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His back is to me as he casts his flies. Hoppers or nymphs. He’d know; he discerns to the insect hatch. I observe not to plop a reading seat on an ant hill or encounter anything crawling across stones in the creek.
He’s Sgt. Mills, ex-Army Ranger and I’m the buckaroo writer he teasingly calls the Cowardly Cowgirl. He tosses a live grasshopper at my open Kindle and I squeal. He laughs and asks how I’d ever survive in the wilderness. I’d manage. After all, I’m a survivor.
We each have our own kind of toughness. He has physical, mental and moral strength; not someone to be broken. If you’ve ever watched a special forces movie with the proverbial ring-the-bell-to-quit element, know that Ranger Mills never rung the bell. The Army pushed him until it proved he was a soldier with no quit in him. He never quits.
In my wilderness, I know what it is to quit and be broken. My toughness comes from fighting back. There are some bells I’ve never rung — I escaped a family dynamic few ever do. I know to be hopeful, to persevere and to believe in a greater good. I’ve learned that quality of life is worth fighting for and that every individual has a right to his or her full potential. I am empowered.
We both have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The gift of surviving; the mechanism itself that allows one to survive.
I’ll advocate for others with PTSD, and even share snippets of my story, but frankly I’m not a fan of labels. While diagnosis can offer insight, I don’t ever want it to be an excuse. When I was first diagnosed 24 years ago, it explained so much. I had a great team of therapists who loaded up my toolbox with ways to cope — emotional reprogramming, art therapy, parenting classes, group therapy. Recently I learned of the Human Givens approach in the UK and although that wasn’t my course of therapy I found several similarities. It starts with awareness.
Yet it I’d be unaware for years about my husband’s PTSD. It wasn’t until a mutual military friend asked for my help with her volunteer service to the Army psych unit at Fort Snelling (in St. Paul, Minnesota). She was using auricular acupuncture in a study to reduce combat stress. I did intake and brought rocks (that’s for another story, one day). Slowly, I began to see patterns in these soldiers that I recognized in my own Ranger Mills. She wasn’t the first person to point to him and PTSD.
I met my best friend Kate the first day of college. We were both writing majors and OTAs– older than average students. Our adviser was a no-show and from day one we looked out for each other. Our bond was instantaneous, but it took the normal paths of trust and disclosure to learn that we both had been diagnosed with PTSD two years earlier. She was married to a combat veteran who was irresponsibly put on medication and pulled off without thought to consequences. In a PTSD fugue state (where he’d wake up in the middle of the night reenacting scenes from Vietnam), he shot himself.
These are hard topics to share; hard for discourse. Many people squirm and change the subject. Yet Kate and I found in each other a friendship that had at its core an understanding of the brain’s survival mechanism. We could discuss symptoms, therapies, studies and stories without censure and feel a peace at knowing what each of us had gone through was familiar.
Kate never came out and said that my husband had PTSD, but she cleverly included him in key conversations over the years that planted a seed in my head. Even after my other friend suggested that my husband reach out to the VA, I never disclosed my thinking to Kate until she was on her deathbed. She nodded. She knew. And that’s when she gave me the second best piece of deathbed advice: “Charli, you go home and tell him, you have his back.”
Simple words soldiers understand.
When in the heat of combat, when my husband jumped into Grenada with 110 pounds in his rucksack and landed with his parachute looking like Swiss cheese from bullet holes, all he fought for was the brother next to him. Not flag and country, not God and humanity, but for the soldier in the same firefight as he. 110 pounds was nothing. He’d easily carry a 175 pound Ranger because not only do they not quit, they don’t leave anyone behind.
I came home from Helena and told Ranger Mills I had his back. He teared up, nodded and choked out a “Thank you.”
His PTSD is unlike mine in a few significant ways. First, I developed PTSD as a child which impaired personality development. He went into the Army mostly developed (18 is young for the male mind which some scientists suggest isn’t completely hardwired until the early 20s). Second, I’ve had a formal diagnosis and therapy. His diagnosis happens tomorrow at a hearing and he hasn’t once been examined by a qualified (or unqualified for that matter) professional. Typically, the VA assigns a diagnosis upon proof of combat service.
I have his back tomorrow. And I know I’m preparing for a fight because I’m going to push against the grain. I don’t believe that Ranger Mills has PTSD from a single point of conflict — the invasion of Grenada. I believe he already had PTSD before he jumped. I believe the Army Ranger School actually triggers the PTSD response and then qualifies those who can use it to become soldiers who don’t quit. Hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal, both symptoms of PTSD, are also traits of the elite soldiers.
The Army trained its Rangers “live” between Vietnam and Desert Storm in conflicts we never heard about in South America. Panama, Nicaragua, the Rangers were essentially the CIAs backup army, but shh, I never told you that. Neither has my husband. He’s loyal to the creed. I found out through a Catholic group (in college) who protested the School of Americas and had stories from nuns and priests in South America that never hit the news. What it does explain is his sustained exposure to PTSD triggering events. Ones the military will never grant him officially. But he has Grenada to count. Officially.
My next fight is against medication. Not once was I medicated until I voluntarily joined a PTSD drug study in the late 1990s. I had already been through my therapy and in control of my triggers for several years when I saw an ad for the study. Thinking I was going to help others, I went through a series of discomforting sessions until I received my second diagnosis of PTSD. Then they gave me pills. I wish I recall what they were; but I know they triggered symptoms I couldn’t control. I quit the meds immediately and the symptoms abated. I told the researchers what happened and it became a footnote in side-effect warnings.
Because of my experience, I don’t believe in medication as a way to cope with PTSD. Already, I think our culture is too quick to believe in the pill-that-solves-all. I’m not saying that drug therapy doesn’t have its place, but it should be either an emergency intervention to stabilize a person or the last tool in the box after trying other non-invasive therapies. In fact, the Journal of Psychiatric Practice posted a review to NOT recommend anxiety medication for PTSD. Had Kate’s husband not been medicated (he had lived with PTSD for over 20 years prior to being medicated), he might have lived to be the one at her side while she battled cancer.
Consider this statistic:
According to the VA, 22 veterans commit suicide each day. This means approximately 8,030 veterans kill themselves every year, more than 5,540 of whom are 50 or older.
Ranger Mills is 52. Tomorrow he gets his diagnosis. I will fight for him to get the best in the VA’s toolbox that doesn’t include medication first. I wonder how many of those veterans who died were offered nothing more than a prescription? They trained this Ranger never to quit. They can train this Ranger to know how to stand down his hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal. They can train him to manage his anger, to allow that civilians do things differently. They can help him with job-training or help him start a business, stand up for him when employers are unfair (his current employer pulled his route from him because he has this appointment tomorrow). I’ll help him communicate tomorrow; I’ll help him with future therapy; I’ll help him understand that PTSD is not a label or stigma.
I have his back.
August 12, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a character who is called to have the back of another. What circumstances led up to this moment? What are the character motives? Think about the interaction, the setting, the tone. What does it look like to have another’s back?
