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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 5-19-11


The Bear Killer glared at Sarah's bed.
For some odd reason, the space between bed and floor had gotten steadily smaller, until finally he was no longer able to work himself under, no matter how he splayed his hind legs out, or how he worked his big head and scrabbled on clean, polished boards.
He'd given up and laid down against the far wall, doing his best to turn invisible while the ladies fussed over Sarah and got her situated and primed with hot tea.
Dawg laid his blunt muzzle on his forepaws and closed his eyes, at least until the ladies left the room: apparently laying dead still was enough to let them forget he was there, and not shoo him out.
Bear Killer lay there for a time, appearing to be asleep, his ears listening for any sound from his beloved mistress.

"How can I know what the white wolf is telling me?"
"You must ask him."
The Sheriff swung into the saddle. He'd returned the rental carriage to Shorty and the hostler removed his sad remnant of a stogie from the corner of his mouth and spat.
"Saddled yer horse," he said. "I didn't figger ye'd want t' walk back t' yer house."
"Shorty," the Sheriff declared, "this proves once again you are younger, smarter and better lookin' than me!"
Shorty considered the stub of a soggy cigar he held, decided it was beyond salvage and flipped it into the roadway. He squinted up at the Sheriff.
"You'll go t' hell fer lyin', too," he countered.
The Sheriff removed his Stetson and spread his arms wide, turning his face toward the heavens.
"O Lord," he intoned in the quavering voice of an impassioned revivalist, "let my words be soft and sweet, for I may have to eat them!"
"Yeah, if you know so damned much, why don't ye make a million dollars an' retire!" Shorty growled, stomping back into the livery.
The Sheriff settled his hat on his head, his mood considerably improved, and laid the reins against the black horse's neck, turning him toward home.
His good mood washed off him like rain water as he looked up and saw the white wolf looking at him.
He was instantly mad, clear through: to think was to act and he kneed the black horse with a tight-voiced "Yaa!"
I'll know what you have to say, he thought.
Peacefully or otherwise, and I don't care which!

The Bear Killer's head came up and he made a querulous little sound, deep in his throat.
Sarah's voice was slurred as her head rolled one way, then the other, and she shoved the bed covers back with her good hand.
"Uncle Charlie," she rasped through a dry throat, then she threw the covers back and struggled out from under quilts and sheets.
The Bear Killer came upright, paced over to Sarah's bedside, licked anxiously at her bare foot.
Sarah's foot twitched and her right hand reached uncertainly for the Bear Killer's nape.
She tried to stand.

The Sheriff swung the tag ends of the reins against the black horse's hinder. His blood was up and he was bearing down on the white wolf like he was going to war with a personal enemy.
"YAAA!" he yelled, and the black horse's hooves dug savagely at the ground, dirt clods throwing up behind.

Bonnie and the maid looked at one another.
There was a sodden thump from upstairs.
They froze for a moment, then both snatched a double handful of their skirt-fronts and ran up the stairs.

The wolf was gone.
The Sheriff cast about for tracks.
There, he thought, he was right there ...
He turned the black horse in a tight circle, looking round about, searching, looking for the pale lupine: seeing nothing, he dismounted, bent a little ...
Two hairs, pure white, caught by a briar.
A paw print, distinct, clear ... and big.
"Well, you ain't no ghost," he muttered, and turned.
The white wolf was looking at him from twenty yards away.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-19-11


Charlie had selected the roan from its fellows in the sale pen because of the intelligent glint in its black eyes. Now, when it was most needful, Charlie's gut feelings had borne fruit. The gelding knew exactly where home was, it sensed that there was something amiss with its rider, and it set off on a beeline for the home pasture. The smooth flow of its easy singlefoot gait served to balance its passenger in the saddle as it shifted muscle and sinew to counter the swaying of the man without interrupting progress toward sweet hay, grain and water...

Fannie paced the smooth-sanded planks, four steps to the kitchen window, four steps to the door, listen at the door, four steps to the window. She and Dawg had returned from the west pasture two hours before, expecting Charlie to be already home, only to find the roan's stall vacant and Charlie's saddle and tack gone. While it was nothing out of the ordinary for her husband to be gone for an entire day, he had told her that morning that he expected to be away only a few hours. It had now been dark for an hour, and still there was no sign of him.

Dawg lay against the wall near the door watching his mistress, great blunt snout cradled on black-furred paws. Suddenly the big dog's ears rose, his head came up and he whined softly, looking toward the back porch door. Fannie's sharp emerald gaze fastened on Dawg. "What?" she demanded. Dawg jumped to his feet and strode to the back door, his ruff standing up. Another whine slipped out of a throat more accustomed to snarling as he lifted a paw to scratch at the door. Fannie rushed to the door and threw it open, golden lamplight spilling out onto the hard-packed earth below the porch and across dark blue horsehair...

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Linn Keller 5-19-11


I have done some foolish things in my life.
I don't reckon any were quite as foolish as when I looked up and saw that wolf in close and looking squarely at me.
I hated that damned wolf, I hated it from my soul of souls, I hated it with a deep purple passion: I detest half-knowledge and so far it had appeared and said nothing and told me nothing and I reached down for my long bladed boot knife.
The wolf looked at me, then went down on its belly, looking regal as any statue.
I strode off toward that white wilding, looking at me with sleepy eyes, intent that it should tell me something other than it was furry and it was white and by God! I would know what it was here for if I had to peel its pelt and read the news from the bloody side of its hide!
I had closed to half way when the wolf stood.
My hand tightened on the blade and I leaned forward and prepared to charge and the wolf stood upright and flowed and it wasn't a wolf no more.
Nostrils flared, lips peeled back, I reached with a clawed left hand and drew back my right for a thrust --
I stopped.
A woman stood before me, a woman I knew.
My throat tightened and my mouth was sudden dry, for Connie was long dead, buried in a church yard near to the Great Black Swamp, taken by the small pox a week before I got home from the War --
She turned a little and she wasn't Connie and bright-blue eyes laughed as her hair went from die-straight and nut-brown to curly and fine and bright, bright blond and I heard a little girl's giggle in the distance and she said, "Hello, Papa."
Dana, my little Dana, dead, dead --
"I felt you die," I whispered through a desert throat.
Her smile was gentle, the smile of someone who knows a secret and can't tell it, not quite yet, and she changed again: tall now and ... hard, a hard woman, but her eyes, her eyes were as pale as mine, glacier-cold, and she wore my badge, and she turned the Winchester in her hands so I could see the off side of the receiver ...
To my husband, the engraving began, and I realized she was holding my rifle ... worn, yes, but ...
"You are still needed," she said with that same knowing smile.
My heart shriveled inside me and I gathered my strength, fanning my anger back into life.
"That wolf," I began, "what --"
She held up a hand. "In time," she said, a warning note in her voice, and I was of no mind to be warned: I drove into her, running an arm around her neck, and found myself abruptly in the air and on my back with her knees in my gut.
I doubled up and tried to kick my knees into her back, driving the knife hard as I could toward her side ribs: she twisted, slapped my hand and the knife thrust past her flat belly and she had my wrist, pinning me down.
"You listen to me," she hissed, and cold death glared in her eyes. "You are needed, now and later. Your line will survive --"
I snapped my legs, got my boot heels around her neck and yanked, hard.
She went over backwards but she went with it and flipped like a circus performer.
We both came up, low, hands open, ready to grapple.
She blinked, and I did too, and we both straightened: still wary, still with one foot in front of the other a little, still with our hands up, ready ...
I began to notice more about her: she wore a riding skirt, but a short one that showed half her ornately-stitched, knee-high boots; she wore a man's flannel shirt and a vest, and I had to reach up and feel under my lapel to make sure my six point star was still there.
"You've got my rifle and you've got my star," I said, "but I still have them. What witchcraft is this?"
I moved a little, wished I'd pulled the tabs off my hammer spurs: she turned a little in the identical manner and I saw she too was armed, but ...
"I don't recognize that," I said slowly.
It was a pistol, of some sort, but angular and it looked like a dull nickel plate ... it was flat ... maybe a single shot, or an over and under?
"You will have a daughter by your wife Esther. The daughter's name will be Dana and she will have blue eyes and blond hair with a little red in it. She will marry --" She stopped, as if considering that she might have said too much.
"Go on," I said.
"I am your great-great-granddaughter, or will be in years to come."
"I have your journals -- both of them -- and of tonight you wrote of seeing a ghost. You also wrote of a hard ride because the ghost said your brother was bleeding."
"My brother?" My eyes narrowed.
She nodded.
"I don't have --"
She glared at me with ice-pale eyes.
"Charlie," I whispered.
She pointed toward a distant peak. "Make for the summit, hold a straight line. The meadow before it begins to rise --"
I slid the knife back into the wood-sided boot sheath. "How bad is he?"
"He's bad, now scoot!"
I stood rooted, thrusting my jaw out and glaring right back at her.
"Just who the hell are you?" I shouted.
She turned and took a few steps away from me, then she looked over her shoulder and smiled like a mischievous little girl.
"Sheriff Willamina Keller, Firelands County, Colorado."
"Am I dreaming?" I whispered.
"No. I am." She turned and faced me squarely. "Now will you KINDLY quit asking QUESTIONS and GIT???"
She flowed back into a wolf, and the wolf turned and made three long jumps, and dissolved into mist.
I turned and strode over to the black gelding.
We turned and pointed our nose toward the mountain peak, and I gave him his head.
"Yaa!" I yelled, then clamped my teeth hard together.
"Hang on, Charlie," I muttered, and the black leaned its neck waaay out and hammered across the high meadow.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-19-11


Fannie strode to the horse, lifting the lamp high. The saddle was empty. Crusted russet stains streaked saddle seat and stirrup fenders. Her husband was out there somewhere...

"Get up, lazybones! Time to go to work!"

Charlie groaned. "In a minute, Pa. I'll be up in a minute. I don't feel so good right now."

"That'll teach ya to stay out so late. Now get yer lazy carcass outta bed."

"Hold yer horses!" Charlie rolled over to push himself out of bed. The dried grass of the meadow rustled against his shoulders. The night air was cold, and he was shaking. His eyes fluttered open and another tooth-clenched groan slipped from his desert-dry throat. The desperate reality of his situation suddenly slammed into his consciousness like a runaway stagecoach, trampling his thoughts beneath steel-shod hooves. His father's voice had been in his head from so many days on the ranch; and that damn colt-eating cat had gotten its revenge before it died.

"Damn, that hurts," he grunted as he rolled to his belly and tried to push himself up. "Gotta find my horse. Fannie'll be worried." His arms suddenly gave up their support and he crashed to the ground. Blackness rolled over his whirling brain, blotting out all trace of his surroundings...

Fannie trotted from the barn, leading her sorrel. The couple's buckskin packhorse, tarped manties bulking, followed obediently behind. Fannie stepped into the saddle, the hurricane lantern's light limning horses and rider in gold. "Dawg! Trail!"

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Linn Keller 5-20-11


I don't spook easy, but I was flat forevermore spooked.
The gelding must have picked up on my feelings.
He was always a runnin' fool but he was busy now making his previous efforts look pitiful.
We steered for the mountain peak in the fading light, knowing this would bring us to Charlie's back pasture.
My gut told me that, spook, spirit or whatever the hell that apparition was, Charlie was hurt and I would find him, but dread told me I'd best find him fast.
I had no idea what in the cotton pickin' happened and it did not matter.
There was light enough I reckoned I could see a man when we come into the pasture and I figured Charlie would be headed toward home so we turned a little and I leaned back in the saddle and the black horse slowed.
We rode a fast circle, another, big circles with me leaning off to the side, looking, listening, smelling.
The black horse found him before I did.
I was looking for Charlie.
I wasn't looking for a crumpled pile of rags.
I will admit I was wound up like an eight day clock.
I was out of that saddle like a spring kicked me out.
The light was bad but there was enough to show me Charlie had disagreed with something bigger and meaner than him.
That he was here told me that whatever disagreed with him had likely also come out in second place.
There was a challenging bay and not too far off, deep and menacing, an invitation to war: Dawg was about.
I stopped and gauged the wind.
Slow, gentle, the evening breeze was carrying roughly toward Charlie's place.
I fumbled in my vest pocket for that empty bottle neck rifle cartridge I carry.
I put it to my lips and blew gently.
The whistle was pure, high and sweet on the early night air.
I laid a hand on Charlie's shoulder.
It was sticky and he smelt of ... well, some folks will tell you blood smells like iron.
Blood smells like blood and he did.
I didn't have light enough to work so I said "Charlie, stand fast, I'm gon' ta strike a light," and he muttered "I'm gittin' up, Pa," and that scared me too.
I stood and turned toward my horse, figuring to get a flint and steel and my little tin box with charred cloth and an old mouse nest in it, when I heard hooves approaching.
Dawg bayed again and he was close.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-20-11


 "Stand fast and show me your hands!" Fannie's voice rang harshly through the meadow. Linn heard four ratcheting clicks as one of Colonel Colt's finest chimed into the conversation. He hurriedly lifted his hands to shoulder level. "Who are you, and what do you want?" Fannie demanded, holding the sorrel in place.

