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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 8-6-12

 

Black sand, coarse beneath boot leather, glittered red, orange, yellow, and occasionally an unearthly mixture of green and violet in the light of distant flares and eruptions. That same light, albeit on a much smaller scale, was reflected in his hazel eyes as he raised the iron-bound leather shield in his left fist above his head and shook it. "Leave her be," he snarled, "or face my blade." Ethereal figures surrounded him, darting to and fro in the weird light, tantalizing, mocking, daring him to step away from the rock overhang that protected his back, waiting impatiently for an opening in which to strike.

"She will be ourssss," half-heard voices teased in sibilant whispers. "She will yield to the darknessssss. You cannot sssstop ussss. We will have her."

"Not while I live!" His words rumbled from deep within his chest, shaking the very foundations of the world on which he stood. Steel whispered on work-hardened leather as the long blade sheathed behind his left shoulder appeared in his gauntleted right hand to shine with a pure white light of its own. "Not while I live!"

"Puny warrior!" the voices chorused. "You dare to face ussss? You would ssssacrifisssse your paltry exissssstensssse for her?" But a tone of puzzlement seemed to be creeping into the words. "Why issss that?"

"It is not for such as you to know the why of such things," he answered. "Just believe that before you ever lay even the tiniest influence on her, many of you will perish. Even if it means my life!" The blade sang a sinister paean of its own, of bloodshed and battle, of death both natural and supernatural, as he swept it before him. "So come, if you will, and die!"


"Sugar! Wake up!" Fannie's voice penetrated the wall of stone at his back like a hard-thrown spear, scattering the vaporous figures in sudden confusion. He felt a hand on his shoulder and suddenly jerked upright, his eyes wide, battle grimace twisting his lips for the moment it took for him to recognize his surroundings.

"Sorry, Darlin', must have been a bad dream." Charlie sat up, rubbing his eyes.

"It most certainly couldn't have been a good dream," she answered, "the way you were twitching. Are you all right now?"

"I reckon," he answered. "Are we there yet?"

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Linn Keller 8-7-12

 

Had there been no Bonnie, no Levi, had there been no Sheriff, there would still have been no shortage of comforting arms, more than willing to hold their beloved young schoolteacher.
Sarah shivered a little, her Mama's arm around her, and she felt Levi's big hand rubbing her back.
Sarah shivered, feeling fear wrap clammy fingers around her heart.
What if they find out? she thought, her breath catching for a moment.
What if they find I'm a fraud?
I'm not a hero.
I did nothing brave.
I was scared!

Charlie's quiet observation spoke again, his words gentle in her ear, as if his lips were a bare inch from the pink-scrubbed-clean curve of her earlobe:
"It's being scared spitless and still getting the job done.
"Being courageous doesn't mean you never get scared. Being courageous means you get scared and still do what needs to be done."
Did I get the job done?
What was the job?

Sarah looked at herself as if from without.
She saw herself in the smoke-filled hall, running from door to door, hammering on doors, throwing them open, screaming into the thickening, throat burning murk.
She saw people running -- panicked, fleeing blindly, but getting out! --
Sarah saw herself hustling the Professor toward the staircase, until it collapsed, fell with a great rush of sound and flame --
She shrank from the memory, feeling her Mama's warmth and her Mama's embrace, but she couldn't push away what happened, she couldn't push back her thoughts, her memory --
Sarah's eyes were haunted: she swallowed hard, reliving the moment, feeling her ears sear with the gust of hot wind, smelling her own singed hair, knowing that she was but moments from her own death most horrible.
She remembered thinking that if she went to hell she would never know it, because it couldn't be much worse that what was reaching for her in that moment.
Sarah looked again, looked at herself pulling, almost dragging the Professor back into the classroom, slamming the door against the heat, the smoke: she marveled at how calm she looked, how focused she sounded: she heard the woody rattle of the rolled-up rescue ladder cascading past the window, she got the others out, out and down to safety -- until they piled on the ladder, desperate to get out, broke it away from the window above.
She saw herself kick the cabinet, opening the secret door.
She watched her strong young fingers cinch the ladder belt around the Professor's middle, spin the line through the spring loaded loop: she saw herself lean out, watching until the Professor was on the ground and the ladder belt secured to the line.
Sarah drew it back up, hand over hand, taking great breaths of clean air, sweet compared to the stink, the smoke within: she saw herself climb out the window, begin to rappel down the brick, she saw herself look up and then she saw through her own eyes again, saw the fire roar out the window, she saw ghostly hands in the plasma, heard whispered voices in the flame, we will have you, little one,and just before the line snapped, she remembered something else -- something she'd forgotten as her stomach shrank and she fell free, knowing with a deadly certainty that she would hit the cobbles below and die --
The whisper of steel unsheathed, a flash of light, a warrior's hoarse-throated challenge --
"Leave her be!"
Sarah gasped and she sat upright, then thrust to her feet and looked back through the car: mouth open, her breath coming quick, she found Charlie, less than halfway back.
Charlie was facing the rear of the car, and his wife Fannie was facing him.
She saw Charlie's hat tilted down, relaxed and likely asleep ... and she saw Fannie's green eyes on her, and there was a knowing in them.

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Linn Keller 8-8-12

 

The oldest of them looked up.
"Schoolteacher's comin' back."
The urchins looked at one another; most smiled.
One of the Denver detectives inherited Sarah's unofficial informant and surveillance squad after her departure: she'd briefed him thoroughly on their capabilities and told him what to say to gain their confidence, what to do to keep their trust: though they did not trust him as thoroughly as they did the pale-eyed schoolmarm, they did enjoy having a roof overhead and regular meals, and information they provided proved quite useful to the man.
The hard bunch of street rats looked at one another and smiled a little at the news that their benefactress was returning.

The Sheriff got up and paced quietly, as best he could in the crowded passenger car: he walked its length, went out the back door and into the next car, nodding, exchanging greetings, shaking hands: the Sheriff was known to everyone, and every face in both cars was familiar.
He would not have been any more comfortable in the private car; it trailed the second passenger car, and his beautiful bride and his little girl rode there, as did Jacob's wife and son, and the Sheriff would join them in due time, but in the meantime, he was tired of sitting, and so he paced.
He stopped and bent to whisper to Fannie, "Poor fellow looks wore out," gesturing to Charlie -- or, rather, to his tilted-down hat: Fannie's look was warm and her eyes smiled as Charlie's voice muttered out from under his hat brim: "I can work you into the ground any day, lawman," and they all three chuckled.
"I don't doubt it," the Sheriff grinned, then resumed his slow, restless pace.

Sarah felt warm hands envelop her own: she was still leaned against her Mama's side, and Bonnie's arms were still around her, and she felt a man's hands gently wrap around her own, clasped in her lap: she smiled inwardly, for she knew -- somehow, for her eyes were closed, and no word was spoken to identify -- she knew it was her Papa, and she took a long breath and opened her eyes and smiled.
"If you'd like to lay down," the Sheriff whispered, "come on back to Esther's car."
Sarah shook her head a little and snuggled into Bonnie.

The Blaze twins sat with the rest of their class, and unfortunately close to their eagle eyed schoolmarm.
The pair, distinguished by a white streak of hair on their scalp -- one on the left side, the other on the right -- were unrelated, or at best, distant cousins; because they looked a little alike, and because both had this mark, granted them by a lightning bolt that knocked both of them galley west when it hit, they were referred to as twins: rightly or wrongly, though little if any actual blood connected them, this streak of pale pelage united them in the popular imagination as two of a kind.
In a way they were.
They'd sent up a skyrocket in a thunderstorm, and lightning followed the rocket's exhaust to earth, high-voltage feelers caressing each of the lads.
Perhaps "caressing" isn't the right word.
Each had the distinct impression of being mule kicked across two counties and rolled another half-county rolling like a tumbleweed, to come to an abrupt halt against the rough-timber side of a building, in the mud, with rain in each of their faces.
Emma Cooper knew the pair to be good students, bright and curious and into everything; she knew they were wont to disassemble pipe fittings and pocket watches, not out of meanness, but out of curiosity, to see how they worked: she also knew she had to keep a good eye on the pair, for it was going to be a lottery to see what deviltry they would find in Denver.
So far, she knew, neither had knotted a cat's tail to a flaming length of newspaper and set it loose on the street; neither smuggled a hooded crow into the car, to turn it loose indoors like they did at church one Sunday -- which of them brought in the bird and which slipped off the hood, nobody was really sure, though it did liven up the Sunday sermon -- one of the twins turned to give Miss Emma a cautious look, and found she was watching him as he turned.
The lad's shoulders slumped and the pair looked at one another.
"We ain't gonna get away with nothin'," one whispered.
The other smiled, and the first felt his heart sing, for that smile meant yes indeed they were going to ... if not get away with something, at least get into something.
Just what, he wasn't sure, but ...
... something!

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Linn Keller 8-8-12

 

The Sheriff tended to share Charlie's fine and unbiased opinion of Denver, so much so that he almost stepped out on the stairs to spit at the city: thinking better of it, he satisfied himself with a glare instead, considering just how much good acreage was now taken up with buildings, bricks and barns ... well, not barns, not in the City, no, they would be Stables, not barns.
"Barn," he reasoned, would be too crude and too rustic a term for a sophisticated metropolis like Denver.
The Sheriff's pale eyed glare swept the railyard as they coasted into town; his belly tightened a couple degrees and he unbuttoned the center button of his suit coat, guaranteeing easy access to such hardware as may become necessary.
"Den-vah!" the conductor called, pacing his jolly way through the passenger car. "All out foah Den-vah!"
The Sheriff turned his frosty eyes toward the self-important satrap strolling his way, considering yet again just how much he hated a New England accent.
The Sheriff looked around, leaned out from the car a little to take a good look at the passenger platform.
An officious sort stood there, a uniformed police officer, a bit portly and arrogant looking, and the Sheriff's short temper got just a little shorter.
He drew back, shoved the conductor back into the car and slammed the door behind him.
"BELAY THAT!" he bellowed. "NOBODY LEAVES THIS CAR UNTIL I SAY SO!"
"Mistah," the conductor sneered, "I'll say who stays oah who leaves --"
The Sheriff seized the man by his throat: yanking the door open, he threw the man down the stairs, looked at the unsavory sorts lurking at the edges of the platform and took two slow steps toward the policeman.
"I wired ahead," he said, a dangerous edge to his voice.
"Ah, well, y'see," the copper said in oily tones, "since you've a celebrity and all, and since a policeman's pay isn't all that grand, a gratuity is customary in such --"
The Sheriff drove his left fist hard into the policeman's wind, doubling him over: seizing the man by the ears, he rammed his knee into the crooked cop's face, grabbed him by the back of the coat and the seat of the pants and bum rushed him for the edge of the platform.
Teeth set, lips peeled back and the cords standing out on his neck, the Sheriff dumped the cop head first into a rain barrel.
"HEY! YOU CAN'T DO THAT!" a voice yelled and the Sheriff spun, his left hand Colt swinging up and punching straight out at the voice.
"KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM! MAKE NO MOVE OR YOU WILL BE SHOT!"
"You're gonna drown the Sergeant!"
"WELL MAYBE YOU OUGHTA GO SHOVE THAT BARREL OFF THE DECK!" Linn yelled. "MOVE!!!"
Every young face in Emma Cooper's class was pressed up against the windows, noses flattened against glass: most of the adults were on their feet and crowded against the windows above the children, watching, all but Charlie.
Charlie was relaxed, his hat tilted down over his face.
Charlie was a man with priorities, a man who didn't get excited unless it was needful, and to be honest, it wasn't, so he took advantage of the moment to do a whole lot of nothing.
The younger cop sidestepped cautiously past the Sheriff, then ran the last few steps and pushed against the rim of the rain barrel.
The blue-wool legs kicked again and another big bubble of air broke the surface.
Taking a big breath, the younger cop pushed the barrel over the edge, teetering it for a moment, then it slid off the edge and hit the ground with a great splash and splintering of wood staves.
The young cop felt a hard hand seize his collar: he was yanked back, pulled off the ground, held at eye level with a lean-faced older man, a man with fury engraved on his visage, pale eyes boring into his own and layering ice on the back of the younger copper's skull.
"The Sergeant has been relieved," the Sheriff said quietly, his voice low and menacing: "you are now in charge, and I am giving you orders."
Wisely, the younger cop said nothing.
"My name is Keller. I'm Sheriff. My word is law. I wired ahead to have your people clean the scum from the depot before we got here. I find a fat bellied old thief trying to extort money from honest people. I have no use for a crooked cop and I will be talking to your chief about him."
The Sheriff looked around, his glare fit to frostbite any one or any thing upon which his eyes rested,even briefly.
"The scum seem to have left," he observed. "It seems the guilty flee when an honest man grows angry."
The copper didn't remember the older man with the tight-drawn face holster his revolver, but he remembered well just how big that muzzle looked, pointed in his direction.
Any thought of drawing his own police revolver dove out the nearest window and ran away as fast as it could.
The Sheriff looked at the passenger cars.
Half a dozen men stood outside the doors, all armed, all with blued steel justice in hand: Esther stood on the platform of her private car, her long-barreled shotgun in hand.
The Sheriff could see its ears were back.
The Sheriff released his iron fisted grip on the younger copper's collar.
"Son," the Sheriff said, "I suggest you see to your Sergeant."
A soaking wet, blue-wool-clad figure staggered up the steps at the end of the platform: coughing, he bent over, hands on his knees, and threw up an amazing volume of water.
"Never mind," the Sheriff said, "I'll talk to him myself" -- then, taking a great breath, the Sheriff's voice assumed the brass-throated character of a Cavalry officer as his command rang on the still-shocked air:
"COMPANEEEE," he called, "DIIISSS-MOUNT!"

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Linn Keller 8-9-12

 

Skilled Japanese fingers kneaded the man's muscles; the smell of incense, of Oriental perfume, added a pleasant diversion to the moment: the Boss lay on his belly, on a clean sheet; a thick, soft towel was folded, placed under his head, covered by another sheet: he lay with his eyes closed, left ear laid against the padding, letting his thoughts drift.

The Chief of Police chewed happily on good beef, picked up his coffee cup: he'd added a splash of red-eye to it "to sweeten it up" and took a noisy slurp: with his other hand, he wiped at his chin, catching the dribble.
He looked up, annoyed, at the immaculately-uniformed lackey waiting patiently before the Chief's desk, a closed folder in his manicured hands.

Most of Firelands was aboard a small convoy of horse drawn omnibuses, arranged through Esther's good offices: it annoyed the Boss that someone beat him to it, for he'd wished to get into the good graces of this remarkable young woman who just might prove very useful to a man in his position.
The convoy made steady progress through the city; the passengers either looked with cool disdain, openly gawked, or snoozed, depending on individual preference: the Sheriff sat beside the still-wet Sergeant, ignoring the smell of wet wool and the man's greasy body, but wishing mightily for the seat of his red mare, tied behind the omnibus.
The Blaze Boys, seated within mere feet of their eagle-eyed schoolmarm, dared not avail themselves of a variety of implements of juvenile entertainment which they'd managed to bring along.
They knew the speed with which Miz Emma's ruler could descend upon their young knuckles.

The Boss grunted a greeting as the capo cleared his throat.
"The protection money is in."
The Boss nodded, his eyes still closed, as the Japanese girl worked on a particularly annoying knot in his shoulder muscle, just inboard of his shoulder blade.
"We're short one window."
"Break it."
"Yes, sir."
The sound of paper whispering as the Capo consulted another sheet.
"You meet this morning with the Chief of Police."
The Boss grimaced, took a long breath; the Japanese girl withdrew, bowing, flowed behind a rice-paper screen as the Boss rose, threw the sheet off his nakedness and followed her behind the Japanned dressing-screen.
The capo waited patiently as the pretty, black-haired girl dressed the Boss: when the man stepped out from behind the hand-painted rice-paper-and-bamboo screen, he was fully dressed, his tie knotted, a fresh cigar between his teeth.
"Let's not keep the Chief waiting, shall we?"
"No, sir."

Sarah's eyes were busy; no longer the timid girl who'd let her guard down when she was safe aboard the passenger car, she now wore the expression of a lean and hungry wolf: her eyes were pale as she scanned the street, she sat relaxed, ready ... as relaxed as a mountain cat looking at a blacktail fawn in a clearing, just before winding up its powerful legs for a leaping attack.
She knew the street they were on; she looked long at the grand cathedral, all arches and spires and stained glass, and remembered the last time she'd set foot inside ... when she and the dancer were each decoying for the other ... so long ago, so very long ago ...
Daisy's hand rested on Sarah's wrist; the Irishwoman nodded with approval at the cathedral.
"Now yon's a proper church," she whispered, her eyes shining, and Sarah was surprised at the delight in the woman's face: "I knew one such, when I was a girl, back in the Old Sod" -- Daisy bit her lower lip, blinked rapidly, squeezed Sarah's hand.
"Thank you," she whispered. "It was worth it for this."

"Mr. Mayor, your proclamation, sir."
The Mayor examined his necktie in the mirror.
"Proclamation, yes, yes," he murmured. "Not long now, not long now. Will the press be here?"
"Yes, sir, they will be here."
"Good, good." The Mayor nodded confidently to his reflection. "We should have this commemorated!"
The Mayor's secretary refrained from comment; it was safest, he found, to be as invisible as possible, and so he made no reply, made no move.
"Where is the Chief of Police? He knows I wished to see him!"

The Chief slopped most of his coffee cup over his desk as his door was kicked open: a three foot splinter of trim board flew from the door frame spun through the air, bounced as it hit the patterned grey carpet.
One of his sergeants -- a less than reputable man, but one who'd been with the Department for many years -- seemed to stumble into the Chief's office.
It took the Chief a couple moments to realize the Sergeant was not moving by his own accord.
"What is this, what is this!" he demanded.
The Sergeant was propelled across the office and introduced ungently to the edge of the Chief's desk: he was bent briskly over the desk by a tall, slender man with blazing-pale eyes and an iron-grey mustache.
"Does this belong to you?" the man asked, his voice as cold as his eyes.
"I'm sorry, sir, I tried to stop him --"
"They leave now," the slender man said, never raising his voice, "or this fat pig goes out the nearest window and you're right behind him!"
The Chief leaned hard knuckles on the desk top and glared at the intruder.
"I could have you shot!"
"I could hang your scalp from my lodgepole!"
"You aren't man enough!"
The Sheriff's grin was more that of a skull peeling parchment lips from dried teeth, his eyes the shade of winter moonlight on a frozen lake.
"You aren't man enough to grow a decent head of hair," he rasped.
Silence gripped the room with as obdurate a claw as that of the Sheriff's hand in the back of the Sergeant's coat.
"Damn you, Linn, you always could make an entrance!"
The Sheriff's grin never wavered, but he did release his grip on the shivering Sergeant.
The Chief and the Sheriff shook hands.
"You are still the ugliest Irishman I ever did see."
"And you are still the ugliest damned Yank I ever saw."
"Answer my question, Irishman."
"Go to hell, Yankee."
Their words were uttered with menace, in the low tones of two men who knew neither would step away unblooded, that only one would live to leave the room -- if either survived.
The Sergeant lived a year of raw fear in the few minutes he was bent over his Chief's desk, certain there would be gunfire, the flash of steel, blood, men's screams.
He opened his eyes in time to see the two men embrace one another, and their comradely laughter was such a jarring note the fat copper nearly dampened his smallclothes.
"Now give an account of yourself, Richard!" the Sheriff demanded. "How in God's creation did you ever end up heading a crooked outfit like this!"
"Crooked is it!" the Chief laughed: the men held each other at arm's length, their expressions gone from hostile glare to delighted grins: "Do y' mean this fine example of our profession here?"
"He's why I'm here."
"And he's why I must have my door replaced?"
"I could have used his head instead of my boot to open it."
"Sure and now why would ye do that?"
The Sheriff's eyes changed and the Chief felt a shiver to see it.
"He demanded tribute."
The Chief was silent for a long moment.
"Sergeant."
The Sergeant raised up a little, looked at the Chief.
"STAND AT ATTENTION IN THE PRESENCE OF A SUPERIOR OFFICER! NOW WHAT IN TWO HELLS DID YOU MEAN OFFENDING THE SHERIFF HERE?"
"Sor, I --" the Sergeant stammered.
"SHUT YOUR LYIN' MOUTH, I DON'T WANT T' HEAR IT! NOW TELL ME WHY I SHOULDN'T THROW YE OUT YON WINDOW MYSELF!"
The Sergeant's eyes bulged; he opened his mouth, closed his mouth, then whirled and fled, and the small crowd of blue uniformed policemen drew back quickly to allow his passage -- not out of any sense of respect or propriety, but because none wished to be trampled beneath his hustling tonnage.
"I reckon that's your answer, Richard."
"Eh?"
"You can't throw him out the window because he's not here now."
"Ah, yes, there is that," the Chief sighed, then looked up at his adjutant.
"Well don't just stand there, man! I'll need my clean blouse and coat! I'm meeting the Mayor, y'know!"

