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Linn Keller 6-17-12


The class was assembled and seated and the Professor stood to begin the day's classes.
Sarah stood at the same time.
"Professor," she said, "I shall be excusing myself from class today."
Surprised, the man closed his mouth before uttering the first syllable: he turned, blinked at the young woman with the severe expression.
"It seems my mother has volunteered freely of my time," Sarah explained in a chilly voice. "She has made free use of my services as a model for her line of ladies' wear over the years, and she continues to hold the opinion that my time is hers, to spend as she sees fit."
Disapproval radiated from the mousy grey schoolteacher like waves of cold from a winter frost.
"Frankly I find haute coutre stifling, fashion an unnecessary gilding of the lily, and I loathe being paraded on stage for the buyers to stare at" -- she closed her mouth, pressed thin lips together in disapproval -- "but I owe her that filial duty. With your permission, sir."
The Professor blinked, considered for a moment: he glanced at Froggy Schlingermann, looked away just as quickly.
"Of course," he said quietly.
"Thank you, sir," Sarah said, dipping her knees and gripping her carpet bag: lifting it from beside her chair, she looked over the class and sighed.
"Frankly I would prefer to remain here."
She looked sharply at the Professor, her direct glare almost a challenge.
"I shall lunch away from the ladies, though," she added, dipping a hand into the carpet bag: withdrawing a half-veil, she held it almost playfully across he forehead, draping her face in black crape down to her upper lip: shed drummed out a quick staccato with her hard little heels and added, "You have no idea how I loathe those fashion shows!"
The sound of her heels descending the stairs barely began to fade when Mr. Schlingermann excused himself.

The boss received his subordinate's report with a triumphant expression.
The secretary heard the man slap his desk in emphasis.
"We will take her there!" he declared. "You will lunch there as well."
"Boss," Bonnie heard Schlingermann reply, "she's one hell of a fighter. You have no idea what she can do with a knife and she can shoot soup beans tossed in the air, we saw her do it."
"If you can't capture a mere girl, then," the Boss said, contempt dripping onto his desk top, "are you man enough to kill her, at least?"
There was a long silence.
Bonnie pressed her hand against her belly, feeling the hard outline of the Navy Colt, carried horizontally under the shelf of her bodice, instantly accessible to her right hand.
"Sure, boss," Schlingermann said.

"Be careful with that!" a man shouted. "That cost more than you did!"
"Who in the hell wants a calliope at a fashion show?" one of the men grumbled as they muscled the heavy machine onto the stage.
"Over there, a little to the right. Compressor goes over here and leave room enough for some poor sod to turn the crank to run the thing!"
"I thought they were selling dresses, not running a circus!"
The foreman sighed. "They pays us and we does the work, Max. Now the three of you get that compressor. It's not that big but it's awkward. You there!" -- he shouted, pointing to the crew bringing in lengths of pipe and stout wood uprights. "Use this diagram. That's going to be a circus trapeze and no I don't know what in the hell they're doing with it!"

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Linn Keller 11-22-07   Jacob and I took turns out back, splitting wood and hauling in kindling and fire wood, for the days were chll and the nights more so, and a November mist had started:

And that, loyal readers, is the original story of the town and people of Firelands as told by a variety of folks over a long space of time both modern and old. I hope that you have enjoyed our small e

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Charlie MacNeil 6-17-12


The keening of cicadas was loud in the still air, the singing of the insects forming a curiously on-key counterpoint to the normal ringing in his ears that was a fact of life for the ex-Marshal. Charlie lay still, willing himself to blend into the landscape; his wash-softened and -faded canvas britches and muslin shirt, his scuffed boots and sweat-stained hat, all contributed their bit to making him as invisible as it was possible for a man his size to be. He was a long, half day's ride north of the ranch, and even further from any potential help, as Fannie had ridden out to the south that same morning on business of her own. He quieted his breathing as best he could, straining to hear over the sounds he carried with him always...

The slow grind of a leather boot sole on fine-grained granite sand...

The whisk and scrape of dried, dead buckbrush stems on cloth and leather...

The soft swish and rattle of the previous year's rye grass stems...

The stink of unwashed clothing and flesh, tobacco and sweat, the heavy miasma of rotgut snakehead whiskey...

The gentle, four click steel-on-steel chorus of a Colt's revolver's hammer notches as the hammer was drawn back and the cylinder turned, lining up his potential death warrant with the barrel of the gun...

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Charlie MacNeil 6-17-12


He slipped the long-barreled Remington from the holster. As silently as possible he loaded the sixth chamber, muffling the clicks of the hammer and cylinder against his uninjured side. Experimentally, knowing that he was much more accurate right-handed than left, he squeezed the checkered walnut grips in a white-knuckled right fist, waiting for the surge of pain he was sure would come. When it didn't, or at least not to the extent he expected, Charlie smiled grimly to himself, no hint of mirth in the cold curve of his lips, and settled back down to wait, tugging his hat brim low over his face...

Sand grated on boot leather. Charlie slowed his breathing and forced himself to assume the totally boneless posture of an unconscious, dying man. The Remington was nestled, out of sight, alongside his right leg; the sounds had come from beyond his left shoulder. He waited, barely breathing, for what he was sure was coming....

Light footsteps stopped near his left shoulder. "Ain't you dead yet, mister?" The words were pitched high, almost like... a woman's voice? No matter. Nowhere was it written that only the male of the species could set an ambush. He waited...

The yawning maw of the rifle muzzle entered his peripheral vision; the front sight hooked against his hat brim, tugging. The hat tilted back; his slitted eyes saw a blurred figure above him as the slanted rays of sunlight lanced across his exposed skin. The figure's right foot eased forward, came down between his left arm and his hip. In one desperate lunge he hooked his elbow behind the ankle and yanked up and across. The figure slammed to earth alongside him, half across his legs; the rifle flew from its grasp to come to earth out of reach. The barrel of the Remington slammed down on a skull padded with brown hair twisted into a pair of long loose braids and the woman who had shot him slumped into a loose heap, blood welling from her split scalp.

Charlie struggled to a sitting position. His head was pounding out a syncopated rhythm accompanied by his broken ribs as he tried to catch his breath. After a few long, agonizing moments he shoved his attacker off his lap then painfully drew several coiled strands of rawhide pigging string from his shirt pocket. He used those to tie the woman's hands behind her back, then her ankles as close to her hands as possible before rolling her on her side to look at her face. It wasn't a face he recognized. "No, I ain't dead yet," he whispered...

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Linn Keller 6-18-12


The Bear Killer licked his chops and trotted the length of Mr. Baxter's fine mahogany bar, stopping once to regard his very distorted image in a spherical brass ball decorating the gleaming, scratched but carefully polished foot rail: snuffing at the metallic knob, he blinked, then looked away as the huge nose reflected in its shining convexity disappeared in a breath-haze of condensation.
An anonymous hand opened the door for him; the Bear Killer tik-tik-tikked quietly out onto the board walk, looking around, blinking.
His belly was full, he was relaxed, it was time to find a skilled set of fingers to scratch his back.

The Sheriff cantered the length of the street, eyes busy.
As expected, Jacob's stallion was tethered in front of the Sheriff's office.
The Sheriff drew up, dismounted; a quick turn of reins over the hitch rail, one loose wrap as was his custom, and he stopped to caress Cannonball.
"Stay, girl," he whispered.
Cannonball snuffed at the front of his coat.
"You bum," the Sheriff muttered, pulling out a plug of molasses twist tobacco and a small knife.
Jacob's stallion, interested, looked over toward the treat being whittled off for his rail-mate and begged a taste.
The Sheriff shaved off a little for his horse, and for Jacob's, muttering "Kills worms" before putting away the implements of bribery and stepping up on the board walk.

The buyers filed into the little auditorium, the buzz of conversation ebbing and flowing as it always does at such times: there was word of an "enhanced presentation," rumor of "something special" -- the McKenna Dress Works always put on an attractive and interesting show, and the prospect of "something special" was enough to bring the usual buyers, some from as far away as Frisco and Kansas City, but also a clutch of new buyers.
There were also those in the audience with no interest in purchase: some were there strictly at the prospect of entertainment ... but there were also those whose interest was neither in fashion, commerce nor pleasure.
As a result, the audience was three times its usual size.
Daciana peeked out a gap in the curtains, smiling, feeling the familiar, delicious anticipation she always experienced before a performance.
The models settled the feathered, glittery half-masks on their faces.
"Showtime!" Daciana called happily, pointing to the organist.
The happy sounds of the familiar circus tune began, promising thrills, chills, entertainment and amazement.

Sarah glided down the stairs and down the street.
She knew she was being followed.
Smiling, she turned down an alley and into a door she knew would be unlocked; she peeked through a crack in the boards, waited until her follower was past, then slipped out again.

Bonnie frowned as she examined the files.
The boss watched the slender woman as she scanned the drawer of documents.
"Is something wrong?" he growled, taking another drag on his stogie.
"Your former secretary," Bonnie said tartly, "should be horse whipped."
Bonnie shoved the heavy drawer shut, glaring at the boss.
"Nothing is alphabetized, nothing is organized, it's as if everything was just stuffed in place! The top drawers are crowded, the bottom drawer is empty, the rest are jumbled ... it'll take me a week just to get things in some semblance of order!"
The office door opened and two men came in.
Bonnie swung the boss's inner door shut and smiled as she faced the newcomers.
"Can I help you gentlemen?"

Sarah shucked out of her mousy-grey schoolmarm's dress and underthings, stripped down for action: she was into her black shirt and britches, black boots and vest; for this operation she needed to be as slender as possible, and so did not wrap the familiar, comforting weight of the double gun rig around her hips.
She did not, however, intend to walk into the Devil's parlor empty handed.
She opened a hard leather case and smiled, and the smile was not at all pleasant.

The curtains parted briskly as three ladies in fine McKenna gowns turned, as if a living carousel: they were joined by their right hands, holding the steel pole, walking around it as if around a Maypole: each wore a glittering, feathered half-mask, each walked in step to the brisk music; on cue, they released, did a full turn and stopped, their skirts swinging with the momentum of their abrupt stop.
One stepped forward with a welcoming smile.
In a delightful Irish accent, chin and hands lifted, she declared in a fine Irish voice, "Welcome to the House McKenna Fashion Show!" -- and to the fanfare of organ music, the flanking models turned, whirled: one seized a hanging bar and was hoist into the air, the other glided with a dancer's grace to the side and out of sight.
"We bring you today the very latest fashions from Paris, the best of the McKenna Dress Works, and a Declaration of Freedom and Comfort!"
Finger up-thrust in emphasis, the half-masked conductress struck a dramatic pose as Daciana, circus tights momentarily glimpsed under her flowing, fashionable gown, swung into view on the trapeze, spinning once in mid-air and catching the second trapeze bar.
"We doubt if you ladies will be performing on the high wire," Daisy declared, clasping her hands together, "but isn't it nice to know that your fashionable dresses aren't trying to pinch your waist in two and turn you into a womanly statue?"
There was a sympathetic chuckle from the audience, for women of the era knew the discomfort of tight-waisted fashions, and how it restricted free movement.
Daciana was disappeared from view; another model, in a McKenna gown, did a series of slow cartwheels across the stage behind the gowned and masked Daisy, her momentum keeping the skirt modestly over her legs.

The Bear Killer leaned a head the size of a bushel basket against the Sheriff's thigh.
The Sheriff rubbed the big canine's ears, eliciting an obscene rumble from the blocky, muscled, black-furred animal.
"You bum," the Sheriff murmured, "I oughta thump you."
The Bear Killer growled, snarling loose lips back to reveal even, gleaming teeth.
The Sheriff cocked a fist. "I oughta knock you into the middle of next week!" he challenged.
"Wednesday or Thursday?" Jacob asked mildly from behind the Sheriff's desk.
Lawman and canine ignored the quiet-voiced deputy.
The Bear Killer bristled and backed up a few steps, stiff-legged, fur standing up in a distinct ridge down the length of his back bone, promising a horrible and bloody death should the man even try.
"I oughta run my arm down your neck and grab your tail and yank you inside out!" the Sheriff almost shouted, his voice loud and sharp-edged.
The Bear Killer stiffened, his tail stopping its ponderous pendulum, eyes wild and ears back.
Jacob, relaxed, slouched in his father's chair, boots up on the desk, grinning as he took in the show.
The Bear Killer and the Sheriff launched at one another.

Of the several men in the audience, all but two were well dressed; these two were known to the rest, and ignored, for they were hirelings, laborers; they sat in the back, leaned back in their chairs, grateful for the day's work.
About half the men there removed their covers and slipped a dark red band around their hat-band; their hats were carefully placed in their laps: otherwise lawful and lawless looked alike, carefully barbered, trimmed, tonsured, with mustaches curled or trimmed or clipped.
Daciana, in another gown, juggled three bright, India-rubber balls as the circus mistress extolled the virtues of the sculpted waist, the gathering of material at the bodice; Daciana smiled a little, her attention on her performance: as Daisy turned, raising a hand to emphasize a point, Daciana tossed the balls, one at a time, to an unseen assistant off-state: flaming torches spun through the air, which Daciana caught and began juggling with ease: it was a simple trick, juggling sticks instead of round balls, but it was showy, especially with the flames involved: Daisy, the masked and costumed circus-mistress, turned, threw up her hands and shrieked, at which point two clowns ran out with bright-red fire helmets, floor-length fire coats, big red noses and huge red clown shoes: they ran out, ran into one another, stopped on each side of Daisy, pointing here, pointing there: Daisy slammed a fist down on each of their bright red helmets and stepped back, at which point the clowns sprayed each other with seltzer water.
Daciana caught, collected and handed off the torches, gave a bowing curtsy, withdrew to the audience's appreciative laughter and applause: the clowns, sputtering and dashing water from grease painted faces, retreated in the opposite direction as a tired looking clown with a knee length beard advanced mournfully with a mop over his shoulder to clean up the mess.

There were more men backstage, discreetly lurking in shadowed corners, or between curtain-folds, rough men with hard muscles and hard eyes, men with red hat bands, men who knew their services would be needed.
Other men, not knowing of these good folk, waited until the fashion show was nearly over before migrating toward the backstage.
When all was done, when the circus mistress gave a grand flourish and thanked one and all for their kind attention, when the applause died down and people stood and laughed and talked of what they'd seen, the black suited men in the audience worked their way toward the stage door.
The buyers, as was custom, were brought into a spacious, adjacent room, where the House McKenna receptionist stood, smiling, greeting most of the buyers by name, asking how their husband, their daughter, their fine son gone to that Eastern university, were doing: tea and finger-sandwiches were ready, waiting, and the dressmakers were waiting to answer questions, when the first gunshot was heard.

"How do we know which one she is?"
"We don't. Take 'em both."
"You two," one said, "take her" -- chin-thrust at the half-masked circus mistress.
Hard eyes glittered in the shadows; hard hands hung, relaxed, waiting.
"I'll take this one."
He took a long step toward Daciana.
Daciana, in a McKenna gown, smiled and tilted her head as the man approached: he saw a slender, diminutive figure, certain it was that troublemaking minx of a schoolmarm: he made a quick move as if to grab her, and found his own sleeves seized instead: Daciana fell back, thrust her flat-soled circus slippers into his belt buckle and thrust with well-developed legs: he landed flat on his back, stunned with surprise as much as the impact: almost immediately a set of man's knees drove into his exposed gut, knocking the wind and any but the smallest sound out of him.

At the men's club, the dancer smiled at the reflection in the mirror.
It was the last day she would ever work there.
The McKenna gown hung ready, her few belongings were packed; she'd never felt so ... she'd never felt as much a lady, as when that little schoolteacher put her in a gown and made her look the part.
It was not until she looked the part and felt the part that she realized she could be a lady, and she would be a lady, and with the help of a dear friend in the Cripple Creek gold fields, she was to be introduced to their society, where she fully intended to snag a rich husband and live the rest of her life in respectability.
She picked up the crape half-veil, tied it in place above her eyebrows; it covered her to her upper lip.
She stood, turned slowly in front of the three-panel mirror.
Today she would dance the flamenco again, and it would be her final act.

