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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 4-11-11


Shorty loved few things more than horses.
Oh, he had a healthy affection for the stable cats, all however many of them there were: the population seemed to wax and wane, the cats seemed to turn black or grey or orange or be striped or calico, but they were always the same old cats, and he addressed them all with the same name:
The current feline was curled up on his lap, purring, a pleasantly warm companion in the high country chill: Shorty's battered billycock was shoved well back on his head and he sighed contentedly.
He figured he had earned some sit-down time.
His livery was -- as always -- orderly, tidy, neat: he'd finished cleaning the stalls, brushing the horses, checking their hooves -- again -- and even that mean tempered little pony that had been traded and sold and swapped and traded again seemed not to mind the stout little man's attentions.
At the moment, though, his boots were on the desk, his hands caressing the drowsing feline, his work was caught up and Shorty was content.
Now Shorty was a wise man, and had not voiced his contentment: like many of his day, he maintained there were Evil Demons of the Air that listened to every word that was uttered, and used those words to cast stones in a man's way: "I think we'll go on a picnic," the unwary might say, to which these incorporeal troublemakers might attend their ear and reply with "Oh yeah? ZAP! -- Thunderstorm!"
No, Shorty had uttered not one syllable, not one word, and yet he couldn't help but think that evil spirits were conspiring against him.
One leg of his swivel chair broke cleanly out of the caster, dropping him backwards: the falling, broken chair leg hit a knot in the flooring, the knot popped out, the chair went over farther and broke again, and Shorty and the cat abandoned ship, so to speak, with the cat's escape marked by more speed, higher trajectory and no blood loss.
Shorty wasn't quite so ... graceful.
While the grey puddy tat was perched majestically on top of Shorty's roll top desk, Shorty was rolling over onto his belly, gritting his teeth and running a fast inventory.
He looked down at the back of one hand and saw blood, then noted the claw marks: his right thigh burned, and he realized the cat's launch was done with no regard for underlying strata -- in this case, his thigh.
The imps of mischief further humiliated the man by delivering to him a witness to these proceedings.
Jacob paced quietly back through the livery, leaned in Shorty's chaff-dusted office and solemnly regarded the quadrupedal hostler.
"I like the view," Shorty snarled before Jacob could utter a word, and Jacob nodded: he'd heard the multiple components of a fall, complete with the screech of a cat on takeoff, and he knew something unexpected had happened.
Jacob waited until the muscled fellow got to his feet, knocked a shocking amount of dust off his worse for wear hat, and jammed it on his head.
"You wouldn't know where my Pa would be, by any chance?" he inquired, his words slow, almost drawled: Shorty's ear twitched, for he had a good ear for language, and he could tell Jacob had spent some little time with the Daine boys, for their verbal cadencing was slower than most, and Shorty had noticed Jacob was a linguistic sponge: he could listen to a man speaking in a particular accent, and reply with that same accent, naturally and unaffectedly.
Shorty had no idea what languages the young man might command, now or in time, but he was willing to bet he'd be good at learning.
Shorty sadly regarded what was left of his cigar.
Jacob leaned closer, regarded the ragged remnant: "Has your see-gar drownded out, or did yer chaw ketch fahr?"
Shorty sighed and shook his head.
"You are yer father's son," he muttered. "Yer Pa used t' ask me that."
Jacob nodded, a half-smile easing his face.
"Yer Pa." Shorty straightened. "Where you bin?"
"I got run all over hell and breakfast chasin' some wild geese," Jacob said unhappily, hooking his thumb over his shoulder. "Someone thought it would be funny t' make the depitty go chase his tail over half the county."
Shorty dropped the shreds of cigar in a spitoon and spat on the chaff-covered floor.
"Yep, they wanted ye outta the way, a'right."
Shorty could feel the change more than see it: Jacob seemed to tighten up, not stiffen, just ... well, there was no slack a'tall in him now.
Relaxed, yes, but relaxed like a mountain cat before it explodes into claws and teeth and fury.
"They was some fellas tried t' rob th' bank."
Jacob's eyes shone pale from under the shade of his Stetson's brim.
"Did they?"
Shorty carefully drew a cigar box off the shelf, blew the dust off its lid.
"Mm." Jacob grunted, nodding once.
Shorty slid the wooden lid open, peered inside; he slapped it shut, disappointed, and held it out: "Need a good see-gar box? I got sev'ral."
Jacob reached out and took it, nodding his thanks.
"The bank?" he prompted.
Shorty scowled. He'd never liked giving bad news but there was no way around it.
"Yer Pa an' Jackson Cooper went in ag'in seven 'r eight of 'em. They was a hell of a fight an' that McKenna girl an' her Ma kilt two 'r three. I think her Ma beat one t' death with her handbag, an' that girl looked like a blue silk tornado, just a-shootin' fahr an' slicin' with them knives!"
Jacob was very, very still.
Shorty stopped when he saw Jacob's eyes, ice-pale and flint-hard.
"Yer pa." Shorty swallowed, harrumphed, spat.
"My Pa."
"Yer Pa, he, um ..." Shorty scraped scarred and soiled knuckles across his stubbled chin.
"He got shot."
Jacob's voice was quiet, level, and as warm as his eyes.
"Go on."
"I heered he took both barls an' kep' a-comin' just a-spittin' fahr from attair Winchester o' his. He kilt seven 'r eight of 'em an' beat another two 'r three an' there at th' last right bafore he fell over bleedin', why, he strangled one an' beat t'other'n t' death with the first one's skull!"
Jacob's jaw was thrust out and he nodded slowly, knowing he'd have to distill this one considerably to get the facts out of the rumor.
He held up a folded paper with a red seal and ribbon.
"I got a note for him. Where is he?"
Shorty regarded Jacob's lined, impassive face and considered how lucky he was not to be on the young deputy's bad side in that moment.
"I reckon he's still in attair horse pistol healin' up."
"Obliged." Jacob touched his hat brim and turned to go.
He stopped, considering something, and Shorty reached down to pick up his chair.
"Here y'are." Jacob handed Shorty a tightly-wrapped package and Shorty's grin started in his eyes and fair to split the face right off his head.
Jacob's eyes, though cold and hard, held a glint of humor as the stout-muscled hostler unwrapped a bundle of good Cuban cigars.

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Linn Keller 4-11-11


Jackson Cooper's methods were simple and direct.
He had honestly beat the stuffing out of his prisoner, before the man became his prisoner, and so he knew he'd gotten the fellow's attention.
Now that steel bars separated them, Jackson Cooper's voice was quiet, like it generally was; he stood relaxed, nothing but his eyes moving.
"Now suppose you tell me who those other two used to be."
The prisoner swallowed, flinched: his jaw hurt with the slightest movement and ached where a couple teeth used to be. He moved carefully, not wanting to aggravate cracked ribs, and his belly was stiff and he knew he'd been hit or kicked or both -- he couldn't remember which.
He told the big Marshal the names of the deceased.
"Now suppose you tell me who else is in on the deal."
The prisoner hesitated, at least until Jackson Cooper opened his hands slowly, closed his hands slowly.
The prisoner gave him a name, and it was a name Jackson Cooper knew.
"Now where were you all supposed to meet up, and where will he be by now?"
The prisoner closed his eyes against the pain, both of the beating he'd endured, and the psychic pain of betraying a man he'd called friend.
Jackson Cooper nodded, slowly, considering.
"Now there wouldn't be anythin' else you need to tell me, would there?" he rumbled, his eyes narrowing a little.
The prisoner's blood turned to water -- cold water at that! -- and he allowed as no, not a single thing.
Jackson Cooper extended his hand.
"You might need this."
The prisoner blinked, then reached carefully for the pint bottle the Marshal extended between the bars.
"Thanks," he husked.

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Linn Keller 4-12-11


The Sheriff was flat on his back and not entirely awake when he cracked the red wax seal and unfolded the paper Jacob had delivered to him.
Nurse Susan could not help but me amused by the dreamy smile on the old lawman's face as he read the note: it was a struggle for him to keep his eyes open, and yet he managed, at least until the paper fell from between his fingers and spun to the floor.

Jacob's response to the note he found on his father's desk wasn't quite as ... well, Jacob did not have a good dose of extract of poppy behind his belt buckle to give him such a delightfully relaxed, don't-give-a-care feeling.
Matter of fact he frowned as he puzzled out the painfully formed letters and read aloud:
Gone to see a man.
Back tomorrow.
Jackson Cooper

Then under it in slightly less legible handwriting -- that is to say, nearly illegible -- Tell Emma I'll not be home for supper.
Jacob scratched his head.
Well, hell, he thought, I reckon Jackson Cooper is allowed to go see a friend every now and ag'in!

Jackson Cooper's horse was a warmblood, mostly plow horse with something else in the mix. He wasn't sure quite what, and he didn't particularly care: his horse was big enough and strong enough to pack his sizable carcass and that suited him just fine.
He also considered that as he approached, an out sized man on an out sized horse just might lead someone to figure they were closer than they actually were, and was they to shoot at him ... why, they just might hold low and miss.
Or they might hit his horse, which would make Jackson Cooper unhappy.
It was not wise to make Jackson Cooper unhappy.
Jackson Cooper thought of Sarah McKenna, one arm outflung to shield her Mama, the other hand driving something small and nickle plated into a holdup's gut: she'd whipped her hand out and there was the diminutive spit! of a .41 rimfire, lost in the hammering roar of his own .44-caliber sledgehammer, and he knew this little kitten had claws, and that he took particular offense to those folks who would cause her to feel the need to fetch out her claws and strike.
Jackson Cooper was a big man and Jackson Cooper was a strong man, and like most men who were truly big and truly strong, he had a gentle nature, a peaceable nature, and he liked it when folks around him had the same.
He also had a profound admiration for the little girl who was growing up into a fine young woman, and he wished most profoundly for her to grow up.
Not get killed in a bank robbery.
Perhaps it was with this sense of the knight-errant that he sought out the man whose name was given him through the jail door's bars, or perhaps it was because he knew the man and felt obligated to be the one to bring him in.
In either case, he reflected, the man was coming in, peacefully or otherwise ... and he didn't particularly care which way it was.

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Linn Keller 4-13-11


Dr. Greenlees nodded slightly, his thin, long-fingered hands restless, as they always were.
"Mrs. Keller," he began, at which point Esther interrupted him by snapping her fan open: "It's always been Esther before," she said tartly. "I take it you wish to pull rank on me." She lifted her chin and regarded the physician coldly.
Dr. Greenlees nodded. "Yes, ma'am. You're right, I am."
Esther snapped her fan shut and slapped the closed fan in her palm.
"Dr. Greenlees," she said quietly, the steel showing in her voice, "I am this man's wife. I am responsible for maintaining his reputation in this community, and I do not want it known that the Sheriff has been laid up in the hospital simply because he has been shot!"
Esther took a step closer to the sallow medico and laid a gloved hand on his forearm.
"On the other hand I don't want to kill my husband by going against medical advice." She gave his arm a squeeze. "Dr. Greenlees, I own the railroad and interest in two mines, I own the brick works and arguably I am one of the most influential people in this town. I can bring as much weight as I want, to achieve anything I want." She looked the man squarely in the eye. "What I want is my husband, under his own roof, but I want him there alive and healthy.
"You are a good man, Dr. Greenlees, and you have done your very best for everyone in this community." She released her grip on his coatsleeve.
"I am content to follow your advice. I may be one of the most powerful women in the State, but I try not to be one of the most foolish!"
She snapped her fan open again, waving it slowly in front of her, peering over its edge at the good Doctor, and he could see her eyes smiling.
"Mrs. Keller," Dr. Greenlees said solemnly, "you are most certainly not a foolish woman." His eyes rested momentarily on the closed door that separated them from the patient. "I'd like to keep him another full day at least. He has lost more blood than I like and that leg wound will be fragile for another day. He's lucky he's alive, as a matter of fact, another half inch and two of the shot would have severed the great artery in his groin."
Esther nodded, understanding fully what the physician was telling her.
She herself practiced sword-thrusts and knife-thrusts to the femoral artery, for she knew that a man with a femoral arterial transection would be unconscious in fifteen seconds at the very most, and dead inside of three minutes.
"May I see him?" she said, her voice softer, and Dr. Greenlees' smile was thin, but genuine.
"Of course."

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Linn Keller 4-13-11


Slow, echoing footsteps in a long, empty hallway.
Darkness, save in the distance, a solitary torch in a wall bracket: cut sandstone walls, shoulder high, arching overhead, barely high enough for a man to walk without bending.
Now what am I doing here? the Sheriff wondered, looking down at his arm and frowning.
Why am I wearing this?
He turned, looked behind him.
The hall was dark, nothing was visible, but he felt ... something ... something in the dark, something evil, something malevolent.
He remembered the Navy Colt the jailer had slipped him, reached his hand under his Yankee blue uniform coat.
The walnut handle was solid, comforting in his hand.
If I run, it'll chase me, he thought, and reached up with his other hand.
He grasped a torch where no torch had been a moment before.
"CAVERLAOCH!" he roared, charging the darkness, leading with the sizzling torch, the Navy Colt cocked in his good right hand.
The floor was solid underfoot, his knee-high Cavalry boots were loud on the stone flags --
He was falling, he was falling: now he wore a fluttering white flannel night shirt and he clawed at the empty air, vainly seeking the revolver and torch that turned to dust as the floor dissolved underfoot.
A hand, cool on his forehead, a voice --
He was standing in a grassy meadow and it was hot, hot: he stood in the shade of a broad chestnut, and near to the tree, a stream: now he wore a black suit and a quick check assured him of his knife, his revolvers: cautiously, studying the grassy expanse, he turned and surveyed the world round about him.
The Sheriff faded back against the tree, eyes narrowing.
Marching feet, invisible but near: a roadway, curving through the grass.
An empty canteen at his feet.
He bent, picked it up: on impulse he returned to the stream, filled the canteen, took a long drink, took another.
Half a hundred voices shouted in chorus and he turned, his hand flashing inside his coat and seizing his Colt's handle, his thumb hard on its hammer:
"The Road to Hell, the wise man said,
"Is a wide and easy street,
"It echoes with the trampling
"Of marching, booted feet."
The voices were young, strong, vigorous, the words were clear and understandable in spite of being shouted: his throat vibrated to shout with him, for he recognized the words, and he began to shiver with fear.
He was suddenly very, very afraid.
"Of all the men who travel here,
"Infantry, Marines,
"Only Cavalry may stop
"And rest at Fiddler's Green!"

Only cavalry, he thought, and here I am!
Something shoved him from behind and he spun, one arm up to block, his revolver half-drawn, until he saw it was a chestnut mare, his mare, the mare he'd ridden in the War.
He looked closer and her bridle had silver conchos, worked in the shape of roses.
A familiar voice, and he turned at the hail:
"Colonel, what ever are you doing here?"
He turned and a handsome young lieutenant was smiling at him.
He rubbed the mare's velvety nose and fished in his coat pocket for a plug of tobacco, shaved off a thick sliver, fed it to her.
She lipped his palm delicately, nibbling up every sliver.
"What am I doing here?" he asked. "Might be you could tell me!"
The Lieutenant slouched pleasantly against the chestnut.
"Why, Colonel, you're in Fiddler's Green."
He looked around, looked back at the Lieutenant, nodded.
"I kind of figured that. How'd I get here?"
The Lieutenant shrugged. "I got blown up with a burst cannon, Colonel. I have no idea what happened to you."
The Sheriff reached for the lieutenant, grasped his shoulder.
The cloth was warm in his hand, textured; he squeezed and felt muscle beneath.
"With respect, sir," the Lieutenant said, still slouched against the tree, "you're out of uniform. Mind if I have a swaller?"
The Sheriff considered, handing the lieutenant the canteen.
He looked at his sleeve as he extended the cloth covered container.
Not a military canteen, he thought, and not a military uniform.
"I don't belong here," he realized out loud.
The lieutenant nodded.
"I can stay here forever, sir," the lieutenant said, yawning. "Matter of fact I figure to do just that."
The Sheriff felt his belly tighten and he was starting to get mad.
"I don't belong here," he said, certainty tightening his voice, "and I'm not about to stay."
He reached for the mare's bridle and she turned as she always did.
He thrust his boot into the stirrup and seized the saddle horn and just as he swung his leg over he realized the mare was wearing his bridle and his saddle, not the military tack.
"Sir?" the lieutenant said, pushing away from the tree and looking up at the Sheriff.
"Yes, Lieutenant?" The Sheriff felt his strength surging back.
"Sir, you were always a fair man, and I'm not the only one to appreciate that, sir. When we saw you were leading us we knew you'd take care of us, and you always did. I was proud to serve under you, sir, and please don't take this wrong, but I'd be most pleased not to see you for a good long time."
The Sheriff looked up, saw a familiar figure in the distance, maybe a half mile away across the flat grassland.
"Go to her, Colonel," the lieutenant said with that flashing, boyish grin the Sheriff remembered so well. "Go to her, sir!"
The Sheriff leaned into his mare, gave her his knees.
"Yaah!" he yelled, and the chestnut mare gathered herself and launched across the roadway, chunks of sod tossing up behind her.
There were yells, whistles: "Go, Colonel!" "Kiss her for me!" "We'll see you later, Colonel!"
The Sheriff heard them but dimly.
The chestnut mare was finding her stride, her hooves drumming rapidly, regularly on the hard earth, surging beneath him: he leaned over her neck and whispered to her, "Run -- run -- run -- run!"
Wind whipped his face, his hat fell back, held by the storm strap, stripping tears out the corners of his eyes, running them cold and wet around the back of his neck --

"He's waking," Nurse Susan said, and Esther rose, not entirely awake herself.
She'd drowsed in a chair, at least until her husband began to twitch and mutter: she'd soothed him with a hand on his forehead, a cool cloth wiping his face, and he'd relaxed; she sat back down and relaxed as well, and she must have drowsed without intending to.
The Sheriff's eyes snapped open, wide, and he took a great, gasping breath: looking around, left, then right, he appeared to be looking for someone.
Esther laid a gentle hand on his chest and he seized her upper arm.
"You're real," he whispered, half afraid, half hopeful: "You're real!"
Esther's green eyes regarded him curiously.
"The Lieutenant," the Sheriff said abruptly. "Where is he?"
Esther and Nurse Susan looked at one another.
"The ... who?"
The Sheriff took a few long breaths, closed his eyes, drew Esther into his arms.
"Nothing," he whispered. "Nothing, dearest."
Esther was not entirely sure quite what had just happened, but she knew it was the right time to hold her husband.

