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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 4-21-12


Sarah chewed slowly on the good beef sandwich, slowly re-reading the half-sheet of careful script the Judge gave her there in the church.
The Bear Killer had no such delicacy of manners: when Sarah held out the sweet roll and beef sandwich, he carefully peeled back his lips and took it with bared fangs, and as soon as it was within his jaws he drew back, threw his head back and chewed twice before swallowing.
Sarah laughed quietly.
"Would you like one more?" she asked quietly.
The Bear Killer danced a little his big tail whipping from side to side: if it's possible for a canine to grin with delight, he did, and Sarah held out another sandwich and watched it disappear with another chomp and gulp.
"We must be sparing of them," Sarah admonished, closing the sack and spinning it: the Bear Killer sat, licking his chops, and yawned with a huge stretch of blunt jaws and massive neck.
Sarah rubbed Snowflake down, then saddled her up: they drank briefly of good cold mountain water -- beaver fever was as yet not known in the mountains -- and Sarah set the big mare at a fast walk.
She smelled wood smoke and wished to approach it with caution.

The Texan added another stick to his little fire, smelled the inviting bouquet of wood fired Arbuckle's.
Unfortunately, the last of his coffee was also the last of his provisions: his belly was convinced his throat had been cut, but he'd known hunger before, and was ready to content himself with scalding-hot coffee.
He'd done it before; he didn't like it particularly well, what he wanted was a good square meal, but people in hell wanted ice water and that wasn't very likely to happen.
His ear twitched and he looked up, surprised, as the biggest blackest horse he'd ever seen walked almost silently into the clearing, paced by a curly haired dog the size of a young bear.
He looked up at the slender little fellow in a big black coat on top of the horse -- he realized the fellow probably wasn't all that little, but the horse was that big, and he was looking up hill at them -- the young fellow threw a leg over and slid out of the saddle like a child on a schoolyard sliding board.
He had a cloth sack in hand and a six point star on his coat.
"You Grant?" the fellow asked and the Texan's jaw dropped open, because the young fellow spoke with a girl's voice and it genuinely took the man by absolute surprise.
The girl looked at him with amusement, looked around at his tidy bivouac.
"How's for breakfast?"
The Texan shrugged.
"I got coffee," he admitted, "and that's all I had left to fix."
She spun the sack open, rolled the neck down, set it down beside him.
"Here. Help yourself and welcome."
She fished a tin cup out of her saddlebag and poured a long shot of steaming, scalding coffee.
He couldn't see down into the rolled down sack but he reached in and drew out the cutest little sandwich about the size of his fist.
"Oh dear Lord," he whispered, pausing a moment to take a long, appreciative, noisy sniff.
He bit into the sandwich and his stomach rejoiced, and he chewed slowly and thoroughly, closing his eyes to contain the delight he felt.
The Bear Killer had one sandwich, Sarah had two and the Texan had the rest of the entire sackful: there were three left when Sarah leaned over and slapped the outside of the man's left thigh twice, then tilted her head and slapped the outside of his right side twice.
She laughed at the surprise on his face: she was young and she was pretty, and she reminded him powerfully of his own little sister.
"You remind me of my big brother," she explained. "He's a walking appetite on two hollow legs." She pointed to his left leg. "That one's still not full, you'd best eat the rest of those."
The Texan hadn't eaten in so long, why, he wasn't about to argue with her: she blew on her coffee, sipped it carefully while he finished the sack.
"Your coffee is as bad as the Sheriff's," she murmured. "This is awful."
"Yeah, I know," he said, "but these are good." He looked almost sadly at her. "My Mama used to make sweet rolls just like these."
"So did mine."
"You a depitty?"
She nodded.
"You're kinda young, aren't you?"
Her smile was that of a young girl, her voice was light; there was nothing of the hard-eyed lawmen he'd known.
"Tell me about Big Pete and Little Pete," she said quietly.
The Texan froze, his heart shrinking a little.
The girl's smile hadn't changed, her body never moved, but suddenly there was something quietly ... deadly ... about her.
Then he realized what it was.
Her eyes.
She didn't look like his little sister any more.
His little sister's eyes weren't machined out of winter ice.

The Sheriff woke stiff and sore.
That's not really a fair statement.
The Sheriff regretted waking.
He hurt when he slept but he wasn't completely aware of the full extent of his aches and pains.
When he woke, the aches and pains that waited so patiently, attacked him in force: it hurt to lay still, it hurt worse to move: he tried not moving but that hurt too so he went ahead and rolled over on his side.
He stifled a groan, worked his hands slowly closed, open, closed again.
The Sheriff relaxed, or tried to, and ran a fast inventory of his long tall carcass.
He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder, smelled Esther -- warm flannel and lilac -- and heard her gentle voice.
"Would you like some breakfast?" she asked quietly.
He gathered his strength, hung his legs out over the edge of the bed, groaned his way upright: he put his hands on the edge of the bed as he sat with hunched shoulders, putting his feet experimentally on the deer hide rug.
Part of his mind remembered how Angela used to come padding in barefoot and she'd stand on the rug and wiggle her toes into the fur, giggling.
"My dear," he rasped through dry, crusted lips, "I am pleased to report that my right ear and my left ankle are absolutely free of pain."

"Tell me again about the horses they rode."
The Texan looked longingly at the empty cloth sack, looked at the cold-eyed little girl that wasn't a little girl after all.
He told her again the horses they rode, where he saw them, where they said they were headed.
She stood, made a kissing noise: the Texan considered her horse and her dog both must be at least part Texan, for they were both impressive.
"I do thank you for breakfast," he said.
She smiled, and she seemed to soften a little.
"My brother would sooner die than miss a meal," she laughed. "If you take this trail" -- she pointed westward -- "and follow for one day, bearing left at each of two forks, you'll hit a double set of railroad tracks. Cross them at a long angle and the trail picks up again. That'll take you into Firelands. Go to the Silver Jewel and tell the man behind the bar the Marshal's dancing girl said to feed you."
The Texan's brows puzzled together.
"You don't look like no dancin' girl," he said thoughtfully.
"I'm not," she admitted. "I tried it one time and the Marshal nearly killed me."
She took a long step up, hauled herself into the saddle. "Come on, Bear Killer," she called.
The Texan stood.
"I don't know your name."
"I'll tell you," she said, "but only if you give me your word as a Texan that you will not tell anyone except your grandchildren."
Intrigued, the Texan agreed, and she spoke a single word.
He watched her back as she rode up-trail, disappearing into the timber.
"Well I'll be damned," he whispered.

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Linn Keller 4-22-12


"I'm coming with you," Jackson Cooper growled.
If it's possible to imagine a voice coming from an ensorcelled well, a wizard-cursed water hole dug deep into the ground and lined with dwarf-cut stone, that would have been the big Marshal's voice.
Jackson Cooper did not raise his voice, but then he did not have to: where the Sheriff's voice wore a shirt and tie, Jackson Cooper's voice was more of a setting-maul.
Jacob looked up at the town Marshal and nodded, his jaw thrust out and his lips pressed together.
He shoved his hand out and the Marshal's callused paw engulfed it like a grouper inhaling a guppy.
Jacob's hand was not that small.
Jackson Cooper's hand was genuinely that big.
"See here." Jacob turned to his father's desk, to his father's map laid out on top, weighted on one corner with his father's Navy revolver, on another corner with his father's pint of water-clear muscle relaxer.
Tracing the line of railroad tracks with his finger, he said, "Here we are" -- he tapped the neat row of rectangles marked FIRELANDS -- "the railroad runs here -- very likely the trail we want is the one here." His finger slashed a long diagonal across the tracks, very near the depot.
"His Honor's report was that the attack occurred ... " there was the sound of stiff paper as Jacob moved the paper weights into an open drawer, turned to the second, hand-drawn sheet -- "... right about ... here."
Jacob's forefinger thumped firmly at a particular point, and Jackson Cooper frowned, studying the hand drawn map.
"Hold now," he rumbled, his blunt, broken-nailed finger wandering above the paper as he got his bearings. "Where is ... the trail comes in ... here?"
"Yes, that's correct. Mountains all along here, Jefferson Pass here, Cripple is that-a-way."
Jackson Cooper nodded. "I panned for gold through there," he said thoughtfully. "All I got was wet feet and a fish."
Jacob grinned, a quick, bright flash that twisted the big Marshal's gut.
It was for all the world the identical grin his old and dear friend Linn gave him one night back in Sedalia, when the two of them were vying for the attention of the same pretty girl, and at a critical moment Linn patted him on the shoulder and said, "Jackson Cooper, she fancies you," and faded back into the wedge-shaped brick tavern, leaving Jackson Cooper the sole contender for the lovely lass's attentions.
Jacob hesitated, blinking, and the Marshal came back to the here-and-now.
"Memory?" Jacob asked softly, and Jackson Cooper laid a huge hand gently on the slender acting Sheriff's shoulder.
"Your father --" he said, and swallowed, and harrumphed: he turned his head and Jacob turned away as well, for the man seemed to have a speck of something in his eye of a sudden.
They returned to the map in a few moments.
"I believe ... the attack was here" -- thump -- "this trail runs due south" -- a slash of his finger -- "the best information we have, they're headed south fast but that's high country and if they don't have local horses they'll wear down fast. There's a few places to hole up -- here, and here" -- thump and thump of finger on paper -- "and south, there's nothing between them and the Border but open country."
"How far do you suppose they will run?"
"Mexico, if nothing stops them."
"Mexico." Jackson Cooper frowned and Jacob could almost hear gears chuckling against one another between the Marshal's ears. "Who do we have down that-a-way?"
Jacob straightened.
"I went to send a telegram to the only contacts I have down there. Santos Vega y Vega and his brother Eduardo have one hell of a big rancho down on the border country. I got to the Depot and found Sarah already sent what was needed." His smile was without humor. "Knowing that pair of Mexican dandies, they'll have a screen of vaqueros along the north edge of their rancho that could sieve out flea hair from coming south."
"You got water?"
"I got. You got food?"
Jacob hesitated, looked long at his father's hand drawn map.
"You're thinking about Sarah."
Jacob nodded slowly.
"You're thinking she'll kill the murderer."
Jacob looked up at Jackson Cooper.
Jackson Cooper frowned, turned his head a little, curious, the way a big man will.
"I have no doubt she'll kill him. He's a dead man guaranteed. I'm afraid she'll take a week to kill him and when she's done she'll have his hide tanned up and stretched, his scalp polished and hung off her saddle, his skull bleached out and mounted on her saddle horn and she'll have brand new bone handles on her favorite skinnin' knife, an' one guess where the bone come from."
"You don't reckon she'd do that, now, do you?"
Jacob's eyes changed in the space of a heartbeat, and his words were as cold as his eyes.
"I would."

Sarah lay on her belly, spyglass thrust through a hole in the blowdown.
Snowflake and the Bear Killer were well back in another clearing: Snowflake was still saddled, but not bridled; the Bear Killer was dozing in the sunlight, ears twitching a little as the black Frisian cropped grass and loafed, hip-shot, in the morning sun.
Sarah saw the pair down below.
One was hurt and hurt bad: he'd lost a lot of blood and he was the color of wheat paste, shaking and curled up.
Belly wound, Sarah thought.
He's been cut up like that fellow I found.
Sarah cut the trail of this pair as she rode a slow circle.
She followed to the ambush point; she damned her lack of tracking skill, but she recognized the sign of a bad shoe and a lame foreleg, thanks to Charlie's patient instruction: still, until she came to tore-up ground, blood and a body, she was not at all sure how to read the confusion of tracks.
Her jaw thrust out at the sight of the knife sticking up from behind the dead man's collar bone.
He'd been cut seven ways from Sunday and badly beaten besides: she knew this was her Papa's knife, his Masonic mark was incised into a diamond shaped panel on the checkered straight grain grips: Sarah coldly examined the body, relieved it of a wallet, two letters, the stub of a pencil, a pocket watch and a pen knife: she left tobacco and the blood-ruined gunbelt and empty holster.
She did take her Uncle Papa's knife and yank it savagely from the dead man's subclavian fossa.
She wiped the excess gore on the dead man's shirt sleeve.
She might well have good use of her father's knife, and soon.
Curious, Sarah took the man's fingers, bent them to assess the degree of rigor: she looked closely at the dried, dull eyes, grasped the wrist and tried to move the arm.
Satisfied, she looked around, continued on her way.
Now -- having found the scene of her father's murder, and where someone apparently packed off his body, for what dark and horrible purpose she couldn't imagine -- unless he was still alive! -- Sarah seized her feelings and shoved them back down into their bottle, lest they overrun her cold-handed control over them.
No, he's not alive, she thought.
If he was alive when he was taken from here, he's dead now, otherwise His Honor would never have given me such fell news!
Sarah did not doubt the factuality of the Judge's words; he was a man who breathed logic and reason, facts and absolutes, and if he said the sun would rise in the West the next day, why, Sarah would not doubt the man for a moment.
It wasn't two hours later that Sarah found their clearing; it took her another hour of recon to get into position and study out their setup, and as she watched, she thought, and as she thought, she planned.
Finally Sarah smiled and slipped soundlessly back to the Frisian and the bundle tied behind her saddle.
It was time to deploy her deadliest and most effective weapon.
Sarah stripped out of her black outfit, stripped down to her short riding corset and absolutely nothing else, and then unrolled the bundle, exposing major parts of her deadliest and most effective arsenal.
A pair of white, high heeled dancing shoes fell to the ground, and she picked up a pair of silk stockings and a scandalously-cut harlot's dress.
Sarah unwrapped the small jars of face paint and set the tiny little mirror ready to hand and picked up the hair brush.
There was one more item, one thing she got from her Uncle Papa's top, right hand desk drawer.
She smiled as she looked at it, then she started getting dressed.
It was time to go to war.

Jacob left the map open on the Sheriff's desk and headed for the door.
Two guardians of the Law saddled up, there in front of the Sheriff's office, and of all who watched them go, nobody doubted the guilty would be brought back.
Brought back, yes, but very, very dead.

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Linn Keller 4-22-12


Strawberry groaned, holding his belly, shivering weakly.
"Pete," he gasped.
Pete looked annoyed at the dying man's summons, but he came over.
"Yeah, Strawberry."
"Pete, get me a doctor."
"Ain't no doctor around here," Pete said bluntly. "Lemme get you a blanket."
"I got ... I got ..." Strawberry waved weakly at something only he could see.
"Sheet an' a blanket behind m' saddle."
Pete considered whether to tell the man he was dying, or whether he should just ride off.
"Excuse me?" a light, anxious voice called.
Pete uncoiled as best he could -- that pale eyed Sheriff genuinely kicked the dog stuffing out of him, at least until he'd got a shot into the badge packer -- Pete was irritated enough he'd like to resurrect that long tall drink of water so he could kill him all over again.
Pete froze, gun half-drawn, as a ... as a dancing girl came across the meadow?
"Pete," Strawberry whispered, "I'm cold."
"Now what," Pete said, his mouth hanging open in surprise, "what ...?"
"Sir, could you help me?"
She had long, shining hair and a ribbon in it, she had a short skirted, low cut dress, she had legs that ran ... oh dear God, look at those legs! -- why, they go clear up to Hail Columbia! -- lips red, inviting, her cheeks like apples and without need of face paint or powder ... and the morning sun shone invitingly on the chest she displayed with a shameless freedom ...
"I, ah," Pete said, glancing down at the bloodied Strawberry, "yeah ... yeah! I can help you, little lady!"
"Oh, thank you, I -- oh!"
The dancing girl stopped, coming up on her toes, one hand going to her red, red lips, the other hand drawn up in surprise as she saw the injured man.
She turned to the dead horse, stiff and unmoving, yanked at the strings holding the roll behind the saddle: her quick eye detected it was both blanket and sheet, and she seized the free end, gave it a quick snap.
"Here," she said, flipping the bundle up so she could carry it: "hold this," and she shoved the bunch into Pete's arms, reached down and pulled the knife from his belt: running her thumb crosswise of the edge, she frowned, thrust it back in its sheath: "I could ride that from here to Buffalo! I need a sharp --"
She squatted beside the injured man, her hand gentle on his cheek: she looked closely at his flattened nose, the marks on his face: she found his knife, tried the edge: satisfied -- in fact, she gave a little squeak and put her thumb in her mouth -- then she looked up at Big Pete and smiled, and gave her thumb a slow, lascivious lick, and a kiss.
The dancing girl split open the man's shirt and vest, carefully laying them open, exposing what was more than one wound to his belly.
The volume of blood puddled under the man told her he was about bled out; he was pale, waxy, barely shivering.
She pressed gentle fingers to the side of his throat, found the Adam's apple, came down beside it: the pulse was there, but weak, thready.
Not long now, she thought.
She stood quickly, seized the blanket and sheet from Big Pete, backed up a step: holding them both together, she gave a snap, then fan folded them on the ground an inch from the blood puddle.
"Here," she said, squatting again. "You get on that side." Her voice was brisk, buisinesslike: Pete squatted on Strawberry's off side, watching the girl closely.
She seized Strawberry at shoulder and hip and rolled him up toward Pete.
"Hold him there," she said, and Pete did: she trailed fingertips over the back of his hand and gave him a smoldering look, wet her lips, then turned and grabbed the fan folded blanket and sheet.
She slipped them under him, turning the tuck to keep the blanket down against the blood.
"Roll him back," she said, grabbing the man's clothes beside Pete's hands: the rolled the dying man up on his other side and she reached other, pulled blanket and sheet together under him.
"Okay, back on his back."
They rolled him back and she lifted his head, bunched what little blanket there was, under the back of his head.
"What are ya doin'?" Pete asked, wonder in his voice.
"Watch, and learn," she said. "My father was a doctor."
She took the ends of the sheet, split three tails, drew it tight around the man's lacerated and punctured belly: she pulled it tight, then tighter, and used the tag ends to tie it in place: then she wrapped the blanket around him, overlapping the ends.
"You should warm up now," she said gently, her hands caressing his cheek, her expression soft, the look of a mother regarding her sick child.
Strawberry coughed, tried to say something.
"I'm right here," she soothed, laying a hand on his forehead, then the backs of her fingers against his cheek, a mother's touch, soothing, reassuring.
"Angel," he gasped, coughed: blood flecked his cheek, stained his teeth.
"Are you an angel?"
"Ssshhh," she gentled, taking his face in both her hands: "it'll all be fine, it'll be all right."
"You're ... angel ... forgive me," and he coughed again.
"I can forgive nothing," she whispered. "Ask God, only He can forgive."
A tear trickled from the corner of Strawberry's eye and his lips trembled.
"I'm sorry," he choked. "Forgive me."
"Then you are forgiven."
She looked up at Big Pete: unsmiling, she tilted her head.
They withdrew from the dying man.
Sarah took his hands in both hers, her face anxious.
"He's dying and we can't help him," she whispered. "We can stay or we can let him die in peace."
Big Pete looked at the wrapped figure, still in the morning meadow.
"Let's go."
"Can I ride with you?" Sarah asked. "I have two horses, yonder, but it's a walk and I'm afraid these shoes aren't for walking."
Big Pete looked at Sarah with an expression she remembered well.
A look she remembered too well.
Big Pete devoured the good looking young woman with his eyes and she felt his hands tighten on hers.
"You're strong," she whispered. "I like a strong man."
Part of her felt dirty, soiled, as if she'd just laid down in a filthy crib and spread her legs: another part of her, cold and hard, knew she was playing a part, it was an act, and she was following her plan.
Big Pete ran his hands around her and pulled her in to him, thrusting himself against her more than suggestively.
"I'm a hard man," he growled, and his grip was unbreakable.
Sarah's eyes were big as she spread her hands over his chest.
"We have to leave," she whispered. "I don't want my horses to wander."
Pete's eyes shifted.
Sarah knew he wanted to leave as well, and the offer of fresh horses was irresistible.
"My husband," she blurted, then looked down, as if she said something she shouldn't have.
"You're married?"
"Not any more!" she hissed. "Not after he beat me!"
Pete frowned, looking closely at her face.
"Not there!" Sarah hissed, letting her seething anger, the anger she'd kept bottled, slip just a little, just enough to make her believable: she seized Big Pete's wrist, pulled his arm up, slapped the flat of her hand against his armpit.
"If you hit a woman she'll bruise," she said, her voice harsh: "hit her under the arm, here" -- she slapped him again -- "and it hurts!
... but nobody can see it!"
Big Pete's forehead wrinkled.
He was a murderer, yes, a thief and a wanted felon, but he did not abide with hitting a woman.
Unless, of course, he was the one doing the hitting.
"He's got a leather" -- she held her hands about a foot apart -- "it's like a paddle but as wide as a razor strop." She twisted a little as if remembering its burning stroke. "He likes to see me dance."
"Those horses," Pete rumbled. "Where are they?"
Sarah pointed. "Up that trail."
"Let's go."
Sarah held his hand -- or, rather, Big Pete took Sarah by the wrist -- fear closed around her like a cold fog, for the man's grip was strong, tight, unbreakable without some effort -- Sarah knew she could hurt him very badly in very short order, but that was not the plan.
Sarah was putting her faith in a thought-out plan, rather than just responding with pure warrior reflex.
Big Pete let go of her wrist, saddled his horse quickly, with no wasted moves: he hopped once and swung into the saddle, then kicked his foot out of the stirrup, extended his hand.
It was not a gentlemanly offer.
It was the demand of a man who'd just gotten himself a play-pretty.
Sarah raised her leg awkwardly, wobbled a little, got her pointed toed dancing shoe in the stirrup: he pulled and she jumped and gave a little squeak and she was behind him, wrapping her arms tightly around his belly as she settled into a less uncomfortable position.
She pressed herself against him, rubbing against his back in a way she'd seen done many times --too many times -- a move she knew was effective.
"Ooh, you are strong," she cooed, and he patted her hands where they reached around his middle.
"You betcha, little lady," he chuckled.
"I'm not used to spreading my legs so far," Sarah whined.
"Get used to it, honey."

Strawberry drifted between worlds.
He no longer felt the bright pain of the deep slice across his belly, nor the gnawing, burning agony of the penetrating stab wounds that punched his guts and made him wallow like a worm on a fishing hook: no, he was almost completely free of pain, and he wasn't cold now.
He looked up at sky and clouds and saw a bird circling slowly overhead, high up, and the bird became an angel, and he thought of the angel that touched his face, and took away the pain and the fear and the dread he'd felt.
Strawberry knew he was dying.
He wasn't afraid of death now.
He was terribly disappointed that he didn't do well with his life, and he felt a single tear trickle down the side of his face and catch in his ear as he thought of how poorly he'd have to say he did when he stood before the Throne.
"Holy Mary, Mother of God," he whispered, "pray of us sinners, now and at the hour of our death."
He heard the wind start in the treetops and he felt himself fall toward it, and he watched the earth fall away from him on a long, shining arc.

"Where's them horses?"
"Hold up here, let me look."
Sarah held his shoulders, leaned to the right, then she leaned to the left.
"I can't see. Turn your horse to the left, is there a rock face over there?"
Big Pete turned the tired horse.
"I see it!" Sarah said excitedly, but keeping her voice low, as if for fear of discovery: "you'll want to bear to your right."
Big Pete made a sound of surprise as Sarah began kneading his shoulders.
"Take off your coat," Sarah said. "You're all tense."
"I get that way around a good lookin' woman," Big Pete said, lust in his voice, and he shed out of his coat.
Sarah bunched it up in front of her, began rubbing his shoulders again.
"Oooh," she cooed, "you are strong!"
Big Pete chuckled, then groaned. "Little lady, I'll give you about a week to stop that!"
Sarah slowly, carefully, kneaded the man's shoulders, worked her way up to his neck, then began delicately, but with a surprising strength, working the stiffness out of the man's neck.
He felt her shift behind him, and she caressed the curve of his ear.
He could not see Sarah run her hand up the back of her skirt and grip something broad, flat and heavy.
He turned his head a little and Sarah could see the lecherous look on his face, just as she lifted his hat with her left hand and banged him three times behind and above his right ear, just as hard as she could hit him.
Her Uncle Papa's lead filled leather sap made a vicious noise when it hit.

The Appaloosa stallion had ears like an elk, and Jacob knew it.
He twitched the reins ever so slightly, raised his hand, and Jackson Cooper drew to a stop.
They waited a moment, then they heard it again.
A woman's voice, a voice full of grief and full of pain, a woman screaming rage and grief and absolute, utter loss, from the deepest reaches of her very soul.

Sarah was dressed in black again, which suited her fine.
Dolly's costume was carefully stowed behind her saddle.
Big Pete, wrists crossed and tightly tied behind his back, ankles tied together under this horse's belly, growled into his gag: Sarah stuffed one of the man's socks in his mouth, the other sock and both his boots were tied behind his saddle, and he was blindfolded.
I did it, Uncle Papa, Sarah thought.
I got him.
I'm bringing him in.

She remembered how warm and gentle-strong her Uncle Papa's arms were, not the brutal, demanding strength of the filthy animal she'd baited and trapped and now had tied in his saddle.
The loss she'd held at arm's length and more washed over her, consumed her, and she knew she could finally let go.
Sarah tried to hold it in but it was no use.
The one man she'd loved for years and here of late came to love more deeply than anyone in her life, the one truly honest and decent soul she'd let herself fall in love with the way a little girl ought to fall in love with her Papa ...
...dead ...
Sarah screamed and Sarah sobbed and Sarah shreiked, tears scalding down her face and splashed on her gleaming black saddle, and the Bear Killer raised his blunt muzzle and lamented with her, his rolling howl only adding to the bottomless ache Sarah felt.
She reached down and her fingertips brushed the checkered maple handle of her Papa's knife.
The darkness roiled within her and her heart, vulnerable now, could not freeze the passion that enveloped it.
Sarah's eyes went from grief to rage and she seized her Papa's knife.
The sun washed blood over the black fire plain and Sarah gripped the checkered maple handle of the lance and she spat, spat a six pointed star from her, to lay discarded and forgotten on the smoldering landscape.
The black hell's hound glared approval with glowing red eyes and bayed fury and Sarah screamed agony and pain and kicked her black fire mare viciously and brought he lance down and her gown was black and her heart was black and she screamed again as she leveled the lance at the only thing standing on this kingdom of evil, and the figure raised its head and looked at her, and she saw the gleaming silver lance point aimed straight for his heart.
She looked into the man's eyes.
Charlie MacNeil looked back at her.

