walked over beside the Sheriff, gave the man's hand a companionable lick, and proceeded to shake and scatter water-drops and snow over most of the room.
Droplets hissed as they hit the stove.
Daisy bent and took the Bear Killer's head between her hands, promising biscuits and gravy: Bear Killer didn't particularly care what it was she was saying, as long as she kept her hands busy working around his ears: he yawned, wide and noisy, pink tongue curling with the effort: he reached up and gave her chin a happy lick before he flopped down beside the stove with a contented groan.
His tail thumped twice before he sighed, and began to snore.

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Mr. Box 1-19-11

 

Now the men spread out looking for Shorty and me. I was a couple of houses away still hunting thru every crate or outhouse I could find. Luckily none of them were occupied at the time! even a buggy in the alley got a good once over. Then I heard someone coming my way yelling, "We found him!"
"Is he OK?" I yelled back.
"He's just fine! He was in somebody's stable. That big dog drug him out and carted him all the way home!"
I hunted up my men and told them, "They found him! He's OK! C'mon back to the Jewel and warm up. I'll buy you a drink!"

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Linn Keller 1-20-11

 

Daisy worried over the mother, fussed over (and at) the father, scolded the lad while she rubbed him with a coarse towel, scooped up this, served that, all with an Irish-accented commentary tailored for the needs of the moment: she was never still, her hand suddenly on the husband's forehead, murmuring concern that he might've taken a chill, the next patting the mother's head and sympathizing as one matron to another, for she had lads of her own, not the least of which was the tall boy to whom she was married, and who was a constant source of worry and concern.
Both husband and son had been divested of their cold, wet garments and gotten into their warm-and-dries: they had both been set down to a good re-warmed meal, heated on their own kitchen stove (it had been warm when Daisy packed it, but time had robbed it of thermal content) and Daisy had performed her usual miracles of efficiency: no sooner were the plates cleaned and platters emptied than they were baptized in steaming-hot water, anointed with shaved soap, scrubbed clean and rinsed, stacked to drain: by the time the woman of the house realized the meal was done, Daisy was washing the last of her dishes, she'd already cleaned and packed her own, and young Thomas and his father were both beginning to yawn and nod.
Daisy paused to whisper confidentially into the mother's ear: "Men are like bears," she murmured: "they may growl and snarl but get 'em warm an' fill their bellies an' they fall asleep!"
So saying, she whisked out of the room: there was the sound of fluffing cloth, then Daisy swirled back around the corner: "Th' bed's got dry linens on it, let's put the lad away, shall we?" -- and before the mother could rise or acquiesce, Daisy had young Thomas in her arms and bore him gently to his waiting bunk.
The Bear Killer's chin was stretched out on the floor, along with rest of self: he'd found his spot, there by the stove: the floor was warm, the stove was warm, he was warm, and though he'd not partaken of any of the good things he'd smelled from the kitchen, relaxation had proven more important than bumming bites from the diners.
Now, seeing the lad being borne to his bower, Bear Killer levered his hind half off the deck, stretching and arching his back, yawning his great, blunt jaws impossibly wide: he shook, then tik-tik-tikked over to the bed just as Daisy drew the covers up around young Thomas's chin.
Bear Killer shoved in beside her, dropping his chin on the sun-dried linen and sniffing loudly.
Young Thomas rolled over on his side, sleepily stroking Bear Killer's neck.
"Bear," he said, eyes heavy: Daisy watched as sleep claimed the little fellow, and his pink fingers relaxed.
Daisy reached down and rubbed the Bear Killer's ears, turned; the massive dawg turned with her.
The mother stood, hands clasped, just behind them, closer than Daisy expected, close enough to startle: each giggled and reached for the other: the Bear Killer stopped and dropped his backside to the floor as the women whispered and nodded and hugged and cried a little, and then he followed Daisy to the front door.
He looked back to the doorway, the doorway through which he'd carried the skinny little four year old by the back of his coat, and his great long-haired tail began to circle again, slowly.
His head came proudly up.
Bear Killer fairly strutted as he followed Daisy out into the storm.

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Linn Keller 1-20-11

 

The Sheriff was not one to retreat from the field of combat while a battle was yet being fought, but he considered what had thus transpired:
The lad was found, the father was home, both were warm and dry now, fed and safe: Daisy was giving the wife and mother what she needed, and that was womanly companionship. The stove was freshly stoked, shook and banked, the wood box full, and he'd found a mop and picked up the snow-melt from the triumphant return.
He'd made his escape quietly, without fuss, closing the door gently behind him: he looked up the street, then down, squinting as the wind him him full in the face.
The Jewel was up the street and not terribly far, but with the snow and the wind, it was a bit of labor to get there.
The wind funneled through the street, scouring the board walk on the Jewel's side clean while banking the opposite with intermittent drifts: Maude's Mercantile was clear for most of its length, though the steps on the lee side could not be seen: that would be a job for daylight, he knew.
The Jewel was lighted from within, warm and welcoming.
Bless you, Daisy, he thought as the wind tried again to rip the hat off his head: this scarf feels pretty darn good! -- and though he probably looked silly with the scarf bending his hat-brim up as it did, the knit wrapped around his neck kept cold fingers off his flesh.
He stomped up the three steps to the board walk, kicking snow off his boots.
Coffee sounds pretty good.
Might throw in a shot of Old Stump Blower.


"An' see that he has is fill!" Daisy instructed as more gravy was ladeled over a fresh batch of biscuits. "He's a hero this night!" -- she wrapped her own knit scarf about her neck and over her head, draped her shawl over her shoulders, then shrugged into a coat and spun a heavy, lined cloak about her shoulders and drew the hood up.
Bear Killer looked up, licked his chops: a streak of gravy on his jowls bade him try again, and his tail described slow, ponderous circles as he turned and trotted over to the Irishwoman.
He snuffed loudly at her cloak, licked her hand: she caressed his head, squatted, examining his head, the cuts she'd cleaned -- when was it? A week ago? Just a few hours it was, she knew, but it felt like days.
She stood. "You stay in here where it's warm," she admonished, and the Bear Killer sat up and gave a happy "Whuff!" -- and the moment Daisy opened the back door, the Bear Killer slipped past her and dove belly-first into the snow drift, frolicking happily in the white stuff, bounding like a pup.
Daisy pulled the door shut, made sure it was latched, then turned and looked at the grinning Bear Killer, sitting up with his tongue laughing out the side of his mouth.
"A'right, then," Daisy muttered. "Do what ye will. Men! E'en the animals are hard headed!" -- and so saying, she began wading through the drift, regretting instantly that she hadn't gone out the front.

The German Irishman was frowning at a slim brass gear on the work bench, then compared it with a diagram hung before him.
The Welsh Irishman was polishing harness, and the New York Irishman had just slung stall scrapings out the side door.
The new gas boiler hissed and popped and the fine brick fire station was tight and warm, proof against the wind: the Brigade discovered by happy chance their front doors were not drifted shut, but rather part of the street ahead was scoured down to the bare by the wind.
Every man Jack of them offered up his own prayer for an uneventful night.
They all knew that stoves would be fired hard in this cold weather, and that people would fire more with the wind sobbing like a child around the corners of the house, simply because it sounded cold: wind would suck a draft up the chimney, inciting an otherwise sedate flame into a confined inferno, and such was the thing that set houses afire.
The German Irishman had a second, complete steam pump, and he'd studied how to replace it with the greatest speed and the least tools and work: so far their fine steam machine was as reliable as anything Ahrens ever put out, but he was not a trusting man: with Sean's permission he'd dismounted the one from their rig, bolted in the new, then tested it: frowning, he'd burnished its gleaming surface, and finally told Sean that he was satisfied.
The old pump was disassembled on his work bench, and beside his work bench, and hung on pegs behind his work bench: it was a simple but very efficient pump, and he intended that his equipment should be ready for instant need, but first he inspected every bearing, every race, every gear and seal and valve.
It had to be right or it would not leave his work bench.

