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Charlie MacNeil, SASS #48580

Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 9-24-12

 

Sarah slowed her breathing, lowered herself to a cross legged seat at the base of a golden aspen, letting her shape, her shadow, blend into the tree trunk, her rifle across her lap.
She moved her shoulder a little, experimentally, marveling again at how nice it was ... how nice it was, not to hurt anymore.
She listened to the night, letting her spirit flow from her, expanding, pooling around her like an invisible lake, merging with the darkness, tasting the wind.
She felt Fannie in her hide and smiled, for she felt Fannie starting to relax; she withdrew her touch, spread further, stopped and smiled again.
The Bear Killer wandered, she knew, treading a silent circle about their encampment; there were other predators, other eyes watching, other ears listening.
Sarah looked through their eyes and heard through their ears; she felt pine needles beneath clawed paws, tasted blood, hot and fresh, her throat vibrated as a distant lupine voice raised a joyfully mournful howl toward the stars.
Startled, she blinked, suddenly within herself again: her hand went down, found the Bear Killer's fur, caressed it, exploring: she did not feel a ridge of bristled-up hair along his spine and she did not feel the inaudible rumble that began his warning growl: moving only her eyes, she breathed through flared nostrils, moving her thumb up to the rifle's hammer spur.
Fannie's eyes snapped open.
She, too, listened with more than her ears: her rifle, beside her, was in her hands and she was beginning to extend it when she saw something impossible.
Fannie saw something white, within arm's reach of Sarah, something ... big ... and dog-shaped ...
... wolf shaped ...
Fannie's breath caught in her throat.
Sarah tilted her head, regarded the newcomer as if formally receiving a foreign dignitary.
The white wolf looked steadily at her, blinking with a deceptively casual sleepiness: the Bear Killer's expression, if a black dog at night could be clearly seen, would have almost exactly mirrored the white wolf's appearance.
Sarah's breath came faster, her chest tightened as she remembered ...
Ssshhheeee isssss ourrsssss.
Giifff hherrrrrr toooo usssss.

Watered steel sang through red-hazed air, warrior muscles tensed.
I thought I was damned.
All this time I thought my soul was damned.
I did not fear for what I did, for I was doomed and damned and condemned before ever I decided or acted.
I did not fear death for my soul was dead already.
Now ... now I know I am not.

Sarah blinked, leaned toward the white wolf, whispered ... whispered with a tremor in her voice.
Fannie could not see Sarah's lips move, she could not hear her words, but she could see the wolf was attentive, listening closely, regal and aloof and yet attuned, as a wise counselor might listen to a petitioner on some matter of importance.
Now ... now I know I can pilot my own soul, she whispered, shaping thought into words: I captain my own destiny, and I determine my ultimate destination.
I'm scared,
she whispered.
Of what?
The voice was inside her head, wise, amused ... and old ... very, very old.
"Everything," Sarah blurted, her sibiliants loud in her ears.
Everything?
Sarah considered her disordered thoughts, seized them, began to order them.
"I acted without regard for Judgement."
Did you?
Sarah saw herself stand up to a rancher whose short-sightedness condemned his short-sighted son to a life of blindness: because of Sarah, the boy could see, and proved highly intelligent.
Sarah saw herself with a rancher at the tip of her sword, educating him as to the folly of cheating a mere girl on the price of a horse: she saw it as on a scales, balancing the worth of a horse's life against a man's, but seeing beyond, seeing the man's soul, seeing that her chastisement kept him from greater sin in future, seeing a sinner educated and steered from his own future condemnation.
Sarah saw herself marching from the schoolhouse, belting a combatant over the head with a school bell, and she saw what would have happened had she not put a stop to the fight: one man would have pulled a knife, the other a gun, shots would be fired and through the schoolhouse behind his opponent: she saw the children who would have been killed, and she saw a strand in Eternity snapped, lives needed for the future, ended before they were born.
Sarah saw herself fighting up a burning stairway with a man who'd already surrendered his will to the inevitable, saw herself getting classmates out of a burning building, and she saw someone she never noticed when she was on the bandstand receiving a grateful city's adulation ... someone who faced a terrible decision, someone who thought, If a crippled up schoolmarm can slide out of a burning building on a rope, if she can get a grown man down to safety and then get herself out, I can get through this.
Fannie saw Sarah's head drop, slowly, as if weighted by some great misery, then looked up, nodded: this much Fannie could see, with Sarah's head silhouetted against a lighter, moon-lighted rock well beyond: Fannie blinked, then blinked again, staring.
The white wolf was gone.
Fannie had seen many things in her years on this earth; she had known times of want and times of wealth, she had known men and women of great good, and others of and equal evil: there was little she genuinely feared, little she did not understand, but in this moment ... in this moment she felt a trickle of something cold running down the middle of her back.
Sarah rose, easily, gracefully; moccasins silent in the night, she circled their encampment, flowing from shadow to shade, and finally came up beside Fannie's hide.
A single streak of moonlight penetrated grey-muted aspen leaves overhead, their color leached and pallid, and beside Sarah's moccasin, through a small gap in her bower, Fannie saw a single wolf track in the only spot of bare dirt, not a foot from her left elbow, bright and distinct in that single finger of silver moonshaft.

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Linn Keller 9-25-12

 

I know Doc Greenlees was talking.
Not much of what he said came through.
I recognized his "Husband, you're underfoot, get out of here" when he told me to go make sure the brandy hadn't spoiled.
I went down and poured myself two fingers' worth in the snifter, then I set the bottle down and went out in the kitchen and looked around and I went out back of the house and pumped me some water and washed my hands again.
They were shaking.
I washed them with an unusual thoroughness.
I dried them off.
I stopped and looked up at leaves in the early sunlight and I looked at the colors and I walked over to the fence and Cannonball came bobbing her head over toward me, begging for a bribe, and I realized I wasn't dressed yet, I didn't even have my vest on, then I realized I was still wet and stained from where Esther's water broke and I was getting cold and my knees got kind of weak and I sagged on that-there board fence and just slouched there for a few minutes and I kept seeing that little wrinkled grey handful of OhmyGawdit'sababy!!! -- coming out of my WIFE --
MY WIFE!!!
I turned and went back in the house.
I went in on the hot foot.
Angela was in the kitchen, prowling: she frowned at the empty table and she put her knuckles on her hips and she cocked her head a little to the side, just cute as a speckled pup under a red wagon, looked at me and said "I'm hungwee!"
I nodded.
"I am too, sweetheart," I admitted, then I looked down at my wet belly and said, "Let's check on Mommy."
"Okay!" Angela's face brightened and she took my hand -- well, she took my finger, like she usually did, and we went upstairs together.
I opened the door and stepped in.
The room was warm.
No wonder, I thought, she's done a hell of a lot of work in a short time! -- not to mention all these bodies throwing off heat --
Esther was sitting up, looking tired but ... glowing ... she looked at me and she had ...
I'm sorry. It's hard to write this in my journal with my eyes stinging.
Brother William spoke movingly of the Madonna, of the Virgin Mother, and his description would bring tears from the most hardened of men: in that moment, Esther looked ...
I reckon the word is beatific.
She had a baby to each breast, and she looked content, and she glowed.
Esther looked at me with that wise, quiet smile of hers, and Dr. Greenlees spoke and laid a hand on my shoulder and it sounded like late summer locusts in a distant field.
I didn't hear but three or four words:
" ... premature ... they are fine."
The maid laid a hand on my other shoulder, squeezed; I turned and she had a fresh shirt and trousers laid over her arm.
Angela's bright eyes and curious head-tilt told me she would be content to stay with her Mommy and whatever these curious little creatures were, and so I thanked Dr. Greenlees -- at least I think I thanked him, my voice sounded dry in my throat, and I turned and took the fresh clothes and rasped something that sounded like dragging a rock across a sandy outcrop, and I went over into Angela's room to change clothes.
Dr. Greenlees joined me when I emerged and we went down into my study, and he looked at the untouched brandy and then looked at me and didn't say a word.
I poured him a snort and we hoisted our balloons and drank.
I took mine down in one breath and I set the empty, delicate crystal down on the sideboard and said, "Doctor, did you say premature?"
Dr. Greenlees nodded solemnly: his eyes smiled at the corners, though his face was that of a politician presiding over a funeral.
"Sheriff," he said, "Esther is just fine."
I nodded.
"She is a month early or so, but that's expected with twins."
Again, my nod.
"The twins are healthy in spite of being early. Probably their superior bloodline."
For Doc, that was a broad grin and a leering wink.
Never in my life did I see a man who could be at once a trusted, companionable sort, and a formal shirt-and-tie sort, in the same breath.
"Go on."
"Have you names for them?"
I blinked, leaned back a little, which is to say I kind of wobbled, between ... well, with all that happened that morning and with that big shot of good stout brandy on an empty belly, I realized I was not too steady on my feet.
I set my butt down which I think is the only intelligent thing I did yet that day.
"Them," I said slowly, tasting the word as it crossed my tongue.
I looked up at Doc.
"I knew Esther was big ... Doc, she looked like a cherry on a tooth pick, poor thing! -- how bad was her delivery ...?"
Dr. Greenlees, for a rarity, laughed: even his laugh was reserved: another man would have thrown back his head and roared great gusts of merriment to the ceiling, but Doc smiled and his shoulders twitched once, and then he chuckled a little.
"Sheriff, you delivered both children," he said. "You were in the perfect position to assess the ease with which she did or did not deliver, and you could see any tears that occurred."
I nodded. "It was fast," I admitted, "and I don't think Esther made much of any noise."
"The more children a woman has, the easier the come," Dr. Greenlees nodded, "and the faster." He gave me a sharp look. "Your wife has fine hips for childbearing. Wide, strong ... my wife" -- he looked away and I saw a shadow cross his face.
"Your wife?" I prompted gently, for I am a lawman and I do not like incomplete information.
Doc cleared his throat, swirled his brandy, then drank the rest of it.
"Her pelvis was too small," he said, "and she was very slightly built, and ... she tore terribly ..."
I rose and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"The babies," I said. "How are they?" -- then I realized neither of us had addressed an important question.
"Do I have sons, or daughters?"
Dr. Greenlees laid his own hand my shoulder and looked at me confidentially.
"Sheriff," he said, "let me congratulate the man with such potency of loins that he sires his young in litters! You have a boy and a girl!"

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Charlie MacNeil 9-25-12

 

Sarah sat cross-legged at the edge of the world. Above her the Milky Way twinkled its farewell to the world of night as the first gelid light of the new dawn crept along the eastern horizon. Sheer granite, etched by wind and weather, swooped vertiginously below her feet to disappear into the blackness that as yet stubbornly refused to release its hold on the forest and its inhabitants, indeed on all that great, living tapestry that Sarah’s world had suddenly become. Her open hands lay, palms up, on her knees; her eyes were closed, head tilted back slightly as if listening to the music of a distant orchestra that only she could hear. The slightest of smiles creased her lips as her lungs drew in great draughts of the chill mountain air; the realization dawned of just how closed to the life around her she had been for so long, and how grateful she was that Cat Running had forced her to face herself at last. And how great was the debt that she owed her Papa and Uncle Charlie for the battles that they had fought on her behalf.

“They did it for the future, girl,” Fannie drawled softly. Sarah had been so concentrated on her thoughts that the sound of Fannie’s voice nearly startled her over the edge of the precipitous drop below. Fannie’s chuckle drew her back to safety as the older woman, for woman Sarah was rapidly becoming, settled to a place to the girl’s right. Her appearance had been silent, her calm so much that of a mountain pool before the first breath of morning breeze stirs the ripples on its surface, that Sarah had no inkling that her companion was even awake.

“How do you do that?” she asked once her heartbeat had resumed its earlier slow rhythm.

“Do what, girl?” Fannie questioned in reply.

“Just, well, appear like that? I mean, I can hide myself in plain sight, I’ve learned that, but you, you just aren’t there, and then you are! How do you do it? And why do you keep calling me girl when my name is Sarah?”

“Girl gotta earn a name. ‘Til then, just be girl.” Cat Running’s blunt statement startled the girl once again; she steeled herself to show no outward indication of her surprise, but the old man’s chuckle told her she had failed miserably in that particular endeavor. With a grace and ease belying his age he dropped down to sit at the girl’s left side and turned his age- and weather-seamed face up toward the first warmth of the rising sun. “Girl new person, need new name.”

“But my name is Sarah,” she protested.

“Down yonder, mebbe,” the old man replied, nodding at the slowly brightening world that spread like a rumpled quilt below the escarpment where they sat. “Up here, still just girl. Gotta earn a name,” he repeated with a chuckle.

“But how…”

“You’ll see, girl, you’ll see,” Fannie put in. “For now, why don’t you see about rustling us all up some breakfast?”

“But why can’t…”

“Because I told you to do it,” Fannie interrupted, her soft tones taking some of the sting from the order. “Find the packhorses, and you’ll find breakfast.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the girl answered resignedly as she gracefully got to her feet, not so much standing as levitating from the cold granite of her seat. Ah, to be young again, Fannie thought with a touch of chagrin.

When Sarah had disappeared around a shoulder of rock in search of the packhorses and the supplies, Fannie looked over at Cat Running. “She has a lot to learn about following someone other than herself, eh?” she said with a chuckle.

“Girl too damn independent sometimes. Don’t listen. Gonna get her killed sometime.”

“You and Charlie keep saying that. And I have yet to fathom what exactly you two are getting at.”

“Thinks she can do everything by herself. Still ain’t found out that don’t work so good sometimes. Sometimes, somebody else knows a better way to do somethin'. Gotta have friends, gotta have help. Otherwise, who’s gonna pass the ammunition?”

Fannie shook her head in resignation. “Men!” she declared, but she was smiling when she said it.

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Linn Keller 9-25-12

 

I kissed Esther on the forehead, for I dare not reach lower ... I did not wish to disturb the young humanity she held, one in each arm, but Esther tilted her head back, and I did not disdain her invitation.
I hugged her as best I could and whispered, "I am so very proud of you!" and Angela pulled on my pants leg and I turned to see a little girl with a pout on ... her bottom lip was run down to about her belly button and she was glaring at the two interlopers occupying her Mommy's attention.
"I have to handle this," I whispered, and Esther gave me a sympathetic and understanding look, and I turned and picked up Angela, tossing her over my shoulder like a sack of taters.
We trotted downstairs and I gave her a good bouncing over my shoulder and she spilled giggles all the way down the stairs, and then I took her by the ankles and put her little flat-soled shoes on the ceiling and walked her across the room, upside down, and finally I sat down and laid her down on my extended legs, released her ankles and took her arms and pulled her up into me.
We sat in my study and Angela tried to look cross, but every time she looked at me she giggled, so I tickled her and then I said "Okay, out with it. What's eatin' at you?"
Angela stopped and blinked and then said in an absolutely woebegone little voice, "Does this mean I'm not Daddy's little girl any more?"
I stopped right there like someone whoa-reined a galloping horse right out from under me.
I hadn't given this any thought a'tall.
I brushed the hair out of Angela's face and gave her a long, serious look, then I run my arm around her and stood up and packed her over to a mirror with her under my arm like she was one of her own little rag dolls.
I held her up in front of me and we both looked in the mirror.
"Angela," I said, "do you see how big I am?"
Angela nodded.
"And do you see how big you are not?"
Angela nodded again.
"Do you look like a little girl?"
Again, the nod, with her curls a-bobbin' with the effort.
"Now." I raised her up until her cheek was against mine but we both still faced the mirror, and I whispered because my lips were very near her little pink ear, and I know just how sensitive a child's ears can be.
After some things I said, quiet-voiced, came out of little Joseph's mouth and Jacob and I looked at one another red-faced ... believe me, I know how sensitive young ears can be!
"Angela," I whispered, "you will always, always be Daddy's little girl!"
"But Mommy has a new little girl," Angela whined.
"Just for that," I said sternly, picking her up and tossing her a little, then catching her, "I will have to beat your little butt!"
I sat back down in my chair and slung the wiggling, kicking little girl across my lap.
It was a game we played, and she knew it, and I knew she knew it ... she wiggled around the I grabbed her elbow and began smacking the hand that held her elbow, with the other open hand.
"I'm a-gonna fan your little biscuits!" -- smack, smack, smack -- "I'm a-gonna beat your little bottom" -- smack, smack, smack, and Angela pulled out of my hand and slithered off my lap to the floor, where she rolled and came up on her haunches and looked at me, frowning at my empty hand, declaring my intent to bust her rusty dusty and vigorously slapping the back of the empty hand, at least until Angela started laughing.
I looked up at her, frowned, then looked at my hand, all the while smacking it with exaggeration, kind of like a clown smacking another one with a clap board: much noise and little actual effect: my smacking slowed as I stammered, "How'd you do -- what -- how come -- ow, ow, ow!" -- and I shook my back-reddened hand, made a terrible face, and Angela sagged to the floor, giggling.
I opened my arms and she jumped into them and I hugged her and I whispered, "You will always, always, always be Daddy's little girl!"

Jacob, too, was having a discussion with Joseph, though his application of the Hand of Justice to the Seat of Understanding was not done with either mirth, merriment nor clowning.
It seems that he and Annette had carefully explained to the lad that Annette was going to have another baby, and little Joseph, jealous, slapped his Mama on her belly, and learned immediately that when the dread claw of apprehension closed about the back of his neck and pulled him across the Lap of Un-Luxury, why, the wages of his sin were immediate and unmistakable.
Little Joseph, hands covering his stinging backside, stood in a corner for about twenty years, or just under an hour by the big Regulator clock, after which Jacob had a quiet talk with the lad, and gave him the very clear understanding that if he ever, at any age, dared to raise a hand to his Mama, that he, Jacob, would give Joseph serious cause to regret he'd ever drawn his first breath.

The Sheriff saddled Cannonball, climbed into the saddle, sidled the red mare up against the porch so Angela could climb aboard.
Angela held her Daddy's coat and laughed with delight, standing up behind her Daddy, as Cannonball began to trot happily toward the roadway and the closed gate.
"Angela, say it!" the Sheriff called, and Angela crowed, "Go, horsie!"
Cannonball surged under them and launched over the gate, landing easily on the far side, and a little girl's laugh followed them on the breeze of their passing.

Levi wrung the Sheriff's hand and Bonnie gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek: Angela and the twins began discussing the fine points of something little girls talk about, and Levi insisted the Sheriff accept a stirrup-cup to salute his newly arrived progeny.
The Sheriff, not wanting to be inhospitable, hoisted a shot of something smooth and potent and downed it in a gulp.
His next stop was the Irish Brigade, for he knew wild horses could not keep Bonnie from heading for her dear friend's bedside, and he also knew Daisy would wish to be in on the gathering of the ladies: but it would not be proper to ask a man's wife without the man's permission, and so he steered a course for the fine brick firehouse.
The Welsh Irishman snatched the door open in response to the heavy fist without: he blinked in surprise and stepped aside, remarking "Get i' here, man, ye're no' lookin' good!" -- and Sean came striding across the equipment bay.
"Sean," the Sheriff blurted, "I need to borrow your wife!"
Sean stopped, unsure whether to laugh or cock a fist, until he realized the Sheriff was the shade of a bedsheet: he frowned and peered more closely at the lawman.
The Sheriff took a step toward him, laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Esther just had twins," he blurted, "she's early and I delivered 'em and Esther needs Daisy!"
"GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY MAN WHA' ARE YE DOIN' HERE? LADS! ALL HANDS ON DECK! GE' OUT HERE ON TH' DOUBLE! NO IRISH NEED APPLY! OUT, LADS, OUT OR I'LL HA'E YER GUTS FER GARTERS!"
The big Irishman's shouts rang in the brick firehouse as the Brigade scrambled to his summons.
"LADS, TH' SHERIFF HERE JUST DELIVERED HIS WIFE OF A SET O' TWINS AN' TH' DAMNED FOOL IS STANDIN' IN OUR FIREHOUSE! TO THE JEWEL, LADS! UP! UP AN' OUT WI' YE!"
The big doors were swung open, the Sheriff was seized and borne in shouting, roiling triumph toward the Jewel on the shoulders of a rowdy, raucous bunch of Irish firefighters.
It promised to be an interesting day after all.

