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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 10-7-11


"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, I've been thinking."
I placed the second paper atop the first, there on my desk, and leaned back to give my firstborn son my full attention.
Jacob was wearing his suit, as I was -- rightly or wrongly, people judge on appearance, and we each delegated one suit for work and we still had our good suit for Sunday-go-to-meetin', and we had work clothes for rough work or a time on the trail -- and Jacob's suit was characteristically neat, freshly brushed, and his boots were polished.
I reckon he gets that from me.
I'm right regular on polishin' my boots.
Good for the leather and as much as good boots cost nowadays I want mine to last long as they will.
I nodded to Jacob. "Say on," I said, leaning back in my chair.
"Sir you recall here not too long ago, I fetched a fellow in here with knots on his gourd from where I belted him with Mr. Baxter's bung starter."
I nodded.
"Sir, his lawyer allowed as that was excessive and I've been thinking about that." He turned his hat over in his hand, running sensitive fingertips along the edge of the brim.
"Sir, I reckon I did what was needed. Had I not knocked knots on his noggin" -- his grin again, that quick, flashing grin, and it was contagious and in spite of my surprise I grinned as well.
So far it sounded like my voice coming out from between his teeth.
"-- had I not thumped his gourd, likely I might have had to kill him."
I nodded slowly, considering.
Jacob leaned back in his own chair until it stopped against the board rail I'd tagged to the inside of the wall, and leaned his head back against the wall behind him, his eyes wandering across the ceiling.
"Sir, I don't reckon that was excess a'tall. Had I beat his head down in between his collar bones, yes. Had he sneezed an' blowed the front out of his trousers, had he had to drop his drawers to blow his nose, that would be excess."
I nodded, smiling: it was a coarse jest he picked up from me and adopted into his own vocabulary, but it was a jest he only used with me, and only in private.
Jacob, I realized, was capable of discretion, and I felt a father's pride in that moment.
"Jacob," I said, "do you recall when Sarah came in here all in a lather here a month ago or so?"
Jacob tilted his head, looking at the end wall off to his right.
"When that feller tried to grab her bridle?"
I nodded, closing my eyes.
"Yes, sir, I recall."
"Jacob, do you remember her description of the event leading up to her arrival here?"
Jacob resumed his easy lean against the wall behind him.
I think any chair he frequented had to have rounded hind legs, as much as he tilted a chair back.
I believe I'll get him another rockin' chair for Christmas, I thought. Annette uses the daylights out of hers, what with her back and little Joseph, but Jacob needs a rockin' chair of his own.
I filed the stray thought under "G" for "Good Idea" and waited for Jacob's answer.
"She said she was a-comin' down the near trail," Jacob said, his eyes tracking to the side, tracking to recollection: "this fellow come out of the brush and grabbed for her bridle and said "Well, missy, what's a pretty little girl doin' on a big ol' horse like that?"
I nodded, remembering her recounting: she was pacing in a tight little oval until I took her shoulders and steered her over against the wall Jacob had been looking at, and fetched out a chair for her, which she set in for all of five seconds before she cork-popped up and begun pacing again.
"Those were her exact words," I affirmed.
"She said she didn't think, she reacted."
I nodded, slowly, shifting my backside in my chair: it was a much better chair than I'd had before, but my setter was tired, and it thanked me for the shift.
"She give Racer her heels an' run that fellow over.
"She never looked back, she leaned over Racer's mane and told him to run, and he run!" Jacob's grin was broad and genuine, for he'd ridden Racer himself and allowed as his name was well chosen: his own stallion, he'd told me later, would have a hard time keeping up with that race-bred gelding.
"She come in here stirred up like muddy creek water an' she was a-pacin' and a-talkin' and here directly some feller comes in lookin' like he'd been run over, one eye swole shut an' a cut on his cheek bone, a-limpin' and a-holdin' his ribs on one side, an' he allowed as some she-devil with red eyes an' a pointy tail had run him down with a coal-black fire-breathin' horse-demon an' it was tied outside our office!"
I nodded again.
"Jacob, do you recall the conversation we had, just the three of us, once I got that fellow calmed down and locked up?"
"Which one?" Jacob grinned.
I raised one eyebrow and tilted my head down.
"I recall as you brought that wanted dodger off your desk an' held it up for that feller to see an' said 'I knew you were coming,' an' the bluster run out of him like pourin' water out of a dipper." He grinned again at the memory, then added, "And I recall when Sarah asked you later how you knew to have that dodger on your desk, you picked up the telegram beside it and handed her: it said that a particular horse thief was headed our way, signed Carbon Hill."
Jacob paused, nodded slowly and thoughtfully, and concluded, "And I recall what you said to her."
I waited.
"You said, 'I do nothing without planning.'"
I nodded again.
"Do you recall what I told Sarah about her actions?"
Jacob blinked.
"No, sir, I don't think I was with the two of you then."
"That's right." I twisted again in my chair, leaned forward, taking some bow out of my lower back. Ever since I fell on that rock some years back an' got snake bit in the process, why, my poor old back gives me billy Hell when I set too long.
"We two went over to the Jewel and I primed her with tea and some pie" -- I looked left, looked right, put my forearms on the edge of my desk and leaned forward confidentially -- "an' I give her a shot of Two Hit John, the poor child needed some nerve tonic!"
Jacob laughed quietly, his eyes wrinkling up at the corners like they did, and his eyes were a blue, a clear medium blue, a shade he achieved when he was relaxed and in good humor: he nodded and murmured, "Two Hit John," and laughed again.
"You like that."
"Yes, sir, I do. Please, go on."
I nodded, grinning at the memory of the minor misunderstanding that renamed the cant-phrase for undiluted whiskey.
"I told her, 'Sarah, you are the weapon. Everything else, anything else, is but a tool.'
"She looked at me with those big lovely eyes and I recall thinking good Lord, how old a soul is this, she has a woman's eyes in that girl's head."
Jacob's expression softened, saddened a bit, and he nodded.
"I told her that the horse she rode was at once her weapon and her speed, that she acted and did not hesitate, either in its execution nor its follow-through.
"I walked her through every moment of what happened.
"I showed her that what she'd done was right -- that her first duty was to keep herself safe, and to do that, anything a'tall was fair: had that thief succeeded in getting her horse, she would have been perfectly justified in shooting him out of the saddle, how if he'd tried to lay hands on her she would have been completely in the right to put a few holes in his head before she started gettin' mean with him."
Jacob nodded, smiling that quiet smile of his, for he and I both had sparred with Sarah and we knew just how fast and deadly that pretty little twelve year old child could be, and I felt a sense of sadness that a child of so few years had been hardened as a warrior instead of being allowed to be a sweet girl, growing into a Lady, wearing ribbons and ruffles and learning to sip tea and curtsy instead of knowing how to split a playing card edge wise with a pistol ball one-hand, or fillet an opponent in a tenth of a second or less.
"I told her she done right because first, she kept herself safe, and that come first." I ticked off one finger. "Second, she did right in gettin' away from the situation" -- another finger -- "because that kept the fight from gettin' any worse. She was a civilian, and could do that. Third, she come here an' let us know" -- another finger -- "and I cautioned her that in town, back East, anywhere there was recognized law, whoever went to the law first, got to be the victim and was generally favored in whatever followed."
Jacob nodded.
"In your case."
I had Jacob's full and instant attention.
"First, you were under no duty to retreat.
"You were jurisdictional law enforcement and your place was there.
"Second, that fellow you bell rung challenged your authority."
Jacob nodded, slow, his eyes a lighter shade: he looked sleepy, his eyes half-veiled, and I knew from observation that was a dangerous condition, for it fooled people into thinking he was relaxed and daydreaming, when the exact opposite was true.
"Third, he tried to crowd you and you did not back up even one step."
Jacob nodded again, a single, slow nod.
"You established and maintained your authority in the face of challenge.
"You reduced him to possession with the least damage to him and to you -- and to the surroundings." I shifted my weight again, my back side was starting to call me unpleasant things.
"Had you got into a knock down drag out fight you would have knocked the dog stuffing out of him but he'd have likely hit you too not to mention damage to the Jewel, and if he had a confederate, you might have been jumped."
Jacob tilted his head, listening closely.
"No, Jacob, you did the right thing, you did it the right way and at the right time. That-there lawyer who said otherwise is paid to say anything he can to get his client off."
I stood, slowly, frowning.
"Maybe if I make me a chair out of a saddle. I got no troubles settin' a saddle."
"It would be an idea, sir."
I stroked my mustache, frowning.
"Now as far as puttin' a knife to that lawyer's neck."
Jacob grew still, very still, and I knew he was readying himself for a criticism.
"I would have paid admission to have seen that."
My grin was slow but unstoppable, and Jacob nodded, the ghost of a smile loosening his features a bit.
"Just like rappin' that fella with the bung starter."
I set the heels of both hands on the desk top and leaned my weight onto my arms: there were three or four quick, muffled pops down my back bone and something hurt, but it hurt good, and I gave a pained sigh.
"You gots to get their attention."

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Linn Keller 10-8-11


There wasn't but two women among the whole of the Daine clan, and they didn't come to town often.
It was even rarer that both came to town at the same time.
Their time in town was not really remarkable, but their subsequent conversations, quiet voiced as they always were, carried a weight that made every long tall skinny hill runner in the whole darn bunch set up and take notice.
They kept mostly to themselves, making their moon likker, running the hills and fetching back game, growing or making what they could and only reluctantly buying what they couldn't.
Luxuries were rare -- very rare -- in their world, but what they had was of a good grade, well kept; their homes were tidy, painfully neat, scrupulously clean: they had books, a surprising number, but like everything else they had -- saddles, wagons, the tools they worked with -- the books were the best that could be had: the classics, and important texts of the day.
Sometimes there would be wild flowers, generally in a jar kept for that purpose.
When the two, mother and daughter, as thin and drawn and dried-out as their men, came back from town, each bore a single red rose.
A question was asked, over supper that night, and the answer given.
It seems the ladies were in the Mercantile when one of the ladies there in town -- that-there McKenna woman that makes them fancy dresses, they said -- came up to them and spoke of her sorrow at hearing the eldest Daine had passed away.
It didn't stop there.
Her twin girls each offered a rose: fresh-cut, they still had morning dew on the petals, and even a day later, their fragrance added to the carefully-chinked, sizable and solid log cabin.
Two days the roses lasted, full bloom, and for two days nobody said another word about them.
When finally they began to sag and it was time they were removed, the youngest Daine took them: the lad never walked when he could run, and so ran, barefoot as he preferred, to the little split-rail fenced cemetery, and to the fresh grave in it.
He went to one knee beside it and very carefully laid the roses side by side in front of the stone.
"They spoke of you, Granddad," he whispered, for he did not trust his voice: "they spoke of you, and they spoke well" -- for Bonnie had not been the only one to stop and speak with the Daine women that day: hostler and barkeep, mortician and marshal, priest, monk and firemen, all said the same things: he was a man they remembered, a man they admired, and a man they would miss.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-9-11


"I'm lookin' for a Miss Sarah Rosenthal," the cowboy said. All talk in the Jewel's barroom stopped and the sudden silence made a profound impression. The lanky rider swallowed quickly, looked around the room with his eyes wide at the expressions on many of the faces that had turned his way at the sound of his voice, and hurriedly went on, "I got a message for her from a feller out yonder." He lifted a hand to point in the general direction of west. "He done sent her a hunk of elkhide with a note in it. Said she'd be happy to get it."

"You can leave it with me," Mister Baxter said from behind the bar, holding out a hand. "I'll see that she gets it."

"Are you sure..."

"Trust me," the barkeep said with a smile. "A word to the wise, though, my friend. Miss Sarah is quite popular in town, and should you ever find yourself in such a position again, you might best just go to the sheriff or the marshal. If you hadn't had a good explanation for why you were looking for Miss Rosenthal, you might have been in a bit of a difficulty in pretty short order."

Swallowing loudly again, the cowboy handed over the elkhide pouch. "Much obliged, mister. And I'll remember that if there's ever a next time."

"Here, have a drink, on the house. You look like you could use it."

"That I can, sir, that I can."

That evening, Sarah untied the rawhide strings securing the pouch and took out the note. Written in Charlie's simple hand on the scrap of paper were four words: The bulls are buglin'. Sarah felt a shiver of delight slide up her spine then she happily began gathering the hunting gear her Uncle Charlie had given her the past fall. It was time to go elk hunting!

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Mr. Box 10-9-11


"So, everything OK?"
"Oh yes, Mr. Baxter, Charlie's just letting me know it's getting about time to hunt elk."
"I ain't never been within half a mile of one of them things," I replied.
Sarah said, "You've really got to be quiet and blend into the background. Even then they can smell you."
I shook my head, "I just move a couple of steps and they are heading over the next mountain!"
"You've got to get low to the ground, use any cover you can find, and move really slow."
I said, "I don't seem to be very low to the ground when I'm laying on my belly!"
Sarah laughed, "Oh Mr. Baxter, you can do it!"

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Linn Keller 10-10-11


Jackson Cooper raised his chin in greeting.
"You just missed Sarah," he rumbled, his voice sounding like it rose from a hand dug well.
"My rotten luck," the Sheriff sighed. "Here I was thinkin' of a big lie to tell her."
"A stranger was in the Jewel, asking for Sarah Rosenthal."
The Sheriff and Jacob both looked at the mountain of a town marshal, their eyes noticeably more pale than they had been a moment ago.
Jackson Cooper felt a chill settle like dust in an abandoned house.
"Turns out he was deliverin' a message. I believe that dust yonder is him."
Four ice-pale eyes turned and regarded a distant figure, becoming even more distant with each passing heartbeat.
The Sheriff and Jacob looked back to Jackson Cooper.
The man was starting to smile now, a slow, knowing smile, and the Sheriff's head tilted slightly, as if hearing something secret, something distant.
"She came out of the Jewel with a poke and a note and I asked her what the grin was for."
Jackson Cooper's grin was overtaking his entire face as he remembered the moment.
"She said something about elk huntin' and she had to get her possibles together."
The Sheriff's eyes wrinkled a little at the corners, and Jacob looked closely at his father, and relaxed a little.
The greying old lawman's eyes were a darker shade now, and that meant all was well.

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Linn Keller 10-11-11


"Soapy, if yew think enny harder, yer hat'll ketch fahr."
I took a long breath, sighed, then deadpanned: "I wondered what I was a-smellin'."
"Do ye reckon that's why yer hair is s'thin, y'think too much?"
I looked at the man with an absolutely straight face and said "When it's real quiet an' I get to thinkin' I been hearin' this poppin' sound. Must be m' hair just a-flyin' outta my scalp."
The hanger-on nodded wisely, then leaned toward me as if about to impart a confidence.
I leaned toward him a little, raised one eyebrow.
The man smelled of tobacco-smoke and drink and too many days without a bath, but he was handy about town and lent a hand with fence building and plowing, with planting and harvest, and in spite of a marvelous ability to stretch a story like good gum rubber he was honest as the day is long.
"You know that cute little girl young Lightning got swindled into marryin'?" he said, his voice low, and I nodded, once.
He shook his head sadly. "Horn swoggled he was, tricked I say. Tricked! Why, he'd not so much as paid call on the lady an' boom! Out of town and hitched!" He gave me a knowing look from beneath shaggy eyebrows.
"He don't have to worry about no one givin' her any sass, neither!" -- and winked, as if imparting a message of absolute fact.
"Now how's that?" I asked mildly, as if we were discussing a glass of milk.
"Why, man!" he exclaimed. "Have ye not seen her --"
He stopped, regarded my solemn expression.
"Now you listen here," he said, lowering his voice again. "I seen what that girl does in attair big barn o' theirs! Why, she's got a bar about six foot off the floor an' she'll grab that thing an' chin herself!"
I nodded.
This did not particularly surprise me, as I'd seen her ride down the street on her trick pony, hand standing on that custom saddle.
"One handed."
I looked sharply at the fellow.
"One handed?" I asked, raising both eyebrows and inclining my head a little as if looking over a pair of spectacles.
"Yessir!" he affirmed with a solid not. "An' that ain't all neither!"
I waited.
"She'll fold her arms an' she'll squat, oh, sometimes fifty, a hundred times in a row, then she'll get tired o' that an' stick one leg out an' squat with the other!"
I looked across the street, eyes busy, then looked back.
"Well you every try it!" he challenged. "It ain't easy a'tall! I cain't do it an' I got good laigs!"
"I kind of like the legs on that one dancin' girl we had a month or so ago," I said mildly, nodding toward the Jewel.
"That ain't what I mean!" -- and then he grinned, a slow grin, and he knew I'd just pulled one on him.
"Yeah, ye got me on that one. But I seen it!" he insisted.
"Okaaaay ... so she can squat and stand back up one legged, and she can chin herself one handed."
He shook his head. "Soapy, that girl can bend like God never intended no woman to bend! I seen some of them fancy wimmen in Kansas City an' warn't none of 'em so bendy as her! Why, was a man t' put a hand on her impolite-like, she'd whip him around her head an' tie him in knots an' kick him across th' street an' make it look easy!"
I nodded.
"Remind me to be polite to her."
"Oh Ah'll do that, Soapy! I'll do that!" His enthusiastic head nodding set his hat brim a-flap, and his Adam's apple bobbed in his turkey-neck throat, setting a few stray neck-whiskers a-bristle.
"Now I'm curious," I said quietly. "Just how'd you come to watch another man's wife that long, anyway?"
"I was a-forkin' out their stalls," he said with an air of wounded dignity.