Jacob leaned into the stallion and the stallion leaned into a gallop, and Jackson Cooper fetched out his Sharps and flipped up the tang mounted peep and laid his big thumb over the heavy percussion style hammer and pounded after Jacob's Appaloosa.

Sarah gasped, blinked: she was back on Snowflake, her hand was just closing around the knife handle.
She looked at the blindfolded, bound, gagged prisoner.
Her Papa was dead and she had the murderer.
Justice, she thought.
Sarah released her hand from the knife handle, straightened.
"No," she whispered, tears chilly on her face: she wiped her cheeks, her nose, on the sleeve of her coat.

Jacob came pounding around the bend in the trail and Sarah waved her hat.

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Charlie MacNeil 4-22-12


He stood stolid in the face of the raging ebony onslaught thundering down upon him. His heavy silver-chased blade was sheathed, silver pommel and worn sharkskin-wrapped grip pointed at the flaming sky above his right shoulder. Better that she learn the lesson in this world than in the world of their home, but learn she must if she was to fulfill her destiny. She had done well to this point, but still had far to go...

He slipped his shield of hammered leather, reinforced with iron, from his left arm and let it thud to the black soil beside his boot. His woolen cloak followed, piling atop the shield in an eye-deceiving heap. Calloused fingers parted the links of mail on his chest, baring his very heart to the razor edge of her lance. His fingers were clasped now at his waist as he awaited his fate. He would die this day, this moment, or not. His life was in her hands, and the hands of God...

The black fire mare sank back on her haunches, great steel shod hooves sliding in the granular soil, plowing deep furrows as the pressure of knee and rein brought her from headlong charge to sudden stop. The mare, warrior to the core, snorted her anger at being denied the satisfaction of seeing a foe struck down. With a massive effort of sinewy muscular grace the hell hound coursing at her side turned aside from his killing leap, whining his frustration...

With a throat-searing shriek compounded of fear, rage, frustration and bloodlust Sarah turned the glittering lance head up and aside at the last moment, the wind of its passage stirring strands of hair above his cheek. His unblinking hazel gaze locked with her glacial orbs. "Sarah!" His lips were tightly closed, yet his shout rang out in her fevered brain, battering her, loosening her in the saddle, setting her swaying. "You must learn control! Control your emotions, or they will control you, and you will die!"

Instantly the landscape around them changed, dry, drifting snow slithering between hulking masses of ice on a thin, keening wind. Sarah stared fearfully down at herself and her mount. The black fire mare had been transformed to a gleaming white, dappled with shifting motes of gray that moved under her gaze as if with a life of their own. She stared down at him, the very foundations of her soul shaking, to see that he was the same as he had been; only she and her surroundings had changed. "How..." she began uncertainly.

"CONTROL!" his voice thundered in her brain, making her wince with its force. "Always and ever! You must channel the rage, make it work for you! Always!" She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them Jacob was in front of her, he and Jackson Cooper...

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Linn Keller 4-22-12


Judge Donald Hostetler hummed a little as he carried the pan of warmed water from the special car's stove, over to his sink.
He worked up a lather in the cup of shaving soap and generously anointed his face, twisting his pursed lips one way, then the other, raising his chin and daubing a great foamy mass under his chin.
The Judge was a tidy man with a military neatness about his person: he was dressed for the day from the belt down; above, he wore but the top of his long handles, the ubiquitous "Union suit" favored by society's high and low alike.
His razor needed but a light honing, no more than a dozen strokes on the fine stone, and he began stropping the blade, first on the coarse side of the strop, then the leather side, and finally regarded himself in the mirror, raised his straight razor much like a conductor raising a baton, and prepared to sculpt whisker stubble and foam into a presentable visage.
The door of his private car slammed open and a black clad figure stood, legs wide apart, silhouetted in the morning sun.
His Honor turned, squinting, carefully folded the unsullied razor and placed it on the sideboard.
The figure closed the door, took off its hat: two braids fell free and the figure turned and dropped into a chair.
Sarah's face was instantly recognizable, in silhouette.
She sat still, absolutely unmoving: though the Judge could not see details for the glare, the set of her rounded shoulders, the angle of her head, all spoke of someone bent under the weight of a deep, personal grief.
I have done this to her, he thought, reaching up and pulling the towel from his shoulder: he wiped the soap from his face, using most of the towel for the task, and walked slowly over to her.
His Honor knelt slowly, going to one knee before and a little to one side: his hands took hers, gently, and he ached as he saw the sorrow in Sarah's young eyes.
She looked at him, her eyes swimming: they were red, bloodshot, her face was wet: the corners of her mouth quivered and pulled down and she dropped her head, quickly, then took a long, shivering breath and found a reserve of strength -- God alone knows from where! -- and raised her head.
She cleared her throat.
"Your Honor," she said in a voice that threatened to fail utterly at any moment, "I have apprehended the murderer of Sheriff Linn Keller. He is alive and in custody and Deputy Jacob Keller should be securing him in the jail at this moment."
"Alive," the Judge murmured.
"Yes, sir," Sarah nodded, fresh tears spilling down her cheeks: "there were two others, one the Sheriff killed when they all three jumped him and tried to beat him to death, one he pretty well gutted before the third one shot him."
She squeezed her eyes shut, hard.
"I need to go ... find his body ... it wasn't ..."
Sarah tried without success to contain the grief tearing her apart: her hands closed into quivering fists and she pressed them against her screwed shut eyes and made choking noises as the grief cascaded through her and threatened to rip her asunder.
His Honor the Judge gathered her into his arms and she leaned into him, sliding out of the chair and going to her own knees and she buried her face in his chest and cried.
His Honor the Judge did not consider the Sarah he'd known, nor the Sarah of Ragdoll legend; he did not consider the remarkable young woman who jumped a great monster of a horse, riding it over fences and gates like a leaf rides a fall wind; he did not consider the Sarah who'd coldly, dispassionately killed bank robbers and reavers and who leaped fearlessly onto grown men like a wildcat leaping on a field mouse: no, the Judge was more of a grandfather in this moment, holding a grieving child, rocking her a little and holding her, for this is what she needed: the shelter of grandfatherly arms, where she could let a scared little girl cry herself out.
When Sarah was able, the Judge had her sit in the chair again; she stared vacantly at the baseboard of the opposite wall as the dignified old Judge finished dressing: she took his arm and shuffled out of the car, and down the painted, pinstriped stair steps to the ground: a carriage was waiting, as it always was, freshly brought from the livery, and the Judge helped Sarah in.
Snowflake, unbridled but saddled, drifted over, curious; as the Judge flipped the reins, Snowflake fell in behind the carriage.
Sarah's eyes were vacant as they drove through town and to the Keller household, with its tidy house and tight barn and grove of apple trees Sarah loved so well.
Sarah closed her eyes, steeling herself for what she must do.
It was not uncommon -- in fact, it was the rule and not the exception -- for the dead to be displayed in the parlor of their own home.
Sarah's feet were like lead, as was her stomach, and she moved like a string puppet up the steps to her Uncle Papa's porch, and through the doorway.
The coffin will be in his study, she thought.
He would like that.
She leaned on the Judge's arm, gripping it tightly, for she did not trust her knees: they seemed weak of a sudden.
Sarah held back, closed her eyes, raised her chin, took a long breath, stepped across the threshold into her Uncle Papa's study, and opened her eyes.
The Sheriff smiled crookedly at her and said "Hello, Sarah," and his eyes were dark with affection.
The wind went out of Sarah.
Her jaw hung down to about her belt buckle and her hand released the Judge's arm like a railroad car being uncoupled.
Sarah's eyes were very round and she said in a tiny little voice, "Papa?"
The room turned around her and a glittering silver curtain sparkled down over her vision.

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Linn Keller 4-23-12


Charlie more felt the horse's approach than heard it.
He set a chunk on the splitting stump and squinted at it a little, then spun the ax and clove the chunk neatly in two.
He was working with dried wood, seasoned wood, and he was steadily, industriously recucing this pile to kindling.
They were coming into the warm season but "warm" is a relative term, especially this high up: besides, there was always the cook stove to fire, and Charlie was a man who liked his Saturday night bath, whether he needed it or not.
He set another chunk up on the stump; the ax spun a shining wheel around him and drove into the exposed grain, the two halves falling on either side of the stump.
He chopped the ax into a waiting-to-be-split chunk and let it sit there and repent of its sins: he'd been at this for some time and it was time to fetch up a dipper or three of water, and besides, he wanted to watch Sarah float that big mare over the fence rail like she always did.
Normal folks use the gate, Charlie thought.
Hell, I was young once myself.
The man grinned at the memory of good horses and the magic that exists only with a good saddle-mount: his belly soared as he watched Sarah, pigtails celebrating their escape from her broad brimmed black hat, as she pounded toward the high rail fence and then shot over them like she was launched out of a field gun.
Even at the distance, Charlie could see the broad grin on her face.
Charlie remembered wearing that very grin, and for the very same reason.
He turned and pulled the dipper out of the water bucket, savoring the taste of groundwater-cold, highly mineralized well water.
Sarah swung around back of Charlie's cabin, swinging wide out of respect for the chickens that scratched and fussed and profaned one another in the feathered Billingsgate that was their common tongue: she saw Charlie and steered a course straight for him like she was aiming a naval gun on the deck of a ship.
Charlie took a breath, took another long drink, slung the dregs into the dirt and dropped the dipper back into the bucket.
Snowflake coasted to a nice easy stop and Sarah threw a leg up and slid out of the saddle, for all the world like a happy little boy sliding down the sanded, waxed sliding board in the schoolyard: she landed easily, skipped over to the man, and stopped an arm's length away from him.
Charlie regarded her with a patient expression, his off hand hooked in his belt.
Sarah took a slow step toward him, her eyes going from child-happy to woman-troubled: she raised her hand, slowly, and Charlie saw it tremble, just a little.
Sarah withdrew her hand as if afraid to touch him: she swallowed and took another half-step toward him, and reached for him again, slowly, her hand shaking a little more.
Charlie waited, his eyes quiet, knowing.
Finally Sarah gave up and seized Charlie by the vest -- she grabbed him hard, pulled -- she slapped her hands on his shoulders and squeezed hard, squeezed shoulders carved from seasoned oak -- she tilted her head a little to the left, then carefully, almost fearfully, reached up and slid one finger between the hair of his head and his high cheekbone.
Sarah was breathing through her nose but Charlie could hear her breathing quickly: finally she laid her hand flat against his cheek and she looked him square in the eye, her other hand pressing against the center of his chest.
"You trusted me," she whispered. "Thank you."
Charlie blinked as Sarah seized him around the chest and hugged him, hard, surprising him with the strength in this slender little girl's body.
"Easy, darlin'," he said, and Sarah shook her head, not slacking her grip one little bit.
She looked up at the man's weather lined face.
"You were right, Uncle Charlie," she whispered. "You were right."
Sarah laid her head against her Uncle Charlie's chest.
"Better I learn there than here."
He felt her gather a great, sighing breath, let it out.
"Uncle Charlie?"
"Hm?" Charlie's eyes were dark as he looked down at the top of her head, scarred, callused hands strong and reassuring as they spread out over her back, returning her hug.
'I'm glad you're not a ghost."
Charlie nodded, the smile at the corners of his eyes not quite making it down the rest of his face.
"Somethin' tells me that's not the first time you said that today."

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Linn Keller 4-23-12


Linn --
i don't know where you Found him but he is a God Send and I owe you a Hekatomb or at least a Beer next i see You.
i was losin more Money than i Made until he come and set down with my Books and when he told me what had been going On I fired the Scoundrels that were Robbing Me without a Gun.
Matter of Fact i have Charges against them and my Lawyer says we have a Right Fair Chance to get my Money Back if they have not spent it All.
Next Time you want to Send me Someone Sight Unseen you go right Ahead.
This is the second Time you have Pulled me Out of a Hole and I am Obliged to you old Friend.

The Sheriff nodded, carefully, for his head was prone to feel like it was being clove in two by a madman's broad ax: it helped to wear his hat indoors and he suspected it was because the hat band kept the halves of his skull together and allowed them more a chance to heal than if they flopped apart.
The Sheriff carefully folded the letter and slid it in one of his desk's pigeon holes.
He'd sent that one handed fellow to an acquaintance out Californy way, about twenty mile or so north of Sutter's Mill: his old friend Thomas went out with full intent to get rich, but he did it the smart way, by selling goods to the fellows who intended to get rich by striking gold.
Apparently, he thought, he is that good a book keeper.
The Sheriff looked up at the Regulator clock.
It was another two hours before he'd have to head into town for Court.
He reached for the brandy flask.
It was two hours before he had to leave, but it was just the right time for some pain killer.

Sarah looked at the pale figure in the rough lumber box.
“We’ll take him out and plant him in about an hour,” Digger said.
“Have you arranged for Brother William, or the Parson?”
Digger hesitated, looked away.
Sarah’s eyes were noticeably lighter when he looked back up at her.
“I’ll fetch him,” Digger mumbled. "Won't nobody object if the funeral's some later."

Normally the criminal dead were wrapped in a blanket and rolled into the common hole in what was known simply as "The Other Graveyard."
Sarah’s quiet glare was sufficient to have Digger dispatch his excavators to prepare a separate, coffin-square and decently deep, grave for the dead outlaw.
Digger’s departure was brief; he returned in a few minutes, slipping in the side door as he usually did.
He heard Sarah’s quiet voice in the front parlor, where the pending burials were laid out for viewing.
Curious, he looked through the door; he watched for a couple of minutes, then drew back, his eyes stinging.
Sarah’s head was bowed; her hand was on the edge of the casket, and light from the big front windows gleamed brightly through the green-glass Rosary she held.
“She didn’t know him,” Digger whispered to himself.
“Why’s she doin’ that fer a stranger?” – and he listened, and smiled a faraway smile, for her voice sounded so much like his own mother’s voice, and Digger remembered how his mother sat beside his sickbed, reciting the same ancient litany, rocking slowly in the handmade rocking chair, the only thing she inherited from her own mother.
Digger remembered how comforting his Mama's voice had been, and he heard that same voice from the front parlor.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee
“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ …”
Digger turned away and fumbled for a kerchief.
Must be them embalmin’ chemicals, he thought. I need to air this place out, it’s a-burnin’ my eyes.

“Please, be seated,” the Judge said in a kindly voice.
Sarah smoothed the skirt beneath her, sat: she chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, then looked up at the dignified older man with the carefully sculpted beard, seated behind the table at the back wall.
“With respect, Your Honor,” Sarah said slowly, “I would rather not testify.”
His Honor considered Sarah’s words carefully.
“My dear, I may have to require your testimony.”
Sarah thought for several moments before her reply.
“Your Honor, if you want me as an agent of the Court, is it your wish that I be known as such?”
“I don’t understand your question.”
“I think you do.”
The Judge blew a liquid stream of tobacco smoke into the stillness of the empty courtroom.
“I am known as a schoolmarm, and as the crippled up daughter of a successful dressmaker.
“I’ve taken pains to maintain this façade.
“Few have seen me on Snowflake and fewer saw me in black.
“Might I serve the Court better if I were … unknown?”
His Honor frowned, pursed his lips.
“No,” he said finally. “I don’t think so.” He drew on the Cuban; its tip glowed brightly behind the white, fluffy ash.
“For one thing,” he said, “it is deucedly difficult to maintain a secret.
“For another, if you continue your work as a schoolmarm, when you are dressed as a schoolmarm, then you are the schoolmarm: people know you here as a schoolmarm. Should anyone from outside ask for you, why, they’ll be pointed to a mousy little schoolmarm who obviously couldn’t whip her way out of a paper sack.
“If, on the other hand, you’re seen riding hard and all in black, people will draw back from you because you will be someone very different.
“Besides” – his eyes sparkled behind the rising cloud of hand-rolled smoke – “the accused has the right to be faced by the accuser, and if you face them as the figure in black, you aren’t our little schoolmarm, and you aren’t your mother’s daughter: you are that someone entirely different.”
Sarah leaned her head back, frowning at the tin ceiling tiles along the top of the wall.
“Then,” she said, “let me use a different name.”
Sarah’s eyes were quiet, half-lidded: she looked innocent and harmless and His Honor knew this meant she was innocent, all right ... like a snake ready to seize a bird and swallow it whole.
“Here -- here in my home -- I am Sarah McKenna. My mother took Levi’s name and is now a Rosenthal. Might I be wise …”
His Honor chuckled.
“My dear, you continue to surprise me,” he smiled, his eyes merry: “if you wish to be known here as Sarah McKenna, then you may certainly be known as Sarah Rosenthal otherwhere, should that be your wish.”
Sarah nodded.
“It probably won’t do any good, but yes, Your Honor, I wish that.”
“Very well, Agent Rosenthal.”
Sarah was obviously still turning something over in her mind.
“Your Honor, I shall be testifying against the man I thought murdered my father.”
“The man who attempted to murder him.”
“Yes, sir. When he saw me, when I took him in, I was dressed …”
Sarah’s face colored ferociously and the Judge laughed aloud, flicking the ash from his cigar.
“I … yes, you were, I read your report,” he nodded. “My congratulations, by the way, Agent Rosenthal. You came up with a plan no man could have ever pulled off!”
“Thank you, Your Honor,” Sarah said faintly, “but what shall I wear for my testimony?”
His Honor blinked, considering.
“Clothing would suggest itself,” he said finally, then coughed and spat: “I’m sorry, that wasn’t helpful, was it? No, I suppose you’re afraid I will compel you to appear on the stand in rather scandalous attire.”
Sarah nodded, looking away, not quite trusting her voice.
“I would suggest you dress in black, Agent Rosenthal.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“By the way.”
“Yes, Your Honor?”
“I understand you borrowed your father’s sap for the occasion.”
“I did, Your Honor.”
“And you borrowed a deputy sheriff’s star as well.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“For that, Agent Rosenthal, you have my apologies. Please approach the bench.”
The Judge stood, stepped from behind the table that served as his judicial bench, and also as the repository for cigars, ashtray, water-pitcher and his gold-banded, cherry-wood gavel.
Sarah rose, walked the few steps to where the Judge stood.
His Honor pulled a small pasteboard box from his coat pocket.
“Agent Rosenthal,” he said, “you have distinguished yourself in this most recent matter with your ingenuity, your bravery, your intelligence and your perseverance.
“It is my pleasure to present you with your insignia of office.”
His Honor removed the lid from the box and Sarah’s mouth opened with surprise.
The box held a dull gold shield: a scroll across the top was hand-engraved, FIRELANDS DISTRICT COURT.
Across the middle, in angular relief, the word AGENT, rising brightly from the dull, stippled, bronze colored background.
Under this, a second banner, and the engraveure, COLORADO.
“I think,” His Honor the Judge said quietly, “this should serve.”
Sarah stared at the badge for … oh, about three hours, until the Judge broke the spell with, “Agent Rosenthal, you may wish to change clothes. Court will convene in an hour.”
Sarah blinked, took the box carefully from him, placed the lid on the box.
“Yes, Your Honor,” she said, then on impulse, raised up on her toes and kissed the Judge on the cheek: she whirled, ran from the courtroom, almost skipping as she went.
His Honor Donald Hostetler looked for several long moments at the door through which Sarah made her escape.
Finally he took the cigar from between tobacco stained teeth and murmured, “My dear, had my own daughter lived, I could but hope she would be as fine a young woman as you are becoming!”

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Linn Keller 4-24-12


"Now that was the damndest thing," the Texan said in his soft voice: "there I was, an' my belt drawed up to the last notch, fixin' my last Arbuckles and debatin' whether to drop in a couple rocks to thicken it up some, an' here come some little fella' all in black."
The Sheriff nodded, taking a slow pull on his beer.
"I hadn't had a bite for a day and a half and that coffee was the very last of anythin' I had left.
"This skinny little feller come slidin' down off the biggest, blackest horse ever did I see" -- he fixed the Sheriff with a good-humored grin -- "an' I'm from Texas! I seen some big horses, Sheriff!"
The Sheriff smiled a little, nodded again.
"He come up an' said how's for a meal an' I offered him what I had, so he opened up a cloth sack and said to he'p myself, an' I did.
"Sheriff" -- the Texan set his beer mug down, his expression guileless as he looked back at the memory being described -- "I ain't never met an angel, but this feller might qualify, for that-there poke was plumb full of split in two light rolls, them sweet rolls like my Mama used to make, an' the best meat ever did I set my teeth into!"
The Sheriff nodded, slowly, carefully, and took a slow pull on his beer.
"Well, now, we set there an' et them sammitches" -- the Texan's grin flashed, broad and bright -- "I reckon he didn't eat but two or three, an' he had a big black dog that looked like you could plow with him, an' he et two or three, an' I reckon I oughta be ashamed but I et the rest of that whole sack full."
"Are you?" the Sheriff asked, his eyes dark and amused.
"No, sir, not one bit!" the Texan declared. "I was about starved out an' that-there feller saved me from a terrible death from my belly comin' up an' stranglin' me fer not feedin' it!"
The Sheriff nodded, leaned a little heavier on the bar.
Mr. Baxter polished his way over to the lawman, picked up one beer mug, then the other, wiping the wet from under before replacing them.
"How's the head?" he asked quietly.
"Hurts like two hells," the Sheriff muttered.
"This ought to help." He lifted his chin, looking down the hall, made a quick gesture the Sheriff didn't quite catch: not half a minute later, a big mug of sinner's-heart-black coffee was set down at his elbow, an anonymous but feminine hand dumped in a good jag of cream from a sweating-cold pitcher, and Mr. Baxter added a good gurgle of something water clear and not over thirty days old.
"There," he said. "Headache medicine."
The Sheriff pushed his beer away and carefully picked up the medicinal.
"Now that young feller," the Sheriff said, slurping noisily at the fortified Arbuckles, "did he say anythin' else?"
The Texan looked a little troubled; he hid his discomfort in draining what was left of his beer.
"Sheriff, I don't quite know who she was but I think maybe she was a-lookin' for someone ... maybe she was bounty huntin', I don't know, but she was a-mighty interested in some fellas I rode with for a little."
"She was interested in their horses, one lame, one with a bad shoe."
The Texan looked long at the lawman with the beat-up face.
"Yes, sir, she was."
"And you was surprised she was a girl."
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff tilted his head, regarded the Texan's worn and faded jeans.
"Looks like one of them legs is still empty," the Sheriff said. "Park yourself and order up somethin'."
The Texan looked sharply at the Sheriff.
"She said somethin' about that," he said cautiously. "She smacked m' one leg an' the other'n and said one was still empty, I'd oughta eat the last of them-there sammitches."
The Sheriff nodded.
"I gather," the Texan continued cautiously, "she was a-huntin' blood."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Someone was kilt an' she wasn't too happy about it."
The Sheriff removed his hat to reveal the shaved stripe down the middle of his head, the stitch-puckered, scabbed wound where the bullet gouged out a long ditch of flesh and some bone.
"I didn't get killed," he said, "but it was a near thing."

"Miz Cooper?" Johnny asked, his spread-finger hand waving like an airborne starfish.
"Yes, Johnny?"
Johnny's hand came down and he stood, wood-framed slate in hand.
"Miz Cooper, will Miz Sarah be back today?"
Anxious faces regarded the bespectacled schoolmarm.
Emma Cooper looked at Johnny with a kindly expression: she fished in her apron pocket, pulled out a folded paper.
"Class, we have a note from Miss Sarah, and a new word to learn.
"She said, 'Please forgive my absence. My shoulder aches abominably and I must see the Doctor. I will try to be in today. Yours, Sarah.'
"Now, class, who can tell us the meaning of the word abominable?"
Johnny looked around, uncertain and big-eyed: young heads turned, searching, and finally Jenny raised her hand tentatively.
"Yes, Jenny?"
Jenny stood, clutching her slate to her belly, clearly nervous at speaking.
"It means snowman," she said with a sincere nod that set her braids swinging.

"Come in," Dr. Greenlees called, not looking up from the ledger-book he used to keep his professional records.
Hard heels crossed the room and he looked up to see a startling-bright pair of pale blue eyes regarding him solemnly.
Dr. Greenlees laid the pen down on the green desk blotter, turned back to his visitor, just in time for a pair of lean, strong arms to wrap around his neck, a strong, budding young body press against his, and a whisper in his ear:
"Thank you," Sarah said, and Dr. Greenlees, not quite certain what to do, put his arms around Sarah's ribs and held her gently, carefully, for a long moment.
Sarah drew back and Dr. Greenlees noted she was trembling a little: she bit her bottom lip and looked ... well, almost sad, he thought, and Sarah took his hands in hers.
"Thank you," she whispered, "for taking care of my Papa," and then she let go of his hands and whirled, running from his office like a scared rabbit.
It took Dr. Greenlees several long moments to put together the pale eyes, the word "Papa," and his most recent, most seriously injured patient.
He raised one eyebrow and considered this.
"As I suspected," he murmured, then he turned his swivel chair and reached for the pen once more.

