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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 6-20-11

 

Esther Keller settled her hat on her head, gave it a touch here and a little twist there: satisfied, she employed pins of impressive length to secure it to her elaborately-styled, Wales-red hair: satisfied, she gave her reflection a quiet smile and a brisk, buisinesslike and carefully brief nod before turning.
Angela was watching her Mommy with big eyes: "Mommy," she asked, "where are you going?"
Esther bent and kissed her daughter, stroking her healthy-pink cheek and caressing a long curl: "I'm going to go pick a fight, sweets. Now you be a good girl and do like your Daddy tells you."
"Okay, Mommy," Angela said with her dazzling smile: a quick hug and her Mommy straightened and smiled at the hired girl, who stood there with a satchel and a long case in hand.
They three walked out to the carriage: Esther Keller, though a woman of means, a woman of influence, a businesswoman of known acumen and success, was also a woman of independent spirit: most women would not consider handling the reins, but Esther would have it no other way, and so she had no driver.
Angela bounced a little on her toes, waving as Esther flipped the reins and clucked up the mare: "Bye, Mommy!" she called, her voice sweet on the late-spring air, and Esther waved a gloved hand as she pulled away.

Fiddler Daine handed the third sheet to the Sheriff.
"Reckon that'll do?" he asked, Kentucky plain in his voice: it had been some years now since he and his brethren had emigrated from Kentucky, but their language had not changed -- not accent, cadencing, dialect or regional flavor.
The Sheriff smiled, both at the drawing and at the voice, for he had come to admire and respect the people of Kentucky in his time as a cavalry colonel, back during the War, even if the natives had nothing but contempt for the interloping Yankees.
He delighted even more in listening to his little Angela, who had also come from the mountainous region of Kentucky: when she was in the company of any of the Daine boys, she sounded just like them, and it tickled the grey-mustachioed old lawman to hear his little girl change in an instant to the slower, gentler phenomes of an older, more genteel society.
Just like Esther, he thought, and smiled: though he was not aware of any blood relation between Angela's antecedents and Esther's ancestry, they both had the same gift: they could speak in any accent, any dialect, easily and unconsciously, and the Sheriff had long ago come to associate this gift with a skill at languages.
Matter of fact, he knew Angela was fairly fluent in French, as was his beautiful bride, thanks to their hired girl and a couple others with whom Esther held regular converse.
The Sheriff smiled quietly, remembering moments when the ladies would speak quickly, quietly, something in French, then look over at him with a guilty expression: each time it happened, he pretended not to have heard them.
Now, though, now he looked carefully at each of the drawings.
Fiddler Daine had perfectly captured the images of the moment.
He had conveyed, accurately and to scale, the damage done by the sink hole, this collapse into a mine shaft dug too shallow under the town.
"Now what y'all gonna do with these, Shurf?" Fiddler Daine asked in his signature slow drawl, a twinkle in his hazel eyes, for he half suspected the answer.
"I'm a-gonna address them-there gold mine fellers," the Sheriff replied with a quick grin. "They were careless when they dug under town here and I intend they should make this right, and they should either quit diggin' out from underfoot or shore up good and proper when they dig."
Fiddler Daine nodded.
"You headin' out t'day, then."
"Nope." The Sheriff placed a clean sheet of paper between each drawing, with a sheet atop and beneath: the bundle went into a dispatch-case, and the dispatch-case went over his off shoulder.
"I'm sending a deputy."
Fiddler Daine nodded.
"You figger Jacob kin handle this'un?" He squinted a little, following the Sheriff as the man stepped into the saddle, swinging his long leg over his black Outlaw-horse's hinder.
"Jacob?" The Sheriff's grin was broad and genuine. "No, I need someone who can fight and fight dirty."
"Well hell, you ain't got but the one deputy," Fiddler Daine protested.
The Sheriff crossed his palms on the saddle horn, eased his weight onto his hands until something in his back popped and he gave a satisfied sigh.
"Well, almost," he admitted, "but I kin draft from the Unorganized Militia as need be."
"Yeah?" Fiddler Daine shaded his eyes with a thin, parchment-skinned hand. "Just who you gonna draft there, Mr. Sheriff Sir?"
The Sheriff looked down the short street, to where Esther was passing by on the main street: she turned her carriage, drove slowly up to her husband, her eyes widening at the damage she saw.
What little of the burnt out house that hadn't fallen in, had been pushed into the hole; debris pretty well filled it, the splintered ruin of the second house plainly evident. The family was picking through it as best they could, with the help of a half dozen townsfolk, all in leather gloves and anxious expression; what little could be salvaged was being carefully placed beside.
Sheriff Keller looked steadily at Fiddler Daine, and Fiddler Daine saw something in the man's eyes that no one had seen for some time.
He saw a man who wasn't afraid to pick his best fighter, and send the best fighter into battle.
"I'm sending someone who can do the job," he said quietly with a half-smile, and Fiddler Daine was suddenly glad that set of pale eyes had seen fit never to regard him as an adversary.
"I am sending my wife."

Esther settled herself into the private car she kept reserved and ready at the roundhouse for state occasions.
When the owner of the Z&W was traveling on her own railroad, she traveled first class: her palate sparkled at the taste of sunshine, captured by grapes and fermented by masters of the art; she swirled the wine slowly in her long-stemmed glass, watching terrain pass by the windows.
Esther contemplated the meeting she'd called with the mine's board of directors.
Her attendance was not unusual, but her calling a meeting, was: though she held a controlling interest -- indeed, she held most of the shares of the mine -- she preferred to let her Board run it, and this had never been a problem in the past.
Esther blinked and for a moment a look of disappointment crossed her face.
She'd intended to ask her husband about Charlie.

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Mr. Box 6-20-11

 

The Calvary troops began drifting quietly back into the bar. As the doors began swinging open I started filling beer mugs and sliding them down the bar. They were pretty solemn. They'd start digging in their pockets and I'd tell them, "Your money's no good here, Men!" After a while the Irish Fire Brigade showed up. I set them up, too. They just mingled in amongst the troops already at the bar. Normally there would be a lot of rowdy goings on among them but not tonight. One of the soldiers pushed his mug forward for a refill along with a coin. I pushed the coin back to him and he said, "But I've already had a free one, Sir."
I said, "I ain't takin' a penny for this whole keg! We appreciate you men helping out in a situation."
"Well, can we drink a toast to you then, Sir."
"I'd be honored to have a toast with you men, if you'll quit calling me Sir!"
Mugs were hoisted and moods were lifted.

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Linn Keller 6-21-11

 

It had been a while since I'd done much honest work.
"Honest" in this case means work like I used to do when I was young.
I wiped my sleeve across my fore head and then wiped off the sweat band before settin' the Stetson back on my thinning scalp.
I'd no real idea what to say when Miz Fannie gave me that warm, knowing look ... sometimes I think she can read a man's thoughts, but that might be just my imagination ... but she gestured to the chair beside where Charlie was taking his ill-at-ease.
Charlie, y'see, is a man who's used to doing: it chafed him to know he had horses to tend, fences to mend, chores to do: it galled him that his beautiful bride was handling most of them and he was in a state of enforced idleness.
I don't think the man wanted to admit just how bad that-there cat had tore him up.
I set there and we talked a little and I felt more and more ill at ease, for I was healthy and he was healin' and finally I asked him what needed done.
Since that time I was a-sweatin' with the doin' of it.
Now Charlie protested and he allowed as he'd get to it, and I turned and allowed as his job right now was to just lean back and heal up and he snarled at me and allowed as I was a long tall drink of water he could pound into the ground like a fence post and I shot right back that he was right and he'd have his chance but by God! he would not do it til he was healed because I didn't make friends that easy and I was sawed off and damned if I was gonna lose another one and the two of us glared at one another until we both cracked and started laughin' at the same moment.
Matter of fact as I straightened and rubbed the small of my back with a gloved hand I thought back to that moment, earlier in the day, and wondered if our stern expressions were still laying shattered on his floor, and whether they might be glued back together to make a fright mask or something.
I shook my head and looked Charlie's back field over and allowed as I must be full of second hand bull feed, to think of somethin' like that, and one of his Appaloosa mares come over and nudged my middle, bummin' for a bit of chawin' tobacker.
I shaved off some molasses twist and give to her.

Sarah's eyes narrowed and she heard Fannie's voice in her ear, a memory-whisper.
When in doubt, the voice said, follow your gut.
Sarah did.
Now it wasn neither usual nor ordinary for a schoolgirl to be inside a saloon: such places were traditionally men's establishments, and men came to a saloon, even a fine, well-appointed one like the Silver Jewel, so they could be men, and joke and swear and spit tobacker juice (hopefully into the gleaming, polished goboons strategically positioned), and it was generally held that women were a hinderance to good conversation.
Sarah considered this and decided her proper course of action was to ignore this common wisdom.
The young trooper's face looked about three foot long and he stared morosely at the rim of his half filled beer mug.
He'd had several shots of the Daine boys' distillate, enough to loosen up his sentiments: some men when they're likkered up will become boisterous, some become romantic; this young man, according to the mood of the moment, was distinctly somber.
Sarah drew out a chair and seated herself beside him, near enough to touch, far enough not to touch accidentally.
He looked over at her and his expression brightened a little, then saddened, and he said, "You look a little like my sister."
"Tell me about her," Sarah prompted, propping her good elbow on the table and her chin on her knuckles.
The trooper sighed. "She used to pick on me," he said softly.
"Sisters will do that," Sarah agreed.
"I don't think she likes me much." He frowned, then his brow relaxed and he looked off into the distance. "She probably doesn't like me a'tall."
"Why not?"
Sarah's voice was carefully neutral: a child might ask the question in a curious, bright chirp; a woman, in a seductive tone; Sarah's voice was carefully chosen to be as ... well, the least childish, but the least womanish, as she could manage.
He snorted. "Look at me," he said. "I'm a horse trooper. I eat dust, I live in the saddle or in a fort, I'm sun burnt and rained on and bug bit, I've got calluses on my butt and wrinkles in my face--"
"You're not paid near half what you're worth," Sarah added, "and you're doing a job no man would hire on for unless he were paid five times as much for half the labor."
Sarah reached over and squeezed his forearm through the Cavalry-blue sleeve.
"You are keeping us safe -- not just here, but your sister as well. Where is she?"
He blinked. "Illinois," he said, surprise in his voice.
"You are keeping her safe too." Sarah patted his hand. "Don't doubt the good that you do, trooper. Your sister thinks pretty highly of you."
"And how do you know?" he asked, half-cynically, half-hopefully.
"Because I'm a sister to a man who lives in the saddle, and gets sun burnt, and does work that no honest workin' man would do unless he was paid five times as much." Sarah's eyes were big, bright and without guile, then she smiled, and her smile was like turning up a lamp's wick in a dark room.
"Besides," she said, rising, "have I ever lied to you?"
Surprised, the blond young trooper couldn't think of a reply, and so he just stared as Sarah crossed the room and disappeared down the hallway.
He felt as much as heard the scrape of a chair pulled out beside him, and Mick's hand clapped hard on his shoulder.
"Now then, lad," Mick chuckled, "is it flirtin' wi' the ladies we are, eh?"
The trooper looked over at the weathered Irish sergeant and swallowed, and his expression was uncharacteristically tender.
"Sergeant," he said, "do angels look like little sisters?"

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Linn Keller 6-24-11

 

Bonnie could taste it.
Her daughter was not just troubled, her daughter was boiling.
Bonnie looked over at the hired girl, who was just placing the meal on the table: Sam and Clark had joined them for supper, at Bonnie's request, and the relaxed meal she'd hoped for just might not happen as peacefully as she would like.
Sarah did well enough one-handed, at least until she dropped the ladle of noodles: Sarah froze, her right hand clenchling slowly into a trembling fist, and she closed her eyes, obviously exercising great personal restraint: the minor mess was quickly contained, and Sarah opened her eyes to find a fresh, steaming ladleful of noodles had been carefully, precisely placed in the crater of mashed potatoes in the center of her plate.
Bonnie could see that it took every bit of her daughter's reserve to keep from picking up the plate and sending it through the nearest window.
Sarah's hand was trembling a little as she ate: she ate slowly, carefully, and very neatly, as befitted a young lady: she sipped hot tea, she accepted without comment the maid's quiet, efficient slicing up of the good and tender beef on her plate ... without comment, that is, if you didn't look at her eyes.
Bonnie wondered at her daughter's eyes.
They didn't just smolder: they were at once like coals in a fire, and cold ... cold, and ...
Bonnie blinked, hiding her sudden concern in a quick sip of honey-sweetened oolong.
Sarah's eyes lightened just a bit, she thought. How ...?
Bonnie knew of only one bloodline that had a characteristic lightening of the eyes when angered.
She studied Sarah's features as if seeing her for the first time.

The Lady Esther coasted into Firelands station, her exhaust absolutely clean, without the least trace of smoke: her engineer, like all of his breed, prided himself on coming into station with a clean stack: it was a firing offense in most rail lines to smoke into station, though in cold weather, the engine's hot breath raised great, beautiful, pure-white clouds of condensation.
Esther Keller took a long breath and stood: she stepped over to the ornately-framed mirror, gave herself a full-length appraisal, nodded approval: she tucked the long, slender case under her arm, smiled and thanked the porter as the door was drawn open for her: the brightly-painted, tastefully-pinstriped steps were swung into place and the owner of the Z&W Railroad descended gracefully, then climbed the four steps onto the depot platform.
Yards distant, the ore train screamed a steam-powered greeting as it thundered past, bearing ore from the mine for the refinery not far distant: the mine had opened a second drift, on the far side of the slope, and was mining in two directions at once: ore from the far side went directly into the mill, ore from the more productive near side was still railroaded, and still profitable for both the Z&W and the mine.
Esther's luxury car was coupled with two passenger cars and several more, loaded with heavy timbers, equipment and men: humanity and shouts poured from the cars, team-hitched wagons were loaded, native guides navigated the little distance intervening.
Esther didn't really say much about the board meeting, other than to speak admiringly of the speed and efficiency of the men taking care of the sink hole: the still-hot coals had ignited the second house that had fallen into the hole, and the conflagration was allowed to burn itself out: Esther had spent the night in Cripple and had come back with men and supplies, and teams worked both underground and above to heal the rift in the earth.
Esther, as it turns out, did not have to chastise the mine's engineers, foremen, surveyors or managers: they had each done a fine job themselves, and indeed had fully expected to be verbally flayed, summarily fired, and blackballed for any employment this side of the Shining Mountains: instead, Esther had quietly told them that harm had been done, and the mine would restore and make right.
The mine shaft was cribbed up with timber honeycomb, as should have been done to begin with: the vein they pursued was profitable, and so it was reasonble to spend money on timber and manpower to crib and block and support the shaft: the overhead was decked solid, and because the terrain there was dry, there was little fear of rot, and so good chestnut was close-laid and then overlaid with fitted stone and finally a coating of cement.
The work took three days, but when it was finished, the hole was no more, and further subsidence was prevented.

Parson Belden spoke the words and the box was lowered into the hole; the family laid hands on the box, a final goodbye, and the old mother's husk was returned to the earth from whence it came.

Sam hesitated, after supper had been eaten and the dishes cleared; she'd gone over the figures with Bonnie, as she did every week, and Bonnie's eyes blazed with anger as they did every week, for the cattle were profitable, and her late husband -- whose name she had forbidden to be spoken in her presence -- had long siphoned off the profits for his own purposes, while declaring the cattle not worthy of Bonnie's concern.
Sam turned to Sarah and tilted her head a little. Her voice was a little hoarse, as it always was, but gentle, and she asked, "Ragdoll, how's your arm?"
Sarah's lips were pressed together and she shrugged her shoulders.
"I'm tired of this cast," she said quietly, her voice thick with emotion: "I'm tired of not riding, I'm tired of not being out, I'm tired of not playing the piano" -- her pique disappeared instantly as she shot a quick grin at Sam's understanding expression -- "I never thought I would miss that!"
"Yeah," Sam nodded.
Sarah rubbed the cast through the sling.
"It's heavy and it rubs my neck raw, my shoulder aches with carrying it and I can't pick up a saddle and you saw me at the supper table and I can't even wash my hair without --"
Sarah's fist trembled with the strength of her distress and her eyes stung.
"What's wrong with me?" she whispered fiercely. "Why do I feel like this?"
Bonnie's eyes were soft, luminous, her expression gentle and understanding.
Her little girl was experiencing feelings, new and strong and almost overpowering, feelings foreign to her.
Sam looked up and Bonnie nodded, once, and Sam nodded once in return.
She took Sarah's shoulders and spoke frankly and directly.
"You're healing, Ragdoll. I never healed fast enough to satisfy me. Was it me I would have put a teacup through the parlor window there at the supper table."
Sarah blinked, surprised: "You?"
Sam nodded. "I've got quite a temper."
Sarah looked away.
She knew what it was to have her temper seize the bit between its teeth and run out from under her.
Sam patted her shoulder, squeezed: "I'm gonna go get some rest. You heal up."
Sarah nodded, frowning, then stiffened as her Mama's hands rested lightly on her from behind.
"Mama?" Sarah asked tentatively, reaching up with her good hand and resting it on Bonnie's.
"Yes, sweets?"
"Mama, is it time for that talk you told me about?"
Sarah felt Bonnie take a long, deep breath.
"Yes, Sweets. I believe it is."

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Linn Keller 6-26-11

 

Lawman's habit, I reckon.
I just set my horse and waited.
It had been a long day, it had been a hard day but Charlie needed some work done and I done a good part of it.
Miz Fannie, bless her, had fed us and fussed at us and Charlie had managed to give her a look that would melt steel so I reckon he was healin' up good.
A man tends to feel randy when he's feelin' good, or at least better, and it was an unguarded moment; I let on like I didn't see, for it's something a decent man doesn't let someone else see.
I saw Miz Fannie's face darken with pleasure and pretended not to see that either.
She bribed me into stayin' a bit longer by settin' a pie out on the table, and when she saw me to the door she thanked me in low voice, for she said Charlie had been fussin' and worryin' over work not done, and it did him good to have the company.
I rode away from their place but once I was dropped over the first rise I turned and circled back, where I could watch the place.
No particular reason, really.
I set there until it was onto dark, watching, listening.
My belly was full and I was content so it was no particular reason that ran my hand into the left hand saddle bag.
I come out with a couple of Esther's hush puppy balls, wrapped in what used to be a clean rag, and I grinned.
The Bear Killer -- or my Denver Bup either one -- would be tickled to have 'em, and sure enough I heard a little oh-I-want-it sort of a whine and looked over to my left.
Dawg was getting on in his years but he still moved silent: whether he'd paced me, or whether he'd drifted out to where I was, I did not rightly know, and it did not matter.
I held the pair up and said "Unchum?" and Dawg sat up and chopped his jaws once, his stub tail declaring his enthusiasm, so I tossed him one of the two.
He caught it neatly, chomping it twice before swallowing, and looked at me with big, sad, puppy dog eyes.
I tossed him the second one, grinning.
Dawg was one critter I never, ever wanted to get on the wrong side of.
I've seen what he can do.
I've seen what he has done.
Right now, though, he reminded me of nothing more than a happy puppy.
Matter of fact I swung down and extended my hand and Dawg r'ared up and put his fore paws on my shoulder, and give my face a good washing.
I rubbed his ears and patted his ribs and told him he was a good boy, at least I told him once he'd decided 'twas my ears that needed his laundering attention.
It's kind of hard to say something when a Dawg's enthusiastic tongue is busy on your face.
Finally Dawg went back down to all fours and groaned with pleasure as I rubbed his ears and his back.
I reckon he'd have given me a week to stop that.
Finally I straightened and rubbed my own back, for bending over for that extended time was getting less than comfortable.
"Go take care of Charlie," I whispered, and Dawg gave my hand a final shove with his cold, wet nose, and set off for the ranch house at a trot.
I climbed back in the saddle and headed for my own hacienda.
The night air was cool and smelled good, the moon wasn't yet up and the stars blazed in a silver riot overhead.
I ached and I was tired but by golly now I felt good.

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Linn Keller 6-28-11

 

The cost was exhorbitant, but it was necessary.
The man was wrapped in a full length strait jacket.
They carried him into the express car like he was luggage, packing him by the heavy, doubled canvas handles, they slung him from an improvised rope harness to keep him from beating his head on the floor, and they slid the door shut and locked it.
The man was bound for the asylum in Denver.
Dr. John Greenlees was just about to set foot into the car with the man when Jacob took his arm.
Dr. Greenlees turned and looked at the young deputy's hard, pale eyes.
"Doc," he said quietly, "it would be a kindness to kill him."
"I can't do that," Dr. Greenlees said, "and it's too late for you to."
Jacob nodded, released the physician's arm.

All I wanted was a bath, a meal and bed, the Sheriff wrote, ignoring blood on the back of his hand and the aches and pains of his day's exertions.
I reckon that was too much to ask for today.
I ended up killing one man and driving another screaming insane
.
The Sheriff leaned back, set his steel nib pen down exactly parallel to the edge of his journal, and stared at the opposite wall.
He smelled blood.

"Is that him?" the gambler asked.
The other man -- Nate Spender, he'd said his name was, though the gambler knew his name was something McFann -- raised the Spencer rifle to shoulder.
The gambler looked ahead, where the trail was straight; it bent a little behind the boulder, giving McFann a straight-on shot at the older man headed their way at an easy trot.
"Yeah," he said, and the gambler heard the Spencer's hammer drop into the full cock notch. "That's him."
The gambler intended to take over the Silver Jewel.
He'd scouted it, he'd played cards there, he'd seen it could be made more profitable by returning the facility to the brothel and den of vice it had been many years before. Its current cleanly state and reputation for fair dealing and intolerance of a crooked game would stand him well in fleecing the unwary.
First, though, he had to get rid of the owner.
He had to get rid of that pale eyed Sheriff.