Nurse Susan withdrew quietly, slipping into the next room.
"Dr. Greenlees?" she asked.
The dozing physician woke quickly, sat up, the way he always did. He slept dressed, all but his shoes, so he might quickly respond to any emergency coming in: he and Dr. Flint took turns sleeping at the ready.
"Dr. Greenlees, the Sheriff is awake."
Dr. Greenlees thrust his sock feet into elastic-sided shoes.
"He may have had a little too much poppy juice. He seemed to be having a nightmare."

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Linn Keller 4-14-11


The big Irishman was almost asleep when Daisy laid a gentle hand on his furry chest and whispered his name.
Sean rolled over on his left side and threw a massive, muscled arm over his wife, rolling her into him.
His eyes were still closed, he was relaxed, warm, content: he kissed her on the forehead and sighed.
Daisy worked her arm up over the curve of his ribs and spoke to her husband's Adam's apple.
Sean distantly felt the puff of her breath on his throat, and chuckled, a deep, good natured sound, a sound Daisy loved to hear.
There was much about this man she absolutely loved, and very little she did not.
"Sean, thank you."
Sean swam up through the depths of relaxed sleep and took a shivering breath, which Daisy knew meant he was coming awake.
"Hm?" he asked drowsily.
Daisy tightened her arm around her husband, and he his around her, and each molded into the other, delighting in their mutual warmth. Few things are as intimate, or as comforting, as simple touch, and touch is magnified in the marriage bed.
"Sean? Thank you, you bog trotting Irishman!"
Sean came fully awake, went to look down and managed to shove his nose full into her hair. He drew back a little, sniffed, wiggled his nose and tried again.
"Daisy me dear," he whispered, "wha' was th' question?"
Daisy giggled and turned a little, laying her head in against his shoulder.
She seldom ever felt as warm, as safe, as comforted, as she did when she was cuddled up against her Irish mountain of a man, and she felt so now.
"Sean, the girl. Thank ye. She's a great help."
Sean nodded, carefully, with a drowsy "Mm-hmm."

Esther washed her face, the sound of water loud in her bedroom: she toweled carefully, hoping she hadn't wakened Angela, but as she brought the towel from her face, she saw a solemn-eyed little girl standing barefoot beside her, a rag doll dangling by its leg from one hand, the other knuckles rubbing her eye.
"Mommy?" Angela asked in a drowsy little-girl voice. "Where's Daddy?"
Esther squatted and took her daughter in a gentle Mommy-hug.
Angela smelled of clean flannel and soap and lilac-water: like her Mommy, her fine brown hair was braided, though Angela's was in twin pig tails instead of her Mommy's single thick braid.
"He'll be back soon, sweets."
Angela laid her cheek over on her Mommy's shoulder and Esther picked her up -- she's getting big! she thought, I won't be able to do this for much longer! -- and, snapping back the covers, she laid Angela on their big bed, and got in beside her.
Angela rolled up on her left side and gave a little sigh and Esther knew she was asleep, just that fast, and she smiled: she drew the covers over them both, marveling at innocent youth and how quickly it could drop into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Angela, though, was dreaming, the vigorous, bright dreams of a little child: she dreamed her Daddy was picking her up and spinning her around, the way she loved, and the world whirled around her in streaks of broad pastels, and she shrieked and laughed, safe in Daddy's big, strong hands, as her skirts and her legs flew out behind her.
Angela wiggled a little, dreaming of Daddy's mut-stash tickling her when he kissed her goodnight, or his quiet, strong Daddy-voice as he read her a story, how he felt when she sat on his lap and leaned back against his solid Daddy-chest and laid her cheek against his ribs and listened to his thumper thumping, and how his strong Daddy-arms would pick her up and carry her to bed, and she dreamed of his breath on her cheek as he kissed her goodnight.
Esther leaned over to look at her little girl's face, barely visible in the thin moonlight through the wavy glass of the bedroom window, and Esther smiled, for Angela had a contented little-girl smile on her smooth, flawless face.

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Linn Keller 4-14-11


With Jackson Cooper out of town, Jacob took over putting together what had happened, and when: he talked to nearly everyone on the street, he spoke with each member of the Irish Brigade: he took pains to thank Mr. Baxter for his kindness, for the man had come over with a double handful of Settledown, coming toward something that could have been mild as an argument or vicious as a running gunfight.
He rode out to the McKenna ranch and waved at Sam: she and Clark were in the near pasture, branding and gelding and otherwise engaging in what is honestly nothing but hard, dirty work.
Jacob could not help but admire how the herd had improved in the short time that Sam and Clark had been there. He knew they had two seed bulls and rented them out: he'd seen Sarah help them get the bulls to the railhead, and into a cattle car -- but never both at the same time, otherwise they would have torn the cattle car apart and killed one another in the process.
Bonnie's twins met Jacob with their usual shy, giggling approach: as soon as he set foot in the house, they charged him at a dead run, one seizing him around the left thigh, one around his right, each of them chattering excitedly, and he squatted and ran an arm around each of them and picked them up, grinning.
The hired girl swung into view, then stepped quickly aside as Bonnie came out of her office, smiling.
Jacob lowered the girls and they scampered to their Mama: "Mama, Mama, Jacob's here!" they chorused, as if Bonnie could not see the lean young deputy.
"Jacob," Bonnie greeted affectionately, extending her hands in a motherly gesture: Jacob flushed, looking suddenly awkward -- just like his father! she thought -- and he advanced and took her hands in his.
The hired girl took the twins and entertained them in the next room while Bonnie and Jacob settled in Bonnie's office: tea and sandwiches were brought in, and they exchanged pleasant, small talk -- how little Joseph was growing, how he and Annette had been hoping for another child, how his own small herd had increased significantly.
Finally he came to the purpose of his visit.
"Can you tell me what happened in the bank?" he asked carefully.
Bonnie gave him a patient look. "Jacob Keller," she said softly, "if I didn't know better I would think you were a lawman!"
Jacob's smile was equally gentle. "I need to see it through your eyes."

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Linn Keller 4-15-11


Sarah had a thick bed of straw forked out on the ground, and a saddle blanket over it: in front of her, four cans on the fence rail.
Jacob watched as Sarah checked her revolver, holstered: she stepped back and not until she caught her heel and fell did he see an extra fence rail, apparently intentionally placed.
Sarah went down backwards and Jacob frowned as her arms swung out and slapped the ground, hard, and she rolled to the side, drew and fired one handed.
Even though it was the .22 with which his father had gifted her, it was an impressive move: even more impressive was the fact that she was training to fight back from being knocked down.
Sarah fired only one shot; she got up and walked up to the fence rail, touched it, then paced back, turned and drew, fired twice.
Jacob could see the can wobble, but it stayed put on the squared-off top of the rail.
Sarah reloaded, holstered; this time she stepped sideways, went down on her side, slapped the ground hard with her left arm and drew and fired right handed.
Jacob nodded.
His father had drilled him in that exact move; it was something he practiced regularly, though he smiled a little at the thick straw padding Sarah had prepared.
She's smarter than I am, Jacob thought, then called gently, "Sarah?"
Sarah turned, both hands coming up in front of her: she was still keyed up from making her practice as realistic as possible, but she apparently knew she was at home and a surprise probably did not equal a threat.
Jacob was grateful for that.
He had no doubt that, at this distance, she could perforate his anatomy with ease.
"Oh!" Sarah's hand went up to her hair, then swatted at her riding skirt to dislodge any straw that escaped the saddle blanket, and she looked distinctly embarrassed: she looked shyly up at the grinning deputy, and Jacob laughed quietly at her reddening cheeks.
He walked up to her and took her hands, shaking his head.
"Sarah," he said, "I have seldom seen better."
Sarah's eyes dropped shyly and Jacob felt a deep affection for this tall girl: he regarded her more as cousin than anything else, and loved her like a sister, but he also needed to take her testimony about the holdup at the bank.
He hadn't heard about her using her Derringer until Bonnie made mention of it.
He didn't see a need to put that into the official report, as it was more than evident that Jackson Cooper was the primary cause of the first holdup's demise: no, Sarah's action, though salutary, would escape his pen later in the day.
No sense in putting her in front of the Judge if we don't have to, he thought, and as the two of them set on the Deacon's bench, sunning themselves and talking quietly, he watched her hands, her eyes, seeing the change as she looked far into the horizon, seeing the holdup again in her memory.
At one point Jacob stood and had her stand, facing him, and had her show him where she stood, where her Mama stood, and which way the nearest holdup was facing: he had her show him the approximate distance to the second holdup, how she moved from one to the other, where she was when Jackson Cooper came into the room.
Finally he asked about his father.
"He looked around the corner and asked if we were unhurt," Sarah said.
"Did you notice anything ... unusual about him?"
Sarah considered, looking at the event again with her mind's eye.
"No," she finally said. "Other than he looked pale -- his eyes were very pale and I knew he was mad -- angry, to his very soul -- but when he saw we were okay, he pulled back and I turned back to Mama."
Jacob nodded.
"Jacob, is something wrong?"
Sarah's eyes were troubled: Jacob looked out at the line where mountains sawtoothed their way against the blue, blue sky, and he chewed on his upper lip.
He looked over at Sarah.
"Pa was hurt."
Sarah's eyes went wide and the color ran out of her face like red ink out of an eyedropper.
"Easy there!" Jacob exclaimed and seized Sarah's shoulder as she wobbled a little. She clutched at his arm and swallowed hard.
"How bad?" she whispered hoarsely.
"He'll be fine," Jacob said reassuringly.
Sarah's distress flared into anger.
"JACOB KELLER," she shouted, standing abruptly, fists balled at her side, "DON'T YOU DARE LIE TO ME! HOW BAD IS HE?"
Jacob blinked in surprise, then he made a serious mistake.
He laughed.
Sarah's fist caught him just under the breast bone and her riding boot drove into his shin bone, its impact only slightly diminished by his own elaborately stitched boot tops: "JACOB KELLER, YOU TELL ME THE TRUTH, WHAT HAPPENED?"
"Whoa! Whoa!" Jacob choked with what little wind he had left: he seized Sarah's upper arms, turned half sideways as if to throw her over his extended leg: "He'll be fine, he's just lost some blood --"
Sarah drove a knee into the back of his thigh and twisted out of his grasp: she drew back a few feet, teeth bared and her own face dead pale: Jacob opened his mouth to say something and Sarah turned, sprinting into the barn.
Jacob rubbed his belly and worked some more air into his lungs and before he could get himself to rights, he heard Sarah's "HYAHH!" and the sharp crack of reins against a horse's haunches, and he saw Sarah on her racer squirt out of the open barn doors like a watermelon seed from between pinched fingers, and the race horse raised up and floated over the fence rail like he had wings before they touched down and proceeded to make the express train look like a rank amateur.
Jacob grunted, took a deep breath, then another, and headed for his own mount.
Fast as his stallion was, he seriously doubted he could catch his cousin.


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Linn Keller 4-17-11


Doc wanted to take no chances with my leg a-bleedin' again.
I don't know why he was being so particular.
I been shot before and worse than this, but that skinny so-and-so wouldn't have anything but me layin' flat on my back or real careful up on my un-injured side.
He finally allowed as Nurse Susan could crank that-there horse-pistol bed up some at the head and that was a great relief for about the first ten minutes or so, then I began to get restless.
He threatened to juice me with some more of that poppy stuff and I told him I would reach down his neck, grab him by the ankles and yank him inside out if he tried it.
I didn't like those nightmares a'tall and saw no need to go a-visitin' them things again!
Sean fetched me in some good back strap meat -- matter of fact Daisy fixed me up with more than three men could have et -- Doc said it was okay to fill my belly so I did it full justice.
I et every bite.
Nurse Susan viewed the empty plates and bowls with dismay.
"You wern't hungry, now, were you?" she asked, peering over a set of non-existent spectacles.
The scar on her face was pretty well faded but her smile was crooked and likely would be for the rest of her life: I thought of the scoundrel that had cut her like that and wished most sincerely he was still alive so I could do some really unpleasant things to his miserable carcass.
I shifted my mental locomotive to another set of tracks quick-like, for I am a transparent man and my thoughts are plain on my face: I tried to look innocent and replied, "Why it don't pay to eat too much on an empty stomach!" -- to which she replied, "I'll bet you take a nap before bedtime so you won't be too tired!"
"How'd you know?" I asked, straight faced.
Sean set himself down on a handy chair, which creaked alarmingly under his weight.
"Y'know, Sheriff," he rumbled in that delightful Irish accent, the one that came out most strongly when he had an amused confidence to share, "ye lined me purse an' I thank ye for it."
I belched comfortably, stuffing a pillow in under the small of my back.
"Sean, I can get in trouble just sittin' in my chair at home. How in the cotton pickin' did I manage to line your purse just a-settin' in here?"
Sean laughed quietly, his normally red face turning a little redder.
"Well, it was a bit of a wager," he began, drawing a leather poke from inside his shirt and offering it to me: "Your share, by th' way, if ye'll have it."
I took the poke, hefted it, raised an eyebrow.
"Well don't leave me hangin', man," I exclaimed, "what happened?"
Sean leaned back with a pleased expression.
"Weeelll," he began, and I was glad I was hoist off the floor on that-there horse pistol bed, for it promised to get deep and I was not wearing my boots.
"Me an' me b'hoys were in th' Jewel havin' us a bit of a beer after work," he began, then added "F'r medicinal purposes only, y'understand!"
"Of course," I agreed solemnly.
Sean nodded, winking at me, and continued.
"Weeelll," he began again, "there was this stranger on th' stage, an' he came out allowin' as he'd heard of these Western towns bein' so tough, an' how he could out-draw an' out-shoot any man in th' room!"
"I see." By now he had my undivided attention and I gave him both eyes and both ears.
"Me brother in law said th' fella couldn't out-draw a girl, an' he got mad an' allowed as he sure as hell could an' he'd prove it, if me puir sister's husband would kindly step outside he'd show him!
"Th' Jewel emptied out in short order, f'r ever'one wanted t' see what would happen, y'see." Sean nodded knowledgably.
"And what did happen?"
"Why, Sarah an' yer Bonnie had jus' wheeled int' the livery wi' their buggy, it seems they had a loose shoe an' Sarah steered 'em in t' see Shorty b'fore things got worse.
"Me b'hoy went up t' Sarah an' spoke quiet-like t' her, an' Sarah reached int' th' box b'hind the buggy seat an' whipped out her gunbelt and' wrapped i' around 'er waist!"
"Well my goodness," I said quietly, nodding. "Go on."
"Ah, 'twas a sight t' see," Sean sighed. "This spalpeen realized he'd bit off more o' th' bull than he could ride an' tried t' back out, but no one'd let 'im, an' words were exchanged, an' finally he allowed as a'right, he'd try this little girl an' see who was faster, an' he put up a purse."
Sean pulled a second poke from inside his shirt.
"I take it she won."
"Aye, that she did!" Sean's grin was broad and genuine, his Irish-blue eyes merry with the memory. "Three times, f'r he cried foult th' firs' time, claimed she'd jumped the go! When she proved faster than he, three times runnin', an' she hit the can three times an' he hit but once, he had t' pay, an' he did."
I nodded, wishing I could have seen it.
"Sarah was still a-wearin' tha' blue silk gown she was a'wearin' earlier in th' day, when those scoundrels held up th' bank, 'r tried t'." Sean scratched his head.
"Y'know, Sheriff, yer niece is growin' into a lovely young woman." He leaned toward me, one elbow on his knee, the other hand on his opposite thigh. "Ye're gon' t' have t' hire a shotgun guard t' keep th' men awa' from such a beautiful child!"
I flinched as something seared through my guts like a hot spearhead. It was gone just as quickly but it wasn't pleasant.
"Sarah came out winners, eh?" I said, my voice a little strange in my ears.
"Oh aye, she did that!" Sean chuckled, hefted his poke, returnd it to a hiding place behind his shirt's bib front. "An' I'm obliged t' you f'r teachin' her t' shoot!"
I considered the handful of good fortune I held, then extended it to Sean.
"Give that to Charlie Macneil when next you see him. He taught her."
Sean blinked, nodded: "Aye, I'll do that."