"Linn Keller, and I'm here to help!" Linn called. "I'd appreciate it if my hide was left unventilated, if you don't mind, Miz Fannie!" The Colt's hammer ratcheted down and he heard the slither of steel on leather. "Charlie's here, and he's hurt bad. I was just going to strike a light."

Fannie swung down from the saddle. "I've a lantern. Hang tight a minute." She scratched a Lucifer match, light flared and golden light filled the immediate area as the lantern's globe squeaked into place. "Where is he?"

"He's just the other side of my horse."

Fannie ran to her husband's side and knelt down beside him. "Oh, Charlie," she said softly. Her voice hardened. "Linn! Tarp roll, top of the manties! Now!" She set the lantern on the grass and laid a hand on Charlie's shoulder, gently. "Charlie! Can you hear me? Charlie?" In the stark light of the lantern she could see a ragged tear in muslin and in flesh, high on his right shoulder, crusted blood staining both. Linn appeared with the tarp and unrolled it beside his injured friend.

"Leave me alone, Pa. I'm feelin' sick," Charlie answered, rolling to his back, putting himself on the tarp. His eyelids fluttered as he passed back into unconsciousness. Fannie and Linn both looked down, surveying his injuries; their eyes lifted and met across Charlie's body, and both faces were ashen in the light of the lantern.

"We need a fire, and we need hot water!" Fannie snapped. She pointed across the spring grass of the meadow. "Dead cottonwood yonder, along the creek. Bucket in the offside mantie. I've carbolic and a gallon of the Daine brothers' finest in my saddlebags. Go!" Linn went. In short order a fire was crackling merrily and water was beginning to steam in a pan set over the first of the fire's coals. While the water heated Fannie gathered what she thought she would need from pack manties and saddlebags; carbolic acid, whiskey, clean cotton cloth for bandages and for wound cleaning, scissors and forceps, needle and linen thread. Metal objects and the coil of thread went into a cookpot filled with whiskey. The remainder was stacked neatly on a clean towel.

"Miz Fannie, would you like me to..." Linn began.

"No!" Fannie snarled. She closed her eyes for a moment, kneeling beside her husband. "I'm sorry, Linn," she went on softly. "That was uncalled for." She swallowed audibly. "I'll take care of it. But I would appreciate it if you'd hand me things as I call for them. And I'll need you to help me move him as necessary."

"Not to worry, Miz Fannie," the sheriff answered. "I'm at your disposal."

"Then let's get started..."

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Linn Keller 5-20-11


I am not a fearful man but when I heard that Colt revolver come to full stand and Miz Fannie's voice behind it, I felt a cold chill run right straight down my back bone.
When Miz Fannie struck a Lucifer to that-there lantern and we got a good look at Charlie, I grabbed hold of that fear and stuffed it down in an iron kettle and screwed the lid down tight.
Whatever had hold of Charlie got him in the front: he managed to roll his own self over on that tarp Fannie had me yank off her pack horse and there were no wounds on the back.
Typical, I thought: he don't know nothin' but face it and fight.
Miz Fannie was not the least bit bashful to order me around and truth be told I wasn't objectin' a bit.
She knew where the spring was and she knew what she wanted and she sent me for what she needed with the authority of someone accustomed to command.
I fetched back water and laid the fire and threw a quick splash of the Daine boys' product on the wood.
I wanted that fire lit and I wanted it lit five minutes ago.
I got the water to heating and looked over as Miz Fannie made her preparations.
watched as she laid out her working tools and I realized she must have too much practice at this sort of thing.
Her hands had eyes and her hands knew the work.
"Miz Fannie," I asked, "would you like me to --"
Her eyes blazed in the fire light and I'm surprised her glare did not singe the hair right off my face.
She cut me off with a searing "NO!" and her voice cut like a hard swung horse whip.
I have been where she was now and I understood.
What I heard was not a vicious slice at me.
What I heard was a woman focused entirely on the task at hand, a woman who knew how badly her husband was hurt, a woman who was more determined than any to make sure he was going to pull through, whether anyone -- or anything -- else liked it or not.
Miz Fannie's eyes dropped to her husband and I heard grief in her voice, just for a moment.
I knew what that was like too.
At her direction I moved a little closer, where I could reach both Charlie and her carefully laid out tools.
"Miz Fannie," I said gently, "I am at your disposal."

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Charlie MacNeil 5-20-11


"Done," Fannie murmured softly, a long time later. She settled back on her heels, her eyes tracing her handiwork, searching for anything, any cut or scratch, that might have been missed and that would suppurate and send its insidious tendrils of infection through the body of the man she loved. Satisfied that the job she had done was complete, she pushed herself tiredly to her feet. Her knees were stiff from so many hours on the ground, as was her back. She stood with her hands pressed to the small of her back for several long moments then bent and tenderly pulled the wool blankets of the makeshift pallet up to Charlie's chin. "Now we wait," she said softly. Her gaze met that of the sheriff. "What could have done such damage? Do you have any idea?"

"I saw a man back East once who tangled with a catamount," Linn answered. "He had similar wounds, though none were quite so substantial as these." He shook his head in disbelief. "Damage such as this would require an animal of a size well beyond any normally found in these parts. I just can't tell you what it might have been."

Fannie looked down at her hands, stained with Charlie's blood. "We need to find out," she said without raising her head. "I'm sure Charlie killed the one that did this, but there might be more of them. And if such should happen onto a child..." Her voice trailed off tiredly.

"I agree," Linn answered. "As soon as I've got good tracking light I'll backtrack him and find the critter that did this."

"You'll take Dawg with you," Fannie ordered. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a sob caught in her throat. "Dawg should have been with him, instead of with me! None of this would have ever happened!" She buried her face in her hands.

"Fannie, look at me," Linn snapped. He waited a handful of heartbeats for a response that didn't come. Roughly he took her arm and dragged her away from Charlie, beyond the fire and the horses. "LOOK AT ME!" he demanded, his tone brooking no opposition. Startled by the actions of a man who had never treated her with anything but total respect, Fannie fixed him with a piercing glare.

"WHAT DO YOU WANT?" she snarled.

"That's better," Linn answered calmly, his tone the exact opposite of that from the moment before. "Please listen to me," he went on. "I know you're blaming yourself for what happened, because Dawg wasn't with Charlie as he usually is. But this wasn't your fault! It was just one of those things that happens, and only Charlie can tell us how or why. Until then, we will indeed wait."

Fannie's practical, no nonsense side took over. She pulled the small towel from her belt and wiped her eyes. "You're right, of course. Once again, I owe you an apology."

"There's no need to apologize for being concerned for Charlie's welfare," the sheriff told her softly. "I believe I'll make some coffee. Would you care for a cup?"

"I've heard about your coffee," Fannie answered mischievously. "So if any coffee is made in this camp, I'll make it."

"Why madam, I know not of what you speak!" Linn declared, drawing himself up to his full height in mock indignation, glad inside that Fannie was returning to her old self.

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Linn Keller 5-20-11


I fed a little more wood to the fire, nothing excessive, and squinted one eye shut and the other narrow when I did.
I don't like burning out my night vision and a fire is the fastest way to blind yourself to nighttime.
It was quiet, like it usually was: the air had stilled, and in the distance, a yodel dog tuned up on some high point, muzzle to the stars and sorrow in his song.
I was restless.
Something had just tore billy Hell out of Charlie and it looked like a cat.
I'd seen that before, back East ...
I shivered, and it had nothing to do with the night's chill.
We'd divested Charlie of most of what he wore so Miz Fannie could tend his hurts, and she'd tossed his gun belt in the pile with most of his other ... well, what used to be his duds.
I picked it up, brought it over to the fire.
Miz Fannie had set herself beside Charlie, on a folded up blanket and was set cross legged and apparently perfectly comfortable, her blue granite cup in both hands, face turned away from the fire, watching her husband breathe: she looked curiously at me as I pulled Charlie's Remington from the leather.
I half cocked it and flipped the loading gate open and kicked the empties out, counted.
"She's empty," I said: I reloaded it from Charlie's belt, thrust it back into leather, wrapped the belt around the holster, frowned: I put it down and stood, looking around.
We'd unsaddled Charlie's horse and his rifle was in its scabbard.
I fetched it out and come back to the fire where I had light.
I looked at the back sight and I looked at Charlie.
Miz Fannie looked at me.
I tapped my forehead, then turned the rifle so she could see the back sight.
There was still a chunk of meat on it.
Fannie looked at the gouge in Charlie's forehead.
"That explains his headache," she murmured.
I looked the rifle over, opened the lever slowly, carefully.
The empty kicked out into my cupped-over palm.
I took off my hat, dropped in the fired hull, then carefully cycled the lever again, and again, until the rifle was empty.
We counted the rounds, twice.
"He only got one off here," I said, "but his shortgun is empty."
I closed my eyes and in the darkness of my memory heard distant screams, a gunshot: I remembered reaching down and seizing the dead cat by the scruff of the neck and hauling it off what used to be our neighbor's youngest son.
What that cat done to the boy looked an awful lot like what something done to Charlie, only Charlie didn't have no fang holes in the back of his head.
I'd heard that the big cats kill horses that-a-way: they jump on the horse's back and lock all four sets of claws so the horse can't throw 'em and they bite through the back of the horse's skull.
They do the same thing with people.
"Back in the War," I said, reloading Charlie's rifle, "they was a British officer with us, an observer they called him."
The spring squeaked a little as I thumbed the .44-40 round through the loading gate.
"He hunted tigers in India. Man-eaters."
I picked up another round and Miz Fannie's eyes were watching me.
The coffee pot hissed a little on the coals and I continued.
"He said tigers killed men by coming up behind and biting the back of their heads."
Another soft squeeak of the magazine spring.
"The natives fashioned masks and wore them on the back of their heads, and the tigers quit attacking them, all but one."
"That one renegade killed goats, carried off children, tore down bridges and ripped up the railroad, least the natives said."
Fannie was listening closely, eyes big and luminous in the fire light.
"He stalked and killed it and found it was the biggest tiger ever seen in those parts."
I thumbed the last round in, cycled the lever and eased the hammer to half cock, fed in one more out of my own belt.
"He said normally they're sick or got bad teeth or they're old when they go to man eatin'. This one" -- I looked over at Miz Fannie -- "this one was in perfect health."
I got up and slid Charlie's rifle back in its scabbard.
"You want to get some rest, I'll stand watch."
"I won't be sleeping tonight," Fannie said.
"I'll be nearby," I said, picking up my own rifle.
A shadow moved at the edge of the fire light.
As I walked away from the light and the warmth, Dawg flowed along beside me.

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Linn Keller 5-21-11


The dew was falling and I didn't fancy getting my feet soaky wet, so I drifted back in to the fire.
Dawg was happy to come in: he nudged Fannie's hand and muttered, and Fannie rubbed his scarred old head, slow, and Dawg sniffed at Charlie.
Charlie wasn't making a sound and he hadn't stirred, he was just layin' still and breathing easy.
Dawg laid down beside him and cuddled up ag'in him, on the side away from the fire.
Fannie looked but said nothing.
Her eyes met mine and I saw approval.
Charlie had a doubled blanket under him to keep him from the ground's chill, and the blanket over to keep him warm: a fire on one side, Dawg on the other ... he'd ought to sleep warm, I thought.
I was still restless.
I was also not a fool.
A fool would charge into the outer darkness and at best wear himself out in a futile search for what happened.
At worst ... hell, I could run my horse into a gully and break his leg or my neck.
No, best wait for daylight, but I didn't have to just stare into the dark.
I went over to my saddle bags and fetched out a broke off scythe stone.
One of the lads we hired to help harvest back in the fall had swung at something with his scythe stone and broke it in two.
After his Pa turned the air blue tellin' the lad how much of a damned fool he was, I traded the lad a brand new stone for the broke in two scythe stick.
My good knife I had wrapped up in the saddle bag and the boot knife I carried I'd sharpened with that-there scythe stone.
The edge was not the smooth, gleaming cutting face of a straight razor.
It was the sawtooth edge that sliced skin and flesh more efficiently.
I pulled out my boot knife and began to whet the edge.
It really didn't need it, but I felt better doing it.

Sarah woke, clear-minded but damp.
It was late: she could tell by the stars through her bedroom window she was after midnight and before sunup.
Her eyes wandered the dark room and she saw, dimly, very dimly, the two seated figures, and she knew her Mama and the maid had set up with her.
She didn't remember much at first, then she remembered ...
Uncle Charlie, she thought, and felt a dread, a terrible feeling that something was very wrong ...
Her shoulder was sore and her hip ached and she vaguely, very vaguely, remembered falling.
She turned her head and her head began to hurt, an old ache that was tired of being ignored.
Did I fall from a horse? she wondered, then she realized she had a need, and the need had to be tended.
She swung the covers back, struggled upright.
Her bare foot brushed something furry and a familiar cold, wet nose snuffed at her instep.
Sarah worked bare feet into slippers and stood, tentatively, carefully.
She felt steady and clear-headed, if stove up a bit.
Sarah slipped between her Mama and the maid, hoping not to wake either, eased the door open, held the polished hand rail as she made her cautious way down the stairs.
She had an appointment with the kaibo and her business was rather urgent.