Dr. John Greenlees dampened the cloth with chloroform: even though the man was confined and suspended, he still fought the physician: Dr. Greenlees was thin and rangy and possessed a surprising strength, and he managed to hold the cloth over the man's nose and mouth long enough to induce unconsciousness.
"There," he said. "There's more where that came from."
He replaced the cloth in a tight-lidded tin box he kept for that purpose.
"It's a wonder you can still make a sound," he murmured, "as long as you've been screaming."
The man had been wearing an expensive suit, and had an impressive amount of cash, a fine engraved watch and two Smith & Wesson pistols ... along with three sets of loaded dice, two decks of marked cards and a pair of blue spectacles.
"Gambler," Jacob had grunted, "and a crooked gambler at that."
His father had brought the man in, both of them soaking wet, the gambler with a marked face: he'd managed to earn his Pa's ire, and had come out on the short end of the old man's temper.
Jacob received the prisoner and after he'd stripped him down -- a good thing, as he had several items that prisoners shouldn't have -- he'd locked the groggy man up.
Until he started screaming and thrashing around in his cell.
Jacob was honestly afraid the prisoner was going to beat his own head in against the stone wall.
It had taken him, Jackson Cooper and two stout yeomen besides to get the prisoner pinned down and in irons, and it had taken a boy sent running for Dr. Greenlees to chloroform him into a less strenuous state.

The steel nib was loud on good rag paper, there in the silence of the Sheriff's office, and thoughts flowed onto paper in gleaming lines and loops of India ink.
They must have figured to way lay me, the Sheriff wrote.
I was looking around and looked ahead, where the trail bent to the south, and thought to myself that boulder would make a fine ambuscade, when I saw something that shouldn't be there.
My Rose-horse was fast and she turns like a cuttin' horse but she was near not fast enough.
The rifle ball cut a slice off the brim of my Stetson and it sounded like a Bromindaningan bee, and pulled at my hat like someone tugged at the brim with thumb and forefinger
.

The Sheriff looked up at his Stetson, hanging on its usual peg, and frowned.
He'd liked that hat, too.

The Spencer was loud in the forested stillness.
The Sheriff spun sideways.
The gambler's fists started to close in disappointment and an exclamation of dismay began forming in his throat.
He's going to run, he thought, maybe McFann can back shoot him on the straightaway --
The Sheriff whipped his golden mare around and began to run, all right.
Straight for the boulder.

McFann yanked the lever down on the Spencer.
No, no, no, he thought, it ain't possible, it can't, it can't, I had him, I had him --
He single fed the rifle, for he'd not taken the time to get the magazine fixed -- he shoved the cartridge into the breech block, yanked the lever shut, fumbled for the hammer --
Something hit his shoulder like a sledge hammer and he realized it was a horse's hoof and the sky was dark and that was a mare's belly above him and something seized him around the neck and he went over backwards and there was a flash and a gleam and steel drew a shining arc in a shaft of sunlight just before he felt its metallic tooth bite deep into his side and it bit again and again and again --

The gambler watched the Sheriff roll off the near side of his mare as she began her leap.
His arc was lower than hers and his left elbow caught McFann around the neck, yanking his head back, and both of them went over backwards.
The gambler froze, horrified, as the Sheriff rolled, McFann's neck in an obdurate vice, and a long, shining blade drove into the man's side and ribs and belly like a sewing machine.
The Sheriff's face was a mask of death.
His face was dead white, the shade of a corpse, his eyes were a blazing ice-white-blue and the gambler felt his own heart shrivel and grow cold, looking onto those death's-head eyes, and he watched, paralyzed, as the Sheriff got his feet under himself and stood, McFann still by the neck, fisted knife still driving with mighty blows into the now crimsoned shirt.
The Sheriff released McFann, drove his boot heel into the man's back: McFann fell forward, hit the boulder face first.
The Spencer fell to the side as nerveless fingers lost their strength.
The Sheriff's teeth were bared, like the skull's teeth on a Jolly Roger, and he seized McFann by the hair of the head and yanked his head back and into his own belly, and he coldly, precisely, cut the man's throat two thirds of its circumference.
The gambler heard the blade on bone as the bush whacker's soul was sent to Hell on a foot of Damascus steel.
The Sheriff yanked the head back, hard, and the vertebrae made a horrible sound as the lawman's boot stomped on the back of the neck: another quick pass with the knife and the flesh of the back of the neck parted.
The lawman screamed -- his head back, mouth open, eyes wide and wild, the head swinging from his hand by the hair of the head, blood gleaming in gory droplets in the shafts of forested sunlight -- and he spun a circle, screaming, the sound of a soul in agony, the sound of a man beyond torment, knife in one hand and gory trophy in the other.
Then he stopped.
He saw the gambler.
He tossed the head casually to the side and smiled.
It was not a kind smile.
The gambler's paralysis was broken at the same time his bladder began to empty.
He snatched for his horse's reins, leaped into the saddle and spurred his stolen mount, hard.
The gambler did not know where the trail ran, only that it led away, and at that moment he wanted away, as far as he could get from this screaming madman with a blade --

Rose-horse was standing as she always did when ground reined, the Sheriff wrote.
I was aboard and she was off like a cannonball, and we cleared a fallen tree and were hard after the accomplice.
Rose was gaining and I knew I would have him in but a moment's time, so I kicked out of my stirrups and crossed my palms on the saddlehorn, I jumped a little and got my feet under me, on the saddle, and prepared to jump.
The trail took a sudden bend.
I knew it.
He did not.
Nor, apparently, did his horse.
They two went off the lip of the cliff as I jumped.
I seized the man in mid air and his horse screamed and thrashed under us.
We fell for an eternity, we fell forever: it was not all that far to the river below and I knew the pool to be deep and we hit it together, hard, and I had a death-grip around him: he was going nowhere except with me.


Dr. Greenlees arranged a convenient few bales of hay and spread a clean saddle blanket: he intended to have a meal and a drink, and after making sure his patient was peacefully asleep, he too would catch a nap.
Denver was a little distance yet, and he was tired.

The gambler whipped his horse with the desperation of a man who knows the Devil himself is after him, and the Inferno close behind: the nag was fast but not fast enough, and while the gambler was looking behind, the nag screamed and rolled over and they were falling, falling --
Something slammed into him and the Devil had him and he felt the hot breath of the Fiend on his neck and adamantine claws seized about him and he was trapped, he was trapped, and below him the Hell-Mouth groaned open, splitting boulders and sod and he could see dancing, laughing imps with pitchforks stirring great pots of boiling, glowing buffalo fat, just waiting to begin his eternal, unending immolation --
The gambler's mind snapped, somewhere over that Colorado river, and the cold mountain water was as boiling lead to his skin: he flailed in agony, screaming in despair, until two massive, muscled imps walked up and began clubbing him in the face with mauls made of human heads --

All I wanted was to come home and have a meal and a bath and bed under my own roof, the Sheriff wrote.

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Linn Keller 6-28-11

 

I laid the pen down and rubbed my face.
I felt dirty.
I felt like I did coming out of battle ... sweaty, filthy, sooty ...
Stained.
I sighed.
Much as I would have liked to just go home and soak in that copper tub and wash today off me, it would have to wait, and I was right.
The door opened, squeaking a very little, the way it always did.
I intentionally never oiled that top hinge.
I dislike being surprised and if I heard that squeak, I knew the door was opening, even if I was clear in the back.
"Come on in, Jacob," I said before I could see him.
Jacob stepped around the door and I could tell his expression was troubled.
It always was when I spoke to him before I had sight of him.
My mother, rest her soul, had the Second Sight, and I have just enough of it to aggravate me ... and scare me sometimes.
I got up, gestured to a chair.
"Have a set," I invited, and walked over to the water bucket.
I drank deep, an entire dipper full, another, heedless of the good cold well water that dribbled down my front.
I held up the dipper and Jacob held up his hand, shaking his head.
I nodded and hung the dipper back on the square cut nail.
"Speak your mind," I said as neutrally as I could.
Jacob looked at me a long time, his eyes veiled, and I could almost hear the gears turning behind them.
"Sir," he finally said, "the prisoner said some things ...."
I nodded.
"Sir, I know he is insane, but ..."
"But you want to know what happened."
Jacob blinked, slow, careful.
"Yes, sir."
"You're afraid your old man is insane, too."
Jacob's eyes hardened.
"And you're wondering if you can take me."
Jacob unfolded a sheet of paper, folded it again, tossed it onto my desk.
"The prisoner's confession, sir."
I looked at the paper, looked at Jacob.
"Is it entered into the log book?"
"No, sir."
"Is it an official proceeding of this office?"
"Yes, sir."
"And did you come by it in the course of your duty?"
"I did, sir."
"It goes in the book."
"Not yet, sir."
I almost heard cards being dealt, almost felt as if this was a game of poker being played between two well-matched card sharpers.
"Go on."
"Sir, the prisoner --" Jacob reached for the paper, unfolded it, re-read a few lines -- "the prisoner said you came screaming at them like Lucifer himself."
"At them?" I asked, emphasizing the plural.
"Yes, sir. He said them, but he did not say who his accomplice was."
"Did he describe what I looked like?"
Jacob's face reddened.
"Well, sir, I don't think you have leathery red skin nor horns."
I smiled a little.
"But he did say you cut a man's head of and slung it around in a circle screaming."
"He said that?"
"Yes, sir."
"What else did he say?"
Jacob read further down the sheet.
"Do you want to know the part about a legion of devils galloping after you, or his being thrown in a vat of boiling bacon grease?"
"I don't think that will hold up in court."
Jacob looked at me and his eyes were pale, hard.
"Sir, tell me what happened."
His eyes were as cold as his voice.
Part of me was instantly on the defensive and angry.
No father likes being questioned by his son.
Part of me was pleased.
Jacob was not afraid to face up to the most powerful authority he knew.
I leaned back, looked at the wall above him, then pointed to my hat.
"See that?"
Jacob looked at the hat.
"Yes, sir."
"What do you see?"
Jacob frowned.
"Your hat's been sliced, sir."
I took it off its peg, sailed it across the room to him.
"Look closer."
Jacob gfrowned as he examined the slice.
"It's dark along the edge," he murmured. "Dark like ..."
"Like lead?" My smile was humorless. "Catch."
I snatched up the Spencer rifle sitting beside me, tossed it: Jacob caught it easily, dropped the lever, checked the breech.
"She's been neglected," he said, "for some time by the look of her." He sniffed the breech. "Fired recently, too." He looked at the rifle, at the hat.
"This?"
"Yep."
"So the gambler --"
"Had a partner."
"And the partner ...?"
He's using an open ended question, I thought. Proper. Just the way a lawman ought when he's fishing.
"If you take the road to Charlie's and then the north and east forks, you'll come to a boulder where the trail bends," I said, my hands describing terrain and travel.
Jacob nodded. "I know the place."
"Behind that boulder you will find a man with no head."
Jacob's eyes hardened.
"Sir," he said carefully, "how did it happen?"
I leaned forward, my forearms on the desk top, my manner no longer friendly, cheerful or affable in the least.
"You want to know what happened?" I asked, and my voice would have frozen water.
Jacob nodded.
"Jacob, frankly I am scared."
Jacob blinked.
Of all the things I could have said, I don't think he expected that.
"Sir?"
"Look at all that's happened," I said urgently, my hand extended, palm up, fingers curled. "A cat damn neart kills Charlie. I couldn't stop it. I took the hide off the cat and ended up kicking it and screaming at it and it didn't do a damn bit of good. Charlie was already hurt and I couldn't fix that neither!"
My upturned hand clawed shut and I continued.
"I seen men hurt nowhere near so bad as he was and they went belly up and died. I seen men scratched up die of infection and gangrene, die screaming in pain and nothin' helped until they screamed themselves to death!"
My voice was intense, a hiss in the log-walled office.
"I don't make friends easy, Jacob, and it looked for all the world like I was gonna lose the best friend I ever HAD!" My fist slammed into the desk top.
Jacob opened his mouth to say something and I stabbed a finger at him.
He closed his mouth, the words unsaid.
"Do you know what makes life worth livin', Jacob?"
Jacob turned his head slightly, recognizing this as a rhetorical question ... but he never took his eyes off me.
"Seein' the sun come up. Coffee in the morning, my arm around Esther's waist. Angela's laugh, your voice, Jacob bouncing on my leg and pulling my mustache.""
My words were fast, intense.
I continued.
"Charlie set down beside me and each of us tryin' to out-lie the other and both of us succeedin'. Rose-horse under me and watchin' your Apple horse lay his ears back and stick his nose into the wind and you and him streak across a meadow, laughin'!
"Do you know what I saw when he took that shot at me, Jacob?"
Jacob shook his head.
"I went out to Charlie's. He's healin' up by the way, he'll be his ornery self here directly and Dr. Flint says he'll not got the least trace of infection."
Jacob nodded slowly.
"I was comin' back and I looked at that boulder, how it sits there and the path curves around behind with woods behint that and I considered that's a fine place for a bushwhacker.
"Then I seen two hats where hats hadn't oughta be."
Jacob's eyes narrowed and I could see his eyes change.
"I brought Rose-horse around and that rifle there shot my hat" -- I gestured savagely, stabbing my extended thumb up beside my head to indicate the bullet's path -- "and he wanted to take all that away from me!
"Worse than that" -- I drew my hand down, crushed it into a savage fist in front of me -- "he wanted to take a husband from Esther, a father from you and Angela, a grandfather from Joseph!" I paused, took a long breath, then added in a voice low and menacing:
"I won't have that, Jacob. I have things to teach Joseph. I have yet to teach him how to whistle, how to whittle, how to catch grasshoppers!"
Jacob's eyes smiled, just a little, and so did mine I reckon.
I leaned forward, my voice intense.
"When he took that shot at me, Jacob, I wasn't one man on a horse.
"I was a line of Union blue and we were advancing for a charge.
"Jacob, you are no stranger to death but you don't know it as I!"
My voice trembled and my stomach turned over.
"I have walked on ground that squished up red around my boot soles as my weight came on it.
"I have looked at dead eyes, staring at something not in this world.
"I have stood among a forest of frozen hands, upraised from dead men's arms, clutching and clawed as if to snatch my soul and take it with them.
"I have smelled blood hot and fresh and I have drunk water from a stream that ran the color of sassafrass tea, and I have held young soldiers -- hell, boys! -- wounded, torn to hell, guts hanging out as they shivered and cried and coughed up blood."
My nostrils were flared, my eyes wide and staring, my breath shallow, quick.
"When he took that shot at me I heard men scream and shells burst, I was in line and we were in a charge toward enemy entrenchments.
"My hat was shot off me in just such a charge, Jacob, and I dove off my horse as she sailed over their breastworks and I killed a man with my knife."
I shivered, closed my eyes: my fisted hands were pressed hard against the desk top and it took a long moment for me to get a measure of control over my roiling memories.
"I have seen too much, Jacob.
"I saw my own men slaughtered, as much by stupidity of command as much as enemy lead, and I was sick of it.
"I killed that man today, ten times over, and I cut off his head and I ran around in a circle screaming, just like I did back in the War, and I ran down the enemy's trench, holding that blood dripping head like a magic charm, and the enemy fled before me.
"They captured prisoners for a year after and more, prisoners who told of an insane Yankee colonel who cut men's heads off and beat men to death with it, a lunatick driving the terrified enemy before him."
I smiled thinly.
"I didn't beat anybody and I didn't chase all that many men with the head."
"No, sir."
I took a long, shivering breath.
"Jacob, when that man tried to kill me, I killed him."
"Yes, sir."
"Whatever the prisoner said was the ravings of a madman."
"Yes, sir."
Jacob stood.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, you frighten me."
"Jacob," I said honestly, "sometimes I frighten me too."

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Linn Keller 7-1-11

 

Sarah trembled a little as Nurse Susan carefully, gently bathed her newly-exposed arm.
"It stinks," Sarah complained, wrinkling her nose.
Nurse Susan laughed her quiet little laugh, gently massaging the dirty-looking flesh with the warm, soapy sponge.
"No, it doesn't, ducks," she murmured. "It does smell but you'd smell too if you hadn't had a bath in a while."
She worked steadily, carefully, divesting the arm of dried sweat and dead skin and the dirt that inevitably works in between a plaster cast and the underlying limb: at length, satisfied, she nodded and lifted Sarah's hand gently.
Sarah lifted her arm in response and Nurse Susan swung her arm out and over a towel and patted it dry.
"It itches," Sarah said, frowning, and Nurse Susan's bright, understanding eyes regarded her through spotless round spectacles.
"Then scratch it," she offered. "Here, rub it with the towel."
Sarah snatched up the dangling end of the terry cloth and massaged her arm, closing her eyes and groaning in near-sensual pleasure.
Her arm had itched abominably in that heavy, imprisoning cast, to the point that Sarah had taken broom straws and worked them in between arm and cast, using the stiff probe to scratch her annoying, maddening itchies.
Sarah bent her elbow, slowly, carefully, straightened it: she turned her hand over, grimaced, turned it back over, wiggling her fingers, opening and closing her hand.
She bent her arm and looked down at the puckered scars where the wolf's jaws had seized her forelimb.
"You're lucky you have a hand," Nurse Susan observed, folding the towel and draping it over her arm; she picked up the basin of warm, soapy water and turned to remove it.
Sarah lifted her arm, extended it at arm's length, grinning, raising and lowering it slowly.
"It feels so light!" she laughed.
Dr. Greenlees opened the door and his eyes tightened a little at the corners, they way they did when he was pleased: he stepped aside and called quietly, "Dr. Flint?"
Dr. George Flint stepped up beside his colleague, drying his hands: the two physicians stood in the doorway, watching Sarah bend and extend, turn and lift, and neither man missed the look of utter, absolute delight on her apple-cheeked face.

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Linn Keller 7-2-11

 

 "Now, Soapy," he said, peering closely at my face, "you wouldn't be pullin' a man's leg, now, would ye?"
It's never failed to amaze me, just how fast the mind can run.
I considered that an event I figured happened in an isolated location, an event I had not talked about, wasn't known and likely would not be.
I had no particular wish to hide it, but neither had I gone out of my way to conceal it.
His Honor the Judge and I would discuss it formally and officially at the hearing in the afternoon. I'd figured to say for the record that yes, the bush whacker tried to kill me, and yes I kilt him first, and let it go at that: if pressed I would say yes, I kilt him with a knife, and I figured to let it go at that.
Word had got out, though, and I had just been braced with the question: "Soapy, did you really cut a man's head off ag'in?"
I looked the man square in the eye and opened my mouth to make reply when Jacob spoke from behind him.
"No," he said, "he's not."
The hanger-on turned, then started: he fell back into me, hands up about eye level, with an exclamation of surprise.
Jacob was holding a man's head by its hair in one hand, a gunny sack in the other.
I caught him under the arms and took a step or two back to keep us both from hitting the ground: matter of fact I stuck my knee under his backside and lowered myself just enough so he was a-settin' on my knee and my lower leg bones carried his weight, all I had to do was steady him and not hold him up a'tall. 'Twas a trick I'd learned working with the wounded, back during the War. Esther used a similar position when thrusting with her fencing blade -- she called it a "lunge" -- I don't know about them things, she's better than I am at it.
Anyway.
Jacob put that-there head back in the burlap, casually, as if he were putting an old sock or an apple in a bag.
"I buried the rest," he said off-handedly. "Couldn't fit it in the gunny sack so I just planted it."
I nodded. "Thank you, Jacob."
"You know him, sir?"
"Fetch him out ag'in, Jacob, let's have a good look at him."
"No, no, no, don't you go doin' that!" my interrogator stammered, scrambling to get his feet under him: he wobbled a little, thrust a palm hard against the weathered, grey clap board beside him to steady himself. "I know'im, you don't need t' go fetchin' him out ag'in!"
Jacob raised one eyebrow, opening the mouth of the bag.
"Who is he?"
"Name's Spender. Nat or Nate I think. Favors a Spencer from ambush, he kilt three men I know of."
"Nat Spender," Jacob said thoughtfully. "I think there's a dodger for that name."
"Find out," I said.
"Yes, sir." Jacob stepped past us and into the office, swinging the burlap and its grim burden as casually as if he were swinging a bag of rocks.
I turned to the perennial loafer, now looking a little sick and easing himself down onto a convenient, if dusty, bench.
"What was your question ag'in?" I asked gently, sitting down beside him.
"Daggone, Soapy," he said huskily. "you did cut his head off!"
I shrugged. "Seemed reasonable at the time."
"Hell, man, don't that bother you none?"
"Why should it?" I spat noisily, sending the shining missile out into the dusty street. "He tried to kill me. I returned the favor." I looked at him and smiled grimly. "With interest."
The man looked long at me and shivered, looked away.
"Remind me never t' git on yer bad side," he muttered.
I thumped him cheerfully on the shoulder with the palm of my hand.
"Now, don't you worry about that none," I said with a grin. "I'm gittin' too old to pick you up left handed ag'in!"
"That's what I'm afraid of," he muttered, giving me a sidelong glance and hunching over, elbows on his knees.
Jacob's boot heels were loud as he approached, his pace measured, unhurried.
"Found it, sir," he said, handing me a curled broadside. "Reward, too."
"Well I'd be damned," I murmured, scanning the handbill. "Reckon I'll wire Wichita and let 'em know they won't have to worry about this feller ever ag'in."
I turned to the man beside me. "You're sure that's him?"
"Hell yes I'm sure!" he declared. "I was with him when he allowed as there was more money in bush whackin' than in honest punchin' an' I told him to go to hell I was goin' to Cripple, so he shot me an' rode off!"
"Kind of impolite, warn't it?" I asked dryly.
He glared at me. "Just b'tween the two of us, Soapy," he muttered, "I'm glad ye kilt him. He'll not be shootin' at me was he to come through here!"
I nodded.
"Well, I can always use some reward money," I said offhandedly. "Reckon we'll take the head to court this afternoon, and this-here wanted dodger. His Honor does like exhibits presented in his cases. Says it makes the case more certain."
A shiver, a nervous hand rubbed stubbled chin: "Oh I reckon you certain'd him, all right!"

