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October 22: Flash Fiction Challenge

An eerie glow backlit the clouds like copper. Appropriate, considering I live in Copper Country. The lighting reminded me of the way Midwestern clouds turn a greenish hue before spawning tornadoes. Due to the lingering scraps of maple and oak leaves, all orange and yellow, the veil of clouds that hid the sun took on an autumn glow.

Eerie? Maybe because it was unusual. Difference frightens us. It’s a primal urge, most. likely, a reaction for heightened vigilance. Those familiar with PTSD call it “lizard brain.” The amygdala can get hijacked, creating an intense emotional reaction. Eerie can transform to terrifying. And yet, some thrill-seekers welcome the response.

I used to love spooky tales when I was a kid. The western tradition adds its own flavor to the human tradition of such scary stories. Around a ranch campfire you’d hear frightening tales about tommy knockers in lost mines, monstrous jackalopes, or cowboys doomed to push the devil’s herd for eternity.

I think what I liked most about spooky tales from a region was learning about that place. Once I discovered historical fiction, I needed ghost stories less and less. Yet, I keep my ear open for eerie tales or phenomenon. There’s something thrilling yet about raised goosebumps. Maybe I also like a bit of mystery in my surroundings, too.

I’m going to end our western themes with this last prompt. Like the others, it’s not genre related but simply born of my buckaroo roots as the 2020 Flash Fiction Rodeo winds down. Kerry, Colleen, Marsha, and Goldie aren’t through with you all yet, and I have one more installment for TUFF. We’ll be working with our judges to pick a winner in each category.

Look for announcements of each winner:

  • November 3: Folk Tale or Fable
  • November 10: Double Ennead Syllabic Poetry
  • November 17: Git Along an’ Start Writin’
  • November 24: Wanted Alive
  • December 1: TUFF Love

Last week was one that buried me, and yet it had rich soil — I attended my first virtual writing conference for Women Writing the West. Conferences are a great way to meet agents and find out from industry representatives the trends impacting publishing. The workshops were high quality and I met many new author friends. Even got to see Ann Edall-Robson who is now the blog coordinator for WWW.

I’m on the home stretch of completing my shitty first draft (SFD). Emphasis on the “s.” Ah, but that is why we revise. I tried to be a plantser as I wrote but discovered that my pantsing tendencies do not serve me as well as I thought. At the end, I’m scrambling to use my plotting tools, realizing I need to write another shitty second draft before I can really get into the meat of revision. Enter NaNoWriMo at the perfect time.

My final goal is to have a decent revised thesis by March, and a polished (edited) version by mid-April. Wish me luck! My advisor has yet to say if she thinks I can pull it off. But this is my story, and I’m going to give it my best shot.

Forgive my absence last week. I did speak of the possibility and it’s not my intent to ignore any of you! It’s a rough month with not enough time, but it will pass. I appreciate those of you making rounds to comment on stories, welcoming everyone to the campfire at Carrot Ranch.

Now, let’s tell some spooky tales!

October 22, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a spooky tale told around a campfire. It doesn’t have to include the campfire; it can be the tale. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by October 26, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

The Lady of Silver Mountain Mine by Charli Mills

“Once, an Englishman bought Silver Mountain Mine.” Jeb’s bushy brows scowled at each buckaroo around the campfire.

Slim smirked. “I’m quivering in my boots.”

Jeb spoke quietly. “Laugh it up, but this is the story of the vaquero woman who butchered his bones.”

Jan shrugged. “She was probably justified.”

“She’s. Still. Here.”

A ghostly figure emerged from the pines carrying a knife. Buckaroos scattered, hollering.

Myrtle, the camp-cook, wondered what got into her crew. First, the flour sack dumped over her head, then she found a rusty butcher-knife on the trail, now everyone vanished.

“That’s mine,” a voice hissed.

🥕🥕🥕

October 15: Flash Fiction Challenge

My exuberance spills over, and birdseed scatters all over my back porch. I try to calm my shaking hands, remind myself to slow down and breathe. It’s a monsther of a month (thank you, D. for that word coinage), and this week is the busiest. Today, the Women Writing the West conference began online.

Earlier, I sat on my purple meditation pillow in the Unicorn Room for a three-hour critique with two authors and an agent. It always surprises me when so few writers take a chance — to enter a contest, to submit to a literary journal, or to sign up for a writing critique at a conference.

You gotta do the things that scare you.

Last night I confessed to my professor that terror frizzes my nerves every time I sat down to write my thesis. I recognized that any previous distractions or procrastination held these jumpy emotions. Like Anne Lamott hunting mice, I grabbed at the tails to listen to their squeaks, Yes, I know, I’m supposed to silence them, but I wanted to know THE fear. The one all the rest of the fears build upon.

You know what that mouse said? Beneath it all, I fear those I love, those who believe in me, those who cheer me on are going to find out that my writing really and truly sucks. That I can’t do it.

Sounds a lot like Imposter Syndrome and People Pleasing had a child. Yet, Nothing was beneath it. I had caught the last mouse. I pinched its tail, faced it, and tossed it in the jar with the rest of the squeakers. You can do this exercise, too. I’ll let Anne Lamott explain:

“I happened to mention this to a hypnotist I saw many years ago, and he looked at me very nicely. At first I thought he was feeling around on the floor for the silent alarm button, but then he gave me the following exercise, which I still use to this day. Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won’t do what they want—won’t give them more money, won’t be more successful, won’t see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft.”

~ Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Even with that fear, I faced the three-hour critique because I’ve learned to want that feedback for my process. I left with a list of action items, a better understanding of what agents want, and two pieces of satisfaction. First, every critique the agent offered the two other writers, I had noted, too. That says a lot about what I’m learning with my MFA coursework. Second, the agent noticed and complimented my voice and showed interest in the work.

That mouse was wrong. I don’t suck and I won’t disappoint you.

Gotta run! This week we have chores to do, which is foundational to every ranch, and I’m sure, is universal. I hope you dare to enter contests that unnerve you and seek to silence your head mice.

October 15, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about chores. It doesn’t have to be a western ranch chore; it can be any routine task. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by October 20, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

Blueberries by Charli Mills

Blueberries spilled to the ground. “Like this, Kev.” Fran righted the bucket, setting it between the toddler’s bare feet. She knelt behind him, gently covering his hands with hers to pull fat, round berries from bushy strands. It was a bit like milking a cow, she mused. Kev pulled berries on his own, squishing a few into crimson juice. She smiled at her nephew and knelt to pick enough blueberries to make a pie. She didn’t mind babysitting his parents could vacation. Maybe country life would stall the creep of urban shadows. Her sister never did like the farm.

🥕🥕🥕

October 8: Flash Fiction Challenge

An early memory is getting a pair of little white kid gloves to wear at San Benito County Rodeo. Maybe they were cotton. But in my memory, they linger as fine kid leather. Not from the hide of Kid or a young person, but from the hide of a young goat. Why were goats involved in buckaroo culture? I have no idea. I tackled them, hog-tied them, licked them (unintentionally, I swear), and apparently, I wore their hide on my hands. Well, we could pick that apart as perhaps an unusual childhood. But authentically buckaroo.

