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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 11-5-12

 

Sarah was their own Miss Sarah, only different.
This Sarah was serious, brisk: there was no sign of a smile, none of her shining disposition: she was focused, she was on task, she was ...
She was a schoolmarm.
Children, of course, are curious creatures with minds that run faster than an Olympic sprinter; now and then there would be a tentative question about Miss Emma, and Sarah would say in a brisk and no-nonsense tone, "We know she was hurt but we don't know how badly. Until we do know something, we will not speculate."
Sarah herded her young charges efficiently, each through their assigned tasks: there were recitations, the reading of poetry; there were mathematical formulae to explore, sentences to be diagrammed: Sarah set the older students in their tight little orbits like tops, and while they whirled around their assigned subjects, she saw to the younger children, including little Angela, who was frowning and squirming, until Sarah showed her how to form her letters on the little framed slate board she had, and whispered in her ear that if she could not remember the letters, that she should sing them inside her head, where no one could hear her.
It took great self-discipline to keep from looking toward the doors, or out the window, but Sarah managed.
She had to.
Emma Cooper was depending on her now.

If a lie strides in seven-league boots, misfortune sprouts wings and flies: word of Emma Cooper's situation spread quickly: the ladies of Firelands gathered, quietly but efficiently, assembling as they always did in Esther's office, and Esther among them: the nurse had the twins in another room, and had the occasion been less solemn, the new twins would have been a source of celebration, passed from hand to hand, weighed, hefted, smiled and cooed and tickled at: now, however, duties were drawn up, tasks assigned, and a rotating schedule for meal preparation established, for none knew how severely or lightly Emma Cooper was injured, but plans were laid for an extended convalescence.

Jackson Cooper staggered back into the waiting room, waved the Welsh Irishman into the room: "Help th' man, lad," he rasped, and pulled the hat from his head: twisting it a little, he turned and set down carefully beside the Sheriff -- carefully, for his heart was so heavy he feared he would crush even the well built seat beneath him.
The Sheriff was silent for several minutes.
"It sounded like it," Jackson Cooper whispered, his very whisper strained: "it sounded like th' bone saws.".
"It did," the Sheriff agreed: the color had not entirely returned to his own face.
Jackson Cooper looked over at his old friend.
"You're not settin' good," he said. "Your back hurt that bad?"
The Sheriff's eyes were quiet and he managed a small smile.
"Ribs," he said. "Along with a few odds and ends."
Jackson Cooper nodded, looked at the hat forgotten in his big hands.
He tried to re-shape the crown, returned it to some semblance of its former glory.
"I don't know what I'm a-gonna do," he said, his voice hollow, lost. "I don't know what I'm a-gonna do!"
"I know what you will do, you long tall drink of water," the Sheriff said flatly. "You are going to wait until the sawbones comes out that door and says to come in. You are going to listen to what the man tells you and then you are going to go kiss your wife and you are going to tell her she is the loveliest thing since the first day of Creation."
The Sheriff paused, closed his eyes: he opened them again and they were pale, and so was his face.
"You will take her home and spoil her seven ways from Sunday and when she's healed she'll come back to teachin' school. Until then you're going to make her feel like a queen."
Jackson Cooper's eyes swung toward the door. "That fella -- his horse --"
The Sheriff reached out and grabbed Jackson Cooper's arm, hauled at it and came halfway out of his chair: he made a hissing sound and let go of the Marshal's arm and sagged back into the chair, jaw clenched, both hands fisted tight.
"Sit down," he gasped through a tight throat, and Jackson Cooper stared at the hunched-over lawman.
"What in seven hells happened to you?"
"You hit me, damn you! Knocked me backside over tincup, right in front of God and everybody!" the Sheriff snapped, gasping a few times.
"Once that sawbones comes out here, tell him I need my ribs wrapped!"

"Mrs. Rosenthal," the proprietor greeted Bonnie.
"My daughter," Bonnie said. "Has she been here?"
"Oh yes ma'am, and you can be proud of her!" the proprietor declared. "She saved the schoolmarm's life and that little child she covered, and who knows who-all else!"
"I ... beg your pardon?" Bonnie said slowly, feeling her stomach sink.
"She -- Miss Sarah, that is -- came in and bought from a list."
Bonnie nodded, once, her eyes wide, bright.
"She was just leaving when she heard the commotion.
"She came back and -- here, ma'am, she bought this" -- he lay the Sharps across the counter -- "and she shot that wild horse that was a-bucking its way down the street fit to cut up that little boy that fell over a-panic to get away!"
"Oh, my," Bonnie said faintly.
"Ma'am, I never saw a thing like it," the proprietor said in admiring tones. "One moment she was in here, bright as the noontime sun and a perfect lady without flaw, and the next, why, she was ready to rip a tree out by its roots and start a-clubbin' with it!"
"Oh, dear," Bonnie said, realizing that she was standing in the exact spot where she'd been standing the night the Sheriff -- before he was the Sheriff -- killed two men in this very Mercantile ... the first of multiple times that his intervention would keep her, or Sarah, or both of them, alive.
"Ma'am, that was as perfect a shot as I've ever seen!" the one-armed man gushed. "She took the shot and tossed me the Sharps, she said she was buying it and then she marched up to the Marshal and climbed him like a fightin' rooster, belted him across the face and grabbed his beard and got his attention, she did!"
"Oh dear heavens!" Bonnie murmured, pressing her scented kerchief delicately to her nose.
"Oh yes ma'am! 'Twas the schoolmarm -- t'other one, Miz Emma -- she was stomped fiercely and the Marshal was throttling the man that rode the horse into town," the storekeep nodded. Sarah told him she was alive and I don't know what-all else, but she took charge and began ordering men around and getting help for Miz Emma. If she lives -- God willing, ma'am, she will! -- her life will credit to Sarah, for she took charge when 'twas needed!"
Bonnie's gloved hand was pressed up against her high stomach and she felt half sick.
"Thank you," she murmured.
"Ma'am, I can have her purchases set out in the carriage if you'd like."
"Yes, thank you," Bonnie swallowed and nodded.

"An' that horse stomped in her face an' kicked the guts out of her!" Billy exulted to his chums on the playground, "an' you could hear the bones breakin' -- oww!"
"William," Sarah said coldly as her vice-like pinch of the offender's ear tightened to an inescapable degree, "I believe I said we were not going to speculate, did I not?"
"Ow, ow, ow, yes Miss Sarah, ow, ow!"
Sarah brought young William to his tippy-toes and hauled him into the schoolhouse: her step was brisk, her grip merciless, her lips thin and set: she paraded the protesting towhead up the center aisle as the entire student body flowed into the schoolhouse to see this remarkable sight.
One or two stood on their benches to get a better view.
Sarah snatched up a finger-thick switch from the small selection in the crock vase, then shifted her grip to the back of Billy's neck.
"William," she said in that warning voice a schoolmarm uses just before she lowers the boom, "you disobeyed me."
"Yes Miss Sarah, I'm sorry, Miss Sarah --"
"Arms straight ahead, William," Sarah said mercilessly, bending the lad over the edge of the teacher's desk.
William's arms thrust themselves straight overhead.
"Grasp the edge of the desk," Sarah said, her diction precise, her pronunciation clipped.
William's fingers curled reluctantly over the edge of the desk.
"Now, William," Sarah said in a lecturer's voice, "I said we were not going to speculate on Miz Emma's condition, did I not?" Sarah asked rhetorically.
"Yes, Miss Sarah," William affirmed, his voice slightly muffled, for his head was turned to the right and he was talking into his shirt sleeve.
"Yet you disobeyed me and you were speaking without a full knowledge of the facts."
"But --"
The switch whirred viciously through the still air, slashing across young William's backside.
William's teeth clicked together.
"You know the rules, William. You must count, or you get ten for every one you miss."
"One!" he yelped.
"That is better," Sarah nodded.
The whir, the slash: "Two!"
Sarah nodded, drew the switch back once more.
"Three!"
"Now William," Sarah said, still speaking loudly, in her lecturer's voice, "are you going to speculate on Miz Emma any more?"
"No, Miss Sarah!" he shouted, eyes squinted shut.
"Are you sorry for disobeying me?"
"Yes, Miss Sarah!"
"How many more with the switch should you get?"
Billy's eyes snapped wide open.
Of all the dreaded questions she could ask, this was not among those he would have ever imagined.
The switch sang its song of agony again -- young Billy tensed, expecting the slash of fire across his backside -- but the switch swung upward and just missed his hind quarters.
"I think three is sufficient," Sarah said. "You may stand up straight."
Billy stood, cautiously rubbing his backside.
"Please resume your seat, William."
Sarah turned and dropped the switch back into its zigzag-decorated vase.
"And class, please, do not stand on the benches. You don't want to put your dirty feet where your clean backsides will have to sit."
She waited a moment longer than she had to before turning, hands folded before her.
"Now that we've made that clear," she said, "I want you all to stand and we will offer a prayer for Miz Emma's healing."

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Linn Keller 11-6-12

 

The firehouse door opened, slowly, opened wide.
Most of the Brigade was in the engine bay, working.
Every one of the Brigade turned at this development.
The day was sunny out yet, the approaching weather front hadn't arrived; it was darker inside than it was out, and so the figure silhouetted in the bright rectangle was just that -- a silhouette -- and particulars were not available ... just the shape of a woman, standing in the doorway.
The Welsh Irishman's breath caught in his throat as a feminine voice called, "Permission to come aboard!" -- a voice, loud, clear, ringing ... and familiar.
"GRANTED!" Sean bellowed, tossing his polishing rag at their beloved steam machine and grinning at the Welsh Irishman.
Sarah stepped through the doorway, closing the portal carefully behind her: she took three steps into the bay, lifted her chin and looked up at Sean.
"It is not proper," she said in precise syllables, "for a young lady to call upon a gentleman unescorted. Sean, would you do me the honor?"
Sean thrust out his elbow with a laugh.
"Aye!" he shouted happily, "I will that!"
Now the net effect of Sarah on Sean's elbow was that of a postage stamp pulled by a dray-horse, for Sarah was as diminutive as Emma Cooper, and Sean nearly as impressively sized as Jackson Cooper, but not quite: still, the contrast was striking.
Sarah took Sean's muscled, red-furred arm and looked up at the great Irish chieftain.
"Sean," she said, "may I have your permission to speak with Mr. Llewellyn?"
"LLEWELLYN!" Sean roared. "DAMN YOUR SOUL TO PERDITION , GET YOUR MISERABLE WELSH CARCASS OVER HERE BEFORE I RIP YOUR EARS OFF AND FRY 'EM IN BUTTER!"
The Welsh Irishman jumped the tongue of the steam-wagon, strode quickly over to the pair: he bowed before Sarah, and Sarah dropped a perfect curtsy, folding her hands primly before her.
"Mr. Llewellyn," she said, her voice clear and ringing in the brick bay, "I came to offer my apology."
"Apology?" the Welsh Irishman echoed, raising an eyebrow and tilting a look at the grinning fire chief.
"Mr. Llewellyn, you are skilled and you are experienced and you are no stranger to death and to loss. I have observed, sir, that when everyone else is running out of a building in a blind panic, you stride boldly into it and seize the Devil by his beard and kick his pointed tail up between his shoulder blades.
"When the rest of the world is running about in circles holding their heads and screaming in panic, you are quietly taking care of what needs taken care of."
Sarah hesitated, dropping her eyes and biting her bottom lip.
"Mr. Llewellyn, on the street earlier -- when Emma Cooper was hurt" -- Sarah stopped, shuddered, and the Brigade, to a man, saw her pale a bit -- "when Emma Cooper was hurt, you ran to her aid, and a blessing on you for that!"
Sarah's words were suddenly rushed, and Sean felt her hand tighten on his arm: it was as if her speech was squeezed from her by a hard hand about her belly.
Sarah looked away, pressed a kerchief to her nose, took a few breaths, then turned again to the Welsh Irishman and lifted her chin.
"Mr. Llewellyn, I ordered you around like a personal servant.
"I was wrong to do that."
"I came to offer my apology."
Llewellyn's jaw hung slack and he looked at the grinning German Irishman; the New York Irishman and the English Irishman were carefully studying the nozzles they were pretending to burnish: the Welsh Irishman's ears reddened steadily as he read the German Irishman's lips as he mouthed, "Kiss her!"
"Mr. Llewellyn," Sarah continued, "when the ..." -- her hand tightened on Sean's arm again -- "when ..."
Sarah swallowed and she took another few quick breaths.
Releasing Sean's arm, she walked over to the Welsh Irishman and took both his hands in both hers.
"I needed you then," she whispered, tears bright in her eyes, "and you were there."
The Welsh Irishman raised a kerchief and held it under her left eye, just in time to catch the salt water that spilled over.
"How is she?" he whispered, and Sarah bit her bottom lip, squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head: she reached blindly for the Welsh Irishman's shoulder.
"I don't know," she half-whispered, half-choked. "I don't know!"
Llewellyn looked up at Sean.
"Go find out, lad," Sean rumbled.
Sarah seized Llewellyn's arm.
"We'll both go."

Daisy changed the twins' diapers, cleaned their round little bottoms, dusted them with talc, sang to them in Gaelic, got them clean and sweet smelling again, and did it with a few magic passes of a mother's experienced hands: the wet-nurse, who admittedly was good at her craft, recognized true expertise when she saw it: Daisy held the little girl baby for a moment, long enough for the child to yawn, then wave its arms and start to root for a meal, before handing her over to the wet-nurse.
"She's a strong one," she said quietly, approval in her voice: she picked up the little boy-baby, who happily draped himself over her bosom, his little arms over her maternal curves as if to possess the territory he'd just discovered.
"Just like yer father," Daisy whispered to the little boy-baby, "ye're all man, a'right" -- then she smiled at Esther.
"They're a fine pair," she said quietly, and Esther smiled: it was the shared smile of two mothers, rejoicing in the good health of their young.
"Ye'll ha'e the naming this Sunday then?"
Esther nodded.
"I'm surprised ye waited this long."
"We wanted to wait ..."
Esther's voice trailed off, her eyes haunted.
Daisy nodded.
"We ha'e ours baptized as soon as we could get 'em t' Brother William," she said. "We didna' wait."
It was Esther's turn to nod.
In the dress-works, the ladies were turned from the production of fine McKenna gowns, to a short run of one specific style.
A local girl was recruited for Emma Cooper; Emma never wanted a maid, but now that she was healing, it was the unanimous decision of the unofficial Ladies' Aid Society that she should have one.
The girl was being fitted with eight maid's uniform dresses, one for each day of the week and a spare: it was a proper fit and a proper pattern, it was ruffled and they even made the matching white maid's caps: a sage in centuries past observed, "Clothes make the man," and the ladies knew that in this case, the clothes would not only remind the wearer of her responsibility, but would also remind Emma Cooper that she was to allow this help that was provided her.

The Sheriff lay half naked on the table, looking up at the ceiling.
He'd been divested of most of what he wore; his red flannels were pulled down below his waist; Doc Greenlees frowned a little as he palpated the man's ribs.
He and Doctor Flint conducted the joint examination of the Sheriff's spine and posterior ribcage: their findings were made with fingers and eyes, with questions and deductions: now as the Sheriff lay on his back on a flannel blanket (Doc, can you give me somethin' to lay on other'n this damn cold slab?) they lowered their gaze to peer across the man's breastbone, assessing the lay of his ribs under the lean lawman's flesh.
"Three, I should think," Dr. Greenlees murmured.
"Four," Dr. Flint corrected.
"Four?" Dr. Greenlees looked again; practiced fingers danced, spider-like, pressing lightly on either side of the breast bone, working his way down.
He raised an eyebrow.
"Four it is," he concurred.
Laying his hand flat on the lawman's belly, he said "Sheriff, just out of curiosity, did you jump out a whorehouse window and catch your chest on the end of a hitch rail?"
"No," the Sheriff gasped, bending his legs to try and ease the agony in his lower back.
Nurse Susan thrust a rolled up blanket behind the man's knees.
"Thank you," he said shortly.
Dr. Greenlees tilted his head, considering.
"Sheriff, take a breath, then blow it out like you were blowing through a wheat straw."
The Sheriff did, breathing in until it hurt -- which wasn't too far -- and as he blew out, Dr. Greenlees put the heel of his hand over one of the unusual prominences beside the breast bone, pushed.
There was kind of a crunching click and the lawman gasped.
Dr. Greenlees casually moved an inch and pushed again, a quick, precise thrust.
The Sheriff's hands snapped closed, became white-knuckled fists.
Dr. Flint passed a hand over the Sheriff's eyes and half-chanted, half-sang a few notes: crunch, crunch and two more ribs were returned to their original configuration, both beside the breastbone and back along the spine.
"Now just lay there," Dr. Greenlees said. "Nurse Susan will get you a blanket."
"Blanket hell," the Sheriff growled. "I need a --"
Nurse Susan lifted the lawman's head with one hand and put a glass of something water clear to his lips.
"Just what the doctor ordered," she said.

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Linn Keller 11-6-12

 

Sarah sat in the waiting room.
She felt as if someone pulled a cork out of her heel and drained all the strength out of her, like pulling the bottom bung out of a water barrel and letting its contents run out.
Emma Cooper was going to be fine.
Sarah's eyes were big, haunted, and she stared at something invisible, as if mesmerized by ... by whatever she, and she alone, could see.
The Welsh Irishman sat, restless and uncomfortable, beside her.
They'd been admitted, earlier, into the hush and iodoform atmosphere of the medical sanctum
Emma Cooper reached up and caressed Sarah's cheek, whispered her thanks for taking care of the children for her; Sarah's eyes lingered on the sutured line over her ear, and Emma smiled and whispered that her hair would hide it; Sarah bit her bottom lip and nodded, not trusting her voice, but Emma Cooper felt Sarah's hands tighten on hers, and knew that for which Sarah had not the words.
Sarah barely heard Dr. Greenlees' measured syllables as he reviewed his findings; Sarah sifted through the several words, retaining only those which mattered: she would heal, and she would be fine.
Part of her mind retained that Emma Cooper would be stove up and sore for a while, but she would be alive! -- and Sarah stood aside as Emma was carefully carried to their carriage, and arranged in place with blankets and with pillows, and she remembered how Jackson Cooper held their mare to a walk.
She held the Welsh Irishman's arm tightly and swallowed hard and then whispered, "I need to sit down," and they returned to the waiting room, where Sarah sat and then almost collapsed into herself.
The pair looked up as the door to the surgery opened and Dr. Flint looked out at them.
Crooking a finger, he summoned them into the sanctum: Sarah rose obediently as the Welsh Irishman stood, then blinked, as if realizing she was standing.
The Sheriff was covered now, not quite as pale: he looked at Sarah and the Welsh Irishman, and Sarah saw a light in his eyes, and she knew the imp of mischief was whispering in the man's ear.
"Young lady," he said hoarsely, "does your mother know you are consorting with strange men?"
Sarah lifted her chin.
"I shall consort with whomever I please, thank you, sir," she said primly.
"Young man," the Sheriff said, "what are your intentions toward my daughter?"
"Sir," the Welsh Irishman said, "I --"
The Sheriff cut him off with a wave of his hand; he closed his eyes, his face furrowing with fatigue.
"We will speak further," he mumbled.
Sarah's hand was gentle on his cheek and the slender lawman with the iron grey mustache smiled a little.
"Papa?" Sarah asked. "Papa, are you in pain?"
"Never better," the Sheriff muttered.
Sarah laughed sadly.
"Liar," she said, then bent and kissed the lawman's cheek.
"Heal up, Papa," she whispered, her lips an inch from his ear: "I need .... I need my Papa."

Sarah and the Welsh Irishman walked out of the hospital.
Bonnie had only just drawn up with her carriage.
Sarah's carriage was behind, waiting.
Sarah turned to the Welsh Irishman.
"Mr. Llewellyn, thank you," she said, dropping a perfect curtsy: "you have been most kind" -- then she turned -- "Mother, I am given to understand that Emma Cooper has an excellent prognosis."
Bonnie nodded, smiling as if she knew a secret: as a matter of fact, she did, for she'd just driven the girl out to Emma Cooper's house, with the first of several meals the Ladies' Aid arranged: Sarah was, as yet, unaware of this, and somehow Bonnie took pleasure in knowing there was something her remarkable daughter, didn't know.
Sarah walked back to her carriage; the Welsh Irishman walked with her, offered his hand, and Sarah accepted, delighting in the man's strength as he helped her into her buggy.
It didn't escape her eye that the Sharps was leaned against the seat, ready to hand.
The two ladies clucked up their mares and set their course for the Rancho Rosenthal.

Jackson Cooper looked into his bride's eyes.
She lay in his arms like a little girl in her Daddy's strong arms: for the moment, at least, she wasn't hurting too badly, and he walked very, very carefully up the stairs and to their bedroom.
"I remember the first time you carried me like this," Emma whispered, and Jackson Cooper felt his ears start to warm.
"You were so afraid you would hurt me," Emma continued.
"I still am," Jackson Cooper admitted in his deep, coarse voice.
Emma sighed, leaned her head against her husband's broad, strong chest.
"You would never hurt me," she whispered.

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Linn Keller 11-7-12

 

"Daddy?"
A breathy whisper in my left ear.
"Daddy?"
A warm little hand laid itself on my forehead, a little finger explored the stubble on my chin, a little-girl-sized giggle.
I opened one eye, blinked, then rolled my eye around a few times and swung it over to look at Angela.
She had her hands to her mouth now and she was giggling some more.
It is not possible to wake up in a bad mood with a puppy licking your face, and it's equally hard to wake up sour faced with a happy little girl's giggles like water running over rocks in a streambed.
"No, I am not awake," I said softly. "I am sound asleep and I've got Z's stacked up belt buckle deep. I'll have to open the window to let 'em all out."
Angela's eyes went big and she looked around, concerned, then she looked at me and sagged, crestfallen.
"I'm sowwy, Daddy," she said, "they must have run out when I opened the door!"
I brought my hand out from under the covers and reached over and squeezed her warm little flannel covered shoulder.
"That's okay, sweetheart," I whispered, winking: "they probably run down the stairs and slid out from under the door, so we're in good shape now."
Angela's smile was bright and genuine as she clapped her hands to her mouth and bounced on little pink toes.
I wrote about that in my journal and re-read it some years after and I was surprised at how many times I used the word "little."
That's a Daddy tendency, y'see.
Daddies always see their little girl as ... well, as their little girl.
Part of a Daddy's heart never wants his little girl to grow up, wants her to stay forever a little girl, a giggly little creature in pinafores and hair ribbons and big bright eyes, something wiggly and sweet smelling that he can pick up and hold onto and marvel at.
I say this because Angela was getting some height to her already, and her in school to boot -- well, not today.
Today was Saturday.
I'd sent a note to Jacob asking him to come in today, for I knew if there was much of anything to be done I'd not be in any fit shape.
Esther was already awake and stirring about, she was cleaned up and dressed and downstairs before I rolled out of the bunk: she told me later -- later, as she fed one baby and the wet nurse fed the other -- that I looked just plainly exhausted when she got up, so she let me sleep; she didn't know 'twas Jackson Cooper that lowered the boom on me, and until Nurse Susan filled her in, Esther did not know I had a few ribs knocked out of place and had to have them put back the hard way.
She did know, however -- when I finally come downstairs, walking slow and careful and not turning my body any a'tall -- that I was not feeling terribly well.

Jacob rode in on Apple-horse, feeling as fine as a man will when he's on a good mount, in the cool of a red morning, knowing all was well at his hacienda -- plenty of wood, a good source of water, a full larder, a beautiful wife -- and he looked around the way he usually did when he came into town.
Jacob stopped when he was just shy of the Mercantile.
Angry voices from within drew his attention.
Jacob ground-reined the Appaloosa stallion, flowed out of the saddle like water poured out of a bucket: he cat footed up onto the board walk, pulled off his hat and took a peek through the corner of the window.
Two men were shoving the one-armed proprietor, laughing.
He could see they were making quick glances at the front door.
Jacob's eyes were a little pale as he bent over, scampered around back of the Mercantile.
He pulled out his long, slender boot knife, worked it into the gap between the door and the striker-plate, worked the bolt back: in spite of being locked, it yielded to his twisting blade, and he was inside: he knew where the squeaky boards were -- there were two of them -- half a dozen steps and he was where he could see the pair.
His left hand closed about a pick handle.
Jacob favored a pick handle or a mattock handle for such matters because they were bigger on the clobbering end.
Two fast steps and he belted one fellow over the head, turned and smacked the other -- he aimed for the crown of the man's hat but missed and broke the collar bone instead --he took a spinning step to his left, turning, eyes busy.
"ARE THERE ANY MORE?" he shouted, one hand dropping to his Colt, and the proprietor staggered to an upright position, swaying a little. His nose was bloodied, one eye was swelling shut and he was bent over some and held his arm across his belly like he'd been gut punched.
"No," he gasped.
"Good. You will be pressing charges." Jacob's voice was flat, matter-of-fact.
The proprietor dabbed the back of his bent wrist to his nose, came away blood and nodded.
"Damned right I will!"
Quickly, efficiently, he disarmed both men, went through their pockets, divested them of things he didn't want them to have; one he tied quickly, tightly, behind his back with some piggin string; the other, with a broken collar bone, he didn't have to worry much about.
"Could you cut me off about a yard of unbleached muslin?" he asked, reaching in his vest pocket and pulling out a couple coins: the proprietor managed -- Jacob would normally have admired how a man with one arm could cut cloth and cut it on the square, but he was otherwise preoccupied -- managed to cut the yard of muslin: Jacob folded it into a triangle and used it to sling the bone-broke man's arm.
"You behave yourself," he said, "and I'll fetch you down to see Doc. Trifle with me and I'll punch you right in that broke down collar bone. You'll wet yourself it'll hurt so bad and there's a big vessel runs behind it and likely you'll bleed to death. Now you gonna behave?"

