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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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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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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."
"Oh?"
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.
Hard.
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.
"Yours?"
"Mine."
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.
"Sir?"
"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.
"Yeah."
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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