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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 11-27-11


Angela's delighted hail floated, high and thin, on the cooling Colorado air.
Esther smiled, looking over her daughter's pointing arm.
In the distance, glowing in the setting sun, they saw the Sheriff on his shining, copper mare, painted with the long red rays of the evening sunlight: they were pounding directly toward them, riding hard, riding fast, pulling a light haze of dust behind them.
Angela bounced on her toes, clapping her little hands with delight and laughing, her curls bouncing with her: Esther smiled, fingertips light on her daughter's velvet-covered shoulders, and she took a long moment to paint the memory she wished to carry.
Few things are fine as a running horse, and her husband was a handsome man, and even at this good distance, it was a portrait she wished to keep.
Esther fox hunted with her brothers, when she was a girl back in the Carolinas: her father disapproved, for she was supposed to be a Lady, but Esther laughed and kissed her Papa, and ran back to her horse and swarmed aboard as easily as a boy: she spun her Papa's spirited mare, laughing, and spurred after her brothers, and she remembered the delightful, weightless, falling-through-space feeling as she soared over logs and rocks, as the blooded mare flowed over fields and sprouted wings to sail over fences, and she and Angela both drew in their breath as the Sheriff, as husband and daddy, as horseman and horse -- no, as one magical creature! -- launched from common earth and with forehooves tucked and hind legs trailing, easily cleared the high, far fence, and surged across the long meadow toward them.
"Oh, Mommy, I wanta wide," Angela piped, still bouncing, and Esther's hands squeezed her daughter's shoulders, completely understanding: she, too, wished to ride the wind, and if one has not the wings of a falcon, the back of a good horse is a close second.
A very close second.
Jacob rested his hands on his mother's shoulders and she heard him sigh out a breath in admiration.
"Magnificent," he whispered, and Esther removed a hand from her daughter's shoulder and reached up to lay it over her son's.
Jacob turned, looking off to his right, tightening his right hand a little on Esther's shoulder.
Esther felt his shift, the squeeze: she, too, looked to the right, and smiled, for a mother likes to have her family all around the supper table.
Sarah was galloping across the field toward them.

The Sheriff curled his lip and whistled, a long, high, sweet note, and Jacob knew he was whistling up his black Outlaw-horse.
Jacob's belly tightened and he took a long breath, feeling excitement surge in his lean body: if his father was moving this fast, this close to sundown, there was something in the air, and his taut young body responded, vibrating like a hound on a hot scent.
The Sheriff saw his family, ahead, waiting: his Outlaw-horse was not to be seen.
He's here somewhere, the pale-eyed lawman thought, sitting up and signaling Cannonball to slow.
The copper mare had run long and run hard and was starting to lather a little: she was more than happy to draw up, coasting down gradually: by the time the Sheriff turned her and trotted her in a big, slow circle at the barn, she was quite ready to take a blow.
Jacob walked up and took the mare by the cheek strap: she cheerfully snapped at him and he fearlessly stroked her wet, velvety nose: "Now, darlin', you don't want to do that," and the copper mare nudged his chest, nostrils flared, for she was still breathing deep, breathing easy.
She pulled and danced a little as the Sheriff dismounted.
"Let 'er go, Jacob," the Sheriff grinned, "she won't be happy unless you do" -- and he twisted back a little as Cannonball swung her head around to nip at the greying old lawman's hinder.
"Sir, she'll take a chunk out if she ever gets you," Jacob warned.
The Sheriff stroked her nose and pulled out his diminishing plug of tobacco.
"She did already," he admitted quietly, "and it felt like it!"
"Daddeee!" Angela yelled, running toward them, arms outstretched.
Cannonball shied back a few steps, her eyes walling: Angela stopped, her eyes big, her little red lips making an O as she said "Oooo, pretty!" and reached up to pet the shiny horsie.
Jacob snatched her up as the Sheriff hooked his forearm under Cannonball's jaw, pulling hard: neither man wanted to risk a horse this size biting down on a child that size.
Cannonball drew back with a wounded expression.
The Sheriff picked up his dropped knife and shaved off some molasses-cured tobacco.
Wounded pride was forgotten at the prospect of the sweet treat: the Sheriff extended his flat hand and Cannonball delicately lipped the tobacco from the man's hand.
They looked up at the sound of approaching hooves: Esther, too, turned, just as Sarah and her late Papa's racer described a flawless ballistic arc over the chest-high fence.
Sarah drew up, turning the racer: the butt of the boar-spear was in the stirrup beside her right boot, the upright shaft gripped firmly in her right hand, the mirror-bright blade flashing red in the sun: Sarah's hat was back, hanging from its storm-strap: she had been in too much of a hurry to braid her hair, she'd only torn out the ribbons and yanked out the pins and shaken it loose.
Her late Papa's chestnut glowed in the setting sun's rays, the very picture of health and strength.
Sarah's complexion shone as if lighted from within: her unfettered hair floated, shining in the cooling air, framing her head like a halo.
Had the Baron seen her in that moment he would have known the wolf-mounted warrior-maidens, the legendary Waulkyren, had nothing at all on Miss Sarah Rosenthal.
"You must stay for supper," Esther told Sarah, and when the Sheriff protested that he must be off, he needed to change horses, for a wanted man was bound for Cripple, or maybe there already --
Esther wisely pointed out the sun, disappearing behind the blue mountains; the copper mare, in need of a grooming, a graining, a night's rest: she patted her husband's chest, looking up into his darkening eyes.
"You could use some supper," she whispered. "You're too thin. You need a good square meal!"
The Sheriff threw his head back and laughed, his hands around his wife's slender waist, and Sarah delighted to see it: she saw, between her Uncle Linn and her Aunt Esther, an affection, a genuine warmth, that she never quite saw when her Papa was alive.
Sarah looked up as the black Outlaw-horse came hobbling around the barn, favoring a foreleg.
"Uh-oh," she muttered, and both Jacob and the Sheriff looked at her, then at the black horse.
Angela's expression went from happily expectant to surprisingly guilty: she ran her bottom lip out and dropped her head, which nobody noticed.
The Sheriff took a long breath.
Esther saw the disappointment in the man's eyes.
The Sheriff looked down at his wife, brushed a stray wisp of hair from her forehead.
"My dear," he said quietly, but very distinctly, "I have profited a number of times by listening to the wise counsel of my beautiful bride."
He lowered his head, nuzzled her nose with his, kissed her delicately: his arms were strong, warm around her, and she molded herself into him, her own arms going around the solid, lean rib cage of the man she loved more than any.
Sarah, silent, watched: Jacob looked at her, and she looked at Jacob, and they each nodded, once, and then they both grinned, two cousins sharing a guilty secret: affections were not commonly displayed in this Victorian era, portraits were unsmiling, for a smile was too often seen as a weakness: this they knew, but they also shared an unspoken thought:
This is how it should be!

Supper was relaxed, with good talk and good food, and the men retired afterward to the Sheriff's study.
They asked Sarah to join them.
Sarah McKenna, twelve years old and nearly thirteen, still in britches and vest and flannel shirt, in her new, knee-high cavalry style boots, picked up the boar spear from where she'd parked it in the corner by the front door, and carried it into the study.
Later that night, as Sarah relaxed in one of Esther's flannel night gowns, warm and comfortable in the guest bed, she remembered how the men discussed the warrant the Sheriff had, the probable route of travel of the wanted man, what assistance may or may not be available at Cripple: their new Marshal was a mixed blessing: quiet and efficient, he'd proven capable enough the Sheriff was more than happy to approach the madam of the best fancy-house in town and have her transfer response duties to the new Marshal, relieving him of what he considered a bloody nuisance.
Besides, he knew the Marshal could use the extra income.
Sarah thought of the Sheriff's disappointment when his black Outlaw-horse came limping around the barn, and how, between this and his wife's encouragement, he'd hesitated and then agreed that a good night's rest, and a good meal would benefit both him and his horse.
Besides, it gained him Jacob, and two lawmen going after a man were generally better than one lawman alone.
Sarah showed the the boar spear, and spoke in detail of taking the elk with the flint spear: the Sheriff nodded, listening closely, inspecting the excellent craftsmanship and remembering the German officers who'd observed with his regiment back during the War.
They'd talked, as soldiers everywhere do, and the Prussian cavalry officers described hunting wild boar, as had the Baron: the Sheriff was no less brave than any man, but he personally could not see the wisdom in going after anything as just plain nasty as a peccary with a knife on a stick.
He was polite enough not to say any such thing.
Sarah yawned, remembering Jacob ask about the black horse, and the Sheriff's reply that it was likely lame, and he had no choice but to wait until sunup, as he needed a fresh horse and Cannonball was his best bet.

Angela, in her little bed, yawned a great yawn, remembering that morning, how she was in the barn lot, humming a little tune and looking at bugs, and how just for the fun of it she would hop with one leg up, and how her Daddy's black horse followed her: it began to walk with one leg up, too, and Angela laughed and hopped on one leg beside her Daddy's horsie.
Esther looked in on her daughter a little less than ten minutes later.
Angela was sound asleep.


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Charlie MacNeil 11-27-11


The roan was young and strong and loved to move out and cover far country. Given its head, the horse would have taken all the many miles to Cripple Creek at a lope for the pure joy of motion. But its rider knew well how thin air and long miles without rest could take its toll on a mount. Consequently, Charlie alternated between walk, trot and lope through the course of the day. As a result, the trail grew rapidly fresher, though the ex-marshal knew he would not come up on his quarry before they reached the town.

Charlie drew rein two miles out, holding the roan to a walk and letting the gelding cool out on the move. They had watered just a half hour before. At a small, crystal clear spring that bubbled from beneath a granite boulder Charlie had slacked the girths, making sure that the horse's breathing was sound and not showing the rasp of too much exertion, but he heard nothing wrong. After watering and a brief snack he pulled the cinches up, swung back into the saddle and went on. Now the lights of Cripple were spreading in front of him as the day darkened. His first stop would be the Mountain Star Saloon. He had a friend there.

"You heard anything about two men with horses to sell?"

The grizzled old-timer scratched his chin with one hand while he filled his glass from the bottle of pure-quill Kaintuck bourbon the man across from him had set on the table with the other. "Yessir, as a matter of fact I have," the ragged fellow replied. "Couple fellers come in late this mornin', pushin' some dang fine spotted mares and their colts."

"Are they still in town?"

"I ain't heard that they left. Why, you lookin' to buy horses?"

"No, some ropes," Charlie grated.

"Ropes? Whadda ya mean, ropes? What's that got ta do with horses?"

"Those horses are mine, registered and branded," came the icy reply. The old man stared at his benefactor and glacial fingers slipped their frozen way down his spine.

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Linn Keller 11-28-11


"Sarah McKenna!"
Esther's words were quietly spoken but her tone was unmistakable.
Sarah turned, startled: she went from steaming with repressed anger to open surprise, and jumped when Esther laid a gentle palm against Sarah's cheek.
Sarah looked into Irish-green eyes that held both understanding and a little sadness.
"Sarah, you mean more to him that you know," Esther said, not trusting her voice to more than a whisper.
Esther sighed, closed her eyes.
Sarah felt her belly drop about twenty feet: alarmed, she watched a single, crystal tear form up and drop from Esther's right eye.
Sarah dropped the boar-spear and took the older woman in her arms: she was nearly as tall as her aunt, she realized, and if any were there to see it, they would have seen the girl's eyes widen with surprise as she felt this motherly matron begin to shake.
She's crying? Sarah thought. Why?
Esther released her embrace and drew back a little, and Sarah's surprise was even greater.
Esther was not crying.
Her face was flushed, and she was trying not to laugh.
"My dear," she said, biting her bottom lip and trying to compose herself, "I'm sorry ... but this is the first time I realized your mother was right!"
Completely at sea, Sarah forgot entirely the pique she felt at seeing the backs of father and son, riding off toward Cripple Creek without her: she'd somehow felt entitled to ride along with them, to share in their adventure, in their just labor on the side of the law.
"Sarah, you're tall," Esther said, and Sarah noted the change in her voice, especially when appraising eyes assessed her full-length. "You're changing."
"I, um," Sarah hesitated, turning to look at the distant figures, hazed with dust and distance.
"Sarah." Esther took the girl's hands in both her own. "Your father --" Esther closed her eyes, turned her face away, shaking her head, and Sarah felt Esther's hands tighten involuntarily -- "your Uncle loves you like a daughter."
Sarah blinked, looking suddenly vulnerable and still a little confused.
"I don't think you know quite what that really means."
Something in Sarah wanted to challenge her, to shout "Suppose you tell me!" -- but her upbringing immediately smashed this impulse with a hard fist, and instead, Sarah shook her head.
"When Linn gives his heart, he gives all of it," Esther said slowly, tilting her head a little. "When he lost his daughter, his little Dana on her second birthday, he never thought he could love again, but he did."
Esther's eyes were suddenly old and Sarah could almost see a century of worry and care crushing down on her Aunt Esther's shoulders.
"When he saw you and Bonnie for the first time -- for the very first time, the night he decked that rascally attorney, he lost his wounded heart to both of you."
"I, um, what?" Sarah blinked, her mouth open with surprise.
Esther nodded.
"He loves your mother, Sarah. He loves her dearly and it would wound him to his very soul to see her hurt. It was all he could do to keep from riding up and gutting Caleb once he realized what was really going on -- but he didn't."
Sarah's hand drifted up, covered her mouth and she gave a little sound of distress. "I didn't know ..."
Esther nodded.
"He is so very proud of you, my dear. So very proud." Esther's caressing hand was warm against Sarah's cheek again, and Sarah leaned her face into the motherly palm. "He delights in your horsemanship and your marksmanship ..." Her voice trailed off and she smiled. "You should have heard him the night he came home, the night you casually split five cards edgewise with five shots, and then tossed up a percussion cap-box and shot it edge-on."
Sarah nodded slowly.
"He delights in your progress and he couldn't be prouder of your abilities as a fighter. He is even prouder of you as a lady. He said" -- here Esther's eyes glittered with delight -- "now don't you breathe this to a soul!"
"I won't," Sarah whispered. "I won't!"
Esther took Sarah's hand and patted it.
"He wants to be the arm you hold when you walk down the aisle."
Both Sarah's hands went to her mouth and she gave a muffled little sound of surprise, then she seized her Aunt Esther in a crushing hug: Esther laughed and hugged her back, and both ladies drew back and dabbed delicately at their eyes.
Finally they both took a long breath, and Sarah bent over and picked up the boar-spear.
She looked into the distance.
"I really wanted to go with them," she said wistfully.
"I know, dear," Esther sympathized. "Your Uncle felt it would not be ..."
"Proper?" Sarah offered, smiling a little.
Esther nodded. "That ... and they're going after a murderer." Esther dabbed at her eye, slipped the embroidered kerchief back into her sleeve.
"Your uncle would never forgive himself if you were hurt on one of their little adventures."

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Charlie MacNeil 11-28-11


The mares were decidedly unhappy and were vocalizing their discontent. Used to graining and fussing whenever they were corralled, their present lodgings were totally unsatisfactory. Dusty, poorly cured hay and a water trough whose contents were more critters and vegetation than water were most definitely not going to suffice. The colts, all three of them fillies of the year, picked up on their dams' agitation and added their plaintive voices to the hubbub that echoed through the night-dark streets of Cripple Creek. And the one man in town who truly cared for the animals' welfare heard and responded.