Emma Cooper woke in her husband's arms, warm and enveloped by his muscled and manly limbs: she made a sleepy little sound and felt his arms tighten, very slightly, and she sighed and relaxed again, content.
Jackson Cooper stared at the wall opposite, seeing his wife lying in the dirt street, bloodied, still, unmoving, trapped under the dying horse, and he tasted once again the bitter-ash flavor of panic on the back of his tongue.
He tightened his arms a little, ever so slightly, and Emma wiggled just a little, and sighed.

The Blaze Boys ran along the back alley parallel to the railroad tracks, laughing: it was cool out, they could taste the rain coming, and in the distance, the ore train was outbound, making all the fine sounds of a heavy freight on a hard pull.
One lad reached over and slapped the other's shoulder and they both stopped and looked up.
It was beginning to snow.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-7-12

 

Elk are social creatures. Their chirps and mews let all and sundry know what's occurring in each other's worlds at any given moment, and let the cows keep track of their rambunctious offspring. Charlie lay quietly beneath the low-spreading branches of an ancient fir, snug and comfortable on the layers of soft needles, listening to their conversation as the small herd fed around him, regretting that he had to be the one to spoil the serenity of the scene. On the other hand, he needed meat, and it is the natural order of the world that in order for some to live, others must give up their lives. It is the manner of their deaths, and the reason, that are important. If the hunter is properly appreciative of the results of the hunt, then justice has been served in the world.

He'd found their tracks the day before, the trail to the spring and its adjoining wallows well-carved by the cloven hooves of his quarry, showing that the waterhole and its environs was a regular haunt for the tan-hided ungulates. Hastily building a pole corral for his horse a long half mile away, and doing his best to cover any sign of his passing, to the point of sprinkling part of his hoarded supply of cow elk urine around and about his hiding place, he'd settled in to wait for the animals to appear.

The cold cellar at the ranch was stuffed nearly to the rafters with dried root vegetables, carrots, turnips and such, and several large burlap sacks were lumpy with taters stored for the winter. A fair amount of elk meat, and the remains of one large hog purchased mostly cured and smoked from the Daine brothers, took up their shares of the available shelf space. Charlie figured one more sizeable elk carcass should get them through the winter, which is why he had spent the night tucked in beneath the giant fir's boughs, a pair of Hudson's Bay wool blankets across his shoulders.

Parting the green of the flat boughs with just the muzzle of his rifle, Charlie peered out at the grazing herd. The first harbingers of the coming winter, a few tiny flakes of snow were drifting down the chill breeze, melting as soon as they touched the already water-beaded hair of the animals in front of him. The elk horn ivory bead of the front sight settled in the bottom of the buckhorn rear sight's notch, which in turn outlined the shoulder crease of the biggest cow in sight. His fingertip tensed, and the billowing white cloud of powder smoke rolled forth, obscuring his target but not the satisfying thud of lead striking home that seemed to echo through the blast of the shot. He racked a second round into the chamber as a precaution as the thunder of the herd's escape came to him through the ringing in his ears that was a fact of a life spent with guns, but he was sure it wouldn't be needed.

When the smoke had ridden its tattered way across the meadow on the tiny breeze Charlie peered out once again to see his quarry stretched motionless on the frost-seared grass. He worked his stiff-muscled way out into the open and pushed himself upright to stretch out the kinks of a night spent on the ground, comfortable though his needle bed had been. The snap, crackle and pop of joints abused by years of "If I'd known I was gonna live this long I'd've taken better care of myself" accompanied his movements until he'd gotten everything pretty much settled back where it belonged, then he strode toward the downed elk. He spent a head-bowed moment in thanks to the Creator for His generosity, then reached for the razor sharp skinning knife on his belt. Now the work started.

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Linn Keller 11-8-12

 

"You could retire, you know."
Esther's voice was quiet in the dining room; Angela was standing on a kitchen chair, watching the maid punch a big lump of dough into submission: flour on Angela's diminutive knuckles showed that she, too, got her licks in -- which probably explained the giggles I heard earlier.
Breakfast was finished; I hadn't disposed of all my coffee, so my mug and saucer were the last items left on the table.
Esther had the twins cradled to her and I wondered again just how strong that woman's arms were: to hold a weight, for that length of time, had to be tiring, and yet she showed no sign of fatigue.
Women, I thought again, and for the several thousandth time, are strong and amazing creatures.
"I could," I nodded slowly, turning the mug on its saucer and not looking up.
"I don't want to be a young widow," Esther said, and that brought me up short.
I know my expression was shocked.
I'm not sure Esther knew why.
Hell, she probably knew.
Women -- especially my green-eyed bride -- tend to find things out.
I'd never told Esther that was the last thing Connie told me right before I rode off to that damned War again, as she stood by our cabin holding our little girl ... she looked at me with those brown eyes, those eyes I could swim in, dark and bottomless and my God, I looked across the table and I saw Connie again ... but only for a moment.
I closed my eyes and swallowed, hard.
I would have taken a long breath but my ribs were still wrapped tight.
"Jacob can take over," Esther said. "He is a fine lawman. You said so yourself. He has been Sheriff in your stead." Esther shifted in her seat; Alfdis was at her elbow, and Esther nodded for her to take our little boy-baby.
"What about Annette?" I asked, my voice tight. "She doesn't want to be a young widow either."
Esther blinked rapidly, several times, and Alfdis brought our son over and placed him carefully on my lap, or started to.
"Oh, he needs changed," she murmured, and turned: I said "Lay him down here, we'll tend that detail."
A more fastidious household might frown at changing a baby's butt on the dining room table.
I had no such qualms.
I lived in conditions that would shock a civilized man during that damned War, and at times, after; a wiser man than I said that any Texas cowboy could honestly admit to drinking out of a cow track, and I drank water the color of sassafras tea and was grateful for it: the table, if dirtied, could be cleaned, and so I unpinned the little lad's diaper as he wiggled and smiled up at me and made those charming little baby noises that an infant makes when they know they're going to be made clean and dry and a new diaper applied.
Alfdis turned to get supplies and I went ahead and unpinned the diaper.
Little boy babies have a certain reflex.
When air hits a particular part of the anatomy, the valve opens, and sure enough, it did.
He caught me right between the eyes.
I backed up a little, one hand on the child -- he was laying with his head toward the center of the table, and I know a mother can change a baby on the narrow edge of a 2x4 and make it look easy -- but I know my luck -- as I was not changing him on the floor (he can't fall off the floor!) I was taking no chances on his rolling off that broad and generous table: I held him with one hand and fetched loose my kerchief with the other and wiped the wet and drippy off my mug, laughing as I did so.
There was a step behind me; I presumed it Alfdis, and Esther looked up with a smile.
"My dear," I said, "I believe the lad has chosen his life's vocation. The ministry. Methodist, I believe, for they baptize by sprinkling!"
Esther nodded and I looked and Parson Belden was standing behind me, his face red and his grin broad and genuine.
I shook my head and let Alfdis take over.
"Parson," I said ruefully, shaking my head, "I can get in trouble just sitting in my easy chair! Let me go warsh my dirty cotton pickers and I'll shake your hand. How's for some pie?"

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Linn Keller 11-9-12

 

Jacob dragged the unconscious prisoner by his shirt collar and made the one with the broke collar bone walk ahead of him.
He was not feeling particularly charitable; matter of fact his eyes were pale and he was feeling just a bit more than right irritated.
He'd left the mattock handle in the Mercantile and had his rifle in hand, resting over his shoulder: it wasn't terribly far to the hospital but by the time he got there he was firmly of the notion that he should have snugged his lariat around part of this fellow's carcass and dragged him there with his stallion.
Maybe, he thought sourly, I should have done it with the noose around his neck.
Jacob looked back after he passed the bank.
Three fellows rode up to the bank and Jacob knew that meant trouble, just by the look of them.
He dropped the handful of limp outlaw and said to the other "You go on ahead to that shining building yonder and yank on the bell pull. Doc will set your arm up in good shape."
He glanced left, saw the Blaze Boys looking at him from the mouth of an alley.
Jacob summoned them with a jerk of his head.
"Fellas, you do me a favor and run on ahead to the horse pistol yonder. Tell Doc this fellow with the bum wing is a prisoner and don't cut him no slack."
"Yes, sir!" the boys chorused, going from a grinning stop to a pelting sprint for the front door of the polished quartz hospital.
Jacob took three long steps out into the street, laying his thumb over the Winchester's hammer spur.
He felt his belly tighten as the deep BOOOOM of a shotgun, fired indoors, pushed against his ears.

Tom Landers was on the ground, curled up, bleeding: his face was bloody, his nose wrecked: two other men, one dead, the other almost, lay nearby: miners, ranchers, drink and hot words are a bad combination, and right now one of the miners was swinging a chair hard against the floor with intent to reduce it to more convenient components.
Another of the miners -- a man with whom Adkons had labored, with whom he'd shared the contents of his lunch pail in the chilly darkness of the lamp-lit mineshaft, a man who said the wrong thing to his fellow -- clutching his belly and bleeding heavily, staggered for the front doors: Tillie was ducked down behind the counter as he staggered past, wheezing: he managed to fumble the door open and fell out, then down the three steps to the dirt street.
Digger watched, his eyes widening a little: he assessed the fellow on the ground, nodding a little, then turned to the mirror on the wall beside the door.
Straightening his necktie, he reached for his black silk topper.
"Business is picking up," he murmured to his reflection, then smiled.
"Picking up!" he laughed, nodding. "Business is picking up!"
Turning, he called to his assistant.

Adkons was a miner, and a hard man, known for hard knuckles, a hard head and a hard temper.
Adkons snatched up a broke-off leg from the chair he'd broke over another man's back and then slammed against the floor, found the chair leg too light for his taste: ducking a fist, he grabbed the seat, blocked the next punch, then used it to slam a man back against another, knocking both into a table and crushing it to the floor: he took the hardwood seat and swung it sidewise, catching a man over the ear with its edge, crushing in his skull and killling him on the moment.
He snatched up a dropped knife, grabbed another man by the throat and drove the blade like a sewing machine into the fellow's gut, hitting hard and hitting high and driving red steel deep.
Mr. Baxter managed to block two beer mugs that sailed in low ballistic arcs toward the prized, heavy glass mirror behind the bar: the round tray he held wobbled in mid-air as he surrendered that effort to chance, preferring to dive for the double gun under his bar.
He came up, laid the twin barrels over the mahogany, saw the man putting the knife to another, and savagely yanked the right hand barrel's trigger, detonating a healthy charge of double-F under the column of swan shot: at this abbreviated distance, the shot opened up to the width of two fingers,and carried the shredded remnants of the man's heart out the far side of his rib cage.
Adkons managed to stab the dead man he held, twice more, before he too sank to the floor and added his gore to the mess already there.

Beatrice Dean, President of the Firelands bank, reached under her desk as she saw the pair come in.
The first one fired a casual shot into the ceiling and began shouting.
Beatrice reached down and put both thumbs on the stubby horse pistol's twin hammers, pulled them back, then stood up and marched down the little hall to the bank's lobby.
"NOW DON'T DO ANYTHING FOOLISH, FOLKS, AND NOBODY GETS HURT! YOU! OPEN THE VAULT AND NO STALLIN'!"
Beatrice came to the doorway and thrust the cut-down double at the man.
The twin barrels were a foot long, the stock cut on the curve of the pistol grip: it was good for across the room, if the room wasn't too wide, and it was perfect for today.
Beatrice took this fellow through the upper arm and the ribs and swung to the other fellow, the one in the long duster: he snapped a shot at her and something tugged at her hair and she pushed the muzzle toward him and ran her middle finger around the back trigger and gave it a tug.
The third man, their leader, the planner of this raid, saw his designated desperado fall backwards out the front door, blood on his back, and as he fell back and lay arms spread and dead face to the sky, his front was even more red than his back.
Drawing his long-barrel Smith & Wesson, he jerked savagely at his mare's reins: the mare had a soft mouth and a short temper and she objected strenuously to such cavalier treatment -- so much so that the fellow found himself falling through space, landing hard on his back and watching the gleaming steel shod hooves of his mount heading back the way she'd come, and taking the rest of the mare with them.

The one-armed proprietor's hand shook as he considered the revolver he held.
He looked toward the door, hearing shots -- a pause -- a heavy BOOM -- and he knew things were bad and getting rapidly worse.
His cheek hurt where he'd been clobbered; the pair laughed that a laid-up Sheriff and a grieving marshal meant easy pickin's, at least until that tall skinny deputy with unforgiving pale eyes came in like a Texas twister and laid the pair out, fast, hard and nasty.
The shopkeeper fed cartridges into the .32, closed the action, slipped it into his apron pocket, his hand welded around the handle.
He didn't think he could let go of the checkered walnut grip if he had to.

The outlaw leader tried to roll over.
A well polished townie shoe stepped hard on his wrist, pinning the nickle plated Smith to the dirt.
The outlaw looked up to see the business end of a .38 owl head looking down at him, the rat-faced fellow behind it all in black and wearing a stovepipe hat.
Digger smiled, and the smile was not terribly pleasant.
"I do enjoy meeting prospective clients," he said in an unctuous tone.
Jacob walked up to the man, the muzzle of his big 50 considerably more impressive than the Owl Head Digger held.
"Who the hell are you? The preacher?" the outlaw rasped.
"Oh, no," Digger smiled, his voice oily, pleasant. "I'm the undertaker."
"Mister," Jacob said, "you just come out in second place. Now you can come with me peacefully or you can go with the undertaker here and I guarantee you will be more peaceful than you've ever been." He set the barrel of his rifle on the man's crotch and eared back the hammer.
"Your choice."
Jacob knew his father spoke of situations that ran the color out of a man's face like running red ink out of an eyedropper.
This was the first time he genuinely saw such a thing happen.

Once Jacob got the fellow rolled over and his hands secured behind him, he stepped on the man's back between his shoulder blades and handed Digger his rifle.
"You, my friend, surprised me today," he said: plucking Digger's hat from his head, he ran his other hand around back of Digger's gourd, pulled it to him and kissed Digger's forehead. "Love you, dear."
Digger's expression was shocked: he snatched the hat from Jacob's hand, clapped it hard on his head, then yanked it back off and scrubbed his forehead with his coat sleeve, slapped the hat back on, all the time glaring at the grinning deputy.
Glare faded and both men began to laugh.
Digger shook his head and waved to his assistant, waiting in the alley with the dead wagon: they began collecting their harvest, and when Jacob came up and laid his hand on Digger's shoulder, he said quietly, "You've earned your pay today. Love you, dear," and Digger laughed, clapped his own manicured hand on Jacob's square-muscled shoulder: "Love you, dear," he replied, and both men laughed.

Jackson Cooper came riding down the main street on his fuzzy footed plow horse maybe fifteen minutes later.
By coincidence he stopped at the Mercantile first.
Four minutes later, his jaw set and his hands knotted into fists, he strode out of the Mercantile and diagonally across the street to the Silver Jewel.
He stopped to consider the size of the bloody area at the foot of the stairs, read the story the broad blood stains on boardwalk and stairs told, pulled the tab loose on his Remington and hauled open the door to the Silver Jewel.
He was considerably longer leaving this fixture, in part because Tillie decided it was time to crawl out from under the counter, and she headed for the first oasis of safety she saw, and that was better than six and a half feet of muscle and hard-knuckled fists disguised as the town Marshal, and Jackson Cooper took his report with a frightened woman clinging desperately to him: so loath was he to pry away her desperate grip, that he picked her up and carried her down to the attorney's office, where she was only too happy to transfer her panicked clutches to her own dear husband.

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Linn Keller 11-9-12

 

My hired man winked and give me a nod and that was good enough for me.
I asked him not to tell anyone that I had to have him saddle my mare, and that I used the mounting block to get up into the saddle.
I didn't want anyone to know I was still pretty tender from where Jackson Cooper knocked my ribs out and Doc shoved them back, so I asked my hired man not to tell anyone.
Cannonball stepped out easy and smooth and we headed ourselves into town.

Jacob took the one armed storekeeper's chin between thumb and forefinger and turned the man's head a little one way, then the other: nodding once, he released his grip.
"That's the only place they slugged you, the face?" he asked quietly.
The storekeep nodded.
"Did they take anything?"
"They had no chance," the storekeep said, his voice almost steady now: he sat heavily in his swivel chair, looked up at the tall, skinny deputy regarding him with quiet eyes. "Once they had their fun with me, you slipped in the back and thank you for that."
Jacob nodded, his eyes busy: he mentally reviewed developments here, laying out his report before even touching pen to paper, then looked back at the storekeeper.
"You be all right?" he asked with a nod.
The storekeep nodded, swallowing.
"I'll be between here and there, should you need me," Jacob said. "Likely check the Sheriff's office first."
Jacob paced off on the left, moving easy, moving slow, for all the world relaxed and unconcerned.
The storekeeper looked at the mattock handle, still leaned against a display.
He pulled open a drawer, brought out a flat oval bottle, pulled the cork with his teeth and took a long, gurgling pull of amber nerve tonic.
150 proof amber nerve tonic.

Jackson Cooper leaned against the bar, looking at the destruction: it was rare for a good knock down drag out to erupt in the Silver Jewel -- Tom Landers rode herd pretty well, and Firelands had a reputation few men wanted to test -- but this, this was an exception, and Jackson Cooper inquired of everyone who'd been there (and was not still running for the far horizon) as to what they saw.
Jackson Cooper knew early in his investigation that he would have more information than he could remember, so he had a few sheets of paper, folded in half and half again, and a fresh point whittled on his pencil: as he spoke with Mr. Baxter, he printed the particulars he'd need to refresh his memory; as he spoke with Dolly, he wrote more; he walked down to the lawyer's office just past the bank and took Tilly's statement, while she sat holding her husband's hand, and then he came back to the bank.
Beatrice was still ruffled up and indiginant and reminded Jackson Cooper of a Banty hen all furred out and incensed: he removed his cover as he came across the threshold, looking around, and almost immediately Beatrice was on him, seizing his arm, steering him this way, pointing at that, describing something else: he followed her pointing finger toward the ceiling, toward the holdup's bullet hole, and listened to Beatrice clucking and fussing about the carelessness of the man who didn't have to patch the roof he just shot up; she pulled him to the end of the hall and showed where she'd stood, and pantomined taking the shot, here, then here -- she reached up and stabbed at the hole in the wall behind her with a stiff finger, loudly condemning the shooter to a terrible fate for putting a round through her hairdo and after all the trouble she went to getting it all put up and if he had to put his hair up like this he surely wouldn't shoot a woman's coiffeure -- Jackson Cooper took advantage of a counter to lay his folded paper, unfolded it to expose a fresh square, and carefully noted the distilled essence of Beatrice Dean's words.
Finally he and Jacob met and each described their findings, and Jackson Cooper wrote some more, bent over with his paper across his thigh, for Jacob spoke of the dead in the street.
Finally he went over to Digger's emporium and took inventory of the dead, identified who was victim, who was antagonist, who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It was a couple of hours before he went to their fine little stone hospital to see about the prisoners.

I rode into town nice and easy and I could tell something wasn't right.
There was nothing I could really put my finger on, but something didn't smell right.
I realized that was part of it: I recognized the smell: blood, and gunpowder, dilute and faint but ... distinct.
I rode slowly past the firehouse; it was closed up, the Brigade apparently still within.
I looked over toward the bank, leaned back in the saddle: Cannonball stopped obediently, snuffing loudly at the dark stain on the board porch in front of the bank.
I started reading the story in the dirt and my belly sank some.
I walked Cannonball on up the street, my eyes peeling every layer of information from the ground they possibly could.
The schoolhouse was empty, silent: I was grateful it was Saturday ... something happened here, I knew not what, though I suspected it was not pleasant and it was not gentle, and better no children were about.
"Ho," I called, and stared at dark blood in front of the Jewel, on the boardwalk, down the stairs, on the street.
I felt eyes on me and turned my mare.
Jacob was watching me from the door of the Sheriff's office.
We walked over to the little log fortress we called home, and I dismounted carefully, stepping down onto the board walk: I would re-mount from the same location, but later.
Right now I wished to speak with my son.
What he had to say wasn't quite what I expected.
Jacob's face was red, his cheeks like apples, his eyes were merry, and I turned to face the door as I pulled it shut so I would not twist my poor abused ribs: they hurt bad enough without any further aggravation.
Jacob pointed to the right hand wall and said "Digger --" and grinned, then he took a long breath and tried again: "Sir, you ... Digger --"
It was too much for him.
Jacob leaned the heels of his hands on his knees and he stood there bent over, feet well apart, laughing: finally he shook his head and took a long breath and tried one more time.
"Sir," he said, "God forgive me, I just made Digger look like he swallered a raw fish!"
I turned my head a little, regarding my son curiously.
"Sir," he said, "he helped me apprehend the man back in number 3. Brought a pistol, he did, and stepped on that fella's wrist like he knew what he was a-doin'.
"When all was said and done --"
Jacob's face was beyond red; it was past scarlet, it was kind of burgundy by now and I was fearful my son would either dissolve in a pile of giggles, or he'd blow the head off his shoulders with suppressed laughter.
Neither one happened.
"Sir," he said, "once I had possession of the fellow back in number 3 cell --"
Jacob grinned.
"Sir, I whipped Digger's hat off and grabbed him around the head, I kissed his forehead and said 'Love you, dear,' and he looked like I'd just fed him axle grease and sawdust for breakfast!"
Jacob surrendered himself to laughter, and sat slowly in one of the guest chairs.
"Hey out there!" a woman's short tempered screech grated at us. "It's gettin' crowded back here! Cain't a woman get any sleep? Why in my day --"
There were groans, there was the sound of a locked cell door being shaken.
"Love you, dear," Jacob laughed, his eyes squinted shut, head thrown back, tears squeezing out the corners of his tight-shut eyeballs: I smiled a little and let him laugh.
We all deal with horror in our own way, and if this was how he kept himself from going screaming insane, far be it from me to say him nay for his laughter.

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Linn Keller 11-10-12

 

Tom Landers set in a chair on the back porch of the hospital, looking out over the back field, thinking.
The Sheriff set in the chair beside his, doing the same.
Two old lawmen regarded the far horizon, each sorting out his thoughts, each man set down on a cushion: they would have disdained such affectation in another venue, but here, in this place of healing, both were healing and neither refused the kindness of that setting pillow.
Silence grew long between the two greying peacekeepers, a companionable silence as they brought order to the mental chaos of the accumulated information each acquired over the past few hours.
The Sheriff was a man who preferred to utilize available resources: when he took over the badge, he immediately hired the outgoing officer as chief peacekeeper at the Silver Jewel: he knew how hard it was to make a living on a pension, if there was a pension at all -- he doubted there was -- and in this era, a man generally worked until he fell over dead, for retirement was sometimes spoken of but seldom taken.
Rare indeed was the man who could actually afford to retire.
Generally a man had sons so he could live with them in his old age.
Besides, Tom Landers was known, and proven, experienced, and the Sheriff saw no sense in letting all that go to waste.
"Tom," the Sheriff finally said, "this surprised me."
Tom Landers nodded, carefully, for his head hurt, his face hurt and his neck was still sore from the beatin' he'd gotten early on in the young war that brought such damage to their beloved Jewel.
"I know a lie will get around the world before the truth gets its boots on, and I know bad news travels fast, but God help me! -- I did not know word of my injury and the idea that Emma Cooper was killed and the Marshal in mourning would whistle through the territory like that!"
"It does not take long," Tom agreed quietly.
The door opened between them; Nurse Susan came out, carrying a tray with two tall glasses.
She set it on the little table between the two men, placed a glass in easy reach of each, then looked from one to the other.
"Doctor's orders," she said. "For medicinal purposes only."
The two men reached carefully, slowly, for it hurt to reach, to twist: Nurse Susan discreetly placed a glass in each of their hands, then withdrew.
Tom sampled his, rolled it across his tongue, swallowed: his left eyebrow raised in surprise, in pleasure.
The Sheriff, too, took a cautious sip: medicinals, in his experience, were bitter as quinine, but this wasn't bad at all: smooth, the flavor of mint, with a promise of strength, of authority.
The Sheriff smiled.
"I wish she was still out here," he murmured.
Tom Landers turned his head slightly toward the Sheriff.
"Oh?" he asked in his typical, long-worded manner.
"It has been a long time," the Sheriff said thoughtfully, "a very, very long time, since I had a good mint julep." He looked over at his friend. "I wanted to tell her thank you."
Tom sipped his again, and silence once again lay thick upon the pair.
At length the Sheriff said "It will be odd to look at my log book."
"How's that?" Tom asked in an equally quiet voice.
"Jackson Cooper borrowed it after Jacob entered his accounts. He has no patience for writing. I reckon he will dictate to Emma Cooper and she will write in it for him."
Tom Landers' face tightened a little.
It hurt to smile, but he tried anyway, for the thought of Emma Cooper's delicate, feminine hand as part of the permanent record struck him as ... well, different ... and besides he couldn't help but like the diminutive schoolmarm with the shining eyes and immaculate manners.
"How is Emma?" Tom asked, resting the glass on his thigh, as if it were too heavy to hold up.
"I'll bet he sent a boy up high to fetch back snow," the Sheriff speculated, looking at the nearly melted slush in his glass, and took another sip.
"Likely," Tom agreed.
"The Blaze boys, I reckon. Those two can get in more trouble faster than any pair I ever saw but if you want something done they are Johnny on the spot!"
"They are that."
"Emma."
It was the Sheriff's turn to set his glass down on his thigh, and for the same reason.
"Poor little Emma, she's stove up and sore and can't hardly turn over in bed."
Tom Landers frowned a little to hear it.
"Jackson Cooper was nursemaidin' her until hell come to visit."
"Mm." Tom Landers grunted his understanding.
"The ladies got a maid for her and the maid took over now that Jackson Cooper is out of the road and she can get some work done."
Tom Landers laughed, carefully, painfully: the Sheriff favored him with an understanding look, for he knew how much it hurt to laugh his own self.
"The ladies set up some kind of a schedule so they take turns fixin' meals for them. Jackson Cooper said he never et so well since he met Emma and now the vittles aren't the same ... he's ashamed to admit he likes to eat other folks' cookin' too."
The ex-Sheriff, and the current Sheriff, were quiet for another long time: shadows lengthened and the air was getting a little cooler, but neither man was inclined to go inside quite yet.
"Tom Landers, when do you figure to get married ag'in?"
Tom Landers turned his head a few degrees, swung his eyes hard over to try and glare at the Sheriff.
"Are you not being rather forward, my old friend?" he asked carefully.
The Sheriff turned his head slowly, pushing against the pain, and glared just as harshly at the old fellow sitting beside him.
"No," he replied, his voice serious. "Tom, you are one of the most honorable and decent men I know. I heard about Mary and from what I gather she was an angel in shoe leather. It ain't fittin' for a man to run in single harness when he's got a heart big enough to hold a good woman inside."
Tom Landers' eyes drifted to the horizon and the Sheriff saw the man's expression soften a little.
"Tom, only a friend would speak and be forward and you and I have been friends for donkey's years now. There is no shame in marryin' ag'in, there is no dishonor to Mary's memory to allow yourself feelin's for another woman."
Tom Landers stared into the distance, remembering.
"Mary was the one most unselfish soul you ever knew. You told me as much your own self. She would not be so dog in the manger as to deny you a living woman's hand in yours."
Tom Landers closed his eyes, exhaled painfully, nodded.
"I ain't sayin' go runnin' to the nearest Sears and Sawbuck catalog and order yourself a bride," the Sheriff continued, the ghost of a grin pulling at his ears, and Tom Landers' ears pulled back as well as he imagined a crate being unloaded from the box car, the lid being pried back, and a bride in full gown and veil stepping out, bouquet in hand.
Tom Landers raised his julep, hesitated.
"I will ask a favor," he whispered.
"Ask."
"Stand with me when I do."
The Sheriff hoisted his glass.
"My honor," he said.
The two men drank.