The night air was like a drink of cool water.
Sarah came back inside, hesitated at her Mama's desk.
She struck a Lucifer and touched match to the lamp's wick, found a half-sheet of paper and a pencil and made a few quick, sketchy notes, something she did not want to forget.
She was tall.
She wore a flannel man's shirt and a vest.
Skirt too short.
Nice boots.
Uncle Linn's eyes.

Sarah rubbed an eyebrow with her knuckle before adding, Uncle Linn's star and rifle -- how?
She told me she was proud of me.
Said my blood ran in her veins.

Sarah hesitated several long moments before she finished the note.
She told me who I would marry.

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Linn Keller 5-21-11


Dawg kept easy pace with the travois.
Miz Fannie was gentle as could be managed and truth be told Charlie had an easier ride home than if we'd fetched up a wagon.
He never stirred, he never spoke, I reckon he come awake some time in the journey for I saw his face tighten and he started to sweat some but he didn't open his eyes and I didn't see fit to trouble what rest he might be getting by speaking at him.
I led the pack horse and kept a good eye out, not that it would be needed but one of my own had been hurt and I was on the prod.
I'd told Miz Fannie I'd take out on Charlie's back trail at first light but we had to get him back under roof, for a man heals better in his own bunk and the cookin' is better, and a man heals up good with proper food.
Miz Fannie didn't say much neither.
She was right tall upset the night before and I don't blame her, but she didn't say all that much.
Miz Fannie is a strong woman and she shut most of what she wanted to say, inside.
I figure it would come out sometime.
Hopefully Charlie would be nowhere near for when a woman lets go the lightning it's too often her man that's the lightning rod.
I been charred and smoking a time or three from that very thing.
We made our way to the front door of their hacienda and Miz Fannie went inside to get his bunk ready.
Me, I tended to that pack horse and got her unloaded, turned her into the back pasture: she hadn't been run hard, not then night before nor this morning and I figured she'd be fine and dandy with the rest of the near herd.
Miz Fannie come out and we got Charlie unwrapped from his bundle-up: we worked from Charlie's left side and we was both on our knees -- I was ready to run my arms under his shoulder blades and the small of his back, Miz Fannie was ready to take his legs -- and Charlie growled, "Now daggone it, I was just gettin' warm."
He tried to glare at us and I set my hands on my thighs and grinned.
I thought Miz Fannie was gonna smack him.
"Now you just hold still," she said in a voice that sounded so much like my sainted grandmother addressing a wiggling little boy, and Charlie gathered himself to try and get up.
I heard his teeth click together and sweat started shining on the man's forehead and he laid back with a hiss of exhaled breath.
"I can get up," he rasped, the voice of a man in pain, and I said "I know you kin, Charlie, and likely you could fight two men to a standstill bare knuckle, but why'nt you just lean back an' enjoy the ride?"
Charlie's eyes screwed shut, tight, but only for a moment: he looked up at me with that ornery expression he was so good at and said "Don't drop me, now."
"Not more'n once 'r twice," I said. "Miz Fannie, on three, we'll roll him up into us, my count."
Fannie shifted her weight, nodded once.
I counted and we lifted and rolled him tight in against us.
I know it could not have felt good but it was the only way we had to get him up and into the house.
Once we got him into the bunk he was shivering, and he worked one arm out from under the blankets.
He seized my wrist and his grip was tight.
"Jaguar," he said. "Got another foal."
Jaguar? I thought. This far north?
"Black cat," Charlie rasped, and his eyelids drooped.
I felt my jaw thrust out slow and I was getting mad again.
Fannie looked at me and she wasn't feelin' too full of Christian charity neither.
I reckon she wanted to go after what had done this, but her place was here.
"I'll find out," I said, "and I'll report back."

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Linn Keller 5-22-11


Sean stood in the middle of the street and raised both arms over his head, stretching: the first red rays of morning's sun brought the ruddy color out in his cheeks, made his wool bib front shirt a rich, rich scarlet.
Daisy watched from the front door, her hand to her lips, feeling the delicious thrill of knowing this was her man, and she almost giggled a little with the memory of how much of a man he'd been the night before.
Mr. Baxter walked slowly around the dining room, pausing to twitch the wrinkle out of a table cloth here, or move a chair a half inch there: he was a man who admired order and neatness, and while these were often lacking in the happy and intoxicated interior of a Western saloon, the Silver Jewel was a cut above your average, common watering hole.
Mr. Baxter took a particular pride in that.
Daisy's stove was already throwing out waves of heat: bacon sizzled in cast iron frying pans, eggs in varying states of fry-up bubbled in hot grease, and the light rolls and bread filled the kitchen, and the main room of the Jewel, with the tantalizing odors of breakfast.
Daisy's kitchen woke early, as did most folk thereabouts: Daisy herself was at home with "her men," as she called her husband and her boys, unless she called them all "three little boys" in a loving-but-exasperated voice.
Sarah turned her head and saw her Mama and the maid, still in their chairs, just waking up.

Sarah reached up with her good hand and rubbed her eyes.
The women were on their feet, and at Sarah's bedside: Bear Killer snored at the foot of Sarah's bed.
Sarah tossed her bedcovers back with a pained expression.
"Ow," she said, rubbing her hip. "Mama, did I fall off a horse?"

Townsfolk gravitated to the Jewel for breakfast: Daisy's girls didn't generally take orders for breakfast, they brought it out, and it was received happily: hashed up or sliced and fried taters, bread and fresh churned butter, beef and ham sliced thin and fried up, bacon and eggs and sausage.
The townsfolk sat down to good hot breakfast in a pleasant, clean setting, good conversation, scalding hot coffee.
The Sheriff ate his breakfast in the saddle.
He'd headed out before good light, intending to be halfway to where he wanted to be by the time he could see well enough to track.
He did not have the heart to trouble Fannie: she'd set up with Charlie, doing her best to stay awake, but not much short of the first lines of light on the eastern horizon, stress and fatigue finally overcame resolve: the Sheriff eased out the front door, his last look inside staying with him for a very long time.
Fannie, in the chair beside Charlie's bunk, looking lined, tired, her hand gently on his blanket covered chest ... her own head inclined forward as the night before demanded respite for her slender, pleasantly curved frame.
The Sheriff passed the place where he and Fannie had tended Charlie's wounds, or rather Fannie tended and he handed her what was needed: he back trailed Charlie's mount, tracking into the eye of the sun, hampered a little by a heavy dew.
The Sheriff drew up when he saw the alder copse.
He knew there was a spring in the copse.
Blood drops and smears showed where Charlie had struggled out of the alders.
His black gelding muttered, uncomfortable, and he used a caressing hand and a soothing voice to calm the black's jitters.
"Come on, fella," he said, "let's see what's here."
He turned the black and saw a rope laying on the ground.
A little study showed it a picket rope, still tied to a picket pin.
He sat still for a long moment, putting together the picture in his mind.
Charlie had tethered his horse here.
He swung out of the saddle, picked up the picket line and secured his own mount.
"Stay put, fella," he murmured. "I'll be back shortly."
He bribed the black with some chawin' tobacker and petted and fooled with him a little more before fetching his engraved Winchester out of the boot.
Wish I had my shotgun, he thought, then dismissed the thought.
The best fighting tool you can have, is the one you have with you when it happens.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-22-11


Dancing flames of green and blue, coarse stone, jagged stalactites hanging overhead like the ivory canines of some unearthly predator. Lively shadows prancing, throwing shapes both familiar and not so familiar across crystalline sand.

Charlie slipped into the maw of the cavern. He carried a heavy flintlock pistol tucked securely into the scarlet sash wound twice about his waist, and a silver-chased cutlass in his right hand. Knee high boots of soft leather squeaked softly as his feet shifted slightly. The shadows turned as if listening. Saber slash through silk and muslin. Blood and pain...

Dripping rain, pattering on wide, green leaves. Strange fleshy blooms, stamens tasting the night, sipping the rain, intoxicating perfume reaching out, drawing in the unwary. Charlie covered his face with the soft deerskin breathing mask, blocking the pollen that drifted on the sullen breeze. The stiff rawhide quiver behind his right shoulder was heavy with his war arrows, capped with the hide of the buffalo that roamed the understory. Twang of bowstring, thud of stone-tipped shaft. Blood and pain...

Charlie was trapped beneath the great cat. His arm was broken, his pistol empty and rifle gone. The gleaming talons were fastened deep in his shoulders, rear claws pistoning as the cat ripped him asunder. Fetid breath in his nostrils as the gleaming fangs descended toward his face. Blood and pain...

Charlie surged up from the well of dream-tortured sleep like a drowning man clawing for life-giving air. He gasped and shuddered, feeling the chill sweat on his face, his eyes staring wildly about for the time it took for him to realize that he was home in his own bed, and safe. He settled back onto the pillow, heart racing. He took several deep breaths, feeling the pull of the stitches, the clasp of the bandages. He turned his head painfully to see Fannie open her eyes. "How..." he croaked through a throat parched as a desert streambed.

Fannie held a cup of water to his lips. He sipped and tried again. "How'd you find me?"

"Sheriff Keller found you first, coming out from town. Somehow he knew you were in trouble. Dawg backtrailed your horse from the house and we got there shortly after Linn. That was about twelve hours ago. I think. Linn went back to find the cat."

"It's dead."

"I figured." Fannie gripped his left hand, the one without bandages, tightly. "What happened?" In the fewest words possible Charlie told her about finding the dead foal and trailing the cat to the alder copse. When he was done he lay back with his eyes closed.

"Tired..." his voice trailed off and he slept again, deep dreamless sleep...

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Linn Keller 5-23-11


I was mad clear through and I did not care how much of God's earth heard me.
I was boilin' mad and I was mad at the top of my lungs and I had a good wrap of picket line around my arm and that-there black horse reared at the smell of fresh, bloody cat hide and fetched me up off my feet and made it look easy.
What I called the gelding does not bear repeating in polite company.
Hell, the things I screamed at him would not bear repeating in most of the disreputable company I have known in my young lifetime!
Once that black horse realized I wasn't goin' anywhere and neither was that rolled up pelt under my arm, he dropped back down on his fore hooves and walled his eyes up and then kind of groaned and fell over, as substantial and solid as a gunny sack half full of ripe wheat.
I stood there holding the picket line of a horse layin' on the ground in a dead faint.
I fetched up that-there rolled up cat hide over my head and screamed my way around in a circle and I throwed it down on the ground and kicked it.
Once I calmed down some I got to sayin' things that would scorch the hair off a longshoreman's ears but it took me a while to wind down to that point.
Now there towards the last I allowed as that-there spotty black cat was an ungrateful sort, for not only was it twicet the work to divest it of its pelt as normal due to its unholy habit of disagreeing with a diet of Remington lead, but I also allowed as it was a most impolite creature, as I had nicked my own fingers twice trying to get that hide off its carcass.
Most of what I said was couched in certain Anglo-Saxon labiodental fricatives, and like I said, I was calmed down quite a bit by this time I got to using such mild language.
Dawg was considerably smarter than me.
Dawg lounged in the grass with his tongue run out, laughing.
I did not realize quite what a spectacle I'd taken to make of myself, until I turned around and saw Jacob settin' there on that good lookin' Appaloosa stallion of his, with his leather-gloved fist stuffed in his own mouth, turnin' funny colors and trying real hard not to laugh.
I stood up straight and set my knuckles on my hips and glared at him.
Jacob hiccuped and laughed into his balled fingers and mirthful tears streaked a bright line out of the corner of his left eye.
The black horse grunted and raised his head and tried to get up.
I turned around and screamed "NOW WHO IN SEVEN HELLS SAID YOU COULD GET UP?" and wump! he hit the ground ag'in, colder'n a foundered flounder.
Jacob gave up all pretense at propriety.
Might be his jaw was tired of being filled with fist.
Whatever the cause, Jacob pulled his fist out of his yap, threw his head back and his guffaws filled the blue bowl of heaven overhead.

