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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 12-21-11


Sarah and Emma sat on the schoolroom bench.
It would not be dark for a little while yet, but Sarah felt wrung out, used up, bone tired, and her head hurt abominably.
"I think you did well today," Emma Cooper said in her gentle voice.
Sarah smiled tiredly.
"I think I showed the Kolascinski boy the value of multiplication," she said slowly.
Emma laughed quietly, rubbed Sarah's back.
"You spoke his language," she agreed. "When you told him he was a wheelwright and had to make wheels for ten wagons, then had him go out and count the spokes on the freight wagon outside, and he started to add up what he would need and got lost ..."
Sarah smiled.
"Ten wagons, four wheels to a wagon, twenty-four spokes to a wheel," she said thoughtfully. "I showed him he could either count individual spokes, or he could multiply ... and I saw him understand." She turned to Emma and smiled, still marveling at the moment. "I saw him understand!"
"And you reinforced it by telling him he had twenty bags of nails with 250 nails in a bag, and how many nails were there all told?"
Sarah nodded.
"And then you wrote out his multiplication tables for him."
Emma Cooper refrained from adding "again," for young Master Kolascinski had taken home two multiplication tables already, and promptly lost, misplaced or discarded them.
"I saw something while you were working with him."
Sarah leaned forward a little, her hands flat against the sides of her head, her eyes closed: she turned her head, looked at the gentle schoolmarm.
"I saw him listen." Emma tilted her head a little. "Do you know why he listened?"
Sarah shook her head, lowered her hands.
"Because you listened to him." Emma took Sarah's hands in her own.
"My mother told me once that if I wanted to captivate a mans' heart, I had only to listen to him," she explained. "She said that if I gave him my lovely eyes and hung on his every word as if it were the most fascinating thing in the world -- even if it were the dullest drivel ever inflicted upon a woman's ear" -- here they both laughed -- "he will tell his fellows what a fascinating conversation he had with you, even if you never say a word."
Emma's hands squeezed Sarah's a little as if to emphasize her point.
"It works with boys as well as men." Emma looked across the empty room, looked at where Sarah had worked with young Master Kolascinski with a quiet patience that thrilled Emma's schoolteacher's heart.
"You gave him your attention and he knew you were really listening to him," she said: "I think he will listen very carefully to you from now on, because you listened to him!"
Sarah took a sudden, deep breath, nodded.
Emma looked left, looked right, as if to ensure they were indeed alone: then she leaned closer and said confidentially, "My mother also taught me a sure-fire way to get a man's attention.'
Sarah's eyes widened a little, her eyebrows raising.
"My mother said you can get any man's attention, even in a crowded room!" Emma's face reddened and she giggled a little, as if about to share a naughty confidence.
"She told me that all you need do is call out "Hey, Stud!" and every man's head will turn, and every man will smile and say "Yes?"
Sarah began to laugh, her hand going to her mouth, and she turned very distinctly red as the dignified, quiet, mousy schoolmarm's cheeks turned a bright pink as well.
"Now scoot," Emma said. "We are done here, I'll turn off the gas. The children will be back after Christmas."
The two ladies stood.
"Thank you," Emma said quietly, folding her hands in front of her: "you were a help today."
Sarah's eyes turned to the school bell with the cracked and split handle, listing rather to starboard even as the bell sat firmly level on the corner of Emma's desk.
"Even if I broke the bell?" Sarah said uncertainly.
"Never mind that," Emma said. "It's just the handle and I'm sure Jackson Cooper can make me another."
Sarah nodded, looked shyly at Emma.
"Thank you," she whispered, then turned and walked slowly to the back door.
Sarah draped the shawl around her shoulders, pulled the door open, looked out: she took a long breath of the chill air and stepped outside.
Butter looked up as Sarah came down the schoolhouse steps.
"Ready to go home, girl?" Sarah smiled, and Butter plodded ponderously toward her, nodding her great head as she walked.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-21-11


"There!" Fannie stepped back and stood with her hands on her hips to study her handiwork. "What do you think?" The little juniper stood proudly in its homemade lumber stand, its fragrant foliage festooned with strings of popcorn and cranberries. Here and there clumps of frosted blue juniper berries peeped from among the dark green, needle-like leaves. The star at its peak, carefully tin-snipped from the side of a number two airtight, gleamed in the golden lamplight.

Charlie leaned back in his chair. "Looks good, Darlin'," he said with a hint of sadness in his smile. "Looks real good." Fannie saw the expression on his face.

"What's the matter, Sugar? Why the long face?"

"First Christmas tree I've had a hand in decoratin' in a coon's age," he replied. "Reminds me of home."

"We've been together at Christmas before this," Fannie replied.

"Yeah, but not in our own house. Lots of Christmases I was on the trail, livin' out of saddlebags or pack manties. Don't make for a very merry Christmas, ya know. And since my folks passed on..." His voice trailed off as his gaze traveled back down the years, seeing past Christmases spent in boarding houses, hotels or blanket rolls. Christmases cold and bleak, Christmases spent among strangers, never knowing when he would run his quarry to ground. He'd steeled himself against the emotions that the season brought, concentrating on the job at hand and throwing himself into the chase. Now it was coming to him just what he might have missed.

Fannie's warm hands kneaded his shoulders gently. She bent to whisper in his ear, "You're home now, Sugar." He reached up and laid his calloused paw on her own, more delicate hand.

"I know, Darlin', I know."

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Linn Keller 12-24-11


Polly and Jade looked up from their dolls as the front door opened.
In an era when children were seen and not heard, they ran: Sarah bent to receive their charge, laughing as they knocked her back against their closed door.
Bonnie stood and turned, hands folded properly before her, smiling at the sight of Sarah, in her mousy-grey schoolmarm dress and her severe bun, a yellow pencil thrust transversely through, her head back and teeth shining as she laughed and hugged the twins.
There was a confusion of happy voices as the twins demanded to know where she’d been, what was school like and did she paddle anybody and would she teach them school and did she know what Twain Dawg did and Mama was very happy with this quarter’s profits and Sam said they had some new calfies and Sarah, laughing, sat down and stuck her legs straight out and the twins piled on top of her, all ribbons and bows and curly hair and petticoats and laughter.
Sarah looked up at her Mama and smiled.
Bonnie blinked a few times, and Sarah answered.
“I really, really needed this,” she sighed.

Sarah and Bonnie sat at the kitchen table and sipped tea with their hired girl.
Polly and Jade very carefully sipped their tea as well, and did their best to nibble daintily at the little finger-sandwiches and tea-cakes Bonnie had prepared; they were almost ladylike, but making progress, and Bonnie nodded approval.
The twins beamed with delight at maternal approval, kicking their stockinged legs under the table, where no one could see, and nothing was in danger of being struck by free-swinging little feet.
Sarah was silent for several minutes.
Bonnie knew her daughter, and she remembered what it was to cross the turbulent tides that separated womanhood from girlhood: wisely, she held her counsel and her tongue, and in due time Sarah began to talk.
“I showed the Kolascinski boy why multiplication is useful,” Sarah said distantly, looking at something a few miles on the other side of the opposite wall, “and I discovered one of the twins is quite a good artist.” She sipped her tea, blinked. “I used their talents to show why fractions are important.”
Bonnie tilted her head a little. “It sounds like you had a good day, then.”
Sarah looked at her Mama, and Bonnie realized that what she’d taken for a distant expression, was actually a lost expression: Sarah’s voice was that of a lost child.
“I’m not a good schoolmarm, Mama,” she said, disappointment fracturing her words: “there was a … there were some miners outside, and they were” – she glanced at the twins – “they were being … improper, and I took up the school bell and dealt them rather severely.”
“I see.” Bonnie’s expression was amused; she tried to hide her amusement behind her up-tilted bone-china tea-cup.
“Mama,” Sarah wailed, distressed, “it’s not funny!”
Bonnie reached over, laid gentle fingertips on the back of her daughter’s hand: “Oh, sweets, I’m not laughing at you!” She set her tea cup down, trying hard not to laugh. “It’s just that …”
Bonnie’s face turned red and she put the back of her free hand against her mouth.
“But what?” Sarah asked in a small voice, her heart sinking.
Bonnie hiccupped, pressed linen to her lips, and tilted her head back: taking a deep breath, she laughed again.
“Emma Cooper has received three marriage proposals,” she said quickly, as if trying to get the words out before they were expelled ahead of a great gust of laughter: “it seems the miners fell in love with that proper schoolmarm who wouldn’t stand for anything improper going on near her schoolhouse!”
“Ohhh!” Sarah groaned, shoving her cup and saucer back and dropping her forehead on crossed forearms – followed by an “Oww!” and a careful rub of the forehead.
“Yes, sweets?” Bonnie asked, suddenly concerned with the discolored egg near her daughter’s hairline.
“Mama, don’t let me forget to lift my hem before going up stairs.”

The hired girl laid a gentle palm on Bonnie’s arm, put her finger to her lips: Bonnie looked up, then as the maid nodded toward the parlor, stood and took a look.
She saw three sets of legs sticking out from under the Christmas tree.
She smiled, remembering how as a little girl she used to lay under the tree and look up through it, and sometimes she fell asleep when she did.
Wise mother that she was, she knew her daughter needed this moment’s return to childhood.

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Linn Keller 12-24-11


Daciana laid a warm hand on her husband’s damp chest.
It was full dark and more; supper was quiet, as it always was, but what conversation was not conducted with words, was most effectively shared with lingering and affectionate glances, with Lightning’s slender, long-fingered hand lingering on her own when she handed him a platter of light rolls, or he simply reached out and held her hand, gently, almost shyly, the way he usually did.
Daciana herself was a little shy.
Romanian by birth, cosmopolitan in her upbringing, she made friends fast but forgot them just as quickly: her circus family dissolved with the death of her parents, the revelation of the circus-master as a cheat, a thief and a murderer, and his removal by the hard and unforgiving hand of the law: Daciana listened to her heart, and the quiet counsel of the tattooed Snake Lady and married the town’s telegrapher.
In many ways she married a stranger, but like practical women of every age, she married for advantage: she saw how the Sheriff’s little girl, Angela, was hailed as a heroine, borne on laughing men’s shoulders into the Jewel; she saw how men lifted their hats in respect to the women of the town, she saw the Sheriff treat his red-headed wife like a queen, and she knew she wanted to be part of this.
In the tall, slender telegrapher, she saw a man who was respected, established, necessary to commerce and therefore financially stable, a man who was unfailingly polite, organized, efficient, and quick to listen: a man, she thought, who was where she wished to invest herself.
Now Daciana lay with her husband, under quilts dampened by their recent exertion; Daciana had never known a man, in spite of many, many opportunities, offers and outright propositions in her years in the circus: now, though, she was very definitely enjoying – and indeed delighting – in the proper use of her virile young spouse.
Daciana was also grateful that her Grandmere’ knew the use of certain herbs – and taught this use to her daughter, and she in turn to granddaughter – herbs which could prevent, for a short time, a woman’s fertility.
It was not in Daciana’s plans to bear a child.
Not yet.
In due time, almost certainly, but in this short time, no.
Lightning, sated, smiled in his sleep and brought his slender arm up, laying his hand on Daciana’s.
Daciana was an athlete, a trick rider, a trapeze artist, or had been in her years with the circus.
Daciana used her artistic and athletic skills to utterly, completely, absolutely satisfy, satiate and more than thoroughly delight her tall young husband’s fleshly desire, to completely enamor him to the depths of his innocent and guileless soul: Daciana learned well in listening to her mother, and the other women of the circus, in matters of pleasing a man: Daciana was a planner, some might say a schemer and a plotter: in truth, her plans were detailed, carefully laid for a long time in her future, and Daciana planned to remain with this steady, reliable man for many years.
If he proved as good an investment as she believed him to be, she wished to keep him for the lifetime to which they’d sworn as part of their wedding vows.
Daciana smiled, too, for she was satisfied that if she were as skilled a woman as she believed, if he ever tasted the forbidden fruit of another woman’s charms, he would find any other woman very … unskilled … at a woman’s art of pleasure: that alone would bring him back into her arms, should he ever stray.
This, too, was part of Daciana’s plan: to guarantee fidelity by being the very best there was, at pleasing her man.
Now, though, the pair lay warm and safe in their marital bed, each holding the other, each relaxed, content, and very willing to remain right where they were for as long as they could arrange.

The next day, with Lightning at work, Daciana took her woven basket and her cloak and drew the hood up around her head; she’d braided her hair in one broad, symmetrical tail, such that it flowed down the middle of her back in a wide waterfall of honey-brown weave, ending in a red ribbon-bow and a tight little curl somewhere just below the small of her back.
Her intent was to shop; she needed a few items, both from the butcher, the baker and the general mercantile: by her calculation, the one deep basket should suffice for her needs.
She looked ahead, straight up the street, and saw the Mercantile.
A freight wagon was in front of the Mercantile, two miners staggering out the front door, each with a wooden crate: two more went in, another came out with a gunny sack over his shoulder.
She knew the mine had opened another portal on the other side of town, and she knew they had more miners in town as a result; she knew a new boarding house opened up on that side of town, and another, cheaper saloon: she suspected there would be a rougher, dirtier presence in town; miners were not a rare sight in town, but when she saw the doors to the Silver Jewel fly open and a crowd of booted, shouting, brawling, swearing miners cascade down over and off the boardwalk, she shrank back against the front of Digger’s funeral parlor.
Daciana had decided to stay in Firelands, when their little circus broke up, because she saw something here, something new, yet civilized: something she wanted to be part of.
Daciana suddenly doubted the wisdom of her choice.
Daciana’s chest tightened a little and her breath caught as she saw the saloon-girl, thrown over a miner’s shoulder, borne in triumph into the seething, scuffling crowd: she gasped as the dancing girl was thrown into the boisterous arms of the waiting, laughing drunkards; she groaned as the performer was flung from hand to arm to grasp, and she shivered as she saw the tall, solid form of the town marshal advancing like a freight locomotive on the brawl, his big-knuckled hand hard around the action of his double barrel justice dispenser.
Daciana’s head twitched slightly to the left as she caught movement: her eyes widened as the severe, disapproving form of the mousy-grey schoolmarm seized a miner by the arm and yanked him back and off his feet: Daciana’s free hand raised involuntarily to her cheek as the mousy-grey schoolteacher twisted like she was winding up a stiff spring, then uncoiled, swinging her heavy brass schoolbell and driving a miner to his knees with a single blow.
“Oh,” Daciana whispered as the schoolmarm went into a blur of motion: she heard the CLANK thump, CLANK thump, CLANK thump, ka-BOOM! and Daciana squeaked and jumped as the ground shivered underfoot and the window beside her rattled: a big blue cloud of smoke squirted out of the Marshal’s double gun, mushrooming and rolling up into the cold Colorado air.
Daciana’s eyes were wide as the mousy-grey schoolmarm with the severe bun on top of her head and the bright-yellow pencil thrust through it, seized the dancing-girl by the upper arm and marched her up the steps onto the boardwalk, and into the Silver Jewel: the schoolteacher’s shoulders were as square as if laid out with an engineer’s T-square, her spine as rigid and unbending as an oaken post: Daciana’s ear twitched as the funeral parlor’s front door clicked and opened, and Digger’s quiet-voiced “My, my,” settled gently on her ear.
Daciana could not take her eyes off the front door of the Silver Jewel.
There was another CLANK thump from within and Digger laughed.
“Hit ‘im again, honey!” he called cheerfully, waving a delighted fist in the direction of the miners: a moment later, the mousy-grey schoolteacher emerged from the Silver Jewel and stopped, looking with a frigid disapproval at the rowdy and dirty-necked crowd, now standing like a bunch of cowed schoolboys caught in their common naughtiness.
Daciana watched as the crowd drew back, respectfully granting a courteous passage to the mousy-grey harbinger of civilization with her uplifted, somewhat bent schoolbell, and Daciana’s heart beat a little faster as the mousy-grey schoolteacher marched purposefully back to her whitewashed demesne.
The fight was quite obviously over: the crowd started to mutter and shift and trickled back into the Silver Jewel, considerably cowed and far less fractious.
Daciana took a deep breath and blinked, then she turned and found herself face to face with the black-suited funeral director.
Digger bowed, lifting his black silk hat deferentially, and Daciana smiled a little and dipped her knees, and went on toward the Mercantile.
Perhaps, she thought, perhaps I was not wrong after all.

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Linn Keller 12-24-11


“Parson,” said I, “sometimes I wonder if I’d not oughta take down that shingle that says Sheriff and hang one that says Parsonage.”
The Reverend Belden took a slow and thoughtful sip, knowing the Sheriff was forming up his thoughts like a sergeant forms his troops into ranks prior to the inspecting officer’s arrival on the parade ground. His eyes smiled over the rim of his steaming cup of spiced tea.

The miner shifted, restless in his chair; the Sheriff, relaxed, nodded to him to continue.
“Well,” the miner complained, rubbing his bandaged and bloodied head, “it ain’t right!”
The Sheriff nodded, tapping his fingertips together meditatively as he leaned over his desk top, his forearms pressing into its near edge.
“I’m not entirely clear on one thing,” the Sheriff said neutrally. “Just what part of what you’ve told me isn’t right?”
“The whole gol-darn thing!” the miner exploded.
“Mm-hmm,” the Sheriff hmm’d, his bottom lip protruding as he assumed a judicious expression. “It ain’t right that you and your fellows got drunk and got rowdy, it ain’t right you abducted a performer from the stage and tried to force yourself upon her, it ain’t right that you got beat up by a little old schoolmarm?”
“She warn’t no little schoolmarm!” the miner shouted. “She was near to six foot an’ she had a brick hid in that-there hand bell she slugged me with! Why, I was a-gonna tear off her head an’ kick it down th’ nearest well when that-there town marshal come out with a shotgun an’ wouldn’t let me! Why, I’se a-gonna –“
“One moment,” the Sheriff cautioned, raising an admonishing finger. “You are admitting to public intoxication?”
“Well, yeah –“
“And you admit to brawling in public.”
The miner looked even more uncomfortable; his eyes took in the open jail doors in the hallway behind the Sheriff’s right shoulder.
“Well, yeah, we done that too.”
“And to the charge of assault, kidnapping and –“
“Yeah, that too!” the miner shouted, frustrated: “but she didn’t have no call to beat up on me like that!”
“So you were the only one she …” the Sheriff hesitated for emphasis – “beat up on?”
“Well, she hit me,” he muttered.
“She did that,” the Sheriff agreed, nodding. “She cracked your head and a few others, broke one man’s jaw, and to hear it told, yanked two arms out of socket, kicked one fellow clear over the roof line, slung half a dozen by their galluses over the nearest tree branch and stuffed another six or eight head first down an assortment of rain barrels!”
“She didn’t have no call t’ hit me,” the miner muttered peevishly.
“And I’d bet you’ve been complaining to anyone who would listen.” The Sheriff’s voice was gentle and sympathetic.
“Yeah, that’s right.” The miner leaned his forehead into both hands, both elbows on both knees, the very image of dejection.
“So by now the entire territory knows you got beat up on by a little skinny schoolmarm who ain’t no bigger’n a cake of soap.”
The miner looked miserably up at the Sheriff.
“You are a laughing stock. You are the one they point at and say, “He got beat up on by a schoolteacher!”
“Yeah,” the miner groaned.
“Friend, was I you – which I ain’t – I’d pick up bag and baggage and head for greener pastures.” The Sheriff thrust his chin toward the man’s middle. “That ticket lookin’ at me out over the edge of your vest pocket tells me you’ve got a train ride back to Cripple paid for.”
“Yeah? So?” he flared.
“So was I you, I’d ride back to Cripple” – the Sheriff slid a five dollar coin across the desk top – “I’d gather up my proud-ofs and I’d buy me a ticket to someplace that never heard of me, maybe even find me a new name once I got there.”
The miner glared at the little gold coin for a long moment, then he stood, snatched it up: he stomped out of the Sheriff’s office and slammed the door behind him.

