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Firelands-The Beginning

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Charlie MacNeil 2-8-11


"Ho!" The team drew up, steam rising gently from warm horsehide. Their breathing was easy, thanks to the constant rest breaks Fannie had called along the way. She slipped from beneath the heavy robe, picked up her rifle and strode out ahead of the big bays to investigate the anomaly that had caught her eye from the crest of the last rise. A few yards ahead of where the team stood patiently waiting for their mistress the trail's pristine snow cover was hoof-churned, torn by the passing of what looked to be at least five shod horses; it was difficult to tell the exact number. Whoever the riders were, they seemed to be in a hurry.

Fannie back-trailed the riders for a hundred yards, gauging their line of travel. The tracks came from the south and were curving to the northeast, away from the ranch but not aiming toward the town. Instead, it appeared that the group was pointing toward the canyon lands beyond the mine. This was odd but no obvious cause for concern. Fannie shrugged, made a mental note to apprise the sheriff of what she'd seen, trudged through the snow to the team and slipped back beneath her warm lap robe. "Hyup, boys. Let's go to town."

"That there gal seen our tracks, an' she's a-lookin'."

"Yeah, so? What's she gonna do about it? There ain't no law agin ridin' 'crosst the country."

"I reckon not. Still, I was hopin' the snow'd cover 'em up 'fore anybody knew we was around."

"Well, it didn't, an' there ain't nothin' we kin do about it now. Come on, we're late."

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Linn Keller 2-9-11


I expected Sarah to start talking cattle.
I know she'd been looking after Bonnie's herd some since she'd gotten ... educated ... out at Charlie and Fannie's.
The mind is a swift runner: there's a Greek legend ... no, I think it's Norse ... where the gods go on vacation and guest with some folks along the seashore.
It's Norse. I recall it now.
Matter of fact it's Samantha told me.
One of their number was the swiftest runner of the gods, and he was put up against a slender youth and of course he figured ho ho, there's no mere mortal gonna outrun --and about that time the mere mortal took out and left the god standing there with his chin saggin' most of the way to his belt buckle.
Turns out he'd been set up.
He was trying to outrace Thought, and there is no swifter runner.
I reckon that's so, for my own thoughts in that moment were pretty quick.
I considered Sarah and what she'd learned out at Charlie and Fannie's, and how she'd built on her natural sense of responsiblity.
Now I don't know what-all she learned out there.
I know she came back changed some, and she hadn't near finished learning from them, for she'd told me as much.
I do know she and Charlie rode herd on their horses, and I do know Charlie made kind of a long term loan of that blue mare that liked her so well.
I stood there and while I made introductions -- with Sam and Clark and Sarah, and Sarah shook their hands and listened carefully as they spoke -- I realized there was quite a bit more going on behind those bright eyes of hers than a girl her age normally -- then my mind side tracked again, running over what hell she'd had to survive thus far, and how it seasoned her out some.
I was thinkin' so fast I'm surprised my hair didn't smoke a little.
Most girls, I considered, would likely try to impress them with how much she knew, but Sarah didn't ... matter of fact she said not a word about it.
I looked at Bonnie and saw her eyes shift.
She knew something.
I'd find out in due time, I knew.
Samantha was polite but reserved.
I don't know if she was considering the beautiful young daughter of a lady of means, and wondering if this wouldn't prove to be a spoiled child who wished to throw her weight around, or get underfoot and in the way, or what.
I'd find that out, too, but later.
Samantha turned back to the map, traced the line fence with a broke-nailed finger. I could see the black oval beneath where she'd mashed it with something, and the blood had accumulated.
"We saw part of the herd here" -- she indicated an area with her finger -- "is there another part of the herd we haven't seen?"
"Sarah?" Bonnie asked, and Samantha's eyes shifted to me, her brows quirking in an unasked question.
Sarah stepped up to the map.
"Most are here" -- she confirmed Samantha's observation -- "they drifted in ahead of the wind with that last storm. I expect some are here" -- she placed a forefinger decisively, where the map showed a ridge line tapering down into the meadow -- "they have good graze and water in the lee of this cliff. Also here" -- she moved to the left, thumped a second location.
Samantha nodded, looking at me again, and her look was rather sharp, as if accusing me of holding out on her.
I never changed expression.
Samantha should know by now you can't judge a book by its cover, nor a pretty girl by the gown she wore.
Hell, of all people, Samantha should know that!
"Sarah," Bonnie said, shooting me an impish look, and I knew I was in trouble.
"Yes, Mama?"
"How is the calf you brought in last night?"
"Alive and well, Mama. It's a strong little fellow."
Now Samantha glared at me.
"Excuse me," she said gently, and came around the table.
She laid a hand on my shoulder and if I had not turned, she would have turned me... peacefully, or otherwise.
"Just what in the hell have you got me into?" she whispered fiercely.
"They're good people, Sam," I said quietly. "And they need your help."
Samantha looked over her shoulder at Bonnie and Sarah, talking quietly over the map.
"Ragdoll," she whispered. "I didn't know I'd be working for Ragdoll!"
"You're not." I looked her square in her lake-blue eyes. "You're working for Bonnie McKenna."
Sam looked over at them again, then at me.
"She brought in a calf?"
"In that blizzard?"
"And she got the mama to take to it."
Another long look.
"She doesn't look the type."
"Neither did you."
Samantha blinked and I saw a deep, far-off sadness, but only for a moment: then she blinked again and she was entirely in the here-and-now.
"Clark?" she said.
"Reckon we'd ought to settle into the bunk house?"
She turned to Bonnie. "I'd like to look the place over, take a look at your string, ride out and take a look at the herd."
"I'll get changed," Sarah said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"I'm afraid we haven't run gas into the bunk house yet," Bonnie said, half-apologetically. "But the stoves are tight and there is plenty of wood. The foreman's quarters are in the bunk house and may be better ..." She trailed off uncertainly, looking at Clark.
Samantha broke the uncomfortable silence.
"No we're not married, no we don't plan to and no we're not an item," she said. "Clark said I'm more sister than anything else."
Samantha's ears turned a little red.
"Besides, he kicks."
"Yeah," Clark said, and his ears turned very red.
So did Bonnie's, at least what little of them I could see for her careful hairdo: she begain to smile, and she tried not to laugh, and failed utterly: I was grinning, and Clark's face started to resemble a beet, and even Sam started to chuckle.
"Okay," she said, "now that I've made an arse of myself ..."
Sarah came clattering downstairs, shrugging into her coat: she was in working clothes and ready for a ride.
Samantha looked at her and looked at me.
"That was fast," she murmured.
"Yeah," Clark agreed.

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Linn Keller 2-10-11


Little Sean, for all his rambunctious nature, was attentive to his Mama.
He cautioned his little brother to silence, then scampered with the dishpan to the pump and pumped a few quick strokes into the grey enamel basin: snatching up a small towel, he carried the basin carefully into the next room, where Daisy was kneeling, clutching a chamber pot, bent over and very, very sick.
At least I made it t' the combinet, she thought before the nausea hit her again and she shoved her face toward the white-enamel interior.
Little Sean dipped the towel in the cool wellwater, wrung it out: so miserable was his mother that she did not notice his presence until she drew her hair back, and something white appeared in front of her face, and she realized her little boy was trying to be gentle as he wiped at her reddened mouth and chin.
Daisy took the cloth gratefully, wiped her mouth, folded it and wiped the rest of her face, her neck.
Sean stood solemnly, regarding his Mama with Irish-blue eyes: he stood steadfast, a little uncertain but convinced that his place was here.
Daisy looked at her son and nodded. "Thank ye," she whispered, coughed, choked and bent over the chamber pot again.
"It's a girl," she groaned. "It's got t' be a girl. I wasna' sick a'tall wi' ye lads!"

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Linn Keller 2-13-11


I was shaking a little.
The house was silent: Angela was with Bonnie for the night, Esther and I were alone: I swallowed hard, took a long breath.
The evening had been perfect.
Maude had given me that one perfect, flawless rose, coaxed into bloom in her second story nursery: I'd smuggled it over to the Jewel, hidden in my coat, careful not to crush it nor bruise its scarlet petals: I'd sliced the end of the stem at a long angle, thrust it slowly, gently into the tall, slender bud vase half-full of water.
Dinner was in the private room in the back of the Jewel.
I'd asked Fiddler Daine to play a love ballad, and he had: he'd played several, as a matter of fact, only one of which really came out as the soft, seductive tune I'd hoped for: he was a rough hewn individual and full of lively good humor, and what he'd played mostly came out like he was struggling to keep from playing for a square dance.
We'd had a table with the best linen tablecloth, genuine silver and fine china, we'd sipped California wine from long stemmed glasses, and after the excellent, exquisitely prepared dinner, I'd handed Esther the silk wrapped box.
She opened it and her shining emerald eyes grew round, as did her mouth.
It had not been easy to find good Swiss-made chocolate but I'd managed, and had it freighted in: the hardest part was keeping it secret.
Looking at her expression in that moment, the glow of her complexion by the light of hand dipped bees wax tapers, how her eyes gleamed in the subdued illumination of the several candles, it was worth it.
We'd driven home, warm under the robe, leaned up against one another: Esther waited shyly on me, on the front porch, and I made swift work of getting the grey put up and the carriage parked.
My steps back to the front porch were brisk, my stride long: Esther's expression was expectant as I ascended the three steps, and she laughed when I snatched her up, swinging her about as I held her in my arms, and then opened the door while holding my beautiful bride.
Now I stood at the foot of our stairs, trembling a little, waiting.
Esther came through the side door, into the parlor, holding the rose: she stopped, smelled it, delicately, savoring its scent: I walked slowly over to her, and she looked up, and opened her arms.
I drew Esther into me, and as I lowered my mouth to hers, she tilted her head back to receive me: not long after, she was in my arms again, and we ascended the stairs, Esther's arms around my neck, her eyes shining.

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Linn Keller 2-15-11


She was young, and she was pretty, and she was looking about as lost as anyone Jackson Cooper had seen in a while.
The stage let her off at the Mercantile with the mail and what little freight they brought: the new arrival's logical destination would be the Silver Jewel, but that was across the street and diagonal by a bit and she had two carpet bags with her.
Jackson Cooper saw her look around, somewhere between distress and indecision, and finally she stooped and picked up her bags and started down the snow-dusted boardwalk, toward the stairs at the east end.
Jackson Cooper was a big man and strong.
Jackson Cooper moved with all the fuss and commotion of a passing cloud on a summer day.
When Jackson Cooper's deep rumbling voice gently inquired if he might be of assistance, the first thing the young lady saw was an expression of deep sadness in the man's eyes.
This, she realized, was probably because she gave a squeak of surprise and alarm, dropped her carpet bags and clapped her gloved fingers to her mouth.
To Jackson Cooper it looked like she nearly came out of her skin.
This distressed the man, for as big as he was, as strong as he was, as absolutely uncompromising as the man was, he was equally chivalrous and gentle, especially to children, ladies and little lost pups.

The Sheriff, on the other hand, tasted copper, and he knew he was skating on the rim of doom itself.
He opened a pouch, slowly poured out a dozen or so coins: they rang loud in the silence, shining as they bounced and spun, and he picked one up, inspected it nonchalantly.
"I always did like hard cash," he said, biting the coin and inspecting it for tooth marks: satisfied, he nodded, dropped it in the now-empty poke.
He slouched casually against the polished mahogany bar top, mentally assessing the situation.
He'd had the wall behind him, the wall on either side of the back hallway, reinforced: he'd imported good Eastern white oak, shipped in green and kept damp, for white oak can be worked while it's green: once it's seasoned it is too mean to saw and to spike it down, why, a man has to drill a hole for the nail to go through, and you'd better have a good drill.
There was a triple layer of white oak planking behind the finished wall, ensuring Daisy's kitchen would not inherit any stray shots from the bar.
This was important.
The young fellow was nervous and that was a bad sign.
The Sheriff knew a young and impulsive fellow could make a bad decision in a hurry.
He hoped to talk him out of it.
He'd rather talk him down and feed him a meal and send him on his way alive and breathing, than send him on his way in a pine box.
"I hear you're fast," he'd sneered, and the Sheriff pulled out the poke with his good right hand.
"A man hears a lot of things," he said, bouncing the poke in his hand to make it jingle.
"I hear you killed Rusty Smith."
"Funny thing." That was the time the Sheriff poured the coins out on the bar. "I heard that same rumor."
The Sheriff's attitude was casual, his stance relaxed; he was loafing with an affected casualness against the gleaming mahogany.
Mr. Baxter moved with an equal casualness, thumping the empty, shining beer mug noisily on the bar and sliding it over with its fellows.
The young fellow twitched a little, looked, then looked back at the Sheriff.
"Well?" His voice was insulting, his muscles tense; his hand was open a little, his thumb just touching his belt buckle.
The Sheriff noted the fine tremor in the tall boy's fingers.
"I reckon you want to see just how fast I am."
The boy stepped away from the bar, shook his coat back.
The Sheriff shrugged.
"Suppose you win."
"Yeah, suppose I do!"
"What do you get?"
"What do you get?"
The teen-ager blinked, then his eyes narrowed. "Quit talkin' and draw!"
"Now, now," the Sheriff said, making a sit-down motion with his right hand, "we don't want to hurry this, do we?"
Silence fairly echoed in the smoke-stratified atmosphere.
Mr. Baxter held the triggers back on his double gun, eased the hammers to full stand and released the triggers: tugging on the mule ears to make sure the sears were fully engaged, he waited, giving the Sheriff a quick glance.
"Suppose we draw on three," the Sheriff said affably.
The Sheriff tossed the poke up in the air a little, caught it.
"I'll count to three. We draw. Whoever's left alive, wins."
The Sheriff saw the boy blink and said, "One."
He threw the poke hard, underhand, powered away from the bar.
The young man clapped his hand to his chest, catching the poke, looked up.
The Sheriff's .44 was looking back at him.
"Two three," the Sheriff said, teeth gleaming from under his mustache.
The stranger looked down at the poke and up at the Sheriff, and not a man there doubted that they were spending at least an hour in that bright tenth of a second before the stick of dynamite goes off.
They were right.
His eyes changed and his mouth came open as his hand released the poke and flared open, streaking down toward his hip, seized his holstered pistol's handle, pulled.
The Sheriff's first shot took him high in the right chest, and the stranger's hand fell nervelessly open, his pistol falling with an exquisite slowness.
The Sheriff's hand came up and his left hand Colt spoke again and the young man fell, twisting a little, his head falling back and he seemed to shrink a little as he collapsed bonelessly to the gleaming, freshly mopped and still-damp floor.

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Charlie MacNeil 2-16-11


Breathless silence. Drifting white smoke. Soft slither of blued steel on polished leather. Boot heel scrape on polished oak...

Double gun's hammers let down as silently as they'd eared back. Clink of glass on glass, gurgle of liquid, slide of glass on hand-rubbed mahogany. Unbelieving voices...

"Can't believe that young feller tried to pull on the Sheriff like that!"

"Durn right! Sher'f had the drop!"

"Damn fool!"

Rasp of chair legs, Colt ratchet...

"Don't even think about it." Soft words, incongruously high-pitched in thunder's aftermath...

Graying lawman's head snaps around, snake-quick, ears pinpointing the source of the words, glacier-tinted eyes training like Creedmoor sights on the tableau, silence reigns again in the room...

Slender redhead, snow melting on felt and sheepskin, Colt muzzle tucked intimately behind an ear...

Mid-twenties, tied down pistol, run-down boots, Mexican spurs, white-knuckled hands clenched on chair arms, face ghostly pale, deep swallow...

"This gentleman apparently took exception to you shooting his friend," Fannie told Linn. "I thought maybe he hadn't ought to get involved."

Linn strode hard-heeled across the room to face his would-be killer. "Was that," he hooked calloused left thumb over his shoulder to indicate the dead man, "a friend of yours?" Nodded answer. "I can't hear you, boy! Speak up!"

"Ye...ye...yes, sir! He was my brother, sir!"

"Are you as dumb as he was?" Stunned gaze...

"Dumb, sir?"

"He tried to draw on a man who had a gun on him, didn't he?"

"Ye...yes, sir."

"Sounds kind of dumb to me. What do you think, ma'am?" Icy blue meets emerald...

"Sounds like it to me."

"Son, you let go of those chair arms and lift that Colt out of the holster with two fingers. Then you lay that shooter on the table. If you do anything other than exactly what I tell you, the lady behind you is going to pull the trigger. You don't want the last sound you hear before you land in hell to be a gunshot, do you?"

"N-n-no, sir!"

"Good. Now shuck that pistol." Slither of blued steel on leather, thump of steel on linen...

"Now stand up." The young man rises from his seat, hands at shoulder height. Fannie lets the hammer down on her pistol, returns it to the holster, steps back. The boy's eyes follow the corpse of his late sibling as it leaves the room suspended between four men...

"Son, have you got a horse?"


"Then I suggest you saddle that horse and light a shuck back to wherever it is you and your brother came from. If I so much as hear that you're even thinking of coming back to my town, I'll find you and make you wish you'd never been born. Do you hear me?"

"Yessir." Moment of silence. "Sir, can I have my pistol back? I've got a long way to go, and there's bandits..."

"You should have thought of that before you decided to take cards in a losing game. Now git!"

Boot heels thudding, door slams, silence in the street. Thunder of galloping hooves in the night...

"Miz Fannie, may I buy you a drink?"

