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Linn Keller 1-1-13


Four of the children in the orphanage were ill.
Colds and sniffles tended to get passed around; the nuns did their best to keep the children healthy, but especially now -- now that winter's cold kept them inside much of the time, now that the children and the Sisters who cared for them were all living in such proximity, disease could and often did run with swift and contagious feet through their little community.
Sister Sarah rocked a fussy baby, a child that should be nursing and wouldn't, a child red-faced and angry that hadn't slept for a night and a day, a child that was starting to fever.
Sister Sarah looked up, blinked, and one of the nursing Sisters looked over at her and saw a light come on in her eyes.
The nurse approached as Sister Sarah rose and carried the child over to the window, and opened the blanket, and tilted the child's head gently back, peering intently into the noisy, red little mouth.
The nurse froze as Sister Sarah looked at her, alarmed.
"Draw me hot water, enough for a good warm bath," she said in a low voice, and the nurse nodded once, turned quickly.
When Sister Sarah lowered the baby into the warm bathwater, the nurse watched intently: Sister Sarah held the child's head with one hand, swishing the warm water, the almost-hot water, in constant circulation over the child's body.
The nurse's eyes widened and she raised a hand to her mouth.
"I saw white speckles on the roof of his mouth," Sister Sarah whispered, her throat tight.
The nurse nodded as red speckles began popping out on the child's skin.
The two looked at one another, then looked around as if expecting to see a bony reaper with scythe in hand, grinning and nodding at them as it began to harvest young lives like ripe wheat.
The measles had returned.

His Honor protested as Sarah placed the last slice of chocolate cake before him.
"Your Honor," Sarah said, mischief in her eyes and teasing in her voice, "Mama taught me that waste is a sin, and I try not to be a sinful soul." She tilted her head a little. "For the sake of my soul, then?"
His Honor picked up his fork and pretended reluctance.
"For the sake of your soul," he said, and Sarah smiled, for she knew the Judge had a liking for chocolate cake.
The twins were busy with their own efforts; Bonnie was showing them the basics of folding a pleat and hemming: canny businesswoman and successful fashion provider, she now sat cross-legged on the floor with two little girls, supervising their efforts with needle and thread and material, with the stated intent of making dresses for two cloth-and-china doll bodies that lay on the floor, staring at the ceiling with wide, painted eyes.
Sarah sipped tea while the Judge consumed the last of the chocolate cake, waiting; she knew he would get around to his purpose soon enough, and in the meantime, she was content to delight her senses with fragrant, steaming oolong.

The orphanage was a separate building from the monastery, but within the walled enclosure; Brother William emerged from its front door with a solemn expression and a folded cloth in his hands.
He stopped at the flagpole before the orphanage, head bowed, then he attached a spring loaded clip to one corner of the cloth he held, raised it a little, attached a second, and hoist the dread standard.
The flag was a simple yellow rectangle; the signal was borrowed from vessels at sea that found themselves overtaken with contagion, and its signal was read in standard maritime references of the day with one word:

"It is a delicate matter," His Honor said. "The man is a deserter and wanted, not just by the Cavalry, but by several jurisdictions."
"Including ours?"
"Especially ours."
The Judge raised a hand.
"My dear," he said gently, "I wish only to discover his whereabouts. You are better suited for this task. You can slip in, disguised, find what needs be and make good your escape."
"If he's slick at all and anyone -- friend or stranger -- asks anything about him, he'll disappear," Sarah warned.
"That's why I just want you to find him. I have a team that will apprehend him."
Sarah contemplated the amber depths of her teacup.
"Where was he last seen?"
"Rabbitville. He's known to stay in a little boarding house near the cantina."
"And you don't want me to apprehend him."
Sarah considered this, turning it over in her mind.
School could proceed without her; she did not know just how long this task would take, but she did not believe it would require more than two days, maybe three at most.
"Just find him and report back to you."
"Report by what means, telegraph?"
"That will be fine."
"It will have to be a coded message, then," Sarah said. "If he has a lookout who can read the clickies or maybe he's paid off the telegrapher --"
"You could send that Aunt Sadie is ill, or well, or had a baby, or anything about Aunt Sadie. Then you head here and meet my team enroute."
"I'll be taking a train for most of the distance. There is a single track between here and there so we won't pass one another. Should we plan to meet at a particular place or time?"
"If you telegraph that Aunt Sadie is coming home, I will send the team on the next train out and you can meet them at the depot."
"That will work."
His Honor reached into his coat, brought out a folded newspaper.
"Speaking of Rabbitville," he said, "I brought the latest edition. I get all the local papers, you know. Levi might like to read this."
Sarah tilted her head a little. "May I?" she murmured, and His Honor handed her the paper.
Sarah opened it a little, just enough to confirm what she'd surmised.
The word PLAGUE, and under it, a sub-title containing the word "Orphanage."
She looked back to His Honor, who was sadly contemplating his empty plate.
"I'll bake another once I get back," Sarah promised. "Now let us have a description of the wanted party."

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Linn Keller 1-2-13


Sarah sat in front of her roll top desk and contemplated the black glass mirror that was her bedroom window.
It was full dark out; there was a moon and snow, stars were bright in the sky above, but Sarah saw none of it.
She saw eyes.
Sarah saw eyes, bright and shining, playful and pouting, curious and angry and all shades between.
Sarah saw her little sisters' eyes, alive, alive o! -- there, among the starry-decked firmament.
Sarah thought of the man she was to find, and betray to the Judge: she was to meet the takedown team and brief them and then stand aside and let them make the collar.
Part of Sarah wondered petulantly if the Judge had somehow lost faith in her ability to bring in a wanted criminal.
The rest of Sarah swatted that voice aside, for she realized -- she realized, as she tasted bitter ashes in her mouth -- that Charlie had been right all along.
She had been more than lucky.
She had been purblind lucky, she had been overwhelmingly, unbelievably lucky.
She'd brought in bad men, wanted men, violent men; she had ducked death, dodged crippling injuries, managed to cheat the odds -- somehow, she was not really sure how, but she had.
Sarah was a schoolteacher, and before one can teach, one must learn, and one learns from listening: Sarah listened one evening to a gambler who was telling her about luck, and its fickle ways.
"It's like a vein of gold in rotten quartz," he explained. "It'll look thick and rich and you can rake it in with both hands, but it can peter out to nothing with the next swing of the pick." His hands were idly shuffling cards, fanning the deck; he turned over the top card -- ten of clubs.
"You can have a high card and bet money on the next."
He turned another.
Ace of diamonds.
"And you might win, so you bet on the next one as well."
He turned over a deuce.
"And lose everything.
"For all things there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heavens, and sometimes it's time to let go and walk away, because the luck just might not be there."
Sarah sat very still, thinking of how her little sisters sounded, how they looked at her, how she delighted in their giggling curiosity, their little-girlish questions, how they held solemn-still when she brushed their hair and how they said they wanted to grow up to be as pretty as their Mama.
Plague, Sarah thought.
I had measles and survived, and chicken pox when it swarmed through.
Her right hand drifted up and she explored a little wrinkled scar behind her right earlobe, where she'd curiously explored a single pock and pressed on its blister, bursting it: it scarred when it healed, and Sarah remembered the row of small coffins from the waves of childhood disease she'd seen.
I will not bring death home to my family.

Sarah's eyes were pale as she considered the closed wooden box, holding the detective's tools Jacob assembled for her birthday.
The Judge asked me to help him.
He called on me because I can disguise and I can find and I can get out.
He asked my help.

Sarah stood.
"I believe I will have some tea," she said aloud.
Sarah Lynn McKenna Rosenthal, fourteen years of age, looked at herself in the mirror: she turned a little, turned back, then shook her head sadly and headed for the door.
She felt the need to talk with her Mama.

"How long do you reckon she'll take?" the Sheriff asked, leaning back with a little grimace in the Judge's upholstered chair.
"Oh, an hour, maybe," the Judge speculated. "Cigar?"
The Sheriff raised a hand, smiling a little. "Never acquired the habit."
"One of my only vices," the Judge chuckled. "At my age perhaps I should acquire more. God knows I've earned the privilege!"
The Judge fixed the Sheriff with a bright gaze.
"And what of you, Colonel? Or, Sheriff, these days. What are your vices, sir?"
The Sheriff laughed.
"I," he said quietly, picking up the long stemmed wineglass, "have profound fondnesses for good food, good drink, good company and little fuzzy puppies that wag their tails like miniature windmills in a storm." The Sheriff took an appreciative sip of the sangria, savoring its flavors, swallowing slowly.
"If those are my vices, so be it, for I embrace them without apology."
The Judge raised his glass to the Sheriff, saluting his agreement, and the two men drank.

Bonnie listened carefully as Sarah spoke.
Sarah laid her case out with the precision of an engineer striking a line with a T-square: her argument was reasoned, logical and sensible: her conclusion was obvious, sound and mature, and Bonnie agreed wholeheartedly with her daughter's decision before Sarah was finished with her little presentation.

"Ah, that must be her," the Judge said, rising at the knock alarming at his door: he placed the wineglass on the sidetable, tugged his coat straight and walked to the portal, opening it wide.
"My dear, welcome," he said, and the Sheriff rose as Sarah stepped inside.
Sarah was wearing a two-tone green riding outfit, and a matching hat, and the Sheriff was taken at how much she looked like Bonnie: he blinked, then chided himself: They wear their hair the same, and this looks like Bonnie's dress and hat.
"Your Honor," Sarah said without preamble, "I thank you for your confidence in me, sir, but I must decline to travel to Rabbitville."
"I see," the Judge said, resisting an impulse to glance over at the Sheriff.
"Will there be anything else, Your Honor?"
"If I may," the Judge said gravely, "what ... prompted your decision?"
Sarah's expression was not as confident now; she looked almost ... sad.
"I have two reasons, sir ... three, actually, and ... an entire schoolhouse full."
"I don't understand."
"If I go to Rabbitville, sir," Sarah said, "I will infect myself with the Plague and bring it back with me. I don't like Death riding my coat tails. I have two sisters, Your Honor, who have never had measles; nor have most of my students.
"I could find this man, Your Honor, but with orders to merely observe, I would bring death back with me like a miasma, with a chance the quarry might escape.
"At best, Your Honor, one bad man is captured.
"At worst, every child in Firelands dies, and I am the cause."
The Judge blinked, nodded slowly: he turned and walked to his chair, his pace meditative, like an old man deep in thought.
Finally he turned.
"My dear," he said softly, "it is cold without: may I offer you wine?"
"No, thank you, Your Honor," Sarah said sadly: "I do not refuse to share a drink, sir, but wine is ... a bit too much to my taste."
The Sheriff leaned forward, eyes riveted on his daughter.
"I do owe you an apology, you know," the Judge said.
"Now it is I who do not understand," Sarah said carefully, her syllables crisply enunciated.
"There is no felon to be found," the Judge said. "There is no group of hard-muscled detectives waiting in the wings to seize this scoundrel with hard hands. This was a test, my dear."
"A test."
"It is all fiction, then."
"Oh, no," the Judge said, shaking his head. "No -- regrettably, there is fact within the fiction. There is indeed a measles outbreak in Rabbitville."
Sarah nodded.
"This was a bit of ... manufacture ... to test your reasoning ability."
"It was my idea," the Sheriff interrupted.
Sarah's gaze snapped from the Judge to her father.
She walked slowly toward the long, tall lawman, stood for several moments before him, studying his face.
"Papa," she finally said, "I was undecided whether to kick you in the shin, or to tell you to go to hell.
"The former and I could probably outrun you.
"The latter and you would very likely turn me over your knee."
"No," the Sheriff half-grinned. "His Honor has some good lye soap, and turnabout is fair play."
Sarah's face turned very, very red, and she slowly raised a gloved hand to her brow.
"I deserved that," she said finally.
"Long time comin'."
Sarah closed her eyes, tight, then opened them.
"I must be going."
She turned, and the Judge bowed her to the door: Sarah turned and smiled a little and said, "I think at this point I am supposed to say something terribly clever and rather biting, but my mind has gone blank."
A moment later and the men heard the sound of receding hooves in the darkness.
His Honor considered his old friends' thoughtful face.
"Well, Colonel?" he asked at length. "What think you of your little girl now?"
The Sheriff drained his wineglass, set the empty back on its stand.
"I think she shows remarkable good sense," he replied.

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Linn Keller 1-4-13


Sarah rode a circuitous route, coming up the alley beside Digger's funeral parlor and across the street, before turning down the slight grade and stopping before the little whitewashed schoolhouse.
It was dark and it was still; it was cold, and fine crystal flakes, like the tiniest shards of a shattered mirror, danced and tilted in the air, almost too fine to see, save where they caught light from a lamp, or a window.
Sarah looked long at the schoolhouse, remembering the children she taught, their eager faces, the look of discovery when she could fire a young imagination to a new realization, that precious, irreplaceable moment when a teacher sees the student understand a new concept.
Sarah loved that moment.
She knew what it felt like, this magic of learning something new, of learning something that suddenly made sense.
She turned the black gelding, looking at the front of the funeral parlor, and in her mind's eye she saw those tiny coffins again, and closed her eyes, took a long breath.
Sarah's jaw clenched, her eyes turning a shade of pale.
There will be no trip to Rabbitville.
It was just a test.
A test!

Her fists closed on her thighs -- like her Papa, she knee-reined her gelding, sometimes riding him without even a bridle -- and she felt a moment's heat: she dismissed her anger, for it did her no good, and interfered with the reasoning faculties.
A test!
Have I not proven myself, time and again?
Sarah tilted her head back, eyes still closed, feeling the light, cold sting of tiny little ice flakes on her face.
Pride, a voice whispered.
Your pride is stung.
Sarah pushed the resentment from her, dismissing it as she had her anger.
I wonder how fast the measles will get here, she thought, then turned the gelding, walked him down the street a bit further.
A light was on in the hospital's window, and Sarah's eyes narrowed a little.
I need, she thought, I ... I need some expert advice here.

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Linn Keller 1-5-12


Jacob's head came up, his brows puzzling together.
Annette placed her fork beside her plate and Jacob saw her hand go to the pocket in her dress, the one where she kept a holstered .44: she was all woman, a womanly and feminine creature who sang like an angel, played piano fit to bring tears to a man's eyes and bedded her husband with an enthusiasm in which Jacob rejoiced, but she was also a woman of remarkable good sense -- and she took her protective instincts seriously.
Jacob made a quick gesture -- wait -- and little Joseph, big-eyed, blinked and held still in his seat, at least until he realized he still had some buttered bread in reach.
Jacob went to the door, opened it; his father stood there with his hat in his hand.
Jacob's heart fell about twenty feet.
A lawman will remove his cover for one reason and one reason only, and Jacob tasted ashes when he saw his father held the reins of a familiar mare, the one with the upright crossed arrow.
"Tie her off and come in," he said quietly, and his father dallied the reins around the hitch post by the front door: kicking snow from his boots, he came in and wiped his feet on the thick, coarse rug just inside the front door.
"We're just settin' down to eat," Jacob said, taking his father's arm.
His father nodded, misery in his eyes, and he swallowed.
Annette rose at the Sheriff's entrance, her expression worried: she moved like a dancer, gathered plate and flatware, coffee cup and loaded on good meat and taters and set them down at the empty place beside Joseph.
Joseph, as usual, was not in his seat: with a joyful "Gwampa!" he ran scampering across the floor, charging full tilt into old Granddad's leg, and Grampa, being a grandfather, reached down, seized his laughing grandson and swung him waaaay up in the air, spilling a little boy's happy laughter all over the kitchen.
The Sheriff dropped little Joseph down to eye level, rubbed noses with him and said, "Have you been a good boy?"
"No!" Joseph laughed, and the Sheriff slung him up in the air again, catching him across his arm, breaking him like a shotgun: "No? I'll have to beat your butt!"
Joseph laughed and wiggled and the Sheriff slid him over his arm, grabbed his ankle: Joseph hung upside down and the Sheriff smacked the sole of Joseph's shoe, setting up a brisk rhythm as he chanted "I'm gonna beat'cher butt, beat'cher butt, beat'cher, buttcher beatcher ..." smack, smack, smack, the cadence slowing, little Joseph laughing almost hysterically.
"Hey!" the Sheriff said, hoisting little Joseph up, stretching to bring the inverted lad back up to eye level. "That wasn't your butt! You fooled me!"
"I fool you, Gwampa!" Joseph laughed, his face scarlet, and the Sheriff brought the lad back upright, held him bear hugged until the blood ran out of the lad's head and the dizzies passed, then he packed him over to his chair and eased him back down into his elevated, Joseph sized seat.
Jacob was grinning like he always did; father and son alike rejoiced at the sound of a happy child's laughter, and even Annette was smiling quietly.
The Sheriff sat at his place, stared at his plate.
Jacob waited; Annette knew something was not right, but remained quiet.
Little Joseph carefully speared a small bite with his fork, brought it with exaggerated precision to his mouth and only got a little dribble of juice down his chin.
The Sheriff looked at his plate and then at his son.
"Jacob," he said, "the mare is yours."
"Yes, sir."
"The widow Vess said Herb spoke of little Joseph riding her."
"Yes, sir."
"She said she's a lawman's horse and she'll come to you if you look like a lawman."
"Yes, sir."
"She said Herb told her little Joseph stuck to her like a tick on a coon dog."
"Yes, sir."
The Sheriff looked at little Joseph.
"You don't look like a tick."
Little Joseph's expression was solemn.
"I'm a boy," he said.
"I see," the Sheriff said with equal gravity. "You're not a tick?"
Little Joseph shook his head.
"You know what a tick is."
Little Joseph looked suspiciously at the Sheriff.
"It's what a clock does. Maybe you're a clock?"
"No!" Little Joseph declared, laughing.
The Sheriff frowned at the lad.
"I do believe," he said, "you are correct."
Little Joseph nodded.
The Sheriff turned to his son.
"Herb Vess is dead."
His pronouncement was flat, unemotional.
"Yes, sir."
"His house caught fire and he went back in after his wife's little dog."
Jacob's brows frowned together a little.
"He didn't come out."
Jacob closed his eyes, rested his forehead on his knuckles.
"Oh, no," Annette murmured. "Sheriff, how can we help?"
The Sheriff smiled sadly.
"You can call me Linn, we're among friends."
"You know I can't do that," Annette said in her soft voice, dropping her eyes and blushing.
"They lost everything," the Sheriff said, his voice distant as his eyes.
"Was Mrs. Vess hurt?"
"A little. She'll be ... she'll heal."
"How badly?"
"Not badly. The backs of her hands, a spot on her cheek. Singed off some hair."
Annette rose. "I have another set of dishes," she said, "and I've more cooking kettles than I need. How big a woman is she?"
The Sheriff blinked, his thoughts elsewhere.
"I'm sorry," he said, catching up quickly: "Bonnie and the ladies are sewing her wardrobe right now. I don't know as anyone is ... the plates ..."
The Sheriff lowered his forehead onto his knuckles, identical to Jacob's earlier move, and Annette was again reminded powerfully of how much alike father and son were.
Silence grew heavy and uncomfortable.
"She came over this morning," the Sheriff said. "She still smelled like smoke. I put her up in the Jewel. Herb ..."
His voice trailed off and he pushed his plate away, untouched.
Jacob looked at Annette, his expression serious.
His father was a man who loved to eat, and he knew it was a powerful statement of inner turmoil to taste nothing.
Jacob got up, went to a cupboard, withdrew a bottle and two glasses: his father rose, and the men retired to Jacob's study.
Annette heard the clink of glass, but little else; she knew the men talked for a bit, and she kept little Joseph from interrupting: finally she saw Jacob and the Sheriff head for the front door, and the door closed behind them: she saw Jacob leading the mare toward the barn, and she heard the Sheriff's Cannonball-horse retreating in the distance.
Little Joseph climbed back into his chair, picked up his fork and stabbed at the dried-apple pie's flaky crust.
"Mama?" he asked in his little-boy voice, and Annette looked up, her eyes big and dark.
"Mama, how come Gwampa didn't come back in?"

