Jump to content
SASS Wire Forum

Recommended Posts

This is an experiment.

I want to see if I can write a short story.

(Try no to laugh -- me, brief? -- well, miracles do happen!)

When I wrote Willamina's original tale, she reached out of the screen, seized me by the shirt collar, jerked me up short and glared those pale eyes into mine and hissed, "WRITE!" -- and of course the only correct reply to a lady is to lift the skypiece and say "Yes, ma'am!"

I honestly don't know where these sawed off tales will be -- past, present or future -- good Lord, you have ridden patiently with me clear to the Red Planet, we have trotted across the deck of a carrier as a pale eyed Kentucky fiddler took off in a Super Stallion and did things with that flying truck that should only be tried in a fighter jet, and we've gone well back to the past, clear back to not long after the American Revolution.

So -- fair warning -- we'll likely be wandering some.

When the noon freight hit me this morning, it was of course in Firelands, but it was in the hospital lobby, and there were a couple boys there named Emil and Gottleib, sons of Sheriff Linn Keller:  ten years old they are, and ... well, I'll let you look 'em over yourself.

Here they are.

 

 

THE SHERIFF'S TWINS

 

The punch caught Linn's right cheekbone coming in and it shook the man to his boot heels.

Something bright detonated in the lean-waisted, pale-eyed Sheriff's field of vision and his left arm spun up to block the follow up punch he knew was coming, he bent a little and drove a haymaker just under the other guy's wish bone, an uppercut delivered with all the muscle that throwing hay bales, scraping barns and other affairs of bein' Sheriff had given him, and he punched his good right fist into the man's guts hard enough to bring him off the ground feeling like that upward bound ballistic missile started just above the belly button and came to final rest a half inch beneath his Adam's apple.

A stainless-steel bedpan spun past the Sheriff's left ear like an insane, gleaming Frisbee and the pale eyed lawman turned, left arm up and hand bladed, he drew his left knee back to his belt buckle and drove a kick into an advancing belly and doubled the would-be attacker, knocking him back against the receptionist's desk hard enough to crack it loose from its bolted down foundations.

Dr. John Greenlees shoved through the double doors with an immaculate white coat unbuttoned and flowing open in the wind of his passing, wearing a shirt and tie and a professionally irritated expression:  the man was a gifted surgeon and he was not going to risk his hands in a punch, but he had a handful of laser sighted .44 revolver, and when this quiet man roared "ENOUGH!" and nobody paid him the least bit of attention, he hauled back the hammer and turned loose 240 grains of handloaded lead slug that knocked a spall out of the cement beam overhead half the size of a man's fist and brought everything to a fast stop.

The glass double doors hauled open and half a dozen lawmen swarmed in, looking around, two in the lead with shotguns cocked, locked and ready to rock, and the Sheriff straightened, glared at them with hard and pale eyes, and put the back of his hand gingerly to his swelling right cheek bone.

"What took you so long?"  Linn muttered.  "Doc, you okay?"

 

Emil Keller – one of the Sheriff's twins – looked at his brother Gottleib.

When the fight started in the waiting area out front, just inside the big glass doors and around the receptionist's desk, the Sheriff swung around in front of his boys and said "Boys, get in back," and they turned and ran through the heavy wooden double doors, shoving through them in pious defiance of the "NO ADMITTANCE" in red letters across their equator.

There was the general sound of a full-blown, shouting riot, a uniformed policeman came out of an exam room and ran to the sound of battle, and the twin ten-year-old boys ran into the room he'd just run out of.

Gottleib stopped and looked at the man lying on the treatment table.

Emil looked at Gottleib and then at the patient.

The man's eyes were wide and wild, he was shivering, he was sweating, he was looking around as if seeing something darting about the room, something that terrified him.

His manacled wrists were secured to a belly chain, he was belted down, it was evident he was confined and probably under arrest, but the officer assigned to watch him was gone, and now it was just two scared little boys and what was probably a dangerous, if not violent, prisoner.

"Don't let it near me," he hissed between clenched teeth, shaking, struggling:  "DON'T LET IT TOUCH ME!"

Emil went up beside the man, reached up, gripped one of the man's hands:  "My name's Emil," he said, "you're safe here," and the man's head snapped around and he looked at the serious-faced little boy and gave a scream of sheer terror.

"It's all right," Emil said with all the firmness and confidence he could manufacture – he'd heard his pale-eyed Pa say those same words, and in the same way – "you are safe here and I will not let you come to harm."

The man whimpered, looked around, clearly terrified.

"They'll hurt you," he gasped.  "They'll hurt you!"

"They'll not dare," Emil said with all the confidence as if he held a loaded shotgun himself:  he gave the man's hand a reassuring squeeze.  "You're cold.  Let me get you a blanket."

Gottleib looked around the room.

The boys knew hospitals sometimes had warmed blankets – Emil broke an arm falling out of the hay loft once, and they put a warmed blanket on him and he remembered how good it felt – Gottleib was in the room when this happened, and he looked around, pointed.

"There."

The two boys – identical in flannel shirt, blue jeans, polished boots and wide, basket-stamped belts – scampered over to the blanket warmer, opened it, carefully brought out a warmed, fragrant blanket.

They ran over to the prisoner and carefully, quickly, unfolded the blanket over him, ran back, got another.

"They can't hurt you now," Emil said, drawing on a childhood memory of hiding from nightmares by huddling under a blanket:  "you're safe now," and the prisoner relaxed visibly, blinking.

Neither boy really knew what to say and so they said nothing:  one stood on the man's left, the other on his right:  youthful hands gripped his shoulders reassuringly, and when the officer finally came back in, he looked, surprised, at the quiet prisoner, at the two boys, and asked with honest surprise, "What are you two doing in here?"

 

The janitor squinted at the crater in the cement beam.

"Yeah, I can patch that," he said confidently.  "Gimme a day and you'll never know it was there."

Dr. John Greenlees looked at the Sheriff, frowned.

"You'd better let me look at that."

The Sheriff nodded.  "Yeah," he grunted, dabbed at his nose, frowned at the drop of blood that came away when he brushed an experimental knuckle across the front of his beak.

They went in back and into the first treatment room, the room with the officer, the prisoner, and two boys.

 

The local paper had the expected article, describing how a fight broke out in the hospital's lobby, how the Sheriff, who was there to interview what turned out to be a poisoning victim, became the first lawman on scene; there was mention of the number of casualties, of the Sheriff's broken cheekbone, of the charges filed:  there was a smaller, separate article on how a college student from out of town ended up in police custody after erratic behavior, and how it was finally determined he'd been slipped some drug cocktail that brought out every paranoid fear he'd known, causing him to be violent and combative, and how this was treated, with no charges against him, and the investigation turned over to the police in the jurisdiction where the chemical assault took place.

The newspaper had no mention of two little boys who helped break the man's paranoia.

 

Linn patiently endured his wife's attentions as she fussed over his face:  it was bruised, it was going to be spectacularly colored, Doc tended the cracked bone as best as could be done, gave his good professional advice, and turned the Sheriff loose:  as he and his boys left for the office and paperwork, and then home, they passed the janitor up on a ladder plastering the bullet crater full:  it would be ready to paint in a few hours, and Linn knew the man took pride in his work, and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference in twenty-four hours.

Emil and Gottleib waited patiently as their tall, pale-eyed Pa conferred with the police chief and a variety of officers, they stayed to one side and silent as lawmen came and went, as the prosecutor discussed what had transpired, and finally, when the Sheriff stood and stretched, he looked over at his sons and winked and said "Fellas, let me tell you a secret."

The twins came to their feet and with one voice said "Yes, sir?"

"Cheek bones heal better with ice cream."

"Yes, sir!" came the eager, juvenile-grin reply, and the three of them walked down to the chrome-and-glass drugstore with all the mirrors and polished metalwork, and sat down at a table with a chocolate sundae in front of each of them.

They waited until the Sheriff picked up his spoon, and hesitated when he hesitated.

"Boys," he said seriously, "your Mama would not be happy with us spoilin' our supper."

"No, sir," the boys said, looking sorrowfully at the bounty before them.

"There is a solution."

Hopeful eyes raised to their solemn-faced Pa.

"Since this is for medicinal purposes only," he continued, as solemn as the old judge, "we just don't tell her!"

Three pale-eyed Kellers in well polished boots and blue jeans, snatched up their spoons and happily consumed their chilly treats.

 

After they'd eaten, the Sheriff listened carefully to his boys' testimony.

It was not so much an interrogation as it was an interested father looking at a situation through the eyes of his sons.

He listened to their description of how they went into the back hall, and how they thought that general knock down drag out brawl might spill through the doors they'd just pushed through, and so they ducked into a room the policeman just came out of – they knew it wouldn't be locked, so they could get in – they described the appearance of the man on the ER gurney, and they gave a clear verbal picture of the terror on his face, how he was looking around at something and telling them how "IT" was going to get him, and how Emil tried to reassure him with touch – something he'd learned from his Pa, though he didn't say as much – and how he'd realized the fellow was cold.

Emil and Gottleib described remembering the warmed blankets and finding the blanket warmer, and how they covered him with one and then another, because Emil remembered how fast his first warmed blanket cooled off, and how this was a comfort to the man.

Linn listened patiently, carefully, to what his sons told him, and then he leaned across the small, cleared, glass-topped drugstore table, and took their hands in his.

"Fellas," he said quietly, looking into one son's eyes, and then the other, "you have done a good thing.  You brought comfort to one who needed comforted."  He squeezed their hands just a little and smiled, remembering at time when his own pale-eyed Mama told him the same thing, under rather different circumstances, but knowing it would be meaningful nonetheless:  "You did a very good thing an I am pretty damned proud of you both!"

It is a powerful thing when a father praises his sons, and Linn knew it was a lesson his sons would remember, and God willing, it would be a thing they would do with their own sons.

In the fullness of time, it was, but that's another tale altogether.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

2. BEING THERE

 

My boots crunched quietly on cold gravel as I walked down Keller Row.

Our family has been here a long time now.

Here ... here in front of me, an old stone, a double tomb stone.

I stare at it and I read my own name.

Linn Keller.

I smile a little and remember my wife telling me she had this same funny feeling when she stood at a stone near Parkersburg, back East, and read her own name.

She'd been named after a great-grandmother.

I know how she felt, reading that name, standing at that grave.

The other half of the stone – the one that said "Beloved Wife and Mother" – Esther Keller, the legendary green-eyed wife of Old Pale Eyes himself.

I smiled a little and remembered how Mama used to read to me, she read from journals and from her own research, she was putting together material enough for a book until she finally laughed and shook her head and said "Who would read such a silly thing," and she put it all away, and I dug it out after she died.

I would read it, Mama.

I am reading it.

Mama read to me from her written notes about Esther, how she took over the Z&W Railroad, named after the rail line back East her husband sold in order to purchase this struggling little short line:  he named it after the one he sold – the Zanesville and Western, profanely known as the Zig Zag and Wobble, which Esther did not know until after she'd turned it around and gotten it profitable – and by then, she said, changing its name would be like renaming a boat, and that's very bad luck among blue water sailors.

I looked at the small stone on the far side, the one with the lamb on top, the one with a couple chunks knocked out.

Their son Joseph, died in infancy, nowadays we'd call it crib death, and I remembered my first house call for unexpected death.

It too had been crib death and the parents were crushed, devastated, and my partner and I were gentle and careful in removing their child's remains:  I was a green EMT and it ... hell, it was my first run, period, and that about ruined me.

I turned and looked off to my left and estimated where the assassin would have hidden with his long barrel shotgun, waiting to murder the Sheriff's green-eyed wife:  their little girl Angela was on the far side of the stone, and when the gun cracked, the Sheriff was hit and that made him mad.

He, Jacob an Charlie Macneil all replied, and none of the three men missed, and Angela didn't realize what happened because she'd tripped over something and she was flat on the ground when heavy shot sang over her.

Mama said she'd been told Angela saw a white wolf, the legendary white wolf that appears to the family sometimes, but nobody knew for sure – all they knew was Angela's delighted "Doggie!" and she took two running steps and went face first into the snowy ground.

I looked left.

More stones, more names.

Jacob Keller and his wife Annette, their son Joseph – his remains were not really here, he'd been killed in France during the First World War.  His uniform and the revolvers the Sheriff had made for him are over in the museum if you want to see them, along with the hand written account from the officer whose life he saved.

The German officer.

More names, more stones ... I paced on a little further, stopped and smiled at a stone with a recent laser engraving in its polished quartz face.

Sarah Lynne McKenna.

God Almighty, I thought, she looks like my Mama.

There wasn't room on Old Pale Eyes' stone for his visage to be graven, otherwise Mama would have had it done, because I am the very breathing image of that fine old lawman, just as Mama's twin brother William was the living twin for Jacob Keller, who became Sheriff after Old Pale Eyes.

Her son – Sarah's son, Daffyd Llewellyn, isn't here – that's his father's grave here, with the same name, he was one of our Irish Brigade and he died trying to escape a house fire, but he'd thrown a wrapped baby across the gap to the fire chief – if I recall Mama's notes rightly, one of the pale eyed relatives married that little girl child that got tossed across the chimney of fire that swallowed Sarah's husband.

Mama still has her ring, the Ring of the Princess.

I stopped and blinked and looked off into the distance and it hurt again, Mama's being gone and all, and I reckon I'll feel that hurt as long as I live.

I have the ring and it's locked away and safe.

Sarah's son Daffyd is buried in Cincinnati, under a fine stone in a riverside cemetery that almost washed away but they got stone in and stopped the erosion and today it's walled up and safe.  I've been there and seen his stone and a police officer stopped and came out into the cemetery and we got to talking.

It seems that his granddad or great-granddad was a beat cop when he stopped to investigate a woman, grieving in the night:  thick fog, no moon, he opened the iron gate and followed the sound and came upon a woman all in black, kneeling at the grave, her lantern on the ground.

Years later – I don't know how it came about – but he saw a photograph of Sarah Lynne McKenna and he said that was the woman, grieving at his grave.

I don't have that one quite figured out.

Sarah Lynne McKenna was dead by then, she'd been killed in Germany not long before the First World War, when things were getting unpleasant, when there were local uprisings, when raiders with torches and pitchforks stormed the residence of the old Count.

Sarah sent her maid with her baby girl down a hidden stone passageway and Sarah changed out of her fine gown and into what she wore as the Black Agent, and she belted on her bulldog .44s and took up her rifle and a shotgun and she went to war.

She shot the rifle empty, she emptied the shotgun twice, she emptied her revolvers and then she came out with a pair of blades and she laid about like a steel tornado and finally someone took her through the spine with something and she went down and they killed her as she lay there but only one survived to tell the tale, and when the Staaspolezi got there, they were aghast at the carnage one woman alone caused.

I couldn't help but smile.

I've set and looked long at glass plate prints of Sarah Lynne McKenna, and compared them side by side with pictures of my Mama, and there were times when Mama would wear a wig she'd had made to look just like the way Sarah wore her hair, and she'd hand made gowns to look just like gowns Sarah wore in those plates, and damned if she did not look like a twin, an absolute twin!

Now Mama told me there were times when the dead walked with us, she told me of conversations she'd had with Jacob Keller and with Old Pale Eyes, she told me of Sarah coming into her living room and taking her to Firelands as it was back when, and then she'd give a little laugh and say maybe she'd dreampt the whole thing.

I don't know.

Mama was never one to go into a flight of fancy.

She was always really well grounded in fact.

Hell, she was Sheriff, she'd have to be!

I can't help but wonder if it didn't really happen and she kind of let it slip and then she gave me that little bit of doubt so I could think it was a dream and not a damned lie.

The Bear Killer shoved his head up against my hand and I rubbed his neck and his shoulder:  this wasn't our first The Bear Killer, I'd buried one up on High Lonesome and I cried when I did, this one was not nearly grown but he was already little short of absolutely huge.

I smiled a little.

There'd been The Bear Killer in my life ever since I could remember, although I never saw one of the white wolves Mama told me about, at least not until that day.

I stopped at the newest stone and I swallowed hard.

WILLAMINA KELLER, it read, BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER, and in one corner, the six point star, same size as the one she wore and now I did; in the other corner, a red rose, laser engraved and they tinted it somehow, and that's another mystery about this place:  when a woman is with child, or when someone is about to die, a red rose will appear, and I remember when my wife woke and found two roses on her bedside table, fresh, fragrant, the petals still dew-wet, fresh cut and stuck in a little narrow neck vase.

I said about not seein' the white wolf until that day.

I found Mama dead in the pasture.

She'd been out for a ride and Cannonball was standin' right beside her and not movin' an The Bear Killer he taken off from the house with a growl and the hair standin' up down his spine and acrost his shoulders and I grabbed a rifle and came out of the house on the Hot Foot and I saw her layin' there.

I taken off runnin' hard as I could go.

For the first and only time in my entire life, I slapped my hand on the top rail of our board fence and vaulted it at a dead run, I hit flat footed on t'other side and taken a point shoulder roll with my rifle tucked in ag'in my belly and crossways and I come up runnin' and The Bear Killer he beat me there and he snuffed at her and then he set his broad flat bottom down and he raised his muzzle and he commenced to howl.

I will never in my entire life forget that howl, how it filled the whole world, how it echoed and rolled off the mountains themselves.

Habit and training take over when the noon freight smacks you between the eyes, that's why we train and train and train again, we don't train to get it right, we train until we can't get it wrong:  when it hits the fan, rational thought and fine coordination join hands and jump out the nearest window, and we are left with muscle memory and training, and I went through the checks and she wasn't breathing, and I took a close look at her eyes and they were just started to dry across the corneas and I knew – no pulse, no respirations, discoloration, drying corneas – she was long past dead.

I picked up my Mama and throwed my head back and I let out a sorrowful scream that I reckon shivered the bottom step of the Pearly Gates, and then I collapsed to my knees and I sorrowed into my dead Mama's shirt.

I looked at her stone as I remembered all this and I recalled in my misery there was a White Wolf.

I had seen one.

It was looking at me, and it raised its muzzle as well and it and The Bear Killer sang and I looked up over Mama's stone, the double stone with her name on the left and Pa's on the right, and over that stone I saw it.

The White Wolf, just settin' there, lookin' at me, and then it stood and turned and there was a twist of fog where it used to be, and it was gone.

A hand laid on my back and a gentle voice.

"I won't tell anyone," she said, "but under that hard lawman's shell you're just an old softy."

I nodded, my chest tight and tears stinging my eyes, and I reached for my bandana.

I wiped my eyes and blew my nose and took a deep breath, and I gripped the corners of the stone and bent over until my forehead rested on polished granite, and I stayed there for a bit.

That evening, after supper, my wife knew something was on my mind.

I helped her with the dishes and when we were done I took her in my arms and held her, and she knew something troubled me, so she held me, and the boys were doing their homework in the living room, belly down on the floor and frowning at their sums laid open on the hardwood before them.

"Thank you," I whispered.

"You're welcome."  Her voice was a little muffled but I felt her giggle, then she lifted her head and looked at me and said "What for this time?"

"For being there when I needed you."
She looked kind of puzzled.

"You know.  Today.  At the graveyard.  I didn't even hear you drive up."