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Linn Keller 11-12-12

 

"Now where's your Pa?" the dusty fellow demanded.
"Well, let's see," Jacob said, pretending to study a passing cloud while fishing out a hunter cased watch from his vest pocket. "Today is what, Saturday?"
The fellow crossed his wrists on his saddle horn, spat. "Yeah, so?"
Jacob pretended to study the watch's dial, then snapped the cover shut and slid the engraved watch back into its receptacle.
"Today's Saturday, it's just short of noon time, I reckon he's over in Cripple settin' down t' eat."
"Now what the hell's he doin' in Cripple? Ain't he Sheriff here?"
"He's Sheriff in the hull darn county, same as me," Jacob said quietly, pale eyes steady under half-shut lids: he sat easy in his saddle, loose, relaxed.
He looked like someone who could kill you in two tenths of a second, unless he was in a hurry, in which case he could do it more quickly, and the nosy stranger knew this as well.
"Now that sounds like a waste! Cripple has a town marshal -- say, what about the marshal here in Firelands? Where's he gone off to?"
"Last I saw," Jacob said mildly, "he was a-goin' through the effects of the several dead."
"Dead!" the stranger demanded, his voice loud, harsh. "Whattaya mean dead?"
"Well," Jacob drawled, his Apple-horse hip shot and lazy beneath him, "near as we can tell, some fellows allowed as the school marm got killed an' the Marshal was a-grievin' in a rain barrel or some such foolishness, and they allowed as the Sheriff got run over by a freight train or a herd o' buffalo or somethin' just as silly an' was a-layin' in bed with ever' rib and' most of his back bone broke.
They-all figured Firelands was wide open so they come an' figured to pack off as much as they could.
"I reckon what's left of 'em will be planted tomorrow."
"What's left of 'em?" the fellow asked, suddenly tentative.
Jacob smiled, and his smile was not pleasant.
"More ghosts to keep us company," he said. "We got several, y'know."
"Ghosts." The fellow swallowed hard. "You reckon them fellers what got killed ...
...ghosts?"
Jacob nodded, slowly, once, never taking his eyes off the dusty stranger.
"I, I, don't believe in no ghosts!" the man stammered.
"Pity," a light, feminine voice said from behind him and he turned suddenly, then froze at the burning kiss of honed steel against his neck.
Shining steel hung steady, just close enough to slice the first layer of skin but no more, just enough to burn like a thin line of fire, just enough to bring a single blood drop wide trickle down his throat.
The blade was roughly cross shaped, and riveted with a deep socket onto a long, straight shaft.
The shaft was couched under the arm of a pretty young girl with long chestnut hair, wearing a white silk gown.
"You really shouldn't make fun of ghosts," she said, her voice pleasant, rich red lips curled into a slight smile: "you see, we have feelings, too."
"We?" the fellow squeaked.
"Oh, ya," Jacob said casually. "There is a young girl's ghost rides these mountains, rides a horse black as a sinner's heart and bigger than any natural horse ever nailed to horse shoes and saddled. Some say she wears a gown of angel hair white and carries a spear of pure silver.
"Of course the only ones who can see her are the ones about two heartbeats away from their own death."
Jacob's voice was nonchalant, matter-of-fact, as if he were discussing a facet of the local weather.
"Yes, sir, there's only one man on God's green earth ever lived after seein' her.
"He run just as hard as he could for the nearest church an' spent the next twelve hours on his belly in front of the altar screamin' for absolution.
"I think they locked him up in one of them-there insane asylums back East."
Sarah's smile was pleasant; Jacob looked at the fellow, waiting for his words to take effect.
"He ... how'd he get away?" the fellow squeaked through a suddenly dry and constricted throat.
"He run," Jacob said simply. "He run, fast and hard and never so much as looked back. He run for the nearest church an' he never looked to see if she was a-follow, for ghosts can walk faster than a man afoot can sprint, but he had a good horse under him --"
The dusty fellow's face was sallow now: his eyes wide, starting to bulge, he spurred his mount viciously, cutting the mare across the hinder with the tag end of his reins: three seconds into his desperate escape, he let loose a yell of sheer terror that echoed for a surprising length of time from the mountains' harsh facets and sheer walls.
Sarah raised her boar-spear to the vertical -- the new spear she'd just received from Black Smith, who forged it out according to her drawing and specifications, replacing the one that was burnt and lost in the house fire -- she walked her Snowflake up beside Apple-horse, utterly dwarfing the full grown Appaloosa stallion.
Jacob's eyes were bright, merry, and Sarah's pale blue eyes darkened as the two of them shared a wordless moment: finally Sarah blinked and said "Well?"
Jacob could stand it no longer: a grin cracked his face and he turned his head down and away as he bit back uproarious laughter: finally, after a few sniggers and snorts, he looked at Sarah and said "I oughta turn you over my knee and swat your bottom for that!"
"Catch me first!" Sarah replied, her tone light and bantering, and the pair of them looked after the rapidly departing outlaw, come to follow up on his fellows' depredations, now running for the sake of his eternal soul and corporeal life both from the ghost-girl in a robe of angel-hair white, ready to use that shining silver cross shaped blade to relieve his mortal clay of its eternal essence.

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Linn Keller 11-13-12

 

Jacob and Sarah rode back to Firelands: Jacob departed on official business, it was taken care of with surprising ease, and so he had the rest of the day to be rather at loose ends. Now that he had Sarah as a riding partner, he had the chance for something he'd been thinking on for some time.
He rode beside her for a while, looking over and rather frankly appraising this surprising girl-creature in white silk, young and innocent looking, the curves she was showing giving lie to the first impression of a young girl: Sarah was growing up, he knew, and growing up beautiful: she had a smile on her up-curving lips, the chill air was bringing out the healthy pink in her cheeks; her eyes were a darker blue, lovely as a clear summer sky, her hair floated behind her, the healthy, shiny color of a well fed wolf's pelt.
"Ho," Jacob said quietly, and they both ho'd.
Sarah, too, was busy looking around, and gave Jacob a few equally appraising looks: to her amusement, she found herself liking this tall, skinny deputy for himself, not just because he was half-brother and blood kin: she saw a tall, tanned fellow with a quiet smile and blue eyes the color of a cloudless firmament, a soft, down-turned mustache, so completely at home in the saddle that he didn't seem to be riding the horse as much as growing out of its back.
When he called a halt, she stopped; they both dismounted, and Jacob tied off his Apple horse to a handy branch, and she the same with Snowflake.
Jacob blinked a couple times and shoved his bottom jaw out, frowning a little, and Sarah smiled a little, for he looked so much like their father when he did that: she tilted her head a little, leaning the hand forged lance against the tree whose branch offered the convenient tether.
Jacob laid warm and gentle hands on Sarah's shoulders and looked her square in the eye.
"Sis," he said, "I am pretty damned proud of you."
Sarah reached up and grasped Jacob's upper arms, blinking rapidly and biting her bottom lip.
Now she does look like Bonnie, don't she, Jacob thought, and Sarah saw a smile start to crinkle up at the corners of his eyes.
I'll bet that mustache is soft, Sarah thought, and reached up to stroke it with the back of her finger.
Jacob pretended to bite at her finer and Sarah laid her hand against his cheek.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Jacob was quiet for a long moment and she could almost hear the gears turning in his head.
She waited.
Jacob looked away, took a long breath, then he stepped in and hugged Sarah to him, holding her with a surprising strength: Sarah squeezed him right back, surprising him as well, and the two stood for a minute, silent, unmoving, each rejoicing in the other's embrace.
"I was a-gonna tell you that I only have one of you," Jacob said quietly, his head laid over, his cheek on top of Sarah's head: "I was a-gonna tell you to be careful and I want to see you around for a long time to come."
Sarah drew back and looked up at her big brother, her eyes bright, and she punched him lightly in the middle of the chest: "I was going to tell you the same thing, you long tall drink of water!"
Jacob looked down at Sarah and she saw a change in his eyes, just before his white teeth showed under his mustache and he chuckled a little.
"Do you realize," he said, "was I not married already -- and were we not blood -- I would be on one knee right now with my hat in my hand, asking you to be my wife."
Sarah's eyes went big at this and her mouth opened a little.
"Sarah, you are probably the best thing I've seen in my young life. I could not design a better wife, a more ideal companion if I set down at an engineer's board and drafted one up."
"Oh." Sarah's expression was suddenly open, unguarded, and Jacob saw honest surprise, and something else.
"I'm not proposing to you," he whispered, his own hand resting on her cheek, his thumb caressing along her cheek bone. "I wanted you to know what you mean to me. I won't speak for Pa or anyone else, but Sarah --"
Sarah's stomach fell about three feet as she realized Jacob had been holding this in for a very long time, and he was giving her the straight of it, and this would probably be the only time in her entire life she would ever hear what he really thought on the matter.
"Sarah, Pa is gettin' on in years and one of these days he's likely to come up ag'in someone faster or meaner than he is and he'll be gone. Annette is young and healthy and God willing she'll be around but" -- Jacob grinned shyly, and Sarah saw his ears start to turn red -- "don't tell no one yet, but we got another bun in the oven!"
Sarah squeaked a little, clutched Jacob's arms and bounced a little on her toes, and Jacob hugged her again, laughing, then he drew her away and got serious again.
"Sarah, childbirth is ... it scares me, Sarah. Women die givin' birth, or after."
"Women have been birthing children since the Garden," Sarah said quietly.
"I know," Jacob said, nodding, "but ... Sarah, I've birthed women of their babies and it's hard, it's ..."
Jacob swallowed and slid his hands down Sarah's arms, grasped her hands lightly, carefully.
"There isn't much in this lifetime scares me, Sarah. You know I've been hurt bad."
Sarah nodded.
"I near to been killed and I've killed my own self and that does not a-fear me. I seen men hurt and that feared me not. When Pa was shot, back when I was young" -- Jacob's expression was haunted, and he saw that fell moment again, when the Sheriff grunted and twisted and fell in slow motion, his low ribs bloodied, just before the second shot hit his bit Sam-horse and Jacob came helling out of the Sheriff's office screaming defiance and firing his Army Colt, trying to drag his Pa's limp carcass up over the edge of the board walk one-handed --
"Jacob."
Sarah's whisper penetrated the tan haze that claimed him and he blinked, shivered.
"I'm here, Jacob," she whispered. "Jacob, look at me. Look, at, me!"
Jacob's hands were tight, trembling on her shoulders.
He looked at her, blinked the fear from his eyes.
"You were there again, weren't you?"
Jacob nodded, looking away.
Sarah reached up, seized his jaw, turned his face toward her.
"I do that too, Jacob. You are not alone!"
Her whisper was fierce, her eyes pale, her hand tight and almost painful on his face.
Sarah pulled her hand back, made a fist, thumped it gently against his breast bone.
"You pale eyed gun slinging hard knuckled meat eatin' heart breakin' savage, there's something I have to say to you too," Sarah hissed, looking up at her big brother with a fierce intensity.
"I loved you from the first time I saw you, back when I wore curls and pigtails and pinafores. I dreamed about you as a child and once I found out we were blood I loved you all the more.
"I've only got one big brother!"
Her hands tightened in his lapels and she pulled him closer, her face tight, her eyes blazing: she shook him a little,or tried to; she might as well have tried shaking the waist-thick lodge pole pine behind her.
"I know things," she said, letting go of his coat and twisting away from him: "I don't know how I know them, but I know them." Her hands clasped themselves in front of her and she walked away from Jacob, turned suddenly, her silk skirt flaring a little as she spun: "Jacob, you have a son and you will have another and more. You will be a laughing old man with house full of young and laughter will visit itself often upon your lintel. You will die under your own roof with a life well lived and you will go to your Reward content in all you've done.
"Papa will die with a shotgun in his hands, alone in the darkness, and Esther will ride in on Edi to fetch his soul to Paradise, and them two long dead.
"I too will have young, and our line will continue, Jacob, we will carry Papa's blood into the future."
Sarah took two quick steps toward her brother, ran one arm behind him and laid her other hand flat on his breast. She looked up into his serious young face, her eyes bright, her voice urgent.
"Jacob, you take good care of yourself and I will take good care of myself, and you would be my first choice for a husband as well." She patted his necktie, leaned against his front, laying her ear against his chest and hearing his thumper thumping steadily behind his ribs: he put his arms protectively around her and held her, there in the mountain sunshine, with the wind quiet in the trees overhead and the sun warm on their shoulders, with two horses patiently tethered to a branch, and with a curly-black-furred, pink-tongued bear killin' dawg wallowing happily on a nearby stretch of sun-warmed rock, paws waving in the air, content in knowing not only was his beloved mistress nearby, he was also easing an itch that bedeviled him for the past hour.

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Linn Keller 11-14-12

 

Little Joseph laughed and ran across the floor of the Sheriff's office, my hat on his heat, or rather my hat down around his ears: he was takin' three steps to the yard and more but he wasn't lettin' that stop him.
Little Joseph grabbed the brim of my hat and hoist it up off his head at arm's length, looking with big and delighted eyes at the front door as someone banged on it and yelled "Hey Soapy! You in there?"
"Hell no I ain't here an' come on in!" I yelled back, and Little Joseph laughed and shouted "Good!"
I leaned over kind of careful and clapped my hands. "Come on over here, fella," I said gently, and Little Joseph grinned and charged for me, holding my hat at arm's length overhead, laughing, and I laughed too.
The door opened and the hanger-on poked his head in and he looked around kind of suspiciously, then looked at me and frowned.
"Ain't you supposed to be all crippled up?"
I relieved Little Joseph of my skypiece and clapped it on my head, set my jaw teeth together and picked up my grandson: I fetched him up onto my leg and said "Well, now, if I was all crippled up I reckon I'd know it, wouldn't I?"
The fellow whipped off his hat, slapping it against his leg and glared at me.
"Now daggone it, Soapy," he declared, "when a man's told that you was run over by a hull herd of buffalo and two freight wagons right here on the main drag, right in front of God an' ever'one, I'd 'spect you'd have at least a black eye!"
"Well, now," I said thoughtfully, rubbing my smooth-shaven jaw, "I do seem to recall somethin' about wearin' a set of wings, flutterin' from one cloud to another an' pluckin' at a three string harp there for a while."
"There! I knowed it! Now what in the name of Sam's billy goat happened to ye?"
"Well," I said thoughtfully, looking at my grinning grandson and his mouthful of teeth, "near as I kin tell I got shipped back here b'cause angels is supposed to sing an' the only songs that come to mind was dirty marchin' songs we used to sing back durin' that damned War."
"Damned war," Little Joseph said, clear as a bell.
"Don't be talkin' like that," I said sternly. "Your Aunt Sarah will stuff a cake of lye soap in my mouth for teachin' you such language!"
"Good!" Little Joseph laughed.
I looked up and shook my head. "I cain't get away with nothin'," I lamented, standing.
My ribs sent a sternly worded telegram to the rest of me, expressing their distinct displeasure and I reckon I turned a shade or two of pale but I stood and picked up my grandson as I did so, and stood him on the desk.
"Damned war," Little Joseph said proudly.
"Joseph," I said, "I'm a-gonna have to beat your butt for that."
I run my arm around his middle and bent him over and he wiggled and twisted and suddenly he was layin' on his back and I had my hand under his knee.
I wound up my hand and shook my head and said "IIIII'm a-gonn beat your biscuits," and Little Joseph laughed, and I shook my head again and wound my hand back for the second time and said "IIIII'm a-gonna swat your fanny somethin' fierce," and Little Joseph laughed and looked over at the grinning hanger-on, and I proceeded to stick my hand out from under his knee and I smacked the back of that hand with the one I had drawed back, smack-smack-smack-, while declaring loudly, "I'm a-gonna beatcherbutt, beatcherbutt, beatcherbutt," and Little Joseph laughed and giggled and rolled back and forth on top of my desk and a good thing I had my arm run under his leg to keep him from fallin' off.
Of a sudden I stopped in mid-smack and looked at the hand I'd been swatting, and I turned it over and over once more, peered closely at it and pointed at it -- "Joseph! How'd you do that? I thought I was beatin' your butt --"
"No Gwampa, you beatin' yourself!" Little Joseph laughed, and hiccupped, and I picked him up and he grabbed my hat and set it on his head.
"Well now," I said, "I reckon us poor sinners better git over to church then!"
"Good!" Little Joseph said, and the hanger-on shook his head and said "Soapy, I jist don't know about you," and drifted on out the door.
Little Joseph laughed when I stood him up on the hitch rail and bade him hold the porch post whilst I mounted, then I plucked him up and set him in front of me on the saddle, and Little Joseph laughed as we rode over across the street and down a little to our little whitewashed church.
Several faces turned toward us, smiling, for the laughter of a happy child is a fine thing to hear of a morning.
I dismounted and then run my arm behind Little Joseph and he slid over on my shoulder, and I carried him thusly up the steps and into the church, with him a-holdin' my Stetson at arm's length over his head.
Parson Belden was a-greetin' us all as we came in the door, and Little Joseph clapped my skypiece on the Parson's scalp and declared, "Damned war!"
Jacob laughed and grasped his little boy around the ribs and fetched him down off my shoulder, and I shook the Parson's hand and shook my head, laughing.
"Parson," I said ruefully, "don't never teach a little boy to say somethin' he hadn't ought, because he'll say it in church!"
The Parson and Jacob and I all laughed at that one, and Esther took my arm, and we headed on in for the Sunday service.

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Linn Keller 11-15-12

 

In the Victorian era, it was a paradox and a contradiction that while women in general were familiar with a variety of weapons, society expected them to be submissive and let their big, strong husbands protect them.
The reality, of course, was demonstrated by a reporter on a New York trolley car who, with pad and pencil in hand, stood and asked how many of his fellows were armed.
Almost to a man, everyone there produced a sidearm of some stripe, and even a woman drew a Navy Colt from a hidden recess, and in the condescending words of the reporter, "came forth like a little Man."
Sarah McKenna sat with her mother and the twins; the ladies wore matching gowns and hats, they sat in a careful row, prim, proper, hands folded, feet flat on the floor (or swinging the way children will when they can't reach the floor), looking patiently toward the pulpit as the Parson stepped behind the podium.
The Marshal and his wife were absent; Parson Belden made a mental note to go out to their house (his wife bade him take a pie and a couple loaves of bread, still warm and towel-wrapped) after services.
The Irish Brigade, as well, were represented; two, and only two, remained at the firehouse: they two held their devotions together, and spoke to St. Florian, the patron saint of fire fighters, talking to him as if to an old friend, asking his prayers to the Almighty that they have no alarms while their fellows were in the local church.
The Welsh Irishman sat still, absolutely still, and the New York Irishman knew this was not necessarily a good sign, for the man was a restless sort and had set up most of the night with foolscap paper and pen, running his fingers through his hair and attempting to command that which would not be commanded, trying to write what could not be written: at some time through the night he finally gave up and came to bed, and the New York Irishman fished one of the balled-up sheets from the trash can and discovered the man had been trying to write poetry: another, carefully un-wadded, and it was a man's desperate attempt to put his heart on paper.
The man, the New York Irishman realized, was absolutely, positively, head over well buffed bootheels, tee-totally in smacked-between-the-eyes infatuation can't-think-of-anything-else love ... but too damned shy to take the lass by the hand and say so to her face.
He carefully compressed the sheets back into the wadded balls of frustration they'd been and placed them in the trash can so they would make no noise and so betray his surveillance: now, this morning, as the two sat together in the pew, he noted his brother-at-arms looked straight ahead, very carefully not looking at anyone or any thing.
The New York Irishman, however, was looking around the way he always did, smiling, nodding, and he looked over to the family McKenna.
Bonnie Rosenthal, the mother, was looking at him, smiling, and he winked at her with a grin: there was something in the mother's expression that said she knew something, and the New York Irishman looked at the woman's lovely daughter sitting beside her, and the lamp lit over his head as he realized it was Sarah with whom Llewellyn was smitten.
Only then did he put together the jibes traded between the German Irishman and the Welsh Irishman, the snarled contests the two held as to how tall the pillar they'd build, upon which to set this unnamed object of their devotion, how rich the palace, how fine the gowns, how utterly a Queen they would make her.
The New York Irishman looked at his fellow, surprised, then back at Bonnie: she was now looking at her daughter with an appraising eye, then back to the firemen, and the New York Irishman looked back at her, then to his fellow.
Parson Belden looked over at Annette, at the piano; she began the introduction to the first hymn and the Parson called the congregation to its feet, announcing which hymn would be sung, and in the moment's hush, when the congregation drew its collective breath, young Joseph declared, "Good!"
The hymn had to wait a minute or so for everyone to stop laughing.
When the hymn was finished, the Parson, as usual, said "Please be seated," and three voices chorused "Good!"
At each step of the service -- let us pray, let us stand, please be seated, whatever it was -- more voices chorused "Good!" until finally at the end of the service, when Parson Belden raised his hand and bade them go in peace, every last throat declared "Good!" and the entire church shared a general laugh.
The Welsh Irishman stood and the New York Irishman noticed the man was breathing quickly, nervously: as they filed out, they two swung into the side aisle instead of the center, and made better progress rearward than the folk retreating down the middle.
By happy chance they came to the rear of the church, and the back door, at the same time as the Family Rosenthal, and the Welsh Irishman fell in behind the last of the Rosenthal girls.
The New York Irishman and Parson Belden both noticed how nervous the red-shirted Llewellyn was, shaking the good preacher's hand and stammering, red-faced, before bolting out the door: the Parson and the New York Irishman shared a knowing look, and the New York Irishman descended the stairs rather more slowly than had his fellow.
Bonnie leaned over and murmured something to Sarah: surprised, Sarah looked at her Mama, then turned and looked at Llewellyn, who was fumbling with something white, drawing it with trembling hand from the inside of his buttoned shirt's bib: it tore, and his distress was plain on his face, as if he'd just dropped a rare and very prized fragile china cup.
He looked up, his eyes wide as Sarah laid a gentle hand on his.
"Let me," she murmured.
The Welsh Irishman was not a man easily shaken.
He'd jumped from the hose tower into their safety-net, he'd rappelled off rooftops with only a braided line between himself and Eternity: he'd strode boldly into buildings from which sane and rational people were running as hard as they could, he'd walked into the Devil's parlor and shot him in the mouth with a squirt gun, he'd pulled the sizzling fuse from a bundle of powder sticks and carried limp and injured from burning buildings, and done so without hesitation and without a tremor: now, though, now that this angel with blue eyes stood before him, near enough to feel the breath from her nostrils, now that he saw her flawless cheek and lashes long enough to make into buggy whips, now that he saw her lips curl a little and curve into a smile, now that he heard the gentleness of her murmur -- and good God, she was touching him now, she undid one button and slid the folded paper free and fast up the button again --
He had to hold his breath, for he was getting light headed and his fingers were starting to tingle, and he was a bit dizzy: Sarah looked hard into his eyes, seized his hand, wrapped it over her arm: "Stay with me," she murmured, and he felt funny under the back of his scalp, his hand tightening on her sleeved forearm.
He threw back his head, took a long breath: steadied now, he whispered, "I wrote this for you," for he trusted not his own voice, and Sarah pressed the folded paper to her lips: not a gesture of affection, but of assessment, for she was looking into his eyes, looking deep into his soul, searching the very reaches of his essence ... it was as if she were scanning his back bone, looking for any traces of yellow.
"Can you walk?" she whispered from behind the paper, and he swallowed, and nodded.
"Walk with me," she whispered again, and they turned, and she steered him toward her waiting family.