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Linn Keller 4-21-11


Jacob straightened up, frowning, one gloved hand to the small of his back, then grinned: youth and strength are more than a match for tired muscles, especially when a beautiful bride and a laughing little boy-child waited for him within.
He'd come home after a rather long day: after court, he'd served a warrant, and a summons to appear: the warrant resulted in two arrests (translation: the fellow threatened to shoot him if he didn't leave the property and Jacob promptly stepped in and drove his fist into the man's wind, kicked his son in the gut and used a convenient frying pan to raise knots on both men's skulls) and serving the summons an hour later resulted in a good woman cooked meal and the dark-eyed promise of the rancher's daughter: Jacob had been warned about the lass by his father, and kept a tight rein on his young man's passions, and somehow maintained a formally polite farewell to the black-haired beauty while remaining cordial to her father.
The girl's father was in a dispute with a neighbor over water rights and while Jacob knew the man was in the right, it had become a matter of litigation, and he was obliged to serve the summons.
The arrestees waited in irons, chained to convenient but separate fence posts, while Jacob finished his business (and meal), and later that day, after finalizing the paper work back at the office, getting the prisoners situated in their jail cells, after turning over the two prisoners from the bank robbery -- one Jackson Cooper had un-gently pacified, the other Jackson Cooper had brought in late the night before -- to the Deputy US Marshal, Jacob tidied up the office, made sure the prisoners were secure, still breathing, and inquired of Jackson Cooper if the man needed anything.
Jackson Cooper and Jacob took turns staying at the jail when they had prisoners; the one jail served both the town marshal and the Sheriff, and they took turns keeping house, as it were.
Jackson Cooper shook his head, smiling: Jacob nodded, wished the man a good evening, and stepped out the door.
He knew Jackson Cooper had a meal waiting on him: the basket was covered with a tucked-in, red-and-white check cloth, and smelled really, really good, and Jacob's rumbling gut reminded him he had a meal waiting at home, and the rest of him reminded him he had a beautiful wife and a laughing son there as well.
Now, having tended his mount, cleaned the stall and thrown down fresh straw for bedding, having turned his stallion into the pasture, he grinned as the stallion stuck his neck out and whinnied.
"Go get 'em, boy," he murmured as the stallion paced toward the approaching mares. "Make some good colts!"
A stray breeze brought him the smell of supper and he grinned.
Home looked pretty darn good.

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Linn Keller 4-23-11


Jackson Cooper was a man with a clean conscience.
He was also a man in a comfortable bed, or at least as comfortable as the folding bunk in the Sheriff's office could be: his sleep was deep and dreamless, until a rapid tattoo of nervous knuckles on the barred door brought him to instant alertness.
He sat up and thrust his sock feet into his boots: crossing the floor with a double gun in hand, he inquired of the closed door, "Who goes there?"
A nervous voice said "Marshal, someone's in the graveyard hollerin', I dunno what's goin' on but it ain't right!"
Jackson Cooper frowned: he snatched his hat off the peg, raised the bar on the door and stood well to the side: he swung the door open and let his twin barrels peek out at the same time his eyes did: nothing was seen initially, and he swung around to view the nervous burgher, who was turned and looking toward the graveyard, off the other side and a-past the hospital.
Jackson Cooper grunted, stepped outside and drew the door to: he locked it with a quick turn of the big-headed key and looked around.
A cautious man by nature, he stood fast in the shadowed darkness, listening, smelling: then he stepped out toward the graveyard, long legs covering ground quickly, and with surprising stealth for a man his size.
Jackson Cooper flowed from shadowed pool to shadow, faded into a tree trunk here and disappeared against a building there: he was in no hurry, his travel was at an irregular velocity: he strode quickly across open ground, where the thin crescent moon illuminated but poorly through the high clouds, and hesitated in the un-lighted areas.
Darkness was his friend, and he had made good use of it many times in his life.
Jackson Cooper stopped, his right ear pulling back a little as he heard a voice.
"Help me!" it called, muffled: "I'm cold!"
A chill of superstitious fear ran its finger down Jackson Cooper's spine.
Jackson Cooper feared neither man nor devil and he'd seen his share of death; he'd seen bodies fresh and bodies decayed, bodies rent asunder by horrible accident, by intentional brutality, by ravening carnivores; he believed not in ghosts nor the walking dead -- but there is still that deep, primitive fear in such moments that might give even a strong man pause.
Jackson Cooper listened, took a step, took another.
"Help me! I'm cold!"
The voice was thin, unsteady, vaguely familiar: Jackson Cooper made a quick mental check, trying to remember who was most recently interred.
Had someone been buried alive? he wondered, did they shove and claw their way out of a premature grave?
Jackson Cooper's steps were quicker now, still light, but rapid: he flowed through the ornate iron archway, paused, listened.
There! he thought as his eyes fell on a darker rectangle. They dug that one today!
"Help me!" the voice called, and Jackson Cooper paced over to the hole, eyes busy, head turning, then he carefully peered over the straight edge of the smooth-cut hole.
"Help me!" a thin figure called, "I'm cold!" --and Jackson Cooper's forehead wrinkled.
He could not help himself.
He blurted the first thing that came to mind, and immediately felt somewhat foolish.
"Why, you damned fool," he boomed, "ye've kicked all yer dirt off! No wonder you're cold!"

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Linn Keller 4-23-11


The Sheriff straightened his leg carefully, shifting uncomfortably in the hard kitchen chair. He was doing his best to pay attention to his bacon and eggs, and as a matter of fact he was making a fair account of himself in that venture, but his leg insisted that he shift position and he did.
Esther did not miss the quick frown that escaped his reserve: she noted the change, but said nothing, knowing if the matter were serious, he would tend it, otherwise it would be a presumption to remark upon it.
Their girl, however, had no such qualms.
She appeared behind the Sheriff and bent to whisper in his ear: her hand was warm on his shoulder, and as he half-rose, she slipped a pillow under his backside.
Esther smiled quietly and gave the girl an approving look.
"My dear," she said after a few moments, "did you get your note?"
"Which one?" her husband asked, looking across the table, eyebrows quirking up.
Angela stopped, tilting her head with curiosity, regarding her Daddy with big and innocent eyes.
"The note from Jackson Cooper."
The Sheriff chuckled, nodded.
"Was it serious?"
Esther knew it was not; when her husband the Sheriff received a note just after daybreak it was generally a serious matter, but when her husband the Sheriff peered at the note, and frowned at the note, and held the note closer, then further, when her husband the Sheriff frowned and muttered and finally began to laugh, she knew he would not be galloping away on his golden mare, or racing into the distance on his black gelding: no, her husband had re-read the note and chuckled quietly, shaking his head, placing it beside the other, the one with the red-wax seal he'd brought from their gleaming, polished-stone hospital.
Linn looked across the table at his wife, reached for the heavy ceramic coffee mug he favored.
"Jackson Cooper pulled jail last night," he said, raising the mug and taking a tentative sip.
Esther blinked, tilted her own head slightly, giving her husband her shining green eyes.
Angela picked up her fork and slid it under a piece of pancake.
"Someone alarmed him to a disturbance in the graveyard."
Esther blinked in curiosity, leaning forward very slightly, and the Sheriff knew he absolutely had her undivided.
Angela turned her bite of pancake over in a tiny puddle of honey and raised it to her lips.
"Turns out some fella lost his way and fell in an open grave."
"Oh, my," Esther murmured, looking slightly uncomfortable.
The Sheriff grinned and forked a short stack of flap jacks onto his own plate, reached for the butter. "He wasn't feelin' any pain," he said quietly, giving his wife a knowing look, and she nodded a little with a quiet smile: apparently the tale was not to be one of woe and of loss.
Angela cut off another piece of pancake and stirred it around in what little honey remained on her own plate.
"Jackson Cooper looked over the edge of the hole and the fellow said "Help me, I'm cold," and Jackson Cooper said it was no wonder" -- the Sheriff glanced over at Angela, who was concentrating on balancing the anointed bite on her fork -- "for he had kicked off all his dirt!"
Angela very carefully raised the fork and delicately inserted her bite into her mouth, chewing with her mouth closed and placing the fork beside her plate.
"Angela?" the Sheriff said in his Daddy-voice, and Angela swallowed abruptly, looking guilty: she folded her hands in her lap and said "Yes, Daddy?" in an un-oh, I've-been-caught little girl's voice.
"Angela, I am very proud of you," the Sheriff said in his quiet, reassuring Daddy-voice. "You are eating in a very ladylike manner."
Angela beamed, trying not to wiggle with pleasure and almost succeeding.
"My dear, did I show you the note I received from the Virginia woman?"
"Virginia?" Esther asked, her Carolina antecedents in her pronunciation of the name.
"She broke her leg when their team ran away and she fell out of the wagon. Angela and I came upon the wagon, back trailed to where she and her husband were."
Esther's face lit with comprehension and she looked at Angela. "The broken woman you put in a wagon load of violins," she said, quoting Angela's excited pronouncement to the solemn Dr. John Greenlees, when I sent her galloping ahead to let him know we were coming.
Esther shook her head slightly.
I looked up at the girl and she dropped a quick curtsy: she disappeared for a moment, then returned, bearing the folded half-sheet of foolscap.
I nodded to Esther, and Esther accepted the missive: she read it, read it again and looked proudly across the table at me.
"My dear," she murmured.
"What is it, Mommy?" Angela asked, considering whether to lean halfway across the table to spear another pancake.
"I am delivered this day of a fine son," she read aloud, "and I have you to thank for two sound legs with which to raise him.
"Indeed, my physician tells me my very life was saved by your particular action.
"With your kind permission I shall name my son for you, that your kindness may be remembered in our family forever."

Esther rested her hands on the edge of the table, her eyes glowing softly.
"My dear," she murmured, "I am so very proud of you!"
I nodded with a wry half-smile.
Esther turned her head slightly and raised one eyebrow.
"Linn?" she asked. "What happened?"
I chuckled, sliced off another bite of pancake.
I reached for the honey, drizzled some on the stack, laughed quietly and shook my head.
Angela looked at Esther, then back at me: shrugging, she speared another pancake and flipped it neatly onto her own plate.
"Her husband brought the note into town. He had to stop at the Mercantile and got distracted and by the time he got to asking where the lawman was, he had to get back to the depot." I turned my bite of pancake over, thrust the tines of my fork under it, lifted it.
"He asked the lawman's name."
I took a bite and chewed, savoring the good buckwheat.
"Liiinnn?" Esther asked, drawing the name out on a rising note, as plain a wordless warning as anything: quit fooling around and tell me what happened!
"I don't know who the man asked, but he went back to Cripple just as happy as if he had good sense."
"Linn Keller," Esther said, her Wales temper darkening her ears, "if you don't tell me what happened, I will take a wooden spoon to your knuckles!"
"Oh, it's nothing, really," I said, picking up a crispy strip of bacon and biting off a third of its length: I chewed, swallowed, then looked squarely at my green-eyed bride.
"They named their child Jacob."

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Mr. Box 4-23-11


 A feller was in the bar this morning when I got down there and he was white as a sheet! He wanted something stiff to warm him up quick! He looked chilly and had a bad case of the shakes.
"This costs a little extra but it should do the trick." I said.
"I I don't care! G Gimme two!" he stammered.
"Ya got a problem?" I inquired.
"I I d d don't wanna talk about it! Th That looks like w water!" he blurted.
"Don't worry. It ain't." I explained as I poured him a couple of good healthy shots of the Daine Brother's finest. He tossed the first one back and reached for the second when he suddenly stopped! The shakes were gone! He slowed down a little and just sipped the second one.
"Feel better?" I asked.
"Whew! Better than I expected to." he sighed. "My ears hurt!"
"Need anothern?"
"Naw. That'll do." he admitted. "Thanks, Pal."  