The Boss stopped short of the Chief's doorway.
He'd flowed upstairs behind the commotion of the fat Sergeant being bum-rushed up the treads by some skinny fellow with more strength than one would suspect: he watched with open astonishment as the confrontation went from incipient combat to comradely good-fellowship, and as he was considering whether he should discreetly retire until a more clement season, the tall, slender fellow turned a pair of death-white eyes on him, thrust out a pointing finger and snapped "YOU! I WOULD SPEAK WITH YOU!"

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Linn Keller 8-9-12

 

Politics are the same the world over.
When Mayor, Chief and Chief realized they'd just tossed a heroine out of town, when the newspapers headlined the Angel in Grey, when copper engraving-plates impressed the image of a woman rappelling down the side of a flaming building, the public wanted to know (goaded by the journalists of the day) to know who this adventurous and heroic woman was: when headlines sang the praises of the brave and beautiful Schoolteacher, the public wanted to know more: and when it was intimated that perhaps she'd been asked to leave due to some misunderstanding, the Mayor's office was quick to issue a statement that no such thing happened, that she was called out of town for pressing reasons that would be ungentlemanly to inquire into, and that she'd been asked back to receive a Proclamation and Award.
Neither the Chief, the Chief, nor the Mayor, wished to stand the political gaff of sensation-whipped voters, goaded by muck raking journalists, that might result from throwing a life-saving hero out of town instead of feting the life-saving hero: with this realization, the Mayor drafted an invitation on his official letterhead, begging their very own Angel in Grey to return and be invested with this (very) public honor.
City Hall had a rather spaciious Mayor's Office.
City Hall did not have a big enough Mayor's Office.
When Firelands arrived -- when most of Denver began crowding the street near the Mayor's office -- City Hall realized with alarm that it would prove impossible to accommodate everyone within the building, let alone one small office, and so a nearby bandstand was hastily commandeered, buntings were whisked from their storage closets and festooned round about the octagonal building, and the growing crowd drifted into the little park nearby.

Sarah's fingers were cool and firm as they pressed down on her mother's wrist.
Bonnie looked up, surprised; she'd picked up the little jar of rouge, intending to pink up her daughter's cheeks a bit: after all, this was a Special Occasion, and she wished her daughter would wear something more fashionable than the simple, severe, simple schoolmarm's grey.
"Mother," Sarah said quietly, amusement and understanding in her expression, "I am The Schoolteacher, remember? I have to look very plain, very ordinary."
"But, dear, you are anything but!" Bonnie replied, and Esther squeezed Sarah's shoulders from behind.
"She's right, my dear," Esther whispered. "I know you don't like it, but just this once?"
Sarah stopped, her jaw thrusting out a little, then she nodded.
She didn't mind cosmetics when she was modeling her Mama's dresses: that was a controlled environment, she was safe, nobody but customers looked at her, and then only to assess the fashion she wore.
Sarah was not at all comfortable being made beautiful and then placed in the public eye.
She'd seen too much of painted women made available and the thought shrank her stomach into a painfully twisted knot.
Sarah closed her eyes and patiently endured powder and paint, and a bit of color on her lips.

"Miz Emma?"
"Yes?" Emma Cooper tilted her head a little, regarding the Blaze Boys: they stayed close to her, though their eyes were busy, their heads constantly turning, taking in the City: neither offered to stray, to Emma's relief, and now one posed her a question.
"Miz Emma, when will we see Miz Sarah?"
Emma Cooper consulted the octagonal watch pinned to her bodice.
"It's still a little before noon," she said, "I believe the ceremony is just after noon."
"I'm hungry," the lad muttered.
"Do not fear for your stomach," Emma reassured them, "your lunches are arranged," and soon woven picnic baskets were borne into the park, checkered cloths spread on the grass, and Emma Cooper's schoolchildren convened for their lunch.
Lunches arrived for the rest of the Firelands contingent as well: a few of the men found convenient taverns, wherein to find their repast (and perhaps to wash travel dust from their throats), but for the most part, the town stayed in a loose group.

Daisy knew the cathedral was not far at all from the little park: consulting her own dainty little watch, she steered a course for its tall spires thrusting boldly above the roof lines.
She was obliged to belt a footpad with the lead-filled sap she hid up one sleeve, when the scoundrel tried to snatch her reticule, but otherwise her journey was without incident.
She hesitated at the threshold, smelling beeswax candles and incense, her eyes drinking in statues and stained glass, picking out Stations of the Cross and delighting in shining ranks of pews marching to the altar: she came inside and knelt, crossing herself, then she stood, and just looked around, and remembered.

"Ya see her yet?"
"Nah."
"Picked any good pockets?"
"Nah. I'm waitin' til the park fills up. They'll be watchin' the Mayor insteadda me."
"Yeah."
Youthful feet kept a loose cadence in the brick alleyway.
"Ya think she'll remember us?"
Shrug.
"I like her better'n that copper dick."
"Ya. She smells better."
Juvenile laughter preceded them as their imagination pictured the detective clothed in bright, burnished metal instead of tailored cloth.
They spied a diminutive figure, her back to them: mousy grey dress and a schoolteacher's posture, shepherding over a group of children.
"It's her!" one voice said excitedly, and the group ran through the park, coming to a quick stop as the mousy-grey schoolmarm turned with a smile.

"Mr. Mayor, it's time."
"Yes, yes, I know," the Mayor muttered, reaching for his coat. "Why can these things never be simple."
"I don't know, sir," his aide replied, lifting the coat's shoulders to settle them onto place.
He offered the Mayor's hat and cane.
"You have the proclamation."
"Yes, sir."
"And the key."
"Yes, sir."
"What does that key fit, anyway?"
"I don't know, sir. I think the liquor room door at Clancy's. It's the biggest one we have."
"Does Clancy have another one?"
"Yes, sir."
"Good. I don't want my favorite barkeep unhappy with me, he may poison my drink."
"Yes, sir."
The Mayor looked in the mirror, settled the hat on his head.
"Fine, fine," he beamed.

The Chief of Police and a half dozen men climbed in the carriage and headed toward City Hall.
His old friend the Colonel -- now the Sheriff -- was returned to his hotel but a few minutes before; the Chief liked to be early to such festivities as were planned today, in case anything unexpected developed, which it generally did.
They drew up before City Hall and saw the crowd in the adjacent park, buntings on the bandstand and the band just arriving.
"A bit larger than we expected," he murmured to no one in particular.

The Sheriff checked his watch, smiled a little, stood.
Sarah turned and looked at her father, her eyes a distinct blue: she wore the dull, boring, uninteresting, severe, mousy-grey schoolmarm's dress, and her hair was pulled up into a severe schoolmarm's walnut on top of her head, but there could be no mistake at all about her beauty, nor the fact that girlhood was behind her, and she was ripening into maturing womanhood.
The Sheriff stared, swallowed: Sarah stopped, uncertain, blinking.
The Sheriff cleared his throat, then straightened and gave her a severe look.
Behind Sarah, Bonnie and Esther waited; Esther had a knowing look on her face, for she could just about tell what her husband was going to say.
The Sheriff swept up Sarah's hand and kissed her knuckles.
"My dear," he said gently, "you are beautiful ... but who in the hell are you, and what in the hell have you done with Sarah?"

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Linn Keller 8-10-12

 

Sarah closed her eyes, straightening her back and hips against the ache that still plagued her.
She cradled her right arm, in its sling, and felt the weaponry within.

"Now remember, lads," the Chief admonished his boys in blue, "we want no pickpockets, no skulkers, no thieves ... you know the usual."
The officers responded in chorus: "Yes, sir."

"Now remember, boys," the Boss said, puffing out a little cloud of fragrant Havana smoke, "we don't want anyone picking pockets here, see? No one skulking about, no thieves" -- he turned suddenly to his capo -- "you did tell the other bosses, right?"
"It cost me a case of whiskey and two good horses," the capo muttered, grimacing.
"Cheaper than what they charged me."
"Yes, sir."
"What about those beer vendors, those fellow selling sandwiches? Who are they?"
"They're ours, Boss. They've paid."
"Good, good. Nobody makes money unless I make money, see?"

The Chief stopped, tilted his head toward his Lieutenant.
"Who are those beer vendors?" he asked. "And those fellows selling sandwiches. Are those ours?"
"They are, sir. They've paid."
"As long as they've paid."
"Yes, sir."
"Don't tell the Sheriff."
"No, sir."

The Denver Fire Department's brass band began a lively air; the Mayor preened a little before settling himself into the comfortably upholstered chair brought up for his use: he knew it would be a few minutes yet, and he wanted to let his constituents get comfortable; he knew the band would lend an air of Yes, Something Is Happening, and Here Is Your Entertainment -- not to mention allowing the beer vendors and sandwich sellers to ply their trade a little more, bring in a little more money.
He smiled.
He liked it when they brought in more money.

A liveried footman waited at the hotel's front door: sweeping the gleaming beaver topper off his bald head, he made a low and showy obeisance as Sarah, on her Papa's arm, came out the front door.
As a matter of fact, the Sheriff had need of several arms, for not only did he have his darling daughter on one arm, he had his beautiful bride on the other, and there were any number of ladies who would have given their eye teeth -- or maybe a molar, so it wouldn't show -- to be on the man's arm.
It wasn't that he was that handsome (which of course he was), it was more that he had two truly beautiful women with him, and when a man has a beautiful woman on his arm, he may not quite strut or swagger, but he will very certainly walk with a greater assurance.
The footman addressed the ladies through the Sheriff, as was proper.
"His Honor the Mayor sends his greetings, and begs that you would consider his carriage as your own, for the duration of your stay in Denver."
The man's words were obsequious, oily, the kind of words that told the Sheriff this was a professional lickspittle, the kind that would bow and scrape and steal you blind if at all possible: he nodded gravely in reply and responded, "We are most pleased to accept the Mayor's gracious hospitality. We would be grateful if you could convey our thanks to His Honor for this thoughtfulness."
The lackey bowed again; the Sheriff discreetly deposited a coin in the discreetly extended hand -- a sum that pleased even the professional lackey -- and the small entourage boarded the carriage for their trip to the ceremony.

Charlie and Fannie were not long behind the Sheriff and his family in departing the hotel: as he knotted his necktie, Charlie muttered darkly about damned fool formalities and how the man that invented the necktie should be hanged with the prototype, and it buried with him -- at least until Fannie came up behind him, began rubbing his shoulders and looking at him in the mirror with those utterly lovely, deep, mysterious eyes: she turned him with gentle pressure and he waited with less impatience as she worked her magic, persuading fine silk to cooperate: she brought it barely snug, just the way he liked it (actually he liked it best when the necktie was anywhere but around his neck) -- and then laid her wrists over his shoulders.
"Mr. Macneil," she purred, "you are a fine looking man."
Charlie's hands settled around her slender waist, caressing the angle of her hips.
"Liar," he muttered.
Fannie's eyes smoldered and he felt her body heat, smelled her perfume, saw the curve of her lips, and felt his belly tighten as an old, familiar fire lit deep in his boiler.
His hands tightened a little on her hips and Fannie's lips curved a little more, her eyes glowing, her breath quickening a little.
"So stop me, big man."
Charlie did.
They did not come up for air for several moments.
They were not late for the festivities; they arrived right on time, as they planned, but without very many seconds to spare.

"Yes, yes, set up right there," the Mayor's secretary fussed at the photographer: the photographer, of course, ignored the fluttering, fussing fellow and contemplated the world through the inverting lens, withdrew from under the black cape attached to the rear of his camera, moved a few feet, looked again: not until he was satisfied did he withdraw a final time from under the camera and then arrange his plates ready to hand, in a special, shadowed box he maintained for that purpose.

A flying wedge of uniformed policemen marched ahead of them, moving the crowd aside: Sarah's free hand tightened on her Papa's arm.
"All these people," she whispered hoarsely, half-choked. "For me?"
The Sheriff patted her hand gently.
"Specially for you, my dear," he grinned as the carriage halted and the bowing footman hustled to the side, opened the door with a flourish.
"Showtime," the Sheriff said, and stood, Sarah rising with him, and he waited a long moment as heads turned, then bodies: he waited while the murmurs turned to shouts, the shouts to cheers: the crowd began to applaud, to whistle, to cheer, then to chant, and Sarah bit her bottom lip.
The Sheriff stepped out of the Mayor's carriage, then turned, taking Sarah around the waist: he brought her out, set her gently down, then extended a gentlemanly hand to his beautiful bride, and waited until she, too, stepped down: he drew aside as Levi followed, then Bonnie.
The Sheriff reached into the carriage and retrieved Sarah's ebony walking-stick: holding it before him like a scepter, he looked over at Levi and winked.
"Detail," he said quietly, "forward, march."
If Bonnie could have reached him, she would have kicked him right in the shin.

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Linn Keller 8-11-12

 

The Bear Killer rolled with the force of the assault.
Jaws open, helpless under the onslaught, his vulnerable belly was exposed.
Five giggling children began rubbing the Bear Killer's soft and furry underside, and the Bear Killer began kicking -- involuntarily, enthusiastically -- which brought an absolute flood of happy laughter from the young Irish clan and Angela alike.
They'd been to the fire house -- Angela's presence meant they could all go visit, she and every one of Sean and Daisy's get, and be received as if the'd never been there before -- each in turn was hoist to the tuck-and-roll upholstered driver's seat of the gleaming steam machine, and little Angela, a pressed-leather fire helmet teetering on her head and covering her down to the bridge of her nose, giggled as she was placed on the driver's seat: she stood up, thrust out a commanding finger and called, "Go, horsie!" -- to the laughter of the Irish Brigade assembled.
Work, of course, stopped entirely for the duration of the visit, and it was not at all clear who was entertaining who.
Daisy's girl watched the Irish young, and little Angela; Tilly ran the bar in Mr. Baxter's place; the Mercantile was closed, Firelands was not at all populated, the tidy little whitewashed schoolhouse was closed, empty.
Jackson Cooper stopped in the Jewel, moving with the silent grace of a truly big man.
Tilly tilted her head and smiled a little.
"You look like you lost your best friend," she said, not unkindly.
Jackson Cooper gave her an uncertain look.
"I just realized," he said slowly, "this is the first time Emma and I have been apart for ... I'm not sure how many years!"
Tilly leaned her elbows on the bar, nodding: Jackson Cooper put a big hoof on the polished brass rail, leaned his own elbows on the bar and nodded, his bottom jaw thrust out.
"Jackson Cooper?"
"Hm?"
"I think that's the sweetest thing I ever heard anyone say."
Jackson Cooper blinked, looked up at Tilly.
"Come again?"
"I think that's the sweetest thing I ever heard anyone say."
"But I didn't say anything!"
"You did," Tilly said quietly, "just not with words." She looked down the hall, toward Daisy's kitchen. "How about something to eat? You're losing weight, man, if you'd turn sideways in the sun you'd not throw a decent shadow!"
Jackson Cooper blinked, looked down at his taut but broad middle, looked up at his massive reflection in the mirror, and Tilly delighted to see the man's face brighten, and to hear his laugh.

Jacob walked his Apple-horse down the main street, glaring at the bank.
It was closed: Aunt Beatrice and the entire staff were in Denver.
Ideal time to hit the bank, he thought, pale eyes glaring as he slowly swept the street with his gaze.

Sarah raised her chin and smiled as Charlie and Fannie approached.
"Well, little lady," Charlie grinned, "are you ready for this?"
"Do I have a choice?" she asked -- she would have said it in a small voice, but over the cheering hubbub she would never have been heard.
"You earned it, darlin'," Charlie nodded.
Sarah impulsively released her left-handed hold on her Papa's arm and swung around: seizing Charlie's arm instead, she leaned forward and said, "Might I borrow your husband for a bit?" and Fannie, eyes dancing with some secret communication that occurs between women in such moments, released her gloved hand from her husband's arm.
For all his dislike of the city, for all his displeasure with crowds, Charlie could not help but admire this spirited girl who was such a source of surprise and aggravation.
Grinning, Linn handed Charlie the scepter, then bent and kissed his little girl on the cheek, and Sarah was surprised at the tickle of his mustache.
Linn straightened and winked at Charlie.
"Let's go, darlin'," Charlie said, raising his voice to be heard, "you've earned this, time to enjoy it!"

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Linn Keller 8-11-12

 

