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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 3-26-12

 

I climbed the stairs to Esther's office, Angela sound asleep laid up against my chest: I winked at Tillie, grinned at Mr. Baxter and nodded to those patrons who looked my way when I opened the doors.
Gamblers, ranchers, cowhands, farmers, miners, all men who worked from kin-see to cain't-see, men with calluses on their hands and a shirt sleeve plumb full of muscle, men who knew what it was to earn their pay the hard way ... every man Jack smiled a little when they saw me pack my little girl upstairs.
Angela was kind of like ... well, like me, I reckon, or like any child: she would run wide open all day long, non stop, then all of a sudden boom and she was laid down for a nap.
I reckon leaning back against her nice warm Daddy and having Daddy's big strong arm around her middle and riding Daddy's Black-horsie was reassuring enough to her that her main spring said okay, time's up, I'm gonna relax now.
We hadn't but got to the barn when Angela's head kind of drifted off to the side and I knew she was out.
I eased Esther's office door open and she was standing, hands folded with that quiet smile I recall so well: she turned down the little bunk she kept there for either her or for Angela, and I waited while she worked Angela's shoes off, then I carefully, gently laid our little girl on the bed and drew up the covers, and she rolled over on her side and sighed a little, relaxed and content.
I bent down and pressed my lips against her cheek, lightly, carefully; I didn't want my muts-tash to drag across her cheek and wake her up.
She didn't so much as stir.
I stood up and gathered Esther into me and held her, and we looked at Angela, and I don't reckon I've been so happy in a long time.

Of course once I got down stairs there was a disagreement over cards, one fellow broke a bottle over another man's head and caved in his skull, Mr. Baxter banged the bottle beater over the gourd with his bung starter, Tillie pulled her pistol out from under the counter and discouraged an opportunistic sort from reaching for her cash box and I found myself obliged to introduce the muzzle of my Colt to another fellow's left ear to persuade him it really wasn't polite to pull a gun indoors.
Tom Landers was kind enough to help me get the offenders across the street and into the calabozo and a young fellow run down the street for Doc, though I held small hope the fellow with the caved in head would live.
He didn't.

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Linn Keller 3-26-12

 

I tried to move.
The witches held me.
They were beautiful, the loveliest things I've ever seen, but they were rotting flesh and gnawed bone, pointing to me, accusing, accusing ...
"Guil-teeeee!" they hissed, and I thrashed and strained and tried to scream defiance, but I could not move, could not move, could not move ...
"Yaaan-keee!" they spat.
"Murrr-derrr-errr!"
I struggled in the midnight dark, a darkness the color of Union blue, but their eyes held me as tightly as any chain-harness.
"Sisssterrrsss," a voice hissed, "thissss onnne ssspoke in our faaavorrrr."
"Weee are ssstill deaaad!"
Unseen bands tightened about me; it was almost impossible to breathe.
"Noooooo," the unseen voice whispered, sounding like steel rasping on granite: "let usssss take that whichhhh issss mossst preciousssss to himmm."
"Yesssss," the other two nodded, and for a moment I saw them as they were, young and beautiful, and a faint memory, a memory from that damned war, when I protested the cannonnade that flattened what used to be a fine mansion and killed its only occupants, three sisters hiding in an upper bedroom.

I woke, gasping, panicked: I threw back my bedcovers, rolled out of bed and landed on all fours: my gun belt was on the bed post and my hand closed about the knife's handle: I spun, knife held point down, my off hand up, ready to grab or deflect.
The moon was bright, stabbing through a fracture in the clouds, shattering on our hand-sewn quilt, illuminating the bed and the bedroom: my eyes darted from corner to shadow, I moved on the balls of my feet, my heart hammering, cold sweat chilling me: I reached down with a gentle hand, curled the backs of my fingers above Esther's mouth ...
Alive!
I was still breathing heavily, jaw wide, looking about like a wild man.
"That which issss mossst precioussss to himmm!"
"Angela!" I whispered.
I moved silently, hesitated at the bedroom door: my every instinct screamed to yank the door open, charge across the way and through Angela's door with a shining web of steel spun before me.
I gripped the knob and turned it slowly, carefully, soundlessly.
I looked outside the door, expecting to see a grinning skull and what used to be a fine gown draped over rot-fleshed bones.
Nothing.
A step, another, and I eased Angela's door open.
Angela was rolled up on her side, asleep, her little rosebud lips parted a bit: she, too, was breathing, for I waited to see the rise and fall of her ribs as she slept.
I crept around her bed, knife ready, part of me convinced that which was dream was somehow real: by the time I returned, closing her door behind me, I realized it was a dream, a terrible dream, a nightmare born of that damned war, nothing more.
Nothing more.
Angela's door was almost shut; there was but two fingers' worth of opening between the door and its frame when I heard Angela whisper in the moonlight, and my blood ran cold in my veins to hear her say it:
"You mean old ladies, you leave my Daddy alone!"

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Linn Keller 3-27-12

 

Jacob's face was tight and he was obviously containing himself.
His jaw was thrust out and set hard, his eyes were pale; his moves were tightly controlled, his breathing was deep, his moves spoke of an inner rage, a strength born of a deep and abiding anger.
I blinked slowly, tilted back in my chair.
Sarah looked at me, looked at Jacob.
"Jacob."
"Yes, sir."
"If you are indeed the fool you think you are, then I am a greater."
Jacob turned quickly, eyes cold, snapping cold fire: anger was now plain to be seen on his face, his right hand was fisted.
"Sarah."
Sarah looked at me, blinking uncertainly.
"How did I know what Jacob was thinking?"
Sarah looked at Jacob, her eyes quiet, assessing.
"Jacob," Sarah said quietly.
Jacob looked at Sarah.
"You are thinking of Scripture."
Jacob closes his eyes and turned his head a little, then nodded.
"'The fool hateth reproof.'"
Jacob nodded again.
"So ... something ... you are angry with yourself for something."
"My own damned fool fault," Jacob muttered. "My fault. Nobody else's."
Sarah looked at me, raised an eyebrow.
"There you have it," she said.
I nodded.
"Well done."
"I don't understand."
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow.
"How are you the greater fool?"
I laughed.
"Jacob," I said, "do you remember --"
"I do, sir," Jacob said, "and I do not believe I have ever heard a more profane silence in all my life!"
"We were cutting wheat," I explained, "Jacob and I had brand new Schwanensense scythes. Brand new. With grain cradles."
Sarah turned in her chair, facing me squarely.
"I hit a rock I knew was there."
Sarah tilted her head a little: I had her full attention.
"It bent the tip up on the blade."
Sarah nodded, once.
"I tried to straighten it out and broke the damned thing off."
Sarah's eyes showed surprise. "Oh," she said, and the surprise in her eyes showed in her voice.
"I must have called myself every name in the book and then wrote a couple chapters onto it." I looked up. "Don't believe I said a word but I was mad clear through. I wasn't mad at the rock, I was mad at myself.
"Jacob saw what happened and he set his scythe head down and leaned on the handle, watching to see what I would do next.
"I looked at him and said, 'Jacob, you are looking at a fool and a damned fool,' and then I allowed as a fool hateth reproof and this -- I held up that broke off scythe blade -- was reproof enough to get me mad at myself and how."
"So when Jacob came in and you asked me how you knew what he was thinking --"
I nodded.
"I see," Sarah said slowly.
She turned to my son, whose temper was considerably cooled.
"What happened, Jacob?"
Jacob dipped up some water, took a long, noisy drink, another: water ran down his chin and he used his coat sleeve to wipe it off as he hung the dipper back on its nail.
"I allowed as to cut some weeds," he said, a half-grin breaking through the mask of his irritation.
"I broke the tip off the damned scythe!"
Right about then that chair kicked out from under me.
I threw both arms out but it did no good a'tall, the damned thing flipped out from under and there I was layin' flat on my back -- again! -- with my feet up in the air and the wind half knocked out of me.
"Jacob," I said in a pained voice, "could you come over and help this old fool off the floor?"

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Linn Keller 3-28-12

 

Daciana bruised the leaves between her palms, sifting them into the simmering decoction; the smell of herbs made her smile, the familiar scent reminding her of earlier days with the Circus, days when her mother made this same solution.
Daciana dusted her palm and turned to another pan, barely simmering on the cast iron cook top: it contained strained, clear lard, it was just melted but no more ... it was ready.
Daciana picked up the milk-white mortar and pestle, stirred the ground herb within, then philtered the contents into the lard: she stirred quickly, added from a saucer of ground herb, a third: she closed her eyes, remembering her mother's hands on her shoulders, her mother's hands massaging this same compound into her sore shoulders.
Daciana turned the little hourglass; the sand would run barely three minutes, and she had to stir both pans at the same time, a wooden paddle in each hand: she watched the diminutive glass and the trickling sand as if it would escape if not watched, and at the moment the sands ran out, she lifted both pans off the stove, took three steps and placed them carefully in a broad, shallow pan of cool well water.
Daciana nodded her satisfaction, smiling a little, washed her hands, dried them thoroughly, then shook down the ashes in the cast iron stove and added wood: her bread dough was rising nicely, and by the time she were done with her little task, it would be time to put the bread in, and then prepare supper for her husband.
Daciana settled into her high-backed chair, her posture flawless, her moves easy and graceful, her hands performing a flowing little dance for the audience behind her sparkling-bright eyes.
Daciana placed a sheet of paper on the slanted felt surface, brought the ribbon over it to hold it in place and dipped her pen.

To Sarah, from Daciana --
It would please me greatly if you could attend upon me this evening, at your convenience, on a matter of benefit to your arm.


Daciana's script was large, elegant, ornamental; her signature, a capital D, stood proudly with a diamond-embossed column for its back bone, the chapiters above and below looking like they'd been chiseled and polished from freestone; Daciana smiled, placed the pen in its holder, picked up another and uncapped a bottle of green ink: soon a vine with spreading leaves spiraled up the back bone of the capital D, looking as if it had grown there in the hot Tuscan sunlight, and finally, with a few precise dots of enpurpled ink from a very fine tip, the vine bore fat pods of ripe grapes.
Daciana placed the note beside the writing stand to dry.
She would have it delivered within the hour.
Daciana turned: there was a rap at her front door.
She smiled as she opened it, spoke in a pleasant voice to two men with a crate, and five minutes later she was happily prying wooden slats off its lid.
Daciana smiled and reached into the crate.
She grasped a cast-iron handle, integral with what looked like a cannonball, and lifted the twenty-pound kettlebell from within: she picked up a second of the same weight, set them aside: a second pair, ten pounds each, and finally a diminutive pair of only five pounds.
Daciana laughed quietly.
It had been a very long time since she'd swung something as tiny as five-pound kettlebells.
She'd had the men carry the crate into her spacious barn, the one with free space enough to simulate the performing ring of a circus tent; she had an area dedicated to her exercise, and once she lined the new kettlebells in a neat row, she reached inside and withdrew a compact, heavy, paper-wrapped package.
She set the package aside, stacked the wooden slats back in the crate and set it aside: she was not one to waste, and good wood was useful.
Daciana picked up her fifty-pound kettlebell, left handed, swung it casually, then tossed it into the air before her, gently, letting it rotate once and touching it with her finger tips as it did: she caught the handle as it turned in mid-air, swung it at arm's length down and beside her leg, back up, released, let it turn again.
Daciana had no idea the name of the ancient Russian who invented this simple but very effective exercise tool, and Daciana did not care.
She had been swinging kettlebells since earliest childhood, for they were a most effective means of maintaining her upper body strength and her overall endurance.
She looked down at the tiny, dainty little five pound weights.
I will start her with those, she thought.
She must stress the healing bone gradually, but she must stress the repair to make it strong.
Daciana dipped her knees, placed the fifty-pounder on the floor and picked up the paper-wrapped bundle.
Buttercup came over, hooves soundless on thick sawdust, snuffing curiously: Daciana rubbed her nose and ears and gave her a quick, affectionate hug, then unwrapped the paper.
She smiled as the paper came open and the contents shone in the subdued light.
Daciana turned, gripping the package's contents in her left hand, brown paper drifting to the floor: she drew her arm back over her shoulder and threw.
The balanced throwing-knife spun through the air and drove into the wooden target.
Daciana's eyes smiled as she drew her hand back again.

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Linn Keller 3-29-12

 

Three of us slouched at the bar, one foot up on the shining brass rail, each of us with a foam topped mug in front of us.
It was chilly out but beer goes good in any season.
The fellow on my right was a reporter, an Easterner, busy and nervous and scribbling in his notebook the way them reporter sorts will.
I patted him on the shoulder and poured a shot of Two Hit John in his beer and allowed as he ought to stand right here and listen and he might get that story he was asking me about.
The fellow on my left accepted my offer of a sociable beer.
The reporter and I were in suits, and the fellow on my left had rode some distance to get here: there was nothing really distinguished about his attire ... maybe a little neater about his person, and his boots and his hat were a grade better than the average cowhand might wear, and though he was right handed he drank his beer with his left hand.
I figured he might.
He'd come to town to kill me.

Sarah rode into town on her Morgan horse, wearing a riding skirt outfit and headed for the saw bones.
Sarah rode with her reins knotted and dropped over the saddle horn, her right arm in a sling, and her eyes busy: she knew something was in the wind but she could not quite figure what it was.
She had a note, back at the house, a note Daciana sent her:
Please see me tomorrow.
There was another note, one delivered too late, asking Sarah to see her of the evening: owing to the tardiness of the messenger, Sarah was not inclined to accept.
The signature -- a capital D, with the back bone of the character a Doric column, well enough drawn to appear to be chiseled and polished freestone -- complimented the ornate flourish of her script, as if to make up with beauty what the note lacked in length.

Daciana hummed a little, a song in a minor note, a song she remembered played on balilaika when she was a little girl, a sad song about a horseman who rode his mount to death to save his imperiled lover, and then killed himself because he was too late.
She paid little attention to the words, for the memory of the song was woodsmoke and brightly-painted gypsy caravans, of laughing men and dancing women, of strong hands that picked her up and swung her high into the air, of music and a sip of wine from her Daddy's wineskin, and her but a wee child.
Her first efforts with the herbals had done so well she decided a second batch was in order.
Daciana stirred the herbal mixture until it was just right, then added some of the Daine boys' water clear: she pulled the pan off the stove top and placed it on the warming rack above, then ground the second batch of herbs in a separate pestle, added them to the strained, clear lard in another little saucepan.
She stirred the hot lard, turned over a small hourglass, watched it closely: at the right time, she added the small volume of alcoholic herbal decoction to the lard, stirred it, then scooted it to the edge of the stove where the heat was not so great.
The last batch of herbs went into simmering water.
Daciana looked up, turned over the hourglass once more: it was a tiny glass, containing nowhere near an hour's worth of sand: some called it an egg timer, but her mother used it for just what Daciana was doing, and that was making necessary potions.
Daciana smiled again.
Potions, she thought, and laughed a little: her grandmere had the knowledge, the Old Ways and her magic, but she did not teach the magic: she taught Daciana's mother herbs and potions, and Daciana learned from them both.
There was a knock on the door.
Daciana gave the decoction a quick stir with a wooden spoon, went to the door: a young man had a crate on his shoulder and inquired politely where she would like it set.
Daciana led him to the barn, the spacious structure the Sheriff had built for her; she thanked the polite young man for bringing it from the depot, and he went away whistling, for she'd also slipped him a coin for his good work.
She closed the door, went back to the stove.
The analgesic decoction, she knew, would be ready for straining and cooling.
She expected Sarah at any time.

"This fellow" -- the Sheriff laid his hand on the stranger's shoulder -- "came to town to kill me."
The reporter looked at the lawman and the gunslinger with a mixture of curiosity, repulsion and fascination.
"You came here to kill him?" he echoed.
The stranger nodded.
"If you don't mind my asking, sir," the reporter said, "um ... why?"
"Why?" the Sheriff and the stranger said together: they looked at one another, then looked at the reporter.
"Yes, er ... this doesn't seem a very civilized ... action?"
"Civilized," the Sheriff said.
"Did he say civilized?"
"He said civilized."
"What's civilized?"
The Sheriff frowned, scratched his head. "I think that's what they have back East in them-there Yankee flat land cities."
"Oh," the stranger said. "That."
The Sheriff and the stranger raised their mugs and took a swallow.
"Good beer."
"Good."
The reporter's eyes bulged.
"Gentlemen" -- his voice betrayed his puzzlement -- "you are going to try and each kill the other, and you're ... drinking beer?"
The Sheriff looked at the stranger.
"Do you think he wants us to drink water?"
The stranger laughed. "Maybe we'd ought to drink milk?"
"Could drink wine."
"Nah."
"Too sour?"
"Yeah."
"There is a nice German wine that's not bitter at all. Had some last year."
"Yeah?"
"Good stuff, too. Wasn't terribly strong, though. Mr. Baxter here has some water clear that could put a kick in it."
"That might be an interesting drink."
"Oh, it is."
They raised their mugs and took a sip.
"Gentlemen, excuse me, I ... wait, I don't understand this!"
"He doesn't understand this."
"I see that."
"Do you reckon he's kind of slow?"
"Could be."
The lawman and the gunslinger raised their mugs and took a drink.
"Let me see if I can explain it to you." The Sheriff frowned into his mug.
"My friend here" -- his head tilt indicated the stranger -- "heard I am a bad man, a fast man, a man with a reputation. Are you with me so far?"
The reporter scribbled.
"Slow down, man, I'm not in that kind of a hurry," the Sheriff admonished. "It'll be easier to read if you go slower."
The stranger leaned forward a little, marveling at the velocity of the reporter's whittled pencil tip.
"If he goes much faster it'll catch fire from friction," he suggested.
"Oh, I dunno," the Sheriff replied. "It's movin' fast enough the passin' wind might keep it from flarin' up."
The two men raised their mugs, drained them, set them down.
"Mr. Baxter."
Mr. Baxter regarded the two men expressionlessly.
"Mr. Baxter, only one of us will be coming back in." The Sheriff put a coin on the bar. "Whichever of us it is, will need a drink."
Mr. Baxter set a clean glass on the bar, pulled out a round bottle of something water clear, and poured three fingers' worth in the glass.
"Just right," the Sheriff nodded. "Suit you?"
"I can pay my own," the stranger said.
"You're my guest," the Sheriff smiled. "You came all this way just to kill me, it's the least I can do."
The stranger nodded.
"Now, now, now, what, what will you do?" the reporter stammered.
"Well, let's see," the Sheriff said. "We could go for it right here."
"Here?"
"Maybe that's not such a good idea." He frowned. "That's not a test of skill. We're both fast and we'd both be dead. No profit in that."
The stranger shook his head. "No profit," he repeated.
"Of course we could put a friendly wager on the outcome."
"Wager?" the reporter bleated.
"Or not. You fellas wanta place a friendly bet?" the Sheriff called. "This fellow says he's faster than me. Lay your odds!"
"I'll bet two double eagles!" a fellow called from the back.
"How many times you want that?"
"I'll take two!"
There was an instant, lively commerce, bets made, wagers placed, odds given and disputed.
"While they're having their fun," the Sheriff said, "what say we go outside and find out?"
The stranger nodded.
"Mr. Baxter?"
Mr. Baxter placed the glass precisely centered on the bar.
"You coming?"
The reporter's face was pale and he shook his head.
"Mr. Baxter, you might want to give that poor fellow some nerve tonic," the Sheriff said. "He looks a bit peaked."
The stranger spun a coin through the air; Mr. Baxter caught it, bit it and dropped it in the till.
"I can do that much," he said, and the Sheriff grinned.

Sarah held the blanket modestly before her as Dr. Flint spread his hands wide and palpated her rib cage: frowning, his fingers read the repairs, his palms gauged their strength, then he stood behind her, reached under her arms and took the blanket from her grasping hands: he drew it around under her arms, crossed it behind her, nodded to Nurse Susan, who came over to hold it in place.
Dr. Flint went around in front of Sarah and placed his fingers on her collar bones, one hand on her left, the other on her right: he closed his eyes again and began a methodical exploration of the bone, comparing a known, uninjured bone to its injured, healing counterpart: he paid particular attention to the proximal insertion, where the collar bone met the top corner of the breast bone; he assessed the healing collar bone for placement, alignment, whether it wiggled under exploration: his examination was professional, thorough, and done entirely with his eyes closed: it was his experience that he could see more with his fingers than he could with his eyes.
He had Sarah extend an arm and hold it in place while he pressed down, up, drew it to him, then away: he had her push against his chest while he held a hand behind her shoulder, all while assessing the healing bone: finally he nodded, said "Release," and sat very straight on his rolling stool.
"I don't want you shooting on your right side for half a year," he said quietly. "Do not fall off any horses. Stay away from running town marshals, stay out of wrestling matches and do not pick up your own weight, unless you use your left hand exclusively.
"You may resume activity as tolerated.
"You will know how much you can do. If it starts to hurt, stop what you are doing. Use the sling as needed, you will know when from the ache ... unless there is rain coming." He smiled knowingly. "I have ... weather bones myself."
"I'm finding that out already," Sarah muttered.
"Your lungs sound better than they have since you were hurt. Are you still coughing up?"
"Not much now."
"Drink plenty of water. I want you well hydrated. This will keep your secretions moist and guarantee mobilization of your secretions" -- he smiled -- "and it will keep your eyes bright and shining for some young man."
Sarah blushed. "I don't... have a young man," she said, her color rising.
Dr. Flint took her hands in his.
"You will, my dear, so please guard your heart carefully. Now get dressed, go forth into the world, and try not to throw any locomotives around until you are fully healed."

"You're sure you want to do this."
"Yep."
"You don't have to."
"I know."
They walked together out into the middle of the street.
"Thank you for the beer."
"My pleasure."
They took another couple of steps together.
"Seems a shame to kill you."
"Same here."
They stopped.
"What will it be, then? Ten paces, twenty?"
"Split the difference. Fifteen."
"You know what's going to happen."
"I know."
"One of us will die, the other gets the reputation."
"Yep."
"Every ranny that wants a reputation will try whichever of us is left standing."
"Yep."
"Some kid will figure he's faster and his luck will be better than ours and he'll kill whichever of us he comes after."
"Seen it happen."
"Me too."
They were silent for a long moment.
The Sheriff stuck out his hand.
"I'll see you in the Valley."
The stranger hesitated, then took the lawman's hand.
The Sheriff grinned.
"You were afraid I was going to cold cock you."
"Thought had occurred to me."
"I would not disgrace you that-a-way."
The stranger nodded.
"Thank you."
"Before we start," the Sheriff said.
"Yeah?"
"The Vikings have a custom."
The stranger nodded.
"May I?"
The stranger nodded again.
"The name's Sloan. Charles Sloan."
"Linn Keller."
"Your name will be sung over my body."
"And yours over mine."
"Pull your tabs loose, then, and let's get started."
The two pulled their hammer tabs free, turned, and started to pace.

Daciana smiled as she smelled the cooled ointment.
It smelled strongly of mint; she remembered her mother rubbing it on aching shoulders as Daciana learned the trapeze, tumbling, acrobatics.
She sniffed at the cooling decoction, sipped: it was just right, not too bitter, just right to serve as a tea to ease muscle aches from within.
Daciana reached for the tea strainer when she heard the single gunshot.