“Have some more pie, Sheriff.”
The Sheriff smiled up at Mrs. Parson.
“It would be ungentlemanly of me to decline such an offer,” he said softly, smiling: Mrs. Parson tilted her head and smiled and said, “Such a nice young man,” and turned to go back into her kitchen.
The Sheriff picked up his fork, turned the little plate a little.
“Was that your only visit?” Parson Belden prompted, and the Sheriff looked quickly up at the sky pilot, grinning.

The Sheriff rose as Sarah followed her tentative knock.
From this alone the grey-mustached lawman knew something was amiss.
Sarah was normally as free to come skipping into his office as a summer breeze was to wander a meadow: that she knocked, and then entered somewhat hesitantly, brought the lawman to his feet.
They met in the middle of the floor: Sarah nearly ran the last two steps and seized her Uncle around his middle with a little sound of feminine distress, squeezing him hard, pressing the side of her head into his chest.
Linn’s arms went around her, holding her firmly: he knew something happened, he wasn’t sure quite what, but he knew the first thing she needed was a feeling of safety, and he knew Daddy’s arms were the safest place in the world.
It wasn’t the first time he wished he was Sarah’s Daddy.
He’d held Sarah before, and in a number of situations.
He knew her tremors.
He knew how she felt when she was wounded, injured; he knew how she shook when she was mad enough to bite the horn off an anvil and spit nails, he knew how she felt when she was ready to cry, or ready to scream.
He knew the right thing was to wait.
Sarah held him for several long moments, then she looked up at her Uncle, and he saw the purpling knot on her forehead.
The Sheriff’s eyes went suddenly pale and he very delicately brushed the hair from her injured forehead.
“Who did this to you?” he whispered, and it was the whisper of snow across frozen ice.
“I did,” Sarah gulped, and giggled, and then looked like she was about to cry.
“Maybe you’d better sit down.”
Sarah took her Uncle’s arm and steered him back toward his office chair.
Sarah perched herself up on the edge of his desk and crossed her ankles, heels of her hands on the edge of the desk, shoulders hunched.
The Sheriff knew Sarah was just a’mighty upset, for she was sitting with her back to the door.
The Sheriff stood, offered his hand.
“Come with me.”
Surprised, Sarah stood: taking her Uncle’s hand, she came around the desk with him, stood while he arranged two chairs facing one another: one’s back was to the windowless wall, the other’s back was to his desk.
The Sheriff gestured to the chair facing his desk.
Sarah blushed a little, settled herself in it with the grace of a noblewoman.
The Sheriff considered this, for the moment before, when she sat on the edge of his desk, she’d sat like a little girl … where now she sat like a grown woman.
A Lady.
The Sheriff sat down in front of his niece, slouched forward with his elbows on his knees.
Sarah sat straight and prim, the very image of correctness, but as the Sheriff opened his hands, palms up, her prim façade crumbled and she clutched his hands, leaning forward until their heads nearly touched.
The Sheriff reached gently up, raised her chin.
“What happened?” he whispered.
Sarah made a little sound of distress and her eyes glittered, bright and wet, and the Sheriff brushed at a wisp of hair that escaped her severe bun.
“You’re safe here,” he whispered. “We’re inside a fortress. A buffalo rifle couldn’t penetrate these walls – hell, a howitzer would have trouble getting through these!” He smiled. “You know I will always keep you safe, Sarah. I will not let anything happen to you. Now tell me what happened.”
Sarah bit her bottom lip and nodded.
The Sheriff waited, and finally prompted, “I understand there was some excitement.”
Sarah nodded.
“Something to do with … a bell?”
Sarah nodded again, looking down at her hands.
“And the schoolmarm slugged twenty miners and kicked a few down the street.”
Sarah giggled.
“I wasn’t there, Sarah. Tell me. Let me see through your eyes.”
Sarah took a long breath, let it out: the Sheriff waited as her shoulders rose and fell.
“Mrs. Cooper and I looked out the window,” Sarah said, her voice raspy.
The Sheriff waited.
“They had a saloon girl – I remember they were passing her around like a poke of tobacco – and then this one man tried to kiss her.”
The Sheriff blinked, turning his head slightly to bring his good ear to bear.
Sarah made a funny little sound, kind of like a choked giggle.
“Uncle Linn, have you ever picked up that school bell?”
Sarah looked up, not waiting for an answer.
“It’s heavy. It’s cast and turned brass and it’s thick and it’s heavy.”
The Sheriff made no reply; his expression showed he was listening closely.
“Do you remember the story of Samson and the Philistines?”
The Sheriff’s eyes crinkled a little at the corners as his mind ran ahead, painting the picture of what must have been.
“So Little Emma Cooper walked in among them and knocked the stuffing out of ‘em!” he said approvingly.
Sarah looked up, misery in her young eyes.
“No, Uncle Linn,” she said, her voice heavy with misery. “It was me.”
The Sheriff’s shoulders sagged as if a sudden weight had dropped onto him.
Sarah nodded at his surprised look.
“It was me.”
“You” – the Sheriff straightened, pointed at Sarah, pointed at the door – “he – you – they – Sarah?”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her head falling again. “I just wanted to help – Mrs. Cooper asked me if I could help with some of the students – I didn’t mean for –“
A young woman’s heart is blown by the winds of her feelings, and the wind changed: one moment she was a girl, distressed that she hadn’t been very girly; the next, as her eyes changed and went pale, she hardened, became more of a woman, shelled and armored in the rightness of her actions.
“We saw that man try to force his attentions on the saloon girl,” Sarah said, her voice stronger, almost as quiet, but colder: “I snatched up the school bell and dealt him an education.”
The Sheriff leaned back.
This wasn’t what he was expecting.
This was absolutely what he was not expecting.
“I smote the Philistines hip and thigh,” she said, her words clipped, precise: then she giggled – “though ‘twas with the jawbone of a brass bell!”
The Sheriff nodded, leaned toward her again.
He took her hands in his, considering, and finally nodded.
“I’m not in trouble, am I?” Sarah asked in a small voice.
The Sheriff looked his niece directly in the eye.
“What you did,” he said, his voice deeper, more reassuring: “was it the right thing to do?”
Sarah’s eyes hardened. “Yes,” she said firmly. “Yes it was.”
The Sheriff nodded.
“You’re not going to –“ Sarah hesitated.
The Sheriff smiled, rose: his hands still held hers, and he drew her gently upright.
“You still haven’t told me how you got that knot on your head.”
Sarah’s lips thinned and she turned a little red.
“My own stupidity,” she muttered. “I didn’t pick up my hem when I went upstairs.”
The Sheriff made a small sound of sympathy.
He’d seen women do this very thing, and even Brother William, in his floor length monk’s robe of unbleached wool, once trod upon his hem and ended up face first into the boardwalk.
“Is your vision clear, Sarah?”
Sarah nodded.
“Is your hearing normal?”
Sarah nodded again.
“Does it sound like I’m” – the Sheriff cupped his hands around his mouth – “talking to you out of a barrel?”
Sarah laughed at her Uncle’s distorted voice.
“No, Uncle Linn, it’s fine.”
The Sheriff nodded.
His thumb and forefinger were gentle as they grasped her chin, tilted her head up.
“You are the only one of you we’ve got,” he whispered. “I want you unhurt.”
Sarah’s eyes were troubled as she regarded her Uncle’s worried expression, then she threw her arms around the greying old lawman’s neck.
“I love you, Uncle Linn,” she blurted, and the Sheriff bear hugged his niece and brought her shoe soles a foot off the floor.
“I love you too, dear heart,” he rumbled.
He bent and set her feet gently on the puncheons.
“Now hadn’t you ought to be heading on home?” he asked gently.
She nodded.
“I’ll ride with you if you’d like.”
Her smile was bright, flashing.
“I’d like that, Uncle Linn.”

The Sheriff finished his pie in short order; as he finished his tea, he sighed.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I don’t know whether to pull the Sheriff’s shingle and put up another one or not … something like Parsonage.” He considered a moment.
“Or Confessional.”

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Linn Keller 12-24-11


Sarah glared at the embroidery frame.
She had needled the taut cloth, doing her best to follow the lines; her patience was not great, neither for the tedium of embroidering nor for her mistakes: the latter, in fact, she found the most galling, the most frustrating.
Sarah tried embroidering in her room, in the parlor, on the front porch: the latter was a desperation move – the twins, she told herself; she was distracted by the wonderful cooking smells, or interruptions from her mother, but she finally admitted to herself the problem lay not with them.
The problem was not with the twins’ happy chatter, nor their curious looks and endless questions; the problem was not with her stomach growling in happy anticipation of the midday meal, and the problem was not her mother asking her to tend this detail or that.
No, she admitted, the problem was her own choice.
She was choosing to not be patient.
Sarah stabbed the needle in the drawn-tight material and rubbed her face.
It was cold outside and her fingers were beginning to protest: she’d cloaked against the cold, drawn fur-trimmed hood up over her head, ignored the chill: if this embroidery frame was a human adversary, Sarah’s glare alone would have frozen its heart into immobility from the freezing look she gave it.
Finally Sarah stood, jaw thrust out, lips thin, the only color in her face the thin crimson line of her hard-pressed lips, and the bright pink of her cold-chilled cheeks.
I can either break this miserable thing into kindling and throw it out in the yard, Sarah thought, or I can beat it at its own game.
With this thought came the realization that she was still proceeding from a flawed premise.
The fault lay not with embroidery-hoop and floss, nor with material and stitching.
The fault lay with her choice to be insufficiently disciplined.
A warm hand settled on her shoulder, a warm voice in her ear: a memory, something Charlie cautioned her after seeing her detonation of cold-eyed fury against an inanimate object. He’d wisely waited until she spent her rage and stood, panting, the broken handle of a pitch fork in hand, and he’d stepped close, laying his big, work-hardened hands on her shoulders.
She remembered how gentle his touch had been, how fatherly he’d felt, how solid and warm and reassuring, and her ears grew hot with shame.
“Darlin’,” he’d drawled, talking slow like he did in such moments, “you can master your temper, or your temper can master you.”
Sarah nodded at the memory, raising a hand to her shoulder, as if to touch the man through the memory.
Thank you, Uncle Charlie, she thought.
Sarah stood and looked out across their property, not seeing it: instead, she pictured what she intended to embroider.
Instead of a ladylike sampler with some sweet sentiment, with scrollwork and roses and pastel shades, she saw in her mind’s eye exactly what she intended to make.
It would challenge her more than any cloth related project she’d ever touched.
Sarah’s smile was grim as she looked at the embroidery frame, then she carefully, precisely, loosened its thumb screws and coaxed the fabric from its wooden grip.
“You,” she said, “will not defeat me,” and she turned to look at her reflection in the mirror.
“Neither will you.”
An hour later Sarah was knocking on a wreath-trimmed ranch house door.
A half hour later she’d finished describing what she had in mind to the schoolboy whose talents she’d discovered two days before.
As the ranch-wife happily plated a half dozen slices of the pie Sarah brought with her, and sliced into the still-warm bread that accompanied, Sarah rode her racer around back of the barn, with the schoolboy waiting beside their wooden pole gate.
There was a whistle, a yell, and the schoolboy’s breath caught in his throat as his artist’s eye captured the picture he wanted to sketch and his brain froze the image forever in his memory:
Sarah, lean and wolflike, her hat tethered behind and her single braid floating beneath, in mid-leap, soaring over that pole gate.
So intent was the schoolboy on his capture of this magnificent moment that he never considered that Sarah must have worn her black riding outfit under that mousy-grey schoolmarm’s dress in which she’d presented herself.

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Linn Keller 12-24-11


The twins sat quietly in the rear seat of the carriage.
Their Mama had gone into the Mercantile; she needed some notions, she needed a few other things, she needed something for which the hired girl or Sarah or one of the hands wasn’t suitable, or maybe she just wanted to go to the Mercantile.
The twins did not know, nor did they particularly care.
They were going into town with their Mama, and they were content.
The twins wore matching little gowns and matching little button shoes and matching expressions of big-eyed wonder: their habit was ever to observe something together, then look at one another, as if communing in a secret, unheard language, achieving a deeper understanding of a thing for seeing it through four eyes instead of two.
Or perhaps it was just the way of little girls: the female of the species seems gifted with an innate ability to charm the male, and perhaps this is but one of the inborn tendencies.
Bonnie drew up in front of the Mercantile and set the hand brake: she dismounted, availing herself of the stone in front of the boardwalk, then walked around the carriage and picked up the cast iron anchor: attaching its short line to her horse’s bridle, she went back to the twins and said, “I’ll just be a moment. Will you two be all right out here?”
The twins nodded solemnly.
Bonnie smiled, touched them quickly, gently; she turned, mounted the steps, and disappeared into the Mercantile.
The twins looked around.
A freight wagon was halted in front of the Silver Jewel, diagonally across and a little down from the Mercantile.
The twins looked at one another and giggled, then swarmed over the back of the upholstered front seat: where the moment before they were two dignified little ladies, now they were happy, active children, tumbling over the back of the seat and clambering over the side of the buggy, dropping to the dismount block and then to the dirt street.
They scampered around the front of their carriage horse and, without looking, without a care for their surroundings, pelted across the street and to the freight wagon, just as the drover emerged with the swaggering gait of a man very happy to have a good amount of distilled pleasure behind his belt buckle.
Polly looked waaaaay up at the draft horse’s big head, while Opal bent and examined the dish pan sized hooves with their feathery, furry natural spats.
“Verbeeg,” Polly said, her head craned well back, and “Verbeeg,” Opal agreed, stroking the feathery foot.
The drover stopped and wobbled a little as Two Hit John began hitting him: he squinted at the twins, swept off his dirty, worse-for-wear hat, stained with too many workdays and rainstorms, and said “Good day t’youuuu, ladieeeeeees, an’ she’s ver’beeg, all right.” He patted the spotted grey affectionately. “She’s probably the ver’beegest horse ever did I drive!”
“Fevverfoot!” Opal exclaimed happily, straightening.
The drover bent, squinted a little to focus on the grey’s fur-fountained hoof.
“Yes, ma’am,” he agreed, straightening and taking a sudden steadying grip on the grey’s mane to keep the grey from falling over: horse and wagon seemed to have taken a distinct list, and he seized the horse to keep it from landing on its starboard beam. He turned, took a high step, another, found the foothold: he swung his leg up into the wagon and the twins drew back, giggling, as the drover called, “Yup, Featherfoot!”
“Fevverfoot!” Opal exclaimed happily, and as the wagon creaked and rumbled away from them, the twins looked around and spied a kitten in the mouth of the alley.
Polly spotted a broom leaning against the Silver Jewel’s door frame and climbed the steps to the boardwalk: she bent and broke off a broom straw, bore it triumphantly down to her sister: the two little girls put their hands to their mouths and giggled, then ran to the mouth of the alley.
The kitten was not old enough to be weaned; its eyes were still the indistinct, metallic blue of a too-young kitten, but it was still a feline, an apex predator from a long line of carnivores, and its instinct was to hunt.
When the broom straw was dragged along in an arc, the kitten cocked its tail sideways, hobby-horsed toward the straw and patted at it with a clumsy mitten-paw, then fell over.
A scarred mama cat with one ear growled out from under the boardwalk and seized her kitten by its nape; the kitten obediently tucked its legs and tail up, giving a rounded bottom profile in case it was inadvertently bumped into the terra firma during transport: the mama cat bore her young back into the darkness under the boards, and the twins giggled, dropped the broom straw and looked back out across the street.
A little boy was walking a plank he’d propped between two barrels.
Polly and Opal were off like a shot, scampering across the dirt street, heedless of any traffic that may be navigating the roadway (in truth, if one were to have fired a cannon down the main street, one might stand a chance of hitting the freight wagon aforementioned: as the wagon was empty, and in poor repair, its loss would be minor, though the horse and driver might disagree with you on that point) … but the freight wagon and a mangy stray dog were the only other tenants of the thoroughfare, and so Polly and Opal's safety was not jeopardized.
The twins stopped, watching solemn-eyed as the little boy walked the plank like a circus performer on a balance beam : arms out, waving a little, suddenly tentative now that he was an incredible distance above ground.
“Bet you can’t do this!” he challenged, tottering triumphantly to the end of his plank: he looked haughtily down at the two well-dressed little girls and stepped off the end of the plank … right into the open rain barrel.
The twins waited, silent, as bright-pink fingers thrust up over the edge of the staves and a sopping, bedraggled little boy’s head emerged slowly from the freezing cold barrel.
A little shard of ice cold-welded itself to the hair over his left ear, adding to the appearance of abject, frigid misery: a sudden, shocking change from the arrogance and bravado of only a moment before.
The twins looked at one another, then turned and walked out to the street.
Jackson Cooper stopped and lifted his hat.
“Ladies,” he said gently, and the twins each lifted an arm, pointing down the alley.
“He’s vewwy wet,” they said with one voice, and Jackson Cooper looked down the alley, then took three long, very quick strides toward the rain barrel.
There was the sound of a little boy being hoist quickly out of the water.
Polly and Opal skipped down the boardwalk, giggling, and stopped in front of the Mercantile.
Brother William was just emerging, a cloth package in hand: he stopped and smiled gently at the twins.
“Bruvver Woom!” they chorused. “Whatcha got?”
Brother William laughed, hoisting the bundle.
“I have coffee,” he said, “freshly ground.” He raised it to his nose, took an appreciative sniff. “One of my only vices. Smell?”
He offered the package at the twins’ level and they both took a noisy sniff.
They looked at one another, then at the cleric.
“Woom Coffee,” they said, and pointed to their carriage.
“Help in?”
Brother William laughed. “Ladies, I have been called many things in my young life,” he said, chuckling, “but William Coffee … I think that’s good.”
“Woom Coffee,” they said together, giving a united, emphatic nod.
Brother William took Polly, then Jade, swinging them into the back seat of the McKenna carriage. The girls’ legs swung up and they giggled quietly, delightedly.
“Tink you,” they chorused, and Brother William picked up his bundle of coffee.
Something white and feathery drifted past their view.
Polly and Opal looked up and laughed.
The sky overhead was heavy, grey, and snow was cascading down toward them, spinning and drifting in the still air.
The twins looked around, bright-eyed, and smiled as the Mercantile’s doors opened and their Mama came out.
Bonnie looked around at the first light coating of snow on the mare, the carriage, and on her little girls’ cloak-hoods.
“There my good girls are!” Bonnie cooed, carefully placing her basket in the carriage: “why, you look the perfect young ladies! So patient, waiting for your Mama like that!” Bonnie tilted her head, smiling proudly.
“What good little girls you are!”
Polly and Opal giggled and looked up, threw their arms wide, and said with one voice, “Tssno!”