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Linn Keller 1-6-13


Parson Belden waited until the last notes of the hymn faded before he raised his hands and announced in his orator's voice, "Be seated."
The congregation settled into pews; there was the usual shuffling of feet, an occasional cough, and the Parson waited a few moments more.
"I had a fine sermon prepared," the Parson said.
"As a matter of fact I had such a sermon ready as would bring a stone statue to its knees at the altar rail, begging forgiveness for its sins."
The Parson's upraised and wagging finger, his overly serious expression, his exaggerated tone of voice, brought several smiles and a few chuckles: they knew the man was up to something, and they were right.
"My Mother, rest her soul," the Parson continued, "taught me that waste was a sin.
"I try not to be a wasteful man, which is why there is no pie left."
Laughter again, and the Parson looked at his flock with innocent eyes.
"Now, now, I didn't want it to go bad, y'see, if it went stale we'd have to throw it out and that would be wasteful and waste is a sin, and ..."
He blinked his eyes like a little schoolboy trying to get away with telling a whopper.
The Parson sighed, shaking his head.
"And if I stood up here and gave my full sermon and then the announcements to follow, it would be wasteful of your time and mine.
"If waste is a sin and I try not to be a sinful man, let me therefore dispense with the sermon.
"I intended to present about the Samaritan and the injured man, but the announcements present that sermon more clearly than I ever could.
"Doctor Greenlees?"
The mood changed immediately.
The town's physician had never addressed the community in such a forum; this, they knew, was a serious matter.
"There is a measles outbreak in Rabbitville," he said without preamble. "It's winter, it will spread slowly from one town to another but when it arrives it'll run through the town like wildfire."
This was more talk than the good Doctor usually gave in a week's time; the man was not known to be so long winded.
He had their attention.
"I do not expect any great problems. It is not a deadly plague, it shouldn't sweep through like the Black Death. Hopefully the worst it will do is fever, maybe convulsions in the young, occasional deafness, that's about it. In the meantime, mothers, look at your young when they get their Saturday night bath. You know what to look for: a rash, fever, earache. Babies can get fussy and noisy. Look at the roof of their mouth, you're looking for white spots. If you see these, dunk them in a nice hot bath. If it's measles, they will pop right out."
"What about school?" Daisy called, her hand upraised.
Sarah stepped up beside the Doctor.
"School will go on as usual," Sarah said. "If a child is infected, keep him home until he's over it. It will hit Rabbitville harder than it hits us." She looked up at Dr. Greenlees, as if afraid she'd just trodden upon his territory.
"Miss McKenna is right," the Doctor nodded. "I don't foresee any great difficulty. These things happen. When it does, we'll handle it."
Digger, sitting in the back row with his fine silk hat balanced on his lap, smiled a little.
He used to have a shop in a poorer part of the country, but poor or not, when the pox came through, he had a double row of small coffins, and every one of them occupied.
Business had been good.
As much as Digger was a resident and a member of the community, he was also a businessman, and he made a mental note to have more of the smaller coffins on hand.

Jacob was brushing the mare, soothing her with voice and with touch: he'd combed out her mane and her tail, dodged one kick and twisted from one bite, rapping her across the nose with the wooden back of the comb when she tried again.
The mare ducked her head and looked surprised, especially when little Joseph shook his finger and declared, "You big meanie, stop that!"
Jacob handed the curry to his boy, who proceeded to curry the mare's forelegs.
She bent and snuffed loudly at Joseph, but never even offered to bite: she stood still for the lad's attentions, and Joseph did a fine job: Jacob watched closely as Joseph went back and started working on her hind legs as well.
Jacob rubbed the mare's nose and murmured to her, called her a good girl and told her he was proud of her for behaving.
Chances are good the mare didn't understand a word he said, but chances are equally good she understood his tone of voice.
Annette looked up from wiping down the table, looked out the window to see Jacob leading the mare, with Little Joseph grinning in the saddle, his little boots thrust into the drawn-up, man-size doghouses.
Joseph held the reins like his Pa showed him, one-handed, left hand just above the saddle horn and right hand on his thigh.
Annette went back to wiping down the table.
She looked back to see little Joseph riding the opposite direction, back toward the barn, with Jacob nowhere in sight.
She looked back to her work, humming a little: she looked up in time to see Joseph, standing up in the stirrups, leaned over the mare's neck, yelling and grinning, and the mare was at a gallop, her nose thrust forward, and in that snapshot, that moment's visual impression, Annette was hard pressed to decide which was the happier, the grinning, yelling little boy, or the mare he rode.

Jacob curled his lips and whistled and little Joseph laid the reins against her neck just like his Pa taught him, and the mare turned under him and gathered herself and thrust hard against the frozen ground, hooves thundering against the snow as she stretched out into an honest-to-God, run-like-hell gallop.
Jacob threw his arms wide and little Joseph leaned back in his saddle and drew gently, gently back on the reins and the mare haunched back and skidded a little and came to a blowing stop just arm's length from the calm, unruffled Jacob, who reached up to caress her nose.
The mare snapped at him and Jacob slapped her nose, gently, and scolded, "You big meanie, stop that," and she did.
Jacob fed her a thick sliver of molasses cured tobacker from the flat of his palm and rubbed her ears and called her a good girl.
He looked up at Joseph
The lad's eyes were big and his cheeks and ears were red, and the lad had a grin on his face as broad as two counties in Texas.
"Joseph, how'd you like it?"
"Fine!" Joseph crowed, his exclamation puffing out in a happy breath-cloud.
"That's my boy!" Jacob declared proudly: rubbing the mare's neck, he stepped back and raised his arms to pick Joseph out of the saddle.
The mare swung her head around and neatly plucked the protruding bandana from Jacob's coat pocket, pulling it free and nodding briskly, waving the paisley flag in derisive triumph.

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Linn Keller 1-8-13


It was snowing again.
His Honor the Mayor George Plant looked out the window at the big flakes brushing the slightly wavy panes, and shivered: he remembered how heavy and low the clouds hung and his bones told him snow would be deep and lasting this time.
They'd been lucky so far this winter; there was snow, nothing really significant; it had been cold, but not terribly so: although it wasn't getting really what a man would call cold, it looked for all the world like it was going to get rather deep, and frankly His Honor the Mayor preferred a comfortable saloon with cigars and drinks and good company for the atmosphere in which things got deep.
There was a tap on the door; he looked up as the wooden portal swung in and a disapproving-looking woman in a slightly old-fashioned dress steamed in like a packet boat on the Ohio River: she sniffed, throttled up and thrashed her way to Mayor Plant's desk and drove the tip of her umbrella into his carpet, her hands folded over the curved handle.
"Mr. Mayor, you need a competent schoolteacher, and I am here to take over," she said crisply.
The Mayor's eyebrow raised.
Those who knew the man, knew this was a warning: it meant he'd taken an instant dislike to something, and right now he disliked this pushy stranger, the way he disliked anyone making demands of any kind.
"Please be seated," he said neutrally, keeping his own seat: it was a powerful signal in and of its own, for in this era, a gentleman rose in the presence of a lady.
His Honor did not rise.
"My name is Fritter. Alice Fritter."
"Is that supposed to mean something?" Mayor Plant said quietly.
"Surely you received my letter!"
"Your letter."
"In which I outlined my excellent qualifications, described your own teacher's deficiencies and those of the students, projected the ill effects of a lifetime of a poor education and demonstrated how my expertise in education would be of benefit. It included salary requirements and letters of reference."
His Honor nodded.
"I seem to recall something of it," he said finally.
In truth, he'd glanced at the letter, put off by the high-handed tone of its opening sentence: he barely glanced at the rest of the packet, choosing instead to consign the whole mess to the nearest stove.
"I understand your current schoolteacher is a" -- she paused as if something distasteful were on her tongue -- "married woman."
His Honor blinked slowly, looking directly at the feather merchant across from him.
"The presence of a married woman is -- why, it's scandalous! Simply unheard-of! No decent woman" --
His Honor held up a hand.
"One moment," he said, reaching for his humidor: he withdrew a Havana, clipped the end neatly into the cuspidor beside his right foot: striking a Lucifer, he puffed the hand-rolled leaf into life, frowning a little.
"Do continue," he finally said. "Scandalous, you said."
"Indeed! And the child that purports to assist her --"
Again the Mayor held up a forestalling hand.
"You are a schoolteacher."
"I am," she said, almost snapping the reply, "and I come most highly regarded."
"Then I take it you are not Mrs. Fritter."
"I am Miss Fritter," she said archly, disdainfully raising her nose.
"Very well, Miss Fritter." The Mayor leaned back in his chair.
"Might I be so bold as to inquire ... why you chose to honor Firelands with your presence, instead of, say, Carbon Hill, Cripple Creek, Hollister, Murray City, Silver Tongue?"
"Firelands has the greatest need for a competent --"
"Competent," the Mayor interrupted. "I believe you said competent."
"Letting a married woman teach -- why, you are corrupting young and impressionable minds with a horrid example of --"
"Miss Fritter."
The Mayor's voice did not often grow cold, but it did so now.
"Miss Fritter, we have a schoolteacher who waded into a street brawl with a school bell and beat the brawlers into submission so their noise would not interrupt her class. We have a schoolteacher who can whittle, whistle, ride, shoot and climb trees. We have a schoolteacher who has a gift for directing young minds and showing them new ideas and leading them to an understanding, not by telling them facts, but by asking them questions and letting the children discover the answer themselves.
"Our schoolteacher is known to us and trusted by us.
"She is also married to the town Marshal.
"The other schoolteacher is not the child you describe her.
"The other schoolteacher saved several lives in a building fire, putting her own life seriously at risk to get everyone out of the building.
"The other schoolteacher is also the Sheriff's daughter, and she too has our complete trust and faith."
His Honor the Mayor stood, cigar forgotten between two fingers as he leaned over the desk.
"And we don't need some damned Easterner coming in from some fancy college, all full of self righteous book learnin', thinking she is God's gift to the howling wilderness, all set to bring culture and education to the unwashed.
"Madam, I have met many of your kind and I have a liking for none of your kind.
"Allow me to invite you to leave our little community while you still can. The stage will be through in a half hour and I suggest you are on it -- unless you wish to take the train, which leaves in two hours."
The Mayor stepped out from behind his desk, walked to the door, opened it.
"I have the pleasure to wish you a very good day, Miss Fritter. Please don't come back."

Angela's dainty little hat was covered with a knit scarf, which Esther brought down over her ears and around her neck: Angela happily rode her Rosie-bud horsie beside Jacob, and Jacob waited until Esther was inside the house before grinning at Angela, and Angela grinned back at him, and the pair of them turned and made for the whitewashed board fence: side by side the horses thrust into the air, clearing the top board easily, or almost so; Rosebud's hind hoof barely ticked the wood on the way over, but did not knock her off her stride.
Angela's laugh floated in happy steam-clouds on the cold air and the two drew up, and Jacob laughed as Angela's apple cheeks and shining eyes declared her delight.
"C'mon, Sis," he said, "I've got something to show you."
"Okay!" Angela piped.
Anything that got her on a horse and beside her Daddy or her big brother was fine with Angela: she and Jacob rode through the silent snowfall, coming into Firelands from the back side, and up the cemetery hill.
The horses walked slowly along the wagon road around, then through, the cemetery, and Angela's eyes went to the small stone -- almost buried now -- that marked her baby brother's grave, and her eyes skipped over the ornate double stone with her Mommy and Daddy's names on it, and their birth dates: she looked instead at the side, the engraving with her name, and she knew that in due time she would be laid beside her Mommy, unless she was married to a rich and handsome prince that took her far away to an enchanted castle and she was buried there.
"Over this way," Jacob said, leading into the oldest corner of the cemetery.
Angela's eyes widened.
Jacob dismounted and walked over to his little sis: Apple-horse was ground-reined and he threw Rosebud's reins over as well, swinging Angela down to the ground.
"Ooo," Angela said, her eyes big.
She'd not seen this monument before.
It was an angel, bent over a small piano: its forearm was across the piano, its head down on its arm and its wings draped over the whole, a picture of mourning, of grief, a powerful statement in stone, authored by someone whose sorrow was so deep that even angels wept to see it.
The name Miriam was barely visible, almost covered in snow, and Angela reached up and took Jacob's hand.
She looked up at her big brother and her expression became rather sad, for her big strong big brother was staring at the new monument, and his breathing was funny, and tears were just starting to run bright tracks down his cold-reddened cheeks.
Jacob turned to Angela and knelt, wrapping his arms around her and laying his cheek gently on her knit scarf, careful not to mash her hat.
"Guard your heart well, Sissie," he whispered fiercely, his arms tight around her: "a young heart is a tender heart and easily broken."
Angela didn't really understand what he meant, but she knew he needed a hug, and so she gave him the biggest Angela-sized hug she could manage, and big fluffy flakes of snow floated down and rested on them both, turning them into monuments of their own, silent and still in a silent and still garden of stone.

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Linn Keller 1-9-13


The three Kolascinski children labored through the snow, the oldest in the lead: the oldest child is ever the trail breaker for those that follow, and here it was literally true: he labored manfully through snow that was knee deep and in some places more so.
Snow was coming down heavier now; they were out of Firelands and near the railroad tracks, he knew: once they hit the tracks they would have easier walking.
If they could find the tracks.
Light and wind, blowing snow and fatigue, all took a toll on their sense of direction: they could not even see the heavy granite wall that was the mountain on their left: snow was coming down heavier, thicker, the wind was letting up a little but not much -- and then gusting, kicking up clouds and swirls and driving damp fingers of cold through their coats.
The three stopped, huddled; their big brother squatted, opened his coat and the other two bundled inside with him, grateful as much for this comfort as for the warmth.
"Are we lost?" the youngest whispered, and the big brother felt her shivering, and he squeezed her tighter and whispered back, "Nah. I know right where we are."
"I don't." His younger brother pushed away, looked around, thrust out a pointing finger. "I think we should go there."
"No." The reply was firm, clipped. "We go the way we were."
"But where are we?"
The three looked around, eyes burning in the darkening whiteness.
We need to find someplace dry, the big brother thought.
"What's that?"
The three froze, heads up, ears straining.
They'd heard something -- just what, they weren't sure, but a sound might mean a house, a house would mean shelter --
They heard it again, looked at one another, eyes big and hopeful.
Faintly, on the wind, a familiar, sharp cadence -- cl-clang, cl-clang, cl-clang --
"Miss Sarah!" three voices breathed: as one, they surged to their feet, hope renewing their strength: they pushed into the wind, pushed toward that familiar sound, the schoolbell, the one sound they knew meant safety --
They labored for some long minutes, stopped.
"I see something!"
A shadow, big, dark: they turned hopefully toward it --
The snow thinned and a horse, impossibly big, impossibly black, and on it, a white figure, a figure made of snow and of mist, white and shining hair streaming in the wind, and in her hand, a blazing silver lance, barring their way.
They stopped, shrank back from this sudden, threatening figure, and the wind quit, and for a moment so did the snow.
The big brother's heart stopped as he saw the chasm not three feet in front of them, the abyss they all knew ran to one side of town, a ravine steep and dangerous and inescapable.
The big brother looked up --
His little sister's hand tighted on one of his; his little brother's hand squeezed his other hand, hard.
Behind them, now -- they turned --
Cl-clang, cl-clang, cl-clang.
They turned their backs on the canyon and almost ran toward the schoolbell's brass song.
Panicked now, fear lending speed to their feet, all three tripped at the same time, landing face first in deep snow, rolling and sitting up and coughing --
They blinked and looked at one another and laughed, then the black horse was upon them again and the silver lance seared fire and shot a bright bolt of quicksilver at them and they rolled, falling: the big brother's hand came down hard on something smooth, hard, unyielding --
Rail, he thought. We found the railroad.
The ghostly figure on the red-eyed horses swung the lance and they fell back again, away from the searing cold fire sizzling and snapping from its tip, then the big brother looked to his left and grabbed his younger two and pulled back fast.
The Lady Esther came through the falling snow, moving silent, ghostlike herself: he saw her arc light appear, then brighten, and then she was there, breathing easy, coasting on a down grade, absolutely silent.
The black mountain of a horse and its rider clad in mist-silk stood unmoving in the middle of the tracks.
The big brother grabbed his siblings and rolled over, shielding them from seeing what would be carnage as their savior was rammed and run over by several tons of steam engine and steel wheels.
They lay in the snow, breathing hard, shivering: it was not possible for their ghostly savior to have escaped sure and certain death, there would be blood and meat all over hell and breakfast --
They struggled up, watched the retreating lights disappear almost the moment they were past, and they took slow, tentative, trembling steps toward the tracks.
They looked, searched, turned, looked again, looked at one another.
"Nothing," the younger brother said, eyes wide and scared.
"Come on," the big brother said. "I know where we are. We're almost home. This way."

The next day Inge Kolascinski rapped briskly on Bonnie's office door.
Bonnie looked up from the manual she was studying, plucked the pince-nez from her face and rose, smiling.
She opened the door and Inge seized Bonnie's forearms.
Bonnie felt the woman's tremor.
"Thank you," Inge whispered, her voice hoarse: "Your Sarah kept my children safe."
"You're welcome," Bonnie said, blinking, puzzled: "What did she do this time?"
"You ... didn't know?"
Bonnie shook her head slowly.
"The snow yesterday ... they got lost on the way home, it was blizzard and ... and your Sarah came out in the snow."
Bonnie poured tea for them both, hesitated, then added a generous shot of something water clear to one of the teacups and offered it to Inge.
It was evident she could use a little nerve tonic.
Inge took a sip, then a swallow and another: she held the delicate china in both hands, leaned against the closed office door and closed her eyes.
"My oldest ... he kept them together but he got turned around in the blizzard," Inge said haltingly. "They nearly went over the ravine.
"Your Sarah" -- Inge looked sharply at Bonnie -- "your Sarah stopped them from the ravine and when they found the railroad tracks she pushed them out of the way for the train was silent in the snow and when they were going the wrong direction she found them with her schoolbell."
Bonnie's eyes were big and worried: she poured some water clear in her own tea.
"Sarah," she said hesitantly, "was up all night with the twins. They were fevered and she tended them from the moment she came home from teaching school." She looked at Inge and both women turned a little pale.
"Sarah came home and never left the house."

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Linn Keller 1-10-13


Jacob forked hay over the fence for the horses.
Jacob was a lean young man, a man made of whalebone and rawhide, a man who gloried in the green strength of youth: he wasn't quite as stout as Shorty, who could likely walk up to, pick up and walk off with a donkey engine if he so chose, but Jacob was not puny by any long stretch of the imagination.
He'd been working for some time that morning: the barn was to his liking now, the horses had dry straw underfoot, the muck-out was done, Jacob was warmed up and feeling good, in part the satisfaction of a responsible man tending for those things for which he was responsible.
Little Joseph was tasked with gathering and fetching in wood for the stove.
He'd bundled up kindling, split and stacked and ready to take in; he strutted importantly to the front door and Annette opened the door for him: Joseph fairly marched to the kitchen, trailing snow and good intentions, dumped the kindling in an absolutely unkempt pile, then quickly stacked it end-on in the kindling box the way he was used to seeing it: straightening, he scampered for the front door and charged out into the snow again.
Annette smiled, sweeping the dropped snow, quickly, before it melted any further.
Jacob worked with the new mare daily, interacting with her as often as he could: his gut told him she was a good horse, and intelligent, but she still had the habit of biting if a body wasn't watching.
This, he knew, wasn't entirely bad: one of his Pa's horses -- that big stallion, I think -- was bad about biting anyone but his father, and it kept the horse from being stolen a time or two.
Jacob was not privy to everything his Pa did, but Jacob was a man quick to listen, and to hear tales told about the pale-eyed old lawman with the iron-grey mustache (was a man inclined to believe such tales), why, that pale eyed old Sheriff sent his big golden stallion off on his own to fetch in bad guys and sure enough that big Palomino did just that, carrying them into town with a good bite of the seat of the bad guy's pants, and the miscreant hollering and thrashing arms and legs as he was borne in equine triumph to the hands of justice.
Jacob figured such tales were so much second hand horse feed.
A man brought in by a horse, carried by the seat of his pants, would be too ashamed to draw attention by hollering and thrashing.
He looked out the barn's double doors to see Joseph, staggering for the front door, a big pile of stove wood in his arms.
Jacob nodded, making a mental note to brag the boy up.
Too often a father will accept that his boy does something well, or on his own, something that's needful -- but a boy needs to know the Grand Old Man notices, and approves, and appreciates: brag him up and he'll feel so good he'll bust his butt to do better next time just because it feels good to be praised.
Jacob looked at the hay on the other side of the fence and nodded, stacked his hay fork where he usually kept it: he blew a breath-plume, puffing it out like a little kid, and grinned.
Boys keep the old man young, he remembered hearing some time ago, and thinking of his efforts at keeping up with Joseph, why, at this rate he never would grow old!
Little Joseph kicked the snow off his boots before coming in again: his Mama stood in the doorway with a broom and nodded approval, for she'd just swept the front steps and the big stone slab porch clean.
Annette shaded her hand and looked toward the barn, squinting: there was still a good amount of overcast, but the sun punched through, briefly, bright and sparkling on new snow.
Jacob slid the doors shut and latched them, then stomped through the path he'd broken, heading back toward the house.
He could smell coffee.

The Sheriff finished brooming the board walk clear in front of the Sheriff's office: he had a flat bottom shovel he used to scrape packed snow off the warped boards, compacted ovals where people walked before he got it cleared.
The Sheriff was a tidy man and didn't stop his labors until the roofed section of board walk was clean and to his satisfaction, as were the steps on either end.
He'd debated whether to clear the path between his end steps and where they took up again this side of Digger's, and decided against it: he knocked snow off the shovel, the stamped metal Ames ringing in the cold air, then he went inside and stacked his working-tools in the corner.
The Sheriff cozied up to the pot belly stove: he closed his eyes with pleasure, soaking up warmies, opening his coat and sighing at the almost sensual pleasure of radiant heat on the fronts of his thighs: he stood for several long moments, then hung his coat up behind the stove, shaking it once on general principles, reached for his coffee cup and poured himself some steaming Arbuckle's: he'd set it a-boil before he went outside to clear snow and he was so looking forward to a good warmin' shot.
The milk was still good so he dumped in a good shot and a half or so, waited a few moments before carrying it over to his desk: his office chair was parked beside the stove to thaw out and he dollied the wheeled seat over to his desk, smiling a little, for he never did like to park his backside on a stone cold chair.
He set the coffee cup down, situated the chair, set his butt down and reached for the coffee.
A moment later he swallowed, grimaced.
"Yuck!" he shouted, "Who made this stuff?"
He got up and went to the front door, tossed the cup's contents into the street, then he went back inside and returned, blue granite pot in hand, swirled it and tossed its steaming contents after the first batch.
"Dammit to hell anyway," he muttered, "I gotta find me a better cook!"
He rinsed out the coffee pot, set it empty, lid up, on the shelf, and stomped over to the Silver Jewel, determined to have some decent coffee one way or another.