The fight was brief, intense: one, and only one, shot was fired: a tall man in a black suit with a red-banded hat stepped into the reception area: "Just a firecracker, folks, misfired from the clowns earlier," and it was enough to reassure the good people that indeed it had not been a gunshot: commerce and conversation resumed, and the House McKenna continued taking orders and selling on-hand stock, folding the dresses carefully into trunks brought for that purpose.
Backstage it was different.
Daciana was in the thick of it, teeth bared, a lead sap grasped with desperate strength in her hand: she knew enough not to belt the men with the red hat-bands, but she did not hesitate to vent her vigor on those without.
Dolly, for her part, had her arms up and almost crossed in front of her bosom: her style was somewhat different: she'd backed into a corner at two men's approach: in a quick move, a dancer's move, she twisted, kicked one in the jaw: continuing to spin, her other foot caught his fellow behind the knee, bringing him abruptly down, in time to see something large and heavy whistling through the air, the moment before his universe burst into a bright starfield, and then went dark.
The fight was short, vicious, brutal, utterly without mercy.
Daisy picked up a cast iron frying pan and belted an attacker squarely in the face, hard enough the pan rang like a dull bell.
A slight built figure in black, a figure with pale eyes, came into the battlefield as the last casualties were brought low.
"Touch me wi' yer filthy hands, will ye," Daisy muttered, turning and sidestepping the second fellow: he tried to stop, tripped over the first one, and Daisy helped him down with a stout blow to the back of the head.
The slender, black-clad figure's teeth were bared, her braids wrapped around her neck: her eyes met Daisy's, and Daisy shivered, for the touch of those eyes was like a trickle of cold water poured down her back.
Sarah looked around, still, silent, the tools of her trade gripped hard in her hands: men in red hat bands seized the designated trunk, opened it.
Sarah stepped in, squatted, then removed her broad brimmed hat and put it down inside the trunk with her.
She looked up at Levi, her eyes the color of winter ice.
"Let's do it," she said with a fierceness that should never be heard from a throat so young and pretty.

Bonnie thrust open the boss's inner door without knocking, a bound book in hand.
He looked up, annoyed, removed the cigar from his teeth to rebuke her for the sudden and unannounced appearance.
"Your calendar for tomorrow is full," she said in clipped tones. "You stand to make a great deal of money from two clients." She glared at him, daring him to disapprove.
He raised an eyebrow, nodded once.
"You will meet the Mayor for breakfast at nine. The mayor never eats at breakfast, have a good meal beforehand, the man prefers brandy but frowns on anyone else who drinks in his presence. Order coffee or water, I recommend the coffee, the water there is not fit to drink." She turned the page. "At eleven you will meet with President of Council, who will discuss the tariffs the city wants to charge for freight hauling within city limits. The man is a hard bargain but he has a mistress. Ask him how Christina's belly is doing."
The boss nodded approvingly.
"You will meet with the Chief of Police at noon and he will expect his payoff at that time. Have it in a cloth bundle." She handed him a linen napkin, folded under the bound book. "This is a napkin from the restaurant where you will meet him. Use this.
"At two you will go to meet with the Weird Sisters and discuss their security needs."
"How do you know about the Weird Sisters?"
Bonnie glared at the man.
"You stand to make a great deal of money from them," she said in clipped tones. "I stand to make a living wage but only as long as you make money. When you make money, I get money."
The boss grunted.
Not many people knew he referred to the madams of the red-light district as the Weird Sisters; they regularly paid him shakedown money and in turn he kept them safe -- an arrangement he needed to firm up with his meeting with the police chief earlier in the day.
"Go on."
"You will have Sanders with you to meet with the Sisters. You will be paying the Mayor in the usual manner, the meeting is a formality but the man has himself confused with someone important and he fancies such meetings are necessary, even though his money comes from anonymous sources.
"You will not need to pay the President of Council as long as you mention the mistress's belly. She is with child and his wife suspects, so you will have leverage there.
"The Sisters will, of course, be paying you, and you will not want to be carrying payoff in case the Powers that Be want to get righteous and have you arrested for bribery or other illegal activities. Sanders is disposable, you are not."
She snapped the book shut.
"Afterwards you will be ... interviewing ... two new girls at the gentleman's club. Here is a copy of your itinerary." She handed him a neatly-written sheet. "Please be prompt. You are, after all, running a business."
The boss regarded the sheet she handed him.
"Tell me, Secretary," he said slowly, "do you disapprove of my business?"
Bonnie stopped: she turned, faced the man, holding the closed book against her belly, her arms crossed over it.
"We all make our living according to our gifts," she said quietly. "Mine is organization. Yours are ... effective."

The Bear Killer's paws were on the Sheriff's shoulders and the great, black-furred killer was happily washing the lawman's face.
The Sheriff was laughing, his hands on the Bear Killer's ribs, and Jacob, grinning, rejoiced at the sound of his father's laughter.

"You told them what?"
"That I would be going to the gentleman's club and I implied I'd be dancing." Sarah looked up from the trunk: Levi's hand was on the lid, he was squatting beside it, looking up with this troubling new information.
"Franklin, Michaelson," Levi snapped. "Get over there. Find them and bring them in."
"Yes, sir."
"When we take them I want to take them all!"
"Yes, sir!"

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Charlie MacNeil 6-18-12


"Off your butt and on your feet, cowboy," Charlie muttered under his breath as he holstered his pistol. Rolling to his knees, he waited for the waves of pain and nausea to pass then forced his left foot forward. He carefully leaned down and picked up the woman's battered 1866 Winchester. Using the rifle as a crutch of sorts he shoved his battered carcass to a standing position of more or less stability. Once the world stopped spinning and resumed its rightful location under his feet he picked up the rifle and started backtracking his assailant...

The woman had approached from his left rear, across a small spring-fed meadow, leaving a trail of pressed down grass what was slowly springing upright as he watched. He sighted along the track, picking a tall poplar as a compass point, and started walking. He figured that somewhere along that track there was a horse, and a canteen of water, maybe a bottle of medicinal whiskey, possibly even something he could use to bandage himself and maybe even some food of some sort; he was pretty sure that she hadn't walked there...

Walking fifty yards when one is healthy is child's play. Walking that same fifty yards carrying a rifle on one side and a rack of broken ribs on the other is not exactly for the faint of heart. When Charlie arrived at his target tree he had sweated through his shirt, his head was spinning again, and he didn't know whether to be afraid he was going to die or to wish he would so he'd feel better. He leaned against the rough bark of the tree, sure that if he sat down he'd never make it back on his feet, and he listened, hoping to hear some indication of where to go from there to find the woman's horse...

After a few moments, Charlie heard a thud from his left, beyond the tree he leaned against. He waited some more, and his patience was rewarded with the tinkle of bit chains from a nearby alder thicket. He drew himself up and was about to step out of the deep black shade alongside the poplar when he heard a voice.

"Emma! Emma!" the urgently whispered words, harsh in the stillness, carried easily from a smaller bunch of trees to his right. He settled back against the trunk of the poplar. His patience was rewarded when the whisper came again. "Did we git him? Is he daid? Emma?" Now Charlie had a line on the second shooter. He lifted the '66 to his shoulder, propping the forearm on a convenient limb, and prayed that there was a cartridge under the hammer as he watched the small thicket for signs of movement.

Once again, his patience was rewarded. A fairly tall, lanky fellow dressed in rank buckskins that the ex-Marshal could smell from thirty yards away appeared over the gold bead front sight on the Winchester's barrel band, rising from the thicket to stand behind a sapling, perfectly framed in the buckhorn rear sight. The man's long chin whiskers were matted with brown juice from the tobacco cud that bulged his cheek like an abscess of some sort. Filthy and unkempt he might be, but the Sharps rifle cradled in his leathery grip was spanking clean. Charlie hoped that he could make the man miss if he did get off a shot, because he was pretty sure that from thirty yards away the tree he stood behind would do little to stop the big chunk of lead that would be coming his way. His only hope was the element of surprise...

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Linn Keller 6-18-12


"If a man got a reception from his family like he gets from his dog," Jacob observed, "he'd be a hell of a lot happier!"
The Sheriff nodded, laughing, as the Bear Killer's tail spun happy circles behind his wagging hind quarters.
"I wonder how Dawg is these days."
"Reckon I'll find out," the Sheriff said. "I'm fixin' to slip out and see Charlie here directly."
"Reckon I'll ride along," Jacob nodded. "I'm thinkin' Charlie said his mares ought to start droppin' foals here in a month or two." He grinned. "I'm kind of anxious to see what kind of colts Apple throws."
The Sheriff looked at his long, tall son, standing behind his desk, thumb hooked in his gun belt, looking perfectly at home.
A chill went through the tall, slender lawman as he regarded the tall, slender lawman before him ... a chill, as if seeing the future.
My son will be Sheriff, he thought, and for a moment, regarded his mortality, but only for a moment.
"Come on, Bear Killer," the Sheriff said. "Let's go see Charlie."
The Bear Killer thrust up from the floor, shoving his head powerfully against the Sheriff's extended hand.

"Let 'em pass," the loafer at the door said to his fellows within: "the boss wants these sent right up."
Four men -- two on either end of each trunk -- proceeded past the outer guards and toward the stairway.
"Whoa, now, where do you think you're goin'?" the door guard said, stepping in front of the four men with red hat bands.
There was a flurry of activity, scarcely heard from the street, even with the door open: Levi's eyes were hard as he shook his hand, then blew across cracked, smarting knuckles.
He looked down at the cold cocked door guard with the cut cheek bone, then at the other guards, beaten down and to unconsciousness in a violent five seconds of fists, feet, knees and blackjacks.
"Where do I think I'm goin'?" he asked the still, barely breathing form. "I know where I'm goin' ... and I know where you're goin', too," he muttered, then looked up.
"I want them kept quiet," he said, his voice low, urgent. "Give us two minutes and then wave for the Black Maria."
"Yes, sir."
"When the wagon gets here, load this lot first. I want them divested of anything they've got. I don't want them to have so much as a strip of paper in their pockets -- or anywhere else."
"Yes, sir."
"When they bring the Maria you can expect them to bring several officers. Tell them the red hat bands are the good guys, then send 'em up."
"Yes, sir!"
Levi withdrew a nickle plated revolver from inside his coat, opened it: nodding, he closed the action, gently, slipped it back into its concealed pocket, then turned and strode upstairs, followed by four men in black suits and red hat bands.

Bonnie sat, spine stiff, the ever-present, hard-backed ledger on her lap; her legs were crossed, the writing pad on the ledger, pencil in hand: her pencil-strokes were quick, precise, and she kept up with the boss's hesitant dictation without too much difficulty.
"I think that should do it," the boss said vacantly, his eyes drifting toward the door.
"Yes, sir."
Bonnie stood.
"Now tell me, Mrs. Secretary."
Bonnie turned, faced the man squarely. "Yes, sir?"
"Will you send them a letter written in pencil?"
Bonnie's glare would have burned a hole through a lesser man.
"Your correspondence," she said icily, "has suffered from neglect and incompetence. It will be in ink, it will be properly written, and it will be on letterhead."
"Letterhead?" he coughed, then turned and spat a fleck of tobacco off his tongue. "What letterhead?"
"The letterhead you never seem to have had in the first place," Bonnie said disapprovingly.
"Why in the hell would I need letterhead?" he muttered.
"Because," Bonnie said with the exaggerated patience of someone tired of dealing with an intentionally stupid soul, "you are a businessman. Because a business deals in good first impressions. Because I ordered two reams already and intend to make use of it, for your benefit!"
"Ream?" the boss frowned. "What's a ream?"
"A box," Bonnie sighed, as if wondering just how dense the man could possibly be.
There was the sound of something heavy hitting a door frame and the boss's head came up abruptly.
Bonnie placed ledger and pad on the corner of his desk, turned toward the door, when it thrust open and a half dozen men and two trunks poured into the boss's inner office.
"We got 'em, boss," one of the men said with a leering grin.
There was a muffled thump from one of the trunks and the men carrying it laughed.
"A real animal, that one," one of them laughed. "Like to see what we brought you, boss?"
The boss leaned forward, standing behind his desk, cigar forgotten between thumb and forefinger.
The trunks were set down, turned so the latched faced the desk.
Latches were flipped free, dropped loudly away with a metallic sound: lids were grasped firmly, then as if on signal, pulled quickly open.
Levi and two men spread out on the boss's left, two others, on his right.
The boss's attention was on the trunks; his expression was one of open lust, of anticipation: cruelty and baseness were plain on his face as the lids were hauled back.
Sarah thrust upright out of the trunk, a stubby, double-barrel, twelve gauge pistol gripped by its wrist and around its cut-down barrels: both hammers were at full stand and her eyes were the color of winter ice.
"I understand you wanted to see me," she said coldly. "My name is Sarah. How can I help you?"
The boss shifted to the left, seized Bonnie: jerking her in front of him, he started screaming, "Boys! Boys, to me! To me!"
Half a dozen pistols were aimed at the overweight crime boss, still trying to use Bonnie as a human shield.
Bonnie raised her foot and drove her heel down on the boss's arch.
The boss released his grip, screaming on a higher pitch as his arch was crushed, shattered: Bonnie twisted out of his grip, ran her hand into her dress, drove the muzzle of a Navy Colt into the boss's ribs.
Sarah stepped out of the crate, leaned over the boss's desk, the stubby little twelve-bore thrust forward.
The boss raised his hand.
There was the gleam of nickled steel in the boss's hand as he raised the pistol toward Sarah.
The Navy Colt's report was muffled from being hard thrust into the boss's ribs.
Sarah's yawning gun-muzzles held steady as the boss's hand convulsed, dropping the nickle plated townie pistol to the desk top: his eyes shifted to Bonnie and his mouth worked as he tried to say -- or ask -- something.
"Hello," his secretary said pleasantly.
"My name is Bonnie. I used to be Bonnie Rosenthal" -- her voice hardened --"and nobody shoots my little girl!"
The boss's grip on her dress slipped and he wavered a moment before collapsing.
The police chief thrust into the room, followed by the Mayor and a handful of uniformed police officers.
"It's all right," Levi called loudly, and the Chief raised a hand.
"Stand down, boys," he called, "it's all over," then worked his way over to Bonnie and looked down on the bleeding figure collapsed behind his grand desk.
"Bad business, bad business," he murmured, shaking his head. "Well, we've got men all over the city rounding up his gang. Well done there, Rosenthal, well done." He looked at the pistol on the desk top. "Now whose is that?" -- he looked at Sarah -- "yours?"
Sarah raised the double gun, cut down at the wrist for a one-hand grip, and barrels cut off at about a foot. "No, sir," she said with a smile. "This one is mine."
"Good God," the Chief gasped. "Just who might you be?"
Sarah turned over the lapel of her black vest, showing the bronze shield.
"Lynn Rosenthal," she said. "Agent, Firelands District Court."
"Rosenthal?" the chief brayed, looking at Levi.
Levi nodded.
The chief blew out a long breath, his cheeks puffing comically as he thrust back his uniform cap and scratched vigorously at his thinning scalp.
"Bad business, bad business," he muttered, shaking his head.
"Lunchtime," one of the agents said as they closed the lids on the two trunks.

The dancer's move were sensuous, athletic, powerful: she danced with joy and with skill, she did not so much dance with the music, or to the music, as much as the music danced through her: it felt right, it felt good, it was the best performance she'd ever given.
My last, and my best, she thought.
Tomorrow I shall be a fine lady and not just a saloon dancer.

A man in a black suit waited in her dressing room, toying with the wire garotte.

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Linn Keller 6-19-12


Sarah soaked for a long time that night in a tub of the hottest water she could stand.
Bonnie soaked in a tub on the other side of the marble decorated bathroom.
Silence grew long in the boudoir.
Sarah turned her head slowly, twisting her neck carefully, working the stiffness out of it: her knees no longer ached -- she never considered how uncomfortable kneeling inside a wooden chest would become -- stifling, yes; they stopped and opened the lid at frequent intervals so she would not suffocate -- but she wished mightily for a pillow for her Prayer Bones by the time the final act was played.
Sarah reached down and massaged her knees, slowly, carefully, grateful that hemlines were more than long enough to cover any bruises she'd earned on her poor patellae.
Bonnie stared sightlessly at the opposite wall.
She kept seeing the boss's hand thrust forward with that blunt little pistol in its grip, driving it toward her daughter.
She felt the tension in her shoulder as she tried to shove the muzzle of the Sheriff's old Navy Colt through the crime boss's rib cage, then the gentle shove as the sear broke and she sent the scoundrel to sear his soul in sizzling sulfur.
Bonnie sighed, drawing in lavender scented vapors, blinked: she looked at the little table beside the tub, reached a delicate hand from the steaming, soapsuds-topped water and reached for the bone-china cup of shimmering oolong.
Sarah looked over at the tiny sound of porcelain teacup on porcelain saucer.
"Mama," she asked quietly, "are you all right?"
Bonnie looked at Sarah, her expression gentle.
"I'm fine, sweets," she said gently. "And you?"
Sarah nodded, closing her eyes.
"Tired," she said, fatigue weighting her voice. "Just ..."
Sarah's eyes snapped open and she sat up abruptly, threatening to overspill the tub.
"Oh, no," she gasped, "lunch!"

