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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 8-25-12

 

It was early yet and Jacob, tired though he was, could not bring himself to just go to bed.
The horses needed tending, he had to ride fence and make sure he didn't have any trees down nor bull calves busting through what he had.
All that takes time, it takes effort, and he wasn't of a mind to give himself short shrift.
He made his inspection, rubbed down his stallion, hung up saddle and saddle blanket, bridle and forked out the stalls, threw down fresh straw, grained Apple-horse a little ... then he headed into the house, where Annette met him with a smile and a hug and a warm, womanly kiss, and Jacob forgot for a little bit just how hungry he really was.
He didn't forget for long, though.
Once he'd got his belly full, he still felt guilty about pulling off his boots and laying down on the bunk, so he did the next best thing.
Jacob laid down on the living room floor.
He looked at little Joseph, his face serious: "Now Joseph," he said sternly, "I am going to lay down and I don't want to be bothered, do you understand me?"
Little Joseph nodded solemnly and Jacob folded his arms, laid his head down on them, facing away from his son so the boy could not see the grin on his Pa's face.
Annette heard Jacob's admonition and so was surprised when she heard a rhythmic slapping noise.
She looked around the door casing to see little Joseph -- the lad climbed to the summit of Mount Backside -- and, straddling his Pa's thigh, was cheerfully smacking his Pa's denim covered posterior with flat-open hands.
Jacob's head was turned toward the doorway and Annette saw his grinning face was red with suppressed laughter.

Sarah sat on the parlor sofa with her sisters, one on either side of them, reading as she always did of an evening.
"The Princess had milk to wash in and wine to drink," she read, "and the peasant girl had water to wash in and water to drink."
"Why did she baffie in milk?" Polly asked.
Opal made a face. "Wine. Yuck!"
"Can I take a baffie in milk?"
"You would smell like soured milk," Sarah replied gently, closing the book and putting an arm around each of the girls.
Her arm did give her a protest; she closed her eyes against the pain, willed her shoulder to stretch out like it should, and it did, albeit slowly.
"We had chock-wit," Opal offered. "Da fella from-a da Lightning sent him!"
"I see," Sarah said, suppressing her smile. "Was it good chocolate?"
"It was vew-wy, vew-wy good," Polly assured her.

Angela cuddled up in her Mommy's lap, blinking sleepily, and the Sheriff relaxed in his easy chair, savoring the sight of his wife and their little girl.

Annette finally persuaded Jacob to get up and go to bed, and he did, and carried his now-sleeping little boy to his own bunk, where he refrained from swatting his son's backside: no, he would hold onto the memory and use it to embarrass the hell out of the lad when the boy got too big for his britches.

Bonnie looked into the parlor and saw Sarah, her head tilted back against the rounded back of the couch, with Polly on one side, Opal on the other; the twins' heads were leaned against their big sister, and all three were sound asleep.

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Linn Keller 8-27-12

 

I tried not to wake Esther.
Trouble is, my joints weren't listenin' to the plan.
She rolled over, laid her arm in the warm spot where I'd been, then reached up and laid her hand flat on my back.
I straightened my right leg and my knee went SNAP the way it does sometimes.
I recall one night in Lodge I straightened my knee and it echoed, and an old fellow sitting beside me looked at me with wide and surprised eyes and said, "I'm hard a-hearin' and I heard that one!"
I considered a long moment, sittin' up on the side of the bed, and Esther's warm hand on my back was persuasion enough.
I laid back down and rolled up on my side and run my arm around my bride and held her close in to me.
Even asleep she smelled clean, like soap and water and a little lilac, she was warm and soft and I could relax when I was with her, let my guards down, lower the walls I kept around myself.
Either I was half a-dreamin' or my imagination slid into gear and began working because I thought of the bedroom door banging open and a happy, bright-eyed little girl running in hollering "Daddy!" and jumping up on the bed, landing a-top of us and laughing.
It didn't happen, but I smiled anyhow.

Jacob's wakening was not as gentle.
Annette seldom raised her voice, but when she did, there was need, and when the single, barked "Jacob!" shivered up the stairway, Jacob came out of bed like a scalded cat and sprinted down stairs wearing his night shirt and hat and clutching the double 12 bore.
Annette turned as Jacob skidded a little, nearly falling, and scrambled into Joseph's room.
Annette was kneeling by his bed; her hands busy: Jacob parked the double gun against the door frame and took two steps toward her.
"He's burning up," she said, her voice crisp, buisinesslike: "I need water, tepid water, a tub of it."
"I can draw cold," Jacob said, turning, power in his move and speed in his stance.
"Belay that!" Annette snapped, and Jacob froze in his tracks.
He blinked, surprised, turned to look at his wife.
"Tepid, Jacob," she said. "Tepid to draw the fever. Cold water will lock the fire inside him and he'll burn to death."
Annette's eyes were big, her face pale: Jacob knew there had to be more than just a little boy with a big fever, but he also knew this was not the time to play Twenty Questions.
He nodded once and strode for the kitchen, grabbed a bucket and reached for the petcock on the stove's hot water reservoir.
Annette heard the splash of water into the number two wash tub, then the cast iron door squeak open, and the woody sound of Jacob stoking the fire.

I heard the stove door squeak as the maid tossed in a little more wood and I made a mental note to see how much wood we had laid up.
It wasn't near to fall yet but grain was ripening gold in the fields and the air was a little cooler, and I remembered my friends from the Border country showing us -- Daisy, our maid and a few others -- how to make something they called chile, and spiced with little green peppers that were like biting into a bursting charge: once you got past the initial explosion they weren't bad, but Santos and Eduardo laughed uproariously at my expression the first time I chomped down on one.
I've had peppers before and I've had some right spicy peppers but God Almighty! -- that was like biting down on a dynamite cap! -- and I am not the least bit ashamed to admit I blew out a puff of smoke and wished for some Old Stump Blower, or maybe a couple gallon of cold milk, to keep that little green inferno from singeing the hair right off my tongue!
Daisy scaled that blasting powder chili back considerable, until it was quite good and didn't burn out my snot box from the inside, and a good thing, for I wondered in all seriousness if I was going to belch and blow fire like a Chinese dragon after eatin' that stuff.
This morning, though, it was back strap and good home made bread, gravy and fried eggs, crumbled sausage and enough to satisfy a man.
A good thing, too.
I had a crew in, for my own fields were ripe and ready for harvest: I'd planted early and by sheer good luck avoided any frost, my grain was ready to thrash before anyone else's and the thrashers were for my harvest first.
Angela was amused by the sight of plank tables laid across saw horses outside and men sitting on nail kags and planks laid across kags, and these horn-handed thrashers were just as tickled to see a little girl in a frilly dress and a big bow in her hair, sitting down between them like she owned the place.
She came back inside well fed and telling anyone who would listen about the Hidebehind, a creature that hides behind you no matter how you turn, and the Hatchet Hound, a dread creature that eats the handle off your favorite ax or hatchet and sometimes hammers as well.
I'm not sure what-all else they filled her pretty little head with, for that's about the time Levi and Bonnie's shiny red McCormick harvester showed up, and it wasn't much later they began running that horse drawn harvester and shocking up grain and fetching it over to the thrashin' machine.
I do recall the taste of coffee was particularly good that day.
This is a good day to be alive, I thought, taking a long breath of clean mountain air and regarding the clearest blue sky I'd seen in a while.

Where the Sheriff enjoyed the good taste of morning coffee, the only thing Jacob tasted was dust.
He'd gone out the door wearing boots, hat and nightshirt, and saddled up his Apple-horse: his gut told him a wagon would be too slow, until Annette gave him a hard look and he knew her little boy was not leaving for the doctor unless he was in her arms, and that meant the carriage.
Jacob went back outside and stomped all the way to the barn.
He had a mare, a fast mare, a trotter; he harnessed her up to the carriage, mentally reviewed the repairs he'd made to their road, and was grateful for it: in an era where roads weren't well maintained, his was, even too the point of taking flat slabs of rock and paving the rutted areas, filling them with gravel first so they would be solid, then laying in slabs over top: it was not terribly smooth but it was solid and it would never rut out like bare dirt did.
Untying Apple-horse from his hitch, Jacob led the stallion over to the back of the buggy, secured his reins to the back-ring, soothed the restless Appaloosa with hands and voice and a bribe of molasses cured tobacco, and finally went back inside.
Annette was using a quart sauce pan for a dipper, pouring tepid water over the glaze-eyed, lethargic little boy.
Jacob squatted beside her.
"What ails him?" he asked quietly.
Annette felt under Joseph's jaw, then opened his mouth, looked inside, nodded.
"The quinsy," she replied, and Jacob's heart drew back a little, for she'd never had a serious tone to her voice this long in the years they'd been married.
"When will he be ready to go?"
"He can go now."
"Have you a -- thank you," Jacob said as Annette shook out a quilt.
"Shouldn't you get dressed first?" Annette asked, and Jacob saw a little amusement in her eyes, and he realized what he was wearing -- or, rather, what-all he wasn't wearing.
"Oh," he said. "Be right back."
Jacob took the stairs two at a time.
It wouldn't go into town wearing a hat and boots and a nightshirt.
Why, it wouldn't be decent to be seen near-nekked.
"Man hadn't oughta go out his door without a gunbelt," he said aloud, yanking the nightshirt inside-out over his head and throwing it toward the bed.

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Linn Keller 8-28-12

 

 

Sarah thought back to the night before, when Levi picked up a wisp of her hair and tickled her nose with it, tickled her until she opened her eyes and smiled: she nodded to Polly, on her right, and Levi carefully, gently, worked his big strong Daddy-arms under the little girl and picked her up: straightening, he cuddled her into his chest, her cheek falling naturally on his shoulder, her little pink arms limp, relaxed.
Sarah turned a little, picked up the raven-haired twin and rolled her up against her in like manner.
Bonnie and the maid followed, their little procession treading quietly to the twins' bedroom; Levi discreetly excused himself after putting his curl-headed, frilly-dressed burden on her bed.
Sarah worked her right arm, frowning at the stiffness in her shoulder, the ache in her collar bone: she was as hard headed and contrary as her sire and at the moment she had one, and only one, focus, and that was to get her good right arm back into fighting shape.
Sarah rigged a knotted rope, much as Daciana had in her arena, suspended from a rafter: she had her kettlebells, she had her boar-spear, and she had other, more pedestrian implements with which to work her healing structure, and before the sun set she'd mucked out the stalls, dollied the contents around back and shoveled the wheelbarrow loads onto the manure pile.
She timed her labors such that none of the hired men were around.
It would not do to let the hired help know their mousy-grey schoolmarm wasn't quite as crippled up as Denver believed her.
It's not that Sarah didn't trust the hired help, far from it.
She was well acquainted with the Western man's mind, and with the honor involved with good honest labor, exemplified in the phrase, "Riding for the Brand."
No, Sarah knew that people were but human, and accidentally or with the help of drink or coin, a man might accidentally -- or "accidentally" -- let slip something she didn't want known.
As she increased her range of motion with an extra pitchfork-handle, held in both hands before her and raised slowly overhead, then back, back as far as it would peaceably go, she genuinely regretted the showy spin she'd put on the boar-spear to show His Honor the Judge that she was better than she actually was.

Like most men, Lightning was a flawed creature: a man with a beautiful wife can be jealous, and Lightning slowly came to realize that he was becoming just that.
Jealous.
He spoke to Daciana when she was riding her circus-pony down the main street, slowly doing a rolling somersault in the saddle -- or, rather, he spoke to her after she rode up to him, cheeks flushed, smiling with the pride of achievement -- and instead of Lightning praising her skill and her beauty, he cut her with words harsh and ill-considered: he spoke as a man who owned a thing, instead of a man who understood a gentle heart.
Daciana, wounded, did what she did best.
She fought back.
Lightning reached up to seize his wife's wrist and found he'd just grabbed onto a tiger, and rather an unhappy one at that: Daciana was short, Daciana was compact, and Daciana was muscle.
All muscle.
Daciana launched herself from the trick pony's saddle with the full strength of acrobat-trained legs, seized Lightning by the necktie (she aimed for his throat and missed) and drove him backwards: his calves caught the boardwalk and he went over backwards, just as Daciana's hands seized his ears and bounced his gourd against the warped boards.
Lightning wasn't sure, in that moment, which was the more surprising: his wife's sheer strength, or how fast she'd gone from a demure Venus astride the legendary winged Pegasus, or just how fast she could swear in Romanian, for whatever she was saying was coming out her mouth like a sewing machine run by a lunatick, and whatever it was she was saying, it was not friendly.
After the fifth bounce against the boardwalk, Daciana let go Lightning's ears, seized his necktie left-handed and began to slap him across the face, fore-and-back, her voice raising steadly, until her face was the approximate shade of a squeezed, very ripe raspberry, she was screaming at the top of her athletically-toned lungs, and Lightning was certain that church bells were wallowing about inside his skull, so profound was the noise of her open-hand blows.
Daciana landed a-straddle of Lightning's flat belly: she stood now, twisting his necktie in her left hand, hauling the long tall skinny fellow to his feet: eyes blazing, she pulled him toward her, stepped easily backward off the boardwalk, then seized him with her right hand ... seized him right in the crotch.
Lightning at this point realized he was being hauled off his feet.
His wife's grip in such proximity to his rather valued ... umm ... real estate ... didn't really register until Daciana brought him stiff-armed overhead, lowered him down to her collarbone level, then pressed him straight up overhead: she lowered him again, pressed him up again: holding him, her teeth bared, she hissed, "Let me know vhen you gets tiredt, lidtle man!"
Lightning, now clutching his wife's wrist, choking with her grip on his necktie -- and his throat pressing down into her fist, gravity demonstrating itself to his discomfiture -- gasped -- well, kind of croaked -- "Tiired!"
"You vant I should not ride no more?" Daciana demanded. "I show you vhat for!" -- and staggering only a little, Daciana marched up the street, her faithful Buttercup mincing along beside her, until they reached the horse trough and Daciana let out a prolonged, throat-ripping scream, and dumped Lightning squarely in the drink, causing a great splash and wetting herself down in the process, which did not gentle her temper in the slightest.
Lightning struggled up out of the water and Daciana grabbed him by the necktie again, jerking his eagle beak up within half an inch of her cute little button nose.
"I goot vife to you," she said, her voice low and menacing, "I cook vor you, I clean vor you, I goot vife!"
She shoved him away, stepping back, nostrils flared, shaking her finger at him.
"You go home now. You go home, I fix you supper, den ve talk!"
Daciana extended her hand and Buttercup spun, thrust herself under her beloved mistress's palm: Daciana caught the front of the saddle, without looking, flowed into the gaudy circus rig and did a perfect handstand, leotard legs pointing flawlessly to the vertical as Buttercup hobby-horsed in her showy circus gallop, down the street and around the turn, towards home.

Jacob looked over at Annette, then at the little round patch of hair that was all he could see of their son.
"He's not as warm," Annette said, "but he's still fevered."
Jacob's trotter set a good pace; where the road was good, she made excellent time; where the road wasn't nearly as good, Jacob slowed to spare the rig and the passengers: they were just coming to the main street when they saw Daciana and her trick pony turning off the main street, probably going home.
They were past the horse trough before it really registered.
"Was that ...?" Jacob asked.
"Lightning?" Annette said. "I think so."
The hospital was in sight now and Jacob steered a course for the front doors, and neither gave any more thought to the sight of their chief telegrapher standing up in a horse trough, soaking wet.

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Linn Keller 8-29-12

 

I rode into town on Cannonball, feeling like I owned the world and a controlling share of another besides.
Always did like morning, especially mornings like this: it was a little cool, and damp, easy breathin' ... and it smelled good, it smelled so very good.
We set a steady pace, Cannonball and me, and smooth that she rode, I still missed my Sun-horse.
That Sun-Witch ... she was good while she lasted, and I missed her too, but Cannonball had 'em all beat: she was faster, tougher, she had more bottom, she could out-last the lot of 'em and that was saying something, for when I set that Sun-Witch and that Sun-King both, why, they were the finest horse flesh I'd ever forked.
I grinned, then I laughed.
"Old son," I said out loud, "remember the man who looked around and said 'I got it pretty good. Fertile fields, grain houses stuffed full, gold in my purse and sons to boot, why, it don't get no better'n this!' -- then the Lord said 'You fool, I'm fetchin' you off that earth tonight and what'll you do with all that greed, hey?'"
I laughed again as Cannonball's ears swung back to hear my voice.
I patted her neck.
"Now that ain't quite what it says in Scripture," I admitted to my mare, "but it's near enough."
Cannonball came coasting around a turn and I got a good look at town and saw Jacob and Annette's buggy in front of the hospital.
My belly tightened up and dropped about ten foot and Cannonball picked up and began to run.
Years ago I felt this same way, when a dread knowledge was on me, and I dropped my grip and ran hard as I could spin my legs, screaming my wife's name, my dead wife's name, and I come into an empty cabin and death still hung in the air, and that's how I felt right now.
That's exactly how I felt.

Joseph fussed a little as Annette lay him down on the cold, funny-smelling table.
Jacob's ear twitched as Dr. Flint struck the round wheel against the standing flint and lit off the carbide exam light.
Strong, blunt fingers adjusted brass petcocks until the pure-white flame focused on the little boy's face, and Dr. Greenlees gently drew little Joseph's jaw open: holding the mandible open with his thumbs against the lower canines, he gently turned Joseph's little head to the side, then the other, frowning a little as he looked down into the little boy's throat.
Nurse Susan handed him a flat wooden depressor; Dr. Greenlees eased it into the little boy's mouth, nodded.
"I thought it the quinsy," Annette offered tentatively.
"I believe," Dr. Greenlees said quietly, closing Joseph's mouth and laying his big hand, warm and reassuring, against the side of the boy's head: "I believe a mother knows her child better than anyone." He looked up at Annette. "It is the quinsy, and we can take care of it."
He looked over at Nurse Susan. "Could you keep this fine young man company for a moment, please? I'd like to speak with his father." He looked down at the shivering child. "We'll be right outside that door. Not far."
Dr. Greenlees took Annette by one elbow and Joseph by the other.
Little Joseph's eyes were big and bright as he watched his Ma and Pa disappear through the dark-brown door, then he looked up at Nurse Susan and blinked.
"I'm cold," he whispered, and his teeth clattered a little.
Nurse Susan picked him up and held him against her as she went to get a nice, warm quilt.

Annette was pale but composed as they passed through the door.
As soon as the latch clicked behind them, her composure melted like a light snow in hot sun and she wilted against her husband, a terrified whimper squeezing out her tight throat.
"He's going to die," she rasped, shivering as Jacob wrapped his arms around her: "He's going to die!"
Dr. Greenlees' eyebrows puzzled together; he and Jacob exchanged puzzled looks.
"Why," Dr. Greenlees said slowly, "would ... you say ... that?"
"He's going to strangle," Annette said, looking fearfully at the somber physician.
"Strangle?"
"You'll have to cut out his voice box so he can breathe and he'll never speak again!" Annette's words came out in a rush, her throat dry as sun-baked desert rock.
"What?" Dr. Greenlees asked, blinking.
"The quinsy," Annette shuddered. "He's going to strangle ..."
Dr. Greenlees' eyes widened slightly.
"Perhaps," he suggested, "you are thinking ... diphtheria?"
Annette's mouth fell open and her hand clapped to her face: comprehension dawned, embarrassment flamed her ears, her wide eyes darted from Doctor to husband and back.
"Let me tell you what we're planning to do," he said reassuringly. "Please, have a seat."
Jacob helped his trembling wife into a chair; Dr. Greenlees drew his chair up in front of the couple.
"It's simple," he said: "a child gets an infection, and the infection is captured and drawn into a node."
He raised his chin, palpated under his own jaw. "Here, and here, are two of the first ones to swell up when you have an infection."
Jacob nodded; Annette looked at her husband, her hands tightening on his arm.
"The tonsils are ... they serve the same purpose."
Dr. Greenlees' voice was quiet, reassuring.
"Infection is drawn in, it's captured, it's held. Most of the time the body can take care of the infection, but sometimes --" Dr. Greenlees' eyes looked over to the closed door, then back -- "sometimes we have to remove the tonsils."
Annette sagged, relief washing through her.
"It's not ..."
"It's not diphtheria," Dr. Greenlees nodded, smiling very slightly, which was his usual expression.
Annette leaned against Jacob. "Thank God," she whispered.
Jacob tensed and his head came up at the sound of two fast steps outside: the knob turned, the door was thrust open and his father stepped through the door, his face serious.
Jacob raised his hand, palm toward his father.
"It'll be fine, sir," he said.
The Sheriff, eyes pale, cold and hard, froze: he took a long breath, let it out slowly, nodded.
"Do you need me here?" he asked, and Jacob heard the tension in the man's words.
Jacob looked at Annette, then back to his father.
"No, sir," he said. "No, sir, but I do thank you for coming."
The Sheriff nodded, turned, grasped the doorknob.
He stopped and looked back.
"By the way," he said, "what was Lightning doing walking around in a horse trough?"

