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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 2-25-12


Little Joseph grinned, his cheeks bright pink, as Annette brushed off his coat.
She squeezed the armpits suspiciously, then carefully hung the damp coat near the stove, open to give it the most chance to dry completely.
“Jacob Keller,” she said, resting her hands on her hips, “why is Joseph’s coat wet?”
Joseph chewed happily on bread dipped in soup, bright eyes shining: he clearly had been having a wonderful time.
“Oh,” Jacob said casually, “I think it got dipped in the crick.”
“Dipped in –“ Annette blurted. “Jacob, why ever did you dip Joseph’s coat in the creek?”
“It’s not so much that I dipped him,” Jacob said, buttering a slice of bread and tearing it into chunks, dropping the chunks in the steaming bowl of good hot soup: “it’s more like … it just sort of happened.”
Annette folded her arms and started to pat her foot.
Jacob blinked innocently, stirred the bread into the soup, took a taste.
“Good soup,” he murmured.
“Good!” little Joseph crowed, waving his last strip of bread crust.
Annette sighed, sat down beside her husband.
“Why is it so hard to get you to talk?”
“It ain’t hard,” he grinned. “Just ask.”
“I did ask.”
“Oh.” He took another dip of soup. “Did I tell you how good this was?”
Annette doubled up a fist, waved it menacingly under his nose.
Jacob took her wrist and kissed her knuckles.
“Well, y’see, it’s like this,” he said, and Annette rolled her eyes, jerked her hand free of his delicate grip: raising her hands toward the ceiling: she tried to maintain a stern and disapproving air and failed utterly and ended up laughing, and little Joseph squealed happily and threw his bread crust to the floor.
“Good!” he yelled.
Jacob dipped up some soup, held it to Joseph’s lips: Joseph slurped noisily, swallowed.
“Well, Joseph kind of fell off the horse,” Jacob said casually.
“Fell off the horse?” Annette echoed.
“Yeah, he, um, kind of got, ah, y’see …” Jacob took another noisy slurp of soup. “Did I tell you how good this is?”
“Good!” Joseph giggled, reaching for the approaching spoon.
“Jacob,” Annette said patiently, “I have a good marble rolling pin. It’s over there on the sideboard. Your mother gave it to me as a wedding gift and she said you were just as hard headed as your father, and I should not hesitate to use it on you, so will you PLEASE tell me what HAPPENED?”
“Good!” Little Joseph declared, spraying bread chunks and soup mist over a surprising square footage of the tablecloth.
“Oh, he didn’t get hurt none, he just sorta ended up in the water.”
“Water? In this weather? How much ice did he have to break to find water?
“Oh, it’s a fast stream, sweet pea, it hadn’t froze in the middle –“
“You dunked our little boy in a running stream in this weather? Jacob Keller, are you entirely sane?
“Now, now, Sweet Pea, I got him out right quick –“
“And I’ll bet he was frozen stiff the moment you pulled him out! Joseph, are you going to get pneumonia from this?”
Joseph opened his mouth, took a huge bite of soggy bread, chewed happily.
“Well, what about the rest of his clothes? Is he sitting there all wet?”
“Oh, no, I got him out and stripped him off –“
“Jacob Keller, I am seriously thinking about that rolling pin!“
“Now, dear heart, he didn’t even get cold, did you, fella?”
“Good!” Joseph crowed, splatting his hands in a puddle of cold soup on the table in front of him.
“Oh dear heavens, I shall have to give him a bath, a good hot bath –“ Annette glared over a non-existent pair of spectacles at her husband.
“And after you stripped our soaking wet little boy buck naked in the frost and the cold, then what?”
“Oh, I wrapped him up in my coat and built me a fire, and we cooked his clothes some.”
“Is that why he smells of wood smoke,” Annette said faintly. “Joseph, I shall get your flannel nightshirt –“
“He’ll need his work clothes,” Jacob said mildly, tilting the bowl up and drinking the dregs from it. “We’re gonna throw some hay this afternoon and he’ll need his work duds, hey fella?”
Little Joseph was busy licking the soup off his fingers.

Francois leaned back in his chair, loafing comfortably with a cheroot in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.
The Jewel was moderately full, as he’d observed it generally was; business was good, it was steady; not all was gambling – a good enough portion was, he knew, to make it quite profitable, but there was a surprising amount of traffic from people coming in to slake their thirst, have a good meal and good conversation … and enjoy the floor show.
Like Francois.
He sipped the wine, sighing with pleasure: the vintage was excellent, the bouquet remarkable; it was supposed to be an American wine, but it obviously was of good French stock: these Americans, he thought, can make better dishwater than they can wine!
I know these things.
I am a Frenchman!

Francois enjoyed the sight of a pretty girl, and right now he was enjoying the sight of just such a delight.
Dolly LaBoeuf – or so the sign at the side of the stage declared – was doing a fair can-can, and Francois had to admit she’d had some classical training.
Of course she was not as good as a Frenchwoman at doing a French dance, these American dancers stumbled about the stage like dray-horses and were not worth a good man’s time – but her name was, after all, LaBoeuf, and this meant she was a native Frenchwoman, and therefore suitable for his attention.
He was, after all, a Frenchman.
Besides, she looked really, really good up on stage like that, snapping her petticoats back and forth, high-kicking with an ease and a grace that comes from natural talent as well as training and experience.
Francois was a man of natural urges; he was a man who, like many men, believed himself irresistible to the ladies, and Francois, after a third glass of wine, determined that he would enjoy the charms of this lovely French flower.
The idea that she might not want his attentions never entered his head.
Francois’s room was upstairs; this was his third day as a guest in the Jewel; the accommodations were clean (quelle surprise!), the food good (oh, very good!) and now … now, Francois thought, he knew from watching this Dolly LaBoeuf for two days, she will retire to her dressing room, and there I will happily press himself upon her virtue!
He was, after all, a Frenchman!
Francois rose, placing the wineglass carefully on the table: he adjusted his silk low topper at a jaunty angle, tugged at his waistcoat to ensure it was free of wrinkles, and strode purposefully toward the back hall.
Mr. Baxter and Tom Landers exchanged glances as soon as the man took the first step in that direction.
Mr. Baxter raised a finger and his chin and a young fellow, old enough to be out of school but young enough he didn’t have a paying job yet, came over to see what the genial barkeep wanted.

Dolly heard the doorknob turn.
“Go away,” she called automatically, pulling free the shoe she had almost completely unbuttoned, and heaving it against the door frame, hard.
Francois smiled, stepped inside, removed his expensive hat.
“Ah, mademoiselle,” he smiled, “at last we are alone!”
Dolly rose, awkward on one shoe: she looked around for something, anything to use as a weapon: she decided not to waste time cussing herself for not locking the door as she usually did, but nothing had happened since the great misunderstanding that almost got her mauled by that walking mountain of a Town Marshal, and she’d relaxed her guard and gotten careless … and now a man with an immaculately-curled mustache, a tailored suit and a lustful leer staggered a bit as he came across the room at her.
Dolly did what came naturally.
Dolly was a dancer.
Dolly specialized in high kicks.
Dolly’s legs were muscled and toned, and without going into indiscreet detail, Francois found his ardor rather disabused from the swiftness and accuracy of Dolly’s delivery.
She kicked with the foot that was still contained in the high-button shoe, and the impact had a most salutary effect upon the amorous (and somewhat intoxicated) Frenchman: his eyes snapped wide open, as did his mouth, and Dolly knew he was experiencing probably the most unbelievably painful, agonizing moment of his entire young life.
Francois froze, half bent over, both hands to his crotch, and Dolly, gathering her strength, shoved him hard with both hands, screaming at the top of her voice as she did.
Francois fell back against the wall, his head bouncing off the woodwork, and he slid slowly to the floor, gurgling a little.
The door swung open and Jackson Cooper ducked slightly to keep from knocking his hat off: he looked around at the half-dressed Dolly, standing with her knees knocked together, both hands to her mouth and her eyes the size of silver dollars: he looked down at the groaning Francois, hands still covering his most grievous injury; he looked around and asked in a surprisingly gentle voice, “Miss Dolly, are you hurt?”
Wide-eyed, Dolly LaBoeuf shook her head.
“Miss Dolly, did he try to harm you?”
Dolly LaBoeuf's eyes squeezed tight shut and she nodded her head.
Jackson Cooper reached down and seized the man by the coat: his big hand wadded up a big bunch of material between the man’s shoulder blades, he scooped up the silk low topper with the other, straightened.
He held Francois as easily as he would hold a carpet bag.
A small, empty carpet bag.
“I will take care of him,” Jackson Cooper said. “Lock the door behind me.”
Dolly watched the door close, heard the latch click; she sat down in the upholstered fainting-couch, shaking like she had a fever and a chill both at the same time.
There was a knock; the door opened.
“Miss LaBoeuf?” Tom Landers called.
Dolly LaBoeuf stood, folding her hands in front of her, and made a little sound of distress.
Tom Landers stepped just barely inside the door.
“Miss LaBoeuf, can I get you anything?”
Tom Landers fell back against the wall as Dolly LaBoeuf slammed into him and seized the aging lawman around the middle, clinging to him like a drowning man clutches a life-ring in a rough sea: her face was buried in his coat and he felt her shivering, heard her childlike, fearful whimper.
Tom Landers, long years ago, had a daughter; Tom Landers knew what it was to hold his daughter when she was afeared, whether of a tornado, or of a nightmare, and Tom Landers held the terrified young dancer, murmuring quietly to her and rubbing her back.
“There, now, you’re safe, you’re fine,” he soothed in a fatherly voice, “I will not let anyone harm you, shhh, now, you’re doing all right, just hold onto me now, that’s a good girl.”
The door latch clicked and the door opened a bit; Jackson Cooper leaned in to take a look.
“I heard something,” he said, “are we okay?”
Tom Landers nodded, his arms around the shivering, whimpering dancer.
“We will be, I reckon,” he said quietly.

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Linn Keller 2-26-12


Sarah accepted the seat Levi pulled out for her, and was grateful that he slid her closer to the table.
She closed her eyes against the pain and the fatigue, willing herself to calm: she knew others had suffered injuries far worse, that she was young and strong and she healed well, and she could reasonably expect to return to her young, strong self.
She told herself the pain would pass.
Opal and Polly sat across from her, beside her Mama: big-eyed and solemn, they watched Sarah's pained progress, waiting until Sarah was into position before looking quickly around, anticipating their breakfast.
Sarah's injuries listened to her silent conversation with herself, waiting until she was finished before screaming in unison, “LIAR!!!” – and Sarah’s breathing changed: it was more labored, quicker, and Levi looked from Bonnie to Sarah and back, taking his cue from Bonnie.
Sarah raised a hand, waved it back and forth a fraction of an inch:
I’ll be all right.
Bonnie nodded, a bare quarter-inch of a nod; she knew Sarah could not see it, for Sarah’s eyes were closed as she sought to contain her agonies: two days before, Bonnie offered to allow Sarah to remain abed until her ribs knit, only to be met by the pale-eyed glare of her strong-willed daughter.
“Allow her such activity as she will tolerate,” was Dr. Greenlees’ advice; he’d replaced the collar bone in its recess and bound the arm in place, instructing Bonnie on the re-binding, for Dr. Greenlees knew Sarah to be a cleanly young woman, and would want to wash under her wounded wing.
Bonnie rose and went to the cupboard, drew out a bottle: she dispensed a small amount of brownish liquid in a shot glass, diluted it with something water clear and brought it to the table.
Opal and Jade paused in their breakfasting, watching their mother with bright and curious eyes.
“Sarah,” she said quietly, “I want you to drink this.”
Sarah’s eyes were still closed; she raised her left hand, her fingers cupped to receive the tincture: she hesitated, grimaced, then slugged it back, downing it with a gulp and a gasp and the face of a Moorish idol.
She stuck her tongue out and gasped, swallowed again.
Bonnie was watching Sarah with motherly concern; Levi was watching Bonnie with mixed feelings: part of him thought, "This is the kind of woman I do want for my wife" -- then he felt the heat rush to his face, for though he'd intended to delicately extend some preliminary feelers, he knew this was absolutely the wrong place and time to even begin anything of the sort.
Besides, he'd made a donkey of himself earlier.
The twins looked at the shuddering face Sarah made; they turned to one another, stuck out their tongues and made a silent "Eeeww!" -- but turned their faces forward again, eyes bright and innocent and without any trace of their moment's merry mockery.
“I know it doesn’t taste good, dear,” Bonnie said in a motherly voice, and Sarah refrained from telling her just how bitter it did taste – there was a salty phrase involving the flavor of second hand owl food she’d heard her Uncle Linn use time and again, when he didn’t think she was in earshot – but being a lady, she refrained from giving voice to the profane but accurate comparison.
I think it’s accurate, she thought, then, How does he know what owl pellets taste like?
She felt the warmth of a human body – close, very close – and heard a quiet gurgle straight ahead of her, and she knew the maid was pouring her tea: another couple of moments and Sarah dared open her eyes, just as a plate of bacon and eggs settled in front of her.
Sarah took a cautious sip of tea.
Whatever that stuff was her Mama poured down her was palatable as gall and was not sitting well on her stomach.
Levi cleared his throat – delicately, perhaps because he felt a bit nervous – and he murmured to Sarah, “Please tell me that you are improved?”
Sarah swallowed and cleared her throat.
The tincture’s bitterness lingered unpleasantly in the back of her tongue.
“Yes,” she wheezed, and hazarded a cautious bite of buttered toast.
Her stomach was instantly of the opinion that she should send the rest of it down the hatch, so to speak, along with a full loaf of the stuff, lightly toasted and thickly buttered, if you please.
“How,” Levi began, then hesitated.
He’d already committed a sizable faux pas already, earning the cold ire of maid and matron both, not to mention Sarah’s verbal incision.
“How did, it happen?” Sarah husked.
“Um, yes, if it would not be an intrusion.”
"Sawwah wode a gwizzly beaw," Polly offered.
"Off a cwiff," Opal added helpfully.
“I was stupid," Sarah said bluntly, her voice rough, harsh.
Levi blinked at the frankness of Sarah's answer: even though incomplete, it told him Sarah was most unhappy with herself, that she was taking responsibility for whatever it was that left her looking like she’d been run over by a freight wagon.
“She was mistaken for a murderess,” Bonnie offered, giving the twins a wink and a motherly look, but her voice never lost its serious tone.
“Simply because Sarah tried on a costume. It was nothing but sheer circumstance, but a very … a very ill circumstance.”
Sarah cut a slice of fried egg, doubled it over, speared it with her fork.
She needed to get something on her stomach before it rebelled, and she knew heaving up her guts would be most unpleasant indeed.
“Mother,” she asked, swallowing hard, “have we any mint?”
Bonnie rose, flowed quickly across the kitchen, plucked a bundle of dried plant material from its hook on the side of the cupboard: she swung around the table, crumbled it quickly in Sarah’s tea.
The smell of mint quickly filled the kitchen.
“Give it just a minute, dear, it needs to steep –“
Sarah seized the teacup, gulped greedily, swallowed: she downed the rest of the cup of tea, set it down, picked up what was left of the half-slice of toast, awkwardly using it to mop the mint leaf fragments before devouring them.
She was only just in time.
The mint was just what was needed to settle her stomach.
“Mother,” Sarah gasped, “what was that stuff you had me drink?”
“Laudanum, dear,” Bonnie said, laying the backs of her fingers against Sarah’s cheeks, her forehead.
Her mother's fingers were cool, soothing on her skin.
“Uncle Linn did that, too,” Sarah whispered.
“Is the pain any less?” Bonnie asked, her eyes serious.
“Yes,” Sarah lied. She knew it would take laudanum longer than that to work, sometimes up to a half hour, if she didn’t throw up first.
“I’ll get you more – thank you, Mary,” Bonnie said as she moved aside and the maid reached in to refill Sarah’s teacup.
Sarah waited a few moments longer before starting again on her eggs.
Eggs were easy on the stomach.
Levi thought perhaps he would drive back into town – he’d stayed overnight at the Silver Jewel; it would be a scandal if a single man were to stay with a single woman, alone! – and he began trying to think of a graceful way to take his leave when Sarah swallowed a bite of crisp bacon and said “Levi.”
“Yes, my dear,” Levi said, hoping he was not going to put his foot between his dentures again.
“We need, your help.”
She looked at her mother.
“Are you up for this?” Bonnie asked, a cautioning note in her voice.
Sarah nodded.
“We have, to, Mother. For both, of us.”

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Linn Keller 2-27-12


Sarah leaned on her cane, breathing through her mouth.
Levi watched Bonnie open the carpet bag and withdraw the handcuffs.
Bonnie looked directly at Levi as she closed the handcuff about her gloved wrist.
Levi looked from Bonnie to Sarah and back, not at all sure quite what was going on.
Bonnie held her wrist up, examined the handcuff, then brought the other cuff up and applied it slowly, deliberately, to her other wrist.
The quiet, precise click of its well-made locking mechanism was loud in the barn’s shadowed, dusty silence.
The doors were open, as were the windows; Bonnie wanted light enough to work by, she wanted good visibility: she took a step toward Levi, held up her manacled wrists.
“Take a look,” she said quietly. “Take a long look at this.”
Levi looked at Bonnie, at her wrists, then back to Bonnie’s blazing eyes.
Levi’s ear could not miss the edge in Bonnie’s voice.
“Levi, nothing hurts as deeply as betrayal.
“My own family wanted – no, not my family, but one member – wanted what I had.” She turned her wrists a little, keeping them at eye level. “I was seized, drugged, locked up in these – and those as well” – she turned her head, nodding to the leg shackles draped over the anvil – “I was chained up for torture and murder.
“The Sheriff is the only reason I am alive.
“Sarah was locked up in these same irons” – Bonnie snapped her wrists apart, drawing the chain taut with a quick rattling snap – “when she was mistaken for an escaping murderess. And she was in those as well.” Bonnie tilted her head to the left this time without taking her eyes from Levi’s face.
“I can’t get out of these, Levi. I can’t pull my hands out. I can’t twist or slip or wiggle them out. I am helpless.
“These are made for children and women of slight build. I know, I looked at the manufacturer’s advertisements.” Her laugh was more of a harsh bark. “Made for children! -- and women of slight build!
Bonnie's expression showed the distaste she felt for the words she just spat out.
Bonnie picked up the key, delicately worked it into the lock; the cuff fell open, then the other, and she lay the cuffs, key still in the lock, on the anvil.
Sarah spoke up.
“We could, do this, ourselves,” she said haltingly, “if, I hadn’t, been hurt.”
“Light the forge, Levi,” Bonnie said quietly, “and be our hands!”
Levi nodded, understanding at last why he was in a barn with two lovely ladies and a full set of manacles.
“Tell me what to do.”

Miz Cooper?”
“Yes, Johnathan?”
Johnathan stood, holding his framed slate in both hands in front of him.
“Miz Cooper, when is Miz Sarah coming back? I miss her!”
Emma regarded the schoolboy affectionately.
“I miss her as well, Johnathan, but she must heal from having been injured.”
“How was she injured?” one of the youngest asked, to which a seatmate offered, “She was riding a grizzly bear an’ it jumped off a clift!”
“Cliff, Samuel,” Emma corrected in her gentle voice.
“Yes, Miz Cooper, clift,” Samuel nodded.
“I don’t believe it was a grizzly bear,” Emma Cooper said, smiling sadly, “nor do I think she went over a” – she looked at Samuel – “cliff.”
“Miz Sarah wouldn’t ride a grizzly bear!” one of the little girls said, her eyes big and shining: “she would hit it with a bell and kill it and skin it and make a bear skin coat!”

Levi turned the squirrelcage fan slowly: speed was not required; a steady air flow was what he was after.
Thanks to a trickle of kerosene and a Lucifer match, the double scoop of bituminous coal was heating quicky.
The tools were laid out, ready to hand.
Bonnie picked up the handcuffs as if they were unclean, tossed them onto the red-hot bed of coals.

“Now, class,” Emma Cooper said, “we are going to learn the Gettysburg Address. We will each recite it, from memory, before the entire class. Does anyone know it already?”

Bonnie raised the blacksmith’s sledge overhead, awkwardly, with two hands, but she brought it down hard and very accurately on the glowing-red lock cylinder.
Molten brass squirted out and hit her leather apron, fell to the bare dirt floor.

“I do! I do!”
“I know you do, Samuel. Let’s give someone else a chance, shall we?”
“Yes, Miz Cooper.”

“Let’s put it back in the fire and heat it some more.”

“I don’t know it yet,” a little boy said sadly, hanging his head to the same degree as the angle of his out-thrust bottom lip.
“Nobody’s born knowin’ that,” Samuel whispered to him. “I’ll help you learn it!”

Levi turned the crank, blowing air into the bottom of the firepit and heating the handcuff to a bright cherry, then a dull yellow.
He brought it quickly out, laid it on the anvil and Bonnie, getting the hang of beating something with the hammer, flattened the cuff’s body and hinge, then Levi clamped it with the blacksmith’s tongs and laid it back into the fire.

Little Joseph yawned, a huge, little-boy yawn that was twice as big as he was, and closed his eyes, nodding drowsily.
He’d had breakfast, he was warm and dry, it was time for a nap.
Annette smiled as she looked at her two men, seated side by side at the kitchen table, like a pair of old bears.
Joseph's father warned Annette, the first time they guested under their roof as husband and wife, "Joseph is just like me, and I'm like an old b'ar. Once I get warm and get my belly full, it's time for a naps!"

Levi held the chisel with a pair of pliers and Bonnie coldly, precisely, drove the chisel through the glowing metal with one stroke.
Three strikes to a side, three cuts to each half, and the handcuff was reduced to little scrap pieces.
“Put the other one in now.”

“Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers established upon this continent the preposition that all men are created equal.” Samuel stopped, looked at Emma Cooper. “That isn’t right, is it?”

Levi set the chisel over the first chain link.
One stroke of the hammer was enough to cut both sides of the chain link with one blow.
Bonnie got three links cut before it had to be re-heated.
She swept the still-hot pieces into a pan of water she had waiting for that purpose.

“Proposition,” Emma Cooper corrected in her soft voice. “Preposition is –“
“Proposition!” Samuel crowed. “Proposition that all men are created equal!”
He stopped, and Emma Coooper saw he had another question.
“Miz Cooper,” he said in a puzzled voice, “Pa said he one time propositioned a pretty girl. Is that the same thing?”

“Water?” Levi asked as the half-links hissed and bubbled in the shallow pan.
“Salt water,” Bonnie said.
“Salt water?”
“I intend to utterly destroy these things,” Bonnie said, and there was no mistaking the menace in her voice. “We shall beat them into uselessness, cut them to pieces and then rust them to death. I do not want the least fragment of them to remain!”

“Now we are engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether that nation, or any nation so created –“ Samuel stopped again. “Miz Cooper, why did they called it a Civil War? The Sheriff said there was nothing civil about that war!”

Sarah labored over to the anvil, stood close beside her Mama.
The other handcuff lay glowing, bright and still yellow, little bright sparks flying off it as it lay there, and Sarah wrapped her hand around the blacksmith’s maul.
Sarah’s eyes were big, big and pale and utterly glacial.
Sarah gave a whimper and her hand opened involuntarily.
Levi and Bonnie both saw the pain on Sarah’s face.
Sarah’s expression was fierce; fury roared in her young soul and she seized the hammer handle, lifted it a half inch off the anvil, then her eyes squeezed shut and her head bowed as pain lanced through her young body again.
Levi swung around the end of the anvil, beside Bonnie.
Bonnie wrapped her hand around Sarah’s hand.
Levi wrapped his over top Bonnie’s.
Together the three of them raised the blacksmith’s maul and drove the massive hammer hard on hot steel: they raised the hammer again, and yet a third time: it was as if they as a family were destroying a personal enemy, pounding some evil out of existence: Sarah lost count of the number of times they struck, and she was grateful when Levi released his grip and murmured, “Set it down,” and scooped the flattened cuff back into the fire.
Sarah’s breath was gasping, short, tortured: she recovered as Levi turned the crank, fanning the coals into bright heat, until the cuff glowed anew: Levi picked it up, laid it on the anvil, held the chisel as Sarah and Bonnie together brought the hammer down again, and again, and again, cutting the second cuff into chunks.
Sarah’s vision blurred a little but she clenched her jaw grimly, determined to finish this task she’d purposed.
She had to do this, she had to do it for her Mama, who’d been chained up in these irons.
She had to do it in spite of her pain.
She had to do this for herself.
Bonnie used pliers to flip the cut pieces into the tin pan of salt water as Sarah staggered back, weak, shaking a little: concerned eyes watched as Sarah found herself obliged to lean against a post for several long moments.
She knew she dare not sit down.
Bonnie and Sarah, then Levi and Sarah, buddy-swung the short handled sledge hammer again, and again, and again: the shackles were reduced to scrap as the handcuffs had been: when they were done, Sarah was the color of wheat paste, she was shaking, tears ran freely down both cheeks, but her lips were peeled back in a fighting rictus and her eyes were the color of a glacier’s heart.
Bonnie made sure every piece of metal made it into the saltwater pan; after a week’s soak, she planned to bury the parts in the manure pile, to complete their corrosion.
Bonnie watched as Sarah clung to Levi’s arm: she watched how the man matched his step to her halting, pained gait, how he patiently waited for those moments when she had to stop to catch her breath: she noted how he listened most carefully to Sarah’s interrupted, dyspneic speech.
Bonnie needed a focus for her anger, and she’d found one: it lay in fragments in the salt water bath.
She knew if she’d waited much longer, Levi might well have become the focus of her ill temper, and she wanted most sincerely to prevent that from happening.
Bonnie was a woman who recognized her passions, but a woman who could also think coldly and rationally – and could do both at the same time.
Bonnie looked at Levi, at the care he was taking with Sarah.
Bonnie’s eyes were calculating; Bonnie’s eyes narrowed a little:
I think I’ve made a good choice in this one.
If I am to re-marry, I damn well intend to choose better than I did last time!