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Linn Keller 10-12-11


Daciana was married, yes, and Daciana was a man's wife, yes, and Daciana was trying to establish herself in town.
She wasn't quite sure how she wanted to establish herself, but her heart ached for the affection she saw when Angela had been joyfully borne into the Silver Jewel on the shoulders of a dozen stout yeomen.
She'd ridden her trick pony out of town and practiced her routine: somersaults in the saddle from a standing position, hand stands, one-hand stands; spinning about in the saddle, legs extended straight and her feet pointed, a sudden turn that had her riding backwards, then another handstand: she was the product of a lifetime's hard work, and she was sufficiently disciplined to maintain her proficiency, in spite of her new status as a matron.
Besides, she reasoned, this was the American West, and wasn't this where you made yourself, free of what had been, back East, back in your past?
She'd ridden far enough out of town that she could divest herself of her modest dress: she wore her performer's tights under it, and practiced in them, and when she was done, she frowned at the dress and decided she wouldn't overheat herself by putting on so many layers of insulation.
Her pearl colored trick pony was tiring -- the altitude, she knew -- and she herself was near the limit of her strength for the same reason, and so she rolled her dress and tied it behind her saddle, and they two set their heading on a return course to Firelands.

"Here it is, lads!" Sean declared with satisfaction. "Now ye've no' seen these used" --
Half the Irish Brigade crossed their arms and gave him that look, and Sean grinned in reply: "Aye, some o' ye ha'e, an' we need t' try this out an' see how well she works!"
"Sure, an' where are ye gon' ta find a damn' fool who'll jump off a perfectly good roof for ye?" the Welsh Irishman challenged. "I'm no less brave tha' any man but damned if I'll climb up an' jump doon for ye!"
There was a wash of light as the front door opened, then closed, and a light, feminine voice called, "Allo?"
Daciana, full of innocence and curiosity, had wondered about the interior of the fine brick firehouse, and the first thing she saw was the bright-red-and-gleaming-brass Ahrens steam engine, with which she fell immediately in love.
Daciana was used to bright-red and polished-brass circus wagons, all sparkle and show, and the Ahrens was a delight to the eye: her eyes were wide and they heard the delighted intake of breath as she skipped over to it, giggling at her reflection in the bright-burnished boiler's rounded side.
"It's beautiful," she breathed, and Sean laughed, a good, hearty Irishman's laugh, his delight echoing in the firehouse's interior.
"Now wha' ha'e we here," he declared in a half-fatherly voice, for what he beheld looked more like a girl, or perhaps one of the Wee Folk come to visit, than a woman: Daciana caressed the curve of the pressure-dome and Sean saw her nostrils flare as she smelled the fresh polish, the tuck and roll leather upholstery on his driving-seat.
Daciana saw the life-net Sean and the German Irishman held, and gave a squeak of delight: she ran skipping over to it, seized the rim and smacked its canvas surface with the flat of her hand, nodding approval at the drumlike sound.
"We've used these," she said, "but a net is better," and the Welsh Irishman looked at the German Irishman, the German Irishman looked at Sean, Sean looked at Daciana, and the New York Irishman reached up and vigorously scratched his head at this unexpected development.
"We were, ah," the Welsh Irishman began, "going to test it out."
"Oh, may I?" Daciana asked, eyes bright and begging: then, "Is there a tower tall enough?"
"Tall enough?" the New York Irishman echoed.
"We've the hose dryin' tower," the German Irishman suggested.
"Is that the tall thing that looks like a broad chimney, only with a roof?" Daciana's hands were busy, sketching its breadth and its height.
"Aye, it is that," Sean affirmed.
"How do I get to the top?"
"It's o'er here," Sean nodded. "Here, lad, hold this -- aye, an' through here, we hang hose here t' dry, y'see."
Daciana stepped into the hose drying tower, looked up.
"Up this ladder, then?" she asked.
"Aye, lass, an' we can ge' oot from up there --"
"Bring that to the side," Daciana said with a quick flash of white, even teeth, "and do you know how to hold it properly?"
"Aye, lass, we've used these b'fore."
"Good!" -- and with that, Daciana was up the ladder, scaling the steel rungs set into the brickwork with the ease of a trained acrobat.
Which, of course, she was.
"Outside, lads!" Sean boomed, and the Irish Brigade turned the life-net up on its side to pass by their gleaming, burnished steam machine, thrust the big double doors open, and jogged around the side of the building.
Daciana reached the top of the ladder, felt about and found a latch: a turn, a pull, a push, and the double door, six feet tall and just as wide, opened easily on greased hinges.
Daciana looked out, looked down.
The Irish Brigade looked up at her, arranged themselves around the life-net, shuffling uncomfortably back and forth.
Almost all of them were thinking that it was a long way up, and it must be longer down, and felt a moment's discomfiture considering what the world must look like from Daciana's vantage.
Daciana looked around, considering, and was a little disappointed.
She was really hoping to find a good anchorage for a trapeze, for she loved the freedom that came of the glorious moment when she let go of one trapeze bar, and spread her arms, and for a moment, for just a moment, she was an angel, a bird, a creature of magic, suspended above the earth, weightless, flying, flying.
Daciana looked down and felt the joy she always felt in such moments.
She gauged the Brigade's location.
"If you have someone jumping from a house," she called down, "they are not going to jump out. They will just jump and they will land quite close to the house." She paused to make sure they understood.
"I will jump a little from the building, so please to take one step away from, yes, gut!" Her German exclamation brought a smile to the German Irishman's face.
The German Irishman was next to Sean, and the big Irishman heard his Deustch comrade murmur, "Fly well, liebschkein!"
"Hold there!" Daciana called, her smile bright.
She saw the birds, many of them flying lower than she stood; she saw clouds and mountains in the distance, and she saw her beloved Pearl standing patiently beside the firehouse, sniffing noses with the firehouse cat.
How I love this, she thought: Daciana stood, spread her arms, and leaped.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-12-11



“Yes, dear?” Bonnie looked up from her accounts, spectacles perched delicately just above her nostrils. She only needed them for close work, of course.

Sarah handed her the note she’d received from Charlie. Bonnie read its sparse contents then leveled an inquisitive gaze at her daughter. Sarah fidgeted for a moment then broached her question via a hesitant statement. “Uhm, I know you were counting on me to go with you to the fall fashion show… and I really had a grand time at the last one… and I know the fall show helps your business a great deal… but I…” After a long pause, her final words came out in a rush. “But I’d rather go hunting with Uncle Charlie and I brought back lots of meat last year and I like doing my part to feed our family and Uncle Charlie treats me like a grownup and some people don’t and I’d really rather go hunting.” She stopped to catch her breath, smiling hopefully, and to await Bonnie’s response.

Bonnie reached up with loving fingers to caress her daughter’s cheek. “My dear Sarah, you are a great help to me in whatever you do. Your presence at the fall show would, I’m sure, increase the orders I’ll get.” Sarah’s face fell, while her own brightened in a smile. “But that was very good meat, and lasted us a good while. Pack your warm clothes. It could be cold in the mountains.”

Sarah threw her arms around Bonnie’s neck. “Oh, Mama, thank you so much! I’ll bring back lots of meat, you’ll see! Thank you!” She gave Bonnie another squeeze that nearly took her breath away then turned to race toward the stairs. “I have to finish packing! Thank you!” Bonnie looked after her wistfully.

“There is so much woman in you, my dear,” she murmured. “And so much child looking for a way out. Go with God, my love. Go with God.” She knew that Sarah would be saddled up, packed up and on the trail to the horse ranch well before the next day’s sun peered over the eastern hills.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-13-11


Bonnie knew her daughter well. By the time the red-combed rooster had shouted its greeting to the first golden rays of morning from the peak of the barn the Appaloosa mare had left fresh hoofprints over three miles of morning-dewed grass. The mare's rocking singlefoot gait carried mount and rider securely through the slowly brightening day in spite of the size of the packs behind and to either side of the Texas-rigged slick fork saddle. Sarah rode loosely, human and equine in perfect concert, through the stirrup high gramma grass that covered the swales and ridges to either side of the little-used trail that the pair traveled.

As the sun seemingly vaulted into the pale azure of the morning firmament Sarah drew the mare up at a small spring. She stepped down and slacked the cinch, hand leading the mare in a wide circle until the spotted horse's breathing settled, then led her to the spring to drink before picketing her mount to graze while the girl made a small fire and heated water for tea. Thirty minutes later the fire was a mere memory and the mare was back on the trail...


"You're late, Dawg," Charlie answered his canine companion. He was sitting in the sunshine against the barn wall repairing a hackamore rein that one of the colts had managed to hook on a corral pole and break . "The mares smelled her ten minutes ago."

Dawg's answering "Woof" said without words, "Hey, I was napping. Gimme a break." The big black dog rose, stretched, shook himself then trotted out to meet the newcomers. Sarah drew the mare in and Dawg and horse sniffed noses in greeting. The mares in the feed pasture nickered greetings as well and were answered by Sarah's mount.

"Hello, Dawg," Sarah greeted the animal. "Where's Uncle..."

"Over here, girl," Charlie called. Sarah heeled the mare toward the barn, dropped lightly from the saddle and ran to Charlie, who pushed himself to his feet in time to brace himself for impact. Sarah threw herself against him to wrap her arms around his waist.

"Uncle Charlie! Thank you so much for inviting me to go hunting!"

"You're welcome, girl. Glad to have you. I need somebody to do the gutting, 'cause Fannie won't do it." He patted her shoulder. Sarah looked up at him with a stricken look that he met with a wide grin. "Just kidding, Sarah. I may even do some of it myself this time. So get your horse unsaddled and we'll go get some grub. I think Fannie said something about cinnamon rolls."

"Yum!" Sarah gathered her reins and a few minutes later was following Charlie to the house, the two sharing the load of her gear.

"Dang, girl, don't you know how to travel light?"

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Linn Keller 10-14-11


"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty," Angela called.
Denver Bup stood in the barn doorway, his head tilted to the side and his ears drawn comically up, puzzling at the sight.
Angela knew her Daddy had warned her away from the black-and-white spotty kitties.
Angela knew from the steer's reaction that they were not kitties, they were Pole Kitties or Woods Kitties or a few other names she heard and was immediatley cautioned never to say, under pain of learning what soap tasted like: as the wind shifted and Angela's nose wrinkled at the fresh, hot odor of Attar of Skonque, she realized that her Daddy was very, absolutely, positively right about what he'd just told her!
Unfortunately, her Daddy was nowhere near.
"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty," Angela called, a hopeful note in her voice.

To a man, the Irish Brigade crossed themselves.
Just as it is possible to launch a most sincere and utterly heartfelt prayer without uttering a word, so did every red-shirted firefighter bless themselves by clenching their lean, knuckled hands more tightly on the life-net's smooth rim.
About half of them fell their own stomachs fall as they watched Daciana, smiling, stand poised on the rim of death itself, look about and spread her arms as if for an adoring crowd, then give a little leap and -- gulp! -- fall through the absolutely clear, flawless air, hurtling downward, arms straight out, legs out and together, toes pointed, her form absolute perfection, her trajectory most accurate --

The Brigade bent ever so slightly with the impact: as they straightened, Daciana bounced a little, then flowed to her feet, one arm up and one arm out, a ballerina's pose, laughing, and her laugh, the poise she displayed, the absolute delight on her face, went to the heart of every one of the bib-front Brigade.
To a man, they instantly fell in love with this wondrous and magical creature, this faerie from another realm, this creature of sorcery who could coax flight itself from their tower and from their net, and there is not a man among them who would not have willingly laid his beating heart at her feet.
There was truly magic in that bright fall morning: it flowed around them, and through them, and spun a memory they would cherish for long years yet ahead.

Angela saw the woods-kitty in the chicken house.
She'd thought maybe something was in there after eggs, maybe a snake, and she picked up a stick: little girl she was, yes, but she was the child of the Sheriff and of her Mommy, and she'd watched her Mommy fencing, and though she herself was not yet strong enough to wield a schlager, she could pick up a limber stick and dispatch a rascally snake!
She'd taken two steps into the chicken house when she realized the intruder was not a scaled, slithering, scoundrelly serpent, but was rather the same vile sprayer that had so discomfited her Daddy's steer.
Angela's eyes were suddenly very big and she watched, frozen, as the skunk cheerfully bit the top off an egg: it held the egg, big end up and balanced between its paws, the narrow end in the nesting-hay, and Angela watched as it happily began devouring its contents.
The hen was agitated; the hen was upset, and when a hen is upset, the others join in out of sympathy, and Angela wisely retreated: step by cautious step, until she was outside, at which point the rooster, ruffled and indiginant, went strutting up the ramp and into the chickenhouse.
"Rooster, no!" Angela protested, then realized she could do nothing, unless she wanted to end up dunked in several tubs of water, scrubbed with a bristle brush and lye soap, while her dress got burnt up: no, she thought, I can't go in but maybe I can get the chickens out.
At least that's what her thoughts would have been, if she had put them into words.
Children do not think in words, they are not thus handicapped as are adults: no, a child's brain thinks in amazingly rapid strings of impulses, for want of a better term: intuition flashing on intuition, and Angela, inspired, ran for the barn, snatching at the corners of her apron.
She had an idea.

The Brigade had propped the net against the side of the hose drying tower and were in animated conversation, and Daciana was in their center, listening, nodding, watching hands and expressions which said as much as their words: her ears caught and identified dialects, accents, phrases, divining their origin, and though the subject of the discussion was the rescue of persons jumping from a burning structure, she thrilled at the dual realization that she was indeed accepted, and by an admired and respected portion of the population, but she was also conversant in every language she heard peeping through the words they spoke.

"Denver Bup, you stay here," Angela instructed: she would have shaken her Mommy-finger at the Beagle dog, but her hands were busy clutching the corners of her apron, holding the cracked corn securely as she marched resolutely toward the chicken house.
"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty," she called as she always did when feeding the chickens: normally she was afraid of chickens, for they were aggressive when fed, and came after feet and fingers when she tried to broadcast their chicken feed: "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty," and her childlike voice penetrated to the darkened interior, and her broad-slung arcs of cracked corn pattered like dried rain on the chicken-ramp.
One, then another, of the chickens abandoned their indiginant protest of the interloper: they came outside and scratched and pecked and clucked importantly, and Angela called again, bending a little and peering in, and saw the rooster, bristled and dragging its wings, ready to jump on the dining skunk.
"Here, kitty," she called, and Denver Bup cocked his head and wrinkled his scalp and ran out his tongue, panting, then he jumped back, startled, as Angela let go of her apron and leaped back, turned and ran as hard as she could for the house.
Behind her, from inside the chicken house, the rooster attacked at the top of its lungs.

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Linn Keller 10-15-11


Annette was lost in her music.
She had no thought for her fingers: her heart spoke through them, her soul sang through her dexterous digits, and she was completely taken by the river of song from the piano's felt- hammered strings.
Annette was fortunate, at least in her own eyes: she'd long loved to play both piano and organ, and though her husband could not quite arrange a fine pipe organ like she'd played in the grand Opera House, he had gotten her one of the finest grand pianos money could buy -- a fortune, she knew! -- why, the freight would have beggared most men's bank accounts! -- but today, now, she had no thought for such matters.
Now, she was lost, lost in her music, swaying a little as she played, the way she did when her talent hit its stride.
She played from memory.
The waltz, printed on good rag paper, was propped on the ornate harp-carved music-holder before her; she had not so much as opened it, choosing instead to lay her gentle, caressing fingers on the keys: of their own volition, they touched the opening chords, and she'd closed her eyes and played.
Little Joseph had been nearly ready for his nap.
When his Mama began playing, he'd run into the parlor and stood beside the piano, wide-eyed, marveling at the magic she spun from its gleaming interior: then, as he always did, he lay down under the piano and curled up a little and, with one hand touching a piano-leg so he could feel the vibrations as well as hear them, he relaxed.
Little boys have two states of being: that is, running at a gallop, and down for a nap: there is no middle ground.
Little Joseph went from the former to the latter in precisely one minute, six seconds.