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Linn Keller 11-15-12

 

Parson Belden grinned at me and I had to laugh, for this was the best general laugh we'd had together in a good long time, and all thanks to a little boy who was prone to shove his hands in his pockets and walk off whistling, trying hard to look innocent and almost succeeding.
I saw Sarah standing close to the Welsh Irishman -- I blinked twice, rapidly, and Esther laid a gentle hand on my arm and I knew she was looking at the same thing as I.
Sarah's expression was complex, mobile: one moment serious, assessing, another surprised, sympathetic; she looked up at me, then back at the Welshman, a square of folded paper like a fan held delicately before her lips: she seized his hand and I saw he was looking ... not upset ... disquieted?
A lawman's eye picks up the unusual and it was unusual to see this man anything but confident, competent; he was one of the Brigade, after all -- they were, to a man and without exception, strong willed, strong backed, hard headed, wise cracking, laughing --
I looked over at Esther, shocked, and Esther looked at me with knowing and ... and with amusement ... in her emerald eyes: she leaned her lips up toward my ear and whispered, "I knew this was coming," and I looked at her with a feeling in my belly like the last train just went a-whistlin' past the station, leaving me in the dust wondering what just happened.
I looked back at Sarah and the Welshman.
She was walking as regal as the Queen toward her family, her hand on the Welsh Irishman's arm ...
I saw the impress on the man's sleeve.
Sarah had a good grip on his arm.
She was taking him for a walk, and not the other way around.

"Parson," Jacob said, "what do you think we ought to do with this rascal?"
Jacob held little Joseph by one ankle: little Joseph hung upside down in his Papa's grip, red-faced, laughing, spilling little-boy giggles all over the floor, clean-scrubbed hands waving happily.
"Oh, I don't know," Parson Belden said thoughtfull, considering the lad's inverted condition: "maybe you could have his Grampa beat his bottom."
"Good!" little Joseph declared.
Jacob swung his boy upright, perching the lad on his forearm and holding him with the other arm as the blood ran out of the boy's head, leaving him kind of dizzy: little Joseph gave a wobbly little "Woooooh," clutching desperately at his Pa's lapels, trying to keep the world from spinning.

Annette stood, smiling at Daciana: Daciana's face was flushed with excitement as she drew a few sheets of paper from her reticule, showed them to Daciana: the two sat down together on the piano-bench, placing the papers on the music holder: Daciana's finger traced along the hand-drawn notes, whispering urgently, and Annette's fingers reached reflexively for piano-keys.
Lightning folded his long tall frame back down into the front pew, smiling quietly.
Like frontier folk of every era, worship was a community activity, a social outlet: Lightning didn't mind the social aspect, but he absolutely loved it when the ladies worked on their music: he heard one particular telegrapher's "fist" on occasion, and he knew the man to be a musician, from the precision and cadence of his clicks and cliclicks.
Annette began playing, nodding her head slowly as she sight-read this new music, and her gentle notes filled the emptying church building with their soft beauty.

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Linn Keller 11-16-12

 

Sarah reached up and twisted the apple a little: it came away in her hand and she said, "Your knife?"
The Welsh Irishman blinked, surprised, then thrust his hand into a pocket and came up with a genuine Barlow: he opened the blade, gave it handle first.
Sarah split the apple in half with one expert cut, twisted the two halves apart: she handed the knife back to him, then half the apple.
"I know the man who planted this tree," she said.
"I do too."
Sarah looked sharply at the man.
"Then you know I planted several more with him."
Llewellyn gave her a curious look, frowning a little.
"Turn this over," she said, "and look at its skin."
Llewellyn turned the apple over, regarded its red skin.
"Press on it a little, feel it, smell it. Does it appear ready?"
Llewellyn raised an eyebrow, examined the apple, nodded.
"Now look at its flesh. Smell it. Does it look ready?"
The Welsh Irishman nodded, took a bite, chewing slowly.
"Would I be wise to pick an apple that was not ready?"
The Welsh Irishman's eyes narrowed slightly, very slightly: Sarah saw it, but only because she was looking for it.
"No," he said. "No. It would not be wise."
Sarah nodded.
The Welsh Irishman wiped the blade on his pants leg, folded the knife, dropped it back into its pocket: Sarah took his arm and the two began walking slowly, heading generally along behind the Jewel.
"You said you planted more trees," the Welsh Irishman reminded.
Sarah smiled a little, her eyes busy: she looked at the Welshman, and the man's heart was ready to jump out of his chest and lay itself at her feet.
"I planted a double row of them," she said, "at my Papa's house, along the creekbank. I spaced them out so I could ride between them, weaving in and out of them at a gallop."
The Welsh Irishman smiled, nodding.
"I ... I've never ridden," he admitted.
Sarah's hand tightened on his arm.
"Most people back East can't," she said. "Most people drive, but don't ride." She looked up at him. "I'm dangerous, you know."
The Welsh Irishman stopped and turned to face her squarely.
Sarah took both his hands in both hers.
"You ... dangerous?" the Welsh Irishman asked, his voice soft: he did not sound skeptical so much as curious, the curiosity of a man who just couldn't put the term with the face before him.
Sarah nodded. "Let's try something else." She pointed to the field beyond the livery.
"Do you see that wheatfield?"
"I do."
"Wheat is cut when it is ripe, but not before."
"That ... would stand to reason," Llewellyn said slowly.
Sarah turned back to face the man, her hands tight on his.
"Now I must ask you something."
Serious-faced, he nodded, slowly: "Anything," he whispered.
Sarah held up the torn, folded sheet.
"May I read this?"
Llewellyn nodded, swallowing.
Sarah was watching him, judging the degree of color in his ears, the degree of pupillary dilation; she gauged his hands by their feel, their temperature, their response to her squeeze, her pull, the presence or absence of tremor.
She backed up one step, carefully unfolded the sheet, pressed the torn margins together.
She read the words, taking her time, then read them again, more slowly: the Welshman followed her lips as they half-whispered the words he'd written by the light of a beeswax candle, words he sought to force to his will, words that would not cooperate until at the very last.
Sarah's eyes opened wide and the Welshman saw her eyes, bright beneath long, shining lashes, then she turned those shining eyes up toward him and it felt like a giant was squeezing him around the belly, squeezing the air out of him.
Sarah folded the paper again, carefully, as if it were something precious.
She slid it into a hidden pocket and raised her fingertips to her lips, blinking.
"Do you know," she said behind gloved fingers, then she lowered her hand, "do you know ... nobody ... has ever ... nobody ever wrote me ... nobody ..."
Sarah blinked, closed her mouth, opened it again, wet her lips uncertainly.
"Nobody ever wrote me a poem before," she whispered, clutching his hand.
Sarah threw her head back, taking a long, steadying breath, then looked the man in the eye.
"The apple," she said, "was ripe and ready and it was time ... it was time to reach for its beauty, and partake of its bounty."
Sarah swallowed and the man felt a tremor in her hands now.
"Grain is not harvested until it too is ripe."
Sarah looked into the man's eyes, then she jerked her hands free, her eyes wide, almost wild.
The Welsh Irishman's eyes widened in response as his heart fell about twenty feet, so convinced was he that he'd just dashed any hopes of the fair maid's hand.
Sarah thrust herself hard against him, reached up, seized his face between her hands: she pulled his head down and kissed him, awkwardly, but fiercely, the pushed his face away an inch, pressed her forehead against his.
"I'm not ready yet," she whispered, then she released his face and snatched up her skirts and ran as hard as she could around the corner of the Jewel, and out of sight.
The Welsh Irishman stood there, still feeling her lips on his, wondering if this is how a man felt when he stood in the middle of a Kansas cyclone.

Sean looked up as the door banged open: he rose as Sarah, staggering a little, glared around the equipment bay, then charged him at a dead run.
Sarah hit into Sean at full speed, seizing the man by the shirt front: his arms snapped shut around her and he was obliged to fall back a step to keep from being borne over backwards.
Sarah shivered in his embrace, then she pulled back a little, looking up at the tall, muscled, red-headed Irish chieftain.
She poked a stiff finger into his belly and she was not gentle about it.
"YOU," she snapped, punctuating her word with a thrust of her digit, "TAKE" -- poke -- "CARE -- poke -- OF THAT MAN! -- poke, poke, poke -- then she looked around, stood up on a chair, snapped "Too high!" and looked around again: spying a bucket, she turned it over, stood up and found herself at an acceptable height.
"I need to know," she hissed, her eyes pale, snapping, bright, "I need to know about Llewellyn. Do you trust him with your life?"
"I do," a voice said, and the German Irishman came over, wiping his hands on a rag. "And I have. Are you after marryin' the man, then?"
Sarah's glare would have split a boulder right down the middle.
"Because if you're no' after marryin' him, I'd like a chance."
Sarah's glare was cold: she hopped off the bucket, looked up at Sean, then at the German Irishman.
"I," she snarled, "need to rip out some fence posts," and so saying, stomped for the still-open door.
The New York Irishman drifted over to the two staring men.
"Sean," he asked, "what in the hell just happened?"
"I don't know, lad," the big Irishman admitted, "but I think we just had a thunderstorm."
The New York Irishman crossed himself.
"Do ye think he'll survive?"
Sean and the German Irishman looked at one another, then at the New York Irishman.
"I don't know, lad," he admitted. "I just don't know."
He looked at the door, half-open and forgotten.
"He might not."

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Linn Keller 11-17-12

 

The Welsh Irishman, confused, stood and looked at the corner of the building where Sarah disappeared a moment ago.
He didn't know whether to feel joy, fear, triumph, loss, success or failure: of all the things she could have said, absolutely nothing she said -- not one word -- was anything at all what he expected.
He looked down at the half an apple in his hand, the half with a bite taken out of it.
He looked back up toward the corner of the Jewel.
Woodenly, slowly, he raised the half an apple and took another bite.

Sarah did not care that she was in a fine Sunday gown.
Sarah did not care that a lady did not run, that ladies did not run down the main street on Sunday morning with her skirts up and she did not care that ladies did not do anything in public that caused them to breathe hard.
Sarah did not care that people were staring -- some smiling, some not -- as she skidded to a fast stop, clutching at Levi's arm to keep from falling.
Sarah stopped, straightened, took a deep breath, and addressed her parents.
"Please excuse me," she panted, controlling her breathing as she controlled herself.
"Mr. Llewellyn is a complete gentleman, and I must return to him, lest he think he is about to be lynched."
So saying, she turned and was gone like a shot, pelting hard for the corner of the Jewel, the corner where she'd come streaking around, pale eyed and hard faced.

The Welsh Irishman looked up as something with ice-pale eyes and a pale, set face bore down upon him, her rich red gown rippling in the sunlight: the apple fell from his hand as he braced for impact, and impact it was, for Sarah slammed into him at speed, seizing him about the chest, and he found himself obliged to fall back three or four steps to keep from landing on his backside.
Sarah clung to him, breathing hard: she'd controlled her breathing while in the public eye, but here, here she labored to satisfy her oxygen debt, and he held her as she gasped and panted and shivered, and he felt the conflicts of protectiveness, confusion and surprise at this ... this ... this confusing, delightful, unreadable, feminine, vigorous, surprising creature that was holding him, holding him tight, holding him like someone who did not want to ever, ever let go.
Sarah looked up at him, mouth open, breathing hard, then she laid her head against his chest and started to laugh.
"Mr. Llewellyn," she said finally, looking up at him, releasing her embrace about his torso and grasping his upper arms, "I must beg your forgiveness."
"I forgive you," he whispered, shaking his head slowly, "I forgive you with all my heart!" -- he reached tentatively for her face, afraid to touch her, but she seized the back of his hand and pressed it against her face, and closed her eyes, and leaned her head into his palm.
He felt her shiver.
"Mr. Llewellyn," she said, swallowing, "I must guard my heart, for I can be prone to excess."
"My dear," he said softly, "it is proper that a young lady guard her heart, for it is a gentle and precious --"
"I am not gentle!" she hissed, drawing back, eyes pale and hard: "My name is Death, and I've sent men to HELL!" -- then she let go and stepped back, hands clapping to her mouth, eyes wide, and suddenly she looked like a scared girl, she looked like a confused girl alone for the first time with a man, a girl who just blurted out something so terribly STUPID that he would throw her aside and she would be shunned and she would die a lonely old maid --
The Welsh Irishman's brow knitted and he took two long steps forward and it was his turn to seize Sarah: he took her elbows and pulled her close and said tightly, "I know ye have, lass. Ye are a hard young woman an' ye've taken lives and I don't care!"
Llewellyn's eyes were bright and fierce as he glared at the trembling young woman looking fearfully and hopefully up at him.
"Ye are a walking contradiction. I canna' figure ye out. Ye are a mystery and a confusion and th' moment I think I'm makin' some sense o' ye -- why, ye change like weather on th' ocean!"
"I'm sorry," Sarah whispered, dropping her eyes, then bowing her head.
Llewellyn's fingers under her chin were gentle as he raised her face.
"Don't you dare be sorry," he whispered. "Don't you dare."
Sarah blinked, her eyes bright, and Llewellyn's heart, like men's hearts for centuries and millennia, hissed and shrank and dissolved, for the bright and unshed tears of a woman are a universal solvent, and rare is the heart that is proof against the strength of this mystical solution.
"You," Llewellyn whispered, "are," and he bent his head a little, "perfect!"
The Welsh Irishman went slowly to one knee.
"Sarah McKenna, ye ha'e said ye are not ready," he said, his voice husky.
"I learned a long time ago that women are wise creatures, an' I ha' profited by the listenin' to 'em, from time t' time.
"In matters o' th' heart women are wiser than men.
"If ye say ye are na ready, then I say when ye are, I'll be here, an' th' next time I take a knee, 'twill be wi' ma mother's ring in m'hand."
Sarah's eyes were big, one hand was on her bodice: the Welsh Irishman held the other: her breath was coming fast now, she was trembling: gone were the pale, hard eyes, gone was the ice-hard glare: Sarah McKenna, for the first time in her young life, was feeling what it was to be a young woman, a normal young woman, and all the confusion, all the uncertainty, all the longing and propriety warring with desire hit her like Bay of Fundy tide, and she gave a little squeak and fumbled for her lace-edged kerchief.
The Welsh Irishman stood and wrapped her in his arms, holding her, and laid his cheek over on top of her head.

"What's going on back there?" Levi muttered, glaring at the corner of the building.
"Nothing that hasn't happened since Eve took Adam by the nose and dragged him out of the Garden," Bonnie said mischievously.
"That's what I'm afraid of," he growled.
Bonnie's hand was properly on his arm, but more firm than would appear to the casual eye.
"Levi, I trust her," Bonnie said. "If he is in the least bit improper, he will be ... disappointed."
"He'd better not," Levi muttered, his hand closing into a fist. "What are they doing?"
"Wannus to go look?" Polly offered, looking innocently up at her Papa.
"No," Levi and Bonnie chorused, and Levi squatted and hugged the twins to him.
"Girls," he said quietly, "when the time comes, promise me you won't go running behind a building with a strange man?"
Polly and Opal nodded solemnly.
"Is Sawwah in trouble?"
"Are you going to spank her?"
"Can I have her room?"
"I want her room!"
"You can have our room! I want her room!"
"Ladies, ladies," Levi laughed, "it's far too early to discuss --"
"Levi," Bonnie said.
Levi stood, looked.
Sarah, looking very proper, very ladylike, escorted by a gentleman in a red, bib-front shirt, came around the corner of the Jewel: the two walked with a dignified pace to Levi and Bonnie, and Sarah said, "Mother, Father, may I present Mr. Llewellyn, one of the Irish Brigade, and a gentleman."
Levi and Llewellyn shook hands with a half-bow, and the Welsh Irishman took Bonnie's hand and kissed it in a most gentlemanly manner.
"Mother, I believe Mr. Llewellyn did ask permission before walking with me," Sarah said, and Bonnie saw just a hint of mischief in her daughter's blue eyes: "it is such a lovely day for a walk, and it is traditional on Sunday, after church, for ..."
Sarah opened her mouth and turned a little red, then she released Llewellyn's arm, seized Bonnie by the upper arm and muttered, "You need some tea. Come on."
Llewellyn stared after the ladies as they steered a course for the Silver Jewel.
"Is she always like this?" he asked slowly, his gaze big-eyed as he looked at Levi.
"No," Levi sighed, shaking his head. "Sometimes she's worse." He clapped a hand on Llewellyn's shoulder. "I believe we should get better acquainted, and I understand Mr. Baxter has some beer left."
The Welsh Irishman nodded, wondering if perhaps he didn't need something a bit stronger.

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Linn Keller 11-18-12

 

It's my own fault for being long-winded, but I lost track of Sarah and the Welsh Irishman: I was busy talking and shaking hands and laughing and by the time I come up for air, why, they were gone, Levi and the Welsh Irishman were headed for the Jewel -- I think they were following Sarah and Bonnie but I'm not sure -- anyway, we ended up with the twins, to Angela's delight, and so we all piled in the buggy and headed home.
I reckon I should not write in such a hurry.
I meant we ended up with Levi and Bonnie's twins.
Ours were still at the house.
Esther didn't think it wise to bring them to church.
I was of a mind to fetch 'em and have their formal naming ceremony and we had the names all picked out but Esther didn't feel right about it and there is no way in the cotton pickin' I was about to say no to my bride.
I am a hard man and I have faced up to and faced down a number of large and angry folk bearing a variety of weapons, but when it comes to Esther's green eyes, why, I've got all the back bone of wheel bearing grease.

"Annette?"
"Hm?" Annette looked over at her tall, slender husband, smiling a little.
Jacob looked over at how Annette's hand rested across her belly.
It was something she did unconsciously, but every time she did, she smiled, and his own eyes tightened a little at the corners, the way they did when a smile was hiding behind his face, waiting to jump out like a flower coming to bloom of a sudden.
"Do you recall I'd invested some in that stage company down near Taos?"
Annette blinked, coming more to the here-and-now; she'd apparently been preoccupied with her own thoughts.
"Oh. Yes. I remember now."
Jacob grinned.
"I sold every share I had in them. Every last one."
Annette's face fell and she looked at Jacob with obvious dismay. "But, Jacob --"
"And a good thing, too," Jacob continued, grinning. "I sold off and there were some fellows from back East just all on fire to invest in the West.
"The boy run up to me when I hung back a little from going up the church steps."
He drew a folded flimsy from his coat pocket, handed it to his wife.
Annette read it, read it again, her mouth in a little O of surprise, and she handed it back.
"I see," she said in a small voice.
"That," Jacob declared, "is not the first time I have profited from listening to the Grand Old Man."
Joseph looked curiously up at his Pa and Jacob looked down at his son.
"Joseph," he said, rubbing his son's head, "I listened to my Pa and sold my shares for a profit. One week later the outfit went bust and out of business."
Jacob winked at his boy and little Joseph tried to wink back but couldn't quite manage a true wink, but he did give two for the price of one, as it were.
"Joseph, I listened to my Pa, I got out from under a money losin' proposition, I made a profit, and I reckon that's good."
"Good!" Little Joseph declared, and Jacob and Annette both laughed.

Sarah very carefully, very precisely poured a tiny drizzle of milk into her tea.
"This," she said, "is me."
Bonnie watched carefully, for she knew this was the time to listen carefully to her little girl.
"This," Sarah said, picking up the shining silver spoon, "is how I feel."
She dipped the spoon in the tea, gave it a quick half-turn, swirling the milk into a confused whirlpool, streaking round and round the cup: not completely dissolved, but torn, swirled, disorganized.
Sarah very carefully, very precisely, placed the spoon down beside her napkin, aligning it most exactly with the napkin's folded margin, and Bonnie recognized the move: it was how the Sheriff placed his pen when he was interrupted: slow, careful, exact, precise and aligned.
Bonnie's eyes rose to her daughter's.
"Mother," Sarah said quietly, taking a long breath and letting it out, "when riding cross country, one navigates by known landmarks so one does not get lost."
Sarah looked up at Bonnie.
"Mother, I am riding across unfamiliar country and I don't know any of the landmarks. I'm getting lost, fast. How do I find my way?"
Bonnie raised her chin a little, the trace of a smile on her lips: Sarah was struck by Bonnie's beauty, by her dignity, her composure.
Bonnie reached across the intimate little table and took Sarah's gloved hand in her own gloved hand.
"The first thing one does," Bonnie said quietly, "when in foreign territory, is seek out a native guide."
Sarah nodded uncertainly.
"Now that you've found one, let me guide you through this confusing time."
Bonnie looked at her daughter with a combination of amusement and sadness.
"Let me tell you ... let me tell you about my ..."
Bonnie's face colored and she smiled a little more.
"When I rode into that strange and foreign land, I was your age. Just thirteen. Unfortunately I was not as wise as you and thought I was a woman grown, overnight."
Sarah's hand tightened on Bonnie's as she shook her head. "Nonononono," she murmured quietly.
Bonnie laughed and wished she could touch her daughter's cheek.
"In that," she admitted, "you are wiser than I was."
"What was his name?" Sarah whispered, and Bonnie felt a tremor communicated through Sarah's tight-gripped fingers.
"His name was Charles," Bonnie said softly, "and he was ... he was a bronze-chested god."
This time her blush was absolutely furious, and Sarah's pupils dilated a little to see how her mother's complexion absolutely flamed scarlet.

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Linn Keller 11-19-12

 

I still ached.
I didn't let that stop me.
My hired man was good enough to saddle Cannonball and I thanked him for that kindness but I knew the day was a-comin' when I would have to saddle my own mount again.
Up between my ears I knew I wasn't eighteen years old any more.
The rest of me ... well, the rest of me was sayin' "You are just now learnin' that?"
Still -- it felt good to get back into saddle leather -- Esther had a house full of little girls, all but the little boy and he was too young to know any better, otherwise I would have got him out of that sea of skirts and petticoats and got him out into man's territory.
I took a long breath and felt something pop down along side my back bone and felt the better for it, so we turned our noses toward Firelands again, for I had a notion I'd best stop in at the Sheriff's office and take a look around.

Tom Landers laughed as he looked at the glass front box.
It was hand rubbed walnut and wide as a man's hand-span, and two spans long: inside was the dried, bleached, bare bone of a mule, and the brass plate tacked on the bottom read: JAWBONE OF AN ARSE, FOR EMERGENCY USE ONLY, and the box was hung up where Tom Landers usually set of an evening.
He'd been presented with -- so far -- a billy, a slung shot, a sap, a war club made of a wagon-spoke with a steel head shrunk on one end; he looked at all these and allowed as he would have to hire a boy to pack all of it around for him, and then Mr. Baxter took him by the arm and discreetly showed him the hidden panel he'd had installed at Tom Landers' parking spot, and Tom Landers laughed again.
He proceeded to stack, stash, hang and arrange the various implements of un-gentle persuasion in his hidden cubby, there beside the padded stool he favored, under that jawbone with a little brass hammer dangling from a little brass chain.

"I know my face was red," Bonnie continued, her voice low, her eyes bright: Sarah listened, rapt, her lips a little apart, leaned forward, clutching her Mama's gloved hands: she hung on every word, imagining the scene as Bonnie painted it.
"Just he and I, alone," Bonnie continued, "and ... I had never ... he ..."
Bonnie hesitated, her smile one of maidenly excitement -- "I'd never ... no man had ever ..."
Sarah nodded, once, slowly, biting her own bottom lip.
"I had never in my life felt in such a ..." Bonnie pulled her hands away, leaned back and took a long breath, collecting herself; she took a hesitant sip of tea, looked at the ceiling, blinking.
"He, um, stopped when Mother walked in the room."
Sarah's eyes were big and round -- huge, in fact -- her jaw fell open and her mouth was an O of dismay.
Bonnie nodded.
"My mother's face was red.
"She had been ... listening."
Sarah's hand drifted up to her mouth and she looked away, then looked back.
Bonnie was looking almost sadly at something far away, something only she could see.
"What did she do?" Sarah whispered.
Bonnie blinked, her eyes bright.
"It was the first time I had ever been ... alone ... with ... a man," Bonnie whispered. "I was young, and foolish, and my feelings overrode all sense."
Bonnie blinked a few more times, then looked at her daughter and smiled, a secret smile shared only among women.
"It was the first time a man ever recited poetry to me, Sarah," she whispered, "and my mother was crying, for she said it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever heard!"
Sarah's hands never moved, her eyes never wavered, but she thought of the half-torn page in her bosom, hidden from the eyes of the world, a sheet of words tortured from an unwilling pen, and she knew she had to see the Welsh Irishman again.

The Welsh Irishman stood back from the firehouse a little, a polished brass spyglass in hand.
He was studying the roof of their firehouse, moving in measured, methodical rows, carefully assessing the health of the baked-clay roof tiles.
He heard a horse approach; he paid no attention, for he was on task and concentrating on his work.
Finally he lowered the spyglass, blinked a few times and rubbed his eyes.
"How does she measure up?" the Sheriff asked quietly.
"She's good," the Welsh Irishman nodded, then grinned, holding up the spyglass.
"This is easier than a ladder," he admitted, almost ruefully.
The Sheriff nodded. "Use-a the head and save-a the back," he intoned solemnly.
"Y'know, a wise man said that not long ago," the Welsh Irishman said.
"I see you survived after church," the Sheriff said drily.
Llewellyn made a face like he'd bit into a green persimmon.
"Sheriff," he said, "I don't know what t' make 'a' th' girl."
The Sheriff nodded, slouching in the saddle.
"She's an angel b'hind those eyes, she's lovely an' she's got a good level head, I'm thinkin' she's strong f'r child bearin', by all accounts she can handle books an' a budget ..."
He looked up at the Sheriff.
"I don't know ... I tried t' win her heart ..."
"Can't do it all at once," the Sheriff smiled tiredly. "A woman's heart is slippery and hard to capture. Was I able to give some good sound advice I'd give it.
"You are a good man, Llewellyn. I trust you --"
The Sheriff's last words bit off as if he almost said too much.
He looked down, then back up.
"The faint heart ne'er gained the fair maid," he quoted, then winked: he lifted Cannonball's reins and the mare paced ahead as the Sheriff touched his hat brim.
Llewellyn considered this, then raised the spyglass to his eye again and studied the firehouse roof once more.