Charlie stepped from the Mountain Star. Even though his hearing was dimming, the product of too many years of gunfire and other assorted loud noises, he instantly recognized the sound of equine ill humor and a cold grin quirked his lips; he knew some of those voices that rang in the cold night air. A moment later the roan was moving toward the sound.

"Damn you, quiet down!" The cracking snap of the blacksnake whip split the air, and the mares crowded back away from voice and lash, pushing their young behind them as they turned to face this latest bewildering development. The shabbily-dressed fellow wielding the whip glared at his newly acquired treasures. "I'm tryin' to sleep!" He drew back his arm to crack the whip again.

"Don't even think about it!" The icy voice from over the man's shoulder froze the arm's motion in mid-swing. The whip wielder turned to face the source of the words.

"Who in hell are you, an' why is what I do any business of your'n?"

"I'm the man who owns those mares you're about to beat on!" Charlie declared. He nudged the roan forward into the open, and the gaping muzzles of the Greener coach gun in his hands immediately caught the whip man's attention.

"Those mares are mine! I bought 'em fair an' square!" the fellow blustered.

"Got a bill of sale?"

"'course I do!"

"It's no good." The flatness of Charlie's tone chilled his opponent to the bone.

"How do I know they're your'n?" the other man demanded.

"They're wearin' a FC on their left hip. Babies too. Look it up in there." Charlie's dog-eared copy of the Colorado brand registration book thumped into the dust at the fellow's feet. "Then you can tell me where the fellas went who sold you those animals." The man made no move to pick up the book until the sudden clicking of shotgun hammers encouraged him to sudden motion. He quickly picked the small volume from the ground and thumbed through it.

"I reckon you're right," he said grudgingly after a short perusal of the pages in his hands. "But I'm out two hunderd dollars. What about that?"

"Chalk it up to the cost of poor judgment," Charlie replied. "Now where can I find the gents who sold you my horses?"

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Linn Keller 11-28-11


I felt my belly tighten some the way it always did when we went after a man.
Neither Jacob nor I had spoken a word since we rode out that morning.
I knew the man I was after and I knew the man's tastes.
"Jacob," I called, "do you recall the Number Six saloon?"
"Not particularly, sir, but I reckon I can find it."
"We'll start there and work our way down hill. I'll want to talk to the Marshal before we start."
"Yes, sir."
That was the sum total of everything we said between the time we left the house and the time we boarded the train.
I stopped at the telegraph window and printed out a quick message for the Cripple Creek marshal:
Meet us at station stop have warrant for Craig Beulah stop Linn
I knew Lightning would form that up in whatever telegraph shorthand they used and the message would get to Cripple well before us.
I also knew the Marshal would be waiting at station for us and probably with information, and maybe some willing hands to help us bring in the murderer.
I did not care if there was an army or just us.
I was near enough to Beulah to smell him.
I saw Jacob looking at me and I reckon my expression was not pleasant.
"Sir," Jacob observed as the train picked up speed, "you look like you could bite the horn off an anvil."
I nodded.
"Iron in my diet," I said. "Good for a man."
We groomed and fussed with our mounts: Cannonball wasn't reluctant to climb the ramp into the stock car and she wasn't terribly uncomfortable with the car's motion but I was surprised that she didn't try to masticate my hind quarters.
She did take a little tobacco, and she did lay her head over my shoulder as I brushed her.
I reckoned she was just waiting til we were on solid ground before she tried to put more tooth marks in my bum.
It seemed like forever before we came whistling into Cripple, and the Marshal was there and waiting for us.
"He's here," he said without preamble, shaking my hand and then Jacob's.
I turned my lapel over, removed the six point star from its under side and affixed it to the front: Esther had slit two little buttonholes and stitched them stiff and the pin from that tin star didn't have to punch any new holes in the material, which suited me.
I dislike abusing my clothes.
Paid good money for that coat and I didn't want to damage it without need.
"You brought the warrant," he said, a statement and not a question: I patted my breast pocket, indicating the warrant lay within, and he nodded, once.
"He was up town but now he's on down to the cheap places."
"I would have thought he'd be at Number Six."
"He was." We walked to the end of the platform, Jacob and I leading our saddled mounts.
"Which one will he be in?"
"He's restless, the way he gets before he leaves town. He was in the Hoodleyville section, y'know, down around the Mountain Star."
I nodded.
Hoodleyville was the roughest part of Cripple, the dirtiest, with the lowest grade saloons, the cheapest cribs and the crookedest gambling to be had.
If a man wanted to make a fast buck, rent a fast woman or get a cheap drink, Hoodleyville was where he went, and that suited Beulah's taste.
Jacob and I saddled up and turned our mounts.
I touched my hat brim to the Marshal and we stepped out lively.

The Bear Killer watched, drowsy, from the barn: his Mistress was with family, his nose told him, and all was well, though her scents were confused these days, changed somehow.
The Bear Killer yawned, a great, jaw-stretching yawn, and he hoisted his hind quarters, stretching his back bone and reaching well out in front with his forepaws: he stretched his blocky body like a cat, then curled up in the straw bedding of the vacant stall: a full belly, a comfortable bed, and life was good.
The Bear Killer's off ear twitched as he heard the giggling voice of the Sheriff's youngest cub approaching the barn.
The Bear Killer's tail began to swish happily against the straw covered floor, even as his eyes sagged shut.

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Linn Keller 11-29-11


It didn't take much more than a quick scout to find Beulah.
His horse was outside -- least it was his horse now, thanks to a running iron.
I knew the horse.
It used to belong to Bob Beymer.
I looked at the horse and the saddle and the more I looked the madder I got.
Never mind feelings, I thought.
You are a lawman.
You will conform to and abide by the law.

I fetched the double gun out of the scabbard and smiled and I don't reckon it was a polite smile a'tall.
Jacob went through the bat wing doors first, his Winchester in both hands, weight on the balls of his feet: about half the tables were occupied and most of the heads turned our way.
Jacob moved quietly along the left hand wall and I could not help but admire his progress.
I've been told I had a most marvelous way of turning invisible ... come to think about it, 'twas Marshal Beymer that told me that.
Me, I thrust open the bat wings as subtly as a mule's kick.
I knew Beulah was sitting where he could look in the tavern's mirror.
Unlike the Silver Jewel, this cheap dirty little tavern had a cheap dirty little mirror: 'twas about twice as wide as a schoolmarm's text book.
When a long tall lawman with a star on his coat, dressed better than anyone else there, thunder on his brow and a double ten bore in hand, strides up the middle of the floor, all eyes turn that-a-way, which is what I wanted.
I knew Beulah could see me in the mirror.
Chairs scooted back, cards dropped to splintered table tops: there was a general pilgrimage for the nearest door.
The barkeep stooped, reaching under the counter top.
Jacob's rifle came to shoulder and the single click of his hammer dropping into the full cock sear was surprisingly loud.
"Don't do it," he said, and the bar keep froze when he saw that forty caliber rifle bore looking at him hard and unblinking.
I knew Beulah was a murderer.
He was a cheat and a thief and he would swindle a man out of his eye teeth given the chance; he was a forger and a four flusher and one of the best liars I ever run across ... those were his good qualities, you understand: I figured once he was planted they would have to screw him into the ground, and likely they would celebrate his demise by cutting down the grove of cork screws he planted for shade.
I'll say this for him.
The man was fast.
He come upright, turned, got a shot off.
So did I.
I held low.
Deliberately low.
The charge of heavy shot spread out no bigger than my fist was wide and took him just south of the belt buckle.
The concussion of a ten bore in an enclosed room is a wondrous thing indeed.
Dust philtered from the ill fitted boards overhead, there was a scream from one of the upstairs cribs; the Marshal told me later three fellows jumped out of upstairs windows that he knew of, two sustained whorehouse fractures and were treated by the local sawbones, but at the moment I did not care.
I pushed the lever aside and casually plucked the empty hull from the right hand tube and dunked in a fresh shell.
I raised the stock to close the action and cocked the right hand hammer.
The bar keep was backed way up against the far end of the bar, his hands at shoulder height.
I walked up to Beulah.
He had one arm hanging onto the bar and the other one trying to hold in what was was trying to come out that big nasty hole I just blasted in his guts.
His face was white and he was starting to sweat and I knew from the look in his eyes he was about ten seconds from Lucifer reaching up and yanking his soul downstairs.
I reached down left handed and grabbed that murdering son of Perdition by his vest and hauled him up until he was nose to nose with me.
"When you get to hell," I said, "tell 'em I sent you!"
Beulah took two gasping breaths and slowly went limp.
I looked at the barkeep.
"Get me a blanket," I said quietly, and he slid sideways out from behind the bar, carefully keeping his hands where I could see them, and turned quick-like and scampered upstairs, his elastic sided townie shoes loud on the filthy stairs.
He was back in about thirty seconds.
Jacob was backed into the near corner of the bar, his back protected by green-spiked lumber, looking over the entire interior of the Mountain Star, rifle to shoulder, muzzle down but ready.
His eyes were pale, cold ... hard and unforgiving.
Good Lord, I thought, I'd hate to face those eyes! -- and then remembered.
He got those eyes from me.
The barkeep come downstairs and fair to throwed that filthy blanket at me.
I got Beulah wrapped up and spun a few piggin' strings around the bundle so he'd not come unwrapped and turned.
The Marshal was standing there, shaking his head.
"I thought you were going to serve that warrant," he said.
I dropped the carcass.
It hit the floor and it wasn't quiet when it hit.
I reached into my inside pocket and fetched out the warrant, stooped and slid it under one of the piggin strings.
"There," I said. "Served."

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Charlie MacNeil 11-29-11


"Think ya used enough dynamite, there, Butch?" The slow-drawled question drifted from the deep corner shadows on the swirls of powder smoke that made languid patterns in the dingy lamplight. The three lawmen spun to face the corner and the shadowy source of the words. "You boys're a trifle jumpy, ain'tcha?" Charlie drawled again as he stepped forward. All three spoke at once.


"Charlie?" What the..."

"What're you doing here?"

"Chasin' horse thieves,' the ex-Marshal answered. "They took three of my mares and their colts. I trailed 'em here, and I found 'em. The fella that bought 'em told me they're still in town. I was just about to go pay 'em a visit when you decided to set off the fireworks." He chuckled. "Ten gauge makes a pretty serious hole, don't it?"

"That it does," Linn answered. "Charlie, meet the marshal of Cripple Creek. Matt, this is US Marshal Charlie MacNeil."

"I've heard of you," the younger man answered as the two shook hands briefly. "You tend to do things your own way."

"I've been known to do that," Charlie replied guardedly.

"You won't in my town."

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Charlie MacNeil 11-30-11


Charlie was tired. It had been a long day, and it wasn't over yet as far as he was concerned. So the younger man's words set his temper on edge, and he felt himself beginning to bristle up like a cornered root hog. Across three feet of spur-scarred rough pine planking Matt Lawrence felt himself doing the exact same thing. His spine stiffened and his face grew still but the dark lighting that flashed in his hazel eyes belied the stillness.

Then common sense set in, at least for Charlie. He needed this man's help, and antagonizing a fellow officer of the law would never solve his problems. Time to settle things down a bit, he thought. "The pair of us remind me of the boss ranch dog layin' out his territory when a stray wanders onto the home place," he chuckled. "Only drier. And the stray tryin' to show he's the new he-dog on the range." He directed a grin toward Matt. "What say we give this another try? Truce?" He thrust out his calloused right paw expectantly.

Matt stared at him for a moment before his posture eased and his lips quirked up in a wry smile. "I reckon you're right, Marshal. Truce, then." The two men shook hands and Linn felt the coiled tension ooze from his muscles as he took a deep breath that he blew out silently. His gaze met Jacob's for a moment. Jacob's answering nod was barely perceptible as he eased his rifle into the crook of his arm. Both had been poised to step between Charlie and Matt if unpleasantries had broken out.

"So have you got a plan, Marshal?"

"Please, call me Charlie. I'm retired. And I always figured that the simple plans are the best. I hear that both of those boys are bedded down with their choice of doxy, one at each end of town, and I thought maybe I'd give 'em some time to get comfortable than I'd just go kick their doors in and stick this here blunderbuss", he lifted the Greener, "up their respective snouts and haul 'em in to your jail. Whadda ya think?" He grinned evilly.

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Linn Keller 12-1-11


I untied the middle string around Beulah's carcass.
There was one thing I had to do.
I opened the dirty blanket and brought his bloodied hands up across his belly and laid one over the other, then I reached into my inside coat pocket and pulled out a single red rose.
I put that rose in his hands and wrapped him back up.
Matt looked at me oddly, looked at Charlie.
I cinched the piggin string up tight and stood.
"Plant him wherever you like," I said. "I'm takin' his horse."
"Mmm ... isn't that ...?" Matt began, and I stood and kissed at the sorrel.
"C'mere, Tip," I said, and the horse reached down and took the reins between its teeth, pulled them free of the hitch rail and walked right over to me.
Matt looked at Charlie again, and then at me.
I shaved off a little molasses cured tobacker and fed it to Tip-horse.
"Ever hear of Bob Beymer?" I asked quietly.
Matt frowned a little, shook his head.
"Not surprised, son. He was a year older'n me, and I've been a lawman since you were in liquid form." I rubbed Tip's neck. "Bob was a hand taller'n me and half ag'in broader at the shoulder. I don't reckon there was anythin' much he could not pick up and walk off with if he wanted to." I rubbed Tip's ears and she leaned her jaw ag'in me and muttered a little, closing her eyes.
I'd seen Bob do that, and I'd seen Tip lean ag'in Bob in the same way.
"He was town marshal in Washington, back in the Ohio country."
Matt turned his head a little as if to bring a good ear to bear on what I was saying.
"Craig Beulah here, he cheated Bob out of his eye teeth and most of his farm and when Bob called him on it -- the scoundrel filed ag'in him with false papers, claimed back taxes or some such -- why, Beulah shot him in the foot and run off.
"Bob's foot infected and they ended up sawin' his leg off up to the knee to keep ahead of gangrene, least until Beulah come cat footin' in the back door and dumped a teaspoon of cyanide in the man's coffee pot."
Matt's eyes hardened at that.
Poison was a coward's tool and like most lawmen -- like most Western men -- Matt had no use for cowards.
"He sold that chunk of Bob's farm and headed west just as fast as he could jump a steam train. Hid under an assumed name and dodged ever since."
I looked down at the still form on the board walk.
"This has been a long time a-comin'."
"You didn't intend to arrest him."
Anger surged in me again and I reckon my expression was hard.
I reached into my coat and pulled out a stiff, heavy envelope, slapped it against Matt's chest.
I would rather have punched it against his chest with my fist wrapped tight around it but I wanted to make a point, not an enemy.
Matt's hand rose and he took the envelope.
He pulled out the papers, looked at them, at the train tickets.
He blinked and put them back, handed them to me.
"You did intend to take him back."
"You're damned right. Train tickets from here to Guernsey County, Ohio, a warrant from back there as well as this county" -- I gestured to the paper still shoved under a piggin string -- "I was lookin' forward to a front row seat when they stretched his neck."
Matt nodded, then looked sharply at me.
"He drew?"
"He did."
"Who fired first?"
"He did."
Matt nodded.
"He missed and you didn't."
I unbuttoned my coat and unbuttoned my vest, one-handed: I handed Jacob the double ten bore and drew coat and vest aside to reveal the bloody groove in my shirt.
"He didn't miss."