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Linn Keller 2-28-12


“Mama?” Opal asked, eyes bright and sparkling.
“Yes, sweets?” Bonnie said, noting down another entry into the ledger.
“Mama, can Sawwah have another boyfriend?”
“Pweeeze?” Polly echoed.
Bonnie blinked.
Her concentration disappeared like a soap bubble breaking in the summer sun.
Bonnie laid her pen in the open ledger, turned, removing her spectacles, and regarded her twin girls.
Polly and Opal stood side by side, both little girls trying very hard to look innocent, and had they not chocolate staining their fingers and around their mouths, they might have succeeded.
Bonnie thought back to earlier in the day, when the boy from town handed her a package, a paper wrapped box tied with string, and a note addressed to “Miss Sarah McKenna,” and Bonnie smiled a knowing smile as she carried it upstairs.
Sarah was still abed; her activities the previous day proved premature, and though she was not terribly tired, she was quite sore: the twins tried to cheer her up earlier, and they followed Bonnie into Sarah’s room, curious: it was not an ordinary thing to receive a package at their house, and especially unusual to have their Mama carry said package to the bedroom, where Sarah was most definitely not ordinarily abed.
Bonnie stepped discreetly back as Sarah read the tag, untied the package; left-handed, as her right arm was still bound closely to her ribs.
A note was inside the paper, hidden.
Sarah opened the little envelope, withdrew a small sheet, read: Bonnie saw her daughter’s faced redden, and Sarah bit her bottom lip uncertainly before she carefully folded the note and returned it to its paper home.
Sarah looked at her mother, her face a healthier color than it had been in some time: “Uncle Linn might say that I’m becoming a passin’ fine southpaw,” she said uncertainly, then dropped her eyes to the package on her lap.
She opened the box and found she’d received a box of good Swiss chocolate.
Bonnie knew of the entire box, only four pieces had been consumed: she and Sarah, Polly and Opal each had one piece.
Sarah asked Bonnie to set the box aside; she declined laudanum – “it is so terribly bitter, Mother,” she said faintly, “I can scarce keep from heaving” – and Bonnie withdrew, bidding the twins come with her.
She’d busied herself with the necessary bookkeeping for her business and realized she’d lost track of time – and of the twins’ whereabouts.
Looking at Polly and Opal, at their hands and the chocolate staining about their mouths, she realized she knew where they’d been.
Bonnie sighed and hoped silently that Sarah didn’t have any great liking for good Swiss chocolate.

Sarah lay very still, willing her collarbone to mend.
The other aches and pains she could stand, but the collarbone was essential to her right arm’s function.
I won’t be slinging a sixgun for a while, she thought, but a blade … yes, a blade: light enough to build my strength and gain my flexibility and my speed, but not heavy enough to damage that healing socket.
Smith’s knives will do well for that.
I can build up from there.
Papa … Uncle Linn … I don’t know what to call him … he told me once, “All things in their own good time.”

Sarah cursed her collar bone, she damned her stupidity, she swore at her idealistic sense of … of what?
Do I have to save the world?
Not the world.
I can’t save the world.
I can save one person … in one moment, save one person … I can do that.

Sarah wanted nothing more than to turn over in bed, to flounce over on her belly and hug her pillow.
She wanted to bury her face in the pillow and scream her damnation of having to wait for her healing’s own good time: she reached under her head, seized her pillow and heaved it across the room.
She closed her eyes, took a long breath, faintly smelled chocolate, and smiled.
The twins had been kind enough to dispose of the chocolates for her.
She smiled because they enjoyed them so.
Sarah ate one piece, and that only because her mother was watching.
She’d asked the twins, when they slipped hopefully back into the room, to help her eat the rest of them.
I do so love chocolate … but I don’t deserve them, she thought, and her collarbone began aching again, throbbing like a toothache.
I do deserve the pain.
Sarah's eyes opened again and they blazed with pale ice-fire.
I need to heal, she thought, I need to get back on a horse!
Pale eyes burned a hole in the ceiling as she stared, and thought, and concentrated ...
The racer is such an unimpressive looking mount, she thought.
I need to keep him for just that reason.
I need a horse that's invisible ... that looks like any other horse ... absolutely unremarkable, absolutely not memorable in any way.
Uninteresting ... but fast!
I'll keep the racer.
I need a horse of my own.
I need something ... spectacular.
I need something big, and black, and very strong, a horse raised in the high country and used to the mountains, a horse ... with a shining coat ...

Sarah closed her eyes, stilling the roiling thoughts churning in her young soul.
I will think about horses, she thought, taking a long breath and letting it out slowly.
She shut her eyes.

Bonnie looked in on Sarah an hour later.
She is sleeping, the poor dear, Bonnie thought, studying her daughter’s pallid, lined face.
She is pale again, Bonnie thought.
So very pale.
Sarah hadn’t been resting well at night, Bonnie knew, and had consistently refused the bitter-tasting opium decoction.
Maybe she can get some rest now, Bonnie thought: even relaxed in slumber, Sarah still looked worn, exhausted.
I’ll speak to Mary and ask her to keep the twins quiet.
Bonnie picked up the empty box and the paper wrap, and it wasn’t until she’d left the room that she realized she’d picked up the note with the paper.
Bonnie carried the box downstairs, smoothed its coarse brown wrapping paper: the twins, she thought, can draw on this. I’ll save it for them.
She looked at the envelope, turned it over, turned it back.
Miss Sarah McKenna, she read: the hand was firm, masculine, the characters carefully shaped, regular and upright, clear and legible.
It won’t hurt to read the note, she thought.
I am he mother, after all.
She unfolded the note.

Polly looked up at the maid, eyes bright and innocent: Mary carefully wiped the little girl’s hands free of the staining chocolate: to her credit, Polly hadn’t stained her frock – if she were a boy, Mary thought, he’d have this all over his shirt and like as not his trousers too!
“Mawwy,” Polly asked, “where does chock-lit come from?”
Polly still had trouble with her Rs, but she was getting better; they didn’t all sound like Ws, especially here of late.
Opal’s hands and face were clean now, and a good thing: she put her hands on her hips and frowned.
“Evwybody knows chock-lit comes from boyfwiends,” she said.
“Oh.” Polly’s additional response was lost in the damp cloth Mary used to clean chocolate from her face.

Bonnie folded the note and replaced it in the envelope.
The words themselves were innocent enough.
Please accept the accompanying as my wishes for your swift and complete recovery.
I am told on good authority that chocolate is therapeutic in recovering from a fall from horseback.

Emma Cooper had already spoken with Bonnie that day, passing along the comment from one of the schoolchildren that “Miss Sarah” was riding a grizzly bear and went over a cliff, no doubt while wrestling the dread creature for possession of its fur coat: Bonnie smiled quietly at the memory, then looked toward the stairway.
The note was Sarah’s, and Bonnie would return it to her daughter’s dresser, where the empty box and its wrapping paper had been: she looked at the envelope and sighed.
“Mister Llewellyn,” she murmured, remembering the good-natured, red-shirted Welsh Irish firefighter, “do you have intentions toward my daughter?”

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Linn Keller 2-29-12


The Sheriff rode loose and relaxed, smiling to himself.
His copper mare surprised him again, and he was liking the surprise.
She’d come up with a gait he didn’t recognize, at least until one of the miners came over and marveled at the mare’s height.
The miner’s English wasn’t bad, though he still spoke with the heavy accents of the Slavs; he’d been imported as a hard rock miner, and by all accounts he was a good one, but he also played accordion and sang in his native language.
He never sang unless he was half lit, and he seldom had money enough for drink, but his voice and his playing were good enough he was seldom sober: but drunk or sober he was quiet and polite, and so the Sheriff was surprised when he came over and regarded the red mare with open curiosity.
The Sheriff smiled again as he remembered the conversation, how the man said American horses had only four gaits, but horses in the Old Country had five: traveling horses, he said, were shorter legged but smoother riding, and they had a fast walk, called an amble, a gait that was at once most comfortable and covered ground as well as a slow trot… a gait they could keep up all day long, and all night as well, if need be.
Cannonball came across the gait all by herself and it suited the Sheriff just fine.
He didn’t particularly care if it wasn’t a gait other horsemen instantly recognized.
He did care that she paced along not just smooth but pretty much level.
I recall my first Sun-Witch, and Rey del Sol, he thought. Pasos both and smooth, but Cannonball here – he reached down and stroked her neck – she’s got ‘em beat!
The Sheriff carried a package, wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string; he drew up in front of the McKenna household and was met on the porch by Polly and Opal, smiling and chorusing “Uncle Linn! Uncle Linn!” and he had to pick them both up and spin them around, one way, then the other, before they would let him go inside.
The maid drew open the door for the lawman, who removed his hat and thanked her with a gentle smile; he inquired if Sarah were receiving visitors at this hour, and the maid’s eyes went upstairs, uncertainty in her expression.
“Tell you what,” the Sheriff said, “she’s likely resting and I don’t want to interrupt her.” He handed the maid the package. “If you could give this to her” –
“If it’s chocolate,” Sarah called from the head of the stairs, “don’t bother.”
The Sheriff looked up at Sarah.
She stood barefoot in flannel robe and loose hair, right arm across her belly and clutching a handful of material: she clutched the hand rail, visibly gathering her strength.
“Stand fast,” the Sheriff said, gently removing the package from the maid’s fingers: “no sense workin’ if you don’t have to,” and he took the stairs two at a time, until he was one step below his daughter.
Sarah drew back one step, onto the landing, and lowered herself into the chair her Mama insisted on keeping on the landing: Sarah never knew why this was, but at the moment she was not inclined to argue.
The Sheriff untied string from each end of the wrapping, handed it to Sarah.
Sarah tilted her head, curious, then, with her thighs pressed together and her knees elevated a bit to keep the long, slender package on her lap, she carefully pulled the paper wrapping, and the Sheriff helped her extricate the wrap from the contents.
Sarah picked it up at mid-shaft, turned it slowly, nodding.
It was an ebony walking stick, a gleaming, polished, absolutely flawless black cane: the handle was slender, shaped to fit the hand, almost like a sword handle, and had a small ball on top.
Sarah stood, pushing herself up with the cane’s help.
She stood, nodding.
“Thank you, Uncle Linn,” she said, then she looked up at the pale eyed lawman.
“Thank you, Papa,” she whispered.
The Sheriff took her gently, carefully into his embrace, rubbing her back.
“Ohhh, don’t stop,” she whispered. “I have been in bed so long I am ready to SCREAM! My back itches terribly!”
“Hold still, then,” the Sheriff murmured, and Sarah leaned on the cane, rolling her shoulders forward – her left, at least; she held her right shoulder as still as she possibly could – her Papa scratched her back with an expert’s touch, first with long, vertical strokes, then counter-rotating circles: he knelt as his hands got below the bottom of the rib cage.
Sarah groaned with pleasure, closing her eyes.
Few things feel quite as honestly good as a proper back scratching, and the Sheriff was a past master of the art.
The maid watched, wishing most heartily the man were working on her back, for just watching Sarah getting her back scratched, the maid’s own dorsal surfaces itch out of sympathy!
The Sheriff finished the back scratching with a careful, flat-hand rub from the base of the neck down, then he began slowly, carefully rubbing Sarah’s neck, and very judiciously, kneading and massaging her neck and her shoulders.
“You’re tight,” he said quietly.
“I know. It’s so frustrating just lying there! What I would not give to get up and get a bath, and do something!”
“Are you able?”
“Your pain. Your shoulder. Doc said he ordered activity as tolerated. What can you tolerate?”
“Papa,” she said quietly, so only he could hear, “if I don’t have to go back into that damned bed, I can tolerate a lot!”
They looked downstairs at the maid, who was watching – after all, it would not be proper for a young lady to be unescorted in the presence of a man, even in her own household –
“Did she hear?” Sarah whispered.
“I didn’t hear a thing, dearie,” the maid called up the stairs. “We’ve water enough for your bath, and which dress will you be wanting?”
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow.
So did Sarah.
“The schoolmarm’s dress, please,” Sarah called down.
The maid sighed. “The schoolmarm’s dress!” she fretted. “A lovely young lady, an’ an eligible one a’that, an’ she wants t’ look as dull and uninteresting as a schoolmarm! Why, at her age I wanted t’ look like the belle of the ball an’ collect men like a boy collects cigar bands!”
Sarah looked at her Uncle Linn – her Papa – and leaned on her cane.
“Sarah, raise the stick.”
The Sheriff stepped back a little, or as far as he could on the landing, raising both hands to chin level: his hands were cupped, elbows in.
Sarah smiled a little, gripped the cane as if it were a fencing foil: her eyes widened with pleasure, for the handle was wire-wound, just like a fencing blade.
Sarah raised the cane, swinging it a little, getting used to its weight.
“Let me show you something. Hold it out, but hold it tight.”
The Sheriff placed a gentle hand over Sarah’s, then with the other hand, gave the shaft a slight twist; Sarah felt a click.
“The cane is locked – here” – he turned it back; it clicked. “It’s solid. Now if we turn it – so” – it clicked again – “it’s still securely in place and you can use it for a cane without difficulty and without fear of its coming apart.”
“Coming apart?” Sarah turned her head a little, curious.
“Very slowly, now,” the Sheriff said, “thrust toward me.”
Sarah raised the cane, thrust as the Sheriff’s chest.
He reached up, grasped the cane.
“Now pull.”
Sarah pulled.
Sarah pulled most of a yard of gleaming steel from the cane’s shaft.
Sarah’s eyes widened and her mouth opened in a delighted O of surprise: she stepped back, spun the tip in a quick figure-8, looked up at her Papa, delight bright in her eyes.
His grin was as broad as her eyes were happy.
“I thought you might like that,” he grinned.
“It … it’s just like Aunt Esther’s!” Sarah exclaimed.
“Almost. This is six inches longer. She likes your handle better than hers, too.”
Sarah nodded.
“Now to sheathe the blade – just slide it back in – so” – the Sheriff held the sheathing ebony shaft horizontal, allowing Sarah to guide the blade’s tip into the waiting recess – “sheathe it completely and you’ll feel a click. That’s still the half cock notch and you can separate the two with just a pull. Turn it now” – he grasped cane and Sarah’s hand both, turned it slightly – “and it’ll lock.”
Sarah bit her bottom lip, dropped her eyes shyly.
“Thank you, Papa,” she whispered.
The Sheriff gave her a careful, fatherly hug.

The maid came bustling out of the back room, smiling as she shooed Polly and Opal ahead of her: the twins bounced up to the Sheriff, begging to be picked up again, and he found himself obliged to squat and seize the twins, and pick them up again, and spin them quickly about, and set them giggling back down.
“Off you go, now,” Mary instructed: “you have your lessons, and when Sarah comes back she’ll be reading to you again. Scoot, now!” – and the twins pattered happily into the next room.
The maid tilted her head and regarded the Sheriff warmly.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “I was hoping she would want to come out of that bedroom soon.”
“I think she’s wanted out for some time,” the Sheriff nodded, “but she wanted to heal up.”
“Oh, aye, that’s so,” the maid replied sadly. “When I go past her door a’ night she’s awake an’ tellin’ her bones t’ heal.”
The maid hesitated, then committed a serious breach of social etiquette, and laid her palm gently on the Sheriff’s cheek.
“You mean so very much to her,” she whispered, “especially here of late. I know she’s told me i’ the past she wished you were her father.”
The Sheriff nodded, biting his bottom lip.
Just like Sarah does, the maid thought.
Until I heard her call him Papa, I only suspected.

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Linn Keller 3-2-12


The Sheriff was leaned back in his office chair, boots up on his desk, one crossed over the other.
The Sheriff’s long, slender hands were crossed over his lean belly.
The Sheriff’s hat was tilted down over his face.
Levi hesitated as he saw the relaxed lawman, wavered in the doorway.
“Come on in, Levi,” the Sheriff said quietly, “set yourself down before you let out all the heat.”
How did he know it was me? Levi wondered, the question at odds with the irritation he felt toward the man: he closed the door, pushing until it latched, then he crossed the floor and sat down across from the lawman’s desk.
“Speak your mind,” the Sheriff said, “I’m listenin’.”
“Sheriff,” Levi said, then cleared his throat.
“I got some whiskey if you’ve got a cold,” the lean waisted lawman with the iron grey mustache drawled from under the Stetson’s broad brim.
Levi harrumphed, more a sound of aggravation than a genuine need to clear his throat.
“Sheriff, I understand you’ve been making inquiries about me.”
Levi blurted the accusation, surprised at the uncertainty he felt: Levi genuinely liked the man, but it rubbed him the wrong way to find the Sheriff had been asking rather pointed questions among people who he’d worked with, people he knew, people he’d known.
“You were asking if I am a drunkard or a gambler, a wencher or a trencherman.”
“Would you mind telling me why?”
Levi blinked.
The rangy lawman hadn’t moved, not so much as one finger, from his position when Levi first came through the door: his answers were delivered in a steady monotone, enhanced by being filtered through a layer of pressed felt.
“Is that nope you don’t mind or nope you won’t tell me?”
Levi shook his head, irritation drifting away from him like mist in the morning breeze.
“Sheriff, I came in here ready to argue up one side and down the other, and I just can’t stay mad at you!” he chuckled.
The door opened and Bonnie stepped in, looking at the two men.
Levi rose immediately, hat in hand.
“I’m sorry, am I interrupting?”
“The Sheriff and I were just –“
Bonnie looked at the Sheriff’s boot soles.
“Sheriff, I’d like to talk to you.”
Bonnie’s brow knitted: she looked at Levi.
“Has he been like this all day?”
“Yep,” Levi deadpanned.
“Ooooohhh!” Bonnie steamed, arms stiff and fisted at her sides: she stamped her foot, once, her sharp little heel loud on the smooth puncheon floor.
Whether because of Bonnie’s act, or in spite of it, the tilted office chair flipped out from under the Sheriff: its fall was swift, the noise of its landing spectacular in the quiet, confined space: Bonnie’s eyes widened and she put the gloved fingers of one hand over her lips at the sight of the Sheriff’s boots sticking straight up in the air behind the desk.
Silence reigned for several long moments.
“Yes, Sheriff.”
“Three things.”
“Yes, Sheriff.”
“First, yes, I made inquiries about you.
“I want to make damned sure I am not wrong.
“I’m a pretty good judge of character but I judged your brother completely wrong. He fooled me but good.” The lawman’s voice hardened. “I do not intend to be fooled again.
“Yes, Sheriff.”
“Esther wants you two for dinner tonight if it would not be inconvenient.”
Levi and Bonnie looked at one another; Bonnie smiled a little, nodded.
“We would be pleased to accept your kind invitation,” Levi said formally.
“Good. Now third.”
“Yes, Sheriff?”
“Could you come over here and help me up? I think I’m stuck!”

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Linn Keller 3-2-12


Shorty shook his head as he watched the young woman in the grey schoolmarm dress laboring slowly across the snowy ground between the livery and the schoolhouse.
“You,” he said quietly, his breath steaming in the cold air, “are every bit as hard headed and contrary as your uncle, and him with a corner on the market!”
He turned to Butter, still harnessed to the buggy, automatically assessing the state of the horse flesh, harness, collar: he frowned, looked at her forehooves, bent and picked up the near hoof.
He scraped a chunk of frozen dirt free with his thumb nail, studying the shoe, the nails, the quick: he nodded, grunting.
“I thought so,” he muttered. “I shod you myself, didn’t I?”
He set her hoof down, ran expert hands down her foreleg.
“Mmp,” he grunted again, nodding, then frowned after the retreating form of the pretty young schoolmarm.
“You should have let me drive you to the schoolhouse,” he muttered.

“And who can tell me the names of five signers of the Declaration of Independence?” Miss Emma asked, regarding her class over her round lensed spectacles.
The schoolhouse door opened slowly.
One head, then another, turned, until finally every young neck was turned, every young eye was fixed on the open portal.
A black-ebony cane thumped the floor, a gloved hand grasping its gold knob: there was a little came-and-went, as if the owner of the gloved hand were paused for breath, then there was a general rustle as every student stood.
A familiar figure in schoolmarm grey stepped carefully across the threshold, leaning on the cane: it was evident the move cost her, but there was no mistaking the satisfaction on her face as she brought the other foot after the first, and stood completely within the little schoolhouse.
“Miss Sarah!” – a joyful shout from every young throat, and a mob rushed the smiling young woman: the shouted command of “STOP!” froze every child in his and her tracks, and every set of young eyes grew large and round.
It was the first time any of them could ever, ever remember Emma Cooper raise her voice.
“You will return to your seats,” Miz Cooper said in her schoolmarm’s voice, her expression disapproving: the schoolchildren did so, with reluctant step and guilty expression, and when the last was seated, Emma Cooper cleared her throat and said, “I doubt very much if any of the signers of the Declaration were named Miss Sarah.”
The merry twinkle in her eyes and the smile that slipped into view reached clear to the back row, to the uncertain young woman leaning one-handed on the shining ebony cane.
“Miss Sarah,” Emma Cooper said, lifting her chin, “has been healing from an injury received when she –“ she looked at one of the younger students – “when she rode a grizzly bear over a cliff.”
“I knew it!” young Samuel exclaimed, then shrank under Miz Emma’s warning glare.
“Please be very careful when you are near Miss Sarah. She is healing, but she is not walking well and she is very … sore. The least little bump would be very painful to her.”
“Yes, Miz Cooper,” the schoolhouse full of young voices chorused.
“Miss Sarah.”
“Yes, Miz Cooper.”
“Miss Sarah, we are so very pleased you are returned. I understand Susie is having difficulty with her vowels. Would you be so kind as to assist her in her understanding?”

Jackson Cooper looked sadly across the street, toward the closing door of the little white schoolhouse.
The door was built into the corner of the building and the steps fanned down from this unusual feature; the only other structure Jackson Cooper ever knew of with a door opening on the corner was a beer joint back in Corning.
He’d watched as the pretty young schoolmarm walked slowly, steadily, from behind the fine stone municipal building, and up beside the schoolhouse.
His belly sank under the weight of a leaden mass as he watched Sarah – Sarah, no more than a girl herself, walking like an old woman, walking slow and painful and with a cripple stick.
Jackson Cooper’s shoulders sagged under the realization that he was the reason this pretty girl was crippled up, and might be for the rest of her life.

Sarah stood in front of the chalk board, the lump of chalk held between thumb and two fingers.
Samuel stood beside her, holding the gleaming ebony cane.
“Now tell me again, what are the vowels in the alphabet?” she asked gently, smiling down at the blond haired little girl.
“A,” Susie said, finger to her lips, swinging back and forth and flaring her skirt, and Miss Sarah carefully scribed a capital A on the black board.
“E,” Susie said.
Chalk clicked against slate and hissed, leaving its white trace behind.
“I,” Susie said, blinking and watching chalk dust fall from the moving lump.
“O,” Susie said, her head dropping and rising very slightly as she followed Miss Sarah’s hand.
“Ummmm …” Susie’s eyes darted back and forth as she thought.
Sarah drew back from the board, smiling down at the uncertain little girl.
“A,” Sarah prompted, “E, I, O …?”
“U!” Susie exclaimed, bouncing a little, delight in her eyes and a smile on her face, and Sarah knew that momentary joy a teacher feels when a student realizes a learning.
Sarah nodded, smiling, wrote a capital U.
“AndsometimesYandW!” Susie exclaimed, running her words together, clapping her hands together, then she froze, looking hopefully at Miss Sarah.
Miss Sarah carefully placed the lump of chalk in the trough, nodding.
“Very good,” she said warmly. “You remembered!”