Every work was lowered and every head turned when the door was pushed open by the wind: every man rose as a snow-whitened figure came in: female, they knew, but with a scarf wrapped about its face and a hood pulled up, its identity could not be ascertained: still, they knew it was Daisy, their great Irish Chieftain's wife, for no other woman in Firelands wore the practical, hooded Irish cloak.
Daisy unfastened the clasp, removed the cloak, hung it by the door: she unwound the scarf from around her neck and face, and hung it up as well: she turned her back to the Brigade, and bent a little, and everyone looked away: Daisy, modestly hidden in skirts and petticoats, removed her wet shoes and stockings and drew on a pair of knit woolen slippers.
Finally, nodding her satisfaction, she padded over to her giant of a husband and put her hands on her hips.
"Ye should thank me, ye great Irish lug," she declared, and Sean rested his hands on hers affectionately.
"Daisy me dear," he rumbled, his voice starting about his boot tops -- she loved his voice, for though he sang in a fine Irish tenor, his conversation was several registers lower -- "I have much to thank ye for."
Daisy looked up, through her long eyelashes, and Sean saw the imp of merriment in her dancing eyes.
"And ye don't know the half of it!" She leaned into him, wrapped her arms around his trunk-like middle, her ear against his chest.
Sean held his wife like he would hold a piece of fine china.
As huge as Sean was, Daisy was as delicate: she looked the man in the collar bone, and like the schoolmarm, her husband could span her waist with his hands, the tips of thumbs and middle fingers touching: Daisy's waist had resumed its trim contours quickly after losing the baby, which at once pleased Sean, and distressed him, for in those days a stout waist was a sign of prosperity, and a successful man would pat his belly proudly.
Women favored men with some meat on their bones, and men likewise favored a woman of a more Rubenesque stature.
"We nearly had t' call ye," she whispered, and Sean stiffened.
His hands went to his wife's shoulders and he drew them apart, eyes serious.
"Wha' happened, Daisy?" he said quietly.
Daisy shoved her bottom jaw out.
"'Twas the Banks lad, the wee one ye said needed a guid square meal."
"Aye, I remember the lad." Sean's eyes were veiled, his hands tightened slightly as his belly contracted. "Wha' happened, Daisy?"
Daisy shivered, her in-drawn breath unsteady, audibly so.
"Daisy ...?" Sean asked, a warning note in his voice.
"Lost," Daisy gasped. "He wa' lost i' the snow."
"And?" Sean's word was bitten off. He was not a man to enjoy being led along: he preferred to get directly to the heart of a matter, be it a structure fire, a barfight or a report.
"He is found."
"And why didn'a they call us? We've guid men an' true who could'a turned out on the moment --"
"We had men," she interrupted, "an' we had that bear killin' dog. Who," she flared defiantly, "by th' way, found th' lad an' fetched him in out o' the cold, an' put him t' bed!"
Sean fisted his hands on his own hips, bent his head down and glared at his wife.
"Oh, so I've been replaced by a dog, have I!" he shouted, and the Irish Brigade set down harness and gears, newspaper and broom, scraper and bucket, for they knew the show was about to start.
Daisy's temper was famous and well known, and Sean had lit its fuse: Daisy cocked a fist, swung at her husband's belly: Sean put the heel of his hand against her forehead and drew back, holding her at arm's length.
Daisy screamed and swung with both fists, flailing empty air, trying her best to pummel Sean's flannel-shirted belly: the harder she swung, the more Sean laughed; the more Sean laughed, the madder she got, until she was crying tears of anger and snarling through clenched teeth.
Sean finally pulled his hand free and seized his wife: wrapping his arms around her, pinning her arms to her sides, he squeezed her hard, lowering his head: though she fought his embrace, his mouth on hers offered a counter-argument, intricate and eloquent, which melted her choler: in not many moments his arms loosened and her arms went around his neck, and she offered a counter-argument, as wordless as his presentation but just as thorough.
Finally when they came up for air, Daisy lay her head against her husband's chest: he bent a little and picked her up, walked over toward the stove and set himself down in the rocking chair he'd had the Daine boys make for him.
He held her on his lap and rocked, held her and rocked her like she was a little girl, and Daisy pulled a lacy kerchief from her sleeve and pressed to her eyes.
Sean waited patiently.
A good husband knows his wife's moods, at least to a degree, though no husband ever figures out the deep mystery that is his woman: he who says otherwise lies, or is a fool of the first water: Sean was neither, and waited.
"I remembered the Embree boys," she choked finally, leaning against him like a little girl would lay against her Daddy.
"I remember," he rumbled, and she felt his voice resonating in the massive cavity of his chest.
"I remember when we found 'em, froze an' stiff in th' snow."
Sean nodded.
It had been a hard winter.
Forty below it had been, back in Cincinnati, and worse: the Ohio River was froze bank to bank and deep enough that carriages and dray-wagons used it for an unlimited highway: two lads had been lost in a blizzard, and were found by Sean and Daisy, but too late, too late.
Sean himself stared hollow-eyed at the far wall, seeing bodies he and his fellow Cincinnati firefighters found, bodies frozen hard, eyes open: some fallen by a cold, dead stove, its fuel long depleted; some in a chair or in their own bed: the worst ... the worst was a mother, in a nightgown: she'd apparently bundled in all the clothes she had, but took them off, there at the last, all but her flannel nightie, and her children were in bed with her, all three in a frozen embrace, all three dead, frozen solid.
Sean had not ever, ever forgotten the peaceful look on their faces.
For whatever reason, that frozen, icy vignette haunted him ever since.
He looked to the window, blinked as the wind threw itself at their fine, solid, warm firehouse.
"I remember," he whispered.

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Linn Keller 1-22-11

 

Angela swam up through the dark ocean of slumber, giggling at summer-colored dreams that flashed by like fishes in the sea: she approached the surface, close enough to see it from beneath, and relaxed, suspended as if swimming in tropical waters ...
Distantly, from a long, long way away, she heard her Daddy's tread on the stairs, slow, measured ...
He's very tired, she thought, not near enough the wakeful surface to open her eyes, realizing with part of her mind the sounds she heard from downstairs, the scent of coffee, the muted murmur of quiet conversation: at the same time, her quick young mind recognized the cadence of his pace, and knew he was near to worn out.
There was a click that echoed off the seabed, the sound of careful footfalls as Daddy walked gently into her room: she relaxed a little more, and sank a little deeper, because her Daddy was near her, and all was well.
She smelled him: there was the odor of coffee and of brandy and faintly of tobacco-smoke, and she knew he'd been in the Jewel, where tobacco-smoke hung in the air.
He always smelled that way when he'd been to the Jewel.
Her Daddy's hands sandwiched her exposed right hand, very gently, the touch of a Daddy who knew his little girl was sound asleep: his hands were warm, very warm, the way they always were.
Angela loved her Daddy's hands: they were strong and she knew they kept her safe, and they were warm and felt good when hers got cold.
Angela drifted with currents, suspended in her limitless void, and watched bright dream-flashes streak through her immense, quiet ocean, and finally she felt her Daddy lean over and kiss her on the forehead, and draw the covers up a little more and tuck them around her chin.
Angela rolled up on her left side and cuddled into her pillow.
Distantly, faintly, she heard the sound of retreating footsteps, the tread of a tired Daddy who was trying to be very, very quiet.

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Linn Keller 1-23-11

 

Had they a thermometer, the Brigade would have severally agreed with the mercury: by actual measurement, it was a handful of degrees below zero -- mild, for a Colorado January -- but the entire Irish Brigade agreed on one thing:
It was cold.
Sean, like the Sheriff, believed in planning, and he'd laid in stores of equipment for a variety of contingencies: their fine brick fire house contained many things one would not associate with fire fighting, including a healthy store of dynamite: he'd seen fire run from building to building back in Porkopolis, and he knew that it may be necessary to sacrifice an undamaged building to create a firebreak and salvage what remained on the street -- politics be damned, for there would be hell to pay! -- nevertheless, should the need arise, he was ready.
Ready, too, he was for the snow: he had a store of broad, stamped-steel shovels, fresh from the Ames factory back East, nested and arranged in a storeroom, against the time of their need, and likewise brooms, good corn brooms they were: through the night the wind had died, and the snow had continued, but the colder it got, the lighter and drier the snow became, until this morning, when the Irish Brigade muscled their once-clear doors open far enough to admit a man turned sidewise, every Irishman there turned to with a will, and with shovel and grunt and muttered profanity they set to clearing the front of the firehouse.
The bay doors could now swing open unimpeded, and the man doors as well: they knew the street would pack down with use, and indeed there was a broad sled specially made for packing snow: back East, some fellow had made a great, weighted roller for this purpose, but it was seldom seen this far West.
The Brigade, though, satisfied itself not with clearing the approach to their fine brick firehouse.
Half the Brigade went back within and traded broad shovels for brooms: they attacked the board walks, with shovels removing the excess and brooms taking the snow off the frost-hardened boards: they traded off, for a man uses different muscles to sweep than to shovel, and though the snow was not wet and heavy, the work was constant: they paced themselves, taking short, frequent breaks: they made steady progress, cutting a path from stairsteps to stairsteps across the alleyways, and in due time had cleared the length of the Firelands main street.
Sean leaned casually against his shovel, one leg jauntily crossed at shin bone height and his right toe daintily on the now-bare board walk: he leaned on his shovel as a dandy would lean on a nob-headed cane and grinned at his lads.
The Welsh Irishman glared at him, one hand on the small of his back.
"Chafe," the man said, "do ye' know who ordered this snow?"
"Why didn't ye know, lad?" Sean declared cheerfully. "It comes at a discount!"
"Discount ma Aunt Susan's billy goat," the Welsh Irishman muttered, his words puffing in little vapor clouds and floating away on the non-existent breeze.
"We been at it long enough, lads," Sean called, his fine Irish tenor carrying strongly on the still, cold air. "Let's eat, now!"
There was a general and enthusiastic shout of affirmation: shovels and brooms were parked against building-fronts and the Irish Brigade converged on the front door of the Silver Jewel.
Sean held up both hands, halting the Brigade's enthusiastic press.
"Knock th' snow off yer feet, lads," he admonished. "Th' floor's clean an' we don't want t' dirty it up, like."

