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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 11-6-11

 

I woke with something warm cuddled up ag'in me, making little sounds of distress and wiggling a little.
I knew what that meant and if I didn't want a wet little boy (or worse), I'd have to move quick.
I did what any good Gwampa would do.
I stood and packed him outside, and we headed for the back house on the Hot Foot.
I was not entirely awake as I divested the lad of what was necessary, and parked him on the smooth sanded seat, and held him, as he was little enough I did not want him to fall in (at least I was that much awake!) and after we tended the necessary follow up details I got his duds back up and in place, and packed him back into the house.
It was frosty out and I held him close to me, as I hadn't thought to fetch along my coat, and he was content to cuddle up ag'in ol' Gwampa.
We paused a little outside the front door and I looked around, smelling.
The stars were bright and close overhead, looking like watered milk in some places: they were that thick, the air was that clear.
God Almighty, I thought, and it was more an address to the Almighty than an exclamation, I do love this, and I wasn't sure if I loved this armful of drowsy little grandson, or standing here under God's glorious display ... I wasn't sure which I loved more.
We went on inside.
I packed Joseph to his bunk and got him settled in.
He rolled up on his left side and closed his eyes and he was asleep, just that fast.
I tucked the covers up around him and kissed him gentle-like on the head, then I stood, slowly, listening to my knees crunch and complain like they always do.
Annette had left one lamp burning and there was not much light but it was enough: I felt another presence and Annette was there, her head tilted a little to the side the way a mother will.
I turned to her, touched her elbow, whispered in her ear.
"We had to go," I breathed, "and he did fine."
Annette turned her head, raised up on her toes: I felt her breath on my ear: "Thank you."
I could not help it.
I held her for a long moment, and she ran her arm around me and I remembered another time, another mother, another moment in a darkened cabin, and my eyes stung with the memory of Connie, back East, long dead now, but the memory lived yet.
"I am proud of you," I whispered, and her arm tightened a little, and I released her and turned.
It was time I left for my own hacienda.

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Linn Keller 11-6-11

 

"We'd best ride in quiet, Outlaw," I said softly as we approached the barn. "Like as not I'll have to cat foot in and hope Esther doesn't swing a fryin' pan at me for bein' a burglar!"
Outlaw offered no comment.
I got him unsaddled and curried down and he bummed another shavin' of tobacker off my molasses twist before I rubbed his nose and called him a bum, and went on inside the house.
I need not have worried.
Esther was sitting at the kitchen table with two fresh poured mugs of coffee.
My surprise must have been pretty plain.
She smiled and rose as I came into the room.
"I knew you were coming," she said, then she filled my arms, and I closed my eyes and laid my cheek over in her hair and give a long sigh, for it felt just a-mighty good to get under my own roof again.
We set down and et good fresh bread and fresh churned butter -- I know it was fresh, for it was still in a lump and not sliced off and pressed into molds like Esther liked to do, or have done now that she was a woman of means -- it amazed me that she could hire someone to tend the domestic duties, and indeed did, but still fixed supper for me and baked for me, and never, ever let me forget she was my wife, and proud of it.
We set there and drank coffee and ate in the late hush of the dim-lit kitchen, and Esther told me about Angela, and about Bonnie's girls, and then she described Little Sean strutting across the firehouse floor holding his Pa's leather fire helmet overhead at arm's length, and I laughed at her description, for I could just see that grinning, red-cheeked little fellow doing that very thing.
Esther gave me a knowing look.
"You've been to see little Joseph," she said, warming her fingers around that steaming mug of coffee.
The stove cracked quietly and I heard the cascading sigh of ashes falling as a firewood burnt in two, in that cast iron fire box.
"Oh, don't worry," she said mischeviously. "I can smell the baby on you."
I nodded.
I doubted me not Esther could smell a baby.
Women are mysterious and wonderful creatures, marvelously complex and capable, and if she said she could smell the baby on me, why, I was not about to say her nay!
I nodded, and described getting the lad to the outhouse, and tucked in, and Esther's eyes were distant, dreamy.
"Do you still want a little boy?" she asked, and I froze, for there was a depth to her words.
I looked squarely at my wife, then leaned back and looked pointedly at her belly.
Esther laughed and squeezed my hand. "No, silly, I'm not," and she paused to smell the rising vapors from her coffee: "though that could change."
I leaned back in my chair.
It was no light thing to become a father again ... most men are content to be grandfathers at my age, or even great-grandfathers ... well, maybe not that, not yet, I'm not that old ...
"We can talk about it tomorrow," Esther said reassuringly. "We have time."
I nodded.
"Finish your bread, dearest. You've had a long day, and the ladies' tea meets again tomorrow."
"Didn't the just meet yesterday or today?" I mumbled through a good mouthful of coffee-wet bread crust.
"We're having a fortune teller as our guest."

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Linn Keller 11-7-11

 

I leaned my elbows on the desk and studied the correspondence before me.
My presence was required in Denver, testimony in a case I'd helped on; that would be in a little under a month.
I set it to my right.
Another was a note from Marshal Macfarland, barely legible.
I cocked my head a little and frowned and finally shut one eye, then the other, in the vain hope that I could somehow divine what he was trying to communicate.
It looked like he'd used a railroad spike for a pen.
A dull rail road spike, at that.
It took me a while but I finally figured out he was sending an invitation for some kind of a festival -- I could not make out what kind -- but the word FOOD was legible enough.
I grinned and hauled open the top right hand drawer and fetched out a sheet of paper and a pen: another dip into the sliding wood box and I came up with a bottle of ink, and I scratched out a reply --
Harry --
If there's food I'll be there.
My spectacles are worn out from looking through them so much and could not make out time nor place. Try it again.
Linn


I let it air dry rather than roll blotting paper on it: while it dried I tended some other correspondence, scratched my head with the dull end of my pen and wrote the Denver court date on the calendar.
Should just be a there-and-back, I thought. Hope it doesn't take more than a day or so.
I have no love for the city.
Firelands was plenty big for me and I was most comfortable in the saddle and away from people ... I grinned at the thought, because that wasn't entirely true.
It had been in my younger years.
Now that I had a good amount of silver in the mustache, why, it was right nice to know I had a good tight roof to sleep under, a warm woman to roll up against under a clean smellin' quilt, knowin' my next meal was probably going to be on my own table, hot and woman-cooked.
I folded my reply to good old Law-and-Order Harry Macfarland and wax sealed it, then folded me up an envelope and sealed that too.
Harry had one time accused me of using more sealin' wax than any man alive so I took pains to seal both the folded letter and the envelope and sometimes just for meanness I would put a wax seal stamp right beside my signature.
I chuckled and placed the letter precisely along the edge of the desk so I would not walk off without it.
I brushed my mustache with a thoughtful finger and considered the thought I'd started.
Yes, I was getting older.
Yes, my own bunk felt pretty darn good these days.
I thought back to the times I'd slept on bare ground, back during the War, and grateful for it ... my mind wandered around those far off days, two decades agone, back when I was young and skinny, instead of just skinny.
For some odd reason I remembered that old mountain witch, the one who'd patched up a cut I'd got, then seized my hands and rasped "You have hot hands, a Healer's hands," and she taught me that night how to stop blood with the Word.
I'd heard of such things but my Ma (rest her skinny little soul!) told me it could only be passed on to a woman, that a man could never hold the knowing of it.
I looked at the far wall, remembering Jacob, lung shot and bleeding and gasping for air and nearly fell out of the bell tower when him and the Parson were making a good account of themselves, and a lucky shot hit my son: I took Duzy's hand and pressed it to Jacob's wound and taught her the words, and she said them, and Jacob stopped bleedin'.
The old mountain witch said something else that day, as it went into evening.
"You will see me again," she rasped in an old woman's voice, "you will see me at the end of my days," and she turned and walked off, and I heard she went through the battle field the next day, walking between the massed riflemen drawn up in ranks and felling each other like wheat before the scythe: she walked unharmed through lead-swarms so thick it cut down a corn field and left only stubble, and 'twas said she healed the wounded with a touch and a word.
I shook my head.
"Like as not she's dead," I said aloud, and there was a step without, a woman's step on the board walk, and the door swung open.
The old mountain witch walked in like she owned the place.
I reckon my chin hung down about belt buckle level and I stood, slowly, winching my jaw bone back into place.
The old woman was still old but I would raise my right hand and swear she had not aged one day since I saw her last, two decades agone and more.
Her hand pressed my rib cage where the cut had been and she nodded.
"You healed well," she said in that same about-to-stop-breathing voice I'd never forgot.
She looked up at me and gathered my hands in hers.
"You have hot hands, a Healer's hands," she said, "and they will carry through your blood.
"Your children and your children's children and their children beyond will have your hands."
She let go of my hands and laid a bony, palsied hand on my breast.
"Your heart will be their heart, and they will be called Warrior, even when men fight in iron boxes with steel rain."
She took my face between her hands, and her hands were hot, hot like mine, not cold like a skinny old woman's.
"Your eyes will disappear until a woman's soul spills men's blood, woman and man delivered of the same dam, and she will sit this chair and carry this rifle" -- she thrust a finger at my '73 rifle, parked in the rack -- "and her hands will know these" -- she slapped my revolvers, hard -- "and she will see with your eyes."
I stood froze and I am not the least little bit ashamed to admit I was starting to shake just a little.
I have a fine shake anyway, my hands normally have a fine tremor, until I start fine work like writing or working on something I've just taken apart, then my hands are dead level steady: now, though ... now I was starting to shake, all over, as the truth of the old mountain witch's words soaked into my soul.
"It is my time," she whispered, and patted my shirt front again, and then she leaned against me.
I put my arms around her and she murmured, "You have been a fine son, a man to be proud of."
I swallowed.
Those had been my Mama's last words to me, before she breathed her last, and me holding her hand when she did.
I felt the old woman sag a little more and I bent and picked her up.
She was limp and still and I knew she was gone.

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Linn Keller 11-7-11

 

I told Digger I would stand good for the woman's funeral.
I found a letter in her reticule and reckoned it to be her name on the envelope, and I looked the letter over and decided that was her, all right.
It don't to to have UNKNOWN on a tomb stone, or KNOWN BUT TO GOD.
I'd buried too many who slept forever under that description and it never set right with me.
Digger allowed as he would plant her the next day and I told him there was an extra plot beside my family plots I'd bought and staked off, and to plant her there, and give me the bill.
I took the old woman's letter and went back to the office and set down, heavy-like, in my chair.
The drawer was considerably heavier when I pulled it out this time, for I had to draft a death notice to the sender of the old woman's letter.
I folded up an envelope and used a steel ruler and a broad tip pen to edge it in black, then I edged the sheet of paper in black in the same wise, about a quarter inch border all around.
I dipped the steel nib in good India ink and began:
From Linn Keller, Sheriff, Firelands County, Colorado:
I have the unhappy duty to inform of the death of

-- I stopped, and looked up, and wiped fiercely at my cheek with my shirt sleeve, for my eyes started leaking.
I never knew that old woman, but only one night when she patched me up and we talked long after moonset, and here today, when she walked in and died ...
Maybe I'm the only one she has to mourn her, I thought, and continued, writing her name with a particular care.
She is interred in our cemetery here in town, beside my family plot, and she has a stone: her passing was without pain.
I regret I have no other information, save only it was my honor to see her honorably interred.
My prayers are with you and your family.
Your most humble and obdt svt,
L. Keller

I set the letter aside to allow the ink to air dry.
If it air dried it was a distinctly darker shade, easier to read in poor light, than if it were blotted and thus lighter: I wrote in a large, distinct and easily read hand, as spectacles were not terribly common and sometimes folks had poor eye sight.
There was a step, a knock and the door swung open: Jacob came grinning through the door as I folded the letter and worked it carefully into the envelope.
"I brought that plug horse," he said, "and Joseph walked up to that rockin' chair and stood beside it, holding onto the upright and he'd look at it and look at me as if to ask where Gwampa got off to!"
I addressed the envelope, slowly, carefully, and set it aside too.
I would seal it and take it and Macfarland's letter up to Maude's for the next stage to pick up.
Jacob looked at the envelopes and nodded. "I hear tell we're supposed to get a post office, sir."
I nodded, clearing my throat and rubbing my eyes. "I heard something about that too."
There was a step on the boardwalk and Jacob turned as the door opened.
Esther came through the door with a funny look on her face.
I knew something was a-brewin'.
She stopped and drew herself upright, folding her hands before her with her customary dignity.
"My dear," she said in a calm and clear voice, "I am with child."
Her eyes rolled up in her head and her knees buckled.

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Linn Keller 11-8-11

 

Jacob was not a'tall happy that Esther went all fainty on us.
I wasn't terribly happy about it myself but neither was I terribly worried.
Women tend to faint sometimes, whether from news, knowledge or somethin' going on.
I had Jacob open up the folding canvas cot and spread a fresh sheet on it, and we laid her out on it with her feet up a little, and a rolled up blanket under her knees as well: I'd been propped feet-up years ago and I recall waking up and my knees was giving me billy Hell for it.
I was not about to do that to Esther.
I knelt beside her and laid the backs of my fingers against her cheek, then I drew her bottom eye lid down a little to check its color.
Both her cheek and the inside of her eye lid were of a good color.
"We'll wait'll she wakes up," I said, and looked over at Jacob.
He was fairly vibrating with a young man's screaming NEED TO DO SOMETHING!!! -- I was young once myself, and remembered what that felt like.
"Jacob," I said quietly, "something happened here and I need to know what it was. The ladies were having their tea today, that'll be a good place to start. I need to know where Esther was, what she did, who she spoke with, what was said. I need to know what she ate, what she drank, and who else ate and drank the same stuff."
"Poison, sir?" Jacob asked, his voice tight.
"We need to rule out what it wasn't so we can figure out what it was," I said.
"Yes, sir!" Jacob replied in clipped tones and he turned and long-legged it for the door.
I laid Esther's near forearm across her belly and felt her breathing.
Her breath was warm and regular against the back of my fingers.
I felt her temple and the pulse was there, strong and regular, a trick I'd learned ... where? -- I know Doc talked about it, surprised I knew about it ... if a body has a pulse in their temple, they've got a good amount of blood in 'em yet ... I'd seen Doc check the temple pulse in patients where he needed to size them up quick-like.
I realized I was chewing on my bottom lip and some of my whiskers in the process.
I stood up and reached for a nearby chair, spinning it into place beside Esther.
Jacob would be gone for a bit, I reasoned, and what I had over on my desk could damn well wait.
My place was with my wife.

Jacob turned as a gaudy, gypsy-looking woman stormed out of the Jewel, crystal ball in one hand and tambourine in the other: if ever a woman had thunder knit upon her brow, she did, and Jacob marveled at how someone so broad across the beam could navigate the stairs so quickly.
He went on upstairs to where he knew the ladies usually had their tea, and paused at the door.
There was the confused gabble of feminine conversation; Jacob hesitated, analyzing what he was hearing, and though he could not make out words, he recognized voices -- Bonnie, Sarah, Daisy, Maude, another he didn't recognize -- but he could clearly recognize there was confusion, and stress.
He knocked -- rat-tat, hitting the wood hard enough with his knuckles that he would be heard over their conversation -- and opened the door.
Half a dozen feminine faces turned toward him; half a dozen women converged upon him, and he found himself the center of six females, all trying to convey some urgent message, all six with a hand on his shoulder, his arm, his wrist; blinking, he raised his hands, shaking his head a little --
"Ladies," he said, then louder, "Ladies, please!"
Finally Jacob drew a deep breath and bellowed "SHADDUP!!"
Six women looked at him with the expression of someone who'd just been slapped across the face by their best friend.
"Ladies, forgive me," Jacob said in a cultured and gentlemanly voice, "but I can't hear you all at once." He raised his forearm. "Daisy, would you come with me, please, and the rest of you stay here."
Jacob opened the door for Daisy, went out into the hall and closed the door behind.
"What happened?" he asked, his eyes distinctly pale.
Daisy touched her hair, gathering her thoughts, her eyes tracking back and forth.
"We were discussin' th' town an' Parson Belden's wife is an aunt now, y'know, an' his son is comin' t' visit, an' Little Sean --" Daisy shook her head. "We had a fortuneteller come in."
Jacob nodded.
"I wasn't expectin' ..." Daisy's voice trailed off.
"Go on," Jacob said quietly.
"She was an old woman," Daisy said slowly, her eyes distant, remembering, "a wise woman ... she knew things, Jacob ... she knew about ma losin' th' baby, an' wha' Little Sean said this mornin', an' she p'inted a' Bonnie an' told her a man o' th' tribe o' Levi was near, an' she shouldna' waste a good man's heart ..."
Jacob nodded.
"She spoke t' Sarah an' Maude, an' then she p'inted t' yer Ma an' said" -- Daisy's face flamed and she put her hands to her cheeks.
"Sweet Mother o' God, I shouldna' be tellin' ye this!"
"Tell me anyway, Daisy," Jacob said quietly, and she heard the father's voice coming out of the son's throat.
"She said their union was fertile, an' 'twas a son she carried," Daisy whispered.
Jacob nodded.
"Esther stood an' th' old woman said somethin' about water an' hearin' a child cryin' i' th' water, an' Esther ran out th' door."
"Did she have anything to eat while you were in there?"
"No ... no, she didna'. We had some tea, all o' us."
"From the same pot?"
"Aye."
"Did she use cream, sugar, lemon?"
Daisy shook her head slowly, eyes unfocused, remembring. "No."
"Is there anything else?"
Daisy looked to the end of the hall, the head of the stairs, and she giggled.
"I thought the Wise Woman was th' fortuneteller," and hid her smile behind an embarrassed palm: "but no' a minute after Esther ran out th' door, her Gypsy fortuneteller came in wi' her crystal ball an' her painted lips, an' she wasna' happy t' find out we'd a'ready had our fortunes told!"