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Linn Keller 4-25-11


I been cooped up long enough, thought I.
I need to get out and ride, thought I.
I'm a-gonna saddle up my nice easy butter smooth Palomino and have me a nice easy ride, thought I.
You think I could whistle that damned mare up to the fence?
I coaxed.
I whistled.
I shaved off some plug tobacco to bait her in.
The black horse was plenty happy to follow me around like Denver Bup and beg for tobacco and finally I rubbed his ears and let him lip off the shavings I'd made and told him he was a good boy and he stood still for saddle and bridle and directly we were pacing down the main street of town.
Few things are as fine as the back of a good horse and that black gelding was a good one: Rose o' the Mornin' was a better racer but the black was no slouch, Rose was just plainly smooth as feathers on grease but the black horse wasn't bad.
"Hello Soapy!" the loafer hailed me from his station holding up a lamp post. "Ain't you dead?"
I reined in the black horse and deadpanned, "Now I'll have you know I take me a bath once a week whether I need to 'r not!"
The loafer shifted his quid and spit a stream, nodding wisely. "I hear it said, and hold it to be true," he drawled, "that too much bathin' kin weaken yew."
I nodded, folding my hands on the saddle horn and easing my lower back a little: there was a muffled pop and something hurt good, and the loafer's eyes got big.
"Now daggone, Salty," he declared, I'm hard 'a' hearin' an' I heard that one!"
"Say, you ain't seen Jackson Cooper?" I asked, patting the black horse's neck: the gelding was standing hip shot, head down, for all the world like he was gone sound asleep while I was yet astride.
"No, I surely ain't," the loafer declared, "but I ain't been here but three-four hours."
I nodded wisely. "I been all night tryin' to think up a big lie to tell the man, and y'know, the mind just went blank."
"Gittin' shot will do that to a man," the loafer said, shoving away from the lamp post and strolling over to me: he came within arm's reach and peered up at me with a worried expression.
"Soapy, you take care 'a' yerself now. I'd heered you was dead, I heered they shot a hole in ye big enough t' drive the noon stage through an' I heered yer leg was plumb shot off an' Doc was havin' the Daine boys whittle ye out a timber toe!" He reached out and gave my calf a good squeeze.
"No, that ain't timber," he mumbled.
I leaned down, lifted his hat and kissed him on top of his head.
"Why, I never thought you cared!" I drawled, setting his Stetson back on his head, whereupon the man seized his hat by the brim and pulled it down alongside his face, backing up and turning a deep crimson.
"Now Soapy!" he bawled, "folks'll think we're sparkin' er somethin'!"
I spit a couple times and mumbled "I need a drink," and the black horse and I walked across the street to the Jewel.
Mr. Baxter greeted me heartily and Tilly smiled from behind her desk: I shortly had a shot of something water clear and not over thirty days old, and took pains to anoint my handle bar thoroughly with the potent distillate: I appropriated a stray bar towel and wrung out my broom, ordered me up a double shot and poured this in a glass of beer.
Now beer is the Aqua Vitae of the West: it is safe to drink, unlike much water which was a lottery in too many places: we had gone to considerable trouble to eliminate sources of bad water here in town and had gone so far as to start to build our own water plant, higher up, but bad weather and terrain had derailed our intentions to lay cast iron lines down hill and then there would be the general hell of digging up both sides of the street to lay water lines. Sean was all in favor of it, for his steam machine threw water in shocking volumes, and the engineer we hired allowed as we wanted to over size the lines: the town would grow, he said, and fire fighting engines will get bigger and throw more water, and should we have a galloping fire and have two engines or even three engines sucking off that cast iron line, we wanted it big enough to supply them -- and in the same breath he allowed as we didn't want the line too big, for water that stood would grow stale and it would turn dark from the iron pipe if it didn't move steadily.
Consequently that fine new water plant we'd thought such a good idea was kind of put off for a while.
I took another long drink, savoring the taste.
A man didn't get beer at home.
Beer came in kegs from back East, came in iced down and insulated cars from St. Louis: Esther arranged for an express train and bless her efficient heart, she arranged for the things folks wanted in a hurry to come on that express, whether it was those fashion dolls from Paris, beer for Mr. Baxter, newspapers from back east or special goods for the Mercantile.
Mr. Baxter burnished the mahogany bar, working his way back up toward me.
"It's good to see you back," he said quietly. "I was kind of worried."
I nodded, looked out across the room.
The Jewel was about half full: I was one of eight or ten men at the bar and the smell of Daisy's kitchen invited me to sit down and eat, as a half dozen tables were doing.
Mr. Baxter had the free lunch set out, salty meat and salt peanuts and the like, stuff a man could use to make a sandwich and get thirsty and buy more beer. He'd tried it and found it profitable and so far it had been a success, both with customers and with the till.
Since I owned part interest in the bar as well, why, that struck me as a good idea too.
Mr. Baxter leaned across the bar, regarding me closely.
"You're thinking again," he murmured.
"Now how's that?" I tilted up the mug and took a long sip.
"I can hear the gears clatterin' in your head."
I nodded, cleared my throat.
"I should'a drank oil this mornin'," I replied with a straight face.
Mr. Baxter was quiet for a long, long moment, then he said "It ain't that."
I turned and looked at the man, set my beer down.
"You're right." My voice was as serious as my face. "Mr. Baxter, I have been thinking."
My voice was almost strange in my ears.
I have several voices.
One is relaxed, easy, casual, full of colloquialisms and dialect, banter and abuse to the King's English: there was that voice that spoke with precision and completeness, and this was the latter.
"Mr. Baxter, I have been shot, thrown, impaled, damaged in several ways: I have seen the Valley, shaken hands with the Reaper and enjoyed the delights of Dr. Greenlees' carbolic more times than I can enjoy."
Mr. Baxter nodded, slowly, listening.
"My hair is gettin' thin and what's there is gone to grey, the most of it. I wake up in the mornin' and every joint creaks and snaps and I find myself stiff and sore and it takes me a little to get movin' most days."
Again the wise, slow nod of the barkeep.
I looked the man square in the eye.
"Might I ought to quit? Hand it over to Jacob, let someone young and full of fire run the show?"
Mr. Baxter considered this, rubbing his chin meditatively: he stroked his full, black handlebar with the back of a finger, frowning, and considered.
"Maybe," he said finally, "maybe this is a decision ..."
I drained my beer, set the mug down.
Mr. Baxter picked it up and I gestured, palm down: no more for me, and he nodded.
"Might be you need a fleece."
I raised an eyebrow.
"Recall that fellow in Scripture threw out a sheep's fleece and said "Lord, if you want me to do this-or-that, make the fleece wet but no dew on the ground around it," and it happened, and the fellow wanted to make sure so he said "Let's try this again, God, now tomorrow mornin' if the ground is wet but the fleece is dry I'll know you want me to do it," and so it was."
"I recall that now that you've bumped my poor failin' memory," I said softly.
"It's only an idea." Mr. Baxter polished the damp off his gleaming, mirror-smooth bar top.
I thanked the man for his kindness and slid another coin across the mahogany: I'd meant to pay him when he first handed me that beer and hadn't. Like as not he'd never say a word, for I was part owner, but business is business and I never failed to pay him like a man ought, and I wasn't about to start now.
I looked around and nodded to Tom Landers, who nodded back, his eyes amused like they generally were. Tom was a good natured sort unless he was pushed and he most commonly had that easy goin' look about him.
I went on out the front like I always did and one of the local ranchers had come into town, him and his little girl, and the child was standing in awe, looking up at my Black-horse.
I heard her say in that cute, little-girl voice, "He's vewwy big!" and her Papa laughed as he squatted beside her, looking up from her perspective, and said "Yes he is!"
They turned as my boot hit the board walk and the rancher grinned.
"Honey, who's that?" he asked, pointing at me, and the little girl pointed at me and declared, "Dat's da Shewiff!" -- and then she got a case of the bashfuls and hid her face in her Daddy's shoulder.
He and I both laughed, and I felt a knot unwind in my gut.
I had just found my fleece.

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Linn Keller 4-27-11


Cold eyes peered through binoculars at the scene some quarter mile distant.
"Clark," Sam said, and Clark knew the tone of voice.
He dropped the branding iron and looked over toward his saddle, where his Winchester leaned ready to hand.
The air was clear, as it usually was this high up: the grass was greening up nicely in spite of nightly or near-nightly frosts, and a coat still felt pretty good this morning.
Clark stiffened as he saw a familiar figure, appearing closer than she was, owing to the clarity of the air: Clark's throat tightened as he saw something tawny and fast streaking toward her.
"No," Sam gasped, leaning forward a little, and Clark put two fingers to his lips, whistling for his horse, just as Sarah's scream pierced the intervening distance.

Emma Cooper met with every student's parents a few times each year.
She'd found it useful, and effective, in her line of work to do so, and today she was most pleased to draw her buggy to a stop at the McKenna ranch house.
Bonnie had received her with tea and with cakes, a smile and the immediate observation that she, Emma, must be doing something right: "I do declare, you have the clear complexion of a girl, and I am so jealous!"
They settled into pleasant conversation, each relaxed: Emma had never had to discipline Sarah, her schoolwork was exemplary: she complimented Bonnie on Sarah's study habits and the neatness of her papers, the precision of her handwriting.

Sarah saw the wolf coming and knew there was neither time to flee nor to even draw: in such moments, the mind is the fleetest of runners, and her memory seized up a scrap of information accidentally mentioned by her Uncle Charlie not long after she'd reported to him on her successful stalk and observation of the wolf den.
"Wolves have one weakness," Charlie said, eyes distant: Sarah knew he was seeing another time, another place, and he rubbed his left forarm absently, as if soothing an old ache, an ache so ancient it didn't really hurt, it was just... just there.
"Feed a wolf your arm," he said, "instead of your throat" -- his left forearm came up to meet his words as he stood -- "take him around the back of his head and grab him with your legs" -- his legs clamped around the memory of a hard-muscled, lean, furred body long ago -- "pull up and crank back and you'll break their neck. Move fast, snap the neck, you won't get another chance."
Sarah had listened, eyes big, as Charlie sat back down, slowly, as if feeling more years and more old wounds than he would like to admit to.
Sarah remembered his words in the briefest of mind-flashes: when faced with some sudden, unexpected danger, we reflexively raise our hands to a point between our eyes and the threat: Sarah used this reflex, but her left arm was a bar in front of her and the wolf's jaws seized it, crushing through her coat even as Sarah's other arm locked the wolf's skull into a young, hard-muscled vice and her legs seized its lean body and she yanked, hard, as her entire young body reacted to the sure and certain knowledge that THIS THING IS GOING TO KILL MEEEE!!!

"Sarah is very much the lady," Emma Cooper said proudly. "Her manners are flawless and she sets a fine example for the other students." She looked almost sadly at Bonnie. "Thank you for that."
Bonnie blinked, surprised. "Thank me?"
Emma looked gently over her spectacles. "What is it the Sheriff said, something about the apple not falling far from the tree? My dear," Emma said, fingertips light and reassuring on the back of Bonnie's hand, "a child learns first and best from home, and the parents are a child's first teachers. She could only have learned such manners from you."

Sarah felt a snap, but the agony in her forearm completely overrode everything else: she heard someone scream, the long, high, shrill, tearing sound of someone in agony and in mortal dread, and she wondered why her throat hurt but on the inside because the wolf got her arm and not her neck and it wasn't until she took a breath that she realized that scream was her, and the wolf fell boneless and limp to the ground, and Sarah cradled her crushed arm with her good arm and sank to her knees, biting the inside of her cheeks to keep from crying.
Strong hands had her shoulders, a voice from somewhere called her name: she leaned into a wool coat that smelled of sweat and of wood smoke, and as Clark held her and whispered "It's dead, you're safe, I've got you, you're all right," all Sarah could do was shiver and sob "Oww, oww, oww, oww," as tears streamed down her cheeks.

"Sarah is always very neat about her person, and about her lessons: she is organized in her approach, precise and clear in speech and diction, and her example -- and her encouragement -- helps the entire class be better than they would otherwise."
Bonnie smiled, nodded.
She was very proud of her daughter, and she worried for the child -- what mother doesn't worry about her young? -- Sarah had shown worrisome tendencies to wear britches and chase about on horseback and she had a streak in her that was at once amazing and delightful and yet frightening, she had been exposed to so much at a very young age -- it was soothing to Bonnie's anxieties to hear that her daughter, in spite of this, was indeed a lady -- especially when it came from the discerning schoolmarm herself.
There was a sudden thump, two more, as if someone were kicking the door.
Curious, Bonnie looked up as her girl glided across the room to the front door.
Bonnie heard a sudden intake of breath, cut off by Sam's shouted, "McKenna!"
Bonnie stood, all thoughts of tea and cakes and ladylike conversation forgotten, and Emma saw her eyes widen: Bonnie's hand went to her stomach, the other to her mouth.
Sarah was curled up in Sam's arms and pale, her left arm cradled against her and bloodied.
Bonnie was two long steps toward her daughter when Clark, from behind Sam, helpfully offered, "She kilt the wolf."

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Linn Keller 4-28-11


"Now will ye look a' that," Sean said softly, sliding the Bell cap back on his head and scratching his thick Irish thatch.
"No dobre for hovno," the Welsh Irishman intoned solemnly, and Sean nodded with an equally somber expression.
"Aye, lad," he agreed, "it's no' good."

Bonnie McKenna's face was white and set.
She had carefully split the seam of Sarah's coat, mentally assessing the damage to the material -- automatic, for a seamstress, though Bonnie could afford to buy Sarah a new coat every week and throw away the old, if she wished -- Bonnie nodded, then quickly removed the sleeve at the shoulder.
She could afford to replace a sleeve.
She did not want to have to replace her daughter's arm.
Their girl had an old sheet on the floor, for Sarah's arm was dripping steadily: the worst of the flow had been stanched with a folded kerchief, wrapped with another, and as they eased the sleeveless coat off her arm and Sarah bit her bloodless lip, they managed to thread the garment past the injury, and away.
Sam's assessment was quick, concise: "One bone is broke and the other may be. We kept it straight as we could."
"What happened?" Emma Cooper asked faintly as Bonnie unwrapped the bandaging with quick, expert fingers.
"Wolf," Sam said, her words clipped, flat. "Sarah must've come on a cub unbeknownst. One wolf went for her and I saw the other running off with the cub in its mouth."
"I didn't see it," Sarah whispered, and the tear-tracks sparkled as she spoke.
Bonnie dropped the sodden silks to the floor.
The hired girl handed her an accordion folded section of torn sheet, kept neatly stacked with a pile of other bandaging in a cupboard dedicated to just such purpose. Bonnie very carefully turned Sarah's arm, her lips pressing together and the color draining from her own face.
She placed the bandage against the wounds on the underside of the arm, a second pad on top, covering the upper: she wrapped the tag ends, neatly, overlapping the reddening cloth, tied the ends.
"Sarah, can you walk?" Bonnie asked, her voice hard, controlled.
Sarah squeezed her eyes shut, fresh tears cascading down her cheeks and falling in sparkling, diamond droplets to the floor.
She nodded.
Bonnie slowly, gently drew Sarah's bandaged arm up against her low ribs, brought her uninjured arm up under it.
"Now hold that," she said quietly, and Sarah nodded again.
"Our carriage is just outside," Emma Cooper offered.
"My cloak," Bonnie said, and the girl plucked the grey, red-trimmed wrap from its peg: Bonnie spun the cloak around Sarah, nodded to Sam.
As one, the group turned toward the door.

The Irish Brigade gawped as Emma Cooper curled her lip and whistled to her trotting mare, and the mare's ears were back, its eyes narrowed, obviously enjoying herself: it was not often the mare got to fall into her pacing trot that had won her fame back East until an injury lamed her out of the racing circuit.
"I didna' know a schoolmarm cuid run a pacin' horse," the German Irishman offered.
"Aye, lad," Sean said wisely. "There's more t' that wee lass than meets th' eye!"

The carriage-wheels hummed on the smooth-graded dirt road: Bonnie held Sarah carefully, tightly, doing her best to ease the ride: the Cooper buggy was one of the best made, it was well sprung, it rode as well as any of its kind, but the smoothest vehicle is agony when the patient has a broken bone.
Sarah made not a sound, though her misery was plain to see on her young face, and tears darkened the material of her Mama's enveloping cloak.
Bonnie wore neither hat nor wrap, nor had she any need.
A mother with her blood up is proof against storm, cold, ravening monsters or any other hazard: there is no fiercer fighter in all of Nature than a mama tiger defending her cubs, and when that mama tiger happened to be of Highland blood, why, the Devil himself is wise to step away from her approach!

"Now wha' d'ye suppose happened?"
"Like as not she fell off her horse."
"Her? Naah! She'd na' fall from a horse!"
"Well then what cuid it be, ye great excuse f'r a thinkin' man?"
"Excuse? Why, you second son of a watchmaker, I'll have ye know I'm educated! I went t' eighth grade!"
"Lads! Lads!" Sean raised his voice, his shout echoing in the brick confines of their tall, narrow horse house. "We'll no' ha' speculatin' now! Is th' engine coaled?"
"Aye, Sean, 'tis!"
"An' watered?"
"An' th' ladder wagon, ha'e we pulled th' wheels an' greased th' hubs?"
"Done last night!"
"Hoses, now! I want those hoses stacked an' folded! I don't want tangles when I grab th' nob an' take out a-runnin'! An' tha' hard suction, I don't want i' t' fall off when we're on response!" Sean turned back into the firehouse, slinging orders, and the Irish Brigade, to a man, turned back to their duties, knowing their Chieftain was covering his worry for a lovely lass with a veneer and a facade of Irish temper.
Every Irishman there was grateful for it, for left to their own devices, they too would have speculated and fretted, for not a man Jack among them but didn't have a spot of affection for that lovely child with the winning smile and a laugh like sunlight on a running brook.

Emma noticed absently how pale Bonnie's knuckles were when she seized the bell-pull and yanked: she was grateful for Nurse Susan's immediate response to the door, and she felt a little lost when Sarah was taken into another room by brisk, efficient, professional folk who gave the immediate impression that We have matters well in hand, and This will be taken care of, and She will be just fine.
Emma Cooper felt a little lost, you see, because as schoolmarm, she was used to controlling her small world, and this situation was utterly beyond her control.
Emma sat beside Bonnie, and Bonnie clutched the diminutive woman's forearm: wordless, Bonnie held onto Emma, her head bowed, and Emma could see Bonnie's thumb and forefinger were pinched together between her eyes as she bowed her head forward.
Emma brought her other hand over, and laid it on Bonnie's: the two sat in silence for about a year and a half, until Nurse Susan came out into the waiting area.
She placed a small tray on a side table and poured something light purple into three short, fat glasses, and handed one to each of the ladies, taking one herself.
Emma blinked, sniffed: it smelled of grape and of summertime, it smelled like sunlight on ripe fields and laughing, barefoot children.
"Uncle Will's Finest," Nurse Susan said. "Doctor's order."
Nurse Susan raised her glass in salute, then downed it: Bonnie, too, drank hers, savoring the taste of the grape and appreciating the hidden fist that was inside this velvet-gloved beverage.
Emma Cooper blinked stinging eyes.
She'd never taken anything stronger than Communion wine.
This was wine, poured with a sledgehammer.
"We gave her a draught," Susan began, "just something to relax her, and the Doctor is examining her arm right now. What happened?"
Emma Cooper looked at bonnie, and Bonnie looked at Emma.
"Clark said she'd killed the wolf," Emma offered helpfully.
Nurse Susan's jaw sagged.
Bonnie nodded.
Nurse Susan had one of those moments that inflict even the most seasoned professionals.
It's called "Open mouth, something stupid falls out," and she hated it when it happened to her, but it did.
"And she's alive?"
The last trickle of color faded from Bonnie's face and she leaned back in her chair as if the last of her strength washed out of her lean, sinewy body.
Bonnie blinked, opened her mouth, closed it: she raised her glass, her hand suddenly shaking.
"I think I need another one of these," she said, and Emma Cooper nodded.