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Linn Keller 1-24-11

 

I'd seen to the Silver Jewel's reimbursement after the search party had been warmed and fed.
Nobody had to help us look for that boy.
Every man there had business elsewhere, even if that business was sitting in where it was warm, sipping a drink, watching snow blow past the windows and consider how much nicer it was within than without.
Mr. Baxter had ignored his own cold, wet feet and had seen that everyone there got what he wanted and when he wanted it.
Daisy's Kitchen turned out as much of whatever any man wanted until all were full and contented.
It was a mark of the Jewel's hospitality that not only were boots ranked beside stoves to dry, but socks were washed, some quickly darned, all hung up over hastily improvised lines over gas stoves, and when every man left, it was with warm, dry feet and a warm, full belly.
Now, the day after, the Jewel extended the same hospitality to the Irish Brigade.
I quietly reimbursed the Jewel for this too.
It was not usual for the Brigade to turn out and clear the board walks in such a way, but it was something I for one appreciated: back East, folks might be making bad-weather trips to the general store, and I figured no matter how well folks planned, even out here they'd need something: a clear walkway into the Mercantile, into the Jewel, even an easier walk into the schoolhouse and the church were kindnesses extended to the community.
The schoolhouse was open for business.
Not every student could make it in, but none of the students shirked their lessons: this school year, at least, parents knew their young were needful of education, and one way or another the young made it to our little whitewashed school building.
I say "little" because it was just that.
Buildings were made small because timber had to be locally cut and sawed, or else freighted in at great cost: small buildings were also easier to heat, with body heat and wood fired stoves both: the school house was supplied with those new stone backed gas heaters, two on each side and one up front -- a luxury decried by tight-fisted meddlers who didn't have a nickle invested, at least until it turned cold, and children were grateful to have a seat near welcome radiation.
Emma Cooper had asked me to arrange for gas lights within, as well, and I had obliged her: she knew that good light was necessary for good learning -- again a thing decried by folk who had themselves confused with someone important.
As a matter of fact, I reflected, Caleb Rosenthal had spoken against such "frivolous luxury" and had bragged on his own Chicago education, and how they never had any such thing.
Irony upon irony, I thought as I sorted through papers, there at my desk in the Sheriff's office: Caleb argued against gas heat and gas light in the schoolhouse, and yet he was killed by a falling gas chandelier.
I shook my head and chuckled.
I looked over toward my own gas heater.
I didn't much like it, other than it worked fine and I didn't have to haul wood nor pack out ashes, there was no need to shake it down and shovel out --
I sighed.
Progress, I thought, just before the door opened and cold air swirled in to chill me again.

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Linn Keller 1-25-11

 

A cloaked figure swirled in and closed the door behind her.
I smiled.
The figure was not as tall as Daisy, but wore the same pattern of hooded cloak.
I'd noticed Sarah talking with Daisy and admiring hers, and figured she'd made her own: sure enough, gloved hands appeared from beneath green wool and drew back the hood, and Sarah laughed quietly, that magical, musical laugh she inherited from her Mama.
I felt a rush of fatherly affection -- or, rather, grandfatherly affection: this little girl I'd known wasn't little anymore, and she was growing out of being a girl.
I could see the woman she was becoming, but when she skipped over to me and threw her arms around me with a youthful "Uncle Linn!" I knew the girl in her was yet alive, and well.
She released the clasp at her neck and I took the cloak, gave it a brisk snap to sling the snow off its hem and hung it on a peg where the gas heater could take a gentle look at it.
Sarah tilted her head and looked at me: her cheeks were apple-red, wind-kissed and healthy, her eyes danced and her hair shone like a healthy animal's pelt.
"Now what brings you out on a snowy day like this?" I asked, gesturing toward a seat: Sarah was in boots and britches and a winter coat, and she had her gunbelt around her slim middle: as she pulled off her coat and hung it up, I realized with some disquiet that she no longer had all the figure of a broom handle.
She had hips now.
Not the full womanly hips that would come with time -- but enough to take me back a step -- enough to make me realize with absolutely no doubt that Sarah was far, far removed from the little girl holding Bonnie's hand the night I rode into town on a plow horse.
I probably would never have noticed it if not for the contrast of light-brown leather against dark-brown britches and the deep burgundy flannel shirt.
"I got tired of being inside," she said, then looked over at her cloak. "I got tired of sewing," she added.
I raised one eyebrow.
My lawman's gut told me there was something else.
Sarah looked at me and giggled. "Oh, all right," she confessed. "I got tired of fighting that square-hooded monster!"
"Um, what?" I asked, puzzled.
"Uncle Linn, have you ever sewn?"
"Not much," I admitted. "Enough to stitch up a cut or a tear, that's about it."
Sarah glared at her cloak. "I love the cloak," she said. "It's warm and with the tag end over my shoulder it's as secure as a winter coat, and there's room underneath, but the hood" -- she thrust a stiff finger at the offending garment -- "Uncle Linn, if I ever try to sew a square hood again, hit me with a club!"
"That bad?" I asked in my most innocent voice.
Sarah nodded. "Oh, yes," she affirmed. "That bad! It's lined --" she gestured, then frowned. "Trust me. It's that bad!"
"Looks like you got it done, though."
"Oh, I did," she nodded. "I tore it apart four times before I got it right!"
I nodded.
I'd long ago recognized that we are all born with certain talents, and mine did not include anything to do with cloth goods except wearing them. I was more than happy to take Sarah's word for fact in this matter.
"So you got tired of sewing and decided to take a ride."
Sarah's expression flashed from exasperation to delight in a tenth of a heartbeat. "Oh, yes!" she declared with a smile that would cure a rainy day. "Uncle Linn, it's beautiful out! Even if it is cold!"
"Which horse did you ride?"
"The racer, the gelding." She frowned. "I don't think he likes the cold."
"Where is he?"
"The livery." She shrugged. "I didn't have the heart to tether him out here."
I nodded.
"I'm having the Daine boys build me a little stable in back. I don't like having a horse out front neither."
Sarah nodded, looked down at her hands.
Her fingers were nervous, fiddling with the tie-down on her left-hand holster.
"Uncle Linn?"
"Yes, Sarah?" I leaned back in my chair and it squeaked a little.
"Thank you for recommending the man for my Mama."
"Glad to."
"She needs someone to look after the cattle, and she didn't know quite who to ..." Sarah looked a little lost.
I knew Bonnie fired the fellows who'd been tending the herd before.
Anyone Caleb hired was suspect and I believe they'd been thinning the herd and lining their pockets in the process, but while Caleb lived I couldn't move on it, and after his death I didn't have to:
Bonnie fired them.
Jacob and I kept enough of an eye on the spread that nobody successfully made off with any beef -- though there were two attempts, one I talked to and he agreed to investigate the climate further south, the other ... well, I sent him to investigate a more infernal region -- anyway, Bonnie needed a good hand and I knew of one, and had given her my recommendation.
Silence grew long in our little log fortress.
The gas heaters hissed quietly in the stillness.
"Uncle Linn?"
"Hm?"
"I'm worried about Mama."
I nodded: Go on.
"She's ... well, she's ... quiet, and ... sad, and I ..."
I waited.
I knew Sarah had something inside her and I knew it would crowd its way out: imperfectly, perhaps, but escape it would, and I was right.
"Uncle Linn, is it my fault?"
Sarah had come in wearing a billed, fur cap: I watched her slender young hands crush it, slowly, her distress plain to see in her lap.
"Is what your fault, Sarah?"
"All of it," she gestured. "Papa's death, the man in the Jewel, Mama's sadness --"
"Sarah, stand up."
I stood and so did she.
I walked over to her and put my fingertips, very gently, on the outside of her shoulders.
"First off the top, something needs said."
Sarah looked at me with those big, trusting eyes, and I said what she needed to hear most of all.
I wrapped her in a big, warm, gentle grandfatherly hug, and I held her, and I whispered, "You are a fine young woman, and I am very proud of you," and I kissed the top of her head.
Sarah hugged me back, and we stood there for a long time.
Sarah needed a Daddy-hug, and I might not be her Daddy, but she'd come to me and I reckon I'm the closest thing she had at the moment.
When we eased off our mutual bear hug, I pulled the other chair over so we could sit kind of corner-off to each other: not facing, not quite at right angles, my left knee almost touching her right: I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, and she did too.
"Sarah, first off, you are not the reason your father was murdered."
Sarah nodded, chin on her fist.
"Neither are you the reason your Mama is feeling the way she is."
Sarah nodded again, listening.
"That fellow in the Jewel would have died one way or another. If he'd plugged me I would have got him before I died but you kept me from inheriting any more holes in my hide."
Sarah blinked and I smiled gently, reassuringly, and winked.
She smiled and I knew she'd ridden that dangerous section of rapids successfully.
"Now if we consider everything that's happened ..." I stroked her cheek with the back of my bent forefinger -- "Sarah, what you yourself have done has been to bloom, like a rose in the warm summer sun."
Sarah blinked, surprised.
"You are growing, you are changing, you are becoming Who You'll Be." My smile was a little sad. "It sounds a little silly, but ..."
"I know what you mean, Uncle Linn," Sarah said, then added, "I think."
My mouth opened and I don't know where the words came from, but they fell out of my mouth and took me by surprise.
"I wish you'd been my little girl."
It was Sarah's turn to reassure me.
She patted my hand.
"You are a fine Daddy," she said. "And I wish you'd been mine."

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Linn Keller 1-26-11

 

