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Firelands-The Beginning

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Linn Keller 11-29-12

 

Emma Cooper knew how to get the best out of her students, especially the boys: their attention span was about as long as a gnat and just as flighty, but if she took them outside at intervals and ran the impatience out of them, they took better to their lessons.
Emma bent at the waist, hands on her knees, frowning at the batter.
The batter's tongue was out the corner of his mouth and he leaned back a little, wobbling.
Emma straightened.
"Take a higher grip," she said, "a ... oh, what do they call it --"
Sarah slipped up behind the batter, gripped the tapered war club with one hand and crowded sweaty young mitts higher on the smooth wood shaft. "Choke up on it," she whispered.
"Oh, yeah," the boy said, and Sarah stepped back.
Emma nodded to the catcher, squatting behind the batter: Emma frowned again and leaned a little to one side, and the catcher scooted back a foot.
Emma nodded, extended one finger, straight down.
The catcher shook his head.
Emma extended two fingers.
Again the head-shake.
Emma raised the other hand, spun a circle beside her temple and ran her tongue out, and everyone laughed, Sarah included: it was a standing joke that Emma would extend a finger or two, and it meant absolutely nothing: though she was a fair pitcher, her skill was limited to getting a ball reliably across the plate: such things as curve balls, blistering fast balls, sinkers, wobblers and screw balls were beyond her.
That did not prevent her from hamming it up, and her children loved it.
The batter bent his knees, the end of his bat describing slow circles above his shoulder.
Emma leaned back, raised one foot, windmilled both arms -- she gave a little shreik and stepped back, hastily, catching her balance -- then she came back up onto the mound and tried it again.
"Let's see if I can do this without falling!" she called, bringing her arm back, then flashing down: the stitched baseball streaked on a shining arc toward the plate, the lad swung the bat --
There was the satisfying CRACK of a well hit ball and the white sphere shot skyward: the bat hit the ground and running feet pounded down the stick-dragged base line.
Sarah jumped up and down, clapping her hands with delight, yelling "Go, go, go!" and the lad skidded to a quick stop, turning to look, then scrambled for second.
"Run, Mickey! Run, run, run!" Sarah called.
The fugitive ball was chased down, snatched from the grass: young arms heaved it toward the diamond, then to the first baseman, who turned and lobbed it toward third base.
Mickey hesitated, then put his heart into his sprint, colliding with the third baseman and hitting hard: both boys hit the ground, rolled, came up punching at one another: Mickey grappled, Sammy punched, Mickey grabbed Sammy's belt and slung him to the side, then ran for home.
Sammy looked around, saw the ball: mad now, he threw it, threw hard, aiming for the back of Mickey's head, for it was perfectly legal to out a runner by beaning them with the ball.
The ball had other ideas, and chose a meandering course; its sightseeing tour sent it to the side and Sarah turned just in time to see there was no way in the world to keep it from hitting her.
Emma heard Sarah's grunt as the ball hit her about halfway between the breastbone and the belly button, right in the right place to knock the wind plumb out of her: Sarah, veteran of battle and conflict, angelic soprano on Sunday and when occasion demanded, laid an arm hard across her middle and bent over: slowly, sinking to her knees, she fell over on her side, then onto her back, and lay there in the dirt, fighting to breathe.
She was instantly surrounded by scared, big-eyed humanity; Emma ran from the pitcher's mound and shooed the children back.
"Give her room, let her breathe," she said in her schoolteacher's voice: "she'll be just fine, but we need to draw back from her. Back up, now, back up" -- and back up they did, though two of them looked quite guilty as they did.
Sarah fought for air and eventually her shocked diaphragm was persuaded to function; she closed her eyes and willed her muscles to work, then rolled over on her side and pushed up off the ground.
Bent over, palms on her knees, she threw her head back, biting at the cool air: she straightened, looked at Emma Cooper's concerned eyes, then thrust an arm toward home plate.
"Safe!" she shouted, "The Rim Skinners win again!" -- then she rubbed her belly and gave a pained little "Owww," and for a moment, Emma Cooper could see little Sarah again, peeping out from between the curtains of Big Sarah.

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Linn Keller 11-30-12

 

Herb Vess was a curious man.
Herb Vess was a man who listened when others spoke, even when they didn't think he was paying the least bit of attention: it was a talent he cultivated from his earliest days, a talent that came in handy many times: as a matter of fact, it served him in good stead for his entire career.
Like many of his generation, Herb had done many things in his days on this earth: township trustee, brick layer -- his specialty was brick streets, and he could lay brick steadily, at a surprising speed, but he found it too hard on the back -- and besides, it was a year or better before he could routinely stand and sit upright and not all hunched over like others who stayed with that profession.
He'd done other things as well, but there toward the last he found satisfaction out Arizona way, wearing a star that said RANGER, and he took pride in knowing he was one of a hand picked few, a few with a good reputation.
Herb Vess was a curious man, and he listened when other men talked, and he'd listened many times to men talk of a place called Firelands, and when his travels took him to that part of the country, why, he allowed to himself as it was time to take a look at this interesting place.
Herb reined his horse to a halt, bent his lower back out a bit, twisted: if there was a decent place in town, he thought, he just might buy himself a hot bath if it didn't cost too much -- five cents was God's a-plenty, to his way of thinking, less would be more reasonable -- and if the beds were clean, why, he just might stay overnight, depending on how things felt.
Right now his belly felt empty, his back felt tired, as did his backside.
Herb nodded to himself and lifted the reins.
Firelands was visible and not far in the distance, not more than an hour's ride.

Sarah set down on the bench outside.
Emma Cooper used a stiff clothes brush to get the excess dirt off Sarah's mousy-grey schoolteacher's dress; she tsk-tsk'd as she did, peering with motherly disapproval at the dirt in the material: the culprit, the young fellow who'd thrown a hardball into Sarah's belly (intending to hit the base runner, only the ball must not have known that) stood there, chastened, looking terribly guilty and apologizing multiple times.
Sarah beckoned him over, and the lad stood before her, shifting his weight restlessly, uncertain whether he was going to be bent over the hitch rail or the back of the bench for a good switching, but certain his would be welts, and in short order.
Sarah tilted her head a little, then crooked her finger at him: he stepped cautiously closer until his standing knees nearly touched her seated knees.
"I want to show you something," Sarah said, pulling pins and a thin black ribbon from her hair: she shook her auburn tresses free, letting them fall down over her shoulders, reached up and drew the hair aside.
"Do you see how this parts in the middle?" she asked.
Curious, blinking, the lad nodded.
"Look closer. Look at the scalp."
The lad leaned over, looked at her scrubbed-clean, pink, healthy-looking scalp.
"Umm, okay," he said.
"Do you see it?" Sarah asked.
"Ummm ... I see your scalp, Miz Sarah."
Sarah laughed, raised her head.
"I part my hair on a scar," she said. "Do you know how I got it?"
He shook his head.
"A little neighbor boy and I were throwing rocks at another boy," she explained. "I was ... oh, I don't remember. It wasn't long before I came here so I must have been four at most. Just a little thing."
"Yes, ma'am."
"I couldn't throw rocks very well but my friend could and we pinned the other boy behind a well. He was trapped. My friend hit him several times and brought bruises and tears and I knew he was hurt.
"Finally he picked up one rock" -- she held up a finger -- "one -- and threw it at his tormentor.
"He picked up a flat rock the size of his hand and threw it, edge-on, intending to drive my friend's nose out the back of his head.
"The wind caught the rock and peeled it off to the side."
Sarah ran her bladed-flat hand over her scalp, illustrating the edge-on rock slicing her scalp.
"My papa was furious and he drew back his man sized arm and knocked my friend clear across our back porch, but ever since, I've parted my hair on that scar."
Sarah blinked, her eyes bright and without guile behind her round schoolmarm spectacles.
"Don't you see?" she smiled. "It was not what he intended. He intended to hit the fellow beside me, but hit me by accident. It was not intentional."
Sarah reached out and took the lad's hands in hers.
"You intended to throw the runner out."
"Yes ma'am, I did."
"The ball didn't go quite where you intended."
"No, ma'am."
"And I'll bet it was kind of comical to see me all legs and petticoats falling over like that."
"No ma'am," the lad replied, restless, clearly uncomfortable. "'Twas not funny."
Sarah patted his hand.
"Would you feel better if I took a belt to your backside?"
"Yes ma'am," he admitted. "Or yelled at me or something."
Sarah laughed. "Turn around," she said, and he did: she smacked his hinder with an open hand, just enough to pop the material, not enough to even sting.
"There. Happy now?"
"Yes ma'am," he said uncertainly.
"Good. Turn back around here."
He did.
Sarah tilted her head, regarded his face with a patient, assessing expression.
"You have a good arm," she nodded. "Good power and really your control is quite good, if that rascally ball had listened to you" -- she smiled as his ears reddened, and lay a forearm across her still-tender belly -- "well, it's over and it's behind us."
Sarah stood and clapped her hands twice.
"Let us return to our studies," she declared, her hair loose and shining in the sunlight. "Inside, please, there is work to be done!"

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Linn Keller 11-30-12

 

A man gets good at recognizing people from the way they walk, the way they carry themselves, from the way they sit their saddle.
When the ride the same horse it's a little easier, for horses are individuals as well and men are creatures of habit.
Once a man finds a saddle that suits him, if it's possible, he'll replace it with another just like it.
I knew the man I was seeing.
Cannonball picked up under me and we went trottin' up the main street as the fellow swung down out of his seat and dollied the reins around the hitch rail in front of the Jewel.
I come up beside his horse and stepped down my own self.
Now a man that's cautious will behave cautious, and he did: we come to the back of the horses at the same time, and both of us grinned at the same time, and each of us reached for the other's hand at the same time, and you know it was just pretty darn good to see my old friend from back home again.
You might've seen two women meeting and they're both talkin' at the same time and sounding like a couple excited hens gabbling and wondering how in the cotton pickin' either of 'em ever managed to hear what the other one was a-sayin'.
I reckon that's kind of like ol' Herb and I looked, grinning there between our horses' backsides, sounding excited and looking tickled and finally we went on inside the Jewel and commenced to talkin' things over in earnest.
Once the two of us wound down and set down, Daisy's girl set her hand on her hip and throwed her hip out at me and teased, "Sheriff, if you keep eatin' all that pie you'll turn into one!" and I looked at her with a straight face and said "Why darin', you are what you eat," and she set coffee down in front of me and beer in front of Herb and said "Are you sure you're not full of something else?" -- she gave Herb a knowing wink and turned,flaring her skirts out and sashayed back toward the kitchen, and I could see Dolly looking at me from around the stage-curtain, trying hard not to laugh.
Herb leaned back, picked up his beer and took a noisy slurp.
"Sounds like she knows you," he observed quietly.
"Yeah," I sighed. "Saucy as that little hash slinger is I'd ought to turn her over my knee and swat her bottom, but hell" -- I grinned -- "when you're old as me and a cute girl flirts with you, why, it feels pretty good!"
Herb gave me a knowing look.
"What about that cute little filly peekin' out from behind the curtains?"
"Dolly?" I laughed. "Herb, that hot little number and a cold glass of water and I'd die of a heart attack!"
Herb threw back his head and laughed and allowed as I wasn't supposed to imitate his bad examples, and I laughed with him, and it felt good.
"How's Pleasant Township these days, ever hear?"
Herb leaned back as a plate of something hot, steaming and good set down in front of him.
"Still there, I hear. Minin' a lot of coal." He tried the beef, found it to his liking, reached for the salt cellar and sprinkled his mashed taters sight unseen.
"More coal in Perry County than God ever invented. I don't reckon they'll ever run out."
I shook my head. "I am just terrible glad someone else is willin' to go down in them coal mines," I admitted. "It's bad enough when they mine hereabouts and open a gallery big enough to set a three story building in and have room enough to walk a team of horses around the corners an' never touch the walls. I don't reckon I could stand them little bitty mine shafts."
Herb shook his head in agreement.
"It ain't legal to mine unless you're twelve years old," he said, dunking some taters in the gravy well and slurping it in before it could drip down his chin: "I knew fellows who put their nine year old boys a-minin'." He wiped an escaped drop of trickling gravy off his clean-shaven chin. "They like workin' boys because they can cut a coal seam too narrow for a grown man to wiggle in. Hell, even boys have to lay on their side and swing at the coal seam sideways with their pick!"
"God help us," I murmured, shivering.
"Not much else back home. Fur's all trapped out. Was I still there and hit a deer track I'd be on that track til I died of old age. Ground's wore out, you can't grow much of a crop anymore. Hell, it takes two Irishmen and a quart of whiskey just to raise Hell most places!"
"I recall," I said softly.
"You were wise to get out when you did," Herb said. "I recall that good lookin' gal you left with. She still around?"
I stopped, set my fork down slow, and Herb watched me closely.
I cleared my throat and shook my head.
Herb nodded.
"The War?" he asked softly.
"Small pox," I replied. "Her and our daughter. I got home one week to the day after she died."
Herb grunted, pain in his eyes: that one hit him hard and something told me he knew exactly what I was talking about.
I looked up.
"It ain't all lost," I said quietly, raising a hand. "Here comes my oldest boy."
Jacob came pacing back toward us, hat in his hand, moving like he was on oiled bearings, the way he always did: Herb looked up and half-rose, sticking out his hand.
Jacob took his hand and looked at the man. "Arizona ranger," he said, "Mason, prior military and you are newly married."
Herb leaned back in his chair, giving Jacob an appraising look.
"You don't read British newspapers by any chance?" he asked suspiciously.
Jacob laughed. "I read anything I can get my cotton pickers on," he admitted.
"Hm." Herb nodded, then looked at me.
"Your boy?"
I nodded.
He looked at Jacob.
"Was I not introduced I would know him your get. Stands the same, same hands, same teeth."
Jacob looked at me and I could see the same question in his expression as I had myself: Not the same eyes?
"Sir," Jacob said, still looking at me, "Sarah would ask your advice on a matter."

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Linn Keller 12-1-12

 

"Sarah?" Herb asked, looking at me.
"Kinfolk," I said shortly. "Fetch her in," I nodded to Jacob.
Jacob nodded, turned to Herb: "Ranger," he nodded, then headed for the door.
Herb watched him go, then looked at me with that understanding grin I remembered from back when he was Pleasant Township trustee, back when dirt was young and so was I.
"You set your brand on that one, all right," he said quietly.
I was still pretty full from breakfast and pie with Jacob so I didn't have anything to eat, just coffee: Herb, now, was doing full justice to his plate, once I told him I was still full as a tick,and from the job he was a-doin', he approved of Daisy's kitchen.
Matter of fact he cleaned one plate and I saw his eyes smile when another just like it was set down in front of him and that cute little hash slinger rested a hand on his shoulder nice and light and purred, "Do you want another beer, Ranger, or would you like coffee?" -- then she looked at me and I saw the devilment in her eyes as she leaned close to his ear and whispered, "Don't drink the Sheriff's coffee. It'll strip varnish off a rocking chair!" -- ol' Herb reached up and patted her hand and said "Coffee will be fine, darlin'," and she give him a look that would melt the heart right out of a stone statue.
I took a noisy slurp of my own and did my best to look innocent.
Jacob and Sarah came back in -- Sarah was in a green gown and I thought for a moment that was odd, for she was teachin' school today.
Time and again I'll look at her and feel ... not old, really, I don't like to admit that I'm feelin' years pile up on me -- I'll own up to it but I don't like to -- but times now and again I'll feel ... well, odd, like somethin' changed.
This was one of those times.
I remembered Sarah, right out in front of the glass windows to my left, a little girl holding onto her Mama's hand the night I first rode into town on my big Sam-horse, and I remembered the wee child she used to be.
Now ...
Herb rose as Sarah and Jacob came across the floor.
Jacob and I usually wore a suit when we were workin', unless 'twas better to wear somethin' else.
Sarah was in a lovely gown and short though she was compared to my long tall son, she looked like a proper young lady, and the thought hit me -- again -- she was growin' up.
It's one of those things you know behind your forehead, but when it drops down and you know it behind your breast bone, why, it tends to hit a man.
I rose as well.
"Herb Vess," I said, "my daughter Sarah," and Sarah dropped a flawless curtsy; Herb, for his part, brought her knuckles up and kissed them delicately, and I watched Sarah's face color up a bit the way it always did.
She came over to me and kissed me on the cheek, the quick, impulsive move of a little girl, and I ran an arm around her waist and hugged her into me.
Herb crossed his arms and frowned.
I looked at him and raised an eyebrow.
Herb shook his head, looked at Jacob, looked at Sarah, looked at me.
Still glowering, he muttered, "She don't look a thing like you."
"Which," I riposted, trying unsuccessfully to hide a grin, "shows the Lord's mercy!"
Herb shook his head again, then pointed at Sarah.
"That's not it an' you know it," he growled. "Just look at her! No mustache!"
"Herb was Township Trustee back in Pleasant Township," I explained. "He's known me since dirt was young and rocks were a new invention."
"Mr. Vess," Sarah acknowledged with a little nod, and I saw Herb's expression soften, and figured Sarah gave him that soft little smile of hers.
Unlike the hash slinger's, Sarah's smile -- though it would melt that stony heart out of a polished marble simulacrum -- was the kind a shy maiden would give, not a lascivious, loosen-my-laces look he'd gotten from the hash slinger.
"Jacob said you could use my advice," I said, looking down at Sarah, and she turned her shining face up to me and blinked with those big lovely eyes, and I think I heard kind of a crunching sound as she wrapped me around her little finger again.
"I wrote something," she said softly, a little uncertainly,"and I wanted your advice."
"Of course," I nodded.
Sarah turned, looked at Herb, then back at me.
"Can this man be trusted?" she asked, and her voice was hard now, her eyes a shade less blue, a bit more pale, and I knew she'd changed again.
"He can," I replied.
"Then I may need your advice as well, Mr. Vess," Sarah said formally.
She lay a sheaf of papers on the table -- she didn't have them in hand when she came in, I have no idea where she spirited them from, but she's good at that -- and she turned and said "Jacob, pull up a chair. This is a council of war."

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Linn Keller 12-2-12

 

"Mr. Vess, some background," Sarah began as Jacob scooted the chair in under her.
"You may have heard some wild stories or tall tales about the Ragdoll."
Herb looked at me and raised one eyebrow and I knew Sarah had his full attention.
He had the look of a man who wanted to know more without revealing what he knew; he nodded, cautiously, pushing his plate away a little and giving Sarah his full attention.
"There are other stories, tall tales, rumors," Sarah continued. "Stories of a maiden in white with a lance twenty feet long, riding around on some huge mountain of a black horse and running bank robbers and cattle rustlers through like a pirate with a cutlass."
Herb nodded, again, slowly.
Sarah pointed at the stack of papers.
"If you would," she said, "turn over the first page."
I did.
"Read it aloud."
I picked it up, looked at it, fished inside my pocket with thumb and forefinger and came out with my reading spectacles: I perched them on my beak and cranked my head back until things came into focus.
"Table of Contents," I read aloud, looked over the lenses at Sarah.
Sarah had a look on her face ... a look I'd seen on Duzy ... she was calculating, she was planning, she was laying a foundation for a rather deep game.
I read what followed:

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

"That is what I have so far," Sarah said. "Under that page is what I've written so far."
Herb was listening closely to me while looking closely at Sarah.
"What, is your purpose," he asked slowly, "for writing these?"
Sarah brought something out from under the table, another something I hadn't seen her bring in.
She brought up a child's rag doll.
"Mr. Vess," she said, "do you remember the story of the Ragdoll?"
He nodded.
Sarah brought a .44 Army revolver up and thrust it up under the ragdoll's skirt, working it a little until she felt the barrel extend into its head.
She brought the dolly back against her and ran an arm across it, a protective move a child might make when holding a favorite and treasured item.
"Mr. Vess, can you see the revolver?" she asked.
"No," he admitted. "If I didn't know what you'd just done I would not even be looking at your bottom hand."
Sarah nodded.
"I used this to gull a monster, Mr. Vess," Sarah said quietly, her voice soft, her eyes very pale and very hard. "I dressed quickly, like a little girl, and I came downstairs clutching a doll very much like this.
"I sent him to hell, Mr. Vess." Sarah raised her chin, her voice as hard as her eyes. "I gave him six one-way tickets to the Inferno and I would do it again if I had to."
She took a long breath, lowered the doll to her lap, looked at the tabletop.
"Mr. Vess, that simple action -- the saving of my Mama's life, and of my own -- gained me a notoriety."
She looked up at him, her voice hardening again.
"A most unwelcome notoriety, Mr. Vess.
"Men have come seeking me out, some because they are curious, some because they wanted to take the Ragdoll.
"I could kill them, Mr. Vess, but killing draws attention and I just want to be left alone."
Herb frowned a liittle, looked at the page I laid down.
"Why this?" he asked. "Doesn't this bring attention?"
"No, sir," she said. "Not that kind. You see, Mr. Vess, if people read these and they learn these were written by a girl -- and you know how wild a girl's imagination can run -- why, these must just be fancies, stories, inventions."
Sarah's smile was thin.
"They must be made up. No one could really do that, now, could they?"