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Linn Keller 8-30-12

 

Dr. Flint's moves were quick, efficient, controlled: he dried his hands thoroughly on a clean towel and removed a cloth-covered tray from a drawer.
Nurse Susan stayed with little Joseph, talking to him: the little boy watched her with fever-bright eyes, clutching the quilt, still shivering: he was less uncomfortable with a double layer of quilt under him, insulating him from the smooth, hard table.
The bright, harsh light was turned down and turned away, and Joseph looked toward the door.
"Mama?" he asked timidly.
"She's just outside," Nurse Susan said, brushing his hair gently with her finger tips.

"I don't suppose it would do any good to tell you to go to the Jewel and have a glass of wine," Dr. Greenlees said, tilting his head a little as he looked at the worried mother.
Annette closed her eyes and shook her head, squeezing her husband's hand.
"I could make it a prescription," he smiled.
"Mother might well enjoy the company," Jacob suggested.
Annette's eyes swung to the front door, then back to the physician.
"What if something goes wrong?"
Dr. Greenlees' long-fingered hands closed, warm and steady, over hers.
"We will take good care of Joseph," he said reassuringly.

Lightning was squelching his way diagonally across the street.
There weren't many folks watching; those who were, stared openly, for it wasn't really ordinary for the town's telegrapher to go his way soaking wet and dripping water.
I don't reckon he was any too happy, not from the look on his face nor from the color of his ears, but I am a curious man, so I rode over beside the man and swung down out of the saddle.
We walked together until we were off the main street and starting up the side street.
"I had my Saturday night bath," I said conversationally. "I try to bathe once a week whether I need it or not."
Lightning stopped dead, staring at me, unbelieving.
"Reckon you're either early for yours, or a couple days late," I deadpanned.
Lightning blinked, then he laughed: he looked down, shook his head, laid a damp hand on my shoulder, looked up at me.
"Sheriff," he said ruefully, "I was a damned fool."
I laughed too. "You, my friend," I said, "are in very good company, for every grown man I've known has said those very words and not just once!"
Lightning nodded, dropped his hand from my shoulder and resumed his penitent plod toward his house.
Daciana stepped out on their front porch, a pot of coffee in one hand and a plate of light rolls in the other.
"Sheriff, I haff coffee," she called. "Inkommen, wilkommen."

Dr. Flint removed the chloroform mask from the unconscious little boy's face: his fingers were gentle on the lad's throat, checking the pulse, feeling life throbbing rich and strong near the skin's surface, and nodded: he checked the boy's eyes, one, then the other.
He looked up at Dr. Greenlees.
"Ready, Doctor."
Dr. Greenlees picked up the first of the gleaming steel surgeon's tools.

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Linn Keller 8-30-12

 

Annette gazed long into the shimmering purple depths of the wineglass, much as a swimmer gauges the depth of water before making a high dive: she put the delicate glass to her lips, closed her eyes and drank, slowly, until the glass was empty.
Esther took her son's elbow and steered him gently to the door.
"In wine there is truth," she quoted, "and there is talk that must remain between women."
"Yes, ma'am," Joseph said, looking back at his bride: Annette's head was still bowed over the empty wineglass; she might have been carved of close-grained oak, or perhaps from marble, for she was utterly without movement of any kind.
Jacob looked back at his mother and said "Thank you," then turned and stepped out the door.
Esther discreetly placed the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the outside of the door, closed it quietly, and turned the key soundlessly in the lock, guaranteeing there would be no interruption.
Esther settled Annette into a chair, taking the wineglass and placing it on the tray: her own was untouched, and would remain so, at least until such time as she poured another glass for her daughter-in-law.
Esther took Annette's hands, then released one of them to place gentle fingers under the younger woman's chin.
"Tell me what happened," she said, and Annette looked at Esther.
Esther saw a young woman, a frightened young woman, a woman who blamed herself for something yet unsaid.
Annette saw a kind and motherly soul who reminded her very much of her own mother, and of her grandmother, and her eyes fell away and to the side as her hand came to her mouth and her eyes screwed shut, trying without success to stop the salt water from spilling over trembling dams.
Esther leaned forward, drew Annette into her: sometimes a woman just needs a good cry, and Annette did: hers was like a summer storm, brief and intense, leaving echoes of its passing and a general dampness, and she began to talk.
Esther listened patiently, without interrupting, nodding occasionally: her eyes were fixed on Annette's, and Annette's were fixed on her knees.
Esther listened to Annette's discovery of her little boy's fever, her quick exploration of his throat, the discovery of swollen glands; she looked into his mouth, down to the back of his throat, then bundled the fevered little boy and with Jacob's help got his fever down: they two got him to the hospital, where she made an utter fool of herself by mistaking tonsillitis for diphtheria: Esther saw her cheeks turn absolutely scarlet with humiliation as she admitted the mistake.
Esther nodded, considering before replying.
"You never knew my family, back East," Esther began.
Annette shook her head quickly.
Esther smiled sadly.
"I was very ... intimidated ... by my mother in law."
Her voice was quiet, patient, the voice of a woman who'd ridden a rough trail and saw something of herself in the soul before her.
"My little baby boy was not well, and I did not know what to do.
"I was a young mother and when I married ..."
Annette looked up and was surprised at the sad look on Esther's face.
"It was said," Esther continued slowly, "that I was just a gold digger, marrying as I did." Her head came up and Annette could feel the older woman's spine straighten. "But I did marry him, and for all the right reasons, and a year later we had a fine little boy, much like your Joseph."
"What happened?" Annette asked hesitantly.
"He was fevered and fussy and he wasn't teething yet, and I ... I was very young, and very frightened."
Esther looked off to the side, looking into the past, remembering, and Annette saw her shiver.
"I had nowhere to turn, except my mother-in-law."
Annette's expression changed: she felt concern for the woman that Esther had been, someone much like herself, someone facing the unknown, and afraid for it.
"She came over -- I remember they had such a grand carriage, and the driver was a dignified old gentleman with grey hair and a shining top hat -- she came in and took one look at our son and said to draw some hot water, and I did."
"Hot water?"
Esther nodded.
"She opened his mouth and we looked at the roof of his mouth.
"It was just polluted with little white speckles.
"We put him in a tub of nice warm water and the red speckles fairly shot out onto his skin.
"He had measles."
"Oh!" Annette's hand went to her mouth.
"He was a fine, strong boy, much like his father, and he came through it."
Esther patted Annette's hand between her own.
"Now I've told you my story. You tell me yours. What happened?"

Dr. Flint slid the steel ring over the swollen tonsil, working it a little until the swollen gland popped through.
"Do you know," he said conversationally, "that dentists make the best surgeons?"
"Oh?" Dr. Greenlees dipped the cotton ball into the styptic solution, tapping it against the heavy glass neck to drain off the excess.
"They are used to working in confined spaces" -- Dr. Flint frowned a little, then thrust the two-pronged steel fork into the tissue to impale it in place, preventing its escape -- "they are used to making very precise cuts in that very limited space" -- he worked the tonsil from its socket, gently, patiently: when it was withdrawn to his satisfaction, he pressed the guillotine blade home, freeing the tonsil, brought it quickly out, and Dr. Greenlees thrust the cotton ball into the bleeding socket.
Dr. Flint placed the second tonsil beside the first in the little steel pan, placed the tonsillotome in the pan beside it: he turned a little, fastidiously washing his hands yet again.
"Do you know," Dr. Greenlees said offhandedly, "you wash your hands more than any doctor I know?"
"Including you?" Dr. Flint asked, his eyes betraying the smile he didn't quite permit the rest of his face.
"No, I'm as bad as you are," Dr. Greenlees admitted, "which is why we have the least infection complications of any practice in the Territory."
"Precisely."
"There, that's stopped." He nodded, placed the bloodied cotton in the pan with the excised tissue. "We'll just watch him for a bit to make sure he doesn't have any breakthrough hemorrhage."
Dr. Greenlees looked up at his fellow surgeon.
"Now what was that about dentists making the best surgeons?" he asked with a quick grin. "I believe that was one of the most precise tonsillectomies I've seen, especially on a patient this young!"

Sarah was indeed as contrary and as hard headed as her father.
Fortunately she was not as stupid as she was contrary.
She worked her arm and shoulder but not to excess; she stressed her young muscles to reasonable limits, but not beyond; she tired herself out, then she went back to the house and took a nice hot bath, and then a nap.
As she was falling asleep it occurred to her that this may be the first time in a very long time she'd done something ... something normal.
She smiled a little as she slipped under the dark waters of the Lake of Slumber.

"You old enough to drink, kid?" the dusty man in the worn coat sneered.
Mr. Baxter casually placed the glass he'd been polishing, back on its shelf; he casually moved down the bar a few feet and began burnishing the mahogany bar top.
Conversation at the near tables stopped: chairs scooted back, cards dropped to the green felt, the roulette-wheel stopped with a clatter of its bouncing white marble, and the piano player, seeing alarm spread like ripples in a pebble-dropped pond, stopped his playing.
Jacob turned slowly, regarding the stubble-faced stranger with cold eyes.
The stranger hesitated, seeing those ice-pale eyes, so mesmerized that he did not hear the front door open, nor the cat-like gait behind him.
"Can I buy you a drink, mister?" Jacob asked quietly.
"Drink!" the man half-barked, half-laughed. "Why, you can buy the whole billy-be-damned house a drink!"
"No, sir," Jacob said, never raising his voice. "You need a drink, but just you."
"And I say you'll buy for the house!" the man roared, taking a step toward the slender deputy.
Jacob was never a man for halfway measures.
Nor was he stupid enough to let a large and strong man get in arm's reach.
He sidestepped quickly to his left, away from the bar, slinging his beer up the man's middle, dousing him from belt buckle to broke brim hat: the man blinked, then opened his eyes just in time to inherit the bottom edge of a heavy glass beer mug right between the eyebrows.
Jacob never stopped moving: he stepped in, swung, danced back: the mug was heavy and strong and had not broken, and Jacob, not being a wasteful man, set it down on a table.
Mr. Baxter reached under the bar, fetching out his bung starter and tossing it in a high arc over the snorting, bellowing stranger: his other hand was welded to the wrist of his double gun, and he held it across his body, hammers back, ready as needed.
Jacob caught the bung starter and belted the man behind the ear, dropping him like a head shot beef.
Jackson Cooper nodded, raising one eyebrow in approval.
"Shame about that," he observed, his voice rumbling as if struggling through rock fill in a deep well.
"How's that?" Jacob asked, picking up the beer mug and returning it and the bung starter to Mr. Baxter's bar.
"Shame to spill good beer like that."
"Yeah, I know," Jacob agreed. "A man told me once he'd ruther burn a church than spill good beer."
Jackson Cooper bent down and seized the man by the back of his belt, straightened. "Well, since he's takin' a siesta, I reckon I'll fetch him to his room so he can snooze all comfortable-like."
Jacob picked up the limp man's hat and handed it to the big town Marshal.
"Thank you," he said. "I appreciate that."

Lightning excused himself to change into something dry, and Daciana set me down with a big mug of coffee and some of those light rolls, and butter she'd pressed into those cute little molds women-folk are fond of.
She knew I had a weakness for light rolls, for I'd said once to her that my Mama used to make them.
Now I knew something was not as it should be, for Daciana was wearing ... well, I know about as much about women's fashions as a paving brick, but it struck me she was dressed a nickel's worth better than she usually did.
Lightning, too ... I had no notion a'tall why he'd been a-wallerin' in a horse trough, nor why he acted kind of uncomfortable, but I reckoned if neither of them spoke about it, why, 'twas none of my business, and besides, I'd never had coffee made with cinnamon and a little honey before.
Daciana had the loveliest accent, and she asked how Esther was carrying, and I grinned and allowed as she was the happiest woman in the world, that she was delighted to bear my child and said so every day.
Daciana gave me a long look and said something in Romanian and I recognized that gesture she tried to hide.
She made a quick finger-sign to ward off the Evil Eye, and I knew she had some knowledge that she wasn't going to give me.

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Charlie MacNeil 8-30-12

 

"When's that girl comin'?" The old man's gruff tone broke through Charlie's reverie. He'd been staring west and north toward the mountains, seeing in his mind's eye the yellow quiver of the aspen, whose leaves are set at an angle to their stem so that the slightest breeze sends them ashiver, giving the white-barked trees their nickname of "quakie". The air in the ranch house hollow was dead calm and dang toasty on exposed skin, even at the elevation where the ranch house and corrals sat. That would change soon enough, and Charlie was ever a creature of cool weather. He'd often remarked that "a fella can usually put on enough extra clothes to keep warm when it's cold, but it's damn hard to take off enough of 'em to cool down when it's scorchin'".

"Don't know," he replied absently. "Maybe she ain't." He was listening to the whisper of the golden quakies, the bugling of rutting bull elk, the whistle and chuckle of elk cows and calves as they fed and frolicked, the bickering of coyotes tussling over a fresh gut pile the night after a successful hunt, all sounds that were recorded forever in his mind.

"Her family's gotta eat. Little girls need the elk spirit ta grow up right, too." Cat Running declared. "She'd best be gettin' out her 'fore long."

"Hell, old man, it ain't even September yet. It's still too damn hot to hang meat, even up yonder." Charlie jerked his chin toward the mountains lining the horizon.

"I bet she ain't shot that big gun since last time we hunted," the old man commented. "Probly ain't throw no spear, neither. Too busy ridin' that black horse around, scarin' the neighbors. Too much show-off, not enough huntin'. Can't hunt 'thout practicin'. Ain't fair ta the animals. Gotta make a clean kill, honor the elk spirit."

"She's got a bum arm..." Charlie began.

"More reason to get out here," Cat Running interrupted. "Needs ta shoot when she ain't whole. Might save her life some day. Can't shoot no big guns in town. Might kill somebody ya ain't wantin' to. Could shoot a dentist or somethin'." Abruptly the old man turned toward the barn.

"Where you goin'?" Charlie asked Cat Running's retreating back.

"Goin' ta town, fetch that girl. 'Bout time she got outta town. Town ain't no good place."

Charlie chuckled. "Be my guest, my friend," he said quietly. "It'll be good to have her here again, but I don't think it's gonna happen right this minute." He raised his voice to carry into the barn where the old man was saddling his horse. "You want me to go with you?"

Cat Running's voice drifted from the shadows beyond the doorway. "What the hell for?"

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Linn Keller 8-31-12

 

Somewhere near Wichita --
Two cowboys primed their swaller pipes with coffee black as a sinner's heart and stout as a good Irish shillelagh.
It was full dark; the pair rolled out of thin blankets and shook their boots out before pulling them on, as they'd done many times before: young bodies felt old, sleeping on the ground, living in the saddle, eating dust, but the pair had young men's fire, young men's optimism, and both looked forward to the end of trail, to Wichita, to getting their pay, having a drink, sleeping in a clean bed.
They had a few minutes before they had to go sling a loop over their pony's neck and saddle up, and in the few minutes, there in the dark, they talked as men will.
"Where you headed after pay?" the dark-skinned one asked, blowing across his tin cup of varnish remover.
"I dunno," came the grunted reply. "North, I reckon. I seen cattle enough."
"North? Where you goin', north?"
"The mountains, I reckon. I hear tell there's still gold somewheres."
"Yeah, California," the first one muttered, taking a tentative sip, frowning as the searing fluid scalded the hair off his tongue.
"Hot, ain't it?"
"Go to hell."
"Me, I'm for Mexico and easy livin'."
"Ain't nothin' in Mexico but sand and horny toads."
"Where you think I oughta go?"
"I think you oughta go home, fool! You left a good farm an' fam'ly an' fer what?"
The other was quiet for a long time, and finally looked down and stirred at the fire a little.
"Fool," he echoed. "Yeah, that's me, all right."
"I don't wanta go nowhere near Collar-rad-doe."
"Nah? I hear tell there's silver in them Collar-rad-doe hills."
"There's speerts there, too," he replied, his voice low; he looked into the darkness as if half afraid of what he might see.
"There's what?"
"Haints an' boogers, damn your soul, fit t' rip a man's soul loose an' eat it fer breakfast!"
"Why do tell," the other said mildly.
"You don't believe me."
"I got my doubts."
"You just don't know nothin' now, do ya?"?
Cookie came over and loaded more eggs fried up with crumbled bacon on their tin plates: he set a tin pan with a dozen biscuits on the ground between the two and staggered back to the chuck wagon.
"Thank'ee kindly," the dark-skinned one called.
Cookie's grunt was barely audible.
"Wha'd he say?"
"He said your kind appreciation touches his heart."
"Sounded like go to hell."
"Same thing."
The two started shoveling eggs into their growling guts.
"Y'know" -- gulp, chomp, slurp of coffee -- "there's a big black horse with white eyes runs them Collar-rad-doe mountains."
"Liar."
Gulp, chomp, slurp.
"God as my witness. There's a ghost rides it, a girl, killed with a broke heart. She's got hair black as a crow's wing, long enough to float along behind that-there horse's hinder, an' she wears a white angel's robe."
"Shut up and gimme a biscuit."
"Now I ain't a-lyin' to ya, I talked with a fella that seen her!"
"You talked to a damn' drunk."
"He was sober, I tell ya! -- ya want that last biscuit?"
"Nah, you take it."
"That ghost girl now ... she rides a horse? What's a ghost need with a horse?"
"Damned if I know, fella. She's got white eyes same as that horse an' she carries a silver spear twicet as long as a man is tall."
"You," came the grunted reply as the two stood, their knees protesting at the move, "are the biggest sack of second hand horse feed I ever did see."
"You just ride them mountains an' you'll find out. Go to Cripple Creek an' turn left an' you'll run right into 'er!"
"Shut up and fetch yer saddle, you lyin' sack. Was I to knock the stuffin' out'a ya I'd be all week an' you'd look like a burlap bag buried in a manure pile."
The two profaned their way into the darkness, their arms around one another's shoulders, two comrades in arms, going to work.

Meanwhile, back very near Firelands --

Sarah blinked in surprise.
The bull elk blinked as well.
Sarah tilted her head, curious.
The elk's nose was black, wet: Sarah could clearly see the delicate convolutions, the slight dilation as he breathed; the elk was big, old ... and less than a foot from her.
This is odd, Sarah thought.
Why is it odd? the elk replied.
Sarah blinked again.
You can hear me?
She sensed amusement, and realized how foolish her question really was.
I am He Who Follows.
Sarah turned her head a little, curious, a memory tugging at the back of her mind, something her Papa told her while they rode together, one magic evening in the high mountains --
You remember. Good.
Sarah smelled the bull elk: she hesitated to reach for the great creature, for its antlers showed wear, showed the polish that comes from use, and she well knew the damage such a rack could do with but one toss of that muscled neck --
Fear not, Daughter of Pale Eyes.
You know him?
Your father. Yes, I know him.
He told me of Little Deer.
I know.
You know?
Sarah blinked, surprised.
I am Little Deer.
Sarah shook her head, raised her hands palms out.
No, no -- she felt the bull elk's amusement at her confusion -- Little Deer is a ... deer, and you are --
Sarah's mental picture of Little Deer was that of the Eastern woodland whitetail, truly a diminutive creature when compared to this grown, grizzled, veteran herd bull.
Perhaps this is easier.
Sarah took a step back, shaking her head again, closed her eyes, opened them.
No -- no -- this isn't --
Sarah stopped.
What am I saying?
Good. You understand.
I understand you are here and you are real, therefore I need not understand how you are real.
Yes.
You are He-Who-Follows, a bull elk, the great elk of the herd -- and you are Little Deer.
Yes.
Sarah took a long breath.
Little Deer follows the trail of a deer after its spirit has flown.
Yes.
Little Deer asks the blood of the fallen deer if the hunter asked pardon.
Yes.
Little Deer asks the blood of the fallen deer if the hunter made use of the meat and the hide, sinews and hooves, giving due thanks for the bounty.
Yes.
You are Little Deer.
Yes.
And you are here because I killed an elk.
No.

Sarah felt the elk's amusement: it was once again the grizzled bull, king of his mountain domain and sire to his harem.
I am here because you gave due thanks.
The elk turned his head and Sarah saw a light, growing in the darkness: she saw a frosted meadow, herself on one knee, her hand on the dead elk's neck: she saw the Sarah-lips move, heard the Sarah-whispered words: she heard herself ask forgiveness for taking the life, she heard the promise to make use of the parts: she saw herself boning the meat, she saw herself stripping sinews and sewing with them, lacing a new knapped spearhead on a shaft.
If the hunter asks not for pardon, she heard the voice in her mind, if the hunter uses not the bounty, if the life is taken without gratitude and the bounty is wasted, then I track the hunter to his cabin and I strike him with arthritis, visiting pain upon him for the rest of his years. I cripple his joints and hobble his steps.
The elk turned his head and regarded Sarah with surprisingly bright eyes.
You I will not smite, nor will I your father.
He has never failed to ask pardon, and he has made use of the bounty.