The smoke from the Sheriff's pot belly stove was a beckoning finger, a blue curl advertising warmth and welcome, and there were those who responded to its summons.
The Sheriff entertained a number of folk that day, folk who had waited until the visible symbol of occupancy declared the man's presence; folk about town with grievances, or gossip, folk who fancied they had influence, or wished to have, all came and sat, and talked: such commerce was generally done in the Jewel, but this day they gravitated to the Sheriff's office, and between such entertainments, the Sheriff could not help but think warm and affectionate thoughts toward the blooming young woman who had been the first and by far the most welcome of his guests that day.
The blooming young woman, about the time his stove was shooting its smoky summons into the still stratosphere, was anything but warm and welcoming.
Sarah was a watcher.
She'd watched Charlie take his herd's welfare seriously, and she'd watched the man ride out daily and twice daily when need be, making sure his charges were well, and still in pasture: she, and he, had smoked 'yotes from the gravid mares, and from those with new foals, and so Sarah had taken to this duty with her Mama's cattle.
The natural bowl where they wintered was sheltered enough they were not inclined to stray, but if chased they could stampede: nothing had inclined them to such escape, then or now, but Sarah's young eyes could read what happened as plainly as one of Miss Emma's lesson books.
Blood in the snow, a hoof, some scattered fur: a calf had been eaten.
Sarah sat unmoving on the long-legged gelding.
Sarah was a watcher and she'd watched Charlie sit stone still, sometimes looking almost asleep: subsequent conversation with he and Fannie revealed the ancient trick of listening with more than the ears.
A tenderfoot, she knew, would crane his neck and try to look everywhere at once.
Charlie, on the other hand, kind of soaked in all that was around him.
Sarah did that now.
She had a little stand of trees to help break her outline.
She had a rock bluff behind her to keep anything from sneaking up in her blind.
She had a view of two very pregnant beeves who were showing distinct signs of laboring, with the rest of the herd bunching protectively around them.
Sarah willed herself to relax.
She heard better when she was relaxed.
The gelding stamped, restless, and Sarah's hand soothed its neck.
A grey shadow coasted from behind a snow covered rock.
Sarah's eyes snapped open, her right hand tight on the grip of her Jacob rifle.
She waited.
Another shadow, this one in a little hollow: there was no cover there, just a wrinkle in the snow following a little depression.
Sarah's thumb was heavy on the '76 rifle's hammer and she eased her right boot out of its stirrup.
Her gelding was fast, but a little nervous, and she'd never shot from the saddle astride this fellow: she did not want to gun-shy the horse, nor did she wish to be thrown, for the ground here was rocky and a fall would hold great potential for injury.
Sarah flowed from the saddle, crouching, tying the gelding loosely to a branch: if it were set upon, a hard pull and it would be free, and she knew it could out-pace most anything beyond a sprint.
Sarah began skulking through the snow, crouched, calculating the wolves' probable path and their obvious goal.
She knew their senses were far better than hers, but she had a .40-60 and she knew where it shot.
Sarah worked in behind a snow covered rock, eased her left eye around to look at the laboring cattle.
She could see their gleaming sides heaving, their breath clouding the clear air: one broke water and she heard the gush and the grunt and she saw one grey arrow as if loosed from a bow.
The crescent steel butt plate settled into the hollow between Sarah's shoulder and her bicep: her left cheek welded to the rifle's comb and the brass bead fell into its buckhorn notch as if it belonged there.
The second wolf froze, head up like a periscope, and part of her registered what looked for all the world like surprise on its face, just as the trigger broke and the second wolf convulsed in a great spray of snow.
Sarah's left hand cranked the lever of its own volition and she knew the first wolf would abort its run: sure enough, the second wolf swapped ends, humping itself up double to get the most power for its first leap back to safety.
Sarah waited until it was clear of the cattle before breaking the shot.

The Sheriff had just banked the fire in the pot belly stove.
He'd swept out the last of the tracked-in snow and put away his ledger-book, looked around the office and nodded satisfaction: he left the gas heaters on, for he'd found it very pleasant to come into a warm room in this cold weather, and besides he was paying for it, so it was his business and nobody else's if he left the gas on.
Feet stamped on the boardwalk outside, a businesslike cadence, someone who was getting rid of accumulated snow, and the Sheriff did a mental calculation on the amount of whiskey left in the bottle in his bottom right hand desk drawer: depending on the visitor, he may have to get another bottle yet today, something he'd planned to do for the morrow.
Sarah followed the swirl of cold air into the office.
She parked the Jacob rifle beside the door frame.
The Sheriff took in the girl's snowy condition, the set of her jaw, and how cold her eyes were.
Her eyes were a little lighter in color, too ... they were much darker than his or Jacob's but they were more pale than they'd been earlier in the day.
"Uncle Linn," Sarah said without preamble, her voice devoid of it usual warmth, "who buys wolf pelts?"

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Linn Keller 1-26-11

 

Jacob was not idle this cold and snowy season.
Like his father, he was constantly watching, listening, considering: when a warrant took him to Cripple Creek via the Z&W Railroad, he took his time in serving it, knowing the subject of his attentions would very likely end up in the hoosegow before dark, and so he sat down to a friendly game of poker with some fellows from back East.
Jacob's badge was covered, as were his Colts; Charlie's wedding gift of a Derringer was in the small of his back, and a .41 Lightning rode in a custom leather pocket he'd had sewn inside his suit coat: it was more convenient when seated than the belt gun.
He'd pulled his father's trick of dealing cards on a nail keg before he went into the saloon: one hand to the north, one to the south, one to the east and one to the west: he noted which hands was the better, gathered the cards, shuffled the deck, dealt again: his pale eyes regarded the pasteboards and gathered, and shuffled, and dealt, a third time, and then a fourth.
Satisfied, he saw which way the luck was running, and knew which seat to take that afternoon.
He ordered a beer, built himself a sandwich at the free lunch and paid with coin and a wink: "If you could have one of those pretty girls fetch me another sandwich in a half hour," he said, placing another coin beside the first, "I would be obliged," and the barkeep winked back and swept both coins out of sight.
Jacob was able to take the desired seat without difficulty: relaxed, confident, he waited until the other three who'd headed his way settled into place; the game was announced and agreed to, hands were dealt, bets were made: Jacob lost the first hand, won two more, lost a third, won the fourth.
One of the fellows frowned as he ran his hand into an inside pocket.
Jacob knew the look.
He raised a questioning eyebrow and the fellow turned an embarrassed shade of red.
"Fellows," he said, "I left my poke in my room--" he turned, looked beside him, opened a valise -- "but if you'll take the bet" -- he set a leather case on the table -- "I'll bet this set of field glasses on this hand."
Jacob looked left, looked right, shifting nothing more than his eyes.
The other fellows looked at the worn leather case, shrugged: they'd all seen field glasses before, mostly poor quality and military surplus: Jacob, though, had used his father's field glasses, and if for no other reason than they were his father's, he wanted a set of his own.
He'd traded for a set of Boulangers and did not like them; a fellow bound for Kansas had bought them, pronouncing them excellent: Jacob made about a two dollar profit on the deal.
Sight unseen, he was satisfied he could still come out ahead on this poker hand.
Jacob turned his cards idly in hand as bets were made, raised, called: he was confident -- too confident -- and it ended up between himself and the fellow who bet the glasses.
Jacob turned over his final card as the other fellow did as well.
The other fellow shook his head and laughed.
"Well, hell," he said, "I woulda lost cash money if I hadn't had 'em."
Jacob leaned forward and raked in the pot, then brought the binoculars over and opened the case.
He knew right away he'd made a sweet deal.
Ernst Abbe, he read inside the case, and he recognized the name: they made premier telescopes, but he never knew them to make binoculars.
He looked up and the fellow he'd won them from was already out of his chair and headed for the bar, and a barmaid with a saucy smile and bad teeth came sashaying over with a sandwich on a platter.
Jacob gave her a wink and a tip and told her she'd made a hungry man happy -- the first sandwich was enough to fill the gaps between his teeth, though he didn't say as much to her -- and she allowed as she could help to satisfy a man's hunger, to which the fellow on Jacob's right made what could be called an indecent proposal, and his chair was vacated very soon thereafter.
Jacob slung the binoculars case from his off shoulder, under his coat and out of sight, picked up the sandwich and took a bite.
It wasn't the Silver Jewel, and it wasn't Daisy's cooking, but the beer was good and the sandwich was too.

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Linn Keller 1-27-11

 

Parson Belden had not been idle.
He believed a man ought to put in useful work as well as preach the Word: there were those who argued, and rightly so, that the Word is good and useful work in and of itself, but he'd been raised on hard work as a lad, and habits formed early are habits gained for a lifetime, and so he split wood, and stacked wood, and carried wood; he shoveled snow and swept snow and squinted his eyes at sunlight on snow.
The Irish Brigade came swarming out of their fine brick firehouse when they saw the sky pilot laboring to clear the white stuff from around the church: many hands made light work, and the Parson was quite at home with the red-shirted, boisterous lads with their cheerfuly profane oaths and quick apologies for the sulfur in their language: Mrs. Parson stepped out on their porch and called to them, a smile on her face and a steaming berry pie in her hand: the Irish Brigade, to a man, prided itself on gentlemanly behavior, and it would have been far less than gentlemanly to refuse the good woman's hospitality.
The Brigade was Catholic, to a man, but not a one of them missed the good Parson's church on Sunday: each carried a rosary in a hidden pocket, every one wore a scapular blessed by a Bishop or a priest, and all but one had a St. Florian medal somewhere on his person: the New York Irishman carried St. Florian, St. Christopher and one that was worn enough nobody really knew who it was -- but, he'd explained, "unless it's St. Drunkard the Layabout, he needs to be respected too" -- to which the Welsh Irishman allowed as even drunkards need a saint to watch out for them -- and as this discussion had been held in the Jewel, the Brigade raised a unanimous hoist of their beer mugs to this worn and unknown saint, for they all knew what it was to be drunk enough to warrant intervention of a kindly soul on their behalf.
At the moment, though, they were guests in the Parson's house, and partaking of good fresh and still warm pie, and discussion was suspended in favor of the exercise of fork and plate.

Upstairs, over the Mercantile, Maude tended her roses: they were arranged in long planters, cut back for winter, kept cool but not cold: the plants slept under her gentle care, and she knew they would bloom gloriously come spring.
WJ, her late husband, had so loved his roses, and he would coax one plant to bloom in the middle of winter, a plant he kept in the sunniest window: it was his yearly ritual to take Maude by the hand, and labor up the narrow, steep staircase, and show her this scarlet miracle in the middle of winter's blight.
Maude closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around herself, tilting her head back and taking a long, slow, deep breath.
She missed JW, she missed him so ... and here, among his beloved plants, she almost, almost could feel him.