The police chief spoke quietly to Levi, his voice serious: the man's uniform cap was in his hand, and a police officer removes his cover on a house call for one reason and one reason only.
Levi looked at the closed door, then back to the police chief: he rested his hand on the man's shoulder and thanked him in a quiet voice, and said he would take care of it.

Sarah yanked the door open, eyes wide and concerned, just as Levi raised his knuckles to knock: Sarah stood there, wrapped in a big fluffy robe, barefoot and dripping water.
"Levi," she blurted, "I told them I would be dancing at the gentleman's club for lunch -- if they went --"
Levi swallowed and reached for Sarah's shoulders.
Sarah stiffened, her mouth open, then she closed her eyes and closed her mouth and leaned her forehead against Levi's belly.
"No," she whispered.
Levi's arms went around his stepdaughter and he bent over a little, leaning his cheek on top of her head.
"They found the man who killed her," he whispered. "He's in custody."
Sarah groaned, hugged her stepfather with a desperate strength.
Bonnie's heart tore itself apart as she heard her daughter start to cry.

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Linn Keller 6-19-12


The Bear Killer paced us easily.
I was looking forward to seeing Charlie, but then we weren't in any screamin' hurry.
I think better when I ride, and I was thinking just a'mightily on why I was half out of sorts.
The mind is a swift runner and mine was scampering here, yonder and elsewhere.
Apparently Jacob's was as well.
"Sir, I need to get some stock work done."
"How's that?"
I looked over at Jacob, riding easy in his saddle: his mustache was a rich brown, thicker than mine -- he'll be able to curl that one, I thought, mine's sparse enough I have to wax hell out of it to get it to curl.
Jacob shucked his big fifty rifle and frowned at the crescent butt plate.
"Now, sir, I saw a real nice butt on a shotgun once," he said thoughtfully: "this crescent ain't the best for this big a rifle, and I dug that pointy part into my shoulder meat a time or three."
I frowned when he said that.
I'd gouged my own shoulder in the same manner, gettin' in too big a hurry.
On the one hand, my own Pa tried to teach me at a tender age that "Hurry up is brother to mess it up" -- matter of fact I proved the Grand Old Man right a number of times -- on the other hand I knew what it was to have to bring a rifle to shoulder in a right brisk manner.
"Sir, was this sawed off flat -- like a shotgun butt," Jacob said, tracing an imaginary line with his finger nail -- "I saw the neatest ... oh, horse's feathers" -- he rolled his wrist, trying to bring the name from his memory whether it wanted to come out or not.
"Describe it."
"Wellsir, the butt was checkered in the middle and it had an open metalwork here -- at the rear of the comb -- and down here, at the toe. The one I saw even had an iron toe plate."
I nodded.
"I saw one of those one time. Some English feller had a real high grade double gun and it had what he called a Skeletonized Butt Plate on it." I grinned. "Didn't look like no skeleton but y'know, you're right ... that would me an awful lot better for a bigger rifle."
"I went ahead and had a peep mounted."
"Saw that," I nodded. "I've threatened to have that done on mine."
Jacob's grin was quick and natural, the look of a boy who just heard something approving from his old man.
"Jacob, I think that rifle would look particularly good with just such a butt plate. A man could send off and have a complete rear stock made to fit that rifle and ship you the finished stock ... then you'd have two complete stocks, you'd have an extra in case that one got stepped on and broke or some such."
Jacob nodded.
"I might do that, sir."
"How well do you like that peep?" I asked.
"Fine, sir!" Jacob's grin was broad now. "I had it bored out just a bit bigger than standard."
"I'd have to have that my own self," I admitted. "My eyes aren't as young as yours."
"Yes, sir."
Jacob gave me a long look as if he was trying to figure just how far into the sere and yellow his Pa was getting.
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, does Charlie know we're headed out to see him?"
I laughed.
"Jacob, I don't think I could surprise the man if I tried. No, I didn't send word ahead and far as I know, he didn't know we were headed out when we started out, but you can bet your bottom dollar soon as we cross onto his spread, he'll know we're there, he'll know what color shirt buttons we're both a-wearin' and he'll know if either of us have a worn horse shoe and on which hoof."

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Charlie MacNeil 6-19-12


Charlie sucked in the deepest breath that the spool of Joseph Glidden's finest barbed wire somebody had wrapped around his chest would allow, and bellowed as best he could, "US MARSHAL! DROP THE WEAPON AND THROW UP YOUR HANDS!" The dirty bearded gent froze for a split second before hoisting the big Sharps toward his shoulder, earing back the hammer as he went. The '66 cracked, white smoke billowing from the muzzle. With a scream of tortured steel meeting speeding lead the bullet caromed from the top of the Sharps' receiver, spattering its owner with lead fragments. Still the long, octagon steel tube kept swinging toward the sound of Charlie's shot.

"Damn!" Charlie growled as he threw the Winchester's lever as fast as he had ever done. He'd been aiming for meat, not metal. The front sight settled on a particularly dark spot on the other man's buckskin shirt; the crack of the second shot couldn't cover the thud of the bullet slamming home in his opponent's chest. The heavy Sharps sagged, muzzle settling toward the loamy ground underfoot. A finger twitch triggered the shot into the dirt, throwing up a geyser of leafy soil. The shooter fell atop his rifle.

Charlie painfully levered another round into the chamber of the '66 then limped from the shelter of the poplar toward the wounded man, careful to lead with the muzzle of the rifle. He was operating on adrenaline and the fact that he was just too stubborn to let his knees fold they way they wanted to, but he was rapidly running out of stream. He nudged the still form with the barrel; slack muscles gave no response so he knelt and laid his left hand on the greasy buckskin-covered shoulder. With that same hand he rolled the man onto his back. The old man's eyes fluttered open.

"Damn ya, ya killed me," the old man gurgled through the blood filling his lungs. He coughed up a crimson flood that trickled through his tobacco-stained beard to drip onto the ground. "Where's Emma?"

"She's tied up yonder," Charlie answered. "Who are you, anyway? And why in hell did you two do your best to kill me?"

"You killed Eban Wardell!" He coughed again, weaker than before.

"Eban Wardell is in Yuma Prison," Charlie replied.

"He died last fall, he was my son, an' I swore I'd kill the man what put him in that hellhole..." His words faded as he gasped for breath. "Emma's his wife..." His eyes rolled back in their sockets until only white showed, and his face suddenly went slack as one last breath gusted out.

Charlie stared down at the old man for several seconds before forcing himself painfully to his feet once again. He would find their horses then try to figure out what he was going to do with the woman and the dead man.

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Linn Keller 6-20-12


Father, son and bear killin' dawg stopped.
Horses' ears turned, locked on the source; riders shot an approximate bearing from these focused sound detection devices, and the Bear Killer's ears pulled up as the flesh wrinkled tightly between them.
Father and son thought the same thing:
Charlie's voice?
Shout of command ...
Two shots, one light, one heavy ... another ...

Jacob was first to turn his horse, following the streaking black arrow of the Bear Killer's path.
The Sheriff was a tenth of a second slower.
They set their pace with the Bear Killer's, flanking well out on either side.
Jacob's rifle was already in hand; the Sheriff reached down, seized his own, hauled it free, wishing mightily it carried something healthier than a .44-40 pistol round.

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Charlie MacNeil 6-20-12


Two horses, a rangy sorrel and a chunky, sawed-off buckskin, were tied alongside the ugliest pack mule in all Creation on the back side of the alder thicket. Adrenaline will only get a man so far before it runs out, and Charlie was running out of steam rapidly. Just packing the '66 had become a superhuman effort, so he left it leaning against a tree a good thirty yards from the horses, intent on the canteen slung from the horn of the buckskin's saddle. He yanked the cork stopper from the mouth of the container and gulped down half of the tepid contents before coming up for air.

He was reaching for the buckled strap on the saddlebags to try to find some sort of bandaging material, some way to staunch the steady trickle of blood from the torn flesh along his ribs, a trickle that had already soaked his shirt and the waistband of his britches, when he heard the thunder of approaching hooves. He looked around himself through a red haze that was rapidly growing blacker at the edges, darkness spreading like ink poured around the edge of a pot of water, trying to remember where he'd left the '66. The glint of sunlight on the tarnished brass of the rifle's receiver caught his eye. He turned toward it and lifted his three hundred pound right boot to take a step. The red haze turned totally to black as his knees buckled...

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Charlie MacNeil 6-20-12


The agonizing jolt that tore through his ribs shocked Charlie back to full consciousness. He forced himself up and into a clumsy run to the '66. He snatched it up and threw himself into the alders, forcing his way deeper into the thick brush. He felt fragile scabbing tear along his ribs. With his back to a small clump of thicker tree trunks he waited, the '66 at port arms across his chest. The hammer was at full cock...

"That's Charlie's horse!" The words were distorted by distance as the approaching riders found the carcass of the roan gelding. Charlie thought he recognized the voice but still he waited...

A black shape slipped past the edge of Charlie's vision, accompanied by a snuffling sound. Charlie shifted his weight to his left side and started to lift the '66 to his shoulder, but the muscles of his right side wouldn't begin to consider cooperation with such an endeavor. Instead he contented himself with bracing the wrist of the stock on his hip, swiveling the muzzle toward the sound...

Bear Killer's snuffling snout pointed the direction and the big dog's massive chest and shoulders crushed their way through the brush to Charlie's side. With a heartfelt sigh Charlie carefully let the hammer of the Winchester down to half cock. "Damn, am I glad to see you, bub," Charlie whispered hoarsely. Dropping the butt of the rifle to the ground and leaning it against his right leg he reached out with his left hand to ruffle the Killer's ears for a moment then he grasped a handful of coarse black fur. "Now I'd appreciate it if you'd drag my carcass outta this here garden spot then go find your boss and bring him here. I'm pretty much all in."

As if he understood every word, the big dog carefully swung his rump around so that he was facing the exit then began to gently push his way toward the edge of the thicket, hauling the wounded ex-Marshal back to open air. Once out in the open, Charlie dropped the rifle to grab the horn of the buckskin's saddle. He clung there for several minutes, or hours, or eternities, he wasn't sure which, until he heard a dry chuckle behind him.

"Looks like hell, don't he?"

Without turning his head, Charlie answered, "I feel like hell."

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Linn Keller 6-21-12


Jacob seized the dead man's shoulder and frowned.
I scanned for sign.
The Bear Killer flowed into the thicket, whuffing: he was trailing and I figured he was after Charlie.
I didn't find but two or three drops of bright blood, fresh, gleaming ... so fresh there were no flies on them yet, fresh enough they hadn't darkened nor clotted.
I didn't know quite what went on here, just that Jacob's horse was looking into the thicket and mine was too and Jacob said "This one's dead, sir, shot twice." He picked up the dropped Sharps and I heard the click as he brought the hammer back to half cock.
I felt a moment's pride: my Sharps was factory converted from the tobacco cutter and it had that fragile dog leg firing pin: if a man dropped the breech block without half cocking the hammer, the firing pin tended to break.
I had a half dozen extras back in my office drawer and half that number in my saddle bag along with the few tools I'd need to change it in the field, but that's beside the point: Jacob fetched open the breech block and caught the spent round.
He held it up.
I looked around, saw the gouged up hole in the ground where that thumb size buffalo rifle buried its shot.
A hole shot in the ground with a buffalo rifle, blood on the ground and no Charlie.
The mind runs an awful lot faster than the mouth and that's probably a good thing.
A man's mouth runs fast enough to get him in a good deal of trouble fast.
If it run fast enough to keep up with his thoughts, why, the male population would be severely abbreviated, and probably at a very early age.
Charlie come a-staggerin' out of that thicket, holding onto the Bear Killer with one hand, his face the color of putty: his eyes was wide and I don't reckon he saw anything but that sorrel horse.
I always knew the man was contrary and hard headed.
His right side was bloody and he was breathing like a man does when he's hurt and he reached for that-there saddle horn and lifted his foot once and once more.
I come up behind the man, watching him lift that leg ag'in and he just made the toe of his boot into the very edge of the stirrup and I'd ought to be ashamed of myself, I laughed a little and shook my head.
Jacob came striding over, his eyes big.
"Looks like hell, don't he?" I chuckled.
"I feel like hell," Charlie said without turning his head.
I watched that little line of pale hide show as Charlie's tanned hands clamped down on that-there saddle, and I saw his wrist tighten a little as he took a good grip on saddle leather, and I saw him start to fade backwards as the rest of him allowed as it wasn't gonna swing up on no horse's back but his hands was stubborn and allowed as they weren't leaving, and as his weight come back I grabbed him under the arms and run my knee under his butt and I remember the lighter flesh of his forearm showing just a-past the last of his shirt sleeve, right before his weight come on me.
That's a trick I'd used and not a few times: I run my leg deep in under his butt and let his backside come down on my thigh.
I have no desire to wreck my back.
Had I just tried to catch his weight with my hands I have no doubt I could hold him up, but that would put his weight and mine on my back and I am not young like Jacob anymore: as Charlie came back limp in my hands, his weight drove through my lower leg bones and into the earth and I was not holding any more weight than if I was standing upright.
All I had to do was steady the man from going over side ways and that was not difficult.
Jacob pulled the man's vest back and I saw the bright flash of steel as he reached in with a short bladed knife, the one he keeps honed up fit to shave.
I held Charlie still and heard that razor's edge chuckle quietly through shirt material.
Jacob's face was tight as he squatted, bobbed a little, frowning as he assessed the damage: I recall he muttered "Christvs" and had it not been such a difficult moment I might have laughed.
If you're going to swear and call upon Deity at the same time, I thought, why not do it in an obsolete language to make it sound fancy.
Either that, I considered, or he's been discussing deep and theological matters with Brother William again.
All this took maybe three-quarters of a second: thought is a swift runner, and my thoughts tend to make a race horse look slow.
"You reckon we ought to lay him down?" Jacob asked mildly.
"What do you see?"
"He's been shot, sir. Lost blood and there's bone showing."
"Bubbling, sucking, air loss?"
"No, sir."
"Good. We want to keep it that way. He's got trouble enough without losing a lung."
"Yes, sir."
"Those bones a-showin' ... how big?"
"Splinters, sir."
I swore and my language was neither archaic nor an invocation of Deity.
"Jacob, get that kit out of my right hand saddle bag, fetch me back my blanket and track Charlie backwards." I looked over at the foul-smelling carcass, laying open-eyed in the grass, just as the Bear Killer quit sniffing at it and hiked his leg over the corpse. "We have to know what happened."
"Yes, sir."