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Linn Keller 12-3-12

 

Herb thought he was going to guest at the Silver Jewel and pay for his room and board.
He ended up at my place and we laughed and pulled one another's leg without mercy; over supper, Herb told Esther tall tales and war stories from our time together in the War, when we run into one another by accident after a battle and I ended up attached to his outfit because mine was who-knows-where -- we had her laughing hard enough her face was red, she was wiping at tears and she was waving her lacy trimmed hankie like a surrender flag.
"And then," Herb said, "this little old gal come out of the farm house with a broom and so help me God! she proceeded to whop on that soldier, screechin' like a witch with her foot in the fireplace! WHAP! You let go of them chickens! WHAP! Them's my chickens an' you ain't takin' 'em! WHAP!
"She run him around that yard two or three times, beatin' him with that brush broom -- there was chicken feathers and broom straws all over the place and the fence was lined with troopers, leanin' on the split rail or bent over in their saddles, laughin' so hard if there had been an enemy charge we'd have been lost to a man, but we'd have gone to our Reward with a grin on our face!"
We all got a good tickle out of it and I stopped to wipe my own eyes, for it was a memory I'd honestly forgot and I was a-laughin' as hard as anyone and I felt something tug on my shirt sleeve.
I looked down into Angela's bright and puzzled eyes.
"Daddy?" she asked, and I leaned over a bit so I could hear her, for there was a question about her and if it was important enough to interrupt adults at conversation, it was important enough for my undivided.
"Daddy," Angela said, bending down a little and shooting a look under the table, "how'd he do that?"
"Do what, Princess?" I asked, and the table grew quiet, for children were seen and not heard; this was unusual, and curiosity if nothing else caused a general hush.
Angela looked back up at me, rag doll locked in her elbow, upside down like it was about half the time.
"I think Mr. Vess was pulling Mama's leg," he said, "but I looked and he can't reach her, his arms aren't long enough!"
Angela's words were uttered with such clarity, such innocence, that we-all looked at one another and then we started laughing again, and Angela put on a pout and run her bottom lip out so I picked her up and set her on my lap and gave her a big Daddy-hug.
"Princess," I said with a sigh, "grown-ups are funny sometimes," and Angela looked up at me again.
"Daddy," she said, "you told Jacob you never could figure out women."
Her voice was clear and sincere and Esther looked at me with amused and knowing eyes from across the table.
"I don't think I can figure out grown-ups."
I kissed her forehead and hugged her again, then set her back down on the floor.
Angela scampered noisily around back of my chair and over to Herb.
She gave him a rather frank look, then she reached up with her free hand and seized his shirt sleeve.
Herb was trying hard not to laugh as he let her pull his arm out straight.
Angela solemnly studied his arm from shoulder to wrist, then she tried tugging at his wrist.
"It won't stretch," she complained, bending over again and apparently gauging the distance between Herb's elbow and Esther's knee.
Angela straightened, frowning a little, the she shook her head and the maid came over to shepherd her away from the table: "Grown-ups are funny," she said sadly, and poor old Herb was trying his level best not to laugh.
Matter of fact the rest of us were too.

We retired to my study for brandy -- Herb didn't smoke, so the cigars stayed in the humidor -- and we set down, two men, content in the company of an old and trusted friend, two men with full bellies and the prospect of a pleasant evening.
"Those stories," Herb said, shifting a little in his seat, "how true are they?"
"I've not read the stories yet," I said. "The titles are true."
Herb nodded. "I heard of the schoolmarm," he said, "but I pictured some dried up old woman that et pickles and sucked lemons and hated men in general."
I chuckled a little.
"Maybe that's all to the good," I said. "Your school marms are usually old maids nobody wanted, so they end up teaching other peoples' children instead of their own."
"Your daughter" -- Herb paused -- "Sarah? -- is not an old maid."
"No," I agreed.
"Disguise?"
I shook my head. "No," I admitted, "but it works out that way."
Herb nodded. "Somebody looking for a schoolmarm will look for an old grouchy dried up maiden lady with a ruler growin' out of her palm and a sign behind the desk that says THE ANSWER IS NO!"
I laughed.
Herb and I both knew just such souls, back in Perry County.
"They won't look for someone young as she is, pretty as she is." Herb leaned forward, set his brandy on the side table.
"You have a good lookin' daughter, old man."
I nodded, then grinned.
"Which one?"
Herb grinned, then laughed.
"They both take after their Mama," he said, "but your Sarah ... when is she gettin' married?"
I took a long, slow breath.
"I don't know, Herb. She's ... been proposed to already."
"I am not surprised," he said slowly, a grin spreading across his face. "Do you approve of the young man, or should I start tyin' a noose of thirteen turns?"
I laughed.
"Sarah herself said she is too young, but she did not put the fellow down hard nor cold. Matter of fact if she would say yes, I think the poor sod would rip his heart out of his breast and lay it beating at her feet."
Herb frowned, shook his head. "That," he said, reaching for his brandy, "sounds messy."
"Hell to clean up," I agreed.
"You know," Herb said thoughtfully, "if she wants to throw off pursuit, that's really a pretty good way to do it."
"She's as smart as she is good looking," I agreed.
"Lucky for you," Herb muttered. "Be glad she didn't inherit your looks."
I laughed. "The Pope is Catholic," I replied, "what else is news?"
Herb swallowed, snorted, coughed. "I ain't heard that one since ..."
His eyes grew distant.
"That long," I said softly.
"That long."
"You remember the night."
Herb nodded.
I remembered it too.
We lay in bivouac, wore out, bone tired, we'd had a little to eat, not much -- there wasn't much to be had -- in a proper encampment, tents would be erected in military-straight rows, sleeping rolls and cots employed where possible, weapons stacked in neat teepees every so many tents.
Here, tonight, tired men lay down wherever it was reasonably dry, each man with his musket at hand.
We'd been afield for a good long while, we'd been skirmishing nearly every day; Morgan came and went, he and his Raiders, passing like arrogant ghosts through our middle, unseen until they screamed that Rebel yell and started shootin' right in our center, swirling like a grey tornado and then -- gone.
Herb was asleep beside me that night, both of us too tired to talk, too tired to read; neither of us had written home nor in our journals for a week, we were just that drag-your-behind wore out.
I was asleep, but sleeping light, the way a man will in wartime, when Herb's fingers laid on my wrist, then withdrew.
I felt it too.
We each picked up the Enfield beside us; I tasted copper, I eased the bayonet from its scabbard and applied it to the rifle's muzzle.
Herb's bayonet and mine clicked loud in the quiet and we sat up, looking around, ears straining, smelling ...
On my right, and on Herb's left, indistinct figures sat up, looking around like us: we came to our feet, crouched a little, and Herb and I faded back toward a tree, mentally gauging the distance to our horses.
When attack came it was fast and it was silent and my first response was to drive most of a yard of steel into a man's belly just below his wish bone, then I kicked him off English steel and roared, the joyful battle-lust that rips a man's throat raw as he throws all civilization aside, casts away all decency and fights an enemy with a savagery, a brutality, that would cause any decent soul to shudder and turn away with loathing and with disgust.
Before that damned War, a rifle was something delicate -- long, slender, with a crescent butt plate, a slender wrist, a work of art that came to shoulder like a feather on the breeze ... but if a man fell while clutching a Pennsylvania rifle, it was likely to break in the wrist.
It did not take me long into the war to realize the rifle became a glorified club when need be, and I sought out those British and French observers, and with bribery and flattery got them to teach me what they could about using a rifle close-in.
I learned, and that night I put their lessons to good use.
That Enfield was accurate and that Enfield was stout and I honestly killed with both ends that night, for there were men in the darkness seeking to kill me.
Herb and I fought side-by-side, and then back-to-back: the skirmish was brief but it felt like an eternity, and when the enemy pulled back and all was silent again, we found our pickets, their throats cut by the stealthy and woods-wise enemy: Herb and I stood picket duty that night, and next day we happened to capture a half dozen enemy, who proceeded to ask if we were Yankees or devils, for they tried to overrun an encampment of damned Yankees and stepped into a nest of demons instead.
Herb and I were quiet for a long time, after we talked that one over, there in my study, over brandy and in comfortable chairs: his fingers drifted to a scar along his cheek bone, and I remembered the bayonet that gave him the scar, and how that Enfield came up and fired of its own let-be, killing my friend's attacker, and my hands only incidentally being wrapped around the musket at the time.
"Herb," I said finally, "Sarah inherited her Mama's intelligence. She sure as hell didn't get it from me."
Herb took a long drink, stared into the half-inch of distilled amber in the bottom of the snifter: I stood up, picked up the cut-glass decanter, filled his glass and my own.
"Was it me, I would track down whoever was a-huntin' me and kill 'em.
"She is smarter than that.
"She ..." I took time to frown at the rug and collected up some thoughts before speaking again.
"Herb, do you recall Marshal Macneil?"
Herb looked sharply at me. "Charlie? Didn't his brother gut shoot him here some years ago?"
I nodded. "Yep. Pulled through."
Herb closed his eyes for a long moment and I saw a brief tremor ripple his brandy.
"I thought he'd been killed," Herb almost whispered.
"No," I grinned, "matter of fact he's runnin' a ranch nowadays, and married to a good lookin' woman I would not ever want to cross!"
Herb nodded slowly. "He done me a good turn, some years ago. I never go to thank the man."
"He's still around." I took a noisy slurp of brandy, reveling in the concentrated sun-fire that illuminated my throat as it went down.
"Charlie took an interest in Sarah and she's been learning some things out at his ranch." I straightened my leg, slowly, and my knee went SNNAP! -- loud in the room's hush -- and Herb's eyes went big and he said, "I'm hard of hearin' and I heard that!"
I laughed. "Mileage."
"What has Macneil taught her?"
I swirled my brandy, took another long drink.
I was feeling warm and relaxed and about half lit.
I hadn't allowed myself this much of a luxury in a very long time, and it felt pretty good.
"He taught her," I said slowly, "that she is the weapon. She is the weapon, and anything else is a tool in her hands."
Herb nodded, sampled his own drink.
"Can she dance?"
I laughed. "Herb, she can ... it's not that she dances ... it's more like she is in my arms, I dance, and she floats like a wisp of fog on the breeze."
"She'd be good with a knife, then."
It was a statement, not a question.
"Yes," I said. "She is ... she is very good with a knife."
"You still haven't answered my question."
"How's that?" I reached for the decanter; Herb shook his head, and I withdrew my hand.
"Do I need to tie that noose of thirteen turns, or do you approve of the young fellow you spoke of?"
"The man I have in mind," I said, "is decent, honorable, hard working and Welsh, not necessarily in that order."
"Welsh," Herb smiled. "How is his voice?"
"Oh good Lord, Herb," I laughed, "you should hear him sing! I've heard some good voices but he and that big Irishman ... why, I heard the two of them sing in the firehouse and it was fit to bring tears to a good man's eyes!"
"That bad, eh?" Herb murmured sympathetically.

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Linn Keller 12-3-12

 

Sarah sat in the darkness, listening to the night.
Beside her, The Bear Killer, relaxed, breathed silently: he was leaned, warm and furry, against the side of her foot, and she reached down and lay a gentle hand on his curly black hair.
Sarah was all in black tonight, for she wished to be invisible: there were matters to consider and she did not wish to be interrupted.
The Smith-forged boar-spear lay across her lap; her cloak-hood was pulled up, the skirt of her dress lay in indistinct drapes across her legs: overhead, the stars were bright, clear, the way they always were: the air tasted of frost, and in the distance, one wolf, another, then more, joined in serenade to the rising moon.
Sarah was comfortable under the cloak; gloved hands and hooded head and neck guaranteed she preserved her body heat; her breathing was slow, regular, like those of The Bear Killer beside her.
Misdirection, she thought.
Misdirect those who would seek the Ragdoll.
Misdirect those who would seek the Schoolteacher.
Let the world think these things are fancies of a feather-headed girl.

Her smile was sardonic in the rising moonlight, her face pale, washed-out, almost bleached.
This will discredit those who speak of me.
I will take the club from their hand, with the stroke of a pen.

Sarah blinked, slowly, her eyes busy; rock rose behind her, and any who approached would have to come from ahead.
My get will stride boldly into the future, she thought, then chuckled silently: Is that what I saw, or was that just wishful thinking?
No.
It's what I saw.
Am I that important?
I am a link in a chain.
Important?
Every link is important.

Sarah slipped a hand out from under the cloak, rubbed her eyes.
Why do I respond so strongly to an affront?
Why do I go after someone with everything that's in me?

She slipped her hand back under the cloak.
After the life I've had, is it any wonder?
Will I have any other life?
Will I always be ready to kill someone?

Sarah looked long and hard at herself.
Yes, she thought in reply to her unspoken question.
Yes.
I can never be any different.
Must I kill?
No.
I chose to not kill when I brought in the man I thought killed Papa.
I brought him in alive.
I've taken others alive.
I'm not going after this reporter.

She shifted restlessly on her folded saddleblanket.
Yes I am, she thought.
I'm just using different tools.
Sarah's eyes closed for a long moment, then opened.
Her hand caressed The Bear Killer again.
"Come on, puppy," she whispered, "let's find Snowflake and go home."
The dark and deadly shadow rose beside her, breath clouding in the cold air, and shook, happily flapping his ears loud in the night's hush, and Sarah rose, boar-spear in her strong hand, its shining head gleaming in the silver light.

Later that night, the twins shifted in their beds, relaxed now.
Bonnie looked in on them earlier and they were restless, fitful: after Sarah came in, after she caressed their foreheads, squeezed their warm, pink hands and twitched the coverlets up around their chins, after she kissed each of them and whispered, "I'm here, sweets, go to sleep now," the twins closed their eyes, relaxed, for they knew they were safe.
Sawwah was home and they were safe now.
The Bear Killer lay down beside Sarah's bed and gave a long, happy sigh as Sarah lay down and pulled up her covers.

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Linn Keller 12-4-12

 

The hammer-head hung motionless.
"Hit."
The youngest Daine brought the cast head down on the saw set.
His older brother brought the two-man saw two teeth to the left.
"Hit."
The youngest Daine carefully, precisely, rapped the spring-loaded saw set.
The saw moved another two teeth.
"Hit."
Smoothly, coordinated, four lads methodically restored the two-man saw to sharpness; the eldest filed the teeth, for he had the eye and the hand for the job; two lads held the ends, with the two youngest in the middle, running the set, setting the teeth out to the correct angle.
They had four saws all told, two were being used that day; they'd finished the third one, and this was three-quarters of the way finished: once it was done, they would run these two saws up into the woods, trade out for the two that had been laboring all morning, keeping the cutters supplied with clean, greased, freshly sharpened saws with which to ply their trade.
Winter was a-comin' and they wanted to stack up wood to season out over winter's cold; they had enough firewood to do them, this was for beyond the winter season: it would not take much, but it had to be done, for wood took time to dry out and season, even high up in this thin air.
Their heads came up at the sound -- distant, thin, unmistakable -- a man's scream.
This last saw was pulled out of the saw-set and hung quickly in its place, then the lads ran for rifles and possibles: the two youngest ran for the cabin, arriving as the door swung open, and two women with stolid faces and anxious hands met them.
Words were exchanged; the women disappeared, then reappeared with pre-packed bundles: the lads were each given a pack, which they slung across their strong young backs, and the women withdrew into the cabin to make their own preparations.
There was an injury, and the Daine family took care of its own.

Matthew Daine looked up at his Pa, lips trembling, bloodless, wordless; the young man's eyes, however, spoke volumes.
His Pa held the young man's head, his hands strong, firm, steady: he looked at the bloodied leg trapped under the trunk, then looked over at the wheat-faced cousin staring with huge eyes at what he was convinced was a dead man that hadn't quit breathing yet.
"He go me safe," he gasped, and true it was: the tree hadn't fallen clean like it should have, it twisted on its stump and fell in an entirely unexpected direction, and the young Daine -- long, tall and skinny like his forefathers, made of whalebone and whang leather -- saw its new trajectory and saw his cousin right in the way.
He'd sprinted across the clearing like an arrow from an Iroquois bow, thrust two-hand against his Eastern cousin's chest, knocking him away, and this after his left foot found a rock or a root and he found himself no longer running, but falling.
He tried to twist out and threw his legs wide apart just as the tree came down across his right thigh.
Now he lay looking up at his Pa's bearded face, afraid to speak, afraid to move, nearly afraid to breathe.
He couldn't feel anything but a terrible, crushing pressure, a numbness, and he reckoned this was a kindness.
"Pa," he gasped, "I messed up."
"You done all right, boy," his Pa said in that quiet, confident voice the young man remembered so well.
His Pa looked over at the cousin and nodded.
"You done good, don't you worry none on that."
"Yes, suh."
His Pa felt his son's head grow heavier in his hands.
"I don't reckon you're bleedin' any amount," his Pa observed, as calm as if he were commenting on the weather: "'ginst we git that tree off ye, it'll likely hurt some."
"Yes, suh."
"I reckon your Ma is a-headin' this-a-way."
"No, suh," the tall, skinny fellow whispered. "Don't let Ma see me, Pa, she'll get afeared!"
The father chuckled and the son saw those familiar wrinkles appear at the corners of his eyes and he couldn't help but smile wanly his own self.
"Your Ma seen worse'n that," he rumbled. "She ain't flighty."
"No, suh."
"You rest now. We'll do the work, you just lay still."
"Yes, suh."
"Methuselah."
"Yes, suh." The cousin from back East stood, approached the two.
"Methuselah, you head down the mountain and hold on that main trail. When your aunt comes in sight, point her up here then you head on back down to the cabin and take the two youngest with you, fetch up them sharp saws."
"Yes, suh."
The cousin swayed, gathered his courage, straightened: the old man's quiet words gave him purpose, gave him direction, gave him reason: he turned and strode quickly straight down hill.
"I'm cold, Pa," the injured man whispered. "I'm cold."
"I know, Matthew. We'll get you back home shortly an' get some broth in ye. Ye'll rest in your own bed under your own roof."
The old man slipped his left hand under his son's head, used the right hand to brush the hair back out of his eyes, the way he might a little boy.
"Don't you worry none, now. We'll take care of ye."

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Linn Keller 12-4-12

 

"You did get married, then!"
"I did," Herb nodded, and it was odd to see an almost-shy smile on the man's face.
I looked over at Esther.
"I did too, and it was the best move I ever made."
Esther dropped her eyes and colored delicately, as if she could control the very degree of her blush.
"I heard you did. That's why I ..."
Herb's eyes saddened and I knew he was looking into his past, at someone we both knew.
I nodded.
"I remember her smile," I said softly.
"I never forgot that," Herb murmured, his throat suddenly tight. "Seems like every memory I have of her ... she's smilin'."
"Probably because she was."
"Yep."
Herb looked over at Angela.
"You do throw good lookin' colts," he murmured.
Esther and I exchanged a look -- kind of an amused look, it was -- neither of us were inclined to correct the man so I grinned and allowed as flattery would get him everywhere.
We looked to our breakfast and filled our bellies, Herb complimented my bride and kissed her hand; he saddled up and headed for wherever his business took him, but I was right glad he stopped and said howdy, even if it was out of curiosity about the Silver Jewel and those wild tales he'd heard about the county.
Angela laughed as she stepped off the porch and onto my saddle skirt and clung to my coat as we turned and headed for town and the schoolhouse.
"You ready?" I called back over my shoulder and Angela's hands tightened on my coat and her laugh joined mine as Cannonball gathered herself and launched over the whitewashed board fence, as swift and as certain as a ball from a field gun, as light as a feather on a spring updraft.
We landed on the other side and galloped toward town, Cannonball's hoofbeats loud on the chill and frosty ground.

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Linn Keller 12-6-12

 

"Come on, Jupiter," Doc Greenlees murmured, rubbing the mule's long ears. "Let's see what they need."
Jupiter swung his ears around as blanket, saddle, saddlebags and physician settled into place: Doc slung two black leather satchels across the saddle bags and lifted the light-grey mule's reins.
Jupiter turned and followed his darker furred cousin and the solemn mountaineer astride her: they headed up the mountain, up a road and then a trail the physician's surrey could never have hoped to survive, let alone navigate.

The Sheriff swung into the saddle, grinning as he looked up at Sarah, her hands resting lightly on Angela's shoulders.
"Learn stuff," he called, and Angela put her knuckles on her hips and scolded, "Dad-dee!" and they both laughed, as they did every morning.
The Sheriff turned Cannonball with his knees and walked her diagonally across the street to the Sheriff's office.