Levi spread the cards in his hand, considering what had been dealt his way: he looked at the other three players, smiling a little.
Levi had won maybe five dollars and lost twice that much: he held no illusions, he would very likely not recover his losses, but it felt good to relax and consider the pasteboards, to listen to good talk and drink a little beer.
“You wouldn’t wanta buy a horse,” the fellow to his left said conversationally, frowning at his own hand.
“Oh,” Levi said casually, “I don’t know. What kind of horse?”
The man glared at him. “A hard headed mare. Black as a sinner’s heart. I think it’s called a Frisian – won it at cards – wisht I’d lost the hand.” He shook his head. “Big horse. Eighteen hands. Looks like she’d pull a plow through solid rock.”
The fellow beside him snorted. “Rocks in her head,” he muttered, throwing down two cards. “I’ll take two.”
“Three.” His boss tossed a few down on the tabletop.
“I’ll take one.” Levi laid one card down.
“You must have a pretty good hand, stranger,” the rancher said, eyeing Levi speculatively. “You a card sharper?”
Levi smiled. “Fellow, you see this shirt I’m wearing?”
The rancher squinted. “I see it.”
“It’s brand new.”
“Yeah. I had to buy one. Last game of cards I played, I lost the one I was wearing.”
Everyone at the table laughed and nodded, each man understanding completely, because at one time or another, every man Jack of them had figuratively lost his shirt, and now they just met a man who lost his shirt, for real.
“What would you have to have for that horse you’re talking about?” Levi asked, disinterested.
“Hell, the saddle an’ bridle are worth more’n the mare!”
Levi looked at his cards, looked at the rancher, tossed out a five dollar gold piece.
“I’m out.” The hired man to the rancher’s side folded his cards, set them precisely down on the tabletop.
Levi laid his hand down and so did the rancher.
The rancher chuckled, raked in the small pot.
“Now about that horse,” Levi persisted.
“Mister, if you want her for twenty dollars, she’s yours. Half ag’in that for the saddle and bridle an’ I’ll throw in saddle bags, crupper, crop and all.”
Levi nodded, scooted his chair back.
“Mister, if you want that horse, say so, otherwise I’m just a-gonna shoot her.”
Levi nodded. “Where can I find you?”
“Due west. The McAndrews ranch. I’m McAndrews.”
Levi took the proffered hand. “Rosenthal,” he said.
“You ain’t –“ the rancher said, frowning.
“Yeah. He was my no-good brother.”
“Well, mister,” McAndrews said, “I don’t reckon you’ll die of gamblin’. You couldn’t win on a horse race if you bet after ‘twas over!”

Sarah gripped the wire-wound handle tightly and squatted slowly, carefully, until she rested her knees on the schoolhouse floor.
Susie looked at her with big, expectant eyes.
“Susie,” Sarah said very quietly, “you may give me a hug, if you are very careful. My shoulder is hurt and so is my arm, but I think I would like a hug very much.”
Sarah laid the cane down in front of her and extended her good left arm.
Susie exhibited all the care and caution of a little girl who was so very excited to see a favorite school teacher again.
She ran into Sarah’s front and seized her about the neck and squeezed, and Sarah took her around the back of the waist and squeezed her back.
It hurt, yes, but Sarah would not have traded that moment for all the tea in China.
She didn’t realize just how quiet it was until the scrape of an accidentally displaced bench rumbled loud and harshly in the stillness.
Sarah bit her bottom lip and her vision blurred some as the entire student body, every last child there, piled in around her, and one at a time, gave her a careful, warm hug.

Levi tripped over the grain in the wood on his way out the door, stumbling as he crossed the threshold: he laughed a little at his clumsiness.
He didn’t see the fist coming at him.

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Linn Keller 3-4-12


A hard physical, psychic or spiritual blow has the same effect on the human system.
Rational thought and fine coordination join hands and jump out the nearest window, leaving us with gross motor skills and training.
The blow caught Levi completely unprepared: the fist took him just ahead of his left ear, staggering him and driving a reasonable, rational, civilized man’s thoughts from his head like knocking dust from a man’s boots after walking across a bone dry street.
Training took over.
Levi swung his off forearm up to knock aside a follow-up blow and launched a punch of his own: Levi's knuckles missed, but kept moving in and followed-through with a following elbow.
His elbow did not miss.
Both men felt the shock of that hard-swung blow.
The first footpad’s head snapped sideways under the strength of Levi’s blow: the ex-agent’s unexpected charge shoved the first attacker into the second and Levi grappled, twisting.
The three men rolled down the steps of the Silver Jewel to the street below.
Levi came up first, launched himself horizontally at the first opponent to raise his head, driving his left knee into the nose of the second man who chose just the wrong moment to lift his face for a look around.
Levi caught another fist, this one over his cheek bone: he tasted copper and his hand found the other man’s face: clawed fingers raked into the eyelids and hard hands seized Levi’s wrist: Levi grabbed a hand, seized a thumb, peeled it back and to the side, hard, with full intent to break it off.
He succeeded.
Levi made one crawling lunge atop the bloodied, squalling attacker, drew his right arm back and drove the back of the elbow into the man’s face, then he seized the man about the neck with both hands and began slamming his head into the hard-packed, frozen dirt.
About the third time the attacker’s gourd bounced off the ground, some small sense of rationality came drifting in through one of Levi’s ears and he remembered the man he’d crawled over to get to this one.
He shoved hard, hands still about the opponent’s throat, rolling to the side, and a good thing.
Something hot and cold and painful sliced into his side.
Levi rolled twice, came up on all fours.
The first attacker came up, knife low and ready, and charged.
There was a concussion – the sound of a lightning-stroke, nearby – and the attacker’s head flopped sideways in a bloody red spray.
Levi froze, still up on fingertips and toes, eyes big, panting.
Something hard and heavy hit him between the shoulder blades and he found the earth falling away from him, then he realized he was being hoist by a huge paw: on the instant he found himself nose to nose with the town Marshal.
Jackson Cooper’s expression was grave as he regarded the agent at a very near distance.
Part of Levi's mind wanted to laugh.
The Marshal's eyes were slightly crossed.
“You look like hell,” Jackson Cooper said quietly.
“Thanks,” Levi gasped, fumbling for a kerchief.
“For a city fella,” he rumbled, “you are pretty good in a fight!”

Saran snatched the cane from her faithful young attendant’s grasp, hobbled quickly to the window: she turned, motioned Emma Cooper to the side, turned with cane held sideways and made a get-down motion.
Those few students who were standing, found a seat very quickly.
Sarah took a quick look around the edge of the window, a second, then a third: each peek took in a larger arc, until finally she stood in front of the window, studying the scene in front of the Silver Jewel.
Sarah’s eyes were pale and her jaw tightened as she saw Levi, his face bloodied and discolored, hoist from the ground by Jackson Cooper.
Sarah did not miss the Remington in the Marshal’s other hand.
Sarah turned, twirling the cane like a baton, spun it into the air, caught it, then with her hand firmly about the gold ball at its top, thumped its metal tip to the floor: “All is well,” she declared, “the Marshal has done, his duty!”
Sarah’s pose was so overly theatrical, with nose in the air and the cane held out at an exaggerated angle, her words pronounced with such grand haughtiness, that even Emma Cooper could not prevent a bubbling laugh at the young schoolmarm’s appearance.
Sarah’s blood sang power and she knew the charge of adrenalin would not last long, and she had to act quickly while it was still strong in her veins: “Please excuse me, but I must attend upon a matter,” she said with a ladylike tilt of her head, and turned toward the back door.
Young Samuel scampered to the front of the room, slipping a little as he made the turn at the end of the front bench: he snatched the bent handle school bell from its shelf and ran back to Sarah.
Sarah stopped just short of the door and regarded young Samuel warmly.
“Thank you,” she whispered, caressing his head, “but I shall not need the bell today.” She bit her bottom lip, then added, “It was very kind of you to think of me!”
Young Samuel’s eyes were wide and adoring, and Sarah turned and opened the door.
She was afraid the poor lad was going to melt in his moccasins, so red and warm had his ears become, with his face and neck rapidly catching color.

Sarah moved with less difficulty as she stoked her internal fires with the sight of Levi, half-carried, half-shuffling, pressing a reddened kerchief to his bloodied nose: she stopped as Jackson Cooper seized the doorknob and hauled the front door open without benefit of trying the bell-pull first.
Sarah stopped, leaning on her cane, considering: she turned, looked across the street, then to the front of the Jewel.
A small but curious group stood in front of the Jewel, on the boardwalk and halfway down the stairs, gawking after Levi, then staring at Sarah.
Sarah frowned, pressed her lips together, then she looked across the street at the Sheriff’s office.
Sarah looked at the heavy door and the log walls, and the memory of what happened within, came back like the noon freight: Sarah closed her eyes and willed herself to calm: calm, it’s past, it’s done, it’s over –
I must see to Levi
, she thought.
I must be responsible.
Sarah turned back toward the hospital.

“That other fellow? He’s not goin’ anywhere,” Jackson Cooper rumbled, resting his big paw on Levi’s chest. “You just lay back an’ let this good lookin’ nurse take care of you.”
Levi closed his eyes against the pain.
“Don’t go to sleep on me, now,” Nurse Susan said urgently. “Don’t you dare go to sleep on me! That’s a good boy, look at me, now, look right here” – she tapped her forehead, then held his face between gentle fingertips – “oh, you did get hit, didn’t you?” – and with a tsk-tsk and a shake of her head, she raised an admonishing finger: “Don’t even think about moving! – Marshal, we’ll need your help undressing him.”
“WHAT??” both men exclaimed, and Nurse Susan looked from one to the other, realizing she would be hard pressed to tell which of the two looked the more shocked.
She planted her knuckles firmly on her generous hips, tapped her foot and glared at the two over her spectacles.
“I need to strip him down so we can see where he’s hurt.”
“I don’t need to undress my face!” Levi protested, wincing as he moved his jaw.
“I know that, silly,” Nurse Susan said bustling back over to him and unbuttoning his coat. “But when you men get into a fight you get hurt in places you don’t realize. Sit up now.”
Levi, protesting, sat up, and Nurse Susan worked his right arm out of his coat sleeve.
“Now the … oh, dear,” she said in the voice of a mother realizing how muddy her little boy had gotten: the sheet under Levi’s back was soaked red.
Jackson Cooper seized Levi’s coat and the other sleeve and snapped it free of the man, then he grabbed Levi’s shirt and yanked it open.
Buttons sprayed over an impressive area of clean-scrubbed floor.
“I’m not hurt,” Levi half-shouted, at least until Jackson Cooper fetched off the man’s shirt and held it up.
Levi saw the slash in the material, saw blood soaking and dripping and gleaming on the linen garment, and Levi’s Adam’s apple bobbed once, before Levi’s eyes rolled up in his head and he fell back on the bed, limp.

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Linn Keller 3-4-12


Annette drew the mare to a stop, looked curiously at the lone figure standing in the street.
“Sarah?” Joseph echoed, standing and looking over the mare’s ears.
“Joseph, sit down,” Annette said, flicking the reins gently: “Yup, there.”
“Yup there!” Joseph crowed loudly.
Annette looked at her little boy, frowned: “Didn’t anyone ever tell you children should be seen and not heard?”
Little Joseph’s bottom lip ran out about a foot and he hung his head: “I sowwy,” he said, leaning against Annette.
Annette put her arm around the lad and squeezed.
Sarah turned carefully at the sound of the mare’s approaching walk.
Annette stared at the bloodied figure on the ground, at the gawkers just starting down the stairs.
“Oh, my,” she murmured, drawing the reins: “Ho, now, ho, girl.”
Sarah leaned, left-handed on her cane: Annette stared at the sling-and-swathe confining Sarah’s right arm: the material was chosen to blend as much as possible with her drab schoolmarm’s dress, but it was still evident the pretty young woman was healing.
Annette set the brake and leaped – not terribly ladylike, but effective – from the buggy, running in quick little steps to Sarah’s side.
“Sarah?” she whispered, her hands warm on Sarah’s cheeks, and Sarah looked at Annette with big eyes, wide eyes, as lost an expression as Annette had ever seen.
Sarah swallowed, hard, looking away.
A moment before she’d been strong, capable, filled with righteous anger against the men who’d hurt Levi.
She looked across the street to the closed door of the Sheriff’s office and she tasted copper, she tasted blood: she remembered in one moment every horrifying second of being seized, slammed, secured, packed across the street and locked up, and how she’d wished with her entire soul to attack, kill, maim, dismember every man there.
Sarah looked at her memories and tasted fear.
Little Joseph swarmed out of the buggy, running in amongst the men milling about the unmoving figure on the ground.
He looked around, decided there really wasn’t much interesting to see here, and slipped back out between men’s legs and coat tails.
Looking slyly over at his Mama, he climbed quickly and with a surprising stealth up the three steps to the boardwalk, seized the edge of the slowly closing door and turned sideways to make a quick and quiet escape into the Silver Jewel.

Sarah stared across the street, to the Sheriff’s office.
I have to go in, she thought.
I have to face my fear.
Sarah teetered to a stop, shaking as if with a chill.
“I, can’t,” she gasped, throat as dry as a handful of desert dust: she stopped, swallowed, tried again.
“I, can’t,” she said, trembling, and Annette held her, uncertainly, fearfully, not wanting to cause her any further pain – she knew Sarah had ridden a horse over a cliff and fallen to the boulder-filled riverbed below, that she’d nearly drowned, the horse had been killed, and herself nearly so: Annette heard Sarah was confined to a Bath chair and would likely never walk again, and that her nose was displaced so badly it looked like she had two right ears.
Sarah was obviously hurt, yes, but Annette realized the account she’d been given was not quite accurate.
Sarah had only one right ear.
“Sarah,” she whispered, “how can I help?”

“That other fellow isn’t going anywhere,” Jackson Cooper growled. “He’s out colder’n a foundered flounder and if you’d killed him ‘twould be more than justified. I saw the pair of ‘em waylay you and I doubt me not they intended your harm!”
Levi winced as Dr. Greenlees drew the stitch taut, spun catgut about the smooth, shining nose of his needle forceps, knotted: Dr. Flint reached in, snipped the suture, and Dr. Greenlees took a fresh turn with the curved needle.
“Nearly done,” he said.
“Good,” Levi gasped.

Little Joseph laughed as he scampered back the hallway past the end of the bar.
He peeked in the dressing-room door, which was barely ajar: all he saw was petticoats as someone inside changed clothes.
Little Joseph was far too young to take any interest in such matters, so he resumed his pattering run down the hall.
Something large, black and menacing rose from the corner, black shadow from deeper shadow: smoldering eyes glared at him, ivory fangs bared at his approach.
Little Joseph threw himself into the Bear Killer, seizing the massive canine about the neck, and was immediately pinned by a huge paw and given a good face washing for his troubles.
Daisy’s girl leaned out the kitchen, tilted her head sideways a little and put a hand on her hip, shaking an admonishing and gravy-dripping wooden spoon. “There y’are,” she scolded. “I have been waitin’ all mornin’ for ye! Biscuits an’ gravy it is, an’ good an’ hot I’ve got ‘em, an’ here y’are playin’ wi’ the lad!” She shook her head, muttering her way to the stove, where she flipped freshly split biscuits onto the cracked plate and ladled steaming, fragrant gravy over them: “Men! I’ll tell ye, they’re an ungrateful lot! I fix a good meal, a good meal, now, an’ wha’ d’ ye do? Ye’re horsin’ aroun’ i’ th’ hallway!”
The Bear Killer paced silently into the kitchen, the great brush of a tail swinging as he walked: Little Joseph walked with a hand on the monster dog’s neck, and as the Bear Killer sniffed and licked his chops, Little Joseph laughed and crowed, “Good!”

“I think you’d ought to stay for a little,” Nurse Susan said disapprovingly, glaring over her spectacles at the ex-agent.
Levi pressed the welcome coolness of the folded, wet cloth to his face.
“Maybe you’re right.”

Jackson Cooper strode out the hospital door and was four long steps toward the Jewel before he saw Annette and Sarah standing together.
He froze, suddenly uncomfortable.
Sarah turned and looked at the big town Marshal.
She dropped her cane, reached a beseeching hand toward Jackson Cooper.
His long-legged stride was the equal to a smaller man's trot: he was but a moment crossing the distance between himself and the ladies.
Sarah's hand was cool as she clutched his big, blood-dried hand.
"Jackson Cooper," she gasped, "help me!"

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Linn Keller 3-5-12


The Welsh Irishman watched from in front of the firehouse.
Sean's hand closed, warm and firm on his shoulder, and he whispered, "Go to her, lad," and the Welsh Irishman did not have to be told a second time.
Sarah stepped numbly out of the Sheriff's office.
She vaguely remembered thanking Jackson Cooper for his kindness, she distantly remembered saying something to the Sheriff, though she couldn't quite recall what.
It had taken all her strength, all her fortitude, all her courage, to face going back into the building, back into that cell, to stand where she'd been, to face the memories: she walked calmly in, she walked calmly out, she walked resolutely up to her own fears and belted them hard across the face and called them a dirty dog and dared them to do their worst.
Her fear, faced squarely, did what fear does in such moments.
It disappeared like fog on a sunny morning.
Sarah leaned a little on the black-ebony cane, slumped back against the closed, heavy door and closed her eyes.
Sarah took a long breath, let it out, felt tension run out of her like water poured from a bucket.
She stood there for several long moments, then she straightened, looked across the street.
Digger's wagon rumbled up the alley beside the funeral parlor, headed for its grim task across the way; Sarah stepped carefully down off the board walk and into the street.
She turned and smiled a little at the red-shirted fireman.
"Miss Sarah," he greeted her uncertainly, lifting his Bell cap with a nod.
"Mister Llewellyn," Sarah smiled. "I understand I have you to thank for those wonderful chocolates."
The Welsh Irishman's face reddened. "Yes, ma'am," he said, suddenly at a loss for words.
"Mister Llewellyn," Sarah said, "I am not yet as steady as I should be." She handed him the cane. "Might I have the use of your arm, please?"
The Welsh Irishman turned and proudly offered his arm.
Sarah's gloved hand laid delicately around and over the muscled, red-sleeved forearm.
"Thank you," she said. "I have been too active today and I fear I shall pay for it."
Sarah managed to make it to the schoolhouse; the pair paused at the foot of the steps as Sarah gathered her strength, leaning more heavily than she intended on the Irishman's arm.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "This has all been ... so difficult."
"I saw what happened to that ... isn't he your ... isn't ...?" Llewellyn sort of ground to a halt, uncertain whether to utter Sarah's late stepfather's name: he'd been given to understand Bonnie refused to grieve the man's death, and though the particulars were not public knowledge, Llewellyn was not unintelligent: a woman who refused to grieve a husband had to have a reason.
"Levi Rosenthal," Sarah smiled tightly. "He is my late stepfather's brother and yes, he was hurt. I suppose I shall have to inform Mother of his misfortune."
Sarah felt suddenly wrung out.
"Perhaps I should do that now," she said faintly.
As if on cue, the schoolhouse door opened and Emma Cooper regarded Sarah with her usual kindly concern.
"Miz Cooper," Sarah said almost sadly, "might I beg your forgiveness for my inattendence this day. I must needs inform my mother of Levi Rosenthal's misfortune."
"Of course," Emma Cooper smiled gently. "Come to us again as you are able."
Sarah hung her head. "Thank you," she whispered.
Sarah wobbled a little, for her ribs and her collar bone were joining forces to call her rather unpleasant names.
"My carriage is at the livery," she said, rallying: "help me get there."
"Yes, Miss Sarah," the Welsh Irishman said.
The pair turned and began their slow walk back toward the livery stable.

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Linn Keller 3-6-12


Jackson Cooper accepted the blue granite cup.
The Sheriff did not miss the tremor in the man's normally rock steady hand.
The Sheriff poured his own blue granite cup half full of the same as he'd poured for Jackson Cooper.
He set the quart bottle down on the desk, dropped the cork beside it and gazed into the shimmering depths of the Daine boys' distilled grain.
"I did that to her," Jackson Cooper whispered, his voice strained, then he looked up at the Sheriff.
"I did that to her and she looked me in the eye and said 'twas not my fault and she forgave me."
The Sheriff looked long at his old friend, then nodded slowly.
"She's still got that broken wing and she forgave me."
The man looked half sick.
"I don't deserve that."
The Sheriff took a sip, savored the scald as it seared across his tongue and around his teeth.
About half his gums went numb.
"What do you deserve, then?" he asked quietly.
Jackson Cooper's eyes drifted back between the cells.
"She should have called me a dirty dog and took a horse whip to me."
Jackson Cooper blinked, then goggled at the grey-mustached old lawman.
"Why?" he echoed. "Good Lord, man, I like to've killed her!"
The Sheriff nodded, his bottom jaw thrusting slowly forward the way it did when he was thinking.
"Don't you think she had some hand in it too?"
Jackson Cooper looked down into his cup of water clear.
He set the cup down and paced away from the stove, then toward the stove, then turned toward the Sheriff.
"I can't change what she did," he began.
"Can you change what you did?"
Jackson Cooper blinked.
"I can't change that my little Joseph is dead, that my wife and little girl died back East, I can't change my mother's death or harsh words I've spoke in the past. I can't change any of that, Jackson Cooper, and it burns me like fire if I let it."
The Sheriff set his own tin cup down, walked up to the town Marshal.
The Sheriff was taller than everyone else in town and Jackson Cooper was half a head taller than the Sheriff.
Linn reached up and tapped Jackson Cooper gently in the middle of his breast bone.
"It's one thing to know it here" -- he pressed his finger tips lightly between Jackson Cooper's shirt buttons -- "but it's something else to know it here" -- he reached up and tapped the man's forehead. "I can know it here" -- he knuckled his own scalpline -- "but knowing it here?" He thumped his chest with a tight fist. "Knowing it down here" -- thump! -- "is something else entirely!"
Jackson Cooper considered this, then nodded once, grunting his understanding.
"It's past, Jackson Cooper, and the past can't be changed, much as we wish otherwise." The Sheriff's eyes were distant, unspoken memories haunting him for the moment he permitted, then he picked up his tin cup of liquid lightning.
"Here's to the past, and doing it better in future!"
Jackson Cooper picked up his own blue granite cup, and both men drank.

Sarah tilted the heavy glass tumbler, sluicing four fingers' worth of brandy down her throat.
Sarah ached and Sarah was ready to take something for the pain, and Sarah was damned if she would take any more of that damned laudanum!
She knew her Mama's brandy would hit her like a runaway horse in about six minutes but that would give her enough time.
She replaced her Mama's brandy flask in its cupboard, wiped out the tumbler and replaced it as well, then she closed the cupboard and walked to her Mama's office door.
She looked out into the dress-works, saw her Mama examining a bolt of cloth, admiring the graceful way Bonnie picked up two yards of material to catch the light.
Bonnie's complexion was rich, healthy; she glowed in the shaft of sunlight, her smile quick and genuine.
Mother, you are beautiful, Sarah thought.
I hope someday I become as beautiful as you are at this moment!
Sarah fumbled with the doorknob, opened the office door.
She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath.
She had to tell her Mother that Levi was injured.

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Linn Keller 3-7-12


Daisy’s girl shook her head at the pair under the far table.
The little table at the end of the kitchen was the handiest little thing, especially when she was sorting supplies on the shelves: it was also the perfect place to set a platter of biscuits and gravy underneath, for either the big black dog, or the bigger black dog with the greying muzzle, though the older dog was not often seen these days.
She’d opened the back door to sweep out one morning and the old dog was lying beside the steps on a thick bed of dry grass, soaking up sunshine, sound asleep: she smiled and closed the door quietly, and when she looked out again, he was gone.
“I suspect ‘twas your sire,” she said quietly as the Bear Killer looked up at her and licked his chops: his tail brushed happily against the floor as he nosed the licked-clean platter, then he began carefully washing the sleepy little boy’s face and hands, for he too had partaken of biscuits and gravy.
She squatted and ruffled the Bear Killer’s ears fearlessly.
“Ye great bum,” she whispered, “ye remind me o’ my old Bandit dog, back home,” and the Bear Killer’s ears twitched up and he gave her chin a happy lick.
“Now do ye suppose we c’n get th’ lad back t’ his ma, eh?”
The Bear Killer turned and snuffed loudly at the sleepy little boy, who responded with a big yawn and a cuddle against the Bear Killer’s belly.
“Men!” She shook her head. “Ye feed ‘em an’ get ‘em warm an’ they’re like an old bear, they just want t’ curl up an’ go t’ sleep!”
The Bear Killer blinked drowsily, then dropped his chin on his paws and sighed.
Daisy’s girl reached in and took the lad under the arms, picked him up and cuddled him into her: the Bear Killer thrashed his tail once, then closed his eyes.
Young Joseph was carried down the hall and passed from motherly hands to callused hands, held in arms more suited to wrestling calves or handling horses: the sleepy lad rolled his head trustingly against vest and coat and stubbled cheek, and not a man there but didn’t have a gentle smile as the lad was passed to him or by him, and finally carried without the Silver Jewel.
Little Joseph was deposited in the carriage outside, for it seemed the most likely place he’d come from; the blanket was laid out, the lad laid on the blanket and wrapped up, crosswise on the upholstered buggy seat, the dusty Samaritan placing him there retreated quietly back into the Jewel not one minute before Annette returned to the carriage.
She smiled at the sight of her little boy, asleep and bundled up, then she climbed aboard, lifted him a little and let him lean against her: little Joseph gave a great yawn, cuddled against his Mama’s side, and just as quickly, was again asleep.

The Sheriff handed Lightning the note: Lightning nodded, reading it, then carefully, precisely transferred its text into his logbook before reaching for the key and tapping out the message.
The Sheriff swung aboard his copper mare and turned her toward home.
The day was late, he was tired and he and Esther anticipated guests that evening.
He looked over toward the hospital, saw Bonnie’s carriage in front of the hospital.
You idiot, he thought to himself, Levi just got beat and cut up some and you expect him for dinner?
He turned his mare.
I’d best stop and see how he is … and see how Bonnie is taking it.
She’s had quite a bit on her shoulders here lately.

Sarah made it upstairs without having to stop at the halfway mark.
I’m getting better, she thought.
I’m getting stronger.
I need to ride again.

Mary looked up from the foot of the stairs.
“I’ve just put the twins down for their nap,” she said. “I’ll be right up.”
“Thank you, Mary,” Sarah said, and turned to push open her bedroom door.