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Linn Keller 9-26-12

 

There was no confusion in the Irish household: when the Welsh Irishman rapped a brisk alarm on the door with his knuckles, when Daisy heard the excited fireman's clipped syllables, why, she turned and began snapping orders like a cavalry sergeant, marshaling her young troops with
the authority of one of the blood-royal born.
Daisy raised her chin and marched to the livery and was soon rattling briskly toward the Sheriff's house, a point on the map toward which a number of such conveyances were converging, and all with the same purpose.
Daisy looked at the bundle beside her and smiled.
As a mother herself, she knew Esther would very likely have supplies on hand -- no, as a buisinesswoman, Esther would have supplies on hand -- but when additional come from friends as a gift, why ...
Daisy smiled and hummed a little tune, a maternal lullaby, feeling a bit of self-satisfaction.
Esther was planning on one baby.
The extra supplies Daisy's offering represented would not be amiss with a pair of shining little bottoms to cover.

Part of Bonnie wanted to stuff her fist in her mouth to keep from shrieking with excitement; it took all her matronly reserve to keep from jumping up and down like a girl: she, too, had a package wrapped and ready, cloth-bundled and ribbon-tied, for women did not always birth babies according to the Z&W timetable, and Bonnie knew sometimes babies came early: Levi held his wife lightly as she looked up at him with shining eyes and breathed, "Twins! Levi, that poor woman, it's no wonder she was so big, can you imagine, twins!" -- and Levi smiled, for as calm and mature and matronly as Bonnie was trying to appear, her words were rushed, and she sounded for all the world like the excited girl she was trying not to be.
Polly looked at Opal; Opal looked at Polly; the twins looked at Bonnie curiously.
"We're twins," they said with one voice, and Bonnie laughed and bent down and hugged her girls.
"How would you two like to see a brand new set of just-born twins?"
Bonnie's twins nodded, big-eyed.
She looked at their dresses, the ribbons in their hair; she took pains and pride with her daughters' appearance, perhaps because she wanted these little girls to be little girls, and not a tornado like Sarah -- but whatever her motivation, her little girls looked like ... well, little girls, ready to present to company from the moment they woke in the morning.
"I'll get the carriage," Levi said.
Bonnie laid gentle fingertips on his forearm.
"The Sheriff," she said. "Poor man, how must he feel? Levi, perhaps you should come too."

The Brigade came through the Jewel's doors at full cry, packing the Sheriff along with them: they stood the man at the bar, shouting in a wonderful confusion, pounding palms on mahogany, shouting and pointing and laughing: one scampered over to the piano player and clapped hard hands on his shoulders, shouting something as the man pounded the ivories in time with the high-kicking dancer: poker players, annoyed, folded hands of cards and glowered at the confusion, until they understood what was going on, then they began their betting again, nodding and remarking to one another, and finally by mutual agreement, laying their cards face-down in front of them and wagering on the sex of the Sheriff's new arrivals.
The Sheriff pointed to the stage, shouted something to the red-shirted firemen, and the crowd of them charged the stage: many willing hands boosted the Sheriff to the boards, and the dancing girl backed up a little, uncertain, as the piano player stopped his efforts in the face of this new development.
The Sheriff reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a small pouch, bounced it in his hand.
In the sudden silence there was the unmistakable clink of coin, and not a little of it.
"My friends," he announced, and his voice did not have to be loud, for he had the attention of all present: "my friends, this day do I celebrate.
"I have, with my own hands," he continued, assuming the oratorical stance and style of a politician on the stump, "delivered of my beautiful bride, a FINE SET OF TWINS!"
His voice rose to a triumphant shout, his finger stabbed toward the zenith and delight shone on his face: it was not often their Sheriff was quite so demonstrative, especially when it came to matters not related to keeping the peace, and his announcement was met with applause, roars of approval, palms pounded on the nearest level surface, whistles: the Sheriff held up both arms, lowered them slowly, and with their lowering, the noise level came down as well.
"My friends, these twins came into the world a month early, but the Doc says they are fine and my bride is fine, and they ran me out of the house because the women-folk are a-clatterin' in and you know what that's like!"
He tipped a wink to the dancing girl, who slapped at his arm with a smile, and the crowd laughed and nodded knowingly: the Sheriff waited a few moments, then held up a hand, palm out, and hoisted the bag in the other.
"If my good and trusted assistant" -- he tossed the clinking, rattling bag to the German Irishman -- "would convey this to Mr. Baxter!"
The German Irishman caught the bag neatly, held it high overhead, bore it to the bar: Mr. Baxter took the bag, untied its neck and spilled out a double handful of coin onto the gleaming bar.
"MY FRIENDS, SHARE MY HAPPINESS! DRINKS ON THE HOUSE UNTIL THAT'S GONE! THIS DAY I CELEBRATE MY HEIRS!"
The Irish Brigade, to a man, toasted the Sheriff's health, the gamblers toasted Esther's beauty, men who'd never set foot in Firelands before that morning toasted the beauty of his new daughter and the manliness of his new son, and the dancing girl grabbed the Sheriff by his necktie and pulled him down far enough to plant a kiss on his cheek.
She also reached down behind him and pinched his backside, and the Sheriff turned a remarkable shade of red before he climbed down and joined the celebration.

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Linn Keller 9-26-12

 

Sarah laid the leather square over her thigh.
She'd found an antler, knocked off or shed early: it was already mouse chewed and from the tooth marks, a porcupine had been harvesting dietary calcium as well: Sarah snapped a single tine, weakened at the base from rodents' labor, and smiled.
Using the tine as a tool, protecting her leg with the leather pad, she pressure flaked the obsidian leaf, fashioning a short but very, very serviceable blade, each scallop where she flaked off a chunk, sharp as broken glass, moreso by the shape of an inverted scimitar.
She'd used a stiff length of rawhide string, chewed soft on one end to form a noose: she snagged two fool hens, then a third; she used the obsidian blade to draw them, she skinned them quickly, efficiently, she cooled the carcasses with a dunk in the stream and buried the offal beneath the rock with the previous harvest's fish guts and wood ash.
Rose hips and a few other dainties, the harvest of Nature's bounty, roots where she recognized the plants, washed off in the stream, split, scraped and ready: three birds and the double handful of bounty besides, and supper was assured for all three of them.
Sarah split open the bird carcasses, efficiently presenting them to the coals of the fire she'd kindled earlier: a small handful of harvest went into the coals, to be raked out and eaten with the meat, and as she prepared the meal, her mind, restless, considered.
What am I?
I am not damned.
I am the product of everything that's happened to me.
No.
What happened to me ... that's not on me ... that's on those who did to me.
I am the product of every decision I have ever made.

Sarah leaned back on her heels, squatting beside the fire, eyes busy near and far: she squinted a little as smoke eddied into her eyes.
Everything that was done to me ... I chose how to react.
I chose how it would affect me.
I chose how much of it to keep.
I am the result of every decision I've ever made.

Sarah leaned back and smiled mirthlessly.
And now for my next prideful idea I'll make an even bigger fool of myself.
Who in the hell do I think I am, anyway?
I am the result of every decision I've ever made?

Sarah regarded the broiling birds, savoring the smell of meat cooking.
I made a difference when I took an action.
I changed things when I stepped in and forced the change.

Sarah raised her eyes, stiffened.
Therein lies the trap!
Get me comfortable with the idea that I can make a difference.
Get me used to thinking that I am The Great Fixer of All Wrongs!

Sarah shivered, her eyes haunted.
Is that what Uncle Charlie and Cat running are trying to pound through my thick head?
She lowered her head onto fisted hands and groaned.


Polly and Opal looked at one another, then looked back at the tiny, pink, wiggling twins.
The twins were fed and changed, warm and comfortable, and one , then the other yawned, great wide-mouthed yawns, relaxing and closing their eyes.
Polly and Opal looked at one another again, then up at their Aunt Esther.
"They're very, very small," Polly said.
Opal nodded solemnly, her dark eyes shining.
Polly looked up at Bonnie.
"Mama," she asked, "were we like them once?"
The ladies laughed and Bonnie nodded, smiling.
"Yes, sweets, you both were."
Polly and Opal frowned and looked at the newborns skeptically, then looked back up at Bonnie.
"Are you sure?" they asked in chorus.

The Sheriff hoisted many a drink, downed many a drink, laughed and shook hands and endured much companionable pounding of his back: at a convenient moment, he managed to slip down the hallway toward Daisy's kitchen, and out the back door.
The dancing girl saw him go and followed him out.
The Sheriff staggered toward the pump: seizing the cast iron handle, he pumped himself a tin cup of water, drank it, another, and a third.
The dancing girl stood in the doorway, curious, watching.
The Sheriff reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a small bottle: he uncorked it, tilted it up, drank it in two swallows, then another cup of water.
He hadn't gotten the last tin cup of water down before a rebellion occurred somewhere north-northwest by north of his belt buckle: the man staggered a few steps, spread his legs wide for balance, bent over and heaved: the dancing girl winced at the man's agonies, shuddering and repulsed but fascinated as he staggered back to the pump and downed another fast few tin cups of water: again he emptied his stomach, and a third time, and then he emptied an envelope of powders into the cup, very carefully dribbled it half full, swirled to dissolve it and drank it slowly: he drained the cup, rinsed it out and hung it back on the pump and made a terrible face.
"Bitter as owl shhh -- " he started, then saw the dancing girl watching him, big-eyed, and bit off the last of the scatological syllable.
"My apologies," he said courteously, retrieving his Stetson from the pump's upright jackshaft: "I did not intend to offend."
"No ... no, it's all right, really," she stammered. "What, I don't, um, what ... why ...?"
"Why did I do all that?"
She nodded.
"I can't afford to get blind drunk," he said. "I'm still not feeling any pain but I had to get rid of as much as I could. An hour hence and I shall be stone sober."
His words were clear, his speech not slurred at all; he stood straight, tall, his moves were as controlled, as coordinated as ever.
If she hadn't seen him toasting his wife, his progeny and his fellow fathers as she had, she would have no idea he'd been imbibing at all.
The Sheriff settled his skypiece on his scalp. "If I may beg your pardon, my dear, I shall make myself scarce, for if I re-enter the Jewel, I shall indeed become snockered, sloshed and as high lonesome as a man can achieve and live to tell the tale."
The dancing girl could tell now, by his language, that he was, um, under the affluence of inkohol, but her sole response was to nod: the Sheriff strode boldly around the side of the Jewel and down the street, tall, straight, his step regular and firm.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-26-12

 

"At last she begins to see the lesson," the first voice said softly, rumbling deep but whistling high on the sibilants.

"Indeed," the second, much higher voice agreed.

"She is yet young," the third added, gravel-toned. "There is yet time, if she will only open the way inside her."

"She has come far," the first went on. "Yet she has far to go. The woman is the key. The woman is a warrior, yet she sees into those places of the heart, those places the girl must enter, those places where no man may intrude."

The three watchers, elk, cat and wolf, vanished as if they had never been (if indeed they had), unseen and unheard by the subject of their appraisal, yet not unseen by those who watched the girl in their turn. Fannie turned to Cat Running. "I hope I'm up to the task," she said simply.

"Yeah," the old man grunted. "Me too. Don't wanna lose this one like damn near lost you." He pushed to his feet. "Come on, we go teach girl next lesson. She still don't follow orders good." He grinned. "Like you."

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Linn Keller 9-27-12

 

What was it Jacob told me ...
His father ... our father! ... told him "The most important thing is the state of your soul.
"The world and everything in it is most unimportant.
"The one, the only thing that matters, that really matters, is your essence, your being, you!"

Sarah knew she was being watched and by more than one set of eyes.
She did not care.
Something ... something deep, told her she was where she was supposed to be, doing what she was supposed to be doing.
The only thing that matters, she heard again, as if her father were whispering the words in her ear.
The only thing that matters.
Part of her surged with anger: "Why?" she hissed, her voice a tight whisper: "Why me? What's so special about me?"
She heard the darkness, like dry leaves whispering against one another, cascading down a slope like a dry waterfall:
You are right, she heard: the words were soft, seductive, chorused from a thousand infernal throats, almost ... comforting.
You are nothing special.
You were sired and abandoned.
He did not care for you.
He does not care about you.
You are a ... diversion.
An amusement.
Nothing more.
You mean nothing.
End it.
End the pain.
End the confusion.
Step off the edge.
Feel the air as it passes your face.
Know what it is to fly.
You will be weightless.
It will be easy.
Join us.
Join usssss ...

The dragon surged and spread its wings inside her, but it felt ... different.
Sarah felt anger again, and there was strength in anger, but she saw a difference.
Sarah's eyes snapped open and they were pale, ice-pale, and she felt the dragon within her and its heart was her heart and its wings were her wings and its strength was her strength and she shoved hard at the darkness, struck the darkness with fists not made of flesh, clawed it with talons not of human origin, slashed at it with a long, scaled tail as real as her own good right hand and as incorporeal as an idea.
Sarah stood, teeth bared, nostrils flared: she came to her feet with the speed and grace of a dancer, or a fighter: one arm up, the other cocked, fisted, her head snapped forward and a voice ten times bigger than she screamed "NOOOOO!"
The watchers saw a bubble, a misty silver bubble, appear and expand around her, suddenly, explosively: there was an inaudible explosion, then a sizzling, snapping sound, the bubble disappeared as if it never was, and the watchers felt something push through them: there was a groan as from the thousand dark throats as they fell back into their abyss, fell with their failure heavy about them.
"I choose," Sarah gasped, suddenly weak: she sagged to her knees, went to all fours, struggling for breath: she looked up, into the distance, then she fisted her hands and slammed the heels of her hands into the ground, hard.
"I choose," she sobbed. "I CHOOSE! DO YOU HEAR ME?? DAMN YOU, I CHOOSE!!!"
Sarah turns, tears bright on her cheeks, looking at Fannie and Cat Running.
"I choose," she sobbed, sagging back down to all fours, then rolling over on her side, curling up and covering her face with her hands, her breath ragged in her throat.

The Sheriff swung into the saddle.
Turning Cannonball with his knees, he looked into the distance as if listening to something.
His chest felt tight and an old ache, an old grief, an old memory stirred.
He turned Cannonball and walked her across the street at a long angle and stopped in front of the little whitewashed church.
He dismounted, dallied the reins around the hitch rail and walked slowly up the three steps ... slowly, like an old man ... like a tired old man, weighted with grief and with too many memories.
He opened the door and removed his hat, stepped inside and closed the door behind him.
He stood for a long moment before walking slowly down the aisle.
His boot heels were loud, hollow in the silence, and finally he stopped in front of the altar rail.
The Sheriff swallowed hard, then slowly, slowly sank to his prayer bones.
He rested his elbows on the altar rail, clasped his hands, lowered his forehead against his knuckles.
"She made her choice," he whispered, his throat tight, his words hanging on the still air.
"She chose, Lord."
His in-drawn breath shivered in his chest.
"She chose good."
The groan that was wrung from the man was the sound of a man under agony ... a man who remembered when he, too, decided ... and he decided, long ago, to draw back his hard-knuckled fist and drive the Dark in its face just as hard as he could, and dare it to do its worst, and in that decision, he defeated the greatest enemy he had.
He defeated the darkness in himself.
He stayed on his knees for a while longer, finally raising his head.
"There's another thing," he said, his voice more normal now.
A door opened; he heard Parson Belden come in.
The Sheriff straightened, rested callused palms on the altar rail, but did not rise from his knees.
The Parson's hand was warm, firm, companionable on his shoulder.
"I don't know what's going on," the Parson said in gentle tones, "but I know a troubled man when I see him."
He hesitated, weighing his words.
"Mrs. Parson has a kettle of stew and two pies she can bring out."
The Sheriff nodded.
"You might tell her the news is good," the Sheriff said, taking a long breath.
Parson Belden waited patiently.
The Sheriff looked at the sky pilot, his grin quick, spontaneous, almost boyish.
"Parson," he said, "as of this mornin', Esther had twins."

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Linn Keller 9-28-12

 

Jacob was waiting at the foot of the steps when I came out of our little whitewashed church.
I had not yet set my skypiece back on my scalp.
Jacob looked at me, rather concerned: a man goes without his cover for a reason, and I'm sure he thought my reason was going to be bad news.
Truth was, I just hadn't put it back on yet, so I grinned at him and settled the felt over my gourd and laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Jacob," I said, "congratulations."
Jacob's eyes went from concerned to curious.
"Sir?"
"You," I said, both my hands on both his shoulders, "are an uncle."
Jacob's grin was quick and broad and he blinked a couple times, then he looked at me, a little alarmed now.
"Mother?"
I nodded.
Jacob's eyes were concerned now: his face didn't change expression a'tall through all this, but his eyes sure as hell did.
My hands tightened on his shoulders and I looked my son in his light blue eyes.
"The Irish Brigade just packed me at shoulder height over to the Jewel," I said, "and I had to pull my old trick to get rid of a gutful."
"Yes, sir."
"I would hoist a drink with you but I've got enough in my system yet."
"Yes, sir."
"Your mother went into labor like a cat and started a-prowl," I said. "I got dressed for I figured something was afoot and I was right."
"Yes, sir?"
I swallowed hard and my hands tightened some more but not overly tight and I remembered the morning ... I remembered, and turned my head away a little, and Jacob looked sharply at me.
"Sir?" he prompted. "Sir, you did say I am an uncle?"
"Uncle or cousin or whatever the hell it is. Uncle, I think."
Of a sudden I didn't feel terribly good so I looked around behind me and set down on the church step.
"Sir?" Jacob set down beside me.
"Your mother is fine," I said, my voice suddenly husky as the full realization that I just delivered twins! hit me like bein' run over by a freight wagon.
"Sir, you are kind of pale," Jacob said calmly. "Might ought you just set here for a bit."
I took a couple long, steadying breaths and looked at my hands.
They were startin' to shake again.
I closed them into fists, willed them to be steady, opened them.
Dead rock steady.
"Jacob," I said, "your mother delivered about a month early. The twins Doc said are fine and your mother Doc said is just fine. She's got a house full of women out there and I reckon was I to set foot in the door it would sound like a henhouse all a-cackle."
"Yes, sir," Jacob nodded.
We sat there in the morning sunlight for a bit, my son and I, and not much more was said for a quarter of an hour.
It smelled good that morning, it smelled clean; I knew that here directly, once harvest was in, Emma Cooper's school would be open for business, children would be laughing or skipping or trudging toward the neat little clap board school house, Angela would be sitting with the other little girls and very likely Sarah would be teaching some ... but for now, the street was mostly quiet, a couple wagons in front of the Mercantile, a couple more headed for the depot, and in the distance, The Lady Esther whistled her morning greeting.
"Jacob," I said, "I shall have to have the panel repainted on the side of Esther's locomotive."
"Yes, sir?"
I looked at my son.
"We have a little boy and a little girl," I said. "Fine, healthy children, ten fingers, ten toes and an appetite."
Jacob grinned again.
"I hope to give you such news myself in half a year's time or so," he said, and it took a moment for his meaning to sink in.
I grinned and shoved out my hand and Jacob took it: we sat there a while longer, two fathers, soaking up the sun.

