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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Charlie MacNeil 1-21-12

 

The small pack train was a string of black dots superimposed on an endless canvas of frozen white that rolled to the horizon, and beyond, in all directions. The wild fauna of the surrounding prairies and hills were wisely bedded down and tucked away from the impending storm front, willing to endure encroaching hunger pangs in exchange for the relative warmth of den and thicket. It was only the humans who dared to attempt the imposition of their will on the whims of an impersonal Nature. And they, man and woman, husband and wife, were praying for deliverance as the first chill, feathery fingers of falling snow caressed their frost-nipped cheeks...

Charlie reined in the roan. "Looks like we ain't gonna beat that storm home, Darlin'," he called, his voice muffled by the layers of woolen scarf wrapped securely about his neck and lower jaw against the cold. "We got a choice: we can turn tail and try to make it back to town, or we can hunker down and wait it out."

Fannie's sorrel stopped alongside the roan, steam rising gently from warm horsehide. The couple had made the trip to this point in stages, resting their mounts often, weighing the stamina of the horses against distance and choosing to spare the animals and take their chances on the weather. They had miles to go to get home and riding horseback was easier than walking by any sane person's estimation so it was important to spare the horses as much as possible.

"We're nearly to Camp Creek, aren't we, Charlie?" Fannie's melodious tones were equally as muffled as her husband's more graveled voice.

"Yep." He lifted a mittened hand to point to the northwest. "Big willow thicket about a half mile yonder. Are you thinkin' what I am?"

"Shelter for us, and browse for the horses. And water. I don't think the next few hours are going to be particularly pleasant out here in the open."

"Me neither." He heeled the roan into motion, turning the reluctant gelding away from the trail. "Come on, horse. You don't wanna be out in what's comin'."

Big white flakes were beginning to hasten down the wind in earnest when the roan tucked its tail and slipped gingerly down the steep, winding trail into the bed of Camp Creek. Instantly the wind's nip dissipated, blocked by the brush-lined creek bank overhead. Charlie pulled his mount's nose to the right, upstream, toward the half-acre patch of willow and chokecherry that clogged the winding creek channel like a palisade against invasion. He stepped stiffly down from the saddle, ground-tying the roan, then trod heavily through knee-deep snow to the first of the pack horses. Pulling his stiff right mitten free with his teeth he reached up to unlash the ax that was the last item he had tied atop the tarp-secured load. He'd had a feeling they were going to need it. He pushed his way through the snow to the edge of the creek. "Be right back, Darlin'," he called over his shoulder.

A rime of ice undulated with the capricious windings of the stream that tumbled over rock and rill with enough force to resist the majority of winter's encroachment. A game trail followed the gentle curves and Charlie in turn followed the trail toward a small clearing in the center of the thicket where he'd camped before. Snow cascaded from every disturbed branch, showering him with frozen crystals that he brushed from shoulders and cap once he broke out into the clearing. He was looking for the stand of tall young willow stems that his memory told him had grown up in a thick clump to one side of the clearing.

Sharp steel made short work of thumb-thick willow stems as Charlie cleared a small area in the center of the clustered stand. Reaching up as high as possible he pulled down several of the largest trees and tied their tops together with leather strings pulled from a coat pocket. He added more and more of the flexible stalks to the bundle until he had a natural framework in which to weave the withes he'd cut loose and several armloads of boughs donated to the cause by the lone fir tree that stood sentinel at the edge of the clearing. When the small hut was as weather-tight as he could make it he leaned the ax against the edge of the low door opening and turned to follow the creek back to where Fannie waited. The snow was falling heavier by the time he appeared from the tunnel of the creek channel, obscuring all but their immediate surroundings. Fannie and the horses had taken shelter under the high, overhanging bank on the lee side of the creek.

"Got us a place to get in out of the storm. You ready for some coffee?"

"Yes, I am," Fannie replied. "Is it ready?"

"Well, not quite. Gotta build a fire and find the coffeepot first," he answered with a grin. "But that won't take too long. Shall we?" He picked up the roan's reins and led it toward the creek bank. The pack string followed obediently.

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Linn Keller 1-22-12

 

They'll not be long gettin' home, I thought, as Bonnie and Sarah jingled down the street.
I looked the other way, up-street, up the gentle grade, at the wall of white approaching from the distance.
My thoughts wandered some as I considered my people and how they'd fare in this storm.
Jacob will be safely home by now.
Emma Cooper sent the children home early enough they'll all be home now too.
She and Jackson Cooper left an hour ago.
Jackson Cooper's place is near enough to walk it, if need be, even in ...

I stopped and considered.
From the look of that snow storm, a man will be lucky to see an arm's length ahead of himself.
Jackson Cooper is a responsible man and he'll want to feed his stock.
He is also town Marshal ...

I gave myself a mental kick in the pants.
Jackson Cooper hired a night marshal who lived here in town.
The night marshal was tasked with taking over at such times, if the weather was this bad.
That left Charlie and Miz Fannie.
I'd been told a time or three it was too cold to snow.
That's not quite the case.
I have never, ever seen it too cold to snow, and it was cold now.
That'll be a cold ride, from here to there, I thought, and wished somehow I could send my body's warmth to the two of them, for something told me they might be getting chilly in spite of the fur and wool they both wore.
Esther waved at me from her office window, there above the Jewel, and I grinned and waved back.
She's likely wondering what in the Cotton Pickin' I am doin' standin' out here in the cold, I thought.
Matter of fact ... what AM I doing standing out here in the cold?
I turned up my collar and tugged at the red-brown-and-yellow knit wool scarf around my neck, crisscrossed under my coat and laid down across my chest, and stepped off into the deepening snow.
'Twas time to fetch up the sleigh and take Esther home.
I slogged my way across the street, stumbling twice on hard-frozen ruts hidden by the blowing snowfall, made my way into the lee of the Jewel and down the drifting alleyway between the buildings, then back into the wintry blast.
I kicked snow off my boots and stepped into the livery.
"Howdy, Sheriff," Shorty called from inside his little office: "come on in an' thaw out."
I stepped into his warm little kingdom.
The stove was fairly near the door, the stove pipe came out and ran at a long diagonal across the wall and made a turn and out the wall to my left.
Like anyone else, Shorty ran the pipe as far as he could inside, to take advantage of all the heat going up the smoke stack.
"I got yer sleigh ready," he said, "all but the harnessin' up. Miz Esther ought to like it. I polished up the bright work and buffed it some. You were right about a little bees wax making it slick and shiny."
I nodded.
I'd waxed the runners myself, and a job it was, but with snow on, wax would make the sleigh that much easier to pull: I'd told Shorty about using wax on the painted work, how it made it shine and made water bead up, and sure enough he'd tried it, and it worked.
"I appreciate your kindness," I nodded and accepted the proffered flask.
Red whiskey seared my tonsils and brightened up my swaller pipe quite a bit: I handed it back, and when I thanked the man, I think I puffed out a little smoke with the words.
"Potent, ain't it?" Shorty chuckled. "Goes down like Mama's milk an' blows the socks right off yer feet!"
Well, I've had smooth sippin' likker, and this wasn't it, but the man was hospitable enough to offer me a touch, so I was not about to throw rocks at his generosity.
We went on outside and Shorty harnessed up the mare, and shortly I jingled my way up the alley and in front of the Silver Jewel.
Esther was bundled and wrapped and had gloved hands thrust in a fur muff. She'd laughed about fashion and how keeping warm was never unfashionable; I have no idea about fashion, save only that my wife is beautiful and dresses well, and if she wants to use a fur muff to keep her hands warm, why, I won't offer the least objection.
I caught her under the arms and swung her up and she drew her legs up and thrust them into the sleigh: it may have been unladylike, but she laughed when she did it, and I reveled in the feel of her, strong and alive in my hands, and no one of any account was watching, I don't think ... besides, it got her into the sleigh quickly: I climbed in the other side, shook out the buffalo robe and got her all tucked in, and clucked up the mare.
We jingled up the street and down the short road to our snug, warm house, and as I put the mare away and groomed her down, I felt rather guilty.
Our barn was tight and proof against the winds that probed for weaknesses with icy fingers; there was straw enough on the well-drained floor and in the mow overhead to keep the mares' hooves off the ground, and hold in their heat; I had blankets enough to hang in their stalls, further insulating the body-warmed, trapped air.
I'd bet, I thought, I'd bet right now I have more and better shelter than Charlie.
I closed my eyes,shivered.
He'll be fine, I thought.
He's been through much worse than this.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-22-12

 

A hatful of fire was enough to take the chill edge off the air inside of the shelter and to melt and boil snow water for coffee. Charlie whipped the majority of the snow from his coat with his cap, stomped what he could from his boots, pushed aside the saddle blanket he'd hung as a door and slipped inside the willow hut. "Dang, it's really woofin' down out there!" he declared as he looked around the inside of their temporary home away from home.

The packs were stacked against the back wall, their tarps having been spread over the top of the crude shelter as further insulation against falling snow and cold. He'd left a small opening for smoke to exit, and what little wind found their quarters through the thickness of willow and chokecherry served to pull the smoke from the tiny fire out and away. He and Fannie had cut and laid down a thick layer of fir boughs that covered most of the floor space and would keep the packs and their bed, when they laid it out, from the cold ground.

"Horses're happy enough, I reckon," he said tiredly, nodding his thanks to Fannie as she handed him a blue enamelware cup of steaming Arbuckles. "I stomped the snow down as best I could, and fed 'em all some grain. They'll have to make due on willow bark and such for now. I just hope this storm blows itself out while them critters have still got their strength." He took a long swallow of strong coffee. "Dang, I needed that!" He set down his cup and stood, half bent to keep his head out of the roof, and unbuckled his chaps then laid them across the packs. "I'll get some grub on soon's I warm up." He held cold-stiffened fingers toward the small, flickering flames. "Good thing we're on the way home and not headed for town."

"You've done enough for now, Sugar," Fannie replied. "Sit down out of my way and I'll get some food cooking." She reached into one of the horse packs for a side of bacon and a skillet and began to slice the fragrant meat into the pan. Soon the sizzle, snap, and smoky smell of cooking bacon filled the air around them. Charlie's stomach rumbled in response.

While the bacon fried Fannie mixed a thick batter from flour, water and a pinch each of sugar, salt and baking powder. When the meat was nicely crisp she lifted the strips from the pan with the blade of the slicing knife and laid it aside on a clean cloth from one of the packs then dropped blobs of dough into the sizzling grease. A quick flip of the fried biscuits to brown both sides the same and dinner was served, washed down with more of the hot Arbuckles.

Charlie munched down the last strip of bacon then leaned back against the horse packs with a sigh of contentment. "Good grub, Darlin'," he said. "It was gettin' hungry out." He unbuttoned his coat. "Gettin' nice an' warm in here, too," he commented.

"Says you," Fannie replied. "I haven't been totally warm since before we left town."

"Aw, come on, Darlin', it ain't that cold in here. You're just cold-blooded," he teased her with a grin. "But I reckon I can find you a blanket or two if you need one." He leaned toward the packs. "We've got them three new ones we bought, plus my bedroll." He swirled a gaily striped wool blanket around her shoulders. She gratefully pulled it around herself then leaned over and paid him with a kiss before snuggling against his side beneath the tail of his coat. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, enjoying the feel of her supple warmth against his side. The only sound for a long while was the crackle and snap of burning pitchwood. Fannie was the first to break the silence.

"It'll get dark early tonight, with the storm and all."

"I reckon."

"Have we got enough wood?"

"Whole pile of it right outside the door."

"Then I guess we're set."

"I reckon."

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Linn Keller 1-24-12

 

Dark and solemn eyes watched as I grasped the knife by its tip: I drew back, threw: the knife spun through the still air, gleaming in what little light there was --
Not an hour before I'd wrapped my good right hand around sanded and smoothed wood and said, "Did I ever tell you just how full of it you really are?" and that was the start of it all.
You see, my address was to a pair of oat burners who'd hung their heads over the boards to watch my labor: horses produce second hand horse feed, no matter the weather, no matter the cold, and I made it a habit to muck out their stalls on a regular basis.
Good dry stalls prevents problems.
My horses have always had good hooves and I intended to keep them that-a-way.
After I'd cleaned out and scraped out and made sure the drain gutters were clear and after clean straw bedding was distributed, I wheeled the barrow to the back door.
It took me a while to shovel snow enough to muscle the door open; it took a while longer to shovel more snow so I could open it far enough to get that load of used oats outside and somewhat close to the manure pile.
I ended up shoveling it from the barrow to where I knew the pile to be: I also knew that once the wind and the showfall quit, the manure pile would melt off nice and bare, for it was burning from the inside out, and steamed in the morning air, at least when it wasn't snow covered and froze on top.
Maybe "burning" isn't the right word.
Back in Athens County, back in Ohio's coal country, piles of waste slate and bone coal -- low grade coal, semi-combustible slate and the like -- was piled up in small mountains and just left.
It was a waste product, it was a fact of life, when you had a coal mine, you had a gob pile, and these gob piles caught fire, either from people burning trash on them, or from spontaneous indigestion.
I have gone past gob piles at night and it looked like a hundred devil's eyes glowing at me, it smelled of sulfur as if from the Pit itself.
This pile of incipient fertilizer was none of those things.
Horse manure makes for good fertilizer after it sits for a year and burns itself out.
I reckon there's some chemistry involved in that, but I'm not the brightest candle in the candelabra, so I'll leave the exact explanation to someone younger, smarter and better looking than me.
Well, younger and smarter, anyway.
Once I got that wheel barrow emptied out I went in for another load and did the same thing all over again, only I didn't have to shovel quite as much snow this time. It was still coming down, big flakes they were, but not the fast, heavy snow it'd been piling on us for a while now.
I went back inside and shut the door behind me.
There were only two windows in the barn.
Generally the weather was good enough I had at least one big door open and generally both of them, but as bitter cold as it'd got and the way that wind blew, I did not want to lose what little warmth we'd built up, the horses and me, so I set down on a bale of hay for a little and leaned back against the side of the stall.
One of the barn cats came over and jumped up on my lap, demanding use of the idle hand she'd spotted.
I petted her and fooled with her but she did not fool me one little bit.
Cats regard me as heated furniture, and she was no different.
We were out of the wind and I'd got warm shoveling manure, and I reckon I dozed a little, but not much: when I woke up, I set the cat aside: she glared at me, arched her back and stretched and then h'isted nose and tail both in the air and stalked off, like the Queen herself after an insult.
I looked at a board I'd set against the opposite wall, and the throwing knife I'd been working with.
Just for funzies, I thought, let's see if I'm any better.
I wasn't.
Every single throw, that knife gave me excuses, not results.
I either hit it side-on, or handle-on, or anything-on but tip-on.
I gave up finally and set the knife back on the shelf above the board.
I never had any screaming need to throw a knife, I never needed to and didn't particularly care to ... I think it was because I couldn't, that I wanted to.
"On the other hand," I said aloud, "why haven't I made that million dollars and retired, eh?"
I looked out the dusty, fly-specked window at the falling snow.
"Wind's quit," I said aloud, my soft spoken words prominent in the barn's shadowed hush. "Reckon this storm oughta pass here directly."
I dumped a bait of corn for each of the horses, made sure they had fresh water, and slogged back to the house.
By the time I got there I was white and cold to my belt buckle, but then it drifted some between the house and the barn.
Always does.

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Linn Keller 1-25-12

 

"Mr. Mac" saw the ladies jingle down the road in their sleigh, and sighed: he took a moment's pause from the unending fight to keep his declared territory clear of snow, remembering when Sarah was but a wee lass, with big, bright, shining eyes and an engaging smile, how she would come bouncing up to the interminable checker game and it was like she brought a broad shaft of sunlight with her.
He smiled a little, then resumed his labors.
He'd shoveled the boardwalk clean, the length of the Mercantile, and the steps as well, and he'd shoveled out a broad apron in front of the steps on either side, and in front: he had taken his time, he'd worked methodically, steadily, not in any kind of a hurry: Mac had no formal sales training, but he knew people would be attracted to a walkway that was free of snow, and if that walkway just happened to run the length of the Mercantile's storefront, why, they might be inclined to stop in and thaw out, and while they were thawing out, they'd be looking around, and if they looked,they might be inclined to buy.
At least this was his thought, on some deeper level: but at the moment, his thoughts were those of a satisfied man, for he was now able to park the good Ames square bit shovel and take up the broom again.
The slowing snow made his work far less strenuous and it was no trick to keep ahead of what little was brought in by the barely moving air. The wind had stopped -- thank God! -- and the sun was trying to tear the heavy grey clouds apart so it could peek through.
The hand-tied broom whispered loudly on the warped boards as Mac smiled a bit.
The snow did have one benefit, he reflected: between snow and broom, the boardwalk had not been this clean in quite a long time.

The Welsh Irishman's head came up, surprise on his face, and he paused his buffing of the mares' harness: the summons was clear and audible, three distinct knocks, delivered on their front door with something more solid than a man's knuckles.
Half the Brigade had tasked themselves with keeping snow shoveled back from the big, out-swinging double doors; with this, they also cleared out in front of the regular door, and it was upon this portal the summons was delivered.
The smell of coffee and frying bacon enriched the atmosphere, the steam radiators hissed and popped, the interior of the immaculate, gleaming firehouse was warm and welcoming and filled with the occasional laugh or good natured jest of men at their routine labor, at least until this triple knock from without.
The German Irishman draped his polishing rag over the left front wheel of their steam machine and strode for the door.
A hooded figure raised a hand, sketched the sign of the Cross and intoned, "A blessing upon this house and all who are in it," and the German Irishman exclaimed, "Brother William, y'damned fool, get in here!"
Sean stood upright and threw his cleaning rag at the German Irishman.
"Now do ye no' profane a holy man!" he roared, "ye'll put yer miserable soul in th' burnin' lake for sure an' for certain!"
Brother William stepped in, unfastening the blanket pin at his throat and removing the Hudson's Bay three point blanket from its improvised duty as a cloak: he turned, handed the German Irishman his rune-carved staff, then turned again to snap the blanket briskly to dislodge any snow that still clung to its broad-striped surface.
"What in th' name o' the guid Saint Christopher are y' doin' out, man?" Sean declared, striding across the floor. "Set a plate, lads, th' good Brother is hungry! Fetch up some coffee an' see t' some brandy, he'll need it t' thaw out!" Sean's voice echoed powerfully in the arched brick bay.
"I'm fine, I'm fine," Brother William protested as the two men took him by the arm and frogmarched him deeper into the firehouse interior: the German Irishman hauled out a chair and Sean muttered, "Sit," and Brother William sat.
"Here." Coffee gurgled in a pristine white porcelain mug, followed by two fingers' worth of something clear, colorless and medicinal.
A plate appeared from over the holy man's shoulder, two fried eggs and half a dozen strips of bacon hot and steaming: the edible cargo reached up with both hands and seized Brother William squarely by the nose: a bowl of biscuits slid down the table, followed by butter on a platter, and silverware clattered into place.
Brother William's stomach was loud in that moment, for he'd not eaten in a little more than four-and-twenty hours, but he did take time to bow his head and return thanks for this bounty: the entire Irish Brigade stopped dead and bowed their heads as well, and if one could read their thoughts, they would have found an equal distribution of "Thank You he's indoors and safe," and "What was the damned fool doing outside in this weather?"
Sean waited until Brother William had gotten himself on the outside of the plateful, looked up and nodded: one plate disappeared, another took its place, and the fortified coffee was refilled.
"Here," Sean said gently, sitting beside the robed traveler: "I believe you take a bit o' cream in yer coffee."
Brother William nodded, buttering a biscuit.
He was less clumsy than when he'd come in, and his shivering was almost gone.
"Now, then," Sean said, dispensing a calculated volume of Extract of Bovine into the shimmering, steaming mug of coffee, "what in God's name were ye doin' out in th' snow? We had a hell of a storm o'er th' past two days!"
Brother William nodded, chewing the biscuit: he took a noisy slurp of coffee, squeezed his eyes tight shut and shivered: he took another fortifying drink, swallowed.
"The Lord looks out after fools and children," he said quietly. "I qualified."
"Aye," Sean nodded, and every other head present nodded as well: by now the entire Brigade was seated around the table, coffee was being poured, more biscuits, hot from the oven, were poured into big bowls and being passed around the table.
Brother William sighed, picked up a rasher of bacon.
"I was called to give Last Rites," he said quietly, "a kindly old man who'd come out at his son's invitation. We sat with him, there at the last, and he passed quietly in his own bed with his family around him."
Sean and the Brigade crossed themselves and murmured, "Amen."
"It was more distant than I'd realized when I set out, and so I set a course cross country, believing I could make better time than if I took a known road."
Sean raised one eyebrow, glaring over a set of non-existent spectacles: his red-knuckled fist propped itself on his thigh as he listened.
"It got cold fast and the snow was coming fast and deep, and so I started looking around for shelter.
"I found a cave.
"I struck match to a candle and started back into it, but very soon it became low and then I heard a growl from within and saw a pair of green eyes glaring at me, and I realized this was not a good place to be."
The New York Irishman and the English Irishman looked at one another, then at Brother William.
"No more, thank you," Brother William said with a gentle smile as the cook held up two eggs and the frying pan: the last dozen strips of bacon were put on a folded towel to drain and set in the middle of the table, and the Brigade made short work of them.
Listening to a man's tale is often hungry work, and the Brigade buttered biscuits and listened closely to his words.
"I found a thicket out of the wind, in a bit of a draw, and I remembered a trick we used when duck hunting." He smiled quietly. "I found enough dry leaves to keep my back side from getting damp and set down on the corner of the blanket, then I drew it around me and over me and lighted a candle on the ground down between my knees." He finished the last strip of bacon on his plate and tore open a fragrant, warm biscuit, thrust knife into butter and anointed the bread.
"It kept me warm.
"I stayed there over night" -- here his expression became rueful -- "but I neglected to remember that candles burn down in time, and I caught my leaves on fire!"
Muted chuckles made their way around the table; indeed, Brother William did smell vaguely of leaf-smoke.
"After I rectified my error," he smiled, his voice gentle, "I found I had but one candle left and decided I should keep it for the next time I stopped and rested.
"I set out again and came eventually to the railroad tracks, and by keeping to the wooded areas and dragging my staff behind me, I knew I would not wander to the left or the right."
"Eh?" the New York Irishman asked.
Brother William smiled, raised the coffee cup two-handed, took a long drink.
"I'm starting to thaw out," he whispered. "Thank you."
"Ye'll be startin' t' sweat soon," Sean said, adding more libation to the mug, followed by coffee and another shot of cream. "The staff, y'say?"
Brother William nodded.
"A longer staff works better. The Swedes will cut a sapling, sometimes twenty feet long, trim the branches and drag it behind them. In a heavily wooded area it keeps you from turning left or right. I call it a Swedish compass."
"Well I'd be damned," the New York Irishman said, blinking: it was so absurdly simple and yet it made such good sense.
"I came into the back side of town and made my way here." His shoulders sagged and his eyes closed, then opened.
"Forgive me. I didn't realize how tired I really was."
Sean looked up, crooked a finger at the Welsh Irishman.
"Is th' water hot?" he asked quietly, to which the Welsh Irishman grinned broadly and whispered, "It's drawn an' ready."
"Ha'e ye eaten yer fill?" Sean asked, his voice kindly and full of concern.
Brother William leaned back and rubbed his lean midsection.
"I am full as a tick," he said. "My tummy is smiling."
Sean laughed aloud.
"Come along, then, we've a good hot bath t' thaw y'out, an' then it's t'bed wi' ye. Ye've had adventure enough, it's time y' got a good rest now."
Brother William stood, nodded.
"My thanks," he said, and allowed Sean to steer him toward something unique in the territory: a room dedicated exclusively to bathing and other relief of a non-Masonic nature.
As Brother William soaked in the tub of warm-and-almost-hot water, he sipped brandy from the snifter and offered thanks for being allowed to accept this hospitality.

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Linn Keller 1-26-12

 

Sean, like the Sheriff, was closely attuned to local politics: he, too, had his network of informants, his people in the right places, listening: it wasn't for nothing he'd survived the political wars back in Cincinnati, now, was it? -- why, during the War, Old Whiskers -- Ambrose Burnside -- sat paralyzed with fear that General John Hunt Morgan's Raiders would come screaming into town and bring it to fiery ruin, hanging men and ravishing women, stealing cattle (never mind Porkopolis, as it was known, was well populated by the porcine but almost not at all with the bovine).
No such thing happened, but the mere threat of the Confederate raid was enough to paralyze a city.
Sean employed a small army of boys then, and that night and the next and the night after that, swift bare feet whispered over cobblestones, lithe figures in knee pants scampered through alleyways, behind buildings, around blockaded streets: they were Sean's eyes and Sean's ears, and they both brought him information as to where the barricades were located, but also carried information from him to trusted associates and brother firehouses about the city.
He did much the same here: even as the good Brother William, warm and dry and bundled in flannel sheets and quilts, slept and thawed and recovered from his chilly sojourn, Sean was given an accurate assay of snow depths on both ends of town and its middle: which streets were how deep, and the type of snow, where ice was and was not, and a specialty for which he'd trained his informants -- how hard were people firing their stoves.
More than once he'd been ready for an alarm, responding to a house that fired their stove too briskly and their hot chimney-pipe set the desiccated wood afire: on one of those instances, the Brigade was harnessed, rigged, fired, up to working pressure and waiting outside the firehouse, until a woman's scream triggered Sean's blacksnake whip and they made the fastest fire response in their history.
Saved the house, too.
Hell, they saved every room but one, and it with so little damage, the Daine boys had it fixed and finished in less than a day!
Today, as Sean peered out the ice-framed window pane, he considered the breaks in the overcast and nodded.
"I don't believe it'll snow t'day," he murmured.
"A good thing, too," the New York Irishman muttered, folding his arms and frowning.
Sean looked at him, eyes narrowing.
"Lad," he said, "wha' is't ye need t' tell me?"
The New York Irishman shifted uncomfortably. He was never one to withhold the truth, nor to admit an error: still, he hesitated, shoving his bottom jaw out as his brows knit closer together.
"Sean, I believe it is my fault."
Sean stood, crossing his legs at shin bone height and leaning one massive paw on the marble window sill.
The fire house cat leaped to the window sill, seeing an unoccupied hand, but decided just as quickly she did not like its chill, an so jumped back down and headed for the mares' stalls. Those, she knew, would be warmer and more welcoming.
"When it started snowing hard" -- the New York Irishman nodded to the window, and the white world without -- "I stepped out the door and tried to keep ahead of the snow so we could get the bay doors open."
"Aye, that ye did," Sean nodded, "and a fine job ye were doin'!"
The New York Irishman's lips pressed together and he took a long breath in through his nose.
"I stopped at one point and shook my finger at the clouds overhead and I said" -- he assumed a pontifical pose, the indicated digit upraised -- "Stop snowing on my station!"
He grinned.
"We had more than a foot in less than an hour!"
A few minutes later, the New York Irishman staggered back into the firehouse, snow from head to ankles: one of Sean's informants was coming to the fine brick firehouse to report, when the man-door swung open, the yelling, protesting New York Irishman held by collar and belt by the big beefy red-headed fire chief, and the youthful informant's eyes grew large indeed as Sean fetched the New York Irishman off his feet and drove him head first into a snow drift, shot him horizontally into the white stuff with enough vigor the man disappeared almost entirely, only his boot-soles kicking in protest to show for the aborted flight.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-26-12

 

Charlie pushed the blanket cum door aside and pushed his way out into the frigid air of morning. His appearance was greeted by nickers of welcome by his charges, who were looking forward to their morning grain ration after a day of nibbling willow and chokecherry bark for sustenance. His breath smoked in the still air of the creek bottom thicket while overhead ragged tails of cloud chased each other across the morning sky. He placed his hands in the small of his back and pushed his hips forward, stretching muscles stiff from two days of forced inactivity broken only by forays out to check on and feed the horses and to bring in water.

Fannie stepped out behind him. "We should be able to head on for home today, don't you think?"

"I reckon. We may have to walk some, though. Those snowshoes'll come in handy." The couple had spent some hours of their captivity in weaving makeshift snowshoes from willow withes and strips of leather from the repair kit carried in one of the packs. If the depth of the snow in the creek bottom was any indication, they would be leading the horses as much as riding them.

After a quick breakfast of bacon and biscuits, both of which the pair of them were getting mightily tired of, the horses were packed and saddled and Fannie and Charlie set out for home, their shadows stretching long before them as they started on the trail. The wind had played merry games with the falling snow, piling it deep in some areas, sweeping the prairie bare in others. They were able to ride for long stretches at a time, then would be obliged to walk, pushing through the deep snow, in others. Both human and equine were on the edge of exhaustion when they at least fetched up on the rim of the hollow and saw the welcome flicker of Cat Running's fire in the early evening darkness below.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-26-12

 

"'Bout time you decide to come home." Charlie turned to look at the old man.

"Yeah, I'm happy to see you, too, pardner," he answered with a grin. "Horses okay?"

"Horses're fine. So's the Dawg. How 'bout Fannie?"

"She's fine. But why only her?"

"She's cuter than you. Sings better, too. See ya in the morning." Cat Running slipped back into the darkness as silently as he had arrived. Charlie shook his head then turned back to finish brushing the roan. With the last of the unsaddling and grooming done, he blew out the lantern and headed for the house. A bottle of pure quill Kaintuck bourbon and a right nice feather tick were calling his name in perfect chorus.

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Linn Keller 1-28-12

 

Emma Cooper glided down the aisle between the school benches, the very image of bespectacled propriety as she approached the stranger.
The man removed his muffling scarf and wool cap deferentially; his expression was uncomfortable, his body language betraying the uncertainty he felt at his surroundings: then he rallied and faced the diminutive schoolmarm squarely.
“Ma’am,” he said, swallowing and clearing his throat: his fingers were restless on the rectangular package he held, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string: “Ma’am, I came to apologize.”
Emma Cooper’s bright eyes regarded him without blinking: she tilted her head, birdlike, and the man stammered a little, reddening as young heads turned to surreptitiously observe these strange goings-on in the back of their schoolhouse.
“Jack, James, Michael, your lessons, if you please,” Emma Cooper said in her gentle voice, and the three turned a guilty red and returned their attention to the lessons before them: there was the barest whisper of “How did she know?”, and Emma smiled inwardly, for she knew her students well.
“Ma’am, I was to fault here a few days ago,” the stranger said uncomfortably, shifting his weight from one foot to the other: “I started a fight an’ no right t’ do it, an’ I got clobbered.” He thrust the box at her. “I heard your bell got broke.”
He whirled and reached for the doorlatch.
“Thank you,” Emma Cooper said gently, and the man stopped, his shoulders sagging: then he squared them up, clapped the wool cap back on his unruly, unwashed hair, tugged the earlaps down and opened the door to the frozen world outside.
Emma Cooper turned, her slender figure regal and dignified: chin raised, she walked briskly back to the front of the room and placed the package on her desk.
“James,” she called.
James stood, a distinctly guilty look on his face. “Yes, Miz Cooper.”
“James, your knife, if you please.”
Relief washed the guilt from the boy’s face: he fished in a pocket as he made his way to the teacher’s desk, opened the honed Barlow and handed it over, handle first.
Emma Cooper picked up a half-sheet of paper between thumb and forefinger, sliced a thin ribbon from its full length with one smooth draw-cut: she looked at young James over her spectacles and whispered, “You remembered!” and James grinned, for it was Miz Cooper’s big husband who’d set under the tree behind the schoolhouse and patiently showed him the proper way to use a whet stone.
Emma Cooper’s assessment of the knot was correct: if it wasn’t the Gordian knot, it was a close relative, and honed steel was its sole resolution: she straightened the strings, laid them on the desk, then unfolded the paper, smoothed it out, folded it and set it aside: that, too, could prove useful, she knew, and she was always scouting for supplies, for not all the children had what they needed.
Emma Cooper drew the lid from the dovetailed wooden box and laughed.
She reached into the box, drawing the handbell from its padded interior: brushing the wood shavings from its gleaming surface, she nodded, eyes bright in the gas-fired mantle lights, then she handed it to James.
“Would you put this with the others, please?” she asked quietly.
James’ grin was quick and broad as he walked over to the shelf and placed the handbell very precisely with the others.
Not counting the original, whose handle stood at a discernible angle from the vertical, there were now a half-dozen of the breed on the shelf.