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Linn Keller 12-1-11


Matt's eyes shifted right and Jacob faded back against the dirty boards of the Mountain Star's front.
I turned at the sound of a shuffling, irregular step, and regarded the newcomer with an appraising eye.
The man was drunk as six hundred dollars.
He looked like he was experienced at his chosen craft, for he affected an air of great dignity, which didn't come off dignified a'tall: he stopped, adjusted his coat, shoved his derby hat forward and almost off his head, and slurred, "Gentlemen, good evennning!"
Had Charlie not reached out and grabbed his arm the man would have gone over face first into the dirt.
After the world stopped wobbling under his feet, he h'isted his nose in the air and waved a dismissive hand.
"I, don't believe, I will be needing your serrrrr ... serrr ... asssshishtansh tonight."
Jacob looked at me, I looked at Matt, Matt looked at Charlie, and Charlie looked like he was gonna bust.
Charlie, y'see, is tough as seasoned white oak and he's hard as granite, but he's got a deep ornery streak about him and this tickled his ornery bone.
He was doing his level best not to laugh.
The drunk peered down at the wrapped carcass as if he were looking over the precipice of a deep chasm.
"Mmm, mmmm, mmmmmyyy goodnessssh," he finally managed to say, "what happened to thisssh poor fellow?"
"Indigestion," I deadpanned. "Just plainly dyspepsied himself plumb to death."
The drunk wobbled a little and reached into a pocket, frowned, reached into another and smiled: he extracted a colorful paper envelope and held it triumphantly over his head.
"May I present," he said pleasantly, "Dr. Peppermint's Potent Powders, a universal curative for disorders of the digestive." He smiled a bleary smile, blinking rheumy and slightly unfocused eyes as a hole in the envelope trickled a steady stream of Dr. Peppermint's powders over his shoulders and the brim of his hat. "Only a dollar, a positive bargain for the bounty of good health!"
"Tell you what," Charlie said in a kindly voice as he ran his hand through the inebriate's arm, "why don't you go up hill towards the sign that says "Mule Shoe" ... that's a tavern known to be full of fellows with sour bellies. I would bet money they will welcome the Peppermint Powders and put cash in your pocket!"
The drunk blinked happily and, propelled by Charlie's gentle push, proceeded to stagger around the town marshal and wobble his way toward the next watering hole up the line, the leaking and nearly depleted envelope still pinched between thumb and forefinger.
Matt shook his head.
"You know him?" I asked, allowing myself a small smile.
Matt relaxed a bit and nodded. "His name's Zimmerman. Sad fellow, that. He came out here with a pocket full of misfortune and I don't believe he's been sober since then."
He looked at me and down at Beulah's still form.
I nodded and Charlie and I shared a knowing look.
"He couldn't digest an ounce and a half of lead."

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Linn Keller 12-2-11


Angela rubbed the Bear Killer's belly and giggled.
The Bear Killer swept a clean arc on the barn floor, raising an incredible amount of dust.
Angela blinked and sneezed and she and the Bear Killer got up and wandered back outside.
"Sawwah," Angela said in a wheedling voice, "I wanta wide!"
Sarah looked at Esther and back at Angela, and Esther saw disappointment in Sarah's eyes: she'd wanted to go with the Sheriff, and that didn't happen, and she'd originally stopped on her way to Charlie's, and ended up staying the night, so that didn't happen either.
"You could ride with her for a little while," Esther said, "and then go on over to Charlie's. I'm sure they will be more than happy to see you!"
Sarah nodded and smiled a little, then Esther saw her shoulders relax and her smile became more genuine.
The little girl is growing up, Esther thought approvingly, and raised her chin.
"Angela!" she said, "Sarah is already dressed to ride, but you must change, dear."
"Yes, Mommie," Angela said, blinking: she hadn't expected it to be this easy, but her ready grin and an un-ladylike sprint for the house affirmed that yes, it had been that easy!
The Bear Killer came up and nosed Sarah's hand, ow-wow-wowing a little the way he did when he wanted attention, and Sarah rubbed his ears absently: the Bear Killer sniffed the shaft of the boar spear curiously, licked it once or twice, and sat down to wait patiently for whatever transpired.
"I'll get her Rosebud saddled," Sarah said, and Esther squeezed her hand: "Thank you, dear. It will mean so very much to her!"
Sarah leaned into a jogging run toward the barn and Esther felt a sudden pang.
Most girls run awkwardly, their hands drawn up, almost to shoulder height, swinging their upper bodies: Sarah ran like a boy, loose and easy, and if it were not for her flowing hair, free of ribbon or net, she could be mistaken for a lad.
Not for long, Esther thought. Not for long now.

Sarah started to ride ahead, to open the gate.
She turned, startled, as Rosebud began a sudden gallop: Angela's eyes were big, her face shone with delight, and Sarah's jaw hung in dismay as she thought to shout, "Angela, no!" -- but before thought could become voice, Angela and Rosebud launched over the middle of the gate with a smooth grace and a high "Wheee!" and Sarah, big-eyed, took a few quick breaths: she felt suddenly cold, as if she'd seen two trains thundering toward one another on the same track, and they had magically passed one another without so much as a tiny tick of contact.
Sarah looked at her little girl-cousin, laughing innocently astride her golden Rosie-bud, and a smile narrowed the corners of her eyes: she turned her racer and trotted back a little distance, then a little more.
Boar-spear in her right hand, upright like a lance-and-pennant, she settled its butt into the stirrup with her boot.
The Bear Killer flowed like silent death toward the fence: he paused only slightly before passing through it like water through rocks in a stream.
The racer shivered his hide, threw his head and blew: he wanted to run, and Sarah did too.
Esther watched, her own breath quick, as her little girl sailed over the fence like a feather on the wind, and then as Sarah turned and trotted back to get some distance, then spun: sunlight glinted off the sliver cross atop the straight grain shaft and Esther could imagine Sarah, in another time, another land, as an armored warrior-maiden, riding into battle in defense of home and country.
Esther's breath drew sharply in as Sarah launched from the earth, easily clearing the closed gate, landing smoothly on the far side: Angela was already turned and leading the way, and Esther sighed out her breath, shaking her head and laughing a little.
"Now," she said to no one in particular, "now I know how my Papa felt when I rode with my brothers!"

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Linn Keller 12-3-11


"I don't need no sawbones!" I snapped.
"No, sir," Jacob said, folding up a clean rag he pulled out of his saddle bag.
"And your mother doesn't need to know about this neither!"
Charlie looked over at me, amused, and tipped a wink at Matt: the young officer didn't know me all that well, only that I had got him his job for him, that my word carried weight, that I had just walked in and punched a man's ticket in a most positive manner, and that I'd snatched the dying man up and shouted in his face as he sighed out his last breath.
Jacob uncorked a small bottle. "Open your shirt, sir," he said quietly, carefully anointing the bandage material.
"Oh bloody hell," I muttered, opening the shirt and the red long-handles beneath.
Jacob pulled the clothing aside and slid his hand in, pressed the carbolic-soaked bandage against the bullet-burn.
I hissed my breath in between my teeth.
Was that ten-bore made of lesser material, my grip would have crushed its breech: as it was, the double gun was pointed down beside my left boot, and my empty right hand fisted up tight, digging my finger nails into my palm.
"There, sir," Jacob murmured, wiping the length of the wound, re-folding the bandage to bring a clean surface to bear: he pressed it against the wound, withdrew his hand.
"I do believe that is the most profane silence I have ever heard," Charlie drawled dryly, and in spite of all that had just happened, Matt laughed.
"There, sir, your Union suit and your shirt should hold that in place."
I half-grunted and half-growled and pulled my clothes back into order.
"Charlie," I said, "your call. Do you want to leave your ponies there while we-all go kick doors, would you ruther get your stock out of there and start for home, would you want a bevy of dancin' girls to come high kickin' down the street?"
Now one thing about any excitement in any time, in any town: crowds gather and gawk and sure enough there was a gathering bunch of sight-seers: and as always happens, speculation rippled through the assembled, and not all of it was quiet.
One fellow about three back from the front yelled "He killed an unarmed man! Hang him!"
I spun and surged toward the speaker, knocking two men aside to seize the speaker by the throat.
I drove my knee into his gut and dragged him out front and threw him to the ground.
He tried to get up, gagging, and I gave him a boot in the belly for his troubles.
He rolled over, choking, curled up like a worm on a fish hook.
I bent and seized the trouble maker by the back of his coat, fetched him to his feet left handed.
I threw the man into the crowd.
A gap appeared and he went face first into the dirt.
Nobody made the least attempt to catch him.
I whirled and strode up to Matt and spoke in a low voice.
"Matt, you ever handle a shootin' before?"
To his credit he did not shrink back at my close approach.
"No," he admitted.
I nodded. "I'll walk you through it. We'll need to prepare the report and get ready to present to the inquest."
Charlie stood quiet and watchful, his eyes busy under his pulled down hat brim and his double gun across his elbow.
One thing I learned early, when a lawman gets quiet, especially when he has a double gun in hand, folks get uncomfortable, and they are that much less likely to start trouble.
Charlie was silent as death and just as dangerous.
Jacob's rifle was tilted casually over his shoulder and I knew from that position he could flip it down and snap shoot and punch a hole in the ace of spades at fifteen feet, every time.
I'd seen him do it.
The crowd began to mutter and look around and Charlie knew just what to do.
"Move along, folks," he said, not unkindly: "the excitement is over and we're goin' home now."
The barkeep come out the front door and slung a bucket of bloody water out onto the street. It hissed into the dry dirt as if to counterpoint Charlie's clearly enunciated syllables.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-3-11


In short order the street was empty. The four lawmen, current and retired, adjourned wordlessly to the local marshal's office. Once the stout plank door was tightly closed behind them Charlie spoke. "Id just as soon have the dancin' girls, but I don't reckon they'd be too good at kickin' doors. With Matt's permission, I think I'll go along when you gents arrest those boys." His lips curled in a feral grin. "Seein' as how I know where they're bedded down, and you don't, that is."

"He's got you there, Matt," Linn said in a reasonable tone before the younger man could answer. "And I'm pretty certain that he probably won't let us in on the locations of said rustlers unless we let him go along. Why don't you come with me, and Jacob can go with Charlie, and we'll bag 'em both at once?"

Matt looked back and forth between Linn and Charlie. "Why do I get the feeling that this is a really bad idea?" he grumbled. "If it was up to me, Charlie and his horses would be on the trail back home some time in the next five minutes. But I guess we'll do it your way. Providing, of course, that Marshal MacNeil will allow us the necessary information."

The answer came accompanied by another feral grin. "Weldon McCreary is in room twenty three at the Miner's Rest. I'll take Jacob to where Laney Parks is holed up." He glanced at Jacob then gestured toward the door. "Shall we commence the festivities?"

Matt looked askance at Linn. "How does he know all that stuff?"

"Beats me," Linn replied. "I can't figure it out either. Shall we?"

Matt heaved a resigned sigh. "I suppose." He lifted a Parker double gun from the office gun rack, broke the action to check the loads then turned toward the door. "I hope I don't regret this," he muttered as he led the way from the office.

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Linn Keller 12-4-11


Cripple Creek was a mining town.
Cripple Creek stayed awake at all hours.
We passed by lit up saloons full of laughing, cursing men, we passed by riders slouched in their saddles, we passed by fine carriages and freight wagons: on occasion we had to step lively to keep the contents of a chamber pot or a cuspidor from anointing us, for it was custom just to sling the liquid offal into the street.
Folks tended to give us the right of way.
Two lawmen with double guns spoke a powerful message and when two lawmen are not walking with the casual stroll of a man just out for a walk, but rather with the regular step of a man on a mission, more than one soul shivered and stepped to the side.
The Miner's Rest was known to me.
"Matt," I said, "you have any dealin's here before?"
Matt was clearly uncomfortable ... not nervous, really, but I don't believe he'd had to go in and get a man yet.
"No," he admitted, cleared his throat: his tongue flicked nervously out and tried to wet his lips. "No."
'I know the owner. I'll lead."
A couple fellows, stumbling along in their own world, almost bumped into us.
I put an arm out, caught one by the shoulder to prevent a collision.
"Easy, neighbor," I said gently, and he looked up, startled: he blinked and almost fell down: "You!" he hissed, stumbling to the side, and took off running like the Devil himself was after him.
Matt stopped, staring, and looked back at me.
"What did you do to him?" he asked, wondering, and I shrugged.
"Damfino," I admitted. "Guilty conscience, I reckon."
Matt looked to the shadowed alley where the fellow had fled, then took a quick catch-up step, for I had started back down the street.
The Miner's Rest was not that grand a place, but it was pretty good for a rough, brawling mining town: I yanked open the front door and thrust the muzzle of my double gun under the chin of the surprised bouncer.
"Hello, Pete," I said quietly, "don't make a sound and you'll see sunrise."
Pete nearly fell backward off his three legged stool: his hand flew up to clap the too-small derby back onto his head and he blinked rapidly, trying to collect his wits.
Small collection.
"Where is she?" I said quietly, for it was late and the house was mostly quiet.
"She who?" Pete gasped, swallowing.
I pushed the twin muzzled up a little more firmly under his chin.
"The Princess."
"Hello, Sheriff," a familiar voice said from my left: I released the pressure on poor old Pete's jaw and said "Stand fast, son, and stay quiet. I have business."
"Sure," Pete blurted, rubbing his stubbled neck.
Matt closed the front door quietly, but stood squarely in front of it.
I'll have to teach him to step away from doorways, I thought. That's a grand way to catch lead in the back, standing in front of the door you just came through.
The Princess emerged from shadow into the lamp light.
I parked the ten-bore against the wall and spread my arms.
The Princess skipped toward me and we hugged one another for a long moment.
She still smelled of the same French scent she'd worn that day on the stage coach some long time ago: her hair -- what little she allowed to be seen under the covering silk scarf -- was a little lighter, not gone to grey yet: her eyes were still lovely and sparkling, and she still wore the same veil over her face, after the Arab fashion.
The Princess had never shown her face in public.
I know of only one man who'd ever seen under the veil, and knew what she looked like: I knew the stories, and had repeated some of them myself, just to keep folks throwed off.
The Princess escaped a slaver in the Mediterranean, running a little under a mile in shackles and scarring her ankles pretty badly in the process.
She traded what she had to for passage across the Atlantic and somehow managed to steal clothes and lie to employers and build a small stake: she'd become a secretary and married a bookkeeper in the same firm, before cholera took him before their first wedding anniversary, and she headed West.
Now she wore the silks of an Arab slave-girl, but considerably more than a hareem would wear: the only flesh visible was the strip around her eyes, and her hands, and that was it.
Imagination is a powerful thing and men imagined what lay beneath the multiple layers of sheer, pastel silk; this mystery tantalized, titillated, but never violated: word has it she bore the slave-brands of a potentate, that in a fit of jealous pique a hareem eunuch burned her face off with red-hot irons, or another hareem slave clawed and slashed her unbearably, such that she was thrown away, discarded for her loss of beauty: and so she kept her visage covered.
I knew her name, and I knew where she was from, and I knew she did indeed bear the slave-brand on her body: I knew the scarring on her ankles, and the whip-scars from neck to ankles, and I also knew her face beneath the veil was pure and flawless, pale and unmarked, absolutely beautiful.
She'd traveled in a proper lady's gown, and a hat with a heavy veil: it was not until she'd arrived in Cripple that she affected the identity and the legend of the Princess -- as a gimmick, as a trademark, as a way to establish herself as a unique presence: there were many boarding-houses, there were many houses like hers that also dealt unofficially in fleshly pleasures, and if she were to do better than the other establishments, she needed something unique.
I remembered a night in a dirty little Kansas town, the winter I was town marshal there, a man alone and heart broke; she was a woman alone, and lonely, and I am not proud to admit that we took our pleasure in one another.
We were widow and widower and we missed the closeness of a spouse, of someone to whom we could whisper dreams, and ideas,and plans, someone with whom we could build air-castles.
We held each other that night and I don't think either of us slept, for we were starved for that closeness.
For a few hours at least we found it.
She spoke of what she'd done and what had been done to her, and how she never told her bookkeeper husband: he'd imagined her a Madonna of purity and she never saw fit to tell him otherwise, and managed thanks to his poor eyesight without his spectacles, to convince him the slave-brand was but a birthmark.
She came up with the idea of the Princess when we met again, once Cripple was a-boom, and she had a stake and an idea, and I helped her get started: 'twas I who started the rumor of the Princess, and that her face was scarred, ugly, horrid: then I stepped out of her life again, and this lovely bird flew and flew on wings of surprising strength.
Now she was in my arms again and laughing a little.
"I am a rich woman," she whispered, "thanks to you."
"No, Princess," I murmured, "you made every last centavo on your own."
She looked up at me -- all I could see of her were those eyes, those lovely eyes -- "Now what brings you to a boarding house at this hour?"
My expression hardened, and so did she.
"Him," she said, answering her own question.
"Did he give a name?"
My voice was no longer warm: it was cold as a wintertime anvil, for I was no longer an old friend, I was the Sheriff, and I was there to take a man.
"He's in twenty-three." She held up a key.
I nodded. "His name's Weldon McCreary." I grinned and I reckon the grin was not pleasant. "Least that's the name we'll hang him by."
Matt stepped up behind me.
"Princess, this is your town Marshal. Matt, this is the Princess, and she is a friend of mine."
To his credit, Matt bowed a little, took her offered hand and kissed her knuckles.
My estimation of the lawman went up a notch.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-4-11