Sarah's eyes snapped open and her hands closed on the bedcovers: the house was quiet and she collected her thoughts, then she realized she was hungry.
There was a light tap at the door.
Sarah swung her legs off the edge of the bed and snatched up her robe: wrapping it around herself, she hugged it tight about her and reached for the doorknob.
"Supper's weddy," Polly piped, Opal smiling behind her, and Sarah squatted, taking a good double armful of little sisters.
It wasn't until the twins scampered downstairs, giggling, that Sarah realized just how hungry she was.
She rose, turning, closing the door behind her, and froze at the sight of the bull elk, standing beside her bed.
You wondered if I was just a dream, she heard, and then it was gone.

Bonnie looked up and smiled as Sarah walked quietly and thoughtfully into the dining room.
She noticed Sarah was quiet, reserved, preoccupied: when supper was finished, she took the opportunity to touch Sarah's elbow.
"Penny for your thoughts," she murmured, and Sarah blinked, as if returning from a great distance.
Sarah laughed, almost embarrassed: she dropped her eyes, then looked up at her Mama.
"I'm sorry," she smiled. "I was remembering something my father told me a couple of years ago."

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Charlie MacNeil 8-31-12

 

"And what might that be, my love?" Bonnie asked.

"Actually, I heard it from him, Uncle Charlie and Cat Running all three. Remember when I went hunting with Uncle Charlie and Cat Running?"

"Yes, I do. The meat you brought was the source of many delicious meals."

"Well, long before we did any hunting, all three of them told me that I needed to be properly grateful to the spirit of the animal if I killed something. I remember kneeling in the frost in that high meadow and thanking the animal for helping me to feed my family. At the time, I thought it was kind of silly, but now..." Sarah's voice trailed off as she remembered what had just transpired in her bed chamber.

"Yes, dear?"

"Now I know that it's important. We are all a part of the great circle of life, and when we try to hold ourselves aloof from it, our attitude only makes things worse for us instead of better. We have to realize that, at the end, we are all mortal, and what we do with our lives, how we treat those others who touch our existence, and even those who provide for our existence, makes a difference." She suddenly went silent; a look of surprise that was matched by that on the features of both Bonnie and Levi spread across her face. Wide-eyed, she stared at her parents. The twins, aware of the sudden silence in the dining room and unsure of the reason, looked uncertainly between the adults and their Sawah.

"You are ever a source of amazement to me, young lady," Levi said into the sudden silence that filled the room. "Even though I've seen you mature so much these few short months that I've been a part of your life, you still surprise me constantly."

"And me as well, dear heart," Bonnie added.

"Uhm, is this a bad thing?" Sarah asked quietly.

"Hardly, my dear," Levi assured her. "The world we live in requires that children grow up rapidly, but I just never expect it to happen, I suppose." He chuckled, lifting his coffee cup. "Though after recent events I can't imagine why." He took a sip of his cooling coffee before replacing his cup on its matching china saucer. "However, I would implore you to remember that you are still yet young, and the heartaches of the world will make themselves felt soon enough. You should enjoy your youth, and not try to grow up too soon."

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Linn Keller 9-1-12

 

"Meow."
Lightning blinked, puzzled, as the off-going operator grinned at him from the swivel telegrapher's chair.
"Come again?"
"You look like the cat that ate ten canaries."
"Oh." Lightning started to lean forward to scan the log entries, then leaned back, realizing his co-worker was pulling his leg -- a rather routine matter, that, but Lightning's mind was elsewhere when he came through the door.
"The ore freight is ten minutes behind schedule. Some drunken miner wandered into the rail yard and got crushed between two cars, his own fool fault I suppose. Passenger is right on time, set your watch by good old Billy."
Lightning nodded, his eyes wandering off to the side.
"Hey! Are you listening?"
Lightning raised his eyebrows, blinked rapidly and shook his head.
Lifting his cap and smoothing his hair, he took a long breath and folded his long tall carcass into the other chair.
Fred swung to the desk, automatically plucking the pencil from its station beside the lined pad, and copied the clicks and clatters in painfully neat print: he and Lightning took good pride in their work, and part of their work was the written record of the traffic they passed, and their printing was immaculate unless things were really busy.
Fred nodded, tapped the brief acknowledge, swung his chair to face his relief operator.
"Cripple said the ore train is out of station and no further delay expected," he said, "and why is he asking if you enjoyed your bath?"

The trail boss paid the man's fine -- considerably discounted, once he and the Sheriff talked for a bit -- and the two of them rode out of town, the boss silent, the hired hand enjoying a headache that was not forged of a good honest drunk.
They rode in silence for a good while until the hand finally spoke up.
"Boss?"
"Yeah?"
"You recall we-all was talkin' about that pale eyed depitty?"
"I recall, yes."
"I took him for considerable younger than he is."
Silence for another half hour.
The pair drew up on a rise, surveying the country ahead of them: to their right, granite thrust, raw and harsh, against the clear sky, threatening the clouds overhead: the clouds, uncaring, drifted overhead, safely out of reach of metamorphosed stone's eviscerative efforts.
"Did you see her?"
The hand turned his head carefully, looked at his boss.
"No, sir," he said, "I most certainly did not."
The boss sat relaxed, hand on his thigh.
"Good."
"Yes, sir."
Silence again, until they were nearly back to the ranch.
"She's the same one that persuaded good old what's-his-name that he hadn't oughta cheat a woman at horses."
"She is."
"She's the one they saw a-ridin' that big black man killin' horse, an' her wearin' angel's wings an' carryin' that long spear."
"So I heard."
"She's the one that rode that big black horse into the bank's parlor an' smote them bank robbers hip an' thigh an' that horse kicked half of 'em through the bank's front winda an' she spitted the rest of 'em on that big long spear an' roasted 'em on hell's fire what come rippin' up outta the main street."
"So I heard tell."
The hand nodded carefully, his head pounding.
"No, sir, I didn't see her an' a good thing it was."
"Yep," the boss said. "Good thing. Hungry?"

Lightning settled himself into the operator's chair, but not until he picked up the thin pillow, shook it, fluffed it as much as it would, and laid it back down in the chair.
"Might as well sit on a sock," he muttered, then looked up at Fred.
"Fred," he said, "I been married for some time now and I learn somethin' every day."
"Is that a fact?" Fred asked skeptically, regarding his partner with a bright and assessing eye.
"Oh, ya," Lightning nodded. "Generally it's the same thing over an' over ag'in, but I learned something different yesterday."
Fred folded his arms, grinning.
"Do tell, O wise one."
Lightning swung his chair to face Fred squarely.
"Every time I figure somethin' out," he admitted, "I discover I don't know it a'tall, every time I get somethin' nailed down so I can beat on the pulpit and declare to the world that this is a fact, I get the rug yanked out from under me, but yesterday" -- he shook his head, looked away, looked back -- "yesterday I learned a grand truth that I don't believe will change with time."
"Erudite and educated one, pray do enlighten me," Fred said dryly, suppressing a grin.
"I," Lightning declared, one hand dramatically across his breast and the other poking an admonishing finger at the ceiling, "am the veriest of fools, and know absolutely nothing at all about women, except one thing." He lowered his head, grinning sheepishly.
"I know absolutely nothing about women except that I don't know a thing about 'em!"
Fred nodded. "That, my friend," he said, stepping closer and extending his hand, "is why I am remaining a bachelor."
The shared a comradely handclasp on their mutual experience.

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Linn Keller 9-2-12

 

Sarah kept a change of clothes -- well, more than one -- out in a shed not used for much else.
She'd spread dirt and sand on the floor, she threw down a square of plate metal and she had a sage smudge going.
Sarah knew how important it was to be unnoticeable, and Sarah knew smell was something in which people failed miserably but animals excelled, and she knew Cats Running smudged his own duds: her Papa spoke of using woodsmoke for that purpose: whether sage or sapling, Sarah knew neither was natural in an otherwise empty environment, and she knew an elk, scenting either smoke or sage where it should not be, would be if not alarmed, at least aware that something was unusual.
I won't smell like me, she thought, and I won't smell like the inside of a house ... I suppose that is a good thing ... besides, I like the smell of sage.
Cats Running will probably tell me I stink.
He usually does.

Sarah's eyes darkened a little they way they did when she smiled without smiling.
She did not question how she knew that Cats Running was on his way.
Perhaps it was the elk; perhaps there was a deeper connection; maybe it was just a lucky guess, or wishful thinking.
Sarah worked her arm, frowning a little, turned her hand over and glared at its back, then its palm.
You will work, she thought.
Peacefully.
Or otherwise.

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Linn Keller 9-3-12

 

I am the Sheriff.
I am the law.
I am the ultimate authority in my county.
My power is absolute.
I back my word with lead and with buckshot and with steel, with hard-knuckled fists, a knee to the gut or a boot to wherever I have to put it.
I have killed and most likely I will kill again.
I have faced up to and faced down large and angry individuals bearing a variety of weapons.
I have been shot, stabbed, cut, run into, run over and a street evangelist tried to save my corroded soul.
I know what it is to lie on my back on the ceiling and look down at a long tall skinny fellow bleeding on the floor, and realize with surprise ... that's me ... and I know what it is to walk the Valley, and to be sent back because my work wasn't done.
I know what it is to kill with my bare hands, to throttle life from a man's body, to see the light fade from his eyes and know that I, and I alone, ripped the living soul from his clay, and cast it into Judgement.
I am a hard man when I must be.
There are few moments when I let down my guard, for men have wished my death and some came close to achieving it: moreso, now that I wear a six pointed star, and with it, the mantle of designated authority.
I do not take my duty lightly, and God willing I will never take it too fully to heart, for absolute power corrupts absolutely.
There are balances in life: I have been lucky enough to have been defeated, to know what it is to fail, to understand the consequences of failure, to taste the bitter ash of consequences, for there are consequences to everything we do or do not, every word we say, or say not.
I take none of my many duties lightly.
I'd been preparing for today's duty for some time.
I knew there would be consequences to my actions, both short term, and long term, and I had my hat in my hand and addressed the Almighty in the matter, for I knew I was dealing with a very long term result, one that would live longer than I would.
I opened my hand to show Angela what I had for her.
Her little pink fingers were interlaced, her hands pulled up under her chin, her eyes big and bright and she bounced on her toes the way she did when she was excited, and I opened my hand and showed her a half dozen .22 short cartridges.
Angela's mouth went round and she looked up at me, half-hopefully, half-pleading: "Baby boolits?" she breathed. "Are the baby boolits for meee?" she asked in a little-girl's voice, and even if they hadn't been, I would have said yes.
It's not that she had me wrapped around that little pink pinky or anything, you understand.
I nodded and said "Yes, honey, these are for you."
Angela clapped her hands and bounced some more: "Yaaay!" she cheered, her teeth white, even, curls bouncing in the sunlight.
I sat down on my back porch with my feet flat on the ground, put gentle hands on Angela's shoulders: there was a little woody rattle as I placed the rounds on the porch boards beside me, then drew my little girl into me.
Her back was to me and she was backed up against me, warm and solid and very real, and I could not help but wonder what she would see in her life, what changes those shining eyes would know, what marvels would make that little heart beat faster, and I bit my own bottom lip, for all that I am a hard man, my feeling run deeper than I like to admit, and ... well, I was a daddy with my little girl, and sometimes I get kind of sentimental.
I shoved sentiment savagely from me, for this was serious work, at least until I put my arms around her and she giggled, and the serious melted from around my serious Daddy-heart and I giggled too, my cheek against her head just behind her right ear.
"Do you remember," I whispered, knowing anything louder would be too loud with my lips beside her ear, "how I showed you?"
"Yes, Daddy," she said, and I knew without looking just how anxious her expression would be in that moment.
I reached down beside me and picked up a .22 revolver.
I brought it around in front of Angela.
"Grab hold of it, honey," I said, and Angela cocked her head and carefully wrapped her little hand around the grip, then the other hand wrapped over the first.
I wrapped my hands around hers and took the weight, for I knew how fast young shoulders would tire when holding machined steel out at arm's length.
"Now bring it up to your eye level," I whispered. "Just like that. Is it at eye level?"
"Yes, Daddy."
I felt her tremble a little and knew she was needing a moment.
"Okay, lower," I said, and I took the weight down: I kept my hands around hers, and she made no effort to loosen her grip.
"You have a good grip," I said softly. "That's good. Let's look at that can now."
Angela made no reply: her little face would be serious now, her eyes on the bright stripe on the galvanized gallon can hanging from a string ten feet from us.
"Now," I said, "as you raise the pistol, reach up with your left thumb and cock that hammer back."
I eased the pistol, her hands welded to the grip, up to her approximate eye level, then I let her position it: she fetched that stand-up hammer back with authority.
"Do you see the front sight, Angela?" I said.
"Yes, Daddy."
"You're looking at the can and you see the front sight."
"Yes, Daddy."
"Press the trigger, honey."
She was dead steady as the hammer went CLANK and hit the frame.
I squeezed her a little with my upper arms.
"Good job, sweetheart," I whispered, and we lowered the Colt.
"I wanna do it again!" Angela exclaimed, bouncing a little, and I could not help but grin.
"Okay," I said, raising the pistol.
She fetched back that hammer and it went CLANK and she said "I had the front sight on it, Daddy!"
"Good girl!" I whispered, releasing my hands. "You hold this, now, and keep it pointed to the front, just like I showed you."
"Yes, Daddy."
Angela never moved, never offered to turn, never even fidgeted as I closed my hand around the half dozen copper hulled cartridges.
"Now, honey," I said, "can you bring the hammer back to half cock for me?"
Angela frowned a little -- I eased my head far enough that I could just see -- and she carefully brought the Colt back until the hammer rested in the half cock notch.
"Good," I whispered. "Now use your right thumb and flip open the loading gate."
The blued-steel gate flipped open with a distinct metallic note, the sound of a new revolver being worked: you can tell a new pistol by the sound, and this sounded new.
I turned the cylinder a little, pressed the first cartridge home.
I turned it one click, bringing the next chamber around.
I opened my right hand, held the pistol around the frame with my left.
"You do the next one," I whispered.
Angela very carefully picked up one round, held it up and looked at it, turned it over, turned it around, then tilted her head just a little and carefully, delicately, started the nose into the chamber, then gave it a quick push with her fingertip, and giggled.
I turned the cylinder one click.
Angela did not wait for instruction.
She picked up the next round and loaded it.
When all six chambers were loaded, I turned the cylinder, six clicks, showing her all six chambers were loaded.
"How many does that make, Angela?" I asked.
I felt her sag a little: "Uh oh," she said in a small voice, "I didn't count. I sowwy!"
She still had the grip by her left hand: I kept my hand closed around hers, but I wrapped my right arm around her and hugged her into me.
"Nobody said you were supposed to," I whispered. "You did just fine, honey, you loaded just fine, I am proud of you!"
"Weewee?" she asked, and I could just see the change in her face, as if a sudden breeze blew a rain cloud away from the face of the sun.
"Now take hold of the pistol again," I whispered, and Angela frowned and took her grip on the small grips again.
"Lower," I said, and she lowered stiff arms until the muzzle pointed to the ground in front of us.
I released my grip on her hands and instead rubbed her shoulders a little, and her upper arms.
"You are doing remarkably well," I whispered. "You are probably the best student I have ever had!"
"We gonna shoot the baby boolits now?" Angela piped, looking up and around at me, and my hands dropped forward, fingers spread, to catch her arms in case she started to turn.
She didn't.
She listened, I thought, surprised: I'm used to working with men, with boys, with impatient sorts who thought they knew more than they did.
I'd carefully drilled with Angela, how she was not to turn the muzzle onto anything she didn't want to see utterly destroyed, and I hadn't been sure she actually listened.
Apparently something soaked in.
"Look at the target," I said, and Angela faced forward and I felt her arms tense and her hands tightened and I put my cheek behind her ear and again and whispered, "Deep breath in."
I felt her young chest expand, her shoulders lift, and she blew out the breath with a puffing of her little pink cheeks.
"Raise up the pistol and cock as it comes up."
The Colt's triple-click was bright, metallic, almost harsh: the barrel came up to her eye level as the fluted cylinder rolled around one notch, stopped.
BLAP and a hole appeared a little to the right of center and the can wobbled a little and started to spin and Angela gave an excited little squeak and she turned and her eyes were bright and she had a child's expression of unadulterated, excited delight, and she exclaimed "DaddyDaddyDaddyIhittitIhittitIhittit!"
I squeezed her with my upper arms and I reckon I had this big idiot grin on my face and I nodded.
"Yes you did, sweetheart, now hit it again!"
Angela's head snapped around and I lowered her hands and the pistol and murmured, "Deep breath, honey, and let it out," and Angela's shoulders raised and lowered and we brought the revolver up and she fetched that stand-up hammer back to full stand and BLAP and the can wobbled and another hole a little higher than the first and Angela gave a little squeak and bounced a little and this time she reached up and eared that hammer back and BLAP and I heard her give kind of a grunting "Ahhh!" and clickity click BLAP wobble swing and BLAP and wobble shake and BLAP and I reached up and flipped open the loading gate and brought the hammer back to half cock and Angela held the handle with one hand while I punched out the empties.
I set the pistol on the porch beside me and Angela turned and jumped into my arms and jumped up and down a little and hugged me fiercely, laughing, and I laughed too, and then she let go and ran out to that tin can swinging a little on the end of a hay string and grabbed it and turned and yelled "Look Daddy I hit it I hit it I hit it!"
There I sit on my back porch, the supreme legal authority in Firelands County, a hard man with hard knuckles and hard muscles, a blooded and bloodied warrior, a man who had taken lives and come near to being killed his own self ... there I sit, the Sheriff himself, with death sleeping in my holsters and in my boot sheath, Judgement in six chambers and Execution in my rifle's magazine tube, a man who knew what it was to walk up to the Reaper himself and belt him across his bony chops and dare him to do his worst ...
... a man with a big grin on his face, laughing as his little girl grasped a gallon can with six holes in it, holding it out for his inspection as if it were the most precious trophy ever awarded in the history of Man.

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Linn Keller 9-4-12

 

Sarah pulled the lever up, ran the bolt into battery, set the crescent steel against her upper arm as near to her shoulder as it would go: she held the magazine tube between thumb and bent-up forefinger, her other fingers laid over the fence rail.
Her world shrank, diminished, focused: the front bead sat steady on the tin can, her finger felt the broad, cool smoothness of the trigger, she let out half her breath, wiped her mind clean of thought, of distraction.
She felt her heart beat, steady, regular, whispering to her: Only the sights, only the sights, only the sights ....
The .40-60 thrust into her the way it always did.
Her shoulder protested loudly.
Sarah's teeth were locked together: she did not make a sound: she cranked the lever down, back, sighted on the can again, following it as it rolled a little, found the trigger.
Her shoulder screamed in pain and her vision blurred as tears rushed over her eyes: she squeezed her eyes shut, shoved the pain from her, opened her eyes again: they were pale, very pale, and she switched the rifle to her left shoulder.
She blinked, then rubbed her closed eye against her sleeve, rolling her head over against her upper arm, then back into position behind the rear sight.
She seized her self-anger with an iron claw, crushed it down, mashed it flat: she took a long breath, blew it out, blowing pain and frustration and anger with it, casting it from her.
She settled a pale-blue eye behind the buckhorn rear, set the bead on the can's center, then lowered it to the bottom edge.
The rifle boomed and thrust into her left shoulder and the can flew straight in the air.
Sarah nodded, once.
I knew I could shoot left handed, she thought.
Now let's see how well I can throw a spear.