At Sarah's approach, a path opened through the crowded little park: men waved hats, women clapped and fluttered their kerchiefs, children bounced on excited toes or just stood and stared: many had never seen a Genuine Real Live Hero before.
Charlie kept his thoughts to himself, but Sarah could feel his aggravation: she regarded the raucous, celebrating community through her window-glass schoolmarm spectacles, nodding with a little smile, as befit the dignity of a proper young schoolteacher.
Charlie's eyes were busy; Sarah's were, as well, but not to the degree of the veteran Marshal: she did not know Levi and the Sheriff followed, nor that each man was as watchful, as vigilant as Macneil: no, she knew only that she felt very ... very special ... but very, very uncomfortable.
Charlie and Sarah halted at the foot of the bandstand: the Fire Department's brass band labored steadily against the waves of well-voiced enthusiasm, and Sarah looked up at the beaming, preening Mayor, and swallowed.
Still holding Charlie's arm, she took a long breath, like a swimmer about to take a long dive into cold water: blowing it out through pursed lips, she released Charlie's arm, took the walking-stick, squared her shoulders, thumped the cane firmly on the first step, and mounted the clean-scrubbed, white-painted steps to the bandstand's deck.
The Mayor opened his arms expansively as she mounted the stairs: he smiled as if on campaign, which in a way, he was: the man never missed an opportunity to be seen in public, with people of importance, and right now, this slender, pretty little mousy-grey schoolteacher was one of the most important individuals in the City.
Levi and the Sheriff turned and fell into an easy, informal parade-rest, hands in front instead of military behind: they faced the crowd, eyes busy, not expecting anything to happen, really, but it was their habit, and neither saw fit to break this old habit.
Charlie, too, stood, looking around slowly: the Sheriff and Levi each took a side-step, giving Charlie a bit more room.
Sarah looked over the cheering, waving, whistling throng with the grace and ease of royalty born: she waited several long moments, as the brass band brought their serenade to an abrupt, coordinated halt.
"My friends," the Mayor called, arms upraised, "my friends, thank you, thank you," which served only to excite the crowd more, for they knew as soon as His Honor finished his opening remarks, they just might get to hear what this Angel in Grey might have for them.
Sarah looked around and frowned a little: she leaned on the cane and an expression of discomfort crossed her face: closing her eyes for a long moment, she took a long breath, another, then straightened.
Sarah walked to the side a few small steps and leaned the cane against the railing, beside a flower-wrapped upright: she tilted her head, focused on a single blossom, then leaned forward a little, delicately sampling its fragrance: eyes closed, she focused on its smell, while in the crowd, no less than a dozen men's hearts fell worshipfully from their breasts to the ground at such a gentle and feminine gesture.
Sarah drew back, smiled a secret smile, then walked back over beside the Mayor, who was still smiling, still thanking the crowd: Sarah reached up, touched his arm: her expression was gentle, and the great man could not but smile in return, and incline his head to her.
Sarah turned to face the crowd, waited, then raised her hand, palm out: she said something, which no one could hear, at least until she curved two fingers to her lips and whistled.
Silence washed over the crowd as Sarah regarded them coolly.
"Class," she announced in her schoolteacher's voice, pitching her voice to be heard at distance, "please pay attention. I know it is a lovely day outside, but we have a very special guest today." She turned a little, raised her left hand and took the Mayor's arm. "I would like to introduce a very important man, the Mayor of Denver."
Applause, though more a polite patter than the wild enthusiasm that greeted their own little Lady in Grey: the careful, measured applause would have been perfectly at home in a schoolroom.
Emma Cooper's eyes beamed approval; she nodded a little, appreciating the manner in which Sarah had taken disorganization and made order of chaos.
"The Mayor would like to say a few words," Sarah continued. "Please pay attention, class, and William, please put away your slingshot, or I shall take it from you again!"
No less than five grown men's faces reddened, each belonging to a William, as did both the Blaze Brothers: they all looked around guiltily, then laughed, as did those near them who realized what just happened.
His Honor fell easily into his role, as he always did.
"Ladies, gentlemen, distinguished guests, citizens and visitors," he began, rolling his syllables out over the crowd like great waves on the ocean, inundating them with his orator's volume.
"Not long ago a tragedy befell our city, a fire: it began in the basement of one of our finest buildings and quickly spread, imperiling humanity on the floors above.
"The only escape from the building was in danger.
"As the fire was in the basement, nobody knew of the conflagration that was rapidly undermining the floor above and weakening the only staircase available to those above.
"Our very own Miss Sarah here" -- the Mayor indicated the quiet young woman beside him, standing with her eyes demurely downcast -- "divined the peril: she was increasing her own education, her attention on lessons and lecture -- but her keen senses and fine reflexes divined the danger and propelled her from the classroom.
"We understand she flew down the staircase, seeking the source of that which brought her such alarm, traveling down a stairway with the ease of a man running on level ground!"
Sarah raised her eyes, looking innocently over the silent, listening crowd.
"Did she hesitate at the front door?" the Mayor shouted, thrusting a finger toward the far row: "Did she look to the street, to safety, to freedom? Did she think for a moment, even one moment, to escape, to preserve herself?
"NO!"
His finger slashed the air, quivered beside his striped trouser's sideseam.
"She ran into the thick of the smoke, the heat -- she found the source, realized that it was beyond help, beyond hope, and she did the only thing she could.
"She withdrew and slammed the door to contain the conflagration as best she could, and she commenced to alarm those within!"
He paused, taking a deep breath, drawing air down to his belt buckle before continuing.
"She sprouted wings of resolve, spread her pinnae of determination, rose up the stairs as if on a great bird of prey!"
The Mayor was warming to his subject, allowing himself to be carried along with the enthusiasm of his words, taking the crowd with him.
"Our own Angel in Grey, our lovely Schoolteacher, our own Miss Sarah, rose to the highest floor and began hammering on doors! Her cries penetrated the smoke, carried through the heat, her words were shouted into offices and into the hearts of every living soul in the building!
"Did she hesitate? As the smoke grew thick and the air grew hot, did she flee?
"Did she once think of herself?
"NO!"
The Mayor slashed the air again, slapping his hand hard on the bandstand's railing: he felt it vibrate through the sting of impact, and he knew the sound could be heard for a little distance, which is what he intended.
"Our brave young Schoolteacher burst into the last inhabited room in the building, the classroom she'd vacated but moments before: she hurried her classmates out the door, all but a few who sat frozen in fear -- she saw them safely down the weakening staircase, and she realized one remained behind.
"One life imperiled and all others safe, and the open front door was in view: clear air beyond, air untainted with the hot breath of Hell's yawning jaws!
"She could have made it out!
"NO!"
The slash, the slap: the Mayor's frown, his set jaw, emphasized his shout.
"Once more up the dread staircase, with flame rising beside her, she ran back into the classroom: her Professor was gathering a few precious volumes, and Sarah helped her mentor, this distinguished old man, toward the only escape.
"No sooner had they taken their first few steps than the staircase groaned and sagged.
"Sarah seized the man -- in spite of her arm" -- his finger thrust accusingly at arm's length, quivered like a courtroom prosecutor at her right arm yet in a sling -- "and half-carried, half-dragged him back upstairs!
"She thrust him into the classroom, spun and slammed the door in a vain attempt to stop the smoke, the heat!
"The others, realizing smoke was rising from between the boards beneath their feet, rose in fear and confusion.
"Our own Angel in Grey was prepared.
"A good schoolteacher is always prepared."
The Mayor leaned over the railing, head thrust forward like a nearsighted bear, swinging back and forth, inviting dissent: finding none, he continued.
"She threw open the window, to the fearful cries of grown men with whom she matriculated -- men with aspirations to the law, men who that morning considered themselves no less brave than any: but now, now, with smoke trickling from nail-holes in the wall-plaster, now with the floor warming their shoe-soles, now these men trembled with ague and with FEAR!"
The Mayor's finger spiked toward Heaven above, quivering a little with fervor.
The crowd loved it.
"Did she fear as she looked the three stories to the pavement below?"
The Mayor swung his gaze round about, lowered his voice, placed a paternal arm around Sarah's shoulders.
"Let me tell you," he said, his voice quieter, more controlled, and the crowd leaned forward a little, hanging on his words.
"Let me tell you what she did.
"Our own Schoolteacher -- our intelligent and prepared young woman -- pulled a hidden cord, unrolling an escape ladder down over their window, and to the GROUND!"
His voice raised triumphantly, his face lighted with a beatific smile at the pronouncement, as pleased as if he himself deployed the ladder at the dread moment he described.
"She raised her voice in caution -- she warned her classmates not to over-load the ladder, for though it would bear one man's weight, it would not hold three.
"They panicked; they overloaded the ladder; it broke under their weight, and they fell to the ground below -- but they were near enough to merely bruise and not break!"
The Mayor looked down at Sarah, who big her bottom lip and shivered a little.
"Now only two remained," he said, his voice louder, solemn: his tones were those of a man pronouncing the words of a funeral sermon.
"Two remained in what was rapidly becoming a brick chimney.
"Hope seemed lost, unless they two wished to throw themselves on Heaven's mercy, risk being killed in the fall, and if they lived at all, live as a cripple.
"Was their fate this grim?"
The Mayor's expression was sorrowful for a moment as his rhetorical question hung on the expectant air.
He shook his head, smiling.
"There was yet a card to be played," he said, satisfaction in his voice.
"Our Schoolteacher is a woman of surprises.
"Not only had she prepared an escape, she had an alternate: it was the work of but a moment to fit a brace inside the open window, to cast a climbing-line to the open air, and then to fit her Professor with a fireman's ladder belt, spin the line through the gleaming steel hook, and start the man on his descent.
"By this time" -- he gestured to his left, where the Fire Chief and two firemen in polished, pressed, gleaming, tailored class-A uniforms and buffed, shining Bell caps rose -- "by this time our very own Fire Brigade made its response, and seeing a climbing-line and a man belaying, seized the free end and made belay, as easily as if they'd practiced it together for a year preceding!"
One fireman handed another a cloth-draped object; the second fireman handed it to the Chief, and the Chief held it before him, waiting.
"The Professor was safe.
"Only one remained in peril.
"The ladder belt was secured to the line, and our Angel of Mercy hoist the black line hand-over-hand until she had the belt again: wrapping it about her own waist now, having seen every last soul from the building" -- the Mayor's words were separated, enunciated, his finger-thrust fist chopping with each word -- "only then did she herself make good her escape!
"With the ease of a Swiss mountaineer, with the sure-footed grace of a native of the crags, our own Angel made her descent, or as far as she could, for fire burst from the window -- a gout of great devil's-breath, searing the very air and devouring her climbing-line -- the line held for but a moment, and then it snapped!"
The Mayor's jowls quivered as he bit off the word.
"Our very own Fire Brigade" -- his arm rose expansively behind the Chief -- "was ready with their life-net!
"Our Angel fell toward the earth, her wings gone, burned away by the fire's hunger!
"The canvas waited below!
"Our Angel's life was spared, and today she stands before us -- a soul enriched by half again a dozen lives, for those who breathe air today, thanks to her, number eighteen!"
A group of young men approached the bandstand: Sarah's breath caught as she recognized her classmates, and one among them, no longer young, but with a young man's delight on his aging face.
The Professor ascended the stairs, a bouquet across his arm: applause burst forth, crackling from hand to hand: none could hear the distinguished old man's words, but none could mistake the sentiment, as he presented her with the bouquet, and bestowed a grandfatherly kiss on her smooth cheek.
Sarah swallowed hard and blushed furiously; discreet hands behind her relieved her of the bouquet, for she found need to reach into her sling and retrieve a lace-trimmed kerchief, and press it against her closed eyes, up under her spectacles.
Sarah took a long breath, raised her chin, swallowed again, nodded.
Another group approached the bandstand, mostly women this time, the office girls Sarah had gotten out, and their bosses: another great bouquet, a necklace: Sarah had the impression of a faceted emerald, rectangular, with diamonds at four corners, but she wasn't sure, for her eyes kept blurring up.
One of the women -- the one that fastened the necklace about her neck -- bent to whisper, "Thank you," hesitated, then, "From both of us," and she leaned back, her hand on her low belly, and Sarah could not help herself.
Her face reddened and she started to cry.
Sarah lowered her head, her shoulders shaking: the office girl withdrew, and a slow tread ascended the stairs.
Sarah felt a man's fingers curled under her chin and she raised her wet face to Uncle Charlie's gentle gaze.
He reached in a pocket, pulled out a woman's watch, pinned it to her bosom, the same kind of watch Emma Cooper wore.
"You need to know when it's time to get out," he said quietly, and winked, and Sarah ran her arm around him and shoved her face into his chest.
She almost did not hear the crowd's roar and whistles of approval.
It took her several moments to compose herself, but compose herself she did, because she knew she would be expected to say something, and so Sarah pressed her damp kerchief to her nose, then squared her shoulders and thrust the lacy eye-dabber into her sling, out of sight.
Charlie joined Linn and Levi at the foot of the stairs, turning a little: she did not miss his wink.
Sarah raised her chin, looked at the Mayor.
The Mayor turned and accepted the cloth-covered object from the Fire Chief.
"In grateful appreciation for bravery in the face of personal peril," the Mayor said slowly, savoring the words, "the City of Denver wishes to express its appreciation for the saving of its citizens' lives."
The Mayor whisked the cloth cover off the engraved-copper proclamation, mounted on gleaming walnut, polished and waxed and gleaming in the sunlight.
Sarah swallowed hard, accepted the plaque: she turned it, tried to examine it, then handed it back to the Mayor.
"Could you hold this, please? I seem to be a bit short handed," she joked, and the Mayor chuckled and held the plaque for her.
Sarah turned to face the crowd.
"Class," she called in her schoolteacher's voice.
"Yes, Miss Sarah," about twenty mens' voices replied, and most of the crowd laughed, as did Sarah and the others on the bandstand.
"Class, I wish to thank you for this delightful surprise," Sarah said, her voice carrying well to the back row.
"I honestly expected to be given a ratty old skeleton key dipped in cheap yellow paint" -- she pantomimed dipping something distasteful, dangled from thumb and forefinger -- "or perhaps the key to someone's liquor cabinet" -- her smile was bright, contagious, and she waited a few moments for the laughter to die down.
"I did not expect all this," she admitted.
"I did nothing out of the ordinary.
"If any of you," she continued, "were dealt the same hand of cards, I have every confidence each of you would do the same as I.
"I am not brave.
"I am not strong.
"I walk with a cane, my arm may never be whole, I could not run three city blocks if I had to -- but I did not rely on strength -- I relied on planning.
"I thought ahead, just as each of you think ahead every day."
She paused, letting her words sink in.
"I was not comfortable, knowing our building had but one exit, so I found a way to make another.
"I knew there were several in our classroom and I knew there may be a panic if there were need for that desperate escape -- and a panic could break down the ladder I prepared, so I had another escape waiting.
"I did nothing extraordinary."
Sarah turned to the Mayor, rested her fingertips on the plaque: only the did she realize there was a key across its top ... a cheap skeleton key that looked like it was hastily dipped in ... well, not yellow paint, but gold paint of some kind.
Compared to the exquisite lettering on the copper face of the plaque, the key looked rather cheap.
"But I don't think I'll give this back," she admitted, and the Mayor laughed -- behind him, the Chief chuckled, as did the crowd. "I kind of like this."
Sarah accepted the plaque again from the Mayor.
Behind him, the firemen slid in behind Sarah, accepting the bouquets.
Sarah swallowed again, took a long breath and let it out.
"Class," she called.
"Yes, Miss Sarah!" most of the throats chorused in response.
"Class dismissed!"
The Fire Department band struck up again, and the crowd yelled, whistled and clapped its approval, its appreciation: the Fire Chief handed Sarah her cane, trading it for the plaque: Sarah made her way carefully down the few steps, took her Uncle Charlie's arm, looked at her Papa, at Charlie, her eyes bright.
"Weak, she said."
"Crippled."
"Can't run."
"Think we oughta tell her about the ball they're holding in her honor?"
Sarah looked from blue eyes to hazel, hoping against hope they were kidding.
They weren't.

 

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Linn Keller 8-12-12

 

His Honor the Mayor, the Fire Chief, the Police Chief, their adjutants, lieutenants, yes-men and syncophants flowed off the band stand, descending as Sarah reached ground level: they followed in a pompous parade, fanning out a little behind Sarah and Charlie to the cheers of the crowd.
His Honor the Mayor smiled and nodded, turning, waving, shaking hands, soaking up the opportunity to put himself in the public eye: the Fire Chief looked patient, the Police Chief looked annoyed, the lieutenants, syncophants and adjutants looked quietly attentive, and it wasn't until a small crowd of dirty-legged lads sprinted from under the Mayor's carriage, ran through the elite little group of people, brushed past Charlie and Sarah and were gone into the crowd, that the Sheriff took Sarah by the waist and hoist her into the carriage.
From her elevated position, she waved, to the increasing swell of cheers: one of the bouquets was passed to the footman, and Sarah bent, shouting something against the noise: she reached in and took a carnation by the stem, drew it carefully out, shook the water off its end and held it with the fingers of her right hand, still in the sling: with this bright spot of color contrasting gaily against the unimaginative grey of her severe schoolteacher's dress, she straightened and waved, turning, smiling.
The Blaze Boys, flanking Miss Emma, jumped up and down, excited, waving wildly, as enthusiastic little boys will, and Emma Cooper fluttered her kerchief overhead: the rest of the Firelands schoolchildren waved and chered, and a half-dozen young men pressed close about the carriage, shouting "Miss Sarah! Miss Sarah!" -- and two of them, almost with one voice, shouted, "Marry me, Miss Sarah!" -- then, each realizing what the other just shouted, surged after the other, and a good old fashioned knock down drag out fist fight ensued: in the happy confusion of this spontaneous entertainment, the dirty-legged street rats sleeted through the group again, and were gone.
Sarah turned at a youthful hail from behind her; she smiled and winked, pulled a small rectangular package from her sling and tossed it to the grinning street rat: he caught it neatly, thrust it into his shirt, and the lot of them ran, neatly evading the few coppers who tried to stop them.
Her third erstwhile suitor, looking at the first two knocking the stuffing out of one another in the name of love, removed his hat, withdrew a small velvet box from his coat pocket and opened it, displaying a diamond ring.
Neither Sarah nor the suitor had any chance to discuss the matter; the crowd was moving, crowding in, and it was with difficulty the Sheriff and Levi were able to board the Mayor's carriage: the Mayor himself turned to step into this bandwagon, just in time to almost get his foot run over by his own carriage's rear wheel: they were moving, slowly and with difficulty, but moving nonetheless: the Sheriff turned, pointed to the Police Chief, gave a quick hand-signal the other recognized from their days in the Cavalry.
Sarah held the carnation, very happy to be sandwiched between two big men with hard eyes and soft hearts: she knew they like to pretend they were hard-hearted and merciless, she knew they each public pressed anvils for entertainment, kicked locomotives off tracks and caught bullets in their teeth, but Sarah knew each inner man, and at this moment, she was most happy to have the hard outer man guarding her physical self, and the true inner man, guarding her soul.
Having Charlie aboard would have made it perfect, for she wished to see his face when he ran his hand in his pocket, as she knew he would.
When her unofficial brigade of street informants sluiced through the elite assemblage, passing like sugar through a sieve in spite of the police and the crowd, she knew Charlie felt a tug at his jacket, and she knew Charlie to be a suspicious sort, and she knew he would run his hand in his pocket, certain he'd been pocket picked.
She knew he would find two things.
He would find a policeman's watch, pickpocketed in the first moments of their youthful assault.
He would also find a note.
Sarah raised smiling eyes from the single, glowing, crimson carnation she held.
She would have given much to see his face when he read the note.

Charlie ran his hand in his pocket, frowned.
Nothing was missing -- he'd nothing in the pocket to be taken -- spread fingers thrust into the pocket --
Now what he hell ...?
Charlie came up with a pocket watch and a folded slip of paper.
He rubbed his thumb over the smooth, thick crystal: it was a heavy, nickel plated watch, not an expensive watch but a perfectly serviceable three-jewel.
His fingers detected engraving on its reverse.
Frowning, he turned it over.
To my beloved husband Christopher, he read, from your loving wife Marnie, on our first anniversary, and he read the date.
He looked around.
One of the officers on the other side of where the carriage used to stand, was looking around, crushing his pockets with his hand: he went from scanning the ground nearby to the distance-scanning distress of a man who realized he'd just been pickpocketed, and by an expert.
Charlie curled his lip, held up the watch, thrust the paper back in his pocket for later examination.

The Mayor's carriage pulled up in front of the firehouse.
The footman rushed up with a wooden step and placed it carefully, precisely, and opened the side door of the carriage.
Sarah stood: Levi and the Sheriff rose with her, and she raised her hand to them.
"Please," she said quietly, "there is something I must do, but I must do it alone."
Levi raised an eyebrow, looked at the Sheriff: the Sheriff thrust his jaw out, looked at Sarah, nodded.
The two men sat.
Sarah selected a half-dozen carnations from her bouquet and asked the footman to hold them for her: with cane and with care, she managed to step out of the carriage without too much difficulty: she stumbled a little as she came off the step, and the footman caught her upper arm: Sarah drove the tip of her ebony stick between the cobble stones, gritting her teeth and squinting her eyes against the pain: she leaned her belly against her hand, clawed around the round, gold nob atop the stick.
"My Lady, are you well?" the obsequious footman asked, his hand still about Sarah's arm.
Sarah nodded, pressing her lips together and breathing noisily through her nose: she straightened, slowly, brought herself to full height: she turned and opened her fingers, still holding the original carnation between thumb and forefinger, and took the other half-dozen from the footman with her whispered thanks, adding, "Please wait for me, I shan't be long."
The footman bowed his acquiescence.
Sarah labored to the door of the firehouse, raising the stick and rapping thrice upon the portal.
The footman saw the surprised face of the black-mustachioed fireman who opened the door, then he saw the Schoolteacher enter the firehouse, and several minutes later, he saw her emerge: she was quiet and thoughtful, divested of the flowers with which she had entered: she murmured her quiet thanks as the footman assisted her back into the carriage, and she politely asked the driver to take her back to her hotel, and she rode the little distance to her hotel with her head bowed, and in silence.
The footman could not see within the firehouse, nor could he know that Sarah researched the shift rotation, the response maps, nor that Sarah arranged to be driven to the very fire company that was first-in for the fire in which she was very nearly a casualty: nor could the bowing, scraping lickspittle know that she pressed the hand of each individual fireman, handing each a carnation, looking each individual man in the eye and thanking him by name for standing with that canvas life-net when she was most in need.
Sarah smiled a very little as the carriage drew up before her hotel, for she remembered one of the firemen asking her how she knew to use a ladder belt to descend a line.
She stopped and laid a hand on the man's breast and said, "An Irishman taught me, a Welsh Irishman named Llewellyn," and the Denver firefighter grinned very broadly.
His name, too, was Llewellyn, and he was blood relative to the Firelands Llewellyn.

Sarah's three men paused in the lobby, debating whether to explore the bar's welcoming quiet and cool throat-soakers, when Sarah tilted her head a little and smiled at Charlie.
"Did you read it?" she asked.
Charlie blinked.
He'd not thought of the folded paper again since rejoining his companions.
Sarah laid a cool hand on his forehead, frowning, then pressed gently under his jaw, the sides of his throat.
"As I thought," she murmured in a schoolmarm's quiet voice.
"You're suffering a severe lack of beer."
She turned her head, looked at Levi and the Sheriff.
"Could you take this poor patient sufferer to the nearest quiet, dark place, and see that he is properly rehydrated? I don't wish for him to dry out."
She looked at Charlie, her eyes absolutely innocent, her expression totally without guile, and she patted his coat pocket.
"Don't forget," she whispered.
Sarah dropped her eyes demurely and slipped between the men, hesitant and wobbling a little: she stopped, took a pained, breath, then resumed the little journey to her room upstairs.
Though she was obviously in some discomfort, Linn noted with approval that Sarah never once failed to acknowledge a murmured greeting, a nod, from the people who recognized her passing.
The three men watched quietly as Sarah labored up the broad, ornate staircase, pausing twice, head bowed, before continuing.
Charlie slipped a hand in his pocket, brought out the folded slip, opened it and read: he frowned, read it again, returned it to his pocket.
"The ball isn't until tonight," Linn said, "and I'm dry."
"How dry are you?" Levi asked.
"Dry enough to sneeze and blow dust!" He looked at Charlie. "Do you know of a good place, Charlie? Somewhere dark, cool and quiet?"
Charlie rubbed the thumb and two fingers of his left hand together as if remembering the feel of unfolding that slip of paper.
He nodded, looking at Linn and Levi.
"I know of a place."