The old mountaineer sat cross legged, his son's head resting on his crossed calves.
The young man's breathing was steady and controlled, his face stolid, if pale, as befitted one of their clan: it was not for a man to cry or scream in the face of misfortune, but rather to show a stone face to the outrages that happened upon a man's life.
"Pa?" he rasped, swallowing a dry throat: "Pa, I reckon that leg's gone."
"May be," the old man nodded.
"'Ginst I git healed up," the son continued, "I reckon I'll whittle me one of them timber toes."
"A body could," came the slow-nod reply.
"It don't hurt much," his oldest son lied: the father knew the son to be lying, for he was white around the mouth and his voice shivered a little, and sweat beads were starting to pop out on his forehead in spite of the chill.
The two-man saw sang in a steady rhythm to his right, another busy on his left: they'd blocked all three sections so when she cut free, nothing would roll of a sudden and cause more harm than already was.
The son smelled wood smoke and knew the women were a-boilin' water, two kettles: they knew the doc would want one, and they needed one as well, for there were herbs that would be useful, and they'd need good hot water to steep out proper.
The old man felt his son's head move a little at the sound of approaching mule hooves, steel-shod and at an easy trot, proper for the terrain: it was important to get there quickly, but most important to get there surely, and this gait was ideal for the altitude, the frost, the rock and the slope.
Doc Greenlees swung down, handed Jupiter's reins to the skinny mountaineer that came to fetch him: he went down on one knee, looked at the wounded man's face, pulled his eyelids down a little, covered one eye for a long moment, then the other, drawing his hands aside quickly, and finally felt the fellow's clammy-damp temples.
"It ain't my head that's hurt, Doc," he protested.
Doc Greenlees grunted, frowned.
"I'll be the doctor," he said sternly, "and you be the patient." He looked up at the mountaineer seated at the young man's head.
"I'll need your skinnin' knife."
"Didn't you bring none?" the injured man blurted as his father wordlessly handed over a wooden handled knife, a Green River, worn thin from years of whet-stoning.
"Your Pa," Doc Greenlees said, pulling up the lad's britchin' material and making a quick, semicurcular cut halfway around the leg, "is one of the best hands at sharpening a knife I ever saw."
He turned the blade around, cut the opposite direction.
"A skinnin' knife has a rough edge, like a scythe."
He made a third cut, longways with the thigh, and laid the material back and away from the flesh.
"Here you go, thank you," he said, then opened the first of his two bags.
He withdrew a canvas-belted tourniquet, felt the inside of the man's thigh, practiced fingers finding the thick, strong pulse hidden deep in stringy tissues, hard in against the leg bone: he positioned the pad directly over the femoral artery, snugged up the cloth, turned the T-handle several turns, until he'd taken the slack out of the apparatus, and any more tension would begin to compress the artery.
"How long til we can fetch off this log?" he asked the old man.
"How soon you want it off?"
"Yup there, yup, Jack," a voice called, and the base end of the felled tree swung away, drawn by a jack mule: they repositioned to take a tug on the top section -- "Yup, Jack, yup now," and the branched top was drawn away as well.
"Now, Doc," the old man said calmly, "we'll rig this up so we kin git it off him quick and out of the way. Let us know when you want it off an' we'll fetch it off right quick."
Doc Greenlees nodded.
"I'll get my tools laid out." He looked at the impinging log. "Let me take a look at something first."
Doc straightened, went around the other side of the log.
Busy hands slung lines under each end of the sawed chunk; an A-frame was constructed, staked in at the ends, the two mules made fast at the far end of four lines attached to the lifting frame.
Doc looked up over the log. "Almost ready," he said, and the old an could see he was busy with something.
The injured man could not see the physician's shoulders sag, as if he'd come to some defeat.
He came back to the wounded man, laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Tell me what I did over there."
The man gave Doc a long look.
"I reckon you took a look at my foot."
"I did," Doc said.
"Is it still there?"
"Oh, it's there, all right. Even saved your shoe." He held up the work brogan.
"Good. I am hopeful that I will need it."
Doc's eyes went to the father's for a long moment and the younger man's face hardened.
"If you got to cut it off, Doc, then be done with it."
Doc nodded.
"Stand fast," he called to the teamsters. "Not until I say ready."
"We ain't damn fools, ye know," came the sneering reply, and Doc could not help but grin.
"No," he said softly, turning again to his satchel. "Fools you are not."
He laid out a clean cloth and began arranging his instruments.

The rubber ball thumped loudly on the schoolroom floor.
Sarah sat, cross-legged, a half dozen jackstones on the floor before her.
"Cynthia," she said, bouncing the ball again, "how many balls do I have?"
"One!" Cynthia exclaimed, holding up one finger.
Angela held up one finger, too, but had it camouflaged under her bottom lip.
Sarah bounced the ball.
"How many jackstones are on the floor?"
The ball bounced again; Sarah caught it and pointed to one of the youngest boys.
He frowned at the stones, lips moving, then said "Six!"
"Six is right," Sarah said, bouncing the ball, sweeping her hand over the jackstones.
"How many now?"
"Thwee!"
"Three is right," Sarah nodded, bounced the ball again.
Her hand swept over the stones.
"Six!"
"Correct!"
The ball bounced, was caught.
"Four!" came the happy chorus.

Digger polished his display caskets, carefully wiping away the dust that always managed to sneak in from the street: he kept his finely finished boxes free of any oils that would trap and hold dirt, but they still got dusty, and he was forever moving nervously among them, burnishing the brightwork, caressing the bevels and precisely fitted joints, these masterworks of the woodworker's art.
He opened the lid of his most prized box and frowned.
"Will you stop sleeping in my display casket!" he shouted at his assistant. "You'll ruin the lining and I'll take it out of your pay!"

Mr. Baxter, too, polished finely finished wood, burnishing the bar top: he'd cleaned off the already spotless mirror already, he'd seen to the polishing of the serving trays, he'd gone over every last beer mug in the inventory and made sure they were spotless, and a good thing.
The Irish Brigade came pouring in the front door, laughing and slapping one another's shoulders in rough good-fellowship.

Jacob nodded as he accepted the warrant from his father.
"Back shortly," he said, as he always did.
His father nodded in reply and watched with approval as his long tall son swung a long leg over the saddle and settled in all nice and comfortable.
It was a toss-up whether his Apple-horse would pace off all nice and peaceful, or whether the Appaloosa stallion would just plainly come unglued and do his level best to sling Jacob north, south, east, west, up to the Texas moon and down to terra firma: this morning the stallion shook himself a little and stepped out just as pretty as you please, docile as a little girl's rocking-horse and absolutely lovely enough to pose for an oil painting.
The Sheriff allowed himself a small smile.
So far it looked like a pretty good morning.

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Linn Keller 12-7-12

 

"Twas such a good mornin', too," the long tall mountaineer muttered as Doc lowered the chloroform mask over his mouth and nose and dribbled a little of the strong-smelling fluid onto the gauze.
"Long, deep breaths," he said in his reassuring voice. "Long, deep breaths."
Doc screwed the lid down tight on the jar, replaced it in his bag and left the mask out to air dry.
He checked the young man's eyes, took a long breath, closed his own eyes for a longer moment: then he nodded, picked up a cloth and a bottle of alcohol in one hand, tightened the propellor handle on the tourniquet two more turns.
Looking up, he nodded and gave the go-ahead to the teamsters.
Doc paid no attention to anything other than the operating field from that moment.
The log came free of the mangled leg and Doc became a different man: cold, clinical, analytical: his hands had eyes of their own, and he went about the business at hand with a practiced efficiency.
Part of his mind said something about how nice it was that he was not in a bloody damned field hospital with limbs stacked outside the surgical tent like cordwood, and no stray musket balls whistling through the canvas at odd moments.
He tightened the tourniquet the rest of the way and marked his incision lines.
He'd have to find the pinched-off artery and suture it off before he went much farther.

Sarah wrote several words on the blackboard, then turned, dusting her hands in a businesslike manner.
She held up one of the student's individual slates; she'd chalked a capital A on it.
"What is this letter?" she asked, and the young students chorused "A!"
"That's right," she nodded, "and when we use it in a word, what does it sound like?"
"Ummm ..."
Several of the youngest looked at one another, uncertain.
"Let's look at this column," Sarah said, pointing to the letter A in each word: "Apple, bad, sack, rattle. What does an "A" sound like here?"
"Aaaaaaah," two of the children said together.
"Correct!" Sarah turned quickly, making an approving gesture. "Now this column, same letter, see? -- only these words sound like ..."
She paused, smiling at the attentive little ones.
"Brave, grave, raise, sail, nail." Her foreknuckle tapped lightly on each word as she went down the stack. "What does "A" sound like here?"
"A!"
"Right!"

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Linn Keller 12-8-12

 

The Welsh Irishman snarled as he swept the floor, attacking the smooth, close-laid stones as if trying to sand them down with his efforts.
He'd polished the engine with vigor, with a single minded thoroughness: Sean approved of the man's work, for he was attentive to detail, he was complete, he was quick he was ...
Sean's eyes narrowed a little and he smiled just a bit, for he knew exactly how the Welshman felt.
He'd felt the same way when he couldn't see his Daisy-me-dear after they first met.
The New York Irishman came into the bay, wiping his hands on a rag, watching Llewellyn jockey the broom: he raised his head a bit, opening is mouth to call out some chaffing remark, and Sean's frown and brief head-shake stopped the man on the instant.
Sean moved quickly, with an absolutely silent tread, over to his subordinate, laid a huge hand on the man's shoulder and steered him into the next room.
"Lad," he half-murmured, half-whispered, "do na' gi'e him any grief."
"But Sean," the New Yorker protested with a half-grin, and Sean cut him off with a suddenly upraised palm.
"He's nae been head-o'er-bootheels f'r a lass b'fore," the Irishman continued. "It'll be too easy t' bruise his heart an' I'll na'e stand f'r anythin' funny, y'hear?"
The New York Irishman, surprised, blinked, then nodded: "Aye," he replied.
"Good lad." Sean's hands tightened on the man's shoulders. "Ye did a fine job fetchin' down wi' th' dry hose an' rollin' i' f'r the rack. I thank ye for it."
The New York Irishman nodded.

The grave was not deep, the soil was loose and fairly dry, and Jacob made steady work of it.
The coffin was less than a foot under the Colorado soil; Jacob cocked his head and frowned, listening, then used the shovel to pry up the nailed down corner of the crude lid.
A man and a woman were inside: the man was beaten and bloodied, a rag stuffed in his mouth, tied around his head, his arms behind his back: the woman was on her side, also tied behind, blindfolded, a stick tied between her teeth.
Jacob ripped the lid from the coffin and hauled them out -- quickly, ungently -- laid them on the dirt and cleared the cloth packing their mouths so they could breathe.

He'd ridden out to the ranch, smiling a little, admiring the fine morning, looking around as he always did.
When he came into sight of the ranch something struck him as odd ... something undefined, but out of the ordinary.
Two strange horses were tied in front of the ranch house, and the riding stock in the corral over by the barn were restless.
Jacob rode up to the house like he owned the place and beat on the door.
A stranger answered -- dusty, nervous, and Jacob noticed the man wore his hat, which a man never did indoors, especially not in his own house.
"I'm looking for Max," Jacob said mildly.
"Max?" the fellow barked. "Who in the hell is Max?"
"He's one of the hands here."
"I never heard of no Max." The fellow went to shut the door and Jacob shoved it back open, hard.
"Look mister," the stranger blustered, "you must be new here. I'm a big man in this territory, see!"
Jacob smiled a little, looking past the fellow.
The house was painfully clean, absolutely neat; the lamp chimneys were spotless, the single mirror gleamed, no dust to be seen anywhere: Maycel was always an immaculate housekeeper, he knew, and he heard no one else in the house, saw no one behind the man -- not even at the ambush points.
"You," Jacob said, "might explain why the ridin' stock is all stirred up."
The fellow muttered something, then growled, "Come on, then."
The two walked back toward the corral.
The hair on Jacob's neck stood up and he felt the flesh draw tight on his face and he smelled the man, smelled him, and smelled tobacco and coffee and a trace of the meal he'd had, he smelled trail and leather and unwashed humanity, and he smelled something, something else ... he smelled fear.
The man walked back toward the corral and Jacob saw where the family cemetery was, and a fresh grave, the dirt still a little dark, as if only just disturbed and ever so slightly damp yet.
"There's Max," the man barked, thrusting a pointing finger at the soil.
"Got a shovel?" Jacob asked mildly, turning: the barn was behind the man, the man was turned and looking at the barn and Jacob saw the flash of light on a rifle barrel.
He seized the man, pulled him around as a shield: he felt the bullet hit his shield just as smoke squirted out the rifle barrel.
Jacob released the wounded felon, stepped back one pace and drew his left hand Colt.
At this distance he could reliably hit a one gallon paint can six times out of six, and he raised his hand and took a cold, deliberate sight on the fellow leaned out of the hay loft door.
Jacob's Colt spoke a sermon on eternity, and the lesson drove home: the rifle fell to the ground as its former owner sagged, leaned forward and fell.
Jacob walked up to the curled up criminal, shoved him over on his back with his boot, holstered his revolver.
"You're hit bad," he said conversationally. "I could get you to the doc."
"Go to hell," the white-faced felon hissed.
"You might even live. Judge Hostetler could sentence you to prison instead of hang. Now where are Maycel and Coulter?"
The criminal's eyes shifted, toward the fresh grave.
He reached down, seized the man by his coat and fetched him off the ground, left handed.
"Mister," he said quietly, "if they are dead you will be too, and if they are hurt I will take a knife to you." His eyes were dead pale, as was his face. "Those folks are friends of mine. Now before I gut you like a fish, who the hell are you?"
The man's bloodied hands were pressed to the hole in his belly.
"I'm Max," he gasped.
Jacob nodded.
"Where's the shovel?"
Max nodded toward the near fence corner.
Jacob frisked him down quickly, efficiently, then he drew his arm back and threw the man as far as he could.
"I'll skin you alive later," he said quietly and strode over and seized the shovel.

The Sheriff looked up as Jacob came into the office.
"Sir," Jacob said, "this will take some explainin'."

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Linn Keller 12-8-12

 

Doc Greenlees sniffed the decoction and nodded.
Carefully, gently, he bathed the freshly sutured flesh: he'd cut the tissues to make two flaps, overlapping to make a tapered, bluntly- rounded stump: he'd sewed the flaps neatly, knowing many eyes were on him: the men would know only that he was putting a curved needle through the living meat of one of their own; the women would take account of each stitch, would take note of how each stitch was made, how each was spaced, the precise knotting of each -- even if the good Doctor's suture-knots were made with two blunt-jawed, shining steel forceps instead of fingers.
He worked steadily, methodically: blood seeped a little, which was normal, and he washed his hands again in a pannikin of steaming water before reaching for the small cast iron pot containing the herbal.
He took two short whiffs, then a longer one, and nodded.
Dipping a clean, folded cloth into the decoction, he bathed the stump, wiping the incision lines with precise, quick, semicircular moves, following the newly-approximated wound edges: he unwound the tourniquet, slowly, letting blood into the stump a little at a time: he'd been able to locate and tie off the femoral artery, for it had been pinched off rather than incised, and had not retracted more than an inch into the surrounding, traumatically-contracted flesh.
Color came into the dusky skin.
In less than a minute the flesh of the stump was the color flesh should be; another careful wipe, then a third, with the herbal-soaked cloth, and Dr. Greenlees leaned back a little and nodded again.
The blood had stopped seeping.
He heard water tossed, hissing, onto the ground, a splash as his pannikin was refilled: he turned, washed his hands again, dried them carefully and leaned over the young man's face.
Slender fingers pressed gently alongside the Adam's apple, finding the pulse, deep, protected, regular: it would gain strength as he healed, the Doctor knew, and he felt eyes upon him.
The family was silent and solemn, surrounding the grim scene: no one spoke, until the Eastern cousin could contain himself no longer and blurted, "How come you pressed on his neck like that?"
Dr. Greenlees beckoned the lad closer.
Tentatively, hesitantly, the cousin advanced from his place in the circle.
"Give me your hand," Dr. Greenlees said softly, and the boy did.
Dr. Greenlees extended the boy's first and middle fingers.
"Press here, gently," he said. "Start at the Adam's apple, then slide down to the side. Just like that. Now press, carefully. What do you feel?"
The boy's head was inclined, his face looking down on the still figure, but his eyes snapped up to look at the physician's.
"I feel his heart a-beatin'," he whispered.
Dr. Greenlees nodded.
"That's exactly right," he said. "If there is any heart beat at all, you will feel it here." He raised his hands to the young cousin's head, pressed gentle finger-pads into the boy's temple. "Now feel here, on you first, then him."
Dr. Greenlees checked the patient's temporal pulses, watched as his new student did as well.
"Fell it?"
"Yes, suh."
"That we can feel it here" -- he touched the cousin's temple, gently, again -- "tells us his pulse is strong and he's probably doing well right now."
"Where'd you learn that?"
Dr. Greenlees looked up at the patient's father, pointed.
"A wise old man taught me that," he said. "Matter of fact he looked an awful lot like this fellow here."
"How long b'fore we kin move 'im?" the father asked, his face expressionless.
Dr. Greenlees cocked his head a little to the side, picked up the patient's hand, assessed the color of his nailbeds: he pulled down the bottom lip, checking the color of gums and the inside of his lips, then he lifted the patient's right eyelid.
"I ain't no horse," the young man gasped, and Dr. Greenlees nodded, rocking back on his heels and standing.
"I believe," he said, "he will be better off in a bed than on the cold ground."
Poles were laid down beside him, a blanket wrapped between them; strong, lean arms were thrust under the patient and he was lifted over onto the blanket litter.
The family followed the stretcher-bearers down off the mountain, taking axes and saws with them, all but the father.
"How much do I owe ye?" he asked bluntly.
Dr. Greenlees looked long after the little procession, then finally looked at the skinny old mountaineer.
"Your son is alive," he said. "I could not save my boy's life, but I have saved his."
Dr. Greenlees' eyes were haunted.
"When the time is right, tell him a father looked at him and saw his own son."
Dr. Greenlees turned away from the mountaineer, his jaw clamped hard against something only he knew: finally the old mountaineer nodded and brought the doctor's mule over, waited until the physician was mounted, then thrust out his hand.
"Doc, if you're needful," he said, "you holler, y'hear?"
Dr. Greenlees swallowed hard and nodded.
The old mountaineer turned and picked up a shovel, started to dig.
It was right and proper for family to bury their own.
He found it surprisingly hard to bury his son's severed, mangled leg.

"Mr. Llewellyn."
The Welsh Irishman froze at her voice.
It was suddenly hard to breathe and he felt his heart speed up: he tried to lay down the wrench he held, and it clattered from nerveless fingers.
"Mr. Llewellyn, may I speak with you?"
The Welsh Irishman's fists closed: calm, man, calm, he thought; then, raising his head, he turned slowly.
Sarah advanced -- she floated -- she was an angel, blue eyed and borne along on a pastel cloud, she was an ivory skinned vision who sang rather than talked --
Sarah lay her hand on the Welsh Irishman's forearm.
The man flinched.
"I need your help," she said, and the Welsh Irishman blinked, for of all the things this remarkable creature could say, this was not what he'd expected.
"Ask," he rasped, his throat suddenly dry.
Sarah's eyes were big and very blue and absolutely serious as she looked up at the red-shirted fireman.
"Mr. Llewellyn," she said, her voice a little unsteady, "I have been thinking."
Llewellyn hesitated, for he knew that when a woman said she has been thinking, generally it was not good news, almost always it was not welcome news -- but he was a fireman, and he'd faced down Hell itself, and he was not about to shrink from something as minor as unwelcome news!
"Mr. Llewellyn," Sarah continued, "I am not entirely certain that I trust my feelings."
Llewellyn frowned a little, as if puzzled, or uncertain.
Sarah withdrew her hand from his arm, folded her hands in her apron and did her very best to look very proper and very grown-up.
"Mr. Llewellyn," she said, and his right ear pulled back a little the way it did when he was inside a fire structure and he heard it start to whisper the way it did before a window broke and it detonated into the hell-draft that killed men -- his ear pulled back, but not because he anticipated an explosion --
His ear pulled back because there was a tremor, a quiver in Sarah's voice.
"Mr. Llewellyn, you are a gentleman," Sarah said. "You have unfailingly conducted yourself as a gentleman. You are a thrifty man, you are regular in your habits and clean about your person. In short, sir, you appear to be excellent husband material."
Sarah closed her eyes, took a long breath, her young bosom rising and falling as she seemed to come to some decision.
"I am flawed and I am imperfect. I am prone to storms of temper and I can be very unpleasant at times. I am an excellent liar, an accomplished thief and an experienced picklock." She looked up at him, giving him the full benefit of maidenly eyes and long, dark lashes.
"I am deadly and I am treacherous, Death itself walks in my shadow and comes at the crook of my finger. I am not what I seem, and I can change like the wind.
"I have looked into hell and I have seen the light go out in men's eyes as their blood ran between my fingers.
"Know these things, Mr. Llewellyn, before you set out to win me.
"You will make a very lucky woman a fine husband."
Sarah's face was pale now, pale and pinched as her heart now that she had absolutely ruined any chance of ever, ever! being courted by a good man.
Sarah turned, as much to leave as to hide the tears that scalded her eyes.
She walked quickly toward the door.
Llewellyn took three long steps, seized Sarah by the arm, spun her about.
Sarah turned, her eyes big and vulnerable and scared.
Llewellyn looked long and long again into those eyes, those blue eyes, those eyes like turquoise, like a cloudless winter sky, like a mountain lake.
Llewellyn released her arm and took both her hands in his.
Slowly, carefully, he went down to one knee, and Sarah bit her bottom lip.
"I know this already," he said, his voice husky: "I knew every one of those things about ye'. I know you are dangerous but you are kind, you are deadly but you are gentle. I've seen you ride and I've seen the slack in your reins, you ride wi' your knees an' not wi' yer spurs."
His accent was becoming more noticeable now, as it always did when he was under stress.
"I swear and I smoke an' I drink. I've a temper too an' I raise m' voice when I shouldn't, but one thing I've never, ever done is hit a woman, an' I don't ever intend t' start."
"Not even to turn me over your knee and spank me?"
He shook his head, slowly.
"Rise, Sir Knight," Sarah whispered, her bottom lip trembling.
He did, his hands tight on hers.
"I don't trust my own feelings," she whispered, "so if I should be a weak-willed girl, will you be strong for me?"
Llewellyn blinked a few times, nodded.
"Aye," he whispered. "That I will."
Saran yanked her hands from his, snatched up her skirts, ran: she ran into the door, sobbed a little as she seized the knob, turned it viciously, slammed it behind her.
Llewellyn stood there with his shattered heart cascading in bloody red splinters to the floor as he listened to her running footsteps, disappearing on the other side of the closed door.
Sean's big hand rested, warm and comforting, on the man's shoulder.
Llewellyn took a long breath and groaned, lowering his head into his hands.
"Sean," he husked, "I ruined it. I just ran her off."
"Nah, lad," Sean rumbled, patting the man's shoulder. "Nah such thing. Ye said exactly what ye needed t' say."
Sean looked at the closed door.
"Ye did a'right, lad. Ye did a'right."