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Linn Keller 9-5-12

 

Sometimes a notion will strike me and I'll follow it.
Notions tend to happen for no pa'tickelar reason, and this was one of them.
I should have known better.
When one of these no pa'tickelar reason notions hits me there's generally more to it than just "Well, I'd like to go do this or go do that."
Sure enough, I found my arms full of a twisting, spitting, snarling girl with pale eyes and a craw full of aggravation.
I held her while she beat the bottoms of her fists against my chest and when that got to hurtin' me some I took her wrists and let her thrash and finally she kind of collapsed ag'in me and I held her.
Sarah was not crying.
Sarah was growling, snarling, madder than two wet cats.
It wasn't until she calmed down some that I realized I'd ought to be grateful.
She's got strong legs, a horseman's legs, and had she taken the notion to use those legs ag'in me I doubt me not I'd be curled up on the ground like a worm on a hook and just as unhappy.
Now after a lifetime on this-here earth I have learned many things.
Trouble is, most of that learnin' come the hard way --kind of like my own dear Pappy said, "If we could sell our experience for what it cost us, we'd be wealthy!" -- well, he's right, I sure-enough could, and no two ways about it.
Among all the knowledge I'd gotten that I learned wasn't quite right, or was just bass-ackwards wrong, was nearly everything I know about women.
Even when it's right, it's often not, so I taken me a good chance when I just stood there and held Sarah as she sizzled and growled, and it wasn't until she'd pretty well spent herself and drew back a little and looked up at me and I saw her face was wet that I realized she really was crying.... but she was mad crying and that was worse.
When a woman gets so mad she starts to cry it generally ain't safe within the span of a Texas township of her, but I had my life in my hands already so I just stood there and waited, and Sarah calmed down a little -- which is like saying a steam boiler with two pop off valves was now just poppin' off one valve.
I never in my life saw a woman -- a girl -- hell, I didn't know what to think of her as -- my little girl? Girl she wasn't ... I wasn't willing to think of her as a woman grown but God knows I'd known girls her age that was married and runnin' a household and doing a fine job --
Sarah shot a glare at me that would freeze an erupting volcano, cradling her right arm with her left, then her expression softened and her head drifted down and a little toward her bad arm and I figured that was the cause of her distress.
I looked a-past her and saw Jacob's rifle, the one he give her, leaned up ag'in a fence post, and I saw a spear shaft stuck in a hay bale, and I took a longer look and saw where Sarah stood back, from the look of the foot prints in the dirt, she'd thrown from there.
There was one clear set of stomped in tracks, from where she'd been throwing, to the bale, as if she'd stomped up to that bale and drove the spear into it with one hard arm's reach thrust.
I looked down at Sarah.
Her lips were pressed together, her face was pale, she was dead white around the mouth and those eyes, God help me, those eyes would frost the sun over if she'd glared at it -- she took a long breath and leaned against me again.
"Papa?" she asked, and her voice was almost a girl's voice, and heavy with tears.
"Right here, princess," I murmured, my arms around her.
"I hurt my shoulder."
When I wrote those words in my journal that night and when I did, I leaned back and looked at them, and those four words felt so terribly inadequate, because they conveyed nothing of her voice, they conveyed nothing of the way she trembled, the way she rubbed her face in my shirt front.
We stood there, the two of us, and finally Sarah pulled away from me -- quickly, twisting a little -- she stomped over to that hay bale and seized the spear shaft, left handed, jerked it savagely from the dried, compressed grass stems, stomped back to where her tracks were confused in the dirt.
She tossed the spear into the air, caught it, stepped into her throw and drove the shaft in a straight, hard cast, driving it through the thickness of that stood-on-its-end bale.
No, when I wrote those words in my journal and I set back and thought about that moment, I saw again how savage her face had been, how pale her eyes were, I recalled the ripple of her jaw muscles, her bared teeth and her flared nostrils and the little hiss of breath as her hand flashed ahead and down and her will and her spirit and her anger whispered soundlessly through the air in the form of a smooth wood shaft that drove into that hay bale hard and straight.
Sarah glared at the spearshaft, then she turned and looked at me, and her expression was that of a she-wolf glaring over a fresh kill.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-6-12

 

"You happy now, girl?" Startled, Sarah whirled, her teeth bared in a snarl. Her left hand streaked toward the holstered birdshead Colt at her hip as she dropped into a defensive crouch, right hand up to ward off a possible attack. Her Papa had ridden home some time before and she had been so concentrated on making her rebellious nerves and muscles obey her iron will that she hadn't heard the horse approach. Cat Running's ebony gaze locked on her own glacial glare and a small smile creased his thin lips. "Too slow, girl. You be dead now, I wanted to kill you."

Sarah straightened slowly, a look of chagrin on her youthful face. She released her grip on the pistol, her right hand coming down to rest with her thumb hooked in her belt. The old man took note of the empty shell cases piled neatly near the butt of the rifle that leaned against the nearby fence, the spear-scored hay bale, and the fact that Sarah wore only one holster. He also saw the carefully concealed wince of pain that drew its picture across her features. "Hello, Cat Running," Sarah said quietly after her composure returned.

"Hello, girl. You din't answer my question 'fore you tried to shoot me."

"What question?" She had completely forgotten the words that had startled her into violent action just moments before.

"You happy now?" Her uncomprehending stare was a more than adequate answer to his question. He chuckled sourly. "Damn, girl, you tryin' cripple yerself for life?"

Confused, Sarah continued to stare at him, her eyes locked with his. Suddenly she saw herself as if reflected in a pool of dark water, levering the rifle and shooting it from her right shoulder, feeling again the stabbing pain of the case-hardened butt plate slamming into the damaged joint, feeling once more the trickle of pain-induced tears down her cheeks and hearing, as if spoken aloud, the words that had thundered through her as she berated her own body for its weakness. She tore her gaze away, shoulders slumping.

"I have to get better, I have to get past this. I can make it happen," she murmured. The old man snorted.

"Not hardly, girl," he growled harshly. "You keep goin' the way you are, you goin' lose. You fight your body, you lose. You lose, some day you goin' die. Simple. You work with yerself, you win. Simple. Come on. We goin' talk to Papa, talk to Mama. You been too long in town." He reined his mount toward the barn. "'Sides, you gotta rifle to clean."

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Linn Keller 9-7-12

 

I rode and I thought and I considered a while, and two or three times I drew up Cannonball and we faded back into a brushy patch, enough to break our outline while I frowned and considered and my attention was not entirely in the here and now.
I am not the smartest man God put on this earth, but I am not entirely unintelligent.
Sarah ... had me ... worried.
I've seen that same kind of self hatred before and I've seen good men and true with that same mind set drive themselves so hard they ended up killing themselves from over work or going into risky situations hell-belt.
Every man Jack of 'em was either a soldier that saw too much of war, or a lawman that saw too much of the undeclared war we sometimes find ourselves in the middle of, and sometimes it was men who'd been dumped in the middle of prolonged and vicious fighting and they did what they had to do to survive ... but a good man's conscience can warp and he ends up on some level blaming himself for everything that happened, especially if that terrible and violent evil hits him at a young age.
The younger the age, I'd observed, the greater the warping.
Matter of fact, when great and prolonged violence hits a child, the child is ... well, nearly every time the child is warped in just that way.
Jacob was an exception.
What happened to Jacob should never happen to ten men over ten lifetimes, but he come through it and he was straight as a die and though he could kill a man at twelve noon and sleep good that night, he was neither vicious nor was he the kind to hate himself and drive himself and damage himself.
I sat there and listened to the wind whisper secrets to the leaves around me.
Sarah was driving herself through her injuries, punishing herself, or so it looked from my saddle: I set there and let memories run through my mind like I was watching a stage play.
I watched her march out of the schoolhouse holding the school bell like a scepter, walking through that jostling, shoving, shouting crowd like she was walking through a wheat field and I saw her belt that one fellow hard enough to bend the handle of the bell.
I saw her as she was described to me, fighting back up a burning staircase and rappelling out a window.
I saw her with a sword to a big man's throat, her eyes ice-pale, informing him coldly that he indeed would not cheat her.
I saw Sarah a-horseback, leaping across a gully three times deeper than it was wide, I saw her running her black gelding alongside a flatcar and jumping from the saddle to the flatcar -- like she'd heard I'd done -- then she jumped from the flatcar back to the gelding, grabbing saddlehorn and cantle and hauling herself to the balance point and riding there at full gallop, crosswise to the horse, before wallowing around and setting herself again.
I saw Sarah taking risks and beating the hell out of her young body and the more I thought the more I realized ... she was blaming herself for the hell she'd lived.
Before Esther and I were married, she and Bonnie and Duzy lived briefly together, and women talk, and Esther told me in quiet-voiced confidence some of the things Bonnie described, some of the tortures she'd survived when she was still a whore, some of the brutalities done her and the other girls, and how Sarah -- as just a wee, little girl -- saw these and heard these and hid from these.
I wondered if Sarah wasn't blaming herself on some hidden level and trying to make up for it by being more and better and stronger, a vow hidden even from herself, an oath sworn by the small child she'd been, that she would never, ever be so weak that she could not stop terrible things from happening to her or around her, ever again.
I blinked, lifted my head, looked around me with surprised eyes, feeling like someone just dumped a big bucket of snow melt over me.
"Good God," I whispered, and Cannonball's ears swung back to hear it: "that's it!"
I almost turned Cannonball to gallop back to the Rosenthal spread, but stopped myself.
As badly as I wanted to go back and stop Sarah from what she was doing, I realized that I didn't know how ... and I wasn't sure even how to explain it, and unless she understood, she would not be able to prevent.
There are times when even a grown man feels pretty damned inadequate.
In that moment, I did.
I lifted Cannonball's reins.
"Come on, girl," I said softly. "Let's go talk to Esther."

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Linn Keller 9-7-12

 

Little Joseph ran his bottom lip out.
"I want jerky," he said sullenly.
"Not yet," Jacob said. "Not until you're healed."
"But I am healed!" Joseph protested with the sincere expression of an anxious little boy.
"Not until Doc says you are," Jacob said, and there was the inarguable, I'm-the-father tone in his voice that prompted little Joseph to cross his arms and frown at his plate.
"I'm tired of mashed potatoes," he whined.
"You don't have to eat at all," Jacob said. "No chocolate cake for dessert. No pie. No nothin'."
"No pie?" Joseph whined a little louder.
"Nope. You eat what's in front of you."
"Joseph," Annette said gently, "you've been talking a great deal. Do you taste any blood?"
Joseph looked at her, worried, and shook his head.
Annette came over, placed gentle hands on either side of his head.
"Open up, let's see," she murmured in a maternal tone: peering down his young throat, she looked closely at one side, then the other.
"Am I bweeding?" Joseph asked in a high, childish voice.
"No," Annette smiled, resting her fingers on his cheek for a moment: "no, Joseph, you're not bleeding, but please remember we must do as the doctor orders."
"I know," Joseph muttered, frowning.
"No jerky, nothing tough or crispy, no bread crusts, talk as little as possible and no singing."
"O-kaaay," he replied reluctantly, and Jacob did his best to keep a straight face: he pretended to pay a great deal of attention to mashed potatoes and gravy.

Sean led the team, one horse at a time, onto the stock car, securing each in its stall, murmuring to each in Gaelic, stroking their necks: their replacements were off-loaded and harnessed to the steam engine, and the hostler looked a little concerned.
"Lad," Sean boomed, "ye look a bit pale!"
"It's hard to breathe," the young fellow panted, one hand drifting vaguely over his chest.
"The elevation it is," Sean nodded wisely. "Ye get used to it."
"Yeah?" The hostler leaned against the door frame. "How long did it take you?"
"Oh, six or seven years," Sean lied casually. "The horses, now, they'll get used to't fairly soon."
The hostler looked at the matched white troika being sent back to Cincinnati.
"If these are as good as the last you sent," he said, "my money is safe."
"Ye're a bettin' man, then?" Sean grinned.
"On a sure thing, aye." He grinned in reply, frowned a little, hesitated, then his eyes went to the Firelands team, now exploring their feed troughs.
"After last year's race, my money is on those three!"
The German Irishman was almost sure he knew what the hostler was talking about, but it wasn't until after they'd gotten the team back to the firehouse and introduced them to their newly cleaned, scrubbed and freshly straw strewn stalls, that he inquired.
"Aye, lad," Sean grinned. "When th' ladies come fro' here t' the low country, they're s' used t' breathin' thin air tha' ... why, it's like feedin' meat an' potatoes to a starvin' man! He'll become a giant o'ernight! Th' ladies we sold back t' Cincinnati will win th' race again this year!"

Esther thanked the doctor and paid him, as she always did, in gold: she pretended not to notice she paid the man more than twice the sum he named, and he pretended not to notice that she'd over paid him: it was their arrangement, for Esther knew not everyone could afford the doctor's fee, and it was her way of seeing that deserving folk could still get the good physician's attentions.
It was an arrangement they'd established early; it was unofficially known; of everyone in the community, nobody abused the charity, though they both knew that in time somebody would.
Esther thanked Dr. Greenlees as he held the door for her; she stepped carefully onto the mounting-block, then into the carriage, and their hired man kissed up the mare and they drove the short distance to the house.
Esther was subdued as she mounted the steps to the porch; once inside, she carefully plucked the fingers of her gloves, laid her gloves on the table beside the door, and smiled a little at the sound of hurried boots on the steps outside.
Her husband's hand closed about her elbow, his other hand around her waist: she leaned a little into him, closing her eyes and allowing herself to feel warm and safe in her husband's strong embrace.
"My dear, is all well?" Linn asked, his voice gentle, and Esther nodded, leaning her head over against his breast.
"It is now," she said softly.
Linn considered Sarah and his recent train of thought, and set it aside: he would ask Esther's advice, but later, when she was not quite so tired.
"Do you need to lie down?" he asked, and she felt his voice rumble deep in his chest, and nodded.
The Sheriff bent a little and took his wife behind the knees and under her shoulder blades, and picked her up: carefully, deliberately, he bore his bride to their bedchamber, as carefully as if he were transporting the most delicate bone china on a butter-slick serving tray.

Sarah's rifle, newly cleaned, slept in its scabbard.
She left her gunbelt and the left hand birdshead Colt on the bed.
It was awkward, with a bad right shoulder, but she was able to hone her knives.
Only one had a shaving edge.
The others had the rough edge gained from a coarse stone, perfect for skinning and disassembling a carcass.
"Girl sharpen good," Cat Running grunted, and Sarah flinched slightly.
Damn him, she thought, he's silent! -- and Cat Running folded his legs and went from standing to seated in one smooth, graceful move.
"Girl tired," he finally said, ebony eyes unreadable. "Get good night's rest. We go before dawn."
Sarah looked long at Cat Running and finally nodded, one time.

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Linn Keller 9-8-12

 

Cat Running ate with a surprising delicacy.
This did not prevent him from putting away as much as Sarah, and Sarah ate like a thrasher.
The maid offered no comment, just kept bacon and eggs and fried taters and good hot bread on the table.
Cat Running cleaned his plate for the final time, stood and frowned at the maid.
"You keep stuffin' us we gonna get fat," he said gruffly, then pushed his chair in.
Sarah pushed her plate back, drained her coffee, lowered the mug.
"Damn girl," Cat Running muttered, "coffee gonna stunt yer growth. Look what it did fer me!"
Sarah regarded the man's height, the solid layering of muscle filling his shirt sleeves, blocking out his squared shoulders: to her credit she did not laugh, and to Cat Running's approval her amusement went no further than her eyes.
Sarah clapped her hat on her head and followed Cat Running outside.
"You ride this," the man grunted.
Sarah saw her possibles behind the saddle of a moth eaten, nondescript dun that looked like it was wore out before it was born: her rifle and scabbard were secured in place, and Cat Running reached for the reins of a similarly sorry looking sorrel.
Sarah looked into the dark, looked to where she knew her Snowflake was probably watching, but offered neither protest nor comment: she stepped into the stirrup, swung into the saddle and the horse thrust under her, once, bouncing her a foot off smooth leather: she came down hard, shocking her spine, paining her shoulder, and she heard her teeth click together as she grabbed left handed for the reins.
Sarah found the right-hand stirrup and settled herself into the saddle.
Satisfied, the ugly dun dropped its head and plodded tiredly after Cat Running's sorry-looking sorrel.
Over on the eastern horizon the sky was a little more pale, but not much.

Annette was out of bed and moving fast before the thrown-off bedcovers hit the floor.
Jacob rolled out of bed, hitting the floor in a crouch, his left hand slapping and grabbing the double gun: he rose to a crouch, mouth open, breathing deep, breathing silent, willing his sleep-fogged head to clear.
He heard Annette's quick scamper down the stairway and tossed the double gun on the bed, grabbed for his socks.
I been in this rodeo before, he thought, seizing his clothes and dressing fast.

Esther was rolled up on her left side.
Ever since she found she was with child, she slept on her left -- she said it was better for the baby -- and I was curled up against her back side, cuddled up with her, feeling warm and content and relaxed.
I felt her breathing change and I knew she was awake.
"I love you," I whispered, my breath puffing against her neck a little, and she moved a little, a very little, and I felt her lay her hand on mine.
"I bled yesterday," she whispered back, and I stiffened.
"How bad?" I replied, suddenly wide awake: my long tall aging carcass came suddenly to full awake, just as if I'd heard Boots and Saddles bugled, or the Irish Brigade at full charge with horsewhip and oaths and steam-whistle and galloping hooves.
"It was nothing," she lied, and I knew it a lie: a man knows his wife, a lawman knows a lie: I pulled back from her, came up on my elbow, put my hand on her shoulder.
I never said a word, and neither did Esther, and finally I lowered my forehead onto her shoulder.
She smelled of soap and lilac water and sunshine, the way she always did, and I run my right arm underneath her and rolled her over and into me and I kissed her, delicately, carefully, holding her tight, tight, fearfully and fiercely so.
"Do I need to worry?" I whispered, and my voice was strange, hoarse in my ear, and I felt her shake her head very slightly: "No. No, dear, it's all right."
I lowered my head until my mustache found her nose, and I wiggled my mustache the way I did in intimate moments, and Esther giggled in reply.
That broke the spell: my anxiety shattered and blew away in the breeze, and I kissed my bride again, carefully, and then I laid down and pulled her into me, up on her right side, and I whispered, "You are the most precious thing I know, you know that."
"I know," she whispered back, laying a caressing hand on my chest, then my cheek.
We heard a THUMP from across the way and I was out from under Esther and out of bed in a heartbeat: I seized the doorknob, powered our door open, thrust open Angela's door.
I came back into our bedroom carrying our little girl.
"What happened, dear?" Esther said in a motherly voice, and I laid Angela down in our bed, and she whimpered a little and cuddled up against Esther, and I crawled back in the bunk and drew the covers over the three of us.
"I think she had a bad dream," I whispered. "She fell out of bed."

Jacob curled his lip and whistled, saddle blanket in one hand, saddle in the other.
"APPLE!"
Apple-horse's head came up and the stallion paced over to the fence, snuffing, begging for a bribe.
Jacob stepped up to the horse, spun the blanket over his back, tugged out the wrinkles, then slung the saddle up.
Apple-horse shook his head and blew.
He was used to being bribed.
It wasn't that he really wanted a bribe, it's that he wanted the attention, and at the moment Jacob was cold and focused and all business.
Jacob turned and took Apple's head between both hands, his grip firm, fingers spread.
"I need you now," he whispered. "I need you now!"
He reached in a pocket, pulled out a biscuit, held it out: Apple-horse lipped the biscuit, chewed happily as Jacob swung on board.
Jacob gave no thought to not having bridled his stallion; like his father, he'd knee-trained his saddle stock, and when Jacob's backside hit leather, the magic happened, as it always did: they were no longer horse and rider, but one magical creature, prepared to ride the wind itself.
"YAAA!" Jacob yelled, and Apple surged under him, gathering speed as he ran toward the middle of the pasture: he turned, tight, hard, came about with his ears laid back and hooves driving against morning-damp sod, launching over the chest-high fence and landing easy on the other side, galloping up in front of the house: Apple's hinder dropped as he skidded to a hard stop, and Annette ran up as Jacob leaned down to take the wrapped form of his son.
Jacob seized Joseph around his middle, broke him like a shotgun over his arm.
"YAAA!"
Annette watched her husband gallop down their road and down the mountain.
The front of her dress was wet with bright red blood.

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Linn Keller 9-9-12

 

There is a wonderful freedom between father and son.
Maybe that's not exactly right.
There is a wonderful freedom on the father's part in saying things to the son that a father would never, ever say to a peer.
A father, for instance, might utter a criticism -- about attire, or manner, or language -- or even speak with a harsh frankness about his son's spouse -- words that he would never utter to one of his fellows; a son, on the other hand, ever has the mindset that he is to a degree subordinate to the Grand Old Man.
There is also some subtle awareness, if the father is lucky, some idea that in a particular moment, the son might need fatherly strength.
I think that's what I felt.
I know in the past I've opened my mouth and harsh words fell out.
I know Jacob is a man grown.
I know he is a husband and a father and I know he is my chief deputy and has been Sheriff in my stead, and still at times ... at unguarded times, I open my mouth and something falls out that I instantly regret, but foolish father's pride keeps me from speaking of it.
It is a fault of mine, and I regret it.
I do not regret that knowledge that my son needs my presence.
I felt it this morning, and I felt it strong, and I felt it sudden.
Esther looked at me drowsily, curiously, as I dressed in obvious haste: Angela was still sound asleep, I think I could have tripped off an artillery-piece outside and she wouldn't have budged.
I looked at Esther and I could tell she knew more than me, but she did not move to get out of bed, and that alarmed me a little more.
I whistled up my Cannonball mare and saddled her up and shortly we were at a spanking good trot for town.
I did not know what was going on but I did know I wished to spare my mount in case she needed to run long and run hard.

Little Joseph groaned and threw up again, and Jacob hung him over the side, letting bloody splatter spew into their slipstream.
The hospital was in sight now.
Doc would know what to do.
Jacob could do many things but when his little boy gurgled like he was starting to drown, the only thing he knew to do was to throw the boy over his arm like he would a drowning victim, keep his head lower than his belt buckle, and ride like hell itself was after him.
He smelled blood, hot and fresh, and his pale eyes shone like searchlights as he streaked down the main street at a wide open gallop, Apple-horse's tail streamed out and twisted in the wind of their passing.