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Linn Keller 2-17-11


I was mad clear through, mad enough to bite the horn off an anvil and spit nails.
I dislike killin'.
I genuinely dislike killin' when it ain't necessary.
It warn't necessary for that fellow to try me.
I tried to talk him out of it and it didn't work.
I tried one last trick to get him to realize the error of his way.
I give him every chance.
Now the fool -- no, not the fool, the damned fool!-- was dead and nothing could change that.
Was I able I would have paid good money to the witch of Endor to raise his corroded soul back into his brainless carcass so I could put my knuckles to him a few times and try and educate him.
I shook my head.
I'd just had my back side saved by Miz Fannie and I reckon I took out my ill temper on the dead man's brother, for neither my language nor my tone of voice was gentle a'tall.
I stood there and watched him follow his brother's carcass out, and the swamper come scuttlin' in with a mop and a bucket, and I turned to look at Miz Fannie.
Funny thing.
Everything sounded distant, far away, until her hand laid butterfly-light on my shoulder.
I blinked and realized I was looking -- no, not looking, staring -- into those emerald eyes, like I was looking squarely into the depths of a bottomless gem -- and I hadn't been seeing them a'tall.
I shivered.
"I'll take that drink," she said quietly.

Jackson Cooper dropped the carpet bags and caught the young woman by her upper arms.
She turned quickly, buried her face in the front of his coat, and he felt her shivering.
She made a little sound of distress that kind of grew into a squealing groan, the sound of a woman in fear or in grief, or both, and Jackson Cooper had no idea quite what was going on, other than some fellow was being packed out of the Jewel.
He'd heard gunshots, he'd seen a sick-looking kid mount up in a hurry and ride off, leading a second, saddled horse.
"Who was that?" the young woman gasped as she drew away from the big lawman, her hands clawed into his coat sleeves. "Who was that?"
"I don't know, ma'am," Jackson Cooper rumbled, "but I can find out."
The woman looked absolutely sick.
"Why don't we get you in where it's warm," Jackson Cooper suggested.
She nodded, quickly, jerkily, then stopped.
She tilted her head back, eyes closed, swallowed hard.
"I have to know if it's him."
"If it's ... who, ma'am?"
She shivered and looked toward the undertaker's parlor.
"I have to know if that's my brother."
"Did you see that fellow that rode off in such a hurry?"
She nodded.
"Did you recognize him?"
She shook her head, fumbling for a kerchief.
"Did you recognize his horse?"
She pressed the kerchief to her nose, then stopped, surprised.
She looked up at Jackson Cooper.
"Did I recognize ... his horse?"
"Yes, ma'am."
She laughed uncertainly. "No ... no, I didn't ... it was just a horse, wasn't it?"
"Yes, ma'am."
He picked up her carpet bags and they steered a course for the funeral parlor.

"If you squeeze that shot glass much harder it'll explode."
I come back to the here and now, looked down at the glass of amber in my trembling fist.
I knocked it back in one swallow like I was punishing myself.
Maybe I was.
Maybe I was cussing myself for seven kinds of a fool for not thinking of some way to keep that stupid kid from killing himself like that.
I looked at Miz Fannie, looked her square in the eye.
"Thank you," I said, and meant it.
"You long tall drink of water," she said quietly, and there was a hardness to her eyes, "if you go and get yourself killed Esther will never speak to you again!"
Her words were delivered matter-of-factly, with the flint-sharpened edge that made them cut in deep, and then I realized what she'd said, and that broke my foul mood.
I nodded, shoved my bottom jaw out and pressed my lips together.
I could feel my eyes wrinkling up a little at the corners, but that's all the farther my smile went.
"Miz Fannie," I said, "I wish I'd been able to partner with you years ago."
I looked her in the eye again.
"Forgive me for bein' forward," I said quietly, "but Charlie is pretty damned lucky!"

It only took Jackson Cooper one good glare to persuade Digger to let the lady take a look at the deceased.
"Draw up his left sleeve, please," she said, her voice tight, and Digger did so.
"Turn his arm over. Palm up."
He did.
She ran gloved fingertips lightly along the inner aspect of the forearm, trailing slowly from wrist toward the elbow.
"It's not him," she whispered, straightening.
Jackson Cooper nodded his thanks to the top-hatted undertaker and followed the young woman into the parlor.
She stood, staring sightlessly through the ornate, frosted-glass windows of the elaborately-inset oak door.
"You're looking for someone," Jackson Cooper said quietly.
She nodded.
"Might help if I had a name."
She nodded again, then spoke slowly, distantly.
"He was always ..." she said, and her voice caught: "... he wasn't as ..."
She pressed her kerchief to her nose again.
"I thought I could change him." She pressed the balled linen to one closed eye, then the other. "I thought I could ... I thought he could turn away from ..."
Jackson Cooper waited patiently, knowing this was difficult for her.
His quick ear knew her words were accented and framed from the Northeast ... Pennsylvania, maybe? he thought.
"The War took our father, and our uncle took us. We girls did well ... we married ..." She looked shyly at the Marshal. "My husband died two years ago, and fever took my sister and our other brother. I promised --" She closed her eyes and took a long breath, sighed it out. "I promised I would find him and bring him home."
"Did he write that he was in the territory, ma'am?" Jackson Cooper prompted. "Was he headed for the gold fields, for Californy?"
"He mentioned California," she nodded. "His name was Arthur Swaro."
Arthur Swaro, Jackson Cooper thought, then shook his head ponderously.
"I don't believe I've heard of him, ma'am."
She nodded.
"Is Cripple Creek far from here?"
"It's the next train stop, ma'am."
"I see there is an hotel across the way and up the street."
"Yes, ma'am. The Silver Jewel."
"Is it clean?"
"Cleaner'n my house, ma'am, and my wife is a fine housekeeper."
"I shall stay the night, then, and take the train to Cripple Creek in the morning."
"Yes, ma'am."

Jackson Cooper made mention of this encounter to the Sheriff a few days after, when he had occasion to stop in and say howdy.
He never saw the young woman again, nor did he ever run into anyone named Arthur Swaro.

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Linn Keller 2-21-11


It wasn't terribly cold and my black horse was restless so I pointed his nose due east and headed vaguely toward the sunrise, or where it would rise come morning.
It was near to full dark, or as dark as it would get with half a moon and an uncountable number of stars and good snow to reflect them.
We did not travel quickly, nor did we have a destination: we followed the road for a ways, least until my head cleared enough to think again.
It ain't good for a man to get good and mad.
He don't think too good with a good head of bull-mad between his ears, and I drew the black up, turning him.
The black started to dance.
He knew something just hit me between the eyes like a hard swung club.
I was headed east.
That damn fool kid Miz Fannie spared had headed west.
It was cold and it was night and he'd want to lay up someplace.
What was the first place west of town? I thought, and my stomach tightened.
I leaned into the black and he leaned into a gallop and we headed back for town.
Bonnie's place was the first estancia west of Firelands and I'd just run that fellow straight towards her.
I will not record what I called myself in that ride, for if I admit to using language like that, I will never be considered fit for decent company ever again: I prayed the black horse would not wind break nor lung-frost, but if need be I would ride it into the ground.
Not Bonnie, I thought desperately.
Not Bonnie!
Sharpened steel horseshoes bit into the packed snow: the black was sure footed, doing the one thing in the world he loved more than anything else, and that was run, run just as hard and as fast as he could go: we shot through town like an arrow from a drawn bow: my weight was in the stirrups, my hands on the gelding's neck, wordlessly begging more speed, more speed, more speed!
I'd just come in sight of Bonnie's place when I heard it:
A rifle shot, carrying clear on the cold night air.

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Linn Keller 2-22-11


Sam kicked the empty out of the action, levered a fresh round into the chamber.
The kid's hat didn't fly dramatically off his head, but a hole did appear in its front, near to the top crease.
Sam did not say a word.
She did not have to.
The kid just stood there looking like he'd been speared.
"Clark," Samantha said, "get his rifle."
Clark sauntered up to the kid, picked up his dropped carbine.
Hoofbeats, fast and approaching, prompted Clark to fade back into the bunk houses's shadow.
The front door of the main house opened, a slight figure flowed out and into a pool of shadowed black: Clark noted the brief glint of starlight off a rifle barrel, and knew Sarah was practicing stealth.
The rider came pounding down the driveway, under the iron arch that said MC KENNA, drew to a fast stop: the rider was out of the saddle, rifle in hand, running before he hit the ground.
"Uncle Linn!" Sarah's voice was urgent, tight as she stood.
"Report!" The Sheriff's voice was brisk, businesslike, military.
Sarah pointed to the bunkhouse and Sam curled her lip, whistled.
The Sheriff and Sarah advanced, separated by some fifteen feet.
The kid groaned.
He took in the tableau: Sam, with her rifle at low ready; the kid, with his empty, tied-down holster, standing pale and shaking in the washed-out moonlight; Clark, flowing out of concealing shadow, carbine across his arm.
"Sam?" he asked, not taking his ice-pale eyes off the kid.
Sam had calmed down some but her temper was still not inclined to charity: she preferred to dress for the task at hand, and her task had been to get a good night's rest, and she intended to do so in a flannel nightgown, one of her few concessions to femininity: when an intruder had thrust through the door, leading with a carbine and followed by a hunted expression, he found himself met with the business end of two rifles, and now Sam stood barefoot in the snow, stating her case in brief, clipped syllables.
The Sheriff stepped close to the kid: he was half a head and better taller than the youth and it was clear he was irritated, to put it mildly.
"Anything to say?" he asked quietly ... too quietly, Sam knew, for when the Sheriff got quiet, the Sheriff was unhappy, and it profited no man to make the Sheriff unhappy.
"I, I," came the stammered reply, "I needed to bunk --"
The Sheriff's hand shot out like a striking viper, took the kid by the throat.
Sarah felt her stomach twist a little as she listened to the choking sound, shivered as she realized the intruder's boot soles were starting to separate from the ground.
"Why don't I take you to jail," the Sheriff grated. "You'll be warm there, I'll feed you and we'll talk about this in the morning."
He released his grip under the kid's jaw bone and seized him instead by the front of the coat, hoisting him off the ground.
"You try anything," the Sheriff growled, "I will rip your head off and kick it all the way back to town, I will skin your carcass with a spoon and then I'll get mean with you!"
Sarah's blood ran cold.
She had never, ever heard her Uncle Linn speak with such utter, cold, plainly stated anger in her entire young life.

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Linn Keller 2-24-11


The prisoner woke several times through the night.
What little sleep he had was filled with nightmares ...
His brother, in a pine box, sitting up with wide, blank, dead eyes, shouting "DRAW!" and laying back down ...
A hand, hard, squeezing the life from his throat as he was hoist off his feet, dangling a thousand feet over the edge of a cliff ...
With every nightmare, every new terror, he woke, starting at the sight of steel bars and stone wall: he was beyond even a whimper of sorrow, and curled up fully dressed under the wool blanket, shivering on the thin mat covering the jail's pallet.
Dawn came finally, though he could not see more than a few streaks through the cracks in the shutters that held winter's chill from the barred window: he had no real idea it was morning until the Sheriff came in, grim-faced, to open the barred door and escort him to the outhouse.
The Sheriff fired the stove back in the cell block and heated a basin of water, invited the prisoner to wash up and shave: trembling, the prisoner did both, not stopping to wonder that the Sheriff allowed him the use of a straight razor.
When he was done he returned to his cell and sat.
He had never been so thorougly demoralized, so totally cowed, in his entire life.
He'd never spent the night in lockup before.
He had not been a praying sort for many years, but he found it easy now: no man wants to be utterly alone in such circumstances, and so his thoughts, and his words, turned to the Almighty.
The front door opened, closed; measured tread, hard bootheels came nearer, and he knew the Sheriff was coming again.
The tall lawman bore a tray and set it on the little wooden table outside the cells.
"Well, come on out and eat," he said, his voice colorless as a washed-out winter sky: "I've never starved a man to death yet."
The prisoner sat down uncertainly; the Sheriff sat easily, relaxed, a blue granite coffee cup in his left hand.
He's left handed, the kid thought: I saw him shoot Scott left-handed.
He reached for his fork.
His hand trembled, fine tremors making his grip uncertain: he dropped the fork, picked it up, dropped it again.
"The food's good," the Sheriff said, his voice not entirely unkind. "Best eat before it gets cold."
"Y-y-yes, sir," the kid stammered, picked up the fork again, willing himself not to drop it.
He cut a chunk off a fried egg, folded it over and speared it, ate: his stomach rejoiced as he swallowed, and he suddenly realized he was near to starved out.
The Sheriff sipped coffee, slowly, watching the kid from under his hat brim.
When the last bite -- and truth be told there had been enough for two men on that tray -- when the last bite was down the kid's hatch, he set his fork carefully on the plate and nodded.
He took a long drink of black coffee, swished it around his mouth, savoring the last of the flavors, swallowed.
"Thank you," he said.
I'm still alive, he thought, surprised at the notion.
The Sheriff sat there, silent, unmoving.
The prisoner fidgeted in his seat.
He looked at the lawman, looked around, scratched his neck, shifted in his seat, looked at the Sheriff again, looked at the floor, back to the Sheriff.
"Well?" he finally blurted.
"Well what?" the Sheriff asked mildly.
"Well whattaya gonna do with me now?" he demanded, half angry and more than half afraid.
He was certain he would end up wearing a hemp necktie, but he was equally certain that not knowing would kill him quicker and less mercifully.
The Sheriff blinked like a sleepy lion and the kid realized this was a ruse, a dupe: the man was fast, faster than Scott had ever been, and Scott had been fast!
The Sheriff's bottom lip pushed up a little as he considered.
"You ever advance in line?" he asked, pale blue eyes burning through the kid's ribcage and carving scorch marks on the prisoner's spine.
"Nnno, sir." He shook his head. "Ain't that what sojers do? Scott, he was in the cavalry -- he deserted out -- but I heard him say somethin' about that advancin' stuff and lines."
"Hm." The tall lawman nodded.
"I ain't no deserter!" the kid blurted.
"No, didn't figure you were."
"Then why you holdin' me?"
Winter-bleak eyes nailed the kid to his chair as effectively as if he'd been harpooned.
The Sheriff rubbed his chin.
"Tell me about Scott."
The kid stopped, considered, then he began to talk.

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Linn Keller 2-26-11


I sighted down the length of the blade.
The edge had to be kept absolutely true: I held the file in both hands, laid it across the shining steel, kept it flat, held my thumbs against the side of the blade and drew the file slowly, carefully, toward me.
Jacob sat on a folded blanket laid on a stump, watching.
"I was of a mind," I said absently, drawing the file toward me again, "to dig up the floor in the storeroom out in the barn, and use the dirt to make a walk way."
I regarded the shining steel, nodded, placed the file at the far end for one more pass.
"Then I figured it would make a low place in the floor and likely it would hold water once it thawed and I didn't want to make a muddy mess."
The file whispered near-inaudibly as I drew it, flat and level, toward me.
"Then I thought maybe to throw some hay out and I thought no, if the winter turns long I'll need it all for feed, or straw for bedding, and I must have had thunder on my brow sitting there at the breakfast table considering.
"Esther" -- he shot a glance at his son -- "Jacob, your mother is a wise woman."
"Yes, sir."
"She is as intelligent as she is beautiful." I set the file down, unwound the vise and removed the skate. I handed it to Jacob. "Take a look at this one."
Jacob accepted the skate, turned it, tilted his head a little as he looked longways down the blade.
I clamped the other skate in place.
"Esther" -- I picked up the file, took it in both hands, then carefully set it on the flat of the skate's blade -- "said I was about to melt my ears off from thinkin' too hard and asked what was on my mind, so I told her." I placed my thumbs against the sides of the skate blade and drew the file toward me.
"She said for me to stand up and I did and she put her dukes up and said "Slowly, now, I want to show you something."
"She threw a punch at me, dead slow.
I straightened set the file down.
Can't talk without my hands, y'know.
"She punched -- so -- and I blocked, so -- and Esther asked why I deflected her punch instead of stopping it.
"I told her I was using her punch against her, that it would draw her into me so I could counter-punch.
"She lowered her arm and stepped back, folded her hands in her apron the way she does" -- Jacob grinned, seeing the very move in his mind's eye -- "and she said "So you don't stop it, you work with it."
"Yes, ma'am."
"Then I have an idea." I looked at the skate Jacob still held, then the one in the vise.
"It got warm yesterday and thawed just enough to melt the snow on top, then it rained and froze as it hit."
Jacob made a face. "Yes, sir."
"Esther is going to town, but she's not taking sled nor buggy."
Jacob blinked, looked down at the skate he held.
"Yep," I said. "She's figuring to skate."

Turns out Esther was not the only one with the notion.
Bonnie, too, made the trip to town on a set of flashing blades; some half-dozen schoolboys as well discovered the world had been coated in shining, liquid diamond, ideal for their free travel, and they, too, whooped and laughed and streaked across a world that was suddenly, universally open and without limit, rejoicing that their efforts were no longer confined to a frozen body of water.
Me, I figured it was a fine day for a ride, so I saddled that black horse and checked his shoes carefully and he did just dandy until we got out of the barn and onto that slick surface: he slid a little and froze, then he took a few more steps and skidded and he muttered, but directly he got the hang of walking on ice and we walked to town.
I'd like to have seen me riding that black horse on ice.
I've never worn a woman's high heeled shoes but darn if it didn't feel like that black horse was walking like a girl wearing high heels for the first time.
Esther, now ... I heard Esther's laugh behind me and she came streaking past and I will never forget just how absolutely graceful she looked: she had her fur muff on her left hand, but her gloved right hand she was swinging for balance, curved and graceful and utterly feminine, not so much skating as ... as flying, flying on the earth, and that black horse stopped and stood there and muttered to himself.
I patted the black horse's neck.
"I know, fellow," I said. "Show-off."