Sarah’s Deliverer by Charli Mills
He’d hid the kittens Mr. Boots had in the barn. On those nights when coyotes yipped and she felt abandoned on the prairie, Hickok read to her his mother’s letters. Last night, after Cob raged that he’d clean out Rock Creek, Hickok calmed her fear. “I got your back, Sarah,” he said.
Now that Cob had thrown Wellman to the ground, Nancy Jane growled by the door and young Sally whimpered from under the kitchen table. Hickok strode tall and calm from the barn, walked right past Cob.
“Friends, aint’ we Hickok?”
No Cob, it’s my back he has.
Apples litter the dry grass unseasonably. Too many, too early and I know in my head I should feel sad, but in my heart I’ve no more room for such feeling. The heat-wave turned into a drought, and I hardly recognize my yard after returning from two weeks in Montana. A dry wind blows, and morning arrives without its customary mist and dew. The pond looks stagnate and the pastures weedy. A disheartening sight.
I scan the ground and add up the destruction:
- Apple crop, failed.
- Cherry tree, leafless, fruitless;
- Numerous bean plants, gone;
- Squash plants wilted like limp elephant ears;
- Flowers on the back porch burnt like toast;
- Grass crisp and yellow;
- Best friend, dead.
What am I to do? The house is dark to ward off the heat and I can’t stand it, yet the outside is filled with light, deadly and hot. I can only do one thing at a time. So I stay outside to water the potato plants that are flourishing in the sandy, hot soil. Strange things, potatoes. They thrive in suffering conditions.
Water arcs high in the air as the sprinkler makes its sweep. Already the sun is approaching the western ridge and sunlight sparkles in each water droplet like light on a diamond diadem. A hummingbird pauses in the spectacle, tiny wings flung open with gusto, and I think, am I really seeing this? Life doesn’t linger in the shadows, it plays out loud in the light, the water, the beauty that can’t be squelched by conditions.
The world feels as if it’s unhinged from its rotation. I want to see destruction, I want to feel sad. Yet, still it spins, different, but dynamically. I notice that I can still step one foot in front of the other in this new rotation. Thus I water the squash plants and they revive. The next day, I replace the crisp porch flowers with new ones and even crack a joke at the nursery not far from my home: “I bet the only people buying more annuals this time of year are the ones killing their plants.” The cashier smiles blandly.
It’s not a good joke.
Drought, it seems, makes knapweed easier to pull. The bane of ranches, a noxious weed, knapweed has spread in the heat, but instead of digging it out, I can simply pull. Well, it’s not entirely simple, but it’s satisfying to uproot something. Monday dawns with a new routine: up at 5:30 to fix the Hub sausages and bagels; watering; weeding; cleaning the house one thing at a time. Like picking up remnants of corn husks from the carpets.
Don’t ask me; ask the dogs. Evidently they were naughty and got into corn while I was away.
Outside does me good, like a sick person in need of fresh air. I expand my lungs, long and deep, exhale. I fill my big red cup with cold well water and drink it down as I sweat. And fill it again. Mowing seems like a good way to knock down the dry grass, and already I can see green responding to my ongoing watering efforts.
Living water. I’m opening up like the hummingbird.
I take the dogs on long romps around Elmira Pond in the afternoons. The Miracle of the Bear is that after Grenny encountered one (and survived), he no longer runs off. He’s a German Short-haired Pointer with boundless energy even at 10 years old and running off meant miles. He once had me praying hard for chickens after running off our property. Now he’s content to hang out around the pond and pastures.
Contentment can be about perspective.
Standing at the pond, watching Grenny happily leap after frogs, I look back at my apple tree and feel stunned. What I had assumed was a failed crop, is not so. At this vantage, I can see plenty of apples left in the tree, some already blush with red. My garden has holes, but I can fill the gaps. My lawn is responding to water and the pond still holds much avian life. My friend is gone, but I have her family to connect with, new friends to grow with and memories to share.
Not all conditions I can change, but I can be content with what is left and with what I can do. In less than a week, my gardens and lawns have responded to life-giving efforts. I can choose to look up when all I see is down. A scattering of dropped apples is not the end. Nor is the loss of a friend.
Perspective varies. There’s the faith view of salvation and heaven; the hopeful view of a better place; the practical view of no more suffering; and the scientific view that energy cannot be destroyed. Energy. Life. Creation. It all continues, perhaps differently, but always in one form or another.
And I cannot help but be swept up by the sight of a water-crowned hummingbird. My eyes do not linger long on fallen fruit.
July 22, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that has a shift in perspective. It can be a transition of one character or a change between character points of view. Go where the prompt leads, either technically or creatively.
Respond by July 28, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Silver Thieves by Charli Mills
“Where’s the silver buried?” Carla snarled at the old woman.
“It ain’t here, Carla.” Vernon stomped his boots, entering the cabin.
Carla shoved the old lady down. “I know you buried it!” Spittle frothed on her lips, rabid. “Bah! Worthless!”
“We’ll be watching you, Old Woman.” Vernon pointed his shovel in her downcast face.
They left and she slowly stood. Silver! If she had silver she wouldn’t live here. She opened the locket they had cast aside. Brass. Tarnished. Inside his eyes twinkled like the greatest treasure she ever knew. Time and thieves would never rob her of love.
On my knees, churning soil like a human rototiller, I grab at weed roots and aerate the compacted earth around fledgling plants. Some plants have not fledged. I’m patient with dirt, and wait for it to reveal a hopeful germination. I know when to give up, thus I press more seed into the barren spots.
Writing is a lot like gardening. Words are dirt into which we plant stories, books and dreams.
Most days, I’m comforted by the dirt, believing it will yield, believing I have half a clue about what I’m doing. Other days, those barren spots worry me. Did I plant too deep? Too shallow? Was my seed too old? I begin to doubt my efforts matter.
Topics can be like barren doubt. I’ve mentally churned the idea of writing something in relation to what happened, again, on American soil — the meaningless massacre of a hate crime in Charleston, South Carolina. Do I have words that will grow something fruitful? Will I write too deep? Too shallow?
I don’t know what to write. I’m the dirt farmer devastated by hail, by grasshoppers, by drought. I don’t even look into my neighbor’s eye because I know he’s experienced the same thing. I glare at my other neighbor in the big house because she has no idea what it is to put hope into dirt. And this is dangerous ground. It touches upon shame and envy, it breeds a blight of hate.
The singer Jewel asks in a song, “And who will save your soul if you won’t save your own?”
Best to kneel back down in the dirt, take compassion on both neighbors — the one who struggles, and the one who doesn’t — and plant again. Hope again. Feel. Joys and sorrows. It doesn’t matter if your dirt patch is small or if others even notice what you are doing. Do it because it’s yours. Plant your stories.
Charleston? All I can do is to promise you that I will not sow hate. I can promise you that I will help each person I meet best that I can. I promise to do what is right, what is just even if sometimes I’m confused by the results or how to go about it. I will put my gaze on the good, the sprouts, the beauty that grows from tenaciously churning my dirt, pulling weeds and nourishing emerging plants. I will write words that may not matter to pop culture or mass media, but express beauty nonetheless. I’ll rise up toward the light like a plant newborn from the soil.