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Charlie MacNeil 3-29-12

 

The dense line of poplars made a highly effective windbreak in spite of their leafless condition. As Charlie stepped into the lee of the trees he could hear muted cursing from the dark form beneath Dawg's massive paws. Cold moonglow slipped through an opening in the clouds, enough to show Charlie the marks of quirt and spur on the buckskin's flanks and rump, and his temper flared cold as the blizzard wind. He strode forward to pick up the Colt that had melted down into the hoof-packed snow and thrust it behind his belt. The gaping maws of the Greener's barrels came to rest against the scarf wrapped tightly about the supine rider's throat.

"Who are you?" Charlie gritted.

"None of your da..." the shadowy figure began. The words choked off when Charlie thumbed back the hammers on the Greener.

"Wrong answer, my friend," the former marshal replied coldly. "One more chance: who are you?"

The stranger swallowed, bravado vanished, Adam's apple bobbing visibly beneath the wrappings. "St-st-starret. Verl Starret."

"And why, pray tell, are you in my horse pasture, Mister Starret?"

"My horse is worn down to nothin'. I need a new one, an' you got a whole herd of 'em, so I was gonna make a trade." Starret sucked in the deepest breath he could, considering the weight of Dawg on his chest.

"What if I don't want to trade?" Charlie asked reasonably. "I believe I'm within my rights to hang you for horse theft."

"Who are you anyway, mister?" Starret asked through stiff lips.

"Charlie MacNeil."

Starret went totally limp in the cold embrace of the snow. "Oh, crap!" he moaned softly.

"I take it you've heard of me, eh?"

"Yessir."

"And have you heard anything that may have led you to believe that I won't do just exactly that?"

"No sir."

"Then I would suggest that when Dawg steps off of you, you don't move except to breathe. You got that?"

"Yessir."

"Fine. Dawg!" The great black mass oozed into the blackness of the horse herd, leaving the humans to their own devices. Starret didn't move as Charlie cut a section from the man's own lariat, laid the Greener across the buckskin's saddle then knelt to tie the newcomer's hands behind his back. One-handed Charlie hoisted Starret to his feet, making a profound impression on the man. Retrieving the Greener and snapping the action closed, Charlie nudged Starret ahead of him, leading the buckskin. "To the barn. Now. When we get there will discuss your future prospects." Charlie raised his voice. "Dawg! Come on!" He didn't look around to see if his four-legged partner was coming; he took it for granted that Dawg would be where he should be, when he should be there...

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Charlie MacNeil 3-30-12

 

Manacled to a post, wrapped in a saddle blanket against the chill, Verl Starret had the time, and the inclination, to contemplate his future. He was sure that by morning the posse would have lost his tracks in the snow, and he could make good his escape. The fact that he had shot an influential member of the community that he'd left in such haste three days before didn't enter into his calculations. His horse was in a nearby stall, happily munching meadow hay in the relative warmth of the barn after the bone-deep cold of the storm, and should be rested and ready to go by sunup. Now if he could just get out of the handcuffs securing him to the post, he'd be set.

Stealthily, as if that damned marshal (ex-marshal, you dummy, he told himself) might still be watching from the shadows, Starret twisted his wrists against the cold grasp of the steel that bound them, searching for some hint of slack in their fit. The left seemed to be somewhat looser than the right, so he concentrated on that one. Carefully, he compressed his left thumb the length of his palm, funneling the remaining fingers, squeezing his hand down to a tapered shape that should let the manacle slide...

Starret froze, stilling his breathing. Over the constant ringing tone that was always at the threshold of his hearing, behind him, out of sight in the darkness over his right shoulder, he heard the sound of... something. Something had displaced a handful of sand grains, a few stems of straw, softly, quietly. At first he thought it might be a a mouse or some such critter pattering through the straw flooring the buckskin's stall in search of spilled grain from the manger. Then he felt the presence, looming at his back, of something much larger than a mouse. The faintest hint of warm breath, vaguely scented with the coppery tinge of fresh blood, wafted across his right ear...

Starret waited breathlessly, the long, interminable seconds crawling by, for another wisp of scent, some clue as to who, or worse yet, what, might possibly be behind him. When nothing came but the warm smell of contented horseflesh, his long-held breath whooshed out in a heartfelt sigh. He sucked in a deep lungful of air then went back to working on his escape. The chain links bridging the short gap between the manacles clinked softly, and something hot, wet and apparently lined with sharp spikes several inches in length took him by the hand. It wasn't raining in the barn, but Starret suddenly found himself sitting in a puddle...

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Linn Keller 3-30-12

 

"They're gonna what?"
"That feller come to kill the Sheriff!"
"What, that guy he was drinkin' beer with?"
"Yeah!"
"This I gotta see!"
Chairs scooted back, cards were dropped face-down, poker pots momentarily abandoned: men thronged to the windows, thrust their faces up over the curtain rod, looking out: a few went to the front door, peered through the small, clear spaces in the decorative frosted glass panes.
"I can't see!"
"Quit pushin'!"
"You goin' outside?"
"Hell NO, I ain't goin' out there!"
"Whatta they doin'? Whattatheydoin'?"
"Quit pushin'!" The speaker shoved his hat back on his head. "They two of 'em are talkin'."
"Talkin'?"
"Yeah, just standin' there talkin'. Nope --" a hand raised abruptly, then dropped -- "that stranger reached into his coat -- I thought he was gonna try somethin' -- "
"What's he doin'?"
"You wanta climb up on a chair an' look?" came the caustic reply.
"Hey!" Mr. Baxter shouted. "Don't climb on the chair! Don't go bustin' the bottom out of --"
Half a dozen men climbed on chairs, most of them putting their boots along the edge where the seat was strongest; one didn't, his leg went through the seat and he toppled awkwardly to the floor.
Not to be denied, he scrambled to his feet, climbed back up on the broken bottom chair and stood with his feet on its edges.
"You'll pay for that!" Mr. Baxter shouted.
The chair climber waved at Mr. Baxter, nodding, his eyes out the window.
"Whattathey doin'?"
"That fella handed the Sheriff ... a letter or somethin'."
"I thought he was gonna kill 'iim!"
"They're shakin' hands."
"What?"
"Now they're walkin' away from one another."
"What?"
"Just walkin' away."
"What, they ain't gonna kill one another?"
"Shut up!"

Sarah paced the Morgan horse toward her father.
The Sheriff looked up and Sarah saw right away his eyes were ice-pale.
She saw the other man walking away.
She looked down at her father.
"Sarah," he said, handing her the envelope, "hold onto this for me and clear out fast!"
Sarah took the envelope, left handed, slipped it into her sling: she knee-reined the Morgan, galloped her the short distance to the schoolhouse.
She had to make sure everyone was inside.
Sarah backed the Morgan off the street, far enough so she was out of the line of fire, but she could still see her father.
Her gut told her there was blood on the moon.
Sarah reached into her dress, gripped the bulldog .44. left handed.
If my father is killed, she thought, I will ride up behind the Jewel and come in behind his murderer!

The two men counted fifteen paces and turned.
The Sheriff swept his coat back behind him, fastened it: he stood loose, relaxed.
"You ready?"
"I reckon."
"You don't have to do this."
"I got no choice."
"There is always a choice!"
"No."
The Sheriff shook his head.
"I take no pleasure in this."
"Well, pardon me all to hell!"
The Sheriff nodded.
"As you will, then," he said, and started walking toward the stranger.

"What's he doin' now?"
"Good God, he's walkin' toward him!"
"He's what?"
"Now the other fellow is a-walkin'!"
"They ain't shootin'?"
A scathing glare. "Didn't hear no shot, did you?"

Sarah kneed the Morgan mare again, turning her: the Morgan paced easily across the irregular, grassy ground behind the length of the Jewel, then behind what was to be the new library: she held up at the alley, her hand tight on the Bulldog revolver's checkered grip.
He was right here, she thought, walked the Morgan ahead.
She leaned forward, peeking around the corner, down the alley, into the street.
Gone!

The two walked slowly toward each other.
They fell into step; as one's foot advanced, so did the other.
Both men walked easily, without tension; the Sheriff's eyes were pale, quiet; the other man's eyes, shadowed by his hat brim, could not be seen.

"What they doin'?"
"They're gettin' closer. Ain't they gonna stop?"
"Ohh --"

Sarah's eyes were very pale.
She drew the .44.

Upstairs, in her office, Esther looked up, frowning: there was a single pistol shot from out in the street.
She stood, looked out the window.

It was silent inside the Jewel.
No one moved, no one spoke, even Mr. Baxter's perpetual polishing of the gleaming mahogany bar stopped.
Heads turned, following something moving outside, then they drew back from the windows and turned toward the door.
The Sheriff pulled the door open, stepped inside.
Men drew away at his approach.
The Sheriff picked up the heavy glass of water clear and walked slowly back to his table.

Sarah holstered the .44 and closed her eyes for a long moment.
She backed the Morgan horse back into the alley.
Something stiff gouged her inside her sling and she remembered the envelope the Sheriff handed her.
Sarah reached into the sling, pulled out the envelope.
Curious, she opened the unsealed flap, withdrew the single sheet and began reading.

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Linn Keller 3-31-12

 

"You gonna ask 'im?"
Men looked at one another, looked back: heads shook, fingers pointed, and finally one fellow screwed up his guts and walked slowly back to the Lawman's Corner.
The Sheriff just set there, his hat brim low, his eyes unreadable: the water clear was on the table in front of him, its surface rippling from where he'd just set it down.
"Soapy?" the questioner asked.
The Sheriff gripped the glass, left handed, raised it and took a single, long swallow.
None missed that his hand was dead steady.
"Soapy, what happened out there?"
The Sheriff was quiet, unmoving for a long moment, then he turned and looked at the questioner.
The warmth in the greying old lawman's eyes would have frozen the Mississippi to its deepest bed.
"I kilt him," he said simply, "so he'd not kill me."
The Sheriff picked up the glass, drained it, set it silently back down on the checkered table cloth.
"Soapy, that-there was quite a bit 'a' lightnin' you just swallered down," the questioner offered, a bit of a shiver in his voice -- whether he shivered from the drink he'd just watched sluice down the Sheriff's throat, or at the man's chilly, un-rattled calm, or the fact that he was in the presence of a frosty killer who could take a man's life and feel nothing, the others weren't sure -- but the Sheriff looked straight ahead, unmoving, silent.
Esther came down the stairs, curious; she looked back across the Jewel's length.
Tillie saw Esther's gloved hand raise slowly to the hollow of her throat.
The Sheriff stood, pointed:
"You."
His voice was not raised, but it was loud in the Jewel's hush.
The reporter leaned back even further against the unmoving bar, its edge gouging into his kidneys, impaled by the thrust of the Sheriff's pointing finger.
"M-m-me?"
"Here," the Sheriff said, pointing to a chair, "now."
The reporter felt hands on his shoulders: not forcing, but encouraging, steering: he propelled himself with wooden legs, feeling very much like a man marching up the thirteen steps of a scaffold, the guest of honor at his own necktie party.
The Sheriff pulled out the chair.
"Sit."
Esther glided across the room, the image of dignity and proper decorum; men drew aside for her, hats were quickly pulled from scalps.
The Sheriff moved smoothly behind the reporter, drew out a seat for his beautiful bride: he took Esther's hand, raised it to his lips, pressed his mustache against her knuckles: "My dear," he murmured.
The reporter's eyes bulged at the seeing of this unexpectedly civilized behavior in what he firmly believed to be a lawless and uncouth wilderness.
"My dear," the Sheriff murmured, "may I present David Lacey, of the News-Telegraph out of Dayton, Ohio."
Esther turned, presented her hand: Lacey's mouth opened, closed, opened again.
"It is customary," the Sheriff said gently, "to rise in a lady's presence."
Lacey launched to his feet like a cork released at the bottom of a still, deep pool: his chair fell over backward.
The Sheriff sighed, shaking his head.
Esther waited patiently as Lacey, his hand trembling, made a fumbling attempt at hand-kissing the Sheriff's green-eyed wife: finally, she withdrew her hand, charitably refraining from comment or even an eye-roll expression.
The Sheriff held her chair as she settled herself, scooted her in and returned to his own seat.
"Mr. Lacey," he said, "you are no doubt wondering about the little drama you've just witnessed."
Lacey blinked as if just waking from a bad dream: automatically, his hand dropped to his coat pocket, and he managed to drop both pencil and notebook -- twice -- before finally placing both on the table before him.
"You, um," Lacey hesitated, "you, you killed that man?"
The Sheriff raised his chin, a summons to some unseen servant: the reporter looked in the direction of the Sheriff's gaze, looked back.
"I did."
"You just... you just killed him."
A tall young man with pale eyes came to the table.
The Sheriff nodded to the newcomer.
"Mr. Lacey," he said, "is a reporter from Dayton, back in the Ohio country. Mr. Lacey, this is my firstborn, Jacob. He is also my chief deputy."
Lacey turned, eyes big, with the expression of a man who was about to be masticated by a large, unhappy, fanged and drooling Chinese dragon.
Jacob regarded the reporter with half-lidded eyes, reading the trembling Easterner like a book.
"Jacob."
"Yes, sir."
"Jacob, how should a problem be handled?"
"Head-on, sir." There was no hesitation in the young man's reply.
"What happens when we don't handle a problem?"
"It turns around and bites us right in the aaa --" Jacob bit off the word, with a guilty glance at his mother: he lifted his hat, held it before him.
"Mother, my apologies: I had no wish to use such coarse language in your presence."
Esther's reply was gentle and ladylike: "You are a gentleman, and much like your father, Jacob. You have nothing for which to apologize."
"Yes, ma'am."
"Jacob."
"Yes, sir."
"Jacob, when a man walks up to you and says he intends to kill you within the hour, what might be a correct course of action?"
"Kill him first." Jacob's voice was flat.
"But, but, but," the reporter stammered, his notebook forgotten, "what, what of the legalities? Isn't there a more legal way --"
The Sheriff raised a hand, nodded.
A dignified old man with a snow-white, neatly spade-cut beard crossed the room toward them.
"Judge Donald Hostetler," the Sheriff said, "may I present David Lacey, a newspaperman from back Ohio way."
"Mr. Lacey," the Judge rumbled, thrusting out a hand and assessing the man's rather limp grip.
"Your Honor, Mr. Lacey here seems confused as to certain proprieties."
"Oh?" The Judge withdrew a hand-rolled Havana from an inside pocket, clipped off the stub and thrust it between his teeth.
"We had an ... event ... a few minutes ago."
"That fellow Digger is carting off," the Judge nodded. "He took the man's boots, by the way."
The Sheriff nodded. "Good thing he wasn't nailed to a cross, Digger would've gone back after the nails."
His Honor puffed out an incredible volume of smoke. "He is consistent," he agreed.
The Judge looked sharply at the reporter.
"Just what seems to confuse you, young man?" he asked, not unkindly.
"He, he just shot him," the reporter bleated, gesturing weakly at the Sheriff.
"Oh," His Honor replied. "Just like that."
The reporter nodded.
His Honor turned to face Esther, caught her hand up, raised it to his lips.
"My dear," he said gently, "I am not ignoring you, I just couldn't think of something brilliant to say!"
Esther's smile was dazzling. "Your Honor, you are a gentleman and a scholar!"
"Flattery," he smiled, his eyes twinkling, "will get you everywhere!"
Coffee and pie descended onto the table; the Sheriff gestured for his table-guests to begin.
Jacob poured a generous dollop of fresh, cold milk into his own coffee, and his father's; Esther had tea, spirited in from the same balanced tray silently and invisibly borne by one of Daisy's girls.
His Honor settled himself into the last remaining seat.
"Court's in session," he said in an authoritative voice. "I saw what happened outside, now suppose someone tell me what happened inside."
The Sheriff raised a beckoning hand yet again.
Sarah waved from the opposite end of the Jewel, an envelope upheld in her gloved left hand.

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Charlie MacNeil 3-31-12

 

Gray clouds make for gray sunrises. The barest hint of light was limning the eastern horizon, lifting the somber darkness of the night, when the barn door creaked open, startling Starret from a fitful doze. Charlie pushed the door wider, a grin splitting his lips at the sight of the darkened sand beneath his prisoner and the looming shadow that was Dawg at the man's back. Starret blinked several times, attempting to clear the cobwebs from his tired brain.

"Stand yourself up, Starret. We're goin' on a little trip," Charlie ordered.

"I don't think I can," Starret grumbled.

"Find out." Charlie strode to the buckskin's stall and led the gelding out into the alley to tie it to the same post its erstwhile owner was tethered to. "Otherwise this critter may just walk on you." He reached for the currycomb and brush hanging from pegs on the stall post and began to comb and brush the buckskin, who obviously was enjoying the attention. When a front hoof brushed his hand close enough that the steel of the horseshoe drew blood in a long thin scratch Starret hurriedly pushed himself upright.

"Are you gonna turn me loose? I gotta use the facility."

"Don't look like you need it very bad," Charlie replied, grinning. He went back to saddling the buckskin. Starret glared at his captor, then his gaze drifted to the saddlebags tied behind his saddle cantle. Charlie's own cold eyes followed the glance. "It ain't there." The small pistol that had been the object of Starret's contemplation had been removed the night before. "So you might best resign yourself to takin' a trip with me." He turned to the roan's stall and led it out for saddling.

After a brief breakfast of bacon and biscuits Charlie hoisted Starret aboard the buckskin then swung his leg over the roan's back. He turned to Fannie. "Be back in a couple of days, Darlin'."

"Be careful, Sugar. He's not worth getting yourself in a jackpot over. If you need to, just shoot him and ride on." The soberness of her expression was belied by the twinkle in her emerald eyes that only Charlie could see. But she did indeed smile just the tiniest bit at the crestfallen look on the prisoner's face. Charlie heeled the roan into motion, leading the buckskin through the drifted snow toward the trail. The depth of the snow meant they'd be twice as long as usual on the way to Firelands.

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Linn Keller 3-31-12

 

At the Sheriff's direction, another table was brought over and butted up against his; more chairs were arranged, and Sarah looked around at the little assemblage, then looked at her Papa.
"Have you read this?" she asked.
The Sheriff raised a palm. "Stand fast," he said, "we have need of your eyes."
"My eyes?"
The Sheriff pointed to an old acquaintance, crooked his finger: the summoned soul trod reluctantly across the floor.
"Could you tell His Honor what that fellow said when he came in here?"
"That feller you just kilt?"
The Sheriff nodded.
"Your Honor, that-there stranger said he'd come to kill the Sheriff. Said he was gonna shoot him graveyard dead either here in a fair fight or from bush whack and it didn't matter none to him."
His Honor nodded. "I see." He looked at the Sheriff. "And what was your response?"
The Sheriff's expression never changed.
"I invited him to have a beer with me."
"And his reply?"
"He thanked me and accepted."
"Tell me, Sheriff, was anyone else present who can corroborate this testimony?"
All eyes turned to the reporter, who was busy scribbling in his notebook: he looked up, looked around, swallowed, obviously uncomfortable with many eyes upon him.
"Young man," the Judge intoned solemnly, "if you'd write a bit slower I'm sure your script would be a bit more legible."
"Y-y-yes, Your Honor," the man stammered.
His Honor tilted his head a little, considering the velocity with which the pencil was describing its travels.
"You know, if you write that quickly, you're liable to set fire to your paper," he offered.
The reporter blinked, taking the hint, and laid the pencil down in the open notebook.
"I heard it as well, Your Honor," he said uncertainly, "though I ... I expected to write a story, not become part of one."
"Welcome to Firelands," His Honor said dryly. "Now what happened after the Sheriff had a sociable beer with this dead man?"
"He, he said -- the Sheriff said -- that he, that is, the dead man, did not have to go through with this."
"Did he say exactly what 'this' was?"
"No, Your Honor."
"Hm." The Judge nodded, looked around, spat into a convenient gobboon.
"Sheriff."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"What exactly was said between the two of you?"
The Sheriff frowned, took a noisy slurp of coffee, brushed his handlebar broom with the back of his forefinger.
"As stated, Your Honor."
"He had to have a reason."
"I suppose so."
Sarah opened her mouth, then closed it.
"Miss Sarah."
Sarah's belly sank; she wished mightily for her Papa's gift of turning invisible.
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Miss Sarah, you have a way of turning up when the unusual happens."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Explain your presence here."
"I went to see the doctor, Your Honor."
"And his prognosis?"
Sarah made a face, nodded to her arm. "I'm still in a sling."
"I see that."
"And there is this." She held up the envelope.
"Please enlighten us, Miss Sarah."
"I rode up to Pa -- to the Sheriff," Sarah stammered a little, clearing her throat, trying to cover her Freudian slip: "he handed me this and said to get some distance."
"What followed?"
"I turned back toward the schoolhouse to make sure all were inside and I looked down the street. I saw the man waiting for" -- she hesitated -- "the Sheriff and I knew there was blood on the moon.
"I rode around behind the Jewel and the length of it, then came out at the alley just above where the other man was waiting."
"I see. And your reason?"
Sarah's eyes changed: the Judge saw them go cold, saw their color lighten, and in spite of his status as presiding Judge, in spite of his being Sarah's senior, in spite of the distance between them and her good right arm laid up in a sling, the Judge felt a trickle of something cold willy-worm down his back bone.
"Your Honor, I intended fully to ride him down and kill him if he killed the Sheriff."
"I see."
"You."
"Me?" the hanger-on blurted, his Adam's apple bobbing in his stubble turkey neck.
"What did you see?"
"I, um, I seen them go out an' they shook hands and walked apart a little and then they started to walk towards one another."
"A walkdown."
The hanger-on nodded, cleared his throat uncomfortably.
"Then the other fella stopped and I saw him go to draw."
"Did he?"
The hanger-on glanced at the Sheriff, looked back at the Judge.
"Kinda hard t'draw when a big chunk 'a' yer head is missin'."
"He went first."
"Yep, he did."
"Sounds fair to me." His Honor looked at Sarah, tilted his head curiously, blew a liquid stream of tobacco smoke high into the air.
"Miss Sarah, you have an envelope."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Is it germane to the case?"
"It is, Your Honor."
"Please read it aloud."
The Judge looked at the Sheriff, as did Sarah.
The Sheriff nodded, once.
Sarah fumbled a little, withdrawing the page one-handed; Esther reached over and helped her work it out of the tight fitting envelope.
"Thank you," Sarah whispered, then shook the stiff sheet, laid it down on the table, pressed it flat.
"The envelope," she began, holding it up for the Judge's inspection, "is addressed to "That Yankee Colonel."
His Honor extended a hand; the envelope was passed to him.
"Hm." The Judge took another puff of his Havana. "And the contents?"
Sarah reached into her sling, withdrew a small case; clumsily opening it, she withdrew a pair of spectacles, slipped them on, working the wire hooks over her ears.
The Judge knew this to be a ruse, one of which he approved: Sarah was cultivating the appearance of a schoolmarm, and her window-pane spectacles were for decoration, not function: it suited her disguise, and her skill at disguise suited the Judge's plans, but this was for a future time.
In the meantime, he thought, she is learning to play a role.
He nodded.
Sarah cleared her throat.
"This is addressed to 'Yankee Colonel,' Sarah began.
I never knew your name.
Pa always called you That Yankee Colonel.
I played hell finding you but I finally did.
I been watching you.
I know where you live.
I know you have family and I will kill them if you do not do what I want.
I will kill you too.
I am comin into town and I will brace you and if you do not kill me I will kill you and them so you best not miss.
You might wanta know why."