California is a region of assimilation. I can only imagine what a place it must have been under the stewardship of the many and varied tribes that lived there for thousands of years before the rest of the world finding out about gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Did you know that Indigenous people practiced fire management in California? I like to think of buckaroo traditions stemming from the rancho culture that arrived with the missionaries and their Spanish horses and cattle. People whose ancestors managed mountains and forests and coasts took to horses with a special kind of wisdom.

They say buckaroos evolved out of the vaquero culture, but they fail to say how much earlier influence came from the original Native Californians. With the Gold Rush, people from around the world flooded into California. Among them, two sets of Basque 3rd-great grandparents. They ranched a small place near Paicines and later ran the hotel in Tres Pinos. Through marriages and descendants, I can claim Basque, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Brazilian, Flemish, and Dane. Talk about the Californian melting pot. Each one of those heritages came under the direct influence of the vaqueros.

And I had the kid gloves to prove it. Well, maybe not the gloves, but the early gear we used spoke of our heritage. My grandfather was a rawhider, and I learned the basics. I know how to make rawhide, string it, and braid it. We carried riatas (braided ropes) and rode with bosals to keep a horse from tossing its head. We had hefty horns on our beautifully tooled saddles because we roped cattle in a certain style. My grandfather was a figure-eight roping champion at this same rodeo grounds where I once won my own championship (okay, it was just a goat, but I won a trophy). This video gives you a glimpse of the style of roping and the land where I was born as a fifth-generation Californian

If you want to read an insightful essay about the buckaroo culture I come from, the Library of Congress recorded a bit of it here.

Our own Flash Fiction Rodeo is unfolding with a new event every Tuesday. Kerry E.B. Black is currently hosting Fables and Tall Tales. Colleen Chesebro is up next, and her contest is the equivalent of the figure-eight loop to syllabic poets. Kid and Pal hit the Dusty Trail last week, and I took over the Saddle Up Saloon to host TUFF, a progressive flash fiction contest. Part Two posts early Monday morning and offers the first twist to the sequence of word count reductions.

I’m going to do my best to keep up with all of you taking the weekly challenges, but I may be eyebrows deep in my thesis. The complete first draft is due by the end of the month, and then I’ll be using NaNoWriMo to revise it. That might sound like crazy-talk, but I do have a strategy in mind! My first draft is a mess. I want to use November to make it more cohesive and streamlined so that when I go into thesis revisions with my professor and peers, I have a better working manuscript. On a side note — Danni is the daughter of a Basque buckaroo from Nevada. Her life was much different from my own, but I wanted to use a culture I’m familiar with, and when writing about the West, I reached into my own back pocket. With kid gloves, of course.

October 8, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes kid gloves. A prop in the hands of a character should further the story. Why the gloves? Who is that in the photo, and did he steal Kids’ gloves (of the Kid and Pal duo)? Consider different uses of the phrase, too. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by October 6, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

Dressed and Ready by Charli Mills

Annabelle’s mother braided her hair so tight her eyes tugged at the corners. “Ma,” she wailed, “I won’t be able to see.”

“Get hair in your eyes, young lady, and you won’t see to throw your loop.” Ma was all business about rodeo events.

Already Annabelle had on her boots, jeans, frilled shirt, turquoise vest, and a hot-pink scarf with a concho slide. Ma zipped up the back leg on each side of her navy blue shotgun chaps and tightened the belt. Her brand-new kid gloves would protect her hands.

All this for a chance to rope a calf.

October 1: Flash Fiction Challenge

The first full moon of the month rises — the Harvest Moon. Yet my garden joyfully continues to bloom with French marigolds, zinnias, snapdragons, and a fall profusion of nasturtium. My tea rose put out one more scarlet red bloom, and my delphinium surprised me with a third unfolding of purple flowers! My sweet william gave a half-hearted go at it, too, and my peony bushes turned russet like the maple trees. Two lemon queens out of nine yet stand, dropping their heads downward. I can’t seem to eat enough rosemary, picking its freshness in the crisp air daily.

If this is the Harvest Moon, then time to dig the last of the carrots, potatoes and claim my squash.

Further up Quincy Hill from Roberts Street, the copper-bearing ridge that forms the spine of the Keweenaw Peninsula has experienced harder frosts. At the kids’ homestead, they harvested 250 pounds or rosy red potatoes and enough butternut to last all winter. My SIL built a cold storage un their cellar to store it all. We anticipate a hog raised by friends along the Chequomegan Bay side of Lake Superior to fill our two freezers. Winter is coming, and I heard rumor of snow mixed with today’s rain up higher. An inch is coming, they say. The first snow.

Across Roberts Street, a neighbor’s maple blazes so brightly it’s practically neon orange. I love the transformative feel of this season. And we have reached a transformation at Carrot Ranch, too! Today, under the light of the first full moon, we officially launch the Rodeo Season!

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Rodeos are intended to be an opportunity for the greater writing community to hone and highlight their craft skills. It’s also a fun time to offer something different from the weekly challenges. However, like snow and autumn leaves still on the branches, both will happen simultaneously. We will have a series of Rodeo Contests and weekly challenges. By the time NaNoWriMo starts, you will be full of seeds to harvest into a longer work, if that’s your intent. A few of you might walk away with a swagger and $25 cash. All of you will have had an unexpected experience because I predict, you have no idea what these Rodeo Leaders have in store for you!

Most,ly, I hope you have fun and stretch yourselves as writers. Be brave. Be compassionate, yourself included. No one ever said literary art was easy. But I promise you — it is worth your effort! You get to develop your voice, express imagination and expand your creativity. All among a community.

Speaking of stretching, I’m stretched thin. It’s just a season. An MFA season. I appreciate all the support and understanding and know that I greatly value the community at Carrot Ranch. My reason for existing as an author is to be the kind of literary citizen who engaged my mind and heart and imagination over the years. Sure, I could go away and write, but the silence would be defining. My voice would weaken, and I would miss yours. I’m in this with other writers, and I’m committed to making literary art a light in dark times. I’m dedicated to finding my best expression to give voice to women on the fringes and frontiers. I want to help you be your literary best for whatever purpose you have.

So, let’s get this rodeo started!

Bull riding runs in my family. My great-grandfather rode bulls, my grandfather did, and so did my dad. I never rode a full-grown bull, but I did take down a billy goat in the same rodeo arena where my kin-buckaroos made eight-second rides. Here’s the thing to keep in mind with eight seconds. It’s a lot like a fast 99-word draft. You can’t write at that speed and stay in the saddle without some skill. I think everyone is capable of making a go. In fact, I have held literary outreach, where I make attendees write 99 words in five minutes. When someone says impossible, I just tell them time is ticking. Most achieve it. But some clearly make a brilliant ride in eight seconds.