I’m too far away to touch you in Charleston. But I can give a stranger a ride to town. I can share potatoes with my neighbors, big and small. One interaction at a time, I can be an agent of love and compassion. May my world one day spread toward yours, and hers, and his, and may each single effort add up to a worthier place to live.
Dig in the dirt writers! Be gardeners of your own stories and tillers of your truth. Write deep. Write shallow. Know that you matter; your stories matter. Every life matters.
June 24, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about dirt. You can go with the idea of digging into the dirt as an analogy, or you can be realistic. Maybe a character has “the dirt” on someone or another has “dirty laundry” to hide. Dirt can be rich soil or barren. Get dirty, but not shockingly dirty!
And the photo? I dug in the garden today, weeding and mounding potato hills, thinning red onions, evidently for the benefit of my largest garden pest, Bobo, who slept soundly upon the warm dirt.
Respond by June 30, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
The Late Exchange by Charli Mills
Belle searched for signs of rising dirt that announced travelers across the barren basin. By now she could discern hand carts from wagons. She hoped to see indication of the overdue Pony Express rider. Sul would soon go searching, leaving Belle alone.
“I’ll give you the rifle. Point and pull the trigger.”
“Ah, Sweetheart, ain’t nobody getting’ in through these rock walls.”
Then, billowing dirt on the horizon.
When the rider arrived to exchange horses, he grinned. “Injuns!” He tossed Belle a calico sack full of pine nuts. “For you, Ma’am. Seems they like your chokecherry pie.”
As a writer riding the rodeo circuit to get published, my recalculations are not always because of missed turns or errors. Sometimes, I see a new opportunity or connection. I tend to grab the bull by the horns, but often find I have a corral full of bulls and have to figure out what next.
My corral is full at the moment, and for a pantser, that feels good. I like the energy of having multiple projects in the works. My overarching goal to publish books is always my priority. My motivation remains high when I feel inspired and connected.
However, my friend Kate, who despite having terminal cancer, remains a wise council for me. She pointed out that while I write down my goals, I should also write out my full plan. Another friend also once advised me to create an individual business plan for each of my books. I certainly know how, but as a pantser I tend to balance it all in my head. To that, Kate reminded me that when you write it down, you have a better chance of succeeding.
“Goals in writing are dreams with a deadline.” ~Brian Tracy
While I balk at self-imposed deadlines, I do know that I want my goals to come to fruition. I have several written down beneath my overarching goal of publishing, but perhaps it is time to plot more deeply. After all, that is a recalculation I do in my writing process: I draft freely like a pantser, but buckle down and revise like a plotter.
“Goals allow you to control the direction of change in your favor.” ~Brian Tracy
And change is blowing across the prairie, nudging me to change direction. My goal stands, but my tactics need recalculating because of recent opportunities. This is why I like having a corral full of bulls — more bulls, more rides and a better chance to make the ride I need.
I intended to publish Miracle of Ducks first. It makes sense; it’s complete, professionally edited and my first manuscript. I took it to LA, met with a publisher who advised me to find an agent, and met with an agent who declined. I messed up my first submission, uploading an earlier draft and was told that I didn’t have enough social media. I’ve not heard back from any agents since.
So weird thing happened on the way to the rodeo…a publisher answered an email I sent seven months ago. She asked if I was still working on the project, Rock Creek, which is my current WIP still in draft form, awaiting research for gaps I discovered in the writing. She expressed interest and advised me on how to submit the manuscript.
You might be wondering why I was contacting publishers about an unfinished manuscript. It began as a call to an editor of a western history magazine to ask if she’d be interested in research that I had from a distant cousin. I thought I could pitch the copious amounts of research I have on the topic of the shoot-out at Rock Creek, Nebraska. She was clear in what her magazine publishers wanted and I filed it away for the day I could pitch it as an author because magazine articles in big publications can help promote one’s book.
But first one must publish (write!) the book.
The editor also gave me two great leads in regards to my writing: one was for an association called Women Write the West and the other was for a publisher who is looking for new women’s voices in the genre of western historical. I wasn’t sure about signing up for the association until I was further along on my western book, but I took the opportunity to write the publisher.
In my mind, I hear Garmin stating, “Recalculating…”
No hard fast rule says my first novel has to be my first manuscript. Over the past two weeks, I’ve played out several what-if scenarios in my mind. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to get Rock Creek finished and reviewed by an interested publisher. I could join the association, pitch my research articles and opt the manuscript movie rights to an interested feature writer and director. Um, yeah, about that…
While posting the flash fiction that got me started down the road to write Rock Creek as a novel, I was contacted by a feature writer and director who was working on an undisclosed television project that included the life of Wild Bill Hickock. The producers wanted to include the Rock Creek incident as a turning point in Hickok’s life. The feature writer found Carrot Ranch because I had tagged both the place and the gunfighter’s name.
As of last week, I now know the name of the series with which I shared my research. I’m not a conservative so it stunned me to realize that I shared with Fox News! The show is Bill O’Reilly’s Legends and Lies: Into the West. The episode about Hickok is called, “Plains Justice.” I already know that the producer’s goal was to show Hickok in a white hat and McCandles in a black one, so the outcome will not surprise me. The good news is that there remains much interest in Hickok in general and in what happened at Rock Creek.
My contact on the project told me:
“This is all very interesting. During my research, the Rock Creek incident is the most cloudy and confusing. After every email and phone call with you, it seems to gain clarity. You are at the forefront of knowledge of the subjects involved and what really happened that day. Keep tackling and uncovering, Charli!”
It seems the stars are aligning over Rock Creek.
So what is holding me back? I wanted to publish a novel before Rock Creek because I feel the need to build my credibility, after all I’ve not published a book before. Without a book, I feel like everyone is excited over my idea, but they might think my novel-writing skills are less than expected; they are unproven, and that creates the doubt I’m battling.
Also, I feel an odd sense of disloyalty to Miracle of Ducks. I know I’m not abandoning it, but I would shelve it. Instead of finding an agent for generalized women’s fiction, I would have a publisher in a genre I love. I could always self-publish Miracle of Ducks after I build up a better author name, or if I fail at Rock Creek, I could return to my original plan.
As I recalculate, is there any sage advise for me to consider?
I know how Buffalo Bill felt watching his Wild West Show from the sidelines, astride his own horse with gloved hands at rest on the saddle horn, casually holding the reins. He knew how to sit a saddle — balls of his feet lightly pressed in equal weight to each stirrup, boot-heels slanted downward, posture straight, unlike movie cowboys who flop like slouching trout against saddle leather and press their feet too far in the stirrups so boot heels catch and toes point down.
Buffalo Bill knew that audiences might not know the difference between an actor or a real cowpoke, but he understood that they’d react enthusiastically to the authentic passion of riders — Native Americans, cowpokes or cavalry scouts — when they rode a horse. The crowd roared with delight when each group performed a trick or re-enacted scenarios so smoothly no noticed things like how a cowpoke aimed his boots.