Coulter came slowly to consciousness as Dr. Flint placed the last stitch in the man's scalp.
"Maycel," the injured man gasped.
"She's fine," Nurse Susan said soothingly, grasping his suddenly-awake hands: at a feminine touch the man stiffened, then relaxed. "Maycel?"
"I'm here," a tired voice replied, and Coulter relaxed, his discolored, puffy face almost recognizable.
"Maycel," he whispered, then -- "Max? What --"
"Easy, friend," Dr. Flint said reassuringly. "You're here, you're safe, just relax --"
"Where is here?" Coulter struggled to sit up, then laid back with a pained gasp as his stomach called him very unkind names.
"You've been beaten," Dr. Flint said bluntly. "You'll live but you'll be sore for a while."
"Max," Coulter whispered. "I trusted him --"
"He'll live," Dr. Flint said absently, snipping the catgut close to the knot. "Now keep that clean, I don't want to bandage it. This will heal better open to air. Your hair will hide the damage. Don't wear a hat until it's healed."
Coulter turned his head and saw his wife, her bruised cheekbone a shocking, puffed-up purple.
Coulter was a peaceful man, but in that moment, he knew what it was to deeply, sincerely, to the depths of his soul, want to murder whoever did this to his wife.

Jacob stood beside the prisoner's bed, casually cleaning his nails with a slender, very sharp, knife.
He'd experimentally shaved a long strip of hair from the prisoner's arm with it, one pass with the blade denuding tanned skin rather easily.
"Now looka thar," Jacob drawled. "I didn't even bring blood."
He wiped the blade on the prisoner's covering sheet.
"Doc got the bullet out and he said you didn't bust a gut or anything."
Jacob's smile was thin and utterly without humor, without the least trace of warmth.
Just like his eyes.
"I promised I would use a knife on you, mister, and I keep my promises."
Jacob's eyes were very pale and very hard.
"If the Judge does not hang you, he will have you in prison for a very, very long time.
"I will give you three chances to escape.
"If you get away, you live.
"If you don't, I will carve you up slow and listen to you scream."
The Sheriff laid a hand on his chief deputy's shoulder.
Jacob looked over at the older lawman with the iron-grey mustache, departed in response to the older man's head-jerk.
Max waited until the door shut quietly behind Jacob before speaking.
"Sheriff, I'm awful glad you showed up," Max said quickly, his words tumbling over each other in their haste to escape his lips: "he was a-gonna cut me up!"
The Sheriff's eyes were just as pale, just as cold as his son's had been.
He drew his own slender, very sharp knife, and his smile was not at all pleasant.
"I need information," he said, "and you are going to give it to me."
Max's soul shriveled in his breast and he found himself wishing the yawning jaws of Hell would just open up and swallow him whole, before this pale eyed lawman started the work the younger one promised.

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Linn Keller 12-9-12

 

The gambler was professional at his craft: he made his living at cards and at dice, at horses and the roulette wheel, and he was known there at the Silver Jewel: the man took pains not to cheat -- well, not too much, anyway -- and he never skinned anyone out of their last nickel.
Unless they tried to cheat him.
As a result, he was known to the Jewel, and the Jewel was known to him.
His gambling partner sat across the green-topped table from him.
He played cautiously, conservatively: so far he'd won three hands, and so had she: his guard was up, for it was unusual for a pretty young thing like this to come boldly into a man's establishment and make herself at home across the table from a complete stranger.
He knew she was not dispensing what was colloquially known as "Horizontal Refreshment" -- of this he was certain -- her manners were careful and ladylike, and though she held her cards a little uncertainly, she apparently knew something of the game.
The sight was unusual enough to draw the general, though casual, attention of the customers: men are attracted to the sight of a pretty girl, the dancing girl was taking an hour's break, conversation was a little slow, and so this was a welcome diversion.
Even Tom Landers approached: he bade the pretty player rise, and placed four pillows on the chair before he picked Angela up and deposited her on the padding, bringing her to a more comfortable playing height.
The gambler knew he was being watched, and he had more the feeling that he was performing than playing as Angela frowned at her cards: she rolled her lips in, carefully selected two of the pasteboards, lay them face up on the table and said "Two, please," and the gambler dealt her two cards, face down.
The Jewel grew silent as Angela blinked a few times, then pushed half her chips to the middle of the table.
The dealer met her bet and called.
Two hands were laid face up on the table.
The gambler lifted his fine silk hat and bowed a little.
"I recognize the more skilled player," he said in a deep and courteous voice as Angela blinked and looked at the pot, then at Parsons.
"I get all that?" she asked, her voice loud and innocent: it came in one of the lulls that always occur in conversation when groups of people gather, and the Jewel laughed.
The gambler pushed the pot over closer to her, and Angela reached waaaaay out over the table to rake them in: she frowned at the loot, then looked up at Parsons and said, "Mister, are you a gamblin' no-good?"
The sincerity of her words, the brightness of her eyes, the curious tilt of her head -- no man could possibly take offense at such a sight! -- and the gambler laughed with the rest of the Jewel at the child's words.
"Why, yes," he chuckled, "I suppose I am!"
Angela abruptly pushed the chips back toward him.
"My Mommy said she loved a gamblin' no-good once," she said, "and she said she hoped he found a good woman."
Angela looked very directly at the gambler.
"Mister, you keep that. If you find a good woman you buy her flowers 'cause my Mommy likes flowers an' that gamblin' no-good she talked about bought her flowers."
Angela nodded emphatically as she talked, and the Jewel looked at one another and smiled, for all realized they were hearing a secret, one nobody ever knew about the green-eyed Lady who was such a benefactress to the region, who was the happily married wife of the county Sheriff, who was the owner of the railroad: somehow this demi-goddess, perched on a pedestal by all who knew her, was a little more human after all.
The gambler blinked a few times and cleared his throat; he dipped thumb and forefinger in his brocaded vest pocket and brought out a Spanish peso de ocho.
"My dear young lady," he said in a deep voice, "I would be most honored if you would accept this, in memory of your dear Mommy's lost love."
Angela blinked, reached for the coin, placed one finger on it and slid it over to her edge of the table.
"That is a Spanish peso," the gambler explained. "It was often cut into eight pieces to make smaller coins. You may have heard of pirates who bought things with pieces of eight."
Angela looked up and nodded, her curls bouncing.
"Thank you," she said shyly, then hopped off her column of cushions, scampered around the table and quickly, impulsively hugged the gambler: she ran back, snatched up the coin and ran down the hallway toward Daisy's kitchen, giggling.
Tom Landers drifted over and picked up the spilled pillows.
He looked at the gambler and the gambler looked at him, and both men shared a wink.

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Linn Keller 12-10-12

 

The Sheriff used his journal to order his world.
He found the chaos could be tamed by putting it into words, then arranging the words on the page before him.
Sarah found no such comfort.
Sarah's hand was steady but her pencil trembled a bit as she stared at the words on the sheet before her.
She swallowed and went over what she'd written, then snatched up the paper, crumpled it and threw it viciously into the basket beside her roll top desk.
The Bear Killer was elsewhere, otherwise he would be beside her, regarding her with button-bright eyes, then shoving his nose under her arm the way he did when he wanted attention.
Sarah rubbed her face and took a long breath, then drew out a clean sheet of paper.
Start at the beginning, she thought.
You are manufacturing a lie.
The best lie is built on a foundation of truth.
I am taking the truth and making it a lie
.
Sarah closed her eyes and took a long, steadying breath.
Maybe if I write it in the first person? she thought.

Jacob rode slowly up to his house, looking around, assessing as he always did how he would storm his own castle if that dread need arose.
His eyes were automatically busy at every location that could provide cover or concealment for an enemy; Jacob did not expect attack, but he'd learned caution, over the years, and lawmen made enemies.
Most of his were dead.
He grinned as a buck naked little boy came streaking out the front door, shining wet with bathwater and laughing as he ran, utterly oblivious to the cold temperature or to the big white flakes that were starting to fall.
Jacob came out of the saddle and caught his little boy, seizing him under the arms with strong, gloved Daddy-hands, and swung him waaaaay up in the air, then he brought him back down, wrapping big strong Daddy-arms around him: he unbuttoned his coat one-hand, shrugged out of that half, then set Joseph down and peeled out of the other half of his blanket lined coat : he wrapped it around the lad, picked him up again and he and Apple-horse walked to the front door, where Annette was standing with her knuckles in her hips, thunder on her brow, soap suds to her elbows; her foot was tapping and she had one eyebrow raised, which Jacob knew meant she was about an inch and a half from busting out laughing.
Jacob swung little Joseph down onto the stone slab in front of the roofed front step and Joseph went to scamper inside.
Annette reached down and planted her hand on the lad's head.
"Not so fast, mister," she scolded. "Just what do you mean coming out of that bath tub like a wounded bull?"
"But Da --"
"But Da nothing, young man! Now you go in there and get right back into that tub!"
"But Ma --"
"But Ma nothing! March! I'll deal with you later!"
Little Joseph bulled -- he ran his lip out, frowned and gave her a rebellious look, then looked back at his Pa: finding neither sympathy nor support, he sulked back into the house, and a few moments later, they heard the sound of a little boy slipping back into the steaming copper tub.
Jacob bent a little to kiss is bride and Annette glared at him.
"Aiding and abetting an escaped criminal," she muttered, and Jacob took his wife in his arms, pinning her to him as he stifled her words.
Annette struggled in his grip, got her arms around him and returned the kiss with her typical vigor, for she was a woman who enjoyed the natural use of her husband.
"I should have gotten a wooden spoon," she whispered, "then I could have rapped both of you on the noggin!"
"Promises, promises," Jacob whispered, drawing her to him again, and Annette's belly felt all fluttery the way it did when her husband told her in that special way that she was beautiful and she was desirable.
Jacob took Apple-horse back to the barn and tended the necessaries; he was whistling as he walked back to the house, and when he came in the door, Annette was holding his coat in one hand, and a wooden spoon in the other.
She was glaring and she was tapping her foot.
Jacob's coat was soaking wet and dripping, and little Joseph, in his nightshirt, sat in the corner, looking rather sheepish.
"I told him to get in the tub," Annette said, her eyes snapping, "but I didn't tell him to take off your coat first!"

The Lady Esther thrust powerfully against steel rails as she came over the crest: she was pulling slow but pulling steady, and as she broke over the top, she picked up speed.
The engineer judiciously eased air into the brake system; he was an old hand at this run, and with this engine, and he knew just where to apply air, and where to let off.
The fireman tapped the steam gauge, adjusted a valve; he leaned back against his seat, wiping his forehead with one hand, hickory stripe cap in the other, taking a welcome break from feeding the perpetually hungry boiler.
He turned and looked ahead, at the thick, fluffy white flakes suddenly descending from low, lead-colored clouds.

Angela very politely excused herself from the supper table; she daintily folded her napkin, placed it beside her silverware; she walked decorously out of the room, with the Sheriff's approving eyes upon her.
He smiled at his wife.
"My dear," he said, "I see so much of you in her."
Esther looked up with a quiet smile.
"The child learns first, best and most from home and from parents." The Sheriff's eyes shifted and he was looking down the hallway, though perhaps not seeing it, for his expression was soft: "that Angela behaves as a young lady, would tell any who saw her, that she has a Lady for a mother."
Esther's expression was soft as she opened her mouth to make some reply, just as the sound of Angela's excited squeal and running feet preceded her precipitous re-entry into the dining room.
She ran around the table, excited, almost falling: she had to seize her Daddy's chair to keep from landing a-sprawl on the floor: snatching at his arm and his hand, she fell over her own words in her excitement: "DaddyDaddyDaddycomequickandseeit!" -- and the Sheriff, shooting a concerned look at his wife, thrust his chair back and followed Angela to the front door.
Angela seized the cut-glass doorknob and turned, pulled, then pulled her Daddy outside.
She ran down the steps and into the yard, arms outflung, dancing.
Big fluffly flakes, some clumped up and the size of a tea saucer, drifted silently from the heavens, landing in Angela's curls, giving her the appearance of a star-crowned princess.
"Daddy, Daddy!" Angela sang. "Look Daddy! Tssnow! It's tssnowing!"
Esther came out on the porch behind her husband, laid a gentle hand on his arm and watched their little girl twirling, looking up into the drifting mystery of falling snow-fluffies and laughing.
The Sheriff laid a gentle, warm hand on his wife's.
"Sometimes," he murmured, "it's good to see the world through someone else's eyes."
Esther's hand squeezed a little in agreement.

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Linn Keller 12-10-12

 

Dawn came, thin and washed-out, what light came from the sun was filtered and pale and weak as watered tea.
The snow was light, fluffy, nowhere near enough to support a sleigh; the Sheriff, smiling a little, swung into cold saddle leather and walked Cannonball out into the morning.
Angela waited on the front porch, breath steaming as she looked around with bright and interested eyes, waiting for her Daddy to ride up close so she could step onto the saddle-skirt the way she always did.

Max lay on his bunk in the locked cell, looking at the barred window.
There was a very little bit of light coming through the cracks in the heavy shutters, closed and fast tight shut on the outside of the bars.
Max felt as bleak as what little light came through.
He'd heard talk from down the hall and he knew he stood a snowball's chance in court, and even less afterward: if there was any chance at all -- any chance -- he would have to escape.
He examined the hinges, knew they were proof against anything he might try: he needed to look at the barred window but held little hope that it would have a weakness he could exploit.
He stared at the barred ceiling, cursing the unnamed builder that didn't leave him a weak wood roof to bust through.
He dropped his head back, his hand going to his stitched up belly.
"I'm gonna hang," he whispered. "I'm gonna hang."

Herb Vess frowned a little.
Nobody answered the ranch house door, there was no smoke from the chimney, no fresh tracks; he looked around, turned toward his horse, hesitated at the sight of two men approaching him.
Herb straightened, considering his position, potential cover, where and how to duck if shooting started.
The riders were young, typical long, tall, skinny range hands: they rode up relaxed and smiling, hailing him in a friendly way: "Mister, you lookin' for work?"
Herb grinned, for he knew they could not have missed the miles engraved on his face.
"I'm actually lookin' for a fella," he said conversationally. "You know how it is."
"Well, y'know," the left hand rider said, "I was a-lookin' for a fella once, and darned if I didn't find him." He nodded. "Turns out it was me, I was half drunk and what I found was a mirror."
Herb chuckled. "I've done many things in my young life," he replied, "but that's a new one. I never did that one."
"Who is't you're lookin' for, friend?" the right-hand rider asked.
"Fella name of Max."
The riders looked at one another.
"You know him." It was a statement, not a question.
The pair looked at the Arizona ranger.
"You might want to go talk to the Sheriff, mister," the left hand rider said solemnly. "Max is in their hoosegow and we figure to go see him hang, once they give him a fair trial."
"Any idea what happened?" Herb asked, turning his lapel over to show his Ranger's star.
"Well I'd be damned," the left-hand rider breathed, then fairly jumped out of the saddle, grinning: he advanced, thrust out his hand, pumped Herb's arm like he was fetching water out of a deep-drilled well. "Good Lord, man, you must be Herb Vess!"
Herb looked closely at the young fellow, trying to place him.
"You kept my Pa alive back durin' the War!" the rider exclaimed. "You was his sergeant an' he took a ball through the leg, an' you kept him patched up and cleaned out 'cause you couldn't get back to no field hospital, and Pa said he healed up an' got to keep his leg!"
Recognition lit up Herb's eyes.
"Your Pa," he breathed, "is he ...?"
There was sadness in the rider's eyes as he admitted that no, his Pa was gone now, just shy of a year now, and Herb nodded.
"Ranger," the other fellow spoke up, "we was told what Max did."
Herb's eyes hardened a little as the young rider went back to his horse, gathered the reins.
"I'm listenin', son."

The Daine boys weren't saying much as they took out the wall separating what was a room from Esther's office, over the Silver Jewel.
They were normally an efficient group, they were normally focused, but Esther sensed something else was wrong ... there was something that made them uncharacteristically quiet.
Esther arranged with them to double the size of her office.
Though she had a wet-nurse for the twins, she wished to be able to keep her young close to her, and this meant expanding her modest office.
Esther turned her attention to the new accounts she'd acquired.
If she was meant to know what happened, she knew, the information would come to her.

The Sheriff shook down the ashes in the front stove; he hauled out the ashes, tossed them into the street as he always did, then lit the fire he had laid and ready in the cast iron's belly: he went back into the cells and tended the stove there: he'd banked it the night before and bade his prisoner stay under his blankets and not to use them to hang himself, for if he was to try, why, the Sheriff would be obliged to take them and let the prisoner shiver.
"Hey!" Max yelled as the Sheriff hauled the shook-down ashes toward the front office. "How's for some coffee!"
Jacob came pacing slowly back between the cells, looked between the bars.
"Mister," he said quietly, "you have yet to be tried. Once you are, execution is by hanging, not poison. If you drink his coffee it'll rot your belly clear out an' you don't' want to die like that."
Max blinked, then blustered, "It don't look like it hurt him none!"
Jacob stopped, turned back and smiled a little.
"Mister," he said quietly, "it done stunted my growth. Had I drank Mama's milk instead of his coffee, why, I'd be ten foot tall today."

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Linn Keller 12-11-12

 

Jacob was needed over in Cripple to swear out a deposition on a case we were working, so he was gone for the morning when Herb came a-knockin' on my office door.
He shook the snow off his shoulders and kicked his boot toes against the outside wall to knock the snow off before he came on in.
"Hang your coat up by the stove," I told him, "there's pegs close by for that detail," and he did, hanging his long weather shedder behind the stove pipe -- I run a long stove pipe, like most everyone else, for I wish to get all the heat out of the fire I can, and a short stove pipe would run too much of it out the chimney and lost.
Not that I'm tight fisted, you understand, but a man works to cut wood and split wood and saw wood and stack wood and pack wood to the wood pile and stack it and pack it inside and feed it into the stove, and after all that work I want to get all the good out of the stuff I possibly can.
Besides, my grandmother -- rest her skinny little soul! -- taught me that waste is a sin, a short stove pipe would be a waste of good heat, and I try hard not to be a sinful man.
I held up the coffee pot and said "Herb, you want some warmin's?" and the prisoner yelled from in back "Don't drink the coffee, it'll kill ya!"
Herb chuckled and I shook my head sadly.
"I cain't figure," I admitted, "why no one wants my coffee!"
Herb tilted his head. "That looks like a new pot."
"Yeah, 'tis," I said, looking at my own over coat. "The old one rotted the bottom out." I shook my head again. "They don't make 'em like they used to."
I reached up and pulled down Herb's coat and my own: we shrugged into our insulation and headed on across the street for the Silver Jewel.
At least they have pie over there.

Herb and I sat in companionable silence for a while: he'd been who knows how far down trail when he come back this-a-way and somethin' was eatin' at him, and I figured he needed some warmin's-up: it wasn't terribly cold out and I'd sent a boy to take Herb's horse to Shorty's stable -- Cannonball was stabled in behind the log office, I'd had the Daine boys built me a little shed back there to keep two or three horses out of the weather, but I had neither hay nor grain in it that day -- and finally Herb took a noisy slurp of his coffee, wiped the excess through his handlebar mustache and looked at me.
"You got Max," he said.
I nodded, once.
"I want him."
I nodded again, frowning.
"I don't like that frown, Sheriff."
"He's for court tomorrow, Herb. Once His Honor swings the gavel I reckon you can wrassle the judge for the prisoner."
"I figure to hang him."
I gave Herb a long look.
"Herb," I sighed, "how many times can you hang a man?"
Herb raised an eyebrow.
"He was sentenced in your bailiwick?"
Herb nodded.
"If he is not hanged, Herb, I'll need him back so we can tend that detail."
"You haven't tried him yet?"
"We'll give him a fair trial before we hang him."
Herb smiled a little; the phrase was an old joke among lawmen, especially those of us who actually upheld the law instead of perverted it.
Herb reached into his coat and dropped a packet of papers on the table.
I nodded.
"Herb," I said, "you just made my life easier."
Herb nodded, his eyes quiet.
"You want to ride him back or will you need passage on the train?"
Herb's eyes crinkled at the corners.
"If the weather was fit I'd drag him naked behind m'horse."
I grinned.
"That good?"
Herb's eyes hardened.
"You don't know what he did."
"I know what he did here," I said quietly. "They were friends of mine."
Herb gave me a long and calculating look.
"Did I not know you," he said slowly, "and did you not carry the rose coin, I might wonder if he'd be headed for an unforeseen accident, or maybe an escape."
Silence again, the long silence that grows between two men who know each other very well indeed.
"Herb," I said finally, "if you want him, you are welcome to him. My wife owns the railroad and your passage is guaranteed. You may ship him passenger or freight, as you wish, and I don't care if you lock him in a packing crate for the trip."
Herb laughed, looked up as Daisy's girl set a steaming plate in front of him.
"House special," she said, shooting me a come-hither look: "we need someone new to try it on."
"Now darlin', that smells good, but I didn't order nothin'," Herb said carefully.
"I know that," Daisy's girl said, running her arm around Herb's shoulder and leaning into him: "everyone here is used to what we fix and I need someone who hasn't had any, to give me an honest opinion on something new." She tilted her head and gave him those big, blue, innocent eyes and said "Would you give this a try ... just for me?" -- and ran her bottom lip out in the cutest pout I'd seen in a long time.
Herb shot me a look -- almost that of a man about to drown, then he started to laugh, and Daisy's girl got up and looked at me and stage-whispered, "Sheriff, what's your pleasure?" and I winked at her and she turned and ran off giggling.
Herb looked after her as she skipped across the floor like a happy schoolgirl, then he shook his head.
"Linn," he said finally, "do you recall when Lincoln ordered a blockade of the Mississippi?"
I nodded. "I recall readin' about it."
Herb poked experimentally at the beef, frowned in surprise, found he could cut it with his fork.
He chewed and groaned with pleasure, then forked up some taters and dunked them in the gravy well.
"Recall the men he picked to lead the blockade kept gettin' paid off until he finally assigned the one man nobody could possibly bribe?"
I nodded again, taking a short slug of my own coffee.
"Recall what the man finally telegraphed old Abe?"
I set down my coffee cup.
" 'Every man his his price,' " I quoted, " 'and they have nearly reached mine. Advise course of action.' "
Herb nodded, his eyes retracing Daisy's girl's exit route.
"Now," he said, "I know just how the man felt!"