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Linn Keller 10-18-11


Words were exchanged, as happens when men are at their drink.
Words were exchanged that would provoke most men, in offense to insult, to violence, or worse.
Jacob looked quietly at the Eastern dude and smiled.
"Mister," he said, "you sound like a man who knows what he is talkin' about."
The dude puffed up importantly, took another long drink of the Daine boys' amber distillate. Like too many before him, he didn't realize just how much of a load he had accumulated, for Kentucky amber went down like Mama's milk but tended to blow the socks right off a man's feet, and the dude's socks were well due for detonation.
"It is not possible," the Easterner said with an exaggerated precision of pronunciation, "it is not possible to hit anything with a pistol farther than the card table's breath." He frowned at a table, considered the amber remaining in his glass, tilted it up and drained it down.
"Brrreadth," he corrected himself, discharging a light spray which Jacob politely ignored.
"Wellsir," Jacob said cordially, "I have a poke of gold dust that says you are wrong" -- and so saying, pulled a small leather poke from a coat pocket, a poke the size of a shot glass, a poke that shimmered with a half-dozen tiny little flecks of gold dust that had escaped its interior.
Jacob let it dangle from its string for a few moments, then placed it carefully on the bar.
"We can have Mr. Baxter weigh it, or you can take my word for its value."
The Easterner thrust a hand into his coat.
Jacob was close enough that if he emerged with any kind of fighting tool, Jacob could mash it back into the man's ribs, bend him backwards over the edge of the bar and proceed to commit several very unkind and rather ungentlemanly insults upon his person: the dude came out with a leather wallet, with which he fumbled for a moment, before seizing a thick stack of bills and slapping them loudly on the gleaming mahogany.
"There's for your gold!" he snarled, fanning the bills out.
It took but a glance to realize this man had most of a fortune on him, and what he'd just laid out on the bar would buy a good size ranch in Texas, stock to run on it, people to staff it and probably a railroad to supply it.
"Why don't we just find out," Jacob said, eyes veiled, and turned.
Most of the Jewel filed out behind them, into the main street: Jacob had the Easterner affably by the arm, steering him to the center of the thoroughfare and stopping.
"Shall we shoot at a mark, or at something tossed into the air?" he asked.
The Easterner sneered.
" 'Tossed in the air,' " he mocked. "I'd like to see that."
Jacob snatched the man's Derby hat off his head, scaled it into the air, drew his right-hand Colt.
"Hey!" the Easterner protested, then fell backwards, hands clapped to his ears, as Jacob put three rounds of .44-40 through the spinning felt dome.
Jacob casually reloaded as a barefoot schoolboy, happily playing hooky this fine fall day, scampered out and snatched up the ventilated hat, bearing it proudly to the dude.
The Easterner snatched the hat from the boy's hands, his lip curled in a snarl.
Jacob reached down and yanked the watch from the man's vest, breaking the chain. A fragment of one gold link flew like a gleaming insect, to fall and be lost in the dirt.
Jacob tossed the watch into the air, fired.
The watch exploded.
Jacob reached into the man's vest pocket, came up with a silver dollar, flipped it into the air, fired.
Most there could hear the metallic ring as the bullet struck silver; the coin howled and disappeared from sight, then long moments later, clattered loudly to the boardwalk in front of the library.
Jacob reloaded and slid his right hand Colt back into holster, then he reached down and seized the dude by the front of his shirt: twisting up a good hand full of material, he brought the man off his feet, left-handed, fetched him up close so he was nose to nose with the man.
"Mister," he said quietly, "you aren't from around here, so let me give you some advice.
"People hereabouts are touchy about their honor.
"Insult a man and he will very likely kill you and we aint' fussy how we do it. You're soft, mister, you're soft and you stink of the East.
"You made a bet and you lost, so the least I can do is get you a new watch."
Jacob held the man by his shirt, with the fellow's toes half a foot off the ground: the crowd from the Jewel followed as Jacob packed the man up to, and into, the Mercantile.
None went inside, but all crowded around the open double door, listening intently.
"Maude," Jacob greeted the proprietress, and Maude nodded, smiling quietly: "Jacob." -- as if packing a struggling, protesting man around was an everyday thing.
"Maude, I believe I have two watches on order, with chains?"
"They came in yesterday," Maude smiled, bending to retrieve a package from beneath her counter.
Jacob smiled at the cat, curled up in the barrel of soda crackers. Angela loved soda crackers, and she tried so hard to slip a cracker out without disturbing the sleeping cat.
"This fellow still has his fob, so take the fob off, if you would please."
Maude slipped the blue-enamel Masonic insignia off the end of the chain.
"Now if you could attach the chain -- yes, thank you -- now slip the watch in this fellow's pocket for me, and drape the chain --"
Jacob held the fellow out a little, but still off the floor.
"Thank you, Maude. I'll be back in a few minutes to pay for these."
"No hurry, dear heart," Maude said in a motherly voice.
The crowd parted to let Jacob and the stranger out, unimpeded, and the little boy who retrieved the stranger's perforated hat ran up, triumphantly holding the mutilated silver dollar between thumb and forefinger.
Jacob took it from the boy, held it up and inspected it.
So did the stranger.
Jacob slid the silver dollar back into the stranger's vest pocket; he had to wiggle it a bit, for it was torn nearly in two, and twisted from the impact of a .44 caliber pistol ball.
The crowd followed alongside and behind as Jacob bore the man back into the Jewel, set him down where he was standing and said, "Mr. Baxter, this man will need one for the road. He's leaving town now" -- and so saying picked up his bag of gold dust and returned it to his pocket.
The stranger looked at his fortune, no longer his, laying fanned out on the mahogany bar.
"You tricked me," he whispered, his throat suddenly dry. "Tricked!" Gathering his indignation around himself like a cloak, he shook a finger at Jacob and threatened, "I'll have the police on you!"
Jacob turned back his lapel.
"I am the police," he said dryly, scooping up the man's money.
"He has paid for another night's stay," Mr. Baxter offered.
"In that case he's not leaving quite yet. I expect he'll want to ride out the rest of his paid-for." Jacob slid the money into an inside pocket.
"Mister, the Irish have a saying: Many a man's nose is broken because of his loose tongue. Have a mind what you say out here. Today you lost money. Try that stunt again and you could lose much more." He smiled a thin, dangerous smile, and the stranger felt cold fingers march down his back bone as he saw how pale the tall deputy's eyes had gotten.
"Not everyone is as patient as me."

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Linn Keller 10-19-11


Annette was up through the night with little Joseph: the lad was near to weaned but had been fussy and fevered and she figured he was starting to cut teeth.
She finally returned abed as the eastern sky was threatening to lighten every so slightly, and she cuddled gratefully against the solid, warm reassurance of her husband.
Jacob waited until her breathing had steadied, then he slipped carefully out of bed; his morning ablutions were brief, his dressing was swift, and he and his Appaloosa stallion were cat footing their way through the morning before the sun was ready to stretch and yawn and lever itself over the horizon.
The Eastern dude woke maybe an hour later, teased by the smell of breakfast from Daisy's kitchen: clever use of air currents carried the good smell of cooking, guaranteed to whet guests' appetites, and bring more business: the Eastern dude stretched, wallowed out from under clean sheets and quilt, and rubbed his eyes.
He splashed noisily in the porcelain wash bowl and had only just spun lather in the cup of shaving soap when he realized he was not alone.
The tall deputy with the pale eyes sat motionless in a chair against the wall to his right.
The dude dropped the shaving brush from trembling fingers.
The deputy's eyes didn't quite glow in the morning light, but they burned into the dude's soul like a pair of coals: he stood, mesmerized, frozen like a bird charmed by a snake, as the slender lawman stood and approached him, his steps slow, measured, boot heels loud on the clean, varnished boards.
He stopped an arm's length from the dude and reached into an inside pocket.
He withdrew an envelope, dropped it on the dresser beside the water pitcher.
"I'll not keep your money," he said. "You spoke from drink and from stupidity, and the watch I gave you is a grade better than what you had.
"I give any man one chance and you've had yours." His words were quiet but there was no mistaking the authority behind them.
The Easterner swallowed.
The tall, spare deputy with glacier's eyes turned; one step, another, and his hand was on the doorknob: another moment, and he was gone, the door closing quietly behind him ... the sound of boot heels in the hallway, muffled a little on the carpet runner, then ... silence.
The dude looked at the envelope, picked it up with palsied hands.
It was all there, every dollar.
He swallowed again and carefully, precisely, placed the envelope on the sideboard, then he picked up the shaving brush and looked at himself in the mirror.
He was shaking so hard as he tried to lather his face that he decided shaving with the straight razor beside the bowl would be an exercise in suicide, or perhaps self-mutilation, and so he toweled the soap from his face and decided to get dressed instead.
His stomach growled impatiently as he smelled frying bacon and fresh coffee, fresh bread and ... pie, maybe? -- a hopeful expression crossed his face as he pulled on his shoes.
As he adjusted his galluses and reached for his coat, he realized that he could afford breakfast, after all.

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Linn Keller 10-19-11


Angela was trying hard to look contrite, and innocent, and I was trying really hard not to laugh.
We both succeeded but not by very much.
The chickens decided they were happy to scratch around after the additional chicken feed I had Angela scatter about, and I needed a new chicken house anyway, so Angela and I sat on a plank between two upturned buckets and watched the chicken house burn.
"I'm sowwie, Daddy," Angela said in a little-girl voice, knitting her fingers together and looking terribly guilty.
"You're sorry?" I asked. "Did you do something wrong?"
She looked at me with sorrowful eyes, then downcast her gaze to Denver Bup, begging for a petting, shoving his cold, wet nose into the palm of my hand.
"Da skunkie was in da chicken house an' I gots da chickens out," she said, "an' I couldn't get da wooster fwum goin' in an' gettin' da skunkie!"
I picked Angela up and set her on my lap.
Something told me my little girl would benefit from a Daddy-hug.
I knew why she was feeling guilty: I didn't say a word when I slung coal oil into that-there chicken house, and I didn't say a word when I lit off that oily rag on the end of a kindling splint and tossed in, and I never even said a word when I fetched up my Winchester and sent that bleeding, snarling skunk to whatever reward spotted pole cats go to these days.
Women can't abide silence in a man, unless they know their man very well, and Angela hadn't got comfortable with the idea that I could have thunder on my brow and fire in my eyes and not say a thing and ... well, it's easy for a man my size to scare a little child, and that troubled me.
I brushed the hair back off her forehead and leaned down, down, until my nose and hers touched, and we looked at each other, suddenly blurry and out of focus, and each of us with one big eye or so it seemed: Angela giggled and I did too and I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her, snug but not too tight, and she hugged me back.
Denver Bup gave a little ow-wow-wow which meant he wanted some lovin' too, then he laid down sudden-like, the victim of an attack of the lazies.
"You got the chickens out," I said quietly, rubbing her arm with one hand, my other arm around her: "you tried to stop that idiot rooster."
I smiled.
"You've seen that rooster spur after the cat, you've seen that rooster spur at my boots. I was ready to turn that rooster into Sunday dinner, only that skunk run it off."
Angela nodded, looking hopefully up at me.
I kept an eye on the burning chicken house.
The last thing I needed was flying coals to light off the barn.
I'd drawn buckets of water and had a shovel ready to hand before I fired the structure, just in case, but thus far the wind was dead still which suited me fine. Was there not a breath until the chicken house was down to coals it would not hurt my conscience any.
I hated going to the trouble of building another chicken house but damned if I was putting up with that smell, and after due consideration I decided just to burn it down and be done with it.
I think that due consideration took me all of four and a half seconds.
"No, dear heart, you didn't do anything wrong." I kissed her forehead and hugged her again. "You've nothing for which to apologize."
Angela leaned against me and gave a sigh, and I looked at that chicken house burning, and thought dark thoughts about egg thievin' skunks.
"I'll get hold of the Daine boys and have them build us a new one, how does that sound?"
Angela's voice was a little muffled and she said "Okay" to the inside of my coat.
I set there on that plank set on two upturned buckets and watched the chicken house burn, and I don't believe I've felt this content watching anything burn in my life.

Daisy was dreaming.
Daisy was a young girl again and she was watching the brave firemen battle the Devil himself, kicking open a door and dragging hose into the brick building: she watched another pair fairly throw a ladder against a window and swarm up, and inside.
Daisy's heart swelled and she felt giddy, knowing that Sean -- her Sean -- was first up the ladder, and first into the fire!
Her breath caught in her throat as she heard his profane Gaelic from within the smoky inferno: her eyes were wide, her hand cupped over her mouth as she saw his figure loom through the smoke and hang out the window: black snot ran down his face and he coughed and profaned his fellows at the top of his lungs, holding something black-stained and bundled in his arms.
Another fireman fairly ran up the ladder and took the bundle, and Daisy gave a little squeak of joy as his fellows raised a cheer, for the big Irishman -- Sean, her Sean! -- had just saved a little child from a fate most terrible.
There was a crackle from within, the terrible sound of weakened timbers failing, and a great gout of flame above and around Sean: his arms flew up and he fell back, back into that hellish furnace --
"Sean!" she screamed, or tried to scream, but her voice wouldn't work, and she tried to run to him, but she was held, held by invisible hands --

Daisy woke, gasping, and realized she wasn't hearing her own choked voice, she was hearing the demanding scream of her infant daughter: shaking, she threw back the covers and wearily sat up, then stood.
Her baby was hungry, and her mother's body wished to nurse her child.
Daisy looked at the still figure, snoring quietly, undisturbed by his wife's rising, untroubled by the child's cries.
Daisy doubled her fists and debated whether to pummel her husband, but decided against it.
As her little daughter began feeding, waving her arms and biting harder than was comfortable, Daisy muttered, "Ye great Irish oaf, if ye die on me I'll beat ye t'death!" -- then she looked down at her little Grace and whispered, "And he's no' taught ye manners yet! I'll have t' thump him again f'r that!"

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Linn Keller 10-20-11


"Kohl!" a voice called in the echoing dark.
Kohl -- short for Kolascinski -- coughed.
There was the sound of trickling dirt, a couple rocks falling.
He was covered with ... something ... exploring hands found rock, found sand ...

Kohl knew better than to open his eyes.
He worked his way out of the light covering of broken rock and rolled over, coughing, snorting the sand from his nose: carefully, cautiiously, he fished out a bandanna, wiped his closed eyes, wiped them again.
He had no wish to get two eyes full of dirt and grit.
Something told me he was going to need his eyes, and in the worst way.
The voice was distant now, as if searching.
Kohl tried to cough again and there was a sudden, blinding pain in his ribs, like a sun ball detonating in bright agony: his cough, his call, were bitten back in a pained grunt.
He blinked a few times, head down, the raised his head and looked around.
The darkness was more complete than anything he'd ever experienced.
Even when he first went down into the mine and shuttered his lantern, other miners had theirs lit; candles and carbide lights and Eastern oil lamps -- brass they were, hooked above the bill of the mining cap and burning a vile smelling compound called Miner's Sunshine -- but here, now, there was nothing, nothing.
Kohl snapped his bandanna in mid-air, briskly, hoping to dislodge any grit from it, then carefully folded it and tucked it away.
Cautiously, not wanting to provoke any additional roof fall, he felt about, found a rock, found another: he began banging these together, four times, then pause, four, pause: the sound was loud and should carry, he thought.
There was no answering hail.
Kohl kept up a steady rhythm, counting on the sharp note to carry down-shaft to the voice, knowing that even if the shaft were too blocked to pass a man's body, if there were a gap, sound could penetrate, and he banged the rocks together, feeling the solid shock into his hands, until they broke and fell from his numbed hands.
Kohl knew one of the shafts had collapsed and opened into a back street over in Firelands; another shaft had detonated soil gas and blown a hole in some rancher's pasture -- the Rosenthal spread, he'd heard -- but he had no idea where either one was, and for all he knew, both were filled in.
He curled up a little, trying to find a position that didn't hurt quite as bad, and somehow got a little sleep.