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Linn Keller 9-29-12

 

"Pete!"
"Yeah, boss!"
"Pete, fetch out the spare Baldwin!"
"She's ready to go, Boss, we just got to get steam up!"
"Good man. Let me know when she's ready."
"Attair artist feller finished up yesterday an' the paint's dry. You wanta take a look?"
"Hell yes, I wanta!"
The roundhouse foreman strode across the floor toward the Baldwin locomotive: he heard the ring of coal slinging off a shovel, heard the whisper of a kerosene spray tossed into the firebox, saw smoke start out of her spotless stack, and The Lady Esther's sister engine began to warm her metallic heart.
The foreman stopped and frowned a little as he looked at the square panel on the side of the cab, under the engineer's window.
The Lady Esther, it read: it was one of two identical engines, kept carefully, completely alike in absolutely every respect: the older of the two engines, the original The Lady Esther, was on the tracks today, working; the other, a backup engine, was put on the line when the first needed work, or scheduled maintenance, or in the very, very rare instances when she needed repair work.
The foreman nodded, smiling a little.
By his own admission he could not draw a straight line with a pencil, and he greatly admired those who could take a pencil, or a crayon, or a brush, and draw or paint something ... and this, he thought to himself, was something!
The Lady Esther, it still said in gold: above its arc, a single rose, lifelike, realistic, gleaming with drops of morning dew: an ornate green ribbon about its stem, and in the four corners of the panels, smaller roses: in the upper left and right, roses in partial bloom, one with a red ribbon, one with a royal blue, and in the bottom corners, rosebuds, one with a pink ribbon and one with a lighter blue.
So cleverly were the roses painted that the foreman was convinced that bees might be inclined to explore them.
"Do you reckon Mis Esther will like this, Boss?" Pete grinned, wiping his hands on his ever present gob of rag waste.
The foreman nodded, his grin slow, broadening across his whole face.
"I do," he said firmly. "Yes, sir, I genuinely do."
"He's got that on her inspection car, right on the front."
"Good."
"Do you reckon we ought to paint 'er on the roundhouse too?"
The foreman looked around the roundhouse, looked at hard-muscled railroaders, looked at men naked to the waist, hammering and swearing and working with cast iron and hot steel, and shook his head.

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Linn Keller 9-30-12

 

I must have known there was something good in me.
When the Judge sent me after my father's murderer ...

Sarah shivered a little.
Her face was still chilled where tears evaporated, leaving cold trails behind where moisture had been: she sat cross legged again, leaned forward, elbows on her knees and forehead on the heels of her hands.
I stayed with his partner until it was his time, and I did not hurry his time.
I could have killed the man I went after.
I had the chance.
I had more than one chance.
I could have just killed him.

Sarah opened her eyes, stared sightlessly at the ground before her crossed-over shinbone.
Had I been evil I would have killed him without a second thought.
She blinked, sifting, sorting: her tear-storm was passed, gone as if it never were; she thought with clarity again.
When I put my sword to that cheat's throat and invited him to turn from his sinful ways, when I put steel to his soul for trying to cheat what he saw as a vulnerable girl, I gave him a chance.
Uncle Charlie was right: a horse's life is not the worth of a human's ... but there was more to it ... something he didn't see, he wasn't there ...
Did I see it?

Sarah looked at herself, coldly, objectively.
No.
I did not see it.
I knew it ... my gut told me it was there ...
What was it Uncle Charlie told me once?
The same thing my Uncle Papa said.

Sarah's eyes smiled a little as she stared at the material of her britches legs.
When in doubt, follow your gut.
Sarah raised her head, straightened her back: from a cross legged seat she rose, smoothly, then arched her back, bent over, ran her hands down the front of her legs, grabbed the toes of her moccasins, stretched like a cat.
She stood, turned: Cat Running and Fannie regarded her with quiet eyes.
They have something in mind for me, she thought.
Let the lesson begin.

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Charlie MacNeil 9-30-12

 

“Come on, girl.” Fannie turned and strode toward a gap in the granite bordering their campsite. She followed without hesitation, sure that her Aunt Fannie wouldn’t put her into any sort of situation that might possibly endanger her. She reached down for her spear. “Leave that,” Fannie ordered over her shoulder…

This is going to hurt you a lot more than it does me, Fannie thought as she made her way up through the serpentine passageway, moccasined feet sure on the weathered stone. Behind her she heard only an occasional whisper of leather on rock as the girl followed her lead, trusting…

A tight blind corner brought the pair to a small, nearly perfectly circular black hole in an otherwise blank wall. Fannie knelt before the opening; the girl knelt beside her, feeling a draft across her skin that moved not in a single direction but in and out, slowly, as if something, even the rock itself, was breathing. That can’t be, she thought, sure of herself. Mountains don’t breathe…

“Leave all of your weapons here,” Fannie ordered.

“But…” the girl began.

“Not a word, girl!” Fannie declared. “Do as I say. Or we can turn around right now and go home. It’s your choice.” She waited calmly for the girl to decide…

The girl stared at Fannie, calculation in her eyes, searching the trusted face for some sign of what was to come. In the space of a few heartbeats she analyzed all the factors that she had available to her, from the odd draft that continued to waft back and forth across her face to Fannie’s stolid expression. I hate following orders, she thought. What if the orders are wrong, and someone gets killed? Her thoughts raced through her brain. I can choose to go home, and go back to what was. Or I can do as she says, and go home to what will be. But I hate following orders! “Yes, Ma’am,” she conceded after a few moments. The dagger in her left sleeve was deposited near her knee, the derringer appeared from behind her waistband. The knife at the nape of her neck was laid with the rest.

“Everything!”

“But…” she tried again.

“Everything!” Fannie’s cold tone was relentless.

Three long shards of obsidian joined their more modern counterparts on the weathered stone of the passage floor.

“Everything!”

Two feet of four strand braided rawhide floated down to light on the pile.

“Everything!”

Four inches of scraped and sharpened antler tine came to rest near the string.

“Everything!”

“That’s all of it!” the girl declared, frustration in her voice. “I don’t know why I have to…”

“You don’t need to know why, you just need to do as you’re told.”

“But Aunt Fannie, that’s not fair!”

“Enough, girl.” She fell silent. Fannie’s toned softened. “Nobody ever said that life is fair, you know. You came into the world unarmed except for one thing, girl,” she said. “Yet you fought, and you survived. But at what cost? You’ve learned much, but you have still more to learn. You’ve changed for the better, you’ve made your choice, yet you still depend only on yourself. Your father says that a man alone always knows where the weak link in the chain is; Charlie says the same. Sometimes they’re even right. But what of woman? You’re strong, but men are often stronger. What if there comes a time when you aren’t fast enough, or strong enough, or mean enough, to beat the one you’re facing? Then what?”

“I don’t understand,” the girl began. “You’ve taught me to be all of those things, and now you’re telling me that won’t be enough? Is everything I’ve learned useless?”

“Hardly,” came the soft reply. “What I’m saying is that you need to learn to let others help.”

“But no one else knows what I…”

“What you know? How can you possibly say that for sure? You’ve taken so much on yourself that you’ve convinced yourself that only you can solve whatever problem there might be. Yet even these last two days things have happened over which you have no control. And it’s not over yet…” Fannie’s voice trailed off as her gaze drifted back to a time in the past when she had been very much like the girl before her, young, idealistic, sure of her own strength and ready to take on the world in the firm belief that she couldn’t be defeated. Hard lessons had followed, lessons that she had nearly not survived due to her headstrong nature. And now she stood where the old man had stood so many years ago: poised to thrust another woman, a girl really, into something that would either break her or temper her, kill her or strengthen her for the life that lay ahead. She returned to the present, to see the girl watching her with a puzzled expression on her lovely young face. “Get ready, girl.”

The girl watched her for several moments longer then her gazed dropped. “I’m as ready as I’m going to get, I guess. Where am I going?”

Fannie pointed to the opening. “In there.”

“What’s in there?”

“You’ll find out. One thing I caution you: do not under any circumstances try to turn and come back. You must complete the passage and come out the other end to survive.”

“Will you be waiting for me when I come out?”

“Of course. Now go.” Fannie reached out to squeeze the girl’s shoulder. “And remember, do what you’re told.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” With no further comment she slipped into the dark opening.

As the soles of her elkhide moccasins disappeared from sight Fannie murmured, “I hope you mean that, Sarah. I want you back safe.”

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Linn Keller 10-1-12

 

I don't understand, I don't understand, I don't understand --
Sarah's chest tightened and she felt her jaw start to quiver.
She hated confinement over all things.
Mistaken for a murderess, she'd been jailed, shackled; locked up, she became an animal, an animal with but one goal: escape, and she didn't care who she killed to achieve the goal: she stole a horse, ran, bloodied, mindless save for one thought: escape, escape, escape, the hoarse mind-whisper chanting in time to her purloined prad's pounding hooves.
Sarah paused, fighting now, fighting herself: it took an effort of will to keep from hyperventilating: the darkness closed about her and ahead was blacker than anything she'd seen before.
Of course it'll be black, she thought, you're underground, you're blocking the light --
Sarah bent her head, looked past her own arm, back along her body, back toward the entry she'd just slithered into, back to the opening in native stone just big enough to admit her slim and slender body.
The light was bright, an almost perfect circle: if she was careful she could willy-worm backwards, back into the light --
No.
Sarah closed her eyes, dropped her forehead on her forearms.
No.
Aunt Fannie is trusting me.

Was there light to see, and eyes to see them, a watcher would have seen Sarah's head come up, her eyes pale, very pale: she started to bare her teeth, until she banged her head against the roof of the tight little tunnel.
Briefly, there was a burst of light, mostly reds and yellows: Sarah clenched her jaw against an exclamation of pain, then she shook her head.
Enough, she thought.
Move on.
Air moved past her as she crawled: she noted the change in direction and wished for a time-piece with which to time the air's cycle, for part of her mind reasoned that a small animal breathes quickly, whereas a large animal breathes more slowly: she pushed the thought, and the wish, from her, for they were irrational, and in spite of Fannie's words, Sarah's mind was running around and around and around like an armored packrat in a squirrelcage, trying to figure out how she was going to get herself out of this one.
Trust, she thought.
Rely on others.
Why?

Her self-question was harsh, bitter.
Others?
Others failed me all my life!
Even my own father locked me up!
Trust?

Sarah paused again, rested her forehead on her folded arms, shivering.
Why is this so hard?
Sarah's breathing was quicker, almost panting, her jaw open, eyes seeking vainly in the utter velvet black.
If I back out of here Aunt Fannie will be gone and I'll be on my own.
No more lessons.

Sarah thought back to the first time she'd gone out to Charlie and Fannie's place.
She remembered going outside, around back, sitting on a barked-off log and sinking her face into her hands.
She heard Fannie come out, set down beside her, lay a gentle, womanly hand on her shoulder, and Sarah flinched.
It was a very long time before Sarah could tolerate another's touch without that flinch, but the first time she did, it was Fannie's hand that showed Sarah she could trust.
She is trusting me.
Sarah's head came up again, slowly, carefully, and she took a long, slow breath.
Okay.
It's my turn to trust her.

Sarah took a long breath again and set out, crawling ahead, elbows digging into the rock floor as she scooted along the tight little tunnel.

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Linn Keller 10-1-12

 

Esther shivered.
The damp cloth wiped carefully over her face was comforting, soothing: it was cool and did not add to her tremors, but tremble she did, shivering, even as she held her twins to her.
She ached as all mothers ache; she glowed as all mothers glow: it’s just a chill, she thought, it will pass.

As efficient, as well-informed, as thorough as the Sheriff was, his skills, his contacts, his office and his influence and even his telegraph were no match for that mystic network of women: no sooner had he set down at his desk to compose the draft of his inquiry as to where he might find a young woman of good report suitable to wet-nurse the newborn twins, than the maid knocked on the doorframe to his study.
He looked up, not having wet his pen with good India ink; the maid raised her chin, and the Sheriff rose, placing the pen precisely at the edge of the paper he’d intended to write.
“May I present Miss Ravngsdottr,” the maid said primly, and a blond-haired lass of no more than eighteen years dropped a curtsy, her corn-tassel braids bobbing a little: she was remarkable for the flawless complexion of her face, the startling blue of her eyes, the absolute sun-shade of her fine hair … and for other, rather prominent, attributes, which the Sheriff took pains not to study.
The maid smiled inwardly at how red the man’s face turned, and how quickly.
“The Mrs. will need a wet nurse,” the maid said, “and Miss Ravngsdottr is applying for the position.”
The Sheriff cleared his throat, attempting to compose himself, and not succeeding very well: he took a long breath, considered for another moment, then addressed the maid.
“I have no idea,” he said quietly, “how you did this, Mary, but bless you for your speed.” He looked at the young woman with her wide, innocent eyes, considering that this lovely lass was going to fortify his progeny … and she young enough to be his daughter …
He experienced a lurch, a moment’s unsteadiness.
Sarah could be bearing young, he thought, then pushed the thought aside, for like any father, he wished to think of his daughter as … well, he wished to keep her as his little girl forever, though he realized this was neither possible, nor was she ever his little girl.
“Your own children,” the Sheriff said. “They are well?”
“No, sir,” she said, her words curiously accented – Norse, he thought – but there was no mistaking the sadness she tried to mask.
“Gone?”
She nodded, blinking.
“And you are with milk.”
Again, her nod, and it was her turn to color.
“I believe we can use your help. Mary?”
“Sor?”
“Miss Rang, umm, Raggen –“
“Call me Alfdis,” the girl said almost shyly, and the Sheriff nodded.
“Mary, if you could introduce Alfdis to my wife, I would be very much obliged.”
The maid dropped a curtsy and the two women turned; the Sheriff heard their quick steps ascend the staircase, the bedroom door open, then shut.
He seated himself, looked at the blank paper, then very carefully placed the glass stopper in the ink-well and returned pen and paper to their respective drawers.
The Sheriff leaned back in his chair, staring at the corner of the ceiling.
There was a delicate little knuckle-knock on the door frame and the Sheriff leaned his chair back down.
Angela stood in the doorway, holding her rag doll by one arm, a woebegone look on her face.
The Sheriff tilted his head, studying his little girl.
Angela padded slowly over to him, her little flat-soled shoes silent on the hook rug.
The Sheriff picked her up and set her on his lap.
Leaning back, he wrapped Angela in a big, fuzzy, both-arms Daddy-hug, leaning his chin into her hair.
Angela cuddled into her Daddy, closing her eyes and letting her head rest against him.
They sat thus, together, for most of a half hour, each drawing comfort from the other, and finally Angela whispered “Daddy?”
“Yes, Princess?” the Sheriff whispered back.
“Am I still your little girl?”
“You bet your bottom dollar, sweetheart,” he affirmed.
“Good.”
The Sheriff’s arms tightened just a little more and he whispered, “Hell yes, good!” and Angela giggled.
“Don’t tell Sarah I said hell,” the Sheriff whispered. “She’ll try to stuff a cake of soap in my yap!”

Sarah shivered.
It was cool underground, almost chilly: she knew the long tail shirt she wore was keeping precious body heat in, but she also knew it increased her overall diameter by a critical fraction … and the tunnel was narrowing now, tightening: her arms were still under her, and it was going to be difficult to extend them ahead or slip them down by her side.
Of the two she chose to extend her arms.
No way in the cotton pickin’ was she going to trap her arms by her sides.
It was full dark and she was choked down in the lightless passage and she swore at herself – fool, fool! Why didn’t you strip before you went in? – then she thought, If I back up it’s a little bigger, I can get my arms forward, then she thought If I back up, this shirt will bunch up around me and I’ll really be stuck!
The mountain overhead, the rock through which this passage was bored, the utter blackness, crowded her, pressed the breath from her chest: she was realizing now what it was to be helpless, to be unable to extricate –
“Don’t panic,” she said out loud, her voice strange, echoing.
She'd hoped the sound of her own voice would bring a measure of comfort.
It didn't.
Her mind, even if trapped, was still busy.
What made this passage? she wondered.
The walls are smooth and the floor is clean, almost level, a little rounded –
A worm?
What kind of a worm bores through rock?
No.
Not a worm.
Too narrow for a human to mine out, not even boys could mine this … boys couldn’t make this smooth a sidewall …
Aunt Fannie said she'd gone through here.

Sarah smiled cynically, remembering Fannie's womanly shape.
Good thing I don't have more hips.
Nor anything else, for that matter!

Sarah forced her right arm forward, her shoulder protesting a bit: now her right arm was thrust straight ahead, and she had a precious little more wiggle room.
Sarah worked her left arm ahead.
Her left elbow ground painfully against the smooth wall.
Sarah groaned but got her arms ahead of her.
She dropped her head, resting the side of her head against her left arm, the back of her head just touching the off side wall.
Panic was still tickling her guts.
Maybe this is all I have to do, she thought hopefully.
Maybe all I have to do is crawl the length of this tunnel.
Maybe that’s it.
Maybe it’ll start to get light and Aunt Fannie will be there and grab my hands and pull me out and that’ll be it.

Sarah took a long, steadying breath, then snorted with derision.
Yeah.
I really believe that one!


Nurse Susan tapped Esther lightly on the cheek bone.
Esther jumped like she’d been stung.
Nurse Susan nodded and mm-hmm’d quietly, then rose and drew the curtains most of the way shut.
She touched the maid’s elbow and the two turned away, conferred in hushed tones: the maid listened carefully, nodded, then she turned and gave Esther a reassuring smile, and looked at Alfdis.
“I have just instructed Mary that there should be no sudden noises,” Nurse Susan explained: “no slamming doors, no gunshots, no cannon fire in the front yard, fireworks, locomotives thundering through the parlor, nothing of the kind.”
Esther looked up and smiled, then chuckled at the mental image of the massive boiler of the Baldwin freight engine surging through the parlor, in one wall and out the other with a mighty explosion of splintered timber.
“You are …” Nurse Susan hesitated to apply the term “hyperreflexive,” for correct medical terminology was generally reserved for the physicians; nurses of her era were for the most part glorified chambermaids, or mistresses, or both – but Nurse Susan was far better trained than most of her profession, and was comfortable discussing cases in the complete and correct terminology of her profession.
“Your reflexes are very … you’re very twangy,” she continued.
“Twangy.” Esther looked at her with a combination of amusement, confusion and skepticism.
“Picture a little kitten in the front yard,” Nurse Susan explained. “The kitten is prone to stalk and pounce on a blade of grass, a shadow, another kitten.”
Esther nodded, once, slowly; she was still shivering.
“Now when that little kitten hunkers down and winds up its haunches, winds up like an eight day clock, its little tail will switch and then stiffen.”
Esther nodded again, smiling a little, for she delighted in watching kittens do just that.
“Now if a naughty little boy were to reach down and flick its tail, the kitten would spring into the air, turn a somersault and land on its paws, looking about and wondering what just happened.”
“I see.”
“Twangy.”
Esther nodded.
“This isn't uncommon, when a woman sheds her afterbirth. You shed two of them, one for each child, and I would be very surprised if you weren't shivering.”
Esther nodded.
“I will let you two get acquainted,” Nurse Susan said. “I’ll be just downstairs.”
“Thank you,” Esther murmured, looking down at the twins, cuddled against her bosom, nursing slowly, almost asleep.
Alfdis folded her hands and waited patiently.
Esther looked up and smiled.
“You come well recommended,” she said softly. “You’re hired. Have Mary make up a room for you.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Alfdis rose. “Will there be anything else, ma’am?”
“Yes,” Esther said, closing her eyes, then opening them again.
“Thank you," Esther said. "I am very glad you are here.”