Sarah looked up.
"The hand writing is not good and the spacing is terrible, his spelling is atrocious and if I hesitate, please forgive me, for I wish to read what it actually says."
"You are doing fine, Miss Sarah," the Judge reassured her. "Please continue."
Sarah looked back at the paper, found her place, continued.
"Pa was crippled up from the War.
You was his commanding officer.
He blamed you for livin in pain and I heered him cry at night and finally he went insane and we kep him chained in the barn cause he strangled his son an tried to strangle his wife an they allowed as he was insane an they could not hang him but they wanted to charge us to keep him in an asylum and we did not have money for that so I listened to him scream at night and finally he got his chain around his neck and hung hisself.
You kilt my Pa and I swore I would kill you.
I asked around about you and ever one says you are straight as a die and would not lie if you had to. They said you have a wife and a daughter and you don't cheat no one.
I don't want to make your wife a widda but you kilt my Pa slow and screamin and I want you to look me in the eye cause I will kill you in a fair fight."


The Sheriff closed his eyes for a long moment, then opened them and looked at the Judge.
"What was it you called that dirty business?" the Judge murmured. "That damned war?"
The Sheriff nodded.
His Honor sighed, flicked ash from his cigar into the flared spitoon mouth.
"I wonder what ghosts from that damned war will come after me," the Judge sighed.
He looked up at Sarah again. "Is there aught else you wish to add, Miss Sarah?"
"No, Your Honor."
The Judge nodded, dropped the stub of cigar into the brass swamp bucket.
"Sheriff, I find this a justified shooting. Please accept my condolences on this unfortunate event."
"Thank you, Your Honor."
Sarah removed her spectacles, folded them carefully, placed them in their hinged, hard case, worked it carefully out of sight inside her sling.
"Court," the Judge declared, "is adjourned. Miss Sarah, walk with me."
His Honor rose, as did everyone at the table except Esther: it was accepted that she was the reigning matriarch: had she risen, the Judge would have risen with her.
The Sheriff looked over at the reporter.
"Well, Mr. Lacey?" he asked. "Did you find your answers?"
David Lacey nodded numbly.
"Was it what you expected?"
David Lacey shook his head.
"Few things are, in this lifetime," the Sheriff offered philosophically, watching the Judge pat Sarah's hand paternally as she wrapped her gloved hand around his arm.
"Miss Sarah," the Sheriff heard the Judge ask his daughter, "have you given any thought to furthering your education?"

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Linn Keller 4-1-12

 

Sarah stopped at Tilly's counter and brought her spectacles out again: His Honor waited for her to put her window panes on before he continued.
Sarah peered at the literature the Judge presented.
His Honor looked carefully at the thirteen year old's face, studying her expression as she read the material he'd brought.
His Honor saw a great potential in this young woman, in this strong and sometimes violent soul who could not only overcome injury but capitalize on its appearance: something told him her arm was recovering well enough that the sling, like her spectacles, was more for appearance and less for appliance: that she appeared in public in a sling, and was wearing her schoolmarm spectacles, in public, told him she was playing a role, that she was engraving in the popular consciousness her identity as a schoolmarm, as someone vulnerable, as someone less than she had been.
Appearances of weakness were eschewed on the frontier: portraits were unsmiling, and most men refrained from a pleasant expression, for a smile was often seen as a sign of uncertainty or softness, and spectacles were almost the mark of a disability: perhaps the most famous example of this was when a cowboy, an Easterner, came into a saloon (not the Silver Jewel, unfortunately) wearing spectacles and buckskins; he ordered coffee instead of red-eye, and a local bully decided to stomp on this newcomer's soul: not only did he insult the man's appearance and call him Four Eyes, he allowed as anyone weak enough to have coffee instead of a man's drink had to buy for the house.
The individual he offended responded by raising his fists.
The bully grinned, for he was a known brawler, and in very short order he found he had distinct cause to regret the rashness of his action: it is not recorded whether he lost any of his grinning teeth or not, but it's quite likely, for the ranny he braced there before the bar was none other than the bare knuckle boxing champ of an Eastern college, the future Rough Rider, Theodore Roosevelt... the man who was thereafter referred to as Mister Four Eyes.
But that's another story altogether.
Appearances, His Honor the Judge knew, counted for a great deal, and His Honor knew Sarah was laying a carefully crafted foundation that instilled in the popular imagination her status as a young woman who'd been hurt, a young woman of intelligence who was devoting herself to educating young minds, a young woman further debilitated by weak eyes.
Judge Hostetler nodded.
This, he thought, is exactly as I had hoped.
Sarah read the literature carefully, quickly, read it again.
Her back was to the door; it was an extremely unusual thing for her to do, for she was as wary of her back as her Uncle Papa, and one of the first things Charlie and Fannie taught her was never, ever to put her back to the door or an unguarded or unsecured area: still, she had the Judge beside her, and she was in character as the harmless and mousy young schoolmarm, and she was in the familiar safety of the Silver Jewel.
She was also less than eight feet from where the Marshal had driven her face first into the wall.
Sarah saw the familiar red wool shirts of the Irish Brigade as they came stomping happily into the Silver Jewel.
"Your Honor," Sarah said quietly, the fingertips of her left hand spread wide on the printed page, "this is definitely of interest."
"I thought it might be."
"I had given this no thought," she said, and the Judge heard the mother's voice come from the daughter's throat, and he experienced a momentary psychic disequilibration that comes from an older man realizing that a child is growing and has grown, perhaps more than he'd realized: at the same time, the maturity of her phrasing told him yes, this is the right time: the twig can yet be bent, but it is seasoned enough to tolerate the bending.
Sarah's fingertips patted the page thoughtfully.
"I believe I am interested." She looked up at the Judge, her eyes bright, the happy expression of a child about to go on an adventure, where a moment before her face was that of a cautious woman about to skeptically review what may be a proposition and not a proposal.
His Honor the Judge realized with a little disquiet that the lovely young Miss Sarah was a deeper and more complex soul than he'd realized.
"I will speak of this to your mother," His Honor said quietly. "Perhaps it should come first from the bench."
Sarah turned to face the Judge squarely; she stood very straight, and laid gentle fingers on the back of his hand.
"You must think very highly of my skills," she said, her voice barely a whisper: her expression was open, vulnerable, and the Judge knew his next words could either strengthen and encourage her spirit, or bruise her vulnerable young heart.
"My dear," he said in a gentle and fatherly voice, "I have seen you perform marvels of work, do things no girl could envision and no woman would dare" -- here Sarah thought, You've never seen Aunt Fannie at work! -- "and I believe your skills are greater than you realize."
Sarah turned her head slightly, eyes bright and firm on his.
"Sir?"
"My dear, I believe I may have mentioned your gift for appearances."
"Appearances?" she echoed, the tiniest of smiles quirking the corners of her mouth.
Sarah saw something red from her periphery, turned: the Welsh Irishman was biting his bottom lip, shifting from one foot to the other.
His Honor followed her gaze and chuckled.
He laid a warm hand on her grey embroidered glove and gave a gentlemanly half-bow: "My dear, may I take your leave: I will speak with the Sheriff, and then proceed to speak with your mother."
Sarah modestly lowered her eyes and dipped her knees; the Judge turned, gave the Welsh Irishman a wink, and headed back toward the Sheriff.
Sarah turned the Judge's material over, doubled it and worked it into her sling: she looked up at the Welsh Irishman and said, "Please forgive me. The Judge was discussing an important matter."
"He's too old for you," the Welsh Irishman blurted, his expression that of a man watching the finest thing in the world screaming and being carried off by ravening barbarians, never to be seen again.
"He's too --" Sarah echoed. "Um, excuse me?" -- then as she realized what he meant, she laughed, and Tilly had to duck her head to hide her own amused expression.
"He's not -- he is not -- he's not marrying me!" Sarah said, holding her voice down, but her own expression was one of open surprise as she saw the relief wash off the Welsh Irishman and he stepped forward, placing firm hands on her shoulders.
"Good," he said, his words falling on one another's heels in their haste to run out of his mouth: "because I want to!"
Sarah's mouth opened.
Her eyes widened as she realized what the man just said.
"Miss Sarah, listen to me," he implored, his voice low, urgent. "You've been hurt, you are too young to become a schoolmarm -- you're not an old maid, far from it! -- let me take care of you and --" his fingers trailed down the back of her slung arm -- "I am not the richest man i' th' world, but I can make you happy, and I can keep you safe!"
His words were sincere, his face was open and without guile, and Sarah squeaked a little and sort of leaned back against Tillie's counter.
She had absolutely, positively no idea what to say.
She blinked, rallied, laid her hand flat on the man's chest.
He didn't embrace her -- that would be far too forward, far too improper -- but he rested his fingertips lightly her upper arms.
"I know I shouldn't be talkin' to ye wi'out yer mither here an' I ha'n't her permission to speak to you but when I saw -- I thought -- I couldnt' let it --"
"When you thought the Judge was proposing?" Sarah giggled. "You couldn't ... when you thought the Judge ..."
Sarah laughed, laid a gentle hand on the Welsh Irishman's smooth-shaven cheek: she bit her bottom lip and her eyes were bright behind her round-lens spectacles.
"That's the sweetest thing anyone ever said to me," she whispered, blinking.
The Welsh Irishman cleared his throat nervously.
"You will make a beautiful bride and a fine wife," he said huskily, "and I will be a fine husband for you!"
Sarah's breathing was coming faster now, and she knew she had to tread very carefully: part of her needed to convey the image that she was developing a case of the vapors, and to remain in character she would need to do something weak or foolish or feminine.
Another part of her recognized she was starting to hyperventilate.
Sarah pushed quickly past the Welsh Irishman and shouldered the door open, ran outside and down the few steps: the Welsh Irishman's shoulders sagged as he watched the door shut behind her, and he heard galloping hoof-beats recede quickly down the street.
I've failed, the Welsh Irishman thought.
A heavy hand rested lightly on his shoulder, squeezed companionably.
"Well done, lad," Sean rumbled. "I think she likes ye."
Across the room, the Sheriff started at the Welsh Irishman's back.
He was not seeing the red wool shirt, nor the man within it.
He was seeing a little girl, holding what he took to be her Mama's hand, on the board walk in front of the Silver Jewel, one night many years ago, the night he rode into town on a plow horse and decked the town's lawyer.
My little girl, he thought.
My little girl.
In that moment the Sheriff was realizing his little girl was not little any more, and he had the expression of a man who realized he was utterly, completely, absolutely and irredeemably lost.

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Linn Keller 4-1-12

 

Sarah was not given to what she regarded as feminine weaknesses, nor to flights of fancy: she was not a silly girl, to be blown about by the winds of her own imagination, nor was she a fearful sort, to be afraid and trembling of any imagined threat.
Sarah was, however, feeling something in her that confused her, and that distressed her: Sarah's thoughts were ever ordered, reasoned, logical, rational, and suddenly they were not, and she knew this could not be, this must not be!
Sarah brought Morgaine around -- hard about she wheeled, hooves skidding on packed snow, scrambling and throwing up ice-clods as she scrambled and gathered herself and ran back along her former path, head bobbing, nostrils flared, clearly enjoying herself -- in fact, the black Morgan horse was enjoying herself far more than her rider.
Sarah dismounted before Morgaine came to a bottom-dropping, hoof-skidding stop: she landed, knees bent, and stomped back up the steps to the Silver Jewel, just as the red-shirted Irishman was coming out, and two undistinguished ranch hands.
"What's the hurry, little lady?" one leered, and reached for her: Sarah tried to twist, but grasping hands seized her in a manner most unseemly.
The Welsh Irishman froze, unbelieving, as unwashed hands grabbed Sarah in a manner that no gentleman would ever attempt.
Part of his mind said I must avenge this wrong, and he felt his Welsh soul contract into a hard ball, ready to detonate out the knuckles of his hard right fist, when he saw Sarah's eyes change.
Sarah, diminutive and slender Sarah, in her schoolmarm's dress and spectacles, seized a thumb and cranked it back, hard and viciously: there was the sound of cartilage tearing and a man's pained scream, and then Sarah drove her heel into the man's groin: it seemed to the Welsh Irishman that the scoundrel doubled up like a folded pair of trousers and sort of levitated horizontally off the boardwalk, and down the stairs without touching a one of them.
Sarah dove off the top step, face white, lips peeled back, eyes dead pale and all ten claws spread.
The contents of her sling scattered in mid-air as Sarah landed on the man's belly: she landed feet first and lost her balance, fell back against his doubled-up knees, rolled off and grabbed her .44 Bulldog.
Sarah drew back, dropped her weight into the blow and brought the top of the Bulldog's frame down on the man's collar bone, where it is weakest: she had full intent of driving that revolving pistol through the man's shoulder and into the ground: she raised it, two-handed, and slammed it three times into his ribs, screaming defiance, screaming her fury, her anger bottled from all the time she'd spent in a sling and in pain and keeping herself contained, confined.
Sarah rolled back on her heels, stood up: her heels caught the hem of her dress and she went over backwards: the Welsh Irishman's eyes bulged as he watched Sarah roll onto her uninjured side and stand, nostrils flared, and flip the revolver in the air, catching it by the handle.
"WHO'S NEXT!" she screamed. "WHO WANTS TO TRY ME NEXT?"
If it's possible for the very air about an incensed woman to sizzle and crackle with the strength of her anger, this did: the Welsh Irishman wasn't so certain that a yellowish, electrified glow didn't surround her, like St. Elmo's Fire a tenth of a second before the lightning bolt hits.
Sarah stomped back up the stairs, shoved the Welsh Irishman out of the way, and was almost hit in the face by the door opening hard.
The pale-eyed Sheriff stood with one hand on the door, the other on the handle of his pistol: he opened his mouth and said "What --"
Sarah seized the Sheriff by the lapels.
"WHERE WERE YOU WHEN I NEEDED YOU?" she screamed. "HERE I AM A DEFENSELESS LITTLE GIRL AND A MASHER GRABS ME AND YOU WEREN'T THERE! I HAD TO TAKE CARE OF THINGS MYSELF AND NOBODY LIFTED A HAND TO SAVE MY VIRTUE!"
Sarah's hands were locked into the Sheriff's lapels and she was shaking him like a terrier shakes a rat ... that is, if the rat is bolted to the side of a locomotive: the Sheriff stood there, his eyes darkening a little as he realized the situation was not as dire as he'd imagined, and the longer Sarah screamed and the more she shook him, the more his face twisted, and Sarah saw his throat start to vibrate, and she stopped screaming and slowed her shaking and the Sheriff ran his hands around her and started to laugh.
The Sheriff wrapped his arms around his little girl and threw his head back, and a big man's genuine laughter echoed loud and bright off the buildings on that cold and snow packed street.
Finally when the Sheriff could take a breath, he looked down at Sarah and brushed the hair away from her forehead and all he said was, "Helpless little girl?" -- and he was off again laughing, and Sarah started to laugh too, and then she started to cry, and she sagged into her Daddy's arms, and for a moment she was a little girl being held safe and warm like every little girl wants to be, and the Sheriff was a Daddy, holding his little girl, like he loved doing with Angela, and now he was with his other little girl.
His Honor the Judge puffed on his Havana, nodding; he looked at the Welsh Irishman, offered him a cigar.
"Thank you," Llewellyn murmured, biting off its twisted tip and spitting it out into the street.
"Not quite what you expected?" the Judge murmured, amusement in his light-hazel eyes.
The Irishman was a man who appreciated a good cigar, and as he drew on the Cuban, he realized this was a very good cigar indeed.
"No, sir," he admitted. "No sir, she's not!"

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Charlie MacNeil 4-1-12

 

Sarah exited the Jewel to find her Uncle Charlie, sitting astride that roan gelding he favored, a buckskin mare's lead shank dallied about his saddlehorn. The stranger slumped in the saddle on the buckskin's back, wrists shackled to the saddle fork, looked positively, well, discouraged. Charlie himself sat with his arms crossed on the horn, battered felt hat pushed to the back of his head and his usual grin on his face. The men she had so recently assaulted had been picked gingerly from the hoof-churned morass of the street and were making their painful way toward the hospital, each supporting the other.

"Think ya used enough dynamite there, Darlin'?" Charlie drawled, his grin suddenly changing to an expression of apparent dismay. He looked over at the Sheriff, who had followed Sarah from the Jewel. "Dang, she's a pistol, ain't she? Here I heard through the prairie telegraph that Miss Sarah the schoolteacher had done rode a grizzle bar off a cliff and banged herself up, then I ride into what I assumed would be a quiet little town and find her beatin' up a couple of the local captains of animal husbandry, then assaultin' an officer of the law. What kinda schoolmarm does such things, I ask you?"

Sarah stood with her arms crossed, supporting the right one just slightly with the left. Her crackling gaze, lit with humor just moments before, now held enough heat to melt horseshoes while Charlie gave her his most innocent look in return, showing no sign of any sort of repentance for his words. The pair held each others look until neither could hold out any longer and both smiled. Charlie swung his leg over the roan's back and stepped down onto a relatively frozen patch of real estate. Starret's horse side-stepped a few feet away from the roan, and without turning his head, Charlie said, "You'd best make sure that horse don't go any further. There's more law lookin' at you right now than you can shake a stick at, and there ain't a man-jack of 'em will tolerate a horse thief. So you just set tight." He didn't wait to see what effect his words had on his prisoner before stepping forward to wrap Sarah in a bear hug.

"Dang, Darlin', you don't cut nobody any slack, do you?"

"They were wrong, and I showed them the error of their ways, is all."

Charlie chuckled. "And they ain't likely to forget the lesson any time soon neither, I reckon." He nodded to the Welsh Irishman and the Judge. "Gents." He turned toward the Sheriff, one arm still about his adopted niece's slender shoulders. "I see you've been taking good care of this young lady in my absence. Although she could do with a bit of cleaning up." He glanced at the mud spattered across Sarah's skirt and jacket. Sarah's only reply was a disdainful tilt of her head.

"So what have you got on that yellow horse, Charlie?" Linn asked after a moment.

"Brought you a present, name of Verl Starret. When Dawg apprehended him, he was in my horse pasture about to make me an unauthorized after hours trade, that buckskin for one of my mares. And I'm relatively certain that he had a good reason for doing it in the dark. We found quite a number of horse tracks crossing the trail from the north on our way into town."

"He's wanted for robbery, assault and murder," Jackson Cooper rumbled as he stepped up alongside the buckskin. "We got a flyer on him in yesterday's mail. How ya doin', Charlie?"

"Not bad, considering that the town has apparently gone temperance," Charlie answered.

"What makes you think Firelands has gone temperance?" Linn asked in return, giving him a puzzled look.

"Well, I've been here for dang near half an hour, and nobody's offered me so much as a beer. And here we are standing right out in front of the fanciest saloon and eatery for miles around."

"If you'd like to take your friend there on down to the jail, we'll get him secured and then I think we might just be able to find you something to wet your whistle," the Sheriff replied. "Sarah, will you join us?"

"I don't believe so, Uncle Linn," the girl answered. "As Uncle Charlie so tactfully pointed out, I could do with a change of outerwear. I seem to have soiled what I'm wearing. I believe that I shall gather my things and go home. Now if you gentlemen will excuse me?" Restoring her arm to its former resting place, she stepped down into the street to pick up the several items that had departed from her sling as she exacted her retribution on the two cowboys, only to find herself suddenly hoisted into the air and deposited in Morgaine's saddle.

"I'll get 'em, Darlin'. You just set up there and supervise," Charlie told her. A few seconds later she departed for home with a good bit more decorum than her last departure had held, and Charlie was leading his prisoner toward the jail.

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Linn Keller 4-2-12

 

Sarah's spine was stiff and Sarah's dignity was bolted around her like armor plate; her jaw was set, her chin up, and in spite of having just gotten a great deal of frustration out of her system (and it felt good!) Sarah was still in turmoil ... somewhere between still wanting to rip someone's throat out with her bare hands, wanting her Daddy to hold her, wanting her Uncle Charlie's hand on her shoulder as he spoke in his quiet, unmistakably experienced voice, and ... and ...
Sarah leaned back in the saddle. "Whoa up, Morgana," she said, and turned the Morgan mare with her knee, turned to face the firehouse squarely.
I'm not fit to call on anyone, she thought.
It's not proper for a young lady to call on a gentleman.
She glared at the firehouse doors.
"Morgaine," she said, "stand."
Sarah's shoulder was beginning to ache, her collar bone felt like it had inherited a toothache, and her young body was telling her that tomorrow she would regret being so active: Sarah flowed from the saddle, raised her chin and stepped briskly across the packed snow to the firehouse door.
Sarah raised a gloved hand, intending to rap briskly at the stout portal (oh dear, she thought, I did get that glove dirty!) when the door swung magically open ... that is, if Irish magic counts: Sean grinned at her big-eyed surprise.
"Well lass, don't stand out here in th' cold," he boomed, "come in an' thaw out!"
"Thank you," Sarah said in a small voice, and looked around as she came into the equipment bay.
The matched white mares nickered a greeting and the firehouse cat rolled in the sunlight, meowing and begging a belly rub: Sarah saw the cat's belly jump with new life and smiled, for she could just imagine these big, burly, hard-knuckled firemen holding the little bitty kitties and making absolute fools of themselves baby-talking to the fuzzy little newcomers.
"I reckon ye'll want Mister Llewellyn," Sean said, managing an innocent expression.
Sarah didn't quite seize the man's arm -- one does not seize the grab-rail of a passing locomotive when said engine is throttling hard on a down grade, and Sarah knew if she were to grab the man's elbow firmly, she would be pulled along like a kite-tail in a high wind -- but her touch was enough to stop the big man and incline his ear down toward her.
"Sean," she said, "it is Mr. Llewellyn I wish to discuss."
"Discuss?" Sean said, mischief in his eyes and merriment at the corners of his mouth.
"Yes," Sarah said. "You may hear that your young schoolmarm dispatched a miscreant with her bare hands." Sarah gave Sean her best, big-eyed-through-her-spectacles I Am Being Sincere Here Please Believe Me look.
"That is drunken barroom exaggeration."
"Eh?"
The German Irishman and the New York Irishman, polishing the gleaming brass boiler housing, casually worked their way around to the near side of the rig, listening without seeming to listen.
"I was grabbed by a ... miscreant," Sarah said, looking down, and Sean saw the color rise in her face.
"Was it Llewellyn?" he rumbled, big hands closing on her shoulders.
Sarah flinched and Sean saw pain in his expression.
Only then did he see the dirt on her clothes.
"Jaysus, Mary an' Joseph, lass," he breathed, "what happened?"
Sarah raised her left hand, laid a dirty-knuckled glove on Sean's chest.
"I was grabbed," she said, "and I ended up in the dirt. Mr. Llewellyn was beside me when it happened." Sarah looked up at Sean, misery in her face. "When all was done, the fellow who grabbed me had a broken collar bone and some ribs and he was not well at all."
"Oh, lass," Sean rumbled, leaning down and carefully wrapping his arms around her: it is instinctive for a man to want to protect the weak, the young and especially the fair sex, and Sarah was all three: where Sean was taller than the Sheriff, and the Sheriff was six foot two, Sarah was barely five foot two: she shivered a little, there in Sean's fatherly embrace, then she drew back a little and looked up at the great Irish Chieftain.
Sarah whispered, "I wanted to say thank you," then she bolted for the door, pushed hard against the portal, and ran back out to her waiting mare.
Sean blinked, looking after the little whirlwind that was left from the velocity of Sarah's departure.
The Welsh Irishman came into the bay, looking around.
He found his fellows regarding him with approval.
Sean came over, gripped Llewellyn by the shoulders, grinning like he'd been given a hundred dollars.
"Lad," he boomed, "I was right. Ye did well!"