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Linn Keller 1-11-13


Sarah was young and strong, but fatigue will take its toll on the young as well as the rest of us.
She'd been up a day and a night and a day again with her twin sisters, watching over them, at bathtime she inspected their backs and their bellies closely for the red speckles that would herald the arrival of measles ... and she was pleased to find nothing of the sort.
Her sisters were feeling better, but Sarah insisted they remain in their flannel nightgowns and caps: the girls were playing quietly in the front parlor, Sarah made sure the stove was stoked and the ashes shaken down, and she carried out a scuttle of ashes and brought in wood, though the hired help was usually tasked with this: Sarah was restless, and Sarah was tired, and Sarah's eyes were heavy as she watched Polly and Opal happily chattering with their dolls and with each other.
Sarah sat on the sofa with a lap board and her papers and her whittled pencils, intending fully to write more stories for her book: she nodded a little, then shook her head and picked up a pencil.
The rider's silk gown floated gossamer-light on the wind of her passing, she wrote, and the upright lance braced in her right stirrup trailed a scarlet pennant, blood-red in the evening sun.
The pale-eyed Mountain Ghost --
Bonnie came in a half hour later: she smiled a little at Sarah's presence on the couch, and the quiet voices of the twins busy with their dolls: Bonnie blinked, tilted her head and took a step into the parlor.
The twins looked up and smiled and Bonnie put a quick finger to her lips: the twins surged to their feet and charged across the room, delight on their faces, and Bonnie squatted to embrace her little girls.
She looked up at Sarah and realized Sarah's head was bowed, her eyes shut; fatigue showed on her features, a pencil hung loose in her hand: curious, Bonnie released the twins, turned a little to read what Sarah had written, followed the lead streak where her last word trailed into a graphite line falling off the edge of the page.
She's fallen asleep writing, Bonnie thought, poor thing ... she's been up with the twins so I wouldn't have to be!
I'll ask her about the Kolascinski children later.
The maid appeared in the doorway, surveyed the scene and smiled: the affection of mother for daughter was evident in Bonnie's expression.
Polly looked at the maid, then at her Mama: she walked around the end of the sofa, tugged gently at Bonnie's sleeve, inclined her curly little head toward the doorway.
"May I serve dinner?" the maid whispered.
Bonnie smiled, walked quietly over to the maid.
"Yes, Mary," she whispered back, "and thank you."

Later that evening, Bonnie went out to the bunkhouse and tapped delicately at the door.
Sam opened the door, smiling: her hair hung loose, which surprised Bonnie: Sam normally kept her coarse auburn hair in braids, and wrapped around her neck.
"Come on in," she invited, and Bonnie did, handing Sam two loaves of still-warm bread wrapped in a thick towel.
"Sam," Bonnie asked, and Sam heard a little worry in her employer's voice, "did Sarah ride out yesterday evening, when the snow was bad?"
Clark blinked, looked over at Clark: Clark shook his head, slowly, and Sam followed suit.
"No ma'am. Her horses were with ours and we had 'em in the lee of the barn under the shed roof where they were out of the wind. We checked on 'em a few times through the night and they were right with ours, and happy to be there!"
Bonnie's eyes widened and Sam didn't see fear so much as puzzlement.
"Is something wrong?" she asked, her hand warm on Bonnie's elbow.
Bonnie sank into a chair, leaned her elbow on the table and her forehead into her hand.
"I don't know what happened," she said slowly. "I ... just ... don't ... know."

Jacob rapped on the telegraph office door, opened it and stuck his head in.
"Permission to come aboard!" he called, and Lightning grinned at him from the swivel chair.
"Salute the ensign and the officer of the day!" he laughed, rising: he offered his hand to his trusted friend and the two shook the way they always did.
"Lightning, might I borrow your wife?"
Lightning's face broadened into a grin and he sat back down, laughing, as Jacob's face turned red.
"That didn't come out right," he muttered, which made Lightning laugh all the harder.
"I mean -- the last time Sarah and I were sparring she threw me over her shoulder and I landed flat on my back, knocked the wind outta me, she did it so easy --"
Lightning's eyes twinkled and he laughed harder, throwing his head back at the mental image of diminutive, ladylike Sarah, tossing long tall and rangy Jacob like she was throwing a rag doll.
"It wasn't like that!" Jacob protested; if it were possible, his face would have turned more red, and Lightning was laughing hard enough he started to slide out of his chair, scooting forward on the cushion until he'd overridden the center of gravity and the chair kind of slid out from under him and Lightning ended up sitting on the floor, wiping his eyes and howling his mirth to the rafters overhead.
"It wasn't that funny!" Jacob shouted, trying to be angry, but he was laughing as well, and finally the two gave up and let laughter run its course: they both ended up snorting, wiping their eyes and blowing their noses, Lightning got his chair back on its caster wheels and picked up the pillow, then he looked at Jacob and got to laughing again.
Jacob spread his arms and shook his head, looking beseechingly at the beams above him: "How long, O Lord," he intoned in the manner of a Revival preacher, "how long must I walk around with one hoof between my teeth?"
"Out," Lightning said, waving his hand at the door. "Out! Out and come in again! We'll start over!"
Jacob did go out; matter of fact he was gone about five minutes and on his return he had a bottle with him and he knocked on the door, opened it and said "Lightning, take a touch with me, I want to borrow your wife!"
"Oh now you want to get me drunk first!"
"This ain't workin'," Jacob muttered.
"Sit," Lightning chuckled. "I've got a tin cup here someplace."
They had one cup between the two of them, but after a good short of Old Stump Blower, they tried again.
This time Jacob was able to address his request without the interference of a boot in the yap: Lightning agreed that Jacob would benefit from his wife's instruction, and Jacob secured permission to call when both Lightning and Daciana were home that evening.

Sarah was heavy-eyed through supper, and ate with little appetite, which concerned her mother: Bonnie bustled around the table, put a hand against Sarah's forehead, then laid the backs of her finger gently against Sarah's right cheek.
"Well, you're not fevered," she said.
"I'm just tired, Mama, that's all."
Bonnie squatted beside her daughter, took Sarah's face in her hands, looked at her with big, concerned eyes.
"Sarah," she said very quietly, "were you out in the blizzard?"
Sarah blinked.
Bonnie sighed, shook her head.
"Mama, I was up with the twins. You know that."
"Yes, I know," Bonnie said, her own voice tired: "but Inge Kolascinski ... her children ..."
Sarah's expression was suddenly concerned, her fatigue forgotten.
"Mama, what happened? Are they all right?"
"Yes. Yes, they're fine." Bonnie took Sarah's hands in her own. "They were lost in the blizzard but ... they made it home."
"Good." Exhaustion descended over Sarah's face like a drawn blind.
"You're tired," Bonnie whispered. "Why don't you go to bed?"
Sarah nodded.
Bonnie watched as Sarah climbed the stairs, looking for all the world like she was well beyond exhaustion, and unable to more than lift one foot ahead of the other: she wondered if Sarah would have a miraculous recovery once behind the privacy of her bedroom door.
A half hour later Bonnie slipped stocking-foot up the stairs, turned Sarah's bedroom doorknob slowly, carefully, eased the door open, peeked in.
Sarah was laying face down crosswise of the bed, fully clothed, sound asleep.

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Linn Keller 1-12-13


Sarah barely felt the quilt being gently laid over top of her.
Bonnie looked at her daughter, blinking slowly, then she eased down into a chair, hands clasped and clamped in her skirt between her knees.
She sat and remembered Sarah as a tiny, underfed waif, big-eyed, sad-eyed, but with a quick smile and a loving little nature.
Bonnie remembered Sarah, diving for a hiding place when violence erupted as it often did in the sordid upstairs of the Jewel, where the working girls were kept; she remembered how Sarah would peep out from around a corner or behind a bed, then she would wet a cloth and press it gently to Bonnie's newly blackened eye, or she would gently brush Tillie's hair, tears glimmering down her pale cheeks as she offered the only comfort a little child was able.
Bonnie looked at Sarah, sprawled across her bed, right arm thrown out; Bonnie saw the scarring on Sarah's forearm, where the stolen, runaway buggy had run over it with Sarah thrown from the carriage after fighting with the thief, and Bonnie swallowed a lump as she remembered hearing the Sheriff's scream of utter grief as he picked up her limp form, absolutely convinced that she was dead.
Bonnie reached out and brushed Sarah's hair, gently, stroking it with the backs of her fingers, feeling Sarah's breath warm and moist, and she remembered the stories of that terrible fire in Denver, she remembered being told of Sarah bringing in murderers, of Sarah riding like an avenging spirit after those who sought to rip the fabric of law and decency from their Western society, and Bonnie looked at this tired, sleeping, exhausted girl who'd come into her room and fallen across her bed and passed out without benefit of undressing or crawling under her covers.
Bonnie dropped her head and bit her bottom lip as she remembered that one horrible night when those men wanted to murder her and everyone in Firelands, and burn it to the ground, how outlaws of her own blood wanted to seize the mineral rights and were quite willing to murder the entire town to do it, after being unable to simply abduct and murder Bonnie.
She remembered how Sarah clutched her hand and didn't want to let go, when Bonnie muscled two pianos back-to-back and put Sarah between them, back against the wall, with Dawg guarding her: she remembered looking cautiously out from between the pianos, with the sound of galloping horses and men's shouts and gunfire out on the main street, the heavy cough of Mr. Baxter's double gun from the front door as he stepped out to meet the threat with buckshot and a serious expression: she remembered turning and seeing the reaver, the murderer who slipped in the back door, and how he leered and said something about what he was going to do to her and her little girl.
Bonnie looked at Sarah through tear-blurred eyes and remembered how she stood, the only guardian between certain death and her little girl, and how she raised the revolver she'd been given, the Sheriff's Navy Colt, and how she coldly, precisely, sent the intruder to hell.
Bonnie lifted her head, took a long, silent breath through her open mouth, blinking rapidly.
She looked down at Sarah.
She looks so young, Bonnie thought.
She looks like a young girl ... just very, very tired.
Bonnie squeezed Sarah's hand, very gently.
Sarah twitched, her hand seeking her Mama's: Sarah grasped Bonnie's hand and Bonnie squeezed her daughter's hand in reply, holding tight as Sarah, still asleep, groaned, a tired, exhausted, hopeless sound: she started breathing, quickly, then her eyes opened: pale, unfocused, she saw something not entirely in the here-and-now.
Bonnie leaned forward, laid her other hand on Sarah's and whispered, "It's all right, dear," and Sarah convulsed, coming off the bed like a scalded cat, snapping into a ball: she focused on her Mama, her face going white: she rolled up on her backside, seized her Mama in a desperate embrace, eyes wide, face pale, shivering: "Mama," she whispered. "Mama!"
"There, now," Bonnie soothed, rubbing Sarah's back, "sshhh, it's all right, I'm here, shhh, it's all right."
Sarah was several minutes slowing her breathing, several minutes of trembling like a frightened rabbit in its burrow.
"It was only a dream," she whispered, clutching her Mama like a drowning man clutches a life-ring: "I was so scared, Mama! I was so scared!"
Bonnie held her daughter, doing what mothers the world over knew, and have known: the best thing they can do when their child has such a nightmare, is just to hold her, let her know she is safe, something that only a mother can do.

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Linn Keller 1-13-13

"Oh dear," Daisy whispered, staring at her husband's broad, muscled, shining-wet back, a Celtic-pale back that rippled with strength when the man moved.
The man was hunched over in the tub, hands gripping the edges with a desperate strength as he worked his big feet under him and then stood with obvious effort.
Daisy seized a big fluffy towel and threw it the length of his back, took another and slapped it against his chest: Sean caught it and Daisy caught Sean and the two of them swayed dangerously, until the Irishman's balance improved.
Daisy looked at Sean's pale, flat belly, her own stomach contracting within her.
Sean's physique put the lie to the phrase "fish belly white," for his own abdomen was utterly pale -- so much so that the fine veining under the skin stood out like delicate tracery mapwork: the phrase "blue blood" came from this phenomenon, where the skin was so fair, the blood vessels were visible as this bluish lacework under the skin: here, though, Sean had not only the blue roadmaps beneath his furry belly ... he had scattered red spots, blots, dots ...
Sean wobbled again and Daisy stepped into the bathtub, ignoring the water, seizing her husband around his towels, knowing bare wet skin would be slippery and a towel back and front would help her grip.
"Don't ye dare fall, ye damned Irishman," she muttered, and Sean ran an arm around his wife as the world rolled suddenly to port and down by the head: he closed his eyes and swallowed his gorge as the deck suddenly raised until the bowsprit was pointed thirty degrees above the horizon, and he squatted suddenly, seizing the edge of the tub and groaning.
Daisy didn't attempt to hold his weight, knowing she would wreck her back if she did: Sean's arm came out and she knew his descent was controlled, if marginally, and she pulled her leg out of the tub just as Sean lost his footing and both legs shot straight forward and up the inclined end of the copper vessel.
The floor boomed and shivered underfoot and the big Irishman grunted through clenched teeth as water sloshed over the sides of the tub.
"Ye don't move now," Daisy scolded, "just lay still an' I'll get yer bed ready."
"I've got t' go t' th' firehouse," Sean muttered, jaw muscles bulging.
"Ye're goin' nowhere, Finn MacCool," Daisy snapped. "Ye've the measles an' ye're stayin' i' bed where y' belong!"

It was near enough to dawn when Sarah and Bonnie got up for the day.
A bath, clean clothes, brushing each other's hair: feminine routine was a comfort to them both; Sarah put up her Mama's hair, and her Mama put up her daughter's hair, and they each dressed the other: an observer could easily mistake them for blood relatives, for their mannerisms, movements, phrases, speech patterns, expressions -- and yes, their hair and their attire -- were very much alike.
Each held it a secret from the other, but each of them was pleased to see this mutual resemblance.

Dr. Greenlees washed his hands with his usual meticulous thoroughness.
"Now let's just have a look at you, shall we?" he said to the tall boy shivering under his covers.
"Out of bed, young man, and off with your nightshirt."
"C-c-cold," the young man complained, shivering.
"I know," Dr. Greenlees said, not unsympathetically, "but we have to be sure."
The lad's feet his the hook rug and he sat up, hesitating on the side of the bed: he stood, then lifted the nightshirt.
Dr. Greenlees saw what he needed to see before the hemline rose past the lad's waist, but he turned him and said "Hold there" as the lad's mother watched intently.
"See here" -- Dr. Greenlees indicated the red speckle field saturating the lad's back and backside -- "your instincts were exactly right." He pulled the material loose from the lad's grip and dropped the flannel nightshirt back down.
"Back in the bunk, son."
The lad shivered his way back under the covers.
Dr. Greenlees opened his black bag, took out two small paper envelopes.
"He's already fevered," Dr. Greenlees said, "and that's not entirely bad. We don't want the fever to get too high. It can cause fits and we don't want that. If his eyes go glassy and he doesn't know who you are, prime him with this, in tea." He handed her the two envelopes. "It is a febrifuge, it will bring down the fever but use no more than half a thimble full to a teapot." He smiled -- a wry, knowing smile -- and admitted, "Now that's worse than the bitters so you'll want to throw some honey in the tea and maybe even a shot of whiskey to cut the bitter. It will knock the fever like an Irishman driving rail spikes and he'll sweat and he'll be weak as a kitten. Soup is good, broth is good with plenty of water. He shouldn't develop the heaves unless something else hits him while he's weak."
Dr. Greenlees turned to the apprehensive young fellow who lay clutching the quilts high around his neck.
He sat gently on the edge of the bed, laid a hand on one of the boy's hands.
"This is more a nuisance than anything else," he said quietly. "I don't want you looking at anything bright until you're cured. Don't look at sun on the snow. Once the measles are gone, once you don't have freckles anymore" -- he grinned wryly, for the lad was naturally freckled -- "well, once the measles are gone, you will be okay to look at whatever you want."
Dr. Greenlees looked over at the mother and winked.
"Once you're recovered, I recommend pretty girls for looking at."
"He does that already," the mother said in a disapproving tone, and Dr. Greenlees laughed, his slim-fingered hand tightening on the boy's knuckles.

"Do I got any speck-les?" Polly asked.
Opal shrugged her shoulders. "I dunno."
"Do you got any speck-les?"
Opal shrugged again.
"I'm hungwy. Let's go have bweakfast."

"Dear," Esther asked in a worried voice, "have you ever had measles?"
The Sheriff laughed, setting down his coffee mug.
"Dear heart, I've had mumps, measles, chicken pox, the Galloping Crud and terminal ugliness," he replied, smiling. "Everything but the small pox and the putrid quinsy."
He looked at his bride.
"And you, my dear?"
"The same."
Esther was worried; she tried to hide her worry behind her teacup, took a delicate sip, but her eyes wandered to Angela, who was watching her Daddy with big and solemn eyes.
"I had measles," she volunteered. "I was very, very young."
Her words were carefully framed and measured and it was evident she was trying hard to be a Big Girl, probably to fit her new role as Big Sister.
"Good." The Sheriff nodded to his daughter. "Now to keep the twins healthy."
Esther smiled a little. "They're fine so far. I haven't had them out of the house, though."
"We'll keep them in for a while. Having them in church was a bit of a risk but that can't be helped."
"Babies are often healthier than adults," Esther murmured.
The Sheriff nodded: it was a fact, and on some level he was curious, for he didn't like to know what without knowing why -- but a man learns to accept that sometimes why is never answered, at least not this side of the Valley, and after ... well, afterward it might not matter.
"I know the newspaper said the measles were hitting Rabbitville."
Esther leaned back and thanked the maid as a plate of bacon and eggs settled in front of her.
"I have not heard of any cases nearby."
"Thank God for that," Esther sighed, picking up her fork.
The eggs were spiced just right, and Esther delighted in how their made fixed fried eggs.
They reminded her of the way her old Nana fixed eggs, when Esther was Angela's size, and her world was bounded by the plantation's borders.

Sarah stood patiently while the newest fashions were finish-tailored for her lean-waisted frame; there were several dresses to be made ready for the next fashion show, and there was that restless something within her that looked forward to a return to Denver.
Sarah smiled a secret little smile, remembering the theater tickets with which her brother had gifted her: the German count referred to her as a Valkyrie; her research was limited due to a lack of material, but Uncle Charlie's comments, the context of the remarks, all led Sarah to believe she wished to know more.
An opera about these legendary daughters of Odin would doubtless be entertaining, and hopefully to some slight degree, factual or educational.
Besides, she was a young woman, and what young woman doesn't enjoy getting dressed up for the theater, where people went to see, and to be seen?

Jacob had little Joseph around the waist,
Little Joseph, barefoot, walked across the kitchen ceiling, held safely in place by the strong and encompassing hands of dear old Da.
Father and son laughed, and Annette smiled, for the laughter of a father and a son, heard together, is a good thing.

Daisy's knuckles rapped a fearful tattoo on the door.
A moment later Esther was inviting her in, but Daisy drew back, drawing her shawl across her face as if to ward off the plague, or perhaps to contain it.
"It's the measles," she blurted, "an' I havena' the strength t' get Sean out o' th' tub."

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Linn Keller 1-13-13


Bill squinted as a gust of snow blew into the locomotive's cab.
The snow had mostly stopped, but The Lady Esther drove through a drift and blew a pile of snow into dust-fine fog, which of course came right back into the engineer's face.
Bill laughed, wiped his eyes: the fireman squinted at the water gauge, turned a valve just a little, wiping his dirty forehead on a soiled bandanna.
Bill reached up without looking, wrapped his hand around the weighted whistle-pull, hauled down on the valve: The Lady Esther screamed a steam-powered warning and Bill yelled "Ya damned idjut, get outta the way!"
The bull elk turned at the whistle, shook its head.
"Oh good Christ, no," Bill gasped, then yelled "DAMN YOU, DON'T YOU DARE!"
The elk, of course, did not listen: it took the approaching intruder with the shrill voice as a competitor, as a rival: lowering its rack, it charged, intending to drive this interloper off its feet and down the side of the mountain.
Bill flinched at the sound of the impact, turning his face away from the window until they were well clear of the collision.
The fireman picked up his scarred, sharp-edged shovel.
"I reckon he come out in second place," he yelled, grinning.
Bill smacked the fireman briskly with his hickory-stripe cap.

"Iasvs Christvs," the Sheriff swore, "you've gained weight!"
"I've not," Sean gasped, leaning heavily on his old friend.
"The hell you haven't!"
"Hold him up, Sheriff, I need ta dry 'im off bafore he chills!"
"Stook up th' fahr, Daisymedear, I'll be a'right," Sean chattered.
Daisy rubbed him down roughly and utterly without mercy.
"Ye great Irish oaf, shut yer gob an' get ye t' bed!"
"Lead the way, Sean," the Sheriff grunted, and the two men leaned forward into a tottering walk.
"And mind ye turn down th' kivvers bafore ya git inta bed, ya great Irishman!" Daisy scolded.
Her oldest son came up beside her, his eyes big.
"And you!" Daisy seized the lad by his arm. "Off wi' yer shirt, now, an' let's have a look at ye!"

Jacob pulled up Joseph's nightshirt and examined his belly and his back.
Little Joseph rubbed his eyes, sleepy, barely awake.
Jacob ducked his head, pressed his wide-open mouth against Little Joseph's belly, and blew, making a great bluckering noise and sending his little boy into happy, sudden laughter.
Jacob picked up his son, bounced him a couple times on his forearm.
"Come on, fella," Jacob grinned, "let's go eat us some breakfast!"