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Linn Keller 12-26-11


"He's right, Sean," the German Irishman said, laying a hand on the New York Irishman's shoulder and raising a calming hand toward their florid-faced Irish chieftain. "You're the only man among us with a family. Ye should be home wi' them, not here."
Sean's right hand closed into a shivering fist: he raised it, slowly, and the Irish Brigade gathered shoulder to shoulder in an arc, facing him with quiet unanimity.
"So this is it, eh?" Sean snarled bitterly. "Mutiny! Mutiny in m' own firehouse!"
The Welsh Irishman strode up to the Chieftain and thrust his face into Sean's.
"I was there," he hissed. "'Twas nowt mortal man could do an' ye know it!"
"IT WAS MY WATCH!" Sean roared, the cords standing out in his neck.
"I know it was," the Welsh Irishman agreed, his voice low but with steel showing in it: "I was there beside ye' and I dragged yer carcass back just as th' ceiling fell in."
Sean's hands seized the Welsh Irishman's shoulders and squeezed.
A lesser man would have gone to his knees from the force of Sean's grip.
The Welsh Irishman set his jaw and glared.
The Irish Brigade started to separate, ready to jump in and cold cock their Chieftain if he should explode, to lend their support to his tormented soul if not: every man there knew of the Christmas Day fire, when Sean fought back into the involved structure and brought out a child under each arm and went back in with the Welsh Irishman, and how they were both nearly killed as a result, and how Sean blamed himself for not being better, for not being faster, for not somehow weaving an Irish spell to settle on the fire like an extinguishing blanket -- and how the man had flogged himself with the memory for too many years, especially today, on the terrible anniversary of that Christmas fire, back in Cincinnati.
"SEAN!" the German Irishman barked, snatching up Sean's fire coat and shaking it. "WHERE'S TH' SLITS I' THIS THING?"
Their voices were at a full-on shout and echoed in the brick confines of the tall firehouse: the firehouse cat had long since disappeared under a bed, the spotted Dalmatian was looking over a hay bale, wisps of hay atop his head lending a comical note to his worried expression; the mares, too, muttered and stamped in their stalls, troubled by raised voices and waves of emotion that they could, on some deep level, actually feel.
"SLITS?" Sean roared.
"ARE YE DAFT, MAN?" the German Irishman bellowed, shoving his fellows aside and thrusting the coat in front of Sean's face. "T' SLITS F'R YER ANGEL'S WINGS! YE GREAT IRISH FOOL, YE'RE NO AN ANGEL, YE'RE NO' A GOD, YE'RE A MAN AN' WE MEN ARE LIMITED T' WHA' WE CAN DO WI' OUR HANDS!"
Sean snatched the coat, threw it aside, cocked his fist.
Sean took a long, shivering breath, closed his eyes hard: then he opened them, slowly, and put his hands on the German Irishman's shoulders.
Sean leaned his forehead against his old and dear partner's forehead and whispered, "Ye're right," and the sibilant syllables were loud in the sudden silence.
Sean thrust his head upright and shouted "YE'RE RIGHT! ALL O' YE!"
The Brigade relaxed, grinning, looking at one another.
An unseen hand seized the long steel bolt hanging beside the alarm and began hammering on the steel plate, the alarm ringing loud and insistent.
The Irish Brigade began to move, turned and strode with the smoothness of long practice, each man heading for his turnout gear, boots and helmet and waterproof coat, and the door thrust open and a slender, lithe figure ran in, turned, shoved the bolt aside on their big double doors: the figure pushed, hard, swung the doors open, and the doors were hauled wide by many willing hands.
"MERRY CHRISTMAS!" came the shout, and the Irish Brigade found itself suddenly swarmed by nearly everyone from town: platters and baskets and boxes, a tree, laughter and confusion, and the Irish Brigade found itself invaded by a happy celebration.
Two solid little bodies drove into Sean's thighs and grabbed tight: "Da!" they yelled, as Daisy reached up and grabbed Sean by his red Irish ears and hauled his head down, and kissed the man soundly.
Sean's eyes went wide and his arms kind of floated a little in surprise, then they wrapped around his Irish wife and returned the greeting she'd brought him.
The Brigade was nothing if not efficient.
Extra tables were fetched out and set up, bedsheets snapped out flat and settled on table tops: seats were brought out, more were improvised, and the tables were soon full of food and flatware, tasties and tableware, pies and plates and steaming hot elk roast, fool hen and pigeon, stuffing and taters and green beans.
Daisy lay a gentle hand against her husband's cheek: she caressed his shining stubble and whispered, "Ye great Irish oaf, di' ye no' think I didna' know aboot th' Chirstmas fire?" She blinked the sudden brightness from her eyes and her voice choked a little. "'Twas ma best friend died that night, she an' her whole family, but you gave them the only chance they had!"
"SEAN!" The Sheriff thumped the Irishman on the shoulder.
He might as well have pounded the contours of a marble statue.
Sean looked down at his wife and opened his mouth, closed his mouth, swallowed: then he picked her up off the floor and squeezed her til she was sure her ribs might crack.
Mr. Baxter stood up on an upturned keg, held his arms wide: "Folks, folks!" he called. "Hello, hello, hello!"
The happy hubbub subsided; a couple of the ladies were quickly, efficiently setting out plates and flatware, trying to make as little sound as possible.
"We know how hard the Brigade works to stay ready, and we know how well they work," Mr. Baxter announced loudly, his grin broad beneath a perfectly curled handlebar: "we wanted all of you to know we appreciate it, so here's thank you!"
There was a united shout of happy approval: hands pounded the table tops, hats were waved, and Fiddler Daine struck up a lively air as Little Sean looked up and shouted to make himself heard.
"I'm hungry," he complained. "Can we eat now?"
Sean set his wife down, snatched up his red-headed son.
"Aye!" he shouted. "Parson! A blessing, if you please! Th' lad is hungry an' so am I!"

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Linn Keller 12-27-11


The Sheriff leaned back in his chair, brandy snifter in hand, a quiet smile on his face: he stretched his legs out, blinking slowly, soaking in the heat from the mica-window stove.
Their hired girl had the stove fired before they got home and his study was warm, not overly so, just pleasantly so: he stood on the boot jack, slid out of one tall boot, then the other, and into his fur lined moccasins, reflecting that there had been a day when he wore boots until time for bed: it was boots or nothing: but now, now as he stroked his iron grey mustache, he found the moccasins to his taste.
At least for indoor wear.
He took another small sip of brandy, savoring the flavor, the warmth: between good food and good company, a square dance, somewhat handicapped by the presence of a steam engine on the dance floor, and now a good drink, why, he hadn't felt this content in quite some time.
He leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling.
It was ever his way to plan ahead, and even in this moment of quiet, relaxed contemplation, his mind was busy, forming possibilities, mapping out courses of action, considering interactions.
He thought of the reporter who'd come to Firelands to try and find the Ragdoll.
He thought of Sarah and smiled a little, for she'd been so very distressed when she came into his office, looking for all the world like a pretty young schoolmarm: he remembered how she'd clung to him and he'd soothed her like she was his little girl, afeared of a storm.
His mind skulked about that memory, considering the reporter and wondering what actions he might take if another reporter came snooping, or worse yet, if an Eastern editor decided to manufacture a story about the Ragdoll ... true or not, a rumor or a newspaper article could destroy a reputation.
I'll tell Sarah she must be McKenna for a while, he thought, and she should probably continue to look like a schoolmarm ... nobody would expect that ... the Ragdoll is a pretty young girl, really young ... if anyone asks, if a stranger asks, why, the Ragdoll was only eight when she earned her name ... don't know where she is now, she caught an armful of boxcar and headed for Mexico, haven't seen her, sorry ...
The Sheriff relaxed steadily, following his thoughts as they wandered through the fields of his imagination, until Esther carefully, gently slipped the brandy balloon from his grip just in time to keep him from dumping it over his lap.
The Sheriff's face was relaxed and his mustache puffed out a little as he breathed.

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Linn Keller 12-28-11


Esther looked to her left as she unfolded the blanket.
Angela stood there, rubbing her eyes, rag doll locked in the bend of her left elbow.
Esther paused, smiling, then draped the blanket on the empty chair: Angela padded silently over to her Mama and blinked, then pointed to her Daddy.
Esther put her finger to her lips and nodded, then picked up her little girl, delighting at the feel of her solid little body inside the hand sewn flannel night dress: she eased Angela down on her Daddy's lap, and her Daddy, still asleep, reached his arm around her and drew her into his chest.
It was a Daddy reflex, and Angela laid her head against her Daddy's shoulder and sighed quietly, closing her eyes as Esther arranged the blanket over them both.
A stick popped quietly in the stove and ashes hissed as they cascaded into the ash box beneath: the Sheriff smiled quietly, turning his head a little, his breathing slow, easy, regular.
Esther smoothed her skirt under her and settled into the upholstered chair opposite, relaxing after her long day, a maternal hand laid gently over her expanding belly.
She barely remembered the maid settling a blanket over her.
Sometime in the night, her husband's strong arms slipped under her and rolled her close in against his chest: she remembered leaning her head against his chest, like she used to lean her head into her Papa's chest as a little girl back in the Carolinas, when he would pick her up and carry her to her own warm bed upstairs in their fine mansion: it felt the same, now, for she was safe, and warm, borne in muscled and manly arms to her own warm bed.

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Linn Keller 12-29-11


He was the Captain again, walking his mare slowly through the charnel field.
Powder smoke swirled around his mare's legs, flowed slowly over still figures; sulfur and blood and the smell of dead men's bowels combined to horrify the nostrils as much as the sight of carnage horrified his sight.
The Captain's eyes were cold, hard, icy: he'd learned in his first battles to shove his feelings down into a nice deep bottle and stove the cork in tight, to be cold, heartless, focused: he assessed the losses, calculated remaining troop strength, considered the direction the fight had gone and the possibility of a counter-attack.

The Sheriff shivered a little in his sleep, began to sweat: a groan struggled to escape his throat but could not penetrate the locked door of his tight-clenched jaw.
He dismounted, unhooked his canteen, took a drink: he walked toward a bleeding figure propped up against a tree like a man taking a nap on a summer afternoon ... a man with sergeant's stripes.
The man turned his head and the Captain thrust forward into a powerful stride.
"Sergeant," he said, his voice, low, urgent.
The Sergeant's eyes widened, closed slowly, opened again.
"We held," he whispered, removing a bloody hand from his bloody belly.
The Captain looked at the wound and knew the Sergeant was dead, he just hadn't quit breathing yet.
"Tell me boys," he coughed, "tell ..."
His voice faded and his eyes drifted shut again.
The Captain raised the canteen, shook it.
The Sergeant opened his eyes a little.
"Now if that was good Irish whiskey," he whispered hoarsely.
The Captain reached into an inside pocket, withdrew a metal flask.
"Ah, ye always were a gentleman," the Sergeant whispered, raising a trembling hand: he took a careful sip, swallowed.
"I've a son in Cincinnati yet," he husked. "Sean his name is, he survived the cholera epidemic in '50. Didn't go to Sandusky like th' others, no need.
"Tell him" -- he coughed, jaw hanging slack, breathing harder now -- "tell ..."
Running feet approached and the Captain gripped his revolver, relaxed his hand as the young Sergeant sprinted across the field.
"Pa!" he said, his voice taut as he seized the older man's blue sleeved arms.
"Ma horses," the dying man said. "Train ma horses."
He looked at the Captain and managed a wan smile.
"I'll se ye on Fiddler's Green," he said, and the life ran out of him like water runs out of a holed bucket, and the big Irishman seemed to collapse into himself a little.
"Da," the younger sergeant choked, and hugged the dead man, rocking him a little, his own shoulders heaving at the grief tearing its way free of his breast.
The Captain took a tilt from his flask, corked it, slipped it back into his inside pocket.
"I'll see you on Fiddler's Green," he whispered, not trusting his voice, then laid a hand on the younger non-com's grieving shoulder.
"Take what time you need," he said. "I don't think there will be a counter-attack."

The Sheriff woke, shivering, sweating: his heart was hammering, his breath quick, labored: his eyes were wide in the bedroom darkness and he listened, listened for the terrible sounds and smells and the sights he'd re-lived.
Slowly, slowly, he relaxed, his breathing steadying down, his heart slowing; his hand found his wife's, and he heard a whisper, the ghost of a whisper ...
"It was only a dream ... only a dream ... only a dream ..."

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Linn Keller 1-5-12


The Sheriff strode briskly from his front porch to the barn, his breath trailing behind in rolling, trailing wisps of vapor.
Angela watched him from the window, her own breath fogging the chilled glass.
The Sheriff moved with an easy grace and a long-legged stride, his eyes never still; he looked around him, checking rooflines automatically, then quartered the open ground, scanning it from near to far, like an infantryman: were Angela older or more experienced, she would know from this, from his erect carriage, from his pace-off with the left foot, from the military neatness of his shave and of his mustache -- his muts-tash, as she called it, when she giggled as he tickled her with it -- these were all telltales of a man with a military background.
Angela, however, was a little girl, and she knew but little of the arts martial; she knew only that this man was her Daddy, and he was big and he was strong and she rejoiced when he took her on his lap to teach her things.
The Sheriff disappeared into the barn.
Angela looked over to her little desk, where a few sheets of paper waited patiently.
Angela remembered how her Daddy carefully, precisely ink-lined the paper for her, with steel ruler and pen; how he precisely formed letters on alternate lines, and how he explained that she would trace over the letters on the first line with her pencil, then beneath the traced-over letters, she would form the letters herself.
The Sheriff's breath was warm and it tickled the back of her right ear as he leaned down and spoke very softly to his little girl, there at his Daddy-sized desk, and Angela remembered the sense of magic, of wonder, as her Daddy created letters and numbers from nothing, making them appear in graceful curves and arcs on the paper.
Angela waved as the Sheriff rode out of the barn on his black horsie, grinning, raising his hat to her as he turned and headed into town.
Angela watched her Daddy until he disappeared, then she giggled and traced circles and squiggly lines in the breath-fog she'd left on the window.

The Irish Brigade was busy, too: the steam heat popped and gurgled, fired by gas from wells not far from town, the same wells that provided the town's gas lights: the Brigade scraped out their mares' stone-floored stalls and spread fresh straw, wheelbarrowed second hand horse feed back to the steaming manure piles behind the fine brick firehouse.
The firehouse cat meticulously washed its forepaw and then its face, there in the sunny windowsill, pausing occasionally to watch birds outside, and even the firehouse Dalmatian yawned noisily, rolling over on its back and pawing at the air, begging a belly rub.

Maude glanced up from the ledger-book, smiling a little at the pair hunched over their ever-present checkerboard.
The keg was rolled in from outside and positioned near to the stove; nail kegs served as seats for the two old friends, and each sat in an identical posture; slouched over, frowning at the red-and-black painted checker board, right elbow on right knee, left hand cupped about chin: Maude went back to her accounts, and as she added up another column, she heard the brisk click-click-click of painted wooden checkers on the painted wooden checkerboard, and Mac's triumphant "There!"
Bill -- or Brother William, as he was known these days to all but this, his closest friend, smiled as Mac swept the remaining checkers off the board and into his hand: Brother William picked up the lump of chalk he'd traded from a schoolboy and scratched another line on the stove door.
So far Mac was winning, two to one.
Maude smiled quietly but very carefully did not laugh, for she was struck by the contrast between the two: Mac, short, stout and solid, looking like a blacksmith with muscled shoulders and thick arms, and Brother William, tall and slender, who would likely not cast a decent shadow in the noonday sun if he were bereft of the unbleached wool monk's robe that was his common attire since resuming the priesthood.
Maude heard somewhere that Brother William was of the Cistercian order, who distinguished themselves from their black-robed Benedictine brothers by wearing robes of white: she'd heard that both the Abbott and the Bishop granted special dispensations, instructing Bill -- or Brother William -- to depart the cloistered monastery walls and instead be a priest to the people of the area.
Maude also knew the new Catholic church would be built come warm weather, and a welcome sight it would be, for they had several in the community and nearby who long wished for their own place of worship.
Mac squinted at the stove door, nodding.
"There, mackerel snapper!" he declared, "you want to try one more?"
Brother William reached over and pounded his old and dear friend cheerfully on the shoulder.
"I don't believe so," he said, "but thank you most kindly for your hospitality."
Maude looked up, lowered her head so she could see over her spectacles.
"I stayed in his spare bunk," Brother William explained, "and glad I was for it." His expression went from innocent to somewhat rueful as he continued, "I fear my own quarters are somewhat drafty."
"Drafty!" Mac snorted. "I've seen chicken houses built tighter'n that place you call home!"
Brother William's grin was broad and genuine and not at all what one would expect to see on a robed monastic's face.
"So have I," he admitted. "So have I!"