"Ummm ..."  She raised an eyebrow and turned her head just a little and gave me a really funny look.

"I wasn't at the graveyard today."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

3.  THE PAINTER AND THE LADY

 

The stool was narrow and hard beneath his broad backside.

He'd never imagined his talents would be so employed.

Still ... he'd never imagined he'd starve, either.

This new land, this America, this opportunity, was supposed to be paved with gold, with generous patrons in grand cities, with the nouveau riche dripping with gold and gaudy jewels, clamoring to give patronage to a known European artist such as himself!

He closed his eyes for a long moment, took a steadying breath.

What he was doing now was less than child's play.

A half blind enfant could do what he was doing!

He rested his forehead on the back of a bent wrist:  there was a step behind him, a firm hand clasped his shoulder.

"Take a few minutes if you need to," a kindly voice said in that strange English accent:  a woman's voice, but stained with the cadencing and pronunciation of ... what?

New Orleans?

In France, in Paree, he'd been Rogere Halasz, painter of portraits and guest of rich and powerful families:  here, here in this howling wilderness, he was ... he was Roger Halasz, which these primitive provincials pronounced "h'alice" ... but he'd learned not to correct them, not if he wished to be paid, and his belly reminded him that getting paid was now of sudden and overriding importance.

"That," the woman continued, "is some of the most precise freehand lettering I have ever seen."

She spoke English now, and Rogere's quick ear tasted the haunting flavors of another accent, one he'd come to associate with certain rich patrons in the American South, refugees after that terrible time that nearly destroyed this young nation:  his ancestors included the great Charles L'Enfant, who designed their new Capitol, and even Marquis de Lafayette, who fought beside their revered Washington!

"Merci, ma Dame," he murmured.

With such an ancestry, he reasoned, he should be feted and not scorned, not reduced to painting letters on the side of a locomotive!

The woman's hand never left his shoulder:  he felt her weight shift and he knew she was bending a little, looking more closely at his work, and he heard her breath catch.

He smiled a little.

He knew she was looking at the rose he'd painted, the rose with a ribbon about its stem:  it was not something ma Dame had requested, but he felt it fitting:  he'd seen her holding a rose, fresh-cut, given her by her pale-eyed husband, that remarkable, iron-muscled gendarme, the ... oh, what was the word ...

Shérif.

Rogere smiled again, swished his brush in solvent, wiped it delicately on the folded rag he'd been given.

"Merci, ma Dame," he said again, setting the brush aside, turning a little and looking up at the striking woman who'd commissioned his work.

Her startling green eyes were still on the rose:  he'd painted it as he remembered the roses in his grand-mère's garden, fresh and rich and with droplets of dew still gleaming on the petals, on the leaves:  he'd captured the roundness of each hydrosphere, an inverted, tiny reflection in each one.

"Rogere," Madame Esther said softly, "you must be hungry, would you guest with us tonight?"

"Alors?"  The exclamation slipped out unbidden and he silently cursed his incaution, but the woman laughed gently and gripped both his shoulders.

"We have a room for you in the Silver Jewel, and a bath:  clean clothes, a meal, wine and music, and I think you will be a new man on the morrow."

Rogere swallowed, nodded:  here was fortune indeed, and a greater, a more generous treatment than he'd received since setting his Gaulic foot on this primitive and backward continent!

"Merci, ma Dame," he said softly, and began gathering his pigments.

 

The woman at the head of the room – a room in the back of the Silver Jewel Saloon, a room gutted out and rebuilt well more than a century before as a private meeting room, rebuilt by blue-eyed Kentucky moonshiners from up on the mountain, master carpenters and musicians – the woman stood at the head of this room, her hands properly folded in her apron, looking about with the patient hauteur of a woman of means who was addressing a crowd composed of mostly ... well, her social inferiors.

An enlarged image, projected on the screen behind her, was of a single red rose, hand-painted:  it was faded with time and exposure to the sun, but it was more than evident that this was remarkably executed:  had it not been faded, it might have been mistaken for a photograph, so precisely was it rendered.

The woman raised a hand, and in it, a small, black-plastic rectangle:  a press of a delicate, manicured thumb, the picture changed to a high-resolution, close-up of the trailing ribbon, tied about its stem.

Delicately woven into the painting, a signature, following the flow and curve of the ribbon, invisible unless one looked for it.

"The painter," the docent explained, "was a French immigrant who went on to San Francisco and became a famous portrait painter until he was taken by a measles epidemic a year-and-a-half later."

She turned and looked at the screen, smiled.

Beside her and a little behind was another image, this an actual painting:  it, too, was old, and newly restored by a master hand.

The docent wore an emerald-green gown, and had an emerald brooch at her throat, framed by four emeralds:  the docent's elaborate wig was a remarkable shade of red, and it was evident she was portraying the woman in the portrait.

"The lettering, and the insignia," she said, "was a commission by the Sheriff's wife, Esther Wales.  She was from South Carolina and we have a rather extensive history on her" – she smiled – "which we won't get into, because we don't have the time.  This gown" – she brushed the dress she wore with a delicate, wrist-bent hand – "duplicates what she wore in this portrait.  The man with her" – she smiled at the man in back, the tall, lean fellow with pale eyes and an iron-grey mustache – "is her husband, the second Sheriff of Firelands County, Colorado."

The docent could not help but display the smile of a woman who knew a secret.

The Sheriff – her Sheriff – was a man of high good humor, in addition to being a most effective lawman:  she'd seen him seize a rowdy by the shirt front and hoist him off the ground and casually press him one-armed, straight up, hold him, lower him and press him up again, then lower him until they were eye-to-eye and he'd say something quiet, something in a gentle voice ... at which point either the rowdy became cooperative, or he generally ended up in the nearest horse trough.

He'd slipped into her presentation while the audience was engaged with her; he came in silently, as he always did, knowing full well she'd be showing that portrait, knowing the audience would see that pale eyed old lawman standing beside his lovely, green-eyed wife, knowing they had no idea he was there, at least not until they stood to leave.

The docent practiced the gliding walk of a Carolina belle, and after her presentation, she would glide gracefully back to the Sheriff, her Sheriff, and take his arm, and they would take questions together, and it delighted the docent that there were days when the Sheriff smelled particularly the way she loved her men to smell:  he smelled of horse-sweat and leather, he smelled of whiskey and Indian tobacco, he smelled the way she remembered her grandfather smelling, and she never, ever questioned this, not even after the time that she glided back and boldly laid claim to his arm and asked if there were any questions, and the next day she thanked him for his appearance.

Sheriff Linn Keller turned off his computer's monitor, turned to face the docent squarely, his brows puzzling together.

"I never left the office all day," he said slowly, and then they both turned and looked at the portraits on the wall, the framed prints made from glass plate photographs discovered in a dusty box, hidden away and forgotten in the local photographer's studio.

They looked at the prints, and they looked at one another, and the docent swallowed and turned and slipped out the Sheriff's office door.

She got halfway across the Sheriff's office lobby, stopped, looked back, hesitated, and finally shook her head.

"No," she said firmly.  "No, that's not possible."

 

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

4. DECENT WOMEN

 

A man who will face the black gaze of eternity itself as presented by the business end of a Colt's revolver, might well hesitate when faced with the sharpened edge of hand held steel.

There is something frightening, viscerally terrifying, about the prospect of steel's kiss laying open a man's hide and spilling blood, guts and everything else, with a single hard swing.

So it was that, although the saloon full of men surrounded the enraged, screaming individual with a genuine Bowie in his fist, although chairs were kicked over and tables dragged away, leaving a rough circle in which this roaring challenger turned with honed steel uplifted, none stepped forward to accept his challenge.

The piano player's hands were drawn up from the keys; forgotten was music, forgotten even was his beer, and he too turned and watched this deadly tableau:  encircled, trapped, this individual's paranoia was fed even more by the perception that escape was impossible.

A voice.

A single voice, carrying over their heads:

"Make way, gentlemen, please," and heads turned, men shifted, moved aside.

A woman in an emerald-green gown, a red-headed woman with green eyes slipped through the small opening they afforded her, and behind her, these ranks of manly shoulders wove back together, and suddenly two were in the ring and Death smiled behind its bony mask and Esther Keller, wife of the pale eyed Sheriff and owner of the Z&W Railroad, spun a shining silver figure-eight in the air before her with Solingen steel:  the Bowie, heavier, stronger, was almost a foot and a half of fighting steel, forged on a smith's anvil, hammered from the fiery heart of refined ore; it had the apple on the pommel to counter the weight of the blade, putting the balance point in the fighter's hand:  the grip was walnut, checkered, flat on the sides, the checkering smoothed a little with use and with years, and stained with blood of more men than one.

The Schlager blade was more than twice its length, slender, its edges shaving-sharp, its point tempered, tough, proof against the thrust.

It, too, knew the taste of man-blood:  indeed, the last heart it pierced was back East, when a brigand held up the family carriage and, seeing the lovely young ladies riding in the fine brogham, decided he wanted to take a more delicate prize than the jewelry they wore.

That Eastern brigand came out in second place.

Esther Keller raised the blade in salute, slashed downward:  with her tip lowered, she said "Sirrah," and the word dripped with contempt, "no man draws steel in my husband's saloon.  You may apologize to these good people and leave, or we may cross steel, and only one will live.  Choose now."

Rage had long since smoked any good sense from the snarling soul's skull: now he was challenged, insulted by a ... a mere woman?

"No decent woman fights a knife," he sneered, and Esther raised her tip in salute.

"You have insulted the Sheriff's wife," she said, her voice low, quiet:  in the silence, there was no need to raise the voice:  "and the Sheriff does not tolerate insult."

She bent her knees a little, tucking her backside as she did, raised her off arm, gracefully, elbow and wrist bent, feminine, almost a dancer's gesture.

Her voice carried the same shock to the ear as if someone had snapped a blacksnake whip overhead.

"HAVE AT THEE!"

The man was an experienced knife fighter, but he'd only fought knives, and he'd only fought men who were marginally as good as he.

Her blade was longer, more slender; she was shorter, more slightly built, and her moves were those of a dancer:  long skirts hindered her not at all as she flowed in, watered steel whispering death through the air as she half-circled him, stinging his arm with a backhand slap with the flat of her blade:  a flick, and he raised his off hand to his cheek, eyes wide with surprise:  he drew back a bloody hand:  enraged, he roared, he charged.

Esther Keller took a half-step to her right and thrust, twisted:  her blade drove in just below his Adam's apple, penetrated to his spine:  her sidestep, her twist of the blade, and the entire left side of his throat was ripped open:  she withdrew the blade, thrust again, driving the point into his left kidney as he fell past:  she pulled, hard, letting the dead man's momentum pull himself off her blade before it twisted and bound between the greenwood grip of his overlapping ribs.

There was a long silence as Esther's blade's tip slowly lowered, until it touched the floor.

Scarcely a man breathed.

Esther paced forward, squatted:  she laid the blade across the tail of the man's coat, folded the material over the steel, withdrew the Schlager, wiping it free of blood:  twice she did this, then she stood, raised the blade in salute, laid it back across her shoulder.

A man's voice, loud, harsh, angry:  "MOVE!" and men turned, drew aside:  the pale-eyed Sheriff stormed through the opening his voice commanded, the double twelve-bore in his grip, his eyes pale, hard.

Esther Keller, matron of society and businesswoman of considerable acumen, turned and smiled quietly.

"Hello, dear," she said gently.  "And how was your day today?"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

5.  FATHER AND SON

 

I watched the Sheriff run the stone the length of the blade.

He kept his old cavalry sabre shaving sharp.

He seldom took it down from its peg, but he took it down and I knew there was going to be blood on the moon.

I turned to the rifle rack and picked up the warbag of shotgun shells and the double gun.

The Sheriff took off his double gun rig and opened a cupboard, pulled out another one:  I knew it was there, I'd seen him wear it when he didn't think I was around, times that he had that sabre out and he did very unkind things to a straw-and-overalls practice dummy in the barn, or when he'd ride down a double row of fence posts with burlap-and-straw balls on top, and he'd swing that curved steel left and right as he rode.

He looked at me as I slung the warbag across my chest and hung the shotgun from my off shoulder and across my back and silence hung like smoke in the room until finally he said "I need you here, Jacob."

"I need you alive, sir."

"The county needs a Sheriff."

"It has a Sheriff, sir, and I intend that the county's Sheriff should live a long and healthy life."

"There's a good chance I won't be comin' back."

"There's a better chance you will if I come along, sir."

I turned and picked up my rifle, looked at the lean lawman with an iron grey mustache.

"I could order you to stay."

I stood still.

Now when I say I stood still that doesn't mean my carcass didn't just not move.

It meant silence cascaded off me like snow cascading down a mountainside.
"You could," I said slowly, "and I would obey your order."

"You wouldn't like it."

"I would not, sir."

"I don't want you to go, Jacob."

"People in hell want icewater, sir," I said, "and we both know how well that works."

The Sheriff looked long at me and I saw his bottom jaw slide out and he finally nodded.

"All right."  He frowned a little.  "I'd rather you stayed here.  Joseph needs a father."

"I need a father too, sir."

I saw something in the man's pale eyes and I knew he was remembering his own father, a man I knew only from tales told at night, generally over a fire, out on the trail:  he was a man of legend in my mind, but someone who'd been very real to my own father, this lawman, this Sheriff.

"Jacob, do you know why I'm taking my sabre?"

"You intend to make a cavalry charge, sir."

"You're right."

"You intend to go up against odds, sir."

"I do."

"Are you in the right, sir?"

"I am."
"That decides it, sir.  You recall what the Ranger said, there's no stoppin' a man who's in the right and keeps on a-comin'?"

His smile did not descend from the corners of his eyes.  "I remember."

"If you're right, then so am I."

The Sheriff nodded slowly, then reached over and gripped my shoulder.

"I can think of no one I would rather have at my side.  Saddle up."

We rode off together, two lawmen, side by side on the best horseflesh we could arrange – horses we'd ridden for a good long while.

Folks watched as we rode out of town:  neither of us looked to the left or to the right, but we two did stop at the end of the street.

Two women stood shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the roadway, each holding a single red rose.

One, with red hair and green eyes, the Sheriff's wife; beside her, my wife, my Annette.

We rode with unbridled mounts, for our saddle stock were all knee trained:  they stopped as we wished, and our wives came up beside us, and handed us their rose.

Neither woman showed any distress, but both spoke, as if with one voice.

"Come home when you are done," they said, their voices almost musical, in chorus, and chilling with their message:

"Come home bearing your shield, or borne upon it."

We did.

 

A brother lawman sent for the Sheriff because he needed help.
He needed more than he realized, or maybe he figured Old Pale Eyes had such a reputation that he'd be enough, I'm not sure.

I know we faced a half dozen riders and I knew these were desperate men who we'd cornered and there is little more dangerous than a cornered animal.

They couldn't get out, we'd boxed them with rock at their back and no escape, and the Sheriff give them their chance and their reply was a shot, and that decided it.

Now I like my shotgun real well but it only holds two shots and I wanted to be closer before I went for heavy shot.

The Sheriff fetched out attair saber and I heard it whisper promises of death as it come free of the scabbard.

He laid curved steel back against his shoulder and stood up in the stirrups, looked around like he was reviewin' his troops.

"WAAAAALK!"

We advanced at a walk, him and me and ten thousand ghosts, I reckon:  when he got like this, he admitted to me once and only once, every dead man he'd ever served with either marched beside him or rode beside of him and I reckon he seen horse flesh and cavalry beside and behind.

I recall them six they kind of half grinned and half goggled.

I don't wonder none at that.

Two against six, and them with rock to their back?

"CAAAAAAAANNNTER!"

Our horses were both inclined to run, they wanted to run, they both wanted to charge in amongst the Philistines and truth be told so did I, there is a joy to battle and I felt that joy roar like a furnace through me but I held back, I rode beside my Pa, I kept exactly stirrup to stirrup side-on with him and when he whipped down honed steel and screamed "CHAAAAARRRGGGEEE!"  our horses they shoved their noses straight out and laid their ears straight back and I laid down acrost Apple-horse's neck and the wind started to strip tears out the corners of my eyes and them six they started a-shootin' and r'ared up and I counted left to right and every one I counted I whistled a rifle ball torst and I opened up when they was less than half a hundred yards betwixt us and I fired four times and four men hit and I was too and I did not care I heard someone screaming and it was me and I locked my heels in Apple's ribs and we hit into 'em and Apple-horse he grunted and them we hit into slammed to the side and we come skiddin' around and I laid out two more with my rifle and the Sheriff was froze for a moment, he had attair saber brought around, he'd cut a head off as he passed and he was comin' around and he had that blade brought back acrost his body and them that was left was turnin' to fire at us and Apple he dug in and drove at 'em ag'in and I fired and I warn't but three foot from him when the gun cracked and I recall seein' his head jerk and a red hole appear behint where his ear lobe used to be and they was only one left and the Sheriff he twisted around on that red Cannonball mare and he couldn't get a good cut but Cannonball she was as mean as she was fast, she slammed into the man side-on and him and his horse went down and Cannonball she commenced to jump and buck and she four-footed horse and rider and damned if she didn't dance death right into the both of 'em and me I baled off attair Apple horse and I come down on the last man left alive, the first one I drove into, and I hauled back with my fightin' knife and sliced it down and blood sprayed into my face and I grabbed the man's hair and hauled back and my first cut was through the front of his throat and I cut hard like I was cuttin' down a tree and I cut through the back of his neck and his neck bone and the head come loose and war was singing in my soul and Death laughed in my throat as I danced madly about in a circle, slinging the dead man's head by the hair and me screaming for the joy of the kill and my red-wet blade shining against the blue sky above and I looked over at the Sheriff starin' at me and he looked at me all kind of shocked and I stopped and I looked at the dead man's head I held, and I wiped my blade off on his hair and I tossed his head aside like a dirty rag and finished wipin' my blade off on his coat.

"My God, Jacob," the Sheriff blurted, "are you insane?"

"No, sir," I said as my blood cooled, and I fetched out my wild rag and hunted around for some water, for the blood was cooling on my face and I reckoned I looked a fright.  "I am quite sane, sir."

The Sheriff stared at me and he looked troubled and finally he said "I have just seen my own soul," and I'm not sure what he meant by that.

I cleaned up as best I could with water from my canteen, and we collected up what was proper, and then we rode off to find the man that asked our help.

He'd be pleased to learn we'd taken care of his problem.

We got most of the way there before the Sheriff realized I'd been hit, and that's only because I passed out and hit the ground, but I ain't talkin' about that.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

6. FRANCE

 

Private Joseph Keller's knife sliced easily through the potato, neatly paring off skin and preserving the white interior.

The private's moves were quick, efficient; he had an impressive pile of potatoes to be peeled, but so far he'd had to call for the orderly twice to take his kettle of peeled spuds into the mess, and finally the cook came out and demanded to know how many men were peeling, and Joseph raised his knife and waggled it a little.  "Just me, Frank."

"Jake?  That you?"  The mess sergeant squinted a little. "Whatinell are you doin' on KP?"

Joseph grinned, picked up his whet stone and spit on it, began to draw his blade smoothly, expertly across the abrasive.  "The Sergeant wanted to teach hand to hand and he picked me for his victim."  He grinned, a quick, boyish grin:  "I whipped him right there in front of God and everybody and he's been mad at me ever since!"