Young Fred Jerome grinned self-consciously.
He had the entire classroom's attention: it was unusual to have a visitor, especially a visitor with Stuff that Did Stuff, and he'd been a little uncertain how to proceed, until he remembered what he and Lightning had discussed.
He'd enlisted eager and willing young hands to string wire from the front of the schoolroom to the back; he'd set up the wet cell batteries, cautioning the curious children not to bump or jostle them -- and to show why, he drew up some of the acid in an eye dropper and put three drops on a sheet of paper.
It hissed and curled and smoked and young Mr. Jerome said, "You don't want to get this on you!" and his demonstration was met with solemn, wide-eyed nods.
Emma Cooper stood back, smiling quietly: she'd used the Daine boys' rebuild of the depot building to teach mathematics and geometry, and make an enjoyable day-out for the children; they'd seen how to make practical application of their lessons that day, and still spoke of it.
Now young Mr. Jerome was discussing the use of the telegraph, and had his portable set with him.
"How many of you know someone who was in the War?" Fred asked, and nearly every hand went up.
"Did you know one of these sets -- exactly like this one, as a matter of fact" -- he held up his sending key in one hand, the receiving sounder in the other -- "was used in the War?"
Responses ranged from "Oooo," to "Really?" to "Yes!" and "No!" -- Mr. Jerome smiled and threaded wire into connections, screwed them down; he knew showmanship was part of a good performance, so he brushed two wires together, momentarily, eliciting an evil snarl and the brief arc of a short circuit: satisfied, he nodded, screwed his final connections together, then said "I'll need a hand with this" -- instantly a young forest of arms were thrust into the air, and Fred Jerome, telegrapher with the Z&W Railroad, selected a dark-eyed little boy who hadn't said a single word since he'd got there.
The lad's grin, though, was broad as a Texas township as he leaped to his feet and fairly ran to the front of the room.
"Now if you could carry this for me" -- Fred Jerome held out the sounder, mounted in a box, with a broad base for stability -- "we'll mount that in back."
The lad nodded, solemn and big-eyed, biting both lips between his teeth as he strutted along beside Mr. Jerome.
Emma Cooper was well experienced at stifling laughter, for children were often amusing: this time she was glad for the practice, for Mr. Jerome was nattily dressed: his elastic-sided shoes buffed to a high shine, trousers neatly fitted, his shirt pressed and immaculate, and his tie carefully knotted: he wore a cap similar to a firefighter's Bell cap, but instead of the Maltese cross on the front, or the ax-ladder-and-megaphone scramble insignia, he had a brass plate that said "Z&WRR".
Emma's amusement came from the contrast of the natty young telegrapher with the habitually unkempt lad: the child's hair was perpetually dissheveled, his clothes were ever wrinkled; she knew his mother tried to make him presentable, every morning, but somehow he managed to get dirty, rumpled and awry before he was halfway to the schoolhouse.
Lightning set an empty bench on top of another empty bench, then picked the lad up under the arms and said "Set it there, on top," and the lad did, placing it as carefully as if he was setting his Grandma's best tea cup on a fine table cloth.
"Now reach me those wires if you would, please. Yes, thank you. Now" -- he hoisted the lad again -- "slip this wire through this hole, here -- just like that, hold it with one hand and screw this knob down -- just so! And the other one ... good!"
He turned and lowered the boy and together they returned to the front of the room.
Young Mr. Jerome (as he was called; he was a man in his own right, but Lightning had been elderly, and a fixture in the community; his son, Lightning's Boy, was called simply Lightning, but as Mr. Jerome was of a simlar age to the son of Lightning, he was "young Mr. Jerome" save to his face) shook the lad's hand and thanked him solemnly for his good work: then turning, he made another choice, drafting from the Unorganized Militia, as it were, and an awkward, skinny girl came at his behest: he slid a contact into place, then said "I will need everyone to be very quiet while we try this," and he turned to the girl.
"Can you tell me your name?" he asked gently, bending a little, hands on his knees.
She put her finger to the corner of her mouth and swung back and forth a little, her face turning a pleasant pink: she looked bashfully at Emma Cooper, standing nearby with her hands folded in front of her: Emma nodded, and the little girl turned and said almost inaudibly, "Cawla."
"Now that is a lovely name," Mr. Jerome said. "Do you know how to spell your name?"
She shook her head, pigtails swinging.
"I will bet," young Mr. Jerome said with a wink, "that we can figure it out."
He turned to the chalkboard, picked up a lump of chalk.
"Now how" -- he turned to the class -- "how would we spell this young lady's name?"
A confused chorus of voices replied.
Mr. Jerome turned to the board, looked back at the class. "Slow down, now, let's do this right. Give me one letter at a time."
"C" the class sang in unison.
Mr. Jerome's chalk clacked and tapped on the scrubbed-clean slate.
"A".
Tap, t'tap.
"R" they sang again.
Tap, t'tap, tap.
"L!" Necks craned, puzzled looks were exchanged.
Emma Cooper smiled at the open curiosity her entire class showed, and she knew this meant they were learning, absorbing.
"A!"
Tap, t'tap.
"Now," Mr. Jerome said, placing the lump of chalk in its wooden trough and dusting his hands together, "it is generally written like this" -- he picked up the chalk again -- "an "A" is written as a dot -- tap -- and a dash -- scrape -- but we can't send like that." He smiled. "Who can tell me why or why not?"
Again, puzzled looks: one little boy raised his hand and offered, "Magic?"
Mr. Jerome laughed. "No, but almost. Be very quiet now, and listen."
Mr. Jerome sat and took the button between thumb and middle finger, his index finger on top: slowly, precisely, he sent t-tap, tap, t-tap, tap.
The sounder in the back of the room was loud, precise: the children turned, watched.
"Oooh," a voice came from the back. "Sparks!"
Mr. Jerome laughed. "You're right!" he said. "Sparks, or little lightnings. That's why a telegrapher is called Lightning!"
Most of the faces in the room brightened, making the instant association with the man they knew by that name.
"We write it like this" -- the chalk was loud on the board as he marked _._. -- but we have to send this" -- .. . .. . then he turned to his key and, pointing to the board, sent it again.
Comprehension, delight, surprise.
Each child had to hear their name chatter out of the sounder, each child had to try the key: Emma Cooper knew the traditional lessons would not be learned that day, but she could not have been happier, for the children were learning something new, and she knew that instilling a love of learning was as valuable as the learning itself.
If school was interesting, they would continue to attend, and they would continue to learn.

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Linn Keller 7-3-11

 

 Esther dipped the tips of three fingers into the powdered limestone and resumed her careful burnishing of the fencing blade.
She had long been a student of swordsmanship -- her father tried to discourage her, due in no small part to her giving his brother a Heidelberg dueling scar when he chose to insult her skill -- but between being a typical hard headed Wales woman, and partly because she was Daddy's little girl, Esther got her way, and ended up being taught and schooled and practiced under some of the best bladesmen in the antebellum South ... and a few from the Continent as well.
One of the most intriguing was a Japanese swordsman, an immaculately polite fellow who gave his name simply as Ronin: his blades were unique in their craftsmanship and had belonged to his father, and to his father, and to his father before him: Ronin was obviously completely at home with them, and when conversation turned to sharpened steel, Esther asked if he would demonstrate his fighting-style.
Ronin was not demonstrative, he was not a braggart; he obviously trod carefully, as a stranger in a strange land, but he was made welcome under the Sheriff's roof, and for his week's stay, it would be difficult to say who learned more from the other.
Esther's fighting-style was familiar to Ronin, for he too had schooled with European masters of the art: Ronin's approach to bladesmanship was entirely foreign to Esther, and she realized very quickly that, should there be a one on one contest between Solingen steel and watered Japanese katana, that she would surely come out in second place.
After watching the ease with which his blade parted a silk kerchief tossed into the air, Esther had a new respect for this soft-spoken gentleman with the odd accent.
Every time he handled his blades, he would carefully rub them down with two fingers dipped into a little bag of powdered limestone: Esther had adopted the habit, and in the dry Colorado air, found she had no need of oil for her fencing schlagers to keep them bright and free of corrosion.
Ronin had gone his way some months ago, but she had retained his habit of polishing her blades every time she handled them.

Angela, for her part, was exploring the length and breadth of her property, and the properties beyond: she had shown up unexpectedly at Charlie and Fannie's, laughing and apple-cheeked, and had jumped out of the saddle into her Aunt Fannie's arms: Fannie had laughed and spun her around and set her down, inquiring what in the world was she doing so far away from home, and Angela said (with an utterly innocent expression), "Wozie-bud's nose came out an' the west of her fowwowed!" -- which got a grin and a chuckle out of Charlie, and a slice of pie as well: for all that Angela had an adventurer's heart, she had the body of a little girl, and after a strenuous morning and a meal, she was nodding in her chair: Charlie had moved as if to pick her up, but was stopped by a green-eyed glare from his red-headed bride, and she slipped her lean, strong arms around Angela and parked her on a convenient bunk.
Dawg laid down beside the bunk, and with that strange and unexplained affinity children have for Dawgs, Angela, still sound asleep, rolled over and dangled her arm, and wiggled her fingers into Dawg's gleaming black coat, and Dawg groaned happily, dropped his great, blunt-muzzled head on his paws, yawned a most prodigous yawn, and began snoring most contentedly.

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Linn Keller 7-4-11

 

"Billy," Emma Cooper said in her schoolteacher's voice, "are you ready?"
"Yes, Miz Cooper," Billy said eagerly, bouncing a little: he was wearing knee pants and white stockings, a borrowed pair of shoes with big ornate buckles of some kind held in place with a strip of black cloth, stitched under the instep: they were really girl's shoes, but he hadn't told anyone, because he was portraying one of the Founding Fathers.
He shrugged a little in the big, old-fashioned jacket and reached up to touch the hat with the brim pinned up to form a tri-cornered hat.
At least I didn't have to wear a wig, he thought, remembering the pictures of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and how they wore white wigs for their formal portraits.
"Mary, you have your flag?"
"Yes, Miz Cooper," Mary said, grinning: she'd just that morning lost a second tooth, and her grin was most un-matronly: though she wore a fair representation of the famous Betsy Ross's dress, and a mob cap, she looked like just what she was -- a giggly little girl, bashful but ready to do her part for the Fourth of July presentation.

Sarah bared her teeth and grimaced as she brushed her hair, left-handed.
Her hair had a wave to it, and it was a little heavier than her Mama's silky-fine hair, and harder to brush, but brush it she did.
Left handed.
She willed her hand to grasp the hairbrush and she willed herself to draw the brush through her hair and she willed her healing arm not to ache, and managed to achieve two out of three.
Sarah was shaking a little by the time she was done.
It was the Fourth of July and she was going into town with her Mama, for there would be a parade, and speeches, and fireworks, and she was going to wear a fine gown, as befitted a young lady of quality.
Afterward, of course, she had an appointment with a certain race horse, for it had been far too long since she'd had a saddle under her: she intended to put the engraved Colt revolving pistol to good use, for it had been too long since she'd shot pistol left-handed, and that evening, she intended to seat herself before their fine grand piano, and re-acquaint her left hand with the ivory keyboard.

Three of the schoolboys stood stiffly at attention, their non-existent chests thrust out, each clutching a flint rifle longer than themselves -- they were representing Revolutionary War soldiers -- and others of the schoolchildren were involved in the rolling tableau, set up on the flat bed wagon.
The parade was forming up just past the fire house: the Mayor, in a fine carriage, decorated with red, white and blue bunting, with his wife and their two children; the Sheriff reluctantly agreed to ride in the parade, and not until little Angela begged and pleaded that she be allowed to ride beside her Daddy: Esther had thought to keep Angela with her, and indeed had matching mother-and-daughter dresses ready, but instead she'd remembered a day from her own early childhood, when she too had begged to ride beside her Papa during a fox hunt, and how by some miracle this boon had been granted, and so she'd found herself in a formal morning-coat and top hat, coursing along beside her dear Papa: how that cool, slightly foggy Carolina morning, with hounds and horns and shouting men, she had made that magic connection with her mare, and how she'd flowed over fences and across meadows, around obstructions and between trees, keeping easily abreast of her father, who was a known horseman: and so Angela, too, was attired with a formal morning-coat, and a little top hat, and Esther dusted a little rouge on her cheeks, and limned her lips with just a touch of color, for it was the Fourth of July, after all!
The marching band lacked in size, admittedly, but made up for it in enthusiasm: it was well that the parade route was rather abbreviated, for by the time they made the end of the parade route -- the far end of the street -- every man Jack of them was ready to restore his spent strength (and wind) by partaking of the fine fermented elixr dispensed in heavy glass mugs by the good Mr. Baxter.
The parade proceeded through town, led by the Marching Band and the Mayor: it stopped before the fine stone City Hall, young Billy recited the Preamble to the Constitution in fine shape, hesitating only once: he closed his eyes, swallowed, whispered to himself until he found his place, then picked up where he'd left off.
Pick someone in the back of the crowd, Emma Cooper had told him, and pitch your voice so he can hear you -- and so Billy pitched his voice so Maude, standing in front of her Mercantile, could hear him, and it worked: the little boy with the anxious expression and the tricornered hat spoke clearly, slowly and audibly, and when he finished and gave an emphatic nod to indicate he'd finished, and was satisfied with himself, turned a remarkable shade of red at the whistles and enthusiastic hand-clapping the townsfolk gave him.
Not to be outdone, His Honor the Mayor held forth at length, speaking in fine and sonorous words, talking much and saying but little: the applause at the end of his lengthy presentation was more appreciation that he was done, than approbation at the quality of his delivery: nevertheless, His Honor smiled, and beamed, and lifted his hat to the assembled, before turning to shake hands with the members of Council who sat behind him, trying not to doze.
Angela had ridden stirrup to stirrup with her Daddy, carefully upright, carefully erect, trying her very best to Look Like a Young Lady: Esther had managed to slip into town herself, preferring not to have the Z&W represented in the parade -- "Everyone knows we're here," she said, blushing a little, "and besides, who'd want to look at me?" -- and so she'd ridden in on her mare, and stood with Mr. Baxter and Tillie, with Bonnie and Sarah, in front of the Jewel's just-washed windows, and watched in amazement as her little girl looked so very grown-up, riding beside her Daddy on their matching golden mares.
For a moment, for just a moment, Esther's eyes stung with the happy memory of a Carolina morning when she, too, rode with her own Papa, and in that morning, had been happier than she'd ever been in her entire young life.
The Sheriff lifted his hat to his ladies -- Esther, his beautiful bride, Tillie and Bonnie, and Sarah -- and Angela tossed propriety to the wind with a flashing smile and a little girl's "Hi, Mommy!" and an enthusiastic wave.
Someone set off a stick of firecrackers and Angela's Rosebud danced and reared, and Angela laughed, sticking to the saddle like her Mama had glued her backside to the leather: Rose o' the Mornin' had shied, then responded to the Sheriff's hand and knee: he'd spun Rose-horse and missed a grab at Rosebud's bridle: Angela brought Rosebud back down and Esther saw the bright-eyed laugh as Angela's high, happy voice carried over the crowd: "That was fun, Daddy! Do it again!"

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Linn Keller 7-5-11

 

The Sheriff was a hard man.
The Sheriff was a blooded warrior, uncompromising in his values and beliefs.
The Sheriff was scarred by war, both physically and spiritually, and yet he was a good and decent man, or as best he could manage, given all that had happened in his young life.
His name was terror to the criminal and bane to the lawless; his fist was driven by the righteous lightning of the law, his hands were callused and strong and able to cause lethal damage by themselves, in addition to being well acquainted with fighting tools of many kinds, manufactured and improvised.
The Sheriff's pale eyes were known to blaze with cold fire, and the last image a number of evil-doers had carried with them to their infernal reward was the sight of those cold, ice-pale eyes burning into their soul.
The Sheriff's war-trained hands drew the blanket gently up around his little girl's chin, and brushed a curl of hair from his little girl's forehead: he bent over and kissed that smooth, flawless forehead, and Angela giggled at the brush of his muts-tash.
Angela blinked, yawned: she wiggled a little, like a puppy wiggles with pleasure when it's warm and safe, and she murmured "Daddy?"
"Yes, Princess?" he whispered.
"Daddy, can we set off some sky-wockets sometime?"
The Sheriff smiled, a gentle Daddy-smile.
He remembered the expression of fascination, of delight, of discovery on his little girl's face as they watched the skyrockets and Roman candles: Angela had laughed and clapped her hands, shouting "Do it again! Do it again!" -- and the Sheriff had as much fun watching his little girl as he had watching the "bombs bursting in air."
Angela had surprised him, too.
He was used to thinking of her as Daddy's little girl -- emphasis on "little."
Angela was not only growing in size, she was growing in skill, and her rides with Esther had been more instructive than he'd realized.
Rosebud had reared several more times, each time ridden back down by a laughing, shouting Angela: Rosebud had never done more than rear, but by the third time the Sheriff's heart was no longer in his throat and he was no longer making fruitless grabs for the little mare's bridle.
This may have had something to do with his awkward and unplanned descent to terra firma on the second try, during which he concluded that Terra Firma was quite a bit more Firma than he really liked.
The Sheriff waited for Angela's truly prodigous yawn to finish before he replied.
"Yes, Princess," he whispered. "We'll get you some sky rockets."

Another bedroom, another girl, another set of memories: Sarah cradled her aching, recently-freed arm as she lay in her own bed, looking out at the same stars that shone through Angela's bedroom window.
She, too, had turned an admiring face skyward, watching streaks of red and yellow, explosions and starbursts, drifting clouds of smoke: she had seen Angela's excellent horsemanship, and wished most sincerely for her own spirited racer.
I must be getting older, she thought, as she realized she was learning patience: still, with patience, there was impatience, and she smiled as she realized she was still young, for impatience is the realm of the young.
Sarah sat with her Mama, fine ladies in fine gowns, laughing and clapping at the fiery show above: Sarah's clapping was gentle, and more for show than for effect: not only would the sound of her palms' collision have been inaudible in the confusion, the impact of her hands striking together was painful to her newly healed forearm, and so her applause was gentle, visible, and almost completely soundless.
She had worked her left hand on the piano keyboard until her arm ached, then she slipped into the kitchen, to the cupboard where certain compounds were kept; she poured herself half a water glass of an amber liquid, she'd drunk it, and she'd snatched up a convenient towel to muffle the sound of her coughing: wiping her eyes, she grimaced, then downed the rest of the drink with a grim determination: fortified with a good load of Kentucky, she waited just under a half hour, then returned to her practice, the pain-killing properties of distilled grain making her labor marginally less uncomfortable.
Sarah lay still, her eyes wandering from the window to the ceiling of her room, and she rubbed her arm absently.
She did not like the effect the alcohol had on her and she'd drunk a goodly amount of water before retiring, knowing it would mean her rising through the night, but not caring: she had heard her Uncle Linn discuss how to avoid the unpleasantness that followed too much drink, and she meant to avoid it, even if she was uncertain how much drink was too much drink.
Sarah made a mental note to discuss her arm with Dr. Flint.

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Linn Keller 7-7-11

 

Shorty, like most Western men, was a man of pride.
Shorty took pains to do his work well: he took pains to take pride in what he did: whether it was ensuring a horse shoe fit the horse's hoof exactly, or rasping a hoof down to exactly the right degree, whether ensuring a bridle were repaired to new quality or a saddle-girth was restored to its original strength and construction, Shorty took a fierce, an unwavering, an absolutely hard headed pride in doing what he did, right.
This was so much a habit with him that when Shorty slept, Shorty slept well, soundly, and deeply.
His slumber, as a matter of fact, was not in the least bit troubled by the arrival of two strangers -- two men on foot, both burdened by saddle and saddlebags, trail dust and sweat -- two men obviously foot-sore and fatigued, two men whose goal was to acquire fresh horses and continue their journey.
They had not come into town by the regular route, and so missed the fancy new sign bearing the town's name, the Mayor's name (he'd had a new sign erected for the sole purpose of adding his own name in gilt-trimmed letters) and the date the Mayor fancied the town was established: in short, neither knew where they were, only that they had finally found horses, and the hostler was asleep, and they saw an opportunity to continue their hurried flight.
One of the stable cats, as was her habit, responded to the invasion of their peaceable kingdom by seeking the comfort of Shorty's reassuring lap: Shorty, still asleep, reached up and caressed the tiger stripe, snoring softly as he did.
"You reckon we kin git away with this?" the one hissed into the other's ear.
The other fellow nodded, looking outside: seeing no one, he looked down the row of stalls, assessing the horseflesh, sorting quickly through them.
He settled on a black gelding, a fine looking mount with a gleaming, jet coat, a healthy animal the color of freshly-mined bituminous: whispering, he eased into the stall with the animal, soothing it with touch and with voice, at least until he came to the brand.
"Rusty!" he hissed, and his blood chilled significantly in his veins.
Rusty was just coming into the livery, giving Shorty a long, careful lookin'-over: his head came up and he cat-footed back to his partner.
"Look-a here!"
Dirty fingers parted the hair, unnecessarily, for the brand was big enough to see easily -- a brand they both knew.
They looked at one another, looked at the horse.
Rusty swallowed.
"Joey, you reckon he's still alive?"
"Nah," Joey husked. "Attair white-eyed Sheriff kilt him some time ago."
Fearful glances round about.
"You don't reckon this is ..."
Joey shivered.
The black gelding shivered its pelt, dislodging a fly; Joey waved the fly from around his face, looked over the side of the stall toward the open door.