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Linn Keller 1-6-12


Sarah turned in front of the mirror and felt deliciously wicked.
Her Uncle Linn told her that having another name could come in handy.
Young though she was, she realized that with a name must come an identity, and she was spinning one now.
Sarah Rosenthal may be the Ragdoll, but Sarah McKenna was a young schoolmarm, she played piano in church, she drove her Mama's carriage with her twin sisters in back and dressed like a Lady born, she went to Denver with her Mama and modeled the very latest in fashionable ladies' attire, and came back with her face powdered and her lips painted and her hair elaborately done up, wearing a tailored, fitted gown of the very latest fashion, and had tea with the ladies in town, there in her Aunt Esther's railroad office over the Silver Jewel: Sarah McKenna was carefully, systematically establishing herself in the common mind as a lovely young lady, a proper and ladylike soul, the very image of ... well, proper was the word, propriety the image, and Sarah smiled at the reflection in her full-length mirror.
The image that smiled back wore a mousy-grey cloak, its hood drawn up; she was covered to her shoe-tops, and these were hidden by the mousy-grey schoolmarm dress she wore: not only was she ladylike and proper, she was formal and establishing a formal distance with anyone who might look upon the pretty young schoolmarm and wish to know her better.
Sarah sewed the cloak herself, as she had her schoolmarm dress: she'd patterned the dress carefully, making it as identical to those worn by Emma Cooper, the regular schoolmarm, as she possibly could: she wore her hair in the same tight, confined bun, she wore a pencil thrust crossways through it, just like their regular schoolmarm.
Sarah looked over to her right, where her black riding outfit hung, and smiled.
She was not Sarah McKenna when she wore her black britches and black vest, her black hat and knee high cavalry boots: that day in Denver, when she strained her slender young body to the very limits of its strength and speed and stopped the runaway carriage-horse, she'd raised up on tip-toes and kissed that Texas cowboy and whispered, "That's from the Ragdoll," and then she fled: panic fueled her feet, terror gave her legs the strength to make a sprinter look like an amateur: she counted on surprise giving her the lead to escape the Texan, and it worked.
I don't know why I did that, Sarah thought, looking at the prim and innocent soul in the shining glass oval: I haven't thought about chasing boys yet.
It couldn't be that.

A figure in the back of her mind slouched against a rock wall and snorted in derision.
The black-britches Sarah-figure shifted the match stick she was chewing to the other side of her mouth and said "Sure, sister, whatever you say," and the Sarah who wore schoolmarm grey blushed fiercely and muttered, "Shut up!"
Sarah seized her cloak and skirt and spun viciously toward the door, a most un-schoolmarm-ish scowl on her face.

Bonnie sipped tea and smiled at her daughter.
"I honestly never thought you would like teaching school," she admitted.
Sarah dipped a torn strip of toast into her egg yolk. It wasn't particularly ladylike but it was to her taste, but out of deference to her mother, she never did it anywhere but here at her own kitchen table.
"Hm?" Sarah looked up, innocence shining in her sparkling eyes, a yellow drop on her lip: she pressed linen against her lips, returned the napkin to her lap. "I'm sorry?"
"I never thought you would enjoy teaching school."
"I don't." Sarah's words were light, a half-smile softening them, and Bonnie's brow quirked once, puzzled.
Sarah laughed. "Oh, Mama!" she smiled, "where does a child learn, first, best and deepest?"
"You've been listening to your Uncle Linn again," Bonnie admonished. "You sounded just like him!"
"He's right, you know."
"About what?" Bonnie kept her voice light, hiding the fact that there were several possibilities about which "Uncle Linn" could indeed be right.
Sarah leaned forward a little.
"Mama, children learn best from their parents. They learn most from their parents. The most valuable lessons are from their parents." She turned her hand palm-up. "Mama, you yourself have been told by the ladies in town that I am ladylike in public. You were pulled aside and told at length at how proper a young lady I am, and that just yesterday. You were told how I conduct myself --"
"Yes, I remember," Bonnie murmured.
"Mama," Sarah's voice was urgent now, "I did not learn that in school!"
Bonnie sipped tea, regarding Sarah over the rim of the delicate china cup.
"Mama, I learned that from you. You are a most effective teacher. I learned to sew from watching you. I learned to be a lady from watching you!"
"We were talking about your teaching school," Bonnie reminded, steering her daughter back on track.
"I'm talking about that very thing," Sarah riposted. "I do not teach school. Mrs. Cooper does that very well. I am teaching individual children. I am helping one child. That's all. One child who can't quite grasp why ciphering is important. One child who can't understand Shakespeare. One child who didn't have any liking for Latin until I showed him the Spanish cognates and led him to see where Spanish -- and English -- came from." Sarah paused, took a long breath, arranged her thoughts.
"Mama, I will be dealing with people all my life. You are a businesswoman and a good one. You have to educate people every day -- whether it's teaching a new girl how to run one of those new treadle machines, whether it's showing the twins how to sew pleats, whether it's teaching a customer why they just have to have this latest style of dress." Sarah frowned a little, raised a finger. "Teaching is persuasion. I have to persuade a hard headed son of the soil that he really wants to learn what I can show him. I have to persuade him, Mama. Just like you have to persuade a buyer to trade gold for goods, just like Uncle Linn or Jackson Cooper have to persuade someone not to do something bad, just like --" Sarah looked out the kitchen window -- "just like Clark out there is trying to persuade his horse that it really wants to be ridden!"
"And so ...?" Bonnie let the question dangle, inviting Sarah to complete her thought.
"I'm learning something here, Mama. In teaching, I learn." Sarah leaned her elbows on the table, steepled her fingers together: with her light eyes and her hand-posture, Bonnie was reminded powerfully of the Sheriff's mannerism.
"When I teach a problem in geometery, I learn it all over but I learn it more completely. When I teach a sonnet or a poem or a recitation, I learn it more and more thorougly. When I teach how to calculate the distance around a wagon wheel, I learn it even better myself ..." Sarah's voice drifted, her eyes far away, then she focused sharply on her mother.
"Most of all, Mama, I am learning how to persuade." Her face was serious, her voice no-nonsense. "I am learning something that will stand me in very good stead for the rest of my entire life."
Bonnie clapped her hands in delight. "Bravo!" she laughed. "I have never heard a point as thoroughly or as reasonably made."
Bonnie tilted her head a little.
"Forgive me, Sweets." She looked a little sad as she admitted, "I honestly did not think you had the patience to teach."
Sarah laughed.
"Well," she admitted ruefully, "I did bend the school bell."
Bonnie threw her head back and laughed, clapping her hands together with delight.
"Yes you did, and I would have paid admission to have seen it!"

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Linn Keller 1-6-12


Jerry was too young to be in school, but he was there anyway, and Sarah watched him closely.
Emma Cooper would have done the same, had she the time, but she was doing what she did best and Sarah was free to consider the child with the unsteady gait and the fearful expression.
He'd been thought soft-headed or addled, but Sarah wasn't so sure: she knelt as he came hesitantly along the bench and she spoke very gently, "Jerry?"
Jerry's head came up and he tried to focus on Sarah.
"Jerry, can you see me?"
Jerry's expression was distressed; he nodded, but an uncertain finger went to his mouth.
He's not much younger than Angela, Sarah thought, her eyes narrowing. I wonder ...
"Jerry, where are your ears?" she asked softly, so only he could hear, and Jerry's uncertain expression disappeared: he grinned broadly, a little-boy smile as he raised both hands and seized scrubbed-clean, pink ears.
"Now show me your nose."
Jerry put a finger to the tip of his nose.
"Jerry, hold your arms straight out ... yes, just like that. Now close your eyes, tilt your head back and touch your nose for me."
Little Jerry, four years old, did exactly that.
"Good. Now the other hand, touch your nose."
Jerry did.
"Jerry, stand up straight now, arms down."
Jerry did.
"Take my hand, Jerry."
Jerry blinked, looked toward Sarah, and frowned a little, then his distressed expression returned.
Sarah reached for the lad and drew him into her, holding his slender form close.
"Ssh, ssh, I've got you," she whispered. "You've done well, Jerry. You've done very well for me."
She picked him up and looked to the front of the room, where Emma Cooper was watching.
Sarah pointed to the schoolhouse door, raised a finger: Emma nodded, and Sarah picked up her grey cloak and draped it over Jerry and herself, as best she could, and slipped quietly out the door.
"Jerry, I have an idea," Sarah said as she walked down the wooden steps to the hard packed ground. "I will need your help."
"O-kaay," a little voice floated up from inside the warm cloak.
Sarah looked around, saw a cowhand riding down the street: he was dressed like a Texan, he was lean and suntanned, with a mild expression: on impulse, Sarah put two fingers to her lips and gave a most un-ladylike whistle.
The Texan looked around, surprised, and saw Sarah wave at him.
He turned his paint pony toward her, walked it the several feet from street to schoolyard, removed his hat.
"Yes, ma'am?" he drawled, and Sarah wondered if she wasn't being terribly foolish, or unforgivably forward -- but she had an idea.
"I need your help," she said.
"If I can, yes, ma'am," the lean young man nodded.
Sarah turned, looking, then pointed to a handy hitch post.
"If you could, please -- could you dab a loop on yonder post for me?"
The Texan smiled, nodding.
"Is that all, ma'am?"
"Almost." Sarah's voice betrayed the agitation she was trying hard to keep hidden. "I need your line drawn taut at about belt buckle height."
The Texan didn't so much dismount as he flowed out of the saddle: his head was tilted a little to the side, as if considering some important matter, and he dropped the paint pony's reins: the pony may as well have been tethered to a length of railroad tie, for it stood stock-still.
"You must be from Texas."
"Yes, ma'am." The Texan drew the lariat from his saddle, shook it a little, squinted over at the post.
"You want me to lasso yon post."
"Yes, please."
The Texan casually raised his arm and spun his loop: the distance was short and the mark was still, and he could have ensnared it at twice the distance in full dark: but he was between engagements, so to speak, with nowhere particular to go, and besides the schoolmarm was kind of pretty, if you ignored the fact that she looked about the same age as his little sister.
The lariat was not so much a loop as a living thing in his hands; he did not throw the loop, he let it go and it stretched itself out like a striking viper: a quick twitch and the loop tightened precisely halfway from the post's smooth-cut top and the ground beneath.
"Now, ma'am," he said, "what shall we do?"
Sarah removed her cloak, draped it over one arm and set young Jerry down.
"Jerry," she said quietly, "I want you to do something for me."
Jerry nodded.
"Close your eyes."
Jerry squinted his eyes tight shut.
Sarah drew the white silk scarf from about her neck, spun it quickly, settled it over Jerry's eyes, knotted it in back of his head.
"Now, Jerry, reach up with your hand -- the other hand -- feel the line, Jerry?"
Jerry nodded.
"Now. Hold the line loosely, so it slips through your hand, and walk straight ahead."
Sarah stood, watching, hoping her hunch was right.
Jerry -- little Jerry, born a drunkard or so his brother said, little Jerry who could not walk a straight line if he had to, little Jerry who would try to watch someone and end up screwing his head around sideways and finally would fall over from the effort -- little Jerry, blindfolded, with his hand on the lariat, walked erect and with a confident step, steady and not at all awkwardly.
Sarah paced him, staying within arm's reach, and finally said, "Stop, Jerry. Now turn and use the other hand."
Jerry did.
"Jerry, walk straight ahead again, a little faster."
Little Jerry giggled and walked faster, just as steady and just as well as he had the first time.
Little Jerry stopped.
Sarah's hand went to her mouth as she realized her hunch was right, and she knew there was something she could do about it.
Sarah straightened and laid a trembling hand gently against the Texan's stubbled cheek.
"Thank you," she said. "You don't know the good you just did!"
The Texan, puzzled, said "Yes, ma'am," and looked at the fence post.
"Will there be anything else, ma'am?"
Sarah's eyes were bright as she looked at little Jerry, patiently standing, waiting for her next instruction.
Sarah took the Texan's arm, turned him away and whispered, "You may have just given him back his life."
Sarah turned, wrapped her cloak around the lad, drew the blindfolding scarf from his eyes and carried him back up the schoolhouse steps.
Puzzled, the Texan watched her go: then he retrieved the lariat, coiled it carefully, callused fingers caressing the hand-plaited leather.
"Gave him back his life?" he muttered, dropping the coiled reata over his saddle horn.
He shook his head, stroked his paint's neck, swarmed easily into the saddle.
"Hell, all I wanted was to find that Ragdoll again," he said out loud. "I don't find her but I save a boy's life?"
He turned and looked at the schoolhouse door, then at the hitch post, and shook his head.
"I can't figure it out," he said to his paint. "Let's find us a meal, hey?"

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Linn Keller 1-7-12


The Sheriff stopped and took a long look at the stranger dismounting from his paint horse.
"You wouldn't be from Texas by any chance?" he asked, and the Texan gave him an odd look and said "I be that."
The Sheriff waited while the Texan looped his reins loosely around the hitch rail and asked, "Were you on a river boat here a year or three ago, some fellow borrowed your lariat and roped his wife out of the river?"
The Texan stopped dead, turned and faced the Sheriff squarely.
"I be."
The Sheriff stepped up to the man and thrust out his hand.
"My thanks," he said. "My wife is alive thanks to you."
The Texan took the man's hand, a little confused, then grinned and nodded.
"Are you any better at throwin' a loop, mister?"
His voice was soft; it was not even remotely possible to take offense at his words,and the Sheriff certainly did not.
As a matter of fact he laughed, shaking his head.
"Not one damn bit," he said. "In town long?"
The Texan motioned toward the Jewel.
"Long enough to try the free lunch. I've got enough for a short beer anyway."
The Sheriff clapped him on the shoulder and the two turned toward the frosted glass paned doors.
"Forget the free lunch," the Sheriff said, "your money is no good here. Whatever you want, friend." He hauled open the door and the Texan, half pleased but half suspicious, went on inside the Jewel ahead of the lawman.
The Sheriff raised his chin and Mr. Baxter came over to their end of the bar.
"Fix this man up with whatever he's having. He is my guest and I am good for whatever he gets."
Mr. Baxter drew them both a beer and the Sheriff took a noisy, appreciative slurp, came up for air with his mustache thick with foam.
He looked at his reflection in the big mirror behind the bar and he and the Texan both laughed.
"Now I've got a question for you," the Texan drawled.
The Sheriff nodded a go-ahead.
"How'd you know I was from Texas?"
The Sheriff lowered his mug.
"Only a Texan takes such care of his horse," he said.
"Now my question."
The Texan took a long swallow of his beer.
"Did you ever get your rope dried out after I river soaked it?"
The Texan accepted the bar towel from Mr. Baxter, wiped the foam mustache off his clean shaven upper lip, offered the article to the Sheriff, who followed suit, squeezing the suds out of his own lip broom.
"It dried out fine an' dandy."
The Sheriff nodded.
"I felt bad about borrowin' without someone's let-be, but I had no time to go inquirin'."
"I recall."
The two took another drink.
"Might be you'd know who I'm lookin' for."
The Texan frowned into his mug.
"You wouldn't happen to know someone they call the Ragdoll, now, would you?"
The Sheriff smiled quietly, nodded to the tables.
"How's for a meal?"
The Texan's grin was wide and immediate and the two were soon seated.
Taters and gravy, beef and beans, biscuits and honey all appeared without the formality of a menu or taking an order: Daisy's girls were expert at gauging what a man might want, and they knew the leaner and younger a man was, the less likely he was to be fussy as to his meal.
They were right.
The Texan happily began shoveling groceries into his belly -- not with the desperation of a starving man, but with the vigor of one who knows hunger -- the Sheriff ate somewhat more slowly, having had breakfast that day.
He waited until the Texan's initial raid into comestible territory was finished, and while edible reinforcements were being obtained, the Sheriff said "I must be gettin' old. My manners have run off and left me." He stuck his hand across the table. "Name's Keller."
"Keller?" The Texan's surprise was open and unaffected. "Good Lord, you're him!"
"Well, I ain't nobody else," the Sheriff grinned. "Now who might you be?"
The Texan wrung the man's hand. "Frank Prichard. I was with the Bar 7 until it went belly up."
The Sheriff nodded. "How do you know the Ragdoll?"
The Texan thanked the girl that set another plate in front of him and picked up his fork.
He frowned and set the fork down.
"Sheriff, 'twas the damndest thing," he said. "I was mindin' my own business, thinkin' I might find me a nice friendly game or maybe get myself around a good amount o' Who-Hit-John, and this woman starts screamin' behint me." He frowned a little at the memory, his hands sketching in the air the way a man will when he's reconstructing the past. "I looked around and here come a runaway an' I got m' paint out o' the way just in the knick" -- he pronounced it "k'nick" -- "I shook out a loop an' settled m' rope right around that-there horse's neck" -- here his face turned a furious shade of red and he continued through his embarrassment -- "an' darn if I didn't lose holt o' my own reata!
"I looks up and here come some young feller all in black, a-runnin' across th' street an' I thought he was gonna get run over.
"Well, this fella must be half Apache, thought I, for only a 'Pache can grab a runnin' horse an' swing up on't like he did.
"I knowed he warn't no 'Pache b'cause he didn't bite th' horse's ear."
"Eh?" The Sheriff leaned forward a little, clearly interested.
The Texan grinned. "Old Injun trick. Grab a horse, swing up on't and bite the ear, hard. When your teeth meet through th' ear, th' horse will freeze an' stand still an' you can start breakin' it.
"I reckon that-there buggy horse had the bit between its teeth 'cause that young feller all in black couldn't stop nor slow it, so he grabbed a-holt o' the bridle on the starboard side an' threw hisself off the port an' darn if he didn't just plainly bulldog that horse down to the ground!"
The Sheriff's mouth was open a little and he was shaking his head slowly, and the Texan saw the man's lips frame the phrase "I'll be damned," though no sound came out.
"That skinny young feller got up an' so did that horse, and I was a-peltin' hard after but we over shot, so I turns my paint and back we come.
"He shot that horse so it couldn't fight to its feet and run off ag'in."
The Texan's eyes were distant as he relived the moment.
"I leaned down an' he reached up an' we grabbed a-holt o' one another like we done it all our lives an' he swung up b'hint me an' we run up the street a little, an' into an alley an' he slid off an' I stepped down an' went up to him.
"I stuck out m' hand an' inner-duced myself an' then I stopped dead."
The Texan's voice was quiet and gentle and still as full of surprise as the memory itself.
"Sheriff, that young feller's hat fell back an' he warn't no young feller."
"How's that?"
The Sheriff was consumed with this tale: all this was news to the man, and he was seeing it happen through the Texan's eyes, his own imagination running ahead --
No, he thought. No. It's not possible, it can't be --
"Sheriff," the Texan said, his voice almost a whisper as he leaned over his plate toward the greying lawman, "she grabbed m' vest an' pulled me down an' kissed m' cheek" -- he rubbed his cheek, reddening again as he remembered the moment -- "an' she said 'That's from the Ragdoll,' an' she took out a-runnin' an' there I stood like a fool with my jaw bone swingin' down about my belt buckle, an' by th' time I thought to go follow her she was long gone."
The Sheriff nodded slowly.
"She said if I ever needed work, to ask at the McKenna ranch in Firelands.
"I ain't on the hunt for work but I figured as I was passin' through, why, might be I could find her ...?"
The Sheriff was silent for several long moments, considering.
"I've not seen her for some time," he finally said, and the Texan heard a note of sadness in the man's words.
The Texan nodded.
"I don't know a thing about her, Sheriff, other'n she's about half a head taller'n that young schoolmarm you've got, an' a bit skinnier."
"I see."
"You wouldn't know ..." the Texan began.
"Go on," the Sheriff said in a kindly tone.
"You wouldn't know if she's already ... might be sweet on someone already?"