Sarah wished she could tighten her sling a little, for her wounded wing ached: she thought of Daciana's note, she considered her appearance, and her collar bone decided the matter for her.
She can help me take the slack out of this sling.

Daciana smiled as she opened the door, then her eyes fell to the signs of Sarah's struggle and her eyes grew big and concerned.
"Are you hurt?" she asked, pulling Sarah inside: "Did you fall? Did you reinjure?"
Sarah found herself drawn into Daciana's parlor.
"Here. Into the kitchen, I have tea," Daciana said, her accent becoming more prominent. "You did hurt yourself. Sit."
Daciana's fingers were quick, deft as she undid the knot at the back of Sarah's neck : she nodded approval at the folded pad tack-sewn in place to keep the knot from digging into Sarah's hide, then she murmured, "Hold the arm mit der other arm," and she drew the sling away, careful to contain its cargo. She put this on the table.
Sarah opened her mouth to protest, for the sling was somewhat soiled from her having encountered the bare-dirt patch there in the street, and Daciana laid a finger on Sarah's lips.
"Now let's have a look," she said, and Sarah's eyes widened as Daciana quickly, expertly opened the top of her gown: Daciana's eyes glowed and her cool fingers carefully explored Sarah's shoulder, starting at her elbow and moving to midline, then doing the same on her uninjured side.
Daciana nodded.
"Upholding mit der arm," she said quietly, her hands making sure Sarah's left forearm was under her right forearm, that Sarah's left hand cupped her own right elbow: "upholding more," she said, and Sarah lifted just a little, and Daciana gripped her shoulder, twisted very slightly and pulled inward.
Sarah felt a little pop, just a tiny little pop, and her lips tightened.
"Hold, gut," Daciana breathed. "Stillholden mit der arm now."
She turned and picked up a pot of something light green and mint smelling: she carefully, gently worked it into Sarah's skin, her massaging fingers working a magic that penetrated into Sarah's bones.
Sarah closed her eyes and leaned her head back, her lips parting slightly as she gave a groan that was half pain and half utter relief.
Daciana took a young eternity to work her ointment into Sarah: her fingers did not just smooth the herbal on the injured young woman's flesh, it worked it into the dermal depths, explored the muscles, assessed bone and joint and structure and strength, and there was something more ... something more, born of knowledge and seasoned with long practice, and Sarah knew Daciana must know something of injuries and healing.
You idiot, she chided herself, of course she knows those things! She grew up an acrobat, she probably knows more than the Doctor about these things!
Daciana massaged Sarah's shoulder while standing in front of her; she moved to Sarah's right, then behind her; she reached over from in front and though Sarah could not see them, Daciana's eyes were distant as she let her fingers see the collarbone and its healing: Sarah could not see Daciana's nod of approval, but she could hear her voice.
"Now stillholden der arm, I be right back."
Sarah's eyes were closed.
Sarah's shoulder was warm where the herbal ungent was worked into her skin.
She'd clamped her jaw shut against any further utterances, but given her druthers, she would druther have groaned with pleasure and then purred like a belly-rubbed cat.
Sarah smelled something vaguely minty and opened her eyes.
Daciana handed her a teacup.
"Drink," she said, and Sarah drank.
"Mmm," she said, "that's good."
"We wait a few minutes then drink more."
Daciana pulled up a kitchen chair, sat.
"How injured you were first," she whispered, squeezing Sarah's hand.
Sarah blinked, swallowed.
"Face it," Daciana whispered. "Face the fall that hurt you. Only if you face it can you upclimben and grasp the trapeze again."
Sarah blinked at the circus metaphor, but she recognized its truth.
"Kind of like climbing back on the horse that threw you."
"Ja." Daciana nodded.
Sarah swallowed.
"I was mistaken for a murderess," she said, "when I tried on a dancing girl's costume. I was ..."
Sarah closed her eyes.
Daciana's fingers were under her chin.
"At me looken," she whispered. "Here I am. Safe you are. See it you will as a performance, a play, a story in der imagination."
Sarah took a long breath, nodded.
She described running down the hall in the short-skirted outfit, fighting her way through the crush of men, making her desperate way toward the door, toward freedom, toward safety: Sarah's voice was quiet in Daciana's kitchen as she painted the picture of Jackson Cooper's big arm wrapping around her waist and adding to her forward velocity as he put his shoulder into her back and drove her face first into the wall, shaking the building to its foundations and blasting the world from her consciousness with a bright detonation of absolute PAIN.
Daciana nodded, her hands light on Sarah's collar bones.
"You hit more on this side than this," she murmured, "that's why this side separated ... your ribs?"
Sarah nodded. "Hurt," she husked, then cleared her throat, smiled.
"My corset helps."
Daciana nodded, turned: she poured more tea, added something water clear, handed it to Sarah.
"Drink more."
Sarah drank.
This time she recognized liquid lightning, but she knew here it was therapeutic: between the herbs and the distillate, her nerves were calming, the fine tremors she'd felt were diminishing, and she knew the warm glow would spread, and welcome that spread would be.
Daciana's eyes were big and liquid as she looked into the young woman's face: her hand was gentle on Sarah's cheek.
"Strong you are," she whispered, "and beautiful: men will fight for you, and over you."
Sarah shook her head. "Me?" she laughed cynically. "I'm nothing!"
"To me listen," Daciana whispered, and part of Sarah's mind recognized her tactic: by whispering, Daciana was guaranteeing Sarah's undivided attention.
"Important you are and live you must. Much depends on you. Drink."
Sarah took another long drink, handed the empty teacup back to Daciana.
"When you hit -- were you other injured?"
Sarah blinked, raised a hand to her eyebrow.
"Oh, yesss ... undt der cheek bone."
Daciana explored Sarah's bony prominences, drew back as Sarah flinched.
"Ow."
"Bone bruise," Daciana nodded. "This" -- she brushed Sarah's brow lightly -- "has a knot, likely down it will not go."
Daciana's fingertips were light on the sides of Sarah's face.
"Hurt you were but in here," she said, tapping her own breast bone.
Sarah nodded.
"Not the time yet to talk of it, but talk you must. Come to me. I help."
Sarah nodded.
The tea -- and its high octane additive -- were combining to ease the aches of her earlier athletic indiscretion.
"The tea will away taken der pain from inside," Daciana said, her voice soothing, hypnotic: "herbs my Grandmere taught me, help you they will."
"Thank you," Sarah whispered.
Daciana turned and picked up a flannel square, draped it carefully over Sarah's gleaming shoulder: "Protect your gown this will," she murmured, "now home you be going, clean you will getting." She looked at Sarah, and Sarah looked into Daciana's dark eyes, her dark, huge eyes, twin pools of swirling black, and Sarah felt as if she could fall down them, fall down, down --
"Company you will have this night," Daciana said, "and decisions you must make." She squeezed Sarah's hand. "Changes I see, good changes, but changes there must be. Work there is for you, important work, say yes to white whiskers."
"How do you know these things?" Sarah asked, puzzled, as Daciana drew her dress back up into place, fastened it.
"My Grandmere was a fortune teller. Some called her witch. Magick she never taught me, only herbs." Daciana worked a wrinkle out of Sarah's sling. "Perhaps magick is in the blood, eh?" She folded another pad for under the sling-knot. "There. That will make it not hurt."
"Thank you," Sarah murmured, standing: she felt light, as if it took very little effort to stand.
"Do not be fooled," Daciana warned. "Herbs help, yes, but hurt you are. Not to strain der arm, no."
She laid a hand on Sarah's flank, over her injured ribs.
"Your Mother you must thank."
"Mama?" Sarah blinked.
Daciana nodded. "She fed you milk. Milk good for bones ist. Had she not fed milk at every meal your bones --" Daciana snapped her fingers. 'Undt you vould die."
Sarah remembered floating out of Daciana's house; she did not mount Morgaine, so much as she gently hovered off the earth and lowered herself magically into the saddle, slowly, gently, gracefully: as her feet found the stirrups, she asked again, "How do you know these things?"
Daciana laughed. "I am Romany," she said in her delightful accent, as if that explained everything.

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Linn Keller 4-4-12

 

Little Joseph was impatient and squirming at the supper table; not until Jacob took him outside and ran through the back pasture with him, not until Joseph climbed up the rock face and jumped down into the safe and strong arms of dear old Da, not until Jacob took Joseph's ankles in hand and swung him around, horizontal, sailing through the air, squealing with delight, not until Jacob packed Joseph back inside, over his shoulder like a sack of taters and stripped him down and dunked him in the number 2 laundry tub full of steaming warm water, not until Little Joseph goth his belly full, got all tired out and was now warm and relaxed, fell asleep like turning off the gas-valve on a mantle light.
Jacob packed the limp, relaxed little boy off to his bed and threw back the covers with one hand, holding his firstborn with the other (good Lord this boy is getting long! he thought, when did this happen so soon?): sliding the lad into the bunk, drawing up the covers, resting his hand for a long minute or two on the boy's fine, fair hair, Jacob knelt by his son's bunk and marveled at this small perfection before him.
He blinked once or twice as he considered the tiny, perfect, flawless little hand peeking out from under the quilt.
Tiny, he thought.
Flawless.
Perfect.
How did God make something that small and so perfect?

Jacob switched knees and waited another minute, then he stood, turned.
Annette was watching him from the doorway, a gentle smile on her face.
Jacob looked back at Joseph, catfooted over to his wife, walking on the balls of his feet, silent.
They stood in the doorway, watching their son.

Sarah thanked Clark for unsaddling the black mare; her big Snowflake was running along the very rear of the pasture, barely visible in the distance, hard to see against shadow and tree-trunk: Sarah smiled and thought Soon, my dear, soon, and as if divining Sarah's thoughts, the huge Frisian reared and pawed at the air.
Sarah went inside, staggering a little at the happy reception of the twins' collision with her legs: she bent a little and hugged them, one-armed, listening to the tumbling chatter of their happy questions: after the two extorted a promise to read them a story later, they hugged her again and scampered away, giggling.
Smiling, Sarah went slowly upstairs; the maid followed like a ghost, then together they retired to the bath, and Sarah tended her ablutions: she was soon in a clean outfit, and presented herself at the supper table just as the evening meal arrived from the kitchen.
Levi sat at the head of the table, Bonnie at the opposite; Sarah was on one side, with the twins opposite
Sarah sipped delicately at her tea, stopping and closing her eyes, savoring its warmth, its flavor; it was spiced, just the way she liked it, though the spicing was slightly different tonight: the maid worked magic with her tea-spice, and this was one of her better batches.
Sarah drank one-handed, her right arm in the sling.
Bonnie, too, was in a fresh gown, and Levi, as was his custom, in his suit: Sarah made a mental note to thank the man for observing that propriety: by wearing a suit to the supper table, he recognized the importance of the evening meal, eaten together, as a family: it showed respect, respect for Sarah's mother, respect for the family as a whole.
This was an era when children were seen and not heard: the twins were quiet, though bright-eyed and observant.
Prolonged silences were not unusual, and so Sarah took it not amiss that conversation was almost completely absent, at least until Bonnie cleared her throat, delicately, and Sarah's right ear twitched.
She has something on her mind, she thought, recognizing the particular quality of that genteel exercise.
"Sarah," Bonnie said, and Sarah looked up, thinking I knew she was going to say that.
"Sarah, I could not help but notice your sling ... last night you seemed to do so well without it ... is something wrong?"
The twins looked at Sarah, their heads tilted at almost the identical angle.
Sarah looked squarely at her mother.
"I have a confession to make," she said, her eyes big and as innocent as she could manage.
"I was impatient to be normal again, so I tried lifting weights."
Levi snorted in mid-swallow, spilling coffee down his front: he set his cup down and turned, coughing violently.
Bonnie's eyes turned to him with alarm as he seized a napkin and wiped vigorously at his coat. "Swallow, don't inhale," he wheezed, coughing again.
When Levi could breathe without distress, he looked at Sarah, tears bright in his eyes; he pressed the napkin against closed eyelids, blinked again and harrumphed.
"Lifting weights?" he asked, trying to keep his voice steady, but the effort prompted another spasm of coughing, and he addressed himself to his napkin, his face reddening with the effort.
"What's weights?" Polly whispered to her sister.
"It's something grown-up," Opal whispered back, and the two looked at one another and nodded, once, then looked back at Sarah.
"Yes," Sarah said, dropping her head a little. "I understand exercise is good for a healing bone. Stressing the repair strengthens the repair."
Levi traded the maid for fresh linen, folded the new napkin and laid it beside his plate.
The maid had already replaced his cup and saucer; a fresh cup steamed before him.
Levi picked up the cup and took a tentative sip.
"I was using one of the drive wheels from The Lady Esther as the weight, and I'd gotten up to ten presses when I realized I was starting to hurt."
Levi's eyes bulged, his cup clattered to its saucer, sloshing a minor tidal wave of steaming brown Arbuckle's onto the tablecloth: he turned, snatched up the fresh napkin, coughed vigorously into the clutched, wrinkled linen.
Sarah looked at her mother as if nothing were amiss.
"I over-worked my arm and it began hurting. On Dr. Flint's advice I am resting the part, as he put it."
Bonnie nodded slowly.
"You weren't ... involved ... in anything today?" she asked carefully.
Sarah blinked. "Involved?"
"In any ... unpleasantness."
"Mother," Sarah said quietly, "I have known too much unpleasantness in my young life to seek it out. Are you referring to the scoundrel who squeezed my ..." Sarah hesitated, searching for the right term "... my assets?"
"What's assets?" Polly asked out loud.
Levi was in the middle of another tentative sip of coffee.
The cup dropped quickly from his convulsively-opened hand and the maid reached in, caught it, spilling the rest of its contents onto Levi's lap as the man bent forward, muffling his agonies in the stained linen napkin.
"Yes, dear," Bonnie said uncertainly, looking at her husband: Levi stood, shook his head, his face the color of a rotten strawberry: he kept the napkin to his mouth, left the room with what little dignity he could muster, leaving the maid to fuss and worry and replace his chair-cushion as she cleaned up the spillage.
"Yes, dear," Bonnie said faintly.
Sarah placed her free hand in her lap, sat very straight as mashed potatoes and gravy were placed before her.
"Mmm, that smells so good," she murmured.
"Sarah?"
Sarah reached for her fork; at her mother's inquiring tone of voice, her hand stopped.
"Yes, Mother?"
"Sarah, what ... happened?"
Sarah smiled quietly.
"Mother, do you remember that nice man that sent me the Swiss chocolates, Mr. Llewellyn?"
Bonnie nodded, slowly.
The twins looked hopefully at one another.
They liked this Mr. Llewelln, whoever he was, because he sent chocolates, and the twins discovered they had a profound liking for the stuff.
"He and the Irish Brigade had just come into the Jewel. I was leaving and he followed me out. Unfortunately a blaggardy scoundrel was coming in and decided to take a quick grab." Sarah's eyes were pale, though her voice was carefully neutral. "I stopped on the way back from seeing Daciana to thank him."
"To thank him?"
"Yes, Mother." Sarah forked up some fluffy taters, dipped them in the gravy and took a bite. "Oh, that's so good," she murmured, swallowing.
"I stopped and Sean was at the door.
"I'd fallen ... in the excitement I ended up on the ground" -- Sarah made a face -- "and I was in no shape to call on anyone, but there was no help for it, for I felt it proper to thank a chivalrous man who ..."
Sarah willed her face to redden as she looked down at her taters and gravy.
"The scoundrelly rascal had cause to regret his indiscretion," she said slowly. "And I told Sean I wished to speak to him of Mr. Llewellyn, and to thank him for the man's kindness."
"Oh, Sarah," Bonnie whispered. "You fell, you were knocked down, what happened?"
"I have two more people to thank," Sarah said, placing her fork on her folded napkin. Her eyes were modestly lowered to the table and Bonnie marveled at how long and lovely her little girl's eyelashes had become, and she thought I know she's growing but when did that happen?
"Mother, Uncle Linn and Jacob showed me how to fall." She smiled a little, remembering the thick bed of straw they practiced on: throws and trips, shoves and tumbles, and the first time she'd taken her Uncle Papa by his wrist and threw him over her shoulder.
"We practiced falling and how to fall, and how to break a fall and roll out of it.
"Had they not taught me and taught me well, had I not practiced often and well with them, I would have been badly hurt when I flew over the steps in front of the Jewel."
Bonnie's eyes widened with concern; her mouth opened a little.
Sarah raised a finger.
"Most of all, Mother, thank you."
Bonnie blinked, surprised.
"Me?"
Sarah nodded.
"Mother, do you remember you had milk for me at every meal?"
Bonnie looked at the twins.
They were drinking their milk.
"Yes ... yes, I did, sweets."
Sarah looked her Mama square in the face.
"Milk builds bones, Mother. Had you not loved me enough to put milk on the table with every meal, had you not made me a milk drinker, my injuries --"
Sarah stopped, finally realizing the full import of Daciana's observation.
"Mother, my bones would have broken far worse than they did and I would have died."
She swallowed, then shoved her chair back and rose: biting her bottom lip, she walked over to her Mama and hugged her, one-armed.
"Thank you for loving me," she whispered, burying her face in the familiar fragrance of her mother's hair.

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Linn Keller 4-6-12

 

The twins were admonished to behave and be silent; their hair was quickly touched up, the bows at the top of their heads twitched into perfection and symmetry; Sarah submitted silently to the ministrations of mother and maid, and Levi saw to cigars and brandy in Bonnie's office.
I must get that addition built, he thought, smiling a little as he looked around Bonnie's tidy, feminine office.
Levi lowered himself into a padded, upholstered chair, feeling comfortably full, feeling proud ... but apprehensive.
He'd never fully figured Sarah out.
He snorted, smiling ruefully with half his mouth.
Hell, I haven't figured out Bonnie, and I'm going to marry her!
Levi thought of Sarah, and the contradictions she represented ... he'd seen her as a schoolgirl, a child, an incredible young lady; he'd seen her as an accomplished equestrienne, he'd seen her shoot silver dollars out of the air, shoot tin cans off a fence rail at a dead gallop from under a horse's neck, seen her jump her Morgan horse and that monstrous, graceful Frisian that did not run so much as it flowed, as if ... well, it lifted its hooves quickly from the earth, as if disdainful to touch such a common surface, curling its hooves up in a distinctly feminine manner, utterly gorgeous to watch.
Levi sighed.
He considered the fact that he was immersed by an unrelieved sea of femininity, not only in the house but also in the livestock, and then Bonnie appeared in the doorway, and Levi rose.
Maybe being immersed in that ocean isn't so bad, Levi thought, his expression softening as he turned to his fiancee and took both her hands in his.
They stood thus for a long moment, looking into one another's eyes, then a rap on the door and they both blinked.
The maid scuttled briskly down the hallway; they heard the door open, the Judge's voice, and smelled a swirl of cigar smoke.
Opal and Polly came in, solemn and big-eyed, and stood beside Bonnie, and upstairs, they heard Sarah's cane on the floor, and knew she was coming downstairs.
His Honor tilted his head, his eyes narrowing in a smile, the ever present Cuban clamped in his teeth.
"Bonnie," he said without preamble, "do you smoke?"
Bonnie, surprised, looked at Levi, then at the Judge.
"Why ... no, no I don't," she said.
"Mm. Excuse me."
Bonnie looked at Levi; they heard the Judge's retreating footsteps, the front door opened, then shut, and the man returned without the smoldering Havana.
"I won't stink up your house if you don't already," he declared, "but I will take a brandy! And by the way don't move, you two!"
Esther came in behind the Judge, and the Sheriff: Esther was dignified and proper, the Sheriff grinning: he winked at Levi, and Levi slid his hand in his coat pocket.
Bonnie looked at Levi, her expression that of a woman who suspected something is going on, and who had the distinct impression it was going to involve her.
The maid turned the corner, broom in hand, and Sarah descended the stairs, twisted the handle of her sword-cane and brought the blade free with a quick pull.
Polly and Opal took the little baskets the maid handed them, and walked in front of Bonnie and Levi and scattered rose petals in front of them, giggling.
"Part of being Judge means deciding who goes to prison and who dies," Judge Hostetler rasped. "Thank you, my dear," he murmured to the maid, who handed him a snifter of brandy: he took a long drink, sighed, nodded.
"But a delightful part of being Judge is presiding over the union of two people who are best friends and should be husband and wife."
Bonnie's hand tightened on Levi's arm and her mouth fell open: she looked at her husband-to-be and he looked at her with big innocent eyes, eyes that held a mischief, the expression of a schoolboy -- and then he grinned.
Bonnie gave him a smoldering look. "I should spank you," she whispered, and he whispered back, "Later, my love," and Bonnie's face positively flamed.
Esther walked up to Bonnie, laid a gentle hand on her dear friend's cheek, and beamed with a motherly pride.
"Keeper of the Sword," the Judge said, "and Keeper of the Broom."
Sarah stepped up beside Levi, her sword properly laid against her shoulder: the maid stood with the bristle-end up.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here --"
Opal walked up to the Judge and tugged on his pants leg.
The Judge drained the last of the brandy, set the empty snifter on the sideboard, then looked down at the big-eyed little girl, bent and put his hands on his knees: "Did you come to help me, honey?" he asked gently, and Opal giggled, her finger to her mouth, and scampered back behind her Mommy.
The maid drew her gently to the side, back to her twin.
The Judge laughed a little, straightened, cleared his throat.
"Dearly beloved," he began, and Polly asked in a loud voice, "Mommy, you gonna kiss him now?"
At this point everyone went from grinning broadly to outright laughter: the maid bent and whispered to the twins, gave them each a quick touch on their hair, and straightened again.
"Third time's the charm," Judge Hostetler harrumphed.
"Levi."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"It's high time you made this woman your wife. Is it your intent to marry her this day, before these witnesses assembled, to have her and keep her, protect and provide for her, spoil her outrageously and otherwise treat her as a woman of quality deserves to be treated?"
"Yes, sir, I do!"
"Bonnie."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Do you consent to be wed to this long tall drink of water, this city fellow with soft hands and townie shoes, this aggravating pile of walking contradiction that you find at once attractive and aggravating, endearing and infuriating, this man who has to scrape hair off his face with a sharpened blade, this fellow who looks at you with the eyes of a love-sick swain?"
Bonnie turned and looked at Levi, squeezed his arm, then looked back at the Judge.
"Yes," she said decisively. "He is all those things and I love him for it!"
"Keeper of the Sword, step forth."
Sarah took one step forth, slashed her blade down, the up in salute.
"Levi, you stand on the right, symbolically the strong right hand of this union. Your sign is the sword: yours is the office of the protector and provider. Do you accept this office?"
"I do, Your Honor."
"Keeper of the Sword, place the blade."
Sarah laid the blade before Levi, handle at his feet, angling the blade forward and to the side.
"Keeper of the Broom."
The maid handed the broom to Esther; Esther stepped forward, holding the new, unused device before her.
"Bonnie, you stand on the left, symbolically that which is closest to the heart: your sign is the broom, emblematic of home and hearth, of that which is precious to a man and essential to a family.
"Do you accept this office?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Keeper of the Broom, place yours across the sword."
Esther dipped gracefully and formed an X with sword and broom, rose, stepped back.
"Now both of you, turn toward one another and hold both your hands."
They turned; Levi looked over to the Judge, as did Bonnie.
"No, now, look at each other. You're both better looking than I am."
The Judge's voice was gruff but kindly.
The Sheriff was grinning as broad as any two townships in Texas.
"Now we come to the contract, so listen to the terms before you sign anything."
The Judge came forward, reached out and took their grasped hands in his.
"Bonnie, do you take this man whose face you see and whose hands you hold, as your lawful wedded husband --"
"Yes," Bonnie said.
The Judge harrumphed.
"Listen to the fine print first," he admonished.
"Oh, bother the fine print," Bonnie said. "I do."
"Levi."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Do you take this impatient and headstrong woman, whose hands you hold --"
"You're damned right I do!" Levi interrupted, grinning.
Judge Donald Hostetler threw his head back and laughed.
"Then put the ring on her finger, young man, and have done with it!"
Levi released his grip and twisted his hand quickly, a sleight-of-hand move, and opened a black-velvet box with his thumb: he grasped it between thumb and forefinger, shook it, letting the box fall.
"This ring belonged to my mother," he said quietly, "and to her mother before her. I had it sized to the same size as one of your rings."
"Ohhhh," Bonnie whined, her eyes bright and sparkling: Levi slid the ring on her finger, wiggling it a little to get it over the middle joint.
"One thing remains," the Judge said quietly, taking their hands in his and squeezing them, then releasing and stepping back, three paces.
"Walk toward me," he said. "It is time to seal the deal. You will now jump the broom."
Levi and Bonnie looked down at the crossed broom-and-sword, looked at one another ... then, still holding hands, they stepped across the threshold into their married life.