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Linn Keller 8-13-12

 

Jacob broke open his double twelve bore.
His father had a hammerless gun, but Jacob liked a hammer gun: there was something satisfying about fetching those twin hammers back to full stand, and besides, the quiet click, click of a double gun coming to full stand tended to freeze a miscreant in his tracks.
Evening was progressing into night and he was not about to head for the warmth and comfort of his fine stone house, and the arms of his beloved: as much as he would like to listen to his little boy recounting the wonders and discoveries of the day, his place was here.
Annette knew this; he'd told her he would be spending time in town tonight, with everyone gone, and she'd smiled a little the way she did: he'd loved his wife fiercely, passionately, for Jacob was a young man with a great affection for his beautiful young bride, and he hated knowing he would be away from her for even a night.
He'd supped at the Jewel, he and Jackson Cooper: Jacob would take first watch, Jackson Cooper would relieve him halfway through the night: Tom Landers was gone to Denver to see Jacob's little sister receive her recognition and award, and Jackson Cooper made it a point to float through the Jewel with all the fuss and bother of a ghost passing through a wall: the stealth of the man was remarkable, and he had the gift of just appearing, and so those who gambled, those who drank, expected the greying old Tom Landers and instead had no idea when that muscled mountain was just going to show up again.
The Bear Killer, too, was restless: he haunted Jacob's steps, and Jacob was grateful for it: as a matter of fact, when Jacob had corn on the cob later that night, the Bear Killer begged the freshly-gnawed corn cobs from him, happily wallowing them between his paws, gnawing and splintering the cobs, regarding Jacob with bright, black, delighted eyes, as Jacob laughed and shook his head.
"Bear Killer," Jacob chuckled, "you're as bad as Annette's cat!"
The Bear Killer's ears perked up and Jacob rubbed the big Dawg's shoulders, shotgun across his lap, as he sat on the bank's back steps.
"She got a little kitten," Jacob continued softly, "a little white kitty with a calico face and tail."
The Bear Killer licked at his corn cob, then began chewing at it again.
"I'd just set down for supper when I felt something tug on my pants leg.
"I looked down and that little bitty kitty cat was climbing my leg like it was a tree.
"Once that little fella crested Mount Kneecap, it walked up my thigh, twisted around and climbed up on the table, it waded through my mashed potatoes, picked up my pork chop bone I'd just set down, then it looked at me and growled."
Bear Killer chewed on another chunk of corn cob and Jacob laughed at his memory.
The two sat in the gathering dark, listening to the night.

Bonnie never once failed to be gracious and ladylike, despite the many knocks on her door.
She expected flowers -- there were many -- she expected boxes of chocolates -- there were not a few -- but she did not expect seamstresses from town to deliver dresses, offer to tailor them to Sarah on the spot: Bonnie, realizing they didn't recognize her as the McKenna of McKenna, and not aware that they were addressing the best-known maker of couture in the Territory and beyond, gave Bonnie an amazing opportunity to assess the local competition, and in three instances, to either determine which of these to try and buy (and keep their staff, for their products were very good) or to hire outright.
Bonnie was, after all, a business-woman, and she was not about to pass up the opportunity to improve her business.
Sarah knew well the principle of "Learn it, do it, teach it," spoken of by Dr. Flint, on one of the rare times when he spoke of medical school: as a teacher, Sarah knew well the value of learning, and so she made it her business to learn.
When her father spoke of a military principle, described by a scarred Sergeant, she listened carefully, and at the moment, was putting that principle to use.
"Never stand when you can sit," he father had said that quiet afternoon, when they two were riding together, "never sit when you can lay down. Eat when there's food, rest when there's a chance and always, always keep a full canteen."
Now Sarah was laying down, willing herself to relax: she was divested of most of her clothes but not all, and the sling was hung over the back of a chair; she very carefully straightened her arm, easing its ache, closing her eyes and relaxing.
She intended to dance at her ball, the ball being thrown for her, the ball in which every eligible bachelor for half a continent or more would be attending: though she detested the aches in her young body, though she hated not having her usual strength and ease of movement, she was grateful that it might make a useful crutch, a plausible excuse not to dance, for surely there would be those with whom she did not wish to associate.
Sarah closed her eyes, looking at herself coldly, harshly.
I never had such thoughts of a dance before, she thought.
You never had a ball thrown in your honor, sister, came the whispered reply. You never danced at a ball, a genuine ball, under crystal chandeliers, with a fine orchestra, women in gowns the equal of your McKenna best.
Sarah took a long, slow breath, began consciously, relaxing each muscle group, beginning at the top of her head, working her way down, putting herself into a relaxed state in hopes that she would get a little sleep anyway.
It promised to be a long night.

Jacob's Apple-horse stood relaxed in the darkness.
There was light enough to just see the white tip of Apple-horse's right ear.
Jacob knew his stallion, and Jacob knew the Bear Killer was somewhere near, and Jacob knew their senses were greater than his own: he knew his double gun had eyes in the dark as well, and he intended that his town should be safe.
Apple-horse walked silently in the darkness.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-13-12

 

"Gentlemen, if you would be so good as to follow me, I believe I know just the physician to offer us the remedy for our condition," Charlie told his companions solemnly. "Let us be off." Putting word to deed, the ex-Marshal strode from the hotel lobby, a man on a mission of mercy to his fellow Man, or at least a couple of them.

Exiting the hotel, ignoring the exhortations of the cabbies whose conveyances were parked neatly along the curb, Charlie looked left and right, orienting himself before turning to the left and stepping out briskly. Three blocks from the hotel he paused at the mouth of a somewhat unsavory-looking alleyway that split the difference between two multistoried brick buildings of substantial dimension and mostly genteel appearance. "In here, gentlemen," and, seeing Linn's right hand slip toward the front of his coat, murmured, "That won't be necessary. Trust me," then grinned widely at the look on the countenances of the Sheriff and Levi. "What? Have you no faith in the basic goodness of your fellow man?" Both men shook their heads ruefully at his words, though neither relaxed as Charlie led the way into the dimness.

Some fifty feet down the alley from the street a set of wide stone stairs led down to an iron-bound timber door that was set well below the level of the alley floor. Centering the door was a knocker consisting of a plate of steel bolted to the surface and a large mallet, its head battered from past usage, suspended from a length of what appeared to be a quite elegantly braided rawhide reata. Charlie led the way to the landing, grasped the handle of the mallet and proceeded to rap on the plate three times, the dull thumps of the mallet's strikes echoing from the walls around them. A small, hitherto unnoticed hatch slid open in the timbers above the steel plate and a querilous voice asked roughly, "Who are ye and what in the name of Hades do ye want? We're closed!"

"It's an apostle with an epistle!" Charlie answered cheerfully. "Open up and let a thirsty man belly up to the bar!"

"MacNeil? Is that you?"

"None other!"

"What makes ye think I won't just shoot ye down like a dog where ye stand rather than wasting my good beer on a tasteless varmint such as yerself?"

"You won't shoot me, old man! You're too damn lazy to clean up the mess, and too damn particular not to! Now open the door!" Charlie grinned over his shoulder at the uneasy expressions on the faces of his companions. He lowered his voice to a more conversational level as the sound of a heavy bar of some sort thudding to the floor drifted faintly through the still open hatch. "Vernon's a cranky sort, but he makes good beer. And don't worry, he's been threatening to shoot me for years and hasn't made good on it yet." The heavy door swung open a crack, soundless on well-oiled strap iron hinges.

"Come in if yer of a mind to then," they heard. "Or ye can stand around out there and die of thirst. Makes nae difference to me."

"We'd best do what the man says," Charlie said with a grin as he pushed the door wide. "After you, gents."

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Linn Keller 8-13-12

 

Esther relaxed on the hotel bed, letting her mind drift, even as her hand lay on her growing belly.
She was grateful the speechmaking had been mercifully brief -- a welcome departure from the custom of the day -- and she promised herself that if she ever again attended such a proceeding, she would remember to bring a chair, or arrange to view it from a sheltered balcony with both shade and comfortable seating.
Esther's eyes traced unseen patterns on the ornate ceiling: her eyes blinked slowly as she contemplated the living link this new life in her belly represented.
Esther was a Wise Woman, with a knowledge beyond that of mere mortals: she knew this child within her, this firstborn female, would have blue eyes, but not ice-blue: no, this child would carry a gift that would not surface until generations were past, until common knowledge was passed into legend and perhaps forgotten.
The girl-child that grew within, rested quietly, unknowing, perhaps, or uncaring of the link she represented.

Jacob, unlike his unborn sister, did not rest.
He swam in the dark like a fish in dark waters: Apple-horse moved easily under him, hooves sure in the night, and Jacob knew -- without seeing, without hearing -- that the Bear Killer moved with them, equally silent, near enough but not too distant.
The clock advanced steadily; Jacob's eyes were restless, Jacob's vigilance, constant: twice he stepped into the Jewel, right eye tight-closed against the lamp light, knowing it was vital to keep as much night vision in his good eye as he possibly could: coffee, in the Jewel's lull, was a welcome diversion.
Had this been one of the great silver-mining towns, or even Cripple, wenching, wagering and whiskey never ceased: gambling-houses ran wide-open the clock around, with women and every other vice available at any hour.
For the right price, of course.
The Silver Jewel, however, was not in one of the great pulsing sin-pots of gold-mining; Jacob drank his coffee in the general hush; the Jewel had a reputation for cleanliness, and the cleaning crew was quietly, steadily, industriiously busy maintaining that reputation; Daisy's girl was cycling pies into and out of the well-stoked oven; clean linens were carried upstairs and stored away in cupboards, dirty linens were brought out and taken to the laundry not far away; the Jewel was not completely asleep, but unlike Jacob, the Jewel was drowsing and relaxed.
Jackson Cooper stepped through the front door, smiled a little as he saw Jacob's screwed-shut eye: he used the same dodge himself.
Jacob drifted over to the big lawman, sipping noisily at the coffee, as it was still too hot to slurp.
"Aught?" Jackson Cooper asked quietly.
"Naught," Jacob replied.
Each nodded, once; Jacob set his coffee down and accepted a little ceramic pitcher of cold milk.
"I'll stay another hour or so," Jacob said quietly.
Jackson Cooper consulted his watch.
"I got some sleep," he said, his voice soft: "head on out and get some sack."
Jacob's smile was tight.
"There's one thing I'm afraid of, Jackson Cooper," Jacob said, trying the coffee with a slug of cooling milk added.
Jackson Cooper raised an eyebrow, smiled his thanks as Daisy's girl handed him a steaming mug of scalding-hot coffee.
"Was anything to happen," Jacob continued, "with Pa out of town ... was anything to happen, an' me to not stop it ..."
Jacob's eyes were haunted as he looked at the big town Marshal.
"I would see forgiveness in his eyes ... and guilt, and he'd not trust me again."
Jackson Cooper rested his big hand on Jacob's shoulder.
"Did I not already know you were blood," he rumbled, "your words would mark you your father's son."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-13-12

 

The three men stepped into the sort of cool that only comes with submersion beneath the surface of the planet, yet the air was dry and smelled pleasantly of sage and evergreens. As they strode resolutely toward the long, brightly-polished mahogany of the bar that spanned the width of the long side of the rectangular room the teasing fingers of the light breeze slipped softly across exposed skin. Their host, broad of shoulder and white of hair, stood behind the bar, glaring at Charlie.

"I suppose that ye expect ma best, don't ye, MacNeil, e'en though it's baen three years since yer shadow's darkened me door," Vernon MacTavish bristled, his brown eyes snapping.

"Aye, that I do, my friend," Charlie drawled as a broad smile creased his lips. "After all, one can't have one's friends disappointed in their repast, eh? And if I didn't expect the best, I'm sure we'd get the scrapings from the bottom of the keg." He indicated the Sheriff and Levi. "These two parched individuals are Linn Keller, Sheriff of Firelands and my brother, not through the flow of blood through our veins but through blood spilled and powder burned, and Levi Rosenthal..."

"Aye, Ah know who they are," Vernon interrupted. "That wee girl what saved so many folks from Hizzoner the Mayor's "dastardly inferno", and what got the key to the city today, is their get. His, anyway." He indicated the Sheriff with a quick jerk of his white-whiskered chin. Linn's eyes opened wide for a moment, startled, before his poker face fell back across his features. "And Rosenthal's daughter ba marriage. So I guess I can offer ye some'at better than ye'd get if ye come bargin' in here by yer lonesome. Hattie!"

"Aye?" the melodious voice of a woman unseen drifted to their ears on the breeze.

"Ma best ale, and a bite to go with it if ye please, Ma Dear! That varmint MacNeil's come callin', and brought a few friends with him."

"Aye, but it'll be a moment. Or ye can get the beer yourownself and save me some time and work."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-13-12

 

Grumbling under his breath, Vernon Mactavish stomped over to another dark timbered door that stood in the wall at the end of the twenty foot backbar mirror. When the big brewmaster pushed open the door his movements created a draft of chill air that could be felt across the bar. He disappeared through the door into the room beyond, gurgling sounds were heard, then he returned with a sizeable pitcher in one hand and four large mugs in the other, held by the handles. Mactavish banged mugs and pitcher on the bar, sloshing fragrant foam onto the gleaming mahogany, then proceeded to pour each of the mugs full. "There, ye varmint. Ma best ale, and ye'd best like it, or I'll be tossin' yer carcass out into yon alley! Now drink!" He set an example by lifting one of the mugs to his lips and downing half its contents in a single draught. The trio facing him across the expanse of mahogany hurriedly followed suit.

"Beeelllccchhh!!!" Charlie grinned at their apparently reluctant host. "Now that is good beer!"

"Charlie MacNeil, yer mother would be ashamed of ye," Hattie Mactavish admonished from behind him. "Yer manners are terrible!"

"Why, Hattie! Haven't you heard that that's not bad manners, it's a compliment to the chef?" He spun and wrapped the diminutive woman, who was considerably less than half the size of her husband, in a bear hug that lifted her feet from the stone flags of the floor. He planted a kiss on her cheek before setting her back on terra firma, where he kept his right arm wrapped around her shoulders. "Let me introduce you to my friends. Sheriff Linn Keller, Levi Rosenthal, this is Hattie Mactavish, who is indeed a saint, as she's lived with that sore-toothed grizzly yonder behind the bar as his blushing bride for as long as I've known 'em, which is more years than I care to count."

Pushing Charlie's arm from her shoulder, Hattie stepped forward to present her hand. "I'm most happy to make your acquaintance, gentlemen." Linn took her small hand in his and bowed, bringing it to his lips.

"The pleasure is all ours, dear lady," he murmured. In his turn, Levi followed suit.

"If ye're done with fawnin' over ma bride, gents, the beer's gettin' warm and the food's gettin' cold," Vernon grumbled behind them.

"In this case, I must agree with ma grumpy husband," Hattie said cheerfully. "Help yerselves, gents." She waved a hand toward the spread of fresh, hot bread, sliced pink-in-the-center beef and slabs of fragrant cheeses spread on a nearby table. The three men eagerly sampled the provender, washing the tender beef and bread down with swallows of cold beer. Some time later the trio stepped back out into the cool of the evening, feeling that all and sundry were more than sufficiently rehydrated.

It was only as they left the alley and turned to stroll back toward their hotel that Charlie remembered the slip of paper in his pocket.

She says that you can trust her. I wonder what she meant by that?

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Linn Keller 8-14-12

 

Levi was perfectly at home, walking the city sidewalk: a man at ease walks at ease.
The Sheriff wasn't, and didn't.
Charlie, as always, had the quiet, controlled grace of a panther.
There were those folk who frequented the alley-mouths, those observant predators who knew who to accost with a proposition, with a choice item for purchase, or perhaps with the suggestion that their mark cheerfully hand over their purse ... these folk are good judges of character and can tell much at a glance.
Universally, these folk shrank from the three lawmen's approach.
They knew they were not harness bulls, as they knew them: they were not the Denver constabulary, nor were they uniformed, but the three were more ... aware ... than the usual city dweller, and when eye contact was made, however briefly, it was more like the alley skulkers were speared to the wall like a butterfly to a cork-board.
The three traveled in silence for a little.
When finally the Sheriff felt conversation would not diminish their vigilance, Linn said quietly, "I think I'll live now."
"You were lookin' peaked and puny," Charlie nodded. "I was fearful you'd dry up and blow away with the next good gust of wind."
"Why, I'd likely to've withered up to nothin' a'tall," Linn agreed, nodding wisely.
Silence fell on the three again, for about another city block.
"You two," Levi finally offered quietly, "are about as full of it as I've ever seen."
Linn and Charlie looked at the ex-agent, then looked at one another.
"I think I"ve been insulted."
"Imagine that."
"Sad part is, he's right."
"He is."
Silence again, as their hotel came in sight.
"Ale, the man said."
"Ale it was."
"Potent stuff."
"Potent."
The doorman touched the gleaming black bill of his cap, hauled the door open for the three men.
The Sheriff, as did his companions, removed his cover upon crossing the threshold: he did so easily and naturally, without the reluctance he'd shown since getting his scalp ugly-fied.
It felt good to be relaxed, to lower his guard a little.
That was good ale, he thought, smiling a little.

Jacob and Apple-horse prowled like restless cats.
So far he'd found a miscellany of stray cats, dogs, one or two owls coasting through the still night air; they paused in shadow, held station in pools of darkness, watched and listened and waited.
Jackson Cooper, too, was watchful, there in the dark: he chose an overwatch position, assumed the general character of a twisted oaken stump.
The train whistle's sharp edge was gentled with distance, and a few minutes later, The Lady Ester's laboring chant could be indistinctly heard.
Jacob nodded to himself; Apple-horse's ears swung about, and he heard The Bear Killer's quiet jaw-pop and woof from somewhere to his right.
Firelands was returning, or most of its population.
Jacob smiled a little.
He might get some sleep tonight after all.

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Linn Keller 8-14-12

 

The Teacher's Brigade met in the warehouse, as they usually did, opened the package under the lamp as they always did.
The oldest read Sarah's note aloud while the rest munched on fresh cinnamon spins: Sarah had rolled out pie dough, buttered it, sprinkled it with sugar and cinnamon, rolled it up and cut it into about 3/4 inch thick chunks, stacked these on a sheet and baked them: they boys loved them so, and she knew if she sent a note, she would have to send a little something extra.
Besides, at the bottom of the note, she'd included instructions on where to get more, and how.
"What's it say, what's it say?"
"Wait wait wait wait --" the oldest said, then shoved a cinnamon spin into the questioner's mouth.
"There. Chew on that."
"Wuffit zay?"
"It says" -- he frowned a little, reading -- "it says, she says, thank you for today. She says she is pleased we saw her getting her award and hopes the speeches were not too boring."
The boys laughed, looked longingly at the few spins that were left.
"She says it's really important that we get that note in Macneil's pocket."
"I did it, I did it, I did it!"
One lad bounced a little, waving his hand, sitting cross legged and grinning with delight that he'd pleased their mentor and benefactress.
"And I wrote it," another said, affecting a haughty air. "Just like she said, I wrote it!"
"Yeah?" came the sneering reply. "What did you write?"
"I wrote that he can trust her," he said proudly.
The oldest looked at him, eyes widening, then he whipped off his cap and smacked the speaker over the head: the others, not entirely sure what was going on, but not going to miss an opportunity, joined him in a general cap-whipping.
"You idiot!" the oldest snapped, "you were supposed to write that SHE TRUSTS HIM!!!"
The flogging kind of coasted to a stop and the abashed note-writer whined, "Maybe she meant it the way I wrote it," and wrapped his arms around his head as another slapping cascade of briskly-swung wool caps descended upon him.

Bonnie nodded approvingly at her daughter's image in the long mirror.
Sarah was transformed, as she always did by one of her mother's signature gowns, from a tall girl to a beautiful young woman: her hair was elaborately styled, her lips carmined, she stood with grace and pride, a fitting visual representation of Beauty itself.
Bonnie looked no less lovely: their gowns were much alike, their hair nearly identical, her skin glowed with the good health of good nutrition and clean living.
Esther slipped her hands around their waists, one on the left, one on the right: she looked from one to the other, then nodded to the mirror.
The three looked into the mirror as Esther said, "We are the Celtic triangle."
Bonnie and Sarah looked curiously at Esther, who looked from one to the other, then back into the mirror.
"The maiden, the mother, the crone."
"Crone?" Sarah and Bonnie protested, then laughed, and Esther laughed with them.