That’s how TUFF begins. TUFF stands for The Ultimate Flash Fiction. We’ve been discussing it at the Saloon and over at D.’s ShiftnShake, where she schools us on the tool and craft. You take all your craft skills and hit the keys like you were riding a bull for eight seconds. Some call it the “hot pen” method of writing when you press the ink to the paper and don’t let up for the duration. Every writer needs to grow comfortable with drafting. It’s a vital part of art where the brain editor is told to sit down in the stands, shut up, and watch the ride. Like bull riders, some writers are addicted to the rush of drafting.

Ah, yes. And that’s why what follows next is revision. TUFF takes a writer from a fast draft to a reduction in words, forcing the writer to cut and think and get creative with editing (yes, that stuffy old brain editor can be creative, too). In the end, the writer gets to rebuild that draft. The final polished story should look, read, and feel different from that first wild write. TUFF judges are looking for the courage to submit a fast draft, the ability to revise through reduction, and will expect a polished and transformed final story.

TUFF takes place on MONDAYS here at the Ranch at the Saddle Up Saloon. Kid and Pal are taking a trail ride to enjoy the fall foliage and beans over a campfire. I’ll be hosting TUFF every Monday — October 5, 12, 19, and 26. It’s a progressive contest, and all four parts will be turned in the last week of the Rodeo.

And expect western themes throughout October!

It’s my delight to introduce you to our esteemed 2020 Rodeo Leaders who all agreed that the Rodeo would be held out in the Wild, Wild West. Each leader will host their contest on their home turf and Carrot Ranch will reblog their contest post here so you can easily find where to go next. Rodeo contests will release every TUESDAY while our Ranch Columnists take a break with Kid and Pal.

WELCOME TO THE SHOW! (We’ll let Houston get us pumped up for the 2020 Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Rodeo):

First out of the gate, writing speculative fiction from a fog-enshrined river and overstuffed little house, Kerry E.B. Black! Join her at the Allusionary Assembly on Tuesday, October 6 to have fun with folklore and fables, a staple of storytelling around campfires.

Next up, inventing new forms from the West, Prose-Metrist, Novelist, & Word Witch, Colleen Chesebro has a challenge unlike any other. She created a double ennead syllabic poetry form for the Ranch! If it sounds complicated, hold onto your hats, buckaroos — you’ll be learning the ropes as Colleen puts you through the paces on Tuesday, October 13.

That’s not all, folks! We have Marsha Ingrao, a teacher and educational consultant of twenty-five years, to git us movin’ along. She’s inspired the little doggies from the 2020 Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Rodeo Playlist. You can learn more at her Always Write blog to start writin’ Monday, October 20.

Finally, wrapping up the contest entries is a treasure of a flash fiction writer by night and paper pusher by day, Sam “Goldie”  Kirk. Goldie combine a photo and phrase prompt, so don’t miss your last chance to enter the Rodeo on Tuesday, October 27. We will end on a golden note!

I want to thank our Leaders for stepping up to develop and host a contest on their blog. Kerry, Colleen, Marsha, and Goldie have shared their enthusiasm and creativity to bring you all a fun and challenging Flash Fiction Rodeo. I greatly appreciate their willingness to collaborate. Each will have their own set of rules and criteria to guide their hand-picked judges. You will find out more as each contest unfolds. Pay close attention to the rules and turn in your best work.

There are no fees to enter. You may enter one submission per contest. Judges will pick one winner in each contest for a $25 top prize (announcement dates vary between contests). The top entries will be be published on a permanent page at Carrot Ranch under the 2020 Rodeo Collection and we ask that you refrain from posting your entry on your blog or in social media until after the judging period (we judge entries blind).

In the meantime, challenges continue. Encourage each other in the comments, welcome new writers, and try to visit three sites to share the blog-love. Thank you for a fabulous community!

October 1, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that happens on the dusty trail. It can take place anywhere. Who is your character, where are they going, and why? Bonus points if they meet up with Kid and Pal from D. Avery’s Ranch Yarns and Saddle Up Saloon (they hit the trail so TUFF could take over the saloon). Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by October 6, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

Outlaws on the Dusty Trail by Charli Mills

Frankie wiped her glass eye with the scarf she used to cover her face.

“Gotta mask up, Bert,” she told her horse (who wasn’t listening). “Dang dust.”

The dry storm blew like a devil whirling across the flats. Ahead, Frankie made out the outline of riders that looked to her one eye like two outlaws. They were wearin’ masks, too! She tightened the rains and thought about lunging old Bert to keep the mail safe (Bert had no run left in him).

“Hey, it’s Frankie.”

Blowing dust and relief, she realized it were jist her friends, Kid and Pal.

September 24: Flash Fiction Challenge

I’m in need of a munchy snack, so I stop at the Keweenaw Co-op. The drill is familiar — mask up in the car, cross the street, enter with an eye for proximity to others, wash hands, and shop the one-way aisles. I notice a woman fussing with her mask and she breezes past the sink without stopping. I stop and wash. She blows past me again, searching for some elusive item. An employee calls her attention and reminds her to wash her hands. A year ago, I would not have guessed that businesses would be policing hand-washing as if society had reverted back to kindergarten. But here we are and I want chips.

To access the chip aisle I have to go down one of two other aisles and back up the middle to find the Kettles. The Ranch-style stands out. Not only is it “ranch” but the bag is also turquoise. I accept the signs that this is my bag of chips. Next, I grab a fresh pear and cheese curds imported from Wisconsin. These days, that state is the wild west, complete with shootings in the street. My son and DIL live there and they assure me it’s tame where they are at.

Winter is coming and I’m about to be cloistered again.

Tossing my snacks into my backpack, I head to McLains. It’s McLain State Park, but locals call it McLains. I’m local, not sure I’m a local of anywhere, but like COVID, here I am. As a student, I have 2,666 words to write today so I take a seat on a metal picnic table at the edge of Lake Superior. It’s colder than in town 10 miles away on the Portage Canal that opens up past the breaker walls to my left. Birch, maple, and pines surround me, randomly dumping needles or leaves, reminding me why we call this season fall. I like to think that every time a maple drops a red leaf, somewhere in the southern hemisphere a blossom opens.

Chips are a snack for the anxious. Or so I read. Snacks that crunch are associated with stress-eating. I don’t feel stressed. Quite the opposite. My reward was to finish what needed doing with the wi-fi access so I could go out to the lake and write, away from digital and home distractions. I’m surrounded by trees and water. Fog is rolling in like mystical mists, and plovers are circling inches above the sloshing waves, piping as they fly. I think they could be snacking, too. Chips sounded good for the crunch but I think its excitement more than stress. I love the chance to office outside, to entwine nature’s outward beauty to my inner imaginings.

Turns out my pear is crunchy, too. Sweet as late summer, though. Pear and apple season is here. The fruit trees come to life on the Keweenaw with more varieties than a single store sells. My eldest and her husband have apple trees all over their 19-acre homestead, left-over from mining families. They harvested their squash — butternut and pumpkins. Mine is yet on the vine — two white mashed potato squash and a single butternut sheltered beneath a show of flashy cosmos. Further up the ridge, they’ve had numerous hard frosts. The temperature warmed but the fog I see indicates a clash with cold air.