“I’ll be all right,” Levi protested.
Bonnie and Nurse Susan shared a look.
“You will,” Nurse Susan affirmed, “but you need to heal up some. You were beaten, you were cut, the Doctor had to sew your back up –“ she put her knuckles on her hips – “you’ll have a fine scar, by the way!”
Levi grimaced. “I never did like scars,” he admitted. “They remind me something was meaner than I am!”
“You’ve more sense than most,” Nurse Susan muttered. “Now are you going to behave yourself with these good people here, or do I have to stick you in a tub of cold water or something?”
Levi tried to keep a straight face.
His effort lasted all of three seconds.
He and the Sheriff laughed together.
Levi sobered and reached for Bonnie’s gloved hand.
Bonnie took his hand in both hers.
“Sheriff,” he said, “is your offer of dinner tonight still open?”
Bonnie’s hands tightened on his. “Sheriff, I am so very sorry, but we must decline your kind offer this time.” She looked at Levi. “I think I am going to take him home with me.”
The Sheriff nodded. “I reckon we can let it go this one time,” he deadpanned.
Bonnie glared at the lawman.
“Your generosity overwhelms me,” she said coldly.
“I figured it would.”
“By the way, I destroyed the handcuffs.”
“Doesn’t surprise me.”
“Does anything surprise you?” she flared.
“You do,” he said, eyes quiet and half-lidded.
“I … what? Excuse me?”
The Sheriff looked Bonnie squarely in the eye, then looked at Levi.
“Levi, my friend,” he said, “listen close and you might learn something.”
Levi raised an eyebrow.
“Bonnie, dear heart, you are a puzzle inside an enigma wrapped in a mystery.
“If I ever thought I had you figured out, you would prove me wrong in five minutes or less.
“You are as deep as a mountain is tall, you are beautiful as Creation itself, as inspiring as a sonnet. You are wise as Solomon and strong as seasoned white oak.
“I had no idea why you wanted them, but I knew the right thing to do was let you have them, no questions asked.” He nodded slowly. “I too have destroyed objects, and destroyed an evil with them … even if that evil resided only in my own memory.”
Bonnie bit her bottom lip, looked down at Levi.
“Take him home, Bonnie. Take care of him. I think you’ve found a good one this time.”
Bonnie looked long at the Sheriff.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“One more thing.”
He looked down at Levi, then Bonnie.
“When the time comes …”
The Sheriff looked away, cleared his throat, tried again.
“When the time comes, I wish to be the one who gives Sarah away in marriage.” He looked directly at Bonnie this time.
“I would like to give her Mama away when she gets married too.”

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Linn Keller 3-8-12


Sarah’s white-satin slippers were silent on the black quartz floor.
Black monoliths rose like sentinels, looming in the low light, taller than she could see: there was a roughly circular area, as there always was, and as she approached, so did her other selves.
Sarah wore a white-silk gown.
Puzzled, she held up her hand.
White silk gloves, she thought, pearl buttons on white-silk sleeves …
A wedding gown?
She realized she was looking at her right hand, held at eye level, and her arm was neither held down in a sling and swathe … nor did her collar bone ache.
As a matter of fact, she felt no pain at all.
Sarah laughed, plucking her skirt with both hands and turning, a dancer’s step, and she felt herself move easily, freely, gracefully.
Her black-clad self examined a wooden matchstick, bit down on the free end.
“Nice, sister,” she said cynically, loafing against a black-quartz slab. “Good lookin’ and lookin’ good.”
For a moment, for just a moment, Sarah felt free.
For a moment she felt happy.
She stopped, dropped her skirts, faced her dark self.
“Excuse me?”
Sarah’s black clad self stepped forward, polished cavalry boots as silent on the black-sand floor as the silk gowned Sarah’s satin slippers.
“You are the stronger of the two of us,” the black-booted Sarah said, her eyes pale, penetrating.
“Strong?” The white-silk Sarah shook her head. “I … don’t understand. I’m not strong at all.”
“Oh yeah?” Her eyes looked into her own eyes, pale, cold, hypnotic.
“Take a peek at this, sister!”
A black-leather glove seized the black-painted frame of a mirror, flipped it over: the crystal oval was half again broader than Sarah’s shoulders, its length a foot taller than she on top and bottom.
In its reflective surface Sarah saw herself as in full light.
Her mouth fell open.
The reflection’s mouth fell open, rich red lips and healthy pink cheeks glowing with good health: her hair was elaborately, beautifully coiffured, the gown was bare shouldered and showed her maidenly décolletage – scandalous for an unmarried young woman, a matronly style –
A married woman’s gown, she thought.
“I’m beautiful,” she gasped.
“You’re damned right,” her black-clad self snapped, “and don’t you forget it, sister!” She spun the mirror over, its black-painted backside blending into the darkness beyond.
You" -- a black glove thrust itself accusingly at the white-silk Sarah --"are the strongest soul I know.”
Sarah laughed, shaking her head.
“I’m not strong,” she said, sadness and fatigue showing in her voice. “I’m anything but strong!”
“Oh yeah?” The black-leather glove seized the mirror’s frame, gave it a pull.
Sarah froze as she saw herself on Jackson Cooper’s arm.
She trembled a little as she saw the big Marshal escort her into the Sheriff’s office, she shivered as Jackson Cooper’s voice rumbled, “Are you sure you want to do this?” and her eyes widened as she saw herself raise her chin and reply, “Yes.”
Sarah’s chest tightened a little as she watched herself walk back between the cells, and pull open the cell door, and step inside.
Sarah’s breath came quick now, shallow little panting gasps as she saw herself turn, looking at the inside of the cell she’d occupied: she watched as her image nodded, once, then stepped out of the cell and took Jackson Cooper’s arm again.
The white-silk Sarah felt a little dizzy as she watched herself emerge into the Sheriff’s office and stop and look directly at her pale eyed father.
“I fell off a horse here,” she said.
“Had I not gotten back on it now, today, I would never have been able to.”
She watched the Sheriff’s slow, understanding nod, the quiet, proud look in his eyes.
Sarah’s silk gloved hand raised slowly, fingertips pressed against her lips.
The mirror flipped over and was gone again.
“That’s you,” her black-clad self said, her voice serious.
“That was me,” Sarah whispered into her glove – then, “I don’t understand. I’m … I’m weak.”
Her black-clad self snorted.
“Sister, didn’t you see ANYTHING?”
The mirror flashed again, steadied, and Sarah saw herself standing tall and proud, regal as the Queen, eyes flashing, chin high: she was sculpted, statuesque, nobility personified, all the grace of a woman and all the beauty of a maiden.
“Don’t you see it?”
Her black self released the mirror’s frame, stepped toward her.
“You’re a woman, honey. Women are stronger than they look. Look at what-all you’ve gone through in your lifetime, and you’re still here!
“I’m not strong,” Sarah whispered, shaking her head and taking a step back. “I’m just a girl!”
“You think you’re weak?” her dark self sneered.
The black-leather glove was stark, harsh against the white-silk sleeve as Sarah felt strong fingers seize her arm.
She hung her head, nodding.
“I’m weak,” she whispered.
Black leather palms pressed against the sides of her face, forcing her head up, and ice-pale eyes blazed into ice-pale eyes.
“Weak?” the voice hissed. “Sister, do you know how much strength it took to walk into that office, into that cell? Weak?” Her cynical laugh was more a harsh bark. “Sister, most grown men couldn’t do what you just did!”
“She’s right,” her voice said from another angle, and the gloved hands released her face as her dark self stepped back.
Sarah-the-schoolmarm, mousy and quiet, glided forward as if on wheels.
“You are far stronger than you realize,” she said with a teacher’s quiet firmness. “I have seen it for quite some time now.”
“But, but, I don’t feel strong,” Sarah stammered.
A black-sleeved arm slipped around behind her from her left, a grey-sleeved arm ran behind her back from her right.
“Sister,” she heard her own voice say, “how would you like to get out of that bed and ride that black horse?”
“Black horse?”
“Your black horse.”
Sarah laughed nervously, tentatively running her own silk-sleeved arms behind her flanking selves.
“I don’t... I don't have a black horse.”
Her black clad self smiled a quiet, knowing smile, extended her hand, made a kissing noise.
A black horse paced silently out of the darkness.
A big black horse.
Sarah’s eyes widened, her red lips parting in a quiet gasp.
She reached a silk-gloved hand up, caressed the black horse’s neck.
“Mine?” she whispered, her heart beating quickly, quickly –
“All yours, honey.”
Sarah felt the gleaming black mare, solid and real, she smelled the good horse-smell, felt the impact as a forehoof stomped the sandy floor underfoot, heard the mare snuff loudly as she turned her head, nudging Sarah’s other hand.

Sarah’s eyes snapped open.
It was nighttime; she was at home, in her own bed, under her own roof.
She listened for several long moments, threw her covers back, swung her legs out of bed.
I saw my horse, she thought.
I will have that horse!
Sarah looked at the white-porcelain chamberpot, then felt for her slippers.
Outside, she thought.
I need to go outside!

It took Sarah some time to relax.
She’d stood outside, unmoving save for breath-clouds, looking out past the barn at the big pasture, remembering.
She was real, she thought.
Eighteen hands at least, maybe twenty … black... pure, glowing, flawless, rippling black!
Curious … I felt her curiosity … intelligent, she’ll train well … good Lord above, how will I ever mount up? … I’ll find a way!

Bonnie, too, was restless.
Bonnie’s bedroom looked out over the barn and the side pasture.
She looked out her window, hugging her flannel robe around her: she froze as she realized she was looking at her daughter, standing outside, standing still.
Bonnie saw Sarah’s breath steaming in the moonlight; her flannel nightgown glowed in the orb's bright, pale reflection.
She’s stronger now, Bonnie thought.
She’s healing.
I was so afraid her spirit would break under all this.

Bonnie saw Sarah turn; she saw Sarah was looking around, the way she always did.
She’s not sleep walking, Bonnie thought.
She’s alert.
Sarah continued toward the house; Bonnie lost sight of her.
She turned, looked to the bed.
Levi lay still, unmoving, his face discolored; Bonnie smiled, remembering how hesitant he was to share her bed.
Nothing happened, of course, not with that newly sutured back wound; it was longer than Bonnie realized, and seeping in three places; she’d carefully expressed the incision, mopped up the seep, and replaced saturated bandage with fresh bandage, tied it in place with strips of old bedsheet.
Bonnie was a woman of means, but Bonnie learned early in life the value of thrift; old bed sheets were not thrown away, and at times like this, came in rather handy.
They’d fallen asleep holding hands.
Bonnie slipped back into bed, gently, not wanting to disturb Levi: she eased back under the quilt, and her hand found his.
I suppose this makes me a harlot, she thought as she closed her eyes.
I can hear it now.
Harlot, hussy, loose woman.

She smiled a little at the thought.
Whoever doesn’t like what I do with my life, she thought, can go straight to hell!

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Linn Keller 3-9-12


Sarah rode easily in the carved black saddle.
Saddle and bridle, scabbard and saddlebags, were ornately, artistically carved; there were no other decorations, no brightwork to catch the eye.
The Frisian flowed under her, loafing along at a mile eating trot: it was a big horse, some eighteen and a half hands or more, bred to haul a fighting knight in full armor: Sarah felt an immense reserve of power under her, and the power flowed into her, and she into the Frisian.
Sarah’s boar-spear gleamed in the setting sun’s blood red rays.
The battlefield was dark and shadowed around her; smoke and the moans of dying and wounded rose slowly from tortured, bloodied earth.
Sarah’s eyes narrowed and her lips pulled back.
Her white silk gown rippled as the Frisian paced through the carnage, her veil trailed behind her head, her skirt covered the Frisian’s hindquarters.
Sarah knew where she was going, and why, and her heart sang with a dark, savage joy.
They climbed a gentle rise, paused at its crest, looking at the featureless plain beyond.
The descending sun was to her right, incarnidine red and smoldering.
The enemy was directly ahead of her.
The Frisian danced under her; the mare was fresh, eager for a fight: she knew what it was to collide with an enemy at speed: the mare reveled in the impact of combat, for the mare was a weapon, war-trained and savage and fiercely loyal to her rider and to her rider only.
Sarah looked down.
Bear Killer looked up at her, opened his blunt, strong jaws and grinned, running his tongue out.
His jowls were bloody.
He, too, had been busy.
Sarah looked ahead, looked at the enemy.
Sarah’s heart sang death.
“Bear Killer,” she said as the mare danced eagerly under her, “sing for me. Sing, honey!”
The Bear Killer turned to face the enemy, his hair rippling upright in a wedge as wide as his shoulders, tapering back along his spine: Sarah saw his flanks contract as he cut loose with a savage, chopping bay, challenging the enemy, announcing their attack.
Sarah pulled the boar-spear from its socket in her right stirrup.
She dropped the knotted reins over her saddle horn, raised the hafted blade overhead: the gleaming, black Frisian mare, red fires from the setting sun flowing over her shining hide, reared and pawed the air and added her own war-scream, and Sarah’s throat ripped itself raw with the force of her own war-shreik: the mare came to earth and gathered herself and Sarah tightened her knees and leaned forward and screamed, “SNOWFLAKE, GO!”
The Bear Killer flowed along with them, fangs gleaming, eyes wide and red and locked with a deadly certainty on their quarry.
Sarah’s lance came down level and her flawless white-silk gown rippled and flowed behind her and her flawless black Frisian leaned into a gallop and picked up speed on the slight down grade and thrust her nose straight into the wind and her ears laid back hard against her skull and Sarah’s gown blackened, the death-pigment flowing through the fabric until Sarah, too, dressed like a black-silk princess and caparisoned for war, held her lance level and steady and the boar-spear was long and broad and razor sharp and she gathered her strength and she gathered her lungs and she gave one long scream as the point of the blade steadied and the world held its breath and destruction shone on honed steel –
Something heavy pressed against her face, something wet scrubbed her cheek and she heard her Mama’s voice and felt her Mama’s hand on her shoulder –
“Sarah, wake up,” Bonnie whispered urgently, “Sarah, my God, wake up!”
Sarah swam quickly to the surface, emerging from the dark lake of slumber, blinked in confusion: she heard hurried footsteps, saw Levi looking over her Mama’s shoulder, his eyes wide, concerned.
“Sarah, it’s Mama,” Bonnie said, her own eyes fearful: “Sarah, can you hear me?”
“Mama,” Sarah gasped, breathing fast, breathing hard, as if she’d just run a distance, or fought a desperate battle – “Mama, what happened? Where’s Snowflake?” Her hand shot up, seized her Mama’s nightgown, pulled hard: “Did I kill him?
“You’re in bed, Sarah. You’re at home in your own bed. It’s Mama, Sarah, can you hear me?”
Bonnie tried to open Sarah’s clawed hand: Sarah held her for a long moment before letting go.
“I saw him,” Sarah husked. “I was ready to kill him.” Her ice-white eyes swung to her Mama’s face. “I saw my horse, Mama. Her name is Snowflake. She’s a Frisian and she’s gleaming, flawless black.”
“Black?” Levi said, frowning.
Sarah looked up at the puzzled agent.
“Where is she?”
“She’s at the Bar J,” he said. “I heard talk in the Jewel yesterday. She’s untrainable, she’s vicious. They’re going to kill her.”
“Like hell,” Sarah hissed. “Bear Killer! With me!”
Sarah seized her quilts, tried to throw them off her.
“Sarah, Sarah, Sarah,” Bonnie soothed, clutching her daughter’s good left hand firmly: “Sarah, it’s late, you had a nightmare, that’s all it was, just a nightmare –“
Sarah thrust hard against her Mama’s hand, snarled.
The Bear Killer backed up a pace from the bed, bristling, a low, rumbling growl starting somewhere twenty feet below his barrel chest.
“Mother,” Sarah said coldly, “I am going to the Bar J and I am going to buy that horse. She is coming home with me and I will ride her.”
“Sarah, you can barely walk –“
“I can do this,” Sarah hissed, and Bonnie released her daughter’s hand.
Levi’s hands were gentle on Bonnie’s shoulders.
“Let her try,” he said quietly. “If she wants to go out there, I’ll go with her.”
Sarah’s head snapped back, teeth bared and indrawn breath hissing loudly as pain seared through her again.
“Dress me, Mother,” she said. “Levi. I need your help too. There is a long wooden box just inside that cupboard. I need it.”
Sarah swung her legs over the side of the bed, lips pressed together against the pain: “Mother, I will need my white silk gown.”
Sarah gave her daughter a long, concerned look.
Levi brought out the finely finished, rectangular box.
“Is this the one?”
“Yes, thank you, Levi,” she said.
“It’s as long as I am tall,” Levi observed. “Where shall I put it?”
“The foot of the bed, please.” Sarah paused, breathing hard, then stood, groaning.
“Perhaps I should withdraw,” Levi said gently.
“Not yet.” Sarah nodded toward a bureau. “Top drawer. I need the knives and the white canvas harness.”
Levi’s brows puzzled together, but he opened the indicated drawer, looked inside.
He looked at Sarah, eyebrows raised, then back into the drawer: he finally reached in and lifted a white canvas harness from its depth.
“On the bed?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Will there be aught else?”
“I will need the black ebony cane. It is in the closet as well, where the box was.”

Levi and Sarah rattled down the road less than an hour later.
“You are sure about this, Sarah?” he asked.
“I am.”
Sarah’s teeth clicked together as the carriage lurched through an unseen hole.
“I’m sorry,” Levi said. “I did not see that one.”
“It’s all right,” Sarah said hoarsely.
They drove for a while longer, long enough for sunrise to caress Sarah’s white silk gown with long, orange fingers: most of her was hidden beneath cloak and blanket, but the silk that still showed, glowed like the pelt of a healthy animal, like her hair that lay over her shoulders, like the color of her cheeks, enhanced and brightened by the cold air.
“How is your back?” Sarah asked quietly.
Levi shifted a little, easing the strain on the healing stitches.
“It’s all right.”
The mare’s hooves were loud, sharp-sounding.
Levi took a long look at Sarah, there in morning’s light, appraising her with an unaccustomed frankness.
Bonnie, my dear, he thought, you’d better keep a setting maul and a shotgun behind the door. As good as your daughter is starting to look, you’re going to need them!
“He may have killed the horse already, you know,” Levi said.
“She’s alive,” Sarah said shortly.
Levi looked ahead again.
“He said he’d sell that damned horse for twenty dollars.”
“I have twenty dollars.”
“He said the saddle was worth more than the horse.”
“I have enough for the saddle.”
Levi looked over at Sarah.
“Ooo-kaaay,” he said slowly.
“The saddle is all black. It is carved but unadorned. There are matching saddlebags. The bridle is carved as well, heavy and serviceable. There is no bright work on anything.”
“You have seen this horse, then.”
“I rode her last night.”
Levi, surprised, snapped his head around to look at Sarah again: “What?”
“I rode her last night, and Bear Killer ran beside me.” Sarah looked at Levi, her eyes gentle, quiet, her eyes a warm, distinct blue.
Levi shook his head.
“Sarah,” he said, “I have the distinct feeling we are on a fool’s errand. You woke us last night, screaming like you were being murdered. Your heels were dug into the bed, you were bowed up like someone was running a knife in your back. You had a nightmare, pure and simple. Just a dream, a bad dream, that’s all. Why don’t I just turn us around and we’ll go home and have breakfast.”
“Keep driving, Levi, or I walk the rest of the way,” Sarah said quietly.
Levi was silent for several long moments.
“I think you mean that.”
“I do.”
Levi sighed.
“We’d ought to be there in less than an hour.” He flipped the reins gently. “For your sake I hope we’re not too late.”

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Linn Keller 3-10-10


The Bear Killer paced effortlessly beside the black Frisian mare.
Sarah rode erect in the saddle, right arm in a white linen sling, her left gripping the boar-spear: the hafted blade lay across the saddle in front of her, its blade flashing in the morning’s sun. White silk floated behind her, surrounded her, its sheer and delicate nature seeming to dissolve in the red morning sunlight.
Two fighting-knives’ handles protruded above her shoulders and a white-canvas harness crisscrossed her bodice.
Old man McAndrews threatened his hired man, “If you breathe a word about this to anyone, I’ll fire you so fast your head will unscrew!” and Tom Miller, his right hand man, solemnly assured Robert McAndrews that not a soul would know.
McAndrews knew, of course, Miller would make a bee line for the nearest watering hole just as soon as he had coin to spend and would waste no time spreading the word about how a pretty little girl in a silk wedding dress put a knife to the boss’s throat, and backed him up against a wall and called him for the coward he was.
Miller remembered how the dog the size of a young bear that bristled and growled and backed him against the same wall as his boss, promising a most unpleasant death should it please the pretty girl who was obviously its master … and Miller decided that when he told the tale, he’d politely omit the part about how he himself cowered against the rough lumber wall beside his boss, with white-ivory fangs less than a finger’s length from his more valued parts.
Sarah rode easily, moving with the horse as she always did, her white-silk gown floating behind her, and covering the Frisian’s hind quarters: there was a little breeze from the fore, and she had a long silk scarf, which she used for a veil, letting it trail behind her head: morning’s sun was still rich and red, and her silks took the color and made it their own, and the gleaming black mare with furry feet and tossing head shone with the glow of good health and shared morning’s reds with the pretty girl wearing a gown made of morning fire, both of them silhouetted against the flawless blue sky.
The sight of Sarah – a princess of flame, regal and noble and riding a black fire mare -- painted a picture Levi would not forget for the rest of his entire life.
Sarah brought the boar-spear around, tucked it under her arm, gave Snowflake her knees: “Go, girl,” she said quietly, and the black fire mare ran easily, smoothly, responding perfectly to her beautiful rider’s will and pleasure.
Levi followed in the carriage, Jelly at an easy trot, the empty boar-spear case in the back of the buggy.
He considered how Sarah, still weak and in pain, managed to back up and back down the rancher when the man agreed on a price, then decided he wanted to extort more money from her: he went to lay a condescending hand on her shoulder, or perhaps stroke her cheek, and she snapped the ebony cane up, spanking his arm aside as if swatting an opponent’s blade: the rancher drew back his hand to backhand her, and Sarah scored a direct thrust to the man’s face, catching him just under the cheekbone, hard: he snatched at the cane, seized it and pulled, and Sarah pulled the blade free from its sheathing body and drew a bloody line across the man’s cheek, then put the tip of the blade up under his chin and bade him hold very still.
Sarah McKenna, daughter of wealth and privilege, Sarah McKenna, recently injured and with one arm in a sling, Sarah McKenna, thirteen years old and wearing a fine silk gown, held the blade to the softness of the man’s throat and quietly, mercilessly, tonelessly, called him a cheat, a liar, a thief and a coward: only a coward would try to strike a little girl, she said quietly, pale eyes blazing: only a cheat and a thief would jack up the price once agreed upon, and only a liar would think to be both a cheat and a thief.
Sarah’s face was as pale as her eyes, the effect only enhanced by the pristine pallor of the white silk she wore.
The Bear Killer faced the hired man: when the man reached for the pistol in his waist band, the Bear Killer’s fur rippled upright, and bared fangs and slavering jaws invited his next move.
The Bear Killer knew how to stop a man, for the Bear Killer had been carefully trained in such matters, and the Bear Killer’s grinning jaws were close, very close to the man’s crotch, and the hired man decided he really, really did not want to risk those jaws testing the tensile strength of his prized anatomy.
Levi remembered the change in McAndrews’ eyes when Sarah paid, and paid in gold: perhaps it’s the sight of gold that inflamed the man’s greed, and bade his attempt at extortion.
Levi had known such men; he’d encountered many such in his time as an investigator, as a detective, as an agent.
Sarah and the Bear Killer stood with McAndrews and his hired man while Levi struggled to get the saddle atop the tall mare: she was eighteen hands and bred for war, and Levi was more used to driving than riding, to sitting an upholstered seat than a saddle.
Levi did manage to saddle the Frisian, though it was amusing to see the townie take a few tries to sling the saddle on something that tall.
Sarah picked up the dropped ebony sheath, slipping her blade into it, raising it and letting it become a cane again: she dropped the tip, leaned quickly on it, her eyes still pale.

McAndrews tried to warn them the black mare was a fighter, a biter, a kicker: he tried to tell them the black mare ignored horse whip and single tree and instead fought all the harder, and the mare had finally run both McAndrews and his hired man out of the corral, whereupon McAndrews and his hired man decided they needed a cold one, and repaired to the Silver Jewel, where Levi overheard their conversation, and their decision to cut their losses and just kill that devil horse.
Unless they could find an utter fool who would pay good money for it, of course.
Levi found a peach crate for Sarah to stand on.
It was barely tall enough.
Even with the peach crate end-on, and Levi’s hands on Sarah’s waist to steady her, it was a task for her to saddle up, but mount she did: she arranged her skirt, instructed Levi on how to shorten the stirrups until they were just right.
He’d knotted the reins as she asked, and she picked them up and dropped them delicately over the saddle horn, while they were yet in the McAndrews corral.
“Open the gate, please,” she called as Levi stepped back. “Bear Killer, with me. Come on, Snowflake.”
“Snowflake?” McAndrews and his hired man looked at one another as the black hell-dog turned and loped happily toward his beloved Mistress.
The only thing they’d ever known that horse called, did not bear repeating in polite company.
They looked at Levi, and Levi looked at them, and shrugged.
“She’s like that,” he said. “Typical woman. Can’t figure ‘em.”
“Brother,” McAndrews muttered, “you never spoke truer words in your life!”
As Levi flicked the reins and called “Yup there, Jelly,” he had the distinct feeling the man was correct.