Jackson Cooper sat down on a nail keg, his long barrel ten-bore across his lap.
Absolutely, positively, nothing at all was happening ... well, almost nothing ... people flooded back into Firelands from the depot, laughing, riding and driving out to their homes, some coming back to the Jewel; Maude smiled as she passed him, unseeing, not realizing the big lawman was ten feet back in the alley-mouth and in shadow: almost near enough to touch, and near enough that Jackson Cooper caught a momentary glimpse of her face, of the secret smile it held.
Jacob, too, watched in silence and in shadow, until the stir was past: he saw Daisy skip across the depot platform into her husband's arms, saw Sean hoist her off the ground with a great, booming "Daisymedear!" and she threw her head back and laughed, then swatted at the big Irishman with an indiginant "Put me down, ye great Irish lug!" -- and Jacob grinned to watch Sean press her up to arm's length, then bring her down and kiss her soundly and entirely immodestly.
Firelands was suddenly not so empty, but Jacob was not a trusting man, and so he stayed in his saddle, watching in the dark.

The Sheriff knocked discreetly at the door.
The maid opened it wide, and the Sheriff was treated to the full effect of three beautiful women, side by side, waiting for his arrival.
The Sheriff swung his Stetson under his arm and paced off on the left: his boots gleamed, his suit was brushed, his mustache curled: he stopped a half pace from the three and looked from one to another, then finally bent and took Sarah's hand in his own.
Kissing her knuckles, he spoke frankly and without affectation.
"My dear," he said, "you are indeed lovely, but who in the hell are you, and what in the hell have you done with Sarah?"

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Linn Keller 8-15-12

 

Jacob leaned a little to the side, catching a ray of light from gas streetlight.
He was keeping to the shadows as much as he could, prowling like a tomcat: he pressed the stem of his watch, heard it flip open, held it into the wedge of light, withdrew.
Likely they're done with that fancy dinner, he thought.
I doubt me not they'll have a fancy ball afterward for her.
Jacob's eyes were pale in the dim light: his smile did not descend from the corners of his ice-blue eyes.
Little Sis, he thought, I'm proud of you.

Sarah ate sparingly, delicately: the fish was excellent, the salad fresh, the tea was hot and her cup was constantly filled: she took a single sip of wine and barely nibbled at the flaky, sugar-dusted French something-or-another that was presented as dessert.
Sarah was smiling, pleasant, attentive: her eyes were a distinct blue, bright and sparkling, and when she spoke, or rather when she listened, she gave the instant and lasting impression that she was giving absolutely her fullest attention to the speaker -- which immediately endeared her to a multitude of men, young and no longer young, who wished to have converse with this puzzling, interesting, and unexpectedly beautiful creature.
Bonnie watched her daughter sidelong, for she was seated beside; she noticed Sarah ate left handed -- Sarah used her left hand exclusively -- for the evening, she was without her sling, though she had one nearby, but she kept her right arm folded protectively against her belly, discreetly in her lap, masking its absence with an animated attention to all that was occurring around her.
The dinner was better than Sarah feared: the speeches that followed were, unfortunately, as long, dragged-out and frankly less than interesting as she'd dreaded: still, as the Guest of Honor, and Seated at the Head Table, she drew on her schoolteacher's experience, dissecting phrases and words, quickly assaying them and comparing them to previous sentences or paragraphs, looking for a deeper meaning.
Sarah found herself praised and adulated; she found herself compared to a variety of heroic folk from the past; she smiled politely at the verbal portrait of her descent from the flaming hulk on a black-silk climbing-rope as "sure-footed as a mountain sheep, but much prettier," and she laughed with the audience at the speaker's reference to "making a grand exit."
Sarah knew she would be called upon to speak, and she'd prepared for the moment: before leaving Firelands, she took a roll of wallpaper she used in school, a roll she would dispense in convenient lengths and tear off with the assistance of a long, sharp-edged plank; she would have her students draw or write on the blank reverse of the wallpaper roll.
She'd taken what was left of the roll, used a crosscut saw to halve its length, and had it with her tonight.
When finally she sluiced lukewarm tea about her mouth and swallowed (discreetly, of course, for she knew she was the subject of many eyes), she tilted her head a little and smiled politely as the speaker finished his lengthy presentation with a grand and oratorical, "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you our own dear Schoolteacher, Miss Sarah!"
Sarah allowed herself to blush as she rose; she glided behind her mother and Levi, laid a hand on Charlie's shoulder: he reached up and placed his callused paw on hers, and she held for a long moment, reassuring herself with the old ex-Marshal's touch: then she continued to the end of the row, and around, and up on the speaker's dais.
There was a general low buzz and scooting of chairs as the diners situated themselves to where they could see this interesting new speaker -- not so much because she was their very own Angel in Grey, but because she had to be better than the previous speaker's predictable and long winded soliloquy.
Sarah placed the roll of sawed-off wallpaper on the podium before her; she smiled, looked around with the assurance of a teacher about to present a lesson, and began.
"Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests," she said, pitching her voice so she could be heard to the far reaches of the room, "I prepared a few remarks ahead of time so I wouldn't forget anything."
She plucked up the tag end of the wallpaper, very carefully supported it with her right hand -- her right upper arm was tucked unnaturally close to her side, a discreet move, but none missed the care with which she moved it -- Sarah stepped to the side, holding the free end of the wallpaper, and accidentally dropped the roll.
It fell, unrolling, and traveled a distance across the floor.
Sarah blinked innocently, taking an exaggerated look at the paper in her hand, raising her hand, looking down its curved length, and tilting her head a little to the side, following it with her eyes as it wobbled under a table.
She looked up at the audience, blinking, and said "Well ... maybe not," and dropped the free end of the paper.
The audience laughed.
"My friends, I have had the advantage of an excellent education."
Her words painted themselves on the canvas of a silent hall: her quick ear noted the lack of any conversation whatsoever, and she appreciated that her words were being carefully attended.
"I have had teachers, formal and otherwise, and have learned many lessons, both in a formal schoolroom setting, and otherwhere, and otherwise."
She looked down at Charlie Macneil and at her father, and smiled.
"My father is a Mason.
"I know little about Freemasonry, beyond that it is an ancient and most honorable institution, and men I respect deeply are Masons.
"In casual conversation I am given to understand that they, too, teach within their ancient Fraternity, and that speechmaking is practiced there.
"To that end, I too have been taught, formally and informally, in the art of public speaking."
Sarah smiled -- a quiet smile, a confident smile, a smile that seemed destined for each individual watching -- a smile that promised she was about to share something only with the individual listener.
"The best speaker I ever heard was the briefest.
"Now I won't be the best you've ever heard, but I'll be in the top ten."
Sarah waited for the laughter to subside before continuing.
"I draw breath today because I prepared for the task at hand.
"I draw breath today because other people were prepared as well.
"I am intelligent, educated and capable, but I do not have a crystal ball.
"I look at possibilities, and at probabilities, the same as a businessman who keeps a bank account against hard times, or a housewife who lays in a good store in her cellar against a time of want.
"We don't know these misfortunes will occur, but we prepare against their possibility.
"Your Fire Brigade did not know, on that day when I was obliged to use my preparations, that they would deploy their life-net to save me -- but they were prepared.
"They prepared, they practiced, they drilled, and when the time came, they executed.
"Let my lesson be this:
"Prepare for that which might happen.
"I did."
Sarah dropped a curtsy; she turned as the Mayor rose, and shook his hand; she turned and shook the Fire Chief's hand, said a few words, inaudible against the applause: she pressed the proffered flesh of the most-of-a-dozen dignitaries who shared the stage with her, and settled into the indicated seat, saved for her.
She was the featured speaker, the keynote speaker: hers was not the only speech made that night, but hers was the best received, hers was the only one anyone really remembered ... and as she intended, hers was also the briefest.

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Linn Keller 8-15-12

 

Sarah was the blossom, and many men were the bees, but Sarah danced first with the Sheriff, and then with Charlie, and then with Levi: after that, her selections were made seemingly at random: many wished to tread a measure with this surprising, delightful young creature who could captivate with her speech, or with a glance, and Sarah did her best to accommodate all she could: she danced a little awkwardly, and her choices of the Sheriff, of Charlie and of Levi to start, was intentional: Sarah was discomfited from standing the short time she did behind the podium, and she knew their height (and their strong arms) would help keep her upright, and disguise any weakness that may plague her.
Charlie proved a most excellent dancer.
This surprised her, though it should not have: she remembered how he and Fannie absolutely glided on the dance floor back in the Silver Jewel: Charlie was a man of many abilities, of many skills, and Sarah considered with part of her mind that he was never wanting in the ability to do just about anything he damn well pleased, should he set his head to it.
Levi, on the other hand, danced with all the grace of a stepladder: Sarah managed to avoid having her feet crushed under his burnished brogans, but it was a near thing, and not a few times.

"I never knew," Jacob murmured quietly, "just how fast coffee went through a man."
Jackson Cooper nodded, sampling the night air and the coffee's fragrant vapors.
"How does Pa drink so much of the stuff?"
Jackson Cooper took a cautious sip, flinched, grunted.
"Mmp," he protested, wiping the dribble off his chin. "Scald the hair right off my tongue!"
"That hurts to think about."
The two lapsed into silence.
Somewhere in the distance a coyote serenaded the stars; distantly, faintly, they heard the gold mill, the great stamping-hammers chanting their giant's cadence, pounding quartz into gravel, reducing tons and more tons so chemicals could leach gold from the stone: Jacob was only vaguely familiar with the process, and knew only that he stayed as far from the place as he could.
Jacob smelled the sandwiches before Daisy's girl got to them with the tray: he and Jackson Cooper gratefully accepted the kindness.

Sarah sat, a little out of breath: cheeks flushed, eyes shining, she declined three well-dressed but anxious young men who'd vied with one another for her attention: "Gentlemen," Sarah said, hesitating a little, not wanting to disappoint them but knowing she was fatigued, "if I might beg a few moments to gather my strength!"
Bonnie, beside her, laid her hand on Sarah's, and gave the three a long, motherly look: a look was sufficient, and the three retreated.
Sarah trembled a little as she rested, for she was still not entirely healed from her right-of-way disagreement with the bull calf, and her careful clamping of her arm against her ribs was not at all an affectation: it took some little effort for Sarah to sit upright, proper and ladylike, and not slouch or slump.
She accepted tea and took a cautious sip, closing her eyes and savoring the gently brewed oolong: she handed the cup and saucer to her mother and nodded, which apparently a reporter took as a positive response to something, perhaps a question he hadn't voiced, or Sarah hadn't heard.
Sarah opened her eyes, tilted her head a little and regarded the anxious young man, his pad open on his knee, his whittled pencil poised.
"Miss Sarah," the young man began, "is it true that you are known as Agent Rosenthal?"
Sarah laughed -- an easy, natural laugh, the kind a woman will use when she's just heard something absolutely silly.
"Agent?" she smiled.
"Look at my right arm."
The reporter's eyes dropped to her arm, raised again to her sky-blue eyes.
"My arm may never be right. I have difficulty walking, and I have waltzed tonight only because big, strong men had their arm around me and supported my weight." Her eyes were gentle, sincere, without guile, and he felt as if he might fall into them as into a deep pool of still water.
"Perhaps you are thinking of my mother's husband, Past Agent Levi Rosenthal? He was headquartered out of Denver, and I believe he made a name for himself."
"I see," the reporter blinked. "But, um, a young lady doesn't usually go preparing for --"
"No?" Sarah blinked, the very image of surprise. "And why not? I am small, and of slight build. I have not a man's strength, nor a man's cleverness. I must think ahead for my own salvation. Had I not done so, I would have been lost, and most terribly so."
"Your last name is Rosenthal, then? -- we know you as Miss Sarah, and as The Schoolteacher."
Sarah's expression was patient.
"If my mother's married name is Rosenthal, and I am her daughter, would that not follow?" she asked reasonably. "Unless I were married, which --" she held up her left hand, wiggled her fingers -- "I am not."
"Have you plans to marry?"
"Are you proposing?"
Sarah's bluntness was gentled by her smile; the reporter chuckled.
"No, no, of course not. Well, then, what are your plans ... I'm sure with the attention you've received you could teach anywhere ...?"
"My plans?" Sarah took a long breath, looked down at the floor, raised her eyes again to the young man scratching on his pad. "I plan to continue learning, as best I can, wherever I can."
"Learning ... but what about teaching?"
Sarah sighed patiently.
"Are you a college man, Mr. Brown?"
"A college -- why, no ... no, I am not."
"Then you have not the advantage of medical school."
"Nnn ... no, ma'am, I have not."
"There is a principle in medical school," Sarah said, falling easily into a lecture's voice: "Learn it, do it, teach it. One is most effective as a student when one also teaches, and one is most effective as a teacher if one is still a student."
"I see."
"Lessons are had in more than the classroom. Did you listen to my presentation earlier?"
"I did, yes, and I enjoyed it."
"My father taught me two very useful rules of public speaking."
The reporter nodded encouragement.
"He taught me, firstly, that the longer the speaker's wind, the harder the chairs become."
The reporter laughed, nodding.
"And second," Sarah continued, "the mind absorbs only until the backside grows numb."
Sarah winked at the reporter, and the reporter laughed again.
"There, you see?" Sarah smiled. "You've learned something tonight, and so have I."
The orchestra began another air and Sarah looked past the reporter.
"Now if you will excuse me, I believe a young man is waiting for a dance."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-16-12

 

"She's flagging, and rapidly," Charlie told his lovely bride, nodding toward where Sarah moved gracefully about the dance floor, flowing from step to step in perfect rhythm with the orchestra. Only someone who knew her as well as did he and Fannie could note the slight trembling of her shoulders, the occasional hitch in her step, small though it might be. "I think it's time that Miss Sarah bid her public adieu, eh?"

"I agree, Sugar. Being the Belle of the Ball can be quite taxing, and she's had quite a long day as it is." Fannie slipped her delicately-gloved hand from the crook of his elbow. "I think it would be best if you were to cut in."

Charlie raised her hand to press it to his lips for a moment then turned and made his purposeful way through the swirling dancers to tap Sarah's companion on the shoulder. "If I may?" he asked gently, noting the relief in the girl's eyes at the interruption.

"I waited for quite some time for this dance, my good man," the young fellow answered, "and I don't intend that I give over until it is complete." He began to turn his back toward Charlie, but the ex-Marshal was not to be denied. His calloused left paw came to rest just above the fellow's broadcloth clad right elbow, thumb and forefinger pincered on the sensitive nerves at the juncture of bone and sinew. He squeezed gently as he pulled the young man back around to face him.

"What do you think you are doing? Unhand me this instant, or face the consequences!" his victim demanded as he tried to extricate his arm from Charlie's fingers.

"That was more in the nature of an order than a request," Charlie answered gently. "I do not believe that you wish to make a scene at such a time, do you? It would be in your best interests if you were to relinquish your place as Miss Sarah's dancing partner. Immediately." His fingers tightened slightly and the young man winced. "Step away now, if you please."

The young man stepped away from Sarah, bowing stiffly to her. "It has been a pleasure, Miss Sarah." Sarah nodded. The young man turned to Charlie. "As for you," he hissed, "I demand satisfaction! No man lays hand to Reginald Searles without penalty! I shall see you outside!" He turned and strode angrily toward the ballroom's wide double doors.

"What did I say?" Charlie asked innocently as he took Sarah in his arms. She leaned heavily against him.

"Thank you, Uncle Charlie. I didn't realize that I was so tired until I saw you step up. Perhaps we could go to a chair?"

"I've got a better idea. We'll go find your mother, and get you to your room. It's time you got some real rest." He began to steer her through the dancers toward where Bonnie and Levi stood with Fannie, sipping some of the truly abominable punch that was part of the refreshments for the ball.

"Promise me you won't hurt Mister Searles too badly, please, Uncle Charlie? He really meant no harm. He just wanted to dance with me."

"I'll try to stop short of broken bones, okay?"

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Linn Keller 8-16-12

 

Daciana's eyes snapped open, her breath catching in her throat.
The dream was real, too real, and she could still hear the scream, she could feel herself falling, falling --
The scream again, but not human: a cat, and close by.
Daciana held her breath, listening, then surged out of bed.
Sure-footed in the darkness, she slipped out of the bedroom, down the hallway: bare feet whispered on the stairs and she came into the kitchen, pulled open the door, listening, listening --
Buttercup!
Daciana's stomach shrank as she heard her beloved pony half-whinny, half-scream again: she'd heard that only once before, and she forgot any fear, any hesitance she'd felt.
She ran silently down the hall and into the barn, snatched up the horse whip she swore she'd never use.
Buttercup kicked the sides of her stall: Daciana heard her teeth snap and heard a man swear: she half-saw her cream-colored pony rear, heard a man's scream, then she saw the other, clawing for the bridle Buttercup wasn't wearing.
Daciana went from fearful wife to mad-as-hell mother: she ran across the straw-and-sawdust floor, arm swinging powerfully, the blacksnake whip floating invisibly through the dark air.
Daciana had a performer's sense of balance, an acrobat's sense of timing, a tumbler's coordination: her thoughts blazed through the plaited leather and the leather responded, and Daciana's scream merged with the man's: a horsewhip across man-flesh carries an absolute detonation of pain, on a par with being pressed with red-hot iron: Daciana swung her arm again, the whip sizzling now as it sang, promising red agony with its kiss, and seared the man again, lower.
The first staggered back out of the stall, hands to his mouth, choking: the two half-stumbled, half-ran for the door, stumbled into the darkness.
Daciana shouted something in Romanian, snapping the whip and cracking it like a pistol-shot in the darkness: Buttercup's hooves were loud in her stall, and Daciana whistled, three notes, and Buttercup surged over the barrier and to her beloved mistress.
Lightning stumbled into the barn, shotgun in hand.
"Daciana!" he called.
"Here!"
"I'll strike a light!"
"Do!"
Lightning fumbled in the dark; Daciana heard the squeak of the lantern opening, heard the match scratch into life: she coiled the whip, hung it over her shoulder, extended her hand to Buttercup, whistling softly, almost soundlessly.
Lightning held the lantern up, trotted barefoot across the open floor.
"Daci, are you hurt?"
"No, I am not hurt," she said, her accent coming stronger: "look at Buttercup, let me see her."
Lightning held the lantern higher and they looked at Buttercup.
Daciana squatted, exclaiming in alarm, reaching for Buttercup's hoof.
Lightning bent, set the lantern on the floor.
The hoof was bloody.
He saw something else.
"Daci," he said quietly, "take Buttercup into the middle of the floor."
Daciana stood, caressed the trick pony, murmured something in her native language: Lightning looked around, shotgun balanced in his hand, then looked more closely at Buttercup's stall.
He picked up a broken tooth and saw a few more on the floor.
"Daci, check her mouth," he said, stepping away from the lantern and toward the still-open door: she heard the double hammers click, click as Lightning fetched them back to full stand.
Lightning hesitated inside the door, took a good grip on the double barrels, forward of the fore-end: he leaned out, looking, looked back the other way, then closed the door, latched it carefully.
"For what I am looking?" Daciana asked, caressing Buttercup's nose.
"Are her teeth broken?"
Lightning's head was clearing rapidly: no man thinks with perfect clarity when abruptly wakened, and he was finally realizing the teeth he saw on the floor of the stall were far too small and delicate to be equine in nature.
He listened; hearing nothing, he walked slowly over to his wife and the pony.
"I have to get the town marshal," he said.

The Bear Killer's head came up and his growl shivered the darkness around him.
Jacob shifted his weight in the saddle at the sound of approaching hooves.
He frowned, peering up the street: four cavalrymen were riding down the street, two and two.
"Help you fellas?" Jackson Cooper's hail came from the dark.
One of the cavalrymen raised a hand and called "Ho," and the quartet halted, illuminated by the gas lights.
"Corporal Adkins," he replied. "With whom have I the honor of speaking?"
Jackson Cooper stepped into view, rifle across his arm before him.
"Town Marshal," he said genially. "You're out late."
"We almost caught up with two deserters," Corporal Adkins replied.
"Marshal!" a voice shouted, and Jacob eared the hammers back on his double gun.
Lightning stumbled out of an alley wearing his nightshirt and a distressed expression.
"Lightning! What brings you out?"
"Our barn!" he blurted, "Daciana's pony -- broken teeth --"
Jackson Cooper looked at Corporal Adkins.
Jacob did not wait.
Neither did Apple-horse.
"Bear Killer! With me!"