The Sheriff settled himself carefully into the straight backed chair in the front row.
Esther and Angela sat behind him; a little to one side, Bonnie and Levi: the Irish Brigade was present in force, as they always were, for they delighted in this regular entertainment, adjourning after court to the Silver Jewel, where they drank and loudly debated the merits of each case, at times sounding like they were going to rip one another's heads off: disputes were settled with a turn of the card, the toss of a coin -- another good reason legal matters were tended in Judge Hostetler's courtroom, for justice is a chancy thing when the gavel's fall depends on a well oiled coin toss.
A figure in a long black coat, wearing a wide brimmed black hat, and with a rectangular, shield shaped badge on the lapel, ghosted silently into the courtroom and settled soundlessly beside the Sheriff.
His Honor Judge Donald Hostetler nodded to the bailiff.
"All rise," the Bailiff called, stuffy and officious in his blue coat with too many buttons and his cap that looked like he'd stolen it from the conductor on the Z&W Railroad: as the assembled came to their feet, he glared sternly about the room, as if to guarantee that everyone present was standing.
The Bear Killer was not impressed; he lay down and gave a truly wide yawn, to which the Bailiff wisely paid no attention.
"This regular session of the Firelands District Court will now come to order. All who have business before this honorable Court will draw near and attend. God Save This Honorable Court!"
The Bailiff glared at the pair in the front row.
His Honor saw the glare and cleared his throat.
"It is protocol," he said in an orator's voice, "to remove the cover in court, to show respect for the Court: for this session, I waive that custom, and give my leave to our distinguished witnesses to retain their covers."
The Bailiff looked like he'd just bitten into a sour pickle.
His Honor the Judge picked up the first sheet on the small stack before him.
"In the matter of Quincy versus Macdonald, are both parties present?"
Quincy and Macdonald was quickly settled; Quincy tried to cheat Macdonald out of a bill, and Macdonald thrashed Quincy with a belt, and Quincy thrashed Macdonald with a length of harness, and Macdonald tripped Quincy with a pitchfork and dumped him face first into a horse trough: by the time the two exchanged insults, threats and a very colorful description of exactly what happened, the Court was wiping its collective eyes with kerchiefs or sleeves, and His Honor was obliged to smack the table top a few times to restore a sense of decorum to the amused masses.
"Mr. Macdonald," the Judge said, "has the due amount been paid?"
"It has not, Your Honor."
"Mr. Quincy, were the services delivered as agreed?"
"They were not, Your Honor."
"Mr. Macdonald, what were the services you allegedly failed to produce?"
Macdonald puffed himself up with the air of a man suffering a bad case of wounded pride.
"Your Honor, he wanted me to put a skunk in McGillicutty's outhouse!"
"A skunk."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"And did he pay you for this?"
"He did not, Your Honor!"
"And did you put the skunk in the outhouse?"
"I did not, Your Honor!"
"And why not?"
Macdonald looked half sheepish and looked sidelong at McGillicutty, sitting in the audience.
"I figured I'd get caught an' I'd ha'e no chance a' sparkin' his darlin' daughter."
His Honor was obliged to wait a few moments before rapping for order.
"I find," he said at length, "that this is a matter of some delicacy.
"Mr. Quincy, do I understand that you yourself have designs upon the young lady in question?"
Quincy's guilty expression would have sufficed for an answer had the man not mumbled an affirmation.
"And you, too, believed Mr. Macdonald would be caught."
"Yes, sir."
"I see."
His Honor leaned back in his chair, snipped the end off a Cuban; puffing it into life, he dropped the Lucifer in the cuspidor, blew a big cloud of smoke into the atmosphere and frowned.
"Mr. Quincy is hereby sentenced to be thrashed with a belt and dumped into a horse trough.
"Mr. Macdonald is hereby sentenced to be addressed with a length of harness-leather.
"These penalties are retroactive and if they are already suffered, then the Court is satisfied.
BANG went the gavel, and the pair, red-faced, withdrew from the courtroom, and were seen later that day in the Silver Jewel, commiserating with one another over beer and free lunch, for it wasn't five minutes after they left the courtroom that they learned the McGillicutty girl was married two days before.
"Next case."
The other cases were of similarly grievous import and earth-shaking significance, though none were as amusing as the opening act.
Finally the Judge stubbed out what little was left of his cigar and picked up the final sheet before him.
"In the attempted murder of Sheriff Linn Keller," he read aloud, and the entire court went deathly, absolutely, silent.

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Linn Keller 4-24-12


"Now Sheriff, could you tell the court what happened on the day in question?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
The Sheriff worked his backside a little, trying to find a comfortable position.
"Y'know, the older I get, the harder these chairs get," he said softly, and an appreciative ripple of laughter washed through the courtroom: even the normally poker faced Judge smiled a little.
He, at least, had a padded seat, thanks to a pillow made by one of the ladies of his acquaintance.
The Sheriff cleared his throat, frowned.
"I had a warrant for one Peter Adams, alias Big Pete, alias Pete the Head Hunter, and I had information that said individual was nearby, so I went to get him.
"Pete was on foot so I dismounted and approached him on foot.
"I was careless and didn't even see the second fellow come up behind me and belt me across the kidneys with a club.
"I went down half blind with pain and the three of them jumped me and commenced to try and beat the liver and lights right out of me."
He raised a hand to his bruised and cut face.
"They come close to succeeding.
"I was in amongst the swarm and no chance to draw but I got rolled over and addressed them.
"I kicked one off me and rolled out from under the second and got to my feet and I stood up just in time to catch a fist right here."
Careful fingertips barely touched the tender and purple-blue-black knot under his left eye.
"I laid into 'em with elbows and fists and kicked 'em a few times and it was belt buckle to belt buckle an' no chance to draw so I got hold of my boot knife and made good account of myself.
"Once I laid one's belly open and sliced the second fella and he backed up I looked up in time to see Big Pete yonder" -- he nodded to the handcuffed prisoner -- "fetch up a pistol and it felt like someone clubbed me a good one."
"So you were shot."
The Sheriff took off his hat, bowed his head a little, turned it back and forth to give jury and audience alike a chance to see the damage.
"Yes, sir. I got shot."
"What happened then?"
"Wellsir, I don't rightly know. From then on I don't have much memory, not until Doc Greenlees run a John Deere three bottom plow through my scalp and sprinkled in coal oil and gun powder an' set it afire, or so it felt."
When Defense cross examined, the attorney tried to discredit the Sheriff by claiming he'd started the fight and the three acted in self defense; his arguments fell flat, mostly because of the sight of the stitched and healing stripe down the middle of the Sheriff's scalp.
"Thank you, Sheriff, you may step down."
The Sheriff stood cautiously, settled his hat back on his head, and walked carefully back to his seat.
"The court calls Agent Rosenthal."
Sarah stood, her coat unfastened; it was almost ankle long on her, split up the back to belt level for convenience when riding: she looked almost like a little kid dressing up in Daddy's big coat.
Sarah swore in and was seated.
"State your name and occupation for the record."
"S. L. Rosenthal, Agent, Firelands District Court."
"Agent Rosenthal, on the day in question, what happened?"
His Honor was mulling over her response.
He'd never heard her use "S. L. Rosenthal" before, and he wondered what the L stood for.
"I was given to understand the Sheriff was shot and killed, and I was instructed to find and apprehend the murderer."
"Did you do so?"
"I did, sir."
"The Sheriff wasn't killed, was he?"
"No, sir."
"You did not know this."
"I acted on the information given me, which was accurate to the best of my knowledge."
"I see."
"I proceeded with the information given me and gathered facts as they were available. I also gathered materials useful to me."
"What were these materials?"
"A disguise, sir."
"Yes, sir."
"Since when is it necessary for an Agent of the Court to adopt a disguise?"
"Since the accused is big and the Agent is not," Sarah said reasonably.
"And just what did you do that required a disguise?"
Sarah smiled quietly ... a dangerous smile, the smile the Sheriff saw one night when Sarah skinned a card sharper out of his entire fortune, the smile she had just before she laid down her winning hand and the sharper called her a cheat and nearly inherited a .44 between the eyes for his trouble -- not Sarah's, but another player, who took offense that a lady should be addressed in such a manner.
Sarah pulled the Sheriff's lead sap from her coat sleeve: black, broad and long, it was impressive to see, and Sarah swung it against her leg, not hard, but enough to make noise.
"The man had murdered one of the most feared lawmen in the territory.
"I have no wish to go head to head with such a dangerous man.
"I have no qualms about fooling him into letting me close enough to bang him on the head with this, and that's just what I did."
Big Pete surged from his seat, was seized by his shoulders and slammed back down in the chair: Pete was big but Jackson Cooper was bigger, and Big Pete landed his backside rather un-gently in the hard bottom chair.
"I see." Pause. "And you ... got close to him ... how?"
Sarah took a patient breath.
"I borrowed a costume that made me look young and helpless," she said quietly. "I came upon Big Pete and the man called Strawberry.
"I looked like a doxy and played up the part, told him my father was a doctor and I tended Strawberry as best I could.
"I told Big Pete the man was dying and nothing we could do to help, but I had two fresh horses and a husband I'd run away from might be along and we'd really ought to leave."
"I see."
I'm tired of hearing him say that, Sarah thought.
"Exactly what was your attire in that moment, Agent Rosenthal?"
Sarah made a gesture: there was a stir from the back of the courtroom and Dolly came skipping forward, for all the world like a little girl ... a little girl in a scandalously short skirt, with a shocking amount of decolettage on display, silk stockings and high-heeled dancing shoes and a ribbon in her hair.
She brushed past the defense table and Big Pete's eyes bulged, his lips snarling back and his eyes glaring at the sight of the dancing girl.
Dolly struck a dramatic pose, turned, smiling, one hand on her hip, thrusting the other out; then she turned, a dancer's turn, curtsied quickly to the bench and to the jury, and ran back out of the courtroom.
It would be fair to say that the courtroom had seldom ever experienced as complete a silence as gripped the room for the duration of Dolly's appearance.
The prosecutor had the same expression as a cardinal in the Vatican watching a fan dancer breeze into the Cathedral.
Even His Honor the Judge had eyes for nothing but the pretty girl in the short skirt and long, lovely, silk stockinged legs.
"I told him the shoes I wore were not good for walking, could I ride behind him and I would guide him to the horses.
"He could not resist fresh horses and a pretty girl and when we were part way there I belted him over the head with this" -- she held up the slapper -- "just as hard as I could, three times."
"That's ... impressive," the prosecutor said faintly.
"He didn't fall off his horse and thank God for it. I was able to tie his wrists behind his back, then I pulled his boots and socks -- stuffed one in his mouth to keep him quiet and tied it with a rag, blindfolded him with his own wild rag -- and about that time Deputy Keller and Marshal Cooper came up trail."
Big Pete glared at Sarah, lips sneered back in a silent snarl.
"I'll get you," he whispered. "I'll get you!" -- and his hands writhed in the tight steel cuffs, as if seeking to take her throat and crush it.
There were more questions, from both Prosecution and Defense; the case went to the jury, and the jury returned a guilty verdict: Big Pete, upon hearing the verdict, rose and swore loudly and most disagreeably at Judge, jury, Sheriff and Agent: Jackson Cooper had his hands full containing the raging prisoner, and Sarah scampered from her chair, climbed up on another and belted Big Pete hard over the top of the head, twice, with her father's lead filled slapper.
Jackson Cooper held the man's shoulders as Big Pete sat with his aching head in his ironed hands: the man looked up as the Judge prepared to pass sentence.
"The prisoner will rise," the Bailiff said officiously.
"Stand up, Pete," Jackson Cooper rumbled.
Pete leaned forward, tried to stand: Jackson Cooper had him under the arms, steadying him.
"Peter Adams, this court finds you guilty of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.
"You are hereby sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead, and may God have mercy on your corroded soul."
"Agent Rosenthal, if you please," the Judge said in a bored voice, and Sarah stood, eyes pale, and crossed the floor, swinging the sap like a cat switching its tail just before pouncing.
"Allow me," the Sheriff said, swaying a little as he stood.
Sarah handed the Sheriff his sap and took one step back.
The sap was loud as he belted Big Pete over the left ear.
"Agent Rosenthal," the Judge summoned Sarah, and Sarah handed the slapper to her Papa and crossed the room to stand before the judicial bench.
His Honor looked around as the crowd filed out the doors, following the condemned man outside.
"I must admit," he said, "your skill with your father's sap is impressive."
Sarah smiled. "Like the wise man said," she replied, "you have to get their attention first."
His Honor chuckled.
"I have a question."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"When you gave your name ...?"
"The 'L'?"
His Honor nodded.
Sarah smiled.
"I took more than Rosenthal for my nom de guerre."
"I took my Papa's name as well."
His Honor tilted his head a little, curious.
"Agent Sarah Lynn Rosenthal, Your Honor."

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Linn Keller 4-25-12


Sarah quickly folded and stowed her black outfit; she slipped into her schoolmarm's dress, threw the sling over her head, got it adjusted and in place.
Her shoulder ached like an abscessed tooth; she shoved the pain from her, leaned against the door frame.
It was a lovely sunny day out, a little cool: the outside air smelled clean, sweet, the way it usually did.
Sarah swallowed hard.
You must control your passions, lest your passions control you.
Sarah had a talk, one evening, with her Uncle Papa: they spoke frankly about the rage they both felt when passion was upon them, and her Papa explained that "passion" did not refer solely to the animal affection of male for female:
"Passion," he explained, "is any strong emotion."
He paused for emphasis.
"Any strong emotion."
Sarah, listening closely, nodded slowly: now, standing in the doorway, she realized the truth of her father's words.
She was too young to feel that animal affection ... no, not too young to feel it.
Sarah chose not to feel it.
Perhaps she'd seen too much of it, perhaps it's because she was too deeply wounded at far too young an age, but she was strongly inclined to fight shy of being attracted.
This was her intent.
The roots were there: she felt a deep and abiding love for her Papa, an adoration and almost worship for the pale eyed man with the quiet voice and the ready laugh, and she knew this feeling could transfer easily, in an unguarded moment, once her womanly self was wakened.
Her shoulder reminded her that her exertions of the past few days were perhaps more than she should have attempted; she embraced the pain, hugging her arm to her, preferring to embrace the pain rather than admit she might have a weakness of affection.
Sarah raised her head.
Pale-eyed now, she looked out into the sun-lit yard behind the court house: like a swimmer before a long dive, she took three deep breaths.
Sarah took two steps back and then charged the doorway, clearing the back steps and hitting the ground at a dead run.
She ran along the back of the courthouse toward the whitewashed, clapboard schoolhouse, pausing to hug her Morgan horse: she needed that moment to compose herself, for she was shaking from testifying, from re-living what she'd done for the Judge, for her father ...
...for herself.
Sarah took a long breath, straightened her back and squared her shoulders; grimacing, she cradled her slung arm with her good arm, raised her chin, and walked with all the dignity of a stern and disapproving schoolmarm to the schoolhouse steps.
Young eyes saw her approach; noses and hands pressed against the windows, breath fogged the glass, and Emma Cooper knew she would stand as good a chance at turning a neap tide with a coffee cup as keep her students from crowding the windows at Sarah's approach.

The Irish Brigade made their happy attack of the neat row of beer mugs, as they always did: Daisy's girl had help, knowing the onslaught approached, and the Brigade was quickly and efficiently served with a good hot meal, and refills as necessary for their beer.
With the Brigade, it was necessary, quickly and often at first, until their bellies filled: when they leaned back with satisfaction and began loudly debating the fine points of the cases presented, an observer could tell which phase of the trial was being debated, mostly by the body language: one fellow, nose pinched and holding something invisible at arm's length, was obviously transporting a skunk: another with a vigorous up-thrust of a fisted hand, mimed gutting an opponent in close combat: there was a general, laughing approval of the mysterious "Agent Rosenthal" running across the courtroom, swarming up on a chair so she could reach high enough to belt the fighting prisoner over the head with that sap that was near long as her arm and probably weighed as much as she did soaking wet.
"I wonder who she is," the New York Irishman speculated, slurping noisily at his refilled mug. "You don't suppose she's related t' that fella Miz Bonnie married, now, do ye?"
"Now that might be," Sean nodded, one cheek bulged with half chewed meat. "Pass me a biscuit, lad."
"BISCUIIIIT!" the entire Brigade roared as three baked dainties sailed through the air, into Sean's waiting mitt: he laughed and said "Now SLIDE me th' butter, y' wild bunch o' bog trottin' trouble makers!"
"Yaah, God loves you too," the Welsh Irishman grunted as he handed their Chieftain the butter dish.
"You don't suppose," the Welsh Irishman said after a moment, "ye don't suppose that's ..."
"Our Sarah?" the German Irishman finished for him.
He frowned, shook his head.
"Naah. Couldn't ..."
He looked across the table at his brother Irishman.
"Could it?"
The two red-shirted Irishmen shoved back from the table, throwing their napkins to their empty seats: they turned and long-legged it across the floor, turning sideways to slip between thirsty men as they headed for the door.

Sarah laughed as the children flowed down the steps, running around her like water in a stream flows around a rock.
She looked up at Emma Cooper, the sunlight flashing momentarily off her window-glass spectacles, and Emma nodded her approval, smiling quietly: Sarah turned, tugged by half a dozen young hands, and descended the two steps she'd climbed, just before the doors exploded open under the weight of eager young humanity, and the laughing, chattering students pressed in close about her, all clamoring to tell her what they'd done, or some new thing they'd learned, or to ask her what the doctor said about her arm, and can they pet her new horse and their Pa said the earth was round and is that really so and will she sing in church again on Sunday and and and --
The two Irishmen stopped, each clapping a hand on the other's shoulder, looking at the pretty young schoolmarm laughing on the schoolhouse steps.
"Nah," they said in unison: they looked at one another and laughed, then they turned back toward the Silver Jewel, shaking their heads.
There was beer to be drunk and a meal to finish.
The Welsh Irishman looked back at Sarah, and Sarah looked up and saw him.
She raised a hand and waved, and the man's heart fell out of his breast, and flew through the air, and landed panting at her feet.

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Linn Keller 4-25-12


Esther examined the ugly, healing stripe closely, her spectacles run down to the end of her nose.
"The good news," she said, "is that you can part your hair in the middle now."
"No, Mrs. Keller," the Sheriff murmured, "the good news would be that I have hair enough to part."
Esther came around in front of her husband and put her hands on her hips, glaring in mock anger at the man.
The Sheriff, for his part, looked back with an absolutely innocent expression, which fooled her not even a little.
"I happen to think your bald spot is cute!" Esther declared, looking over her spectacles and raising one eyebrow.
The Sheriff reached for his wife's waist, drew her into him and down onto his lap.
"I happen to think you're cute," he said quietly.
Esther ran her arms around the man's neck and gave him an impish look.
"Oh is that so, mister?"
"Yes it is, my dear."
Esther looked at the healing wound again and sighed patiently.
"My dear," she admitted, "I do wish you would consort with a better grade of criminal."

Sarah nodded as she opened the packages.
Her Papa -- her real Papa, the Sheriff -- discussed with her the value of intelligence, in the military sense: how knowledge of terrain, of troop strength and equipment, deployment and capability, made the wise commander better able to overcome an enemy.
Sarah regarded her upcoming matriculation through the Academy as something akin to a military operation.
She held on illusions: as one of the fair sex, she doubted not she would be looked down upon, regarded as a curiosity, or as a distraction, as an outsider, unwanted and unwelcome: she would have to be twice as good in half the time just to come close to being as good as any of the men.
Sarah made preparations according to the increasing information she gained about the Academy.
Her sessions with Daciana included tumbling, something she'd never done; balance beam and trick riding, and Daciana was able to show Sarah a few tricks of close combat neither her Uncle Papa nor Uncle Charlie -- nor even Aunt Fannie! -- knew, or at least had never shown her.
Sarah also acquired a pair of twenty pound kettlebells, and worked with them every evening at home until she was tired, panting and wet with sweat: between long sessions swinging the cast iron cannonballs with cast-in handles, and riding her variety of horses, Sarah's physical condition was quite good.
She made discreet inquiry and discovered the variety of handcuffs and irons the Academy used for training: she obtained two sets of each and immediately disassembled one set so she could examine the locking mechanism in detail and close up.
The second set she used for practice, and for escape.
Sarah knew a favorite game among the testosterone-fueled apprentice lawmen was to lock up the class weakling and leave said sorry soul secured while the rest of the class went for a beer, or a meal, or overnight.
Sarah intended to be ready, should this happen.
She sewed small pockets in the dresses she intended to wear at the Academy, cleverly building them in front and rear; she concealed lock picks and spare keys, concealing them in pleats or folds: she would handcuff herself, in front or behind, then acquire a key and release herself.
Daciana met her one morning with a package: Sarah opened it and found a hundred-meter length of genuine silk rope.
Daciana's eyes sparkled as she exclaimed in her accented English that silk was as strong as steel -- stronger! -- and it was perfect for rappelling.
Sarah's expression was one of open curiosity.
Daciana, an experienced mountaineer, showed Sarah how to run the line under a leg and across her back, how to brake with one hand and lift the line with the other, then she produced a broad, heavy canvas belt with a spring loaded, teardrop shaped hook-and-guard on it: she called it a ladder belt, and Sarah remembered seeing something of the kind used by the Irish Brigade when they erected a ladder: Daciana secured it around Sarah's tight waist, and the two climbed to the highest point inside Daciana's big, round barn.
Daciana tied off the line, spun it quickly through the spring loaded gate of the belt hook.
"Now step off into ze air," she said. "Mit dis handt grippen ze rope, hier, undt mit ze uffer handt grippen ze rope behindt, zo."
Sarah learned to rappel, and found it much to her taste.
Sarah worked hard with Daciana's coaching; she would go home wrung out, tired, her shoulder aching -- but a good ache! -- and finally one afternoon she knocked gently on Daciana's door, and Daciana knew the look on her face.
"You vill be goink now," Daciana said, her face carefully neutral.
Sarah nodded.
Daciana reached up, massaged Sarah's shoulder, ran strong, skilled fingers along her collar bone, pressed it gently with the heel of her hand while her other hand's fingers were at the insertion, gauging its strength.
Satisfied, she nodded.
"Gut. You are healdt. Show those" -- she frowned, raking her memory for the right term -- "der city boys, how ist done!"
Sarah nodded, took Daciana's hands in hers.
"Thank you," she whispered. "For everything."
"Not everything quite ist yet, inkommen." Daciana pulled Sarah inside.
She gave Sarah four tea bag size envelopes of herbs.
"Zis mit der green yarn ist vor pain undt schvelling. Green ist for de bowels, zis vill treat der ..."
Again Daciana sorted through her bin of colloquialisms until finally she seized one that looked right, slung the water off it, and hung it up where she could read it to the interested audience behind her eyes.
"Ja," she nodded. "Zis prevents ze pregnantzie."

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Linn Keller 4-26-12


"You realize she is generating correspondence," the Sheriff said carefully, "under the authority of your Court."
"I understand," His Honor the Judge said quietly, "that she is preparing to be matriculated through a school which I recommended, for which I have already paid" -- he looked sharply at the Sheriff, almost a challenge -- "and I have full faith and confidence in my agent, despite her obvious youth."
The Sheriff looked unconvinced.
"Your Honor, power corrupts. I must guard against it constantly. To vest authority without limit --"
"Sheriff," the Judge interrupted, his voice gentle, "who said her authority was without limit?"
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow.
"And who said she has authority without limit?"
The Sheriff's full attention was on the dignified old jurist.
"I appreciate your letting me know this" -- the Judge snipped the end off a fresh Cuban, sniffed its length, sighed -- "for you are correct, authority without limits is most unwise.
"I will give you this on the square."
The Sheriff turned his head a little, looked closely at the Judge, making it more than obvious that he had his full and undivided attention.
Freemasons both, each man swore a Masonic oath not to reveal the secrets of a Master Mason when given to him as such -- and this coded phrase communicated that what was about to be revealed, was not only absolute and incontrovertibly factual and the complete truth, but was also a secret, one held by a Master Mason, and now about to be entrusted to another.
The Sheriff nodded, once.
"Young Agent Rosenthal is gathering information, Sheriff. It seems she listens more closely than either of us realize."
"Do you remember describing to her, how you would send scouts into enemy territory before proceeding with a raid or an assault, how you would scout what lay ahead -- not only determining terrain and physical assets, but also troop strength, equipment, even supply lines and food reserves?"
"Yes, sir."
"And do you remember Greasy Bill?"
The Sheriff's eyes brightened and his grin was broad indeed.
"Yes, sir, I do! He could hide behind a corn stalk and hear a conversation a hundred yards away!"
His Honor puffed the Cuban into smoldering life, dropped the burning Lucifer into the cuspidor; it bounced off the flared neck with a quiet TING before falling into its dark interior.
"Do you remember the kind of information he brought back?"
The Sheriff chuckled.
"Indeed I do! He would slip into the enemy camp, steal a jacket and cap and become one of them, he would eat their beans and drink their chickory and more often than not he'd leave them some coffee in exchange ... but he came back with detailed information ... very detailed ..."
The Sheriff's voice trailed off and he shut his eyes, shaking his head slowly.
His Honor puffed on his Cuban.
"The memories of those hell-days will always be with us, you know," he said quietly.
"I know, sir."
"Our young Agent is doing just what Greasy Bill did."
The Sheriff took off his hat, rested his aching forehead on the heel of his hand.
"Thus far she has acquired a list of names of this year's students. She is discovering, with the assistance of a network of informants she developed during her visits to Denver, information on each of them.
"Today she received architect's drawings of the Academy building.
"Yesterday she received engineer's drawings of a two city block area surrounding that point, demarcating and labeling streets, alleys, walk-ways, the position and spacing of gas-lamps, construction and condition of street surfaces, condition of surrounding buildings. Thus far her time has been well spent, Sheriff, all under color of my authority, and all with my complete approval."
the Sheriff nodded.
"I was young once, Your Honor," the Sheriff said, his voice quiet in the hush of the Judge's private car. "I remember what it was to be full of fire with the world by the ... nose ... and a-draggin' it down hill behind me."
His Honor chuckled. "I've heard you use that phrase before, Sheriff. I believe your rather salty phrase involves having a bear by another part of the anatomy, on a down hill drag."
The Sheriff raised his pounding head from his hand and looked, red-faced, at the Judge: the jurist's eyes were merry behind the slowly rising cloud of second hand Havana.
"You remember rightly," he nodded.