You can’t fake riding. Nor can writers fake writing.
Sure we all ride or write differently. Sioux warriors had no stirrups and leaned far over the necks of their horses in a full gallop. Texas cowboys had different saddles than California buckaroos and each wore different hats. Scouts were soldiers who held the reins differently so that they could also maneuver a rifle on the run. Some writers craft believable characters; others set scenes that pop to life like the start of a movie in a theater; and others twist plots that make eager bobble-heads out of readers.
Writing, like riding, improves with practice. Of course, you need to have knowledge, too. Those actors who slipped out of their saddles at a change of gait might have asked how to avoid it next time, just as a writer struggling with dialog might read a post by an author who has mastered it. It becomes a cycle of learning and applying.
But you have to write and be willing to fall once in a while.
Then there are those cowpokes who love the riding so much that they sing with joy to the prairie sun, “I’m lonesome but I’m happy, I’m rich but I’m broke.” These are the riders that Buffalo Bill sought for his Wild West Show. The riders who, like him, knew the joy of living on the back of a horse despite its hardships the same way some writers know the joy of living on the words they express despite it being a tough career or a demanding hobby.
Each week when I compile the stories of the Carrot Ranch Congress of Rough Writers & Friends, I know how Buffalo Bill felt when he watched his Rough Riders perform. It’s good to have others who share the love of the ride/write. Writers who write (blog posts, reviews, essays articles, short stories, poems, letters and journals) are as authentic as riders who ride (appaloosas, cow-ponies, cutting horses, race horses, jumpers, trail-blazers and Percherons). And the results are worth beholding.
Like many of the riders who rode the wild west show circuits, many writers seek the purse (fame and fortune). Cowpokes, Indians and buckaroos created rodeos as a way to win a cash prize and hear an audience cheer. Writers seek a cash prize in publication and receive cheers from readers who review. Neither is easy to achieve and booing is an unwanted possibility. To ride successfully you have to be able to connect with your horse. To write successfully you have to be able to connect with your story. Both have to win over audiences.
Thus, I’m calling my manuscript publication process The Rodeo. At first, I named it the Great Rejection Rodeo to acknowledge that rejection is part of the process. Manuscripts get rejected for many reasons; some are within a writer’s control and some are not. Some days, you draw a bad horse to ride. Yet, it occurred to me that rodeo riders never say, “The Great Broken Bone Rodeo” so why am I fixating on the inevitable negative when it is the ride that gives me joy? When it is the purse I’m doggedly pursuing come broken bones or rejection? The Rodeo it is.
And there’s a big rodeo coming up in March called the Out of Binders Symposium held in Los Angeles at UCLA. It includes a line up of workshops, networking with established authors and a VIP event with literary agents and publishers. My name was called in the draw and I won a scholarship. It makes me feel like these lines from the song, Cowpoke (give it a listen; it’s a beautiful cowboy yodeling song):
“I ain’t got a cent in these old worn out jeans
Stop eating steaks and go back to beans
I’ll pick up a ten spot in Houston I know
For a-riding the broncs in a big rodeo”
So this carefree range-writing drifting buckaroo is going! Despite my inner cringe factor at asking for money, I’m launching an Indie.GoGo fundraiser tomorrow in response to family and friends who offered the encouragement to do so. Now I know how Buffalo Bill felt when he got investor backing to take his Wild West Show to Europe.
Speaking of backing, I’ll be updating the collaboration page (with yet another call for feedback) because I want to roll over any raised funds to support the launch of any Rough Writer collaboration and have a plan for it by the time I go to LA in case I can find an interested publisher. Why not? That’s the spirit of the rodeo — go for it!
If you’ve hung in the saddle this far you’re thinking about this week’s tie to the prompt — Buffalo Bill, riding horses, being rich but broke? All tantalizing possibilities, but it’s going to be about nutty aunts. How so? Well, you see, Geoff, one of the Rough Writers, commented on the universality of nutty aunts. And while I was contemplating this post a flash came to mind about a nutty aunt who used to ride broncs in the rodeos. I really just wanted to write that story! So tell me one about a nutty aunt.
February 4, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a nutty aunt. What makes her nutty? Is it the situation she’s in or a quirky habit? She can be anybody’s aunt. Maybe she’s really somebody’s uncle but wants to be an aunt. Maybe it’s the name of a cowpoke’s horse, a hockey team or a village pub. Follow where the prompt leads.
Respond by February 10, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Aunt Bronco Billy by Charli Mills
“No one cared where I’d go,” Aunt Billy said to the children sitting cross-legged at her booted feet. Her rocker creaked with undulating bulk.
“Not your Ma?” asked the youngest. The others shushed him.
“Nope. Too many chits and not enough beans.” She puffed a hand-rolled cigarette and snuffed it on a beer bottle.
“Won this silver belt buckle at the Clay County Rodeo.” She grinned and lifted up her belly from the belt that girdled her faded gauchos. The kids grinned back, some nearly as toothless as the celebrity aunt who once busted broncos for buckles and bucks.
Ranch-keeping for Rough Writers: In case you are wondering, I’m looking into some options for listing books in the Bunkhouse Bookstore. A gallery lets me set up a collection of thumbnails, but doesn’t allow for links to purchase. A list calls for too much scrolling. An idea will come to me! Like with writing, sometimes I just need to let the page simmer.
Watch for a book give-away over at Annecdotal this week, as Rough Writer, Anne Goodwin, will be posting one with a book review.
Thanks for the terrific show last week! Your feats and remarks were inspiring!
It is done…
…not really. 51,000 words and many more to go.
What NaNoWriMo did for me this year is get me started and kept me to writing the tedious scenes. Tedious because they were “not the story” but needed to explain the story, to develop the characters and establish the time period.
The exciting scenes come next. So does strategy for revision(s). Plural because there’s always more than one revision. What I have is bare bones. What I need is more research, feedback and fleshing out. Then onto flow and next to accuracy and correctness. Whew!
A book is never done in one draft. A book isn’t necessarily done in 30 days or 50,000 words. Whether you hit the target or not, pause to take good measure. Goals are not necessarily meant to be achieved, but to mark our progress. Celebrate. Commiserate. And tomorrow morning you get up and write.
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
~Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956
One last peek at Rock Creek:
“She needed a lesson, and you too.”
Cob came back and sat next to her. Sarah looked at him. “Me?”
“Nancy Jane’s been putting fool thoughts in that gentle head of yours.”
“Nancy Jane is my friend! No one befriends me, Cob. No, one. I had hoped it would be different out here, but this place is so empty. Nancy Jane is my friend.”
“If she’s your friend then why is she trying to come between you and me?”
Sarah didn’t know how to answer him. It was true. Nancy Jane thought Sarah had ability to set up her own businesses in a bigger city. Maybe even Denver. “She’s only encouraging me to use my skills. Maybe I have dreams of my own.”