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Linn Keller 10-2-12

 

I slid into bed.
I carefully slid into bed.
I very, very, cautiously, carefully, gingerly and rather hesitantly, slid into bed.
Esther was still trembling but she wasn't hot to the touch and Nurse Susan said she showed no signs of the dreaded childbirth fever.
The twins were asleep on top of Esther, cuddled into her maternal bosom, wrapped in flannel and covered with bed linens and the quilt Bonnie made us; Esther's hand came down and grasped mine and she gave a sleepy little "hmmm" noise, and I squeezed her hand back, gently, and began to relax.
Sometime in the night I rolled up on my left side and ran my arm across her belly.
I must have slept like a rock, for I dimly, vaguely remember some movement: I know the twins had to have their butts changed every so often, babies always do, and I knew Esther changed positions, but for the life of me I don't recall anything but a vague contentment, because I was in bed with my wife and she was warm and she was real and all was well with the world.
I was too tired even to consider than in days past, the tick of a deathwatch beetle would have snapped me to full wakefulness, and the presence of the wet-nurse in the house -- not even in the bedroom -- would have kept me wide-eyed awake.

I did it, she thought, then giggled a little hysterically.
No.
It's not what I did.
It's what I didn't do.
I didn't panic.

Sarah rested.
Sarah's elbows were sore and her shoulders ached, her knees were scraped and she was satisfied her neck and her back were going to come unbolted and fall apart when all this was over.
She rested her head on her arm again, breathing slowly, willing herself to calm.
Panic had very nearly claimed her.
The tunnel swaged down until she was making progess measured in fractions of a quarter inch, until finally she was stuck.
Really, truly, cork-in-a-bottle, stuck.
When she took a breath it felt like the tunnel closed around her, tightening around her chest, her hips.
She felt around and felt the tunnel, small, tight, dark, and she was alone, she was alone, she was utterly, completely, absolutely, beyond anything she'd ever, ever known, alone.
"I could die here," she whispered.
Fear whispered back: Yes.
"Fannie can't fit in the hole," she whispered again, her sibilants loud, hissing, echoing in the utter, complete silence.
"Even if a skinny, active boy came into the hole ... if he got a rope around my ankles and they pulled me out with a horse my shirt would bunch up and I would be stuck and they wouldn't be able to get me out."
Sarah laid her head over on its side again so she could look ahead -- not that it helped any, it surely didn't, for the blackness was complete.
If rescue came from ahead ...
How much further?

She sagged.
I don't want to leave my bones in this hole, she thought, then smiled grimly: The hell with my bones ... I don't want to leave my ghost here!
Who wants to haunt a place nobody will ever see?
Don't ghosts haunt places so people will know what happened?

Sarah's thoughts darted furtively about like a rat seeking its way out of a trap.
"STOW THAT GOB!" she heard: the voice was rough, the face was red-whiskered, the seaman that owned it glared at the man at the bar who'd just insulted one of the dancing girls.
Sarah took a sudden breath, her eyes snapped open.
She hadn't been asleep but she'd been in a dream-state, her dreams giving voice to dark fears she normally kept under tight confinement.
"I don't know what's ahead," Sarah muttered.
"I'm blocking the air. It's not moving at all now. If I stay here I'll suffocate."
It helped to put her situation into words; she was a schoolteacher, she taught order and neatness and though there was nothing neat about being stuck in a skinny little hole in the ground somewhere under the dead center of a granite mountain, she could at least bring order to her thoughts.
"Something else is ahead," she reasoned, trying to ease the ache in her extended shoulders: "Aunt Fannie divested me of every weapon I carried ..."
She smiled grimly.
"Except me," she said.
"I am the weapon.
"Everything else is a tool for my use."
Sarah twisted a little, slid a little more: the tunnel widened an inch, then another, and Sarah could scoot more easily.
Another several feet and she felt air moving again.
Sarah stopped, exhausted.
I'm loose.
I'm not going to die here!

She forbade the scalding water to leak from her eyes.
"What is the lesson?" her whispered voice hissed.
"Did I get me out of that?"
Sarah considered carefully.
No.
Aunt Fannie herself taught me.
Uncle Charlie taught me.
Uncle Papa taught me.
Jacob and Jackson Cooper and half a hundred others taught me.
Fight like two hells and don't give up.
They taught me with their lives, they taught me with their examples, they taught me with their experience.
Without them I would have given up and cried like a little girl and died in that tight spot.
A child depends on the parent, the student depends on the teacher.
I didn't get me out.
They did.

Sarah took a long, cleansing breath, blew it out, started moving again.
One lesson down.
Let's find the next one.

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Charlie MacNeil 10-2-12

 

The tunnel's circumference rapidly expanded until she could stand on her own two feet to stretch her cramped muscles. Her stretching dislodged a small stone that skittered away from her, unseen in the impenetrable darkness that surrounded her and wrapped velvet tentacles about mind and body. The brooding silence of the mountain of granite that enclosed her seemed to carry a weight that she hadn't noticed before. She took a slow, careful step, feeling ahead with the elkhide-covered toes of her right foot while her right hand brushed lightly against the damp stone of the wall...

The tiniest of sounds, the scurrying of tiny feet, came to her left ear, softly, like the smallest of caresses. She whipped her head that way, striving in vain for some sight of who or what be with her. Realizing the futility of such an effort she settled herself to listen for further sounds...

Nothing. Silence, other than the tinny ringing of the beginnings of what would become known in later years as tinnitus on her auditory nerves. She lifted her left foot to feel her way forward again...

Soft laughter, the gleeful giggle of a small child delighting in some momentous discovery. The scurry of small feet once again. "Who's there...who's there...who's there...who's there...?" echoed through the velvety blackness. She listened for an answer but was greeted by silence. She slid ahead with her right foot, straining to hear...

A rumbling growl, barely at the threshold of audibility, more felt as vibration in stone and air than heard. She dropped into a defensive crouch, hands up to strike or parry, weight centered on the balls of her feet, breathing slowed. Only the steady rhythm of her heart, the rush of blood through vein and artery, only those sounds internal to the finely honed machine that was her body were evident. When no further sound was heard, she moved her left foot forward...

Laughter, raucous and grating on the ear, louder now, echoed wider. She closed her eyes to concentrate on her center, nerves jangling. The laughter came again, louder yet, followed by words in a voice that rasped across tight drawn skin like the coarsest of sandpaper. "Come, little one," the voice drawled. "Come forward, if you dare!" Her right foot slipped ahead, slowly, feeling for purchase on the smooth stone of the floor of what seemed to be a great chamber...

"Who are you...who are you...who are you...who are you?" she demanded, her words once again echoing as if through a great distance. "Show yourself...yourself...yourself...yourself!"

"Oh, you don't want him to do that." The words seemed to materialize out of the air near her left knee, and she started. "He's not very pretty. Not like you and me," the voice continued.

"But who are you?" she asked softly.

"Shh. Don't ask questions. Just do as I say," the voice replied. "Here, take my hand." She felt phantom fingers enclose her own and tug her forward. She thought to resist at first then her racing thoughts returned to Fannie's words regarding following orders. She relaxed as much as her tightly strung nerves would allow and moved ahead. "We must be very quiet," the voice continued. "It's the only way out."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-2-12

 

She hesitated for a few heartbeats of time before giving in to the tug on her fingers to step gingerly into the Stygian blackness that surrounded her like a living, breathing creature. She felt as if she were traveling blind through the belly and bowels of some great beast, and gooseflesh marched along her spine. But she was totally blind, the only light the random firing of her optic nerves that produced phantom flashes at the edges of her vision. “Where are we going?” she whispered, unwilling now to stir the echoes she had stirred before, some intuition warning her that such would be inadvisable…

“You’ll see,” the small, soft voice answered. “Just follow me, and you’ll see.”

As if I have much choice, she thought to herself. By now I couldn’t find my way out of here on a bet…

After only a few steps, she lost contact with the wall she had been following. Now her only sensory inputs were through the soles of her feet and her fingers. She concentrated on expanding her hearing, listening with every possible nerve ending for any clue as to where she was going, or with whom, and any sign of who or what might be following her and her invisible companion. Or waiting ahead…

Ahead, or at least in the direction she was facing, the faint trickle and swirl of water, the lapping of wavelets on an unseen beach, grew slowly louder. Now she could hear a rushing as of a stream over and around boulders in its path, mixed with something more, a thump and swish that seemed familiar. She and her companion approached what at first appeared to be a seam in the stone of the cavern’s wall at the edge of a slowly eddying river, and she realized that somewhere ahead was a light of sorts, though a light that was a vitreous red that seemed to writhe and creep with a life all its own. She glanced down at her guide…

The hunched figure whose soft fingers drew her toward the light had pasty white skin, long, tangled, bone-white hair, deep-set red eyes that glowed in the girl’s sight. The twisted torso and arched spine was incongruously dressed in a neatly sewn gingham frock that could have been taken directly from the latest summer creations of House McKenna’s dressworks; the tangled hair trailed nearly to the floor from beneath a jaunty straw boater that sported a spray of bleached white roses. The girl stopped dead in her tracks, her mind racing, screaming for the logic of what she was seeing, knowing in her center that logic was no part of the place where she now found herself. “Who are you? Please, I must know!”

“She is the one who leads you to your destiny.” Deep, sepulchral tones drifted without echo from the area of light beyond the rocks, accompanied by their author, a tall, robed and hooded figure whose oar propelled an ebony boat into view, a boat with tattered sails whose tiller swung of its own accord. She peered intently beneath the hood but the figure’s features were obscured in shadow. “You must follow where the little one leads, or be lost.”

“But where am I?” she asked, hating the plaintive tone in her voice. “Please?”

“Here you have but two choices,” the boatman continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “You may follow, or you may lead. But beware, for leading may carry you to a place beyond your ken, a place of damnation and agony. It is only by humbling yourself, by subjugating your sense of self, it is only then that you may be elevated, that you may fulfill the destiny foretold for you.”

“But how can I choose when I don’t know where I am?”

“Think, girl,” the boatman ordered. “Think of your education. Think of legend.”

“But, but, you, you aren’t real!” she declared after a moment, her voice trembling. “You can’t be!”

“Are you so sure that you know all that exists in this world?” the boatman asked.

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Linn Keller 10-3-12

 

"Daddy," Angela asked quietly as they rode.
"Yes, Princess?"
Angela stretched waaaay up tall in her stirrups and looked ahead, then around to to one side and around to the other, then she turned her little mare and looked behind them: she came back up beside her long tall Daddy.
Her Daddy was riding easy on his Cannonball mare, one hand on his thigh, the other hand scratching the back of his neck.
"Daddy, are we lost?"
The Sheriff laughed, and Angela smiled to hear his good strong Daddy-laugh, for it told her that all was right, all was well and she was safe.
"No, Princess," he said finally. "I know right where we are."
"Good!"
Angela's curls bobbed as she gave her typical single head-nod, then she frowned and looked at her Daddy again.
"But Daddy ... if we got losted, how would we get home?"
The Sheriff looked long into the distance.
"Sweetheart, I got lost many times," he said. "Back during that damned War, back when I rode across the Kansas plains, back when ..." he looked down and smiled, looked back up at his little girl -- "back when I was young and skinny."
Angela blinked, confused: she knew some fat men, they were townies and soft, and her Daddy was none of those things: with the quick intellect of the native female, she concluded this was a Daddy-ism, just part of that complex and colorful Language of Daddy, and decided not to ask about being skinny.
"You got lost, Daddy?"
"Mm-hmm."
"How bad lostit were you got?"
The Sheriff laughed at his little girl's innocent mangle of the King's H'inglish: Cannonball halted, and so did Angela's little mare.
The Sheriff took off his hat, stroked his handlebar, making sure the curl of his mustache was to his satisfaction, then he wiggled his mustache and Angela giggled, for her Daddy's eyes were bright and laughing and Angela laughed to see it.
"I didn't have the slightest notion of where I was," the Sheriff admitted, "but some folks were kind enough to straighten me out, and one fellow I'd never met rode with me for a ways to get me back towards where I was a-wantin' to go."
"Oh."
"Kind of a native guide, y'see."
"But Daddy" -- Angela's expression changed, she frowned a little, then looked up at her Daddy again -- "what if he was a bad man and wanted to take you someplace bad?"
The Sheriff smiled a little.
"Sometimes, honey, you just have to trust your guide. When you're in strange territory, there's nothing more valuable than a native guide. They know the land, they know the people, the river crossings and sweet grass, places to avoid and people to keep away from."
His eyes drifted to the horizon and he took a long, deep breath of cool, clean air, marveling at the colors, at fall leaves, at the way granite stood solid against the eternal blue sky.
"Nothing like a native guide," he repeated softly.

Too often the minds of men run on a single track, the locomotive of their thoughts the only concern for their mental dispatcher: women, on the other hand, have a more complex railroad between their ears, and can handle multiple trains of thought, traveling at different speeds, on multiple sets of rails.
Perhaps this is why one part of Sarah's mind was adding up a list, as if chalking words on a slateboard before a class.
Charon the Blind.
Charon the Boatman.
Charon the Ferryman.
If that is Charon then this is the River Styx.
From Styx we derive Stygian, which explains the darkness.
And across the river --

Sarah's eyes, having longed and cried and strained for light, turned from the writhing red shades.
He has not invited me to cross with him.
I can't cross anyway.
I haven't a coin to pay him.
Is this why Aunt Fannie had me drop every weapon?
A weapon, as currency?
Would someone in a future time see Charon's bank, and recognize my derringer?

Sarah's thoughts were rapid, more than instantaneous: she remembered a Norse legend, where Loki, Thor and another god visited Earth ... the third god was challenged to a foot race ... and was beaten by a large margin ... the earthly runner was Thought, and nothing is as fleet as Thought.
Maybe Aunt Fannie wanted to make sure I would not pay the Ferryman, and be forever lost.
Would I have done that?

None of this is reasonable, nothing here is logical, it doesn't make sense --
Yet here I am.
Fact.

Sarah looked down at the fishbelly pale fingers lightly about her wrist.
Here she is.
Fact.

She remembered the voice, remembered how the words echoed in the lightlessness.
I am, indeed, here.
Absolute and undeniable fact.

Sarah considered the hooded, robed, statue-still figure in the onyx-black boat, leaning on his oar, remembered his words.
He said if I lead, I could end up ...
Her eyes drifted back to the tortured crimson from beyond the river and she shivered, looked away.
There are many paths to hell but none leading out.
Even Persephone had to return for six months of the year after eating six pomegranate seeds.

Sarah turned her attention to another train on another mental track, looked at the waif that held her wrist with such a delicate clasp.
Fashionably attired.
She described herself as pretty.
She sees -- or remembers -- herself as pretty.
She said "pretty like us."
"Like us."

Sarah felt a lurch, as if the firmament of her certainties just wobbled on their collective axis, as if the foundation of everything she knew as true, just shook.
What if she's me?
Sarah's eyes tracked slowly along the length of the dark watercraft, noting how light writhed as if tortured on the slow, oily ripples of the utterly black water.
What happens to souls who are torn from the earth?
They travel to the Underworld.
They wait on the banks of the Styx for Charon the Blind to ferry them across to Hades.
Is that what I believe?
Is this even real?

Sarah looked down at the pale-haired, misshapen soul beside her, looked at the silent, unmoving Ferryman.
Is this what happened to me -- when I was an innocent little girl, was that part of me, my innocence, torn from me and cast into the depths?
Sarah stepped from that train to another, running on a parallel track.
I was sent here to learn.
A good teacher is first a student.
I choose, then.

Sarah took a few quick breaths and surrendered her strength and her leadership.
She knelt and looked into the pale-haired waif's glowing red eyes.
"Take me where I should go," she whispered. "Show me what I must see, and teach me what I should know, for I trust you."
Sarah stood quickly, turned to face the Ferryman.
"CHARON!" she called, her voice loud, firm. "I CHOOSE TO TRUST! I CHOOSE TO FOLLOW MY GUIDE!"
Sarah's head was up, her shoulders back, her voice rang in the immense darkness of the occulted chamber.
Never in her young life -- in spite of all the horrors she'd known -- never, not once, had she felt so naked-to-the-soul vulnerable, and in the ringing space of one heartbeat after her bravely-spoken words, she knew that she had just cast the last of her pride and her self-sufficiency to the black sand underfoot.
"This is my choice," she whispered. "I choose to trust."

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Charlie MacNeil 10-3-12

 

"Well chosen, young one," Charon's words floated to her ear, softer now. "Well chosen." The black robed figure straightened as if listening to some distant sound. "Ah, another soul has need of my services. I must be away." The ebony oar dipped, oily black water swirled around the hull of the boat, the tiller swung hard around of its own accord as oarsman and watercraft reversed their course. "Mind you heed your companion's words, young one," she heard as the hellish light faded. "Mind you heed her words..."

She steeled herself to take her companion's other, small hand in her larger one. She lowered her gaze to meet the red light of the other's, the glow continuing even as the light brought by Charon's presence vanished in writhing shadow. "Never since I was small have I given control of any part of my life to another," she said softly. "But this day, this hour, I surrender completely. Teach what you will, teach me what I must learn, show me the path I must take. But first, please tell me your name."

White lips lifted in a smile that was achingly familiar. "You know my name." The girl shivered, gooseflesh marching across her scalp, lifting the hair on the nape of her neck, as intuition seized her, for she suddenly knew, beyond a doubt, that her earlier feeling was correct. This small one, this one who knew purely by blind faith that she was pretty, this one was named Sarah.

"I believe I do," the girl whispered in anguish. She squeezed her eyes shut as tears came unbidden and unwanted to course through the dust and grit on her cheeks, tracing salty paths across her lips to drip from her chin to the crystalline sand where she knelt. She made no effort to wipe them away as she asked softly, "You were once a part of me, weren't you?"

Soft fingers gently brushed away the tears and grime on her cheeks. "Do not grieve for me, Sarah," Sarah's melodic voice, so incongruous coming from such a body, said softly. "I have waited lo these many years for this time of meeting, determined to rejoice when at last we could meet, face to face, to share a moment in time like no other, and so afraid that it would never be allowed to take place. Yet we are here, together, at last, and my joy is boundless."

"But your life in this place, it must have been so, so..."

"Horrible?" The girl nodded. "I suppose, had I allowed myself to give in, that it might have been so. Instead I chose to find the good here, such as there is of it."

"Good?" the girl asked, incredulous. "How could there be good here? This is the gateway to eternal pain and damnation! I just talked to Charon, for goodness sake!"

"For goodness sake indeed," Sarah replied. "Yes, this is that gateway. Yet there is hereabouts a vestige of good, small though it may often be. Not all who arrive here are forced to cross over. Some have even managed to return to the light, though the path is difficult to follow. One must have a guide..."

"Will you be my guide?" the girl asked hopefully, fully cognizant of the fact that only a day before she would have chastised herself for such seeming weakness.

"Do you truly trust, as you told Charon, and as you have told me this hour?"

The girl's head bowed, and her words came softly, barely above the threshold of audibility, as she surrendered the last, tiny wisps of her iron will into the hands of another, one who was so much a part of her, yet so much apart from her. "I do so trust. Lead me to the light, Sarah. Please."

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Linn Keller 10-3-12

 

She sounds grown-up.
She sounds too grown-up.
If this is me ... if this was me ... how many years?
I'm thirteen now ...
Eight years in blackness.
How well could I speak at eight?

The girl looked at the little red-eyed waif ... Sarah looked at Sarah ...
Am I even Sarah anymore?
No.
This ... this Sarah is better than I am.
She was torn from the Light while she was still innocent.

"No I wasn't."
Girl blinked.
"I wasn't innocent. Not after everything he did to me."
The statement was calm, without emotion, a recitation of fact.
How ...?
She forgave him?
Is that why I've felt such rage, because my forgiving self was torn away, gone?