"And that ends now," a voice said, and Joseph and the mess sergeant both came to attention.

"As you were," the kindly-voiced older man said, motioning them down:  the mess sergeant, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, muttered something about getting back to his stew, and retreated quickly to his duties:  Joseph eased back down into his seated position, resumed whetting his knife.

"I've always admired the man who can stone a knife like that," the Colonel admitted.  "I saw what you did with the Sergeant."

"Yes, sir."  Joseph's voice was quiet and carefully neutral.

"Effective now you're off KP.  I'm putting that sergeant in your place."

Joseph's knife stopped in mid-whet and he looked up, puzzled, at the man in the immaculate uniform.

"Sir?"

The Colonel blinked, surprised.

"You're ... where are you from, son?"

"Firelands County, Colorado, sir."

"Tell me your name again."

"Keller, sir, Joseph L.  Son of Jacob, son of Linn, son of Harold."

The Colonel's mouth opened, closed, opened again.

"Your father ... his eyes ...?"

"Pale, like mine, sir."

"And he was in the War?"

"He was, sir.  Captain, Ohio Volunteer Cavalry.  I forget whether it was second or fifth."

"It was second," the Colonel said, his voice soft, his gaze turning to the side.  "My father was in the Fifth."

Joseph sloshed the whet stone in a bucket of water, slung off the excess, wrapped it carefully:  it was the only sharpening stone he had and he wished to keep it in one piece.  The knife, too, was carefully wiped and returned to its hidden sheath.

"I'm given to understand," the Colonel said slowly, "that you Western men are pretty good in a fight."

"I'd like to think so, yes, sir."

"If you're like your grandfather you'll be hell on wheels itself in a scrap."

"He taught me well, sir, as did ... others."

Joseph remembered his pretty Aunt Sarah, and the hours and years she spent teaching him from his youngest age to be deadly with a knife, any knife:  she'd given him four matched fighting knives, balanced for throwing, tempered for durability, honed for shaving, and indeed he shaved with one of them, to the distress of a few in his company who thought such a practice barbaric.

"Tell me ... what did you do before you ... enlisted?"

"I was in line to become Chief Deputy of Firelands County, sir, but my father and I got into a horn lockin' and I allowed as I was right so off I went and raised my right hand, and" – he grinned again, that quick, boyish grin that made him look younger, much younger – "here I am, peelin' taters!"

The Colonel gave him a long look.

"If I was to inquire," he said slowly, "would I find you ... underage?"

"Colonel," Joseph said, "I'd be pleased if you'd not do that."

The Colonel was quiet for a very long moment.

"I cannot doubt your dedication and I have seen you in combat," he said finally.  "Though I do wonder about your revolvers."

"A gift from my grandfather, sir.  He instructed me to come home alive, and to assume my place in the East."

The Colonel raised his head, blinked, then lowered it.

"That explains the grips."

"Yes, sir."

"You are not a Mason."

"Not yet, sir."

"You wear the Square and Compasses on your grips."

"And the Arc and Compasses, yes, sir."

"You're not a Mason and you wear these ... why?"

"My grandfather," Joseph said quietly, "is Past Master.  He wished me to know his strong and sincere wish that I come home alive and well."  Joseph looked the Colonel squarely in the eye.  "I intend to do just that, sir."

The Colonel reached over, squeezed Joseph's shoulder.

"You might want to get ready to move out.  Your company is being sent on a reconnaissance.  You may expect to encounter the Hun."

"Yes, sir."

The Colonel stood, as did Joseph.

"I have a son about your age," the Colonel said thoughtfully.  "We're from back East and he's fourteen and I cannot imagine him being here."

"Give me a horse, sir," Joseph said with that boyish grin, "and I can cover ground a lot better!"

"I'll see what I can do."

The Colonel seemed to consider something, then raised his hand in salute, which Joseph mirrored.

"Carry on, Private."

"Yes, sir."

 

I looked at what used to be a pitchfork.

The tines were all bent, the handle was broke, my hands stung and my arms ached and my ears still rang.

My son, my firstborn, my Joseph, stood up to me – he stood up to me! I hissed through clenched teeth – he allowed as a man ought to go over and stop the Hun, for if they beat the British they'd not hesitate to come on over here – and I recalled what that damned war did to the Sheriff.

I was not, I was NOT!!! going to countenance any damned war on someone else's damned continent to do that to my boy!

Joseph he looked me square in the eye and he allowed as he was goin' to go anyway and I told him he would not and he turned his back on me and he walked off and I felt my heart drop down right on a-past my boot tops and hit the cold water in a really deep well.

The last words we had were harsh and angry and my last sight of him was with him stiff and prideful of spine and he rode off for the depot with his grip and that afternoon I couldn't think of nothin' else and when I heard The Lady Esther's whistle why it all come to a head and I taken attair pitch fork and I drove it into the center post in my barn and yanked it out and I swung it hard and raked the tines ag'in it and I drove the end of the handle into it and I beat the livin' stuffin' out of attair seasoned timber and broke the pitch fork handle and I screamed like a madman and just honestly wore myself out and I ended up sinkin' to my knees and I leaned my head ag'in attair center post and I felt lost, so absolutely lost.

I just stood there on my prayer bones and my heart was empty and so was my mind and it was cold and I was cold and I did not care.

Was Joseph to live through that European war he'd come back as scarred as my pale eyed father the Sheriff and I did not want to see that pain in my boy's eyes, I'd seen it too often in my father's, I'd seen the Sheriff screaming with rage in a fight and he'd killed men fast hard and nasty and he'd owned up to me that he'd been fightin' that War ag'in when he did and it scairt him and it scairt me and now my boy was going over into that man eatin' machine –

Sarah she laid a hand on my shoulder and said "What was his will be returned" and that was like runnin' winter ice right through my veins.

"I taught him what he will need," Sarah continued quietly.

"I know," I said, my forehead ag'in the post and my chin in my chest.  "You taught him to kill."

"As did you."

"Yes."  I lifted my head, ran my eyes up that rough hewn post, seein' the adz-marks clear and sharp.  "I did."

"He'll use everything you taught him, Jacob.  He will save a brother Mason."

"He's not a Mason. He's too young."

"The man he saves is a Mason. You are a Mason. The Sheriff is a Mason."

"Yeah."  My voice was a hoarse rasp.

"Your father gave him a brace of Colt's revolvers with the Masonic insignia –"

"I DON'T GIVE TWO DAMNS IF HE GAVE HIM A PAIR OF GATLINGS AND A PARROTT RIFLE!"  I shouted, anger bulging my neck and firing my ears.

I came to my feet and Sarah grabbed my upper arms and I grabbed hers and then we let go and bear hugged one another and she whispered "He will be tried as metal in the forge, and he will not be found wanting."

"I want my boy back," I whispered, my eyes stinging.  "I want my little boy back!"

I remembered Joseph as he'd been, as a laughing boy, standing up behind me in the saddle, gripping my coat and looking around over my shoulder yelling "Faster, Pa! Faster!" and how he screamed for joy as we launched over the rail fence, and how Annette would turn her back and whistle Dixie to keep from watching as we did, for she was fearful, so fearful Joseph would end up hitting the ground and busting something open and he never did, he never did, and I groaned like my eternal soul was being ripped out from around my guts.

"He is destined to save a man," Sarah whispered back to me, "and that man's son will have a grandson, and his blood will marry into ours –"

I quit listening.

All I could see was my son walking away from me, and all I could hear was the quiet determination in his voice, and I never felt so absolutely lost and abandoned since my Mama died and not one damned thing I could do either time.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Before I begin this one, I had to stop and look at the title I put for this thread.

I wanted to make sure I'd used the plural.

I should have put in a statement of intent or a disclaimer or an explanation, that I figured to write a series of short stories, none connected, with only one common thread:  the location of Firelands, and even that can be changed ... for instance, Jacob wants me to tell about him jumping off a Cincinnati river boat in his red longhandles, and Apple-horse thought this looked like great fun so he jumped in too.

Right now, though, Willamina woke up feeling like something wasn't right, so she dressed in jeans and boots and a flannel shirt instead of a housedress.

She's retired now, her son Linn is Sheriff, and of course things can never go normally, retired or not ...

 

 

7.  DEATH'S ANGEL

Willamina Keller woke up restless.

She did not know what was wrong, only that something didn't feel right, and she'd learned a very long time ago, long before she'd become Sheriff, that her gut was right more often than not.

She'd planned on doing some baking today, but she had to go tend her livestock first, and so she decided blue jeans and a flannel shirt and her old comfortable boots would be the better choice.

She'd cleaned stalls, forked hay, laughed at her horses bumming for peppermints – she bribed them better with the red-and-white spiral mints than she ever could with molasses twist tobacker – and her red Frisian could hear the crackle of unwinding cellophane at two miles, or so it seemed.

She'd gone back to the house and hooked off her overboots, left them on the front porch:  she usually ran around in her sock feet, but the feeling, that general, vague, indefinable something, bade her remain shod.

She stopped when she came inside, held the door open, whistled:   Tank and The Bear Killer galloped happily back inside, stopping to circle happily on the rug she kept for the purpose, and hobby-horsed into the kitchen, hoping to get a handout – "You bums," she laughed – and of the bacon and eggs she fried, about a third went down canine throats instead of hers.

She'd stacked her dishes, washed and dried them, looked around:  she went from window to window, her bottom jaw out, then she went to the closet and brought out the vest she kept there, and hung it on the back of the chair nearest the front door – a vest with multiple pockets, into which she inserted a charged, Sheriff's-band talkie, a vest stocked with other necessaries she'd selected to grab and wear for an unforeseen situation – then she reached into the same closet, withdrew a gunbelt, slung it around her middle and snugged it tight.

She drew the engraved revolver, flipped open the loading gate, thumbed the cylinder slowly around, making sure she had six beans in the wheel, grateful for the new model that allowed a full charge instead of keeping an empty chamber under a Colt's-pattern longnose hammer.

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller walked slowly into the kitchen, frowned.

"Gut feeling be damned," she muttered, "it's Richard's birthday and I'm going to have a birthday cake for him!"

The Bear Killer and Tank both raised their heads, looking hopefully at the ingredients being set out; as Willamina paid attention to mixing batter, wet black noses raised and twitched at the intriguing scent of chocolate cake batter, of eggs and flour and vanilla and milk:  black eyes watched closely as Willamina greased and floured the cake pans, as she dispensed batter into each, as she checked the oven's temperature, as she carefully placed the two pans in the oven and straightened and smiled over at the attentive pair –

Willamina's eyes widened and she turned, her hand dropping automatically to the handle of her revolver, knees dropping into a crouch, her weight coming up on the balls of her feet:  she felt her blood cool and her belly tighten and both dogs' heads came up, their ears snapped forward, and Willamina powered for the front door, snatched up Stetson and vest and whirled her coat around her shoulders.

The two dogs shot through the front door as Willamina yanked it open; she ran for the barn, curled her lip, whistled.

"YOU BLACK HEARTED DRAGON EATER, GET OVER HERE!" she screamed, charging into the barn and seizing saddle and saddle blanket:  she ran out the side, spun the blanket atop her red Frisian, screwed the saddle down, touched the mare behind her foreleg:  Dragon Eater knelt, bellied down, and Willamina swung her leg across.

"UP!"

Dragon Eater levered herself up, dancing a little: she could smell the Sheriff's excitement, she could smell the dogs' attention:  The Bear Killer's hair was up, a ridge rippling down his back and across his shoulders, and Tank – actually the second Tank, the first one was given a police funeral some five years before – Tank was bristled as well, ears alternately flattening back and snapping upright, lips rippling back as he looked from the big black mountain Mastiff and his pale eyed Mistress.

Willamina knee-trained all her saddle stock, as had her honored ancestors:  she kneed Dragon Eater around, the big mare paced up to the gate, waited as Willamina leaned down and savagely yanked at the latch:  Dragon Eater turned in her own length, swinging her hind out, waiting for the gate to swing shut, for Willamina to shoot the board latch back into place.

Bear Killer on her left, Tank on her right, both with muzzles raised, watching, waiting:  Willamina turned Dragon Eater, locked her heels into the red mare's ribs, yelled "YAAA!"

The human mind runs with an incredible speed.

Were Willamina to give a moment to consideration, she might have reflected on a discussion she'd had with Reverend Burnett, where they discussed the Celtic Christian belief that the great cloud of believers with which we are surrounded, is composed of the same honored ancestors that trained their mounts to the knee, to ride without bit or bridle.

Had she given thought to the matter.

She didn't.

She was focused on whatever summoned her, that something that shot through her soul like a surveyor's laser.

She knew where she had to go and she was headed there just as fast as her long legged mare could run, two hounds coursing alongside, ears laid back, mouths open, wind in their faces and a savage joy in their hearts.

 

The mother carried her little boy inside, barely able to bear his weight:  glass curved out of his arm, a shard, a scimitar, blood running steadily from around it:  inside, she thought, inside, and get help, and she stopped and fumbled desperately with the doorknob, crying as her blood-slick hand slipped:  it took a half dozen tries but she managed, she pushed into her warm, tidy kitchen, she laid her boy on the table, crying for fear, everything she'd learned about first aid joined hands with her fine coordination and did a swan dive out the nearest window.

Her boy lay pale, limp, unmoving.

 

Willamina heard the scream as she came in sight of the ranch house.

Dragon Eater was already at a flat out gallop, but Willamina laid out over her neck, pressed her hands flat against the muscled hide, heels digging in:  The Bear Killer raised his muzzle and bayed, a black hound from hell announcing his full intent to war, to rend, to kill: he'd heard his beloved Mistress scream, "RUN, DAMN YOUR BLACK HEART, RUN!"

 

The mother was hyperventilating, barely able to stand: she felt light headed, her feet tingled, she had to do something, do something, and she seized the broken glass, pinched it tight, wiggled it, pulled –

Willamina slammed through the door just as a tight stream of arterial blood sprayed to the ceiling.

She ripped off her coat, threw it viciously aside, seized her Aunt Martha's flour sack apron:  teeth bared, she snarled, tore it from around her neck, neat hand-stitching ripping through the material:  she spun it, snapped it, turned it from a flat piece of material to a folded bandage:  she shouldered the mother aside, seized the boy's arm, wrapped it as tightly as she could, used the torn neck-strap to tie it in place, tight, tight:  she reached back, into what would be a game pocket in a hunting vest, found the package she knew was there:  she seized the corner with her teeth, pulled, tore open the package, ran the tourniquet high on the boys' arm, not far above the wound:  she hauled it tight, turned hard and pale eyes to the mother.

"CAN YOU DRIVE?" she shouted, knowing she had to ram the words through the shocked wall that numbed the pallid, wobbling woman.

Wide-eyed, she managed to open her mouth, close it.

Willamina scooped up the limp figure.  "TANK! BEAR KILLER!  WITH ME! DRAGON EATER, DOWN!"

The mother leaned weakly against the door frame, watching as Willamina straddled the huge red mare, as the mare came upright, turned, as equine muscles bunched, as horse and rider and two flanking war-dogs thundered across the snowy field toward town.

 

Bruce Jones, editor, reporter, photographer and chief broom pusher of the weekly Firelands Gazette, laughed at his brother-in-law's question.

"Nothing much," he admitted.  "It's a really quiet place –"

His police scanner stopped and Bruce raised a finger, turned to look at the display.

His brother in law saw the newser's eyes widen, his mouth open:  they looked at one another, then Bruce slammed the chair down onto all four legs, picked up his reporter's bag, slung it across his shoulder and seized his hat.

His brother-in-law wondered whether the air was spinning in an invisible tornado behind him as he ran for the door, at least until Bruce stopped and looked back.

"Well?"  he demanded.  "Something finally happened!  You coming?"

 

Maryann frowned at the radio console's speaker.

She knew the voice, she knew the voice's owner was a Sheriff's deputy, but there was an urgency she'd not heard from this particular voice.

Maryann replaced Sharon, who retired the same day Sheriff Willamina formally removed her six point star before local dignitaries and Bruce Jones's attentive camera:  she'd pinned on her son, formally shaken his hand, then she seized him by the lapels of his vest, came up on her toes and gave her son a motherly kiss on the cheek.

Maryann had never heard the pale eyed Sheriff Willamina Keller with her blood up, but she knew something was not right, simply ... well, maybe if you heard what she did.

She was used to an electronic hum, or the sound of a vehicle's engine, or even the summoning, screaming song of an electronic siren.

It was not an ordinary thing to hear the deep, four-beat cadence of a galloping horse underlying the urgency of the speaker's words.

"FIRELANDS DISPATCH, ONE ROMEO, SIGNAL 99 TRAFFIC."

Maryann responded as she'd been trained.

"ALL HANDS NOW HEAR THIS," she transmitted, "ONE ROMEO HAS SIGNAL 99 TRAFFIC, ALL STATIONS HOLD TRAFFIC UNTIL FURTHER, BREAK.  ONE ROMEO GO."

There it was, that four-beat background ...

Hoofbeats?

Can't be!

Maryann snatched up a mechanical pencil, prepared to note down as necessary.

"FIRELANDS DISPATCH, ONE ROMEO, INBOUND ER ONE PEDIATRIC CASUALTY, BREAK."

"Copy your pediatric inbound."

"FIRELANDS DISPATCH, ONE ROMEO, ARTERIAL BLEED, TOURNIQUET APPLIED, ETA FOUR, THIS IS NO DRILL!"

Maryann's mouth went dry and she reached for the red phone, ran her finger along the row of old fashioned push buttons, pushed hard.

She knew this was a direct line to their hospital's emergency room, this was a line that only rang when it was hitting the fan, this was the same as declaring general quarters aboard a battleship.

"Firelands Sheriff's Dispatch," she said to the professional voice on the other end.  "One Romeo is inbound with a pediatric arterial bleed, ETA four."

Maryann hung up what they called the Batphone, pressed the grey transmit bar on the GE desk mike.

"One Romeo, Firelands, they'll be ready."

"ROGER THAT!"

Past Sheriff Willamina Keller squinted a little, tears stripping out the corners of her eyes:  she was laid forward, her left forearm crossways, gripping Dragon Eater's mane, the other arm locked around the still form she held desperately to her:  snow gave way to cold pavement, and Willamina turned her big Frisian to bring her across back lots, and a more direct route to the polished-quartz hospital.

 

Bruce Jones' finger was hard down on the shutter release.

He blessed the technology that let him take a few hundred photos at a time: he'd started in the business when he was in tall cotton with a roll of 36 exposure film:  now he was quite liberal with the number of photos he took, especially when it concerned a pale-eyed past Sheriff, riding like the Devil himself was after her, riding a truly huge red horse that didn't seem to touch the ground as it did skim along on the dainty little ballerina tips of its unshod hooves, while beside it, silent as death and just as lethal, two hell-hounds, their ears back, fangs bared, swift and faithful arrows flying at the bidding of this woman with eyes the color of a glacier's heart.

As Bruce's head came up, the black Bear Killer raised his muzzle and so did the Malinois, and two dogs bayed a challenge to war that felt like an unseen hand poured a dipper of cold water right down the center of Chief Editor and Reporter Bruce Jones's back bone.