Sarah and Snowflake rode abreast of the buggy for a time, then ahead a little, at least until they were just short of the last rise before Firelands.
Levi could not help but suspect Sarah rode ahead so he couldn’t see the pain on her face.
Accomplished equestrienne though she was, Sarah was hurt, and hurting: his quick ear had not missed her hissing gasp as she climbed aboard Mount Horseback.
Levi opened his mouth to object to Sarah’s leaving the roadway, but his protest died in his throat as Sarah turned off the road and the rippling, glowing black mare glided out over the meadow.
She knows trails I never heard of, he thought, she’s been all over this country –
If she falls again Bonnie will have my head on a platter –
There’s no way I can follow her in the buggy –

Jelly’s steady trot never wavered; she could keep up this pace forever, or at least another hour, he knew.
He looked at Sarah riding a wide circle around town and realized she did not want to be seen yet a-horseback.

Sarah was paying a price for her bravado.
Sarah’s face was grey with pain; she was sweating, she was chilled, her collar bone ached abominably, her face pounded where her brow ridge and cheek bone impacted the wall back in the Jewel – but never, never in her life had she felt such power, such strength in a mount!
She leaned back in the saddle: “Ho, girl,” she said gently, and Snowflake responded to the gentle voice: she stopped, dancing a little, and Sarah pressed her right knee against the saddle-skirt.
Snowflake spun to the right.
Sarah laughed, pressed her other knee, and Snowflake spun in the opposite direction.
Sarah threw her head back and laughed again, and Snowflake spun three times, fast, then stopped, mincing her hooves into the ground, clearly enjoying herself.
“Hold still, girl,” Sarah said, letting the boar-spear slip in her hand, bringing the razor-honed head closer to her.
She looked at its hand sharpened edge, then slipped it carefully under the swathe binding her arm against her chest.
Gently, carefully, she eased the gleaming steel through white-linen binding.
The swathe fell free, slipped to the ground.
Now for it, Sarah thought.
I am tired of being crippled!
She eased the spear’s shining edge through the material of her sling.
Now, she thought, you’d better be healed, because I am through babying you!
Sarah took a long breath, worked her hand down to the balance point on the ash shaft.
“All right, girl,” she said, leaning into the saddle, “let’s see what you’ve got! Snowflake, GO!”
Sarah’s white silk gown floated behind her as she gave the mare her knees.
Snowflake responded.
She started with a walk, then a trot, a canter, picking up speed gradually.
Sarah grabbed a handful of material with her right hand, her collar bone started to ache, she set her teeth against the pain, wondering if she’d just done a very foolish thing in getting rid of the sling-and-swathe.
Tears started from Sarah’s eyes, a pained groan strained through the stubborn wards she’d placed on her throat, but she gave the black fire mare her knees and leveled the boar-spear like a lance and Snowflake began to gallop, reaching out with furry-foot legs and thrusting steel shoes against the hard earth, and Levi stood and watched as Sarah became a distant vision, a ghost, a floating creature of unearthly beauty, a harbinger, perhaps, of things to come: Sarah rode fast, impossibly fast, looking like she was fifteen feet long and flying like an arrow.
Levi had no way of knowing other eyes also saw her, eyes that disbelieved the sight of a ghostly horse and rider and a fanged, black hell-hound a-follow, a warrior-maiden with shining hair and gleaming-sharp spear, watching eyes that turned away, shuddering, in the belief that they’d just seen a shade or a spirit or an ethereal warning of some sort.

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Linn Keller 3-11-12


The man crossed himself nervously, shivering a little.
Father William waited patiently: he knew something happened to prick the man’s conscience, something prompted his guilty soul, perhaps, or something reminded him of what he’d tried to bury in his mind.
Either way, he knew, confession was good for the sinner, and this drifter’s soul seemed in urgent need of being shriven.
Parson Belden, too, was hearing a similar account from another man, the drifter’s partner, who felt his own spirit similarly burdened, and when the two men of the cloth met later that day, they found a common thread in the pair they’d entertained.
“Father,” the one gasped, “do y’ believe in ghosts an’ divine warning?”
“Parson,” the other groaned, “I saw a ghost today, I think ‘twas a warnin’!”
Both men were familiar with the line fence separating law from lawless, good from bad, legitimate from criminal; each had, in his time, ridden one side or the other as was convenient at the moment.
Both men described a similar epiphany, and at the same time.
Both described and angel or a ghost, a spirit or a Banshee, distant from the by maybe a mile: a floating white spirit on a sinner’s-black horse: both men were convinced the Angel of Good had subdued this Demon from the Inferno, for the sole purpose of warning their souls of divine and eternal peril: the men sought relief from the righteous wrath their actions justly deserved, for both had in their time seen the legendary Coulter’s Hell, and neither wished to spend eternity chained spread eagle over a geyser, or condemned to wade a lake of burning sulfur while carrying a laughing, kicking demon with clawed and cloven hooves.

Sam straightened, set her horse’s hoof back down on the ground, patting the dun’s shoulder.
Clark’s quiet voice brought his partner’s head up.
“Sam,” he said, “look yonder.”
Sam looked up, straightened, shaded her eyes with a flat palm.
“What in the name of seven hells is that?” she swore quietly.

Sarah was beyond pain and almost beyond numb.
Habit kept her in the saddle, habit and stirrups and sheer, hard headed contrariness.
Sarah saw home straight ahead and Sarah steered Snowflake for the barn and Sarah saw Sam in the distance and Sarah straightened and raised the boar-spear overhead.

“Clark,” Sam said quietly, “that’s Sarah!”
“Sarah!” Clark exclaimed. “She’s still in bed!”

Bonnie, too, saw Sarah as she rode across the mile long meadow.
Bonnie reached for Levi’s hand.
“Have you ever,” she whispered, “have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”
Levi squeezed her hand, gently, one time, then he turned and they descended the porch steps and walked toward the barn.

Sarah stroked Snowflake’s nose, murmuring to her, as saddle and saddlebags and blanket were removed: she fed Snowflake grain from a flat palm, and the black fire mare delicately lipped the offering .
Snowflake stood patiently for the rubbing down and the grooming and for the attention Clark paid to hooves and tail, teeth and ears, legs and back, and finally Snowflake moved just a little forward and draped her head over Sarah’s shoulder, and Sarah reached her good arm up and hugged the black Frisian mare’s neck and she felt her strength trickling out of her like water from a pierced skin.
Sarah pulled the bridle free; it fell from fingers unable to hold its weight.
Snowflake snuffed loudly at Sarah, slashed her tail a couple times, then turned and walked slowly through the gate into the pasture.
Sarah’s eyes were sunken looking and her color was ashen: she breathed with an open mouth and she reached for Levi’s arm.
She remembered the pain of being picked up and carried.

“Your daughter,” Levi said, shaking his head, “is every bit as hard headed and contrary as you are, my dear.”
“I know where she gets it, too,” Bonnie muttered, fingers busy with the silk gown: “I can get this clean … whatever was she thinking, insisting on wearing this?” Bonnie looked sharply at Levi. “I thought perhaps it would be her wedding dress!”
“Wedding?” Levi asked, eyebrows shooting toward his scalp line.
“There have been inquiries.”
“Inquiries?” He looked at Bonnie, his expression serious.
“Into her eligibility.”
“Eligibility?” Levi's mouth hung open a little, his eyes wide and distressed.
“Help me turn her … yes, just like that.” Bonnie hesitated. “Perhaps you should go tell Mary that I need her.”
Levi leaned his knuckles into the bedcover, bent over Sarah, stared into Bonnie’s eyes.
Bonnie’s unblinking eyes met Levi’s.
“And what of yourself?”
Levi leaned closer, his voice low.
“Bonnie, you are a plain spoken woman and I am not sophisticated enough to dance delicately around the subject.” His voice was quiet, urgent. “When I got your note I did two things. I resigned and made arrangements to begin drawing my pension, and I bought this.”
Levi never broke his gaze from Bonnie’s eyes.
He reached his left hand into his coat pocket and withdrew a small box.
He brought it between his eyes and Bonnie’s, turned it a little.
“Before we marry off your daughter,” he said, “shouldn’t we make her our daughter?”
Levi flipped the box open with his thumb.
A diamond gleamed, bright and faceted, in the grip of golden prongs.
Bonnie’s eyes crossed a little as she saw the gleaming payload, suspended in space between them.
Bonnie opened her mouth to say something.
She swallowed, cleared her throat.
Bonnie opened her mouth again.
She looked at Levi, her eyes suddenly soft.
“I,” she said, “I … I don’t know what to say.”
“Mother,” Sarah whispered hoarsely, “just kiss him.”
Shocked, Bonnie looked down at her daughter.
Sarah coughed, grimaced.
“Send Mary up to undress me,” Sarah wheezed, “and you two go make arrangements, and get me another blanket, I’m freezing!”

“No, hell no, I don’t know who she was!” the rancher shouted. “She had a sword, I tell ya! A sword, and a dog big as a bear!”
“A sword,” the Sheriff said skeptically.
“She wore a weddin’ dress and she was pale as a ghost!”
“Ghost,” the Sheriff said, raising his eyebrows.
“Now who in blue hell do YOU know who carries a SWORD?” the rancher demanded.
The Sheriff nodded slowly.
“I know of one woman who does,” he said thoughtfully. “As a matter of fact, let’s go talk to her and you tell me if she’s the one you saw.”

Esther rose at the Sheriff’s knock: she folded her hands in front of her as her husband came through the door, hat in hand, and with him, two men she’d not seen before.
Esther’s gown was a rich emerald green, as were her eyes: her cheeks glowed with good health, and the Sheriff’s eyes drifted down to her belly: Esther’s gowns were carefully tailored, carefully enough to prevent her increasing pregnancy from being visible.
“My dear,” the Sheriff said, “what can you tell me about swords?”
“Swords?” Esther smiled. “Well, they’re steel, they’re sharp and they make fine hearing aids.”
“And would you have one handy?” the Sheriff asked, mischief in his eyes.
Esther raised her hand.
Neither man saw quite how, but Esther had gotten her hand around the wire-wound grip of her fencing foil.
She held it up, bringing it quickly from a fold in her skirt -- the blade hissed through the air as she snapped it upright, its silver trail a streak of magic in the quiet atmosphere of the Z&W office.
Esther turned the blade, looked down its honed edge with an expert’s eye.
“This is a Schlager blade,” she said. “Manufactured in Solingen, Germany, from the very best steel, sharp enough to shave along its entire length. Three feet of fencing blade, light, fast and deadly.” She wove a leisurely figure-eight in front of her. “This one has tasted blood.”
Esther raised her other hand: this blade was as long, but wider.
Neither man saw where she got either blade.
“The Schlager blade is more of a thrusting weapon,” she said conversationally, then slashed the air before her with the curved sabre: “this one is an edge-fighting tool, and it can disembowel a man or a horse with one stroke.” Her emerald eyes glittered brightly, dangerously: “This one did just that, and more than once.” Her hand caressed the back edge of the blade, her fingers gliding along the smoothly rounded back edge as if she were caressing a lover.
“Why do you ask, darling?”
“Well?” the Sheriff asked the rancher. “Is this the woman?”
“No, she was – younger –“ he looked away from Esther, embarrassed – “shorter – more a girl –“
“A girl?”
“Yeah, a –“
“A girl,” the Sheriff repeated. “With a sword.”
“You told me it was a woman all in white.”
“Well she was!”
“I don’t like it when someone changes their story on me,” the Sheriff said, a warning note in his voice. “Now suppose you start at the beginning and tell me everything this time.”
“Was she pale?” Esther asked. “Ghostlike?”
“Yeah!” The rancher’s voice was loud, emphatic. “Yeah, just like that!”
“My stepdaughter,” Esther said serenely.
“There! Ya see? I knew she was –“
“My stepdaughter died ten years ago,” Esther continued calmly. “Her ghost appears like that to warn of impending death.”
“Imp – what’s pending?”
“Have you ever heard of the Fetch?” Esther asked, gliding toward the man, emerald eyes glowing, warm, locked onto his, hypnotic: the Sheriff was reminded most powerfully of a snake, mesmerizing a rabbit before turning it into a meal.
“N- no,” he said, shaking his head slightly.
“The Fetch is a sheep that waits at the front door of a dying man’s house,” Esther said, her voice low, musical: “as the man within fails, the fetch without looks as bad; when the man dies, the fetch is suddenly in full health, and walks through the closed door and fetches his soul.” She grounded her sabre, touching its point delicately to the heavy wool rug underfoot: “There is only one reason she would appear to you, she needed something … perhaps a purchase …?”
“A horse,” he said faintly. “She bought a horse.”
“And the sword?”
“She had it in a cane … she put the blade here” – he thrust a finger up under his own chin – “and then she rode off on that damned horse.”
“Why would a ghost need a horse?” the Sheriff asked, sensing his bride was either having fun at this man’s expense – possible, but not likely – she may be fishing for information herself – more likely – or she knew something, and saw this fellow as a conduit for the spread of misinformation.
“Damned if I know, lady!” he exclaimed loudly. “I was ready to kill that damned horse! It like to killed my hired man and me! Why, had she not offered me gold an’ twice what it was worth I’d’a likely shot it before noon!”
“So a ghost bought a condemned horse,” Esther murmured. “It sounds like the ghost came to warn you.” She tilted her head, studied the man with open curiosity.
“Tell me, sir, how has your health been here of late?”
The rancher started backing up, shaking his head.
“No,” he said uncertainly, his voice quivering: “no … no, NO!”
The door slammed shut behind him; they heard him run down the hall, clatter down the stairs.
The Sheriff went over to the window, watched the rancher mount up in little short of a panic; he whirled his horse, cut it viciously with the tag end of the reins, kicked it into a gallop.
The Sheriff looked at Esther.
“My dear,” he said gently, his eyes smiling, “is there something you wish to tell me?”
Esther glided up to her husband, raised her face to his, caressed his cheek, then drew his head down until their lips met.
The Sheriff ran his arm around his wife, holding her close, warm against him as they spoke briefly in their special, intimate language.
Esther shivered a little as she drew away.
“You do stir me, Mr. Keller,” she whispered, fingertips caressing the lawman’s cheek.
“As do you, me,” he whispered in return, his eyes smiling: “In your own time, then.”
He looked out the window, onto the main street.
“Well, that saves me some work. I don’t believe he’ll be pressing charges after all.”

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Charlie MacNeil 3-11-12


Another set of eyes, deepset and the color of flint, surrounded by wrinkles earned through years of waging war against man and element, watched Sarah's journey from the McAndrews ranch to her home. Their owner chuckled at the sight of the great black Frisian and the slip of a girl, melded into a single being from ancient warrior legend. "That's one hella big pony horse," Cat Running whispered softly. "And one hurtin' girl." Beneath the adrenaline and endorphins of the ride he could see the pain that radiated through Sarah's body. "She's gonna pay for that ride tomorra. Someday she gonna learn, I guess." The old man clucked his own horse into motion, turning the paint toward the FC.

Dawg lifted an ear. The deep rumble of boulders grinding the bed of a runoff-swollen river sounded over the pop and snap of pitchwood in the firebox of the Monarch range. "I heard him," Charlie commented as he laid his "only for reading" spectacles on the two month old copy of Harper's beside his coffee cup. He pushed himself tiredly to his feet and padded to the door, his steps silent in worn elkhide moccasins. He and Fannie had spent a long afternoon bucksawing a big windfall juniper into chunks suitable for such purposes as fenceposts and firewood, and his hands, arms and back were all stiff, and the stiffness was working its way down into his hips and legs. I'm gettin' old, he groused to himself. Next thing I know I'll be a-settin' out on the porch in a rockin' chair.

The door swung silently open on well-oiled hinges. "Come in, old man," Charlie said as he turned toward the stove. "There's coffee and biscuits if you're hungry. And some leftover elk roast." Without looking around at the newcomer he filled a plate with meat and biscuits, poured steaming black Arbuckles into a big mug and set the meal on the table. Cat Running nodded his thanks before digging into the food.

When the last biscuit had sopped up the last fragrant drop of pan drippings and was washed down with more hot Arbuckles, the old man sat back with a belch of satisfaction. "Good grub. Your woman's a good cook," he said with a mischievous grin. "You, not so much."

Charlie gave him a glare of mock indignation. "I haven't noticed you turning down any meals around here, no matter who cooks 'em."

"Nope. Ain't gonna, neither. I seen that girl today. Ridin' a big black mare. Damn horse is bigger'n a barn."

Charlie mulled the words over for a few moments, knowing who the girl in question was. "Where'd she get a horse that big? And what's she doing out riding already? I thought she got hurt not too long ago."

"McAndrews. Horse damn near kilt him'n that worthless foreman. They was gonna shoot it, but the girl bought it from 'im 'fore they could. She's still hurtin'. Thinks she's pretty tough. An' she is." Cat Running slurped his coffee and swallowed. "But not as tough as she thinks. She be hurtin' bad come mornin'. Goin' to the barn. See ya." The old man pushed back his chair and headed out the door, closing it silently behind him. Charlie stared after him for a few seconds then shrugged and went to the washpan with plate and cup.

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Linn Keller 3-12-12


Sarah held very, very still.
Sarah breathed slowly, carefully, grateful that her corset was not as tight as it usually was: it allowed for a small amount of diaphragmatic breathing, and she wished to belly-breathe all she could, because every time her rib cage expanded or contracted, it reminded her yet again of just how much of a damned, purblind, hard headed, stiff necked, idiotic dim witted stupid FOOL she had been!
Her collar bone, surprisingly, was not quite as vocal as her cracked chondrals: its ache was steady and dull, like a bad tooth, instead of the bright, lancing detonations of pain that stabbed into her at random moments, bright and blinding in their brilliance against the steady background of their own, sharper ache.
Sarah's legs felt good, though: she squeezed her eyes shut against the pain, searching her young body for something that felt good, and so far she inventoried that her head did not hurt, her neck was fine -- well, the upper neck, at least, the furthest from her collar bone -- her pelvis was without discomfort and her legs felt really, really good for having ridden the day before.
For having ridden, she thought.
That was not a ride.
That was magic!
God Almighty
, Sarah prayed silently, I thank You that You let me ride that horse!
Sarah cautiously slipped the memory of that ride around her like a warm cloak, and for a moment, for just a moment, she was leaning into the saddle, her weight on the balls of her feet, and she felt that rare conmingling of souls that happens only when two exceptionally gifted musicians are playing together, or during lovemaking, when two lawmen are in the last phases of apprehending a fighting felon, or as in Sarah's case, when riding an exceptionally matched mount.
Sarah had heard Uncle Linn talk about that rare saddlehorse that melds with the rider such that they are no longer horse and rider, but one magical creature riding the wind itself, and his eyes were far away and soft because his description was that of his Grandfather's green-broke stallion, and he had been a skinny young man, riding the stallion bare-chested and bareback.
Sarah wheezed, almost smiling, at the thought of riding a horse bare-chested, and in spite of her pain, her face turned a remarkable shade of red.
No, she thought, not me, never! and in spite of herself, she laughed, then snapped her jaw shut against the pain it elicited.
Sarah coughed again and put a kerchief to her lips, wiped away the foul tasting corruption.
I'm cold, she thought, shivering a little, and coughed again.

"Breakfast, Matthews," the Sheriff said quietly.
Victor Matthews swung his legs off the metal cot and glared at the lawman.
"I'm gonna kill you," he rumbled.
"You got scrambled eggs, fried taters and plenty of 'em. Don't try keepin' the fork. Coffee's a-boilin'." He slid the wood tray under the cell door.
Matthews surged ahead, seized the door, shook it. "DIDN'T YOU HEAR ME, LAWMAN! I'M A-GONNA KILL YOU!"
The Sheriff regarded Matthews' stubbled face mildly and replied, "Matthews, you killed two lawmen back East. You clubbed one from behind and you shot one in the back. You near to killed one over in Cripple. I'm takin' you back to Cripple and when they're done with you over there, they might send you back East in a cage like an animal or they might just have East come an' get you themselves, I dunno. Meantime why don't you eat your breakfast and take a nap, you ain't goin' anywhere for a while."
Victor Matthews' reply does not bear printing where decent eyes can read it.

Levi scraped his face carefully with a freshly stropped straight razor.
He'd brought his own, and a good thing: every last thing that belonged to his late brother -- save only one hat, which Sarah gave to Jackson Cooper -- Bonnie had burnt, broken or otherwise disposed of: coldly, deliberately, excepting only clothing, which she could not bear to damage: these, she packaged and sent anonymously to a charity in Atlanta, as none of the artifacts so dispatched could possibly make their way back to Firelands, Colorado.
Levi marveled at the morning's quiet.
It was early yet, the sun barely streaking the eastern sky, a brilliant crimson slash across the horizon, impaled on granite crags and mountain peaks: Levi was no stranger to sun rises, but somehow they were more spectacular here, away from the city, away from men and the smell of men.
Levi swished the lather from the razor in the pan of steaming-warm water, lifted his chin and carefully shaved under his chin and down his neck with practiced strokes: he'd already trimmed about his mustache, the only facial hair he wore: satisfied, he toweled the rest of the soap from his face, wiped the razor clean and folded it, and dropped it back in his black-leather kit.
Levi turned and realized he was the object of two sets of bright eyes.
The maid came up behind them, stopping; she'd timed her arrival, to remove the towel and the wash pan, but the twins were blocking the doorway.
Polly spoke first, concern on her shining young face.
"Did that hurt?" she asked, and Opal blinked, clutching her rag doll.
Levi squatted, then lowered one knee: he smiled and said in a gentle, quiet voice, "Give me your hand."
Polly and Opal both thrust out a pink, scrubbed-clean hand.
"Now stick out a finger," he said.
Little pink fingers stuck out from little pink fists.
Levi took both girls' hands, delicately, carefully, and brushed a little pink finger down each of his cheeks.
"That's what it felt like," he said quietly. "Just a little light scrape, that's all."
Levi released their hands and Polly and Jade said "Oh," and looked at one another, then looked at Levi, each girl tilting her head a little.
They looked back, and each little girl reached a caressing hand up and explored the smoothness of Levi's cheeks.
Levi held very still, smiling a little at their gentle, careful exploration.
The girls lowered their hands, looking at one another.
"He has a vew-wy nice muts-tache," Polly said.
"Vew-wy nice," Opal agreed, and both girls nodded, once, in unison: they turned to face Levi, dropped a perfect curtsy, then turned and ran past the maid, giggling.

Sam caressed the black fire mare's nose.
"You're a big one," she whispered. "How in the cotton pickin' did Sarah ever find something like you?"
Snowflake nuzzled Sam's middle hopefully.
Sam rubbed her under the jaw. "You bum," she murmured. "You lookin' for a bribe? She ought to name you Politician, honey."
Snowflake looked hopefully over at Clark, snuffed loudly at his extended hand, then returned to Sam's skilled caresses.
"Kind of hard t' see her," Clark said, studying the mare's back and flanks.
"She'd hide well in a coal mine."
"Sam, take a look there" -- Clark pointed -- "does that look like whip scar?"
Sam frowned, lowered her head a little to try and catch some light across the mare's back.
"Can't tell," she admitted, then bent and slipped between the fence rails.
Snowflake danced back a little, playfully, and Clark grinned to see a horse of such size, moving so lightly, so easily.
"Girl, can I take a look here?" Sam murmured, running her hands along Snowflake's neck.
Snowflake stood patiently for the examination, not even flinching when Clark's hand found the goove in her fur where a whip had taken out hair and hide.
"Healed," Clark whispered, patting Snowflake's shoulder, "but good God! -- who would do that to you?"
Snowflake snuffed loudly at Clark's middle again, and Clark said "Okay, you found it," and pulled a little paper wrapped lump from her vest pocket: she unwrapped the chunk of chocolate flavored brown sugar, broken off the cone she'd gotten at the Mercantile the week before, and held it out in a flat palm.
Snowflake lipped it off, then gave Clark's palm a quick swipe with her tongue to make sure she got it all.

Jacob hung the cloth sack diagonally across little Joseph.
"You pack these tools for me," he said, "and we'll go do some carpenter work."
"Good!" Joseph laughed, grabbing the strap across his chest and grinning broadly at his Pa.

Jackson Cooper stepped out onto the front porch and looked at the long red crack in the eastern sky.
He leaned back a little, throwing his arms wide, taking a long, deep breath of good clean air, and fetched the fine new hat off his head.
Jackson Cooper was not given to long speeches, but what he said generally meant something, and what he said this morning, he meant.
He looked up at the cloud-streaked firmament overhead and said, "Thank You."

"Jacob," Annette called, "if you're going into town today, I would need ..."
"Do you have a list?" he asked, stopping and turning.
Annette reached into an apron pocket, then the other, and came up with a folded paper.
"Aha!" she declared. "If you're going into town. I have baking started but I can go ..." Her voice trailed hopefully as she held up the paper.
Jacob laughed, looked down at his little boy.
"Joseph," he said, "what say we go into town!"
"Good!" Joseph grinned up at his Pa.