Sarah's eyes were big and solemn as she looked at her little sisters.
"I can't stop it, Mama," she said softly. "If I go to school I'll bring it back and if I don't go, it'll show up anyway."
"I know."
Sarah shivered a little.
"Darling, you haven't touched your breakfast."
"I can't stop it," Sarah whispered. "Mama ... I can't ..."
Bonnie reached over, grasped Sarah's hand.
"Tell me."
Sarah's eyes were dark, liquid, beautiful: she closed her eyes, opened them slowly.
"Mama," she whispered, "if it were a man ... a physical enemy ... if it were something I could lay my hands on" -- she pulled her hand out from under her mother's, raising both her hands into shaking claws -- she closed her eyes again and hung her head.
"Mama, I can't even see this enemy. I can't stop it."
"Then think like your father."
Sarah looked curiously at her Mama.
"When your enemy cannot be stopped, when the enemy is making an advance, what are your choices?"
"Dig in," Sarah said slowly, "or retreat."
She looked at the twins.
"No, dear." Bonnie looked at the twins and Sarah saw something hard in her Mama's eyes, a fierceness she hadn't seen for some time.
"We can't run and we can't stop it at distance.
"We'll have to fight this one on our own ground."

The Sheriff accepted the coffee cup full of red liquor: he waited until Sean rolled up on one elbow in bed to receive his, then he touched ceramic gently to ceramic.
Sean looked at his old friend, hesitated.
"Out wi' it, man," he muttered. "What's troublin' ye?"
The Sheriff nodded.
"I'd better say this before we drink."
"Do na' delay me, man," Sean chattered, "for I've a chill an' this'll warm me insides."
The Sheriff looked at the big Irishman with hard and pale eyes.
"Don't you dare get any worse," the Sheriff said, his voice tight. "I've only got one of you."
The men raised their mugs and drank, and neither stopped for air until the entire payload was down.
The Sheriff lowered his mug, took Sean's empty.
"Rest easy," he said quietly, and Sean nodded, teeth chattering, and rolled up on his side.
The Sheriff turned and faced the solemn eyes of Sean's boys.
He handed the mugs to Daisy and went slowly to one knee, opened his arms.
Sean's boys stepped up and the Sheriff wrapped as many of them in his embrace that he could.
"What's wrong wi' Da?" one of the youngest asked.
"He's got the crud," the Sheriff said solemnly.
"The crud?"
"Yep." The Sheriff nodded solemnly. "It hits men hard."
"Darned if I know." The Sheriff nodded wisely. "I had it myself."
"You did?"
"Oh, ya." He looked the young Irishman in the eye, just as solemn as the old judge, and continued, "My skin turned green and when I opened my mouth, butterflies flew out."
One lad laughed, another said "Naaahhh," a third said "Really?" and Daisy put her knuckles on her hips and scolded, "Sheriff, ye'll go t' hell f'r lyin'!"
"What, who, me?" the Sheriff asked, trying to look innocent and almost succeeding.

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Linn Keller 1-15-13


"Brother Plant," says I, "we need to order another four Irishmen."
"Whatever for?" says he.
"Sean has measles. He's flat on his back, Daisy is at her wit's end, every one of her young is all speckled out and if I'm any judge, the rest of the Irish Brigade is either infected or will be. I don't know how many already had measles but I'm planning for the worst."
"And the worst is ...?"
"That every man Jack of 'em will be down."
The Mayor leaned back in his chair, ran his fingers through rich, full, honey-colored hair: he was not a vain man at all, but he realized that a man of his vintage with a full thatch on the roof was not that common a sight.
"What's your plan?" he said at length, looking directly at the Sheriff, weathered skin wrinkling at the corners of his eyes.
The Sheriff reached into his coat, withdrew a thick envelope, tossed it on the Mayor's desk.
"There is three month's wages for four men. I propose to contact Cincinnati. Sean gave me the contact information some time ago against just such an occurrence. I know who to wire and what to say. I'll ask for four firemen who've had measles, I'll tell them which steam engine we have, I'll tell them we need four men for at least one and up to four months, wages paid at end of term."
Mayor Plant nodded slowly.
"If you're telling them up to four months but there's three month's wages there ...?" he said slowly, letting the question dangle.
"I'm betting we need them no more than one month. I could be wrong. I can't spend the town's money -- I don't have that kind of authority, that's your department -- but I bankrolled the Brigade to start with and if I come up with a bright idea I'd better be able to pull it off.
"Besides" -- he grinned that quick grin George remembered from years before -- "this will make you look good. The Mayor Who Was Ready. You won't have to dip into the treasury, you already have everything in place, all you need do is say "Send the telegram, Sheriff," and it's done."
George Plant was never one to over-think a problem: he would put due thought into it, but not excessive thought: his gut told him "Do It" and he did.
Mayor Plant reached across his desk, picked up the envelope, hefted it in his hand.
He looked up and nodded.
"Send the telegram, Sheriff."

Sarah was addressing a half dozen parents, there in the rear of the school, in front of one of the gas heaters: she knew there would be questions and she was ready to answer them as best she could.
The question that surprised Emma Cooper, and for which she had no answer, was a ranch wife who said she thought the measles already came through once, why should they worry about a second occurrence? Once caught, weren't they all immune?
Sarah answered for Emma and explained that there was more than one variety of measles; what they saw before was the old fashioned black measles: this was another type, lighter in color, faster to develop: she did not have a name for this new variety, but she was certain it was different, and about half the people who'd survived the earlier black measles were coming down with its less pigmented counterpart.
The schoolhouse was less populated than usual that day.

The Sheriff thanked Lightning for his kindness and turned to look down the street.
He could not see it for the intervening buildings but he knew the firehouse was yonder and not far, and he needed to find out the Brigade's condition.

Annette looked at herself in the full length mirror.
Naked, she turned slowly, critically examining herself: she turned her back to the mirror, held up a hand mirror to see her backside, and nodded, whispering a quiet thanks that she was not infected.
Her hand rested on her growing belly and she shivered a little, not entirely because she was without clothing.

In another town, in another saloon, three men hunched over their drinks, plotting where they might commit acts of lawlessness.
They decided quickly not to head west, or south: west, because Firelands lay in that direction, a place staffed with pale eyed lawmen and mountain witches both; nor south, to Rabbitville, for the plague was descended upon that New Mexico town, and though the three were without respect for the law, all three had respect for their lives, and none wished to come to an untimely end, either at the hands of the law, nor speckled by disease.

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Linn Keller 1-16-13


Bonnie's maid swayed and leaned against the table.
She was chilling now, shivering hard: she gripped the heavy wood tabletop, taking a few moments to steady herself.
Sarah came through the doorway and did not hesitate: she grabbed Mary's wrist, brought her arm up over her head and around her shoulders.
"Walk with me," she said quietly, and the maid did, leaning on Sarah's slender frame.
Sarah got her upstairs and into her night flannels and then into bed: Sarah scampered downstairs and soon returned with hot tea, then back down to take over preparing the evening meal.
Sarah looked at the twins and the twins looked back and Sarah thought, Denver would not have helped. Not as fast as the measles arrived.
Sarah thought of the opera tickets in her roll top desk and smiled humorlessly.
I'll get to hear that opera someday, she thought, then slipped the apron over her head and tied the strings around her waist, knotting it in the middle of her back.
Right now I have work to do.

The Silver Jewel was its usual warm, well lit, smoky, noisy, welcoming haven: men believed somehow the measles would be repelled, perhaps by cigar smoke, perhaps because they were taking sufficient alcohol into their systems to render them proof against any ailment: in any case, cards snapped against tablecloths, dice rattled and clattered and the roulette wheel snarled as it spun: coins clinked, there were shouts of triumph, groans of defeat, and over it all, the cheerful, bouncy rhythms of the piano, and on the stage, Dolly, high-kicking and snapping her generous hemlines and under-ruffles in time to the music.
The Sheriff accepted a mug of beer, fortified with a double shot of Kentucky Drain Opener -- "to ward off the epizootic," Mr. Baxter winked, and the Sheriff winked solemnly in return and slid a coin across the bar.
"I hear tell you've replaced the Irish Brigade," Mr. Baxter said, leaning over the bar to address the slender lawman with the iron-grey mustache.
The Sheriff drank deep, feeling warm fires start to warm his belly before he came up for air.
"Not quite," he sighed, wiping foam off his neatly trimmed lip broom. "I hired a few more in case we needed them."
"Do we need them?" Mr. Baxter asked, puzzled.
The Sheriff thought of his recent visit to the brick firehouse.
"Yes," he said, his eyes haunted. "We do."

The Bear Killer looked over the edge of the copper tub, then up at Sarah.
"Well," she said, "you might as well. Everyone else has."
The Bear Killer gave a happy "whuff" and hobby-horsed over the lip of the tub, into the still-warm bathwater, and Sarah sighed and began to scrub the blocky canine.
An hour later, The Bear Killer, clean, sweet smelling, with a red ribbon tied around his neck, lay happily between the twins, and the twins were sound asleep, each with a chubby pink arm laid over on The Bear Killer's curly fur.
Sarah looked in on the three, approaching close enough to assess each little girl's breathing, before looking long at their arms thrown over onto The Bear Killer.
Sarah stared for a long minute at the speckles just beginning to show on her sisters' arms.

Esther rocked her own twins as the two growing babies nursed: she leaned her head back against the padded back of the rocking chair, relaxing a little: her shawl was drawn over the twins, keeping them, and her, warm: she was a mother, holding her babies, keeping them warm, fed, safe.
Esther smiled, her eyes still closed.
The Sheriff looked at his wife: he leaned against the door frame for a very long time, then walked very quietly to his chair and eased slowly down into it.
He was content to watch his wife rocking gently, holding their babies.

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Linn Keller 1-16-13


Bonnie declared holiday at the dress-works.
Her staff of seamstresses, more than half yet unmarried, were women who'd known a hard life before coming there; they'd survived much, including the various diseases that seared through towns and villages and cities alike, and all but two had the measles already: one, for whatever reason, seemed unable to contract the disease, and the other discovered to her distress the first scattering of spots the morning of the day Bonnie declared no work for a week.
Only two of the women were married, only one had family, and none in her family were diseased: consequently, they earnestly petitioned Bonnie to change her mind, as none wished to do without wage and employment, and so the dress-works continued production.
Bonnie found herself depending more and more on her fourteen year old daughter, and so far, Sarah was more than up for the task.
Sarah had taken to wearing the white dresses she'd had the staff make up for her, and with their maid flat on her back, Sarah began patronizing the local Chinese laundry: the laundresses were old, Oriental, loud, never still, and remarkably healthy: of a morning, Sarah would tend the sick in their household, haul the day's laundry to her buggy, wash herself thoroughly to her elbows, and her face and neck, then change dresses: she drove to town, the laundry staff removed the cloth laundry sacks from her buggy and traded her for clean, dried, neatly folded attire, tied into neat bundles and placed carefully back into the laundry sacks (which were also clean, freshly laundered and if need be, repaired); these went back into the buggy, and Sarah went on to teach school that day.
The number of students was diminished, but there were enough to warrant classes: Sarah drove to the absent students' houses, checking on her young charges, keeping them up on their lessons, helping out as she could with a meal or lending a hand as needed before moving on to the next: at each household she would beg a pan of heated water, she would wash outside, change into a clean dress outside, then go in and take lessons or groceries or both and then she drove to the next and did it all over again.
She generally returned to the Chinese laundry that evening, tired, with maybe one clean dress left, and she would wash up at the laundry and change into the last clean dress before going home.
That night as she set their supper on the table and prepared a tray to take upstairs to the maid -- for she was hit hard by the disease, it often hit adults like the noon freight -- she heard Bonnie mention to Levi in passing that the Irish Brigade was in crowded quarters, that the new Cincinnati firemen were arrrived and their beloved Brigade was down to a man with the measles.
That evening after supper, Sarah harnessed up the mare again and drove back into town; she had two kettles of stew and several loaves of bread in the buggy, and as she drove toward the fine brick firehouse, she had a worried look on her face as well.

Robert Porter went to the door.
Robert was one of the Cincinnati firemen brought in by the Sheriff's generosity; though a competent fireman, he knew there were critical items he needed to know, and so it was with curiosity and a little apprehension that he opened the door.
A slender young woman in a white dress stood there, holding a kettle by the bail; she had a basket on one arm and a worried look about her.
"I brought supper," she said without preamble, "the other kettle is in the buggy and I've only two hands," and stepped inside like she owned the place.
Porter blinked and stepped back: this woman came in with an air of expectancy, as if she expected her words to be obeyed: it was the same attitude of an officer, of command rank that knew it was the authority and knew its words were law.
When faced with a ranking officer giving orders, a soldier -- or a fireman -- will say "Yes, sir," and follow the orders.
Porter went out to the buggy and brought in the second stew-kettle.
Sarah swept into the kitchen, set the stew down on the stove, where it could warm back up from the buggy ride out: she turned, put the basket on the table, unfolded the checkered cloth and turned again, bringing out a large serving platter, a cutting board and a serrated knife: another quick move and she had the butter from the cold-safe, and soon had bread sliced, stacked and ready: Porter set his kettle beside Sarah's and watched, mouth open, as Sarah never stopped moving: with grace, with a cold efficiency, with a studied economy of motion and yet a woman's -- no, a dancer's grace -- she set the table, one place for each of the Brigade plus each of the replacements.
Finally she snatched up a particular pan hung in a particular place, wooden spoon in the other, and beat briskly on the kettle, making an unholy racket that echoed in the quiet firehouse: "Come and get it, damn you, before I throw this slop to the pigs!"
She hung the kettle back on its hook and carried the long handled wooden spoon like a scepter as she swept around the end of the table and approached Porter.
"How many effectives have we?" she asked briskly.
Porter was not used to civilians -- especially women -- inquiring into the business of a firehouse, and so blinked and frowned and tried to come up with an answer that would thank her for supper but would dismiss her from what was obviously none of her business.
A familiar voice said "Four effective, an' the rest of us are no' too good."
Sarah turned.
To her credit she did not rush up and embrace the man, but her worry was plain on her face.
"Mr. Llewellyn," she said quietly, "report."
"It's no' good, darlin'," Llewellyn said in a quiet, serious voice. "We're a measly bunch" -- he tried to laugh, coughed instead -- "I'm weak as a kitten but yon stew smells good!"
"I made it especially for you," Sarah said softly, placing the wooden spoon on the table and advancing hesitantly and finally stopping ... her hands were anxiously clasped in her apron, then she cast convention aside and took the fireman by the upper arm, placed her other hand on his chest.
"You're warm," she murmured. "You should be in bed."
"And how would I come an' eat supper if I were abed?" he asked with that wry grin she was beginning to appreciate.
"The others?" she asked, her eyes big and lovely.
"I'll fetch 'em. As good as tha' smells, they'd drag themselves to th' table on bloody stumps rather'n miss this meal."
"He's worse'n th' rest of us put together. Daisy's takin' care o' him."
Sarah nodded. "Fetch in the rest of the Brigade. I'll be right back."
Porter and Llewellyn followed her with their eyes.
Just before Llewellyn went to fetch his fellows, Porter observed, "She's a looker. She yours?"
"Aye," the Welsh Irishman nodded. "She's t' be m' wife."
"Does she know it yet?"
The Welshman swayed a little, put out a hand to steady himself.
"I've no' asked her father yet."
Porter remembered a Cincinnati lass and smiled his understanding.
"Don't wait too long," he advised.

Sarah returned with two bottles of medicinal alcohol, to find the table filled with firemen: she went from one to another, calling each by name, feeling foreheads, cheeks and necks, pouring each a good tilt of Old Soul Saver -- "good for what ails ye," she joked, to the general chuckle of the combined Brigade -- and as they dug in with a good appetite, Sarah realized with some surprise she hadn't eaten that day.
One of the new Cincinnati men made coffee, and its fragrance competed with the smell of good stew and fresh, still-warm bread, and even the men whose stomachs were not inclined to food due to their illness, found themselves able to eat, and eat they did.
There was enough stew left after each man had his fill and his refills, for Sarah to have a plate as well, and a little bread: she ate with them, feeling guilty for not bringing any pie, and made a mental note to check with Daisy's kitchen to see how it fared.
Hopefully there would be pie.
She looked down the table at Llewellyn and bit her lip, dropping her head, for she knew he did so love pie.

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Linn Keller 1-18-13


The Sheriff hammered his fist on Digger's office door.
Digger's assistant came around the corner, rubbing his eyes, for the hour was early.
"Sheriff?" he mumbled. "Who died? How many?"
"Nobody, yet," the Sheriff snapped. "I haven't seen your boss for a few days." He hammered on the door with the heel of his hand. "DIGGER! ROLL OUT!"
"He's not there."
The Sheriff dropped his hand, glared at the assistant.
"WHERE IN TWO HELLS IS HE?" The Sheriff's voice was loud, demanding. "DOESN'T THE MAN KNOW THERE'S A WAR ON?"
"A war? How many? Dear Lord, I don't know if we have --"
"Oh shut up!" the Sheriff snapped. "Is he on his way back?"
"Yes, sir, he should be back any time."
The Sheriff turned, his jaw thrust out, took a menacing step toward the assistant.
"You," he said, thrusting his finger at the man, "have done nothing wrong and I apologize. I am short on sleep and short on temper and I had no business takin' out my bile on you."
The assistant nodded, once, slowly, not really sure what to make of a man of authority who would actually apologize for speaking loudly and harshly to a lackey.
"Nothing's gone wrong, we don't have a train wreck or anything." The Sheriff rubbed his forehead. "I need a drink," he mumbled.
The assistant, now thoroughly confused, waited for the Sheriff to come to some decision; apparently the man did, for he turned abruptly and strode out the front door.

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Linn Keller 1-19-13


It was seldom that the Sheriff came into the Silver Jewel in an ill temper.
The Silver Jewel was a refuge and a haven, a place of tranquility and calm, except for those times when it wasn't.
When the Sheriff hauled open the ornate, heavy, frosted-glass-paned door, he would not have cared if the place was calm as milk or in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out, good old fashioned tavern brawl: he stepped inside, stepped to the side to get his back to the wall, sweeping a cold-eyed glare across the interior of the saloon.
Tilly was noting something down in her ledger; the Sheriff saw Mr. Baxter's elbow appear and disappear as the man polished his mahogany bar: men were drinking, talking, laughing, playing cards; smoke hung in stratified layers.
The Sheriff's pace was slow, his boot heels uncharacteristically loud.
A rattlesnake will shake its segmented tail to warn that its temper is up and it will strike if provoked; a skunk will raise its tail, a dog will bristle and bare its fangs: the Sheriff, normally a man with an absolutely silent footfall, walked hard, walked slow, and at his approach the Jewel fell silent, a cold breeze blowing across every man's heart: death was in the wind, and the cold-eyed Sheriff was its author.
Men drew back as the Sheriff stopped and waited for Mr. Baxter's good pleasure.
Mr. Baxter came over with his usual ready grin, his mustache immaculately curled: "What can I get for you, Sheriff?" he asked heartily in the thickening silence.
"I, need, a drink," the Sheriff said slowly.
"Comin' right up."
Mr. Baxter assessed the Sheriff's appearance: the man was not carrying a rifle, therefore he did not want the big drink: he poured three fingers in a fat glass and the Sheriff slid a coin across the bar: he picked up the glass, knocked it back in four swallows, set the glass carefully, silently, back down on the bar.
"Thank you," he said, his voice deep, quiet, strong in the hush: he turned, and men faded back from his path, and he walked slowly, his boot heels loud, to the front door, and out.
Men looked at one another and the usual buzz started up again: Mr. Baxter's quick ear separated conversation from piano music and he felt his stomach tighten a little, for one man was betting the Sheriff was headed out to take a man dead or alive, another was wagering on cause of death -- fists, feet or blades -- a third declared he would take bets on how many times the Sheriff would shoot, or be shot.

The Sheriff caressed the nose of his Outlaw-horse, hesitating before mounting: he stood with the sun warm on his back, the air cold in his nose, his breath steaming before him, his shadow sleeting through the hanging breath-clouds.
He pulled Outlaw's reins free of the hitch rail, thrust his foot into the smooth, featureless, black doghouse stirrup, swung aboard and found the other stirrup.
The Sheriff's cold eyed glare swung methodically as Outlaw turned and stepped into an easy trot, down the street, past schoolhouse and church and firehouse and on out of town.
He had to see Levi Rosenthal.
They had to work out a problem, and only they two could handle the situation.