Soon I’m past the chips and into the curds. My story is unfolding, solving a riddle of its own making. Despite the plotting and mapping, drafting still reveals surprises. I’m pulled into the flow and aware that it’s getting colder, windier, and that the waves are slapping instead of sloshing. The plovers are gone. It’s just me and the story. I’m cold, but keep writing until I get to the end. I’ve written over 3,000 words and now I realize it’s dark and I’m startled. The waves are crashing. Hastily, I gather my snacking remnants and computer, sling the bag on my back, and follow the path.

Though it’s dark, I can tell path from woods. My eyes adjust and I find my way. At the parking lot, I see only my car and it’s an eerie feeling to think I was so far into my story that the park closed without my knowing. I’m surprised a state park ranger didn’t boot me out of the day-use area. I’m glad for it, too or else I might not have made my discovery. Maybe it was the chips.

Before I go, I want to tell you that the Rodeo is coming. It’s a grouping of writing contests held throughout October with each one created and led by a different writer at the ranch. Our Rodeo Leaders this year are Colleen Chesebro, Sam “Goldie” Kirk, Kerry E.B. Black, and Marsha Ingrao. They have exciting plans to challenge writers. The Rodeo is a chance to do something different with the 99-word format and to stretch craft skills. I’ll also be hosting a four-part contest at the Saddle Up Saloon throughout October called TUFF. Next Thursday, we’ll release more details and kick off the season.

Kid and Pal plan to interview me at the Saddle Up Saloon next Monday (I hope they have hard cider on tap). Bill Engleson will post a Film Noir column on Tuesday, and after that our Carrot Ranch Columnists will take a rodeo break through November. Contests will launch every Tuesday in October, and we’ll announce winners week by week every Tuesday in November. TUFF will take place on Mondays in October and the winner announced November 30. I’d like to thank our columnists for the excellent posts they have shared here every Tuesday, offering a variety of topics. We will resume columns in December. Kid and Pal will be back to entertain and gather us in November. D. Avery has created a fun outlet for characters and writers alike. There’s nothing quite like her Ranch Yarns. I’m grateful to D., Bill, Anne, H., Ann, Sue, Norah, Sherri, and Ruchira for sharing their fine writing with all of us.

The Ranch is meant to be a community. A place where writers can gather and throw loops without any judgment on what kind of horse you ride. All genres, styles, experiences, and writers are welcome to craft a 99-word story each week. For me, its become literary anthropology. Our collections arrange different perspectives on a single topic to gather different voices for a collaborative expression. Every week, the collection surprises me and I realize creativity has no limits. That encourages me and I hope it encourages you, too. I want literary art to be something accessible so that we can read and write and discuss creative expression outside of formal settings and closed circles.

Writers who join in at Carrot Ranch are not under any obligations. You don’t have to show up weekly, although I enjoy the return visits and the consistency of a core group. If you blog, you can share links or pingbacks. If you just want to write for the collection you need only to submit through the form. You are welcome to read at your pleasure. We delight when you read and comment on the collection. But I am going to ask a favor of all of you in the community.

I’d like to create more inter-community engagement this Rodeo season. I’ve decided to keep the challenges and collections going weekly as I’ve noticed that many who enjoy the weekly challenges do not participate in the Rodeo. I will try both simultaneously. October is also going to be a tough month for me, keeping up with my thesis requirements. I will read everyone’s submission as I collect and arrange them, but I may fall behind on keeping up with comments. Would each of you who submit a story be willing to engage three other writers? Mostly, I don’t want anyone overlooked in the challenges, especially new writers. If some of our leaders — or lariats — would be willing to scan the comments for any missed writers, that would ease my mind, too. Thank you for being in community with me and making literary art a part of your life!

September 24, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about snacking. It can feature crunchy snacks or creamy one. Who is snacking on what and why? How can you make this a story? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 29, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

Busted at Midnight by Charli mills

The crumple of a candy-bar wrapper woke the house. The cat stretched and hopped over to the couch. The dog laid her head on the armrest, silently begging. Martha heard Steve plod down the hall. She quickly shoved the wrapper with the rest down the side of the couch cushions, picking up her geology textbook and hot pink highlighter.

“Still up?” he asked, stifling a yawn.

“Mmm,” she replied, reading tectonics.

The twins and their older sister ran past Steve. Clara, hands on her hips, asked, “Mama, did you get into our Halloween buckets again?”

Martha sighed and swallowed.

September 17: Flash Fiction Challenge

Ranch radio interrupted its regular programming schedule to deal with mice. First, it was the stripey mouse (aka The Camp Chipmunk), and then the mice squatting in my tea cupboard. Please accept my squealing apology for the lateness of the collection. I’ll offer you a story of mice.

Really, I should have gone camping over break, not the first two days of school. I even had two weeks, which I can hardly believe was that long. How did those days get compressed and shifted so quickly? My calendar bears the marks of numerous scribbles where camping had to be delayed for weather or other pressing issues. I covered my squash and tomatoes, winning an extension for my garden. At last clear blue skies, extra courgettes, and a date emerged.

I reasoned that I could “catch up” at school, and earnestly completed all my tasks from the last term and worked on my thesis plot, planning when I’d schedule my next submissions with my prof. Typically the first week back is a light load. I researched the properties belonging to Northwoods Nature Conservancy and made a date with my COVID buddy (we do outdoor activities together). Sunday night, I even set up my weekly schedule and planned my posts, of which this is not the one I planned. That’s when I realized I double-booked camping with 5 at the Mic.

As I stared at my calendar, I couldn’t understand how this was already the third Tuesday in September. Next, I realized I had a Zoom meeting with my spectacular Rodeo Leaders and that I was the one who asked to move it from Thursday to Tuesday! Groaning, I decided to delay 5 at the Mic and cancel Tuesday night by the Lake but stay as long as I could. Which I did, arriving home seven minutes late only to realize one leader forgot, two thought it was Wednesday, and the fourth had waited 15 minutes for me to show up, leaving as I got on. (I still think they are spectacular and patient with my scattered brain). We all connected off-Zoom and agreed to meet next week. Wait until they reveal their contests! You are all in for a wild ride in October with five contests.

And the mice? Well, first, it was the Northwoods mouse. He was stripey and adorable. As I set up my kitchen camp, he grew excited and galloped over everything I set out from tablecloth to bottle of garden flowers, hopping into my washtubs. I’m careful not to leave out food, so he was soon disappointed. He tried to get into our tents, urging me to be diligent about zipping. Later he ran over my camp buddy’s foot. This was a mouse underfoot! Ah…but we built a rock campfire ring and lit a beach fire right on Lake Superior. It was glorious. The stars hid behind high clouds, and the sun dipped into the smoky haze of the west, turning red. That night I slept with the mouse nearby as waves lulled us all to sleep.