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Linn Keller 11-9-11

 

I set there and held Esther's hand for some time, listening to her breathe, considering the shape of her face and remembering things, the way a man will in a quiet moment.
I was all set to do just that, and had contented myself with my peaceful lot, when "peaceful" gathered itself and jumped out the nearest window.
If you can imagine a door driven open before a Texas twister, and that twister spinning into the room, you'll have a pretty good notion of my new guest's arrival: a stout woman, gaudily dressed, with a bright head-scarf and face paint, a sash about her middle that could have been spread out and used as a whaling-ship's mainsail, pierced coins dangling from her earlobes and from a waist-belt: I had the instant impression of a Gypsy fortune-teller, especially when she turned toward me and I could see she held a crystal ball in one hand, and had what looked like a tambourine under her arm.
She thrust a finger at me and began screeching in some language I did not understand; her words could not be understood but it was plain she was happy as a Bantam hen doused with a bucket of water.
I stood.
She finished her harangue with a dramatic toss of her head, her arm up-thrust, clawed fingers crooked toward the ceiling: if her anger were not so evident, her posture would have been laughable.
"You might wanta run that past me at half speed," I drawled.
The woman's eyes flared, her teeth gleamed as she drew her lips back: she shook an admonishing finger at me, speaking in a different language that I thought I almost recognized: it sounded almost Mexican, or native Spanish, but not quite and I couldn't pick out but maybe one out of ten words and that was not at all certain.
I held up a forestalling palm.
"I have not your gift of languages, my Lady," I said in a deep and reassuring voice: "have mercy on an old lawman and speak English, if you please."
She turned her head and spat. "Peasant!" she hissed.
I raised one eyebrow.
So far I'd kept my eyes pretty well closed.
I'd found it handy to cultivate a sleepy expression.
This woman with the bright head scarf and the crystal ball took two steps forward, thrust her trembling, nail-painted finger at Esther, and said something -- I don't know what, but it was not kind, and that made me mad.
I am a quiet man and not given to anger, for I do not like things that happen when I get angry, but I felt the fires light deep in my boiler and I pushed my hat brim up with one finger and give her the benefit of my pale eyes.
"That's far enough," I said in a voice that would cut a slice out of gold bearing quartz.
The woman froze.
She drew her hand back to her bosom, sketching a quick finger-gesture I figured was a ward against the Evil Eye, for many peoples are superstitious about pale eyes: I saw a Chinaman one time run a woman out of his noodle parlor because she had yellow eyes -- he almost got himself hanged for his actions, for the poor girl was almost blind and was well liked -- he kept screaming that she was a demon and he would cut her heart out, at least until one fellow put the muzzle of his Colt against the Chinaman's forehead and cranked that hammer back to full stand and invited him to say so much as one more word.
"Now I suggest you start from the beginning," I said slowly. "I am the Sheriff and I want to hear what you have to say."
It took a bit to get her to speak her piece, but speak she did, and when she was done I gave her two dollars and she went away satisfied.
I considered what she'd told me: I took off my hat and scratched my head, then I hung my hat up and set back down beside Esther.
Let's wait and see what Jacob finds out, I thought, then:
I wonder if the Jewel has any back strap fixed up from Sarah's elk.
I grinned humorlessly.
Trust me to think of my stomach at a time like this.
I set myself down again, and took Esther's hand in mine, and listened to her breathe.

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Linn Keller 11-9-11

 

Jacob set down across from me, near to Esther's head: he spoke quietly, for Esther was still resting with her eyes closed.
He raised a finger.
"First off, sir," he said, "they all drank the same tea from the same pot.
"They all said they never saw her eat anything a'tall.
"Nobody saw her add anything to her tea."
I nodded.
"Sir, I believe we can rule out poisoning."
"I agree," I nodded. "Go on."
Jacob raised a second finger.
"I spoke with each of the ladies individually."
I felt my eyes tighten at the corners, precursor to an understanding smile. "I don't reckon that was the easiest thing to do."
"No, sir, it wasn't, but I managed." His grin was rueful and his ears turned a little red. "Again, sir, they all said pretty much the same thing: they were surprised the fortune teller looked like an old woman with the previous generation's taste in style, and then that gypsy woman came in and raised a screaming fit when she found someone had been fortune tellin' before her."
I nodded again, remembering the ill temper the gypsy woman displayed.
"They said the old woman spoke to each of them."
I looked squarely at my son, listening carefully.
"She told each of them something that only they would know, something that rattled each of them to their heels."
I nodded again.
"She told Daisy she needn't fear her great Irishman falling back into a fire, for his death would be peaceful, in his own bed and under his own roof.
"She told Bonnie that the tribe of Levi was her destiny, and a good man's heart was hers if only she had sense enough to pick it up from the dust where she'd tossed it.
"She looked at Sarah and said she carried a strong man's heart, and a great-great-granddaughter would bless her name, and pale eyes would look upon her gravestone and whisper thanks." Jacob blinked, hesitated.
"She said they would be a woman's eyes, pale eyes, like winter ice.
"She told Maude that her Navy man waited in the Valley for his first mate, and she cried when she heard it. I recall you said WJ Garrisson was with the Confederate navy, and Maude told me his pet name for her was his first mate, and nobody else ever knew that."
I nodded and smiled, remembering that fine old man with the generous heart.
"Then she looked at Mother."
I looked at Jacob again and I don't reckon my expression was as kindly nor as gentle as it had been a moment before.
"She said her union was fertile and she carried your son, he would be a fine young man: that there were more children to come, that your home would be filled with laughter and with life, and in her last breath she would hear the cry of her daughter, cut free of the womb."
I gathered Esther's hand in mine again and felt my bottom jaw run out the way it did when I didn't much like something.
I looked at my wife and wanted to pick her up, to hold her, to squeeze her to me and keep her from leaving this earth --
"Shame be wid' ye!" I heard in my mind's ear, the shouted words loud in my memory: once before I'd gone soft, when Esther's life was despaired of, and Daisy, that wise Irishwoman, had drawn back her good right hand and belted me across the face, hard, and spoken words to me no man would ever dare: I swallowed and nodded.
"The old woman," Jacob said quietly, relaxing his counting fingers. "Who is she?"
I looked down at Esther as her hand tightened in mine.
She opened her eyes, looked around, puzzled.
"Lay still," I said gently. "You've had a bit of a shock."
Esther blinked, drew her hand across her eyes, then sat up, swung her legs over the edge of the cot.
"Would you like something to drink?" I asked.
"Water," she whispered. "I am so very thirsty."
Jacob was on his feet in an instant, and brought her a dipper of water: I'd pumped it not long before and it was still good and cold.
Esther drank deep, gratefully, and dabbed delicately at the trickle that ran down her chin.
She looked at me, troubled.
"What have you seen?" I asked.
Esther's hands were in mine, and Esther's hands tightened on mine, and she said, "I have seen my end," and she was on her feet.
I stood, reached for my hat.
Jacob stood back, the water dipper in his hand, and Esther swept for the door.
I followed.
Esther pulled the door open, hesitated, then took a deep breath, raised her chin and stepped forthrightly out onto the boardwalk.
Jacob and I followed.
Esther marched up the boardwalk, down the three steps and across the alley, up the three steps and to the front door of Digger's funeral parlor.
Digger was in the process of expanding his emporium: he'd moved his display boxes into the front, a wall was half tore down, the smell of sawdust filled the air.
Esther turned slowly, considering the fine, burnished wood that surrounded her: the coffins were of varying sizes and a few different styles, and her eyes fell on the finest one in the house.
She stepped toward it, laid a hand on the lid.
"This one," she said.
It was the one we'd put the old mountain witch's body in.
I was on the other side of the coffin from her.
"My dear," I began, and Esther's eyes snapped as she looked up at me.
"I have only a certain time on this good earth," she said tartly. "Your coffin is stored away against the time it should be needed. I shall do the same." She seized the lid and lifted it.
"My dear, wait," I said, but it was too late.
Esther slammed the lid shut, her eyes big as tea saucers.
"This one is occupied," I said, coming around the end of the coffin and taking my beautiful bride gently in my arms.
Esther drew her arm back and punched me right in the gut.
Hard.

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Linn Keller 11-10-11

 

Dr. John Greenlees plied the gleaming needle forceps, drawing gently on the suture.
He preferred this suture, as it was stronger than most material used at the time, even the horse tail hairs favored by many: he drew the suture taut, spun the thread about the slick, blunt nose, cleverly knotting the strand: another dozen passes of the needle, and the repair was complete.
Dr. George Flint studied his colleague's work impassively.
They worked under the bright-white light of the focused acetylene flame; the reflector was polished daily, the carbide generator was generously sized, as neither man wished to run out of light halfway through a complex surgical procedure: this promised to be but a minor surgical resection, and indeed they were nearing the end of their effort.
Dr. Greenlees drew the needle through one final time, knotted: drawing it taut, he said quietly, "Cut," and Dr. George Flint reached in with a pair of shining, short-bladed scissors, and neatly nipped the suture, very near the knot.
"I believe," Dr. Greenlees said quietly, "the operation is a success."
Dr. George Flint's eyes gleamed with amusement as his colleague picked up his coat, examining the newly reattached button, secured with the very latest in surgical precision.
"I believe," he said in an equally quiet voice, "you are correct."

Mr. Baxter stood in the very center of the Jewel's main room, surveying his burnished bar with an appraising eye.
There was room enough -- but only just -- for Sarah's trophy above the grand mirror behind the bar.
He nodded.
"Quite a trophy," he murmured, knuckles on his hips. "That young lady still surprises me, and I have known her for years!"
He rubbed his chin meditatively. "I wonder ..."
He considered the area immediately above the bar: there was a header that might make a better hang for the antlers: it would be more visible to everyone there ... the ceiling was higher, too, and would allow ... yes, that might be the better, he thought.
Above the bar.
Perfect!


Maude sat at her roll top desk, the small tintype open in her hands.
It was metal cased and hinged and showed a young man with a serious expression, seated and solemn, gripping a LeMat revolver in one hand and a knuckled Bowie in the other: behind him, the fouled anchor insignia of the Confederate navy.
It was a picture like many, one taken before the sailor had gone to war, and given his sweetheart, his mother, his wife: it was originally sent to WJ's mother, and she gave it to Maude, and now Maude looked at it, stroked the glass covering the tintype with trembling fingers.
"Your sailor awaits his first mate in the Valley," the old woman had said, and Maude remembered how WJ would laugh and waltz a few steps with her, every night after they swept out the store and locked the door, before they went upstairs to their quarters -- she remembered how he would pause, and his voice would change, and he would whisper, "I love you, First Mate," and with the memory her throat swelled and her eyes stung and she bit her bottom lip with the remembering of it.
Maude carefully, precisely placed the tintype back on top of her roll top desk, open, so she could see it when she was working, then she drew a kerchief from her sleeve and pressed it to her eyes.

Daisy slept through the night for the first time in a very long time.
The hired girl had arranged for a wet-nurse at night, and Gracie was content: whether because of the Bear Killer's attentions or in spite of them, Gracie seemed content with being fed and dry and rocked on occasion.
Sean, for his part, was content to steal the covers and snore like a saw mill in full production, which earned him the sharp end of Daisy's elbow and the sudden sensation of cold as she snatched the quilt back.

Sarah slept dreamlessly, her face relaxed, only an occasional finger-twitch betraying the adventures of the somnambulant mind: Bonnie crept into her daughter's room, knit slippers soundless in the nighttime, and sat on the bedside chair: the twins were asleep, as they always were, both rolled up on their side, looking like a pair of Botticelli angels in the moonlight.
Sarah ... Sarah was relaxed, and she looked young, so young, her skin pure, porcelain, flawless: Bonnie thought of the silent conflicts that plague most girls, repressed surges of anger or confusion or nameless emotion ... surges Sarah had seized and ridden like a bucking-horse.
Bonnie pushed away the memories of Sarah, screaming in the doorway as she fired the disguised .44 again and again and again into the murderer; she pushed aside the memories of Sarah, attacking the bank robber, punching her fist and the blunt nose of the double barrel Derringer into the robber's guts: no, for the moment, Sarah was her lovely daughter, and for that moment, Sarah was as pure as the porcelain skin of her moonlit face.
Bonnie's lips soundlessly traced a prayer, then she rose, silent in knit slippers, and she passed through the doorway, drawing the door almost closed behind her.
Sarah's eyes snapped open as Bonnie stood and turned, and watched her mother's retreating form: she knew Bonnie would take one last look, and so closed her eyes, and waited for a few seconds before opening them again.
Sarah's eyes, there in the diffused moonlight, were pale.
Very pale.
"I love you, Mother," she whispered into the moonlit silence, before closing her eyes and submerging herself again in the dark lake of slumber, her right hand beneath the pillow, wrapped around the grip of her bulldog .44.

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Linn Keller 11-11-11

 

Angela swung her legs out of bed and pattered rapidly across her bedroom floor.
She scampered quickly and almost noiselssly on pink bare feet, down the stairs and through the parlor, into the kitchen: she frowned, turned, went back through the house to the front door and carefully, quietly, climbed up on a handy chair.
She stretched waaaaay up and worked her Daddy's hat off its peg and dropped it on her head.
It came down past her eyebrows.
Angela stifled a giggle and climbed carefully down off the chair and made for the back door with the urgent pace of a little girl with a mission.
She opened the back door and was three steps out onto the back porch before the chill of frosty-cold boards penetrated her feet.
Angela whined a little but moved all the more quickly, down the steps and down the path to the back house, clutching her Daddy's hat with both hands, holding it high enough so she could see, at least until she came to the door of the back house.
Angela swung the door open, snatched up her flannel nightie's skirt and disappeared into the weathered little building.
She did not bother closing the door.
A little sound of distress came from within, probably due to the frosty-cold nature of the smooth board seat.
Outside, under bright and gleaming stars and a gloriously full moon, the landscape was just starting to frost, ice-diamonds like ground diamond dust condensing on every surface.
Angela accepted the beauty as the norm, as she did the discomfort of the moment: it was, it could not be changed, she accepted it as part of her world: part of her was beginning to question the wisdom of being a Good Little Girl, for she knew cleaning out chamber pots was not a pleasant task, and she wished to spare that task, but after the necessities were finished and she ran back down the path, the cold ache in her once-warm feet was almost enough to persuade her that being a Good Little Girl wasn't all that great an idea.
Angela stopped and climbed the back steps up to the porch, carefully, deliberately: she balanced her Daddy's big hat on her head with one hand, swinging the other arm with each step, her little pink tongue just protruding the corner of her mouth as she concentrated: upon gaining the porch, she nearly ran the few steps to the back door, pushed it open.

I normally slept in my long handles.
I'm not sure why I woke, but wake I did, and decided I could use some water: I slid out of bed, carefully, for Esther was a light sleeper, and I did not wish to wake her: besides, she carried our son --
Our son!
I couldn't help it, I grinned broad as a Texas township at the thought.
I worked my feet into fur lined moccasins and cat footed my way down stairs.
I knew the water bucket was filled and waiting, the tin dipper hung beside it on its nail.
There was a draft in the kitchen.
I stopped, rubbed my eyes, blinked.
I must not be awake yet, I thought, then I realized the back door was open about two fingers.
Now that's odd.
The door opened and I saw little pink fingers wrap around its edge.
I grinned again as a big hat with a little girl under it, appeared.
I knelt down and Angela give me the biggest grin and ran into my open arms.
I think that's one of the best late-night kitchen hugs I've ever had.