“Oh? And what are your plans for these dreams?”
Sarah took a deep breath. “You owe me money, too.”
Cob chuckled. “Oh, my what a stake you have in those two notes. I might be owed more than I have but by God I have that fine amount to pay you. How far you think it’ll get you on your path to dreams?”
“Denver! Whoa now, that’s a big place. What will you do in Denver?”
“Don’t be hurtful, Cob. I can account elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere. You need a dose of reality, Rosebud. You head out to Denver with your money in your purse, and I’ll even buy your coach fare, you’ll have maybe two years of squalid living if you don’t go buying up all the calicoes and doodads you see. And you can go about the place for two years knocking on doors for a job and there won’t be none hiring you.”
“You don’t know that. Accounting is a valuable skill.”
“It sure is, Rosebud. And it’s a man’s skill. No credible business will hire some woman they don’t even know. You father taught you because he had need. I keep you because I have need of you, too.” He hugged her shoulders.
“I could work for a company that knows me,” she said softly.
“Like Russel, Majors and Waddel.”
Sarah stiffened. Was he teasing her or willing to set her free? “Perhaps.”
Cob roared with laughter, slapping his knee with the arm that had been hugging her. This time Sarah stood up, but he grabbed her hand to keep her close. “First off, do you know why they are not making good on their note to me?”
Sarah shook her head.
“Mr. Russel was arrested Christmas Eve for embezzling bonds meant for the Indian tribes.”
“He’s in jail?”
“The government let him out of prison when the states began seceding in April. You might say that Mr. Russel is the one man the war of the states saved.”
“What of the other partners?”
“Mr. Waddel is struggling. I imagine Mr. Majors is praying. I need to get paid my gold. Paper is going to mean nothing soon.”
“Not even the employees are getting their pay, Cob.”
“Sonofa! For how long?”
“I heard that was why the rider Fry quit end of May and joined up with Union forces. Nancy Jane says they haven’t received June funds. Horace wasn’t even able to get supplies they need.”
“That’s it. Tomorrow I’m cleaning up Rock Creek station. They are gone!”
“Please Cob, where will Nancy Jane go? Horace might not take her if he loses his job. He might have to return to Ohio.”
“He’s not going to lose his job. I’m just going to evict them. They can ride back to Brownsville. I’ll install Gordon as agent for the station. They can run their stages, but I’ll confiscate their livestock until I get my gold.”
Sarah couldn’t hold back the tears. “It’s just hopeless!”
“What? What are these damned tears about?”
“You took everything from her, punishing her Pa like that. Nancy Jane is not like other women.”
“She’s like every other women and the punishment was hers so she’d know it!”
“She was free.”
“Free? What does that even mean, Rosebud?”
“Nancy Jane can ride horses as fearless as a man and she’s not had to settle for marrying and she has a sense of not being hindered by what others think.”
Cob snorted. “Sure, she can sit a saddle as steady as a man, even hunt and take care of her gun. But what use is that to a woman? How is she free? Her Pa’s a drunk, her man can leave her without any sense of obligation and because she don’t care what others think others won’t help her.”
Tears flowed freely. “And thanks to you, she now knows that.”
“Good! There’s nothing she’s told you that’s been useful. She’s had you believing things that aren’t possible. I was there when she asked Mr. Waddel if he’d hire you as accountant.”
“You were? When?”
“Back in Brownsville. When the company was flush with federal funds.”
“What did he say.”
“Said his company doesn’t hire women.”
“I see.” Sarah slumped back onto the bed. She wiped her tears. No point in crying. She knew all along. She wasn’t going to head off to Denver. She wasn’t going to make her way in this world. It was a man’s world and that was Cob’s point of brutally punishing Joseph Holmes in front of Nancy Jane. Cob could do it, her father would suffer it and there was nothing Nancy Jane could do. Cob broke her. He took everything she had. Her sense of independence, her freedom, her security.
“Nancy Jane will learn her place. All women do, Rosebud.” He kissed her and pushed her back on the bed.
Imagination fills the gaps.
Sometimes I struggle because I want to be right. When writing history, it’s easy to slip up and include an object not yet invented or miss a social cue that today would be non-existent but back then ever so important.
The temptation is to research while writing. Yet that interrupts the flow of the underlying story. In the beginning I wrote a single flash fiction based on a historical event. It lead me to wonder…why? Then…what if?
Writing flash fiction and reading more about the event was complementary. It allowed me to find the story among the facts.
Once I felt the story had a hold of my imagination, I was ready to draft long prose. Yet, that temptation to be right, to be accurate, frequently grabs me. And when I go to look up a fact or better understand a place, I find that the story dwindles.
My discipline has been to use my imagination to write what I don’t know. My strategy is to go back and create a research list for revision. The importance is the story and getting it down. Once a writer has material, then revision is possible and research is refined.
This is why I like NaNoWriMo as a tool for drafting. My imagination gets a full 30 days of play. There is no right or wrong way to do it. It’s just pure writing. And that leads to discovery beyond any research.
Thought for the Day:
“The work is the work itself. If she writes a lot, that’s good. If she revises a lot, that’s even better. She should not only write about what she knows but about what she doesn’t know. It extends the imagination.” ~Toni Morrison
Word Count: 2,900
Excerpt From Rock Creek:
The voices in the hallway drew closer and two men emerged. One was as tall as Hickok but broad as a bull ox. His dark brown hair was thick and she recognized those intense brown eyes. It was Cob McCanles. He wore a linen scarf of black and white around his neck and his billowing white shirt was as bright as fresh snow. His dark brown leather vest was snug as were his close-fitting trousers that were the color of buckskin, but made of that material Sarah called linsey-woolsey. The other man was shorter and rounder like a barrel in a gray suit. His pudgy cheeks were hidden behind a mass of graying facial whiskers and the top of his head was bald and gleaning.
“Mr. Waddel, Mr. McCandles,” Horace greeted.
“Hello, Cob,” said Nancy Jane.
If Cob was surprised to see her, he didn’t reveal it. He merely nodded at her.
“Cob,” said the man Horace had called Mr. Waddel.
“Kin name for David Colbert,” said Cob.
“Ah. So, this miss is your kin?”
“No she is not. A neighbor.”
“I’m a friend of Horace.” Nancy Jane felt that the office was too small for her and these three men.
The round man turned to Horace who was starting to blush once again. “Oh, she’s your friend, Mr. Wellman.”
Horace sputtered. Nothing he said was coherent.
Nancy Jane wasn’t sure what to do, now. “I’m going to go over to the boarding house where Joe Baker is staying with his wife. I’m bunking with him.”
“You know Joe Baker, too? Another employee.”
“And Jim Hickok and Dock Brinks. Most of your freighters. The ones that head into Colorado, that is.”
“Just how do you know all these men? I’m not sure Mr. Majors would approve.” Mr. Waddel looked like that pastor that once told her Pa they were headed to hell.