Willamina didn't bother to have her Dragon Eater kneel, she threw up one leg, fell to earth, landed flat footed and kicked three times at the automatic doors before they opened.

Behind her, the red mare stood, blowing, prancing restlessly:  Willamina shoved into the hospital's lobby, ran past the desk, slammed into the heavy wooden doors with her shoulder, driving them open against the safety.

Dr. John Greenlees met her – "HERE!" he snapped, and Willamina followed the man to the nearby bed.

Aunt Martha's apron was cut free, dropped, and Willamina snatched it up:  it was wet, dripping, and she stared hard at the unmoving little boy, looking all the smaller on the ER cart.

Dr. Greenlees did a fast exam as Willamina backed away, breathing hard:  she came up against the wall, stopped.

She closed her eyes, composing herself, until she heard, "He's lost too much blood," and her eyes came open, pale, hard and unforgiving.

She turned, strode for the front door.

 

Sheriff Linn Keller's boot was hard on the throttle, until it lifted and mashed down on the brake:  his Jeep skidded a little, he bailed out, shotgun in hand:  someone hit the panic alarm at the hospital and he was closest.

"BEAR KILLER!  TANK!  WITH ME!" he barked, and the two panting dogs leaped eagerly to their feet, pacing alongside the long-legged lawman as he strode into the lobby, shotgun at port, cocked, locked and ready to rock.

He nearly ran into his mother headed the opposite direction, something bloody and sodden in her hands.

Puzzled, he stopped:  he turned, followed.

Willamina grunted, slapped the wet cloth against the left doorpost, took two steps, hit the right, then she crouched, gathered herself, jumped.

Linn watched as she smacked the bloody rag against the lintel overhead, beside the automatic opening sensor.

Willamina landed, crouched, ran.

Linn followed, stopped, stared as his Mama hit the door posts – left, right, overhead – and ran again.

"Mama," he called, "what in the hell are you doing?"

Willamina paused long enough to shoot him a pale-eyed glare and snarl, teeth bared.

There were a dozen doors and Willamina hit them all, burning off her excess adrenaline, slamming the bloody cloth into the door posts like she was attacking a personal enemy:  she made a complete orbit of the Fireland hospital, came back inside, back through the ER doors with all the delicacy of a Sherman tank running over a Volkswagen.

Linn followed, laid a hand on her shoulder. "Mama, slow down," he said quietly, and she snapped, "Roll up your sleeve!"

Dr. John Greenlees was just going down the hall following the ER cart.

"DOC!"  Willamina shouted.  "HOW'S YOUR BLOOD SUPPLY?"

The white-haired old physician turned and regarded her with tired eyes.  "Not good," he admitted.

Willamina held out her arm.  "You've got two donors.  O-triple-neg."

Dr. John Greenlees stopped, stared, then he turned and pointed to a nurse.

"I want phlebotomy up here five minutes ago," he said, "and I want two units from each of these donors!"

 

Bruce Jones reached up, squeezed the Sheriff's hand.

"You've had quite a night, Sheriff," he murmured.

Willamina's eyes widened and her head turned as The Bear Killer and Tank both raised their heads, tensing.

Bruce pulled out his pocket scanner.

"Firelands Engine One and Tanker One, enroute."

Willamina's hand yanked from Jones's and slapped her forehead.

"Oh God no," she groaned.  "Richard came home and" – she looked at Jones, and he saw a laugh breaking through her mask of tension – "I just put a cake in the oven and it's burned to a cinder and he probably thought I was burning the house down!"

"It's all right, Mama.  We'll swing by the bakery and get him one."

Sheriff, past Sheriff and newsman all laughed quietly:  the phlebotomist crouched, disconnected the first two units, handed them off to be rushed to the surgery, to the waiting little boy.

"Will he make it?" Jones asked as fresh collection bags were attached to the two donors.

Willamina's eyes turned toward the editor, hardening as he watched.

"I made sure he will."

Her voice was just as stony-cold as her glare.

Puzzled, Bruce said "How ... you made sure?  How?"

Linn looked over at his mother, interested in what she had to say:  he suspected this had something to do with her almost manic behavior outside, slamming the blood-sodden flour-sack apron against door posts and lintels.

"Bruce, do you remember the story of the Israelites in Egypt?"

Bruce frowned a little, then nodded.

"Do you remember they bloodied the doorposts and lintels with the blood of a lamb, of an innocent, and the Angel of Death would not enter."
"I remember."

Willamina looked at her son and smiled gently, tiredly.

"I made sure the Angel of Death wasn't coming tonight."

 

She was right.

The Angel of Death did not set foot inside the hospital that night, and Bruce Jones, chief editor, lead reporter and head broom pusher for the weekly Firelands Gazette, was on hand two days later, when retired Sheriff Willamina Keller settled a grinning, bashful little boy ahead of her in the saddle and set off across the snowy fields towards his house, two big, tail-swinging hounds coursing on either side as they paced across the frozen ground, and the picture of a little boy going home, where he belonged, made the front page of their weekly edition.

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

8.  NEW JOB

I was too tore up to be mad.

It was in me to rage, to rend, to destroy, to kill ...

But kill who?

My son, gone off to fight that damned European war, dead.

My little sis, my Sarah, gone off to Germany to marry the Count's firstborn son.

Sarah, dead.

My father, going blind. 

Cataracts, Doc said, and nothing to be done to help.

And me.

Me, standing here in a winter graveyard, looking from stone to stone, rage and sorrow each taking up half my heart.

No stone, no marker for Joseph, for Sarah: their bodies were ...

Where?

I'd gotten the official notification that Joseph was killed, that he'd done his duty and we could be very proud of him, but they didn't tell me where he was buried.

Or if he was buried a'tall.

And Sarah ... no word on her either.

There was a plot for each, here, but my son, my sister, gone, gone ...

Off to my right, a white wolf sat patiently between two markers, blinking slow, sleepy, either from great wisdom, or ...

Or what?

'Twas rare I'd see the White Wolf.

It generally meant somethin' was about to happen or had just happened.

Doctor Flint was pure blood Navajo and he'd told me the White Wolf was a spirit guide and it was assigned our family, but he'd not told me much else, so I looked at attair white wolf and I looked inside of me and then I said "I do not fear you."

The White Wolf's ears swung towards me and I half expected it to cock its head like a dog when it's listenin' to your voice.

"What are you here to tell me?"

"He's not," a familiar voice said, and I am not a jumpy man and I did not jump but when I felt a hand laid on my shoulder 'twas all I could do not to spin around and drive the muzzle end of my left hand Colt into whosever belly it was.

Sarah looked at me with them pale eyes and I looked hard at her and I know 'twas not possible for her to be there but part of my mind said wait a minute, maybe she got away, maybe she warn't kilt a'tall –

"There are some things you must know," she said with that quiet, knowin' smile of hers.

I nodded slowly.  "Go on."

"First of all, yes I was killed over there."

My belly shrunk up some and I got all hard and knotty inside.  "I heard tell."

Sarah caressed my jaw bone the way she used to and her hand felt real, her gloves smelt the way they always did with that hint of sunshine and lilac water and soap she always had about her.

"You would be proud of the way I died."

I said not a word, just glared at her.

She almost smiled, then she pulled out a book from someplace and said, "You recognize this."

It was a statement, not a question, and yes I did recognize the book.

"I do."

"Do you know what it stands for?"

I blinked a couple times.  "Now that's a short question with a real long answer."

Sarah laughed and it was that Sarah-laugh I remembered so well, her laugh that always bubbled a little in my belly, that contagious laugh of hers that couldn't help but make folks around her smile.

"B-I-B-L-E," she said.  "Basic Information Before Leaving Earth."

Now I frowned at that for I'd never heard that one before, but it also meant she was dead, all right, and that didn't set well with me a'tall.

"This lifetime is basic training," Sarah explained, "and we're being groomed for a job or jobs to come."

I grunted.  "It is given to man to die but once, and then the Judgement."

Sarah sighed – tiredly, I thought.

"Didn't know a ghost got tired," I said and I heard the chill edge my voice taken.

"Oh, I'm very real, little brother."

"I'll admit your hand felt real."

Sarah recht up and thumped me on the chest with the Book and it felt real too.

"Take this," she said, and I did.  "My name is in the front so you'll know it's mine.  Now listen."

"I'm listenin'."

"You already know that we carry a fighting bloodline."

"You told me that and so did the Sheriff."

"Your father," she corrected.  "You are Sheriff now."

"Go on."

Sarah looked away, towards the White Wolf, or maybe where it had been:  I did not turn my head to look, for part of me was fearful that if I taken my eyes off my little sis she'd disappear and I did not want that to happen.

"Our ... our get ... will be in the Last Battle."

I frowned a little, turned my head just a shade as if to bring a good ear to bear, and Sarah laughed to see it, and I figure it looked to her just like the Sheriff turned his head in the same manner.

"The Last Battle?"

"In the Valley of Meddigo."

"Har-Mageddon," I breathed, then I frowned.  "You're sure."

"I'm sure we'll be involved.  If not there, then somewhere critical."

"What's that got to do with Joseph being killed in that damned European war?"

"Joseph."  Sarah's eyes dropped and she bit her bottom lip. 

"How did my boy die, Sarah?  Were you there?"

"I was there," she admitted.  "I watched it happen."

"And you didn't stop it?"  Accusation honed an edge to my words and little sis or not, if she was there and she did not keep my boy from bein' killed –

Sarah stepped back and got ... brighter.

"I have a job, Jacob," she said, and there was the sound of huge wings feathering the air, and damned if that big black Snowflake-horse of hers come swingin' down out of the sky on this God-awful big set of pure white wings and come down to ground level and trot up behint her just as nice as you please but that warn't what I was lookin' at.

Sarah was real good at costume changes and when she'd dress like a schoolmarm, she became a schoolmarm.

When she dressed like a schoolgirl, she became a giggly schoolgirl.

When she dressed like one of the Faceless Nuns, she became one of the White Sisters.

What she was now, was somethin' I had never seen.

I'd seen her take that thing ... oh hell, what was it Abbott William called it? – a relic, a holy relic, the Lance of St. Mercurius – she'd taken it from its hidin' place behint the Altar down at the Rabbitville monastery, and she'd taken it without them seein' even with them keepin' an eye on it – she'd rode off with attair Lance stuck in the stirrup beside her right hand boot and there were those who swore she used attair silver head Lance to cure sickness, keep people from dyin', melt gates like a hot knife through cold butter, and I'd seen her do that a time or two – so when she stepped back two paces, then two more, and lay a hand on Snowflake's gleaming black neck, she warn't the Sarah I recalled.

Her hair grew and twisted down in front of her shoulders and it braided itself and braided fast and tight.

That's not what I was starin' at.

Now them Spanish conquistadores wore a breast plate shell thang and she was wearin' one but it was gold or maybe polished bronze and 'twas engraved and she'd not changed clothes, it just kind of appeared and she warn't wearin' that proper ladylike dark blue gown no more, she had a white shift under attair polished bronze vest thing and 'twas no more than knee length – scandalous, even for a schoolgirl! – and she was wearin' knee high boots, she had attair long silver head lance in her hand and a conical cap on her head with white wings stickin' out to the sides.

"I have a new job now, Jacob," she explained.  "I take up the souls of the valiant from the battlefield and I take them to Paradise."

I frowned and turned my head a little and I recalled the old German Count who taken a long look at her when her and Charlie Macneil fetched in attair elk all boned out and hide wrapped and loaded on the pack saddle ... he'd called her a Waulkyrie, and that's the word that come to mind.

"Valkyrie," I whispered.

Sarah laughed and it was the same delighted, contagious, running-water laugh I remembered so very well.

"Yes, dear Jacob," she smiled.  "And Joseph was comforted when I took his hand and he stood up, young and strong and uninjured once more, and he laughed like a delighted little boy when he saw Apple-horse standing there waiting for him."

"Apple?"

My voice squeaked and I looked at the enormous black Frisian she was caressing.

Her big black Snowflake-mare was long years dead, and so was my Apple-horse, and for a moment I remembered riding across a sunlit meadow, me and Apple and Joseph, and him a laughing little boy, standing up behind me in the saddle, gripping the shoulders of my coat and yelling "Faster, Daddy! Faster!" and how he screamed for joy when we launched over the rail fence, and landed galloping on the other side.

"Of course," Sarah smiled, "Apple has wings too now."

"Whoa," I said, "hold it.  This" – I shook my head, held the Book up before me like a shield – "this is an awful lot ..."

"I know."  Sarah skipped up to me, let go of attair lance – she didn't drive the butt end into the ground, she just let go and it stood there like 'twas set in a socket – she taken me by the lapels and pulled me close and kissed my cheek the way she always did and then she caressed my jaw again.

"I'll see you again," she whispered, and then her and that big black Snowflake-mare was gone.

I stood there with the Book in my hands and feelin' more lost than I had been to start with, and I looked off to my right, torst attair White Wolf, or where it had been.

Sure enough it was still there.

It stood, arched its back and yawned, and then it was gone too, just a wisp of fog cork screwing into the ground.

Had it not been for the Book in my hands I would have thought it wild imagination.

I've known men to see things that warn't there, I've seen men in grief fancy they saw their dead wife or mother or someone, and I might have thought just that had it not been for this-yere Book.

I turned and kissed at Butterscotch and I swung me up into the saddle and I went on home, and Annette had supper hot and ready and I set attair Bible off on the side table and after supper why I went back and picked it up, I took it in my study and set down to read it.

I lit the Aladdin lamp so's I'd have good light, and I opened the cover, and there was Sarah's handwritin', but that warn't what caused Annette a fright.

You see, she heard my chair bang as it fell over backwarts and she come hustlin' into the room wipin' her hands on a dish towel and she seen me backin' away from my desk with eyes like silver dollars and my face the color of wheat paste.

Attair Bible was a fancy presentation grade.

The hand writin' inside the cover was real fancy and I made out what I thought was "Countess" in front of her name.

I'd turned another page and that's when I jumped back like I'd been stung.

I knowed with no doubt a'tall this was Sarah's Bible, all right.

 Sarah's Bible was printed in German.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

9.  SABRE AND SWAT

Sheriff Willamina Keller and her husband sat in the front pew and held hands, smiling quietly.

Her son was Sheriff, but people still called her "Sheriff" ... her son learned to be patient when he and his mother both replied "Yes?" when someone called, "Sheriff?"

Her son, tall, handsome, proper in his immaculate uniform, stood with his brushed, Sunday-go-to-meetin' Stetson under his arm; he stood with a tall, handsome Army Ranger, impressive and stolid in his dress uniform, and in the center, closest to the Parson, the groom:  this man wore a tailored, three piece suit, he stood awkwardly, dry-mouthed, very unlike the competent, confident chief deputy's son Willamina and her son had known for years.

Willamina rose with the rest of the congregation as a beautiful young woman in a proper Victorian gown began her slow march down the aisle, gripping her father's arm with gloved desperation:  Willamina had sewn the gown, she'd spent two weeks on it and she'd gotten it just right, which was a rare thing.

No artist is ever satisfied with their own work, and Willamina regarded this young woman with a critical eye, not so much looking at the woman within, but at the gown, without, searching for flaws, for anything not properly fitted ... and she found absolutely nothing of which to be critical.

"This is my master's piece."

Pale eyes blinked in surprise as the old words came back to her, and she smiled again, remembering.

She'd gone with Dr. Greenlees up onto Daine Mountain – the family considered renaming it Maxwell Mountain, but everyone knew it as Daine Mountain, so they left well enough alone – he'd had a rifle restocked, and those lean Kentucky moonshiners didn't just restock the rifle, they rebuilt it entirely.

It started out life as a late Bedford County rifle, slim, delicate, almost fragile: it was built by a master of the craft, but built to fit the twelve year old boy Dr. Greenlees had been when the work was begun.

Now, after the Daine boys' rebuild – it was a complete overhaul – it was more robust, it was late Pennsylvania pattern, still full stocked but almost Hawken in appearance. 

Even the slim lockwork was now replaced by a rounded, blunt, Hawken-profile flintwork.

"This," Old Main Daine said when he handed Doc the finished rifle, "is my masterpiece."

Doc looked the rifle over carefully and well.

He knew flint rifles and he'd known a few of the old masters, and he studied the rifle with a knowing eye and finally said, "This is indeed your master's piece."

Old Man Daine closed one eye and turned his head a little, as if to bring a good ear to bear, and Willamina recalled Doc's quiet words of explanation as he handed her the rifle for her inspection.

"In the European Middle Ages," he said, "trades were divided into guilds, just like unions today. You have master electricians, master carpenters, these masters start out as apprentices."

Daine frowned ever so slightly and gave a shallow nod.

"Then these apprentices learn some and travel to the work.  They journey, and are called journeymen.  In Freemasonry" – here Willamina's ear twitched, as if pulled rearward by an invisible thumb-and-forefinger – "they are called Fellowcraft, for they are fellows of the craft, and they journey to the work."

Old man Daine grunted and gave another shallow, almost imperceptible nod.

"When a man is good enough, he presents a Board of Masters with an example of the work that he does, something that shows Master's grade work."  Doc accepted the rifle back from Willamina, caressed the comb of the rearstock with a surgeon's touch.  "This was examined by the Board of Masters.  If found worthy, it was laid up in the archives in the Guildhall as his Master's Piece, so if any inquired whether he was a Master of that craft, his Master's Piece bore testimony to his skill."

He nodded, held the rifle across the crook of his arm.

"This is indeed your Master's Piece."

Willamina sat when the others sat, listened to the familiar words, relaxed and regarded her son with the eyes of a proud mother: Linn dipped a hand into his coat pocket, brought out a small box and opened it, and held it out to the Parson when the sky pilot called for the rings.

Willamina rose again; she was next to the aisle, so she had an unobstructed view as the newlyweds marched out under the Arch of Sabres.

Willamina could have been part of the Arch, but she knew the groom had men enough eager to volunteer for this happy duty, and she saw the gleam in the farthest man's eye as he shot her a quick glance and a wink, just as the bride came abreast of his position:  they were well spaced, he was Tail End Charlie, and as she passed the last crossed sabres, he lowered his blade and smacked her briskly across the backside.

The bride spun, half-crouched, with one arm up and bent a little, and gave him a look that would incinerate carbon steel, then she smiled and turned and resumed her dignified march out on her husband's arm.

At the reception, Willamina danced with her husband, her son, the groom and the Parson:  when she waltzed with the Parson (who was surprisingly skilled at the art!) she murmured, "Reverend, I can die happy now," and they spun off the floor and sat, and the Parson looked at Richard and Willamina and raised a curious eyebrow.

"How's that, Sheriff?" he asked, accepting a cup of punch from the bride's younger sister and taking a sip.

Willamina laughed quietly.  "Parson, do you remember when the bride won the Mixed Martial Arts trophy this year?"

Reverend Burnett blinked, nodded.  "Yes ... I remember that."

"Did you see her pass through the Arch of Sabres?"
The Parson grinned, set his punch down.  "I saw that!"