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Linn Keller 11-12-11

 

The service was brief, and there were but two mourners when the old woman was interred.
The Sheriff extended his hand, sifted dirt into the hole, onto the box; Sarah saw his lips move, but could not hear what he said.
She took her Uncle's arm and together they left the graveyard.
Sarah sat straight and silent beside the old lawman as they drove back to the Sheriff's office.
When the Sheriff drew his mare to a stop and set the brake, he didn't move for some time: Sarah was content to sit beside her Uncle, and await his good pleasure.
The Sheriff gazed down the empty street for some time.
Finally he said, "Thank you, Sarah," and Sarah heard something in his voice ... something deeper than his words.
Sarah turned her head and regarded Linn's profile.
There was a deep sorrow in his light blue eyes; the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes seemed deeper, somehow, and she saw his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed.
He reached over and took Sarah's gloved hand in his, squeezed it gently, released.
" 'A friend doubles joy and cuts grief in half,' " he quoted.
Sarah squeezed his hand in return.
The Sheriff looked at Sarah, a quiet half-smile on his face.
"Besides," he said, "what older man doesn't want to be seen in public with a beautiful, younger woman?"
Sarah giggled, her face coloring furiously beneath her fashionable new hat: the Sheriff dismounted, came around the carriage and offered Sarah his hand.
Sarah stood and stepped out onto the carriage-block like the Queen herself descending from the throne.
The Sheriff tilted his head a little, regarding his favorite niece with the expression of a man who was seeing someone for the first time: finally, he nodded, offered his arm.
They went into the Sheriff's office and the Sheriff drew her out a chair.
Sarah sat, the very image of ladylike propriety.
Linn sat on the corner of his desk, one leg swinging a little.
"You look like you're going to Denver," he observed.
Sarah smiled.
"We are," she said quietly. "Mama has some new dresses to show the buyers."
"Is this one of them?"
"Oh, no," Sarah smiled. "I would never risk wearing a new one until we'd shown it!"
The Sheriff took a long breath, nodded.
"Thank you for coming out this morning."
Sarah's eyes were steady as she regarded the slender man with the iron grey mustache.
"I heard that she died, and you were taking care of arrangements."
He nodded.
"Uncle Linn, I have an idea."
The Sheriff tilted his pelvis to the side, frowning: he stood, went around the desk and put the heels of his hands on the edge of the desk, bent his knees: as his weight came on his straight arms, Sarah heard a muffled *pop!* and the Sheriff groaned with relief.
He looked up and grinned at Sarah.
"My apologies," he said, "but that hurt so good."
Sarah's expression was distressed. "That sounded painful, Uncle Linn!"
"Mileage," the old man deadpanned, turning his swivel chair a little and sitting down. "You have an idea?"
Sarah raised her chin.
"Uncle Linn, Ragdoll ..." Sarah's expressions were mobile, fluid: she went from hopeful to thoughtful to annoyed and back -- "Ragdoll is a legend."
The Sheriff nodded.
"I didn't realize I was famous."
The Sheriff nodded, gravely, his eyes veiled.
"The Baron heard of the Ragdoll in Germany. Germany is in Europe. Europe knows about the Ragdoll and that reporter wanted to feature the Legend of the Ragdoll in his newspaper --" Sarah frowned.
"Uncle Linn, I don't want to go down in history as the Ragdoll."
"Then don't."
Sarah's expression was equal amounts puzzled and surprised.
"Excuse me?"
"By what name did the Baron make his address?"
"His" -- Sarah stopped and thought.
"He addressed me as Miss Rosenthal."
The Sheriff nodded. "Precisely."
Sarah blinked.
"Sarah, the military uses a layered principle of defense." The Sheriff steepled his fingers, tilting back a little in the chair. "The first layer of defense is always knowledge."
"I ... don't understand."
The Sheriff smiled quietly.
"If Sarah Rosenthal is the Ragdoll," the Sheriff explained, "who is Sarah McKenna?"
Sarah blinked.
"Having another name can come in handy," the Sheriff continued. "Especially if you don't want the world to know something. That won't work around here -- everyone knows you -- but let's say the Baron spoke with his nephew and let it slip that your name is Rosenthal. That reporter fella might already know that."
Sarah nodded slowly, her expression troubled.
"Neither would know the name McKenna. Were you on business elsewhere, let's say in Denver, your name is McKenna and nobody would equate that with the Legend of the Ragdoll."
Sarah's eyes brightened.
"Whenever Mama is showing her dresses, she introduces us both as McKenna," Sarah said quickly. "Ever since Papa died she hasn't used his name."
"Do you want to divest yourself of the name?" the Sheriff asked carefully.
"No," Sarah said quickly. "No. I am known here as Sarah Rosenthal, and I shall continue to be known as Sarah Rosenthal." The Sheriff saw her eyes change. "Elsewhere ... Sarah McKenna, someone entirely different ..."
The Sheriff nodded.
Sarah rose and so did her uncle.
The Sheriff walked slowly across the floor to his niece, rested his hands on her shoulders.
"My dear," he said, his voice catching, and he had to swallow hard to continue.
"My dear, I must say something."
Sarah's eyes were large, luminous; she knew the matter was important, and she was listening carefully as the slender lawman with the iron grey mustache cleared his throat.
"That something," he continued, "is thank you."
Sarah blinked, and the Sheriff was struck by her expression ... an expression of utter innocence.
"You have taught an old man that it is all right to live."
Sarah tiled her head a little, curiosity replacing innocence.
"My little girl died on her second birthday," the Sheriff explained. "I never saw her first day of school, her first boyfriend, the first time she came bringing home a squirrel or a skunk or discovered fish in the water. I never got to teach her to whistle or turn rocks over to see what lived under them.
"I never got to see her grow and I never got to walk down the church aisle with a beautiful young woman on my arm and wonder how did this happen so fast."
The man's voice was quiet, but filled the little log fortress that was the Sheriff's office.
"You," he said, "have let me see so much.
"I have watched you grow, Sarah.
"I have seen you as a little girl, and as a growing girl, and now here you are looking like a beautiful young woman."
He swallowed hard, wiped his hand across his closed eye.
Sarah saw the gleaming smear of moisture across his cheek.
"Looking like, hell," he muttered, taking a deep breath, looking up at the ceiling behind her, the looking down at her.
"Sarah, you are a fine young woman. You are beautiful, you are intelligent, you are everything I could ever have wanted to see in my little girl."
He squeezed her shoulders, closed his eyes, opened them.
"Sarah, dear heart, I am very proud of you."
Sarah bit her bottom lip.
The Sheriff offered a bandanna and Sarah pressed it delicately to one eye, then the other.
"Now let's get you to the depot," the Sheriff smiled. "Your Mama would likely drive me into the ground like a fence post if I made you miss your Denver trip."

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Linn Keller 11-13-11

 

The Sheriff set the brake and jumped out of the carriage just as the conductor was calling "Board! All aboooard!" for the last time.
Sarah saw her Mama, looking anxiously out the back door of the private car: the Sheriff grinned, lifted his hat and strode around the back of the buggy, and then Sarah gave a little shriek as the Sheriff seized her trim waist and brought her out of the buggy in one swift move.
She touched down, her hands tight on the Sheriff's upper arms: her expression was bright, delighted: before the grey-mustached old lawman could straighten, Sarah came up on her toes and kissed his cheek, then with one hand on her hat, scampered for the passenger car.
The porter, grinning, lifted his cap and offered his free hand: Sarah took it and climbed the step-stool, then the steps, stopping at the top, hanging onto the hand rail and waving gaily back at her Uncle Linn.
The old lawman was grinning like a damned fool, his hat upraised in salute to two beautiful women.
Neither truly knew just how much of the old lawman's heart they carried with them.

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Linn Keller 11-14-11

 

My thoughts were rather less than Christian in nature.
I don't believe in beatin' a horse nor do I believe in over powering them.
I'd rather convince them they want to follow my orders.
It wasn't working.
Santos and Eduardo had talked me into letting them breed my Rose-horse and the Sun-Witch both.
No fault of theirs, I reckon, but both ended up dead: these things happen, I know, and they paid me good money for the pair of 'em, and sent me a bright-copper mare, bright as a new penny.
She looked good, she had really good lines and she had a really nasty disposition.
Now a man is a fool and ten kinds of a fool if he thinks he can beat a horse, one on one.
A horse is faster, stronger, taller, has a longer reach, bigger teeth and a stronger bite.
Me?
I had a temper and a hard head.
I finally got that copper mare into the barn and shut the door and I got her to where she'd let me curry her down.
I got her mane brushed out and her tail brushed out and I fooled with her fetlocks and examined her hooves carefully.
She didn't bite me more'n two or three times.
The fourth time I come around and fetched her an open hand slap across the nose and yelled NO! just as loud as I could, then I went back to working on her like nothing had happened.
She sniffed at me a little -- I reckon she could smell the mad on me -- but she didn't offer to bite no more.
She was saddle broke and her back was in really good shape and I looked at her carefully before I chose which saddle to use on her.
Some horses are broader around the barrel, some have a pointy back bone, some are like tryin' to straddle the dining room table, and a saddle really ought to fit the horse.
Turns out that fancy Mexican saddle fit her best, and she didn't offer any surprise at the sight of it, so I figured Santos or Eduardo, whichever one had saddle broke her, used a similar looking saddle.
That was good.
Anything to make life easier.
I had enough things go wrong in my time, I didn't need a contrary horse.
I didn't want to mount up inside the barn.
Was she of a mind to launch me most of the way to the moon, the rafters overhead would likely interfere, and that didn't strike me as a fine way to start the morning, so I led her outside.
Angela was already mounted up on her Rosebud, wearing a riding skirt and a cute little hat set sideways on her head and tied with a big ribbon bow under her chin, and she had a grin on her face big as a Texas ranch.
"Oooh!" Angela gasped, her eyes big, as the morning sun hit that copper colored mare and looked to set her hide right afire.
I bribed that big copper mare with a small, sweet apple and stroked her neck, murmuring to her, then I set my foot in the stirrup and swung aboard.
She froze.
I mean she just locked up everything like a statue, her head up, her ears up, and I figured this ain't good.
Of a sudden, and I don't think there was the sliver of a heart beat between the two, she went from dead stop to wide open, she threw herself out horizontal, stretched way out the way a runnin' horse will, and shot herself like a cannon ball out of the bronze throat of a field gun, launched straight for the furthest fence and didn't stop nor offer to turn.
In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, and my hat lifted off my head and fell back on its storm strap: she'll either try and turn or she'll try and stop and we'll both come to ruin, or she'll jump --
You recall I said she launced from a standing dead-still to a flat-out gallop like a cannonball?
That warn't nothin'!
She hit the ground hard with I ain't sure if it was fore hooves or rear hooves but she fired herself off the ground like that field gun was elevated at a steep angle and we sailed over that fence like it was a wrinkle in your tablecloth.
I don't recall as I ever jumped quite so high on the back of any horse in all my born days!
My stomach parted company with me about mid-jump, I reckon, least that's how it felt, and that copper colored mare should have sprouted wings, she was in the air that long: when she come down she was still a-runnin' and she landed easy, I had no trouble a'tall keepin' my seat, and the two of us took out for yonder and she was determined to take the least time gettin' there possible!

Angela watched her Daddy swarm into the saddle in one smooth move.
Angela, eyes big, sized up the shining copper mare: she'd already fallen in love with her color, for she looked like molten copper, burning-hot from the mold: Angela had blinked, and in the middle of that quick little eye-bat, her Daddy had gone from standing still to a full-out gallop!
The maid looked out the window in time to hear a little girl's voice call, "Wait for me!" and gallop after her departing Daddy.
The maid crushed a double handful of apron to her mouth, eyes the size of saucers: "Dear Lord and Saint Christopher!" she breathed as Angela and her Rosebud arrowed for the distant fence: Mary felt cold fingers walking down her spine as the Sheriff launched over the fence, and kept on going, and then little Angela, wee Angela, beautiful child that she was followed.
Distantly, far away, the maid heard the little girl's full-throated and delighted, "Wheee!"
The maid's hand fumbled blindly for the back of a chair she knew was nearby.
She fanned herself, heart in her throat, as she lowered, trembling, into the chair.

"GO, YOU SAUCY MEXICAN WENCH!" I screamed, my heels locked in her ribs, my body laid down along her neck, and she laid her ears back and grunted something evil deep in her chest and surged ahead, making her former effort seem the tired plodding of a spavined dray-horse.
We turned in a great circle, headed back toward the barn, and I saw Angela coming toward us, her little Rose-horse pounding purposefully in our direction, golden-yellow tail twisting in her own slip stream: I knew Rosebud was well used to the high altitude, and had all the ancestral endurance of Rey del Sol's entire line.
I also knew the horse I rode was different, and I liked it.
A lot!
A coyote flushed out not far ahead of us and the copper mare swung to follow and I let her.
I have no use for the yodel dogs, not after what they did to our calves last spring, and though I did not have my Winchester with me, I am never without my Colts.
"Get us close!" I shouted.
I might as well have saved my breath.
That copper mare came up beside that yodel dog and speared it with a forehoof without breaking stride.
She came around -- a tight turn, heeled over, fighting to keep her footing, sounding like she wanted to personally rip the throat out of something twice her size and she didn't care how big it was -- and I saw that 'yote rolling, yelping in the dust.
"GET 'IM GET 'IM GET 'IM!" I screamed, dropping the knotted reins over the saddle horn and pulling my hammer tabs free.
The copper mare swung around and picked up speed and hit that coyote with about ten hooves on her next pass.
Don't ask me how.
She come around again, like a battleship heeling over and coming in for another cannonade at an enemy craft, and that 'yote was twitching some in the dust.
I sat up in the saddle and she slowed, then cantered up to the bloodied creature.
She grunted, shook her head, stood there blowing a little.
I realized I was a little damp: I wiped my face and forehead on my shirt sleeve, arched my back and felt the shirt sweat-stuck to my back.
I patted her neck and called her a good girl, and the copper mare shook hear head and blew again and seemed insufferably pleased with herself.
Angela was laboring steadily toward us at a good pace, but she was still rather distant, so I gave the copper mare my knees and we set an easy canter toward my little girl.

The maid squinted through the eyepiece of the gleaming brass telescope the Sheriff kept hanging under the gun rack.
She steadied the far end of the telescoping brass tube on the top of the window's lower pane: she watched as Angela galloped across the high meadow toward her Daddy, and how her Daddy reined up and she saw the man throw his head back and laugh as his little girl threw her arms wide, and even at that distance, there was no mistaking the joy on the child's face.
Mary's knees were still shaking a little, but she lowered the telescope, collapsed it and returned it to its place on the gun rack, then paused to rest her forehead in her hand.
Only then did she realize she was gripping St. Christopher's medal in her palm.
She stroked it with a forefinger.
"Thank you," she whispered, and slipped it back into her apron pocket.

"Daddy?"
"Yes, Princess?"
"Whatsayagonnado nameada horsie?" Angela asked, looking over at her Daddy with big and innocent eyes.
The Sheriff laughed again, a good Daddy-laugh that felt good in Angela's belly, and he stroked the copper mare's neck.
"Ridin' her is like ridin' a ball out of a field gun," he said thoughtfully.
"I believe I'll call her Cannonball."

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Linn Keller 11-15-11

 

Daisy just came out of the kitchen with a towel over her arm and a tray in both hands when I cautiously opened the back door to thge Jewel.
I'd learned to open it careful-like when I didn't, one time ... I ended up on the wrong side of Daisy's temper and she swatted me several times with her brush broom, and she warn't gentle a'tall about it neither, and when I grabbed it in both hands and stripped it out of her grip, why, that just made her madder and she seized it and stripped it out of my grip and proceeded to wallop me some more, at least until Sean came laughing down the hallway and seized his wife under the arms, picked her up and threw her over his shoulder.
Daisy dropped the broom and proceeded to screech and hammer the Irishman's back and beltline with her red-knuckled fists, kicking and swearing a blue streak -- I think it was swearing -- hell, with the voice she was usin' and Gaelic to boot she could have been recitin' a recipe for cabbage soup and it would have stripped the hide off a Missouri mule for the hearin' of it -- anyway I cleaned up the mess and parked her broom where she usually kept it and made a point of never, ever opening the back door careless-like again!
Daisy looked at me over the tray: cups and saucers, tea-cakes and sandwiches, a steaming, graceful porcelain tea-pot, and a snapping set of Irish-green eyes glaring at me -- well, I'd opened the door just far enough to poke my head in, and that without my hat, and I said "Safe to come in?"
"I've both hands full," Daisy said tartly, "or I'd fetch out me broom again!" -- and threw her head like a spirited horse -- and I grinned and said "Oh Daisy darlin', please don't do that, Sean ain't here to rescue me!"
Daisy tried hard not to crack the mask of disapproval she wore, and she come close to succeeding: finally she snorted and started up the back stairs to the second floor.
"Men!" she muttered. "An' you especially, you woman usin' scoundrel! Why, ye should be ashamed o' yersel'! Yer puir wife is wi' child an' ye're makin' her work! Like as not she'll be hangin' wet bed sheets i' th' blowin' snow wi' her knuckles cracked an' bleedin' fra' cleanin' yer shirts on th' wash board, an' ye'll sit inside wi' yer brandy an' cigars an' dream up more ways t' punish th' lass!" She continued her muttering ascent, me treading carefully behind her, hat in hand and ready to toss the Stetson if she took a mis-step and went over backwards.
It had never happened, least not to her, but I'd caught women before who'd stepped on their skirt and went over backward somehow.
Daisy's spine was stiff with disapproval as she made the level and marched down the hallway, punishing the rug with the hard little heels she wore: it was a rare day when Daisy herself was in the kitchen ... her presence, and her wearing those little heels told me she was there on a visit and not to work ... but Daisy was Daisy, and when she got there she whipped on an apron and fixed tea and lady-cakes and the like, for despite her status as owner of the kitchen and mistress of her little realm, with cooks and serving-girls under her, she still made it clear that she could do the work herself if need be.
Especially when she wanted to visit with her friend, Esther.
Daisy turned, glaring at me: was I made of wood, her gaze would have seared smoking scorch-lines in my grain: as it was, her voice was almost as withering:
"Well, ye great strong man, ye'll ha'e t' knock th' door, I canna' wi' ma hands full! Men! Hmph!" -- and as I rat-tatted with my knuckles, then turned the knob and pushed the door open, Daisy sailed in with all the authority of a war-ship under full sail, with a toss of her Irish-red mane and her shoulders absolutely T-square perfect.

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Linn Keller 11-15-11

 

The private car was as efficient of space as a ship's officer's cabin.
Sarah worked steadily at a fold-down desk; her mother, occasionally looking over her round-lensed reading spectacles, smiled quietly at the image of the fashionably dressed young woman, precisely scribing something on a sheet of foolscap she'd carefully, precisely measured, lined and cut: she worked steadily, carefully, and finally gave a little sound of exasperation, snatched up the sheet, wadded it viciously into a ball, then carefully, precisely, reached over the trash can.
Bonnie's cheeks colored and her lips pressed together as she concealed her laughter, for Sarah was holding the offending wad of discarded paper between thumb and forefinger, as if it were unclean, before dropping it with a precise finality into the trash.
Sarah closed her eyes, rolled her head back, took a deep breath: she lifted the felt covered writing surface, picked up another sheet of foolscap, closed the lid gently, and placed the paper on the felt.
Bonnie went back to her reading.