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Linn Keller 1-30-12

 

The wooden door slammed open and I turned at the sudden sound, crouching a little, my hand dropping to the smooth walnut grip: the Colt rolled into full cock before the muzzle cleared leather and I shifted left, a full body width from where I'd been.
I froze as the man came screaming out of the firehouse at the top of his lungs: his expression was that of a man terrified and running from monsters, demons or an upraised scalping knife.
I remember the scene like it was a framed tintype.
A horse lay dead, still rein-tied to the hitch rail in front of the fine brick firehouse, bloody froth around its muzzle, and just the barest trace of steam trickling into view, as if its soul were slipping from its mortal bonds.
It was chilly that morning but not terribly cold, snow was pretty well packed and rutted on the street; I'd cleared my section of board walk, not in any terrible hurry, for me dear Pappy tried to teach me at a tender age that "Hurry up is brother to mess it up," and come to think of it, I proved the Grand Old Man right any number of times.
This morning, though, I eased the hammer down, then back just enough to release the cylinder and set the hammer nose down between brass cartridge rims, and thrust the Colt back into leather.
Morning sun shot down the length of the street in bold bands; Sarah's horse was tethered in front of the firehouse, beside the dead one -- Butter, I think it was, the bigger of the two -- and this stranger's mouth was open and screaming and I'd be willin' to swear I could have fit a dish pan in his mouth, so wide open it was.
His arms alternately flailed, as if clawing at the air itself to increase his velocity, then raking at his face as if to dislodge a clinging horror, his eyes were wide and white and there was no trace of sanity in them.
The firehouse door hung for a moment, until it was thrust wider and Brother William came sprinting out in obvious pursuit.
I recall he'd yanked up his clerical robe and his red long handles were bright in the long rays of the morning sun.
I could even see the laces on his boots.
Then the door banged open again and the Irish Brigade poured out after the first two, with Sarah in among them, her skirts yanked up and a determined look on her face.
This fellow saw me and altered course right for me and I knew in that moment what a deer must feel like with The Lady Esther and that bright, inescapable arc light bearing down on a collision course: something told me that no matter how I dodged and wove, this fellow was going to ensnare me, so I did what any rational and right-thinking fellow would do.
I spun at the last possible moment and belted him hard with a chunk of stove wood, right across the back of his hat.
I don't reckon he plowed up more than six foot of frozen ground with his nose.
I looked up just in time to be surrounded by the entire contingent of Irishmen, a robed clergyman and my lovely young niece in a short skirted schoolgirl dress instead of her mousy-grey schoolmarm outfit, and I was hemmed and fenced even more thoroughly by better than a half dozen voices all clamoring for my exclusive attention.
I stood and blinked, trying to make some sense of it all.
"Sheriff, you may wish to summon the good Doctor, the man seems unbalanced --"
"Sure an' he was in confession a' came runnin' across th' apparatus floor --"
"He took one look at Sarah and screamed something about the Angel of Death come for him --"
"Uncle Linn, I just killed a man, and --"
I put two fingers to my lips and blew, a quick, sharp, upturned note, bright and clear on the cold winter air: it echoed at least twice before running away into the distance.
I pointed at Brother William.
"You," I said. "Talk to me."
Brother William took a long breath, looked at the still figure on the ground.
"Is he breathin'?" the German Irishman asked, and we all looked, and a little cloud of vapor floated into view.
"Aye, he is that," the Welsh Irishman said.
Brother William blinked and cleared his throat.
"I was in Confession," he said, "and this fellow --"
"Right ye were, an' 'twas laughter we heard when the German went i' there!" the Welsh Irishman declared.
I glared at him and he looked away.
"Brother William."
"Um, yes." Brother William cleared his throat again, fingering his Rosary beads and frowning. "Oh, yes. This fellow snatched the blanket down --"
"We hung th' blanket 'cause we don't have a confessional booth --"
I glared at the New York Irishman.
"Sorry," he muttered, pressing his lips together.
"Let's try this again," I said. "Tell you what, let's get this fellow over to see Doc first, then we'll go inside where it's warm."
The Irish Brigade fairly swarmed over this fellow, hoisting him easily from the ground, turning him over and propping him on their shoulders, like they would raise a coffin to shoulder height: face up, arms hanging as if crucified, they packed him in route march across the street and down a little, to the shining stone hospital.
"Brother William, Sarah, with me." I turned and opened the door to the little log fortress.
"Sarah," I said, "I almost didn't recognize you. You look younger in that."
Sarah laughed, then her hand went to her throat and she had a sudden look of distress.
"Aren't you cold?" I asked, "without a wrap?"
"My cloak!" she groaned. "I must have lost it --" she looked at me with an increasing expression of distress -- "Uncle Linn, I killed a man."
I nodded. "Please, be seated. Brother William?"
"Thank you," the white-robed monk said, gratefully settling into the indicated chair.
"Now." I parked my carcass on the edge of the pine desk. "What in seven left handed hells happened?"
Brother William sighed.
"I was holding Confession," he said, "and the German Irishman was admitting --" he chuckled -- "he apologized for an indiscretion and we laughed." The cleric smiled sadly. "He'd called me a damned fool for being out in the weather," and his smile faded.
"The fellow outside" -- he hooked his thumb over his shoulder -- "came running over and yanked the blanket down.
"He seized me in both hands and screamed something about not dying unshriven, the Angel of Death was come after him, and I was the only one who could hide him."
"The Angel of Death?" I frowned.
"I --" Sarah said, and I raised a forestalling hand.
Brother William nodded. "He sat down and jumped up as if he'd set on a nail and ran to the window to look out.
"He screamed and said she'd touched his horse and his horse was dead, then he ran to the corner and looked out and turned.
"Sheriff," Brother William said quietly, the tension plain in his voice, "I have seen blind panic, and I have seen bottomless fear, but I have never, ever, seen both in a man's eyes and to such a degree!"
"I--" Sarah began.
I raised a forestalling hand.
"He ran out into the equipment bay and screamed ..."
Brother William's expression was haunted.
"Sheriff," he said, his voice low, "I have seldom heard a voice that raised the hair on my neck, but his did.
"He ran out the door and screamed again.
"Only then did I gather wits enough to run after him."
"I see."
The door swung open and the German Irishman came in, slammed it behind him: he had the beginning of a fine blue eye and his cheekbone was swelled some.
I got up and went over to the cupboard, pulled out a clean scrap of towel and dunked it in the water bucket, wrung it out and folded it.
"Thank you," the German Irishman said, applying the cool compress to his bruised face. "He woke up."
"I gathered."
"I --" Sarah began, and I raised a forestalling hand.
"Once we got 'im down an' th' guid Doctor got the leathers on 'im, they primed 'im wi' a draught an' held 'is nose so 'e'd swallow't." He blotted the bruise, turned the pad over, reapplied it. "'E was screamin' he couldn't sleep, the Angel o' Death was comin' for 'im an' 'twas only th' priest cuid save 'im."
Brother William nodded. "That's what he told me."
"Uncle Linn, I --" Sarah faltered, and I raised a forestalling hand.
"Brother William, any more?" I asked.
"No," Brother William said, eyeing the water bucket. "Might I have a drink?"
I went around back of the desk and pulled out a pint bottle, handed to him.
The clergyman pulled the cork, took a good tilt, handed it to the German Irishman, who in like wise gurgled down a volume: the door opened again and the rest of the Irish Brigade stomped in.
I raised a finger, indicating the bottle should enjoy a general circulation, for it was cold out, and I figured everyone needed a good belt of Old Soul Saver to ward off the devil.
"You." I pointed. "Talk to me."
"I was polishin' harness an' he come a-screamin' int' th' bay, top of his lungs he was, demandin' where th' priest was. Me foolish partner here" -- he pointed to the New York Irishman, who was just swallowing the last of the pint bottle's contents, "pointed t' th' confessional."
"Foolish!" the New York Irishman shouted, cocking a fist. "I'll show ye foolish!"
The Welsh Irishman stooped, quickly catching the dropped bottle, flipped it to me; I caught it, accepted the cork from Brother William and stepped behind the desk while the two Irishman exchanged a flurry of fists, at least until Sean seized each by the hair of the head and drew them briskly apart.
And up onto their tip toes.
One by one I took their statements, with Sarah periodically interjecting, "Uncle Linn, I --" to which I would raise a forestalling hand.
Finally I stood.
I had debriefed the Irish Brigade.
It was time to go to the source.
"Sarah, with me," I said, fetching my coat off its peg: I wrapped it around her shoulders. "Aren't you cold, girl?"
Sarah drew the coat tight around her, leaned against me. "No," she said in a small voice.
"Gentlemen, thank you for your statements," I said. "You are welcome to stay here where it's warm."
"No, we've work t' finish," Sean rumbled. "Brother William, if ye are so inclined, we might finish Confession."
Brother William nodded, stood: Sean's meaty hand shot out and seized the white-robed monk's shoulder.
"Steady, Father," he said. "The floor tends t' tilt a bit i' this weather."
Brother William's hand laid firmly atop Sean's, the tonsured cleric nodded, and the Irish Brigade filed out the door.
Sarah and I brought up the rear, walked across the street and down a little, and I kicked snow off my boots before we went into the waiting room.
Dr. Greenlees was just opening the surgery door to look out when we came in.
The man always had a solemn look about him, something just shy of a scowl; he crooked a finger at us, and we went on in.
Something told me to have Sarah stay well back.
She perched herself on a low stool, my coat drawn around her, its fur collar turned up.
I stepped over to the sweating, shivering soul belted down to the heavy wooden table.
"The Angel of Death," he whispered. "The Angel of Death. She's going to touch me and I will die. The Angel of Death." His eyes were wide, wild; periodically he would thrash against his restraints, screaming, then go limp, weeping with hopelessness.
I laid a hand on his shoulder.
"I am the Sheriff," I said, "and the Angel of Death does my bidding."
He looked at me, suddenly fearful, and I gave him a reassuring squeeze.
"I have given orders this day that there will be no more death."
"She's coming," he whimpered. "The Angel is coming, I saw her, she killed him, she killed my horse, she's going to come --"
"Not on my watch," I said, steel in my voice: "now tell me what happened."
He closed his eyes, panting, then rallied: he looked at me, a little more rational, and said in a surprisingly normal voice, "I saw it, you know."
"Where were you when you saw it?"
"Two miles east, on the branch trail."
"I know the trail. Were you at the boulder?"
"Just this side of it and uphill."
"I know where you mean," I nodded. "Go on."
"I come in from above on the switchback."
I nodded again.
"Once I got there -- I come in a-catfoot and I don't reckon he could hear me -- some fellow was watchin' the trail, so I watched him."
I nodded.
"He was waitin' for someone an' he had a lasso an' he handled it like a man that knew how to use it."
I nodded.
"The Angel," he whispered, shivering and closing his eyes. "The Angel rides a horse." He looked at me, his eyes big and dark, his pupils huge: "The Angel looks like a little girl," he whispered, nodding and giving me a wink, as if to convey a confidence, a secret between two understanding souls.
I turned my head a little, my eyes never leaving his.
"How's that?"
"She is not of this earth." His whisper was loud in the silent surgery. "He floated that lasso out right after she passed.
"She ain't of this earth!" he hissed.
"That lasso hadn't come tight when she come a-summerset backwarts off that horse an' that lasso opened up like a door! Like a door!" He struggled in his restraints, threw his head back and wailed, and it was the sound of a soul damned to an eternity chained to red hot rocks.
"It opened up like a door and she" -- his eyes were wide, staring -- "she didn't walk, she didn't fly, she floated right back along that lariat.
"She flew past him an' her hand" -- his restrained hand fluttered -- "he fell back an' she come back and grabbed the hair of his head and I heard" --
The man's eyes squinted shut and his expression was one of utter, inconsolable grief, his voice rising rapidly to a shriek.
"She said WHEN YOU GET TO HELL, TELL THEM THE RAGDOLL SAYS HELLO!"
The man started to cry and I turned away.
"Sarah," I said, and we went out into the waiting room.

Sarah pulled the chair around in front of me.
She smoothed her skirt under her, sat.
I leaned forward, shoved my hat back, looked at Sarah with unblinking eyes.
"You have been trying to tell me something."

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Linn Keller 1-30-12

 

It was quiet in the Sheriff’s office.
That was a good thing.
I needed to think.
I’d ridden out to the scene of the crime.
I took what the screaming man told me, I’d taken what Sarah told me and I stopped back from the location a bit and just set there atop my Witch-horse and looked.
Times like this I wished mightily for one of those hot air balloons, something I could float over the location and not mess it up with my tracks.
Snow was still on and the tracks were clear and distinct.
I started back at the firehouse by looking at the man’s horse.
Shorty agreed with me, it was rode plumb to death: the screaming man killed his horse getting away from the horror he witnessed.
I took note of his horse: it didn’t have a regular saddle, it was one of them postage stamp saddles.
English saddle.
That’s what I’m trying to think of.
Standard bridle and snaffle bit but an English saddle? I thought.
No saddlebags.
No bed roll.
No slicker.
Nothing.

We’d gone through his pockets, through his coat, his wallet: two dollars and fourbits was all he had.
No letters, no deeds, tracts, nothing with a name.
I frowned, leaned back in my chair, looked at the board ceiling.
Whoever laid that ceiling, I thought, knew his business.
That’s a nice tight job.

My eye drifted to the near corner, on my left, and I smiled, for my father’s voice rose unbidden:
If you would gauge a carpenter’s skill, look at his corners.
“Whoever built this,” I said aloud, “knew his craft.”
I turned my thoughts again to the matter at hand, remembering.

I sat on my Sun-Witch and studied the punished snow.
Leaves kicked up from the struggle darkened the surface; I knew another day of sun and they would melt the area into uselessness, for dark soaks up heat faster than light: I looked at the tracks and read them, read where the Screaming Man swung down from the switchback, through brush and onto the trail; I’d noted on my approach his horse was galloping, running hard as a man could quirt it along; I read the story of its exhaustion, its wind breaking, bloody spume where the horse was dying as it ran: my eyes half-lidded and I thought dark thoughts about a man that would kill a horse like that.
I will go up the switchback and take a look at the Screaming Man’s hide in a little, I thought: let’s see what the trail here can tell me.
I stood up in my stirrups, looked well ahead, then back down toward me, scanning from near to far, mentally marking what was where.
I knew the trail ran here, under the snow, but the natural bench was wide enough I could walk my Witch-horse off to the side, so as not to spoil the story torn into the snow, and so we walked a little toward the edge, and slowly up toward the bloodied figure laying back against a projecting rock shelf.
“Ho,” I said, frowning, studying what I saw.
He would have waited … I squinted a little … there.
I saw where he’d come out onto the trail; his boot prints overlaid Butter-horse’s hoofprints.
He threw his lariat … here.
I turned, gauging the distance to Sarah’s first set of prints.
“She turned a backward summerset,” I said aloud, “and the lasso opened like a door.”
I frowned, constructing a mental stage play to fit what I’d been told, what I was seeing.
Opened like a door?
Another three feet and the answer lay in the snow.
The lariat, dropped, the loop open …
I swung down, picked it up …
Clean cut.
I knew Sarah was fast and deadly with a knife and I knew she was never without a good sharp blade, no matter her costume; even in a young schoolgirl’s dress she would be bladed and very likely she’d have something louder about her person –
Lariat coming down around her, I thought.
First order of business: get rid of the loop!
“So she cut the loop,” I said, “and ran back toward …”
My eyes followed the dropped leather braid, back to the dead man.
I ground reined the Witch-horse, walked well to the side, stopped.
I nodded, my jaw thrust out.
I saw where Sarah ran past – she was running flat-out by the look of it – and there, she skidded a little, reversed and ran back – stopped here – a confusion in the snow, probably where she seized the man by the hair of the head and laid his head back, gapping his slashed throat wide … looks like she stepped back to avoid the blood fountain.
“Dear Lord,” I whispered, running the testimonies through my memory and correlating them with what I saw impressed into the snow. “She hit him three times on her first pass!”
I picked up the man’s hand.
It was incised along its palmar surface, a deep cut, likely her first attack.
He raised his hand as she came at him and she slashed his hand – how would she do that, one to the hand, two to the throat
“Two blades,” I whispered. “God Almighty, she used two blades!”

The steel nib pen scratched loudly on good rag paper as I sketched the scene.
It helps me to see what I’m doing and I drew it as if seeing it from that hot air balloon.
It took me a few sheets of paper, but when I was done I had a record of what happened.
There was a knock at the door.
“Come.”
Jackson Cooper’s bulk completely filled the doorway.
He had an envelope in hand.
“I think this is yours,” he said. “I opened it by mistake.”
“Have a set,” I said. “I need an opinion.”
Jackson Cooper placed the letter on my desk, reached into a coat pocket, withdrew a pint bottle of something water clear: he turned, closed and latched the door, then reached into his other pocket and drew out a second pint bottle.
“You’ll need to resupply,” he said with an understanding look.
“Thank you.” One bottle went in the desk drawer.
I uncorked the second bottle, held it up.
Jackson Cooper held up a palm, shook his head.
I corked the second bottle and put it in the drawer as well.
“Peel out of your coat and take a look at this.”
“You might want to read that first.”
I looked sharply at the big town marshal.
I lifted the flap on the envelope – a broken wax seal weighted its tip – I withdrew the letter,set it aside: the second page held two sketches.
“I just came from Digger’s,” Jackson Cooper said, his voice rumbling up through a deep dug well full of gravel and tin cans. “That fellow on the right is him.”
I nodded.
“The other one is the Screaming Man.”
“How in the hell did they get out here?”
I read the letter and felt cold water trickle down my spine.
“Dear Lord,” I said out loud.
Part of my mind commented that I’d been saying that a lot here of late.
I looked at Jackson Cooper, my throat suddenly dry.
His expression was quiet, like it generally was; he blinked, slow and easy, like a cat sunning itself on a windowsill.
“I think Sarah saved her own life,” Jackson Cooper rumbled.
I nodded.
“Do you reckon that other fellow will be well enough to travel?”
I re-read the letter.
“I’ll send a telegram and they can come and get him.”
Jackson Cooper nodded.
“Do you reckon they’ll take the body?”
I nodded slowly. “Reckon so. I’ll ask.”
“Still need me to look at that?”
I shook my head.
“Sarah is still upstairs with Esther,” Jackson Cooper suggested.
I stood.
“I’d best go talk to her again.”
Jackson Cooper nodded wisely.

The business of the Z&W Railroad was suspended for the morning.
The fragrance of tea and burgamo spiced the atmosphere; I hung my hat on the peg, my coat under it, and began without preamble.
“Esther.” It was not a question, it was a summons. “You taught Sarah knife fighting.”
Esther blinked behind her round-lensed spectacles, then removed them, placed them carefully in their little silk lined box: “You know I did, dearest. You watched us practice.”
“Did you ever teach two-blade fighting?”
Esther’s eyes changed – a challenge, or response to challenge? – it did not matter.
“Yes.”
“Sarah.”
Sarah stood, looking young and vulnerable: her hair was in ringlets, like a schoolgirl; she wore a red silk ribbon in her hair, just like Angela; her head was inclined forward slightly so she was looking upward at me … just like a schoolgirl expecting to be chastened.
“I went and looked,” I said, “and it was as you said.”
Sarah blinked, still looking like a little girl fully expecting a scolding.
I took a step toward her, held out my hands.
Sarah reached uncertainly for my open palms.
“Sarah,” I said quietly, “you did what you had to, in order to stay alive.”
Sarah swallowed but did not blink.
“If a man waylays someone like that he is up to no good a’tall.
“You did the right thing!”
I turned to Esther.
“My dear,” I said, and it was Esther’s turn to stand.
I embraced my wife, quickly, hugging her tight, tight, and I was shaking a little.
When I eased my grip I looked down at her and she looked up, her eyes gentle … a little puzzled, but calm, deep, just like her soul.
“Ladies, please be seated.”
I waited until they were both in their chairs before I pulled out the letter and read it.
I read the words of a Doctor Goodpasture, who operated a private asylum back East: he described the escape of two patients, the murder of two of his staff during the escape, an escape that involved use of an improvised rope to snare them unawares.
I read Doctor Goodpasture’s warning that one of the two men was a murderer, one who specialized in ensnaring, then torturing girls, prolonging their agonies for at least a week before finally crushing them to death, generally with a stone the size of a man’s head, used to bludgeon them from their feet up, from their fingers in, and finally beating their chest in while he sang “Marching through Georgia.”
As I read, Esther’s hand went to her mouth and her eyes to Sarah: for her part, Sarah sat erect, hands folded in her lap and her ankles crossed, regarding me with bright, light-blue eyes, as unmoved as if she were listening to a slightly boring letter from a dreary distant relative.
I folded the letter, thrust it back into my pocket.
“Sarah,” I said, “you saved your own life and who knows how many more by your actions.”
Sarah blinked, nodded once.
“This will be a no-bill. I will see to that. Now.” I raised a finger for emphasis. “The Irish Brigade was so wrapped up with this screaming fellow that it’s likely they never noticed you kept trying to tell me you’d killed someone.”
Sarah nodded.
“Let’s keep it that way. We three know it happened; I’ll have a discreet word with Judge Hostetler and he might just no-bill this without taking it to open court.”
“What about the other man?” Sarah asked – “the one who saw the Angel of Death?”
“He is insane,” I said flatly. “He was insane before he ever got here. I already wired the asylum to come and get him. Until they do, Dr. Greenlees will keep him dosed with poppy juice or whatever he uses, and belted down on that table.”
Sarah’s eyes were troubled.
“Uncle Linn,” she said in a small voice, “why does this always happen to me?”
I took a long breath, sighed and shook my head.
“Sarah,” I said, “your luck runs about like mine.”
Sarah stood and walked over and ran her arms around me and I ran mine around her: she was warm and she was solid and she’d got some more height and I felt surprised, for I am in the habit of thinking of her as a young girl, despite the several times I’d seen her in the schoolmarm outfit: she shivered a little as I held her, and then Angela stood up, cocked her head curiously to the side.
“Mommy,” she asked brightly, “whatsa nasaylum?”
“Asylum,” Sarah said, her voice muffled from where her face was laid against my vest.
“Nasylum,” Angela said with a brisk, affirming nod of her head.

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Linn Keller 1-31-12

 

Dr. Greenlees opened the door to the waiting room.
The Sheriff and Sarah rose.
Dr. Greenlees shook his head, blinked a few times, his gaze falling to the floor: he had to look away, for Sarah’s expression was one he knew too well.
He’d seen it in his own mirror, too many times.

Sarah had been riding back from the Kolascinski homestead.
She’d gone out with two burlap sacks of supplies, one on each side of the saddle behind her: canned goods and flour, sugar and coffee and a small sack of hard candies, for she remembered how very well the infrequent treats were received by young children.
Sarah knew she had to ride the path again, she had to ride that self-same trail where the escaped lunatic tried to snare her.
She knew she had to ride it now, today, or she would never be able to ride it again.
Like falling off a horse, she thought: I have to get back up right away.
She did, however, change clothes.
She went back into her house as Sarah McKenna, schoolgirl; she emerged all in black … feeling very much like her darker self, and yet she needed an excuse, she needed to justify her ride.
She’d knocked on the Kolascinski door and asked for the help of the first lad she saw: the two of them got the well stuffed bags off Butter’s back and into the house, and Inge’s eyes grew large and round at the sound of canned goods shifting when they sat them down.
“I can’t take these canned goods home,” Sarah said, “it’s too cold out and they’ll freeze and be ruined. I can’t take just this sack of flour, for it would be off balance and wouldn’t stay on the horse, it would fall off and burst and be ruined.” She looked at Inge with her best innocent expression and said, “My Mama taught me waste is a sin and I don’t want to be sinful … so could you take these, please?”
Inge nearly cried at the bounty: their winter supplies, though adequate, were Spartan and lacking in variety: the burlap was unceremoniously upended and cans spilled and clattered and rolled around, and laughing children squatted and crawled under the table and retrieved peaches and pears and potatoes, vegetables and yams and dainties of several sorts.
When Sarah purchased the sack of flour, she chose a pretty print flour sack, knowing it would be turned very quickly into a shirt or a skirt or a dress for the youngest; Inge peeked in the sack that held the hard candy and gave a little squeak of delight: she smelled peppermint and cinnamon, and loved both, and then she found the tin box of spices.
Sarah slipped out while they were still exclaiming their delight, and kneed Butter to get away quickly: she believed in helping people out, but she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the effusive thanks she sensed would be forthcoming.
Butter’s return trip was less strenuous than the trip out, for trail was already broken, making her walk far less difficult: Sarah made it to the halfway point in a remarkably short time.
Some sense, some gut feeling, told her something was wrong, something was very wrong …
Her stomach tightened.
She'd felt nothing before her attack, and kicked herself multiple times on the ride out for her lack of perception: now she was alert, her paranoia distinctly heightened, and it was telling her things were about to get bad.
She leaned down and drew the .40-60 from its scabbard, laid her thumb over the hammer spur, listening with more than her ears.
It wasn’t a quarter of a mile shy of where she’d nearly been taken when an eddy of wind brought the smell of blood, hot and fresh, and she drew the hammer back: the click of the full cock notch was quiet, precise, metallic in the still air.
She cracked her ears, working her jaw a little, listened, watching Butter’s ears.
Butter’s head came up and her ears both swung forward.
The snow was not terribly deep here, less than knee deep on the big horse, and Sarah’s weight was on the balls of her feet, not quite standing in the stirrups, but ready to make a quick turn, a snap shot –
Look around first, Charlie’s voice whispered in her ear, and Sarah made a deliberate, comprehensive scan: front to back on her right, front to back on her left, then dismounted, kicking free of the stirrups and sliding off the starboard side into the snow.
She was low now, half squatted, rifle half-mounted: nostrils flared, she smelled blood now, strong and fresh, and then the figure half-rose in the snow and she froze.
She saw where he’d struggled down hill, and she swung the rifle’s muzzle up hill to cover any threat: advancing to the gasping figure, she realized it was the next-to-oldest Kolascinski boy – Nathan, one of her students – and he’d lost blood, too much blood.
Nothing uphill, she thought.
Tend the wounded.
Sarah looked at his leg.
A single cut, a stab wound most likely, through the inside of the thigh.
Nathan was holding it, but his grip was failing.
Sarah stumbled and tried to run back to Butter: an unseen stick caught her instep and she went face-first into the snow, came up, wiped viciously at the white stuff clinging to the octagon barrel: she eased the hammer to half-cock, thrust the rifle angrily into its scabbard and fumbled with nerveless fingers at the right side saddlebag’s buckles.
Nathan’s face was the color of wheat paste and his bloodied hands were weak: blood still flowed and he was in a circle of red snow, and Sarah yanked out a handful of rags and ran back through the snow to him.
She pulled her own knife, split the trouser open to see the wound: Nathan fell back, limp, and blood flowed anew, not quite an arterial spurt but not the slow flow of a venous incision.
Sarah packed material against it, coldly controlling her feelings: she swore at the tremor in her hands, she yanked viciously at the cloth as she circled his thigh, laying a stick on the back side where the cloth crisscrossed, drawing it up over the wound again and tying it tight, tight: she loosened the knot, worked more material under it, worked the slack out of the tails and put her knee against his thigh to draw it tighter, to press the knot of wadded fabric into the wound itself.
Sarah’s eyes were ice-pale as she threw an overhand in the cloth and yanked it tight, sawed it back and forth a little, pulling every last bit of slack out, then coldly, precisely, deliberately, tied the other half of the knot, making absolutely sure it was a square knot and not a granny.
Nathan’s pants were soaked with blood; he lay back, shivering a little, eyes vacant, staring up through the tree branches.
Sarah knelt beside him, thrust an arm under his knees, another under his shoulder blades.
Sarah McKenna, young lady of fashion, heir to the resurrected McKenna fortune, daughter of one of the most successful businesswomen in the State, bent double as she walked her knees a fraction closer to Nathan’s form: then, tucking her backside, she rocked back a little and stood, groaning with the effort.
Sarah knew Nathan and had worked with him, in her persona as Miss Sarah, the schoolmarm: she remembered his quick grin, his delight at learning, especially working with numbers.
She remembered the look in his eyes when he made a new discovery.
Nathan’s eyes were rolled back in his head, nothing but white showing.
Nathan was her age, solid muscle, not a bit of fat on him: he was a head taller than she, and seemed even longer as she staggered back toward Butter.
The big horse walled her eyes and shied a little as Sarah approached with her bloody burden.
“Don’t you dare,” Sarah commanded, her voice as icy as her eyes: Butter walled her eyes again and threw her head, but stood still, clearly not liking this one little bit.
Sarah bounced Nathan higher in her arms, wondering how in the world she was going to get up into the saddle, and nearly fell on another snow covered obstruction.
She stomped around and found it was a log.
Kissing at Butter, she said “Come here, girl,” and Butter sidled toward her, not at all happy about it, but with one foot in the stirrup and the other hopped up on the snow-slick log, with one reaching hand grasping out from under Nathan and locking around the saddle horn, Sarah drew a deep breath, pushed hard with her right leg and managed to make the saddle.
It was neither efficient, comfortable nor pretty, but she got herself mounted, and Nathan in front of her.
She knew he would never remain upright and she didn’t have leverage enough to get his leg over so he too was a-straddle, so she did the only thing she could: she wallowed him around and bent him over the saddle: she got a good handful of his coat with one hand, drew the reins up and looped them over the limp boy’s back and held Nathan’s belt with the other hand.
“Thank you, Uncle Linn,” she breathed, for ever since he’d shown her how he knee-reined every one of his horses, Sarah worked tirelessly with hers: partly because her Uncle Linn was a wonderful man who she loved dearly, and partly because she wasn’t going to let him get one up on her.
Now, though, now that she had to dedicate both hands to holding the lad in place, she steered Butter efficiently back to the trail, and back to Firelands.

Sarah sat, numb and staring, alone in the waiting room.
Her Uncle Linn came in, finally, her folded cloak draped over his forearm, and sat down beside her.
“Report,” he said in his official, Sheriff’s voice, and Sarah – slouched over with her elbows on her knees, boots flat on the floor and feet well apart, and her head hung half in exhaustion, half in dread – straightened and took a long breath.
She described how she’d taken supplies to the Kolascinski family, and how she’d come back to find Nathan bleeding from what looked to be a stab wound to the inside of his thigh: she told him of the bandage and how she’d cinched it good and tight, knowing it would put pressure where it was most needed, how she’d gotten him back to Firelands – “it was closer than getting him back home,” she said, her voice thick, slow – and how she’d staggered under his weight as she carried him the few steps from Butter’s back to the hospital’s front door.
The Sheriff nodded, put his arm around her shoulders.
“You did a good thing,” he whispered in the waiting room’s oppressive hush. “I’m proud of you, dear heart.”
Then Dr. Greenlees opened the door.

The Sheriff said he would deliver the news, and Sarah said no, she would do it, and the Sheriff said he would have to look at the scene, backtrack Nathan, read the story in the snow before it blew or drifted or melted.
The two of them rode back in time to find Nathan’s Pa and his oldest son, just arriving at the bloodied scene of Sarah’s desperate work.
The Sheriff shucked his Winchester and told them to stand fast, he didn’t want anyone messing up the tracks, and climbed the hillside, staying to the side of Nathan’s bloodied half-crawl, half-slide to the trail below.
Sarah’s mouth was dry : she kept licking her lips and she cleared her throat several times, but she was able to tell the father how she’d found his son, and how he was bleeding; she described how she considered the distance back to the cabin, the shorter distance to the hospital, and how she’d taken him the shortest distance to help.
The Sheriff came back downhill, slipping a little: there at the last, his feet shot out from under him and he made the final twenty feet mostly on his backside, landing with a grunt on the trail, Winchester in one hand and a knife in the other.
He struggled to his feet and muttered, “I’m getting’ too old for that,” before straightening with a grimace and holding the knife up by the crossguard: “Recognize this?”
The father turned a sick color and nodded.
“His?”
“I gave it to him.”
The Sheriff nodded uphill. “Looks like he slipped and fell. Tracks were normal up to that point. After that, he was on his butt and bleeding. No attack and no foul play.”
Sarah had yet to deliver the fell news: she was just steeling herself for that dread task when the Sheriff said, “Let’s head back to your place,” and the father’s eyes changed, for the knowing was upon him.
If his boy was alive, they would have told him already, and he knew it.