Willamina leaned across the table, forearms pressed into the table's edge, head down and voice low, as if confiding a conspiracy:

"Parson, that is the only time in recorded history that anyone EVER slapped her backside, and lived to tell the tale!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

10.  AN OLD MAN, STOVE UP AND SORE

 

There is a coldly practical reason men of the American West wore a large bore sidearm.

It's not often discussed, but it is found in the literature written by men who were there.

This story explores that reason.

 

 

"Mama?"

Esther smiled at her youngest daughter, a beautiful young woman with a drowsy infant on her hip.

"Mama, why does Papa still wear a pistol?"

Esther rocked a little, closed the book she'd been reading, set it aside, gave her daughter both her eyes, but said nothing in reply.

"Mama" – the red-headed young woman settled herself onto the couch, arranged her skirt nervously, clearly uncomfortable with discussing her elderly father's habit – "Mama, he's quite blind –"

The sound of a pistol shot in the distance, followed by two more.

Esther rose quickly – uncommon, she normally rose in a slow, dignified and planned manner – her green eyes were wide and her nostrils flared just a little.

The maid, alarmed, approached from the doorway, looked from one attractive woman to another.

"Suzette," Esther said, her voice brisk, "I shall need my gelding saddled. You may wish to have the carriage made ready and I want a messenger."

The maid dipped a quick curtsy and turned, almost ran out the front door.

"Mama?" her daughter asked, blinking quickly, and Esther turned and took her youngest daughter's hands.

"Stay and tend the child," Esther said quietly, reassuringly.  "I'll be back."

Her voice may have been reassuring, but the sight of her mother snatching the double gun off the rack, checking its loads and slinging a canvas warbag across her shoulder, was anything but.

 

I hit the ground hard.

My foot was still caught in the stirrup and that damned horse wasn't content with shying at a shadow or whatever it was, he took out and kicked me a good one behind the high left leg and I knew he'd kick me to death or beat me to death a-draggin' and so I did what every horseman in the West was ready to do.

I grabbed my right hand Colt and drove a .44 slug into its ribs.

The horse flinched and I drove it twice more, I knew where I was and I knew where it was and I knew I would not hit my own boot and I knew where its shoulder and its boiler room had to be and after the third shot why that damned horse stumbled and fell and rolled away from me and near to broke my leg for the haul-up of it.

I tried to kick my foot free of the stirrup but it wasn't working and so I wiggled closer as best I could and took the strain off my leg.

Once that was done, why, I reloaded and dropped the empties, I got the chambers reloaded, I looked with my fingers for my eyes were pretty useless by then with these damned cataracts, but I counted my clicks.

I knew where the empty chamber was.

That was skip one.

One, two, three, four, cock:  I turned the pistol safely away, pulled the trigger –

Click.

She fell on the empty chamber just like I wanted.

I holstered, tabbed the hammer and then I pulled myself up and started working on how in two hells I'd got my foot through that damned stirrup, and I swore at myself for letting that fellow talk me out of my usual dog house stirrups!

 

Esther rode to a little bit of a high point, casting about like a hound seeking a scent:  she knew her husband's habits, she knew he usually rode along the fence line, for he could keep his bearings even a-horseback:  she knew he was on a new horse, she knew he still loved to ride, she knew he intended to try this new mount.

Esther shaded her eyes, looked long down the fencerow, her mouth opening a little.

"Oh, no," she moaned, then she lifted her reins, pressed her heels into her mount's barrel.

 

I heard hoof beats a-comin' and comin' fast.

I couldn't see for beans but I figured I was still on my own ground and whoever 'twas, had to be one of mine, so I gripped the corner of my wild rag and waved it twice.

That's all the strength I had.

I'd been beat bad and I think I'd cracked ribs and I knew I'd cracked my gourd a good one, or maybe twice, bein' dragged by a horse and kicked a couple times does not a young man good and a man of my vintage even less.

At least I'd managed to shoot the horse – dammit to hell anyway, that was a good lookin' horse or so I'd been told, and he felt good under me, and dammit twice, I spent good money on that mount!

I had strength enough to wave that wild rag twice.

It hurt too much to give it a third swing.

I heard the rider comin' fast and then the hoofbeats stopped and then a grunt and they started ag'in and whoever 'twas, was close, and I heard someone come out of the saddle and whoever 'twas must've jumped and landed flat footed and I couldn't help but think maybe Dana come home for that's how she dismounted and then I smelt Esther's lilac-and-sunshine-and-soap and she laid her hand on my cheek and said "Dearest, are you hurt?" and I lied through my teeth and said "Not a bit," and she must'be bent over for she kissed my forehead and whispered "Mr. Keller, I was concerned," and I whispered back, "Mrs. Keller, so was I," and then Esther gripped my hand and patted my hand and she said "I'll fetch the carriage," so I just laid there, for it honestly hurt too much to move.

 

The boy saw Mrs. Keller stand up in her stirrups, shading her eyes:  she came back down into the saddle, he saw her put her heels to the mount, she saw the gelding gather itself and shoot across the meadow, a grey arrow streaking toward the board fence.

His own mount was a racer, and a good one, and took little bidding to give pursuit:  the hired man's son loved to ride and he loved riding a fast horse, and when the maid came running out and seized his shoulders and said in an urgent voice that they needed a messenger and he was it, he said "Yes ma'am!" and saddled a shining, copper-red mare, one of the famous Cannonball line.

His Pa followed in the carriage:  the rescuers were strung out, each could see the next one, but only Esther had eyes on her husband, at least until the boy came streaking across the meadow and sailed easily over the fence that Esther's grey arrow barely cleared.

Esther looked up at the big-eared little boy with freckles and buck teeth, a boy who had yet to grow into his features:  "Raymond," she said steadily, her voice level despite what she was feeling, "please have Dr. Greenlees attend us at the ranch house, Mr. Keller is unwell."

"Yes ma'am!" Raymond declared in his high, little-boy voice, and his young knees gripped the red Cannonball's get as they launched across the meadow, heading for town, for the shining, polished-quartz hospital by the most direct route.

 

"Esther?"

My voice was a little hoarse.

When a man gets hit, or he gets drug and beat around some with his foot caught in the stirrup, there's some numb goes along with it but that numb was wearin' off and I was startin' to hurt kind of seriously.

"My dear?"

"I'm sorry."  My voice was little more than a whisper.

"I have a canteen.  Let me get you a sip."

"No."  My hand tightened on hers.  "If my guts are busted, I don't want to risk it."

"You're bleeding.  Let me clean that up."

"Yeah."

I heard Esther's skirts, or maybe her petticoats, starchy and rustling as she moved:  I heard the canteen lid drop on its short chain, the slosh and gurgle, then her hands again, wet and cool and she wiped blood from the back of my head.

I must've been clobbered worse than I realized.

"Mr. Keller, you are a hard headed man," Esther muttered.  "A lesser skull would have broken like a hen's egg."

"Flattery," I gasped, "will get you everywhere."

Things got a little hazy after that.

I recalled hearin' the carriage come up and I heard my hired man's voice and my daughter's husband's voice and there were hands, strong and careful hands that got me up and I recall bein' set on what my fingers knew was the tuck and roll upholstery and I knew I was in our carriage and I held onto the seat to keep it from turnin' around underneath me.

"I'll get it all dirty," I muttered, and Esther set beside me and held me by the shoulders and said "Let me worry about that," and we set off careful-like and I clenched my jaw a little but not much – I didn't want my gorge to rise, but my jaw ached from the beatin' I'd taken so I couldn't clamp down much.

 

Clarissa stared, open-mouthed, out the parlor window, then she snatched up her drowsy little boy and followed the maid out the big front door.

She stood, wide-eyed, staring as four men lifted her father very carefully from the carriage, bore him into the house:  her father's face was pale, lined with pain, his lips were pressed together, and it was not until Dr. Greenlees examined him, not until his wife and the maid undressed and bathed him, not until the man was in a nightshirt and tucked in and his wife seated beside him, holding his hand, that she was finally able to slip in and see her father.

 

Dr. Greenlees was just finishing tying a folded cloth cravat around my head:  "That'll keep you from chafing the stitches," he explained, "they'll come out in a few days.  Your hard head doesn't seem to be cracked and that's a miracle" – his voice was stern, his expression likely would be clearly worried – "and I don't think you've busted anything inside."

I managed to gasp a quiet, pained "Yeah," and the physician hesitated.

"You're going to get sleepy and that's okay.  Sleep if you want. Whether you sleep or whether you stay up and play cut throat poker, you're going to stiffen up and you'll be sore as hell tomorrow."

"Not far from it now," I managed to gasp.

"Can I do anything to make you more comfortable?"

I opened my eyes and smiled a little.  "Y'know, Doc," I managed to wheeze, "I'd ought to come up with a smart remark, but the mind just went blank."

"I'm surprised you've got a mind left, you hard headed old badge packer," Dr. Greenlees snarled, then he bent and leaned his weight, stiff-armed, on the mattress on either side of the me.  "This is not medical advice, Linn, this is from me." 

Doc bit his bottom lip and considered for a moment, but only a moment.

"Linn, I don't make friends all that easily, and no man is so rich that he can throw a friend away. I'm glad you're alive. You came too close to not being."

"Yeah," I husked, trying to laugh, but it hurt too much.

 "You know the worst part, Doc?"

Dr. Greenlees straightened – I felt his weight come off the bed – and I could imagine his expression, for I knew the man well.

"What's that?"

He'd be standing upright with his arms loose and relaxed and those long surgeon's fingers almost straight, and he'd have his head turned just a little, looking down at me.

I set my teeth against the pain and took a moment, then admitted "I spent good money on that horse and ended up I had to shoot that damned horse to keep it from kickin' me to death!"

"I am glad," Dr. Greenlees said solemnly, "that you did not miss."

 

Their youngest daughter never, ever again, questioned why her pale eyed Papa still wore a pistol.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

11.  TENDERCHEEKS

 

The pale eyed Willamina Keller chewed on her knuckle and giggled.

Richard looked over, raised an eyebrow.

Willamina was retired less than a week, she was still ... tight ... she hadn't quite relaxed into the realization that she was, indeed, retired.

Richard knew she was a Marine, a blooded warrior; he knew she bore the marks of violence beneath her carefully tailored suit, or flannel shirt and blue jeans:  he knew she was fast and deadly with a variety of weapons, and that she had multiple belts in a variety of Oriental and Israeli methods of ungently pacifying thy neighbor.

It was a little out of character to hear his wife ... giggle.

Perhaps it was not a bad thing, he reflected:  his wife deserved to relax, his wife deserved to decompress, his wife deserved to not be hypervigilant anymore.

He knew it would take a while.

He hadn't expected it would start with his pale-eyed wife chewing on her knuckle, reading an old journal and giggling like a schoolgirl.

She looked up, eyes shining.

"Richard," she said, "listen to this."

She read.

 

The Sheriff has a really good poker face.

I don't think I did.

Few things are colder than a winter-cold saddle and mine surely was.

It was cold and it was slick and the corners of the Sheriff's eyes smiled to see my discomfort.

"Cold?" he asked quietly, and I settled myself into a good seat and I couldn't help but grin a little.

"I'll not admit it, sir," I said, "for I don't wish to be known as Tendercheeks!"

We both laughed, our breath puffing vapor into the cold air.

 

Willamina looked up at her husband and he saw a softer expression on her face than he'd seen in some long time.

"Let me tell you about a friend of mine."

 

Town Marshal Bob Beymer turned the screwdriver with an exaggerated patience, screwed the outhouse seat securely in place.

He'd searched for some long time before finding the ideal plank.

Walnut it was, too thin by far to make a gunstock, but stout enough for his needs:  he'd measured, cut, laid out, drawn, drilled:  he ran the jigsaw along the oval crayon line, beveled the opening, sanded it glass smooth:  he'd sealed it, mounted it, attached a brass plaque the size of a playing card.

An old college chum, Lars Carlsen, availed himself of Beymer's outhouse, and complained when the seat pinched his backside:  Beymer considered the situation, tore out the two-plank seat, replaced it with a one-piece.

The plaque was custom engraved:  "Dedicated to Tendercheeks Carlsen," he read, and nodded.

His friend would be back in a week and he intended that he should direct the man's attention to his work.

 

Willamina leaned back, pointed overhead at a stout man in a black uniform and uniform Stetson, a man with a thin mustache and a big grin, leaning casually against the fender of a white Crown Vic cruiser.

"That," she said, "was Brother Beymer when he was town marshal.  He rolled the cruiser in a high speed pursuit."
Richard flinched.  "Ouch," he muttered.  "How badly was he hurt?"

Willamina laughed.  "His badge came up and cut him over an eyebrow, that was all."

"Lucky!" Richard grunted.

"You're telling me!"  Willamina sighed.  "He and I were living proof that not all young are birthed from the same womb."

"Were?"

"I spoke his funeral sermon."

Richard's mouth opened, then he closed it carefully, cleared his throat uncertainly, looked away.

"He told me about making that outhouse seat for his friend," Willamina said softly, "and that's what came to mind when I read about Jacob and that cold saddle."

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

12.  MEOW

 

The Sheriff curled her legs up, intent on her reading: her focus was absolute, her attention undivided.

Her husband smiled and brought her a steaming mug of tea, set it on the stand beside her.

"You look like a cat, curled up like that," he said quietly.

The Sheriff looked at him, her pale eyes playful:  "Meow," she replied, then she returned to the journal, her lips parting a little, a smile tugging at her normally neutral expression.

She laughed a little and said "You've got to hear this," and Dr. John Greenlees Jr. eased himself down into his own spun-plastic chair, leaned back, savoring the smell of brewed oolong, genuine Earl Grey from Earth:  they tried to duplicate it, but it was just not the same as those rare and precious shipments of the real stuff.

Sheriff Marnie Keller, of the Second Martian District (Firelands), read her Mama's words and chewed on her foreknuckle, seeing the action unfold as she read:  she stopped, backtracked, began to read aloud.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller's pale eyes were hard and cold as another body came flying backwards out of the Silver Jewel's double doors.

She disliked barfights and she disliked her people being thrown about and she knew she was probably the only one who could put a stop to this.

She seized the edge of the door and stepped inside.

Mr. Baxter was gone, Tilly was cowering behind the hotel counter; chairs were knocked over, one table broken, a curtain pulled down:  it looked like there had been a good knock-down, drag-out brawl – probably because it was, she thought – and she looked at the only man standing.

A tall, slender man, leathery skin tanned by tropical sun and desert wind, stood at the bar, pouring wine from a long necked bottle into a beer stein.

Willamina set her jaw, paced forward, SLAMMED the pump shotgun's action open, SLAMMED it shut, running a charge of 00 buck into the chamber.

Few sounds are as recognized worldwide as a riot gun's metallic cycle.

Willamina stalked around the corner of the bar, looking as friendly as a wood rasp, feeling as kindly as a b'ar with a sore tooth.

Each one looked at the other.

She saw a man with the erect carriage of a soldier, with the scars of a veteran; he saw a hard-eyed woman in a tailored suit dress, with really nice legs and high heels, and a cocked-and-locked twelve gauge at high port.

He swirled the beer mug, took an appreciative sip of wine, calculating whether he could get to her before she drove a swarm of lead beehive through his guts, decided against it.

"What's your outfit, soldier?" she asked, and his ear twitched a little, for the voice was familiar, the phrasing somehow –

He blinked, frowned, looked again.

Pale eyes, eyes he'd seen before, and then he remembered.

 

Fighting was close-in, fast and dirty: he'd taken a rifle butt in the ribs, another to his elbow:  his rifle, lost, was somewhere in the dirt, trampled, kicked:  he seized an AK and laid about, using it as a quarterstaff:  he was outnumbered, surrounded, but the fight was fast moving and too close to fire a shot, lest his enemy miss and hit one of their own –

He recognized the Marine Corps camo, for the little time he had to think about it:  somewhere, this American had seized an old bolt action rifle with a long bayonet and was driving into the enemy, slashing the bayonet's tip across a face, driving it through a throat, knocking down a rifle muzzle and shoving two feet of triangular steel through a man's guts:  the odds were suddenly much better, and he felt a renewed surge of killing joy, and together the two of them laid about in horrifying silence, leaving the screams, the shouts, to those they were killing.

The last one fell, his rifle's butt split but solid enough to cave in the man's head:  the Legionnaire and the Marine slammed into one another, back-to-back, each one cycled the action of their rifle, faced outward:  he felt his American counterpart breathing, deeply, controlled, silent, and knew that like himself, this Marine was rigidly controlling his emotions, mouth open, tasting blood and dust and the smell of men's guts laid open.

He looked for an enemy, saw none:  he felt the Marine move, turned.

The ancient Mosin-Nagant bellowed, blasting a fireball out its muzzle, and he saw something spray out from under a head-cloth:  this American, this stranger and yet his brother-in-arms, drove a head shot at half a hundred yards with a strange rifle that probably hadn't seen a cleaning kit (or a cleaning) since the end of the First World War.

Cartridge brass spun, the Mosin's bolt cycled:  he turned, his AK up and ready –

 

The woman turned her lapel back to reveal a six point star.

"Sheriff Willamina Keller," she said, not raising her voice.

He came to attention, cracked his heels together, saluted her, palm forward.

"Mon Colonel," he said briskly, and she snapped the shotgun up in presentation, then turned.

A deputy stood in the doorway.

Willamina tossed him the riot gun, waved him out:  the deputy caught the Remington easily, backed out, eyeing this tanned stranger warily.

The two approached each other, stopped just short of arm's length apart.

Willamina looked around.

"Looks like there was a fight," she said mildly.

"Mais oui, mon Colonel."

She looked at the man, raised an eyebrow:  he saw amusement in those pale eyes that surprised him so much after their encounter half a world away.

She looked around, picked up a discarded beer mug, poured three fingers of wine:  he picked up his own mug, they clinked their heavy glasses together, drank.

"So give an account of yourself," she said quietly.  "How in the hell have you been?"

 

Sheriff Marnie Keller laughed, her head back, her voice relaxed.

Dr. Greenlees the Younger smiled to see this, to hear this:  it was not often his wife relaxed, not often she was other than the Sheriff, not often she was not constantly scanning for some unknown danger about to step out and bite her on the shin bone.

He considered if he could carry a snapshot in his heart, this was it:  with her sitting like a curled up cat, her head thrown back in delight, laughing.

She looked back at the text, printed on thin plastic film recycled from something, he had no idea what:  she read a little more and laughed again.

"Dear God," she shook her head, "after this long tall drink of water busted the place up, broke two noses and decked a half dozen good men, she took his arm and said – get this – "'Only one of the Legion can take one of the Legion,' and I am not one such, so I will ask you:  Would you accompany me, for a lady properly leaves a room on a gentleman's arm."

"I suppose there were some international considerations with that," Dr. Greenlees suggested, and the Sheriff nodded slowly, thoughtfully.

"Yes, there were," she said, "but that's the part I wanted to read you." 

She shook her head, marveling.

"Just think, John ..."

Her voice was soft, thoughtful.

"Most grandmothers bake cookies.  Mine fought back to back with the French Foreign Legion and walked into a barfight and walked out with the last man standing!"

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

13.  IN THE DARK OF NIGHT, WHEN SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH

 

"You look like you could bite a chunk out of an I-beam."

Willamina looked up, raised pale eyes toward the portly Chief of Police, smiled ever so slightly.