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Linn Keller 5-24-11


I steamed all the way back a-past town.
Once Jacob finished laughing himself silly -- and I will not lie to you, I reckon I made a fool and a damned fool of myself, fewer things reveal a man's shortcomings quite as completely as getting good and blinding mad -- we cut poles for a travois and I lashed that rolled up cat hide to it.
As long as that black horse was running away from that cat it was happy so I let it run.
I figured it would tire out eventually.
I was almost right.
That black horse set a good pace and kept it up all the way to the Madame's fancy house.
You see, Jacob had come out to let me know the Madame was unhappy that I hadn't been available for her beck and call the night before.
That did not set well with me.
We went a-sailin' past town on the back side and never broke stride.
Jacob wasn't all that comfortable when I told him we two were going to see the Madame.
He looked kind of uncomfortable and I almost demanded of him whether he had been to a whore house in his life, but then I held my tongue: my own Pa had said unkind and harsh things to me on occasion, rest his soul, and though I had forgiven him, words cut deep and his did.
I had no wish to wound Jacob with my own utterances.
It took us a while to get there and a fight was in progress.
It seemed to be concentrated in the back of the house: at our approach, about four fellows came boiling out the back door, some on their feet, some with their feet in the air, but all intent on a general Donnybrook.
Jacob and I came up at a right smart gait and it took effort and language for me to get that black horse stopped.
He didn't want no part of that cat hide a-followin' him and he'd just as soon keep a-pacin' right off the edge of the world, given his druthers.
Matter of fact he was unhappy enough he dropped his front end and I went over his ears.
My hand locked onto the reins and I figured old boy, you're comin' to ground with me, so I landed and rolled and yanked hard, then I came up and I had a good head of steam by this time.
I seized the gelding's cheek strap and saw his eyes wall back.
I screamed "YOU ILLEGITIMATE SON OF A STEAM ENGINE, I OUGHTA KNOCK YOU INTA THE MIDDLE OF NEXT WEEK!" and I felt him shiver and knew he was going down, so I cocked a fist and swung hard at the side of his head.
The timing was perfect.
I let out a "GAA!" about the time my knuckles whistled a-past his cabeza and the black horse hit the ground and just laid there.
I turned to the four -- by now the'd stopped and were staring -- and to be real honest I was more than willing to kick any of their hinders up between their shoulder blades.
"WHO'S NEXT!" I demanded, squaring off to the quartet.
Four men wearing good suits, rumpled and dissheveled, none with hats and all bearing some marks of a conflict, looked at me and then looked at one another.
I picked the biggest one and stabbed a finger at him.
My voice cracked a little.
I was getting hoarse from swearing at that black horse and that didn't sweeten my disposition none a'tall.
I made a come-here gesture.
He looked around, uncertainty in his face and hesitancy in his stance.
I started walking toward him, slowly, and to be honest it's a wonder I did not blow a cork or something.
I could see Jacob's reflection in a window.
He was just settin' his pony as calm as anything.
The biggest man there began to back up, shaking his head a little, opening and closing his mouth.
I turned to the nearest, pointed: "YOU!"
He put both palms up at chest level, shaking his head. "No, no! Ah, no!" -- and he turned quickly, running into the third man, who began back pedaling.
I moved faster now, locked my glare on the only man remaining.
I saw his eyes change and knew he wanted to fight so I spun and kicked him just south of the belt buckle but north of the, um, I hit him hard in, ah ...
I didn't make him sing soprano but I drove my boot heel most of the way back to his spine, and that was the end of his hostilities.
By now the upper windows of the fancy house were well populated with curious faces and the Madame herself stood, dignified but pale, in the doorway watching.
She waited until the four had gathered their hats and departed.
I went back to that black horse and untied the cat hide from the travois.
The black horse started to grunt and raised its head.
The black horse's eyes walled up and his head hit the ground again.
I stomped for the back porch.
Now them four men with their blood up backed away from my approach.
To her credit, the Madame did not, but she was kind of pale.
"I have been busy," I said in a voice that would cut stone. "A friend of mine was hurt bad and I had to find out what did it."
I untied the piggin strings, gave the hide a snap, seized the attached head and thrust it at Madame.
The sight of a snarling, fanged feline face rushing at her was more than her sensibilities could stand.
She staggered back into two of her girls, who caught her before she fell.
I picked up an attached paw, waved the claws before her face.
"Now imagine THESE teeth in YOUR arm and THESE claws digging out YOUR guts and you'll see why I HAVE BEEN BUSY!"
I felt my neck bulge and I knew I was too mad for my own good.
It is one thing to scream at your horse in the middle of an empty mountain meadow but it's something else entirely to address a woman in an ungentlemanly manner.
I laid the cat hide on the back porch, bloody side up, and rolled it back up: I tucked claws and head into the hide, wrapped the piggin strings around it and stomped back to the black horse.
I secured the hide to the travois and went around to the black's head.
I laid a hand on its neck, murmured to it, reached into my coat pocket.
I shaved off some tobacker and held it to its nose and that black horse came to right quick.
I rode the black horse up to the back porch.
"My Lady," I said, removing my hat, "I have spoken in a manner which was most impolite and most improper. I most earnestly beg your pardon. I was wrong."
The Madame had regained her feet and almost regained her composure.
She was still pale and obviously shaken.
"I understand," she said, all trace of her French accent gone: "your friend ... was he killed?"
I shook my head.
"He was not but I am concerned. A cat's claws are filthy with rotted meat and I fear gangrene. With your permission, my Lady?"
"Yes ... yes, thank you," she said, and one of the fancy girls handed her a delicate little stemmed glass of an amber liquid.
She downed it in a gulp.
I turned the black horse and we steered a big circle in the back yard of the fancy house and set off back the way we'd come, but at a considerable slower pace.

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Linn Keller 5-25-11


"Yes, Jacob?"
The black horse had most of the run out of it and we plodded along at a steady walk.
"Sir, might I take a closer look at that pelt?"
We drew up at a creek and let the horses graze and water for a minute.
I considered as I looked at the little waterway, sparkling and clear as running crystal in the sunlight, that I would never pass for a native as long as I called it a "crick."
So be it, I thought, and untied the piggin strings.
We walked away from the horses a little ways and I unrolled the pelt, stretched it out.
Jacob ran thoughtful fingers through the black fur, studying it.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, might I try something?"
I looked closely at my son.
His expression was closed, thoughtful: whatever he had in mind, it wasn't evident on his face.
"Go ahead."
Jacob went over to the creek and came back with a handful of water.
He dribbled it on the shining black fur, rubbed it in.
An irregular pattern of spots was visible now: they were there before, just hard to see.
"Jaguar," he murmured as if to himself.
I raised one eyebrow, impressed.
Jacob was like that, though: he tended to listen more than talk and he had the most wonderful gift of turning invisible.
He'd come across this trick of making a black jaguar's spots plainer when the fur was a little bit wet.
Hell, I never knew that one!
"We're in luck," Jacob said, and there was an odd note to his voice.
"How's that, Jacob?"
"This is a male," he said. "Males tend to wander farther than females. Was this a she-cat we'd be looking for a den and for little cats."
I nodded.
I'd considered that very thing, and with a sizable degree of discomfort.
I am superstitious that way: I consider it bad luck to tangle with a big cat when it ain't necessary.
"What'll you do with the hide, sir?"
I eased down onto one knee.
Used to be I could squat for an hour and no discomfort.
Some of the best conferences I ever held was held in a hunker.
Nowadays, though, my poor old knees said unkind things about me if I was hunkered too long.
"I reckon give it to Charlie if he wants it."
Jacob nodded slowly, his eyes giving nothing away.
He picked up a forepaw, turned it over, looked at it, pressed it to run a claw out far as it normally went.
He looked at me.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"This is the cat that tore billy Hell out of Charlie?"
I nodded.
Jacob had turned just a little bit pale.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, how is he still alive?"
I considered for a moment.
"I reckon he's a tough old bird," I said, and Jacob nodded slowly.
"He ain't that old, sir," he said thoughtfully, "but yes, sir, he is tough!"

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Linn Keller 5-27-11


 The wind tugged at Maude's skirt and blew loud in her ears.
It is always colder here in the graveyard, she thought, looking around at the garden of stone: the air was warming with springtime and smelled of blossoms, but it was still colder here than elsewhere, where people lived and moved and blood ran hot in living veins.
Maude looked at the stone obelisk with the oval carving: within the oval, a hand, and from the hand, the index finger, pointing upward: a soul ascended to Heaven.
Beneath the oval, on the polished flat surface, WJ GARRISSON, and beneath that, incised in flowing italics: Beloved Husband.
Maude swallowed and she felt her eyes sting.
Even this many years after her WJ's death, seeing his name on a memorial stone still grieved her.
"I brought you a flower," she whispered, not because of any soul-deep intimacy, but rather because she had no voice to speak any louder: she crouched a little, lay the single red rose reverently on the breeze-rippled grass.
She stood there a little longer, a lonely figure silhouetted against tall and towering clouds, and finally she turned, head bowed, and walked slowly, tiredly, like a worn out old woman, back through the cast-iron archway, and back down the little hill, back toward town, where people lived, and moved, and blood ran hot in living veins.

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Linn Keller 5-28-11


Emma Cooper realized how futile the effort would be.
Nearly every child in the school building was crowded up against the windows, craning to see, bouncing on tip toes, wobbling to see past heads, ears, ribbons and braids: Emma herself could not resist the sight.
Out in the middle of the street, a nameless cowpoke on a nondescript dust colored horse was experiencing what in later years would be known as a Manned Ballistic Flight: to the children it was unanimously known as "Uh-Oh," and to the cowpoke currently descending toward terra firma, the term would not be printable in a genteel venue such as this.
The dusty grey with white spots down both forelegs danced to a stop when its rider's weight left the saddle: the cowpoke, too, stopped, as when he landed it was flat on his back, and it honestly knocked the wind out of him.
The grey took a hesitant step, another: nuzzling the groaning man, the horse waited until the rider's gloved hand was wound around the cheek strap.
Apparently they'd done this sort of thing before: with a sudden effort, the rider rose, helped up by his horse.
Emma Cooper waited until the rider had mounted and was on his way before clapping her hands gently and asking her young charges to please return to their seats.
Attempting to pry them from the window any earlier would have been as useful as trying to pry the color out of a ruby.

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Linn Keller 5-28-11


Dr. Greenlees pursed his lips and nodded, once: he held Sarah's wrist encircled with his left hand, exploring the healing bone with his slender fingertips.
Sarah suppressed a shiver.
Dr. Greenlees was kind, he was gentle, he was careful and thorough, but he had the coldest hands of anyone she'd ever met.
Dr. Flint, on the other hand, had hands like her Uncle Linn: hot hands year round: he had never touched her but it seemed his grip was fired from within.
Dr. Greenlees rotated her arm, slowly, carefully: he slowly, gently, brought her arm down to horizontal, lay it on the towel-covered instrument tray with her fingers barely hanging over the edge.
He gently tapped her finger tips, watching her face for any sign of discomfort.
There was none.
Dr. Greenlees pushed back a little, looked up at his colleague.
"Dr. Flint," he said formally, "I concur with your diagnosis."
He smiled his little crooked half-smile at Sarah.
"Your patient, sir."
Dr. Flint's eyes were half-lidded; the uninformed might believe him drowsy.
Sarah knew better.
"Sarah," Dr. Flint said quietly as he assumed the wheeled stool his partner just vacated, "we can cast your arm in plaster, or we can maintain in the lighter splinting."
Sarah considered the uncomfortable weight of a plaster of Paris cocoon.
She also knew a cast itched abominably at times.
"A cast would guarantee the bone will finish healing without re-injury," Dr. Flint continued in reassuring tones. "Your bone was not cleanly broken. Right now it is barely healed, and it will break again rather easily."
Sarah sighed, her shoulders sagging in defeat.
"I don't want it broken again," she murmured. "A cast might ..."
Dr. Flint nodded. "I would recommend it."
Sarah was silent for a good long while.
Dr. Flint very carefully shaped the plaster encasement.
He was nearly done when Sarah spoke up.
"Dr. Flint," she asked, "why did Dr. Greenlees flick my fingertips earlier?"
Dr. Flint looked up and Sarah saw a smile in his deep, dark eyes.
"Take a look at the ceiling," he said.
Sarah quirked her eyebrows, puzzled, then looked up.
"What do you see?"
"Umm ... I see the ceiling."
"Do you see any feet?"
"Feet?" Sarah looked at the blocky Navajo.
Dr. Flint's smile wrinkled the corners of his eyes.
"If your fracture were not knit," he said, "your feet would be dangling through a hole in the ceiling."
Sarah opened her mouth, then closed it carefully.
She was suddenly very, very glad her fracture was knitting.

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Linn Keller 5-29-11


 Charlie healing, I wrote.
No sign of infection.
I scratched my eyebrow with the near end of the dip pen.
He's too darn mean for infection to set in, I thought, chuckling at the notion.
I'd entered in my personal journal the particulars on the past couple days.
I spared not the particulars on making a size twelve fool of myself.
I'll need somethin' to laugh at, I thought, once I get old and set myself in a rockin' chair for the rest of my days.
I can read this-here journal and remember and maybe laugh a little in the process.