Sarah was quiet for the ride back to Firelands.
It was not until they came to the broadening of the trail, where it came into the dirt road that became the main street, that she said, “Uncle Linn?”
The Sheriff looked at her, nodded once.
“I did everything right,” Sarah said, her voice strained. “I put pressure on it. I got it good and tight. I did like I’ve been taught.”
The Sheriff nodded again.
Sarah’s eyes glittered with unshed tears and they rode through the ornate, cast-iron gateway arch that said MC KENNA across the top.
Clark came out and greeted the Sheriff; Linn returned the greeting, then nodded to Sarah: the two of them dismounted, Sam taking their reins, and both Sarah and the Sheriff said, “Thank you.”
The two of them walked up on the porch.
Sarah turned abruptly, hands fisted at her sides.
“It was supposed to work!” she whispered fiercely, for she did not trust her voice: tears spilled down her cheeks, scalding and freezing as they went.
The Sheriff went to one knee, pulled off his gloves, dropped them: he took Sarah’s fisted hands in his own and said, “Sarah, I am very proud of you.”
“But I couldn’t save him,” she choked.
“You did everything right,” the greying old lawman said quietly, his light-blue eyes gentle in the fading light. “You did well, Sarah. No one, not even Dr. Flint himself, could have done better.”
“But it didn’t work,” Sarah squeaked, falling into her Uncle’s arms, shivering.
Her face screwed up into a mask of grief; no artist could carve clay or obdurate stone into a more profound expression of soul-deep sorrow.
“I couldn’t save him, Uncle Linn! I was supposed to save him and I couldn’t!”
He held her for a long moment, then picked her up and sat on the rocking chair, ignoring its chill on his backside as he drew Sarah across his lap and hugged her as if she were a little girl.
“We can’t save everyone, Sarah,” he said, rocking slowly, gently, his arms strong and warm around her slender figure: “We do the best we can, we try as hard as we can, but we can’t save ‘em all.”

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Linn Keller 2-1-12

 

Sarah felt hollow, empty; she wore a very plain dress, a very neutral dress, something in which she could turn invisible.
Sarah could hear her Mama complaining to the maid that material deliveries were slow, she had such difficulty matching thread with two bolts of cloth for which she’d held such hopes for their color and design, how two of the sewing machines broke down and another had to have a new belt installed.
Sarah’s tread was absolutely silent as she flowed down the stairs and across the parlor, and toward the dining room.
Bonnie looked at Sarah disapprovingly.
“Why aren’t you wearing that lovely red dress with the white lace trim?” she asked sharply – perhaps too sharply – and Sarah bit her bottom lip, slowly bowed her head, turned and went back upstairs with the slow tread of a funereal procession.
She hung the neutral dress back in the closet and debated whether to defy her Mama and wear her black outfit: she looked long at britches and boots and decided against it.
The red dress fit her particularly well, she knew; her figure was slender of waist, thanks to a great deal of time in the saddle, but the maid insisted on a corset anyway: Sarah submitted patiently to the waist cincher, knowing the red dress would fit better now that she felt like she was pinched almost in two.
“Your mother has a pair of red satin pumps that would be perfect for this,” the maid offered: “here, you tend your stockings and I will fetch them for you, then into the dress with you!”
Sarah drew on white stockings, fastened them up and stepped into the shoes; the maid fastened their instep strap and stood with a nod of satisfaction.
“You look wonderful,” she beamed as she fastened the gleaming gown's back-buttons.
“I look pale.”
“A young lady should be pale!” the maid admonished. “It is positively vulgar for a lady of quality to have sun on her skin!” The maid squeezed her shoulders, pressed her cheek against Sara's ear: "It will bring out your lips!"
Says you, Sarah thought as the maid brushed out and quickly styled her hair.
“Here, now,” the maid clucked, steering Sarah toward the pink-frilled vanity: “give me your face, there’s a sweet girl,” and Sarah was soon powdered, her lips colored.
“There!” the maid exclaimed, smiling. “A proper young lady!”
A lady who kills, Sarah thought, staring bleakly at the scarlet-lipped, pink-cheeked vision of beauty in the looking-glass.
A lady who can’t keep people from dying.
Sarah descended the stairs with the regal tread of royalty born: it is a curious fact of human nature that when we dress the part, we become the part: unworthy though she may have felt, Sarah was completely at ease being a Lady: her erect carriage, the confidence in how she held her head, all bespoke a capable, confident young woman.
Bonnie clapped her hands and gave her daughter a happy squeeze: “Why, dear, you are absolutely beautiful!” she gushed. “I shall have to make you another dress of this very pattern … blue, I should think! I have blue satin material that will be perfect!”
Sarah tilted her head a little. “I need shoes to match,” she said.
Bonnie blinked, smiled again. “Of course, sweets, and I know just where to get them! Come, now, dinner is about to be served!”
Sarah sat.
Normally little affected her appetite; there was not much that dampened her enthusiasm for a good meal, but after all that had recently transpired, her appetite was definitely diminished.
Bonnie did most of the talking.
Somehow Sarah could find little enthusiasm for sewing machines, bolts of cloth, color matching, the strength of a new lot of thread or broken needles, buyers in Denver, orders from San Francisco; it was not until her Mama changed subjects that Sarah realized what was being said.
“Sarah, are you listening?” her Mama asked.
Sarah’s gaze was distant: her Mama could not know she was smelling blood again, and seeing a young man’s life trickling out a knife wound: she blinked, focused on Bonnie.
“I’m sorry, Mama, what?”
“I was saying,” Bonnie said with a warm expression, “that one of the Irish Brigade asked about your –“ Bonnie blushed – “your eligibility.”
Sarah blinked, shook her head a little. “My … what?”
“Sarah,” Bonnie said, at once happy and a little sad, “one of the Irish Brigade approached your Uncle Linn and asked him about you.”
Sarah’s stomach fell a foot and she tasted something metallic.
“Then he asked to whom he should inquire –“
Sarah’s look was one of wide-eyed dread.
“—who should he ask if he were to petition for permission to pay you court.”
Sarah stared at her mother for a long moment.
Bonnie’s expression was soft, affectionate, and a little sad; she tilted her head and said in a motherly voice, “My dear, you are growing up –“
Sarah thrust back, hard, stood: the chair fell over behind her and she snatched up her skirts and ran for the front door.

His Honor the Judge puffed on his Cuban, fouling the private car’s atmosphere with an incredible volume of fragrant blue smoke.
It was not the first time he and the Sheriff conducted court business, outside the courtroom, and both knew it would certainly not be the last.
The Sheriff leaned back in the comfortably upholstered chair, swirling his brandy slowly in the delicate crystal snifter.
“Sheriff,” Judge Hostetler said frankly, “if you didn’t have this letter from the asylum – with pictures – if you hadn’t written down things so thoroughly –“
Judge Hostetler withdrew the Cuban from between his teeth, spat a fleck of tobacco toward a handy gobboon – “I would be inclined to order you to place the lovely young Miss Rosenthal in irons, and keep her securely jailed until trial.”
The Sheriff blinked slowly, sleepily, which fooled the Judge not at all.
There was a brisk rat-tat at the door, the sound of the door opening.
Sarah stepped into the railcar, her face tight.
Judge Hostetler rose, bowed with the dignity of age: “My dear, we were just speaking of you.”
Sarah folded her hands and raised her chin.
“I don’t suppose you were auctioning my marriageability by any chance?” she asked, to which the Judge gave a hearty and most genuine laugh: he walked over to a chair, stood behind it.
“Please. Do sit down.”
Sarah dropped a perfect curtsy, walked over to the chair and smoothed her skirt under her, sat.
Judge Hostetler tilted his head a little, regarding the lovely young woman rather frankly.
“My dear,” the Judge said, taking a draw on his cigar, “I was congratulating the Sheriff on the completeness of his report.”
Sarah’s eyes flicked to her Uncle, then back to the Judge.
“Had he not been so scrupulous in his investigation – and, frankly, had the asylum not sent their missive” – he puffed on the cigar, tilting his head back to blow smoke at the vaulted ceiling – “I would have very likely ordered you arrested and jailed for trial.”
Sarah’s stomach turned over.
“Uncle Linn,” she said in a small voice, “you … wouldn’t arrest me, would you?”
The Sheriff’s eyes were unreadable.
He opened an adjacent drawer, pulled out a gleaming set of handcuffs.
“Your Honor,” the Sheriff said, “do you remember the day I first swore into office?”
“I do.” The Judge drew on his Cuban, squirted out a liquid stream of rich, fragrant smoke. “I asked if you would arrest your mother if so ordered.”
“You remember my reply.”
“I do.” His Honor chuckled.
Sarah’s eyes were wide; horrified, she regarded the wrist irons in her Uncle Linn’s hands.
“You said you would not.”
The Sheriff grinned.
“I remember you were an ace from refusing to swear me in.”
“I remember you told me arresting your mother would be too much like work, and then you said you would have to dig up six feet of Irish Ridge red clay to get to her dead body.”
“Sarah, stand up.”
The Sheriff unlocked the wrist cuffs, one, then the other; Sarah could not tear her eyes from the open, gleaming, swinging cuff, like a set of jaws, waiting to clamp down on her flesh.
Sarah stood, trembling.
Sarah had faced death and Sarah had dispensed death and Sarah had coldly, dispassionately, brought severe and terminal judgment on a variety of folk who sought to take her virtue or her life, or cause her grievous bodily harm.
Sarah knew that, in extremis, given absolutely no other choice, she could very likely take her Uncle’s life and make good her escape.
Faced with the immediate prospect of being arrested, of being locked in irons, of being jailed, confined behind steel bars, Sarah watched the implacable, unstoppable approach of her pale-eyed Uncle, of this representative of Law and Civilization, with the yawning, inescapable steel jaws of incarceration in his hand.
It was the first time in her young life she had ever felt utterly helpless.
The Sheriff turned a little, tossed the cuffs onto his recently-vacated chair and took two steps over to his niece.
He took her hands in his and looked long into her wide, pale eyes, then slowly, slowly, still holding her hands, he took a knee.
“Sarah,” he said, swallowing down the hard lump in his throat, “I love you like a daughter, and it would kill me to do anything of the kind.” He closed his eyes, took a long, shivering breath. “As you love me, my dear, please don’t ever put me in that position!”
Sarah felt a tightening band around her head, it was difficult to breathe, and she felt suddenly light, a little dizzy, then she opened her eyes and saw the Judge and the Sheriff both bending over her, alarm on their faces: the Judge was chafing her wrists, the Sheriff was gently, insistently patting her cheek, and Sarah tasted the scalding tingle of brandy.
Sarah’s eyelids fluttered a little.
“I think she’s waking up now.”
“Sarah, can you hear me?”
“My God, what have I done?” The Judge’s normally pleasant, soothing voice was a groan, ripped from the soul of a man who’d just crushed the most beautiful flower to ever bloom in his universe.
“You didn’t do it, Your Honor, I did,” the Sheriff said, guilt heavy in his voice.
Sarah opened her mouth, closed it, tried again.
“I’m sorry,” she squeaked, and the Judge pressed a silk kerchief against her closed eyes as she started to cry.

Across the private car, invisible to any of the participants, the mousy-grey Sarah-the-schoolmarm watched the scene dispassionately, while the Sarah-in-black held one hand at chin level, palm up, the other drawing an invisible bow back and forth across a non-existent fiddle.
“Play ‘em like a violin, sister,” she sneered. You’re good, honey. You’re real good!”

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Linn Keller 2-2-12

 

The Welsh Irishman sang quietly as he burnished the brass nozzle.
The Welsh have a justly earned reputation as fine singers, and the Welsh Irishman was no exception: his range was somewhere below tenor, but above baritone; he could not climb to the fine ranges of his fellow firefighter from New York, neither could he descend to the gravelly depths plumbed by the great, red-headed Chief that led their little band, but the Welsh Irishman wove most skillfully in his own vocal range.
Sean knew his men’s habits, their traits; he knew the New York Irishman, for instance, swore constantly (albeit in low breath) while concentrating on his work; Sean backed the man frequently on the nozzle, and he knew as long as the New Yorker was profaning the world in general, he was content.
It was when New York went silent that Sean was concerned.
The Welshman, now, the Welshman was showing a side of himself Sean hadn’t seen before.
Sean drifted closer, under the pretext of burnishing the spotless brass wall of the upright boiler: his hand, and its polishing cloth, moved of its own accord, leaving his entire attention directed to the Welshman’s musical utterances.
Sean had only the most limited understanding of the Welsh language, but he had a good ear for music, and it finally dawned on him, the tune the man was singing, and he turned his head quickly away to keep any from seeing the surprise on his face.
He’s goin’ a-courtin’, Sean thought, trying without success to control his feelings: his distorted face grinned back at him from the burnished brass surface, its curve widening the smile to grotesque proportions.
So intent was Sean on not letting his face be seen that he backed into the Welsh Irishman, knocking the man off his upturned keg: the nozzle fell to the floor with a bright, metallic sound, and the Welshman’s voice ended in a pained grunt.
“Oh, dear Lord,” Sean muttered dropping his rag and reaching down: the Welsh Irishman clasped the proffered forearm and Sean hauled the man to his feet.
“Are ye hurt, lad?” he asked, eyes bright with concern, and the Welsh Irishman dusted his backside briskly: “Nay, no, but ma nozzle’s likely skinned up now!”
“And my fault it is,” Sean admitted ruefully. “I was careless.”
The Welsh Irishman clapped the Chief on the shoulder: “No more than I’ve been,” he grinned, then looked around and drew closer: “Sean, I would ask your advice.”
Sean’s belly tightened, for he knew what was coming, and it would mean a proper wedding, with the happy couple hoisted onto the ladder wagon and run about town at a gallop with the entire Irish Brigade whooping and blowing the steam whistle in celebration.
“Say on, lad,” Sean rumbled in a fatherly voice.
The Welsh Irishman nodded to the dining table and the two draped their polishing rags neatly over the steel wagon-rims.
Sean accepted a big steaming mug of coffee, and the Welsh Irishman poured one for himself, offered the cream pitcher to the big Irishman, who shook his head: the Welsh Irishman added a drizzle to his own white-enamel mug and settled into a straight-back chair.
Both men leaned their elbows on the table, hands wrapped around the warm mugs.
Sean waited.
He knew the Welsh Irishman sometimes took a minute to get started, and he was right.
“Sean, I’ve an eye on a lass,” the Welsh Irishman began.
Sean nodded, a single, ponderous bob of his head.
“She’s a lovely young thing an’ she’ll make a fine wife, methinks.”
Again the single, slow nod.
“She’s of good family and intelligent, she’s a good figure – she’s no’ come in’ her full growth but she looks t’ have good hips for bearin’ children.”
Sean nodded, then sampled his coffee.
“It’s that lovely young schoolteacher.”
Sean’s eyes widened as the entire drink of coffee went down the wrong pipe.
The Welsh Irishman’s cup was half empty, and a good thing, for he dropped it an inch to the cloth-covered tabletop as the great, red-headed fire chief turned his head and began coughing out surprise, astonishment and hot black Arbuckles, all at the same time.
Sean waved a hand as he bent over a little, clearing his windpipe; he wiped his eyes on a shirt sleeve, snorted, harrumphed and coughed some more.
“Swallow, don’t inhale,” he wheezed, clearing his throat. “’Tis young Sarah ye’re sparkin’, then?”
The Welsh Irishman’s eyes were wide with alarm.
“If ye don’t think –“ he began, and the German Irishman thumped him cheerfully on the shoulder from behind.
Hauptmann, ya gonna live?” he challenged.
Sean coughed some more, turning away and bending over, and the German Irishman squeezed the Welsh Irishman’s shoulders.
“So ‘tis th’ lovely young Miss Sarah ye’re after,” he bantered, his voice loud and echoing. “You an’ every man here except Sean there, an’ he’d like t’ adopt th’ lass f’r his daughter!”
“Every –“ The Welsh Irishman stood, looking at Sean, then at the German Irishman. “Every man here?”
“It’ll ne’er work,” the German Irishman said sadly. “She has a beau, a hot blooded Mexican with fire in his veins an’ a knife longer’n you are tall. She’s got more men willin’ t’ tear out their beatin’ heart an’ lay it at her feet than ye can count, an’ she’s no’ but twelve years old!”
The Welsh Irishman’s face paled and he sat down hard.
“Twelve!” he said, his voice faint.
“She’s thirteen,” the New York Irishman called from across the apparatus floor, “and I get first dibs on her!”
“You’ll flap yer arms an’ fly t’ th’ moon!” the German Irishman shouted, shaking a fist, and the New York Irishman dropped his hammer and pliers and stalked toward the table.
“You take that back, you bib front smoke eater,” he shouted, and the German Irishman came boiling around the table and the pair squared off for a good old fashioned knock down drag out fisticuffs.
Sean seized each by the scruff of the neck and yanked them ungently apart.
“I’ll do th’ head crackin’ here,” he snarled. “Now do ye set doon an’ listen t’ wha’ th’ Old Man tells ye!”
They sat with ill grace, but they sat.
“Now.” Sean looked from one to the other, meeting every eye.
“First of all, the lovely young Miss McKenna is th’ upper crust.”
“Yeah, so?” the New York Irishman’s voice was loud and harsh and bounced off the smooth brick interior of their firehouse bay...then the New York Irishman’s brows puzzled together and he thought, McKenna?
“So,” Sean said patiently, “none o’ ye are.”
“I’m just as good as any man!” the New York Irishman challenged, his confused thought forgotten.
“Aye, lad, that y’are,” Sean nodded, “but ye can na’ just walk up t’ th’ high s’ciety” – he drew himself up to a comical attention, whipped off an invisible hat, bowed with a great throw of his arm – “an’ say ‘Pardon me, my lovely lady, but will ye marry me?’ an’ expect t’ get anywhere a’tall!”
“She’ll take some courtin’,” the Welsh Irishman said thoughtfully, his eyes softening.
“Oh, aye, it will that,” Sean agreed, nodding. “An’ what’s t’ say th’ new Mayor won’t fire the lot o’ye, an’ ye out o’ work, then what?”
The Brigade looked uncomfortable, looked at one another.
“Lads, there’s no protection when ye work f’r th’ city, ye know that.”
“Aye,” they replied in chorus.
“When a man takes a wife, he is obliged to provide for his wife, an’ ye canna’ do that wi’out yer regular pay!
“Aye!” Their united voices rose in a happy shout.
“E’en i’ there were, she’s o’ good family an’ rich, an’ she’s used t’ fine things.”
“She’ll ha’e fine things,” the Welshman muttered sullenly, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair.
Sean propped a boot up on a chair, crossed massive forearms across his knee and regarded the Welshman skeptically.
“Ya? So ye’re a rich man now, are ye? Who’s t’say she’ll no’ want a new carriage, new furniture, she’ll want a whole new household t’ start married life with –“
“She’s only twelve, y’know,” the New York Irishman said with a sly smile.
“She’s thirteen!” the Welshman protested. “I --“ the Welsh Irishman raised his hands, made a go-away gesture and stood, shaking his head and walking away from the table.
“She’ll be a fine wife when she grows up!” the grinning New York Irishman threw at the Welshman’s retreating backside.
Sean walked up to the New Yorker and stood close, looked down on his man and said very quietly, “Do not speak to him thusly.”
“But Sean, she’s –“
Sean raised a hand, raised a finger, and the New York Irishman closed his mouth, his retort quivering on the back of his tongue: he swallowed it down, knowing this was the wise course of action, for when Sean was in arm’s reach, wisdom was called for.
“He’s ne’er gi’en his heart before,” Sean said in almost a whisper. “When he loves, it’s wi’ all o’ his heart. Dona’ bruise it further.” He turned to regard the dejected shoulders of the Welsh Irishman, reaching down to pick up the dropped nozzle. “He feels like a fool, an’ now he’s a fool before all o’ us an’ that’s worse.”
The New York Irishman’s eyes drifted away and comprehension flooded his face: he nodded, for he remembered what it was to love and love with an unrequited desperation.
“Th’ mon went s’ far as t’ ask th’ Sheriff who he should properly ask f’r permission t’ pay her court,” Sean said. “He’s doin’ the decent thing here.” He laid a warm hand on the New York Irishman’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “Now what’s this about your havin’ dibs on young Miss McKenna?”
The New York Irishman blinked, shook his head.
“No, Sean,” he said, “I don’t want Miss McKenna. I want her sister.”
“Her ... sister?” Sean’s eyebrows puzzled together.
“Aye, th’ lively one that causes s’ much trouble. The Rosenthal girl.”
“Rosenthal?”
“Aye!” The New York Irishman’s eyes shifted back and forth, looking from one of Sean’s Irish-blue eyes to the other, his expression one of absolute sincerity.
“Y’know, the Rosenthal girl – the one they call Ragdoll.”

 

 

 

Sarah accepted her Uncle Linn’s ride back to the McKenna spread.
Uncle Linn had her under an enveloping blanket and the buffalo robe.
It was very nearly too much insulation but Sarah did not protest: the upholstered buggy seat under her felt pretty good, with the blanket keeping her from cold leather's chill; she laid her head over on her Uncle’s shoulder, and her Uncle walked the rented mare, for he did not want to jostle Sarah.
She’s been through enough.
The Sheriff was conflicted: he’d seen an opportunity to impress upon Sarah the possible consequences of even a justified act – but never had he dreamed she would respond in such a delicate, such a weak-female manner.
On the one hand, Sarah looked so very grown up and beautiful, and part of him knew this was due to powder and paint and a well-tailored dress.
Part of him wanted her to stay Little Sarah forever, a child in pinafores and curls and laughter, and he realized that if pretty little girl-children behaved as he wished, they would all remain three years old, and he would set them on a high shelf with a glass bell jar over them, like a rare collector’s doll, so the world could not touch them.
Sarah felt him sigh.
She snuggled a little closer, and he put an arm around her shoulders.
“Uncle Linn?”
Her voice was a little muffled from the robe: she raised her head and looked at the greying old lawman.
The Sheriff looked at his niece, his expression gentle.
“Uncle Linn, stop the carriage.”
The Sheriff blinked, puzzled, and Sarah threw the robe and blanket open, seized the reins, drew gently and called “Ho up,” and the mare ho’d.
“Uncle Linn, I need your help.”
After the scare the Sheriff just threw in his niece, she could probably have asked him for the island of Madagascar and he’d have arranged to have it freighted in.
The greying old lawman looked squarely at his niece and nodded once.
“Ask.”
“Uncle Linn, Mama doesn’t want me anymore.”
If the carriage hadn’t been halted, the Sheriff would have brought it to a very fast stop.
What!?
“She wants to marry me off.”
The Sheriff looked long into his niece’s bleak eyes, then he turned to face her a little more squarely.
“Present your proofs.”
Sarah raised a finger.
“I was wearing another dress, a plain dress. Mama wanted me in this one, she wanted me to look … pretty.”
The Sheriff nodded.
“She wanted me to look really pretty.”
The Sheriff’s eyes never left his niece’s.
She looked her Uncle squarely in his ice blue eyes and her own eyes brimmed with unshed tears.
“Uncle Linn, she told me one of the Irish Brigade wants to marry me!”
“Mmm.” The Sheriff considered this.
“Did she say which one and how soon?”
“No,” Sarah said miserably, laying her head against her Uncle’s chest, then she whispered, “I’m too young to marry!”
“You’re thirteen, Sarah. Thirteen is –“
“I don’t know that!” Sarah flared, drawing back. “I don’t even know what my real birthday is! My birth-papa sold Mama’s Bible for a drink! Even if he told me when it was, do you think he’d tell me the truth?” Sarah’s voice quivered with anger, with despair. “He never told me the truth in his life!” – then, “No, that’s not right. He said he was going to beat Mama within an inch of her life, and he did, and he said he’d beat me if I didn’t get in the wagon quick enough, and he did.” Sarah pressed a lace edged kerchief to one closed eye, then the other: the Sheriff noticed that, even in her distress, she was trying not to damage the powder on her face.
“I don’t know if I’m ten or fifteen,” she sniffed. “I don’t know who I am, Uncle Linn! I don’t know me!
The Sheriff yanked the brake, dropped the chain ring over the handle, dismounted: he came around the carriage, reached up: Sarah reached for her Uncle’s shoulders and he brought her out of the carriage, then reached up and snapped the blanket free of the enveloping buffalo robe.
He draped the blanket around her shoulders and overlapped it carefully, then he stood squarely in front of her and took her in his arms.
“Sarah,” he said in his best Daddy-voice, “I know who you are.”
Sarah sniffed and looked hopefully up at the tall, slender lawman with the gentle, light-blue eyes.
“You are the one soul in this world I have loved from the moment I saw you.
“You were small for your age but with care and good food you shot up like a spring flower.
“You are sunrise after a long dark night and you are laughter in a silent room. You are one of the strongest, most capable souls I have ever known.”
“I don’t want to be strong and capable,” she groaned, hugging the lawman tightly. “I just want to grow up and be me.”
“And you are doing just that.”
“But I don’t –“
“Sarah.” The Sheriff brushed a wisp of hair back. “What was your Mama talking about before she had you change clothes?”
Sarah blinked, considered.
“She was talking about shipments that never arrived and thread and sewing machines breaking and colors not matching.”
“So she wasn’t having a good day.”
“No.”
“I could be wrong here.” The Sheriff put his arm around Sarah’s shoulders and walked, slowly, and she walked with him. “I could be wrong, but I seem to remember that women will try to control things around them when they have a bad day.”
Sarah looked at the ground.
“If she was having a bad day at work, she might have wanted to do something good, something pretty, and that might be making you look beautiful.”
The Sheriff stopped, placed gentle finger tips under her chin.
“Sarah, you are a beautiful young woman. Never doubt that. Take it from a man who appreciates women.”
Sarah blinked, nodded a little.
“Sarah, you have a gift, one I wish I had.”
Sarah tilted her head a little with curiosity, and the Sheriff smiled, for it reminded him of the way little Angela tilted hers in such moments.
“When you came in the other day in your schoolgirl frock” – Sarah blinked – “you looked so wonderfully like a girl. You looked three years younger at least.” He squeezed her shoulders and his smile was gentle, that of an affectionate and loving father.
“When you wear one of your Mama’s lovely dresses, you look like a woman grown, and a beautiful woman at that.”
Sarah nodded uncertainly.
“Sarah, you are not only beautiful, you can change …” the Sheriff frowned, fishing for the right words. “You can change believably. Remember when you slipped away from your Mama and raced at the Fair?”
Sarah giggled, her face coloring. “I won, too!”
The Sheriff nodded. “I won a handsome purse that day, by the way, but I didn’t know it was you riding!”
Sarah blinked, her eyes suddenly big and innocent.
“I knew the jockey looked efficient, looked comfortable in the saddle, and there was something … something, between the jockey and the horse, and I knew … I knew this was the horse to bet on.” He grinned. “It wasn’t until you told me later that I realized that was you in those jockey’s silks!”
Sarah giggled, pleased that she’d won a purse for her Uncle.
“When you are Miss Sarah, there in the schoolhouse, you are completely believable as a schoolmarm.”
Sarah drew the blanket more tightly around her shoulders.
“Even when you march out and bend a schoolbell over a brawler’s head.”
“Oh, Uncle Linn!” she groaned.
“Here’s my point.” The Sheriff stopped again and held his niece’s shoulders.
She could feel the heat from his hands through the blanket.
Sarah, you can damn well be anything at all you want to!” There was conviction in his words. “You have intelligence, you have back bone, you have beauty – let’s face it, beauty has its uses! – but what you become is your choice. Not your Mama’s, not mine, not the Irish Brigade’s.
“Yours.
“We may wish something for you, we may bend heaven and earth to bring about your dream, but in ultimo the choice is yours, and yours alone!”
Sarah looked up at her Uncle.
“Thank you,” she said. “I needed to hear that.” She sighed and her eyes drifted to the horizon. “I already knew that but I needed to hear you tell me.”

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Linn Keller 2-4-12

 

Two sets of eyes stared at good rag paper.
Two hands lifted; two pens were carefully dipped in good India ink.
Two pens lightly brushed the excess ink against the neck of the wide-bottom ink-bottle, leaving a spreading, black stain on the heavy glass: two pens poised above the paper.
Both writers hesitated; both writers frowned.
The Sheriff swallowed hard, lifted his hand away, leaned back in his padded office chair and stared at the far corner, remembering.
Bonnie, on the other hand, began writing, decisively, purposefully.

I remember you, Bruce, my friend, the Sheriff thought: you thought the world of me, and when your wife asked me to come, that your time was near, I did not, and I regret that very much.
Another face, another name, and the Sheriff felt the loss anew: Robert Beymer, as skilled a marksman as he’d ever known, a man near as big as Jackson Cooper, and able to walk up to, pick up and walk off with, damn near anything he pleased.
I miss you, too, my friend.
I saved your life and you saved mine, and we talked much good talk and laughed well and often through the years, and when infection took your leg and then took your life, I held your hand and wept as you sighed out your last breath.
Come Easter it would be five years that Bruce died, that great curly headed farmer: he raised horses and bees and milk cows, at least until the War called him away: when he went home, he went back to raising horses and milk cows and bees, and died of the consumption.
The Sheriff sat his chair back upright and he considered the blank paper.
What do you say to a widow? he thought.
Bruce was her life.
She met him well after the War, after his first wife died of brain fever: it was as if they’d known one another forever.
The Sheriff smiled as he remembered them on their wedding day.
He’d been half a continent away when he received the incipient widow’s plea; he knew his old and dear friend was likely dead by the time he received her urgent missive, and he was right: he’d known too many folk, widow and widower alike, who missed their dead spouse terribly, and he knew how important the word of a friend could be.
He looked at the pen, forgotten in his right hand, and turned, bringing himself into position, and dipped the pen in good India ink.

Dearest Levi
Bonnie frowned, hesitated, then drew a quick, vicious line through the words.
She stopped, tried again.
Levi
Too rigid, too abrupt.
Again, the line-through, but slower this time, more precise.
A fresh sheet of paper.
My dear Levi –
Forgive me.
When we parted I said words that hurt you.
I could see it in your eyes, and I felt your hurt, and I hated myself for it.
You kissed me and I kissed you back, then I pushed you away and spat venom.
For this I am ashamed.
I did not push you away because you kissed me.
I pushed you away because I liked it, and I was angered at myself for liking it.

Bonnie stopped, re-read her words.
“Am I being a hussy?” she asked the paper, her eyes wandering, then:
I have been over-long in writing this.
You know me better than I know myself: you closed your eyes for a long moment, then you looked at me and said, “In your own good time, then,” and your voice was very gentle and pleasant.
Much more pleasant than I deserved.
I suppose in that moment I deserved to be spanked, or slapped, or shouted at – but that would have been Caleb’s way.
Thank you for treating gently with a witless woman!

Bonnie dropped the pen on the paper and lowered her face into her palms.
It was late; the maid was gone to bed; the twins and Sarah were all asleep; she alone remained awake.
She spread her fingers, looked between them, staring at the painfully neat desk: she drew a long breath, feeling flannel caress her back as her shoulders rose, then fell; she arched her back like a cat, twisted a little, and picked up the pen once more.

The Sheriff frowned and tapped the end of his nose with the pen; he dipped the steel nib and continued.
Words on paper are scant comfort at such a fell anniversary.
I had not even that comfort, after my Connie and our dear Dana died.
I cannot fault family or friends, for it was not they who neglected me, but rather I who punished myself, by pushing all from me: no one had arms long enough to reach me, for I held them too distant.
My loneliness and the grief it increased was my own fault.
Know that I remember Bruce with great affection: he was a good man and he spoke of you with a smile in his voice.
If these poor words are of any comfort, I rejoice: it is my hard experience that the widow is forgotten after a month, and utterly missing from thought after a year. I have seen this distressing tendency too many times and wish not to perpetuate that wrong.
Salute me to your daughter, and let young Charity Elizabeth know that an old man with grey in his mustache remembers her with affection.