Cat Running never looked back to see if Sarah was following.
Sarah held her arm across her, gripping a handful of material, wishing she'd slung the arm, damning her foolish pride and then smiling ruefully:
At least I recognize I am both foolish, and filled with that fool's pride.

That white wolf was setting in the middle of the road, looking like he owned the place.
I drew up: Cannonball danced, impatient, for it was a cool morning and she wished to run.
I looked at that white wolf and it looked at me, and its yellow eyes were full of knowing, and I never stopped to consider how I could see the yellow eyes against white fur in that dim light.
Your cubs need you.
I frowned, turned my head a little.
Cubs ... plural?
I was close enough to see into Firelands and I saw Jacob hell-bent on his Apple-horse and carrying something wrapped in a blanket and my stomach knotted up and dropped down to about my boot tops.
I looked back for that white wolf and it was gone.
Cannonball didn't need to be told twice.
I could tell my oldest cub was in trouble.

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Linn Keller 9-10-12

 

Sarah recognized their route.
She knew this was not the way to the hunting grounds.
She knew this led to the Spirit Cliffs.
The realization tightened her belly.
She squared her shoulders, sat up straighter in the saddle, lowered her right hand to her thigh.
I'm in for a fight, she thought, nodding.

Dr. Greenlees took the blood splattered bundle and turned: Nurse Susan held the door and he long-legged it into the surgery.
Nurse Susan flowed around the table, turning on the water drip to start the carbide generator: she struck the standing flint wheels, each in turn, as the gas came available, adjusting each until the big reflector threw a focused, pure-white beam.
Dr. Greenlees threw open the swaddling quilt, seized Joseph's head in both hands, thumbed open his trembling jaw.
"I can't see a damned thing," he muttered. "Chloroform."
Nurse Susan plucked the bottle and mask from the glass-door cabinet.

Jacob stood in the middle of the floor, methodically folding the quilt, his jaw thrust out and set, his eyes pale, cold.
The Sheriff stopped and looked at his son.
Jacob looked up at his father, then let the quilt drop open, showing the blood.
The Sheriff's eyes went dead pale and his hands closed into half-clenched fists.

Longer than I remember, Sarah thought as her worn-looking mount plodded tiredly after Cat Running's equally fatigued looking nag.
If these two were as worn out as they look we'd never have made it past town.
I think probably they could out-walk me, and I can out-walk most men
.

Dr. Greenlees picked up a cotton ball in the gleaming steel tongs, reached in, mopped the socket where the tonsil used to be.
"There you are," he muttered.
He looked up, dropped the bloody blob into a pan, then the forceps.
"Hemostats," he said, opening his hand, and Nurse Susan slapped the handles in his hand: his thumb and forefinger had eyes, and thrust into the rings, opening the curved-jaw surgeon's tool.

The Sheriff laid a hand on his son's shoulder.
"Come with me," he said. "We'll get some salt."
Jacob gave his father a look that would have froze a horse trough solid.
"We need to get the blood out of that quilt," the Sheriff explained. "Joseph is in good hands here. We're just taking up room. Come with me."
Jacob's blood was up.
He could cheerfully have laid violent hands on about anyone in that moment, or maybe bear hugged a good cedar fence post and hauled it out of well tamped earth.
He looked at his father for a long moment, then nodded once and folded the quilt again.

Cat Running halted; Sarah's nag drifted up beside its mate and stopped, dropping its head as if unable to take another step.
"You gotta learn, girl," he said without preamble.
"I don't doubt that you will tell me," Sarah said, bitterness in her voice.
"That's what I'm talkin' about," he replied. "Girl stubborn. Hard headed."
"Contrary, stiff backed, unyielding, unbending, prideful," Sarah finished for him. "I know. You're not the first to tell me."
"Gonna get you killed, girl."
"Why does it matter?" she snapped. "What do I matter? Who am I really? Some scared kid who hid in a whorehouse? A mother's living dress dummy, parading on stage? A schoolteacher with a bad arm? Who am I, Cat Running? What am I?"
"That why we're here."
Sarah's breath caught and she looked over the edge of a natural bowl.
Half grass and half sand, there was a clear barrier between thick thatched mountain grass and bare sand and rock, and then the cliffs, tall and imposing and surprisingly smooth.
"You take chances," Cat Running said gruffly. "Chances kill ya."
"I should have been killed long ago."
"Him not think so."
Sarah glared at Cat Running, then followed the turn of his hard, black eyes.
The Bear Killer paced across the bare sand, looked at her, stopped.
"Girl don't know, do you?" Cat Running said softly.
"Know what?" Sarah grated, her voice not entirely steady.
A bull elk bugled from very nearby, singing up the scale and raising the hair at the back of Sarah's neck: it was near enough she heard the grunt that accompanied every hard-thrust, whistling note.
"A warrior is lucky to have one spirit guide," he said, his voice hard. "One! A totem -- a single totem!
"You?"
Cat Running laughed, a single, harsh bark, held up one blunt, scarred forefinger.
Sarah felt as much as heard the bull elk walking toward her, quartering toward her from her right, walking into her blind zone, just as the white wolf came pacing across the rim of the bowl, and the Bear Killer crested the bowl at a gallop, pausing as he made the rim, yellow eyes boring into Sarah's ice-blue orbs.
"Three spirit guides," Cat Running muttered, shaking his head. "A girl. A girl! I had to wait until --" His words cut off and he shook his head, dismissing a memory.
Cat Running raised his head, glaring at Sarah.
The three animals -- the three spirit guides -- proceeded over the lip of the bowl.
Sarah kicked free of her stirrups, swung a leg over her saddle, slid to the ground.
She shucked her rifle out of its scabbard and followed.

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Linn Keller 9-11-12

 

Sarah felt the change.
It was like walking through an invisible curtain.
The air was still, unmoving, cool ... it smelled ... different.
Part of her mind analyzed the change, the rest of her was looking around, listening.
Bear Killer paced easily ahead of her, moving to her right; the elk was squarely ahead, and the white wolf, to the left, and Sarah switched the rifle to her left hand, working her right shoulder.
She turned, her senses screaming, bringing the rifle up, just as the big cat hit her and she felt its fighting canines crush into her shoulder.

Dr. Greenlees drew back, dropping the needle forceps into the enameled steel pan: he made one final pass with a cotton ball, dropped ball and forceps into the pan, then leaned back, throwing his head back, eyes shut, and took a long, open-mouth breath.
Nurse Susan laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.
Dr. Greenlees looked up into the patient woman's bespectacled gaze; the barest hint of a smile quirked the corner of his mouth.
"That wasn't easy," Nurse Susan said quietly.
"No," Dr. Greenlees agreed. "No, it wasn't."
They looked down at the pale, unmoving little boy on the operating table.
"I need to get him cleaned up," Nurse Susan said.
"Please do." Dr. Greenlees stood, slowly, a little stiff after working with concentration, with focus, with his big shoulders hunched over as he worked in the confines of a little boy's mouth. "He looks too much like his grandfather with blood on his face."
Dr. Greenlees walked over to the wash basin and began to scrub his hands with an unconscious, methodical thoroughness.
He nodded to himself, allowed himself the barest hint of a smile.
I beat you this time, he thought.
I beat you, you bony soul-taker!

"Why don't you head back over," the Sheriff suggested as Jacob slung pink-tinged water out into the street: "I'll hang this here by the stove and it oughta dry nicely."
"Yes, sir," Jacob said.
Jacob turned toward the door, stopped at his father's voice.
"Jacob."
Jacob turned.
The Sheriff put his hands on his son's shoulders.
"Jacob, I'm pretty damned proud of you," he said, his eyes a distinct, clear blue: "you are a better father than I've ever been."
"Thank you, sir," Jacob said uncertainly, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, then he grinned, a broad, boyish grin, and he nodded.

Sarah fell through space, rolling, her shoulder burning, afire with a monstrous cat's jaws locked around it: she lost her rifle, she lost her hat, she was falling, falling ...

Nurse Susan tilted her head and gave Jacob an approving, motherly look.
"He'll be just fine," she said, and Jacob nodded, his eyes going past her to the little boy sleeping under a thick quilt.
Jacob felt like someone pulled a cork out of his boot heels and drained out most of his strength: he opened his mouth to say something, then turned and sat down, took a long, shivering breath.
Part of him saw, in a detached way, his hands were shaking.

The Sheriff opened the trunk, pulled out a long, plaid bolt of cloth and a ceramic jar.
He looked up, toward the door, his eyes pale: he began stripping off his clothes, tossing them carelessly aside, until he was buck birthday naked: twisting savagely at the jar's lid, he began to anoint himself liberally with blue whorls and broad, bold stripes.
War-fury sang in his veins and his skin tingled, felt cold, and a little numb.
He worked quickly, as for a Gathering of the Clans.
Finally he reached into the hidden compartment and pulled out a round shield with a steel boss in the center, with a Celtic stag painted on its face, and beneath, in an arc, Reverisco.
He threw nine yards of plaid cloth over his shoulder; he folded, pleated and finally pinned it in place: he thrust into woolen knee socks and a pair of ghillie shoes that showed wear, hard wear; a sheathed knife went into one stocking-top and he buckled a belt and baldric and scarred sword-scabbard about his lean middle.
He punched a hidden panel, reached in as the door flew open, withdrew a Scots-hilted sword.
His smile was that of a wolf.
Thrusting the cleagh mohr into its sheath, he hissed with dark pleasure as insanity began to smoke into his brain: he seized it savagely, crushed it back into its genie-bottle: drawing the claymore, he raised sword in one hand and shield in the other: throwing his head back, he roared, "CLAN MAXWELL IS HERE!" -- then sheathed the blade and strode out the door, mounted his Cannonball, and turned her toward the nearby mountain.
For all that it was lightening into morning and the town was waking, none took note of a fighting Scotsman in woad galloping into the mist.

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Linn Keller 9-11-12

 

Sarah stood, puzzled.
She wore a white-silk sheath and white silk slippers and stood on black sand, looking around, puzzled.
She raised her left hand, grasped her right shoulder, ran her hand over smooth, unbroken flesh.
Nothing ...
Frowning, she worked her right arm.
No pain.
She turned slowly, looking into the surrounding darkness.
A blocky Navajo walked toward her, bearing a pottery cup shimmering brim-full of something liquid.
He held it out to her.
Sarah took it in both hands and drank.
It smelled vaguely of clover and something she could not quite identify: she drank the entire volume without coming up for air, and handed the empty back to the man she usually knew as Dr. Flint.
He backed into the surrounding darkness, faded.

The Sheriff looked at Cat Running.
"You know what she must see."
Cat Running nodded, black eyes unreadable: "Girl won't like it."
"She doesn't have to."
The Sheriff squatted beside his daughter, laid a hand on her shoulder.
"She is there already?"
Cat Running grunted. "Girl been there long enough to look around." He nodded to the Navajo emerging from the surrounding mist.
He held a brimming baked clay cup out to the Sheriff.
"You will need to join her."
The Sheriff stood, took the cup in both hands.
He drank.

Macneil glared at the surrounding terrain.
He breathed easy, his body sang with power, old wounds ached a little as they always did: he heard the near-silent rattle of ringmail shifting as he paced, the slightest squeak when his left knee moved: armor covered the points of every joint, steel cleverly formed to cover kidneys and throat, a helm to keep blows from cleaving his skull: he wore a helm with a nasal, and the projecting nose-guard had a deep cut in it, where an enemy's blade was stopped, a blow that knocked him back, before his own return-stroke crushed the enemy's arm through his armor, before he smashed the boss of his shield into the enemy's face.
A blue-painted figure strode across black sand toward him.
Highland steel raised in salute.
"Thought you could use another blade."
Macneil nodded, shifting to his left, angled out a little.
They kept the cave-mouth behind them.
Two warriors guarded the portal now.

"You are the student," the mousy-grey schoolteacher said, looking disapprovingly over her round spectacles.
Sarah was not satisfied.
"How did I get here?" she demanded. "Where exactly am I --"
A little girl's scream shivered through the darkness and Sarah's throat quivered in response.
A section of the dark was suddenly daylight-bright: a little girl was bent over, a dirty, unshaven man raising a doubled belt.
Sarah's hands sought the weapons at her belt, forgetting for the moment that she had neither: she heard leather sing through the air, felt the fiery impact of the belt on her bare backside, her young throat stripping itself raw with her scream --
"You are the student," her own voice said coldly. "You are observing what happened."
Sarah looked around for a club, a rock, anything, and old anger coiled and surged within her, and she powered into a sprint, intending to bring her strong young body to bear in as deadly a way as she could --
The darkness returned and Sarah fell, face-first, into the black sand.
She rose easily, quickly; gaining her feet, she shook the clinging grains from her silk shift and spat out the few that found her damp lips.
The schoolteacher was still there: her face, her voice, her posture.
"You are seeing a play," she said. "Look at me!"
Sarah turned to glare at the Sarah-self, that part of her that was the schoolteacher.
"You are here," the teacher said. "You are here, and you are now. What was, no longer is: what was is gone, dead, past.
"You are here and you are now, and you are not there.
"We are looking at what used to be, at where you came from."
The light again, and Sarah turned, her arm coming up to block, the other back, in a fist.
This time Sarah watched as the little girl she had been was brutalized; she watched without moving as the Sarah-that-was ran from grasping hands, hid in closets or under beds, scampered up secret narrow staircases: she watched as the Bonnie-that-was was beaten and hurt, hurt in too many ways, and always the voice, the cold teacher's voice, reminding her this was past, this was not her, this was what used to be, but is no more.

"I'll be back," the Highlander said, turning to go into the cave.
Macneil hefted the blade in his hand, swinging it experimentally, grinning a little.
His smile was utterly without humor.

Sarah turned as the blue-striped warrior stepped through the light.
It took her several moments to realize this was her father.
"It's called a kilt," he explained, "and you wore one."
Sarah gasped.
The grass was cold, wet, through her own ghillies and woolen stockings: she too had a sword, a shield, and they were surrounded by battle: it was cold, damp, men screamed and steel rang against steel, against wooden round-shields.
The fighters faded, melted into mist, and the man she knew as the Sheriff beckoned her to a pool of water.
Sarah cautiously waded through wet heather and bracken and looked into the still water.
Her face was painted with blue whorls on either cheek: she too wore the Clan Maxwell plaid, and she too had the big brass cloak pin at her left shoulder.
She looked at her arm, then the other, and her legs: most of her skin was blue.
"Woad," the warrior explained. "Numbs pain and makes you stronger."
She saw a long, shallow cut on his thigh.
"It stops bleeding as well."
Sarah blinked.
It was dark again, and she stepped back, back into the lighted circle.
"Let us resume the lesson," the schoolteacher said in her disapproving voice.
Sarah snarled, lashed out to backhand the rigid figure: her hand passed through empty space.
She heard her own voice scream, and turned again, and her eyes widened as she saw what happened to a Sarah-that-was.
This time she froze and watched.
Scene after scene after scene: horror upon horror, all the wrongs and all the hurts and all the things that had been done to her, staining her, blackening her, piled up in her young soul, until she was ready to scream herself: loathing was bitter in her throat, loathing of herself, for surely she was something evil, something wicked to have deserved all this, surely she was damned at birth, punished for her wickedness, for all these terrible things to have happened to her --
"Sarah."
It was her Papa, the Sheriff, as she knew him: no longer blue with woad, nor draped in a greatkilt, he wore his suit and hat and boots and a quiet smile: he smelled of leather and coffee and gun oil, the way he always did; his hand was warm, gentle on her jaw as he turned her head so she looked at him.
"Sarah, when terrible things happen to a child, the child blames herself for these things."
"No, no," Sarah groaned, pulling away: "No, I am evil, I must be evil, I must be black sinful -- I must be damned --"
She choked, turned, fell to all fours: her stomach was in rebellion, she retched into the black sand, seeing again the hell and hell and hell again that had been done to her past.
She felt her Papa's strong hands on her upper arms: she stood, shivering, eyes wide open but seeing only all the blackness, the evil, that been done her, now inside her, now telling her she was damned, she was theirs, she was wicked and condemned and fit only for the Pit.
The schoolteacher's voice was calm, clear in her head: "That is what was done to you.
"You did not do these things.
"It is not what you are. It is not who you are.
"Your fight is not with steel and lead.
"Your fight is with your choice.
"You can choose to believe the evil, and go and be damned, and it will kill you, or you can choose to know that you are not evil, that those things were done to you."
Sarah's eyes were screwed shut, she pushed against her Papa, shaking her head, tasting bitterness and ashes: she felt his hands close about her wrists, holding her with an unbreakable grip.

"Here they come," Macneil yelled over his shoulder, taking a wide-legged stance and bringing his shield up.
The Maxwell of Clan Maxwell sprinted from the cave's dark throat, drew his basket hilted sword, its red-velvet tassel dangling brightly below the gleaming steel handguard: he, too, took his stance, shield held before him, glaring with bared teeth at the hell-lizard that slunk toward him.
"Ssshe issss ourssss," it hissed. "Giivve herrr to usssss."
Macneil looked left, Maxwell, right, waiting until the enemy was close.
"CAERLAVEROCH!"

Dr. Flint's fingertips rested lightly on Sarah's temples.
The Sheriff lay beside her, relaxed: he looked asleep, his breathing was slow, regular.
Dr. George Flint, graduate of the Harvard School of Medicine, surgeon and physician, watched the battles, both the guardians before the cave-mouth, and the battle within the sufferer's soul.
Cat Running sat with his tail curled around him, licking a massive paw: Dr. Flint looked up, and Cat Running sat on a rock, casually sharpening his knife.
He looked at the Navajo.
"You were expecting a cat?" he grunted.
Dr. Flint shook his head, turned his attention back to the pale young woman lying beside the small fire.

"If you continue to blame yourself for what somebody else did to you," the schoolteacher said sternly, "you will loathe yourself until you kill yourself. You are too smart to hang yourself and you don't want to leave an ugly corpse so you won't shoot yourself. You'll just hesitate a half-second too long, long enough for somebody to knife you, or you'll deliberately hesitate and not draw and somebody else will kill you -- but it will be your decision and your action."
Sarah was wilted.
She sank to her knees, face in her hands, ready to cry, ready to scream, wanting it all to stop, to leave, to go away --
"It will not go away," the schoolteacher said coldly. "Only you can make it go away."
"How?" Sarah looked up from tears-wet palms, her face engraved with sorrow. "How?"
"By doing what you do best," the schoolteacher replied. "Stand up to it, face it down, dare it to do its worst, and crush it utterly!"
The schoolteacher raised her chin.
"You are a warrior. Start acting like one!"

The hell-lizard was twice as tall as a man.
It was fast and fanged and at the moment it was wounded and slinging green ichor over an impressive acreage.
Its foreleg twitched on hot black rock.
Hissing, the lizard opened its fanged mouth: the Sheriff stepped quickly to his right, drawing its attention, and Macneil took three quick strides and swung his hand forged bastard sword and clove through the beast's spine at the base of its neck.
The Sheriff turned in time to spit a hell-hound, thrusting the Claymore's blade through its wide-open mouth and down its throat, impaling the charging beast for its full length: blood-slimed steel thrust briefly from under the root of its tail, nearly knocking the tall man over with the force of its impact: fangs snapped shut on Scottish steel, clattered twice, before it wilted and sagged to the black and bloody ground.
The Sheriff yanked his blade free: even in death, the convulsing creature snapped its jaws several times before surrendering.
Nightmare creatures hissed and snarled and made sounds as sickening as their appearance: a scaled tale whiplashed against the Sheriff's round-shield, knocking him back: dancing now, he turned, thrust, slashed: Macneil's blade clove the air in front of him, just in time to crush the skull of something fanged and bat-winged.
The Sheriff grunted, whether with thanks or with pain, and it did not matter: the two were hard pressed and retreated a step, another.
"You cannot lasssst!" they heard. "Sssurrender her, ssshe isss ourssss!"
The hellish legion paused, expectant, waiting for the reply.
Macneil and the Sheriff looked at one another, panting, bloodied, then looked at the ranked enemy before them.
As one they charged, silent this time, slamming into the vanguard.
Steel sang and wove bright webs before the two men: they were crowded back, closer to one another, then finally fought back-to-back in front of the cave mouth.
Neither would let Darkness claim Sarah's soul.
Each would die before letting the Dark through this portal and into the World of the Living.

Sarah screamed.
Sarah screamed and cried and sobbed and grieved, and something broke inside her, like a pocket of infection breaking and draining from a wound: her tears were its drainage, her grief ran from her, flowed from her, and with it all the self-hate and self-loathing and self-accusations, created and fostered and cultured by a little girl who thought every bad thing that happened was her fault, when it it wasn't.
Sarah did not know how long she grieved: she only knew that, finally, she'd cried herself out.
The schoolteacher waited patiently while she collected herself; Sarah came to her knees, then to her feet.
The light, again: Saran turned, shading her eyes, and frowned.
The light had a dirty, reddish, sulfurous glow, and through a low opening she saw two men fighting a desperate battle.
Strength returned to her young limbs, determination to her soul, and Sarah screamed again.
This time it was not a scream of sorrow and of loss and of the grief of all that had been.
Sarah snatched up her boar-spear and ran through the cave-mouth.
With this scream she was going to war.