Jacob had waited until I'd finished sharpening Esther's skates before asking about the fracas in the Jewel, and he listened carefully as I recounted Sam and Clark's reception of the erstwhile outlaw.
His eyes veiled themselves as I told him of the long talk the kid and I had, and finally he asked quietly, "You turned him loose?"
"Sent him back East."
"I did."
Jacob considered this for some time.
"Yes, Jacob?" I stroked the file with the file card, cleaning bits of metal out of its teeth.
"Sir, did you just get hood winked?"
I set the file card down, tapped the file's edge briskly on the side of the work bench and propped it up with its fellows at the back of my work bench, then I turned and faced my son squarely.
"It would not be the first time," I admitted frankly. "Was he a girl I'd say probably."
My expression was probably quite rueful as I admitted, "For whatever reason, the female of the species can pull the wool over my baby blues fast and easy. I have been Bam Boozled faster by women than by anyone."
Jacob tilted his head, closed one eye and considered something in the distance: he shifted in his seat and grunted.
"He's got kin folk back East, and his brother was ever getting him in trouble -- not because the brother was all that bad but because the kid was a follower." I leaned my palms on the edge of the work bench and pressed, taking the weight off my lower back until something popped.
I groaned.
Anymore I can't stand for any length of time without my poor old back giving me billy Hell.
I un-clamped the other skate and handed it to Jacob.
"Your mother said she knew a pond nearby and she'd love to skate again. She'd visited kinfolk in the yankee North -- New York, I think she said -- and she skated as a child, and loved it, and she asked me to sharpen these."
"Yes, sir."
Jacob's eyes were troubled.
"You're thinking I should have kept that kid locked up."
Jacob considered, then looked square at me.
"I have thought you wrong in the past, sir," he said frankly, "and turned out you were right." He rubbed his chin. "Sir, you know more about these things than I do."
"There's more."
Jacob turned his head as if bringing his good ear to bear.
"I believe seeing that strong leader brought down and then getting his hat ventilated, by getting caught and figuring he was gonna get beat plumb to death, by spending the night in the Hoose Gow" -- I ticked each item off on my fingers, can't talk without my hands -- "he woke up and learned he ain't the outlaw type.
"I give him a chance."
Jacob nodded.
"I told him to head back east and get honest work. I told him to save his money and buy a store, marry a sweet girl with a good business mind and raise a pack of children. I told him there was nothing finer in this world than the shining eyes of a little child lookin' at you nor to wake up with a pair of bright eyes staring into yours and a little voice saying "Daddy, you 'wake?"
Jacob laughed, for he'd heard Esther describe Angela doing that very thing with me.
I stood.
"No, Jacob, I don't reckon I messed up." I grinned at my fine, tall son, who stood when I did.
"You hungry? I believe the coffee's still hot."
"Yes, sir." Jacob grinned, slowly rubbing the flats of his palms together, creating a dry, raspy sound in the quiet work shop. "I'm so empty, the sides of my stomach is sand paperin' together."

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Linn Keller 2-27-11


I leaned against the bar, comfortably slouched with one boot up on the gleaming foot rail. Vanilla coffee was fragrant in the back of my throat and the heavy mug warm in my hand, and Mr. Baxter, having polished every single piece of glassware in the house, flipped his bar towel expertly over one shoulder and leaned his forearms on the bar, loafing companionably toward me.
"So 'twas slick?" he asked, eyes bright and merry as they always were in such moments, and I nodded, contemplating eternity in the gleaming ripples of my mug.
"My poor old black horse just did not like it a'tall."
I took a slow, savoring sip of the fragrant brew.
Mr. Baxter accepted a mug of his own from the girl, smiled his thanks.
We slurped noisily together.
A man learns much in a lifetime, and a man meets many people from many places.
One fellow who'd come through was a blue water sailor, his hands half-closed and horn-callused from years of pulling lines on board ship: he walked with the rolling gait of the man who expected the ground underfoot to list suddenly to port, then to starboard.
He'd been an interesting fellow and we'd ended up talking long into the night, periodically sharing a drink.
He'd had a truly remarkable capacity for distillate, and though at first disappointed that there was no rum to be had here either, he'd happily decided the Daine boys' amber lightning was much to his taste, after he cut it half and half with good spring water.
"Grog," he explained, and allowed as he considered it bad luck to drink undiluted rum, alluding to personal experience in the matter.
I'd had rum, good dark Jamaica rum, back when I was still in Union blue: I recall it set me down on my back side and I smiled all night, though the next day was nowhere near as pleasant.
We'd finished the night with coffee as the eastern horizon was starting to lighten and streak some, and stepped outside to see the sight.
Our breath came in clouds that very early morning and our coffee steamed curling tendrils into the thin mountain air as we stood out in the middle of the street, watching.
The man thanked me for the mug-up, and explained that on board ship the cook would bring out heavy ceramic mugs of scalding coffee, bitter as a widow's tears and black as the Captain's heart, and all hands would take a few moments from the unceasing labor that is sailing a canvas sail ship, and share a "mug-up."
I thought of that as Mr. Baxter and I shared our companionable mug-up.
"Your horse didn't fall, now, did he?" Mr. Baxter asked at length.
I laughed quietly.
"No," I said, "but if it weren't for those good sharpened shoes Shorty put on him, we'd have both busted ourselves! No," I sipped again, "he didn't fall but a few times he came near to it!"

Esther and Bonnie, upstairs, were sharing a companionable cup themselves, though their drink of choice had been preceded by bitter powders extracted from willow-bark, and followed by a rather potent wine, taken from delicate, long-stemmed glasses.
They had delighted in skating to town, each had been able to find flat and level areas in which they rejoiced to practice the piroutettes and curves they'd danced as girls.
Now, upstairs in Esther's office, in knit slippers instead of high-laced skates, the ladies laughed quietly as they admitted to one another the onset of aches and pains unknown to them as girls.

In the little stable behind the Sheriff's office, the black horse loafed, hip-shot, content to be out of the wind and with straw to stand in and a little grain in with the hay: the local stray, having scrounged a meal, then another, came snuffing in, looking for a warm place to curl up.
He and the black horse sniffed noses: satisfied, the dog curled up in the hay, and was soon warm, and asleep; the black horse, too, drowsed in the quiet, content.

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Linn Keller 3-1-11


It stayed cold that day and the ice held most places. It melted and dripped off roofs and eaves and built up underneath and little boys snapped off icicles and sucked on them, or threw them underhand across the ice-finished ground, seeing how far they would skid.
One little fellow got mad at another and belted his erstwhile playmate over the head with one, which prompted an instant knock down drag out fight, with the pair rolling over and pounding inefficiently on each other.
Nobody interfered.
When they got tired they got up, wiped bloody noses on coat sleeves, looked at one another and laughed and ended up playing together for the rest of the day.
I watched, from a distance, and considered that a philosopher may draw some deep and meaningful conclusion from what had just been seen.
Me, I went back over across the street and tended what little business there was.
Jackson Cooper stopped in and told me about a stranger passing through, a good looking young woman searching for her brother: I opened my mouth to mention the fellow I'd put on the eastbound train, and Jackson Cooper raised a forestalling palm.
"She saw him," he said quietly. "She saw the carcass first and neither was her brother."
I closed my mouth and nodded.
"Did she give a name?"
Jackson Cooper shook his head.
"No forwarding address, no way to contact her?"
Again, a slow turning of his ponderous gourd.
"She must not want our help."
"Must not."
I looked over toward the stove. The little gas stove was lit, and the tips of the stone backing were glowing a happy cherry color as they always did, but I still fired the cast iron stove, and the coffee pot simmered on top the way it always did.
"The coffee ain't bad," I said. "I didn't make it."
Jackson Cooper nodded slowly, stood.
"I'll risk it. You want some?"
"Yeah." I drew open the bottom right hand desk drawer, pulled out a pint bottle of water clear, not over thirty days old: as I added some to each steaming granite cup, I intoned, "Old Soul Saver, to ward off the Devil."
Jackson Cooper grunted and let his cool for a bit.
So did I.
Was I to try takin' a sip hot as it was, why, it would likely peel the enamel right off my teeth.

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Linn Keller 3-2-11


I was restless.
Might be the coffee, I thought.
It tends to go right through a man.
Might I oughta take a trot around to the kaibo.
With that thought, I set my blue granite cup on the shelf and headed for the front door.
Soon as I stood, my suspicions were confirmed: yep, it's time to take a trot out back.
Now I'm not above making a friendly wager and I'll play the occasional hand of poker, but I do so with full knowledge that whatever I put in the pot, will likely never again see the inside of my purse: no, if I play it's for small sums, and for the companionship.
I don't bet on horses a'tall.
I learned the hard way -- again, back when I was in that damned War -- that if I bet on a horse race, I come out consistent losers.
The only horse race I ever bet on and won, I won because I figured which horse was most likely to lose, and I bet on that one.
I say this because luck is a fickle beast and tends to turn on a man when he don't expect it to.
Like when I set foot on the first step going down off the board walk.
I reckon I distracted myself when I realized I had not told Jackson Cooper about Miz Fannie's mention of tracks in the snow, several riders moving fast.
When I felt my foot start to slip I knew I was going down and I figured I could either go down on those steps and maybe bust my tail bone -- again -- or I could try and make the street and bust something else.
I jumped, sort of, and twisted as I fell and landed flat on my back on the ice slick, packed dirt alley way.
It was likely my imagination but I thought the earth shivered a little under me when I hit.
I laid there for some long minutes, I reckon it was the better part of a week or so it felt like, fighting to get some air into me: the fall knocked the wind out of me and how, and I was fearful I might have busted a lung or something, but I started to get myself pumped up again about the time two urchins crept tentatively into my field of vision.
One towhead had his fur cap in his hands, peering anxiously down at me, and another's voice asked timorously, "Is he dead?"
The towhead took a reluctant half-step toward me and asked, "Mits-ter Sheriff, are you dead?"
I blinked and looked at the tow head and said, "Are you an angel?"
His eyes got really big and round and he shook his head.
I got some more breath into me.
"Well, if you ain't no angel and you ain't carryin' a pitch fork, I must be alive."
He nodded, eyes owlish and uncertain, then he turned and blurted, "He's alive, Billy!"
"Aw!" came the disappointed response, "I wanted his badge!"
I rolled up on one elbow and bent my left leg under me.
"It's nice to know I'm useful for something," I muttered, put my hands down on the ice and came up on all fours.
"Can I help you up, Mits-ter Sheriff?" the tow head asked, yanking his fur cap down over his head. It dropped down to his eyebrows, obviously too big, probably a hand-me-down.
"You'd best stand back," I cautioned. "This is kind of slippery and if I fall again I don't want to land on you."
He nodded and took an obedient half-step back.
I worked my way over to the corner of the board walk, took as good a grip as I could on the ice-rimed boards and carefully worked my way upright.
"There now," I said. "Good as new."
I took one step and ended up flat on my face, my hat rolling a little before falling over.
The tow head helpfully picked up the hat and held it as I struggled upright again.
I touched the back of my hand tentatively to my throbbing nose.
It came away bloody.
I looked down at blood on the ice and swore, gingerly explored my bashed beak and decided it wasn't broken, for a miracle.
I looked around for a rain barrel or a horse trough and realized they were all froze solid, so I gobbed my wild rag around my bloody beak and carefully, gingerly, shuffled one foot, then the other, toward the Silver Jewel.
A philosopher would probably have regarded the scene -- a grown man, balancing gingerly as a brittle old man and almost afraid to move, versus two young lads, laughing, running, slipping and skidding and getting up again -- and draw some profound conclusion.
Me, the only thing I felt profoundly was that I wanted to wash the blood off my face, and I really, really had to get rid of some second hand coffee.

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Linn Keller 3-3-11


Esther sighed as she put down the telegraph flimsy.
The mine owners were impatient to get their ore to the mill, and she understood that; the mine owners did not want to wait for a thaw, and she understood that as well.
She did not care for the tone they took in their rather lengthy telegram.
Esther knew that well more than half of a conversation was nonverbal: most of a message came from gesture, stance, look, expression, tone, volume, accent, cadencing, timing; all of these were absent with the printed word, leaving only annoyance and harsh language.
Fred Jerome shifted restlessly from one foot to the other as Esther looked over her spectacles and out her window, to the mountains near, high and pristine.
She'd marveled at the Appalachians, as a child, traveling with her father, and imagined nothing could be higher: as a young woman, she'd toured Europe, again with her father, and her first sight of the Alps squashed her mental image of her beloved Appalachian mountain range into mere wrinkles in the earth's crust.
Now, though, she considered the majesty, the grandeur of the Rockies, and knew she preferred these bold peaks of granite and of ice and pine to all she had ever seen.
She blinked; there would be time for wool gathering later.
She picked up a freshly whittled pencil, moved the lined pad a little to the right, and began printing:
Gentlemen -- Ore spilled is ore lost, and I will not lose the cargo you entrust to my railroad. It will arrive safely or it will not be hauled. The moment the ice is off, I shall authorize my engines to move but not one minute sooner.
She hesitated, debating whether to attach a formal signature as owner of the railroad; the corner of her mouth quirked a little, just a hint of a smile, and instead she printed the simple closing, "Esther."
She considered what she'd just written, reviewed it twice more; satisfied, she handed the sheet to "young Mr. Jerome," as she referred to him, and asked, "Will this present a problem in sending?"
Fred Jerome scanned the message, comparing the precisely formed characters to how they would sound over the metallic clatter of a brass sounder.
"No ma'am, that'll send fine."
"Thank you, Mr. Jerome. You are an exemplary employee, and it is a pleasure to work with you."
"Yes, ma'am." Fred touched his forelock, nodded and withdrew, shiny-billed cap and paper in hand.
Esther waited until he had closed the door before she rose; she stepped to the other window, looked out at the street, across their little town.
Smoke rose from a variety of chimneys, and a little distant she knew a particular smoke was from her passenger locomotive: the missive she'd sent missed the departing locomotive, and they were unaware of the ice-storm ahead of them: The Lady Esther had clawed and scrambled for purchase on the icy rails inbound, and had nearly come to grief on a sweeping, river-bottom curve at the foot of a lengthy down grade: only the application of the sanders and the hand of Divine Providence kept The Lady Esther from meeting with a ruinous end.
It was one of the only occasions she could ever remember when her engineer and her fireman were both whey-faced and trembling.

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Linn Keller 3-7-11


The ice was off in a day's time, to the regret of the lads who'd skated over an impressive acreage of otherwise un-skatable real estate; the trains were back on schedule, the black horse was no longer wary of the next step, and the Sheriff's battered beak proceeded to heal without incident, other than some discoloration and swelling, which gave the local riffraff grist for their leg pulling mill.
The Sheriff took it in good humor, allowing as it was quite a fist that flattened his face, and other such return jibes: he'd learned a very long time ago that not only does a soft answer turn away wrath, a humorous answer lifts the spirits of everyone involved.
Besides, he was not so vain as to be unable to poke fun at himself.
Jacob, for his part, was pleased to see the ice go, and fresh snow replace it: his horse was far less unsteady on new snow, and he had need to consult a wiser head than his own.
As a matter of fact, that wiser head had just finished arranging the red hair with which it was gloriously crowned when Jacob's knock announced his presence on their porch.
Esther opened the door and embraced her son: "Jacob," she said, and her voice smiled as she pronounced the word, and her tall son wrapped his arms around her and gave her a long, heartfelt squeeze.
He hung his hat on the peg beside his father's: Esther knew he would use that peg, for it was a mark of respect that he did not hang his hat on the same peg his father used.
Esther had received his note earlier that day, asking to see her, and she had made a point of being home at the appointed time: Jacob seldom asked in such a way, and she knew a matter was troubling him.
They sat in the kitchen, with tea and steaming-hot bread, fresh from the oven; Jacob slabbed off thick slices for both of them, and Esther gave silent thanks that she'd had the wisdom to hire the girl, for she was every bit as good a cook as Esther herself.
Jacob looked around, as if expecting to see someone, and Esther smiled.
"She's upstairs, asleep," she said, and Jacob nodded: he knew if his little sis was about, she would be all over him, laughing, chattering, hugging, tugging at him to come see this or let me read you that.
Jacob chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, and placed the half consumed slice of sourdough on the platter.
"Mother," he said quietly, and Esther folded her hands in her lap, giving her son her full attention.
"Mother, I ..." Jacob looked away, looked down, swallowed: he shoved his bottom jaw out, scratched his head and looked back.
"Mother, I'm ..."
Esther nodded, once, patiently.
Jacob looked up to the ceiling, took a long breath: she saw his fists ball in his lap, and it took an effort for him to finish his thought.
"Mother, I'm scared."
Esther blinked.
This was certainly not what she expected to hear.
She knew her son had been tried as metal in the fire; she knew he was a blooded warrior, tall and slender and strong and capable: she knew him to be intelligent, of good judgment and sober nature, upright and honest and all things that would make a mother proud.
Scared was not a word she would have attributed to him.
She nodded again, slowly, prompting a clarification.
"Mother, I --"
Jacob's breath was coming a little more quickly now, and he shifted in his seat, restless.
Whatever is troubling him, Esther thought, is a serious matter, at least in his mind.
"Mother, I loved my birth-mother, and she was murdered. I loved that blind girl that played the piano and she was killed, Doc said it was a tumor but all I remember was her screaming in pain and I couldn't stop it and I couldn't help her and Duzy, I loved Duzy and she --"
Jacob's words came in a rush, a flood of misery: grief carved his handsome young face and his eyes held a sadness, a deep canyon of loss she'd never seen in him before.
"Mother, I'm having nightmares again."
This, too, was surprising.
Esther was a light sleeper, and for the years Jacob had slept under their roof, he'd slept soundly, silently, apparently without dream or trouble.
She nodded again, the slow, understanding nod of a mother, saying without words, I'm listening, I'm here, I understand.
"Mother, I dream you've died, drowned in muddy water, deep water."
Esther's stomach lurched, for she had very nearly drowned in just that condition.
"I dream Annette dies screaming in childbirth, I dream of my own dead mother looking at me and reaching for me, I hear Duzy's laugh and I can't find her" --
Jacob stopped the quickening rush of words, swallowed again.
"Mother, I can't fix it and I can't stop it."
His eyes were haunted.
"I had Doc show me how to set a bone and how to sew up a cut, I've learned herbs from Morning Star and studied the classics and everything I can get my hands on" --
He stopped and fixed his mother with a pale eyed stare, and Esther felt as if she were a butterfly being skewered to a cork board.
"Am I being punished?" he whispered. "Punished for not saving my birth-mother? Punished for all I've done?" He shook himself, a quick, someone-stepped-on-my-grave shiver. "Or is it just a dream, vague fears that haunt the dark?"
"Jacob," Esther whispered, eyes glitter-bright as she gathered her son's big, slender hands into her own. "Jacob, you've done nothing in your life dishonorable or improper." She smiled. "You are one of the most upright, honest and noble men I know."
Jacob smiled wanly and his stomach lurched: it still surprised him to hear his mother refer to him as a man, though he knew himself to be such.
"It could be fears, whispering in the dark places. It could be anger."
Jacob turned his head a little as if bringing a good ear to bear.
"You are a strong and capable young man. You can do anything to which you set your mind, just like your father, but there are some things you can't change." She patted his hand. "You can't stop time, nor the swing of the Reaper's scythe. That" -- it was her own turn to shiver -- "that was the hardest thing for me to learn."
Jacob's hands squeezed hers gently.
He nodded.
They sat thus for some time, silent; sometimes what needs said, is best said without words, and so it was here: a mother's touch is of comfort to a distressed son, no matter the son's age, and truth be told, the son's touch was of comfort to the mother as well.