“How do I say I was a damned fool?” Bonnie whispered, staring at the words she’d just written.
She lay the pen against her cheek, thinking, then lowered it to the ink-well and refreshed its leaf-shaped nib.
Levi, you were right.
You said I would let you know, and I am.
If you can forgive a widow’s folly, I would be pleased to see you again.


Both the Sheriff and Bonnie allowed their notes to air dry, rather than blot them, as was the custom: their words were very black, very distinct on the off-white half-sheets, the standard size for writing paper.
Each carefully folded envelopes, then folded the letters and inserted them; each meticulously heated sealing-wax over a candle, then smeared a thick oval on the flap of the envelope and applied a seal.
Bonnie’s seal, pressed into the wax, was a relief of the Clan McKenna’s heraldic insignia.
The Sheriff used the base of a .45-70 case.

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Linn Keller 2-6-12

 

Little Joseph was helping his Pa.
Little Joseph strutted along behind Jacob with an enormous armful of fragrant, prickly hay.
To be honest he was dragging and spilling more hay than he packed, but he was helping his Da!
Jacob looked at the lad and grinned, nodding: "That's right, fella," he said, his voice gentle, "run it through the rails" -- he stopped as the half-Ap, half-Paso reached through the rails and lipped at the lad's golden cargo.
Joseph giggled and fell, cracking his head against the bottom fence rail: he landed face first in the snow, hay scattering around and in front of him.
The Appaloosa -- one of Charlie's product, which Jacob had purchased with some arm twisting, Charlie tried to charge him too little and Jacob would have none of it, for Charlie had busted his butt to make that horse ranch a going concern, and damned if he was going to let friendship short change the man's profit -- the Appaloosa nuzzled the back of the lad's head with exploring lips.
Joseph rolled over, blowing and snorting snow out of his nose, laughing: he reached up and patted at the horse, which drew back in surprise, then laughed again as Jacob seized the lad's feet and hauled him back out of harm's way, skidding him along on the snow.
Jacob dusted Joseph off, shaking and brushing to get snow off and out from under the various layers; the lad was all over hay and chaff and sparkling crystal, his cheeks under the hand knitted earlap cap were a bright pink, and his small, even teeth gleamed as laughter steamed out of his mouth.
"God Almighty, boy," Jacob murmured, "I don't know where you got your good looks, but you're a handsome fellow!'
Joseph raised his arms to the squatting Jacob and declared, "Da!" and Jacob picked him up, hoisting him waaaay up overhead and spinning him around, scattering a shower of giggles all over the snow covered ground.
Jacob tucked young Joseph under one arm and quickly scooped up and tossed in the hay Joseph managed to dribble from here to there: he didn't want it laying on the ground to tease and torment the horses.
There was a musical clanging from the house.
Jacob took Joseph under the arms and brought him up to eye level, his own expression one of exaggerated surprise.
"Joseph!" he exclaimed. "You hear that?"
Jacob turned, turning Joseph so they could both see Annette, standing outside with a cook pot in one hand, a wooden spoon in the other.
Jacob waved: "Wave at Mama," he said, and little Joseph waved with his left arm and everything above his belt line and a couple happy kicks as well, the way little boys will when they're held in Da's strong, encircling arm.
Jacob hoisted Joseph high up again, then brought him down on a fast arc, swinging him up a little again and touching him down gently on the snowy surface.
Joseph ran laughing for the house, throwing up a cloud of the frozen stuff as he charged toward his Mama in probably the most inefficient -- but the most enjoyable -- way possible.
"He'll have a good appetite this morning," Joseph called, picking up the pitch fork and heading back under the roof's overhanging shelter.

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Linn Keller 2-7-12

 

Daciana squeaked with delight as she read the brief note.
She looked outside as men measured and staked, planned and called to one another; the smell of baking bread reminded her that she must tend the stove, and she did, but her moves -- normally quick, efficient, economical -- had a bit of a shake, a tremble to them.
Daciana was dressed as were any of the ladies of Firelands, in a lady's gown of the era, suitable for work about the house; normally she would put on something finer to go out, but she had no time: impatience claimed her soul, delight seized her thoughts, and she dispensed fragrant falling-apart-tender back strap and gravy, steaming-hot snap beans with bacon and spices, fresh-baked bread, wrapped in several layers to keep it warm, and a lump of butter; she carefully covered the containers, tied their lids on, eased them into the basket, then she banked the stove, spun her cloak about her shoulders and threw up the square hood: so fortified, she pulled on a pair of knit gloves, carefully picked up the woven-withie basket and skipped like a little girl for the front door.
Her steps were somewhat more staid as she walked up the alleyway, then down, taking the back way to the depot: Lightning, her long, tall and handsome husband, would be surprised at her arrival: he'd made a cold-meat sandwich and declared it sufficient for his noonday meal, but Daciana liked to see her man eat well: knowing he would be ready to chew on the table leg by the time he got home, she fixed him a proper lunch, and hand-carried it to his cozy, warm office there in the depot.
She'd made enough for Fred, as well, and she knew Fred would be in at noon: the two men were friends long before Daciana came into her husband's life, and she knew the younger Fred Jerome would arrive and spell Lightning while he had his Spartan lunch.
Daciana smiled, her breath steaming from between gleaming, granite-strong teeth: she knew there were plates and flatware enough at the Depot to accommodate both men, and she knew Fred would not be able to resist her invitation to lunch as well.

The Sheriff looked up at the light tap at the door, then Daciana swung in, all smiles and swirling green cloak: she put her basket down beside the door and hung her cloak on the peg: the Sheriff laid his pen down and leaned back, smiling, for Daciana brought sunshine with her even if the sky was the color of lead and heavy with snow clouds: she fairly danced through the door and didn't stop as she divested herself of insulation and turned to curtsy at the greying old lawman.
The Sheriff rose and bowed, then stepped around the desk and drew out a chair for her.
Daciana was fairly bursting with news, and with delight, apparently in equal amounts: she didn't even look at the chair, instead seizing the Sheriff about the neck, bouncing on her toes like a happy child.
The Sheriff laughed and hugged her back.
Daciana neglected to latch the door when she came in, and it eased a little wider: the Bear Killer's head, then the rest of him came in, silent as death and just as black: the Sheriff was distracted by the pleasant sensation of a younger woman's attentions, and so missed the arrival of his new guest.
The Sheriff murmured a polite extrication before disengaging and reaching over to close and secure the door, then he looked down at the Bear Killer's bared fangs and pink tongue.
The Sheriff shook his fist and the Bear Killer snarled.
The Sheriff bared his teeth and growled, holding up a forearm.
The Bear Killer moved like a rattler, angered in the noonday sun: jaws clamped about the lawman's firearm, fur bristled in a Mohawk strip down the canine spine, and the Sheriff rubbed his big head fearlessly and laughed.
Bear Killer released and ran his pink tongue out, laughing.
Daciana had seen this before and so was not alarmed: as a matter of fact, she was busy fumbling in her reticule when the Bear Killer mouthed the lawman's lean, muscled arm bone.
She unfolded the note, looked up at the Sheriff as he turned.
"Thank you," she said, and it had been a very long time since the Sheriff saw delight to this degree in a pretty young woman's eyes.
"You're welcome, I'm sure," he said, "but what did I do this time?"
Daciana gave him a knowing look, put her knuckles on her hips.
"The barn," she said softly. "It will be as big as the biggest performing tent! I'll be able to ride Buttercup in a great circle and keep us both in practice!"
The Sheriff nodded, smiling a little: he'd wanted to surprise her and Lightning with something special, and this seemed like a good idea.
"And you made it big enough for an exercise area also! Thank you!"
The Sheriff nodded.
Daciana waved the note. "Listen to this!"
She skimmed through the lines, opened her mouth, raised a finger.
"Matilda," she said.
The Sheriff nodded.
"She's on a California ranch where it's warm year round."
The Sheriff nodded.
"It's one of the Vega y Vega ranches."
Again the slow, understanding nod.
"She gives the children rides and she has her own pond and they feed her fruit and bring her treats and --" Daciana's words were rapid and run together, for all the world like an excited little girl -- finally delight bubbled and overflowed and she threw her arms around the Sheriff's neck again.
"They said you arranged it!"
"Who, me?" the Sheriff said, doing his best to look innocent, and not succeeding at all.
Daciana laid a gentle palm against his cheek.
"Thank you," she whispered.
The Sheriff took her hand, turned it over and kissed her knuckles.
"She's worked hard all her life," he said. "It's time she got to take life easy for a change."

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Linn Keller 2-8-12

 

Mack casually wandered through the other passenger car, making it look like he was half lit and unsure where to go, or as if he were restless and swaying a little more than he had to with the slight movement of the passenger car.
In reality, the man was about half sea sick.
Mack was a deputy marshal from Cripple Creek, and he was following up on the telegram the town marshal sent and regretted sending one hour later.
Instead of sending a follow-up telegram cancelling the first one, he sent his deputy on the next train.

Dolly LaBoeuf was one of the dance hall girls in one of Cripple's better dance halls.
Dolly was young-looking, if you didn't look too close, and Dolly was pretty, with a quick, genuine smile and warm, dark-brown eyes.
Dolly LaBoeuf was briefly wanted for questioning in the death of a dance-hall patron.
The Marshal was too quick to listen to witnesses and not quick enough to investigate: by the time he got to the local funeral parlor to take a look at the deceased, the deceased opened the front door and bumped into him: the man held a folded rag to the knot on his aching head and snarled something about needing a drink, and staggered back across the street to the Pearly Girls Dance Hall and Saloon.
The undertaker stood in the doorway with a dolorous expression, wiping his bloodied hands on a damp cloth and murmuring sadly, "I lose more clients that way!"

Jackson Cooper read the telegram, nodding.
He'd heard there was a new girl over at the Silver Jewel, someone young and pretty -- Dolly something-or-another, he thought they were calling her -- he'd meant to go take a look at her, for though Jackson Cooper was a happily married man and perfectly content in his marriage, Jackson Cooper enjoyed the sight of a lovely female: he considered it his duty to admire beauty, whether it was a fine looking horse pacing by, whether it was to admire the precision of a Daine rifle's inletting around the lockplate, or whether it was the form, figure and movement of a lovely lady.
Failure to admire the beauty the Almighty put before him, he believed, was to waste that beauty, and like most on the frontier, Jackson Cooper firmly believed waste was a sin.
He tried his best not to be a sinful man.
Now, though, he was going to have to go over to the Silver Jewel and take a good look at this Dolly in his official capacity as town marshal.
Jackson Cooper opened his desk drawer and took a look, ratted around a little and pulled out two sets of hand cuffs.
He frowned.
According to what he'd heard, this Dolly was slight built, and very likely she could just slip out of these cuffs.
He'd meant to order up a couple sets of smaller cuffs, something to fit a slender woman's wrists, and never did, but the Sheriff had a small set, and leg irons to match.
I hadn't ought to need the leg irons, he thought.
I'll just go borrow the cuffs.

Sarah brooded.
Mama wants to marry me off, she thought.
No she doesn't. She just wants to let me know she is pleased that a decent man is interested enough in me --
She wants to get rid of me. She has the twins. They're still little girls and she can dress them like little girls and they are no threat, they're not competition --

Sarah remembered the beginnings of a note she found in her Mama's waste can.
Dearest Levi, the note began.
"Dearest Levi," Sarah whispered, feeling like she'd just been punched in the gut. "No wonder she wants to marry me off!"
I'll just be in the way here, Sarah thought bitterly, and if someone does take a genuine interest in me, Mama will see her beautiful young Sarah laughing and being treated like a Queen on a fine handsome young man's arm, while she is an older woman ... a woman desperate enough to throw herself at Levi!

The Sheriff lit a half dozen bees wax candles.
He loved the smell of bees wax candles and remembered them as a lad at home, how their little Methodist church always smelled of them.
He also knew candles helped burn up unpleasant odors.
He dragged the chest out from under the table where he'd shoved it and forgotten it: its contents represented an unpleasant time in his life, when he took over the Silver Jewel and attended its unsavory owner: there were good he'd seized and stored when he took over the Jewel, books and ledgers and the like, and just on the off chance, why, he intended to go through these and see if his suspicion might not be correct.
He made a face as the lid opened and the smell hit him.
Smell is the most associative of the senses and it immediately brought back all the memories of the Silver Jewel as it was, and the Sheriff felt a dark anger surge in his soul: for a moment he wished he could go back again and deal less charitably with Sam and the banker and that scoundrelly attorney ...
He shook his head, dismissing the notion, and began carefully, systematically removing the chest's contents, stacking them on the floor beside him.

Dolly danced a brisk can-can, snapping her petticoats and high-kicking her stockinged legs with the ease and flair of a veteran performer: the piano player grinned as he turned the page, using sheet music the new dancer brought with her: the man was classically trained and in his younger days played in concert halls back East, but he much preferred the West: he made twice the money, did half the work, the beer was free and he didn't have to wear high, tight collars that were starched to the consistency of a wood rasp and left his neck red and irritated.
He'd never played the Can-Can before, and Dolly never heard it played so well; maybe it was because of the man's classical training, or because he actually played both treble and bass clef at the same time, but the music was good and his rhythm was consistent, and Dolly fell easily into a dancer's trance, making the vigorous performance look easy.
The curtain slid down as the piano's fanfare announced the end of the show: there were whistles, yells, the appreciative hammer of callused palms pounded on tablecloth and bare tabletops: Dolly smiled and skipped back to her dressing room, reveling in the feeling of her smooth-muscled body at the peak of its ability.

"Here, take the key," the Sheriff said.
"Nah, won't need it," Jackson Cooper rumbled. "Once I get her in irons I'll bring her over and lock her up. You can use the key once I get her here."
"That'll work." He tossed the key in the drawer. "She killed a man, you say?"
"Here's the telegram."
"You want the shackles? She might try to run."
Jackson Cooper hesitated, then: "Nah. She's just a little thing."
"Little things can fight, y'know. One of the worst beatin's I ever got was from a woman Sarah's size. She knocked me north, south, east, west, up to the Texas moon and down to oil and I ain't ashamed to admit it! Besides" -- the Sheriff's grin was contagious -- "how would it look if that little dolly-bird went running up the street an' you chasin' after her?"
Jackson Cooper nodded, grinning.
"I'll take 'em, then." He looked over at the trunk. "That what smells?"
"Yeah. I seized this when I arrested Sam and took over the Jewel." He stacked ledger-books and bundles of ribbon tied paper, then picked up something wrapped in cloth.
"A book of some nature?" Jackson Cooper rumbled, leaning closer.
The Sheriff picked it up, unwrapped it.
"A Bible," he chuckled. "I am not surprised. That thievin' Sam would put on a fine face --"
He opened the cover, turned a page, stopped.
Jackson Cooper felt his friend's mood change.
The Sheriff looked up, his face a degree more pale than it was.
"Jackson," he whispered, "this belonged to Sarah's Mama!"
Jackson Cooper nodded.
"I'll let her know," he said. "She's probably over at the schoolhouse."

Sarah put the finishing touches on her hair, turned her face.
She was careful with powder and paint, knowing she had to look like she wasn't wearing any: her hair was perfect and the smart-looking young woman in the mirror nodded at her, then gave her a flirtatious smile.
She wore another of the gowns her Mama tailored for her: if she was to be a marriageable young woman, she was going to be a really good looking, marriageable young woman.
She considered being a tart but rejected it immediately: men of low character went for dolly-mops and Sarah knew if she was to have a man, she wanted a man who could provide for her.
Part of her was cynical and bitter, betrayed by the very Mama she'd loved all her life: part of her was terribly disappointed, and yet part of her protested this was a misunderstanding, this is going off half-cocked, the right thing to do is nothing --
Sarah chose her best cloak, spun it about her shoulders; she crept down the stairs, knowing the maid was busy with the twins and her Mama was gone go her dress-works; carefully, gliding smoothly in her Mama's fine shoes, she slipped outside to the waiting carriage.

"Fiahlands," the conductor called nasally. "All out foah Fiahlands."
Mack decided he really, really did not like the East Coast accent, and this fellow sounded just like his cousin Lewis from New Jersey.
Or maybe it's because he didn't like his cousin Lewis.
The deputy stood, worked his back.
These seats could use some padding, he thought, settling the Stetson on his head.
He stepped down out of the passenger car and across the depot platform, then down to the packed dirt and walked over to the beginning of the board walk.
Mack took a long, deep breath, grinning at the sight of the tidy little town.
Cripple Creek was busy, alive, dirty, rutted, and smelled of wood smoke and tobacco, beer and carelessly slung chamber pots, horse manure and sweat.
Firelands, on the other hands, smelled ... well, clean.
His eye was naturally drawn to movement and he grinned at the handful of schoolboys running for the neat, whitewashed schoolhouse, the attractive, diminutive schoolmarm standing on the steps, ringing the handbell: there, to the left, was an equally immaculate church: he swung his gaze up the street past the bank and the fine shining stone municipal building.
He lounged against a convenient porch post, taking it all in, until he sorted out the lay of the land.
Casually, as if he had all the time in the world, he sauntered up the board walk toward the Marshal's Office.


The Sheriff nodded, closed his desk drawer.
The propeller-shaped key gleamed brightly until the closing drawer took it from sight.
He looked long at the worn book with the chafed cover, there on his desk, the Bible that held Sarah's birth record.

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Linn Keller 2-9-12

 

Dolly LaBoeuf stripped out of her costume, dropped bonelessly into the fainting-couch, then groaned and folded her leg up and began unbuttoning her high button shoes.
There was time enough, if she were quick and efficient, to change clothes, go tend necessities (the first thing she’d done was to locate the nearest outhouse and chamber pot), bathe her neck and wrists, touch up her make-up, touch her hair and get a much-needed few moments of rest before going back out on stage.
She set one shoe down, straightened her dancer’s-taut, shapely, stockinged leg: curling the other up beside her, she worked the buttons loose with her left hand, swearing silently at the masochist who ever, ever decided it would be fashionable for a woman to have to fasten most of a dozen buttons just to put on a shoe.
She quickly put on her other pair, groaning with relief as she did: she much preferred the instep-strap pumps that went with her next outfit: she could dance in them, high-kick in them, she could even run in them, and had a time or two, even though their heel was significantly higher than the suede-topped shoes she’d just discarded.
If nobody comes after me this afternoon, she thought, I’ll have earned enough for a stage ticket out of here.
Dolly’s mouth was dry and she tried to swallow down a sticky lump in her throat.
If nobody comes after me …

Sarah thought fast, thought like an outlaw.
Sarah knew Uncle Charlie was right when he observed over a campfire one night, “You can’t fight what you don’t understand,” and they discussed how to blow a safe with nitroglycerin, how to turn over a small safe and chop the wood bottom out of it – a “chop job,” he’d called it – he’d taught her the border switch, the border flip, how to defend barehand against a knife; he had her wrap her horse’s hooves in burlap, had her brush out tracks, he’d drilled into her head that she had to know how outlaws worked if she was going to go after them.
Sarah knew the tavern in any town was the hub for intelligence: if anything was happening in the county, it would be known in the tavern; if anyone was looking for anyone else, or was looking to avoid being found, it would be known in the tavern; Sarah knew she needed to gather more intelligence before she made any significant move, and so she went to the Silver Jewel.
A well-dressed young woman was a sight any man appreciated, and nearly every man there gave Sarah a frank and appraising stare, reminding her that she was indeed capable of being seen as eligible, or desirable … part of her was pleased, at least until her dark self surged up, seized her by the shoulders and mentally sat her down, hard.
A phrase tugged at her ear, almost as if someone reached out and gave it a pull with thumb and forefinger:
“—that new dancin’ girl is a looker, now, and about her size” –
Sarah smiled at Mr. Baxter, glided behind the men at the bar and turned as if to head down the back hall to Daisy’s kitchen.
Her Mama’s shoes had hard heels, and Sarah’s progress was intentionally noisy, at least until she came to the little alcove that went back to the dressing rooms and up onto the stage, then her weight came up on the balls of her feet and she made all the noise of a passing cloud.

Mack opened the door to the Marshal’s office.
“Hello?” he called. “Anybody home?”
He looked around, stepped inside, frowning a little.
“Hello?”
There was a quick step outside, the impatient rat-tat of knuckles on the door, and the lined face of a peevish old woman thrust into the silent confines.
“Well it’s about time I found you!” she scolded. “Young man, you simply must do something about those children that run the back alley behind my house!”
Mack blinked, turned. “Ma’am, I , ah –“
“You are the deputy, aren’t you?” the old woman demanded, raising a palsied finger.
“I’m a deputy, yes, ma’am, but –“
“Then it’s time you earned your pay for once!” she cut him off, shaking her ebony-handled cane and thumping its steel tip into the floor for emphasis; she turned, wobbling a little, and tottered back out the door, hesitating before leaning back to snarl a parting shot through the narrowly-opened door: “In my day, we had respect for our elders. Respect, I say!” – and the deputy heard her quick, short little steps as she worried her way up the boardwalk, her cane punishing the dusty, warped boards as she went.

Dolly looked up.
“Go away,” she called cheerfully, and Sarah opened the door, flinching as the high-button shoe struck the frame beside the door.
“Sorry, honey,” Dolly called. “Come on in but shut the door. I don’t want any men getting ideas!”
Sarah slipped in, swinging her backside to throw her skirt out of the road as she shut the door behind her. “I’m Sarah,” she said, as if that explained everything.
“I’m Dolly. If you’re lookin’ for a job, go up and talk to the barkeep, he’s the one who hired me.”
“I need information.”
“Information!” Dolly laughed, stepped behind the Japan-paper screen. “Now there’s a new one! I’ve had men want my virtue, women want my beauty secret, I had a boy come in and try to steal my purse – broke a lamp over his head, I did, nearly burned the place down too!” – she winked – “but information? How much is it worth to you?”
Sarah froze, turned her head.
Sarah’s hearing was still quite good.
Alerted by Sarah’s expression, Dolly peeked around the side of the screen.
Sarah did not miss the frightened, half-sick look on her face.
Men’s boots, Sarah thought, a man with a purpose.
She assessed Dolly’s reaction.
“Are they after you?” she asked, her voice low.
Dolly nodded, her eyes big, frightened.
“I can help. Tell me what happened.”
Sarah turned, looked at the door lock: she smiled, turned the key in the lock: knowing Mr. Baxter would have an extra and could open it from without, she looked around for something to wedge against the door.
“I killed a man,” Dolly said, sagging into a chair.
“How?” Sarah opened a closet door, pulled out a mop and a broom: she wedged their handles in place, bracing them against the edge of the closet.
“I pushed him.”
Sarah looked at Dolly, raised one eyebrow.
“I pushed him hard!”
“What did he do to you?”
“He didn’t.” Her chin raised defiantly. “He tried to take me.”
“Take you?”
“He tried …” Dolly’s face screwed up and her forearms crossed in front of her bosom, the action of a woman who’d been mishandled and was reliving the memory – “he tried to take me!
“Is he dead?” Sarah’s voice was cold; she pulled a chair over, worked it in front of the door.
“I don’t know,” Dolly whispered. “I pushed him and he fell over his own big feet. I know he hit head on the doorknob.”
“You didn’t go to the law?”
Dolly snorted, half-laughed. “The law?” She waved a hand. “Honey, they hanged a woman in Frisco last week! She killed a man and he deserved it, but he was a man and she was a woman and so they hanged her!
Sarah thought fast.
“I can help,” she said. “Put on my dress.”
“What?”
Sarah began divesting herself of the fine gown.
“Now,” she said.
Dolly did not wait for another invitation.
“We’re about the same size, you’re wearing a corset and stockings, this will work,” Sarah whispered. “Here, turn around, let me do you up.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll buy you as much time as I can.” Sarah seized the bow in the woman’s hair, pulled it free, snatched up the hair brush and did the best she could with a few efficient strokes. “There. That’s not bad.” She reached for a folded wash cloth.
“Here. Get rid of the face paint.”
Dolly scrubbed vigorously at her face. “Nobody in the world will know me now,” she said, then looked in the mirror and froze.
“Oh my God,” she whispered, “I don’t look like me!”
“You look pretty good, if you ask me,” Sarah nodded. “Now what do you have that will disguise my face?”
“Here. This has a veil. It’s silky and” – Dolly stopped, shocked. “You’re not –“
“Oh yes I am,” Sarah said.
Footsteps came back down the hall, stopped.
The doorknob rattled as Sarah finished getting into the dancing-girl costume.
“Oh, honey, you look good,” Dolly said admiringly. “Here, quick, a little more powder –“
A heavy fist pounded on the door. “Marshal’s office! Open up in there!”
Sarah seized Dolly’s wrist. “Tell him you’re changing clothes and you’ll be out in a minute,” she whispered.
“I’m naked,” Dolly called out, and she did not have to pretend to any fear in her voice; it was there, and it was real. “Give me a minute?”
“This way!” Sarah whispered, pulled Dolly over to the open closet door.
Sarah slid the back of the closet to the side, revealing a dimly lit, steep, narrow staircase.
Putting her finger to her lips, she pushed Dolly into the staircase, closing the closet door quietly behind her, then sliding the panel aside and latching it as quietly as she could.
She heard Jackson Cooper say something – she couldn’t tell what – and looked up as Dolly held her skirts up and carefully, quietly, made her way up the stairs.
At least she has shoes on, Sarah thought, thankful that she didn’t have to sacrifice the ones she wore to help this woman get to safety.

Mack closed the Marshal’s office door behind him, scratching his head before considering his next move.
He looked across the street to the Silver Jewel.
Someone there might know where the Marshal got off to, he thought.

The Sheriff stared at the Bible.
“Old timer,” he said out loud, “if only you could talk.”
He opened it for the tenth or twelfth time, opened it to the page with births and deaths and family names, and looked yet again at Sarah’s birth entry.
He read the date, did a quick mental calculation, and smiled.
She’ll be glad to get this, he thought.
I can’t wait to see her again!

They went up the narrow, steep stairs, came out in an unoccupied room; Sarah opened its door carefully, cautiously, looked one way, then the other, gestured to Dolly.
The two women walked carefully down the carpet runner, the length of the hall, to the back stairs.
They heard Jackson Cooper’s voice, loud and demanding as he hammered his big fist on the door again.
“Dolly LaBoeuf!” Jackson Cooper challenged. “This is your last warning. Kindly get yourself decent and open this door!”
Sarah led the way down the back stairs.
She peeked around the corner, drew back quickly.
Dolly tapped her on the shoulder.
Sarah turned and Dolly drew the gauzy silk up over Sarah’s face, fastened it with a silver clip just in front of her right ear.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Sarah took Dolly by the shoulders.
“Listen close,” she said. “When he goes through that door, you go out the back door – here” – she pointed, leaned back so Dolly could see it.
Dolly nodded.
“You go along the back of this building to the corner.”
Dolly nodded.
“There’s an alley. Go to the right, cross the street. The mercantile is right across from us.”
Dolly nodded.
“Go inside and buy a stage ticket, it doesn’t matter where, just get out of here!”
Dolly nodded.
“Do you have money?”
Dolly nodded, reached into the upper rim of her corset: “Right here, honey, courtesy the Left Bank!”
Sarah nodded.
“Dolly LaBoeuf! This is Town Marshal Jackson Cooper! Open this door or I will!”
Sarah held up a hand.
Dolly’s mouth was dry and she could feel her heart hammering against her ribs.
There was the sound of a rattling door knob; the click of a lock, distinct and clear in the hallway’s hush: they heard Jackson Cooper try the door again.
“Dolly LaBoeuf, remove this obstruction, NOW!”
Dolly cowered back a little, the back of her hand to her lips, and Sarah felt her heart sink, then she steeled herself: this woman had been wronged, this woman had kept herself safe from vile attack, and Sarah would do whatever she had to, in order to keep this woman from further harm.
Even if it meant her own freedom.
You’ve got to do what’s right, she thought, even if it’s wrong.
There was the sound of splintering wood.
“Now!” she whispered.
Dolly wobbled a little and Sarah caught her: Sarah leaned out, twisted the doorknob, threw the door open, flooding the hallway with light.
She dragged Dolly outside, pointed her toward the alley.
“Go!” she half-whispered, then she went back inside, pulling the door shut behind her.
In for a penny, in for a pound, she thought: she leaned forward, hands bladed and open, and launched into a sprint down the hallway, past the broken-in door. She ran flat out and made no attempt at all to lessen the sound of her hard, fashionable heels as she ran.
Men moved to block her passage.
Sarah drove into them, all elbows and knees, screaming with rage: she tore into the uncertain mass of masculinity with unadulterated ferocity.
Her black-clad self sang power and unleashed her inner monster, the beast of temper which forever raged and thrust against its confining chain: Sarah hit with the strength of ten, kicked like a Missouri mule, twisted and drove her way through the shouting, laughing crowd, and just made a final, desperate lunge for the front door.
Something the approximate mass and velocity of the noon freight drove into her back and a pair of arms the size of her upper thighs clamped around her waist.
Sarah saw the wall in amazing detail: she saw the grain in the wood, the smooth, slightly irregular varnish finish, she saw a nail, neatly and precisely countersunk, then she realized it was coming toward her fast, too fast --
I’m sorry, she thought, I did the best I could

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Linn Keller 2-10-11

 

Mack stopped at the foot of the three steps going up to the board walk in front of the Silver Jewel.
There was the sound of a general commotion; shouts, whistles, the sound of a body hitting a wall, then … silence.
What in the world is going on here? Mack thought, hesitating: he had one boot up on the bottom step but stopped, considering.
I don’t know where their town Marshal is, he thought; I’m not from here and I don’t want to go into another man’s barfight –
The door opened.
One of the biggest men Mack ever saw came out the door, with the fugitive Dolly LaBoeuf draped limp over his shoulder: he stopped just outside the door, looked at Mack and boomed, “You must be the deputy from Cripple.”
“I am,” Mack nodded, reaching up to make sure his star was still on his coat. “Name’s Maxwell. Call me Mack.”
“Jackson Cooper.” He reached up, swatted “Dolly” loudly on the fanny. “Your dancing girl tried to get away.”
“Um,” Mack began, “there’s something –“and Jackson Cooper reached into a coat pocket, handed him a set of irons.
“Here. Put these on her ankles.”
“Ahh,” Mack said, hesitating.
“Go on, man, she fights like a wildcat!”
Mack regarded Jackson Cooper’s size, considered how effortlessly he held the limp form over his shoulder, weighed this against the news he bore; he shrugged, then closed the shackles about the admittedly shapely ankles.
Jackson reached up to hold the unmoving form with the other arm, dug into the other pocket, came up with a diminutive set of handcuffs.
“Here. Can you reach her hands, behind her back? Climb up onto the boardwalk and I’ll stand down here.”

Bonnie rode into town, delighting in the feel of Sarah’s racer under her.
It had been too long since she wore a riding skirt, and she found a riding corset more to her comfort than the long corset she usually wore, and just as flattering to her figure.
I simply must ride more, she thought.
I do love it so.
Besides, it’s good for the figure.
She remembered the envelope in her purse, the one addressed to Levi, and realized what she’d just been thinking, and blushed a furious red.
Bonnie was in sight of the Mercantile, but still the entire town’s width from it: she saw a gown – one of her gowns –
Sarah?
What is she … why is she getting into the stagecoach?

The figure in the tailored red gown hesitated, looked her way, then hurried into the coach; a few moments later the driver swung his whip and Bonnie knew its sharp crack would delay a few moments before its sound reached her.
Bonnie touched her heels to the racer’s flanks: he eased into a canter and Bonnie had to discipline herself severely not to urge him into a gallop.
Movement drew her eye to the Silver Jewel, where Jackson Cooper was carrying … a woman? – not decently dressed! Bonnie thought, a tart, or a harlot – or a dancing girl, they’re all the same –

I used to be one of those.
I wonder if Levi would like to see me in a dancing girl costume?

Bonnie’s eyes widened and she blushed once more.

Dolly LaBoeuf looked back, toward the confusion coming out of the Silver Jewel.
Her heart sank as she saw the limp form draped over the Marshal’s shoulder.
She looked away as Mack accepted the gleaming set of shackles from the big man and clamped them on Sarah’s ankles.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, dropping her eyes, ashamed: Dolly climbed into the stage coach, and barely made her seat when, with a whistle and a yell, the stage surged into motion.