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Linn Keller 11-20-12

 

Monday came, frosty and cold, and Sarah's breath steamed behind her as she drove into town.
With Emma Cooper not yet returned, Sarah had the full responsibility of every student's learning, and she did not take that responsibility lightly: she'd listed every student, in her mind's eye she stood in front of the classroom and mentally assessed every student's progress, every student's needs: she even considered which students were best able to help their fellows, for, like her father the Sheriff, she well knew the value of recruiting from the Unorganized Militia, so to speak.
Sarah handed her carriage and mare over to the good care of Shorty, who was more than pleased to tend this detail: it paid a little, every month, but the man would have done it for free, for who didn't like the attention of a pretty young woman, a woman with bright eyes and a quick smile and a kind word for everyone she met?
The smallest Kolascinski boy was waiting for her at the steps and Sarah smiled again, for the lad had a grin, a look of anticipation, and she knew what he wanted: as a matter of fact, most all the students did, and though it was chilly out, the sun was bright, steaming frost off hitch rails and the boardwalks it touched, and the entire student body waited outside, restless, giggling, anticipating Miss Sarah, for like Miz Emma, Miss Sarah was fun and full of surprises.
Sarah looked around, smiling, then turned and went into the schoolhouse.
Young Master Kolascinski stood, arms folded, like a miniature guardian, in the middle of the steps: his duty was to bar entry from any who might attempt a premature ascent: none of the students truly appreciated the ludicrous nature of his appearance, but the few adults who observed, did.
Sarah emerged from the flawless, white-painted double doors, three handbells held like a bouquet in front of her: her hair was in the schoolmarm's severe walnut on top of her head, transfixed by the ever-present, sharply-whittled pencil; her spectacles were run halfway down her nose, her mousy-grey schoolmarm dress properly and modestly styled and fitted: she descended to the second of three steps, as was her custom, and looked around.
Sarah and Daciana practiced a variety of arts in the hidden confines of Daciana's circus-tent-sized barn: whether it was knife throwing, trick riding, acrobatics, tumbling, rope climbing or some of the more esoteric varieties of hand-to-hand combat, the two of them kept each other toned and practiced.
Sarah was careful never to reveal these personal secrets to the public, for she well knew the value of surprise -- whether in a confrontation, or for entertainment.
This morning's revelation was entertainment.
The three cast-and-turned brass handbells gleamed, burnished like mirrors, the smooth walnut handles glowed, and Sarah looked over her ever-present schoolmarm spectacles, then raised her chin and asked her children, "Should we ring the bells?"
"YES!" came the enthusiastic response from several young throats.
Sarah dipped the three bells, then began tossing them into the air.
Each bell floated in its arc, turning once, neatly; in an instant, Sarah was juggling the three with what appeared to be a practiced ease: young Master Kolascinski, nearly as tall as Sarah, stood one step below her, a fancied frown on his face, arms crossed, trying to look stern and not succeeding very well: finally he turned and, like the rest of the children, admired the quietly ringing brass waterfall, describing graceful golden arcs, contrasting against the unobtrusive grey of the schoolmarm's dress.
The children laughed and squealed and a few clapped with delight; Sarah spun the bells for less than a minute, then caught one and tossed it to her assistant: the other two she caught by the handles, snapped them briskly back toward her shoulders, and once forward.
"School is in session!" Sarah declared loudly, happily, and turned to open the doors as young humanity laughed and came up the stairs behind her.

I sat down in my office chair.
Court would not be for another several days, the jail was empty, I had no pending warrants or summonses: I opened the bottom drawer, took a long look at the bottle, then slid the drawer shut.
I was warm enough, I didn't need any liquid fire to heat me from the inside out, and I wasn't hurting as badly as I had been, so I didn't need any liquid anesthetic.
The stove cracked and popped as the fire built in its belly.
I sat there and smiled, for I'd stopped Cannonball and watched Sarah juggle three brass bells.
She had a soft smile about her when she did, like she was lost in the task, and the children were enthralled, entranced, and I could not help but smile inside when I remembered it.
Sarah had a gift for reaching the young, a gift for teaching: Emma Cooper was worried, of course, because she was still laid up and healing, but she trained Sarah well, and by all accounts, Sarah was doing a fine job of running the tidy little whitewashed schoolhouse.
I looked up as knuckled alarmed the door.

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Linn Keller 11-20-12

 

Sarah's voice was gentle as she guided the little girl's hand.
"This," she murmured, "is the letter A. See how it's made: we start here" -- the chalk clicked against the framed slate -- "we draw it down and to the side, like this --"
Chalk hissed on slate, little flakes falling away and collecting along the bottom of the frame.
"Then we start here again, and bring it down, like this."
The second leg of the A was made -- a little wobbly, perhaps, and Sarah hesitated for a moment, waiting for the child to recognize what they'd made together.
"It still looks a little wobbly," Sarah mused after a moment. "Try running a brace across it ... here."
Sarah's finger sketched a line on the smooth, grey slate; the little girl, tongue between her teeth, frowned and carefully, delicately drew the horizontal connecting the two legs.
"There!" Sarah said, squeezing the child's shoulders a little: "you did it!"
The door opened behind her; Sarah slipped the window-glass spectacles from her face, a quick, sleight-of-hand move, and replaced them with another pair plucked from some concealment about her bodice.
"Excuse me," a voice said, "where might one find a rag doll?"
"I believe the stove wants for some coal," Sarah said, straightening: she pushed the glasses up into place, turned, her hands folded properly before her.
"You might find one in the toy box, yonder," she said pleasantly, gesturing toward the wooden chest with one hand, "though I would hardly think you the type."
"I thought," the well-dressed stranger said, "that you might ... know ... someone of that name."
Young Master Kolascinski, coal-scuttle in hand, marched industriously past the stranger and out the door, slamming it behind him.
"Don't slam the door," Sarah called, then shook her head and sighed.
"I'm sorry, sir," Sarah said, "I know every family in the county and every one of their children, but I don't know anyone of that name."
"She's supposed to be ... a schoolteacher," the man persisted. "And ... deadly."
Sarah smiled almost sadly, peering at the fellow through her thick lenses.
"I'm afraid you have been sold the proverbial bill of goods," she said patiently. "Our regular schoolteacher was trampled and is not yet healed, and I am substituting."
"Your regular teacher," the man repeated. "May I be so bold as to inquire, where I might find your regular teacher?"
"You may not," Sarah said firmly.
He took a step closer.
"But I insist."
Sarah raised her chin.
"Children," she said sharply, "behind me, NOW, and to the front of the room!"
Every child stood, scampering to the front of the room in what was obviously a practiced and pre-arranged move.
"I am not a fighter, sirrah," Sarah said coldly, "and I am nearly blind, but by God! -- if you harm a one of these children, I shall have you before the bar of justice!"

I picked up my hat and laid a quick hand on the Kolascinski boy's shoulder: "Well done, son, and thank you."
I strode for the open door, my aches and pains set aside.
Trouble just walked into the schoolhouse, and every schoolchild in Firelands was in there with it.
So was my daughter.
I don't run to a gunfight, but I walked fast: I tasted copper and blood sang in my ears and I could almost feel the flap of leathery wings as my old companion Death sailed out of the sky to land beside me.
I took the three stairs in one stride and seized the doorknob.

The stranger made a quick move toward Sarah's face.
Sarah let out a little shriek and flinched back, then felt her face: the stranger had plucked the glasses from her face and fell back a pace, frowning.
Sarah's eyes were wide and vacant and she looked suddenly pale, and helpless, and very, very young.
The stranger held up the glasses, looked through them, blinking at their heavy distortion, just as the door opened behind him.
Something hard grabbed his collar and the man came off his feet: he went from standing on his hind legs to flying through the air in an instant: arms spreading, he didn't have time to exclaim before he landed in the dirt, flat on his back, landing hard and banging his head on the packed ground.
A tall, slender man with an iron-grey mustache and ice-pale eyes descended the stairs.
He moved slowly, a man in no hurry, a man who knew he was going to have his quarry.
The stranger started to scoot backward, clawing at the ground as the pale-eyed fellow reached down and seized him by the front of his coat.
The stranger found himself hauled off the ground, hauled off his feet: winter-cold eyes burned into his own and the man with hard hands and a hard glare asked almost pleasantly, "Mister, where do you get off laying hands on my little girl?"
"No, no, no," the fellow protested, "I was trying to find the Ragdoll, I'm a reporter, I work for the Intelligencer, I'm following a story --"
The Sheriff carried the man across the street, picking up speed until he strode up onto the boardwalk and swung the man hard into the log face of the Sheriff's office.
"I don't like strangers asking questions," the Sheriff said quietly. "I won't tolerate a stranger laying hands on anyone in my county. Am I plain enough or would you like me to explain myself?"
"You, I, your daughter? -- I didn't know --"
"It doesn't matter whose daughter she is," the Sheriff said. "You touched her. You came in without invite and you trespassed and you laid hands on my little girl."
The Sheriff's face was pale, taut, utterly without color, the flesh stretched across hatched-sharp cheekbones: he let go of the man's lapel with his right hand, reached behind his own collar and pulled out a thin-bladed knife.
"You appear to have shaved this morning," the Sheriff hissed, looking at the blade with wide, almost insane eyes. "A pity. This blade is shaving sharp."
There was the sound of a horse approaching, a horse slowing: a familiar voice drawled, "Sheriff, I take it we have something?"
"Sheriff?" the stranger squeaked, all thoughts of a successful sighting of tomorrow's sunrise fleeing before his racing thoughts.
"I would like you to meet my Chief Deputy," the Sheriff said quietly. "He is also my oldest son, and older brother to the young woman you offended."
Jacob froze as his foot hit the ground.
He came around beside his father: just as tall, just as slender, just as hard-eyed and just as unforgiving around the eyes, he said "He did what?" in a flat, quiet monotone.
"This fellow laid hands on your sister."
Jacob reached behind his collar and drew out a slender bladed knife.
"Has this man shaved today?" he asked conversationally.
"He has."
"A pity," Jacob grinned mirthlessly, the baring of his teeth as humorous as a Jolly Roger.
There was the rapid patter of running feet, a little boy scampered up on the boardwalk, panting.
"Sheriff," he said excitedly, "Miss Sarah would like her spectacles back. She said she is quite blind without them and the pair he took is the only pair she has."
"Here," the man blurted, thrusting the eyeglasses out, freezing as two blades descended to his throat, stopping a bare quarter inch from life's pulse pressing against his skin.
"No sudden moves," Jacob warned.
"Sorry -- sorry -- sorry --"
Jacob removed the spectacles from the fellow's trembling trip, handed them to the big-eyed schoolboy: he turned and sprinted back across the street, disappearing into the schoolhouse.

The stranger's hand shook as he accepted the heavy glass of distilled corn: he tossed it back, two swallows and a breath, and accepted a refill.
"You're not from around here," the Sheriff said conversationally, leaning back against his desk.
Jacob slouched against the closed door, thumbs hooked in his gunbelt.
"No. No. No. I'm with --"
"With the Intelligencer, yes," the Sheriff interrupted, his voice rising. "I don't care if you are with the New York Gold Plated Steamboat and Gum Boot Annual, YOU DON'T WALK INTO TOWN AND START GRABBING SCHOOLTEACHERS, ESPECIALLY MY LITTLE GIRL!"
The Sheriff seized the man again, snatched him out of his chair, held him against the wall.
"Sir," Jacob offered, "let's not kill him just yet. Why don't we give him a fair trial before we hang him."
The Sheriff released the man and let him drop the six inches to the floor: somehow the reporter kept his feet.
"SIT!" the Sheriff barked, and the man dropped obediently into the chair he'd so recently vacated.
"Now suppose you tell me, first, why you are in town."
"I'm following a story," came the uncertain reply.
"A story."
He nodded. "Back East we heard about the Ragdoll and how she was killed but she came back and saved all those people from a fire in Denver --"
"Then why aren't you in Denver?"
"Because they never heard of anyone named Ragdoll. Just a schoolteacher who wanted to become a detective."
"And you thought my daughter was a likely candidate."
The man nodded.
"Tell me what you found."
The reporter sagged.
"The Ragdoll is supposed to have the eyes of the eagle. She's supposed to be able to read a newspaper at twenty feet, fine print at fifteen. This --" he hesitated -- "your daughter -- is nearly blind."
"Go on."
"But she managed to mountaineer out of a burning building with two men hanging onto her --"
"She didn't move well, did she?" Jacob interrupted. "Mister, she wears a leg brace to keep from collapsing. She's been crippled since birth and she can't walk fifty yards without crying with pain. By the time she's done teaching today she'll be so worn out I'll have to carry her out to the buggy and into the house once we get there."
The Sheriff built on his son's foundation: Jacob knew the value of the power of suggestion, and he also knew the politician's trick of lying believably: if you are going to lie, tell one hell of a big lie: a small lie will not be believed, but a whopper will be swallowed, hook, line and sinker.
"My daughter," the Sheriff said slowly, "will never bear children, which is why she is a schoolmarm at such a tender age.
"She is also going blind. The doctors said she would be completely blind by now but she's beat the odds. How, I don't know.
"But she was looking at me!"
"She saw your silhouette against the lighter door."
"The Intelligencer," Jacob said, unfolding a newspaper. "This one?"
The reporter looked, nodded.
"You left this over at the Jewel. I thought it might be yours. Readin' material is scarce hereabouts and had I not snatched this when I did -- I thought you left it by mistake and came to return it -- why, it would be worn out from being read so much come sundown."
"I, um, please keep it," the reporter blurted. "Can I go now?"
"Criminal trespass, molesting the Sheriff's daughter, scaring the blue hell out of the entire schoolhouse," the Sheriff said slowly. "Jacob, what does the Judge normally charge as far as fines for such an offense?"
"Oh, at least forty dollars."
"Forty dollars. I have that," the man stammered.
"Per offense."
The offender's face fell.
"Or you can just get the hell out of my county and don't ever darken our doorstep again."
The man shot to his feet like a cork out of deep water and he took a running step toward the front door.
Jacob's fist shot out like a striking viper and yanked the man off his balance: pinning him against the door, he moved his nose an inch from the stranger's.
"I think you're a liar," he said quietly. "Now suppose you tell me just why you wanted to meet the Ragdoll."
"A story, a story, a story," the man stammered.
Jacob leaned back, then thrust the man hard against the door, left handed, picking the fellow's elastic sided townie shoes a foot off the tight-fitted boards, and holding him hard against the heavy portal.
"Let me put it this way," Jacob said. "Whoever you are after, never existed. Just a story made up to scare children, that's all. Next time you decide to trouble a woman in my county I'll carve my initials on your liver and pole your head on an aspen stake at the city limits for little boys to laugh at and throw rocks at."
Jacob looked over at the Sheriff.
"Sir?" he asked. "What time is the stage?"
The Sheriff looked over at the Regulator clock.
"Ought to be here any time."
Jacob glared at the prisoner.
"Mister," he said, "take my advice and go to the general store and buy yourself a ticket out of here. We keep two graves open for people we have to kill and they're nowhere near full yet."
The fellows retreating footsteps were rapid, drumming a panicked tattoo on the board walk, as Jacob closed the door behind him.
Father and son appraised each other.
"Let's go make sure Sarah is all right."
The Sheriff nodded.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-20-12

 

"Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?" At the sound of the drawled words behind them, Sheriff and Deputy stopped in mid-stride to whirl as one, stepping apart in a practiced maneuver to spread the potential targets of any possible mayhem that might start. Charlie chuckled. "For whatever reason, it looks like you boys put the fear of God in that drummer or whatever he was," he added, indicating the fleeing reporter's backside as it disappeared into the general store.

The Sheriff and Jacob relaxed a skosh when they recognized the source of the words. "A fella could get shot like that," Jacob commented drily.

"Ain't my time yet," the ex-Marshal replied simply, stepping down from the saddle of the roan to stretch the kinks of miles of trail from his bones. "'What'd that feller do to get you gents all riled up, anyways?"

"He laid hands on Sarah," Linn answered quietly. Charlie stiffened.

"And he's still ambulatory?"

"Yep. He's leavin' town on today's stage," Jacob answered.

"Not unscathed, he ain't," Charlie growled. He led the roan and the two heavily-laden packhorses that trailed the young gelding to the rail in front of the sheriff's office, looped the bridle reins over the bar and turned toward the store. "I'll be back."

"Charlie."

"What?"

"We've already discussed it with him, he's sorry, and he won't be back."

"You two are too genteel sometimes. I ain't. Like I said, I'll be back."

"Just make sure he can climb into that coach when it gets here, alright?"

Charlie turned and gave the two lawmen a cold grin. "Even if I have to carry him there," he said then strode toward the general store. Jacob and the Sheriff exchanged glances of "What's a fella to do?" then turned toward the schoolhouse.

Charlie strode hard-heeled into the general store, startling the one-armed storekeeper and the nattily-dressed but rumpled reporter. "Howdy, Charlie!" the storekeeper called, hoping to forestall the thunder clouds that he could see gathering on the ex-Marshal's brow. Unfortunately for the reporter, he was too late. Charlie's calloused hand came down on the tweed shoulder of the reporter's jacket to spin him around.

"I want a word with you, my man," Charlie said quietly. The reporter tried to shrug off the contact, but to no avail. He tried for bravado.

"And who might you be, sir?"

"The schoolteacher's uncle. I understand you laid hands on her."

Bravado evaporated like fog under a summer sun. "Er, uhm, that is to say, I, well..."

"It would behoove you to shut your pie hole, my friend, before you dig yourself in deeper than you already are. I promised the Sheriff that you'd be on today's stage," he paused, listening to the jingle of the approaching stage. "He wanted you to climb on it under your own power. Personally, I have no qualms against dropping you in a heap on the floor of the coach." His fingers dug into the reporter's shoulder, causing that worthy to wince in pain. "And I don't care how many bones I break in the process. So you would do well to listen." He paused again, gauging the amount of time left before the stage's arrival. "You will, under no circumstances, ever come back to Firelands. You will, at every opportunity you may ever have in the future, do your best to discourage other members of your profession from coming to Firelands. Do I make myself clear?"

The reporter nodded vigorously.

"I can't hear your head rattle!" Charlie growled. "Speak up!"

"Ye, ye, yes, s-s-sir," the reporter stammered.

"Good. Now give me your hand," Charlie told him as the stage pulled up out front of the store and the passengers began to debark. The reporter extended his right hand. Charlie yanked hand and arm behind the man's back with his own right hand, grasped a handful of jacket collar with his left, shouted, "Gang way! Important passenger!" and ran the reporter through the door and headfirst into the closed coach door.

"Dang! I figured that door would be open," he said without the slightest hint of contrition in his voice as he picked the now unconscious reporter up out of the street by the collar of his jacket. He opened the coach door, slung the unconscious man onto the coach floor and slammed the door behind the limp form. He turned and walked toward his horses, leaving several gaping stagecoach passengers behind on the storefront boardwalk.

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Linn Keller 11-21-12

 

Sarah clapped her hands, twice, the sound of her action loud in the schoolroom.
"Children," she said in the proper tone of voice, sounding as much like Miz Emma as she could, "I believe all is well now. I would like to go outside and be sure of this. Close the door behind me." She looked at the Blaze Boys. "Priest's hole," she said, then to another, slightly older lad, "and Brother Oliver."
"Yes, ma'am," several young voices chorused: Sarah made a palms-up gesture - wait -- and the children, shifting uncertainly, still stood at the front of the room.
Sarah sidled to a window, peeked quickly, then again: she pointed to the Blaze Boys and nodded, once, then stepped quickly, silently, to the door, twisted the knob, pulled.
Charlie's upraised knuckles hovered in space as the door opened just before he could knock.
Sarah smiled a little at the sight of three grim faced lawmen at her door.
"Children," she called, turning her head, "all is well. You may return to your seats now."
"Yes, Miss Sarah," the schoolroom sang, and children shuffled, slipped and paced back to their benches, settling, sliding or plopping into their assigned places.
"I will be just without," Sarah said, "speaking with the Sheriff."
"Yes, Miss Sarah."
Sarah stepped outside, drawing the door shut behind her.
While the door was open, she was collected, she was dignified, she was calm: the moment the latch clicked shut behind her, she threw herself into her Uncle Charlie, seizing the man with shivering arms, clutching at him like she might clutch a floating barrel after being shipwrecked on a broad and stormy ocean.
"There, now," Charlie soothed, his hands spread wide across her back, his voice gentle, "there, now, darlin', shhh, it's all right, you're fine, you're safe."
It did not help Sarah's nerves any that the Sheriff and Jacob were turned away from her, facing any danger that might seek to approach while she provided the men a distraction.
It took most of a minute before Sarah collected herself.
Finally, drawing her head back, she looked at her Uncle Charlie.
Charlie saw something he hadn't expected.
He saw surprise, and a little fear.
Good, he thought. She should know what fear tastes like.
She may be learnin', after all.
Sarah cleared her throat, laid a hand on Charlie's chest, tried to say something: she cleared her throat again, took a long breath and started over.
Looking over at the Sheriff, she said, "You were right."
Then, looking at Charlie -- looking up at the weathered, lined old ex-lawman's hard-eyed expression -- "You were right, Uncle Charlie."
"Well now, darlin', that's nice," Charlie said slowly, "now just what did this slow moving old man do?"
"Slow moving my aunt's billy goat," Sarah muttered, almost managing an affectionate glare.
"Uncle Charlie, you told me I can't go head-first against everything I butt up against."
She looked over at the Sheriff.
"And you told me the military uses a layered principle of security."
She looked back at Charlie.
"You tried so hard to remind me that I am ..." Sarah hesitated, hung her head.
"That I'm a girl."
She leaned her forehead against the Marshal's chest.
"I had all those children to keep safe," she whispered. "I could have taken him on but what about them?"
Charlie waited.
"He wanted the Ragdoll but he didn't know who Ragdoll was, so I knew the first layer was intact -- "the first layer of defense is always knowledge," she quoted.
"Papa, I used your trick with the glasses."
The Sheriff turned, his eyes pale; he nodded shallowly.
"Were you able to ...?"
"Yes," the Sheriff said quietly, turning a little: he was side-on to Sarah now, his back to the schoolhouse, still restless. "When the boy came over and demanded your glasses back I was able to convince him you are nearly blind and going that way fast."
"I told him you have a bad leg and can't walk fifty yards without crying with pain, that you have to be lifted into and out of a carriage," Jacob added.
"I see."
"You didn't try killing him," Charlie said.
Sarah shook her head. "He wasn't trying to kill me. I know if he'd printed that I was the Ragdoll, my life would be in danger, stopping him was important ... what happened out here?"
"Let's just say he won't be back," Charlie said slowly, an edge to his voice, and it was Sarah's turn to look closely at the man.
"He is ... mostly alive, then?"
"Does she know you or what?" the Sheriff grinned.
"Speak for yourself, mister," Charlie snarled, and Sarah saw the amusement in the man's eyes: only old and dear friends could growl and bristle like rival dogs and yet know each was pulling the other's leg without mercy. "I seem to recall your usin' that log wall on him like a meat tenderizer."
"I didn't have time," the Sheriff said with an air of wounded dignity, "to ship in a steam roller!"
Sarah's grip was tight on the hard-muscled ex-marshal's upper arm and she rested her hand on his chest again.
"Uncle Charlie," she whispered, "a year ago I would have torn into the man and no second thought. This way was better. You taught me that." She patted her hand on his chest, leaned her forehead against him again. "Maybe I'm not so stupid after all."
"No one ever said you were stupid," Charlie whispered back, stroking her hair like he was comforting a scared little girl. "Maybe you're just growin' up."
He felt Sarah stiffen and she pulled away from him, shoving him back almost to arm's length.
Sarah's eyes were pale and Charlie saw it again, only stronger.
Charlie saw fear.

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Linn Keller 11-22-12

 

The Sheriff lay awake that night, staring at the ceiling, the taste of ashes on his tongue.
His gut told him there was trouble and he didn't like trouble.
He tried to put trouble to bed and leave it there, he tried to convince the world the Ragdoll was dead, he tried to make the world believe Firelands was a fine place to behave yourself and a very bad place to misbehave.
He lay very still, staring -- glaring -- at the ceiling.
Esther was up with the twins: they were restless and so was she, and when she finally came to bed, she rolled up on her side, soft, warm and all woman, and laid a hand on her husband's chest.
He reached up and laid his callused palm on hers and sighed.
"Mrs. Keller," he whispered, "you are still a fine lookin' woman."
"Mr. Keller," she whispered back, "you are still a fine lookin' man."
They lay in silence for a time, until finally Esther whispered, "You're thinking too loudly for me to sleep."
The Sheriff blinked in the darkness and Esther felt his breathing change, then the quick stifling of something: his belly contracted and she heard his throat shut, and then he allowed himself a quiet, almost inaudible chuckle.
"Now out with it, mister," Esther whispered, throwing a leg over his thighs: "you'll not sleep if you don't get it off your chest."

The Sheriff was not the only one staring at the nighttime ceiling.
Sarah considered and debated, thought and meditated, then she threw back her covers and fished about with bare feet for her slippers.
She crept down the open wooden stairs into the dress-works.
Sarah knew where the material was kept: she'd set a bolt aside, in a particular place, in case she would need it.
She struck light to a candle and, like a ghost, drifted through the necessary areas of the dress-works: she found the bolt, pulled it out a couple feet, then assembled a few other components at one of the sewing stations.
Finally she put the candle on a candle-stand, struck two Aladdin lights into life, placed them widely spaced so she would have the fewest shadows, pinched out the candle, and quietly unrolled the bolt onto a cutting-table.
Shining silver shears parted the black linen easily, chattering quietly through the tight-woven material.