Laney Parks' taste in women and accommodations wasn't nearly as refined as that of his saddle partner. Consequently, the crib the shorter horse thief had holed up in was on the squalid side, even for a rip-roaring twenty four hour a day town like Cripple Creek. Coarse laughter, screams of pain and ecstasy, cheap perfume, cheaper cigars and the essence of the poppy combined to thicken the air thereabouts to the consistency of January molasses. Jacob's refined sense of smell rebelled at the miasma that seemingly oozed from the very pores of the building.

"Are you sure about this, Charlie?" the young deputy asked softly in the shadows of the alley across the narrow, wagon-rutted street from the Golden Canary.

"Sure as I can be. The gent who told me where to find Parks was real specific," Charlie answered in like tone. His own, more substantial snout wrinkled in protest at what it was being forced to treat as air. "But damn if it don't stink! Let's get this over with and get back to some sort of breathable atmosphere." He tugged his hat down, loosened his Remingtons in the holsters and strode across the busy thoroughfare, doublegun across his elbow. Like the Red Sea in the day of the Israelites, the current of unwashed humanity magically parted before his determined strides.

"Why don't you slip on around to the back?" Charlie requested as he and Jacob stepped up onto what passed for a boardwalk in front of the rundown parlor house. "The cribs are upstairs, and there's a stairway drops down from the widow's walk back there. If this Parks gets past me and runs, that's the way he'll go."

"You are planning on arresting him, aren't you, Charlie?"

"I reckon that's up to him," Charlie answered with an icy smile. Jacob shrugged and turned toward the alley that led to the back of the building. What would happen would happen.

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Linn Keller 12-4-11


I regretted not having a classroom at my disposal.
Matt was not sizing up well a'tall.
He stood in the middle of the doorway, he had no sense of light discipline -- he'd silhouetted himself unnecessarily a number of times, coming down the street, when I'd faded to one side or t'other to get away from an unwelcome shaft, darting quickly through it where it could not be avoided -- and now he was climbing the stairs with all the stealth of a fatigued and half drunk drover.
Me, I cat footed up the stairs, putting my weight on the sides near the wall as I could get conveniently. It was not carpeted along the edge but it was a bit more solid.
I crouched a little at the top of the stairs, jaw hanging slack, breathing through my teeth: I hesitated, listened, and Matt paused as well, watching me.
We rose and I ghosted over against the wall.
I raised a forearm and made a fist, and Matt looked at me oddly.
He had no idea what I meant.
O Lord, I prayed silently, Thou Who knowest our down-sittings and our up-risings, don't let Matt get us killed, for the way he's going, our chances aren't as good as I'd like!
The Princess stayed down stairs, bless her, and I reckon she was looking up the stairs as I eased slowly across the hall, squinting to make out the numbers on the doors.
I found number 23.
I drifted a little to the side of the door, listened.
The hallway up here was carpeted and nothing creaked underfoot.
Would not have mattered.
There was creaking enough inside to cover any little noise I made.
There were lamps at either end and mid way in the hall and Matt could see me plainly enough.
I waved him toward me.
Matt walked slowly, placing his feet flat before he set his weight down on them: he made his cautious way to me, stopped: I motioned him closer, leaned my lips to his ear:
"I'll unlock the door as quiet as I can."
Matt nodded.
"We'll go in on my count of three."
Again, the nod.
"I'll spin around tight near the door and you cross the room."
Again, the nod.
"When you go in, bring your gun to bear but hold fire unless he shoots, then do not miss!"
Matt drew back a few inches and looked long at me: his expression was troubled and he swallowed hard.
I eased the key in the lock, listening to the sounds of ... listening to the, ah ...
I timed the turning of the key with the rhythm from within.
The knob turned easily, silently, and I turned to look at Matt.
I tasted copper and my belly tightened up and my veins sang with the glorious knowledge that I was hunting a man.
There is no hunt like the hunting of men, and once you have tasted it, you seldom if ever hunt anything else.
I turned my head and mouthed, "One ... two ..."
On "one," Matt came away from the wall and gripped his double gun tightly, holding it at high port.
On "two," he gathered himself like a cat getting ready to pounce.
On "three" I thrust the door open and spun in, bringing the double gun up, sweeping the room and freezing as it came to bear on the bed.
Matt charged in and collided with the opposite wall.
There was the sound of a falling body, of broken furniture, then the heavy crash and crack of ceramic breaking, a splash: Matt had managed to knock the bowl and pitcher off the dresser, trample a chair and put his shoulder partway through the good horse hair lath and plaster wall.
If circumstances were different it might have been funny: as it was, Matt's stumbling collision brought McCreary's attention to Matt and not at all towards me.
I saw him lunge toward the bedpost and I yelled "DON'T TRY IT, MC CREARY!"
The young woman -- I won't call her a young lady -- saw me and screamed, yanking the sheet up over her bodice: she rolled off the bed, rolling up in the bed sheet and screaming, and willy-wormed her way under the bed, leaving the buck naked McCreary raising his hands as the rest of him un-raised.
"MARSHAL!" I shouted. "CUFF THAT MAN!"
Times like this a lawman has to operate at the top of his lungs.
Your partner has to know absolutely, positively and with no doubt a'tall what your intentions are, what your instructions are: I've worked situations with a brother lawman and afterward had folks tell us it sounded like we were going to back up and rip one another's throats out, and we looked at one another in honest surprise for neither of us had any such intent.
Now, though, Matt needed the loud voice, the command voice, to pierce the shell he'd built around himself, to give him guidance, to give him direction.
Matt fumbled a set of Tower cuffs from his coat pocket and advanced, shaking, toward the glaring McCreary.
"STAND UP!" I roared, giving the twin ten-bore a muzzle flip to emphasize my words: McCreary stood, lip twisting in a snarl.
Matt hesitated, clearly out of his element.
I stepped in, fast, and drove the butt of my double gun into McCreary's hairy gut, doubling him over: I thrust the ten-bore into Matt's hands: he dropped the irons, took the shotgun and stood there with the expression of a man who'd just been handed a cold dead fish.
I seized McCreary and spun him half around, threw him face first down on the bed: I scooped up the irons, swore and jumped a-straddle of McCreary's back.
"Marshal," I said, my voice icy, "would you be so kind as to pass me the key? I'd like to open these so they can actually be USED!"
Matt squatted and lay his double gun on the floor, fumbled in his pocket, handed me the key.
"Now pick up that shotgun, Marshal. In case you had forgotten, we have someone under the bed yet."
I turned the propeller-shaped key into the lock, turned it several times: the mechanism was simple, a threaded stud that drew the locking pawl against a spring as you threaded the key in place.
McCreary decided to try and get up, least until I drove the heel of my hand into his kidneys and seized a wrist: I hit him hard enough he couldn't holler, which is good, because I cranked his arm up behind his back before clamping the cuff down on him.
Another session with the propeller shaped key and the other cuff fell open.
When I was done I seized McCreary by his upper arms, rocked backward off the bed and hauled him to his feet, letting leverage and my weight do the work.
Now, Marshal," I said, "I believe that is a night shirt yonder. Would you kindly hand it here? -- thank you" -- I bundled it up in my hands, slid it over McCreary's head and down over his shoudlers -- "now he is modestly and adequately covered."
I took back the ten-bore.
"Now, Marshal, if you would kindly turn up yonder lamp, we need to go through his belongings. His horse will be nearby and we will also need to execute a search incident to arrest on his saddle bags."
McCreary was still fighting to get air into him.
His face was half sick and I reckon the rest of him was too.
I'd taken punches and kicks to the gut and they were never pleasant.
"Marshal, if you would start with his clothes, and I believe his grip is yonder."

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Linn Keller 12-5-11


We came down stairs.
I had McCreary by one arm, my double gun by the wrist in the other hand and an irritated look on my face.
The Princess was waiting at the foot of the stairs.
I bumped McCreary behind the knees, hard, with my own knees and run him down onto his prayer bones.
"Stay put," I snarled, setting a boot on his naked left ankle.
"You'll pay for this," he muttered.
I ignored him.
"Good Milady," I said, extending my hand, "Mr. McCreary here wishes to settle his bill."
Gold coin clinked in her hand.
"My apologies, but there seems to be a pitcher of water spilled on the floor, and the crockery is broken."
Matt shrugged his right shoulder slowly in a circle, frowning.
Curious faces looked down from upstairs.
"What's going on down there?" shouted a voice. "Can't a man sleep?"
I looked up at him and turned so he could see both the double gun and the six point star on my lapel.
"Would you like me to bring you some warm milk?" I called back. "Or maybe I could bend a single tree over your head."
The talking head withdrew with a go-away wave of the hand.
I looked at Matt, thrust my chin toward the front door.
I wanted to get away from the kill zone at the foot of the stairs.
Not that I don't trust folks, you understand, but in a rough and raw mining town like Cripple, sometimes killing the local law was an art form or at least a form of entertainment.
Frankly I did not feel like being entertaining.
The Princess gave me a long look.
"Will you be back?" she asked softly, and I shook my head, sadness painting my face: I bit my bottom lip, shook my head again.
"My little bird," I husked, my throat tightening without my let-be, "you have wings now. You don't need me."
I lifted my foot from McCreary's ankle and said brusquely, "Stand up, you."
McCreary staggered upright, the Marshal holding his left arm, me holding his right.
A light touch on my own arm stopped me dead.
I knew if I looked at her eyes again and she asked me to come back, I would be very close to making a very, very regrettable decision.
I turned anyway, and I looked the Princess square in her beautiful, expressive eyes.
"Tell you wife," she said, and paused.
It was my turn to swallow hard.
"Tell your wife she is a very lucky woman."
I nodded, biting my bottom lip again.
We turned and hauled the barefoot prisoner toward the front door.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-5-11


Charlie waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the glaring light spilling from the door of the Golden Canary then darted through the opening and pressed his back against the left-hand wall. The room was packed with grubby bodies in various states of inebriation and soiled doves in various states of undress. No one paid the slightest bit of attention to either the man or the guns. They'd seen many such before; one more, or even a dozen, made no difference to the revelers. Charlie set out toward the stairwell at the end of the bar.

The noise level was such that a party of buffalo could have thundered up the stairs with no notice paid by any of the occupants of the tiny rooms on the second floor. Charlie strode down the hall, counting doorways; there were no doors, and consequently no marked room numbers. Lowered curtains of dirty damask served notice of which rooms were occupied, if the sounds coming from within did not. Charlie stopped in front of the curtain nearest the exit door leading outside.

The ex-marshal took a deep breath then ripped the curtain aside and took one long step into the tiny alcove. "FEDERAL OFFICER! MOVE AND YOU DIE!!!"

The slender, hatchet-faced man and the heavily-built woman rolling, enclasped, on the dirty cornshuck tick froze in mid-frenzy. Their eyes bulged at the sight of a large, heavily-armed man screaming from three feet away for a moment before the short horse thief tore himself from the large woman's embrace. He tumbled to the floor and scrambled on all fours toward the pile of clothing against the wall. Charlie took one long step and lashed out, the size eleven boot on his right foot impacting the thief's lean belly with enough force to slam him against the wall, where he curled into a fetal ball and deposited the contents of his stomach on the filthy boards beneath him.

"Laney Parks, you're under arrest for horse theft! Now get some britches on unless you wanna parade down Main Street in your birthday suit!"

Jacob tensed when the door at the head of the stairs opened, spilling smoky lantern light on the treads. He relaxed only slightly when he heard Charlie call, "It's me! I've got Parks, and we're comin' down!" The young lawman stepped out into the open, rifle at port arms, and watched Charlie drag the still-retching Parks down the stairs.

"What's the matter with him?"

"I reckon he got somethin' in his belly that didn't agree with him," Charlie drawled.