Angela fidgeted a little like all little girls do as her Mommy fixed her hair.
Esther had made a top hat with long ribbon tails, just like hers, and affixed it atop Angela's head: a touch here, a pin there, a fluff to the trailing tails, and she nodded in satisfaction.
Angela blinked. "But Mommy," she said, "do I hafta wear all this to go wide?"
Esther gave her darling daughter a loving Mommy-look. "Angela, dear," she said, "when we ride, we are representing our entire family. We are showing the world who we are, and what we are. Now, what are we?"
"We are lay-dees of qual-la-tee," Angela said carefully, enunciating each syllable with the tinest of nods -- normally she would have given emphatic nods that would have set her finger curls to swinging, but today her hair was swept up, and she wore a fine hat like her Mommy, and she had yet to see herself in the mirror.
Esther smiled and caressed Angela's glowing pink cheek. "That's right, sweets," she smiled. "Now let's take a look at ourselves, shall we?"
She took Angela's hand and led her before the Great Mirror -- a mirror as tall as her Daddy, wide enough so her Mommy could see all of herself when she wore her best gowns -- a mirror that had been given special freighting from back East -- and Angela, steered by her Mommy's hands on her shoulders, stood in front of the mirror and looked.
Esther's eyes smiled as her little girl's eyes grew big and round, and her little girl's mouth formed a deighted O of surprise.
Angela saw two fine women, one young and beautiful, and one older and just as beautiful: two Ladies in matching riding-dresses and top hats, and Angela's hands went to her high stomach and she squeaked, "Mommy! Is that us?" and Esther laughed and looked down at her little girl and said "Yes, sweets, that is us!"
Angela reached up to touch the riding-hat, but hesitated, and finally lowered her hand without touching the gleaming black silk topper.
"But Mommy," she said in a tiny voice, "what if it falls off?"
Esther laughed. "Oh, Sweets," she said, her voice like water tinkling over a mountain falls, "we won't be riding that fast!"
"But I like to wide fast!" Angela protested, crossing her arms and pouting her bottom lip out: she frowned at her reflection in the mirror, and Esther saw the realization in her daughter's eyes: she blinked, surprised, drew in her lip-pout, uncrossed her arms and assued a more ladylike stance.
Angela turned and looked up at her Mommy.
"That didn't look good, did it?"
Esther shook her head, smiling gently.
"This looks better."
"Yes, Sweets, it does."
"Okay. Let's wide."

The black horse had been reluctant at first: they slipped out the back of the livery and through the gate: they saddled their horses while standing in the open gateway, then mounted and left the gate open, walking their mounts across the meadow behind the livery, waiting a little distance before increasing their pace, not wanting to startle the dozing proprietor with the sound of galloping hooves.
"Why'd ye say t' leave that gate open, Rusty?"
"They'll be s' busy roundin' up them-there horses they'll not think t' look fer us."

The hired man had set up the jumping rails again, like he had every day for the past two weeks.
Rosebud was a quick learner; Angela was, too, and the two had quickly formed that magical bond that surpassed "a horse" and "a rider" ... the two had become one magical creature, and as Esther watched Angela and Rosebud flow over the barricades, one after another, she realized they they were truly one magical creature, and they rode the wind itself.
Angela was fearless: she laughed with delight as Rosebud cleared the two-foot, the three-foot bars: she had told Angela to approach the three foot bars cautiously, and not to attempt a four foot jump at all.
Angela, obediently, turned Rosebud, and came trotting back to her Mommy.
"Mommy, I like it!" she declared. "It tickles my tubby when I go ober da bars!"
"Oh-ver," Esther corrected her gently. "And it tickles your tum-mie. We must pronounce our words properly, my dear."
"Tummm-mie," Angela said seriously, drawing out the "mmm" sound, then "oh-vvver."
"Very good." Esther nodded, looked across the lot, where the rail fence was being dismounted for repair. It had one bar up, about two feet off the ground.
"Mommy?" Angela said, surprised, turning her Rosebud and thrusting out an urgently-pointing arm. "Whyzadat man gotta Daddy's Black-horse?"
Esther felt something cold run through her legs.
"I don't know, sweets," she said slowly, "but -- Angela!"
Angela whirled Rosebud, shot toward the gap in the rail fence.
"Angela Keller, you come back her this ins -- oh, dear!"
Rosebud shot through the gap in the fence like a golden arrow and Angela's voice trailed behind her: "You bad man! You get back here with Daddy's horsie!"
Esther regretted sliding her fencing-scabbard under her leg instead of her double gun, but it was all she had.
Esther's Wales-green eyes hardened and she turned her own blooded Kentucky mount.
"YAAH!" she yelled, and Kentucky blood seared in her gelding's veins: he thrust against the earth and Esther, too, sailed through the gap in the rail fence, and went pounding across the high meadow after her daughter.

Rusty drove his fist into his own thigh, swearing: his newly-stolen mount had taken a mis-step, had lamed, and Joey was leaving him in the dust.
Rusty looked back at the town.
If I leave my saddle and bridle here, he thought, I can take the horse back and claim he was a-wander ... yeah, I'll do that, he thought: then, considering the sore and blistered condition of his own feet, he thought, Hell, I'll ride it back far as I can.
Looking across the shockingly-clear air at the back side of Firelands, he reconsidered, for he was in plain view of the livery, if at a distance.
Hurriedly, he dismounted, removed saddle and blanket, dropped the bridle beside the saddle and dropped a loop around the horse's neck.
Slowly, painfully, the pair hobbled back toward Firelands.

The Sheriff knocked on the livery's door frame. "Shorty!" he called urgently. "Shorty, yer horses are out!"
Shorty snorted. "Ag'in?" he muttered. "That red mare prob'ly pulled the latch ag'in." Mumbling, he got up, set the tiger cat on his just vacated seat, and limped over to the feed bin.
"Weather comin'," he complained. "M'leg pains me these days."
The Sheriff nodded. His own aches agreed with Shorty's.
The Sheriff looked down the row of stalls.
"Well hell," he muttered, "my black must've wandered off with the rest of 'em."

The Mexican sun burns hot in the blood, whether the blood is searing through a well-dressed young caballero courting a pretty seniorita, or whether the blood is igniting in the heart of a golden mare with racing ancestors a thousand generations old: the lightweight little daughter of Kentucky, bent over her mare's neck, yelled encouragement, and the pursuing mother whispered to her own blooded mount.
Three horses, in a line, running desperately across the Colorado landscape.

The Sheriff looked up as the stranger limped into the livery's yard.
The Sheriff had whistled, once, long and sweet; Shorty had rattled his feed bucket; every last horse had returned, quickly and willingly.
All but the Sheriff's black horse.
The stranger said something to Shorty about finding the horse out wandering, and then the stranger looked over at the Sheriff, and the stranger saw the Sheriff's eyes, cold eyes, ice-pale eyes, and the stranger lost about half the color in his face.
"It warn't my idea," he stammered, "Joey made me take 'im!"
"Where's Joey now?" the Sheriff asked quietly, pinning the man with his eyes like a professor would pin a butterfly to a cork board.
"He took attair black horse an' headed west --"
Shorty and the Sheriff looked at one another.
"Take the Appaloosa," Shorty thrust his chin at a nearby mare. "She'll do!"
Moments later, the Sheriff, his saddle on the rented livery horse, galloped out of the livery yard and turned west, toward his own spread.

Surprised, Joey slowed up a little.
A little girl was racing hard behind him, yelling.
Joey laughed a little.
He had expected pursuit, but not by a pretty little child, all dressed up like this.
"You bad man!" the child yelled, "You get back here with my Daddy's horsie!"
"Horsie?" he chuckled. "Missy, this is my horsie."
"That's my Daddy's horsie and he'll put you in jail!" Angela yelled angrily.
"He'll have to catch me," Joey shouted, angry now, and spurred the black horse.
"BLACK HORSE! DEAD!" Angela shouted, throwing her hand at the black-horse like a she-witch casting a spell.
The black horse, hearing angry and raised voices and feeling spurs dig cruelly into its hide, did what the black horse always did in such moments.
The black horse coasted to a stop, wobbled, groaned and fell over in a dead faint.

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Linn Keller 7-8-11

 

"Billy wears girls' shoes, Billy wears girls' shoes," Tommy sing-songed, dancing just out of reach.
Billy lunged at him, clutching at Tommy's overall straps. "You take that back!"
Tommy dodged but Billy got a handful of denim and pulled, hard.
The two boys collided, rolled in the dirt, each of them cheerfully pounding the other: both scrambled to their feet, fists cocked, mustering the fiercest faces they could manage: Billy peeled his lips back in a snarl, Tommy narrowed his eyes: each regarded the other's visage ... and laughed.
"C'mon, I know where Pa hid some skyrockets!" Billy shouted, slapping Tommy's shoulder, and the two sprinted across the alley and down behind the row of weather-boarded houses, and into a barn.
The sky was darkening, clouds lowering: the boys had watched as a stranger spurred the Sheriff's black gelding down the street, followed not long after by the Sheriff on an Appaloosa: the two had watched this marvel, listened hopefully for the sound of gunshots; when nothing transpired, they looked at one another, Tommy insulted Billy, and the fight was on.
Now the two -- long time friends, or at least as long as they'd known one another, which was about a month, a long time in a young boy's life -- they came to the shed behind Billy's house.
"Ssshhh," Billy cautioned, finger to turned-out lips, and the two crept quietly into the shed.
Billy tilted a keg up on its edge, rolled it over to another; stepping way up on the first, then onto the second, taller barrel, he reached up on a shelf and handed Tommy down two brightly-papered skyrockets with long, red wood tail shafts.
"We gonna set 'em off here?" Tommy asked eagerly. "You got a Lucifer?"
Billy reached up and pulled a glass jar off the shelf. "I got lucifers," he said: "let's set 'em off down the street so Ma don't catch us!"
"Okay!" Tommy whispered, suddenly realizing the need for stealth.
Two young heads poked out the doorway, one looking east, the other west; the two turned, regarded one another, then both sprinted down the alleyway again, for an empty shed they both knew of, a shed where they conducted scienterrific speermints, like mixing kerosene with dirt to make a flammable mud, or seeing who could recite the longest list of swear words without taking a breath -- important stuff like that.
Rain was just starting to form up and fall in fat, cold drops as the two ducked into the shelter of the shed: the roof was imperfect, and the two had to twist and turn once inside the open-backed structure to find a place where the faulty roof actually kept them somewhat dry.
"Whattawe gonna set it on to set it off?" Billy asked, suddenly concerned.
Tommy looked around, saw two boards that had been nailed together in a V shape: he looked outside, saw a handy rain barrel.
"There!" he exclaimed in low voice, thrusting an eager finger at the launch cradle: he seized the convenient construction, leaned it against the rain barrel without, flinching at the onslaught of chilly precipitation that drove into his shoulders and down his back: scuttling back into the shelter of the leaky shed, he shook like a dog shivering water from his pelt and squinted at the lead-colored sky.
"How we gonna light the fuse in the rain?" Billy complained.
"Here," Tommy said. "You strike the Lucifer and hold it."
Tommy fumbled in the jar, came out with a fat headed, strike anywhere match. He looked around, found a convenient stone, scratched the tip across the rock: it sizzled and spit, tossing pieces of burning phosphorus, and Tommy thrust the fuse of the first skyrocket into the miniature conflagration.
The fuse caught and began to sizzle and spark.
Tommy dashed out, leaned the lighted skyrocket into the V and scampered back.
The two boys hugged one another, staring breathlessly at the sizzling fuse, watching the orange flame surround itself with a minor constellation of orange sparks as it climbed hungrily up the hand-twisted Chinese fuse, and disappeared into the rocket body: there was an eternity of silence, then with a sudden, loud, high-pitched swish! the rocket thrust a blue cloud against the earth and launched itself into the heavens, trailing smoke and sparks and two little boys' eyes!
Rain clouds generally carry a static charge; thick, tall clouds carry a heavy static charge; there had been mutters of thunder, flashes of cloud-to-cloud lightning, to which neither boy paid the least bit of attention: now, though, the static buildup was strong enough to coalesce and follow an ionized trail, a trail left by a climbing skyrocket, and about the time the rocket spent the last of its life in a glorious, shining waterfall of star-burning beauty, a bolt of lightning seized its smoke trail and seared its way to the earth below.
Billy and Tommy were knocked back, back into the shed with the force of the concussion: the jar of Lucifers ignited, flaring briefly, brightly, before dying in an oxygen-deprived gasp of sulfur smoke; two little boys lay motionless on the dirt floor, barely breathing.
The remaining skyrocket, forgotten, had fallen under a board, rolled; now the rain without ran an exploring, wet finger, seeking its lowest elevation; the skyrocket lay in a little depression, and very soon was soaked and useless.
It was just as well.
Tommy and Billy swore off skyrockets that day, and true to their vow, never set match to such a firework again (though both were fond of cannon crackers) ... but the two, though unrelated, found themselves marked by their common experience.
When both regained full use of their senses, each found that about half the hair of his head was seared and missing: Billy had lost the hair on the right side of his head, and Tommy had lost the right side: when their hair grew back, it grew back in shock-white.
From that day forward they were known as the Blaze Brothers, and in time, most believed they were blood brothers, and marked by a common ancestral trait of white hair on one side of the head.

The Appaloosa was a good mare and she was running well, and the Sheriff rode right on past his spread: when he saw his wife riding hard after their little girl, and his black horse just falling over, the Sheriff's lips peeled back in a silent snarl and he urged the mare to greater speed.
Esther did not remember her dismount, nor drawing her fencing blade from its scabbard: she did remember feeling her nostrils flare, her lips press together in a thin line, as she walked up on the cursing outlaw, struggling vainly to get his leg out from under the dead weight of his stolen mount.
Esther took two quick steps and brought her foot down hard on his wrist as he realized her approach, and made a futile grab for his pistol: she snapped the blade up under his chin, turned it so its razored edge was against the softness of his throat.
"Tell me, suh," she said in the soft Suth'n accent of her native Carolina, "did y'all shave this mawnin?"
He jerked his left hand back and under, as if to push himself up, or perhaps access a left hand weapon: Esther drew the blade a few tenths of an inch, just enough to break the skin, and lifted her chin slightly.
"Do not move, suh," she said, her voice soft, velvety: "You ah ridin' mah husband's hawss."
"I won it fair and square," the horse thief squeaked, "it's mine, I tell you --"
The Sheriff rode up, circled the outlaw, looked the scene over with a lawman's eye.
"I see you have reduced the criminal to posession," the Sheriff nodded, turning his lapel over to display the six pointed star. "Horse thief, stealing the Sheriff's horse, assault on the Sheriff's wife and daughter ..." He let the implication dangle in the air like a hangman's noose dangles from a tree limb.
"And you rode my black horse plumb to death," the Sheriff continued, his voice soft, quiet. "I don't take kindly to that."
"Oh, my, God," the outlaw whispered in a strangled voice, realizing the man addressing him had those legendary, pale eyes. "You!"
He looked across the still form of the black gelding, at Angela, solemn on her own golden mare.
"You did it!" he hissed accusingly. "You killed the horse, you witch!"
Esther pressed the flat of the blade against the underside of his stubbled chin.
"Have a care, suh," she said in a velvety-smooth voice: "you ah addressing mah daughtah."
The Sheriff sighed.
"It's people like you who make more work for me," he said conversationally. "Now why don't you come along quiet-like and we'll get you bedded down in the jail nice and comfortable, and you can talk it over with His Honor the Judge tomorrow mornin'." The Sheriff looked at his big-eyed little girl.
"Angela," he said, "bring this dead horse back to life."
"Okay, Daddy," Angela said with a bright smile: she flowed down out of the saddle, bent over the dead horsie and whispered in its ear, patting its neck, its nose.
The black horse grunted, blinked: with an effort, he made his feet, levered himself off the ground.
Angela petted his velvety nose. "That's a good horsie," she said, nodding her head emphatically, and quickly put a hand up to steady her fine silk riding hat.
The outlaw regarded this witchery with wide eyes: Esther withdrew her blade, casually drew the blade through a lace-trimmed kerchief to remove the trace of blood at its tip.
Panic seized the outlaw.
Too many days on the dodge, too long running from the law, too many sleepless nights and stressed-out days of knowing every man's hand was against him, that he had to escape the consequence of his sins, he had to run, run far and run fast, took their toll: in a mad moment of bad judgement, the outlaw scrambled to his feet and took off running, panicked, a condition that would in later years be recognized by the term "Blind Flight."
Angela drew back her hand, thrust it as if throwing something at the fleeing man's shoulder blades: "Bad man! Dead!" she shouted.
A bolt of lightning seared from the heavens, striking the outlaw and rending soul from flesh in one blinding detonation.
The biggest piece of him the Sheriff found, once the rain quit, was the man's boots, with his feet still in them.

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Linn Keller 7-8-11

 

I knew when my beautiful bride spoke quietly in her native Carolinian, that someone was in more than deep trouble.
I knew by the casual expertise with which she controlled the man, with that sharpened blade under his chin, he was about a half inch from meeting his Maker and likely being booted out of the meeting immediately after.
I also knew things were getting very, very bad.
It was getting dark and getting dark fast and every hair on my arms stood straight up and I smelled ozone.
That livery horse was really antsy and my black horse wanted to come around and crowd up behind me the way he would when he was afeared and I got to looking around.
The ribbon tails on Esther's top hat were starting to float.
I looked at that black horse's mane and his mane was starting to float out and the tail started to fur out on Angela's little red mare and I knew we were in for hell visiting itself on the earth in really short order.
I have seen cowpunchers in such a situation throw away everything metallic on them -- rifles, pistols, watches and knives, even their spurs -- in a vain attempt at avoiding a lightning strike.
Generally it didn't work.
When that horse thief took out and showed me a clean set of heels my concern was for my wife and my daughter.
I drew in a great lungful of air and time slowed the way it does sometimes.
I saw Angela's arm slow, slow, like she was throwing a ball, and I heard her high, cheerful voice.
I saw Esther look at me, her eyes big, knowing something was very wrong and about to get much worse.
I saw the running man about fifty yards away, just before the fiery finger of judgement hit him squarely and his sinful carcass was sterilized from the inside out by more heat than a furnace can generate.
"TO THE BARN!" I bellowed. "MOUNT UP AND RIDE! RUN!"
"angeLAA!" Esther called, her voice like a trumpet, pure, clear and penetrating: Angela was frozen, arm extended, probably blind for a moment, and a mercy that was.
I don't want to think my little girl saw a man blown apart by a direct lightning strike.
I was in the saddle and reaching for the black horse's bridle: it took some effort to get the Appaloosa and the black horse facing the same direction and I lost my grip and in that moment I thought, The hell with you, and Angela shot me a look --
I reached over and smacked Esther's mare, hard, and screamed "GIT!"
The mare, startled, shot away from my stinging swat.
The Appaloosa started to crow-hop and I drove my fist hard down between its ears, brought its head around by main strength.
"ANGELA! WITH ME!" I roared, and Angela did not have to be told twice.
She spun her red mare and the little red mare allowed as it did not like being where it was, and I remember how Angela's hat-tails, like Esther's, were starting to float.
I slashed viciously with the tails of my reins, probably raising a welt on the Appaloosa's hinder: she reared her head up and followed Esther and Angela.
I need not have worried about the black horse.
Horses are herd animals and this one saw its herd heading that-a-way, and the black horse had no wish to be left behind.
Lightning hit somewhere near, I don't have any notion where: there were flashes like magnesium flash-powder, turning everything a blue-white, the sound of cannon and cannon again and the rain turned loose like Heaven kicked over a monstrous barrel the size of a young ocean.
The three of us fought for the barn and glad I was the doors were open, for we crowded inside, out of the driving rain, and I threw my reins to Esther and fell out of the wet-slick saddle.
How I kept my feet I'll never know.
I hauled the doors shut and got them fast and stood there, leaning against the closed doors, feeling them heave and groan as wind pulled and sobbed at the heavy wood portals: finally I stood upright again, and mechanically began unsaddling the appaloosa and the black horse, and leading them to stalls for grain and for a gunny sacking.
Esther sat there, erect, regal, unmoving: I could tell she was considering what had just happened, and she was probably doing her best to be calm, to be strong, for Angela.
Angela, on the other hand, made a little whining, whimpering sound and sniffed a little.
I fished around and came up with a mostly dry hankie: walking over to our little girl I handed it to her and said "Here, honey, blow your nose," and she did, making a remarkably loud honk in the shadowed barn.
I reached up and took her about the waist and she came out of the saddle to me, and I held her as she made the little sounds of distress a little girl-child will when she is afeared.
I soothed her and patted her back and shhh'd her, making the reassuring Daddy-noises that Daddies make when their little girl is distressed, and I looked up at Esther.
Esther was still sitting erect in the saddle, her fencing blade corrrectly vertical, in front of her right shoulder, and leaned back against her shoulder, and I blinked, remembering.
Though our ride for the barn was with the desperation of survival, Esther rode like a Lady, and she rode correctly, and her blade was upright against her shoulder in just that same manner.
Esther fixed me with a green-eyed glare and spoke quietly.
"Don't you dare call me Lightning Rod," she said, and Angela squirmed and wailed:
"Mommy, I lost my haaat!"

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Linn Keller 7-9-11

 

Jacob slouched in the doorway of the Sheriff's office, smiling a little as those first fat drops began assaulting the overhanging roof above the board walk in front of the little log fortress.
"I always did like the smell," Jackson Cooper said quietly, handing Jacob a hot blue-granite cup of steaming, fragrant coffee.
Jacob nodded.
"Always smells good, beginnin' a rain," he agreed. "Thank you."
The two sipped coffee in companionable silence.
It had been rather warm earlier, and the oncoming storm cooled the air fast: Jacob was grateful for the hot drink, and for the wearing of his coat: it was his usual attire, unless it was considerably warmer, in which case he might strip clear down to his vest, but no further, as any less would be immodest.
"Good coffee," he murmured.
Jackson Cooper's eyes showed his amusement.
"It's not your Pa's batch," he said, and somehow managed to sound absolutely innocent.
"For which," Jacob added, attempting an equally innocent expression and almost succeeding, "we are profoundly grateful!"
Lightning hit somewhere near, sounding like a howitzer: Jacob flinched, wiped the coffee-dribble off his chin and looking around.
"That warn't good," he said, looking around, then stepped to the edge of the roof's sheltering protection, looked down the alley.
"See anything?" Jackson Cooper asked, turning to look out his end of the roofed porch.
"Nope."
The two returned to their slouching-posts on either side of the doorway.
A stray dog scuttled under the boardwalk in front of the Jewel, sheltering from the wet: there was a screech, a yowl, and the dog streaked out from under the boardwalk and scrambled down the alley towards the livery.
"Reckon he found the cat."
"Reckon so."
Both blue-granite cups raised in slow synchronization; both lawmen drank.