“Marshal, there’s been a change –“
“Let’s get her locked up, Mack. You wouldn’t believe how hard this girl hits. I want her behind bars before we do anything else.”
Mack realized the futility of trying to derail the big Marshal’s one track mind.
They crossed the street and went into the Sheriff’s office.

Mr. Baxter was doing a land-office business.
To a man, the patronage expressed a universal approval for one of the most vigorous and entertaining floor shows they’d ever seen.
As a man’s thirst grows in direct proportion to his approbation, beer was being happily consumed at a phenomenal rate; amber liquid was dispensed and handed across the bar, and coin, greenbacks and dust flowed the opposite direction in a steady stream.
The piano player kept the mood up with a series of lively airs.
He knew if business was good, his pay would be good.

“Bonnie! How nice to see you!” Maude took Bonnie’s hands, tilting her head with a kindly expression. “And how is Sarah?”
Bonnie’s expression was troubled: Maude stopped, turned her head a little as if to bring her good ear to bear, looked closely at Bonnie’s expression.
“Did Sarah just buy a stage ticket?” Bonnie asked hesitantly.
“Sarah?” Maude’s eyes widened. “No … no, I haven’t seen her, I’m sorry. Is something wrong?”
Bonnie blinked, then waved a hand. “No,” she said decisively. “Just my imagination. I thought I saw her get on the stage.” She drew the envelope from her purse. “I wish I’d been a few minutes sooner, this could have gone out with them.”
Maude took it, glanced at the envelope and dropped it in the box under the counter.
“It’ll go out in the morning,” she said reassuringly. “By the way, there’s a box for you, those parts you ordered –“

Jackson Cooper bent and set the groaning form on the cell’s steel bunk. She lay down on the bunk, eyes squinted shut, the rest of her face hidden by the veil: shackled, handcuffed, she scarcely looked like the wildcat fighter he’d described.
Jackson Cooper shut the barred door with a metallic SLAM, the lock shot home, the key chuckled from the lock.
“Now,” Jackson Cooper said to the staring Maxwell.
“Let’s go find us a seat.”
Mack looked at the still form on the cell’s bunk and felt half sick.

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Linn Keller 2-10-12

 

Bonnie reined up the racer.
“Ho, now,” she said gently: the racer paced to a stop, and Bonnie stared at her carriage, the horse still harnessed, in front of the Silver Jewel.
Bonnie’s eyes narrowed.
Why would Sarah stop here?
She looked across the street to the Sheriff’s office, then back to the Jewel.
Tethering the racer to the back of the carriage, she walked slowly alongside, looking for anything unusual, anything out of place, any clue as to why Sarah would be here instead of at school.
She stepped briskly up the three wooden stairtreads to the boardwalk in front of the Silver Jewel.

Sarah tried her very best not to move.
I hurt, she thought, and hurt she did: nothing is quite as exquisitely painful as cracked and broken ribs: she tasted blood, explored her lips with a cautious tongue, flinched.
Sarah worked her face and realized she would look a fright in the morning: her cheek was still numb from going face-first into the wall.
Pain eroded her control; pain dissolved the guards and wards she kept on her temper; Sarah embraced the pain, seized the pain, shoveled the pain as fuel into the boiler of her anger.
Sarah tasted darkness and it tasted good.

Bonnie glided back behind the laughing men at the bar and walked carefully, slowly down the back hallway.
I’ll just stop at the kitchen, she thought, and see if Sarah came back this way –
Bonnie stopped at the door, ajar into the dressing room behind the little stage.
She frowned.
This is unusual, she thought, and turned sideways, slipped into the narrow opening.
The door would not open further, and when she was inside, she saw why.
An upholstered fainting-couch was slid out of the way, now touching the closet: the door could open no further.
A splintered wooden handle lay on the floor, its other half on the fainting-couch.
What happened here?
A high-button shoe lay by the door.
Bonnie looked around, saw the shoe’s mate on the other side of the room, under the ruffle-edged vanity.
Sarah’s cloak!
Bonnie snatched up the cloak, turning it round, then inside-out: she studied it, shook it, smelled it, draped it over her arm.
Frowning, she slipped back out the door.
If she came in, she came in the front, she thought. +
I’ll just ask Tillie.
Fifty-two and one-half seconds later, Bonnie threw open the ornate front door, cleared the three steps in one jump, and ran across the street to the Sheriff’s office.

I am a wounded lioness, lying in the tall grass.
Sarah waited, breathing carefully, feeding her anger to the flame.
I must be patient.
My time will come.


“You don’t want her?” Jackson Cooper demanded, his mouth hanging open in dismay.
“I tried to tell you, Marshal,” Mack said, “but you said to lock her up anyway.”
Jackson Cooper snatched the hat from his head, ran thick fingers through curly, dark hair.
The Sheriff was silent, unmoving, listening carefully but saying nothing: he knew he would probably have to be a voice of reason, of moderation.
There was a rapid knock on the door and one of the local lads slipped in: “Telegram, Shurf,” he said. “This one’s fer Depitty Maxwell. Who’s Maxwell? You git another depitty, Shurf? Kin I meet him? Is he fast as you? How long you had him? Is he tall as --”
The Sheriff raised a finger, then nodded to the Cripple Creek deputy.
The boy handed over the telegram with a grin and stood there expectantly.
The Sheriff raised a finger again, nodded to the side of his desk.
The boy ran over, grinning.
The Sheriff withdrew a coin from his vest pocket, slid it across his desk, nodded.
“Thanks, Shurf!” the boy piped, and took one step toward the door when the Sheriff cleared his throat and motioned to the side of his desk.
The boy returned, anticipation shining on his face: the repeat summons meant further business, and another coin, most likely.
“Oh, no,” Maxwell groaned.
Jackson Cooper looked at the Sheriff, his expression was as sick as Maxwell’s had been.
“Marshal, I came over to tell you the man Dolly killed, wasn’t dead after all.”
Jackson Cooper took a long breath, blew it out.
“Go on.”
“Matter of fact the Marshal waited til that fellow was half drunk before he started talkin’ to him – it ain’t fer nothin’ they call it Tongue Oil” – he grinned, but his grin faded at the look on Jackson Cooper’s face – “turns out he tried t’ … he was … “
“He wanted her and she didn’t want him,” the Sheriff suggested.
“Yes, sir, that’s right. He said she give him a shove and he musta hit his head an’ laid there a while.”
Jackson Cooper was not a man for profound language; unlike many in the West in that era, he was not in the habit of giving vent to sulfurous language.
This time he made an exception.
The Sheriff’s eyes widened a bit in admiration at the fine, varied and most potent vocabulary his old friend commanded: he managed to profane, condamn and otherwise consign a surprising multitude to a variety of infernal domains: Maxwell stepped back a bit, as if afraid the man would explode, for when a big man, a strong man becomes quiet, speaks in a quiet voice and utters the words Jackson Cooper spoke, it is genuinely a frightening thing.
Jackson Cooper snatched up the water dipper, took a long drink, sloshed another about in his mouth as if to wash out a bad taste, spat it on the stove: it hissed and steamed, and Jackson Cooper dropped the dipper back in the bucket instead of hanging it back on its nail.
“So you are telling me,” he said, “that I just seized, grabbed, mauled and flattened that poor woman against a wall – I just took her into possession as a murdering felon and she is not?”
The door opened and Bonnie slipped in, closed the door quietly behind her.
Deputy Maxwell nodded.
“She did not commit a crime.”
“No, sir.”
“She is the victim of a crime.”
“Yes, sir.”
“So I cold cocked the poor girl and slammed her against a wall and chained her up like a fleeing felon, I packed her over here with her butt in the air and her legs stuck out for all the world to see, I locked her up” – he turned to face the deputy squarely – “AND SHE’S INNOCENT???”
Maxwell nodded dumbly.
Jackson Cooper raised his arms to the ceiling and profaned the fates that brought him to this state of misery.
Bonnie looked over at the Sheriff.
“Excuse me,” she asked quietly, “but have you seen Sarah?”

The wounded lioness gathered her strength.
She felt the equatorial sun, hot on her tawny fur, she heard insects buzz in the dusty grass, she smelled her own blood and her lips drew back from white-ivory fangs as she scented the hated hunter that hurt her.
Soon, she whispered to herself.
Soon!

Maxwell staggered a little at the enormity of what had just happened: he made his way back between the rows of cells, stopped at the last one on the right.
He grasped one of the bars, studied the still form on the steel bunk.
Jackson Cooper’s eyebrows quirked as the young deputy sprinted back down the hall.
“Sheriff,” he blurted, “I don’t know who that is, but it ain’t Dolly, and whoever she is, she’s coughin’ up blood!”

The lioness struggled to breathe, struggled to keep herself awake, conscious in spite of the pain that flared like a sunball of agony in her chest.
She heard, distantly, the sound of a key in the heavy lock, the jingle of keys on the ring as the lock was turned: there were hurried footsteps, hands seized her about the chest.

Sarah gave a piteous little cry, the sound of a wounded child, and Jackson Cooper jerked his hands back as if burned.
“Here, let me,” the Sheriff murmured. “Step back.” He knelt beside the still figure.
“Here, let me help,” he whispered. “I’m going to slip my hands under your arms and when I tell you, you’ll have to sit up. I won’t lie to you, this is going to hurt, but I need you to walk out of this little cell. It’ll hurt less than if we carry you.”
He bladed his hands, slipped them gently under the manacled girl’s arms.

The silk veil across Sarah’s face was stained with bright blood.
It clung to her chin; with her eyes closed, her disguise was effective: the Sheriff’s attention was on moving her carefully, for the man knew what broken ribs felt like.
Who she was, was unimportant for now.
“I’m going to help you up, on three,” he said quietly. “It’s going to hurt but you’ll just have to bear it. Roll over toward me now, hang your legs down … yes, just like that.”

Sarah shoveled anger into the fires of her rage; strength surged through her limbs.
You hurt me, she thought.
Now it’s my turn.
Soon … soon … soon …


“Good, you’re doing fine, just sit here for a moment.”
Sarah’s head hung forward; her breathing was labored.
“We will stand on three,” the Sheriff said, his voice quiet and reassuring.
He rocked her back slightly, then toward him: “One.”
Rocked back, then forward: “Two.”
Rocked back, he tucked his backside and lifted: “Three.”
Sarah gasped and came up right, steadied by the Sheriff’s hands.
“You’re doing fine now, you’re doing fine,” the Sheriff said soothingly.
“I will walk backwards,” he said, “I will walk slowly. Move with me, now.”
The Sheriff walked backwards, slowly, carefully; Sarah’s steps were halting, she sagged against the Sheriff.
Her breathing was irregular, shuddering; her heels were loud on the boards, the shackles scraped and whispered as she took little, tottering steps.
“Jackson Cooper, everybody, get the hell out of here,” the Sheriff said quietly. “Get down the hall and out of my road.”
Jackson Cooper walked backwards behind the Sheriff, Maxwell turned and walked back into the office proper, where Bonnie waited, an anxious look on her face.
She apparently came into an awkward moment; the Sheriff hadn’t replied to her question, and she respected that, but she was worried and she would wait for an answer.

Pretend to be weak.
I don’t have to pretend.

Pain dizzied her; her vision hazed out, then cleared, and if it were a little darker, her eyes would have glowed, burned with a hatred she felt to the depths of her young soul.
Perhaps Sarah's eyes did glow, for when she was angered, they became very pale, very cold, they became glacial, just like the man she faced.
Sarah raised her head, glared at the Sheriff.
The Sheriff looked into the young woman’s eyes: his own light-blue eyes widened and he paled noticeably.
“Jackson Cooper,” he said, his voice tight, “get into my top right hand desk drawer and get me that key, RIGHT NOW!”
Jackson Cooper jerked the drawer open, reached in, plucked the propeller shaped key from the corner.
Sarah’s voice was a hiss, the sound of dry snake scales on sun-baked rock.
She pointed one foot, shoved the toe of her Mama’s high heeled pump into the Sheriff’s instep.
The chain was drawn tight between her shackled ankles.
“Get these off me,” she whispered hoarsely.
“Can you stand?”
Sarah nodded.
The Sheriff reached back, took they key from Jackson Cooper.
Sarah’s rage roared, surged: adrenalin, endorphins and other chemicals that would be neither identified nor named for years, filled her with an unexpected strength.
The wounded lioness gathered herself for the charge.
Sarah felt the right-hand shackle open and fall away; there was a tug at the other ankle, she felt the key turn in the lock, and the other cuff released its metallic grip and it too hit the floor.
Sarah’s breathing was pained, she panted a little as the Sheriff stood, stepped behind her, took her left wrist in his hand.
She felt the key slip into the lock.
She’d kept her eyes low, low enough that Jackson Cooper could not see them, but she could see his legs, and the other fellow’s legs: her mother was behind them.
Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it –
“Almost there, Sarah,” the Sheriff said.
Sarah saw her cloak fall to the floor.
Bonnie’s hands went to her mouth.
“Sarah?” she gasped.
Jackson Cooper turned, responding to the sound of Bonnie’s voice.
Sarah was still looking down and so could not see the dismay on Jackson Cooper's face.
The other deputy turned quickly at Bonnie's sudden exclamation.
The cuff fell away from Sarah’s wrist.
The lioness charged.
Sarah’s rush was silent as death and just as swift: she pulled out of her Uncle’s gentle grip, thrust between Jackson Cooper and the deputy, shoved her Mama hard to the side, grabbed the edge of the door and twisted outside.
Pain and triumph sang in her veins, strength never suspected powered her: she seized Cannonball’s reins, yanked them free from the hitch-rail, shoved a foot in the stirrup, swung aboard the Sheriff’s witch-horse.

Sarah spat blood, drove her heels into the copper mare’s ribs, galloped up the street.
If she did nothing else for the rest of her young life, Sarah was going to catch up with Dolly and let her know she was a free woman.
Pain flared in her side, her vision started to grey out, but she pressed her heels into Cannonball's ribs and gasped, "Run!"

Jacob opened the door to the Mercantile.
A dancing girl in a scandalously brief outfit galloped past on his father’s mare, an open handcuff swinging from her right wrist.
She had a bloodied veil across her face.
At the sight of what was very obviously a prisoner, an escaping prisoner, an escaping prisoner who tried to disguise herself and had apparently been injured in the escape attempt and then stole his father’s horse, Jacob did what any good deputy would do.
Jacob ran outside, snatched his stallion’s reins free, swung into the saddle.
"HAAAA!" Jacob yelled.
His stallion didn’t have to be told twice.

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Linn Keller 2-12-12

 

“DOLLL-EEEE!”
Sarah groaned, bent over Cannonball’s neck.
It had taken the last of her strength to scream the woman’s name.
She pressed her hands against Cannonball’s neck.
“Faster, girl,” she begged, “faster.”
Cannonball slowed from her sustained gallop, slowed into a butter-smooth trot as Sarah collapsed slowly, draping herself over Cannonball's coarse, dark mane.

“You hear somethin’?”
The shotgun driver stood, looked behind them.
He dropped back down in the seat, surprise on his face.
“Well?”
“I don’t believe it.”
He stood and looked again, dropped back down.
“Well?”
He looked at the driver.
“I think we oughta stop.”
“Holdup?” The driver looked to his team, looked to the road ahead, assessing a flat-out run.
“Ah, no.”
“What?”
He stood, turned and looked again, sat back down.
“I don’t know, but she’s pretty an’ there ain’t no way she could hide a match stick in that outfit she’s wearin’!”
"You sure? That don't sound right!"
The shotgun guard stood, took another look.
"Maybe you better not stop," he agreed, "she don't look right."
“I knowed it!” The driver snapped the reins. “YAAHHH!”


Bonnie McKenna was noted for her even temper and for her tolerant disposition.
Bonnie was a woman known for her kindly, understanding and long-suffering nature; in her time, she had been terribly put-upon and more than mightily provoked.
Bonnie had suffered more than any ten people should have to endure in their lifetimes, and so was known by all to be a quiet and sweet natured soul who was not known to raise her voice in public.
At the moment, though, she had Jackson Cooper by the lapels and was shaking him back and forth in an absolute fury, screaming at the top of her lungs: “YOU HURT MY LITTLE GIRL, YOU CHAIN HER LIKE AN ANIMAL AND LOCK HER UP LIKE A CRIMINAL AND SHE DIDN’T DO ANYTHING? WHAT EVER WERE YOU THINKING, OR WERE YOU THINKING AT ALL?”
She may as well have tried shaking a granite mountain.
She shoved Jackson Cooper from her and stalked over to the Sheriff.
Putting a gloved finger under his nose, she said, “And YOU” – her eyes were wide, white, her nostrils flared, she was white around the lips – “WHAT DID YOU DO TO STOP HIM?”
Bonnie did not wait for an answer: she whirled, arms stiff at her sides, hands fisted, her spine stiff, her hard little heels punishing the smooth puncheon floor: she seized the door, hauled it open.
She stopped, turned.
Her glare was enough to melt tempered steel.
“I don’t know where my little girl went,” she hissed, her voice quiet and full of menace, “but I am going to find her, and I am going to bring her home, and if any of you” – she swept the men with fiery eyes, glaring at each in turn – “if ANY of you don’t like it, COME AND GET ME, WE’LL BE READY!”
The door slammed shut behind her.
Silence was long, ringing and profound for several long moments; the three lawmen heard a carriage head up the street.

Jacob knew it would be second cousin to impossible to catch Cannonball, with his father in the saddle.
He could reasonably hope the red mare would balk with a stranger in the saddle, a stranger that demanded too much of her.
A prisoner in flight would have no consideration for the animal and would not hesitate to run her to death.
“Come on, boy,” Jacob shouted. “LET'S GET HER!”
The Appaloosa stallion leaned into his gallop, grunting as he ran, at least until they came over the rise and Cannonball standing crosswise of the road, a still figure in light blue silk draped over her neck, unmoving.

Bonnie held the mare to a trot.
Jelly was in harness today; Jelly was faster than Butter, Jelly’s endurance was greater, but it had been long and long again since she had asked either Butter or Jelly for a long distance run.
Bonnie’s face was taut and it took all of her self-control to keep from whipping Jelly into a flat-out gallop.
She can trot forever like this, Bonnie thought. The carriage is light weight and she’s had good feed.
God Almighty, keep Sarah safe, and I’ll see that Jackson Cooper in hell!

“Sit down,” the Sheriff said, his voice cold.
“Now let’s start at the beginning.”
He held up the original telegram, the one that started the whole situation.
“Let’s go over what this tells us.”
“We know what it says,” Jackson Cooper blurted. “It says the Cripple Creek town marshal wanted Dolly LaBoeuf for murder.”
“Jackson Cooper,” the Sheriff said, “did you have reason to believe the individual you apprehended was indeed one Dolly LaBoeuf, yes or no?”
“Yes.”
“Jackson Cooper, on what did you base this belief?”
“I knowed there was a new dancing girl at the Jewel. I’d heard her name was Dolly.”
“Dancing girl.”
“Yes.”
“You never saw her before.”
“No.”
"So you were looking for someone who was a stranger to you, someone who looked like a dancing girl."
"Yes."
“What happened when you went in to apprehend this new dancing girl?”
“I tried to get in the dressing room where she’d gone.”
“What happened?”
“The door was locked.”
“And then?”
“I got the key from Mr. Baxter and unlocked it.”
“Did you open the door?”
“No.”
“Why not?”
Jackson Cooper's normally ruddy face reddened to a remarkable degree.
"She hollered she was nekked an' let her git dressed."
"Did she let you in?"
"No."
The Sheriff waited, his eyes quiet, but never leaving the big Marshal's nervous face.
"I beat on the door ag'in an' I forced it open.”
"I thought you unlocked it."
"She had somethin' ag'in it to block."
“What was inside?”
Jackson Cooper frowned.
“Just an empty room.”
“Nobody inside?”
“Nope.”
What happened then?”
“Someone came runnin’ down the hall, a girl by the sound of her. I looked and there was a dancin’ girl, she was fightin’ her way through the crowd at the bar and she was knocking good men flat on their butts, let me tell you!
“What did she look like?”
“She looked like a dancing girl.”
“What did you do?”
“I caught up with her.”
“And?”
Jackson Cooper’s expression was that of a man who had just run a knife into his best friend’s gut.
“I arrested her.”
“How?”
“I took her around the belly and drove her face first into the wall.”
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow.
Silence grew long in the log office.
“Did it work?” he asked at length.
“It worked.” Jackson Cooper swallowed hard. “I did not mean to hit into her near that hard. I was tryin’ so hard to catch up with her …”
“Jackson Cooper,” the Sheriff said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, “did you in good conscience, genuinely believe you were apprehending a wanted murderess?”
Jackson Cooper nodded.
“You acted according to the best information you had at that moment.”
He nodded again.
The Sheriff straightened, sighed.
“Jackson Cooper, I don’t have a crystal ball and neither do you. There is no way you could have known that was not Dolly LaBoeuf. You saw how she fought through that crowd of men and you knew she would very likely fight you just as hard.”
“It wasn’t Dolly LaBoeuf.” Jackson Cooper’s voice was dry, heavy with self-incrimination.
“You didn’t know that.”
The Sheriff looked over at the boy, still standing, big-eyed and silent, beside his desk.
“Son,” he said, handing him a coin, “go over to the Silver Jewel. Second floor, room five. Ask the Judge to come on over here.”
"Sheriff?" Mack asked, taking a hesitant step toward the cold-eyed lawman with the iron-grey mustache.
The Sheriff looked at the young deputy.
Maxwell felt himself shaking a little and his gut was wound up like an eight day clock.
How can he stay this calm? he wondered.
"Yes, son?" the Sheriff replied civilly.
"The girl" -- Mack gestured toward the door -- "she's escap -- I mean -- shouldn't we go after her?"
The Sheriff nodded slowly, pressed his lips together, tapped meditative fingertips together.
"Son, that girl is my niece," he said slowly. "She took my horse." He stared at the opposite wall and rested his fingertips on the smooth top of his desk.
"There is only one horse in all of God's creation that stands a snowball's chance of catching that red mare, and my son is riding him. He should be here any moment." The Sheriff stood, looked at Jackson Cooper and the young deputy. "Jacob is not the tracker Charlie Macneil is, but he's no slouch.
"Sarah is hurt and she's not dressed for the cold. She's going to make mistakes and Jacob will pick up on those."
He took a long breath, looked at the gleaming scarlet gob on the floor where Sarah spat blood right before making her sprint to freedom.
"My Cannonball is a single minded mare." He looked at Mack, and Mack was reminded most powerfully of the sleepy blink of a mountain cat just before it launched, all claws and fangs, to seize its prey.
"That Cannonball horse will stick to the road. She'll run in a straight line given the choice, and Jacob knows that.
"No." He snatched up the shackles from the floor, looked at them with distaste, opened his desk drawer and dropped them in, dropped the key in with them, and slid the drawer closed, slowly, carefully.
"As much as I'd like to go hell-a-tearin' after her, Jacob is the man for the job and he'll be here directly."

Cannonball turned, started walking toward Jacob.
Jacob could see both the escapee’s hands; he could see the cuff locked about her wrist, the other cuff open, dangling.
He saw the bloody veil, the legs loose, dangling, like the arms.
Jacob dismounted, dropping his reins; the Appaloosa stood as if tethered to stone.
“Here, girl, here,” he said softly, and Cannonball bobbed her head, took another couple of steps toward him.
He bribed her with some molasses twist tobacco, rubbed her nose, whispered to her, then he took her reins in hand.
Jacob reached up and lifted the bloody veil.

Bonnie saw the two horses in the distance.
She raised her head, stretched her neck, trying to see better: it took a few more minutes before she saw Jacob on one knee, next to an unmoving figure in powder-blue silk, lying supine on Jacob’s spread-open coat.
Jacob was slowly, carefully, very gently, bathing the still figure’s face with a wild rag wet down from his canteen.


When Bonnie drew Jelly to a halt, Jacob looked up at her, his eyes cold and pale, his face engraved with a young man’s fury.
Bonnie could not see Sarah’s face in the Sheriff’s office, thanks to the concealing veil, movement, being stiff-armed aside by her escaping daughter, but she could see it now.
Jacob’s hand trembled as he paused in wiping Sarah’s face.
“Who did this?” he hissed. “Who did this?”

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Linn Keller 2-12-12

 

"Son," the Sheriff addressed the lad fidgeting from one foot to the other beside his desk, "take this and head over to the Jewel. Second floor, room five, and inform His Honor the Judge that his presence is requested five minutes ago."
The boy pocketed the coin and sprinted for the door.
"Thanks, Shurf!" he threw happily over his shoulder as he headed out the doorway.

"I think we're ready."
Bonnie's expression was fluid: one moment, deep and abiding anger turned her face into a mask of hatred: in the next heartbeat, she looked tender and anxious, as any mother would, regarding her hurt child.
They two had wrapped Sarah in Jacob's coat, then her own cloak; Jacob carefully tugged the hood up over her head, drawing it well down to protect her face, knowing full well how much body heat is lost from the head and neck.
He sat beside Sarah in the back seat, his arms around her, his legs spread wide to brace against any sway or jostle.
He looked at Bonnie and nodded.
"Jelly," Bonnie called, flipping the reins.
Jelly stepped out easily, settling into her steady, dependable trot.
The other horses, nose to tail, followed in a tethered line.

His Honor listened carefully to the case laid out before him.
He considered the physical evidence, the two telegrams, laid out on the desk for his inspection.
He drew thoughtfully on his Cuban as he listened to the Sheriff’s measured syllables, the Marshal’s lead-voiced self-recriminations, the excited syllables of the Cripple Creek deputy.
Finally he nodded, blew a stream of smoke toward the ceiling, where it spread, stratified, settled in layers against the rafters overhead.
“Gentlemen,” he said, flicking his ash in a convenient cuspidor, “I can see several things here.
“First,” he raised a finger, “we act in good faith when we are received of a lawful summons. A warrant is the most preferred but the courts recognize the veracity and legitimacy of a telegram from a neighboring agency, especially in an expeditious matter, such as an escaping murderer.
“The courts also recognize that people have certain tendencies.
“A murderer will often panic and flee, panic and fight, panic and cause mayhem and act in irrational ways.” He puffed on the Cuban, frowned. “And once someone has killed and found how easily it can be done, the next killing comes more easily, and the next, and so on.”
He looked at Jackson Cooper.
“Marshal, it would seem that your actions were made in good faith.”
Jackson Cooper closed his eyes and nodded.
“At the same time, an innocent party has been injured, and may have redress.”
Jackson Cooper nodded again.
“The only problematic area I can see is the moment of apprehension.”
His Honor considered the glowing tip of his cigar.
“It is a sad fact of jurisprudence that the courts can debate for years an action that was a tenth of a second in evolution.”
The Sheriff listened quietly, forearms leaned against the edge of his desk.
“Jackson Cooper, you were pursuing a fleeing felon, a murderer who had just fought her way through a crowd of grown men and by your own observation, made a good account of herself.”
“Yes, sir.”
“You had reason to believe this fleet footed fighter would fight you just as strenuously.”
“Yes, sir.”
“You intended to bring this felon to justice quickly and decisively.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt her!” Jackson Cooper blurted.
His Honor raised his palm.
“Here we have the benefit of hind sight,” he said quietly. “Jackson Cooper, it may not seem like it, but you did the right thing.”
“Had you apprehended this” – he frowned, picked up the telegram – “had you apprehended this Miss LaBoeuf, you might regret having caused her injury, but a murderer must realize any injury they incur is a result of their own wrongdoing.”
Jackson Cooper looked at the dignified old man from under shaggy eyebrows.
“If blame must be assigned, perhaps we must assign the blame to the originator of this rather premature missive.”
Jackson Cooper considered this, nodding slowly.
“Your Honor, if I may?” the Sheriff offered, and Judge Hostetler nodded his go-ahead.
“Your Honor, Sarah was injured through a misunderstanding and through what we seem to agree was an honest mistake. A serious mistake, but honest. There was no malicious intent and certainly no intent to cause the injuries that occurred.”
His Honor considered this, then nodded.
“Your Honor, I move that we call upon the McKenna household.”
Jackson Cooper’s expression was haunted.
“I believe that we should attend, as a group, that we lay out our findings and that we offer both our official and our personal apologies for this unhappy event.”
Jackson Cooper swallowed hard, nodding, then rested his forehead on the palm of his hand and groaned.
The Sheriff’s head came up and he thrust powerfully from his chair: he was across the floor in four long strides, seized the door latch, muscled it open, hard.
Bonnie McKenna was driving down the street, her Jelly-horse at a brisk trot: Jacob was in the rear seat, arms protectively around an upright figure, its hooded head laid over against his shoulder.
Bonnie was obviously headed for their hospital.
Neither the Sheriff nor Jackson Cooper ever forgot that moment, for Jacob’s eyes were pale, pale and hard, and his face held neither kindness nor understanding for the men he saw in the Sheriff’s doorway.

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Linn Keller 2-13-12

 

The Sheriff escorted the female prisoner from the jail to the waiting carriage.
The woman was veiled; her gloved hands manacled in front of her, and when the Sheriff picked her up and set her in the carriage, a set of shackles were momentarily visible, gleaming brightly from under her modest hemline.
The Sheriff knew eyes were on him: as a matter of fact, he was counting on this:
he drove slowly to the depot, where he brought the prisoner out the same way he loaded her: he kept a firm grip on the prisoner’s arm, walked her into the passenger car: he used another set of irons to manacle the prisoner’s ankle to a convenient stanchion and rode beside her all the way to Cripple Creek.
He paid no attention to stares or whispers; the reactions of the prisoner were concealed by the heavy veil dependent from her slightly out-of-fashion hat: perhaps those who watched, considered it a mark in the Sheriff’s favor, that he took this step to lessen her humiliation, for no woman would wish to be paraded, in irons, a prisoner, in public.
They disembarked in Cripple Creek; a carriage was waiting, and miners, shopkeepers and residents alike gaped openly at the sight of the Sheriff escorting a female prisoner to their town jail.
Nobody paid a bit of attention to the wagon that pulled up in front of the jail, handed off a sizable carpet bag to the Marshal; they only saw the pale-eyed Sheriff bring the prisoner out of the wagon, then, keeping a severe grip on her arm, march her into the jail, and the heavy door swung to behind them.
Once inside, the Sheriff lifted the veil.
Mary was one of Sarah’s students, recruited on the spur of the moment: Mary was about the right size, a little skinnier but the gown concealed her exact dimensions: she giggled, blushing as the Sheriff grinned: he took her face in his hands, kissed her forehead, then gave her a fatherly hug.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “You just helped save a good woman’s reputation, dear heart.” He stroked her pink cheek with the back of a gentle finger and continued, “I won’t tell you whose life you probably just saved by our little deception, and you may never know the good you’ve just done” – here he hesitated, his face and his voice becoming serious – “but you have done much good this day, and you mustn’t ever tell anyone about helping us out as you just did!”
“It was exciting,” she whispered. “I’ve never been a prisoner before!”
“I hope you never are again!” the Sheriff chuckled, the seriousness dropping from his face and a broad grin replacing it. “We'll tell Miz Cooper that you were needed to identify someone who'd been hurt. Now let’s get you into your own clothes!”
Cripple Creek’s town marshal waited silently as the Sheriff withdrew trousers, hat, coat and necktie from the carpet bag: stacking his own change of clothes on the corner of the Marshal’s desk, he turned to his fellow lawman.
“Where can she change?”
“Back here. We have a vacant cell.”
“A cell?”
“Stone walls. Nobody can see in.”
“Good.”
The Sheriff turned to young Mary, put his finger to his lips and drew the concealing veil back down over the girl’s features.
Resuming his grip on her arm, he escorted the girl back between the cells; some were occupied, some were not, but all stared at the sight of a pretty young girl, in irons, being walked into the jail by a long tall lawman.
He escorted her into the last cell on the right, the one with solid stone walls and a solid door: he set the carpet bag on the cot, then said “Up on the cot, on your knees,” and the schoolgirl in the matronly gown drew up her skirt and knelt on the narrow steel cot.
The Sheriff unlocked her shackles, then her handcuffs; he stepped out, drew the door shut behind him and locked it: she would be safe within, and he would let her out once she was changed.
He shrugged out of the coat he was wearing, and the vest; he drew on another vest hidden in the other coat, then the other coat, a change of trousers: folding what he’d worn, he stacked them on the corner of the Marshal’s desk, slung the gunbelt about his lean hips, settled the fresh hat on his head.
“Sheriff,” the Marshal said, “I feel like a damned fool.”
The Marshal did not even look at the man.
“You wouldn’t have a set of angel wings sproutin’ out of your coat, now, would you?” he asked neutrally.
“Angel wings …? … why, no …”
“We make mistakes,” the Sheriff said, knotting his neck tie neatly: “none are perfect, all have fallen. The best we can do is learn from those mistakes.”
He looked directly at the town Marshal.
“Learn from this. My niece was hurt pretty bad because of your carelessness.”
The Marshal was quiet for a long moment.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said.
“Don’t apologize to me,” the Sheriff said. “You didn’t break my ribs and I ain’t the one coughin’ up blood. I’ll let you know when the time’s right and you will come and apologize to my niece in person.”
There was a knock from down the cellblock. “Sheriff?” a somewhat muffled girl’s voice called.
The Sheriff picked up the keyring and went back to let his young decoy out of her cage and offered his arm: the young lady on his left, carpet bag in his right, they went back up the silent cellway.