Jacob looked at his son: the lad was sound asleep, rolled up on his side, one arm out-thrust, the other in close to his chest: Jacob shivered a little, remembering his nightmare.
He'd been a little boy again, scared, hurt, chased by terrible monsters through boulders and thickets that populate a little boy's imagination: anonymous branches horsewhipped out, searing across his back, bringing blood, hot, wet, then cold, trickling down his back, down his legs --
He'd wakened, wide-eyed, gasping, looking about the darkened bedroom: he fell back against his pillow, quivering, telling himself it was only a dream, only a dream, only a dream, and not for the first time, he whispered his thanks that the dream was real, not real, not real.
He got up, shaking, shaking hard now: he could barely stand, his nightshirt was soaked, he put out a hand against the door casing, willing his breathing to slow.
Jacob wiped a sleeve across his wet-sweating face.
It was airless in the bedroom, he was stifling, suffocating: he opened the door, slipped out, closed it silently behind him.
He went outside, the ground cold under his bare feet, looking around in the washed-out moonlight: he walked over to the wood pile, grasped the hatchet, pulled it free.
He turned and drew the hatchet back over his shoulder, let fly with the assurance of long practice: the broad blade gleamed and flashed in the silver light, the hatchet turned over once, stuck.
Jacob stared after the hatchet for a long time.
Steam rose from his back, from his shoulders, and was any there to look, old whip scars could be seen through his soaky-wet night shirt's back.
Finally he went back inside, wiped his feet on the hook rug, hesitated.
He went into the kitchen, dippered up some good cold water and took a long drink, ignoring the stream that ran down the corner of his mouth and off his chin.
Wiping his face again with his sleeve, he turned and walked over and into little Joseph's room.
There was enough light for him to see his boy's face, relaxed, innocent, flawless, like a fine marble statue: he watched as the covers rose, slowly, then fell, slowly, with the lad's nocturnal respirations.
Jacob thought of Sarah, earlier that day, and he thought of his little boy.
Jacob's eyes were pale, hard.
Jacob took family very seriously.
He considered the nightmare that clawed him from a sound sleep: he examined it, coldly, looking at it with the suspicious and skeptical eyes of a lawman.
Is this a warning? he wondered, then he looked down at his little boy, remembering how flawless, how smooth, how perfect, the flesh of his son's back was, and his hands tightened into fists again.
Jacob's breath came more quickly now and he began to tremble with fury, with rage, at the thought that anyone may seek to harm his son, his wife, his sister ... or anyone else he loved, for that matter.
In that moment, a black hatred filled his young heart, and he wished to sink his teeth in the throat of an enemy.

A ghost floated across the meadow, a ghost flanked by a shadow the color of night, a ghost that stopped to caress another great, black shadow.
Sarah rubbed Snowflake's nose, crystal tears dripping off her cheeks.
"I'm scared," she whispered. "Snowflake, I'm scared!"
Sarah staggered back as better than a hundred pounds of canine reared up and set his forepaws on her shoulders: she reached up and rubbed his bristling ruff and the Bear Killer licked her face, then dropped down to all fours, the fur ridging up down his spine and across his shoulders.
Sarah heard his growl start well down below the root of his tail and gain power as it echoed up his great barrel-ribbed chest, and finally the Bear Killer, lips peeled back, fangs glowing in the wan moonlight, dropped his bottom on the frost-crunching ground, shoved his blunt muzzle toward the stars and voiced an ancient challenge, a hell-bay that portended blood, that sang of death, that warned the gates of Hell that bloodied bodies were about to stack up at its black portal.
Sarah threw her head back and she saw the dull red glow from across the black river, she saw the ten thousand eyes glowing in rock-bound darkness, she heard leathery scales on stone, claws hissing along adamantine pathways, waiting for her to condemn her own soul, waiting for her return, not as an innocent child, twisted from hurt, but rather a developed, adult soul, a soul that chose the hell-path, a soul that could be tortured and tormented and agonized to depths unimaginable by a mere child.
Sarah laid a hand on The Bear Killer's ears.
"Shhh," she soothed, and The Bear Killer leaned against her, still growling.

"Miz Emma!" a young voice exclaimed, and immediately the entire student body abandoned benches and studies and ran to the windows.
Fingers, noses and anxious expressions all pressed against window-glass, and Sarah smiled, folding her hands, knowing how fruitless it would be to call the children back: instead, she swept down the center aisle, grasped the door and hauled it open, stepping back.
Jackson Cooper reached up and carefully, gently wrapped his big hands around his bride's chest under her arms: he picked her up, swung her down out of the carriage, easing her to the ground as if she were the most delicate bone china.
Sarah was like a rock in the middle of a stream: the children poured out around Sarah and down the three steps in a happy, laughing, chattering cascade, and Emma Cooper found herself surrounded by bouncing, bright-faced, big-eyed humanity.
Emma, smiling, looked up at Sarah, and read her lips, for speech was impossible in this happy confusion:
"Welcome home!"

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Linn Keller 11-22-12

 

I must plan carefully, Sarah thought.
Another few days and Emma will ...
Sarah's eyes raised to the horizon, restless: the flesh between her shoulder blades tightened a little, as if anticipating a shot from concealment, or a knife, perhaps.
One hand rested on Snowflake's warm neck; The Bear Killer sat against her foot, leaning a little on her leg, pink tongue run out, panting a little, looking deceptively sleepy.
Another few days and Emma will still be weak and moving slow and careful.
Snowflake lowered her head to graze again, and Sarah turned, walking slowly, not with any particular destination in mind.
It was much simpler before I knew I was going to live, she thought.
It was easier before I knew I will pass my father's bloodline to my child, and my child in turn to my grandchild.
Sarah stopped, looked into the distance.
Who can I ask?
Charlie?
He said I was growing up.

Sarah shivered, as if someone just stepped on her grave.
I've seen what happens to people who grow up.
Sarah's eyes narrowed.
Things happened to me ... long before I was grown ... terrible things, but they are past now, they are behind me.
I'm still here.
Growing up will not change that.
Grown up, I will be better able to kill anyone who tries to do that to me again.

Sarah stopped, wondering at herself.
Am I so quick to kill?
Is it that easy for me?

Sarah turned and walked back along her previous footprints.
I need to stop the danger that faces me.
Or I could do nothing, and evil can come upon me unawares.
It can do that anyway.
I can stop this evil.

Sarah's eyes changed, grew a little more pale, a little more cold.
I could kill the reporter.
Just as quickly, she dismissed the idea.
No ... but the reporter must be stopped.
Forbid a thing and you make that thing alluring; prohibit it and a man will bust his ever lovin' gut to get it or do it or have it.
He is forbidden to return, he is discouraged from looking into the Ragdoll ever again.
I can't take the chance of ignoring him.
He just might decide there's something worth writing about if so many people oppose him.

Sarah groaned and turned back to Snowflake, clutching the black Frisian's long, silky mane in both hands.
What is stopping me?
I am stopping me.
What is my greatest enemy?
Indecision.
I ... can't ... stand ... not ... deciding!!
Decide to do nothing, or decide to act.

Sarah drew her face away from the Frisian's silky fur.
"I have to act," she whispered, then nodded.
There.
I made a decision.
I will act.

Sarah sighed, shook her head.
I feel better for deciding that much, at least ... but now ... what action do I ...
"What act, indeed?" she asked herself out loud.
She looked back toward the dress-works, then looked at the house, almost complete now, then back to the dress-works.
She would wait until work was done for the day before she brought her half-finished outfits from their hiding place and completed her idea.
Shirt and britches, a nun's habit ... and she had to see Daciana again.
I think I know what to do, she thought, and I won't have to kill him to do it.
I know where the laudanum is, and that will be just the thing.

Sarah's smile was thin.
I think I know just how to do it.

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Charlie MacNeil 11-22-12

 

"I have to act," she whispered, then nodded.
There.
I made a decision.
I will act.

Sarah sighed, shook her head.
I feel better for deciding that much, at least ... but now ... what action do I ...
"What act, indeed?" she asked herself out loud.
She looked back toward the dress-works, then looked at the house, almost complete now, then back to the dress-works.
She would wait until work was done for the day before she brought her half-finished outfits from their hiding place and completed her idea.
Shirt and britches, a nun's habit ... and she had to see Daciana again.
I think I know what to do, she thought, and I won't have to kill him to do it.
I know where the laudanum is, and that will be just the thing.
Sarah's smile was thin.
I think I know just how to do it.

"My thoughts exactly, girl." Charlie's soft drawl startled Sarah from her reverie. "What exactly do ya think ya're gonna do ta that gent?"

She whirled to face the ex-Marshal where he sat the saddled roan. Beyond the dress works the two packhorses stood patiently waiting. "How do you do that?" Sarah squawked, her voice trembling.

"Do what?" he asked, his voice level, his features neutral.

"Sneak up on me like that? In a wide open pasture no less? And how do you know what I'm thinking so much of the time?"

"You were so engrossed in your own thoughts that I could've come in here with a brass marching band and you wouldn't have noticed, girl," he told her coolly. "I thought me and Fannie taught you better than that."

"But I... but you... how do you know so much?" Sarah blurted out, the words tangling with her tongue as they rushed out into the chill air on the fog of her breath.

"I've been there and done that, girl," he replied. "I've been you." He stepped down from the saddle. "Come here." She hesitated, unsure of where this was going. His voice crackled with command. "Now! Come!" Seeming to act on their own volition, her feet carried her forward to where Charlie could catch her hands in his. Her eyes were downcast. "Look at me, girl," he ordered. She brought her gaze up to meet his.

"Look deep," he told her. "What do you see?"

"I see... things. Things that happened, things that hurt you, things that..."

"Scared me?" he asked softly. She nodded, her eyes locked on his.

"You're scared now, aren't you?" he went on. She nodded again. "You don't know what to do next, right?" She blinked her assent, unable to nod. "Welcome to the real world, girl," he said with a soft chuckle.

With a shuddering sigh she broke the connection between old eyes and young. "What do you mean?" she whispered.

"I mean we all get scared, we're all uncertain, most of us don't usually know what to do," he answered. "Welcome to the real world," he repeated.

"But you, and Aunt Fannie, and Uncle Papa, and even Jacob, you always seem to know what to do, you're never scared, you're always so, so, well, brave!" she exclaimed.

"Bull feathers!" Charlie retorted. "Don't you believe it, girl. We're all just real dang good at coverin' our hineys 'cause we've been around for so long," he went on with a flickering smile. "When you've had as much crap thrown at ya as we have over the years, even Jacob, ya get real good at takin' it with a straight face. King Solomon said that there ain't nothin' new under the sun, and when it comes ta the kinda stuff that happens ta lawdogs, he was right. We've seen it before. But it don't mean we ain't scared. We're just real good at coverin' it up." He dropped her hands. "Does that make any sense?"

"Actually, it does," she answered, surprise writ large on her comely features.

"Good. Now back to my original question: what are you planning to do that fella?"

Her gaze paled. "I'm going to make sure he doesn't come back, and that he doesn't let anyone else come here, either," she replied in a tone cold enough to freeze a fast-running stream.

"Gonna kill him?"

"No."

"Good, 'cause that would only cause more people to ask questions. Got something real devious in mind?"

"Yes."

"Good. Just make sure you stop short of long-term hospitalization, okay?"

"I'll do my best."

"Good. Now come with me and help me unpack them horses. Seein' as how you cut your huntin' short, I did it for you. Your family's winter meat is in those manties, so lets us get at it and get it in the cold cellar 'fore it gets too warm."

"Thank you for everything, Uncle Charlie. I needed that."

"My pleasure, girl. Now lets get busy." He picked up the roan's reins and led the gelding toward the patiently waiting packhorses.

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Linn Keller 11-23-12

 

Sarah fired the smokehouse and closed the door, pressing wet clay into the gaps: she wanted to hold the smoke, the low heat, and not let it escape anywhere but the planned vent high up.
Meat, good winter's meat, filled the stone smoker: more was in their larder and their new kitchen, their brand-new kitchen, their shining new unused kitchen, was now busy, humming and chattering and clattering with activity: meat was being canned, and canning anything is hot and labor-intensive work: but when Charlie fetched in good eatin' meat, that mysterious, indefinable network of womanly communication kind of lit up, and willing hands descended on the new and spacious kitchen in the brand-new, tall, brick house, and Sarah was given in charge of smoking such cuts of meat as would be useful through the winter.
Sarah looked at the small metal doors on the back of the smoke house and smiled: through one she could add fuel or chips as needed, through the other, ashes could be drawn, and there was even a narrow, flat-bottom shovel on a hook beside, for just that purpose.
Sarah frowned and made a mental note to fetch out a pail or a coal-scuttle to hold the ashes.
No sense in starting a grass fire with hot ash and embers, she thought, shivering, then she shivered again and realized she was cold.

Jacob managed not to flinch too hard at Charlie's voice.
"Mind if I ask you somethin'?" Jacob drawled, turning with quiet eyes to regard the grinning fellow.
"Ask," Charlie replied, his eyes smiling and the rest of his face almost expressionless.
"How in Sam's holler can you sneak up on a body like that? I didn't know you were within three counties until you spoke!"
Charlie's grin kind of flowed down over his weathered face.
"Practice."
Jacob nodded.
The two men leaned against the front of the Sheriff's office: the evening sun did little to warm them, and finally Jacob said "I need your advice. Let's go in where it's warmer."
The two withdrew into the Sheriff's office.
Jacob shook down ashes and fed a couple more chunks, which told Charlie he figured to be here a while: a man would leave a good bed of ashes to bank a fire for the night, and he'd just gotten rid of the ash bed.
Jacob opened his father's desk drawer, withdrew the bottle and two glasses.
Charlie raised a palm, shook his head.
Jacob replaced the glassware and its potent cargo, then swung a leg up and set himself on the corner of the Sheriff's desk, frowning.
"Sarah's plan," he said without preamble.
Charlie slouched against the wall, eyes busy, nodding a little.
"She tell you about it?"
Charlie nodded slowly. "A little."
"Time was ... she'd be gone by now and we wouldn't hear a thing until the explosion r'ared a dust cloud over the horizon."
Charlie nodded.
"She's changed."
Charlie nodded again, holding his own counsel: he did not know how much or how little Jacob knew, and this was a matter he figured Sarah should reveal.
There was a light but brisk knock at the door.
Charlie looked up, surprised: the board walk without was hollow beneath and even a light step was generally audible.
Jacob stood, relaxed; he nodded, and Charlie reached over, drew the latch and hauled the heavy door open.
A diminutive little nun in cowl and black habit glided in, head bowed: her hands were hidden in her sleeves, and did not the men know that humans are installed with two legs, they might have thought her on wheels, so smoothly did she move.
Charlie swung the door to and slid the latch home; the little nun turned a little to face both men, then withdrew her hands, raised her arms and raised her head.
"Sister Mercurius, at your service," Sarah said with the expression of a mischievous little girl.
"Now." She tilted her head and looked at Jacob. "I believe there was some question about a plan. I shall need both your wise counsel."
Sarah glided over behind the Sheriff's desk, drew open the big middle drawer and withdrew a thin sheaf of paper, and a pencil.
"Here," she said, writing quickly, "is what I have planned."
Charlie kind of faded away from the wall, thumbs hooked in his belt; his step was absolutely silent on the board floor, and Jacob turned, curious, leaning the heels of his hands on the edge of the desk.
"The problem," Sarah said, "is that recent reporter.
"Was that his spur of the moment, was he sent on assignment, was he even a reporter?"
She reached into a sleeve, pulled out a newspaper.
"I made certain inquiries and he is a reporter for this paper." She tapped it with the pencil, then returned to the sheet she was working on.
"I have not found whether he was assigned, or merely curious.
"Either way I must stop him."
Jacob's hand rested lightly on Sarah's shoulder.
"You must stop him?" he asked quietly.
Sarah straightened, her eyes pale.
"Yes. And I know just how."
"Let's hear it, girl," Charlie growled, his eyes hard as he looked at this puzzling, confounding soul whose reason consistently defied logic and yet worked very, very well.
"You are right," Sarah said, her return gaze just as direct but nowhere near as hard. "Killing him would raise more questions. I need to discredit him. He will be alive to complain about it -- but he will be alive."
"Go on."
Sarah looked gratefully at Jacob, then continued.
Drawing open the Sheriff's drawer, she withdrew the bottle, set it on the desk.
"What do you see?"
Charlie and Jacob looked at one another.
"Medicinal. Warm-up. Pain killer. Warsh out a cut," Jacob suggested.
Sarah's finger tapped the cork.
"This, gentlemen," she smiled, "is opportunity."
She opened another drawer, drew out a triangular bottle half the height of the clear whiskey bottle.
"Laudanum," she said.
Jacob frowned, tilted his head a little, curious.
"I travel as Sister Mercurius. Nobody knows me. I become someone else back east." She tapped the newspaper with a curved forefinger. "Again, nobody will know me. I turn invisible." She looked sharply at Charlie. "You taught me that."
Charlie's eyes were half-slitted, unreadable.
"I get into his newspaper office and offer him a choice: drink, or die.
"He likes his drink and will choose not to die."
She tapped the laudanum bottle.
"This, in the bottle in his drawer, and he will drink deep and pass out.
"I rifle his files, extract anything to do with the Ragdoll, I rappel out his window and just before I leave, I heave a whiskey-bottle through the glass of his office door.
"I slip out his window and free the line so it disappears before anyone appears. Even if I must abandon the line in place, he will be blamed for its presence. They will find him smelling of drink, passed out, and think he himself put the bottle through the window. He is discredited, possibly fired. I return in disguise. Happily ever after."
Jacob nods, looks at the paper: Sarah has sketched out train schedules, listed addresses, estimated travel times and expenses, calculated the number and type of luggage-trunks that will be needed, and while talking, wrote the routing of each item.
Jacob raised an eyebrow.
Few minds can operate on multiple trains of thought simultaneously, let alone talk one and write another.
He looked up at Charlie.
"Woman's magic, boy," Charlie muttered, shaking his head. "It's a gift. Don't try to understand it, just accept it."
Charlie grinned, the corners of his eyes crinkling as if sharing a secret knowledge.
"I've seen your Mama do that, and I've seen my Fannie do that."
He looked long at Sarah.
"You are growin' up."
Sarah nodded, her eyes distant, then she sat down -- or kind of sagged, and a good thing the chair was there to catch her.
Sarah rested her elbows on the desk, her face in her palms.
There was a shout, the jingle of harness; hard boot heels on the boardwalk outside.
Sarah jumped out of the chair, drew back against the wall: Charlie and Jacob moved, Charlie between the desk and the door, Jacob over by the gun rack: he pulled down a double twelve, knowing it to be loaded, eared back the hammers.
A hard fist hammered on the door and a loud, accented voice shouted "Abre la puerta!"
Another voice, a little higher: Estupido! Favor de abre la puerta!"
Charlie looked at Jacob, winked: Jacob eased the hammers down on the shotgun as Charlie stomped over to the door and bellowed "Quien es?" -- and yanked the latch back.
"We are two men with a thirst!" Santos roared, throwing his arms wide and seizing the spare ex-Marshal in a great embrace: "Por Dios, you are built like a mesquite and twice as ugly! And you! You need a meal and a drink and a good woman!" Santos seized Jacob, laughing, and Jacob tossed the shotgun to Charlie: Miguel came in, grinning, and shook Charlie's hand, nodding approval at the double gun in his other mitt: "It is wise to be careful, eh? There is no telling what disreputable scoundrels will --"
The brothers Vega y Vega both saw Sarah at the same moment.
Whipping off their sombreros, they crossed themselves: "Forgive us, Sister," they blurted in unison, and Sarah turned, head in a humble inclination, and blessed them both with the Sign of the Cross: slipping her hands in her sleeves, she glided first to Miguel, then to Santos: she wordlessly handed each a brown scapular, then silently exited the door, and was gone.
Santos, wide-eyed, pointed to the door, his mouth open: Miguel looked from Jacob to Charlie, then to the brown scapular in his hand.
Neither Charlie nor Jacob missed the man's tremor.
Miguel spoke first.
"We hoped to find she who is called Sister Mercurius," he said carefully.
"Our sister -- she is not well -- we hoped --"
"She is bleeding and the doctors cannot help."
Jacob and Charlie looked at one another, then at their Mexican guests.
Santos staggered back a step.
"Dios Mio!" he whispered, "El Senor Dios has blessed us this night!" -- his voice rose to a triumphant shout -- and the brothers Vega y Vega scrambled out the door: "Sister!" the shouted. "Sister Mercurius, adyudame, favor de ayudame!"
Charlie and Jacob looked at one another again.
Finally Jacob took the single sheet upon which Sarah had written, returned the blank sheets and pencil to the drawer, put away the laudanum, picked up the bottle and looked thoughtfully at the heavy glass vessel.
"I don't reckon," he said slowly, "Sarah will be going East any time soon."
"No," Charlie agreed. "I reckon not."
"Sister Mercurius?" Jacob puzzled, opening the top right hand drawer, looking at the two glasses within.
"I believe," Charlie drawled, "I just might have that drink now."
"I believe," Jacob replied, "I will join you."
Water clear gurgled into heavy glass and the two men clinked and drank.
Jacob sat on the desk again and Charlie eased himself down into an armless chair.
"Clothes make the man," Jacob said meditatively. "What do you reckon this makes Sarah?"
Charlie's eyes smiled as he set the glass down on the corner of the desk.
"Busy, I reckon," he chuckled. "She'll be going, if I'm any judge."
"But not East."
"Not East."

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Linn Keller 11-23-12

 

Sarah leaned forward, whispering to her black gelding, begging him for more speed, more speed, more speed.
Sarah felt words and universes tilt on their axes, she felt the very firmament wobble underfoot: she nearly lay alongside her horse's neck, half sick, knowing something terrible was coming, something utterly horrible, something only she could do --

"There!" Santos shouted, his Mexican stallion whipping around, grunting: "There she is!"
"Por Dios, she flies!" his brother exclaimed. "Vamonos, hermanito!"
The brothers Vega y Vega dug spurs into their horses' flanks, yelling, and pounded into the gathering dark.

Sarah swung down into a draw, rode for a little distance, pulled hard up in a side draw and backed Shadowfoot in beside a rock.
The two Mexicans rode right on by, seeming only three feet tall but twelve feet long: Sarah waited until their hoofbeats receded, then turned Shadowfoot back out of the gully and toward the dress-works.
She did not have much time now, she knew: the ground was open and they would surely see her.
She jumped Shadowfoot over the board fence, whistling for Snowflake: she barely had time to get the saddle on the big Frisian before she saw the Mexicans, casting a broad arc, and knew that she was but moments from being seen.
Sarah rubbed Snowflake's nose, fed her a small, sweet apple, praying the big black mare's training would hold.
"Stay," she whispered, making a flat-palm-down gesture. "Stay, girl."
Sarah turned, climbed back into Shadowfoot's saddle, turned: the black gelding thrust hard ahead, straight for the fence, and Sarah and the gelding sailed over it and pounded over to the dress-works.
Sarah could let them see her, but she could not let them know who she was.
For the moment, she had a plan.

"There!"
"A donde?"
"Por alli!"

The brothers Vega y Vega slashed their horses viciously across the hinder with their reins, demanding speed, speed and more speed.

Sarah rode Shadowfoot around behind the dress-works, dropped the reins over the saddle horn: she ran around the front of the building, waited until the pursuers could see her, then went in the front door.
Once inside she ran, ran for the material bin: pawing through scraps, she seized a square of gauze: it was almost the right size, and would do: folding an edge over, she went from one sewing machine to another until she found one with white thread.
Quickly, desperately, she folded and sewed a seam: turn, fold, sew another: the third, and just done, and she heard boots on the porch.
Only moments remained.
Sarah threw back her cowl, tucked the gauze up and under, drew the cowl and veil back: tucking in its edges, she turned and looked in a mirror.
Her face was almost completely indistinguishable through the gauze.
Sarah ran the few steps to the back door, hesitated, then ran upstairs: something told her she would have need of another prop.
When in doubt, girl, Charlie told her once, follow your gut.
Sarah did.
She scampered back down the steep, narrow stairs, turned quickly, ran out the back door, around the building.
Santos swept the sombrero from his thick, black hair: looking around the darkened dress-works, he called, "Sister? Sister Mercurius? Favor, hermana, donde esta Usted?"
"She is gone," his brother breathed.
"No," he groaned, sinking to his knees: "no, no, no! El Senor Dios would not run us here and -- so close -- no!"
Something hit the porch boards hard, outside, just behind them.
Both men jumped, turned.
"Santa Maria," they breathed, then snatched for the doorknob: they rushed out on the porch, hats held before them.
A veiled nun stood on the porch, a spear in hand: she stood, still, unmoving, waiting.
The men panted a bit, getting their wind back, waiting for their hammering hearts to slow, for much -- everything! -- weighed on this boon, on this favor.
"Sister Mercurius," they said, each man sinking to his right knee.
The black robed nun might as well have been carved of ebony.
"Our sister -- Lucita, she who we love -- she bleeds, Sister Mercurius, and los medicos cannot help her."
Santos swallowed hard.
"They tell us if she bleeds another three days she will die."
Both men bowed their heads.
"It is said you can cure with a touch, with the Spear of St. Mercurius you can heal. Bring it, Sister, we will give you our fortune --"
The nun drove the steel-shod butt of her spear against the boards, cutting off the pleading words.
She walked slowly forward, the spear thumping loudly every time her right foot came down.
She stopped, near enough to touch.
"I can do nothing," she whispered: "only He Who Creates can cure."
"Then you will help?" Miguel blurted.
The nun bowed slowly, then straightened.
"You came by train?" Again, the whisper.
"Si."
"Meet me at the depot in two hours. We leave tonight. Two hours, not a minute earlier."
Santos reached over and squeezed his brother's shoulder.
The nun laid a gentle hand on Miguel's shoulder as well. "Rise," she whispered. "Do not kneel before me. I am nothing."
The men rose, blinking, looking at the nun, at one another, and with a serious degree of awe at The Spear.
"You should eat," the nun whispered. "Su madre would not want you to travel on an empty belly. Now go. Meet me in two hours. No earlier."
"Gracias, Sister Mercurius," the brothers chorused: they were soon a-gallop for the Silver Jewel, each man rejoicing in his heart, for had she not the Spear itself, the Spear that only came out of its locked casket once a year, and then only with due ceremony?
Sarah waited until they were departed before running back inside.
She came out with a set of full saddlebags.
She planned on traveling light, and hopefully, fast.
At the last minute she stopped, then went into her mother's office.