Sarah lay in her bed, warm in flannel and wrapped in a family's love: there were toasts, presents, the twins were each given a single piece of chocolate (and were carefully overwatched by the maid and her damp cloth), and while the happy couple was laughing with Uncle Papa and Aunt Esther, building their air-castles and delighting in the dizzying notion that they were indeed, and finally, man and wife, the Judge drew Sarah aside and spoke quietly with her.
Sarah looked straight up at the ceiling, her mind busy.
He'd given her a letter of introduction to Professor T. Joseph Hunt.
She was going to his Academy in Denver.
He specialized in training detectives and special agents of the day, and he was reputed to be very good at what he did.
Her Uncle Papa came to her and hugged her carefully, and while he had her wrapped in a fatherly embrace, whispered in her ear, "My little girl, I am so very proud of you!" -- and he held her for another long moment, and she realized something hot and wet hit her neck, and she held him, for her own eyes were filling quickly.

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Linn Keller 4-7-12

 

I watched the one-armed fellow for a little.
Things were quiet, thank God, which suited me fine.
At my age, “Quiet and Boring” sounds pretty darn good.
This fellow paid for a nickel beer and was working on the free lunch.
He was trying hard not to look hungry but I figure his back bone had teeth marks on it where his stomach had been a-gnaw at it for some time.
I walked up to him, slow, my own beer in hand.
“Friend,” I said, “I need your help.”
He looked at me with a mixture of suspicion and … well, not despair, but discouragement.
“Yes, sir?” he said politely, his voice surprisingly soft.
I read the marks of outdoor life on his face – though a young man yet, his face was aged some – and his clothes were worn and needed washed, but that can’t be held against a workin’ man … nor against a man with a run of bad luck.
“I’m Sheriff here,” I said, and I saw his eyes change.
Reckon he figured I was going to get all high and mighty with him and run him out of town.
Something told me it’d happened to him before.
“Come on over to my table. You needin’ work?”
He closed his eyes for a long moment, then looked me in the eye.
"I been lookin', Sheriff, but there's not much work for a man with one hand."
I tilted my head and picked up my beer and started across the room.
He followed me over to my corner table and I caught the serving girl’s eye, held up two fingers.
She nodded and headed back towards the kitchen.
“My name’s Keller,” I said, sticking out my left hand.
This surprised him some.
I read someplace left handed folk aren’t common, maybe on in six or eight or somewhere in there, and I know schoolteachers would crack a lefty’s knuckles with her ruler and make them write right-handed.
Me, I always thought that was plain foolishness.
My Pa was left handed, Jacob was left handed, a good many folk I’d known were left handed: most who wrote with their off hand were gifted in some way or another, and I reckoned this fellow needed a hand up.
Especially seein’ that his right hand was missing along with half his forearm.
Too young for the War, I thought. Can’t see the stump for his shirt sleeve. No idea how it happened.
Wasn’t really any of my business, how he lost his arm, but I’m a lawman and curiosity comes natural.
Daisy’s girl come back and set two plates down and two coffees and this fellow’s face fell about three feet.
“Sheriff,” he said reluctantly, “I will not lie to you. I just spent my last five cents so I could work on that free lunch.”
I regarded him levelly.
“You can help save my corroded soul,” I said. “My dear Grandmama allowed as waste was a sin. Here I ordered twice as much as I can eat. If I don’t do somethin’ with it, it’ll go to waste and that’ll make me a sinful man.”
“I ain’t takin’ no charity!” he flared.
“Then take it as a kindness that was give me some years ago, and give it to someone on down the line when you’re better off.” My voice was mild, no need to raise it nor sharpen an edge to it.
The smell of good beef was more persuasive than any half-humorous words I could utter: it was not long before he was shovelin’ groceries into his growlin’ gut … not with the desperate haste of a half starved man, but with a healthy appreciation of a meal too long delayed.
I fed him til he was comfortably full and I was too and we set there a while talking, just talking.
I told him about life back East, runnin’ a trap line as a boy, how I’d been in that damned war and come West after – I skipped over an awful lot there, too many memories – I told him about ridin’ into town on a plow horse and how that was like straddlin’ the kitchen table, and he laughed and nodded and allowed as he’d rode his Granddad’s plow horse when he was a wee lad taking three steps to the yard.
“What brings you out this-a-way?” I asked. “It’s still cold this time of year and you don’t look too well insulated.”
He laughed a little, then sighed.
“I was workin’ for the railroad,” he said. “Brakeman. Lasted two winters.”
“What happened?” I leaned over a little, taking the bend out of my lower back.
“This.”
He held up what was left of his right arm.
“Fell off the roof of a snow-slick box car The fall like to’ve killed me but when I hit I threw my arms out to stop my fall and this” – he looked ruefully at his foreshortened forearm – “I landed wrong and it got run over.”
“Oh good Lord,” I murmured.
He give kind of a sad little laugh.
“I said that too, and some things not fit for the Almighty’s ears,” he nodded, his expression saddening. “’Course the railroad didn’t have no use for a one armed brakeman. Nor a one armed anything else. They give me ten dollars and said get off their train, unless I could pay full fare, which of course I could not.” He looked at his empty plate. “Since then it’s been pillar to post, cadging a meal as best I could and going hungry most of the time.”
I nodded. “You lookin’ for work?”
“I’d like to,” he said faintly. “Don’t seem to be much for a man with one hand.”
“What work have you done?”
“Punched cattle for a while. When the railroad came along I thought, ‘Cattle come and cattle go but that railroad will be here forever,’ so I hired on there.”
I nodded. “What did you do before you rode for the brand?”
He looked away and I knew it was a sore point.
“I was a bookkeeper for my father.”
“Have a fallin’ out?”
He nodded.
“Any goin’ back?”
He shook his head, reached into his coat and pulled out an envelope edged in black.
He didn't quite sigh but I saw his shoulders raise slow as he took a long breath, and he stared at that envelope, then he very carefully put it away.
“No, sir, not now.”
I considered for a moment.
“Do you reckon to be in town for a day or two?”
“Sheriff,” he said, “I don’t have anyone in this world and I don’t have anywhere to go. Matter of fact I could likely hole up and smile for two days on this belly full you just give me.”
“If a man’s going to look for work he’d ought to look respectable,” I said. “Why don’t you go upstairs and get yourself a bath, we’ll see about gettin’ you some clean duds and you’ll have supper with me afterward.”
He picked up his coffee, drank it slowly, a man thinking over what looked too good to be true.
“Sheriff,” he said, “I can’t pay you.”
“Don’t recall askin’ for pay.”
“You’d do that for a stranger?”
“A stranger done it for me.”
He took a long breath, looked away, swallowed.
“This ain’t what I expected,” he admitted quietly.
“I’m just plumb full of surprises,” I said. “Now why don’t we drift on over to Tillie’s counter yonder, we’ll get you that room and I’ll arrange for the ladies to get you somethin’ clean to wear.”

Morgana paced alongside Snowflake, whinnying: Sarah laughed from atop the big Frisian: “Morgaine, you’re jealous!”
The Morgan mare looked up at her, ears up at the sound of Sarah's voice.
Sarah’s arm was in a sling again. Her shoulder ached abominably after her exertional indiscretions, there at the Silver Jewel; the good effects of Daciana’s ungent lasted only so long, and Sarah was damned if she was going to take any more of that awful tasting laudanum – she would rather hurt than have her belly roll over and rebel the way it did when she took the opiate painkiller, and she well knew the danger of the brandy-bottle.
No, best grit her teeth and let it hurt.
I earned it, she thought ruefully, I may as well enjoy it!
Sarah leaned a little in the saddle, her knees conveying her wishes as clearly as reins and bit could: Snowflake turned in a big circle and Sarah eased her into an easy run, Morgaine hustling to keep up.
There was a sense of utter power to riding this big horse that she’d never experienced before.
Sarah had ridden fast horses, Sarah had ridden spirited horses, Sarah delighted in riding cutting horses that could spin on a dime and cut change with their hooves, but never, never! had she ridden a horse that felt like such raw power!
Sarah’s laugh floated in the wind behind her, like a silk scarf falling from a damsel’s hair.

“Do you suppose she will accept, Levi?”
Levi’s arm was around Bonnie’s waist; she was warm against his side as they watched from the porch, warm and real and solid, the way a woman ought to be.
“She will accept,” he said quietly, the precision of his syllables betraying his agent's heritage. “But not right away.”
Bonnie looked up at her husband, studying his face.
Levi's eyes were distant, watching Sarah, in the far pasture; Bonnie saw a softness in his eyes, a look of concern for one of his own he’d known far too short a time, and who was readying to leave already.
“She will want to think about it and study it all out, she will sleep on it and I will bet good money she will be talking with the Sheriff before the day’s out.”
Bonnie hesitated.
“I don’t know if I want her to go,” Bonnie admitted, her words slow, hesitant.
“Oh?” Levi looked down at Bonnie’s worried face.
Bonnie's arm tightened around her husband's ribs.
“She’s so young, Levi. She’s been through so very much. This soon after being hurt …"
Bonnie looked up at her husband, her eyes worried.
"I don’t think this is the time.”
Levi nodded slowly.
“Let’s see what happens, shall we?”
Bonnie sighed, hugged her husband, her face turned and her left ear laid against his chest.
“She’s my little girl,” she whispered. “I don’t want to lose her!”


A howl of protest, more of a protest at bruised dignity than any actual pain, came from the parlor: there was another cloth-muffled whack, and Joseph’s young voice rose to an amazing soprano: somewhere outside, a wolf howled in reply, its echo far more musical than the pained production of the parent’s paddled prodigy.
Joseph ran, crying, around the corner and into the kitchen, holding his arms out: his face was red, wet, wrinkled up, he was crying, howling his distress, wanting to be held and mothered.
Annette did neither.
Folding her arms, she asked in a serious Mommy-voice, “Joseph, what did you do?”
Joseph’s reply, of course, was unintelligible, owing to the grief-set of his facial muscles; Jacob, however, offered the answer.
He came around the corner behind little Joseph, a parlor chair in one hand, a knife in the other: he turned the chair to reveal a little boy’s first experimental whittle-marks on the good furniture.
Annette's mouth opened, dismay almost displaced by amusement: she stifled the smile and substituted sternness.
“Joseph, did you cut on my chair?” Annette asked in her I’m-the-mommy-and-you’re-in-trouble voice.
Little Joseph managed to howl an agonized “Nnoooooo,” just before she bent him over her aproned thigh and added the flat of her hand to his backside, three times, the sound loud in the kitchen: she took the wailing child by the shoulders and held him in front of her face.
“Joseph Keller,” she said sternly, her voice sharp: it cut through his consciousness and he stopped his histrionics, wet eyes wide with surprise.
“That was for lying to me,” she said sternly: she shook her Mommy-finger in his face and continued, “Don’t you EVER lie to me again, young man!” – and she swatted his bottom once more for emphasis.
“Now go stand in that corner and don’t you dare move!”
Jacob turned the chair over, assessing the damage; he ran his fingers over the gouges and whittles, and looked up at Annette.
He watched little Joseph waddle reluctantly to the designated corner, rubbing his disabused backside with both hands and alternately sniveling and wailing his distress.
“Was I ever one of those?” he asked innocently, and Annette saw the sparkle of mischief in his eyes.
“Jacob Keller, you were probably worse!” Annette scolded, picking up a warm light roll and heaving it at him.
Jacob caught it, took a bite, winked. “I’ll see you later, Mrs. Keller, I’m going to go get this fixed!”
“Jacob Keller, you get back here –“ SLAM! and the front door shut.
Annette looked at little Joseph, who was hazarding a look over his shoulder.
Upon seeing that he’d been caught, he turned his face quickly into the corner and began wailing, again, picking up where he’d left off a moment before.

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Charlie MacNeil 4-7-12

 

Charlie had kept a low profile since delivering his prisoner to the Sheriff, spending the time since catching up on the news of the town. Not the news that might have made a paragraph or two in a small town newspaper; instead he was more interested in the underlying currents, the small items that on their own hook didn't really have much meaning to anyone at all. No, what he was interested in were the common threads that wove themselves through incidents big and small and made up the warp and weave of the town's fabric.

Consequently, the ex-Marshal knew about the Welsh Irishman's infatuation with Sarah, he heard the stories going about that told of Sarah acquiring the great black man-killing horse, and much else that had been happening. His informants were those normally dismissed as insignificant by the general run of townsfolk: the town drunks, such as they were; those boys who, when not in school, stuck their small snouts into cracks and crevices to satisfy their insatiable curiosity; anyone who might have some tidbit of information that they thought he might be interested in; he talked to them all. When he was satisfied that he had it all, he saddled the roan, put a halter and lead on Starret's buckskin mare, and took the trail that led home via the road to Casa McKenna.

One might ask, "Why was Charlie leading Starret's mare? Was he stealing the horse? A former officer of the law? How could this be?" And the answer one would receive would be simple: Hardly. Charlie was not a thief. Instead, after a brief heart-to-heart with the accused, which will here go unrecorded, Charlie had left the jail with a bill of sale for one buckskin mare. It was Charlie's feeling that, with the expenditure of a bit of feed, the mare would make a fine broodmare.

Now Charlie found himself sitting outside the fence of the McKenna horse pasture, admiring Sarah's riding skills as well as her means of transport. He'd already seen and approved of the Morgan; his attention now was totally centered on the Frisian. He'd seen but one or two such in his life, and none so fine as the one in front of him.

After a few minutes Sarah noticed him sitting there, arms crossed on the saddlehorn as he had been in the street the day he'd brought Starret in. Snowflake floated toward the fence then oozed to an effortless halt across the palings from the girl's adopted uncle. "That's a pretty big pony horse you've got there, girl," Charlie commented drily. "I hear you stuck a blade up the owner's snoot to make him turn loose of her."

"I did not stick it up his nose!" Sarah protested. "It was under his chin, and I only did it because he tried to cheat me!"

"And you lost your temper, too, did you not?" Charlie's tone, hard and level now, the words, spoken precisely and crisply, wiped Sarah's face clean of expression. Charlie went on inexorably, "I believe we discussed just that sort of thing when you were at the ranch? How you can never allow emotion to enter into such an encounter? How your skills, your talents, your strength, must always be kept under the tightest rein, lest they, accidentally, harm the innocent?"

"But he wasn't innocent..." Sarah began.

"Was he guilty of anything requiring bloodshed as recompense?" Charlie broke in.

"No, sir," she answered softly, crestfallen, her eyes on her fingers where they clutched the reins.

"Then why?"

"I wanted the horse, and he was going to take advantage of me because I'm young, and female. And he was going to kill the horse." She locked her eyes with his. Her voice rose. "He was going to kill the horse!"

"Sarah," Charlie's tone softened, "I know about the dreams."

Sarah stared at him, stunned. "How could you know?" she whispered. "How could you know?"

"Just trust me, girl," he answered. "Those dreams are going to lead you to places that won't be pleasant. Far from it. But they will also lead you to a life of service that will be as fulfilling as anything you could ever do. Follow where the dreams lead, girl. But don't let them rule you; you have to rule them. If you don't, they will instead destroy you." He paused and their eyes locked once more. "You're going away soon. Mind what those who will teach have for you. It will stand you in good stead for the future."

"But how do you know all this?"

"Hey, come on, I'm an old, nosy guy. I have knowledge beyond the ken of most mortals." He gave her a toothy grin. "Now, what are my chances for some coffee before I hit the trail for home?"

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Linn Keller 4-8-12

 

Sarah lay awake long into the night.
Her world was about to change and in a big way.
The Academy … she knew it by reputation, Levi spoke of it on occasion … he’d trained there, as had several men he respected … he spoke well of the training it provided, preparing aspiring lawmen to be detectives, investigators, agents …
Sarah knew her path was not that of a young woman of wealth and privilege: hers was the legacy of the badge, a rare pursuit for a female in that era: she recognized her youth and her inexperience, but at the same time she recognized her strengths and her skills.
Sarah was not afraid of furthering her education; rather, she was considering the fact that she would have to live in Denver for the duration of her matriculation.
Sarah turned her thoughts away from the Academy and toward her Uncle Charlie’s recent visit.
Her Uncle Charlie was right, she knew … part of her was irritated, not quite angry but close to it.
Sarah seized this realization mercilessly, sinking her claws into it to prevent its escape, and looked closely and squarely at her own feelings.
Why am I angry? she thought, inspecting herself as if inspecting a stranger.
Because Uncle Charlie chastised me?
She took a long breath, blinked in the moonlit darkness.
No.
Because he’s right.
I presented deadly threat when I put a blade to his chin.
He did nothing to threaten my life.
I was wrong.

Sarah grimaced at the bitter taste of truth.
I could have taken my case to the law …
But Snowflake would be dead!
"A horse’s life, versus a man’s."

The voice was not hers … it was Judge Hostetler’s, and she could almost see his calm, penetrating eyes.
Her mind scurried left, scuttled to the right, seeking an excuse, a refuge, some pretense that would bolster her side of the argument.
There was none.
I was wrong.
Uncle Charlie was right to call me on that.

Sarah’s left hand tightened into a fist, then her right, and her jaw tightened.
The dreams … I knew about Snowflake without hearing about her, without seeing her, I rode her before ever did I see her…
How did he know?

Sarah considered the question, then dismissed it.
Unimportant, she thought.
What was it Uncle Papa said?
“I’m a lawman. I find things out.”

She smiled a little, remembering his arms around her, his whispered words of approval.
I am very proud of you.
Remembering his words was like feeling his arms around her again.
If I cannot contain my temper …
I allowed it to rule me.

Sarah considered her skills, her abilities.
I could cause great harm.
Uncontrolled – undisciplined – I could cause my own destruction … but how many others would I harm?
Do I dare follow this dream?
Uncle Charlie’s words … are they sufficient …?
No.
They are not.
Nothing he does can stop me if I go rogue.
Only I can stop me.

Perhaps for the first, the very first time in her young life, Sarah realized – truly, deeply, irrevocably – the weight of genuine responsibility.

“Maude,” the Sheriff asked, turning his head just a little as if to bring his good ear to bear, “are … you sure about that?”
Maude smiled, that gentle smile for which she was well known, and – uncharacteristically – she raised a gentle hand to caress the Sheriff’s cheek.
“WJ thought so very much of you,” she said in a grandmother’s affectionate manner: “and I trust you.”
The Sheriff nodded.
“Then I accept … but a verbal contract is not worth the paper it’s not written on.” He stuck out his elbow. “Madam, would you do me the honor of walking with me?”
Maude smiled and took the Sheriff’s arm.
“Mac,” the Sheriff said, “can you hold down the fort? I’m gonna make off with your boss for a little.”
“Bring her back before moonset, young man,” Mac said, grinning, “and nothing funny, hear?”
Maude and the Sheriff both laughed.

Ross Ricketts finished his breakfast, marveling at his change of fortunes.
He’d spent the last cent he had to his name, figuring it was the last meal he would have in who knows how long, only to have the Sheriff take a liking to him – why, he’d never know – but so far he’d gotten supper, a bath, and now breakfast, he got a clean bed with no bugs, a new set of clothes, and the promise of help getting work.
I don’t know what I did right, Lord, he thought, but let me keep on a-doin’ it!

Little Joseph wiggled in protest as Annette made sure his ears were clean: his twists and pull-aways were fruitless, as her grip on his arm was inescapable.
Annette had bathed little brothers and knew how to keep a wiggling pink frog in hand while she made very sure he was clean.
“You must look presentable for church in the morning,” she said.
“Idawanna!” he protested, and Annette smothered his protest with a wet washrag as she scrubbed his mobile, apple-cheeked face.
“Your Papa took a bath and he didn’t holler!” Annette scolded. “You need to behave like a big boy!”
“Idawanna!”

Bonnie stopped to chat with Tilly.
The twins didn’t.
The twins moved with the swiftness and silence of the young, heading back to the only occupied table in the Jewel that fine morning.
Ross lowered his coffee cup to find two sets of curious eyes solemnly regarding him.
He blinked, set the cup on its saucer.
“Good morning,” he said.
The twins smiled, tilted their heads a little and chorused “Hello!”
Polly blinked, her brows quirking a little.
“What happened to your hand?” she asked with the innocent directness of a little child.
Surprised, Ross looked at his stump.
“Oh darn,” he said. “I must have lost it.”
“Can we help you find it?” Opal asked.
Bonnie came back, shooing the twins away: “I do apologize,” she said, embarrassed: “I should have stopped them,” and Ross smiled gently.
“Ma’am,” he said, rising politely, “if the Lord said to suffer not the little children, how can I say anything but?”
Bonnie smiled her thanks: with a little girl’s hand in each of her own, she made her way across the room and upstairs.
Ross looked after them, his smile a little sad, for he remembered his own little sister, and how she sounded so much like these two.

The Frisian mare reared, pawing at the air with eager forehooves: its rider, in a black-silk battle-gown, raised her silver-headed lance and screamed defiance.
The bear-sized hell-dog at her side bayed his savage challenge, his very voice promising bloody fangs.
The sun was red, red and low, casting blood-fires across the black plain, rippling living crimson flame along the Frisian’s sculpted flanks.
Sarah’s eyes were pale, cold, and her heart sang power, sang all the dark strength of anger, anger like coals shoveled on the blast-fired furnace of her temper.
Sarah shook her lance, her own scream joining with that of her mare, and she leaned forward, bringing the tapered lance down, couching it under her arm, leaning forward in the saddle, preparing to drive the combined weight of horse and rider through the straight-grained shaft and into the leaf-shaped point.
Sarah bathed her heart in power, she drank power, she was intoxicated with power, dizzying herself with her own dark strength.
She drew massive and unrealized energies from the darkness of her own temper and she liked it.
She LIKED it!!!