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Linn Keller 6-22-12


Jacob leaned over in his saddle, reading the ground as easy as an Easterner reads a newspaper.
I saw him heading that-a-way and then dismissed him from my thoughts.
The secret to administration is delegation and I'd delegated that important task to my most trusted subordinate: my full attention was now on Charlie.
I got him laid down on that blanket and proceeded to bare the wound.
He'd been took from the back, at least two ribs wrecked, but it looked an awful lot worse than it really was.
"You'll be sore in the morning," I said softly, "but I don't reckon you're gonna die on us any time soon."
"Thanks," he gasped.
"Don't go nowhere. I need to get a hammer and a cold chisel."
"God loves you too," Charlie gasped. He was getting a little more color in his face and that was good.
I long-legged it to Cannonball, then kissed at her: at the little mouse-squeak noise her ears came up and she followed me like a happy little puppy dog, and stopped when I did: I pulled my bed roll from behind the saddle, slud it under the break of Charlie's knees.
I reached in that-there saddle bag and pulled out a little pair of pliers, then I knelt down beside Charlie again.
There were three bone splinters sticking out looking at me and I knew they had to come out, so I didn't waste no time: I grabbed and pulled, quick and without warning: Charlie flinched and I heard his teeth click together and his gloved hands fisted up.
Three times I grabbed and three times I yanked and on the third bone splinter I fetched out of the man I looked up and where his face had gotten some color back, now it was dead pale and beaded up with sweat.
I pulled off my wild rag and mopped the damp off the man's face.
"I got the splinters out, Charlie," I said.
"Splinters hell," he gasped in a thin voice. "They was rail road timbers!"
"Yeah, with spikes stickin' out of 'em," I agreed.
I sorted through the kit and came up with clean rags: some water from the canteen and a little work and I got the worst of the blood cleaned off.
It hurt me to do it but I had to roll Charlie up a little to make sure I had the entire wound clean, and did: clean rags pressed up ag'in the injury and I laid him back down flat.
"That'll hold you for now," I said in a quiet voice. "You just lay still for a bit."
Charlie's eyelids fluttered and I saw his jaw tighten.
"Ugly," he gasped.
"Yeah, you ain't no prize your own self," I replied, trying hard not to laugh at the man: it was just like him to throw a humorous barb in a difficult moment, at least until I realized something big was starting to shadow us both.
I looked up at the biggest, ugliest mule ever did I see, just as it laid its ears back, bared its big yellow teeth and give out the most God awful HAAAWWW! I ever did hear at close range.
I flinched, squinting at the sound.
The mule reached over and bit the hat off my head, backed up a couple steps, bobbing its head.
I looked down at Charlie and he was trying hard not to laugh.
I reckon he figured if he laughed it would hurt and he was hurtin' enough but it was a struggle for the man.
I pointed a finger at him. "Not a word," I snapped, "not one word now!" -- then I glared at the mule. "What in the cotton pickin' do you think you're doin'?"
The mule dropped the hat, blinked.
I sighed. "Charlie, 'scuse me," I said, and stood.
I had me some salt in with my travelin' rations and I reckoned that-there mule just might like a bait, and I was right.
I dumped out about a table spoon of the stuff -- nearly half what I had with me -- in my palm and held it out.
That-there mule laid its ears plumb back and licked up that salt, polishing the palm of my hand til it was sure it got every last coarse crystal, then it looked at me and raised one ear, stuck its neck out and give the damndest death rattle noise, the kind that means "That was good and I'm gonna adopt you!"
I reached up and rubbed the mule behind its ears.
"You're ugly, you know that?" I murmured.
The mule's expression was one of pure bliss.
"Ugly, why'nt you go stand in the shade yonder?" I said, and Ugly allowed as he was gonna stay close to me.
Charlie had more sense than the rest of us, he laid there and took a nap, or maybe he just plainly passed out, I'm not sure which -- all I know is, he quit bleedin' and he wasn't bubblin' out of that chest wound, so I just sat with him and made sure he stayed breathin'.
Had he quit I don't have the least notion what I would have done, save maybe throwed that dead fella over Ugly's back and packed him off to the nearest mountain witch and had her resurrect his corroded soul back into his carcass, so I could kill him all over ag'in.
Fortunately Charlie kept breathin', so I hunkered for a while and et some and drank out of my canteen, and directly here come Jacob with Miz Fannie and Cats Running.
Fannie's face was ivory pale and pinched and I never seen a woman so white-faced angry in a very long time.
I reckon she wanted to fetch a fence post out of the ground and address whoever done this to Charlie.
Fannie came over, laid a hand on Charlie's forehead.
Charlie opened one eye.
"Hello, darlin'," he whispered, "you wanta go dancin' tonight?"
Fannie's fingers pressed his temples, his throat: she pulled off one of his gloves, pressed his hand between both hers and felt the pulse at the wrist: she felt his belly, pressing carefully, pulled my dressings aside and examined the wound.
She held up a splinter of rib bone I'd pulled out and dropped and looked at me.
"Three of 'em," I said, "stickin' out. I didn't want 'em to push in and punch a lung."
Fannie nodded wordlessly, then she wet a gob of bandage material and began cleaning the wound, actively searching into it.
"What did you pull the splinters with?" Fannie asked, not looking up, and as I opened my mouth to reply, Charlie gasped, "Black smith tongs, it felt like."
I handed her my pliers, handle first.
After looking over the wound carefully and well, she handed them back.
Cats Running squatted on the other side of Charlie.
"I rig two horse sling," he grunted. "Easier on him than travois."
Fannie looked up, nodded wordlessly.
She looked down at Charlie.
"You'll live," she said bluntly.
"Glad to hear it," he croaked.
Fannie looked up at me.
"Give Cats Running a hand."
"Yes, ma'am."

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Charlie MacNeil 6-22-12


"No need of inconveniencin' those fellers, Darlin'," Charlie interrupted. "Just wrap me up and stick me on somebody's horse, and I'll get home just fine." He gave her a white-lipped grin. Fannie answered with a most un-ladylike snort, which Charlie had found was often her answer to things he said, but he had long since ceased to worry about it. It was kind of like a fact of life; his life, anyway.

"If there are bone splinters on the inside..." Fannie began to object.

"Then I'll be dead by the time we get to the ranch, but at least I'll do it settin' astraddle of a horse, not danglin' like a sack of oats between a couple of 'em." His tone brooked nor further argument, and Fannie knew when she could and could not push an issue. She let it drop. For the moment. There were more pressing matters at hand.

"You are just about the most exasperating individual it has been my misfortune to meet!" Fannie declared as she reached into the muslin bag at her side, brought out a roll of linen and began snapping orders. "Linn! Cat Running! Get him up, and get his shirt off, so I can wrap him up." The pair each grasped a hand and dragged Charlie to a sitting position. Cat Running reached to the nape of his neck and brought out a short throwing knife which he used to slit the back of Charlie's shirt from tail to collar. He slipped the sleeves off of Charlie's arms then reached for the collar of Charlie's undershirt. A few seconds later Charlie was naked from the waist up.

Fannie brought out a bottle of the Daine Brothers' finest and handed it to her injured husband. "You take a slug of this, maybe even two, because what's about to happen is most definitely going to hurt you more than it does me!"

"Yes, dear," Charlie replied meekly as he lifted the bottle to his lips. He swallowed twice before coming up for air with a gasp of "Damn, that's good stuff!" then tilting the bottle again. He handed the bottle to his bride. "I'm all yours, Darlin'."

"Raise your right arm as far as you can," Fannie ordered. She soaked a thick pad of cloth with the whiskey and pressed it against the wound. Charlie's breath hissed sharply at the burn of the liquor. "Cat Running, hold that in place." She unrolled a length of linen and handed the end to Linn. "Here, hold this under his shoulder blade." She began to tightly wrap the cloth around Charlie's chest and back, then split and tied off the end of the long strip. "There. That should get him home in one piece, I guess." She got to her feet and dusted the knees of her canvas britches. "We'll put him on the buckskin."

"I think I've got another shirt in my saddlebag," Charlie said. "I'd hate to sunburn my tender hide on the way back to the ranch."

"Speaking of which, where is your horse?" Linn asked.

Charlie pointed with his chin. "A couple hundred yards over yonder. And I've got a prisoner for you, too. The woman that shot me. I belted her with a pistol barrel and tied her up in some rocks this side of where my horse is layin'. Get me on that buckskin, and I'll take you there."

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Linn Keller 6-22-12


I shook my head and Cats Running gave me a solemn look, likely he was agreeing with me.
Charlie was indeed one of the most hard headed and contrary men I'd ever met, least until I looked in the mirror, or so Esther said once ... and I could not blame him ... forked a-straddle of a horse was preferable to ...
Oh, hell, I thought, how'd he put that?
Swingin' like a bag of oats between a couple of 'em.

We got Charlie in the saddle and I looked at that plug ugly mule.
"Come on, Ugly," I said, and Ugly laid his ears back and said HAAAWWWWW and started a-follow.
Charlie allowed as he would lead and I was not inclined to argue with the man, matter of fact I felt better that Miz Fannie rode up beside of him, her bein' experienced at medical matters and all.
Me, I flanked out to one side and Cats Running t'other, and the Bear Killer trottin' along with us just as happy as if he had good sense.
Charlie allowed as he had a prisoner for us.
Jacob must have found her.
I saw him stand up and I could tell just a-lookin' at him he was mad enough to rip that prisoner's head off her shoulders.
He hadn't, nor had he so much as touched her, but once we got closer I could see thunder wrote all over his face.
Hard she was, that woman: Fannie took a look at her head and I would not have been a bit surprised had Fannie not started to knock the dog stuffing right out of her, and I don't reckon I would have stopped her neither.
Now I don't hold with hitting a woman but in this case I was considering an exception.
Charlie gave us to understand she had some hand in his gettin' shot.
That made me unhappy.
Fannie had a good hand full of the woman's hair and twisted it up for a good grip and she looked at me with them blazing eyes, and right glad I was that Fannie was not unhappy with me.
"Put her on that mule," Fannie snapped. "Tie her on. I don't want her gettin' away!"
"Come here, Ugly," I called, and that ugly mule come to me like it was a pet dog.

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Linn Keller 6-23-12


There were three mourners and the preacher.
The box was closed, as was custom: Sarah had to threaten to shoot the screws out of the coffin to get the undertaker to remove the lid so she could take a final look at the dancer.
Levi pulled the top-hatted shyster aside and spoke quietly with him, and the longer Levi spoke, the paler the mortician's face became, until finally he nodded and said something about taking all the time they needed, and he would bring the hearse around, and Sarah paid them no mind: she looked long at the dark, waxy face that used to be young and pretty and so healthy.
Sarah remembered how she and the dancer talked and laughed like two old friends, two lonely souls in the spiritual desert of the city, and how good it felt to have a friend, someone closer to her own age and someone with the same sense of mischief and adventure.
The dancer wore the gown Sarah gave her; the collar was high enough to conceal the terrible wound that took her life.
Sarah reached into her schoolteacher's carpet bag and withdrew a set of castanets, and a silver mantilla: she placed these carefully in the box, laid her gloved hand on the dancer's near hand: her arms were crossed over her bosom, an attitude of prayer.
Bonnie's hand was warm on her daughter's shoulder, and Sarah withdrew her hand from the dead, and ran her arm around her Mama and pulled her close: Bonnie raised her chin and the now-solicitous embalmer came over and carefully, almost delicately placed the lid on the coffin, screwed it back down.
The service was simple and not long, and Sarah did not hear a single word the sky pilot said.
Sarah leaned against Levi, drawing strength from the man, feeling very lost, very ... very helpless.
Someone she'd befriended, someone who trusted her, was dead, and Sarah was examining herself with a merciless frankness, assessing whether she was to blame for her friend's murder.
Finally she concluded the murderer was responsible for the murder.
Levi accepted the damp earth from the parson, and held it out: Sarah took the clay, waited until the muscled laborers lowered the box into the earth, from whence it came: Sarah and the parson both dropped dirt on its lid at the same moment.
They drove back to the hotel in silence.
Sarah sat, rigid, pale, a lost look in her eyes: Levi offered her his hand to dismount and Sarah, surprised, blinked and looked around: they had traveled the distance from the cemetery on the edge of town, back to the hotel, and Sarah had no memory of the trip.
She looked at Levi, standing patiently, a look of fatherly understanding on his face: she gathered her skirt with one hand, took his hand with the other, stepped carefully down onto the mounting-block.
Bonnie and Sarah each took an arm, and Levi, tall and handsome in his good suit, nodded his thanks to the doorman as he walked into the hotel's lobby with a beautiful woman on each arm.
They were seated not many minutes later, there in the hotel's dining room; Levi and Bonnie ordered wine, and Sarah, tea: she could have had wine as well, but hot oolong suited her.
As she stirred honey into the fragrant, steaming chai, Levi said quietly, "You know, Sarah, Marshal MacNeil would be pretty proud of you."
Sarah placed her teaspoon on the saucer, looked over at Levi, her eyes bright behind the round schoolmarm spectacles.
"I know I am."
Sarah closed her eyes for a long moment, then she nodded and reached over to squeeze Levi's hand.
"Thank you," she whispered, and she was barely able to get the words out: "I appreciate that."

Charlie raised his head, listening hard.
He could have sworn he heard a familiar voice ...
"Uncle Charlie, you'd be proud of me!"
I am, darlin', he thought.
I am!


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Linn Keller 6-23-12


The trip back to the ranch was, well, interesting. Charlie's ribs ached abominably, he was stiff and sore, and the tightness of the bandages in the late afternoon heat were akin to torture. In addition, the short-shanked buckskin's normal walking pace was quite choppy due to length of its underpinnings; this was one animal that was built for power and endurance, and some speed over a short run. The gelding was struggling to stay in rank with the longer legged of the caravan, and Charlie felt every jolt. That is, until he nudged it with a heel and let the reins drop on its neck. Then the buckskin came into its own, adopting a rocking chair-smooth running walk that soon outpaced the taller animals while providing its rider with what he found to be one of the easiest rides he'd ever had on a horse. Uphill, downhill, flat ground, no matter; the big-hearted animal's pace was the same through it all.

"This isn't a race, Sugar," Charlie heard Fannie call from behind him.

"Don't tell me, tell this little critter," he replied. "I'm just along for the ride. And a dang easy settin' ride at that. I think I could learn to like it. I may live to make it back to the ranch yet."

Some three hours later the sun was bedding down beyond the western hills and Charlie was regretting his glib comment regarding his chances of survival. Now every movement was painful, not just in his side but in the muscles of his back and neck, muscles that he'd used to compensate for the lack of use of his right side. A splitting headache was lancing through the back of his skull and his eyes had grown over-sensitive to the light. Fortunately they were nearly back to the ranch and home.

When he stepped down from the buckskin's saddle his legs were trembling. "If you gents don't mind, I think maybe I'll go lay down for a bit," he said slowly. "You'd best plan on staying here tonight. It's a long ride to town in the dark, which it's gonna be right shortly."

"Thanks for the invitation, but I think we'd better light a shuck for home," the Sheriff answered. "Our wives will be worried, and I need to lock up the prisoner. I expect you'll be in some time soon to swear out the complaint?"

"I reckon. You boys ride careful, and keep an eye on her. She ain't exactly a shrinking violet."

"Don't worry, we'll make sure she gets to town. As soon as we unsaddle your horses, we'll be gone."

"I'll get 'em, you go on."

Fannie strode up alongside her husband where he stood with his white-knuckled left hand locked to the buckskin's saddle horn. His right hand was tucked into the front of his shirt. "You'll do nothing of the sort, mister!" she ordered. "You going to that bed you mentioned, and these two are going back to town as soon as I round them up some food. Cat Running and I will take care of the horses. Now go!" She pointed an imperious finger toward the house.

"Yes, Ma'am," Charlie answered meekly. "I am indeed henpecked..." his voice faded as he slowly trudged toward the house.

"You men will be the death of me," Fannie said to Linn and Jacob softly, her emerald gaze following her husband on his trek. "Especially that one."

"He does seem to draw trouble like flies to honey, doesn't he?" the Sheriff answered. "'Night, Miz Fannie."

"Goodnight, Linn. Goodnight, Jacob. And thank you."

"No thanks necessary, Ma'am," Jacob replied as the two lawmen reined their horses toward the trail to Firelands.

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Linn Keller 6-24-12


I rode point and led that Ugly mule.
The prisoner was bent over Ugly and secured and not at all happy about it.
Jacob brought up the rear.
Getting her on that mule was not the easiest thing and finally Jacob drove his fist deep into her wind and knocked the fight out of her.
I don't hold with hittin' a woman but in that moment she was not a woman, she was a prisoner, and it's like the wise man said, you have to speak the language they understand.
She didn't understand a thing until Jacob spoke to her in lingua franca.