"I remember what he did to us," the girl whispered, her eyes welling again, and she thought of the child she'd been, she saw the child before her -- pallid, yes, twisted and hunch backed, but still ... still a child ...
The girl's throat had no words to offer, so she gave the only thing she had left.
She gently, carefully, gathered the Sarah-waif into her, held her as if she was made of the most delicate bone china, held her and rocked her and stroked her hair.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, choking. "I am so, so sorry."
Sarah leaned back a little, tilted her head, blinking.
"No," she said. "Don't be sorry. You didn't hurt me. You didn't throw me away."
I'm hearing my voice,the girl thought.
This is what I sounded like at that age.
Sarah nodded, reached up, caught a tear on her finger.
"And Mama?" the girl choked, her eyes darting almost fearfully toward the oily black water.
"She didn't go there," Sarah said carefully in her little-girl voice. "Mama went to the Light."
"But if Mama went to the Light ... why did you ... why here?"
"I don't know," the pale, twisted Sarah admitted, then she brightened.
"I have purpose now and that's important. Just as you have purpose."
"Will you ever be part of me again?" the girl asked.
The moment she opened her mouth and the words fell out, she blinked, surprised, then realized that was exactly the right question to ask.
"We must get you to the Light," Sarah whispered urgently. "The way is hard and the trials difficult. You told Charon you trusted me."
The girl nodded.
"There is water, and food. Come."
Gentle fingers closed on her wrist.
The girl rose and followed.

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Linn Keller 10-4-12

 

Angela and I rode a great circuit that day, her Rosebud keeping up with Cannonball without difficulty.
We didn't travel fast but we did travel steady: the way was easy, the country wasn't rough a'tall; we stopped by a stream I knew of, one that was fed from a spring: we ate, we drank, and Angela sat beside me and leaned up against me and I ran my big Daddy-arm around her and held her in close against my coat.
I slurped noisily, drinking cold creek water from my tin cup.
For a moment, for only a moment, I wondered where the water came from, how far it traveled, how long it had been before this particular tin cup of water saw daylight: swirling it a little, I frowned into its crystal depth, then I tilted the cup up and poured it down my swaller pipe.

The girl cupped her hands and dipped dark water from the dark basin.
Here the light was nearly gone: had the Sarah-waif not known where it was, the girl would never have found it.
"Where does the water go from here?" the girl asked.
"Above," the pale lips whispered. "It goes up to the World."
Sarah drank again, grateful for its coolness.
"I used to draw in the water," Sarah said sadly, crouching beside the pool, tracing something in it with her finger. "I used to pretend I was writing a letter and the water would take it up and someone would see it and come and get me."
Up to the World, the girl thought.
Does it come out in a well, in a stream, where does it go?
One thing about it ... I'll never take another drink without remembering ... and wondering ...

"We need to go," Sarah said.
The girl nodded, wiped her mouth on her sleeve, pushed off the sandy floor.
"Let's go."

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Linn Keller 10-4-12

 

Sarah hissed, red eyes big in the darkness: she cowered back a few steps and the girl felt her fear.
"It's coming," she whispered.
Sarah's hand went to her belt, her fists closed impotently:
Damn!
"What is it?" the girl whispered, one fist back at her belt, cocked, the other arm up to block or grapple: in this fell place, a contest would be more than to the death, for the price of failure just might be a trip across Charon's creek yonder.
Sarah whimpered and fell on her side, curling into a tight ball.
The girl felt Sarah's teeth bite down on her lip to keep from screaming: the girl felt Sarah's utter, unadulterated terror: usually she could avoid this monster, usually she could hide from it or slip from it, but it caught them, it caught them and now terrible things would happen, bad things would happen --
Sarah's mind flashed into gear, her thoughts streaking like lightning across the landscape of her sanity.
Am I afraid?
Afraid, afeared ... fear ... what is fear?

The girl crouched a little, feet shoulder width apart and one a little ahead of the other, ready to launch or receive an attack.
Fear is what I give the enemy.
If I had my rifle, had I my knife or my revolver I would engage as I always have ...
... and I would be too busy fighting to think.
Uncle Papa told me I am the weapon.

The girl's smile was tight as she realized she'd just unsheathed exactly the right weapon to use.
If it is possible for something to be blacker than the utter lightlessness, it was: indistinct, shifting, immeasurably, soullessly black, with occasional sizzling fork-branches of red lightning searing across it.
Sarah relaxed, straightened.
"I know you," she whispered, then, louder: "I know you!"
"Yesss," a familiar voice replied, firming, as if coming together from parts, from pieces: the red streaking was now a continuous, circling fire, and the girl saw her long-dead father, the monster that sent part of her here in the first place.
"I will have you again."
Sarah, balled tight, red eyes screwed shut, seized the straw boater with both hands and tried to pull it down over her head, tearing off the brim: her scream was loud, shrill, piercing, and her monster-father-thing laughed, red fires snapping in his open mouth.
The girl folded her arms and began patting her foot.
She glared over a set of non-existent spectacles and said, "Sirrah, you have been a very naughty boy."
"WHAT!!"
The father-monster's howl was like a steam whistle in the echoing confines.
Sarah was beyond screaming: she was shivering, paralyzed, waiting for the terrible things to happen to her again.
The girl heard her animal sounds of distress and set it aside.
The only thing it has is what I give it, the girl thought.
I choose not to give it one damned thing.
Its only power is fear.
I'm not giving it any.
As long as I stand right here, it can't get any from the Sarah-behind-me.

The schoolteacher stood in a circle of light now, in her mousy-grey dress, a ruler in one hand, and the light shone brightly off her round-lensed spectacles.
Her chin came up, she drew a good breath and her voice fairly rang off the rough rock walls.
"YOU HAVE BEEN A VERY NAUGHTY LITTLE BOY," she declared, "AND YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF! SIT YOU IN THE CORNER, SIRRAH, AND DO NOT STIR UNTIL SCHOOL IS DISMISSED!"
The shibboleth needed energy to exist; its sole energies came from fear; its fear was cut off like blowing out a lamp.
The schoolteacher took a step toward it, another, the light moving with her.
The figure shrank, dissipated, was gone.
There is danger here, the girl thought.
If that one fed on fear ... another might feed on pride ...
Do I feel pride in what I've just done?
The girl turned; she was herself again, the light faded, and with it the mousy-grey dress, the severe hairdo, the spectacles, even the ruler.
The girl shoved her face into the dark water and drank thirstily, then rose with a gasp, crawled over to Sarah.
She picked the Sarah up and held her close, she sat cross legged and rocked a little, whispering "It's all right, it's gone now, shhh, you're safe, it'll be just fine," and the girl remembered, vaguely, distantly, feeling just like this Sarah felt, shivering, clinging desperately to her, muffling her screams in Sarah's shirt front.
"It's all right, shhh, there now, there now, let it go, get it out, it'll be just fine, shhh now," the girl soothed, and the girl felt part of herself thaw, and flow, and she knew that Sarah grieved for them both, that she was doing what the girl had been unable to do for her entire life.
Sarah's hair was long and pale and looked coarse when there was light enough to see it, but under her fingers, the girl found Sarah's hair much finer than she expected, and clean, and smelling of soap, of ...
The girl lifted a thick strand and breathed deep of the scent, then she held the choking, shivering Sarah a little tighter.
Smell is the most associative of the senses, and the girl recognized the scent.
It was her Mama's scent.
Finally the girl kissed Sarah's forehead and whispered, "Let's make tracks, shall we?"
Sarah still clung to her, but she nodded, and the girl knew Sarah's hand would be at her face, one finger on her lips: there was no light to see, but the girl knew this as a fact, without the need of visual corroboration.
"You said something about food. I'm hungry. What about you?"
Sarah giggled and the girl felt her stomach relax a little.
Something told her it had been a very long time indeed since this child giggled.

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Linn Keller 10-4-12

 

"Where do we go from here?" the girl asked quietly, for quiet was more than enough in what had become a total, complete, absolute silence.
"We have to go where the water falls."
"How do we get there?"
The little Sarah twisted, slid down, landed on her feet.
The girl followed the pale haired waif.
Sarah seemed to have a preternatural vision: she ducked around rocks that the girl tripped over, avoided stalagmites easily that the girl bumped (or ran) into: finally the girl stopped, bent over and grabbed her knees, breathing through her mouth.
"Wait," she husked.
Something large and menacing hissed behind her and the girl gave it an irritated glance.
"Oh, go away," she muttered, and whatever it was, whatever it might have been, sagged and turned and slunk away, defeated.
The girl turned, felt the waif's feather-light grip on her wrist.
"This way," she heard, and followed the pale, barely-visible figure.
Sarah's mind was busy trying to quantify, to analyze, justify, order what she was seeing, what she was smelling; finally she gave up and simply accepted.
She was surprised at the change.
Instead of trying to order the universe -- instead of trying to arrange the universe in an orderly fashion for her own understanding -- she was accepting the universe as it was.
"This way," she heard, and she looked ahead, blinked.
Something long, tall and blue glowed in the distance, and she heard the sound of water, falling.
They came around a huge black boulder and stopped.
The girl leaned back against its rough surface, closed her eyes, wiped a sleeve across her forehead.
Why is everything black? she thought, knowing the thought itself was irrational: why not colors, why not some light? -- but she recognized the question as immature and without value, and so she set it aside.
"We need to go there," Sarah said. "It will be difficult."
The girl opened her eyes and her mouth fell open.
About ... oh, at least five hundred yards distant or so ... far enough to look very, very far away ... was the water fall.
"We need to go there?" she asked, and the Sarah-waif nodded her pale head.
The girl's cheeks puffed out as she blew out her long breath of air.
She was looking at a glowing blue cylinder of water.
It was falling up.
As if that wasn't bad enough, it was on the other side of a broad and very black chasm.
Across the chasm was a bridge, a bridge made of some smooth, white stone, wide as a kitchen chair's seat.
It looked like a fiddlestring stretched across the Grand Canyon.
The girl felt the Sarah-waif cower against her, holding her for comfort.
"Have you been over there?" the girl asked, and Sarah shook her head, shivering.
"I been afwaid," she said in a little girl's voice.
The girl's mind noted the change: how she'd been so very mature, so very well spoken when she first met ... the longer they were together, the younger her voice became ... she was changing ... physically, her hair was finer, cleaner, she was a little taller ...
Does this matter? the girl asked herself.
It could.
It's a change, and Uncle Papa always said he watched for a change, a difference.

The girl considered this but set it aside as well.
Move on.
"Do we need to get over there?"
"Yes," Sarah said in a tiny voice.
"Is that bridge the only way?"
"Yes."
A bridge across a bottomless chasm ... a bridge a quarter mile long ... it'll be like walking a tightrope ...
The girl felt her chest tighten, felt her stomach shrink.
I don't want to fall.
Another thought, on the heels of the last, drenched her with cold water.
What will defeat this crossing?
My own fear.
I am letting my fear rule me.
That's what it wants.
It knows I'm afraid of this.

The girl realized she was at another decision point.
I can choose fear.
I can choose anger.
I choose neither.

"Sarah," the girl said, "do you know what reality means?"
Glowing red eyes were solemn as Sarah considered her taller self.
The girl squatted, took Sarah's pale, frail hands in her own.
"Reality is what we make it."
"Huh?"
"That bridge." The girl tossed her head, indicating the stone span. "Do you know what that is?"
"It's scary," Sarah said in a tiny voice.
The girl rolled down onto her knees and hugged the Sarah-waif, hands spread wide over her bent, twisted back.
"Only if we let it scare us."
She rolled over on her bottom, pulled Sarah onto her lap, pointed at the pale stone walkway extending into darkness.
"Do you know what that's made of?"
The Sarah-waif shook her head.
"That," the girl said, "is a board."
"Huh?"
"That is a nice broad board, laid on the ground."
"It is?"
"Yep." The girl nodded firmly. "That is a nice friendly pine board, planed down smooth and laid on the ground, and I am going to walk across it and you are coming with me."
"But I'm afwaid."
"It's where we have to go."
"I know."
"You told me we have to go there."
"Uh-huh."
"Then we'll go there. Now what's for supper?"
The Sarah-waif looked up at the girl with big and trusting eyes.
"It's over at the water fall."
"Well I'm hungry," the girl said confidently, "and if supper is waiting, let's go eat!"
"Okay!"
Somehow Sarah's bright and happy smile was a little less grotesque, for all that her face was cadaverously, fish-belly white.
Sarah stood and looked at the bridge.
It's a broad pine board, set on flat ground, she thought.
I choose.
I choose not to fear.

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Linn Keller 10-5-12

 

The girl held Sarah, rocking a little, looking at the bridge stretching across nothingness, fading into blackness, pointing like a white finger at the column of blue water, pointing to home, to freedom, to escape.
The girl allowed herself just a little, a very little, sense of relief, of achievement.
I'll have passed through this test, she thought.
Aunt Fannie will be there, she'll be waiting for me --
Wait a minute.
Where's the trap?

The girl looked at the bridge, the glowing column of blue water, then she looked down at the Sarah-waif.
"I said I would follow where you led," the girl said aloud, "and Charon said if I led, I could lead right into more than I could get out of."
The Sarah-waif's red eyes glowed in the dim light; she nodded a little, almost uncertainly.
"I'm trying to lead," the girl said, leaning back against the boulder. "I'm trying to take over."
She groaned, closed her eyes, thumped her head a couple times against the rock behind her.
"Lean not unto your own understanding," she whispered.
Sarah leaned against the girl's front, feeling less substantial, and the girl puzzled over this for a moment.
She looked down at Sarah, stroked her hair again.
"You have the loveliest hair," she whispered.
"Thank you," the Sarah-waif whispered back, blinking.
"I told Charon I would follow you and I would trust you," the girl whispered. "I'm starting to take over and lead. I'm sorry. I was wrong."
The Sarah-waif closed her eyes and sagged a little and the girl could feel relief washing through her.
The waif stood ... hunch backed, twisted, grotesque, corpse-sallow, a vision of horror ... and laid butterfly-light fingers on Sarah's cheek.
"I miss the sun," she whispered.
"I'd like to show it to you." The girl swallowed. "I can't take you from here but you can choose to come with me."
The girl raised her hand, placed fingertips against the waif's face.
"You were torn from me. I had to grow up without you, and you had to grow up without me."
The Sarah-waif nodded.
"Can you show me the way out of here?"
The pallid waif nodded.
"Can you leave with me?"
A discordant organ-note shattered the silence, followed by a thousand deep, agonized groans, and the night came alive with eyes, red eyes, blinking, burning ... surrounding.
"Youuu cannoooooot haaave herrr," they hissed in chorus, groaning as if through a worn-out bellows: "sssheeee issss ourrrrssssss."
Sarah leaned her head back against the boulder, considering.
I have another choice to make, she thought.
They can stampede me across the bridge.
Or I can get mad and fight them.
Anger.
Strong emotion.
They want that.
I'm not afraid.
They can't feed on fear that's not there.
What do I choose to feel?

The girl leaned down and kissed the waif on the forehead.
The Sarah-waif looked up at her and said "I'm scared."
"I'm not," the girl said, and laughed.
"You're not?"
"No," Sarah said. "I choose to not be scared."
She stood, held the Sarah-waif's feathery claw of a hand.
"And I choose not to be angry."
The girl looked around.
"Lead on," she said. "Fear for nothing. I trust you."
The surrounding eyes winked out and were gone.

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Linn Keller 10-5-12

 

I looked up as Jackson Cooper opened the office door.
He's big enough he pretty well filled it.
Matter of fact he had to turn sideways to pack some fellow in with him.
I laid down my pen and straightened my poor old back up: ever since I took that fall off my Sun-horse some years back, why, if I'm in one position too long I get kind of stiff and sore.
"Customer," Jackson Cooper grunted without preamble, and his clipped address told me he was not terribly happy with the client he had around the middle.
Most men would pack an unconscious man on a litter or with two or three men to help pack: Jackson Cooper had his arm run around the man's middle and carried him as casually as my little girl carries a rag doll.
I stood up and reached for the keys, hung on a hook up overhead of my desk.
We got the customer situated, made sure he didn't have any nasty surprises hid about his person -- I understand elsewhere it's customary to relieve such folk of their purse as well, but neither Jackson Cooper nor I held with such -- once we got him taken care of, why, we locked the door on him and parked ourselves back out in the office proper.
I fetched open my desk drawer and held up a bottle.
Jackson Cooper held up one finger and nodded.
I brought out two glasses, poured two fingers' worth in each: I don't recall as these particular heavy glass receptacles had any particular name, but they were as big across as three fingers, with facets around the bottom.
Made a good man size shot glass especially if a man had a chill.
Me, I needed a bit of medicinal alcohol, and I reckon Jackson Cooper needed a bit of nerve tonic, for he hadn't said but the one word since he come through the door.
We each h'isted our glass towards the other, tilted up and drank.
One thing about the Daine boys' product.
It was smooth.
Went down like Mama's milk and like to blowed the socks right off my feet.
I set down my glass and Jackson Cooper set down his.
I leaned a knuckle towards the bottle and raised an eyebrow.
Jackson Coooper shook his head, raised the flat of his palm.
I nodded and put away our sociable libation and its associated equipment.
Jackson Cooper took off his hat and glared back towards the cells, turning his hat in his hand, then he tossed it into the empty chair beside him and ran his fingers through his thick head of hair.
I opened the next drawer down and fetched out the ledger book.
Jackson Cooper raised up and came over to the desk, pointed to my pen.
I handed it to him.
He dipped it with a surprising delicacy, wiped off the excess, then began writing in a distinct and very legible hand, his letters very rounded, filling the line almost completely.
"Wal Suey," the name he entered; "Drunkenness, disturbing the peace and swatting the dancing girl" the charges: this filled the line and he continued, "Resisting arrest" -- he paused, considered, then added, "Cooperative after the bung starter."
I nodded, offered him blotting paper: he took it, carefully applied it to the gleaming-wet ink, ran the rocker over it, once, fetched off the blotter with a quick, precise pull, leaving his words distinct, clear, a permanent record in the official goings-on of our Sheriff's Office.
I looked up at the man, then turned, ran my finger across the calendar, frowning: His Honor would be in town for court in ... two days.
My finger stopped on the day.
Jackson Cooper's eyes narrowed as he considered, then he nodded.
He turned his closed hand, extended a bent finger, pointing with the knuckle towards the desk top: "Appreciate the drink."
I winked at him.
He grinned and turned and walked easily, smoothly, moving almost silently on the clean board floor.
For a big man he moves smooth and quiet and the man was fast, unbelievably fast, and strong ... strong, folks expected, but his speed and stealth was surprising to damn near everyone.
I leaned back in my chair and contemplated the ceiling, thinking of our conversation.
Sometimes old friends can hold a friendly talk without saying a word.

Jacob put his finger to his lips: two fingers to his eyes, then he pointed.
Little Joseph rolled his head slowly, very slowly to the left, peeking through a tuft of grass, freezing at the sight of an elk calf not twenty feet from him.
Jacob saw his little boy's eyes go big.
They'd just stalked, then belly-crawled, the father's hand often splayed out between his boy's shoulder blades to slow him or keep him down.
Jacob's instructions were whispered in his son's ear before the two began their stalk, Jacob seeing an opportunity to teach stealth, and satisfied the little boy's natural restlessness and impulsiveness would run the stalk.
This would play into his plans: they were on the edge of a broad meadow, they were stalking from the woods toward the grass, and if the great creatures spooked, little Joseph would immediately see the result of his error -- without fear of any bad outcome, other than a little boy's disappointment.
The cow and calf were working their way closer to the woodline.
Jacob knew he was just pretty damned lucky.
This time of year they were spooky; they were always an alert creature, but now, this time of year, they were more so -- probably because the bucks were in rut.
Jacob knew a good case of nerves was contagious in a group of people and he reckoned the same was true of elk.
Little Joseph turned his head just enough to see his Pa's broad grin.
It matched his own.