Fred was home and asleep, a well deserved rest: he'd been up all night, handling urgent messages that had to route over their section of line, as a downed tree had taken out a stretch of telegraph wire along the main line south of there: it was not uncommon to re-route telegraph traffic, where possible, and the Firelands leg was known as one of the most reliable and one of the most accurate copies in the business.
Fred took it as a point of pride to maintain that reputation, due in no small part to the quiet encouragement of the green-eyed matron who owned the railroad, and their telegraph office: as a matter of fact, after she'd stopped in for no particular reason, exchanged the usual pleasantries, she'd stood behind him as he sat in his operator's chair, put her hands on his shoulders and gave him a decorous, grandmotherly hug from behind, and whispered in his ear, "I am very proud of you, Mr. Jerome," and left.
In that moment he would have charged hell with a bucket of water if she'd asked him to.
Lightning, as well, took pride in his work, not just because he too had Mrs. Keller well up on a pedestal -- she joked one time that he had her so high on the marble column that she was likely to get nose bleed -- but Lightning prided himself on his work because that pride meant quality, and quality meant continued employment, and continued employment meant he could continue to keep a roof over his beautiful bride's head, and his own.
Fred wrote down the traffic as it came over, re-read it quickly to make sure it made sense -- if something were garbled or missed, he could ask the previous operator to re-send -- but it looked right, he clicked the acknowledgement, then passed the missive along in a series of single and double clicks.
Telegraphy was truly a second language, and he was its master.

Esther looked out her window, standing and stretching her legs after too long in her chair: book keeping was tedious and precise work but necessary, there was correspondence to draft and send, and she cherished those moments when she could fold her spectacles and put them away, and stand, and look out her window.
She smiled as she saw her husband raise his fists at the copper colored mare.
She'd first seen it in the early red rays of the morning sun, and the mare looked like a burnished penny, alive and shining and absolutely beautiful: she would not have been surprised to see it sprout wings and launch into the heavens.
She laughed as the Sheriff threw the reins over his horse's head and walked away a few steps, and the mare followed.
The Sheriff pretended to ignore the horse, and the horse reached down and curled its lips back, snapping at his backside.
The Sheriff turned, fists up, and the mare danced back a few steps, nodding her head.
The Sheriff turned and walked away again.
The mare slipped up behind him again.
Instead of reaching down to bite his backside, she laid her head over his shoulder.
This surprised Esther.
She knew the mare was strong-willed, as was her husband: a lesser man would have taken a singletree to the horse to try and break its spirit, but her husband had chosen to work with the mare.
Perhaps it was working.
She saw the Sheriff's arm come up and his hand caress the mare's cheek, and together they walked across the street to the Sheriff's office.
Esther sipped her tea and sighed, raising her eyes to the sun-painted mountain peaks, tall and strong against the flawless blue sky.
She rested a hand on her lower belly.
She could not tell she was gravid -- only the mountain witch's words gave her indication that she was with child -- but when she heard the old woman's words, she knew them to be true -- no, she wanted them to be true!
She remembered how her husband would lie on his back on the floor, holding their little Joseph in his big hands, raising the lad to arm's length with a quiet, boylike "Whee!" and little Joseph would laugh and swing his arms and legs, and the Sheriff would lower the lad to his chest, then slowly, again, raise him to arm's length with a "Whee!" and the baby would laugh ...
Esther blinked, smiled.
It was a good memory.

Sarah's measurements were meticulous, her lettering precise: she disliked the guide-lines she'd scribed on the little square, but they were necessary: carefully, at the bottom of the page, she noted their dimensions with a draftsman's clarity, something she'd learned from her Uncle Linn as he drew maps of the area.
Sarah smiled quietly, the smile of someone about to do something good for somebody else.
There was a print-shop not far from where they would be staying.
She folded the sheet of paper in half and slipped it into a little traveling-wallet.

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Linn Keller 11-16-11

 

Come on, Cannonball," I murmured, stroking the shining mare's neck: I gathered her reins in my left hand and quick stepped for the stirrup to try and keep ahead of those yellowed equine teeth I knew were going to follow.
I was right, they followed.
She got naught but some trouser material.
I settled myself comfortable-like and turned her with my knees -- I had to remind her by laying the reins against her neck, I dislike pulling on a horse's mouth unless it is so contrary and hard headed that it will respond to no other -- and she turned just fine.
Matter of fact she stepped out in a long gliding pace that my backside decided it liked really well.
Now have you ever noticed nothing ever goes wrong until there's someone there to see it?
I reckon it's because I was riding that penny-bright, shining copper mare instead of my black Outlaw-horse.
Maybe it's because she moved smooth as a cat on the stalk.
Maybe it's because of a sudden she dropped her head between her fore legs and threw her hind quarters way up in the air.
Maybe because I went a-sailin' out of that-there Mexican saddle and landed flat on my back right in the middle of the street, there in front of God and everybody.
I still had a death grip on them-there reins, so Cannonball wasn't going anywhere peacefully, unless she allowed to drag me along like a sled behind a wagon: I shook my head and blinked the water from my eyes and it felt like I'd been shot with a gun big as a clipper ship, the wind was knocked plumb out of me and I lay there gasping like a fish and thinking dark thoughts about a glue factory and how good that shining copper pelt would look as a rug beside my bed.
My universe shrunk some and it was kind of like looking up out of a shallow well if you were standing at its bottom.
Cannonball was regarding me with that long horse face of hers, and that perpetual gadfly of a hanger-on shoved his whiskered visage into my vision, chewing thoughtfully on something vile, probably tobacco but no guarantees, and he turned his head and spit.
"Soapy," he asked, and to his credit he didn't spatter me too bad with tobacco juice, "did ye fall off yer horse?"
I had to work some to get enough wind in me to answer.
"I was tired," I finally gasped, "so I figgered to just take me a nap."
Two or three other heads appeared, hands extended, strong arms seized my own: I grasped theirs in reply, and together we six got me to my feet.
I could have got to my feet quite a bit easier on my own, but they was six and I was one and before I could say a word, why, I was hoist back upright.
I twisted my back around once or twice and something gave a noisy *pop* somewhere underneath the back of my coat, and two or three fellows winced at the sound, and of a sudden my back felt considerably better than it had for some long time.
I turned and looked at Cannonball.
Now if it's a'tall possible for a horse to look utterly, absolutely and completely innocent, that copper mare did, and in spades.
"Now, Soapy," I heard as I reached for her bridle, "you ain't a-gonna kick her now are ya?"
I stroked Cannonball's nose and she laid her head over my shoulder like she was my best friend.
I patted her neck and headed around her side and reached for the saddle horn.
"Step back, fellas," I said, "if she comes unglued I don't want nobody hurt!"
My ribs was giving me billy Hell, I still could not take a deep breath and my head was pounding where it belted back-side-to on that hard packed and cold dirt street, but I was not gonna let that show.
My hat was handed up to me and the six stepped back, grinning, anticipating a show.
"All right," I said quietly, "if you want a fight, let's have it out!"
I gave her my knees.
Cannonball stepped out nice and easy with that butter-smooth gait bred into her from years and centuries of paso fino blood.

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Linn Keller 11-16-11

 

Daisy had the air of a satisfied woman.
She'd floured the table, kneaded bread dough, rolled out pie crust, the stove was fired to her satisfaction; bread dough went in as raised lumps of shapelessness and came out golden, fragrant: she rubbed butter on their hot tops and set them aside to cool, and not long after, pies: her Irishmen did love her pies, as did the rest of the world, but these were made exclusively for the wild Irish clan that lived under her roof.
Daisy hummed a little as she worked; her youngest slept in a cradle nearby, a cradle that had held each of their young in turn, and indeed had held Daisy herself, long years before: it was plain, it was utilitarian, it was unlovely, and it was the most cherished piece of furniture in the house.
Daisy stirred the stew, added a little flour thickening: she'd cut up the ingredients fine, as she always did: her mother used to make stew with great chunks of taters, and watery broth: Daisy had loved her red-headed mother dearly, but she couldn't stand the woman's stew: once out on her own, she discovered she could make it better, but wisely, discreetly, never once said as much to her dear Ma.
She also used a better grade of meat than hear dear Ma -- who, she admitted to herself, may not have had the choices in meat she herself had: no, Daisy used nowt but good back strap, cut up fine: it was her favorite cut of meat, and she worked well with it.
Daisy pulled open the drawer and began setting out silverware, then plates: the girl had the night off, and was in Denver visiting relatives: Daisy never missed an opportunity to remind her wild Irishmen that she was still queen of the kitchen, as capable a housekeeper as ever.
Even if she had just made a small fortune, thanks to investments Esther had reccommended.
Daisy had the air of a satisfied woman.

Kohl sat down at the supper table.
His family was around him; his wife had fixed a fine meal; they'd read Scripture and spoken the Rosary together, and now they surrounded the table and prepared to do its provender full justice.
Kohl quit the mines the morning after he'd staggered into his cabin, bloodied, wet, shivering a little: being buried alive was a common fear in the Victorian era, and Kohl had come close, perilously close, when the mine caved in and killed a fellow miner: luck and luck alone had guided him to a rotten log glowing with fox-fire, and beyond it, behind a veil of moss covering a gap in the native rock shelf, was an opening -- an opening twice as broad as his shoulders, but so narrow he could touch it with thumb and little finger with his hand splayed -- he'd managed to wriggle out this narrow, abrasive lumen, somehow ... the opening was not regular and sliced him through his shirt, and took a good chunk of material in the process -- but he'd made it home, and spent the night in his own bed.
He'd convened a council of war in the early morning, and he and Inge discussed his quitting, or rather Kohl said he was quitting the mines and Inge voiced her hearty approval -- Kohl ran down their inventory: the smoke-house was full, Inge had industriously dried, jerked, canned and laid up meat for the winter; grain was now flour, tightly stored, corn hung drying from rafters, as were herbs; apples, dried and stored away, leatherbritches beans, all were accounted for in his quiet voice: winter could stay long in the high country, but they should be well enough provisioned: there was hay in the barn, straw for bedding; could they but keep their meat-house secure -- and it was tight and strongly built -- why, they should weather the winter season in good shape.
Inge, too, had consulted Esther about investing her small horde: on Esther's good advice, Inge had searched out and bought the claim rights from its owner, who was convinced it was worthless, and that the price Inge paid was more than fair -- "I feel like I'm cheating you," he'd said frankly, "I've been all over that claim and there's not the least sign of color anywhere!"
Now, over supper, Inge still did not tell her husband of the nuggets she'd found.
She would let him make that discovery, in the spring.

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Linn Keller 11-17-11

 

It only took a moment.
Sarah's guard was down.
She was, after all, a fashionable young Lady About Town, and she was with her mother; they were on the main street, in front of their hotel, and there was the lightest of tugs on her arm: the weight of her reticule was suddenly gone, and Sarah reacted without thought.
Bonnie sensed movement and turned just in time to see Sarah snatch a pitchfork-handle from some fellow's hand and disappear down an alley.
Bonnie's stomach contracted and she looked quickly around, desperately searching --
There!
Bonnie waved a gloved hand and called "Officer! Over here!"
Her other hand felt the abbreviated pistol in the concealed pocket.

Sarah came around the corner and into a young war.
In fairness, it was a war of her making, and it was quite a short conflict at that: the fellow who'd snatched her reticule had his hand in it, most of the contents were on the ground, and he was grinning greedily at his take when something bade him turn.
Sarah came into battle at full charge, intending to make use of her momentum as well as her weapon: she'd learned well the dark lessons of fast and dirty fighting from masters of the art, practiced with an old Guard percussion shotgun, practiced after the form of the Legion Etrangere -- the French Foreign Legion -- past masters at using a shoulder arm as a devastatingly effective, close-in fighting tool.
Sarah aimed her first butt stroke at the footpad's face.
Some instinct prompted the street thug to try and turn, which brought the thick end of the turned ash tool handle just behind his left ear: Sarah's grip was perfectly positioned to deliver a powerful blow at great speed, and he went down like a sack of wheat, landing face first on the brick paved alley.
Sarah took a breath, turned ice-pale eyes on the second street Apache: her lips peeled back, revealing even, white teeth, giving her the appearance of Death itself in a lady's finery.
Sarah spun the pitchfork handle quickly, brought it down and back, hard, catching the second fellow behind the knees: his knife and his hand parted company and his hand clenched the gutta-percha grip of a top break Owl Head, just before he went down flat on his back, hard.
Sarah spun the staff and drove it into the fellow's groin, reversed and drove it straight down into his solar plexus as hard as her young muscles would allow: they allowed plenty, for she managed to focus her entire weight behind an area as big around as two fingers are big across.
Sarah snatched up the knife, tossed it over beside the first attacker.
She turned, breathing heavily, spinning the turned ash handle slowly.

Bonnie called a second time, then she used the one tried and true method for getting a policeman's attention on a busy street.
Bonnie gathered a breath well deep in her lungs and cut loose with an absolutely bone-chilling, blood-clotting, nerve-seizing scream.
The single shrilling, soprano note cut through the street noise like a knife.
She finally had the man's attention.

Sarah turned in time to see the black eye of the Owl Head looking at her.
The Chinese have a saying: "Never give a sword to a man who cannot dance."
One thing Sarah did, and did well, was dance.
She spun gracefully to the side, pirouetting like a ballerina, just before she drew back her arm and drove the four foot long ash shaft like a spear, precisely into the second street Apache's left eye.
Sarah was running on adrenalin: Sarah's blood was up, Sarah was in full battle mode, and Sarah's thrust was not gentle.
The wood handle drove through the thin bone behind the eye and through the brain, stopping when it fractured the back of the skull.
Sarah's mind was moving as quickly as the rest of her.
She dipped her knees, quickly, gracefully, snatching up the knife and tossing it back to its original owner.
There!
Sarah backed away from the scene a little, glancing behind her: part of her mind realized there was a woman's scream, and she knew it was her Mama's, and she smiled just a little because her Mama had shown her just how to handle the situation.
Sarah drew her arms up and, with gloved fists on either side of her face, backed up against the clapboard wall of the hotel: eyes wide, she allowed anger and justifiable rage to turn, to change, and suddenly she was a young woman faced with a picture of unspeakable horror.
Sarah whimpered a little, and just as the policeman sprinted around the corner, she, too, gave a scream of pure, unadulterated terror.

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Linn Keller 11-17-11

 

Law and Order Harry Macfarland slouched genially against the front of his Marshal's office, casually surveying the knock-down, drag-out fight that emerged from the Red Rooster.
So far, he reckoned, the front window had been the casualty of flying bodies ... oh, probably four times so far this year ... he'd generally fine whoever went through it enough money to replace the glass, and fine everybody else enough to cover its re-installation, glazing, putty and paint, and that would last until the next good general celebration.
Old Harry was a veteran of the law doggin' profession, and he waited patiently while the fight burnt itself out; the participants, as usual, were enthusiastic about their chosen sport, and finally only two were left standing.
Harry pried himself loose from his leanin' spot and sauntered over to the pair, who wobbled some and regarded one another through swollen eyes and split, bloodied lips.
"Well," Harry said, "he'p me drag these'ns over t' th' pokey."

Sarah's eyes were huge and round, her face the color of putty, as she shrank from the terrible sight in the brick alleyway.
The policeman, pistol in hand, sprinted past her, looking from one to the other, seeing one obviously dead, the other probably so; a knife, a gun, the scattered contents of a woman's reticule: holstering his revolver, he scanned the alley from near to far, side to side, satisfying himself no one else was about.
He turned to the distressed, shivering young woman cowering against the wall of the hotel, and was struck by how helpless -- how young! -- she looked.
All the protective instincts of a noble and honorable man surged to the fore and he approached her carefully, his moves slow, his voice gentle.
She jumped as his hand cupped the point of her elbow, and she looked at him, clearly afraid: one tear-track gleamed brightly down her cheek.
"Are you hurt, ma'am?" he asked, his voice low, urgent: Sarah shook her head, her eyes returning to the two still forms: she was choking back little sounds of distress, then fell into him, clutching the man as a drowning victim would seize a life-ring: her face was buried in his coat-front, and he found himself soothing the sobbing young woman, patting her back and murmuring there-theres and you're-all-rights, as if he were soothing a child crying from a nightmare.
"Sarah!"
Bonnie's voice was loud in the alley-way as she elbowed her way through the gathering crowd of sightseers: snatching her skirts up, she began to run: "Sarah!"
Sarah's face showed the terror of a frightened child as she released the nice young man with the funny round hat and shivered into her Mama's comforting embrace.
At least the Sarah that was pressed against the back of her eyeballs showed that face to the world.
The Sarah that sat in a plain, unadorned black saddle, astride a jet-black horse, held station in the shadows well behind her eyes: this Sarah regarded the scene with satisfaction: none would suspect the Ragdoll had been here, and that is what she wanted.
There remained only one more dead rabbit to drag across the trail.
She whispered to the actress pressed against the back of her eyes, and together they spoke, two spirits speaking with the same voice, carefully modulated with the skill of a veteran actress:
To the question the polite young policeman asked, her voice replied, "My name is Sarah McKenna," before her mother could reply, then she buried her face again in the maternal bosom as the Irish sergeant with beefy-red cheeks snarled, "Will ye have done wi' yer questions, lad! 'Tis plain t' see th' two robbed this puir young woman an' had a fallin' out, like! Killed one another they did, an' her misfortune t' see it!"
The sergeant's hand was firm but sympathetic on Sarah's shoulder.
The Sarah, pressed against the windows of her eyes for all the world to see, sagged in her Mama's arms: eyes rolled back in her head, her knees failed her, and the Sergeant caught the collapsing young woman, straightened.
"I am her mother," Bonnie said formally, "and we have a room here at the hotel."
"We'll no' go through th' lobby," the Sergeant said quietly, "nor will we go through yon crowd. Franklin!"
"Sir!"
"Franklin, do ye g'inside an' ha'e th' side door opened f'r us!"
"Aye, sir!" The young officer with the military-neat mustache sketched a salute and sprinted for the mouth of the alley.
"Puir thing, she's all done in," the Sergeant said, and behind the closed eyes, the Sarah in canvas britches astride a midnight black mare, smiled.
They will never suspect the Ragdoll, she thought.
Had I given the name Rosenthal ...
No.
Better Sarah Rosenthal is never mentioned.