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Charlie MacNeil 1-7-12


"What say me and you," Charlie began, "trot ourselves into town come morning and let somebody else do the cookin' for a meal or two?" He stepped up behind Fannie where she stood at the stove, wrapped his arms around her slender waist and nuzzled her neck.

"Is that some sort of comment on my cooking, Sugar?" his bride asked in starchy reply, whacking his knuckles with the heavy steel spoon she had been stirring their evening meal with.

"Ouch! Well, considering that I do as much of the grub preparation as you do around these parts, I don't reckon it is! I just thought maybe we could take a pack horse or two in with us and stock up on a few supplies. We could use some coffee, corn meal, that sort of thing. I don't think there's quite enough snow for the sleigh."

"Who's gonna feed the horses?"

"I talked to Cat Running when he passed through here a couple days ago. He says he'll do it, if I bring him back some chewin' and some powder and ball for that old rifle of his. He'll be here at daylight to help get the packhorses ready. So I reckon you'd best get your possibles packed. I figure we'll spend at least one night at the Jewel, and you don't get much chance to dress up, living way out here."

Fannie turned in the circle of his arms to wrap her own around his neck and pull his lips down to hers. "You're right, I don't, but I don't miss it," she whispered softly. "When I look in your eyes I know I'm dressed fancy enough." She gave him a quick kiss then stepped away with a saucy grin. "Or undressed enough, as the case may be." She handed him the spoon. "Now why don't you finish the 'grub preparation' while I go figure out what I'm going to take. You might want to run in an extra pack horse."

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Linn Keller 1-7-12


Victor Matthews added another two sticks to the fire.
He'd picked his hide carefully: it was out of the wind, fallen rock shelves made big slabs around him, standing on end, keeping the little fire's light from traveling far at all: the fire was near to one slab, reflecting back on him, and he set on a log to get his back side off the cold ground.
He was setting on his folded saddle blanket and had another one wrapped over his shoulders and down his back, pulled up over his hat, soaking up every bit of heat that little fire put out.
There was not a breath of wind and he was using the driest wood he could find; there was but little smoke, and very little of it eddied over into his face.
Victor was on the dodge from the law.
He'd shot a stagecoach guard and immediately lost his stomach for outlawry: desperation brought him to holding up the stage, but when he saw the shotgun guard fold up and fall over, why, the strength run out of him like water and he turned and ran.
He had nothing here, he'd lost what little was his in the world, all but his saddle and his horse and what he had on his back and in his hands: all else was gone, along with his family, and he was more alone than he'd ever been in his life.
Victor considered the pint bottle of spirits in his saddlebag and shook his head, closing his eyes: he was too miserable to drink: besides, his stomach was well beyond empty, and if he listened closely he could probably hear the sides of his stomach sand paperin' together tryin' to find something to chew on.
He looked up.
Victor supposed he ought to be surprised, but all he felt was resignation.
That long tall deputy was standing on the other side of the fire from him, close enough to reach out and touch.
The deputy squatted and set three rocks in close to that little fire, and balanced a blue granite coffee pot on them, then he turned and went to the edge of the fire light.
The deputy brought back a chunk of wood and set down on it, facing Victor.
Victor closed his eyes again, misery claiming his soul: justice had caught up with him, he was about to be hauled to the hoosegow, humilitated in court and then his neck stretched.
It was no more than he deserved.
Could he have surrendered his essence to the Eternal in that moment, he would have.
Neither man said a word.
It took a while for the fire to knock the chill out of that coffee pot of cold creek water but it finally did, and when it was simmering, the deputy pulled off the lid and untied a small cloth bundle, and poured in a measured amount of coffee.
He let the pot simmer a bit and repent of its sins before he set it to one side and reached behind him.
Victor's eyes were those of a beaten man: he regarded Jacob without hope, but began to hope a little as Jacob set a frying pan on the fire and began shaving bacon into it.
Victor's belly rolled over and chastised him severely for not feeding it as the good smell of frying bacon tormented him.
Jacob produced a tin plate and picked up the bacon, once it was fried, with a knife and dropped it on the plate: he handed the plate and its still-sizzling cargo to Victor and spoke the first words either had uttered:
"Careful, it's hot."
Victor ate gratefully.
Jacob fried up more and refilled Victor's plate, then cracked two eggs and dropped in the sizzling bacon grease.
Victor ate this, too, and the bread Jacob produced from whatever magical vessel was behind him in the shadow.
Jacob poured the surplus bacon grease on the fire and let it flare up: he wiped it out with a rag of some kind, laid the frying pan aside and poured coffee for each of them.
Victor passed the blue granite cup from one hand to the other, getting used to the heat; he took careful sips, for it was scalding hot, but it was good.
Jacob wore thin gloves and had less discomfort.
Silence grew long in the cold night air as the two drank coffee and added the occasional stick to the fire.
Finally Victor spoke.
"You're takin' me in?"
His voice was heavy with the knowledge that he was condemned, and whatever they did to him was less than he deserved, for he was what he hated most, a murderer.
Jacob looked across the few feet between them.
"Should I?"
Victor nodded slowly.
"I killed a man," he said flatly.
"You killed nobody."
It took a moment for the words to soak through the wall of Victor's misery.
Jacob regarded him with pale eyes.
"The stage driver told me the shotgun guard was sicker'n hell. Somethin' under his ribs, felt like the Devil's claw a-grabbin' him. He'd et some fat meat an' made it worse and about the time you stumbled and accidentally fired a shot, why, the shotgun guard was doubled over and startin' to throw up."
"I -- he -- what?"
Jacob nodded, slowly, slowly.
"The driver looked up and saw you runnin' away. He said you was in a panic and he figured you fell or somethin' and triggered accidental-like."
"I didn't shoot nobody?" Victor whispered.
Jacob shook his head. "Nope."
"Oh dear God." Victor set his coffee cup down, braced his elbows on his knees and lowered his face in his hands.
Jacob waited a while before he spoke again.
"Victor, where you headed?"
Victor opened his hands: still holding his head, he looked absolutely lost as he thought for a bit.
"I don't know," he finally admitted. "I got no family no more. I got no place. All I got is m' horse and saddle and what I'm a-wearin'."
"Last of the wood," Jacob said and dropped the last stick on the fire. "Pass me your cup."
He poured Victor another warmin' shot and some for himself.
"You know," he said, "I never knew what bad coffee was until I drank some of the stuff my Pa makes." He smiled ever so slightly. "Mine's some better."
Victor had a dazed look, and who wouldn't? A man suddenly reprieved of a death sentence?
"Victor, you got dealt a hard hand. You are not the first man to turn outlaw because there was nothin' left." Jacob reached behind him, swung a cloth wrapped bundle around, dropped it beside Victor's right boot. "There's food enough for three days and a train ticket south. It's gettin' on to winter and gettin' cold already, you might ought head out come daylight. You'll find directions to a ranch down on the Border, some people I know. They'll be expecting you but they won't know anything about you other than I recommended you. Use whatever name you like, I didn't put no moniker on you when I sent that you were coming."
"How will they know it's me?" Victor asked.
"You tell 'em the man with pale eyes sent you." Jacob grinned. "They'll know who that is."

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Charlie MacNeil 1-8-12


The first pearly glimmers of dawn were painting the edges of the hollow with silver. The nose-tickling fragrance of boiling Arbuckle's and the bright sputter of hen fruit crisping around their edges in hot ham fat warmed the kitchen when Fannie stepped into the room, yawning. Keeping them durn fool hens alive when they were surrounded by numerous predators who were always interested in an easy meal was a chore, but well worth it in Charlie's mind. "You in a hurry to get somewhere, Sugar?" his wife asked the stocking-footed figure in the wash-faded union suit who stood at the stove with a fork in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.

"Woke up and had to go out yonder," Charlie pointed with his chin toward the back door, "and it seems like that happens more often as the years go by. Got back inside and decided I was hungry." He forked slabs of ham from their cast iron home onto two plates then scooped sizzling eggs alongside. "Didn't make biscuits this morning. Figured we could use up the last of the bread so it don't turn green and fuzzy while we're gone." He deposited thick slices of said comestible in the pan recently vacated by the ham and eggs. "Breakfast'll be ready in a minute. Hot water on the stove if you want to wash your face before you eat."

The eastern sky was tinged with a widening wash of pale blue. Charlie stepped outside, toothpick tucked into the starboard corner of his mouth as he shrugged into his battered sheepskin jacket. White vapor clouded from his lips in the frigid stillness of the morning. Across the yard Dawg stepped from the barn to stretch, forequarters low, hindquarters and stub tail high, great jaws wide in a "greet the morning" yawn. Beside the big dog Cat Running's slender, wiry figure was outlined in the light of the lantern the old man had struck match to and hung from its peg near the roan horse's stall. "'Bout time you come out," he commented drily. "Been here a long time."

"Shoulda come to the house for breakfast," Charlie replied with a grin. "Seen how much stuff Fannie's packin' to town."

"Had breakfast 'fore I come, me an' the dog. He likes my biscuits, an' he brought the meat." Dawg had showed up at the old man's camp the evening before, dragging a yearling mule deer doe by the neck.

"Dawg pretty much likes any biscuit that'll hold still long enough. Don'tcha Dawg?" Charlie ruffled his trail partner's ears. Dawg's stub tail flickered back and forth for a moment. "What kind of meat?"

"Venison. How many packhorses?"

"Better have three, I reckon. One for Fannie's luggage and two for the grub we're bringing home. We'll use the buckskin and the two bays. They need the practice. If you wanna catch 'em and get the sawbucks on 'em, I'll saddle our riding horses." The old man grunted then went to the plank grain bin and dipped out a small quantity of rolled oats, the papery disks hissing into the bucket. He disappeared out into the holding pasture back of the barn. By the time Charlie's roan and Fannie's sorrel were curried and fed their grain ration he was back.

"Them damn mares too spoiled," Cat Running groused as he led the three packhorses into the barn and tied them to the pole nailed horizontally along the wall between the door and the tack room. "Colts too. Whole herd damn near run me over tryin' to get grain."

"Makes 'em easy to catch," Charlie replied with a grin, practiced hands smoothing the wrinkles from the saddle blankets he draped over the sorrel's back. "I'm getting to old to chase 'em down to halter 'em."

"Humph! White man too lazy!"

"Probably." There was silence in the barn now save for the swish of saddle blankets and the jingle of cinch and sawbuck saddle buckles. They led the two riding mounts and the pack string to the hitch rail outside the back porch door and the two men stepped inside, reappearing a moment later bearing a small trunk and a pair of valises. The valises went into the heavy canvas pack bags that hung from either side of the buckskin's sawbuck; the small trunk was lashed down aboard one of the bays and covered with a tarp that was diamond hitched into place. Fannie blew out the lamp on the kitchen table and followed her goods and chattels out into the morning air, buttoning up her coat.

"Cat Running, you're welcome to use the house while we're gone," she told the old man.

"Don't like houses," the old man replied. "Tipi's better. An' you ain't gone long."

"Well, at least help yourself to whatever food you need. And thank you for taking care of the horses for us." She strode to the sorrel, pulled up the cinch and stepped into the saddle. The cloth bag in her hand went into a saddlebag. She looked over at her husband. "Shall we?"

"I don't see any reason why not." Charlie swung aboard the roan, took the buckskin's mecate from Cat Running and wrapped it loosely around his saddlehorn. "Let's us go to town."

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Linn Keller 1-9-12


Sarah's belly was a little light, a little uncertain, but she did her best not to show it.
She'd put her spectacles on, knowing the lenses were just window glass, but knowing they made her look ... well, more school-marm-ish.
She was playing a role and she intended to play it to the hilt.
"Mr. Casterline," she said, "I would like your permission to take Jerry to Denver."
Rick Casterline stopped and looked at the pretty young schoolmarm.
"Now I ain't sure I follow you," he admitted. "Why in the world would you want to do that?"
Sarah looked over at little Jerry, who was wobbling uncertainly along the front of the house.
"You said he was born drunk," Sarah said quietly, and Rick Casterline opened his mouth to protest.
"I heard you say it," Sarah said, her voice still quiet, but her eyes piercing, glaring over her round lenses spectacles.
Rick's bottom jaw started easing forward and Sarah knew the man's contrariness was bowing its back up.
"Mr. Casterline, I think I can help Jerry walk straight and upright."
"Yeah?" Rick looked skeptically at his youngest boy, then at the young schoolmarm.
"I believe his vision is compromised."
"Compromised." Rick rolled the word over his tongue as if to sample its flavor. "Now just how in the world do you figure that, Miss Eye Doctor?"
Sarah's eyes were pale now: she stifled an impulse to pick up a chunk of stove wood and whack the rancher across the shins.
"Mr. Casterline, I stretched a rope between two fence posts and had Jerry hold his hand loose around it." She held her hand up, illustrating the free running grip. "Then I blindfolded him."
Rick Casterline's brows started to draw together.
Sarah knew she had to keep the schoolmarm's hand in this: she held up a forestalling palm.
"Mr. Casterline, his vision is so poor he can't see the chickens in the yard."
They looked toward Jerry, who was shrinking back from the chickens, scratching after the freshly-broadcast feed. "He thinks they are monsters. He can see shadows, half understood forms, he hears sounds he can't understand. Anyone would be afraid of that." She turned to face the man squarely. "I took that away. I took away the defective vision and let him rely entirely on a constant, on that one plane of reference.
"Mr. Casterline, he walked straight and tall, one way, switched hands as I instructed and walked back -- just as straight, and his step was all the more confident."
Rick Casterline's eyes narrowed as he considered.
"Mr. Casterline, you are a rancher and you are a good one. You know cattle because that is your business. Maude Garrisson knows hardware because that is her business. Well, Mr. Casterline, I know children, because they are my buisiness."
Rick's bottom jaw thrust out a little farther and he grunted, frowning at the ground in front of Sarah's mousy-grey skirt.
Sarah knew the man was teetering on the edge of a decision, and she knew it was time to play her trump card.
"Mr. Casterline," she said, slipping thumb and forefinger into a hidden pocket and withdrawing a shining disc, "you are a betting man."
Casterline shot her a dangerous look, as if she'd found a secret he didn't want the world to know.
"You laid down two months' wages two nights ago on a roll of the dice, and you lost. I will bet you this" -- she held up a double eagle -- "that I am right.
"If I win, you owe me nothing. I will bear all expense for this little test -- I will pay for the train into Denver, for the examination and any associated expense, I will provide the meal and the trip back.
"If I am wrong -- if you win the bet" -- she flipped the coin in the air, caught it -- "this is yours. I daresay it will be the easiest money you've made in some time."
Casterline's expression was suddenly ... hungry.
Sarah flipped the coin again, making it ring in the chilly morning air.
"Let's sweeten the pot." She caught the coin, slapped it onto the back of her off hand, kept it covered. "I'll double the wager.
"If I win, you owe me nothing.
"Call heads or tails. If you're right, I'll double the gold. If you lose, you owe me nothing."
Rick Casterline rubbed his chin, considering.
"Two gold double eagles, Mr. Casterline. Call it."
Sarah peeled her hand back, showed the coin.
"Heads it is." She nodded, flipped it in the air, caught it; she fished in her pocket, withdrew a second coin: she went to the rented buggy, opened a small wooden box and withdrew a sheet of foolscap.
Rick Casterline watched as she quickly folded a small envelope, dropped the coins in the sleeve and folded it over: she took a little length of ribbon, a lucifer match and a candle: she looped the ribbon over a stub on the front of the ranch house's log front wall, lit the candle, turned it and dripped sealing wax on the folded package: quickly, she blew out the candle, withdrew a .44 round from somewhere, wiped it quickly across the high corner of her forehead, up against the hairline where her skin was oily, and pressed the cartridge case into the sealing wax.
She withdrew the improvised wax seal and let the little package dangle.
"There." She turned to the rancher. "If I win the bet, you owe me nothing.
"If you win the bet, this is yours." She stepped toward the man, stuck out her hand. "Do we have a bet?"
Rick Casterline blinked a few times, looked over at little Jerry, then back to Sarah.
"Miss," he said, "you sure as hell must believe in what you're doin'." He took her hand. "You have a bet."
Sarah nodded, once.