Sarah and her parents ate with a subdued appetite and little conversation.
At one point Sarah looked at Levi: tilting her head a little like a curious young woman will, she asked "Levi, just what did you tell that mortician?"
"Hm?" Levi chewed his chicken, took a sip of wine, swallowed.
Sarah waited patiently, her eyes big and innocent, until Levi harrumphed and looked guiltily at Bonnie.
"I, um," he said, and cleared his throat again, then he smiled a little.
"Do you remember how reluctant he was to unscrew the lid?" Levi asked.
Sarah nodded, once.
"And do you remember telling him you were going to set the muzzle of your revolver against each screw and blow it out if you had to?"
Sarah nodded.
"I told the man you favored a Colt Dragoon revolver and had one under your dress in a leg holster.
"I told him the conical ball from a Dragoon will drive the length of a horse, and should you set a Dragoon against a screw on that fancy wood coffin, why, not only would it drive the screw out of there, it would put a pistol ball through the floor and into the preparation room below and through whoever was working down there."
Levi took another sip of wine.
"Then I told him I would personally hold his hand over every one of those screw heads before you lined up the shot."
Sarah's cheeks turned a little pink and he big eyes blinked and the corners of her mouth twitched a little.
"You told him that?" she squeaked, pressing her napkin delicately to her lips, more to stifle the smile she couldn't stop.
Levi managed to look innocent, though he did blink several times as Bonnie gave him a long, knowing look.

Polly sat on the front porch swing.
She was hunched over a little, elbows on her knees, fists under her chin; her ankles were crossed, her bottom lip run out, and she regarded the world with a disappointed expression.
Opal, beside her, wore the identical dress, the identical white stockings, the identical patent slippers, the identical big ribbon bow in her hair: she, too, sat with dejection on her features, disappointment on her face, and a pout on her lips.
Each stole a cautious glance to the other, tailoring her expression to be more woebegone than the other; bottom lips were run down to about the belly button, the corners of their mouths pulled down as if by weights: finally they looked directly at each other: Mary, the maid, heard them both laugh, and smiled as she worked, for few things are happier than the sound of children's laughter.
"I miss Sawwah," Polly said.
Opal nodded. "Me too."

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Linn Keller 6-24-12


Jacob wrote out the particulars to be presented to His Honor the Judge.
I wrote out the particulars in the ledger book I kept as our office record.
There was a second book we kept, a record of customers in our little Crossbar Hotel, but I'd written the woman's name in it and locked her up, the ink was dry and I closed the book and put it away.
Jacob's style of report writing was a fine example of the Law of Parsimony: he would never say "piscatorial pastime" if "fishing" would do.
He was as stingy with the written word as Doc Greenlees was with speech.
Jacob was complete, don't get me wrong, but he wasn't ... interesting.
His was a dry recitation of facts, nothing more.
I reckon I am more of a storyteller.
Mine tended to be, honestly, more interesting.
Maybe it's because I figured what I wrote, someone would actually read.
We both finished about the same time.
Jacob looked back along the cell block, looked at me.
I fished out a silver dollar, flipped it in the air.
"Heads," Jacob called, I caught the coin, smacked it on the back of my other hand, held it out for him to see, removed my hand.
"Heads it is," I said.
Jacob grinned, that quick, open grin of his, and he reached for his hat.
He stopped and turned around and actually looked a little guilty.
"I can stay, sir, if you'd ruther head on home," he said quietly.
I smiled, shook my head.
"You've got a pretty wife to kiss," I said, "and a little boy that misses his Pa. Head on home, Jacob. Like as not Annette is a little worried, with you not home yet and it's full dark."
"Yes, sir."
I walked across the room as Jacob opened the door, looked cautiously around, stepped out: he drew the door to behind him and as I unfolded that narrow canvas cot and locked it open, I heard his Appaloosa heading up the street, and smiled as he went past a fast walk and into a canter.
He'll not run Apple-horse, I thought, but he'd like to!

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Linn Keller 6-25-12


The Irish Brigade moved as one man.
Six men, two lines facing one another, arms extended, knees bent, eyes locked on Dolly as she flew screaming through the air, arms extended, legs stiff, eyes wide, terrified ...
The grinning miners on the stage seized the other dancing girl: "You too, sweetie!" they yelled and as the Brigade set Dolly down Sean bellowed "Send us another!" and his Irish tenor cut through the confusion of the barfight like a knife through a sandwich.
The second dancing girl, too, found safe refuge in the grip of a dozen muscled Irish arms: the Brigade pulled back into a circle, shoving tables out of the way with hips and backsides, kicking chairs out of their road: the two dancing girls were in the middle of an out-facing Irish circle, protected by a dozen scarred fists.
"STAND FAST, LADS!" Sean bellowed: "SHILLELAGH LAW!" and the Irish Brigade, to a man, grinned a most unpleasant grin, for it was seldom they got to turn their wolf loose.
Over against the piano, the piano player had some fellow around the neck and belted him a good one with his beer mug, slinging an arc of amber through the air in the process: he dropped one limp body, looked up in time to inherit a fist to the cheek bone: punching with the beer glass, he caught some fellow's fist coming in, breaking two bones in the man's hand, then he seized a shirt front and laid about with the heavy drinking vessel and made very good account of himself.
Mr. Baxter had the bung starter in hand: he wore a worried look and only a mildly stained apron, for when the fight started, drinks were thrown, and one painted a diagonal stripe across his clean front: he snatched up the bung starter but found himself more concerned with intercepting any flying missiles that might endanger the fine, big (and rare!) mirror behind the bar: most barroom mirrors of the age were small, this one was large, and it was not cheap, and Mr. Baxter took pride in keeping it absolutely spotless.
The front door fanned quickly, admitting spectators who retreated just as quickly and letting out those timid souls whose life's goal was not to be in the middle of a good knock down drag out saloon brawl: above the seething sea of fists and ducking heads, an occasional chair swung, only to be dropped as the vulnerable belly of the swinger received two, three or four fists simultaneously: there was a happy bellow and a bugle, some insane trumpeter blowing the Cavalry's "Boots and Saddles" and the room was suddenly more crowded with the arrival of a dozen dusty, hot, tired, sweaty cavalrymen, grinning and suddenly invigorated at the prospect of a good time in town.
The noise was stunning; the floor shivered underfoot, and the piano player, sudddenly protected by a screen of bluecoats, sat down on his stool and began playing a lively Irish air: a mug of beer appeared from somewhere and was set ready to hand, he took a quick slug, not bothering to dash the foam from his tightly-waxed mustache.
"NO IRISH NEED APPLY! ALL HAND ON DECK! HAVE AT 'EM, LADS!" Sean's Irish bellow could be heard plainly: he turned, fist cocked, and a callused hand caught his fist, deflected it to the side: he found himself belt buckle to belt buckle with another big Irishman, and laughed as Sergeant Mick laughed with delight to find himself with his old friend once again.
"MICK, YE HORSE THIEF, HOW IN THE HELL YE BEEN?" Sean rorared, thumping the man on the shoudler and raising a minor dust cloud in the process.
Mick slapped Sean in the ribs, nodding with approval.
Sean grabbed his shoulder, pulled him aside and launched a fist the size of a peck basket: there was the sound of knuckles on meat and then that of a body hitting the floor: the troopers looked past the Irish Brigade at two pretty, frightened dancing girls: they lifted their uniform Stetsons in a quick salute to the ladies, then fell in beside and between the Brigade, and suddenly the defensive circle was twice as strong as it had been.
The two miners who'd abducted Dolly and her dancing partner from the stage, tossing them happily into the mighty masculine malestrom, saw how the Brigade caught them, easily and naturally: drink had its usual effect on their thought processes and so one seized the other and heaved him off the stage after the ladies and then jumped himself.
The Brigade, having safeguarded the ladies, pulled quickly away from the stage; the miners hit the floor face first and stayed there for a while, at least until they realized they were regarded as part of the furniture and so managed to fight their way to their feet, but not until inheriting several assorted boot prints on their exposed backs and backsides, and their hands and legs tromped on by battling boyos and fighting fellows.
By this time the Silver Jewel was so thoroughly packed that the ladies found themselves scrambling atop a table that survived the Brigade's furniture evacuation: they stood, turning, big-eyed, at the sea of pugilism surrounding them: Dolly looked over at the piano player, put two fingers to her lips and whistled: the piano player looked, surprised, and Dolly gave a signal of sorts, and the piano player started a new tune, bouncy, lively, and Dolly elbowed her partner.
It was a moment of humor, if insane: two pretty dancing-girls, performing atop a poker table, surrounded by red-shirted Irish firemen and dusty, sweating, blue-coated US Cavalry, a secure island fortress in an uncertain and stormy sea.
Jackson Cooper and the Sheriff ran toward the Jewel just as one of the big front windows exploded and a body flew out, landed on its back on the boardwalk: he rolled once, hit the ground and lay still: another body followed the first, managed to collide face-first with a porch post and sagged.
Jackson Cooper pointed.
"There's our solution," he shouted. "We arrest 'em as they come out!"

That evening, Firelands District Court held a special session to dispose of the several arrests that came of the barfight: it was an unusual session, as there were men cuffed, chained or tied to porch posts, hitch rails and other immovable objects: Doc Greenlees moved among them, examining injuries, tending cuts, applying sticking-plaster or poultices, while His Honor the Judge moved from man to man, listening to his story, nodding and not believing a word of what he said, before fining each man: as he was accompanied by the most impressive bulk of Jackson Cooper or the cold-eyed Sheriff, there were but few protests about the fines levied.
By the time His Honor was through processing the prisoners, Mr. Baxter was presented with sufficient cash to repair and replace the damage done, including the big front window, two tables, three chairs, miscellaneous mugs and a late night of cleanup.
He turned, looked at the big mirror behind the bar.
"Oh, dear," he groaned, then snatched up the bar rag and quickly polished a splash of beer from the mirror.
Mr. Baxter gave a long, shivering sigh, blowing his breath out: the reflection's red cheeks puffed out, flanking his pursed lips and curled, black mustache.
His prized mirror had otherwise escaped harm.
Outside, by ones and twos, the crowd drifted apart, and away: most with a hand on someone's shoulder, or someone's on theirs; they left a-horseback, or walked to the depot; a very few went upstairs to rooms in the Jewel, a few to Shorty's stable.
Those who bore marks of conflict found their purses judicially lightened, all but the cavalry and the Irish Brigade.
Most of the participants who were so lightened regarded it as the price of admission to one hell of a good night on the town.

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Linn Keller 6-26-12


The Sheriff unlocked the heavy, tightly-fitted door: he'd had Black Smith forge the new hinges for it, and he and the big steelhammer worked on that door for most of a day, shimming up underneath, laying out, fitting, planning, scribing: Black Smith's grin was broad and bright and finally he declared, "Mistuh Shurf, dis be one of de easiest jobs I ebber had! Why, mos' men wan' de do' hung five minnit ago!"
The Sheriff laughed, nodded.
"I've met those fellows," he agreed. "Tried to learn somethin' from 'em. Finally I allowed as they were good examples of bad examples!"
"Dat dey be," Black Smith agreed, nodding. "Dat de be!"
When they were done -- after forging two sets of hinges, because the first set didn't suit the steelhammer at all -- "I wan's ta do me a good job, Shurf," he said. "Dey is lots o' folks gon' look at dem hinges. If dey is right, dey don' give 'em a secont look but if dey isn't right, why, ever'one notices an' dey sez "Who made dem bad hinges?" -- an' I don' git no mo' bizniss!"
The Sheriff nodded.
He'd been known to tear apart something he'd just made and start over and for almost the identical reason.
When they were done, the door opened outward but was hard-braced inside, it fitted tight and was proof against any but a ram and that ram would have to be pretty big to bust either door or casing, which is what the Sheriff wanted.
Now he opened the same door, remembering, and smiled a little.
Black Smith was a wizard and an artist with anvil and hammer and he was a right good hand with most anything else.
Wonder how he's gettin' along, the Sheriff thought, then the prisoner yelled again, "HEY OUT THERE!"

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Linn Keller 6-26-12


Digger went out and retrieved the murderer's carcass.
I needed to take a longer look at it and I would do that here directly but I needed to check on the prisoner.
I walked back along the row of cells to the next to last one on the right.
She was a-rattlin' the door and snarling a little, not like an animal, more like a woman who was mad 'cause she didn't get her way.
"LEMME OUTTA HERE!" she screamed, her face turning red and then redder. "I WANTA SEE MY HUSBAND!"
"You mean that feller in buckskins that missed his Saturday night bath?" I asked mildly.
I raised a hand. "Hold on, now," I said quietly. "I can't hear you, you're shouting too loud."
That confused her and she blinked and closed her mouth: she said "How -- too -- huh?" -- then she realized she'd just been had and she clouded up for another storm session.
"You'll join your husband soon enough," I said. "His Honor the Judge will see you in the morning."
She'd worked herself up into a fine frenzy by this time; when she whirled and took a long step toward the back of her cell, why, I took three long steps back 'cause I knew what was a-comin', and I was right.
She slung the contents of her chamber pot towards me and it sieved through those bars and made quite a mess, there and ag'in the opposite wall.
I sighed.
"I don't reckon you'd consider cleanin' that up," I drawled.
I walked out the front door, closed and locked it behind me.
She hadn't been brought anything since the noon meal and after that fine display of temper she wasn't going to get anything tonight.
Matter of fact I decided not to sleep in there.
It was going to get kind of rank so I figured to leave her to sniff it up and I'd fetch in someone to clean up the mess once we took her off to court.
I didn't even smile as I considered once she went to court she wasn't going far afterwards, at least not on this earth.
It wasn't ten minutes later that His Honor agreed with me: I went to his private car and we had us a quiet talk and Judge Hostetler allowed as from what he'd heard, she was guilty as sin and then some, and he figured hangin' was the right choice.
"I will need to hear from Marshal MacNeil, of course," the Judge said quietly, taking a long pull on his freshly lighted Havana.
"He's in no shape to travel," I replied. "One or t'other of 'em shot him and he's laid up at home. I don't reckon we'd ought to move court out there but you could go see him, say howdy, ask how he's doin' and ask 'im about those good lookin' foals his mares are a-droppin', and somewhere in there you can inquire as to the particulars of his little adventure."
His Honor nodded. "Yes, I can that," he agreed. "First thing in the morning, then?"
I nodded. "Yes, sir. First thing in the morning."

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Linn Keller 6-27-12


From the Denver Nugget:


Sarah sipped her tea and looked up as Levi folded the paper with a snap.
"This, um, article," he said, clearing his throat.
"Yes?" Sarah said innocently, leaning back a little as her plate was spirited in front of her by an immaculately-attired waiter.
"I take it ... this is you?"
Sarah tilted her head a little, looked at the paper.
"I understand newspapers sensationalize their articles to increase circulation," she said quietly. "At one time newspapers took pains to be fair, accurate and factual."
Levi grunted.
He knew all about how newspapers sensationalized what they reported.
Sarah looked back at the day's happenings, took another sip of tea, and remembered ...

Public hangings were just that -- public -- the popular theory was that criminals, seeing the condemned come to a quick stop at the end of a hemp necktie and kicking their last, would give pause to those who contemplated a life of wrongdoing.
Hanging was done in public, demonstrating to lawful and lawless that justice was done, punishment dispensed to the very worst of society: it was spectacle, it was theatre, it was entertainment.
Sarah slipped through the crowd, inconspicuous in her mousy-grey schoolmarm outfit: she spoke a few words to the shotgun guards at the foot of the scaffold and showed them something in a little leather wallet; they looked at one another, looked at a supervisor, then nodded and drew aside to let the diminutive, prim and pretty young woman pass.
Sarah lifted her skirt and flowed smoothly up the thirteen steps.
At her approach the Parson hesitated in his long winded address: it was traditional to present to the assembled, and the Parson took advantage of his bully pulpit to deliver a stern and fearsome message of the wages of sin.
At the young woman's ascent he stopped, regarded the newcomer, then withdrew and spoke with the executioner.
Sarah stepped up to the executioner and presented her little leather wallet and spoke quietly: the executioner smiled a little and said "Parson, wrap it up. I give you thirty seconds."
The Parson wasn't too happy about being cut off but he managed a faltering conclusion, then withdrew to the condemned: he laid a hand on the man's shoulder and bowed his head, murmuring as the black hood was snapped briskly over the condemned.
Sarah turned, picked up a stool and set it in front of the man.
The three-legged milking stool was loud and hollow-sounding as she thumped it briskly in place in front of the trap door.
The noose was just being slipped over his head as well when Sarah stepped up on the milk stool and snatched the hood off the man.
She backhanded him, hard, the sound of her slap carrying to the crowd below and to either side.
She slapped him again, with her palm this time, then she seized the man by the windpipe, shoved her face in his and hissed, "I want to be the very last thing you see on this earth!"
He opened his mouth to say something and Sarah's fingers closed hard, threatening to crush his trachea.
"You murdered a dancer," Sarah said, her voice low and threatening, her eyes icy and hard behind her window-glass spectacles. "You murdered someone who brought beauty and joy into the world.
"You were supposed to kill me," she said, pitching her voice so only he could hear.
She took the hood in both hands, snapped it viciously over his head: the noose was already in place: she stepped off the stool, kicked it aside, stepped to the side of the platform and shouted, "WHEN YOU GET TO HELL, TELL MY FATHER I SAID HELLO!"
The crowd was shocked, silent: the pretty young schoolmarm held the railing with one hand, drew up her leg and kicked the release lever, hard.
The trap banged open, the body dropped, there was a sickening crunch-sound of neck bones separating: the body jerked, then went limp.
Sarah walked up to the executioner, patted him on the chest.
"In the name of the Firelands District Court," she said, "I thank you for your cooperation," then she picked up her skirts and flowed down the stairs.
Shotgun guards and crowd alike drew back from her: a clear path opened up, three men wide, allowing this manifestation of Death itself to depart, untroubled.