Two horses rode up toward the line shack.
A rider turned, said something quietly to the other; the second rider halted, faded into a little stand of scrub and waited.
Jacob rode on up to the shack, eyes busy.
Smoke from the stovepipe he expected; three horses in the little corral, also expected; snow, trampled where men usually walked, to and from the outhouse and the well, also expected.
Jacob put two fingers to his lips, whistled.
"Frederick!" he challenged. "You got anythin' edible in there?"
"No!" came the muffled shout from within. "I ain't got nothin'!"
Jacob grinned and rode on up to the hitch post, ground reined his stallion.
"You better be decent, I'm a-comin' in!" Jacob hollered, his grin visible in his voice, and from within, "I'm buck naked, damn you!" and Jacob opened the door.
Frederick held up a steaming coffee pot, and he was not naked. "Got a fresh batch, Jacob. Better'n your Pa makes."
"If you boiled up cow dung it would be better than what Pa makes," Jacob laughed. "I'd take a warmin' shot."
Frederick poured two steaming mugs. It was almost warm in the shack; Frederick was a thrifty man, and fired the stove only as much as was absolutely necessary: he was a good gauge of the weather as well, and if it was not going to be terribly cold, he did not fire terribly much, but if he fired up the stove and banked in plenty of wood, you could guarantee it was going to get cold.
"Cold" is a relative term: it was cold, it was snowy, it wasn't below zero but it wasn't far from it ... for the high country, not bad at all.
"Bad" was forty below and a stiff wind, "bad" was cold enough for trees to twist and freeze and bust with the sound of a cannon shot.
Jacob had known such bad weather, and so had Frederick.
Jacob set two cloth sacks on the table; there was a clank from one and Jacob said "You owe me."
"How much?" Frederick asked, lifting the lid from a cut glass sugar bowl and carefully philtering in a long pinch of browninsh crystals into his coffee.
"Buy me a beer when you're 99," Jacob grinned, untying each of the sacks. "Canned goods, keep 'em from freezin'. Coffee, flour, jerky beef" -- he pulled out a flat wooden box, then another, the two were stacked flat in the bottom of one sack -- he pulled out a long, stout bladed knife, prized off the flat lid -- and Frederick sat heavily in a chair, his eyes widening.
"Annette said a man hadn't oughta be alone," Jacob grinned, "but she couldn't figure how to get a good lookin' woman in one of them sacks, so she allowed as you ought to have a couple of pies."
Frederick's jaw dropped and he stopped short of drooling down his shirt front as he regarded the two woman-cooked pies.
Jacob pulled out a chair, set down, felt his tin cup with the backs of his fingers. It was still not much short of boilin' so he left it set and steam on the table for a bit.
No need to scald the hair off my tongue, he thought.
"Frederick," Jacob said softly, "it was not your fault."
Frederick's expression was half-past haunted and a quarter til guilty.
"Frederick, you had no way of knowin' that boulder was broke off that rock shelf."
"Twas my cabin," Frederick said slowly, his eyes distant. "Twas my don'. I picked the spot and I built it and I picked her up and carried her across the threshold. I laid her down in that bed and I went back out to fetch in the luggage and ..."
Jacob nodded, remembering the scene: a boulder nearly big as the cabin fell fifty feet, rolled, mashed a well built, solid built cabin into kindling and ruin, and it took a team of miners with drills and powder to bust up that rock enough to get Frederick's young wife's body out from under it.
"Twas my fault, Jacob," Frederick said finally.
Jacob nodded.
"How long you gonna punish yourself?"
"This ain't punishment," Frederick said at length.
"What is it?"
Frederick looked up at Jacob, his hands cupped around his own tin cup, almost touching it, holding in its warmth.
"I ain't killin' no one else," he said quietly. "I killed the only decent soul I ever knew, Jacob. She's dead on account of me and I got to answer for that."
Jacob nodded again.
"Would it help," Jacob said finally, "if I was to stake you naked over her grave and horse whip you?"
"I got worse than that a-waitin' on me."
The door opened and a woman was silhouetted in its framing: she stood for a long moment, and Frederick, eyes widening, stood, his chair falling backward and hitting the floor like an exclamation point to what the man was seeing.
The woman came in and closed the door behind her; she turned, made fast the latch, then turned and looked squarely at Frederick.
"No," he whispered, shaking his head, "no ... no, it ain't ..."
Jacob stood, stepped to the side.
The woman looked at Frederick, eyes bright: she looked at Jacob, then back at Frederick.
"My name," she said, her voice low and musical, flavored with the Irish accents he remembered so well, "is Deborgille. Sadb was my sister.
"You made her a happy woman, Frederick, and she blessed your name the night before your wedding."
The woman drew a folded paper from a coat pocket.
"She wrote me that night and she told me again how much of a gentleman you were, and how kind, and how gentle, but how strong and ..." -- Deborgille looked at Frederick -- "and she said how much of a man you were, in the finest sense of the word."
She took a step toward Frederick, another: she moved slowly, as if toward a frightened child.
"You brought happiness to my sister." She blinked, long lashes sweeping the air, her eyes bright, shining, illuminated from the window across the table from her: her complexion was clear, healthy, her hair shining, her lips red and rich: Jacob stayed back, unmoving, watching, hoping this would work, hoping his plan would prove fruitful --
"I killed her," Frederick whispered.
Deborgille laid a gentle hand on Frederick's forearm.
"You would never kill that which you loved," she whispered.
Frederick raised a trembling hand, laid it gentle on the back of Deborgille's: he swallowed, looked at the table, blinked again.
"I ... don't have much," he said finally, "but I have plates. Please, join us, we have pie."
"I know," Deborgille smiled. "I baked them."
Frederick looked at Jacob and then at Deborgille, realizing suddenly he'd been had, he was the victim of a well played conspiracy, and he looked again at Deborgille, really looked at her, and he saw his beloved's face again, and remembered she had indeed spoken of a sister back East ... a sister whom she loved, a sister for whom she was worried, for their parents were gone now and no one to care for her, and he promised his wife on the wagon ride to their cabin, with her in her bridal gown and veil beside him, that he would see her sister brought out to live with them, and now here stood her sister, and he remembered the promise.
Frederick swallowed, took a long breath, then moved his hand from Deborrgille's to grasp the point of her elbow.
"I don't believe we have been properly introduced," he said formally, looking deep into the woman's eyes.
"Jacob," he said, "I would like you to meet my fiancee."
Jacob nodded slowly, smiling a little.
Frederick bent over, picked up his chair, set it aside: he drew out a chair for Deborgille.
Only then did he sit.
Jacob waited, as did Deborgille; steam curled in graceful plumes from the coffee, now forgotten on the rough tabletop.
Frederick's eyes were big, distant; he blinked, looked at Deborgille, then at Jacob.
"My God," he whispered, "my fiancee? I ... you don't know ... a thing about me."
"I know all I need to," Deborgille said. "My sister was an excellent judge of character. Jacob here" -- she gestured toward the silent, unmoving deputy -- "I don't know him but I know his father, and I know his father to be a man of honor and of honesty. The apple falls not far from the tree and I believe the son can be trusted."
"Oh, aye," Frederick agreed, his voice faint.
"And what I don't know about you from my sister, I know from this man." She gestured toward Jacob, he bent-finger, palm-up wave so much like his own dear wife's ... he felt a moment's dizziness, closed his eyes, opened them again.
"I know all I need to know about you, Frederick. It is you who does not know me."
Frederick looked at Jacob.
"Jacob," he said, "what can you tell me about this woman?"
"She's your fiancee, not mine," Jacob said, his expression innocent, then he chuckled: "Frederick, my father has her so far up on a pedestal it's a wonder she doesn't have nosebleed. She comes from a good family, she's known want and hunger, she's known cold and privation, she's known hard times and bad times and she's needing a good man for a husband."
"And you think I'm a good man."
"No," Jacob said firmly, his voice hardening: "No, Frederick, I do NOT think you are a good man." Jacob's hands closed into fists and he pressed them down on the table top, rising slowly.
"I," he said, his voice sharpening like steel on stone, "think you are a DAMNED good man, and don't you ever forget that!"
Frederick blinked.
Of all the things his friend could say, Frederick did not expect such a fierce pronouncement.
"Now," Jacob said. "There's no rock above this shack but it's pretty far up on a ridge and the wind just whips through these cracks. There's two bunks and I've slept in better."
They heard a voice outside, then the hail "Hello the shack!" and Jacob said "How many plates you got?"
"Your relief just arrived," Jacob grinned. "and when he sees that pie he'll want some. You two are coming back to Firelands and the Parson is ready to hitch the pair of you. I even bought a brand new broom at the Mercantile so you two can jump over it together."
Frederick looked at Deborgille: hesitantly, almost fearfully, he reached for her hand.
Deborgille reached for his and squeezed.
"A woman is proud to marry an honorable man," Deborgille said, and Frederick swallowed hard, for she sounded so much like her dead sister: "I will be proud to be your wife."
"A man hopes to marry a good woman," Frederick said, his throat dry. "I married the only good woman I ever knew, and when she was killed I gave up."
He looked over at Jacob.
"Thank you for not giving up on me."
The door opened and a skinny fellow, bulked up with a fur cap and heavy coat, came in, slammed the door shut and shivered.
"Now Ah be sawed off and damned!" he declared. "Pie and coffee both!"

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Linn Keller 1-20-13

Levi's expression was serious.
The Sheriff was pacing like a caged tiger; he'd shed coat and hat and looked as comfortable as a long tail cat in a rocking chair convention: he declined cigar but accepted brandy, and he held the snifter untasted as he marched the length of Levi's office, one hand fisted at the small of his back, executed a crisp military about-face, marched back.
Levi eased into his favorite chair, clipped the end off a cigar, dropping the little twist neatly into a polished, empty spitoon.
"Levi," the Sheriff said at length, his glare scalding the rug before his boot toes, "do you just sit and let me expound."
The Sheriff raised his head and Levi was afraid the ferocity of the man's gaze might melt the window pane he was regarding.
The man's jaw was thrust forth, his back was straight, his carriage erect as a man half his age: Levi could not help but compare the thicker waisted Easterner of like age, with this lean Western man, with this man at home on horseback, this man of action, this man of decision ... and now, now, apparently, this man was ready to bite the horn off an anvil and spit ten penny nails.
The Sheriff shook his head, looking down at the rug again, and turned slowly, almost as if suddenly tired.
"It's not supposed to happen already," he muttered. "Not yet, not now, not ..."
Sarah turned her buggy over to the hired man with a smile and a quiet thank-you: she picked up her schoolteacher's carpet bag, lifted her white skirt and walked tiredly up the clean-swept flagstones, grateful she wasn't wading through snow for a little bit at least, and climbed the steps to her front porch with a measured and obviously fatigued tread.
Sarah had pushed herself all week, teaching school through the day, taking care of her family's domestic needs, hauling laundry, riding a circuit to the majority of her absent students' homes, stopping at the firehouse and elsewhere as she was needed: she coordinated with Dr. Greenlees and Nurse Susan: twice she found herself recruited on an emergency basis to assist with a surgery or a procedure, and three miners from Cripple went back to work with memories of a pretty young nurse with gentle hands and a brisk manner who put them instantly at ease while the good Doctor was setting bones or sewing up the injuries not uncommon to the hard rock mining profession.
Sarah opened the front door and swayed a little.
She had gotten too little sleep for too long; she was walking like an automaton -- an automaton with grit in the mechanism, perhaps, for her step was almost unsteady and she very nearly swayed as she moved.
She closed the door slowly, carefully, behind her, and looked to her left, into the empty parlor: to her right, the stairway, and the stairs looked like a Matterhorn, tall and forbidding, and her fatigued legs cried in protest at the thought of climbing the three flights to her bedroom.
Sarah closed her eyes and leaned back against the closed door; she heard voices, automatically locating the source and identifying the speaker -- Levi ... and the Sheriff ... and in Levi's office.
Sarah's ear twitched and she leaned forward, standing, and took a few steps toward the closed door.
The Sheriff turned, surprised, as the door opened.
Sarah, grey-faced, looked at the Sheriff, then at Levi.
"I heard my name," she said without preamble: closing the door behind her, she walked slowly over to the Sheriff: she took his arm, walked over to the settee, lowered herself into it: the Sheriff, puzzled, looked at Levi, then at Sarah, and sat with her.
Sarah leaned against the Sheriff, allowing herself to relax for the first time in far too long.
"I'm so tired," she whispered. "Hold me, Papa. Hold me ..."
The Sheriff's arms went around his daughter and he gave Levi an alarmed look.
Levi raised his eyebrows, then rose and relieved the Sheriff of his brandy snifter: setting it on a nearby side-table, he whispered, "I would suggest you hold her, unless you wish to carry her upstairs to her bed."
The Sheriff frowned, chewed on his bottom lip, leaning his cheek against the top of Sarah's head.
He closed his eyes and Levi saw the man's arms tighten a little around her.
"This is fine," he whispered, and Sarah surrendered the last of her consciousness to the feeling of being held, warm, loved and protected.

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Linn Keller 1-20-13


"St. Christopher," Daisy muttered, lips thin and tight as she thrust another dishtowel in tepid water, "ye'd better ge' down here an' do some WORK!"
She pulled the dishtowel out, seized it, squashed it, wrung it, taking her temper out on the inanimate: she gave it a snap, flinging water-drops an impressive distance, and laid the tepid, wet cloth on her little boy's chest.
Sean Michael lay flaccid on his bed, unmoving, eyes fever-bright; his cheks were red -- unnaturally red -- and Daisy could feel heat radiating from his young body. He was well speckled by the black measles, fevered to the point of not knowing her, but too weak to fight any longer.
"Ye'll no' misbehave, Finn McCool," Daisy snapped, seizing another dishtowel and laying it, tepid and wrung-out, above the first; she'd been layering tepid towels on the lad's hot hide for some time, bringing the fever to surface, letting water soak up the heat: she knew if she used cold water, a cold bath, cold towels, it would constrict the surface capillaries and prevent heat from coming to surface -- though she was not certain of the exact mechanism, she knew from her grandam that tepid towels worked and cold ones did not.
Another towel, and the first came off and went into the tepid water again, to surrender its heat and be replaced on the lad's chest.

Brother William, too, used the tepid water treatment on several of the orphans; he worked, like the others, on short sleep, but this was nothing new: monks were routinely out of bed at prescribed intervals through the night for prayers, and he usually joined the tonsured brethren for their devotions.
Now, though, his prayers were uttered with the children, holding their hand or kneeling beside their bed, or as with the black-eyed lad watching him as he lay another towel, as he worked.
Only one child had died, he thought.
I should be grateful --
He looked over at the empty bed and remembered a laughing little boy.
Only last week the lad was running foot races with his companions.
Brother William paused as a small hand rested on his own.
"It is all right, padre," the lad whispered. "He is in Heaven. He runs El Camino de Oro now."
"The golden streets," Brother William whispered, his eyes old and tired.
"I would give all the gold in all of Mexico to have him alive and well again!"
The lad slipped an arm under his pillow and pulled out his Rosary.
"Aqui," he whispered. "Oro."
Brother William smiled tiredly and closed the lad's hand about the Rosary.

The Sheriff's tread was almost silent as he carried Sarah up three flights of stairs.
Bonnie turned down the covers and the Sheriff laid her gently on the sheet: Bonnie undid her shoes and the Sheriff, suddenly uncomfortable, turned away.
Bonnie reached quickly for his arm.
"Tuck her in," she whispered. "I'm not going to chill her by undressing her."
The Sheriff hesitated a long moment, looking into those dark and lovely eyes that captured his heart the first time he saw them: he nodded, and Bonnie drew back as Linn turned and took the bed covers and drew them carefully up over Sarah's still form.
He pulled the covers up around her chin, then he leaned down and paused a long moment before kissing her once, carefully, on the cheek, before drawing back.
Levi nodded with approval from the doorway.
He and the Sheriff returned to his office; the Sheriff picked up the brandy, downed it, set the snifter back down on the side table.
"Levi," he said finally, "I just tucked my little girl into bed."
He took a long breath, looked at the ceiling, thumbs hooked behind his gunbelt.
"That Easterner -- Porter -- came to me and asked if he might pursue Sarah's hand, for he intended to pursue marriage."
The Sheriff glared at Levi.
"Who does he think he is, come into town, take one look at a girl and decide to marry her?"
"Isn't that the way it usually is?" Levi turned to the stove, opened the door, added another couple chunks to its fiery belly. "I knew, when I first saw Bonnie."
The Sheriff rubbed his forehead.
That's what I thought, too, a voice whispered in his head.
He looked up as Levi rested a hand on the lawman's shoulder.
"I feel the same way," Levi said quietly. "You paid to have the man come and work while the Brigade heals up."
The Sheriff nodded.
"He's a stranger, an auslander, an interloper." Levi's eyes narrowed. "Who does he think he is?"
"Yeah," the Sheriff nodded.
"He came to you."
"He did."
"He asked who her father was."
"He has the decency to come to you and look you in the eye and offer his hand."
"He ... did that," the Sheriff agreed, speaking slowly.
"If he were a scoundrel he would woo her hand without your knowledge, without your permission."
The Sheriff's glare would melt rock.
"He didn't know you are her father too."
"He's a stranger."
The Sheriff's good right hand fisted, tight, trembling, then relaxed.
He took a long moment to get a good grip on his feelings.
"Levi," he said finally, "what's wrong with me?"
Levi considered the question, then poured himself another brandy, walked over and dumped a good splash and a half in the Sheriff's snifter.
"Wrong?" he asked. "Something is very right."
The Sheriff took a contemplative sip.
"No," he said finally. "No, something is not very right.
"She is my little girl and I'm not ready for her to be grown up and have men asking for her hand in marriage."
Levi nodded, raising his snifter and laughing.
"What's so funny?" the Sheriff snapped.
Levi laughed again, leaning his head back and obviously enjoying the moment.
"Well?" the Sheriff demanded.
"Do you realize," Levi chuckled, wiping his eyes, "Linn, do you realize you have joined the ranks of fathers clear back to the days of Adam?"
"Adam, hell," the Sheriff muttered. "No damned Easterner is going to marry my little girl!"
Levi chuckled again. "You'd think he wanted Angela's hand in marriage, the way you're carrying on!"

Sean staggered into the lad's bedroom, carrying a steaming cup of tea.
"How's the lad?" he whispered, for the hour was late, the other children were long abed; even the maid had been dismissed to her rest -- "for God's sake, woman, I need ye healthy, now go get some rest!" Daisy told her -- and so only Sean and Daisy remained awake at this unholy hour.
"How's the lad?" Sean whispered again, and Daisy turned, dark under the eyes and obviously fatigued: she dropped the dishtowel into the nearly empty pan and reached for the tea.
"Bless you, Sean," she whispered, raising the cup to her lips and taking a careful sip of the steaming, fragrant brew.
"He's sleepin'?"
"Aye, th' fever broke an' he sweated like a politician under audit."
"He'll be a'right, then?"
"Oh, aye," she said dismissively. "Ye canna' kill an Irishman."
Sean sighed tiredly. "Ye can if ye feed him the Sheriff's coffee!"
Daisy took another sip of tea.
"The Sheriff ne'er made this," she said. "Thank ye, Sean."

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Linn Keller 1-21-13


Up the mountain and away from town, in the cold, dry air where disease withered from lack of human contact, the Daine family remained healthy and proof against the maladies that affected those poor souls who lived close to one another.

The general store's one-armed proprietor, too, remained unaffected by the contagion; as its grip on the area waned, business did not pick back up, for business never slacked off: he carried goods that people needed, and their need did not diminish for fear of illness.

The disease ran a harsh but brief course, its casualty count surprisingly low: two dead they knew of, no children left deaf or blind, no expectant mothers waiting to see if their young were affected before birth.
Schoolchildren returned to the tidy, well-built schoolhouse; Miz Cooper and Miss Sarah resumed their teaching duties, Bonnie's maid healed up, and even the Irish Brigade came back to full health, though even they would admit it took them a bit to get back to full strength.
Llewellyn saw the Cincinnati contingent to the depot; he flinched as Sarah came up the stairs at the opposite end, and he took pains to keep his left side to her.
Porter kept his right side to her as well.
Neither man spoke to the other; neither looked at the other: they'd had enough of one another in the middle of the firehouse floor, and it was not until the train pulled out and Sarah walked up to Llewellyn, and put gentle fingertips under his chin and turned his head, that she took in the full, glorious color of his cheek bone, his split lip, how he closed his jaw carefully after speaking.
Sarah lay a warm, gentle palm on the uninjured side of his face.
"Was that for me?" she whispered, thrusting her chin toward the colorful mess decorating his face, and he whispered, "Aye," without opening his aching mandible.
Sarah closed her eyes for a long moment, then she looked at Llewellyn, looked long at the man.
"I'm not worth it," she whispered, her expression troubled.
Sarah froze as she saw something in his eyes she'd never seen before.
His hand thrust out and seized Sarah by the elbow.
"Don't," he hissed. "Don't you ever say that again!"
Sarah turned to face the man squarely and she took a half step toward him, coming within three fingers of nose-to-nose with the bruised Welshman.
Sarah stared into his eyes and stared into his soul and Sarah saw something she'd never, ever seen in the man before.
Sarah saw anger.

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Charlie MacNeil 1-22-13


"You are worth more than all of them!" Llewellyn jerked his chin toward the train, instantly regretting such an impetuous gesture but taking in not just the Cincinnati contingent but all the passengers making their way aboard the various cars. "Never, ever, count yourself down, no matter the company ye find yoursel' in!"

Sarah's eyes widened, their deep blue warming beneath the heat of the man's gaze. Careful all his life to keep his temper under the tightest of reins, this was a side of Llewellyn that few outside of his fire-fighting brethren had ever seen, and then only when doing battle with their greatest enemy. Even now, he kept the flames banked as he carefully chose his words. He drew her aside so that he could speak his heart in private.

"I've some'at to say to ye, Miss Sarah. This may not be the proper place, but it feels in me heart like the proper time. Ye're young, and ye're beautiful, Miss Sarah, one of the Lord's most beautiful flowers," he said after a moment. "Yet ye've iron to ye, tempered to steel, steel whose edge slashes through a man's armor to his very heart. Still, there's a softness to ye, ye've a heart big enough to heal the wounds in the very soul of that selfsame man. Miss Sarah, I've seen ye do battle with the weapons that kill, and I've seen ye do battle with the weapons of healing these past weeks. But never, at any time, have I seen ye do anything but what was right!"