It was her first night as a commissioned police officer, in a little ex-coal-mining town called Glouster.

She raised her shotgun, stood, walked over to the Chief, handed it to him:  "Graduation present," she said shortly.

"I heard you graduated nursing school today.  Congratulations."

"Waste of time," Willamina muttered.  "I learned more as a basic EMT that that damned school taught me."

"You're a medic now, aren't you?"

She nodded.

"Will you become a Corpsman?"

She smiled slightly.  "That depends on what the Corps wants to do with me."

"How long before you go in?"

"Two months."

"Are you getting ready?"

"I'm running every day, I'm in Jonsey's gym every day, I've been sparring and weights."

"Good."  He nodded.  "Don't let them know."

Willamina raised an eyebrow as the Chief stood, shouldered the twelve-gauge a few times, nodded.

"I'm having Brother Beymer put rifle sights on it."

Chief Warren handed it back.  "You hunt?"

"Damn right I hunt."  He saw something in her eyes, hidden quickly, as if she drew curtain across behind her pale orbs.  "My Daddy hunted and so do I."

"Hm."  He nodded, let his eyes follow the line of light running the length of the blued steel Winchester barrel, and Willamina saw a memory soften his eyes just a little, and then the laugh that followed.

"My buddy and I thought we'd be smart," he said softly, the way a man will when reminiscing about his youth.  "We were football players and we ran every day and when we went into the Corps, the Sergeant was pleased to see the others were gasping and bent over sick and we were a little short of breath but doing okay."  He winked at her.  "Next day he had us doing squats for a half hour before we went out on our run."

Willamina grimaced, sat on the corner of the desk, rubbed her thigh as if it were sore.  "Oh," she groaned in sympathy.

"Yeah," the Chief half-grunted, half-laughed.  "We've told any number of candidates going into Basic to never, EVER let 'em know in Basic that you're not wimpy like the others!"  His great gusty laugh filled the village's ancient brick police station.

The phone rang; a brief conversation, a frown.

"Fight down at the candy store."

Willamina's jaw hardened.  "On it."

 

Pale eyes watched a figure in black striding down the alley, eyes busy:  veteran eyes narrowed with approval as the young officer in black uniform and Stetson "sliced the pie" from the alley's mouth, taking a look, a bigger look, a bigger look yet:  finding the source of the problem and scanning for ambushers, the officer emerged at a sprint, crossed the street, pounded down the sidewalk.

The sound of running boots at a fight naturally draws the attention of the cautious:  "Cop!" someone yelled, and about half the crowd scattered:  the core of the problem, two snarling individuals, wove and danced, fists up, trying to get some advantage.

One of the spectators turned to face Willamina, pulled a set of nunchaku, spun them in a web of welcoming death.

Willamina took a quick step to the side, one foot on the sidewalk, one on the street, a double handful of blued steel revolver thrust forward, her voice clear, distinct, but not terribly loud:

"DROP THE CHUCKS OR I DROP YOU!"

 

Retired Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned back, eyes closed:  she opened them, wiped the nib of her steel dip quill, placed it very precisely along the right margin of the leather-bound Journal in which she was scribing:  she leaned back again, rubbed her eyes, stretched.

It was late.

Her husband Richard was gone to bed.

The Bear Killer drowsed beside her, silver hairs limning his muzzle:  these days he was content to soak up heat by the stove and pad alongside her, though when the mood was upon him, he was spry as a puppy, though she knew he paid for it afterward.

Like me, she thought, smiling a little.

Just that morning she'd run with the football team, run like she had when she was still Sheriff, run in full field gear with a rifle over her shoulder, desert boots laced and comfortable, pounding in cadence with young men full of testosterone and vinegar, happily singing deliciously obscene Marine Corps running songs, teaching the Firelands High School Football Team the same rude, crude and socially unacceptable tunes she'd happily sung as a boot recruit:  at their head, one young man ran five paces ahead of the pack, holding a pole; from the pole, a red guidon; on the guidon, a hand sewn, death-black skull, missing its lower jaw, the Totenkopf, that feared sigil of warriors from time immemorial:  Willamina's Warriors, they were unofficially called, and despite their youth and their green strength, they had a deep and abiding respect for this "Cool Little Old Lady" they adopted as their own, and they rejoiced when she ran with them.

This may also have had something to do with the fresh baked chocolate chip cookies she had ready when they came by, something the coaches cheerfully ignored; Willamina instilled a sense of unity among the team they'd never seen in all of Firelands High School's history, and so if the boys broke training with some cookies, what the hell ... the way that pale eyed woman ran them, they burned off more calories than they'd eaten, easy!

"You could type that," Richard suggested, soft voiced, and Willamina smiled, lowered her arms from her great yawning stretch.

"I used to work for a hospital," she said quietly.  "I can't do anything the easy way."

He leaned over and hugged his wife from behind, kissed her ear, nibbled it a little.

"Why don't you just type all that into a file?" he whispered.  "Then you won't have to scan it to send it to Marnie."

Willamina sighed.  "No."  She tapped the pen.  "Old Pale Eyes used that pen.  Jacob used that pen.  Sarah McKenna and three or four others used that pen.  If it works, don't fix it."  She took a long breath, sighed it out.  "Besides ... one of these days technology will fail, but books will still work."

"You've got me there."

She picked up the pen, studied it tiredly.

"I wonder how many ghosts come with this pen."  She tilted her head back.  "I'm supposed to tell ghost stories again tomorrow night at the Ladies' Tea Society meeting."

 

Square topped front sight was level with the square topped rear sight, and steady on the second shirt button.

Willamina's finger was heavy on the grooved, double action trigger, 125 grains of Remington controlled expansion projectile ready in the chamber.

She did not repeat herself.

She did not have to.

 

When the chief introduced the prisoner to the back seat of the cruiser, after the door was shut and transport begun, after they'd covered a few miles in silence, the Chief said casually, "You made a good choice back there."

"Yeah," his prisoner grunted.

"Would you have done that for me?"

"Hell no," he grinned, and Chief Warren saw the man's silent laughter in the rear view mirror, sudden and then sobered:  "I can read a man like a book but I can't read a woman."

"Welcome to the world of men," Chief Warren muttered.

"Naw, naw, not that, man," came the protesting explanation.  "You can't predict a woman!  Give a woman a gun and you don't know WHAT she's gonna do!  A man –"

He shivered.

"When she looked at me with those pale eyes I just KNEW she was goin' to blow a hole through me!"

"She's like that," the Chief nodded.  "She's done it before."

He saw his prisoner's face pale a few degrees.

 

Patrolman Willamina Keller, of the Glouster Police Department, sipped her coffee, eyes busy:  she was outside the all night gas station, back to a wall, but not leaning against it:  her pale eyes caught a movement, turned to focus –

 

Past Sheriff Willamina Keller smiled at the memory, looked up at the several framed prints on the wall.

One was her pale eyed ancestor, Old Pale Eyes himself, his hand on the neck of a saddled, bridleless, good looking mare – the print, unfortunately, was black-and-white, and she'd considered having it colorized, for she knew her thrice-great-grandfather rode a copper mare he named Cannonball ... but that's not what she looked at, and smiled.

Beside him, another man, a full head taller and proportionally broader.

This, she knew, was the famous Jackson Cooper, town marshal of Firelands, Colorado; he married Emma Cooper, the diminutive schoolteacher, and for all their many years of happy marriage, he treated her at once like a Queen, and as if she were delicate china.

Willamina stared at this picture, and remembered.

She remembered the Old Sheriff and Jackson Cooper were boon companions in a town called Sedalia, back East.

A town that renamed itself Glouster.

She remembered the night she told the man with the 'chucks to drop them or she'd drop him, and she'd used that line any number of times since, and she remembered typing out her report and returning to the street.

She remembered standing outside the all night gas station with coffee in hand, eyes busy, listening to the night, and she recalled the sound of hoofbeats, and she saw a man riding up the street, a tall man with an iron grey mustache.

He stopped and dismounted and another figure, broad of shoulder and a full head taller, stepped out of a shadow and they two shook hands, and then they turned and looked squarely at her.

She saw pale eyes beneath the brim of the Stetson, and a six point star on the lapel of his black coat, and she saw both men look very directly at her, raise their hands and tug at the brim of their hats ... and then they were gone ...

Willamina remembered how she'd blinked, puzzled, how she tossed her coffee and ran over to where they'd been, how she'd pulled out her flashlight, laid it close to the ground and shot a beam across the ground to transluminate any tracks, and how she'd finally squatted, touching the impress of a horse shoe in the soft shoulder of the roadway.

"Do you know what ghost stories to tell them?" Richard whispered, his breath puffing warm and sensually against her ear, and she smiled.

"Yes," she whispered back, reaching up and squeezing his shoulder.  "Yes, I do."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

14.  BETTER, NOW

 

Past Sheriff Willamina Keller leaned her head back and laughed, bringing several smiles in reply from the audience.

The Ladies' Tea Society was visited by a group of tourists from the Z&W Scenic Railway's tour group; there was a delay while repairs were conducted, something to do with a reported problem up the line, and the group was brought to the Silver Jewel Saloon in two freight wagons converted for just this use – each one had two rows of school bus seats, harvested from cycled-out buses, mounted longways down the length of the wagon, set back to back so the occupants could look at the town as they drove.

Willamina was their tour guide (she was also owner of the Z&W Railroad, and had excused herself from the Tea Society meeting, and swept onto the depot platform in a fitted McKenna gown and picture hat) – swinging her reticule from one daintily-gloved hand, she brought her other daintily-gloved hand to her lips, blew hard and frowned:  nothing came forth but the hiss of wind:  she knew eyes were upon her, so she shook her hand, frowned at it, shook it briskly and then whipped her parasol up over one shoulder and announced, "I suppose you're all wondering why I called you here today!"

This, of course, with her innocent-yet-mischievous expression, brought a number of chuckles:  she directed the restless visitors to the end of the platform and onto the wagons, leading by example, and stood behind the driver, facing her guests as they drove up the modern, paved street of Firelands, Colorado.

Willamina used her parasol as a pointer, as a cane, as an extra hand to make grand gestures:  here, she said, was their original church, restored to original condition, and if they looked closely, they would see bullet-gouges in the ceiling of the open bell tower:  the Parson and the Sheriff's pale eyed son used it as a firing-point the night raiders rode into town intending to steal the women, rape the cattle, burn everything to the ground, and after all that they intended to become rather unpleasant; there, across the street, the modern new funeral home, which was originally Digger's funeral parlor – yes, folks, his name wasn't really Digger, but that's all anyone ever called him, and most folks never knew his right name.  The original building was wood framed and three stories, with a false front, and the fire department, their very own red-shirted Irish Brigade, used it for ladder practice, for they knew that practicing their craft in the public eye guaranteed they would retain a favored position in the popular imagination.

Whether it was planned, or not, the Firelands Fire Department's restored Ahrens steam engine, drawn by three matched white mares, came trotting the opposite direction, red-shirted, black-mustachioed firemen riding the ladder wagon:  they waved pressed-leather Philadelpha helmets and hailed the Sheriff most cheerfully, and the big, muscled Irishman standing up in the driver's box swung his blacksnake whip and snapped a hole in the air three feet above the mares' ears, to the delight of boys young and old alike on the sidewalk and in the tour wagons both.

The Sheriff's Office, in its turn, was pointed out:  its polished-quartz construction was on the site of the original, log, Sheriff's Office, lost to a fire the night a tornado ripped through the mountains very near the town, two days after the Old Sheriff's death:  Old Pale Eyes, as he'd been known, helped draw up the plans, and these plans were overseen by his pale eyed son Jacob, and across the street, our destination, the Silver Jewel Saloon, owned first by the Sheriff's wife Esther, and then by the Sheriff after her demise. 

Watch your step, folks, please come in, we're just in time for the Ladies' Tea Society meeting.

 

"We've taken a page from certain Medieval re-enactors," Willamina smiled, her voice carrying well to the farthest rows, "and we re-enact ... creatively."  She held out an arm.  "For instance, I used a Singer treadle machine to sew this dress, instead of stitching it by hand –"

"You made that?" a visitor blurted, her mouth open, and Willamina laughed. 

"Why yes, J.C. Penney didn't have this in stock, and I was in a hurry, so ..." 

She shrugged.

The members of the Ladies' Tea Society – women, and a half-dozen girls, from four to fourteen, all in period garb – were mixed evenly with the tourists, a little uncomfortable in more modern attire:  two little girls giggled together, one in a pretty, ruffled frock, the other in jeans and sneakers:  their clothing may have been different by more than a century, but giggly little girls are the same in any era.

"The Silver Jewel Saloon changed, over time.  It was originally a dirty saloon and whorehouse, then it was a respectable saloon and restaurant; Prohibition saw its time as a restaurant alone, with the bar and the glasses and empty bottles just for show, and of course gambling laws took their toll on games of chance.  We've restored it to a degree, but the restaurant and bar are once again operating together.  There is a small stage and we have entertainment, most commonly of The Period, the mid-1880s.  Dances, waltzes, square dances and the like."

"I love your tin ceiling," one of the men said, pointing.

"It's original.  We were doing some overhaul work and a tin panel fell loose out in the main room" – Willamina pointed – "I kicked my chair back as a circular saw fell through and hit the table in front of me.  Ruined my pie and cracked the tabletop, but when I threw myself back I caught a pocketwatch in my skirt."  She reached thumb and forefinger into a hidden pocket, drew it forth, pressed the stem to flip open the hunter case.  "This was one of the first railroad watches issued by the Z&W Railroad, and it has a hand painted portrait inside the case."  She touched a button on the podium beside her; a screen hummed down from an almost unnoticed slit in the ceiling, lit up:  a few more buttons, a computer mouse, and an image:  it was a picture of the same watch, close-up.

"This is the portrait of Esther Wales Keller, the green-eyed, red-headed wife of the Old Sheriff, my thrice-great-grandfather."  She smiled, touched another control:  now they saw a hand-drawn pencil sketch of the Old Sheriff and his wife, sitting together, laughing.

"This is rare for the period.  Normally people had solemn expressions because of long exposure times with their photographs, and also a smile was seen as a sign of weakness, and nobody wished to be seen as weak."  The screen went dark.  "Also dentistry was not the art it is today, and it was not at all uncommon for people to have bad teeth, which they did not wish to reveal with a smile."

A restless little boy elbowed his sister and stage-whispered "Brush your teeth," and the little girl responded with a distressed "Mo-o-om! He's touching me!" at which Willamina, and everyone else, laughed.

"There was some discussion of restoring the original Sheriff's office."

Willamina's tone was light, conversational, easy to listen to.

"We have his original desk, and we did have his original cast iron, pot belly stove, at least until a rock fall in the underground mineshaft where it was found.  Cast iron does not do well when a ton of granite lands on it."  She smiled, as if at a secret, then continued:  "The Old Sheriff had trouble with his office chairs."

She turned, gripped the back of an old fashioned, wooden office chair, wheeled it to the middle of the front.

"You'll notice this has four casters.  Modern chairs have five, for a very practical reason."  She turned the chair, sat in it.  "The Old Sheriff had back trouble as a result of wartime service.  He was a veteran of what some call Lincoln's War, or the War of Northern Aggression, or the War of Secession.  He just called it That Damned War, and I have to agree with him."  There was the trace of an edge to her voice, which disappeared as she continued, "An old smoothbore cannon blew up beside him and caved in some ribs.  Twenty years later the town doctor pulled shrapnel out of a reinjury at the same site, which did ease some of his pain, but his back gave him grief, and these chairs did not help a bit.  He'd lean back in it and try to sleep and –"

So saying, she tilted back, intending just to get a bit of a tilt, but the chair had other ideas.

The sound of a hardwood chair SLAMMING into the floor was unexpected, loud, sharp, spectacular:  the sight of a woman's stockinged legs, high button shoes, her sharp little heels pointing at the ceiling, was likewise not quite what had been planned.

Silence and shocked expressions:  one man surged to his feet, powered forward, went to one knee:  "Ma'am?" he asked quietly, urgently.

"Owww," Willamina groaned, grimacing:  she rolled to her right, toward him and out of the chair, gripped his forearm, his shoulder:  he rose with her, his rising helping her stand, his hands firm around her waist, then cupping her elbows.

"Are you okay?" he almost whispered, and she nodded, lips pressed together:  she reached up, pulled out three long hatpins, removed her hat and scaled it off to the side, placed the long pins on the podium.

"I meant to do that," she said in a pained voice, which got a good laugh, and she laughed with them.

"Actually I didn't mean to do that, but it shows why the Old Sheriff SEIZED his wooden chair and THREW it out the door and took a broad ax and proceeded to bust it up into stovewood right in the middle of the street."  She laughed a little at the thought.  "For some odd reason, the sight of a pale eyed old lawman swearing at the offending furniture and disassembling it with less than gentle means, guaranteed nobody interrupted his work!"

"Talk about a traffic stopper," a young man said appreciatively, and Willamina extended her gloved hand toward him, palm up.

"Exactly!"  she declared. 

She reached behind the podium, withdrew an engraved, and rather worn, Winchester model of      1873 rifle:  she held it up in one hand, and with the other, extracted a wooden stocked Mini-14 carbine.

"This" – she held up the Winchester – "is Old Pale Eyes' personal Winchester, a wedding gift from his wife.  It's a One of One Thousand, hand picked for accuracy, engraved and presented.  This" – she smiled, held up the Mini-14 – "is my personal cruiser gun.  I carried this as Sheriff and it never let me down.  This one can say BANG ten times before you have to reload, and this one" – she smiled – "can go BANG twice as many times before the hopper runs dry."

She laid the rifles down on the table behind her, picked up a telegraph key mounted on a small plank.

"This was state of the art communication back in the day."  She tapped the round, black button a few times; the electronic sounder clicked loudly.  "That's the sound they would have heard, a simple click:  one for a dit, two for a dah, or dot and dash if you prefer.  This" – she held up a black-plastic talkie – "well, you're all familiar with these, and then there are those silly cell phones everyone carries."

She smiled, for a half dozen of the devices were out, recording her presentation.

"So whether it's communication, firepower or these office chairs" – she bent down, picked up the wooden chair and set it on its wheels – "sometimes the good old days aren't all that good old." 

She laughed a little.

"I'll admit, I like my nice comfortable high backed office chair with five wheels!"

"Ma'am?"  The rear door opened and the Z&W's conductor stepped in, tugged at his polished cap-brim.  "We're ready."

"What happened?"

"A minor rock slide, ma'am, and a tree down.  The track is clear, the tree's bucked up and loaded and it's stable up-slope. We should have no more problems."

"And that concludes our presentation for today," Willamina smiled.  "If you'll follow me, we'll load up and ride back to the depot and continue the Scenic Railway tour!"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

15. FAST, HARD AND DIRTY

I don't know where it came from but when it come spinnin' up ag'in my shin bone I grabbed holt of it and taken it for the gift it was.

I grabbed attair singletree in both hands and drove it into a man's crotch on my way up and hit him ag'in in the face as I come to straight and then I whipped it up and blocked a punch and I felt and heard the man's hand break when knuckles hit steel banded white oak and I did not care.