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Linn Keller 12-6-11


Matt and I steered the barefoot prisoner around the worst of the street offal as best we could.
The sight of a man wearing a nightshirt tented over his carcass, being hustled along by two shotgun toting badge packers, did not elicit much attention a'tall: I was more known than the prisoner, and returned a number of greetings from the few I recognized and the majority I had not the least idea who they were.
Poor old Matt, now, looked more and more puzzled, and by the time we go to the Marshal's office, he finally blurted, "Do you know everybody?"
The prisoner, for his part, alternately blustered, bullied, threatened, begged, pleaded and wheedled; when we turned the corner and the Marshal's office sign was suddenly in sight, close by and bold painted, the prisoner pulled back against our escorting grip and moaned, "Nooo," in kind of a quavery voice.
As we come up on the board walk he began to bargain, offering us unspecified reward -- he implied cash, gold, goods, never specifying what or where, of course -- and finally when we hauled him across the threshold and back to the cells he sagged as if his knees failed him.
I bent him over the cell's bunk and run my hand in my coat pocket for that thumb screw key: my one hand was on the back of McCreary's neck as I pulled his night shirt up far enough to exposed his cuffed wrists at the small of his back: I unscrewed the cuff on his right wrist, then I seized his still-cuffed wrist and cranked it up between his shoulder blades as I removed the other cuff.
Times like this I wished mightily for a set of adjustable irons that would open quick and easy with a standard key.
Matt had come into the cell block with us.
I'd had him lock the front door behind us.
I'm superstitious that-a-way.
I don't like someone coming in behind me.
I parked my double gun in the rack when we come in and Matt did the same and the Marshal come back into the cell with me and he watched real close as I took the irons off the prisoner.
It did not escape his attention that I kept a hard-handed control of McCreary, before, during and after the taking-off of the Tower cuffs.
I looked up at Matt, jerked my head: he took the hint and retreated from the cell.
I stood, my good left hand still wrapped around McCreary's wrist, and I released and stepped quickly backwards at the same time, swinging the cell door shut.
McCreary stayed bent over like that, and when the door slammed shut -- I deliberately slammed it, intending it should make the most sound possible -- I reckon it sounded like the iron door of doom closing around his soul.
Matt turned the big, heavy key in the big, heavy lock, and I thrust a chin toward the front of the Marshal's office.
Likely Charlie and Jacob would come bringing in a prisoner here directly, and I wanted to get started on the paper work.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-6-11


"Damn it, there's broken glass in this here alley!" the prisoner whined as he danced ungracefully through the puncturevines and broken whiskey bottles that were scattered haphazardly the length of the alley.

"I do believe you're right," Charlie agreed with a jovial grin that never came close to reaching his hazel eyes. He wrapped his hand around the horse thief's upper arm and started toward the street. "So I reckon we'd best be goin'." He was nearly dragging Parks through the alley.

The jail was only a block from the mouth of the alley and Parks' reaction was similar to that of his saddle partner when he sighted the MARSHAL sign on the building. He stopped stock still then began to yank on his arm in a vain attempt to escape from his captor, cursing all the while. Charlie suddenly was tired of messing with the man who had stolen his prized mares. He spun on his heel and, using the momentum of the spin, drove his work-hardened right fist into Parks’ gut. The smaller man folded with a gassy wheeze and slumped to the boardwalk. Charlie looked down at him, handed his shotgun to Jacob then bent and lifted Parks off of the boardwalk by the back of his belt. "You have the right to remain silent," he intoned solemnly as he began to drag the nearly unconscious Parks toward the jail.

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Linn Keller 12-7-11


Sarah boosted Angela up into the saddle.
Angela, giggling, leaned forward and patted Rosebud's neck.
Sarah stepped back and turned her head a little -- a very little -- as if listening to, or looking for, some subtle change.
Esther watched, her hands folded; she could see Sarah's face, and she saw an expression of wonder cross it, and Esther smiled a secret little smile, for she knew what Sarah was seeing.
Esther saw it every time Sarah climbed on her racer, every time she mounted one of her Uncle's horses, every time she'd taken a deep seat in saddle leather: there was a change, an indefinable something.
Perhaps Jacob said it best, she thought.
It's not that they are horse and rider, he'd told her after watching Sarah swarm aboard a lively mount and streak across the meadow, flowing over the gate like stream-water over a submerged rock: it's more like they become one magical creature, riding the wind itself, and Esther heard her husband's soul in their son's voice.
She knew this is what Sarah saw: a change, subtle but real, where Angela surrendered her bipedal existence to merge, to meld, to flow and conmingle her very essence with the living soul of the golden mare she rode.
Esther heard Linn and Charlie discussing fighting tools and techniques one night, over brandy and conversation in the Sheriff's study, and she remembered something mentioned in passing:
"The Ninja believe a warrior's spirit flows into the weapon and it becomes an extension of the living being."
Esther paused outside the door, listening: she was not eavesdropping as much as taken by the description, and so she waited, knowing more was to follow.
"I have picked up a tool or a rifle, a knife or a shotgun, and when it's right, when it fits me ... well, that's what it feels like."
Esther waved as Sarah plucked the boar-spear from the fencepost where she'd leaned it: she worked it into her right stirrup, like a knight settling a jousting-lance into its socket, and sunlight flashed brightly from the silver cross its blade-and-crossguard formed.
Another age, another era and she could be an armored warrior-maiden, riding into battle, Esther thought, and remembered how it felt to be young, and strong, astride a good horse and imagining herself invulnerable, immortal ...
Esther blinked at the happy sound of her little girl's "Go, horsie!" and the sight of the two girls riding toward the far end of the meadow, each running for the sheer unadulterated joy of running, and Esther smiled again.
She knew just how that felt.

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Linn Keller 12-8-11


Matt looked up from the paper to me, puzzlement on his face.
"How," he asked, "how did you know the distances involved ...?"
I saw Charlie's look: the lean, muscled ex-marshal paused in pouring coffee, and he winked knowingly at me.
I tried to look innocent and I'm afraid I ended up looking as puzzled as Matt. Mentally marking the distance was second nature to me.
Maybe it's because I draw maps, or maybe it's because I got in the habit early of sketching a diagram of encounters that might end up in court, and such sketches are better served with distances noted on them.
Time or two I've set up demonstrations in court -- given a big enough courtroom -- using my sketches as a guide, to show the court, the jury and the wrangling lawyers, where who was, what the distances were, and sometimes re-enact an event for their edification.
Besides, the Chinese have a saying, "The weakest ink is stronger than the strongest memory" and I dislike trusting too much to memory.
A man has so much on his mind every day and has to handle information constantly, and it's easy for small details to be honestly forgotten.
I considered Matt's question.
"I normally sketch these out," I explained, "and automatically pace off a measure where possible, and make an accurate estimate where I can't."
"Mmm." Matt bent his head again, chin wrapped in curled fingers.
Charlie sampled the coffee and found it considerably less offensive than what I usually made.
Of course, it was Matt and not me that made the batch Charlie was sampling.
"When you make your sketch, include everything, label everything." My pen hovered over the paper, a pointer rather than a marker: "leave nothing to chance. If I fell over dead five minutes from now you could take my report and this sketch and give a complete presentation in court.
"Now you'll need the sworn affidavits." I tapped the short pile of hand written pages. "Mine, Jacob's, Charlie's. Also a list of witnesses' names and what address they admit to."
"Admit to?" Matt asked quickly.
I nodded. "Not everyone will give you their real name, not everyone will give their real address. If you go back after the fact looking for witnesses you may not find them." I smiled wryly. "Don't be surprised if that's the rule and not the exception."
"I see." He blinked and drew back a little, digesting this unpleasant reality.
"You want to get your witness statements right away. Get them on that moment, while it's fresh in their minds, while they are still there. Have them sign it and have it witnessed. Get their name and where they can be found but again -- bear in mind they may not want to be found, and may well give you an alias."
Matt sighed, shaking his head.
"Not as easy as you figured, is it?"
"No," he admitted.
"Okay. So much for the warrant I came to serve." I stacked the papers, set them aside, brought over another bundle. "Now for the Miner's Rest."
We sorted through the witness statements I'd gotten that night, while Matt was frankly out of his element: as he was there at the time, he would be giving first hand testimony at the inquest, but on my instruction, once we'd gotten back here to his office, I'd had him sit down and write down what he remembered.
Good thing, too.
I could tell he was learning from everything that was happening, and I could see the man was flogging himself for missing things that were second nature to me. Matter of fact I told him as much: that nobody is born knowin' this, he would learn as he went, most of it was common sense.
Matt's deputy had come in and he was green as Matt, so I had little hope Cripple would be well protected that night, but the man was willing to give it his best, so Matt turned the town over to him and the four of us -- Charlie, Jacob, Matt and myself -- walked down an alley and through a couple back streets to a boarding house Matt knew of, one that was clean and had decent food.
I was tired and I was hungry and it was late, and I wanted nothing more than a bath and a bunk and something to keep my ribs from clatterin' together.
Once I got my belly full and my carcass scrubbed off I laid down and started to compose a complaint about how difficult it was to get to sleep with all the carryin' on in a mining town.
I think I lay awake all of twenty seconds.

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Linn Keller 12-10-11


Her name was Mrs. Ecksenkemper.
She was a patient soul, a tired soul, she was a widow woman -- seems like most women who ran a boarding-house were widows -- and right now she was brushing hair out of her face with one hand, holding wet sheet over the clothesline with the other, clothes pins in her mouth and fatigue in her features.
The Sheriff snatched the tag end of the sheet before it could hit the ground and helped pull it up and taut.
Two extra hands were a great help: Mrs. Ecksenkemper quickly folded and the sheet over and stabbed the clothes pins down over the wet cotton before it could make its escape.
It might have made an odd sight: the Sheriff helping a boarding-house widow hang laundry: but if any noted any oddity, none were foolish enough to offer comment: local legend held that those pale eyes could see through the side of an oak barn, start fires at half a mile and split rocks.
This was, of course, an exaggeration, as the Sheriff was quick to point out: he said with a perfectly straight face he'd never been able to glare a fire into life any anything past a quarter of a mile, and that with a favorable wind and a sunny day.
Of course, in that moment, both he and his companions were lurching westward in a Concord coach, and the men aboard had put their eternal souls in major jeopardy, as each was bored and spontaneously every one there tried his level best to out-lie the other.
It is possible that note was made of this pale-eyed Sheriff's kindly assistance to the widow-woman's laundering efforts, and perhaps it's because none wished to have ice-lightning sear through a wet bedsheet and blast their essence from their bones in one blinding flash.
Or it could be that the Sheriff and the widow-woman were talking, and laughing a little, and it seemed the most natural, easy, unaffected thing in the world.
The window Ecksenkemper laughed at the Sheriff's description of how his little Angela followed the trick rider through town, and how the trick rider stood up in the saddle, and his little girl did too: how the trick rider stood balanced on one leg and pulled the other up and how his little girl did too: and how, finally, the trick rider galloped the length of the main street standing on her hands, and his little girl stopped in front of the crowd that was emptied out in front of the Silver Jewel, and she said with wide-eyed innocence, "I can't do that," and how she'd been borne on triumphant shoulders of laughing men into the Jewel, and fed enough pie and sarsparilla to absolutely ruin her supper.
There was a little silence as the Sheriff went to the porch and packed another basket of wet linens to the remaining empty clothes-lines.
"Sheriff," Mrs. Ecksenkemper said tiredly, "you will never know how much work you saved me today."
The Sheriff looked at her almost sadly.
"Ma'am," he said softly, "after a day in court, I needed something kindly to take my mind off the world."
Mrs. Ecksenkemper tilted her head a little, as if assessing the state of the Sheriff's appetite, or perhaps his physique.
"Do you know, Sheriff," she said with a remarkable candor, "you are the first man here who has not asked me why I am not married."
The Sheriff's eyes crinkled a little with amusement.
"Ma'am, I didn't figure 'twas any of my business."
The widow Ecksenkemper nodded, picked up the corner of a wet bedsheet; the Sheriff came over and helped her stretch it out, high enough so it didn't drag the ground.
"I would have told you the same as I've told everyone else," she said, hesitating; "I have a chimney that smokes, a parrot that swears and a cat that stays out all night, why ever would I need a man?"
She popped a quartet of clothes pins between her teeth, grinning around her woody fangs, as the Sheriff nodded and chuckled and reached for another wet bedsheet.
It took a lot of linen to keep a good boarding-house clean and properly made up.
"Ma'am, I've never heard that one before," he laughed. "I have a friend that will like that one real well."
"Is she pretty?" the Widow Ecksenkemper asked, a mischievous glint to her eyes.
"Ma'am," the Sheriff said frankly, "she has skin like milk, hair as red as a rain-a-comin' sunset, eyes blue as a South Pacific ocean. She is chin tall on me and was she here I could likely wrap my hands around her waist and touch my thumbs and the tips of my middle fingers." He made an O with the described digits, grinning as he talked.
"Now, Sheriff," the Widow Ecksenkemper said, plucking the last of the clothes pins from her mouth and pressing it into place, "what would happen if you were to take her around the waist with your finger tips touching?"
The Sheriff threw his head back and laughed.
"Ma'am, if we had a dance that night, she would put her arms around my neck and we would waltz until someone else wanted to trade partners." His own eyes were darkened with pleasure. "And if it was any other venue a'tall, she would haul back that good Irish hand of hers and belt me across the face fit to spin my nose around back of my head!"
"I take it she's not your wife."
"No ma'am, she's not. She married our fire chief and right now she is the high priestess of a fine Irish clan, and if she don't quit bearin' children, why, they're going to outnumber everyone in town!"
The Widow Ecksenkemper gathered her empty laundry baskets.
"And will that be a bad thing?" she asked, raising one eyebrow.
"No, ma'am," the Sheriff shook his head, relieving her of the baskets: she led the way back to the back porch. "That will not be a bad thing a'tall."
"Come on inside."
The Sheriff wiped his boots on the cocoa-nut mat on the bottom step.
"I don't usually fix a noon meal, Sheriff, but you've saved me enough time I think we can scare up something to eat."
"I'd take that kindly, ma'am," the Sheriff said, removing his hat: "my stomach is wrapped around my back bone an' my ribs is startin' to clatter as I walk."