She turned the black mare and disappeared into the shadowed mists of her mind.

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Linn Keller 11-18-11

 

Sarah glided out onto the little stage as smoothly as if she were on wheels.
She turned slowly, delicately lifting her skirt with one gloved hand, as Bonnie described the material, the drape; she addressed the change in the waistline, the bustle, the pleating: Sarah's expression was relaxed, pleasant, completely at ease with the world: her flawless complexion and shining eyes were assets to the dress, her erect carriage and confident bearing lent to the attraction of this, the very latest style, only days from arriving on American shores from France.
Bonnie had fretted at the expense of the matching hat -- it was a one-of-a-kind, hand made from the china-doll exemplar that wore the dress of this same pattern -- but it was worth it: she saw approval in the buyers' eyes, and she knew that her daughter's appearance and Gracie Welker's millinery skills were persuading Denver that McKenna Dress Works had another very salable commodity.
Bonnie marveled at her daughter.
Not three hours earlier she'd been a shrinking, screaming little girl, crying at the sight of mutual murder in a Denver alleyway: here, now, she was a beautiful and confident young woman, fairly radiating maturity and beauty.
Bonnie's focus was on sales, but part of her still worried.

The Sheriff gazed levelly at the copper mare.
The copper mare blinked and looked sleepy and harmless.
The Sheriff spun the blanket onto her back, or at least tried to: the mare danced sideways, shivering her hide, and the blanket slid off her gleaming pelt and hit the ground.
The Sheriff sighed patiently.
"Cannonball," he said, his voice quiet, "we need to get something straight."
Cannonball turned one ear toward him.
"I am the boss here."
Cannonball turned the first ear south-southwest, and brought her other ear to bear on the lawman with the iron grey mustache.
"I am the law in this county," the Sheriff continued, "and you will obey me."
Cannonball blinked, snuffed the Sheriff's middle, searching for tobacco or one of the small, sweet apples she loved so well.
The Sheriff rubbed her under the chin, stroked her neck.
"You bum," he said affectionately. "I oughta thump you."
Cannonball blew, laying her head over his shoulder. It was her favorite expression of affection.
The Sheriff bent quickly to snatch the blanket off the ground.
Mary, their hired girl, made a little sound of distress as she watched the copper mare's head strike quickly as a snake and take a snap at the Sheriff's exposed backside.
Her hand went to her mouth at the pained shout that followed.

"Now that's some rack."
Admiring hands stroked the polished antlers; heads nodded wisely.
"Why do you reckon it's out here, though? Can't nobody see it."
"We seen it."
"Yeah, 'cause we went back to say howdy to Shorty."
"You reckon they're gonna hang these up inside?"
"Oh, I reckon."
"Y'know, if they ain't ..." the first one said speculatively ... "they would look mighty good on our bunk house."
"You wanta try takin' them antlers?"
"Well, hell, if they're just gonna set 'em over a fence post out here where nobody can see 'em --"
"It's the Sheriff's niece that got that elk. You wanta get on the wrong side 'a' that long tall badge packer?"
"Hey?" The first one drew his hand back as if burned.
"Yeah, Perfesser, attair rack b'longs to Sarah."
A shiver, a shake of the head.
"I reckon that-there skull can bleach out an' dry without my help."
"I reckon it don't need my help neither."
"It would still look good on the bunk house."
The second fellow took off his hat and swatted his old friend and riding partner.
"Now what was that for?" the first one shouted in an aggrieved voice.
"That was so you'll buy me a drink, you son of a Virginia shopkeeper!"
The two men glared at one another, brows knit and jaws set: fists clenched and tension fairly crackled between the two, at least until laughter cracked the corners of their eyes and they ended up with their arms around one another's shoulders and they stomped into the back door of the Jewel.
Drinks had been mentioned, and the smells from Daisy's kitchen reminded them they hadn't eaten in far too long.
Why, it was near to ten o'clock and they hadn't had a bite since breakfast!

"Sergeant?"
The younger policeman looked up as his supervisor strolled by the desk.
"Sergeant, I've finished the report. You wanted to read it."
"Aye, lad," the Sergeant said quietly, reaching for the hand-written page: the officer had immaculate handwriting and the Sergeant felt a quiet pride as his eye followed the carefully-scribed account of what had transpired, there in the alley.
The Sergeant nodded slowly as he read and finally handed the sheet back.
"Son," he said, "I wish everyone had your hand."
"Sir?"
"Your hand writing." He gestured to the paper the younger officer was placing in the wire basket. "Ye should see wha' some o' the lads turn in. Ye'd think they dipped a bird's feet in ink an' set 'em to hoppin' on the paper!"
The younger officer nodded, smiling, and his eyes went to the paper.
The Irish sergeant set his polished brogan on a chair, leaned folded arms over his up-propped knee.
"Out wi' it, lad," he said. "I know ye're thinkin'."
The younger officer turned a little red and chuckled.
"Sergeant," he admitted, "when I started down that alley and saw two bodies and a pretty young woman, my first thought was the Ragdoll was in town."
The Sergeant threw his head back and laughed, his bulging neck and veined cheeks turning an incredible shade of scarlet.
"Laddie-ma-buck," he chuckled, "i' tha' had been th' Ragdoll, she'd 'a' had 'em hung up by their heels, skinned, filleted, down to a skeleton an' she'd be playin' their ribs wi' a pair o' hammers like a circus clown plays a xylophone!"
The younger officer nodded, smiling.
"Yes, sir."
"No, lad, she's no' th' Ragdoll, an' thank God for it," the Sergeant said, his voice quieter now as he settled his billed pillbox cap on his curly red hair.
"Why, was th' Ragdoll t' come t' town, it's guid honest men like you an' I who'd be wi'out a job!"

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Linn Keller 11-18-11

 

Most of the buyers came to the hotel to view the fashion show.
There were the usual conversations, the tea, the cakes, the little finger-sandwiches, for which Sarah had no appetite: she smiled, she chatted, she pretended to sip her tea, and when finally she put her stone-cold cup of stone-cold tea on its stone-cold saucer and set them on the table, she was quite ready to retire to her room and lay down for a bit.
Such was not to be.
There were a dozen dress shops yet to visit, and as Sarah was wearing the very latest in fashion, she had to remain in garb, and in character: she maintained a pleasant expression, repeated the same inane and meaningless phrases that were murmured in polite company, garnering the approval of women twice and thrice her age: she was the object of open curiosity, of professional curiosity; hands were laid on her shoulders and she was turned this way, that way; she was asked to stand, sit, walk here, come there, turn again: she sat with poise, she walked with grace, she was unfailingly genteel of mien and gentle of voice.
By the time she and her mother hailed a hack for the ride back to the hotel, Sarah was quite ready to chuck the whole mess and head for Firelands just as fast as the nearest conveyance could be had.
It was near the end of the business day: as they came near the hotel, Sarah raised up a little, rapped sharply on the roof of the hack: the driver drew over, stopped, and Sarah pulled the hat from her head and thrust herself, head and shoulders, out the curtained window.
"Do you see the stationer's, there on the right?" she called, her voice light, a winning smile illuminating her features: the driver was an older man, and few things will warm an older man's heart more or more quickly than the smile of a pretty, younger woman.
"Yes, ma'am, I see it."
"We need to stop there first, I must pick up my uncle's gift!"
"Yes, ma'am!" the driver said crisply, flicking his reins: the black British buggy rumbled under them and they resumed their place in the steady flow of city traffic.
Sarah seized the hat on her way out the door -- Bonnie opened her mouth to admonish her darling daughter, for Sarah managed to leap from carriage to boardwalk in one long-legged stride, land and in two steps she had the hat on her head, turned and smiled, and was once again the graceful creature that had flowed effortlessly across the stage and back so many times today.
She was in the shop less than two minutes; when she came out, a box under her arm, a smile on her face and a laugh bringing a moment's pleasant respite to the sounds of civilization, she gave a sharp, most unladylike whistle and tossed a small wrapped package to the driver, who'd opened the cab's door the moment Sarah came into view.
He caught it neatly, smiled most broadly, secreted it immediately within his coat: he'd dismounted and stood patiently beside the handsom cab's door, awaiting her return, and offered his hand for Sarah's convenience.
Sarah's head was tilted back a little, her smile dazzling: the driver, a grandfather himself, felt the momentary dizziness that true beauty will occasionally give a man, before he swung the door gently to and latched it securely.
Had Sarah asked him to drive to the top of the Great Divide, in that moment, the hack's driver would have been most happy to comply.
After he'd seen Sarah and Bonnie into the care of the hotel's main door, he was even happier, for he unwrapped the package Sarah had so deftly delivered.
A bottle, he knew, for it gurgled as he handled the wrapped package: with the bottle, a note:
Something to keep you warm on a chilly night, he read, and inside the note, twenty dollars.
He'd just made more on this one short run that he would otherwise earn in a week.
Bonnie tilted her head, regarding the box on Sarah's lap. It was tied with string, and Sarah's gloved hands rested protectively on its top: she looked out the window, a quiet smile on her face.
Bonnie could not have known that a voice was whispering from the folds in Sarah's mind, a voice spoken by someone who looked very much like her lovely daughter:
"Good job, girl," the voice said: "you will never know when you can use a friend. A bottle of whiskey is cheap insurance and so is a Yankee greenback."

The doorman recruited from the unorganized militia, so to speak, to provide porters enough to carry the ladies' goods upstairs: dresses were bulky, and Bonnie dare not pack them tightly, for they would have to look good for the buyers: most of her stock was sold, one of the two containers was empty, and light, but bulky and a little awkward: their little pack-train made a minor sensation as they assaulted the stairs with the determination of Alpine mountain climbers.
Fortunately they did not have to scale a terrible distance; two floors was all, but two floors was quite enough.
Bonnie and Sarah routinely took two suites, one for themselves and one for their goods: they carefully secured the second suite, and rang for hot water, for both ladies wished a bath, and Sarah was anxious to open her package and gloat over its contents.

 

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Linn Keller 11-18-11

 

Appearances, Bonnie knew, weren't everything, but they were important.
She and Sarah were staying at one of the best hotels in Denver.
The lodgings were ... well, somewhere between luxurious and opulent.
Sarah particularly enjoyed the bath.
It was a private bath, attached to their suite: marble and gilt and luxury as far as the eye could see, though in honesty Sarah wasn't looking very much farther than the end of that nice hot tub of water.
Her Mama had already bathed, the water changed out; it was almost too hot, but Sarah eased herself in, gradually, reveling in how good it made her taut young muscles feel.
She acclimatized herself to the heat; gradually, incrementally, she allowed herself to relax.
Sarah was enjoying the feeling of lowering her guard, here in the isolated temple of privacy, though she took the precaution of her .44 bulldog beside the tub and a little below the rim, not visible to anyone coming into the room, but ready to hand.
Sarah purred a little, letting the day's tensions run off her and into the water.

Bonnie brushed her hair with long, practiced strokes: it shone like a healthy animal's pelt, it glowed with good health: Bonnie rememered a time when it was as dull as her eyes and her spirit had both been, back during the "hopeless days" as she called them: she did not take her good fortune for granted, nor did she take her good health for granted.
Or Sarah's.
Bonnie thought back over the day's events.
She was sure her daughter had snatched that shovel handle or whatever it was from that farmer's grasp ... or did she? ... perhaps she just bumped him, hard, turning him ...
It happened so fast, Bonnie thought, remembering the sight of the footpad ducking into the alley, Sarah's reticule clutched in his hand and Sarah hard after him.
Part of Bonnie's soul knew that her daughter had just rushed into great danger, and could be shot or stabbed or ... worse ...
Bonnie shivered.
She'd survived "worse."
She knew intimately what "worse" was like.
Another part of her feared what Sarah would do once she got there.
Sarah was a complex ...
Complex what? she chided herself.
She hasn't been a girl in a very long time.
That was burned and beaten out of her years ago.
No one should have to go through what she survived!

Bonnie looked up from the ledger-book, realizing she'd been staring sightlessly at it for the past several minutes.
What happened in that alley?
She seemed so ... normal
!
Sarah hadn't spoken of what happened, save in choking, gasping, halting phrases, shaking with the nerve-ague from the horror she'd witnessed: her statement was choppy, delivered in a staccato gasp between groans as the red-faced Irish police-sergeant took careful note of what she said, or rather noted as best he could: satisfied, he'd touched the brim of his funny round cap deferentially, patted her hand in a fatherly way and murmured that she was a brave lass indeed, and took his leave, pausing to tell Bonnie in low voice that it was evident the two thieves had a falling-out, and such a shame the lass had to look upon such a terrible moment.
Bonnie's eyes drifted toward the closed bathroom door and she almost rose.
No.
She would give Sarah the courtesy of privacy, the womanly recognition of her own space, her own time to be alone.

Sarah drifted, somewhere between this world, and another: her slender, taut-muscled body was almost supported by the cooling, now-blood-warm water, and her mind, freed from the ordinary needs and demands of daily life, expanded, drifted ...
You did well, a voice whispered from behind a dark rock formation, and a black clad rider on a midnight black horse rode into view.
Sarah drew back from her watch-station, behind her blue eyes, and turned.
"You did well, too," she said quietly, as if addressing an equal, which indeed she was.
The black-clad figure dismounted easily, walked over to Sarah, the midnight mare following placidly.
Sarah wore the dress she'd had on earlier that day, but not the hat: she regarded the mare, knowing she was seeing What Will Be, and knowing somehow the midnight mare was not entirely to be trusted.
Sarah's counterpart wore black leather chaps, black canvas britches, her knee-high cavalry boots were burnished to a high shine: she wore her familiar Colt's revolvers in ornately carved, black holsters: the buckle was black as well, instead of silver, and Sarah-the-outer knew this was to deny the enemy a target in low light.
"They don't suspect," her black-clad self whispered.
"Why are you whispering?"
A smile, and she understood without words: it was her nature to travel in stealth, to move in silence; shadow could conceal her not only from the eye, but the ear.
"Our mother waits without," her lips whispered, her blue eyes bright beneath black felt hat-brim: "she would speak with us of today."
Sarah-the-outer nodded.
"We must be cautious."
Again, the nod.
Sarah-the-outer blinked, for the midnight horse was gone.
Sarah-the-inner stepped close, closer ...
Sarah's eyes snapped open and she jumped a little, cooling bathwater gurgling with the suddenness of her move.
She realized what she heard was a delicate tapping on the bath chamber's door.
"I fell asleep," she called, and Bonnie heard an embarrassed smile in her daughter's voice, then the sound of someone climbing out of a soaking-deep tub: Bonnie smiled a secret smile of her own, for she knew what it was to soak long in a tub of warm, scented water, and to fall asleep.

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Linn Keller 11-18-11

 

The lie came easily to her lips.
Sarah rose early, slipped out, left a note -- "Back in an hour," signed with an ornate, fluorished capital S -- she'd spoken with the right people, and knew where she wished to go.
Normally a fashionable young lady would visit a store that sold ladies' shoes, and would get something fashionable to wear: it was not usual for a well-dressed lass to walk into the bootmaker's as if she owned the place, and pick up a pair of cavalry boots, and ask for a particular fitting.
"For my cousin," she'd smiled, "we have the same feet and he's tired of my stealing his boots -- I want to surprise him with a new pair," and Sarah had been told, after measurement and some judicious frowning, that they would be ready that forenoon.
Sarah's next stop had been not far down the street, and again, the lie: a duster this time, for her cousin, as he was tired of her stealing his long tailed coat, and she wished to surprise him.
Vest and britches and shirt she had, but a hat she still needed: this, too, was easily got: Sarah was back to the hotel in time for breakfast, for when she shopped, she regarded the supply run the same as a military raid: get in, get it and get out.
Bonnie was amused to see her daughter come in, packages in hand, success flushing her cheeks: she'd tossed her packages into the next room and announced, "I'm hungry, let's eat!" -- and after a few cosmetic touches, mostly to do with hair and a quick clothing change, the two fashionably-attired ladies descended to the hotel's restaurant.
Over tea and toast, Bonnie tilted her head curiously: "Weren't you afraid, going out alone? After what happened yesterday?"
Sarah ground a brisk shower of pepper on her eggs: "I like your eggs much better, Mama, yours are spiced just right!" -- then she set the pepper mill down and favored her mother with a direct gaze: "Two men caused yesterday to happen. They're dead." Sarah cut a piece of egg, folded it over, impaled it with her fork. "I don't fear the dead, Mama."
"But someone else might have --" Bonnie began.
Sarah cut her off with a look, her blue eyes several degrees lighter, and Bonnie felt a chill, as if someone stepped on her grave.
Bonnie picked up her tea, pausing to inhale the fragrant vapors.
She often did this, as it helped her sinuses.
It also gave her a moment to reclaim her composure, to regain control of the conversation.
Sarah's attention was entirely on her eggs: she ate quickly but not hurriedly ... efficiently, Bonnie thought, would be the word.
"Have you been ... feeling well?" Bonnie asked tentatively, to which Sarah nodded "Um-hmm," not wanting to discharge a fine spray of toast crumbs over the linen tablecloth.
Bonnie opened her mouth to say something else, closed it; a sip of tea, and she tried again.
"I see you were shopping," she said.
"Mm-hmm." Sarah took another bite of toast, chewing happily: the toast was still hot, the butter just melted: she did love their rye bread, something she had only when they made the Denver trip.
"And ...?"
Sarah's eyebrows went up, returning the question, and she took a short drink of tea.
"You must have bought something," Bonnie prompted.
Sarah smiled.
"I bought a riding duster, Mama, and a pair of boots, and a hat."
"I see."
In her mind's eyes, Bonnie imagined a lady's duster, a fine hat and a dainty pair of ladies' boots with a sharp little heel.
"I'm sure they'll look lovely on you."
Sarah drained her tea, took a long breath, laid a delicate hand on her middle.
"My tummy is smiling," she said, and they both laughed.