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Linn Keller 1-9-12


Emma Cooper was Queen of her realm, but at the moment, Emma Cooper was a woman, warm, soft yet solid in her husband's arms: they were curled together under the hand made quilt, relaxed, letting their day's tensions soak away into the mattress tick beneath them.
They delighted in these nightly moments, when they could both relax and cuddle, Jackson Cooper's mighty arm protectively around his wife, Emma's soft hand laid over his: he smelled her hair, the soap she used, the clean-air-dried flannel she wore.
"The first one I saw took a swing at the stranger," he continued, "so I just stood there and watched 'em for a little."
Emma's hand tightened a little on his: her fingers had been cool, but they soaked up his animal warmth, and now her grip was warmer on the back of his lightly furred hand.
"I didn't know what the disagreement was about and I figured it might not be much of my business, so I just stood there and held the building up with my shoulder.
"The two of 'em stepped back a little and took one another's measure, then they went at it again, hammer and tongs, just a-knockin' the dog stuffin' out of one another.
"Neither one was giving a bit and it looked like the two of 'em just might pound one another into the ground like a fence post, and I finally decided maybe I'd best fetch 'em apart before they hurt themselves, when they both quit and put their arms around one another's shoulders and walked over to the horse trough.
"They both stuck their heads in, an' their hands, an' when they came up for air, why, each allowed as the other was the better fighter, and they went back into the Jewel.
"I drifted in, quiet-like, and the two of 'em were best friends at the bar, shoulder to shoulder, each one buyin' the other a beer."
"Mmmm," Emma Cooper purred, wiggling a little, delighting in her husband's quiet words, as strong in their gentleness as his hard body curled protectively around hers.
"What about your day, dear heart?" he whispered into her ear, his breath puffing softly against her cheek.
"I think Sarah is doing a wonderful job," Emma Cooper whispered: it was quiet in their upstairs bedroom, quiet enough that Emma's whisper was clear and audible, even to Jackson Cooper's time-battered ear pans.
"What does she do?" Jackson Cooper's sibilants caressed his wife's soul as his hands caressed her flannel covered curves.
Emma Cooper giggled a little.
"She helps individual students learn," she said. "She's taking the youngest Casterline boy to have his eyes examined."
"The little drunk boy?"
"Oh, Jackson!" Emma scolded. "He's not drunk!"
"Poor little fellow might as well be," Jackson Cooper rumbled. "Can't walk a straight line, he'll look at somethin' and his head will start to lean over to one side ... why, I've seen him fall over like that! That, or he'll start cryin' for no reason." He ran his arm around Emma's belly and drew her close. "I don't think the boy's right, Emma."
"Sarah thinks she can help."
"Mmm." Jackson Cooper did not sound convinced.
"She's taking him to Denver in the morning. I understand it took considerable persuasion to talk Mr. Casterline into letting her take him."
"Rick is a hard headed man," Jackson Cooper agreed. "I had to argue with him for an hour before he'd admit the sun rises in the east."
Emma giggled again, twisted around until she faced her giant of a husband.
Emma Cooper, schoolmarm, diminutive exemplar of propriety and ladylike behavior, pillar of society and respected townswoman, slipped her hand behind her husband's neck: raising her face to his, she expressed her opinion of her husband in a manner which fired the man's desires, speaking to him in a language ancient and universal, a language that left absolutely no doubt as to her desire, or to her intent.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-10-12


Fannie's melodious tones accompanied the drip and splash of hot soapy water from the corner of the room that was screened with bamboo and Japanese silk. Charlie smiled behind his newspaper, listening to the contentment in his wife's voice. He was sprawled in the cushioned leather depths of the blanket-covered armchair near the window, sock-clad feet propped on the accompanying hassock. A bottle of the Dayne brothers' best single barrel bourbon and a deep crystal glass that held an inch of warm amber liquid were perched on the side table near his elbow. He had a fine dinner of beef sirloin, taters and gravy and someone else's biscuits stuffed behind his belt; life was good, and about to get bettter.

"Oh my, I seem to have forgotten my towel," he heard from behind the screen. "Would you mind bringing me one, Sugar?" The saucy lilt to Fannie's words fired both his blood and his imagination as he folded his newspaper and rose from his seat. He picked up the folded towel from the chair beside the screen, slid the screen aside and spread the towel wide. His hazel eyes took in the glorious sight before him, he wrapped the towel around her and pulled her toward him. Her emerald eyes blazed as his arm went behind her knees and he swept her off her feet and carried her toward the turned down bed. Life was indeed very good...

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Linn Keller 1-11-12


Fear affects every man a little differently.
So does the sudden arrival of really, really bad news.
I sat there behind my desk and tasted copper, then my mouth went clear dry and I felt hot and cold at the same time on the sides of my head as my belly fell about thirty feet.
Oh dear God, no! I thought, and my chest felt a little tight, and my mind started running around the inside of my skull like a rat in a barrel scurrying to find a way out.
Sarah sat across from me and I could still hear her carefully enunciated words in the quiet of my little log fortress.
"Uncle Linn, I have something I can't discuss with Mama. Can I talk with you?"
My heart was sunk down about my boot tops because honestly the only thing I could think of was She's a girl in trouble, and She came to me for help, and about the only thing I did not think in that moment was If I find out who did this to her I WILL KILL HIM WITH MY BARE TEETH!!!
I tried to swallow but it's impossible to swallow when one's throat is as moist and damp as mid-Sahara in August: I considered the bottle in my desk drawer, decided against it.
Not trusting my voice, I nodded, then decided to try speaking anyway.
"How far," I gasped, "how far along are you?"
"How far along?"
Sarah's eyes widened with puzzlement, her hand and eyes dropping to her flat , youthful belly: then comprehension dawned on her young face as she reviewed the words with which she'd phrased her question: she colored delicately, then furiously, and her face wrinkled up some and I though she was going to start to cry, only she didn't -- she began to laugh -- and she laughed hard, with her hands over her mouth, staring at me, and she bent forward a little with her eyes closed: she looked up at me, removed her hands and gasped, "You thought -- I -- you --" and she was away again, swept from the here-and-now by a foaming sea of giggles and a rolling ocean of laughter.
Me, I sat there with my teeth in my mouth and my chin hanging half way down to my belt buckle.
It took Sarah a few minutes before she could rein in her amusement: she looked at me and started to laugh again, shaking her head and making no-no-no motions with her hands; she gave up on this effort and leaned over her knees again, and when she looked up she was crying, she was laughing so hard, and I rose and walked carefully over to her and took her in my arms and she heaved and quaked and quivered and finally leaned her face into my shirt front, holding onto me like a drowning man holds a life-ring.
She panted several times and cleared her throat two or three and finally she said "I'm sorry," in a little-girl voice and then she was off laughing again, so I just stood there and held her and let her laugh herself silly.
This was not the first time I considered how complex and unpredictable the female of the species can be, and I didn't figure it would be the last.
"I do beg your pardon," I said in a very gentle voice, and she looked down, her face the color of a red-ripe apple, her cheeks damp with laugh-tears: "I misunderstood your question." I brushed her hair back and murmured, "Can we try this again?"
Sarah must not have trusted her voice either, for she nodded instead of replied.
"Uncle Linn," she quavered, the corners of her mouth quirking up, and I could see she was making a masterful effort to contain herself -- "Uncle Linn, I can't talk about this with Mama, but I need ..." She looked shyly at me and if it's possible to turn redder than she was, she managed.
"I'm not in trouble," she blurted.
I nodded, took a long breath, sighed it out.
"Uncle Linn, your face -- I am so sorry --" Saran bit her knuckle to try and keep from laughing, but it was no use: she snatched the kerchief from her sleeve, wadded it into a mass and shoved her face into it, barely muffling her hysterics.
She came up for air a few minutes later and wiped fiercely at her eyes.
"Oh, what you must have thought of me in that instant!" she said in a schoolmarm's voice, and I smiled a little at that: Sarah's form was changing and had been for some time, but somehow when she used the more formal language, I gave up ignoring and realized that, yes, little Sarah wasn't little anymore -- something I'd known behind my forehead bone but hadn't got around to accepting behind my breast bone.
"Uncle Linn," she said, suddenly serious, "I am worried ..." Her eyes shifted to the right as her voice trailed off, then picked back up.
"Uncle Linn, I didn't have a childhood."
I nodded.
"Things happened ... things were done to ... I saw ..."
Horror and fear surged across her face, replaced with a forced calm.
"I know," I murmured reassuringly. "Things were done to you no child should ever have to endure, and you saw scenes of utter horror, things no child should ever experience."
"I know." Sarah closed her eyes, took a long, deep breath through her nose, exhaled through pursed lips, and in that moment reminded me much of Duzy, who had done the same thing when dispelling stress.
"Uncle Linn, I grew up fast, I grew up without a childhood." She looked directly at me. "If I broach this with Mama, she will feel guilty and it's not her fault."
I nodded.
"I know it's not my fault, I know those who did these things are long dead."
Again I nodded, not taking my eyes from her: this was important to her and she had to know I was listening with more than my ears.
"Uncle Linn, is this why I am becoming a schoolmarm? Guilt? Penance?"
I turned my head a little as if to bring a good ear to bear.
"Guilt?" I mirrored. "You'd have to be guilty of something first. Seems to me these things were done to you, not by you."
Sarah nodded, tapping her forehead. "I know that here," she admitted, "but it's hard to get through here" -- she tapped at her breast bone.
I wonder where she heard that before, I thought, then realized she'd gotten it from me -- and wondered with some distress how many other phrases or mannerisms of mine she'd adopted.
I stood and pulled my chair around until it was just in front of her and I set down, scooting up until our knees just touched.
I held both her hands in mine.
"Sarah," I said, "we both lost too much, too early. Your childhood was ripped out of you and thrown to the hogs, and you but a wee thing. That damned war took my Connie from me and all our dreams, even our daughter."
Sarah's hands tightened in mine.
"We carry on. We keep on going. We don't stop."
Sarah nodded, her face grim, and I could almost read her thoughts: I haven't stopped.
"Let's look at what you have done." I pressed her right hand gently between my palms; she laid her warm, left hand over the back of my hand and gave me those big lovely eyes, those beautiful blue eyes, those light ocean blue eyes that said so much without a word crossing her lips.
"You take children who don't know fractions from a hickory fid and show them how they're used, what they're used for and why that matters. You take a hard headed schoolboy who doesn't want to learn grammar and show him the Spanish and Latin roots. You recognized what ailed a little boy and you're taking him to Denver in the morning."
Sarah showed no surprise at my words; she was used to me finding things out.
"My dear, you are wise and seasoned beyond your few years. You are young and you are beautiful and you have a lifetime behind your belt buckle already and more that I don't know about.
"You can bring a horse off the ground like it had wings and set it down on the other side of a rail fence like a feather dropping from a height.
"You are versed in persuasion and that will stand you in very good stead, today, tomorrow and forever, for everything turns on the axle of negotiation."
Sarah nodded, slowly.
"You were cheated. So was I. Something precious and irreplaceable was taken from you and from me. We can't change that. All we can do is play the cards in our hand right now, and not wish for other cards, for these are all we've got."
Sarah nodded, but I could see the question behind her eyes.
"Uncle Linn," she said and her voice was uncertain, "I could get married."
I nodded. "Must you?"
She smiled and shook her head.
"Are there suitors?"
"There will be." Her expression became rather bleak. "They always go after the schoolmarm. Mrs. Cooper, of course, is married ...." she let the rest of the thought dangle.
I nodded.
"Sarah, you have had to grow up too fast, but so has everyone else -- not the way you did, and not to the same degree, but -- hear me out."
Sarah nodded, her eyes never leaving mine.
"See here: a child old enough to walk is instantly apprenticed to its parents.
"A little girl-child of eight is helping fix meals; by nine, she is fixing them, by twelve she can feed the entire family herself.
"When she's old enough to run a stitch she's sewing, when she's old enough to stir a pot she's cooking, when she's old enough to knead dough she's making bread. At twelve she can run the household, at thirteen she's marriageable. At eighteen if she's not married yet she's considered a spinster, fit only to teach other peoples' children."
Sarah nodded.
"At your age, dear heart, I'd say you are right where you should be."
"I'm kind of young for a spinster," she said sadly.
I smiled. "You are not a spinster because you teach the young," I said, squeezing her hand between my palms, very gently: "you have a gift of illumination, of bringing light to minds, and not just the young."
Sarah nodded, pursed her lips: I saw her jaw ease forward and knew she was at a conclusion of some kind.
She looked sharply at me. "Uncle Linn, thank you. I knew you would be honest with me."
I nodded; we stood.
"Come out to the buggy. Let me show you something I've been embroidering."

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Linn Keller 1-12-12


Little Jerry sat very still.
It was easier for him to sit still because he was holding Miss Sarah's hand.
As long as he could hold her hand, he could hold still: he knew where he was and he knew the world was not about to roll over underfoot like it did when he didn't have anyone to hold onto.
Miss Sarah was the only one in the whole wide world who understood him, or so he believed: she was the only one who hadn't smacked him for being lazy, yelled at him for being clumsy, or jerked him away from something because he didn't see it.
Not didn't see it.
Couldn't see it.
On some level Jerry learned, and learned very early, it's easier to ridicule and insult than it is to try and find a reason: easier, yes, but it wasn't right, and in spite of his very few years, little Jerry determined that he, if nobody else, would never ever treat another the way he'd been treated.
Miss Sarah very carefully put the black silk scarf on him again, the way she did when she had him walk with that taut-stretched lariat: he knew it was a lariat from its feel, from the braid, from its smell.
He'd handled lariats before but more with his hands and his fingers and his nose.
It was easier, here, for him to sit beside Miss Sarah with the folded silk scarf over his eyes, because his world was small, small enough to be managed by a scared little boy, a little boy who couldn't see much beyond blurs and wobble-shapes.
The train swayed a little under them, it boomed and chuffed and he laughed at the whistle, and he felt Miss Sarah's hand tighten a little when he laughed, and he knew she laughed too, but hers was inside, hidden.
Miss Sarah was like that.
She kept a lot inside.
Miss Sarah watched, he knew, he listened as others talked and he knew she was watching, that if anything was out of the ordinary she was looking at it: he knew she was a protector because his brothers talked about her marching out of the schoolhouse with the school bell in hand and how she beat twenty men over the head with it and never broke a sweat, and how she came back in and grabbed that bent up bell in her bare hands and pulled and twisted it back into shape after she'd mashed it closed beating all those bad guys.
Jerry's world was a warm hand, and the seat under him, and he was content.

When the train eased and screeched a little coming to a stop and it made its funny hiss and chuff noises, Miss Sarah whispered, "We will wait until everyone is off the car," and he nodded, and waited: Miss Sarah withdrew her hand, and little Jerry clutched the edge of the seat as she stood and spoke with someone.
He could not make out the words, but he could tell the words were kindly.
"Up we go, now," Miss Sarah said, and little Jerry lifted his head as if to look at something when Miss Sarah took him under the arms and hoisted him into the air.
Jerry laughed as she slung him over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes: he giggled as she walked a little and turned and went down some stairs and he heard her heels loud and hollow on wood, and then down some more stairs, and she said "Down we go!" and he felt her hand on the small of his back as she bent over and his feet hit the ground and he laughed again because the rapid descent tickled his tummy.
Miss Sarah took his hand and they walked a little ways, not far, and then he was hoist again: she steered him against some upholstery and said "Scoot back, now," and he slid his bottom up onto a seat, and scooted back.
Miss Sarah said something but it sounded funny, like she'd stuck her head out a window or something, and then Jerry realized he was in a carriage and they were moving.
He had no way of knowing she'd hailed a hack and that they were being driven to the best eye physician and lens grinder in Denver.

Rick Casterline was driving his team back to the barn.
He'd unhitched from the stone boat: tired, but a good tired, he'd been laboring afield the day long: there were forever rocks working up out of his plowed field and he had use for them, and he'd just skidded a bloody ton of the things to where he needed them, and unloaded them off the stone boat, he and his oldest two boys.
They were stacking the smaller stones as he directed while the next two sons stretched a chalk line and marked off where the stone wall would run.
Rick spoke to his team and they halted at his voice: his teams were all voice trained, they all responded immediately: Rick was a hard man, an uncompromising man, and the one horse that had been foolish enough to step on his foot, why, Rick had brought that big plow horse to its knees with a single tree, and Rick not tall enough to see over the thing's back.
Rick bent a little and twisted his back some, squinting a bit at the sight of that pretty young schoolmarm's approach.
She was young, yes, but she maintained a schoolmarm's formality: he would as soon be improper with her as with the Queen herself: this lass dressed the part, she spoke the part, yet there was a glint of humor behind those round, wire framed lenses, something that told him there was much more to her than met the eye.
Sarah drove the carriage up to the house and swung Jerry down to the ground, and Rick grunted a little in surprise.
There's muscle under that dress, he thought, for her effort had not been great, and he had a clear view of her face ... and her face did not show the grimace of a woman near the limit of her ability, but rather the smile of someone who felt a genuine joy at what she was doing.
Sarah squatted beside Jerry and he felt her tug at the knot at the back of his head.
"Now remember, Jerry," she whispered in his ear as she drew away the black-silk hoodwink, "we won't know for sure for a week. In the meantime it's our secret. Deal?"
Jerry, his eyes still shut, nodded vigorously.
"Okay. Your front door is to your right. Do you know which way is right, and which is left?"
Jerry pointed quickly to his left, toward the buggy. "That's right," he said.
Sarah laughed. "Come this way, rascal," she said, her voice light, and she turned Jerry as the front door opened and his mother exclaimed, "There you are, you little scamp! Running around with older women, I swear! You've been taking lessons from your father again!"
Sarah turned and smiled as Rick Casterline stepped onto their split-puncheon porch.
"We'll know in a week," Sarah said.
"Why's it take a week? You went clear to Denver, can't they tell us something?"
Sarah nodded carefully. "The doctor tells me he can help at least a little and possibly more." She folded her hands in her apron and assumed a very proper air. "Jerry's condition is quite rare but not unknown. We will have a definitive answer one week from today."
"Hmp." Rick Casterline's grunt clearly displayed his skepticism. "How much is this gonna cost me now?"
Sarah's eyes flashed and Mrs. Casterline saw them go pale behind her spectacles, but Sarah's voice never changed, nor did her posture alter in the least.
"As I said earlier, Mr. Casterline, I have already borne the expense. The bills are paid."
"Now out of curiosity," he growled, crossing his arms and leaning a shoulder against the rough timber siding, "why are you doin' this?"
Sarah lifted her chin.
"Mr. Casterline, how do you prefer to sharpen an ax?"
Mrs. Casterline saw her husband frown, turn his head a little: "Come again?"
"An ax, Mr. Casterline. An ax dulls with use. Do you prefer a file, or a stone?"
Rick frowned, then reached in the pocket of his bib overalls and pulled out a flat, round stone about as big as his hand.
"And how did you come to prefer a stone over a file, Mr. Casterline?"
Rick looked at his wife, at the schoolmarm, puzzlement deepening his frown.
"You tried one, then you tried the other, and you found which works best for your hand, am I right?"
Rick nodded.
"The same with shaping a horse's hoof, or dressing a plank, splitting a rock or pulling a calf. You found out how to do it by trying it. What didn't work, you don't do anymore, but if it works you stick with it."
Rick nodded.
"Your business is ranching, Mr. Casterline, and you are good at it, but every day you learn something more. A schoolmarm's business is children, and I learn every day as well." She gestured toward the open doorway. "Jerry's condition is unique. I have never seen it before. I read of only one case in the literature, and even the doctor said it is very rare. If I find what I'm doing, works, I will know how to help the next child with a similar or identical condition."
"Hmp." Rick's bottom jaw thrust out and he grunted, nodding once.
"I'm sorry I have no more information than I have given you. I would have preferred to bring him home cured, but we'll have to wait another week. At that time, with your permission, we will repeat the journey, and at the end of that day we will know for certain."
Rick blinked a few times, nodded again.
"Now if you will excuse me, I must for home myself, otherwise I shall be obliged to choose the switch with which I myself must be chastised."
The look she shared with Mrs. Casterline was mischievous, and Mrs. Casterline smiled her understanding.
As Mr. and Mrs. Casterline stood on the porch, watching the pretty young schoolmarm drive off, Rick put his meaty arm around his wife's bony shoulders and rumbled, "Mother, do you think she knows what the hell she is doing?"
His wife leaned against her husband's solid bulk, laid her head over on his shoulder and sighed.
"I think she does, Papa," she said softly. "I think she does."