Bonnie was reading to the twins when she heard the sound of horses, departing in a hurry: curious, she rose, then went to the front door and looked around.
She saw a light on in the dress-works.
Curious, for she was sure she'd turned out all the lamps, she gathered up her cloak and started across the way, toward the big brick building.
Once inside, she smelled a recently-snuffed lamp; she reached for the chimney of the lamp on her desk, drew back her hand: the chimney was hot.
Concerned now, Bonnie reached for another lamp, a little distance away: it was cool; she struck match to its wick, turned it down, carried it over to her desk.
She recognized Sarah's handwriting.
Frowning a little, she picked up the note.

Mother --
Please tell Charlie and Jacob I will handle the problem.
Please tell them I need not stir from my seat to do it.
Please don't worry about me, I shall be gone not more than three days.
Sarah


"Oh, dear," Bonnie murmured.

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Linn Keller 11-24-12

 

The train had one passenger car, one stock car, one express car, a caboose.
Neither Santos nor Miguel saw the diminutive nun.
Each checked his watch; each checked his watch against the station clock; they asked the ticket agent if La Hermanita had boarded, and they were told, yes, she is aboard; they returned to the passenger car, settling into their seats as the conductor called "Board! All aboard!"
Restless, the brothers looked about: Santos, impatient, sprang to his feet, prowled the length of the car, paced back: he handed the conductor his ticket with ill grace, feeling the weight of failure heavy upon his shoulders.
Miguel, too, chafed at the thought of having allowed the last, absolutely the only, chance for his sister's survival fall from his grasp: after a few minutes, he thrust roughly against his brother and muttered his way out onto the platform at the rear of the car.
Miguel was fond of black, twisted, noxious cigarros guaranteed to kill flies, mosquitoes and ticks if lit in a closed room; he proceeded to foul the air with quick, impatient puffs, finally snatching the half-smoked hand-rolled from his clenched teeth and throwing it to the tracks below.
He spat.
"Why," he whispered to the stars overhead, "why have You been so cruel? How have I have been so evil a man as to do this to me?" -- he shook his head, leaning heavily on the iron railing.
He stood there for several minutes, feet braced apart, swaying a little, then his head came up: something, something just at the edge of his hearing ...
Cantando?
Singing ... did he hear singing?
He cocked his head, listening, straining to hear ...
Miguel's eyes widened and his heart stopped for a moment, then surged, hard and fast against his breastbone, and he gasped, his sun-dark and scarred knuckles blanching as he gripped the railing.
He looked at the little platform at the door of the stock car.
To think was to act.
He unhitched the chain, stepped through; a long stride and he was holding the forged handholds on the door frame, pressing his ear to the door.
He leaned back a little, grasped the latch, then slowly, carefully, opened the door and stepped into the stock car.
It smelled of hay and of horses, it smelled of grain and wood smoke; a solitary lantern dimly illuminated the interior.
The little black nun knelt in the center of the car, hands folded in front of her, Rosary gleaming in bright emerald droplets: her face was invisible, hidden behind the modesty of her gauze face-vail, but her face was turned upward, up to Heaven, and her voice -- por Dios, her voice! -- pure, high and sweet, such a voice as could come only from an angel --
Miguel, sunburned and knife-scarred, hard-muscled and callused, stubble-cheeked and tired, a veteran of conflict and pain and loss, a man quick to laugh and to share a joke and a drink -- Miguel, who made a journey, a desperate attempt at finding life for his dying sister -- Miguel, heir to the Vega y Vega rancho and all its fortune -- Miguel, who knew what it was to feel the thrust of steel in the gut and live, and to seize a man by the throat and drive his own espada into the other man's evil black heart --
Miguel Vasquez Vega y Vega, father, husband and ranchero, knelt in the straw and chaff and wept unashamedly as the little nun sang the Ave, her voice filling the car with light and with beauty and with the promise of life, of life!
Miguel saw his dear madre's face before him again, felt her hands gentle on his cheeks, her arms around him as she too sang, and he felt a step behind him, and a hand on his shoulder.
He reached up and laid a callused hand on his brother's fingers as the little nun's voice soared like la poloma over them both.
Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Maria, gratia plena,
she sang, and two hard men knelt on the stock car floor, heads bowed, tears running freely and without shame down their faces, and when her voice was done, when her head, too, bowed, the brothers Vega y Vega crossed themselves and rose, silently, and went back to the passenger car.
Once through the night, Miguel came back and looked in on the little nun.
She slept on a blanket, on the bare floor, her face still veiled, the green-glass Rosary still in her grasp.

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Linn Keller 11-24-12

 

"She prays in her sleep," he whispered to his brother. "You should see her, hermano! She has no face, only a pool of light, as if moonlight from under deep water! Dios Mio, is there any doubt? She will cure our hermanita! You will see!"

Young bones are blessed with the ability to sleep on surfaces that would nearly cripple an adult: Sister Mercurius rose as the train began to slow, stowed the blanket, opened the side of the stock car door.
Snowflake, true to her training, waited until the Sister's whistle, then followed: she got both black horses on board, settled in, grained; she traveled light, carrying only what was necessary, only that which was vital to the mission, and that was herself, and that was the Smith spear, and that was her saddlebags, and two saddled horses.
Sister Mercurius knew the ground near the little town where they would be stopping, and she knew she could make good her escape: she waited until the train was at the right speed, which was slow, and where the ground was right, which was higher than the tracks but lower than the car, and she gave Shadowfoot her knees and called "Snowflake!" -- and two black horses shot out of the side of the stock car and hit the ground at a run, and were soon out of sight.
Sister Mercurius knew the mission was nearby, and she knew how to get there, quickly and unobserved: the mission was no stranger to travelers, for it was a haven of safety, it was a hostel to folk seeking shelter in a strange land, but little could have prepared the barefoot boy in ragged knee pants for the sight of a little nun, carrying a big spear, leading a full sized gelding and followed by a truly huge, utterly black, mountain of a horse! -- and the nun! -- why is her face hidden? -- could she be a leper, cast from the world into this desert land?
The veiled Sister pressed a coin into the boy's palm and whispered in flawless Mexican -- Mexican, not Spanish, for they were rapidly bifurcating into two separate languages -- "My son, my horses must see grain but not too much, only as much as you can hold in two hands. Rub them down, brush them out, and wait for me, I will need them again at sunrise tomorrow, and this one" -- she reached up and patted Shadowfoot's neck -- "this one I will need today."
The boy whispered his understanding and stammered his thanks: the nun's hands were gentle as she caressed his head, and a vague, thumping discomfort in his jaw eased, and disappeared, and was gone, as she passed her hand over his straight, black hair.
The nun straightened, looked toward the sanctuary.

The Padre looked up from his breakfast.
The man was tired; he'd been most of the night at the Rancho Vega y Vega, head bowed over his simple wooden Rosary, which he wrapped carefully around the hand of the sufferer: he sat with her, listening to her, excusing himself discreetly several times while the poor woman was tended, for she continued to hemorrhage, and he offered no dispute to the local medico, who gave her a draught to help her sleep: both the Padre and the doctor were old friends, and each appreciated the other's gifts, and each had bent the other's ear over a friendly glass of wine, when each needed the succor of a friend's counsel, or of his shoulder.
The Padre knew his old friend the medico was at the end of his skill, the limit of his ability: this woman's aliment could not be cured with his skills, with his science, and he'd turned to the Padre, as had the family.
One of the villagers spoke to the Padre -- drew him aside, whispered urgent words -- had they not heard of the relic, the spear of St. Mercurius, at the Rabbitville monastery? Was it not reputed to heal those who touched it in faith?

The Council met around the great dark table and considered the priest's carefully penned missive.
It begged them to send a representative with the Spear of St. Mercurius, that this woman be healed: it begged this favor, as the woman was dying, and all the skills of medical science were for naught, and the Spear was he last hope.
Brother William's heart sank as he read the date and then the urgency of the man's words.
"My brothers," he said sadly, "we may be too late already."
"We must try."
"Who will bear the Spear?"
Brother William raised his head.
"I know the perfect messenger."

Sister Mercurius knelt and kissed the priest's hand, as if kissing a ring of office: the kindly old priest blessed the humble little nun and bade her rise, and speak her heart.
"Padre, I would see she who bleeds at the Rancho Vega y Vega," she whispered. "I am La Pequenita sin Cara, the Little One With No Face, and I --"
"You come from the monastery," the Padre exclaimed, hope illuminating his face: "you brought the Spear!"
Sister Mercurius looked up at the man's face, marveling at how it shone with conviction.
"We prayed the monastery would release the Spear of St. Mercurius, that it may heal our sister! Come, yes, come, let us --"
"Padre," Sister Mercurius whispered, for her voice never rose above a strained whisper, "the Spear is not yet arrived. Yet let me see her, that she know her healing is at hand."

The dark-haired Mexican boy stretched as far as he could reach, grooming the big, black mare with the long, silky mane.
He was in mid-stroke when he realized the pounding in his jaw was gone.
He remembered the faceless nun's gentle touch, and how the pain crept away on little kitten-feet, and his black eyes went big and round as the full realization hit him.
The curry-comb clattered to the floor and there was the whisper of callused young soles as the little boy streaked toward the mission house.

Sister Mercurius walked with the padre, listening carefully to the man's description of the woman's suffering: though not a trained physician, he was not at all unintelligent, and managed to convey a clear picture of the patient's condition.
She listened silently; she walked with hands clasped before her, the green-glass Rosary in her grip.
The Padre slowed, stopped; he bent a little, grasped his knee through his worn, black habit, and she could see the man's lips move.
The Sister turned, looked into the distance, then turned back.
She laid her hand on his -- quickly, suddenly, strongly -- and whispered, "The Spear. It comes," and the Padre felt a surge of warmth through his hand, and his arthritic old knee ached no more.
"Come," she whispered. "We have work."

"Brother William," he said, "we can appreciate your wish to help this woman, but we cannot begin using our Relic for healing -- we would be forever petitioned with --"
Brother William's face darkened and his fist drove down against the glass-smooth table top.
"IS THAT NOT WHAT WE DO?" he roared, uncaring that voices simply were not raised, here in this sanctum, especially when fired with anger. "OF WHAT USE IS A RELIC UNLESS WE BENEFIT THE FAITHFUL? IF ALMIGHTY GOD HAS GIVEN US A TOOL, THEN WE USE THAT TOOL!" -- and his fist slammed again into the table top.

"Leave us," the faceless nun whispered, then pointed: "You, stay."
The old nurse looked around, uncertain, then sat on the little stool beside the sick-bed.
The men looked around, then at the Padre, who made little shooing motions: they turned, muttering, and filed out the door.
The black-cowled Sister did not have to look to know the Padre shot her an uncertain look.
Sarah slipped a hand under the woman's palm, grasped it, pressed it between her own hands: the Sister's hands were warm, almost hot, and the woman's eyes closed most of the way as she hissed out her breath.
"Gracias, Sister," she sighed, "el dolor -- the pain -- it is less now."
"I am La Hermanita Sin Cara," Sarah whispered. "None may see my face, for this is my vow: but none know my name, save only myself and El Senor Dios."
Sarah laid her hand on the woman's belly.
Her head snapped back into the pillow and she gave a sharp gasp -- the old nurse, alarmed, half-rose -- then the Sister released the woman's hand, brought both hands up to the woman's face.
"Look at me," she whispered, pulling the woman's eyelids down with her thumbs.
The tissue was pale.
Sarah caressed the woman's forehead, as a mother might a sick child, then she thrust an accusing finger at the nurse.
"Prepare meat," she whispered, her voice hoarse: "backstrap, tender, boiled in broth. She has not eaten?"
The old nurse, trembling, shook her head.
"She eats now. Meat, and a little bread, and a small glass of wine."
The men were conversing in low tones, the way men will do when standing deathwatch outside the room of someone who is but hours from their demise: the sickroom door burst open and the old nurse, wide-eyed, shoved her way through them, her lips pressed together.
None dared enter, but Miguel looked in, and he saw his sister smiling, and she and the little faceless nun were holding hands, their heads close together, talking.
It was not until the Little Faceless One fed the sufferer broth, and small bits of meat, finely diced, not until she and the nurse bathed the woman and changed the bedsheets and combed out her hair, not until she was sleeping, sleeping easily, relaxed, her hands still, not twitching with pain -- not until the sun was falling below the horizon that the Little Faceless One emerged.
The door opened; the little nun looked from one man to another, and even though none could see through the white crape veil, no man there could look her in the face.
She walked up to Miguel and took his hand, then reached for Santos' brown, callused hand as well: she drew them to the middle of the room, reached up and placed a hand on each of their shoulders.
"She sleeps," she whispered, fatigue betrayed by the hoarseness of her strained sibilants: "the Spear" -- and her knees buckled: her head fell forward, and only her grip on their shoulders -- and their sudden arms around her waist -- kept her from pitching face first to the floor.
She panted a little, then whispered, "Help me stand."
Carefully, slowly, they drew her upright.
"The spear," she husked. "At morning light, at sunrise, out of the east."
She raised a trembling hand, pointed toward the open front door.
"The messenger, all in white, riding a horse of midnight black."
She swayed a little.
"I need a sword. Favor de un espada! Ahorita!"
The little nun seemed at the very limit of her strength: she leaned against the door casing as Santos ran to his father's room, retrieved his father's prized Toledo blade, brought it: he knelt before the little nun, offered it to her, handle first, across his forearm.
The faceless little nun grasped the wire-wrapped handle: she gathered strength from somewhere and stood, running delicate fingertips along the blade's spine: she held steel horizontally, raised it overhead, then down to belt level, and finally snapped it up before her in salute.
"Your father's blade?" she whispered.
"Si."
"It is well. Come."
Sister Mercurius opened the sickroom door.
She placed Toledo steel's tip on the floor, at the bottom of the door frame: steadily, precisely, she scribed a line down beside the bed, around the bed, back along the other side of the bed and to the door again.
Snapping the blade to her shoulder, she executed a crisp military about-face: pacing off on the left, she spun the blade -- once, twice, twice again -- each time her left foot hit the floor, Toledo steel spun a silver circle beside her.
The diminutive nun wove a silver spiderweb over the bed, the blade singing as it cut the sinews of the air itself: her moves were swift, powerful, the blade becoming a living thing in her grasp: she spun the circles horizontally, then at the foot of the bed, vertically: at the doorway she stopped, raised the blade again horizontally, overhead, one hand wrapped about the grip, the other supporting the tip, and finally whispered, "We weave the circle round about, good within, all else without," and bending, placed the blade across the threshold: she placed a hand on the old nurse's bosom: "You alone may enter and leave.
"The Spear will arrive with the morning sun, borne by a messenger in white.
"Let none enter until the Messenger has gone."

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Linn Keller 11-24-12

 

The Padre looked around at the men, quietly assessing what he was seeing.
Santos' scar -- puckered and ugly, along the curve of his bottom jaw -- was gone.
Miguel nicked himself shaving that morning.
The cut was gone, as was the blood that clung to the stubble he'd abandoned when honed steel thirsted after his flesh.
His own knee -- gracias a Dios! -- no longer throbbed like a toothache.
"My children," he said in a kindly voice, "let us to the chapel, that we may offer our devotions to El Senor Dios, and petition our beloved Mother, that she intercede with Her Son on our behalf."
The men nodded and shuffled out of the anteroom.
As the Padre followed them to the grand casa and its ornate family chapel, he saw the stable boy running across the plaza.
He was running easily, naturally, and this caught the old priest's eye.
The boy had spent the past week with his hand against his face, suffering silently with what the Padre thought to be an abscessed tooth.
The boy's face was smooth now, without the bulge along his jaw, and he showed no sign of discomfort.
He made a mental note to ask the child if The Faceless One touched him.

The old nurse sat on the padded stool, alternating between embroidery, and praying her Rosary, whispering the words almost inaudibly so as not to disturb the sufferer who lay, not as pale now, and not as restless, on her sickbed.
She still bled; she was still pale, but there was no longer an air of oppressive doom hanging in the air: it was as if el senor Muerte had drawn back a little, or had been pushed back by the little faceless one.

The old priest went into the main sanctuary, as he always did; at this hour, the church was empty, silent: he genuflected, as he always did, and offered thanks that his knee allowed him to do so without pain -- something he hadn't enjoyed for many years now.
The Padre walked quietly up the main aisle, then stopped.
The Little Faceless One was lying before the altar, at the end of the aisle: she lay on her back, her hands clasped, the green-glass Rosary draped over her interlaced fingers.
For a moment the Padre froze, fearful that she was dead; he watched, then saw her belly rise, slowly, and lower, and her vail puffed out slightly with her breath.
The Padre looked up at the statues, thinking of the people they represented; he looked at the ornate cross behind the altar, and thought of He Who Was Murdered, and why: finally, he whispered his thanks that this strange creature had come for their help, for her presence could only be attributed to the Divine Will.
The priest withdrew to his cell, and lay down himself, flexing his leg.
His knee didn't hurt.
In spite of himself, the old priest smiled.

The stable-boy opened his eyes, hearing hoofbeats receding in the distance.
It felt good to lay on thick straw, two blankets under him; he was covered and warm, and he did not want to get up.
His black, liquid eyes snapped open.
Throwing back the blanket, he came to his feet, looked over at the Little Faceless One's horses --
Gone!
The stableboy's stomach tightened and he jumped to the floor below, then ran out into the plaza, looking to the east.
It was just starting to lighten on the horizon, banding great stripes of purple and melon and orange.

Miguel's eyes were hollow, sunken; the night had been long, longer than any he remembered: he and Santos took turns watching, allowing the other a fitful sleep: it was not possible to sleep, even in the padded chairs, and so both men alternately stood, or sat, or prowled.
They opened the great doors to the casa, allowing an unobstructed view, from the sickroom in the very rear of the house, through the front door, and to the East, toward the very spot where the sun would rise.
They looked at the closed door of the sickroom; they looked to the broad, rich colors foretelling the proximate rising of the sun.
Neither man dared tap on the sickroom door.
Each man knew, if their sister died, the nurse would wail upon the fell discovery: no sound came from within: this meant either the fat nurse still slept, or their sister lived.

In the distance, a movement: word passed quickly through the rancho, and few slept at this early hour: restless eyes, impatient eyes stared fixedly at the far horizon: there was a shout, a pointing hand: heads raised, bobbed, then the shout: "Por alli! There!"
The sickroom door opened, slowly, but none saw, for all were looking east, looking to see what came with the sunrise.
"Lo miro! I see it!"
"What do you see?"
"Roberto! You have the eyes of the eagle! Hoist him up! Let him see!"
Roberto was boosted to the adobe wall; willing hands pulled him up, held him high enough to see over the rim.
The boy's eyes widened and his mouth fell open: he pointed, his breath quick, and anxious voices called, "What is it? What do you see?"
Roberto crossed himself, leaning far over the edge of the adobe.
"I see," he breathed, then swallowed, and took a great breath.
"I see ... I see an angel!"

The first crescent of rising sun seared across the horizon, directly behind her: an angel in white, walking toward them on an absolute mountain of a horse, a horse black as a sinner's heart: as they watched, as they stared, they could see white silk flowing behind this vision, this apparition, this holy messenger: red sunlight flashed off the Spear she carried, flowed into her war-gown, turned her into a figure of blood.
The great black steed began to canter, then trot: the figure rode upright, regally, the Spear upright, as if socketed in her near stirrup: as she neared the rancho, they saw the Spear, snatched from its leathern home: she held it high, then spun it about, one side, then the other, quickly, powerfully, a warrior's move: red fires circled the great, red-shining beast she rode, and as she neared, she couched the spear like a lance under her arm and aimed for the open doors of the rancho's main casa.
Hooves thundered against packed earth: the ground underfoot drummed with the pounding of horseshoes the size of a dish pan: the great, blood-painted war-mare charged through the gates of the plaza, skidded to a hard stop, rearing, screaming, windmilling her great, armored hooves: the veiled maiden in a white-silk war-gown raised the Spear to the vertical again, spun the mare, then walked her through the open doors.
Men drew back, shrank against finely appointed walls, as this horse, as big as any three stallions, walked into the grand hallway of the fine casa: blowing, she tossed her head and reared again.
The maiden-angel in the black, unadorned saddle rode as if born to horse: only then did they notice she rode without reins: the horse wore a bridle, but no bit, and the veiled angel wordlessly, motionlessly, soothed the mare down to all fours.
Two serving-girls with covered trays slipped through the door, timorously cowering along the walls, watching, big-eyed as the angel turned the Spear, turned it butt-first, driving it against the sickroom door.
Three times, the steel-shod spear rammed into the door, scarring its surface.
Three times, the door shivered under its impact.
Three times, the maiden's arm drove straight-grained ash into the heavy handmade door.
The mare dropped her head, switching her tail, and the Spear was socketed once more beside the veiled rider's right foot.
Heads leaned to peer around the door frame; a few, braver souls slipped in, watching in awe, marveling at the sight of this huge, monstrous, enormous horse -- made all the bigger because it was inside the house -- and its rider, made of carven stone, motionless.
The rider's white-silk gown glowed red again, color running through it like blood through pale flesh, and the sun thrust its strength through the doors and shot the horse and rider's silhouettes on the sickroom door.
Miguel crossed himself; Santos fumbled for his Rosary: there was a click, loud in the breath-holden hush, and the sickroom door came slowly open.
Their sister -- she who was too weak to sit up, or turn over -- their sister stood in the doorway, leaning one hand against the doorpost, trembling a little -- but gracias a Dios, she stood!
The rider's shoulders raised a little, then her voice filled the silence: full, rich, commanding, a woman's voice, a strong young woman's voice: "My sister, come forth!"
The woman looked up at Sarah, blinking in the sunlight.
"Lucita!" the woman called again, "come forth!"
Lucita breathed a few more times, looked up beseechingly.
"LUCITA, I COMMAND YOU, WALK FORWARD AND GRASP THE SPEAR!" the veiled figure shouted, power and authority in her voice: surprised, shocked, Lucita's eyes went wide, wider than her brothers ever remembered seeing: Lucita took a step, took another, wobbled: she looked at the Spear, then reached out a hand, took another two tottering steps.
She was almost there.
She took one final step, her hand seized the spear-shaft.
Lucita's head snapped back and she screamed, her voice shrill and piercing.

Charlie frowned as he broke the seal.
He recognized the hand writing: in pencil, it was addressed to Uncle Charlie, and he knew it was from Sarah: curious, he unfolded the single sheet, read.

I know death too well.
I lived there too long.
You taught me to live.
You taught me to choose.
I choose not to kill.
You taught me I am the weapon.
I now choose my tool.


Under this, in a neat column, still in Sarah's precise print:

Legends and Stories of the West
Chapter 1. The Black Horse
Chapter 2. Pale Eyed Angel
Chapter 3. Ragdoll
Chapter 4. Maiden Warrior
Chapter 5. Don't Cross the Schoolmarm

I'll be back in a few days, there is something I must do.
Sarah



Charlie grinned, then chuckled.
"Good girl," he grunted. "You're using your head."
He folded the paper, tapped it against his palm, looking into the distance.
"There's hope for you yet, girl."

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Linn Keller 11-25-12

 

Polly rolled over and looked at Opal.
Opal's eyes were big, black, shining ... and scared.
Mama and Papa tucked them in, kissed them goodnight, listened to their prayers, then ...
... they left ...
... and the twins were alone, in their brand-new bedroom, under fresh clean bed linens, in a new bed, wearing new flannel nightgowns ...
The new brick house was three stories, and the twins' bedroom was on the third floor.
Their old house was only two stories.
The twins slipped out of bed -- one on one side, the other, from the other -- and little pink bare feet scampered over to their window.
The Bear Killer tik-tik-tikked across the floor, thrust his big black nose between the twins, snuffed at the chill window glass.
It was a very long way to the ground.
The twins looked at one another, then looked through new window glass at the cold, moonlit ground below, each laying a hand on the warm comfort of The Bear Killer's fur.
"It's a vewwy, vewwy long way down," Polly said.
"Vewwy long way," Opal echoed.
They looked around, looked up at the ceiling, remembering the fire, looked at one another.
A glittering tear welled up and spilled out of Polly's left eye.
"I miss Sawwah," she whispered.
Opal nodded, eyes glistening.
"I do too."
They looked out into the darkness, into the frosted night, looked up at bright stars and down at frosty grass, their breath fogging the window.
Polly raised a finger, pointed.
"What's dat?"
In the distance -- in the dark -- something glowing, something shining, pale in the moonlight --
A shadow, another -- and something bright --
The twins' eyes grew round, their hands rose and flattened against chill glass pane --
"Sawwah!" Opal breathed.
The Bear Killer whuffed quietly, the canine equivalent of a whisper.
A figure in white, flowing white, riding hard, riding for home, riding with a shining lance upright in her grip, riding with shining hair flowing behind her, riding with white battle-silk rippling around her: the twins saw a warrior-angel, come to rescue them from their night fears, they saw their big sister come to keep them safe, they saw their beloved Sawwah, coming home.
Sarah rode with one hand on her thigh, the other about the spear-shaft: Snowflake ran easily, powerfully, gathered herself and surged over the rail fence, Shadowfoot beside her: the night-black pair surged and pounded against frost-bright ground, their hoofbeats loud in the night's stillness.
The twins scrambled away from the window, fumbled at the white ceramic doorknob, scampered down the stairs and to the landing and down the stairs and to the landing and down the stairs and stumbled on the hook rug and turned and ran for the front door.
It was late; the maid was abed, as were Bonnie and Levi: Polly stretched up to the door latch, drew it back; Polly seized the door knob with both hands, turned it and pulled.
The twins scampered barefoot out onto the porch, The Bear Killer between them, wagging his great plume of a silky-black tail.