Sarah closed the door quietly behind her.
She had several rolls of paper under her arm; the ones on top were the ones most useful.
She walked silently across the equipment bay, to where the Welsh Irishman and the New York Irishman were frowning, detail-polishing between the spokes of the rear wheels of their fine, gleaming "Masheen."
The New York Irishman looked up, took a double take, opened his mouth.
Sarah put her finger to her lips.
The New York Irishman ducked his head, grinning, them stuffed his fist in his mouth to keep himself quiet.
Sarah laid a gentle hand on the Welsh Irishman's shoulder.
"Can you help me, please?" she said quietly, and the Welsh Irishman jumped like a scalded cat.
Sarah's eyes were gentle and patient as the Welsh Irishman came down off the ceiling, so to speak; she waited while his face went pale, then red, and while he stammered and harrumphed and cleared his throat, wiped his hands and his forehead and finally composed himself, squared his shoulders and said gallantly, "For you, my lady, anything!"
It was gallantly spoken in the rich, ringing and confident tones of a born Welshman with a fine tenor voice, and he only squeaked like a developing teen-ager once or twice.
The New York Irishman was on his hands and knees, polishing rag wadded up and held against his mouth, half strangling with the effort of not screaming his laughter into the flooring paves.
Sarah brought the rolled bundle from under her arm.
"I need your help in estimating a fire's progression in three buildings."
Sean, curious, came over, just in time to hear Sarah's sentence.
He laid a big hand on her shoulder and threw his head back: Sarah saw his chest swell and she knew his summons was to follow.
Had she been able, she would have placed her precious papers carefully on some clean surface and clapped her hands to her ears: as it was, she squinted and hunched her head a little further down between her shoulders.
The sound of running feet was loud in the equipment bay: men skidded on flooring, collided with one another, ranked quickly before their Irish Chieftain.
The Brigade dressed left, dressed right, came to attention.
Sarah raised her chin.
"Gentlemen," she said, "if I wish to know of a disease I do not consult a carpenter. If I wish to know of a locomotive I do not consult a dressmaker. I consult those who have an expert's knowledge of the subject, and so I come to each of you."
Sarah paused, engineer's drawings under one arm, her other hand holding Sean's hard-muscled forearm. She leaned a little against the man, part of her comforted by the presence of a warrior-guardian with a simple, pure, unsullied spirit: part of her ached, and it felt good to lean a little against the physical and spiritual strength of this profane and hot-tempered warrior with the heart of a living saint.
"I have drawings of three buildings. These are engineer's drawings. I will be attending classes in one of them. I need to know the probable routes of fire progression in each, assuming a fire starts on a lower story.
"If I may use your dining table," she said, looking up at Sean.
Sean's free hand laid gently over Sarah's, a warm, callused blanket covering her cool, slender fingers.
"Lass," he rumbled, "if you wished to use the driver's seat of our Masheen for target practice, could I say thee nay?"
Sarah lowered her eyes, bit her bottom lip, and squeezed the man's forearm lightly: they turned toward the firehouse's combination kitchen and dining hall.
"Lads!" Sean roared. "This is dry work! Coffee, an' we'll need summat t' eat!"
The Brigade scrambled happily to oblige.

Daciana climbed the knotted rope, hand-over-hand, her legs straight out in front of her, feet pointed: it may not be entirely accurate to say that she climbed, as much as levitated, with the visual mummery of moving one hand above the other to give the appearance of climbing.
Those gifted with a true skill have the ability to make something look easy.
Daciana, here, made climbing a rope, using only her arms, look easy.
She and Sarah had taken turns climbing this rope the day before.
Sarah was not as muscled as Daciana -- she hadn't been living the life of an acrobat since earliest childhood -- but her strength was actually quite good, and though she had to use legs and feet on the knotted rope to get to the ceiling, then back down, she'd actually acquitted herself quite well, though she admitted to the former circus performer that the mint-scented ungent rubbed deep into her aching muscles felt so very, very good.
Daciana had come to enjoy Sarah's companionship a great deal.
She knew Sarah was leaving, and soon, for her education in Denver.
Daciana had been to Denver, but never far from the railyards, from the "wrong side of town" where circuses set up, lived and were torn down: she'd never seen the Mile High City as a visitor.
Daciana climbed the last few feet to the ceiling, reached up and swatted the beam to which her rope was anchored, swarmed back down the rope.
She hesitated as her feet touched the ground; coming up on her toes, she raised her arms overhead, then bent: she was not a ballerina, but she knew several of their moves, and incorporated them into her personal regimen: she stood for a long moment on the pointed toes of one foot, her other leg extended, an arm up and an arm down, utterly, achingly, beautifully, feminine.
Daciana smiled a quiet smile.
It pleased her to be feminine.
It made her husband feel that much more masculine, and Daciana delighted in the natural use of her husband.

Jackson Cooper's brows knitted dangerously together.
His glare was said to be able to split rocks; his silence was known to quail the stoutest hearts; his hands could bend a horse shoe or a fireplace poker and had lifted miscreants from the earth without difficulty to prove a point: behave, or become the victim of more strenuous attention.
Jackson Cooper knew the value of intimidation, and so he glared as he sharpened his knife, slowly, carefully, the sibilant whisper of hand forged steel more threatening a sound than any human throat could utter.
Jackson Cooper once made a man wet himself for fear, as he sharpened his knife and glared at the man across a camp fire; he'd whetted his knife in this self same manner, then pulled his shirt sleeve back, drew the blade slowly down his arm, leaving bare skin behind, and he casually blew the shaven arm hairs into the camp fire, where they sizzled briefly.
Now Jackson Cooper wiped his sharpened knife on his pants leg, leaving a damp stain; he used a water stone, not an oil stone, reasoning he always had water, spit if nothing else: he was a man who liked a good sharp edge on his knife, and he nodded his satisfaction at his efforts.
He raised the blade toward the exposed throat, where life pulsed close to the surface.
His eyes were hard and flinty and his had absolutely without tremor or hesitation as honed edge met flesh.
Carefully, precisely, he shaved off the whisker-stubble he'd missed that morning.

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Linn Keller 4-27-12


Jackson Cooper's head came up.
John Larrick was a name he knew, and it was not entirely a good name to know.
John Larrick was a wanted man; he'd tacked up the wanted poster just that morning.
Jackson Cooper reached over and pulled the long barrel ten bore from the rack.
In his huge paws it didn't look quite that big.
He pulled the latch on the door, swung it open, staying to the side.
I need to re-hang that door, he thought, then dismissed the thought: trouble could as well come from one side as from the other, and sure as he re-hung the door to swing from the other side, why, trouble would come from the other direction.
He saw nothing down the street.
Jackson Cooper drew well back from the door, staying in darkness: he moved easily to his side, frowning, and saw the Sheriff in the middle of the street, his coat open, facing a man known to be both fast and deadly with a sixgun.
"LARRICK!" the Sheriff shouted, his voice clear and loud: the street was emptying quickly as the two men started to walk toward one another.
Jackson Cooper's belly tightened and he glanced up, at the office window over the main door of the Silver Jewel: he half expected to see Esther open the window and thrust her own double gun out, the way she'd done the week before, when a drunk got to shooting in wild celebration and put a bullet through her office window. She'd cleaned the man from his saddle in one shot and the Judge wasted no time in no-billing the woman, with the blessing of the entire town.
The drunks' bullet passed close enough to Angela, standing beside her Mommy, to take a chunk out of the red ribbon in her hair.
Jackson Cooper looked at the window; it remained closed, no movement behind it.
The Sheriff walked slowly, casually, relaxed: Larrick's eyes were hard to see, his hat brim low, the way he always wore it: he'd pulled his coat open and fast it behind him, exposing a matched pair of Smith & Wesson Russians.
Larrick's step did not hesitate: they were thirty feet apart and closing fast.
"I REMEMBER!" His shouted reply was a whip-crack in the hush.
Twenty feet and still closing... women's hands went to their high stomach or their lips, men peered over the curtain in the Silver Jewel's windows, or cautiously from the Mercantile; Digger sized up the newcomer with an appraising eye, calculating which size coffin he'd fit.
He already knew the Sheriff had a coffin in his cellar, paid for and everything, so no money to be made there.
Neither man stopped.
Ten feet.
Arm's reach.
Both men moved.
Dusty arms and clean wrapped around the other, each seizing the other in a bear hug: the Sheriff lifted Larrick, then Larrick lifted the Sheriff, and they stood there pounding one another's shoulders, grinning and both talking excitedly at the same time.
Jackson Cooper's expression was the same had each man pulled out a cold dead fish and waved it about while singing dirty marching songs and dancing in tight circles in the dirt street.
Jackson Cooper stepped out of the Marshal's office, street howitzer balanced in his big left hand: he reached up under his hat and scratched his head, then he turned and carefully tore the wanted poster off his front wall.

"I heard you were acquitted!" the Sheriff exclaimed, delighted: he accepted the second beer from Mr. Baxter, handed it to Larrick, and the two worked their way back to the Sheriff's table.
"Thank God yes!" Larrick replied with a shake of his head.
"I heard the particulars. They should never have convicted you that first go-round."
"I know that and you know that," Larrick said in a resigned voice. "I was gittin' ready to come out from behind stone walls with a beard longer'n I am tall."
"That-there lawyer did you some good, then."
"Good, hell!" Larrick ejaculated. "That man's a wizard! I don't know where you found him but by God! I am just awful glad you pushed him my way!"
The Sheriff nodded.
Daisy's girl set a big ceramic mug in front of him, poured in a good shot of cream and laid a hand on Larrick's shoulder. "What'll it be, handsome?" she asked, and Larrick laid a hand on hers and said, "Darlin', if I was to say you'd do just fine you'd probably smack me, so how about whatever's good?"
She winked at the Sheriff and gave Larrick a saucy look. "Oh, just listen to you! Tall, good lookin' and you know how to make a girl feel good!" She giggled, squeezed his shoulder. "How's mashed taters and gravy, beef and some corn, we've got corn bread and biscuits and light rolls if you'd rather, nice and hot from the oven!"
Larrick shook his head. "Don't want no corn bread," he muttered. "Don't never wanta see no more corn bread!" He looked hopefully at the girl.
"You got light rolls nice and warm?"
"Surely do! Got some good cold butter to go with 'em, got some honey if you'd rather!"
"I'd rather both," he said faintly.
"Comin' right up," she laughed: she spun, swinging her skirts, and cruised across the floor like a clipper ship at half sail.
Larrick watched her go, sighed.
"Colonel," he said softly, "did I just die and go t' heaven?"
The Sheriff lifted his hat.
"No, but I damn neart did!"

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Linn Keller 4-28-12


Joseph watched, big-eyed, as Annette split the loaf of bread dough: she smiled at her son and said, "Don't tell your Papa, this is a surprise!"
"Good!" he exclaimed, grinning, then took a couple tentative steps closer.
"Wash your hands and you can help!"
Joseph charged across the kitchen and grabbed the peach crate from its parking place at the end of the counter: he dragged it around and in front of the wash basin, climbed up and with much fuss and bother, managed to wash his hands, actually use soap, rinse off somewhat inefficiently but very enthusiastically, then leaped off the peach crate, towel trailing in the air behind him.
He scrubbed his hands off on the towel as he strutted across the kitchen floor, threw the towel over his head and as it draped over his face, declared, "Good!"
Annette laughed, took the towel, flared hit high in the air: she floated it down, draped it around the lad's neck and shoulders, tucked it in: she tilted her head, brought the towel off, folded it in half longways and put it back around his neck: she tilted her head, frowned, tried again: another fold, and she was able to wrap it around his neck, crisscross it like a cravat and tuck it into his shirt.
"There! A proper gentleman!"
"Good!" His grin was big, toothy, an endearing little-boy expression: his eyes sparkled, the way Jacob's did in morning's light, the way she remembered so well from the first time she saw him and he lifted his hat to her and turned red and she thought, There is the man I will marry!
Annette pulled out a chair, picked up young Joseph and stood him on the chair: she slid the butter plate over in easy reach, and the split bread dough: cheese was almost all sliced, the stove was up to working temperature, and Annette and Joseph stuffed slices of butter, then of cheese, into the sliced open dough: she showed Joseph how to bring the soft, pliable dough together, crimp it to hold in the contents: Joseph laughed at the dough that stuck to his fingers.
Annette picked up the bread dough, whisked it into the oven, turned over the hourglass timer, then turned back and hugged her little boy, this amazing creature, all legs and grin and laughing voice, and little Joseph hugged her back and crowed, "Good!"

Jacob, for his part, was plowing: reins about his neck and hands on the curved plow handles, he muscled the steel blade into the good earth and clucked to the team.
Shining steel sliced into fertile earth and turned a fragrant furrow.
Jacob prided himself on furrows that were straight as a die.
There were times when they weren't, but he did his best and for the most part, they were straight or nearly so.
His shoulders felt good and so did his arms, his belly was tight, and he remembered looking at the big Irish Chieftain, Sean, and remarking to his father, "That man's shirt sleeve is plumb full of arm!"
At this rate, Jacob thought, mine will get there!

Larrick watched the Sheriff take a long, slow drink of coffee.
"If you cain't afford a beer," Larrick offered, "I'll buy."
The Sheriff's eyes crinkled a little at the corners, the way they did when he was almost at a smile.
"This eases m' headache," he said.
Larrick grunted.
"So would good red likker."
The Sheriff set his coffee down, slid it across the table.
"Take a sip."
Larrick picked it up, took a cautious but noisy slurp: his eye brows went up and he blinked in surprise.
"Now that's got authority," he said, clearing his throat.
"Boiled up strong enough I have to milk it, otherwise it tears up my gut. Honey for healing and a long shot of Old Soul Saver to ward off the Devil."
The Sheriff took another long slurp, lowering his nearly empty mug and brushing coffee from his broom.
"Don't that keep you awake?" Larrick asked, then leaned back as Daisy's girl set another plate in front of him. "Thank you darlin'."
"I can drink a quart of the stuff and sleep like a rock. Least ways til have to get up so I don't wet the bed."
Larrick watched Daisy's girl's backside as she retreated across the floor.
"You sure this ain't Heaven?"
"Your feet still cold?"
"You ain't in hell. My head hurts too bad to be in Heaven so I reckon we're still alive."
Larrick sighed, turned to his hot, steaming, fragrant plate.
"By God!" he declared, picking up his fork, left-handed, and his knife: "with a feed bag like this I could like it here!"
The Sheriff nodded, picking up his coffee mug.
"I do."

Sean's stubby finger stabbed at the engineer's drawing.
"This," he declared, "this staircase, is a chimney. Stay away from't. Heat rises an' fire climbs wi' it, an' it's smoke that kills ye before the fire gets to ye, early at least."
Several heads crowded close, nodding in agreement: Sarah found herself set about and close pressed by as many of the Brigade as could arrange proximity with her: none pressed their bodies against her, but it would be difficult to find the breadth of a hand between their anatomy and hers.
The Brigade did not wish ungentlemanly contact with the pretty young schoolmarm, but all wished to be close to her: after all, it wasn't every day when an educated, attractive and marriageable lass presented herself in their desmense, especially one that was well-connected and from a good family!
"Now here" -- Sean turned the page, turned again -- "this is the building ye'll ha'e yer classes in, is't?"
"Yes, third floor."
"Brick construction, aye ... the stairwell, masonry, good. A wood staircase will burn an' collapse an' all above are trapped." He nodded. "Too many o' these are a brick shell wi' nowt but wood within." He shook his head. "One big chimney. I remember a school, one time ..."
Sean's voice trailed off and he shivered, remembering a schoolhouse that turned into a crematory: separating burnt children's bodies from cinder and ash was probably the one greatest horror he'd faced in the entirety of his lifetime.
Sarah's eyes were cold.
"I wish to reach ripe old age," she said, her voice hard: "now let's say a fire did start in the basement" -- she turned a bundle of pages -- "what part of the building gives me the greatest chance of getting out?"
Sean ran his splayed fingers slowly down the page.
"Steam heat," he murmured. "Gas fired, boilers in th' basement wi' gas lights on each floor." He frowned at the page, turned back, then back again.
"Seldom will ye ha'e a problem wi' steam lines. We've had steam engines an' steam heat long enough they hardly ever burst.
"The boilers, now ..."
Sarah looked up at the big red-headed Chieftain.
"If ye hear a boom an' ye still ha'e a floor underfoot, get out howe'er ye can, hang out a window by yer finger tips so th' steam don't come a-rollin' up an' scald ye ... fire will follow, she'll blow th' gas lines an' they'll light off, then boom!"
Sean's voice was quiet, but the puffing-out of his cheeks and the expanding hell-ball sketched by his hands conveyed his message with a disquieting clarity.
"Lass," he said, "should ye ha'e the least suspicion o' fire, get ye out o' that third story an' head down, fast, an' let no one stop ye.
"Gas canna' be smelled an' when it fires, it's generally an explosion an' the whole building is afire in a moment. A' tha' point fight for a window and jump. Ye'll be crippled but ye'll be alive t' complain."
"From three floors up ... won't that kill me?"
Sean's eyes were haunted.
"Lass," he muttered, his voice barely audible, "I've heard children scream as they burned t' death. 'Twould be a blessing t' jump an' die."
Sarah nodded slowly.
She had no wish to burn to death but she had absolutely no intention of deliberately jumping to her death.
"Now," she said, "let's say I didn't want to jump."
She looked up at the big Irishman.
"Where can I get a ladder belt to fit my skinny waist?"
"A ladder belt?" he asked suspiciously. "Now how d' ye know about a ladder belt?"

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Charlie MacNeil 4-28-12


Practically overnight, the snow had disappeared, absorbed into the slowly warming, thirsty crust of the planet, there to nourish the deep-reaching gramma, the slowly greening stems of currant, willow and live oak. In their turn the prairie grasses would supply sustenance to the mares and to the foals that bulged the barrels of their dams as they awaited the time of their arrival into the world.

Charlie looked up from his shovel and posthole digger to watch a skein of geese, returning late from their wintering grounds in Mexico, make its way to the north, bound for a destination known only to the birds themselves. He flexed his hands on the double handles of the digger, lifted the tool and slammed the twin blades into the bottom of the hole, reefing the handles apart to scoop out another portion of the wet black soil. Deep enough, he thought then bent at the knees to hoist the juniper post and set it big end down in the hole. Juniper posts withstand rot, bugs and other maladies far beyond any other material. He eyeballed it level in all directions and began tamping dirt around the post.

With this last post solidly tamped into line with its fellows, whose ranks outlined a large square at the edge of the feeding pasture, Charlie wiped sweat from his forehead on his sleeve then gathered his tools and trudged toward the barn. He heard a familiar chuckle behind him, then Cat Running's voice. "You work too damn hard. We need to go huntin'."

"Those post holes ain't gonna dig themselves," the ex-marshal replied without turning around.

"Why you need more fence?" the old man countered. Charlie turned to face him, tools balanced on his shoulder.

"Gonna need a bigger weanin' pen one of these days, and later on I might not feel like diggin'," he answered with a grin. "I am retired, ya know."

The old man snorted. "Retired? What that? You just ain't lawman no more. So let's go huntin'. 'Sides, your woman says you're 'bout outta meat. An' I'm hungry."

"Well, if the boss lady says we need to go huntin', then I guess we'd best get goin'. Let me put this stuff away and wash up, and we'll go." Charlie turned and strode into the barn, storing the tools in a corner, then headed for the house and the wash basin near the back door. He rolled up his sleeves, sluiced sun-warmed water over his face and hands then dried on the roller towel alongside the cracked mirror nailed to the wall above the basin. He disappeared into the house, returning a few minutes later with rifle in hand. Cat Running was leading the saddled roan from the barn as Charlie pulled the door shut. The sun was warm on his shoulders as he strode toward the barn.

Dang, I'm glad I don't own a plow, I might be tempted to do some farmin', he thought with a grin. Never mind that he and Fannie had already spaded and harrowed what had seemed at the time like possibly an acre and a half of garden space over near the creek. Their next trip to town would be for seed corn, peas, beans, potatoes, etc. Between the produce of the garden and the meat they would preserve, smoke and salt in the fall, and a few staples from the Mercantile, they would winter pretty well when that season next arrived. And Charlie was a man who liked to eat, and eat well. He swung himself into the saddle. "Come on horse, let's us go find some meat!" He grinned over at Cat Running. "The old man's hungry, and far be it from me to make him go awanting!" He heeled the gelding into a trot.

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Linn Keller 4-29-12


Esther sighed and removed her glasses.
She pinched the bridge of her nose, lightly: there was a light tap at her door and she turned in her swivel chair.
"Yes?" she called.
The Sheriff opened the door: he swung it wide and Daisy's girl came in with a tray, a pot of tea and a delicate, bone-china cup and saucer.
The Sheriff had a big ceramic coffee mug in hand.
He walked carefully, not wanting to spill any of his headache treatment: coffee helped, Two Hit John helped, the two as an admixture helped even more.
"It wouldn't be right if I came in with coffee and didn't have tea for you," he grinned.
Esther tilted her head, smiling the way she did when she was particularly pleased.
"You always think of me," she said softly.
He looked a little shy, a little embarrassed: she almost expected him to kick dirt like a red eared schoolboy.
Esther thanked the girl, picked up the tea, cupped it in her hands, savoring the warmth.
"You have no idea how badly I need this," she whispered.
Esther shook her head. "Nothing unexpected." She took a cautious sup. "Mmm, just right."
The Sheriff swung an upholstered chair around and Esther seated herself.
"A different chair feels good," she murmured.
"Thought it might. A saddle feels pretty good after I ride that wooden horse behind my desk."
"Now, dear," Esther said, looking over top her non-existent spectacles, "you didn't come here to talk to me about office chairs."
"No, ma'am, I did not," the Sheriff grinned, his own hands wrapped around the warm ceramic of his own mug: "I came to make a purchase."
Esther's eyebrow raised.
"I know what it is to be a stranger in a strange land."
The Sheriff's tone was serious, as was his face.
"Sarah is going to be ... not a fish out of water, but actually staying in Denver is different from going there and staying a night or two with her mother."
"I thought their maid was going as well."
"She is." The Sheriff took a noisy slurp of coffee, wiped coffee from his handlebar, wiped his fingers on his pants like a little boy. "It would not be proper to have a young lady, unescorted and alone, especially in a ... city."
The Sheriff's voice dropped off and he had the look of a man who'd just uttered a distasteful word.
"Good. I'm glad she is. And I understand Bonnie is taking full advantage of her favorite model's presence."
"Mmm." The Sheriff leaned forward, taking the bend out of his lower back.
Esther noticed but said nothing.
"I need an unlimited ticket for your railroad, something she can use any time and as many times as she wants. I'm not asking for a magic ticket that will whisk her away on a private express at any moment, but one that she can use for any scheduled run." He took a long breath, looked out at the mountains, bright and shining through her window.
"I know what it is to be homesick, and not able to go home. She's had so much in her young life ... I'd like to give her this much at least."
Esther smiled, sipped her tea.
"I think we can arrange that."
"Fix me up with a price, dear heart, and I will pay your demands."
Esther placed the tea cup on its saucer and rose: she walked slowly around the little table to her desk, picked up a pair of envelopes and brought them back to the Sheriff.
He read the front:

Agent S. L. Rosenthal
Firelands District Court

He raised an eyebrow, read the second envelope.
It said simply, Sarah.

"Each says the same thing," Esther explained. "They both give the bearer free passage on any Z&W run; they each bear my signature and seal, as owner and general manager." She smiled a little broader. "She can travel as her official person or she can travel as herself, as the occasion may demand. Each one is also good for one additional individual, unlimited luggage for both, and up to three horses.
"And" -- she raised an eyebrow for emphasis -- "since your wise decision to purchase additional stock when Mr. DeBorrkh was inclined to sell, we now own very nearly all the Z&W's controlling interest."
The Sheriff nodded, slowly, considering the envelopes he held: he handed them back.
"Thank you, my dear. You anticipate my every want."
"Of course," Esther said, her eyes bright, amused as she sipped her tea: "I am your wife, you know!"

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Linn Keller 5-1-12


Joseph came running from the barn lot just as hard as little legs could run: eyes big, breathing through his mouth, he ran up to hsi Pa and seized him about the leg, making distressed little sounds as he breathed.
Jacob was almost halfway through a full powered swing of his wood splitting ax: he tossed it to the side and staggered, very nearly falling as Jacob's hands slipped and he seized his Pa by the belt, the only thing on which anxious little fingers could find purchase.
Jacob tossed the ax well to the side, looked down at his son.
Joseph's eyes were wide and scared, his mouth was working a little, but his only sound was the rasping, desperate breathing of what appeared to be a terrified little boy.
Jacob's eyes went very pale almost instantly.
He snatched up his rifle.
"Show me," he said quietly, and Little Joseph pointed, then ran back along his former line of flight.
Jacob followed: he was bent at the waist and did not so much run as floated, booted feet soundless on the hard packed path.
Little Joseph hesitated at the corner of the barn, stopping and breathing hard: Jacob pulled him back against him, Joseph's back against Jacob's thigh and Jacob's big hand splayed across little Joseph's laboring chest.
Jacob's eyes were busy, his ears tense, drawn back: Jacob had always been able to wiggle his ears, he could even wiggle them independently of each other, and when something happened -- some sound, some danger -- his ears drew back and his scalp tightened.
His ears were drawn back now.
"Joseph," Jacob whispered, squatting and running his arm around his shivering little boy, "how far?"
Joseph turned and pointed wordlessly.
"Not far?"
Joseph shook his head, turning to look at his Pa with big, scared eyes.
"Wait here," Jacob said. "If I shoot, you run for the house and have your Ma get the shotgun."
Joseph nodded, then turned and pointed again, twisting out of Jacob's grip and running toward whatever it was that caused him such distress.
Jacob bit back an oath and surged into a run.