There were hurried footsteps on the boardwalk and I looked up.
A rapid knock on the door, a fumbling with the latch: I stood and started around the desk.
A worried looking fellow in a townie suit opened the door and leaned in, fearful on the one hand and distressed on the other.
"I, ah, that is, excuse me, I'm, um, looking for the, ah," he stammered.
I turned my lapel back to show the six point star.
"I reckon you found me."
"Ah, yes, yes, quite so, quite so," he mumbled, stumbling forward and thrusting out a pale hand. "I'm, I'm, I'm," he stammered.
I took his hand and rested my other hand on his shoulder. "Take your time," I said quietly. "We're in no hurry."
"My b', my b', my b-b-boy's run, run, run off," he stammered, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "He's, he's, he's here, here, here, somewhere, where, where."
I never in my life saw a man so nervous in all my born days.
The way he was knitting his hands together it's a wonder his fingers didn't knot themselves together.
"How old is your boy?" I asked, guiding him to a chair.
He sat down, jumped up as if he'd just set on the sharp end of a coil spring.
"He's t', t', two," he said, laboring to get the word out.
I nodded. "He's here, you say."
The fellow seized my coat sleeve and tried to steer me toward the door.
I reckon he figured he'd grabbed a marble statue for I never moved.
He looked at me and his expression was somewhere between distress and misery and I figured maybe I'd ought to go outside like he wanted.
He thrust a trembling arm and I followed his quivering finger: the stage was at Maude's, and Mac was receiving a crate of some kind from the driver.
"He, he, he, jumped out,out, out," the fellow gasped. "I, I, I heard him laugh, laugh, laugh but but but I didn't see, see --"
I heard a child's giggle.
Now sound is a funny thing and it reflects like sunlight on creek water: it reflects at odd angles and it moves and it's not always where it seems to be.
I knew that what I heard could well be reflected off a building somewhere.
I also knew what could elicit a delighted giggle from a little boy.
I curled my bottom lip and whistled, a sustained, high-pitched whistle, sliding down-scale toward the end, then back up.
I knew two things would happen, and I was right.
"What, what, what," the fellow tugged at my sleeve, his brow puzzling together, and I held up a forestalling forefinger.
"Just watch," I said, and whistled again, reaching into a pocket for a plug of tobacco.
The fellow's eyes widened when I pulled a knife out of somewhere and began whittling shavings off the plug.
"What, what, what are you, you, you --"
Rose o' the Mornin' came cantering up the alley between the Jewel and the new municipal building.
The human eye picks up movement before anything else, and the golden mare's sudden appearance seized the nervous man's attention.
Me, I was looking around, and sure enough, something big, black and furry padded out from around the corner, with a giggling little boy trying to ride the Bear Killer.
Rose-horse paced over to me, begging, and I fed her some tobacker and fussed with her and told her she was a good girl and the fellow turned at his little boy's giggle and turned three shades of pale.
He seized my arm and tried to say something.
This time nothing a'tall came out, just his eyes a-bulgin' and his finger shakin' so hard it's a wonder it didn't break off.
I turned and looked at Bear Killer.
Bear Killer grinned.
Now Bear Killer's grin will fail a faint man's heart and give pause to a blooded warrior: Bear Killer grinned at us and I should have been ashamed of myself, really I should have.
I glared at the Bear Killer.
The Bear Killer rumbled way down deep in his chest.
I balled up my good right hand into a fist and shook it at him.
Bear Killer snarled, furring up between his shoulders.
I thought that city fellow beside me was going to die of the vapors.
I bent a little at the waist, snarling my own self.
The Bear Killer began to walk stiff legged toward me, bristling and snarling something fierce.
"I oughta thump you," I said in as mean a tone as I could manage and the Bear Killer growled louder, chopping his jaws at me.
The little boy -- if he was two, he was a small two -- managed to waller up a-straddle of the Bear Killer and sat there pleased as punch with himself.
I spoke louder.
"I oughta thump you a good one," I declared, and the Bear Killer stalked toward me, sounding for all the world like he was going to rip my foot off at the hip.
I shook my fist at him again and he rushed me and closed his mouth on my wrist.
I pulled him toward me and rubbed his ears and said "I oughta thump you," and the Bear Killer snarled happily, his tail betraying his delight: it was a game we played, and not infrequently.
I was squatted down by this time and the Bear Killer began to wash my face, his tail nearly swatting his sides so delighted were his hind quarters.
I straightened and plucked the grinning lad from the Bear Killer's curly back.
"Does this belong to you?" I asked, and the man fairly snatched the boy from my hands and took off a-runnin' for the stage.
Last I saw of him he was scrambling to climb back inside with his lad reaching back toward us howling his disappointment.
"Uncle Linn!"
I turned at Sarah's cheerful hail, and so did the Bear Killer.
Sarah was midway across the street, arm in a sling: Bear Killer gave a happy yow-wow-wow and streaked off the board walk and down the packed dirt toward her, running toenail-scratching orbits around her: he circled her clockwise, danced up on two legs, spun and ran the other way a few more times.
He musta gone back and forth so he would not get dizzy.
Sarah laughed and made a hand gesture I did not quite catch: the Bear Killer sat abruptly, his tail stirring up minor clouds of dust.
I looked up toward the Mercantile.
The townie and his boy were both looking out of the stage coach's window.
"Uncle Linn, look, I'm plastered!" Sarah exclaimed, and as I turned with what I knew must have been something between surprised and dismayed, she revealed her intent and her plaster cast.
"It's heavy," she complained, "but the bone must heal."
I nodded, once, slowly.
I'd known it was a bad break -- just how bad, Doc never said and I never asked.
Matter of fact I was surprised it was in plaster instead of the splint.

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Linn Keller 5-30-11


"Do ye know her, lad?"
"No, Sergeant, I don't."
The trooper studied the figure in the spyglass.
"But it's him."
"Aye, sir, it's him."
The sergeant leaned over and spat tobacco juice.
"Boyo," he declared, "ye'll ne'er pass f'r a trooper as long as y' sound like the Navy!"
The trooper lowered the spyglass and grinned.
"Sergeant, I could lie to you," he said good-naturedly, and the burly Cavalry sergeant shifted his quid.
"Aye, ye could," he agreed.
It was an old jest between them, begun long ago, when the Sergeant thought the recruit was making fun of his Irish vernacular.
"Wha' can ye tell me about her, now?" he asked, nodding toward the distant pair.
"Well, sir, she's cute."
"Ever' female in th' world is cute t' th' likes o' you," the Sergeant muttered.
"She's a little on the tall side, and she's holdin' an infant ..." The trooper's voice trailed off and he frowned a little.
"That's no baby," he said slowly. "Sergeant, she's ... her arm's broke."
"Now how in God's green earth an' three an' a half seas d'ye mistake a broken arm f'r a bairn?" the Sergeant demanded.
The trooper offered the sectioned brass tube to his superior, who shook his head.
"She's wearin' a sling the same color as her dress," he said, peering through the tube again, "an' the arm is plastered."
"I wonder if she fell off a horse," the weathered, stubbled sergeant muttered. "If she did, it's his fault an' he'll answer f'r it!"
"We could find out, Sergeant."
"Aye, we could."
The guidon snapped in the breeze; here and there, an impatient horse stamped, jingling and head-tossing. Soothing hands caressed necks, murmured voices spoke to the mounts.
The sergeant sighed, turned his mare to face the column.
"Men!" he roared, his Irish-strong lungs expanding to the task.
Heads raised a little, troopers looked expectantly at their sergeant.
"I am of a notion that beer is good f'r the soul!"
His frowning visage belied the good nature of his words.
"I am responsible f'r yer health an' well being, an' a man's health is better wi' beer in th' belly!"
Troopers grinned, looked at one another.
"Now dress i' up, lads! We want t' look good when we ride int' town! There's a lass down there a-talkin' t' the Sheriff! I want her t' faint wi' joy when she sees such foin examples o' manhood ridin' int' town!"
He turned, rode up to the head of the column, raised his hand.
"Forward," he sang, "Hoooo!"

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Linn Keller 6-1-11


 Sarah looked ... well, she looked like a girl.
She looked like the girl she was, not the young warrior she'd been.
Appearances are deceiving, I thought.
Sarah had her off arm under the sling, helping hold the weight of the plaster, then she reached up and ran two fingers under the sling at the back of her neck.
"It's heavy," she complained, then cradled her wounded wing again.
I cocked my head, regarded her sling.
"Your Mama matched your sling up nicely," I said.
"I know," Sarah said uncertainly. "She said it wouldn't be as noticeable."
I had a sudden urge to wrap my arms around this lovely child and hold her like a father would his daughter.
To think was to act: Sarah cuddled into me with a little sigh and I held her for a long moment.
"I wish you had been my Papa," Sarah murmured.
I leaned down and kissed the top of her head.
"If you were my daughter," I said quietly, "I would be very proud of you."
Sarah looked up at me, eyes bright.
"Really?" she said hopefully, her voice squeaking a little.
I nodded.
I pulled a silk kerchief out of my coat pocket -- I always kept an extra, never know when one will come in handy -- and folded it over one time more: I worked it under Sarah's sling, padding the back of her neck a little.
"Ohh, that's better," she groaned. "Thank you, Uncle Linn!"
"The back of your neck was kind of red," I observed. "No sense letting it go raw."
Sarah nodded, drew back a little, looking up at me.
"Uncle Linn?" she asked. "What can you tell me about --"
Movement caught my eye and I looked up the street.
Sarah turned, facing whatever had caught my attention.
I recognized the move.
When we are faced with the unexpected, we tend to face it squarely so we can see it better: Sarah knew something had commanded my attention, and she knew to face it so she too could assess it: this also gave me room to work, should that be needed.
I grinned as the column approached the far end of the main street.
"Now there's a fine sight," I murmured.
"Is that Sergeant Mick?" Sarah asked, excited.
I could not help but smile as she bounced on her toes and waved, and Mick waved back.

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Linn Keller 6-4-11


Mick came stomping over to me, thunder on his brow and dust on his boots: he seized my hand, pounded my shoulder and growled something in Gaelic that roughly translated to "You're looking good and I'm going to pound the stuffing out of you and how's the wife?"
He came to correct attention and saluted Sarah. "And who is this lovely creature?" he boomed, and Sarah swallowed and turned a most remarkable shade: her left elbow tried to swing out, for her impulse was to put her knuckles on her hip and either glare or pout: the weight of her plaster cast and the tug of the sling reminded her she couldn't quite do that, so she did the next best thing.
She seized Mick's suspender and pulled, hard.
Mick grinned and bent down and Sarah kissed him quick-like on the cheek and scolded, "Mick, you know me!" and it was Mick's turn to color up some.
"Aye, lass," he rumbled, his voice like a distant Irish-green thunderstorm, "but ye've grown." He cupped her slung forearm in both hands, weighing the plaster.
"And who's hurt ma darlin', eh? Name me his name an' he'll answer t' the Irishman!" he declared loudly, waving a big-knuckled fist in a menacing circle.
"You're too late," I grinned.
"LATE!?" Mick demanded. "Now what's this? Denyin' a man th' pleasure t' knock the stuffin' out o' some ruffian?"
"Do you tell him, or do I?" I looked down at Sarah and she started to blush again and she looked a little uncomfortable.
Mick looked from one to the other of us, puzzling out what we weren't saying.
Sarah turned to the big Irish sergeant in the sun-faded kepi.
"I killed him already," she said in a quiet voice.
Mick's eyes changed.
His thoughts were plain to see: someone had indeed caused the lass harm, someone had indeed paid a supreme penalty for it --
Mick's hands were big, callused, strong, but father-gentle: they closed carefully on Sarah's shoulders, squeezing just a little bit.
"Lass," he said in the gentlest voice I think the irascible Irishman ever managed out of that leather throat, "it's no light thing t' take a life. Please tell ol' Mick ye're pullin' his leg."
I debated whether to speak up and decided against it.
Sarah reached into her cast and pulled out a long, slender knife.
She turned it so the sunlight burned from the honed edge.
"I killed him," she said, "bare handed."
She looked him square in the eye.
"And then I skinned him."
Mick turned kind of pale under dust and sun tan and days-old whiskers.
"Ye ... skinned him?" he half-croaked, half-whispered.
Sarah nodded.
Mick looked at me.
"She had a time of it," I affirmed, "skinned him out one handed. He'd broke her arm and tore it up some."
Mick crossed himself and his lips soundlessly traced the name of St. Christopher.
"I have his hide in my bedroom," Sarah continued.
Now once I pull a man's leg so far I can't keep a straight face.
Sarah, now, Sarah was solemn as the old judge.
Sincerity shone in her eyes, innocence in her expression, calm in her posture: she slid the knife back into its sheath (I want to look and see where she hid that, I thought) and Mick looked from Sarah to me and back.
"Sergeant?" a voice called. "Permission to dismount?"
Mick blinked, opened his mouth, looked long at Sarah and closed his mouth.
Mick executed a perfect military about-face.
"Diiis-MOUNT!" he bellowed. "And form up on me! Double time an' be quick about it!"
The double column dismounted, secured their mounts, then came over at a jog-trot.
Mick turned slowly, meeting every eye, obviously troubled.
"Lads," he said loudly, intending his words should be heard, "how many o' ye wish t' cuddle up close t' a woman, eh?"
The troopers looked at one another.
This was not at all what they expected to hear, especially with their Sergeant in such close proximity to a lady of quality -- a rather young lady, at that!
"A scoundrelly rascal dared t' harm this child," Mick bellowed, his temper rising, "an' not only did she take th' spalpeen's life, she SKINNED HIS HIDE OFF HIS MISERABLE CARCASS!" Mick's color was darkening and I saw his good right hand knot up into a fist.
Mishandling a lady was something he didn't care for either.
Me, I was enjoying the show, doing my best neither to grin nor to laugh.
"Sergeant?" a young trooper asked hesitantly, "you'd not be pullin' a man's leg, now, would you?"
"No," Sarah said confidently. "He's not."
"Treat the ladies wi' respect, lads, an' that's an order!" Sean said stoutly. "An' I'm no' th' one that'll enforce th' order! Is that CLEAR?"
The chorused affirmation rang off the buildings on either side.
"Good!" The Sergeant nodded, his eyes traveling over their heads: I followed his eyes and saw one of Daisy's girls taking a quick head count before disappearing back into the Jewel.
Mick nodded.
"Lads, we ha'e two days an' no assignment," Mick declared. "I fully intend t' explore th' delights of a good hot bath an' a good woman cooked meal!"
The troopers grinned and nudged one another, anticipating delights of a less pure nature.
To a man they came to attention.