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Linn Keller 3-12-12


The Sheriff leaned back in his office chair, listening to the Cripple Creek deputies back in the cells.
"Victor Matthews, you are under arrest for murder and attempted murder. Turn around and put your hands behind your back."
The Sheriff stood up, picking his hat off the peg; he walked casually over to the gun rack, took down his favorite working tool, a double twelve gauge, and opened the drawer, exposing an open box of brass hull cartridges.
There was the sound of a body hitting steel bars in back; a pained grunt, the sound of knuckles hitting flesh.
"We're deputies! You can't -- OW!!"
The Sheriff dropped in the second brass shotshell and closed the double gun.
Another couple meaty smacks, then the sound of a lead sap on a hard head, a second, and the collapse of a body to the wood floor.
The Sheriff sighed, shaking his head.
He'd been young once himself, and young generally meant more enthusiastic than able, and Cripple Creek sent two young bucks to bring Matthews back to stand trial.
He eared back both hammers on the double gun and waited.
Victor Matthews came running down the hallway just in time to see two gateways to hell open wide to receive him.

The Judge sat in the quiet of his private railcar.
He lifted the slanted lid of his writing-desk, extracted two sheets of paper; he placed one of them on the felt writing surface of his desk, laid the ribbon over it to hold it in place, then picked up the pen and dipped it, once.
The other sheet he laid to the side.

Levi Rosenthal, Agent, retired
Firelands, Colorado

From Judge Donald Hostetler, with my congratulations on your new status as a retired man, and my wishes for a quiet, comfortable and uneventful future:
I wish to call upon you, if it would not be inconvenient, this evening after supper: there is a matter upon which I wish to consult, as you are a man of experience.


The Judge read the note, re-read it, nodded: he lay blotting-paper over the note, pressed the rocker over it, once; folding the note into thirds, he wax-sealed it, pressing his official stamp into the soft wax: a set of scales, the insignia of the Judicial branch.
He’d had it made as a graduation present to himself when he successfully completed law school: it remained a symbol of achievement, for school had not been easy for him.
The Judge stood, walked slowly to the door of the private car: he raised his chin, summoning a boy loafing against a rain-barrel some twenty-five yards distant.
Within the minute, his missive was being conveyed at a running pace to the House McKenna, powered by a coin pressed into the boy’s palm.

The twins’ hair was brushed out, curled and ribboned, their frocks changed, even their identical rag dolls (only they could tell them apart) were freshened: the good smell of coffee reached Bonnie’s office, and the smell of fresh baked goods: Bonnie knew the Judge had a weakness for cinnamon rolls, and her maid had a special knack for making light, fluffy, absolutely exquisite cinnamon rolls.
Bonnie herself never lacked for a fine and perfectly fitted gown – Levi marveled at this – even in the privacy of her own home her appearance was … well, immaculate.
Levi stood, looking around: Bonnie’s office was uniquely hers, and he was considering their future together: should we indeed become man and wife, he realized, one of his first changes would be to build onto the house.
The house is big enough, aye
, he thought, but I have not the heart to usurp her office!
And if there are children …

Levi blinked.
He realized he’d been staring at the wall, staring and not seeing it at all.
Bonnie smiled at him from the doorway: she glided over to him, smoothly, the way she always did, but … something was different … she looked …
Levi blinked and averted his eyes.
I’m feeling guilty, he realized.
Bonnie’s hands were gentle, quick, as they tugged at his vest, smoothed the breast of his shirt, adjusted his tie: her bent finger under his chin was enough to raise his head and allow her room to work.
“You are quite handsome, you know,” she murmured, stepping back and nodding with satisfaction.
Levi raised a self-conscious hand to his still tender face. “Of course,” he murmured.
Bonnie stepped back up to the man, put her hands on his shoulders.
“Levi Rosenthal,” she said with mock sternness, “we McKenna women have a gift, and that gift is called True-Seeing. In you I see fine husband material.”
Levi nodded.
“Levi.” Bonnie’s voice was suddenly serious. “You know I am a businesswoman.”
Levi nodded, suddenly curious.
“You know I am a successful businesswoman.”
Levi nodded again.
“Part of my success comes from making investments.” She gave him an appraising look. “Successful investments. Do you know how I learned how to make profitable decisions?”
Levi’s brows puzzled together a little.
“By making unprofitable decisions first.”
She held up her hand, showed him the diamond he’d put on her finger. Her smile was mischievous. “I believe you are a profitable decision.”
Levi’s eyes shifted; Bonnie could tell he was thinking about Sarah.
“I’m worried, too,” Bonnie said quietly. “Mary and the nurse are with her.”
“This has been so trying for you.” Levi brushed Bonnie’s hair with the back of his fingers.
Bonnie placed her hand flat on Levi’s chest.
“Why don’t you sit down, Levi, and I’ll bring you some nice hot tea,” Bonnie said soothingly. “I know the Judge, and he is punctual.”
They both looked at the wall clock, then looked back at one another.
Levi raised his hands, cupped Bonnie’s elbows, swallowed nervously.
“I want,” he began, then wet his lips and tried again.
“I don’t want …”
Bonnie’s eyes were deep, gentle, dark: Levi felt like he could fall into them, swim in them.
He saw her blink, marveled at the perfection of her eyelashes.
“I want to make you happy,” he whispered. “I don’t want to disappoint you.”
“You will do both,” Bonnie said, “and so will I. We’ll have to learn one another’s moods, we’ll have to learn each how the other thinks, makes decisions … we’ll have so much to learn about one another.”
Levi nodded, considering his fiancee’s cleavage, then closed his eyes, suddenly ashamed.
I shouldn’t think like that, he thought.
I should be ashamed of myself.
“Why should you?” Bonnie asked, her eyes smoldering: “I’m not.”
She tilted her head up and kissed Levi, gently, her arms drawing him into her.
Levi shivered a little as lust-fires shivered inside him, at least until he heard the maid’s hard heels in the hallway and he realized he'd just heard a brisk rat-tat at the door.

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Linn Keller 3-13-12


Dr. John Greenlees, MD, frowned at the shot glass of water clear in front of him: his long, thin fingers turned it round a few times before he finally picked it up and took a sip.
The Sheriff and Dr. George Flint each took a long pull of coffee.
"Dr. Flint," Dr. Greenlees said meditatively, "we were short handed today."
Dr. Flint nodded.
"I believe we need more staff."
"Can we afford more staff?"
The Sheriff's voice was quiet.
"If we need more staff," he said, "they can be had, fear not."
Dr. Greenlees knocked back the rest of his shot and frowned anew.
"We have to be self sufficient," he said. "If we must operate on charity, Sheriff ... no, we must be able to meet our own bills."
"You'll go broke."
Dr. Greenlees glared at the greying lawman.
"Sheriff, you could fall over dead five minutes from now. Someone could shoot you from ambush, you could fall from a horse or take a misstep and break your neck. Your charity would end on that moment."
The Sheriff nodded, slowly, considering.
Daisy's girl set a platter of elk steak down in front of the men; a bowl of mashed potatoes and one of gravy followed, then a bowl of corn and a cloth covered bowl of biscuits.
The Sheriff indicated the physicians should help themselves first.
"How is Sarah?" he asked quietly.
Dr. Flint looked up, obsidian eyes dark and unreadable: "I understand that may not be a casual inquiry."
The Sheriff's eyes were the only thing to move.
"You understand rightly."
Dr. Greenlees raised one eyebrow.
"She is a strong girl," Dr. Flint said slowly.
"She is a hard headed and contrary sort," the Sheriff added, and he did not miss the amusement in the Navajo eyes.
"I believe she may get that honestly?" the doctor asked innocently.
"You believe correctly." The Sheriff accepted the mashed taters, threw a big gob on his plate and mashed down the middle.
"Nurse Susan is with her now. Your Bonnie has nearly worn herself out tending Sarah. I don't believe she slept in two days."
The Sheriff nodded, poured the well in his potatoes full, drizzled gravy over its sides.
Flecks of scorched meat floated in the gravy, speckled the mound of taters where the gravy drizzled over: the Sheriff loved his gravy that-a-way, and Daisy's girls took pains to fix gravy according to his liking.
"Those two Cripple Creek deputies were hurtin'," the Sheriff murmured.
"They'll be sore in the morning," Dr. Greenlees affirmed.
"Any permanent damage?"
"Oh, they'll both scar and I would imagine their pride is bruised, but they'll live."
"Even the one Matthews banged over the head with the slapper?"
"Oh, yes. He's hard headed enough, and it was a glancing blow. I sewed up the cut on his scalp and washed the blood out of his hair." Dr. Greenlees chuckled, cutting elk steak and dipping the speared squares in gravy. "He said getting his hair washed hurt worse than stitches!"
The Sheriff nodded, taking a bite of a buttered biscuit.

Daisy breezed through the front door like she owned the place, a cloth-covered, heavy-wicker basket in each hand: she squatted quickly, setting her baskets down, gathered the twins in her arms and gave them each a noisy kiss: "How're ma two girls now? Are ye behavin' yersel's an' why not?" and handed them each half a peppermint stick. "Don't tell," she whispered, and the twins popped the peppermint stick between their lips, shaking their heads in big-eyed solemnity.
Daisy stood, swept up the baskets and walked briskly into the kitchen.
The maid was just coming downstairs; Daisy turned, waved her in, snatched the red-and-white checkered cloth off one basket, then the other.
"There's supper f'r all o' ye, an' there's pie i' th' bottom. That pie," she said, lowering her voice and inclining her head closer, "is f'r you," and winked.
"Thank you," the maid said tiredly.
"Now it's near t' bedtime f'r the twins, is it not?" Daisy said briskly, reaching into the smaller basket and withdrawing a small book. "Do they need a bath?"
Mary shook her head, exploring the contents of the baskets.
Supper, enough for everyone, plus Mary's pie.
"Oh, bless you," she said, fatigue thick in her voice.
Daisy took Mary's cheeks between her palms, rested her forehead against the hired girl's: "Dearie, tendin' th' sick is no' easy, an' ye need some relief. Throw supper on th' table, get 'em fed an' get yersel' t' bed, I'll sit up wi' th' lass" -- and so saying, Daisy picked up the book and marched into the parlor: "Ladies, wi' me," she declared, "th' hour is late, it's time ye had supper an' were i' bed, an' I ha'e a story to read ye!"

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Linn Keller 3-13-12


“Ye’ll lay still an’ like it, young lady,” Daisy said firmly, wringing out the torn bedsheet: she laid it carefully over half Sarah’s torso, picked up the wet sheet from the other half of her anatomy.
It was hot to the touch.
Daisy dipped it carefully in the bucket of tepid water, dunked it once and wrung it: she rotated the tepid, wet cloths, bringing Sarah’s temperature down slowly, carefully: she knew if she cooled Sarah too quickly, the fever would drive deep and burn her out from the inside: if she coaxed it to the surface with tepid cloths, however, she could suck the fever's heat into the cloth, wash it free into the bucket, and gradually, gradually the burning fever would subside.
The Bear Killer lay under the window, sadly regarding the sickbed: head on his paws, he had the expression of someone who’d lost his best friend.
Occasionally he lifted his head and made a querulous noise, then lay his blunt, strong muzzle back down on his paws.
Sarah’s breathing was ragged: she coughed occasionally, Daisy sitting her up when she did: the little Irishwoman was considerably stronger than she looked, for she had no trouble sitting Sarah upright, one-handed, holding the cloth to her lips to catch the unpleasantly colored sputum.
“You’ve done this before,” Nurse Susan observed.
Daisy glanced up, then reached for another wet cloth: she didn’t have to look, her hand had eyes, and she picked up the towel sized rag from the bucket.
“I have a household clear full of Irishmen,” she said, “an’ a firehouse of ‘em as well. They look t’ me t’ be their mither, the lot of ‘em.” She wrung the sheet with a firm twist, snapped it open and laid it over Sarah’s thigh.
“Thirsty,” Sarah whispered hoarsely and Daisy ran a hand between her shoulder blades: a quick effort and Sarah was upright, a teacup to her lips.
Sarah drank with considerably less effort now.
She’d described swallowing, earlier, as feeling like broken glass.
“There, now,” Daisy soothed, “is yer throat any better, ducks?”
Sarah coughed a little, nodded.
Daisy eased her back down to the sweat-damp mattress.
“How’re ye feelin’?”
“Better,” Sarah gasped.
Daisy laid a damp but gentle palm against Sarah’s cheek, peered into the supine girl’s eyes.
“Well, yer eyes are clear now,” she said briskly. “I was beginnin’ t’ think ye were a boiled egg inside!”
Sarah blinked. “Scrambled,” she whispered.
“There’s ma girl!” Daisy smiled, peeling off the upper cloth and laying a fresh one in its place.

Dr. Flint leaned back, lips pursed, and nodded.
“You will want to monitor –“ he began, hesitated, tried again.
“Your belly is my greatest concern,” he said in cultured tones: “if you become nauseated or have uncontrolled diarrhea and your belly is hard and boardlike, find the best surgeon you know and put your affairs in order.”
“Why?” the Cripple Creek deputy marshal asked, swinging his legs off the examination table.
“You took several hard hits to your belly,” Dr. Flint explained. “If a section of intestine dies the only hope you have of survival is to cut out the necrosed portion.”
“If your guts die, you die,” the Sheriff translated. “If a section of your guts die, cut it out and cast it from thee. If you’re lucky you’ll live.”
The other deputy’s head was rather neatly bandaged; he sat on a stool with his hat in his hand and a sour look on his face.
“Your hair will grow back,” Dr. Flint said expressionlessly. “If you experience double vision, dizziness, loss of coordination or” – he cupped his hands in front of his mouth – “it sounds like people are talking to you out of a barrel” – he lowered his hands – “I have the same advice. The best surgeon, and your affairs in order.”
“All I’ve got’s a headache,” the deputy protested.
“If you’re lucky that’s all you’ll have, other than experience.”
The two deputies looked at one another.

Joseph strutted importantly out of the Mercantile with a Joseph-sized sack of canned peaches.
His Pa had a sack of flour over his shoulder: Jacob stepped carefully down off the board walk and around to the back of the wagon and delicately turned the sack over and into the wagon bed.
Little Joseph held out his sack, grinning, and his Pa took it gently out of the lad’s grip.
“Thank you, Joseph,” Jacob said with a wink.

It was well short of noon, but the Jewel was busy: miners had pay in their pockets, a taste for drink, gambling and pretty girls; Mr. Baxter had a bar full of thirsty customers, Daisy’s kitchen had pots bubbling, pans hissing, one busy cook and one hustling server, and on stage, Dolly snapped her petticoats briskly to the side and struck a long-legged pose as the piano trilled a fanfare, getting ready for the first performance of the day.

“I seen it!” Jimmy Hill declared, excited: “it was an angel, she was white as snow an’ she rode a big black horse with big white wings!”
“You didn’t see no such thing!” his schoolyard companion sneered in a little boy’s high voice.
“Did too!”
“Did not!”
“Did too!”
“Don’t you call me a liar!”
“I’ll whip you!”
Jimmy punched Mike in the nose, Mike kicked Jimmy in the shin, and the fight was on.

McAndrews counted out Tom Miller’s pay.
“Thank you, Mr. McAndrews.”
“Tom” – McAndrews’ voice was serious – “nobody needs to know about … you know …”
“Know about what?” Tom said innocently.
McAndrews held up another five dollars.
“This is a week’s wages over in Cripple. Double this if you keep quiet.”
Tom Miller had anticipated describing his boss’s experience at the tip of a pale woman’s blade for a couple of days now: he’d planned on tantalizing his audience, building the tension, maybe cadging a couple of drinks if he made it sound good enough, then finally he would spin the yarn in glorious lifelike color … but the color of gold was attractive, too.
Tom Miller nodded.
“I’ll take ye up on that,” he said.
McAndrews nodded.
“If it’s not common knowledge in two weeks,” he said, “it’s yours.”
Tom Miller’s eyes hardened.
I should have known he’d pull something like this, he thought.
I thought he would give it to me right now.
That's okay.
I can bide my time.

Jacob watched his little boy charge across the packed dirt street, bearing the single red rose like a cherished trophy.
Maude raised roses, he knew, she hand pollinated them when they bloomed early; she had the gift of coaxing them from the soil in the upstairs room, and somehow she’d brought one to early blossom.
She’d given it to young Joseph.
Joseph busily packed goods out to the wagon with his Pa, as best he could, given his few years and his small carrying capacity, and when they were done, Maude leaned down and offered the bloom, asking if he’d like to have it.
Joseph grinned a broad little-boy grin and crowed “Good!” and stuck his nose in it and sniffed, held it up for his Pa to see … then turned and ran out the door.
Jacob thanked Maude and said he’d be right back, and followed Joseph outside.
There was little traffic at that moment – a good thing, given the lad’s lack of caution – he scampered across the street and down a little, and clambered up the steps onto the boardwalk in front of the Silver Jewel.
Clasping the rose to his breast, he tugged at the door until he finally worried it open, and disappeared within.
Jacob smiled.
He knew where Joseph was going, and why.
“Miz Maude,” he said in his gentle voice, “how much would I owe ye today?”

Esther smiled as little Joseph peeked cautiously through the crack in the door: one hand was waaaaaay up on the door knob, the other holding a cherished prize in front of him, a single rose in glorious, scarlet bloom.
Joseph let go of the door knob and strutted into the room, looking around.
Angela stood up, blinking and rubbing her eyes: she’d been napping, and woke at the sound of Joseph trying the doorknob.
Little Joseph grinned when he saw Angela.
He marched across the room and offered her the rose.
Angela regarded him solemnly, then giggled and accepted the rose: she leaned down and kissed the smaller child on the cheek.
“Good!” Joseph crowed: he spun and scampered for the door and back down the hallway.

The Sheriff stepped into the saddle and turned Cannonball, then twitched the reins ever so gently: “Ho, girl,” he murmured.
Angela pushed open the ornate, frosted-glass-windowed door to the Jewel and slipped out, then carefully, one step at a time, descended to street level.
She turned and ran the few steps to the alley, down the alley.
She bore a single red rose.
The Sheriff looked to his right, toward the Mercantile, in time to see Jacob swing Joseph into his wagon: Jacob’s grin was broad and Joseph’s laugh, contagious: the greying old lawman smiled a little, then looked to his own little girl’s sudden journey.
He lifted the reins, kneed the copper mare gently.
“Let’s see where she’s going,” he murmured.

Angela did not run, but her walk was brisk.
She traveled as would a child, along familiar paths and line-of-sight, cutting across behind the schoolhouse and down a draw, then uphill.
The Sheriff frowned, watching from a distance.
Angela’s journey was obviously purposeful; she had a destination and she was headed there with … well, not really haste, but she was wasting no time.
He kept an overwatch, knowing if she got in trouble he could be to her in moments, but he hung far enough back so he did not interfere with her intent.
In other words, the man was curious.
Angela dropped out of sight for a long minute, then the Sheriff saw his little girl climbing the narrow wagon track up hill and he knew where she was going.
To her left was the Tree of Truth, the hanging tree, and below it, the long-unused message drop, once an important feature of communication with his friend, the mysterious and wise Agent Sopris, now retired.
Ahead of her was the town cemetery.
Cannonball walked leisurely after the child, several hundred yards distant, keeping easily apace with the Sheriff’s little girl.
The Sheriff watched as Angela cast about, obviously getting her bearings, then she ran for a familiar section of the cemetery.
The Sheriff rode a circle, coming directly behind her, and came back into view just as Angela stopped and knelt.
The Sheriff swallowed hard as Angela brushed off the kneeling lamb carved atop a small stone.
Beneath the lamb, the name Joseph.
Angela smelled the rose, then laid it gently against the stone: the Sheriff saw her place her hands on her thighs and say something to the stone, then she stood and turned.
Angela saw her Daddy on his copper mare.
“Dad-dee!” she exclaimed, delighted, running toward him, and the Sheriff tossed the reins over Cannonball’s head and stepped down, bending to catch Angela and swing her waaaay up into the air the way he always did: he spun and Angela giggled and laughed, safe in her Daddy’s big hands.

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Mr. Box 3-13-12


With all the crowd in the Silver Jewel it didn't take long before someone started talking about hearing of some big black horse with a lady in a flowing white dress galloping across a mountainside. I didn't think too much about it but then I'd hear someone else add a little to it as it migrated down the bar. There was a lot of speculation as to what it was all about. Nobody seemed to know. There were as many theories as there were beer mugs. Even the poker game hesitated for a couple of minutes while it was the main topic of discussion. By the time it had completely passed thru the establishment it sounded like a completely different occurrence. It was a different kind of horse, the saddle was covered with all kinds of fancy trim, and the rider was from out of this world! There was a lot of serious doubt that it even happened. Nobody in town had ever seen that kind of horse anywhere anyway.

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Linn Keller 3-14-12


“Now how did you do that?” Sam asked out loud, looking at the big black Frisian snuffing at the window sill.
Sam was a big woman, Sam was a capable woman, but Sam was a woman with a history, and a hard and sad history it was.
Like Bonnie, she’d been widowed; like Bonnie, she’d been betrayed; like Bonnie, she’d survived her ranch being stolen out from under her.
Unlike Bonnie, she was never drugged and forced into white slavery.
Sam’s path was quite different: she pulled on canvas britches and high boots, braided her hair and wrapped it around her neck, pulled her collar up and her hat brim down and went to tending cattle like she’d done with her late husband.
Sam had a knack with livestock of all kind.
Sam came well recommended and Bonnie hired her sight unseen, not even knowing she was hiring a fellow widow-woman, least not until after Sam and Clark took up life in the bunk house.
Bonnie was never quite sure whether Clark was Sam’s brother, or brother in law, and really it did not matter: she hired them to do a job, and they did their job well.
Very well.
Under their skilled hands and watchful eyes, the McKenna ranch turned a profit.
Now Sam looked at Sarah’s monster of a gleaming-black, long maned, furry-footed horse, wondering how in the world had it gotten over to the house.
“You didn’t jump that fence now,” she said, doubt in her voice: “naaah, you couldn't do that, big as you are … is there a hole in the fence somewhere?”
The black Frisian came walking over, begging an ear scratching, snuffing at Sam’s middle.
“You bum,” Sam said softly, “how did you know?”
Sam reached in a pocket and brought out a dried apple, wrapped in a scrap of newspaper: she knew the print by heart and had grown tired of reading it, otherwise it would be like anything else printed, precious and carefully salvaged.
Sam backed up a step, holding the apple up.
The Frisian mare stepped delicately forward, lipping at the treat.
“Up, girl,” Sam said, gesturing with a flat palm: “Up, now, can you Up for me?”
The mare stopped, hobby-horsed back and forth a few times from forehooves to rear hooves, then came easily up, pawing the air twice before freezing for a long moment, then coming back down, landing lightly and almost soundlessly.
Sam flat-palmed the apple, rubbing the mare’s neck: “That’s a goooood girrrrlll,” she soothed. “Gooood girrrlll,” and the Frisian licked Sam’s palm, once, before bending her neck a little more to allow greater access for caresses.

The Sheriff tilted his head a little to the side, regarding the gleaming-black Morgan mare with one eye, then he tilted his head the other way and gave her a good looking-at with the other eye, then he straightened up his head and frowned at her with both eyes open.
He knew the boy holding the mare’s reins and he knew the boy’s father.
For that matter he knew the boy’s entire family and their dogs, and they all knew him.
The boy came to town with his father and the Morgan mare and instructions to get a good price for her, and the Sheriff knew the old man was testing the boy’s bargaining abilities: the Sheriff also knew he wanted that mare.
The Sheriff nodded, walking slowly up to the flawless, coal-soot-hued mare.
The mare swung her ears forward, stretched her neck to sniff at the lawman.
“She’s gentle broke, Sheriff,” Curtis said nervously. “She’s got a soft mouth and she’ll come right to ya.”
The Sheriff rubbed the mare under the jaw, then coaxed her mouth open: peering in, he nodded, patted her neck: he ran his hands down her legs, along her back, picked up her hooves: he frowned, um-hmm’d, patted the horse, stood back and looked at her again.
“What’s your askin’ price?”
Curtis was a bit unsure: his Pa told him to get a particular amount for the mare, and Curtis knew he’d never hear the end of it if he didn’t get that much at least.
On the other hand, he knew the Sheriff drove a hard bargain, and the pale eyed lawman was a known judge of horses.
Curtis cleared his throat nervously.
“Pa said I oughta ask –“
“I’ll double that,” the Sheriff interrupted.
“Ummm … what?”
The Sheriff looked over the mare’s back at the lad.
“Ten dollars more if you throw in bit, bridle and saddle.”
“Oh, I can’t let the saddle go for that.”
The Sheriff nodded. He knew what the saddle went for – but he also knew the lad had to work for his fee, and the saddle was a safer item for haggling.
The two of them bargained, talked, offered, refused, considered, counter-offered, hesitated, hemmed, hawed, and finally came to an agreement: the lad was elated, for he’d doubled the price his Pa wanted for the horse, and he’d got half again more than he figured the saddle was worth.
The Sheriff, for his part, was absolutely delighted.
He knew the worth of a good Morgan horse, and he knew the saddlemaker … he knew Curtis’s Pa got the saddle used, from a widow who didn’t know what she had, and the price the Sheriff paid, though twice what was initially asked, was still well less than it was worth.
When the pair finally shook hands, each was so ashamed of having skinned the other out of his eye teeth, that neither one could look the other in the eye.
When Curtis went sprinting for the Silver Jewel, just a-bustin’ to tell his Pa what a fine bargain he’d struck, the Sheriff was chuckling to himself as he led the black Morgan to the livery.
“Don’t tell Sarah,” he cautioned the mare, “but I think you’ll make a fine gift for her.”
The mare kept her secret very well.