By midday Bonnie was making sales calls, as she usually did: to her knowledge, Sarah would visit the library, or perhaps read in their room: she had no idea Sarah was picking up her new boots, and in the safety of their room, changing: where a fashionable young lady in a fine hat and the latest Paris gown entered their room, regal as a Princess of the Realm, the slight figure in boots and britches and a linen duster that left the room, bore no resemblance to the lovely young lady of a very few minutes before.
When Sam described braiding her hair to keep it out of her way, and wrapping the thick pig tails around her neck, Sarah paid attention: when Sam admitted she'd hoped to keep her neck warm with it but the twin braids kept her from a throat-slash in a knife fight, Sarah remembered: now, her own hair was brushed out and braided, the braids crossed at the nape of her neck and wrapped about her throat, confined under shirt and vest: her hat brim was low, her cavalry style boots high, and she knew how to walk to minimize her femininity: thus disguised, she slipped quietly for the side stairs, the ones that opened to the alley from the day before.
Sarah wished to make one more purchase.
She had the name of a leather worker of uncommon skill, and she wished a new gunrig, black with a black buckle, ornately carved.
Sarah slipped a rectangular piece from a tin can into the lock: it kept the door from latching and thus from being locked from the outside, but would hold it shut until she wanted back in.
Sarah studied the alley from the top of the outside stairs; satisfying herself it was indeed untenanted, she descended, walked to the main street.
A yell, a clatter, a woman's scream, the sound of a runaway horse: Sarah turned to see a runaway carriage, the horse obviously panicked, and a Texas cowboy riding hard after, lariat swinging easily from his hand.
Sarah's weight came onto the balls of her feet and her blood sang: time slowed, her breaths were deep and regular, and she watched the golden-brown lariat sail slowly through the air, dropping neatly about the horse's neck, come taut --
The end parted company from the Texan's saddle horn, flying free, trailing behind: Sarah remembered how she and Jacob would practice a flying pickup, at a trot, then a gallop, and how Sarah had proven adept at seizing the passing horse and swinging aboard.
She knew a runaway carriage on a city street was a sure ticket to injury and death, and she knew the figures on the carriage seat, clutching the seat, reins lost and dragging under the buggy, were in peril as well: to think was to act, and Sarah took a running start and angled herself the same direction as the horse was running.
She reached -- she seized -- she swung aboard -- Sarah was astride the horse's neck, lean young legs tight around it as she snatched at the reins, hauled back:
"WHOA, YOU SPAVINED JUGHEADED SON OF A GLUE FACTORY, WHOA!"
Her efforts, her voice, had absolutely no effect.
The horse had the bit between its teeth and it wasn't going to surrender for Sarah nor anybody else.
Sarah looked ahead: the street was crowded now, carriages were stopped, and she knew if she didn't stop the horse, fast, carnage would ensue.
Sarah was desperate, and desperate times call for desperate efforts.
Sarah reached down and got a double handful of the right side of the horse's bridle, then she threw herself off to the left.
She'd seen cowboys bulldogging calves, bulldogging steers, but she'd never known anyone to try and bulldog a horse.
Part of her mind calmly laid out the horse's neck and length of head, factored in weight and momentum, scribing neat lines like a geometrical problem on graph paper, her mental pencil methodically marking lines of force, calculating foot-pounds of leverage.
The rest of her was too busy swinging her legs up, wringing every but of advantage from her position, hauling the horse's head around, twisting its neck unmercifully: Sarah's teeth were locked, her eyes ice-pale, her fingers welded around buckled leather bridle-straps.
She saw buildings, a few birds in the clear noontime sky overhead, buildings on either side, she felt the horse, solid, real, hot, she felt herself -- the two of them, together -- falling for a young eternity --
The running horse's head came around: surprised, the runaway fought it, but went over anyway, falling heavily on its side, legs churning.
Sarah let go, tucked her arms, rolled, hoping she would somehow avoid being run over.

The Texas cowboy spurred his mestena after the runaway carriage: the loss of his lariat stung his pride, for he'd roped half a thousand horses and twice that number of cattle, and never failed to snub the braided leather about the saddle horn: another cowhand had run out and swarmed aboard the runaway -- a fellow Texan, no doubt! -- for nobody knows horses like Texans, and this one made a galloping snare-and-mount as easy as he'd ever seen done!
His pony's rhythm changed, but only momentarily: he and the mustang had been over many miles and through many storms together, and he knew his sure footed cow pony had just cleared an unexpected obstruction.
Their speed was such that, when the cowboy in the duster bulldogged the horse to the ground, the Texan overshot them by a significant margin.
"Ho there! Hard about!" he yelled, and his mustang's haunches lowered as he scrambled for footing on the city street.

Sarah's arms had tucked in and she'd rolled like a log, out of danger: now she spread all fours, coming up like a cat, and leaped for the horse.
It too was coming to its feet, but its ears were back, its eyes wild, and Sarah knew it was going to run again.
There was the sound of a thunderclap, a flash, and the horse collapsed bonelessly to the ground.
Sarah did not remember drawing her right-hand Colt.
Sarah heard a Texas yell and the sound of approaching hooves, and she moved without thinking: holstering the pistol, she turned, crouched a little, arm extended upward at an angle: as the Texan's hand seized her arm, her hand seized his, and she swung up behind him, landing neatly behind his saddle, her legs locked around the mustang's barrel and her arms equally firm about the cowboy's waist, her hat bouncing against her back, storm-strap tugging at the front of her throat.
Bless you, Jacob, she thought, for she and Jacob had practiced that very move, time and time and time again, until her arm felt as if it were ready to come out of its socket, but now, now as she hung onto this lean, tanned Texan, as she pressed her face into the back of his coat and smelled sweat and tobacco-smoke and stale horse, she blessed every moment she and her cousin practiced the flying pickup.
They came to a stop two blocks upstream from the wreck of the runaway carriage: they turned and trotted back, Sarah sliding off the paint pony's rump and clapping her broad brimmed hat back onto her head as the Texan dismounted and retrieved his lariat.
Sarah turned and hurried away, before the woman in the carriage could gather herself and stammer thanks: Sarah's instincts were to escape, to get some distance, to become invisible again.
The Texan turned, coiling his lariat; saw her disappear down an alleyway.
He was in the saddle in an instant: spurring the mustang, he galloped after the slender cowpoke in the dirty linen duster.

Sarah turned at the sound of approaching hooves: the Texan dismounted before the mustang was stopped.
Grinning, he strode around his horse, thrust out a callused, weather-browned hand.
Sarah took his hand and looked the man in the face.
The Texan's astonishment was plain to see: his jaw sagged and he started to say something, then closed his mouth and swallowed.
Sarah put her finger to her lips, then -- she wasn't quite sure why -- surged forward, grabbed his vest, kissed him quickly on his stubbled cheek.
"That's from the Ragdoll," she said quietly: "if you ever need work, look up the McKenna ranch in Firelands. Talk to Sam, the foreman." -- she whirled, ran down the alley, the open duster's tail floating behind as she ran.
The Texan stood there staring after her, feeling her lips on his cheek, surprise in his belly and heat in his face.
He raised a slow hand to where Sarah's lips had pressed a moment before.
"Well I'd be sawed off and damned," he murmured.
"Ragdoll!"

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Linn Keller 11-19-11

 

Sarah walked thoughtfully back into the hotel lobby, newspaper in hand: this morning's edition, she'd discreetly waited until she was sure the article was there before buying a copy from the grinning newsboy in knee pants and a soft cap: now, scanning the front page, she strolled distractedly through the lobby, intending to join her Mama for breakfast.
Bonnie looked up and smiled as her daughter came into the room, and several other eyes turned as well, for the sight of a beautiful young woman is like a drink of water to a thirsty man, and Sarah was truly beautiful that morning.
"There is tea," Bonnie said quietly, and Sarah handed her the paper.
"Mama," she asked as she seated herself, "did you see any excitement on the street yesterday when you were out?"
Bonnie blinked, looked at the paper, looked up at Sarah.
An obsequious waiter appeared as if spirited to their table by unseen hands: Sarah asked for fried eggs, bacon and rye toast, and Bonnie murmured "Just toast, thank you," and looked curiously at her daughter as the formally-attired waiter bowed and retreated.
Bonnie frowned at the headline: DISASTER AVERTED! the headline screamed, with a cascade of sub-headlines: RUNAWAY CARRIAGE THREATENS FAMILY, and TEXAS COW-BOYS TO THE RESCUE! and DARING RIDE OF DEATH!
"Oh, my," Bonnie murmured, blinking: she looked up at Sarah.
Sarah regarded her innocently.
"I haven't read it yet," she said, her big, luminous eyes a lovely, striking blue: "what happened, Mama?"
Bonnie frowned, annoyed: she slipped two fingers into the little pouch she carried, brought out her spectacles: perching the round lenses on the end of her nose, she tilted her head back a little and read the article, quickly, frowning a little.
"Oh, dear," she said, then again, "Oh, my!"
Sarah poured tea for herself, savoring the smell of freshly-brewed oolong.
Her eyes wandered across the lobby and she stiffened.
A Texas cowboy, hat in hand, was looking around: he stopped at the main desk, asked the pomaded young man behind the mahogany a question: despite the wrinkled disdain on the clerk's face, the Texan nodded, looking around, and strolled back to the restaurant portion.
Sarah felt her face reddening: she felt flushed, of a sudden, and debated whether to fan herself with something.
You idiot, she thought to herself, you have your fan! -- Sarah snapped it open, delicately fluttering the silk-and-bamboo device, moving a little air across her flaming face.
The Texan frowned, obviously searching: his eyes met Sarah's, and the Texan strode resolutely toward them.
"Mother," Sarah said quietly, her voice urgent, and Bonnie replied, "Just a moment," for it was obvious she was taken by the article.
The Texan stopped, midway between Sarah and her mother, turning his hat slowly in his hands.
"Ma'am," he said to Bonnie, then turned to Sarah: "Ma'am."
"Good morning," Sarah said civilly, placing her tea-cup precisely on its saucer, using both hands, as she did not want the tremor of her hands to betray her sudden attack of nerves.
Bonnie looked up, surprised: she looked across the table, eyebrows rising at her daughter's uncomfortable, red-faced expression.
She removed the pince-nez and folded the paper, placing it carefully on the table beside her right hand.
"Please forgive me," he said in a deep and reassuring voice: "Ah know we have not been properly introduced, but I am searching foah --"
His eyes fell on the newspaper, on the screaming headline.
"Ah see it made the papah."
Sarah swallowed.
"I undahstand all y'all ah from Fiahlands."
"You have the advantage of us, sir," Bonnie said pleasantly.
The Texan's ears flamed, or as much of the ear as could be seen under the back-swept, honey-colored hair: "Mah apologies, ma'am." He bowed a little. "Ross Ricketts, ma'am, of the Lazy B Bar ranch, Texas."
"I am Bonnie McKenna, and this is my daughter, Sarah."
The Texan inclined his head, took a breath.
"Ladies, Ah met a remahkable soul yestahday." He thrust his chin toward the folded paper. "Ah had a hand in yestahday's fracas."
Sarah sat frozen, feeling as if her face would catch fire at any moment. Her hands were in her lap, one hand gripping -- crushing -- the other, and she wished most sincerely the floor would somehow open and drop her to the safety of the cellar below.
"Ah wish to fahnd th' cowboy that bulldogged that-there carriage hoss yestahday."
"I see," Bonnie said, her posture erect. "And how can we ... help?"
"Ladies, foahgive me, forah Ah interrupt yoah breakfast," the Texan said as the waiter came through the door bearing a tray at shoulder height: "but Ah undahstand all y'all ah from Fiahlahnds."
Sarah pressed a kerchief to her lips, not trusting her voice.
"We have that honor, yes," Bonnie replied, tilting her head, curious.
"Ma'am, the ... Ah'm looking foah ..." the Texan hesitated, cleared his throat with an unexpected delicacy.
"Ma'am, I am lookin' foah the one they call Ragdoll."
Sarah's eyes were wide and sparkling and very, very blue, her expression almost panicked.
Bonnie gave her daughter a cool, appraising look, and the Texan followed her gaze.
"She would be --" the Texan regarded Sarah frankly -- "Ah would say a hand tallah than yoah self, ma'am." Sarah's return look was somewhere between uncomfortable, and fearful.
"And the ahhs ..." The Texan smiled sadly.
"She had laht blue aahs, an' she was pale. Verrah pale."
"I see," Bonnie said thoughtfully. "And Firelands?"
"Ma'am, it's said the Ragdoll is from Fiahlands. Ah thought all y'all maht know ...?"
Sarah's breath was coming quick now, shallow, and her chest felt tight.
"We've heard of ... Ragdoll ... but no, I ... we ... really cannot claim an acquaintance."
The Texan sagged, disappointed.
"Ah thank you, ladies," he said courteously: turning, he walked out of the restaurant, settling his hat on his head as he crossed the threshold.
Sarah fanned herself again, eyes darting from newspaper to doorway to her Mama's face.
"Saraaaah," Bonnie said quietly in a I'm-the-mommy-and-we-need-to-talk voice.
Sarah looked at her eggs, hot and steaming on the warmed plate just being set in front of her.
"Eat your breakfast," Bonnie said. "We'll talk when we get upstairs."

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Linn Keller 11-19-11

 