The three sat in Bonnie's office, there in the house.
The sound of carpenter work was loud at times, as Levi's addition took shape: the workers were gone for the day, the house seeming much quieter for the absence of hammer and saw.
"I was not certain," Sarah said slowly, "that I was ready for the Academy."
She looked directly at Bonnie.
"You trusted me and you gave me time to make up my mind."
She shifted her gaze to Levi.
"And when I needed to talk, you listened."
Levi nodded, slowly, once.
Sarah bit her bottom lip.
"I had to find out for myself."
She closed her eyes, remembering the cold-water-bath moment when she chose reason over response, when she chose control over wilding.
Bonnie looked at Levi, uncertain: Sarah was her daughter, Sarah was her little girl, she'd known Sarah from the time she was a scared little child with bare feet and a torn, dirty frock.
Levi, however, had never known Sarah as anything but a strong and capable young woman.
Young, yes, but undeniably coming into womanhood.
No child, he thought, could be as strong as this remarkable young woman: no child could be as uncompromising a survivor
Levi's eyes softened as he remembered Sarah, in unguarded moments, sitting on the divan with the twins, reading to them: Sarah, making precise, uniform designs with an embroidery needle and floss; Sarah, braids suspended in mid-air and frozen in mid-leap, there in his memory, astride the racer or her black Morgan or that big Frisian, perfectly at home between Heaven and earth.
In these moments she was neither woman nor child: she was Sarah, and one of his family, and someone for whom he'd never expected to find such genuine fondness.
"I believe," Sarah said slowly, "I will go to the Academy."
Levi nodded slowly and Bonnie's eyes sparkled; Levi saw her slip a kerchief from her sleeve, and he knew she was about to dab at her eyes.
Polly and Opal were peering around the door-posts; Levi turned at the sound of Opal's distress.
"Awww," she said, "we don't get no more chock-wit?"

Jacob stopped, sized up the situation: he looked around, in case there were skulkers, opportunists: seeing none, he relaxed a little, but not much.
The cow was grunting again, heaving, tired: her afterbirth hit the ground with a wet sound.
The cow nosed the calf, licking it again; the calf bleated, nosed at her dam's swollen sack.
Jacob turned, gestured toward the barn, whistled.
Little Joseph stuck his head around the corner.
"It's all right," Jacob said. "Come and see."

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Linn Keller 5-1-12


Jacob squatted, little Joseph up on his left thigh and his arm around the lad's middle: Joseph's hands were on his Da's arm and he leaned back against the solid reassurance of the man, secure in the knowledge that he was in the Safest Place In the World, and Everything Was As It Should Be!
Jacob's right hand gripped the Winchester and his lips were an inch from Joseph's right ear, his cheek warm against his little boy's wool cap.
"See, Joseph?" he whispered. "The cows are gathered around this one, protecting it when it births a calf."
"Cowies?" Joseph said, pointing.
"Yes," Jacob grinned, "cowies."
Little Joseph squirmed. "Calfie?"
"Yes, a fine little calfie." Jacob looked closer. "Looks like a bull calf."
"Boocaffie," Joseph laughed.
Jacob's arm tightened affectionately around his little boy.
"Yes, Joseph," he affirmed, chuckling. "Boocaffie."

Sarah, surprised, looked toward the doorway and laughed: Bonnie saw a mix of feelings on her daughter's face and she knew her little girl had very mixed feelings about leaving home.
Somehow that was reassuring.
Part of her was afraid a little bird was leaving the nest and would fly, arrow-straight, for the most distant part of the world, and never, ever come back.

Maude lay down as she always did, laying her hand on the big empty space where her husband used to lay beside her.
She realized she would always, always miss the man.

The Jewel was brightly lit, noisy with the happy sound of cards being dealt, the roulette wheel's hum, the clatter of the Wheel of Luck and of dice and of poker chips: tobacco smoke hung in thick strata, men laughed, the piano thumped and tinkled a merry tune and a pair of dancing girls on stage provided entertainment for those souls whose attention was not entirely on their winning hand.
Mr. Baxter dispensed beer and wisdom and took in coin, bills and gold dust, and Tom Landers, his mustache waxed and immaculately curled, wandered discreetly about the Jewel, watching closely for sharpers and cheats.

The Sheriff rubbed the web of his hand, slowly, willing his headache to diminish.

Angela, for her part, was rolled up on her left side, warm in flannel and in dreams: her little cupid's bow of a smile could be seen, if one were to kneel beside her bed and reflect a little moonlight on her face: a smile it was, for she dreamed of riding beside her Daddy, and feeling the "Wheeeee!" of her belly as they floated together over a fence, the way Sarah floated her big black horsie over fences and gates and such-like.

The foreman walked his circuit around the roundhouse.
The day's work was done; fires banked, work finished, tools put away; an engine was down for maintenance, the hinged nose of its boiler swung to the side, its tubes exposed: he estimated they would have it finished and back in operation by sundown of the next day.

Aunt Beatrice finished her day's accounting; she'd secured the vault and the drawers, taken care of all that needed her attention there at the bank; with a satisfied nod, she removed her spectacles, slipped them in her reticule, blew out the lamp: as was her habit, she took her .31 Colt pistol in her left hand, holding it down along side the dangling reticule, thumb over the hammer spur, and opened the back door of the bank.
It always smelled so good of an evening.
Beatrice slipped out the back door of the bank, looking around, then turned and locked the door behind her.
She marched down the back path, behind the schoolhouse and the church, to her own tidy little home, the spur trigger Colt perfectly camouflaged against the cloth purse.

Little Joseph rode behind his Pa, standing upright on the saddle, clutching his Pa's coat with both hands: Jacob delighted in riding thus with his son, as his father rode with Angela: they rode a big circuit of their ranch and Jacob pointed out the hidden places where cows were calving, and on two occasions, pointed out skulking coyotes attracted by the smell of blood and birth: one of these, the other cows were able to repel the scavengers; a second, they were too late: Jacob dismounted, ran up a small rise and pushed two quick shots at the 'yotes that killed the calf and were worrying the mama cow.

That night little Joseph, wet and soapy, looked up from the washtub of hot, steaming water and pointed toward the far wall.
"Mama," he said, his eyes big and sincere, "them's caffies!" and Jacob, in the other room, looked up from Ecclesiastes and smiled.
Yes, he thought. Yes, them is caffies.

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Charlie MacNeil 5-2-12


Spring was most definitely sprung. From one last hurrah of a spring blizzard that trapped a murderer to bite-high spring grass that was fattening wildlife and domestic livestock alike had only been a matter of a few short weeks, yet this morning was worlds away from that night of shrieking wind and blowing snow. Charlie stood on the doorstep in his socks, hair tousled from sleep, galluses dangling, enamelware cup of steaming Arbuckle's in hand, and thanked the Lord above for giving him this gift. It was a gift of life, love and another just plain fine day in what had to be the closest thing to Paradise a retired lawman was ever likely to find in his life. He sucked in a deep breath of sweet morning air, closed his eyes and breathed a brief prayer of thanksgiving to God before turning back into the house and toward the welcoming aroma of frying venison.

Breakfast done, Charlie strode to the gate leading into the feeding pasture, grain bucket in hand. He shrilled a three note whistle, the crisp tones hanging long in the soft, still morning to echo gently from the walls of the hollow. He was answered with eager nickers that sounded from the far end of the pasture as the mares, bellies bulging with their unborn foals, stepped from their brushy nighttime bivouac and trotted toward their morning treat. Their brightly colored coats shone in the sun, their movements appearing for all the world like multicolored rivulets of gleaming paint flowing across the cropped-down meadow. Starret's buckskin mare brought up the rear, still uncertain of her place in the pecking order.

The mares gathered around the bucket in Charlie's hand, the black and white leopard-spotted lead mare asserting her authority with laid-back ears and nipping teeth. She would get the first bite; after she had her treat, the others could come forward to stick their velvet muzzles in for a bite of their own. Charlie made sure that the buckskin got a share as well.

Charlie counted noses and came up one short. He counted again to make sure, then tilted his chin up and whistled again. He stepped away from the gathered horses and listened for an answer, and thought he heard something. It was difficult to decide for sure over the noise the mares were making so he moved further into the pasture and whistled again. This time he was sure. The red mare who was missing was down yonder, still holed up in the brush, and he was pretty sure that he knew why. He stepped back over to the gate, set the bucket on the ground outside, and started toward the pocket of laurel and liveoak scrub at the bottom of the pasture.

The red mare stepped proudly out into the morning sunshine. Crowding his mama's flank, wobbling on long gangly legs that were only just getting used to freedom of movement after months of cramped confinement, bottle-brush tail flicking, was the spring's first colt. His coat was reddish blue, tinted with fiery highlights by the sun, fading into the snowy white blanket that swept across his rump and down his back legs nearly to his hocks. Rings and symmetrical dots of blue were scattered about the white, and tiny white freckles covered his muzzle and cheeks.

When his mama stopped to let the man approach he skittered away behind her, then peered out at this strange creature that made such unusual noises, unsure what to think of such a thing. After a moment, seeing that his dam wasn't alarmed, and in fact seem to be enjoying the attention she was getting, he ventured out, muzzle extended to sniff at the hand this new animal held out in his direction. He smelled his mother's scent mixed with that of something else, probably the creature's. Tucking himself against his mama's flank again, he stood and let the creature touch him and rub his tiny, upthrust ears for a moment before ducking back behind the mare again.

"Come on back out here, little one," Charlie murmured. "I ain't gonna hurt ya." He stood with his hand out until the stud colt reappeared, stepping closer this time, until Charlie could reach under the young one's chin to rub and scratch. Easing forward, Charlie slowly slipped his arm around the baby's neck, crooning wordlessly, while the colt stood uncertainly, skin flicking at the touch of skin and cloth. Charlie stroked his neck and down his side gently while the colt gradually calmed, then began to lean against Charlie's side. The ex-marshal grinned as he lifted his arm away from the colt and the colt, now comfortable with the strange creature in his pasture, turned and thrust his nose under mama's flank and began to nurse.

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Linn Keller 5-3-12


Thomas --
Sell that Mercantile and get yourself back here.
I need your help.
Bring your Book Keeper with you.
If the lawyers get your money back let them keep half and send you the other half, I can guarantee you a better income here and no thieves.

The Sheriff folded the note, sealed it: he folded up an envelope, slid the note in the envelope and sealed it as well: he dipped steel nib in good India ink and carefully addressed it, then added a small insignia in the bottom left hand corner, one that would be recognized by one of the Order.
Esther came up behind him, hands gentle on his shoulders: he tossed the envelope on the desk, then reached up and patted her hand.
"Sometimes," he said quietly, "I think about my dear skinny little Mama."
Esther squeezed gently to let him know she was listening.
"She ... in a previous age she would have been the village Wise Woman."
Esther nodded; he felt the movement in her hands.
"Had I been born woman, I would have been the seventh firstborn female in seven consecutive generations ... I would have been a Woman of Power."
He could not see his wife but he knew the look of understanding in her eyes.
"She knew when Pa was coming home ... she knew when one of us was hurt, she knew when someone died."
He leaned back in his chair and rested his face in his palm.
"Sometimes I wish I hadn't inherited as much as I did."
Esther looked at the envelope, closed her eyes: she bowed her head for a long moment, then said quietly, "It's late, dearest. Come to bed."
The Sheriff nodded, then rose slowly, like an old man, like a stove-up, wore-out old man.

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Linn Keller 5-4-12



Sunrise was sudden, big, beautiful, the way it was in the mountains: Jacob stole a moment to cuddle with his wife, holding her close, the two of them sharing a relaxed moment, at least until the patter of little feet gave scant warning to the sudden pounce of a happy little boy.
Neither looked at the nightstand until later in the day.

The Sheriff, too, cuddled his wife close in to him: she slept on her side these days, for it was more comfortable for her, and he molded himself to her, stealing a moment from the morning, half-dreaming yet with the smell of roses.

Angela sat upright, rubbed her eyes, then stretched her arms waaaaaay out with a truly prodigious yawn.
Her little pink feet hit the hook rug and she giggled and scampered to the window and looked out, then looked back toward her bed.
Angela's head tilted a little, the move of a curious little girl.
She padded silently to the little drawer table beside her bed and picked up the single, bright-red, utterly flawless, rose.
Angela closed her eyes and sniffed the blossom, then she giggled and absolutely strutted her way to her bedroom door.

Puzzled, then pleased, Bonnie reached for the rose on her bedside stand.
Drawing it to her nose, she smiled, then looked over at Levi.
Bonnie rolled over and kissed his lightly stubbled cheek and his eyes opened: he blinked a couple times, smiled, murmured "Love you, dear."
Bonnie put the rose to her nose, savored its bouquet.
"Thank you," she whispered.

Sarah yanked her gunbelt tight around her waist, over her light-blue riding skirt: she kept an outfit at her bedside, ready in case she had to dress in haste.
This morning, she was indeed in haste.
The maid looked up as a sky-blue whirlwind with a white-lace-trimmed tornado wrapped around it, streaked downstairs: no, the maid thought, that could not have been a tornado ... tornadoes don't carry a rifle, nor do they move that fast.
Outside, Sarah's high, shrill whistle shivered the very air.
It wasn't until the maid went to Sarah's bedroom to change linens, as she did every week, that she saw the single red rose dropped in the middle of the bedroom floor.

There was no need for haste, the Sheriff knew.
His Rose-horse kept an easy canter; it wasn't far to the Mercantile, and he knew what he would find.
The key and the envelope were in his coat pocket.
Mac arrived just as Sarah came pounding up the street, standing in the stirrups and leaned forward, willing the racing gelding to greater speed: she drew up quickly, the racer's haunches squatting, steel shoes skidding a little on hard packed dirt: Sarah was out of the saddle before he was stopped and hit the ground running, rifle at high port, eyes pale, ice-pale, and the horror of a knowing on her face.
Mac looked from the Sheriff to Sarah and back, puzzled.
Nothing looked amiss; he'd heard no shouted alarms, there were no running feet, no one was pointing or talking excitedly, no smoke rose against the morning sky; for the life of him, he had no idea why thunder rode the Sheriff's brow, nor why the pretty young schoolmarm was breathing heavy, breathing fast, and clutching a rifle like a drowning man clutches a broomstraw.
The Sheriff put his hands on Sarah's shoulders.
Pale eyes regarded paler eyes.
Sarah swallowed, looked levelly at her father.
Each nodded, once, as if some subtle communication passed between them.
Mac frowned, realizing something -- something! -- just happened ... and he had absolutely, positively, no idea just what.
The Sheriff ran two fingers into his coat pocket and brought out a big, old-fashioned, black-iron key: he thrust it into the front door of the Mercantile, drew the door open.
"Maude?" he called, knowing it would do no good.
Normally the smell of breakfast hung by the front door like a welcome mat.
There was the smell of woodsmoke, faint but familiar -- she was burning apple, the Sheriff thought, and almost smiled, for he loved the smell of apple wood on a fire -- he and Sarah each took one step inside, looking around, but both held very still, listening.
The Sheriff knew her living quarters were in back and to the right.
He looked at Sarah.
A series of gestures: me ahead right, you ahead left up -- Sarah nodded once -- the Sheriff turned, put his fingers to his lips and motioned Mac to stand fast.
Mac gulped uncertainly, turned his head, hooked his thumb toward the door.
The Sheriff made a pulling-motion, then thumb-and-forefinger as if throwing a latch.
Mac nodded his understanding and turned to close the door.
The Sheriff and Sarah advanced, flanking out what little they could: Sarah froze as the Sheriff slipped to the right, eyes busy, making sure all was as it should be: the roll top desk was closed -- he opened it slowly, carefully; all was tidy and orderly within, and he closed the top slowly, silently.
Sarah held fast while her father inspected the silent office area; he came out again, nodded.
They continued toward the back of the store.
The Sheriff nodded to Sarah.
Sarah turned, cat-footed up the narrow stairs to the second floor.
The Sheriff knocked, then opened the door to Maude's living quarters.
It was small, tidy, the way he imagined a shipboard cabin would be.
No surprise there, he thought: WJ was a Navy man, and he almost smiled at the memory of the generous old veteran Maude married and loved for the biggest part of her life.
WJ's portrait hung on the wall; the interior was absolutely orderly, nothing disturbed.
The Sheriff took one step, another.
He stopped.
"Maude?" he called, more as a matter of form: he knew there would be no answer.
Maude was in bed, one hand extended, as if reaching for someone: there was a contentment to her face, but a terrible stillness.
When a living soul inhabits a room, there is a vitality to the air; an energy, a vibration if you will: the Sheriff felt none here, and although he pressed practiced fingers to her throat, seeking any sign of a pulse, he knew even before he touched her cooled, discolored flesh, there would be none.

Sarah placed her feet carefully, precisely, putting her weight on the sides of the stair treads, where they were strongest and least likely to squeak or crack: she ascended the narrow, steep staircase like a wisp of smoke, paused at the cracked-ajar door.
There was no room to get to the side before opening the door, so Sarah did the next best thing.
She squatted, bringing the rifle up: placing her left hand against the door, she shoved, hard, brought her rifle to shoulder, ready to confront any murderous intruder.

The Sheriff came up the stairs, slowly, his tread heavy, the walk of a man who bore bad news.
Sarah was within the little attic room with all the sunward windows.
Her rifle was leaned up against her right shoulder, the hammer back down to half cock: she was walking slowly between the long tables, examining each of the tiered, rectangular planters.
She turned as her Papa came in the room, her eyes bright.
"Every rose is blooming," she said, her voice serious. "No buds at all. Everything is in full, perfect, flawless bloom."
Sarah fixed her Papa with pale eyes.
"She's gone, isn't she?" -- she cupped a single bloom in her left hand, bent, closed her eyes and inhaled its delicate fragrance.
"She wanted to let us know it was all right."
Sarah drew her hand slowly from the blossom.
"This is how she let us know."

Maude held WJ's hand and watched the pair in their little attic room, among the roses they loved so well.
"I will miss them," Maude whispered.
"I know," WJ said quietly, his arm going around her shoulders.
Maude leaned against her beloved, sighed.
"I have missed you so."
"I know."
Maude watched the pair standing in their fragrant sanctuary.
"I'm glad they found out about one another."
"I as well, my dear."
Maude turned and looked at her husband ... she looked at a man much younger than she remembered, when last she saw him... she saw a handsome young man, grinning the way he did when they first met, when they were young and very much in love and he took her to that Yankee seaport of New York and they rode something called a Ferris Wheel, and Maude laughed as she remembered how she clutched his hand as the wheel went up, and how she screamed as their car began its descent!
WJ hugged Maude and whispered, "I have something else to show you."
Maude looked at her beloved, her eyes bright, and she turned, then gasped.
They were standing in front of a mirror.
Maude was young again.
Her hand went to a cheek smooth as a maiden's, free of wrinkles or age: her hair was raven's-wing black, gleaming, her waist was tight, slender, and ...
WJ, beside her, was a young man again, strong and slender, suntanned and vital and ... and young!
"But how did ... how ...?"
Maude nodded toward the roses, every last one full abloom.
WJ grinned, then laughed: he leaned his head back and laughed with a mouth full of sound, pristine-white teeth, holding his beloved's hands and filling the room with the delighted laughter of a man absolutely in love with his wife.
"I asked a favor," he said finally.
Maude looked at the Sheriff and his daughter.
"Can they hear us?"
WJ smiled.
"They know we're here," he said, "but we have to go now."
Maude looked around, her eyes full of wonder.
She turned, took both her husband's hands in both of hers.
"I'm ready."

Sarah raised her hand, eyes busy, listening.
Puzzled, looked at her father.
He smiled a little, nodded, then looked up toward the ceiling.
"Adios, you two," he said quietly.

Maude screamed, the scream of a young girl going over the top of the Ferris wheel for the very first time, then she gasped, her eyes big with wonder.
"It's beautiful!" she whispered.
WJ laughed, watched the earth fall away from them.
"There's someone I want you to meet now."

In the years and generations that followed, the tale was told of an upper room in the Mercantile that smelled of roses.
The Mercantile was torn down and rebuilt twice in the century that followed, the original greenhouse room with all the sunward windows replaced and forgotten.
The locals learned to accept the occasional appearance of a rose before the birth of a healthy child, before a wedding whose marriage would be long and happy, and at the death of a beloved wife: the roses beside the Firelands church continued to grow every year, and nodded in the mountain breeze, surviving excavation, renovation, rebuilding: they were studied, sampled, transplanted, their stock bloomed in beds, beside houses, and beside other churches nearby and very far away: but these things are far in the future, and have yet to be recorded in any of the Sheriffs' journals.

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Linn Keller 5-5-12


Sarah helped her Papa hang the black bunting across the lintel and drape the few mirrors in the building: he found and removed the cash box and the ledgers, looked around and nodded, once, as if deciding something, or maybe realizing the place just came to an end, and a beginning.
"Mac, with me," he said quietly: "Sarah, I'll need your help too."
Sarah nodded, once, her face serious, but her eyes quiet: they were no longer glacier-pale: as a matter of fact, when Mac looked at her, she had a look of ... not sadness ... understanding, maybe.
Sarah took a moment to lay a hand on Mac's shoulder.
He turned to the girl and she could see his grief, deep and hidden, but very real.
She parked her rifle against a stack of flour sacks and wrapped her arms around him and whispered, "I miss her too," and he nodded, fearing to do more.
Mac was right fond of Maude and knowing she was gone was pretty difficult for the gregarious, grinning, checker playing fellow.
The Sheriff waited patiently for the pair, knowing they needed this time.
He, too, knew grief; he would handle his in his way, at his time, but not now.
He waited until they came out before locking the door and dropping the heavy, old fashioned key in his coat pocket.
"Follow me," he said, and the three walked down the wooden steps to the street, and across at a long angle.
A few school children were trickling in, some trudging reluctantly, some running exuberantly: one active lad, not much more than elbow tall on Sarah, came pelting up behind her, stopped to blow for a moment, then caught up with the trio and said "Whatcha doin' witha rifle, Miss Sarah?"
Sarah switched the rifle to her left hand, ran her arm around his shoulders and pulled him into her: the three walked awkwardly together, the boy grinning up at her, sun bleached hair all the fairer for its weathering.
"I'm hunting a Pythagorean theorem," she said, "and I shall extract some square roots later in the day."
"Oh," the lad said brightly. "Are they good eatin'?"
Sarah laughed, the sound pleasant on the morning air.
"Scoot, now," she said. "I have to see a man about a matter."
"I thought you were goin' huntin'!"
"And so I shall," Sarah nodded, swatting his bottom. "Scoot!"
The lad sprinted on ahead and toward the schoolyard.
The Sheriff chuckled.
"Had I that kind of energy," he said, shaking his head.
Mac could not raise his eyes from the ground.

"I'm glad you keep regular hours," the Sheriff said, shaking Mr. Moulton's hand.
"I do my best work early, Sheriff," he said. "I take it this is not a social call."
"No, sir, it's not," the Sheriff said, reaching into his coat and bringing out an envelope. "Do you recall the matter we discussed a week or so ago?"
Mr. Moulton accepted the envelope, opened it, frowned a little as he studied the two pages contained therein: he pursed his lips, nodded.
"Yes, I remember. She's ...?"
"Just this morning."
"I see."
"Here are the books and the cash box. If I could trouble you for a receipt, please."
Mr. Moulton sat down, opened the center drawer of his desk; he withdrew paper, then from another drawer, ink and a pen: he opened the ledgers, paged slowly through them, scanning them quickly, then opened the cash box.
"If you could assist me, please," he said, and the Sheriff nodded to Sarah.
The attorney and the apprentice carefully, methodically counted and agreed on the contents: this was recorded, the box refilled, ledgers and box stacked neatly on the corner of the desk.
"I believe the inventory is accurate?" Mr. Moulton asked, resting his fingertips lightly on the edge of the cloth-bound book.
"I believe so," Mac said, clearing his throat: "she always kept it ... she ..."
He cleared his throat again, looked away.
Mr. Moulton nodded. "We will accept it as accurate, or as reasonably so as can be expected." He looked up at the tall lawman.
The Sheriff laid a hand on Mac's shoulder.
"Here's what we're going to do," he said quietly. "You just inherited a mercantile."
Mac looked up, surprised.
"You own it now. It's yours." He handed the man the heavy, old-fashioned key.
"Maude knew this day would come and she prepared for it.
"I have a man coming to run the place. He has a crackerjack book keeper with him. You can expect a better profit with two new hands under the roof than if you ran it alone."
Mac looked like he'd been kicked in the gut.
He looked down at the key, closed his eyes for a long moment, shook his head.
"It ain't right," he said. "I ain't no store keeper."
He looked at the Sheriff with wounded eyes.
"I worked for Maude. She done all the thinkin'. All I had to do was sweep out an' stack up --"
"You were her right hand," the Sheriff said quietly.
Mac's eyes wandered left, then down.
"Let me think on it," he said. "I thought if she ever ..."
He blinked, swallowed.
"Let me think on it."
"Take your time," the Sheriff said.
Mac grabbed the Sheriff's hand, pressed the key in it, closed the lawman's fingers around it.
"Keep this while I think."
The Sheriff nodded, once.
"I'll do that."