Inge slipped the tobacco tin from her apron pocket.
Some things she kept secret from even her children, and even her husband.
Inge hated that he worked the mine -- the wages were almost good, it kept them fed and clothed, though not much more -- and Inge was content: her children were well regulated, they tended their chores without too much nagging (children being children, you understand!) -- but she had a secret she'd been keeping for nearly a year.
Her youngest had clung to her skirt, taking three steps to the yard, as Inge worked her way up the little creek behind their cabin.
Inge loved the high country and the trees, she delighted in sitting beside the creek on those rare moments when she could steal a little time from a woman's interminable labors; her baby, an active, healthy little boy, still wearing a girl's dress for the first year or two as was custom in that day, laughed and peered into the creek, squealing in delight at sunlight, sparkling and rippling where water chuckled over stones and around roots.
Inge's mind wandered, as did her eyes, and she looked down at the baby just as he put something in his mouth.
Inge's move was with the ease of long practice: she had the baby under the arms, then across her lap, thumb and forefinger quickly exploring and deftly removing the pebble the child was taste testing.
The happy little boy crowed and kicked his legs and rolled off her lap, landing flat on his back, looking straight up through the trees and laughing.
Inge smiled at her child.
Of all her offspring, this was the most pleasant natured.
Inge rolled the pebble between thumb and forefinger, drew her hand back to toss it back into the water, and casually glanced at it before its launch.
She froze.
Inge blinked, studying the pebble: she pressed the corner of her thumb nail into it, then bit it, cautiously, rubbing her fingers experimentally over the dents in the shining, golden rock.
That afternoon, a year and more ago, she and her happy, splashing little boy found a few more pebbles.
Inge had an empty tobacco-tin, and she had the perfect place to hide it, under a stone beside the fireplace: she'd added to it, very carefully concealing her travels from her children, and from her husband.
By her reckoning she had twice a year's wages and maybe more saved up, but save she did, and she debated whether this was the time to tell her husband.
She hated that he worked underground.
Inge's family had been coal miners back in Europe and then back East, and she knew too well the fire-damp, the explosions, the roof falls; she'd lost brother and uncle on the same day in a roof fall, and she had no liking at all for mines and mining.
Maybe I'll tell him closer to Christmas, she thought.
She made her way back to their snug cabin, a cabin built with the unexpected generosity of people she'd scarcely met; she'd shooed the children outside and had only just secreted the flat, oval tobacco-tin when one of her boys began yelling: "Ma! Ma! Rider's comin'!"
Visitors were not common, and Inge was a cautious woman: she fetched the shotgun off the mantel, checked to make sure the copper cap was on the nipple, and stepped outside to meet the arrival.
It was Moore, one of the men her husband worked with, one of the few men who had his own horse.
"The mine," he gasped, "there's been a fall --"
Inge's eyes widened and while one hand grasped the shotgun's barrel fit to crush it, her other hand went to her mouth, then down to draw her son into her.
"There's crews a-headin' for the fall, ma'am," he said, "an' we accounted for all but two."
"Is he --" Inge began, but her throat closed on her words.
Moore nodded somberly. "We're a-lookin' so don't go givin' up. You know Kohl, he's a tough old bird!"
Inge leaned on the gun barrel, suddenly weak: a sparkling curtain seemed to descend over her vision and she only vaguely felt her son tugging at her skirt, hollering, "Ma! Ma, is he okay? Ma, is he okay?"

Kohl felt his way down the mound of rock, sliding a little, scraping palms and elbows and banging his shin and very nearly twisting his ankle: he found mine shaft, found the cut rock wall, and stopped, frowning.
Mine shafts ran under the territory in a confusing warren, following the gold-bearing strata.
Kohl closed his eyes and willed himself to remember the tunnel before the honeycomb of timber cribbing failed. The excavation was four, maybe five cribs high, each timber eight feet long: he could not see the extent of the collapse, but he found in short order the tunnel was completely blocked going the one way.
Well hell, he thought, I only got one way to go, I might as well git to it -- then he stopped, and squatted, and felt about.
He found a rock, another: he arranged them in an arrow, two rocks wide, a yard and a half long, with a two foot wide arrow head indicating his direction of travel.
Slowly, cautiously, Kohl made his way along the mineshaft tunnel, eyes burning in the absolute darkness.

Inge thought quickly.
Part of her wanted to snatch her son's hand and run screaming for the mine.
Another part of her knew this would do no good, and she would not be able to feed her young, and what if Kohl showed up in her absence?
"Ma'am," Moore said, his hat still in his hand, "what kin I do?"
Inge raised her chin . "Mr. Moore," she said firmly, "thank you for bringing me the news. If you would be equally swift with whatever findings are made, I would be very much obliged to you."
Moore nodded.
Somehow he was not surprised at the formality of her words.
"I'll do that," he said, clapping his hat on his head and turning his horse. "Yup, boy."
Inge felt her son trembling a little as he leaned against her thigh, his head just shy of waist level on her.
"Ma?" he said in a small voice. "What did Mr. Moore mean?"
Inge squeezed his shoulder. "He means it's time to wash up for supper. Go fetch the others, we eat well tonight."
The lad launched into a full-out sprint to round up his siblings, and Inge turned and went back into the cabin.
She replaced the shotgun on its hooks and then fetched out her tobacco tin.
I just might need this.

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Linn Keller 10-22-11


Kohl moved slow.
His ribs hurt bad enough he didn't want to move, he didn't want to breathe more than just a little, but he knew he had to move, had to breathe --
he had to!
Had to!
"Inge," he whispered into the darkness, and there was not even the drip of water to reply.
"Inge," he said, a little more softly, and he bowed his head, his right arm clamped down on his ribs: it hurt a little less, like this.
Kohl clamped his jaw shut and followed the rough-cut rock wall.

Supper was an unusually silent affair.
The Kolascinski children, all but the very youngest, kept looking at the empty place at the head of the table.
Inge had set Papa's place as if Papa would be home, they knew, but he wasn't home, and Mama was being brisk and efficient.
Too brisk and efficient.
Mama was behaving as if nothing were wrong.
Mama was behaving too much as if nothing were wrong, which told them that something was very wrong.
The children looked at one another, and through some silent selection, the next to oldest daughter was elected: she steeled herself, took a long breath, looked at her brothers and then her Mama and asked, "Mama, where is Papa?"
Inge folded her napkin very precisely, the move of a woman who was controlling what little she could in an uncontrollable situation.
"Papa," she said, calmly, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, "is still in the mine." She drew her green-glass Rosary from her apron pocket. "Now let us bow our heads."

Kohl started at the sound: he knew what it was, and it was not good: the sound of another timber failing, and the sound of more rock fall.
Instinct took over where good sense did not.
Kohl ran.
He knew the shaft proceeded roughly straight ahead and he knew there were mine rails on either side of the center, and if he veered one way or the other the rails would give a moment's notice before he sideswiped the rough stone wall: at least his conscious, thinking, rational mind knew this: the rest of him, though, had but one thought:
Kohl snatched the bandanna to his face, held it, knowing a dust cloud would be almost sure to follow --
Kohl skidded to a stop, danced back a few steps --
Blindly, one hand holding the dust-filter over nose and mouth, the other arm feeling, reaching, searching, he found a wide crack, a crevice perhaps, damp with groundwater --
Kohl did not know what it was or where it went, only that it separated from the cut-stone mine shaft, and there was light to be seen.
Kohl groaned at the pain in his rib cage and wallowed up the grade, scrambling uphill in the narrowing gap in the rock.

Lanterns were raised, shovels turned dirt and rock, gloved hands snatched at fallen stone, scraping the roof fall from --
"Oh, Gawd," one miner rasped.
It was a boot and a pants leg, with the leg still in them.
"Well, hell, dig 'im out," the foreman said. "We kin give her somethin' t' bury."
There was the grate of shovels, the grunts of labor, an oath.
"Boss," a miner said, "ain't nothin' attached to this-here leg."
There was a long silence.
"Fetch your lamps, boys, an' take a good look."
Miners crowded around, jockeying to take the greatest advantage of their assembled lamps.
"Anybody reckonze this leg?"

The crack was wet, cold and narrowing.
Kohl wormed his way through it, grunting, gasping a little.
"Inge," he whispered.
He reached for the light, stretching his arm as far as it would go.
The rock had closed down on him like obdurate jaws: he found some purchase for his feet, snarled, worked his way toward it --
Old, dirty, rotted tree bark crumbled in his grasp, and with it, the fox fire he saw, glowing blue and green in the dark.
Kohl struggled to escape the stony jaws.
His hand pushed against moss, tore it loose --
Stars, bright and clear, and a half moon: Kohl was looking out over a valley.
Kohl seized the rim of the opening with his good right hand, ignoring the agony in his rib cage, wallowed and wiggled and struggled forward, knowing he was scraping himself bloody and not caring, not caring if he left drawers and galluses in shreds behind him! His were the emotions of a prisoner making good an escape, a desperate man determined not to die of slow, agonized torture!
Kohl came out of the gap, fell a few feet, rolled: he threw arms and legs wide to stop himself, and stop he did, flat on his back, spread eagled in the nighttime dark, in the cool mountain air: his breath steamed, his wet body steamed, but he was alive, alive!
He was free!
Kohl knew he had to get up, he had to move: he was wet, he was cold, he was hungry, he was hurt: if he lay still he would die, but he took a moment to utter the most heartfelt, most complete, most sincere prayer he'd ever uttered in the entirety of his life:
Kohl looked up into the night sky and said, "Thank you."

"Yep, that's his, a'right."
"Who's a-gonna tell his widda?"
"Me." Moore took the gory messenger. "I'll fetch this to her." His expression was as sick as he felt inside. "She'll at least have somethin' t' bury."

The children looked at one another, hesitant to get up.
Finally the oldest daughter asked, "Mama, shall we clear the table?"
"Yes, children," Inge replied, "all but my place and Papa's. He may yet be along."
"Yes, Mama."
There was the sound of horses' hooves without.
Inge's head came up, her eyes big, her heart suddenly hammering in her breast.

Kohl moved more by instinct than design.
He traveled down hill, knowing waterways converged, knowing he should come to something.
An instinct told him he was traveling in the right direction; something he could not define guided his steps; he was unsure of his travel until he saw a familiar hollow, a remembered outcrop, and finally, in the distance, a roof, another --
"Well I'd be damned," he whispered hoarsely, his right arm held tightly against his ribs: he clutched a sapling with his left hand to keep from falling and his teeth clattered together: he was shivering now that he'd stopped, but not as bad as he had been.
He was moving, and to move was to keep warm -- or at least warmer.
He set one foot ahead of the other and pointed his nose at his own roof.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," the miner said, "but this is all we could recover."
Inge raised her chin, her face pale, but she swallowed hard and nodded.
"We figured you would have this much to bury at least."
"Who you fixin' to bury?" a rough voice challenged from the darkness, and Inge's eyes widened.
Three young voices shouted in unison; three sets of youthful limbs, swift and unstoppable, ran back toward the corn field, past the barn and the out house and out of sight.
The miner's jaw sagged and he looked after the disappearing children.
Kohl labored into view, walking slowly, obviously in pain; he limped, his clothes were torn, his entire front was wet and bloody, his face looked like he'd come out in second place after a bar fight and it was obvious the man was about done in, but he was on his own two feet and moving under his own power.
"Thank you, Mr. Moore," Inge said formally, "but I think ..."
Moore nodded and wrapped the leg back in its shrouding canvas, securing it behind his saddle.
Kohl made his slow, pained way down the back path, into the clearing and to the cabin.
He looked long at his wife, then looked at Moore.
"Moore," he grated, "thank you. You done decent."
Moore nodded.
Kohl looked at Inge.
Inge stood, regal as a Queen, her chin up, her eyes shining.
"I look a fright," Kohl wheezed.
"You look fine," Inge said.
Kohl never remembered, and Inge never told him, that his eyes had rolled up and he'd collapsed at that moment.
All Kohl remembered was that he woke up in his own bed, clean, dry, stiff and sore, but under his own roof, and alive.

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Linn Keller 10-23-11


Dark eyes glared from under shaggy brows, an unwashed hand clutched the crooked stick that had traced a rough map in the dirt floor of the line shack.
"You don't want t' do that."
The pair met by chance, as men will; each had brought wood, for neither wished to leave sign that they'd been there.
Line shacks were not infrequently used by men on the dodge: they were remote shelters, intended for use by riders for the ranch on whose land they were built, a remote headquarters for isolated hands to work the far corners of a big spread.
Drifters, outlaws, travelers good and bad took advantage of them, but seldom if ever abused them, and the best of these guests were the outlaws, men on the dodge from the law.
Like this pair, they knew they may well be followed; like this pair, they used wood, but replaced it, and scattered the ashes of their fire from the tin stove: they left the shack in tidy condition, ready for the next occupant, the better to allay suspicion that a lawbreaker had passed that way.
"Now why," the younger of the two sneered, "why wouldn't I wanna?"
The older of the two grunted, spit on the stove: tobacco juice sizzled and stank in the cozy confines of the tight-built shack.
"Because there's a cranky old lawman there that would bite yer head off down to yer belt buckle an' spit it out fer kids t' kick around on th' playground, that's why," the older man growled. He lifted his flop brim hat and ran nervous fingers through greasy hair, his fingers caressing an old scar running right down the very center of his head.
He used to part his hair on that scar, back when he had a notion to part his hair; nowadays he just ignored it, hid it under his hat.
The cranky old lawman to which he'd just referred had given him that scar one dark night, one night when he'd come into town allowin' as he was second cousin to a wild cat and blood brother to a grizzly bear, and that skinny old Sheriff with them ice-pale eyes had knocked him north, south, east, west, up to the Texas moon and down to oil, and then drove him head first into the corner of a horse trough, which give him that scar.
The outlaw woke up in the hoosegow some time later -- a day or a week, he wasn't sure and it didn't matter -- and the lawman showed him the wanted dodger through the bars.
"I'm a-gonna turn you loose," he'd said quietly.
"I know the scrap you was in that put this dodger out on you and I figure you was in the right."
"Then whyinell'd ye lock me up?" the outlaw groaned, feeling the bandage on his newly shaved head.
"I intended to dunk you in that horse trough but lost m'grip," the Sheriff had replied. "Drivin' you int' the corner was an accident an' it damn neart kilt ye."
The outlaw was some older now, there in the line shack, but he remembered the jail house conversation like it was yesterday.
"Say," the outlaw had asked, "you ain't got a depitty ...?"
The Sheriff turned those glacier eyes on him and nodded, once.
"Tall skinny fella, eyes like yours, a snake with a sixgun an' worse with a knife?"
Again, the single nod.
The outlaw swore.
More correctly, the outlaw slouched back on the cell's only furnishing, the steel frame cot, hung his head and spent at least three and a half minutes quietly profaning himself with every unclean, obscene and blasphemous term he could think of.
When he run out of wind he'd looked up at the Sheriff.
The lawman hadn't changed expression, nor had he moved.
"Of all the towns t' come to," he muttered.
The Sheriff nodded again, once, and agreed, "Of all the towns."
The younger outlaw looked at the older owlhoot and said curiously, "You still in there?"
A blink, a shake of the head.
He tapped the stick on the crudely drawn map.
"You ride wide o' that place now. They got a depitty that kin reach in b'tween yer shirt buttons with an Arkinsaw tooth pick an' cyarve his 'nitials on yer liver an' make ye like it." His eyes glared from under the sagging hat brim. "They got a town marshal that kin break a plow horse in two an' I seed him do it, an' they got a little girl there they call Ragdoll." He shivered. "I knowed th' man she kilt t' git that name."
"Ragdoll," the younger man whispered, and the older outlaw had a hopeful moment, for he saw something that just might save his junior counterpart's life.
He saw fear.
"She's a sweet girl, now, she's young an' she's pretty an' she kin look like a sweet little schoolgirl or a marryin' age woman, but she's death, I tell ye, death!" He stabbed the dirt map savagely with the end of the crooked stick, snapping it off and throwing the stub end across the shack.
"An' that bar keep is as quick with a double gun as he is with a bung starter, an' twicet as good. The storekeep is an old Navy man an' he's hell with a LeMat, an' they got a fahr d'partment --"
"They got what?"
"They got them-there in-sane Irishmen an' a steam buggy!" he shouted, his voice loud in the close confines. "They live t' fight an' they don't care who 'tis they tear into! Ever' man Jack of 'em is a killer with bare knuckles an' a fire hook an' they'll rip yer guts out an' string 'em from a lamp post just outta pure meanness!"
The younger outlaw considered this, dividing the older man's words by ten and then distilling them down further, until he was left with two nuggets of truth.
"That-there Sheriff," he said. "He's a man to fight shy of."
"I'd say so."
"An' that Ragdoll, that girl ... ain't no tellin' who she is?"
The older man's expression was bleak.
"Ye'll never know who she is until her knife is hilt deep in yer belly and her hand is around yer wind pipe, and all the while she'll wear the face of an angel."