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Linn Keller 3-12-11


My idiot dog was asleep.
Dogs and young'uns, I thought.
Can't figger 'em.
The black horse labored through the snow, taking his time, and I let him pick his trail: we were headed back home after a day in the high country.
I needed some time away, some time alone.
Jacob still gave me a look that told me he was thinking about that trouble maker I kicked loose instead of prosecuted.
If I'd pushed it I probably could have ended up hanging the idiot kid.
He didn't need hanged, he needed a good kick in the hinder and I give it to him, just not with my boot.
I'd figgered he would learn, especially being talked to in plain language and sent back East on the first train.
I think myself a pretty good judge of character.
Sometimes I'm dead wrong about it but most times I'm pretty well on.
Dogs, now ...
My gloved hand rested on Denver Bup's back, steadying him: he lay across my thighs and I held him as best I could as the black horse made his way through knee deep snow.
Denver Bup was sound asleep.
Every now and again a hind leg would twitch, or his tail would curve up and wag a little.
Couldn't help but grin when I saw him wag his tail in his sleep.
I wore a fur cap with the furry ear laps pulled down and a knit scarf wrapped around my neck. It was cold but not terribly so, and the air smelt different, and I knew a thaw was coming.
I also knew any thaw this high up would be temporary.
I looked around, looked down at the fool hens tied behind the saddle bag, and grinned.
I dearly love bird meat and these'ns had no shot in them to break a tooth.
I'd made a light wire noose and wound it on the end of a pole and snuck up on 'em.
I'd known natives back East to do such.
They had cat footed up under a tree where the birds was lined up on a low branch, asleep, and slipped the noose over their neck and give a quick pull.
A yank, a grab, twist the neck and I had a bird for the pot.
Three more and I had enough for a mess.
I'd drawn them and stuffed their cavities with snow to cool them, and now they hung by the necks.
Denver Bup had wanted to bay and chase, like beetle dogs do, and it had taken considerable work to teach him "stay" and "down" but dogs and men respond well to bribes.
Denver Bup responded well enough to bribes he should have been in politics.
Esther had made me a batch of what smelled pretty good and tasted pretty good, they were balls of corn meal and I'm not sure what else and when I bit into one Esther looked at me like I'd just bit into a live snake.
Turns out my beautiful red-headed Valkyrie bride was still a Suth'n belle at heart, genteel and proper and ... well, she explained to me most courteously that hush puppies were not fit for people to eat, they were made to toss discreetly to restless hounds under the table so conversation would not be interrupted.
I nodded and looked around, then I went to the back door, whistled and flipped what was left of the one I'd bit, out to Denver Bup.
I turned and said with a perfectly straight face that Denver Bup agreed with me.
Esther gave me a look that was somewhere between patience and exasperation, then she made me some travelin' bread that looked to be bread dough rolled out and rolled up with chopped sausage and cheese baked into it and cut into little short chunks.
These were good too.
When Denver Bup and I went bouncing through the snow I'd kissed at him to get his attention.
He'd stopped in mid-jump and turned to look at me, tongue and tail wagging and a tuft of snow on his nose: he'd been shoving his beak into the fluffy white stuff and sniffing, and had given a happy bay of discovery, when I held up a treat.
I took a bite out of that chunk of rolled up bread dough and put a finger to my lips.
Denver Bup set his bottom down and threw up a young snow-cloud with his wagging tail.
He licked his chops and watched that chunk of rolled up bread with the lustful look of a cowhand at the end of a long cattle drive, looking at that first mug of froth-headed beer being drawn just for him.
Denver Bup knew if he behaved there would be more goodies, and he was right: he waited silently, sitting a distance from me as I noosed off those three birds, and he stayed as I approached him.
We shared another hush puppy -- Esther's gentility be damned, I thought, these taste pretty good! -- and Denver Bup looked longingly at the birds swinging by their feet from my gloved grip.
I drew one away, swung it underhand: "Git it!" I said quietly, and Denver Bup bayed and bounced through the snow, ears flapping like furry wings, bouncing like a porpoise through pristine white waves: he fetched down on that-there bird and picked it up, just as pleased as anything, and wagged his whole back half as he brought it back to me.
I traded him a hush puppy for the bird and petted him and bragged on him and called him a good boy, and he like to washed the chin off my face.
I hung the birds behind the saddle bag on the off side and we started back home.
I could see Denver Bup was getting tired.
I would too, busting through snow deeper than I was.
Finally I fetched him up in my arms and got back in the saddle.
That black horse didn't mind a'tall to carry double and it was kind of nice to have that nice warm houn' dog acrost my legs.
We spent most of the day away from folks and it felt pretty good, but by the time we come in sight of home we were all three tired and hungry: Denver Bup managed to snore some, laying across my lap like that, and my arm was near to ready to fall off for holding him all that time, but when Angela came out on the front porch, jumping up and down and yelling "Daddee! Daddee!" and Esther came out as well ... why, that felt pretty darn good.
I raised my free hand and waved, and the black horse picked up his step a little, for he knew there was a nice warm barn and a rub down and grain to be had.
Denver Bup raised his head and wagged his tail and gave a happy howl of greeting, and three tired hunters were glad to be home.


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Linn Keller 3-15-11


"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"
"I do."
"Please be seated."
The cowhand sat uncomfortably in the witness chair.
"Please tell the court where you were yesterday about noontime."
The cowhand shifted in his seat, frowned and pressed his lips together before answering.
"I was in attair saloon you got here."
"Do you refer to the Silver Jewel?"
"I reckon. You ain't got but the one."
"And can you tell the court what you were doing there."
The cowhand's expression was troubled as he remembered.
"Me an' my boys was havin' a drank --"
"Your boys?"
"Larry and Slick."
"You were having a drink?"
"Yeah, we started to."
"What happened?"
"Slick, he grabbed this fella's shoulder an' said, 'Sodbuster, get outta the way and let a man in there,' and the fella turned around and looked around some and said "Man? Where?"
"What happened then?"
"Oh, Slick didn't like that. He grabbed that sodbuster with both hands and yanked him off his feet."
"I see." Mr. Moulton paused a moment, thrust out his bottom jaw.
"What followed?"
The cowhand's face was mobile now, his thoughts visible in the rapid change of expressions. He'd gotten a little pale and fear showed in his eyes as he remembered.
"Shaw yanked that fella off his feet and made to turn an' throw him, least until he saw the wrong end of a shotgun takin' a close-up gander at his best eye."
"What else happened?"
"Well" -- he swallowed hard -- "we figgered we'd ride in an' raise some hell, an' Slick, he figgered he was a big man, y'see, an' he'd done this b'fore, but hell, mister, we never come t' some place where ever' man in the house fetched out a gun an' allowed as we was target practice!"
"So you were shot?"
The cow hand shook his head. "No!" he exclaimed. "No one shot, but tattair sodbuster drove a knife int' Slick's gut! Hit 'im six 'r seven times fast!"
Mr. Moulton nodded. "Was Slick armed?"
"Oh ya!"
"And how was this ... Slick ... armed?"
"He had attair Colt in a tied down holster."
"So he came in armed and picked a fight."
"Ah, ya."
"Thank you. No more questions, Your Honor."
Judge Hostetler frowned.
"The witness may step down."
The cowhand walked back to his seat, settled himself in his chair, wiped the sweat beads off his forehead.
Judge Hostetler turned his gavel thoughtfully between his fingers.
The Sheriff stood.
"Yes, Your Honor?"
"Have you been able to locate this ... sodbuster?"
"No, Your Honor."
"Have you a name for this man?"
"I do not, Your Honor."
"You will make diligent search for this individual, Sheriff, and deliver same to this court in due time."
"Yes, Your Honor."

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Linn Keller 3-15-13


"That's fur enough."
I drew Rose o' the Mornin' to a stop and set there.
"If you got tobacker, I got coffee," I countered.
There was a long silence.
I dismounted and tied off Rose to a convenient branch, then I walked into the campsite as if I owned it. I picked up a handful of dry stuff, laid it on the fire so it came up and showed my face plain.
"Well I'd be damned," the voice said quietly, with that Suth'n flavor I remembered from years before.
I stood and extended my hand.
Gavin came out of the shadows, suspicious but curious, and soon as he come close enough to grasp my paw, he grinned.
"It is you!" he breathed.
"If it ain't," I said dryly, "I got a very confused wife back in town."
"Well hell!" Gavin exclaimed, "give an account o' yerself, Cunnel! I ain't seen you since ..."
"Yeah, I know," I nodded.
I looked to his camp fire.
"You got a coffee pot?"
Gavin's face fell.
"No sir I surely don't," he said mournfully. "I burnt th' bottom clear outta that other'n I had."
I nodded, turning.
I don't normally turn my back on a man, especially when I was satisfied Gavin was the one who put a foot of steel in another fellow's gut, but Gavin and I went way back.
Besides, I'd promised him coffee.
I came back with a brand new blue granite coffee pot and two cups, and a bundle of coffee.
"I missed your birthday last year," I said quietly, offering the lot to the worn-looking man in the frayed brown coat. "Take that for your birthday present."
He relieved me of pot and bundle. "I'll jist take y' up on that," he said tartly. "I'll fetch the water."
He'd gathered plenty of wood -- he'd chosen his hide well, and must have figured he could stay a day or three.
Frankly I had no plans to change that.
Gavin came back with a dripping pot.
I'd worked two small chunks into place on either side of the fire and Gavin set the coffee pot down on this. He untied the bundle, carefully trickled in the fragrant grounds, re-wrapped the cloth and tied it.
"Obliged for this," he nodded, thrusting the bundle in a voluminous side pocket.
He peered at me, eyes bead-bright and curious.
"Now how come you show up here t'night?"
I spread my hands, soaking up the fire's warmth. The wind eddied, carried smoke into me, around me, then away: it was quiet, and stars ran like a milky river across the night sky.
"You recall," I said quietly, "you recall back durin' the War, we used to sit like this?"
"I recall." Gavin looked around, unfolded a piece of canvas, set down on it.
I raised an eyebrow.
"Cain't hunker like I use' to," Gavin explained. "Hard on an old man's knees."
I nodded.
"You ain't supposed to imitate my bad examples," I rumbled.
Gavin chuckled.
"You always was one f'r fine language," he nodded. "I recall we use' t' quote one another poetry."
"You oncet brought me a pair o' shoes when y'saw mine was held up with strips."
I nodded again.
"That was kindly of ye."
"I brought socks the next night, if you'll recall."
"Yeah, that y'did."
I looked around, set myself down on a handy rock.
"Your knees too?"
Gavin shook his head slowly, regretfully.
"Cunnel, whatever happened to us?"
"How's that?"
Gavin gestured, almost a throwing-away motion. "We was young then, Cunnel. Any more I wake up full of aches an' pains, I get up of a mornin' stiff an' sore an' ma joints crack." He shook his head. "Hell, it ain't but yesterday we marched all day an' slep' on open ground an' thought nothin' of it!"
"Sure feels like yesterday," I agreed.
Boiling coffee added its fragrance to the night's chill.
"Say, you ain't got some hoe cake with ye?" Gavin asked hopefully.
I smiled a little and rose, my left knee snapping loudly.
Gavin winced. "Daggone, Cunnel," he exclaimed, "I heard that'un echo!"
I came back from my second saddle bag trip with another bundle.
"Hoe cake?" Gavin's expression brightened considerably.
I handed him one of Esther's rolled up bread, cheese and sausage whatever-they're-called.
Gavin looked at it curiously, held it under his nose, sniffed loudly.
I took a bite out of mine.
Gavin took a cautious bite out of his, then another.
Apparently it met with his approval.
I handed him another and we tried the coffee. It wasn't quite ready; Gavin got a cup of creek water for when it was done, to settle the grounds.
Silence grew long between us.
"I reckon you heard about town," Gavin began.
I looked up at him, nodded.
"You know, that ain't much of a town."
Gavin tried the coffee again, found it to his liking, poured in the cup of cold water: he took it off the fire, set it near and watched it owlishly.
"Cripple's bigger," he grunted. "Got more saloons." He looked sharply at me.
"An' Cripple's got whore houses!"
I nodded, slowly.
"You ain't got none!"
I shrugged.
"An' you ain't got but th' one saloon!"
I nodded again.
Gavin poured coffee, handed it to me, poured one for him.
"So what happened back in town?"
Gavin blew on his coffee, steam curling into the chill air.
"I thought you heard."
"A man hears quite a bit that ain't so."
Gavin grunted again.
"Well, y'see," he said, then looked levelly at me.
"Cunnel," he said finally, "you ain't never lied to me so I ain't gonna lie t' you."
I nodded, chewed on Esther's traveling bread.
"I run m' knife in that fella's guts backair an' I reckon he's dead."
"Oh, he's dead a'right," I agreed. "Folks said you pulled a Singer sewin' machine on him!"
"Oh I did, I did that," Gavin agreed.
"You still usin' the hornet?"
Gavin's grin was broad and genuine. "Why Cunnel!" he said, delighted, "you remember!" -- and so saying, he slid a long bladed knife out of somewhere.
Slender and straight, it was double edged: gleaming, polished, and I knew it was very likely honed to a shaving edge on both front and back, it was a gem of the knife maker's art, and had taken more lives than just the one back in the saloon.
I'd known Gavin back during the War.
Towards the last there, we got to crossing the lines and trading tobacco for coffee.
The Confederates were short on supplies of all kind, and I took Gavin a pair of shoes and then some socks, knowing the war was but days from ending; it was a kindness he hadn't expected, and I can't say we'd become friends, but we came to respect one another.
I saw him knife men, in combat and otherwise, and knew him to be fast and deadly.
He'd called his knife a hornet's stinger, Hornet for short.
"Cunnel, I was havin' me a peacable drank." His expression changed; he was looking at the scene in the Jewel, and it troubled him.
"I taken a drank an' some fella grabbed my shoulder an' allowed as I'd oughta get outta the way so a man could drank.
"I didn't want no trouble so I just looked around an' ast him, "Man? Where?" -- well, it made him mad an' he put his hands on me.
"I don't take that from no man."
I nodded, slowly.
"He allowed as t' bring me trouble, an' he was wearin' a gun.
"I figgered he was bought an' paid for so I fetched out the Hornet an' I drove up through his belly an' figured t' cut his heart up some."
I nodded.
Gavin grinned. "Y'know," he said, "I never seen a bunch s' quick t' help a fella out in all m' life!"
"How's that?"
"Why, attair barkeep, he leaned acrost th' bar an' had attair shotgun in th' other fella's face, an' damn near ever' man in th' place stood up an' had a gun in hand, ready t' take this fella off my hands!" He sighed, shaking his head.
"Nah, he had it comin' but I was a stranger there so I lit a shuck down the pike."
I nodded.
Silence grew long again as we sipped coffee.
Somewhere in the distance a yodel dog pointed his nose to the stars and sang.
"I don't reckon that's a town t' cause trouble in," Gavin finally said thoughtfully.
"How's that?"
"Ain't you heard?" Gavin asked, surprised. "Why they got deadly law there! Why I seed attair deputy out in th' street an' that musta bin his sister --" Gavin's expression grew doleful.
"I seen a cute girl there an' I figgered hell, she might like a fella to come shinin' up with her all pretty an' all, an' then I lost sight of her ... next day she was in town ag'in but damn if she didn't have a set o' britches on 'er an' a pair o' Colts, and her an' attair long tall skinny depitty was out in the middle o' the street."
"Oh?" I feigned disinterest, knowing it the best way to keep him talking.
"Oh yeah!" he exclaimed. "He'd toss a silver dollar up an' she'd draw an' hit it, then she'd toss one up an' he'd draw an' hit it!"
"Do tell!"
Gavin leaned toward me as if sharing a confidence.
"I think she was his sister," he almost whispered.
"Did you try to shine up to her?" I asked, stifling a smile.
"Good Lord in Heaven, no!" Gavin declared. "Attair depitty is a snake with a sixgun an' his Pa is twicet as fast!"
"His pa?"
"Oh hell, you ain't heard? Where you bin?" Gavin blinked, genuinely surprised. "Attair depitty is th' Sheriff's oldest son!"
"I see." I nodded slowly. "Do you reckon that deputy will be after you?"
Gavin nodded. "I reckon so," he said hollowly. "I figgered here was hid enough to lay up for a day."
"Where you headed now?"
Gavin sighed. "Californy I reckon. 'Twas where I was headed til I got a hankerin' for a woman an' ended up in Cripple. Then I heered you had good honest games at attair Jewelery Palace an' figgered I'd try it."
I nodded again.
"You ain't gonna turn me in, now, are you?" Gavin asked hopefully.
I looked at him, smiled a little.
"Gavin," I said, "I can't help but think you're right."
"'Bout whut?"
"That fella had it comin'." I stood, drank the last of my coffee, set the cup down and extended my hand. "If you're headin' for Californy, I don't reckon you'll have to worry about that deputy or his Pa either one."
Gavin stood, took my hand.
"Now how do ye figger that?"
I turned back my lapel to show the six point Sheriff's star.
"I ain't lied to you yet, Gavin," I said. "I ain't about to start now."