The Sheriff had his answer that evening, in the form of a note.
It was written in Mr. Moulton's precise hand, in the flowing, graceful Spencerian that was his common script:
Sheriff, I have the pleasure to inform that you are now the new owner of the Mercantile.
Its previous owner stated an intent to enter the priesthood and is departed for the new Catholic church in Rabbitville.
If I may be of further service, it would be my pleasure to assist you in any matter.

The Sheriff looked up, blinked a couple times, considering.
That letter I sent won't move fast enough, he thought.
He stood, frowning, then sat again: reaching into his desk, he withdrew a half-sheet and picked up his pen.
His telegram was written out and ready to hand to Lightning before he left the house.

Sarah rode a couple miles out of her way, to a particular promontory where the world cascaded away from her feet: she stood on the very lip of the overhanging rock, the tips of her shoes protruding out over open space: she looked long into the distance, felt the wind coming up the cliff face, blowing her hair a little and inflating her skirts.
The sun was warm on her face as she tilted her head back and closed her eyes: she turned, walked back to the racer, laid a hand on his mane as he cropped grass.
Sarah turned and looked back at the cliff's edge, then at the sharp line where Heaven met earth.
What did I feel when I dropped the rose? she thought.
Did I know Maude was dead?

Sarah thought hard, frowning.
What did I know?
What did I feel?

Sarah looked up at a circling hawk.
I knew a change ... and Papa was ... I felt his purpose ... purpose, and change, and I knew ...
Knew what?
I knew Maude was dead.

Sarah's eyes were pale, calculating as she looked hard at the mirror she put in front of her mind.
Am I in grief?
Do I miss her?
Of course I miss her.

Sarah rubbed the racer's neck, twined her fingers in his mane.
What about when I saw the roses were all abloom?
How did I feel then?

Sarah looked at herself as if looking at a stranger.
I felt analytical.
I found something out of the ordinary and looked for the reason.
I found something unusual, a piece of a puzzle, and set out to solve it.

Sarah raised her leg, thrust her boot into the stirrup, floated into the saddle the way she always did.
"You're easier up than Snowflake," Sarah murmured.
The racing gelding shook his head, danced a little under her.
Sarah looked out over the cliff, into the distance.
"Goodbye, Maude," she said, then kneed the racer into a turn and pointed their noses toward home.
Her packing was nearly complete, but she had a few items to send ahead on the evening train.

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Linn Keller 5-6-12


"Lim-nim-mint," Joseph said slowly, solemn and big-eyed as he watched his Mama rub something that smelled strongly of menthol into his Papa's lower back and side.
"Yeah," Jacob half-gasped, half-grunted.
"Men," Annette scolded quietly. "You have to pick up more weight, shovel more dirt, cut more hay, stack more wood, pull more calves, dress more hides and do more and bigger and better than anyone else or you're not happy!"
Jacob grunted as her hands kneaded a particularly sore part of his back.
"And you, you little scamp," and Joseph looked at his Mama with the big-eyed, I'm-innocent-I-swear look of a little boy hoping to get away with whatever mischief he'd been into, or at least not be punished for it -- "you try to saw my chair legs in two and your father has to take away from his time --" she shook an admonishing finger at Joseph -- "his hard-working time!" -- little Joseph blinked, moving spread-fingered hands protectively across his bottom, remembering what followed his erstwhile whittling expedition -- "to sand and stain and varnish what you nearly ruined!"
"I sowwy," little Joseph said in a small voice, bowing his head, his bottom lip penitently out-thrust.
"Now, Mother," Jacob said patiently, "Joseph was a big help to me today, weren't you?"
"Yis!" Jacob exclaimed, jumping once and bouncing on the balls of his feet.
"Hmph!" Annette replied skeptically. "I suppose you didn't bother to ask anyone for the latest news, now, did you?" -- she turned and snatched up a cake of soap, washed her hands briskly to cleanse them of the slippery, tingling liniment.
"Sweet Thang," Jacob groaned, cautiously tilting his pelvis left, then right, stretching protesting muscles from where he admittedly did over-do things today, "I haven't seen anyone but Joseph and your lovely self all day long."
"Flatterer!" Annette smacked Jacob lightly across his bent over backside.
"Tell you what, dear heart," Jacob said, "I had yesterday and today off, why don't we load up tomorrow morning, I'll harness up the team and wagon and you and Joseph can drive into town with me in the morning, you can have tea with the ladies and catch up on all the gossip and rumor --"
Annette smacked her husband across the backside a bit more briskly.
"Jacob Keller!" she scolded. "I do not gossip nor do I countenance rumor!"
"Yeeeeeeesssss, deeeearrrrrr," Jacob drawled, winking at Joseph, and the air was punctuated with the sharp slap of Annette's hand across her husband's denim covered backside.

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Linn Keller 5-7-12


Maude was borne to her grave by as many of the townsfolk as could reach in and grab the coffin handles.
If it could honestly be said that someone lived their life such that even the undertaker was sad to see them go, Maude was that soul.
Few wore mourning black: Maude told several that she wanted her flowers while she was alive, not after she was dead, and at her funeral she expected bright colors, because death was the entry to something beautiful.
This didn't prevent roses from being dropped on her box, and placed in her box, and laid on her tomb stone.

Sarah and the maid sat with Bonnie and Esther, in Esther's private car: the air was not tense as they made the trip to Denver, but it was solemn.
Sarah's eyes were for the windows, as the eyes of the young so often are: her eyebrows twitched occasionally, quirking delicately in response to the thoughts that raced through her active mind, streaking brightly across her consciousness.
Bonnie looked at Sarah and saw her daughter as a little girl, as a growing child, as a young woman; her mother's mind remembered feminine moments, frilled dresses, a smiling, shining little face, giggling as her Mama brushed out her hair, or relaxed in sleep, a rag doll tucked into bed with her.
Esther looked at Bonnie and saw what she herself could easily have been, had her own children lived, a mother, at the moment her daughter leaves the nest: her gloved hand rested lightly on her own expanding middle: she looked at Sarah and saw someone that she could have easily adopted as her own.
Sarah, oblivious to this study, calmed her rising excitement, cautioning her soul to a measure of quietude.
Bonnie planned another fashion show, and soon; they had a wagon waiting at the Denver depot, as they always did, and a carriage for the ladies: they would have supper in the hotel's dining room, Sarah would be settled into her room, Bonnie's dress exemplars would be unpacked and made ready for the show, and the ladies would do their best to put on a brave face.

"Look at this," the Sheriff murmured, his and attorney Moulton's heads bent over the ledger. "Look how many people she and WJ carried."
He sighed.
"She turned a profit, but good Lord, those two knew the meaning of charity!"
"They certainly took care of people," Mr. Moulton murmured.
He ran his finger down the carefully inked entries, stopped.
"See here," he said. "And here" -- his finger moved, stopped -- "and here."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Looks like people paid up, more often than not ... she gave credit ..."
His voice trailed off.
"Bless you, dear heart," he whispered.

Angela and the twins sat on the floor.
The Bear Killer lay on a hook rug, grinning, red tongue hung out in pleasure: he had the attention of three drowsy little girls, who were draped over him and just almost asleep.
They'd spent some time brushing him out, something he'd come to enjoy, and after he rolled over to let them brush his belly and his legs, making a terrible hairy mess on the rug, the three of them mutually agreed it was time for a nap.
Levi came in from outside, grinning.
He'd ridden Sarah's huge mare -- not far, and not fast, but he'd ridden her.
The general sensation, he thought, was that of straddling a dining room table strapped to the top of a moving mountain.
He grinned broadly and chuckled a little at the memory.
At this rate I'll be a horseman in no time!

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Linn Keller 5-8-12


"You think they'll ketch us?"
The two plotters looked at one another and grinned.
"You done this before?"
"Oh, yeah!"
"Is it gonna work?"
"Oh, yeah!"
"Just like you said?"
"You do it just like I said!"
The two skulked toward their intended victim.
Each held a length of board half as long as they were tall; they gripped rough wood in gloved hands, walking with stealth and care, for they intended to cause trouble and in no small amount.

Two horsemen, gloved hands folded over saddle horns, sat unmoving in an alder copse, watching.
"Boss, you see what they're doin'?"
"Reckon we ought to stop 'em?"

The two conspirators paused, testing the wind.
The breeze was steady and carrying toward them.
The bull was big; the bull was a creature half-wild, and with the instincts of the dominant male: it was also tending the important work of filling its belly, and the creeping about of two small two-legs was not an outstanding thing in his world.
The bull put its head down and snuffed loudly at sweet spring grass.

The two looked at one another, their hands tightening around the boards.
One ran up beside the bull, stopped in front of it.
The other wound up and smacked the bull squarely across the backside just as hard as he could swing his timber.
The sound of wood on bull's butt was loud, momentary and immediately drowned by the bull's sound of surprise and displeasure: the other lad swung his in a tight overhead arc, belting the bull between its horns.
Both boys dropped their sawmill cut boards, screamed, and ran for the fence.

Boss and hired man leaned against their saddle horns, taking in the spectacle.

Both boys made the fence.
One snaked under, one scaled and leaped.
The bull, having no use for such niceties, drove through the whitewashed plank fence with a great splintering of wood.
Two terrified boys legged it for the nearest tree and made a frightened squirrel look like a rank amateur when it came to ascending the woody trunk.

"Reckon we ought to go get 'em down, Boss?"
The boss's eyes tightened with amusement.
"No, don't reckon so," Sam drawled. "Let 'em learn. He'll snort and paw and bawl at 'em until after sundown, then he'll drift on back to the herd."
"Ain't that the fence we'd figured to tear down anyway?" Clark offered.
"Yep," Sam nodded. "It's in sad shape and he done us a favor, gettin' a start on it like that." She picked up her reins. "Bull can't go anywhere, he's in the pasture where we wanted him."
Clark lifted his reins and turned his horse, keeping station beside Sam.
"They'll get cold tonight."


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Linn Keller 5-10-12


The saloon was thick with smoke and laughter, the sound of men at drink and at cards, the slap of pasteboards on felt and the bright chink of coin: through this sordid carpet, the piano played steadily, if less than competently: the bouncer laid a warm, meaty hand on the piano player's shoulder, murmured a few words, and the sweating fellow in vest and sleeve-garters nodded and pushed back from the piano.
A short-skirted saloon girl in a glittery, feathered mask handed the piano player a mug of beer and a smile; she smacked an exploring hand away, flounced her scandalously-short skirt out from under her and settled onto the piano player's stool.
Frowning, she shook her head: turning, she gave a short, sharp whistle, and one of the dancing girls, pushing the heavy burgundy stage curtain aside, reached behind her, pulled out a gaudy, scarlet pillow with bright-yellow tassels, and tossed it to the piano player.
The saloon girl caught it, stood, flipped it casually under her descending backside without looking, and nodded her approval: the stool was padded, yes, but she planned on being there for some time, and she had no wish to be less than comfortable.
Raising her arms dramatically, she attacked the keys with stiff fingers and bent wrists, a quick, loud fanfare, designed to attract attention and announce the next act.
Heads turned, men smiled, for men at drink and at cards are always ready to look at a pretty girl, at least until the curtains parted and more pretty girls with long, lovely legs stepped into the lime light, smiles on their faces and hips thrust at jaunty angles.

Sarah sat in her room in the fine hotel, frowned as she read the hand-written reports: she absorbed information like a sponge, sorting through the mass of observations, correlating behaviors with names, calculating time and approximate volumes of alcohol consumed, noting the number of hands of cards, or tosses of dice, or spins of the roulette-wheel: she noted which names won more than they lost, which lost more than they won, which preferred cards, which preferred the ponies, which were more interested in women or drink, and she smiled a little to see there were a half-dozen whose names did not appear at all.
She turned the page and found one of the missing names, or rather, his handbill.
The man was performing in Denver, giving a concert at a small music-hall, the kind that catered to those with more enthusiasm than talent: she made note of the name of the establishment and its location.
Sarah smiled a little at the overblown language on the handbill.
From what she'd read in the reports, the man was unassuming, far different from the grand statements in bold print: one fact, she thought, one fact was probably the only accurate statement, other than the name of the hall: the man played a twelve string Spanish guitar.
Sarah had a musician's appreciation of music, and though she'd long wanted to, she'd never heard the deep, rich tones of a well-played, double-strung Mexican instrument.
There was no way she could make it to the small music-hall and tend the other activities she planned; she would visit there another time.
She smiled and looked at the saloon-girl costume hanging up, ready, and the glittering, feathered mask hanging with it.
When she settled herself onto the piano stool, she'd already spotted four of the five classmates with whom she'd familiarized herself, courtesy the contacts she'd cultivated with the Denver Police Department, and elsewhere in town, contacts she'd established while in town with her mother, in the reasonable belief that she just might need information, and her Uncle Papa told her long ago that information was often worth more than gold coin.
When the girl in the feathered glitter-mask rose from the piano, the hour was late, but she'd spotted the majority of her classmates, those men she'd never met, those men beside whom she would be seated at the long Academy tables come the next forenoon.

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Linn Keller 5-11-12


Mac put his finger slowly on a red checker, slid it forward.
Bill -- or, rather, Brother William -- studied the board but little; his attention was on his old friend.
Grief is hardest to bear alone, he knew, and Mac -- quiet, unassuming, gruff, scowling-on-the-outside Mac -- did the only thing he could reasonably come up with when faced with this loss.
He found his old and dear friend, and sat down, and stared at the checker board.
Oh, he'd told that lawyer back in Firelands he was going into the priesthood; at the moment it sounded good, it would give him purpose, it would give him meaning, it would give him a few years of direction in Seminary, it would get his mind into other avenues ... but by the time he reached the new Rabbitville church and monastery, his resolve to take up the collar and cloth dissolved under the weight of his sorrow.
Bill played slowly, neutrally; he could have cleared the board a half dozen times, but let the opportunity pass: they played until Mac shook his head and turned away from the board and looked out the far window.
"What am I gonna do now?" he asked, his voice loud in the Spartan quarters: "Maude ..."
Brother William nodded, slowly: his monastic tonsure was natural, not a result of razor and lather; his dome was tanned, as were his hands, for he found the monastery's raised garden beds to be greatly conducive to meditation, to contemplation, and he spent much time with the long, narrow garden strips.
Mac looked up; Brother William well knew the expression, for he'd seen it before, and not a few times.
"We are children," he said quietly.
Mac looked away, looked back, his voice harsh.
"Don't you go gittin' churchy on me," he snapped, and Brother William raised an eyebrow, then leaned back and spread his hands.
"Look around you," he said. "How can I not?"
Mac blinked, looked around, and the spell was broken: he shook his head and chuckled sadly.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have said that. 'Specially not here."
Brother William reached over and laid a work hardened hand on his old friend's shoulder.
"Why not?" he whispered. "You have never lied to me, not once. You spoke the truth."
Mac sighed.
"All right, then, get churchy with me."
Brother William nodded.
"Why are we here?" he shrugged. "Are we checkers on a great celestial checker-board, or pawns, perhaps, in the chess game of the universe? Are we set-pieces while Good and Evil game for our souls? Is the answer simpler, or perhaps much more complex?"
He paused.
Mac shrugged. "Damned if I know," he admitted frankly.
Brother William raised a finger.
"We are children," he said. "We are here to learn. We are standing -- right now -- in a schoolyard, looking around.
"We know one of our companions has been called away. Called home. Called home, by a wise and loving parent. We know here" -- he tapped his forehead -- "that she has been called home, that she is warm, and fed, and loved, and probably tucked in bed with a full belly and no better feeling in the world."
Mac nodded glumly, his eyes haunted.
"What about us?"
Mac blinked.
"What about us?"
"What about ... whattaya mean, what about us?"
"Just that."
"Just what?"
"We are standing in the schoolyard, looking around. She's gone and we miss her. It ain't right -- look around, there's plenty of light, we still have time, we can still play! -- but we are children, and we don't want our friend to go, but we're just children. We don't have much say in when she does or does not go."
Mac considered this.
"So we stand here in the schoolyard, we stand here alone, and we miss our friend."
Mac took a long breath, sighed it out.
"Now what Scripture did you pull that one out of?" he muttered, looking up at his old friend.
Brother William laughed.
"I stole that one from the Sheriff," he admitted. "I heard him say as much when he preached a funeral and I realized he's right, so I stole it."
"I thought you weren't supposed to steal."
Brother William grinned.
"I reckon I'll be forgiven."
Mac nodded, his smile fading.
"I still miss her," he said.
"I know."
"Another game?"
"No, don't reckon so."
"Get some rest, then. I have a few things to take care of and I'll be in as well."
"I snore," Mac warned.
"That's okay," Brother William said, rising: "they'll think it's me and I can surprise them at prayers."

Next morning, Sarah was up at first light: her day was planned, her outfit chosen, hung up and ready: she'd bathed the tobacco-stink off her the night before, and her preparations were quick, efficient: her shoulder ached from playing piano, from dancing a few rounds with carefully selected partners, and from belting a too-forward Lothario who insisted she should run off to Kansas City and marry him.
The man's ardor was considerably cooled by a beer mug to the side of the head, and even more so by the bouncer introducing him to the nearest horse trough on the street outside.
Sarah attired herself as a schoolmarm: the cut of her dress was as severe as her hairdo, her right arm was in a sling, which helped the ache; she carried a small carpet bag, such as a schoolmarm might use to carry lessons for the class, clutching the mahogany cane as one would grip a furled umbrella, in the same hand that held the satchel: she and the maid, both ready to face the day, made their decorous way down the stairs and to the dining-room, where they breakfasted and talked quietly.
Sarah insisted that the maid wear something other than her maid's uniform, to which Mary agreed: to an onlooker, it might seem that a schoolmarm and a dear friend were sharing a morning meal, which is what Sarah intended.
The ornate clock against the far wall chimed, its deep, musical note discreetly resonant in the opulence of the dining room.
Sarah rose.
"I shan't be late," she said, "unless something goes wrong."
"As well as you plan," the maid replied with a knowing smile, "I doubt if it will."

At the same moment the grand clock struck the hour in Denver, Emma Cooper swung the somewhat bent handbell, summoning the students to their tidy, whitewashed schoolhouse.
Children walked, skipped, ran or sauntered, according to their mood, until they heard the bell: every head raised and every step quickened, for it was Miss Sarah that rang the bell of a morning, and they were looking forward to seeing their favorite schoolmarm again.
Emma Cooper faced a rather downcast student body as she explained that Sarah, too, was a student, and studying in Denver, and who can tell me where Denver is located, and the day began as it always did.

Sarah ascended the several sets of stairs easily, passing her floor to explore the rooms above: she knew there were several vacant rooms, and she'd arranged to rent one of them, under an assumed name.
Looking around to make sure she was not observed, she slipped a key from her sleeve, opened the door, shut and locked it behind her: she stepped quietly to the window, where the window was raised to half mast and a box carefully installed in the opening.
Sarah smiled as she checked the contents and the release mechanism; she knew the lanyard, dyed to match the building's brick, extended beside the window one floor below -- the window of her classroom -- and a hard pull would unroll a ladder, long enough to reach the street below.
The rest of the room's furnishings had yet to arrive, but for now, this would do.
Sarah unlocked the door, looked around, locked it behind her: she slipped down the stairs to the classroom below.
Nobody was in the room.
Sarah opened the cupboard at the back of the room.
There was a false back built into the cupboard, placed there a week before by men under her employ: she knew the room would be unused for a week, and she put the week to good use: now she opened the hidden door, reached into her carpet bag, removed a ladder belt and the silk rope Daciana gave her.
The long steel bar was already in place, in a corner.
Sarah closed the concealed door quietly, secured the cupboard, then slipped out of the classroom again.

"Daddy?" Angela asked as she and the Sheriff walked their horses side-by-side.
"Yes, Princess?"
"Daddy, what's a de-teck-tive?"
The Sheriff laughed at his little girl's careful pronounciation. She was losing the childlike vocabulary of the wee child she'd been; she was trying so hard to be a Big Girl Now, but there were enough moments when she wasn't, to continue to delight her Dear Old Dad.
"A detective," the Sheriff explained carefully, "is someone who finds things out."
"Like Mommy," Angela said brightly.
The Sheriff laughed, and his laugh was good to hear.
"Yes," he agreed. "Just like Mommy!"

Sarah made efficient use of her time; she was clear of the facilities and just starting up the stairs when she heard several sets of masculine feet punishing their way up the stairs.
She smiled.
The student body was arriving.

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Linn Keller 5-12-12


Thomas looked at the cat, curled up on top of the flour sacks.
The cat blinked sleepily, regarding Thomas as a crowned head of state might regard a minion whose duty it is to bring said crowned head, a tray of dainties, for it was near teatime.
"Does the cat come with the store?" Thomas asked.
The Sheriff nodded, then reached for the long haired calico: the cat rubbed her face against the Sheriff's curled fingers and accepted the homage this familiar two-legs offered her royal personage.
"Don't try to pick her up," the Sheriff said, gently rubbing the cat behind the ears and then down under her chin: "she keeps mice out and does a fine job, she produces a litter or so a year and her young apprentice well enough that they're in demand."
"I'm sellin' kittens too?"
"Nope. Kittens are free."
Thomas nodded, considering.
"We put in a heavy glass top yonder" -- the Sheriff indicated the counter top -- "when that gets scratched up, there's an extra in back wrapped in burlap and protected between planks. Send this to the address on the planking and they'll polish it off nice and smooth and ship it back. Hadn't ought to need that more'n every three years or so."
"You'll have a good trade in damn near everything. Maude arranged for fresh fruit and vegetables in season, she had 'em freighted in when they were seasonal elsewhere -- hell, we had roastin' ears here when our own crop wasn't even in tassel!"
"Roasting ears," Thomas said quietly, and the Sheriff saw the hunger in the man's eyes.
"I don't reckon there are any packages that need delivered --" the Sheriff said, motioning Thomas behind the counter -- "no, I just made a liar out of myself."
He squatted, slid his fingers under a small wood crate, tucked his butt and stood.
"Sarah's," he smiled. "There ought to be another here close by."
Ross watched the Sheriff and the Sheriff caught his glance: Ross knew what it was to hold a weight, two-handed, and the Sheriff saw the man's left hand close a little, as if ready to pick up and hold a heavy object.
He went over to the man.
"Here," he said, "hold this a minute," and Ross curled it up in his left arm.
It was heavy, all right, it was all he wanted to hold, one-handed, but hold it he did.
"Might set it on the corner of the counter, that's heavy," the Sheriff nodded, gesturing to the oak framed display case, and Ross hesitated but a moment before setting it on the corner, where wood could bear its weight.
He looked around, his mind busy, as the new owner -- his new boss -- and the Sheriff went into the back room, their voices muffled by corners and goods; Ross considered the neatness of the store, the careful selection and placement, the overall cleanliness.
Must have been a Navy man running this place, he thought, then frowned.
I thought the proprietor was a widow woman.
"Now the stage" -- the Sheriff's voice was suddenly loud again as he came around the corner, talking as much with his hands as his voice -- "stage ought to be in around noon or so, there will be mail to come and go. Hers's where she keeps the mail sack. Ross, you might get in on this too." The Sheriff grinned at his old friend Thomas. "Trust me to butt in and tell you how to run your own shop!"
"It ain't my shop," Thomas pointed out. "You own it."
The Sheriff laughed, set his hands on Thomas's shoulders: Ross could see a long friendship between the two and wondered what their history might be.
"Thomas, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," the Sheriff grinned. "I know just enough about runnin' a general store to get myself in Dutch. It's yours to run as you see fit, and I am not about to interfere!"
Thomas nodded. He'd hoped that would be the arrangement but he wasn't sure, until now.
The Sheriff frowned at the wooden box weighting the corner of the counter.
"Speakin' of which, I need to place an order." He turned, opened a drawer: Thomas looked as the Sheriff stepped aside to show even the drawers were in the same tidy order as the rest of the store.
"This pad here" -- the Sheriff rested his fingers on a small booklet -- "she used for taking orders -- the particulars are on the cover and inside -- she dealt with a number of individual vendors but she never dealt with anyone shady or crooked. You are inheriting the fruit of their trial and error."
Thomas nodded.
The Sheriff pulled out a pad, picked up a pencil, frowned at the point: it was freshly whittled, ready to go.
He made a few quick notes in a very legible block print.
"Order me up two cases of .44-40 if you would please, and another case of .45-70, and I'll need a case of twelve gauge bird shot and a case of twelve gauge swan shot or equivalent. Number four buck will be fine, I like a good dense shot swarm."
Thomas nodded.
The Sheriff slid thumb and forefinger into an inside coat pocket, came out with a wallet: he sorted among its contents, came out with a few bills, laid them on the order form.
He looked at Thomas and grinned.
"My favorite credit system," he said with that ornery grin Thomas remembered from years before: "one hundred per cent down with no monthly payments."
The Sheriff straightened, frowned a little as he put the wallet back, then reached back to rub the small of his back.
Ross saw this and opened his mouth to say something, then closed it.
The Sheriff saw his expression.
"Mileage," he grunted.
Thomas and Ross both nodded their understanding.
None of the men were what you'd call young -- Ross was the youngest of the three -- but all knew the aches and pains of past decisions, those bright reminders of past indiscretions that flared when the barometer dropped.
"Thomas," the Sheriff said, extending his hand, "welcome to your new home."
"Thank you," he murmured.
The Sheriff thrust his left hand at the one-handed bookeeper.
"Ross," he said, "welcome aboard. You've got a good boss."
"Yes, sir," Ross grinned, "that I have!"