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Linn Keller 10-24-11


"It's easier with a .44," I said casually, and fetched back the hammer of that Navy Colt.
"Y'see, your .44 ball is near to a half inch across" -- I set that teeny brass cone of a front sight in that little notch in the Navy's hammer nose -- "but your .36 ball is considerably smaller."
The front sight steadied at the base of the card and I tracked it up a little and BANG shot on the rise, and the edge-on playing card flew from the fence post, one half flying straight up and fluttering down, the other one blowing back.
I walked up and wedged two more playing cards in the weathered top of the fence post, side-on toward me, and paced back to where I'd started.
"Now was the wind still," I continued, raising the percussion revolver's muzzle to the zenith and wrapping my thumb around that stand-up hammer spur, "I'd give a candle a try." The action was tight on this pistol and it sounded tight as it clickety-clicked back into full stand.
The one fellow in the tan suit must have been a reporter, for he was busy writing on a small note book.
Another card cut in two, blew away from me, fluttering to the ground in two pieces.
"I always did" -- clickety-click -- "want to try a candle flame" -- BANG -- and the second card, cut in two by the passing pistol ball, joined its fellows, bifurcated on the ground.
The stage was in town and I had a notion to play a little, so I was out behind Shorty's livery with a couple tin cans and that old Navy Colt I still had.
I'd taught Bonnie on a Navy and I'd taught Sarah some on a Navy, though Charlie taught her more and better on what she was carryin', and truth be told Charlie was a better teacher than me: still, I must not have done too bad, because a week before Sarah had split six cards edge-on, hand runnin', and knowing we had gathered an audience, once number six went a-flutterin' in the air, she handed me back that Navy and said, "Uncle Linn, I'm bored, I'm going to find something exciting."
She told me later it was all she could to to keep a straight face and I know it was plainly all I could do not to bust out laughing, for several folks had gathered to see her shoot, and when she rolled that cylinder around and drove six in a row like that, why, there was jaw bones hangin' down to belt buckle height all over the place.
Today, though, Sarah was off elk huntin' with Charlie.
I envied her that.
Charlie had told me about elk huntin' and he one time described laying wait in a thicket, and a bull elk was grindin' its teeth and gruntin' not twenty foot away but the brush was thick enough neither could see the other, and then that bull cut loose with a whistling bugle that run cold fingers walking down his back bone ... well, his description of it run them cold fingers a-walkin' down my back bone!
Now you never know who-all the stage is going to bring.
Most times, if folks come to Firelands, they are here on some business.
Here lately we'd had several people coming to see Esther, as she owned and managed the brick works, and bricks were in demand: there were those who threw up quick, cheap shacks and buildings out of lumber, when quick and cheap would do, but once the first wave of cheap-and-easy passed, why, people wanted to build to last, and that meant brick.
Esther was doing a land office business with bricks, and this last stage brought in a couple customers.
Of course, after riding a good while in a stage, it feels good to step out and stretch your legs, and folks are curious; the stage generally laid over long enough in Firelands that passengers could get an uninterrupted meal and not have to hurry about it, and days like today, why, they had time to come down and see what the shootin' was.
I started by tossing a number two tin can up in the air and putting a ball through it.
Always did like that.
They I'd hit it twice, maybe three times, if fragments of percussion cap didn't fall down in the action and tie it up.
I knew they were a-gatherin' behind me but paid them no mind, but I began to talk as if I was havin' an every day conversation with an old friend.
I walked forward to the fence rail and wedged cards in it about two foot apart, four cards along the rail, stuck under splinters: I come back to the table and picked up that reloaded Navy Colt, considered, then set it back down, smiling a little.
My left side was to that-there fence rail and the playing cards, my right side to the half dozen from the stage.
I was pretending not to look at them and of course they couldn't take their eyes off me, for every last one of them was from back East, and this was a taste of the Wild West they'd read about in them dime novels.
"Now was a man to use a cartridge revolver," I said conversationally, "you don't have to worry about a copper cap fragment binding up the action" -- I turned, drew, hammered four fast shots dead center into the four cards, left-to-right -- I reloaded with a calmness, a deliberation that was at odds with the speed of the draw -- stacking the empties in a line on the table, I dropped fresh rounds into the Colt's chambers, holstered.
One of the stage passengers was a tall lad, young, not long out of knee pants: he was regarding me with adoring eyes and hesitantly said, "Mister?"
"Yes, son?"
"Mister, are you a --" he looked up at his father, then back at me -- "are you a gunslinger?"
I laughed.
"No, son, I'm just the county sheriff," I smiled. "I've known gunslingers and I've known crack shots and I'm not the best shot around."
The lad's eyes were big and round and he blinked a few times: the men looked at one another, back at me, and one said, "You're not the best?"
"Oh, heavens no," I said, shaking my head. "There's someone lives not far from here can put me to shame! I stood up on my hint feet and stood still and shot those four cards?" I pointed to the fence rail.
That reporter fella was scribbling, trying to keep up.
Heads nodded, murmurs of assent.
"The individual I mentioned can do that at a full gallop, hanging off the side of the horse like an Apache and shooting from under the horse's neck."
I paused.
"I watched her do it three times in a row."
I'm not sure which one blurted the word, but the surprise on every face was evident.
I nodded solemnly.
"Her," I confirmed. "She's known as Ragdoll. You might have heard of her. She's twelve years old, she's a sweet little girl and I love her like a daughter. She can sing like an angel, dance like a fairy, ride like a Mexican and fight like two wildcats. She can cut a man's shirt front into Irish lace doilies and never bring blood and shave you with the same knife before you can blink, she can get more speed out of a horse, more accuracy out of a gun and more money out of a man's pocket that is humanly possible. I have done my best to stay on her good side, for once she comes into womanhood, she'll likely take over the world."
My words hung on the still air for a long moment, then:
"Aw, Sheriff, that's a good one! Why, you're a-joshin' us!
"Maybe not," the reporter said thoughtfully. "I've heard of this Ragdoll."
I waited for the inevitable question.
"Sheriff, is there any chance I could get an interview with ... Miss Ragdoll?"
"I could try to arrange it, if she were here," I said, "but right now she's in the high country after elk."
"Elk?" the boy's father grunted. "With what, a pistol?"
I looked the man in the eye and replied solemn as the old judge:
"A stone tipped spear."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-24-11


"Girl chip flint pretty good," the old man grunted. "Spear point damn sharp!" Cat Running rolled his quid in his jaws and spat, the blob of brown juice splashing across the unfortunate stinkbug that was his target. "Why you want point?" Black eyes locked with green.

"She wants to kill an elk with that thing," Charlie answered mildly. "And I aim to do my best to make that happen."

The old man burst out in a guffaw, tobacco juice oozing down his chin before he reached up and wiped a deeply stained buckskin sleeve across his lips. "Girl crazy!" he gasped out, holding his ribs in mirth. "Not strong enough to kill elk with spear!"

"She just might surprise you," Charlie replied with a grin of his own. "That girl's done surprised a bunch of folks hereabouts recently. Now are you gonna help her bind that chunk of rock onto some sorta shaft, or do I have to do it myself and get it wrong?"

Cat Running's laughter stopped as suddenly as it began. "You sure?" he asked Sarah.

"Yes, I am," the girl answered firmly.

"Okay. I do." The old man pushed himself to his feet, grunting, and began to hobble arthritically toward the creek bottom near the mare's pasture. "Come on, we gotta find shaft." He turned to look at Charlie. "You get fire goin'. 'Bout this size." He held his hands out, outlining a circle about the size of a hat crown. "Have coals ready when we come back. Get rawhide string. Come on, girl."

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Linn Keller 10-25-11


The stage jingled and clattered out of town, as it always did, with a whistle and a yell and a blacksnake whip, a barking dog chasing after and a barefoot boy yelling after the dog, but this time it left town light by one passenger.
The reporter was in the Silver Jewel, sitting at a table, gazing into the prognosticating well of a tall mug of beer and considering what he'd just seen.
He expected to find crack shots here in the West -- why, he'd read of Hickock and Earp and the dime novel heroes, he'd known it populated with buffalo hunters and old soldiers, men with the bark on, men who'd survived who-knew-what ... and the fact that the pale-eyed Sheriff was deadly with a sixgun was interesting, but hardly noteworthy.
No, this mere girl they called the Ragdoll ... this, he thought, this was interesting.
He'd heard of her, yes; he'd dismissed what he'd heard, though rumors of her were spoken here and repeated there, and had been discussed and dismissed in watering-holes as far East as St. Louis, and possibly further into the civilized part of the country, but always it was granted the status of tall tale, of legend, of some slick story with which to gull the unwary.
The reporter smiled thinly.
He'd been fooled by the best, in his younger days, and he was no man's fool.
He took a sip of the beer, surprised at its coolness; it was good beer, and he took a longer drink, surprised to find himself thirsty.
No, he was no man's fool, though he'd been fooled, and he flattered himself that he was no woman's fool, though he recognized he'd been fooled more often and more thoroughly by the fair sex than by the male of the species.
Ragdoll, he thought.
On a whim he turned a fresh page in his notebook and printed it in precise capitals, centered on the top of the page:

Ragdoll: Queen of the West!

He frowned and scratched a line through it.
Another sip of beer.

Ragdoll: Girl and Legend.

Another line. Not quite what he wanted.
I need to find out more about this Ragdoll, he thought.
I'll start with the Sheriff.
In the reporter's experience, most lawmen would be flattered by a reporter's attention, and would twist themselves in a knot to tell anything and everything they knew, believing their verbal wisdom would glow from mastheads and headlines back East, back where people were genteel and cultured.
The reporter forgot one thing.
His experience was with lawmen back East.

"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, are you up to something?"
The Sheriff paid the two men, who departed quickly: he accepted the bow and a single arrow from the barefoot lad with a cowlick and a freckled grin, and replied, "You might say that."

"This the one?"
"I reckon. It's the only one hangin' up here."
Well, I don't reckon they'll mind if there's a hole between the ribs."
"Nah. They'll be cuttin' it up anyhow."

The reporter looked up, startled, as a chair was drawn back from his table.
"You'll starve to death livin' on beer," the Sheriff said quietly. "Let me get you something." He nodded to Daisy's girl, watching from a table away.
"I'm sorry," the reporter said. "I was --"
"I know. You were thinking. I could hear the gears turning between your ears."
"Ah, yes." The reporter looked at the title he'd printed, then back to the pale eyed lawman. "Sheriff, I'd like to know --"
"You'd like to know more about Ragdoll," the Sheriff finished for him.
Plates and cups appeared, coffee and good beef perfumed the air; the reporter was surprised at the good cut of meat before him, the flawlessly whipped potatoes, bathed in an ocean of steaming-hot gravy, absolutely free of chunks or globules of fat: conversation was suspended, at least for a time, in favor of a meal. The reporter had not eaten when the other passengers had, and his appetite, like his thirst, took him rather by surprise.
The Sheriff offered him a salt cellar, and a pepper mill: the reporter's eyebrows raised momentarily in surprise, before he availed himself of these unexpected additions.
"Sheriff, I'll admit I'm surprised."
"Oh?" The Sheriff sprinkled his mashed potatoes with a light dusting of salt, ground pepper on the snowy crater.
"I thought Western towns were small and cheap and dirty, saloons were houses of ill repute and violence --"
"And they hold gunfights in the street, hang outlaws from the lamppost, shoot up signs and ceilings and haul screaming, kicking women upstairs while a piano player rinky-tinks out some poor excuse for a tune on an out-of-tune piano."
The Sheriff's eyes were amused; they sampled potatoes and gravy, and found them quite good.
"And this," the reporter mumbled through a flavorful mouthful: "why, in the books, it's beans and cornbread and tough old beef --"
The Sheriff nodded, took a noisy slurp of coffee.
"I've read those books." His eyes smiled. "They write those to sell, to make money. As long as gullible folks will believe that trash, they'll buy that trash and more like it will be written."
"Ah, hm." The reporter stole a guilty glance at his notebook.
"Now you," the Sheriff continued, "you're asking about the Ragdoll."
The reporter nodded, picked up his knife and addressed the beef on his plate.
The Sheriff reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a gleaming-white spearpoint, half as long as his hand, and casually sliced his beef with it: forking the cut-off chunk into his mouth, he chewed with relish, savoring the tender, seasoned back strap.
The reporter frowned. "Ah, is that --"
The Sheriff effortlessly sliced off another bite of meat. "Beg pardon?"
"I, um ..." The reporter cleared his throat, tilted his head a little. "Is that ...?"
"Flint spear point," the Sheriff said, wiping it carefully on his linen napkin and handing it base-first to the reporter. "Made it as a boy. Don't drop it."
"Oh, I won't," the reporter murmured, examining it: fascinated, he admired the symmetrical, pressure-flaked scallops that defined its cutting edge: he turned it over, over again, and finally handed it back to the Sheriff.
"I was taught by old masters of the art." He slid the long, leaf-shaped spearpoint back into his vest pocket. "You can use a properly knapped flint as a scalpel. Sharp, precise, durable, in some ways superior to steel."
Two men came in, bearing a dressed pig's carcass suspended on a pole between them, and behind, a barefoot boy, grinning, bearing a bow and a single arrow.
The men carried the carcass to the far end of the Jewel.
"Excuse me," the Sheriff said, standing: he accepted the bow from the boy: in one smooth motion, he drew and released: in the close confines of the Jewel's dining room, the bow's twang and the sound of stone tipped shaft driving through the rib cage were loud and nearly simultaneous.
The men fetched the carcass back, turned it for inspection.
"You can see," the Sheriff said as if delivering a lecture before an anatomy class, "this stone tipped arrow has penetrated easily through the rib cage on this side, and penetrated the other side almost completely." His finger caressed the sharp tip of the protruding flint. "And this is a fairly light bow, as bows go. Bows used during the Crusades by the Saracens, or by the English at Crecy or during the Norman Invasion, were considerably more powerful."
"My word," the reporter whispered.
"Thank you, gentlemen."
The carcass was borne to the kitchen, to be further disassembled by skilled hands: the Sheriff handed the bow to the boy, who likewise disappeared down the back hallway, and the tall, slender lawman resumed his seat.
"Now." The Sheriff picked up his butter knife, split open a steaming-fresh sweet roll. "You should really try these."
"I shall," the reporter smiled. "Those smell wonderful!"
"They taste even better," the Sheriff assured him. "My wife's recipe. She baked these the night she set her hat for me."
"I take it she was successful?"
The Sheriff laughed, a good, easy, relaxed laugh. "Oh, most definitely! We were married not long after and we've been just as happy as if we had good sense!"
The reporter looked puzzled.
"Sheriff, I don't often see people smile here in the West."
The Sheriff forked up another slice of beef: his was tender enough it really did not need to be cut, he'd just sliced across its grain to make a point.
"Folks think a smile is a sign of weakness," he said quietly.
"I see."
"I was in the War."
The reporter waited.
The Sheriff swallowed, nodding.
"You were in the War?" he prompted, and the Sheriff's eyes smiled at the corners.
"I learned the hard way not to withhold that one kind word."
"His name was Harold." The Sheriff addressed his potatoes again. "He found I'd been elected Master of the Masonic lodge, and he machined me out the cutest little bitty gavel. Head was as big across as ... oh, I'd say half the diameter of a Spanish real and maybe twice that long, the handle was long as my hand, it was well finished and stained and he had an acquaintance present it to me the night I was installed." The Sheriff's expression was distant as he remembered. "The night I was made Master of the Lodge, I swung that little gavel that Harold made me.
"Next day I went a-beatin' on his door and when he answered I had that little gavel in hand and I said "Harold, last night I made a small decision because I wanted to swing that small gavel."
"I couldn't have tickled the man any more if I'd give him a hundred dollars."
The Sheriff's voice was suddenly flat.
"He fell dead four-and-twenty hours later.
"I learned that day what I'd learned in the War.
"Withhold not that one kind word.
"It might be the last chance you'll ever get."
Silence grew long between the two.
Finally the Sheriff blinked.
"Now let me show you something. Watch this."
He lay his butter knife across the butter.
"See what's happening here?"
"I'm sorry?"
"Look at the butter knife."
"I ... don't understand."
"Okay, look now." The Sheriff held the knife up so its tip was on the butter: steadying it between thumb and forefinger, the reporter watched as the knife penetrated the butter easily for its full depth.
"I'm sorry, Sheriff, I don't quite understand."
The Sheriff smiled and removed the round tipped blade, wiped it on a fragment of sweet roll, ate.
"If you take this" -- he withdrew the spearpoint again -- "and you mount it on a shaft" -- his hands sketched a spearshaft extending from the base of the hand-made flint point -- and you throw it, the full weight of the shaft is concentrated" -- he held the spearpoint up between them -- "solely on its sharpend, pointed, tip."
His eyes shifted from the spearpoint to the reporter's eyes.
"You saw how easily a light bow can drive an arrow-shaft through the rib cage of a pig, and a pig's chest is about the same as a man's."
"So you're saying ..."
"If you can throw accurately, if you can get in close and thrust" -- the Sheriff's thumb and forefinger caressed down the curve of the spearpoint's edges -- "you have a wound channel this wide, and as deep as your thrust, cut with a sharp edge, and it will not stop bleedin'."