Sarah followed her Mama upstairs, to their room.
Most of their packing was done already.
Their tickets for the return train were purchased and laid out, neatly, with their other last-out traveling things; there remained only to assume their traveling-cloaks and take up a single valise each, and porters would bear the rest of their cartage: this Sarah knew, as they ascended the carpeted stairs: Bonnie, with the stately grace of a Lady born; Sarah, with the reluctant tread of a naughty schoolgirl who was about to face a stern Headmaster's address of her waywardness.
Bonnie turned the key in their lock.
The door opened easily; the floor was hushed; even the sounds of the city were muted: the two entered their luxurious sanctum, and Bonnie closed and secured the door behind them.
Sarah felt as if a prison's cell door has just boomed shut behind her.
Bonnie stood still for a moment, head bowed slightly: then she turned, and Sarah could see her Mama's hands, restless, one clasping the other.
Sarah's expression was open and vulnerable, and Bonnie knew that her next words could wound a young heart, and so she needed to tread carefully.
She chose to speak with more than words.
Bonnie paused before her daughter, marveling at how tall she'd gotten ... and over the past few months, at that! ... and realized, at the same time, that her daughter was truly becoming beautiful.
Bonnie gently, carefully took Sarah's face between her hands.
Sarah had been looking down, her own hands clasped; at the cool, reassuring touch of her Mama's spatulate fingers, she looked up, surprised.
"My dear," Bonnie whispered, her eyes bright and birmming, "you are the most precious thing in the world to me, and I could never forgive myself if you were hurt!"
Bonnie bit her bottom lip as she realized that her words -- spontaneous, unplanned -- came from her aching heart, and lacked any guile, subterfuge or manipulative intent.
"I know the newspaper writes articles so their paper will sell. They print the news that titillates, that tickles the imagination, they print the scandals and the shame, because it sells."
Sarah blinked, swallowed.
"I know the account I just read was sensationalized like a dime novel." She turned, gesturing to a pair of chairs.
"Please. Tell me what really happened."
Sarah took a step, another; she smoothed her skirt under her, sat.
She leaned forward, forearms on her knees -- less than a ladylike pose, but her Mama's words had so disarmed her, so thoroughly washed away any defenses she might have constructed, that Sarah could but lower her face into her hands.
Bonnie's hand rubbed her daughter's back, slowly, gently: a Mama's patience, a Mama's touch, are both soothing, therapeutic, and on a deep level, Bonnie knew Sarah needed both.
Sarah raised her face from her hands, clasped her fingers, rested her chin on them, then steepled her fore-fingers over her lips: she frowned, arranging her thoughts, and decided a clean breast of everything was in order.
"I went shopping, Mother," she began, and Bonnie immediately recognized the formal address: Sarah was standing on her own two feet with this address, not pleading a child's voice with the term "Mama" ... Bonnie recognized this as an attempt at maturity, an attempt at breasting the waves of new life as an adult, and she remembered her own hesitant efforts at this same thing from her own adolescence.
"I went shopping, and I bought boots and a duster, a hat ... I had a few things with me but I wished to ..." -- she smiled, gently, remembering -- "I wanted to disguise myself.
"I braided my hair and wrapped it about my neck, I wore a shirt and vest and britches, I wore my new boots and drew my hat-brim down and my duster-collar up, and I slipped out the side door."
Sarah paused.
"I had intent to visit a leather-worker Uncle Linn spoke of when I heard a runaway from my right."
Sarah closed her eyes, seeing the scene again, and shivered.
"The street was crowded and I knew a runaway would kill and injure the innocent and I saw the woman on the seat."
Sarah's eyes were distant, seeing through the far wall: Bonnie nodded, once, and Sarah continued.
"I saw her clutch the seat, for her reins were gone -- they were under the carriage -- I knew they had to be stopped.
"A Texan was riding hard after them and tried to lasso the nag."
She smiled humorlessly.
"He looped the mare but lost his line and I ran kitty-corner across the street."
Sarah looked directly at her mother, her voice flat with inarguable fact.
"I knew I could catch the horse, Mother.
"I knew I could get atop her."
"But, dear, a galloping horse, that's not possible --" Bonnie interrupted, her voice carefully gentle.
Sarah leaped to her feet, pale eyes blazing, jaw set, and Bonnie realized she'd just made a mistake.
Dear Lord, she thought, don't let me have slammed the door --
It was Sarah who slammed: she stomped across the room, seized a bolt of cloth, raised it overhead, slammed it to the floor: she seized its free end, yanked: the cloth thumped and thundered on the carpeted floor and Sarah held it up: "What do you see here?" she snapped.
Bonnie hesitated, surprised at this sudden change in her little girl.
"Cloth?" she hazarded, realizing she should be doing something to regain control of the conversation, something to reassert her authority --
Sarah threw the cloth down, seized her mother's arm with a surprising strength: she hauled Bonnie to her feet, dragged her to the oval, full-length mirror, thrust a finger at their reflection: "Look!"
She took Bonnie's sleeve in her fist.
"What do you see here?" -- she grabbed Bonnie's skirt -- "or here?"
Bonnie shook her head, trying to get her mental feet under her again.
Sarah surged back to the cloth, snatched it up.
"Look at this," she hissed. "This has length, it has breadth, but it's no thicker than two sheets of news print."
Sarah threw it down, grabbed her Mama's shoulders from behind, looked over her shoulder in the mirror.
"Look at your dress."
"I --" Bonnie blinked.
"Look at it!" Sarah snapped, almost in a whisper: "it has depth, length, drape, pleats, folds: it is tailored, shaped, fitted." She relased her mother's shoulders, stomped over to the bolt of cloth, heaved it onto the bed and carefully, her moves tightly controlled, returned it to its former folded-and-rolled condition.
"Now," she said, leaving the bolt on the bed, "if you handed Maude a scissors and pins and a needle and thread, and that bolt of cloth, and told her to make a dress, could she do it?"
Bonnie blinked, tilting her head.
"No!" Sarah snapped. "Maude can barely sew on a button, let alone sew a dress! Do you remember the apron you had me steal so you could fix it? Her left side was four inches lower than her right and every seam was crooked? Do you remember?"
Sarah nodded to the chairs, sat heavily in hers: Bonnie, to her credit, floated into her own seat, graceful as always.
"Mother, to Maude, making a dress from flat cloth is an impossible task.
"For you, catching a running horse -- swinging onto its back -- for you, impossible, but for me" -- her laugh was short, sharp -- "Jacob and I do that for sport! We'll set a horse a-gallop, catch it, swing aboard, or he'll come at me at a gallop and make a running pickup, I'll swing up behind him, just like that Texas cowboy and I did yesterday!"
Sarah's soul was fired with the intensity of her words: she came out of her seat and to her knees before her mother, grasping Bonnie's hands in her own.
"Mother, don't you see? Don't you see?" Her voice was an urgent whisper, her eyes bright, glittering.
"Mother, everything I am, everythng I've done, everything you've done for me and with me, all you've taught, came into that one moment!"
Sarah's eyes were shining with conviction, with the utter rightness of her belief.
"Mother, I saved lives yesterday!
"I saved that woman's life, and who knows who else that horse would have trampled, their carriage would have run over, and whatever collisions there would have been -- splintered wood, impaled bodies, crushed limbs! Mother, I prevented all that from happening!"
"You could have been hurt --" Bonnie began.
"But I wasn't," Sarah interrupted. "Mother, had I done nothing, people would have died. Had I shouted "Oh help me, help me, somebody stop that awful horse," people would have died. They live because I acted!"
Bonnie closed her eyes, bowed her head.
Sarah saw her shiver a little.
"Mama, please don't be angry with me," Sarah whispered. "We sold dresses this trip, we've orders to fill, we had breakfasts together and a Texas cowboy came and spoke to us" --
Sarah stopped, realizing that perhaps that wasn't the wisest thing to bring up.
"Texas cowboy," Bonnie repeated, reaching out and stroking Sarah's cheek.
"Now what's this about the Ragdoll he mentioned?"

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Linn Keller 11-20-11

 

Steel wheels on steel rails whispered loudly to one another, counterpointing their steely sibilance with the rhythmic, clattering counterpoint of passing over joints in the track.
The roadbed was well made, well laid on coarse gravel, but there was still some sway.
Fussy babies often slept soundly on a train; there is something about being rocked, and sung to, that brings the drowsies to about anyone, and Sarah and Bonnie were no different.
Sarah was first to slip under the surface, immersing herself weightlessly in the dark lake of slumber.
She stood behind the big windows of her eyes, looking out over the last couple of days: her hair was carefully styled, her dress from two days before, immaculate: she stood erect, hands folded demurely before her, looking out through her own eyes, hidden, watching.
Behind her, a dry, cynical chuckle, and she knew her black-clad self slouched against a dark rock outcrop, chewing on a match stick.
"Nicely played, honey," she heard her own voice say, and she turned away from the windows of her eyes: she glided across the wind-smoothed sand, her ladylike pumps silent as she walked: her darker self regarded her with a cool disdain.
"You blew smoke up her skirt, sweetheart. I nearly fell for it myself."
Sarah tilted her head a little, her expression pleasant, her posture relaxed.
"Next time you want to get away with something, honey, she'll fall for it again, hook, line and sinker."
Sarah's backhand was like a rattler's strike: fast, deadly and precise: she belted her mirror image hard, her blue eyes gone cold and pale.
"She's my mother," she hissed, "and you will not speak of her in that manner!"
Anger surged in her belly like fire from The Lady Esther's firebox, and Sarah woke, jumping a little, gripping the arms of her upholstered, embroidered chair: her eyes were wide, afraid, and it took her a moment to realize she was awake, and in the rail car, and she was indeed not about to address her dark-mirror self in a less than Christian manner.
Sarah blinked and suppressed a shiver, then looked around, moving nothing but her eyes.
Her mother's eyes were closed; she, too, drowsed in a chair, glasses in hand, book on her lap.
Sarah looked at her mother for a long moment before rising.
Carefully, delicately, she crept across the car to the cool-sweating pitcher: she poured herself a glass, taking pains not to clink blown-glass pitcher against blown-glass tumbler: she dipped her knees ever so slightly, replacing the pitcher, before drinking deeply, gratefully, of the good cool spring water.
She'd just swallowed the last of it when she felt eyes upon her.
"Sarah," Bonnie said quietly, "be a dear and pour me a glass, too, please?"
Sarah smiled to herself, placed her tumbler on the sideboard and reached for a clean glass.

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Linn Keller 11-21-11

 

I opened Law and Order Harry Macfarland's letter.
This time, instead of dipping a sawed off railroad spike in diluted dirt water for ink, he tried writing whatever it was in pencil.
I think he used a starving beaver to sharpen his pencil and dunked the splintered stub in coal oil before putting it to paper.
I looked at the smeary sheet with my left eye and cocked my head to one side, then I opened my right eye and screwed my left one shut and tilted my head the other way.
Didn't help a bit either way.
I set there in my office, considering.
Was I to return his note with any kind of a comment a'tall I might hurt the man's feelin's, for the only thing I could think of to write was something to the effect of having a half blind drunkard do his writing for him, it would be more easily read: no, thought I, I'll not do that.
I had business over that-a-way anyhow, so I stood up and taken up my Stetson, settled it on my head and allowed as I just might take me a ride over to ol' Harry's bailiwick.
Besides, I needed to get that copper mare better acquainted with me.
I took the time to trot my long tall carcass upstairs and kiss Esther before I left: I waited until she come up for air, for she was bent over her book work, frowning the way she did when she was adding a column of numbers, and I did not want to interrupt her cipherin'.
I know what it is to be in the middle of a stack of numbers, and have some inconsiderate soul interrupt me, and just bust that whole stack to flinders, and have to start over from the scratch.
Daisy's girl was kind enough to wrap me up four sandwiches, which I worked into my left hand saddle bag, and the third sandwich went into the right hand saddle bag.
The fourth one went in me.
Now you might wonder how well that copper mare did with me eatin' with one hand and reins in the other, and that's part of why I wanted to take me a good long ride.
I wished to get her used to being rode without me usin' the reins.
Back in the Middle Ages, when cavalry wore tin suits and beat on one another with sharp and pointy things, it was not possible to handle a weapon with one hand and a shield in the other, and still work a set of reins.
No, those war horses were knee trained.
So had been my Rey del Sol and my Rose o' the Mornin', so had the Sun-Witch and so was my black horse, though it took me quite a while to get him used to knee pressure.
Now this copper mare had a light mouth, a tender mouth, and she responded well if I laid the reins against her neck: I combined that with a firm knee, then a lighter rein and a firm knee, and I got her to responding to knee pressure alone about half the time.
I had to bribe her with a chunk of my sandwich but she seemed to be learning a little better today.
I honestly never thought a horse would care anything for a sandwich, but that copper mare showed a definite curiosity toward anything I ate, so when she begged me a bite I give it to her and she seemed to like it.
I reminded myself never to leave the dining room door open, nor the window, least not where she could see inside.
It took me a couple hours' steady ride to get over to Carbon, and that's when the trouble started, and I cussed myself for seven kinds of a fool for not sending good old Law and Order Harry Macfarland a note that said he'd ought to hire a half blind drunkard to do his writin' for him.
That ain't the only mistake I ever made but it was damn neart my last.

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Linn Keller 11-22-11

 

There had been strangers at the estancia.
These strangers made a bad name for themselves, very quickly.
El Patron's open hand was known to all in the territory: he dispensed water from his cooling olla as freely as gold from his purse, and those who knew his hospitality, took pains to not abuse his generous nature.
The strangers, now ... these strangers asked questions, and these strangers stared long at the golden horses that were the rancho's trademark, and these strangers were seen to skulk about the far pastures, and finally these strangers were seen trying to round up a half dozen mares, two of them with foal.
The caballeros gave quick chase, and the strangers fled; El Jefe was with them, and called them back, and allowed the strangers to escape.
Neither Santos nor Eduardo were especially pleased at watching the would-be thieves disappear, but their loyalty to el Patron was greater than the fire in their bellies: there were more riders about the far pastures, day and night, watching the Patron's prized herd.
Nothing more was seen in the border country of the two who would steal of the finest bloodline known on the North American continent.

There are those misguided souls who would rather put in two days' work for ill gain, than to put in one day's honest work for more pay: such were the pair who fled the Border country: they cared not for horses, save only as commodity: the horses they rode, were stolen; not long after, they stole two others, leaving one horse dead, its heart burst from over-exertion, the other wind-broke and ruined.
They headed north, through New Mexico, riding far and riding fast, trying desperately to keep ahead of reports of their most recent horse theft.
Horse thieves were hanged in the West as a matter of routine, and the pair knew if they were caught, their life span would be measured in minutes and would end with a hemp noose tossed over a convenient branch.
Sheer chance brought them into the Colorado territory, and into Cripple Creek, where they sold their stolen horses, signed false names to the bill of sale, sold their saddles and bought other saddles, and gambled their way through Number Two and Number Six saloons, losing big in one and winning bigger in the other.
Men at their cards talk, and men at cards and drink talk more: there was talk of that pale eyed Sheriff over in Firelands, and how he'd had a series of them gold Mexican horses, and how he could split the wind a-ridin' them Border horses -- why, he could ride faster'n God Himself could run, an' I seen it happen! -- and the pair took careful note of the conversation.
Drinks, and a few more drinks, a few more hands of cards, and the pair folded up and cashed in: they took a fairly clean room that didn't cost too much, had a meal and a bottle between them, and allowed as next morning they would head over towards Firelands and see the fine Mexican horses that were so locally admired.

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Linn Keller 11-23-11

 

The Silver Jewel's bar area and its main room were a manly refuge, a place where men could freely drink, swear and spit at (and hopefully in) the several brass goboons set strategically about.
The piano was frequently played, generally with enthusiasm if not with great skill; this suited the atmosphere, the temperament, the general mood, and counterpointed the rattle of pasteboards, the clinking chuckle of poker chips or the bright clank of coins.
Elsewhere, as a matter of fact not far out of town, another piano and another piano player: the atmosphere was hushed, for the twins were down for a nap, Bonnie was at her dress-works, the maid was tending a cleaning detail and Sarah stood in the doorway, glaring at her piano.
She remembered the day her Papa had it delivered: he'd hugged her and told her this was her piano, that he expected her to apply herself to the instrument: that it cost more than she did, and he wished her to entertain guests with her skill.
Sarah remembered the flare of resentment, the first hot surge of resentment that seared her young soul: she was, after all, but a young girl, and he was making this demand of her?
Still -- Sarah was a good girl -- she was obedient to the wishes of her Papa -- and she learned first that she had a natural talent to the keyboard, and as her skill improved, she found the piano gave her a voice she otherwise lacked.
Sarah stood in the doorway and remembered these things.
Sarah glided toward the piano; she swept her skirt under her, floated her backside onto the padded piano bench, carefully folded back the hinged cover, exposing glossy black and gleaming white ivory.
Her hands flowed up and over the keys, and Sarah closed her eyes, feeling the music in her: she was not entirely aware of the working of her fingers, only that she was able to sing in several octaves: she played softly, gently, with great control and with great precision.
Uncle Charlie had taught her to respect her tools.
He'd set with her while they took turns tearing down and reassembling a rifle or a revolver after a day's shooting, scrupulously cleaning and inspecting and judiciously oiling or greasing and then reassembling: she'd helped him grease a bow-saw, a crosscut saw, sharpen knives and axes, and in all this she learned that the craftsman takes care of one's tools.
Sarah took care of this piano.
She opened the keys-cover carefully, she played the keys gently, she dusted and waxed it attentively.
Sarah was learning what it was to surge with unexpected emotion, to suddenly feel ... to suddenly feel very different than she had, before, as a girl: words not infrequently failed her, vocabulary abandoned her thoughts as she clawed desperately after them, and her only recourse, her only refuge, her only true expression, was her piano.
Sarah swayed a little, a very little, as she played, a proper young lady in a proper gown, with her hair elaborately swept up and ribboned and pinned in place, a young lady whose serene face spoke of a moment she'd longed for these last few days.
Sarah, at her beloved piano, was finally feeling at peace with herself.

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Linn Keller 11-23-11

 

Liebchen --
The Baron rotated his hand a little, drawing the pen well away from the paper while he thought.
Was it proper, he wondered, to address Miss Rosenthal in such a personal, such an affectionate manner?
He stared at the single word, gleaming and wet, graceful curves and arcs, ornately scribed as was his habit: he thought a little more, sighed, and decided that the salutation was appropriate.
He'd seen no sign of the warrior in the little stofpuppe, in the delightful girl called Ragdoll: he'd seen a charming, polite, knowledgeable young lady, dressed for the hunt: even in his native Bavaria, if a young woman wished to pursue the hunt, she dressed appropriately, and who was to say that in this new land it was not perfectly appropriate for a lady -- a Lady -- to attire as was she?
Liebchen.
The Baron smiled.
He felt a grandfatherly affection for the young Miss Rosenthal, as well as the respect of a fellow hunter.
Dear little one.
A term one used for a favorite child, a term of affection: no, he decided, it was not inappropriate.
The Baron considered a moment longer, dipped the leaf-shaped nib in good India ink, wiped the excess on the inside of the ink-bottle's neck, and continued.
It would be my honor if you would accept the enclosed, he wrote: his pen moved steadily, deliberately, unhurriedly: his hand was clear, legible, as was his habit; he thought a moment longer, then:
Should you decide to pursue wild boar, this should serve you as well as it served me.
His signature was considerably more ornate than his script.
The Baron blotted his note, moving the rocker over the paper once and once only, then placed it in an envelope affixed to the outside of the crate.
He closed the crate, screwed it shut: it was well made, it held the boar-spear between padded cradles; the Baron's family crest was engraved on the gleaming blade, and on the other side of the blade, the figure of a woman astride a horse, lance under her arm, and under the figure, the letters SR.