Quiet eyes watched from a distance: close enough to see well, far enough to remain hidden, the watcher had chanced on a low growth of brush, snow-covered and with a little hollow beneath: Winchester rifle in hand, the watcher belly crawled forward, an inch, an inch, an inch: patience, patience was the word, and finally the watcher dared to raise one eye, just one eye, and was rewarded with the quarry.
Sarah hazarded a second eyeball, blinking to clear her vision: she'd taken an hour and more to work her way to this low brush cover and another hour to work her way under it, flattening herself so as not to so much as touch the overhead: she did not want to shiver the vine-laced branches and disturb the snow.
She knew there was a den nearby.
She looked over the lip.
There -- the wind was favoring her -- there, in the rocks, she saw it: a movement, fur the color of weathered stone, perfectly camouflaged, but moving -- and the human eye is geared to pick up movement.
She waited, willing herself to silence, to stillness: she tried to sink into the earth itself.
The she-wolf looked around, ears up, suspicious; Sarah watched as the feral creature turned, looked behind her.
Something furry wallowed out of the rocky hide and Sarah's white teeth bit down on her foreknuckle with delight.
A wolf pup -- two-- then a third -- wiggled out, barely visible, huddled in close to their Mama.
Sarah had watched the mating pair for the better part of a month.
She'd watched them stalk and bring down an elk calf with a misshapen leg: they were far from Charlie's horses and her Mama's cattle, high in the wild country: she'd watched as both wolves skulked through what seemed to be a barren meadow, pouncing at random moments, stiff-legged: Charlie explained later they were eating mice.
Sarah had been honstly surprised at how many mice they ate.
Now, though, now she peered through a slit as high as her had was across, wide as her hand was long: the wind carried into her face, and she watched.
The mama wolf was not willing to let her young charges out into the world just yet: she nosed them back inside, turned, and became invisible: Sarah was not sure if she was still looking at wolf-fur, or at rock wall; she waited another half hour, until her eyes burned for staring.
Finally she began her careful reverse stalk.
She took as long removing herself from her hide as she'd taken getting into it, for she hoped to use it again: she'd divested herself of cloak and of coat and had lain, streamlined and chilled, knowing she would be slithering backward, and a tucked-in flannel shirt would offer less backward resistance than a coat or the cloak.
Finally, slithering back and into a little draw, she rolled over, sat up.
She froze.
Perfectly impressed in the snow not a foot to the right of her right knee, the pristine marks of a seated canine: the pads on the hind feet were immaculately cast into the snow, the brushy tail's sweep clearly engraved, the forepaws where the dog had sat, stiff forelegs pressing clawed paws into the white cover.
Sarah's blood ran cold and she looked around, her left hand tightening on the Winchester's fore-end.
While she was watching the she-wolf and cubs, the mate had been watching her.

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Linn Keller 1-28-11

 

Sean stared sightlessly at the opposite wall, a glass of amber magic forgotten on the table beside him.
Little Sean was curled up in the big man's lap, and brother Michael had long ago been put in his wee bunk: Little Sean's head lay against his Da's chest, and Sean's arms were protectively around his firstborn.
It was silent in their house, silent but for the occasional pop of wood in the firebox, or the hushed cascade of wood ash into the ash pan: Sean breathed with intentional gentleness, as he always did when considering an important matter.
Besides, he did not wish to disturb the wee lad, trusting and asleep and leaned up against the solid warmth of his Da.
Daisy had confided a matter in him, there in the firehouse, when she stormed and muttered through the blizzard: Sean had patiently endured the woman's complaints, listened with close attention to his wife's agitation, and finally, when she wound down like an alarm clock spending the strength of its spring, she leaned into her husband and held him with trembling and with gratitude.
Sean, wise man that he was, had not said a single word through all this, and so it took him by surprise that Daisy finally sighed and took a breath and murmured, "You always know what t' say."
Sean's reply had been to rub his wife's back, gently, the way she found particularly soothing.
Sean listened to his son's regular breathing and considered that perhaps he was one luckiest sons of the Sod to stand in shoe leather.

Daisy's knuckles rapped briskly on the end of the glass-smooth mahogany.
"Mr. Baxter, if you please!" she snapped.
Mr. Baxter, surprised, favored her with a curious look and a raised eyebrow: his mustache was immaculately curled, his hair precisely parted, pomaded and gleaming in the burnt-lime brilliance of the gas mantle lights.
Mr. Baxter tossed his bar towel, draping it with practiced ease over one shoulder as he placed the gleaming, spotless beer mug in rank with its fellows; he turned, strolled to Daisy's end of the bar.
Daisy hesitated before she spoke, then with the air of someone who was ready to shove off for a swim into dark, deep water, said "I'll have a tall drink o' that John fella."
Mr. Baxter's eyes crinkled a little at the corners, his good humor unsinkable even in the face of a troubled woman.
"That John fella?" he reflected gently.
Daisy spun her hand impatiently, nodding. "Yes, y'know, that fella they named whiskey for!" She looked up, frowning a little. "Two-Hit John."
Mr. Baxter's mustache curled a little more, boosted by the rising corners of his mouth. "I never heard it called that before," he said, reaching for a glass.
"No, no' one o' those wee things!" Daisy pointed, flipping her finger as she thrust it toward his collection of shot glasses. "One o' those!"
Mr. Baxter's expression went from amusement to surprise, but he reached for the tall glass anyway.
"Two fingers?" he asked mildly, uncorking an unlabled whiskey bottle.
Daisy glared and Mr. Baxter filled the glass within one finger of the rim.
"Two Hit John," he murmured, sliding the glass over to the woman.
Daisy picked it up, downed half of it, took a breath and shivered. She set the glass down with a distinct noise; half the men at the bar looked at the unexpected sound, and watched Daisy shake her head, bare her teeth and wipe her eyes with the heel of her hand.
She opened her mouth and Mr. Baxter half expected a little puff of smoke to emerge.
It didn't.
Daisy took another breath, tilted the glass up and drained it.
"Two-Hit John," she said loudly. "Me husband said 'twas a two-hit fight: he hit John an' John hit the floor." She picked up her apron and dabbed dampness from her eyelids. "I c'n see why, now."
Daisy lay a coin beside the glass, turned with a flare of skirt and apron and marched back down the hallway to her kitchen.
Mr. Baxter knew she was headed out into the cold and perhaps she needed some Old Soul Saver to ward off the devil on her walk home through the snow.
An anonymous rider raised a finger in summons, pushing his empty shot glass across the mahogany.
"Might I trouble you for some of that-there John feller stuff?" he asked in a gentle voice, and Mr. Baxter obliged him: the rider sipped and nodded and allowed as he'd known it as Who-Hit-John, but he liked that woman's name for it better, and most everyone bending an elbow that night nodded and agreed.

That night, after Little Sean had been traded out of his duds and into a nightshirt, after Sean himself had banked the stoves and changed his own attire, after he and Daisy cuddled up close under quilts and sheets, Daisy whispered into Sean's collarbone, "I'm scared, Sean. I'm scared this time."
Sean rubbed Daisy's back through the soft flannel of her nightgown.
"Ye're a fine, strong woman, Daisy," he whispered back. "Ye've borne two fine sons, an' I doubt me not ye'll bear this child in fine shape."
Daisy's arms held Sean with the desperation of a woman facing a deep fear.
"But wha' if I don't?" she whispered hoarsely.
Sean took a long breath: his muscled arms wrapped slowly around his wife, and he held her gently, firmly, for the answer she needed was not in words.
An hour and more later, by the chime of the fancy mantle clock in the parlor, neither Sean nor Daisy had moved, and Sean was convinced his wife as asleep.
He leaned down and kissed the top of her head.
"Ye are the most precious thing I know," he whispered, and Daisy cuddled into him like a sleepy infant.
"Ye' always know just wha' t' say," she murmured, and he felt her relax, and shortly she was asleep, laying across Sean's broad chest, with Sean's broad arms around her, and Sean, warm and content in his own bed, and under his own roof, rubbed his wife's back until he, too, fell asleep.

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Linn Keller 2-2-11

 