“Nancy Jane Holmes was a cook at Rock Creek station before Mr. McCandles bought it. Her father has long settled in the Territory and he’s done carpentry jobs for us. Joseph Holmes.” At last Horace found his tongue.
“Holmes, yes, seems I recall hearing that name.”
Cob looked at Nancy Jane. “Carpentry? He didn’t build those hovels I tore down and rebuilt did he?”
Nancy Jane wouldn’t have called them hovels, but she did know that Cob’s work was stouter and more square. “No, fixing spokes mostly.”
“A wheelwright then.”
Nancy Jane shrugged. “He once had a carpentry shop in St. Jo. Used to make fine lady’s boxes.”
“In St. Jo, Missouri! Yes, Joseph Holmes. I remember now. My goodness, I think I bought one of those boxes you speak of. Heavens, I thought his family all died when the typhoid fever swept the place.” Mr. Waddel’s face softened.
“Me and my brother survived. Pa moved us west. Thought it would be healthier.”
“What’s your brother up to these days? I’m always looking for men who know the territory. Does he hunt, scout?”
“I do, Sir.” Maybe she could get a job, just like she kept telling Sarah. These men be damned.
They all laughed like she told a great joke. Even Horace, although halfheartedly. “I hunt near every day and know the lay of the land. I can outrace most your outriders including Dock Brink who they say is your best. I can load and shoot a Hawkins rifle with great accuracy and I ain’t’ afraid of the wide open spaces like most easterners.”
Cob stopped laughing. “Lass, you’d be called a mountain girl back home and expected to be self-sufficient. You aren’t any different from the women I know. And none of them work a man’s job.”
Nancy Jane stuck out her chin. “What of Sarah? She keeps books. That’s a man’s job.”
Cob folded his arms. “Yes, she does keep books. Once for her Da and now for me. Sarah’s kin. No man outside of kin would hire her to keep books.”
“Mr. Waddel, would you hire Sarah Shull to keep books?”
Mr. Waddel raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “I would not hire away the book keeper of a man whom I have business dealings.”
Nancy Jane wondered what business dealings he could have with the company. “What if she wanted a job?”
“The company does not hire women.”
Nancy Jane balled her fists at her sides. “Fools!”
“Nancy Jane, that is enough.” Horace looked appalled, Mr. Waddel shocked and Cob laughed with mirth.
Cob said, “What do you do, Nancy Jane? I could hire you.”
Mr. Waddel shook his head. “Are you upon hard times Miss Holmes?”
“No Sir. I’m self-sufficient as a mountain girl.”
Horace said, “Mr. Waddel. Nancy Jane lost her husband to the border troubles, her brother too. And this past summer her young child died of sickness. Her father is immobilized with his grieving.”
Nancy Jane couldn’t believe Horace would spill out her troubles that were no one’s concerns but hers. She set him straight. “He weren’t my husband.”
Cob said, “And an honest lass.”
Mr. Waddel looked stern. “So you do sleep with men. Is that why my freighters stop by your place?”
“No Sir. They know I hunt and stop by my place for venison and to ask what I might have seen out in the open country. Might say I inform your scouts. Only Horace…”
“Nancy Jane!” Horace flushed his reddest.
Good. Let him suffer.
Mr. Waddel turned to Horace. “Is she you’re common-law wife?”
Horace hesitated. Nancy Jane didn’t know what he meant. “What’s that?”
“It’s a man who has taken a woman out on the frontier. He’s then responsible for protecting her. Watching out for her. Otherwise the woman would just be a common strumpet.”
“Yes, Mr. Waddel. Nancy Jane Holmes is my common-law wife.” He then looked down at his desk.
“Good, then. You’ll see to it that you take care of Mrs. Wellman. David, or perhaps, Cob, it’s a pleasure doing business with you. I look forward to the improvements you’ll be making to the station to prepare it as a stage stop.”
The two men left with Nancy Jane staring at Horace. “Mrs. Wellman? So your wife is here in town?”
“You. He was referring to you as Mrs. Wellman. My common-law wife. And no. My wife is back in Ohio with family. She hates the frontier, and I’m not all that fond of the pressures of Ohio. I feel freer out west.”
Later, when Nancy Jane went to visit Joe Baker to explain her turn of events, she found Joe looking woeful. His wife it seems was not happy to have a house on the prairie unless it was a fine house. She spoke endlessly of Denver and what the ladies were wearing. She yelled at her daughters to be quiet and soon took each girl by the arm and drug them off to bed.
“Maybe Cob could help you build a fine home.”
The two stepped out so Joe could smoke his pipe. Nancy Jane took a few puffs. Hickok saw them when he stepped out of the saloon for fresh air. “Why so long in the face friends?”
Nancy Jane explained that Joe’s wife wasn’t happy to be homesteading after all, and that she was somehow Horace’s common law wife.
Hickok chuckled. “You? A squaw wife?”
“I’m no Pawnee!”
“True. You could probably out ride one. Well, let’s toast to our futures.” Hickok pulled out a whiskey flask and they each took a pull.
Trust your sense of taste.
Cooking a book is a lot like kitchen cooking. We have recipes from the masters like Chef of the Day and Author of the Year, but learn to trust your own taste.
It’s nearing my favorite feast of the year and I’m pecking away at the keyboard so I can go get sloshed with my bird. Over the years, I’ve followed recipes, experimented with techniques and have come upon a formula for the best Mills Family Thanksgiving Turkey. We affectionately call it the “drunken turkey.”
After writing, I’ll pop a cork on a cheap bottle of Riesling and I’ll brine my 18 pound bird in wine, Kosher salt, honey, juniper berries, caraway seeds, mustard seeds and peppercorns. I’ve taste-tested many recipes and this one is the best.
I look forward to the day that I feel as confident with writing novels, that day when I can learn to trust my own sense of taste and break away from recipes and perfect my favorite. I want to achieve those same looks with readers as my family gives me at the dinner table. Ah, the ultimate goal.
Thought for Day 25:
“Don’t try to comprehend with your mind. Your minds are very limited. Use your intuition.”
Word Count: 1,537
Excerpt From Rock Creek:
“Is your mama dead?” Cling snuggled closer to Mary.
“I don’t rightly know. She was sold when I was but a boy not much older than you.” Cato shrugged, bouncing Lizzie who cast a rare smile.
“Sold?” Monroe folded his arms across his chest.
“Slaves are sold like horses or mules,” said Celia, as if explaining how to plant corn seed with pole beans.
James added, “According to the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court has declared that slaves are indeed property and subject to their owners regardless of the owner visiting a free or slave state.”
Monroe looked at his grandparents and then at the man holding his sister. He flung out his arm, pointing, “This is not a mule. He’s a man.”
“I belong to the O’Bannon family,” said Cato.
“But you aren’t a mule. Do you want to be owned?”
“I can’t talk about such things. It’s not how things is in Virginia.”
“Mama, this in not Virginia. Can’t we help Cato stay here?”
James walked over and laid a gentle hand on Monroe’s shoulder. “Monroe, North Carolina and Tennessee are both slave states, too.”