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Linn Keller 3-16-11


It was two days later that the Sheriff rode out to Bonnie's ranch.
During the Rosenthal reign, there had been constant rumors of rustling, of mysterious riders, cattle missing, all denied steadfastly by Caleb and his hired men: the Sheriff, believing a man he thought friend, had not acted on these reports.
He had, however, noticed Caleb's herds were always kind of thin.
Now, with Sam looking after their live stock, the herd was much more robust: far more numerous, better tended; the fences were in better shape and there was a general feeling of ... well, of a properly run ranch.
Bear Killer came pacing up to Rose o' the Mornin', yow-wowing a happy greeting, and the Sheriff tossed the massive black canine a hush puppy: Bear Killer caught it neatly, chomped it once and wagged his tail, hoping for another.
One of the hands greeted the Sheriff: he was obliged to take the nails out from between his lips and drop them back into the canvas carpenter's apron he wore. "She's out in the back pasture, Sheriff," he said, pointing, and the Sheriff thanked him: Rose-horse made easy work of navigating the field and directly he saw Sam and Clark, beside a small fire, and heard the bawl of a branded calf.
Sam's braids were wrapped around her neck as usual; tucked in under her coat's collar, her flop brim hat suffering the effects of rainfall and gravity, boots and britches dirty and smeared as a working hand's clothes always are, she was indistinguishable from Clark: they turned the calf loose, and the Sheriff followed it with his eyes as it hobby-horsed painfully back to the herd, back to its worried dam.
Sam stood, turning.
Clark stood also, setting the branding iron near to the fire but not in it.
Sam thrust a gloved finger at the Sheriff.
"I wanta talk to you!" she snapped, eyes blazing, and the Sheriff blinked, surprised.
A little voice in the back of his head warned, "Stand still for your beatin', you've earned it," and he shoved the voice out of the way as he dismounted.
Sam walked a little stiff, as she'd been squatting for a while: her jaw was thrust forward, eyes narrowed, and she fairly bristled as she stopped and put gloved fists on her hips and glared at the grey-mustachioed lawman.
"You didn't jail that kid!" she snapped.
"I jailed him," the Sheriff said mildly.
"You didn't keep him!"
Sam threw her hands up, turned, turned back, dismayed. "Why in the world NOT!?"
The Sheriff opened his mouth to reply and Sam punched him in the chest with a stiff finger.
"He come into MY BUNK HOUSE" -- punch! -- "he come with a rifle" -- punch! -- "he come to cause trouble" -- punch! -- "I held him SO YOU COULD TAKE CARE OF HIM! -- punch! -- AND YOU TURNED HIM LOOSE!"
Sam made to punch her finger into the Sheriff one final time.
The Sheriff slapped her hand aside, stepped in and drove a fist into her gut, and the fight was on.
Clark stepped back.
He'd not seen Sam get good and mad for a good long time, and she'd been simmerin' over this ever since she heard the Sheriff turned the kid out and sent him back East.
Fair was fair, he figured, and the kid needed taken care of, but he was content to let the Sheriff handle it as he saw fit.
Sam, on the other hand, had been harshly treated in her lifetime: orphaned at a tender age, passed from one relative to another like unwanted baggage, barely educated, she'd had to grow up fast and learn fists and feet like her boy-cousins. She'd learned early and fast how to fight and fight dirty and she'd taken the hard and dirty jobs nobody else wanted, and she'd kept a lid on the simmering, bubbling resentment that she'd built up over a lifetime.
She'd been happy with her husband: she'd finally found someone who treated her with respect: she'd come to be friends, and good friends, with the Sheriff, back East while he was a lawman in the coal country: he'd been one of the only men she knew that never made a pass at her, and she'd come to respect the man.
Sam had been betrayed too many times, though, and when her temper heated up, there was no hold-back to her.
Tall and rangy, Sam was strong as a man her size.
Clark had seen her pick up a smart mouthed fellow one handed and dunk him three or four times in a horse trough before throwing him half way across the dirt street.
He'd also seen her fight a drunk to a bloody standstill, both of them bleeding and panting, neither one ready to give up, until finally she got a fist into the other fellow's wind and he run up the white flag.
Clark stood back and just watched.
He'd expected the Sheriff to take a step back when she poked him like that.
He'd felt that stiff fingered poke and it stepped him back.
The Sheriff never give an inch: he stood there and his eyes turned pale and Clark figured this was not a good sign, and when he moved, Clark thought Katy bar the door, here we go, and he was right.
The last of Sam's reserve snapped when the Sheriff drove his own gloved fist most of the way to her spine.
Sam shoved forward to grapple and the Sheriff sidestepped, grabbed her arm and yanked.
Sam didn't lose her footing but it was a near thing.
She turned, hands open and ready to grab, and the Sheriff stood side-on to her, waiting.
Sam screamed, a deep, visceral animal sound, charged.
The Sheriff ducked deep and took her just south of the belt buckle with his left shoulder, coming up and throwing her over him: he stepped right and waited.
Bear Killer gave a distressed ow-wow-wow and sidled up to Clark, and Clark rubbed the midnight canine's ears gently, murmuring reassuringly, soothing the restless dawg as best he could.
Sam rolled, shaking the snow off her: she came up on all fours, face red and nostrils flared.
She came up, slowly, legs apart, raising her fists.
The Sheriff's eyes narrowed.
Sam came at him, hooking a right at his gut.
The Sheriff stepped the wrong way and the fist caught him in the wind, sickening him instantly: he glided back two steps and Sam, sensing an advantage, moved in for another low hit.
The Sheriff spun and his fist caught Sam just above the jaw, knocking her head sideways and introducing her rather abruptly to the frozen, snow-covered ground.
Sam hit and rolled, coming up a little more slowly.
Teeth bared, she snarled and took a running step toward the waiting lawman.
He met her charge, knocked her fist aside and grabbed her braids: falling back and yanking hard, he put both boots in her belly and threw her overhead, rolling and coming up on all fours and launching like a sprinter off the blocks.
Sam landed on her back and the Sheriff on top of her, knees first: he hit her belly, rolled off, came up.
Sam curled up, coughing.
The Sheriff came up slowly, on all fours, shaking his head.
He'd fought on no wind and he still couldn't breathe and the world was turning kind of spotty.
He threw his head back and tried to get some air and his lungs didn't want to work but he got a little bit in them.
Sam got to her feet first and advanced.
The Sheriff tried to rise and succeeded in introducing his cheek bone into her fist.
He might not've seen stars, but if a body was to ask, he would probably have admitted in that moment to seeing several planets and a comet.
Sam bent over with a groan.
She, too, was fighting to get some wind in her.
The Sheriff grabbed her shoulders, pulled her upright.
The two of them wrapped their arms around one another and swayed a little.
Clark shivered a little, left hand busy with Bear Killer.
Bear Killer looked up at Clark and muttered something, then paced over to the pair.
The Sheriff was almost not panting now.
He coughed.
"You hit like a girl," he husked.
"So do you," she gasped.
He took her chin betwen thumb and forefinger and turned her head, squinting at the side of her face.
"That's gonna bruise," he said, turning his head and coughing again. He spat and was not surprised to see blood on the snow.
Sam took a good look at his cheek bone. It was cut and trickling blood and starting to purple up.
"So's yours."
The Sheriff put his arm around her shoulders.
"How's for some grub?"
She put her arm around him and patted his chest with the flat of her other hand. "You never change, do you?" she asked, and the pair made their slow, pained way back to the fire.
"Maybe later on the grub." The Sheriff's off arm was protectively across his bruised and tender middle.
"Yeah," Sam grunted.

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Linn Keller 3-17-11


Sean straightened and shaded his eyes with the flat of his hand.
Handing the hay fork to the Welsh Irishman, he muttered "Hold this, boyo," and strode out into the street.
Rose o' the Mornin' shied a little as he reached for her bridle.
The Sheriff sat straight -- too straight, Sean thought -- and he petted Rose-horse's nose, whispering in Gaelic and frowning at his old friend.
The Sheriff dismounted, doing his level best to step down normally, and not having a bit of success.
Sean caught him from behind, under the arms, his hands tight around the lawman's high ribs.
"Easy, now," he said, "ye've been celebratin', I take it!"
The Sheriff's teeth clicked together as he set his jaw against the pain.
"Inside wi' ye, now," Sean said quietly, supporting the grey-mustachioed lawman, despite the Sheriff's clenched-teeth "I can walk."
"Sure an' ye can walk," Sean said, "but it's no' ever' day I get t' support ma local lawman, now, is't?" -- and once inside he carefully steered the Sheriff for a chair.
He looked up at the Welsh Irishman.
"Park yon hay fork, lad, unless ye're gonna fly th' damned thing!" he spat, "an' get me m' bottle!"
"Aye," the Welsh Irishman said, handing the hay fork to the German Irishman, who had just set a dish pan of cold water and four folded wash cloths on the table.
He was Irish, after all, and he knew the significance of the discoloration over the Sheriff's cheek bone.
Sean explored the area with thumb and forefinger, firmly but carefully, and water trickled out of the Sheriff's near eye as he did.
"Ye've a cracked bone, y' do," Sean murmured. "It'll hurt now but do ye blow yer beak" -- and so saying, he handed the Sheriff a wash cloth.
The lawman leaned forward and pressed his elbows into his knees, setting his feet wide apart for balance: though his backside was in the chair, Sean's hand on his shoulder, he knew he was about to ride a whirlpool, or so it would feel, and he was right: he blew about ten pound of snot out of his sinuses, knocked loose by the walloping fist that felt like it was mounted on the leading end of the noon freight, and as he did, the deck took a distinct list to starboard and the chair began to yaw dangerously under him.
He knew it to be an illusion but it was a most powerful illusion, and only the feel of his boot heels pressed hard into the hand laid brick floor, and Sean's steadying paw clamped on his own aching shoulder, kept him from twisting about and falling to the above mentioned underfoot.
"Are ye bleedin' then?" Sean asked, taking the filled wash cloth and replacing it with another; he dipped a fresh in the cold water, wrung it out, laid it against the Sheriff's cracked cheek bone.
The Sheriff pressed the second dry wash rag against his beak, drew it away.
There was a minor stain but nothing significant.
"A good sign that," Sean nodded. "Now who had th' impunity t' treat you so?"
The Sheriff glared at him.
Sean glared right back, pinched the Sheriff's chin lightly between thumb and forefinger. "Open up, now," he said, pressing an exploring forefinger against each tooth in turn, front to back on the injured side.
"Tender?" he asked.
"Huh-uh," the Sheriff grunted, shaking his head a little to emphasize the negative.
"Ye've got a year t' say now," Sean cautioned. "Why, I was belted guid o'er m' left canine an' a year later th' damned thing abscessed. Broke th' nerve it did, an' took a full year t' fester up!" He rubbed his upper jaw thoughtfully. "St. Patrick my witness, thot mon cuid hit!"
"What 'bout him?" the Sheriff mumbled, turning the wet washcloth over to get a cool surface against his throbbing and enpurpled flesh.
"Him?" Sean made a dismissing gesture. "He didna' trouble me further."
"Ya, that's b'cause y' threw him in th' river," the Welsh Irishman called from across the firehouse. "An' that was after ye broke his collar bone, loosened three teeth an' kicked his --"
Sean's glare silenced the witness before indelicate details could be voiced.
Sean continued squatting beside the lawman, his hand squeezing his friend's shoulder.
"Does this ha'e anythin' t' do wi' yer turnin' that spalpeen loose?"
The Sheriff grunted, nodding a little.
"Do a man a kindness, an' get kicked i' th' teeth for't," Sean murmured. "Sheriff, ye're no' supposed t' imitate ma bad examples."
The Sheriff grunted again.
"Noo tell me, who had th' gall t' mark ma friend?" Sean asked, and his tone was dangerous. "I dona' make friends that easy an' I'm no' happy one o' mine ha'e been hit."
The Sheriff waved his free hand, shook his head.
"Well dammit man, ye come in here lookin' like ye tried t' bite th' front off yon locomotive an' lost, an' ye've no prisoner in irons!" Sean flared. "Unless ye killed 'im an' ye're no' sittin' i' the Jewel wi' yer rifle across yer table an' a gallon o' St. Peter's Dew i' front o' ye!"
A bottle of whiskey was offered, and a tall water glass with it.
Sean poured the glass half full, tilted it up and downed it: he poured another just like the first and handed it to the Sheriff.
"Drink," he said, "an' swish it about yer mouth. Ye'll find ever' cut an' slice i' there but i' prevents infection."
The Sheriff did so and Sean knew the man had found at least one cut inside his mouth.
"Now swallow't, an' drink th' rest. Don't take a breath, just swallow an' drink."
The Sheriff did.
"Now ye'll sit ri' there an' wait a bit before ye rise. We want this sweet nectar t' hit bottom an' start t' glow." He managed to look absolutely innocent as he added, "It helps kill th' pain."
The Sheriff held out his now-empty glass and Sean poured liberally, tilted the bottle and swilled down a like volume himself.
It was several moments before the Sheriff spoke.
"Drag up a chair," he said quietly, and a chair was brought: Sean parked his own hinder and leaned forward.
"You said once many a man's tongue broke his own nose."
Sean's eyes crinkled at the edges.
"Aye, that I did, an' truth it be." He looked sharply at the Sheriff. "I canna see ye speakin' thusly, mon. Ye're circumspect in yer language an' a gentleman t' boot."
The Sheriff reached over and dunked his wash rag in the basin, squeezed it out, returned the now-crumpled cloth to his cheek bone. He flinched as it touched.
"Drink a bit more, now, it helps th' pain," Sean encouraged. "Now wha' happened?"
"Why? You gonna go get 'im?"
"I might." Sean's face darkened. "Aye, I might that!"
The Sheriff shook his head.
"No. My own fault."
"An' how cuid a guid an' honorable mon like yersel' make i' a fault an' git beat on?" Sean flared, his voice loud and angry and echoing in the fine brick firehose -- so much the mares muttered and trod their straw uncomfortably.
"I did two men a kindness," the Sheriff muttered, tilting the glass up and taking three long swallows. Sean refilled it the moment it came vertical.
"Oh is that the way of it then!" Sean exclaimed. "No good deed goes unpunished!" He tilted the bottle up and took three good swallows himself, held the bottle up and squinted. "Lad! This bottle's go' a hole in't! Fetch me another!"
"Ya left the cork out," the Sheriff mumbled. "Evaporates fast this time o' year."
"Drink," Sean glared. "Ye're no' ready t' stand yet."
"Stand hell," the Sheriff said in a husky voice. "You'll have to pour me in the saddle!"
"Then that I'll do if I must, an' deliver ye t' yer darlin' Esther by th' back alley!" Sean peered at the Sheriff as another bottle was delivered into his waiting hand.
"Now speakin' o' th' lovely ladies, wha' will yer lady say when she see ye?"
The Sheriff smiled crookedly, flinching a little as his facial muscles tugged at the bruised tissie.
"She'll cross her arms an' pat her foot an' shake her Mommy-finger at me an' tell me I must not be a hooglian."
Sean blinked.
Sean grinned.
Sean threw his head back and laughed, and his laugh was loud, and powerful, and rang in the tall, narrow horse house's interior.
"Aye, an' I can jus' see Esther doin' that!" he agreed, raising his hand to thump his friend companionably on the shoulder: he stayed his hand just in time, and instead twisted the cork from the bottle and trickled some water clear into the Sheriff's glass.
"Esther?" the Sheriff grunted, took a long drink. "Hell, I was talkin' Angela!"