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Linn Keller 7-10-11

 

I got our mounts tended: it took me a while and I took my time about it.
Frankly I was leery of going outside the barn.
I considered that fellow I knew was up to no good, back there at the Livery, and figured I'd ketch up with him sometime, and if I didn't, well, that's the way things went sometimes.
I remembered seeing that blinding-white finger of doom turn a running out law into a cloud of steam and a few chunks of cooked meat, and I shivered.
I didn't figure to go outside for a little.
I am no less brave than any man, but there is a clear difference between duty, bravery and utter stupidity.
I was going to stay inside for a little.
Times like this I was grateful I'd had those nice big friendly lightning rods put up: I took some ribbing with four of 'em stickin' up from the peak of the roof, and some on the house besides, but I'd seen a good white oak tree blown to splinters by a direct strike back in my youthful days and I'd seen houses and barns burnt down from a strike and I figured them-there lightnin' rods was way cheaper than a rebuild.
We stood inside that nice tight barn and looked out at the rain and listened to thunder rumbling like dyspepsia in a fat man's guts: Esther's hand sought mine, and Angela's ... well, I ended up drawing a few bales of hay together and tossing a blanket over them and there we set, our little girl on my lap and holdin' onto me shiverin', and Esther sitting beside me, as proper as the Queen on her throne, and I let go of her hand and run my arm around her shoulders.
She leaned into me and the three of us just set there for a while.
Angela must have drowsed a little; she ended up leaned into my front and my arm around her, and Esther and I talked in whispers, not wanting to trouble her.
The horses were restless; I spoke to them, soothing them with my voice, and they calmed: I don't know if they figured I'd run off and left them or what.
Esther had remarked on my ability with animals.
She'd been watching from her office window over top the Silver Jewel when I come cat footin' down the alley one evening.
I'd been lookin' ahead, expecting to find a particular fellow who allowed as he would part my hair with a broad ax before he went back to prison.
Esther could just see in the gathering dusk that some fellow's dog was tied in a little wide place in the alley.
She could not see it was just wide enough to hide the dog as it was half under the building, in just the right place for me not to see it.
For a big man I move quiet, and I moved quiet: it was not until I come to that little wide place that the dog and me saw one another.
The dog bared its ivories and laid its ears back and give a good deep chest snarl and I knew with absolutely no doubt a'tall that he wasn't happy to see me.
Now I considered: I could have sent that-there dog across the Great Divide with a charge of heavy shot out of that double gun, but I hate the thought of shooting another man's dog unless there's no way around it.
I took my hand off the wrist of that double gun and put my fingers to my lips and I said "Shhh."
The dog's ears came up and its head came up and it looked at me kind of surprised, but it shh'd and it didn't want to take a chunk out of my shin bone no more.
Esther saw all that and allowed afterward as I was second cousin to St. Francis of Assissi.
I made the mistake of mentioning this in the Jewel the next night, as one of the fellows allowed as he heard me say I was second cousin to a sissy, at least until he turned and saw me lookin' at him.
For some odd reason he looked kind of uncomfortable and he buried his confusion in his beer real quick-like.
All of that run through my head while we set there, listening to rain on the roof and a-settin' together like we were.
Esther must have felt me chuckle: she lifted her head and looked at me with those bright, sparkling green eyes, and there was a question in the way her eyebrow quirked just a little.
"Long story," I whispered, and she smiled, and laid her head over on my shoulder again.

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Linn Keller 7-11-11

 

Angela was a genuine trouper.
She was also a little girl.
We set on what was left of the stack of fence posts, and looked back at the string of posts we'd put in so far.
I'd dug the holes -- Angela asked to try the post hole digger and to her credit she managed to cut a little dirt loose, but she wasn't used to bringing a heavy tool straight up, then drive it straight down, and she wore out fast -- but she was priceless when it came to being a step-and-fetch-it, when it came to running the measuring string back to the last post, when it came to helping me get them lined up, and it delighted her that I picked her up so she could hold the plumb line at the top of the fence post and look waaaaay down at the bronze bob at the bottom, and see that we'd gotten another one "Just Right!"
Now we set on the fence posts that awaited holes and positioning, sharing a canteen, and Angela was troubled.
On the one hand Daddies figure they can fix anything that goes wrong in the family.
On the other hand, when something comes along that the Daddy doesn't have any idea how to fix, well, it's not a terribly comfortable feeling.
Me, I shoved those not-comfortable feelings aside and did my best.
I had to do something even if it was wrong.
Ever since we had that lightning storm, ever since Angela had rode up and stopped that horse thief from making off with my black gelding, ever since she'd whipped her hand out at the fleeing horse thief and that bolt of lightning blew him to ... well, to his reward ... why, Angela had been quite subdued, and she wanted to be really close to Esther or I ... but especially to me.
I needed to set fence posts out back so I told Angela to come along, I needed her help and she give me that bright, sunrise-in-the-morning smile and piped "Okay, Daddy!"
You might remember the date, as a matter of fact: there would have been a distinct crunching sound in the distance.
That was the sound of my spine as my little girl was winding me around her little finger.
We set there in the sun, and the mare stood head drooped and hip shot in the traces, and Angela reached down and stirred around in the grass and pulled a stem like she'd seen me do, and put the tag end delicately between her front teeth, then she hunched over with her elbows on her knees, her feet spread.
Esther would never approve of such an un-ladylike posture, I thought, but I had to smile, for I was in exactly the same position.
"Daddy?" she finally asked.
"Yes, Princess?"
"Daddy, what's it like to be a boy?"
I blinked.
Of the questions I was expecting, of the questions for which I was preparing a mental list of answers, this wasn't one of them.
"Well," I said, "boys are loud and get in fights, boys get dirty and cut their fingers on pocket knives and trade frogs behind the school building --"
"Yuck!" Angela said, the grass falling from between her pearly whites: I had to look away from her nose-wrinkled expression of distaste quickly, because I felt a laugh building up, and now wasn't the time for her to hear me laugh.
"Boys have to wear boring clothes and belch when they eat, boys spit and wrestle and dip little girls' pig tails in ink wells and put frogs in their lunch basket when they're not looking.
"Yuck!" Angela's face resembled a Moorish idol, and I couldn't help myself.
This time I did laugh.
Angela's expression of distaste dissolved in laughter of her own.
"Then boys have to work really hard, like we're working today."
Angela blinked, looked back at the row of fence posts, looked at the post hole diggers leaning against the side of the wagon.
"How hard do they have to work?" she asked in a small voice.
I gestured her closer and she jumped up and snuggled up against me.
I picked her up and set her on my lap, marveling at how big she was getting, how long she was and how far her head came up toward my nose now ... as she straightened her head crested above my nose and my arms wrapped around her and I thought good God! how did this happen so fast! -- and my thought was less an exclamation of surprise as it was a question for the Almighty, to the only One Who would know the answer to that mystery!
This was one of those moments when I realized just how fast little children grow, and for a mad moment I had a mental image of little Joseph, Jacob's son ... little Joseph, my grandson, astride my golden mare, laughing and galloping across the meadow, a laughing little child wearing an angelic expression and a sagging diaper ...
I blinked, rocked Angela a little.
"Boys have to do a man's work," I said. "You can see how much work we have done today."
Angela's head rubbed against my cheek as she nodded.
"Now imagine if you were a boy, you would have to work as hard as I did, and just as fast, and just as well."
Angela drew away from me a little, regarded me with big and almost frightened eyes.
"But I'm just a little girl," she said in a small voice, distress in her expression and dismay in her words, and I threw my head back and laughed, a good healthy Daddy-laugh, and I hugged her again, and stood, and raised her up and kissed her on the forehead.
"Angela," I said, "I've had about enough post settin' for one day. How about you?"
Angela nodded with that sunrise smile again.
I swung her up into the wagon, swung her waaay down and back until her shoe-soles just grazed the grass, then I swung her up and around and set her down easy-like so the backs of her legs were just touching the edge of the seat, and her "Wheee!" sang out across the waving-grass meadow.
I set the post hole diggers and plumb line, measuring string and canteens back into the wagon, then I climbed in and unwound the reins.
I ran an arm around Angela and pulled her into my side and clucked up the mare, and the wagon began rattling around in a big gentle circle.
"Daddy?" Angela asked softly.
"Yes, Princess?"
It would take us a while to get back, the mare was moving at a walk and I was in no hurry.
"Daddy, did I do something bad?"
"How's that?"
Angela shivered a little and put her hand against my belly: not quite a seize-me-in-terror clutch, but more of a little girl, reassuring herself that her Daddy was there, and strong, and very real.
"Daddy, I told Black-horsie dead and he deaded."
I gave her a gentle little squeeze.
"We practiced that, Princess, and you did it just right."
"But Daddy," she protested, looking up at me, and I looked down into her big, guileless, sincere eyes, "I told that bad man "Dead!" and he deaded for real!"
I blinked, considered.
"He's dead, all right," I affirmed.
"Daddy, he called me a witch."
"Whoa there," I spoke to the mare, and the mare whoa'd.
I reached over and hauled back on the brake, dropped the set over it to hold it.
I picked Angela up and set her on my lap and I looked her square in the eye.
"Say that again, honey," I said quietly, as gently as I could.
Those big liquid eyes started to sparkle and I knew my little girl was not far from tears.
"He said I was a witch!"
I pulled out a silk neck rag and folded it carefully.
"Angela," I said, "did you ever see this?"
I reached into the folded silk and pulled out a rose.
Her expression went from distress to delight in a tenth of a second or less.
"And why do you hide money in your ear?" I asked, and she felt my fingers brush her ear and then draw back to display a silver dollar.
"Now," I said, "does that make me a witch?"
Angela blinked rapidly, partly confused but starting to see what I was driving at.
"Angela, how many people can tell a horsie to dead and it will dead?"
Angela blinked rapidly and her forehead wrinkled.
"You are the only one in the whole world I know of that can tell a horse to dead and he'll fall down like Black-horse does," I continued, my Daddy-voice pitched to be quiet, strong, reassuring. "Now why does Black-horse dead when we tell him to?"
"We taught him!" Angela said, and I saw the surprise of a newly-discovered truth in her eyes, a truth she realized had always been there, but she only now saw it.
"That's right. Now he's never seen that before, so he's going to think it's genuinely magic." I held up the coin. "Like this."
Angela giggled.
She'd seen me pull coins out of schoolboys' ears before and she knew it was a sleight of hand and not magic at all.
"You told Black-horse to dead and he did as he was trained." I put a slight emphasis, a very slight edge, to my words, and Angela blinked and then nodded, but then she frowned, she drew back a little and she crossed her arms with a girlish flounce.
"But, Daddy," she said, "what about that bad man? I said 'Bad man! Dead!' and lightning killed him."
I nodded, and very delicately touched the tip of her nose with a very careful forefinger.
"The lightning killed him," I said. "You didn't. That's called a coincidence."
"Co-win-sid-dence," Angela repeated carefully.
I nodded, smiling a little, and Angela gave me that beatific smile again, and threw her arms wide.
"Coincidence!" she declared, and it was as if a quarter of a ton had been fetched off her pretty little shoulders.
I hugged my little girl and she hugged me, and we released the brake and clucked up the mare and headed back to the house.
I was hungry and so was my little girl, and my stomach told me it was time to eat.

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Linn Keller 7-16-11

 

 "Jaysus, Joseph an' Mary," Sean breathed, "an' ye were where when i' hit?"
"Right over there, Mister Chief!"
"Right o'er ... i' yon shed, now, were ye?" Sean's blue eyes were at once amused and concerned as he regarded the solemn faced little boy.
The lad nodded.
"An' ye saw i' hit?"
Again the hollow-eyed nod.
Sean's hand was gentle as he caressed the lad's curly hair, traced the bare-seared scalp.
"An' how'd this happen?" he asked quietly.
"It was like this when we woke up."
"I see."
Sean shoved his bottom jaw out, considering: then he asked, "Lad, are ye Catholic?"
The lad shook his head.
"Ah, now, tha's no matter." Sean's hands were firm on the lad's shoulders. "I believe one o' the Saints was watchin' o'er ye."
"Which one?" the lad asked, blinking.
Sean considered.
"Well, now, 'tis the good St. Florian that watches o'er firemen," he said, "an' St. Christopher as well, guardian o' warriors an' policemen alike." He frowned a little, stirring around in his memory, finding a gem in its confusion and lifting it into the light.
"St. Christopher is th' patron saint against sudden death," he said, "an' I'd say he's likely th' one that' reached out an' turned th' lightning away from you."
Sean's strong fingers were surprisingly gentle as they traced the seared path across the lad's scalp.
"Ye've felt an angel's touch, lad," he rumbled. "Ye've been marked wi' a warrior angel's blessing. Ne'er forget that."

Not a mile away, another saint's name was invoked: Brother William spun his staff in a vicious arc, hooking the first highwayman behind the knee and bringing the other end up in a short, brutal arc, belting the robber hard behind the left ear as he was going over backwards.
The second thief was momentarily frozen by the violent explosion of what they thought would be a peaceful, sheeplike victim: they knew Brother William was carrying a sizable donation, given freely by the Catholic community for the relief of two families in need, and the pair of low grade thieves had decided the money would be better spent on their relief from sobriety.
Brother William moved in a deadly dance: he spun his traveler's staff, thrust it hard, catching the second footpad under the jaw: he knew that in this one brief moment he was the actor, and action was his: his assailants were therefore the reactors, and would have to react to his assault -- the exact opposite of their intentions.
The first robber was only just laid out on the ground when Brother William's staff thrust inadvertently but most lethally into the standing robber's larynx, breaking the trachea free of its moorings, crushing the voice box and seizing the vocal cords shut in an involuntary and most painful spasm: blood and mucus and crushed cartilage cascaded down on the locked bands of muscle, sealing the airway shut as the robber's rifle fell from shocked-open hands.
William's thrust , withdrawn, moved fluidly into another spinning hook; the lashing backstroke broke the bridge of the nose and one cheek bone, and the white-robed monastic took two quick steps back, spinning the staff into a guard position, turning, alert for any further attackers.
Brother William turned, slowly, making slow circles in the middle of the road: finally, satisfied that he was alone with the wounded and the dying, he drove the end of his staff into the packed dirt and glared at the pair.
Shaking his head, he went to the attacker who was trying to gasp and having no success: seizing the man's hand, he asked quietly, "Do you now confess your sins, known and unknown, spoken and unspoken, and do you now most earnestly repent of them, and ask God's forgiveness?"
Desperate, bulging eyes turned to the balding monk: the hand squeezed, once, and there was the barest of nods.
Brother William made the sign of the Cross and murmured, "Now go, my son, knowing you have confessed your sins and been forgiven by One who is far greater than I. Go to your reward, secure in His Mercy ..."
Brother William watched the light fade in the man's eyes.
He bowed his head, swallowed: though he knew there was no sin in repelling an attack, and though he knew that death was the just reward of the sinner, and that the righteous man, in smiting the criminal, was blameless if the criminal die: he took neither pride nor satisfaction in the taking of a life, no matter how justified.
He folded the dead man's hands across the still breast, stood: he leaned on his staff and felt old, old and tired, at least until he heard the sound of approaching hooves.
William looked at the Marlin laying on the ground and considered.
I can be behind cover in three jumps, he thought, and then he saw the rider.
He raised his staff overhead.
Jacob raised his hand in reply.

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Linn Keller 7-18-11

 

"My dear," the Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler said gently, raising Esther's knuckles to his lips, "thank you. An excellent meal, and made all the better with your lovely company."
Esther dropped a flawless curtsy and her complexion pinked like a schoolgirl's.
Angela sat quite still, blinking, taking it all in: she had noted her father's ability to turn invisible, or at least unnoticeable, and she was practicing the art now.
She remained seated, her head tilted a little to the side, her curiosity obvious but unstated: she watched as her Daddy and the Judge retired to her Daddy's study.
Their hired girl moved with a quick and almost noiseless efficiency, managing to mute the sound of stacked dishes and the clatter of silverware stacked up for transport to the kitchen: again, Angela held very still, for she had once -- and that one time only -- managed to get herself underfoot, and tripped the maid, at the expense of most of the china she carried, a pained exclamation from the aproned girl, and that look from her Mommy -- a look that was as effective as a session with the switch, and almost as painful.
Esther must have noticed the question marks prickling from her little girl's curly hair, and she followed the child's gaze to the closed double doors, and Esther flowed into a chair beside Angela, a maternal arm around the silent child's shoulders.
"You're wondering what the men are doing in there," she said quietly, almost whispering.
Angela looked at her, bright-eyed and solemn, nodding.
Esther smiled tolerantly.
"They are men, sweets," she said, "and men must always think themselves important, and they must convince themselves that what they do is important, and so they close themselves in a smoky room and drink spirits and talk much man's talk, and they go away satisfied that they have done great things for mankind."
Angela blinked, then frowned and looked at the doors again.
"What's so important?" she asked with a child's undiplomatic frankness.
Esther laughed a little Mommy-laughed, hugged her little girl.
"I'll find out later tonight," she whispered. "If it's really important, your Daddy will ask my opinion on the matter."

His Honor the Judge accepted a light and happily polluted the atmosphere with the first fragrant clouds from the hand-rolled Cuban.
Swirling the brandy in its delicate crystal balloon, he tilted his head back and puffed out a grey cloud of exhalate, conmingling it with the distinct blue smoke from the cigar itself.
"A man has his vices," the Judge chuckled, "and mine are few: the company of good friends, a good cigar, good brandy." He seated himself, worked his back a little and took a tentative sip of the fragrant distillate. "Mmp!" he grunted by way of approval.
The Sheriff did not smoke, but gladly tolerated those who did: it was a near-universal habit in the day that he himself had never acquired: as a child he begged a draw from his own father's stogie, then another, and after a prolonged period of choking and coughing he staggered over against the woodpile, where he happened to disturb a timber rattler: the spiteful little snake had gathered itself for a strike when the lad's stomach emptied itself all over the scaled serpent, and the totality of circumstances convinced the child that smoking was bad, and the serpent that the climate was perhaps less unpleasant elsewhere.
The men enjoyed a lengthy silence: the night was warm and the stove unneeded; the Sheriff raised a window, lowered the upper pane a bit, to stir a draft, and eased his long tall frame into a comfortably upholstered chair, where the incoming breeze carried fragrantly over him.
"Sheriff," the Judge said at length, "I will admit that Firelands is not my busiest stop, but it is certainly the most interesting."
The Sheriff nodded, his eyes wandering over his desk: half his mind was listening to the Judge, the other half was listing work that needed done yet, and in what order.
"My docket in Cripple is generally quite filled."
The Judge blew a slow stream of cigar smoke into the air, aiming for the far corner of the ceiling; the cloud eddied, rolled, expanded and ultimately joined the stratification that was building over the dignified old man.
"Fights, assaults, murders, thefts." He flicked an ash into the conveniently-placed cuspidor. "Claims and counter-claims, complaints and affidavits, but nothing really..."
He inspected the smoldering end of the Cuban.
"Nothing really interesting."
He looked up at the Sheriff and smiled a little crookedly, the old scar on one cheek wrinkling like it always did.
"Now when I come here," he chuckled, "I don't know what I'll have, but I know it won't be ordinary." He coughed, took another quick draw on the Cuban.
"Little girls who kill outlaws and outshoot bank robbers," he said, "severed heads produced from gunny sacks, buildings that collapse unexpectedly, men blown to atoms with a directed lightning strike" -- he raised a palm as the Sheriff opened his mouth -- "yes, yes, I know, she's not a witch and it was sheer and fantastic coincidence -- yes, thank you," he nodded as the Sheriff added another two fingers' worth to the brandy balloon -- "now where was I? -- oh, yes." He took a long, slow swallow of the brandy, closed his eyes with pleasure and leaned back in his chair.
"And a peaceful monk who kills two highwaymen with his walking stick." The Judge clamped the cigar between slightly yellowed teeth. "Sheriff, life here is nothing if not interesting."
The Sheriff nodded, adding another splash of brandy to his own goblet.
His Honor sighed and the Sheriff could tell there was something further on the jurist's mind.
"Colonel," he said, and the Sheriff's left ear twitched a little, hearing the title he'd not been called in some long time -- "Colonel, do you still hear bugles at night?"
The Sheriff blinked slowly, swirling his brandy, smelling its fragrance: he smelled ripe peaches in summer, the heat of its distillation: he took a meditative sip and shook his head.
"No, sir," he said at length, "it's not bugles I hear."
"What do you hear?" The Judge's quiet-voiced syllables were punctuated with little puffs of smoke, then a slow jet of the grey ejectate.
The Sheriff looked up at the Judge and his eyes were pale, very pale.
"I hear a quiet squishing sound," he said.
Judge Hostetler's eyebrows quirked, then his forehead wrinkled into a frown as he puzzled over this unexpected answer.
"Not what you expected?"
"Frankly, no."
The Judge knew the value of silence in eliciting a more complete answer, and had used it numerous times in his career as an attorney, to get the answer he wanted from a reluctant witness under oath: the Sheriff knew it too, and did not rush to fill what some might regard an uncomfortably prolonged silence.
Eventually the Judge asked "What is that sound, Colonel?"
"You might remember the first time we met," the Sheriff said quietly, his words measured, his voice far away.
"Suppose you refresh my poor failing memory."
The Sheriff smiled, that slow smile the Judge remembered so well: a contagious smile infected his own face and the two chuckled.
"Poor failing memory my Aunt Sadie's billie goat," the Sheriff said, swirling his brandy again. "You were riding into what had been one of the hardest engagements we'd fought." The Sheriff's eyes looked through the here-and-now and saw what had been, far away, a lifetime ago.
"The smoke was thick in what had been an orchard, and flowed like slow waters through what had been a hayfield. I remember ... I remember the air was dead still and it ... it was smooth, flawless, and flowed down hill a little, like water but so very slow."
His voice was quiet, but plainly audible in the still room.
"You rode in from the north end of the orchard and you looked down as you rode.
"Dead hands were thrust up through the flowing battle-smoke, clawed as if reaching for your living heart and not quite reaching it, hands that wanted to drag you to hell with all of them."
His voice was a little rough now, almost hoarse as the moment cleared in his recollection.
"The breeze brushed the smoke aside and I reached up and took hold of your bridle."
"I remember," the Judge said faintly, cigar forgotten in his off hand, and he took a quick gulp from his snifter.
"I remember their eyes ... wide, staring, seeing what we could not." The Sheriff set his own snifter aside and shivered.
"I walked with you and we crossed the field and crossed it again, and every step I took, blood squelched up around my boot soles." He pierced the Judge with his ice-hued gaze. "Do you remember the smell?"
His Honor nodded. "I remember," he whispered, his voice tortured.
"You were sick with the seeing of it."
Judge Hostetler clamped his jaw hard against the memory.
"You dismounted and I tied off your horse to what used to be a tree and we staggered over to a creek. It sparkled as it splashed over a couple rocks and we dipped our hands in and drank."
Judge Hostetler nodded, his own eyes distant.
"Wasn't until we'd both downed a good amount that we realized it tasted off ..."
"Metallic," Judge Hostetler whispered hoarsely.
The Sheriff nodded, reached for his snifter, took a gulp and sloshed it around his mouth before swallowing.
"You took up a handful and looked at it and you said it looked like sassafrass tea."
His Honor took his brandy balloon in both hands: trembling a little, he drained it, set it down very carefully, as if fearful his control might fail and the fragile glass might tumble to the floor and be shattered like so many young lives had been shattered that grisly day.
"I don't hear bugles, sir," the Sheriff husked.
"I hear that little squelchy sound as I walk across that butcher's yard."