"HOLD!"
The voice shivered coldly through the hot, dry air.
Macneil fell back a half-step, taking a deep stance, sword cocked over his shoulder: his shield had deep scratches in its surface and his blade was bloody -- or whatever these creatures had that passed for blood -- and the bearded Highlander at his side breathed noisily, deeply, recovering from the exertion of that last attack, blood running from his nose and staining his iron-grey mustache.
Sarah, standing tall, regal, with her boar-spear held across in front of her, looked slowly from left to right, taking in the carnage, the carcasses, the warriors: she walked between the two warriors, spun the boar-spear in a shining circle, thumped its handle into the black underfoot.
"Are you looking for me?" she asked the infernal host with a smile, and her smile was easy and genuine, and her eyes were pale, icy, cold.
"I'm right here."
She tilted her head a little.
"Do you want me?"
One of them raised a clawed arm, took a step toward her: it was spindly, skinny, nightmarish, something like an animated dead snag of a tree and a praying mantis.
"Yesssss," it hissed.
It reached for Sarah, touched her.
There was a bright explosion, a scream of pain: the creature dissolved in cold blue fire, its scream fading as it dissipated.
"I CHOOSE," Sarah shouted, her voice cold, hard, ringing with conviction.
"I CHOOSE, AND I DO NOT CHOOSE YOU!" -- she withdrew the boar-spear from the sand, swung it before her like a scepter, indicating the infernal host assembled.
"I WILL CAPTAIN MY OWN COURSE AND YOU ARE NOT IN IT!"
A bluish-white nimbus gathered around Sarah, and before her, spreading to twice the width of the cave's mouth, flowing back into its opening.
Macneil had taken a charge on his shield that numbed his arm and near to drove his shoulder out of socket: silver flowed over him and through him and his arm pained him no more.
He looked at the Sheriff.
The claw's rake across the man's face was gone, as was the blood from his mustache: his nose no longer lay at an odd angle, and even the shallow cut on his thigh was gone, as if it never was.
Sarah raised both arms and the ground shivered a little as she threw her head back and screamed "BEGONE!" and there was an explosion that rippled out over the reddish black hell-field and the concussion knocked both men back into the cave-mouth and Sarah turned and walked calmly into the portal, and the portal between worlds closed behind her.
Sword-brothers pushed up off the ground, picked up sword and shield, looked at the dust-smoking rock behind them, collapsed and filling the opening: they looked at one another, looked at Sarah.
Sarah grasped each man's blade, bare handed, at the hilt and ran her clasping hand over the steel, to its tip: ichor and blood-slime sizzled and hissed and disappeared, from one blade,then the other: sword-steel was bright, clean, gleaming as if polished.
Each man sheathed his blade.

Sarah opened her eyes.
She was lying on her back, beside a small fire.
She sat up, looked around, passed her hand over her eyes.
"Girl better now?" Cat Running grunted.
Sarah's eyes tracked back and forth on the sandy ground, then she looked up at Cat Running.
"That," she said, "was odd."
Cat Running grunted.
Sarah looked around. "The totems ... where ...?"
"Gone," Cat Running replied.
The Bear Killer shoved his cold, wet nose into her hand, begging a petting, and Sarah grasped a double handful of black, curly fur.
"At least you're real," she said. "That was a wild dream I had."
Sarah frowned again, then worked her right arm, ran her hand under her shirt, exploring the shoulder.
Puzzled, she looked at Cat Running, and worked her shoulder and arm some more.
"Girl never had an arm before?"
"It's not that -- the cat -- I was bitten --"
Cat Running's eyes were absolutely expressionless.
Sarah took a long breath.
"That," she declared, "was one strange dream."
"Yep," a familiar voice agreed, and Sarah turned, and her jaw dropped about three feet.
Her father, the Sheriff, stood beside the little fire, wearing a Clan Maxwell plaid, nine-yard greatkilt, and carrying a roundshield, with blue woad decorating nearly all the skin she could see.

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Linn Keller 9-13-12

 

Annette hung out her laundry.
Like anything else, it sounds easy when you say it fast.
Were Annette a mathematician, she might have calculated the cubic volume of the wash she carried: knowing the weight of a gallon of water, the number of gallons in one cubic foot, the weight of its equivalent volume is easily derived: though the clothes were wrung out thanks to the hand cranked wringer, they still held a great deal of moisture -- enough that she left a dripping trail of rinse-water behind her.
On the other hand, had Annette done these calculations, she might have realized she was carrying more tonnage than she realized: this realization alone could have caused her arms to weaken, for she was, after all, just a woman.
Fortunately she had neither intent nor desire to calculate instead of perform: methodically, orderly, she hung the family's clean laundry on the line, letting the mountain breeze swing them in the sunshine.
As Annette was just a woman, she'd pumped water, packed water, poured water; she'd washed clothes, cranked the wringer, agitated the dasher, poured water out, packed in wood, shook down the stove and carried out ashes, and otherwise carried a greater poundage and performed more manual labor than most men, and this well before noontime, for she liked to get these things done and out of the way early.
She was, after all, just a woman.
Annette went back inside and agitated her dress, the one soaking in salt water; she hesitated to change the water just yet, for salt was precious and cost good money, and she was ever minded to thrift: she could have bought the Mercantile's entire supply of salt and not dented their personal finances, but she'd known want in her lifetime, and it inspired her to a caution common to the day.
She went back in the house, put the basket in its place, then returned to the kitchen: her ingredients were set out and ready, the stove was heating while she was hanging out clothes, and she set about to bake a cake.

Jacob slept on the folding cot in the Sheriff's office the night his little boy stayed over, there in the hospital; he was up early, as was his habit, and breakfasted at the Jewel, as he had so many times before.
He looked up from his plate, looking out across the room toward the bar and the front door, toward the stairway that led upstairs and to his Mother's office: she was spending much less time there, now that she was deep into her pregnancy, and knowing she was not upstairs felt ... well, it didn't feel quite right.
It was out of the ordinary, and Jacob had come to cherish the ordinary.
The sassy little waitress came swinging her hips over to his table with a small tray and a steaming bowl: she sat the bowl down on the table, then set the tray on an adjacent, empty table top and pulled out a chair.
Unbidden, she sat.
Jacob finished the last of his fried taters and bacon and looked frankly at the brown-eyed hash slinger.
She looked back with an equal frankness.
He saw her eyes wander over him; he picked up his coffee cup, left handed, making sure his wedding ring was plainly visible.
"You're married," she said -- a statement, not a question.
Jacob nodded, took a swig of coffee.
"Are you happily married?" she asked, giving him a very direct, a very searching look.
"Yes," Jacob said quietly. "Yes, I am."
"Damn!" she exclaimed: standing, she picked up the tray and started back toward the kitchen: stopping, she turned.
"If that changes, let me know," she said.
Jacob's eyes were dark, amused: they were of a like age, but as she sashayed back toward the kitchen, he realized he had absolutely no intention of doing anything of the kind.
Jacob stood, drained the last of his coffee, picked up the bowl of corn meal mush, and headed for the hospital.
Knowing little Joseph, he'd be awake and hungry enough to eat a buffalo.
Jacob laughed aloud, shook his head.
No, he thought.
Knowing my boy, he'll be ready to eat two buffalo!

Sarah rode behind Cat Running, her tired, wore out looking nag following his tired, wore out looking nag.
They'd been an hour a-horseback when they drew up.
They were on a rim overlooking a long, hanging valley.
It was late enough in the morning Sarah knew they weren't going after meat today, and when they topped the rise and halted, she knew where she was.
It took most of the next hour to travel the distance intervening.
Sarah slid out of her saddle and walked up to Charlie.
Charlie hung up the harness he was working on and turned to face her.
Sarah stopped, her jaw thrusting out as she considered just what it was she wanted to say: finally she looked up and nodded, then she stepped into the man and wrapped her arms around him.
He laid his cheek down on top of her head and held her and felt her shiver a little.
"Thank you," she whispered.
His arms tightened and he remembered another girl about this height, many years ago, and he smiled a little, just a little, for it was a good memory.

Nurse Susan wiped Joseph's face with a wash cloth, carefully removing all the corn meal mush, but none of the grin.
"Now, young man," she said in a maternal tone, "do you remember what you're allowed to eat?"
"Soft stuff," he said.
"That's right. Can you eat jerky?"
Joseph's face lengthened dolefully, so much so that she and Jacob both laughed: "No," he said, his bottom lip protruding visibly.
"How about bread crusts or pie crust?"
"Pie?" Joseph brightened, then sagged. "No."
"That's right," Nurse Susan nodded, folding the wash cloth and setting it on the side table.
She brushed the hair from his forehead with a delicate finger and said quietly, "You are a fine looking young man, just like your father!" -- and shot Jacob a look, and they both laughed when Joseph exclaimed, "Good!"
"I like fine looking young men," Nurse Susan continued. "But I don't like fine looking young men getting hurt and having to come see us to get fixed up! Now off you go, scamp, and remember, no jerky and no singing!" -- and so saying, she slid Joseph off her lap, swatted his bottom gently, and Joseph ran across the floor to his Papa, who seized him under the arms and hoist him toward the ceiling, laughing.
Nurse Susan remembered another tall, laughing man with pale eyes, swinging a child toward the ceiling in just such a way, and considered again that yes, the apple falls not far from the tree.

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Linn Keller 9-13-12

 

“There is a question in your eyes.”
Sarah nodded, her bottom jaw easing forward a bit.
“You’re not quite sure how to say it?”
Sarah blinked, shook her head, suddenly uncertain.
Part of her considered berating herself for being … well, tongue-tied … she was a schoolteacher, after all, and she should have words for any occasion! – but before she could decide whether to start calling herself names, Charlie’s eyes smiled at the corners and his curled forefinger pressed gently, very gently, against the underside of her chin, raising her head so she looked more squarely at him.
He shook his head, then threw back his head and laughed a little.
“I don’t know how to say it either,” he admitted, “so why don’t you try words of one syllable or less.”
Sarah blinked, then realized what he’d just said: her brows puzzled together a little and she laughed, and the sound was good to hear.
Inside, Fannie was rolling out a thick sweet dough: she heard Sarah’s laugh, and she couldn’t help but smile her own self.
“One syllable or less.”
Sarah’s eyes were bright, a clear sky blue, bottomless as a magic pool, and Charlie thought I’d better strap a two-by-four across my backside so I don’t fall into those and drown! -- then he blinked, looked away, frowning a little.
Fannie checked the boiling grease: it was hot enough, now, so she reached for the heavy-glass tumbler and quickly, precisely, cut circles out of the sweet dough: she took a shot glass, cut a round hole out of the center of the cut-out circles, laid them carefully in the boiling lard.
“Okay, I’ll start.” Sarah looked at Charlie, alarmed, laid her hand over his.
“Did I say something?” she asked, almost-panic in her voice.
Charlie blinked, swallowed: he turned and sat down on a handy chunk of tree trunk: when he looked up, his face was serious.
“I knew someone once,” he admitted.
“I reminded you of her.”
Charlie nodded.
“I’m sorry.”
Sarah’s distress was visible and genuine: her hand rested on his sleeve and he put a callused hand over hers.
“Not your fault, darlin’,” he rumbled, then he changed the subject: “You were goin’ to start.”
“Oh.” Sarah hesitated, chasing after the stray thought that had somehow slipped her loop: she blinked quickly, looked sadly up at Charlie and admitted, “You see that puff of smoke on the horizon? That’s my train of thought, retreating at a brisk trot.”
Charlie laughed, patting her hand.
“You sound like your Pa, you know that,” he said affectionately.
“Which one?” she asked, mischief in her eyes, and Charlie shook his head again.
“Good Lord, girl, once you set your bonnet for some fellow he might as well build a church and hire a sky pilot, you’ll have him spelled up and ready to marry before he’s full awake!”
“Now who sounds like my Pa?” Sarah teased.
“Yeah, I know,” Charlie smiled. “He rubs off on me.”
Sarah’s face went serious and Charlie felt her hand tighten a little.
“How come I didn’t see the dreams as clearly until I was there with the both of you?”
“You remember it.”
“I remember.”
“Do you know where you were?”
Sarah’s complexion paled a little and she nodded.
“That’s where you were headed.”
Her expression was haunted.
“I know.”
She looked up.
“You were hurt.”
He nodded.
“You stayed.”
Again, one slow nod: his eyes were distant, remembering.
“Why?”
Sarah’s voice was a whisper, her throat tight.
“Because someone was, and someone will be. Because you have a back trail and you’ll throw your essence long into the dawn yet unbroken.”
Sarah’s eyes were serious.
"You stayed for me."
Again the slow, deliberate, single nod.
“Who was I?”
“Who are you now?”
“A little confused,” she admitted. “I suppose I’m … complicated.”
Charlie nodded.
“You could say that.”
Sarah turned a chunk up and sat beside Charlie, leaning forward, elbows on her knees, resting her chin on the heels of both hands.
“Uncle Charlie?”
“Hm?”
“Uncle Charlie, will I ever be just Sarah?”
Charlie straightened his leg, frowning: his knee went sn-NAP! and the crack of the joint’s protest echoed off a nearby shed.
Sarah tilted her head, drew her arms in close to her chest: she clasped her hands, then drew them apart a little, lowered them slowly to Charlie’s knee.
A silver sphere glowed between them.
Sarah’s eyes looked into someplace that wasn’t quite in the here-and-now as she cupped her hands around his knee, enclosing it in a silver mist, and his knee suddenly felt just one hell of a lot better.
Charlie flexed his leg, thrust it out straight, stood.
“Good God,” he whispered.
Man and boy, this is the first time I’ve set weight on that knee without it aching for … he looked at Sarah … for more years than she’s drawn breath!
Sarah looked up at her Uncle Charlie, blinking innocently at his surprised expression.
“Ummm … does that mean no?”
Fannie came to the cabin door, a streak of flour on one cheek, a trace of powdered sugar white on her finger tips: "Bear sign, in case anyone is interested?" she called.
Charlie stood and so did Sarah.
"Will you ever be just Sarah?" Charlie reflected, his voice gentle. "What says your gut?"
Sarah's eyes danced like sunlight on a streambed ripple. "My gut says there's doughnuts to be had!"

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Linn Keller 9-14-12

 

The ride back up the mountain to the fine stone house was mostly silent, save only for horse sounds: hooves on hard-packed dirt, the Appaloosa's occasional snort or blow, the squeak of saddle leather.
Joseph rode behind his Pa.
Periodically Jacob would hold, generally where he had brush or trees to break his outline; he would set, listening, watching, not because he suspected he was being targeted, but because it was his habit.
On this last stop, they held in the brush for several minutes.
Little Joseph squirmed, restless; his father's hand slipped down, closed firmly on the boy's leg, just below the knee.
Joseph froze.
Jacob raised his hand, very slowly, then pointed.
Little Joseph followed his father's digital summons, looking into the brush, his frown puzzling at his eyebrows, until he saw it.
A cow elk and a nearly grown calf, thinking themselves hidden, watching the pair.
Jacob turned Apple-horse with his knees: keeping one hand on Joseph's leg, his left hand slowly easing his coat tail back, they returned to the roadway, moved at an easy walk uphill and around a bend, until they were out of line-of-sight with mama and the calf.
Once they were around the bend, Jacob released Joseph's leg: he turned, ran his arm under Joseph's arms, hauled him around, caught him up and held his son in his arms.
"What did you see?" he whispered.
Little Joseph looked up at his Pa, his eyes big.
"I saw an elk and a calfie," he whispered back.
Jacob nodded. "Did you see they were watching us?"
Little Joseph nodded.
"What can we tell if we see them like that, watching us?"
Little Joseph considered his father's whispered words, thought a moment, then hazarded, "They saw us?"
Jacob grinned, broad and quick, and Joseph felt the laughter in his father's chest: Jacob nodded, eyes busy, looking around.
"They were watching us," his sibilant syllables soothed his son's senses. "Nothing else was interesting. There was no danger -- otherwise they would have been looking at it, or running."
Little Joseph nodded, then cuddled up against his Pa.
Jacob shifted his hold on his son so he held the lad close, tight: somewhere in his distant memory he had a vague and very pleasant memory of being held just like that ... and a more recent memory, the night the reavers tried to murder Firelands and its citizens and burn the town to the ground, the night he was shot out of the bell tower, the night he lay dying and his Pa and Duzy squatted by him and his Pa did something that burnt like fire but took the can't-breathe away, and then the man picked him up and held him, held him for a long moment, and whispered fiercely, "I won't let you die!"
Jacob blinked, his eyes stinging: it was something he hadn't thought of for a very long time ... it was the reason he did not look at himself much in a mirror, save only to shave.
Otherwise he would have to look at a knife-shaped scar below his collarbone, where the puckered bullet wound healed, pink and shiny in the mirror.
Joseph twisted again and looked up at his Pa.
"I sowwy," he whispered.
Jacob looked down at his son, surprised: Joseph saw his Pa's eyes were some darker, very much the shade of the cloudless sky overhead.
"I ate-a da jerky," Joseph confessed.
Jacob hugged his son all the tighter, laying his cheek down on his son's head, and Joseph felt his father's silent laughter again.
"It's called the Allure of the Forbidden," he whispered. "Tell a man he can't do something and he'll bust his butt to do it. Tell him he can't have something and he'll bribe, cheat or steal to get it."
They came around the final bend in the road and saw the yard, and Annette hanging out clothes.
"You're just like me, Joseph," Jacob whispered fiercely.
"Pa?"
Jacob looked down at his son.
"Pa, howcum we still whisperin'?"

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Linn Keller 9-16-12

 

Cat Running's eyes were dark, and Sarah thought there was a trace of amusement in them.
As usual, he'd beaten them to the first sugar-dusted doughnut.
Conversation was suspended in favor of the sweet rounds of flavorful magic.
Cat Running looked at Charlie, noticed something different about his posture.
He just couldn't quite put his finger on it.
Something was different.
Sarah looked up at the big Indian, her eyes smiling a little as she saw the sugar dusting his upper lip.
The man does like his doughnuts, she thought, and the thought-voice was her Aunt Esther's, which tickled her a little more.
Cat Running looked down at Sarah.
Finally he swallowed.
"Girl thinking," he grunted. "Make your head hurt."
Sarah shook her head.
"Thank you," she whispered, her fingertips light on the back of his sun-darkened hand.
"What I do?" Cat Running bit into the remaining half of his third doughnut. "You made choice. You did work."
"Oh, I don't know," Sarah said, looking over at Charlie. "I think there was a lot of work that I didn't see."
Fannie looked across the table at Charlie, who was innocently chewing on a fresh, hot doughnut. He looked up at his bride's penetrating gaze and tried his best to look innocent.
Cat Running dropped a meaty hand on Sarah's shoulder.
"Girl need meat," he pronounced solemnly. "Tomorrow. Not today. Go home. Ride horse. Meet at saddle where you saw wolf cub eat grasshopper."
Sarah's memory instantly flashed the mental image of a furry, roly-poly wolf cub pouncing on a grasshopper, looking up, surprised, as the insect hopped from between its paws: two more pounces and it finally bit the long-legged tobacco-spitter, crunching happily, eyes squinting in the sunlight.
Sarah nodded.
"I'll be there."

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Charlie MacNeil 9-16-12

 

Sarah turned to ride away. Cat Running called out, "Bring little horse, not big mare. Feet too big, make too big mark on country. Scare the elk," the last said with a chuckle in his voice. Sarah waved a hand as she and the crowbait dun disappeared over the rim of the hollow. The old man turned to Charlie. "Girl gotta chance now, maybe. Gotta remember totems."

"I hope she does," Charlie said softly. "I don't think I can take many more trips like that last one. If she hadn't finally broke..." His voice trailed off.

Cat Running snorted. "You gettin' old, MacNeil. Useta coulda been in fight, then drink all night an' chase women."

"It's just as well he doesn't chase women any more," Fannie put in, a mischievous emerald twinkle in her eyes.

"Besides, old man," Charlie retorted, "even you gotta admit that gettin' old ain't for the faint of heart."

"Huh!" his assailant grunted. "Next thing you be sittin' in rockin' chair on the porch."

"Yep," Charlie acknowledged with a grin. "And I'll get one for you while I'm at it. You ain't no spring chicken your own self." His expression changed, sobered, all humor gone. "That was one hell of a fight. I just hope that she's..."

"Worth it?" Fannie broke in, reading his mind and completing his thought. "Don't worry, Sugar, she's worth it, and you know it, or you wouldn't be able to do what you've been doing for her. You wouldn't want to. Trust me. Where that girl's going, none of us ever even heard of, except maybe in dreams."

"I reckon you're right, Darlin'," Charlie replied. He looked over at Cat Running. "You want some company in the morning?"