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Charlie MacNeil 12-11-12

 

Man and horse snorted fog into the frosty air, the clouds of their expelled breath adding their portion to the flocking on grass and bush. Charlie rode slouched comfortably in the saddle, his sheepskin jacket's collar pulled up and hat brim pulled down, enjoying the comfort of the singlefoot gait that carried the buckskin mare and her rider toward the distant pine- and fir-green of the foothills beyond the ranch. Charlie was hunting, but this day he needed nothing more than an ax to claim his prize: Christmas was coming, and the cabin in the hollow needed a tree. Or so he had been informed, in no uncertain terms, by his lovely bride that very morning. "Yes, dear," had been his reply, for what man argues with his wife over such an issue? Surely not a prudent one, and Charlie was relatively certain that his mama, rest her soul, had raised no exceptionally foolish children.

The land began to slope up more steeply, and he drew the mare in for a rest. The next year's foal had begun to swell the mare's barrel, and he took care that nothing should happen to cause problems with said foal. He believed in exercise for a pregnant mare, but he also believed in moderation for same. He took turn about riding the various members of the broodmare band on short, easy jaunts, and it was the buckskin's turn. When her breathing had eased, he heeled her back into motion toward the stand of evergreens that was his goal.

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Charlie MacNeil 12-11-12

 

The chunk of hardened and hand-filed steel echoed across the slopes as the young fir gave its life for the cause. "Timber!" Charlie called with a grin as the tree toppled to the ground. This one wasn't hugely tall, but the boughs were full and even all around the slender trunk. It should be a nice fit for the cabin.

Charlie re-wrapped the head of the double-bit ax in its elkhide mantle, tied the strings around the good hickory handle and slipped the handle down into the scabbard strapped beneath the left hand stirrup, opposite his rifle. He cinched up his slickfork saddle, stepped aboard, then leaned carefully down to his right, left hand clamped on the saddlehorn, the buckskin mare standing solid as a marble statue, and grasped the base of the small tree's trunk. With a grunt of effort he pulled himself, the bright green fir in wool gloved hand, back upright and sat for a moment, contemplating. Damn, I used to be able to do that at a long trot, he thought, smiling. Sometimes it seemed like it was hell to get old, but then again, "the older the violin, the sweeter the music" came to mind, although sometimes the music was the snap, crackle and pop of aging joints. He grinned widely as he used the saddle strings to tie the tree across his lap then heeled the buckskin into motion, headed for hearth and home.

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Linn Keller 12-14-12

 

"Schickelgrubenheimer."
Esther looked over her spectacles at me.
"Liepzig."
Esther glared, shaking her head.
I tried hard to look innocent as I gently bounced my little boy on my knee.
"Francois?"
Esther sighed tiredly, rocking her little girl: the infant was fed, changed, dry and drowsy, and with a truly prodigious yawn, lay her head against her Mama and relaxed into slumber.
"All right," I nodded.
"Ruth and Boaz."
Esther tilted her head back a little.
"Ruth, I think," she said softly, nodding. "Yes. Ruth."
"Young fellow," I said to the laughing, arm-waving little lad on my thigh, "how would you like to be a Boaz?"
My little lad stuck his tongue out and razzed his reply.
I laughed. "Maybe not, then."
I tilted my head and suggested, "Florian Bruce?"
"He'll need a Bruce if he's a Florian," Esther murmured.
"Now what's wrong with Florian? Sean would approve ... St. Florian, patron saint of fire fighters?" I raised my eyebrows and opened my eyes wide, blinking a little.
"Don't you use those puppy dog eyes on me, Mr. Keller," Esther said in a low voice: her expression was stern but her eyes were sparkling, putting the lie to her affected disapproval.
"If we give this fine lad two names, hadn't she ought to have two names as well?"
"Ruth Ann," Esther said firmly, nodding her satisfaction. "It was my grandmother's name."
Then it fits," I agreed. "Shall we announce their names in church tomorrow?"
"Yes, I think that would be fitting."
"How do you think they'll do in church?"
"As well as they did last week."
"Wouldn't that hurt the Parson's feelin's? There were one or two snoozing through his sermon."
"And you didn't?" Esther gave me a warm look and I felt my face flush. And my ears, my ears always turn red when she looks like me that-a-way.
"I was doin' all right until I closed my eyes," I protested.
"Mm-hmm," Esther hummed. "A likely story, Mr. Keller."
Florian Bruce gave a big yawn and knuckled at his eyes the way a little boy will and I pulled him up and close in to me.
His little pink hand closed around my badge.
"I reckon he knows what he wants to do," I murmured.
"I thought you said he wanted to be a professional fisherman," Esther teased, and I grinned.
I'd accidentally kicked his cradle -- I get clumsy sometimes -- and, startled, he threw his chubby little arms wide, as if to say "It was This Big!" -- and I pointed to him and said "Wa'l now looka thar, he's gonna be a professional fisherman! He can already tell how big that last fish was!"
It was colder outside; snowflakes tapped against the window pane, the fire hissed and popped in the stove, and I set there soaking up the warmies and relaxing.
I heard the quick patter of little feet and Angela came up and laid both hands on my arm.
I looked down and smiled at the anxious little face she turned up to me, then I shifted Florian Bruce a little and ran my arm around Angela and fetched her up into my lap too.
Angela leaned against me and laid her arm around her baby brother, then she pulled back and looked at me, almost nose to nose.
I leaned closer to her, until our noses just touched: her bright little eyes merged into one blue spot and I said, softly, gently, "I see yooooouuuu!"
Angela giggled, putting one finger to the corner of her mouth, then she pulled it away and plopped her hand on her thigh and scolded, "Dad-dee, when can we have a Cwistmas twee?"
I looked over at Esther and frowned a little.
"Esther," I said, "did you grow any Christmas trees this year?"
Esther gave me a warning look.
"Dad-dee," Angela whispered urgently, and I pulled her in and kissed her cheek.
"How would you like to get one tonight?"
"Tonight?" she squeaked, looking at the black-glass pane.
"Well ... maybe not tonight."
"It's awful dark," Angela nodded, as if dispensing an ancient and wise pronouncement.
"Hmm." I frowned and tried to look stern, and from Angela's giggle, I must not have succeeded very well.
"How about tomorrow then?"
"Okay!" Angela stage-whispered, climbing down from my lap and scampering over to Esther: she stretched waaaay up on her tippy toes and kissed her Mama, caressed Ruth Ann's single ribbon-tied curl, then giggled her way out of the room and upstairs.
I stood.
"I'd best go tuck her in," I murmured, still holding our little boy.
"Don't you tell her those terrible stories again," Esther warned. "The last time you told her one of those Grimm's Fairy Tales, she asked me for a gun she could put under her pillow so she could shoot the monsters you told her about."
I nodded, winked.
"Don't you wink at me, Mr. Keller," Esther shook her Mommy-finger at me. "I'll make you rock her to sleep when she wakes up with nightmares!"
I smiled indulgently and said "Yes, dear," and went on toward the staircase.
To my knowledge, Angela was the only little girl on the face of God's big green earth that had never, ever had a nightmare.
She was already upstairs and had her rag doll beside her as she knelt for her bedtime prayers -- the doll was upside down, kind of propped against the draped quilt -- and after she blessed Mommy and Daddy and Twain Dawg 'cause he was warm and fuzzy an' she loved it when Uncle Charlie's muts-tash twiddled her nose -- she climbed in bed and then lifted her pillow.
She put a finger to her lips. "Ssshhh," she said, her eyes big and serious: "don't tell Mommy," and I picked up the pearl handled birds head pistol.
It was a cute little pistol and about the only one I could find that would fit her little hand: I'd bought two of them, one I drifted out the pin that held the firing pin in the hammer nose and removed it: I pulled the bullets, dumped the powder and reloaded it with the primer blanks: Angela watched me load it, but I loaded it in dim light while distracting her, so she could not tell they were not bulleted rounds.
I opened it, clicked the cylinder around, a full revolution, nodded.
I slipped it back under her pillow.
"Remember," I whispered. "Nightmare monsters are afraid of being shot. Put one right in their middle and they will fall over dead."
"Okay, Daddy," Angela whispered, nodding.
"Make very sure it's the monster you're drawing down on," I continued. "You don't want to shoot me or your Mommy."
Angela shook her head.
I bent down and kissed her forehead, then pulled her covers up around her chin.
"Night, Princess," I whispered.
"Daddy?"
Angela's little voice stopped me when I was halfway to the door.
I turned.
"Yes, Princess?"
"Daddy, if I'm not your little girl anymore, will I still be your princess?"
I blinked, then I went back to her bed, I pulled down the covers and pulled her out of bed: I turned and sat down on the bed with Angela on my lap, safe and secure in Daddy's big strong arms, and I caressed her cheek with the back of a bent finger.
"Sweetheart," I whispered, "you are Daddy's little girl. You will always be Daddy's little girl. On the day you get married and I walk you down the aisle and I wonder how did you grow up so fast, you will still be Daddy's little girl, and when you have a whole passel of children and I am an old grandfather, you will still be Daddy's little girl."
Angela threw her arms around my neck and squeezed, hard, and I squeezed her gently, carefully, because I am big and strong and she is little, and ... and she is my little girl.
"You," I whispered fiercely, tightening my hug a little, "will always, always, always be my little girl!"
"And your princess?" she whispered, and I rubbed her back.
"Yes," I whispered back. "And my princess."

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Linn Keller 12-15-12

 

Sarah's arm came up, her hand over her shoulder: she brought it down in a quick, graceful move and the knife stuck in the sawed off butt with a quiet woody sound.
Sarah smiled a little as she brought her arm back again, bright and lovely eyes on the target: she was relaxed, she was where she was supposed to be; she was also wearing a fine little hat, a fur trimmed cloak over her beautifully tailored McKenna gown, the cold brought out the color in her cheeks, her lips were red and lovely, and Jacob was studying his half-sister as if studying a stranger.
He heard his father's quiet voice in his memory, an unguarded moment when the Grand Old Man murmured, "How did this happen so fast?" -- and Jacob knew, in that moment, how his father felt when he murmured those words.
Sarah was lovely -- hell, she was beautiful! -- Jacob knew she was his sister, but he was just recognizing -- really, behind-the-breastbone recognizing -- that she was growing into an absolutely gorgeous young woman.
Sarah turned a little, giving her long, tall half-brother a mischievous look: her lips curled up into a little smile and she said, "Your turn!"
Jacob walked over to the chewed-up throwing butt and pulled the knives loose, brought them back.
Jacob was a fair hand throwing a knife though better with the throwing hatchet: still, the gauntlet was tossed and he found himself in a contest with his little sister.
He was also losing miserably.
He stood there, holding the three knives, the looked at his lovely sister.
She looked up at him and he realized -- as if he'd just been punched -- that those eyes could absolutely captivate a man.
He shook his head, handed her the knives.
"Sis," he said, "I need to say somethin'."
Sarah turned to face him squarely, took the three knives from his hand and put them on top of the fence post beside them: she took both his hands in his and said "I'm listening, Big Brother."
Jacob blinked and suddenly felt very unsure of himself.
Sarah's smile was gentle and understanding and her hands tightened on his.
"You want to tell me you love me and you will hurt anyone who dares lay a hand on me. You want to tell me I am beautiful and you want to tell me to guard my heart and you want to tell me you wish we had grown up together but you'll admit I would probably have beaten you up."
Jacob blinked, stared, then finally nodded.
"That's it," he said shortly.
Sarah pulled his hands down, raised up on her tip-toes and kissed him quickly on the cheek.
"That's the sweetest thing you've never said," she whispered, her eyes bright, as she reached up and laid a gloved hand gently on his clean-shaven cheek.
Jacob cleared his throat nervously, nodded.
"Now that's dinner at the Jewel you owe me," Sarah continued, her voice light, teasing. "I'll collect when it's time." She tilted her head a little and smiled and Jacob thought, Good God, she can wrap a man around her finger with a look! and Sarah continued, "I think this is the right time to quote Papa."
Jacob raised an eyebrow, and Sarah was powerfully reminded of their father, who raised his eyebrow in exactly that same manner in such moments.
"Someone did him a kindness and he told them I'll buy you a beer when you're 99," Sarah laughed. "Maybe we'll do that."
Jacob nodded.
"You got a deal!"

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Linn Keller 12-15-12

 

Sarah's hands were wrapped around Jacob's forearm and they walked slowly back toward the house.
"Jacob?"
"Hm?"
"How do you do it?"
Jacob considered for a long moment.
"I fry up some cut up onions in butter, then I slice it thin and fry it up."
Sarah swatted at his upper arm.
"That's not what I mean!"
"What do you mean?"
Sarah was quiet for several more steps.
"Sometimes," she said, "I want to find the Witch of Endor and have her raise that miserable ... scoundrel ... so I can kill him all over again."
She looked up at Jacob, her eyes pale and hard, eyes that should never be seen in a young and lovely face like hers.
"I want to kill him slow, Jacob, I want him to hurt like he hurt me and like he hurt Mama." She closed her eyes, dropped her head against his upper arm: Jacob stopped and turned a little, gathering her into him.
"How do you do it?" she whispered.
"Little Sis," he said softly, "sometimes I want to visit that witch myself."
Sarah nodded.
"I'd like to ..."
Jacob's voice trailed off and he cleared his throat.
"I killed him my own self," Jacob said finally. "I got my revenge."
"No," Sarah said. "That was not revenge." She looked up at her brother. "That was survival."
Jacob nodded slowly, running his jaw out a ways.
"I reckon so," he agreed, his voice quiet, and Sarah was struck again at just how much the son looked like the father.
Sarah pushed hard against him, pushed him away, whirled and took a few quick steps, turned and glared at him, hard-eyed again.
"Jacob, how do I let it go? How?"
Jacob's eyes were veiled: like his sister's, his own eyes were pale, but his spirit was cold, very cold: where Sarah's soul burned hot, Jacob's was ice-fired: Sarah realized that her big brother could kill with absolutely no qualm, snuff a life as if it were snapping a buckwheat bud just to hear it snap between thumb and forefinger, and sleep well that night.
Jacob's eyes shifted to the chewed-up throwing target.
"Sometimes," he said, "sometimes I throw a hatchet."
Sarah's eyes followed Jacob's.
"Sometimes," she echoed, "I throw knives."
Jacob looked very directly at his younger sister.
"You surprise me," he said finally.
Sarah's expression was one of wide-eyed, feminine innocence.
"Oh?"
Jacob nodded.
"Just now ... you went from pale eyed to blue eyed, you went from cold and ready to rip someone's throat out bare handed to a good lookin' --"
"Girl," Sarah prompted. "You almost said girl."
"I almost did."
Jacob looked around, frowning.
"Are you ... looking for something?"
Jacob nodded, thrust his chin toward the house, held out his arm.
Sarah took his arm and the two of them walked the short distance back to the house, their foot steps silent in new snow: they ascended the porch steps slowly, sat on the swing.
Jacob took off his hat and turned it slowly around in his hands as he looked into the distance.
"Sarah," he said finally, "I don't want you to grow up."
Sarah waited.
"I want you to stay ... a little girl ... that I can keep safe."
If Sarah were wearing her schoolmarm spectacles, she would have been looking at Jacob over top of the lenses.
Jacob took a long breath, shook his head slowly.
"I can't do that, though." He looked at her. "Neither of us were kept safe, were we?"
Sarah's expression was bleak, her voice very small: "No."
Jacob cranked his head back, looking at distant mountain peaks, hard-thrust against the darkening sky.
"What do you want for Christmas?"
Sarah took a long breath, puffed her cheeks out as she blew the steam-cloud from her lips.
"I want to be a little girl again," she whispered. "I want to be a little girl with a big strong Daddy to tickle me and cuddle me and keep me safe. I want to laugh and ..."
Sarah looked at Jacob with big, blue, very sad eyes.
"I want to be Angela, Jacob."
Jacob nodded.
Sarah snorted, her voice hardening.
"Yeah," she said cynically. "People in hell want ice water."
She seized Jacob's hand. "Tell me what you want."
Jacob's smile spread slowly and his eyes were as dark as hers in an unguarded moment.
"I have it already," he whispered. "Every night when little Joseph goes to bed, I take a look at his back and I run my fingertips down his back and then I scratch his back a little and he'll say, 'Up, Pa,' or 'Down, Pa' or he'll arch or turn one way or another and we're chasin' the Gallopin' Itch."
Sarah laughed.
"I have what I want," Jacob whispered. "I have a beautiful wife, my son's back is not scarred like mine" -- he looked at Sarah and she saw a deep flash of old anger, quickly hidden -- "and" -- he looked around, exaggerating a neck-turn, as if guarding against cowans or eavesdroppers.
Cupping his hand around her ear, he whispered, "Annette is with child."
Sarah's eyes went wide and her mouth opened, and Jacob put a finger to his lips, winking.
Sarah closed her mouth and nodded.
"Pa wanted to wait until Christmas Eve to put up a tree," Jacob said, his eyes distant as his voice: "I doubt if Angela will let him wait that long."
Sarah nodded. "Opal and Polly already cast their ballot. They wanted a tree a week ago."
Jacob nodded.
"You got enough do-bobbers to hang on the tree?"
"I think so."
"We've got God's a-plenty if you need some."
Sarah smiled.
"I took the lightest china doll we had and made an angel for the treetop. Want to see it? I think we have some beef in the cold safe."
Jacob patted his belly. "Sis," he said, "you know the way to my heart."

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Linn Keller 12-16-12

 

I wrapped Angela up in a quilt and held her in front of me and Cannonball stepped out at a brisk pace.
I knew right where I wanted to go and so did my red mare.
It was full dark yet, Angela was still in her flannel night gown, I made sure she had plenty of wrapped up insulation and folded the blankets over and around her feet so she wouldn't get a draft, and off we went.
There was something I wanted to show her.
I'd not even got my morning coffee behind my belt buckle when the notion struck me and so I grabbed my coat and slid into my boots and wrapped up sleepy little Angela and packed her downstairs and outside, and she was quite content to be warm and Daddy-carried, and Cannonball's easy pace kept her relaxed, kind of like a fussy baby you ride for a bit to get it to go to sleep.
We rode on up a particular slope on my back acreage, a high place I knew of, a place I went to sit and think: I knew there was an out-thrust, a peninsula extending into an ocean of air, and on it grew pines, thick, tall, well branched -- not at all suitable for timbering, simply because of their location, but they skylined their high branches, and that's what I wanted to show Angela.
It took us a little while to get there but I'd left early enough there were stars out bright against the predawn black, and once we got there, I ground reined Cannonball and slid down out of the saddle with my bundled up cargo in my arms.
I set down on a rock I knew of -- I threw down a folded up blanket to set on, rock is a cold thing to park your backside on, not to mention hard and uncomfortable -- and once I got myself settled and comfortable, I carefully unwrapped Angela's blinking, sleepy little head.
She rubbed her eyes and yawned, waking quickly as the cold air hit her face: she looked around and whispered, "Where are we, Daddy?"
"A secret place," I whispered back. "I want to show you something."
Angela looked up at me and blinked.
The Milky Way was thick overhead and I leaned back, turning Angela so she was laying with her back against my chest.
"Look up there, through those trees," I whispered. "See those stars?"
"Ooooo," Angela cooed, wiggling a little. "Pretty!"
"Yes they are," I whispered. "They're like diamonds through the branches, aren't they?"
"Uh-huh!"
"Many years ago," I whispered, bending my lips close to her ear, feeling her warmth through her curly hair over her pink ear-crest, "a German priest in a coal mining town was walking home after dark.
"He looked up the mountain and saw the stars, just like those, shining through the pines, and he wanted to bring that beauty into his home.
"He cut a small pine and brought it in, he put candles on it and they sang around the tree and marveled at its beauty."
Angela rubbed her eyes and yawned. "Marbles?" she murmured, then squirmed: "Daddy, I gotta go!"
I blinked, then laughed.
I'd forgotten that little children have to go when cold air hits them.