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Linn Keller 7-20-11

 

"Fred!"
Lightning's voice was tight as he leaned out the door, shouted across the railroad platform.
Fred Jerome stuck his head out of the doorway at the end of the platform, his big ears stuck out curiously from the side of his head.
"Fred, run get the Sheriff, get the Marshal, get whoever's there! Cripple just had a holdup and they're on the train headin' this way!"
Fred jerked back and out of sight, there was the sound of something heavy and wooden falling over: Lightning drew back into his office, his quick ear taking in the clatter of the telegraph sounder and automatically translating it into coherent language.

Parson Belden knew the two men were trouble.
He also knew they were scared.
A man can smell fear and he could smell it on these two: they were looking furtively around, as if afraid someone, or something, was going to jump through the walls of the moving passenger car and seize them.
The car was but lightly populated: this was the morning run from Cripple, and Firelands was the first stop for water, as the grade favored their travel: heading the opposite direction, they had to water about halfway between the two points, for the engine labored strongly to pull the grade, uphill to the mining town that never slept.
Parson Beldon stood, casually, a hand to the small of his back: he worked his hips a little, the move of an older man, stiff with travel, and he walked to the end of the car, walked back, taking his time: he passed his own seat, paused opposite the nervous pair.
His quick ear picked up a few stray words; his eye saw a money bag, almost hidden under a saddle bag's flap: he saw tension, he saw white around their mouths, and concluded with an intuitive leap they'd held up a bank.
Parson Belden grunted as if coming to a decision, sat down with his legs out in the aisle.
"You fellas feelin' all right?" he asked quietly.
"What's it to ya!" one challenged: the other, the nearer of the two, raised a cautioining hand. "Jist a little peekid, is all."
Parson Belden nodded wisely.
"I'm Parson hereabouts," he said quietly, sticking out his hand: "Belden's the name. Firelands parish."
"Firelands," the two said, and the Parson saw the near man's eyes change.
Whether it was at the strength of the Parson's grip, or the realization that the sky pilot had the calluses of a working man, Belden was not sure, and really it did not matter.
"You fellas don't figure to stop and visit once we get home, by any chance?" the Parson asked innocently.
"Yeah," the one said, and "No" the other: the looked at each other, there was a quick, vicious hand gesture, and the first turned.
"Well now we hadn't quite made up our minds," he said. "You invitin' us t' evenin' services, are ye?"
The Parson smiled.
"I just got back from buryin' a couple fellas," he said tiredly. "Two men foolish enough to try and hold up our bank."
"Bank?" The two spoke with one voice; the near one drew back a little, the tag on his Bull Durham pouch swinging a little with the sudden move.
Paron Belden nodded. "Oh, yes. Poor misguided souls they were." He shook his head in mock sorrow. "Why, they went into the bank, one ahead of the other, and of a sudden the both of 'em just fell over backwards, deader'n a hammer."
"Sho'!" the robber nearer the window declared. "What happened?"
Parson Belden sighed. "One of our schoolchildren was making a deposit and objected to their robbing the place."
The two looked at the Parson like he was either a liar, or simple in the head.
The Parson waited, blinking like a sleepy cat, knowing their curiosity would lead them to ask, and ask they did.
"Well?" the near fellow blurted.
"Well what?" the Parson replied innocently, as if coming out of a my-mind-was-elsewhere reverie.
"Well what about that-there school child?"
"Oh! oh, yes, yes! Of course!" Parson Belden grimaced and twisted his lower back a little. "Old war wound. Now where was I?"
"The bank," the one said, and "The schoolchild," blurted the other.
"Oh, yes! Yes! Sad story, that." He shook his head, tut-tutting a little.
"This child shot the first one in the belly and broke his spine.
"Before he hit the ground, everyone in the bank turned around and let go a volley, and the two of them fell instantly."
"No!" The robber against the window almost gasped.
"Oh, yes." The Parson nodded sagely. "It's not the first time it's happened, either. Why, one of our schoolgirls killed two robbers singlehandedly not two months ago, and before that, the bank manager came out with a bung starter and beat the holdup plumb to death with it."
The two looked at one another uncomfortably.
"Say, you wouldn't be funnin' me now, would you?" the nearer of the two asked.
The Parson's expression was positively doleful.
"People don't realize it's not wise to cause trouble, especially" -- he looked around, then leaned confidentially toward the two, and they leaned toward him -- "especially not with that pale-eyed sheriff!" He winked to emphasize his words.
The air hissed under their feet and the few cars banged together as the train slowed.
"Firelands," the conductor called cheerfully, the sound surging in around him as he came through the door at the end of the car. "Firelands! All out for Firelands!"
"Firelands," the one hissed, and the other swallowed hard.
"Well, this is my stop," the Parson said, and stood slowly, with a pained expression. "You fellas --"
"Don't try it," a cold voice said, and there was a single, quiet click as something dropped into its full cock notch.
The scene froze for a long moment.
The first robber had thought to take a hostage, and had a pistol in one hand, and was reaching for the Parson's coat with the other.
He looked at the half inch bore of the pale eyed deputy's rifle.
Jacob had boarded the train as it slowed for Firelands, and timed his entry with the conductor's, while the pair was obviously distracted by the Parson.
"I'd listen to the man, son," the Parson said in a fatherly tone, and the robber looked down as the Parson's .44 bulldog clickity-clicked and stopped at full cock.

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Linn Keller 7-21-11

 

 "But Daddy, I wanna twyit!"
The Sheriff looked over at his little girl and smiled.
"Angela," he said in a patient Daddy-voice, "I really don't --"
"But I can jump an' Mommy said not to jump an' Wozie-bud jumped over da fence wail an' I didden fall off!" Angela protested, one run-on sentence without taking a breath.
The Sheriff considered his little girl, realizing on the one hand that she would have less mass to move than he, that she had rubber bones and he didn't, that she was a natural horsewoman: on the other hand, he thought, she is but a wee child, she has not the strength in her legs for what he'd done --
They both turned their mounts, looking toward the source of approaching hoofbeats.
Jacob rode up, looking at once tall, slender, young and handsome.
The Sheriff smiled quietly, taking pride in his firstborn son: Angela, however, had no such reserve.
"Jacob!" she squealed, bouncing a little in her saddle and throwing her arms wide.
Jacob rode up alongside her and leaned over in his saddle, taking her under the arms and pulling her into him: he gave her a big, arm-wrapping, big-brother hug, then he grabbed her ankles and turned her upside down, spilling a big pile of giggles out of the red-faced little girl and drawing a laugh from their grinning father.
Jacob got his sister back upright and kissed her on the forehead.
"Now what are you doing clear out here?" he asked, and Angela's smile flashed momentarily before she remembered she was supposed to be pouting: still held by Jacob's big, strong hands, she crossed her arms and ran her bottom lip out, giving her Daddy a sidelong glance: unable to hold the pout, she laughed again.
"I wannada jump ontada twain like Daddy did!" she declared, "an' he don' wanna lemme!"
"Slow down now, slow down," Jacob said, picking her up and setting her back down in front of him, crosswise, her legs sticking to port.
Rosebud was a creature of habit: with no rider in the saddle and the reins a-dangle, she decided it was a good time to graze.
"You wanted to do what?" Jacob asked, blinking.
"I wanna wide up besideada twain an' jumponnit!"
"While it's moving?"
Angela nodded briskly, eyes big and sincere, curls bouncing around her face.
Jacob looked over at his father and the Sheriff sighed.
"Let's try just jumping first," Jacob suggested. "I know the very place!"
"Okay!" Angela clapped her little hands.
"You'll have to get back on Rosebud first."
Angela squirmed and thrust her foot out toward the saddle: Jacob still had a good grip on her and so leaned over and helped her back into the seat.
Jacob could see the curiosity in his father's eyes.
"Sir?" Jacob asked. "With your permission?"
The Sheriff extended a hand, palm up: Go ahead, the gesture said, and Jacob grinned and turned his Apple-horse.
Angela fell in beside him and the Sheriff followed, curious as to what his son had in mind.

Esther was able to tidy the affairs of her office rather early: Shorty was surprised when the dignified, red-haired matron presented herself at his livery to collect her mount: she was riding her husband's Sun-Witch that day, and so far the Witch had nipped at Shorty some half a dozen times, plucked the bandana from his pocket half that many times, and begged a petting twice that number: though the bent-backed hostler respected her bite, he also knew the horse to have a generally good nature, and as long as he avoided those even, yellow teeth, why, she was a good enough nag.
Shorty fetched the Witch out, politely ignoring his bandanna dangling like a trophy flag from the mare's mouth: he spun the saddle blanket over her back, twitched it straight, ignoring the waving cloth, even when the Sun-Witch turned her head to look at him.
It wasn't until he'd gotten Esther's saddle to his satisfaction that he reached for the bridle, looked at the Witch's head, and declared, "Now look-a there! She took my bandana! Ag'in! Don't that beat all!" -- and Esther smiled quietly as Shorty took the bandana, and rubbed the mare's ears, and whispered to her a little.
He stuffed the bandana back in his hip pocket, carelessly thrusting it back in place, and fed her the bit: he hummed and muttered the way he always did when working with horses, and between the gentling voice and the strong but gentle hands, the Sun-Witch stood for her bridling, and even let him rub her nose a little and tell her she was a good girl.
Shorty turned, reins in hand, and walked Bruja del Sol over to Esther, and it wasn't until she'd mounted and hesitated that he realized the Sun-Witch had picked his hind pocket again.

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Linn Keller 7-22-11

 

Tom Landers slurped his vanilla coffee quietly, brushed the moisture from his well groomed handlebar.
"I expected you were a card sharper," he said.
"I was," the fellow said, and raised his beer mug for a slow swallow.
Tom Landers considered this.
"I never seen a man pick a pocket that easy." The aging lawman looked at the dandy in his tan, tailored suit and matching top hat and frowned. "I been around the horn an' over the mountain an' I never saw it done that easy!"
The dandy nodded, smiled sadly.
"I am good at it," he admitted.
"How come you didn't sit down to a game o' poker an' just clean house?"
The dandy considered some secret half-glimpsed at the bottom of his beer mug and considered his answer.
"I had a religious experience," he admitted as if half-ashamed of the fact.
"Do tell," Tom Landers said skeptically.
The stranger took another drink of beer, sighed.
"It's hard to get a good cool beer out here," he murmured. "This is good."
Tom Landers made no reply.
The stranger sighed.
"I cheated games all up and down the Mississippi and most of the Ohio," he said, "I skinned players out of their eye teeth in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. I've cheated high stakes game up and down the East Coast and I was good at it." He looked sharply at Tom Landers.
"I was very good."
Tom Landers grunted.
"I have picked pockets and lifted wallets, plucked watches and purses and treasures from pockets and waistbands and made it look easy."
"Now that, I believe." Tom Landers nodded his thanks to the waitress who topped off his coffee cup.
The dandy sniffed appreciatively. "You don't get real coffee too often out here, either."
"We do okay."
A cowhand came up and looked at the top-hatted dandy quizzically.
"Now just how in the hail," he asked, "did you do that?"
"Do what?" the man blinked, and Landers felt more than saw a subtle change come over the stranger.
"When you took Sandy's watch yonder!" the 'poke exclaimed, turning a little and gesturing toward his fellow, who was holding his watch by the chain, contemplating the timepiece curiously, as if he half blamed the device for its own theft.
"Why, I don't believe --" the fellow said, making a quick move with his right hand, pointing to the same man as the cowpoke, causing the cowhand to pull his head back a little, surprised -- "I don't believe there was anything to it. By the way," he continued, handing the cowhand a watch on a braided-hair chain, "I beleive this is yours."
The cowhand's eyes widened.
"I'll be damned," he breathed. "How'd you --"
"My good man, you must be wealthy indeed," the dandy said in the oily tones of a confidence man: his hand brushed the cattleman's ear and came away with a silver dollar: "A man who keeps money with his hat band is rich indeed!"
"He -- I -- how?"
Tom Landers' smile never made it past the corners of his eyes: the old lawman knew the usefulness of a poker face in more venues than when jousting over pasteboards.
"Actually, this one is mine," the confidence man said, slipping the silver dollar in a vest pocket, then withdrew a dirty cloth poke from his coat pocket.
"This, however, is yours."
The cowhand's chin sagged as the swindler handed him back his own small purse, which by the way contained the balance of his worldly wealth.
"Now I'll be sawed off and dipped in swill," he swore quietly. "I have seen everything."
The cowhand went away, shaking his head and muttering, and Mr. Baxter managed to remain invisible behind the gleaming mahogany as he burnished its mirrored surface: word traveled fast in a small town and business had picked up as the curious came to see this marvel of larceny, this showman of swindlers, this professional pickpocket who'd passed his hat three times and come away with enough coin for a meal, a bath and a room each time.
Tom Landers was a curious man, but patient: patience, though, has its limits, and he finally inquired, "What was that religious experience you talked about?"
"Oh! yes, that!" The confidence man turned, facing the aging law dawg, leaned his left elbow on the bar.
"I was judiciously cheating a game near Sacramento," he said quietly, his forehead wrinkling slightly at the memory. "Miners, mostly, a few ranchers, some businessmen, a couple fellows I couldn't quite place.
"One was ... I didn't know what he was."
He looked at Landers through lowered eyebrows.
"That should have been my warning.
"I cheated each of them in turn, carefully but slowly increasing my winnings. At times I cheated them all to get a man to stay in the game, turning the winnings his way, because I knew if he was winning he would stay in and I could milk him all the more.
"When the game was over, this fellow I couldn't place spoke up and announced that every man at that table had been cheated and by a master of the art.
"He allowed as he would visit divine retribution on the cheater unless things were squared up.
"When we left the table every man had every cent he started with, but I will never, ever forget just how hard and unforgiving those eyes were."
"Is that all he used, those eyes?"
"No."
The dandy tilted his head back and drained the rest of his beer: so far did he haul his noggin rearward with the effort, that he had to reach up to hold his fine tan top hat in place.
"No. Not just his eyes." He coughed a little, let the mug dangle from long, spatulate fingers.
"I heard his pistol come to full cock under the table."
He looked directly at Landers.
"It sounded like the voice of God, speaking to a sinner."
"Hm," Tom Landers grunted skeptically.
"One thing has bothered me ever since," the man admitted.
"How's that?"
He opened his coat, slipped long fingers into an inner pocket and fished about a bit.
"This."
He pulled out a watch.
It was nothing fancy: silver and unadorned, without engraving or insignia; a plain chain with no fob.
"This was his." He held it up to eye level, watched as it turned slowly, catching the light.
"I've never found him to give it back."
His voice was distant, his voice thoughtful.
"If he hadn't given me that religious experience, someone better at cheating than I would have called me on it and shot me long ago."
"What do you figger on doin'?"
"I understand your Sheriff has pale eyes."
Landers stiffened.
"He knows the man this belongs to."
"Oh?"
The confidence man turned and lowered the watch into Tom Landers' mechanically-extended hand.
"The Sheriff knows the owner."
Landers looked at the watch, looked at the confidence man.
"It belongs to a man named Sopris."

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Linn Keller 7-24-11

 

"Howdy, Parson!"
I didn't have to draw the reins to bring Rose-horse to a stop: she read my shift in the saddle and maybe she just knew that when I run acrost someone I would likely stop and Jaw Bone for a bit.
I'm predictable that-a-way.
Parson Belden drew his nag to a halt and fetched back on the brake to hold her there. He had the quiet, pleased look of a man who'd just done some good work, and as we were right near Charlie's place, why, my curiosity was up.
"If you're lookin' to fork up some hay, Sheriff," he replied with a smile, "you're either late or just in time, depending on your lazy nature!"
"O-kaay," I hazarded, "that tells me either he's got a whole field of the stuff to shock and stack, or it's done and over with!"
The Parson laughed, the good healthy laugh of a man at peace with the world.
"It's cut, raked, shocked, forked, up in his barn and stuffed in just as much as we could get in there!" he declared. "The man is hard headed and contrary as any I have ever met! I told him we could get more in there and he said damned if he'd have some machine mash his good hay all into a brick!"
It was my turn to laugh, for I knew Charlie, and hard headed he was, but then so was I.
"He did as much work as he could," the Parson added, "but Fannie rode herd on him and a good thing. I think he was close to tearin' some o' those half healed cuts o' his by the look of his face."
I nodded.
Charlie was not the kind to sit by while someone else labored: he'd as soon jump in elbow deep and work harder than any man there. I know, I've worked beside the man and he just plain worked my skinny butt right into the ground.
Matter of fact one fine day he worked me to a frazzle, we went out and danced all night and come back and did it again the next day!
That's when we were both younger, of course ... I think it was a year and a half ago or thereabouts. He danced with Fannie and I with Esther except when we were dancing with about every other married and unmarried gal there.
The ladies considered Charlie and I safe, y'see.
I'm not sure I'm really comfortable with that.
Every man likes to think he's a randy old goat deep inside, at least a little bit, but after Esther got her lunch hooks into me I honestly never give another woman a serious look-at.
Maybe that's why they trust us.
Hell, I dunno. I can read men like a book but I look at a woman and I might as well look off to the far snowy peaks, for women are a mystery and I have the hardest time reading them, except when they're clouded up and rainin' all over me.
Parson Belden took a look at the baskets I had hung over my saddle bags.
"You feedin' the man too?" he asked, and I saw two wicker baskets in the back of his buggy.
"Yeah," I replied. "Didn't figger it would be polite to head out and expect him to feed me."
Parson Belden leaned back and laughed again.
"If good food helps heal, the man ought to be well enough by sunup," he said. "Once we got his hay up, why, he et enough for two men and so did I, and there was some left over!"
I nodded.
"Well, if he can't clean his plate, this'll keep. Little there to spoil."
"Sheriff, did I see your little Angela riding the other day?"
There was something in his voice -- curiosity, and something else, I wasn't sure quite what.
"She's been a-ridin' near every day, Parson. She'll look at me with them big eyes and ask if we can go ride, and either Esther or I will take the time to ride with her."
Parson Belden nodded and I saw a sadness cross his face; he blinked twice, dismissing it.
"Sheriff," he said, "cherish the time you have with her, and spend all the time you can with her. Those are memories that will last her a lifetime."
I nodded.
I wasn't sure if the Parson knew about my little girl back East or not, but I knew he had lost a child as well, and at a tender age.
"You were askin' if she was a-ridin' ... by herself, or with one of us?"
Parson Belden returned to the here-and-now and nodded. "No, by herself." He frowned at his dash board and seemed to come to some decision.
"Sheriff, if I'd not seen it I would not have believed it."
I leaned forward a little.
It wasn't often the Parson said anything of the kind, and I wished to hear his words, for he had my curiosity up.
"Your Angela was riding barefoot, with her stockings in one hand and her shoes in the other."
He hesitated, and I imagined Angela laughing, holding her arms out, wind in her hair and laughter in her heart.
"She was standing in the saddle, Sheriff, and that little Rosebud of hers was running at a fair gallop, and Angela had her arms out like she was flying!"
I blinked.
This wasn't quite what I expected to hear.
The Parson raised his hand in salute, and I mine: he clucked to his mare, and I lifted Rose's reins, and he headed back for town; and I, out to Charlie's.