The next day I had coffee, sitting at the shore in agate cobbles. I found ten while tending to my caffeine. The wind shifted, and soon, the waves rose, eventually cresting the high watermark on the beach. I watched rock pickers comb, and soon my camp mouse returned, this time begging. He’d stand on his hind legs, clasp his tiny front paws, and quiver. I told him it was not good that he knew to beg. I didn’t think pistachios, tangerines, or chocolate courgette cake were part of a natural way of eating for woodland critters so wee. It didn’t stop him from bravely checking out my empty bowl. What a sight — a mouse in a bowl!

That should have prepared me for later events in the week.

Back home, I washed, laundered, and repacked my camp gear. I was so tired from my refreshment, I went to bed early, thinking I was ready to hit the books Wednesday morning. Instead, I took care of other business with the Hub. Then I called the Northwoods Nature Conservancy to clarify which sites were “designated” where we camped. The No Camping signs confused us. The mouse didn’t explain. We scanned the website, and under rules for this property, it said camping only in designated sites. We did our best to comply. Again, no complaint from Stripey. A county worker pulled in early, and I was in my jammies and slippers, all bed-headed and sleepy-eyed, smiling and drinking coffee. I said, “Hi,” and he said, “Hi,” and I figured we were in the right spot.

Turns out, No Camping means No Camping. I’m a recent member of the Conservancy and called tp clarify for next time and was embarrassed to admit I camped with the Northwoods mouse (no wonder he was excited — finally — people food). Turns out, they have not been the Northwoods Nature Conservancy for two years. I had carried their brochure for three years until I finally joined, paying monthly to help with their mortgages on these natural places meant for the public and protection from development. We sleuthed the situation and discovered that their old website was still live. They have changed their name to Keweenaw Natural Areas. And there’s no camping at Gratiot River Beach.

But it was one of those serendipitous moments. I have found a place for a rustic Writer in Residence and with my monthly donation, I can reserve the Conglomerate Falls Cabin for a week. I will certainly make this an annual retreat and open it to others once we get to do such things again. It’s a way-off thing, but it is what I’ve wanted to find in our area! Does it have mice? Likely. Mice are natural. This would be in addition to Vermont. And an exchange of residencies with the Vermont Folks. Kid and Pal, Frankie, Stinky, and all.

Once my excited brain subsided, I focused on downloading my coursework. To my horror, I realized this was no typical MOD One. Instead of the light week I anticipated, I had three assignments due Thursday. Here’s the thing with the first week. If a student is late the first week, they are administratively dropped from the course. That’s why instructors go easy and send lots of reminders. With my heart pounding, I raced over to my Thesis II cohort, knowing I had to submit my schedule, and I didn’t want to forget while panicking over three assignments due in 24 hours. To my dismay, I was one of only two grad students who hadn’t yet submitted, and both my preferred slots were taken. I had to choose one of the two left, and both will make my next two weeks nearly impossible. I’m going to have my own two-week mini-NaNoWriMo.

Working into the night, I went to bed before 4 a.m. with two assignments completed and edited. The third, I saved to finish in the morning. I had also promised the Hub that I’d help him move our RV and get it clean to show a potential buyer on Saturday. We have tried to give our rig to one of several veteran organizations, and none were interested. We tried to set it up for a couple who lost their home in a house fire, but COVID broke out, and we never heard back after that. The people who have stored it on their property needed us to move it. We have nowhere to move it to. Land and storage in winter on the Keweenaw are difficult to come by. I’ve tried to sell it, but it’s too big for this area. We can’t move it to a different market because our truck has an engine problem. It’s become an albatross and holds no good memories for me other than the kindness of those who helped us get through difficult times.

Now it’s a hot commodity. But no one can move it. I field at least ten inquiries a day, and that drives me crazy. Hopefully, the couple driving all the way from downstate will haul it home. We attempted to move it, renting an RV spot at the Baraga Casino ten miles from where we had it. I laughed as the veteran who owns the property told my husband we could bring it back if it doesn’t sell. I laughed because I know his wife. I’ve assured my friend we will not bring it back. These vets can’t say no to each other, so we spouses have to mark the boundaries. We both expelled our breath when we safely arrived at the casino without losing it or blowing an engine.

Then we found the mouse nest in my tea cupboard.

It could have been worse. We went through the whole trailer, and it was only one nest but a rank one. Field mice must have thought they found Valhalla. Masses of flies emerged on the outside of the slides. It disturbed me. At least it was outside, not inside. But it is so dirty and so disheartening. We cleared out most of the random remaining items, and the Hub took care of the mice palace. Still, I came home and showered and smudged with sage. We have to return tomorrow with Clorox and the shop vac. Many minor repairs like missing screws and a cabinet door we broke, forgetting how to open the slides properly. I feel like our fate hangs in the balance on Saturday, which is entirely untrue. It just feels ominous. Of mice.

Saturday is also our 33rd anniversary, and iron is the traditional gift. Cast iron? Certainly not an iron for the ironing board or a branding iron. I’ll go with a Dutch Ove made of ceramic sealing iron. I’ll go for selling the trailer to get enough money to one day retrieve our belongings from Idaho. The Hub is now convinced I’ve changed, and he’s always been wonky. Well… The way my brain is lately, maybe it’s me with the CTE and not him. We’ll make a great dementia couple — him with no filters, and me with no recollection between fact and fiction. Anyways, I told him he was right, I’m certain I’ve changed. That’s part of growth. But there’s still that old me who doesn’t really like mice.

September 17, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story of mice. It can feature any variety of the little critters in any situation. Are the character or the inciting incident? Use any genre, including BOTS (based on a true story). Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 22, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

Of Mice, No Men by Charli Mills

In the end, the packrat was her only companion. Clara rode into Vaquero Camp after her diagnosis. What do big city bone-setters know of a woman’s breasts, anyhow? She was born with ‘em and would die with ‘em. Jake said she was foolish. After all, girl babies aren’t actually born with breasts. He’d heard that Flatfoot Bob’s wife had hers reconstructed into perky 20-year-old versions. Clara wanted no men with her. Not the son who left for Portland. Not the dead-beat cowboy who fathered him. Not even Jake, her best friend. Solitude with a packrat set her soul free.

September 10: Flash Fiction Challenge

The radio plays back-up to my primary sources of music. Wherever I have lived, the radio not only has provided background noise, but it has also connected me to place. If you’ve ever taken a long road trip,, you know how stations can fade in and out, imparting a distinct sound to towns, cities, and regions. Like Donny and Marie Osmond, some stations are a little bit country, and some are a little bit rock and roll. Born in 1967, I’ve known the radio as a life-long companion. A constant I rarely think about but would miss like a left kidney.

Cruising up the Keweenaw Peninsula, something I rarely do these days of COVID, I turned on the radio instead of listening to my digital playlists. Ads annoy me, and I flip to another station. We have five, including NPR and a station Michigan Tech University broadcasts. Actually, I think we have six, but I can’t listen to modern country. Ironic, given that I grew up on Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, Eddie Arnold, Charlie Pride, Hank Williams, and Loretta Lynn. My parents had a massive 8-track collection. The country classics came from my father’s family influence, but my mom’s family meant I also listened to Bobby Vinton, Frank Sinatra, some weird precursor to elevator music. My dad found more country music, collecting gunslinger ballads. My DNA carries the imprint of the entire Ennio Morricone soundtrack to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. My mom collected the Beatles and the Fifth Dimension.