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Linn Keller 8-17-12

 

The Sheriff nodded to the doorman, made a quick, almost hidden gesture: the man swung the great wooden valves open, and Charlie and Sarah flowed from the great ballroom: Sarah's smile was unfailing, gentle, and Charlie's expression was pleasant: the man had a hell of a poker face, and he knew when to wear it, and how, and now was the time.
The Sheriff, on the other hand, was of no mind for such niceties.
He stayed a pace behind the pair, pale eyes busy, and when Reginald Searles made as if to approach Charlie again, the Sheriff slid in between them, jaw set.
"Out of my way," Charlie heard Searles hiss: Charlie and Sarah were a pace beyond the man, Charlie's arm protectively around Sarah, and he felt her stiffen a little as she realized something unpleasant was about to happen, and Charlie smiled a little ... a very little, for he knew what was probably going to happen.
"Uncle Charlie?" Sarah said in a small voice.
"It's all right, darlin'," Charlie drawled reassuringly. "Let's get you back to your room."
"But --" Sarah said, then leaned a little more against Charlie as fatigue laid its claim on her.
Charlie felt her head nod as she wordlessly agreed.

Searles found the Sheriff as easy to brush aside as a cedar post well tamped into a nice, deep post hole.
As a matter of fact, he found himself pressed back against the wall, the Sheriff's hand in his belly, twisting up a good handful of tailored material.
"What," the Sheriff hissed, "were you doing with my little girl?"

Corporal Adkins saluted the two lawmen.
"Gentlemen," he said, "thank you for your invaluable assistance. With your permission, we will remove the deserters to face justice under the Military Code."
"Jackson Cooper?" Jacob said, looking over at the big lawman. "Town is your jurisdiction."
"Corporal," Jackson Cooper rumbled, his voice coming from a couple hundred feet underground, "I hate paper work. Your taking them saves me from it."
Corporal Adkins laughed. "Colonel Markley called it Paper Hell," he nodded. "We are pleased to have been of service."
The prisoners, tied to their horses, were silent, and not bleeding too badly: one's mouth was a ruin, the other bore the marks of having been brought to justice with the assistance of toothed jaws of some variety.
The Bear Killer sat beside Jacob and managed to look very innocent.
One of the troopers watched a kitten stalk, stiff-legged, out from under the boardwalk, furring itself up to an incredible degree as it approached the Bear Killer: finally stopping only inches from the drowsing canine, it sizzled and spat and took a swat at the Bear Killer's foreleg.
The Bear Killer reached down and licked the kitten, earning another tiny teakettle-hiss.
Corporal Adkins raised a gloved hand.
"Forward, hooo," he sang, and the small troop rode out.
Jackson Cooper watched them go.
He looked at Jacob, and Jacob grinned.
"'Paper Hell,'" Jacob quoted. "I like that one."
"Yep."

Lightning wheeled the load of stall scrapings out back and dumped it on the pile.
His only concession to getting dressed was to thrust bare feet into an old pair of shoes.
It was early enough nobody took note of the long, tall, skinny telegrapher running the steel-wheeled Irish buggy about in his nightshirt.
He and Daciana spread fresh sawdust and straw in Buttercup's stall and groomed her down together: Lightning understood almost nothing of the reassuring whispers Daciana used; he only knew that they were soothing, gentle, and the circus pony responded to them.
Daciana looked over Buttercup's back at her husband.
"I am gladt ve did not go to Denfer," she said.
Lightning nodded, stroking Buttercup's neck: the pony turned her head toward the man, begging an ear scratching.
"No, no, not chust --" Daciana's eyes swept Buttercup's spine.
"I not like ..."
Frustrated, she frowned, then reached across and squeezed Lightning's hand.
"I glad we not go Denver."
Lightning's expression was serious, but his hand was gentle as he squeezed Daciana's callused hand, gently, carefully.
"I glad too," he said solemnly, and Daciana's face lit up with delight.

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Linn Keller 8-18-12

 

Sarah sagged as she reached her hotel room door.
"Uncle Charlie," she whispered, "thank you."
Charlie's hand was warm and strong under her elbow.
They heard the lock turn; the door opened, the maid gave Sarah a concerned look, then looked at Charlie.
"Poor little thing," he murmured, "she's all done in."
Sarah knew she was tired.
When she didn't have the strength to bristle at Charlie's words, she knew she was much more tired than she'd realized.

"Mr. Reginald Searles," Levi said thoughtfully. "Yes, I know the man."
The Sheriff stood beside the tall ex-agent, quiet eyes regarding the conference beside the brougham at the curb: Searles and two other men were in conversation, their voices low; Searles' moves were quick, vigorous, abbreviated ... the motions of a man with a wounded pride: the Sheriff, on the other hand, was relaxed, unruffled, his coat unbuttoned: beneath the coat, the hammer tabs were pulled free and drawn down out of the way.
Just in case.
"Tell me about him."
"Second generation nouveau riche," Levi replied. "His father is an honorable man who worked hard for what he has. He tried to give his son a better life than he had."
"The son has never known want."
"Never."
"He's always gotten his way."
"His father saw to it."
Levi was considering his next comment, but said instead, "You realize they are looking at us."
"I intend they should."
"I thought you might."
"A man is known by the company he keeps," the Sheriff explained. "If they intend to cross swords with Charlie, I want them to know they will have a long tall hillbilly to contend with as well."
"I was never a hillbilly," Levi murmured, "but count me among your number."
"You don't suppose he'll get an attack of good sense and just let the matter drop?"
Levi looked at the Sheriff; the Sheriff looked at Levi.
"Didn't think so."

Sarah decided to forego the bath and went straight to bed.
She knew she was tired, she knew she was sore, she knew she ached, but it wasn't until the weight came off her joints and she relaxed between sun-dried sheets that she realized just how tired she was, and how much she ached.

Daciana waited until Lightning was gone for the day before she took the broken teeth and placed them in an exact order on the anvil.
Carefully, precisely, she took a hammer and gently broke them into tiny pieces, then ground these into dust in a stone mortar and pestle.
She added a few dried herbs and two freshly-plucked leaves from a plant she grew at the corner of the porch, where the sun was good, and as she ground and mixed the philter, she half-muttered, half-whispered a chant far older than she, an ensorcellment more ancient than the Gipsi from whom she'd learned it: Words of Power need not be spoken loudly, and loudly she did not speak, and when she was done, she very carefully tapped the ground philter into a little cloth circle, and tied it with a white ribbon, and placed it just outside the door where the would-be horse thieves forced their entry.
She spat through the open door and barked a single word.
There was the smell of sulfur, a dull sizzle as if lightning just seared the air.
Daciana closed the door and latched it, knowing without looking that the little cloth poke with the ground-to-dust teeth, was now just a blackened circle on the ground, blasted so utterly that there was not even a trickle of smoke to rise in the quiet air.

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Linn Keller 8-19-12

 

Emma Cooper hummed a little as she arranged books in neat rows on their shelves.
She kept them at her house, in the off season, boxed up and covered with a cloth to keep the dust off: the air was dry and she did not fear mold, as she would back East, nor were the silver fish a problem this high up.
Emma was a tidy woman, organized and orderly, her books were ranked by grade or by purpose, or by subject: there was method to her seeming-random grouping, and at any moment she could take a few steps, reach out almost without looking and have the necessary work in hand.
Sarah, she considered, was a delightful complement to her methods: she, too, had a gift for organization: the two worked very well together, and Sarah's gifts extended to reaching young minds that distracted easily, or were perhaps otherwise occupied.
Emma Cooper spent a good week getting the little whitewashed schoolhouse cleaned and ready.
It wasn't dirty, you understand, but as it was very near the main street, there was always a certain amount of dust, and dust worked into every available opening; she worked steadily, unhurriedly, giving herself enough time beforehand, and she knew that when school began after the harvest, her young charges would come in with shining faces and bright or downcast eyes, eager step or reluctant tread, delight or resignation, but all would sit on the benches without fear of getting up with a dusty backside, all would receive a book handed them without danger of loosing a cloud of the Dust of Disuse upon opening the tome.
Emma Cooper labored steadily until the sun just passed its zenith, until she heard a familiar step and the door swung open and a cascade of sunlight announced her husband's arrival.
Emma Cooper turned to face the doorway, her hands properly folded before her, a patient schoolteacher's smile on her face, the way she always did, and Jackson Cooper stopped, the way he always did, and looked long at his bride.
Emma Cooper had no way of knowing, for Jackson Cooper -- for all his strength, for all his hard, callused, rough-looking exterior -- Jackson Cooper was a man with a deep heart, and he loved this woman to the very deepest levels of his being, and every time he opened the door and took a look at her, he took a long look at her, and once again marveled that someone as angelic, as perfect, as flawless as her, would ever even consider taking up with a rough, unsophisticated, rude, knuckle-scarred fellow like himself.
Jackson Cooper drew the door shut, gently: hat in his hand, he held it before him, looking to Emma for all the world like a bashful schoolboy with a crush on the teacher.
This actually was very, very close to the truth, for this was one of the few moments, one of the few places, where Jackson Cooper let down his guards, lowered the great stone walls with which he guarded himself, and he felt very much like that bashful schoolboy, and he very much had a crush on the schoolteacher.
"Mrs. Cooper," he rumbled, voice gentle but strong in the silent schoolroom's interior, "will you do me the honor of dining with me this day?"
His words were the same -- unvaried, exactly the same, precisely cadenced, identical in pronunciation and enunciation, and Emma Cooper smiled a little, the way she always did, and she blinked, for she too was amazed that a man as strong and capable, as able and intelligent, a man who could have his pick of women the world over, would choose her ... little, mousy, uninteresting Emma.
Instead of her usual, quiet, cultured, carefully pronounced answer, Emma Cooper snatched up her skirts, ran down the center aisle and into her husband's arms: laughing, she embraced him, letting delight flood her soul and happiness govern her heart.
Jackson Cooper's arms were strong and enveloping and he caught her up into his breast and held her, gently, carefully, as if she were delicate china and she might break in his clumsy grasp.
"Oh, squeeze me, Jackson Cooper, hold me, hold me!" she whispered, and Jackson Cooper very carefully, very gently, tightened his embrace, containing and confining his bride in warmth and in strength, and in all of her life, Emma Cooper never, ever felt as safe and protected as she did in her husband's great, muscled arms.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-19-12

 

Charlie strolled nonchalantly through the gas-lighted elegance of the hotel lobby, admiring the way the polished woodwork surrounding him gleamed in the warm light. It was a warm night out, and consequently the wide double doors leading to the street were wide open. Through the opening he could see the Sheriff and Levi in quiet conversation on the veranda that fronted the street. From the direction of their concentrated gaze he intuited the location of his prospective foe, or more likely, knowing the type, foes. He'd rarely seen a fop such as Reginald Searles come to a fight without some sort of assistance. Charlie's lips curled in a small smile of anticipation. This was going to be fun, if it lasted long enough. He'd yet to meet one of these rich wastrels who was possessed of any quantity of endurance.

Charlie stepped out onto the wide stone veranda, nodding to his drinking companions of the afternoon just past. "Gents," he murmured. "Lovely night, eh?"

Linn met his gaze for a moment, took note of the small smile, and told Levi soto voce that they "Might as well stand back. He's smiling."

Levi replied in kind, "Is that good or bad?"

"Depends on which side of it you're on." The two stepped to one side, far enough away to present a facade of disinterest in the coming festivities, close enough to step in if necessary. Linn was fairly sure that it wouldn't be necessary, but he kept his Colts limbered up and close under his hands just in case.

Charlie meandered to the edge of the veranda and stood with his thumbs hooked in the waistband of his tailored woolen trousers, looking down at his would-be adversary. "Well, well, if it isn't my good friend Mister Reginald Searles," he drawled. "And friends. Are you going to introduce me to your pals, Reggie?" He noted how Searles' back stiffened at the sound of one of his most hated nicknames.

"Know them only as the men who will help me horse-whip you for laying hands on me, MacNeil!" Searles snarled. He took a step forward. The plaited rawhide of a twelve foot blacksnake whip was coiled in his right hand. "Gentlemen, if you please?"

Searles' companions were cut from the same cloth as he; that is, they were second generation to their money, and so spent more of their time drinking and gadding about than they did working. Still, they were in rather good physical condition, and were of a size with Charlie, though they were a good many years his junior. They approached cautiously, one from each side, sidling up the pair of broad stone stairs up to the level where Charlie stood, his smile widening. Their eyes flicked from Charlie to the two silent figures in the background until they had gotten to the point where it was necessary to watch either the man they had come to attack, or his friends; doing both was out of the question, so they concentrated on Charlie, who still stood in apparent relaxation, watching their approach.

"Are you sure you really want to do this, Reggie? Someone could get seriously hurt." Charlie's soft words, no longer drawled but spoken sharply and articulately, stopped the two men in their tracks momentarily as they waited for Searles' reply. "Although I did promise Sarah I'd try to stop short of breaking bones."

"You are the only one who will be hurt this evening, MacNeil," Searles replied. "Now!"

The young gentlemen to Charlie's right suddenly lunged forward, grasping Charlie's jacket sleeve and moving behind him, pulling the ex-Marshal's arm towards his back. He in turn hooked Charlie's left elbow with his own then strained Charlie's elbows behind him as far as possible. The man to Charlie's left stood poised to render any needed assistance.

"Nicely done, my young friend," Charlie said admiringly. "But I fear it won't quite be enough." At this juncture, it should be noted that Charlie was a horseman. As such, and having traveled over much of the American West, from Canada to Texas, he had seen and come to admire many of the traditions of the various regions he had visited. One of those traditions was that of the so-called "riding heel" on men's boots, which worked to prevent said boot from slipping through the stirrup and trapping the rider's foot. The boots he wore this evening were of heavy bullhide, laced up the front, and had such heels.

His assailant, on the other hand, was a city gent, and wore shoes appropriate to his perceived station in life. They were of supple kidskin, and were quite comfortable to wear for long hours in the barroom or boardroom, as the case may be. However, kidskin is little protection from a stacked leather bootheel, with two hundredweight of ex-US Marshal perched atop it. Consequently, when Charlie raised his right foot from the polished stone surface of the veranda floor and brought the heel of his boot crashing down on the arch of the young man's foot, something had to give. That something was not the bootheel.

Unseen by Charlie, Linn and Levi grimaced in sympathy at the castanet-like sound of breaking bones as Charlie brought his full weight down on the young man's foot. The fellow screamed shrilly in sudden agony, his grip loosening as he unconsciously bent forward toward the source of his pain. He went silent as his nose forceably met the back of Charlie's head, said nose exploded in a crimson shower, his eyes rolled totally up like window shades in a high wind and he dropped straight down, out cold, with a thud and clatter of bony body parts striking unyielding stone.

The second young man froze, statue-like, his brain momentarily paralyzed by what had happened to his friend in such a short time. He took an involuntary step forward, his eyes widening at the sight of so much blood. He raised his right hand in a warding gesture, as if to say, "What? How?" To Charlie, such a movement was the signal he was waiting for. Had the fellow stepped away, he could have made good his escape unscathed. As it was, his forward movement sealed his fate.

Charlie took a tight grip in the raised hand and spun it behind its owner's back, doubling him over. The momentum from the doubling started the young man forward. With his free hand Charlie took a solid handful of the seat of the young man's trousers and, steering him an a relatively straight line, drove him headfirst into the rough cut granite facing between the great double doors and one of the glittering gaslit windows. There was a singularly dull thud, and the fellow collapsed to the floor.

Charlie turned back to face Searles who stood staring open-mouthed at the carnage just wrought before his eyes. The whip dangled from his limp hand, totally forgotten. Charlie stepped down to street level and Searles turned to face him. When he knew he had the young man's undivided attention, Charlie lifted his left hand and crooked his index finger in a "come here" gesture. "Now where were we?" Charlie asked softly, his cold tones holding the sound of sharpened steel slipping from leather. "Oh yes, you were going to horsewhip me, were you not?" Searles swallowed loudly and gave a sort of weak, half-nod. "Then come forward, my young friend," Charlie went on. "Let us commence to dance."

"I, well, I,..." Searles stammered. He had never seen such ferocity in his young life, and all the self-righteous anger that had sustained him to this point had drained out of him like water from a bullet-punctured bucket.

Charlie crooked his finger again. "A man should always do what he sets out to do, you know, Reggie," he interrupted. "Even if it means that he gets injured. What kind of man are you, Reggie? One who hides behind his friends, or one who does what he sets out to do? Hmm? Which is it?" His stony gaze locked onto Reggie's frightened eyes as if to look into the young man's soul. Reggie stared back, enthralled. Charlie stepped forward and took the whip from Searles' nerveless grip, allowing it to uncoil to its full length on the stone walk at their feet. He took two steps back, and his voice deepened and grew colder still.

"Now, Reggie, here's what's going to happen. You and your friends came here to beat a man for protecting his niece's virtue, and for laying hands on your person against your will. Had you come alone, I would have accorded you some measure of respect. As you chose to enlist those," Charlie nodded contemptuously at the still forms of Reggie's bleeding friends, "then you do not deserve said respect. So you are going to run away, like the coward that you are. I will grant you two steps; make the best of them." His voice suddenly rose. "Now run, you cur!"

Reggie flung himself about and forced his feet into motion. As shoe leather struck stone for the second time, he heard a whistling hiss and a band of agony wrapped itself around his chest, bringing him to a sudden halt. The band released him, then wound itself around his right ankle, lifting it and sending him crashing face first to the ground. In a frenzy to escape he kicked and clawed, trying in vain to drag himself away from the hellfire that rained down on his back and legs as the whip flicked bits from his clothing and left spots of blood in its wake.

Charlie lowered his arm to his side then tossed the whip forward to lay across Searles' back. The young man sobbed his pain and humiliation, but no thought of retaliation crossed his agonized mind. His only thoughts were of thanks that he was still alive, that the demon that MacNeil had apparently become had spared him this night. Charlie turned slowly, suddenly exhausted, and stamped up the stairs to the veranda. He turned to look down at Searles. "I'm sorry, kid. I shouldn't have let that happen." He turned back and walked tiredly into the bright light of the hotel lobby and started toward the stairs to his room.

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Linn Keller 8-20-12

 

The Chief of Police was enjoying something rare for him.
He was standing at the bar, leaning back against the polished surface, one elbow resting on mahogany and the other hand holding a sweating-cool mug of beer.
The hotel had probably the best bar in town for just relaxing, and the Chief was a man who needed to relax, for the demands on his office were many.
Like the military, once you get to captain and above, it's all politics, and the Chief hated politics above all things, but it was part of his job, and so he stood in the hotel's saloon and sipped his beer.
He eyed the anxious young officer evenly.
"Sir, what are your orders?"
"Orders?" the Police Chief asked, looking at the restless young copper over his heavy glass mug.
"Yes, sir, orders! There was --"
"Searles," the Chief said, his lip curling. "I know."
"But, sir, what --"
"We do nothin'." The chief punctuated his order with a noisy slurp of the cool, fresh beer.
The young officer considered this, swayed a little, clearly indecisive.
The Chief came up for air, wiped foam from his mustache, raised an eyebrow.
"Lad," he said, "in our line o' work we ha'e somethin' called discretion.
"That means when a strutting popinjay like Searles bites th' wrong leg an' gets kicked o'er th' back fence for't, we let i' happen."
The young officer frowned, looked down, looked back at the Chief.
"Yes, sir."
"You're new aren't you?" The Chief took another long swallow, savoring his drink: it had been a long day and he was happily socializing: as Chief of Police, it was his duty to rub elbows with a variety of social strata, and today he'd hob-a-nobbed with the elite, and frankly it left a taste in his mouth he didn't really care for.
The high point was the lass they'd recognized, of course: she was a deep one, that girl, there was more to her than met the eye -- which he didn't fully realize until she came to the bandstand on that retired Marshal's arm ... Macneil, it was.
Good man, that, he thought: he'd never made Macneil's acquaintance in person, but knew him by reputation, and his reputation was good.
Rosenthal, now ... he knew Rosenthal was married to the lass's mother, though he wasn't necessarily her father, and it was not until he saw that long tall fellow in the broad hat with those pale eyes that he realized who the girl's father really was.
Now there's a tale I'd like t' hear, he thought, eyes busy, for though he was Chief of Police, he'd never lost a street cop's habit of watchfulness, nor of standing with his back to a wall.