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Linn Keller 12-11-11


I sipped the butter milk slowly, savoring it: I knew it would gas me up terribly later, but for now it was quite good, cool and soothing to my belly.
Cold beef and bread and some beans made a fine noonday meal: the Widow Ecksenkemper apologized for the simple fare, but I assured her it was quite good ... which, in truth, it most certainly was.
When we'd pretty much finished, she set a pie out on the table and commenced to slice it up.
"I'll have pie with supper tonight," she said, "and it'll save time to cut it now. Why don't you try a piece and make sure it's not spoiled."
She had ... well, I've never seen an imp so I can't say she had an impish look about her, and I don't want to tag a widow-woman with the handle "ornery" but she give me a look as if we were two schoolkids getting away with something.
I grinned and nodded.
"I will admit to being superstitious," I said quietly, accepting pie and fork: "I think it's bad luck to turn down such a kind offer!"
We both laughed and we each started working on that good fresh pie, barely cooled from the oven.
Mrs. Ecksenkemper tilted her head a little the way a woman will when a woman is considering something and right before she asks a question.
I raised one eyebrow.
"Did you tell me that was your son, with you last night?"
I nodded.
"Yes, ma'am. Jacob, my firstborn."
"He favors you," she said frankly, resting an elbow on the tablecloth and her chin on her palm.
"Oh, I wouldn't wish that on anyone," I groaned, and she smiled.
"Is he coming soon? I could save him some beef ..."
"No, ma'am." I slid my fork under the crimped back edge of that apple pie crust. Sugar crystals sparkled off it and I knew she'd spread it with milk and dusted a little sugar on it.
Sugar was almost a luxury and her taking the trouble to use it for us, well, I reckon that meant we must have struck her fancy.
"No, he and Charlie -- Marshal McNeil -- took his recovered horses and are pushing back toward home."
"How was the trial?"
I set my fork down slowly, carefully.
I sighed, looked out the window.
"Well, that fire eater of a prosecuting attorney called me seven kinds of a murderin' monster, until I produced sworn affidavits, three witnesses and set up a re-enactment there in the court room."
"Oh, dear," she murmured.
"I realize the man wants to get to the truth -- or he's supposed to want that," I said quietly, my jaw tightening a little and shoving out the way it did when my temper was warming -- "but this young shavetail started out callin' me every name but decent."
The widow Ecksenkemper sighed sadly. "I understand attorneys do that."
"I was of a mind to speak to him afterwards," I said slowly, "but I don't reckon either my methods nor my language would be very Christian in nature."
I picked up the tall, heavy glass and drained it, sluicing the last of the butter milk across my tongue to try and get rid of the bad taste in my mouth.
"You have just a trace of a Southern accent." She tilted her head again. "I can picture you on a plantation with a dueling-pistol in hand, paced off to satisfy your manly honor." Her words were light, teasing; I chose to take them as such and grinned.
"Ma'am," I said, taking a long breath and letting most of it out, "a man's honor is a precious thing . Once it's stained it can never come clean again. I reckon I proved that shavetail a liar on every point he made, and in fairness he turned his cannon right around and pointed it square at the horse thieves we took in.
"I prevailed upon him not to land on the fellow who bought those stolen horses. He wanted to prefer charges of receiving stolen property and aiding and abetting ..." I grinned at the widow-woman -- "another reason right there I think he's new at his job and tryin' to set up a reputation for himself."
The widow Ecksenkemper nodded, taking a delicate sip of her butter milk. She lifted the cool, sweating crock pitcher and I smiled and shook my head.
"I allowed as he'd come up ag'in the rough side of a US Marshal and lost two hundred dollars in the process and likely that was punishment enough." I leaned back in my chair and chuckled. "It still took His Honor's gavel and a stern admonition to get that young cockerel to quit bristling up!"
Her laughter was good to hear.
I don't reckon she laughed much these days, for she was a woman alone, and keeping a boarding-house was nothing short of just plain hard work.
I stood and thanked her kindly for the meal.
"Ma'am, I reckon I'd best square up our bill," I said.
She blinked, surprised.
"Marshal McNeil already paid for his," she said. "You have been nothing but proper with me, Sheriff, and I would not lie to you."
I nodded.
"Ma'am, our trip was official business, and the County is paying for it." I counted out what I knew the amount should be, laid it on the table.
"Why don't you take what the Marshal give you, for your birthday present, for I reckon he missed your birthday last year."
I smiled a little as she bit her bottom lip.
Finally she nodded, turned away: I went on upstairs and gathered what few things I'd brought.
I left her a little something on the dresser, where she could find it easy.
It was not excessive but I figured she could put it to good use, and she would not find it until I was long gone.
I opened the front door, looked around the way I always did, before stepping outside and closing the door behind me.
It wasn't terribly far to the livery; the depot was across town; I checked my watch.
The train would be along in about an hour, and Esther would have seen to it that the stock car was attached.
I thought of my green-eyed wife and smiled.
A wagon and team labored down the street, horse-hooves the size of iron-shod dish pans clumping heavily on the packed dirt: trace-chains and harness-bells jingled, the big draft horses grunted and blew and the wagon rumbled by, pick-handles sticking up here and there through the jumbled cargo.
Unwashed humanity jostled along the board walk, worn boots loud on the warped and dirty boards: hats of several descriptions were borne along by men of varying heights and features, and the smell of tobacco, stale beer and tobacco spit swirled on the breeze.
I went on down the alley, saddlebags over my shoulder, rifle in hand.
It would feel good to get home.

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Linn Keller 12-12-11


They rode without care or complaint, they rode in joy and in laughter: the angel and the knight-errant, together in the high meadow.
Angela squatted a little, her flat-soled shoes carefully placed on her saddle-skirt, her bottom lip pushed up as she concentrated in getting her stance just right: she let go of the cantle and stood, spreading her arms and laughing as her Rosebud flowed across the crackling brown grass.
"Sawwah!" she laughed, "look at me! Look at me!"
Sarah laughed with her, pacing her easily on her racer, the boar-spear upright in her hand like a knightly lance: her eyes shone and she knew in that one, rare, brief moment, what it must feel like to be immortal.

The Sheriff draped the reins over the hitch rail, fetched his rifle out of the scabbard.
He'd already parked his ten-bore in the rack back in his office.
The train ride back to Firelands was uneventful; the man sat on a saddle blanket draped over a bale of hay in the stock car and stared unmoving at the opposite wall.
He'd not said a word when the train stopped and the ramp was set in place; he rode his red mare out of the stock car, straightening in the saddle as they came into the open air, and pointed her nose toward the main street, confident that his grip would be brought to the Sheriff's office here directly.
The tall lawman with the iron-grey mustache paused only briefly at the Sheriff's office to park his howitzer before mounting again and crossing the packed dirt street to the Silver Jewel.
He carried his engraved '73 rifle in his left hand, gripping it at its balance point; he nodded to Tilly, behind her counter, and raised a finger to Mr. Baxter.
The pomaded barkeep with the beautifully swept handlebar mustache nodded, once: he reached under the bar and brought out an ornate bottle of amber liquid, poured a tumbler full for the Sheriff.
The lawman with the iron grey mustache and the pale, ice-blue eyes nodded once, picked up the glass and made his way back to the Lawman's Corner, to the table unofficially reserved for the badge packer and his guests.
He laid the rifle across the table in front of him and set the distilled amber in front of him, tilted his hat brim down a little and took a long, slow breath.
He picked up the tumbler and tilted it a little.
In his mind's eye he saw a chiseled marble stone, polished and incised: he remembered the last he'd stood in front of the stone, the dirt in front of it still raw, barely sprouting to grass: it was a lawman's stone, his best friend's stone, not far from the man's grandfather and in amongst friends and kindred of all kinds.
The Sheriff dribbled a little red liquor to the tabletop, then gazed into its fragrant depths.
"I got him, Bob," he whispered, feeling a sting in his eyes, "you can rest easy now," and he tilted the glass up and drank.
It was half empty when he set it down.

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Linn Keller 12-14-11


Daisy wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist.
The wet-nurse was a Godsend, and she was finally getting some rest at night; the Bear Killer seemed to show up right when he was needed the most, which helped as well; her boys, now, her boys were typical noisy healthy active lads, which she shooed outdoors as often as possible, at least until one came bringing a kitty home ... a woods kitty, the kind with a white spotted back, the kind that smelled really, really bad.
Right now Daisy was soap suds to her elbows, her nose was wrinkled, her eyes were still burning, and she was considering that she would have to burn not just Little Sean's clothes -- everything from his smallclothes out -- but also her apron and her dress as well, and only the fact that infanticide was a hanging offense kept her from drowning Little Sean in the steaming tub of hot soapy water.
She expressed her displeasure through the vigor of her scrubbing: she used a scrub brush and plenty of good lye soap, and Little Sean had not been quite so pink and glowing in a very long time.
He'd protested his bath but not for long.
Daisy had a good handful of his Irish-red hair wound into her fingers, Daisy's grip was unbreakable and Daisy had fetched the lad out and smacked her wet hand briskly across his glowing red backside in response to his protests: it only took one set of flat handed slaps to persuade the ill-smelling lad that it was in his best interest to submit to his dear Mama's ministrations, uncomfortable though they be.
The breeze shifted and Daisy gratefully took a long breath of clean air.
"Sean Michael," she muttered through clenched teeth, "if you ever touch one o' those devil's cats again, I'll knock you int' th' middle o' next week!"
"Wednesday or Thursday?" Little Sean piped, then yelped, for Daisy brought him out of the tub by the hair of his head and smacked his backside again.

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Linn Keller 12-15-11


The Sheriff's step was regular and steady, his carriage erect, his eye clear and his gaze direct: he slid a coin across the bar to Mr. Baxter and gave one solemn faced but courteous nod: touching his hat brim as he passed Tilly, he pushed open the ornate front door and stepped out onto the board walk.
He took a step to the left, as was his habit, getting the solid wall of the Silver Jewel behind him, and surveyed the street, giving it a deceptively casual looking over, but missing nothing.
A cur dog yapped after a freight wagon clattering and rumbling down the street; Mr. Mac was sweeping the boardwalk in front of the Mercantile, and the Sheriff raised a hand in salute: Mr. Mac raised his chin, frowning as usual, which was his common, cheeerful expression: ever since his checker playing buddy Bill had gone back into the priesthood, checker games were not as frequent as he liked, even if the sky pilot did stop and play him a game or three every trip into town.
The Sheriff's only concession to the fiery payload he'd imbibed was a slow stroll down the three steps, from boardwalk to street level: normally he took them quickly, clop-clop, clop: two quick steps, then a pause as he came down on the dirt: today it was a slow, measured clop, clop, clop.
He looked steadily at Cannonball, a if assessing the red horse, and Cannonball turned to look at the Sheriff.
"Hey Soapy!" came the cheerful hail from across the street. "You gonna crowd them birds outta the sky ag'in t'day?"
The Sheriff patted Cannonball's neck, whispered something, gathered reins in hand: he swung into the saddle with the ease of a horseman born, turned the red horse and cantered placidly down the middle of the hard packed dirt thoroughfare, looking every bit the professional, efficient, controlled, cold-eyed but warm-hearted lawman the dime novels talk about.
The Sheriff stopped long enough to lock the door of his office; there were no prisoners to tend, the fire was banked in the cast iron stove, and the Sheriff was a-horse within three minutes' time.
The Sheriff steered a course past the firehouse, then doubled back, behind the whitewashed church: Mrs. Parson -- that is, Parson Belden's wife -- was setting pies out to cool on the back porch, and the Sheriff lifted his hat in greeting, wishing for a moment he was a lad again so he might try and snatch a cooling pie ... he almost smiled at the thought, for he caught a glimpse of a juvenile skulker around the corner: the lad looked at the Sheriff and his face fell and the lawman could almost hear the whispered "He caught me!" of the freckled boy's thought: the Sheriff winked and never broke stride, and continued on to the graveyard.
He drew up at the fancy cast iron archway and leaned his palms on the saddle horn, stretching his back out a little until something popped and he sighed, and he looked at the garden of stone over for several minutes, remembering ... then he turned, rode into the little hollow below the graveyard, where the hangin' tree spread its massive limbs.
He looked at the message drop he and Sopris used so many times.
Just in case Sopris came around, he left a message every week: nothing fancy, just an invite to stop and say howdy, the coffee pot was on and he didn't make the coffee.
The page he left two days before was still under the rock placed on it, but just to be sure, he lifted the rock, turned the page over, placed it back and replaced the rock.
Sopris remained in retirement.
The Sheriff could not blame the man.
I know what it is to have my heart broke, he thought.
Had I a career behind me and then lost Connie and our little Dana, likely I would do exactly as he.
"Be well, my friend," he whispered, remembering the last time he saw the man, sitting on the bench in a pleasant mountain clearing, both of them hurting from losing someone they both loved.
The Sheriff turned and the ground wobbled under foot.
I'd best get home, he thought.
Two Hit John is a-hittin' me.

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Linn Keller 12-16-11


Bonnie looked up and smiled as Sarah came through the front door.
Sarah set the boar-spear in the near corner and skipped up to her Mama, hugging her quickly and kissing her cheek: Bonnie put down her pencil and hugged her daughter back, delighting in the clean smell of the outdoors that clung to her.
"How was Charlie?" she asked, and Sarah threw her head back and laughed.
"Oh, Mama," she said after stopping and taking a long breath, "I didn't get that far!" Her eyes were still shining with the memory as she continued, "I stopped at Uncle Linn's and Angela wanted to ride, and of course I couldn't tell her no, and Aunt Esther asked me to ride with her" -- here Sarah paused, drew herself properly erect and folded her hands in pious imitation of her beloved aunt, and repeated in a voice that indeed sounded rather like the woman -- "It would mean so very much to her, dear," and Bonnie laughed as well: Sarah blinked quickly, the very image of innocence, and she joined her Mama in the moment's good humor.
Sarah turned and sat down, ladylike in spite of britches and riding boots.
"Mama, Mrs. Cooper wants me to help her teach," she said, changing subjects as easily as a railroad switches an engine to another track: "I'm not sure I know enough."
Bonnie leaned forward in her swivel chair and took her daughter's hands, patting them gently.
"My dear, you scored the highest of any student she has ever known on your examinations," Bonnie said reassuringly. "In my experience, the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. If ever you had doubts about your abilities, teaching them is the one best way to make sure you know them very, very well!"
Sarah nodded, her eyes shifting, and Bonnie wondered where Sarah's wide ranging thoughts would take her next.
"Charlie might not have had time to get home yet," she said thoughtfully. "I suppose a wasted trip wouldn't be the best use of my time."
"How soon does Mrs. Cooper want your help?" Bonnie asked in her quiet, thoughtful voice.
Sarah made a face.
"She asked me yesterday, Mama, and I thought about it last night and slept on it like you taught me."
Bonnie was inwardly pleased at this: it always pleases a parent when their young take parental advice to heart: Bonnie taught Sarah at a young age that an important decision, whenever possible, should be put off until you can sleep on it, and Sarah had.
"And ...?"
Sarah's smile was bright as her honesty was pure.
"I wanted one more day for me. I wanted one more day to ride and to jump Racer and have wind in my face and feel like I could spread wings and soar into the mountains!"
Bonnie squeezed Sarah's hands approvingly.
"Then you did the right thing, sweets," she said.
"I know, Mama," Sarah said, blinking, then: "I wasn't too selfish, was I, Mama?"
Bonnie gave her daughter a knowing look.
"Sometimes we women just have to take that time for ourselves," she whispered. "Now let's go look at your dresses and see what's appropriate for our new schoolmarm."
"Mama!" Sarah protested. "I'm not an old maid!"
"Neither is Mrs. Cooper," Bonnie said, and Sarah did not miss the knowing smile behind her Mama's eyes.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-16-11


The spotted mares and their tired offspring were happy to be back in their home pasture. For the last ten miles there had been no capering and play among the colts, just the dogged determination to follow their dams back to familiar surroundings. It was only when they heard the whickered greetings of their herdmates that the animals picked up their pace, trotting toward the open gate that they knew led to feed, shelter and water.

It was long past full dark when Charlie tiredly drew rein in front of the barn, stepped down from the saddle and loosened the cinch. The roan gelding was a horse that liked to travel wide country, but this cold December night it was as happy as the mares to be back where there was grain and there was shelter from the cold December wind. Charlie slung his saddle and blankets on the rack in the tack room, turned the roan into its big box stall then slipped off the bridle and hung it on its peg. As the roan began to nuzzle the papery discs of the oats in its manger Charlie gave it a quick rubdown with a coarse burlap grain sack then stepped from the stall and latched the gate. Slinging his saddlebags and blanket roll over his shoulder and taking his rifle in hand the tired rancher strode from the barn toward the warm golden light spilling from the windows of the house in the hollow.