"Yeah, your woman. You stay home, be old." The old man grinned at him. "Sides, she cooks better'n you, and shoots straighter. Purtier and smells better, too." He looked at Fannie. "You ready for huntin'?"

"I was born ready, old man. And maybe we'll just find out which one of us is the better cook. What do you say, first blood doesn't have to cook?"

"Huh!" Cat Running grunted. "You make bad wager. Girl gonna draw first blood."

"No she's not, old man," Fannie answered. "I've got plans for that girl, and they don't include shooting the first elk we run across. Just because you big tough he-men brought her through the dark without any of you getting yourselves killed doesn't mean she's where she needs to be. Now she needs a woman's touch."

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Linn Keller 9-17-12

 

"You've not seen the Blaze boys, now, have you?"
"No, Marshal, I surely ain't."
Jackson Cooper nodded, turned away from the idler, eyes busy.
"What has them two gone and done now?"
"They haven't," Jackson Cooper said quietly, "yet."
He took one step off the board walk when the explosion shivered windows, scared a stray cat and set a miner's mule to braying loudly.

Sean's head came sharply up: the Welsh Irishman pulled the stew off the stove and clapped the lid on the pot, then pulled the coffee away as well: polishing rags were tossed kind of toward the work bench and the Brigade snatched up coats and helmets.
The mares were new to the Firelands station but they knew a response when the smelled one: they were restless, dancing a little, waiting for the harness to drop from overhead, waiting for the hitch-up, waiting for the command to run, run down the street just as hard as they could go.
Sean and the men worked the mares every day, pulling the practice engine, pulling it with a few hundred pound of iron pigs loaded on: they did not work the mares hard, but they worked them steadily, building their endurance in the high altitude air.
Their knowledge of equine anatomy and physiology was that of the average man of the age: of the microstructure of the circulatory system, they knew nothing: still, they knew the horses were acclimated to the Ohio River's elevation, where there was more air to breathe, and here in the mountains, why, horse and man alike got short winded until they got used to it.
The big double doors swung open, the matched white troika coaxed into place: Irishmen ran for their places, seized hand holds, swung aboard, and Sean swung his blacksnake whip and roared a Gaelic oath, then "Run, ladies, run and the good St. Florian watch o'er us all! RUN!"
Engine and ladder wagon, horses and Irishmen, steam and smoke and leather helmets came out of station and turned to the right, for to the left was but one building, and it was not afire.
As soon as they turned right, they saw the smoke.

Polly's eyes were big as she pulled away from her Mama and backed up against the glass front display case, clutching her stick of striped peppermint candy.
Bonnie was reminded powerfully of another little girl in exactly that same spot, and not that many years ago, her eyes wide just like Polly's ... only the explosions happened after she flattened herself against the heavy glass, not before.
Opal looked up at her Mama.
"What go boom?" she asked.
The one-armed proprietor looked around, alarmed; windows rattled and he felt the vibration through his feet.
"Oh, dear, the mare," Bonnie groaned, hurrying toward the door, her two little girls scampering along to keep up.

Men looked over the curtain, out the window: beers in hand, for a man never set down his beer unless there was a genuine emergency, they craned their necks and speculated loudly on the source of the detonation.

Jackson Cooper saw the smoke and leaned forward until he was just overbalanced, and his legs ran to keep up with his upper half.
He saw the singed, staggering form of a boy come wobbling out the mouth of an alley: his hair was smoking, his clothes blackened and a-smolder here and there, his eyes were wide and he looked like he'd just got his bell run, and how.
Jackson Cooper looked at the smoke trickling up off the lads duds and followed his first instinct: he seized the boy under the arms and turned toward the horse trough.
The boy's lethargy snapped and fell away from him: he let out a yell and began running, panicked, and Jackson Cooper swung him up so his running legs were out of the way and he baptized the lad in the name of St. Extinguishment: he fetched the lad out and let him snort and blow, never slacking his grip: working his wild rag loose, he wadded it up and dunked it in the roiled up water and carefully wiped the lad's face, removing a surprising amount of black from the boy's youthful complexion.
Jackson Cooper heard something and looked up, and the other Blaze Twin came staggering down the alley, looking just as singed, just as blackened, and just as smoldery as the first.
He looked up and saw smoke, and some fire: the Irish Brigade was coming up the street full bore and Jackson Cooper pulled off his hat, waved it to get their attention, then in a stern voice told his young charge, "Stay there!"
Jackson Cooper turned and launched into a sprint, seizing the lad and snatching him off the ground, getting to the corner of the building and turning quickly, for he knew the Brigade would be coming down the alley, and he knew they would not wish to stop for him or anyone else.
He turned and carried the staring, vacant-eyed lad to the mouth of the alley and introduced him to the inside of the watering trough, just like the first one.
When both lads had their hands and faces wiped clean -- the Marshal's hands were strong and very big, but surprisingly gentle in this duty -- he looked from one to the other and rumbled, "What happened?"

The Irish Brigade knew the location of every rain barrel, horse trough, cistern, well and reservoir in town: they drilled regularly, rotating which they would access in an emergency for which area: they were quickly pulling from a stone-walled well, throwing water on what used to be a shed, and the house hard up against it: pike poles were unclipped and boards ripped down, the shed torn away from the house, away from the fire.

"I know about the blastin' powder," Jackson Cooper said, "and I know about the fuse. Now tell me what happened."
"I blowed up Pa's shed," the Blaze twin with the white blaze on his right said hollowly.
"How'd you do it?"
"I poked a hole in the lid with a nail an' I run in some fuse an' lit it. We helt our ears 'cause we figured it'd be loud."
Jackson Cooper wiped the lad's face again: there were a dozen tiny pinpricks oozing blood now.
Frowning, Jackson Cooper took the lad's chin between thumb and forefinger.
"Look at me," he said sternly. "Open your eyes now, open 'em wide."
"What'cha doin'?" the left hand Blaze twin asked, only to find the Marshal's tight grip on his own jawbone.
Jackson Cooper frowned, his red, full beard rippling in the sunlight.
"It is a wonder," he declared in his deep, powerful voice, "that you two were not blinded!"
He wet his bandanna again and wrung it out, carefully wiping one young face again, then another, until a worried mother came hurrying down the alley and seized both boys by an ear.
In spite of their shock, in spite of the detonation of a can of blasting powder with a wood shed wall the only thing between them and the boom, despite being dunked in a watering trough and interrogated by one of the most feared lawmen in the state, the Blaze Boys managed a sincerely distressed expression as the thin-lipped mother hoist them up by their ears and marched them back to the scene of the crime.
Shortly thereafter, juvenile howls floated up to replace the thinning smoke.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-18-12

 

Sarah stood in Wolf Cub Saddle with her arms raised, facing the first silvery rim of the rising sun. Her eyes were closed as she sought and found her center, breathing deeply in through flared nostrils, breathing out totally, emptying her lungs and her thoughts concurrently. A warm, tingling glow spread from her chest through joint and tendon, muscle and bone, vein and artery, suffusing her entire body with the strength of the young. Morgana was picketed nearby; the fleabitten dun, having been relegated to packhorse duty, nosed at summer-dry grass alongside the mare. The pack on the dun’s back was small, containing only a few blankets, frying pan and coffeepot, a sack of coarse meal and another of ground Arbuckle’s, a sack of jerky and a paper wrapped loaf of the hired girl’s good homemade bread. Her rifle was scabbarded on the off side of her saddle, her flint tipped spear under the near side stirrup.

“Girl dress right, anyway, eh?” Cat Running’s words, coming as they did after the long period of Sarah’s meditative silence, served not to startle her, as he had been checking for, but to put the proper end to her introspection. She nodded once before opening her eyes and turning to look at the new arrivals.

“I’ve kept these away from cooking smells, and stored with sage and pine,” Sarah answered, indicating her elkhide britches and hunting shirt, made from last fall’s kills, with a sweep of her hand.

“Done good, girl, ‘cept for that damn hat,” the old man grunted, pointing at Sarah’s broad-brimmed black hat. “Can’t hunt in hat like that.”

“I know,” she replied. “I brought this,” she lifted a small, hide-wrapped package from behind her saddle, “to wear hunting.” Sweeping the felt from her braided hair, she turned her back, bent from the waist, and slipped another headpiece into place. When she stood back up and faced Cat Running and Fannie, she wore the cape and ears of a cow elk over her silky hair. Her appearance brought a chuckle from the old man.

“That oughta work. What you think?” this last addressed to Fannie.

“Should be fine,” Fannie replied, smiling herself. “But we’ve got a lot of work to do before any hunting happens, and you know it, so we’d best get at it. On your horse, girl.” Fannie reined her sorrel toward a dim game trail that climbed the north wall of the saddle without looking back to see if either Cat Running or Sarah followed.

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Linn Keller 9-19-12

 

The Brigade re-stocked clean, dry fire hose on the wagon and laid out their dirty hose in the wooden trough to be sloshed with buckets of water and scrubbed with a push broom, then hung in the tall hose tower to dry: when completely dry, they would be rolled and stored on the rack for that purpose, then cycled in turn back to the wagon.
Brass nozzles were set aside to be cleaned up and polished again: fresh, brightly-burnished nozzles were screwed onto the carefully-laid hose bed: their beloved "Masheen" itself was already wiped down and would receive another good polishing after the other duties were tended.
Boots and helmets were wiped off, washed as necessary, carefully dried and polished; rubber coated fire coats, too, were sloshed, scrubbed, turned inside out and scrubbed again, then sun dried, thoroughly sun dried, for few things were less pleasant than wearing a fire coat that was soured with sweat and damp and hung up wet, only to be put back on, and a man's sweat and body heat from working another fire resurrected all those choice odors, which crawled up from inside the coat and lingered right around his smeller.
The Brigade dedicated the rest of the day to a good, proper cleanup, but not until everything was restocked and ready for the next run: each and every man Jack of the Brigade knew of the existence of a scoundrel who made their life less than pleasant, a soul maligned and damned a century later as someone named "Murphy" ... but this "Murphy" had yet to be named, invented or made known ... though the ill effects of his plots and machinations bedeviled good and honest folk of all ages.

Mr. Baxter's efforts at polishing were more successful and less strenuous: he smiled a little to himself, for he'd gotten in some fishing, and even found a lucky nugget or two in a particular bend in the creek he kept to himself: he held the claim for that part of the country, and even yet would do a little discreet panning: if he were seen, why, it wasn't uncommon for a man to dip a pan in the water, hopeful to find an overlook bit of color; carefully planted rumors, discreetly voiced complaints and a variety of blatantly falsified official reports, and the general territory was convinced that there was no more placer gold to be hand in Firelands County or its general environs, that the only gold was bound in hard rock and accessible only to hard rock miners and stamping mills.
Tom Landers knocked discreetly at the dancing girl's door and was greeted with the thump of a hard-thrown shoe against the closed portal. "Go away!" he heard from within, and grinned.
"Five minutes, darlin'," he called, and lowered his hand.
She would be ready in three; Tom Landers knew he could depend on her to be punctual.
The regulars at the Jewel, as a matter of fact, had their watches out, for it was almost a standing joke that you could set your watch by the appearance of the leggy, slender-waisted, pretty young performer.
The piano player took a long pull on his beer, downing about half of it without taking a breath: he knew the first run would keep him busy at the keyboard for a while, as the first performance of the morning lasted a while.
He shifted on the piano stool, grateful for the cushion he'd commandeered.
His eyes drifted up to a little feathered bird that perched in a cheap metal birdcage on top of the piano: it was stuffed, it was kind of cheap looking, but it was their secret, and as he flexed his hands and extended them experimentally over the ivories, he tilted his head a little and looked up at the bird.
Several eyes consulted their watches.
The black thread, invisible at three feet or more, tightened, and the bird rocked on its perch.
The piano player tickled a bright fanfare and the curtains at the back of the stage were thrown dramatically aside, and the dancing girl strutted out on the stage, her smile bright, her arms thrown up in greeting, her smile bright and genuine and her hard little heels loud on the boards: she struck a pose, displaying the entire length of one stockinged leg, one hand saucily on her hip, the other pointing open-handed to the ceiling.
Watches were forgotten; cases snapped shut over crystals, timepieces were stuffed quickly into vest pockets and men whistled and clapped work-hardened or townie-soft hands enthusiastically together, and Mr. Baxter smiled, for business was good, and with the dancing girl in house, business was guaranteed to be better.

The Blaze Boys had difficulty sitting down the next day.
Each was put to onerous and galling tasks -- make-work, to keep the out of mischief -- each hauled an impossible amount of wood, being tasked with stocking the stove-box, and each not only filled the box but managed an impressive stack piled beside the stove-box, as they'd been told to work until told to stop, and each made a point of overdoing it to show their rebellion against the punishment, the way boys will.
When each filled their respective wood-box and piled high beside, and no supervising parent came to relieve them, each of the lads decided their assigned work was done and it was time to leave, and did, the way boys will.
Not long thereafter a teamster was heard swearing and screaming profanely up the street, trying vainly to slow his big draft horse from its panicked gallop, but the big warmblood had the bit between his teeth and appeared fully intent to flee the state just as hard as it could run.
Had the teamster time to consider, he might have uttered choice words at two towheads with a white streak in their hair, the pair that caused this distressing departure, for one held a cannon cracker while the other scratched a Lucifer match, the former set the cracker on the ground just behind his horse's hind hoof and the latter clapped a sizable tin can, open end down over the cracker, then both ran, laughing: the teamster had been arranging cargo in the back of the wagon when the can went BAM and sailed into the air, trailing smoke and dust, and the horse panicked and lurched into a surging gallop and the teamster squatted quickly and fought his way back into the driver's seat in a desperate attempt at getting his horse under control.

The Sheriff regarded the soggy remnants of the shed.
The Irish Brigade had kept the adjacent structures wet down; the fire did not spread, and a good thing; the mother, when asked, agreed to let the Brigade toss the remnants of the shed onto the fire and burn it up as completely as possible, as it was pretty well ruined.
The Sheriff looked up at Jackson Cooper.
"The Blaze Boys?" he asked, deadpan.
Jackson Cooper nodded solemnly.
"Yep."
Neither man dared look at the other, for fear of cracking a grin and then laughing: the pair of them had done something similar, back East in Sedalia, back when the pair of them was considerably younger and knew one another after the War, and conspired to pull a good one on a mine foreman for whom nobody had any love.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-19-12

 

Fannie kept the sorrel at a fast walk, never looking back, never speaking, as she led the way ever upward into the mountains. Their route followed the tiniest of game trails, the sure-footed gelding’s hooves often clicking and scraping across rock faces that would give a mountain goat a case of vertigo, until the last possible traces of any sort of civilization had totally vanished in the farthest blue and brown distance. She stopped only to rest the horses at regular intervals, giving the hardy animals a chance to catch breath stolen by the altitude. It was after one of these rest breaks that Sarah suddenly noticed that Cat Running no longer followed them; he had vanished as if he’d never been, taking the pack horses, hers, his and Fannie’s, with him. She thought to ask her Aunt Fannie about the old man’s leaving them, taking all of their supplies, but the distant expression in Fannie’s normally welcoming emerald eyes kept her silent.

Hours after leaving Wolf Pup Saddle Fannie drew rein in a tiny alpine cove bordered on one side by wind-battered piñon pines that backed up against lichen crusted boulders. A tiny trickle of water that appeared from a crack in the sheer granite backing the cove nourished a patch of still-green grass, enough to keep the horses for a short time, then continued on to the edge of the cove where it filled a wind and weather carved granite basin the size of a shallow wash tub with cold, sweet water. Still without a word, Fannie stepped down and began to unsaddle her horse. Sarah hurriedly followed suit, wondering…

When the horses had been unsaddled and rubbed down, their picket pins driven into cracks in the rock, Fannie turned to Sarah. Her stern expression sent tickling fingers of unease marching the length of the girl’s spine. Fannie pointed to a flat-topped stone, knee height, that sat next to the pool of water. Her tone was as stern as her expression. “Sit, girl.” Sarah sat…

“Look out there,” Fannie pointed along their back trail, “and tell me what you see.”

“Trees, and…” Sarah began.

“That’s not what I mean, and I think you know it, girl. Now tell me.”

Sarah sat listening to the chill breeze that whispered tales of derring do and death, of life, love and wonder. Her spine was straight, her hand clasped in her lap, her eyelids drifting shut as she looked deep into her center, focusing not on that which the optic nerves bring to the brain but on that which her other senses had to tell her. She felt the slow, deep thudding of her heart, the coursing of blood through vein and artery, the bellows pumping of her lungs. And then, suddenly, there was more. She began to speak in a voice not her own, but yet uniquely hers…


“Ancient ghosts walk in the wind and rain,
Those who came before.
They surround us, they watch us, they judge us.
Are we worthy?
Do we do the land honor,
Do we honor that blood that sustains us,
Or do we set ourselves above?
I see their spirits in the land,
I see their caring, their nurturing of those less fortunate,
I feel their hatred for those who kill without reason…”

The girl’s voice trailed off as tears oozed from beneath her clenched eyelids to trickle slowly down her bloodless cheeks. Sobs shook her slender frame, sobs of shame for her species, sobs of relief, a second time, that she had been released from the dark prison that had shackled her, shackled her future, to something that was even now becoming the ruination of the world. She bent to bury her face in her hands as she cried for the injustice done in the name of who knew what motive. The wind whispered and sang around her, phantom fingers plucking her hair and clothes…

Sarah pushed herself upright, sucking a breath of the clean, pine-scented air of the cove deep into her lungs, holding it, releasing it in a deep sigh that she felt must be pulling the last of the dark tarnish from her very being. Her startled gaze met Fannie’s as Fannie knelt to put her hands on Sarah’s shoulders. Girl met woman in a melding of mind and heart, the strength of which was bewildering to someone who had made a life, short though it had been up to that point, of depending on only her own resources. Fannie’s voice, when she spoke, echoed weirdly in Sarah’s mind.

“Now you see, child, the world as it truly is. Men fight the dark, as your father and my husband fought for your very being. The dark must never be allowed victory, and it is our role, yours and mine, to ensure that defeat. We bring the light, we strengthen our men, we are their reason for carrying on the battle. They fight not because we are weak, but because our light is their strength. Remember, we are their strength! We are fighting beside them always, whether physically with weapons of our own, or in their hearts with the light. But always we are with them! As they cannot carry the battle on their own, neither can we do so, no matter how much we wish it. We are two sides of the same coin, two faces of the card, always together. Thus it has always been, thus it shall always be. Wherever there is battle, whether it is they or us who fight, victory requires that both spirits come together, each in support of the other.” Fannie leaned forward to gently kiss the chill skin of Sarah’s forehead, breaking the bond that had existed between them moments before, yet not breaking it. Her voice seemed to Sarah to return to normal. “Do you understand, girl?”

“I, I think so,” Sarah stammered. “But I don’t have a man in my life.”

“You will, my dear, you will,” Fannie soothed. “Until then, you have many men, such as your father, your brother, your Uncle Charlie, even Cat Running, who depend on you, and on whom you can, in your turn, depend. You are their strength as they are yours. No more need you feel that the battle is only yours.”

Sarah sat staring, contemplating, out over the rolling terrain that spread below their high mountain perch. “I see now what I have to do,” she said after several minutes. “I have to not fight myself, and not depend only on myself but on the ones who love me. But that’s hard, Auntie. So hard.” She heaved a deep sigh.

“I know, Sugar,” Fannie answered, sounding more like her usual cheerful self. “But we’ll get you through it.” She folded the girl in a warm hug. “Now why don’t you see about finding us some dinner?”

“But, Auntie, Cat Running has all the food!”

“So find some! I think between him, me and your Uncle Charlie we’ve taught you enough about living off the land to keep us from starving to death.”

“I hope you’re right, Auntie. It’s going to be a long, cold night if I can’t.”

Fannie grasped one of Sarah’s wrists in each hand and pulled the girl to her feet. “Then, in your Uncle Charlie’s words, I reckon you’d best get at it.”

Sarah flashed her a brilliant smile. “I reckon I’d best,” and turned toward the edge of the cove.

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Linn Keller 9-20-12

 

Fannie did not follow Sarah, though she was tempted: part of her wished to see what the girl would come up with, and part of her said Let her be, trust her, she'll be fine.
Sarah, for her part, walked fairly normally until she was out of sight of their little encampment: once away from the line-of-sight, she did not walk, she flowed, listening with more than her ears, seeing with more than her eyes.
Had Fannie followed and watched, she would not have seen Sarah turn invisible.
No.
Not invisible.
She would have seen Sarah become ... something else.
Sarah's eyes narrowed as she saw the stream, and she lowered herself, scanning about, for it would not do to be taken by surprise: all was clear and nothing presented that would be a danger, so she crept to the stream's edge, moving slower, and finally easing herself prone on a rock ledge outthrust a little over the bright, clear watercourse.
Sarah's eyes were quiet as she hovered, one arm cocked, one hand open to grab; there were fish here, mountain trout, and good eating: this would do to start.
Sarah held still, very still; had Fannie been watching, she would have seen Sarah become part of the rock, and unnoticeable.