“But there’s no slaves in the mountains!”
“There’s a few plantations down in the valley at the edge of Watauga county. They have slaves. You’re right. We have no slaves here in the mountains.”
“We grow our own farms up here,” said Emily.
“Monroe, this is why our nation is squabbling, even our neighbors because the free states don’t want the slave states to expand their territories west. Some even want to abolish slavery all together.”
“Why don’t we?”
“Large plantations are created on an economy that requires slave labor. This is why those of us who believe in an intact union also believe in creating a fair economy. While slavery is something that needs to be addressed, so do the economic gains of all men in this nation. Not just the industrialists of the north.”
“What do the industrialists want,” asked Monroe.
“They want us to buy everything they make in their factories,” said Emily.
“Why? We make what we need.”
“Exactly. The common man needs to have a voice in economics,” said James.
Monroe looked at Cato. “Slaves need to have a voice, too.”
“I understand how you feel Monroe. It’s your Scots blood rising. The call of freedom. But freedom always comes at a cost. This is why a nation stands together for the good of its people. Otherwise its no better than serving a crown.”
“Let’s give him some gold coins so he can escape to a free state then.” Monroe looked at his grandfather, hopeful.
“Oh, no, young Master Monroe. I can’t run away.” Cato’s eyes grew wide.
Celia added, “If he was found with gold coins he’d have a difficult time explaining how he got them. And if he was captured, he could be severely punished.”
Mary realized that Monroe was developing Cob’s scowl. “Is Nebraska Territory a slave state,” he asked, practicing that scowl.
“No, it is not. Although that’s part of the dispute between states.”
Monroe kicked at a pebble in the yard. “Then I’m glad to be going to a free state.”
Later, James took the boys fishing and the women settled into making supper. Mary was denied even the most minimal of tasks in her pregnant condition so she sat in a rocker on the porch feeling useless. Cato had chopped some wood and returned to the porch where he was rocking Lizzie and telling her what a pretty girl she was.
“No one has said that of my Lizzie.”
Cato smiled wide. “Why she’s a pretty soul through and through.”
The longer Cato stayed with them the more Mary felt like Monroe. She had never thought much about slavery. It was a rich folks problem. If they could find a way to hide Cato and get him all the way out to Nebraska she would do it. Then she considered the obvious condition of Cato’s skin. He was so black he’d stand out. That thought made her even angrier. The slavers must have figured that one out long ago.
The skin color was so different that it made other folks superstitious. Silly prejudices that people developed out of fear so they wouldn’t involve themselves. Even Lizzie with her discernible differences made most people nervous. Being different scared folks. Look at what silly gooses they all acted like when Cato showed up. But what was even worse is how the black skin color stood out, making it difficult to hide.
This Nebraska Territory was sounding better all the time. She didn’t get into the politics of men, but now she had a better understanding of the economies men fought over. To Mary it seemed like the rich in the south were fighting with the rich in the north. They might go to war, but it would be people like her brothers and nephews who would fight it. Wasn’t this nation supposed to be different from that? Yes, she was beginning to better understand this desire to go west for a fresh start.
Celia stepped out on the porch and said, “Supper soon. Cato, would you fetch James and the boys?”
Mary watched Cato walk toward the creek, chatting away to Lizzie as if she were grown. “I hope the slaves are freed if it comes to war.”
Celia shook her head. “I wish it were that simple. They will be like a lot of lost children if set free. They’ll not know how to make their way in this world and they’ll be at the mercy of evil men for a long time I fear.”
Mary sighed. Nothing was easy and this coming war was only going to make things harder for good folks. She said a prayer for Cato at bedtime, for Cob and for her family. “Lord spare us from the evil in this world.”
Your story is both unique and part of something greater.
It’s snowing tonight and I can’t help but compare stories to snowflakes. Each storm is new, fresh. No matter how many stories go out each one is a fresh new voice. Like snowflakes, each story is unique though collectively it forms snow.
So what does that make our collective of stories? Literature. You might think of literature as high prose or the work of professional authors but did you know that literature is defined as, “all writings in prose or verse, esp. those of an imaginative or critical character, without regard to their excellence: often distinguished from scientific writing, news reporting, etc.”
Stories become part of the literature of one’s time and place. Do not underestimate the unique potential that your story can express. Treat it as unique, your voice, your perspective, your influences, your experiences. Let those things come through. Add to it your research, you imagination, but make your story unique as a snowflake then let it fly in the storm of literature.
Thought for Day 24:
“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” ~Stephen McCranie
Word Count: 1,500
Excerpt From Rock Creek:
Not long after the men had left, a soft knock came at the door during supper. With all the men gone, it was just Emily, Mary, Sally, Celia, James and the children. Emily had a large shepherd that usually announced loudly the arrival of any strangers. He was silent so they assumed it was Julia or Mary Catherine, or perhaps one of their older children.
Emily rose and stepped back from the door looking startled. In the open frame stood a a small black man with gray at the temples of his curly hair. His eyes were wide with worry, his clothes dirty and torn. “I’m lost,” he said.
“Where are you from,” asked James, rising from the table.
“I don’t know. My family is the O’Bannons”
Celia wiped her mouth with her linen napkin and set it on the table as she rose. “Emily, go fetch a bar of pitch soap and some clothes that might fit this man.”
Emily looked even more startled looking back to the man and to her mother who stood firm until Emily went to fetch the items. Celia prepared a tin plate of food.
When she returned, Celia took them and walked over to the door. “Eat some food. Then I want you to go bathe in the creek, put on some clean clothes and then return here when you are through.”
The man nodded and left. Celia returned to her dinner and everyone turned to stare at her. “Mother, what are you doing?”
She took a bite and chewed before finishing. “I know the family he speaks of. They’re from Virginia.”
“He’s probably an escaped slave,” said Mary.
“He’s frightened. If he had escaped he wouldn’t have come to the door. Let him settle down and we’ll find out what his story is and help him find his way back to Virginia.”
James had stopped eating. “Your shepherd, Emily. He never barked.”
“Oh, no! He might have killed the dog.” She rose and pushed away from the table.
Monroe and his cousin Ranze got up, too.
“Hold on, boys. I’ll go look for the dog.”
“I’m going with you, Father,” said Emily.
Everybody filed out of the house except Sally who refused to go and said she’d stay with Lizzie. They all followed James to the creek. They could hear the man talking to someone. James raised his hand to keep his family quiet and to stay put. He crept quietly through the bushes as any old fisherman could do, and disappeared. Soon they heard James laugh and when he returned, the shepherd was with him, bounding through the brush and lapping his greeting across the smaller faces.
“He was talking to the dog as if it were his new best friend.”
Relax. Breathe. You’ve got this!
I don’t know about you, but I need a massage. I type one-handed so my right shoulder is starting to burn with marathon writing sprees. I’ve surpassed 33,000 words so I feel like I deserve something relaxing.