I let go of one end and whipped it around and caught a second fellow's collar bone and hit it hard enough to break, I seen his shoulder drop right before his face screwed up and he bit down hard to keep from cryin' like a little girl and I laid about like Samson with the jaw bone of a jack mule, driving the end of attair singletree into bellies, ribs and anything else I could find, I bent and swung and cracked shins hard enough to break 'em.

Men went down and they went down hard and they went down bloodied and I had a good hand in it, I was certainly not the only one puttin' a stop to this general disagreement but I did my share and when the dust settled the hoosegow was full and we had about a dozen chained to trees nearby until His Honor could hold court, and hold court he did, he went to each prisoner and had a talk with 'em and assessed fines or jail time as he saw fit, mostly fines because we didn't have as many lockups in the calabozo as it would've taken to handle everyone.

Now ordinarily there was not such a large knock down drag out knuckle party in Firelands, ordinarily it was quiet and boring and that suits me just fine, there was a bunch come in with wagons and two trainloads as well and all of 'em had the notion somehow we was Cripple Creek and they figured we'd had a gold strike and when they found out they hadn't been no strike here why tempers got the better of 'em and of course it didn't help none that most of 'em got all likkered up to try and ease the disappointment, I reckon.

I reckon I could have wrote most of a book had I set down and put my pen to every last individual's activity in attair fracas, but I didn't see no need, besides I'm kind of lazy when it comes to writin' things down.

 

Sheriff Willamina Keller frowned, her finger laid across her upper lip like a mustache, her forehead wrinkling a little as she read.

She looked up as her chief deputy came in.

JW Barrents regarded the pale eyed Sheriff with Navajo-obsidian eyes and tilted his head a little.

"I know that look," he said quietly, closing the door behind him.  "What's up?"

Willamina took a long, patient breath.

"It's Jacob," she said, and Barrents chuckled, glancing up at one of the several framed prints on the wall.

"You make it sound like he's a naughty boy who's just done something today."

"I was going over old court records," Willamina said, poking a finger at an obviously old, worn ledger.  "I cross referenced with Jacob's journal."

"And?"
"Here's what he wrote about a general riot ... from the newspaper account, the street was filled with 'seething humanity' ... Jacob wrote, 'We had a riot. Took care of it.'"

"That's it?"
"That's it."

Chief Deputy JW Barrents shook his head, chuckling.

"I always did like his way with words."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There is a marvelous freedom with not having to keep things in chronological order.

In this short snort, the Sheriff is considerably younger, as is her son: we infer his youth from having his appendix removed, and that this is not her firstborn, as she's in the cafeteria having a meal, while he's in recovery.

Here we see a glimpse into her past, a facet only alluded to in the several past tales we've told of this pale eyed descendant of her pale-eyed ancestor ... you know, the one with the iron grey mustache and a fiercely protective nature.

 

16. YA GOT MINE BEAT!

 

"May I join you?"
Willamina looked up and smiled tiredly, nodded to the chair opposite: a tall, slender man in scrubs set his tray down, swung his narrow backside into the chair.

"How's your son?"

Willamina chuckled a little.  "His appendix is out now.  He's still in recovery."

The nurse nodded.  "They know you're here?"

Willamina picked up the pepper shaker, briskly anointing her mashed potatoes and gravy: the nurse opened his hand, she slid the heavy glass shaker across the table to him:  he peppered his own, traded pepper for salt, gave a quick double-shake, slid it across to the pale eyed Sheriff.

"I don't need to taste 'em," he muttered.  "Taters always take salt!"

Willamina laughed.  "Man after my own heart!"

"I heard they tried to recruit you."

Willamina nodded, chewing a bite of meatloaf.  "I told 'em I get in enough trouble as Sheriff, I didn't need to work as a nurse too!"

"How did you like nursing?"

Willamina wrinkled her nose.  "I started out hating nursing school and it went downhill from there!"

"You too?"

She nodded, tearing open the roll, twisting her butter knife in the little individually packaged pat, spread the gut grease, looked up at her companion.  "You've got a story.  You go first."

His chuckle was dry, almost forced.  "Not much to tell, really.  The school discriminated against men hell west and crooked.  I was lied to and lied about from the word go.  On graduation day they waited until I crossed the stage, got my pin, handed the stub of my short timer's stick to my favorite instructor and then a runner came up and told me the Dean needed to see me immediately if not sooner."

"Short timer's stick," Willamina mused.  "You're an Army brat?"

He nodded.  "My Dad was in the Southeast Asia War Games.  You?"
"Sandpile.  Marines."
"That's right, I'm sorry.  I forgot."

She waved a hand.  "What did the Dean want?"

"She asked me why I hadn't taken my Pharmacology final.  I told her the instructor told me my grades were good enough I didn't have to, so I didn't.  She said that wasn't right, I had to take it and since I hadn't, my graduation was invalid. 

"I told her if she had any questions she should call the instructor and she said the gal was on a Bahamas cruise and I said 'How convenient,' and my voice just dripped sarcasm."

Willamina's eyes were half veiled and he saw her eyes go a little more pale.

"I told her, 'Why don't I just tricky-trot upstairs to the testing center and take it right now."
She waved a dismissive hand and said 'Do what you want.'

"I went upstairs, I was back in five minutes, I laid the paper on the desk in front of her."

Willamina raised an eyebrow.

"I scored one hundred per cent."
Willamina's eyes narrowed at the corners, a smile of approval from one warrior to another.

"I asked her if there was anything else and she couldn't even look me in the eye."

They ate in silence for a minute, long enough for the nurse's curiosity to get the best of him.

"How about you, Sheriff?  You've got a story and I'd like to hear it."

"You are familiar with confidentiality."

"Intimately."

"You have read the statistics that most nurses were raped as a young teen, that the head shrinkers theorize that's why women become nurses, to heal where they themselves were harmed."

He nodded.

"My father was town marshal back East.  He was killed in the line of duty.  My mother was a damned drunk and she threw out his gunbelt and the flag they gave us at his funeral."
She saw his hands close slowly into fists.

"I was ... brutalized ... but I didn't just go into nursing."  She looked up, her eyes hard and cold.  "I went into the community college's police academy as well."
He nodded slowly.

"The nursing instructors did not like it ... that I was taking a dual major, that I arranged my classes to avoid conflict between them, and they really did not like my arriving in class in a police uniform."

The nurse grinned, nodded encouragement.

"I was in my emergency room rotation as a nursing student when we had a situation."

He leaned forward, elbows on either side of his tray, the meal forgotten:  fingers laced, he pressed his upper lip against his index fingers, eyes intent on the quiet-voiced, pale-eyed woman across from him.

"A man came in and pulled a gun.

"I trained for that, and the fact that I wore a white dress and pantyhose didn't stop reflex from taking over." 

Again that slow, encouraging nod.

"I seized the muzzle and twisted, I got both hands on it and wound it around backwards and yanked hard."  Her bottom jaw slid out as she talked, as she remembered.  "I remember driving my foot into his thigh as I yanked.

"He was high on something and breaking his finger and then tearing it out by its roots didn't stop him so I had his gun in both hands and I cold cocked him."  She chuckled dryly.  "My second kick to the gut wasn't really necessary.

"Anyway ... I got called on the carpet next day in nursing school, and the dean said they were going to expel me.

"I felt myself getting mad.

"I knew if I stayed I would say ... regrettable things ... so I turned and started to walk out.

"The Dean said 'I'm not done,' and I said 'Oh yes you are,' and I left.

"I was mad clear through and I didn't know where to go and I just started driving and I ended up at the police station.

"I went inside and the Chief was grinning when I came through the door.

"I recognized the reporter and I knew better than to get anywhere near but the Chief saw me and waved me in.

"I went in and said 'Chief, we have a situation,' and he switched off his good-old-boy an switched on his I-am-in-charge and we went into the inner office and he closed the door.

"I was mad.

"I was absolutely clear to my core mad.

"I took a long moment to steady myself and then I told the Chief what the Dean said to me and he frowned and then he took me by the shoulders and said, "Willa, I want you in your class As, we're going over there,' and then he opened the door and told the reporter he was giving him an exclusive.

"We went back over to the college.

"We went back over in a convoy.

"When I walked in, it was not as Willamina the nursing student, it was Willamina the police officer.  Full uniform, gunbelt, sidearm and baton, and the instructor did not like it one little bit.

"The Chief and I held back while two lines of long tall lawmen marched into the lecture hall with rifles at port arms.

"The Honor Guard was practicing that day and when they found out what the Chief had in mind they didn't hesitate ... we had retired men from our department, we had current and retired from the Sheriff's Office, we had some State Troops, everyone was in uniform, everyone was warmed up and ready, and it was an impressive sight when this much spit-and-polished marched in, solemn jawed and straight backed.

"These guys were good.

"When they formed a double row they started with the Queen Anne's Salute and got fancy from there, and the Chief and I marched in between spinning M1 Garands, and the instructor is standing there with her jaw hanging down to her belly button.

"Someone ran and got the Dean and she got there just as the Chief introduced the reporter and said that as I had saved lives and prevented a mass killing in a hospital setting, that the Department was recognizing my heroism in executing a barehand disarm while off duty.

"He formally presented me with a commendation, the reporter got it all on video, and the Dean of Nursing looked like she'd bitten into a rotten dill pickle."

"Did they kick you out of the program?"

"How could they?  The hospital sent their CEO over for the occasion and he waxed eloquent over me: he said I'd saved lives among staff and patient population alike, and their legal beagle buddied up with the nursing school's legal counsel and suggested that if there were any more episodes of discrimination against me, for any reason at all, the nursing school would find itself without clinical sites anywhere in the state, and the next day the Board of Nursing informed the school that if there was any retribution against me, they would lose their accreditation."

"I'll bet they really liked you after that."

"Like the Black Plague," Willamina sighed.  "They just couldn't wait to get rid of me."

"Expulsion, or graduation?"

"Graduation.  My mother was too drunk to attend.  I could tell it hurt the dean to have to read the commendation for heroism when I was given my diploma."

"Sheriff, yours has mine beat."  He eased his chair back from the table, paused, turned back to face the pale eyed woman square-on.

"Thank you for that disarm," he said quietly.  "Do you remember an ER nurse, Janice, curly blond hair, red cheeks, a little heavy set?"

"Oh heavens yes!"

"She was there that night." 

"You're ...?"

"Yep."  He grinned.  "You saved my Mama's life."

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

17.  LAST VISIT

 

"Grandma?"

Sheriff Willamina Keller looked at Captain Marnie Keller and smiled a little, the big Malinois at her right leg slitting his eyes with pleasure and running his tongue happily out under a moist black nose.

Both women were in uniform: the Sheriff, in her skirted Sheriff's uniform, as this was her day as court officer; her daughter, in the skirted uniform of a Navy Captain.

Her appearance was a little unexpected, though when a big black Sea Stallion came hammering overhead, several people looked up, shading their eyes and squinting a little:  the family Maxwell, up on Daine Mountain, smiled a little, because they knew their mountain-bred daughter was the pilot, and very likely the pale eyed daughter of their pale eyed Sheriff was aboard as well.

They were right.

Willamina was waiting at a correct parade rest, eyes narrowed against the rotor wash as the big black bird with the white snowflake on its nose settled onto the local crash patch tarmac:  it was not unknown for military craft to land – a C-130 landed one evening, delivering the Sheriff's surplus US Marine Corps tank – or, more correctly, Tank:  a Belgian Malinois with whom the Sheriff was acquainted in her overseas service:  it was, however, unique enough to see something this big, this black, this ... naval.

Of course, the service crew that ran out to the bird, the fuel truck, all had been arranged as well.

This happens when both pilot and passengers are in the revived Space Program, especially when they were riding the countdown to their Mars launch.

The pilot had her shutdown procedures, this Willamina knew; she'd admitted to Chief Deputy Barrents, before jumping in the Suburban and wheeling up the mountain, that you could take everything she knew about flying a rotary wing and stuff it down in a sewing thimble, and have room enough to pour in a quart of whiskey on top, and so she waited patiently, watching activity through the canopy, watched the conference with the ground crew, waited while a half-dozen souls came out of the big black bird with the impressively-sized engines, with the twin chain guns, with the snowflake on its nose and a rearing, winged stallion, ridden by a helmeted Valkyrie bearing a silver-tipped spear, painted on the side, and beneath, in what she knew to be authentic Viking runes, Odin's Daughter, and beneath this, in block letters,

CAPT MAXWELL

VALKYRIE!

Of the half-dozen who finally disembarked, three came to the black Stallion's nose:  two, shoulder to shoulder, in flight suits, and one in her class As:  they paced off on the left and marched directly to the Sheriff.

Willamina came to attention as they neared.

Three hands came up in salute, and the salute was returned, and after that, all formality was cast to the mountain wind:  women's voices raised in the happy confusion of family coming together, and then there was a pause, and Willamina turned her pale eyes on a tall, slender, blond headed, blue eyed Teutonic officer.

Willamina bent, seized his trouser cuff, hauled it up to expose an ugly, puckered scar slashing across the meat of his calf.

She lowered the trouser material, gave it a little tug, straightened.

She extended a hand and he took it without hesitation.

"Waddsmanheil, Hauptmann!" she declared, and she saw the grin hiding in his Teutonic-blue eyes:  "Any man with a boar's tusk on his leg is a man worthy of the name!"

Hans blinked, surprised, then looked accusingly at Gracie.

Gracie batted her eyes, doing her very best to look innocent, and almost succeeding.

"She's the Sheriff," she said with a shrug.  "She finds things out."

Hauptmann Hans Merckel, ace pilot with the Luftwaffe and hand picked for the Mars mission, grinned like a delighted schoolboy as he tried to look everywhere at once.

He'd heard Gracie talk about home, about mountains and ravines and magnificent sunrises, and Hans told her of the Alps and the Hartz Mountains, and they shared a love of flying:  Hans told of his great-grandfather, the Baron Manfred von Richtofen; Gracie told of her great-grandfather, a lean moonshining Kentucky mountain runner:  Hans told her of his grandfather, and of his father, both pilots with the Luftwaffe, and how they wouldn't call out "Tally-Ho!" or "Bandits!" as did the Allied pilots ... no, the German cry was "Indians!" – to Gracie's immense amusement – and she found that the American West enjoyed a romantic reputation in Germany (and in Israel, as she later learned, but that's a separate story)

Hans looked around, absolutely positively delighted to be in an honest to God Western saloon:  a pretty young girl in a saloon girl's short skirt and stockings was playing a merry tune at the piano, and Willamina pointed out the Old Sheriff's portrait, pencil-drawn, with his beautiful bride: the Sheriff pointed out the elk's antlers over the bar and told the German pilot about the pale-eyed ancestress Sarah McKenna, and how she and Charlie Macneil took this particular elk with a knapped obsidian spear.

The Hauptmann stared, open-mouthed, at the antlers, then regarded the Sheriff as if she were bearing a divine revelation.

"Die Stoffpuppe?" he breathed, as if whispering out the name of a living saint.

Willamina regarded him frankly, nodded.

"Yes," she said.  "The Ragdoll."

"Mein Gott," Hans whispered. 

"Another grandfather?"

"Jawohl, mein Sheriff!"

"Ever been in a genuine Old West saloon before?"

"Nein, mein Sheriff."

"Belly up to the bar, then.  Mr. Baxter, give the man what he's having."

 

They retired to the private, back room, where a good meal was laid before them:  over tenderloin beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and salad and sourdough bread, Willamina listened with pride as her great-granddaughter and her shirttail niece laughed and described their adventures in the military, how each had been absolutely floored when approached about the Mars mission, and how each had trained harder than they'd ever done in their young lives, and how now, now it was going to happen!

"Marnie," Willamina said, "I'm a little surprised they didn't pick a Marine for this job."

Marnie laughed. 

"Grandma," she said, her pale eyes bright, laughing in the electrified lamplight, "I still carry a deputy's commission, and I still remember every trick of dirty fighting you ever taught me!"

"She iss a good student," Hans offered innocently – Gracie's expression was less innocent and more wolflike, for she remembered the night the three of them were set upon by twice their number of street Apaches, and how the Sheriff's granddaughter was less the proper "Offizer undt a Lady" and more an unmitigated mankilling tornado  in blue jeans and cowboy boots.

Hans leaned forward, elbows on the table, looked directly at the Sheriff and lowered his voice confidentially.

"The most frichtening part," he almost whispered, "the most frichtening part, Sheriff, your grandt daughter fights silently."  He shivered a little, closed his eyes, remembering, then opened them again.

"The street Apaches set upon us mitt shouts undt demandts undt zis pair, zey mooft as if zey'd braktist all zeir lifes for zis!"

Willamina smiled a little, remembering long hours with her granddaughter and her shirttail niece in the restored barn, Daciana's barn as it was known, a great round structure built beneath the overhang of a natural granite cave:  she'd taught her daughters there, she'd taught her sons there, and elsewhere,  she'd taught her granddaughters, her nieces, she'd taught the Ladies' Tea Society there.

"You could say that," Willamina agreed slowly, took a final sip of her coffee, pushed back from the table.

"So.  You're here in the Wild West.  What would you like to see?"

Hans' grin was quick, bright, boyish.

"I voot like to zee," he said, looking at Gracie and back to the Sheriff, and his accent disappeared entirely:

"The Lady Esther."

"We can do that!"

 

 Hans stopped dead on the boardwalk and honestly stared.

A long, tall, lean waisted lawman with an iron grey mustache regarded him with pale eyes:  hard eyes, cold eyes, eyes like the very heart of a mountain glacier:  within these eyes he saw humor, and a laugh that crept out the corners, and wrinkled his flesh, and the black-suited lawman with the brushed black Stetson and gleaming stovepipe boots thrust out his hand.

"Linn Keller," he said.  "Willamina is my mother."

"Mein Gott," Hans breathed.  "A cowboy!"

Linn laughed.  "I've been called worse!"  He looked at the Sheriff.  "I have the carriage."

"Thank you, dear," Willamina said in a tired old woman's voice, so convincing Hans looked at her in shock:  she laughed and so did he, and they boarded the gleaming carriage, settling into the tuck-and-roll upholstery, as Willamina's hired man eased off the brake and flipped the reins, and they clattered down the pavement toward the depot.

Hans marveled at this little town he'd heard so much about.

He'd had Gracie describe it, and her description came to life as they drove.

There, on the left, the funeral parlor – it used to be taller, with a false front; beside it, the alley, then the Sheriff's office – a gleaming, polished-quartz structure with heavy, double glass doors, built on the same site as the original log structure – uphill from the funeral parlor, the Mercantile, modern now, with plate glass windows, with mowers and tillers and hand tools on display, and across the street, the library, and its display of ladies' period gowns from the 1880s, and a treadle sewing machine from the McKenna Dress Works.

He turned, gawping like a tourist:  there, the little whitewashed schoolhouse, the town park, the little whitewashed church – he peered into the darkening shadow, trying to make out bullet gouges in the bell tower ceiling.

They drove on down the street, past the bank, past the firehouse, broader and more modern than the original tall, narrow horse house; they turned beside the firehouse and were at the depot, and chuffing quietly, breathing in the dusk like a great and powerful iron beast, The Lady Esther waited patiently on steel rails.