The twisting of the chill breeze through the hollow belied the wind that blew across the frost-cured grass of the rolling prairie beyond and brought the scent of roasting elk meat and boiled Arbuckle's to his nose; Charlie's belly rumbled in anticipation of the first real meal he'd had since leaving Cripple Creek before daylight the morning before. On the trail he'd made do with jerky, some crumbly dried out biscuits and cold spring water.

The door swung open to spill warmth and light across the hoof-packed soil of the ranch yard. Fannie stood silhouetted in the doorway, her right hand resting on the doorframe. "Evenin', Darlin'," Charlie said, his heart beating faster as it always did at sight of the woman he had loved for so many years. His hunger and his weariness from so many hours in the saddle were forgotten as he stepped up onto the sill stone and she moved back so he could enter. He stepped in and kicked the door shut with his heel, dropped saddlebags and blanket roll to the floor, hung his pistol belt and rifle on the pegs alongside the door then reached out to pull his wife to his chest.

Beneath his unbuttoned coat her arms wrapped around his waist in a tight embrace. Her body was warm and soft against him, her face was tilted up to his and her emerald eyes were glowing. "I missed you, Sugar," she breathed softly as their lips met. Their first kiss was short, the sweetness of her lips taking his breath away. He shrugged out of his heavy sheepskin-lined coat, letting it fall to the floor in a heap as he swept her up in his arms. As their lips met again in a long, heated kiss he leaned back against the wall to maintain his balance, hooked first one bootheel, then the other, on the boot jack and drew off his boots. When their lips parted again he strode through the kitchen, her head on his shoulder and her arms about his neck, to deposit her gently on the hand-tied quilt that covered their warm, soft bed...

Some time later, Charlie slipped from beneath the covers, moving slowly so as not to waken his bride. The floor was cold on his bare feet as his toes sought his fleece-lined slippers. He picked up his heavy, long flannel robe from the chair beside the bed and wrapped the warm fabric around his goose-pimpled body then stepped silently into the kitchen. The pan of elk roast sat on the counter nearest the stove, the coffeepot beside it. Both meat and coffee were still warm, just barely, as he cut a pair of generous slices from a loaf of Fannie's good bread. He piled thick slabs of the roast between the slices of bread and took a big bite. He chewed blissfully, the tender meat practically melting on his tongue.

When the sandwich was gone he poured and drank a cup of nearly cold coffee, added some sticks of wood to the firebox of the big Monarch range then he blew out the lamp on the kitchen table, returned to the bedroom and slipped back beneath the covers. Drowsily Fannie turned toward him to lay a soft warm arm across his chest and they snuggled together beneath the down comforters and heavy quilts. As her warmth washed over him, Charlie's eyes slid closed and sleep rolled over him like a comforting wave.

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Linn Keller 12-18-11


Sarah lay awake, staring at the ceiling.
She did not toss restlessly; she did not roll over and pound her pillow into shape, or fold it in half, or fold it over her head: she lay dead still, relaxed, eyes open, watching the patterns her retinas painted on the darkness overhead.
Sarah thought of the interior of their one room schoolhouse.
Sarah thought of children, watching the schoolmarm, listening to instruction: learning by recitation, by memorization, by exercise: she thought of how patient Miz Emma had always been, and still was, and how she was ideally suited to educate young minds.
Sarah thought of herself, bent over a schoolboy’s shoulder, her finger tracing a word, helping him sound it out, or sitting beside a schoolgirl, showing her with quick strokes of the pencil how to shape a letter, or a number, or to cipher out a problem.
Sarah thought of the stultifying boredom of listening to other students recite memorized speeches, or the states and their capitals, or the Presidents.
Sarah imagined her own hair, snared and trapped in a schoolmarm’s severe bun, an ever-present pencil thrust into it, and how the world through the schoolhouse windows looked green and enticing, how fall leaves tapped with mischievous fingers at the windows, how snowflakes swirled and promised beauty and frosty adventure if only she would come out, come out, come out and play, play, play …
Sarah closed her eyes and remembered what it felt like to ride Racer, with wind cold and stinging her cheeks, her hair free and her hat falling back on its storm strap: she remembered walking Racer, and how natural it was to move with her horse, and how she’d smiled, realizing she did not have to think about moving with her horse, and how she’d stopped as the sun just touched the far mountain peaks … she’d stopped and turned Racer, slowly, walking him in a full circle, looking, just looking, and wondering … remembering … each point of the compass held a memory, but the memories were only a short distance away … and her eyes traveled to the mountains, and the passes, and she wondered, What lies beyond?
A dark figure slouched against one wall, chewing on a match stick: she recognized her self, or one of her selves: black boots and britches, black shirt and vest, black hat and gunbelt, and a sneer.
She stifled the sudden impulse to get up and slap the sneer off her own face.
Another of her selves glided into the room: Sarah could see her plainly, though she still lay flat on her back, unmoving: it was herself, in a bridal gown, clutching a bouquet, holding the faint ghost of her Uncle Linn’s arm.
Another self, in a plain, mousy-grey dress, her hair tightly controlled, spectacles perched well down on her nose and chalk-dust on her bosom.
Other selves, not so clearly seen: one distant, but with lighter hair, riding a copper-red horse, screaming with delight as she launched over a steel pipe gate, a six-pointed star bright on her vest … Sarah tried to see her more clearly, and for a moment, for just a moment, she saw her very clearly, but pulled away from the vision, for she wore Uncle Linn’s star and her Uncle Linn’s Colts, and she could see the engraved receiver of her Uncle Linn’s rifle in her grip, but worn, old somehow …
Her black-clad self shifted the matchstick and sneered, “Schoolmarm?”
Another of her selves, in one of her mother’s gowns she’d modeled in Denver, glided forward, head tilted a little as if studying her darker self.
“It is an honorable profession,” she said stiffly: she’d heard her Uncle Linn speak thusly, and felt it appropriate.
“Schoolmarm.” Disdain fairly dripped from her curled lips. “Trapped in a little building, protected from the world, seeing four walls and little children for the rest of your life.”
“There are worse –“ she countered.
“Worse what?” She gave a sharp, derisive bark of laughter. “Worse ways to die, maybe? I dunno about that, sister! Die of boredom, die from inertia?”
Her dark self seized an unseen window, threw it open: light flooded the room, light from sunrise on mountain peaks, light from an early morning meadow, light gleaming from railroad tracks, long and straight across an immense prairie: Sarah could see a fort through the window, then buffalo flowing across the prairie like a living brown carpet: she saw the ocean, curling against the sandy beaches, she saw rivers broad and narrow and she saw antelope and mountain sheep and Texas longhorns, and she saw herself, sprinting across a Denver street, leaping on a runaway carriage horse’s back in a desperate – and successful – attempt at stopping the runaway.
Sarah saw herself firing her Colt at the edge of a playing card, seeing it split in two, the halves fluttering to the ground: she saw herself, putting shot after shot into the man that shot at herself and her little cousin, she saw herself in her Mama’s office, facing the man who was going to kill them: she was screaming and thumbing the hammer back again and again and again, sliphammering the .44 revolver hidden in the rag doll that gave her a nickname and a reputation.
The black-sleeved arm raised, the black-gloved hand drew the window shut, and the room was dark again.
She heard the sneering voice once more.
“Shut up,” Sarah whispered, dismissing the dark figure: all of her selves evaporated in a silent hiss, dissipating in a momentarily-luminous puff of fog-vapor.
Sarah threw her covers back: she dressed quickly, belting on her Colts; snatching up her rifle in one hand, she picked up her boots and crept downstairs.
Another minute and she was outside.
Sarah parked her rifle against the porch rail and buttoned her coat, for it was frosty cold out.
She walked across the lot toward the barn, slipped between the gate bars: she looked toward the bunk house and saw a thin curl of smoke from the chimney.
She had an impulse to go talk to Sam, but Sam worked hard all day – harder than most men, both she and Clark – and Sarah would not disturb their rest.
Sarah eased the barn door open just far enough to slip inside, then drew it to.
She heard the sound of their horses: whispering to them, she caressed her Racer’s flank, then slipped into the next stall, caressed the velvety nose that nuzzled at her, snuffing loudly in the nighttime stillness.
Sarah fondled Butter’s ears, then threw her arms around her beloved old Butter-horse’s neck.
“I don’t know what to do,” she whispered, shivering a little as she squeezed her eyes shut and a tear started down her left cheek. “I don’t know what to do, Butter!”

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Charlie MacNeil 12-18-11


The subconscious frets, the subconscious mulls over problems and seeks solutions, the subconscious sounds alarms when necessary. The subconscious can be restless, can be awake and alert while the rest of mind and body are deep in slumber. And the subconscious can be as subtle as a lover's soft fingers or as intrusive as the first rooster crow at sunrise.

Charlie's eyes snapped open. He kept his breathing level and slow as he listened intently for some sound, some indication of what had jarred him from sleep to instant wakefulness. The only sounds to reach his straining ears were the settling of the smoldering sticks in the firebox of the Monarch range at the far side of the kitchen, Fannie's deep, slow breaths. The quiet was so deep that he could hear his heartbeat. Then the sorrowful sounds of a young woman's emotional turmoil seemed to drift softly through the chill air of the room and gooseflesh marched across his skin despite the warmth of the quilts that covered him.

Tempered by distance and the softly falling flakes of snow that had begun to appear in the frigid air as the night progressed toward the witching hour, a long, mournful howl drifted on the night wind, seeming to echo from the very firmament. The tone and timbre of the wild voice seemed familiar; the great silver wolf, perhaps? Something, some primal reaction to the sound, stirred in the chest of the man and he shivered in his warm bed. Near the cast iron range's warmth the great black Dawg rumbled a soft growl like the clatter of stream-tossed boulders at first runoff and that seemed to come from the very depths of the earth. The two warriors, man and canine, bound by ties of blood and battle, each felt the anguish and uncertainty that drifted on the wind. And instinctively both knew the source of the weeping.

"It's your life, girl. I can't help you this time," Charlie whispered softly into the chill night. "You'll have to follow your heart." And with the words came sleep once again.

For a fleeting instant Sarah felt a comforting hand on her shoulder and three words echoed through her mind: "Follow your heart...follow your heart...follow your heart..."

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Linn Keller 12-19-11


Sam and Clark were already breakfasted, saddled up and on the far end of the ranch by the time Sarah’s feet hit the floor.
This did not inconvenience her in the least, at least as far as hitching Butter up to the buggy: Jelly watched – sadly, Sarah thought – as her hitch-mate was buckled and made fast to the fine carriage.
Sarah’s dress was intentionally plain, as befit a schoolmarm: one wished to present a subdued appearance, after all: to wear aught else would upstage Mrs. Cooper, and Sarah would sooner have murdered her right hand off with a dull mattock as offend the sweet natured schoolteacher.
Butter was probably the most opposite as was possible to Sarah’s racer: where the racer was fast, Butter plodded: where the racer was spirited, Butter was patient: where the racer was a delight to ride, Butter was dull and uninteresting.
Butter was also Sarah’s favorite, and had been so for some years now.
Sarah led the patient old mare to the front porch and transferred her lunch, neatly wrapped in a clean dish towel, to the buggy; she looked up at her Mama, smiling at her from the doorway.
Sarah snatched up her skirts and scampered up the three steps to porch level and impulsively hugged Bonnie.
“I am very proud of you,” Bonnie whispered, and Sarah felt her mother’s gentle words settle like a bushel basket of lead feathers in her stomach.
Sarah smiled and nodded, drew her shawl a little more tightly around her shoulders, and went down the steps to the buggy.
Sarah waved at her Mama, clucked up Butter; Bonnie waved back, and Sarah steered a course for the schoolhouse.
Bonnie looked sadly after her little girl.
“You must find out for yourself,” she said to nobody in particular: her expression was almost sad as she turned and went back inside.

Jacob grinned and sat down.
“’Twas like Charlie’s horses had a compass magnet in their nose and his ranch was the North Pole.”
The Sheriff grinned.
“Sir, Charlie didn’t need me along at all! That man kept herd on every last one of those ponies and made it look easy!”
“He’s like that,” the Sheriff agreed. “Thank you for going along with him, though.” He took an appreciative, noisy slurp from his blue-granite mug. “Good coffee.”
There was the clatter of heavy feet on the boardwalk, the peremptory summons of a heavy fist on their door: Sean thrust the Sheriff’s office door open, his height and breadth impressive in its opening.
Little Sean strutted importantly ahead of his Pa, reaching imploringly up at the Sheriff.
“Dink?” he asked, and the Sheriff laughed, a good easy laugh that brought a grin to Sean’s face and a hopeful expression to Little Sean’s.
The Sheriff squatted, swirled the coffee a little.
“Sean, me lad,” he said in a bantering voice, “you don’t want this.”
“Uh-huh,” Little Sean protested, reaching for the cup.
The Sheriff stood, drawing the cup an arm’s length away.
“It’ll stunt your growth,” he warned, towering over the lad: Little Sean’s curly red hair reached not to the Sheriff’s belt buckle, lending a ludicrous note to the lawman’s words: “why, look what it’s done for me!”
Little Sean put his knuckles on his hips and ran his bottom lip out.
“Sean, make me a muscle,” the Sheriff said, extending his arm and curling it to pop up a bicep.
Little Sean grinned and curled his own arm, turning it to the greying old lawman for inspection.
The Sheriff frowned and explored Little Sean’s arm with careful fingers.
“Mm-hmm,” he nodded. “Just as I thought.” He looked up at the grinning fire chief. “Sean, I believe this lad needs some pie!”
“Pie!” Little Sean exclaimed, throwing his arms in the air with excitement.
“Me lads d’cided t’ come an’ breakfast I’ the Jewel this mornin’,” Sean nodded, regarding his firstborn with indulgent eyes: “we thought we’d see if y’had eaten yet.”
The Sheriff tilted his cup up, drained the contents.
“Oh, I reckon I could gag down a bite,” he drawled. “Jacob?”
“Pie sounds good, sir!”