The proprietor and majority owner of the Z&W Railroad, having conducted and completed the important business of the day by ten AM, was now concentrating on the important task of training the apprentice staff in correct communication procedures.
Railroading was a vital link in supplying the growing West: it brought settlers and supplies, food and farm equipment, horses, hoes and hats, plows and pistols, whiskey and wives, and all of it was shipped as freight, as tonnage, so much per mile, so much per pound.
It was therefore incumbent upon the railroads to maintain not only good records but good bookkeeping, and part of good record keeping and good book keeping involved a good, clear hand when writing these records.
Angela frowned a little as she gripped the pencil.
She sat in her Mommy's lap at her Mommy's desk -- The Important Desk, Angela called it in her mind -- and though Esther could not see her daughter's face, she knew her tongue would be protruding just a little from the corner of her mouth as she concentrated on this new task.
Esther took a clean sheet of paper and made a vertical column of letters: a capital and then under it, a lower case A; a capital, then a lower-case B; she did this because she remembered her own mother, taking her in her lap and training her in this self same manner.
Angela gripped the pencil as if it was from another country.
To her young fingers, it was foreign and clumsy and utterly unfamiliar.
She very carefully touched pencil to paper and slowly, carefully, made a wobbly line and another, and drew a line between them.
Angela stopped, blinked.
It was wobbly, it was lopsided, but it was recognizable.
"Ooh," she said, a little sound of discovery, then she clasped her free hand around her pencil hand and said excitedly, "Look, Mommy! I did it! I did it!"
"Yes, you did, sweets, and it's lovely!" Esther exclaimed. "I am so very proud of you!"
Angela bent a little to peer closely at her new creation.
"Yes, Sweets?"
"Mommy ... what did I just make?"
Esther regarded the capital A and hugged her child, laughing.

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Linn Keller 5-13-12


The student body was exclusively male in this current class.
Professor TJ Hunt retrieved his spectacles from an inside pocket and frowned a little as he slipped the wire hooks behind his ears.
Looking around, he lowered his head so he could see over his lenses, the frown not quite leaving his face: he scanned the class slowly, from left to right, looking from the first row to the second.
His head turned like a gun-turret on its swivel, deliberately, steadily, without hesitation; his smooth arc stopped at the far right of the room, where a severe young schoolmarm with her arm in a sling sat, disapproval in her posture and mild annoyance on her face.
Suddenly the student body was not exclusively masculine.
The others in class tried to maintain an appearance of polite attention to the Professor.
They almost succeeded.
Sarah's quick ear twitched slightly as she caught the whispered, "What is she doing here?" and "Is she his sister?" and "She doesn't belong here!" -- but she sat unmoving, radiating a schoolmarm's chilly demeanor.
Professor Hunt cleared his throat.
"Good morning, gentlemen," he said in a surprisingly soft voice, then looked pointedly at Sarah -- "and lady" -- he bowed slightly, and Sarah nodded, slowly, a formal acknowledgement of his recognition.
"Welcome to your first day of class. I will endeavor to teach you something of detection, of finding that which is hidden." He harrumphed, glared over his spectacles at the pretty young schoolmarm with all the welcoming aura of a marble statue. "Often that which is in plain sight is the hardest to see.
"Agent Rosenthal."
To his credit, he did not sneer when he pronounced her title: Sarah rose, turned to face the Professor.
"Yes, sir," she said deferentially.
"Agent Rosenthal, you come well recommended from two men I know well. I must admit you are a surprise, as I have never had a woman in my class before."
"Yes, sir."
"Agent Rosenthal, you apparently have some ... experience?"
"Yes, sir."
"What -- in your professional experience -- is your greatest impediment to detection?"
"My temper, sir."
"Your temper." Professor Hunt regarded the severely-dressed schoolmarm skeptically.
Sarah's dress was carefully tailored and draped to emphasize vertical lines: it gave the illusion of height, the impression of flutes on a marble column, and de-emphasized the inevitable feminine shape.
"What can you give the class as far as detection, Miss Rosenthal?"
Sarah turned, looked down the first row of tables.
"First row, stand up," she said, her voice loud and sharp in the classroom.
Sarah noted those that stood, immediately, coming to quick attention: prior military, she thought.
"Stand at ease," she commanded, her voice echoing with the unmistakable ring of command, something she learned from the Sheriff, probably without his realizing what he'd taught.
Sarah walked slowly down the row, frankly regarding each man, saying to one "Show me your hands, please," and to another, leaning over to examine the paper on which he'd prepared to take notes.
Sarah made her way to the end of the tables, then started back.
"You, sir, are a gambler," she said to the first one, "your preferred game is blackjack, and you win slightly more than you don't." She seized his right hand, plucked a card from his coatsleeve, held it up. "And you plan to have a quick game or perhaps a rubber of Whist before this afternoon's session."
Her eyes were bright and knowing behind her own spectacles.
"Beware of the marked deck, sir. This card was trim marked and thumbnailed both, and I believe if you examine it with the blue spectacles in your pocket you will find it inked as well Please be seated, sir."
She dropped the card on the table before him, stepped before the next student.
"You, sir, are a horseman, and a poor one. I recommend talcum powder to lessen your saddle sores, and be not sparing of it. Pain is not pleasant."
"I take it you observed his discomfiture when seated?"
"Yes, sir, shifting from one thigh to the other is clinically indicative."
"I can tell you have some medical background as well," the Professor observed dryly.
"Please be seated, sir," Sarah nodded, moved to the next student.
This third man brought her to a full and complete stop.
"Your hand, sir," she said, catching his forearm as he brought up his hand: she raised it, frowning, then turned his hand over.
The first student withdrew the blue spectacles from his eyes -- a quick glance through them proved the schoolmarm correct -- and he thrust them back into his breast pocket, looking at the cold-voiced young woman with surprise, and a new respect.
Sarah looked down at the table, turned to the Professor.
"Professor Hunt," she said, her voice clear and distinct, "mark this man well. I believe he will be a prize student. This man is an accountant, which tells me he has an orderly mind, he is prone to the rational and the logical, he is interested in facts, and in my experience before His Honor the Judge, the court wishes to hear facts, not ideas or suppositions and feelings."
"Upon what do you base this observation, Miss Rosenthal?"
"That which is in plain sight is often the least seen," Sarah said, nodding to the man whose hand she still held: her grip was professional, analytical, and utterly without affection: "observe first the paper on which he writes.
"Only an accountant will have columns as well as lines of reference.
"Second, the grade of pen: a higher quality than a common scribe, a type common to those whose precision of entry is vital to their profession.
"There is a trace of wear on his coat-sleeve" -- she raised his forearm, thrusting her chin at something only she could see -- "indicative of considerable time pressed against the raised lip of a desk, the type of desk common to accountants." She turned to the student. "Tell me, sir, do you use a standing desk?"
"I do," he said, surprised.
"Please be seated, sir."
Sarah nodded, moved to the next.
"You, sir, are a musician," she said. "I would be pleased to duet with you." She cocked her head, looked at his fingertips, resting lightly on the table before him. "You are a guitarist of some experience. Please turn your hand over."
He did so, smiling; Sarah's gloved hand cupped under his, raised it a little, and she peered through her window-glass schoolmarm spectacles at the fingertip calluses.
"You play the double-strung Spanish guitar." She released his hand, reached across the table, withdrew a folded paper from his coat pocket, unfolded it and held it up. "This man performs on stage and has for a week. Only a man of talent would be retained by a theater more than one night."
By now all eyes were on the slender, diminutive schoolteacher; the Professor was quietly watching his class as they watched this surprising soul who seemed to know quite a bit more than they were comfortable hearing about themselves.
Sarah was, by now, squarely in front of the Professor's heavy oak desk.
The next man blurted, "Women shouldn't be here!" -- Sarah ran her hand into her sling and brought out a ruler.
"Your knuckles, sir," she said coldly, and the man's eyes widened as he automatically extended his hand.
The sound of her ruler on his knuckles was loud in the room.
"You will keep a civil tongue in your head, sirrah," Sarah snapped.
The man seized the ruler, yanked.
Sarah's eyes went pale.
Her right arm shot out of the sling and seized the man by the throat: he pulled and the ruler pulled away from Sarah's grip, revealing its concealed blade.
Horrified, the class could but stare as Sarah drove gleaming steel into the man's belly, six times, hard: her teeth were bared, her face a pale mask of horror, her expression one of utter hatred: she withdrew the blade, lowered her arm: blood gleamed wetly on honed steel and drops of ichor fell to the floor.
Sarah shoved and the man fell back, eyes wide, mouth open, hands clasping his belly.
"Does anyone else doubt me?" Sarah hissed, her voice all the more menacing for its quietness: her eyes swept the room from one side to the other, her glare the shade of a glacier, her voice as welcoming as a Bering Sea snow: not a sound, not a murmur, not even a breath, was heard.
Sarah turned, stepped to the side, such that she was beside Professor Hunt's desk.
Professor Hunt's eyes were calm and almost amused as Sarah took a long, slow breath, closed her eyes: her face became tranquil, relaxed, and color came back into her cheeks, and when she opened her eyes, they were blue once more.
Sarah placed the tip of the exposed blade on the Professor's desk, grasped the ruler by its end with thumb and two fingers, pressed slowly.
It looked like the blade was thrust into the desk itself.
Sarah pushed the ruler down full depth, completely concealing the blade; she raised it again; thrice more, slowly, as she looked around, a little smile on her face.
"There is an excellent work I recommend to your attention," Professor Hunt said quietly. "It is a book on knife fighting, by Neil Butt. If you could, please...?"
The man who'd fallen back into his chair, grasping his belly, stood, grinning broadly: the others in class gawped openly, mouths open, as he unbuttoned vest and shirt and withdrew the book that had lain hidden against his flat, muscled abdomen.
He nodded as he handed it across the table to Sarah.
Sarah placed the ruler on the Professor's desk, accepted the book, turned and handed the book to the Professor.
"A book under the shirt is not unknown as an improvised defense against a blade," Professor Hunt observed. "As you can see" -- he ran light fingertips over the book's somewhat scarred cover -- "it works, even when we use a theatrical knife."
Sarah retrieved the other half of her ruler from the floor, slid it back over the retracting-blade prop knife's blade, handed it to the Professor.
"This" -- the Professor held up what appeared once more to be a ruler -- "contains a small reservoir of red ink. Quite convincing, don't you think?" His eyes were merry over his spectacles and he bowed again. "Agent Rosenthal, thank you for your little demonstration. I can see that Judge Hostetler did not exaggerate in his praise for your skills."
Sarah curtsied, a quick, graceful dip, her eyes modestly lowered, allowing her icy facade to slip for just a moment; then she glided silently back to her seat, turned, sat and tilted her head slightly, her attention on the Professor, for all the world an attentive young schoolmarm assessing the presentation of a fellow professional.
As the Professor continued his address, Sarah slid her arm back into the sling, carefully twitching the cloth support into place.
After the quick exertion of a moment ago, her collar bone was starting to ache, and the sling's support was welcome relief.

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Linn Keller 5-14-12


McAndrews glared at the neatly-barbered man behind the general store's counter, sneering at his spotless white apron.
"Maude had a package for me," he said, assessing this stranger: he'd heard Maude passed away and someone new was running the Mercantile and he figured the pickin's might be ripe to pull a fast one.
"Your name, sir?" Thomas asked mildly.
"McAndrews. Everybody knows me. I'm a big man around here!" He thrust his chest out importantly.
Behind him, his hired man looked at the floor, shook his head.
"Can you tell me," Thomas asked, pulling out a ledger and thumbing quickly through it, "about when your order was placed?"
"It's already here, I tell you," McAndrews snapped, "it's from back East and it's quite valuable! I would have been in --"
Thomas ran his finger down neat, orderly columns.
"Don't tell me you threw it out or gave it to someone else!"
"McAndrews, McAndrews, McAndrews," Thomas murmured. "I'm sorry, sir, I don't see anything for McAndrews placed, ordered, received or delivered."
McAndrews started to bluster and the door opened.
The Sheriff paced in, slow, boot heels loud on the oiled, swept boards.
"McAndrews," he said, nodding.
"Sheriff," McAndrews acknowledged.
"Seen any little girls in white dresses lately?" the Sheriff asked mildly.
McAndrews' nostrils flared and he went kind of white around the mouth.
"If you would do your job," he said in a menacing voice, "we'd all be better off!"
"What are you doing here, McAndrews?" the Sheriff asked quietly, the very gentleness of his voice a warning.
Tom Miller backed up, smelling trouble and wanting no part of it.
"I'm minding my own business,Sheriff!" McAndrews snapped. "Now why don't you find that murdering little minx that stole that horse --"
"I don't like you, McAndrews," the Sheriff said, his voice suddenly cold: "I don't like a liar, I don't like a cheat, I don't like a thief and I sure as hell don't like a coward. Now why don't you just ride back to whatever hole under a rock you call home and quit bothering my town!"
McAndrews' eyes widened, his whole face pale: to call a man a coward was an insult of the first order, and to call a man not just a coward but a cheat and a thief as well, and in the same breath -- men have been shot for far less.
"If you weren't wearing a gun," McAndrews sneered.
"Don't let that stop you," the Sheriff said, his eyes as cold as his voice was soft.
McAndrews' eyes went to a young forest of shovel handles: the Sheriff followed his glance.
"Go ahead," he invited. "If you're man enough."
Thomas closed the ledger, replaced it to its shelf under the thick, heavy glass top, made a mental assessment of the dollar value he was about to lose in goods.
McAndrews picked up a can of peaches, slung it fast and hard, aiming to catch the Sheriff in the face.
Most men would slam their eyes shut, squint and duck: the Sheriff faded a little to the side, the tumbling tin of fruit hissed through the air where his face had been a moment before, and there was a crash of glass as the can went through the front window.
McAndrews intended to startle the Sheriff long enough to grab a shovel and belt the long tall lawman.
He threw the can, took a long step and snatched the ash-handled Ames from its bin, turned.
The Sheriff twisted, old habit coming to the fore: he reacted as if barehand against a bayonet, ran his arm in behind it, grabbed and pulled.
McAndrews had a two-hand grip on the shovel and he was fired with anger: you could not have stripped that ash handle from his mitts with a team of horses and a blacksnake whip -- which worked perfectly into the Sheriff's plan.
He pulled, hard, yanking McAndrews off balance.
McAndrews realized he was going off-balance and he tried to step forward quick-like to catch himself and tripped over the Sheriff's fancy-stitched, knee-high boot: as he realized the floor was coming up to meet him like an angry man's fist, something took him behind the left ear.
The Sheriff's blow helped introduce McAndrews' face to the planking; he landed hard, and the Sheriff landed on top of him, driving his knees into the man's low rib cage, knocking all the fight and most of the wind out of him: he grabbed McAndrews by the hair of the head with both hands and drove his face into the close-fitted boards, hard, three times.
Blood splattered in several directions, probably from the man's ruined nose.
Thomas watched McAndrews' hired man, standing still, standing big-eyed and shocked, over against the bolts of cloth and sewing notions: the man's jaw hung down to about his belt buckle and his Colt slept in his waistband, forgotten.
Thomas had a handful of nickle plated .32 revolver, a little friend he kept in an apron pocket for just such moments, and at this distance he knew he could put all six into the hired man's boiler room, if need be.
Thomas did consider momentarily how tiny his .32 was and how big that .44 was, but he could not get to anything bigger in any kind of a hurry, so he just stood and watched, hand in his pocket and heart in his mouth.
The Sheriff grunted as he picked McAndrews up by the belt.
"Miller," he said. "Get the door."
Miller blinked, then hurried to the door: the bell jingled its bright, cheerful note as the door swung open and the Sheriff packed the limp ranch owner outside.
Thomas stood there, realizing suddenly his legs were starting to shake, and grateful his trouser legs were big enough to conceal the clatter of his knobby knees: the Sheriff came back in after several moments with a can of peaches, retrieved from the street outside.
"I wiped most of the dirt off this," he said. "It's not dented up much."
He looked down at the bloody mess on the floor.
"Well horse's feathers," he muttered, then laid a few bills on the counter top.
"I fined him for public brawling and destruction of property, after I sloshed him around in the horse trough some."
Thomas blinked, realized the Sheriff's trouser legs were wet on the front.
"That" -- the Sheriff pointed to the currency on the counter -- "ought to cover the window plus your trouble for clean-up. Maude has the window dimensions on the inside front of each ledger for just such moments, and where to order replacement glass."
Thomas took a deep breath, fumbled to retrieve the ledger from under the counter.
The Sheriff reached across, laid a hand on the man's shoulder.
"This is not our usual morning," he said reassuringly. "I reckon he's the only one likely to try and swindle you like that. Don't trust him, he'd cheat his grandmother out of her eye teeth, and I only knew the man to tell the truth once in his life."
The Sheriff grinned.
"Now once you get that order written out for the window, Maude kept replacement panes in the back room, between plank frames padded with burlap. There's one to fit that one" -- he pointed to the jagged, sharp-edged hole where most of the glass used to be -- "even has the letters already painted on it. Will you need a hand glazing it in?"

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Linn Keller 5-15-12


Sarah accepted the Professor's arm as the class adjourned for their luncheon: they ate together in an adjacent restaurant, Sarah seated beside the bespectacled instructor, looking rather like a favorite granddaughter beside a doting grandfather ... or a newly arrived schoolmistress from back East, young and stiff-backed and not at all welcoming.
"Mr. Willis," Sarah said in a surprisingly gentle voice, "I trust my use of the theatrical knife did not damage your garments irreparably?"
Mr. Willis blinked, looked down, then unbuttoned his coat. "I didn't look," he admitted, searching as much with fingertips as with his eyes at this awkward angle.
Sarah frowned a little. "I'm afraid I did," she said. "If you will have them sent to our rooms we will have them repaired tonight, and returned on the morrow."
The other students listened carefully, while pretending to pay no attention; the Professor's eyes were bright, busy, watching his little group, assessing alliances and allegiances, who was quick to agree and who to reserve judgement: Mr. Wesney smiled a little and nodded.
"That is very kind, Miss ... Agent Rosenthal."
Sarah withdrew a card and a short pencil, wrote on its back, handed it across the table: "We are staying here, this is the suite."
Glances were exchanged, eyebrows raised and as quickly relaxed: Sarah, too, was being assessed, and more than one wondered if they'd just witnessed an invitation of sorts.
"I am sharing the suite with representatives of the House of McKenna," Sarah continued. "The expense is less ... difficult ... when divided, plus the dressmakers are more than expert at mending cloth. The House of McKenna is a known fashion provider with clientele on both coasts and a lively trade here in the City."
Subdued, almost sub-audible grunts, a disappointed expression, the quick twitch of a frown, as quickly relaxed: the Professor saw the ripple of realization (and disappointment, in a few cases) in his charges.
"I have heard of House McKenna," the musician spoke up: "their quality is known and their fashions are consistently weeks and months ahead of even the San Francisco houses."
Sarah smiled thinly. "I have heard that," she said neutrally.
"Something tells me," the guitarist pressed, "that you know more than you're telling."
"Of course," Sarah said, eyes wide behind her round schoolmarm spectacles. "One never shows one's hand when playing poker, and a lady never tells all she knows." Her smile was careful, chilly. "Shall we order?"

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Linn Keller 5-16-12


Sarah well knew the Masonic virtues of Silence and Circumspection: she'd seen, and been told, that the best way to absolutely enrapture a man's heart was to hang on his every word as if it were the most fascinating thing in the world (even if it was utter, uninteresting drivel) and give him those big, lovely eyes, and he would go away convinced -- and would tell his fellows -- that she, the lady, was the most fascinating conversationalist! -- which works even, and especially, when the lady contributes not one word to the conversation.
Sarah ate lightly, as befit a lady in public; her stomach called her by profane terms, for it was still her habit when exercising to push her young body with exertions that would bring sweat to a toned man's hide -- still, she nibbled daintily at fish and at greens, and sipped tea, and smiled, listening to the ebb and flow of conversation, cataloging accents, gauging interconnections, assessing who spoke to hear their own voice, or to try and make themselves sound important, who was the empty bottle gurgling out its few contents with the most noise, and who spoke to try and impress the young woman sitting beside the Professor.
Sarah, unconsciously, also listened as part of a gift.
She had the ability -- as did her mother, and her father, and her green-eyed stepmother -- to hear someone speak, and after but a few moments, to reply in the same accent, in the same regional dialect, easily and naturally and unaffectedly.
Actors often have this skill; acquired or natural, it enhanced performance on stage, and Sarah enjoyed that skill naturally -- perhaps as a survival tool, given her early, traumatic years, or perhaps just part of her genetic makeup.
However the case, Sarah spoke very few words after plates hit the table.
At one point she did excuse herself, for reason of a lady's necessity, and the moment she crossed the threshold and was out of sight, conversation instantly pounced on her: the class shared observations, speculations, and the Professor listened with amusement to the exchanges, for he rather expected this would happen.
He timed his light tap of a teaspoon on his coffee cup carefully, knowing Sarah would be returning very soon:
"Gentlemen," he said, "I am hearing speculation and observation, but I wish data. Who is willing to surveil our pretty young agent? -- who can provide me with her antecedents, her ancestry, who can research the land of her nativity, known associates, education, training?"
The card-player shrugged: "She's just an actress," he said. "A good one, but I doubt if she's an agent."
The man with the torn vest fingered the frayed material where the theatrical knife penetrated cloth and punished the cover of the book he'd placed there ahead of the planned demonstration. He remembered the bared teeth, the hand tight on his wind pipe, the unrestrained I-am-killing-you-and-you-are-dead-already expression of her white, parchment-taut face ... and he shivered a little as he remembered her eyes, her pale, cold, eyes, sucking the warmth out of his soul as shining steel drove at his belly ...
"Mr. Willis?" the Professor said softly.
Charles Willis blinked, dropped his hand guiltily from the damaged, frayed insult to his vest.
"Mr. Willis, you will stand a good chance of finding out something about our deductive Agent. You have her card. Why don't you see what you can come up with tonight."
"Yes, sir," Willis said, and part of his heart rejoiced, for his exclamation that women should not be in their class, although pre-arranged by the Professor as part of the demonstration, was not at all feigned.
Maybe I can find out how to get her thrown out, he thought, and though he did not smile, the Professor saw the thought behind Willis's brown eyes.
"Coffee, sir?" the waitress asked quietly, and Mr. Willis nodded: the waitress picked up his cup and saucer and he heard coffee gurgle into porcelain behind him.
Filling Willis's cup completed her circumnavigation of the table: she smiled at the distinguished, grandfatherly Professor, and proceeded back to the kitchen, reminding the older man of a schooner under half-sail in a medium sea, so billowing were her skirts as she traveled.
She paused as Sarah stepped aside to let her pass.
"The torn vest will call on you tonight," she whispered, "to find out all he can about you." Her eyes were bright with concern. "I don't think he means well."
"He doesn't," Sarah whispered back, fingertips light on the waitress's forearm: "Thank you."
It wasn't until the waitress set her tray down, back in the kitchen, that she saw the coin Sarah's sleight-of-hand placed there during their conversation.

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Linn Keller 5-17-12


Professor Hunt’s class’s luncheon was brief, the students enjoying an hour’s respite afterward before returning to the classroom: Sarah, unlike the others, chose to return directly to the classroom, as she wished to review one of the Professor’s texts before the afternoon session began.
Mr. Willis and two of his confederates followed her, trying to be silent on the stairs; Sarah heard them, smiled tightly to herself and paid them no attention, knowing she was one landing ahead of them, knowing the various places she could dart and be hidden momentarily or longer, as she chose, knowing she could outdistance them, with this much distance between them, long enough to escape or ready an ambush should occasion require: she’d scouted the building rather thoroughly, and more than once, for she suspected something like this might happen.
Her gut told her she was going to be jumped, and the click of a carelessly-closed handcuff ratchet told her what it would likely be.
Sarah smiled again, exposing even white teeth, and her smile was utterly without humor.
She knew what was about to happen.
Sarah slipped into the classroom, her hand going to the small of her back: she nodded, then glided to her chair, seated herself, retrieved the Professor’s text from her carpet bag and opened it.
Just to make things easier for what she thought was coming, she slipped off the sling and thrust it into her carpet bag.
When Mr. Willis came in, he saw the young schoolmarm intent on the text: without raising her head, she said, “Mr. Willis, you should really read ahead a bit. One wishes to be prepared for class.”
“Ah, yes, one does, one does indeed,” Charles Willis smiled, looking at his grinning chums, one on either side: Sarah did not look up as they advanced.
“Are you familiar, Mr. Willis, with Scotland Yard’s recent monograph on using the criminal ear as a means of identification?” Sarah asked, not looking up: she saw, without raising her eyes, she was being surrounded.
“Perhaps you would be more comfortable in a higher back chair?” Mr. Willis asked solicitously.
“I’m quite comfortable here, thank you,” Sarah said icily, turning the page.
“Oh come now, Agent Rosenthal,” Mr. Willis said in the oily tones of a professional politician, “I think this would suit your posture better?”
“Oh, very well,” Sarah said irritably, marking her place with a folded slip of paper: “now where is this chair – oh!”
There were four, heavy, high-backed chairs in the classroom: Sarah’s arms were seized as she stood, her chair yanked away and one of the high-backed, heavy oak chairs thrust under her: her arms were run through its back and held tightly as handcuffs snarled shut about her slim wrists.
“What are you – take these off me!” Sarah demanded, struggling: they expected her to struggle, she knew, and if she did not, they might be suspicious.
“One must study one’s trade,” Mr. Willis chuckled. “Get her legs.”
“My – you – unhand me, you –“
A wadded cloth was thrust between her teeth, another binding it in place: with a mouth stuffed with cloth, Sarah could make nothing but muffled noises as her ankles were shackled, the irons run around the heavy bracing under the chair, effectively chaining her twice to her seat.
“Let’s see how good you are now,” Willis laughed, dropping a black cloth sack over her head.
Sarah froze, trembling.
She was getting short of breath and terror flowed out of a hidden flaw in her soul, pushing against the monster waiting restlessly deep inside the pretty young schoolmarm’s heart.
The monster awoke, surging to life, spreading great, dark wings, raising its black-scaled head and rippling with black fire.
Sarah felt the Rage building within her: she seized it, shoved it down, hard, back down into its Genie bottle, stoved a cork tight on top of it.
For all things there is a season, her father’s voice whispered, and Sarah knew this was not the season for an enraged struggle against unbreakable steel.
The chair’s back presented a problem, but not insurmountable: she worked thumb and forefinger through the gap, twisting a little until she reached the concealed pocket a little to one side of her spine.
Charles Willis looked back at Sarah, saw movement, chuckled.
Let her struggle, he thought. She’s not going anywhere. If we’re lucky she’ll be humiliated enough to quit!
Sarah’s right wrist came free before Mr. Willis was completely out of the room.
Sarah froze, not wanting any observer to know she was escaping: carefully, deliberately, she transferred the key to her other hand, not knowing for sure who was still in the room: she turned the propeller shaped key into the lock, released the polished steel bow, felt the cuff loosen.
Sarah slipped out of the other cuff, folded the irons and grasped them in her left hand like a set of street-brawler’s steel knuckles: with one quick move, she brought her arms free, snatched off the hood, looked around.
The room was empty.
She bent, dropped the cuffs in her carpet bag, reached behind her with her left hand: she knew the leg shackles took a different key, and if she damaged the threads the key screwed into by using the wrong key, why, she would have to try to slip the shackles’ stiff spring with the piece of watch spring she carried for a lock shim.
Her length of watch spring was too light, she knew, to slip the heavy leaf spring in the larger irons.
Fortunately, the correct key in the correct lock meant her ankles were free in less than a minute.
Sarah stood, untied the gag and pulled the cloth from her mouth, stuffing both with the sack into her carpet bag, along with the leg irons.
She took the time to return the keys to the hidden pockets in the back of her waistband.
She skipped silently on the balls of her feet, dancing lightly across the room to the doorway, peeked out, drew quickly back.
The round felt tops of the trio’s derby hats were just bobbing out of sight down the stairs.
Sarah knew she had to work fast.
Pulling up her skirts, she took the ascending stairs two at a time, thrust her key into the lock of her rented room above the classroom, spun into the room and locked the door behind her.
She was out of her schoolmarm dress in an instant; another dress, a change of shoes, a wig and she was a different person altogether: she settled the wig in place, fastened it with pins and clips, adjusted the tall silver mantilla, then the half-veil, covering her to the tip of her nose: she dipped the pad of her little finger into a small jar, drew it across her lips, making them shine, making them an inviting red: she looked in the full-length mirror, and a Spanish dancer looked back at her, and Sarah had to discipline herself sternly to keep from drumming a quick tattoo with her hard little heels against the board floor.
Less than a minute later and she was in a hack, being driven for a particular little tavern her classmates favored.