Once we tended necessary details I bundled Angela back up in the quilt, rubbing her bare little feet and kicking myself for not putting her little slippers on her at least: we rode back to the house, with my little girl asleep in the bundling quilt, warm and relaxed in my encircling arms.
It was not the first time I was grateful Cannonball was knee trained.
I got her back into the house and upstairs, and into her own bed: she yawned and cuddled into her own mattress and I pulled her covers up over her, including the quilt I'd wrapped her in, for it was still warm with her body heat.
I kissed her and was halfway to the door when she stirred and mumbled something, just before she relaxed again and was asleep with the astonishing swiftness of the young and the innocent.
It took me a moment to realize what she'd said in her soft little sighing voice.
She said "Marbles."

Esther laid a drowsy, warm hand on my chest once I got laid back down.
"It's early," she whispered.
"I know."
"Is there trouble?"
"No." I reached up and laid my hand on hers.
"You're chilled."
I squeezed her hand ever so gently.
"We looked at the stars."
Esther was silent for a long moment.
"Are they still there?" she asked, her voice quiet in the predawn hush.
I nodded.
"Yes," I said. "They are."

I must have drowsed a bit.
Sometimes a man won't realize he's fallen asleep until he wakes, and because he wakes, he realizes he's slept.
Angela was shaking my shoulder with big-eyed urgency.
"Daddy," she whispered, "come quick, the marbles broke all over the trees!"
I had no idea what she meant but I am no stranger to an urgent and early summons: I was out of bed and out the door on the moment, shotgun in hand, and Angela pulled me to the nearest window, pointed.
I looked, then I dipped my knees, seized Angela around the waist and together we ran down the stairs and to the front door.
I set the double gun down beside the door, hauled it open, and stepped barefoot out onto that cold and frosty porch.
The sun was just shooting its first long red rays over the highest peaks, and the tallest trees at the high elevations were hard-frosted and sparkling: the rising sun painted them red.
It looked like the trees were dipped in liquid crystal, dusted with ground diamonds, and then set on fire.
I held Angela and we both looked and for a moment, for one long and precious moment, I saw the world with the same wonder as a little child, as my little child.
I saw the trees as magical expressions of beauty.
"Daddy," Angela whispered, "did the marbles break?"
I laughed and bounced her a little in my arms.
"They broke open like eggs," I said, "and spilled beauty all over the trees."
"Is that what the German priest saw?"
I stared at the sparkling, glittering, orange-red trees against the deep but lightening blue of the sky beyond.
"No, Princess," I murmured. "No, he didn't see this. This is especially for you."
I stood barefoot on that frost-cold porch and stared at the mountains, until Angela struggled in my arms until she could kiss me on the cheek.
"Thank you, Daddy," she whispered. "Thank you for the marbles."

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Linn Keller 12-17-12

 

"I don't trust him one little bit."
Shorty assessed the mare with a critical eye.
She didn't look bad a'tall, other than she was a-watching him as much as he was a-watching her, and Shorty knew that meant she was thinking, and if she was thinking, she was planning, and what she was planning, was probably no good a'tall.
"She's just mean, I tell ya," the dusty young fellow said gloomily. "I figgered I could ride a rainbow or a Kansas twister if need be, but by God! I have met my match with this one!"
"What-all does she do?" Shorty asked mildly.
"What does she do?" the young fellow asked, big-eyed: "Mister, you'd have a pretty short list if you wrote down what-all she don't do! Why, she bites, kicks, smacks you with her head, she'll rake yer eyes with her tail, she'll roll, rub yer leg ag'in a tree or a fence -- God Almighty, you should'a' seen what she did when she discovered bobwarr!"
"Bobwarr," Shorty murmured, looking again at the mare's shoulders, her barrel, her hips: nowhere did he see any scarring, at least not on this side.
He went around to the other side and the mare followed him with her gaze, then advanced a step.
Shorty automatically raised a hand to caress her nose.
Fast as the mare's bite was, Shorty's hand was faster: he went sideways, then slapped her nose, hard, and barked "NO!"
The mare snapped again and Shorty slapped her again, harder, this time on the other side, with his other hand: this caught her by surprise and it made her mad, which was not entirely a good thing, for a mare can twist and kick faster than a man can dodge, most times.
Her hind hoof just grazed Shorty's backside and he donated a good hard elbow to her gut, just before grabbing the fence and swarming over it with a dexterity few ever expected from the gimp legged hostler.
The mare trotted around the little circular corral, shaking her head, plainly inviting anyone -- anyone a'tall -- to come in and have what she was giving out.
Shorty watched her move, watched her pace, watched her swap ends: she could reverse direction, it seemed, without coming to a full stop, and she did it smoothly.
"You'll make a hell of a saddle horse," he murmured.
"Yeah, that's what I thought, too," the mare's seller said from his perch atop the board fence. "I paid fifteen dollars cash money for her. I'll take ten."
"Does she have a saddle?" Shorty asked.
"No, sir, she don't," the young fellow admitted. "I allowed as I had one to fit her but I never so much got the saddle blanket to stay on her more than three seconds, let alone cinch down my seat."
Shorty nodded.
"Come on inside, young fellow," Shorty said, setting his course for the livery's open door. "I got some corn squeezin's ain't never been drunk yet, an' I always hold it bad luck to conduct business on a dry throat."
The young man nodded, the ghost of a smile tugging at his mouth: he was losing money on the deal, but if there was a drink to be had, maybe the loss wasn't so great after all.

Sunday services were well attended, as they always were, and Sarah knew without looking that one of the firemen gave her far more attention than he gave the sky pilot.
Sarah did not coldly ignore the Welsh Irishman; as a matter of fact, she looked at him, smiled and said "Hello," which of course he could not hear over the intervening distance: had she been sitting in arm's reach he could not have heard her over the hammering of his heart.
After heartfelt, enthusiastic and occasionally less than perfectly pitched hymns were sung, after the plate was passed and the sermon given, the Parson allowed as he'd shortened up his sermon because there was business to tend.
He stepped down from behind the pulpit and came around the altar rail, still holding his Bible -- one of several he used; there was a big one open on the pulpit and a few of lesser size beneath the lectern's broad top, and he'd picked one of a handy size, bookmarked ahead of time -- and as he looked around, meeting every eye, he opened to a particular passage and began to read.
"From the Book of Ecclesiastes, we read that there is a time for everything.
"It goes down a considerable list: birth, death, planting and harvest, construction and destruction, beginning and end."
He looked up, fingertips light on the opened pages, his mouth pulled up into a smile.
"There are times when I have a really, really good job.
"When I get to marry a couple, for instance, and when I baptize a penitent sinner, but there's nothing to compare with what I am about to do this morning."
He turned and laid the open Book on the altar rail.
"Sheriff, would you and your lovely wife bring forth your twins, please."
Esther had their little girl in her arms already; the wet nurse handed the little boy to the Sheriff: the pair stood, as did their half of the pew, and humanity moved quietly into the aisle, then back into the pew, to allow them passage.
The Sheriff and his wife flanked the Parson, facing the congregation.
"The naming of a child is done in public when possible," the Parson explained, "which makes even these very youngest, members of our community. This is a formal introduction, by the way, but please don't expect them to remember all your names right away." The Parson winked at the congregation, and the congregation laughed a little at the man's gentle good humor.
"Sheriff, you are Head of your Household, and as such, you are responsible for all that happens, or happens not; all that is said, or is said not; all that is done, or is not done.
"Do you now present your children before God's congregation, and here give them their names?"
"I do, Parson," the Sheriff said in a firm voice.
"Will you raise them according to God's ordinance?"
The Sheriff looked long at the man and finally said, "Parson, I'm the Sheriff, do you want me to raise them to be drunken hell raisers?"
The Sheriff's unexpected answer and the absolute solemnity of his answer was met for a moment with shocked silence, until the Parson grinned and then laughed, and clapped his hand on the man's shoulder.
"Is it" -- the Parson was obliged to wipe his eyes and try again, which gave the congregation time to recover from its communally-shared mirth -- "is it your intention to have them baptized this day and given their names?"
"No sir, we're going to teach 'em to play poker and drink beer." The Parson glared at the Sheriff and Linn turned quite red as the congregation laughed again.
"Parson, if I meant otherwise I'd not be here." He turned and unwrapped the bundle he held, exposing his son to view.
"This is Florian Bruce," he said, to the immediate approval of the Irish Brigade: "he doesn't look a thing like me, which proves the Lord's mercy." He held the lad out horizontally and the Parson poured a little water over the lad's head, murmuring the words of the Baptism as little Florian Bruce squealed and waved his arms.
The Sheriff wrapped his son up and held him as the Parson turned to Esther, then looked back at the Sheriff.
"I'm afraid to ask you many more questions," he said, to the amusement of the assembled, to which the Sheriff tickled their funny bone again with, "Waiving further signs and ceremonies, the answer is yes."
It was Esther's turn to unwrap her warm little bundle.
"This is Ruth Ann," Esther said. "It was my grandmother's name, and she has my grandmother's eyes, which means" -- she paused, looking past the Parson at her husband -- "which means her brother won't get away with anything!"
The Parson baptized little Ruth Ann as well.
Ruth Ann was not quite as accommodating as her twin brother: she doubled up her fists, turned red and allowed as she did not like this at all, and her brother, hearing his sister's war whoop, allowed as it was time to join in the happy -- or unhappy -- chorus.
The Parson raised his hand and was obliged to raise his voice as well, in order to be heard over the combined voices of the youngest members of their congregation.
"We will now sing Let Us Gather By the River," and Annette led into it at his nod: the Parson took the Sheriff by the arm, and Esther by the arm, and the three of them marched down the aisle together to the rear of the church, their babies' voices added to those of the Firelands congregation.

Little Joseph leaned forward, looking past his Pa's belly, at the same moment Jacob heard the summoning whistle.
He drew their mare to a stop, looked down the alley toward the livery.
"Ho, there, ho, now," he soothed the mare, turning her in the middle of the street and snaking down the alley beside the Silver Jewel.
Shorty was alternately watching the buggy's approach, and the mare in the board fence.
Jacob drew up beside the hostler, looking at the mare in the little round corral.
"Standing Cross Arrow," he read the brand. "I don't know that mare."
"I just bought her," Shorty admitted, "and I just got me a feelin' 'twas money wasted."
"She looks good," Jacob said.
"Ten dollars an' she's yours!"
"Sold!" Jacob reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a double eagle. "You got change?"
"Hell yes I got change!" Shorty snapped. "Whattaya think I am, a miser?"
Jacob leaned down a little, grinning. "Shorty," he said, "do you really want me to answer that?"
Shorty glared at the man, snatched the proffered coin and stomped into the livery: he emerged not long after with a ten dollar gold piece, handed it to Jacob and then said "How do you want to take 'er home?"
"Well," Jacob said, "I've got the buggy. What say I just tie her on back?"
Shorty nodded. "There's the gate an' there's your horse, she's all yours!"
"That bad, eh?" Jacob laughed. "I think we'll be good friends!"
"Your funeral," Shorty muttered.
Jacob stepped out of the buggy.
Annette watched the horse as the horse watched Jacob.
Little Joseph stood up and climbed over the back of the seat.
"Joseph, you stay here with me," Annette protested, but Joseph was too quick: he was at the rear of the buggy, hanging over its rear, watching his Pa.
Jacob took a rope from the back of the buggy and opened the small corral.
He stepped inside, closed the gate behind him, watching the mare.
Annette settled back into her seat, a worried look on her face, as little Joseph hung over the edge of the buggy, watching his Pa with big and adoring eyes, for in the eyes of a little boy, dear old Dad can do anything a'tall, no matter what "anything" may be.
It took a while -- Jacob stood there for a while, then he moved, slowly, to one side, while the mare paced, one way, then the other, shied away from him: Jacob never said a word, never moved toward her, just stood and moved slowly, plaited reata in his left hand, loop in the right.
Patience was the key: it took most of an hour, but the mare quit pacing: she advanced, cautiously, carefully, and Jacob let her snuff his front: he raised a gentle hand and she pulled back again and began pacing.
Jacob waited.
Annette didn't say a word; it was a wife's place to wait on her husband's good pleasure, and wait she did, despite an increasing personal discomfort: it was to her considerable delight that Jacob was finally able to caress the mare's neck, then her nose, and finally take her by the cheek strap and lead her out the unlatched gate.
Jacob tethered her behind the buggy, but not until she snapped at him.
Joseph surged to his feet, shaking his fist at the mare.
"MEANIE!" he shouted. "DON'T YOU BITE MY PA!"
The mare, surprised, pulled back to the limit of her tether.
Curious, she looked at this little noisy creature, swung her ears forward, and thrust her muzzle at him, snuffing noisily at the son as she had his father.
Joseph rode in the back of the buggy, watching the mare, and the mare trotted behind the buggy, not so much because she was tied to it, as much as she was curious about this fearless little creature watching her from its back seat.

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Linn Keller 12-18-12

 

"I bought me a horse," Jacob said quietly, leaning back in his chair.
"Do tell," his father said, peering closely at the urgent matter that held his attention.
"Some fellow sold Shorty a mean mare and Shorty sold her to me. I think he beat himself out of good money but he was glad to get rid of her."
"That ain't like the man," the Sheriff murmured, frowning: he turned his head a little, hesitated, then began whittling again.
He had a half dozen fuzz sticks whittled up for kindling the stove; another half dozen and he would call it good.
"Joseph already named her."
"Oh?" The Sheriff made another careful cut, whittling the soft pine out into a still-attached curl.
"Yes, sir," Jacob affirmed. "He named her Meanie."
The Sheriff stopped whittling, looked up at his son.
"Meanie?" he asked, and Jacob could see the amusement in the Grand Old Man's eyes.
"Yes, sir. She took a snap at me and he shook his fist and yelled at her. Said 'Don't you dare bite my Pa, you meanie,' and ... why, it kind of stuck."
"That'll do," the Sheriff nodded. "I heard 'em named worse than that."
Jacob nodded. "Yes, sir," he agreed. "Sad part is, them horses that are named worse than that actually answer to the name."
The Sheriff nodded, dropping the fuzz stick into the bucket with its fellows and reaching for a fresh piece of pine.
"It is for a fact," he agreed, and began to whittle again.
The pair sat in silence for a bit, each exploring his own thoughts, until finally Jacob said thoughtfully, "You know, I need to go see Shorty ag'in. I need a bill of sale for that-there horse."
"Be a good idea," the Sheriff agreed.
Jacob stood. "I'll go tend that detail."
"Here, before you go." The Sheriff laid down his knife and stick and opened a drawer: he pulled out a pint bottle of water clear and held it out.
"Tell Shorty it's fer his aches and pains."
Jacob took the bottle, slid it in his coat pocket.
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff reached into the drawer again and pulled out a poke, dropped it on the desk top: Jacob heard the hard jingle of coin, and not a small amount.
"Jacob," the Sheriff said, "I never had any chance a-past blab school. Sarah went to detective school but I reckon she could have taught most of what she learned. You're past old enough to go on further if you want, but Joseph might benefit from one of them universities."
"Yes, sir."
"A college education is not cheap. Take that" -- he gestured toward the poke -- "I've been saving on that for some time, 'gainst the time I might want to send a young'un off for more education."
Jacob stood, loose, relaxed, looked at the poke, then at his father.
"What about Florian Bruce?" he asked. "Or Angela?"
Angela," the Sheriff said, smiling a little, "will find herself a good looking fella and settle down and raise horses and children. Ruth Ann likely will do the same. I really doubt if she'll turn out like Sarah."
"Yes, sir."
"You take that, Jacob. Send Joseph off to a good school and get him educated. We need Western men in leadership instead of those spineless prevaricators back East."
"Yes, sir."
"By the time Florian Bruce comes of age I'd ought to have that much and more saved up again, so don't worry none about that."
"Thank you, sir."
"I hear tell Annette is with child."
Jacob froze.
He hadn't told anyone but Sarah, and his eyes narrowed, thinking she'd betrayed a confidence.
The Sheriff raised a forestalling hand.
"Your mother," he explained, "saw it at a glance. Chances are she's having a girl. Women know these things and some women know more than others, and Esther ..." -- the Sheriff shook his head and chuckled -- "Jacob, in an earlier century she would have been the village Wise Woman and likely burned at the stake."
"Sir?"
"She took one look at Annette an knew. She said something about Annette's complexion being fairer and smoother and that's the sign of a girl child."
"I see, sir."
The Sheriff grinned ruefully at his son.
"I'm glad you see it," he chuckled. "I sure as hell couldn't! I looked directly at Annette and all I saw was your beautiful bride!"
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff twisted a little in his chair.
"I'm gettin' old," he muttered. "Damn neart called her a pretty girl instead of your bride."
Jacob nodded, once.
"A man feels free to speak frankly with his son," the Sheriff said abruptly, "and sometimes that frankness is not terribly ... kind."
"Sir?"
"I heard a friend of mine tell his son his wife was just pretty damned fat," the Sheriff said almost sadly. "I saw the look in his son's eyes when the man said so. The boy didn't say a word in return -- I saw the words in his eyes, I know he bit back what he was going to say in return and I'm glad he did."
He looked at Jacob and grinned.
"Talked with him later and he allowed as he was right glad he didn't say a thing. It's like them lawyer fellas say, you can't un-ring a bell, and his old man would not have taken kindly to being called on it."
"No, sir."
"If I've ever done that, Jacob, I am sorry."
"You've never done it, sir."
"If I do" -- the Sheriff frowned a little, took a long breath.
"Jacob, if I ever do, you call me on it and don't hesitate, hear?"
"Yes, sir."
"Now tell me about that mean mare."
Jacob grinned.
"Well, so far she's kicked at my stallion and bit at him and he had to put her in her place a time or three. I've got her in the back pasture, she's got room to run and she's showed no sign of jumping."
The Sheriff nodded. "What's her brand?"
"An upright cross arrow."
The Sheriff frowned. "I'll have to look that one up."
"Yes, sir."
"Will she let you near her now?"
"She's still pretty spooky," Jacob admitted, "but she comes right to Joseph."
"Can he touch her?"
"So far he hasn't tried, but she'll come up to him and snuff his chest like she's beggin' for an ear scratchin'."
The Sheriff nodded.
"Might try an apple if you've got any left."
"I've got some, sir. They're kind of wrinkly and they don't look good but they ought to do."

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Linn Keller 12-21-12

 

Sarah sat on the bench behind the dress works, under the overhanging roof, looking into the distance.
Her hands were relaxed in her lap, she sat straight with her feet flat on the porch floor; she was the very picture of young ladylike propriety.
As usual, she didn't feel quite the way she looked.
She heard the door open and recognized her Mama's step; a moment more and she smelled her scent, a combination of soap and lilac-water, and a trace of that fancy perfume Caleb brought back from his recent trip to San Frisco.
Bonnie sat down slowly beside her daughter.
They wore matching dresses that day, an accident rather than purposeful design: when they discovered their gaffe, they laughed, hugged and each said the other looked absolutely lovely, and mutually decided neither would change.
For all that there was no common blood between them, mother and daughter still looked remarkably alike.
They sat in silence, uncommon for women of any age, until finally Sarah took a long breath and sighed it out.
"Mother," she said, "how big a fool am I?"
Surprised, Bonnie looked at her daughter.
Sarah looked at Bonnie, her face serious. "Just how stupid have I been?"
Bonnie blinked, considering before she spoke.
"I don't think," she said slowly, "that 'stupid' is a word I would associate with your name."
Sarah turned and looked into the distance again.
Sarah closed her eyes, her hands tightening into trembling fists, then relaxing and folding delicately, one over the other: she bit her bottom lip, opened her eyes and said "Judge Hostetler paid for my matriculation through Professor Hunt's detective school. They ran me out of Denver and then invited me back. I am the stuff of legend and of tall tales and I had to write a small book and make it sound like lies to throw people off looking for me. I had to trivialize things that were important, things that were" -- she stopped, blinking, looked at the ground as if hoping to find an answer there.
"Mama, I did things I had to do and you know that. I've done things no woman would even consider, some things a man would hesitate to try, and every one of them was needful, and I had to ... make it all sound ... like made-up stories by a confused girl."
"Is that all?" Bonnie asked gently.
Sarah's lips thinned, pressed tightly together, and she shook her head.
"No, Mama. It isn't."
Sarah turned a little so she faced her Mama, or nearly so.
"Part of me lived in hell for years. The rest of me had to go there and bring me out. While I was there I saw the blood I carry, long into the past and long into the future. I am ... I am a link in a long chain, Mama, and I must pass my blood on to at least one child. My blood must march boldly ahead."
Sarah's voice was bitter, her eyes disappointed.
"Mama, come Christmas I will be fourteen. Mr. Llewellyn confided that he intends to propose."
Sarah sank her face into her hands and groaned.
"Mama, he is a fine man and I enjoy his company." Her voice was a little muffled, speaking through her palms; she moved her hands, resting her forehead on the heels of her hands and addressing her fabric covered thighs.
"He is a perfect gentleman, Mama. He is well spoken and considerate and he speaks of a home and children and meeting his people back East."
Sarah raised her head, straightened her spine.
"Am I stupid? Do I want to run around like a happy child and chase bad guys and ride Snowflake? Do I want to outshoot my brother behind the funeral parlor and maybe go to the county fair dressed like a boy and jockey the winning horse across the finish line?"
"I remember that," Bonnie murmured. "Your father won a handsome sum, thanks to your skill."
Sarah looked sharply at her mother.
It was the first time she referred to the Sheriff as "your father" and not Caleb.
Bonnie laid a gentle, understanding hand on Sarah's knuckles.
"I remember feeling much the same, at your age," she said quietly. "On my fourteenth birthday I had three beaux, two engagement rings and a promise of a plantation, a mansion, servants." Her eyes sparkled. "Of course the War made that impossible."
Sarah nodded.
"I think," Bonnie said, "that I would like some tea."
Sarah nodded, then scooted over against Bonnie, put an arm around her and laid her head on Bonnie's shoulder.
"Thank you," she whispered, and Bonnie put her arm around Sarah's shoulders.