“You know,” the Sheriff said as he turned back the bedcovers and sat down on his side of the bed, “I’m looking forward to morning.”
Esther was finished braiding her red hair for bed: she smiled, turned her own covers back and slid into the bunk.
“Why is that?” she asked quietly.
The Sheriff lay down beside his wife, sighed.
“Feels good to lay down,” he murmured.
Esther rolled over on her side, throwing a flannel sleeved arm across the Sheriff’s chest.
“I asked you a question.”
“Because,” he whispered, his lips inches from her ear, “I get to hold hands in church.”
Esther laughed.
“You flirt!”

Black silk floated in the air behind her and black fires flowed along the Frisian’s flanks as Sarah charged across the blood-fire plain, her teeth bared, her nostrils wide, her eyes pale, her young, strong body tightening for the impact –
The lance was level, aimed at the heart of the standing figure ahead –
The figure raised his head, looked at her –
Sarah sat bolt upright, terrified, cold sweat beaded up on her skin: her eyes were wide, darting, her breath came quick, shallow: she was in her own bed, in her own home, under her own roof: it took long minutes to calm her hammering heart, to slow her fear-pumping breath, to quit shivering.
She fell back, limp, exhausted, as if she’d just run ten miles: her eyes were wide as she looked at herself.
He knows about the dreams, she thought.
Now I know how, and why.
He knew,” she whispered, and shivered.
“Go to sleep,” she whispered.
Sarah willed herself to relax.
I need to get to sleep, she thought, or I’ll be in fine shape to sing in church tomorrow.

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Linn Keller 4-8-12

 

Maude managed to coax one blood-red rose into bloom.
The single rose lay on the altar that Easter morn; lilies had not yet been imported from southern Japan, and so a black silk drape over the arms of the altar cross were the only decoration the little whitewashed church.
Church was full, for it was Easter morning: the populace wore the best they had, not to show off for one another, not to trot out their wealth, but rather to show their respect for the Almighty.
The church was as simply constructed as the schoolhouse, just a big empty box -- well, big isn't the right word: it was big enough for the area, it was full today, but there was no choir loft, for instance, nor was there a balcony: it was built like the old New England meeting-house: functional, minimal, but adequate.
Coincidence sat Sarah and Bonnie and the twins in the same row as Lightning and Daciana: Jacob and Annette and little Joseph were in the row behind, with his father and mother and his big-eyed little sister: there was a little room before the altar rail, and here the children's choir gathered.
Mrs. Parson worked with the children since their Christmas cantata, coaching them, directing them, preparing them for their presentation: Annette rose with the children, making her way to the piano, while Little Joseph settled comfortably into his Pa's lap: the lad was content to sit thus for about thirty seconds, then he began to wiggle and twist, and the Sheriff, with a grandfather's instinct, turned around and gave young Joseph a stern look.
Little Joseph giggled.
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow and sneered up one corner of his mouth.
Little Joseph laughed.
Jacob stood and handed his bubbling boy to the Sheriff, who sat the lad on his own lap and wrapped his arms around him: Joseph cuddled into ol' Gwampa and sighed contentedly.
The service started as it always did, with a hymn and a greeting, then everyone sat again and the children came forward and sang: their high,pure voices were fit and proper for Easter morning, and when the little flock scampered and giggled their way back to their parents' pews, Parson Belden said, "We will now have the solo," and Sarah stood.
Instead of stepping to the front of the church, she rested her fingertips on the pew in front of her: she squared her shoulders, took a deep, diaphragmatic breath, opened her mouth ... and a man's explosive sneeze echoed in the reverent silence, followed by a stifled cough and the sound of shuffling feet.
Laughter rippled through the church, and Sarah bowed her head, smiling: it wasn't the start she'd hoped for, and Bonnie saw her daughter's back shiver a little, and she knew her daughter was containing her own laughter.
"Let's try this again!" she declared, and took another long breath.
Sarah's solo was a capella, without accompaniment; Annette turned around on her piano bench, facing the singer instead of her keyboard: Sarah sang the first verse of the hymn all knew and loved, her voice high and pure like a circling dove.
When she came to the end of the first verse, Daciana and Annette both stood, and sang the chorus with her.
Annette sang the harmony, and Daciana, the descant: this was unexpected, but their voices blended perfectly, like mountain streams converging and running in bright and liquid accord in the sunlight.
Daciana sang the second verse, sang in her native Romanian: her voice was higher than Sarah's, lighter, just as lovely; she soared higher, the dove-wings of her notes glowing like porcelain in sunlight, and again the three sang their chorus together: Annette sang the final verse in French, her contralto and her lower register at a most pleasant contrast to the high soprano that immediately preceded.
The three sang the chorus together, Sarah in her native tongue, Daciana in Romanian and Annette in French, the different languages blending and melding in a flawless harmony: their voices rose in power, the final, triumphant note cut off cleanly, perfectly, echoing for a moment in the little church: then each sat, slowly, with dignity, as if what they'd done was the most natural thing in the world.

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Charlie MacNeil 4-8-12

 

And indeed it was, for the Lord's loving hand was on all and sundry that Easter morn as they celebrated the death and resurrection of the Savior, He who gave all that we might live a bountiful life in His love.

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Linn Keller 4-9-12

 

"Mommy?"
"Yes, sweets?"
"Howcome for why cause Maude puttada white silkie onnada cross?"
The Sheriff grinned at Angela's excited, curious voice.
Esther explained about the Resurrection, how the black silk represented the darkness of the Tomb, and was exchanged for the pure white silk of Life.
"Oh," Angela said, as if that explained everything: then, "Mommy, whatsa tomb?"

Maude hung back, staring at the single red rose on the altar.
"WJ," she breathed, "I miss you."
For a moment, for just a moment, she almost -- almost! -- felt his hands on her shoulders, giving her that one gentle squeeze from behind, the way he used to ... that quiet, personal signal that said "I love you" without words.
Maude closed her eyes and remembered, and put her kerchief to her nose.
She'd kept it in the drawer with his things, with his soap, and it smelled of him.

Little Joseph happily rode his Grampa's lap, looking around with a big grin and bright eyes until halfway through the service, then he fell sound asleep and stayed that-a-way in spite of ol' Gwampa standing twice, holding the lad in his arms as hymns were sung and prayers were said.
Normally on the way out of church the Sheriff would have shaken many hands and talked much good talk, but on this occasion, with an armful of grandboy, winks and grins sufficed: as a matter of fact, it was the fastest he'd ever gotten out of a Sunday service.
He'd carried the relaxed, comfortable lad out to Jacob's carriage and handed him up to Annette, who wrapped him in the blanket and held him close to her: she mouthed "Thank you," and Jacob grinned, touched his hat brim, then flipped the reins and they headed for their stone house on the mountainside, where it would take but little to get Easter dinner on the table.

The black Morgan whinnied greeting from the other side of the whitewashed board-and-post fence, pacing the carriage as the family arrived home.
Sarah regarded the mare critically, noting her fur was starting to patch out.
"Spring's a-comin'," she heard her Uncle Papa's words in her mind, and she smiled, thinking that brushing out Morgaine -- and Snowflake! -- would be a good way to restore some strength to her arm, and endurance to her shoulder.

Sean and the Irish Brigade laughed with rough good-fellowship the way they always did, all but the Welsh Irishman, who was remembering the angel's voice that stung his eyes and melted his heart there in church: his eyes were far away, his thoughts elsewhere, so much so that he ran into the edge of the open door, at which point his thoughts returned with a pained abruptness to the here-and-now.
Daisy and the Irish young joined the Brigade at the long firehouse table, but not before she seized the Welsh Irishman by the shirt front and dragged him over to the sink, where she put a cold, wrung-out dishrag over his nose and bade him hold it, and placed a folded, cold and wrung-out dishrag across the back of his neck, until his nose stopped bleeding.
Sean said the blessing, heartfelt but brief, for none there wanted to wait until the gravy was cold: all chorused a hearty "Amen!", except for the poor fellow at the end of the table, still holding a cold damp rag to his pained proboscis ... his response was a very subdued, "Ahbed!"
The man's nose definitely suffered the ill effects of colliding with the stout oak door.
His appetite, however, suffered not.

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Linn Keller 4-10-11

 

Sarah spent the week in a whirlwind of activity.
She disappeared daily into Daciana's spacious barn, she and the Morgan horse; the door shut behind her and none could see within: when she came out, her face was red, her clothes damp and her expression was one of someone who'd just pushed through something she thought formerly not possible: Daciana, too, wore the complexion of someone in good health and the pleased expression of someone who finally had an exercise partner, someone with whom to swing kettlebells, practice falls and tumbles, kicks, punches and grapples: the thick sawdust and straw padded falls and muffled the sound of their landing.
Daciana taught Sarah how to land, how to roll or tumble on landing, dissipating the shock of the fall by redirecting its motion.
Sarah saw all this as the logical extension of what Charlie and Fannie, Jacob and her Uncle Papa had carefully taught her thus far: she still had to be careful of her shoulder, but it was less fragile and hurt less for the work she put into it: days became a week, two weeks, currying her horses, riding, practicing with her sword-cane, the sheath firmly in place to increase its weight and thus the effort needed to wield it.
Sarah built into all this gradually.
Daciana had to caution her several times not to go so fast, not to go so hard, not to push herself so excessively: on one such occasion, Sarah, red-faced and breathing hard from hoisting, curling and pressing a twenty-pound kettlebell in each hand, brought them both down to shoulder height, spun them around, lowered them to the ground and glared at the slender, smooth-muscled circus performer.
"I have to push," she said quietly. "I have to exceed. I don't have much time."
"You have less time if you reinjure," Daciana said quietly.
Both ladies were stripped down to their frillies, stockings and canvas-and-rubber tennis shoes: Daciana reached suddenly forward, seized Sarah and fell back, thrusting with her feet, shoving Sarah high in the air, flipping her as she fell back: Sarah went with the flip -- she did not pull away, she did not fight it, she embraced the unexpected move, tucked, rolled in mid-air, landed on her feet: she spun, hands up, bladed, ready to strike or deflect.
Daciana was off the ground in a moment: she pushed up with all fours, like a cat, came upright, nodding.
"You haff learndt," she said, approval in her voice. "Goot. If you vere a man you vould be on de groundt yet."
Sarah laughed, and Daciana with her.
"Come. Ve haff tea undt I haff vasser varm," and she added something, Sarah couldn't tell quite what -- it sounded almost Spanish, and Sarah's ear twitched, for it seemed so close to something she should be able to understand.
"I am sorry," Daciana smiled. "I get excited und speak Romanian."
"It's all right," Sarah said quietly.
"I speak many langwiches," Daciana said as they went into the house. "Zirkus life" -- she shrugged -- "in Europe ve played in a different country each veek, undt I grew up speakink sefferal langwiches."
"I envy you that," Sarah admitted.
"Now off mit der sawdust und help mit der vasserhotten, ve must get you ..."
Daciana closed one eye, considered Sarah's figure.
"Vas ist der ... ummm ... oh, der Sheriffz" -- her hand spun as she sifted her memory for the phrase -- "he saidt 'Clean and sweet smellin'", and Daciana's imitation of the greying old lawman's voice made Sarah throw her head back and laugh with delight.
"That sounds just like him!" she exclaimed, clapping her hands in approval.
They two spent many such days together.
Sarah never tried throwing knives before and found it difficult at first, but she learned: she was not as good as she would like, but she was as hard headed and contrary as her Uncle Papa, and Daciana saw her improve steadily, until finally Daciana brought out Buttercup and said, "Follow me," and, standing in her trick saddle, rode Buttercup around the exercise ring, throwing knives into the target butt as they came to bear.
Sarah followed on Morgaine, much more than grateful she'd taught the black Morgan to respond as well to knees as to reins: unlike Daciana, she did not stand in the saddle, but she did stand in her stirrups, and enjoyed a surprising success.
That evening, when she got home, Sarah disappeared upstairs: Bonnie saw she was tired, but it was a good tired, and her color was better than it had been in some time: when Sarah came down, she wore her gunbelt and the engraved Colt her Uncle Papa had custom made for her, and its twin on the opposite hip; she carried a wooden carton under her off arm and swept out the front door, obviously on a mission.
Bonnie sighed patiently.
She'd wanted to talk to Sarah about her upcoming move to Denver, and how this would actually be of benefit to Bonnie's showing her gowns for the buyers, as they did periodically: but for the moment, Bonnie was not displeased, for it had been too long since Sarah took pistol practice, and Bonnie knew how much Sarah loved to shoot.
Not long after, they heard the sharp little crack of Sarah's blackpowder .22 loads, and they knew she was tossing up aerial targets and dusting them before they hit the ground, or setting up tin cans and having at them.
They had no idea she was also getting both the Morgan horse and the Frisian mare used to gunfire, but gradually, from a good distance at first, with unnecessary rub-downs and comb-outs between sessions, feeding them bribes and murmuring quietly to them, Sarah got them to associate the sharp, abrupt sound with Sarah's presence and her reassurance.

Jacob patiently, carefully, smoothed and sanded the gnawed and hacked chair leg, then its companion: he managed to shape them both into symmetry, and when he was satisfied with his re-contouring, he wiped them free of dust with a damp rag and dipped a brush into a freshly mixed batch of shellac.
He remembered Maude mixing it for him, explaining how the resin came from a mysterious place across the ocean called "Araby" and telling him she used the Daine boys' product as a solvent -- but only the stuff they considered unfit for human consumption.
Curious, Jacob took a sip from the jug Maude poured it from; he honestly could not tell this unfit product from their usual brand of distilled knockemstiff: he was, however, content to take their word, for they were experts at their craft, and Jacob well knew the folly of the layman telling the professional how to do his work.
Jacob brushed the shellac onto the wood, lightly, letting it soak in; he would let it dry for a day before sanding it again, then he would varnish it: the wood's natural color needed no stain.
Little Joseph, having been educated as to the folly of his actions, did not repeat the experience: instead of finding a knife and addressing the furniture, he quietly considered other ways to get into mischief, and like any normal little boy, he succeeded.

Lightning came home, striding up the street with his usual long-legged pace: Daciana regarded his slender frame as a challenge, and resolved to put some meat on her skinny husband's bones; consequently, when he came through the door, the first thing that met him was the good smell of Daciana's cooking.
The second thing was Daciana herself.
As his wife molded herself into him, and his lips met hers, as he smelled her soap and her scent, as her mouth received his and as her hands busied themselves at the back of his neck and elsewhere, he considered that perhaps his appetite was for something more than supper.
Whether it was because of Daciana's healthy, exercise-induced glow, or whether it was because Lightning was young and vigorous and loved his wife dearly, who is to say: we will discreetly observe that the young married couple did have supper, but not until after a lengthy session of additional exercise, which met with their mutual and heartfelt approval. and which left them both sweating a little, and glowing with satisfaction.

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Linn Keller 4-11-11

 

"Come on in, Jacob."
Jacob hesitated, seeing his Pa with his feet kicked up on the desk, leaned back in his chair and his hat down over his face.
Jacob closed the door quietly and regarded his father with a puzzled look.
"Have a set. You look puzzled."
Jacob walked catlike as he usually did, over to a chair, and set himself down.
"How did you know it was me, sir?"
"With my hat down like this?" the Sheriff asked, pushing the brim up with a forefinger.
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff winked at his eldest son.
"Why, didn't you know?" he asked, grinning a little. "I'm psychotic. I mean psycyhic!"
Jacob's brows puzzled together a little, but his only reply was a quiet voiced, "Yes, sir."
The Sheriff straightened his chair, thumping his feet to the floor and leaning his left forearm on the edge of the desk.
"Seen Sarah?"
"No, sir, not today."
"She'll be along," the Sheriff said confidently.
"The prisoner, sir?" Jacob asked, thrusting his chin toward the hallway back into the cell block.
"Gone. They come and got him this mornin'."
Jacob nodded. "I could've been close by," he said, stopping just short of suggesting he should have been standing by.
"Oh, if you'd been needed, I would have hollered, don't you worry about that."
The Sheriff worked his left shoulder, grimaced.
"Maybe I should have," he admitted.
There was a knock on the door before the door swung inward.
Sarah peeked around the edge of the tight, heavy planks.
"Been expecting you, dear heart. Grab a set but I cain't recommend the coffee."
Sarah batted bright-blue eyes, closed the door and seized a chair from its place against the wall, left-handed: her right arm was in a sling, as it usually was when she was in town.
She glared as Jacob opened his mouth.
"Yes I over did it, so don't ask," she snapped, then looked down, ashamed. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
The Sheriff rose, laid the backs of his fingers gently against her cheek, then across the nape of her neck.
"Well, you got the sawdust out," he murmured.
Sarah blinked, surprised.
"How did --?" she began.
The Sheriff's expression was almost innocent.
"I'm a lawman," he said.
"And you find these things out, I know," Sarah finished for him.
Jacob shook his head.
"Does mind readin' run in the water or haven't I been payin' the preacher enough?" he muttered.
Sarah and the Sheriff both looked at Jacob, then at one another.
The Sheriff's finger tips were gentle as he pressed against the back of Sarah's upper arm: he frowned a little, nodding.
"How did it go?"
Sarah settled into her chair, swinging her skirt expertly as she did so.
The Sheriff turned and paced slowly back to his own chair.
Sarah and Jacob shared a concerned look as the Sheriff's weight came slowly, gently down into his chair.
"What?" he asked. "Did you expect me to go over on my back again?"
"Yes, sir," came the chorused reply.
"Hm." The Sheriff frowned, or tried to: it was impossible to look cross, at least in this moment, with his children present.
Sarah was obviously thinking hard about something: she looked down at the tips of her fingers, just peeking around the neatly-hemmed edge of her sling.
"When do you leave for the Academy?" Jacob asked, leaning forward and resting his forearms on his knees.
Sarah opened her mouth, looked big-eyed at the Sheriff, pointed to Jacob.
"How did he --?" she asked.
"I didn't tell him."
Jacob grinned.
"I'm a lawman," he said.
Sarah put her knuckles on her hip and glared at him.
"I shouldn't be surprised," she said tartly, "the apple falls not far from the tree!"
Jacob tilted his hat down over his face and leaned back against the wall.
"I resemble that remark," he said, right before his chair kicked out from under him and he ended up flat on his back with his boots thrust straight up in the air.
Sarah's eyes were big and she pressed her fingertips flat against her lips: the silence that followed was almost as loud as the explosive sound of the hardwood high backed chair slamming into the floor.
"You know," Jacob observed painfully, "some things shouldn't be imitated."
Sarah sighed with an exaggerated patience.
"I came for advice," she said sadly, shaking her head, "and I find a comedy act."

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Linn Keller 4-14-12

 

We sat together in the sun.
We were well back behind the main house: terrain broke the wind, sun warmed our fronts and reflected a little off the rock walls, the horses grazed contentedly nearby, and we sat and listened to our thoughts.
Sarah's hand found mine and gave me a little squeeze, and I squeezed hers back: it was the closest thing to conversation we'd had in a half hour's time.
Women are often uncomfortable with a prolonged silence.
Men often aren't.
Sarah, now, had no problem being silent, or being in silence, at least with me.
I reckon it was another quarter of an hour before I spoke.
"All things change," I said quietly.
Sarah nodded, once, slowly.
"When I first saw you ... "
My smile was gentle, I know: my defenses were down, for it was just my daughter and I.
"You were not much bigger than Angela was."
Sarah's eyes smiled; her gaze was to the horizon, scanning, never still: it was automatic, it was second nature -- I reckon Charlie trained her that-a-way, I thought, and a good thing --
"Given my druthers," I continued, "I'd druther have kept you just like that forever."
Sarah looked at me, her expression somewhere between pleased, amused and tolerant of an old man sharing a secret.
"Likely I'd have put you on a high shelf with a glass bell jar over you, like a rare china doll ... under glass to keep the dust off, but also to protect you from the world, keep it from ever hurtin' you."
Sarah nodded again, once, slow.
We both rode our black horses, Sarah the Morgan, and me, my Outlaw gelding: she wore a riding dress, her hair was braided and she looked like a girl, she looked like a tall and lovely girl approaching womanhood kind of timidly, uncertainly.
I knew that Sarah was seldom either timid or uncertain, at least not in public, not where folks could see.
The Bear Killer was rolled up ag'in her leg and I reckon he was warm through her dress.
He's leaned ag'in my leg on a chilly day and I'd wished he'd leaned up ag'in my back, for he felt like a fur covered furnace, but maybe that's just because his fur held my own body heat from escape.
His head was laid over her leg and he opened one eye, sighed contentedly, and went back to sleep.
"Life is full of choices," I continued.
"I know."
It was the first she'd spoke for near to an hour.
"You are your own soul, Sarah. You can go to Denver or not, as you choose."
Sarah nodded, once, then leaned over and laid her head on my shoulder.
"I'd like to stay right here," she whispered.
"I wouldn't mind that."
"Right here." She squeezed my hand again. "This rock face, this folded blanket, this pasture, this day, this moment." She took a long breath; I felt her breathe, heard her sigh.
"I never had a papa," she whispered. "Not really."
"I know," I said, my eyes stinging. "That is my fault."
"No it isn't," she whispered, turning her head and resting her forehead on my shoulder. "You could not have known." She looked up at me and I looked down at her ... her eyes were almost a sky blue, startling, bright, the kind of eyes a man could fall in love with.
Sarah took her free hand and tugged at my handlebar, the gentle gesture of a little girl.
"When you swore into office," she whispered, "were you issued a crystal ball?"
I smiled, kissed her curled finger.
"No," I admitted.
Sarah's hand was warm and she laid her caressing palm against my cheek.
"Then how could you have known?"
I raised my own free hand, pressed her palm more firmly against my face, closed my eyes.
I wanted this moment to last forever, too.
"I should have known anyway," I said.
"Dear Papa," Sarah murmured, laying her head over on my shoulder again. "You can't carry the world around forever."
"Old habit."
She laughed and it was the sound of bright mountain water sparkling over smooth, gleaming rocks.
"Sarah, I don't know about these modern cities," I admitted. "Me for the high lonesome. Firelands is plenty big enough for me. I get uncomfortable with somethin' the size of Cripple."
I felt Sarah's head move as she nodded again, and I laid my own head over against her hair.
She smelled of her Mama's soap and lilac water.
"I don't like Cripple either," Sarah whispered. "Bad memories."
"That too."
"Weren't you poisoned over there?"
"Mistake."
"Yours?"
"No, the poisoner thought I was a reaver and she wanted revenge."
"Oh."
"Look out yonder."
We watched as a raptor dove, struck something in the meadow: a mouse, likely, not big enough for a rabbit.
"There are golden eagles higher up," Sarah murmured. "I watched one pick up a baby sheep and drop it to bust it open."
"They'll do that."
The raptor tore at its meal, ate with the violent gusto characteristic of the birds of prey.
"Papa?"
"Hm?"
"I do not fear Denver."
I waited.
"I do not trust Denver, but I do not fear it."
I nodded.
"In God we trust, everyone else keep your hands in plain sight."
Sarah giggled, a contented, little-girl giggle.
"Aunt Fannie taught me that too."
"Aunt Fannie is a wise woman."
"Yes she is."
The raptor took off, airborne with one sweep of its wings, and was gone.
"Papa?"
"Hm?"
"Papa, I stopped a runaway carriage in Denver."
"Oh?" I drew my head back, looked down at Sarah's braids.
Sarah raised her head, her eyes bright and innocent.
"Mama and I were there for the buyers and I slipped out when I could."
"Slipped out."
Sarah nodded, for all the world the way little Angela nodded when she assured me she told the Booger Man he couldn't live under he bed anymore because she was a Big Girl now.
"I have a black outfit and I probably looked like an active boy ..."
Sarah's face started to color, and I know why ... girls are slender and without figure ... well, Sarah was still slender, but she was starting to look young-womanly.
I know foundations and such-like will enhance what's there, but there has to be something to enhance, and ... well, Sarah would have trouble passing for a boy now.
"I heard it coming down the street, Papa, and I knew I had to stop it."
"What happened, honey?"
Sarah laid her head back on my shoulder; she disengaged her hand from mine, ran her arm around the small of my back, where there was a gap between me and the dry rock behind.
"I ran out and caught its mane."
"Like you and Jacob practice."
Sarah nodded.
"You swung aboard and bulldogged the runaway."
Sarah nodded again and her arm tightened around me.
I looked down at her and she looked up at me and I whispered, "Sarah, I know what it is to be pinned under a horse!"
"But I wasn't, Papa," she whispered back, brushing my cheek with her fingers. "I stopped the carriage, Papa. I kept the runaway from running over anyone, I kept that poor woman in the carriage-seat from being thrown out and hurt or killed --"
"And you kissed that Texan and said that's from the Ragdoll."
Sarah's eyes were big and surprised and her mouth fell open.
It was my turn to brush her cheek with a gentle hand.
"Sarah," I said softly, "you took a risk and it paid off. We do that every day. You acted to keep people safe. I reckon you were a little sore the next day but you are right, you stopped a runaway and you probably saved lives!"
I swallowed.
"Sarah, you are ..."
I had to stop and clear my throat.
"Sarah, I am very proud of you!"
She like to squeezed the breath out of me.
Daggone she's strong, I thought, and I reckon my eyes were kind of big and surprised as Sarah wrapped her skinny young arms around me and give my ribs a good proof test hug.