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Linn Keller 4-29-11


Sam hauled open the door, flooding the waiting room with sunlight.
Bonnie blinked, turned her head from the brightness: Emma Cooper did likewise as a second figure momentarily blocked the glare, then the door shut.
Sam's face was hard and set and she strode across the waiting room door and seized the knob on the inner door and turned it powerfully.
Bonnie's surprise was evident on her face: one did not just enter the medical sanctum, one knocked and waited to be admitted --
Bonnie was not Sam.
Sam pulled the door open hard enough Bonnie felt the breeze of its swing.
It was not until Sam and Clark stepped into the Inner Sanctum that she realized Sam was carrying a dead wolf like a man would carry a satchel: casually, and from one hand.

Nurse Susan came bustling over like an incensed hen, cackling and fussing, until she saw the wolf.
Dr. John Greenlees was busy with Sarah's arm. He was seated beside her, with her arm on a folded towel, supported by a small table: his concentration was such that he never even glanced up at the interruption.
Dr. George Flint came in from the next room, drying his hands on a fresh towel.
Clark turned toward him like a gun turret swinging to bear: "You!" she said, her voice low and husky, her finger thrust out like a cannon-barrel: "Look at this."
Dr. George Flint tilted his head, curious, as it is not usual to bring a wolf carcass into a hospital: he came over, took the wolf's head in his hands, frowned as the head seemed disjointed, disconnected.
Dr. George Flint did not often exhibit surprise.
He looked up, raised one eyebrow, obsidian eyes bright with a sudden realization.
"A warrior did this," he murmured. "Where, and who?"
Sam nodded to Sarah, unmoving under a white sheet, suffering engraved on her pale young face: her eyes were screwed shut and her bottom lip was between her teeth, but she was otherwise very still.
Dr. Flint pulled the wolf's lips back, examined the gums, then opened the jaws, the eyes: he ran knowing hands over the carcass, pressing here, palpating there, assessing the animal's health: he saw everything, both with his own eyes, and with his sensitive fingers.
"The wolf is not rabid," he said thoughtfully, to which Dr. Greenlees replied, "Good," without looking up.
Dr. Flint stood.
"Say now, what passed here."
Sam looked at Sarah.
"I never seen it before," she said softly. "She kilt a wolf, bare hand."
Dr. Flint looked at Sarah, looked at Sam.
"Few warriors have ever done so. I know of but one."
Sam's eyes were hard as she looked at the Navajo.
"How did she this thing?"
Sam closed her eyes, shook her head: she knew Dr. Flint was Navjo: she also knew the man's reputation as an excellent physician, and a gifted surgeon, an herbalist and a healer with a deeper understanding of medicine than was gained in the white man's university: it still took her a moment to process that a Navajo spoke in cultured and learned tones she usually associated with a snooty Eastern professor type.
Morning Star glided up and squatted, taking the wolf in her arms: she stood and Sam released the carcass.
"We will tend him," she said softly, and glided from the room.
Dr. George Flint's eyes were bright, burning: "How did she this?" he hissed. "Did you see it?"
Sam shivered a little, nodded.
"The wolf come at her from the side -- so --" Sam turned a little -- "it was close afore she saw it, close! -- she raised her arm, so" -- Sam raised her own, crouched a little, unconsciously pantomining with her entire body what she saw through the Army issue glasses -- it was fast ... she took her other arm --" her eyes were unfocused now, looking at memory rather than the Doctor -- "and she cranked up and back like so, and I heard her scream."
Dr. Flint was silent for a long moment.
"Her legs," he said. "Did she --"
Sam blinked, the memory clearing.
"Yes!" -- her own legs bowed, she crossed one booted foot over the other as if clamping something betwen them, and her own arms, interlocked, drew up --
Dr. Flint nodded.
"Thank you," he murmured. "Now we know what to do."
Dr. Flint walked thoughtfully, slowly, over to Dr. Greenlees.
"May I be of assistance?" he asked quietly.
"I think I'm done here," Dr. Greenlees replied with a slight smile. "Quite a bite they have, eh?"
Dr. Flint nodded.
"If you are finished, Doctor, there is something that must be done."
"I am maybe five minutes from done." Dr. Greenlees reached for a bandage roll. "My concern is infection. I don't want to cast the arm until I'm sure it's not going to suppurate."
Dr. Flint nodded. "I understand."
Dr. Greenlees looked up. There was a subtle understanding between the two: the white man, taught exclusively in white man's schools, and this tall, stocky Indian with quiet eyes and a deeper knowledge and understanding of medicine than anyone Dr. Greenlees had ever met.
"I have debrided the wounds, they are clean to the best of my ability. There are a very few stitches, mostly internal. I do not believe the tendons are damaged. The ulna was badly broken. I have realigned as best I could, but she will probably forecast the weather for the rest of her life. Beyond that I believe splinting for the interim will be treatment of choice."
Dr. Flint nodded. "I agree, Doctor."
Doctor Greenlees slid his three-legged stool back. "Your patient, sir," he said, standing.
Dr. Flint laid a gentle hand on Sarah's forehead.
"Sarah?" he asked, and she opened her eyes.
Dr. Flint smiled a little.
"The wolf does not appear to be rabid," he murmured.
Relief showed briefly in Sarah's eyes.
"Good," she croaked, as if from a raw throat, "I don't want to die chained up and screaming."
Dr. Flint swallowed, nodding, his bottom jaw thrusting out.
"Sarah, I will need your help."
In spite of her pain, Sarah managed a curious look.
Morning Star wheeled the wolf in on a table: a mortar and pestle were on the table, and she stirred its contents into a shallow wooden bowl. Something fragrant smoldered on a small stone dish.
Dr. Flint picked up the wooden bowl, brought it to Sarah's lips.
"Drink this," he murmured, and Sarah drank: she frowned a little and grunted, for the taste was bitter and complex, but she drank it all without protest, and laid back on her pillow.
Dr. Flint picked up an eagle wing fan and fanned the smoke over her, singing quietly in a tongue Sarah did not recognize.

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Linn Keller 5-1-11


Fur ... coarse, thick, warm, filling her good right hand.
Not Dawg, she thought, then relaxed.
She was floating, suspended, content; her eyes were closed and all was well.
Something big, warm, furry, leaned against her leg and she smiled as she felt the Bear Killer's thoughts.
Go, my sister, she heard: the voice was warm and loving, wise and distant, and she opened her eyes.
She was standing beside a river, a wide, very clear, slow moving river.
Her right hand was curled in the fur of a wolf.
There, the wolf thought-spoke, and her eyes followed to the far shore, to the sunlit bank.
There, we must go.
Sarah moved with the wolf, her hand still in its fur: they waded into the river and the wolf began swimming a moment before Sarah.
Sarah thrust forward with lean, strong legs, settling into an easy rhythm, her arms laughing with the feeling of the cool water: cool, not cold, she thought, and wondered with part of her mind why the water was not freezing-cold: then she laughed, and rolled her face out of the water and took a breath, and rolled back into the water.
She dove beneath the surface, stroked once with her arms, then pumped her legs flipper-like, a move she'd never done but one that seemed so natural, and her lean young body porpoised easily through the river: she looked up, at sunlight bright on the rippled surface, and saw the wolf, his four legs moving in a steady rhythm.
Sarah stroked once and came to surface and the wolf looked at her with wise yellow eyes and she saw approval, and ... gratitude.
A journey is best made with a friend, she heard his mind-voice again, and they arrived at the far bank.
Naked, Sarah climbed out of the water: they both shook themselves, then rolled in the warm, dry grasses, and laid for a while in the sun, soaking up the welcome warmth.
The water had been a bit cooler than she'd thought.
They lay thus together, alone in a springtime afternoon, warm in sunshine and tall grasses: they listened to birds and insects, content to relax.
There is a pain that comes with birth, a pain that stays with us throughout life: we live in it, we move through it, we swim in it like a fish in water, but it is constant, unremitting, unyielding, and we are soon acclimatized to it and so constant is this agony that we think ourselves painless.
Sarah realized she was without pain.
Everything we do or do not, everything we say or say not, has an effect, a significance here and in a world unseen.
Were the words hers, or the wolf-brother's?
It did not matter.
Sarah realized she was relieved of this terrible burden, this world's weight on her young shoulders.
She was relieved of the responsibility of caring for all of creation into which she was born.
She could very nearly feel the crushing weight of the entire world, lifted from her.
Sarah looked over at the wolf, reached over and stroked him like she would caress her Twain Dawg.
The wolf closed its slanted eyes with pleasure and groaned deep in its chest, its tail moving a little.
They remained thus, content, a part of a world not our own, until the sun made its way down the sky and just touched the world's distant rim.
They stood.
Sarah and the wolf walked slowly, reluctantly to the water's edge, and Sarah stepped into the cool water: she walked out to her knees, turned.
The wolf stood on the bank and looked at her ... almost sadly, she thought.
You must return to the land of the living, the mind-voice said, and Sarah felt a deep sense of grief: she had just made an important journey with what she now knew to be a good and true friend, one who had been sent her to teach something she would need to know.
Go, little one.
The voice was affectionate and understanding and at once a little sad: whether this was simply Sarah's own feeling, reflected, she wasn't sure: all she knew was that she had to go back, so she turned, and pushed off into the river.

Bear Killer lay curled under Sarah's bed, muttering in his sleep: Morning Star lifted Sarah's good right hand from the dead wolf's shoulder, and wheeled the still form from the room, and Dr. George Flint, Oxford educated and matriculated through the best medical schools in the Western Hemisphere, sang softly in Navajo, and waved the sacred eagle-wing fan, eddying the last of the sacred smoke over Sarah's sleeping form.
Dr. Flint stepped back, wheeled the small side-table to the other side of the room: he spoke softly, and the Bear Killer flowed from under Sarah's bed and stretched, hinder in the air and forepaws well in front of him, arching and yawning and stretching back and jaws: he shook himself, sat up and sniffed at Sarah's hand, then he began giving her a vigorous face washing.
Dr. Flint watched expressionlessly as Sarah stirred, and his eyes smiled a little as her hand sought the Bear Killer's head.
He pretended not to see the brightness that trickled from her closed eyes, the sudden wet that the Bear Killer quickly washed away.
He closed his eyes so as not to intrude into this most private moment, but he could not close his ears as Sarah pulled the Bear Killer close and began to sob.
"I didn't want to come back," she choked, and the Bear Killer made a little sound of distress, then washed her face some more: "I didn't want to come back!"

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Linn Keller 5-2-11


Sam moved with all the stealthy grace of a granite cliff on legs: there was no mistaking her smoldering eyes nor her set jaw, and even Clark trod cautiously as he followed her out of the hospital and back to the wagon.
Clark's gloved hands were surprisingly gentle as they flipped the reins and she kissed at the team, and they swung their noses around and away from town.
Sean was not a man to put his nose where it did not belong, but neither was he about to pass up the opportunity to inquire as to the welfare of someone he esteemed: he stepped out into the street and raised his palm.
Sam drew up, glared at the big, flannel-shirted Irishman.
"Ye wouldn't be th' one t' mark th' Sheriff, now, would ye?" Sean greeted her cheerfully.
Sam's glare would have singed Sean's chest hairs had he not been wearing the red-wool bib-front shirt with the Maltese cross pinned on the front.
"You're Irish," she said.
"Aye, that I am," Sean replied mildly, his eyes suddenly very quiet, almost veiled: anyone else would have recognized that as a warning sign.
Sam was not anyone else.
"The Sheriff is a friend of mine."
"Aye, an' myself as well, and I take exception t' a stranger puttin' th' knuckles to me friend."
Sam's coat was sacky, her collar turned up and her hat brim sagged all around: weather, work and working dirt added to her disguise, plus the fact that she wore britches and boots and leather work gloves: there was nothing to indicate the feminine about her, and Sean -- quite understandably -- did not regard Sam as a member of the fair sex.
"I work for McKenna," Sam said quietly, "and I'd not even be in town if it wasn't for her little girl."
"Aye, I know th' child," Sean said mildly, feeling his belly tighten, feeling that old familiar sensation of heat in his legs and his arms, and he tightened his hands into fists and deliberately relaxed them.
"She was hurt."
"How bad?" Sean's voice was suddenly soft and Sam saw his eyes change, and she knew the fight was gone from him in that moment.
"Wolf had her arm."
Sean nodded, stiffly, his face hardening. "Go on."
"She kilt the wolf barehand."
Sean blinked.
Sean, like the rest of the town, knew Sarah was a warrior in her own right in spite of her few years: she was a dead shot, though most considered this more a stunt, for they still saw a girl when they looked at her slender figure in skirts and in lace.
"Bare hand," Sean said slowly.
Sam nodded. "Ragdoll is a tough one." She jerked her head sideways and to the rear. "She's over'n yer hospital if you wanta go look. I brought 'em the wolf."
Sam flipped the reins, kissed at the mares, and they went clattering down the street and toward the ranch.
There was work to be done.
Sean rubbed his chin.
"Bare hand?" he said aloud, chuckling. "An' how great a fool d' ye take me for?"
Sean looked back at the firehouse, then toward the hospital.
"Lads!" he called, and the Irish Brigade stopped and looked up at his hail.
"I'll be awa' for a minute or twa."
Nods, hands lifted in acknowledgement: there was work enough to keep the Brigade busy, and Sean's absence would not be significant for a bit.
He strode down the middle of the hard packed dirt street, shaking his head and chuckling a little.
"Killed a wolf, she did!" he grinned to himself. "An' like as not she'll call lightning fra' the heavens an' fishes out o' the ground! Killed a wolf bare hand, my Aunt Marie's beard!"

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Linn Keller 5-3-11


Imagine if you will, a schoolboy.
Tow headed, hair as if someone had dropped a bowl over his head and cut around the edges, then combed the front back out of his face.
Imagine this schoolboy frowning in concentration, perhaps with his tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth as he considers angles, trajectories and velocities, ballistic coefficient, rotational velocity and the Coriolus effect: having done so, he very carefully, very precisely, places the knuckles of his good right hand ever so delicately on the smoothed dirt.
The schoolboy's fist is carefully curled, formed, placed; long practice has established muscle memory, and a calibrated thumb flicks forth, sending a glass sphere on its mission to smite and scatter the enemy.
The "shooter" -- a prized, Marietta-made marble, with an elliptical cat's-eye within -- is the best one in his collection: precisely delivered, firmly launched and accurately directed, he succeeds in knocking three of the opponent's marbles out of the finger-drawn dirt ring.
Jackson Cooper rocked back on his heel: he, too, was down on one knee, and he watched as this mere lad, this wee child, this grinning challenger, knocked the last three of Jackson's marbles out of the ring.
"I win! I win! I win!" the lad exulted, jumping up and down on the balls of his feet, and Jackson Cooper tilted his head back, grinning almost as widely himself: he remembered what it was to be a boy, and he remembered a similar moment, many years before, when he too knocked the last of an opponent's marbles out of the dirt ring, and celebrated at the top of his voice.
"Fairly and squarely won," he declared, thrusting a big paw across the ring, and the lad's hand was swallowed up by the big Marshal's grip: an observer would have been hard pressed to tell just who was the more pleased.
Emma Cooper was watching patiently from the steps of the schoolhouse, bell in hand: she'd been waiting, with the understanding of a schoolmarm who knows her students, and besides, she was delighting in the boyish grin of her tall and broad-shouldered husband.
The boy dropped the marbles into his bulging leather poke and stood, and Emma Cooper took this as her cue to swing the handbell.
Grinning, Jackson Cooper stood, and the schoolboy laughed his way across the field of challenge to the schoolhouse steps.