Money talks, and in a universal tongue: the barkeep was Slavish, his English broken, his grasp of what Sarah wanted was incomplete, until he saw the color of her gold: at that point he realized she wished to replace one of his dancers for just under an hour, borrow the dancer herself for an hour after that, and as he pocketed good gelt, he realized that his dear Uncle’s estimation of America as a land of opportunity was indeed a distinct possibility.
The coins he slipped into his pocket amounted to three months’ wages.

Cards snapped and fluttered against the tabletop, Mr. Willis and his gambling companion laughed and cut the deck to see who would deal.
There was the brush of silk against a manly elbow, the hint of perfume on the moving breeze, and a Spanish beauty struck a quick, graceful pose, castanets snarling an invitation: her heels sang counterpoint to the rhythm of the castanets as she spun, her skirt flaring, an invitation if ever they saw one.
A bouncer came over, a double-strung Spanish guitar in hand: she accepted it with a quick curtsy, then stood it in the middle of the table, hammered her heels quickly in a commanding cadence: TAT-tat-tat-TAT, and nodded to the instrument.
The musician’s hand automatically reached for the guitar’s neck.
The Spanish beauty spun away from grasping hands, castanets laughing in her grip, and she disappeared into a doorway: a moment later she was on the little stage, her arms writhing slowly, gracefully, serpents inviting the lustful Adams of the room to behold the apple she represented.
The guitarist turned his chair.
The dancer gestured theatrically to center stage, nodded, her veil swinging briefly, tantalizing with its promise: but a moment later, musician and dancer shared the boards.
There is a magic to the deep-toned Spanish guitar; its range spans multiple octaves and its song is harmonious, powerful, intoxicating, tantalizing, seductive: though an Anglo, the student’s style was most definitely not that of a musician from north of the Rio.
He drew a few bass chords from the instrument, getting its feel, for each guitar is a living thing, a woman, and must be teased, coaxed, seduced: he was a man who knew how to seduce a guitar, or a woman, and his skill showed: the guitar sang with a deep and romantic throat, and the Spanish beauty took a long-legged step, came up on her toes and turned, her heels a staccato, demanding of him, its song.
Castanets snarled as the guitar spun a song of cactus and sun, of hot blood and passion: the dancer’s moves were smooth, sinuous, at once proper and ladylike and yet passionate and romantic: she moved with the music, or rather, the music moved through her: castanet and heels blended flawlessly with the guitar’s throbbing rhythms, building in strength, in volume, then ebbing, growing gentle, slower, like a lover taking his time with a beautiful woman: fencing, music and lovemaking are all best done from the subconscious, and time – and the tavern – held its collective breath, stilled with awe, watching: guitar and dancer blended their skills: when finally the Spanish beauty glided to a stop, she was a Venus, carved in flesh; beauty, distilled, frozen for a long moment, for that bright tenth of a second before a stick of powder explodes, before lightning detonates across the heavens; the world’s breath, forgotten, was held, suspended for a long moment, before the delighted and powerful applause of a room full of approving men.
Sarah held her pose, one hand thrust to the rafters, weight on one leg and the other crossed behind, toe-touch in a posture she knew would ignite the lust-fires of a stone statue: she lowered her arms, castanets purring, described a slow, lazy arc with them, glided seductively toward the guitarist: castanets snarling like rattlesnakes, balanced on one foot, she slowly extended her other leg until it lay across the guitarist’s knees: she bent at the waist, laying out over her extended leg, castanets snapping now, not snarling: she straightened, pirouetted, and the guitarist began playing with passion.
The instrument spoke with the staccato of the soul ignited with passion for a beautiful woman, and the Spanish dancer moved with that passion: her heels played a perfect counterpoint for the bright and angry snarl of her castanets, until spontaneously they two came to a climax of whirling motion and sound, then froze.
Cards lay forgotten on tables, cigars hung half-smoked between fingers, jaws hung open and eyes were drawn irresistibly to the little stage: silence hung long as Sarah breathed through her nose, trying desperately to control the surge of ribs as she fought to keep from passing out from air hunger: it felt like her eyes were bugging out but she refused to open her mouth, refused to be less than the beauty she knew every man desperately wished to see.
The applause hit them like the crash of a wave: table tops were pounded with enthusiastic palms, feet stomped approval on the sawdust covered floor, there were whistles, palms pounded one another, hats tossed into the air.
Sarah seized the guitarist’s hair and pulled his head back, planted her mouth on his: he tasted the balm she’d applied to make her lips red and soft, he smelled her perfume, he felt her hand caress his cheek …
He fell over backwards, chair and all.
By the time he struggled to his feet, shaking his head and looking around, the Spanish dancer was nowhere to be found.

Nobody noticed the sound of a departing hack out in the street.

Sarah paid the driver for speed, and speed he delivered: she paid the other driver, the one waiting for her classmates, for lethargy: she wanted time on her side, for she had planned the operation, and wanted desperately for it to succeed.

Professor Hunt watched from the lobby opposite as Sarah’s hack pulled up and two somewhat immodestly (but attractively!) dressed performers got out, ran inside his building.
It was not his building, really; he merely rented classroom space, but he thought it unusual that two performers would enter … there were no … wait, he thought, what’s this?
One of the performers came out, whistled shrilly, waved: curious, a police officer came over: there was a quick conversation, the officer nodded, the scandalous but very pretty performer with the half-veil on her face scampered back inside the building.
Professor Hunt could hear her hard heels, and smiled a little.
A lovely child, he thought, with very nice legs.
He always did like a good looking girl in heels.

The two changed clothes quickly, efficiently: Sarah, with the expertise of one accustomed to clothing changes for her mother’s fashion shows; the performer, because it was her profession to change outfits quickly.
Sarah fastened the schoolmarm dress on the performer, quickly brushed out, then fast-up her hair, scrubbed the paint off her face, slipped the window-glass spectacles in place: only then did she let the performer look in the full-length mirror.
The dancer laughed.
“I look like a schoolteacher!” She clapped her hands. “Is this what --?”
Sarah, meanwhile, was undressed and getting into her own outfit.
“Quickly,” she said. “And do exactly as I tell you. We are going to pull a fast one on those troublemakers!”
“Honey,” the dancing girl laughed, “so far I have had such fun watching them step on their tongues! I don’t know where you’ve danced, girl, but you are good!
“I had a good teacher,” Sarah said absently, buttoning down her black shirt, pulling on her black jeans, thrusting into knee socks and black Cavalry boots and gunbelt: “No time to braid my hair,” she muttered, and stuffed it up into her black hat.
“Come on.” She seized the dancing girl by the wrist; the two swung out of the room – Sarah locked it behind them, then the two skipped quickly down stairs.
“This way.”
Sarah shoved open the schoolroom door.
“Over here, in this chair.”
“Yes, now trust me!”
“Honey, so far, I’ve – oh!”
Handcuffs tightened around another pair of slender wrists.
“What –“
Sarah thrust a clean, dry ball of cloth between her teeth, then tied it tightly in place with another cloth: she seized the girl’s ankles, shackled her to the chair, tossed the black bag over her head without a single word.
The girl struggled, making muffled, protesting noises.
Sarah smiled grimly, crossed the room, opened the cupboard and stepped inside: pulling the door quickly shut, hearing its latch click, she turned and pulled aside the little cloth inside, to peep out the tiny holes she’d drilled in door and in the cupboard’s side wall.
“And there she is!” Mr. Willis’s cheerful voice declared. “Still with us, I see, Agent Rosenthal? You haven’t proven the darling of the Judge’s court and escaped? Tsk, tsk, how disappointing” – Sarah smiled grimly in the confines of the cupboard – “what ever is the world coming to?”
The rest of the class filed in, staring openly at the sight of their schoolmarm classmate, apparently confined to her chair: Mr. Willis made so bold as to lift the skirt to display her shackled ankles, which brought more struggles and more muffled noises: he turned the chair to show her arms thrust through its back and handcuffed, and laughed as her fingers writhed in protest at this rough handling.
There were more, heavier footsteps on the stairs: Professor Hunt came into the room, looking rather troubled, and was immediately followed by a half-dozen police officers.
The small coterie of troublemakers, a moment before grinning and triumphant, posing with their protesting prisoner, now looked at one another, their expressions going from gloat to grief in a tenth of a second or less.
Professor Hunt glared at the trio over his spectacles.
“Just what,” he demanded, “what is the meaning of this?”
“We, we, we,” one of them began, and Charles Willis faced the Professor squarely.
“Women have no place here,” he blustered, “so we wanted to teach our little girl classmate a lesson.”
He reached down, snatched the hood free.
Professor Hunt looked at the stranger chained to the chair, then back at Mr. Willis.
Mr. Willis turned his head to sneer at his prisoner.
He backed up a step, bent, looked into a stranger’s face.
“I believe, sir,” Professor Willis said, a dangerous edge to his voice, “that you have some explaining to do.”
Sarah kicked open the cupboard door.
The Sergeant in charge of the police detail came to attention and saluted.
“Agent Rosenthal,” he greeted her, and Sarah returned the salute.
“We were told our presence was requested, and on your authority.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” she said coldly, looking across the room at the three: she took off her hat, shook her head, letting her hair fall free: it was almost the color of her bronze badge, gleaming on her black lapel.
“Those three” – she pointed with her black-felt, broad-brimmed hat – “are to be charged with unlawful restraint, kidnap, intimidation, menacing and aggravated stupidity.”
The Sergeant looked at the three, and his dislike was quite evident.
He looked back at Sarah.
“You do realize, Agent Rosenthal, kidnap is a capital crime.”
Sarah’s glare was cold.
“If you need an executioner,” she said quietly, “I am available.” Her smile was grim. “I can tie a fine noose of thirteen turns.”
“Lock ‘em up, lads,” the Sergeant snapped, then turned again to the black-clad agent.
“And will there be anythin’ else this fine day, Agent Rosenthal?” he asked with a conspiratorial wink.
“No, Sergeant,” Sarah replied, making a quick sign with one hand, which he recognized: Hold for 24 hours then release: it was not an uncommon intervention when one wished to straighten out a wayward soul.
Professor Hunt leaned back against the slate board, his eyes quiet but busy: one could almost hear the gears turning behind his bright eyes as he considered the class, and the still-gagged prisoner in the high-backed chair.
“Agent Rosenthal,” he said in a bemused tone, “I take it your plan was successful.”
“Completely so, sir.”
“Then by all means, attend your lovely assistant, and offer her our thanks for her part in our little production.” Professor Hunt turned and bowed toward the woman who remained gagged, chained to the chair and staring wide-eyed as Sarah swung toward her, black coat open, looking like an angel of Death descending from the heavens.

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Linn Keller 5-18-12


"You," Sarah said, pointing with her mahogany walking-stick.
The urchin looked around, uncomfortable, tried to slip away.
"I wish to speak with you," Sarah snapped, her voice cold: it had the desired effect, trapping the street rat, immobilizing him in his tracks.
Sarah used her mahogany as a pointer, swinging it to the right: "You there! Where I can see you, here, NOW!"-- she turned to her left -- "You too! Move!"
The three converged: once shoulder-to-shoulder, their proximity generated a spontaneous bravado: the three slouched, sneered and began their comments.
Sarah stopped, not wanting to get close enough to be either grabbed, shoved, nor to make them feel trapped: she leaned on her cane, grimacing, her right arm in its sling, her schoolmarm spectacles doing absolutely nothing to obscure the disapproving glare behind them.
"You three have been following me," she snapped. "What service can you provide?"
This was not at all a question they were expecting.
"Come now," Sarah pressed, her voice sharp, "you must have some skill other than picking pockets or slitting purses. You" -- she thrust her cane-tip at the taller of the three -- "are one of the fastest runners I've seen in some time, and you twisted out of that harness bull's grip like a mountain trout!"
The urchin wasn't quite sure what a mountain trout was, but he grinned at the recognition: he had indeed escaped the grasp of a uniformed policeman and outrun two others, and made it look easy.
"And you" -- she swung the steel shod tip to the shortest of the three -- "are the reason the term cutpurse was invented. Do you sharpen your own blade, and is it a razor, or a knife?"
It was the shortest -- and youngest -- street rat's turn to grin, and he brought a straight razor out of his jacket pocket, flipped it open, laid it back across his knuckles, the move of an experienced blade-fighter: no one with any sense of rational thought would want to be punched with a straight-razor's edge instead of a set of bony knuckles!
"I sharpenth it methelf," he lisped, and the middle lad whipped off his cloth cap and swatted the youngest with it.
"Good. We have the runner, the cutter ... and you, young Master" -- she thrust her chin at the third, the one in the middle -- "what is your skill?"
"He thtealth thtuff," the youngest replied, garnering another hat-swat from the slightly taller lad. "He'th good."
"How good?" Sarah said skeptically.
"Why?" the largest and oldest of the three challenged, sneering, tilting his head to the side.
Sarah heard the whisper of shoe leather on cobbles behind her and smiled, a tightening of the eyes that did not extend to her rich, red lips.
She placed the tip of her cane between her shoes and squeezed , then pulled, spun: one hand up to guard, block or grasp, the shining blade searing through the air: Sarah's knees bent, she dropped her center of gravity, her eyes dilated, making her blue eyes black, black.
The tallest of the group thus far -- he was a head taller than Sarah, though dreadfully thin -- froze, the leather sap raised up and ready to belt this interloper across the back of her head.
"Drop it," Sarah hissed, her voice cold as her pupils shrank, revealing ice-pale eyes. "Drop the sap or I drop you."
There is something very persuasive about Damascus steel in thrusting distance of one's throat.
The sap fell to the ground.
"Over there," Sarah said, twitching her head, "with them."
He circled cautiously around her, stood beside the youngest of the gang.
He could have run, Sarah thought. He could have made his get-away, but he chose to stay. Allegiances here, what are the allegiances?
Sarah squatted slowly, never taking her eyes off the newcomer, grey-gloved fingers closing about the dropped body of her cane: the tip of her blade never wavered from its clear view of his throat: she stood quickly, then thrust steel into mahogany.
"You," she demanded of the tallest. "What is your job?"
"He'th the botth," the youngest lisped, garnering another hat-swat from the middle lad.
"The boss," Sarah said thoughtfully. "Just how good are you, boss?"
He folded his arms, leaned back against the brick wall. "Good enough," he sneered.
"Good enough," Sarah repeated. "Good enough for what?"
He opened his mouth to reply.
"Never mind," Sarah snapped. "How good are you -- all of you -- at turning invisible?"
The three exchanged glances.
"I need a small group -- like yours -- who can go and not be seen, listen but not be noticed. You steal fruit and bread and trifles, you pick pockets and cut purses but you have no idea what you can get that is much more valuable."
"Yeah?" the middle one sneered. "What's that?"
"Information," Sarah replied, returning the sneer. "Unless you're not intelligent enough."
None of the three were more than ten years old -- well, the leader might have been twelve, but a tall for his age twelve -- he was built like a scarecrow, wrists and ankles sticking out beyond the limits of sleeves and trouser-legs, thin neck protruding from collarless shirt and frayed jacket -- the other two were not much better, knee pants and high-top shoes and worse-for-wear cloth caps, all dirty, all worn.
"First order of business," Sarah said. "When was your last meal?"
"Shuddup," the tallest said quietly, satisfying Sarah he was indeed the leader.
"How many others are there?" Sarah asked.
She saw a movement on her right.
"Is that one of yours?"
The leader curled his lip, whistled: two more skulkers slunk into view, joined the little group.
"Is this the whole gang?" Sarah asked quietly.
"Yeah," the leader nodded. "This is us."
"How do I find you?"
"I have work for you," Sarah said, "if you're willing."
"Yeah?" the next-youngest sneered, his voice high, not yet cracked with adolescence: "We don't work!"
"You'll work for me," Sarah snapped. "Unless you want to end up in school."
"You a schoolmarm?"
"She ain't no schoolmarm, they don't have swords!"
"What is she then?"
The middle lad was soundly drubbed by cloth caps from multiple directions.
"Look," Sarah said. "You meet me in one hour. Where's a safe place?"
"Why? You wanta bring the harness bulls an' toss us in the Black Maria?"
Sarah glared at the group.
"I want to bring you a meal and some clothes," she said quietly.
The four looked at one another, shifting their weight restlessly.
"You'd do that?"
Sarah nodded, once.
"I'm hungry," the youngest quavered.
His fellow put an arm around the shivering lad.
"Name the place, somewhere safe."
"The warehouse?"
"How about Number Seven?"
A quick conference, then:
"No funny business?"
Sarah shook her head.
"You'll feed us and get us some clo'es."
Sarah nodded, once, leaning on her cane.
"There's a warehouse on the lower end," the oldest said, and described the location.
Sarah memorized the location, nodded once.
"I will see you there," Sarah said quietly: she raised her cane in salute, then turned and started to walk away.
"Hey lady!" the oldest one challenged. "What's your name?"
Sarah stopped, turned.
They could see the pain in her expression.
"My name is Angel," she said. "Angel of Death."

That night, Sarah soaked the day's aches in a tub of water, as hot as she could tolerate: she relaxed, buoyed by scented, steaming water, considering her long and rather busy day.
She smiled as she remembered how her little gang set upon the meal she brought them; she thought of how delighted they were to acquire a new suit of clothes, and when an hour later Sarah returned with clean bedding for each of them, and helped them make their pallets in the warehouse, how the oldest sat with a hollow-eyed, lost expression ... how he said softly, "No one ever done nothin' for us before," and how a tear trailed brightly down his cheek.

And in the city jail, three men sat and glared at one another, at the other inmates, at the guards, and before the night was over, two of the three gave the third a taste of their knuckles, for ever convincing them it would be great fun to chain that schoolmarm to a chair and leave her for a few hours.

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Linn Keller 5-18-12


Terry Scott rode slowly up-trail toward Firelands.
His horse was about wore out.
So was he.
His belly was wrapped around his back bone, his back side was sore and he was about as tired as a man can get of looking at the world from under the brim of a hat and over the ears of a horse.
When he came to the last rise and came in view of town, he drew his line back dun to a stop and stared at the lights.
Gas lights run a neat line down the main street, such as it was: at this distance the street looked pitifully short and the town pitifully small.
"It ain't much," Terry muttered, "but it's a sight better'n what I had."
His horse didn't see fit to reply.

Esther rocked a little, knitting, content in the quiet of her husband's study: she was relaxed, happy to be near her husband, without interrupting his work.
The Sheriff was finishing a letter to an old and dear friend back East; two letters, sealed and ready, lay on the corner of his desk.
"I saw Bonnie today," she murmured.
The Sheriff signed the letter, lay it aside to dry.
"You saw Bonnie?" he reflected.
Esther nodded, closing her eyes for a long moment.
"She's going to Denver tomorrow."
The Sheriff nodded, turning his chair to face his wife.
"Is this a regular business trip, or is she going to see Sarah?"
Esther looked up, amusement in her expression: she remembered the conversation they'd had, when she looked up and saw Bonnie at the barred window of the telegrapher's office.
Bonnie looked warmly at Esther and said, "Should you be out like this?" -- and her gloved hands moved protectively to her own belly.
Esther lay a hand on her own belly and laughed, then went out on the depot platform to chat with her dear friend.
"A railroader's work is never done," she said with bright eyes a-sparkle, "and sometimes I just can't run the railroad from my office!"
"Esther," Bonnie whispered, "is all ... are you carrying ...?"
Esther laughed, laying gentle fingertips on the back of Bonnie's hand.
"I've never been healthier!" she exclaimed quietly, then looked at Bonnie's slender waist: "And when are you going to give me a godchild?"
Bonnie hugged Esther, giggling.
"It's not for want of trying," she whispered, and Esther put her fingers to her lips.
"I thought Levi was a ..." she hesitated, her eyes bright and merry ... "strong man!"
Bonnie's reserve dropped for a moment and Esther saw past it as Bonnie rolled her eyes and gushed "Oh, God, is he ever!" -- then it was her turn to put her flat fingers against her lips -- "oh, did I say that?" -- and the two women shared a knowing laugh.
"Well? You're traveling now?" Esther smiled.
"Just getting the tickets. I hate to hurry in the morning."
"Denver, is it?"
Bonnie nodded.
"Sarah might not be homesick but ... I miss her!"
Esther tilted her head, gave Bonnie a sad look of motherly understanding and a sympathetic little "Ohhhh," laid her palm very gently against Bonnie's cheek

Black Smith hummed a little as he wrapped the knives for shipment.
His Cripple Creek smithy was rarely quiet, seldom without activity, but the regular work was on hold until this job was finished: his two helpers took a grateful rest, loafing against hay bales or a handy post, taking respite from hauling in coal, hauling out ashes, moving mine equipment here, there or yonder.
Black Smith had a steady business from the mine, but this was a special project: he'd set aside mine work for this, and with a glad heart
A special order, paid up front -- gold, at that! -- the hand writing on the order was lovely to see, like embroidery on a woman's dress: he had to have his cousin, Intelligence Smith, read it to him, and he grinned to hear the embroidery rise from paper through his cousin's eyes and come out his throat as spoken words.
It was an order for four, matched knives, leaf-shaped blades, one piece with no grip panels and no cross guard: a sketch was enclosed, full sized, and he forged and ground the knives faithfully to the sketch.
Throwing knives, he knew: he'd made them for circus performers and carnival acts, and had a good reputation, though the carnies more often than not tried to beat him out of his fee.
He knew who they were for and he did an especially good job, for the client was someone who treated him with the utmost respect, and had spoken with him -- not to him -- like he was good as any man.
He used little brad nails to fast the wood box together, tacked down the lid and wrapped it with paper and with string, with paper his cousin Intelligence wrote on, the address to which the client wished them sent.
His fingers traced lightly over the writing and he looked up, at his brindle mule, and laughed.
"These is fo' Miss Sarah," Black Smith said. "She gonna like dese."
Brindle Mule swung his ears forward, listening, then blinked, slow and drowsy.

Professor Hunt stood outside the locked cell door and regarded Willis and his compatriots sadly.
"Gentlemen," he said, his voice quiet, "I am very, very disappointed."
"Professor," one said hopefully, "is there any way --"
Professor Hunt raised a forestalling palm.
"Anything you could to to redeem yourselves," he said, "would have to be comprehensive, thorough and frankly spectacular, which ... having seen your puerile performance here of late, reduces the possibility to nearly zero."
He looked almost sadly at the glaring Willis, who stood defiantly erect, arms stiff and fisted at his sides.
"I had such hopes for you, Mr. Willis," he said, shaking his head: the greying old instructor turned, and was gone.
"Well, that's it for me," one said: "I'm for New York again." He looked across the cell at the other. "You should come with me."
"Me? New York?" He laughed. "Me for the railroad. They'll hire me back as a railroad bull."
The two looked at the stiff, defiant Willis.
"What about you, Willis?"
Willis's glare had not moved from the barred door where the Professor stood a few moments before.
"She's mine," he whispered. "I'll show that grey old man ... and I'll get rid of her in the process!"

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