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Linn Keller 4-15-12

 

The Daine tribe didn't often come into town.
They were an independent bunch.
They came infrequently to trade meat or hides or good moon likker for what little they got from the Mercantile, generally mounted on one mule and leading another, with their hand made, long barrel flint rifle across the saddle in front of them: unlike the Free Trappers, who'd come and gone, the Daine rifles were still the long, slender Kentucky rifle instead of the stocky, wrist-strong Hawken.
One fellow asked them why they still used a flinch lock and the quiet, skinny mountain man considered the questioner as if he were loose in the head and finally drawled "You ever drop a box of percussion caps, son?" -- then he looked at the pack he'd just tightened on the mule's back and continued, "As long as I kin get flint or agate I don't need to buy me no damned Yankee percussion caps."
The questioner failed to notice the leather-padded flint in the rifle's lock-jaws was blond in color, not a shade seen in North American flint: in point of fact, it was one of a sack of French gun flints the Sheriff traded them some time ago for a small jug of good moon likker.
Independent these Kentucky mountaineers might be, but they appreciated a kindness, and it was handy to use these already knapped out flints rather than make their own, especially if they had to use the local, harder-than-the-hubs agate instead of the good grey flint they were used to.
As mentioned, the Daine tribe seldom came into town, but when they did, they made it worth their while: once the flour sacks were secured, the sugar tied down, the coffee secured, some horse trading involving moon likker and a few gold nuggets for lead and cloth and a few other trifles, this long, tall, weathered representative of the clannish Kentuckians rode his mule over to the school house and addressed himself to the pretty young schoolmarm who'd stepped outside, school bell in one hand and her other arm in a sling.
Lifting his sagging brim Joe Crane hat, the old mountaineer spoke without preamble.
"Don't you trust them city folks, now," he said. "This is home. Don't never forget that."
Without waiting for an answer, he turned his mule and rode slowly up the street.

Professor T. Joseph Hunt considered the letters in his hand.
He leaned his forearms on the green felt desk blotter, re-reading the page before him.

Professor Hunt --
As we discussed earlier, I have the pleasure to recommend a student to your attention.
This is an unusual student who shows much promise: she is the Sheriff's daughter, though this intelligence is a matter of confidence, and I trust you will maintain that confidence: she is skilled in several arts which will stand her in good stead as an agent for this Court.
Please do not think I wish to curry favor with the Sheriff by recommending his daughter to your Academy.
The Sheriff is not aware of my recommendation.
I see a great promise in Miss Sarah Rosenthal.
There are matters already for which I have need of her detective skills, but she requires your skilled hand to polish this gem into a finished product.
Enclosed please find your usual fee for her complete education.
I look forward to our next meeting, which I anticipate will be at the regular date and time.
Please salute me to your dear Lady-Wife, and to your son, who I remember with great affection, and with my thanks again for the skill with which he handled the matter of discretion we spoke of.

D. Hostetler


Professor Hunt lay the letter down beside the small stack of large denomination bills.
He looked long at the fee for the student's full education.
It was not often -- it was not at all usual -- for someone other than the student to pay their fee.
To have someone as respected as Judge Donald Hostetler to not only recommend the student, but to pay her education in full, and to state that he already had cases for her to investigate --
Professor Hunt raised one eyebrow, placed the Judge's letter atop the money, picked up the second sheet and read it.

Professor Hunt,
From Levi Rosenthal, late of your own academy, and of the Agency.
I hope this finds you in good health and contented with life.
My stepdaughter is recommended to your Academy by our local Judge.
I do not know if it is proper to recommend my own family, but I find in fairness I cannot withhold my recommendation.
I have seen the same potential in my stepdaughter that you saw in me.
There are, of course, differences.
My stepdaughter Sarah has taken my name: she has taken the best her mother has to offer, and she has learned much from our local Sheriff, and other officers of the Law with whom you are familiar: were I to mention the names of these officers, you would nod and smile a little, the way you used to, the way I remember with affection when we sat together, for their names are very well known to you.
Let me address a peculiar skill possessed of my stepdaughter:
She has a gift with disguise: even with no change of her face, she can simply change her clothes, and become a different person.
In spite of her few years, she can appear to be a mature woman, she can give every evidence of being a prim and disapproving schoolteacher; she successfully disguised as a doxy, a dancing-girl (which nearly got her killed and which did injure her) and was most convincing in that disguise, as a widow in weeds and veil ... and with each disguise, she was most authentic in each new role.
Do not be hoodwinked by her delicate and feminine appearance, nor taken in by her feminine manners: she has spilled blood and taken lives, she is fast and deadly when the occasion demands: she is possessed of remarkable good sense and an equally remarkable self control, forbearance to violence and long-suffering when provoked: indeed, she is a most patient soul.
Her shoulder was recently injured: I pray you will not take it amiss if she incorporates a sling as part of her daily habiliment, and on occasion, a cane: these, too, feature into her battery of disguise.
You will find her a quick study, a pleasant nature, a ready laugh.
She is also not given to girlish fancies, nor to flirting: she is most proper in her demeanor and has not hesitated to correct ungentlemanly advances.
Please forgive the length of this missive.
I find the more I write, the more I wish to tell you.
Perhaps this a sign of your prediction, years ago, that I would eventually become a married man and a doting father.

"Levi Rosenthal," Professor Hunt smiled, his voice quiet in the vacant classroom.
"I remember you well, my friend," he continued, and looked up, considering all he'd just read.
"Miss Sarah Rosenthal," he said slowly, and shook his head.
I do hope the talented Miss Rosenthal does not prove a disruptive influence, he thought, and smiled wryly.
It would help if she were as attractive as a barn door.

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Linn Keller 4-17-12

 

Sarah closed the door behind her.
She felt good even if she ached a little.
She and Daciana had another extended session, which they'd been holding every day: Sarah divided her day between a shorter session at the schoolhouse, and Daciana's spacious barn: her shoulder ached, but it was a good ache, the feeling of repair, of recovery.
Sarah was cleaned up and changed back into her schoolmarm outfit, and she'd ridden her black Morgan horse over to the whitewashed church and gone inside.
It seemed ... it seemed so hollow without the Easter crowd that filled it not long before.
Sarah smiled, remembering the harmony of three voices.
There is no grander surround than being in the middle of a hundred-voice chorus, Brother William once observed: she smiled as she recalled his words, and wished for a moment she might have heard their Easter song from another's ears, seated between the three.
Sarah paced slowly to the front of the church, sat down: it felt good to just sit ... when she sat the saddle, she was still active, interacting with her Morgan; here she could just ... sit ...
Sarah rolled her head back, around, slowly, groaning silently, then she looked at the altar and frowned a little.
"I came for advice," she said out loud, her quiet voice echoing and sibilant in the empty sanctuary.
"I'm only thirteen."
She swallowed, wondering for a moment if she should be on her knees, then she realized without a pad, her knees would call her unkind names in fairly short order.
"I know I finished school early and with very high marks, I know I am intelligent and I know I can ride and shoot and I see things other people miss ..."
Sarah's voice drifted off, her eyes stinging a little.
"Am I ready for this?"
Doubt gnawed at her heart; trepidation washed in chilling waves against her young soul.
"Should I wait, should I grow up some more ..."
Grow up? a voice mocked invisibly. Sister, you've lived more than most do in two lifetimes!
"I know," she whispered, shivering a little. "I know I have."
Sarah thought of the dark days of her early childhood, she seized the horrors she'd seen and those done to her -- she held them up to eye level and looked squarely at them -- threw them aside, and thought of the man that grabbed her in front of the Jewel, the man she landed on like a wildcat with two sledgehammers ... she thought of McAndrews and how he'd tried to cheat her, and how she'd dissuaded him with a blade under the chin.
Sarah hung her head, her face flaming with shame.
Uncle Charlie was right to call me on that.
She swallowed.
I must master my temper.
She thought again of the man that grabbed her at the front door of the Jewel and her blood ran cold, remembering the men who'd grabbed her Mama or Tilly or the other girls, before throwing them down and having their way with them, after calling them vile and unspeakable names and using them, defiling them, and she felt her anger surge again, a dark and angry force of immense power, a tempting power, a power she knew she could drink, and drink deep --
She thought a third time of that moment when a man's hard hands, the first step to rapine and brutality, triggered every bit of resentment, every horror she'd experienced and seen and listened to from hiding with her young hands over her little ears, eyes screwed shut, helpless to stop the horror scant feet from her --
Sarah's eyes opened slowly.
They were very pale.
I know why I reacted as I did, she thought.
How do I heal from this?
Her smile was grim.
I never will.
Her jaw thrust slowly forward.
All that is past.
The past cannot be changed.
I cannot change the world.

Sarah's lips pressed together.
I have to change me... and that may prove more difficult.

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Linn Keller 4-17-12

 

Sarah rested her elbows on her knees and her forehead on her clasped hands.
She heard the door open, heard slow footsteps approach.
She recognized the Judge's discreet har-rumph; she judged him to be behind her by a half dozen rows of pews.
"Come in, Your Honor," she said tiredly.
"I don't mean to intrude," the Judge said in a hushed voice.
Sarah's ear twitched: there was something unusual, something other than a gentlemanly quiet to his voice.
She raised her head, stood, turned to face the man, and immediately went cold.
The Judge's face was grave, the look of a man with bad news.
"Please speak plainly," she said, "for something troubles you."
"May I sit?" the Judge asked, and Sarah heard trouble in his voice.
"Please."
His Honor sat beside her; she saw his hand was trembling, and laid hers on it: the Judge bowed his head, his eyes closed, and finally took a long, slow, breath and looked at the concerned young woman.
"Sarah," he said, "I have paid for your matriculation through the Academy."
Sarah blinked, surprised: she opened her mouth, closed it, looked away, then looked back to the Judge.
"Thank you," she whispered.
His Honor rested his forehead on the heels of his hands and groaned, then shook his head.
"I very much regret what I must tell you," he said, his eyes haunted, distant: he was looking at the altar but seeing something more distant.
Sarah waited.
"Miss Rosenthal," the Judge said, rallying, his voice taking on the oratorical timbre he used when speaking from the bench, "I very much regret that I must employ you as an agent of the Court, before your salutary matriculation through Professor Hunt's Academy has even begun."
"Go on," Sarah said quietly, feeling like she was listening for the faint strains of a violin from some dark and hidden corner of the concert hall.
"I need you to apprehend a murderer."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"The murder occurred this afternoon, only an hour ago as a matter of fact."
"Yes, sir."
"If it is possible you will bring the murderer back for trial."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"I give you the full discretion the court grants any agent. You may consider yourself as carrying the full authority of a Territorial Marshal. Colorado is not a territory but the office is congruent."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"You will need to view the location of the murder, you will need to interview the witnesses to the event -- I have their names here" -- he handed her a folded paper -- "and you will wish to proceed with all speed."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Miss Rosenthal" -- the Judge turned to face Sarah, took both her hands in both of his, and Sarah again took note of the tremors in the distinguished older man's hands -- "this is a very ... I, um ... Miss Rosenthal, this will test the skill of any agent."
His Honor stood, still holding Sarah's hands.
"Agent Rosenthal," he said, his voice firm, the voice of the Judge, "I need you to apprehend and if possible bring back the murderer of Sheriff Linn Keller, to stand trial upon your return."
The color ran out of Sarah's face like red ink from an eyedropper: her hands tightened in the Judge's grip.
Sarah closed her eyes and took a long, steadying breath.
She opened her eyes and they were pale, ice-pale and very, very cold.

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Linn Keller 4-18-12

 

The Sheriff opened his eyes.
This proved to be a serious mistake.
He shut his eyes quickly, then cracked open his left eye.
It felt like an icepick driving through his skull.
He shut the left eye again.
Something happened ...
What?
He put his hand up, slowly, carefully, found his hat, found warm sticky wet oh bloody hell I know what that is and his stomach rolled over.
His other hand went to his side and found his Colt in its place.
He reached across and found its companion similarly secured.
Good.
He gritted his teeth at the nausea and ran a fast inventory of his long tall carcass.
Most of it hurt one way or another but that was likely sympathy pains, because someone was taking an oakum driver and sledge hammering it down the middle of the top of his skull, or so it felt.
If I'm lucky I had one hell of a drunk on.
Something trailed across his chest and he seized it, eyes shut: something big, warm, velvety and snuffing loudly brushed against his chest, nuzzling his vest where he kept the plug of tobacker.
"You bum," the Sheriff muttered, reaching up and taking a good hold of bridle: running his hand through the cheek strap he gasped, "Help me up, Outlaw."
Outlaw, of course, wanted a bribe and not work: he backed up and the Sheriff set up, gritting his teeth, then Outlaw pulled again and the Sheriff came to his feet, bent over and heaved up at least two weeks' worth of meals and an old pair of socks, or so it felt.
He groaned and put his hands over the top of his head to keep it from exploding.
Outlaw nuzzled him again and the Sheriff ran an arm over his black gelding's neck.
"Ho," he gasped, coughing: eyes still shut, he worked his way back to the canteen and managed to waller the lid off.
He took a good mouthful, sloshed it around and spat, took another and swallowed, cautiously, and then a third.
Coughing, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and opened his eyes.
A man lay dead, his belly laid open and a dozen or more cuts and slashes visible, and the Sheriff's boot knife stuck out of the space behind the man's right collar bone.
The Sheriff looked at his knuckles.
They were beaten, they were bloody, they hurt ... he flexed his hands, slowly, grimacing.
Damn fool old man, he thought, you're too old for this!
He raised his hand to his face, flinched at the touch.
How'd I get this? he wondered.
"Stand," he said and released the saddle horn: the ground rolled up beside him, fast, and pain shot through his shoulder and neck as the ground slammed into him.
It's not that the Sheriff fell over sideways.
It's more like the world reared up and slammed into the man.
He rolled over on his back again and laid there for a while.
Outlaw blinked and looked around, ears turning slowly, then he raised his tail and cast his ballot on the whole situation.
"Yeah, God loves you too," the Sheriff muttered. "Outlaw, here."
Outlaw-horse came over and snuffed loudly at the Sheriff's beckoning hand.
"Get me up, fella."
Outlaw pulled again, this time with less reluctance.
The Sheriff stood, kept his grip on the cheek strap: he walked over to the dead man.
Whoever he is, the Sheriff thought, he's deader'n hell an' no doubt about it.
Let's see if you shot me.

The Sheriff took the black's reins in his hand and knelt by the body, pulled the nearly-new and rusted-up revolver from the new and almost unworn holster: frowning, he flipped open the loading gate, turned the cylinder slowly.
Five rounds, unfired, and some money rolled up and stowed in the sixth chamber.
"Buryin' money," the Sheriff muttered, reaching behind him and thrusting the revolver into his belt at the small of his back and making sure the coat draped over it.
"Belt's all bloody," he said to the black horse. "No sense in takin' that, likely it would stink ... holster's nearly soaked, too. Lucky it didn't get on the gun, I've seen blood eat the blue right off."
The black horse offered no comment.
The Sheriff stood, carefully, slowly, painfully.
He reached into his vest pocket and the black horse's ears came hopefully forward.
"Here, you bum," the Sheriff said, reaching for the small knife he kept in his pocket.

Sarah contained her anger tightly, lest she whip the Morgan horse into a flat out gallop.
I will get home quickly enough, she thought, and Snowflake can cover ground without trying hard.
Darkness raged in her belly, singing power and promising revenge: Sarah shoved it deeper, choosing instead to turn cold, very cold, choosing to freeze her temper in the dark depths of its lair.
The Morgan horse paced easily under her, but as the Ranch McKenna came into view, the Morgan broke pace and began to gallop, running for the sheer joy of running, and Sarah moved with hier: they sailed over the fence like a feather on the breeze, crossing the pasture with a swift, urgent drumming of hooves.
Snowflake's head came up and she whinnied, then came loping over to see what the fun was about.
Sarah dismounted in one smooth move, reaching under and dismounting the saddle with the ease and swiftness of long practice: she disappeared into the barn, emerging with Snowflake's much bigger kak.
Sarah put two fingers to her lips and whistled.

"Mr. Baxter, have you seen the Sheriff?"
"Why, no, Jacob, not since this morning."
"He didn't happen to say where he was headed?"
Mr. Baxter paused in his perpetual burnishing of the glass-smooth mahogany bar top.
Frowning, he considered, then shook his head. "Nope, sorry."
Jacob nodded and touched his hat brim.
Something didn't feel right and he just couldn't put his finger on it.
He heard a step upstairs, turned: there was the sound of someone descending the staircase, and he saw emerald and knew it was his mother's favorite gown.
Jacob turned and started toward the staircase.
Esther's green eyes were deep, as bottomless as the ocean itself.
"Jacob, have you seen your father?" she asked in a low voice, and Jacob's stomach fell about twenty feet or so.
"No, ma'am, nor has Mr. Baxter, not since this morning."
"He was riding south of Cripple to serve a warrant," she murmured. "I believe Judge Hostetler knew of it."
"His car is still on the siding," Jacob said in clipped tones. "I'll find out."
"Jacob."
Esther's tone was ... there was an edge to it.
He turned and took another step toward his mother, and Esther seized her son and hugged him tight, tight.
"Be careful," she whispered.
Jacob hugged her back.
"I will."
He turned and headed for the door.
If Judge Hostetler sent him out with a warrant, he'd ought to know where the Sheriff went.

"My hat," the Sheriff muttered. "Gotta get my hat."
The black horse had other ideas.
There had been enough excitement here and the black horse didn't really care for excitement.
Home, however, meant horses he knew, a barn proof against the winter winds, grain and hay and sweet straw underfoot.
The Sheriff's knees tightened and he clamped his jaw tight against the gorge that tried to rise yet again.
The black horse, feeling the Sheriff's legs tighten, set into a faster pace.

Sarah came downstairs at little short of a dead run, saddlebags over her shoulder and rifle in hand.
She swung to her right at the foot of the stairs and headed for the kitchen.
There was a meal to be eaten, and some to pack: there was no telling how long she would be away.
Sarah parked her rifle in a handy corner and began loading her saddle bags.
The hell with a sit-down meal, she thought, I'll take a bait to eat on the way.

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Linn Keller 4-19-12

 

"Stand aside, Levi," Sarah said, her voice as cold and frozen as her eyes. "I am on business."
Sarah seized a bowl of fresh, warm, fragrant sweet rolls, the kind she loved, and working quickly, efficiently, split them in two, found the meat -- still warm, tender, perfect -- laid meat between bread, made tidy little sandwiches, stacked them in a cloth bag: she had a good full sack when she was done.
Bonnie came into the kitchen, her mouth opening with surprise to see Sarah -- all in black, in britches and vest and long tail coat, and obviously preparing to travel.
Bonnie hesitated, then said "Sarah, I'd like to talk to you of the Academy."
"We will talk, Mother," Sarah said, her voice tight, "I wish to talk with you about it but right now ..." Sarah slung her loaded saddlebags over her shoulder, picked up her rifle, swtiched the bag to her off hand so her left hand gripped both the rifle's fore-end and the sack.
Sarah cycled the action, the rifle's mechanism loud and harsh in the kitchen's quiet.
Sarah laid her thumb over the hammer, let it down, then back up to half-cock.
Levi came up beside Bonnie, his hands on her shoulders, gently moving her to the side: frowning, he said, "Young lady, you know you're not supposed to load a weapon in the house --"
Sarah's eyes blazed with cold fire.
"Stand aside, Levi," she said, her voice was honed as sharp as the sword-cane slung across her back.
Surprised, Levi stepped aside as Sarah powered past him.
They turned as Sarah strode out the front door, closing it with the quiet precision of someone who was absolutely, utterly, to the depths of their soul, ready to rip someone's throat out and then start getting really mean.
They heard a whistle, the slow cadence of a really big horse getting up to galloping speed, the interruption of its leap over fence or gate, and the sound of hoofbeats receding in the distance.
Darkness sang power in Sarah's belly and she embraced the dark, she seized the dark, she drove her stinger deep into its heart and drank power: strength surged and roared through her slender young body as she became one with the thickening twilight.

The Sheriff swayed, gripping the saddle horn with one hand, his right hand grabbing his pants leg below his knee: he leaned over, cautiously, tried to heave again, but his stomach was empty: he straightened slowly, trying to keep the world from spinning around him, as if he were impaled on an axle and the world were a carousel.
The black horse knew where to go, and he was wasting little time getting there: he was not at a gallop, but he was covering ground in good shape.
The Sheriff reached back and fumbled for the canteen: it slipped from his fingers and hit the ground.
"Oh hell," the Sheriff muttered, swallowing bile and wishing someone would quit setting off charges of blasting powder somewhere just below the crown of his scalp.

Jacob strode from the Judge's car, jaw set and eyes pale: he knew where to go and the trail his father was most likely to take.
His gut told him something was very wrong.
Apple-horse was dancing before Jacob came out of the railcar: he stood fast while Jacob swung aboard, then began dancing again.
The Judge watched Jacob's smooth mount, marveled as the Appaloosa turned as smooth as greased bearings, and shot into the early dusk like an arrow from a drawn bow.
"Now that," he murmured, drawing thoughtfully on his Cuban, "was worth seeing."