The Sheriff courteously drew out a chair for the girl; she sat, looking around, big-eyed, tying a sky-blue ribbon in her hair and looking for all the world what she was: a schoolgirl, tall and slender, in a sky-blue dress.
The Sheriff removed the “prisoner’s” neatly folded clothes and stacked them on the desk: he turned the carpet bag inside out, turning it from patterned red-and-white to an uninteresting tan.
The Marshal watched as the Sheriff repacked the carpet bag.


Back in Firelands, Jacob sipped slowly on his beer, listening to the common talk there at the bar.
“Yeah, that dancin’ girl the Marshal caught,” he heard, “she’s wanted for murder!”
“Murder ye say! Where at?”
“Cripple it was, she beat some fella’s head in with a blacksmith’s maul!”
“Why do tell! They got her locked up here?”
“Nah, the Sheriff took her on the train this mornin’. I saw ‘em leave.”
Jacob took another slow sip of his beer, his eyes veiled, his expression unreadable.
Decoying the fake prisoner had been Jacob’s idea.
He wanted to ensure that no one could even begin to speculate that Sarah was the one Jackson Cooper caught, and this seemed to be the most effective way to do this.
As far as Sarah’s injuries, falls from a horse were common, and Sarah was a known horsewoman, and was known to risk herself with marginal or even dangerous mounts, just because she could.
Jacob considered the several faces he saw in the Jewel’s big mirror, and took another slow sip of beer.

The Sheriff returned Mary to the schoolhouse, where she rejoined her schoolmates: the Sheriff, hat in hand, spoke with Emma Cooper in the front of the room, carefully pitching his voice so only she could hear, which of course guaranteed the schoolroom was absolutely, utterly quiet, with every student listening.
They went away that day convinced that Mary had been needed to identify an individual, someone found injured and unable to speak, and that it wasn’t who they thought it was, and family brought into the injured party’s bedside were relieved to find Mary was able to confirm this wasn’t who they thought it was.
The Sheriff took a moment to nod his thanks to the blushing schoolgirl before leaving for his own office.
He closed the heavy door behind him, leaned against it, running his hand through his thinning hair, and took a long breath.
“Now for the hard part,” he said out loud.
He sat down and took paper and pen, ink-bottle and sealing wax from the drawer, and stared at the paper for several minutes before beginning.

Bonnie –
It is with profound sorrow I write this note.
I make no attempt to absolve myself from the unpleasantness of which you are too aware, nor will I attempt to dissuade you from the anger you feel, and which you well expressed.
You have every right to be outraged.
I would ask if we might call upon you and Sarah, at your earliest convenience, that we may individually and severally tender our apologies for all that has occurred: His Honor the Judge and I believe we know now how this all happened, and would present our findings for your inspection.
Most respectfully yours,
Linn


The Sheriff debated whether to add, “I was going to begin by saying that I wrote this with hat in hand, but you would know this to be a lie, as a hat makes a poor pen.”
He considered the addendum, then decided against it.

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Linn Keller 2-13-12

 

It took Sarah just short of four minutes to descend the stairs.
None of the men could take their horrified gaze from the young woman’s pained progress.
Sarah carried her right arm across her stomach, grasping a handful of material on her left side; she clutched the T-handle of a sassafras cane in her left: she took the stairs one difficult step at a time, the shrunken-metal tip of the cane loud on the hardwood stair treads.
Sarah found herself obliged to stop twice, closing her eyes and leaning against the wall for several moments before gathering herself and finishing her descent.
The men allowed her the dignity of crossing the room in front of them unassisted.
Bonnie stood, hands folded, chin elevated slightly: she did not look at her daughter: instead she regarded the men levelly, waiting for Sarah to assume her place to Bonnie’s right.
Bonnie had prepared for their little meeting.
There were chairs for herself and Sarah; facing them, a row of chairs: the men remained standing, hats in their hands, until the ladies were seated before they, too, sat.
The Sheriff was seated on the far right, with something rectangular wrapped in tablecloth linen on his lap: he was first to rise, first to speak.
“Sarah,” he said, “you have been wronged.
“You are not the murderess who was sought.
“A mistake was made and we are here to apologize for that mistake.”
He looked to his left.
“Judge, if you would present the facts as we have discovered them.”
The Sheriff sat as the Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler stood, a few papers in his right hand, his silk hat in his left.
“Sarah,” he said, “although I had no part in your unpleasant experience, I wish to offer my apologies that you were injured, that you were ever considered or treated as what you are not.”
He looked at one of the papers, then the other.
“This” – he held up a telegram flimsy – “is from the Marshal of Cripple Creek.”
A young man Sarah did not recognize shifted uncomfortably in his seat, then froze at the Sheriff’s pale-eyed glare.
“It instructs the recipient, our own Jackson Cooper” – Sarah’s eyes flicked to the big lawman, whose hands were clearly restless to twist his hat into a felt sausage – “to seize, arrest and take into custody one Dolly LaBoeuf, who had murdered a man.”
The Judge peered through his spectacles, regarding the second paper he held.
“This is the second telegram, which countermands the first: it seems Miss LaBoeuf was not a murderess after all, and according to the Cripple Creek Marshal’s Office, Miss LaBoeuf was indeed the victim of a crime, and not a criminal herself.”
“That’s right,” the Cripple Creek marshal said uncomfortably. “He attacked Miss LaBoeuf and she pushed him away. He fell and hit his head on a door knob. Between drink and the injury, he fell as if dead and I acted on the initial report.”
“Tell us, Marshal,” His Honor said, “in what way did you discover that he was indeed alive?”
The Marshal’s face reddened and he cleared his throat nervously.
“I went over to the funeral parlor to take a look at his dead carcass,” he admitted, “and when I walked in the front door he pushed me out of the way and he walked right out that same door.” He looked up at Bonnie but could not bring himself to look at Sarah.
“He said he needed a drink.”
Jacob, seated at the far end of the row of chairs, studied Sarah’s face.
There was a cut below her eye, at the corner of her cheek bone; her eye was not as swollen as it had been but it was badly discolored, above, beside and entirely around the eye: her nose was bloodied where it met the wall but for some miracle hadn’t broken, though it too showed the ugly colors of someone who’d led with their face in a fist fight. The entire right side of her face was still swollen, and Jacob knew the inside of her lips was cut, but he didn’t know how bad.
“Upon your discovery that he was alive, what was your action?”
“I sent my deputy over here.”
“Why not another telegram?”
The Marshal’s smile was thin. “I knew there would be questions and he could answer them better than sending telegrams back and forth.”
“Not to mention the expense,” the Judge suggested.
“That too.”
“I see.”
His Honor the Judge then turned to address the Firelands Marshal.
“Jackson Cooper,” he said, “when did your part in this begin?”
Jackson Cooper stood, twisting his hat in his hands.
“I got the telegram,” he said, “and I heard we had a new dancing girl at the Silver Jewel.”
“Go on.”
Jackson Cooper took a long breath, then looked directly at Bonnie and Sarah.
“I heard her name was Dolly so I went to arrest her.
“She’d gone back from the stage and I knew that meant she was in that little dressing room off the hallway.
“I beat on the door and called her name.
“She said she was nekked and wait until she got some clothes on.”
“And did you wait?”
Jackson Cooper’s expression was open, honest: “Of course!” he said, surprised.
“Please continue.”
“I waited a couple minutes then I beat again and tried the door.”
“What did you find?”
“It was locked.”
“And what followed?”
“I went down the hall to the bar and got the key off Mr. Baxter.”
“And …?”
“And I unlocked the door but it was blocked so I shoved it on in. I broke something it was blocked with so I shoved hard and got enough room to get inside.”
“And what did you find?”
“It was blocked with a settee and two broom handles.” He blinked. “I broke the handles.”
“Was Dolly there?”
“No, sir.”
“Was anyone there?”
“No, sir.”
“What followed?”
“I heard a woman’s voice – she screamed like she was being chased by the Devil himself and I heard her run down the hall – I figured that must be Dolly and I squeezed out through that door opening” – he swatted his twisted, tortured hat up under his arm, held flat hands about a foot and a half apart – “I saw that dancin’ girl run down the hall and into that crowd o’ men.
“They laughed and made to grab her and she grabbed one and threw him over her shoulder, she kicked another in the gut and yanked another by the beard hard enough he hit chin first on the floor.
“She laid about the Philistines with the jaw bone of a –“ he stopped, looked at Bonnie and his ears turned a remarkable shade of red.
“I know the phrase,” she said, her voice low, musical. “Please, do continue.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jackson Cooper’s face was florid and he took the hat in his hands again.
“I, um, I run through the hole she made and she was nearly to the door.
“I knew the way she was a-runnin’ if she made it outside I never would catch up with her so I made a lunge and caught her around the waist.”
“Around the waist.”
“Yes, sir. I lunged too far and started to fall and I tried to catch myself but that just run us both into the wall. We ended up on the floor and I recall my shoulder drove into her back.”
Jackson Cooper’s eyes were filled with grief.
“Miss Sarah, I am so very sorry. I had no intent to hurt you.”
“Marshal, excuse me, but in that moment, did you know this was Miss McKenna?”
“No, sir.”
“Who did you believe it to be?”
“Dolly LaBoeuf.”
“Had you any indication at all this was not Miss LaBoeuf?”
“No, sir.”
“How was she dressed?”
“She was wearin’ one of them saloon girl outfits.”
“And have you ever seen Miss McKenna wear such attire?”
“No, sir.”
“So you had every reason to believe you were apprehending a known murderess by the name of Dolly LaBoeuf?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Thank you, Marshal.”
There was a dull tearing sound as the Marshal’s over stressed hat tore.
He regarded the tortured felt sausage sadly as he sat down.
“Sheriff.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“What was your part in this?”
“I was at my desk, Your Honor. I had no part in it until Deputy Maxwell from Cripple Creek stated the prisoner was not Dolly LaBoeuf, and that she was coughing up blood.”
“What happened then?”
“We got her the hell out of that cell.”
“And when did you know the prisoner was not Miss LaBoeuf, but was indeed Miss McKenna?”
“It wasn’t until we got her into the office proper and I was ready to get her out of irons that she raised her head up and looked at me.”
Sarah twisted in her seat, clearly uncomfortable, but she was listening closely, watching the face of each speaker like a hawk watching a fat rodent.
She saw the Sheriff close his eyes and take a steadying breath.
“Sheriff, you are quite familiar with your niece’s face, are you not?”
“I am, Your Honor.”
“Why did it take you so long to identify her as such?”
“She wore a silk veil across her face, Your Honor. It was not until I saw her eyes that I knew her to be Sarah.”
“Her eyes.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“I believe you have something for Miss McKenna.”
The Sheriff’s hands tightened on the cloth wrapped object on his lap.
“When we are finished, Your Honor.”
“Very well. And when you removed her irons?”
The Sheriff’s expression was unreadable.
For a man who can’t play a hand of poker to save his butt, Sarah thought, he sure has a poker face when it comes to dealing with people!
“I removed the shackles from her ankles first,” he said, swallowing, his gaze unflinching: “then with Jackson Cooper steadying her by the shoulders, I removed the cuff from her right wrist.”
“How was she cuffed, Sheriff?”
“Behind her back, Your Honor.”
“What followed?”
The Sheriff’s expression softened.
“She surprised me, Your Honor. She had one last burst of strength left and she spent it on that moment.”
“Spent it how?”
“Bonnie was in the office by then. I remember Sarah spat blood and I remember the look on Bonnie’s face.
“When the right hand cuff opened, Sarah shot away from me on a dead run. She twisted to slip between Jackson Cooper and the deputy, she stiff-armed Bonnie and she was out the door, just that fast.”
“Just that fast.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“What followed?”
“Bonnie came up off the floor like a cork out of deep water, I got one step toward the door and I heard Cannonball take off at a gallop.”
“Cannonball?”
“My horse.”
“The red one.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“The one you outraced Hornsby with.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“The horse that won you fifty dollars and me five thousand.”
“The same, Your Honor.”
“Thank you, Sheriff, please be seated.” The Judge turned to his left.
“Jacob.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Jacob, when were you first made aware that all was not as it should be?”
“When I saw a dancing girl wearing a handcuff run past on my father’s mare.”
“And your action?”
“I dumped my armload on the counter and took after her.”
“The counter,” Judge Hostetler said. “Counter where?”
It was Jacob’s turn to wear a red face.
“The Mercantile, Your Honor.”
“Ah. You were inside the Mercantile …?”
“I was facing the open door, Your Honor.”
“But you had a clear view of the fleeing suspect.”
“Yes, sir.”
“You placed your purchases on the counter.”
“Not exactly, sir.”
“Not exactly?”
“No, sir.” Jacob cleared his throat. “I dropped them, sir. I broke the glass top and a replacement won’t be in for a week, sir.”
“I wondered what happened,” the Judge murmured. “Maude never did say.”
“I paid her for it once I got back, sir,” he said, “and the jar of stick candy in the case beneath.”
“I see.” The Judge considered this. “And after you finished demolishing the display case…?”
Jacob smiled ruefully, then sobered.
“Sir, I took out after the prisoner.”
“The prisoner?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And in your mind, what made this individual a prisoner?”
“She was on my father’s horse, sir.”
“Might that not be another copper mare?”
“No, sir. Not with that fancy Mexican saddle and bridle, and not with the hatchet-K brand on her hip.”
“You saw this.”
“The right side was to me, Your Honor. I saw the open jaw on the handcuff, the blood on her veil, I saw her legs were too short for the stirrups. I concluded this was an escaped prisoner, that she’d been injured in her escape, and I gave chase.”
“Hm.” His Honor nodded. “Quite an adventure, then. What followed?”
“I ran Apple for less than a mile, sir.”
“Apple?”
“My stallion, sir. Apple-horse, short for Appaloosa.”
“So you ran less than a mile.”
“Yes, sir.”
“And at that time you found …?”
“Cannonball was stopped. There was dust where the stage passed not long before. Sarah -- the dancing girl, the prisoner or so I thought – was laying over Cannonball’s neck. I got there and she was coughing a little and dribbling blood out her mouth.”
“What did you then?”
“I baited Cannonball so she wouldn’t pull away like she does and I lifted the girl’s veil.”
“What followed?”
Jacob’s eyes closed and he swallowed hard.
“Your Honor, I never tried it before but I saw Angela do it so I tickled Cannonball behind her foreleg and said ‘Down, horsie,’ and Cannonball knelt just nice as you please. I laid my coat out and laid her on it and Cannonball stood up.”
Jacob took a long, steadying breath, and his right hand tightened into a fist.
Even across the room, Bonnie heard Jacob’s knuckles crack.
“Your Honor, I have tasted anger and I have tasted rage but I never in my young life ever wanted to kill someone as bad as I did on that moment.”
“Why?”
“Sarah’s face.” Jacob’s voice was flat now, expressionless. “She’d been beat by the look of her and she was coughing blood so I knew she was busted up inside. I didn’t have any idea why she was dressed like that and I didn’t care much.
“I stood up to look around for where I could cut poles to make a travois so I could get her home and Bonnie came a-trottin’ up and by God, sir! she looked like Jesus Christ on the first day of creation!”
Jacob’s fist was doubled and shaking and his voice quivered with passion, for he was a young man and full of fire, and someone had hurt his cousin, she who he loved like a sister.
“And then?”
“Then, sir, we got her wrapped in my coat and her cloak. I picked her up and we set her in the back seat of Bonnie’s carriage. I tied the horses nose-to-tail and we made a fine parade back into town.”
His Honor nodded.
“There remains one question.”
Bonnie and Sarah regarded him curiously.
“Sheriff, did you bring the key?”
The Sheriff stood, reached into vest pocket with thumb and forefinger.
“Sarah, would you like that other cuff taken off now?”
Sarah released the handful of dress material she’d been clutching.
The handcuff fell free, swinging a little.
“I’d like to keep it,” she said, “and the shackles as well.”
The Sheriff stopped, surprised.
“I believe those are the irons in which I was taken, are they not?” Bonnie asked pleasantly.
The Sheriff nodded, one eyebrow raising a little.
“The same irons in which I was kept and made ready for torture and murder.”
The Sheriff nodded again.
“We wish to have the shackles, Sheriff, and we will be keeping these handcuffs.”
The Sheriff nodded: he went to one knee before his niece, inserted the key and turned it, opening its polished steel jaw and releasing Sarah’s wrist.
Relief flooded through Sarah like spring runoff onto a flat field.
The Sheriff left the key in the lock, handed the cuffs to Bonnie.
“I’ll bring the irons out tomorrow,” he said, “or you can stop in and get them.”
“I’ll be coming into town tomorrow, Sheriff,” Bonnie said. “I will pick them up at that time.” She tilted her head a little. “Does the same key fit them both?”
The Sheriff’s expression was one of puzzlement.
“Yes.”
“Have you any other keys for these?”
“No.”
“Good.”
Bonnie stood, still holding the cuffs.
Every man there stood as well.
“Gentlemen, we thank you for your honesty, and for letting us know what happened.” She looked each man in the eye, in turn, nodding slowly.
“It’s not easy to say ‘I was wrong’ but sometimes it’s necessary, and it is the mark of a man that he does what’s right even when it’s distasteful.”
Sarah groaned and pushed with her cane, struggling to a standing position.
“Stand fast, gentlemen,” she whispered, then coughed: she put a kerchief to her lips, coughed again, examined the brown stain gleaming on embroidered linen.
“Old blood,” she whispered hoarsely. “Doctor Greenlees said I’ll be coughing it up for some time.”
Bonnie’s expression was less charitable. “Doctor Greenlees said if we lived in the lowlands, Sarah would be dead of lung fever by now.”
Sarah leaned on her cane, laboring for breath, then slowly, painfully, holding her right arm across her belly again and once more clutching a handful of material, she struggled across the floor: the men stood unmoving, watched as Sarah made it to the right-hand wall, leaned against it with eyes closed, obviously in pain, trying to marshal her strength.
Sarah fumbled with a latch, opened a neatly-concealed closet door: she leaned against the wall, lips taut, her teeth clenched; she used the cane to reach up to the shelf, hooked a hat, brought it down on the cane’s tip.
Sarah looked over at the men.
“Jackson Cooper,” she husked, her voice barely audible.
“Help me,” she pleaded, and Jackson Cooper strode over to her.
Sarah gasped as she leaned into the big man.
He felt her trembling with the effort of simply standing upright; he felt her struggle to breathe.
Sarah lifted the cane and the hat.
“This belonged to my Papa,” she said. “I hope it fits you.”
“I can’t –“ he stammered.
“Please,” Sarah said, her eyes bright, sparkling with the tears she fought to hide: “For me.”
Sarah leaned her head against Jackson Cooper’s chest, gasping, and the big Marshal dropped the torn, twisted felt that used to be a hat, and clapped Caleb’s fine beaver skypiece on his head.
He spread his big hands over Sarah’s back and held her as she tried hard not to cry, and failed utterly in that attempt.
The Judge and the Sheriff looked uncomfortably at one another.
Bonnie spoke first.
Bonnie glided up to the Judge and took both his hands in hers: he dropped his silk topper on his chair to grant her the bimanual gesture.
“Your Honor,” she said, “you are a credit to the bench, for you have the wisdom of Solomon and the discernment of a prophet.”
His Honor bowed formally.
Bonnie went to the slender lawman with the iron grey mustache, took his hands.
“Sheriff,” she said, “you are a peacemaker and a man of honor. Thank you.”
Bonnie stepped next to the Cripple Creek marshal.
“We’ve not been introduced,” she said pleasantly, and backhanded the man across the cheek, then continued in the same pleasant tone of voice.
“My name is Bonnie McKenna, and you are the reason my little girl is hurt.” Her voice hardened of a sudden, and raised, and fairly rang in the room.
“Sarah is my daughter and I am her mother, and if anyone hurts her ever again I will bear all that I am and all that I have to their utter DESTRUCTION!”
Bonnie’s eyes blazed as she backed up a step.
“There has been a recent misunderstanding I want cleared up, right here and right now.” She folded her hands in front of her, giving the instant impression of a cougar about to pounce.
“Sarah is my daughter and I love her as I love myself. A recent inquiry as to her eligibility caused the misunderstanding that I want her out of the house.”
Jackson Cooper felt Sarah freeze and the man knew she was holding her breath, listening.
“This is simply not true.
“I want Sarah well and happily married, but I want that to happen in its own natural time, and without any pushing from me or anyone else!”
Jackson Cooper felt Sarah give a little whimper, and she leaned a little more into his comforting bulk.
“Jacob.” Bonnie turned her glare on Jacob, took a rapid step toward him, seized his hands in hers. “You are a fine young man, and were you not already married to a wonderful woman, I would be most pleased to see you married to Sarah. You are as noble and honorable and as painfully honest as your father.”
Bonnie turned and looked at Jackson Cooper, who was still holding Sarah against him.
“Jackson Cooper, you are a good man,” she said softly, and he saw the hardness fade around her eyes. “You did not intend to cause harm, and I cannot fault you.” Bonnie glided across the room and put an arm around Sarah, turned her face up to the tall, broad-shouldered town marshal.
“It is I who owe you an apology.” She looked the man square in the eye as she spoke. “I said hateful things in the Sheriff’s office and I honestly don’t remember but I think I hit you. For that I am truly sorry. You did not deserve that.”
Jackson Cooper opened his mouth, closed it: his ruddy face was absolutely aflame; he gave the only reply he could, and that was to nod.
His Honor the Judge turned and picked up his fine beaver topper, cleared his throat.
“Gentlemen, I believe our work here is done.”
“Almost,” the Sheriff said.
“Sarah, this is yours.”
Sarah turned to look at the Sheriff.
“Jackson Cooper, if you would do us the honor of escorting Sarah here, please.”
Sarah leaned heavily on the big Marshal’s arm: he carried her cane, for her right arm was still across her belly, and she still clutched a handful of her dress.
The two made their slow, painful way across the floor to the Sheriff, who stood, holding the wrapped object.
“Sarah,” he said, “you told me you did not know your true age, you did not know who you were.”
He began to unwrap the folded linen from the object.
“I only just found this,” he said, exposing the Bible.
“This belonged to your mother.
“I believe you will find the answers to your questions in the first few pages.”
Sarah stared at the gold leaf lettering on its cover.
“Mama?” she squeaked, then coughed again, catching the kerchief to her lips barely in time: “My Mama?”
The Sheriff opened the cover, turned the page, turned another.
“It’s all here,” he said. “Your family, your birth … you were a Christmas baby, Sarah, born on the 25th.” He smiled. “We didn’t get your birthday right, but now we know.”
Sarah turned and lowered herself into the chair recently vacated by the Judge.
The Sheriff put the book in her lap.
Sarah bit her knuckle, shaking a little: a crystal drop of water shimmered for a moment before streaking wetly down her cheek.
“There is also a sealed envelope,” the Sheriff continued, turning it over to expose the wax seal: “I do not know its contents, nor its age. It is still sealed after all this time.”
Sarah stared at the handwriting, read the words.
She only distantly heard the leave-taking, the sound of retreating footsteps; she read, she stared, she read again.
Bonnie sat down beside her, put her arm around her daughter.
Sarah looked at her Mama, tear-wet cheeks shining in the lamplight.
“I am thirteen, Mama,” she whispered hoarsely. “We were right. I am thirteen!”
Bonnie leaned her head gently against Sarah’s.
“We shall have to celebrate,” she whispered.
Sarah turned the envelope over, turned it so they could read the inscription.
To my daughter Sarah, one week old today.
Sarah automatically compared the hand writing on the envelope with the inscription in the family Bible.
She bent the envelope a little to break the brittle wax seal, lifted the flap, withdrew the folded half-sheets.
She read them.
She read them again.
Bonnie saw the change in her daughter’s expression.
“What is it, sweets?” she asked quietly.
Sarah looked up at Bonnie, her eyes big, and then she started to giggle, and then cough.
“Oh, Mama,” she gasped, recovering a little, “I can’t marry Jacob!”
“Of course not, dear,” Bonnie said soothingly, “he’s already married!”
Sarah shook her head, pressed her abused kerchief to her lips, coughed again.
“No, Mama,” she wheezed, coughing again: she looked up at Bonnie and gave a little, choking laugh.
“I can’t marry my brother!”

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Linn Keller 2-15-12

 

I re-read my journal entry.

I long wondered about Sarah’s eyes.
Pale, cold, changeable as my own.
I did not know for certain until I found her Mama’s Bible in the trunk full of material I seized from the Jewel when I took it away from Sam.
Jacob, and now Sarah … children of my get … both so long in my life and without my knowing they were blood of my blood.
The past is dead.
I cannot change it.
I talked to God about it, I confessed my shame at not being a father to those children I began without knowing, but the war taught me to move on, like Khayaam's finger that writes, and then moves on.
I will not mention it to Sarah.
She is raised and mothered well and completely and I would not tear her from her home, from her Mama, for Bonnie is as much a Mama to her as if she’d birthed her.
My mind wandered back to Kansas, to a bleak time in my life when I drifted west, and to a solitary house where I stopped as a storm approached.
I remembered the woman hiding in the storm cellar, screaming for me to get in, the "Tornady" was going to rip the very earth from its roots, and how my Sam-horse and I took our night's residence in the barn instead.
I fixed her door hinges and I fixed her roof and the little roof over her well, I nearly fell off her damned roof! -- I grinned humorlessly, remembering with a surprising clarity the terrible feeling of slipping on shake shingles and knowing it was far enough to the ground I'd likely break a leg or worse -- and I remembered how she came to the barn that night, and did not leave until daylight started thinning the clouds on the flat eastern horizon.
I reckon that was the night I planted Sarah's seed in fertile ground.
I looked up, leaned back in my chair, seeing again this night's festivities.
Several things happened tonight, perhaps the most significant was Bonnie’s declaration that she was Sarah’s Mama, that Sarah was her little girl, that she would bend all she was and all she had to the destruction of anyone who hurt her daughter – and that contrary to popular rumor, she was not trying to run Sarah out of the house!
I had no idea she was going to say anything of the sort.
Hell, I didn't know she knew about Sarah thinking that-a-way!
I remember Sarah clinging to me and crying not two days before, when I drove her back out to her house, crying that she didn’t know who she was or when she was really born, and I recall feeling like I should be her Papa, and it was right that I held her as she cried.
Looks like I was more correct than I realized.

There was a whisper of bare feet and I looked up to see little Angela, my dear little Angela standing in the doorway of my study, rubbing her eyes, her ever present rag doll locked in the bend of her elbow.
I laid my pen down, unused, slipped the tapered glass stopper into the thick neck of the heavy, cut-glass inkwell: I turned my chair, spread my arms, and Angela padded silently over to me, her bottom lip thrust out, still rubbing her eyes.
I picked her up onto my lap and she cuddled into me, nodding a little as if to rub her cheek into my shirt front.
I leaned back in the chair again, my arms around her, and she relaxed and I heard her breath sigh out and then she lifted her head and whispered “Daddy?”
“Hm?” My hand slid up her flannel clad back and cupped around her shoulder, holding her close, holding her securely.
“Mommy’s gonna have a bay-bee,” Angela whispered, her eyes big and sincere.
“I see.” I felt the smile widen my face.
“She needs me to be a big sister,” Angela said, nodding for emphasis.
“You will be a fine big sister,” I whispered.
Angela’s expression was doubtful.
“Does this mean I can’t be your little girl anymore?” she asked sadly, running her bottom lip out, and I laughed and hugged her.
“Darlin’, you will always, always be Daddy’s little girl,” I said. “If I had a whole passel of kids, you would still be Daddy’s little girl!”
“Good!” she said with an emphatic nod. “I like being Daddy’s girl!”
I laughed again.
“Her name is Dana.”
I froze.
Angela looked up at me, her eyes bright and innocent.
“That’s a nice name, Daddy.”
I swallowed hard, nodded, kissed the top of Angela’s head.
“Yes it is,” I whispered, for I did not trust my voice in that moment.
I took a long breath, smelled the little-girl smell of Angela’s hair, felt her solid and real and warm in my lap, and I set there for a long time, holding my little girl, until she was asleep and I nearly so.
I carried her upstairs and tucked her back in bed, then I went to my own bed.
Esther cuddled up against me and I held her and for a moment, a brief moment, I lay my hand wide spread on her belly and thought, Dana, can you hear me?
Are my own little Dana, come back to comfort your old Daddy?

Then I realized the thought was irrational, and dismissed it.
Esther was due in August, and in August we would name our child, girl or boy, as it may be.
I relaxed, and I went to sleep.

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Linn Keller 2-16-12

 

Little Joseph ran happily into his Pa’s arms, laughing and kicking: Jacob embraced his son, picked him up, swung him well overhead.
Joseph scattered happy giggles all over the room.
Annette was rocking beside the cast iron stove, smiling at her two boys as they went to the floor together: her fingers had eyes of their own, her knitting needles clicked quietly as she worked a woman’s magic with spun yarn.
She’s finished two sets of baby booties and now she was working on a miniature version of a hooded cloak, something that could be put over the newborn’s other garments, something that could be used as a middle layer to trap air and make for good insulation.
Daciana made one and showed her, and whispered confidentially that it was for Esther’s little one, and that she was working on it well ahead of time so she could do a good job and not be hurried.
Daciana then showed Annette an adult sized version; she put it about Annette’s shoulders, drew the knit hood up, then put her cloak over this, and Annette was astonished at how well it kept in her body heat.
Annette, however, had not the patience to knit an adult sized version.
No, at the moment, she was contenting herself with watching Joseph play King of the Mountain on Jacob’s butt, happily slapping two-handed at his Pa’s derriere, while his Pa tried hard not to laugh.