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Linn Keller 3-22-11


Daisy muttered impatiently, glaring at Sean's butt.
Sean was on his prayer bones in front of her stove.
She could see his muscled arm moving with a quick precision and she heard the Yankee screwdriver buzzing through the seasoned floor planks; she saw the sawdust, the gleaming brass pipes and fittings and flanges, and she shifted uncomfortably in her kitchen chair.
Not even a pillow under her own bottom completely eased her discomfort.
The curse of Eve, she thought. It's no' th' woman's moon-time, no, no' just that.
She shaped the lump of dough, picked it up, dusted flour on the bare table top where she was working the evening's bread-to-be.
No, th' curse of Eve was more than jus' that!
Her back ached, she was tired, she had pains and difficulties she would not discuss with Sean if she had to, matters she suffered in silence: she'd heard other women cackle and yap like hens, complaining about their physical distresses with child bearing, and she would have none of it.
No, she preferred the martyrdom of silence.
It gave her an excuse for occasional bursts of temper, or of tears.
Daisy dropped the dough onto the flour, rubbed flour onto her rolling pin and sighed.
"Now why'd I do that?" she murmured.
Sean and Little Sean held a low-voiced conversation as they placed shining brass piping and connections and flanges in place: Sean showed Little Sean how to run the brass screw through the holes in the flange, and into the floor beneath: Little Sean enthusiastically turned the screwdriver, winding the greased screw into the hardwood, until the bit slipped once, then Sean took over so the screw head would not get chewed up.
It took them as long to mount the rail as it took Daisy to get the dough kneaded out, divided, put into greased loaf pans to rise: she covered them with fresh towels, then sat heavily in her chair again, legs thrust straight out, her swollen slippered feet propped up on another chair and another cushion.
Sean and Little Sean labored steadily: Sean used the occasion to teach Little Sean how to drill, how to lay out, how to plan, and Little Sean, uncharacteristically solemn, listened, big-eyed, and Daisy could see his quick young mind was absorbing his father's teaching like a sponge.
Daisy hadn't realized quite how tired she was, until Sean's hands were warm on her shoulders, and his breath warm against her neck: "Daisy, me dear," he whispered, and she felt the stubble of his day's whisker-growth against her cheek, "can ye gi'e i' a try?"
Daisy leaned her cheek against his and hummed a little, reaching up to lay a flour-dusted hand over his big-knuckled paw: she nodded a little, then twisted and stretched in her seat, like a cat waking, and finally drew her feet off the opposite chair and worked herself back away from the table.
"I need t' build up th' fire," she murmured, "th' sponge is ready t' punch down an' set again an' I want th' oven ready ..."
She took a long breath, blinked, opened her eyes and labored to an upright position.
"Well, let's try this wonder," she snapped, waddling over to the stove and pretending to handle a pot and a stirring spoon, with one foot on the floor and the other foot on the brass rail.
Sean saw the surprise on her face.
Daisy stopped, traded feet, pretending to shuffle pots and pans about on the warm, cast-iron surface.
"I think it'll do," she said, wonder in her voice: then she turned and glared at the grinning Irishman.'
"It took ye long enough," she snapped, then she wrapped her red-shirted husband's trunk in a strong, shivering embrace.
"Thank you," she said, her voice muffled a little by the crimson wool. "It's wonderful!"

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Linn Keller 3-23-11


The Sheriff set well in the saddle.
The Sheriff looked as dapper, dashing and personally neat about himself as he ever did.
The Sheriff's hat was set a little forward, lending a dashing, rakish air to his appearance.
It did nothing to conceal the wonderful colors evident on his features.
He rode casually, easily, completely at home in the saddle; relaxed, at peace with the world, a man at ease with himself and all about him.
If the truth were told, the man had enough of a load on he could probably have sawed his hand off with a dull pocket knife and not realized more than a mild discomfort: not to say the fine product with which his large Irish friend plied him was potent, but it went down like Mama's milk and blowed the socks right off his feet.
Rose-horse knew the way home, and Rose-horse knew home meant hay, and straw bedding, and a bait of corn; Rose-horse knew home meant being unsaddled, being brushed, and being called a good girl.
The Sheriff was dapper and dashing and outrageously handsome in the saddle all the way home, with a silly smile on his battered visage; he swung expertly out of the saddle, swaying only a little, but maintaining his hold on the saddle horn to keep Rose-horse from falling over.
The ground underfoot seemed rather unsteady, and he didn't want his favorite mount to topple over.
Once she quit her slow lean to starboard, the Sheriff expertly removed saddle and bridle, hung both up in their place; his hands knew the work, in spite of his blood being well diluted with distilled grain, and he managed to brush the mare, and grain the mare, and pat the mare on the flank and call her a good girl.
The Sheriff lifted his hat to the mare and formally thanked her for her kindness in getting him home: turning carefully, he found himself obliged to seize the side of the stall and heave manfully against it to prevent the barn from rotating slowly and inexorably in a clockwise fashion.
It took most of his strength to stop the edifice from traveling about its invisible whirlpool, but somehow he managed, and even walked the short distance from barn to house without untoward event.
He ascended the steps with a deliberate majesty, chin high, back straight; the door knob evaded his grasp twice, but patience and persistence prevailed, and he drew open the door to find his beautiful bride waiting within.
The Sheriff lifted his Stetson and smiled as best he could with half his face stiff and sore.
He heard a quiet, "Oh, dear," and realized with some surprise that the floor seemed to be rising to meet him, and then there was a burst of light and galaxies and the noon freight met him face-on.


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Linn Keller 3-26-11


It was noon the next day before the Sheriff rode into town.
He rode in aggravated, irritated, cranky: in spite of this, he was grateful: he knew if Sean had plied him with factory made spirits instead of their local product, he would be feeling really, really bad, with a pounding headache, a bad belly, and a sincere wish for the Afterlife to claim him.
As it was, he was a little fuzzy headed, and breakfast was not setting terribly well, but he was keeping it down.
He rode the black horse.
He could have ridden his butter smooth mare, he could have partaken of Rose o' the Mornin' and her gliding gait; no, he chose to punish hmself with the stiffer, choppier gelding.
He refused to berate himself for the choices he'd made, but on some level he still gave himself hell, and part of that was to ride his black horse.
Jacob was waiting at the Sheriff's office.
The Sheriff dismounted, tied the black horse off in front of the office: if time permitted, he would move his mount to the stable in back, but for the moment, he wanted his mount saddled and ready to go.
Jacob gave his father a long look.
The Sheriff gave his son a long look back.
Neither liked what he saw.
Jacob followed the Sheriff into the office.
Jacob set to firing the cast iron stove, for it was still cold out and the little gas stove didn't but keep the chill knocked down some. You couldn't see your breath inside but it was close.
Jacob waited until the fire was drafting well before closing the fire door and coming over to seat himself across from the Sheriff.
Linn leaned his forearms against the edge of the desk, clasped his hands.
His voice was quiet, as it usually was; it contained none of the short temper he'd ridden in with.
Jacob's jaw was set and he opened and closed his hands slowly.
The Sheriff waited.
Jacob's gaze traveled across the floor; his head followed his gaze, until he was glaring at the wall to his left.
The Sheriff saw Jacob's nostrils flare and knew the young man was under a boiler full of ready-to-clobber-someone.
"I can have Shorty bring up an anvil, if you're lookin' to beat your knuckles on something," Linn said, and Jacob snapped a glare at him: as quickly as he glared, he grinned, then he shook his head and chuckled painfully.
"Sir," he said, "I came to say thank you."
The Sheriff nodded.
Jacob chewed on his lip, scratched his ear.
"Sir, I was riding the express car like you told me."
The Sheriff nodded.
"You were right." Jacob's eyes were lighter with the memory. "The agent was the thief."
The Sheriff nodded again.
"He figured I had the goods on him so he waited until I looked away and then stuck his gun in my belly."
Again the quiet, wordless nod.
"I'd done like you told me and loaded his pistol with empties. He could see the brass rims but he didn't know they were just hulls.
"He stuck his gun in my gut and told me to give him my gun."
The Sheriff nodded.
"I turned -- just like you taught me -- and knocked his aside -- just like you taught me -- and I got the side of my boot just below his knee and kicked hard, just like you taught me --" Jacob's eyes were unfocused, seeing the scene again, his left hand swinging down and his right leg rotating as, even seated, muscle memory followed his words -- "he went down and I started to tell him to drop it."
The Sheriff's fingers laced together; elbows on the desk top, he leaned his chin into his clasped hands.
"He didn't." Jacob's expression was somewhere between anger and disappointment.
"He's over at Digger's." Jacob took a long breath. "Mother said there are no next of kin to notify."
The Sheriff nodded.
Jacob stood abruptly, strode over to the side of his father's desk, thrust out his hand.
The Sheriff stood and accepted it.
"Sir, thank you. Had we not practiced that very thing I'm not sure I would have handled that'un aright." His grip in his father's hand was firm, and trembling a little.
"What you taught me kept me alive. I am obliged to you, sir."
The Sheriff nodded again.
Jacob released his father's hand, turned; he plucked his Stetson from its peg as he reached for the door, and his father heard his brisk, businesslike bootheels on the boardwalk outside.
Linn swallowed, blinked: his eyes were stinging a little.
It is a powerful thing when a son comes to the father, and says thank you, what you taught me, kept me alive.

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Linn Keller 3-29-11


Sean's grin was broad as Claddagh Bay.
Daisy's glare could freeze water.
Little Sean and Sean Michael (who Big Sean had called "Wee Sean" one time and been belted by an incensed Daisy) were outside, playing at the top of their lungs.
"Ye're no' the one carryin' the bairn," Daisy snarled. "I've had t' change me --"
She clamped her lips together and turned her snapping eyes to the smallclothes she was vigorously punishing on the washboard.
"Daisy, me dear," Sean murmured, running his hands around her middle, between her huge belly and her bosom and drawing her back into him, "ye're a fine --"
Daisy drove her elbow into his gut and twisted around in his arms, slapping her hands hard on his collar bones.
"I'M WHAT?" she blazed, her piled hair coming just to his nose and the crown of her head maybe Adam's apple high on the man. She fisted both hands and hammered his chest, swearing in Gaelic, tears scalding down her cheeks.
Sean seized Daisy's wrists and smiled gently.
Daisy fetched him a good kick in the shin, which set Sean to hopping backwards on one foot, still holding her wrists.
Sean pulled Daisy into him, off balancing her: he released her left wrist, caught her under the knees and picked her up, easily, holding her in his arms like he would a child.
Daisy punched at his chest, left-handed, as her right arm was pinned between her ribs and his breast bone, and Sean reached down and kissed his wife, once, lightly.
"I've hired ye a girl," he whispered. "Ye are a lady o' substance, Daisy-me-dear, an' there's no need f'r ye t' labor more."
Daisy ran her arm over Sean's shoulder and buried her face in his shirt front and began crying, crying hard.
Sean, wise man that he was, kicked a kitchen chair leg and spun the seat neatly into position: he eased his weight into it and held his darlin' wife as she opened the gates to the dam she'd used to hold back too much for too long.
Sean had no way of knowing just what-all she'd kept from him; he knew only that he loved this red-headed, explosive, impulsive, laughing, joyful, tempramental, confusing, contradictory, puzzling mystery of a blue-eyed Irish lass, this woman who'd threatened him with the beatin' of his life if he died on her, this woman who'd labored in blood and sweat and fine language while she birthed his sons: he had no way of knowing she grieved for her mother, for a carefree girlhood, for the happiness she'd hidden and walled away when she'd had to indenture her way across the Atlantic and was used shamefully as a scullery maid, and worse, until she bent a frying pan across a man's face and lifted his purse, and made her way West: Sean knew only that he'd known her in Cincinnati, where she'd been young, and beautiful, and he'd gone to one knee before her, the night before he'd been crimped and dumped in the Mississippi and presumed dead.
Sean only knew that he loved this woman more than any soul he'd known in the entirety of his years on this earth: he loved her tear-storms and her sunshine smiles, he loved her laugh and her song and the way her hands caressed a child's cheek, or wiped off a skinned knee, or swatted a youthful bottom: he loved the way she looked at him when he watched her, the way she swung her skirts when she was near him, the way she muttered when she made bread dough there on the heavy kitchen table: he knew that now, as he sat and held his wife, he was complete, he was fulfilled, he was where he wanted most to be.
Daisy rubbed her face in her husband's shirt front, then yanked savagely at her apron with her free hand and scrubbed the damp from her red cheeks.
The front door banged open and two sets of youthful feet came running in, with an irregular cadence between them: "Ma! Ma!" Little Sean shouted, dragging a slender young woman with dark auburn hair peeking out from under her traveling bonnet, pulling her along by her gloved hand: Daisy looked up, blinking the damp-drops from her eyelashes, and Sean stood, easing her down to her feet.
The young woman's hand was released and Little Sean scampered, grinning, up to his parents.
"This is Katherine Mary an' she plays marbles! Can we keep her?" Little Sean declared breathlessly with the begging expression of a child that just dragged an unwilling puppy home at the end of a rope leash.
Katherine Mary turned an amazing shade of red and folded her hands uncertainly in front of her, looking uncertainly at Sean.
"Daisy-me-dear," Sean said, at which point Daisy turned and shoved him with the flat of her hand. She took one step toward the new girl when Katherine Mary raised her chin and opened her mouth.
"I ha'e five brothers an' I can beat 'em all at marbles," she declared. "I'll cook an' clean an' do yer laundry, I'll sew an' mend an' keep a tidy house." There was a hard edge to her voice that Daisy recognized.
"I'll no' be beat nor laid a hand on, an' I'll ha'e Sunday off f'r church an' those're m' terms." She stood frozen, still, uncertain whether she'd played her hand correctly or not.
Daisy took another step toward her and wobbled.
Katherine Mary fairly leaped forward, seized her by the arm and steered her into a chair. "Whatever are ye don' on yer feet, woman? Ye're great wi' child! Now ye sit there an' le' me change m' clo'es! Don't move!"
Katherine Mary glared at Sean.
"See tha' she doesna' get up! Now where's ma room?" She looked past Daisy, at the wash board in the tub of water. "Saint Joseph ma protector, ye mean ye're doin' laundry? Woman, are ye daft? Ye stay still an' le' me ge' ye a nice cup 'a tea" -- she thrust a stiff finger at Sean, tugging her bonnet-strings free -- "an' you! Ye'll show me where things are in th' kitchen! This puir woman doesna' need t' be laborin' She's workin' hard enough th' way it is!"
Katherine Mary pulled her bonnet free, thrust a hand into her carpet bag.
"Now I believe ye're Young Sean," she said.
"Yes, ma'am," Little Sean said in a small voice.
"Ye'll call me Katherine," Katherine Mary said firmly and handed him a bag. "This is yours" -- she withdrew a second leather poke from her bag and handed to Sean Michael -- "an' this is yours. Off wi' ye, now, an' practice up!"
Little Sean and Sean Michael yanked at the draw strings and shoved their noses down into the leather pokes.
"Marbles!" they exclaimed together: clutching their treasure, they scampered outside and BANG the front door slammed shut behind!
Daisy groaned, then sighed.
"Well, th' boys like ye," she said in a resigned voice, "an' a cuppa would be nice."

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Linn Keller 3-29-11


Sarah patiently endured curlers and corset, laces and layers, perfume and paint and powder: she stood, turned, smiled, glided, pretended to be looking at something in the distance; on cue, she retreated through a discreet doorway, was set upon by several sets of willing hands that stripped her of her garments and replaced them with others, which were tied, tugged and buttoned in place, with the very last ones being done up as she emerged again from the same doorway.
Her mother, savvy businesswoman that she was, had arranged to rent the small stage at the hotel, the one for private shows: to this, she invited Denver's clothing retailers, providing food and drink, and displayed -- with Sarah's invaluable assistance as model -- the latest styles, the very day the doll-sized examples had arrived by train.
Bonnie knew that "fustest with the mostest" was a good thing, whether in a military action, or in sales: sure enough, while other dressmakers in town were frantically scaling up the French fashions from doll-size to full-size, Bonnie already had exemplars, and the exemplars were being worn.
This was the second day; sales had been good: as a matter of fact, sales had well exceeded her expectations, and she knew her dress-works would be busy producing to meet demand: she'd gambled, and had enough dresses already waiting, upstairs in two rooms, to satisfy the first day's need.
This second day's worth would be orders only, all but the stout woman in front, the one who peered at Sarah with calculating eyes: she had spoken for the very dresses Sarah modeled, and would of course have them.
Bonnie and Sarah had retreated to their rooms; one, now vacant, empty of every last dress Bonnie had brought: in the other, Sarah very carefully allowed herself to be divested of gown and petticoats, and moved as if to reach for the pitcher of scented toilet-water.
Bonnie sighed, and Sarah froze: she withdrew her hand from the porcelain handle and tilted her head to the side as she regarded her mother.
"My dear, you are so pretty done up like that," Bonnie said wistfully. "Why don't you put on your lovely blue dress, and we shall have dinner."
Sarah smiled a little.
She loved dressing up and she loved being feminine, but she was not entirely comfortable with it: she was more at home in boots and britches and a flannel shirt.
She opened her mouth to say something, then stopped and smiled a little and closed her eyes, opened them: she nodded, and turned away from the pitcher.
Bonnie had divined that Sarah had been about to wash the paint and powder from her face.
Sarah was invested with the blue-silk gown with the same speed and efficiency as had marked the previous changes.
Sarah opened a small satchel, slipped the Derringer into a slit hidden in a fold of her skirt: this was her dress and she'd modified it for her purposes.
Bonnie sighed but said nothing, though she did give Sarah "one of those looks" when Sarah carefully positioned a knife and sheath at the back of her neck, within the dress's altered collar, the flat-paneled bone handle hidden by her immaculate coiffure.
No one can see it, Bonnie thought; I'll let this one pass, and she felt simultaneously proud and uncertain about this beautiful, surprising creature that used to be her little girl.
Sarah waited until all the fuss and bother was done, all the hands had buttoned and beribboned her, the gown and the hair were pronounced perfect, a quick touch-up with a powder puff and Bonnie looked almost sadly at Sarah: sadly, and yet proudly, for Sarah, twelve years old, tall and slender, was honestly beautiful.
Bonnie reached for her reticule, nodded for Sarah to start for the door.
Sarah stopped before the tall, three-panel mirror: she stopped, then stopped dead, and honestly stared.
Sarah blinked.
So did the reflection.
Sarah turned a little, tilted her head slightly to the side, turned again.
The reflection faithfully followed her every move.
Sarah stepped close to the glass, close enough to touch it, and opened her mouth.
She turned and looked at Bonnie.
"Mama," she said in a small voice, "is that me?"
Bonnie opened her mouth, raised her fingertips to her lips: embarrassed, she started to giggle.
"I'm sorry," she managed to say after a few moments, then giggled again.
"I hadn't realized you hadn't seen yourself!"
"It's the first time I've worn powder," Sarah said in a small voice, "and my lips ..."
Bonnie glided up behind her, rested her hands on Sarah's shoulders.
"You're beautiful," she whispered.
Sarah's eyes were wide and lovely, and mother and daughter stood for a long moment with their reflections.
Sarah was absolutely, utterly, completely, at a total loss for words.