Two men were headed south, flogging their mounts mercilessly: cold sweat stood out on their foreheads, their shirts stuck to their backs, the night wind chilled them with feathery fingers as they rode: they carried the dread knowledge that they'd just jumped, beat and murdered one of the most feared lawmen in the mountains, and they figured now they would have ten thousand of his kind a-follow.
It was not until well after moonrise that they slowed their exhausted mounts, halting in a clearing of which few men knew.

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Linn Keller 4-19-12

 

Wait.
Sarah slowed the big Frisian, turned her, thinking fast, thinking hard.
You must rule your passion, lest your passion rule you.
"Wait," Sarah said out loud, slowing Snowflake to a walk.
She shoved the darkness from her.
Think.
You are the weapon.
Everything else is a tool in your hands.
Use your tools ... all your tools!

Sarah's smile was crooked in the gathering dusk.
She turned Snowflake, headed for Firelands.
It was time to call in a favor.

Jacob did not recognize his father, not at first: the man he saw was slumped, bloodied, hatless, far from the erect and proud figure his father normally presented a-horse.
The Sheriff's ear pulled a little at the hissed "Oh my God!" -- not so much a profanity -- more a plea to the Almighty, uttered by a man who had no voice for aught else.
"Sir!" Jacob called, and the Appaloosa slowed a little at the black's approach: "FATHER!"

Dolly threw a shoe at the door.
"Go away!" the Silver Jewel's most popular dancing girl shouted.
Sarah opened the door, slipped in, shut it behind her: she whipped off her broad-brimmed, black hat, her eyes hard and cold, and said "I need a costume."

"Levi --" Bonnie said, her voice as worried as her eyes.
"I'll take care of it," Levi soothed her, stroking her hair with a gentle hand. "I'll find her."
"Levi, she's already gone!"
"Where could she have gone?" Levi asked in a gentle voice. "Firelands is the only place she would go. I'll drive into town and find her and we'll talk, and I'll bring her home."
Bonnie shook her head, pulled away, walked quickly to the front door, turned.
"You don't know her, Levi," she said, shaking her head. "You don't know what she's really capable of!"

Snowflake powered around the back of the Silver Jewel, hooves loud in the darkened alley: she turned to the right, downhill, turned again and drew up at the depot building.
Fred Jerome looked up, startled, as hard, quick bootheels announced the suddenly-opened door: a slender figure in black strode in, snatched the message pad from the closed window grille in front of the telegrapher.
"Ah, sir, I'm sorry, you can't just --"
Sarah turned her glare on him like pale searchlights.
Fred felt cold fingers shivering down his spine as he looked into winter ice.
Sarah pulled the pencil from his numb fingers and printed, quickly, precisely, then slammed the pencil down across the pad, reached into her vest, threw a coin on the counter.
"Send that!" she snapped. "NOW!"
Fred Jerome, the night telegrapher, looked at the precise, clear print, reached for the telegraph key as the slender black-clad warrior spun and strode out the door.

"Canteen," the Sheriff rasped.
"Yes, sir," Jacob said, turning his head a little to survey the full extent of the damage to his father's face. "Good Lord, sir, what happened?"
"I got careless." The Sheriff coughed, grimaced. "I got jumped. We went knuckle and skull until I got to my knife. I killed one and the other one killed me."
"You aint' dead yet, sir," Jacob said, his voice hardening.
"Three men. One dead. Another beat bad and cut. Paint mustang with a bad shoe on the off forehoof. Chestnut mare with a rocking B brand and a bad running iron bar over top."
"Yes, sir," Jacob said, taking careful and complete mental note of his father's gasped description.
"Canteen."
Jacob unscrewed the galvanized cap from his blanket side canteen and handed it to the Sheriff.
The man's hands were stiff and painful as he held the canteen like something precious, tilted it up and drank, drank a little, then drank deep.
"Thank you," he said, hoarse now, handed the canteen back.
"Yes, sir," Jacob said.
"Get after them, Jacob," the Sheriff wheezed. "Don't let them escape!"
He seized his saddle horn in a vain attempt at stopping the world from turning like a mad carousel again.
"It's being taken care of, sir," Jacob said.
"Who then? Charlie?"
"Sarah."
The Sheriff's shoulders slumped and he looked at Jacob through his one eye that could still see, that was not swelled completely shut.
"Then they are dead men," the Sheriff said through purpled and bloodied lips.
"Yes, sir. Now let's get you home."

Word spread, first through the Jewel, then the boarding-house, the livery: swift feet ran for the Parson's house, anxious knuckles drummed on Jackson Cooper's door, and lastly, reluctantly, a messenger approached the Keller household.
Esther was poised, gracious and lovely as she came to the door: the message was brief, concise, delivered with the gut twisting knowledge of its full horror.
"I'm sorry," Esther said tartly, "my husband is not dead at all, but thank you for caring enough for letting me know the popular rumor."

"Bonnie, you don't have to come with me."
"Oh yes I do!"
"We've looked through town."
"Let's try the Sheriff's house."
"Good idea."

Esther watched from the window as the messenger caught Levi and Bonnie as they dismounted from their carriage.
Bonnie's face paled in the light of the front porch lanterns: her hands went to her mouth and Levi steadied her as she swayed.
Esther reached past the maid and opened the door.
Folding her hands before her, chin up, Esther stepped out on the porch.
Bonnie's eyes were bright with surging tears, her lips curled with grief.
Levi's expression was hardening and Esther saw the big ex-agent's jaw muscles bulge.
"Bonnie McKenna," she said firmly, "I believe you need some tea."

Sarah and Snowflake coasted invisibly up the alley and behind the Sheriff's office.
She knew how to get in when nobody was home, and did.
She emerged three minutes later and mounted Snowflake.
Black-clad rider and black-harnessed Frisian floated invisibly down the alley, across the double set of railroad tracks, and to a trail Sarah knew of.
If she was lucky she knew how to get ahead of the killers.

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Linn Keller 4-20-12

 

"Your wife won't like your haircut, you know that," Dr. Greenlees murmured, carefully shaving hair back from the bullet gouge.
The Sheriff did his best to hold still: he was holding onto the edge of the table with a white knuckle death grip, willing it to stop rolling.
It felt like a shallow draft ship in a heavy sea, wallowing in the troughs of storm-thrashed waves.
"I don't care," he grated.
"More light, please."
The Sheriff's tight-shut eyes registered a brighter shade of red; he felt a little heat on his ears and knew the big acetylene-fired, mirror-polished, focused concavity of an exam light was directed squarely at his abused scalp.
"Ohhh, yesssss," Dr. Greenlees murmured. "Scissors."
The Sheriff heard the slap of good high grade surgical steel as it was placed briskly in the sawbone's outstretched palm.
There were some minor, bright pains as Dr. Greenlees debrided flesh from the wound; the burning agony of that damned iodine smelling stuff he used for disinfectant -- probably half turpentine and half horse liniment with ground rattlesnake heads for seasoning, he thought -- he felt cartilage pop in a knuckle, then another, as he did his level best to crush the edge of the table he was gripping.
"Now this won't feel good," Doc Greenlees warned, and the Sheriff clenched his jaw against whatever horrors the physician was about to perpetuate upon his pounding skull.
There was kind of a loud grating sound, the feel of something pushed around.
"Sponge."
Doc Greenlees mopped the bloody furrow, dropped the saturated cloth into a pan.
"Two more."
Again the mop, the blot, the press; it felt to the Sheriff as if the man was shoving a wagon tongue -- or maybe a doubletree -- down through the top of his gourd.
"Now hold still."
It felt like Doc wiped greasy fire down the middle of the Sheriff's scalp: the man let go with a bellow of pain, but held very, very still.
"I know it hurts, hold still, hold still ... another five seconds, you're doing fine, doing --"
The Sheriff's reply was couched in certain Anglo-Saxon labiodental fricatives, and seemed indicative of an imminent trip to a region populated with pitchforks and cloven hooves and smelling distinctly of sulfur, along with being descended from an unmarried and ill-tempered wastrel, or words to that general effect.
"That's nice," Dr. Greenlees replied nonchalantly, wiping off whatever it was that burned like a red hot iron laid over the man's scalp; he wiped on something else, something cool and unbelievably soothing, something which killed the fire instantly and then set about numbing the general vicinity.
The Sheriff nearly collapsed with relief.
"Now let's get this covered."
The Sheriff smelled iodoform; he felt something being laid into the wound, tolerated the bandages run over top his head and around under his chin.
"Now howinell am I going to shave?" he muttered.
"Sheriff," Dr. Greenlees said cheerfully, "are you a gamblin' man?"
"I am probably the world's worst poker player, Doc, and you know it, why?"
"Because, my good fellow, you are also the world's luckiest."
The Sheriff hazarded open one swollen eye, just a slit.
"How's that?"
His lips were still swollen and bloody; it hurt to talk, but the Sheriff was a contrary man and spoke anyway.
"You were shot, Sheriff. Someone very nearly gave you a personal tour of the Valley of the Shadow and now there's a bit of bone about as thick as two sheets of writing paper between the world and your brain."
"Oh, lovely," the lawman groaned.
"I would imagine it feels like you've been run over by a locomotive."
"You don't know the half of it."
"Are you still nauseated?"
"Yeah," came the gasped reply.
"We can fix that too. Now let's have a look at your face."

"Yeah, that one fella come runnin' through here pale as a ghost! Said the Sheriff was shot dead an' the murderers was a-headin' this way!"
"Yeah?" came the skeptical reply. "I don't reckon they'd be stupid enough to run right towards the man's family. Especially not his family!"
"Well now, what family does he have here?"
"You know that skinny pale-eyed deputy that shoots nickles out of the air for the fun of it? That-there's his oldest boy."
"No!"
"Oh yeah! Look at his eyes sometime! And that wife of his? God Almighty, she can pull a three foot Cavalry sword out of a knitting needle and fillet a man with three strokes!"
"Ahh -hmm."
"And he's related to MacNeil."
"Charlie MacNeil?"
"Yep."
Marshal Charlie MacNeil?"
"Yep."
"And that big bear killin' dog o' his? The one that eats coal an' breathes fire?"
"That be the man."
"They're related?"
"Brothers."
"Oh, good Lord!"
"No, you can call me Pete, we're among friends."
"Friends, hell, I need a beer!"

Jacob rapped briskly on his mother's front door.
The maid opened it, blinked: "Thank God you're here," she breathed.
"How is Mother?" Jacob asked quietly, stepping across the threshold and removing his flat-crowned hat.
The maid gestured toward the study.
Esther rose as Jacob hesitated in the doorway.
Jacob swallowed, then pushed through his own feelings and stepped into the room.
"He's alive," he said.
Esther closed her eyes for a long moment; she nodded, one hand on her belly.
"Mother?" Jacob's voice filled with concern and he took two long steps toward Esther.
"I'm all right," she said quietly, and Jacob was shocked to see how drawn she looked.
"Mother, he is alive and he will be fine."
Esther laid a gentle hand on Jacob's cheek; her eyes were gentle, deep, the way he remembered them ... but so sad, so sad ...
"Jacob, dear, thank you for trying to reassure me, but how bad is it?"
Jacob swallowed.
"Mother, he was beaten, his face is a fright but nothing is broken, his teeth are intact and he will have a fine collection of color in his cheeks come morning."
He hesitated, closed his eyes, then continued. "He has been shot -- here --" he reached up, ran his thumb front-to-back on the very top of his head -- "it did not penetrate the skull but he has a headache from hell." Jacob blinked. "I'm sorry, Mother, I didn't mean --"
"Jacob," Esther said in a mother's voice, her hands squeezing his shoulders, "you need not apologize for your language. I would imagine he would describe it in the very same way."
Jacob ran his arms around his mother, squeezed her, held her for a long, long moment, laying his cheek over on top of her head.
She felt her son shivering.
"I was so scared, Mother," he whispered. "I was so scared."

The Judge was restless; rats gnawed at his stomach and he considered continuing his pacing outdoors, lest he wear a long ditch in the carpet of his private car.
Anxious knuckles rapped a tattoo on the door of the car, anxious lips conveyed the news.
His Honor Donald Hostetler collapsed into a padded, velvet-upholstered chair.
"Alive," he whispered. "And I told Sarah ...oh dear Lord, what have I done?"

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Linn Keller 4-20-12

 

I'll make you proud, Papa.
Sarah willed herself not to cry.
Snowflake didn't pace so much as she flowed, a black horse at home in the night with the eyes and the footing of a mountain cat, and Sarah, all in black, her long black coat draping over the Frisian, melding them into one invisible creature, as if dissolved on the wind and sighing through it.
Sarah's belly was tight and heavy as she remembered her Uncle Papa's arms around her, his mustache tickling her ear and his words borne on the hot breath of whispered words ...
I am so very proud of you!
Darkness surged within her, singing power: she could have dipped her heart in it and screamed revenge, could have seized the lance of revenge and ridden for blood: she was tempted, aye, but she was cold, too cold for the heat of vengeance to touch.
The Dark surged and roiled like lava in a volcano's throat, but when it neared her heart, it drew back, for her heart was cold, frozen, and the heat of the dark feared the ice.

Distant ears listened to the clatter of the sounder; a distant hand noted down the terse message it bore; a note was written, set aside for delivery at first light to the Rancho Vega y Vega, down in the border country.

Other darkness ran through the night, other feet were just as sure in the shadowed world of owl and bat: the Bear Killer scented the wind, grinned with all the good humor of a warrior who knew well the taste of blood.
In the distance a wolf howled and the Bear Killer stopped and shoved his muzzle into the night sky and gave a deep, powerful response, baying his challenge to the frosted stars overhead.

An anonymous branch slashed at Jacob's face: eyes watering, he put up an arm, shoved the springy branch aside, urged his stallion on.
He hoped to find Sarah before she found the fleeing murderer.
He did not care whether Sarah killed the man who tried to murder his father.
As a matter of fact Jacob was quite willing to kill the soulless son of Satan himself.
He did, however, care whether Sarah was going to leave any piece of the murderer after she was done with him, that was big enough to carry back for display in a pine box in front of the funeral parlor.

"You reckon they're followin'?"
"You reckon girls wear frillies?"
A derisive snort, or maybe it was a gasp of pain, it was hard to tell.
"Do you ever think about ennythin' but wimmen?"
"Now what d' you think?"
There was a stifled groan as their horses slipped on rock.
"I think you killed that Sheriff."
"Git on, you!" -- there was the sound of leather reins laid hard against a horse's backside, and the horse grunted, keeping its feet on the scree, but not by much.
"Strawberry, I think that Sheriff just plainly beat the dog-stuffing out of Little Pete and you both."
Strawberry's voice was odd, probably because the Sheriff's elbow flattened the man's nose quite thoroughly in their opening bout: his foot ached where the Sheriff stomped his arch and probably broke it, his ribs gave him bright bursts of agony if he moved, which on horseback, could not be avoided: two of his front teeth were loose and his guts ached.
Had his partner not head-shot that screaming tornado of a pale eyed Sheriff, why, likely he'd have got beat plumb to death.
Strawberry's left hand was clutched to his belly: he'd been sliced a good one by that Sheriff's knife, and no idea where it come from, they was no knife on the man's belt and they jumped him and had him in close, too close for him to draw especially when the two of them was a-beatin' the man from two directions, but it didn't matter none: Strawberry nearly got gutted before that white eyed whirlwind cut up Little Pete like he was a side of beef and stuck him like a slaughterhouse steer, just before the gun cracked and the man went down like he was head shot.
Which, of course, he was.
Big Pete didn't take a shot unless it was a head shot.
"Whoa up there, now, whoa."
The trembling horses were only too glad to whoa-up.
The two sat their mounts and listened, listened to the nighttime stillness, listened to a few night birds, to a distant wolf's howl shiver against the frosted skyline.
Strawberry grimaced, bending forward in the saddle.
His legs were cold where he was bleeding steadily onto the saddle and soaking his pants leg.
"We're here. I don't hear nothin'. Let's get a fire goin' and see to your belly."

Sarah stopped, not wanting to wear Snowflake out.
Cold reason overrode hot revenge: the outlaws could afford to wind break their horses, ride them to death at a high altitude.
Sarah had not that luxury.
She heard a familiar bay behind her and smiled -- but not the bared-fang wolf-smile of a predator a-hunt ... rather the smile of someone who was most in need of a friend's comfort, and heard that friend a-coming up behind.
She let Snowflake pick her way to a little rivulet; Sarah dismounted, dipped up water in her hand.
The water was tooth-aching cold, sweet, as only mountain water can be, and Sarah wondered briefly if she shouldn't bring some mountain water with her to Denver, the way the Judge brought spring water from the Buchtel springs, in big jugs, in his private rail car: he said it was the best water he'd ever tasted.
Sarah set the thought aside for later review.
If it were important she would tend to it at the appropriate time.
She stood, listening to the night, a black creature in a dark world, shapeless and invisible and indistinguishable from the broken terrain around her.
"Come to me, Bear Killer," she whispered, her eyes stinging again with the knowledge of her father's murder.
She seized her grief and shoved it viciously into a bottle and stoved the cork in deep and tight on it.
She would deal with her feelings later.
She had a job to do and she would deal with her feelings after the job was done.
Snowflake snuffed at her and Saran stroked the big Frisian's neck, took off her broad brimmed hat and laid her head against the horse.
This time the tears wouldn't stop.

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Linn Keller 4-21-12

 

Judge Donald Hostetler puffed a steady stream of tobacco smoke into the clear morning air as he drove to the Ranch McKenna.
He nodded with approval at the neat whitewashed fences, the tidy pasture and barn, the obvious signs of a well managed operation: the cattle were well fed, well pastured, the old draft mares grazed contentedly not far away --
Butter and Jelly, the Judge thought.
I think Sarah named them when she was a little girl.
The Judge grimaced.
Sarah.
God Almighty forgive me,
he thought.
How big a fool can I be?
She was never a little girl.
I should have realized she is exactly the wrong one to be an agent.
I have loosed the Angel of Death upon the territory, and she carries all the authority and official sanction and blessing of my entire judicial district.


Levi looked up at the brisk rat-tat at the door: the maid stood aside and curtsied as the Judge came in, removing his hat and gloves.
"Levi," the Judge said as tobacco vapors floated in behind him: he'd discarded the cigar outside, but its memory lingered round about the man: Levi took the man's extended hand. "Your Honor," he said, half puzzled and half apprehensive.
Levi heard Bonnie's step behind him.
"Your Honor," she said, and her voice was warm and welcoming.
His Honor Judge Hostetler raised her hand, kissed her knuckles: "My Lady, you grow more lovely every day." He fixed Levi with a bright-eyed expression, trying without much success to stifle a mischievous smile: "Whatever you are doing to this lovely soul, young man, do continue, for I believe she has bloomed ever since you two tied the knot!"
Bonnie blushed, dropping her eyes, and Levi grinned: it was a light moment, a moment the Judge hoped would ease the burden he was about to confess.
"I have made a terrible mistake," he said, "and the fault is entirely mine.
"One of my informants came to me last night with the horrible news that the Sheriff was murdered."
Bonnie's eyes were serious, her face carefully neutral: Levi's instantly put on his poker playing mask, as he called it.
"The Sheriff is alive and expected to recover fully, though he has been ... hurt."
"How bad?" Bonnie murmured, her hand seeking Levi's: he drew her hand across him, then put his arm around her shoulders.
"Bad enough," the Judge grunted, reaching for the cigar that usually occupied the space just ahead of his carefully trimmed mustache. "He was beaten rather severely and shot. I understand his command of salty language remains ... impressive."
"If he can swear," Bonnie said quietly, "he should recover."
"I see you're acquainted with the military mind," His Honor nodded.
"It gets worse."
Bonnie's eyes were wide, apprehensive: Levi felt her hand tighten in his.
"Sarah."
Bonnie's free hand came to her mouth, pressed flat fingers against her lips.
"I sent her after the Sheriff's murderer, believing the man dead. She thinks he is dead and I fear ... I fear I have ..."
The Judge was normally well controlled, tightly self disciplined, but this veteran of war and conflict, law and judgement, this dignified dispenser of judicial decisions, looked away and took a long, slow breath.
"I sent Sarah as my agent, to bring the murderer back if at all possible.
"I fear my mistake may spill blood.
"If that is the case, the fault is entirely mine and not at all hers."
Polly and Opal peeked around the corner at the scene.
Normally they would have run with happy exclamations to embrace the tweedy knees of the dignified old man who dispensed hugs and whisker-tickles like a favorite grandfather.
Something told the twins this was not the time.
Each held the other's hand: they looked at one another, they both shook their heads, and they both pulled back around the corner of the doorway before they were seen.

Sarah woke, wrapped in her coat: she was curled up on her side, with something warm against her back: she blinked, listening, and her hand moved slowly, carefully for the Colt revolver holstered high on her belt.
The Bear Killer raised his head, began washing Sarah's face and ear with quick, buisinesslike swipes of his broad, sandpapery tongue.
If I'm getting my face washed, Sarah thought, there must not be danger nearby.
Sarah remembered the night hefore, when she was feeling absolutely, utterly, totally lost and abandoned, when something nudged her hard behind the knee, shoved hard: she nearly fell, put her hand down for balance, and came down on curly fur and hard muscle.
A familiar cold nose and warm tongue greeted her: Snowflake reached down and snuffed loudly at the Bear Killer, and the Bear Killer gave Snowflake a companionable lick: Sarah knelt on the rocky ground, her arms around her old and dear friend, burying her face in his thick, silky fur.
She'd unsaddled the big Frisian, she'd laid down on the rocky ground and rolled up in her coat, and they made camp.

"Cain't nobody find us here, don't you worry."
"You ain't the one bleedin'."
"Here, take a tilt, kill the pain."
Whiskey gurgled out of the bottle and into the tin cup.
"Cold," he whispered. "I'm cold."
"This stuff'll warm ye."
They, too, made camp, and slept until daybreak.

"I've done all I can," Doctor John Greenlees said. "Now it's up to him. It'll take time to heal."
"What, no magic wand?" the Sheriff rasped through puffy lips.
Doc Greenlees snorted, shook his head.
"Go home, Sheriff. Take life easy and heal up. You can afford to ride a rocking chair now. Let Jacob take the reins."
Jacob's eyes were quiet, serious, as he listened to the exchange.
"Jacob."
The Sheriff looked one-eyed at his firstborn son.
"Sarah?"
"Gone, sir. The Judge told her you'd been killed and he tasked her with retrieving the murderer. He said to bring him back still breathing."
"He shaid to keep him alivff."
"Yes, sir."
"Good." The Sheriff shifted uncomfortably; he was sitting on the edge of the treatment table and had been for all of the good
Doctor's un-gentle ministrations.
"Jacob, my coat."
"Yes, sir."
Jacob held out the Sheriff's coat.
The Sheriff grimaced, reached for the coat with a trembling, bloodied hand.
Jacob did not miss the marks of a hard fight on the Grand Old Man's knuckles.
The Sheriff turned over the lapel of his coat, fumbled for a moment: he swallowed, drew his hand back, opened it, palm up.
The six point Sheriff's star gleamed in his stained palm.
"Jacob," he rasped painfully, "take over."

 

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