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Linn Keller 7-26-11

 

Charlie gave me kind of a hard look, somewhere between skeptical and figuring me to be impolite at the very least.
"You went up there?"
"Yep."
Charlie's bottom jaw run out and he and I turned our attention to the provender on our plates.
We et for another few minutes and Miz Fannie filled our coffee cups while we did full justice to the good back strap she'd fixed: I'd long since inhaled my taters and gravy and the greens she'd b'iled up for us.
I could feel Miz Fannie's eyes on me.
Miz Fannie was a deep woman, and complicated.
She could be patient and listen and piece something together from the conversation -- both its spoken, and its unspoken components -- but she had an impatient streak in her too, just like every law dawg I've ever known: so far she had a good holt on the impatient reins but it was taking her an effort to keep it held back.
I took a long breath and reached for my ceramic coffee mug, hesitated, then added a long drizzle of good cream.
Bless you, Miz Fannie, I thought, for coffee is much more to my taste when I can lighten it with cow squeezin's.
"I rode right up to the foot of Sopris Mountain, just bold as brass," I said finally, and Charlie's knife hesitated for a moment -- but a very brief moment -- and he began cutting again, slower this time, and I looked up at Miz Fannie.
Had I been a butterfly, those eyes would have run an impaling pin through my carcass and nailed me to a board just sure as you're born.
"I know the way to his cabin, and the trail was still there.
"It had been some long time since a wagon had cut tracks.
"I rode slow, knowin' at some point he would know I was there."
Charlie grunted, glaring at me from under shaggy eyebrows.
He remembered -- as did I -- that Agent Sopris, or the Reverend Sopris, or however he was titled now that he'd told the world to go climb a tree -- had allowed as he was going to leave the world alone and they could darn well leave him alone, and if he wanted company he'd ride out and find some.
I respected that.
"I rode far as Duzy's grave," I said slowly, remembering the ride, remembering how it smelled, remembering sunlight dappling through the trees, remembering the grave itself ... a little clearing, a bench, and there it was, neat, tended ...
"I recall thinking to myself, She would like this place, and I just set there for a long while and looked at that stone."
I looked away, blinked: my eyes started to sting and I did not want Charlie to see it, nor Miz Fannie for that matter.
I reached for a slice of bread, picked up the cut glass butter dish lid.
My hand was shaking a little.
I willed it to steadiness.
Didn't help.
I buttered the bread anyhow and set the knife carefully back on the lip of the butter dish, replaced the domed cap.
"I'd put that watch and a letter in a tin box," I said distantly.
"I figure he could see me from his place, or wherever he might be hidin'.
"I didn't make no effort to look around for him.
"I set down on that-there bench and looked at Duzy's grave for a long time and finally I stood up and set that tin box on the bench.
"I had my hat in my hand yet and I spoke in no particular direction.
" 'Some fella come into town and said this belonged to you,'" I said.
"'I figured this was the best way to fetch it to ya."
I set my skypiece back on my scalp and reached for Rose's reins.
"You know how you watch your horse."
Charlie nodded, once.
"I saw she was a-lookin' at somethin' and her ears come forward like she was curious.
"I got swung up into the saddle and turned my back to that-there bench and started back down the trail.
"I reined up after maybe twenty foot and turned around.
"The box was gone."
Miz Fannie set a pie down on the table, picked up a worn knife: its wooden handle, once square, was now almost round; the rivets stuck out some from the side, corners and edges were worn smooth, the edge of the blade bellied in from years of sharpening.
She sliced the pie in half, turned it, sliced it in half again: setting the knife aside, she slid a broad ... well, it looked like a shrunk down brick mason's trowel, underneath a fourth of the pie, lifted it out and set it on a plate: she handed it to me, dished one out for Charlie, and one for her.
Charlie stabbed the flaky, sugar-dusted crust with his fork, clinking the tines loudly into the plate beneath.
"Did you see him?"
I hesitated in my own four-tined assault on Miz Fannie's fragrant dessert.
"I didn't see the man, I never heard him, I didn't even smell him."
Charlie nodded.
"Didn't surprise me," I added. "He said he wanted left alone so I figured to do just that."
Charlie was silent for another good long while.
Finally he gave his pronouncement on the situation.
"Now that's good pie," he said.
I figured that would be the last word.
I figured wrong.
When I finally took my leave -- after a good long visit, for I missed Charlie's company -- I found a rolled up note tied to my saddle horn with a single horse hair.
I froze when I saw it and cold water trickled right down my back bone.
I drew the roleau out of its clove-hitch home and unrolled it.
The handwriting was familiar, the message lengthy:
Thank you.
The signature was a drawing of a rose.

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Linn Keller 7-27-11

 

 Sarah's back was straight, her shoulders back; her expression was one of quiet concentration, almost an absent expression: black notes on white paper flowed in through her eyes and out her fingers, and Bonnie, approaching the house, stopped and listened.
The parlor window was open and the grand piano's voice carried on the afternoon air: Sarah had a taste for waltzes, difficult though they were, and she took pains to practice when Bonnie was in her dressmaking works and away from the house, for Sarah did not want her Mama to hear how badly she'd started these beautiful works.
Badly, that is, in her own ears: to the maid, to her mother, Sarah's playing was beautiful.
Perhaps it was well that they could not hear Sarah's thoughts, or feel her anger, when she hit an off note, or her timing was not quite what she thought it should be: there were times when she attacked the keyboard like a personal enemy, driving her will through her fingertips and into the ivories; other times, like this afternoon, she was in an altered state.
It has been said that listening to music, fencing and lovemaking are all best done from the subconscious: so it was when playing the piano: when Sarah disconnected her conscious, thinking, rational mind and played from her soul, the music flowed from within her, through the interfacing keys and out the window as a minor river of audible beauty.
Sarah's eyes drifted from the printed page: she had hit her stride and she was loath to take her hands from the keyboard to turn the page, and so she played from memory, she played for the love of playing.
Bonnie slipped into the house, crept across the foyer, cautiously peeked into their parlor.
Bonnie's expression softened as she saw her little girl, not very little anymore; Bonnie bit her bottom lip as she realized her Sarah was growing up, that Sarah was looking quite lovely in her McKenna gown, with her hair carefully styled.
Bonnie's eyes were those of a loving mother in a moment of deep affection.
Bonnie's eyes missed a minor detail of Sarah's attire.
Sarah was wearing a belt with her gown, a belt mostly hidden by an accidental drape of the fabric: Sarah's left side was to her mother's view: had Bonnie seen her daughter from the opposite side of the room, she would have probably considered how Sarah's taste in fashion might differ from her own.
Sarah, you see, had been out across the back field and in a little draw earlier: she'd taken a few boxes of .22 shorts and the engraved revolver her Uncle Linn had gifted her, and she took a box of marble sized, dried-clay spheres she'd rolled and sun-dried.
Sarah took a marble in her left hand and cocked the engraved .22 in her right: she brought both up together, she found the flying marble, and she turned it into red powder, drifting on the still air.
The gullied draw was accidentally perfect to direct sound away from the house and the dress-works, and Sarah was using shorts, which had less of a bark: she was not yet ready to try shooting left handed again, especially when her forearm began to feel ... well, it was just shy of an ache, which told her she'd had enough fun for one day.
Sarah was not going to let her arm get away with that.
She rode her late Papa's racer back to the barn and turned him into the side pasture: she hung up saddle and bridle and went into the house, washed up and changed clothes, pausing before the mirror as she styled her hair up.
She flexed her left hand, made a fist, opened her hand and glared at her scarred forearm.
"You are going to work," she whispered. "Peacefully, or otherwise, and I do not care which!"
So saying, she lifted her skirts and strode purposefully into the parlor, sorted through the sheet music until she found what she was looking for, seated herself and spread her hands over the keyboard.
Bonnie did not know any of this.
She drew back from the doorway and stood for a long time, listening, a faraway look on her face as she remembered an earlier age when she was that lovely girl playing the piano, and her Mama looked in on her with an expression of pride ...

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Linn Keller 7-29-11

 

The Sheriff offered no comment.
He was behind his desk, hat brim pulled down a little: before him, his open journal -- the larger one, the official record of his office's goings-on -- a couple wanted posters, an ink-pot and a worse-for-wear slip of blotting paper: he was leaned back in his chair, hands across his trim belly, fingers interlaced.
The agitated young lady before him noticed almost none of this.
If a corn husk dummy was behind the desk instead of the living, breathing Sheriff, chances are fair she would not have noticed: so wrapped up in her own problems was she, that her vision was for her own difficulties, and not for the world around her.
She'd ridden in on the stage, having said not three words to the four other passengers: she'd kept a kerchief pressed to her nose most of the way, not out of affectation but rather because her eyes were red, watering, grief-filled: on impulse, she'd nearly leaped from the stage when it stopped: she ran into the middle of the street, looked around wildly, snatched her skirts and ran toward the Sheriff's office.
She paused to ask a local if the Sheriff was in.
"Yes, ma'am, Soapy's in," the local drawled, hat in his hand: for all that he was a loafer and a man lacking in industry, he was at heart a gentleman, and when a young lady approached it was ever his habit to remove his hat and speak gently to her -- a habit reinforced rather ungenty in the Sheriff's first days in office.
"Thank you," she whispered, not trusting her voice: her gloved hand rested momentarily on his breast, then she was gone: loafer or not, in that moment, having felt the touch of a lovely young lady in distress, he would have braved a dragon and slew a Gorgon, with her image shining in his eyes.
Jacob, annoyed at the top hinge's perpetual squeak, had oiled it that morning, and worked it a little: satisfied at its silence, he'd gone his way, for he had business in the south of the county that day, and would likely be back after sunset: the young woman's entrance was marked by a rush of silence.
"Sheriff, I'm sorry to just burst in on you like this," she said in her habitually-soft voice, "but my Papa told me if I were ever in a strange town and I needed good sound advice, I should look up the local Sheriff." She averted her eyes, wrung the kerchief in her hands.
"I suppose I am being a foolish girl." She pressed her kerchief to her nose.
"A young man asked me to marry him and I said yes." She paced a little as she talked, her step light, her heels almost inaudible on the smooth plank floor. "I didn't ask Papa first, I just ..."
Twin streams cascaded down her cheeks.
"I should have asked," she whispered, then continued.
"Papa told me he was a fine young man and he had already asked Papa for my hand. I didn't know this. I was all giddy and --" she almost giggled -- "I danced all the way home. It felt like I was floating. I ..."
The young woman bowed her head, blotted the tears from her pretty young face.
"I got scared, Sheriff. I ran.
"I ran and the stage was ready to leave, and I bought passage and ..."
She swallowed.
She hadn't the courage to look at the dignified man behind the desk, the silent, patient, fatherly figure who was listening with the wisdom of someone who knew what it was to be a girl's Papa.
"I was so foolish," she whispered. "He's a fine young man, and Papa approves of him, and ..."
She sobbed once, then she took a long breath and straightened her spine, raised her head.
"Sheriff, thank you. I suppose I needed someone to ... someone who would actually listen to me."
She turned and drew the heavy door open, closed it quietly behind her.
A minute or two later, the stage jingled out of town with its usual clatter.
The Sheriff, unmoving, his hat tilted down a little, with his office journal open before him, with a ink-pot and blotting paper and a couple wanted dodgers on his desk, began to snore gently, his lips puffing out under his sweeping grey mustache.

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Linn Keller 7-30-11

 

Angela put her hands on her hips and looked at her big brother rather crossly.
Jacob had piled hay on a flat wagon and had intended to have Angela practice jumping from her saddle to the wagon bed, with her Rosebud standing still.
Once she could do this reliably, he thought, he would harness a team to the wagon and pull it along at a walk, and have her jump from the saddle while her mare walked beside the wagon: again, with practice, pick up the pace slightly, then a little more.
Jacob had instructed Angela to jump into the stationary wagon.
Angela looked at the wagon, looked at the hay, and had declared her opinion of the entire operation.
"Jacob," she said, frowning, "you're silly!"
Jacob looked at his little sis with a mixture of patience and exasperation.
"Sis," he said, "trust me."
"Jacobdatdon'tlooklikenowailwoadcar!" Angela slurred her syllables together, removing her hands from her waist and crossing her arms with a sudden "Hmph!"
Jacob rubbed Rosebud's nose, fed her a tobacco shaving.
"Sis, see here," he said. "You want to learn how to jump on the railroad car."
Angela's head nodded briskly, finger-curls bouncing vigorously on either side of her apple-cheeked complexion.
"I'm going to show you the trick to it but you've got to trust me!"
Angela's expression was openly skeptical.
"Jumping onto the car is simple," he said. "But what about afterward? What do you do? Ride the train until it stops?"
"Oh." Angela's face dropped its rebellion and her brows wrinkled a little.
"If you want to jump on the rail car, that's simple."
Angela nodded again, slowly this time.
"Getting you off the car isn't quite so easy."
Angela's expression was a little troubled.
"Now let's try the jumping on first."
"But how do I get off?" Angela wailed. "Idon'wannawidedatwain!"
Jacob blinked.
"Do you think maybe it's a bad idea and we ought to forget it?"
Angela nodded, holding her arms out.
Jacob reached up and Angela flowed out of the saddle into her big brother's lean, strong arms.
Jacob held his little sis and she held him, and he thought Maybe all she wanted was to be held, at least until she squirmed and pushed away from him far enough to look into his face and declare, "I'm hungwy!"

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Linn Keller 8-2-11

 

"YE COME BACK HERE, YE SLIPPERY LITTLE-- *oof!*"
Daisy leaned back a little, just far enough to see her husband sprawled full length on the floor.
"He's fast, isn't he?" she called impishly as Little Sean squealed and scampered, barefoot, into the next room.
Perhaps "barefoot" isn't quite the right term.
The rest of him was just as bare as his little pink feet.
Sean fairly bounced off the floor, reminding Daisy of an indiginant cat hit with a sudden splash of very cold water, and he took two powerful strides toward the doorway when there was the THUMP of a hard Irish head hitting something, followed by the youthful howl of a little boy who'd gone from laughing flight to distressed collision.
Sean disappeared around the corner, towel over one arm, and came back at a considerably lesser velocity, holding the red-faced, howling little red-headed lad, rubbing the towel gently around him and murmuring fatherly reassurances that were absolutely, totally overpowered by the pained squalling of his red-faced, head-rubbing progeny.
"Come, now, let's have a look," Daisy said briskly, advancing impatiently toward Sean's funereal tread: she took Little Sean's chin in one hand, turning his head, and with the other hand, pushed his hand aside and explored the curly red hair with experienced fingers.
"Hmp," she said. "Ye're a typical hard-headed Irishman, y'are," she said as Little Sean regarded her with brimming eyes: finding no sudden outpouring of maternal comfort, his face screwed up all over again and the howling storm began again, until Daisy seized the dangling corner of the towel, wiped the lad's face and brought her nose down even with his.
"Ye'll no' die, ye wee lad," she said, the gentleness in her voice belying the unmsympathetic words: "nex' time now ye remember no' runnin' i' th' house!"
Little Sean rubbed his head, his bottom lip shoved out until it hung down to about his belly button, and Big Sean bounced him once on his muscled arm.
"Come now, lad," he rumbled, "let's get some clothes on ye. Ye'll ha'e the women chasin' after ye next, buck naked tha' y' are!"
Daisy swatted at her husband, a mischevious expression on her face: "Don't go givin' th' lad ideas, now!" she scolded. "I r'member ye were quite th' ladies' mon i' yer younger days!"
"Ma younger days?" Sean declared with mock indignation. "Wha's this about ma younger days?"
Daisy gave him a look that promised much, and Sean's grin grew, slowly, and his expression was bordering on openly lecherous.
"Later, m'love," Daisy whispered as she laid a caressing hand on her husband's lightly stubbled cheek, and Sean gave her a smoldering look.
"Daisy," he said, his voice thick, "had I no' an armful --"
Daisy placed her finger over his lips.
"I know," she whispered, her eyes bright.
Sean kissed her finger, humming a deep, musical note deep in his chest.
Little Sean squealed and wiggled out of his Pa's distracted grasp: he hit the floor running, and scampered into the next room.
"Ye scamp!" Sean roared. "I'm a-comin' after ye!" -- and so saying, gave noisy pursuit, and Daisy heard the delighted laugh of both of her men as Sean snatched his son off the floor and swung him upside down, and Little Sean happily walked on the ceiling, secure and safe in his Pa's strong hands.

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Linn Keller 8-4-11

 

The main street of Firelands was not terribly long.
It was at once transport, freight conduit, livestock transfer and stage.
Firelands itself was considered too small for the circus to stage a performance, but it was sufficient to warrant colorful broadside posters, put up by three-man teams of two roustabouts and one colorfully-dressed and grease-painted clown.
Two posters had gone up when a rider came galloping slowly through the street.
The diminutive horse had gilded hooves, scarlet saddle and bridle, ribbons in its mane and hair; the rider was ... well, the rider could have been a fairy, or an angel: the rider was diminutive, feminine, and standing upright in her saddle.
She rode the length of the main street, knowing her first trip through would be but lightly attended; the second trip, she knew, would have a few curious faces, and by her third trip, the populace would be out in force, and she could shout gaily that the circus was passing through, and would be in Cripple Creek for the week's performance, come one, come all!
She was followed at a distance of perhaps forty feet by another diminutive female rider, one well known to the residents, though not known to most as a rider of any great accomplishment: whether the natives were more startled by a fairy creature a-horse, or the Sheriff's little girl riding her Rosebud while standing barefoot in the saddle, could be a matter of conjecture.
The circus rider turned a couple hundred yards past the fine brick firehouse, smiling a little as the red-shirted Irishmen swung their double doors open, and came out to view the sight: the fact that the face-painted equestrienne suddenly had a riding partner, however, was ... surprising.
Especially when the equestrienne's partner was as upright in the saddle as she.
Angela gave her a bright, innocent smile and a cheerful "Hello!" -- startled, the circus performer blurted "Hello!" -- and then she bent forward, grasping the front edge of her saddle with delicate fingers, bending well over and extending her right leg above and behind, her other hand grasping her ankle, and galloped back up the street.
Not to be outdone, Angela balanced on one foot, bent over and seized the saddle horn with her off hand: she bent over in the identical manner and hooked her flattened fingers around the front of her shin, and Rosebud paced after the circus rider, faithfully following at a set distance.
The Irish Brigade whistled and cheered, calling Angela's name.
Angela had a death grip on the saddle horn and it was the very limit of her ability to keep her place on her saddle, but she managed, and she and the circus performer paused at the end of the street.
By now they had an audience, which is what the circus performer wanted.
This time she grasped the bars cleverly built into the saddle-skirt and did a hand stand: perfectly upright, she rode down the main street with her legs and pointed toes precisely aligned at the blue zenith above.
Angela dropped into a conventional seat, and followed at her former twenty yards, until she was in front of the Jewel ... then she stopped Rosebud and looked over at the crowd on the boardwalk.
Pointing after the retreating, costumed circus rider, she announced with a child's honesty, "I can't do that!" -- and on the still morning air, her words carried even to the Irish Brigade.
There was laughter, and applause; the Brigade started at a brisk pace up the street as the circus rider cantered up the hard packed throughway, announcing the week's performance.
Angela found herself surrounded by a native crowd: hands pounded her thighs and her back, hands grasped hers; her name was shouted, hats tossed in the air, and finally she was plucked out of the saddle and carried on men's shoulders, and borne triumphantly into the Jewel.
A tall, slender young man gathered Rosebud's reins, and walked down the middle of the street to the costumed performer, suddenly alone save for the roustabouts brushing posters up on walls.
The young man stopped and touched his hat brim deferentially.
"Miss," he said politely, "that was some excellent riding."
"Thank you," she said, and her voice was that of someone no longer a girl but not yet a woman, whose face was painted where perhaps natural beauty would have served better, and whose revealing costume was appropriate for the circus but nowhere else.
She looked long after the crowd that bore the laughing girl into the Jewel, and the tall, slender young man waited, knowing her thoughts would be audible, and he was right.
"I don't know who she is," she said sadly, "but I would give all that I have for that."

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Linn Keller 8-6-11

 

"Now who's that feller in them red an' yeller striped pajammers?"
The two ranch hands slouched comfortably against the front of the Jewel, ignoring the light film of dust that covered the clap boards.
"Attair is Hoo Doo."
"Yeah?" the one replied skeptically. "Now sints when does the like o' you keep good company with th' likes o' them?" His outthrust chin indicated the muscled roustabouts with their worn Derbies thrust aggressively forward.
"Now that shows how much yer learnin' has been neglected."
"Oh now horse feathers, Clarence! I got as much educatin' as you!"
"You ain't bin past fourth grade! An' don't call me Clarence!"
"I bin past fourth grade, you rock skull!"
"You ain't neither! You was in my brother's class an' you run off b'fore you got there!"
"Now that ain't so an' you know it!"
The two glared good naturedly at one another and then looked back to the trio as they finished putting up the last poster.
"Hoo Doo, y'say?"
"Yep." He spat a brown stream into the dirt street, just missing the hitch rail.
"Attair is a witch doctor."
"Witch doctor, hey?" He eyed the gaudy fellow with screaming orange hair and the little bitty yellow derby hat skeptically. "Don't look like no witch doctor I ever seen!"
"Maybe that's 'cause yew ain't never seen one afore!"
"Ah, the hell with it. I want some beer."
With that wise pronouncement, the educated pair turned and hauled open the ornate double doors to the Silver Jewel.