"Them out there," his gesture encompassed not only the town of Firelands but the very world about them as they stood in the shadows of the station platform, "they dinna understand who and what ye are. Nor, I believe, do you yersel'. Ye think ye know it here," he gently touched a fingertip to her forehead, "but ye won't let yersel' believe it in yer heart." He smiled, white teeth gleaming, a smile that spread to his hazel eyes, drawing her in as she listened not so much with her ears as with a heart that yearned to believe in the words this man who she was sure now loved her deeply struggled to impart.

"Ye've a heart for service, for the undoing of injustice, ye've a heart that any man would give his very soul to capture, as ye've captured mine. I dinna pretend to know what's come before, and I'm not after carin', but I pledge this day everything I have, everything I am, to make what comes after the best of what you deserve, if it's within me power!" he said fiercely. His tone softened. "The world may see ye as a young girl, but ye're a woman, Miss Sarah, a woman to walk beside a man, not behind him, a woman to be his partner, as I..." He paused there, uncertain now, his earnest gaze searching her face. Sarah smiled and reached up to touch his cheek once more.

"No one has ever said such a thing to me before, Mister Llewellyn," she said softly. "Thank you."

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Linn Keller 1-23-13


"No one has ever said such a thing to me before, Mister Llewellyn," she said softly. "Thank you."
Sarah's fingertips lingered on the man's cheek and she saw -- as if she were watching a performance from a box seat in the theater -- that her hand was trembling.
She frowned a little.
Her hand could throw a knife accurately and drive the sharpened steel through the ace of spades at eight paces.
She could split a card edge wise at twenty feet, shooting with that same hand.
That hand had caressed a frightened child's hair, wiped a skinned schoolboy's knee clean of dirt and blood, plucked a splinter, sewn and embroidered and disassembled a rifle for detail cleaning, and that hand saddled horses and washed little sisters' faces and tied ribbon bows, and that hand never, ever trembled.
Sarah swallowed, willing her hand to steady, and felt the tremors spread and spread fast, and beneath her skirt she felt her knees start to shiver.
Part of her wanted to snatch at her skirts and run crying like a foolish girl.
Part of her wanted to run up the stairs of her house and slam the bedroom door behind her and fling herself face down on her bed, sobbing.
Part of her wanted to slap herself for being so utterly weak.
"Mister Llewellyn," she whispered, for she did not trust her voice, then she hesitated and cleared her throat and whispered again, "Mister Llewellyn," and swallowed.
Llewellyn felt her sway a little: alarmed, he ran his arm around her, and Sarah seized his free arm, her grip strong, tight: steadied, she bit her bottom lip, looked at the ground and then back up into the Welshman's eyes.
"Mr. Llewellyn," she said, taking a deep breath, "I believe we need to speak to my father, and to my parents."
Llewellyn grimaced, for Sarah's grip on his arm was right over a bruise, earned in his recent contest in the middle of the firehouse floor with that Cincinnati upstart Porter, but his grimace was for more than pain.
He was kicking himself for the ring he kept under his pillow, on his bunk, back in the bunkroom, was still under his pillow and not in his pocket.
In that moment he would have given a good percentage of his eternal soul to be able to go to one knee before her, and slip that ring on her hand, right there on the depot platform, in front of God Almighty and the whole damned Irish Brigade, who was staring at them and grinning and nodding, clapping one another on the shoulder and starting to shout as they always did.
The Brigade turned and headed for the Silver Jewel.
Llewellyn and Sarah turned the other way and descended the steps.

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Linn Keller 1-24-13


Mr. Llewellyn," Sarah murmured, "you're sweating."
Mr. Llewellyn was experiencing a curious phenomenon men observe when something they've wanted, for a very long time, is finally tickling their fingertips.
His mouth was dry, his hearing acute; the colors in Sarah's dress, her cheeks, her -- God help me, he thought, those eyes! -- he dare not look at her lips, for fear that he may feel ... improper ...
"Look at me, Mr. Llewellyn," Sarah murmured, stopping: they were in the middle of the street, out in the middle of everyone-can-see-us, and Sarah took both the Welsh Irishman's hands and turned so she was facing him squarely.
"Look at me."
He did.
"Are you a horseman, Mr. Llewellyn?"
The fireman blinked, surprised.
"I, why, no, not -- I don't ride -- our horses --" he looked toward the firehouse and Sarah knew his memory was seeing the matched mares that drew their steam machine.
"Mr. Llewellyn," Sarah said, her mouth curling slightly in a smile, the smile of someone remembering a thing she liked, "there is no feeling like riding a spirited horse. When a horse leaps a tall fence or across a yawning chasm and you are saddled on that horse, there is nothing closer to flight on this earth."
Sarah's eyes shone and Llewellyn knew he was seeing -- hearing -- a thing that she truly loved.
"Unless I can get my saddle on an eagle the size of a draft horse, or perhaps a Chinese mine-dragon, that feels like true flight ... and it is one of the most exciting things I have ever known."
Llewellyn saw a mischief, a merriment in her eyes and he had the same feeling he did as when a floor sagged beneath his feet in a fire structure and he knew the floor was about to collapse out from under him, for he was falling and falling hard and right into those gorgeous blue eyes, those shining eyes that made his chest feel tight and made his belly feel like it was soaring in a limitless sky just like that great scaly dragon she dreamed of riding.
"Mr. Llewellyn, I have known great adventure. I have ridden the stallion of adventure and I have skated the thin ice of danger. I know what it is to die and I know what it is to live." Sarah laid a hand on the Irishman's bib front, and he could not help but look at her lips and feel her breath and he wanted to hold her to him and taste those lips and feel her warm and solid against him --
"Mr. Llewellyn, if you marry me it will be interesting."
"Aye," he breathed.
"Be very sure it's what you want," Sarah warned, and Llewellyn's arm slipped around the small of her back, holding her gently to him.
"The Chinese have an ancient curse," Sarah whispered. " 'May you live in interesting times.' " Her eyes studied his face, studied him closely.
"Interesting is not always what one expects."
"There you are!" Jacob's shout broke their spell and Sarah turned to see her brother running toward them. "You're just in time! Get in here!" His hands were heavy, demanding, on each of their shoulders and he steered them toward the little whitewashed church. "The parson is inside and he's got his book all warmed up and you're just what we need!"
Llewellyn's arm was still around Sarah as they were hustled into the Firelands church and up the aisle.
Another couple stood there, before the Parson, and the Parson's wife sat at the piano, smiling.
"We need a pair of witnesses," Jacob explained, "and you're just the ticket! I'd like you to meet friends of mine. Sarah, you may remember --"
Sarah nodded, smiling. "I remember," she said.
"And this is --"
"Yes, I knew her sister."
"They're getting married."
Llewellyn saw that same mischief in Sarah's expression.
"How long have you two known one another?" Sarah asked, and the couple looked at one another and laughed.
"She walked into the line shack about two hours ago," was the reply, "and I knew when I saw her ..."
"Two hours," the bride-to-be nodded in agreement.
Llewellyn and Sarah looked at one another and shared an unspoken observation: They will say we were precipitous, that we were in too much a hurry. At least we knew each other more than two hours!
The Parson opened his worn, familiar book.
"Young man, you stand here on the right, just so. Face your bride. And remember to look at one another. You're -- no, look at her. She's better looking than me. Young lady, look at your husband, you're marrying him, not me."
The couple laughed a little, dissipating the nervous tension that naturally builds at such moment.
"Now." The Parson smiled a bit, for weddings were perhaps the favorite of the sky pilot's many duties in the community.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here for the happiest purpose for which family and friends can assemble, and that is to join two good friends in holy matrimony."
Sarah looked up at Llewellyn, then she closed her eyes and leaned her head against him.
He hugged his arm around her shoulders and lay his cheek -- the uninjured one -- down on top of her head.

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Linn Keller 1-24-13


Matthew Daine held still, still as the log he sat behind.
His rifle was thrust out over top of the log; he'd chosen his hide carefully, knowing a bear will return to a food source, knowing the bear that raided their hives would very likely be back.
Matthew Daine sat with his stump thrust against the log; his back was against a stump, the rifle was in just the right position and he waited, silent, unmoving.
He had his mouth down inside his coat, breathing into the coat to hide the steam of his breath; the extra warmth was welcome, for sitting still in the cold was a good way to catch a chill.
He thought of the artificial legs he'd looked at in the Sears and Sawbuck catalog, as he called it, or the wish and want book as his Mama called it: none really satisfied him, so he went about making his own.
The doc said his stump would shrink with time and he should wait until the stump was shrunk up before he made a socket, elsewise it would have to be tightened up or rebuilt entirely, and so Matthew waited -- not entirely patiently -- for his leg to finish healing and shrinking up.
Matthew knew his brother was coming along shortly and his brother would lay ambush with him, for two rifles were better than one for taking down a big grizzly ... and any grizzly, he knew, was a big one, even if only a cub.
Matthew heard something whisper-light behind him and smiled a little, for his brother was apparently trying to sneak up on him.
Matthew's quick ear heard something else, the sound of something breathing ... something that wasn't his brother.
Matthew threw himself flat on his back, shoved his flint rifle's octagon muzzle into the grizzly's open mouth and yanked the trigger.

Daciana, in her exercise tights and brief skirt, stood spread legged, swinging the handled cannonball between her legs, and up in front of her to eye level: her rhythm was slow, measured; when the cast iron ball came to eye level, she released the big, cast handle and it rotated, once: she caressed it once with her finger tips before seizing the handle again, two-handed, swinging it down between her legs and under before bringing it back up again.
She turned her head and smiled as the door opened, then closed: she was warm and warmed up, she'd been exercising most of the morning, going through her circus routine, working on the trapeze, tumbling, stretching herself with a combination of running dance and acrobatics: she like to begin and end with Russian kettlebells, and the one she was swinging now was her favorite to finish her morning's routine.
Sarah skipped over to her and hugged her happily and Daciana hugged her back, laughing: they whispered to one another, their heads inclined a little, and Daciana gave a little squeak, her hands to her cheeks, and she jumped up and down on her toes, her eyes big and shining.
The Welsh Irishman's eyes followed them, divining correctly that they were talking about him in some manner: Daciana and Sarah ran over to him and Sarah introduced them.
"Mr. Llewellyn," Sarah said quietly, for it was hushed in the circus-tent-sized barn, "is one of our Irish Brigade. Daciana --"
"Ve haff met," Daciana breathed, her eyes shining, her cheeks flushed: steam rose from her shoulders and her hair, and the Welsh Irishman half-bowed, taking her hand and raising her knuckles to his lips.
Daciana, in spite of her short skirt, returned a formal, old-world curtsy.
"What," Llewellyn asked curiously, "were you swinging?"
"Ist kettlebell," Daciana laughed. "Komm, you try!"
The Welsh Irishman found himself drawn by both hands across the sawdust covered floor to the abandoned cannonball: the ladies drew back, giggling, and the Welsh Irishman grabbed it with both hands, as Daciana had held it, and he found to his surprise it weighed considerably more than he'd anticipated.
"Ist eighty pounds," Daciana explained. "I show."
Daciana seized the tapered D-handle and backed up a step, swinging it easily, then flipping it up to eye level again and letting it make one revolution before catching it and swinging it down again.

Later that day, the Sheriff hesitated before taking the Welsh Irishman's hand.
"Let me show you something," he said quietly, releasing Llewellyn's punished paw and making a fist.
"When we punch -- so -- the fist is up-and-down. We know this. If the knuckles are crosswise -- so -- the bones of the hand" -- his off forefinger sketched the carpals, brushing the back of his own hand -- "are easily broken.
"There are better ways. Sarah?"
Sarah and the Sheriff squared off in front of the fireman.
"If Sarah punches my face" -- Sarah's closed fist moved, dead-slow, toward the Sheriff's cheek bone -- "she will hit bone and bone tends to break bone especially on a hard punch." He nodded to Sarah, who brought her arm back.
"Now if she doesn't use a closed fist --"
Sarah extended her blow again, but her hand was cocked back, landing the heel of her hand at full extension on the Sheriff's cheek, but dead slow, for illustration.
"Strike with this part of your palm" -- the Sheriff held up his own hand, ran a forefinger in an oval around the heel of his hand -- "a hard strike will break a man's jaw, his nose.
"Now for the collar bone" -- he made a fist -- "vertical down like this will do fine and it won't break the bones in your hand.
"You don't want to bust up your knuckles as young as you are. Arthritis sets in and they hurt like hell."
"I don't think I want to bust my knuckles any older," Llewellyn murmured, grinning, and the Sheriff laughed.
"That is why God invented a war club," he agreed. "Have a set, you two, and tell me what's on your mind."
Sarah settled with her usual feminine grace into a chair, settled herself onto polished, finished wood like the Queen on a velvet throne-cushion: Llewellyn remained standing as the Sheriff parked his backside on the corner of his desk.
"Sheriff," Llewellyn said, considering how flowery he could make his words and abandoning the effort before it was begun, "I ask your advice."
The Sheriff nodded, turned a hand palm-up: Go ahead.
"I wish to pay court to your daughter Sarah," Llewellyn said, "and I intend to ... pursue her hand."
"Pursue her hand."
"What about the rest of her?"
Llewellyn turned and looked frankly at Sarah.
"I'd like to pursue the rest of her as well."
The Sheriff nodded. "You said something about asking my advice."
"Aye." Llewellyn frowned, shifted his weight.
"It is right and proper that I ask this of her father," he said, his accent becoming more prominent: "... and so what I ask you is this:
"Do I ask this favor of yourself, or do I ask this of Levi Rosenthal, or of her mother?"
The Sheriff considered for a moment, looking at Sarah, then looking at Llewellyn.
The door opened; Levi and Bonnie stepped inside the Sheriff's office.
"To answer your question," the Sheriff said.

Frederick picked up Deborgille and climbed the stairs.
Behind them, the raucous sounds of the Silver Jewel faded and were forgotten, for each had eyes only for the other.
Frederick did not set down his bride; he managed to unlock the door of the finest suite in the house, and open the door, and even pull the key from the lock: once inside, he carried his wife over to the bed, laid her gently down, then strode back to the door, shut it, turned the key in the lock and lay the key on the dresser.
Deborgille bounced up off the bed, laughing, and ran over to Frederick, and Frederick caught her and spun her about, laughing with her.

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Linn Keller 1-25-13


The Welsh Irishman found himself at once put at ease, and yet most uneasy: he listened to quiet voiced assessments of his character, his finances, his habits: he heard Sarah, seated beside him, holding his hand, observe that Dolly most frequently stopped beside him and not the others of the Brigade when they were in the Silver Jewel, because of all the good full-blooded firemen, he and he alone could be counted on not to run his hand up her leg, or pat her backside, or take other unseemly liberties with a mere dancing girl, and his words to her were consistently gentlemanly and courteous, without the lewd, lascivious and suggestive jests that were part and parcel of most addresses to women of her kind.
The Sheriff spoke approvingly of the man's thrift and clean habits.
Levi spoke to the man's investments and work habits.
The Irishman soon felt as if he were a specimen under a microscope, being discussed in a lecture-hall full of analytical scientists.
Levi and the Sheriff looked at one another; each had the look of a thoughtful man, and each looked suddenly shamefaced, and each laughed.
They both looked at the Welsh Irishman, their faces reddening a little.
"Llewellyn," the Sheriff said, " a father is forever planning and considering for his family. I fear I was about to speak to how and where you two shall live."
Levi nodded, smiling a little, his own face feeling rather warm as he too admitted, "I had the same thoughts."
"That is for the pair of you to work out."
The Sheriff shifted in his chair, apparently uncomfortable.
"A Daddy doesn't like to think he won't be providing and protecting anymore." His eyes were a little sad, his eyes went to Levi, who nodded: "I was never a father to Sarah, and ever since I found out that year ago and more that she was of my get, that has been my greatest regret."
Sarah bit her bottom lip, hard, a tear running down her cheek, for this was the first time the Sheriff spoke to his feelings for her, at least in such a setting.
"How soon do you two intend to jump the broom?"
Bonnie pressed her lace-trimmed kerchief to her nose: her head was bowed and she was shaking her head slowly.
Levi turned his head; alarmed, he laid a hand on Bonnie's back, between her shoulder blades, and she leaned her head into his shoulder, sobbing.
Levi turned his chair and ran his arms around his wife: the Welsh Irishman, alarmed, looked at the Sheriff, then at Sarah.
Sarah put a finger to her lips; the Sheriff raised his hand just enough to make a stand-fast, palm-down gesture; it took a few minutes, but Bonnie was finally able to get enough wind into her lungs to say something.
"S - S - Sarah," she sobbed, "is m - m - my little girl." She looked up and if it were possible, the Welsh Irishman's face would have twisted itself into a question mark, for Bonnie was smiling, or trying to smile.
"I'm so ..." Bonnie's face screwed up again -- "happy!" -- and she dropped her face into Levi's breast and sobbed again, and he held his wife and patted the back of her head like he was soothing a troubled child.
Normal, the Sheriff lipped silently, pointing one finger at Bonnie and winking: the Welsh Irishman nodded, slowly, one time, wondering yet again if he would ever understand the female of the species.
Sarah's hands tightened on the Welshman's arm and he looked at her and she looked at him and they both looked at Bonnie, for the woman raised up suddenly, took a long breath, pressed the kerchief to her eyes, blew her nose with a most unladylike honk, then stood.
"Sarah," she said briskly, her voice nearly normal, "we need to talk. There are some things you need to know."
Sarah rose and the two women swept out the door, chins in the air, for all the world two matrons on a mission.
The door shut with a solid, woody sound and the three men looked at one another, for the atmosphere was the stillness that follows a tornado after its departure.
The Sheriff stood, walked slowly around the end of his desk and leaned down: he opened the bottom drawer, took out three glasses and a bottle of something light-amber and not over 30 days old.
"The Daine boys," he said, "gave me something ... they made this with honey in the batch instead of just grain. He said something about not having enough sprouts and damned if he's going to make that cheap corn likker."
Bottle neck clinked against heavy glass as the man poured: he set the bottle on the desk, handed the Welshman and Levi each, then took his own.
"Mr. Llewellyn," the Sheriff said, "I congratulate you, sir, for you will find Sarah to be a dedicated and loving wife, but I warn you, sir, provoke her not to anger, for she can fillet and gut you with a spoon, drive you into the ground like a fence post and kick your backside over the Texas moon, and faster than the human eye can follow, should you ever make her mad!"
The three hoist their glasses; there was a triple-clink to ward off evil spirits, and the three downed their fiery salute.
When they came up for air they decided the honey batch wasn't bad at all, so they tried another sampling, and that was good enough they put the bottle away: the Sheriff sat on the corner of the desk again and looked at his old friend.
"Levi," he said, "which of us will walk her down the aisle?"
Levi considered for a moment.
"Sheriff," he said, "if I am any judge, I will have to hold Bonnie, for she will either fall apart, or she'll try to run screaming to yank her little girl to safety, or maybe she'll pass out."
The Sheriff laughed. "I doubt that, Levi. She is a strong woman."
"Don't I know it," Levi muttered, draining the last of his second glass.
"We could toss coin."
Levi handed the Sheriff his empty glass.
"Linn, I would be most honored if you would walk your daughter down the aisle."
The Sheriff nodded slowly, set his own glass down on the desk, then rose and thrust out his hand, and Levi shook it.
"Now, Mr. Llewellyn," the Sheriff said, "have we set a date?"

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Linn Keller 1-25-13


The grey-bearded old patriarch regarded Matthew's flint rifle with interest.
The ramrod was broken, the fore end was broken most of a foot back from the poured pewter nose cap, and the octagon barrel had a visible upward bend.
And a couple gouges on the corners of the octagon.
He looked at the sky, well up above the mountain, remembering the sight of young Matthew, bloody and struggling, pinned under the dead grizzly.
The rifle's muzzle was still in the dead bear's mouth.
Matthew tore off his shirt and wiped as much blood from his face and chest as he could, then he half-hopped, half-wallowed his way down the mountain to a stream and washed himself, making sounds of disgust -- or perhaps distress, for the water was probably freezing cold, in spite of its rapid travel over rocks and down hill.
Matthew was thawing out in front of the stove now, shivering under a draped-over blanket, a mug of tea gripped tightly in his shaking hands.
The old man considered that this rifle must have a good amount of luck in it, and so he took his own rifle down from over the fire place and put Matthew's in its place, and there it hung for about three generations, until the cabin caught fire and the rifle was lost, but that was many years yet in the future.

Sean was back among his Brigade, or at least in the firehouse: the Brigade saw the Cincinnati upstarts off and good riddance to his way of thinking: the damned Easterners with their puffed-up pride and their contempt for the West were a plague upon a man's patience, and when that damned Porter and his beloved Welshman got into it in the middle of the apparatus floor, instead of taking each by the back of his shirt and knocking their hard skulls together, Sean not only let them fight, he shouted encouragement to Llewellyn and even bet heavily on the man.
He won, too, collecting happily from those damned Easterners, but he didn't take all they'd bet: they would need money enough to get home, and by that time Sean would have been willing to foot the bill himself just to get rid of them.
He looked at the empty space in the middle of the bay and remembered the sight of the Welsh Irishman launching himself with a roar at the sneering Porter, and how the two hammered at one another, grappling, rolling on the floor, knees and elbows and fists all in play, and even as he re-lived the fight, he remembered the look on the Welshman's face as he spoke to Sean of the pretty young schoolteacher.
"Dinna' be in such a hurry, lad," he murmured aloud, and the mares turned their heads at the sound of his voice: "she'll wait on ye, mark my word."
The mares' ears swung about, then their heads, and Sean looked to the doorway, for he knew he was about to get company.