The Sheriff rode slowly up to the pair.
“This belong to one of you fellas?” he asked mildly.
The pair paused in their conflict: one had a good grip on the other’s coat front, both bore the marks of recent conflict: each had a blue eye, one’s nose was bloodied, the other’s ear was split and bleeding, neither wore a hat, and both bore mute testimony to having rolled around in the dirt, or having been rolled by the other.
“I told you!” one of the pair shouted.
“You fooled me!” the other accused.
“I did nothing of the kind!” the first one flared.
The Sheriff fetched out his right hand Colt and drove a shot into the ground well behind his Cannonball-horse. Even though he had the gun muzzle pointed away from the mare, she still jumped and danced unhappily, muttering her displeasure at the sudden noise.
“I can’t hear what you two are sayin’,” the Sheriff said, his voice still quiet, calm; “you’re shoutin’ too loud.”
“He said I stole his cow!”
“Someone sure as hell stole it!”
“You damned idjut, cows kin wander off!”
“I seen the tracks, y’ damned fool, she was taken off, I tell you –“
“Hold on, now,” the Sheriff cautioned. “First of all, can you tell me the brand on your missing beef?”
“I sure as hell kin, Shurf! Rocking A Bar on the right hip and a Bar-T on the left!”
The Sheriff nodded.
“Would you kindly tell me what this cow was doin’ in the middle of my garden?”
“Your garden?” he protested. “Hell, ain’t nothin’ growin’ this time ‘a’ year!”
“I had the loveliest crop of snow flowers,” the Sheriff said, his voice gentle. “Two foot tall they were, pale blue with pink edges, twelve neat rows of ‘em growin’ close enough together you could hear the blossoms tinkle ag’in one another when the wind blew.”
“Snow flowers?” the other fellow asked skeptically.
“Oh, yes,” the Sheriff said, his face perfectly straight. “Now those are a very rare flower and grow only under particular conditions when the moon and the year coincide according to the ancient Nonsotchi tablets.”
“The ancient … what?”
“Suppose I were to tell you your cow ate up most of my wife’s rare snow flowers and trompled the rest of ‘em.”
The two looked at one another; the one looked uncomfortable, as if he wasn’t sure whether he was having his leg pulled, or about to lose the contents of his pocket book.
“I ain’t never heard of no snow flowers,” he muttered.
“Do either of you fellows want to press charges ag’in the other?” the Sheriff asked.
The pair looked at one another, shook their heads: “No,” said one, and “Nah,” the other.
The Sheriff nodded, dismounted: he worked the lariat free of the heifer’s horns, put a hand under her jaw, led her over to the pair.
“Tell you what,” he said, “I’ll make you a deal. It’s unlawful to brawl in public, so if you take this-here flower eatin’ cow off my hands I’ll buy you a beer when you’re 99.”
The Sheriff’s expression was so guileless, so innocent, so sincerely honest, that the three men looked at one another for several long moments, before all three started to laugh.
“Shurf,” the one man said, “you got yourself a deal!”
The pair watched the tall lawman with the iron grey mustache mount up and ride off.
“Snow flowers,” the one said.
“I think he was pullin’ your leg.”
“Pullin’ my leg?” the first snorted. “I will have you know we used to raise snow flowers back home when I was a lad!”
“You never was a lad,” the other sneered, “you was hatched full grown and just as ugly as you are right now.”
“Ugly!” the first shouted, cocking a fist. “I’ll show you ugly!”
The pair laid into one another all over again, while the heifer looked calmly on, chewing her cud and thinking unreadable thoughts.

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Linn Keller 2-17-12

 

To Brother William, from Father Olaf –
Peace, and the blessing of the Virgin be upon you:
My brother, I am requested of a troubled soul, that we discreetly convey a message.
Upon consideration, I find the request is reasonable, and so do solicit your assistance in this matter.
An individual confessed a matter to me of which I may not speak; she then entreated me to convey a message to someone you may know, a young woman named Sarah, who is very likely under arrest and by now may well be in prison for her actions.
The message is from someone who wishes to be known only as, “Thank You for the Beautiful Dress” and is as follows:
“I am so very sorry for getting you mixed up in my trouble.
“If you need me to get you out of this scrape, send word by these men.”
Her note is within.
Deliver verbally or by handing over the note, as you see most fit.


Brother William considered the words he’d just read.
He came to the Mercantile about once a week: a few supplies, a game or three of checkers, the mail: generally the mail was more formal, dealing with ecclesiastical matters: this, though, was something he needed to tend immediately.
His first stop was the schoolhouse, where he learned from a passing schoolboy that “Miss Sarah” was recovering at home from a fall from a horse.
Brother William thanked the lad for his kindness, stopped by the firehouse on his way to the McKenna ranch.
The Irish Brigade greeted him heartily, insisted he join them for supper later that evening: Brother William thanked them for their kindness and was about to decline when Daisy came in, two children clinging to her skirts, an infant in the crook of her arm and a well laden basket in the other hand: “Will ye j’ine us f’r supper, then,” she instructed more than requested: “’twill be good t’ hear summat o’er’n children an’ this lot!”
Brother William bowed: “Dear Lady,” he murmured, “how can any man refuse such a gracious request?”
The New York Irishman and the Welsh Irishman converged on the white-robed cleric at the same time, one from the left, one from the right, each clamoring for his attention, and it was not until Sean strode up and seized each good worthy by the back of his red-wool fireman’s shirt that Brother William was able to make any reply to their confused and interwoven entreaties.
“I am on a matter of importance,” he said gently: “if I may attend upon your concerns anon, I would be very much obliged to you.”
“You son of an immigrant, I saw th’ lass first!” the New York Irishman hissed, to which the Welsh Irishman snarled, “Ye damned Yankee! Ye’d no’ know wha’ t’ do wi’ a guid woman i’ ye had her!”
Sean was obliged to seize each man by the back of the shirt again: this time he hauled them not just apart, but off their feet.
“Later this evenin’, then,” he said affably, and Brother William could not help but laugh at the merriment in the big Irish chieftain’s eyes.
“Aye,” Brother William chuckled. “I’ll be here for supper.”
“Ye heard th’ man, lads!” Sean roared. “I want this place CLEAN! An’ wash th’ dishes i’ somethin’ other’n dog slobber, will ya!”
“Don’t let ‘im pull yer leg, Brother William,” the German Irishman called from the kitchen doorway. “I wash them dishes in hot soapy dog slobber!”
Brother William’s laugh could be heard for most of a minute after he stepped through the door and back onto the roadway.

Two days later, Father Olaf broke the seal on Brother William’s reply.
He withdrew a folded sheet, itself sealed, and a second sheet, addressed to himself: he read Brother William’s regular, angular print:

Please give the enclosed to Dolly – Bro Wm.

A half hour later, Father Olaf was knocking on a boardinghouse room door.
A young woman with a set of square lensed spectacles perched halfway down her nose, and a bundle of sewing in hand, opened the door.
“Dolly,” Father Olaf greeted her, and handed her the sealed note.
Dolly broke the seal, placed the sewing aside.
Father Olaf could not miss how her hand trembled as she unfolded the note: he watched as she read it, her hand flew to her mouth: she dropped the note, pushed Father Olaf aside and ran down the hallway and down the stairs.
He heard the outer door slam shut.
Father Olaf bent and picked up the sewing, draped it neatly over the back of a chair, then he picked up the note.
Dolly –
If you are safe and you are well, then I have done my job.
S.

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Linn Keller 2-18-12

 

Bonnie listened to her daughter’s measured syllables and smiled.
She knew it was a task for Sarah to read aloud, what with her several injuries, but she knew Sarah loved reading to the twins
The twins did love having stories read to them, and Sarah read beautifully: she had a beautiful, a musical voice, expressive and melodic, gentle on the ear and soothing as the music she played when the twins were restless and not wanting to sleep.
“The princess had milk, to wash in, and wine, to drink,” she read, “and the peasant, girl, had water, to wash in, and water, to drink.”
“Milk to wash in?” Opal asked.
“Did she drink it?”
“Won’t milk sour?”
“Did her hair smell bad?”
“If you’re a princess, do you have to wash in milk?”
Bonnie peeped around the corner and saw Sarah, smiling, trying not to laugh: Bonnie smiled as well, but she ached as well, for she well knew what it was to hide pain behind a pleasant smile, and conceal sorrow behind gentle words.
Bonnie knew her daughter was trying very hard to contain and conceal her pain.
“This was, in Europe,” Sarah explained, “and Europeans, do funny things.”
“What’s Europe?” Polly asked.
“What’s a European?” Opal asked.
The twins tilted their heads a little to their right, to the same degree and at the same moment: Bonnie knew that Sarah would be seeing their wide, bright, expressive eyes, one framed by honey-colored hair, the other by jet-black hair, looking surprisingly alike and at once, distinctly different.
“Europe, is far from here, across, an ocean.”
“What’s an ocean?”
Sarah laughed, then winced, pressing her right arm more tightly against her ribs: a pained expression crossed her face and Polly and Opal exclaimed, “I’m sowwy, Sawwah!” in such sad little voices that Bonnie had to draw back and cup her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing.
The twins delighted in hearing this story, which they’d heard several times before, and Bonnie wasn’t sure whether they more enjoyed hearing the familiar story, or whether they enjoyed peppering Sarah with questions.
Listening to the exchange, Bonnie marveled at the quickness and flexibility of their young minds: instead of asking how a horse’s decapitated head could talk, for instance, they asked how the peasant girl could understand horsie-talk, and why did the good girl put the bad people in a barrel full of nails and roll them down the hill ‘cause that’s what bad people do.
The twins finally gave Sarah very delicate, very careful hugs, and were duly shooed off to bed by the maid: Bonnie swept up the stairs behind them, giving the twins their final tucking-in – something Sarah usually did, but Sarah could not manage the stairs with any speed yet.
Bonnie descended the stairs slowly, thoughtfully, one hand on the railing, the other holding her skirt: she glided across the room and sat beside Sarah.
Sarah was still holding the storybook, smiling a little.
Bonnie tilted her head, looking at the open page.
Sarah traced the tips of her fingers down the page.
“I remember, one night,” she said quietly, “when I was, very little, and afraid … you read, me, from this book.” She stared sightlessly at the open page.
“It wasn’t, that you were, reading, the story, or what words, you spoke,” she said. “It’s that you … you cared, enough, to spend, your time, with me … that I, was worth, your time.” She raised her head and Bonnie saw Sarah’s face was wet.
“I remember, your voice,” she whispered, her voice choking as she spoke: “you were … your voice …” – she swallowed – “was like, your hand, gentle, on mine.” She looked at Bonnie. “Mama, I feel, all stirred up. I cry, for no reason. I get, angry, for no, reason. I feel so … unreasonable, like I want, to …”
Sarah turned her head abruptly from her mother.
“I don’t know, what’s wrong, with me!”
Bonnie laid a gentle hand on her daughter’s forearm.
“It happened to me, at your age,” she said quietly. “I think it happens to us all, when we are becoming women.”
Sarah’s head snapped around, then she grimaced and hissed her breath in between bared teeth, for the sudden movement was not kind to her healing ribs.
She took a few breaths to contain the pain and was finally able to ask, “You mean, I’m not, alone?”
Bonnie scooted a little closer, put her arms around her daughter: Sarah leaned her head on her Mama’s shoulder and Bonnie whispered, “No, sweets, you’re not alone. You will survive this. It will tear you apart inside, you’ll be unreasonable and moody and hateful and you’ll be so sorry when it happens and you’ll cry for that and for any reason and for no reason.”
Sarah lifted her head, then leaned back and looked steadily into her Mama’s eyes.
“What a damned nuisance,” she said, and laughed, and Bonnie laughed with her.
Bonnie dabbed the damp from her daughter’s cheeks.
“I picked up those leg shackles today,” she said.
Sarah’s expression was wolflike.
“Good.”
“They’re in the closet with the handcuffs, on the top shelf where his hat was, so the twins won’t see them and want to play with them.”
Sarah nodded, not missing her mother’s careful omission of the hat’s original owner.
Sarah gave a short, rasping laugh, then looked sadly at her Mama.
“I think, I should go, to bed now,” she said hoarsely. “Can you, help me, get undressed?”
“Of course, dear.”

Next morning, Sarah did not protest the maid lacing her corset snugly, for it helped support her ribs: Sarah did look longingly at her black outfit, wishing she felt more like the daring, adventurous part of herself they represented.
The maid helped her into the green dress.
Her Mama was already at her dress-works, for she had a sizable order to fill; the twins would be drowsy after breakfast, and very likely were already asleep: Sarah waited until the maid was busy in the kitchen again, then she opened the concealed closet door and reached in with her cane.
As she left the house, she closed the front door silently behind her: she kept her right arm tight across her belly, a small satchel and her cane in her left hand.
The hired man drove her into town, and helped her dismount once there: Sarah smiled in reply to the several greetings given her, and none took offense that she did not speak in reply, for all could see that she was still short of breath.
Sarah made her slow, pained way into the fine stone municipal building, and it required some time to ascend the stairs to the courtroom.
The bailiff opened the door for her, touched his cap: she smiled and whispered her thanks, for court was in session, and she did not want to interrupt proceedings.
Court was brief that day; as the room emptied, Sarah smiled and squeezed Jackson Cooper’s hand: the man blushed like a schoolboy, and Sarah noticed that he wore his new hat, and was not twisting it in his hands, like he might have a lesser topper.
“Uncle Linn,” Sarah squeaked, “if I am able, I would speak, with you later.”
“Of course, dear heart!” he said. “I promise I won’t make the coffee!”
Sarah smiled through a sad expression. “Thank you, Uncle Linn,” she whispered, and turned, entering the now-silent courtroom.
Judge Hostetler was standing, puffing on a freshly-lighted Cuban: thrusting one of his few books into a satchel, he looked up, pleased.
“Miss Sarah!” he greeted her, stepping from behind the desk and walking across the floor to her. “I am so very glad to see you are on your feet!”
“Thank you, Your Honor,” Sarah squeaked. “May I, speak with you, sir?”
“Of course, my dear, of course! Would you like a seat?” He gestured toward a convenient chair.
Sarah handed him the satchel.
“You may need these.”
His Honor looked curiously at her, hefted the satchel, then opened it and peered inside.
“I take it,” he said, his voice serious, “this is an official call?”
Sarah nodded, took a breath.
“Your Honor, I helped, the fugitive, Dolly LaBoeuf, escape.”
Sarah's voice was halting, partly because of the panic which threatened to erupt like a volcano of guilt, partly because she did not have enough breath for more than a few words at a time.
“Come again?” His cigar, halfway to his mouth, drifted back down to arm’s length.
“I knew, Dolly LaBoeuf, to be wanted, by the law. I knowingly, intentionally, deliberately, switched clothes with her, and I aided, and abetted, her escape.”
His Honor considered this.
“As of now you are under oath,” he said, his voice hard and official. “Start at the beginning.”
Sarah felt as if a weight were lifting from her soul; her guilty conscience was sloughing itself of its dirty secret.
“Your Honor, Dolly LaBoeuf, fought a man, who sought to, take her virtue.”
His Honor blinked, obviously listening intently.
“She pushed him, he fell, hit his head, lay unmoving.
“Dolly believed, him dead, and ran.
“She knew, the law, was after her.
“When, Marshal Cooper, came after her, I told her, to change, clothes with me. I took her up, a hidden staircase, I know of, I got, her out, of the Jewel, and to, keep, Jackson Cooper, from catching her, I ran, past, the open, dressing-room door, he’d just, broken in, and I tried, to run, out, the front.
“I almost, made it.
“The rest, you know.”
Judge Donald Hostetler considered what he’d heard carefully, frowning: he took several puffs on the cigar, then took her by the arm.
“The prisoner will assume the witness stand,” he said sternly.
Sarah, prisoner, rose and labored toward the witness chair, the Judge’s hand firm on her arm: she turned, eased herself down into the chair, breathing through her mouth.
“Is it your testimony, then,” Judge Hostetler asked, “that you did knowingly and intentionally, aid and abet the flight of a known fugitive from a just apprehension of due authority?”
Sarah raised her chin.
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“And is it your testimony that you did so, knowing full well your action was unlawful, and carries penalty that includes a term in the penitentiary?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“And you realize further that your failure to disclose what you knew to due authority is in itself a further violation of the law?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
The Judge walked over to the desk, opened his satchel and withdrew his gavel.
“You are hereby found guilty!” – the gavel swung, smacked sharply against the tabletop – “and will serve the following sentence.”
His Honor replaced the gavel in his satchel, walked back over and stood in front of Sarah.
“First, you are sentenced to run screaming through the Silver Jewel, dressed as a dancing girl, where you will be obliged to fight your way through a wall of masculinity.
“Second, you are sentenced to be seized and crushed against a wall and then the floor by a man considerably larger than yourself.
“Third, you are sentenced to being shackled, chained, thrown over a big man’s shoulder and paraded across the street for God and everybody to stare at, jailed, confined and locked away behind bars until such time as you will be cast from the back of a horse to the ground and have your face washed in cold water.
“Furthermore, you will be required to spend one night with a handcuff attached to your right wrist, while you suffer the exquisite delights of injuries caused by said compression between said large man and an immovable wall.
“This sentence will be carried out immediately.
“If any part of this sentence has been already served, the law is then satisfied: given the satisfaction of these conditions, you are summarily free to return to society, where this court strictly enjoins you to continue to be a good citizen and to conduct yourself in obedience to the law.”
“Yes, Your Honor,” Sarah said in a small voice.
His Honor went to one knee before her, took her hand in his.
“Sarah,” he said quietly, “sometimes when we do what’s right, there is a price to be paid. Sometimes that price is very high.
“You helped a woman who had been wronged.
“It should perhaps be argued that you should have allowed the law to proceed unimpeded, but as I told Jackson Cooper, the courts can debate for years what took a tenth of a second to transpire.
"You were there, I was not; you were privy to every nuance of the situation, perhaps you had a better insight because you are a woman who has, yourself, been the victim …”
His voice trailed off; there was understanding in Sarah’s eyes, and His Honor wished to be just, but discreet, and did not elaborate further on that count.
“This may sound odd coming from the bench, but I am very proud that you have the integrity – and the back bone – to do what’s right, knowing full well the consequence for yourself might be … unpleasant.”
“Thank you, Your Honor,” she said in a small voice.
“Now.” His Honor ran his hand into her satchel, came up with the propeller-shaped key.
He examined it minutely, turning it slowly, frowning, then dropped it back into the small satchel.
There was a distinctly metallic clink from within.
Sarah nodded slowly, obviously thinking and thinking hard.
His Honor straightened, consulting the Cuban he held, seeking wisdom or perhaps insight in the cloud he exhaled.
“Thank you, Your Honor,” Sarah said quietly.
Sarah leaned on her cane and started to rise.
“Sarah.”
Sarah froze, sank slowly back into the chair.
“Sarah, you are a remarkable young woman.”
His Honor tilted his head, regarding Sarah with a frankness that would ordinarily be considered offensive, or excessively forward.
“Sarah, you have the ability to change your appearance – not just changing clothes, but you become what you appear to be.
“I understand when you wore Miss LaBoeuf’s attire, you were very believable as a dance-hall girl.”
Sarah’s face reddened.
“When you attire yourself as a schoolmarm, you are most believable as a schoolmarm, and when you wear your mother’s fine gowns in Denver, you actually become the attractive young woman you portray.”
His Honor puffed meditatively on the cigar, looked around, found a spittoon and carefully flicked his ash into its flared mouth.
“Sarah, I can’t help but appreciate your superior intelligence, your ability to think on your feet, and I am given to understand that when you are not injured” – his smile was gentle, understanding – “that you have an uncanny ability to take care of yourself.”
“Thank you, Your Honor,” Sarah said softly.
“I suppose what I’m trying to say,” His Honor admitted, “over and above having a most pleasant interlude in the company of a younger woman” – he laughed – “few things delight the heart of an old man than the attention of a pretty young woman” – at this, Sarah’s cheeks flared an absolute crimson – “over and above that, Sarah, I could use someone of your particular talents.”
Sarah looked up, blinking.
“Sir?”
“Sarah, when you are healed, and with the kind permission of your mother, of course, I would like you to consider acting as an agent of the court.”
“I … I don’t, understand,” Sarah stammered.
His Honor stopped his pacing, looked directly at Sarah.
“You can look like someone else, which tells me you can quite probably look like some particular someone else, should you so desire. You think on your feet, you handle yourself well in unexpected circumstances, and you have proven today an honesty that could have easily been ..”
He chuckled.
“Sarah, I honestly had no idea at all that you’d done anything but innocently tried on a costume, then panicked and ran. You demonstrated a depth of thinking, you’ve shown you can think on your feet, that you can think fast and accurately, formulate and carry out a plan.” He puffed again on the diminishing hand-rolled tobacco.
“Sarah, you are a remarkable young woman of many talents, and I am very interested in putting those talents to work for the Court, as a unique and very special agent.”
Sarah leaned back in the chair, a little dizzied by all that had happened, and by the speed with which it occurred.
She fully expected to be removed from the court in irons, to face the consequences of the wrongdoing to which she’d just confessed.
Instead, she was being offered the chance to work for the Court.
“Your Honor,” she said slowly, “Uncle Charlie was a deputy Marshal, Uncle Linn is Sheriff, Aunt Fannie was …”
Sarah looked up, her eyes shining.
“How can I say no?”
“Then you accept?”
“I do, Your Honor.” She smiled tiredly. “Though Mama, may have something, to say, about that.”
His Honor nodded.
“All things in their own good time,” he said. “You are really rather young for me to mention the idea … but I actually think that will work to your advantage.”
“Sir?”
“A British detective observed that the sight of an official person seals men’s lips, but children can go everywhere, hear everything, and are not thought a threat. Your youth – your appearance as a young lady, or a schoolgirl, as a schoolmarm or a dance hall girl or young mother or however you should portray yourself – will not cause suspicion.” He chuckled. “Besides, men make such fools of themselves over a pretty face.”
He looked benevolently at Sarah.
“The offer will stand until I myself revoke it.”
“Thank you, Your Honor.”
Sarah leaned her weight on her cane, pushing up left-handed: she came slowly upright, a little more pale than she’d been.
“Should you be out of bed, young lady?” His Honor asked in a surprisingly fatherly voice.
“No,” Sarah admitted, “if I don’t, stop moving about, my collar bone, will never set, back into its seat.”
“I presume that is why your right sleeve is sewn to your dress.”
Sarah looked sharply at His Honor.
“I’d hoped, it wasn’t, obvious.”
Judge Hostetler laughed, dropped what was left of his cigar in the spittoon.
“Your right hand, clutching a handful of material, draws the eye,” he admitted, “but I am a curious man and studied your forearm further. You are wearing a sling without appearing to do so.” He smiled, then chuckled.
“My dear,” he said gently, “I do have some small powers of observation.”

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Linn Keller 2-19-11

 

The bailiff kindly lent Sarah his arm, and glad she was for it: he carried her cane and satchel for her and matched step for careful step as she descended from the courtroom: at the foot of the stairs, the bailiff returned her cane and held the door for her, touching his cap brim as she murmured her thanks.
She handed the satchel to the hired man, who put it in her carriage.
“I must, speak with, the Sheriff,” she said. “Bring, the carriage, over there, if you could, please, but wait, until, I am, within.”
Sarah had to stop and rest, there outside the polished quartz building; the boardwalk was but one step above the street, for which she was grateful, and she managed the step down without difficulty, with the loan of her hired man’s hand, though her teeth clicked together at the pain the single step shot through her ribcage.
“I’ll be, all right,” she protested as the cane was plucked from her fingers, but her hired man persisted: Sarah noted the concerned look on his face as he took her gloved hand, placed it on his arm.
Sarah wobbled a little; her hand tightened a little and she smiled tightly.
“You, are right,” she said. “Thank you.”
She made her slow, careful way across the street.
From a distance she might be thought an old woman, arthritic and crippled; her attire might have reinforced that supposition: as a matter of fact, Sarah chose that particular gown and bonnet to reinforce the appearance, for she wanted Sarah-the-crippled to look very different than Sarah-the-healthy.
She stopped midway across the street, leaning heavily on the hired man’s arm; a wagon slowed, then stopped, and Sarah began again before the driver could inquire as to her welfare.
She made the opposite boardwalk, finally, and leaned the heel of her hand against a porch post, the cane’s shoe-shaped handle held with her thumb: the hired man walked briskly back across the street, and Sarah heard him board the carriage.
She steadied herself for several moments, then brought the cane down, gripped it tightly, and pushed herself up onto the low boardwalk.
It was but a few feet from her stepping-up point to the door of the Sheriff’s office.
Sarah paused in front of the closed door, then brought the cane up, tossing it a little and catching it at mid-shaft.
She rapped briskly at the closed portal -- a quick rat-tat, tat, allowed the cane to slip down into her grip, leaned on it again.
There were footsteps, the sound of a latch, the door swung inward.
Sarah saw the Sheriff’s boots.
She was struggling to keep a good posture; fatigue and pain bowed her head; she took a step, another.
She saw the Sheriff’s legs disappear, then there was the quick scrape of chair legs on the floor and a familiar set of hands on her upper arms: “Ma’am, might ought you to sit down,” he said, and Sarah wobbled a little, then felt the chair against the back of her legs.
She sat, more quickly than she intended, and gave a little cry of pain.
The Sheriff went to one knee.
Before Sarah’s eyes squeezed shut, she saw a worried face peering into her own.
“Sarah?”
Sarah nodded, pressing her lips together.
The Sheriff put his finger tips under her chin, tilted her face up: Sarah saw surprise and alarm in his face, she felt his hand turn over, the backs of his fingers resting quickly, briefly on her cheek, then her forehead.
The Sheriff rose quickly, stepped over to his desk: Sarah closed her eyes against the pain, willed herself to be steady, be strong, and she heard the Sheriff’s brisk return.
“Here, drink,” he said, and she felt the smooth coolness of glass against her bottom lip: she took a sip, took another: liquid fire washed over her tongue, seared her gums, scorched its way down unplumbed depths and detonated when it hit bottom.
“Take another sip, there’s a good girl,” he murmured, and Sarah swallowed again.
She closed her throat, took a long breath through her nose, out through her mouth, convinced that she would breathe a long gout of pure flame.
The Sheriff dragged a chair over and sat directly in front of her.
“Dear heart, what are you doing out of the house?”
Sarah waited a moment to make sure her throat was not going to spontaneously incincerate before answering.
“I had, to speak, with the Judge,” she whispered, her voice halting, hesitant: the effort of speaking with the Judge, earlier, then the exertion of climbing and then descending the stairs, had weakened her more than she realized.
“I had, to speak, with you.”
She looked up and the Sheriff was stuck yet again by her eyes, by her pale eyes, her … by his eyes in her face.
“What do I call you now?” she whispered, tears brimming up and ready to spill: “What do I call you?”
The Sheriff reached into a pocket, drew out a clean linen.
“Close your eyes,” he said gently, pressed the folded cloth to her closed eyelids, blotting the excess moisture: Sarah shivered at his touch, at once welcoming it, and yet unsure of … herself, perhaps? – nothing was the same now –
“Sheriff,” she said, “did you know, my mother?”
The Sheriff nodded.
“What was she like?”
What was she like? he thought. That was a long time ago –
“It was Kansas,” he said, “I was headed West.
“She was a widow woman, alone on a farm with a storm coming.
“She was terrified of storms and she came to me, and we comforted one another that night.”
“Is that what, you call it?” Sarah whispered and instantly regretted her words.
She saw the hurt in the Sheriff’s eyes.
“The War taught me hard lessons, Sarah,” he said slowly. “I learned that if I can’t change something, to move on.” He looked directly at his daughter. “It was wrong to plant a seed and not wait for the harvest, but I can’t change that.”
Sarah’s eyes stung at the heaviness in the man’s words.
“You couldn’t know,” she whispered.
“No.”
“Jacob?”
“The same.”
Sarah looked away, blinking.
“What do, I call you?” she whispered. “Do you, leave Esther and, marry Mama now, do I, come and live, with you, what do, we do?”
Sarah gathered herself, took a breath.
“What do I call you now?”
The Sheriff closed his eyes hard and bowed his head some, for Sarah’s face began to wrinkle up again, and he knew that the effort of weeping would cause her ribs more pain: that, and facing up to his paternity, caused the greying old lawman his own pain, but he was a man and he expected himself to face up to the consequences of his decisions, for good or for ill.
“You may call me what you wish,” he said.
Sarah reached for him with her left arm, her right still trapped in the sewed-down sleeve: “Papa,” she sobbed, and the Sheriff abandoned his chair and leaned into his daughter’s one-armed embrace, holding her while she gave vent to every bit of confusion and hurt and distress that she’d built up and bottled over the past several days.
He held her for a long time, there in the quiet of the little log fortress that was the Sheriff’s office: time was not measured by the ticks of the Regulator clock, but rather by the ache in his back, for he was bent over some for a while.
When the storm was mostly spent, he drew back a little and blotted her eyes again, then held the kerchief over her nose with thumb and forefinger: “Blow,” he said, “gently, now,” as if she were a very little girl, and she blew, and he carefully wiped her nose and folded the linen and bade her blow again, and dabbed delicately to make sure he’d gotten it all.
“My dear, who is your Mama?” he asked, his voice gentle.
“Bonnie,” she sniffed, blinking. “She is the only Mama I have.”
“Right you are.” He smiled a little. “She is a fine woman and a wonderful mother. Your place is with her. Will I leave Esther, no. Will I marry Bonnie, no. Not unless Esther were to fall over dead, which she’s far too healthy and ‘way too hard headed and contrary to do that.” He smiled, remembering Esther’s belly, and Sarah giggled, then grimaced: “Ow,” she said in a small voice.
“Sarah, I give you leave to call me what you will, in private or in public, as you wish.”
Sarah nodded.
“Does Jacob know?” she whispered.
The Sheriff shook his head slowly.
“No, my dear. You know, I know … does your mother know?”
Sarah nodded.
“Then let it remain thus.”
Sarah nodded again.
“How long have I wished you were my daughter,” he murmured, “and now you are … just not quite like we’d planned!”
Sarah’s eyes shifted and the Sheriff knew something just came to her mind.
“Papa, I –“ she stopped, frowned. “I keep, thinking of, you as, Uncle Linn.”
“Call me anything but late for supper,” he said quietly.
“Mama said, at my age, she” – Sarah stopped abruptly, the color rising in her cheeks: “um, I didn’t, mean that.”
The Sheriff nodded, once, slowly.
“I might, need … fatherly, advice, from time, to time,” she faltered.
He nodded again and she saw the corners of his eyes crinkle up a little.
“I’m tired.” She changed the subject abruptly, brought her cane around, leaned forward, pushed hard.
The cane tip slipped on the smooth floor and the Sheriff caught Sarah under the arms, hands flat and cupping her corseted chest under her arms.
He heard her teeth click together, the grunt as she locked her throat shut against any further utterance.
Good Lord, girl, he thought, you’re a tough one!
She groaned through clenched jaws, got her weight on her feet and off the Sheriff’s hands, stood.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
He nodded.
Sarah made her slow way to the door; the Sheriff saw her into her carriage, gave her gloved hand a squeeze, winked at her.
Her return smile was a bit strained, but she managed a return wink.

Levi stretched, grateful to stand on the depot platform instead of sit in a rocking, clattering passenger car.
He worked his lower back, rolled his shoulders forward, then back and stood with his usual perfect posture.
He looked toward the main street and saw what looked like Bonnie’s carriage, drawn by a good looking Morgan horse, trotting out of town, driven by a man and with what appeared to be a bent-over, arthritic old woman.
Good Lord, he thought, I know time changes people, but I hope that’s not Bonnie!