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Linn Keller 6-5-11


Jackson Cooper slouched invisibly in a doorway, watching the troopers dismount: one lad ended up with both hands full of reins and led their mounts off down the alley to the livery: normally they made it a point of pride to tend their own horseflesh, but Firelands was a clear exception: they knew the quality of the hostler's work, to a man they trusted Shorty, and besides, it was rather handy to have someone -- and someplace -- they could trust.
They were traveling light, not even a supply wagon with them: theirs was a short sojourn, engineered by their Sergeant: little was happening at their fort and as much as he knew make-work was necessary to keep idle hands from mischief, Mick was Irish, and the Irish have a deep distaste and an absolute loathing for the fabrication, the official lie, that generates make-work.
Consequently he led his men out on a training exercise, reasoning that any time in the saddle and under command was a learning experience, and therefore qualified as training.
Besides, he was dry, and it had been too long since he'd had a good beer, or two, or three.
Jackson Cooper watched the troopers file into the Jewel.
There may be trouble, he thought, or maybe not: Mick's troopers were generally a well behaved bunch, as they answered to Mick, and Mick answered to both his superiors, and the local law.
Mick and the local law -- in the person of Jackson Cooper -- had never squared off against one another, and frankly Jackson Cooper hoped it would never happen.
He'd seen that stubbled, suntanned son of the Sod pound the absolute stuffing out of a fellow one fine forenoon, a man Jackson Cooper knew to be a doughty fighter and strong: he was more than satisfied that he could take the Irishman's measure, but that the Irishman would cause him damage, and Jackson Cooper was superstitious.
He believed it very bad luck to get into a fight unless there was absolutely no other course of action.
Jackson Cooper's eyes tightened a little at the corners as he watched the troopers, a tightening that indicated pleasure, or approval.
Maude was returning from her weekly journey to the cemetery.
Her approach coincided with the troopers' arrival at the front door of the Jewel, and to a man they stood aside, and removed their hats, nodded and greeted her most politely.
Maude smiled an embarrassed little smile, a pleased little smile, and thanked them quietly -- Jackson Cooper could not hear her normally soft voice, but he could read her lips -- and not until she'd reached the end of the boardwalk and started down the three steps did the troopers replace their sweat-stained covers and stir out of their footprints.
She's old enough to be their mother, he thought -- no, she's old enough to be their grandmother.
A man should show respect to a woman like that.
It surprised Jackson Cooper that he thought these things.
This was an era where men naturally and unaffectedly expressed due respect for women, and those who didn't were either corrected harshly and swiftly, or were rich or powerful enough to retaliate harshly against any who were foolish enough to utter such a correction.
The troopers' action in that moment was so routine, so normal, so expected and not at all unusual, that Jackson Cooper felt a momentary surprise at his even giving the matter pause for thought.
His eyes followed Maude as she crossed the street in a long diagonal, heading for her little kingdom, heading for her Mercantile.

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Linn Keller 6-6-11


Jacob wiped his sweat band and settled the cover back on his head.
He'd been riding for half a day and home was finally coming into sight.
He'd been out of the county pursuing two warrants: one he served, the other took him to the local lawman's office, where he traded information, miscellaneous gossip and two or three bald faced lies for like conversation: Jacob was a welcome visitor, and though he was young enough to be the jurisdictional Sheriff's son, Jacob was weathered, seasoned, matured beyond his few years, even by Western standards.
He ended up headed for home with a copy of two death certificates.
The first warrant he served, he served with a feeling of futility; he handed it to the named recipient, who snorted when he read it.
The man's wrists were manacled, as were his ankles, and he looked at Jacob with contempt.
"They're hangin' me t'day," he said. "Can't a man even have a hangin' in peace around here?"
Jacob's light eyes were unreadable as he stepped aside to allow the town marshal escort the prisoner to their gallows.
He waited until the man had been pronounced and laid out in the pine box, and the lid nailed down; the Marshal leaned over and murmured in the black-garbed physician's ear, who nodded.
Jacob received a copy of that death certificate before the ink was dry on the first copy.
"Hell of a note," he said to his stallion, whose ears swung back, then forward again at the sound of his voice. "I go after two men and come back with two papers."
The stallion offered no comment.
Jacob drew up, drew off the road: "road" is a relative term: two dirt-bare tracks worn into the ground with a path beside, for iron-shod wagon wheels and the weight of passing freight had cut and mashed the soil down, leaving a high center.
While the Appaloosa had no difficulty following the narrow track, Jacob did not like being restricted: he knew that his horse might take a mis-step if he had to maneuver quickly, and so he rode the hoof-beaten path beside.
Jacob drew up for no particular reason and left the roadway, fading back into the brush, then deeper into the trees.
He followed his instinct to a clearing at a high point, where the world fell away from his feet and it seemed like -- if he faced this-a-way, with the mountain behind him -- why, it felt like he could see forever, or near to it.
Jacob looked long at the vista, the mountains shouldering granite-hard against the sky, mantled in white like wise old men: clouds scraped their bellies on the peaks, tore into feathery fragments that recombined, coalesced, unharmed and unconcerned.
Jacob sat there for a long time, looking, listening.
Finally he took off his hat, wiped his forehead, wiped the hat.
This time he kept his hat in his hand for a bit, for he was holding a lengthy and involved conversation with the Almighty.
Jacob remembered his Mama's laughing eyes, her gentle hands; he remembered a man named Sopris, a deep man of secrets and unexpected generosity: he remembered fighting panic and utter abject overwhelming fear as he fired and fired and fired again, the big Army Colt booming in his hand as he tried futilely to drag his wounded Pa back into the Sheriff's office.
He remembered the first time he rode his Pa's Rose-horse and how she launched near out from under him and it felt like he was riding a cannonball driven from a field gun's mighty bronze throat, and how his breath had caught in his own throat and he knew, he knew! that no man in all of Creation would ever run faster than he was traveling in that moment!
Jacob remembered the first time his hand slipped into Annette's, and how he wasn't sure if it was her, or him, that was trembling a little, and he remembered the first time he ran his arm around her waist and looked long into her eyes, and how soft her lips were against his, and he remembered a young man's fire igniting for the first time, deep in his belly, and he grinned and laughed a little as he remembered little Jacob reaching for his Pa and laughing like a little boy-baby laughs.
Jacob remembered these things as he looked at the high and broad majesty round about him, and his conversation with the Almighty was just as broad, just as deep and just as profound:
He looked to the clouds and the clear blue overhead and he said, "Thank you."

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Mr. Box 6-6-11


 The troops were all assembled single file at the bar, shoulder to shoulder that is, with Mick in the middle, grabbing mugs of cool beer as fast as I slid them down the bar. The mugs were all raised repeatedly and everything you could think of was toasted, short of the outhouse! I took quick stock of the spring room to see how long we could hold out. We were well stocked. I had Mick send a detail to bring out a fresh keg while they were in decent shape so it wouldn't be too shook up to serve when they were ready for it. If I waited until I needed it they would be in such bad shape and handle it so rough that I wouldn't be able to serve it before next week! All I need is to have the Irish Fire Brigade show up now!

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Linn Keller 6-8-11


Sean swore steadily, quietly, stalking around the burning structure.
It had been one of the newer houses, but built in a hurry: what caused the fire, he didn't know and didn't particularly care: when the Brigade was summoned, the fire had a running start, and as they made the turn down the cross street they saw the gout of fireflies as the roof caved in.
All they could do was douse the adjacent fires, prevent it from spreading: the original structure was lost, and they knew it.
The family was huddled on an adjacent porch, the father and two boys barefoot: one boy clutched what must have been the family Bible, the mother held a framed photograph.
Sean groaned, as did every man in the Brigade, at a familiar stench, but every man steeled himself to the task at hand: jaws clenched, they lanced water from brass nozzles into the conflagration as if thrusting steel into a great dragon's heart.
The Brigade staunched the fire's spread, viciously attacking the adjacent blazes, then wetting down the exposed structures surrounding, before turning their wrath to the devil's breath that steadily diminished what was once two stories of wood frame home.
Satisfied that the Brigade was efficiently handling the extinguishment, Sean strode over to the refugees shivering on the porch, the pike pole in his great, hard-knuckled grip as dainty as a walking-stick, or perhaps a scepter.
"Did everyone get out?" he asked, his voice gentle for such a large and hard-muscled man: the husband's expression showed surprise, as he surfaced from his shocked stupor, and the wife's was engraved with grief.
Sean's heart sank at the long silence that followed.
He'd hoped the smell was that of a cat or a side of beef.

One of the troopers strode briskly up the hallway, having gone out back to dispose of a good volume of second hand beer. Excited, he hailed his fellows:
"Hey, there's a fire back yonder!" and instantly there was a general stampede for the door, for the cavalrymen had seen little action here of late and this promised to be entertainment of a sort.
One young fellow came scampering back in, picked up his beer and drained it, seized a chicken leg and a sandwich off another trooper's now-abandoned plate, and ran back out, after his fellows.
Mick regarded the young raider sadly, shaking his head.
"He'll be an officer, mark m' word," he said in a dolorous tone. "Now, then, Mr. Baxter, I see ye've installed some fine carvin' i' the front o' yer bar here, an' yon mirror wi' th' frosted pattern etched in't looks very nice." He leaned against the mahogany, working a kink out of his back until a dull *pop* and a contented sigh pronounced his effort successful.
"I take't ye ha'e t' dust ever' day, bein' right on th' street an' all?"

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Mr. Box 6-8-11


"Yeah, it keeps me busy but folks like it, Mick." I responded. "Good of your men to pitch in with the fire brigade."
"Them boys been itchin' fer sumpin' to do. Glad we were here to help." Mick said.
"We'll make it worth their while." I told him. "Hope You're not in a hurry to hit the trail."
"Don't worry about us. That fort's been getting mighty crowded lately." Mick nodded.

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Linn Keller 6-9-11


Inge shivered as she saw the smoke, a column of misfortune soaring upward from town, declaring disaster small or maybe large.
"I see it," she murmured.
Inge had her youngest boy with her: the older children were at home tending the never ending chores; this was the first time she herself had been able to get to Town in ... well, in far too long, at least that's what she told herself: she'd gotten herself and her youngest cleaned up and presentable and dressed for the occasion, for she had no wish to appear poor.
One did not go to Town looking less than genteel, if it were at all possible.
Inge held no illusions: she would never be one of the monied, fashionable ladies of Firelands, but neither would she be drab, or common.
Inge's youngest son shivered a little and Inge transferred reins from her right hand to her left, freeing a motherly wing to drape protectively over her shivering chick.

"Mother was in her rocking chair, beside the stove," the woman said woodenly, eyes wide and unseeing as she described the glimpse she had into the heart of the fire, just before she snatched her picture from the wall and screamed for her husband, screamed at her own child to take up the family Bible from its place of honor.
"She was gone. Her eyes were wide open and she was dead as she sat there with the door of the stove open, and a burning stick in her hand."
Sean was on one knee before the woman, both his hands gently sandwiching hers: he nodded, slowly, and said very quietly, very gently, "Go on."
"We ran. The fire was already up the walls, the curtains were gone, she must have pulled a burning pitch from the firebox and dropped it into the kindling --"
The woman's face screwed up and she turned, burying her face in her husband's shoulder.
Sean released her hands, rose; he squeezed the husband's free shoulder quickly, gently, and murmured "Take care of her" in an Irish-accented whisper: he rose, turned, looked at the hot ruin that was once the protective shell of their dreams, their new start in life.
He walked around its periphery, oblivious to heat, to water-spray, to the sound of the Irish Brigade's shouts and their labors; he was reconstructing in his mind where the stove would have been, where the front door and the inner walls had been, where he might look for the remains of a woman, dead in her chair beside the stove --
Sean stopped, thrust his jaw out, then carefully, almost delicately, picked his way into the wet, steaming, hot, stinking, black-scorched mess.
The Brigade paused, knowing their Chieftain's expression: he was looking for something, and they had a suspicion what he was looking for.
"Chafe!" the Welsh Irishman called, "wha' will ye?"
Sean looked up, pointed to a trooper.
"You, lad!" he called.
"Sir!" The trooper nodded briskly, jog-trotting alongside the scorched, cindered ruin until he was as close to Sean as he could manage without going into the fired mess itself.
"I'll need ye t' go t' Digger's. Y'know th' funeral parlor up yonder?"
"Aye, sir!" The suntanned trooper nodded briskly, one time.
"Tell him I need th' galvanized box. He'll know wha' I need, an' help him ge' i' down here."
"Aye, sir!" The trooper snapped a salute, turned and sprinted a few steps, pausing to thrust a finger at two of his fellows: "Muldoon! Davis! With me!"
The three fell in abreast, running in step, the assembled gawkers drawing aside before the trio who were obviously on a mission.