Once, when I was 12, I requested the Greatest Hits from the 1700s from the Columbia House 8-track catalog that would arrive by post. I also wanted the latest Kiss 8-track. I can’t even begin to unpack my tastes in music. But the radio had its influence, too.

Occasionally I’d sneak the dial to KKBC, a rock station broadcasting seventy miles away from Reno, Nevada. That where I heard songs like Godzilla by Blue Oyster Cult. Columbia House didn’t carry such 8-tracks, or I didn’t know what they were. It was a new sound, but one my parents did not appreciate. Some nights, I leave the radio playing on low. One morning I woke up to, “KKBC’s gone country!” My parents delighted in that switch, and as a family, it introduced us to modern country that would dominate the ’80s  — Hank Williams, Jr., Roseanne Cash, Mickey Gilley, Charlie Daniels, Alabama, and Reba McEntire. I missed Godzilla but fell into a pre-teen crush with Bosephius.

One hundred miles northwest of where I grew up on the eastern slope of the Sierras, a teenaged boy, milking the family herd before he drove to high school, also caught the same radio broadcast I did. Five a.m. and he flipped on the radio and dialed in the rock music he loved, practicing his “Dead Fred” DJ voice, talking to the cows as he set up the morning milking. At six a,.m., we both heard, “KKBC’s gone country!” He flipped out, yelling obscenities at the radio. He’s never forgiven the station, and to this ,day can recite some of the best DJ moments and recalls more songs than my remembered Godzilla. Years before we’d ever meet, the Hub and I shared a moment on the radio.

Many states and radio stations later, we have a set of six stations tuned to our car radio. I can’t even tell you their call numbers. I’ve lost interest. It seems that part of moving on meant leaving behind favorite radio stations, and after Idaho, it became too hard. I carried my CD collection with me and had invested a fair amount in iTunes to play on a tiny shuffle smaller than a pack of gum. My CD player remains beyond my reach, and my computer upgrades don’t play CDs. I relied heavily on my iTunes but went I went Apple all the way, I messed up my music access.

Cue the orchestra to play something woeful. Sometimes, the hoops we jump through for technology sucks. Sometimes, our human brains glitch. When we got our other iProducts I forgot that I already had an iAccount for my shuffle, and I registered New iStuff with a different Apple ID. I kid you not, the magnificent empire of Apple with all its capabilities, and all the engineers who make the things work can’t connect my iTunes music to my iPhone or iMac because the IDs differ. But I have resiliency, so I found a way. I bought a Google Play membership and rebuilt my iTunes collection. Then I began to rebuild the CDs I missed the most. Then I built lists with Hank Williams, Jr and Blue Oyster Cult just because I could!

Do you remember cassette tapes? I thought they were THE THING! I had a player with a recorder and would sit in front of the radio to catch some of my favorite songs. You didn’t live the ’80s unless you had big bangs and cassette mixes with chopped off songs or a chatty DJ you wished would shut up and let the song fade. But you made do because you caught the song. These were my walking mixes, and you better believe — I had a walkman! Then came CDs. We bought a CD player in Montana that you could load six at a time. Magic! I had Yanni, Enya, Enigma, and Windam Hill New Age collections that I’d load to play in the evenings to cook, settle the kids, light candles, and read or write late at night. The memory brings such peace.

Digital playlists are a miracle to me. When I’d work out in the gym pre-back surgeries, I had my fem singers to fire me up — Tori Amos, Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Dido, and Paula Cole. I had all the CDs and carried a case to switch out CDs, longing for a way to play three songs of one, two of another, and so on. I yearned for the mixing ability of cassettes with the quality of the CD sound (and not having to use a pencil). Yes, I waited a long time for playlists and was satisfied with iTunes. But Google Play leveled up. Then came the email last month — they closed up shop. With so many other options, they decided not to offer such services. They offered to transfer all my albums from Journey and Bruce Springsteen to Chakra Dance and Guided Meditations and all the rest in between to YouTube Music.

YouTube. That’s the Hub’s music miracle. He loves to research the musicians and listen to interviews and variations of songs. He’s found new music like Mean Mary and can tell you who does the best covers of Stevie Ray Vaughn. I consented and agreed to transfer my music, feeling that desolation of a move again. Then came the glitches. On Google Play, I had order. I intentionally named my playlists in such a way that I categorized them by type but also alphabetically. YTM squished the lists together out of sequence and added the Hub’s listening playlists from when he’s on my computer. Then, the playlists cut out on shuffle, so my background music shuts down randomly. I spent too much time trying to figure out a fix and drew the line at having to download an app.

That’s how I came to Amazon Music. It’s half the price of Google Play. The Hub can still do his thing on YouTube. I can, too, and no need to pay for YouTube Music. But I’m not advertising. Actually, I’m a bit disgruntled with all this wasted effort when I had the solution three technology advances ago. But what eased my troubles was finding a CD replacement that Google Play and YouTube did not have. Clannad. It was always first in my CD player. It heralded the moment I took a deep breath and felt the peace of home no matter where I was. Tonight, I set up a playlist of albums as if I were back in Montana…or Minnesota…or Idaho. I heard home play in my home…in Michigan for the first time. And I settled inside.

There is a radio station I still listen to regularly, though, and it’s not in my vehicle, but on my computer. WUMB. It has the kind of music the Current played in Minneapolis, and another station in Idaho. Out of Boston, I think of it as the music of the Northeast. I think of Vermont, the most rooted place and people I’ve experienced. Rooted music. And that is still the magic of radio. Despite all these technologies and arrangements, radio still connects people and place.

With great anticipation, I introduce ya’ll to the 2020 Flash Fiction Rodeo Playlist (on YouTube). I had lots of music memories and creative ideas swirling as I built this list. The first song is a masterpiece written for a Clint Eastwood movie by an Italian composer and artfully played by the Danish National Symphony. It vibrates with global imagination. The list includes classics, a few KKBC tunes, western movie songs, and some interesting modern manifestations in western music. Cowboy music has roots in many other nations and has a vibe shared by those venturing to frontiers. Maybe one day, someone will yodel a cattle call on Mars. Much of the music tells a story; other songs inspire stories. It’s the essence of our Rodeo contest season quickly approaching.

We have a great line up of Rodeo Leaders to host contests this year — Colleen Chesebro, Marsha Ingrao, Kerry E.B. Black, and the one and only Goldie. We all decided to stay with a western theme this year, yet you will be surprised, delighted, and challenged by what these Leaders have to offer in their contests. TUFF (The Ultimate Flash Fiction) returns this year, too, and will take over the stage at Saddle Up Saloon on Mondays. Contests will start every Tuesday in October, each ending before the next one launches. These contests allow writers to apply their skills and stretch their writing. The weekly challenges will continue on Thursday, with collections published on Wednesdays. Winners will be revealed on consecutive Tuesdays in November. One winner in each contest will win $25 and a digital trophy.