Bonnie regarded her daughter with an assessing eye.
She at once saw her as a mother, and as another woman, as a seamstress.
She saw a tall girl of some twelve years, whose features were becoming a little finer, whose hair was carefully styled and atop her head, as befitted a young lady of quality: she was wearing a gown very recently made, which fit her to perfection, accenting the ripening changes in her young body.
Bonnie could see, thanks to the mirror against the far wall, the serious look on her lovely young daughter's face, a look of concentration that was not at all unattractive: her face was at once relaxed, yet focused, almost somemn.
Bonnie could not help but feel a little sad that her daughter, this lovely child that society would soon welcome as a woman in her own right, this daughter so dear to her widowed heart, this budding young woman dressed as a Lady born should be ... was also wearing a beautifully carved, double gun rig: it was wide of belt and flared, the holsters perfectly positioned for a quick and clean draw.
Bonnie watched as Sarah drew her left-hand Colt: there was the quick, almost woody whisper as blued steel cleared gunleather, the revolver describing a brief, efficient arc, and the metallic click as the hammer dropped on an empty cartridge.
Only then did the triple-click of the Colt coming to full stand register on her quick, musically-trained ear.
Sarah smiled a little as she saw her Mama in the mirror: thrusting the Colt back into leather, she turned and skipped the two steps to Bonnie, and embraced her mother, the happy smile of a loving daughter lighting her features like the mantled gas lights that now lighted their own home.
Bonnie blinked and felt her eyes sting, and she hugged her daughter again.
She remembered the night before, when snow was blowing hard and Sarah was out riding herd: Bonnie had peered anxiously out a window, willing herself to see through the driven snow.
The herd had drifted ahead of the wind and milled about near the house, behind the fence, restless and bawling, and Sarah had shrugged into winter coat and tied her hat down before going out in the storm.
Bonnie watched anxiously, torn as to whether she should join her daughter, but some voice whispered, No, and she bit her knuckle: Sarah's expression was businesslike, her moves as she dressed, quick and sure.
Bonnie saw Sarah ride the blue mare into the driven snow, Twain Dawg a shadow beside her: she rode slowly through the herd and in clear moments between gusts, she could see Sarah's lips puckered as she whistled, low, gentle, and Bonnie knew she would be soothing the herd with her voice.
Sarah had apparently been looking for something.
She turned the blue mare and rode directly away from Bonnie, away from the house and the barn.
Bonnie accepted a cup of tea from their girl and stood at the window, watching, not daring to move.
Bonnie knew that Sarah was growing -- that Sarah was more than a girl should be, more than any girl her age should have to be -- but she knew Sarah was also content with who she was.
Bonnie sipped, her breath fogging the window: she wiped it impatiently with the flat of her hand and stared, eyes burning, into the increasing dark.
It was some hours later that she saw a light, faint in the distance, but moving.
A light? she thought.
A lantern ...?
On impulse Bonnie turned from the window, seized scarf and cloak and thrust open the kitchen's back door.
Snow swirled around her, cold fingers tugged at her skirt, ran questing chills around her ruffled frillies: Bonnie stepped carefully down, one step, two, and stumbled at the third step, nearly turning an ankle.
She clenched her jaw hard and waded into the snow.
Squinting against the wind, she lifted her skirt and slogged through the near to knee deep snow: it had drifted here, where the wind could swirl and take a moment's ease, but when she came around the corner of the house and the wind hit her full and unbroken, the ground was barely covered.
Bonnie saw the light, brighter now, and heard Sarah's whistle, her voice: she was calling, calling as if summoning the cattle to feed, but her voice wavered, torn by the wind: her ghostlike, high-alto "Soooooo!" ran chills down Bonnie's back and she hurried to the high board fence that separated the house and yard from the barn lot.
Sarah appeared suddenly: one moment, a swirling curtain of white, the next, the blue mare, solid and looming like the prow of a ship coming out of a fog-wall on the ocean: cattle began to bawl and shift, and Bonnie saw her daughter.
Sarah, face wrapped in her scarf, rode with a white faced calf laid across her knees, one hand gripping the wet newborn, lantern in the other hand, Twain Dawg ahead of them, head up and tongue out, trotting proudly toward Bonnie.
Sarah halted, dismounted: pulling the calf down into her arms, she kept the weight high, her chin in the calf's ribs.
A cow shoved its way through the herd, snifffed the calf and licked it, and the calf wiggled and bawled weakly.
Sarah, staggering under half a hundredweight of calf, grunted, "Come on, Mama, your baby needs a meal!" and led them toward the dark square that was the barn.
Bonnie froze the picture in her mind, and hid it away in her heart:
Sarah, lantern upraised in one hand, calf across the pommel, breasting the storm, bringing a lost little one back to its Mama.

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Linn Keller 2-4-11

 

"I hear he's a hard man."
Heads nodded, voices murmured assent:
"Rock."
"Granite."
"Flint."
Mugs were hoisted, beer and stronger spirits trickled or sluiced down the throats of the assembled, depending on the mood and nature of the tippler; boots, some spurred, some polished, some not, were propped up on the polished brass foot rail; elbows, forearms or spines leaned against the solid, heavy mahogany bar.
"I been told he kin freeze a man with them eyes o' his."
"Ice."
"Marble."
"Cold."
Mugs and glasses raised, lips tasted, Adams' apples bobbed.
"Ain't he the one that kilt Rusty Smith?"
"Fair draw, 'twas."
"Rusty tried to dry gulch him."
"Drawed ag'in the drop an' plugged 'im."
Beverages, again in eerie unison, rose, paused, lowered.
Here and there a man turned, signaled for a refill; the ever vigilant Mr. Baxter was quick with a refill, accepting coin, dust or Yankee greenback: the loafers looked out the window at snow drifting past the polished panes.
"He's fast, then."
"Rattlesnake."
"Lightning."
"Horsewhip."
Freshly filled, the containers were again hoist in concert.
"Not a man you'd want to cross."
"Nope."
"Wouldn't."
"Bad idea."
There was a high-pitched scream from upstairs, a feminine screech, followed by the thunder of hurrying bootheels on the stairs.
To a man, every head turned.
A tall, grey-mustached man with a Sheriff's star on his lapel and a little girl on his shoulders, grinning like a fool at a circus, came galloping around the stair-post, around Tilly's desk and the corner of the bar, and charged down the hallway: the little girl held her Daddy's Stetson overhead at arm's length, yelling "Faster, Daddy! Faster!" -- and the pair charged the length of the back hall, and out the back door.
"That him?"
"Yep."
The lone voice to reply raised his mug and took a long draft.
"Attair be the Sheriff."

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Linn Keller 2-4-11

 

"Clark?"
"Yeah?"
The riders stopped, looking at the town before them: smoke rose from chimneys, light glowed welcome from a variety of windows: they could see the railroad, the rail yard, and on beyond, a roundhouse: they could see what they'd been told was a brick works, silent and cold with winter's season; they saw the tall, narrow brick building they knew must be a fire house.
"The Sheriff said the place isn't far from here."
"Yeah."
Sam's line back dun blew, twin steam-plumes shooting into the cold air.
"Clark?"
"Yeah?"
"Tell me honestly." Sam's voice was quiet, the way it generally was.
Clark looked over at his companion's face, wrapped in a knitted grey muffler. Frost had gathered on the outside from Sam's exhaled breath, Sam's hat was tied down with the tag ends of the knitted scarf, and Sam's not inconsiderable height was bulked out some by the heavy coat.
Clark waited.
"Can I do this?"
Clark looked at his partner.
They'd ridden through some difficult times here of late: there'd been a murder, dirty dealings with land grants and title; the ranch had been taken, not by someone who punched a gun in the belly and seized what wasn't his ... no, by a soft handed swindler in the state capital, a forger and a scoundrel with a dandy's perfumed collar.
Sam and Clark had buried their dead, and taken one last look around, and ridden toward Firelands, ridden at the summons of an old friend, a man with a grey mustache and a six-pointed star, a man who asked a favor for someone he knew.
Clark nodded.
"Yeah."
"Is that all you can say is yeah?" Sam snapped.
Clark looked at Firelands, eased his weight onto his hands folded over the saddle horn and felt a familiar pop in his lower back. The pain was momentary but it felt so good.
He nodded.
"Yeah."

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Linn Keller 2-4-11

 

Angela had strutted upstairs, balancing her wooden tray with the tea pot and sandwiches, tea cups and saucers, and had done so with her tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth as she did when she was concentrating hard on a task.
She had navigated the curved row of masculine backsides, the jutting knees from those at the bar, and so intent was she on maintaining the balance of the cargo between her pink hands that she missed entirely the many softened expressions as they followed this intent lass with their eyes: here and there a smile creased a tanned face, eyes wrinkled at the corners: who among them had known a child of their own, long ago or back East?
Doubtless there were those who had a child, once, or knew a child: but not a man there offered any impediement to her progress, and not a tongue was loosed with any but a gently worded comment to his neighbor, out of respect for this young vision of femininity.
Of course, as soon as Angela was around the end of the bar, past Tilly's desk and a half dozen steps up the wide, polished stairway, the language coarsened, laughter became loud and harsher, backs were slapped, wagers placed, and the Jewel resumed its usual cheerful demeanor.
Angela was far enough up the stairs that the cold draft from the opening front door did not reach her ruffled legs: her vision was ahead, and close, and so she did not see the two snowy figures that drifted in ahead of the winter gust.
The Sheriff had come back down the hallway, having stopped and exchanged pleasantries with the ladies working the kitchen: Daisy was at home this evening, tending her own household, and so the Sheriff accepted a mug of vanilla coffee and a sweet roll.
Dawg may like his biscuits and gravy, he reflected, but he had a particular afffection for the light rolls that came out of Daisy's kitchen.
He strolled the length of the hall, nodded to Tom Landers, whose crinkled eyes told the Sheriff he was still remembering Angela's happy, shreiking ride on her Daddy's shoulders, and the Sheriff smiled as well.
It was not often he made a spectacle of himself in public, but it had been worth it.
There was a shift in conversation: subtle, but Tom and the Sheriff each had a quick ear, and knew that something had happened which claimed the attention of all in the Jewel, if only momentarily: a movement of air told them it meant someone had come in the front.
"Tmm," the Sheriff said through a mouthful of half-chewed light roll: he raised the coffee cup, took a fast swig, chewed.
"I see 'em."
Tom Landers' voice was quiet as it always was; he stood relaxed, half-sitting on a stool, half-leaning against the wall in his favorite spot: here he was not well visible, he was half-shadowed, but he had a good view of the interior of the Jewel, especially the gambling-tables.
The newcomers shook snow off their coats, looked around.
Light-blue eyes met ice-blue eyes.
"Well I'd be damned," the Sheriff said softly, turning to face this figure: tall as himself, equally as broad of shoulder, impressive ... impressive, yes, he thought.
The tall figure in the bulky coat walked slowly, menacingly toward the Sheriff, glaring: the eyes were unblinking, eyes peering out from under hat-brim and over frosted scarf, like a defender looking out a fort's gun-slit.
The Sheriff set his coffee down and started walking toward the newcomer.
Conversation stopped; heads turned: even the piano player ceased his caressing of the ivory keys, and turned to watch.
The pair stopped.
The newcomer flexed gloved hands.
The Sheriff stood relaxed, leaned forward a little, shoulders rounded.
The world held its breath.
As if on signal, the two launched at each other, each making two running steps before lowering and driving hard into one another: work-hardened arms seized, grappled: there was the sound of hard bodies in collision and men drew back, chairs scraping loud on the floor.
The pair spun: the stranger back-heeled the Sheriff's ankle and pushed hard: the Sheriff shoved his other foot in the stranger's belly, fell back, pulling a double handful of winter coat and throwing the tall figure overhead.
Cat-quick, the pair were up on all fours: the stranger's tied-down hat was in place, the muffler hiding the newcomer's features: the Sheriff's hat was on the floor and his eyes were pale, ice-pale, nostrils flared: slowly, slowly they stood, glaring, hands open, ready.
"Mr. Baxter!" the Sheriff called loudly.
Mr. Baxter, his double gun discreetly held just below bar-top level, replied with a brisk "Yes, sir!"
"This pair's money is no good here! Give 'em what they'll have!"
Mr. Baxter's left eyebrow rose a little and he put the double gun back on its shelf under the bar.
"What'll it be?" he asked pleasantly.
"Well, Sam?" the Sheriff said with a crooked grin. "What'll you have?"
The stranger unwound the scarf, removed the range-battered hat, shook a long, thick, blond braid free.
She unbuttoned her coat and the Sheriff stepped closer, extended a hand.
They shook, then they embraced, laughing.
"Samantha," the Sheriff said quietly, drawing back to arm's length and grinning at his old friend, "how in the hell have you been?"