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Linn Keller 1-26-13


Dolly leaned back in her frilly, padded, well upholstered chair and closed her eyes.
Dolly was a young woman, a strong woman, a dancer: she reveled in her dancer's body, she loved to exert herself on stage, stretching and posing and turning the music she heard into movement, and yes, she loved teasing the men who leered and ogled and stared, the men who whistled, who tossed the occasional coin or bill onto the stage, the men who sighed and gave her dreamy looks as they sat and drank without tasting, ate without tasting, and thus drank and ate all the more.
Dolly earned her pay.
She was attractive without being forward, she was welcoming without being whorish, and she never, ever turned a trick with any of the customers.
It was a massive contradiction in the era, but Dolly, saloon girl and dancer, professional stage performer, a woman who wore revealing outfits as a matter of daily course, was actually quite chaste, and off stage, rather modest.
Dolly sat in her chair, relaxing, feeling the welcome warmth in her legs that came with a good dance performance.
There was a knock on her door.
She picked up a backless shoe and hurled it at the closed portal: "Go away!" she shouted.
Tom Landers opened the door, his face serious.
Dolly was on her feet in an instant.
Tom came in and closed the door: Dolly was across the room and seized his hands anxiously: for all that she was modest and chaste, she was still a woman, but more than that, human, and she recognized from his expression that something was in the wind and that something probably was not good.
"It's Sarah," Tom said in low voice, and Dolly's hands tightened on his.
Dolly's eyes were big and scared but she did not shrink from the ex-lawman's look, and she studied the ex-Sheriff's expression carefully as thoughts chased themselves across his mug: she waited until he arranged what he wanted to say.
"Sarah," he said, and swallowed, and Dolly nodded, once, encouraging him to say on: "Sarah is getting married."
Dolly's smile was instant and genuine, and then it faded and she felt a little weak.
Tom Landers came to her as if ... as if this were bad news, and he spoke in the voice of a man who was sharing what could be disgraceful, and Dolly's first thought was for Sarah's belly and for young life, for a young woman in trouble, and Dolly's right hand flew to her mouth and she gasped, "Oh, no, Tom, how far along is she?"
Tom Landers blinked and opened his mouth and he stared at Dolly, and his callused right hand rested gently on the hand that still gripped his: his brows rose and fell and Dolly wasn't sure quite what the man's expression meant, at least until his brows decided what to do and they both rose as he started to laugh.
Tom Landers was normally very discreet and very undemonstrative toward the ladies, for Tom Landers was a man who'd had a good woman, a woman buried in one of the oldest graves in their town cemetery, and Tom Landers was a man who tended to regard women as near-goddesses, unless they were hussies, in which case they were just hussies: Tom Landers, gentleman to the core, released Dolly's grip from his own and gathered her into his arms, holding her as tightly but as carefully as if he were holding a favorite granddaughter.
"No, my dear," he whispered, "she's not in trouble."
Dolly hugged Tom fiercely, tightly, and the man felt her shiver: Dolly's ear was pressed hard to the man's vest, and she held him tightly for several long moments, drawing a comfort she didn't realize she wanted, feeling like a little girl again, safe in a Daddy's -- or a Granddaddy's -- big and strong and safe-where-I-am arms.
Tom Landers was a little uncomfortable with the fierceness of her embrace, and the length of time she was holding him: he was a man who trod cautiously when it came to women, and affairs of the heart, and so he stood, and held her, until she was ready to loose her grip, and when she drew back he looked down at her and brushed a lock of hair from her forehead, and Dolly smiled a little ... not the smile of a dancing-girl in a manly man's arms, but the smile of a girl looking at someone with whom she was completely at ease, and with whom she felt protected, and safe.
Firelands was not a large community and it did not take long for Bonnie and Sarah to look up, for the summons at their door was rapid, the anxious tattoo of feminine knuckles, and Dolly swarmed into the parlor, her coat in the hands of the astonished maid: still in her scandalous dancing costume and high heels, she skipped across the floor and stopped,then knelt before mother and daughter, panting, seizing each of their hands.
"Dolly, what's wrong?" the two ladies chorused, and Dolly, fighting for breath, shook her head: once she got her wind back, she looked from Bonnie to Sarah and back and gasped, "Married?"
Bonnie and Sarah both blinked, mouths open, and they looked at one another and laughed a little, and Bonnie saw the twins peeking in the open door: she shook her head, a quick, brief turn-and-back, and the twins disappeared, followed by the maid, who directed them down the hall and to some other distraction.
"No, not yet," Sarah said, her face reddening.
"You're not --" Dolly looked at Sarah's flat belly.
Bonnie's eyes widened and anger darkened her eyes: Sarah, for her part, threw her head back and laughed, the easy natural laugh of someone genuinely amused by what a genuine friend just said.
Sarah stood and hauled Dolly to her feet.
The two were within six months of the same age, and within a finger or two of the same height, and though Dolly looked the more womanly, they were more alike than they were different.
Sarah hugged Dolly, still laughing.
"No," she said, eyes shining as she looked into her friend's eyes, "not even remotely!"
"You'd better not be," Bonnie said, a warning note in her voice.
"Oh, but I will be, Mother," Sarah said, her eyes lightening: "You will be a grandmother, and more than once."
"I'm not ready to be a grandfather!" Levi declared in a strong voice: he strode into the room, slid his hand between Dolly's palm and Sarah, and raised Dolly's knuckles to his lips: "My dear, so good to see you again." Then he looked directly at Sarah.
"I had that same fear," he admitted, "when these things happen suddenly there is often a reason."
"Nothing has happened," Sarah said, mischief in her eyes and a smile on her lips, "suddenly or not. No date is set, no plans are made beyond --" here her expression was that of a girl causing trouble, and enjoying herself in doing it -- "beyond his staking his claim to some fertile ground."
"Sarah!" Bonnie and Dolly chorused, both their faces turning red.
Polly and Opal skipped into the room, having escaped the maid's vain attempts at distraction: "Sawwah you gonna be a mommy? Will I be an aunt or an uncle?"
Sarah laughed and caressed the twins' hair.
Frowning, she pretended to consider, then said, "An aunt or an uncle? Why, that would depend on whether I had a boy or a girl!"
Bonnie laughed a little uncertainly.
"You're going to confuse them," she warned.
Sarah turned to Dolly. "Let me put my reservation in early," she said. "Will you be my maid of honor?"
Bonnie's eyes widened with alarm as she imagined the scandal of this ... this stage hussy, this saloon tart, as ... as her daughter's maid of honor!
Sarah turned and looked directly at Bonnie, and Sarah's eyes were pale.
Very pale.
Bonnie closed her mouth and nodded.
"How soon?" Dolly whispered, her knees weak, for she too knew the social effects of what many considered a loose woman, standing with one of society's favorite daughters.
"We have not even discussed that. I don't anticipate earlier than a year. He is an honorable man and he will have to acquire land and build a house." Sarah's expression was knowing as she continued, "He told Levi once that if he ever took a bride he would look to the birds of the air for his inspiration: first the nest, then the bird."
Levi nodded, for he recalled the conversation.
"And you," Sarah said, and her eyes were a good rich winter-sky blue once more: she laid her hand on his and looked up at him with the wise expression of a woman who knows the man very well: "you may not wish to be a grandfather now, but the moment you hold your grandson you'll get this big silly grin on your face and it will be all right!"
Levi gave Sarah a serious look, a long and serious look.
"Sarah," he said, "a man does not look at his front door very much. He takes it for granted the door is there and functional and unchanged. You are my daughter, and ... I have taken for granted that you too will be unchanged."
He blinked.
"I ... you ..."
Levi's face reddened to a remarkable degree, and he dropped his head, searching vainly for the words he wanted.
Finally he muttered "Oh, hell," and bent, and hugged Sarah, hard, and picked her up, and held her: he held her tight, his cheek pressed against hers.
"A father never expects his little girl to grow up," he whispered fiercely, closing his eyes hard: "when he realizes she's grown, even a little, that she's changed and different, it's ... hard ..."
Sarah hugged him back with an equal fierceness and Bonnie saw the sparkle as Sarah's eyes closed and ran tears down her cheeks.
"That," Sarah whispered back, "is the nicest thing you've ever said to me!"

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Linn Keller 1-27-13


Esther fed the twins, nursing them until she was dry: she dressed in a fine gown and wore a fine hat and a fine cloak, and had herself driven to the roundhouse, for she was still owner of the Z&W Railroad, and though she chose capable hands -- after firing an entire board of directors, then taking them to court for some unsavory activities, and winning -- she still liked to attend her responsibility personally.
She left the twins in Alfdis's capable care: the big Scandinavian nurse had a love of children, and had proven competent, skilled and capable with the twins: Esther almost felt guilty at the sense of freedom as her carriage rolled smoothly over packed earth and snow toward the Z&W Roundhouse.
She couldn't help but notice (and secretly smile) at the insignia carefully painted on every locomotive) of a rose, upright, with bright droplets of dew on the petals,and beneath, two roses, their stems crossed over the first: smaller, still partially furled, one pink, one blue, though in honesty Esther could say she'd never seen a blue rose.
The insignia appeared when she had the twins, a boy and a girl, and she approved of the change: where the insignia had been the single rose, upright, tied with a red ribbon, now it was three.
Esther smiled and nodded at the men who lifted their caps to her; she glided inside the roundhouse, flowing through the sound of hammers and iron, the sparks cascading from a blacksmith's anvil as a red-hot part was hammered into submission; she floated over to a man sitting in front of a keg, his back to her.
Esther peeked over the man's shoulder.
He was busy with cards, entertaining himself with pasteboards.
She looked up to see a foreman looking at her.
Esther shook her head and put her finger to her lips: she drew back, moved well to the right, stopped to watch the black gang running a long scraper down the boiler tubes of one of the engines.
When she was finished speaking with one of the men, she turned back toward the foreman.
The man and his cards were gone and the foreman approached her with a troubled expression.

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Linn Keller 1-28-13


"Did you fire him, dear?"
Esther kissed little Ruth's forehead and handed her to Alfdis, then turned back to her supper.
"Why, no, dear," she said pleasantly. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
The Sheriff sliced off another ribbon of meat, folded it with his fork, dragged it through spiced gravy and frowned.
"You go to the roundhouse and expect to find you are paying men to work, and you find one sitting alone playing cards on a nail kag ... and you don't fire him?"
Esther gave her husband a warm look.
"He found a better way to gauge tracks," Esther smiled, delicately slicing a piece of meat -- the Sheriff marveled at such a simple act, but done with ... with utter femininity ...
God, I love this woman! he thought, and he felt the color rise in his face.
"He found it when he sat down and dealt himself a few hands of cards.
"He was working on a better way to sling the boiler for inspection or replacement." Esther took a delicate bite, savoring the lean meat, chewing slowly.
"What did you tell him?" the Sheriff asked.
"I didn't." Esther buttered half a roll, took a ladylike nibble.
The Sheriff's eyebrows quirked, one rising more than the other, and Esther laughed.
Angela, for her part, was too busy with pie to pay any attention to adult conversation: she looked around with big, expressive eyes, but said nothing.
"The foreman and I held a conversation," Esther continued, "and when I found this man orders his thoughts by creating a small, orderly universe on top of a nail keg, I knew the right thing was to let him to his order." She looked back up at the Sheriff. "A useful technique."
The Sheriff nodded.
"My dear," he said, "you are a wise woman."
Esther smiled and finished the last of her biscuit.

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Linn Keller 1-28-13


"Girl come," Cats Running said, not looking up from the reata he was plaiting.
"I know," Charlie grunted.
"Girl not happy."
"Tell me something I don't know."
Sarah was still a half mile distant: she was on her black gelding and she was wearing a riding dress.
Not the Frisian, not in black, not in white silk with a boar spear lance, Charlie thought.
Not running like Hell itself was trying to escape her either.
"Something's wrong," Charlie muttered, his eyes narrowing.
"Tell me somethin' I don't know," Cats Running muttered, thick fingers taking the twist out of the long, flat leather strip he was trying to persuade to submit to his braid.
Fannie came out of the cabin door, wiping her hands on a dish towel: she looked at Sarah, then at Charlie, and started over toward her husband.
Sarah didn't so much dismount as she threw herself out of the saddle, landing easily on the ground, knees bent: she straightened, glared at Charlie: she stomped up to Fannie, took her hands and opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it: she turned and stomped up to Charlie, one stiff finger shaking at him as if she were a schoolteacher about to scold a misbehaving student, then she whirled, snapped her arms stiff down by her side and stomped away from him: she spun again, her pale eyed glare undiminished, her hands in front of her, palm up, her mouth open as she gestured, then she snapped her jaw closed and turned again.
Fannie shot a concerned look to her husband, and an unspoken thought sizzled through the air between them: Charlie's forehead wrinkled and his brows drew together, and Fannie looked worried, almost maternal, as Sarah looked from one to the other and stopped her pacing.
"No, I'm not pregnant," she snapped, "and stop interrupting me!"
Charlie blinked, surprised, as Sarah looked around, grabbed a small round chunk, probably the smallest example of a stump Charlie had in the wood lot, fetched it over and slammed it to the ground at Charlie's feet, barely missing his polished boot toes: Sarah stood up on it, then reared up on her tip-toes, took Charlie's head flat-handed between her palms and pulled his head down and kissed his forehead.
Charlie, somewhere between puzzled and confused, looked again at Fannie, and Fannie didn't help matters any, for she had one arm across her belly and the towel balled up and pressed to her lips, trying to hide her smile.
Sarah picked up the little stump she used for a step stool and threw it to the side, over against the splittin' block Charlie was using that day.
"You know me better than I know me," Sarah said, her syllables clipped, brisk: "I saw my line, my father's blood, continue into the future. It will happen. I have seen it. I do not need to be in a hurry. It will happen when the time is right." Sarah whirled, stomped away from Charlie again, elbows stiff, swinging from the shoulders, hands fisted: she got ten paces from Charlie, turned, stomped back, frowning at the ground, then looked up at him, laid a hand on his chest.
"Uncle Charlie, tell me I don't need to be in a hurry," she said: "no, don't tell me that, I know it already -- hurry up is brother to mess it up, Papa said that and he is a wise man" -- Sarah spun and put her knuckles on her hips, then she ran over and grabbed that stump again and fetched it back, banging it down on the ground in front of Charlie's boot toes and climbed back up on it, her eyes big and earnest and still pale.
"I don't have to hurry but I will do it, Uncle Charlie, and you'd better be there. It wouldn't be right if you weren't."
Sarah stepped backward, off the stump, seized it and threw it again with a grunt.
She turned and stomped over to Fannie, seized the amused woman around the middle and laid her head against Fannie's ample bosom: "Thank you, Aunt Fannie," she whispered, "I knew you would understand."
Sarah released Fannie and skipped back over to Charlie, reached up and pulled him down by the shoulders and kissed him on the cheek: her eyes were bright, her defenses down as she blurted, "Thank you, Uncle Charlie, you always know just what to say!" -- then she whirled, ran for the black horse, bounced once and jumped into the saddle.
Charlie watched her ride off, then he looked over at Cats Running, and then at his wife.
"What," he said slowly, "in Sam's hill was that?"
"You got invited to weddin'," Cats Running growled. "Plain as day."

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Linn Keller 1-29-13


Sarah rode back at an easy trot, stopping periodically to rest her gelding: she was still all a-churn inside, not boiling, for there was not the heat of anger, but she was stirred and restless and she knew that if she gave that unrest its unbridled head, she would kick her black into a gallop and not let him slow done none, just keep drumming her heels into his ribs until he was wind broke or dead.
Sarah was fighting impatience.
Sarah knew there was power in passion, there was immense energy in upset and she'd tapped into that dark energy more times than one, and reveled in it, for it promised limitless power, limitless strength ... the darkness of anger was a darkness she knew and she'd used and she'd bathed in, anointing herself with its midnight power.
Uncle Charlie knew she was burning herself out.
His words of counsel -- gruff or growling though they were -- served as cold water on a hot fire: there was a shock, a hiss, a cloud, rising and forgotten ... and Sarah knew with the clarity of hind sight that she too would turn into a rising cloud, to dissipate and be forgotten, if she had not learned to say no to the darkness.
The young have a difficult time separating themselves from anger, for anger promises power and anger promises strength and promises are seductive.
What was it Uncle Charlie told her once?
"You must master your passions, girl, or they will master you."
Sarah had a momentary vision of herself on all fours, saddled, and something vaguely humanoid, black, ill-defined, like cloud taking shape but not yet complete, riding her and spurring her ribs and lashing her with a crop, and she bucking and running under its quirt.
I will not be ridden, she remembered herself thinking.
Not by man, and not by my own hot temper!
The gelding leaned down to drink at a small stream and Sarah looked slowly around, listening, smelling: the air was cool, damp, there was enough thaw to bare the ground where there was traffic, but snow was still prominent most places.
Sarah reached into a saddlebag, closed her hand tightly about the collar of her cloak, pulled it forth: she fast it at the neck, settled it comfortably around her, throwing the tag end over one shoulder and was instantly more snug and more comfortable than any winter coat.
I did better, she thought.
When my feelings got too high I threw that stump.
Better throw a stump than say something I will regret.
Words can't be un-said.

Sarah kneed the gelding back onto the trail, and back toward home.

Jacob ran his hand along the curve of his wife's belly, kissed it; he resumed his examination of her skin, searching for any sign of measles: seeing none, he nodded, then slapped Annette on the backside and threw back the covers.
"Come on in," he said quietly, "it's cold out there."
Annette pretended to glare at him, but she came willingly to bed -- after she shucked into her flannel nightgown.
Annette cuddled up against her husband, shivering into his arms, and Jacob sensed there was more to her tremors than the chill bedroom air.
He held her and as they warmed up, she shivered a little less, but when he slacked his arms she whispered "Don't let go."
Jacob regarded his wife's eyes, puzzled.
"I'm scared, Jacob," she whispered. "I'm scared I'll get measles and our baby will be deaf or blind or worse."
Jacob held his wife tighter, sighed.
"This high up the mountain," he whispered back, "healthy as you are, clean as the air is ... I don't think you have much to worry about."
"You didn't see anything, did you?"
"Dear heart, I know your every freckle, mole and birthmark, and they ain't changed. Nothing out of place and nothing new to be seen. I'd say you and Little Jacob" -- his hand caressed her belly -- "have little 'a' nothin' to worry about."
Annette rested her head on Jacob's shoulder and Jacob wiggled a little to find a more comfortable position.
Something told him he was going to be holding his wife all night long.

Daciana rode Buttercup around the ring.
That simple sentence makes it sound as if Daciana forked the saddle like every other soul that side of the Mr. and Mississippi.
It is doubtful whether other riders were standing in the saddle they occupied.
It is even more doubtful whether those other riders had a handful of throwing knives, and as they came to bear on brightly-painted targets, dollars to doughnuts none were throwing knives at a rocking-horse gallop at their bright red, hand-sized centers.
Daciana liked to vary her routines; one thing in which she did not vary, nor did she compromise, was riding Buttercup, daily, in all the ways she did in the circus: standing, sitting, draped across the saddle face-up, bonelessly graceful and sinuous.

Sarah was within sight of Firelands now, and maybe an hour from home.
She stopped and rested her mount again, letting him graze a bit; she stood in the stirrups, then dismounted, shucked her .40-60 from its scabbard and walked slowly to the nearest promontory.
The earth fell away from her, abruptly, spectacularly: there were tales of glaciers and volcanoes, of ice and of fire, trees and grasslands and ancient stories, now hidden by the snows.
Sarah's eyes were busy, as was her nose; she walked slowly back to the bare grass, where the sun beat all day and melted snow away from the sparse graze, and when she judged her gelding had eaten enough, she mounted again and rode leisurely for home.

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Linn Keller 1-30-13


Annette, in spite of her belly and the new life she carried, slipped through the bars of the wood rail fence and into the pasture with the bull.
The bull -- massive, muscled, broad of shoulder and horn alike -- raised its head and snorted at this new intruder into its desmense: pawing one great black cloven hoof into the sod, head erect, it described a long arc toward Annette.
Annette reached out a hand and the bull continued to advance, then stopped as little Joseph ran past her, charging the great beast, laughing.
He ran fearlessly at the bull's head and seized the twin powder horns at their bases and the bull reared back and raised its head and Joseph squealed with delight: the bull backed, spun slowly and lowered its head and Joseph let go, fell over in the snow, got up and patted the thick, muscled neck.
Annette laughed too, remembering her utter panic the first time she saw Little Joseph playing with their herd bull: she reached in an apron pocket and pulled out a sweet roll, still warm, and the bull grunted, flared its nostrils and snuffed loudly, advancing to carefully lip the treat from her flat palm.
Annette still brushed it and called it a good boy and fooled with it like women will, and like big strong males everywhere, the bull was a big furry pile of putty in her slender fingered hands.

