Earlier this year I took part in a reading at the Starving Artist Cafe in the Argenta District of Little Rock, AR. My story, A Day at the Snake House, has been chosen out of 155 stories read in 2011 to be published in the anthology, The Best of Tales From the South, Vol. VI.
Here's a very short excerpt to whet your appetite for this important Southern story anthology;
Living in the wilderness of the Ozarks, I’ve occasionally
experienced face-to-face encounters with the evil little crawlers.
It’s an understatement to say we have plenty of snakes in these
hills. All four of the continent’s poisonous snakes live
somewhere in Arkansas, three of them in our part of the state.
The best thing is, we rarely see them, but we know they’re
around. Lurking under rocks and boards and fallen trees.
So when Fred Lally made it fairly clear that it would be
“interview me, interview my snakes,” I had to reach a quick
decision. Did I want to chicken out or go for it? I’m thinking
here, small snakes, and definitely not poisonous ones. They’d be
in boxes or cages or terrariums, surely. Yes, I could do it.
With a quiver in my voice, I answered, “Of course I want to
see your snakes.”
“Okay, come on up to the house around nine, and we’ll
talk, I’ll arrange for a visit with the big guys.”
I managed to croak, “Big guys?”
Calm as could be he said, “Got me one of the longest
reticulated pythons in captivity.” END OF EXCERPT
My adventure had only begun with this phone conversation. For someone like me who was always terrified of snakes, this turned into one of the greatest adventures I had during my 9 years working with a small, rural weekly newspaper. It was by far not the only excitement I experienced, but it rates right up there at the top. Here's a link to find out more about the "big guys" I visited and held that day.
I'll let readers know when the anthology is released and post it to my website so you can read my story.
Monday, November 28, 2011
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Saturday we drove to the Arkansas River Valley where the Nina and Pinta ships were docked. These two ships were reproductions of the original on which Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492 on his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
I was immediately struck by the size, especially of the Nina, pictured here. It is hard to imagine sailing across an immense ocean, weathering storms and rough seas in such a tiny craft. We learned that the Nina, on which there were 120 passengers, was the only vessel in West Indian waters to survive the hurricane of 1495. As a writer I have a pretty good imagination, but my mind boggled at the idea of 120 people packed aboard this ship.
While the Pinta is 85 feet long with a 24 foot beam, the Nina is a mere 65 feet long, with a beam of 18 feet. As you can see from the photo, there are two sails up front. There is also one which you can't see at the rear. She is steered, not with a wheel, but by a tiller attached to a rudder. Imagine that for a moment. The Nina has quite a history. After Columbus selected her out of 17 ships for his flagship, he later purchased a half share in her.
She was chartered for an unauthorized voyage to Rome and was captured by a corsair and brought to anchor at Cape Pula, Sardinia, where she was stripped of her arms and crew. The Captain Alonso Medel escaped with a few men, stole a boat, rowed back to Nina, cut her cables and made sail. She returned to Cadiz in time to sail for Hispaniola early in 1498 as advance guard of Columbus' Third Voyage. She was lying in Santo Domingo in 1500 and was last heard of making a trading voyage to the Pearl Coast in 1501. In all she logged at least 25,000 miles under the command of Christopher Columbus. Both were used by explorers during the Age of Discovery, but the Pinta disappeared from history without a trace.
These replicas of both the Nina and Pinta are the first historically correct replicas of a 15th Century Caravel. They were built in Valenca, Brazil, using only adzes, axes, hand saws and chisels along with naturally-shaped timbers from the local forest. The reproduction of the Nina was finished 16 years before that of the Pinta was built so that the two could tour the western hemisphere together.
It was a thrill to see them on the Arkansas River near Ft. Smith. For someone who loves history, this was an exciting day. In my mind's eye I watched the brave men who sailed such vessels, going about their daily chores, then taking turns bedding down on the decks to catch some sleep. How they must have fought to remain on board during stormy seas. Where did they eat? I couldn't help but wonder how enough food and water was stored in such tight quarters for voyages that took many months to complete.
When I heard they were hiring on more crew members, I wished I were forty years younger. I'd take them up on it in a heartbeat. Nothing is more freeing than being on a boat or ship on open waters with nothing in sight but water and the horizon painted against a brilliant sky.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Heartbroken Dessa stood next to Mama and Papa and watched Mitch go out of sight through the trees. Tears flowed like fire down her cheeks. How could he leave them for a stupid war?
Mama patted her shoulder, but said nothing because she couldn’t speak either. She was crying as hard as her daughter. Their world had been torn apart, and Dessa was afraid it would never be the same again.
Papa cleared his throat. “Come on, girls. Let’s get back in the house before you catch your death standing out here in the cold bareheaded.”