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Linn Keller 10-26-11


The reporter was silent for a time and the two men ate, a little more slowly, each savoring his provender.
Finally they leaned back, satisfied; the Sheriff thanked the girl for the refill on his coffee, the reporter shook his head at a top-off, and the two men sighed with pleasure.
"Now, then, Sheriff," the reporter said, "I must say I don't often get a good meal during an interview. I shall have to include your territory in future interview efforts!"
"Come on out and welcome," the Sheriff said, and there was a change in his voice: the reporter looked sharply at the greying old lawman and saw pale eyes regarding him steadily over the ceramic rim of the heavy coffee mug.
"Sheriff, you are right. I am very interested in this ... in Miss Ragdoll." The reporter tilted his head a little, belched quietly.
"You would like to know more about her," the Sheriff continued for him. "Who she is, where she lives, what she's like, what she looks like normally, what turns her into a ravening monster with revenge for blood, fangs for teeth, knives in each hand and guns a-blazin' from her eyes."
The reporter blinked, surprised, then began to laugh.
Shaking his head, he chuckled, "Sheriff, you could write dime novels with an imagination like that!"
The Sheriff smiled quietly.
"I don't mind pullin' a man's leg," he admitted, "and a well told tale is as much an art form as sculpting."
The reporter took a sip of coffee, raising an eyebrow to indicate he was listening.
"A man can shape stone or a man can shape snow. Each can be equally beautiful, each can have an achingly lovely form and each can be equally appealing to the eye. Stone will last, snow fades quickly, yet both are expressions of art." The Sheriff shifted in his seat, twisting a little until the reporter heard a muffled *pop* and he saw relief in the Sheriff's pale eyes.
"A well told tale is an art form as well, a type of sculpting in snow." He worked his back again, visibly less than comfortable.
"War injury?" he asked quietly.
"Fell off m' horse," the Sheriff admitted ruefully.
"Got snake bit in the process." The Sheriff rose a little, sat back down. "That's better."
"Fell off a horse and got snake bit?"
The Sheriff chuckled. "I can't do anything normally."
"I see." The reporter cleared his throat, his eyes tracking to the far end of the Jewel as he remembered two men bringing in the dressed hog carcass, and how the Sheriff casually drove a cloth-yard shaft through its breadth.
"I presume this ... I presume Miss Ragdoll is a real person?"
The Sheriff nodded quietly. "She is."
"You said you love her like a daughter."
The Sheriff was quiet for a long moment.
"Sheriff, I am ... puzzled."
"You're wondering how much is legend and how much is fact." The Sheriff leaned forward a little, taking the bow out of his lower back, resting forearms on the edge of the table. "If she is such an enthusiastic young murderess, why have I not seized her and locked her up to protect the public good?"
"Er, yes."
The Sheriff's smile was guarded.
"Let's start at the beginning."
He looked up, meditatively, his voice a little distant.
"First of all, she is a lady and genteel, she is cultured and refined; she plays piano, she sings like an angel and recites Shakespeare and Milton, and when she is all dressed up she looks like a proper young lady of marrying age." He chuckled. "Unless she's in pigtails and dressed like a schoolgirl and looking like any girl-child hereabouts."
"I see."
"She is intelligent and well spoken, she is a gentle and sensitive soul with a love for puppies, good horses and a beautiful sunrise. She sings with the voice of an angel, she writes with a calligrapher's hand and her smile can melt the heart of a marble statue."
The Sheriff leaned back in his chair, imagining Sarah, in the high country with Charlie: he pictured Sarah on the stalk, low to the ground and rifle in hand, directing her exhaled breath down, into the grass, to keep her condensed breath from betraying her position.
He imagined her belly-down in a little depression, her bright eye steady behind the rear sight, carefully preparing to place a precise shot through the boiler room of a bull elk.
The Sheriff had absolutely no idea what she was actually up to.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-26-11


Ghostly wisps of fog floated through the quakies at the foot of the basin, barely visible against the paleness of white bark and yellow leaves. The first gray daylight crept across the ridgetops, spilling deep shadows beneath the low-spreading bows of fir and spruce. Spectral movement deep between two close-set fir trees revealed a slim human shape, swathed in mottled furs...

The deep coughing bark was followed by a long, piercing whistle that rose to an echoing crescendo that chased its own tail hither and yon across the high alpine basin as the herd bull bugled its dominance of all it surveyed. The human lying, or rather standing, in ambush felt the march of gooseflesh along her spine at the sound. She wiped her palms on the furs swaddling her legs then grasped the spear, shifting her grip along the fire-hardened live oak of the shaft to find the balance point. She raised the shaft to shoulder height...

The elk herd, barren matriarch in the lead, strung out along the hoof-trampled dust of the trail to the bedground. Calves bucked and capered, feeling the stir of energy brought on by the coolness of the morning. Cows mewed their concern at their young's antics and were ignored by said young. Charlie's words ran circles in Sarah's brain...

"Don't wait for the perfect shot, wait for the best available shot. And make it count. Without the sound of the rifle, the herd probably won't spook and scatter. Just stay hid, and wait. I'll be watchin'." Then the first knuckle-crack sounded in Sarah's hideout...

The barren lead cow appeared beyond the gap between the fir trees, followed by a pair of yearlings. "We want a big one, but not the lead cow. You'd need an axe to cut the gravy from that one. Wait for something younger, but not a yearling. Remember what we shot last year."

A two year old bull materialized in the gap. Silently sucking in a deep breath, Sarah drew back the spear as far as her arm allowed, then snapped her hand, wrist and arm forward at the same time as she took a step. The shaft sailed true, and carefully hewn point pierced golden tan hide and slipped between the ribs to pierce heart and lung tissue. The young bull lunged forward, frothy blood blowing from its nostrils...

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Linn Keller 10-27-11


The old German nodded his thanks, slid a coin across the bar.
The presence of a genuine Bavarian beer stein had been no accident: Mr. Baxter purchased it from a traveler who was short on coin, for he was satisfied it would come in handy -- besides, it looked good as the center piece between a half-dozen beer mugs, back near the heavy plate mirror.
The thick German beer, now ... that had been an accident.
Somehow, and at the moment Mr. Baxter blessed the happy mistake, one keg of good thick German beer had made it on board the shipment from back East: he'd tapped it earlier that day, long enough ago to prevent an excess of foam, but recent enough that it was good, fresh, and delightfully cool from the beer-cellar below.
The old German leaned back against the bar and studied the interior of the Jewel with open curiosity.
When he saw the two men talking, at the table at the back of the room, he frowned, then smiled behind his thick, sculpted mustache, and strolled back to the pair.

"You said you expected Firelands to be small, dirty and cheap."
The reporter nodded. "Yes. Frankly, that's what I expected."
"You've seen such elsewhere."
Again, the double nod: "Yes. Kansas was quite disreputable."
The Sheriff's eyes tightened a little at the corners. "I rememer Kansas just like that," he agreed.
"Come with me."
A hard hand clapped on the reporter's shoulder and the Sheriff assessed the stranger with cold eyes.
"Piotor!" the German boomed happily, pounding the younger man in greeting. "Vat you doink outdt hier?"
"Good Lord, Hedldt," the reporter gasped, "spare me the beating!"
The old German shook his head. "Vhen I vass your aitch," he muttered, taking a pull from the stein.
The reporter stood, shook the man's hand: the Sheriff saw a genuine affection between the two.
"Sheriff Keller," the reporter said, "may I present my uncle, Baron Heinrich --"
The Baron cut him off, thrusting a big hand at the lawman. "Hedldt," he nodded happily. "Sheriff?"
"I see you have been to Heidelberg," the Sheriff said quietly.
The Baron threw his head back, laughing: "Ja, a young offizer took offense at some imachined slicht undt demanded satisfaction." He chuckled ruefully. "I spanked him mit der flat uff mein blade, und his Papa took offense." He raised rueful fingertips to the scar. "Dis ist from der Papa."
"I see."
"Zo, Piotor, you haff komm to der howling vilderness, ja?"
Piotor -- or Peter -- shrugged. "I'm following a story, Uncle."
"Ja. Der Ragdoll."
The effect on the German was immediate: his mouth dropped open, his eyes rounded and he gasped, "Stoffpuppe?" -- then, "I must haff an introduction!"
"She is the Sheriff's ... god-daughter?" the reporter hesitated, looking at the Sheriff.
"Kind of a shirt-tail niece, but yes, god-daughter is accurate."
The German set down his stein and wrung the Sheriff's hand again: "Mein Gott, man, I must meet her! Vhere ist zis Walkyrie, zis anchel mit death in her pocket?"
The Sheriff laughed. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, Baron, but the legend is far larger than life!"
The Baron regarded the Sheriff for a long moment, then sighed, clearly disappointed. "Such iss often," he nodded.
"Piotor." The Sheriff addressed the reporter. "Come with me. You too, Baron."
The three filed outside: as they passed the corner of the bar, the Sheriff said, "We'll be right back, Mr. Baxter," and Mr. Baxter nodded solemnly as he burnished another mug to crystal brightness.
The three men walked out into the middle of the street.
The Baron looked around, interested: he nodded at granite giants, shouldering hard against the sky, and assessed the buildings with a carpenter's eye.
"Take a look at the Jewel here. What did you expect to see?"
The reporter tilted his head back and considered.
"I did not expect fresh paint, Sheriff. I did not expect to see windows intact. I expected to see weathered boards, trim missing, I expected it to be ... frankly, dirty."
The Sheriff nodded. "It used to be."
The reporter looked at him, curious.
"Look at that window -- there, the corner." He pointed with his left hand, fingers together, palm down. "Now imagine a woman looking out that window. The glass is cracked, fly specked, filthy. She is wearing a stained and torn shift and a hollow expression. Her eyes are hopeless, the eyes of a prisoner."
The reporter nodded, mentally taking notes, wishing he'd not left his notebook on the table within.
"The Jewel is dirty, dissheveled: that middle window, the big one, is boarded over because a fellow was thrown through it two nights before I rode into town.
"The woman at the window has a blue eye, swelled half shut, and the other working girls are regularly beaten as well, either by customers or by the owner. He is a cheat and a thief and he's in cahoots with the crooked banker - who, by the way, is the reason that woman is in the window."
The reporter found a fresh notebook in an inside pocket and began writing quickly, noting in shorthand, desperately sketching down an outline to jog his memory later for the re-write.
"The woman will become the Ragdoll's mother."
A quick scratching of pencil on rag paper, a nod.
The Baron regarded the front of the Jewel thoughtfully, his eyes moving over well-formed trim, precisely painted scrollwork high against the roofline.
"Now. A man comes into town. He is dirty, he is rough, he beat his wife to death not two days before, and his little girl is in the wagon with him."
"His little girl?"
"About so high." The Sheriff holds a palm parallel with the ground. "The man is a regular customer and the major reason the working girls show signs of ill use. He slaps and kicks the little girl up the back stairs before he seizes this woman in the window by the arm and begins to brutalize her again."
The Baron was frowning, listening to the words: he plainly disliked the fellow being described, and his shaggy brows knitted as he tilted the colorful stein up for another long pull on his good German beer.
"This little girl is the only bright spot in these working girls' lives.
"They bath the child, they make her clothes, they brush her hair and tell her stories, but it's not enough.
"When things get violent, the child knows all the loose boards, all the places she can slip between the walls, she knows she can hide inside the dumb waiter, she knows which closets have a back exit she can just squeeze through.
"Her father is killed by a reporter woman from back East, and good riddance.
"The Jewel is bought out, the girls are released from their captivity, the woman in the corner window is a widow -- the crooked banker foreclosed on her the day after her husband died, she was drugged and chained to a crib by one ankle until her spirit was so broken they removed the chain and she made no attempt to leave -- that woman was given a fresh start and single handedly started a business. Today she has her ranch back, she has a business with a clientele on two coasts and all points between, and she became the child's mother.
"She married a fine and honorable man who turned out to be a cad, a cheat and a wastrel. He planned to have wife and daughter murdered, and that is how the Ragdoll was born."
The reporter scribbled furiously.
"A murderer came to town with two others; two went for the bank, the third went to the ranch.
"The little girl was upstairs and heard the stranger come in.
"The little girl listened at the head of the stairs as he described to her mother how he was going to take the title, the deed, the securities and valuables from her desk, then he detailed just how he intended to kill both she and her daughter -- and his description was rich, colorful and detailed.
"The child learned early just how vicious, how brutal life could be, and she'd gone to people in town who could teach her the means to keep herself safe.
"She learned that she is a weapon, and anything around her is a tool.
"She changed clothes quickly -- quickly! -- and came downstairs, clutching a rag doll."
The Sheriff's voice was distant; his eyes wandered across the front of the Jewel, but he was seeing the scene the young girl had painted for him with her words, after the fact.
"The murderer turned to see a pretty little girl, clutching a rag doll.
"He greeted her with the false affection of the true criminal and reached for her.
"The little girl had the rag doll clutched to her breast, and at his advance, released the arm across her chest" -- his own arm moved in imitation, his other hand against his chest, forefinger extended -- "and she cocked the hammer of a .44 revolver she'd secreted inside the rag doll."
The Sheriff was silent for a long moment, closing his eyes against the horror the child overcame, the horror that scarred and hardened and prepared her for whatever the rest of her life brought.
"In spite of that," he resumed, "in spite of all that -- in spite of shooting a bank robber afterward, during an attempted robbery, in spite of everything that happened to her, and happened around her, she is a sweet girl, cultured and refined: she passed her school's final examinations two years early, and with very nearly a perfect score.
"She has garbed herself as a young woman, and been mistaken for marriageable: she garbed herself in racing silks, tucked her braids into her jockey's jacket, pulled her riding cap down and rode races in Denver and down into New Mexico, passing for a boy both times."
"She is," the reporter offered distantly as he desperately tried to keep his notes up with the lawman's narrative, "she is a chameleon, then?"
The Sheriff was silent for a long moment.
"You could say that, yes."
"She rides, then."
The Sheriff chuckled, then laughed.
"Son," he said in a grandfather's proud voice, "she can hang off the side of a horse by one heel and a hand in the horse's mane, shooting out from under its neck and knock five cans off a fence rail at a dead out gallop and make it look easy!"
The reporter stopped writing, looked at the Sheriff, frowned.
Hoofbeats advanced, loud in the afternoon's hush, a brisk trot: the Sheriff raised an eyebrow, preparing for the reporter's challenge.
"Sheriff, nobody can ride like that, let alone a mere girl --"
The Baron tapped Piotor on the shoulder.
All three men turned as Daciana rode past, doing a flawless handstand on her trick pony's custom saddle: she turned at the end of the street, flowed into an upright position, rode back down the street, balancing on one foot, the other drawn up behind her: one arm out-thrust in front, one hand about her drawn up ankle, a ballerina's pose, as her pony paced down the street.
Angela rode up to the men, gazing sadly after Daciana.
"I can't do that," she said in a little girl's sad voice.
The Sheriff said, "Angela, can you ride like an Apache?"
"Okay, Daddy!" Angela piped, her face lighting in a brilliant smile: "Giddup, horsie!" and she, too, trotted to the end of the street.
"Daddy, watch me!" she called, her little girl's happy voice echoing a little, then she disappeared behind the off side of Rose o' the Mornin', and the golden mare began to trot, then leaned into an easy gallop, and Angela, completely hidden except for one pink hand fluttering under the mare's neck, giggled with delight as Rose-horse clattered past.
The Baron saw the amusement in the old lawman's face as he addressed the reporter.
"Well, son," he drawled, "what were you sayin?"