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Linn Keller 5-4-11


Dr. Flint raised one dignified eyebrow.
Dr. Greenlees turned his head and looked at Bonnie.
Nurse Susan's hand went to her mouth and her eyes were the approximate diameter of a pair of boiled eggs.
Sarah and Bonnie both froze, each one with a shocked expression: Bonnie, that her little girl dared to speak thus to her mother, and Sarah, that she had dared to do so.
Silence hung for a long, shivering moment in the hospital room.
Sarah spoke first.
Sarah took a long breath in through her nose to try and calm herself: she noticed her right hand was trembling.
"Mother," she said formally, "it was not a cockamamie service nor was it a pagan ritual. It was something I had to learn. We will discuss it when you are not overwrought."
"Overwrought?" Bonnie gasped, then more strongly: "Overwrought? Young lady, I'll show you overwrought!"
Bonnie strode forth, dropping her reticule and drawing back her hand to slap her daughter.
Sarah, her left arm in a sling and her forearm snugly wrapped to a padded, shaped pine board, rolled off the right side of her bed and landed in a crouch, eyes blazing and her right hand up to grapple or deflect.
She need not have bothered.
The Bear Killer stood suddenly, his forepaws on Bonnie's shoulders: though his lips covered his fangs, the warning rumble resonating from the depths of his ribbed barrel was enough to warn the woman that she would not now and not ever lay a hand on his beloved Mistress.
To her credit, Bonnie stood her ground, though with noticeably less color in her face.
"Sarah," she said faintly, then cleared her throat and said more strongly, "Sarah, you will call this animal off me."
Sarah made a kissing noise and the Bear Killer pushed off from Bonnie, turning and slipping under the bed and up beside Sarah.
Bonnie closed her eyes, bloodless lips pressed together firmly: she was still for a very long moment, then she opened her eyes and turned.
"Doctor Flint," she said in a firmer voice than she felt, "I owe you an apology. I had no right to speak as I did. I am sure that your action was not the heathen ritual that I called it, nor was it ... inappropriate. I ask your forgiveness."
Dr. Fint bowed. "It is forgotten."
Bonnie held up a hand. "I am not finished. I further apologize for my impatience. A mother worries when her child is ... unwell ... and I had no feeling of ... control ... over what has happened here.
"I was impatient. I was impatient to regain the control that a mother requires." She closed her eyes and swallowed. "I must learn that sometimes I can't control what happens."
She opened her eyes again and looked at Sarah.
"I brought a traveling-dress. I stayed up last night to finish its left arm."
"Thank you, Mama," Sarah said in a small voice, then she rushed over and hugged Bonnie with her good arm. "I'm sorry, Mama," she whispered, and mother and daughter held one another for a long moment.
The Bear Killer sat his bottom down on the spotless board floor and yawned a great, jaw-stretching yawn, his red tongue describing a curling arc before he lay down and closed his eyes with a sniff and a sigh.
"You're getting so tall," Bonnie said with a surprised note in her voice.
Sarah giggled.
"The last time you said that, I said it was my heels."
Bonnie smiled and nodded. "But you're barefoot."
Sarah nodded.
Bonnie hugged her daughter again with a sigh. "You're nearly grown," she murmured. "I was tall, too, at your age."

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Linn Keller 5-6-11


 The Sheriff tried to strangle the groan of pain, with only partial success, and he collapsed to the high meadow's sod, doubled up, teeth bared and tears squeezing out of tight-squinted eyes.
His clawed hand dropped the bloodied knife.
Jacob's eyes were pale, his jaw muscles bulged, as he seized the culprit with hard hands.
The two of them had been led a merry chase by this escapee, this would-be evader of Jacob's intent: there had been the sprint, the dodge, the tackle; hard bodies rolled on the ground, the two men pinned the fighter and tried to pinion thrashing limbs.
The Sheriff quickly, expertly, trimmed the calf, working swiftly as Jacob sought to secure the struggling animal: three legs he captured, the fourth ... ah, the fourth was guided by mischance and accident, and caught the grey-mustachioed old lawman in such a way as to take the fight entirely out of his long tall carcass in an instant.
Jacob's grip was merciless as he seized the stray limb, secured it: coldly, he gripped the branding iron in leather-gloved fists, pressed it firmly into the bawling steer's flesh: there was the stomach-turning odor of burnt, living meat, singed hair, and Jacob jerked the piggin string free.
"Get on," he snarled, "before I turn you inta stew!"
The Sheriff struggled up on all fours and threw up.
The calf thrashed to its feet, hobby-horsed over to the milling, bawling herd, crying for its Mama: a cow nosed it, licked it, and the calf disappeared into the mass of restless legs and brown-coated flanks.
Jacob squatted, setting the branding iron near to the weakening fire.
The Sheriff's head hung and the man struggled to breathe and Jacob saw his clawed hands knot into shivering fists, ripping up grass and dirt as they did so.
The Sheriff raised his head as Jacob held out a canteen.
Linn sloshed good springwater around in his mouth, spat, took a small drink.
Nodding, he handed it back, rolled back on his hinder.
Jacob looked around.
"Reckon that was the last one," he said quietly.
His father nodded, breathing through his mouth.
Jacob waited patiently.
He knew what it was like to be hurt.
The thought crossed his mind that perhaps the calf had extracted a measure of revenge for being trimmed, but he rejected the thought as quickly as it came, for he knew if he considered it -- no matter how briefly -- he might be inclined to laugh, or at least chuckle, and what his father was feeling in that moment was no laughing matter.
It took the Grand Old Man some time to recover enough to stand, and a little longer to walk: the two of them walked back to the barn, leading their horses and carrying their tools.
Linn was of no mind a'tall to sit a saddle just yet, and Jacob, out of respect for his father, walked as well.

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Lady Leigh 5-7-11


After being awake for nearly an hour, Bonnie quietly decended the stairs at 4AM. Her slippered feet made hardly a sound as the turned the corner at the bottom of the stairs to head to the back of the house. Back to her favorite room.

Not the Parlor

Not the Library, though a very close second.

No, Bonnie always felt safest .... no, that isn't quite right. Bonnie always felt the most loved, in the Kitchen.

She thought her bedroom the happiest of times when she was so in love with Caleb. Goodness, but that was still a difficult topic for Bonnie. Still raught with so many different emotions. Strangely, anger was not as high on the list. Still, it would probably always be a befuddled emotion to her. The "Why's" of it all still lingered.

Tea kettle on, and waiting for it to boil, Bonnie opened the window slightly to let in the early spring air.

How wonderful the air felt on her face and neck. In the distance she heard the very early morning calls of the Robin, Finch and Sparrows.

"Yes" she thought, "Such a welcoming sound".

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Lady Leigh 5-8-11


The cast iron kettle on the stove whistling, Bonnie removed it, and filled the bone china tea pot already loaded with the Earl Grey tea leves. Not a tea generally consumed by women due to it's strong nature, but one Bonnie preferred on early mornings.

4AM was early indeed.

Pouring the tea in to a china cup, and topping the dark brown liquid with clotted cream and white sugar, she sat back against the pressed back oak chair. Glancing at the 5 empty chairs surrounding the round oak table, she took her first sip of tea.

Brows slightly furrowed, she tried to remember what it was which woke her at such an ungodly hour. Sip after sip. A second cup following the first. Bonnie just could not pin point the feeling.

It was not fear.

Nor was it anxiety.

Frustration held on to her thoughts a bit longer. But frustrated at what?

Bird song grew in strength as the sun finally made it's way over the horizon. Bonnie smiled as she heard the finch just out side the kitchen window. Just the day before, she spied a finch couple building a nest withing a hollowed rock at a back corner. In a few short weeks she would see the couple frantically filling the mouths of featherless young giving them their start in life.

Bonnie set her cup down upon the saucer.

She knew what it was which awakened her.

Loneliness ...

Knowing that she needed more than Sarah, Polly or Opal. More than the men and women with whom she worked with at House of McKenna. More than field hands or house help could offer.

She desired the need to feel masculine arms surrounding her.

The quiet words of endearment whispering in her ear.

Someone to daily walk with.

Someone to laugh with.

Someone to grow old with.

Bonnie thought about this emotion. The ache she felt within her very soul. The burden it caused.

Loneliness ....

As the first rays of sunshing filtered in the window, her thought spoken quietly out loud, "I wonder when he will return ....."

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Linn Keller 5-8-11


Little Sean ate with a good appetite and a carefully innocent expression.
His little brother didn't trouble with the innocent expression: he ate just as heartily and looked equally mischevious.
Sean beamed with pride at his fine young lads, and Daisy smiled, for it did her heart good to see her men eating well... even if it was the hired girl that fixed their breakfast instead of herself.
She'd finally accepted the fact that they were People of Means, and as such, Perfectly Entitled to Hire some Help.
Jacob laughed as little Joseph, in their fine stone house, squealed happily at his Mama's approach to the breakfast table: the lad had a most delighted expression, and Jacob rejoiced in the responsible feeling of a man providing for a wife and family.
He'd wakened with only the slightest echoes of the previous day's exertions, in spite of working from can-see to cain't-see.
The Sheriff, for his part, slowly swung his legs out of the bed and towards the floor, and utterly forbade the groan that strained against his tight-clenched jaw: he felt every last one of the aches and pains he'd earned the previous day, helping Jacob with his herd.
Now, he thought, now I can see why Charlie said he's getting too damned old for this!
And in the McKenna household, while the mother's heart yearned downstairs, the daughter upstairs sat up on the side of her bed, cradling her wounded wing with her good arm: its throbbing ache had kept her up most of the night, off and on, and she had a new respect for her mother, who had not only birthed a baby, but had raised it through many sleepless nights.
At least I don't have to diaper my arm, she thought, and in spite of being sleep deprived, managed a small chuckle.
She looked across the room at the dress her Mama had hung there the night before,after Sarah had taken her bath: the sleeve was split, to accommodate the splinted arm, and a sling of the same material was folded on the side-table.
"It won't be as noticeable," Bonnie had said, "if it's the same pattern," and Sarah nodded, grateful for her Mama's thoughtfulness: she had never liked calling attention to herself ... unless, of course, she wanted to.
Rubbing her eyes with the heel of her hand, she almost giggled at another stray thought:
I hope Annette can play the piano for church.
I'm afraid my bass clef will suffer for a few weeks!

On the McKenna back porch, Bear Killer stood slowly, stretched leisurely and yawned hugely: when Sarah had done with her bath, she'd coaxed her midnight-hued companion into the water, and somehow managed, one-handed, to give him a fairly complete bath, rather to the distress of the hired girl: the poor lass still hadn't quite reconciled herself to sharing a household with a creature big enough to stand on its hind legs, put its paws on her shoulders and look her square in the eye.
It's not that the hired girl was that short.
She wasn't.
It's that the Bear Killer was that big.
The trio of white mares flared their nostrils and whinnied their greeting to the Irish Brigade as the firehouse doors were swung open, bringing in a great swirl of cool, clean air and birdsong, sunshine and promise, and even the resident cat seemed content, perched on a hay bale, curling its tail and blinking a fine imitation of an Egyptian statue.
It was morning in Firelands.

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Linn Keller 5-10-11


Jackson Cooper might be a little rough around the edges, but when he has to, he can hold his own against anyone.
Right now he was doing a fine job.
He and I sat at a fair sized kitchen table, in a well appointed kitchen: it had not just cooks, but chefs; they made not just food, but exquisite dishes with names Esther could probably pronounce -- I can swear in a half dozen languages but somehow never could get my clumsy tongue wrapped around French -- and the woman who sat across from us was dressed in almost the latest Paris fashion.
As a matter of fact she was wearing one of the newest McKenna gowns.
As were most of the women we saw that morning.
You see, business follows demand, and in the West, there was a scarcity of women-folks, and so a demand existed, and ... well ...
Jackson Cooper and I had been invited to the new whorehouse.
Antoinette's, it was called, and the ladies therein were cultured and courteous, ladylike and lovely, able to converse in a multiple of the classical languages: they wore the best of clothes, the most tasteful of jewelry, their propriety was unimpeachable: in short, it was a first class House, and the madam was, quite frankly, trying to buy us off.
Jackson Cooper and I had discussed this at some length: we'd consulted Mr. Box, Jacob, the new Mayor, the Parson, Sean and Mr. Moulton: we knew that it had to happen, sooner or later, and we knew if we forbade it, they would move just out of the corporation limits and set up business anyway.
Dr. Greenlees had already been contacted, he and Dr. Flint: their expertise in certain subjects necessary to the health and welfare of the ladies was assessed and found satisfactory, and they had been given to understand that the madam's nature would be generous to those who helped keep her girls healthy.
Jackson Cooper and I knew that the madam had us pegged: men with good appetites, both for the fragrant fodder plated and placed before us, and for the lovely ladies who stood, elegant, silently promising much.
Jackson Cooper was a vigorous and full-blooded man: I had known him back East, back when we were both lawmen in Athens County, back before he was framed, before men swore falsely against him to cover their own sins: I knew him now, and though gentlemen will not discuss intimate details of their private life, an occasional comment now and then -- and information from Esther, who was one of his wife's confidantes -- told me Jackson Cooper very much enjoyed the natural use of his wife, and she of him...
I believe enjoy is the correct word to use.
As for myself, I very much subscribed to the Scriptural admonition to "satisfy myself with the wife of my youth" -- though I had not been a youth for a very long time when Esther and I married, she made me feel very youthful indeed -- and so neither of us were inclined to partake of the dark-eyed glances, the veiled lashes, and all that they portended.
We ate with a good appetite, but we ate slowly, each of us grateful for our wives' coaching, and the madam -- Madame Antoinette -- approved.
She smiled a little and admitted that she almost expected us to demolish our meal like a couple starving cowhands.
I glanced over as Jackson Cooper raised an eyebrow: wisely, he remained silent, and so I spoke up.
"Madame Antoinette," I began, and she interrupted, "Please, call me Loree."
I nodded. "Lorre," I said, "we have in our time eaten like starving cowhands. Fortunately, our wives have taken the time to beat some manners into --" I stopped and harrumphed -- "that is, they taught us the rudiments of good manners."
In reality our manners would have been well received in a French salon: Jackson Cooper had proven himself an apt student for his wife's teachings, and I had taken pains to learn, and to ask Esther to polish my manners, especially at a formal dining-table.
It came in handy a time or three, rubbing elbows with Congressmen and businessmen.
"Now, Sheriff, Marshal," Loree said, and drew two packets from somewhere, "I would very much like to start out on the right foot with each of you."
Two ladies glided into the room: one was giving Jackson Cooper a smoldering appraisal, the other was evidently trying to seduce me with her eyes as she approached.
"This is for you," she said, placing a paper-wrapped bundle in front of Jackson Cooper's plate, "and this is for you" -- a second bundle, before mine -- and the ladies, apparently practicing a rehearsed scenario, placed gentle, massaging hands on our respective shoulders.
"Doing business has its price," Madame Antoinette said with a knowing look, "and I pay my obligations."
I shoved my jaw out and considered.
We had discussed this moment, and knew it would mark a turning point in our community.
We had severally agreed that a House would become reality, and that it would be wiser to work with it than against it: "as well stop the tide from coming in," Michael Moulton had muttered. "They will offer us a cut, and the town could use the money."
I stood and took massaging hands from my shoulders into my own callused palms.
"My dear," I said, and my voice was gentle, "I will not speak in coarse and ungentlemanly terms: but if I were to ask to view your quarters, what would be your reply?"
She smiled -- but the smile did not extend to her eyes -- and she said in a lightly-accented voice, "But of course, mon Sheriff."
I released her hand and stroked her cheek with the back of a gentle forefinger.
"You are younger than my daughter would have been." I looked at Madam Antoinette and released the working girl's other hand. "I thank you for your hospitality, my Lady, now let us speak plainly. What is your proposal?"
Madame Antoinette's expression became slightly less ... feminine? ... not quite harder, just more ... businesslike.
"This much," she gestured at the bundle, "each week, for each of you. In exchange, if we have trouble, you come and take care of it."
"You haven't your own people?" I asked carefully.
"Of course. " Her smile was knowing, almost sad. "But sometimes customers are ... unpleasant."
I nodded.
I opened the bundle, counted the take, counted again and nodded.
"You would also have the use of my best girls, twice a week, for each of you."
I looked over at Jackson Cooper and saw his eyes harden, then relax.
"You ran the Arbors," Jackson Cooper said, his voice starting somewhere just below his boot tops.
Madame Antoinette blinked, apparently surprised at the basso profundo of the man's statement.
"Why ... yes, I did," she said, eyeing the big Marshal curiously.
"My condolences, madam," Jackson Cooper said gently. "It was not your fault."
Madame Antoinette's reserve slipped and she was quiet for a long moment.
"How soon will you announce your opening for business?" I asked, though I already knew the answer.
"Two weeks." She looked at Jackson Cooper, sadness in her eyes. "Thank you," she whispered.
Jackson Cooper nodded.
We each picked up our bundle, pocketed the cash.
"Madame Antoinette," I said formally, "thank you for your hospitality, and for an excellent breakfast. I have seldom had better."
"Seldom?" she asked with a quiet smile, a teasing note in her voice.
"Do you remember your comment about the starving cowhand?"
She nodded once, slowly, the smile finally involving her eyes.
"The Chinese have a saying: 'Hunger makes the best sauce.'" It was my turn to smile. "I have known starvation, Madam, and a humble meal of cornbread and beef was a King's banquet."
She saw us to the door: we paused, and she extended a limp-wristed hand, which I raised to my lips: I kissed her knuckles, cracked my heels together and bowed formally: Jackson Cooper, with the polish and ease of a gentleman born, did the same, and again I saw the approval in her eyes.
We were silent for most of the ride back to my office.
Finally Jackson Cooper said, "Now that we been bought off, what'll we do?"
I chuckled.
"We weren't bought off," I said. "She thinks she just purchased two lawmen's services." I patted the bundle of bills in my coat pocket. "Look at it this way: she did us a neighborly kindness, she went out of her way to show respect, and we will do what we always do, the way we always do it."
"Hm." Jackson Cooper grunted, nodded.
"Besides, if we were like most lawmen, we would've held out for more money, and we would jack up our demands right along reg'lar." I stood in my stirrups, took the bend out of my lower back, set back down. "I don't figure to."
"Nor I."
"She doesn't know we had us a council of war on the matter."
Again, the grunt, the nod.
"So she doesn't know we're tossing this into the town's kitty."
We drew up in front of my Sheriff's office, dismounted.
"That girl was kinda pretty, though," Jackson Cooper said quietly.
I nodded. "They both were."
We tossed reins over the hitch rail, went inside.
I gestured toward the blue granite coffee pot. "Would you --" I began, and Jackson Cooper shook his head, holding up a forestalling palm.
I nodded; we each set ourself down: me in my armless swivel chair, Jackson
Cooper in a chair opposite my desk.
"You remember that feller Lincoln had blockadin' the Mississippi?" Jackson Cooper said after several long moments.
I nodded.
"Recall what he said?"
I nodded again, smiling wryly: "He sent a telegram to Old Abe. Seems everyone Abe assigned to the blockade got bought off, so he put in the only man he knew of who would not bribe."
Jackson Cooper nodded slowly, hollow eyes regarding the floor boards.
"He sent a telegram after a month or two. Said, 'Every man has his price and they have almost found mine, advise course of action.'" He looked up at me.
"Linn, that girl was almost my price."
I nodded.
"You didn't, though."
He shook his head, slowly, ponderously.
"You are a good man, Jackson Cooper." I leaned my elbows on the desk.
"Was you a scoundrel you'd still be there, sampling the wares, and they expected that."
Jackson Cooper nodded.
"Come on outside. I want to show you something."
We stepped out of the Sheriff's office and I looked up at Esther's office window and took off my hat, waved it slowly.
Esther and Emma Cooper waved back from Esther's office window.
"They were watchin' for us," I said. "Had we dallied -- had we fallen -- they would have known it."
Jackson Cooper looked at me, alarmed.
"How'd they know where we were headed?" he blurted.
"Jackson Cooper," I said, and I looked the man square in the eye, "you and I are lawmen, and you and I know how to ask a man questions and pry the truth out of him. Women" -- I nodded toward the office window -- "don't have to work at it like we do." I grinned. "They are born knowin' how to read minds!"