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Linn Keller 8-7-11

 

I had him by the scruff of the neck.
He wasn't getting away and he knew it.
I shot a look to Mr. Baxter and he nodded, once.
I hauled him back to my corner table and let go of my good hand full of cloth goods.
"Set," I said, and he set.
I drug out my own chair and set myself down as well.
Mr. Baxter followed us at a discreet distance, a mug of beer in each hand: he set them down, gave me an inquiring look, raised one eyebrow.
I gave him the briefest of nods, hung my hat on the peg overhead.
"Well, give an account of yourself, lad," I said in a fatherly tone: "I have not seen you for a coon's age!"
He nodded, looking a little embarrassed, then he grinned that broad, boyish grin I remembered so well.
"You were right, Colonel," he said, his voice a little raspy: I saw the scar on his throat, where a saber-slash had nearly sliced open his swaller pipe: I'd heard he survived the injury and someone told me years later he survived the war, but that bright morning when I carried him in my arms, running hard as I could for the surgeon's tent, with him clinging to my coat-sleeve with one hand and holding his head up to keep it from falling back and gaping open his throat wound with the other, I would not have give two second hand cigar stubs for his chances.
"Kind of glad I was," I said, "but it's been long enough ago I forget what was I right about?"
Starr grinned.
He'd been a likeable young soldier with a ready grin and an easy manner; like any young man in that damned war, he learned early on to take the hard with the easy and get by as best he could: he never shirked an assignment, he had a soft voice and he was one of the only men I ever knew that never, ever swore.
"When you laid me down on the surgeon's table," he said. "You laid a hand on my forehead and said you wanted to hear that I'd lived and gone home and raised a passel of kids with a good lookin' wife and raised enough corn to sink a Lake Erie freighter." He laughed a little, looking into the mystery hidden in the mug of rising amber bubbles.
He looked up.
"I did just that, Colonel."
I nodded.
"I married my Violette an' we had three girls and four boys."
"Good Lord, man," I smiled, "are you raisin' your own regiment?"
Starr laughed again, and the sound was pleasant on my ear.
"Wellsir," he grinned, "they eat like it!"
I nodded, grinning my own self: my Jacob could eat a man out of house and home -- for that matter so could I, when I was hayin' or thrashin' ... a skinny man can eat more than a body would expect, and if Starr's boys took after their Pa, why, they'd likely disappear if they turned sideways in the full sun.
"All y'all back East yet?" I looked up and grinned as Daisy's girl set a plate down, another: Starr looked a little uncomfortable and I raised a cautioning palm.
"Your money's no good here," I said, and he relaxed a little.
"I, ah," he said hesitantly: "Colonel, when I got home, m'family like to fainted.
"They'd just had m'funeral two days before.
"I had to take Pa by his shoulders an' hug Ma before they'd believe I wasn't a ghost."
"Did anyone think you was you?" I asked softly.
Starr laughed.
"Hell, Colonel, you couldn't'a' kep' ma dog away from me with two teams and a club!" he laughed, "an' Violette come downstairs t'see what the fuss an' bother was about -- she'd been livin' with m'folks, bein' betrothed an' all an' me gone t' the War an' her folks dyin' an' all -- why, she come b'ilin' down them stairs an' run up t' me and laid a kiss on me that like t' took m' breath away!"
I nodded, remembering a similar moment with my Connie, when I was home after being wounded.
"Y'know, Colonel," Starr said softly, "it felt kind'a' funny."
"How's that?"
He looked up at me, sadness in his eyes.
"Violette took me out to the family plot an' showed me my tomb stone."
We each picked up our forks and looked at our plates.
"Starr?"
Starr tilted his head a little, planning the assault on his pile of fluffy white taters with its lake of steaming, fragrant gravy: "Yes, sir?"
"I'm just awful glad you was able to look at that stone instead of lay underneath of it."
Starr was silent for several long moments.
"I am too, sir," he said finally, and then we proceeded to work on our meal.

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Linn Keller 8-9-11

 

Lightning's mind was logical and orderly, precise and structured: he thought quickly, in flashes of insight, he could receive and process information quickly and accurately: in snow or in sun, in storm or in calm, he could be counted on for his quick ear and his flawless memory.
Lightning stood and stretched, stepping back from his telegrapher's chair and allowing Fred Jerome to assume the seat: rubbing his eyes, he twisted, bent, worked the stiffness out of his back: it was ever their habit to spell one another on the key every two hours, which is one reason they were both fresh and alert when the need arose.
Lightning opened the door and stepped out onto the roof-shadowed platform, looking down the tracks, pulled out his watch: he didn't really need to know the time, it was just a habit.
The inside cover of his watch was gleaming, flawless silver.
Men of the era normally carried a miniature in their watch, generally of their wife. Some carried a token, a memento, of someone they once knew, discreetly hidden from a living wife; these generally went in the back cover of the watch, with the wife's portrait in the front cover.
Lightning's watch remained unadorned.
His quick ear twitched as he heard the rattle of an approaching buggy.
He looked up and saw Sarah McKenna driving toward him.

"Striker," the girl said, her hand light on the roustabout's arm, "I'm not going back."
Striker blinked.
He looked over at Raleigh the Clown, who was currently opening what had to be the world's tiniest parasol and holding it delicately over his scarlet derby, as if to hold off the world's tiniest rainstorm.
The trick rider petted her trick pony and swallowed hard.
"My Papa gave his life to the circus and Mama died on the circus train after she fell from the trapeze." She looked at the burly, muscled man with the cigar-stub clenched in the corner of his mouth and saw his jaw muscles bulge.
His partner had gone to dispose of some second hand beer, and was only just returning as the roustabout removed the cigar stub and spat out a fleck of tobacco leaf.
"The boss won't like that," he said quietly.
The girl quailed under his gaze, her heart shriveling.
"What about Buttercup?"
The girl's eyes widened and she looked at the trick pony.
They had been inseparable since she'd been orphaned; there was a clear and distinct bond between them.
"I --" -- she hesitated. "I haven't enough to buy her."
"The boss won't let you take her."
"I know a way," the girl said suddenly. "I know a way!"
She backed up quickly, suddenly, and was on Buttercup's back and turned before the roustabout could move.
"Hey!" he shouted after her, his voice hoarse.

Angela was riding down the street on her Rosebud when the pretty circus girl came riding up to her, riding hard, and stopped: Buttercup reared as she'd been trained, windmilling her gilded hooves: the girl spoke to her and Buttercup dropped to all fours and stood, switching her tail and blinking in the sunlight.
Angela tilted her head a little to the side.
"Hello," she said in her little-girl voice.
"I need your help," the circus rider blurted. "I need to make some money fast, who do I talk to?"
Angela's eyes widened.
She'd never been Asked An Adult Question before, and although she knew making money was important, she had little idea how it was done: young though she was, she knew that wisdom wasn't always having the answer on one's tongue-tip, but rather wisdom was knowing where to find out.
"I know!" she exclaimed. "C'mon!"
The circus rider turned her ribboned pony and followed Angela and her mare to the Sheriff's Office.

"You realize folks might think we're courtin'," Lightning kidded Sarah gently.
Sarah laughed, even white teeth gleaming, and her head tilted back a little: her hat matched her gown, and in spite of its impressive surface area and a slight headwind, it remained secure on her head.
I love her laugh, Lightning thought, and realized this was the first time he'd ever allowed himself to genuinely like some unique facet of any female creature.
He was silent for some time after, considering, for this was something foreign to his orderly and logical experience.
Sarah drew up in front of the Sheriff's office, smiling a little as she saw Angela's mare, and almost laughing as she saw the ribboned, gilded, gleaming, gaudy circus pony and its flashy tack and saddle.
The only pony Sarah had known was a mean, vicious, disagreeable little beast that deserved nothing more than to be disassembled, canned and used to feed someone's mongrel dog in a far off part of the country.
It struck her as amusing that anyone would go to the trouble to decorate such a creature ... yet here it was, tied to the hitch rail for God and everybody else to see.
Lightning touched the brim of his cap.
"Thank you, Miz Sarah," he said, and swung his long legs out.
Sarah set the brake and dismounted as well.

"She WHAT?" the boss roared, taking the freshly-lighted cheroot from between stained teeth. Even indoors, he wore his top hat: he felt it made him a more imposing figure ... more than that, though, it covered his balding scalp.
The roustabout had his cap in his hand and shuffled it uncomfortably in front of him. "She said she was leavin' and she'd raise the money to buy Buttercup."
The circus master snatched up his patent-leather riding crop, puffing out vile clouds of bitter smoke: "I own her and I own that pony and by God! if I have to chain BOTH of them in the stock car I WILL!"
He thrust past the roustabout, seized the door knob and yanked the door open.
He turned.
"Where is she now?"
"She went into town, Boss." He nodded toward an ornately-curtained window. "This burg ain't big. We can find her."
"You're damned right we will!" he snarled. "Come on!"

Jacob and the Sheriff both rose as Sarah, Angela and the circus rider came in the door together.
"Ladies," the Sheriff greeted them, his smile broadening under his grey handlebar. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"Sheriff, I need your help --"
"Daddy, she needs to waise --"
Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but closed it instead, fading back a half step and doing her best to turn invisible.
Jacob and the Sheriff noted her move and approved.
The Sheriff raised his hand as both young ladies stopped talking, looked at one another and giggled.
The circus rider took a quick breath and blinked, then raised her chin and looked directly at the Sheriff.
The Sheriff saw a slender girl who could not have seen her twelfth birthday -- he automatically used Sarah, on one side, and Angela, on the other, to interpolate and estimate based on height, build and development -- he saw an elaborate but very secure hair style, ribboned and pinned, pretty but solid -- he saw a gauzy costume that made her look more fairy-creature, or perhaps angel, than an earthly being; he saw big blue eyes and a painted face, he saw the signs of a young woman in distress ... Jacob saw his father turn his head very slightly to the right without taking his eyes off her, and he knew his father was looking beyond the surface, looking into the girl's soul.
The Sheriff saw fear, but he also saw hope.
"Sheriff, my name is Emilee Carpentiere," she began, giving her name the French pronunciation.
Angela followed the name soundlessly with her lips, tasting the French deep-throated "r" sound: she was satisfied she could pronounce the name correctly, for she had been speaking French with her Mommy and with the maid, and with the very few Francophones she'd had occasion to meet in her young life.
"I am orphaned," she continued, bringing her hands together and clasping them over her high stomach: "my father was killed in a circus act and my mother died after falling from the trapeze later that night." She took a breath, another, then swallowed and continued.
"I wish to leave the circus, but I fear its owner will not let me."
The delicate French accent lent a music to her words, a music that could mesmerize the vulnerable ear of a romantic young man, and those ears had just stepped through the door behind the ladies: the ears which were accustomed to listening quickly and accurately to a telegraph's uncertain chatter now seized upon the voice of a young lady in distress.
Lightning slipped in the door, closed it quietly, very quietly behind him.
Sarah's eyes were on the door from the moment it began to open and neither the Sheriff nor Jacob missed the subtle movement of her arm toward the engraved Colt belted around her wasp waisted middle.
"I wish to leave them, Sheriff, and I wish to keep my pony, but I fear the owner will try to claim it and will try to make me pay for what is mine."
Her voice was steady but her eyes were beseeching.
"Sheriff, I need to raise enough money to purchase Buttercup."
Jacob's head came up: he leaned back, looked through a crack in the shutters.
He looked at his father, and his father knew that look.
The Sheriff nodded toward the gunrack, then returned his pale-eyed gaze to the young lady.
"I think we can help."

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Linn Keller 8-10-11

 

Elbows pressed into ribs, beer mugs and chins were used to indicate the direction of discussion.
Boot heels were loud on the clean-swept floor and men crowded to the front window, looking over the curtain at the spectacle marching toward the Sheriff's office.
"Looks like Soapy's got trouble come to visit."
"Why do tell!"
"Yeah, look at the arms on that fella! He could likely bend a stove poker!"
"Bend it over your head, you windbag, he ain't nothin'!"
"Attair's the fella I tol' you was wearin' them funny lookin' py-jammers!"
"Attair has gotta be the world's teeniest little umbrella. You don't reckon he figgers it's gonna rain, now do ya?"
"'Nuff paint on his face to whitewash a board fence."
"Yeah, if he figgers on it rainin' he must think it'll only be a drop or two!"
"Whattaya reckon they're after?"
"Looks like they're stealin' attair little girl's horse!"
"Oh, Soapy ain't gonna like that!"
"Here, git outta my way, I'm goin' outside! I wanta see this!"
There was a general jostling rush for the front door.

Sarah's gut told her things were going to get unpleasant.
She smelled trouble -- well, maybe not smelled, but she knew it was there, sure as manure draws flies.
Sarah remembered an afternoon with Fannie, one of the several times she'd gone out after her several weeks of intensive training.
She and Fannie and Charlie had discussed something Sarah was worried about, and that was making the right decision.
Charlie had laughed, that good easy relaxed laugh of his -- Sarah blinked at the memory, for it was like his strong arms around her, warm and strong and protecting, the kind a girl wants to have for the rest of her life -- and he looked at his beautiful bride and said "Sarah, we make the best choice we can. It ain't always right and if it ain't right we can stand up and say "I was wrong," and no shame in it."
He'd shifted his posture a little like an old ache was troubling him but he smiled that quiet, confident smile she hadn't seen until she came out as a live-in student, and he said "Remember this, and your Uncle Linn will say the same thing."
Sarah blinked twice, her eyes fixed on the veteran lawman.
"You will be leading others, Sarah, whether you want to or not and whether you know it or not. You will be setting the example and showing the world what you stand for and people notice this.
"A leader can be wrong." He looked over at Fannie, and Fannie nodded, once, slowly, for she knew the truth of what her husband was saying.
"A leader can be wrong, but he can never be in doubt."
Fannie picked up smoothly on her husband's cue.
"You will have fights, honey, your own, your family's, a brother lawman, sometimes you won't have a dog in the fight at all, and you've got to decide -- and sometimes you must choose, very quickly -- whether you want to get in that fight, or leave it to someone else."
Sarah didn't know this girl in the fairy costume, and she'd learned caution and suspicion, but her gut told her -- when in doubt, follow your gut, and she smiled at Fannie's whispered admonition, almost audible in the momentary stillness of the Sheriff's office.
Her gut told her this girl was genuine, and her help was needed.
Sarah tasted copper and she knew she was in on this fight too.
Memory surged in like a Texas tornado and she shifted her weight a little, preparing to move.
"You want to stand like this, honey ... that's right, with your strong side a little back, maybe far enough they can't see your holster."
Sarah remembered Fannie's voice, patient, animated, and how she moved, easily, naturally, showing Sarah what she meant.
Sarah's right boot retreated a half-step, rotating outward a little, and Sarah automatically bent her knees a little, balancing easily, ready to move in any direction, or receive an attack from any direction, without being easily toppled.
"Just like that." Fannie pulled out the kindling-wood "knife."
"Now if I slash --"
Fannie's slash was dead-slow but with a deadly efficiency, and even though this was a practice session and the "knife" was smooth and rounded, Sarah could see practice and experience in both the red-headed woman's words and in every line of her coordinated move.
Sarah's own hand came up, open, fingers together and slightly bent, automatically parrying the stroke.
"Good. Now the counter-strike."
Sarah stepped into the strike while Fannie's lunge hesitated, deflected, making her head and shoulder vulnerable.
They practiced there in the grassy field for some hours, Fannie never hurrying, never moving faster than her studied illustrative moves: she knew Sarah had to pattern her responses, had to lay down habits, had to run the engine of purpose over these identical tracks time and time and time again, until her reflex became memory, not in her mind but in her muscle.
At one point, both of them sweating a little, they sat on a log in the shade of one of the only two trees in the pasture.
Fannie offered the canteen to Sarah; Sarah smiled and shook her head.
"You first," she said, and she saw the approval in Fannie's eyes.
Fannie drank long of the evaporation-cooled spring water.
"Courtesy is never wasted," she said quietly, and Sarah could hear a hundred accents, a thousand inflections in her words, traces of all the trails the woman had ridden, echoes of every voice she'd ever heard: Fannie had the gift of languages, Sarah had heard her Uncle Linn say once: the two of them had stood and listened to Fannie talking with a group of travelers, as completely at ease with a Texas cowhand as she was with a Prussian count and a French viscountess: that afternoon she'd conversed with folks passing through on the stage, and Uncle Linn had murmured into Sarah's close ear that Fannie spoke with that fellow from Atlanta in a flawless Georgian voice; that she had exchanged greetings and given directions to a young Maine lobsterman in a Maine twang, and she'd fended off the thinly veiled proposition of a New York businessman in the accents of his native metropolis.
Sarah remembered all these things in the time it took for Jacob to cross the room and pick the double ten-bore off the rack.

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Linn Keller 8-11-11

 

The Bear Killer had blooded himself as a warrior quite some time ago.
The Bear Killer was not as big as his venerable and honored sire: where Dawg had been mistaken for a young bear, Bear Killer (once Twain Dawg, until he earned his adult name ... the hard way) was at times mistaken for a sizable cub.
Bear Killer had teeth of polished, flawless, gleaming ivory and jaws strong enough to crush a man's thigh bone, reflexes fit to seize a rattlesnake behind the head in mid-strike, strength enough to pick up a grown man and pack him off.
Bear Killer had inherited his sire's quiet, menacing grin, an expression of deadly promise, a visage that told the wicked that judgment was upon them, that told the guilty conscience that justice was within striking distance.
Bear Killer the deadly, Bear Killer the fierce, Bear Killer the implacable, was laying on his back moaning with pleasure, his great black brush of a tail burnishing a vigorous arc on Daisy's immaculately scrubbed kitchen floor.
Daisy herself was at home with her young: she seldom came and cooked, choosing instead to delegate this duty to the capable young women she'd carefully selected: they were collectively known as "Daisy's girls" and often just "Daisy" -- and so if one were to relate to Daisy having preparted an excellent meal over at the Jewel, why, Daisy herself might have been hanging laundry, feeding her red-headed Irishmen, laughing with her own hired girl (who had become more of a family friend and indeed part of the family than actual hired help) and not herself in the Silver Jewel's justly-famed kitchen.
Daisy's girls all knew that both Dawg and his blocky offspring were welcome at any time, and their favorite meal, sire and son, was biscuits and gravy, and so after the Bear Killer had done proper justice to his cracked bowl of the fragrant, tasty stuff, he'd patiently endured the ministrations of a wet wash cloth as his muzzle was delicately bathed.
The Bear Killer, fierce guardian of his beloved young Mistress, faithful companion and watchful protector, happily pawed the air and gave a quiet little yow-wow-wow as skilled hands massaged his exposed underside, for few things in the world felt quite as good as a belly rub.

Jacob ran his off hand well forward of the splinter fore-end, gripping the ten-bore's Damascus barrels tightly: he thrust it forward, jaw set, pale eyes blazing, gripping it fore and aft like a man about to spear-thrust a hated enemy.
The circus owner let out an agonized yell as strong, yellow teeth seized his arm just above the wrist.
He reflexively jerked away from Rose o' the Mornin's vice-like grip, lashing at her with his black patent-leather crop.
Rose o' the Mornin', descended from the war horses that carried armored knights into battle, get of blooded mounts trained to combat as warriors in their own right, twisted her head and reared, forehooves coming in a vicious arc over the sudden void where the little circus pony had been.
The roustabout, with his cigar stub clamped in the corner of his mouth and his Derby hat shoved aggressively forward, stepped up and seized the barrel of Jacob's double gun, pulling hard and to the side.
A voice shouted "Colonel!" -- the sound of a horse coming quickly from a gallop to a skidding stop -- a loop floated gleaming and golden against the azure Colorado sky, suspended for an eternity --
The girl in the gauzy, fairy-winged costume ducked, reaching for her beloved Buttercup, now on her knees and slithering almost like a snake under the hitch-rail and flowing up onto the boardwalk to get to her rider.
Lightning stood back, eyes huge, watching the sudden confusion explode into violent life in the picture-frame of the doorway: Sarah swung past him, thrusting through the door, pistol in hand, and disappeared as if jerked away.
Lightning did not even see her.
The Sheriff had gone from his long-legged stride to a sprint in two steps: as the circus pony ducked under the hitch rail and the circus owner was hauled into the air above it, the Sheriff planted his left hand on the rail and vaulted over it, landing with feet wide and fist cocked.
The circus owner had just reached the apogee of his ballistic flight and was descending to earth on a somewhat unplanned trajectory: his line of travel may have been unplanned by his lights, but was predictable to the Sheriff, who cocked his good right fist and prepared to launch a punch that he calculated was starting just about two fingers north of his boot tops.
He planned to drive his knuckled fist through this fellow's rib cage and out the other side.
The explosion of confused action was punctuated by an explosion of another nature.
The circus strongman, the fellow who would amaze rubes and hicks by bending horse shoes and fireplace pokers, who would lift black-painted weights with exaggerated poundages painted prominently on them in contrasting white -- the circus strongman had seized the double barrels of the lawman's shotgun, and pulled.
Jacob, feeling the sudden, unexpected pull, did as his father had taught him.
He pushed, hard.
The strongman, not expecting this lack of resistance, had not even time to register surprise when Jacob's fingers tightened on both triggers.
The twin payload erupted from Damascus steel and tore a path of destruction through the man's rib cage and out the other side, carrying blood-spray and tissue to the middle of the street: three of the heavy shot struck the Jewel, high up near the roof line.
The Sheriff's fist was an iron maul on the end of an obdurate shaft, justice encapsulated in flesh and bony knuckles, and the lawman's punch sizzled through the cool morning air and drove, hard, into the circus owner's brocaded vest.
The Sheriff's punch didn't quite make it through the other side.
As a matter of fact it didn't penetrate at all.
It didn't have to.
Between a crushed and broken forearm and being kicked in the ribs by a Missouri mule, the circus owner's sensibilities had been more than overloaded.
His eyes rolled up and he fell over backwards just as the descending noose settled about his neck and Starr spun his lariat around his saddle horn, backing his cow-pony up a few steps, dragging the portly man a-chokin' into the hard packed dirt street.
Behind the strongman, the clown had just had time enough to raise white-gloved hands to carmine-painted lips before the fight was over.
If a man were timing the event, it would have been no more than six seconds, from beginning to end.
The crowd from the Jewel had barely enough time to stop and goggle at the sight.
The roustabout strongman's carcass was only just landed, supine, on the reddening street.
Rose o' the Mornin' reared again, screaming and windmilling her hooves, challenging anyone who dared to come and get all they wanted.
Sarah slid her revolver back into its holster, eyes busy, feeling the tension in her jaw muscles: she turned, like her Uncle Linn and Charlie and Fannie had all three taught her, and consciously looked around, behind left, behind right.
She looked ahead and realized neither the ribboned circus pony nor the fairy-costumed circus rider were anyplace to be seen.

Lightning laid a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder, unsure quite what to do.
The little circus pony was inside the Sheriff's office, its neck laid over against its beloved mistress, and the girl's arms were around the pony's neck, her face buried in its braided, beribboned mane, crying like a lost child.
At his touch she turned and ran her other arm around his waist, and Lightning, now completely at sea as to what he should do, ran an arm over the little pony's saddle and his other arm around the girl, under the fairy wings sprouting from her costume, and pulled her into him.

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