That evening, the Sheriff rode out for the McKenna ranch, mounted on that flawless, shining-healthy, easy-gaited black Morgan mare, and leading his copper Cannonball.
Sarah needs another horse, he thought.
All the saddle stock she has, is that racing horse Caleb got gypped on.
She’ll like this one.

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Charlie MacNeil 3-15-12


Stinging particles of icy snow rode the screaming wind, blasting exposed skin like buckshot. The buckskin gelding, urged by the snow-covered figure astride the slickfork saddle, had powered its way through high-drifted snow, facing the icy blast, for many hours. Now the horse was exhausted and turned its tail to the wind, ignoring the pressure of rein and bit, the savage bite of spur rowel and quirt, in an effort to gain some respite from the power of the March blizzard.

A brief swirling of the wind parted the curtains of white. A tiny flicker of light, nearly lost in distance, caught the snow-rimed rider’s eye. He stared into the night, willing the return of that gleaming ember of hope, while beneath him his used-up mount gasped for breaths of frigid air. There! To the south, across the wind! For a moment, the light brightened and grew, then was just as rapidly extinguished, as if a door had momentarily opened and just as quickly closed. Spur struck tender flank, plaited leather bit, curses goaded the buckskin into reluctant, stumbling motion, while around horse and rider the banshee wind wailed its message of danger.

A warm place sheltered from the cold bite of the wind, a hot cup of coffee and the love of a good woman. The road to Paradise, or at least a man’s first inklings of Paradise, is paved with such simple pleasures. The man and woman who lived in the house in the hollow sat quiet, listening to the prowling plaint around the eaves, the tick of sleet against the hoarfrost-painted panes of the kitchen window, the questing fingers of the storm seeking a means of entry into the cocoon of comfort the pair had wrapped about themselves. She shivered, the march of gooseflesh the length of her spine caused by no draft but by the sound itself.

Beyond the house the barn sat stolidly, side-on to the wind and sleet as it had sat for a decade, slouched comfortably against the flank of the hollow while drifts built between it and the house. A roan gelding, a sorrel mare, a pair of chestnut draft horses, all dozed in their stalls, waking occasionally to lip a few stems of dried prairie hay from the mangers built into each stall before returning to their rest. In a vacant stall a satiny shadow, blacker even than the night, stirred and lifted an inquiring snout, grasping at the stray wisp of scent, the tiniest hint of “stranger” that seeped through a small crack in the wall of the barn. Someone, some possible malefactor, prowled the storm. The shadow rose to its feet and padded to the rear of the barn where a spring-hinged door offered egress into the night.

Dawg slipped out into the spring blizzard and was immediately lost to sight of any who may have had the temerity to be out and about in the howling madness. The broodmare band was bunched against the lee side of the long string of tall poplars that lined one edge of the feed pasture. The savvy lead mare stirred nervously as animal intuition, some hint of something out of place in the night, goaded her to wakefulness.

Saddle leather creaked, unheard beyond a few feet in the keening of the wind, as the rider leaned down to slip the catch on the pasture gate. Through a gap in the storm he had seen the bunched mares and instantly decided that this would be a good time to make a trade, his worn-out buckskin for whatever he could find to get him further ahead of his pursuers. The rider stepped down some distance from the mares, all of which were now peering suspiciously through the swirling snow at the newcomers.

“Easy girls, come on now, take it easy,” the rider crooned as he shook a loop into the rawhide reata in his hands. “Come on now, I just need a little help here, come on now...” He advanced toward the bunch slowly, cautious of spooking them into some way alerting the occupants of the small house beyond the barn, not knowing that his presence was already known to another denizen of the night. Dawg stepped out of the herd to stand alongside the lead mare.

“What the hell?!?” the rider gasped, stunned by the sudden appearance of some sort of red-eyed hellhound whose curled lip revealed glittering fangs. The reata dropped from fingers made suddenly nerveless as the would-be horse trader took a shocked step back from the apparition before him. The hellhound oozed forward, warning rumbling through the animal's wide chest. The stranger went for his holstered Colt...

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Linn Keller 3-15-12


Mary shook the ashes down and added several more chunks of stovewood; it was snowing again, hard little icy pellets and an increasing wind, the chill soaking into the kitchen.
“No ye don’t,” Mary muttered at the encroaching cold, and the Monarch radiated waves of heat, pushing the chill back against the walls.
The reservoir built into the stove was full but she had two more pans on top heating: the twins were quietly arranging their dolls in a neat row, and Mary smiled a little, grateful the twins liked their bath.
Boys, she thought, would splash and laugh and make a mess.
The twins were proper young ladies, submitting without protest to Mary’s careful scrubbing of their backs and their faces and their little pink toes.
It took all the hot water she had for the twins’ bath; she immediately set a fresh batch to heating, for with sickness in the house, there was always need for hot water.
She’d dried the twins and gotten them into clean flannel nighties and the twins padded into the next room where their dolls were waiting.
Mary touched the tea kettle quickly, lightly – almost ready, she thought – and she moved through the kitchen with the efficiency of a woman on task, setting out what she would need to feed the extra help Sarah’s condition was requiring.
She stopped when Opal came into the kitchen and regarded her with dark, solemn eyes.
“Mawwy,” Opal asked, “what’s noo-moan-ya?”
Mary’s heart sank.
She knelt and spread her arms and Opal giggled and ran into her embrace.
“It’s something very bad,” Mary whispered, feeling the cold wash of fear trickle down her spine: “it’s something we don’t want to happen to anyone.”
“Why not?” Opal pulled back a little, looking up at Mary.
Polly came running in. “Mawwy, what’s noo-moan-ya?”
“You can’t have it!” Opal declared, clutching her rag doll. “It’s bad!”
“Then why does Sawwah have it?”
“Mawwy, was Sawwah bad?”
“Why does Sawwah have da noo-moan-ya?”
“Is Sawwah gonna die?”
Mary was suddenly conscious of a growing lump in her throat: a swallow and a harrumph and her voice almost came back.
Polly spoke up first.
“Sawwah won’t die,” she said as if dictating a revelation: “Mama won’t let her die!”
The twins looked at one another and nodded, once, a firm and positive affirmation of an absolute fact.
Mary looked up at the steam cloud rolling out of the tea kettle’s curved spout.
“I think the water’s hot now,” she whispered.
The twins hugged Mary, quickly, then turned and padded back into the next room.

Sarah chose to go to the dark and rocky conference where she’d met with her several selves so many times.
She stepped on black sand and quartz and looked around.
Sarah turned her head, listening closely, breathing quietly.
Not one sound.
Sarah moved silently, soft-soled slippers silent: her eyes were busy, peering into the darkness between the broad, flat monoliths.
She walked into the center of the conference arena.
The over sized oval mirror was there.
Sarah turned it over, looked into the silver reflection.
There you are, she thought, turning quickly –
Nothing behind her.
She looked into the mirror again.
Her black clad self, her schoolmarm self, herself as she was now, all stood shoulder to shoulder in the mirror.
Sarah raised her arms and saw her reflection lay her arms across her schoolmarm self’s shoulders and her black clothed self’s shoulders, and they across hers.
She looked left, looked right: nothing was there to be seen, and she felt nothing, yet in the mirror, the three were conjoined as old chums, arms in a comradely drape across feminine shoulders.
“You don’t need us,” the schoolmarm self whispered.
“You don’t need us,” her black clad self whispered, the match stick wobbling as she spoke.
They took a step toward the mirror, another, Sarah felt dizzy, felt as if she fell, as if she’d missed a step going up the staircase –
Sarah’s eyes snapped open and she gasped.
Nurse Susan’s cool fingers rested on Sarah’s forehead, then her cheek, then her neck.
“Welcome back,” she smiled.
Sarah felt wrung out, felt like a dishrag twisted and dropped in the sink, and yet … she felt … complete, strong … whole.
Daisy was asleep in a chair.
Sarah looked at the Irishwoman with the drawn expression.
When she was awake, Daisy’s expression was forever changing, her face animated, alive: now that she was relaxing, and her guards were down, the worry showed in her features.
“I’m hungry,” Sarah blurted, then blinked, surprised.
“That’s wonderful,” Nurse Susan said quietly. “I think we just might have some nice hot soup.”

“Levi,” Judge Hostetler greeted the retired agent, shaking his hand and nodding a little. “Retirement agrees with you, I see.”
Bonnie extended her gloved hand and His Honor swept it up, kissing the back of her fingers: “My dear, you are lovely tonight,” he said, then stopped, frowned, fished a set of spectacles from his pocket.
Settling the lenses on his face, he peered at the diamond on Bonnie’s hand and grunted.
“About time,” he grunted, though neither Levi nor Bonnie knew to which one of them the comment was directed.

Daisy drew the curtains to with a brisk tug, barely muting the rattle of frozen snow against the panes.
“Oh, that smells good,” Sarah whispered as she caught a whiff of something edible drifting up from downstairs.
“We’ll have that soup for you in just a few minutes, ducks.”
“I can make it to the kitchen,” Sarah offered, struggling weakly, and Daisy laid a gentle but firm hand on Sarah’s uninjured shoulder.
“Ye’ll do no such thing, now! Ye’ll take your leisure like th’ lady y’are!”
Sarah relaxed with a sigh.
She lacked strength to make an issue of it.

Levi opened the door to the Sheriff’s grinning visage.
“How’s Sarah?” the lawman asked, shaking the snow off his coat and swatting his hat against his leg: “I brought her something.”
Levi looked out at the drifting snow and more coming down.
“Looks like you brought more than that,” he grinned. “Come in, come in, man, it’s cold out there!”

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Linn Keller 3-16-12


The Bear Killer growled, powerfully, loudly: he spun, every last hair on his entire body standing erect, making him look half again bigger than his already impressive size: he stood, forepaws on the window sill, glaring out into the nighttime snowfall, his breath fogging the window glass.
He looked over his shoulder at Sarah, snarling, then back to the darkness: it was as if he were trying to talk, trying to communicate some dire news, some dread tidings that only he could hear.
Sarah’s response was immediate.
She threw her covers back, swung her legs out of bed: she made it to the window before her strength gave out and she sank to her knees: the Bear Killer’s fangs were exposed and his voice made it very clear he wished nothing more than to be nearer whatever was causing his displeasure.

“I believe my visit may be premature,” His Honor said, frowning into the depths of his brandy, “especially in light of Sarah’s recent debility, but this has been … this has been on my mind for some time.”
He considered very carefully what he was about to propose, gauging just how much of the feline to allow out of the burlap.
“Sarah is a most capable young woman, a young woman of remarkable intelligence. Mrs. Cooper spoke at length on Sarah’s remarkable intellect. I myself have seen several evidences of her intelligence, but more importantly, I have seen how she makes use of her intelligence.”
Bonnie sat beside Levi as if they were husband and wife: Bonnie’s hand had eyes, Bonnie’s hand naturally found Levi’s, and though they both sat properly erect, their hands communed in a warm grasp.
“Sarah has displayed exceptional skill at riding, shooting and a variety of combative sports. She also demonstrates a rare quality.” His Honor smiled a little, the smile of an affectionate uncle, of someone who genuinely admired the subject of his discussion. “Sarah has good common sense.
“It’s not just what Sarah does,” he continued. “It’s what she … doesn’t.”
Levi nodded a little; Bonnie turned her head slightly, tilting it a bit, obviously curious.
“I have seen Sarah provoked to an immense degree, and to a slight degree,” His Honor said quietly, brandy forgotten in his hand: “her response to provocation has never been precipitous, impetuous or improper, either in scope, in speed or in degree.” He looked down at the remarkable length of ash on his Havana, carefully moved it over the flared mouth of the spittoon, and barely in time: the smoldering end was dead and dark, and he parked it on a convenient glass ash tray.
“She is entrusted with rifle and pistol, blade and dagger, with horses and with the minds of our schoolchildren.” He raised a finger for emphasis. “Not once – not one time, ever! – has she betrayed the trust that accompanies each of those most valuable implements!”
“That’s very kind, Your Honor,” Levi murmured; Bonnie, however, was more direct: “I’m sure you did not come all this way in the snow and wind just to tell us what a fine daughter we have.”
His Honor did not miss the plural in Bonnie’s sentence.
“No,” he admitted, “I did not.
“I have need of someone of Sarah’s particular skills. I have need of her intelligence, her curiosity, her ability; I have need of her talent in appearing to be a particular person. When she is a schoolmarm, she is so completely a schoolmarm that no one has any doubt that is exactly what she is” – he leaned forward a little – “nor that a schoolmarm is all she is, and therefore harmless.
“When she dresses as a schoolgirl she becomes so completely that young schoolgirl – again – no one has any doubt that’s what she is.
“Sarah can wear your gowns in Denver and she is so completely the beautiful young woman that men have proposed to her, not knowing her true age, but believing her to be what she appeared.”
Bonnie’s expression was uncomfortable; she shifted in her seat before admitting, “You are quite correct, Judge, but how does that … it doesn’t …”
“I think what Bonnie is asking,” Levi interjected smoothly, “is we don’t quite know what you’re asking.”
“I have been a bit vague, haven’t I?” His Honor smiled. “Forgive an old man his circumlocution.” He looked down, remembered the brandy he held, took a sip, took another.
The Sheriff’s brandy snifter was empty, on the sidetable; he had a steaming mug of coffee in hand, he was leaned back in his chair, relaxed, watching His Honor and the happy couple like a cat watches a mouse hole.
He suspected what the Judge was getting around to proposing.
“Levi, I believe there is an academy in Denver suitable for the education of investigators.”
The Sheriff’s sleepy-lidded expression never changed, though mentally he exclaimed, “I knew it!”
Levi’s expression brightened. “Professor T. Joseph Hunt!”
“The same.”
“I don’t believe he has ever had a young lady as a … student,” Levi said cautiously.
“I do believe you are correct. That is where I will need your help.”
“Mmm.” Levi leaned forward, resting his chin on curled fingers, studying the grain in the floor boards. “The Professor has never been afraid of innovation. He embraced telegraphy and fingerprinting, ear shape and documentation after the Scotland Yard pattern …”
“How do you believe the Professor might respond to the intuitive capacity of the superior female mind?”
Levi Rosenthal smiled wickedly.
“I would like to find out,” he said, “and I am more than willing to make an introduction!”
There was a deep, canine challenge from upstairs, the sound of feet on the floor, and the Sheriff slopped half his coffee in his haste to park the ceramic mug as he surged from his chair and toward the staircase.
His knock and his thrusting open of the door were simultaneous: he saw Daisy’s head come up, Nurse Susan just rising from her chair, and Sarah was on her knees beside the window, beside an obviously bristled-up Bear Killer.
The Sheriff was across the room in three long strides.
He went to one knee, at the right-hand edge of the window casing, one hand light on the Bear Killer’s bristled ruff: he turned, said “Douse the light and close the door,” in a low but urgent voice: Nurse Susan reached over and turned the wick down, and a few quick steps around the foot of the bed and she swung the door to.
“Sarah, report,” the Sheriff said, his voice tight.
“The Bear Killer bristled and growled and came up as you see him now. He looked back at me and tried to tell me something.”
“Aught else?”
From without came a distant howl, a musical lament with which they were both familiar.
The Sheriff’s eyes were busy, studying the snowy landscape.
The Bear Killer half-whined, half-rumbled, stifling his own impulse to join the wolves in their song.
“Should you be out of bed?” the Sheriff asked quietly.
“Yes,” Sarah said firmly.
“No,” Nurse Susan countered. “You should not be out from under covers. You’ve been fevered, you only just got some hot soup in you, you’re not strong enough to be walking about –“
“Religious belief,” Sarah interrupted.
Nurse Susan stopped, blinked.
“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” Sarah explained.
“Sarah, can you ride?”
Sarah looked levelly at the Sheriff. “Not yet,” she said.
The Sheriff nodded, still looking outside.
“Why do you ask?”
“Checking to see if that fever addled your brain.”
Sarah opened her mouth, a surprised look on her face: she blinked at the Sheriff, then asked, “Do you want your beating now or later?”
The Sheriff looked over: in the faint light he could not mistake Sarah’s broadening grin.
He let off from rubbing the Bear Killer’s fur and instead reached over and caressed his daughter’s cheek. “That’s my girl,” he whispered.
The Bear Killer turned and began washing Sarah’s face for her.
"By the way, I brought you something tonight."

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Linn Keller 3-17-12


"Sarah is wonderfully gifted."
"I know she is wonderfully gifted!" Bonnie said, her voice rising a little: "she is my daughter, you know!"
"Which," His Honor said in a soothing voice, "I suspect is one reason she is so wonderfully gifted!"
Levi blinked, considering: he almost physically withdrew into himself, considering Sarah's possibilities as ... a detective? An agent? Perhaps a law enforcement officer herself?
Levi knew most lawmen had no training in the art and had to learn as they went, which was a deucedly expensive way to learn: he himself had enjoyed a great benefit from Professor Hunt's justly famed school; he'd known a number of other men, agents and lawmen alike, who swore by what the laughing old man taught them.
But Sarah ... Levi had no doubts she had the intelligence.
He had absolutely no doubt she had the physical ability -- or did have, until her latest misadventure --
Her greatest handicap, he reflected, was that she was ... female.
On the other hand, he considered, perhaps that is her greatest advantage, as well.
He felt Bonnie's hand tighten on his and he looked up, blinked.
"I asked what you were thinking," she said gently.
"Mm." Levi cleared his throat. "I, ah ..."
"I know you could not hear me ask you," Bonnie said, her voice quiet, amused; she shared a glance with the Judge, whose eyes were twinkling with suppressed laughter: "I was talking to you for perhaps two minutes before I realized you could not hear me for the sound of the gears turning between your ears!"
"My apologies," Levi said, reddening a little: "had I realized my mental gearbox was so loud tonight, I would have had oil with my meal!"
They looked to the staircase, to the sound of boots descending: the Sheriff's expression was thoughtful, and he was smiling and shaking his head a little.
"Well, she's back in bed," he said. "I've no idea what the Bear Killer was going on at but I'm going outside with him and see what he wants."
"Sarah is back in bed?" Bonnie asked.
The Sheriff nodded. "I asked her if she was fit to ride and she said no, so I tucked her in and told her it was a good answer, she needed to heal up some." He grinned, turned as the Bear Killer flowed down the stairs, set down beside his boot.
"I went on to tell her I needed her to heal up, that I was not going to lose another little girl because of my foolishness, and if she didn't heal up and behave herself, I would turn her over my knee and fan her little biscuits!"
Bonnie's expression was between surprise and distress as she looked at Levi.
Levi threw his head back and laughed.
His Honor raised an eyebrow and asked quietly, "And what did our lovely and capable Miss Sarah say in reply to your stern warning?"
It was the Sheriff's turn to laugh.
"When I told her I'd swat her bottom if she didn't behave?"
He chuckled.
"She reached up with absolutely the kindest and most innocent expression and very gently stroked my cheek, and she whispered "Catch me first!"
The Sheriff looked down as the Bear Killer looked up.
"Fella, what ever were you goin' on at?" he murmured. "You wanta go out?"
The Bear Killer stood, tail thrashing.
"We'll be outside for a bit," the Sheriff said, reaching for his hat and his coat.
He stood to one side of the door, opened it cautiously, and the Bear Killer shot through the widening opening like water pouring from a tin dipper.

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Charlie MacNeil 3-17-12


Charlie jerked upright in his chair, his doze interrupted by the last dying echoes of...something. A shot? Surely not. Then he noticed that the shrilling of the wind around the eaves of the snug house had ceased. He surged to his feet, thrust his feet into boots and arms into coat sleeves, clapped a wool cap on his head and caught up the Greener beside the door. The short-barreled Colt he had recently acquired went behind his belt as he slammed out into the night...

"Dawg! To me!" Charlie's shouted words were muffled by the masses of fresh snow piled about, their volume steadily increasing as more snow fell. Dawg's answering bay drew him stumbling through knee-deep snow toward the feed pasture, the Greener at port arms in his gloved hands.

Arriving at the open gate to the pasture, fresh horse tracks evident in the dim light, Charlie tucked himself against the gate post, limiting his silhouette as much as possible. Across the narrow width of the pasture, near the poplar windbreak, he could see the milling mass of the broodmare band as well as a saddled horse that didn't belong, and that he assumed had made the tracks that meandered through the gate. He could see Dawg, blunt snout pointed toward the invisible moon, heavy forepaws planted on something dark that struggled feebly against the pinning weight. And he could easily hear the big canine's howl of triumph.

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Linn Keller 3-18-12


The wind had pretty well quit when the Bear Killer and I slipped out the front door.
I fetched my ’73 rifle out of the scabbard, my thumb resting up over the hammer spur, and the Bear Killer and I drifted into the wind, toward the high rail fence separating the house from the barn and the near pasture.
The Bear Killer's nose was up, tasting the wind.
I was looking around.
The windows of the house were warm, inviting, promising welcome and comfort: Sarah's window was yet dark and I figure she was probably watching.
I looked across the featureless snow field to windward.
The barn was solid, blocky; nothing unusual around it, nothing interesting to keep the eye ... the bunk house, too, was unremarkable.
I turned.
Off the other way was the dress works, quiet now and dark: through the day it was busy, it was active, it felt busy without having to look at it, but here, in the night and the cold, it was a solid block of dark.
The Bear Killer and I slipped through the rail fence and cat footed toward the bunk house.
I stood to one side of the door and knocked, tap-tap, tap, and called “Clark, you ‘wake?”
The door opened almost right away.
I smelled a kerosene light blown out and Clark’s voice: “Speak your piece.”
“It’s Linn.”
The door opened and Clark, still dressed, stepped out, rifle in hand.
“Come on in, it’s cold out.”
“Clark, the Bear Killer started raisin’ hell from this direction.” I thrust a hand out towards the open field. “Did you hear anythin’?”
“Not other than the wind and that icy snow, and glad we are to be inside.”
I nodded.
“Good enough. Rest easy.”
Clark drew back in and pushed the door to and the Bear Killer and I soldiered over toward the far end of the barn.
I figured Clark put that Morgan horse inside so I was surprised when something big and black and horse shaped came pacing toward me, fast and silent ... and big.
I was more surprised at how big it was a-gettin’, and how fast.
Now I am not the least bit ashamed to admit I stood there with my teeth in my mouth a-lookin’ at this-here horse and wondering what in seven hells happened to that Morgan mare to grow her up in an hour’s time – twenty hands, I thought – for a moment I wondered if I was a-seein’ things, then I realized my feet were cold, I could feel cold through my pants legs and I felt the solid thrust as the Bear Killer brushed my calf, thrusting forward through the snow to greet this giant.
No, thought I, you’re plenty real, and I reached out to stroke her neck.
She shied away from me, muttering, and I put both hands on my ’73 rifle for she was looking like a horse that did not want to be touched and would object strongly if a man pressed the matter.
Then I saw the mane.
Black as an obsidian waterfall and just as long, gleaming in the brief break in the clouds that let moonlight shaft down through the heavens, limning this monstrous mare with silver fire.
That Morgan’s mane isn’t …
… you idiot, this is not the same horse!

The mare looked down at me, then she extended her head, her moist black nose snuffing loudly at my front.
“On your terms, eh, girl?” I murmured. “Go ahead, then.”
The mare seemed interested in my front: she nosed me, pushing powerfully: I stepped back, bracing myself, stood my ground.
Satisfied, she grunted, turned away, paced back around the barn.
The Bear Killer sat beside me, jaws open and grinning.
I looked down.
“Bear Killer,” I said, my breath puffing out in little clouds, “why didn’t you tell me about her?”
Bear Killer looked up at me and thrashed his tail back and forth in the dry, pebbly snow.
I looked around, then turned and headed back for the house.
“Come on, fellow,” said I, “doesn’t appear to be much out here.”
It wasn’t until we were halfway back to the house that I realized why the mare was so interested in snuffing my front.
I’d been holding Sarah, and that’s what she smelled.

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Linn Keller 3-18-12


Sarah turned her head, biting her bottom lip.
The door opened and Bonnie leaned her head in.
The Bear Killer squeezed through the opening, padded quickly around the bed and laid down under the window.
"Sarah?" she asked softly, then came on in: Daisy and Nurse Susan rose, slipping silently out the door and closing it behind her.
They knew this was a moment for mother and daughter.
Sarah looked over at the window.
"Did he find anything, Mama?" she asked in a strained voice.
"No, Sweets," Bonnie replied, looking out the black-glass mirror, then back to her daughter. "He found nothing."
Bonnie looked at Sarah.
Sarah swallowed hard, tears spilling from the corner of her eye.