Sarah looked at the paper and then up at Levi.
"It's an interesting article, isn't it?" she said. "But they got the flowing locks of raven hair wrong, and there was no sunbonnet with a blood-red flower over the ear, and there was no double row of ruffles gleaming on the bodice."
Sarah picked up her fork, tested the meat for tenderness and found it to her liking.
"Other than that, the article was almost accurate."

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Linn Keller 6-28-12


It was an unusual meeting.
Crime and politics are often unwilling bedfellows; politics will at times require unusual alliances, and for the moment, there was an alliance with the police chief, the mayor and the three major crime bosses.
They faced the composed, quiet young woman in the mousy-grey schoolmarm dress.

The new boss met with his lieutenants, and his words conveyed his feelings:
"I don't want anyone to cross Schoolteacher. Understand me? She's bad medicine, that one! I don't want anyone to catch her eye, I don't want anyone to trouble her, I want her left strictly alone!"
To a man, the conservatively-dressed lieutenants nodded their understanding.
Unfortunately, in such an organization, there are those who wish to make a name for themselves; drink, vanity, perhaps goading by a manipulative colleague -- who knows the cause? -- but an unnamed foot-soldier of the shadowy league decided to avenge himself on this Mistress of Doom: the more he thought about it, the more reasons -- or excuses -- he thought of to justify his action.
She'd shamed one of their own on the gallows, in public.
She'd been the one who took down the old Boss (who nobody like but that wasn't the point -- and disregarding entirely the new boss thought well of the foot-soldier.)
A plan was laid, materials assembled; the Schoolteacher was as good as in the ground, he thought, and disguised as a tradesman, drove the stolen dray toward the multi-story building where he knew she attended class.

Sarah paid little attention to the dray coming down the street; the driver was slouched, his broke-brim hat at a careless angle; he smoked a pipe and seemed intent on studying the nearest rum-palace than on his progress: they plug pulling the wagon traveled with a similar scintillating energy, barely able to raise one hoof before the other.
Sarah took a careful look around before going into the building.
She'd nodded to the pair that watched from an alley-way, knowing they were watched, in turn, by her street Arabs: she knew they reported to the old Boss, and today she would learn to whom they reported, now that the old Boss was turning slowly into fertilizer.
She lifted her skirts and smiled as her classmates greeted her, and together they ascended the stairs toward the Professor's lessons for the day.

They were an hour into the intricacies of human facial anatomy and how to use its individual characteristics to particularly identify a subject, when Sarah caught the first whiff of smoke.

The janitor lay in a pool of blood on the basement floor, a bloodied wrench beside him: hair and meat clung to its sharp jaws, and the unnamed foot-soldier splashed coal oil over straw and wood and paraffin-soaked canvas.
He'd fired buildlings before and this one would be just as easy as the others.
A brick shell, with wooden interior, naturally dessicated in the high altitude, it would burn with a fierceness that guaranteed it would be turned into a smoldering shell in a fairly short time: he knew the layout of the building, and made sure to set the fire under the stairs, there in the bottom floor, knowing it was the building's only exit.
His mark, his target, his intended victim, was upstairs, as were other folk: he did not care about the collateral damage: he was like the European anarchists, quite content to blow up a building full of people to get the one individual they wished to kill.
A Lucifer match, touched to three places, and the conflagration was guaranteed: he waited to ensure the fire was hungry and growing, then he looked up, surprised, at a pair of ice-blue eyes and a mousy-grey schoolteacher's dress.

Sarah saw the man startle, draw a knife from under his coat: her response was to step back with a handful of .44 Bulldog from the holster hidden in her dress: she fired, once, and the man fell back into his own conflagration.
Sarah looked quickly about, not bothering to reload, for she recognized the fire was a greater threat than not replacing one fired round: there was nothing, nothing with which to fight the flame -- it was an era before fire extinguishers or hose-stations, a time before pull-alarms or smoke detectors.
Sarah already knew the janitor was dead; she snatched her skirts and ran from the basement room, pounding up the stairs to the first floor: those doors that lead to businesses she threw wide, screaming "FIRE! FIRE, FOR GOD'S SAKE GET OUT! FIRE!!" -- before going on to the next: those doors that were locked, she pounded on, screaming "FIRE! FIRE, GET OUT, FIRE!" before running to the next.
Sarah sprinted up the stairs to the second floor; curious heads stuck out doors and Sarah screamed "FIRE! EVERYONE OUT! FIRE IN THE BASEMENT! GET OUT, GET OUT, FIRE!!!" -- the word spread within each office and humanity poured out, running for the exits, for the stairs: smoke was rising, adding its flavor to the general panic.
Sarah threw open the door of the classroom.
Half the class was on their feet, having heard her screaming downstairs but not being able to discern her words.
"THE HOUSE IS AFIRE, EVERYONE OUT! ON YOUR FEET, NOW! GET OUT!" Sarah screamed, her face pale, her lips very red: the rest of the class thrust to their feet and Sarah sidestepped, getting the wall to her back, allowing her classmates free access to the doorway.
Professor Hunt regarded her calmly, watching bluish smoke roll into the room above her head.
"Well, Miss Agent Rosenthal," the Professor said. "Once again you have saved the day."
"The hell with the day!" Sarah spat. "Professor, this building is a chimney, we need to get out, NOW!"
Sarah withdrew and continued down the hall, pounding on doors, screaming her warning, coughing now: the atmosphere was getting thick and definitely warmer, and the diminutive schoolteacher with window-glass lenses successfully shepherded another two offices' worth of people down the hall and down the stairs.
Professor Hunt calmly collected books, notes, materials he would need to conduct his Academy elsewhere: he walked with an unhurried pace to the door, then down the hall, and began descending the stairs.
There were screams from below; flame, accelerated by the chimney effect, sent its early plasma fingers glowing up beside the Professor's arm.
The Professor stopped and considered this new development and realized heat was coming through the soles of his shoes.
Another scream from below: "God help me! The stair is falling!" -- a crash, a roar, a gout of flame and heat, and the Professor dropped books, papers and all he'd brought, and sprinted upstairs, meeting Sarah coming down the hall.
Sarah seized him by his forearms. "Professor, we have to get out --" she blurted.
"The stairs are gone," the Professor coughed.
"With me!" Sarah shouted, her eyes watering: she half-pulled, half-dragged the Professor back into the classroom, slammed the door behind them.
Sarah pulled him to the back of the room, seized the window, threw it open: she leaned out, looked down.
"It's three stories down," the Professor exclaimed. "We will die in the fall!"
"Like hell!" Sarah snarled, leaning out: she reached to one side, swore, leaned a little farther and snagged the dangling line.
"Watch this!"
Sarah pulled, hard.
One floor above, a wooden box, cleverly installed in a half-open window, flew open at her tug: a ladder unrolled, falling past the window with a woody rattle.
"Professor," Sarah turned, triumph in her voice, "can you climb a ladder?"
The Professor turned and surveyed his classroom.
Smoke was beginning to seep from between floor boards, and was starting to trickle from unseen flaws in the wall.
"Today I can climb a greased pole!" he declared, and reached for the ladder.

Horses a-gallop, a swinging blacksnake whip, shouts, a gleaming brass bell: Denver's fire brigade came out of its station at a gallop, alerted by a telegraph pull-box on a street corner: two more pull-boxes and a second alarm was dispatched.
Two teams of firefighters converged on the brick building, one in front, one behind.

The Professor was six feet from the pavement when the ladder, its rope bent sharply over the window ledge, broke: he fell into two firemen, who fell back with him: the three hit the ground with a grunt, and the Professor raised his arm to keep the falling ladder's crosspieces from beating him in the face.

Sarah leaned out the window, sucking in precious, clean air.
He made it! she thought.
I got them out.
I did my job!
Sarah drew back, kicked the hidden panel: she pulled out the metal crossbar, the black silk rope: the bar she set in the window, threw the black silk rope out, then spun the ladder belt around her slender waist.
Sarah pulled a loop of slack in the line, made one turn around the belt's hook and stepped out.
She leaned back against the line, took a few steps down the building.
Smoke rolled from the window she'd just vacated; smoke was coming from the roofline now, and she knew she had to get the hell out of Dodge, and fast.
Sarah grinned.
This is gonna be fun, she thought, and kicked away from the brick wall.

"There!" A voice raised, an arm pointed, then a half-dozen: a woman screamed, voices were raised in prayer, and Sarah rappelled down the side of the building, taking giant strides downward, easily as a mountaineer down a cliff face: there were shouts from below and Sarah kicked again, lifting the trailing line and listening to the silk sing as it spun around the curved, polished steel loop.
There was a snap and Sarah felt the shock of the line breaking: she was but halfway down the building, she knew, and in less than a second she would land flat on her back on the brick below and die.
She saw the black silk pull back in a long row of S-turns and she saw the incredibly blue sky above and she saw a bird, a single bird in flight, and in that last moment, that final moment before life was dashed from her living shell she remembered riding her big Frisian, her beloved Snowflake, shooting out from under her neck, knocking tin cans off a fence rail --

Red-shirted firemen snapped the round canvas life-net open, running for the building: they thrust themselves under the dangling black rope just as it snapped and the woman began to fall.

Sarah faced the Mayor, the Police Chief, the several crime bosses: the Fire Chief joined them, and the Mayor spoke for them all.

Sarah sat in the private car, on her way back to Firelands.
She smiled a little as she reviewed their speech, and her acceptance:
It seems that excitement followed her, and although she saved lives and helped dispose of an unwanted czar of the criminal world, would she consider, perhaps, taking her aura of adventure elsewhere?

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Linn Keller 6-29-12


"Raise your chin."
Miz Fannie's fingers were cool, quick, professional as she explored the glands under my jaw.
She frowned a little, laid the back of her hand against my cheek, my forehead, then took the tips of her fingers bunched up together and thumped me over each eyebrow, over each cheek bone.
"You're dark under the eyes," she murmured. "How's your head ache?"
"Comes and goes," I admitted.
"Sit," she said in the tone a woman uses when she expects instant and unquestioning obedience.
The wise man knows when to say "Yes ma'am," and sometimes it's said with deed instead of word; I folded up my long legs and set my backside on a woven withie chair.
Miz Fannie gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze and swung into the next room.
Charlie's place was not big by any means but it was tidy and it was efficient: it had not the painful neatness of a naval vessel -- WJ's quarters did, but he'd been career Navy -- I closed my eyes against the slow pounding just under my scalp and thought of that dignified old man and his lovely, patient wife.
A man's mind will wander some at times and I found myself considering that I know a hell of a lot of dead people.
The smell of good hot coffee spiked with authority reached up and seized me by the snoot and I opened my eyes.
Miz Fannie's bright and expressive eyes were amused: "Wanderin'?" she asked, her voice low and musical, and I nodded, taking the coffee with a quiet word of thanks.
Miz Fannie tilted her head, amused: "Sheriff, you've got a pretty good poker face, but times like this it's a window."
"Yes, ma'am," I mumbled, taking a noisy slurp.
There was a good percentage of Two Hit John in the Arbuckles and that suited me just fine.
Was that damned head ache to get much worse I'd have to tie my wild rag around my gourd to keep it from splitting in two and falling to my shoulders like a cloven must melon.
Judge Hostetler was talking quietly with Charlie, getting his deposition on what happened: the dignified jurist had a pretty good idea of what transpired, but the Judge is a careful man and he wanted to be sure his notion of the pa'tickelars was correct before he sentenced the condemned to a good neck stretchin'.
Charlie looked tired.
Hell, I probably looked worse when I was shot that time or three, but I never spent no amount of time lookin' in the mirror to find out.
Jacob and a couple lads from town came out every day to tend Charlie's stock and take a count of his herd, which was interestin', because Charlie's horses trusted Charlie and one another and that was about it.
Them boys from town did yeoman's work with fence mendin' and post hole diggin' and throwin' out hay and muckin' out the barn but Jacob was the only one that could come close to gettin' a head count on the herd.
His stallion was interested in the ladies, of course, but the ladies were not interested in the stallion: Jacob let Apple-horse drift up to a couple of them, but nips and kicks and irritated, ears-laid-back squeals convinced the romantic horse that romance would have to wait.
The way Jacob told it, I had to laugh, for he described poor old Apple-horse's face as about three foot longer than it usually was, and he said he looked terribly dejected, least until he fed him some cube sugar and tobacker.
I allowed straight faced as Apple ought to go into politics, as easy and as well as he bribed, and Jacob laughed, and sittin' there in Charlie and Fannie's hacienda, holding that fragrant mug of spiked Arbuckle's, I chuckled at the memory.
I took another noisy slurp of reinforced Arbuckles and Charlie looked over and give me a knowing grin.
"You laughin' at an old man?" he called, and I could see the Judge's head turn a little as he listened for the reply, and I called back, "Yeah, the one I saw in the mirror this mornin'!" and we both laughed.
His Honor shook Charlie's hand and thanked him for his kindness and I finished that mug of headache remedy and I thanked Miz Fannie for her hospitality.
She give me a cloth wrapped cigar box and said to give it to Esther and I allowed as I would, and I got up and went over to Charlie.
Charlie rose and I could see his side didn't take kindly to the idea but Charlie is a hard headed man and he didn't much care what his side said.
He stuck out his hand and said "I laid awake all night tryin' to think of a big lie to tell ye," he grinned, then added, "Thank Jacob for me. I was worried a cat might take a taste for horse meat and start pickin' a few squabs from the herd."
I nodded and laid a hand on his shoulder.
To an onlooker it probably looked like the friendly gesture of an old acquaintance but in that moment the floor wobbled just a little under foot and I needed to catch my balance kind of quick.
It didn't put no strain on Charlie and it kept me from taking a clumsy side step and Charlie's hand tightened on mine.
I saw his eyes change and I knew he figured I just had a moment's difficulty.
"I hear Levi and Bonnie are due back today," I said. "I'll be interested to hear how Sarah is doing."
"You're behind the times, old hoss," Charlie grinned. "They came a-rollin' in yesterday."
"Oh now horse feathers!" I declared. "How'd you find out an' me not?"
Charlie shrugged, more on one side than the other. "You know me," he said casually. "I find things out."
I nodded.
"I believe that concludes our business," Judge Hostetler said formally, hand-kissing Miz Fannie with a dignified half-bow: "I thank you, dear lady, for your generous hospitality, but we must be on our way."
Fannie turned to me and took both my hands in hers. "Sheriff," she said, her eyes at once merry and yet concerned, "you tell that wife of yours to take better care of you!"
"I will do no such thing," I said with a straight face, "for she might take offense and fetch up with a fryin' pan and address me briskly about the head and shoulders!"

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Charlie MacNeil 6-29-12


"Jacob says he thinks there's only one mare left to foal," Charlie commented over coffee after their company had hit the trail for town. "It's that young red mare with all the spots. I've been worried about that one." He pushed back from the table and shoved himself upright one-handed. "Maybe I'd best go check on her."

"You'll do nothing of the sort!" his bride answered indignantly, stepping between him and the door. He tilted her chin up with his left hand and kissed her, but his expression was determined.

"I'm goin' out, Darlin', and you can come with me or not. Your choice. But I'm gonna check on that mare. She should be in the feed pasture about now." He stepped around her and reached for his hat. "Comin'?"