Sarah had been inconvenienced when the commotion cleared the Jewel: she came down the hall, paused beside the Irish sergeant, who came upright and half-bowed, a genial smile on his ruddy face and a half-full beer mug in his hand.
It was obvious he and Mr. Baxter had been in conversation, and Sarah's expression was troubled, for she had no wish to interrupt men's talk, but it was apparent the discussion had come to its natural end.
Sarah looked around, noting the abandoned mugs and plates, tilted her head a little to the side like a curious girl will, looked at Mick with questioning eyes.
Mick chuckled. "Lass," he shook his head ruefully, "you can wheedle a man's heart wi' those eyes! Ye are but a girl but by St. Christopher, I can see th' woman ye are becomin'!"
Sarah turned, nodded to an empty table. "But where did they go?" she asked in a wondering tone.
"Ah, now, Parker came a-runnin' in an' shouted 'Fire!' an' they took out t' see th' spectacle." Mick shook his head and took a slow, appreciative drink, swallowing leisurely and savoring taste, flavor, coolness and texture as the wonderful elixir made its beneficent voyage to his inner soul.
"Oh, dear," Sarah murmured, unconsciously cradling her plastered, broken arm with the other one, easing the sling's pressure on her neck.
"Now, then, m'dear," Mick frowned, tempering the frown with the ghost of a smile and extending relaxed fingers toward Sarah's slung forearm, "how'd this happen, eh? Did that oaf of a Sheriff spook yer horse an' cause yer broken arm? I'll thrash th' man that caused ye hurt!"
Mick knotted up a fist and shook it menacingly, scowling so fiercely that Sarah couldn't help herself: she laughed, patting Mick's waving knuckles, and Mick felt his heart melt at this delightful child's smile and the sound of her happiness.
"I killed a wolf," she said honestly, her expression suddenly open, vulnerable, as if offering him a secret, a part of her she seldom showed another, and Mick blinked and leaned back a little.
"Ye ... shot a wolf?" He shook his head slightly, trying to settle the notion between his ears.
Sarah shook her own head in response.
"No, there wasn't time. He rushed me from the grass and I put up my arm -- so --" Sarah swung her plastered arm and sling out from her, free arm reaching -- "and I trapped his head as he seized my arm, I grabbed his withers with my legs -- so" -- her move was somewhat obscured by her skirt, but Mick saw plainly how she was demonstrating -- "I pulled hard and snapped back, and up --"
Mick shuddered, turned and set his beer mug down: he turned back and laid both hands on her shoulders.
"Lass, there's only one man alive I ever heard of that tried that an' lived," he said in a near-whisper: his voice was thick, husky, and his hands squeezed Sarah's shoulders more firmly than he realized: "he bears th' scars t' this day from't, an' he swore me t' secrecy, f'r th' world would call him liar and damned liar if he e'er described the doin' of it!"
Sarah's eyes were big and solemn.
"Uncle Charlie's arm still aches with the weather," she said.
"Uncle Charlie!" Mick shook his head, and the backs of his fingers caressed her apple cheek gently, as a father would a daughter: "I was wi' th' mon when he kilt a wolf in th' self same manner."
Sarah's surprise was plain to see, and Mick knew it was honest an unaffected.
"If that rapscallion Macneil is teachin' a lovely child like yersel' such things," he shivered, "why ... m'dear, ye are a beautiful girl, ye b'long in a fine parlor, playin' piano an' embroderin' an' learnin' t' be a fine lady, not gallivantin' about th' world killin' wolves barehand!"
Sarah hugged Mick, quickly, her good arm going around him: she pulled him tight, pressing the side of her head against his breast-buttons, feeling his solid, muscled frame beneath blue wool and smelling the good man-smell of leather and horse sweat and Indian tobacco.
Mick, for his part, knew what it was to have a daughter, and Mick did what a father did in such moments.
Mick wrapped his arms around Sarah, gently, holding her in a father's strong, protective embrace.
"There, now, lass," he whispered, rocking her slightly the way a father does, feeling Sarah shiver a little, the way a scared girl-child will when she remembers a terrible event that she'd kept at arm's length until it would stay away no longer: "there, now, let it go, yer Mick's no' gonna let ye come t' harm."
Mick laid his cheek gently atop Sarah's head, smelling lilac-water and bath salts, and he closed his eyes and remembered his own daughter, his own dear child, the day he gave her to a fine young man in front of God and everyone: he'd walked down the aisle on wooden legs, this grizzled, hardened veteran of war and horror and death and conflict, walking down the aisle of the parish church in a state of shock: he'd looked at the beautiful young woman on his arm and remembered the child she'd been, seeing in that one moment everything from a bloody, squalling infant to a laughing little girl to a coltish, awkward, long-legged schoolgirl, to, now, a bride-to-be, and he remembered at the end of the aisle, he'd taken her in his arms just as he had Sarah now, and he'd laid his head down on top of hers, and he felt her shiver a little, and her hair smelled of lilac-water and bath salts ...
Mick sighed, released his enveloping embrace, and Sarah drew back a little, wiping her eyes quickly, embarrassed at the damp that leaked from her eyes.
Mick's finger tips were gentle, under her chin, and he tilted her face up a little.
"Ye're sure that rascal of a Sheriff didn't cause this, now?" Sean said very softly, tapping the cast with the tips of his fingers.
"I'm sure," Sarah whispered back, not trusting her voice.
"I'll throttle th' man tha' harms ye, ye know that."
"I know." Sarah nodded, patted Mick's breast with the flat of her hand. "Thank you."
A shadow passed outside: from its height, she knew it had to be Jackson Cooper, for few men matched his height or his breadth.
"Excuse me," Sarah said, her smile flashing sunlight into Mick's heart, and she skipped toward the front door.
Mick and Mr. Baxter heard her call "Marshal?" -- the the doors shut and cut off anything else that may have been said.
Mr. Baxter had already refilled Mick's heavy glass mug.
"Ah, there's a lovely child," Mick sighed, shaking his head.
Mr. Baxter nodded, slowly, thoughtfully.
"She is," he agreed. "She is indeed."

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Charlie MacNeil 6-9-11


"Well, it appears that you'll survive," Doctor Flint commented drily as he deposited the various instruments he'd used back in his battered black leather bag. "Though I must say, it does amaze me what some men will do to get out of working!" White teeth gleamed against bronzed skin as the doctor grinned down at his patient. "How long ago did this happen?"

"Ten or twelve days, I reckon," Charlie answered. "I really don't remember for sure. I slept through a bunch of it."

The doctor shook his head wryly. "And why does it not surprise me that you just recently decided to have me out?"

Charlie grinned, as much a grimace of pain as an expression of humor. "Fannie sews a dang fine stitch..."

"That she does," the doctor agreed, "but that doesn't explain why you waited so long."

"Didn't wanna be a bother. It's a long trip out here from town, and Fannie and the sheriff got the leaks stopped up, so I just figured it could wait. Everything's alright, ain't it?" he finished just a trifle anxiously.

Doctor Flint snorted in disbelief as he raised his eyes toward the invisible firmament overhead. "'Got the leaks stopped up' he says." He brought his gaze back to the cloth-wrapped figure beneath the quilts. "The Good Lord definitely looks out for fools, drunks and children, I do believe, and you do indeed appear to qualify on at least one of those counts. Yes, you're going to be fine. I see no sign of infection."

"As a general rule I don't drink all that much, but I guess two out of three ain't bad. When can I ride?"

"Surely you jest!"

"Nope. When can I get on a horse? I've got critters that need tending."

"You've nearly had your entire digestive tract surgically removed from your body without benefit of anesthetic! You'll be lucky if you're able to get on a horse before the summer's out!"

Just then the bedroom door swung open silently on well-oiled hinges. "I heard that!" Fannie declared from the doorway, her hands planted firmly on her hips. "And you'd better make sure you listen to this man, mister!"

"Yes, Ma'am," Charlie answered meekly, flicking a quick wink in the doctor's direction.

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Linn Keller 6-12-11


Dr. Flint's face was impassive as I drew up beside him.
"He's still alive, I take it."
Dr. Flint nodded, once, face solemn.
"I don't reckon he's runnin' foot races nor chasin' women."
Dr. George Flint, M.D., in his fine tailored suit, seated in his light physician's surrey drawn by a gleaming black mare, regarded me with unreadable obsidian eyes.
"Sheriff," he said at length, "I have lain awake for three nights trying to come up with a suitable smart remark for my reply."
Dr. George Flint removed his narrow-brimmed hat, pretended to inspect the sweatband minutely.
"I regret to inform that I am not able to come up with a properly irreverent riposte."
Now one thing Dr. George Flint did well -- very well, at that -- was dry, dry humor.
The man's face was solemn as the old judge, and only the bright expression in his eyes betrayed the seriousness of his tone.
I'd be willin' to bet he could play a hell of a good game of poker.
"He will heal, and he will be his old self," Dr. Flint said at length, "but I remain puzzled."
I frowned a little, tilted my head: "How's that?"
"His wounds." Dr. Flint resettled the hat on his head. "I have seldom seen lacerations more precisely approximated, nor so expertly sutured." He looked directly at me, the look of a man who wants a straight answer. "I don't believe he had professional medical care for this event."
I was silent for a long moment.
I looked down at his carriage wheels, followed the rock-dinged steel rim, then looked to the horizon.
I found no answers in either place.
"Dr. Flint," I said at length, "do you remember the Angel of Navarre?"
Dr. Flint blinked and for once in his life his face showed honest surprise.
He reached down and hauled back hard on the surrey's brake.
It was apparent he wanted to hear more.
"I remember Navarre," he said, his voice carefully neutral.
"Do you remember what happened?"
"Other than the tornado, the explosion and the children, no, I don't remember much."
Dr. Flint removed his hat, lifted the hair above and behind his left ear.
His black hair hid a scar, an ugly, twisted scar that spoke of an injury that healed before it could be properly cleaned and sewn up.
"The explosion?"
"A piece of boiler iron as big as my hand. Had it hit me edge-on, it would have taken my head off at the ear lobes."
I bent forward in the saddle, memories making me half sick.
"You should have come to the infirmary tent."
Dr. Flint smoothed his hair back into place, resettled the townie hat on his straight black haired head. He looked straight ahead, his jaw tight.
"I was just a damned Indian," he said. "The infirmary was for the good people."
I was leaned forward, my right arm across the saddle horn: my right hand closed into a fist and I felt a deep, abiding anger.
I remembered Navarre.
I remembered the tornado that came through, the schoolchildren caught out in the open: the only two plate glass windows in town had been sucked out by the wind and crystal knives sleeted into a dozen children.
A woman shoved the door of the saloon open against the storm's fury and began dragging children out of the street and into the lee of the saloon -- boards were ripping loose, pieces of wooden shingles were flying -- and as quick as the twister hit, it was gone.
A cavalry unit was on the train, or had been: they'd abandoned ship, as it were, and crouched in the lee of the stone oil building beside the depot: the twister ripped the wooden passenger cars apart, leaving only the iron chassis and most of the flooring and about half the seats: the supply car was more heavily constructed and was in one piece.
The young Lieutenant in charge rallied his men and they emptied their supply car and set up the biggest tent they had.
They had a complete field surgeon's setup but no surgeon.
The woman who was tending the children took charge.
I remember she had a temper to match her fiery red hair.
I knew only that she was new in town, a saloon girl by appearance, just another feathered doxy: I'd seen her, I was town Marshal, I paid little attention to her.
Until now.
I remember she was all legs and high-button shoes, an ornate corset with red feathers and lace ... until she began ordering the Lieutenant, two sergeants and the troopers around like her personal servants, until she honestly decked a rancher who objected to being told to carry one end of a stretcher -- and when she began laying out surgical implements with a professional's skill, I began to take notice.
I approached her to ask if I could be of assistance and she thrust a bucket into my belly, hard, with a terse "Fill this!"
I filled the bucket, filled it with good cold fresh pumped well water, and fetched it back.
The woman's lips were pressed together and she was obviously steeling herself against the cries and the screams of the wounded: she'd already gone among them, assessing the severity of their injuries; she'd kicked a man's legs out from under him when she told him not to yank out an impaling length of glass from a child's leg, and when he came up with a cocked fist she came up with a cocked pistol.
I stood behind her with my own Colt out and leveled at the man.
"Do as the lady says," I said quietly, and he did.
Matter of fact once she pulled a pistol on the man, everyone decided to do as she said.
A good thing, too.
Nobody knew her name.
She'd given two or three names since coming into town, which wasn't unusual for a traveling showgirl; she sang like an angel, danced like a leaf on a breeze; she had a laugh that would melt the heart of a stone statue, and now she was blood to her elbows: she stopped and washed her hands often, and her instruments were immaculate -- she designated three troopers as her personal orderlies, and their sole duty was to scrub instruments, rinse instruments and boil the instruments, then lay them out on a clean towel to dry.
Near as anyone could tell, every child but one that she tended, lived to tell the tale, and for years after they spoke of the Angel of Navarre: whether she was a surgeon, a physician, a Healer or midwife or angel on earth, no one knew, and in that moment nobody cared: when nearby a terrible explosion shredded the tent with shrapnel, killing the only child that did not survive her ministrations, she never even flinched from stitching a little boy's belly: a chunk of whistling iron screamed through her hair, and not until a half hour later did she realize a trickle of blood had painted a scarlet stripe just ahead of her right ear.
We labored together all day and into the night, tending casualties from the twister and the locomotive explosion; they were brought to us, and I and the troopers worked at her direction.
A relief train came in, and with it, a team of surgeons and nurses, and we were most pleased to let them take over.
The saloon girl gave a succinct, concise report on each patient, touching them in turn, speaking in the foreign language doctors use when speaking professionally to a colleague: she went swiftly from one to another to another, her newly arrived colleagues nodding understanding: when finally she was done, she washed her hands one final time, stopped and turned to the troopers and gave each one a quick hug and a breathy "Thank you" -- then she came over to me and seized me by the upper arm and hauled me around behind the tent.
She produced a badge and spoke a name, and that was the first time I knew who she was.
It was also the last time I saw her, until after I became Sheriff here in Firelands.
Dr. Flint was silent for a good long while, and finally he nodded.
"Our own Miz Fannie," he said slowly, "is the Angel of Navarre."
I nodded.
Dr. Flint was quiet for another long minute, then he smiled.
"Charlie will be glad to see you," he said in a voice doctors reserve for professional advice. "Maybe you can persuade him to take life easy long enough to heal."
I laughed. "As well tell the tide not to come in!" I took a long breath. "Maybe I'll let the Angel take care of it."
Dr. Flint eased the brake off.
"You do that, Sheriff," he said, touching his hat brim and flipping the reins.
Dr. Flint headed back into town, and I went out to see Charlie.