Jacob pulled loose the ear of corn, stripped back the husk, nodding in satisfaction.
Corn was ready and that meant a husking bee, that meant cornstalks shocked up for fodder, that meant a fall plowing and manure spreading.
Jacob liked a fall plowing, where the winter's freeze and thaw broke up the big chunks of turned-over dirt, and made it easier to disk and harrow come planting time: he had no resistance to tilling the soil, unlike other ranchers, who considered cattle the only real crop.
Jacob's wheat crop was nearly ripe as well.
His eyes narrowed with pleasure.
He would ride out to the Rosenthal place and arrange to rent the shining red McCormick harvester.

Sarah broke the trout's neck, lay it beside its fellow.
She had three so far and judged one more would feed the two of them, with a few more items plucked from Nature's bounty.
Part of her mind was turning over what Charlie told her, earlier ... something about her back trail and her essence going long into the future.
I will have children, then, she thought, and once I pass my essence to the future, my usefulness will be ended, and I will die.
Sarah was not distressed by this thought, for she knew all men die -- all women, too, for that matter -- then she folded up the thought and put it in a little side room of her mind, for a shadow moved in the water, and she stilled her mind, waiting for the final fish that would complete their meat-bounty.

Esther's cheeks were red, healthy, beautiful: I caressed her face, trailed my fingers back along her ear, held her carefully, not wanting to squeeze her growing belly into me.
"You," I whispered, "are beautiful," and I bent and kissed her, carefully, delicately, holding her, reveling in her warmth, in the feel of her, solid and real, in my arms.
I felt like the king of the world.
For a moment I heard a voice, as if reading from an ancient text:
And the rich man considered his wealth, and his sons, and his store-houses full of grain, and he said, I am rich and I am powerful and it just doesn't get any better than this, and a voice from Heaven said, Thou fool, this night shall I require thy soul.
I shook my head, dismissing the thought.
I took pains not to be that man.
I knew the pinch of poverty, the ache that comes of want and of lack, and never once have I taken overweening pride in having more than the next man.
I thought I was safe.
Esther looked up at me and whispered, "Have Bonnie cut the back out of my wedding gown and make a christening gown for our little girl."
I looked down at Esther, amused.
"We're having a girl?" I asked, and Esther's eyes were mischievous: she patted my flat belly and murmured, "Who is having this baby?" she smiled. "It would seem that I am doing all the work here."
I threw my head back and laughed.
"You're having a little girl, then," I murmured, and I don't recall as I've felt any happier in all my born days.
"You will name her Dana, and she will grow up a fine young woman. She will marry and have children and you will bounce them on your knee and laugh as they pull at your mustache." She reached up and stroked my mustache with the back of her finger.
"Sarah will have children too, you know."
"With those good looks I don't doubt it," I murmured, pulling her close to me, careful not to press her belly too much: "right now she could have her pick of Denver society."
"It won't be a Denver man," Esther said quietly, "and in time her line and Dana's will join, and the get of that union will have your eyes and your temper, and will be Sheriff here again."
Of a sudden I felt cold fingers walking down my spine.
My Mama had the Second Sight and never talked much about it, but when she did, it bore a good listening-to.
I was no longer a loving husband, I was a lawman again, and my voice was different when I asked, "Why are you telling me this?"
"You need to know it, dearest," she whispered, then sagged a little: "I'm tired. I think I should go lie down."

Sarah's hand shot into the water and she seized the trout behind the gills: a twist and a jerk and the fish stopped flopping, and lay beside its fellows.
Four fish are enough, Sarah thought, looking around, considering, then she seized a sizable flat rock and pulled, lifting it and turning it over.
She would clean the fish here and then drop the rock over the offal.
She hadn't seen sign of any bears but it would not do to invite them with fish guts.

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Linn Keller 9-21-12

 

The Sheriff put the coin-shaped gold blank in the stamp.
The stamp was made in two halves.
The bottom half, in reverse, had a rampant stag, and under it, in an arc, the Scottish Clan slogan, REVERISCO.
He nodded, satisfied at the accuracy with which the goldsmith swaged the gold disc: it fell precisely into the stamp with no slack left or right.
The Sheriff picked up the other half of the stamp: it was all steel, the better to withstand hard blows from a single jack, and on its striking face, the image of a rose.
The Sheriff paid good money to have this coin stamp made: he knew the maker and knew his work, and paid the man for his trouble: now, as he settled the handle half of the stamp over the standing half, he picked up the short handled sledge hammer, raised it overhead and brought it briskly down on the squared striking face of the handle he held.
Forged steel rang on tempered steel; the anvil beneath rang its dull note, the impact drove through the stump on which the anvil was mounted, and the Sheriff could feel the return from the blow, through his boot soles.
The Sheriff hooked out the coin and turned it over, examining it minutely.
If a man used your imagination, he thought, you could see this as a bull elk.
He smiled.
Highland, Midland or Lowland, his Scots ancestors would have known the great, thick-necked Scottish stag, and that is what this coin was supposed to depict.
The Sheriff’s eyes smiled as he placed the coin in the strongbox beside him.
One down, many more to go.

Sarah picked seeds from between her teeth.
She’d picked some rose hips and ripe berries enough for she and Fannie both, and found an apple tree – an unexpected bounty! – and plucked a half-dozen apples: small, misshapen, but edible: Sarah could have brought back three times that many, but she had no wish for either of them to enjoy the unpleasant consequences of eating too many apples at once.
Trout broiled over a small fire, green forked sticks sufficing to hold the grilling bounty: the two women’s encampment was small, tidy, unnoticeable at any distance: each sat such that they could watch one another’s back, and each had a rifle in easy reach.
Sarah rubbed an apple thoughtfully, her eyes busy, scanning the territory beyond Fannie’s left shoulder: she bit into the small, hard, sweet fruit, chewing slowly, thoughtfully.
Fannie saw her hesitate momentarily, felt her breathing change, even from six feet away: Sarah’s demeanor went from semi-relaxed in anticipation of supper, to as acutely aware as a bird dog on point.
Fannie’s eyes smiled and she looked at the big cat, lazily cleaning its paw, several hundred yards distant, revealing itself on a rock, obviously wanting itself to be seen: Fannie’s smile was almost invisible as she, too, raised an apple to even, white teeth and took a bite.
She waited until Sarah swallowed before shifting her payload to her off cheek and asking quietly, “You saw it?”
Sarah, big-eyed, nodded shallowly, barely enough for Fannie to see.
Fannie did not have to look to know the white wolf was staring at Sarah, and beside it, the biggest bull elk that ever drew breath, or at least the biggest Sarah ever saw draw breath.
The two women blinked.
Cat, stag and wolf were gone, leaving behind the smell of broiling trout.

The Sheriff labored steadily, delighting in the feeling of hard muscles well worked.
He had experience as a blacksmith.
After that damned War, when he made his way from the Northern Ohio flat lands, south, then west, making a living either as a lawman or a blacksmith: he made horseshoes, hinges, gun parts as necessary, and he grew to swing a blacksmith’s hammer with less and less fatigue: he did so now, old memories warm in his arms, old labors renewed in his shoulders: Esther distantly heard his labors, a ringing strike, a pause, another ringing blow, delivered with the hard, precise aim of a veteran of the craft.
He'd begun planning his latest move just over a year before.
The Sheriff quietly, discreetly, arranged to buy up interest in the Z&W railroad, until finally almost its entire stock was held by … well, by the husband of the owner, general manager and chief executive officer.
He did not tell his beautiful bride, of course; he would, in time, but after the disappointments of selling stock, becoming a corporation, assembling a board of directors and experiencing just how infefficent, corrupt and disagreeable such an enterprise could become, the board of directors was dissolved and decision-making was done among the chief stock holders alone.
Esther was becoming great with child – incredibly so, the Sheriff thought as he settled another gold blank in the stamp: the poor woman looked like a cherry on a toothpick, her back ached, she wore high topped shoes buttoned tight to keep her ankles from swelling: she did not complain, but he knew she was not comfortable, and he did all he could to keep her from … that is to say, he felt helpless and spoke quietly with their maid, asking her advice on how best to make things easier for his wife.
He also, through wise investing, through horse trading, and through some clandestine wagering, managed to buy up a good percentage of the Cripple Creek gold mine interest: he did so through a shadow company, insulating himself through non-existent straw purchasers, discreetly accumulating a young fortune or two, and guaranteeing that he and Esther could live a very comfortable life if they so wished.
The Sheriff was now converting some of that wealth into long term storage.
He did not want government coin, for gold from the government might subject to recall: no, this was privately struck coinage, one ounce per gold disc, and as he labored and rolled coins into paper tubes and stacked these in the strongbox, he thought of the recent adventures that left him with a few blue splotches on his hide even yet.
It felt good to swing the hammer: as he remembered the hell-hound that charged him, as he remembered the demons that advanced in column, as he remembered the feel of good Highland steel spitting infernal flesh, his muscles remembered, and it felt good to work out the soreness of that mighty exertion by swinging the sawed off sledge hammer.
The Sheriff needed no more than one good lick to stamp each coin.

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Linn Keller 9-22-12

 

Sarah peeled a wide strip of bark free, dunked it in the cold water and held it for a minute or so, then cat-footed back to the fire.
Carefully, precisely, she dribbled water on the remnants of their tiny fire: supper was sufficient, not excessive, both women ate their fill and drank good cold water for their thirst, and now Fannie watched approvingly as Sarah first separated, then dampened, and finally scooped, what little was left of the tiny fire onto the wet-down bark.
She carried it back to the broad, flat rock under which she'd put the fish offal; the caustic in the wood ash would help to further conceal the scent, reducing the chance that scavengers would be attracted to their vicinity.
Sarah squatted, muscled the rock back up onto its edge, peeked over it to make sure it would fall exactly where she wanted, then let it drop.
Its dull THUMP was loud in the mountain hush, but a sound made only once attracts little attention: it's when a sound is repeated, that it can be located.
Sarah smiled as she remembered one of the Professor's casual comments, back in the Denver classroom:
"Neighbors aren't useful in most cases," he lectured, one hand in a pocket, chalk in the other: "if a burglar breaks a window, or forces a door, and he makes only one sound -- one out-of-the-way burst of noise, not normal for the location or the time of day -- a neighbor might stop to listen.
"In most cases, if the sound is not repeated, they go about their business and think nothing more of it."
Sarah stayed in her squat, listening, smelling: it was not uncommon, in the mountains, for weathered rock to fall free of a cliff face, for a rotted branch to fall: rock on soil produced a sudden noise, but not out of place.
They two had coordinated in making a snug little bower, big enough for one: it was dry, it was on a slight elevation and floored with dry vegetation, it was laid over with boughs and branches and covered with more leaves: the sky was clear and the wind did not taste like rain, but it was tucked up half-under a rock overhang that would prove shelter from all but a wind driven deluge.
"I'll take first watch," Fannie said quietly, picking up her rifle. "You've had a busy day. Get some rest."
Sarah nodded wordlessly, picked up her rifle, worked her way feet first into the snug little hide: she curled up on her side, using her hat for a pillow, and wished for the Bear Killer to curl up with her.
She looked out of the drawn-over opening and saw only the small clearing, empty; a narrow slice of sky shone overhead, stars bright and clear as they always were this time of year, and she smiled a little, for she did not see her Aunt Fannie.
That was exactly what she expected to see.
Closing her eyes, she relaxed, listening to wind in the heights whispering ancient secrets to listening pines.

The Bear Killer thrust his cold, wet nose into Fannie's palm, and she rubbed his shoulder.
He was warm and solid as he leaned against her leg, and she was grateful for his presence, for his eyes and his nose and his ears were all better than her own.
The Bear Killer's red tongue ran out as he sat and blinked and tasted the night wind.

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Linn Keller 9-24-12

 

Esther was prowling like a cat.
I gave up trying to sleep: I threw back the covers, swung my legs out of the bunk and reached for my socks.
I didn't offer a word as Esther struck a light and began pulling dresses out of her closet and laying them across her side of the bed, then she put them away and made the bed, her lips pressed together and kind of white around them and I knew something was up.
I suspected, but didn't ask: Esther is a hard headed and contrary woman and she would not say she was a-hurtin' unless her leg was sawed off and layin' on the ground beside her, and I considered she just might be a-laborin'.
I've known women going into labor who would take a cleanin' fit.
I've seen cats do that.
I've seen a mama cat startin' to labor, get real industrious and make herself up a nest, and that's what Esther reminded me of, so I went ahead and got dressed.
Esther stopped and glared at me.
"Why aren't you asleep?" she snapped, and I kept from nodding, for that pretty much confirmed in my mind that she was a-startin' to labor.
"Kind of hard to make the bed with my carcass in it," I said mildly.
"That's beside the point!" She pressed her lips together again. "And these dresses! I'll have to have Bonnie alter them or -- no, they're very likely out of fashion, I shall have to have a new wardrobe --"
I walked around the bed in my sock feet and took Esther very gently by her upper arms.
She pulled viciously away from me, turned her back to me.
I took her shoulders, carefully, gently, spreading my big hands wide, wide over them points of her shoulders, squeezing a little: it was our private signal, it was what I did in public, standing behind her: I would put my hands on her shoulders and squeeze, gently, and it meant "I love you," and I could do that in public and not create a scandal.
Esther's hand came up and laid on mine and she hung her head, then she turned abruptly and grabbed the front of my vest, two-handed, and glared up at me.
"Mrs. Keller," I said quietly, "have I told you lately how good-lookin' a woman you are?"
"See here, Mr. Keller, I -- mmph!" she retorted tartly, at least until my mouth covered hers, and I ran my arms around her and held her as she shoved at my chest and tried to hit me, and then I felt her tense and I knew the fat was in the fire.
I snatched up a handful of quilt and tore it from the bed with one hard snap and wrapped it around Esther, and I picked her up and strode around to my side of the bed.
I set her down and got into my boots and she just set there hugging herself under the quilt, real quiet, her eyes big and dark and lovely and the sweat starting on her forehead.
I opened the bedroom door.
Angela was standing there, rubbing her eyes and holding her rag doll by one leg.
I squatted, gathered our little girl into my arms.
"Darlin'," I said in a gentle Daddy-voice, "do you remember I asked you yesterday how you would feel about being a big sister?"
Angela nodded, looking at her Mommy with big and worried eyes.
"We just might find out if you're having a little brother or a little sister."
Angela's face lit up and she bounced up and down on her little pink toes and breathed, "Weewee?"
"Really," I nodded, grinning.
I looked back at Esther.
"Angela, honey, you go on back to bed. I have to harness up the buggy."
"No time," Esther whispered hoarsely. "No time. It's too early." She looked up, her face lined, tight. "Oh God, not this early!"
"Angela." My voice was serious. "Get Mary and have her get some hot water going. Scoot!"
Angela turned and was gone at a run.
I got the quilt off Esther and got her laid down on the bed, I got her undressed from the belt down and Mary came up with a dishpan of steaming-hot water and a cake of pressed soap.
Jacob, I knew, delivered two babies at least, and Doc delivered I have no idea how many, and now it was my turn.
There was no time to get Doc: as fast as Cannonball was, I'd not even have her saddled before the time would be upon us.
I'd no sooner got my hands washed and dried off, and Mary got two more lamps lit and set up, than Esther's head snapped back, she grabbed a double handful of bed linens and she let out a jaw-clenched groan.
I stepped in between her knees, feeling kind of helpless.
If something was going on I could do something but until the child actually emerged, all I could do was stand there and wait, so I rested my hands on Esther's bare knees and waited.
Esther took a couple quick breaths, clenched her teeth and bore down.
My hands tightened on her knees.
I had her laying cross ways of the bed and her bottom was close to the edge and her water broke halfway through that long groan.
It caught me just north of the belt buckle.
Esther looked up and started to cry: "I'm so sorry!"
I couldn't help it.
I laughed like a damned fool.
Now I didn't know it but Angela was taking her role as a Responsible Big Sister more seriously than I thought she would.
I had to figure this part out afterward, but here's what happened:
Whilst I was standing there dripping and feeling seven kinds of helpless while Esther groaned and gasped and panted, Angela slipped back into her bedroom, she got dressed and slipped downstairs unnoticed -- Mary was with me, blotting Esther's forehead, rubbing her arms, holding her hands, while I stood between Esther's drawn-up knees, watching with a mixture of fascination and dread and my belly shrunk up to the size of a walnut, for women not uncommonly died in child birth -- Angela went back down stairs and out into the chilly night and somehow that little girl, that wee child, got her Rosebud-horse saddled and she set herself toward Firelands in the dark, and Doc told me later she gave a very credible report to Nurse Susan, who came to the door sleepy-eyed in response to the urgent tugs on their bell-pull.
Apparently she said something about Mommy bleeding and she peed all over Daddy and he was laughing and nobody would talk to her so she got mad and she was hungry and her Mommy told her if she started to have a baby somebody had to get Doc but nobody was doing anything and she was hungry so she came to get Doc because she wanted breakfast.
Nurse Susan's recounting of Angela's all-in-one-breath report was comical to listen to, for Susan was good at imitating accents and voices; she and Doc showed up shortly after, with Angela in the buggy between them, wrapped in a robe and sound asleep by the time they got here: of course, when his physician's surrey stopped, Angela came wide awake and came running up the stairs to see if she was a big brother or a bit sister 'cause she didn't know if her Mommy was having a boy or a girl.
Esther was breathing deep and regular; she wasn't talking, but I was, quietly, steadily, not saying much of anything, but encouraging: when the labor gripped her, she pressed her head back and Mary swept a pillow under Esther's sweat-damp red hair between contractions.
Mary was holding both Esther's hands, looked up at me and asked, "What do we have?"
I took a look.
"Well, there's a bulge -- a big bulge -- good Lord, I see hair --"
At that point I was too busy to talk.
I had a head -- shoulders -- the head rotated, one shoulder popped out, then the other and I had all of a sudden a double handful of ugly, grey, dead looking, misshapen, ugly as sin baby.
Now I am no doctor but I knew the child was born in water and it had to breathe so I turned it over and some water run out and I rubbed its back and I felt it trying to breathe and I turned it over and held it upright and it took a little breath and another breath and its little face wrinkled up and I saw those little eyes just slit open and I don't reckon it liked what it saw 'cause it give out a little squeak and another squeak and it started to cry and I looked up and Mary started to cry and Esther gasped, "My baby!" and I turned the little thing so she could see it and Esther started to cry and I laid the little one across Esther's belly and Esther gasped and took another couple breaths and choked "Oh God, no!" and she started to labor again.
This little one was starting to root.
I didn't have anything to tie the cord with and I sure as hell wasn't going to just tear it free so it would have to wait before it got its first meal and besides Esther was starting to bulge again and something told me this was not the after birth.

When Dr. Greenlees stepped into the room, he found the Sheriff carefully wrapping a newly-delivered, arm-waving baby, still attached to its mother, in a towel: there was a wrapped figure lying across Esther's belly, and Dr. Greenlees set his bag on the bed beside her, opening it briskly and reaching for the package waiting on top of his other implements.
Quickly, lips pursed as if whistling, he untied the package, withdrew two cloth tapes: he tied off the cords, took a pair of boiled surgical scissors and cut the cords, then stepped over to the dishpan and washed his hands with a methodical thoroughness.
The Sheriff looked over at the sawbones as the man was divested of his coat by Nurse Susan.
"Say, Doc," he said mildly, "you wanta take over here?"
Dr. Greenlees dried his hands, frowned thoughtfully.
"It looks like you're doing all right," he replied. "How many do you have so far?"
"Two."
"And are they boy babies or girl babies?"
Esther looked up. "My babies? What do we have?"
The maid looked at the Sheriff with big eyes and said nothing.
The Sheriff's expression was priceless as the man realized he had absolutely no idea whether he'd just delivered his wife of two boys, two girls or a mixed bag.
"Ahhh," he said, and kind of coasted to a stop, mentally and physically.
Dr. Greenlees clapped a hand on the man's shoulder.
"Sheriff," he said, "may I congratulate you on a work well done. We'll take over now, we'll get your wife all cleaned up and we'll make the formal introductions in a few minutes." He steered the numb-faced man toward the bedroom door. "Now why don't you go down to your study and make sure the brandy hasn't spoiled, there's a good fellow."
Mary brought up fresh water and laid out fresh bed linens and clothes: Esther was cleaned up, linens changed out, the babies given their first bath and set to breast, and Esther, in a fresh flannel nightgown, lay propped up on her side of the bed, looking down at her new little boy and her new little girl, each child perfect, pink and beautiful.
Esther bit her bottom lip and tears, held back with the steel of a Lady of the old South, now had her permission to flow.
The maid and the nurse sat with Esther, and little was spoken: in the world of women, talk is the common stock in trade, but there are times when not a word is said, and this was the time when their wordless presence was exactly the right thing to say.
It was nearly a full hour later when Dr. Greenlees and the Sheriff came back into the bedroom, little Angela holding onto her Daddy's hand.

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