The Sheriff stood and watched the groaning, sobbing dandy, the unmoving, bleeding companions, the shocked bystanders: he'd chosen his position well: in plain view at first, then with two steps to the side, half shadowed.
Levi moved with him, not realizing the tactical advantage.
"I have to admire the man that's good at what he does," the Sheriff said thoughtfully.
Levi made no reply.
Levi was no stranger to death, violence nor revenge, but he'd never seen such concentrated mayhem firsthand.
Macneil had been absolutely unruffled ... utterly calm ... and deadly.
He looked at the Sheriff and knew he was of a kind, and involuntarily drew back a half-step, wondering just what kind of men these were, these men with whom he'd chosen to associate.
"Levi."
Levi started a little at the Sheriff's quiet voice.
"Yes."
"Tell me about his father."
Levi blinked and realized the game was not over, that the Sheriff was still engaged, and he hesitated before answering.
"I know the man," he admitted. "As a matter of fact ... " His voice trailed off, then picked up again.
"We spoke of his son."
Levi spoke slowly, uncertain whether he should divulge the conversation he'd had with Reginald's father.
"I remember he said the boy needed a good defeat."
"That's not what he said."
"No."
"He said the boy needed his behind kicked up behind his shoulder blades."
Levi blinked.
"How did you know?"
"I spoke with him a year ago."
Levi made no reply.
The Sheriff thrust his chin at the bloody scene.
"He might turn out all right now. I've known young men -- soldiers, coppers, city boys mostly -- thought they were just God's gift to justice and the big hammer." He looked at Levi and the tall ex-agent saw something ... something dangerous in the Sheriff's eyes.
"Not a one of 'em was worth a tinker's damn til he got his first good butt whipping."
He looked at Reginald, wobbling up on all fours, then collapsing again, sobbing into his coatsleeve.
"If he's got any brains a'tall he'll learn from this and straighten out."
"If he doesn't?"
"He'll try this same thing again with somebody else, only worse ... and it'll get him killed."
"Macneil could have killed him."
"Hell, I could've killed him!" the Sheriff snapped. "What would he've learned?"
The Sheriff's pale eyes burned into Levi's.
"This way he might straighten up.
"Macneil gave him a chance to live."
His hard expression changed ... bleak, Levi thought, bleak is how I would describe his face ...
"If 'twas anyone but Macneil, young Reginald would be dead now."

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Linn Keller 8-21-12

 

Sarah was awake early, as was her habit.
She was dressed and slipped out the door before her mother woke.
Sarah descended the stairs with a planned, careful gait, using the ebony cane: she was no more than three steps down when a well-dressed young man nearly sprinted up the stairs to gallantly offer his arm: Sarah smiled and thanked him quietly, asking if he could please hold her cane, as her other arm was yet injured.
She inquired at the front desk and the young man with the slicked-down hair was quick to summon the bellboy, who scampered after an item: Sarah asked her gentlemanly escort if the young man might help her outside, for she needed to hail a cab.
She and the Denver detective boarded the cab and arranged the two boxes; Sarah gave the driver an address, and they were soon rattling through the morning-quiet streets of the Mile High City.
"I have you to thank," the detective said quietly, looking at the composed young woman in the mousy-grey dress.
"You are the only one I can trust in this matter," Sarah replied. "This is ... important to me."
"You feel responsible for them."
"They helped me," Sarah said simply. "It's only right I do for them in return."
"You could have simply paid them. They're only orphans, street Arabs."
"No."
Silence for a time, punctuated by the mare's steady gait, the hack's creaks and groans, the rattle of steel rims on cobbles and brick.
"They helped me with the McPulski case."
"I know." Sarah smiled a little.
"Harris, too."
"Harris?" Sarah looked sharply at the man. "Was that resolved?"
"Oh, yes," the detective nodded. "It was poison."
"Poison," Sarah said thoughtfully. "I hadn't considered that."
"Harris took the poison himself."
Sarah nodded, frowning a little. "That's why," she murmured. "I was looking for a murderer."
"Your instincts were good. Had you not laid the foundation, I could never have built the case."
The detective looked down at her arm in its sling.
"Please tell me you're getting better."
"I'm getting better," Sarah said woodenly.
"If I am ... out of line, I beg pardon."
"If you are out of line I will throw you through the window, you know that."
The detective chuckled. "You do have a direct way of dealing with difficulties." He paused. "You said your arm may never be whole."
Sarah shrugged with her good shoulder. "Things could be worse."
"I see."
"The sling gives me a convenient way of carrying weapons."
The handsome young detective's eyebrows raised and he turned to look squarely at the young schoolteacher.
"Weapons?"
"I am never without," Sarah said quietly, turning pale blue eyes to regard him squarely: she slipped her free hand into the sling and smiled, a tight, secret smile, and said, "Would you like to see?"
"Yes, of course." The detective scooted a little away from her so he could turn toward her.
"You know I am The Schoolteacher."
"I know, yes."
Sarah withdrew the ruler, shook it menacingly.
"Behold the Dreaded Knuckle Cracker, that feared weapon of order and propriety!" she said with mock seriousness. "This strikes fear into the hearts of the naughty, and righteousness into the hearts of all who see it!"
Her voice was so severe, so stern, so at odds with the merry dancing of her eyes, that the handsome young detective with the carefully-curled mustache could not help but laugh.
Sarah smiled gently and slipped the ruler back into her sling.
"Appearances are everything," she said quietly. "In the popular mind, I am a crippled schoolteacher with one arm, a threat to no one save perhaps a naughty schoolboy, someone who had one bright moment in the public eye and who will now very likely live an obscure and uneventful life in a backward and backwater town until I die an old maid."
"And the reality ...?"
Sarah took a long breath, looked out the window.
"We are nearly there," she said, and he heard a bit of tension in her voice.
The driver drew up not a minute and a half later.
"Wait for us," Sarah smiled, "we shan't be long," and the driver nodded, touching the brim of his shining top-hat: the detective carried the two boxes and followed Sarah into the warehouse.
Sarah labored slowly, painfully, into the shadowed interior, toward a lamp that hung in the very center of the building.
Rapping the cane's tip into the stone floor, she whistled, two notes, a come-here note, and sang "Come out, come out, wherever you are," and from the shadows the came, grinning lads, scampering toward their Lady in Grey, their Schoolteacher.

There was almost no conversation as they were driven back to the hotel.
"You did not complete your thought," the detective said finally.
"And just what was I thinking?"
"That you appeared to be a crippled schoolteacher whose arm would never heal, and you appeared to be heading toward your dreary destiny as an old maid."
"Oh, yes. Appearances."
"Yes," the detective said quietly. "Appearances."
Sarah smiled a little.
"As long as the popular public believes Miss Sarah is a cripple, I will not be a threat."
"And the reality ...?"
Sarah's eyes were quiet, her expression relaxed.
"You are a suspicious man."
"Yes."
"Good."
"You're not going to answer me."
"You know the answer already."
"I don't know the answer."
"You suspect the answer."
"I do suspect, yes."
"You suspect right."
"You're still not going to tell me."
Sarah turned to look at the man.
"I will tell you this."
Sarah's eyes were a darker shade now, and the detective saw something he hadn't noticed earlier ... he wasn't sure quit what, only that something was different.
"So tell me."
"If I call upon you, it will not be as the crippled up Schoolteacher," Sarah whispered. "You may not know me, save only by my eyes, I will be that different."
The detective nodded, his eyes serious.
"I'll remember that."
The carriage drew up in front of the hotel; they were not completely stopped before the doorman had the carriage open and the stool in place for Sarah's dismount.
The detective was first out, that he might be of gentlemanly assistance to his crippled-up companion: Sarah stopped at the foot of the broad, ornate staircase, leaned heavily on the detective's arm, sagging as if her head were nearly too heavy to hold upright.
"Thank you," she said quietly. "I could not have done that alone."
"It was my pleasure," he said honestly, and not at all insincerely.
"May I buy you breakfast?"
The young detective's eyes were serious, his fingertips light on her shoulders.
"I have not your father's permission," he replied. "It strains propriety that we were together and unescorted."
"We were not on a social call," she corrected him, "we were colleagues, working on a case."
The detective frowned a little, turning his head slightly as if to bring a good ear to bear.
"I think you will find my little band of Irregulars discovered the missing jewelry, and you will have your case solved before three o'clock." Sarah planted the steel-shod tip of her ebony cane in the carpet, took a step, paused.
"I ... jewelry ... what?"
"The Wilson theft you're working. As a matter of fact you may wish to go to the usual meeting-place. I believe you'll find they have not only the jewels you're looking for, they have the information you'll need to secure a conviction."
The young detective's eyes widened, then narrowed.
"Crippled up schoolteacher," he said slowly.
"Appearances are everything," Sarah smiled. "Good morning, Detective."

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Linn Keller 8-21-12

 

"Were you able to follow her?"
"Yes, sir, easily, once she came back to her hotel."
"When she came back? Where was she?"
"I don't know, sir. She had that dick with her, the one that caused us problems with Harris and helped us with McPulski."
"Hm." The Boss puffed meditatively on his cigar.
"After the detective left, she came back down and caught another cab." The lieutenant smiled. "One of our men."
"Convenient. Go on."
"She went to one of the cemeteries."
"The cemetery?" The boss leaned forward, interested.
"Yes, sir."
"And who did she meet?"
"No one, boss."
The boss frowned, leaned back in his chair, blew a liquid stream of second hand Havana at the ceiling.
"She didn't meet anyone."
"No, sir."
"Did she pick anything up, leave a note, anything?"
"She left a single red carnation on a grave, sir."
"A carnation."
"Yes, sir."
"On which grave?"
"That dancing girl that was garotted."
"After my predecessor said to leave her alone, they still tried to kill her."
"Yes, sir."
"And the schoolteacher kicked the trap on the murderer's gallows."
"Yes, sir."
"She sent me a hand written note. Did you know that?"
"No, sir."
"She asked me not to intervene, that she wanted the honors." He smiled a little. "I wanted to see what she had in mind."
"Yes, sir."
"Now I know why he told everyone to leave her alone."
"Yes, sir."
"Was there anything on it, was it wrapped ...?"
"No, sir. Just a flower. Nothing wrapped around the stem."
"Did she do anything else?"
"Yes, sir."
"She went to the grave."
"Yes, sir."
"And ...?" The boss let the question hang.
The lieutenant shifted uncomfortably before the Boss's scarred desk. His eyes followed gouge marks made by that pale-eyed Agent's shotgun when she took out the boss's predecessor.
"She ... cried, sir."
"Cried."
"Yes, sir. Knelt down and leaned on that gold headed cane of hers and cried like a lost child."
The boss frowned.
"The driver helped her up and she was barely able to walk back to the hack."
"Barely able to walk," the boss repeated slowly. "Because she was crying so hard?"
"No, sir, I don't think so," the lieutenant said. "I drove the hack and she seems genuinely crippled."
The boss gave his lieutenant a sharp look, then nodded.
"If anyone can tell, Doctor, you can. Well done."
"Thank you, sir."
"Now about those stolen jewels."
"We don't know where they went, sir. Once the heist was done and the double cross happened, they disappeared."
The boss frowned again.
"I don't like losing the baubles," he said softly, "but this may be the break we need."
"Sir?"
"If we can't find them, neither can the cops."
"As you say, sir."
"And if they can't find them, and we can't find them, they'll think it wasn't us."
"Yes, sir."
"Let me know if the jewels turn up. Something like that can't be kept quiet."
"Very good, sir."

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Linn Keller 8-21-12

 

Sarah was quiet as she had tea and toast with her mother and the maid.
They would be going back to Firelands today.
Her Papa, the Sheriff, was at another table, laughing with Levi and Uncle Charlie: Sarah could have listened to their conversation, but her mind was busy elsewhere.
Gloved hands rested briefly on her shoulders and she smelled her Aunt Esther's perfume.
"If you think any harder," Esther whispered in her ear, "your hair will catch fire!"
Sarah smiled, patted her Aunt's hand.

The Daine boys came back downstairs, carrying Sarah's old desk.
They knew to move it into the little girls' room across the way, and did: it was the work of but a few minutes to remove the ink-stained wood and replace it with the new, varnished, finished piece, made up ahead of time: a few quick taps of a small hammer and it was pegged into place, neatly enough done that it looked original to the desk.
Sarah cleaned it out before leaving for Denver; most of the contents went into a small locked chest in her closet, all but the most sensitive documents, the ones she dared not let even her mother see.
These she stacked loose on a shelf in the closet, in plain sight, with a lump of agate as a paper-weight.
Sarah knew her mother, and she knew her mother to be a curious sort; she knew her mother had surreptitiously obtained a key to the chest, and Sarah knew her mother's habits: if she were to snoop anywhere, it would be where all was secured under lock and key, and if the mother just happened to have a key, why, who was to say she had not a perfect right to inspect the contents?
On the other hand -- Sarah smiled a little, looking at her mother as she laughed at something Esther just said -- her mother would not consider papers in plain view as worth looking at ... they were obviously of little value, otherwise they would be carefully filed and locked away.

The Daine brothers carried Sarah's new desk upstairs, positioned it where the old one had been.
They knew Sarah went to Denver to receive that grand award, and though they too were terribly proud of their countryman -- well, countrywoman -- none had the desire to travel to Denver.
Their esteem was expressed in other ways.
The desk was made according to Sarah's description: virtually identical to the Sheriff's roll top desk, including the hidden compartment at the rear of the pigeon holes, and one on the side.
There was one more surprise for Sarah, and each of the Daine clan contributed his mark of respect to the final statement of pride and approval.
In one pigeon hole there was a bullet mold.
In another, a powder flask: varnished copper, in hammered relief, a Federal eagle clutching crossed spears, and beneath, the single word, Sarah.
In a third, a cloth sack containing good blond gun flints.
And in the last, a fine flint pistol, a dueler, as plain and unadorned as any mountain gun from back East, save only for the silver wire inlay which was Albert Daine's delight and particular skill: the pistol was slim, balanced for a woman's grip, a delight to the eye and to the hand.
Sarah's thoughts, as she breakfasted with the ladies, as Miz Fannie joined them, as conversation flowed like ripples across a stillwater pond, were of home, and of her new desk, made to her particular order.

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Linn Keller 8-22-12

 

"As long as they're talking like that," the Sheriff said mildly, "she'll not hear us."
Levi looked skeptically at the lawman; Charlie nodded slowly, leaning back as a sour faced waitress poured his coffee mug full.
"Thank you, darlin'," he murmured, and the waitress turned her scowl on the man: her eyes were cold, her back was stiff, her lips rather thin as she replied, "I had a full breakfast of garlic and pickles, Mr. Macneil, and I disapprove of everythin', ye know that."
Charlie's eyes narrowed and the laugh-wrinkles deepened at their corners.
"Tell me another one, darlin'," he chuckled.
The dour waitress glared at Levi and the Sheriff.
"Th' man knows me too well," she snapped: carefully topping off the other coffee cups, she turned and glowered her way back to the kitchen.
Charlie looked at his fellows and allowed himself a quiet smile.
"You were sayin'?"
"I spoke with that young detective that showed such promise here of late."
"As did I," Levi added.
"He and Sarah left this morning for a cemetery. Took a cab. The driver is known to us."
Charlie's eyes were quiet; the mental gears behind them were turning over slowly, chuckling quietly as he thought.
"No less than Dr. Strand himself."
Levi's expression was momentarily alarmed and it took stern discipline to keep himself from staring at his stepdaughter.
"She's safe, nothing happened," the Sheriff said reassuringly. "I made sure of that."
"You could have told me."
"You'd had a busy night," the Sheriff shrugged as the waitress appeared with a tray and steaming plates, another coasting to a starched-linen stop at the ladies' table: "besides, one travels faster and quieter."
"You didn't have time."
"That, too."
"You rode Cannonball."
"Sure didn't ride a broom."
"The graveyard."
"They drove directly to it, no detours, no unexpected stops."
"Good."
"The driver was a perfect gentleman, helped her into and out of the hack."
"Hm."
"It was ... painful ... to watch her look among the grave stones until she found that dancing girl's plot."
Charlie decided he liked the eggs, looked up and asked the waitress for a half dozen more just like the two before him. She glared and called him a gluttonous pig, to which Charlie said gently, "God loves you, too, darlin', and so do I. Now go have that-there good lookin' cook fry me up another pound o' bacon and a half dozen eggs an' throw some spices on it this time."
The waitress snarled her ill-tempered way back to the kitchen.
Levi and the Sheriff waited, amused, until the waitress departed before continuing.
"You said it was painful," Levi prompted. "How ... what precisely was painful?"
"You remember that young detective you were advising the day we arrived."
"I do, yes. Fine young man. Married, has a little boy and another on the way, his wife is due in a month. He's the only man in Denver that hasn't been bribed, though with a new child due to arrive I don't know how much longer that will stand."
"He watched with me."
"I see."
"He and Sarah went earlier to the warehouse."
"The warehouse!"
The Sheriff nodded. "She's handed over her street rats to this fine young man."
Levi steepled his fingers meditatively, eyes wandering back and forth between the salt cellar and the pepper-pot.
"That's ... how ..." he muttered, his eyes distant.
"Yes it is," the Sheriff continued. "They took supplies out to the lads and Sarah spoke with them, then they came back here. She went upstairs and the Detective joined me on overwatch."
"And I slept through it all!"
"You had a big night, Levi," the Sheriff said, not unkindly, "and I didn't have the heart to knock you up ... besides, the ladies would have been suspicious."
"You are right, of course."
"We watched them drive to the cemetery and followed, surreptitiously as we could ... the Detective is a good man but he's no horseman!" the Sheriff added ruefully -- "and I handed him a set of glasses when we tied off our mounts and skulked forward through the garden of stone."
"Pray continue."
"You go ahead and pray," Macneil muttered through another bite of bacon, "I'm hungry."
"Ye'll sate yer appetite, then," the waitress muttered, setting a serving platter with a half dozen fried-up cackleberries near to the ex-Marshal's plate: "an' i' ye wish a side o' beef fried up t' fill yer growlin' gut, just say so, th' cook will be happy t' set aside all else just f'r the like o' ye!"
"You, my dear," Charlie said gently, "are the kindest angel that ever fluttered soft wings."
The waitress whirled, holding the serving-tray before her like a shield, and marched with all the grace of a slip scraper back toward the kitchen.
"Hold out your plates," Charlie said, dividing the eggs, and soon each man had two fresh, hot, perfectly spiced eggs before him.
Levi chewed thoughtfully, considering the mental picture the Sheriff was painting: taking a careful sip of steaming black coffee, he blinked, cleared his throat and said, "Sheriff, you have my complete attention, I assure you: pray, what happened when you assumed your overwatch?"
"He's a prayerful man this mornin', isn't he?" Charlie observed, and the Sheriff saw a glint of merriment in the man's hazel eyes.
The Sheriff frowned, cutting around the egg's yolk: he slid his fork under it, neatly thrust the entire unbroken yolk in his mouth and chewed.
Swallowing, he nodded and continued.
"We watched as she hunted for the grave.
"When she found it she laid a single red carnation and knelt for a time, then the driver helped her back to the hack and they returned here."
"There's more to it."
"There is." The Sheriff took a noisy slurp of coffee, bit savagely at a thick strip of bacon. His left cheek bulged a little as he chewed; he swallowed, brushed back his mustache with the back of a bent forefinger.
"The driver was the boss's right hand man."
"Doctor Strand."
"The same."
"And he did ... what?"
"He drove her out, helped her out and in, to and from, he bade her a courteous good-morning, and he left."
"Why would the Boss invest his first officer for such a mean duty?" Levi wondered aloud.
"Who else could be trusted? Who else would know what to look for? The Doctor is brilliant in his field, even if he loves gambling and sporting more than healing."
The Sheriff picked up his last strip of bacon.
"I could eat about a half pound of this. I'm still hungry."
Charlie leaned back and looked up at the dour waitress.
"We don't need a side of beef, darlin', but you got any dead pig back there?"

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Charlie MacNeil 8-22-12

 

"Another dozen or so of those fine bakin' powder biscuits would hit the spot as well, if you don't mind," Charlie added with a smile.

"And what are you planning that we serve the other customers while we're satisfyin' your tapeworm?" the waitress snapped.

"I'm sure you've probably got a loaf of stale bread and some sour milk back there you can mash together to tide 'em over," he replied.

"Hmph!" was what he got back in return. He grinned, then returned to the conversation.

"You gents know what she's up to, don'tcha?" he asked his breakfast companions. Both knew of whom he was speaking. He looked expectantly from one to the other; both declined to offer an opinion, choosing instead to wait and see what Charlie's interpretation of recent events would turn out to be. Levi took a long slurp of his coffee, while the Sheriff tucked another well-buttered biscuit half beneath his mustache and commenced to chew. Charlie took those actions as a "No" and went on.

"Let me tell you boys a story," he began. "And this is a true story, as opposed to one of those cowboy stories that starts out 'this ain't no BS, this really happened'. You know that way last fall, me and Cat Running took Sarah elk huntin'. She was rooming with me and Fannie, and her shooting, that sort of thing, was coming along good, and I decided that it was time she learned to live off the country. Cat went along to make sure I didn't tell her something that would get her killed. He don't really trust anybody but Fannie, ya know."