"When you are close enough," the girl said, "you can see the light-ripples on their ribs, how the fur changes color slightly as they turn. Their ankle bones click as they walk and their heads bob a little and their breath fogs out in the cold air --"
Sarah's cadaverous face was enraptured.
The two sat facing one another, holding hands, and Sarah's words spun sunlight and morning frost around them, meadow grass and sunlight and the magic of being within two arm's lengths of a string of elk ghosting down the mountain trail.
Sarah breathed in the memory, transforming words to pictures: there was a connection, a tenuous connection, between the two, and more than just words: something deeper, something neither wanted to examine too closely, for fear that it would be somehow denied them.
"I miss the sun," Sarah whispered, and the girl heard her own voice, and felt her own sadness.
"I chose to trust," the girl whispered back, "and I chose to learn what you can teach me, and to follow where you led." She swallowed hard, feeling like she was about to take a long dive off a tall cliff into deep, cold water.
"You can choose, too," she said.
"I can?" Sarah blinked, looking up half-fearfully, half-hopefully.
"You are me and I am you," the girl whispered, her eyes stinging. "Neither of us is complete. We can choose -- the two of us -- we can choose ..."
Sarah's slate-grey bottom lip began to quiver and the girl gathered her into her arms, feeling her own lip responding in the same way.
"I miss my Mama," the fragile little Sarah whispered, shivering.
The girl held her tight, trying hard not to cry.
"I miss her too," she whispered. "I miss her too."
"I want to see the sun again," Sarah choked. "I want to see elkies and puppies and I want to take a baffie." She sniffed and the girl stroked the sorrowing waif's hair.
"Show me the way out," the girl said. "Let's get out of here."
There was a flash of light, a black-robed figure clutching a long staff, limned in red fire, a deep and sepulchural voice.
"YOOOUUUUU CAANNNN NOOOTTTT LEEEEAAAVVEEE!"
The girl stood, her eyes dead pale, blazing in the darkness: she felt herself gathering from desmenses beyond her ken: she was cold, cold inside, riding neither the dragon of rage nor the ice-fires of fear.
"Some things are worth the fight," she said quietly, her voice a warning.
"All that I am, all that I've ever been, all that I will ever be, I will bear against YOU and WHOEVER ELSE I HAVE TO, BUT WE ARE LEAVING, AND YOU WILL NOT STOP US!"
The girl's voice rose to a shout, to thunders that echoed and rumbled in the dark: she stood with the Sarah-waif held against her, one arm under the pallid child's bottom, the child's arms around her neck, clinging, fearful.
A silver nimbus hissed into life around the two of them, broadening, coalescing.
There were sounds, sounds out of place in this fell kingdom: there was the hiss and ring of hard-drawn steel, the quiet chattering clatter of a revolver coming to full cock; there was the flash of red light off the flat of a boar-spear's blade, the flutter of white fire-silk and the restless stamp of a black charger's hoof.
The girl looked to her left, to her right.
Flanking her were women, women with pale eyes and hard faces, women in Clan Maxwell plaid with whorls and stripes of woad on tanned and weathered skin, a basket-hilted dagger in one hand and a hand-and-a-half sword in the other; a woman in something scandalously short-skirted, extending an arm and cocking a Colt's revolver, a revolver engraved on its steel and with a Masonic square-and-compasses on the ivory grip; a warrior-maiden in a white silk battle gown astride a great black charger ... there were more, but the girl was satisfied with what she saw.
"All that I am," she said quietly, with the absolute conviction that she was utterly, inarguably, in the right.
"I HAVE DEFEATED BETTER THAN YOU," the figure boomed in a cold, damp voice that sounded like it was coming from the depths of a sepulcher.
"May be," the girl said, "but sometimes the fight is worth it."
She looked at the scared little girl in her arm.
"It's worth it now."
"Sheriff's Office," her voice said from her right. "Drop the stick or I drop you."
On her left, steel slipped through air in a tight arc. "Surrender or die," the girl's voice said in a Scots accent.
"I HEREBY RECLAIM THAT WHICH IS MINE," the girl declared, raising her chin, pitching her voice to carry however far it had to. "THIS WAS STOLEN FROM ME, AND I NOW CLAIM IT. LET ANY WHO DISPUTE MY CLAIM, COME FORTH AND BE DEALT WITH!"
"Do you know the consequence of your choice?" the black-robed figure hissed in a voice like steam escaping a petcock.
"Be damned with the consequence," the girl spat. "Sometimes it's worth the fight!"
"Remember Thermopylae?" her voice asked from far to her left, far in the silver-misted distance. "It was worth it then. It is worth it now!"
Time hung still, as still as the dead air they breathed: red fires glowed in the distance, red eyes blinked and gleamed in shadows and claws rasped on obdurate stone.
The girl walked up to the still, dark figure, then reached up and yanked its hood back.
There was nothing there.
The robe collapsed at her feet; its staff turned to dust, hissed to the ground.
The girl turned, slowly, looking around.
She was still surrounded by the silver mist, and in it, she saw a thousand selves: she saw herself as a child, she saw herself holding her Mama's hand the night the Sheriff decked that crooked lawyer, she saw herself big-eyed in the Mercantile, clutching her penny candy, watching as the Sheriff stopped bad men from doing bad things: she saw herself, riding in the night, hair loose and free behind her, she saw herself weaving a web of shining silver around her as she spun the sword in a defensive figure-8 against an imaginary enemy.
She saw herself in bride's white, on a man's arm, and she was surprised at how her Uncle Papa aged: I'm going to be a bride, she thought, then she looked further to one side, to the other.
To the one side, her selves wore fashions from a more ancient age, but all had the same eyes, the same hard expression, and all were armed.
The Scotswoman raised her bastard-sword in salute, the blade of her main-gauche laid back along her forearm.
Women more ancient raised spears or swords, one in a golden tiara raised a jeweled goblet, one in maiden's white raised a beautifully recurved bow with a silver-tipped arrow at nock.
She looked to the other side; one of her selves swept back an open jacket and holstered the revolver, and the girl wished for another look at it: other selves diminished in the distance, their garb and their weapons more curious.
The girl looked down at the collapsed, empty robe, then took another look round about, turning a complete circle.
As she turned, as realization dawned, her selves came together, flowed into the silver mist; the mist drew closer, until finally only the girl and the Sarah-waif remained.
The girl looked around, a trace of a smile on her face.
"Now I understand," she whispered.
She bent her head and kissed the waif's pale forehead.
The waif, too, dissolved into the silver mist.
"The only thing keeping me here," the girl said out loud, "is me."
Her eyes were serious now as the full realization sank in, and sank deep in her consciousness.
"I had to learn that sometimes the fight is worth it.
"I had to learn that I'm worth it.
"And I had to learn that I was willing to put all of me on the table."
She closed her eyes, took a long breath, then she too was gone.

The Sheriff smiled a little as he put the screwdriver back in the drawer.
He was most pleased with the new ivory grips he'd gotten.
They were custom ordered, something he'd wanted ever since getting that good looking pair of engraved Colt revolvers.
Each ivory grip had the Masonic square and compasses engraved in them, and India ink in the engraving to make them stand out.

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Linn Keller 10-6-12

 

Sarah was running on pure nerves.
She'd set the land speed record shucking out of homespun and buckskins.
Now she caressed the big Frisian's nose, whispering to her, leading her around the barn, climbing up onto the bottom fence rail and then into the saddle: she leaned down to pick up the boar spear and turned Snowflake with her knees, pointed her nose east, to where the sun would rise in several hours.
Snowflake set a long-legged, easy pace, flowing across the nighttime meadow, heading for a particular ranch Sarah remembered, a ranch another man owned, a ranch where she had to go.
The night-black horse and a maiden in a white silk war-gown penetrated the night, the gleaming, polished steel cross of the boar-spear upright like a banner, couched in the near stirrup: her hair was loose and floated behind her, and her eyes were red, red and glowing in the starlit darkness.
She walked out of the side of the mountain, walked out of a sheer cliff face, walked out of unbroken stone as if it weren't even as substantial as a curtain.
Fannie, waiting by the entrance hole, blinked, surprised: Sarah was different -- this she expected -- but she did not expect a confusion ...
Fannie saw a bare-legged woman with a blue arc across her face, draped in a greatkilt and with bared steel in hand -- she saw a woman with long and shapely legs and a blue tailored suit dress (scandalous! -- why, a saloon dancer --) who turned and looked at her with Sarah-pale eyes, a six-pointed star on her lapel; she saw a Grecian goddess with bared arm, bearing a bow with a glowing silver leaf pointed arrow; she saw more, stranger, and blinked, and it was Sarah, as she'd gone into the hole ...
... but her eyes were red, and glowing ...
Sarah turned and looked at her, turned away, raised her hand.
The tough little horse she'd ridden in came to her and she swarmed into the saddle, turned; they trotted around a boulder and ...
Fannie ran a few steps, eyes wide.
They were gone.

Sarah leaned over Snowflake and Snowflake leaned into a gallop and a pale warrior-maiden and her destrier launched over a gully as if the great horse had wings: sparks struck from steel-shod hooves seared the nighttime roadway as hard hooves punished the graded surface: miles followed miles and finally they slowed, leaped a final fence, paced out into a hayfield.
They circled slowly, apparently seeking something, something ...
Sarah's gown shimmered in the rising moonlight: she stood beside Snowflake, looking at the ground, casting left and right, and finally kneeling.
Glowing red tears fell, shining blood-red with a little girl's grief, shining bright on the earth, marking a grave untended and unremembered: a bunch of flowers and a little straw hat with its brim torn loose remained when she left, and the tear-spots glowed until the sunrise caressed them and brought its warmth again to the quiet earth.

Sarah rode back to the mountain, back to the sheer cliff face, back to the woman who waited.
She led the tough little mount she'd ridden into the mountains; handing the reins to the woman, she looked at her with red eyes, then closed her eyes for a long moment: she opened them again and they were blue, pale blue, but not the war-pale the woman expected.
"Thank you," she whispered, and Snowflake bent one foreleg back and bowed: Sarah bowed her head as well, then the two rose, and turned, and rode away.

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Linn Keller 10-6-12

 

"Girl back."
Cat Running squatted beside the teacup sized fire, chewing on a strip of meat.
"You heard the horse?" Fannie asked, handing the hard-muscled Indian two biscuits.
Cat Running's eyes were dark, unreadable.
"I didn't bring him," the girl's voice said from less than arm's length behind, and it took a lifetime's training for Fannie not to start at the sound: she prided herself on being impossible to sneak up on, yet it just happened.
"Your Derringer --"
"Already have them," the girl said offhandedly, pushing the sharpened end of a forked stick into the ground near the fire: she added a handful of dried sticks, leaned a skinned rabbit carcass over the fire, a little to the side, to roast; another forked stick, and a fish was roasting on the other side of the flames.
The girl was dressed as she was before she went into the hole in the side of the cliff, but she was ... different.
Fannie remembered how her eyes glowed red when she walked out of the mountain's face, red as fresh lava in the heart of a slow-welling volcano, then in the space of a heartbeat, blue ... thus far they were sky blue again, but Fannie waited, satisfied she would see --
The girl looked up, leaned back, stared up at the sky.
"I have to go," she said abruptly, stood, and ran soundlessly away from the fire, toward the open meadow beyond the sheltering boulders.
Fannie's eyes, puzzled, followed her; she rose.
"Let girl go," Cat Running said quietly.
Fannie stopped, looked at the taciturn native.
Cat Running looked up.
"Been long time since she saw sunrise," he said. "Long time."
"But yesterday --"
"That was girl," Cat Running replied, biting into a biscuit.
Shifting the mass to his cheek, he continued, "Girl saw sunrise. Sarah not saw."
"I ..." Fannie said hesitantly. "I don't follow you."
"Go," Cat Running dismissed her. "I'll stay and eat biscuits."
Fannie stifled a sudden impulse to reach up and scratch her scalp ... and her scalp was not in the least bit itchy.

"Don't look directly at the sun," the girl warned.
Sarah hugged herself with excitement.
If they hadn't been sitting cross-legged, she would have been jumping up and down with excitement.
"It's beautiful," she breathed, the red of her eyes matching the brilliant crimson of the spreading sunrise.
"Now let's turn around," the girl said, and they did, and Sarah made a little "ahhh" sound as she watched the mountains turn red with the sun's first long rays.
"Look high up, where the snow caps live," the girl said, pointing. "Look how the sun paints it red. Now lean back with me -- like this" -- the girl laid back on her back, pointed straight up. "See? You can still see a few stars!"
"It's blue!" Sarah whispered. "It's really, really blue!"
Fannie sat carefully beside her, then leaned back to look at the stars too.
They were silent for a long time, until the stars faded and royal blue became sky blue, and the sun warmed them when they sat up again.
"Will we get meat now?" she asked Fannie, and Fannie thought carefully before replying.
"We can get meat another time."
"Good," she nodded. "I want a bath and I want to hold my Mama." She took a long, shivering breath, then said softly, "I miss my Mama."

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Linn Keller 10-6-12

 

Boys like to climb.
It doesn't matter what it is, if it's taller than their collar bone, boys like to climb it.
The Blaze Boys were no different: matter of fact, they scaled the tree behind the schoolhouse before anyone else did, they managed to work their way onto the roof of the funeral parlor together, and lacking any other significant structures that they could actually scale, their eyes fell on the water tower at the depot.
The water tower was in plain view and generally there were either no chances to get up it, or there were folk watching, and so the Blaze Boys determined this would be their next conquest.
They waited with all the patience of lads their age, which was about four minutes, before scooting off in another direction, pursuing some other fancy that seized their collective consciousness, but the idea remained.

Sarah settled the straw boater on her head, staring at the fashionable young lady in the glass.
She turned a little, one way, then another, and nodded: she looked long at the reflection, moving closer, studying every facet of the face, then held up one hand, then the other, but looking at the reflection.
She very carefully removed dress and hat and placed them aside, for wear on the morrow: she changed into an equally fashionable dress, one her Mama liked to see her wear, just in time to be interrupted by a funny little double knock on her door.
Sarah opened her bedroom door to find the twins standing there, regarding her with big and expectant eyes.
They were both wearing the same cut of dress as she'd just taken off, and they were wearing their little straw boaters as well.
Sarah stood aside and waved them in and the girls scampered in front of the big oval mirror.
The twins giggled at their reflections; Sarah squatted behind them, ran her arms around their shoulders and whispered, "We shall make a fine show at church tomorrow," and the twins giggled again.
"Mama's dress is just like this and she has just this same hat to wear," Sarah whispered again, squeezing the two of them closer; Polly turned her apple-cheeked face to Sarah and whispered "Weewee?" and Opal bounced on her toes and clapped little pink hands and said "Yaaay!" -- but quietly, for it sounded like a surprise, and she didn't want to spoil a surprise.

"Doc," Shorty complained, "I got me some pain in my jaw here."
"Well, open up, let's have a look," Doc Greenlees said, peering into Shorty's gaping yap: he frowned a little, bobbed his head some and then fired up the big acetylene surgical lamp, turned it so it shone into Shorty's open mouth.
He reached in, wiggled one tooth, then another, and Shorty flinched.
"Close, you'll catch flies," Doc said, turning the lamp away and turning off the water to the carbide chamber: "what have you done so far?"
"Well, for a while I'd take a slug of Old Stump Blower -- fer medicinal purposes only, y'understand" -- Shorty actually managed to look innocent -- "then it got to troublin' me s'more so I had t' hold th' whiskey on that side o' m' mouth but it kilt the pain so I didn't think nothin' more of it."
"And it's not killin' the pain now," Dr. Greenlees murmured, palpating Shorty's inferior mandible.
Shorty felt the man's cool fingers exploring the underside of his jaw, his eyes wandering across the ceiling as Doc gave a couple mm-hmm's.
Finally he nodded, washed his hands again and dried them, then sat down at his desk.
"Shorty," Doc said, "how well do you know Cripple?"
"Not too well, Doc, why?"
"There's a dentist over there," Doc Greenlees said. "I think you have a good start on an abscess and that tooth likely will have to come out."
Shorty made a face and swore.
"My sentiments exactly," Doc said, not at all unsympathetically. "I've had an abscess and that was about ten too many. Kind of like that kidney stone you had."
Shorty grimaced; the memory alone was painful.
Doc wrote something on a paper; he folded it, wrote on its outside, handed it to Shorty.
"Here's the man's name and his address. He's not the best but he's closest and he can pull a tooth."
"Thank'ee, Doc," Shorty muttered. "How much do I owe ye?"
"Shorty, do you remember that can of carbide you gave me last month?"
"Yeah, sure do."
"You're paid for."
"Why thank'ee kindly, Doc!"

Dolly could sing a little but she danced much better than she sang, so when she came down off the stage and leaned lasciviously against the piano and began to sing, men slowed the speed with which they dealt cards, they sat and drank more deeply (and bought more liquid refreshment as a result) and when Dolly finished her first number, the applause was enthusiastic, prolonged and heartfelt: Dolly lowered her head, gave the nearest men a wanton, lascivious look and draped her feather boa around one man's neck: she shot a smoldering glance at the piano player and nodded, and he played the slow opening notes to a well known love song, and Dolly settled into the man's lap, slowly removing his hat and singing of a love lost long ago, as if she were singing for this one man, and there wasn't a man there that didn't wish he was that lucky sod.
Dolly finished one song, stood, began another; she spun the boa in a circle around her, strutted through the gamblers, still singing: here she caressed a stubbled cheek, there she caressed a manly chest: at one point, still singing, she delicately extracted the cards from the man's hand, arranged them carefully in her own grip, lay one on the discard pile and received one from the dealer: she lay the hand down and raked the pot to the lucky man's pile and never missed a note.
Dolly stopped and ran her arm around a young ranch hand's neck as he stood, a freshly filled beer mug in his hand, and with her other hand on her hip, gave him a saucy look and declared, "Happy Birthday, Pete!" and gave him a quick, unexpected kiss on the cheek.
Like most entertainers of her stripe, she used cosmetics; like most cosmetics of the era, her lip paint was anything but permanent or lasting, and so the young man was left with the scarlet impress of her carmined lips on his cheek: this was pointed out to him, to his happy embarrassment, and for the rest of the day this good-luck symbol was enough to get his beer mug refilled at someone else's generosity.
Mr. Baxter beamed as he buffed the mahogany bar top.
Pretty girls, he thought, are always good for business.

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Linn Keller 10-7-12

 

“Mama?”
“Yes, sweets?”
“Mama, I can’t find Sawwah.”
“Oh?”
Bonnie looked at Polly, still in her Sunday dress and hat, a woebegone look on her face and her bottom lip pouted out: she and Opal were dressed alike, each held identical little rag dolls; where Polly’s expression was a study in affected sadness, Opal was bright-eyed and cheerful.
“Let’s see if she’s in her room, shall we?” Bonnie said brightly. “We didn’t see her come downstairs, did we?”
The twins shook their heads in unison.
“Come, then. Let’s go see. Perhaps she’s just changing her gown.”
The three ladies ascended the stairs; the twins stood respectfully back as Bonnie knocked delicately on Sarah’s closed door.
“Sarah, dear? Are you in there?”
The twins looked at one another.
Tap-tap-tap. “Sarah, darling?”
The twins looked up at their Mama wide and innocent eyes.
“Sarah?” Bonnie turned the knob, opened the door, peeked inside, expecting to see her daughter absorbed in a book, perhaps, or down for a nap.
Sarah’s gown was on her bed, the hat on her desk.
As for Sarah herself, she was nowhere to be seen.
“Oh, dear,” Bonnie murmured.