Butter was asleep almost as soon as Sarah had her unhitched, there behind the schoolhouse.
Butter was not the only horse to come to school that day, but she was certainly the least active: Sarah petted her and whispered to her and told her she was a good girl and she should not stray, and Butter sighed and leaned her big head against Sarah for a moment.
Sarah wisely drew away before Butter began to regard her as a standing pillow.
Emma Cooper was delighted to see her star pupil return: she handed the heavy brass handbell to Sarah with a smile and asked, “Would you do the honors this morning?” and Sarah could not help but laugh, for ringing the bell was something of an honor to be recognized in such a way.
Sarah stepped out on the little porch and looked around, the way Emma Cooper did, gauging the approach of the tardy or assessing the state of a juvenile dispute: she looked up in the tree, and sure enough, young Master Martin was about twenty feet up, looking around, perfectly at home among the bare branches.
Sarah put her fingers to her lips and gave a sharp, most unladylike whistle, and after a wide-eyed moment, in which the towhead realized this new figure bore the Symbol of Authority and Therefore Must Be Obeyed, began to slither and scramble earthward.
Sarah brought the bell to shoulder height and rang it with Emma’s familiar cadence: cl-clang, cl-clang, a pause, cl-clang, cl-clang, then cl-clang, cl-clang, cl-clang.
Scampering, chattering humanity surged around her and into the schoolhouse, shedding wraps and hooking them quickly on the wooden pegs set for that purpose: there was a scramble for seats and the children arranged themselves in their designated regions of the hard wood benches, took up slate or chalk or text book as was appropriate, and regarded Mrs. Cooper in the front with puzzlement, then turned to watch Sarah glide with a stately ease down the aisle and formally surrender the handbell to the schoolmarm.
Sarah turned to face the class.
“Good morning, children,” Mrs. Cooper greeted them with the routine of her morning salutation.
“Good morning, Mrs. Cooper,” the class chorused: restless feet were stilled and solemn eyes regarded the pair standing shoulder to shoulder before them.
“Class, I would like you to say good morning to Miss Sarah,” Emma said, nodding once.
“Good morning, Miss Sarah,” the class chorused.
Sarah felt a little uncomfortable but tried not to show it.
“Miss Sarah is going to help out with your lessons. Please give her the same courtesy you give me.”
“Yes, Mrs. Cooper,” every juvenile throat replied in unison.
Sarah heard the voice of her dark self hiss in her ear.
“Don’t just stand there, you idiot,” she heard her own voice snarl. “Use your eyes! You aren’t one of them now. Look at them. Look at their alliances, their allegiances. Politics, you idiot! There are politics here!”
“Let us bow our heads,” Emma Cooper continued, and Sarah automatically bowed her own: with Emma’s guidance, the class recited the Lord’s Prayer, then sang their morning song.
“Thank you, class, that was very nice,” Emma nodded, and Sarah’s head nodded with her. “Please be seated.”
Emma turned to Sarah and murmured, “Sarah, if you could start with the older Kolasinscki boy. He is having trouble remembering his multiplication. Perhaps if you could show him why it’s important, not just that it is required.”
“Yes, Mrs. Cooper.”

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Linn Keller 12-19-11


"Aye, the wee child is sleepin' through the night, God be praised," Sean sighed, shaking his massive Irish head. "And a blessin' it be! Ma puir Daisy was near t' wore out!"
Little Sean looked at his Da with a dubious expression, to which Sean threw back his head and laughed.
"An' ma lad here," he chuckled, rubbing Little Sean's back with a massive paw, "brought home a wee skunk, didn't ye, now?"
The Sheriff and Jacob both stopped their forkful halfway between plate and mustache.
Jacob hesitated, then finished his bite, chewing slowly and giving the broad shouldered Irishman his full attention: the Sheriff lowered his fork back to his plate and turned his good ear to the fire chief.
"Come again?"
"Ma burned ma clothes," Little Sean complained, "an' she burnt hers too! She like to scrubbed ma hide off! An' I had to sleep in th' barn!"
Jacob and the Sheriff looked at one another, then at Little Sean.
Little Sean's expression was so genuinely distressed that it took most of the self-discipline the two lawman possessed to keep from laughing at the lad's distress.
"Jacob!" Sean challenged. "When are ye gon' ta gi'e us another son?"
Jacob's ears began to redden, then his face, and he mumbled something in the general direction of his fried eggs.
"Eh?" Sean prompted, hand cupped behind his ear.
Jacob shoveled in a big mouthful of fried taters and egg, chewed for a bit and swallowed.
"We're workin' on it," he mumbled.
Sean pounded the table top happily with the flat of his hand.
Unattended silverware danced happily at the impact and every coffee cup was snatched up lest they dump over.
"That's ma lad!" Sean cheered. "Your Joseph now, he's healthy yet?"
"Oh good Lord," Jacob groaned. "Healthy? Sean, could I get him to run in a straight line I could run him in foot races at the county fair!"
Sean laughed again, a good healthy booming Irishman's laugh, and he reached for another warm sweet roll from the pile in the cloth-lined basket.
"Now Sheriff," Sean said, his voice lower as he leaned confidentially toward the lawman sitting opposite: "yer darlin' wife is gettin' some size to her" -- and his hands pantomined an increasing belly as he winked lasciviously at his tablemate.
The Sheriff returned the Irishman's knowing wink.
"Aye, she is that," he affirmed.
"Now when's your own little one a-comin'?"
The Sheriff tilted his heavy glazed mug up and drained the contents.
"In due time, I reckon," he replied.
"Your Esther's a fine lookin' woman, Sheriff," Sean said quietly, pitching his voice so only they two could hear. "Ye chose wisely wi' that one."
The Sheriff nodded, smiling a little.
"Had I not two nickels to rub together I would be rich indeed, as long as I had her," the Sheriff agreed.
"Aye, an' me wi' ma Daisy!" Sean thrust his arm across the table. "Your hand on that, man!"
The two men shook on a shared and solemn truth.

It was a little after twelve noon when Sarah heard the muted giggle.
She'd chosen her shoes with care: if she walked on her hard little heels, her approach was quite audible, but if she walked up on the balls of her feet, she could move silently, and silent she was as she glided up behind the two boys with their heads together, bent over some common project.
Sarah glanced up at Emma Cooper, watching from the front of the room, and smiled a little as she looked down again and saw one of the twins had drawn a picture of the new schoolmarm.
The one twin, the one with freckles, couldn't draw a straight line if he had to; his identical twin, on the other hand, could sketch an amazing likeness, and was just finishing his drawing of Sarah and Emma Cooper, standing together at the front of the room.
The one looked at the other and whispered, "There," and they looked at his work.
Sarah put a gentle hand on each shoulder and whispered, "That is very well drawn," which elicited a surprised yelp from each of the lads, and two anxious faces turned suddenly toward her.
Sarah squezed their shoulders, seeing an opportunity.
"I need your help," she whispered. "Come with me."
The two boys stood, uncertain, but followed.
Sarah stopped in front of the open faced gas heater.
"James, what do you see?" Sarah asked in a schoolmarm's voice.
"Ummm ... I see you?" James guessed.
Samuel elbowed him hard in the ribs. "She means the heater," he hissed.
Sarah raised an admonishing finger. "Almost," she nodded. "What gives off heat?"
"Ummm ... the fire?"
"Correct!" Sarah turned a little, flaring her skirt out.
"Now suppose I were to turn and my skirt were to swing over into the fire."
"Uh-oh," James said, and "Ohhh," Samuel echoed.
"That's right," Sarah nodded. "I'm superstitious. I think it's bad luck to get burned up!"
The twins looked at one another, looked at Sarah, then decided they just might like this new schoolmarm after all.
"Here's what I need." She squatted. "James, I need you to draw this heater -- from the front, then from the side, can you do that?"
"Um, sure!"
"Good. I have paper for you. Samuel."
"Yes, Miss Sarah?"
Sarah blinked.
She wasn't used to this form of address.
"Samuel, I need you to make accurate measurement of this heater. I need its height" -- her hands indicated its vertical dimension -- "its width, and from the side, I need its thickness, here" -- she indicated the stone portion of the upright -- "and here" -- she indicated its metal base.
"Why?" the pair blurted in unison.
"I'm going to have your father fashion a metal guard for each of these. They are all the same size and shape. He can make a guard for all six heaters, but he will have to know how big to make them."
Sarah rose from her squat, glided to the front of the room and withdrew two sheets of paper and a smooth board to back them.
At Emma Cooper's curious glance, Sarah murmured, "Samuel is having trouble with his fractions. This will let me show him how fractions work, and why."
Emma Cooper nodded.
"I want to work a little more with the Kolascinski boy. He almost has a grasp and I want to make sure he keeps his grip."
Emma smiled.
There was a shout, coarse laughter from without, and both ladies looked up and through the nearest window.
"Oh, dear," Emma Cooper groaned, and Sarah reached out to snatch up the school bell.
The entire classroom of children stopped what they were doing as Sarah snatched up the front of her skirt with one hand, heavy brass school bell in the other, raised her jaw-set chin and marched to the back of the building and to the door.
Sarah's hard little heels were loud and echoing on the clean and shining schoolroom floor.

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Linn Keller 12-20-11


Jackson Cooper coaxed the little flame with crumpled paper and kindling, and in spite of his best effort, it went out again.
He sighed.
Matches cost money and so far he’d struck three of them in a vain attempt at lighting the cast iron stove in the Marshal’s office.
There was a hurried cascade on the boardwalk outside, the urgent hammering of a fist: “Marshal, there’s a barfight at the Jewel!”
Jackson Cooper abandoned his efforts at lighting the stove: straightening, he snatched up the ten-bore and his hat, and headed for the door.

The Silver Jewel was the town’s tavern and restaurant, its hotel and its haven; if you wanted to know something, you went to the Jewel: gossip, information, whereabouts, business … it could all be had, and with it, a libation or a meal if you were so inclined.
There was entertainment as well, and as it was primarily and predominantly a man’s establishment, the entertainment tended to be young, feminine and pretty (most of the time) and the lasses on stage, doing a fair can-can to a fair imitation played on the Daine fiddle, scored at least two out of three on that count.
Unfortunately, with the miners present, payday led to drink, and drink led to careless words, and words led to fists, and fists led to a general knock down drag out brawl, and somewhere in the brawl, two of the girls were seized off the stage and borne off in triumph.
One was carried, screaming and kicking, down the hall toward the back door.
There was the ringing gong of cast iron on hard head, the sodden thump of an unconscious body hitting the floor.
Soon after, the saloon girl soon re-appeared on stage, a borrowed frying pan in hand, as two of the miner’s fellows half-carried, half-dragged the cold cocked abductor back through the Jewel and out the front door.
The can-can continued, probably the only one in recorded history that involved a borrowed, cast-iron cooking implement in addition to high kicks and frillies.
The other girl who’d been plucked unceremoniously from the little stage was carried outside, borne along with the crowd that spilled, brawling, yelling, cursing and laughing, and was roughly half-thrown, half-shoved from hand to work-callused hand.
The group was occupied with its own merriment: so much so that they did not notice the approach of the big Marshal from one direction, nor the stormy march of the stiff-spined young schoolmarm in the mousy grey dress from the other, until the schoolmarm seized an arm and hauled, bringing a man off his feet and flat on his back; she drove an elbow into another’s ribs, fighting her way to the middle of the crowd: a miner had the unwilling and struggling saloon girl in his unwashed embrace and was trying to kiss her, at least until a hard-swung, heavy brass school bell caught him right between the lug and the horn.
There was a distinct CLANG and the man went to his knees, then to the ground.
Sarah turned and belted a second man across the face, crossed her arms and uncoiled like a great steel spring, driving her off elbow into another man’s jaw and then twisting to bring her weight behind the next bell-strike.
Sarah laid about as with the jawbone of an Israelite's mule and had four Philistines on the ground in various states of disrepair when there was a thunderous concussion that brought all present to a sudden and freezing halt.
Sarah lowered the school bell; it clanged gently as its clapper fell against its turned-brass skirt, and the pretty young schoolmarm raised a hand to her severe bun, making sure it was still in place; her back remained as stiff and unbending as the pencil thrust into her hair.
Jackson Cooper unhurriedly broke open his ten-bore and leisurely replaced both empty hulls: he’d triggered both barrels into the air to get everyone’s attention, and he had the attention of absolutely, positively every man there.
Sarah knew it was time to move.
The crowd drew back a little from the schoolmarm and the saloon girl: Sarah’s eyes were pale, icy, her jaw out-thrust and set: she held the bell before her now, half upraised, meeting every eye, and at her glare, every eye turned away.
Sarah took the saloon girl by the arm and escorted her back toward the Silver Jewel.
At her approach, the crowd parted: silent, they watched the women disappear through the ornate double doors, the schoolmarm and the dance-hall girl, social opposites, very different in appearance and decorum, but united in this moment, as generally happens in times of need.
There was a CLANG from within, the sound of a body hitting the floor, and the sounds of conflict from inside the Jewel came to an abrupt halt.
The street was suddenly silent.
Jackson Cooper closed the action on his ten-bore, the sound bright and metallic in the cold air: clouds of exhaled breath hovered, as if afraid to move.
The doors opened.
The young schoolmarm in the mousy-grey dress emerged from the Jewel and stopped, regarding the crowd with cold and frosty-pale eyes.
She met every man's eye yet again, and every last man there knew the feeling of cold and icy fingers reaching through their spine and trickling cold water down their back bone.
The pretty young schoolmarm with the blazing, ice-blue eyes lifted her skirts and stepped down off the boardwalk.
The miners drew respectfully back.
Sarah squared her shoulders, hoisted her nose in the air, and marched back to the schoolhouse, disapproval surrounding her like a cloak, the somewhat bent school bell held before her like a scepter.

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Linn Keller 12-20-11


Sarah paused at the wash basin out by the pump.
She turned it over, knocked the skift of ice out of it, pumped fresh water and set the basin back on its table.
Her back was still stiff, her lips pressed together in a thin line of disapproval.
Sarah bent over the basin, cupped her hands in the water and bathed her face, gasping at the water's chill: groundwater is about 52 degrees, but the cool air made it feel colder: she splashed herself again, trying to wash away anger's heat, then picked up the towel and pressed it to her face.
She heard the scuff of a boot sole, then a deferential, "Ma'am?"
Sarah lowered her towel and glared at the miner: rough-dressed, whisker-stubbled, worn and down-at-heel, dirty hair that hadn't seen a comb or soap in too long: but the man held his cloth cap in both hands and he had a troubled expression.
Sarah picked up the bell, dunked it in the wash basin, began scrubbing blood and hair off it with the flat of her hand.
"Ma'am, I am sorry," he said in an East Coast accent: "we were caught up in the moment and I fear we ... overstepped our due bounds."
Sarah cupped water from the basin in her palm and poured over the bell, drew it out and wiped fiercely at it with her damp towel.
She set the bell on the table.
Though its heavy brass body was not distorted from its recent abuse, the handle stood at a distinct angle and the hardwood sheathing its steel through-bolt was cracked and split.
Sarah knew it was important to maintain the dignity and demeanor of a schoolmarm, especially as she wasn't one, but she was representing Emma Cooper: thinking quickly, she picked up the handbell and faced the miner squarely.
"Lesson learned," she said in a proper, schoolmarm's voice: "apology accepted," and she turned and marched, stiff and proper, to the schoolhouse steps.
Sarah's chin was lifted, her carriage erect, the bell before her as a symbol of authority: she neglected to pick up her skirt, stepped on its leading edge, and fell in a most undignified heap against the whitewashed schoolhouse doors.
Sarah pushed herself up and put a hand to her forehead, where she hit the hardwood: blinking tears from her eyes, she swayed a little as she came upright, and there was a firm hand on her elbow and another about her upper arm.
"Ma'am, are you hurt?" the miner asked in his New England twang, and Sarah shook her head, immediately regretting the move.
"Thank you," she said in a controlled voice: "I must see to the children," and blinking through the haze of excess water, she seized the door-latch, turned it viciously and stepped into the schoolhouse.
She closed the door quietly behind her, leaned against the closed portal: squeezing her eyes shut, she put the heel of her hand to her forehead, bowed her head a little.
Emma Cooper's hand was gentle on her shoulder, and Sarah surrendered the bell to Emma's grasp.
She looked up and fumbled for the lace-trimmed kerchief in her sleeve.
Sarah pressed the embroidered, lacy hankie against one closed eye, then the other.
"I'm not a very good schoolmarm, am I?" she whispered.
"I think you did fine," Emma Cooper whispered back.

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