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Linn Keller 11-24-11

 

The Welsh Irishman frowned as he worked.
Sean knew this meant his work was going well, and the man was content, just as the New York Irishman was happy at labor if he were muttering, or the German Irishman were smiling a little, with a faraway look to him: Sean knew his lads and their habits, and he knew the Welsh Irishman was taking due care and caution in laying hose on the hose-bed.
Should they have a response, should they have to swing the doors open and charge onto the street, thundering up the boulevard all bell and steam-whistle, whip-crack and smoke from the stack, should they have to punch the Devil in the gut, Sean knew that they need only seize the shining brass nozzle and run, and the hose would peel neatly out of the hose-bed after them.
The German Irishman sat with one leg extended, elder-stemmed clay pipe between his teeth, a curl of smoke making its slow way to the light haze that settled just over head high in their fine brick firehouse: he dipped a corner of his cloth in an open can of something and resumed slowly, carefully, burnishing the brass nozzle, working with cloth and polish and then beeswax, until it shone like a conical mirror, without flaw, spot, fingerprint or scuff.
Sean nodded a little, his eyes wandering over the Ahrens steam machine.
Sean knew if he squatted by any of the wheels, he could inspect the spokes minutely, even in the tight corners where spokes met hub, and he would find neither grease, nor dirt, mud nor dust: the Irish Brigade took care of its equipment, and well remembered the competition between firehouses, back East: each would regard the other's steam buggy with a critical, perhaps a hypercritical eye: the smallest flaw was pointed out with hoots of derision, words of contempt.
More often than not, this resulted in a good old fashioned knock-down drag-out street brawl.
As a matter of fact, some of the worst New York street brawls had been between rival fire companies.
Sean's eyes smiled a little as he packed his own clay pipe with good riff-cut tobacco.
He was grateful there were no such rivalries here.

The Baron stood at the hotel window, looking out over the Denver street, swirling golden blood of the grape absently in the delicate, long-stemmed wineglass: good German wine was so hard to get here, half a world away: the Baron preferred the sweet wines of his native land, but this California wine surprised him, and he bought a case, and two bottles besides: in his stay here, he'd consumed less than half of one bottle, the case was shipped to his Bavarian schloss in care of his schlossmeister, and the Baron looked out the hotel window, remembering.
He'd read eagerly the American dime novels, absorbing adventures of heroes of truly Teutonic proportions: in his mind's eye he could see the saloon-brawls, gunfights in the street, desperate rides against overwhelming odds, stage-coaches trying to outrun hordes of screaming Indians or running over highwaymen wearing flour-sack hoods.
He'd been honestly disappointed when he came West.
He found a raw, young land, yes -- a land of contradiction, where on the one hand, education and immaculate good manners were prized, and so far as possible, practiced -- and yet the towns were raw, unpainted, crudely built; then there were others, where workmanship was nothing less than top grade, where culture seemed to be seeding and taking root, and where -- here the Baron was almost saddened -- in places like Denver and San Francisco, he saw true cities beginning to develop.
The Baron took a small sip of wine, savoring the distilled sunshine as its bouquet tickled the back of his nose, painting an olfactory portrait of sunny fields and laughing maids gathering great pods of fist-sized grapes: he chuckled, for in his imagination, the maids were Italian, and barefoot, and the man sighed, for he doubted seriously whether there were proper Italian vineyards in California.
There could be, he knew, but more than likely the maids were neither Italian, nor were they barefoot peasants.
The Baron closed his eyes, for the day was an anniversary, one he'd tried not to think about, yet one he could not help but remember.
His dear wife, his blue-eyed Brunhilde, had caressed his cheek one last time and whispered, "See the world, Manfred. See the world for me!" -- he'd taken her hand, and kissed her palm as he always did and he choked "For you, my dear, the world!" --
The Baron swallowed hard, blinking at the sting in his eyes.
He knew the day was coming.
He knew he could not stay, for he'd built the schloss for his bride: all he'd done, he'd done for the love of this woman, and were he to stay, every room, every garden, every window's view would remind him of what used to be.
The Baron prepared, as best he could: he'd liquefied assets, he'd arranged to pass ownership of the schloss and the Baronial lands to his heirs and assigns, and the morning after his dear Brunhilde's interrment, he turned his back on his beloved Bavaria and set out to see the world.
The Baron opened his eyes, remembering.
He remembered thirsting in the Egyptian desert, and marveling at a native cobra, and its slow, sweeping strike: he remembered the African boomslang, and how it struck and withdrew almost faster than the eye could realize: he remembered Lake Victoria and tropical heat, he remembered Kiliminjaro and its icy heights, he remembered the fall that nearly jerked his roped-together mountaineering party down into a bottomless crevasse, and how they'd dug in their ice-axes and stopped their skidding descent, and how they'd rolled over on their backs and laughed, the good, booming laughter of men who'd come close to death and somehow escaped.
The Baron remembered the sea-voyage, and the North Atlantic storm, how he stood at the ship's bow, hunched over and gripping the rail, teeth bared, snarling at the tempest to take me, damn you, let the Walkyren carry me to my Brunhilde! -- but the storm did not oblige, and instead subsided, and the Baron, soaking wet and chilled to the bone, spent the rest of the voyage, chilled and fevered, in his cabin.
The Baron drained his glass, turned, placed it precisely beside the half-empty wine-bottle.
He turned back to the street, eyes busy.
The day before he'd seen a runaway carriage -- he'd heard it before he saw it, for he'd opened his window and thrust his head and shoulders out -- he saw what must have been an American cowboy riding hard after it, overtaking it, and the Baron marveled at the ease with which this horseman spun and sailed a lasso over the runaway's head.
He'd heard an oath, a sound of distress, its nature unmistakable in any language -- the end of the cowboy's lasso escaped his grip -- he snatched futilely at it --
The Baron saw something -- no, someone -- another cowboy, lithe and slender in a white-linen duster and broad, black hat, run, run faster than any he'd seen in his life -- he saw this son of the prairie streak diagonally across the street and somehow, somehow!-- the Baron savored the memory -- the running cowboy had seized the runaway's mane or bridle or something, and swung aboard! -- they were directly under the Baron's window -- he leaned out to his waist, one leg extended behind to balance -- there were shouts, screams, the confusion of the moment overriding anything the cowboy might have been shouting -- the Baron watched as the cowboy seized the horse's head and rolled over its neck, on the off side, twisting the horse's nose to the zenith and bringing it slowly over, over, until the horse was over-balanced and fell, screaming, thrashing its legs in the cloud of dust of its collapse --
The Baron's fingernails dug into the painted sill and his breath came quick: he marveled at this sight: he'd read of the American cowboy, making a game of bull-dogging a steer, of riding alongside a running beef and jumping off, seizing it and twisting it to the ground -- as a matter of fact he'd seen it done, once, in a rodeo in St. Louis -- but a horse?
The Baron's shout had come unbidden: he hailed the brave hero, now rolling in the dust, a salute he'd not given in many long years, not since he himself had been a young officer of cavalry, hailing a fellow cavalryman after a successful engagement -- but his voice was lost in the general confusion.
He was mesmerized by the sight.
The cowboy who'd tried to rope the runaway was coming back, now, riding low on his horse, the paint pony streaking down the street at a speed impossible for living flesh: the brave cowboy who'd bulldogged the runaway made a flashing draw as the runaway fought to its feet, screaming, fighting, obviously intending to make its feet and continue its blind, heedless, trampling flight --
There was the sharp crack of a pistol, and the runaway went down, boneless, dead before it began to fall.
The cowboy reholstered just as quickly as he'd drawn, and the two must have been old acquaintances, the Baron thought -- they must have practiced this a thousand times -- the rider reached down and the other reached up, and the cowboy in the broad black hat swung neatly, effortlessly, up behind the rider, and they streaked on up the street.
The Baron withdrew from the window, drew the sash down, shutting out the sounds from without, and slowly, thoughtfully, lowered himself onto a velvet cushioned chair, smiling a little.
Perhaps, he thought, perhaps there is something to the Wild West, after all.

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Linn Keller 11-24-11

 

The Sheriff rode up the main street of Carbon Hill as if he owned the place.
It was hard to miss the man.
The mare he rode was tall, taller than most, but well-built, well-proportioned: she shone like a new penny, bright in the sun, dancing rather than walking: her pace was smooth and effortless, a dancer performing before her public, easy and confident in all she did.
The man astride her, too, was remarkable: his iron-grey mustache was a shade lighter than it had been a few years ago; it was trimmed with the precision of a military man, and his suit was tailored and immaculate and only a little dusty, mostly on the back : he rode with the ease of a horseman born, of a man completely at home astride a good mount.
The two of them together left no doubt at all in the observer's eye that here was a man who loved to ride, and a horse who loved to be ridden.
The impression lasted until the Sheriff drew up in front of the Marshal's office, and Law and Order Harry Macfarland spat companionably and squinted at the copper mare.
"A bit shiny, don't ye think?" he opined, fishing in a vest pocket for his tobacco-pouch: the Sheriff dismounted, stepping forward to dally the reins about the hitching-post.
The Sheriff was the image of self control, of confidence, of a man at ease with himself, a man of great dignity.
Ease, confidence and dignity fled as he turned and shook a fist at his horse.
His mare withdrew her questing nose with an expression of wounded pride.
The Sheriff turned back toward his fellow lawman.
The mare peeled back her lips and thrust her head toward the Sheriff's backside.
The Sheriff turned, cocking a fist, and the mare managed to look at least a little bit innocent.
"Well?" the Sheriff shouted. "You gonna bite me or not?"
The mare shook her head and blew.
The Sheriff put his knuckles on his hips and glared.
The mare swiveled her ears, swung her tail and looked remarkably inoffensive.
The Sheriff turned, turned quickly back.
The mare had not moved from her previous position.
The Sheriff sighed, shook his head: reaching into a coat pocket, he withdrew a plug of molasses cured tobacco and whittled a few fat shavings off it.
"You bum," he said quietly, flat-handing it out to her, and she lipped it delicately from the man's palm.
The Sheriff folded his shaving-sharp knife, dropped it back into his pocket and turned to step up onto the boardwalk.
He took a quick hop as a velvety nose nudged the back of his thigh and he heard the thick sound of equine teeth snapping at him.
The Sheriff reached back, searching for a hole in the material of his trousers.
There was none.
He shook his fist at the mare.
"You bum," he said in a menacing tone, "I oughta thump you."
The mare ran her tongue out an incredible distance, shook her head and gave what was unmistakably a laugh.

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Linn Keller 11-25-11

 

It would be inaccurate to say old Harry had a dog.
It would be closer to fact to say that a dog had given Harry grudging permission to feed it, water it, give it a warm place to sleep and warn people away from it.
Right now the dog was doing its level best to chew through my ankle bone and all I could do was stand there and laugh like a fool.
That dog was the size of my fist.
Cannonball's ears swung forward and she had the darndest look on her face, for this diminutive knot of bristle and bite was snarling at the top of its voice, allowing as it was going to rip my foot off up to the hip, and its tail was whipping back and forth fit to break off its hind quarters at the back bone.
I reached down and scooped it up and held it two-hand at eye level.
That little dog's lips peeled back and it struggled, pedaling madly in empty air, trying to scramble close enough to bite my nose off, before it worked a little slack and got close enough to try and lick my beak down flat.
I rubbed the critter's ears with one hand and held my hand under its bristly bottom with the other and it give me a fast, businesslike face washing, snarling fit to scare off a pack of wolves.
"You want to watch Angel there," Harry drawled.
By this time I am laughing and leaning against the porch post and Cannonball pulls enough slack in her reins to lift her nose up and sniff at this little black-brown-and-white bristle ball.
Angel turned, all teeth and ferocity, and went YAP YAP YAP YAP YAP lick lick lick lick and if I'd not held her away from me a little I'm willin' to swear that stiff little tail would have beat me black and blue.
Cannonball danced a little and I'm satisfied if I'd turned her and the dog loose they would have played like two little kids right there in the middle of the street.
I worked my way around to my saddle bag and reached in, worked a piece of meat loose from that second sandwich and said "You want some meat, Angel?" and Angel-dog bared her fangs and snarled deep in her tiny little chest, showing more fang than two grizzly bears in a grinnin' contest, and I cautiously brought that dangle of back strap toward her.
She turned her head sideways and seized the meat, that little tail whippin' around in a circle and I figured I'd best not feed her anything more for if that tail kept makin' circles like that, why, she's likely to stir up a cyclone.
I set her back down on the board walk and she set there, bristled up and glaring, and Harry jerked his head toward the door.
We went into the town Marshal's office.
I felt something hit my boot heel and then the back of my ankle and I knew Angel was still trying to bite my leg off.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-25-11

 

"Damn! Look at them horses!" The two men, recently arrived from their sojourn south of the border after having left said country in a considerable hurry, sat their horses atop a long, grass-covered ridge. The vista spread below them was of a long, shallow basin that rippled in the morning breeze, frost-browned, cured-on-the-stem prairie hay moving in shallow waves. A string of spotted mares, trailed by their young of the year gamboling through the grass, were limned golden in the high-country sunlight.

"Them ain't the ones we come for," the taller of the two reminded his companion. "We come for them Mex ponies."

"I know, I know, but, well, damn!" The rider turned to his saddle partner. "We ain't exactly rollin' in dough, ya know? What say we gather up a few of them Apps and run 'em into that there town we come through back yonder, an' rustle up some bucks? Can't hurt, can it?"

"Weell, I reckon not," came the drawled reply. "But we ain't takin' 'em all, just three or four. Enough for a good road stake. Once we get them Mex animals, we might better stay away from a town for a while." He booted his horse into motion down the side of the ridge.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-26-11

 

"We're three mares short." Charlie's stark words rang in the golden lamplight. Warm evening cooking smells drifted through the room, then seemed to still and cool from the affect of the words. Fannie stared at him.

"Wolves?"

"Doubt it. Haven't seen any sign of one in months. And three at once, with their colts? No."

"Where?"

"North, I think. They've been comin' from there lately."

"How much food?"

"Three days. Shouldn't take longer than that."

"You be careful."

"Careful's my middle name, Darlin'." He gave her a lopsided smile and a kiss. "I'll go saddle my horse. I wanna be out yonder come first light."

Charlie sat with his back against a clay bank on the lee side of a shallow wash, blankets wrapped around his shoulders, waiting for dawn. He dozed occasionally while the roan cropped the rich prairie hay. At first light he found the tracks where two shod horses had gathered the mares and cut three of them out and away from the herd. The trail led north toward Cripple, and Charlie took it at a lope.

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Linn Keller 11-26-11

 

Sarah left the open, empty crate propped up against the wall beside the door.
She looked in the mirror, and the excited eyes of a young woman shone back at her: her cheeks were flushed, she was settling the gunbelt about her middle and she hesitated, looking in the reflective oval.
It had taken her less than three minutes to divest herself of the attire of a young lady; it took little more than that to invest herself for a ride -- the maid looked on from the doorway, a distressed expression about her, for she had so enjoyed the piano concerto -- and Sarah turned, snatching up her new black hat in one hand, and the boar-spear with the other.
Sarah clapped the hat on her head and looked again at the unexpected gift, running her fingers over the engraving: fingertips paused at the cross guard, that steel bar that prevented an impaled quarry from traveling too far beyond the blade: good German steel shone in the light from her window, and she smiled, excited.
She had to show it off.
She just had to!
"Uncle Charlie will love this," she whispered, and powered toward the doorway.
The maid swung aside, looking anxiously after the departing Sarah: "But what shall I tell your mother?" she called.
"Tell her I'm going to Uncle Charlie's!" came the cheerful reply, then SLAM! as the front door closed behind her.
The maid shook her head sadly and sighed.

I held Angel by the scruff of her neck.
She twisted in my grip, raging in her little voice, needle teeth inviting me to come closer so she could rip the ribs out of my chest and grind them for stew or something.
All the while that little windmill of a tail was spinning merrily like it was twisting in a tempest.
"Harry," I sighed, "I hate to part with such delightful company, but if that sawed off scoundrel headed for Cripple yesterday I'd best ketch up with him."
"Yep," Harry drawled, cupping Angel in both hands and sliding her in his coat pocket, where she snarled and fought dragons or something in the depths of the flannel pouch.
"Thank'ee," I said. "I was fearful to let her go."
"She's a fierce'un," Harry agreed. "I'll have to feed her a side of beef before supper, I reckon."
I nodded.
Not three minutes later Cannonball and I were pacing out of town and I was debating whether to uncork the copper mare and give her free run.
I'd never run her long here in the high country and didn't want to wind break her but I had a chance to catch me a murderer, one I'd wanted for some years now, that arrest warrant was warm in my pocket like a cowhand's pay after a long drive and I wanted nothing more than to lay un-gentle hands on the fellow who'd killed a friend of mine.
As for Cannonball, she was of a notion to run.
I held her back a little but not much, thinking hard.
I could make Firelands in a couple of hours and if I changed to my black Outlaw-horse, he'd be fresh and I could hot foot it over to Cripple ... or better yet take the steam train ... then I'd get there with a fresh horse and in a shade better time than horseback.
I slacked Cannonball's reins.
"All right, girl," I murmured and gave her my knees; "let's see what you can give me! YAAH!!"
Cannonball thrust her neck straight out and laid her ears back and made it very plain that she loved one thing more than anything else in the world, and she was equally plain that she was doing that right now.
Once she hit her stride I don't reckon there was a horse in the territory that could keep up.
It didn't take much imagination to figure where the legend of winged horses came from.
I squinted a little as the wind started to strip tears out of the corners of my eyes and my teeth begun to get cold I was a-grinnin' so broad.
I leaned down over her neck and pressed my palms flat against her and encouraged her as she thrust hard against the earth and threw it back under her with each surge:
"Run -- run -- run -- run!"

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