Jacob twisted quickly, avoiding the mare's bite.
His gloved hand was fast; he laid his hand firmly on her nose and said "NO!"
The mare flinched, eyes walling.
Jacob seized her cheek strap, caressing her neck: the mare pulled back powerfully, flinching again at his touch.
"Easy, girl, easy," Jacob soothed. "You've been beat too, haven't you?"
Jacob soothed her down with touch and voice, though he had to take his time: he was taking her a little at a time, getting her used to being fooled with, used to being brushed, used to being close to a man who was doing things to her.
Jacob had yet to slap her for trying to bite: he would put his gloved hand on her nose and speak sharply, but he did not hit her.
Little Joseph watched from the top rail of the board fence.

The Sheriff leaned back in his chair, considering, then he stood quickly, snatched his hat off its peg and headed out the door.
Cannonball was ready to go even before he had her saddled: moments later she was walking quickly down the dirt alley beside the Sheriff's office, and then across the street and down the broad alley toward the Mercantile.
Shorty looked up as the lawman knocked on his closed office door.
Shorty grinned as the Sheriff came in, closed the door behind him.
"How you set for wood, Shorty?" the Sheriff asked.
"So far not bad," Shorty replied.
"Say, now, you recall that bitin' mare you sold Jacob?"
"I do, Sheriff," Shorty admitted ruefully rubbing his backside. "She made an impression!"
"That hurts to think about," the lawman murmured.
"Then don't!" Shorty snapped, yanking open a drawer and snatching out a pint bottle. "Set down, I need me some pain medicine!"
The Sheriff sat slowly into a three-legged chair, the missing leg replaced with two dynamite crates and a two-by-four.
Surprisingly, it was quite stable and actually level.
"Shorty," the Sheriff said, pausing to sample from his tin cup of Old Crud Cutter, "did you get a bill of sale for that bitin' mare?"
"Now I did for a fact," Shorty declared.
"Good. That's a lawman's horse."
Shorty blinked. "Eh?"
"That upright arrow brand. The upright arrow is an ancient symbol for the Law. The cross bar indicates a Christian man. I'm wonderin' if that ain't Herb Vess's horse."
Shorty nodded slowly. "How soon kin we find out?"
"Pass me that-there bill of sale," the Sheriff said. "I'll find out."

Little Joseph followed his Pa toward the house, then hesitated.
He turned and went back to the board fence, climbed up.
The biting mare came over, snuffing at him, and he rubbed its nose.
The mare never flinched.
Joseph pulled out one of the apples Jacob spoke of and held it out, and the mare sniffed it loudly, slashed her tail in spite of the lack of flies, and then rubber-lipped it off the boy's palm.
Little Joseph looked back toward the house.
His Pa was nearly to the front door.
The mare was sideways now, parallel with the board fence.
Little Joseph realized he would never have a better chance than right now.
He swung a leg over and leaned out and grabbed the mare's mane.
The mare leaned against the fence as Little Joseph worked his way onto her back.
"Geeyup," he laughed, and the mare turned and set out across the pasture on an easy trot, Little Joseph's laugh trailing along behind them.

"My first husband was a fine man," Bonnie said quietly. "We bought land -- this ranch was ours originally, before that dirty --"
Bonnie bit off the adjective that formed up on her tongue, ready to march in profane parade, for such language, though accurate and perhaps not inappropriate, was not ladylike.
"He was not the first man to propose to me, but when I met him, I knew he was the one I would marry.
"He didn't realize it, not at first.
"At least I did not chase him."
Bonnie smiled into her teacup, a quiet, womanly smile that spoke of a depth of tender feeling Sarah seldom saw.
"We wanted children," Bonnie continued. "We did so want ..."
Bonnie raised her head and Sarah saw tears, bright in her Mama's eyes, as she wet her lips and considered her words.
"We wanted to raise horses and chidren," she whispered, not trusting her voice, "and at least a dozen of each."
Wet streaks gleamed on her healthy-pink cheeks as she laughed a little.
"A dozen children." She shook her head. "I suppose if we raised horses, that would make me a brood mare!"
Sarah blinked, sipped her tea uncertainly.
"Then of course the banker had him murdered, and me drugged, and ... the rest you know."
Sarah nodded at their shared history.
"None of what happened, to either of us," Bonnie said slowly, "none ... of it should ever have happened."
She leaned back a little as the maid appeared, poured tea into her cup and set down a small plate of sandwiches, cut daintily into quarters.
"I think we are both stronger for having survived." Bonnie picked up the honey jar, carefully spooned a gob of golden honey into her tea.
"You don't know the half of it," Sarah muttered. "If either of us are autopsied after death I think they'll find we have spines of whalebone and spring steel!"
Bonnie smiled, dabbed at her eyes with a lacy kerchief.
"Whalebone, I should think," she cleared her throat: "perhaps left over from a too-tight corset at a tender age?"
Sarah nodded.
"Perhaps."

The Sheriff unfolded the note.
FOUND HORSE THIEF, he read Herb Vess's careful print: the man got into the habit of printing at a young age and never cared to learn more: he could print, at speed, fast as another man could scribble in cursive, and Herb's would be legible, slow or fast.
THIEF SOLD MY HORSE YOUR LIVERY. MEAN MARE UPRIGHT ARROW BRAND.
The Sheriff rubbed his chin.
"Herb," he said out loud, "I know where your horse is."

The mean mare was not used to the high altitude and so rode gently under little Joseph: her instinct was to herd, and to run, but running was too taxing for the lowland mare, and so her pace was slow and easy.
Jacob and Annette were standing at the fence when the mare came by.
Jacob offered her an apple and she stopped to take it from his palm.
Annette held out her hands and Little Joseph whined "Aw, Ma," and the mare sidled up against the fence and Little Joseph climbed over towards the rail, where his Mama plucked him down and into her arms.
Jacob rubbed the mare's ears and murmured to her and the mare blinked and allowed the attention.

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Linn Keller 12-22-12

 

Angela frowned, crossed her arms and patted her little high button shoe in the snow, the very image of a stern and disapproving Mommy-figure, and I wondered for a moment where she ever saw such a thing.
"Daddy," she scolded, shaking her little Mommy-finger at me, "I think you are storyin' me!"
I laughed, looking at my pint sized princess with the serious expression and the frowning brow: "Now darlin', would I do a thing like that?"
Angela threw her arms wide and huffed, "Men!"
I laughed again and Angela laughed with me, all pretense at being cross, dropped and forgotten: I picked her up, whirled her about, her legs flying out behind her and her arms spread like a flying angel's wings: her cheeks were red, her eyes shining, her teeth white and perfect, and her innocent laughter filled the entire world.
For a greying old daddy, the moment could not have been more perfect.
I set her down and picked up the bow saw and we looked again at the treed I'd selected.
The two of us looked at this tree and at that tree and Angela had it in her pretty little head that the tree ought to be from-the-ground-up ready.
I had other ideas.
It took some persuadin' but the one we cut was some taller than she had in mind and the lower trunk was sparse to the point of being almost bare, and Angela did not hesitate to express her misgivings.
I'll give my little girl credit here.
This is an age where children are seen and not heard, and when we were in company, when we were with people, even in the home, most times Angela was quiet and properly demure, but she knew there were times -- like now -- when she could speak freely.
Sometimes a verbal description needs a visual aid, and it was not until the tree hit the ground and I sawed off the thick, symmetrically-branched top that was just the right size for our parlor, did Angela realize what I was up to.
She the voiced her misgivings as to just how we were going to transport this wonder of the evergreen to the house -- and as she stood there patting her foot, she doubted seriously if I could just pick it up like I would a broom and haul it along one handed, riding in the saddle like I usually did.
I pulled Angela in to me and gave her a big Daddy-hug, which brought her little pink ear close to my lips, and I whispered through her knit cap, "Watch and learn, Princess," and I set her down: then I went to the black gelding and fetched the tied roll from behind the saddle.
I spread out the canvas, rolled our prize onto it, then drew the edges up and tied them: the top was tied a little more tightly so it could not slip out the roleau as I dragged it along on the thick, accommodating snow cover.
Angela's eyes brightened as she realized the method hidden in her Daddy's madness: once we got our cargo situated, we saddled up and skidded the tree along behind us, and I selected a route that took advantage of the padding snow, for I did not wish to beat the daylights out of our prize by hauling it over rocks and logs and any stray riverboats that may have been dropped in the mountains by some unknown cyclone.
Haven't seen any of those, by the way, no riverboats in these mountains that I know of, but you never know. Weather's a tricky thing.
Once we got the tree skidded back to the house, I tapered its base a little and got it set in a bucket, carefully poured in the sand and wet it down good, and the ladies took over decorating.
I was content to pull back and let them take over.
My only concession to this stage was to carefully turn a screw into one wall, and into another wall, and use strong, thin cord -- waxed linen -- and ran guy lines from about two-thirds of the way up the tree, to the wall, so it could not possibly fall over.
The ladies were happily chattering and planning and sorting among all the shining bulbs and garlands and Angela had to taste test the strung popcorn -- I pretended not to notice but I winked at her and she giggled -- and I excused myself, for I'd promised to go help Sarah fetch in their tree as well.

Sarah closed her eyes and mentally reviewed the terrain she had in mind; she saw it as she saw it last, frosted but free of snow; she saw the stand of trees she thought were the most likely to have what they wanted; she reviewed her mental picture of their parlor, tall and elegant, with the bay window, perfect for the tree.
Sarah stood, motionless, silent, feeling her spirit flow from her, expanding over the terrain: eyes closed, she felt the little stirrings of mouse-life in the grass, she felt her wings tilt and slip out the cushioning air as a hunting hawk spotted the mouse and began its dive: Sarah felt horses, frisky in the cold, she felt the land, patient under the snow.
She felt something else, and she smiled, for she knew her father approached.

The Sheriff saw Sarah standing on her front porch and for a moment he was the Colonel again, approaching a sleeping sentry: the man stood, relaxed, eyes closed, and before he could berate the man, the sentry said softly, "Cunnel, don't move, you have two enemy fifty yards to your right and one is going to take a shot at you. When I say duck, you hit the ground!"
The Colonel resisted an impulse to turn and look; instead, he took a step back, taking an exaggerated, kepi-to-brogan look at the sentry: knuckles on his hips, he was the very image of a superior officer about to dress down a subordinate.
"NOW!" the sentry yelled, thrusting hard to his left and bringing up his musket, and the Colonel dove to his right, rolling once and clawing at the flap-holstered Navy revolver.
An airborne freight train roared through the air where he'd been a moment before and the sentry leveled his Enfield and snapped a shot: there was a second shot and the sentry flinched, then collapsed, groaning.
The Colonel charged the enemy position, switching the revolver to his left hand, curved cavalry saber singing death as it seared from its scabbard: he charged at the top of his lungs, eyes pale, face tight, parrying the bayonet thrust at him and kicking the second man in the low ribs, the full weight of his long tall carcass multiplied by the running velocity of a man in full charge: a slash, a spin, the pistol went off in his left hand and the first enemy's leg collapsed: the Colonel's saber slung blood onto the leaves overhead and two enemy fell, their injuries horrible to behold: the Colonel, pistol still smoking in one hand, gore-gleaming blade in the other, raised his weapons to the heavens and he threw back his head and screamed, a warrior's challenge, a summons to those daughters of Odin who circled overhead.

The Sheriff felt strong hands clutch his arm, his coat; he bent forward in the saddle and he heard a voice, distant, gentle ...
...a woman's voice? ...
...here?
... a woman?
... too far from camp
... not a field nurse ...

"Sheriff?" the voice called, as if from a great distance, then he felt breath, warm in his ear, he felt feminine lips just tickle the fine hairs of his ear: "Papa?"
The Sheriff flinched, eyes snapping wide, as he returned to the here-and-now.
His hand found Sarah's shoulder: solid, real, reassuring: he smelled her, he saw her, he nodded.
Her hand was on his back, rubbing a little.
"You were there again," she said -- a statement, not a question.
He nodded.
"Thank you," he whispered.
"Course of action, sir?" she whispered back.
"Saddle up."
Sarah turned, curled her lip, whistled: the Sheriff straightened with an effort, old wounds aching deep in his soul as well as his scarred, skinny carcass, and he saw Snowflake pacing, silent, black, like smoke come solid, around the house and up to Sarah.
She climbed into her saddle.
"Shall we?" she asked, and the Sheriff, looking around, regarded the fine new three story brick home.
He pointed to the third story windows.
"I take it your time in Professor Hunt's Academy was not entirely wasted, my dear."
Sarah followed his gaze and she smiled a little as she realized he was looking at the discreet boxes mounted in the top of each window-casement.
"You're right," she said. "Every window has an escape. Pull the lever and it releases a chain ladder with steel rungs. It's sunk into the brick-work and solid -- I had them proof test each one with their three biggest workmen on each ladder."
The Sheriff nodded.
"No education is ever truly wasted," he said quietly. "You learn more than you realize from everything you get into."
Sarah looked sharply at her father.
"How did you know?" she asked.
He blinked, regarded his daughter curiously.
"Know what?"
Sarah gave him a long look, the muttered "Never mind," and set out across the field, her father following.

Later that night the family Rosenthal laughed and decorated their tree and there were surreptitious taste-tests of the popcorn strings, and a few candy canes mysteriously disappeared from their former homes on the lower branches, and just before bedtime Bonnie looked into the parlor and smiled, for three sets of legs stuck out from under as many skirts as her daughters lay under the tree, giggling and looking up through its branches and making faces in the round, gleaming glass bulbs.

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Linn Keller 12-23-12

 

"Sarah?"
There was something in her Mama's voice to catch Sarah's entire attention.
She rolled out from under the tree, coming up on all fours and flowing upright, snapping her skirt once, going in a moment from a giggling girl to a composed young woman.
"Sarah, you have a caller."
Sarah's lips parted a little and she gave her Mama a worried look: closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, sighed it out, then raised her chin and walked to the front hall.
The Sheriff stood there, a quiet smile on his face, his hat in his hand.
"My dear," he said to Bonnie in a quiet voice, "I would borrow your daughter for a short time, if I may."
He looked at Sarah, then back to Bonnie, and Sarah saw good-humored mischief in his eyes.
"I promise to have her back in less than a week."
Bonnie blinked and opened her mouth, then gave the Sheriff a knowing look.
"I am trying really hard," she admitted, "to come up with something to top that one, and my mind just went blank."
"He has that effect on people," Sarah said innocently. "I'll get my cloak."
"We won't be goin' far," the Sheriff said. "Your cloak should be sufficient."
Sarah reached into the closet, brought out her cloak and spun it about her shoulders: Bonnie fastened it at her throat and Sarah took the tag edge, slung it over her off shoulder, and followed the Sheriff out onto their porch.
It was full dark out, there was but a sliver of moon; the night was chilly and the Sheriff still had his hat in his hand.
"Sarah," he said quietly, "I know I said it before but it bears sayin' again."
Sarah blinked, pulled the hood back from her cloak: in the lamp light, her cheeks were pink and she looked grown-up and beautifully young-womanly.
The Sheriff considered this and Sarah saw an uncomfortable thought cross his features: he looked off into the darkness, looked down at the porch, then looked up into her eyes and swallowed hard.
This isn't easy for him, Sarah thought, blinking.
What the Sheriff saw was a beautiful young woman, waiting patiently for a man to say something, her long lashes sweeping the air as she blinked, her eyes shining and lovely and deep, so very deep, and for a moment he felt like an awkward kid again.
He put out a hand to steady himself, gripping the cold, smooth painted porch post, and his head hung down until his clean shaven chin hit his necktie, then he looked up.
"Sarah," he said, "thank you."
"You're welcome," she said automatically, blinking again, "but what did I do?"
The Sheriff lifted his head and laughed, and Bonnie, listening at the door, smiled to hear the man's laughter: it was as if a tight wound spring was loosed in his belly.
The Sheriff spun his hat toward the porch swing and placed his fingertips light on Sarah's shoulders.
"You saved an old man," he rumbled.
Sarah raised one eyebrow and tilted her head down a little.
"Walk with me." The Sheriff ran his arm around her shoulder and the two walked slowly the length of the front porch, walked back.
Curious young eyes followed them through the windows; the pair paid no attention to their watchers, for the watchers were expected.
"Sarah," the Sheriff said softly. "many years ago my little girl died in my arms and part of me died with her."
Sarah nodded; this was known to her.
"When I first saw you I wanted to scoop you up and adopt you my own self."
His smile was faint, lopsided.
"Grieving fathers are like that, I suppose. We try and rescue the world and everything in it."
He turned, and so did Sarah: his other arm was around her shoulders now, and they paced the opposite direction, their steps slow, measured on the frosty-cold boards.
"I watched you grow, Sarah.
"I saw you as the under fed little starveling you were, holding Bonnie's hand.
"I watched Bonnie bloom and come back into her own for the looking out over you.
"I saw you fill out and sprout up and I saw you become a happy, laughing girl and I watched you ... I remember ..."
Sarah felt the heat from his face as he recalled something, and she looked at him as they walked slowly, slowly, back down the porch.
"I recall the first time you sat a saddle, and Bonnie was worried, and you shoved your feet in the drawn-up stirrups like you'd done it all your life and damned if you didn't ride like a burr on a hound dog's back!"
Sarah smiled, for she, too, remembered.
"I watched you grow and I watched you learn and I watched you ... hell, I helped train you ..."
The Sheriff stopped and turned toward Sarah, and she turned toward him, and he lay trembling fingertips against her cheek.
"Sarah, my little girl will never grow up and I will never see her first day of school nor hear her ABCs and I'll never see her on my arm as I walk her down the aisle. All that was gone and taken away by an enemy I can't see, an enemy I can't fight.
"You" -- he paused and bit his lip -- "when I found out you were of my blood I rejoiced, for ..."
"Oh, hell," he muttered, shaking his head and turning away, "I don't know what I'm sayin'!"
"But I do," Sarah whispered, taking his arm and pulling him around, her eyes bright.
"You never got to watch your little girl grow up but you watched me. You never got to see her ride or shoot or stand up and make a speech, but you saw me. You found out I was your get and you realized" -- she pressed her hand against his breast bone -- "you realized in here you were seeing your little girl after all, and you healed."
Sarah's words were whispered still, her hand warm and firm on his chest, her other hand gripping his upper arm with a surprising strength, an urgency.
"If I helped you heal then I have done a good thing."
The Sheriff nodded, putting his hands around her waist.
"You want to know the best part?"
"What's that, Papa?"
He grinned.
"You did it just by being you. You didn't have to say "This needs done so I will do it," or "I need to do this for my Papa."
He shook his head.
"You did it just by being you, Sarah. Just by being you."
Inside, behind the front door where it was warm, Polly looked at her Mama, then at Opal.
"Why is Mama cwyin?" she whispered, and Opal shrugged.

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Linn Keller 12-25-12

 

"But it's too big for him!"
"He'll grow into it."
Angela hoisted the doll -- it was as tall as she -- and giggled happily, eyes shining.
"And just what makes you think a rifle is the ideal Christmas present for a little boy who isn't even in pants yet?"
"He'll get there."
Esther sighed and shook her head.
"What about yours?"
"Mine?"
"Open yours."
Esther frowned, picked up the small rectangular package: untying the ribbon, she set it aside; the paper was carefully folded and she unfolded it just as carefully, revealing the flat box: she opened it, looked in: her eyes rounded, then she looked up at her husband, her mouth falling open a little.
The Sheriff grinned.
"I figured if I was getting you tickets to that new opera house I'd best get you a new necklace to go with it!"
Esther made a little sound of delight and picked up the discreetly ornate necklace.
Angela cocked her head and smiled. "Pretty!" she declared.
"It'll look better on you," the Sheriff said softly, gathering his wife in his arms: "I do enjoy showing you off in public, Mrs. Keller."
"You, sir," Esther said as the Sheriff's mustache, then his lips, interrupted her words, "are a cad and a flirt."
Further comment was somewhat muffled; Esther molded herself bonelessly to him, surrendering to the delight of her husband's attention.
When they came up for air, Angela was happily chatting with her new doll, and the maid came into the room to announce, "Breakfast is served."