September 10, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes something heard on the radio. It can be from any station or era. What is heard? A song, announcement, ad? Think of how radion connects people and places. Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 15, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Submissions are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

Lost Daughter by Charli Mills

Clementine heard her mother over the Stockton radio. She’d entered the small house at the edge of farm fields, picking up fallen produce in the road. Harvest trucks left a trail, speeding to city markets. Her landlady called the rental the Road Garden. Clem thought she meant “rose” and was disappointed to find weeds and a weeping willow. Her mother played Rambler on the banjo and Clem recognized the Tennessee picking popular among California cowboys. She recognized her mother’s name but not her voice. One day, maybe she’d meet the woman who abandoned her for a life of music.

September 3: Flash Fiction Challenge

Seed pods of Queen Ann’s Lace form fists and pummel the sides of the paved road in high winds. Summer tourists have finally ebbed, leaving our region to witness fall’s rampant approach in peace. It’s hard not to face the winds without seeing a promise of snow flurries. But first, the leaves will deepen and reveal true colors — orange, burgundy, and gold. This is a time to still the mind. It is a process, not a completion.

We drive past the sparring roadside flowers of late summer on the Keweenaw. Ever since we took a boat ride up and down the Portage Canal and experienced the magnitude of the deep waters, the Hub has called our peninsula an island. From the water, it is so completely surrounded by the depths of Lake Superior with only one bridge on and off. Today he’s asking me if I think the winds will blow our island away. I tell him I don’t think so. Then we crest the ridge and see the waves of Lady Lake marching in full force to shore three miles ahead. He says the Lake will take this island. I say nothing, silently agreeing. She will cleave this peninsula one day, the way a miner’s pickax slices ore along the grain.

Today we watch homebound tourists.

Birch trees scream in leafy breaths at Calumet Waterworks beach, treetops bent and pointing north with all branches in unison. The surf and winds are so loud I can’t hear anything else. Freight trains roar quieter than Lady Lake in a gale. Below, she’s strewn trees and limbs and driftwood like a child throwing a temper tantrum. This is no day to cross her, not to step a toe in her waters. She’s buried her own beach cobbles beneath sand and wood rubble. I feel this is unfair because I clearly marked Friday as “Lake Day!” on my calendar with the intention of rock picking. I have no idea what beaches will have rocks after this mess.

The Hub bought me a coffee at Cafe Rosetta, wearing his Vikings mask. Coffee used to be a treat, and now, after COVID, it feels decadent; a guilty pleasure. We hold our cups and gawk. The Hub talks to everyone he meets, and we bottleneck on the stairs going to the beach. Not the best pandemic protocol, and I wonder if the high winds will kill the virus or carry it to the arctic. A local at the viewing deck explains to us that the unusually hot summer has warmed the lake, and with cold fronts, she blows up. Ah. I understand. Menopause. Lake Superior is having a hot flash. I tried to film the experience but don’t plan to pick up filmmaking anytime soon. I did start a Carrot Ranch YouTube Channel, and you can listen to the audio howl of wind and surf at Calumet.

We decide to drive over to the breakers at McLain State Park. When the wind howls from the west, the waves crest the breaker walls at the mouth of Portage Canal, where a lighthouse still stands as a beacon of safety. When we went on our boat ride, I discovered how unstable the water feels at the opening of the canal as if it constantly struggles against its constraints, writhing. From the beach, I think the water has escaped. Families line the beach, and locals sit on sand dunes above the flow of water. There is no beach as I know it — water and sand flow over all that was familiar. Long-haired athletes in wetsuits battle the wind and surge to walk the treacherous breaker far out enough that they jump into the rolling waves with surfboards leashed to their ankles. we watch them bob like seals in the swells.

One by one, each surfer rises to stand on their boards to surf Lake Superior. It’s mutual entertainment, those of us in the audience enjoying the ride as much as those taking the risk. We all feel the sand pelting us, the water spray, and adrenaline. It’s a glorious way to spend an afternoon. Invigorating. The tourists who left with the summer heat are missing out on the best season when the Lake shows us all who is boss. She rules the surf, sand, and sky. No doubt it is Lady Lake who rises on mists to freeze the air and gather her moisture in clouds to bury us in snow. More on that later in the year.

We wind our way back home, following the bends and bays in the canal. The water is not choppy but looks as though it has a river current from the wind pushing hard in one direction. No one is at Hancock City Beach. That’s right, everyone was out wave-watching. We top the hill to Roberts Street and spot a city truck, one used in snow removal. This time a crew is clearing the roads of fallen trees and broken branches. We wave. They wave. And then I see my Lemon Queens. Three have snapped in the wind, and I mourn. Gently, I cradle a sapling with a dozen wilting sunny heads, feeling the heft of life yet present. I’ve never understood vegetarians who can’t eat meat. Don’t they know plants die, too?

Death is inevitable. Our island will be no more one day. Today, Lemon Queens died. I realize, what matters most is dignity. It’s not that we avoid death; we die with dignity and grant it to others who are passing. I hold my queens, snip a vase full of flowers to take inside, remove each toppled stalk, and lay them to rest. I speak a few words, giving praise and thanks. Stretched out along the creeping butternut squash, I leave them to dry. Seeds will feed birds and squirrels. Some seeds will grow to be next year’s Lemon Queens. They dim beneath a full moon. So I weed and harvest more seeds from marigolds and monarda. I pick yet more courgettes.

And the wind continues to blow.

Submissions are now closed. See our latest challenge to enter.

September 3, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about high winds. It can be on land, sea or in outer space. Who is facing the wind or protected from it? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 8, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Last Pass by Charli Mills

In the Sierras, high winds herald snow. A wagon train of weary souls had hoisted beasts and conveyances to the top of Kit Carson’s pass to reach California’s goldfields below. They looped their way around bulging batholiths and high-altitude lakes glimmering like cut emeralds. The air thinned and the wind rose. The wagon master bellowed, and oxen trundled faster, sensing danger. They didn’t stop at night to rest. By the light of lanterns, they battled banshee winds, tarps snapping like sails. Sunrise opened with peaceful silence followed by splats of rain. Behind them, snow closed the pass until spring.

August 27: Flash Fiction Challenge

So it has begun. Neighbors slink in the shadows of my house, transgressing both front and back doors with summer bounty. The forager has left puff balls and cut petunias on my back deck. The gardener’s wife next door tried sneaking a bowlful of tomatoes on my front steps. A friend offered to share beans and another found me camping and brought lavender. Even my daughter is peddling chard and arugula, offering trades of patty-pans for courgettes. This season of shifting excess from the garden makes me grin. I feel whole and home, surrounded by community and yard-grown food.