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Linn Keller 10-28-11


The Baron gazed after Daciana's retreating form.
He gestured with his stein, the question plain on his face.
The Sheriff smiled sadly. "No," he said. "That was our telegrapher's wife."
The old German's left eyebrow rose and he muttered something, then cleared his throat and repeated in English, "Your vomen haff curious customs."
The Sheriff nodded. "Some do," he admitted. "My wife is an accomplished fencer. My little girl here" -- he nodded toward Angela, cantering back toward the men -- "can out-ride most anyone I know. Daciana, yonder" -- he nodded to the direction Daciana had gone -- "Daciana spent a lifetime in the circus. She is an acrobat and a trick rider and she isn't about to lose all that training and all that ability just because there's a ring on her finger."
"Daciana?" the old German exclaimed. "Mein Gott, I knew her Mama! She vass a --" he searched the ground with his eyes, seeking the word, then looked up, his free hand describing an arc in the air --
"Trapeze?" the Sheriff prompted.
"Ja, trapeze!" The Baron's grin was quick and genuine. "She vass an anchel" -- he blinked as memory returned more clearly.
"An anchel," he repeated softly, and the Sheriff realized the Baron knew of the woman's untimely death.
"Miss Ragdoll," Peter hazarded, "will she be back soon?"
The Sheriff chuckled. "I honestly don't know," he admitted. "It depends on how soon she finds winter meat, how high up they are when she finds the one she wants ... a day at least, three maybe, I would guess."
"Three days." The reporter looked as disappointed as the Baron.
"Sheriff," the Baron said, and the old lawman heard something ... different ... in the man's voice.
"If it iss possible," he said, "sometime ... vould you do somdinks vor me?"
The Sheriff nodded.
"In Bavaria, vhen a young man takes a stag, ist customary to break off a sprig of evergeen und dip it in der stag's blood. Zis iss placed in der huntsman's hat mit "Waddsmannheil! ..."
The baron's voice drifted a little as his eyes gazed through time, at a younger era, an older continent, a memory only he could see.
"I vill nicht be hier vhen Fraulein Stoffpuppe makes her return."
The Sheriff waited as the Baron hesitated, considering.
"She ist your ... daughter uff your heart, ja?"
The Sheriff nodded.
"Vhen Fraulein Stoffpuppe makes a kill, und you are able, vould you giff her der Waddsmanheil?"
The Sheriff nodded, again, one time.
The two men clasped hands.
There was no doubt in the old German's heart that the lawman would keep his word.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-30-11


The bull staggered out across the small meadow, weaving from side to side as its strength waned. Its head began to droop as strong neck muscles lost their power, until the moist black snout dug into the grass and the bull somersaulted onto its back and lay still. The spear shaft stood as a silent marker for the wapiti's demise.

The herd stopped, surprised at their herdmate's antics. A few nostrils fluttered at the smell of blood on the trail, but the majority of the scent was carried away from the group by the morning breeze and they soon calmed as much as wild elk ever calm. Sarah waited in breathless silence, frozen in her concealment, expecting the herd to stampede wildly into the timber despite Charlie's earlier words. Her limited viewing area framed the figures of three mature cows and their calves standing in silent tableau, then the herd bull's whistle shrilled electrically through the soughing of the quakie leaves and the herd went into motion again.

Sarah waited for the sound of a shot, but heard only the clicking of ankle joints and the mewing conversation of the herd as it faded from earshot. When the only sound for several minutes was the whisper of the breeze through the trees Sarah eased out to the edge of her hiding place and looked around for her mentors.

"Girl done good!" Cat Running declared from behind her, nearly stopping her heart. The old man clapped the girl on the shoulder as he moved up beside her. "Done real good! Young bull be good eating! Now go gut, use flint." He handed Sarah a quill decorated sheath, elkhorn handle protruding from the heavy leather. "Go with respect." The old man stepped around in front of her with a smile. "But take off furs first. Keep 'em clean." Sarah nodded and began to strip off the camouflaging cover garments she wore, folding them neatly and laying them on a nearby log.

Charlie appeared leading the horses. "I thought you were going to shoot," Sarah commented drily.

"Who, me?" he quipped with a wide grin. "If I did that, I'd have to do some work. But since I didn't shoot nothin', then I get to sit back and watch you do it all. I'll get breakfast goin' while you make meat." He led the horses out across the meadow toward the downed elk. "I'll do some huntin' this afternoon, see if I can't hang something from the meat pole myself," he called back over his shoulder.

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Linn Keller 11-1-11


Daciana tried to roll with her fall.
Luckily her descent was padded with a good layer of straw, but it irritated her that she went over like that.
She'd set her saddle over a small keg, and believed it steady enough to do a hand stand: she'd intended to lower herself, until the crown of her head just touched the saddle, then push herself back up, but half way through the first descent, the keg shifted and over she went.
Daciana got up, glaring at the offending saddle, and cast about the barn: finding a couple chunks, she propped under the edges of the saddle, seized the hand-bars, wallowed them back and forth, and frowned.
The only way her saddle was going to be stable was if it were on Buttercup's back and cinched down, and she'd just groomed Buttercup down and turned her out into the lot, and she wasn't about to ask her pony to bear her weight again that day.
There was a tall shadow in the doorway, a gentle voice.
"Dearest?" Lightning called, and Daciana turned, shading her eyes with the palm of her hand and smiling a little.
She skipped over to her husband and greeted him with a hug and a kiss, thrilling to the feel of his arms around her: what Daciana did, she did with all of her heart, and she was absolutely, positively, without any doubt whatsoever, head over tincup in love with her husband.
She gave a little sigh, the side of her head pressed against his shirt front, and Lightning chuckled a little.
His life, too, had improved greatly for their union, and he'd confided in his old and dear friend and fellow brass pounder that he didn't know a big chunk of him was missing until Daciana filled the hole in him.
Fred had regarded Lightning's spare waist with one eye, then the other eye, and he allowed as she would do good work if she could fill the hole in his two hollow legs.
Lightning recalled the conversation and laughed, and Daciana delighted to her husband's laughter.
They stood so for long moments, then Daciana drew back and said, "I'll have supper in one hour."
Lightning nodded, almost shyly: he'd had to fix for himself long enough that he genuinely appreciated all his wife did, and so far had never once taken for granted that she had given the entirety of her life into their married union.
Almost exactly one hour later, Daciana -- her clothes changed, face washed, hair brushed -- was setting supper on the table for her husband -- who, with face and hands washed and his hair combed, took her hand and kissed her knuckles, then the two of them bowed their heads to return thanks for their bounty.

Esther nodded, once, satisfied, and closed her ledger-book.
She looked out her office window overlooking Firelands' main street: if she stood and looked a little to her right, she could see the Sheriff's office; to the left a bit, the Mercantile: there was Digger's funeral parlor, and beside it, the furniture store.
Beyond, in the distance, the freight chanted heavily up the track, loaded with ore from the mine; the passenger line, running parallel to the freight, carried not only passengers, but deliveries, as trains often do, and here more and more often was also carrying bricks.
Freight was expensive this far out.
Freight was so frightfully expensive that some enterprising souls found it cheaper to mail individual bricks rather than ship them by the ton, and had done so, to the amusement of the Eastern newspapers: Esther had something of a monopoly, having one of the only brick-works in the territory, but also her own rail line with which to deliver them.
Cripple Creek was building.
Like any mining town, as long as gold flowed from the ground, money flowed from pockets, and with it flowed liquor, cards, women, goods and groceries: housing ran from tents and lean-tos to cheap lumber shanties, to fine houses of brick and stone, houses of opulence funded by the yellow metal broken from the earth by muscled miners and sweat.
Esther had amassed a young fortune, as a matter of fact, between hauling freight, passengers, ore, and selling bricks: though she was one of the wealthiest -- no, she was the wealthiest woman between the Mississippi and the Pacific -- she did not display her wealth: she generally drove the same carriage her husband and she had bought when they were newly wed, and she had the same mare she'd driven, though she did have others, and rotated them for carriage or saddle.
Esther lived simply and quietly, and so blended in with the community, or as much as the matriarch of society can.
Esther removed her spectacles and rubbed her nose delicately, then looked out the window again, smiling a little at how blue, how absolutely flawlessly blue the sky was, how white the clouds, and how high the mountains: she looked down at her desk, picked up a sheet of paper, re-read it.
It was a proprosal to install water lines in town, a proposal to complete the well intentioned effort started a few years ago to pipe water into Firelands, and to establish a municipal water-works.
"I really wish," she murmured, "this had gone in when the gas lines were laid" -- for she knew how much of an effort it would be to lay cast iron lines on either side of their main street, deep enough to prevent freezing: she knew the Irish Brigade looked forward to ... oh, what were they called?
"Laying into a hydrant," Sean had exclaimed, and launched into a brief discussion as to how they would "lay into" a hydrant ... it sounded like something Esther would have to see to really understand, but she understood his excitement.
She'd seen the Brigade scramble to pump water from a cistern or a well or a wide place in the creek, and scream with frustration when the source ran dry or they lost suction for whatever reason.
Like anyone in the high country, she had a dread of fire, for she knew how quickly the high altitude and low humidity could dry out lumber, and she'd seen buildings burn with a horrifying speed.
Esther smiled a little as she remembered her husband's disposal of the contaminated chicken house, and how the Daines' eyes betrayed their amusement when he described sending that rascally skunk to the ninth ring of the Inferno, just before he put the torch to the spotted scoundrel's handiwork.
Esther placed the paper on her desk, precisely in its center, and laid her pen precisely cross wise of the sheet.
She would consider such matters at another time.
At the moment, she thought, she wished to go downstairs and have tea with Bonnie.

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Linn Keller 11-2-11


Outlaw set a brisk pace and we headed for a pass I knew of.
I don't know why they called the kid Red Hat.
I never saw him wear anything but a greasy brown one with more trail dirt on it than his horse's unkept hooves.
Whatever the reason, he's the one I was after.
The rancher had sent word that he'd had rustlin' go on and we rode up his back pasture where he figured the next raid would take place.
He was right.
I fetched out my binoculars and saw Red Hat.
Trouble was, he saw me.
The rancher and I lit a shuck across the high meadow but Red Hat was long gone.
Lucky enough his cattle weren't.
We stomped out the little grass fire from where Red was intending to heat a running iron and alter the brands, but he hadn't been too particular to keep the fire contained, which delayed me more, but the rancher allowed as he'd take care of things here and I was in leather and off on that same moment.
There was only one good pass to get on t'other side of this particular run of granite back bone and I knew right where it was.
Apparently so did Red Hat, and that worried me.
I kept my eyes busy, watching for a possible bush whack: I had a set of glasses and he didn't, when he saw us, but a man is often known by the horse he rides, and Outlaw is a fine looking black gelding, and I am a tall man: he very likely knew 'twas the Sheriff a-comin' after him, and rather than be run down on the trail, why, he just might try and punch a hole or three in me to discourage pursuit.
The black horse made good time up the narrow trail, and we switch backed a couple times to make the steepest part of the climb.
If he's going to stand, thought I, he'll stand just ahead --
Sure enough, I saw a greasy, dirt colored hat fade out from behind a rock, and I hauled Outlaw-horse hard to the side.
Anyone who tells you it don't hurt to git shot is a liar or a fool or dead drunk.
That bullet skinned just under my arm and through my good coat and burned a line of fire along side my ribs and it just did not sweeten my temper one little bit.
Flank him, I thought, then, He'll hear me and move, so I reached down and got a good grip on the '73 rifle's wrist and come backwards off that Outlaw-horse.
I'd practiced the move before and not a few times, but every time I practiced it, 'twas on a good thick grassy piece of ground.
There was not one bit of grass to pad my landing, and I reckon there was a half dozen rocks had been castin' lots among themselves to see who would be first in line to welcome me to terra firma.
I hit the ground and I heard my teeth click together as I locked my jaw shut against what I'll call an utterance of less than a Christian variety: Outlaw kept on going, circling right, and I figured Red Hat would hear that horse a-movin', and he would move left.
I gathered up my aches and my pains and come to my feet, moving fast and quiet to my left.
Red Hat moved, all right, and just like I'd planned.
He was close, too.
I felt my nostrils flare and my ears pulled back tight like they do when I'm after a man and close to gettin' him and I came around a little thicket and come up right in front of him.
I took a short grip on that rifle's barrel well ahead of the fore end, like I was going to thrust him in the belly with a short spear, and yelled "HOLD IT!"
Red Hat's eyes went big and round and his jaw hung down to about his belly button, he dug in his heels and skidded a little and he throwed his arms wide apart in surprise, the way a man will when he's taken just absolutely utterly by the how'd-you-do-that.
He stopped about six inches from the business end of that octagon muzzle.
I was crouched some, figuring if he kept a-running I'd stand to receive his charge, but he stopped, and we both stood there for a long moment.
Red Hat kind of sagged a little.
He started to lower his rifle and my eyes went from his face to his gun hand and that's all the opening he needed.
My right hand tightened and my slug caught him just south of the wish bone, and none too soon.
He'd started to fetch his own rifle up but the leverage was ag'in him and it didn't no more than kick up some rocks underneath my left elbow.
He went down.
I grabbed him by the shoulder and yanked him over on his back and went to one knee beside him.
He closed his mouth and opened it and then his eyes lost focus and one rolled one way and one eye rolled t'other and he was gone, just that fast.
I cranked a round into the chamber and made a fast circle, looking all around me, behind me: I am not a trusting man, and though I believed him to be running alone, I didn't count on it.
No thing, no one caught my eye.
I waited, fading into the lee of a boulder, getting granite beside me and behind me.
There was the sound of hooves on rock, a horse, at a walk : Outlaw's shining black nose poked through the brush, muttering, and I kissed at him.
He dropped his head and began snuffing the ground, finding a few sparse stems of grass, and I remember thinking, A fine time to think of your stomach.
I set there for several minutes, listening, watching, and finally eased upright.
We caught Red Hat's plug horse and tied him over his own saddle.
I knew he was related distantly to one of the ranchers and it would be decent to fetch him back to some family.
I went through the dead outlaw's pockets and didn't come up with much, but what little there was I tied in his wild rag and tucked into his saddle bag.
I shaved a little tobacker from my molasses soaked twist and fed to my black Outlaw-horse and the two of us led the two of them back down off the mountain.
I wasn't settin' comfortable a'tall in the saddle after that fancy di-do off the hind of my horse.
"You're gettin' old," I said out loud, and Outlaw-horse swung his ears back at the sound of my voice, then ahead again.

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Linn Keller 11-3-11


Little Sean strutted importantly across the fire house floor, wearing a big grin and his Daddy's leather fire helmet.
The Irish Brigade was tending the normal house duties: inspecting and burnishing harness, buffing the bright-work on their Ahrens "steam masheen," sweeping, mopping, making the bunks: coffee added its fragrance to leather, horse, hay and tobacco, and about half the Brigade stopped what they were doing to watch the youngest -- and the most favorite -- firefighter march across the immaculate brick floor.
Little Sean didin't know he was being watched, nor did he particularly care: little boys delight in imitating their Pa, and he was no different: though he had to use both hands to steady the stiff leather helmet, his face was resolute and his step firm: he turned and regarded the steam engine, looking up, up, waaaaaay up at the King's throne, the upholstered seat, the platform from which his Pa commanded the world and drove the team, swinging that blacksnake whip and singing Irish war-songs, swearing a blue streak in Gaelic and invoking saints' names, all in his rich Irish voice.
Little Sean felt hands close around his ribs, and he laughed as he was boosted to the lofty perch of the driver's seat: he laughed as he stood where his Pa stood, he set the helmet on the seat beside him and seized the braided handle of the coiled whip.
Little Sean shook it experimentally, frowning at its length: he gave it a couple swings, then another, harder, and succeeded in failing miserably at any kind of efficient arc: the whip curled in the air, came back and wrapped itself across him, not at all painfully: frustrated, the lad glared at the offending device, finally placing the handle on the seat beside him and taking the whip, hand-over-hand, and more or less coiling it back up on the seat.
By now nearly the entire Irish Brigade was regarding the lad, openly or covertly, chewing on knuckles to keep from laughing, especially when the lad took up his Pa's helmet and invoked the names of his favorite Irish warriors, his voice rising with each syllable -- "St. Florian, St. Patrick, Brian Boru, and Bouidaccea!" -- clapped the helmet on his head and ignored its wobbling as he climbed down off the steam buggy and stomped back across the floor.