Sarah sat alone at the base of the tree, cross legged, looking out into the distance.
She’d thought – mistakenly, as it turned out – that she could find a measure of comfort back with her people, back in the little town of Firelands, back where all was familiar, where she had her place, where the world was ordered and routine and very dull.
Sarah realized in very short order that – although she’d taken a long, hot, luxurious bath, something she desperately wanted, the legacy of her waif-self – that it was not enough.
Sarah hugged the twins and listened to their excited chatter and Sarah had a long and private talk with her Mama, but all the time she looked upon the face of the woman she loved, the maternal figure that brought her away from a very bad childhood, she remembered those wisps of what-used-to-be, another mother’s hands, another mother’s voice, buried, forgotten, until she faced that part of herself walled away from the world and carried, hidden, for so many years.
Sarah occasionally rose from her cross-legged seat to go to the stream and drink, or to walk back to the hidden cliff-face where she’d gone into that dark and hidden world at Aunt Fannie’s behest … that cliff face that was now smooth and featureless and without any opening of any kind.
Sarah knew – somehow – that she hadn’t gone through the mountain in a tiny little tunnel.
She’d gone somewhere far more difficult.
She’d gone through a hell she built within her own heart.
Sarah sat again and stared toward the horizon, not seeing it.
She did not try to make rational sense of her journey.
She looked at the reality of the journey.
She’d taken that most vulnerable part of herself, that most badly injured self, and hidden it away behind stony walls, a wounded child’s vain attempt at not being hurt any further; instead of healing, what she hid away became a pale, twisted version of what she’d once been … but a creature who could still see good in her outer self and in others, and who on occasion secretly guided her troubled self on its journey.
What did I learn from the dark place I created? she thought, thinking in words instead of her usual rapid, intuitive thought-flashes.
I cannot hide myself from me without becoming twisted and pale.
What of Charon?
A guide of my own invention, to point me in the direction I must go.
And the pale waif with white hair to the floor?
She and Charon both had to make sure I listened to myself.
What about the red eyes in the dark round about?
My doubts, my fears … the stumbling-blocks I put in my own path.

Sarah’s eyes were pale as she blinked, slowly, lifting a hand and laying it on the white wolf’s nape.
Why did my waif-self have red eyes?
Eyes red with weeping, bloodshot from tears unshed, the agonies and griefs of a child hurt too deeply to say?
A child hurt so deeply that they eyes were beyond bloodshot … eyes red with all she kept hidden …
Is grief all she felt?
No.
There is great good in her, learned from her mother.
Perhaps they were red because she knew herself, instead of ice-pale with war.

The cat padded up beside Sarah, looked at her with green eyes, began washing a forepaw.
Sarah’s eyes were half-lidded, her breathing slow; she looked deep inside herself, looked at the waif-child as if looking into a mirror.
I saw the good in others and I helped guide them.
I did that in this life.
That’s why the waif-child did it … to show me that I’d done it as well.
I had a choice as a very young child, and I chose.
I could have become evil, because evil was done me.
I chose good.
I chose the good I saw in my Mama, and I took it for my own.

Sarah’s left hand floated as if weightless, drifting up, then down on the great cat’s tawny shoulders.
The bull elk circled the tree, stopping to drop its head in recognition of the other two; Sarah looked up at it, accepting its presence as she accepted the sky above and the earth beneath.

Cat Running smiled a little as he heard the heartbeat outside his door.
He opened it without her knock to summon him.
“I have my name,” the girl said.
“I am Fire Eyes.”

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Linn Keller 10-9-12

 

Esther looked at me from the doorway.
I wasn't quite sure what her expression was and at the moment it didn't matter.
You see, I had our little baby boy on the floor and I'd just unpinned his diaper because it was needful of being replaced, and little boy babies have a built in reflex: when air hits a particular part of the anatomy, the valve opens, and ... well, there I was on my knees bent over my wiggling little naked baby boy and he caught me squarely between the eyes, so I really could not see Esther's expression well a'tall.
She and the maid kind of descended on us like a vulture descends on carrion and I got gently moved aside, they fetched the lad up and set him on that-there fancy little side table and went to work so I commenced to wipe off my face and laugh, and the ladies got the lad clean and powdered and wrapped up in a fresh diaper in about three hand-motions -- I'll swear there's some magician in them, that had to be what they call "Sleight of Hand" -- it ain't possible to change a baby's butt that fast and easy, but they routinely did -- and finally they turned, Esther cradling the lad to her and looking at me with ... well, I reckon my shirt was a little damp and I'd just finished making another pass with my kerchief and Esther inquired, "Why ever did you have him on the floor?"
Now I pride myself on my honesty, and in that moment I opened my mouth and spoke with complete and utter frankness.
I took a look at that fancy little changin' table thing she'd had moved into the bedroom and I allowed as women are magical creatures and they can change a baby on the narrow edge of a two-by-four and make it look easy, but I know my luck, was I to try and change him in the middle of our bed he'd still manage to roll off.
Esther and the maid both give me kind of a skeptical look and I spread my hands and said, "He can't roll off the floor!"
The two ladies looked at one another, shook their heads and sighed, so I kind of ducked my head and slunk out of the room.
I figured to go wash my face anyway.

Half an hour later, with a fresh shirt and vest and a new paper collar, my neck tie knotted and my hair still a little wet and slicked back -- well, what there is of it -- Angela and I rode out toward the back pasture.
I rode my black Outlaw-horse and he was feelin' good with the cooler weather, and he was high-steppin' it in fine shape: Angela's Rosebud sort of flowed along beside us like she was a red coated stream, just sort of ... well, flowing is the right word, all right.
Something dark in the distance headed toward us and I ho'd at Outlaw, and he ho'd, and so did Rosebud, and we set there and watched as whatever it was changed course and steered straight for us.
Once it got close enough I saw it was Bear Killer and he must have been feelin' good too.
You can tell when a dog is happy and he was, he was a-grinnin' and his tongue was hung out and he was bounding once he got close.
I dismounted but bade Angela stay in her saddle, and once the Bear Killer got in arm's reach, why, I reached for him and he wiggled all over like a happy puppy and I'm ready to swear his tail was ready to break his hind quarters right off his back bone, it was a-swingin' so.
The Bear Killer snuffed happily at me, reading where I'd been and what I'd been doing, and he gave me a face washin' like he usually does, and I laughed, and so did Angela: the Bear Killer set down on his backside and pawed one paw at me the way he does, so I reached in my saddle bag and fetched out a sandwich I'd made.
I tore it in two and give half to Angela and half to the Bear Killer, and I'm not sure which was the happier.
It wasn't time yet to present the twins to the world.
It was customary to wait a bit and make sure they were going to live first.
Twins especially tend to be a little fragile.
I been told boy-babies are the weaker.
Couldn't prove it by this one.
He was strong, he had a good grip when I put my finger in his hand, he wiggled pretty good but neither of 'em was kickin' yet -- Esther said they kicked aplenty before they came into the big bright world, she didn't know why they weren't up on their feet and marchin' like Sherman's horde -- but the twins were making progress and I was content to let wiser heads than mine figure how well they were or were not doing.
Me, I was a-holding them, and I'm satisfied I had a grin on my face like a fella on his first good drunk.
I took pains to pay a good bit of attention to Angela.
I'd seen too many times how older children were ignored when new ones came along, and I figured not to let this happen.
Besides, I felt kind of funny with Esther looking at me the way she did.
I thought of that hosin' down my boy give me and I crouched, rubbing the Bear Killer's thick curly coat, and I threw my head back and laughed.
The Bear Killer reached up and gave me a happy lick across the cheek bone.

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Linn Keller 10-10-12

 

Sarah sat with one of the twins on her right, and one of the twins on her left: she sat with her back straight, her hair piled on top of her head, a glowing, healthy, shining crown, her gown perfectly fitted and properly designed; she sat with dignity and with poise, a most proper young lady, and Bonnie nodded her approval as she looked into the parlor and saw Sarah reading to the twins.
Bonnie wasn't sure quite what Sarah was reading; it didn't matter, really.
Her girls were home, under her roof and safe, and that warmed Bonnie's motherly heart.
Levi came up behind her, removed the pipe from between his teeth: he stood, warm and solid, behind her, one hand on her shoulder.
Bonnie leaned back into her husband, raised a hand and laid it across his.
As much of a cad as his brother had been, Levi was just as much a gentleman: as much of a scoundrel as his brother had been, Levi was just as noble, honorable and straight-arrow.
In this, Bonnie was most pleased.

Esther was concerned with some things she'd noticed about herself.
She was not concerned enough to be alarmed, nor to go to the doctor: like most Western women, she was strong and self-reliant, and her health was good: hadn't she just birthed twins, and with far less trouble than her first child?
Esther smiled quietly, staring at something only she could see, her tea forgotten on her lap: she dropped her eyes and colored, and the maid reached for Esther's teacup, for so completely had she forgotten it that her good right hand was turning over, and the tea spilled over the saucer and onto her gown before the maid could reach it.

Little Joseph put his fists on his hips and thrust out his jaw.
It can honestly be said that he got his contrary nature and his hard head from his Pa, and he from his Pa, and so little Joseph came by his bull headedness honestly.
Now little Joseph had a good bull on, as his Mama called it, though his choice of opponents wasn't particularly intelligent.
Little Joseph's opponent switched his tail, lowered his damp nose and snuffed loudly at the little boy.
Little Joseph raised a fist and shook it at the bull.
The bull licked at little Joesph's upraised mitt.
Little Joseph made a ferocious face and snarled, "I''m wuff an' tuff an' hard to bwuff!" -- and so saying, reached up and seized the bull by the horns.
Grown men have done so figuratively; this little boy did so literally, seizing the sizable bovine at the base of an impressive set of powder horns: surprised, the bull backed up, then tossed his head and tried to look cross-eyed at the squealing, laughing lad who was laying the full length of the bull's nose.
Annette chanced to look out the window just as little Joseph's excited squeal whistled through the chill air.
To her credit, Annette did not freeze: she dropped the dough she was kneading, seized her skirts with one hand and sprinted for the door.
The bull backed up a few steps, not really sure what to do: this was obviously not a threat and little Joseph hadn't done anything to provoke the bull to anger.
"JOSEEEPPHHH!" Annette yelled, her voice jiggling a little with the hard pounding of her feet on the ground, and at the sound of her voice, the bull's head came around and he snorted, then he set for the fence at a rather brisk trot.
"JOOOSEEEPHHHHH!!!"
Jacob's head came up.
He was in the far pasture working on fence when he recognized his wife's full-throated scream.
Jacob dropped fencing pliers and seized his rifle: whistling, he took three running steps toward his Apple-horse, jumped into the saddle without benefit of stirrup or horn, leaned over the stallion's neck with heels locked in equine ribs.
"YAAA!!!" he yelled, and Apple-horse didn't have to be told twice: he laid his ears back and shot towards home like the red mare the Sheriff rode, the mare that could launch like a cannonball out of a field gun.
In the distance Jacob could see his wife running across the field toward the back pasture, her skirts snatched up and flowing, and beyond, he could see his bull, heading for the fence.
He completely missed the little boy hanging onto the bull's horns, draped over the bull's face.

Annette's speed was up, her blood was up and her dandruff was up: she came to the first fence, reached up and slapped the fence rail with both hands, soared higher than she'd intended, caught her trailing foot and went over: she hit the ground in a perfect point-shoulder-roll, came up running.
Now she was in the same pasture as the bull, and the bull was heading for her, and hanging onto the bull's horns was her little boy.
If she had a plan, it was to snatch Joseph on her way by, yank him free and spin to the side, perhaps throw him: if the bull trampled her, the baby would be safe, for this is ever a mother's instinct, to save the baby.
The bull had other ideas.
Big though the bull was, the bull well remembered Annette petting it and calling it the cooing, endearing names women call cute young critters, and the bull remembered Annette feeding it by hand, and the bull associated Annette with being petted and fooled with and fed, and so when the bull saw Annette, why, the bull headed for Annette.
Jacob's boots found the stirrups and he was actively encouraging his Apple-horse to greater speed, speed, speed -- he leaned over the stallion's neck, grunting, "Run -- run -- run!" -- not realizing how much he sounded like his father in that moment, nor even how much he looked like his father looked those many years ago during that damned War, when the Colonel (as he'd been then) rode with desperate haste to warn that the enemy was soon upon them.
Apple-horse launched over another fence and Jacob could see his son now, clinging to the face of the bull, and the bull galloping toward his wife, and all he held dear and all he truly loved now in danger of being crushed and he was too far, he was too far, he was too far --
One shot, he thought, give me one clear shot, and stood in the stirrups, bringing his big Fifty to shoulder.

Annette saw the bull slow, lower its head: Joseph let go and landed easily on his feet, laughing, and scampered over to his Mama.
The bull walked up to Annette, snuffing loudly, and Annette reached up and rubbed its ears.
Her legs felt kind of weak and it sounded like a waterfall surging through her ears and the bull snuffed loudly at her apron and she reached in a pocket and brought out a sweet roll she'd intended to eat and forgotten, and the bull grunted and lipped it from her trembling hand.
"Mama that was fun!" little Joseph declared loudly.
"HOOOO!!!" Jacob shouted, and Apple-horse dropped its rear and skidded some but came to a fast stop and Jacob jumped free of the saddle and landed running.
He ran up to Annette, her hand laid gently on the bull's neck, his heart pounding, his breath quick in his throat: it took him a long minute and more to get his wind, to figure out what in Sam Hill just happened.
It was little Joseph who solved the mystery.
He turned and looked at the bull and shook a finger at it and declared "I'm wuf an' tuff an' hard to bwuff!" and reached up and seized the bull's horns.
The bull raised its head, blinking, and looked at Jacob.
Jacob bent over, blowing out his breath, then straightened.
He eased the hammer down to half cock and walked back to his Apple-horse, laid a hand on the stallion's damp neck, then he reached up and grabbed the saddle horn with his good right hand and just stood there for a long moment.
He looked back.
The bull was turning slowly, little Joseph scattering a little boy's laughter all over the ground, as Annette, one hand on the bull's neck, turned it in its own length.
Jacob shook his head.
"I'm a-gonna go bald one of these days," he muttered, "stone grey hair bald, you mark my word!"
Little Joseph squealed and laughed his delight, and Annette smiled as she led the bull in circle after circle after dizzying-tight circle.

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Linn Keller 10-11-12

 

Shorty was not given to waste.
Shorty came by his wealth the old-fashioned way: he worked his backside off to get it, he worked hard, as evidenced by calluses on his hands, a few miscellaneous scars about his carcass, and by the hard layers of muscle that made up his overall structure.
He did not, however, have any qualms about rinsing his mouth with a short sip of water clear and not over 30 days old, holding it on the throbbing vacancy once occupied by a molar, then sloshing it about and spitting it out on the ground.
Shorty did not swagger.
Swaggering was not in his nature.
A good honest stagger, however, was certainly within his permissible realm of expression, especially in a good cause, and as he headed down the main street of Cripple Creek, he had the very best of causes, and that was a recent trip to the dentist.
His tooth, unfortunately, was indeed abscessed; the dentist took a preliminary examination and frowned a little, then bade Shorty to close his mouth, he didn't want to catch flies, at which Shorty chuckled (in spite of the constant pain) and the dentist explained that there just wasn't any justice in the world: as near as he could tell, Shorty had granite teeth, and it just wasn't right that one of them abscessed and had to be pulled.
He recommended Shorty to a nearby emporium for some anesthetic, to which Shorty agreed: two hours later, well loaded, Shorty came back and submitted himself to the doc's attentions.
To his credit, the man was good at what he did; he had the tooth out in a short time, but "short" is a relative term: still, Shorty held still as he could and refrained from the noises commonly heard in the good doctor's office.
The dentist examined the extracted bicuspid and pronounced himself satisfied, as the roots came out in one piece, with the tooth; he then did something else in the great crater that once held a tooth -- Shorty was willing to swear the man was in there with a steam drill, two sledge hammers and a chisel, and both the man's hairy arms up to his elbows in the suffering horse-hostler's mouth -- but the work was finally done, and Shorty paid the man, and walked somewhat unsteadily out of his office.
Shorty headed for the depot, but he headed that-a-way along a pre-planned route.
Shorty was no stranger to pain.
Like most Western men, he chose to exhibit a stoic facade when dealing with discomfort.
He did, however, have full intent to visit multiple emporia on his trip back to the depot, said emporia all businesses that dispensed a certain distilled compound he felt might be necessary to his recovery, as something told him it would be well to continue his course of medicinal alcohol.
Pain control, as it were.
Strictly for medicinal purposes.
He honestly did not remember the trip home.
By complete accident, he ran into his old friend the Sheriff at the depot -- ran into the man, quite literally, and the Sheriff ran his arms under Shorty's and grabbed him to keep the cross-eyed fellow from sagging to the ground; Shorty's next partial recollection was when he was eased down into the swivel chair back in his little office in his livery stable, and he remembered telling the Sheriff that when he came out of that last saloon, the town Marshal took him by the arm and said something about public drunkenness, and how Shorty said he'd just had a tooth pulled, so the Cripple Creek lawman steered him back into the saloon and bought him another round out of sympathy.