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Linn Keller 2-20-12

 

One thing about God’s good earth.
There are plenty of rocks.
Every day I’ve been stacking rocks on a stone boat, dragging the lot from one place to another, prying rocks up or picking them up, as the earth surrenders them to me: any place I’ve plowed or dug or worked the dirt, rocks come crawling up to the surface with freeze and thaw and changes in weather and, hell, maybe they just want to climb up and take a look at the sunshine for a change.
I’ve stacked them on the stone boat every day and every day and by golly now, I thought, I’m going to put them to work.
Most farmers have a lot, or a pile, or a fenced off square, where they throw or roll or stack or dump all those rocks they prize out of their fields.
Me, I’d rather use them for something instead of just consign them to a fence corner.
I drove stakes in the ground and took a sight on the sun, knowing it swung north and south with the season, and laid four beds out so they were lined up to get the most sun all day long, then I changed my mind and pulled up the stakes and laid them out cross wise of the sun’s travel, but then I figured I’d have to space ‘em out further if I did that, so I stood there in the field beside the skid piled up with rocks and pulled a glove off my good right hand and reached up and scratched my head some.
Finally I allowed as maybe I was right the first time, so I found my original stake holes and used a fist size rock to pound the stakes back in the ground.
Esther could likely see me from the house and I don’t doubt she was amused to see my hesitation, my consideration, my tear-it-up-and-start over efforts … I smiled a little and allowed to myself that at least I’m good for something, I can bring a chuckle to my beautiful bride, if nothing else.
I was as a matter of fact not far at all from the house, for I purposed to build a series of raised beds after the monastic pattern.
Brother William and I sat long one morning, drinking coffee and talking about nothing much in particular, and he told me about the great stone monasteries back in Europe, about the Cistercian order: he said they would choose the nastiest, ugliest, rockiest, most briar filled swampy bottom hillside nobody wanted and nobody in their right mind would ever even consider wanting, and by virtue of simple hand labor, would clear the land and turn it into a well ordered garden of unparalleled beauty and fertility.
I listened closely when he described how they would construct raised garden beds, tall enough so a man could plant, cultivate, weed and harvest without bending over, but narrow enough so a man could reach clear across it: deep, for good root penetration and good drainage, and the tall stone walls soaked up heat to warm the soil earlier in season than just a flat to the ground plowed field.
Brother William allowed as these were popular in castles as well, so if besieged, they could still grow the most crops on the least ground even if surrounded and unable to resupply, and how these raised beds were especially popular for raising herbs.
Now I am not the brightest candle in the chandelier, but I am not afraid to try something new, so I went ahead and laid these beds out, long and narrow, and it took every rock on that stone boat to get just one of them outlined, and laid up maybe a half a foot tall.
I worked on that for a few months, when it wasn’t froze hard enough I couldn’t get rocks up without setting a charge of powder under them, and time or two I wondered about that, because inside I still have an ornery little boy, and I like things that go boom … but this close to the house that wasn’t too good an idea, so I satisfied myself with shovel and pick and pry bar and some language I hope Angela didn’t hear.
Now I started this project early last fall and wished I’d started it come spring thaw preceding, but by dint of just plain hard work and several pair of good leather gloves, I got those beds laid up and dirt filled and picked out everything I could find that would sprout.
I wanted to raise table herbs and crops, not weeds.
I worked good year old burnt-out horse manure into the dirt before shoveling it into the beds, I filled them just level full, knowing they would settle, and I left them sit to repent of their sins: now, mid-winter, I looked out from my back porch and it honestly surprised me how much work went into them, and how little they looked.
I stood there with a steaming mug of coffee in one hand, leaning on the porch rail a little, looking out across the frosted field.
My eyes wander naturally and I can’t look at just one thing for long, and of an early morning when it’s quiet out, I just naturally considered how big those mountains were, and how hard they looked, shoved up ag’in the sky as if to threaten to spear the clouds themselves should they approach too close.
When I was a boy back in Perry County, I never took notice of ridges and hollers, for they were what I grew up with and I took them for granted.
When Connie and I left the Sugar Loaf behind us and moved north clear up ag’in Lake Erie, I was amazed how folks thereabouts didn’t pay the Lake more than a passing glance, and even then they looked but didn’t see: I reckon it’s because I wasn’t from there, that I actually saw it, and took pains to see when I looked.
I took a slow sip of coffee, appreciating its heat and its flavor and the strong smell after: I looked at the mountains and nodded.
It’s times like this I understood what that fellow meant, out on the open ocean, when he said “O Lord, how great is Thy sea, and how small is my boat!”
The door opened and Esther came out, laid a hand on my arm and leaned her head against my shoulder.
“I hear you are carousing with older women,” she murmured, and I could hear the smile in her voice.
“Oh, I’m just worse than two terribles,” I replied.
“I know,” she sighed, shaking her head in mock sorrow. “You are just such a womanizer!” She squeezed my arm. “How is Sarah?”
“Sore,” I said glumly. “That poor girl can’t take a breath without hurtin’.”
“All that because she wanted to try on a costume,” Esther sighed, shaking her head a little.
I nodded.
“I saw her yesterday.”
I loved moments like this, when it was quiet out and Esther was with me: I straightened my arm out and run it around the small of her back and drew her gently into me.
“She looked like an old woman,” Esther murmured, her head laid over ag’in my chest.
“I know.” I finished my coffee, set the mug down, turned to lean my back side ag’in the corner of the porch rail and the upright behind me, so I could get both arms around Esther. “When she beat on the door with that foot carved walkin’ stick I opened it up and I thought she was near to seventy years old, at least until she got inside and I got another look at her.”
“It was her dress,” Esther mused, “and that dreadful bonnet. Why ever did she –“
“Not just the dress,” I interrupted quietly. “It hurts her simply to move. Her collar bone is separated, did she tell you? – she moves like an arthritic old woman because she is one, only it’s not arthritis that pains her, and she’s not old yet.”
Esther chuckled, sighed: I wished I had something a little less rigid and certainly less chilly ag’in my backside, for Esther was warm and womanly ag’in my front.
“How did it go, when all you men went out to Bonnie’s place?”
“It went well.”
Esther looked up at me, her eyes bright and knowing. “Oh?”
“Mmm.” I nodded, leaned down and kissed her.
It felt so good I kissed her again, and her arms tightened around me some more.
“Sarah give Jackson Cooper a hat.”
“This frost will give us a chill if we don’t go in where it’s warm.”
I picked up my coffee cup, slid my other arm down, took Esther’s hand, and we went on inside.
We were still holding hands and I‘d just shut the back door and set my coffee cup down when our heads came up.
There was a THUMP from my study and we heard a little “Ow,” and the sound of movement.
I looked at Esther and half-smiled, for it sounded like Angela, and it wasn’t followed by a war whoop or a screaming fit, so we went cat footing that-a-way, the two of us still holding hands.
We peeked around the door frame, me above and Esther right under me.
Angela had some of my books stacked up on the floor and she was on her knees, frowning at them, her tongue stuck out a little in concentration, then she slid them a little closer together – she removed the top book from each stack, reducing their height from three to two – and setting her hands on them, she bent double and slowly tried to straighten her legs and do a hand stand.
She almost succeeded.
About the time her skirt and petticoats fell down, or rather up, she did too.
She collapsed again but she didn’t come straight down.
I don’t know if she’d been coached or if she learned it on her own, but she tucked and rolled a little so she came down rolling, dissipating the energy of impact and ending up flat on the floor.
If I’d try that I’d likely drive my head clear down between my shoulders.
Angela sat up, shook her head, put her hands on her hips and gave a little frowning huff, her bottom lip stuck out about a foot: she scrambled to her feet, gathered the books, carefully packed them back over to the shelf where she’d gotten them, and she almost got them back exactly where she got them.
Matter of fact had I not seen her put them back I’d never know they’d been borrowed for her impromptu circus act, except they were on the shelf upside down.
Esther and I pulled back, I was grinning and Esther had her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing, and we sneaked back into the kitchen: the hired girl was looking curiously down the hall, for she was about ready to throw breakfast on the table, and heard the commotion, and saw us go take a look.
We put our fingers to our lips and I’m sure we both looked like a couple guilty kids.
The maid gave us an odd look, as if to say we’d been up to something but she wouldn’t tell on us, and Angela came down the hall, rubbing her elbow and frowning, then she saw us and her face lit up like sunrise on the mountainside.
“Daddeee!” -- and she threw her arms out and ran for me and I snatched her up, whirled her around and swung her up against the ceiling, her even white teeth gleaming, her eyes shining, and her pink fingers spread and her hands waving with delight.
I brought her down and kissed the top of her head, set her on my forearm and bounced her a couple times.
“And how is my Princess this morning?” I asked.
“Faw-een,” she giggled, her finger going to her lips, then she tilted her head and said “Daddy, howcumizzit Daciana ridesada pony onnerhands?”
I puzzled out this curious dialect, considered my answer.
“Why does she do it?” I asked.
Angela nodded, bringing her hand down and petting my mustache.
I pretended to bite her hand and she shrieked and yanked her hand away, laughing.
“She does it because she can, and she’s very good at it,” I said.
“I wansada rideitda horsie onnamahands!”
“Slow down, honey,” I said, “I can’t hear that fast!”
Angela put her hands on her hips and huffed at me, frowning with such a cute little face I couldn’t help but laugh: “Dad-dee!” she protested.
I looked at Esther.
“My dear,” I said, “I do believe we should go for a ride this fine morning.”
“Yaaaay!” Angela cheered, clapping her hands, and Esther tilted her head and smiled.
“We will have breakfast first,” she said, “then we will ride.”
“Yaaaay!” Angela applauded again, and I grinned and carried her over to her chair, and slid her down into it.
I stopped and took a long breath of the good kitchen smells.
It might be vulgar in a fine mansion to have cooking smells in the house, but I didn’t live in a mansion and I like to smell good cookin’.
I drew out Esther’s chair and slid her in and I parked myself as well, but as I always did, I thanked the girl for her hard work, for it is no light task to tend someone else’s house, especially when she did as fine a job as she did.

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Linn Keller 2-21-12

 

In the Victorian era, it was the rule and not the exception that a household of any size, have a hired girl.
It was also routine for a married man to have a mistress.
Men wished to place their wives on pedestals of virtue, of purity, of modesty; it was not seemly for a female to enjoy the brute feelings incumbent upon coupling, and so wives were kept home, chaste, pure, paragons of virtue, while mistresses received their lovers’ vigorous attentions, and their money.
At times the hired girl was also the mistress; this generally caused difficulties, as the Sheriff learned one chilly afternoon.
Tilly looked up at the sound of running feet, then the clatter of a woman’s hard heels coming down the staircase: one of the Jewel’s staff seized the bannister-post at the bottom of the staircase, swung herself about, stopped and looked over the crowd there in the Silver Jewel: Tillie could see the girl was not much short of a panic, and before Tillie could ask what was wrong, the girl bolted, doing a fine broken-field run through the crowded dining room, finally skidding to a stop beside the Sheriff.
The greying old lawman looked up at the girl’s swift approach: he stood and she seized his hand, fairly dragging him through the crowd and up the stairs.
The Sheriff followed, his long legs keeping up with her quick, scissoring step.
She swung in through an open door, the Sheriff following like the ladder wagon on the Brigade’s steam engine.
The Sheriff tilted his head, regarded the white-haired woman with unblinking eyes: he looked at the cleaning girl.
She seized the lawman’s coat, drew him down and whispered urgently in his ear for almost a minute.
She drew away, clasping her hands tightly together; the Sheriff looked at the woman, then leaned down and whispered, “Have Tillie send for Parson Belden.”
The hired girl gratefully scampered for the hallway, drawing the door shut behind.
The woman turned her head, restless. “I need to sit up, Father,” she complained, “it’s so hard to breathe like this.”
The Sheriff bent, ran an arm under her shoulder blades, drew her bolt upright: he took all the pillows from the bed, stacked them behind her, then took her under both arms, lifted her up and scooted her back, then brought the covers up around her neck.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Her color was not good.
“Father, will you hear my confession?” she asked, and without waiting for his reply, closed her eyes and began.
“I killed my husband,” she said in a querulous voice.
The Sheriff drew a chair up beside the bed, seated himself, took her hand in both of his.
She smiled, and it was the smile of an indulgent grandmother for a favorite grandson.
“You have such warm hands,” she whispered.
The Sheriff turned his head a little, listening closely.
“I poisoned my husband,” she repeated.
“When?”
“Ten years ago, twenty, I don’t remember.” She smiled with half her mouth. “He was young and so was I.”
She closed her eyes, remembering.
“I killed the maid, too, you know.”
He gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
“He was a handsome man,” she smiled, “a good man, but … vigorous.”
She looked at the Sheriff with bright eyes.
“A full-blooded and vigorous man, you understand.”
The Sheriff nodded, slowly, once.
“He decided he should not impose his lusty desires on his beautiful wife and so turned to our maid.”
She grimaced, pausing for the space of several breaths.
Her color was not good at all.
“He decided he would take her for his mistress.
“I suppose they were carrying on for a year before I found out.
“I have needs too,” she said, her voice almost pleading as she looked at the Sheriff. “I wanted … him …” – her color picked up a little before becoming slowly dusky again, and she coughed wetly, laboring for breath.
“When I found out, I told them I arranged to visit my sister for a week.
“On the third day – I knew they rose early and had breakfast together – I slipped into the kitchen before them and put wolf strychnine in the tea pot.
“When I came home, there was black crape on the door and on the mirrors.
“My sister was some distance away and it wasn’t until the day after my return that my sister received word of what had transpired.
“I lived in weeds for a year.” She smiled tiredly. “Then I was in half-mourning for another year.” She looked at him, looked into his pale eyes.
“I did love him, you know.”
He nodded, once, slowly.
Her hand drifted up to her chest, closed into a fist.
“Father, forgive me,” she whispered.
“I can forgive nothing,” the Sheriff said quietly, “but God can forgive all things. Do you now repent of all your sins, spoken and unspoken, confessed and unconfessed, recalled and forgotten?”
She squeezed his hand, nodded.
“Then surely God, Who sees all things, has forgiven you, and you may go in the sure and certain knowledge of His boundless mercy.”
She began panting, her hand clawed at her bosom, fisted, then relaxed.
Brother William laid his hand on the Sheriff’s shoulder.
The Sheriff hadn’t heard the man come in.
He watched as Brother William anointed the dead woman, listened as he recited the ancient words, watched while he made the Sign of the Cross.
Only when he was finished did the greying old lawman place the woman’s hand across her belly, disengage his grip from hers, and draw the covers slowly and respectfully over her face.

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Linn Keller 2-22-12

 

Bonnie frowned, adjusting the tensioner on the Singer treadle machine.
“Try it now,” she said.
The machine hummed smoothly, chuckling its way through the long swatch of fabric.
“Good.” Bonnie rocked back on her heels, rose from her kneeling position, put a hand to the small of her back and twisted one way, then the other.
She froze.
Someone is watching me, she thought, and turned quickly, hands cupped defensively in front of her.
Levi stood at correct military attention in the doorway, his pearl-grey Derby across his forearm, level in front of him.
The roomful of sewing machines, murmuring voices, the metallic snip of scissors, all faded, and Bonnie’s vision shrunk down to a six foot circle directly in front of her.
Levi wore a half-smile, that little embarrassed half-smile of a schoolboy whose ears steadily turn red as he realizes the girl (on whom he had a secret crush) is looking at him across the schoolyard.
Bonnie raised her chin, walked over to him with a firm and regular step.
Levi gave a formal, correct half-bow; Bonnie lifted her skirts and executed a flawless, feminine curtsy.
Time hung for a long moment, like a drop of water hanging from a branch after a rain; Bonnie suspected they were the subject of several eyes’ interest.
Bonnie McKenna, owner, operator, designer and chief saleswoman of the House of McKenna – Bonnie McKenna, self-assured self-promoter, investor and businesswoman – Bonnie McKenna, entrepreneur, woman of influence, culture and breeding – knew that she was expected to maintain a dignified, proper, cultured, feminine, chaste and modest air about herself, and all that she did, when in the privacy of her own home, or in the public eye, or under the several eyes of her employees.
Bonnie McKenna considered her available courses of action, and settled on the most reasonable.
She came upright and looked Levi Rosenthal full in the face.
Bonnie McKenna, woman of purpose, intended to speak.
She opened her mouth with the full intent to say “Hello, Levi.”
Bonnie McKenna felt a tightness in her chest, a dizziness in her head, and her stomach cut itself free and fell about two thousand feet down a bottomless well: her eyes rolled back in her head, her knees buckled, and she fell bonelessly against the astonished Levi Rosenthal.
Levi never lacked for physical strength, nor for speed of his reflexes: as soon as Bonnie’s color drained and her eyes rolled up white, he started to move: now he stood, the limp woman in his arms, limbs dangling and head lolled back, and Levi did what many men do when faced with an absolutely unexpected moment with an absolutely lovely female.
By his recollection, and as he told the Sheriff later, “I opened my mouth and something really stupid fell out!”
The “something really stupid” actually was quite understandable:
“My God, what do I do now?”

As the boss twisted and collapsed, was caught and borne up in strong, manly arms, as the cast-aside, pearl-grey Derby wobbled slowly through the air on its way to the floor, every sewing machine stopped, every chattering scissors silenced, every set of eyes looked up at the tall, handsome man with concern on his face and their boss in his arms, and every woman there thought the same thing:
I would give all I have to be her right now!

Bonnie’s eyes fluttered open and she passed the back of her hand across her eyes, puzzled.
A moment ago she was in the production room, and now she was in her office –
Why am I on my couch? she thought, and then she realized she wasn’t alone.
Levi sat in a chair beside her couch, smiling quietly.
She blinked, sat up, looked around, looked at Levi.
Levi’s voice was gentle, as gentle as it had been the last time she’d seen him, the night she tasted his lips and a fire ignited deep in her belly, the night she realized she could feel again, she could love again, she could want someone again.
Even the gentleness in his smile, his eyes, was the same.
Bonnie swallowed and looked at Levi with big, vulnerable eyes, and she knew that whatever he said next would be the first words they’d exchanged since that night on her front porch that she pushed him away and told him to leave, that she hated him, that didn’t need him or any other man –
Bonnie remembered her words, and held her breath, and Levi opened his mouth and spoke, and had Bonnie not been half-reclined and well supported on the couch, she just might have melted into a puddle there on her office floor.
“I would have settled for hello.”

 

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Linn Keller 2-23-12

 

“Do you want the honors,” the Sheriff asked quietly, “or shall I?”
Jackson Cooper rested a gentle hand on his old friend’s shoulder and considered.
“Father,” he said, and the Sheriff did not miss the mischief in the big lawman’s eyes, “you heard her confession and you know more about the case than I do. I would be obliged if you’d handle this one.”
The Sheriff nodded, his bottom jaw easing forward as he thought: he frowned a little, rubbed his chin.
“Jackson Cooper,” he said, “how do you think I would look with a beard?”
“You would look better than I did,” Brother William admitted as he came through the door. “My beard is so sparse it’s not worth the effort!”
“Mmm.” The Sheriff stroked his mustache. “Me dear Pappy said every man ought to have a beard once in his life at least.”
Jackson Cooper nodded wisely, stroking his own face fur.
“If my brain hasn’t turned entirely to sawdust,” the Sheriff continued with a straight face, “the man never had so much as a head cold as long as he had that beard.”
Jackson Cooper frowned and nodded a confirmation to this observation.
“I’ll go through her effects and see who she is, then,” the Sheriff said quietly, then looked at Jackson Cooper.
“I learned to hate writing death notices during the War,” he said, his voice rough: “somehow I can’t shake that dislike.”
“Why do you think I’m not doing it?” Jackson Cooper rumbled, his hand tightening gently on the Sheriff’s shoulder. “Besides, your hand writing is about the best I’ve seen. Mine –“ he shrugged.
“Sarah’s got me beat,” the Sheriff said and instantly regretted opening his mouth: Jackson Cooper’s eyes changed and the Sheriff knew the town marshal was still castigating himself for what he saw as a brutal act of betrayal on someone he saw as pretty, delicate and still kind of little-girly.
“Esther does, too, but I doubt if she’ll take on my secretarial detail.” The Sheriff tried to steer the conversation away from his gaffe. “Brother William, did you gather any further intelligence?”
“Spoken like a military man,” Brother William smiled.
“Old habits die hard.”
“I know. You still pace off on the left, you carry objects in the left hand to leave the right free to return a salute, and twice now I’ve seen men salute you and you returned the salute as if it were the most natural thing in the world.”
“Hmp,” the Sheriff grunted. “I’m as transparent as a window.”
“Only to your wife,” Jackson Cooper assured him.
“I spoke with the girls taking care of the room,” Brother William offered. “Tilly showed me the sign-in, there is a name and an address, and an envelope addressed to the police.”
“Easterner,” the Sheriff and Jackson Cooper said together; they looked at one another and laughed.
“Well, horse’s feathers,” the Sheriff said, “I reckon I’ll get into her bags and see what’s there.”

“Jacob,” Annette called, worry in her voice, “be careful!”
Jacob reared his stallion, waving his hat and laughing: little Joseph, standing upright in the saddle behind him, clutched his Pa’s coat, threw back his head and howled with delight.
Annette’s hand went to her mouth, her other over her stomach, as she watched the paint stallion gallop easily across the frost-bright field, gold now, fiery gold in the morning sun: her husband and son were silhouetted against a glorious morning sky, Jacob’s laugh floating in the chill breeze behind him, their little boy standing upright behind the saddle, looking at the world with bright and fearless eyes.

One of the Kolascinski boys stopped and bent over, hands on his knees: he was only a few minutes from the schoolhouse and the bell hadn’t been rung yet so he knew he was safe, and besides, he was curious.
The little red-headed Irishman grinned up at him.
“Boadicea!” he declared.
“Hello to you too!” young Master Kolascinski replied, laughing, for Sean’s progeny had a contagious grin: although he’d never heard of the Celtic warrior-queen, the schoolboy recognized a comradely greeting when he heard one.
“Where are you headed?” he asked, looking around: they two were alone on the street, the long red rays of morning sun’s first efforts painting everything around them, and they two as well, with a rich, red, warm illumination.
Sean Michael pointed to the brick firehouse and declared, “Da!”
“Your Da is in there?”
Sean Michael nodded, grinning.
The Kolascinski lad set his books down and peeled quickly out of his coat, for little Sean Michael was but lightly dressed: he picked up the newly insulated little Irishman and set out for the firehouse on the quick-step, his breath steaming along behind him.

Maude knew heating the attic room was an extravagance, but she hadn’t the heart not to: the roses were beginning to green up and stretch after their winter’s hibernation, and the stems were noticeably bent toward the windows.
I’ll wait a few days before I turn them, she thought, remembering how WJ used to tend them, turn them, transplant them; they were his gift to their little church, and his gift gave beauty even now, years after his mortal shell was consigned to the earth he so loved to till.
Maude wrapped her arms around herself and took a long breath, and almost, almost, she could smell JW, and feel his arms around her, and in her mind’s ear she heard his whisper, the way he did every morning.
Who is to say that, in that moment, his shade had been granted parole, and returned for a moment, just that one moment, to once again embrace the woman he loved more than any other, in a place they both loved so well?
Maude closed her eyes, remembering his voice, feeling his breath on her ear…
“You are the fairest flower in all the earth.”

Francois Rivolier shuffled the cards, leaning back a little in his chair.
He wore a round hat with a wide brim, curled a little on the sides, his suit was immaculate, his shoes gleamed; his face was relaxed, unreadable, and he leaned forward, dealing cards to the other three players.
Francois was not known to the other players; he was the best dressed but not the only one well dressed: it was not unusual for a man to wear a suit to town, nor was it unusual for a man to wear his work attire to town: the Silver Jewel had no dress code, and welcomed men of all walks, for men universally have a thirst for drink and an appetite for food, and generally they both hungered and thirsted for the sight of a pretty girl as well.
The Silver Jewel invariably provided the first two; the third was also generally available, though to slake their baser appetites, a house (or a House, if you prefer), had been built not far away.
The Silver Jewel, though, remained the most popular, and for a variety of reasons.
Francois was finding the atmosphere very much to his liking.
The beer was good and fresher than most; the music wasn’t bad, the place was far cleaner than he’d ever expected, and – the greatest surprise of all – the gambling was straight.
Francois was a cheat, to be sure, but this could be said of most professional gamblers; Francois was not, however, a fool: he played a straight game and watched, and listened.
One of the players at his table was cheating.
Francois noticed the quiet-eyed lawman (he could always spot les flics!) trying not to be seen, drifting closer, eyes busy; Francois folded his hand, politely excused himself, and took his beer back to the bar.
He returned to another table, joined the game just starting there.
Not three minutes later, the lawman seized the cheat’s wrist with one hand, the back of his neck with the other: the cheat was exposed as having a spring loaded hold-out device up his loose sleeve, and was soon stripped to the waist, exposing the clever mechanism in its entirety, to the entertainment and applause of all present.
None approved of cheating, most did cheat to some degree, but all admired the workmanship and function of the device; a few followed the fellow outside, though none of them were in the firm grip of … what was his name again? – yes, Landers.
Francois had heard of this Landers, and knew him by reputation.
So far Francois hadn’t seen that pale-eyed Sheriff, either, nor the moving mountain of a town marshal.
He was a bit disappointed at not seeing the most recent dancing-girl, a young and pretty one from what he’d heard, one Dolly something-or-other, late of Cripple Creek: Francois did enjoy the sight of a lovely lady, and had hoped to rest his eyes upon something other than rough masculinity.
Francois smiled as Landers came near the table, spread his hand and studied it briefly: placing two face-down on the green-covered table, he said “I will take two cards, please.”

The Sheriff rose.
“Yes, ma’am, can I help you?”
The woman waited until the Sheriff drew out a chair for her: her seat was graceful, her movements smooth, her attire modest and her build slight but athletic.
About Sarah’s size, the Sheriff thought, and resumed his seat behind his desk.
The woman was not entirely comfortable; few people were, when they came to see the Sheriff, and the pale-eyed lawman with the iron-grey mustache wondered why she came to him instead of the Marshal.
“Sheriff,” she began hesitantly, “I wish …”
She swallowed.
“I would like to know if …”
The Sheriff saw her as a woman in conflict; his quick mind ran over several scenarios which would explain her discomfiture, dismissed them all until he had more information.
“Sheriff, I wanted to inquire about someone who may be, who may have gotten into trouble.”
The Sheriff nodded, once.
“She was accused of a murder and I wondered what became of her.”
“Murder,” the Sheriff said quietly, his eyes shifting to the door: if it were open, he would be able to see the Silver Jewel from where he sat, and the only woman he knew of, recently accused of murder, was Dolly LaBoeuf.
Dolly was about Sarah’s size, the Sheriff thought, blinking slowly.
Just like this woman.
“I understand she –“ the woman stammered. “I saw her carried across the street.”
The old lawman nodded, once.
“And you were where?” The Sheriff appeared relaxed, casual; he leaned back in his chair, laced fingers over his flat belly.
“I was just getting into the stage. At, at the mercantile.” She gestured quickly, nervously.
“Miss LaBoeuf,” the Sheriff said, his voice quiet but resonant in the little log fortress, “you are no longer wanted on any charges.”
The woman paled, shrank as if part of herself had just been drained suddenly into the floor.
“You know me,” she gasped. “How did you know –“
The Sheriff smiled quietly, raised a forestalling palm.
“I’m a lawman. I find things out. You are wanted as material witness in a case of assault, but you are not wanted for any criminal offense. It seems charges are pending against the man who attacked you, but they’re about to let him go because there is no one to testify against him.”
“Then the woman I saw –“
“The woman with whom you changed clothes.”
“Yes.” Dolly’s voice was thin, hesitant; her hands clutched the arms of the chair.
“She is not in custody, if that is what you are asking.”
“She’s not in jail – in prison?”
“No.”
Dolly closed her eyes, crushed her kerchief in her fist. “Oh thank God!” she whispered.
The Sheriff considered his next words carefully.
“What will you do now?”
Dolly swallowed.
It felt as if two and a half tons had just been lifted off her shoulders; her belly started undoing the knots into which it had been wrapped for a few days.
“I’m free to go?”
The Sheriff nodded.
Dolly’s eyes drifted over to the right-hand wall, came back to the Sheriff.
“I don’t have much money,” she admitted. “I took in some sewing … all I really know is performing.”
The Sheriff’s expression was kindly.
“Miss LaBoeuf,” he said, “I happen to know the Silver Jewel is in need of an entertainer. They have one but she’s not much good, not as good as I was told you are. I think we can arrange a pay advance if you’re willing to go to Cripple and swear out an affidavit or testify against your attacker, and I think I’m safe in saying you’ll have a job when you get back.”
It took a few moments for Dolly to take all this in.
“You weren’t expecting this.”
“No.”
The Sheriff opened his top left drawer, reached in; he stood, withdrew a few coins.
“Here you go,” he said, walking over to Dolly and holding out four, five-dollar gold pieces. “This will get you there and get you back.”
Dolly rose, accepted the largesse, dropped the coins in her reticule.
The Sheriff saw she was thinking hard.
“Sheriff,” she said, “I saw the woman they thought was me – I saw she was under arrest.”
The Sheriff nodded.
“Is she all right?”
The Sheriff looked away, then looked back.
“Sheriff, I’d like to apologize to her.”
The Sheriff withdrew his watch, pressed the stem: the front cover swung open, revealing Esther’s hand painted portrait: he considered the time, nodded, closed the cover.
“If you head for the depot,” he said, “you’ll have just enough time to catch the train to Cripple.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
The Sheriff waited until Dolly was gone, and the door closed, before he drove his fist into the door.

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Linn Keller 2-24-12

 

The maid stopped at Levi’s acerbic but quiet-voiced comment: Levi and Bonnie both saw her spine stiffen, her head raise; she did not respond to Levi’s words, but instead waited unmoving for a few moments, then continued her silent tread toward the foot of the stairs.
“I take it I said something wrong?” Levi murmured half-cynically.
He stopped when he saw the ice in Bonnie’s eyes.
“I said something wrong,” he said.
Bonnie never moved.
Levi shifted uncomfortably. “Look, all I wanted was for her to refill my coffee and when she said she had to attend Sarah –“
He stopped, closed his mouth, tried again.
“All I said was, can’t the Queen get dressed by herself?”
Bonnie’s eyes crackled.
Levi could almost smell the wool of his suit starting to smolder.
“I seem… to have erred,” he said slowly.
Levi knew the right thing to do was wait, but it was the longest, most uncomfortable wait he’d ever endured, not discounting the time he’d been kept at idle outside the office of the President of the United States, nor the time he’d waited for a royal backside chewing from the Chief of the Secret Service – and when the Chief burst from behind closed doors some three hours later, he’d motioned Levi to come with him, then seized him by the arm and brought him before the Secretary of War, who pumped Levi’s hand most heartily and congratulated him on a matter of some secrecy which he’d handled most discreetly.
Bonnie did not shift, wiggle, budge, nor reach for her cup of tea.
Neither did the accusing gimlets of her eyes shift from Levi’s reddening face.
Levi drained what was left in his cup, ate nervously of a slice of buttered bread; he looked at Bonnie, looked around the kitchen, measured the distance to the front door and finally thought to lighten the moment: “Is this where I’m stood in front of a firing squad, then?”
Bonnie did not so much as nod.
Levi considered this strange dichotomy of the female of the species: how her glare could be so utterly cold, and at once so hot he felt as if she could slice red-hot ribbons from his skin with a mere shift of her eyes.
His watch said a full half hour passed; his backside was half-numb and he was almost ready to leap to his feet and sprint for the nearest portal when he heard movement upstairs.
Well, he thought, something is happening.
His eyebrows quirked at the halting footsteps, the distinct, hollow thump of a steel-shod cane on the carpet covering the stair treads.
He turned his head a little, frowning, then looked at Bonnie.
Her glare would have frozen a running stream.
He looked away from her, looked toward the stairs.
The maid preceded a figure – the maid was walking backwards, one hand on the railing, one hand holding the … the old woman, the one I saw in Bonnie’s carriage? he thought.
Old woman?
Does she have family here that I don’t …
If this is her mother … and her mother is also named Sarah

The pair made their slow descent: it was evident the old woman was crippled, in pain; Levi knew what it was to hurt when he moved, and this woman was moving with all the care of someone with broken bones, with serious but healing injuries.
She wore a bonnet, its bell thrown forward to conceal her features; her head was bowed and she moved with small, careful steps: her right arm was in a sling, the upper arm bound to her body with an encircling band around her chest – collarbone, Levi thought – the maid steadied the old woman, carefully maintaining one hand on her upper arm, the other behind the old woman’s back, gripping a good handful of material at the opposite waist.
Levi stood as they approached.
It was almost painful to watch them labor across the little distance between the foot of the stairs and the dining room.
The maid whispered to the old woman; the old woman nodded, a little, hesitant nod, and the maid loosed the bonnet-strings, then looked with contempt at Levi.
Her head came up and Levi saw her take a good breath and Levi had the distinct feeling this hired slavey was about to give him a good tongue lashing; he was about ready to tell her and Bonnie just where to go, when the maid pulled back the old woman's bonnet and declared, “May I introduce the Queen!”
Sarah raised her head slowly, carefully, looked at Levi from a face that still bore the ugly purples of a serious beating: the white of her one eye was still red and her lip and eyebrow were obviously healing: her mouth was open and she was laboring to breathe.
Sarah had spent most of her strength simply letting the maid dress her and prepare her for the day: what few energies Sarah still possessed were almost completely spent by the walk downstairs, and to the dining room.
She had strength enough for six words, if they were short.
Sarah gathered absolutely the last of her strength.
“The Queen,” she gasped, “bids you welcome.”
Levi’s eyes were wide with shock as he looked at what used to be a vibrant, healthy, beautiful girl.
“Oh,” he said, staggering a little, “my,” and he grabbed for the back of the chair to steady himself, “GOD!”

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