So anyway, the second day out, we ran onto a nice big healthy herd and she killed a dry cow and a young bull with that rifle Jacob gave her. Did a damn fine job of it, too, killed 'em both with one shot apiece. Then she got an instant lesson in gutting and skinning, 'cause I went and fixed breakfast while she got those critters ready to hang and cool. Did a fine job of that, too, once she figured out what she was doing. Got pretty messy in the process, but everybody's gotta start somewhere. Now, the pressure to hang some meat was off, and her and Cat got to talking, and spears were mentioned."

Cat is a mighty fine flint knapper, and he sat Sarah down and showed her how to shape a spear point. Before I knew it, the two of 'em had come up with a spear that was just her size, and she started practicing with it. Didn't take her long to get pretty dang good at hitting pretty much any mark we set for her. So we took her hunting again, only this time it was gonna be up close and personal. And she did end up getting a young bull that was pretty fine eating." He halted his tale at that point to butter a biscuit of his own from the platter that the cranky waitress had delivered to their table with a thump. He took a healthy bite of the nicely browned bread and began to chew.

"What exactly is the point of this saga, and what does it have to do with what Sarah's been doing this morning?" Levi asked, impatience edging his voice.

Charlie chomped once more and swallowed. "Saga. Now that's an interesting word," he replied with a grin. "Sort of makes me sound like one of those old-timey storytellers like Homer or one of those, don't it?" Then his expression sobered and the laughter left his voice, his tone growing level and cold. "The point is that when Sarah speared that bull elk, there was no sign of her or anything remotely human in sight anywhere near the trail that bull was walking down. Instead, there was something that most closely resembled a clump of brush, which is pretty common in that area. In other words, that bull saw nothing more than what he expected to see. And that's what she's doing now. She's making sure that when she leaves Denver, all anybody will remember is a mousy little schoolteacher who may just possibly be at least partially crippled for life."

Levi, that girl is like a sponge; she's constantly soaking up everything around her. But unlike a sponge, she doesn't let anything back out. Instead, she uses it to build a perception, to create a persona as it were, to present to the world. The persona she presents depends on her audience. Here she's got a big audience that won't be easy to fool, but if I'm any judge, she's done just exactly that. She's got the whole city eating out of her hand."

Sarah is probably one of the most complicated people you'll ever have the privilege to meet. If you ever meet the real Sarah, that is. I think I did once, back out in the mountains. I'm not too sure I've spoken to the real Sarah since." His voice lowered so that the others had to strain to hear his words. "Except out yonder." Levi looked at him blankly, uncomprehending; Linn nodded knowingly at the tone of his voice. He knew with relative certainty where "yonder" was.

"Now I've talked 'till the bacon's almost cold, so let's put all that serious stuff aside and finish this fine meal. But mark my words, gents, there are gonna be some interesting times ahead." With that concluding statement he picked up his fork and devoted his full attention to his plate.

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Linn Keller 8-23-12

 

Agent L. Rosenthal, from D. Hostetler --
If I may call upon you this day, please.
I shall arrive shortly before 4 o'clock.

The honorable Judge Donald Hostetler nodded as he folded the brief note, sealed it with red wax, as was his habit, and nodded to the boy, who took it with a grin and a "Thanks, mister!" -- the lad never failed to thank him when he slipped him a coin -- and the Judge leaned back in his chair, staring at his ink-bottle.
He'd gone to Denver by another train, as he did not want his young Agent to know he was there: it was probably an unnecessary precaution, but the Judge was feeling ... well, guilty.
He'd paid for Sarah's education at the Professor's Academy; he'd encouraged her to attend, he'd thrust her into a life grown men not uncommonly find distasteful, and after seeing her painful progress up the few steps to the bandstand -- after seeing a dignified young woman, feminine in spite of being so obviously crippled -- he was having serious second and third and even fourth thoughts about asking this talented young woman to work on his behalf.
He'd imagined her as more an interceptor or gatherer of information, capitalizing on her ability to disguise herself, and she'd done remarkably well in assuming the character of a dancing-girl when she apprehended what she believed to be her father's murderer: the Judge blamed himself for sending her on that fell duty and expected fully she would return, dragging a carcass behind her horse: it was with mixed relief and distress that he saw her return with the murderer tied to his horse and still breathing.
His Honor fully intended to offer his talented young agent a way out; he intended to offer an honorable resignation, should she so desire: he could not forget the pain she tried to hide as she climbed the gazebo steps, how she was kept upright as she descended only by virtue of having Macneil's arm to hold onto.
His Honor had not the heart to attend the ball afterward, for in his mind, Sarah was a cripple now: he'd heard of her untimely and unpleasant meeting with the bull calf, and wondered why she hadn't taken to her bed to heal for six months.
Judge Hostetler looked at his reflection in the mirror across the room and saw a grey, dignified, older man with a tired expression.

The trip back to Firelands was less uncomfortable.
Eight of us rode in Esther's private car, a comfortable number; there were padded seats in plenty, and Charlie was taking full advantage of one of the more comfortable chairs.
Sarah was restless: her cane lay beneath her chair, as there were enough hand-holds and lean-ons, and she made her careful way over to me.
I looked at Sarah, smiling a little, for her expression was serious.
"Fifty cents for your thoughts," I murmured; surprised, Sarah blinked, then laughed quietly.
"You're thinking about Charlie."
Sarah's eyes went to the man with his hat tilted down over his face: beside him, Fannie gave Sarah a wink, smiling quietly, as if she had a secret knowledge shared only among women.
Sarah eased into an empty chair, frowning a little.
"Someone gave me a copy of the Strand magazine not long ago," I said conversationally, "and they used a phrase that seems to fit."
Sarah looked at me, tilting her head a little to the side, her eyes bright, curious.
"You looked like someone in a brown study."
Sarah's brows puzzled together for a moment as she turned the phrase over in her mind, then dismissed it.
"You're not sure how to phrase the question."
My voice was gentle; I leaned forward, clasping my hands with elbows on my knees.
Sarah assumed the same posture, her head close to mine.
"I never," she said slowly, hesitating; she looked at Charlie again, then continued, "I never ... no one ..."
She looked at me with an uncertain expression.
"Charlie defended my honor," she said.
I nodded.
"That dandy fellow demanded satisfaction."
Again the nod.
"I know ... the meaning ... or the general, the common ..."
Sarah closed her eyes, shook her head.
"I'm not worth it," she muttered.
I was silent for several long moments.
"There are some things I regret," I admitted.
Sarah looked up at me, curious at this complete change of subject.
"I genuinely regret," I continued, "that it would be indecorous to pick you up and set you on my lap the way I did when you were a little girl."
Sarah looked at her me, her bottom lip quivering, then she stood up, swayed a little and took a careful step toward me, another.
I wrapped his arms around Sarah as she sat down on my lap, leaning into me; I felt her relax, felt her nod her head a little as she laid the side of her face against my collar bone.
"Can I stay here forever?" she whispered.
"For as long as need be,"I whispered back.
Steel wheels on steel rails hissed and clacked and the car swayed a little as we traveled, my arms warm and protective around her.
"I know what it means, to demand satisfaction," Sarah repeated.
"Okay."
"Uncle Charlie defended my honor."
"You expected any less?"
"I'm not worth that!" Sarah whispered, her voice strained.
I caressed her cheek with the back of my fingers.
"You, my dear," he murmured, "are a pearl of great price, and yes you are worth it."
"You and Levi stood as his seconds."
"It did not come to a duel."
Sarah's eyes showed confusion. "I ... don't understand," she said slowly,shaking her head a little. "A duel ..."
"It didn't come to that," I repeated gently. "The fellow who demanded, is a coward, and is no gentleman. Had a gentleman demanded a duel of honor, Charlie would have obliged him and yes, Levi and I would be more than honored to second him, and yes, it was for your honor that he acted."
Sarah relaxed into me with a long sigh.
"I am only realizing," she said slowly, "this power women have over men."
I felt her shiver.
"It scares me, Papa. It scares me!"

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Linn Keller 8-24-12

 

OW!!"
Mr. Mac, as he'd long been known, jumped back, holding up his foot and hopping on the other; the offending can of whatever-it-was rolled a little bit and stopped.
Mr. Mac tasted sulfur and felt the volcano in his throat and wished most sincerely that he might give manly vent to the invective set loose by the soldered edge of a can dropping off a chin high shelf and catching him right across the back of the right great toenail, or so it felt.
Clamping his jaw shut against his displeasure, he saw movement at the edge of his vision: he turned, and for a moment, for just a moment, he saw a little girl standing in front of the glass front counter, looking at penny candy, then she was gone, as if a memory suddenly were solid, and just as suddenly, gone.
The pain in his toe shoved aside any fancied memories of the little girl he knew as Little Sarah.

Parson Belden looked up from the sermon he was outlining, smiling a little.
He half-heard a voice, a soaring soprano, raised in harmony with two others, and he remembered that Easter when three voices joined in worship, and brought stinging tears to strong men's eyes.
The Parson nodded to himself, re-read his last line, considered carefully before putting whittled pencil to good rag paper again.

Shorty muttered as he brushed the Sheriff's black gelding.
Shorty was a man who muttered and glared when he was happy.
He also muttered and glared when he was irritated.
Matter of fact it could be fairly said that Shorty muttered and glared most of the time.
One of the stable cats regarded him with sleepy-green eyes.
Shorty stopped his brushing to glare at the sunning feline, perched on a saddle blanket.
"Don't just sit there!" he snapped. "Go catch mice!"
The calico regarded him as if he were a misshapen idol in some foreign temple.

Lightning heard The Lady Esther's whistle and automatically hooked the watch out of his breast pocket, pressing up from the bottom of his pocket to slide it out without pulling on the chain.
Pressing the stem, he considered what the black hands told him, compared this with the Regulator clock on the wall, and smiled.
"Right on time," he said in a satisfied voice.

Daisy, Sean and a small herd of children waited on the platform: Sean, with bored patience; Daisy, watchful of her mixed brood, and the children, wandering about, looking over the rim of rain barrels or over the edge of the platform, leaning a little to peer up the tracks at the green-and-black engine with bright-polished brass trim.

The Sheriff looked up as Charlie shoved his hat-brim up with one finger.
The man's eyes were amused as the two old friends regarded one another.
Charlie held up his little finger and pantomined twisting something around it, then pointed at the Sheriff, and the Sheriff grinned, nodding agreement.

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Linn Keller 8-24-12

 

Sarah's arm was out of its sling, but she still favored it: as one, then another of the children happily ran up and embraced her, she kept the arm across her middle, hugging them with her good left arm, for she knew she was yet watched, she knew there were eyes watching, assessing, eyes that would report back to Denver with their findings.
Sarah was on her knees, surrounded by bouncing, chattering, excited children: the twins were exclaiming their delight at the fine Swiss chocolate, delivered to their door; Sean's firstborn gave Sarah a rapid-fire, all-in-one-breath, run-together sentence that was part report on what he'd been doing, part interrogation of her activities for the past week, and part impatience that nobody was paying attention to him.
The Sheriff was seeing to the offloading of his red mare; in his absence, Sean grandly offered his arm to Esther and saw her safely down the steps of her private car, and to the waiting carriage: it may have been Sean's gentlemanliness, but it was Daisy's sharp whistle, that marshalled the happy herd of youthful energy: it was well that Shorty had a large enough carriage, for three adults and a swarm of young makes for a sizable cargo.
A second carriage awaited Charlie and Fannie, a third for Esther, Bonnie, Levi and Sarah ... with the mass of humanity and the tonnage of luggage, it took some fitting, but everyone and everything was finally arranged and headed for their respective ranchos.
The quiet, unassuming eyes that watched from the passenger car, considered what they'd seen: the schoolteacher loved her children, loved them enough to kneel in greeting, and let them embrace her though it obviously caused her pain: he did not miss the distressed expression she tried to conceal, and it was most obvious that she lacked strength enough to rise from her kneeling position, requiring the assistance of that fellow -- that big fellow! -- in the red wool bib front shirt with the black Maltese cross on the front.
Satisfied, the watcher strolled around the end of the depot, then steered a casually general course for the Silver Jewel.
The train back to Denver would not be for some hours, and until he returned to inform the Boss that yes indeed, she was crippled, he might as well try some of those straight games he'd heard about.

Sarah saw the Judge's note as she came through the door: she palmed it, quickly, thrust it into her sleeve: the twins were chattering and underfoot as the trunks were brought in, and Sarah excused herself to her room.
She examined the Judge's note, looked at the clock, smiled.
There was just enough time.

His Honor the Judge always loved this time of year.
Cooler it was, not yet into fall, but a promise of what was to come: here and there, trees barely began to change color, harbingers of autumn; the mountains wore their perpetual white cloaks, the pines a rich forest green, each tree its individual shade, blending into the evergreen bands that looked so very simple to paint, and yet were so complex, so challenging to the artist's brush.
He was less than halfway from Firelands to the Rosenthal ranch when he crested a small rise: surprised, he drew on the reins, ho-ing to the rented mare.
The Judge blinked, surprised.
A warrior princess in a white silk dress sat astride an enormous, utterly black, gleaming Frisian war-mare, a polished silver short-lance upright in her right hand: her hair was loose, free in the breeze: she sat straight, her posture lending an air of authority to her diminutive stature.
The two looked at one another for a few moments.
Sarah turned her mare and walked Snowflake up beside the Judge.
"You wanted to see me, sir," she said in a buisinesslike voice.
His Honor the Judge removed the cigar from between his teeth: frowning a little, he turned his head and spat a soggy piece of tobacco-leaf from his tongue.
"I believe," he said carefully, "we have not been formally introduced. I was expecting to visit with Agent Lynn McKenna."
Sarah threw her head back and laughed, a good, easy laugh, and the Judge smiled to hear it.
"I," he began, then hesitated, his brow wrinkling -- not with irritation, and not with anger, but with a ... well, a grandfatherly half-concern, half-confusion.
"My dear, I saw you in Denver," he said, "and I thought you nearly ..."
"Crippled?" she smiled, her right hand gripping the spear-shaft a little above her shoulder height. Her dress was spotless, immaculate, the full skirt draped back across Snowflake's hind quarters: her hair, too, floated a little in the dry, thin air, suspended with static from a recent brisk brushing.
"Yes," the Judge admitted.
"You saw me barely able to climb the steps to the gazebo and you heard me describe myself as a poor little crippled up schoolteacher." Sarah's voice started out politely enough but sneered a bit as she neared the end of her sentence.
"Yes," His Honor nodded. "Exactly."
Sarah nodded as well.
"Your Honor," she said, "you wish me an agent of your Court."
He nodded.
"I believe I've proven myself ... useful."
His Honor nodded again, his cigar forgotten between the fingers of the hand resting on his knee.
"I am building two characters," she explained. "If I am the mousy-grey schoolteacher, I am not a threat to anyone. Especially after Denver."
"I see."
"But if I am Agent Lynn Rosenthal, I am not the schoolteacher."
His Honor considered carefully this vision before him, this vision in white, astride a horse as black as Death itself.
"I believed you badly injured," he admitted, "and I came to offer you an honorable resignation from your position."
"And I came to inform you that I am better able now than I've ever been to fulfill the duties of that position."
His Honor considered this, looked down at his mare's hooves.
He looked back up.
"And who are you now?" he asked, surprising himself, for he hadn't intended to ask any such question; it just fell out of his mouth, the way words sometimes do.
Sarah smiled.
"'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,'" she quoted: withdrawing the spear from its stirrup-socket, she spun it easily, the mirrored-silver head drawing a band of liquid fire behind it: "behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord."
His Honor smiled a little, then chuckled at the audacity of such grand words from such a diminutive frame: as Sarah settled the spear back into its socket, he realized that her arm was indeed not crippled, and no one with such excellent posture could possibly be as impaired as she had distinctly and so convincingly displayed back in Denver.
"'Vengeance is mine,'" he chuckled, "and you are His handmaiden" -- His Honor laughed. "My dear, you had me believing you!"
Sarah's smile was thin; her eyes were growing steadily pale.
"I take it that you will not be requesting a resignation, then," His Honor smiled, taking a deep breath and donating his second hand cigar to the roadway below.
"No, sir."
"Then our business is concluded, and I have an appointment to keep." His Honor lifted his hat, turned his head a little at the sound of The Lady Esther's whistle in the distance.
"We would be pleased if you would dine with us," Sarah offered courteously.
"My dear, I do thank you," His Honor replied, settling his hat back on his carefully combed full head of stark-white hair, "but I must needs consult with Mr. Moulton on a matter, and he is expecting me."
Sarah sat her mare while His Honor drove his carriage in a great circle; he lifted his hat in parting salute, and Sarah waved in reply: as his mare trotted them back to Firelands, the Honorable Judge Donald Hostetler laughed to himself.
"'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and I am his handmaiden,'" he chuckled. "She does know how to make an old man laugh!"
Sarah sat and watched His Honor's retreating backside for several minutes before turning Snowflake and heading back to the house.

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Linn Keller 8-25-12

 

Sarah's course was slightly indirect, as she was debating on whether to spend some time at a particular cliff face, a cliff where ... odd ... things had happened.
Sarah drew the Frisian to a stop in a little depression, her eyes busy, scanning the nearby mountain.
A watcher might have noticed a little frown just tugging at her brows, the slight pursing of her lips as she considered: a swain might find his heart captivated by the sight of this beautiful maiden, a vision in angel's white astride a charger of raven's-wing black: a romantic might compose a paean at the sight of a maidenly warrior, blooded in battle, the appearance of purity and right on the strength and authority represented by her destrier: alas, none were there to see, none save Sarah herself, and she lacked a mirror with which to assess these appearances: rather, she regarded the angle of the sun, she tilted her head to consider the number and quality of clouds approaching, and finally nodded her head, once, as if a matter were settled.
"Snowflake," she said, caressing the Frisian, for the reins were knotted and dropped over the saddle-horn as was her custom -- "Snowflake, if I go to the cliff, I will be there a good long while."
Snowflake's ears swung back at the sound of her quiet, precisely enunciated words.
"If I am there for some time, I will spoil my silk gown."
Snowflake bent her head, snuffing loudly at the grass, began cropping noisily.
"I need to think about some things," Sarah continued, "and I won't be uninterrupted at home ..." -- she smiled, thinking of the nature of the interruptions she anticipated -- "... so I'll go to the cliff anon, what say you?"
Snowflake continued grazing, content to hear the familiar voice, feel the familiar light weight in the custom made saddle.
"Let's go home, girl," Sarah said, and Snowflake's head came up, for she well knew the word "home."

The twins turned at the top of their lungs, sprinting in a youthful, enthusiastic and less than ladylike manner for the stairs, for they heard Sarah's step as she began her descent.
They waited impatiently at the foot of the stairs, bouncing a little, for the young are ever full of energy and impatience: Sarah wore a gown that in another household might be remarkable for its quality, its fit, its fashion: here, though, in the very heart of the House of McKenna Dress Works, it was ordinary and routine for the ladies, from the youngest to the matron, to wear such.
Sarah made the foot of the stairs, and got herself seated on the second step, before the twins attacked, embracing Sarah and chattering with excited and happy voices, and Bonnie, her motherly words and admonishing finger completely disregarded, smiled and brought her upraised finger back to her lips, wishing mightily to capture this moment and somehow keep it forever bright and clear.
Sarah's head was thrown back as she laughed, the twins' eyes were shining with delight as they poured out their excited questions and descriptions and happy little-girl chatter, and Levi put his arms around his wife's middle and drew her into him: standing behind her, he pressed his front against her back and whispered, "It's good to be home."
Bonnie put her hands on top of his and whispered, "Yes, it is."

Jacob was dark under the eyes and his voice was heavy with fatigue as he made his report to his father.
"Two right-of-way disagreements," he said, raising a finger, "taken care of."
The Sheriff nodded.
"One report of rustling, couldn't find a thing, come to find out the calves were herded off by the dam and hid in a thicket."
The Sheriff grinned. He didn't have to ask from whom came the report of rustling: he knew the rancher was prone to such complaints, and had been on similar wild goose chases himself.
"Otherwise, sir, not much happened."
"What did happen?" The Sheriff regarded his firstborn with a kindly expression.
Jacob laughed tiredly.
"Sir, I am now on a first name basis with every stray cat, mangy dog, skunk, possum and night flying bird in town!"
Jacob chuckled and the Sheriff laughed.
"You look tired," he said gently. "I reckon the bunk will feel pretty good."
"Yes, sir."
Jacob stood, turned toward the door.
"Jacob?"
"Yes, sir?" Jacob turned to face his father again.
"'They also serve who only stand and wait,'" the Sheriff quoted. "That you were here, and that you watched through the night, kept the town safe then and in future."
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff held off from asking about the lightning bolt that killed the troopers' prisoners, the pair who deserted and tried to steal Daciana's circus pony.
He'd ask Jacob later, after his son had a good night's rest.

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