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Linn Keller 10-12-12

 

His Honor the Judge stopped, surprised.
The leg he saw was bent at the knee, shapely, alluring: its owner was behind the broad back of one of his upholstered chairs in his private car.
His Honor the Judge stood in the doorway, not quite sure what to say, and a sultry voice said, "Close the door, dearest, I shouldn't wish to catch cold."
His Honor was so taken aback by this circumstance that he did just that, closing the door quietly behind him.
The leg extended, slowly, the toe of the high-button, high-heeled shoe pointed daintily at the opposite wall; the leg was joined by a second; the legs scissored quickly, then disappeared.
It wasn't often that His Honor was at a loss for words, but this took him so by surprise that the figurative cat had his tongue.
Finally he cleared his throat and stammered, "I, um, don't believe we've been properly introduced."
There was a crystal tinkling of feminine laughter, a semi-annoying titter, and someone feminine and mysterious stood, swirled a fur-trimmed silk cloak about herself, her face coyly hidden by a fan ... all but her eyes, her hypnotic eyes, eyes enhanced with kohl, with color, eyes that seized his gaze and captured his imagination ...
His Honor the Judge was a man, and men have certain responses: faced with what appeared to be a rather wanton example of feminine loveliness, His Honor found himself ... stimulated.
It wasn't often the dignified old jurist had these feelings; it was some years now since his wife passed away, and the Judge never quite got over her loss.
But still ...
He swallowed, then straightened and cleared his throat.
Sarah snapped the fan shut, put her knuckles on her hips and hipshot her pelvis: her eyes sparkled and she teased, "How well did I do?"
His Honor opened his mouth, closed his mouth, opened it again,blinking.
Sarah waited, smiling quietly.
"I was completely taken ..." His Honor finally said, "taken ..."
"Taken in?" Sarah said, her voice light. "Or taken aback?"
"Both," His Honor admitted.
"Good." Sarah drew the cloak demurely about her. "Slipping in unseen was not easy."
His Honor considered that this is probably quite true; men enjoy the sight of a lovely lass, and Sarah, dressed rather wantonly, would surely have drawn attention, had she been seen.
"May I ask," His Honor said cautiously, "your purpose here?"
"You may," Sarah said matter-of-factly. "I wished to test myself."
"I don't understand."
Sarah's expression was solemn.
"Your Honor, I ... was given ... a look at myself."
His Honor nodded slowly, then gestured to a chair; Sarah settled herself into the velvet-upholstered seat, and not until she was seated, did His Honor assume a seat as well.
Sarah took a long breath, stared at the floor.
"I learned something of myself," she admitted, "and I had to know if I could still ... if I ..."
She looked up at the Judge.
"Your Honor, am I pretty?"
His Honor was taken very much aback, for he was all too aware of the difference in their age: he well knew how young she was, and how young he was not.
He frowned, formulating a carefully-worded answer, and Sarah interrupted before he could speak.
"Your Honor, you remember when I appeared to be a dancer and caught the man we hanged for trying to kill the Sheriff."
His Honor nodded, blinking.
"When you came through the door ... even after I stood up, you looked at me as if you were seeing a stranger."
"I did not recognize you at all," His Honor said slowly, "until you lowered your fan, and it still took me a moment to be certain."
Sarah nodded and smiled a little.
"Your Honor, when I set out after my father's murderer, I had absolutely nothing to lose." She looked sharply at the dignified old jurist and continued.
"I had a revelation that shook the foundations of my ... my soul."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
Sarah pressed her lips together, frowning.
"I realized ... I don't have to do it all alone," she said, her voice hollow, her eyes haunted. "I can ask for help."
His Honor raised an eyebrow, looked at his humidor.
"I believe it would be improper to offer you a cigar," he said, "and I am not certain that a brandy would be quite proper, either."
"Your ear, Your Honor," Sarah said.
"Eh?"
She looked at him, the expression of a forlorn child, incongruous, as she was dressed like an alluring temptress.
"Your ear is what I need." Sarah straightened. "With your permission, sir, I will be honored to continue to function as an agent of the Court." Her smile was quick and genuine and a little ironic. "Though I hope to be somewhat less direct in my methods."
His Honor replaced the lid on his humidor, having decided not to withdraw a fragrant Cuban.
"My dear, allow an old man the luxury of frankness."
"Please."
"Your judgement has never been in question," His Honor said decisively. "Nor have your methods. I am more than satisfied with the work you have done."
"Thank you, sir."
"I have no idea what private revelation you were given and it would not be gentlemanly to inquire."
His Honor stood, as did Sarah.
The Judge took her hands in his own.
"I trust you implicitly," he said quietly, looking directly into her eyes. "Especially since you have such a marvelous gift for disguise. I thought you ..." he hesitated, then smiled ... "mature."
Sarah nodded, closing her eyes.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"Is there anything else ... ?" His Honor asked quietly.
"No." Sarah's hands tightened on his. "No, Your Honor, but thank you." She looked up at the grey-headed Judge. "I needed to hear ... I needed the words you spoke."
His Honor looked at the far door, remembering how her cloak swirled as she spun, how silently she flowed out the door, and how empty his car seemed now that she was gone.

Sarah slipped into her own bed, all trace of paint scrubbed off her face, her riding-clothes folded on the chair beside her bed: her disguise was shed some distance away, and she'd returned home on her black gelding, wearing her black britches and boots and long black coat: as she relaxed beneath sun-dried sheets, she thought of the Judge's words, grateful that he knew just what to say.
His were the words of a wise and kindly grandfather.
Sarah considered briefly, as she sank into the dark lake of slumber, that the Judge probably had no idea just how high a pedestal she'd perched him on.
Sarah opened her eyes, staring at her darkened ceiling, thinking.
I had nothing to lose, she thought.
That was ... before.
What am I willing to risk now?

Sarah remembered the darkness, the silence ... the thousand red eyes watching her, waiting ...
What am I willing to risk?

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Linn Keller 10-13-12

 

 Angela ate with a child's happy combination of ladylike delicacy and juvenile enthusiasm: breakfast was more inhaled than eaten, at least with her young metabolism, and Esther was prepared to swear her daughter had at least one hollow leg, if not two.
Just like her brother Jacob, Esther thought warmly, smiling as she bounced the twins.
"I like school," Angela said with a single, emphatic nod of her head, reaching for her teacup: she took a sip, took another, decided it was to her taste and took a long drink.
"School is important," Esther agreed. "What have you learned so far?"
Angela frowned, blinked. "I dunno," she admitted with a child's frankness: the lessons she'd absorbed were whisked into her psyche like a sponge drinks water, and although she knew she'd learned something, she really couldn't bring up any particular thing right away.
Angela went into school knowing how to read, thanks to her Mama; she knew her letters, and her numbers, she could form them with chalk or with pencil, and every night she sat on her Daddy's lap and they read together, from a newspaper or from the Bible he'd ordered, the big one with big print (Daddy must be getting old, she thought, 'cause I can read his regular Bible. Or maybe it's because he uses his finger to show me where he's reading?), and he helped his little girl with difficult words, speaking in a gentle Daddy-voice, and she giggled at the thought that his muts-tash was going to uncurl and reach down and tickle her ear.
It never did, but she giggled anyway.
Angela cleaned her plate and drained her teacup, then she stood and declared, "I'm ready!" and Esther and the maid laughed at this fresh-faced little bundle of enthusiasm, apple-cheeked and laughing, ready to step forth and seize the world by its tail and quite probably wind it around her little finger the way she did her long tall Daddy ... and most men, Esther added silently.

Sarah rose before even the maid; she was astride Snowflake and across miles of territory before the sun was properly awake.
Her Uncle Papa said he thought better on his feet.
Sarah believed she could think better in the saddle.
Despite her self revelation she was not about to give up this facet of her being.
The saddle allowed her freedom and speed and mobility: there was no way in God's green earth she was about to surrender any of the three.
What about when I am married? she thought.
Married ...
Subordinate, subjugated, subservient ... obedient?

Sarah considered the vows themselves.
Love, honor, obey ...
She felt her old self rise in rebellion: A man demanded obedience of my Mama.
He beat her to death getting it,
she thought, and her hands tightened to fists.
I will not --
Wait.
Don't assume all men are like him.
I don't.
Uncle Papa isn't.
Uncle Charlie isn't.
Judge Hostetler ... he's not married but he wouldn't.
The Parson doesn't.

Snowflake paced easily over the irregular ground, picking her way.
Why am I thinking like this?
"Oh, Gawd," Sarah groaned out loud, eyes wide with alarm: she turned Snowflake in a circle, scanning round about, her chest tightening with awareness as a memory came to life.
Sometimes, her Uncle Papa told her once, when the two of them were sitting in the Sheriff's office talking quietly, you know something here -- the Sheriff tapped his forehead -- but when you realize that you now know that something here -- he tapped his breast bone -- why, it'll take you by surprise.
Sarah looked down at her own chest, then looked to the horizon with a shocked expression.
I'm changing, she thought, and her imagination ran unchecked, and she imagined herself with the womanly shape of the ladies she knew, and she looked down at herself again as if to confirm that, yes, changes were in the works.
Sarah was not at all sure that she really favored what was happening, but she accepted that nothing remained the same; on one level she knew she was changing within herself, that she'd never been ... well, normal, as far as maturity or development ... but sometimes when one realizes what's been in plain sight for a long time, it still takes them by surprise, and this was one of those times.
Is that what Aunt Fannie meant by ... what was it she said? We are the lamp, the light of inspiration that sends men on grand quests and mighty deeds?
Sarah gently steered Snowflake generally in the direction of the house.
She started to set her thoughts aside for later consideration, for she had to get ready for school; it would feel good to be a schoolteacher again, she realized, and she came over a little rise and saw her house in the distance.
Sarah's belly tightened as she saw smoke rising from what looked like the entire square footage of their shake shingled roof.

The Irish Brigade rolled out as one man: covers were thrown toward the ceiling and not a man Jack of them was still in the bunk when linens settled to earth: they slept in sock feet and thrust into their boots, pulled bunker pants up and thumbed suspenders over their shoulders as they took the first running steps toward the gleaming brass fire pole.
The pole shook with the impact of bodies as one, then another, leaped over the hole and slid to the floor, landing on the thick rubber mat and sprinting for the coats hung along the wall, clapping the ridged, formed-leather helmet on worried-looking heads: the engineer tossed a cupful of gasoline into the boiler's firebox, followed with corncobs soaked in kerosine and a shovel of coal: the mares, dancing, whinnied restlessly as harness dropped from the ceiling and hard hands seized buckles and drew straps tight.
The mares were turned, hitched on, and Sean climbed into the tuck-and-roll upholstered seat: coiling the whip in his right hand, he held the reins in his left, trembling himself as the big double doors swung open.
Sarah stood without, the big iron bolt in her hand; she dropped it and it swung from its string, the steel alarm plate swinging from the vigor with which she'd beaten it but moments before.
"SARAH!" Sean roared. "WHITHER AWAY?"
"My house!" Sarah shouted, swarming into Snowflake's black saddle.
"ST. FLORIAN, ST. CHRISTOPHER AND GOD'S BEARD, RUN, LADIES RUN! THE DEVIL'S AFOOT AND WE'RE IN FOR A FIGHT!"
The Dalmatian raised her muzzle and began to bark and the matched mares thrust hard into their harness: the Brigade was out of the firehouse at a gallop, with men hanging onto the engine and the ladder wagon, and the team swung toward the smoke rising into the clear, cloudless sky.

Sarah stood in the stirrups, her hands flat on the black mare's neck, willing her to run, fly, grow wings and skim over the earth: tears stripped out of her eyes and ran back along her face from the wind of their passing, and Sarah was out of the saddle before Snowflake was well slowed: she hit wrong, fell, rolled and came up on her feet, running bent-over toward the front steps.
The front door opened and Levi, coughing, had Bonnie under one arm and the maid under the other: Sarah seized her mother, pulled her away and down the front steps: Bonnie fell, coughing, and Sarah seized her apron, pulled hard.
There was the sound of tearing cloth, and Sarah ran around back of the house, white linen trailing behind her.

"THE WELL, LADS, AND THE CISTERN!" Sean roared, pointing with the whip as he drove, standing, the Brigade charging up the long drive toward the smoking house: gauging the wind, he brought the steam machine around, with an eye to water source and direction of fall.
Should the house be lost and collapse, he did not want it to collapse on their fire engine.

Sarah thrust the balled-up fabric in the water bucket, worked it with her fingers, pulled it out: she ran for the front door, trailing water: Levi rose as she came pelting around the corner and Sarah drove her shoulder into his belly as he made to stop her.
Sarah ran up the front steps and into the house, wrapping wet cloth over her face.
Bonnie coughed, choking, rolled over, fumbled for Levi.
"The twins," she gasped from a dried, stinging throat.

Sarah ran straight for her Mama's office: seizing a table, she threw it violently aside, kicked the legs from it: the table was rectangular, of heavy construction, but made with this desperate moment in mind: Sarah locked her jaws, groaned and picked up the table top and charged the window.
Glass shattered and the table, like a Medieval ram against a fragile door, drove through the crystal portal and fell to the ground outside.
Sarah turned, yanked open the rolltop desk, grabbed ledgers and books and threw them out as well: her eyes were pale, her moves tightly controlled: lastly she bent and kicked a panel that looked like part of the wood paneled wall: she kicked hard, kicked again, yanked away splintered wood veneer and seized a small, heavy chest.
Sarah groaned, leaned back, dragged the chest free, then heaved it out the window as well.
Everything else can burn, she thought: turning, she ran for the stairway.

One hose team assaulted through the front door: they made entry just in time for a black figure with a white cloth about its face to streak past them, pounding up the stairway: the hose team had no time to consider this, for they were in pursuit of the Beast that ate houses and men, and their fight was with the weight and length of hose it would take to bring the fight to the enemy.

Sarah charged up the stairs, damning the speed with which water was evaporating from her face cover: it was hot, hot now and smoke stung her nose, her mouth, her throat.
She could hear it overhead, she could hear fire whispering dark secrets, she could hear wood groan and pop and sparks were falling around her and she coughed and blinked her stinging eyes and shouldered hard against the twins' bedroom door.
It was a little clearer inside.
Sarah looked at the bed --
Empty.
Oh God no, she thought, where are they? --
Sarah's eyes scanned the room, remembering.
The Welsh Irishman told her once that children hide, and he spoke of the sorrow of a firefighter on overhaul finding little bodies under beds or in closets --
Sarah dove for the bed, reaching under: the air was clear, next to the floor, and she reached under the bed, looking --
I see nothing, she thought, then looked toward the closet, scrambled awkwardly on all fours --
Sarah reached up, seized the knob, pulled the door open --
Two little girls huddled in the closet, clinging to one another, looking at Sarah with big and frightened eyes.
Sarah seized them each by an arm and dragged the whimpering little girls toward the window.
Seizing the window, Sarah thrust it violently open: hot air moved past her, seeking escape, and she knew she had but moments to get them out: she grabbed blindly, swung one of the twins out by her wrists, dangled her out the second story window.
"Maamaaaaa!" Sarah screamed. "Maaamaaaaa!"
Bonnie's head snapped up at the desperation in her daughter's voice: she grabbed Levi's wrist and ran, ran toward the sound of Sarah's scream.
Levi looked up, reached up: he could almost touch the little girl's shoes, or so it seemed.
"Let go!" he shouted, and Sarah released her sister's wrists.
Polly, big-eyed and paralyzed, began a panicked scream as she started to fall, then grunted as she found herself suddenly in strong Daddy-arms: she seized his neck with a surprising, desperate strength, until she realized Bonnie was reaching for her, then she twisted and grabbed her Mama, too terrified now to even whimper.
Sarah turned, grimacing at the heat: she grabbed Opal by the wrist and the thigh, swung her out the window with a muttered, "You're next," and, blinking at the pain in her eyes, heard Levi's "Let go!" and she released the second twin.
Sarah sagged, suddenly drained: coughing, she leaned against the wall, feeling the heat building around her: she looked up, her world blurred by protective tears trying to shield her eyes from smoke and heat, and she saw the dirty, red-yellow hell boiling along the ceiling.
What am I willing to risk? she thought.
I just risked it all.
It worked.
The twins are safe.
I can let go now.

Sarah's vision cleared momentarily and she saw a sallow child with bone-white hair, a little girl in a fashionable gown and a straw boater, a little girl with red eyes: Sarah blinked, coughed, and a woman's voice said "You're not done yet, sister," and she felt hard hands grab her arms and hoist her to her feet.
Sarah had a momentary impression of ice-pale eyes, a six-pointed star on a blue jacket, the scent of womanly perfume.
"OUT! NOW!" the woman shouted and Sarah flinched as a hand smacked her briskly across the bottom, then she was gone and Sarah heard a dry, delicate crackle as her hair start to singe.
She looked at the open window, turned and hung one leg out, then the other; she hung on with her fingers: she looked down, as best she could, drew her legs up and put her boots against the house, pushed away and let go.
Sarah fell back, fell away, arms and legs spread, anticipating a hard landing flat on her back --
Sarah's eyes screwed shut as strong and manly arms caught her; she felt someone stagger, heard a man's grunt, then she was swung down and her feet were on the ground and she had an arm over a wool-shirted shoulder and she coughed, choking, clawing at the now dry cloth over her face.
Sarah's eyes were running freely now and she blinked, trying to clear them, and the cloth was snatched from her face: hard hands were under her arms, holding her up, and she saw a fiercely curled black mustache against the lighter shade of a man's face, and she heard the Welsh Irishman's voice as he snapped, "Now how am I goin' ta propose to ya if ya go an' get yerse' killed?" -- then she felt her Mama's hands and she smelled her Mama's lilac scent and she fumbled for her Mama, and the twins grabbed her legs and her Mama grabbed her and Levi grabbed the lot of them, and the Welsh Irishman drew them away from the burning structure.

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Linn Keller 10-14-12

 

Sarah's eyes burned, her throat burned, her tongue felt like the entire Russian army marched barefoot over it in the dead of desert season: she sagged to her knees, shaking, coughing, feeling her throat swell.
Sarah remembered seeing the twins looking at her before her hearing got all funny and it sounded like people were talking out of the bottom of a long deep barrel, and she started to fall and her stomach felt light and fluttery and a sparkly curtain descended over her vision and she heard her Mama's voice call her name, call with a worried note, the way she did if she was sleeping later than usual on a school day ...

The Brigade attacked the fire as if they were going after a personal enemy: their methods were neither gentle nor sophisticated; they were every bit as brutal as the monster they faced, and they employed pike-hook and ax with an absolute lack of mercy in their single minded pursuit of the hungry beast that devoured lives and homes, and unchecked, would cheerfully consume the entire planet, consume all that could be eaten, before finally dying of starvation.
The well was a good one; the cistern, capacious and deep; the Brigade was experienced and knew them most efficient use of that precious and vital commodity: the engineer kept the steam boiler fed with coals, and if need be, lined up a nearby shed that could be swiftly demolished to feed the firefighting machine.
The house itself was, surprisingly, saved; the upper story suffered the greatest damage; the roof was gone, the walls were wrecked, but the lower floor could be salvaged: they carried out what they could, setting furniture in a madman's array upwind of the house.
Bonnie dispatched Levi to recover the tabletop and chest Sarah threw out the window: these they placed nearby, where they could have a close eye on them: the table was a gift from Sarah, and together, she and Bonnie stacked bundles of currency in tight, hidden compartments: the table alone afforded enough cash to rebuild the house and purchase most of the land they owned, twice over: the chest, off course, was gold, and held half again more in hard currency: Sarah told her mother of it, spoke of its installation and pointed out the veneer panel that matched the rest of the room's fine wood-work, and Bonnie wondered if the chest was not something of Sarah's imagination: she never asked where the gold came from, but now, in this extreme moment, she realized her daughter would never have risked as she did unless it really did contain something as valuable as she'd said.
Volunteers were drafted, furniture and good carried over to the dress-works; this would be their family headquarters until such time as the house could be rebuilt: Sarah was laid out on the cot in Bonnie's office and the doctor sent for.
Levi offered to go, but Bonnie laid a gentle hand on his, shook her head: he saw how pale she was, how the cords were taut in her neck, the worry in her eyes: a trusted adjutant was appointed and dispatched, and as the messenger galloped toward Firelands, Bonnie laid a lightly trembling hand on Levi's cheek.
"If ever I needed you," she whispered, her eyes threatening to spill over, "I need you now," and Levi, in a moment of husbandly wisdom, gathered his wife to him, and held her, and she shivered a little, a strong woman tested to her absolute limit, a woman filled with terror, now daring to relax slightly, ever so slightly, but worried to death nonetheless.

Cannonball pranced,showing off her fancy gait, as the Sheriff sidled her up to the schoolhouse steps: Angela slid off the saddle, landed neatly on a step, laughing: the Sheriff lifted his hat to Emma Cooper with a hearty "Why, good morning, Sunshine!" and Emma Cooper laughed, the sunlight glinting off the spectacles she wore up above her hairline.
The Sheriff turned as galloping hoofbeats charged toward them: Cannonball turned and glided toward the hospital as a ragged fellow scrambled for the hospital's bell-pull; the Sheriff's face was expressionless as he listened to the blurted report.
Angela ran down the steps to watch as her Daddy leaned over his golden mare and they streaked out of town.
Angela waved a little pink hand and called cheerfully, "Bye, Daddy!"

Bonnie held Sarah upright, held a glass to her lips: "Drink, darling," she whispered. "Water, Sarah. Have a drink of water."
Sarah heard a whispering echo from a very long distance away.
Something hard pressed against her lip.
I'm laying on a rock, she thought, trying to open her swollen eyes: she saw a whitish slit of light, heard an echoing whisper: I'm laying on a rock at the lip of a spring.
The office door thrust open and the Sheriff stepped in, his face white.
"Levi?" he asked quietly, and Levi gestured toward Bonnie and Sarah.
"Try to get her to drink a little something," Bonnie said quietly, handing the glass to the maid: she surrendered her daughter to Mary's care and stood, glided across the floor to the Sheriff.
Pressing her lips together, Bonnie belted Linn across the face just as hard as she could.

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