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Linn Keller 3-30-11


At one time it was a pretty good shotgun.
By the time it had been hack sawed down it wasn't much account except for the purpose for which it was now intended.
Since the express messenger had been found out -- not just found out, but killed by that long tall skinny deputy -- the payroll hadn't been robbed, and the trio scowled and grumbled by a small fire and a cold water stream, instead of living it up well south of there, where their names and faces were not known, and where they could spend freely without fear of being connected with the payroll robbery.
Impatient, the three changed their plan: instead of hitting the express car, they would hit the bank: and instead of hitting the Cripple Creek bank, which had more money on hand but was newer, bigger, more modern, and boasted armed guards, they would hit the Firelands bank: they knew it to have a fair amount of cash on hand, nothing like the mine payroll, but enough to set the three of them comfortable, and they'd never seen an armed guard in the place.
Chances were good, they reasoned, they could bait that-there deputy out of town. If he was out of town they wouldn't have to kill him: none wanted to murder a lawman, for they knew lawmen were like those damned hillbillies back East.
Hurt one of 'em an' every last one of them would be after you, blood feud, and so would their sons and their sons after them -- but that almost never happened, 'cause everyone was related to everyone else, or so it seemed.
Their plan was simple.
Ride in, stick the place up, ride out: they would switch horses and change clothes after crossing a long, rocky ridge: instead of looking like dusty trail hands, they would put on suits, head for Carbon, take a room and get clean shaven again and spend the night as if nothing were amiss: from Carbon, they would head south at a nice easy pace, until they were out of town and out of sight, then they would head east again, to the river, and take passage on a passing steamboat.
Simple, they said.
It'll work, they said.
They rode into town immediately after the passenger train came rolling in from Denver.

Bonnie's first stop was the bank.
She'd duly entered her gains in the ledger-book she carried, and not wanting to keep such a sum at her home, she intended to entrust it to their bank's vault.
It may be old fashioned, she'd reasoned, but it was strong and it had withstood attack in the past, and besides ... it was their bank.
She and Sarah walked the short distance from the depot to the bank, nodding and smiling: every man, without exception, smiled and either touched his hat brim deferentially, or lifted his skypiece and nodded.
Sarah was growing into her feelings, growing into this new person she was becoming: she was at once excited, and flattered, and yet a little afraid, of this change -- and especially a little afraid of the way men were looking at her.
She knew that, with her Mama -- with her Mama, who was an established businesswoman, a respected citizen, and indeed a power in their little town -- she was shielded to a degree from untoward approaches ... but deep within her was the scared, hurt little girl that had been Sarah, hiding under beds or in dumb waiters, back when she was but a little girl, and the Silver Jewel was a place of evil and depravity.
They were a half block from the bank when Sarah noticed the trio ride up.
Her stomach tightened a little.
There was something about them ... something, she could not put her finger on it, but she heard Fannie's words as clear as if the woman had just whispered them into her ear:
When in doubt, go with your gut.
Sarah lay a hand on her mother's forearm, stopped.
"Mother," she said, and Bonnie heard a warning note in her daughter's voice.
"Come along, Sarah," Bonnie said impatiently, pulling away from the gloved grip on her forearm. "I wish to deposit this before anything happens."

Jackson Cooper hadn't been sure of the reason, but he knew it would have been impolite to refuse: Big Sean had plied the muscular marshal with a tall glass of water clear, not over thirty days old: each drank to the other's health, then each to the other's marriage, then each to the other's good fortune: it was evident Sean was pleased with himself, and Jackson Cooper had never been one to diminish another man's celebration.
The Irish Brigade was just cleaning up from breakfast when Jackson Cooper took his leave of the happy band, and stepped out onto the street.
He saw the trio disappear into the bank and his nostrils flared.
He saw the Sheriff up the street, waved, then reached up and pulled off his Marshal's star as one of the three emerged from the bank and leaned casually -- too casually! -- against the front of the building, trying to look like a loafer, and succeeding in looking like a lookout.
Jackson Cooper noticed the fellow looked down as Bonnie and Sarah glided past him, not acknowledging their presence at all.

The Sheriff saw Jackson Cooper's wave.
He, too, had seen the trio.
He leaned forward and sprinted across the street, into the broad alley between the Jewel and the Municipal Building.
He skidded to a stop, paused with his back hard against the polished quartz: he eased the lever down a little on his engraved rifle, enough to see cartridge brass, then he closed the action, tested the hammer.
Half cock.
He lowered himself to a squat, turned, going to one knee, exposed one eye around the corner.
He saw the lookout.
He saw Bonnie and Sarah turn and enter the bank.
He drew back, teeth bared, and swore: eyes busy, he looked around, looked up, scanned the rooflines for any high observers.
He stood, stepped forward to where Jackson Cooper could see him: with a few quick gestures, he signed to the man that he was going around back.
Jackson Cooper nodded, hawked, spat.
Jackson Cooper tilted his hat forward farther than normal, then he stepped into the street: wobbling, he stopped, took off his hat, set it back down and tried another angle, took another step, then a third: his stagger was that of a drunkard, his expression, that of a man convinced that his hat was the cause of his disequilibrium.
As a matter of fact he stopped, peered accusingly at the shaped felt, turned it over, turned it around, coughed and jammed the hat down on his head with both hands before straightening, swaying, and taking another high-stepping pace across the street.
He was heading, generally, toward the bank, looking for all the world that he was ready-to-fall-on-his-butt drunk.

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Linn Keller 3-31-11


 I legged it down the alley, behind the fine two story municipal building, around the oak tree: I skidded to a stop, took a cautious peek up between the buildings.
Nobody in sight.
I sprinted a few steps, stopped, listened.
Nothing so far.
The bank was close now, Beatrice would be just inside the back door --
The back door opened.
I brought the rifle to shoulder, squatted, lowered it: Beatrice was coming out and I saw my chance.
I powered forward, thrust an arm around Beatrice's stout middle and pulled her back, away from the doorway.
Beatrice is a strong woman and not a small woman a'tall, but she is real light on her feet and a marvelous dancer.
She and I regularly cleared the floor when the Daine boys would fiddle up a waltz, and she danced now, though it was to keep from falling rather than to express our community celebration.
I brought her around, my voice low, urgent: her expression was serious, and had became so the moment she looked at my face.
"There might be a robbery," I said quickly, my words clipped. "Get safe and stay there!"
I released her and took two long steps, I was through the back door, my right thumb hard back on the hammer spur.
I tasted copper and my belly felt dead.
I was going to war and it felt good.

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Linn Keller 4-2-11


Beulah Craig was not a pleasant soul.
Beulah knew what was best for everybody else, and made it her business to say so, whether anyone wanted to hear it or not.
Beulah Craig fancied herself better qualified to teach school than Emma Cooper or anyone else in the world, for that matter: fortunately, her efforts to achieve that position met with a resounding lack of success, mostly because she had managed to convince everyone on the selectman's committee that she was a trouble maker and a pot stirrer, and this long before she petitioned for the position.
Beulah saw Jackson Cooper happily staggering across the street, generally toward the bank; she saw that gold-digging Rosenthal woman (shameful, a widow, carrying on like this! She should be in full mourning, at home with the windows shuttered, not receiving guests for a full year!) -- and that daughter of hers -- ooh!
Why, the child looked like a tart!
Very likely she was swinging her skirts in the saloon, trolling for men of a reprehensible kind!
Beulah squinted at the high stepping lawman: gathering her indignation around her like a cloak, she hoisted her nose and marched down the boardwalk, fully intent on discussing the trust she expected to invest in a public servant, how he was a disgrace, and what did he intend to do about these obviously shady women who walked on the decent folks' side of the street!

The man had a broad smile and dirty teeth.
He also had a hand on Bonnie's satchel, and a stubby twelve-bore looking at her.
"I'll take that, little lady," he said, jerking the satchel from Bonnie's grasp.
The other fellow cocked his Root revolver and thrust it between the teller's bars.
Bonnie McKenna, raised a lady, gentle and cultured by nature, was taken completely by surprise.
She lost her grip on the satchel, and the hacksawed muzzles of the double twelve bore thrust forward and caught her in the ribs, just under her breast.

Jackson Cooper belched, a good, loud, rippling belch, the kind that leaves a man feeling satsified, relieved, and unless he's in fine company, rather proud of himself.
He blinked at the fellow grinning at him from the bank's front porch.
Jackson Cooper grinned broadly -- the grin of someone who just recognized an old and dear friend -- "Frank!" he declared loudly, throwing his arms wide. "Frank, you old coon dog, I ain't seen you fer ten years! How in the hell you been?" -- and so saying, he stumbled forward, stepping up onto the porch just as the holdup yelled his demand from within.
Jackson Cooper's arms came together, fast, hard and decisively.
His left seized the holdup's shirt front and yanked, hard, his right screaming in on a short, choppy arc: a fist the approximate size and consistency of a blacksmith's anvil drove into the lookout's cheek bone, snapping his head to the side and relieving him of two teeth and a hat: Jackson Cooper drew him back, slammed him hard against the solid timber front of the building, drew him back and drove him again.
He drew the man back for a third hard thrust and realized this fellow had the approximate resilience of a rag doll.
Instead of trying to knock a hole in heavy timber, Jackson Cooper pulled his left hand in, turning to gain momentum, and threw the character generally up the street.
The limp holdup described a brief ballistic arc, his apogee cresting at about six feet, finally coming to earth in a rolling deceleration: he landed, limp and flopping, at the feet of the advancing Beulah Craig.
Beulah Craig's mouth opened: shocked, she regarded the bleeding, unconscious form before her, then she looked up at Jackson Cooper.
Town Marshal Jackson Cooper had a fist full of Remington revolver, and he was reaching for the front door.

Bonnie swatted the sawed off shotgun aside, reaching for her valise.
"Give me that!" she snapped.
The holdup blinked in surprise, then laughed.
Bonnie stamped her foot, indignation in her blazing eyes, her lips white and pressed firmly together.
"Little lady," the holdup began, and Bonnie interrupted, "Don't you little lady ME, you unwashed excuse for a saddle tramp! I've known your kind before! You don't have the back bone God gave bacon grease! Now you give me that satchel RIGHT NOW!"
His partner looked over at the scene.
"You need a hand, Tommy?" he sneered.

Sarah knew their attention was on her mother and that's just what she needed.
The Derringer was hard in her palm, cocked and ready to go.
She knew it was neither powerful nor accurate but in this situation it was perfect.
She turned quickly, driving its blunt muzzle into the shotgun man's side and yanked the trigger.

Bonnie's temper was up.
Bonnie McKenna, daughter of nobility and descended from fighting Highlanders, completly disregarded the cut down shotgun.
She focused all her rage into a good two-handed thrust and hit the holdup just under the collar bones, pushing him hard backwards, and he staggered back to keep his balance, just as his partner started to turn.
Bonnie saw Sarah's blue-silk arm and realized her daughter was in action.
The Derringer's sharp bark was well muffled by being thrust hard into the holdup's side.
Bonnie saw the holdup man's eyes change as the little gun went off.

Sarah turned, cocking the Derringer, and put her second .41 rimfire just below the second man's ribs.

Jackson Cooper thrust the front door open and was immediately slammed with three panicked burghers who'd come to the bank to do business, and suddenly decided it was time to exercise that classic military maneuver known as the Advance to the Rear.
He raised the Remington's muzzle to the ceiling, falling back and throwing out his off arm to keep his balance.

The Sheriff heard the shout, then Bonnie's voice: he saw the holdup artist's arm stuck through the bars of the teller's window and raised his rifle.
He'd come in the back door, he'd come in behind the tellers, he saw one robber but couldn't take the shot for fear of hitting the girl: then Bonnie started yelling and part of his mind realized, Look out, Bonnie's mad, and he saw a man fall backwards, trying to keep his balance.

The second holdup's arm was between the bars when his partner fell into him.
He reflexively clutched the cocked revolver, firing a shot which angled high and back and persuaded the frozen teller that it was time to duck.
His arm, still between unyielding metal uprights, was approaching its design tolerance: the weight of two men was more than the bones were intended to withstand, but somehow they held, and he was trapped.

The first holdup's feet managed to stay under him.
He fell but caught himself, staggered upright, turned around and facing the middle of the lobby, stopped before his back hit the wall behind him.
The front door was open and some big fella was absolutely filling the opening, and someone barked a challenge to his right.
He swung to the right, shotgun following his eyes, and he saw the bloom of fire from the end of the Sheriff's Winchester.

The Sheriff had his rifle to shoulder and he pointed the long octagon barrel like he would point his index finger.
He had no memory of front sight or rear.
He saw the man with a cut down double gun in his fist, and the double gun was looking at him and the Sheriff fired with a deadly determination, all emotion shoved aside, intent on only one thing: putting lead into the danger he faced.
He walked his shots up the side of the holdup man's chest, firing and firing and firing again, and there was a burst of light from the stubby shotgun and something slammed the Sheriff and he paused --
He was instantly nauseated, his body screaming I'm hurt, I'm hurt, and he clamped his jaw tight against the utter, to-the-depths-of-his-soul sick feeling and he fired again as the shotgun flared once more, but this time the payload went high and harmless and the holdup folded slowly and collapsed bonelessly on the floor.
Jackson Cooper was behind and the Sheriff saw his Remington, bright with fire, and he observed in a detatched way that the fire coming out from between the cyinder and the barrel was kind of pretty.

The second holdup, the one with his arm trapped between the bars, almost gasped when the first of Jackson Cooper's .44 slugs drove through his high ribs.
He sagged under the impact of four more of the kind: his knees slowly surrendered and he fell through molasses, leisurely, head back, dead eyes looking at something well beyond the ceiling and the slow rolling clouds of choking sulfur smoke.
His dead hand still held the Root revolver.

Sarah reached down and picked up her Mama's valise, left handed.
Her right hand still held her Derringer.
Bonnie, furious, controlled, stood with her hands fisted at her side.
Sarah turned and handed her the valise.
Nostrils flared, white-faced, Sarah half-cocked her derringer, flipped the release, swung the barrels up and kicked out the fired rounds: numbly, she worked the throat of her reticule open and reached in with trembling thumb and forefinger, and brought out a pair of shining cartridges: she slipped them into the chambers, closed the derringer, swung the latch to, and returned it to its hidden home.
Sarah was starting to shake.
She looked at Bonnie.
"Mama?" she said uncertainly.
Bonnie looked at her daughter with the expression of an eagle, or a predator after a successful kill.
"Mama?" Sarah said in a lost-little-girl's voice, and Bonnie's spell broke: she and Sarah embraced one another and stood, shaking, in the sudden, ringing silence.

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Linn Keller 4-3-10


I leaned against the wall, sicker'n I've felt in a long time.
The engraved '73 rifle was heavy, heavier than I remembered but I was bound and determined I absolutely positively would not drop it.
I was shaking some but I am a contrary man and I stood, stood away from the wall, and I looked to my right.
The girl behind the teller's cage was standing half bent over, both hands to her mouth: beside her, the other teller had kind of fell back and was loosely perched on one of the high, padded stools they used.
Beatrice came cackling in like a mother hen, all fuss and bother, fluttering a-past me and in to tend her girls.
I realized the rifle barrel was kind of warm and shifted my left hand's grip to get my thumb off the side flat ahead of the back sight, and I took a step toward the lobby, took another.
I felt kind of numb.
That ain't surprising after what had just happened.
Jackson Cooper was glaring at the dead man hanging from the teller's window, punching empty hulls out of his Remington with vicious thrusts of the ejector rod.
I stopped in the door way and figured he had the right idea.
I let go of my rifle's wrist and reached back to my belt to pull a cartridge free and I near to dropped the round: luck alone let me clutch my hand around it, and I had to work it against my side a little to get it back up between my thumb and fingers to shove it into the loading gate.
I managed to fumble another round into it before I stopped, and leaned against the door frame for a little.
Of a sudden I felt drained, like someone had just poured my strength out on the ground.
Jackson Cooper turned his glare toward me.
"You're bleedin'," he rumbled.
I nodded.
He thumbed five rounds into his revolver's cylinder while I got two more into my rifle.
The front of my leg was cold and I looked down and my pants leg was gleaming and soaky wet.
I swore, quietly, for I didn't want Beatrice to hear me, nor her girls: they had been through enough already.
Jackson Cooper pulled the hanging robber's arm free, twisted the Root revolver from his dead grip and thrust it behind his waist band at the small of his back: he reached down with the other hand and twisted up a handful of the second robber's shirt front and hauled them unceremoniously out the front door.
Well hell, thought I, I'd best quit bleedin' on the floor, the girls have enough of a mess to clean up, and I turned to go out the back.
I think I was kind of ashamed that I'd got hurt.
A thought came sailin' in out of nowhere and smacked me hard as that charge of shot had.
My stomach tightened and I felt a surge of strength: I turned, took a step into the lobby, looked around.
Bonnie and Sarah were standing on the far side of the left hand teller's cage and they looked unhurt.
"Bonnie?" I called. "You okay?"
Bonnie looked at me and her eyes were hard as marble.
"They didn't get my profits," she declared tartly.
I nodded.
I pulled back into the hallway and started for the back door.
I reckon I got about half way down the hall when I started hurtin'.
I was pretty well numb where them shot pellets hit me but now the numb was wearin' off and I figured it was time to go see Doc.
Jackson Cooper can handle things here, I thought, narrowing my eyes against the pain: my jaw muscles bulged as I held back a groan, and I set one foot in front of t'other, and pointed my nose toward our fine, polished quartz hospital.