Daisy came down the stairs looking thoughtful.
Levi and the Sheriff were talking quietly with the Judge, standing in the front foyer: they stopped and turned to face Daisy.
Daisy stopped and put her knuckles on her hips.
"Well?" she demanded. "What did y' expect, wheels?"
The three men looked at one another, then laughed.
"I'm sorry, Daisy," the Sheriff said, "we were discussing subjects not fit for a lady's ears."
"I'll bet 'twas the ladies ye were discussin'," Daisy replied tartly, "an' not the ears about 'em neither!"
The Sheriff spread his hands, shook his head.
"What can I say," he said with an exaggerated sigh, "I'm as transparent as a window!"
"How is she, my dear?" Judge Hostetler asked in a kindly voice, and Daisy shot him a grateful look.
"She's restin'," she said, "no thanks t' you!" -- she glared at the Sheriff -- "d'ye know, y' ham handed excuse f'r a man, ye left th' puir child in tears!"
The Sheriff opened his mouth and his face was that of a man who felt his stomach drop a few hundred feet.
Daisy sidled up to the Judge and took his arm possessively.
"I'm needin' a ride back t' me house," she said, "an' ye ha'e the look of a gentleman about ye."
Judge Hostetler cleared his throat.
"My friends," he said quietly, "I find my reputation precedes me. If I might be excused from your esteemed company?" He laid a warm hand on Daisy's fingers. "My dear, I am very much at your disposal."

Bonnie sat on the bed beside Sarah.
There is a gentleness to a mother's expression, the gentleness expressed in her hands as she takes a corner of bedsheet to wipe the tears trickling from the corners of the daughter's eyes as she lies on her back.
Bonnie waited for Sarah to speak.
She didn't have to wait long.
"Mama," Sarah whispered, tears running freely now, "I'm happy!"
Bonnie's expression was still kindly, but a little puzzled.
"Mama, he picked me up and put me in bed."
She looked up at Bonnie and started to sob.
"Mama, he pulled the covers up around my chin and he kissed my forehead."
Sarah took a long, shivering breath.
"But why are your crying, Sweets?"
"Oh, Mama, don't you understand?" Sarah whispered. "I'm happy!"
Bonnie shook her head a little, caressed Sarah's cheek, laid the backs of her fingers against Sarah's cheek.
"Don't you see?" Sarah whispered. "It's the first time my Papa ever tucked me in!"

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Linn Keller 3-19-12


"Shorty, don't move!"
Shorty froze.
"Don't move," Dr. Flint repeated, his voice low and urgent. "Your arm is broken!"
Dr. Flint's quick eye detected the surging lump under the furry hide of Shorty's muscled forearm and instantly diagnosed a fractured proximal radius, with the broken bone end perilously close to penetrating the skin.
Shorty, however, looked at the good Doctor as if the physician had tied a flopping cod-fish about his neck instead of a necktie.
Shorty set the short handled sledge hammer on the anvil, opened his hand; the lump disappeared.
Dr. Flint's expression was usually subdued, inscrutable; popular opinion was he would make one hell of a good poker player, for he had one hell of a good poker face.
Except now.
Now the Navajo physician stared openly at Shorty's arm as the man grasped the handle of his sledge.
The bulge popped back up.
"Stop," Dr. Flint said. "Do that again."
"Do what ag'in?"
"Open your hand, then close it, slowly."
Shorty did so.
"Now grip the hammer handle and ..." Dr. Flint's in-drawn breath indicated his comprehension.
"Your thumb," he said. "The proximal insertion for your flexor ... you're so hypertrophied, it looks like ..."
Jackson Cooper ghosted into the livery, more just to say howdy than for any purposeful presence; he listened, silent, as Dr. Flint explained that he was completely fooled by the over-development of Shorty's grip: how, when the man closed his hand about the hammer handle, the over-developed muscle from years of swinging a sawed off sledge hammer one handed, popped up and looked for all the world like the end of a broken bone.
Shorty considered his good right arm, grunted: the good Doctor's opinion nonwithstanding, his arm served him well so far and he saw no reason to change anything about it, save for the occasional bath.
Dr. Flint excused himself in a gentlemanly fashion; his carriage needed Shorty's attention, he'd left said conveyance without, and it was but a short walk to the hospital: Shorty and the Marshal watched the man depart.
"I never heard of such foolishness," Shorty muttered, taking a horseshoe from the forge and laying it on the anvil: he tapped the anvil with the hammer and then addressed the horse shoe.
Something, he was not sure what even on later recollection, went wrong: the horse shoe, instead of being held firmly in the blacksmith's tongs, flew up, spinning: Shorty reflexively released the tongs and made a grab at the hot steel.
Jackson Cooper spent an interesting several moments scraping burning straw away from where the horseshoe had flown: he smothered the fires it created and the secondary fires from his first attack, which was to actually swat the fire, spreading instead of smothering: he flipped the horse shoe out into the bare dirt, while Shorty, with the vigor and dedication of a Dervish, whirled about the anvil like a dwarven top, holding one hand by the wrist with the firm grip of the other; the only words Jackson Cooper could really make out involved addressing the situation with personal pronouns, describing them as illegitimate, ill-formed and fatherless, motherless and bereft of the Almighty; as he hopped up and down in one spot, howling at absolutely the greatest volume his leather-bound lungs could produce, he described the aforementioned as having distinctly Oedipal tendencies, being utterly forsaken and thoroughly condemned of the Almighty, and suitable only to roast in boiling buffalo fat for two eternities, not necessarily in that order.
Only then did Shorty garner the wits necessary to proceed outside, to the horse trough, and drive his damaged digits through the thin skift of ice into the cold water therein.
Jackson Cooper, on later recollection, was not entirely certain, but it was his impression Shorty left a trail of smoke after himself, not from the burned hand, but rather from the heat of his language which threatened to set the very air about him on fire.
Shorty was several minutes bent over the horse trough.
When he came in, he stomped into his little office and was within for several minutes.
Jackson Cooper took a bucket and watered the areas that caught fire, reasoning mud and soggy straw was superior to a conflagration; once he tended that detail, he looked at Shorty's office, debated whether to go in and check on the blocky hostler, decided against it, changed his mind again, and parked shovel and bucket in a handy corner.
He opened the door to the sight of Shorty with the tag end of an almost clean rag between his teeth, attempting to bandage his hand.
"Well don't jusht shtand there," he snarled between cloth-clenching dentures, "giph me a handt!"
Jackson Cooper spent the next half hour helping Shorty finish un-wrapping, honey-daubing, then re-wrapping his hand, he accepted a snort of the Daine boys' latest (Stump Blower, Shorty called it, and indeed it went down like Mama's milk and like to blowed the socks right off their feet), and sat and listened to the liveryman growl, snarl, mutter, swear and finally shake a finger at the mountainous, muscular town Marshal: "Now don't you never tell no one what you seen!" he hissed. "It's bad 'nuff the Doc cain't tell when my arm's broke an' when it ain't! I don't need nobody laughin' at me fer tryin' to ketch me a hot horse shoe!"

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Linn Keller 3-21-12


Sarah glared at the Morgan horse.
She'd struggled with the saddle, saddle blanket and bridle.
The saddle weighed twice what it should.
So did the saddle blanket, for that matter.
It took her most of a week and a half to get her tack outside and on the fence, or at least it seemed that long: it actually couldn't have been more than two or three days, she reasoned.
The Morgan horse watched her with mild interest, then went back to dragging gleaming black hooves through the snow to expose a little grass.
"Morgaine," Sarah called tiredly, slumped against the fence.
She had eschewed sling and swathe; she wore a short Mexican jacket and a riding skirt, a flat-crowned Mexican hat and a bright-red scarf: she carried the ebony cane downstairs in one hand, holding the hand rail she normally disdained like she would hold a lover's hand: she left the cane in the corner beside the front door, and she stepped out into the world on her own two feet.
She had to stop and take a blow before she crossed the high wood fence that separated the house from the barn and pasture; she stopped again, leaning heavily against the barn door, before going inside.
I'm going to beat this, she thought.
Doctor Flint said I saved my own life by getting outside and moving around.
I'm going to beat this!
It took a significant percentage of her available strength to get Morgaine's tack outside.
It took maybe ten or fifteen minutes to persuade Morgaine that she really should come and be saddled.
Sam watched with a quiet smile, Clark with a grin: Sarah extended her hand and made a kissing noise, and Morgaine threw her head to the side and regarded the horizon.
Sarah put her hands on her hips and patted her foot impatiently.
Morgaine turned back to Sarah and blew a rubber lipped raspberry.
Sarah doubled up her fist and squinted, shaking her knuckles menacingly at the midnight-hued Morgan mare.
Morgaine turned her backside to Sarah and switched her tail.
Sarah threw her hands in the air and walked away.
Morgaine minced toward her, extending her nose, sniffing.
Sarah turned quickly and Morgaine looked elsewhere, feigning disinterest.
Sarah turned again, walking casually toward the barn.
Morgaine took another few sneak-up-on-her steps.
Sarah turned quickly again, shaking her Mommy-finger at the mare, and Morgaine danced back, then ahead, extending her neck and snuffing loudly at Sarah's hand.
It was the first time Sarah tried getting acquainted with the gleaming mare.
She looked up as Snowflake came pacing up, grunting: Sarah turned and caressed Snowflake, and Snowflake snuffed loudly at her front.
Morgaine, jealous, nosed Sarah's hand, demanding attention.
Sarah found herself obliged to rub both horses' ears at once.

Mary fretted from the upstairs window.
She was scrubbing down Sarah's room, washing away any contagion that might remain: the mattress was already airing out in the sunshine, the sheets were ready to be laundered and dried outside on the line.
Mary, however, was not ready for the sight of Sarah standing out in the cold air, petting two gleaming-jet horses.

Sarah walked with one horse, then the other, one hand on neck or shoulder or mane; she never did get the Morgan mare saddled, and by the time noon arrived, Sarah was more than wore out and ready to call it quits.
Sam quietly packed the tack back inside; Sarah caught her coming out of the barn and laid a hand on her shoulder, nodding.
"Thank you," she whispered, wobbling.
Clark's hands were gentle as he steadied Sarah.
Sarah was breathing through her mouth and leaned heavily on Clark, but she nodded smiling, knocking her flat-crowned hat off her head; it fell back, dangled from its silk storm strap.
"You gonna be all right?" Clark asked.
"Yeah." Sarah coughed, coughed again and spat.
"Yuck," she whispered hoarsely.

Sarah shivered in her kitchen chair, drawing her flannel robe more closely around her, and bent over the steaming, fragrant cup of tea.
"What ever were you thinkin'?" Mary fussed, slicing viciously through fresh bread, slabbing off thick slices and piling them on a plate: she set the bread down beside Sarah's teacup, a plate on the other side, a saucer with decoratively pressed butter pats stacked on its cooled surface.
"Ye had no business goin' outside wi' you s' sick an' all!"
Sarah picked up a slice of bread, slowly tore the crust free and dipped it in the tea.
Mary crossed her arms and frowned.
"You realize," she scolded, "your mother would not approve of un-ladylike behavior!"
Sarah nodded, slurping happily at the soggy crust and chewing with her eyes closed.
She swallowed, purred a little.
"You have no idea," she said, her voice hoarse, "how good this tastes!"
Something soft bumped Sarah's elbow and she looked into Polly's big, innocent eyes.
"Can I have some?"

Bonnie came into the house, smiling, plucking the gloves free of her fingers: she blinked as the maid raised a finger to catch her attention, raised the finger to her lips, and pointed into the parlor.
Sarah sat on the small couch, open book on her lap, her head bowed and her eyes shut: Polly sat on one side, and Opal on the other; both little girls had their heads leaned over against their big sister, and all three were sound asleep.
Bonnie pressed her fingers to her lips, her eyes shining with pleasure: she shushed Levi as he came up on the porch, leading him with her finger to her own lips to the parlor.
Levi's arm went around Bonnie's shoulders and he drew her close as he looked at their three girls, apparently asleep as Sarah was reading them a story.

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Linn Keller 3-23-12


It was chilly out, but the Sheriff wore a good coat and he was standing in the sun.
Besides, he had a good solid wall against which to loaf, he had a stick and a knife, and he was whittling.
Jackson Cooper, beside him, finished smooth-shaving the flat piece he was working on: he took the Sheriff's small hammer and carefully, delicately, worked a hole through its center with a small nail, frowning with concentration and wishing mightily he had a drill instead: luck was with him, the piece did not split.
The men had an upturned keg between them; it wasn't but knee high on either of them, and both men were tall; if they wished to use its flat surface, they were obliged to squat: neither man wished to squat, for both were of an age when their knees did not take kindly to a prolonged hunker.
The Sheriff eyeballed the long, slender shaft he held and began notching it.
He had room enough to make quarter inch notches without compromising the shaft's strength; the notches were spaced about ... oh, a little less than an inch apart.
Town was quiet; little was happening this fine morning, and the two men applied themselves to the task at hand.
Jackson Cooper nodded his satisfaction, blew a non-existent shaving from the flat, rectangular cross piece.
The Sheriff finished his about the time the Marshal finished his.
The Sheriff pulled a little lump of bees wax from his coat pocket and rubbed the brad nail before slipping it through the pilot hole Jackson Cooper made in the cross piece; he turned his notched stick upright, carefully tapped the brad in the end of the notched shaft.
"You think this will work?"
"Let's find out."
The Sheriff held the shaft in his left hand, the free turning cross piece on the end farthest from him.
Jackson Cooper handed him a short dowel.
The Sheriff put the dowel against the notched shaft and hesitated.
"You reckon little Joseph will like this?"
"I liked 'em when I was his size."
"Here goes."
The Sheriff began running the dowel back and forth, along the notched spine of the shaft he held, and as he ran it briskly to and fro, the cross piece on the end, on its lubricated steel shaft, began spinning merrily like a propeller.
The Town Marshal and the County Sheriff wasted a good part of the morning laughing and passing this child's wimmydiddle back and forth, laughing like a couple of damned fools.

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Linn Keller 3-24-12


Like most women, Bonnie could divide her mind as necessary and process separate, simultaneous trains of thought.
Part of her mind dealt efficiently with the business of the day at her dress works; she discussed patterns, sizing, proportions, trim, lace, pleats, sewing machines, needles, the availability of whale oil and whether styles would change in a particular way the following year: she devoted another significant percentage of her mind to Sarah, to the Judge's assertion that Sarah would benefit from a particular school in Denver, a school dedicated to training detectives, agents and other folk who pursued the law in slightly less than conventional ways.
Bonnie's hands were busy with material and binding, her eyes were assessing fabric and draping, and her mind's eye saw Sarah, flushed, fevered, sweating and shivering in her bed: Sarah, coughing up stuff from her lungs, sounding like she was ready to death-rattle; Sarah, leaning against the wall, barely able to stand, her hair stringy with fever-sweat, but too hard headed and contrary to stay in bed, insisting against all advice that she had to go downstairs to get a drink of water.
Bonnie adjusted a tensioner here, a drive-belt there, squeezed a seamstress's shoulders and told her what a fine stitch she'd just run along a hemline; she worked her way steadily across the production floor, and finally opened the door to her office, stepped inside, closed the door.
Bonnie glided over to a side-table, picked up a sweating-cold pitcher of water, poured herself a glass: her mother ever admonished her to drink plenty of water, it kept the eyes bright and sparkling, and while Bonnie thought with part of her mind how good the cool well water tasted, another part of her mind remembered Sarah that morning, and how clear and bright her eyes were -- and how good it was to see them thus.

Sarah's thoughts were focused on the black Morgan mare.
"Morgana," she said, patiently, "the idea is simple."
The black mare swung its head to the side, blew.
"Morgaine, look at me when I'm talking to you." Sarah took the Morgan's cheek strap in hand and placed her other hand flat on the other side of the Morgan's nose. "I need you to listen to me."
Sarah led the Morgan over to the first pole, lying on the ground.
"Now step over this, come on, girl, right like this, that's a good girl," she soothed, and the Morgan stepped over the split rail without difficulty.
Sarah bent, picked up the rail, propped it up on two rocks, such that it was a foot off the ground.
"Come on, girl," she said. "Walk with me, step over the rail."
The Morgan shied away from the rail, trotting a few yards away, then turning and coming back to Sarah.
Sarah tried for the better part of an hour to get the Morgan to step over the rail; she turned the rocks over so the rail was barely off the ground -- no good -- unless it was flat on the deck, the Morgan shied away.
Sarah frowned.
"Morgaine," she said, "I need to show you something."
She led the Morgan through the gate and into the back pasture.
A series of jumps were set up, ranging from a foot high to six feet high; the fence separating barn from house was six foot in most places, seven in others, depending on the run of the ground beneath.
"Morgana, you'll have to jump all of these."
Morgana walked up to the tallest one, snuffed at it.
"Now let's try the small one."
The Frisian came pacing up, whinnying, and Sarah had to stop and fuss with her, at least until the Morgan nosed her in the back, demanding attention: Sarah ended up using one hand on each horse, talking to them both like they were old friends.
"Now let's try something," Sarah said. "Morgan, I need you to watch."
The Morgan and the Frisian stood side by side -- comical, in a way, the Morgan was not a small horse but she was positively dwarfed by the massive, long-maned Frisian -- Sarah came laboring out of the barn with saddle blanket and saddle, and kissed at the horses.
They both came over to her.
It took her some work but she got the Frisian saddled.
She bothered not with bit nor bridle.
"Come on over here, girl," Sarah said. "I need to teach you to kneel like Uncle ... Uncle Papa does his." Sarah laughed at her mangling combination of her father's relation-titles. 'Uncle Papa. He'll like that."
The Frisian plodded patiently over against the fence.
Sarah climbed the boards, got one leg over the saddle, found the stirrups: she held the Morgan's reins.
The Frisian turned easily for such a massive mount: she did not so much pace as she glided, and the Morgan beside her: the Frisian stepped over the one-foot jump as if it were flat on the ground, the Morgan with her.
Sarah knee-guided her Snowflake to the two-foot jump.
"Come on, Morgana," she called as the Frisian floated across what was not even an obstruction to its long legs.
The Morgan managed a two foot jump with no trouble at all.
"Let's try three feet," Sarah said, coughing: she spat a discolored gob of something disgusting to port, the Frisian began to trot and the Morgan to gallop, and they cleared four feet together.
Sarah turned them together and went back to the one foot bar, teased the Morgan's reins back over her neck and over the saddle horn.
"Come on, girl," she called, and the Morgan followed Sarah and Snowflake over the one foot -- the two foot -- the three, the four -- Sarah looked at the five foot bar and her blood sang for joy, because she knew the big Frisian could clear five feet, then she looked back at the Morgan and her heart sang caution.
She turned Snowflake, bringing her about in a big circle, and the Morgan shot ahead like an arrow from a drawn bow.
"MORGAINE! NO!" Sarah shouted, then bent over, coughing: she turned her head and saw a double image of the Morgan gathering herself and launching over the five foot bar, barely ticking the wood with the tip of her left hind hoof on the way over.
Not to be outdone, Snowflake surged under Sarah, and Sarah grinned, her legs tightening about the Frisian's huge barrel,and for a moment, for a long and glorious moment, as the massive Frisian thrust hard against the earth and launched herself and her laughing rider into low Earth orbit, Sarah believed it entirely possible that horses can, at will, sprout a huge set of wings and set off into the heavens.

The Sheriff brought his feet off the desk rather abruptly.
Levi flinched a little as the man's boots hit the floor.
The Sheriff stood, frowning a little.
"The Judge wants her to what?"
"That's right," Levi nodded.
"The Academy?"
"The Academy."
The Sheriff opened his mouth, turned his head and snapped his jaw shut to contain words perhaps better unsaid.
He snatched up his hat, turned it round a few times, clapped it on his head.
Levi shifted in his chair as the Sheriff began to pace.
The lawman stopped, turned, looked at Levi.
"The Academy."
"I know Professor Hunt," the Sheriff said, his voice rich and resonant; "we were officers together during the War, and he's a good enough fellow, but good Lord! -- doesn't the Judge realize Sarah learned more from Fannie and Charlie than she could possibly learn in that city classroom?"
Levi spread his hands.
The Sheriff frowned, rubbing his chin with his off hand, right hand going to his hip and resting on his gun belt, just inboard from the worn walnut handle of his Colt's revolver.
He brought his right hand up, extended an emphasizing finger.
"She will learn," he said, "she will learn the evils of the city ... unfortunately it is evil we fight, and you can't fight what you don't understand ..." His voice trailed off and Levi saw the man's gaze swing to the wall beside the office door, and Levi knew the Sheriff was seeing the Silver Jewel as it was years before, a den of lust and debauchery with which Sarah had been intimately familiar at far too young an age.
"She will learn," the Sheriff continued thoughtfully, "what different trades look like ... she knows how a blacksmith's knees are worn on the inside from where he's holding horses' hooves for shoeing, she knows how men's hands will callus differently from carpenter work and from rope handling and from brick laying -- she knows the indents made by a pair of pince-nez spectacles, and her own eyesight is remarkably good ..."
The Sheriff's voice trailed off.
"Levi, she knows a great deal already, but if she is to uphold the law wherever she goes, she will need to be able to navigate the city."
Levi nodded.
The Sheriff looked directly at Levi.
"I ... Levi, I don't know."
The Sheriff sat down on the corner of his desk.
"Sarah is a bright and intelligent girl, she is ..."
The Sheriff rested his face in his hands.
"Damn me for being stupid," he whispered. "Damn me for not going through that trunk years ago!"
The Sheriff heard Levi's step, and felt the man's hand on his shoulder.
"She is your daughter," Levi said quietly. "That's one reason I'm here."
The Sheriff dropped his hands, sighed.
"There's something else."
Levi waited.
"What about Sarah?"
The Sheriff looked at Levi.
"Sarah will likely want to try it."
Levi nodded. "I would be very surprised if she did not."

Sarah got the saddle hung back up, the saddle blanket as well: she baited both mares with grain and curried them down, slowly, carefully, but painfully: her wounded wing was calling her unpleasant names and she was coughing up big gobs of foul tasting ejecta.
I will probably pay for this tomorrow, she thought as she turned shining eyes to the heavens, but God -- Sarah not uncommonly addressed the Almighty as if speaking to a friend's face -- I feel better than I have for weeks!
Sarah blinked, coughed, spat: she took a long, deep breath, another, nodded.
She looked into the deep zenith above.
"Thank You," she whispered.

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Linn Keller 3-25-12


I think better when I'm moving.
In the office I pace.
Outside the office I ride.
The black gelding was happy to be ridden.
I bribed him with tobacco slivered off my molasses cured plug, rubbed his ears and called him a bum.
Outlaw-horse didn't much care what I called him, as long as he got his bribe.
"You oughta be a politician," I murmured, "as well as you bribe up."
Outlaw snuffed at my coat pocket so I whittled him off another few slices.
I looked around, took a long breath, looked up at the sky.
It was clear last night, it was chilly this morning but not as bad as it had been: snow was still on, Outlaw's breath and mine steamed in the cold, but the sun felt good and I felt Outlaw's warmth through my pants leg as I swung up into the silver trimmed saddle.
I'd taken to riding my black Outlaw-horse ever since McAndrews came in with his cock and bull story about some ghost-woman in long white angel's robes buying a long maned, ill-tempered, black-furred man killer of a horse off him (he'd won it cheating at poker, I knew, so he didn't have a red cent in the animal), how this angelic, ghost-pale purchaser pinned him against a wall with a ten foot long sword (I figure he probably made some kind of a sale but knowing him he tried to change the deal and tried to cheat whoever it was out of their eye teeth) and a big black hell-dog the size of a quarter-horse snarling with fangs long as a man's arm had him and his hired man cornered, growling and slobbering a ten gallon drool puddle and making a muddy mess in the process.
I kind of likened that to the popular stories of Sarah's injury.
Outlaw turned and set into a trot and I waved at Maude, who was sweeping off the board walk in front of her Mercantile; she smiled and waved and I marveled at the woman ... her hair was mostly gone to silver but her back was still straight, I recall looking at her ledger books and her figures were in straight lines and perfectly shaped, and her mind was still sharp.
She still looked good, too, and I thought it sad that she and WJ had no daughters.
Me dear Pappy taught me at a tender age, "When you're lookin' for a woman, take a long look at her Mama. Set down across from her and eat her cookin'. In twenty years that girl you're a-lookin' at will look like her Mama, and she will always cook like her Mama, so pick your wife-mate carefully."
Sound advice, I thought: Maude still looks pretty good, a shame she had no daughters to which to pass that along.
I thought of my own dear Esther and smiled as I remembered the morning, waking with my hand on her belly, dreaming of new life growing within her.
She will throw fine colts, I thought, and chuckled: her daughters will be beautiful, I corrected myself.
My ear pulled a little and I heard something, something I almost recognized.
Outlaw and I turned and we looked down our back trail, back down the main street of Firelands, and I saw the cause of the alarm.
A little girl, jumping up and down in front of the Silver Jewel, there on the board walk.
Outlaw and I galloped back to the Jewel and Angela stopped jumping and planted her little knuckles on her little hips and ran her bottom lip out about a foot and patted her little foot impatiently.
"Daddy," she complained, "you tol'me I could wide this morning!"
I threw back my head and laughed.
"And so you shall!" I declared, sidling Outlaw up beside the boardwalk and extending an arm.
Angela ran the few steps across the boards and jumped and I seized her about the waist, hoisted her aboard: she giggled and laughed as I patted her bottom, then settled her a-straddle of Outlaw's neck.
"Let's go get Rosebud," I said. "Here, you hold Outlaw's reins."
"Yaay!" Angela crowed.
One arm around my little girl's waist, the other on my right hip, I knee-reined Outlaw and we set off at a brisk trot for the house, the barn and Angela's little golden mare.
I kissed the top of Angela's head as we rode, grinning, and thought, Charlie would probably think me an old softy!
I laughed again.
He'd be right!

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