"I suppose." The couple left the house and walked slowly toward the barn and the pasture beyond. They stopped at the fence, Charlie leaning his left elbow on the top of a post.

"Sheriff didn't look too shiny today," Charlie said after a moment.

"No, he didn't," Fannie agreed. "I'm worried about him. That constant headache he talks about could be a sign of something really wrong."

"I hope not. If something happened to that old reprobate I'm not sure what I'd do."

"You two only see each other about once every three months or so."


"So why would you miss him so much?"

"He's family." Charlie turned away to survey the pasture. A flash of red-spotted white in the shelterbelt along the left edge of the pasture caught his eye. "There she is," he said, meaning the young mare. "And Jacob's right, she hasn't foaled yet. We might want to bring her in and keep her a little closer to the house. I'll go get a halter and some grain."

"You stay planted," Fannie ordered. "I'll get her caught and brought in. You stay here and supervise." She turned and started toward the barn.

"Like tryin' to supervise anybody around here would do me any good," Charlie muttered softly.

"What was that?"

"Nothin', Darlin', nothin'. You go on and get the grain while I hold this here fence post down. Just make sure you bring extra, 'cause all of those girls are gonna want a taste."

Fannie returned with a bucket half full of feathery rounds of rolled oats in one hand and a rope halter in the other. She stepped through the four-barred pole gate and swung it shut then looked at her husband. He sucked in the deepest breath his ribs would allow then shrilled a high, three-note whistle that echoed through the hollow. In short order Fannie was surrounded by the sleek bodies of the broodmare band and their capering babies.

The young mare was low on the pecking order totem pole and consequently was one of the last to come to the grain, but eventually got her muzzle into the bucket for a bite of the sweet treat. Fannie looped the halter's lead rope over the mare's neck, set the bucket on the ground between her boots to keep it from spilling, and quickly tied the halter behind the mare's ears. She distributed the remainder of the grain among the rest of the mares then turned toward the gate and led the red and white mare out of the pasture.

"Hold up a minute, Darlin'," Charlie called. "I want to look her over." He ran his left hand along the red mare's side from foreleg to flank then down under her belly. "I think something's wrong, but I ain't sure what, or how bad. Maybe it's nothing, but I think it's a good thing we're getting her closer to the house. I like this one, and I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of foals she has. Let's take her on." A few minutes later the young mare was comfortably settled in a pen next to the barn with hay and a full trough of sweet water to hand.

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Linn Keller 6-29-12


Jacob looked at the still-damp wall; chloride of lime and a good scrubbing and the smell was pretty well gone from where the prisoner slung her chamber pot's contents at his Pa.
He looked at the woman, his eyes quiet ... quiet, but pale.
"You ain't been fed because you slung your night jar through the bars."
"Tell you what," Jacob said quietly. "I will get you a meal if you promise not to sling that-there combinet no more. One more time and I don't care if you never eat another bite."
"AWRIGHT!" she snapped, and Jacob nodded, once, and turned away.
He knew he was in range; he never let on when he heard the subtle squeak of the bail on that-there white enamel chamber pot ... he took a slow step away, another, as if he had all the unhurried time in the world.
He heard the sound of the chamber pot being set back down, the lid settling in place.
She changed her mind, he thought. Good.
I reckon she'd ought to go to court on a full belly tomorrow.
Might make her a little less aggravating.

"YOU GOTTA LET ME SEE MY HUSBAND!" the screeching voice followed him into the Sheriff's office proper. "IT AIN'T RIGHT! HE'S MY HUSBAND! A WOMAN'S GOT NEEDS!"
"Oh good Lord," Jacob whispered, looking at the cot unfolded and ready for occupancy.
Pa didn't stay with that prisoner here, he thought.
I ain't a-gonna stay here neither!

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Linn Keller 6-30-12


This just ain't a-gonna work.
Cannonball's gait wasn't near as pillowfoot as Rey del Sol had been ... and right now I was mightily a-wish that she was.
I gritted my teeth and straightened my back and tightened my knees and Cannonball eased into a quick canter and that did not help one bit.
I nudged her ahead into a gallop and that was worse.
I leaned back in the saddle and she slowed down, shaking her head, and Jacob come up beside me.
I couldn't even look sideways towards him.
"Sir?" he said, and I forced myself to turn my head and look at him.
I'm surprised my head didn't fall off my shoulders and hit the ground.
Likely it would've hurt less.
Jacob's voice came from a long way off.
I will NOT get sick I will NOT get sick I will NOT get sick --
A cool cloth wiping my forehead, my neck, a pair of emerald eyes: the world wobbled underneath me and a smaller set of eyes come at me from t'other side and Angela's solemn face surrounded them all of a sudden and I heard her say "I wanna curly his muts-tash."
I felt Esther's hand hesitate as she wiped my face again and I saw the gleam of a smile in her eyes before she looked at me again and concern was the only thing in them.
I swallowed.
"Jacob?" I asked.
"He brought you home, dear," Esther said.
"Wild poker game," I said tiredly. "Drank and chased women all night."
"That's nice, dear," Esther said with a sad trace of a smile.
"Caroused and drank and cheated two men out of their eye teeth."
"You are a poor liar, Mr. Keller," Esther said quietly, tilting her head a little.
I closed one eye in a vain attempt to keep the room from turning slowly, like it was sitting on a great carousel, and it was working until Angela shoved into view and shook her little Mommy-finger at me and said "Yeah, Daddy! You're a poor liar!"
I grinned and I laughed a little and immediately regretted the move: I laid my hand over top my head so it would not bust open and that hurt worse.
"Try to relax, dear," Esther said in the soothing tones of a mother tending a sickroom child, and I let go of my aching gourd and found her hand.
"You are the most precious thing I know," I whispered, and Esther retreated down a long tunnel and her voice come from a long way off.
"As are you, dearest."

Dr. Greenlees frowned, looked up at Dr. Flint.
The two physicians stood, withdrew to the window to confer.
"I don't believe I can be of any real help in this case."
"I know who can."
"Where is his practice?"
"Chicago. I'll sent a wire."
"Do that. Isn't he in practice with ... oh, the doctor from Wadsworth ..."
"Van Schoor?"
"The same."
"Yes. If anyone can help, he's the man."

Angela hugged the Bear Killer.
She'd put a big red ribbon around his neck, which he promptly pawed off and chewed on, puppy-like; he'd rolled over on his back, batting at the soggy play-pretty, then chased it around the floor with his nose: now he was sitting on the front porch, the ribbon dangling like a limp prize from his jaws, and Angela sitting on the edge of the porch, stockinged legs crossed at the ankles, swinging her legs the way little girls will.
"Bear Killer, Daddy doesn't feel good," Angela said. "Doctors talk funny, y'know."
Bear Killer snuffed loudly at her ear and gave her a companionable lick.
Angela giggled and patted the softer fur covering the Bear Killer's chest plate.
"Maybe I was a bad girl and Daddy got sick 'cause I played too loud."
The Bear Killer groaned and dropped his massive, square head in her lap, gave a big puffy sigh and blinked happily as Angela stroked his head and neck.
"I yuvs you, Bear Killer," Angela murmured sadly, and the Bear Killer's ears pulled up a little, he surged to his feet and he began washing her face with happy enthusiasm, his great tail describing big swishing arcs in the still air: Angela giggled happily, and the Bear Killer, though not entirely conversant in the language of the two-leg tribe, recognized that one phrase, and responded in kind.

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Linn Keller 7-2-12


Hall crossed his hands over his saddle horn and looked at the little town in the distance.
"Now there," he sighed, "is a fine sight.
"Yep," Drake agreed.
"Just think, Drake."
Hall's horse dropped its head, snuffing at the grass, began cropping noisily.
"A bed with sheets."
"No need to string a rope around the bunk to keep out rattle snakes."
"You," Drake said slowly, "would not know a rattle snake if it bit you!"
Hall glared at his saddle partner.
Drake paid no mind to the glare.
"I will have you know," Hall said icily, "the last three rattle snakes that bit me were named Tom, Dick and Harriet, and I knew their parents, their in-laws and most of their second cousins as well."
"You are full of secont hand soup beans," Drake replied mildly.
"Just think, Drake," Hall continued, paying no attention to his dear chum's calumny, "coffee that doesn't taste like burnt buffalo chips!"
"You never smelled buffalo chips in your life!"
Hall sighed, shaking his head. "Drake, old chap, how little you know! Why --"
Hall looked over at Drake's knowing glare and laughed.
"I'm hungry," he said after a moment. "Let's go eat."

Firelands was quiet that fine morning.
The Silver Jewel, of course, was not.
The piano player was happily thumping a mean tune on the ivory 88, two of the dancing girls were high-kicking the first can-can of the day, dice rattled and rolled on green felt, cards snapped and purred as they were shuffled and dealt; here and there a shout of triumph, a groan of defeat, and Mr. Baxter polished his bar and smiled at the good breakfast smells from Daisy's kitchen.

Dr. Flint's telegram was replied in near record time: the big Navajo was completely dressed, his hair slicked down, tie knotted, coat brushed and buttoned -- as if the man were perpetually ready to meet company, and never slept -- he thanked the boy for the telegram, gave him a coin, and walked quietly back into the surgery.
Morning Star watched silently from the corner, where she had visual command of the entire room, where she could access instruments, bandages, pans, sheets, all in a moment: her knowledge of herbs and healing was encyclopedic, yet she embraced the white man's medicine, for she'd seen her husband heal wounds the shaman never could.
Dr. Flint's expression was calm and unreadable as he read the telegram, read it again.
Morning Star crossed the room, silent in the moccasins she preferred -- though she wore white womens' attire while working with her husband, she disdained the clumsy, noisy white women's shoes -- and accepted the telegram he handed her.
"Give this to Dr. Greenlees when he arrives," Dr. Flint almost whispered -- whispered, for unlike his Navajo ancestors, he was a big man, fully six feet and two fingers -- and like most big men, he moved with a gentleness, a gracefulness, and spoke in a soft voice.
Morning Star followed him with her eyes as he left the surgery.
Four minutes later she heard the physician's surrey depart for the Keller household.

Jacob unlocked the door to the Sheriff's office.
Today was court; today he would escort the prisoner to be judged, and then hanged: of this there was no doubt: Jacob didn't believe she knew her fellow murderer was dead, and frankly he didn't care much: she tried to kill family, and for this she would pay the ultimate penalty.

Esther looked up as Dr. Flint drove up to the house.
The carriage was loaded and ready to go; Esther folded her hands and smiled a little, thinking how considerate it was for Dr. Flint to come and see her husband safely aboard the carriage, for the planned trip to Chicago.
Dr. Flint dismounted with an easy grace; their hired man took the carriage, led the horse and buggy around toward the barn: Dr. Flint knew the horse would be watered, grained, its hooves examined, it would be brushed down and fussed over, if there was time: he did not anticipate his visit would be long.

"I read in the last book --"
"Attair dime novel," Drake interrupted.
"Er, yes. It said that cowboys play poker with a .41 Thunderer in their waist band, and the loading gate open to prevent its sliding down their trouser leg when they stand."
Drake gave his saddle partner a skeptical look.
"I think that may not have been fact."
"Ya think?"
Hall raised a pontificating finger.
"Imagine drawing such a pistol in time of need."
Drake grunted.
"With the loading gate open, might it not allow a cartridge to slide out a little, and when attempting to cock the pistol, the protrusion of cartridge brass would prevent its function."
Drake nodded.
"I believe the author may have been ... prevaricating for the purpose of literary license."
"He's full of secont hand bull feed."
Hall chuckled.
"I believe that's what I just said."

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Linn Keller 7-2-12


The maid drew back a little as the Bear Killer eased through the back door.
She heard him scratch, heard him whine; she knew he wanted biscuits and gravy.
She'd made enough, anticipating both the Sheriff's appetite, and that of the rest of the family: though Angela ate with good appetite, Esther's was diminished, and the Sheriff, not at all, and so the maid didn't hesitate to let the monstrous canine into the kitchen and offer him a plate of his favorite delicacy.
He looked up at her and gave a happy little half-whine, half-groan, while his tail swung in broad arcs, anticipating the pleasure of the repast.
The Bear Killer, as a matter of fact, consumed the entire plate full, placed a paw on the porcelain to prevent its departure, and methodically washed the glazed surface spotless.
He looked up at the maid and whuffed quietly when Esther descended the stairs with Angela: she was supervising the loading of their carriage, and Angela was very carefully staying out of the way.
The Bear Killer's scalp tightened, wrinkling between his ears, and he began to whine, then gave a funny kind of a yow-wow-wow, and Angela turned around, surprised, and looked at the big, black furred guardian.
The Bear Killer launched for the front door, baying, yammering, clawing at the wood, leaping halfway up the frosted design on the window glass.
Dr. Flint and Esther turned, surprised, at the sudden commotion: they looked at one another, concerned, and both thought the same thing: the Bear Killer regarded the Navajo physician as a mortal enemy, and intended to have him for breakfast.
The Sheriff had just thrust into his boots, there in his upstairs bedroom: he stood, snatched his hat from the hook, grabbed the double gun and took two long strides to the bedroom door.
He ran face first into the door frame.
He held onto the twelve-bore, but his hat was casualty to the collision: he ignored it, savagely twisting the glass door knob and yanking the portal wide: "BEAR KILLER!" he bellowed. "TO ME! BEAR KILLER, TO ME!"
The Bear Killer turned, twisting to get around Angela: he galloped up the stairs, growling, then jumped, springing on hind legs beside the Sheriff, leaping as high as the man was tall, all while yammering an urgent OWWA OWWA OWWA OWWA and then flowing downstairs like water down a falls: he continued his full-voiced summons, jumping again at the door.
The Sheriff shook his head, started for the stairs: though he held the hand rail with his left hand, he didn't get but three steps down when they twisted out from underfoot and he fell, jerking his shoulder: he landed on his back side and slid clumsily down the steps, teeth bared against the pain: he spread his legs, caught his boot heels on the carpet to brake his descent, yawed to the left and fell the last three steps on his left arm and shoulder.
The Bear Killer came over, snuffing loudly at him and whining: he licked the Sheriff's face, growling, while Angela jumped up on her tip toes, bouncing and clapping her hands with delight: "That was fun, Daddy! Do it again, pleeease!"
The Sheriff lay still for a long moment.

Dr. Flint seized the doorknob and prepared to receive the big dog's charge.
He looked at the Sheriff sprawled on the floor, his nose bleeding, the Bear Killer washing his face with an urgency that only a big Dawg can manage: as soon as he saw the door was open, the Bear Killer bayed, charged past Dr. Flint, shot across the porch, leaped the stairs, jumped over the waiting carriage and streaked across the yard and down the gravel drive at the top of his lungs.
Dr. Flint squatted beside the Sheriff.
The man's knuckles were white where they gripped the double twelve-bore.
"Good morning," Dr. Flint said mildly.

The Lady Esther coasted into station.
Sarah's parents had left the day before; she herself stayed behind, settling what few affairs remained, and leaving their maid to supervise the loading of the rest of their belongings. The maid and the balance of their traveling goods would arrive on the next train.
Sarah stood, a dignified young lady in a fine McKenna gown and matching hat: she looked out the windows, saw her parents waiting on the platform, and the twins, and she knew the carriage would be at the end of the platform, waiting.
Sarah opened the door to the private car and something huge, black and fast drove into her, shoving her down and washing her face with a desperate affection.
Sarah squinted her eyes, twisted a little and could not help but laugh as she reached up and patted the Bear Killer's ribs.
It was good to get home.