The biggest surprise in my potager towers over all the neighbors leaving offerings. My gentle giants with prolific and cheerful heads will make migrating birds a feast. I stand outside looking upward of eight feet to bask in the presence of the Lemon Queens. A single staff holds as many as twenty sunflower heads and I planted five. They hold court, these reigning sisters of Roberts Street. Each petal is slender, forming a pale yellow fringe around each dark center rich with pollen. The honey bees buzz from high above, dropping closer to earth with legs fully loaded for feeding the hive.

When my heart feels as heavy as a ladened bee, I stand beneath the Lemon Queens and look up. White clouds pull across the blue sky like spun sugar, the kind county fairs would be serving if it not for a pandemic. I watch as the oldest sunflowers begin to brown and form seeds. For such hardy stalks and large heads, the petals flutter ephemeral. They don’t last long enough for the seeds to mature. Such could be said about many life events — life itself — passes so quickly. The beauty and joy we once celebrated have left a legacy of seeds for more, and yet a darkness stretches between memory and hope. The royals pass too soon.

And so it came to be that I needed to check out of my home, neighbors and shared abundance. I needed to abandon the studies, thesis, and literary community. I needed to step back from all that is good and appreciated to just simply be. The emotions of travel, wedding, funeral, and school needed a reset. My inner introvert demanded a fresh air cacoon. When a friend who also needed downtime suggested a camping trip to Big Traverse Bay on the sandy side of the Keweenaw, I was all for it. We each had our own small tents and we physically distanced around a campfire beneath the stars.

I met the Lemon Queens of the universe, standing on the beach of Lake Superior at 3 am. Already the coyotes had yipped and howled three times from the direction we heard the late-summer gathering of sandhill cranes in the wild blueberry marshes. An American toad hunkered by my tent, his shape evident in the light from the campfire. The fish flies, midges, and mosquitos had finally tired of blood draws. The lake spread flat and silent like ice, yet the air remained warm enough to feel comfortable in a flannel shirt. I had kicked off my Keens and walked over the small sand bluff to see the stars over the lake. I looked up.

Regal and twinkling, the brightest stars hung like Lemon Queens, reflecting light on the water. The lake ran an occasional wave across the sand to let me know she was awake and star-gazing, too. Mars, a bright orange bulb had risen earlier from the horizon and I swore it must be the lamp of a ghost ship. By 3 am, the planet had risen in an arc. The Milky Way frothed with light and the Perseids shot meteorites across the black sky. When I stood, bare feet in the cool, wet sand, I felt the universe so close it tickled my nose. The soft silence wrapped me up in the night’s blanket. Lemon Queens live.

The next morning I rose early — for me — to see a long-legged spider hanging out on the mesh screen overhead. I supposed she was eating the last of the waiting mosquitos. The air felt thick and warm and the lake barely lapped. I brewed coffee in my French press and drug my chair into the shade of a pine, savoring the first cup of the day. By the time I lit my single-burner butane stove, a stiff wind challenged my efforts. Blue flames fluttered and the bacon fried in the cast iron pan. I poured seeds and nuts and blueberries over Brown Cow maple yogurt and topped both bowls with fresh nasturtium from my garden. We dined at a distance in our camp chairs, adding a second pot of coffee and chocolate zucchini cake to the meal. The wind increased.

We didn’t have much time before checking out but the camp hostess offered that we could day use any of the open campsites (Schoolcraft only has eight sites and the hostess A-frame, a familiar feel). Ours was reserved for new campers that day. We packed up the kitchen and most of our stuff and carried our tents to a new spot to rest or read later. Waves began to roar, the sound I love best from Lady Lake. We walked the beach and with no rocks to pick I collected anything plastic and unnatural. Mostly the beach was clean but the debris of humanity nests everywhere like an invasive species. We scoped out other campsites and watched a young couple take over ours from the night before. A young Finnish mother with six blond children all under the age of ten showed up and I delighted in watching the three eldest ride the waves like fearless pros.

An immature eagle flew overhead as if to say he had this flight thing down. I sat in the sand, feet buried, hair blowing away from my face, head nodding in droopy peace. I felt refreshed and ready to return to garden exchanges and revitalize the rhythm of life. Time to catch up with ripe tomatoes, the last of my term coursework, and comments and stories from the community. The Lemon Queens have come and will go. The stars will continue to dance barely out of reach. We will remember those who have gone on to those who remain. And we will be witness to milestones and castles in the sky until we forget and someone else remembers.

August 27, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that features Lemon Queens. Maybe it’s an ancient fairy tale or a modern brand name. What ideas seep into your imagination? Is there a character or place involved? Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by September 1, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

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Lemon Queens of Nevada by Charli Mills

Lara, Eugenie, and Jess scrambled up the wooden slats of the corral to watch Big Bones Janey sort the dinks from the keepers. Roundup always smelled of warm sage and fresh horse apples. Wispy sun-bleached hair escaped the matching braids on the young cousins and in the afternoon breeze, their fringe formed halos. Janey trotted past the wide-eyed girls, winking. She called them Lemon Queens and taught them how to settle a stallion without breaking his spirit. Fifteen years later, riding stunt horses for Hollywood westerns, the Lemon Queens owed their skills to the maverick horse trainer of Winnemucca.

Of Weddings and Funerals

My son is handsome, in love, and has connected our family to his wife’s. Our trip to the Wisconsin Dells and back in a rented blue Dodge Charger went well. I didn’t stumble in heels or while reading. We returned home to the devastating news that one of our closest veteran friends succumbed to his fight against Agent Orange. The funeral is Friday, outside at one of our remote Keweenaw cemeteries. Somehow, I thought I’d return from the wedding nuptials on a cloud and this term’s MFA finals would be a breeze. Life, and death, intervene, and we do our best to straddle the road. I’m asking the literary community to offer me a week of grace as my mind and heart are thick this week.

Please note I’ve extended the August 13: Flash Fiction Challenge to August 25. If you have already submitted, you can leave an offering in the comments — a 99-word story to celebrate life. I won’t collect those but will appreciate the expressions. The First Flight collection will publish on August 26, a week delayed. In the meantime, please read Susan Spitulnik’s column this week, Veteran Voices, as she profiles veteran identities. Also, catch up with Susan Zutautas at D. Avery’s Saddle Up Saloon and join the discussion about writer’s block. Friday, Carrot Ranch will host frequent flash fiction Rough Writer and author, Pete Fanning.

You have all listened to me carry on about MOG dresses and toenails and COVID-hair, so I thought you might enjoy a look at the wedding photos by the incredibly talented and hard-working Caynay Photography which, cheerfully, are not about me! That’s the thing about weddings — the focus is on the couple. Looking like we fit into their carefully sculpted landscape was vital, and the Hub and I did our parts. I was honored to read Song of Songs and from Paul’s Letter to Corinthians about love. I find these comforting words for the impending funeral this week as another bride lays her hero to rest.

Brothers and sisters:

Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts.
But I shall show you a still more excellent way.
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.

~ A reading from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians 12:31–13:8a, the word of the Lord.

In the beginning and in the end, let there be love.