Hans vaulted happily from the carriage, reached up and swung Gracie down:  he took her hand like it was delicate bone china, walked slowly, reverently towards the locomotive, his eyes wide, feeling the heat from her boiler, staring at the spray of black-ribbon-tied roses on the side of the cab, and the letters beneath – gold leaf, with black shadowing –

"The Lady Esther," he whispered aloud, and nodded.

"Would you like to climb up, stand in the cab?"  Willamina offered, and Hans shook his head, smiled.

"Nein, mein Sheriff," he said gently, then laughed and looked up at her sand dome, her steam dome, the diamond stack breathing invisibly into the darkening night.

He turned and laughed a little uncertainly.

"Ironic, isn't it," he said thoughtfully, his accent just flavoring his words, but only just.

"Ironic ... I fly beyond Mach mit impunity, I am going to fly –"

He looked at Marnie, who gave him a warning shake of the head.

"I am going to fly on Mars," he amended, "but I would be ... intimidated ... to set foot ..."

He nodded at the cab, at the grey-haired old man in overalls and the hickory stripe cap leaning casually out the window, looking down at his guests.

"I vouldt be intimidated to set foot in there."

 

They drove back, past the Silver Jewel and on up the street and out of town but a little ways, to the Sheriff's house:  The Bear Killer drowsed on the front porch, at least until they drove up, until the door opened and a man stood silhouetted, and the smell of baking bread rolled out to greet them.

They sat around Willamina's kitchen table and laughed and talked and drank tea and ate fresh from the oven sourdough with hand churned butter, and Hans pressed the Sheriff for tales of her pale eyed ancestor, that lean old lawman with the iron grey mustache, and Willamina laughed and told him tales of the grand old man, and finally conversation sagged, and Marnie looked across the table and her voice grew serious.

"Grandma," she said, and her voice was almost that of a little girl, "this is probably the last time I'll see you."
"I know," Willamina whispered, her throat dry.

"I mean ... ever."

Willamina nodded.

"I know ... a century and more ago ... covered wagons and oxen and all that, and people left all they knew and everyone they knew and they went into a distant land and faced death and that's what we'll be doing but Grandma ..."

Marnie swallowed, blinked, bit her bottom lip.

"Grandma, I'm a little scared."

Willamina smiled gently, nodded.

"If you weren't a little scared," she said frankly, "you'd be a little nuts."

Marnie laughed, surprised, Gracie laughing with her.

"I think we're all kind of nuts, running off to another whole planet!"  Gracie declared firmly.

"Weight will be at a premium," Willamina sighed.  "Otherwise I'd rig you with a full gunbelt and ten thousand rounds of ammunition, a rifle and shotgun and –"

She stopped, frowned.

"But I suppose you'll be issued what you need.  That, or you'll make it once you get there."

"You wouldn't believe what we can 3-D print nowadays, Grandma!"

Willamina nodded.  "It would cost a young fortune to freight one pound of goods from here to there."

"Zere vill be communication," Hans said slowly, "but iss not the same."

"No it's not," Gracie agreed, picking up her tea, taking a sip, the smiling.  "I think tea is something I will really, really miss!"

"So tell me, Sheriff," Hans said, breaking the spell, "tell me something of your own career.  Your granddaughter tells me you are a most effective Sheriff."

"Oh she does, does she?"  Willamina smiled, looking at her granddaughter and leaning back a little.  "Well, there was the time, back in Chauncey ..."

 

It was well that they had two days' leave.

Hans and Gracie and Marnie went back to Houston, and then to Canaveral, with memories of actually riding the steam train, of watching the Sheriff's son buck out an Appaloosa stallion, of sleeping in a log home well older than all their years added together.

Hans insisted on formally asking the eldest Maxwell for the honor of his permission, to ask Gracie for her hand in marriage:  he'd shaken hands with a blue-eyed Kentucky moonshiner, and they'd toasted the upcoming marital union with something that went down like Mama's milk and blew the socks right off his feet, and when Hauptmann Hans Merckel lay back on his launch couch and took his first long breath of the anesthetic gas that would prepare him for stasis, he smiled a little, for he'd gotten to wear a gunbelt and handle a pair of revolvers worn by a lean old lawman with an iron grey mustache.

Just before his eyes closed, he wondered drowsily about that white wolf he'd seen outside the Sheriff's house, and he made a mental note to ask his wife sometime about it, and then his eyes closed and he did not wake up until a slender man with a caduceus embossed on his skinsuit removed the oxygen mask from the Hauptmann's face and said, "Wake up, Hauptmann.  You're a Martian now!"

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I know what it is to bury a daughter, to bury a wife:  maybe that's why the Old Sheriff fell so desperately in love with the violet-eyed Bonnie McKenna and her little girl Sarah when he first saw them, why he did not hesitate to deck the crooked lawyer Slade on the boardwalk in front of the Silver Jewel Saloon.

Maybe that's why he taught them both how to shoot and why he especially taught Sarah the Rules of Knife Fighting, so eloquently demonstrated on the silver screen a century and more later, and maybe – just maybe – that's why Sarah grew up to try so desperately to make her pale eyed father proud of her.

Sometimes in a child's life there is a seminal event that starts their career choice.

This might have been Sarah's.

 

18.  THROUGH A CHILD'S EYES

 

Sarah Lynne McKenna, a pale eyed child of the mountains, was later in life known as the Black Agent, as Sister Mercurius, as one of the two schoolmarms in their little whitewashed schoolhouse.

Before she was the investigating arm of the Firelands District Court, before she was Miz Sarah, before she was the founder of the Faceless Sisters, known also as the White Nuns, she was just Sarah, a waif, an orphan, a scared little girl with sad eyes and a shy disposition.

Her life changed – all lives change, but hers changed suddenly, radically:  she went from orphan to beloved daughter, she went from waif to a scrubbed-clean and well-dressed child, she went from nearly starving to well-fed – and now, as her new Mama pressed her lips together and shoved the ends of two pianos together, forming a protective triangle, Sarah's arm tightened around her rag doll and her other hand gripped Dawg's thick, curly hair, and the big, scarred, stub-tailed canine leaned companionably against her.

Dawg smelled considerably better than he had.

Sarah insisted on giving her favorite dog in all the world, a bath: she'd dumped most of her Mama's bath salts in the steaming tub, she'd somehow managed to convince this veteran of many battles into the tub, he'd closed his eyes in – pleasure?  Patient tolerance? – as her pink young fingers scrubbed through his fur, working suds into his fur, scrubbing accumulation from his underlying hide.

He'd decided the nice warm bath felt pretty good to his old bones, and he'd not objected when Sarah giggled and piled soap suds on his wet black head like a crown.

He'd even tolerated the bright red ribbon Sarah tied around his neck, at least until he could work a paw under it, then his lower jaw, and reduced it to ragged scrap just before Bonnie McKenna bade her daughter to hide between the back-to-back saloon pianos, then shoved the ends together, trapping her little girl in their protective walls.

Sarah's bottom lip pooched out in disappointment.

"Dawg," she said in a small voice, "I wish I could play the piano!"

Dawg's mouth was open a little, his pink tongue run out a little, panting.

"I'm glad you're here," Sarah whispered, and Dawg heard the stress in her young voice:  he turned his head, gave her a companionable lick.

Gunshots – yells, the sound of horses – Dawg came to his feet, hair bristling down his spine:  Bonnie glanced quickly into the shelter and said "Dawg, protect," and Dawg's jaws snapped as he bit off a deep "Rrowf!"

Sarah drew back, eyes big, until her shoulders just touched the wall at her back, the she flinched away:  a child cannot remain long affrighted when there is something to tease her curiosity, and she saw her Mama's eyes widen as she felt boot heels, hard and powerful, shiver the floor through the soles of her patent leather slippers.

Sarah's chest tightened and she drew her arms up protectively in front of her, the rag doll trapped in the bend of her elbow, but forgotten:  she knew the voice she heard, she knew the harsh and demanding tone, she knew the menace, the threat, and she saw her Mama shrink, and then she saw her Mama glance at her and she saw her Mama change.

Sarah was a curious child and Sarah was an intelligent child and Sarah might not know her letters nor how to read, but Sarah read (or tried to read) anything she could get her hands on, and she'd stared long at the copperplate print of a woman, tall and lean and beautiful, long curled hair and a gleaming helmet on her head: she carried a shield in one hand, a long spear in the other:  Athena, the letters at the base of the statue said, and her Mama explained this was a warrior-goddess who kept ancient Greece safe.

Sarah remembered she'd blinked, for she was a little confused.

Her Mama kept her safe.

She'd up from the page, looked at her Mama, and her Mama didn't look a thing like this woman-statue in the book.

Sarah looked out between the ends of the piano and she saw her Mama and her Mama was different.

Her Mama wasn't wearing a bronze helmet, but her hair was carefully styled and ornately atop her head, it was clean and it shone in the lamplight.

Sarah's breath caught in her throat and she stepped forward as far as she could go, at least until Dawg flowed in between her and the gap in the pianos: she could feel more than hear the deep, powerful rumble in the aging canine's big chest, but she wanted to see, she came up on her toes, she watched, wide-eyed as her Mama went from shrinking with fright, the way she'd done upstairs when she was badly put upon – no, that was not her Mama now – her Mama looked at her and she became like that woman in the book, she set her jaw and she straightened her spine and she looked at someone Sarah couldn't see and Sarah heard her Mama's voice tighten and her Mama said in a loud and commanding voice, "YOU LEAVE US ALONE!" and Sarah saw her Mama pull a big revolver from somewhere and Sarah saw her Mama's thumb lay over that stand-up percussion hammer and ear it back and Sarah saw the cylinder roll around and Sarah knew it was going to get really loud and Sarah clapped her hands over Dawg's ears and pressed hard and squeezed her eyes shut against the concussion she knew was coming and she felt more than heard the Army Colt cough deep in its machined steel throat and she heard the loud and flat-sounding BOOM and then another BOOM and her Mama's angry voice and BOOM and she bent down on top of Dawg and whimpered a little but she kept her hands on Dawg's ears because she didn't want his ears hurt by the noise and she felt footsteps and she opened her squeezed-shut eyes and looked just in time to see her Mama's skirt disappear and she felt her Mama's footsteps light and quick and BOOM and she heard men yelling and horses scream and the tortured tocsin of the Irish Brigade's shiny steam machine's whistle as it wailed past the Silver Jewel and she heard her Mama's voice way far away yelling "YOU CAN'T HAVE US!" and BOOOOOM again and Sarah squeezed her eyes shut and sat down and found her rag doll and she hugged it to her and fell over on her side and curled up and she heard Dawg give one loud ROWF! and then he laid down half on top of her and she shivered a little and then she relaxed a little, just a little, because he was warm and he was solid and she felt him breathe and she kept her eyes shut and she shivered a little and Dawg got up and she felt his cold nose and then she felt him snuffing at her jaw and he licked her chin and she felt the pianos being pulled apart and she opened her eyes as Dawg got up and her Mama was there and Sarah let go of her rag doll and she hugged her Mama and her Mama hugged her and Sarah giggled because she was her Mama again and she didn't look a thing like that woman in the book.

She'd looked an awful lot like Athena a minute ago, but not now.

Sarah hugged her Mama and she felt Dawg nose her leg and through her child's eyes she saw everything would be okay now.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Something always comes before.

Well remembered is the pale eyed Captain's desperate ride to warn of the imminent attack, riding despite his injuries.

Until now we only had his account; we look at a small part of it through another set of eyes, and perhaps now we have a better idea why their sky pilot was in the bell tower with a Sharps instead of hiding in a closet, on his knees, shivering and mumbling over an open but unseen book.

 

19.  MINISTRY

Good Ames steel bit into the sod.

Men grunted and sweated, complained and swore: at one time they might have bridled their tongues.

Earlier in this damned War, they might've moderated their language and glanced uncomfortably at the man who labored with them, muttered some beg-your-pardon, but not now, not this long into the conflict.

No, the good Chaplain was one of them:  he shared their same poor rations, he shivered under their same issue blankets, he marched in their ranks and dug in the dirt the same as they, whether to throw up breastworks, to dig a latrine, or as the did today, dug holes for the dead.

He was one of them and they respected him for it.

There was a shout, a shot, the sound of galloping hooves:  one head, then another, rose, turned.

The men were all veteran fighters by now, blooded and bloodied; all had lost friends and fellows, boon companions and blanket-mates: they'd been sent here, here where no attack was expected, here where the grey-coat enemy would surely not attack.

Not here, not for a while, at least; the men needed a respite, and they'd allowed themselves to relax, but the single musket shot brought them all back into a vibrating state of awareness.

Parson Belden straightened, leaned on his shovel, wiped sweat off his forehead with a kerchief that used to be a bedsheet, an eternity agone: he blinked, wiped his eyes and his eyebrows, forestalling the saltwater that was wont to cascade and sear his eyeballs.

He saw a chestnut mare, a good looking horse, rear its head away from the sentry's grasping hand, dance to the side, and he saw a bloody-sided figure laying over the horse's neck, arms limp.

"Dear God," the boy to his left swore.   "It's the Captain!"

Parson Belden stabbed his shovel into the dirt he'd excavated and leaned forward into a run.

Parson Belden was a noted runner, fleet of foot since earliest youth: he ran swiftly, easily, skimming over the rough ground, and he came pounding up to the command tent just as the rider more poured off the horse than fell from her:  he saw the commanding officer swat the tent flap back, advancing with a firm, assured step, surprise and then recognition on his bewhiskered face, and the Parson saw the bugler, nearest the fallen man, drop to his knees, lower his ear to the man's lips, and the Parson saw the fallen man's hand raise up, seize the bugler's blouse:  he saw the knuckles whiten, he saw the bugler's eyes widen, he saw the hand fall away and then men abandoned shovels and whatever else they might've been occupied with, and sprinted for the neat tipis of stacked muskets.

The bugler's lungs were young and powerful, his lip was well practiced, and he turned a little as the commanding notes of "Assembly" shivered out across the encampment.

 

Parson Belden stood behind the well crafted pulpit and looked out over the empty church, smiling a little.

It had been years since he'd worn Union blue, since he'd marched and ducked as musket balls ripped through the air, since he'd been shoulder to shoulder with good men and true: now, two decades and more later, he'd come West, he'd been churched in the mountains, in a little community he'd never heard of, a town of no great size, a town near the Cripple Creek gold strike.

Firelands, it was called, and he smiled a little, for this was the least likely place he could think of to be associated with a conflagration, unless maybe a seaport would be even less likely.

Shining mountains surrounded them; it took him a year to get used to the high country, but he'd stayed, he'd worked side by side the same as he'd labored with his fellow soldiers, and was respected for the same reason.

He'd known clergy who'd stood back and let others labor, preaching on Sunday but living a poor example: no, when there was wood to be cut, his were the hands on the bucksaw or the ax, setting the wedge and swinging the sledge: if a barn was to be built, he was there, though ever since those long, lean Kentucky men set up operation on the mountain, most of the woodworking was done by these skilled craftsmen: the Parson knew men like that, quiet mountaineers who listened much and said little, men whose keen blue eyes were on him listening to his every word as he spoke on Sunday, men who seldom smiled, save with those penetrating eyes, and when the Parson was presented with a jug of something that smelled of distilled fruit, something that went down like Mama's milk and blowed the socks right off his feet, he knew he'd been accepted by them as well.

This gave him a deep satisfaction, for trust is not easily earned, especially by mountain folk, and these quiet, clannish folk had come West from their own mountains, and it was only natural that they sought out these granite mountains for their new home.

A set of hands descended on his shoulders, he smelled his wife's soap-and-sunshine:  she rubbed his shoulders, then began to knead his neck, where the cords were tight, and he leaned his head a little to the side and groaned.

"You're remembering again," she murmured, and he nodded and gave a quiet "mmmm" of agreement.

"You get so tense when you remember."  Her voice was gentle, understanding.  "I thought you might.  You were restless in your sleep."

"Mm-hmm."

"You were remembering when the Captain rode in and you feared for his life."

He nodded again, eyes closed, letting her massaging hands work the tension out of his shoulders.

She was right, he realized:  he'd tensed up more than he'd realized. 

He always did, when he remembered.

"You'll be going out to Bob Parsons today."

He smiled, nodded:  Bob Parsons ran the mercantile in Carbon Hill, and the man was crippled with a recent apoplexy: stubborn and hard headed as any, he insisted on working, though he moved slowly, dragging a bad leg that served as a stiff prop, working with one arm with the other straight down at his side.  The Parson took pains to visit every Wednesday, putting on an apron and stocking shelves, sweeping the store, working beside the man.

He knew the two of them would work in silence for a couple of hours, he knew Parsons would carefully not notice the two covered baskets the Parson would surreptitiously hand off to Mrs. Parsons, two meals' worth of his wife's preparation: he'd helped the man three times a week at first, until his sons could be summoned:  nowadays the Parsons family was come together again, and Parson Belden was able to see sons mend their youthful rifts with their father – the young always rebel, and young men always pull away, often with harsh words, and these had, until they came home and realized their words may have contributed to their father's distress, realized the consequence of their actions, their words, could be the crippling of what had been a strong and capable man:  now his sons and their wives all made the Mercantile their own, and the Parson was no longer needed to help keep their business alive, but still he went, and he stocked shelves and swept the store, and afterward, he'd tell his parishioner he was tired and needed to set down, and only then would the prideful proprietor deign to rest from his labors, and they would sit, and eat, the Parson eating with the same slowness as his old friend.

He worked shoulder to shoulder with the man, and he listened.

When the reavers came to town, he'd spoken from the pulpit and spoke words to strengthen the spirit and harden the resolve: men and women alike were resolved to war, for this was their home, and they'd labored to prepare Firelands to receive deadly attack: the Parson well remembered the example of a Revolutionary War parson who delivered a fiery sermon against the red-coated oppressors, and at the height of his sermon, stripped off his black clerical robe to reveal the uniform of a Continental soldier, who raised his hand in blessing, and then took up his musket and marched from the church to join his fellows in the fight.

Parson Belden climbed into the bell tower with a Sharps rifle, climbed up with the Sheriff's pale eyed son, feeling the same fire in his blood he'd felt as a young man: he knew what it was to stand in ranks with musket in hand, he knew what it was to fight for his very life: this man of God dropped the breechblock of his octagon barrel rifle and ran in a shining brass panatela and thought of his wife, young and beautiful, and her tidy kitchen, and he thought of every face he looked at on Sunday morning, and he closed the rifle's breech and waited, for he too was fighting for his home and for his family, and he knew from this rifleman's perch he could make very good account of himself.

He'd split wood with others in his congregation, he'd plied a froe and split shake shingles and handed bundles of shakes up a ladder to the boys roofing their father's barn, he'd turned a hand to shoveling manure, or patching harness, and always he listened:  it was an era when a man was strong and unsmiling in the public eye, and men confided in a trusted few, and the Parson was one such.

It might have been splitting wood and it might have been shoveling second hand horse feed, it might have been stacking cans of peaches and swinging a brush broom, but always he listened, and his replies were well considered and prayerful, and he was respected because his hands were callused and his ear was open and ready to listen.

In time of war, or in time of peace, it's what he did.

It was his ministry.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

×

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use.