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Linn Keller 5-11-11


Dr. John Greenlees sat down at the table with a sigh: long, tall and skinny, the man seemed to fold himself up more than sit down. It was evident he was tired, but he still smiled when the "Daisy's girl" came up and asked if he would like anything in particular.
"Would you have a good night's rest on the menu?" he asked in his gentle voice, and the girl smiled: Dr. John, as he was known, was not a man of many words, and in her short time in Firelands, she'd heard from several folks that if you could get him to rub more than two words together at a time, you were flying!
She offered him a menu and said "We've got fish, beef and pheasant for special, but I didn't see a night's rest, I'm sorry."
Dr. Greenlees traced down the menu with slender, skilled fingers, then handed it back to the girl.
"The beef is fine," he said, then added hopefully, "Are there light rolls?"
The girl gave the physician a tolerant, almost affectionate look: she handed the menu to Nurse Susan, his wife, and winked.
"Doc, if we didn't, we'd make some just for you!"
"I'll have the same," Nurse Susan said quietly, returning the menu without even looking.
They looked up at the sound of approaching boots and a deep voice: "May we join you?"
They looked up, surprised: the Sheriff and Jackson Cooper stood, hat in hand, and Doc knew he'd heard them approaching, but looking up and seeing this much man flesh in arm's reach was a little surprising.
How do they move that easily? he thought, then turned a hand over: Sit, and welcome.
Daisy's girl came chugging out with a big bowl of light rolls, covered with a clean, white towel, and set it in the middle of the table: a moment more and coffee followed, expertly dispensed in dainty china cups.
Jackson Cooper looked at his like it was an egg shell.
He picked his up with blunt, scarred fingers, holding it delicately, as if he might crush it: carefully, delicately, he took a sip, which drained the delicate vessel, and he set it back on it saucer gently, carefully, with an exaggerated caution that brought a smile to the Doctor's tired eyes.
"Doc, you okay?" Jackson Cooper rumbled, his voice echoing up from a deep, stone-lined well, and the physician nodded.
"He's been going for a day and a night so far," Nurse Susan said in a wife's proud-but-worried voice: "there was a collapse in a mine shaft and he went down-shaft to treat the injured." She looked sharply at him. "Imagine, at his age! I didn't know whether to kiss him or take a broom to him!"
Dr. Greenlees picked up his coffee and took a careful sip.
The Sheriff did not miss fatigue's tremor in the man's normally dead steady grip.
"Dr. Flint stayed here, of course, and a good thing: there were two broken legs and an appendix, and Mrs. Murphy had twin girls -- she's a Swede, you know."
At the Sheriff's raised eyebrow, she explained, "They birth easily. She came in by wagon at noon and left that evening as if nothing had happened, except for a babe in each arm --"
She looked over at her husband and the Sheriff and Jackson Cooper could see worry had graved her face.
"He went down in that mine," she whispered.
"I had to," Dr. Greenlees said simply, drawing back the towel.
Steam rolled up from the bowl of fresh, warm light rolls, hot and fragrant from the oven.
He plucked two forth, juggling them quickly, set them on the table, smiling: Daisy's girl appeared as if by magic, tray in one hand and a butter dish in the other, and she set the butter before the physician before dispensing his and Nurse Susan's beef and taters and gravy.
Dr. Greenlees bit into his buttered light roll, chewing with his eyes closed, obviously delighting in the delicacy.

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Linn Keller 5-14-11


Sarah's lessons were complete, as they always were.
Sarah's answers were correct, as they almost always were.
Sarah's attention was elsewhere.
Emma Cooper set her class to their lessons and asked Sarah to assist her for a moment, and when Sarah stood beside her desk, Emma stood and said in a voice only she could hear, "Sarah, are you well?"
Sarah closed her eyes and shook her head very slightly, biting down on her bottom lip.
"Do you need to go home?"
Again the slightest of head shakes.
"Is there something you need?"
Sarah looked at the schoolteacher, her bottom lip still between her incisors: she nodded, very shallowly, one time.
Emma Cooper touched Sarah's cheek with the back of her fingers.
"You're burning up, child," she whispered.
Sarah nodded, once.
Emma Cooper hesitated only a moment.
"Do what you should do," she whispered.
Sarah turned and walked the length of the aisle, hesitating at the door: she turned and looked back at the diminutive, dignified schoolmarm with her hair drawn severely back and pulled into a walnut atop her head.
Emma Cooper saw the girl's lips form the words, "Thank you," then she was through the door, and gone.

The Sheriff dipped the steel nib into the ink-bottle, wiped the excess off on the inside of the narrow glass neck: a few moments more and he would be finished, his official journal caught up: he could lay the blotting-paper on the gleaming-wet ink, carefully draw it away and let it dry before closing the tome.
The door latch rattled -- someone was fumbling with it, and then the door opened, and Sarah tottered in.
The Sheriff was on his feet and across the floor in an instant, and a good thing: instinct prompted his move, and his move was to catch his niece under the arms as her knees buckled.
The first thing he noticed was heat radiating off her slender form.
The Sheriff tossed her easily in the air, swinging one arm under her knees, the other sliding in place under her shoulder blades: he rolled her into him, tightly, kicked the door open.
He crossed the street with a long-legged stride and a muscle-set jaw, his feelings crushed beneath an iron claw, clamped beneath a steel lid and the lid screwed down tight.
Sarah was fevered and fevered bad.

Dr. John Greenlees rolled the instrument tray over beside Sarah's bed.
"Strip her down," he said tonelessly. "I'll need tepid water and cloths."
"Right away, Doctor," Nurse Susan said with her usual briskness, and swung out of the room.
Dr. Greenlees looked up at the Sheriff.
"You'll want to wait outside. Before you go, get a sheet from the left hand cupboard and spread it over her."
The Sheriff opened the cupboard, seized the folded linen: he'd only just closed the cupboard and turned when Nurse Susan came through the opposite door, carrying a bucket: the Sheriff snapped the sheet open and floated it into place over Sarah's shivering form.
He looked down and saw the bucket contained water and rags.
Dr. Greenlees pulled the sling free, laid Sarah's arm on the rolling work table, split the bandages with careful strokes of a shears.
He looked up at the Sheriff.
"You won't want to see this."
"Should I get her mother?" the Sheriff asked, his voice rough edged, almost hoarse.
"No need." Dr. Greenlees picked up the arm by the wrist. "She'll be fine by the time Mrs. McKenna gets here. Let's get her fever down first."
Nurse Susan's broad backside swung around between the Sheriff and the patient and it was evident she was finishing the job the Sheriff started.
The Sheriff took this as his cue to depart.
Dr. Greenlees examined the injured arm, lips pressed together, and at length gave a nod and a grunt.
Nurse Susan squeezed one of the wide cloth strips, just enough to remove the excess water, and laid the tepid, wet cloth on Susan's right shin.
She continued placing tepid wet cloths on Sarah, until her entire body was covered: she went to the first one she applied, removed it, dunked it back in the bucket of tepid water, squeezed it just a little and re-applied it, then moved on to the next.
Sarah was beginning to shiver.
"Sarah?" Susan called loudly.
Sarah's eyes opened a little.
"Sarah, we're bringing your fever down. I know this feels really cold, but they're just warm and that's all. We're pulling the heat out of your skin but we have to move slowly. Sarah, do you understand?"
"Uh-huh," Sarah grunted drowsily.
Dr. Greenlees placed the bloody scalpel on the tray, manipulated Sarah's arm, expressing the pus pocket.
He found a second, drained it as well.
Using a bulb syringe, he irrigated the wounds.
Dr. Flint came into the room.
"Dr. Flint," Dr. Greenlees, "I believe you have expertise with these cases."
Dr. Flint picked up Sarah's arm by its wrist and its elbow, turned it carefully: his fingers explored the arm as Dr. Greenlees had done, and he nodded.
"A moment," he murmured.
"Of course."
Dr. Flint withdrew; there was the sound of splashing, and Dr. Greenlees knew the Navajo physician was washing his hands with a thoroughness not seen in most of the world's medical community.
Dr. Flint brought a small porcelain bowl with a greenish liquid shimmering and nearly brim-deep: Dr. Greenlees vacated his wheeled stool, and Dr. Flint assumed the seat.
Dr. Greenlees went and washed his own hands, then nodded and strolled over to the waiting room door.
The Sheriff looked up as the door opened and the sallow-cheeked medico came out and sat down.
"She'll live," he said bluntly.
The Sheriff nodded, his face carefully expressionless.
"You know her arm is broken."
The Sheriff nodded, once, slowly.
"You know she is not wearing a plaster cast."
The Sheriff nodded once, slowly.
"You've been wondering why not."
Again the single, slow nod.
Dr. Greenlees nodded toward the closed door.
"I expected it to infect and it surely did."
The Sheriff looked the doctor in the eye, raised an eyebrow.
"I only had to cut away cloth bandages to get to her arm. I did not have to break away the plaster."
The Sheriff nodded, once.
"I had to drain two pockets of infection. As long as she doesn't lock jaw or gangrene, she'll be fine."
The Sheriff closed his eyes for a long moment, nodded.
"You're thinking she might lose the arm."
The Sheriff's eyes were haunted.
"Gangrene," he whispered.
Dr. Greenlees laid a gentle hand on the lawman's shoulder.
"You've seen too much of that, haven't you?"
The Sheriff nodded, swallowed.
"The War."
The Sheriff nodded again.
Again the squeeze.
"Sheriff, I don't have a crystal ball, but I would bet money she'll be just fine. She's young and she's strong and she's living high up. You know they send consumption patients to the high altitudes because it's healthier."
The Sheriff nodded, smiled crookedly.
"Let's see how this turns out, but if I was a betting man, I would bet a large sum that she'll be fine."
He patted the Sheriff's shoulder, stood.
"Give me a few minutes yet but I would venture to say we'll have her dressed and on her feet very soon. You can wait if you like."
The Sheriff nodded, jaw thrust out and lips pursed. "I would like."
About a year and a half later, or eleven minutes by the waiting room clock, Dr. Greenlees opened the door and crooked a finger at the Sheriff.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-14-11


Damn! Charlie cursed silently to himself. Another colt dead, the soft parts eaten, the rest of the carcass covered with dirt and sticks. That made two of their precious spotted babies dead in just a week. He hadn't found this one by accident; the dam had come into the home pasture alone and the mare hadn't been sucked for a couple of days, her bag taut.

The ex-marshal squatted and laid the tip of his calloused forefinger on the edge of a rounded, saucer-sized track in the soft dirt. "Yesterday some time, I reckon," he muttered as he shoved to his feet. The trail was relatively old and it wasn't getting any newer while he stood and looked at it. He glanced around for Dawg, to put the big canine on the cat's trail; his lips were pursed to shrill a whistle when he remembered that Dawg and Fannie were clear yonder on the other end of the country. He was on his own on this one.

Charlie strode to where the roan stood ground-tied, patiently waiting. He stepped into the saddle, snaking his Winchester from the boot, levering a round into the chamber and lowering the hammer. He braced the steel butt plate on his hip and clucked to the lanky gelding. "Okay, horse. Let's go find us a cat. This one's gettin' too fond of horsemeat."

The trail was relatively easy to follow and Charlie rode at a fast walk. They'd had an unusually wet spring and the dirt was soft; the big cat's prints were visible for some distance ahead, at least for the moment. From fifty yards away he could see where the trail entered the alder thicket that had grown up on the backside of Oso Spring. He couldn't see where it came out.

Cautiously Charlie circled the alders, splitting his attention between the trees and the ground, looking for tracks or any other sign that the cat had left the brushy cover and gone on, but nothing immediately caught his eye. It appeared that the cat was still in there, somewhere, possibly sleeping off the lethargy produced by the big meal it had eaten just hours before.

Man and horse completed the circle and returned to the puma's spoor. Charlie sat his saddle for several minutes, listening and gauging the wind. The soft breeze drifted from the trees to the man; the roan snorted nervously. "Easy, boy, " Charlie murmured. "I know that critter's still in there." He stepped down and led the gelding some fifty yards across the breeze and picketed it on a patch of thick green grass, driving the pin in deep. He didn't intend to walk home.

Charlie lifted his thick-soled, knee high moccasins from his saddlebag, kicked off his boots and shoved his feet into the moccasins. They would make for quieter walking than what he could do in boots. He hung his hat on the saddlehorn, picked up the rifle he'd leaned against a rock while he changed his footwear and turned toward the alders. He wasn't looking forward to the next few minutes, but it was something that needed to be done and he was the only one around to do it. Taking a deep breath, he started toward the trees with his Winchester at port arms, ready for a quick shot should one present itself...

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Charlie MacNeil 5-15-11


 Charlie slipped into the alder copse, turning his body sideways, barely breathing as he silently placed first one foot, then the other, ball first onto the soft soil. He kept his eyes moving constantly in a circuit from the trail under his moccasin-clad feet to the trees and brush around him. All at once, as if in anticipation of some cataclysmic event, breeze and birdsong went totally silent, so much so that the tiniest scrape of twig on washed-soft cotton fabric, the smallest crumble of dried dirt underfoot, was loud in the stillness.

Ahead, the silhouette of a great bolder was mostly masked by the brushy growth that only offered occasional glimpses of the gray stone. A stray finger of sunlight glinted from silica crystals that made up the rock, twinkling gaily for a moment in the dark shade of the copse. A droplet of sweat rolled down Charlie's forehead toward his right eye, and he cautiously reached up to wipe it with the back of his hand. In the dim twilight of the thicket the cat's paw prints were nearly indistinguishable from the natural rills and hollows of the ground but the hunter suddenly felt the predator's gaze on him, lifting the hair on the back of his neck in a primordial warning. A soft snarl, more felt than heard, came to Charlie's ears. Then the irregular crown of the boulder moved...