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Linn Keller 6-14-11


Inge had intended to come into town for supplies.
Supplies suddenly took a back seat, as it were, for she saw a need that required filling.
Her young son was pressed into service: he struggled to carry the wicker basket, but carry it he did, because this is something a Big Boy Did, and This was Very Important, and People Needed His Help.
Matter of fact, though he staggered at the burden, he managed to strut just a little.
Inge had drawn up before the Jewel, presented herself before the burnished mahogany and most earnestly petitioned Mr. Baxter for assistance in the matter: a family was burned out, she said, there was little she could do but she would not see them hungry, could he possibly arrange two baskets packed for them?
Daisy came muttering up the hall, swinging her towel and scowling, for she'd broken a favorite mixing crock that morning and she took it for an omen -- Inge looked over at thunder on the Irishwoman's brow, and steeled herself, for she'd come into town to speak to Daisy as well.
Daisy looked up at Inge, and like a thunderstorm, her ill temper blew away and was replaced by sunshine: the two women embraced, both of them talking, communicating in that magical way women have, discussing home, hearth, husbands, children and clothing in a simultaneous, happy, breathless chatter: when finally they two came up for air, Daisy spoke first:
"Ye'll need wha' I ha'e, come wi' me," and plucking at Inge's sleeve, led the way quickly to her sanctum, the kitchen: it had been expanded, two girls were already at labor, Daisy's presence was neither necessary nor expected, but was most welcome, for it was pie-making time and her skills at the art had earned the Jewel a very well deserved reputation for that particular delicacy.
Daisy picked up a long stick apparently made from a sapling, cut so the fork was at the far end: she reached up on a shelf, hooked the handle of a red-lacquered, woven-wicker basket, and brought it down: its twin was next, followed by clean towels laid in for a lining, and soon Daisy had both wickers loaded with wrapped goods, suitable to nourish a family: two filled baskets guaranteed three meals, perhaps four.
Inge stood there biting her lip and watched mutely as this miracle was assembled, and finally, eyes stinging, she blurted, "But I just came to thank you!" and Daisy stopped, hands on her hips: she swung abruptly around the far end of the big, flour-dusted table and plucked open a cupboard door.
Inge could not help herself.
When she saw the Rosary Daisy kept hanging on a peg inside the door, she could not stop her tears, for she remembered the kindness of that self same wrapped gift, and a note, in her own time of fire loss.
Daisy's hands were firm on her shoulders.
"Now, now, what's this?" she asked quietly. "Ye're doin' a foin thing here, let's no' dampen yer goods wi' watter!" -- and so saying, gently, like a mother, she pressed a folded dish towel to Inge's cheeks.
"Come now. I ha'e wha' ye need, an' pie f'r th' lad."
Daisy had set her down and they had tea, but Inge did not dawdle, for she was anxious to get back and do what good she could.
She stopped and tried to pay Mr. Baxter, who gave her a look somewhere between innocence, puzzlement and conspiracy, and said with an utter lack of guile that he didn't know a thing about any bill.
Inge was silent as she and her little son loaded the baskets in their wagon.
"Mama?" her son asked as Inge took him under the arms and swung him aboard.
"You're getting big," Inge grunted, then patted his leg: "Mama, what?"
"Mama, where will they stay now?"
Inge's hand tightened a little on the lad's knee and she bit her lip again.
"I don't know," she admitted. "I can't fix that, but I can see that they have somethin' t' eat."

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Linn Keller 6-15-11


 Two troopers and two firemen hoisted the galvanized box.
The lead trooper called, "Route march, HU!" and the four paced off, carefully out of step, as they would if carrying a wounded comrade on a stretcher.
The crowd parted for them; men removed their covers, held them respectfully over their hearts, bellies of belt buckles: the precise elevation was unimportant, the fact that they uncovered, was.
"Lads," Sean called quietly, stepping into the smoking, steaming, blackened remnants of a burnt-out, fallen-in shell of a house, "see i' there's anythin' --"
Sean felt the ground shiver underfoot.
"BACK!" he yelled, "BACK, DAMN YE! GE' BACK, YE ALL!" -- and Sean himself scrambled backwards, awkwardly, tripping over an alligator-charred beam.
The earth groaned, quietly, and fell in, swallowing at first the center, then the edges of the house.
Sean rolled over, elbowing his way rapidly away from the expanding crater: he launched himself up from prone to scramble and then to his feet, running a few paces before turning.
Neither the Brigade nor the troopers had to be told a second time.
The crater was expanding steadily, collapsing under the corner of a second house: there was no ceremony, the door was rammed by two stout shoulders and burst inwards, and rapid footsteps and stentorian shouts were heard from within: there was a scream, a shout, the sound of broken crockery; a meaty smack, a shout, and a body flew out of a window.
A half-dressed man turned, shook his head, made to run back inside, at least until a red-shirted Irishman tackled him.
The Welsh Irishman and a fair-haired trooper ran out the back door, each with two children, one under each arm, followed closely by a shreiking housewife, flour to her elbows and rolling pin in hand, laying her tongue to some very unpleasant terms in a language most there did not understand: not until an Irish-strong hand seized her wrist and an Irish-red arm confined her waist and picked her, kicking and screaming, off the ground, not until they turned her around and she saw her house splinter and groan and fall slowly into the growing hole, did she shiver to a stop.
The rock-maple rolling pin fell from nerveless fingers and a wavering moan came from somewhere deep in her throat.
The children were set down: the youngest, a little girl with big blue eyes, stood there with one finger uncertainly at the corner of her mouth: she clutched the hand of a rag doll as she looked around, first at the trooper that carried her out, then at her Mama, then up at the Irishman.
"GE' YE BACK, ALL O' YE! WHO KNOWS HOW MUCH MORE SHE'LL COLLAPSE! BACK NOW, BACK I SAY!" Sean bellowed, shooing the curious away from the dusty hole.
The last of the house fell into the hole with a woody splintering sound and the occasional, incongrous crystal tinkle of broken glass.
Silence claimed the scene and lay as heavy as the settling dust.
One of the little boys, who stood frozen beside the Irishman that hauled him out of the house, looked defiantly at his mother, his bottom jaw thrust out.
"I DIDN'T DO IT, MA!" he shouted. "I DIDN'T DO IT!"
Every member of the Irish Brigade, and every last cavalryman there, did the very same thing.
They looked at one another, and looked at the lad, and they started to laugh until they had to wipe tears from the corners of their eyes.

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Linn Keller 6-17-11


Jacob drew up in front of the Sheriff's office.
Jackson Cooper could see the young man's eyes tighten a little the way they did before he grinned that broad, easy grin of his.
Jacob swung light out of the saddle, barely touched the earth, it seemed: his move spoke of great physical strength and no excess weight to his carcass.
Jackson Cooper, now, Jackson Cooper was a strong man, but he was built tall and strong: it had been said he was built like a freight locomotive, and he'd won some contests in impromptu betting matches, where someone was sure they could out-lift the man.
Generally they were into their cups when they challenged, and Jackson Cooper never was: other than a sociable beer now and again, the man didn't drink, unless it was to toast an important event.
Jackson Cooper had watched, considering the activity he'd seen: the Jewel poured forth its contents of humanity in a confusion of shouts, arm-waving gestures, running legs; he'd heard the Brigade launch from their fine brick firehouse, he'd heard shouts and confusion and the crunching roar of a burning house falling in on itself.
He'd smelled the wood smoke and saw the column of misery that spoke of a conflagration, and finally he sighed, for he saw the galvanized box fetched out of Digger's, and he knew what that meant.
Jacob draped his stallion's reins over the hitch rail, stepped lightly up onto the board walk, nodded toward the smoke not terribly far away.
"I saw it," Jackson Cooper said, and Jacob heard the reluctance in the man's voice.
"Be right with yu'," Jacob said quietly, and thrust open the heavy wood door to the Sheriff's office.
It smelled of old coffee and wood smoke, and his father's chair was empty.
Jacob unfolded the death certificates and the warrants and laid them on his father's desk, then returned to the boardwalk, drawing the door firmly to behind him.
"They brought out the tin box," Jackson Cooper said, his voice heavy, and Jacob nodded.
"We headin' down?" he asked, knowing full well what they would find.

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Linn Keller 6-19-11


She lay a gentle hand on the galvanized lid of the coffin: head bowed, she stood for a long moment, then her shoulders began to shake and her husband put his hands on her shoulders: the woman turned, clutched her husband with the desperation of a woman who was drowning in an ocean of sorrow, and was clinging to the only thing that was keeping her afloat.
Her children clutched her skirts, or their Pa's trousers.
The Brigade stood solemn, silent: this woman had lost her mother, and there is no one like Ma: she had been an anchor, a rock, a listening ear, she had been the hands that had wiped an infant's bottom, wiped a child's tears, wiped a skinned knee, swatted a misbehaving child's backside and combed a little boy's hair, she had been a smile and a hug and a song or a story at bedtime: she had been so very much, and now she was gone, gone, with only a grey-speckled galvanized box to look at.
Finally the husband drew the wife aside and four troopers replaced the Brigade: the box was taken to Digger's, and Sean remained to speak with the family, while the Irish Brigade surveyed the hole that had taken the fired structure and another house besides.
Jackson Cooper drifted through the assembled with all the rumble and bother of a passing cumulus cloud. He was a big man and strong but he had a gift of stealth, and stealth he practiced now: he inclined his ear to Sean and the family, as did Jacob, and within the hour both families was in new quarters in the new boarding house: word passed quickly, very quickly, in a community as small and intimate as Firelands: there was the inevitable internal and community politics, there were always gossips, spiteful comments, back biting -- there always are, no matter it city, village, town or settlement -- but like most small communities there was also a sense of that community, of belonging, in a way much like a large family, or perhaps like that complex and yet very simple mindset of the children of such a large family:
We may fight among ourselves, we may hiss and spit and snarl and claw at one another like wet cats, but let an outsider lay a hand on any of us and we are united against the outsider.
And so it was here.
Mothers' eyes measured the children and made a mental inventory of their own stores and goods.
Men considered the extra pair of shoes they had and looked at the father, barefoot, with no more clothing to his name that what he wore in that moment.
The boarding house was busy receiving visitors that day, and before darkness followed the glorious sunset, they who had no clothes, had more than they'd had in their lives; they with no roof overhead, had one; they who had lost their beds, had clean, comfortable bunks that smelled of sunshine and clean air.
Firelands was not perfect by any means, but its heart was whispered by Inge as she gave both mothers a quick hug, there beside two red-lacquered wicker baskets on the common table:
"We take care of our own."

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