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Linn Keller 12-25-12

 

"Choc'wit!" Polly and Opal exclaimed together.
"Yes it is, and it's for later," Bonnie said in a properly motherly voice.
"Oh," the twins said, stifling their disappointment: in an ideal world, chocolate cake would be the meal, especially today, on Christmas, when the world revolved around them.
They'd been to church; the twins fidgeted in their pew like little girls will, trying to hide their impatience and almost succeeding; it took no more than a look from their Mama to still their wiggles, but not until they looked hopefully toward Sarah, and found no succor there.
As usual, Sarah and Annette sang, a combined solo: each sang a stanza, then the other, the third stanza they sang together, with Daciana joining in the chorus: the very last verse was Daciana's, which she sang in her native Romanian.
Her pure, flawlessly pitched notes had only just died out when the doors in the back of the church opened, and men filed in: they carried what appeared to be a bier, but ornately carved: six men there were, in the rough dress of miners, though they'd taken pains to brush their boots and patch their clothes: they advanced with the creche carried at shoulder height, on poles, their tread measured, almost silent.
As they marched, they sang, their voices deep and well-matched.
There is something powerful about men's voices joined in song, strong men united in rhythm and harmony, and Daciana's bottom lip wrinkled a little as she started to tear up, for she remembered the words, and she remembered the melody, and she remembered her dear grandfather's knee, and how safe she felt in that jolly Tyrolean's arms as he sang to his little granddaughter.
Parson Belden sat on a low stool, beside the pulpit: he'd brought out a double-strung guitar from somewhere, and he too brought forth song, for Franz Gruber had written this Christmas hymn originally in German, and to accompany a guitar, for his organ's leather bellows were mouse-eaten that hard winter, and would not pump their organ.
Daciana took a breath and tried to bring out the first note, but she was crying too hard: she sat down beside Annette, tears streaming down her face, as the half-dozen miners brought the ornate, hand-carved manger to the fore, and set it down, and withdrew to the sides, still singing.
"Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Parson Belden's fingers followed their song expertly, delicately, weaving magic in the little church that snowy morning, and Daciana would tell her puzzled husband later that morning that her tears were good, she had not this happy been in a very long time.

Jacob was out the night before, and he and Levi carried a wooden box upstairs to her room: about four feet square it was, but only a foot deep, held shut with a simple hook and eye: Jacob took Sarah's hands in his and he was grinning broad as a Texas township.
"Little Sis," he started, and Sarah pulled a hand loose and cocked a fist: "Who you callin' little?"
Jacob laughed again and reached over to knock a knuckle against the box.
"Happy Birthday, Sis," he said, "but don't open it until tomorrow."
Sarah pulled her other hand free and put her knuckles on her hips.
"Do you think you can trust me not to peek?"
Jacob was quiet for a long moment, then he pulled her into a tight, big-brotherly hug.
Releasing her, his expression serious, he said "Yes. I believe I can."
He reached into his coat and brought out a stiff brown envelope.
"I thought you might like this."
Sarah took the envelope, looked at Levi, then at Jacob.
"You can open it. That's your Merry Christmas."
"Oh."
Sarah bent it to crack the seal in two and lifted the hand folded flap: she withdrew a pamphlet, her eyes widening.
"Die Walküre!" she breathed.
"I know you said something about wanting to see it," Jacob continued innocently.
Sarah took a deep breath, seeing something well beyond Jacob's shoulder: she blinked, looked up at her big brother.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Jacob winked at her; he and Levi turned and headed for the door.
Sarah looked at the wooden box.
"Jacob?"
Jacob stopped, turned to face Sarah.
"Thank you for this." Her fingertips rested lightly on the wood container.

True to her word, Sarah did not open it until the next day.

The birthday cake was moved to the sideboard; impatient young eyes -- and older eyes, for Levi had a fondness for such tasties -- wandered in that direction rather often through the meal.

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Linn Keller 12-29-12

 

Herb Vess rubbed his wayward mare's nose, murmuring quietly,his hands gentle.
Annette smiled to see it.
The mare with the upright crossed arrow came to Jacob like a puppy when he wore his badge out on his lapel, and Herb Vess, his Arizona Ranger's badge on his own coat, enjoyed the same greeting.
He touched his hat brim to Annette, for his belly was full of bread and coffee and back strap meat and some pie and beans: he hadn't intended to eat, and he certainly hadn't intended to eat as much as he did, but Annette was not about to let a lawman leave without shoveling a meal into him and it had been a while since Herb had a good woman cooked meal, and ... well, hell, Annette was easy on the eyes and Little Joseph looked at the weather beaten lawman with big and admiring eyes, and what man doesn't like that too?
He rode off with his mare in tow, intending to swing through Firelands and thank Jacob for recovering his stolen mare: the thief was captured and justice done, even if it was without benefit of a court, the horse thief's carcass stripped and donated to a gully and covered with rocks.
Herb was straightforward when it came to justice.
He rode down the mountain and across the tracks, along a stream and to the road and into Firelands: he could see a conference and a palaver and a powwow in front of the Sheriff's office, and it apparently involved something unpleasant, for there was a wagon, and some people, and Herb could see a younger version of his old friend the Sheriff standing there with a rifle in the cradle of his arm, and if he was not mistaken, that girl beside him was holding herself a little stiff, a little unnaturally, and that meant she had a long gun in the vertical drape of her skirt, likely held beside her leg.
He rode up as the wagon was describing a big circle in the middle of the street: a sad-faced fellow with a silk topper and a black morning-coat stood in front of the funeral parlor and Herb deduced the wagon contained a client for the gravedigger.
He rode up to the group; they turned to greet him, and Herb touched his hat brim to Sarah, surprised at how young she was.
Normally a little girl like that didn't go around in public with a ... he looked closer, nodded ... with a double gun in hand.
Herb made a mental note to find out more, because she was either a small built woman or a little girl dressed like a grown woman, but perfectly comfortable in that character: he discarded his mental note, letting it flutter away in the light breeze, satisfied that she was a slight built woman with a fair and unmarked complexion.
"Jacob," he said without preamble, "thank you. Let me pay you what you paid for the mare."
Jacob turned cold eyes to the Arizona ranger, then he smiled and his eyes thawed some.
"Mr. Vess," he said, "I missed your birthday last year. Take that for your birthday present."
"Oh, now, I can't do that," Herb protested. "You spent good money and you took care of her while I was a-huntin' her down!"
"Tell you what," Jacob grinned, glancing over at his father. "Buy me a beer when I'm 99."
Herb threw his head back and laughed.
"Travelin' is hungry work," the Sheriff said. "Kin I stake you to a meal?"
Herb leaned back and patted his flat belly.
"Linn," he said, "Jacob's lovely wife filled me up full as a tick."
Jacob grinned again, nodding. "She's good at that."
Herb shifted his weight in the saddle, leaned forward a little, peering with an exaggerated care at Jacob's middle.
"You sure about that, young man? The way she stuffed my gut, why, you'd ought to be fat as a banker!"
Jacob lifted his hat. "Flattery," he said solemnly, "will get you everywhere!"
"I'd best be pointin' myself for home," Herb sighed. "My darlin' wife will think the Amazons have kidnapped me!"
Sarah watched the man depart, then she looked at the Sheriff.
"How long has he been exposed to you?" she asked.
The Sheriff gave her a puzzled look.
"Oh, don't look at me like that," she scolded, smiling a little: "you're the only one I ever heard talk about the Amazons kidnapping you!"
The Sheriff considered for a long moment, then laid a hand on his son's shoulder.
"Jacob," he said, "was she not your sister she'd make a good wife."
Jacob laid his hand on his father's shoulder.
"For fair and for sure she would," he agreed, "but a man couldn't get away with anything a'tall with her around!"
They both looked at Sarah, and Sarah turned an incredible shade of red: she looked down, then smiled and said softly, "I should put this away," and headed for the open door of the Sheriff's office.
The Sheriff took a long breath.
"Well, hell, let's get some paper work done," he said. "The decedent was a friend of mine until he brought up a rifle ag'in you."
The Sheriff's eyes were suddenly hard and bright.
"We are the only law in the territory, Jacob. Our word is law and our word must be law. If a man won't comply and he won't abide and if he fetches up a rifle, we have to show the world in general and him in particular that the wages of sin is death and we are the paymaster."
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff's hand tightened slightly on his son's lean, bony shoulder.
"I don't like killin'," he said softly, shaking his head. "It upsets my digestion."
Jacob wisely said nothing.
The killing troubled him none at all, and his digestion was just fine.

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Linn Keller 12-29-12

 

"And this poor fellow," Digger said to his assistant, indicating the corpse on the preparation table, "hadn't laid down for near onto two year now. Slept settin' up, he did, couldn't breathe if he laid down."
"I see."
"I've got to go formulate the embalming fluid. Why don't you wait here and I'll be back here directly."
"Yes, sir."
Digger managed to keep a straight face as he left the room; instead of going in back and mixing his own preferred volume percentages of the components of his embalming fluid, he walked back with his usual lack of stealth and tiptoed back, waiting behind a heavy, red velvet curtain just outside the door of the preparation room.
Experience told him it would not take long, and he was right.
There was a slight groan, then the crash of a chair falling over backwards, the sound of a falling body: Digger came around the corner to see his panicked assistant tangled in the chair, kicking frantically to free himself, scrambling toward the door, looking fearfully back at the figure sitting upright on the preparation table and swaying just a little.
Perhaps Dr. Greenlees could have articulated the physio-chemistry of what happened: how, with the abdominal muscles foreshortened from years of sitting upright and not lying down, how with no blood pumping through them, the lactic acid buildup caused the belly muscles to contract, and how, when the belly muscles contracted and pulled the corpse upright into a sitting position which crowded the diaphragm up, moving air past the vocal cords and eliciting a groan from the dead throat ... well, Dr. Greenlees might have been able to explain it, but all Digger knew was, chances were good the corpse would set up, and he was not above scaring the hell out of his assistant for a good laugh.
He turned as the assistant went from a tangled scramble to galloping down the hall on all fours, then sort of launching up onto two legs and screaming in sheer terror as he clawed at the front doorknob, panic turning the simple act of opening a door into an impossibly complex task.
Digger had no intention of embalming this particular corpse; the old man was tight fisted and wouldn't spend money if he had to, he had no family any more and nobody to pay the extra fee to have his mean old carcass pickled, and so Digger intended to plant him and let him rot.
Before he did this, though, he had to stretch the body back out and then get it into a coffin.
He wheeled the low platform up beside the table, the one with the cheap coffin on it; he rolled the deceased into the box, not bothering to move the body with anything resembling dignity or decorum: no, he rolled it over, landing it in the cheap, rough box, face down.
He closed the lid -- or rather, picked up the lid and set it on top of the box, and proceeded to screw the lid down.
The client would neither care nor complain that he was planted face down; no one else would say a word, either.
His assistant would be back in due time, he knew, and when he did, they would take the box to the cemetery, where a hole waited.
Digger looked over at the dead rancher, the one with a hole in his chest the size of his finger: he didn't know the story behind him, he did know the deceased -- well, he knew of him, he'd seen him around town a time or two -- him, yes, he would pickle him, there was supposed to be family involved, and Digger was confident he would get paid for the work.
He smiled a little as he prepared the new corpse for embalming, wondering just how high he could jack his price without being told to go climb a tree.

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Linn Keller 12-30-12

 

The rancher's name was Collins.
John Collins, and his wife was not terribly unhappy to see him dead.
She saw Jacob ride in with a badge on his chest and a serious look on his face.
She knew who he was, and when she saw him come in riding, "stiff and upright" as she called it, she knew he was there on business.
Collins smacked her across the face and told her to get back into the kitchen where she belonged, and her daughter stood in the kitchen doorway with her right hand hid, for she had a rolling pin in it, and the daughter told me she fully intended to bend that rock maple flattener over the old man's head, for his temper was generally manifested with the flat of his hand.
When he stepped out the door with rifle in hand, the wife shut the door behind him and latched it tight.
She looked up at me with defiant eyes.
"When he stepped out on the porch with a rifle, I hoped your deputy would kill him." Her chin was up, her jaw was firm and her eyes fairly snapped.
"I hoped your deputy would kill him so he would never, ever hit my girls again!"
I took her hand and pushed up her sleeve, revealing purple bruising, right where a man would grab a woman's forearm if he was yanking her to him.
I looked up at her.
"Mrs. Collins," I said gently, "you are a widow and you no longer have a man to provide. Are you capable of running your ranch, or have you someone who can run it for you?"
"We will manage," her daughter said quietly. "We will manage. We have good hands working for us and they are happier than we that Papa is dead."
She fairly spat out the last word.
I could not help but think how evil a man would have to be to earn that kind of hatred from a daughter.
"My husband" -- Mrs. Collins' lip curled with distaste as she uttered the word -- "had a disease, a cancer. He was dying and he said he was not going to die slowly nor in pain like his own father died, whiskey-soaked, screaming and begging for it to stop.
"I thought he was going to go shoot himself.
"When he went out and shot at your deputy, and your deputy did not shoot him on the spot, I was afraid that he might ... my husband might survive.
"I watched as he marched up to your deputy and raised his rifle.
"He killed himself, Sheriff." Mrs. Collins had no trace of grief, no glitter of tears, no visible expression of remorse. "He killed himself just as surely as if he'd hanged himself in the haymow, only he used your deputy instead of a rope."
I nodded.
"Thank you for receiving me, Mrs. Collins," I said, "and thank you for your account of what happened. I've spoken with the ranch hands and every man's account supports your own, but yours gave me the last pieces I needed."
"If I can be of service," I said after a moment, "please let me know."
"We will, Sheriff," the oldest daughter said firmly.
I looked past her, at the kitchen table.
"Is that the rolling pin?" I asked. "The one you intended to part his hair?"
She turned, her hand going to her lips: she turned back, reddening a little, but hard and defiant.
"Yes. It is."
"May I see it?"
She spun, stiff, anger in her carriage: she snatched it from the table, bringing it up like a scepter, marched toward me with a determined step.
"Thank you." I took the rolling pin by its middle, placed the lower handle -- the one she gripped hard enough to blanch her knuckles -- on my open, flat palm.
I took it by the handle she'd had hold of, then I laid it down level, my left hand holding it at midpoint, and I pulled the handle out of the body with thumb and forefinger.
Nothing held it in.
"If you'd gone to crown him," I observed, "you would have swung this hard and it would have sailed over his head." I slipped the handle back into the roller and handed it to her.
"Next time try something more reliable. A big knife might do."
I turned and took a step toward the door, reached for my hat.
Something brushed one of the thinning hairs on top of my balding scalp and I looked up in time to see the rolling pin sail a-past me and hit the door.
I turned, caught the daughter's fist as it drove toward my nose.
"I told you," I said quietly. "Use something reliable."
I bent and picked up the rock maple rolling pin, handed it to her, touched my hat brim to the widow Collins, and left.

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Linn Keller 12-31-12

 

Sarah sat in front of her roll top desk and considered Jacob's birthday present to her.
She'd flipped open the latch, swung the clamshell halves open: it was about four feet high, three and a half wide and two feet deep.
It opened to reveal shelves and cubbies and drawers, with every square inch of space used for something, and used rather efficiently.
Sarah opened it up and realized how heavy it must have actually been, when the men were packing it upstairs.
She reached in and pulled out a set of handcuffs; behind these, a label, and a key on a peg.
She hefted the irons, letting her eyes wander through the contents.
Several sets of irons of various kinds, each with a carefully hand written label behind its hanging peg: Denver PD, San Francisco PD, New York Pattern, Chicago pattern, Tower manufacture.
She hung the cuffs she held back on their peg, reached in, smiled a little as she withdrew a .44 revolver, a dandy little bulldog, just right to tuck here or there in her garments.
Given the right holster sewn in place, of course, or slung or strapped or buckled.
She considered the horse pistol, the cut-down double twelve-bore; it had a special grip instead of just a sawed off stock at the wrist.
Good, Sarah thought.
I don't want to tear the web of my hand like Papa Sheriff did.
Sarah realized this would put more recoil through her wrist and made a mental note never, ever to fire it one-handed, but rather to grip it firmly with her off hand, pulling forward at the moment of kaboom.
She sorted through two neatly-coiled hundred-foot lengths of black silk line, another ladder belt -- she stood, quickly wrapping it around her lean waist, buckling it tight and nodding with satisfaction -- then she replaced it as well and continued her inventory.
She found an envelope, pretty much dead center, and in Jacob's careful script on the front, To my Little Sis.
Sarah's right hand tightened into a fist and she thought I'll show you little, you long tall drink ... then she smiled and wished he was there so she could hug him.
I wonder if I can still do this, she thought, and smiled, then she reached in and pulled out a set of leg irons and tightened them on her ankles: slipping the keys in her dress, in hidden little pockets invisible to the common eye, she withdrew a matching set of cuffs and worked her wrists into them behind her back.
She knelt, closed her eyes, smiled a little, then opened her eyes and looked at the clock.
Let's see how long it takes me, she thought.
Four minutes later there was a tentative little tap at her door and the giggle of little sisters; the rattle of the doorknob, and two pair of bright and curious eyes peeked around the barely opened door.
Sarah sat in her chair, smiling a little, putting something inside the Birthday Box: Polly and Opal giggled and asked, "What'cha got?"
Sarah closed the box and flipped the latch.
"Things to get in trouble with," she said. "Did you see the chocolate cake I made?"
"Chocolate!" the twins chorused, looking at one another, then whirled and scampered out of the room.
Sarah laughed quietly and stood, then looked again at the clock.
She was badly out of practice.
It took her two minutes to get out of cuffs and leg irons and get them put away.
Sarah looked at Jacob's note, open on her desk.
You are good at what you do, he had written.
You have shown restraint where it was needed.
You have kicked butt where it was required.
Agent, you can ride with me any time, any where, and the day may come when I will need your help and your skills.
PS, you are still my little sis.
Jacob

"I'll little sis you," she muttered, then looked toward her still-hanging-open door.
"Chocolate cake," she murmured. "I hope there's some left."

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Linn Keller 1-1-13

 

Uncharacteristic for the era, the House of McKenna Dress Works was quiet: Bonnie gave her ladies the day off, an idea which they embraced rather happily; Bonnie knew it was a day of making no profit -- but she also knew the value of contented and loyal employees, and she took care of her people.
It was cold out, not much above zero; Sarah bundled against the chill and waded through snow to the barn, tarrying in its warmer confines, listening to the contented sound of a couple cows chewing their cud: her oldest mare, aging and feeble and no longer put to work, leaned her head over for a pet and a whisper, and Sarah leaned her cheek against Butter's long nose, remembering earlier days when she was but a little girl, laughing and running through the pasture, Butter walking contentedly beside her, the horse's walking pace keeping easily with the little girl's happy scamper.
Sarah slipped out the back door, looking around.
She knew Snowflake was somewhere near; tracks the size of dishpans were pressed into the snow, and a pile of road apples looked fresh, though not steaming.
It won't take long to cool off, she thought: frowning a little, curious, she picked up a stick and turned over the fresh pile.
It steamed a little and Sarah nodded ever so slightly.
I thought it was fresh, she thought, then she dropped the stick and turned to find she suddenly had a face full of very black fir, with one shining black eye high to the right.
Sarah laughed and reached up to stroke the underside of Snowflake's jaw.
"You thought you could sneak up on me," she whispered.
Snowflake snuffed at Sarah's front, exploring for something edible.
Sarah held out a small pile of tobacco shavings, slivered off some molasses plug, and Snowflake lipped it delicately off her flat palm.
"Guess what," Sarah whispered again. "You did sneak up on me. I did not hear you at all."
Sarah ran her arms around Snowflake's neck, or as far as she could, which was not far, given Sarah's diminutive build and Snowflake's sheer size.
"I have to do some thinking," she whispered. "Let's go in where it's warm."
Sarah seized the barn door, rolled it aside: steel wheels rumbled on the steel track overhead and Snowflake plodded obediently inside.
Sarah stepped in after her big Frisian mare; one final look around, and she drew the door shut, cutting off the blazing-bright snow glare.

His Honor Judge Donald Hostetler drew his carriage to a halt.
He'd tended the duties of the Court that morning, hearing evidence and testimony, reading reports, swinging his gavel and uttering the wise pronouncements which are part and parcel of a jurist's duties: after this, after the Sheriff's routine invitation to his house for a meal and cigars and of course some of his excellent California brandy, His Honor thanked the lawman for his kind invitation and begged his indulgence for a few hours' absence.
His Honor did indeed wish to avail himself of the Sheriff's hospitality.
The Sheriff was an old friend and not given to political maneuvering; the Sheriff's wife was gracious and kind and in a way reminded him of his own dear wife, long dead now, and of course the Judge had a grandfatherly fondness for the Sheriff's big-eyed little Angela, who was rapidly outgrowing the appellation of "little."
Judge Hostetler drew up in front of the new Rosenthal house, three stories of solid brick construction: his mare was received, his carriage led around and through the gate toward the barn, and after a few minutes of greeting and pleasant conversation, the Judge found himself chuckling as he knocked at the barn's side door.
I have done many things in my young life, the greying, dignified old Judge thought, stubbing out his cigar on his boot-heel and spitting fragments of soggy leaf off his tongue: I've never knocked at a barn door to call on someone before.

Sarah was arranging her thoughts as if marshaling a brigade of lead soldiers on a tabletop battlefield when the Judge's knuckles interrupted her concentration.
Sarah looked up, looked over toward the door, blinking, then she went to the door and opened it carefully.
His Honor the Judge removed his hat and bowed gracefully.
"My dear," he greeted Sarah, "might I impose upon your time? I find I have need of your assistance."

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