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Linn Keller 5-16-11


"Uncle Linn?"
"Hm?" I had my arm around Sarah, had her drawn into me: I'd put my coat on her and she still shivered a little.
The mare's hooves set a regular, reassuring rhythm, the buggy squeaked a little the way it always did; familiar sounds, reassuring and ordinary, and I did not hear them a'tall: my thoughts were for the slender lass beside me, the lass with her head on my shoulder, like a very tired little girl.
"Uncle Linn, did you ever see a white wolf?"
My stomach shriveled inside me.
"A white wolf?" I echoed, using a lawman's trick to try for more information.
"I saw one out my window this morning," she said, and I felt her shivering again: I drew her closer, the memory of another little girl shivering in my arms coming unbidden.
"I see," I said carefully, and she shifted a little in her seat.
"It was looking at me, Uncle Linn." She lifted her head from my shoulder, looked up at me, and I looked down at her.
The mare, fortunately, was looking where we were going, and kept us on the roadway.
"It did not seem ..." Sarah's eyes were confused, her face questioning: "It did not seem to be telling me anything ... it was as if it were just there, and it looked at me as if to say ..." She hesitated again, perhaps wondering if I were going to laugh, or pronounce her an imaginative little girl.
"Go on," I said gently as I could.
"As if it were saying I know you are there, and all will be well."
I nodded again.
"Sarah, have you ever heard of a totem or a spirit messenger?"
She laid her head on my shoulder again. "Yes."
"Have you ever had one?"
"Only Twain Dawg."
I chuckled, and I felt her giggle a little.
"Sarah, a wiser man that I once said 'There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are explained with all your science,' and the longer I live, the truer those words become."
"Have you seen them?"
"Yes." I could see the McKenna gate in the distance. "Yes, I have, Sarah." 

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Linn Keller 5-17-11


We drew up in front of the McKenna house: I was out of the carriage in one stride, landed easily, and paused to stroke the mare's neck and tell her she was a good girl, to stand fast, then I came around and lifted Sarah out and into my arms.
For all that Sarah was a fine young woman, for all that she was a blooded warrior, for all that she was a true product of the West, Sarah was still but a girl: she seemed smaller, younger, more vulnerable as I reached up and rolled her back into my arms.
I held her for a long moment, wishing the strength of my embrace could somehow heal her and protect her and keep her safe forever, but it was an irrational thought and I shoved it aside.
Her own arm must have been aching again: she had it cradled against her and she had her head pressed into my shoulder, and she was shivering a little, and not with cold.
I turned and started toward the McKenna front porch.
Bonnie must have heard us approaching, and came out as I drew Sarah from the carriage.
Bonnie ... dear Bonnie, with those big, lovely eyes ...
I blinked, shook my head.
Bonnie's expression was complex, fluid: emotions chased themselves across her face as she went from severe to concerned to controlled to worried-mother and finally to closed and contained: she folded her hands in front of her and waited until I labored up the steps.
Bonnie looked at me, swallowed: her reserve slipped away and she laid a gentle, mother's hand on Sarah.
"She's had a hard day," I said gently.
"I didn't want her to go to school," Bonnie whispered. "I just had a feeling."
She turned, stepped back: I turned sideways, carefully threaded my precious cargo and my long tall carcass through the door and paused just inside.
"Where to?" I asked, lifting my chin, and Bonnie nodded toward the stairway.
"Lead on," I nodded, and Bonnie picked up her skirts and flowed up the stairs.
"I'm cold," Sarah murmured, and I held her a little more tightly.
"We'll get you warmed up here directly," I said in a deep, reassuring Daddy-voice, and Sarah wiggled, just a little, like a little girl settling into her Daddy's lap for a quick snuggle and snooze.
Just like Angela, I thought fondly, and turned at the top of the stairs.
Bonnie opened a door, seized a quilt and turned the bed down: the strength -- the viciousness -- of her move told me she was hiding her feelings, that she was quite worried for her little girl.
I don't care how old Sarah gets, I thought, and my thought was a Daddy-thought: she will always be my little girl, and I was surprised, for I had thought the same of Angela, and not infrequently.
Guess I'm just an old softy.
I heard a quick patter of small feet behind me and knew the twins had charged up the stairs -- or, rather, whispered up the stairs: where boys of their age moved at the top of their lungs and with all the stealth of a minor herd of wildebeeste, little girls tended to whisper as they ran, and flowed up stairs with the ease of a trickling stream on a gentle down grade.
I lowered Sarah onto her bed and Bonnie began unbuttoning her shoes.
"Papa?" Sarah whispered, and I looked down and her eyes were bright again, fever-bright.
I swore, teeth clenched.
"What happened?" Bonnie asked, and I marveled at the many facets of this woman: no longer distressed, angry or tightly controlled, her question was couched in the crisp, businesslike tones of a woman on task, who knows there is work to be done, and who needs information.
I relayed briefly that Sarah had fevered, that Doc had drained her arm, that they were obliged to bring her fever down with lukewarm wet cloths, and they said she would do better at home than not.
"Madame?" a musical voice called from the doorway.
"Tea," Bonnie said, not looking up, "the febrifuge," and proceeded to unbutton Sarah's dress.
"Roll her over," she said, and I did, and I felt my ears turning very red.
It is not at all proper for a man to be in another woman's bedroom, let alone helping undress --
I shoved the thought aside, holding Sarah up on her left side, sparing her wounded wing as best I could: Bonnie worked her magic with the fastenings, loosened Sarah's corset --
She wears a corset? I thought, then shoved that one aside too.
None of my business.
The twins slipped up to the side of the bed -- Opal on my left, Polly on my right -- they each clutched a rag doll, and I smiled: they were both getting tall, tall! -- and I remembered Angela, and how her rag doll was locked in the bend of her arm more often than not.
The twins both carried their rag dolls head-up.
Angela did not particularly care which end of hers was up, as long as she had it with her.
"Now roll her back." Bonnie worked the dress off Sarah's shoulders, then reached over and unbuttoned the left sleeve along its length. The buttons were hidden under a fabric flap. I eased Sarah's sling away so Bonnie could get its full length.
"Madame?" The French-accented voice was closer now, a hand light on my shoulder: it was my time to step back and let feminine hands take over entirely.
I straightened, then headed out the door and down the stairs.
The maid hadn't time to make tea: I turned toward the kitchen and saw a porcelain pot in the middle of the table, steaming, its lid off.
I didn't know what all she'd started steeping but I fetched up the waiting cup and saucer and the tea pot and headed up stairs.
Polly and Opal turned and regarded me solemnly as I came back into the room: my timing was good, as the ladies were drawing sheet and quilt up around Sarah's chin, and the maid turned as if planned, reaching for the tea pot and cup-and-saucer as if we'd choreographed our little dance.
"The next room, two pillows," Bonnie said, glancing up, and the maid turned back to Sarah: I went after the pillows and fetched them back, just in time to stuff them under Sarah as the ladies sat her up.
I withdrew from the room, went out on the front porch.
My mare regarded me sleepily, went back to cropping grass: I don't think I'd even set the brake on the rental carriage, but the mare was not of a mind to wander.
Bear Killer came pacing around the corner of the house and made for the mare. They must have been acquainted: each snuffed the other's nose, then paid no more attention to each other.
I hunkered down, my right knee popping loudly.
Bear Killer looked at my knee, looked at me and licked my chin in greeting.
I rubbed his ears and he snuffed loudly at my front, my arms, licked my hands, and finally turned and galumphed up the stair steps.
I followed him up, opened the door a little.
"Bonnie," I called, "do you want --"
Bear Killer did not wait for permission.
He shoved through the slight opening and surged upstairs.
I drew the door shut and turned to go back down the porch steps.
It was time for the ladies to tend matters.
I looked up, into the distance, as I always did: my eyes were forever busy and I looked near to far, quartering the terrain, searching unconsciously for ambush, skulkers, any approaching danger.
I turned my gaze back toward Firelands, back the way Sarah's bedroom window faced.
I froze.
The white wolf was looking at me and not far off either, maybe half a hundred yards.
The white wolf sat there, regal, majestic, still: a stray breeze ruffled his great brush of a tail.
I blinked, and he was gone.
"Now wait a minute," I muttered. "What are you tryin' to tell me?"

Not long after I was in a consulting-room with Dr. George Flint, and I was consulting.
Dr. Flint listened carefully, closely to my words: I told him of the times I'd seen that white wolf before, how Jacob had seen it as well: I told him about the attempt on Esther's life, and how the white wolf had drawn Angela into the only safe spot, there in the lee of her dead brother's coffin, when the swarm of heavy shot whistled our way.
Dr. Flint nodded, considering: he leaned forward, one elbow on his knee, the other hand on his hip: he rubbed his chin, frowning, then straightened and looked squarely at me.
"It is not simple," he said, and stood.
He began to pace, as if lecturing in front of a class.
"Sheriff, are you familiar with Celtic Christianity?"
I blinked, shook my head.
"You are Celtic."
"Scots-Irish," I affirmed.
"Ulster Scots." He nodded. "I am familiar. Have you heard of the Celidh Dee?
I shook my head, spread my hands.
Dr. Flint smiled gently. "It is the belief among Celtic Christians that the passage of Scripture, that we are surrounded by a Great Cloud of Believers, pertains directly to the honored dead: that our ancestors, having achieved the Throne, are also about us, watching over us and caring for us as best they can."
This was new information, so I listened carefully.
I'd never heard Dr. Flint speak on such matters; his conversations were almost invariably confined to the medical task at hand: it did not surprise me that he was considerably deeper than the materia medica, which is why I'd come to him in the first place.
"Animal totems, animal spirits, can be a manifestation of our ancestors' overwatch." He looked at the floor, bottom lip thrust out, considering his words carefully. "And it is not always clear what they are trying to tell us." He looked at me again.
"Your are concerned this may be a warning."
I nodded.
"You are considering it may be a warning of Sarah's near demise."
I nodded again.
"But you are considering that it may be a warning of danger from an unknown direction."
Again, my nod.
"Your greatest fear is that the danger is not directed at you."
I took a long breath through my nose, unclenched my jaw. I hadn't realized I'd clamped it down.
"Doc, I can handle anything comin' or goin'. I have died three times in my young life. I know what the Valley looks like. I've been there and I did not want to come back."
It was Dr. Flint's turn to nod.
"My fear is that danger will come for someone I love and I won't be able to stop it."
Dr. Flint drew his chair over to me, sat it squarely in front of me, sat down.
Our knees were nearly touching.
Dr. Flint is a blocky man, a hard-muscled man: I have never seen him without his coat and his waistcoat and his shirt, but I'd lay money that was he bare to the waist he would be sculpted like a Greek statue, only moreso.
"Sheriff," he said quietly, "we are men." His hands closed into fists, relaxed.
"Men are responsible for their families and for those who depend on us."
He leaned back, looked to the side, took a breath.
I saw his jaw muscles bulge and relax.
"We do the best we can, Sheriff" -- he held up his hands, turned them over, examining them -- "but we have only two hands." He looked at me and his eyes were bright, penetrating.
"We do not have a crystal ball. Clairvoyance, clairscience, omnipotence, omniscience, all are beyond us, for we are poor mortals on an imperfect world."
I turned my head a little as if bringing my best ear to bear.
Dr. Flint was not given to long speeches and this is the most the man had spoke at one time since I'd met him.
"We do the best that we can, Sheriff, but that's all we can do." He pressed his right fist into his upraised left palm, grinding his knuckles into his opposite hand as he considered.
"Sheriff, I have been too late. I know the taste of defeat -- because I had not that crystal ball, because I had no way of knowing what was happening, where, and to whom.
"I know your fear and I know not its cure."
I nodded.
"The white wolf could be a warning, yes, or it could be a reassurance that all will be well."
I nodded.
"Or it could be the Norse god Loki, the Eastern Woodland's Gluskap, it could be Coyote ... they are all the same being. Liar, troublemaker, mischief-maker. It could be the Liar, seeking to get you stirred up so it can laugh at you."
I grunted.
"Just what I need," I muttered. "A wolf, looking for a floor show."

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Charlie MacNeil 5-17-11


Flowing shadow, inky blackness in the deep shade of the alder copse. Sinuous movement, muscle tension beneath silky hide, hindquarters bunching, whisper of pad on coarse stone...

Too close! The hunter's brain screamed silently even as the great cat leaped, forepaws outstretched to clutch and rend, razored claws glinting in the beams of sunlight filtering through the foliage. His Winchester clattered to the ground as Charlie dropped straight down. His hand streaked to the holstered Remington, the flash and roar of the long-barreled pistol stunning as well-trained thumb and trigger finger emptied the cylinder into the shadow passing overhead in a thundering drumroll. The cat's trajectory was smashed to the side, diverted by the impact of the heavy round-nosed slugs that shattered ribs and forearm.

The predator landed heavily on three legs, biting at the searing agony in its side before whirling to face its assailant. Green eyes glinted, ivory fangs bared in a rasping snarl of rage and pain. While Charlie frantically scrambled for his rifle, the cat gathered itself for another leap...

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Charlie MacNeil 5-18-11


Time froze, sounds were muted. Charlie was forcing his way through frozen molasses, his every movement seeming glacier-slow as he silently screamed at himself, Move or die! His fingers closed around the stock of the Winchester, he thumbed the hammer to full cock and threw himself violently onto his back, swinging the barrel of the rifle toward the cat...

Pain exploding, time racing to catch up, the blast of the Winchester, the slamming of the steel buckhorn sight into his forehead. Stars pinwheeling in his vision...

Cold. So cold. Can't breathe! Crushing! Can't breathe! Can't see! Panicked, Charlie floundered into consciousness, forcing his eyes open against the sticky, matted adhesive gluing his lashes together. Blurred picture of crimson-stained black fur in front of his face. His right hand agonizingly numb, trapped under the weight pressing on his chest, a bar of agony laid diagonally across his breastbone, left hand scrabbling to grasp and shove...

The carcass of the cat rolled to the battle-torn dirt of the copse, and Charlie sucked in a deep breath of sweet, sweet air. The ex-marshal forced himself to sit up, pain lancing through him. The Winchester, with his numb fingers still frozen around the stock wrist, dropped into his lap. His trembling left arm was braced behind him, a fragile prop keeping him upright for the moment. Outside the alder copse full daylight had dwindled to twilight...

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Charlie MacNeil 5-18-11


Charlie forced his fingers to open, releasing the rifle. He managed, somehow, to crawl to the small, crystalline pool of the spring. Cupping the cool water in his hand he drank, ignoring the sharp knives of pain that grated like shards of broken glass dragging roughly across muscle and bone. He knew he was badly hurt; how badly only time could tell. At the moment, his overwhelming need was for water. Once his thirst was slaked he had to get to his horse and start for home; Fannie would be worried.

Dragging his knife from its sheath at his waist the injured rancher painfully hacked down a slender alder, haphazardly trimming the small twigs along its length and in the crotch of the stem until he had something resembling a crutch. Forcing himself to his feet, Charlie swayed in place for several minutes, leaning on his makeshift support, his brain whirling. His left leg was stiff and at the same time threatened to give way and send him tumbling back to the ground. When the trees stopped their wild career around his head he snarled angrily, loudly, “You ain’t gonna get there by standin’ around,” and doggedly set off toward the picketed roan. He’d taken but a single step when he realized that he’d forgotten to pick up the Winchester. He turned, using his crutch for balance, carefully retrieved the weapon then made his way out into the open.

The smell of blood, and Charlie’s uncertain gait, frightened the gelding. The young horse snorted its alarm, ears laid back tight along its skull, eyes rolling as it backed away from the tattered, blood-stained apparition that confronted it. The taut picket rope forced it to a trembling halt. Charlie stopped moving and spoke soothingly, his voice rasping in a throat left dry by the exertion of traveling the fifty yards from the alders. He hoped that the animal would get his scent through the other, more terrifying odors he knew would be drifting on the freshening breeze; after a seeming eternity the roan finally recognized its rider and relaxed enough for Charlie to make a cautious approach. If the roan should somehow pull loose and run, it would be a disaster of the first water.

After sliding the rifle into the scabbard under the off side stirrup, he leaned heavily, weakly, on the saddle for several moments, panting, both hands wrapped around the saddle horn. Catching his breath he clumsily untied the picket rope and let it drop to the ground. Gathering the reins, Charlie led the horse to where an outcropping of basalt sent a coarse finger toward the rosy sunset. Using the rock as a step he clambered wearily into the saddle and turned the roan toward home, giving the animal its head…

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