I had no idea what kind of a lie that damned Easterner was going to tell back in Cincinnati, to explain how he got the living stinkers knocked out of him while he was out here: that mashed nose and well colored cheek was warning enough that he'd tangled with something meaner than he was.
I hadn't heard a thing from my Porkopolis contact but I figured I would... if nothing else, a politely worded "What happened?" -- with appropriate profane ruffles and flourishes, of course.
I looked up at the deferential rap on my closed office door: Digger opened it slowly, peeked in, fine silk hat in his hand.
"You wanted to see me, Sheriff?" he asked politely.
I stood, reached up and hooked my Stetson off its peg: spinning it around my finger twice, I said "I need to place an order."
Digger smiled.
Fewer things could bring that sorrowful soul to happiness any quicker than the prospect of being handed money.

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Linn Keller 2-1-13


The skin was tight on my face and I was cold, cold to my soul, and there was no trace of kindness or forgiveness in me.
I had the stranger by the throat and I had him pinned against the tree trunk and I reached down and pulled his revolver out of its holster.
"My name," I said, and my voice was as tight and as dry as the throat it rasped its way out of, "is Pale Eyes."
Then I belted him over the head with his own pistola, holding him by the throat as he sagged.
We'd rode halfway to God I don't know how far it was and I didn't care, my red mare was ready for a long hard run in the high and thin air and she was grained and she was used to the altitude and his horse was not.
I was a-settin' behind my desk sortin' through that new stack of wanted dodgers when the door shivered like someone got thrown hard against it.
I was out of the desk and two paces left with both hands wrapped around a twelve gauge when whoever it was figured out they had to open the latch first.
Some kid fell in and hit the floor all a-scramble and come up on all fours and screamed, "SHERIFF MY GOD HE JUST SHOT JACKSON COOPER!"
I grabbed my hat and slapped it on my head and long legged it out the door.
Some fellow was riding off and riding hard and Jackson Cooper was leaning back against the hitch rail with one hand to his side.
He removed the hand and looked up at me and I saw his lips frame the words: "Go get him."
I didn't have to be told twice.
I was back into the office and out again, and around back where I kept Cannonball: what I'd packed to eat went in a saddlebag, my rifle went in its scabbard and I come down that alley at a dead gallop and Cannonball swung hard right and we took out after that fellow just as hard as that red mare could run.
I didn't have any idea what happened but I knew enough and I figured to fetch that fellow back peacefully or otherwise, and otherwise was pretty high on my list.
I allowed my mind to stray, one time, to stray to the memory of that spreading red patch all wet and shiny high on his ribs when Jackson Cooper brought his hand away, and I felt that cold fire light up inside me again and I knew death rode the wind beside me.

Daciana and Sarah sat at Daciana's kitchen table.
Sarah was a tidy soul herself, and her household was a tidy household; their maid was one to keep things neat and put-away, and in an era where waste was regarded as a sin, Sarah did her level best not to be sinful.
Still ... she marveled at how painfully, precisely, absolutely orderly Daciana's kitchen was, and she considered that living in a circus van might have had something to do with such a sense of order.
Tea steamed, warm and fragrant, and the two sipped and talked quietly: Sarah wished two bridesmaids, and Daciana was the second of the two she'd chosen: she said "I know I am planning well ahead, for we do not have a date set and I do not believe we will marry for a year or so."
"He couldt surprissse you," Daciana said softly, her eyes bright and knowing.
"He might," Sarah admitted. "I understand he has a ring for me already."
Daciana nodded. "Undt vhere vill you liff?"
"That," Sarah said slowly, "is why I don't believe it will be for a year. Mr. Llewellyn has yet to buy land and build on it."
Daciana sipped her tea, waiting, letting Sarah sort her thoughts.
Sunlight was warm and welcoming through the windows; hand-sewn curtains glowed, adding their colors to the kitchen's warmth: the clock was loud in the near-silence, so much so that when the cat meowed like a rusty gate, Sarah flinched.
Daciana laughed and turned a little and the long haired calico leaped easily into her lap, purring loudly, turning its head to accept the caresses which were its due.

It was a flat out race for a time.
I wanted him to know he was being followed.
I wanted to push him and keep him a-panic.
A panicked man running tends to stay running in a panic and everyone in the territory knew that pale eyed Firelands sheriff rode a red mare, a fast red mare, a red mare that could run damn near any other horse into the ground.
I read his tracks as best I could at a gallop and I knew he was headed generally west, that he did not know the territory, that he was headed otu a long finger of ground with a sheer drop off in a couple miles, with steep broken rock face on his right and not much on his left but a thousand feet of air and rocks below that.
He was riding into a dead end.
I also knew a cornered man was a dangerous man and he might try to set up a bush whack.
I smiled grimly and eased back and let Cannonball coast to a stop.
Damned if I was going to wind break my horse because he was a-killin' his.
He'd just rode into a bottle and I was standing in the neck behind him.

When girls talk about boys, the generally giggle and turn red in the face.
When women talk about men, and their talk becomes ... intimate ... they become girls, and they turn red in the face and giggle some.
Daciana was speaking with Sarah in very frank terms, discussing how best to please a man, how to service the stud she intended to keep: Sarah listened silently, blinking slowly, listening carefully, and Daciana -- though her own face and ears warmed -- grew increasingly uncomfortable.
Sarah showed absolutely no sign of a reddening of her face, and she gave no reply save only the occasional nod to show she was following Daciana's words.
Finally Daciana stopped, uncertain, fearful she'd crossed some invisible boundary, that she'd offended her good friend in some way.
Sarah stood, scooted her chair a little closer, sat again and took both Daciana's hands in her own.
Sarah's jaw thrust out as she considered, and her hands tightened a little, just a little, and Daciana's hands tightened as well, and finally Sarah looked up and swallowed.
"I have," she said slowly, "been ... known."
Daciana's eyes widened a little.
Sarah was the closest thing to a best friend, a best and closest confidante, that Daciana had ... and what Sarah was saying, what she was implying, was new information -- alarming information -- and Daciana's brows tightened slightly in response.
"I was ... known ... I was very young," Sarah said, and Daciana's left eyebrow twitched involuntarily, for she had never heard Sarah with uncertainty in her voice.
Not once.
"I... have never ... known ..."
Sarah swallowed, breathed slowly through her open mouth, then looked up at Daciana, and Daciana did not see her strong, confident, capable friend ... she saw a frightened girl, she saw a set of wounded eyes, she saw something raw and still painful, and Sarah saw the sadness as her dear friend and confidante realized what she was seeing, what she was hearing.
"I have never known pleasure," Sarah whispered. "I don't know if I can."

I let Cannonball take a breather.
Matter of fact I did too.
We both watered at a little stream, just uphill from where the fleeing horse's tracks were still swirling and muddy.
I waited about a half hour.
I unsaddled Cannonball and rubbed her down, I laid her saddle blanket out to sun a bit, I kept good watch -- a rifle ball can travel a good distance but I was satisfied this fellow was far enough ahead that was not much of a threat -- and when I figured he'd had time enough to find a place to set down and shake for a bit, why, I saddled up again and headed after him, this time at an easy trot.
I had my rifle across the saddle in front of me.
I knew this patch of ground.
Matter of fact I bought it several years ago and intentionally did nothing with it.
I had plans for it, plans suited to its remote location and its sole approach, unclimbable cliffs on two sides and a granite wall on the third.
It was good graze here, there was water, a man got the afternoon sun; the cliff on the right was to my north, so it got sunlight too and reflected nicely in cold weather.
I rode up until I found his horse, laying saddled on the ground, heaving: its nostrils were bloody, it was making that horrible death rattle of a good horse rode near to death.
I looked ahead and saw him.
He saw me too and took out a-running, running for that granite face, and he commenced to climb.
I studied him and saw he had no rifle with him, he was climbing in panic.
I turned Cannonball to the right.
Let him climb.
I knew a path I could ride up.

What Daciana described, was with the voice of experience: she discussed anatomy and physiology, she addressed stimulation and response, she described what could be expected with certain actions, and what Sarah could expect to feel during particularly described, graphically described moments.
Sarah's face did not change expression, nor did her cheeks pink in the least measure.
She took Daciana's words and dissected them, discarding anything but the cold, the clinical, the factual.
Part of herself would not let herself believe there could be pleasure in marital intimacy, at least not the fireworks, earthquake-and-church-bells responses she'd heard other women swoon over.
Daciana realized that she would have to do something difficult, but something only a best friend could do.
She would have to have a conversation with Sarah's intended.

I ho'ed Cannonball, nice and quiet: as was my habit I rode her without her being bridled: this kept my hands free, she responded unfailingly to knee-reining, and she would fight like two hells if anyone other than me or family tried to lay a hand (or a rope) on her.
I waited while my quarry gasped and struggled up the cliff face.
He froze at the sound of my right hand Colt coming to full stand.
"Come on up the rest of the way," I said conversationally. "You tried to kill my friend." I turned my lapel over to show my six point star.
What he said in reply does not bear repeating in polite company; a single word, given like air escaping a blown up paper sack.
I lowered the Colt's hammer and holstered, figuring he was either give up, or we was about to take each other's measure.
He come at me.
I grabbed his wrist and spun, throwing him into a rock the size of a freight wagon: he hit hard and I grabbed him by the back of the belt and the back of his coat and I picked him up and slammed him face first onto the rocky ground.
He grunted when he hit and rolled over and I stomped his gun hand, then I grabbed him by the front of his vest and slammed him hard against the nearest tree and I took my other hand and I got him around the throat and I squeezed, I squeezed my hand around his neck fit to pinch his head right off his shoulders.
"When you get to hell," I grated, "tell them Pale Eyes sent you."
I felt his life pulsing against my grip and then I heard Charlie Macneil's quiet, "Use enough dynamite there, Butch?" and it was like he laid his hand on my shoulder and I realized I was committing an outright murder.
I am the Law.
The Law does not commit murder.
I reached down and pulled out his revolver and belted him over the head a good one and he sagged.
I let go of his throat and I let him collapse and I staggered back, turned around ...
Nobody was there.
That is not the first time one of us saw through the other's eyes, or one of us was with the other when we weren't, and it sure as hell wasn't the first time Charlie's quiet drawl come to my ears when the time was needful.
I made a mental note to buy him a beer next I saw him.

Sarah was quiet, subdued as she rode home, considering her conversation with Daciana.
She'd gone over after teaching school that day: Lightning politely excused himself from their conversation, busying himself with correspondence and newspaper in his study while the ladies talked about things that ladies talk about.
Sarah disciplined her mind as she disciplined her body.
She considered Daciana's descriptions and the more she re-lived the conversations, the redder her face got, and then she started to giggle, and she turned her black gelding and looked back toward Firelands and the brick firehouse, and she thought of the Welsh Irishman, and she cupped her gloved hand over her mouth and turned an incredible shade of scarlet and hiccupped and then giggled again, for all the world like a naughty schoolgirl sharing some sordid secret.

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Charlie MacNeil 2-1-13


Charlie looked up from the headstall he was mending, supple leather hanging loosely in his calloused hands, looked up from his seat in the warm sunshine slanting into the doorway of the old log barn, looked up toward the hills beyond the ranch house hollow. Inadvertently his right hand clamped down, hard, as if to pinch something, some portion of the human anatomy, from its moorings on that selfsame anatomy. For a moment, he saw a purpling countenance, the face of a man struggling for even the tiniest sip of life-giving oxygen. Unbidden the words came to his lips and he muttered, "Think ya used enough dynamite there, Butch?" On the instant, his hard fist relaxed as the moment passed. He chuckled softly.

"I hate it when that happens, don't you, Sheriff?" After a moment he returned his attention to the headstall.

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Linn Keller 2-1-13


The horses weren't hurt.
Matter of fact the horses were healthy, fed, rested and in a mood to run, especially after getting scared, startled and shot at, not necessarily in that order.
The stage driver wasn't in quite as good a shape and the shotgun had his hands full trying to keep the driver set upright.
He tried taking the reins and caught an elbow in the teeth for his trouble: the driver was hard headed and contrary, and shot through the guts or not, he was damned if he was going to give away control of his team, so the shotgun wedged the empty ten-bore under his knees and concentrated on keeping his irascible driver upright.
They were headed toward Firelands, they were running at a gallop and the shotgun figured there was billy-damned he could do about it, so he hung onto the driver and gritted his teeth.

Jacob saw the stage headed into town and he knew something wasn't right.
He couldn't see the driver for the trees but that-there Concord was moving way the hell too fast for that road and for the turn coming up.
Jacob had no need for reins nor knees, it seemed; he wished to be there, and Apple-horse came to very willing life under him, whipping around the hair pin turn and down the long grade toward the roadway.

Sarah shaded her eyes with her flat hand, frowning; the stage was coming into town from the other end and coming fast.
She'd got home, but instead of going inside, instead of reading to the twins and washing up and relaxing a little before supper, she was nervous, she was stirred up some, and she was of a mind to try to ride it off: after she rubbed down her black horse, she whistled up Snowflake and fooled with her some and got the saddle screwed down on her nice and snug.
Sarah climbed up the rail fence and into the saddle: undignified, yes, but faster than leading Snowflake to a mounting block.
Snowflake was anxious to be anywhere but where she was, yet she did not run off with her rider: Sarah held Snowflake to a nice easy pace, a gliding trot that covered ground rapidly but didn't exert her big Frisian to any degree.
Sarah's weight shifted and Snowflake stopped, ears swinging, head turning.
Sarah shaded her eyes with a flat palm, frowning.
That stage is coming too fast, she thought, it's not slowing down ...
Sarah saw Jacob pounding hard after the stage and she knew things were not good, things were not good a'tall.
Snowflake reached out in a long-legged trot that moved smoothly into a rocking-horse gallop and Sarah leaned forward, standing in the stirrups.

Daciana hummed a little tune as she led Buttercup into the arena again.
She wanted to practice a showy move Sarah showed her, how at a run the rider could drop down, hit the ground flat footed and launch -- vault -- over the saddle, hit the ground again, swing up into the saddle.
There was a very similar move used in trick riding, but it wasn't quite what Daciana saw Sarah use: Sarah's was a survival move, something to get the rider to one side of the horse, using it for cover from hostile attack.
Daciana bounced once and spread her legs, rotating slowly in mid-air before landing neatly, delicately, in her gaudy, gilded, trick-rider's saddle.
She'd opened the big double doors to get some air, in spite of the cold: the sun was over center and going down, it was a little chill, but Daciana's cloak was sufficient.

The shotgun clawed for the reins, missed.
Leather traces fell and dragged uselessly under the stage coach.
The shotgun rider swore loudly, his belly tightening with fear, and he looked down at the hitch, wondering if he was still agile enough to leap from the driver's seat onto the wheel horse's back.

Sarah drove for the approaching stage: it was just coming into the end of the main street on the up hill side of the Mercantile.
Sarah brought Snowflake around broad side, dancing her, hoping the lead horses would see this big black obstruction and try to stop.
Snowflake knew before Sarah that no such thing was happening.
Snowflake spun, end-for-end, the rattling coach and its pale-faced passengers barely missing them: Jacob was past them just as fast, and Snowflake did not have to be told twice to give chase.
Snowflake was fresh and the stage horses were almost fresh: they streaked past the church and the firehouse and the road swaged down narrow and Sarah knew she was going to have to do something even if it was wrong.
"YAAHH!!" she screamed, palming the saddle horn and jumping straight up in the air and getting her feet under her, thrusting hard and realizing too late she was standing on part of her skirt.
Timing off and disaster near, Sarah did the next best thing.
She seized the metal rail beside the driver's leg and hung on.

Jacob saw the reins were a-trail and he knew it would be fruitless to try for the reins: he too saw the road was narrowed ahead, where it went out of town and into the two wheel tracks, and like his sister, he jumped up onto his saddle and leaped for the middle horse's back.
Unlike Sarah, he had neither skirts nor petticoats to get in the way: his jump was clean and square and he landed on the back of the horse, grabbing his legs around it like a set of pincers and leaning up to find the bit, the reins, to slow the horse, to start the team slowing.

Daciana rode after the stage, curious, wondering what in the world was going on: she was content to canter Buttercup, for she knew her dear trick pony was neither fast, nor was she ready for a hard run at this high altitude.
Still, she followed: the street ended, the road narrowed, and she wondered for a moment just how Sarah was going to get around the stage.
Oh, she's going to jump, just like she showed me, Daciana thought.
I wonder how she'll manage in a skirt --

"Oh dear God," the shotgun muttered: he thrust the Greener behind the seat, hauled hard on the driver: the unconscious man fell over across the seat and the shotgun swayed a little as he leaned down, reaching for Sarah's wrist.
Sarah pulled herself up like she was chinning herself, toes digging at the side of the stage, scrambling for purchase: her left foot swung forward, found the edge of the dash board, about the time the shotgun reached down and grabbed Sarah between the shoulder blades.
The coach swayed and the shotgun lost his balance, fell: his chest his Sarah's head and he fell and was gone.
Sarah winced with pain, then hauled again and balanced, her weight on her hands, her hands at belt level: she swung her left leg forward again, rolled herself up onto the seat.
She looked down at the trailing reins.
Daciana saw Sarah standing -- she saw Sarah's hands moving, moving quickly, then her dress fell away in the slipstream and Sarah disappeared.
Daciana's stomach fell and she watched the dress spin and whirl in the wind of the stage's passing.

Jacob swore and pulled on the reins.
Bit between his teeth, he thought.
There's a turn up ahead.
Got to slow 'em down.
I hate to kill a horse.
If I shoot it we might pile up in a wreck
He looked back over his shoulder just as Sarah made a flying dive off the driver's seat.
Somehow the fact that she was down to her unmentionables did not surprise him.
Sarah tended to do things like that sometimes.
She looked to the side and down and slid off the side of the wheel horse, landing neatly on the draw bar: she got a good hold on the harness and bent down and found the reins, then, standing, began pulling, calling to the team as she did, calling them the same profane names the driver used, damning their rotted souls to hell and perdition and promising to send each of them to their own personal glue factory if they didn't start listening to her.
Sarah balanced on four inches of smoothed hardwood, riding with knees bent, soaking up the jolts and the rocking like she'd done it all her life: she laid her tongue to language no lady would ever consider, the air fairly crackled with verbal sulfur -- and whether it was the screamed slander, the firm hand on their reins or what, the team slowed.
Sarah got them slowed enough to make that hard left turn she knew was coming up; as they swung around the turn, she fell against the horse's flank, shoved herself back upright, brought the team down slower, then to a walk.
The field was broad here and she knew it to be free of rocks, so she steered the team out into the field and described a big easy circle, walking the stage horses back to the road, and walked them back toward Firelands.
Jacob turned around, grinning.
Sarah looked up at her brother, her face pale, her pupils huge: she reined the team to a stop: "Ho, there, ho, now, ho, girls," and the team stopped, blowing, grateful for the rest.
Jacob slid down, landed easily, walked back to the coach.
He opened the door, looked inside: "Anyone hurt?" he asked casually, as if asking if anyone might have the time.
Daciana rode up, Sarah's dress clutched to her belly.
"She's up there," Jacob pointed, and Daciana and Buttercup went on forward.

The coach stopped in front of the hospital.
The shotgun guard was already within, the Irish Brigade having packed him back to town: when the stage and its pursuers came through town a-gallop, the Brigade knew all was not well, and followed, figuring the whole cob house was going to roll over on that hard turn.
Sarah was dressed; she wasted no time getting herself decent, before anyone came out of the coach; several hands helped them get the wounded driver inside, and Daciana hung back and watched, big-eyed, as Sarah calmed the excited passengers, assured them that they would be taken care of, and got the lot of them up the street and into the Silver Jewel for a good meal -- and probably a stiff drink.
When Sarah finally came out she was moving slow.
Daciana rode up to her, slipped from the saddle, and Sarah embraced her, trembling.
"Thank you," Sarah whispered.
"For what?" Daciana asked, surprised.
"For all that practice," Sarah replied, "for your kettlebells, for climbing the rope ... I needed all of that."
"You are velcome," Daciana said gravely.

The Sheriff brought a man through the hospital's front door, his hand hard at the nape of his neck, a good fist full of material bunched up in his grip.
"DOC!" he yelled, his voice loud and harsh in the hospital's hush, "GOT A CUSTOMER!"
Nurse Susan came through the surgery door like a carved figurine emerging from one of those fancy German clocks, the kind where a door opens and something whirrs out.
"The Doctor is in surgery," she said tartly, "it seems a man has been shot and he's exploring the wound."
"Well, I ain't hurt," the Sheriff muttered, "but this fella's not too good. He tried to bust a boulder with his face."
"Did it work?" Jacob deadpanned.
The Sheriff looked at his prisoner, then at Jacob.
"It wasn't the boulder that come out in second place," he replied.
Jacob nodded.
"Now what is the stage doing outside? Looks like those horses have been run some."
"The driver's inside," Jacob replied, jerking his head toward the surgery door, "and if the shotgun guard wakes up I'll find out where he got shot." Jacob looked closely at the prisoner. "What did this fella do?"
The Sheriff's eyes were pale now, and hard as his voice.
"He shot Jackson Cooper."
Jacob's eyes went pale as well and he stepped squarely in front of the prisoner.
"Mister," he said, his voice flat, "you just made your wife a widow. Jackson Cooper is a friend of mine." He looked at the Sheriff. "One broken rib, nothing worse. The man's got iron ribs. Doc said they are twice as thick as a normal man's and they over lay like shingles on a roof." Jacob looked at the prisoner again.
"Don't worry, mister," he said, almost cheerfully. "Judge Hostetler will be in tomorrow to hear your case. We'll give you a fair trial before we hang you."

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