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Linn Keller 1-13-12


Jacob drew his mare to a halt, considered for a moment, then turned off the trail and into the brush.
He turned her again so he could watch the trail.
Nobody was following, he was satisfied; he had no sense of danger or of foreboding, but it was his habit to be cautious.
His stallion was a creature of the wild: a herd animal, attuned to the approach of predators, it knew what Jacob was doing: it is possible that the Appaloosa knew its senses were more acute than its rider's, though we can not really be sure: still, its ears turned slowly, catching any stray sound and funneling it in for further study.
Jacob did not question the rightness of his action.
The goal in law enforcement is, ideally, to prevent a crime from occurring.
Too often, law enforcement was reactionary instead, and was not involved until after something happened.
In that case, Jacob knew, the role of law enforcement was to prevent recurrence of the evil that befell a victim.
His eyes surveyed the valley, the distance: The Lady Esther whistled in the cold air and Jacob knew she was miles away, but he also knew the cold air carried sound a phenomenal distance.
Snow swirled around him and he turned the fur lined coat collar up, shaking snow off it and grimacing, then chuckling, at the sting of tiny little cold-fingers on his neck.
He and Apple-horse stood there a while longer, there in the lee of the rocks, watching snow come down cross-legged.
Deep snow a-comin', he thought, grateful for the stack of wood piled neatly there close to the house and covered in sheets of bark to keep the rain off: it guaranteed that neither he nor Annette would have to go far to feed their stoves.
I gave him another chance, Jacob thought.
If I'd brought him in and charged him with attempted stage robbery, he could have argued accident, and a jury could find reasonable cause to believe him.
A gust of wind sighed powerfully through the trees higher on the mountain; snow hissed through pine branches, pattered softly off Jacob's coat.
I don't know if Pa will approve, he thought.
His father dispatched Jacob as soon as the stage made it into town with a description of the event, and of the chicken hearted holdup: the shotgun guard had indeed bent over and heaved up his guts, just as Jacob described, there at the little campfire between those sheltering rock slabs ... but when he bent over, the holdup's bullet went through the back of his hat-brim.
I got him the hell out of our territory, Jacob thought.
He's not going to cause trouble here anymore.
He knows if he comes back I'll be on him like ink on paper and there will be no second chances.
Had Jacob a mirror in that moment he would have seen his eyes go a bit more pale.
He has nothing for which to return.
His family is gone now, he lost his ranch, spent all his money, sold all he had except what he was wearing and what was in his saddle bags.
He has no reason to return.

Jacob thought himself a good judge of men, and it was his judgement that the holdup would not be back: it was his belief the experience would be so distasteful to the man that he would shun outlawry for the rest of his days.
A saddle, a good horse and lonesome country often inspire a man to contemplation, and Jacob contemplated his actions for some time.
Finally, satisfied he lifted his reins and nudged his Apple-horse with his knees.
"Head on out," he whispered. "Let's report back to the Sheriff."

The Sheriff confidently poured a blue-granite cup from the pot steaming on his cast iron stove.
Charlie raised an eyebrow, took the cup cautiously, as if afraid its contents would dissolve the bottom of the cup and splash to the floor, corroding the puncheons before hissing to death against the ground beneath.
The Sheriff took a noisy slurp of his own, frowned.
"Hot," he grunted, took another noisy slurp.
Charlie sniffed cautiously at his own.
The Sheriff ran his tongue out, making a face.
"Scald the hair right off a man's tongue," he declared, and Charlie took a very small, very cautious sip.
Charlie's eyebrow quirked up again: surprised, he took another, bigger sip.
The Sheriff pulled open his desk drawer, uncorked a flat sided bottle, added a splash to his coffee. "Sweetnin'?" he asked, holding up the bottle.
The wind rushed against the side of the building, rattling the shuttered windows.
"From the sound of that," Charlie said quietly, "maybe I'd best," and held out his cup.
The Sheriff poured a generous dollop into the man's mug.
"Keeps a man thawed out," he said with a straight face.
Charlie took another sip, turned as someone kicked briskly at the outer wall, probably knocking snow off their boots before coming inside.
Jacob opened the door, his cheeks red with cold, pushed it shut behind: snow swirled in around him and he shucked out of mittens and coat, shaking them off over by the stove.
"It's just a bit frash out there," he observed, and Charlie looked at the Sheriff, the corners of his eyes wrinkling with amusement.
"He sounds just like you," he said, and the Sheriff, eyes twinkling with merriment, mumbled "Can't imagine why" just before he took a noisy slurp of doctored coffee.
Jacob looked from one man to another.
"Either the two of you are committing suicide," he said, "or somebody else made coffee."
"I knew there was a trick to it," Charlie muttered. "You had 'em fill this over at the Jewel, didn't you?"
"Not ten minutes ago," the Sheriff grinned. "This is ugly on my face, not stupid!"
"Which proves the Lord's mercy!"
The Sheriff shook his head sadly. "Trouble is, you're right!"
He looked at Jacob.
"Get everything taken care of?"
Jacob stopped, looked at his father.
"He's on his way?"
He's onto me, Jacob thought, and he felt his heart sink.
"Yes, sir."
"You gave him the train ticket and a bait of food."
"Yes, sir."
"You told him ...?"
"The stage driver said his shotgun was sick, he bent over and threw up about the time the shot rang out, they saw the fellow run away and figured it was accidental."
The Sheriff nodded. "Good."
Jacob looked at Charlie, then at his father.
"You got him out of the area, you gave him a chance, you figured he was so sick over what he'd done he would never try it again."
A statement, not a question.
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Jacob, you have demonstrated the advanced trait of compassion. The law is righteous in punishing those who do wrong, but when it's possible, it's far better to educate, and you have educated."
"Yes, sir."
Charlie nodded slowly.
"Hell," he said, "he even thinks like you."

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Charlie MacNeil 1-13-12


Charlie took another contemplative sip of his coffee. "Snowin' out?" he asked Jacob after he'd swallowed the tasty brew.

"That it is," the deputy replied. "You mighta picked a bad time to come to town."

"What can I say? The weather looked fine when we left the ranch." Charlie heaved himself out of his chair and strode to the window. The eerie whistle of the wind around the eaves of the stout log building sent an icy finger to trace its slow way down his spine in spite of the warmth of the room. The buildings across Firelands' main street were obscured by the clouds of snow that skated down the wind on their journey. He shivered then took another sip from the cup of antifreeze in his hand. He returned to his chair.

"Who's taking care of your horse herd?" the Sheriff asked through fragrant steam.

"Cat Running and Dawg," Charlie replied with a grin. "Cat Running'll feed 'em, and Dawg'll feed him." His grin widened when the Sheriff's eyebrow guirked in puzzlement then he launched into the brief tale of Dawg's bringing venison to Cat Running's camp. By the end of the short story all three men were chuckling. "I reckon they'll be fine, but I hate to take advantage of a friend's generosity like that."

"Knowing that old man, I don't imagine he's doing it for free, is he?" the Sheriff asked.

"No, I promised him powder and ball and some chewin' tobacco," Charlie replied. "But I 'spose after this I'd best bring him a few other things." He pushed himself to his feet and reached over to hang his cup on its hook. Shouldering into his stout sheepskin lined coat and picking his wool cap from the peg beside the door, he said, "I think I'll wander on back over to the Jewel. It's gettin' to be hungry out. See you gents." The door banged behind him but not before a brief flurry of cold white flakes scampered across the puncheons along the wall.

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Linn Keller 1-14-12


"He just might have somethin' there."
I looked up and felt a grin pulling at my face.
"How's that?"
"He said it's gettin' hungry out." Jacob's grin was broader than mine, but then he was likely thinking seriously about food.
I reckon I was just like him, at that age ... a walking appetite on two hollow legs.
"Would you like to come over for supper? I reckon we can water the soup some."
Jacob grinned. "If I don't head on home and eat what Annette fixed, she might cloud up and rain all over me!"
I laughed.
"Now that would not be good!" I declared. "I have never seen that young lady in an ill temper, and I don't believe I'd like to!"
Jacob gave me a knowing look.
"Believe me, sir, you wouldn't!"
I nodded, swirling the last of my sweetened coffee, then knocking it back and slinging it underhand, flipping the last dregs in an arc to sizzle against the cast iron stove.
Jacob and I approached the stove.
I hung the cup on its peg and Jacob fetched his coat down and shrugged into it.
"That snow come up just awful fast," Jacob said, frowning. "Charlie's right. It didn't look a thing like weather earlier. This hit all of a sudden."
I nodded, considering.
"How's your wood?"
"Plenty, sir."
Jacob's grin was quick and ready.
"I could last half the winter or more."
"Just half?" I gave him a wise look and he winked.
"After half the winter, sir, I'd have to go raid the root cellar and the smoke house. If winter don't last until July, I'm all set!"
We shook hands: his grip was firm, and my hand read the calluses on his.
"Hug that good lookin' wife of yours for me," I said.
"I will, sir." He turned toward the door, plucked his hat down and settled it on his head, turned.
"This morning," he said, "Joseph was watching me at breakfast and he stretched out his little arms and begged for a sip of coffee."
I smiled quietly, remembering seeing the lad do just that at the table.
"I told him it would stunt his growth, then I stood up and said just look what it's done to me!"
I laughed, nodding.
I've used that line myself a time or three.
"It cain't be good for you," I agreed. "My Grandma used to boil it up extra strong and used it to strip varnish off rocking chairs."
Jacob's eyes went to the blue granite pot, but he held his tongue.
I appreciated the respect he extended with his silence.

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Linn Keller 1-15-12


Sarah wore a properly tailored gown of the latest Parisian fashion: her hair was swept up into a shining crown, with two glorious, gleaming tails cascading down over her shoulder blades.
Another Sarah wore the mousy-grey schoolmarm's dress and had her hair up in a tight, severe bun: she looked disapprovingly over her round-lensed spectacles, hands quite properly clasped in front of her.
Sarah slouched against the rock pillar, sneering at the others: she wore black britches and cavalry boots, black vest and black wool shirt: her hair was braided in twin, thick pigtails and wrapped around her neck as protection against a knife slash: her hat was cocked at a challenging angle and she seemed to swagger though she stood still.
They three stood in a small clearing: darkness, like velvet curtains, surrounded their little circle.
A tall window opened and they saw Sarah sitting in the Sheriff's office, and they watched the Sheriff's face fall about three feet at the thought that Sarah might be a girl in trouble, then the relief as he realized the fact of the matter.
The Sarah chewing on a match stick sneered approvingly.
"Nice, job, sister. You have the old man cranked around your pinky."
The window closed and darkness momentarily claimed them: then another, like a rectangular eye, opened: there was no sound, not until the schoolmarm-Sarah froze rancher Casterline with a pale-eyed glare: she never raised her voice, she used a schoolmarm's authority to address the man: the scene flickered and they watched her driving away from the ranch house with a little boy in the buggy beside her, then another flicker and she was driving back.
The schoolmarm and the proper young lady looked over at their black-clad self.
"You blew smoke and sunshine right down his boot tops. Played the man like a puppet." Even white teeth punished the match stick. "You're good, honey. You, are, good."
"The child is blind," the schoolmarm said quietly. "Without help he will never see as do his brothers."
"Sure, honey. Now where's your profit?"
"There is profit," the fashionable young woman said, tilting her head a little. "Business depends on sales and on customers, on associations and good relations. Persuasion is a most valuable skill."
The schoolmarm's pale eyes snapped behind her window-glass lenses.
"I am not doing this for me!" she hissed, folded hands tightening on one another.
"Sure, sister," came the sneering reply. "Whatever you say."

Sarah's eyes snapped open and the dream dissipated like smoke before a puff of wind.
Her eyes tracked across the darkened bedroom, listening: she heard wind against her window, the brittle hiss of snow caressing the pane, then whipping away: her hands were tight on bunched-up handsful of quilt, and her heart was beating, slow and powerful, in her chest, the way it did when she was quite ready to pound some luckless soul like she was driving a fence post into hard ground.
She took a long, slow breath, let it out, and willed herself to relax.

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Linn Keller 1-16-12


A little warm hand rested on my face.
"Daddy?" a tiny little voice whispered. "You 'wake?"
I opened one eye: dimly, I saw Angela's shape in front of me, standing beside the bed.
I was not entirely awake when I flipped the covers back: carefully, not exposing Esther, I allowed my warm bubble of air to escape into the room's chill.
I sat up and took Angela under the arms.
I pulled her up onto my lap, then over my lap, and laid her in the little space between Esther's back and me, and drew the covers back over.
I laid down and was almost immediately submerging in the dark waters of sleep when Angela flounced over on her left side and threw her arm across my chest.
She was shivering a little.
I rolled slowly, carefully onto my right side, wiggling as little as I had to, for I did not want to wake Esther: Angela was now sandwiched between us, her arm up over my side.
"Daddy," she whispered, "I'm not scared now."
I draped my arm very gently over her, then across Esther's flank, and stillness reclaimed the bed.

The night marshal saw it first.
Few things put fear into Bingman's heart, but fire was one of them, and when he saw the ugly flickering yellow through the boarding-house window, he wasted no time at all making the local foot-racing champion look like an amateur.
He sprinted for the firehouse, seized the long wagon-bolt and began slamming the hanging rectangle of steel like an insane blacksmith killing a rampaging steel snake.
Sean and the Irish Brigade slept on a hair trigger, the legacy of firehouse life back in Porkopolis: they heard the alarm being hammered with the vigor and desperation of someone in fear of their very life and from its cadence and strength they knew this was the genuine article.
As one they were out of bed and into their boots: all slept in their Union suit and clean socks, with their woolen drawers down over their boots: into the boots and yank the galluses up and they were dressed, a few long strides and they had helmet in hand and coat spun about and fast-up: the mares were dancing, eager, knowing the alarm meant they could run, they could run, and they froze as the harness was dropped down onto them and made fast: the Welsh Irishman had the troika well in hand, murmuring to them, talking to them: "Back, ladies, back up, now, there's ma good ladies, back now," and the pin dropped into the hole and the mares leaned into their collars, feeling the weight of the steam-wagon behind them.
Fire flared from the blunt, big-mouthed stack as the German Irishman tossed in a cup full of gasoline, that devil's breath that let the boiler fire all the more quickly: the fire had been laid and ready for this very thing, hard Pennsylvania anthracite lit off, men climbed aboard as the twin doors were swung open and Sean walked the dancing, head-tossing mares outside.
"Whither away!" he shouted.
The night marshal pointed and yelled "The Widow's boarding house!" and Sean swung his blacksnake whip: "All hands on deck! No Irish need apply! The Devil's in town, lads, an' we're in for a fight! Boudiccea, St. Michael and St. Florian!"
The German Irishman tried the whistle; it would take five interminable minutes to build steam pressure, he knew, but he tried it out of habit as Sean roared "RUN, LADIES, RUN!" and the mares threw themselves into their collars.
Smoke and flame from the stack, Irish oaths and Gaelic song, the sound of horses' hooves on muffling snow, and the Irish Brigade set forth to battle the Devil himself.
The night marshal closed the firehouse doors before he chased after the Brigade, slipping a little in the deepening snow.

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Linn Keller 1-18-12


Jacob was up early, as was his habit: he slipped out of bed quietly, trying not to disturb Annette, only to find she had risen before him.
Joseph, he thought.
I shouldn't be surprised.
He's hungry as I am.

Jacob rubbed his eyes and scratched his neck and yawned, wide and silent, stretching and arching his back before grabbing socks and getting dressed.
The smell of coffee smiled at him the moment he set foot out of the bedroom.

Jackson Cooper bent over a little bit, enveloping his beautiful bride in his hard-muscled arms: she laughed as his whiskers tickled her cheek: he'd come up behind her, and she delighted at the warm, solid feel of her big strong husband pulling her into him.
They'd just had breakfast, and a good breakfast it was.
Jackson Cooper liked to joke with the Sheriff that his wife was a wonder and a marvel, and would routinely feed him a dozen eggs fried up, a pound of bacon fried crispy, a pot of coffee and a whole loaf of bread sliced and toasted and slathered with good home made butter.
It was, of course, an exaggeration.
Jackson Cooper never ate more than six eggs at a sitting.
Well, maybe seven, but not all that often.
"You," he whispered, and even his whisper seemed to come from the bottom of a well, "are a marvel, Mrs. Cooper."
Emma laid her hands over her husband's and hugged them tightly into her.
"So are you," she whispered back.
He eased his enveloping clasp and she turned and ran her arms around his neck, and he raised his chin as she raised hers.
She tasted of tea and of butter, and he tasted of bacon and coffee.

Mac glowered as he slashed at the accumulated snow with the broom.
He regarded the boardwalk in front of the Mercantile as his personal property, and considered snow on the planks, an affront: frowning, he realized very quickly the broom was not the right tool for the job, and disappeared into the Mercantile.
He emerged with a short handled shovel and began plying good Ames steel against the accumulation.
He'd just cleared the rectangle directly in front of the double doors when he smelled something ... wrong.
He looked down the street, looked up the street; he saw nothing: he stopped, scanned roof lines across from him, and ...
...nothing ...
Mac was not entirely awake; it took several long moments for the smell to register, and when it did, his stomach fell a few feet.
It was the wet, stinky, disagreeable odor of a smoldering trash fire.
The same smell as a burnt house.

There were two boarding houses in town: the second opened its doors immediately to refugees from the first: the proprietress used her entire reserve of warmed water to help thaw out folk who'd run out of the burning structure in nightshirt and little else, and several sets of bare feet immersed themselves in the tub of steaming water.
She already had a big kettle of stew, warm and simmering, and proceeded to ladle it into bowls: she fired the stove harder and set water to heating.
It was nearly hot enough to put in the bread dough, raising under checkered cloth on the sideboard.

Word spread quickly.
Maude sent Mac to get a list of what clothing was needed; the Silver Jewel sent a runner -- well, not a runner, but one of Daisy's girls, and she was more of a plodder than a runner -- to let the refugees know they would not lack for meals.