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Mr. Box 4-4-11


"What'll ya have, Pardner?"
"Oh, beer, I recon."
"You just get into town?" I inquired.
"Yeah, on the train. Is this a pretty rough town?"
"Not usually. Why?"
"Some big drunk feller staggered 'cross the street and grabbed someone standing in front of the bank and knocked the stuffin' out of 'im 'n tossed 'im out in the street. Then he went in the bank and I thought I heard some shootin' in there! I ain't seen nobody come out, neither!"
"Was the Sheriff around anywhere?" I asked.
"Didn't see 'im."
"Maybe I ought to take a stroll." I slipped the double barrel from under the bar. "Tillie, I'm going outside."
There was still a man in the street as I approached the bank. Jackson Cooper was just dragging another one out the door. "Everybody OK?" I asked.
"All but these guys. I think Sheriff Keller got nicked. He went out the back."

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Linn Keller 4-5-11


"Jaysus, Mary an' Joseph," Sean breathed, dropping the bucket from suddenly nerveless fingers and leaning forward into a long-legged stride that broke almost immediately into a flat-out gallop.
The German Irishman and the Welsh Irishman paused in their burnishing of the steam engine's brightwork -- but paused only a moment -- then they, too, sprinted from the fine brick firehouse, pelting after their giant Irish war-chieftain.
Jackson Cooper had just disappeared inside Digger's emporium with his burden of two fresh customers, and so did not see the fast moving procession of red-shirted firefighters moving in a single file, moving at a dead run, strung out some, running with hands open, eyes fixed on the red shirt and crossed suspenders ahead of them.

Beulah Craig stood at the corner of the bank building, just off the boardwalk at the foot of the single step that led up onto its board walk and front porch.
She'd just seen an incurable drunkard emerge a cold-sober man, she'd just seen a laughing, loafing saddle bum reduced to a beaten, unconscious heap, she'd just seen two men -- obviously very, very dead -- packed out by their belts like discarded luggage.
Beulah Craig stepped hesitantly up onto the board walk and peered into the bank.
The interior was still hazy; the lobby was empty, save only for Bonnie McKenna and her daughter, who were apparently completing a transaction.
Beulah Craig, never one to miss an opportunity to gather some good gossip, nevertheless felt a bit of reluctance to enter the bank: she did not know quite what had happened, only that something had happened, something that had been violent, dangerous ... and gossip-worthy, she thought with a deliciously wicked feeling.
"What happened here?" she asked, her voice sharp even in her ears.
Sarah turned, eyes narrowing as she recognized the woman: Beulah had caused her trouble in the past and had spread unpleasant and very untrue rumors about her and her mother, and Sarah had no liking at all for the harridian.
Sarah casually withdrew her derringer, opened it with an exaggerated casualness, closed it and returned it through the slit in her skirt.
"Nothing much," she shrugged. "We went to Denver and sold some dresses, we came back and I shot two men. How has your day been?" -- and with a quick smile, she and Bonnie turned as one, their skirts flaring in unison, and they both walked out the standing-open front door.
Beulah Craig made a strangled noise, then she looked at the massive blood stain on the floor and realized she was smelling more than just sulfur smoke.
Beulah Craig shuddered and almost ran out the door.

Jackson Cooper slung the water from his hands, mauled them dry with a clean, fresh towel from the stack Digger kept beside the wash basin: he picked up his hat, settled it easily on his head and strode out the ornate parlor, reached for the door knob.
Through the frosted, faceted and beveled window glass he saw Bonnie and Sarah emerging from the bank.
He hesitated, remembering the confusion from -- what? Less than five minutes ago? -- and remembered Sarah's odd posture, her arm extended ...
He ran the memory past his inner eye again and realized Sarah wasn't stumbling, she wasn't reaching ...
His eyes focused on the two ladies, now proceeding down the step and across the little alleyway, and he saw how mother and daughter daintily lifted their skirts to step up onto the boardwalk again.
"I need to talk to them," he thought, then he remembered the Sheriff.
Jackson Cooper almost slapped himself.
He'd picked up the cut-down twelve-bore and shoved it behind his waistband in front: part of him knew it had been discharged down the hall, and part of him knew the Sheriff had been coming up the hall, and the Sheriff had put the permanent quietus on one of the two robbers, but he'd focused on the only one he saw as presenting an imminent threat, and if he could have swung his hind hoof up to boot his own backside, he would have.
Jackson Cooper strode quickly across the street, his long legs covering ground as rapidly as a lesser man might at a running pace.
"Ladies," he called, snatching the hat off his head, and Bonnie and Sarah both stopped and turned toward the big marshal.
"Ladies, I --" he stammered, then looked at the bank and back at the pair.
"Are you hurt?" he blurted.
Bonnie and Sarah looked at one another, surprised, and Bonnie began to giggle.
Now that the pressure was off -- now that they were out of that atmosphere of confusion and violence -- something in her unwound, like a clock spring suddenly deprived of its tension, and she sagged a little.
Sarah's voice was almost apologetic.
"I'm not hurt, Mr. Cooper," she said, "but I really, really gotta go ..."
Jackson Cooper's face surged with an impossibly scarlet color and he nodded, gesturing with his hat, and Bonnie and Sarah continued toward the Jewel: Bonnie had need of a nice, hot cup of tea, with a little something added, and Sarah ... well, Sarah urgently needed to make room before she took anything on board.

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Linn Keller 4-6-11


Doc Greenlees looked down his long nose at the Sheriff, carefully inserted the long, slender foreceps into another small bleeding hole, tilted his head a little to the side as if listening closely to something only he could hear.
The man's normally impassive face tightened a little, just a little, as the foreceps encountered something that was not tissue.
The Sheriff glared at the ceiling.
"You want a set 'a' post hole diggers, Doc?" he growled.
"You be the patient, sonny," Dr. John Greenlees murmured, "and I'll be the doctor."
The Sheriff's jaw muscles bulged as he saw Morning Star hand the physician the bulb syringe again.
"Now this --" Dr. Greenlees began, and the Sheriff interrupted: "I know, this won't feel good. Just get it over with!"
Dr. Greenlees introduced the long, slender end of the syringe down the recently evacuated holes, squeezed gently; the carbolic seared into the wound and the Sheriff's fists tightened yet again.
Morning Star's impassive black eyes never changed expression, but her quick ear picked up the sound of a cartilage snap somewhere among the Sheriff's knuckles.
"Not many now," Dr. Greenlees said cheerfully.
Morning Star considered how many white men she'd hears cry, scream, yell and profane the doctor, the hospital, the world in general: she'd seen men thrash, flinch, jerk away: perhaps it was her impassive expression that declared her approval of the tall, slender lawman with the iron-grey mustache, who bore pain as a man should.
The Doctor pressed another clean bandage square over the most recent excavation, this a little to the side of the breast bone and squarely over a rib: the bone had stopped the swan shot, though the shot did skid for a few finger-widths, dragging bone chips with it.
Doc Greenlees had expected the splinters, and plucked them forth as he found them.
"Now let's go a bit lower," he said, as if instructing a class.
The Sheriff had a bloody wound in his thigh, apparently a vein: there were two more, an inch apart, in the forward aspect of the bony crest on the right side of his pelvis.
A little inward and it might have shredded the man's bowel, almost guaranteeing a long, lingering, unbelievably painful death from infection.
These, and two just outside the left shin bone, appeared to be all they were.
Dr. Greenlees was sure he had been either lied to, or given a story by men drunk, scared or both: anyone on the business end of a shotgun at such close range should have a hole in them big enough to pass a cat.
He continued his patient labors, dropping each abducted shot into the tin pan.
"You know," he said absently, "I could have a fine collecton of fishing sinkers from this," to which the Sheriff muttered, "Help yourself, Doc!"

The Irish Brigade had swarmed around the bloodied Sheriff, but none dared lay a hand on him, well intentioned or not: Sean had extended his big mitt, and the Sheriff's pale-eyed glare was immediately successful in putting the man off.
"Man, ye're bleedin'," Sean blurted, to which the Sheriff snarled, "The Pope is Catholic, what else is news?"
"Now don't ye be speakin' thus o' the Holy Father!" Sean snapped.
"If Old Red Socks don't like it, let him come and see me!" the Sheriff riposted.
"Now by the Holy Rood," Sean exclaimed, "don't ye be profanin' St. Peter's representative!"
The Sheriff stopped, glared at the Irish chieftain.
Blood saturated his left leg from belt line to knee, his coat was holed and Sean saw the red margin where blood was soaking into the man's linen shirt front.
"You're right." The Sheriff's eyes were still pale but his voice was less harsh. "I had no call to speak of the man that-a-way. I apologize." He thrust his right hand out and the big Irishman took it.
Sean took a half-step closer, inclined his head and spoke so only the Sheriff could hear him.
"Ye're the color of a bed sheet, man," he rumbled.
"I'm fine!" the Sheriff snapped.
"And ye'll go t' hell f'r lyin' too!" Sean snapped back, his hand tight on the Sheriff's.
The Sheriff had not slacked his grip, and a good thing, for he swayed dangerously and Sean managed to keep him upright.
The Sheriff took another moment to make the ground quit listing underfoot before he released Sean's hand and turned toward their fine little hospital.
It was Sean's hand that rang the bell and opened the door, Sean's grip that parked the engraved Winchester in the corner, and Sean's fingers that unbuttoned the Sheriff's vest and brought coat, vest and shirt off his friend's exanguinating carcass.
The Sheriff had laid himself down on the good physician's work table.
Sean stood beside him, his hand on the Sheriff's left bicep.
"Wha' can I do f'r ye?" he asked, genuine concern in his voice.
The Sheriff's eyes closed, slowly, opened.
"Back strap," he said huskily.
Sean tilted his good ear toward the lawman. "Eh?"
"Back strap. If Daisy could fix me up some I would be very much obliged to her."
Sean nodded, his face serious. "I'll see to't."
Dr. John Greenlees came over, drying his freshly washed hands on a sun-dried towel.
"You know," he said cheerfully, "we really have to stop meeting like this!"
The Sheriff tried to glare at the man and couldn't hold the expression: he chuckled, tension washing off him like fresh snow melt.

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Linn Keller 4-8-11


Now once Doc got done with his less than tender ministrations I felt lighter by maybe a pound: that-there short scatter had peppered me fair.
Jackson Cooper allowed as it bein' so short a barrel was what saved me: it blowed the middle out of the pattern and I got fringed.
Didn't feel like no fringe to me.
That shot swarm, though but little of it hit me, felt like I'd been kicked all up and down my body.
I laid there under a blanket and a clean sheet and I did some hard thinkin'.
I begun to think I was the veriest of fools.
I don't have to do this, I thought.
I've got my pile.
I can live off what I've saved up and invested, and Esther is fetching in a good income from the railroad.
I don't have to do this.

I swallowed, sighed: Nurse Susan appeared, her hand cool against my cheek, my forehead.
"Am I fevered?" I murmured.
"You are warm," she affirmed, "just like you always are. I'll swear, Sheriff, Esther must kick you out of bed for it would be like sleeping with a heated brick!"
"She'll elbow me if I snore," I admitted.
Nurse Susan took my chin gently between thumb and forefinger, turning my head a little so she could look to the discolorations on my face.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you not to get into fights?" she scolded gently.
"My own fault," I growled.
"Aren't they always?" She shook her head. "Hurt faces and hurt knuckles, that's all a fight gets you, or so my father taught me."
"I'm grateful for one thing," I mumbled.
Doc had give me a dose of something and it was relaxing me. I know a main ingredient was some of the Daine boys' distillate, but it had something bitter as well: I figured it was the old doctor's trick of putting quinine in everything, for if it tastes bitter, the patient will figure it's a potent medicine.
Musta had something besides quinine in this batch.
"And what would that be?" Nurse Susan's voice was coming from farther away, and I wasn't hurtin' near as much.
"I'm glad he didn't shoot me in the butt. This bed is hard as a rock and was my butt patched up I'd not get any ressss..."
It felt like I let go of a line and the little row boat that was my conscious mind drifted out onto a dark ocean.
Least it felt like it.
Last I recall was Nurse Susan's hand, cool on my forehead.

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Linn Keller 4-9-11


Bonnie's eyebrows rose slightly as she reviewed the ledger sheets.
Her left eyebrow raised a little higher than her right, to Sarah's amusement: she'd noticed the Sheriff did the same thing when he was skeptical, but her Mama did it when she was pleased.
Little things, a Fannie-voice whispered, you'll notice little things about people that will help you figure them out.
Charlie had made a similar quiet voiced observation on the same day: You'll notice things about people that will help you identify them later. You might forget a face or a name but you'll never forget someone's hands, or the way they talk with their hands, the way they turn their head a little if they're listening closely or if they disagree with something. You'll never forget those things.
Sarah was in a school dress: she had engaged one of her Mama's designers to help her look less womanly and more girlish -- "I just want to go to school without being stared at!" she'd blurted -- and her Mama's designer smiled, for she'd helped design the gown in which Sarah looked the most mature: with foundations and the dress, with hair styled and a hat and face paint, Sarah looked older and more mature than she was.
Her Mama was torn with the realization that her daughter was blooming.
On the one hand, the beautiful young woman Sarah was becoming, was a definite asset when it came to selling dresses: she'd gone as far as San Frisco to claim her share of the market, arriving with dresses by the dozen a week before the fashion houses in the big city even had their Paris exemplars, and so had made a very profitable foray into the City market: Sarah had swum in this sea of metropolitan life like a fish in the ocean: she was bright and intelligent, charming and immaculately polite, a Lady in the finest sense of the word ... and, yes, quite frankly, beautiful.
Sarah was also her little girl, and as much as Bonnie, the businesswoman, loved making a profit, and Bonnie, the proud mother, delighted in safely showing off her darling daughter, Bonnie the mother worried that her little girl was growing up perhaps a little too fast ... and that she herself was at least in part to blame.
When Bonnie's designer had discreetly drawn the McKenna aside and told her that Sarah was asking for a more girlish style for school, Bonnie's eyes stung: she bit her bottom lip and nodded.
Perhaps her little girl was wiser -- and not growing up quite as fast -- as she'd thought.
Now, as Sarah sat across from her Mama, she noted the quiet indicators of approval as Bonnie studied the results of having hired Sam and Clark, on the Sheriff's recommendation.
Bonnie looked up at Sarah.
"Well?" Sarah asked, pausing her pencil: she'd been quietly scribing a lesson on a sheet of paper, at least until she started studying her Mama.
"Well?" Bonnie echoed, blinking: she was afraid she'd been studying the ledger so intently she'd missed some conversation with her daughter.
Sarah placed her pencil diagonally across the sheet, propped her elbows on the table and rested her chin in both hands: her posture and the hair ribbon and the high collared dress made her look distinctly girlish.
"Well, are we showing a profit?"
"Oh!" -- Bonnie looked guiltily down at the ledger book and Sarah saw a smile, a slight, quiet smile lift her Mama's cheeks.
Sarah tilted her head and noted with surprise that there were fine little crows-foot lines just starting at the corners of her Mama's eyes, and she felt her belly lurch.
Some part of her expected her Mama to remain young and beautiful forever, and this was an affirmation that her Mama was getting older -- she wasn't old, not yet, but she was indeed heading that way, and Sarah felt a panic, deep inside her belly.
Part of her would forever be that scared, hurt little girl in the Silver Jewel, hiding from her drunken father, hiding from the men who hurt her Mama and the other working girls, alone and terrified in a dirty hiding place between the walls.
The grown-up Sarah seized this memory and shoved it down a deep well and dragged a stone over top of it.
Her Mama looked at her and the smile had lifted the corners of her mouth, and her cheeks had pinked up a little more with the effort.
"We made more with cattle in one month than we have in the years we've been here." Bonnie's words were brisk, businesslike. "I shall have to thank the Sheriff for his recommendation."
Sarah nodded slowly, remembering the confusion and violence in the bank.
"I wonder," Sarah said slowly, "if I'll have to testify at the inquest."
Bonnie's eyes lost focus momentarily and Sarah knew she was seeing the robbery again.
Sarah could not know Bonnie was seeing her daughter's gloved hand, tight about the nickel plated Derringer, driving it into one man's gut and firing, then turning and putting a shot into the second robber's middle, just before Jackson Cooper came in and decided the issue with an absolute finality.
"Perhaps not." Bonnie placed her pencil on the ledger and looked squarely at her daughter, and it warmed Sarah that her Mama was giving her undivided attention.
"Yours were not the shots that killed the robbers. I would imagine you won't have to testify."
"But I might."
Bonnie paused, then nodded.
"You might, dear, but I believe they would call on me before they called you to the stand."
Sarah nodded slowly.
Bonnie's expression changed slightly, nothing Sarah could really put her finger on, but she knew a Mommy-moment was to follow, and she was right.
"Now, Sarah," Bonnie asked, gently, "you're not taking that Derringer to school, are you?"
Sarah blinked in surprise.
She had considered it.
The Derringer was flat and easy to hide, especially under skirts and layers, but her experience at the bank had convinced her that two shots were not enough.
"No, Mama," she said quite honestly. "My Derringer is upstairs in its box."
"Good," Bonnie said, instantly regretting it -- her daughter's armaments had come in on the side of the law a number of times now -- and Sarah considered her Mama's response carefully.
Sarah had not lied to her Mama.
She simply hadn't told her about the bulldog .44 she'd adopted, and had holstered secretly in her schoolgirl dress.

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