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Linn Keller 11-4-11


Daisy muttered as she stomped along the back path, not going anywhere in general, but just ... going.
Daisy had a good head of steam up, and she knew her temper, and she knew if she did not get out, she would probably say things that would bring blood from a stone statue: on the one hand, she had no wish to lash out at either her maid or her children, but on the other hand, she wanted desperately to reach right down someone's throat, grab them by the ankle and yank them inside out.
Daisy's little girl had cried all night, all night! -- and Sean, that great Irish lug, was as attentive to Daisy's need for a good night's rest as a saw log.
Daisy had considered briefly replacing Sean with a length of stove wood, for all the good he'd done her that night.
"At least a tree trunk wouldn'a snore," she muttered, kicking at a pebble on the bare-dirt path.
It hadn't helped that she'd been replaced in her child's affections by a dog.
A dog!
Daisy's eyes snapped and her glare was fit to split a tree trunk in two as she remembered the Bear Killer's quiet entry: he'd come skulking in as he always did, begging biscuits and gravy, and he'd come over, curious, snuffing at this noisy little bundle Daisy was nursing.
As long as the child was milking she was fine: the moment she stopped feeding, though, her face wound up and turned red, she waved her little pink fists and screamed fit to rival the Shee herself!
The Bear Killer's ears had come up and he'd snuffed loudly at this noisy little bundle, which earned a dark glare from a tired, short-on-sleep Daisy: "Here," she'd said, laying out a blanket and folding it quickly into thirds for a pad, "see wha' ye c'n do!" and she'd stepped back.
The Bear Killer snuffed the child's face, gave her a tentative lick: the wee screamer hiccuped, wobbled her fist into the Bear Killer's jaw, then seized a handful of thick, curly hair.
The Bear Killer began licking her enthusiastically: face, neck, arms, ears: he snuffed loudly at her swaddling, sneezed, looked up at Daisy.
In spite of her short-tempered pique, Daisy could not help but relax a little -- not quite to a smile, but close -- as the Bear Killer, that known fierce and deadly warrior, gave a querelous sound of puzzlement.
Deprived of her new playmate's attention, the child squinted her eyes and took a deep breath, and Daisy knew they were in for another screaming storm.
She was not prepared for the Bear Killer's reaction.
As her little warrior princess cut loose with her first war whoop, the Bear Killer looked down, his ears coming forward: then he planted his square, stout bottom solidly beside her, placed a forepaw against her ribs, nudged her with his nose and then reared his head back, pointed his muzzle at the ceiling, and grunting a few times, began to howl.
Now the Bear Killer's howl was not a pure, wolflike song, the kind that hangs like a beautiful, heart-aching dirge shimmering between the stars: no, the Bear Killer's lungs were bigger, his chest stronger, his throat reflected the fighting ancestry of his uncertain lineage: the result was a much lower pitched howl, a basso lament of utter, inescapable loss, of hopeless, bottomless, eternal grief, the kind that would wring tears from the eyes of the most hardened brute.
The Bear Killer's grief filled the kitchen, permeating sorrow into the very atmosphere, weighting the heart of every sensitive soul there: the maid drew the corner of her apron up and pressed the moisture from her eyes, and Daisy bit her bottom lip, hearing the echoes of every loss and every grief that had torn at her pure Irish heart.
The child swung her chubby little arms and her pink-fingered hand seized the Bear Killer's leg, and she laughed.
The Bear Killer reached down and snuffed at her chin, washing her face with a happy enthusiasm, and he curled up around the child, rumbling deep in his chest.
Daisy threw her hands in the air, shaking her head, and swung her skirts about: three steps and she was to the back door, another three steps and she was starting down the back stairs, and she proceeded to mutter and stomp her way across the back yard and into the meadow.
"I carried the bairn nine months," she declared, raising a hand to the occasional cumulus overhead: "I nurse her, I bathe her and tend her, I change her and keep her dry and what does she do?" Daisy shook her head, clenching her jaw, then raising both imploring palms to the heavens:
"Replaced I am! Replaced by a dog! Where is the justice?"

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Charlie MacNeil 11-4-11


The pack string swung into the head of Main Street at a spanking trot despite the load the animals carried mantied to the stout crossbucks. Tall antlers bobbed from the top of one pack; another carried bundled hides, tan hair glinting in the late afternoon sunlight that lay golden across the buildings and boardwalks.

Sarah rode in the lead of the string, cotton mecate rope looped around her saddlehorn, her head held high with pride. Once again she had procured her family's winter meat, she had provided for the welfare of her mother and sisters, and her heart swelled with warmth at the thought. Her smile shone brightly in spite of the fatigue of six days of riding, hunting and skinning, boning and hanging of meat. But the tiredness she felt was a good tired, the kind that comes from work well done.

Easing the packhorses down to a walk Sarah drew rein in front of the Jewel and swung down, stretching the kinks of long hours in the saddle from her young back. Behind her Charlie and Cat Running did the same before stepping to the sorrel that carried the seven point royal rack of antlers and loosening the knots. Charlie heaved the heavy, ivory tipped set to his shoulders, calling, "Get the door, girl. Let's deliver this here present and get some meat unloaded." He stamped his way up the stairs as Sarah leapt lightly to the double doors and swung both panels fully open.

"Mister Baxter! A towel of some sort, if you please, unless you want blood and hair on this here table!" Charlie called at the barkeep, who hurried around the bar to lay a sizeable sheet of absorbent toweling on the indicated surface. Sarah and Charlie eased the rack of horns, skull plate down, onto the towel and stood it up for the viewing pleasure of the patrons of the saloon.

"Good Lord, Charlie, where'd you get that?" Mister Baxter queried.

"'Tweren't me, it was her!" Charlie pointed at Sarah.

"Really! That's quite impressive! Congratulations, young lady!" The barkeep paused, looking over the antlers thoughtfully. "But why bring them here?"

"Because the Jewel needs an elk rack over the bar!" Charlie laughed. "And they don't come much nicer than this one!"

"You're right about how nice it is. But you might want to move it to the storeroom until I can find somebody to mount it." The antlers quickly found a place in the storage area back of the bar, and Charlie and Sarah returned to the pack string, Sarah graciously accepting the congratulations of the patrons as they went. Once out in the street again, they took down a pair of elk quarters which were carried to the kitchen. The Jewel's customers would dine well for the next couple of days.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-4-11


Jackson Cooper stepped from the Jewel and descended the steps to the street. "I didn't think you went in for killin' big bulls like that one," the town marshal rumbled. "Said they were too tough to eat."

"That one wasn't tough enough to win the last fight he had," Charlie replied. "Tell 'im, Sarah."

"That's right, Mister Cooper. We watched the whole thing. The bull we killed was gored three times in the guts, and he wasn't going to last long. Uncle Charlie decided that we should put him out of his misery before the varmints ate him alive. And besides, we needed some jerky meat. The rest of the animals we killed were young ones, and will make for good steaks and roasts."

"Including the one Sarah killed with that spear yonder tied on her saddle," Charlie chuckled. "That girl never ceases to amaze me."

"Mit der spear? Dat I would like to haff seen!" A chorus of decidedly unmusical crickets answered the Baron's words as Charlie, the marshal and Sarah spun and drew, Sarah's hand no slower than that of the two much more practiced men. The old German threw his hands in the air, backing hastily away from the trio until his back was against the highly polished windows looking out on the boardwalk from the lobby of the hotel. "No! Plizz! I was chust admiring such hunting skill! Don't choot!"

As rapidly as the pistols had appeared they were sheathed as three sets of eyes examined the newcomer. "Who might you be, mister, and why're you sneaking up on folks?" Charlie asked. "And you can put your hands down. We ain't gonna shoot you." The Baron lowered his hands, clasped them at his waist, clicked his heels together and bowed.

"I am Baron Heinrich Hedldt, at your service, sir. And you are?"

"Charlie MacNeil, Baron. This large fellow here is Jackson Cooper, the town marshal. And may I present Miss Sarah Rosenthal?" He gestured to each in turn.

"Sarah Rosenthal? Den you mudst be de girl that is called Ragdoll?"

"I am, sir, though I dislike the name. Please call me Sarah, or Miss Rosenthal, as you prefer."

"I will call you Miz Sarah, if I may," the Baron replied. "Ant didt you truly kill such a great creature with a spear?"

"I did indeed, Baron," Sarah answered boldly. "I also chipped the stone for the point and bound it to the shaft. My family needs meat for the winter, and I enjoy doing my part to provide for them. And besides, no man, nor woman either, may know what the future brings, and such a skill could possibly stand me in good stead at some time in that future. Now if you will excuse us, we must needs deliver my family's food." As she turned toward her horse, she winked at Charlie, who grinned broadly in return.

"Nicely played, girl," he whispered. Sarah's answering smile seemed to brighten the shadows that were gathering in the nooks and crannies of the street as she swung into the saddle.

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Linn Keller 11-4-11


"Miz Sarah!"
Sarah turned her mare as easily as if she herself were turning.
"Iff I may!"
Sarah's left eyebrow quirked up.
"Der schpier, iff I may ...?"
Sarah looked over at Charlie.
The old lawman's eyes were veiled: Sarah could see the amusement hiding behind their curtained facade, and there was the barest ghost of a nod.
Sarah did not so much dismount as she flowed from the saddle, and Charlie saw approval in the old German's eyes: his Teutonic neatness and stiff carriage marked him as a military man, and Charlie figured him for cavalry, which indeed he had been, in his salad days.
Sarah pulled the two piggin strings free and the spear rolled into her hand: she turned it easily, spinning it half-around like a staff, and held it, one-handed, for the Baron's inspection.
The old German took the spear with a frown, the frown of a man who knew what he was looking at.
The shaft was as long as Sarah was tall, and so was a bit short for him, but he stepped back, hefting it in both hands, then spun it around his middle and over his shoulder with a dexterity that bespoke much long and careful practice.
The old German's brows remained knit and he nodded, once: only then did he examine the knapped flint blade and its binding.
Sarah was quartering to Charlie; the Baron, facing them both; the old lawman watched, as he always did, seeing more than the eye detected.
The Baron's accented voice was quiet, pitched for conversation with Sarah alone.
"Haff you effer," he said slowly, "haff you effer hunted vildt boar?"
"Boar?" Sarah echoed, thinking javelina, and her stomach tightened a little: she knew how fast and how vicious the tough little Mexican pigs could be. "No ... no, I haven't."
The Baron grunted, carefully handed the spear back to Sarah.
"Dis," he said, drawing up his right trouser-leg, "isst from hunting boar."
His right calf was scarred, ugly.
"A young offizer might proof hiss brafery mit der duel," he said, and Sarah's eye flicked to the Heidelberg dueling scar on the Baron's cheek, "or he micht hunt der boar."
The old German shook his trouser-leg down, straightened with an effort.
"Isst hunted mit der boar schpear."
His fingers caressed the fluted spear-point, pausing at its base.
"Der boar schpier hass a cross piece -- zo -- becuss der boar vill impale itself up der schpier undt gore der hunter iff isst no cross bar."
Sarah nodded, once.
The Baron drew his coat open, reached into an inside pocket.
"I had feared I vould be gone," he muttered, fishing in the pocket and coming up with a sprig of evergreen: "I asked der Sheriff iff he vould giff you ..."
The Baron reached carefully for Sarah's hat, and she held very still as he worked the evergreen spring into her hat band.
"Vadsmannheil," the Baron said quietly: he cracked his heels together, bowed formally from the waist, swept up Sarah's hand and kissed her knuckles, the kiss of a grandfather, of an old man recognizing the accomplishment of a fellow hunter: then his expression softened, and he brushed her apple cheek with the back of a gentle finger.
"Nein," he whispered. "Nicht stoffpuppe."
His expression was almost sad.
"A child vould be ein stoffpuppe," His jaw thrust out and he considered for a long moment.

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Mr. Box 11-4-11


The Silver Jewel was filled with curiosity and wonderment with people's attention held by a thread from all the yarns being spun. Suddenly the front doors were thrust open and in walks Sarah with a grand set of antlers over her shoulders! Everyone went silent with awe and then it was mayhem! Everyone wanted to know the story behind this! The Baron most of all! Sarah couldn't have come in at a more perfect time!

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Linn Keller 11-5-11


The Bear Killer regarded Daisy's departure with a puzzled look.
He gave a deep sigh and considered the blinking bundle beside him and came to some decision.
Carefully, mouthing a good amount of swaddling blanket, Bear Killer lifted the cooing infant and padded after Daisy, toenails tik-tik-tikking on the board floor: his stocky, muscled neck was not all all inconvenienced with holding his swinging bundle off the ground, and he trotted after Daisy at a polite distance.

The Sheriff considered his options.
He'd taken the deceased to the next of kin, who'd loudly pronounced the lawman a fool and a damned fool to have wasted his time bringing them the carcass: it seemed Red Hat was persona non grata with all who knew him and even his last living relation on this good green earth was happy to see the scoundrel stilled.
The Sheriff nodded once and turned, riding back out the ranch gate, the miscreant's mare and her grim cargo in tow.
He never bothered to ask if they wanted his horse, and when a hoarse shout rose behind -- "Hey! I'll take the horse, he owes me that!" -- the lawman never broke stride.
He rode back toward Firelands, back to the potter's field outside of town, where a hole was kept open and waiting for the next interrment.
A final check and the Sheriff discovered he'd over looked the money belt, but that was the only thing of any value left: dead meat went in the hole and dirt went over the delivery, boards covered the dirt: he'd have Digger come out and finish filling the hole for him and have a fresh one dug.
The Sheriff mounted Outlaw and spoke to the plug.
"Come on, you," he said quietly, and they rode a few minutes, until they came to the high fork.
"Ho," the Sheriff said in a quiet voice, and the horses ho'd.
The Sheriff sat at the fork for a few minutes.
The horses, taking advantage of the moment, grazed, switching their tails and shivering their hides a little.
"His only kin didn't want him," the Sheriff said quietly, and his black horse swung his ears back at the sound of the lawman's voice. "Now that is a terrible note."
He looked at the high fork, the one that led up to his son's place.
Kissing to his gelding, he rode to the left, toward Jacob's.
Annette was frying up flap jacks when the door opened and she heard two sets of boots come in.
She turned to see Jacob grinning at her, and behind him, his father, looking over at little Joseph asleep in his Joseph-sized chair.
"Do we have enough for company?" Jacob asked, and Annette slid the thin steel spatula under the 'cake and flipped it neatly onto a teetering-tall platter: "If he eats like you, Jacob, I don't have flour enough to feed the pair of you!"
Her impish smile put the lie to her words and she skipped quickly across the kitchen, kissing her husband on the cheek and hugging her father-in-law: "Of course we have enough," she whispered into his ear. "Where have you been?"
The Sheriff hugged her back. "Long as I'll not run you short."
Annette put her hands on her hips and looked from father to son -- that is, she looked up at father and up at son -- and said with a straight face, "There's nothing short about either of you!"
The Sheriff managed an innocent expression, for a miracle: supper was bacon and eggs and flap jacks with honey, and the Sheriff brought little Joseph over on his lap and gently, carefully wiped the lad's face and hands with a warm, wet wash cloth.
Jacob unsaddled the Sheriff's gelding and the other horse, and turned them into his paddock, later that night.
The Sheriff had gone to sleep in Annette's rocking chair and little Joseph was sound asleep on his Gwampa's lap, and neither Jacob nor his wife had the heart to disturb either of them.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-5-11


Walkyrie. Or in English, valkyrie. The word resonated throughout Sarah's very being, sending gooseflesh marching up her spine. For an eternity that was less than a second to those around her, her consciousness was smitten by a ravening vision of carnage, a vision of charging cavalry mounted in and on vehicles not moved by any visible means of propulsion. Vehicles that roared their battle fury, whose guns spewed flame, smoke and blazing steel in the direction of unseen targets as they sped across a sandy waste. A female voice, her tones ringing harsh as stone-stropped steel, echoed through the young warrior's staggered brain. "Echo six to all Echo units! Echo six to all Echo units! Wheel right and engage or we're all dead! Do it!" The sounds of battle rose to a shattering crescendo...

As suddenly as it came, the gunfire and chaos faded, leaving Sarah dazed and uncomprehending. Struck by the sudden shocked expression that flared across the girl's features, Charlie grasped her shoulders, turning her to face him. "Sarah! Sarah! Come on, girl, snap out of it!"

Sarah flung herself against him, burying her face in his chest with a muffled gasp of indrawn breath. "Oh, Uncle Charlie, it was so awful," she burst out, her words running together. "And there was a woman there! Someone who I felt I should know!" Wrapping a protective arm about her shoulders, Charlie held her, offering the security she needed until she could draw herself totally back to herself. After a short span of minutes Sarah drew a deep, quavering breath and stepped back. "I'm all right now," she said softly.

"Vhat vas it? Vhat didt you zee?" the Baron questioned.

"I saw a battle," Sarah answered simply. "And heard a woman's voice. She seemed to be in command, and was calling to her troops." Her voice trailed off, and she turned to mount her horse. "We'd best be moving, Uncle Charlie. It'll be dark soon. Good day, Herr Baron." As she took up the slack in the pack string's lead lines, Charlie and the Baron exchanged a look that spoke silent volumes. Charlie nodded and turned the roan to follow the pack string while Cat Running watched Sarah with knowing eyes from the back of his rangy paint gelding.

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