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Linn Keller 2-5-11

 

Mr. Baxter handed over the mug of beer, and the recipient nodded his thanks, then looked over his shoulder at the trio sitting back in the Lawman's Corner.
"Does Soapy know ever'body?" he muttered, and in truth, Mr. Baxter had been wondering the same thing.
Biscuits and gravy and good back strap started the meal, and vanilla coffee: conversation was quiet but steady, and the Sheriff did a little talking, and a great deal of listening.
"Rustlers killed him," Samantha mumbled. "He caught 'em an' they bent an iron over his head an' cut his throat." She sliced a biscuit in two with a savage draw of her table knife -- vigorous enough half the biscuit wobbled in a brief, dripping arc and hit the floor.
Sam swore, quietly, inelegantly, rested her fisted hand on the edge of the table and grew very, very still.
The Sheriff knew better than to interrupt as she recovered her surging temper.
Clark, for his part, worked steadily and very happily on his plateful of palatable provender.
"I never met your husband," the Sheriff said gently. "I wish I had."
"You'd have liked him," Sam stabbed viciously at the remaining half biscuit, turned it over, coating it thoroughly in the steaming, spiced gravy. She set the side of her fork against it, cut it in two, not willing to risk another escape from her plate.
"He never ast me to wear a dress," she mumbled through the forked-up mouthful. "We worked cattle an' done good. Clark here" -- she nodded to her partner -- "said he never saw a better herd nor better run, an' he's seen some."
The Sheriff looked over at Clark.
"You were his brother."
"Yeah."
The Sheriff nodded, turned back to Samantha.
She'd peeled out of her thick winter coat, revealing broad, muscled shoulders, well developed arms; she was a woman and no doubt of the fact, but she eschewed feminine attire: she knew one thing well and that was cattle, she did one thing well and that was cattle, and she dressed for the work at hand, and that was cattle.
"They had no call t' kill him," she said, her eyes hollow, remembering.
"Who did it?"
Samantha was quiet for a long moment and finally, slowly, carefully, deliberately, picked up her coffee mug.
"I don't know," she said frankly. "I don't know who they was." She took a drink, took another, then looked squarely at the Sheriff.
"I don't know who they used to be."
The Sheriff nodded.
Her last sentence told him all he had to know.
The rustlers would murder no more, and this satisfied him.
"Then we ... them thievin' book keepin' bottom polishin' seven copy ribbon clerk sons of --"
Samantha's eyes closed and so did her hands, and she was quiet for another long moment.
"They took the ranch," the Sheriff said, looking at Clark.
"Yeah."
"You want it back?"
Samantha took a long breath, looked over at her brother-in-law, looked at the Sheriff.
"We were happy there," she said hollowly. "We ..."
Her voice trailed off and she shook her head, pressed her lips together, looked at her plate.
"No."
Her reply was firm, decisive.
"No, he's dead. 'Twould remind me every day of what is no more."
Her voice was softer, her words more cultured, and the Sheriff's ear twitched to hear the difference.
He knew he was hearing a Samantha from long ago, a Samantha educated and a lady, before she chose the path that led her here, to the Silver Jewel, while snow feathered from the heavens outside and fresh coffee gurgled from the pot into her cup.
The Sheriff nodded.
He knew what it was to turn his back on sorrow, and to move on, choosing to leave what he could have kept.
"Now tell me what I'm gettin' into. I got your letter and that was good but I hear better than I read."
The Sheriff looked at Clark.
"She still won't wear spectacles."
"Yeah."
"I wear 'em when it suits me!" she snapped.
"Yeah," Clark replied.
The Sheriff leaned back as the girl removed his empty plate and set a slice of pie in front of him, laying a hand on his shoulder to do so.
He reached up and patted her hand.
"You know the way to my heart, darlin'," he said with a wink.
"Flattery will get you everywhere," she said, giving his shoulder a squeeze.
"Now." The Sheriff steepled his fingers together, elbows on either side of his pie plate. "This is for the Widow Rosenthal. She went back to her maiden name of McKenna. Three children, all girls. Sarah, twelve years. Twins, about four I think. A hired girl. Her husband --"
Samantha saw the flare of anger in her old friend's eyes, waited until he took a swig of coffee to dampen the flames of betrayal that flickered behind his eyes.
"Bonnie fired the hands her husband hired. They were stealin' her blind."
"Do I know 'em?" Samantha asked, her voice a little raspy.
The Sheriff shrugged. "I don't know who you know and who you don't."
"Will I find them?"
"Not likely." He grinned, a bright, boyish grin, the grin Samantha remembered.
"They decided the climate was quite a bit better out Californy way, an' it would be even better if they never set foot in my county ag'in."
"Good." Samantha nodded. "How free a hand do I have dealin' with rustlers?"
The Sheriff tasted his pie, found it to his liking.
"Sam," he said, "like the wise man said, you gots to speak the language they understand." He cut another piece with his fork, slid the tines under the cut-off bite. "Was you to make an example out of one or three, the others ought to get the message, an' if they don't, why, we'll just have to educate 'em, won't we?"
"What'll McKenna say?"
The Sheriff looked Samantha in the eye.
"She's been over the mountain an' seen the varmint. She'll be fine with it."
"Clark?" Samantha looked across the table at her brother in law and saddle partner. "Sound good to you?"
"Yeah."

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Charlie MacNeil 2-5-11

 

"We could use a few things." Fannie's words drifted across the table to where Charlie sat buttering his last biscuit before he headed out to string fragrant meadow hay for the mares and their spotted offspring.

"You or me?" His answer came out slightly blurred by flaky bread and melted, sweet butter.

"Think you can survive without me for a few days?"

"I reckon." Biscuit, butter, a smidge of sand plum jam, a slurp of coffee. "Sled or horseback?"

"Sled, I think."

"Get your duds packed. I'll hitch up. I'll do the dishes once the horses're fed." A quick kiss then Charlie was shrugging into his elkhide coat and pulling on his knee-high, bear grease waterproofed moccasins. He paused for a moment to listen for the wind; the morning appeared to be dead calm, the falling snowflakes drifting slowly down to add their small bulk to the accumulation of white already in place across the plains.

The spotted mares heard the door slam and capered through the hoof-churned snow to the fence near the haystack, their young of the year frolicking behind and through the milling crowd. The bolder of the colts pushed toward the front, nickering eagerly, only to be put in their places by quick nips to their spotted backsides that set them to flight in feigned panic. Charlie strode through the snow to the stackyard and began to string the fragrant clover and timothy in an even line along the division. The mares and colts spread along the feed line in positions based on either seniority or audacity, whichever they could most easily get away with. Satisfied that all of his charges would be able to eat their fill, Charlie headed for the barn and the work team corral.

Fannie emerged from the house bundled in a sheepskin-lined coat, wool muffler and cap, canvas britches and chaps. Her bulging carpetbag dangled from one hand, her elkhide-cased Winchester from the other. She hurried to where Charlie was hitching the team to the sled. The conveyance's long, flat bed was probably more than was necessary for the trip at hand, but the sled was what they had, so that was what Fannie would use.

Charlie had built a big cargo box that fit into slots behind the seat. The box contained a small, rolled tent, a pair of buffalo robes, a lantern, and survival food in the form of jerky, hardtack and a coffeepot and coffee. A bundle of kindling and a waxed canvas bag containing tinder and a corked bottle of matches were tucked in alongside a sack of grain for the horses that rounded out the contents of the box. Fannie dropped her valice on top of the supplies, closed the box's cover and slipped the pin through the hasp.

"Could be a long trip," Charlie commented drily.

"It's not snowing that hard."

"Drive careful, you hear?"

"I hear. Tuck me in, Sugar." Fannie seated herself and Charlie draped a third buffalo robe across her lap, pulling it up to tuck under her armpits and behind her back. He wrapped her in a quick hug, stole a kiss then he stepped back.

"See you in a few days."

"See you, Sugar." Fannie clucked to the horses and the sled started out of the ranch house hollow. Charlie stood watching until she disappeared over the east rise. He chuckled when he saw the snow-shrouded black mass that materialized alongside the sled just before it went out of sight. "Take care of her, Dawg," he said softly. He turned toward the house then; he had dishes to wash.

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Charlie MacNeil 2-7-11

 

The team had been standing around in their corral for far too long to suit them. The pair of Belgian-cross bays were critters that liked to be out and about, whether the job be hauling a stone boat loaded with rocks or towing the sled and a cargo of firewood. Pulling the sled, despite its size, and carrying nothing but a shapely redhead and her chattels was a simple task.