The Sheriff answered the door with a handful of .44 Colt: he was a careful man, and fully intended to die in bed in his old age: when someone knocked this late, it was either immensely good news, or really bad.
Unless, of course, you were the Sheriff, in which case it might be just trivial, which would make him unhappy indeed.
It was Fred Jerome, still wearing his telegrapher's cap.
"It was sent urgent," he said quietly, "so I brought it right out."
"Thank you, Fred," the Sheriff said, accepting the flimsy. "Did you pack a meal for tonight?"
Fred smiled a little. "No, sir, I didn't," and the Sheriff said "Come on in. We've cold beef and bread. You can at least make half a dozen sandwiches or the like." He grinned. "It don't pay to eat too much on an empty belly."
Fred laughed quietly and accepted the Sheriff's hospitality.
The Sheriff set the telegram aside as he slabbed off slices of good fresh bread, then loaded meat on the slices and buttered the off slice for good measure: wrapping these in cloth napkins, he stacked them in a wicker basket.
"That'll make it easy to carry. I'll be along to get it in a day or so."
Fred thought of the half dozen wicker baskets stacked up in the telegraph office and realized the Sheriff was due a return, and soon, for likely he was about out of woven baskets.
The Sheriff saw Fred out the door before returning to the kitchen, and the urgent message.
Turning up the lamp, he squinted a little, then went to his study and fetched back his spectacles.
FROM BRO WM RABBITVILLE MONASTERY, he read.
URGENT SARAH HERE SOONEST.
The Sheriff considered.
It was dated two days earlier.
After this length of time, whatever was such a pressing matter, could wait until daybreak.

The maid, bless her, rose when she heard the twins and the horses: while Sarah was tending her mounts, the maid was heating water; when Sarah came back into the house, carrying the twins, one on each hip, the maid smiled and curtsied and asked if Sarah was hungry.
In an age of delicacy and ladylike decorum, in an age when young girls were expected to eat like dainty little birds, in an era of tiny, feminine portions, the maid smiled as Sarah murmured, "I could eat a whole beef, hooves, hide and bawl!" -- and then added, dipping her knees to set the twins down, "But maybe after a bath." She rose slowly, closing her eyes for a long moment.
"I really, really, need a nice, hot, bath!"

The twins were not down for breakfast as they usually were.
Bonnie, curious, asked the maid if the twins were up late.
The maid gave her a knowing look and smiled a little.
Curious, Bonnie excused herself from Levi; pressing napkin against lips, she placed the linen carefully beside her plate and glided to the stairs.
Pausing at their foot, she looked up, then picked up her skirts and went up the stairs.
The twins' bed was rumpled, but empty; the twins were not in their room.
Bonnie frowned a little, then turned and looked at Sarah's bedroom door.
Bonnie put a finger to her lips, smiling a little, for she remembered what it was to be a little girl in a big house, and how as a little girl she sometimes slept in her Mama's bed when she felt overwhelmed by some great new change.
Bonnie carefully, slowly, turned Sarah's doorknob, eased the door open on soundless, new, oiled hinges.
Sarah was sound asleep, lying on her back: Polly on one side, Opal on the other, the little girls with an arm thrown possessively over their big sister, and Sarah, with her arms around the twins, holding them close, even in slumber: Bonnie smiled, biting her bottom lip, her heart warmed at such a tender and domestic scene.
Even The Bear Killer, asleep beside the bed in a black-furred sprawl, added to the moment.
The Bear Killer's head came up, his tail thumping happily on polished, shining floor boards: the opened door let in tantalizing promises of breakfast, and he was interested.
There was a knock from below; Bonnie heard the door open, recognized the Sheriff's voice.
The Bear Killer slipped out beside her and down the stairs, his claws loud on the floor boards, for there was company to greet, and breakfast to be had.

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Linn Keller 11-25-12

 

Father and son rode in silence, the only sound that of saddle-leather, of steel-shod hooves on frozen ground.
Both men were tall and slender, both men wore suits and Stetsons, both men had a badge pinned under the lapel.
One's mustache was iron grey, the other's was well more reddish, a good Clan Maxwell red, hearkening back to Highland Scots ancestors.
Both men rode loose, easy, at home in the saddle: their horses walked, matching pace, an instinct from years and centuries and aeons of herd instinct.
They'd ridden a good distance together when the younger man finally spoke.
"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
Jacob took a long breath, shoved his bottom jaw out, considering: he frowned, glaring at his stallion's ears, then raised his head and said, "I, sir, am a damned fool."
The Sheriff nodded slowly.
"Annette?" the Sheriff finally asked.
Jacob nodded glumly.
"How bad?"
Jacob looked over at his father, looked back.
"Bad enough."
Linn looked over at his son, understanding in his eyes.
"Fryin' pan?"
"No, sir," Jacob said. "Just words."
"Mm." It was the Sheriff's turn to run out his bottom jaw.
Jacob's eyes were busy forward, and to the left; the Sheriff's, ahead and to the right, and uphill, for the mountain reared hard and craggy on their right.
" 'Just words' can cut like a straight razor," the Sheriff observed.
"Yes, sir."
"I know I can pitch my voice to cut polished marble and bring blood." He looked over at his son and smiled a little. "I've done it and I'm not particularly proud of it."
'Yes, sir," Jacob replied, remembering moments when he himself had done the very same thing, for he'd inherited his father's ability to carve a deep and bloody incision with voice alone.
"Tell me about yours and I'll tell you about mine."
Jacob looked at his father, shocked.
"Oh, yes, your mother and I had it out. Two days ago, matter of fact."
Jacob's mouth opened with dismay; father saw disappointment in his son's eyes.
"Hold."
Jacob brought his Appaloosa stallion to a halt; the Sheriff circled his copper mare in front of him, stopped, so he faced his son.
"Jacob, I recall the day I learned my old man had feet of clay just like me.
"On that day the universe trembled, for I knew my shortcomings. I live inside my carcass and I know where all the cracks and flaws are, and it was a fell day indeed when I realized ..."
The Sheriff ducked his head, looked away, swallowed, then looked at his son, his eyes hard.
"I am not perfect, Jacob. I have been a damned fool and worse."
Jacob shook his head, blinking, trying to come up with something half intelligent to refute his father's words.
"Jacob, you know we have yet to name our twins."
Jacob closed his mouth and nodded.
"We talked and discussed and suggested and wrote down lists and I reckon I could pull rank -- a man can do that, you know" -- his grin was lopsided, almost that of a boy speculating on getting away with something -- "but I will not do that to her."
Jacob nodded, his light blue eyes on his father's light blue eyes.
The Sheriff turned his head to the right, his face reddening.
"I decided it was time to quit fooling around and allowed as our children would be named Lee and Leah.
"Esther spoke up tartly and said she would countenance no such thing and it caught me wrong.
"I looked at her and said I was the husband and head of household and by God they would be named after Father Lee and Leah of Scripture, and Esther strutted her short skinny little self up ag'in me and looked right up at me and said I would do no such thing and I stepped back and put up my dukes" -- here the Sheriff raised his fists in an exaggerated, almost comedic boxer's pose -- "and allowed as if she didn't like it I would turn her over my knee and spank her cute little butt.
"Well," he admited, shaking his head, looking at the ground, "that was exactly the wrong thing to say.
"She come at me, Jacob, and she come at me like a Banty hen, all spurs and wings, and I did probably the worst thing I could ever do to that woman."
Jacob's face fell about three feet, his jaw hanging down about belt buckle level, his eyes huge, shocked.
Jacob winched his jaw back up into place, swallowed.
"Sir," he whispered, "you ... didn't ...?"
The Sheriff's expression was the very epitome of guilt itself.
"I run my arm out, Jacob, I put my big paw on top of her head and I held her out at arm's length and let her swing, and that made her mad, and then I threw coal oil on the fire."
He looked off into the distance and Jacob saw both humor and sadness in the man's eyes.
"I laughed."
Jacob turned his head a little as if to bring a good ear to bear.
"Jacob, I laughed at her, and that really lit her fuse, and she just plainly tore into me after that.
"She knocked my hand off her head and she shoved herself into me hard and I had to back up a step so she shoved me again and I backed up until she had me ag'in the front door, and her finger stiff in my face and her giving me seven kinds of hell with chocolate frosting" --
Linn laughed tiredly, took a long breath.
"I deserved everything she gave me, Jacob.
"I should never have laughed at her."
"Well ... sir, should you ...?"
"Already have. We made up." The Sheriff closed the door on the particulars with those few words, leaving the exact how-did-he-do it to Jacob's imagination.
"If it's any help," the Sheriff suggested, "I ordered two boxes of good Swiss chocolate. They'd ought to be in at the general store. Take one and give to Annette."
"Thank you, sir," Jacob said faintly, and the older lawman could see his son was thinking hard.
"How bad was yours?" the Sheriff finally asked.
Jacob looked at his father uncertainly.
"I wanted to name our boy Florian Christopher."
The Sheriff nodded slowly.
"She wanted Robert Dolan."
"And if it's a girl?" the Sheriff asked quietly.
"We never got that far, sir," Jacob admitted. "She tore into me like the Kilkenny cats."
"Women are ..."
The Sheriff hesitated, frowning, then started again.
"Jacob, when a woman is carryin', she is more woman than she's ever been. I reckon there's things goin' on inside a woman's body that a man don't know but it makes 'em edgy, they git ... they git real brittle moody an' they take things to heart that wouldn't get a notice from 'em normally."
Jacob nodded. "Yes, sir, you're right," he said slowly.
"I don't pretend to understand 'em. Hell, I admitted a long time ago women are a mystery and a puzzle and deeper than an ocean's reach."
The Sheriff shook his head.
"You two make up yet?"
"No, sir. I allowed as if I couldn't oil the waters I'd just leave afore my temper got the best of me."
The Sheriff nodded.
"You," he said, "are wiser than most men."
"I sure don't feel like it, sir."
"Head on back." The Sheriff nodded toward the distant mountain. "Head on back and make it right."
Jacob nodded, started to turn his stallion.
"Jacob."
"Sir?"
"Jacob, don't make the mistake of holdin' her out at arms length and lettin' her swing, and then laugh at her. Don't do it."
Jacob managed a sympathetic expression.
"No, sir, I'll not."
"Stop in at the general store and grab one of them boxes of Swiss chocolate. For some reason women take to the stuff."
"Thank you, sir."
Jacob turned and headed back toward Firelands, his father keeping pace beside him.

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Linn Keller 11-27-12

 

As one of the newest confirmed nuns, Sister Sarah -- whose name, officially, was in honor of that woman of the Bible, although the newly minted nun personally believed the name carried the cachet of that mysterious, surprising sister known now as Sister Mercurius -- was chosen on the spur of the moment to stand with Brother William, and receive the contingent from the Rancho Vega y Vega, not far to the south.
Twenty they were, vaqueros all, save only a delicate and fair-skinned beauty, one veiled against the sun and prying eyes, wearing silks and skirts and the multiple layers mandated by propriety: she was the sole female and she rode, quite properly, in a fine carriage, drawn by a matched pair of gleaming, flawless black mares, spirited and blooded, mares who danced rather than walked, glided rather than trotted, mares that cost more money than was remotely reasonable, and yet her dear Papa insisted that nothing would do but that the gleaming black carriage be drawn by gleaming black horses, and so the sister of Miguel and Santos rode like royalty to the high walls of the Rabbitville monastery.
They were received with due ceremony, given blessing and greeting by the white-robed Brother William: swift and efficient hostlers whisked the carriage and team out of sight, where the horses would be brushed and grained, the carriage wiped down and polished: two vaqueros supervised, the others removed sombreros and thrust fine Winchester rifles into scabbards before following into the cool interior of the sanctuary.
As a group they knelt, as a group they displayed their veneration toward the Altar, understanding it represented the Almighty, but was only a representation: they stood, and Santos smiled indulgently at his only sister as she squeezed his arm and blushed a little, and asked in her delicate voice if she might see the miraculous spear, this blessed artifact used by the Faceless Angel to heal her.
Sister Sarah looked up at Brother William.
She had brought in a fresh pitcher of cool water when the council grew heated; she brought in cheeses and bread when voices were raised at the prospect of removing this cherished, this blessed object from its casket: it was she who bore the hastily scrawled telegram, from Brother William to her namesake in Firelands, begging her immediate attendance, and Sister Sarah knew that only Sister Mercurius held any chance at all of prying this object from the reluctant hands of the priestly council.
It was not until two return telegrams were delivered that Sister Sarah had the first suspicion that things were not as they seemed.
The first telegram was from the Rancho Vega y Vega, declaring the sufferer healed, cured, relieved of her life-draining illness; the second, from Firelands, carried the cryptic reply, "The deed is done -- Mercurius" -- the council was hastily re-convened, the missives read aloud, and as if predestined, every head turned, every pair of eyes went to the ornate casket behind the Grand Altar, where this holy artifact was stored.
Hesitant steps approached the Altar; trembling hands brought forth the carved, inlaid casket; nervous fingers released the catches, and the casket was opened.
The Spear of St. Mercurius lay within, as it always had, bedded on rich, dark-blue satin.
The casket was closed, and restored; Council debated this significance, argued, questioned, and finally dismissed.
Now, days later, the twenty from the Rancho Vega y Vega, including the very soul of whose life only despair remained, stood before the Grand Altar.
The casket was again retrieved; carefully placed, reverently opened, and again many eyes gazed upon this blessed relic.
Santos saw what had been missed.
He reached into the casket, carefully pinched something loose from the steel-shod butt of the Spear, held it up.
Miguel's eyes widened and the sun-browned vaquero staggered a little, his face losing about half its color.
Santos looked at Miguel.
Miguel looked at Santos.
They both looked at the Spear.
Slowly, reverently, his scarred and callused brown hand trembling a little, Santos returned the wood splinter to the casket, laid it up against the end of the spear.
As one, every one of the Rancho Vega y Vega crossed themselves.
"An angel," Lucita breathed, sinking to her knees and bowing her head over clapsed hands: "she was an angel, and her face shone like the sun."


Sarah looked in the mirror, then dipped up a double handful of water and splashed herself, trying to wash away the fatigue.
She felt like she'd put in ten years' work in a day's time, and got about an hour's rest afterward.
The twins were up, out, downstairs; Sarah groaned and dragged herself back to bed.
She stopped and looked at herself again in the mirror.
"You look like hell," she groaned, and her reflection nodded in reply.

Esther's hands were quick, sure, efficient, as she changed the baby's diaper: the happy little red-cheeked boy squealed and waved his chubby arms with pleasure as Esther powdered him and wrapped him in clean flannel.
Beside him, his twin sister, a ribbon in her light-auburn curl (singular), chewed on her thumb and kicked happily.
The Sheriff ran his hands under the little girl, picking her up as if she were delicate china and about to break.
Esther, on the other hand, thrust her arms under the little boy, slung him off the deck and to her bosom as if he were a sock full of sand.
"Here," she said, reaching for the girl, "she's hungry too."
Esther turned to go into the other room and the Sheriff said "Dearest, if you're comfortable here, I think I'll go get me some water."
Esther smiled her thanks and settled into an upholstered seat, leaning back against the sofa's padded back.
The Sheriff smiled as he left the room, for his wife positively glowed, and he was a man very much in love with his wife.

Jacob's finger curled a little as he ran it under Annette's chin: he raised her face and kissed her delicately, then leaned his forehead against hers and whispered "You are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," and Annette started to cry again, and Jacob, absolutely stymied at this renewed freshet, did the only thing he could think of.
He popped one of those chocolate things into her mouth.
It worked.

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Linn Keller 11-28-12

 

Miguel carried the ill child into the grand casa's sickroom.
The line scribed by the Faceless One with the tip of his father's Toledo blade was bright on the floor; the thick wooden door was scarred in its upper right corner from three hard impacts -- splintered circles remained, and by order of both he and his brother, would remain forever -- tokens of the power brought to bear by the Shining Angel, and of the holy relic she bore that day, that miraculous day when their dear Lucita was healed.
One of the paisanos came to Miguel and Santos, asking very respectfully, but very fervently, if their child might sleep in the same room, the same bed, where the miracle occurred, for surely with such a favor would come healing: this was the first of many such requests, and the Rancho Vega y Vega was already known for its hospitality: it was no surprise that this now extended to the ill, the infirm.
Not all who slept there were cured, but many were, and all claimed a great peace, a comfort, knowing this was the place where a great good had been done.

Sarah sat on the front porch of their lovely new home, rocking slowly, hands idle in her lap: she'd brought out embroidery, for young ladies of the age commonly did embroidery when on display on their front porch: it was a signal, a sign that she was feminine and domestic, and implied that she was equally skilled at other aspects of running a household.
Sarah managed all of a half dozen stitches before running out of steam.
The stretched material in the embroidery hoop lay forgotten on her lap; her head drifted back a little, and her eyes, shut: she was wrapped in a cloak, the breeze came from the other side of the house, and so Sarah was warm enough -- not warm, really, but warm enough.
The front door opened, quietly, carefully; bright young eyes peeked around the door frame, little patent slippers tiptoed across the boards, bringing the rest of Sarah's little sis with them: The Bear Killer came out as well, toenails loud in the midmorning hush.
Opal was with the maid, actually managing to be of help in the kitchen, and Polly looked solemnly at her big sister, blinking occasionally, waiting.
Sarah smiled a little and opened her eyes, then opened her cloak and reach for her little sister: she picked Polly up and settled her on her lap, then brought the cloak over her, one side, then the other, wrapping both of them up in lilac-scented warmth.
Polly cuddled happily against her big sis, laid her head back with a contented sigh.
The Bear Killer wrapped himself around Sarah's feet, dropped his strong, blunt muzzle on black forepaws, and closed his eyes.

The one-armed shopkeeper scratchd his scalp with the square end of his pencil, frowning at the sheet before him: he ran the column of figures once more, then smiled a little and gave a quiet little "Aha!" and corrected one number.
"That makes sense," he thought.
Now the sheet balanced, and all was well once again.
He looked up, looked out the window: two freight wagons rumbled down the main street, followed by a couple riders and a half-dozen horses on leads; across the street, the Silver Jewel was seeing customers, many were folk coming in for breakfast, but there were of course a few fortifying themselves against the morning chill, or trying their luck, perhaps to divine how their luck for the day was going to run.
The Sheriff stepped out onto the board walk, two wanted posters in hand; he reached up overhead for the little hammer he kept there, and tacked the dodgers on the plank rectangle nailed to the side of the little log fortress.

Beatrice, humming a little, inspected the back door before unlocking it and entering: she locked the door behind her, setting the bar in place across it, then walked a-catfoot through the rest of her bank, the short twelve gauge swinging from her hand: she'd sent one robber to hell with the horse pistol and she wasn't about to let anyone else steal her community's money.
Beatrice took her responsibility seriously.
The safe, the drawers, the desks, all were secure and in order: Beatrice smiled again, still humming to herself, and looked up at the big Regulator clock on the wall.
Five minutes til, and she heard hard little heels on the boardwalk outside.
Her staff was arriving.
Beatrice unlocked the door, stepped back.

Parson Belden shook out his coat before putting it back on.
It was frosty that morning, not cold, really -- that would come with winter -- just frosty enough to make a man feel good, enough to make a man remember what it was to be eighteen and full of vinegar and ready to go whip the world.
He walked out into the street, looking one way, looking the other; the Irish Brigade was just coming out of their firehouse for their morning drive, the white-mare troika harnessed and dancing, feeling frisky this morning, as they usually did: the Parson knew the big, red-bearded fire chief took the horses for a two mile drive every morning, weather permitting, getting new horses acclimatized to the thinner air, keeping veteran horses toned: they drew the steam wagon, trailing smoke from the small fire they maintained, just enough fire to keep the water warm: in case of a response, he knew, they could have pressure up in five minutes' time.
Parson Belden watched the polished steam wagon retreat, knowing it would be back soon enough: he turned and looked the other way, into town.
Digger stepped out of his funeral parlor, looking somber in formal black, his black topper at a careful angle: his assistant stepped out behind him, wearing his ever-present, stained apron: broom in hand, he proceeded to sweep off the boardwalk in front of the mortuary, raising an incredible cloud of dust as he did so, and as he did every morning, Digger waved his hand in front of his face, coughed a few times and retreated into the building before he got his suit dusty.
The Sheriff turned and lifted his hat; Parson Belden waved in return.
He had a pie to deliver to the Sheriff; he didn't need anything in particular, he just felt like talking with his old friend, and taking a pie would provide just the excuse he needed to justify the walk.
Mr. Baxter walked over to the frosted-glass panes of the Jewel's front door, looked out, then opened the door.
He took a long breath of clean morning air and nodded, smiling, then stepped out on the board walk, looked one way, looked the other.
A fine morning, he thought.
Absolutely nothing happening.
He smiled a little, hooking his thumbs behind his galluses and assuming the pose of a paunch-thrust politician after a particularly well-spoken speech.
He nodded again, then turned and pulled the door open to go back in: hesitating, he took another look, then went on in.
Absolutely, positively, nothing at all going on.
This, he thought, suits me fine.

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Linn Keller 11-29-12

 

Jacob came into town from another direction.
It was a habit of his, to know the territory, and so he came in across the tracks, from the back side: he circled around the base of the cliff, coming around beside Daciana's fine big barn, built round in the front and hard up against sheer rock, and unless Jacob was mistaken, built into the rock enough to prevent water from running down the rock face and in behind her structure.
This also prevented anyone from working their way in between the native stone and her barn, a feature which Jacob approved of.
Besides, he thought, this would afford her the possibility of a cellar or a storm shelter cut into the very rock itself.
Jacob had seen a cyclone, once, and as he was in a fairly deep, natural bowl less than a hundred yards from it when it came hard-walking across open ground, he figured that was close enough for his lifetime: such close proximity cost him his hat and a year's growth and very nearly his mount -- he'd thrown his scarf over the stallion's eyes, laid him down and then laid on top of him -- it took all of his skill to keep the horse from rearing up and running in panic, but he'd managed.
Afterward, in the ringing silence, as the sky cleared and birds emerged from somewhere and began singing, as they always do, he considered those souls who insisted on a storm cellar were wise indeed.
Jacob took a lesson from his father, and so far as possible, was less than predictable, whether it was his ride into town, or his travels in general.
He rode up the street, rode the short distance to the Sheriff's office, looking around, smelling, listening: he raised a hand in greeting when little boys shouted greetings as they ran toward the schoolhouse, lifted his hat deferentially to little girls who smiled and giggled and hid blushing faces behind their hands, nodded to the Parson and to Mr. Baxter, stopped to say hello to Digger, whose assistant was raising a horrendous amount of dust in front of the funeral parlor: Digger retreated within the doorway, shouted his hello and slammed the door.
Jacob laughed and reined Apple-horse around the dust cloud, turned him and rode back to the Sheriff's office.

Emma Cooper and Sarah were of a like height; while Sarah was broomhandle-thin, or so it seemed, Emma Cooper was ... well, less of so slight a build.
As a matter of fact, when the two women were side by side, or as in this case, when Emma came bustling happily back to the rear of the schoolhouse to greet her incoming assistant, Sarah's waist seemed all the thinner, and Emma's all the stouter: this was solely because of the optical illusion created by their proximity.
Emma had all the happy softness of a favorite aunt, or grandmother, and indeed dispensed hugs and encouraging touches rather liberally: Sarah, too, was as demonstrative, having seen the salutary effect of Emma's positive reinforcement, though her hugs were more vigorous, and much less ... padded.
"Forgive me," Sarah whispered, her eyes downcast: "I was fatigued yesterday, and ..."
"My dear, you're here today," Emma whispered back, embracing the young woman in a motherly fashion: she regarded Sarah with bright and approving eyes, tilting her head a little as she raised plump, soothing fingers to Sarah's cheek. "Have you been eating enough? You are a little pale this morning."
"Just tired," Sarah smiled.
"Fear not," Emma encouraged, patting her hand: "I'm sure the boys can play baseball without our pitching today!"
One of the lads, hearing the happy word "baseball," stood up and piped, "Miz Emma, are you going to pitch for us today?" and several eager young faces turned toward the mousy-grey pair.
Emma Cooper laughed, her hands tightening on Sarah's.
"Am I that good a pitcher?" she asked, and half a dozen young voices exulted "Yes!"
She and Sarah laughed.
It was good to be back.

The Sheriff rode into town, as he always did, eyes busy, smelling the morning air: his tummy was smiling, for he'd had a good breakfast; his little girl was holding his shoulders, riding upright as she often did, standing on the broad saddle-skirt: Cannonball seemed to know the importance of a smooth gait, and the pair made their way to the schoolhouse.
Angela gave a happy "Wheee!" as she slid down to the ground, clutching her Daddy's big, strong hands, scampering for the steps the moment her feet hit the packed dirt: she spun at the top of the stairs and waved -- "Bye, Daddy!" and the Sheriff grinned and called, "Learn stuff!" -- to which his little girl put her hands on her hips and scolded "Dad-deee!"
The schoolhouse door opened and Sarah smiled at the Sheriff, and the Sheriff raised his hat to his daughters.

"Sir?"
"Yes, Jacob?"
"Sir, if you make coffee, that pot is going to rot out the bottom and die."
The Sheriff paused, hand in mid-air: he blinked, closed the cupboard door without bringing out the Arbuckle's.
"I understand," Jacob said carefully, "they have some good fresh pie over at the Jewel."
The Sheriff removed the coffee pot from the stove: the cast iron cracked and popped once or twice as the fire took hold in its iron belly.
"You know," he said, "pie does sound pretty good."
"Good way to top off breakfast."
The Sheriff nodded solemnly, setting the coffee pot on a shelf.
"Jacob," he said, the twinkle in his light-blue eyes belying the solemn expression of the rest of his face, "this proves once again you are younger, smarter and better looking than me."
The Sheriff paused, then grinned.
"Well, younger and smarter, anyway."
The two lawmen laughed and headed for the door.

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