Without losing momentum I turned to something horsey since horses have a role in my novel. So I’m sharing a relaxing horse moment with you:
While you write, be sure to take breathing breaks. Stand up, swing your arms overhead, hands to the sky. Breath deep, pushing out your belly so your lungs can fill. Hold…1…2…3…4…5…exhale, swing arms down. Do this four more times and your brain will feel revived, your body oxygenated.
Thought for Day 20:
“You have to relax, write what you write. It sounds easy but it’s really, really hard. One of the things it took me longest to learn was to trust the writing process.” ~Diane Setterfield
Word Count: 1,766
Excerpt From Rock Creek:
Allen stood as tall as Cob and had white streaks starting at his temples. He nodded. “More sensible plan than that of digging holes for elusive metals. Come on up to the house.” He spoke softly to the man with the pitchfork before motioning to Cob and Sarah to follow him.
Sarah stared at the great white columns that held up the front of the house. It reminded her of an illustration she had seen of Washington’s Great White House in the nation’s capitol. She suddenly felt grimy so close to such gleaming whiteness.
Inside Sarah saw polished and gilded furniture, colorful carpets, crystal hurricane lamps mounted on painted walls among portraits and grand scenes of hunting and horses. A negro dressed in finer clothes than Sarah had seen on a person greeted Allen who again, spoke softly. The man walked swiftly away. Sarah had never seen a negro before, though she once heard of bounty hunters passing through Watauga in search of an escapee.
“We’ll prepare you rooms for the night. Separate rooms.” Allen leveled a stare at Sarah that said he knew she wasn’t Mrs. McCanles. She flushed.
“Sarah’s my accountant. She’s going to help me get my business started.” How Cob managed to look as innocent as a newborn babe, she had no idea.
Allen raised one eyebrow and directed his gray-eyed stare at her. “Accountant? And what ledger system do you prefer, Miss Sarah?”
“Nothing complicated. A simple cost management system will do.”
Allen smiled. “Really? And where did you learn accounting?”
“My father. His grandfather was German and taught him a ledger method from that country which differs slightly from what British companies follow. I maintained the cost management of his store.”
“Ah, Father. We have guests from Appalachia passing through. Family. Celia’s boy, David.”
Moses Alexander was once tall, but now his shoulders and back stooped and he walked stiffly, the way Sarah felt some mornings when she woke up cold and aching from the thin ticking of her mattress. His hair was white as the pillars of the porch and his eyes were glazed yet still gray. “Celia,” he said, nodding but not sure he could recall.
“David’s daughter, Father.”
“David’s daughter. The one who married that school teacher from North Carolina?”
Allen cast a sideways glance at Cob. “The very one.”
“Ah, such a pity. Such pretty girls and they both ran off to the highlands.”
“Damned highlanders, stealing pretty girls. Louisa? Is Louisa well?”
Cob stood with the bundles at his boots and Sarah fancied he looked every bit of a Robbie Burns hero with his thick black hair and keen brown eyes beneath his broad-brimmed hat set askew and linen scarf wrapped about his neck. “Aunt Louisa is quite well. Her son James Wood will be joining my brother and me out west in our business venture.”
“Business, eh? And who is this mountain filly? Not your wife, I suppose.” He turned his glassy gray eyes on Sarah.
“Miss Sarah is David’s accountant.”
“Accountant! Is that what they’re called these days? Well, not bad for an accountant.” Sarah didn’t like the way Moses was summing her up.
The negro returned and Allen announced that they would be shown to their rooms and that dinner would be served in an hour. The door to Sarah’s room was across the hall from Cob’s. He winked at her before he went in and said, “Don’t worry. Alexander blood is thick. Endure what you must tonight, but tomorrow we’ll be leaving on fine Kentucky horse flesh or my mother will will whip up Grandfather Alexander into a furry that will rain down on Uncle Moses’s head like hail.”
Sarah smiled, but worried about what it was she might have to endure. When she walked into her room, she realized that it was as large as her entire cabin. The bed was so tall that it had steps and was draped in thick tapestry with mauve blossoms on burgundy, swirled with white vines and green leaves as dark as pine needles. The walls were striped with gold and cream with burgundy curtains at the windows that rose taller than her. Paintings of horses on green grass and one of a magnolia tree hung in gilded frames on the walls. Two rose-colored chairs sat facing a crackling fire in a marble fireplace. What heaven did she just walk into?
A woman’s voice chuckled from behind her. “Your bumpkin eyes don’t know where to set do they, girl?”
Sarah turned around to face a woman no taller than she with a massive bosom and a plain dress with a crisp white apron. Her black hair coiled in tight curls beneath a red headscarf and her skin was golden-brown. Her eyes were a light gray. “Hello. Are you one of the Alexanders? I’m Sarah.”
The woman had a booming laugh that could rival one of Cob’s rumblers. “I belong to the Alexanders, girl. I’m Bessie and I run this household. Let’s get you fixed up. We only have an hour and your dishevelment could frighten the Holy Spirit out of a reverend’s mother.”
In an hour, Bessie had transformed Sarah into a fairybook queen. While she bathed Sarah, coiffed her hair and dressed her in a cast-off from Allen’s youngest daughter who was away at boarding school in Virginia, Bessie informed Sarah of who the Alexanders were and where each one was. She spoke of the trouble with catching the chickens that morning, of the latest filly born and the news about the northern aggressors. Sarah didn’t know how the woman could be so swift with her fingers and so fast with her tongue. She could hardly digest all the information.
By the time Bessie introduced Sarah to the corset, she realized that she would endure much discomfort. How in the world did women where such horrid things? Her ribs ached and breathing felt shallow as if she had a boulder pressing down on her. Next came a hoop and a pile of petticoats, which felt strange as if her legs had a private room. But Sarah forgot all about her discomfort when she saw the dress.
Blue and ivory plaid with narrow pink striping, it was trimmed with edged bows. The neckline swooped from shoulder to shoulder and the sleeves were nothing more than caps like the bell of a lily. “This will show off those pretty blue eyes of your, Miss Sarah.” Bessie slipped the softest shoes onto Sarah’s feet that were ivory with leather soles. “You do look presentable, and just in time.”
Bessie led her downstairs to a formal dining room where the men were each holding crystal glasses with dark amber liquid. They all turned and stared at Sarah and she worried that maybe something was wrong with her dress. Why were they staring at her?
“Well, Miss Sarah, for an accountant of German origins you do clean up nicely.” Allen toasted her with his glass.
“Very nice, Lass, very nice. I see why my grand-nephew needs an accountant.”
Cob’s brown eyes the color of the liquid in his glass had deepened into a smoldering stare. “You look beautiful, Sarah.”
For the rest of her life, she’d never forget that dress. Bessie packed her two simple cotton dresses, one the color of dried tobacco with tiny orange flowers and the other a dark hunter plaid with blue and ivory stripes. And as Cob predicted, they left riding two long-legged bays followed by two pack mules, a mare and a filly. Cob was riding a stallion and as his Uncle Moses said, he was leaving Kentucky with the beginnings of the finest horse ranch Pikes Peak would ever see. Cob struck gold barely out of Tennessee.