The sled's wide runners, sanded smooth and well waxed, hissed through the snow effortlessly. White plumes of condensation bloomed from wide nostrils in near-perfect cadence as the team caught their stride, wide hooves fanning loose snow in unison across the blanketed surface. Warm and snug in her heavy coat and buffalo robe, Fannie settled in for the ride.

Not wanting the big horses to either overheat or chill from too much sweating, every few miles Fannie drew the team to a stop and gave them a quick rubdown with a burlap bag. A large canteen kept under the lap robe supplied water at any stop that was away from a creek or other source of water. A few bites of grain at each stop kept the great furnaces stoked for the effort of breaking the trail to Firelands. Though the sled had left the ranch shortly after daybreak, dark would be long upon team and passenger before they saw the lights of the town; she didn't plan to stop unless the storm, which was at this point still relatively benign, worsened.

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Linn Keller 2-7-11

 

We come in sight of Bonnie's cattle and Sam and Clark reined up to study them.
I did too: I was host and it would have been impolite to run off without them.
I've told folks over the years that my Mama did her best to beat some manners into me -- ahem! hak-kaff! I mean teach me good manners, at which point I try that Innocent Expression which ain't worked yet, and generally I get a laugh.
Folks can generally tell when I'm pullin' their leg.
Anyway we three stopped, and Sam cast an expert eye on the whiteface herd scattered over the high meadow.
Neither she nor Clark offered any comment, but I could near to hear the gears turnin' behind those Scandanavian-blue eyes.
Sam and Clark had overnighted in the Jewel, at my insistence: I told them it would be better to head out come daylight, they could see the place in good light, get settled in the bunk house, poke around and ask questions and have the day to do it.
I think maybe the prospect of a nice hot bath figured in their decision to take me up on my hospitality.
That, or the cookin' from Daisy's kitchen.
Whichever the case, we set out at first light: it wasn't snowing much though it was cold -- I've seen it much colder, but the knit scarf around my own neck felt pretty darn good.
Sam, she wrapped her face and head and hat as well.
I don't reckon a hurricane could have pulled that hat off her braids.
That was another thing I noticed: when she rode in last night her hair was in one thick, heavy braid.
Today it was in two braids and long enough to wrap around her throat.
I'd seen that done before, as protection against a throat slash in a knife fight.
I'd known Sam back towards the end of the War.
She was a newlywed, and she and her husband had driven a herd of cattle to sell to the Yankees.
Well, a particular colonel allowed as he would just confiscate their herd instead of pay for them, he would keep the gold they were supposed to be paid, and if they objected he could hang them for treason.
I was nowhere near when this happened but I heard about it not long after.
It seems that-there Colonel woke in his tent with a callused hand over his mouth and a knife at his throat, and a set of blue eyes burning into his.
They found him tied to a tree a mile and a half away, hung upside down with a hangman's noose around his ankles.
He was also buck naked.
When he got back to his tent he found his gold was gone, and in its place a hand written order to report to the commanding general.
I was present at his court-martial that afternoon, but that's its own story and I'm talkin' about Samantha.
We rode on to the McKenna place and tied off at the hitch rail in front of the house.
Sam's Winchester was in her hand and I reached out, swatting the muzzle up.
"It's a'right," I said. "Friend of mine."
Bear Killer came yawning around the corner of the house, padded up to me and leaned against my thigh, closing his eyes and muttering a quiet yow-wow-wow as I rubbed his ears.
"This is Bear Killer," I said, grinning.
"Are you sure he's not a bear?"
"Nah. Legs are too skinny." I pulled the fur aside on top of his skull, looking at the healing wounds. "What in the world did you get into, fella?"
Bear Killer closed his eyes and leaned a little more into me.
"You're going to put him to sleep like that," Sam observed.
"Uncle Linn!" BANG and the door slammed open against the siding and two little girls launched off the front porch and into the snow.
I went down on one knee and gathered them into me, one in each arm: Opal snatched the hat from my head and clapped it on her own, instantly disappearing under a felt tent that covered her nearly to her earlobes, and Polly hugged me around the neck with a delighted intensity that left my eyesight spotty and my ears ringing.
That was a few seconds after I went over backwards in the snow, laughing like a damned fool.
There I was, laying flat on my back, both legs stuck straight in the air, two giggling little girls piling on top of me, and Bonnie and Sarah came out on the porch, eyeing our little company with a combination of puzzlement and pleasure.
"Ladies," Bonnie called. "Ladies!"
Sarah put her fingers to her lips: dressed in the latest fashion, trim of waist and neatly coiffed, the image of young and delicate gentility, she shrilled a whistle that would have done a grown man proud.
Opal and Polly immediately abandoned their mutual mauling of my poor old carcass and ran scampering up the steps and onto the porch.
"Bonnie," I said, rolling over and shaking snow off me, "this is Sam and that-there is Clark. Sam is the one I was tellin' you about."
"Please," Bonnie said, "come in."
Bear Killer hobby-horsed up the steps.
"You wipe your feet," Bonnie gently admonished the Bear Killer.
"Come on in," I grinned.
Sam and Clark fell in behind me, kicking show off their feet, wiping their soles on the cocoa-nut matting.
Sam and Clark looked at the Bear Killer's backside disappearing through the open door and looked at one another.
"He don't eat much," I said. "One or two drummers a day will do him fine."
"Yeah," Clark said.
We went on in.
"There is coffee," Bonnie said, "and pie, if you like. Have you eaten? -- oh!"
I hung up my hat and coat and looked at Bonnie.
She had a look of ... well, she kind of looked like someone had just showed up with a fish sticking out of their shirt collar.
Sam had removed hat and scarf and had shaken her braids free and now stood shoulder to shoulder with me: she was as tall as I, fair skinned as only the Scandanavian are, and startling blue eyes: the color was in her cheeks, and her coat was off, revealing that yes indeed, she was all woman.
"You're a woman," Bonnie said faintly, her hand rising and her splayed fingers resting delicately on her bodice.
"Yeah," Clark said.

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Linn Keller 2-8-11

 

Polly peeked around the corner.
I could see the big blue ribbon bow in her hair before I could see her, then I saw her bright eyes lean out from around the door frame, and the tips of pink little fingers as she tried to remain hidden: Opal, too, peeked around the other side of the door casing, obsidian eyes just as bright and just as curious.
My attention was on Bonnie; I winked at the twins and they giggled, but didn't pull back.
I heard Polly's whisper: "She's very tall!" and from the corner of my eye could see Opal's big hair bow nod as she silently agreed.
I clapped a hand on Sam's square shoulder: I clapped firmly, like I would a man, for I wished to make a point: Bonnie has felt my strength, and she knew what it was when I laid a brisk hand on a grown man's shoulder, and she did not miss that Sam neither flinched, nor did she sag.
Matter of fact she was as muscle solid as any man I know ... and more so than most.
"Sam and I rode together back East some," I said, and felt a softness around my eyes, for Sam and I went back quite a ways.
"She and her husband gained a reputation for profit and for fair dealing. She's honest as the day is long and she's strong enough to pick me up and tie me in a knot."
Sam favored me with an appraising look.
I appraised her right back.
Bonnie snatched her dropped composure and spun it around her shoulders: "Please, come in," and we filed into the dining room.
Bonnie was organized and efficient, and Bonnie, a business woman, had a businesslike mind: she had ledgers and stacked papers set out and ready, and after pie and coffee -- I wouldn't have minded more pie, for that hired girl of hers was a really good cook! -- we set down and started going over the books.
Sam saw right away where the trouble started.
She frowned and went over sales figures, looked back and forth from one year to the next and rubbed her chin.
Sam was never a bashful type: she looked squarely at Bonnie and said "I'm surprised you have a herd left."
"So am I," she murmured. "It's much smaller than it was."
Sam nodded. "I'll need to ride the property first off. Have you a map ...?"
Bonnie turned to her roll top desk, withdrew a rolled sheet: she and Sam moved books and papers out of the way, Clark picked up the cream pitcher and a cup and saucer, and the map was unrolled, weighted with miscellaneous tableware.
Sam's fingers caressed the map's surface and she looked sharply at me.
"Your work?"
I nodded.
"He's still the best map maker I've found," Sam said quietly, directly to Bonnie.
"Now show me the property lines. Go over the water, the graze."
Bonnie knew her land. She gave a swift and concise verbal sketch of what the hand drawn map showed.
Sam's intense blue eyes followed her moving finger, building a mental image of what lay without the fine, two-story house.
Polly and Opal, at my beckon, came silently, almost guiltily, to the table: I drew out two chairs, stood them on the chairs so they could see what was going on.
Very likely Bonnie did not allow the children to stand on the chairs, but if she was going to raise hell, she could raise hell with me, for I put them up to it.
Matter of fact she looked over as I picked Opal up and stood her in place.
I gave Bonnie a wink.
She never changed expression; she never missed a word; she continued describing how the springs she'd just indicated had gone dry in a prolonged drought, but others -- here -- never did, no matter how bad the dry spell.
Sam nodded.
Sarah stood back, watching, listening: she was watching both this Norse goddess and the absolutely unremarkable Clark.
I knew from the look on her face she was considering these two strangers carefully.
She knew I'd recommended someone named "Sam" as the best in the cattle business.
She was as surprised as her mother that Sam ... well, it did not surprise her that Sam wore britches, for she herself wore britches when occasion demanded.
I saw a change in Sam's eyes.
She felt herself being watched.
She looked over to find Sarah looking steadily at her.
Sam looked at Sarah, looked at me.
"That her?" she asked. "Ragdoll?"
I nodded.
I reckon Bonnie read the smile around my eyes, for hers were similar.
"Sarah," I said, "I'd like you to meet a friend of mine."

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