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Linn Keller 7-3-12


The Sheriff handed the double gun to Esther and Dr. Flint steadied the man on his feet, looking closely at his face.
"Hold still now," he murmured.
The Sheriff never flinched as the physician manipulated his damaged and smarting nose, inspiring a fresh flow of blood: Esther offered a dainty, lacy kerchief, which the good physician put to work stanching the crimson flow.
"Your nose is not broken," he murmured, "but I believe you will have a blue eye.'
"You should see the other guy," the Sheriff rasped, grasping suddenly at Dr. Flint's upper arm.
Dr. Flint leaned the Sheriff against the closet door, guided the man's good right hand to the door knob: the Sheriff's hand welded itself tight around the knob, his other hand behind, against the edge of the door frame, keeping the stained, varnished wood trim from rotating on its axis: it was a difficult task, the leverage was against him, but by bracing one leg and gripping smooth, polished wood, he managed to keep the house from falling over.
Dr. Flint explored the Sheriff's scalp, then the glands under his ears and under his jaw, with strong, experienced fingers: nodding once, he turned to Esther and said, "I believe you may wish to unpack your buggy, Mrs. Keller."
"Good," the Sheriff gasped, then: "What?"
Esther's head tilted slightly; her attention was on both the tall men.
Angela was still out on the front porch, looking after the departed Bear Killer.
"We made your referral to Dr. VanSchoor in Chicago," Dr. Flint explained.
The Sheriff closed his eyes, swallowed hard, tightened his grip on the doorknob: "Yeah," he gasped.
"Dr. VanSchoor is no longer practicing in Chicago."
"Oh, dear," Esther murmured, her green eyes filling with concern: she took a step to the side, one hand going to her cheek, the gesture of a worried wife.
"He is on his way to San Francisco to set up practice," Dr. Flint explained. "I have asked them to notify all planned stops, in hope of intercepting him and re-routing him here."
"Jacob," the Sheriff gasped, and Dr. Flint's hand thrust under the man's armpit.
Esther's hand was firm on his shoulder, squeezing through the material to get her husband's attention.
"Jacob, dear?" she said firmly.
The Sheriff raised his head, opened one eye.
"Tell Jacob to use the rose."
Esther nodded, once.
"Dr. Flint," she said, her voice suddenly firm, a woman no longer uncertain: "What is our course of action?"
Dr. Flint laid gentle fingers against the Sheriff's throat, then his cheek, lifted one eyelid, then the other.
"I would suggest we get this good man back to bed," he said. "Plenty of fresh air and clean water, good food and boredom, and when Dr. VanSchoor arrives, we will proceed from there."
"Bear Killer," the Sheriff muttered. "Bear Killer was after something."
"He has already gone," Dr. Flint said in soothing tones. "We can not hope to catch him."
"Cannonball," the Sheriff whispered, pushing himself from the closet door. "I can catch him on Cannonball."
Dr. Flint caught the man as his knees buckled.
Esther turned, called "Mary?"
The maid appeared as if by magic.
"Mary, could you bring Angela inside, please? And once she is in, have the buggy unloaded, with my apologies to the men, and then drive into town and find Jacob."
Esther watched as the big Navajo bent, ran an arm under the Sheriff's knees, picked the man up as easily as he might pick up little Angela, and started up the stairs with him.
"Tell him I need to see him five minutes ago."
The maid nodded, reached for the front door knob.
The Sheriff gasped, shivered: he opened his eyes, looked around, confused, then gave a crooked grin.
"Why, Doctor," he mumbled. "I didn't know you cared," and Dr. Flint turned to maneuver the long, tall and now-limp lawman through his own bedroom door.
It was all he could do to keep from laughing.

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Linn Keller 7-3-12


Sean stepped through the doorway and stopped, his stomach sinking.
His brood, all his young, even the baby, were neatly ranked in the living room: hair combed, faces washed, clean clothes, seated and holding very still.
This did not bode well.
Sure enough, when he looked from his get to his wife, he was met with a pale face with bright-pink cheeks and a stiff forefinger.
"YOUR SON," Daisy declared, shaking her Mommy-finger at the boys, "YOUR SON --"
Daisy stopped, fanned herself with her hand.
"Daisy me dear," Sean said gently, and Daisy glared at him.
"Don't you Daisy-me-dear me!" she snapped. "That's wha' two o' three of 'em think ma name is! Do ye know wha' he said, wha' he said?" She snapped her head around to look directly at her broad-chested husband.
"No, ye don't, o'course ye don't, ye werena' here, ya great Irish lug!"
Daisy paced a little one way, then spun, paced the other, put her hands on her waist and glared rebelliously up at her husband.
Sean was doing his level best not to grin.
"I'll tell ye what' he said!" Daisy snapped, shaking her finger under her husband's nose.
"He come ta me an' said 'Mama, is it true 'tis from dust we come an' ta dust we return?' an' me bein' a Godly woman an' us raisin' our young wi' a good knowin' o' Scripture I said 'Aye, 'tis so,' an' the scamp said 'Mama, I jus' looked under th' bed an' someone's either comin' or goin'!'"
Daisy's arms were stiff at her side and she was shaking with fury.
Sean took her rigid upper arms in a gentle, big-handed grip.
"Daisy, ma' dear," he said soothingly, and then he could stand it no longer: as Daisy looked up at her red-headed Irishman, he smiled, and he grinned, and he started to laugh well down below his belt buckle and the chuckles bubbled up to the surface like seltzer-water, and he drew Daisy into him and wrapped his red-sleeved arms around her and threw back his big Irish head and laughed.
Daisy squirmed powerfully in his arms, trying to get slack enough to punch him; lacking this success, she kicked at him once or twice, and Sean let go of his wrapping hug and ran his hands under her arms and lifted her off the floor, hoisting her until her hair just brushed the ceiling.
"Daisymedear!" he exclaimed, lowering her face into his, and as Daisy beat on his shoulders, he kissed her soundly, until she quit beating on him and began holding him tight, tight.

Jacob looked up and smiled as the maid opened the door to the Sheriff's office.
"It's your father," she said, and Jacob was on his feet, snatching his hat from its peg: he was across the floor in three long strides, and the maid caught her breath, for not only did the son look like his father, he moved like the man.
"Say on," he said quietly.
"Your mother said she wanted you there five minutes ago!"
Jacob took the maid by the elbow, gently moved her out of the doorway and onto the boardwalk: he drew the door firmly to and locked it, then looked at Mary with ice-pale eyes.
"Follow me," he said, his voice hard, then he swung into the saddle.
Apple-horse's hind quarters bunched as the stallion whirled, then Jacob leaned into the wind and pointed his Appaloosa's nose toward his father's place.

Twelve minutes later, the hard-eyed deputy began printing the message that would go out to just under a dozen trusted contacts, men who knew the meaning of the Rose, men he could trust.
If this Dr. VanSchoor set foot on terra firma anywhere in three states, the man would be found.
Of this Jacob had no doubt at all.

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Linn Keller 7-4-12


The Rosenthal carriage was just starting up when a whistle and yell from the depot platform caught their attention.
The mail clerk came to the end of the boardway, holding up four envelopes.
'Ho, there, ho," Levi called quietly, tugging gently on the reins: Butter always did have a soft mouth, and she responded instantly to the bit's summons.
Bonnie reached up and accepted the letters with a smile and a "Thank you," and the mail clerk touched his green eyeshade and nodded.
Bonnie sorted through the envelopes, frowned a little, then handed them to Sarah.
"They're all for you," she said.
"Oh?" Sarah took the four, drew a slim, very sharp knife from her off dress-sleeve and slit them open.
Where did she -- Levi thought, then, I don't want to know!
Sarah withdrew the first sheet: it was good, heavy rag paper, and though it lacked any official letterhead or embossed seal, she looked first at the signature.
The Mayor, she thought.
Mayor ... why?
Didn't they just run me out on a rail?

She slit open the second.
The Chief of Police, she thought, frowning: folding these missives, she thrust them back in their once-sealed coverlets, slit open the third.
The fire chief.
Slit, withdraw, unfold, scan.
One of the new bosses.
She looked up, eyes busy as she processed this new development: she re-read each one, individually, re-read them carefully; she re-folded each, replaced each, all while holding the slender, gleaming sleeve-knife in her off hand.
Finally she returned the blade to its sheath and bundled the four missives together, staring thoughtfully at them.
"What is it, dear?" Bonnie asked.
Sarah looked back down at the letters.
"I need some tea," she said, then looked at her Mama.
"So do you."
Levi gave her a thoughtful look.
Sarah looked up at him, eyes bright, mischievous.
"And you, sir, may need a good stiff belt of something stout."
Levi raised an eyebrow and laughed, transferring the reins to his off hand and running his arm around Sarah's shoulders.
"Now why is that?"
Sarah looked up at him impishly.
"It seems each of the four fine fellows who ran me out of town, was putting on a show for the other three." She waved the packet with one hand, tapping it noisily into the palm of her other hand.
"I have four invitations to return to Denver."
Sarah caught the look Levi shot over her head to Bonnie: she turned, saw the return look, and her stomach sank about three feet.
"I know that look," she said slowly. "What happened?"
Levi cleared his throat uncomfortably.
"You know the Sheriff was ..."
Sarah's eyes widened a bit.
"Go on."
"He was shot."
"In the scalp, yes, I didn't think it was that serious."
Again the look between husband and wife, and Sarah felt her body respond: a cold fire lit somewhere south of her sunken stomach and the dragon roared in its confining bottle.
Sarah wore a cloak of ice.
Though she kept her emotions coldly, tightly under rein and absolute, white-knuckled control, her voice quavered a little as she asked the only question she could think of.
"When did he die?"
"Oh, no, no," Bonnie said quickly, fingertips resting on Sarah's forearm: "no, he's alive, he's ... just ..."
She looked at Levi.
Sarah did not look away from Bonnie's eyes.
"Mother," Sarah said formally, "please speak plainly. What has transpired in my absence?"
Bonnie slowly and carefully described what she knew of the situation, and to her credit neither hesitated nor halted as the color drained steadily from her daughter's pretty face.
For several long moments the sound of harness-bells, the squeak of leather and buggy-springs and the rhythmic hoof-falls of the faithful old Butter-horse were all that could be heard.
Finally Sarah took a long breath.
"It is well that I am still packed," she said. "Who do we know in Chicago?"

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Linn Keller 7-5-12


The Irish Brigade had a devil's compound they used to quick start their steam masheen if they needed steam, fast.
The stuff was a chemical waste, an unwanted byproduct from refining crude oil for the useful component, kerosene.
This stuff was kept in a galvanized half gallon can on the running board of the "Masheen" in a special place.
This special place was isolated from the boiler with nine inch high pine planks surrounding it on three sides and almost a fourth.
Experimentation showed the Brigade this stuff put off vapors that crawled along the ground and fairly exploded when it ignited, but they found this simple wooden dike, with an inch wide slot on the side, would let any vapors escaping the can to direct away from the boiler and to the ground.
This stuff was interesting because it burned like the hot breath of Hell itself, and Jacob, being a practical man, ordered a gallon of the stuff and little Joseph watched his Daddy set a trash pile gloriously afire with it.
Little boys remember things.
When his Pa set some oily rags afire, on the bare dirt so the fire wouldn't spread, and his Pa walked away, little Joseph's thoughts were something like this:
My Pa is a big man.
A big man needs a big fire.
That's just a little bitty fire.
I'm gonna help ma Pa!
And so saying, little Joseph waited until nobody was looking, then ran silently to the barn and got an empty whiskey bottle and that gallon can, and carefully, carefully trickled some into the whiskey bottle.
He didn't spill too much, but what he spilled, gripping the whiskey bottle by its neck, went mostly down the backs of his fingers.
He slung off the excess, and like little boys will, wiped what was left on the side of his britches.
Little Joseph carefully capped the galvanized can -- that way his Pa wouldn't know he'd been into it! -- he didn't take much, about four Joseph-finger widths in the bottom of the bottle -- he picked up the bottle, ran to the doorway, peeked cautiously out ...
...nobody in sight ...
Annette looked around, frowning.
It was quiet.
Mothers get nervous when their young are quiet, and Annette was getting nervous.
Wiping her hands on her apron, she went outside.
Joseph grinned as he looked at the little bitty fire.
He knew this stuff his Pa had in the gallon can burned really, really fast, so he stood waaaay up on his tippy toes and tipped the bottle up.
Little Joseph remembered seeing the gleaming liquid falling toward the fire.
Annette saw her son holding a bottle high as he could, pouring something from it --
Joseph had a two hand grip on the bottle --
There was a flash, impossibly fast --
Joseph dropped the bottle.
Annette saw Joseph run, run faster than a grown man can sprint, trailing fire, his eyes wide, his mouth open, and utterly, absolutely, silent: she watched, frozen, horrified, as he streaked like a youthful comet, then dove head first and thrust both arms into their spring, driving elbow deep in cool sandy mud.
Annette stood there, feeling like she'd been gut punched, and she opened her mouth, and closed her mouth, and opened her mouth, and swallowed: her hands were fisted into the sides of her skirt and her mind was screaming Your son is hurt, go to your son, go to your child, your baby is hurt!!! -- but she stood, unable to move, feeling her skin flush hot, then cold, then hot again.
Joseph shivered as he squatted by the spring, the relief so great he nearly wet himself: he clamped the necessary valves shut by sheer will power -- he hadn't wet himself since he was a baby, and he was a big boy now!! -- but he would have given most of his immortal soul to have his Mama's arms around him in that moment.
Annette started as a strong set of hands closed on her shoulders.
The spell was broken: she whirled, seized her husband's arms.
Jacob's eyes were pale, hard, and he shook his head.
He ran his arm around his wife and guided her back into the house; he put his finger over her lips, shook his head again.
They waited for maybe a quarter of an hour before little Joseph came back into the house.
Little Joseph looked at his Pa, tall, strong, cold-eyed; he looked at his Mama, at her worried expression, at her hands wringing themselves in her apron: he looked back to his Pa and started to tear up and said in a hurt little boy's voice, "Pa, I broke your bobble."
Jacob moved.
Joseph found himself crushed to his Pa's breast, those strong and manly arms around him: uncertainty and fear opened the valves behind the little boy's eyes, and Jacob wordlessly held his son, letting his embrace speak for him.
Annette held back, not knowing what the father's action would be: it was a long standing agreement with them, that if one disciplined, the other reinforced, and even now, now, knowing her baby was hurt, burned, she would not cross into rebellion by countermanding whatever penalty Jacob may wish to levy while the offense was yet fresh in the offender's mind.
Jacob loosened his arms, held his son gently by his upper arms.
"Show me your hands," he whispered, for he did not trust his own voice.
Little Joseph held his hands up, fingernail-side to his Pa.
His Pa took each hand, held it up a little more, inspected each closely; he turned them over, over again: he bent, sniffed the side of Jacob's overalls.
Finally he straightened and brushed a twist of hair from little Joseph's forehead.
"You broke the bobble?" he asked quietly.
Little Joseph sniffed and nodded.
"I can replace the bobble," Jacob said, holding up Joseph's hands.
"I cannot replace these.
"Joseph, do you know what you did?"
Little Joseph nodded.
Jacob smiled a little.
"I don't think you do."
He picked his little boy up, hooked a chair and set himself down.
"Joseph, you used your head."
Jacob ruffled his son's hair and smiled faintly.
Little Joseph looked uncertainly at his Mama, then at his Pa.
He'd expected the belt or a switch.
"Joseph, I want you to remember something.
"Burns keep burnin' until you cool 'em off.
"You ran for the spring and drove your hands into it.
"Here, take a look." He turned Joseph's hand around so he could see the backs of his fingers.
"Look there." He traced across the backs of Joseph's fingers, just behind his pink little fingernails.
"There's where you got burnt."
Little Joseph nodded.
"That should be red and blistered and maybe even burnt so bad the skin is black and peeling and bloody."
Annette turned rather pale and made a funny sound: she put her hand over her mouth and staggered for the back door, for at her husband's description she could smell burned flesh and she remembered the horror of a fire and the sight of the dead, and worse, of the dying.
"Joseph, you drove into the spring and got into the mud.
"You kept yourself from getting hurt any worse.
"Yes, you broke the bobble, and you should not have done what you did ... you understand that?"
Little Joseph nodded.
"Normally I would switch your backside or take a belt to you."
Little Joseph nodded again.
"You've been punished enough."
Little Joseph nodded, leaned his head against his Pa's chest.
"You used your head, Joseph," Jacob said quietly. "When you tried something and it went really bad, you used your head and you came out all right."

"Doctor VanSchoor?"
"Yes?" The dignified gentleman in top hat and morning coat turned at the hail: he hadn't expected to hear his hame called here, somewhere in the anonymous mid-country.
"Doctor VanSchoor, I have a message for you, sir, from a Dr. George Flint."
Dr. VanSchoor blinked, surprised: he remembered Dr. Flint with affection, and a professional's respect.
"He needs your help with a most urgent case, sir."

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