Sarah McKenna and her mother were laughing, Butter and Jelly jingling happily in the lead, drawing their brightly-painted and polished sleigh across the squeaking snow: it was cold, yes, but cold was common to the high country, and both ladies were accustomed to its icy caress: neither had any need for cosmetics, for the cold brought the color out in their cheeks.
They came around a bend and a rise and Firelands lay before them.
Bonnie twitched the reins and called "Ho, girls," and the mares coasted to a stop, shaking their heads.
The bright jingle of harness-bells was a hard contrast with the ugly sight of the smoking, charred remnant of the boarding-house.
"Oh, dear," Sarah and Bonnie breathed: they looked at one another and each nodded one time.
"Yup, girls," Bonnie said, her tone brisk, and Sarah knew her mother was on task.
If the boarding house was burnt, people would have lost goods: the McKenna dress works specialized in fine clothing, and Bonnie knew what it was to lose one's household to fire.
"I have a tablet --" Sarah and Bonnie blurted together, then looked at one another and laughed.
"Do you have a tape measure?" Sarah asked, eyes bright and sparkling.
Bonnie gave her a knowing look.
"What does the bear do in the woods?" she whispered, and Sarah's eyes went big and round as her stiff-fingered hand went to her mouth.
"Moth-err!" she exclaimed, and they two laughed again.

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Linn Keller 1-19-12


I traced the words with my finger tips.
It was cold in the cemetery: the wind cut right through me and wrapped cold hands around my very bones: I ached for it, but knelt slowly on one knee, pressing into the snow and the iron-hard ground beneath, looking at the words cast into the white-bronze plaque bolted to the white-bronze monument.
A snow-dusted lamb surmounted, kneeling, symbolic of a child's death; beneath, a rose, in a circle, further evidence of a child -- a favorite daughter -- and beneath, words that crushed my heart within my chest:
An Angel wrote in the Book of Life,
Your name, upon your Birth:
Then looked again, and wrote again:
"Too beautiful for Earth."

Snow pelted the backs of my ears and rattled off my hat: the wind sent needles through my wool trousers, stinging the back of my thigh, and I heard it mutter and roar through the treetops, its great and lonely sighs echoing the emptiness, the grief, the loss in my own soul.
I could not bring myself to look at the name.
I did not want to add another layer of reality to my grief.
My throat closed against the sobs that choked up from my chest; I locked my jaw shut and forbade their existence, but they came anyway and I collapsed, leaning against the frozen monument, sobbing my grief into the uncaring wind.
A warm hand laid itself upon my breast and I slapped my own hand on it, hard, reflexive at the intrusion: I gasped and my eyes snapped open and it was dark, it was full dark, and the wind sobbed and roared around the windows, and I turned my head.
Esther's eyes were open, her arm laid over top of Angela: it was her hand I held tight against my breast bone.
I was grateful for the darkness, for no man wants to be seen with tears on his face, and the water ran freely from my eyes.
"It was only a dream," Esther whispered, and I nodded, taking a long, shivering breath, and her words seemed to echo there in the stillness, as Angela, relaxed, slept between us, unaware of the mournful universe I'd just traveled.
Just a dream, I thought, my breath coming more easily, and I patted Esther's hand, then squeezed it briefly, gently: she squeezed back, and I closed my eyes, and the last memory I have before slumber claimed me was that of her hand in mine.

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Clay Mosby 1-19-12


If I can make it over Siskiyou pass i'll be all set. Still can't move though.

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Linn Keller 1-20-12


Mother Casterline shaded her eyes against sun's glare on fresh snow, squinting a little at the moving blur at distance.
Her hand went to her mouth and she made a little squeak, a hopeful little squeak, and drew her cloak more tightly around her: she'd stepped out onto the porch nearly a dozen times, anticipating the schoolmarm's return.
She glanced over at the paper-and-ribbon packet hanging from a stub on the front wall and she could not help but smile: the pretty young schoolmarm knew just how to persuade her husband, and somehow she knew her husband's conscience would not be hurt any at all if he lost the bet.
The blur cleared as it neared and became two mares, and behind it, a sleigh, and in the sleigh, her little boy and the schoolmarm.
"Dear Lord," she breathed, and dared not say more: she wished mightily for her son's relief, for it hurt her mother's heart to see a little boy who was obviously intelligent, yet incapable of crossing a room without steering to one side or the other, or cranking his head over to his shoulder, falling and falling and falling again, or trying vainly to see something, whether near or far, and finally, she thought, finally he found he could see something if it were held a scarce three fingers from the tip of his nose:
"Dear Lord," she whispered again, and she saw the snow powdered up with the horses' hooves and she heard the jingle of the harness-bells, and she saw her little boy pop out of the buffalo robe and stand and she heard his laugh, bright and joyful and as clear as the silver-voiced harness bells in the cold, clear air --
Sarah drew up in front of the house with a quiet "Ho, now," and Butter and Jelly ho'd, and little Jerry turned his head toward his Mama.
His eyes were huge, magnified by thick lenses, but the grin on his face was unmistakable.
"Jerry?" she whispered, then found her voice: "Jerry?"
Jerry's face lit up like an Aladdin lamp and he exclaimed, "Mama!" and Mama's hands seized her little boy under his arms and brought him out of the sleigh.
Jerry twisted impatiently and she nearly dropped him to the clean-swept porch boards: Jerry reached up and seized her hand and yelled, "Mama, come see! Mama, come see!" -- and fairly dragged Mrs. Casterline around the side of the house.
Rick Casterline heard his son's voice: he swung the ax in a tight circle, buried its head in the splitting stump and strode through snow halfway to his knees.
He stopped as he heard Jerry's excited exclamation.
The little boy had his Mama's hand and he was pointing at the stand of lodgepole pine and bare naked aspen behind the house, thrust up through the mountainside's pristine snow blanket: his excitement was contagious, he was jumping up and down like a little boy will, and Rick swallowed hard as he realized what Jerry was shouting:
"Look, Mama! Look! That's what trees look like! That's what trees look like!"
Rick froze as Jerry turned.
Jerry stared at his Pa like he was looking at a newly emerged mountain.
"Jerry?" he said, his voice soft, and Jerry's face split with a grin and yelled "Papa!" and ran through the snow, slamming into Rick's leg and seizing him in a four year old's version of a bear hug.
He looked up and said "You're very, very big."
Sarah hung back, biting her lip, then she turned: slowly, she walked up on the porch, plucked the bet from its stub, and hung a small package in its place.
She waded through snow and climbed into the sleigh, then flipped the reins: "Yup, girls," she said softly, and Butter and Jelly jingled around in a big circle, and Sarah drove back to Firelands, crying so hard she could barely see.
She waited until she was well out of sight of the Casterline ranch before she stopped the sleigh and climbed out.
Snow was deeper here and she did not care.
"I'm supposed to be hard as nails," she muttered, slashing savagely at tears on her cold-reddened face: "I'm not supposed to feel like this!"
She floundered a little ways from the brightly-painted sleigh and collapsed against a tree, tears cold on her cheeks, and hissed, "Where are you? Damn you, where are you?"
Her cynical self remained silent; her black-clad self was nowhere to be found.
She heard Jerry's words again in her memory.
She saw a little boy jumping up and down, holding his Mama's hand, sharing his happy discovery with all the vigor of an excited four-year-old.
"Look, Mama, look! Trees! That's what trees look like!"
Sarah raised her face to the heavens.
"Thank You," she whispered.

Rick plucked the package from the stub.
He untied the ribbon, unfolded the cloth.
"What is it, Papa?" Mother Casterline asked as Jerry scampered to the end of the porch, looking out over the countryside.
Rick swallowed hard again.
He opened the little hard container.
He pulled out the folded paper, read it aloud.
This is on me, he read, and drew the paper aside.
Inside the hinged hard case was a second pair of glasses.

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Mr. Box 1-20-12


With the weather on top of the fire at the boarding house, things were pretty busy around here. More people at the bar than usual and more people eating, too. They would linger a lot longer after they finished also. After all, they had no place to go. You'd catch a little bit of a conversation here or there as different people would be talking about when they first noticed it or how they were awakened. Some speculating "What if......" Some talking about how fast it spread and of course most of them worrying about where they would go now. There couldn't be much done about rebuilding in the dead of winter.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-20-12


Breath fogged white against golden lantern light. Swish and jingle of saddle blankets, leather and steel. The roan looked askance at its master as said gent swung chill Navajo wool across warm, dry horse hair to settle the blankets and smooth out the wrinkles. "I know, you'd just as soon stay right here and get fat, but we need to get for home," Charlie told the horse. The gelding declined to answer, merely swiveling expressive ears at the sound of the words. He lifted the saddle into place and reached under the horse's belly for the cinch. The roan surreptitiously sucked in a gutful of air, swelling its barrel against the cold grip of the twisted mohair; it got a knee in the ribs for its trouble. Charlie was long since wise to that one.

In the next stall over, Fannie was wordlessly saddling her sorrel, her face pinched against the chill of the morning. There are few colder activities than sitting the hurricane deck of a horse on a zero degree day, sunshine or no. Husband and wife were both dressed in two layers of wool longjohns, canvas britches and wool shirts and vests, all covered with heavy sheepskin lined coats. Wool caps with uptied ear flaps covered their heads. Heavy bullhide chaps protected legs and woolskin lined mittens were tucked into coat pockets. The sawbucks and packs were already strapped and knotted in place on the three pack horses, stained white canvas highlighted by the lantern's flicker. No one, least of all the humans, was looking forward to the trip back to the ranch, but it had to be done. They'd been away too long.

Charlie led the roan and the three young pack animals out into the wheel-rutted and hoof-churned snow of the street. Golden sunlight streamed the length of the avenue, lending little warmth to the chill air, while ominous black clouds marched rank on rank across the western horizon. Frigid fingers of breeze lifted bits of frozen snow in play, only to drop the white crystals a moment later. The abbreviated packtrain's direction of travel was straight at those looming heaps of unshed precipitation, but they had no choice; that way was home. He swung into the saddle and wrapped the pack horse lead around his saddlehorn. Behind him Fannie hoisted herself aboard the sorrel, clumsy in the heavy layers of clothing.

The couple reined up in front of the Sheriff's office, where the man himself leaned against a rough hewn pine post sipping on a cup of steaming Arbuckles. "Nice day for a ride," he commented drily.

"Ain't it though?" Charlie replied with a grin.

"You're gonna get snowed on," Linn said, pointing with his chin at the foreboding horizon.

"I reckon," Charlie answered. "But we've been snowed on before, and we've got a ranch to tend." He lifted a mittened hand. "Adios, my friend."

"Take care, Charlie. Miss Fannie." He watched as the couple heeled their horses into motion. "Lord, watch over 'em," he whispered as they went out of sight at the end of the street. A shiver marched up his spine as he stepped through the stout plank door and swung it closed behind him.

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Linn Keller 1-21-12


The Ladies' Tea Society was an unofficial group: it could as well be called the Ladies' Planning Society, or the Ladies' Get Together and Have a Good Relaxing Chat Society, or the Ladies' Get It Off My Chest Because I Am Maddrer'n Sin Society, depending on the demands of the moment.
With the boarding house fire it became the Ladies' Relief Society: there was room enough in the other boarding house to shelter all the refugees, if some of them were on friendly terms; undamaged beds and bedding were hauled over, what could be salvaged, was; the small kitchen found itself running at capacity nearly the clock 'round to keep everyone fed, but feed them they did, with supplies from the damaged structure's pantry.
Sarah was late coming into the ladies' presence; she was normally quiet, but today her step was slower, her manner distinctly subdued, and she settled herself in the most distant seat from the center of the group and gathered her cloak about her.
None missed that she clutched her gloves tightly in one hand, none missed the fine tremor of her grip, none failed to note the wide-eyed, sightless gaze that bored through the floor at the far end of the room.
Bonnie brought her over a cup of tea.
Sarah blinked, startled, as if from a deep reverie, but smiled and thanked her Mama: she took a long, slow sniff of the fragrant vapors and closed her eyes with pleasure at the first delicate sip of perfectly brewed oolong.
Conversation did not diminish with her arrival; glances her way were carefully disguised: it was ever Sarah's habit to listen closely and say little, but today was different, for today Sarah was listening to something within herself.
She distantly marked discussion of the boarding-house fire, of the merciful lack of casualties, of how the Irish Brigade had so bravely charged into the house to fight the devil face to face, instead of standing outside and throwing water through a convenient window; she noted in the back of her mind discussion of how the second boarding house was finally filled, and now filled to capacity and just a little over, but that everyone was sheltered and fed, and the House of McKenna and Maude's mercantile were guaranteeing even those who escaped wearing only a nighthshirt and an anxious expression, were clothed.
Sarah sipped absently at her tea: realizing with surprise she'd drained her cup, she set cup and saucer quietly aside, rose unobtrusively and retired from the presence of the Society, rather like a ghost slipping away at the approach of sunrise.
Sarah picked up the front of her skirt and walked slowly downstairs: she looked to her left, smiling a little at the interminable games of chance, the games that seemed to run the clock around; she debated whether to have a bite to eat and decided against it, for there was a more pressing matter weighing upon her young heart.
She looked out through one of the clear spaces in the decoratively frosted door glass and smiled, then pushed the door open.
Cold reached in and caressed her cheeks and she shoved out into the cold air, drawing on fur-lined gloves and stepping carefully down into the lightly drifted street.
Uncle Linn slung the dregs of coffee from his cup and his eyes tightened a little at the corners at the sight of his favorite niece slogging through the fluffy white stuff toward him.
He held out a hand and she stepped up onto the board walk, for here it was well less than a foot between the hard packed street and the warped boards: they went inside and Linn shut the door against the frigid air.
He shook down the stove, threw in a few more chunks of wood and dusted his hands briskly together.
Sarah dropped the hood back and spun the cloak from her shoulders, hung it on a handy peg and cozied up to the stove, hands spread to catch its welcome warmth.
Uncle Linn stood there as well, his own hands spread wide, for it was chilly out and a tin cup loses heat fast.
The two of them turned at the same moment to warm their chilled back sides; Uncle Linn laughed at this, but offered no further comment: when they were sufficiently thawed out, he dragged two chairs over close to the stove and they sat down where they could keep warm.
Uncle Linn leaned his elbows on his knees and gave Sarah a knowing look.
"Spill it," he said, the gentleness of his voice belying the terseness of his words.
Sarah clasped her hands, resting her own elbows on her knees: she pressed her mouth against her thumbs and frowned, then raised her head and set her chin on her interlaced fingers.
"I don't know what I just did," she said, her voice distant as her gaze.
Uncle Linn waited patiently: he knew she was arranging her thoughts.
"You remember the little Casterline boy."
Sarah nodded, looked at the Sheriff.
"He can see now."
The Sheriff's eyes tightened again and he nodded.
"He seized his Mama's hand and dragged her through the snow and he jumped up and down" -- Sarah's voice grew more animated, her eyes shining with the memory -- "and he pointed and said, "Look, Mama! Trees! That's what trees look like!"
Sarah's lip trembled and her eyes were very bright, and the Sheriff knew she wasn't far from spilling water down her cheeks: he suspected she'd been crying earlier, from her appearance, but he waited, knowing all things would happen in their own good time.
"I didn't know his eyes were that bad," she whispered. "I knew they were bad" -- she looked sharply at her uncle -- "but ..."
Sarah swallowed hard, squeezed her eyes shut: her eyes started to leak and the Sheriff saw her bottom jaw thrust out, clench.
"The doctor said it looked to Larry like he was underwater, like the water was rippling slowly, it was a wonder he could stand let alone walk a few steps" -- her voice was husky now, and she stopped to clear her throat -- "I suspected something so I blindfolded him and had him hold onto a tight line, and he walked just fine so I knew his vision was off but --"
Sarah twisted her gloves in both hands, reminding the Sheriff of Jackson Cooper's nervous habit of twisting his hat, which explained why the man's skypiece was forever in a distressed state: he reached over and laid a gentle hand on his niece's clenched fists.
"I saw you use the Texan's reata," he said, his voice quiet: "that was something I would never have thought of."
"It ... seemed reasonable," she said hesitantly. "If his eyes wouldn't tell him the truth, I gave him something that would."
The Sheriff nodded slowly. "Tell me about today."
Sarah shrugged. "There's nothing to tell. I took him to Denver, got his glasses and brought him back." Her face seemed illuminated from within. "I wish you could have seen it," she whispered, not trusting her voice: "he stopped every few steps and looked ... just looked ... he stopped and studied a carriage-horse and jumped a little when it blew and stamped, and he realized what he'd been hearing was what he was seeing." She bit her bottom lip, then continued.
"He stood up all the way from the doctor's office to the depot and he pulled me up to The Lady Esther and studied the cast iron spokes and the drivers and he laughed when the pop-off valve hissed and it shot a big white steam-plume into the air."
Uncle Linn nodded, slowly, seeing it with her eyes.
"I could barely keep him in the buffalo robe for the ride back, he was looking around so."
Sarah looked at the Sheriff and her face was tortured, lined with the depth of her feeling.
"Uncle Linn," she said, and tears were in her voice as well as on her face, "he looked at me and said 'Miss Sarah, are you beautiful?'"
The Sheriff opened his arms and leaned forward and Sarah got up and slid into his arms and onto his lap: she was no longer the self-confident young schoolmarm, she was suddenly an uncertain girl, unsure of what she had done or why she had done it, and she sought comfort in the closest thing to a father, a real father, that she had ever known.
The Sheriff held Sarah and rocked her and whispered to her like a father will to a frightened child.
"I'm not supposed to do this," Sarah whispered into his shoulder, and he felt her shaking: "I'm supposed to be hard as nails, I'm supposed to be cold and hard and remorseless!" She raised her red, tear-streaked face and the Sheriff could see the agony he was hearing in her voice.
"Uncle Linn, I'm supposed to be the Ragdoll, but I'm not!"
The Sheriff held her tighter, whispered in reply.
"You are my darling Sarah," he said, his susurrants loud in the little log fortress: "you are a kind and gentle soul who becomes what she must, when she must, but you are not a ravening monster and you have never been.
"You are strong and resilient, you are beautiful and you are smart, and you are all I could ever wish for in a daughter."
He took a long breath, let it out.
"Sarah, I love you as my own. I am very proud of all that you are.
"You did a very good thing today.
"You gave a boy his eyes and you gave his father a son.
"Without you the child would be an invalid for his entire life.
"He's had a taste of life he's never known and he's hungry for more. Thanks to you he'll get it." The Sheriff kissed her forehead. "You saw what he needed and you followed your gut."
Sarah giggled, sniffed: the Sheriff pulled out a bandanna, very delicately pressed it to her closed eyelids, then held it over her nose and pinched gently.
"Blow," he said, and she did, and he wiped her nose, like she was a little girl.
Sarah McKenna, part-time schoolmarm, daughter of misfortune and cold, remorseless killer ... Sarah McKenna, legend of the West, crack shot and accomplished equestrienne ... Sarah McKenna, heir to the House of McKenna and the recovered McKenna fortune ...
Sarah McKenna, in that moment, was content to be a little girl again, held in Daddy's warm, strong, comforting arms, knowing she was safe, she was protected, and knowing in that moment, that all was well.

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