Dessa stumbled along, staring over her shoulder for one last brief glimpse of her brother. Nothing there but shadowy woods. Without Mitchell the normal gaiety of Christmas in Kansas City would be drab as those leafless trees moaning and clattering like skeletons dancing in the cold December wind.
“But Papa, I’m bored with staying at home.” Dessa stood her ground against his scowl. “ I don’t want to learn to tat or embroider. I want to work in one of the stores. You need extra help for the holidays.”
“Perhaps you’d like to go away to one of those fancy boarding schools. I’d assure you you wouldn’t be bored there.”
The implied threat sent chills down her back. “God, no.” Immediately she bit her tongue. Papa did not tolerate the use of the Lord’s name in vain.
“Watch your tongue young lady, or that’s exactly where you’ll be. In a flash.”
“I’m sorry, but Papa, I’m eighteen, a woman grown.”
“Yes, and it’s time you found yourself a husband and settled down.”
“All the good men have gone off to war. Where would you like me to look for this husband?”
Papa sighed and waved an arm about. “Plenty of men bought off going to war.”
“And you would like me to settle for one of them? Rich cowards. With our Mitchell out there somewhere. Never would I even look twice at a man like that.”
“Please, child. I have to go downtown. There’s a problem at the store there. Without Mitchell I’m short handed —”
“I know, and I can help. I’m good with people. Let me just try it. Take me with you and you’ll see, I will sell more fashionable clothes than anyone you’ve got in any of the stores.”
Papa lifted his shoulders and glanced about, as if in search of help from Mama, who wisely remained in the kitchen when Dessa and Papa got into it, as she put it. When he saw no escape, he gestured around the room.
“All right, child, but I know I’ll regret this. Get your things and we’ll see what you’re made of.”
Dessa went to work in the downtown Fallon’s that day, and immediately endeared herself to everyone who shopped there. After Christmas, when business dropped off a bit, she feared Papa might let her go, but he didn’t. For the first time in her life she felt useful, not the rich little girl growing up with everything handed to her on a silver platter. If Mitchell hadn’t been gone off to the war, she’d have been content.
That April the war ended and Dessa readied herself for Mitch’s return. But he didn’t come and neither did a letter that he might be on the way. She dared not think of the worst, but by the end of summer it was clear her brother wasn’t coming home. The entire household went into mourning, and Mama took to her bed. Papa grew gaunt and let his store managers handle business. Dessa spent hours in her room, refusing to face the idea that she might never see her brother again.
Then a letter came from Virginia City, Montana saying that Mitch was alive. But it wasn’t from him, it was from some woman who claimed to have seen him.
Mama crawled from her bed and began tossing clothing from the chiffarobe. Papa paced the floor, reading and re-reading the letter.
“Papa, you know it’s probably not true. I want to believe it, we want to believe it. But who is this woman? She probably just wants money from you.”
He nodded fiercely. “Yes, yes, child, you’re right, I know it. If our Mitchell was alive he would’ve been in touch by now. But I simply can’t discount it out of hand. Our store in Virginia City is sorely in need of better management. It wouldn’t hurt if I went there where I could investigate this at length from close at hand.”
“You’re not going without me, Mr. Fallon,” Mama shouted, hands fisted at her sides.
“Someone has to remain here and run the household, and be available should something arise at one of the stores that can only be handled by family.”
Dessa glanced from her father’s stern face to Mama’s tearful one. The possibility of her brother’s being alive had brought Mama back from the brink of death. It was only right she go with Papa.
“I’ll stay then,” Dessa said. “But promise you’ll let me know the minute you find out anything. And that you’ll allow me to join you if it’s true and my brother is alive.”
Mama and Papa stared at her a moment. “Alone?” Mama whispered. “No, I won’t allow that.”
“Hush,” Papa said, taking her hand in his. “We’ll hire someone to accompany her, should it be necessary.”
That night Dessa lay awake for hours, imagining the discovery that her brother was alive. But that was foolish, wasn’t it? Just plain foolish.
Follow Dessa in the search for her brother in Montana Dreams.
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
Continuing my series on How Women Won the West, this is the tale of a prostitute with a heart of gold who is good to Tressie at a time when the young girl is sorely in need of friends. This story tells how Rose came to be in Virginia City, Montana.
A Heart of Gold
Rose pulled the sheet over her sweaty body and watched Carson pull up his pants. Without sparing her another look, he lay a few coins on the dressing table, grumbled something she didn’t catch and left the room. After cleaning herself up, she opened a drawer, unlocked a small box and deposited the coins there. She ran her fingers over the stash of gold and silver pieces. All earned the hard way. One day she would be done with this for good.
That night in Joe’s saloon where she worked her trade, a man rushed in shouting, “Gold, they’ve struck it rich.”
He continued to shout for a while, till Joe got him to calm down and take a couple of drinks.
“Settle down, man,” Joe said. “Where is this gold?”
“Alder Gulch, up by Virginia City. Picking up nuggets the size of their fist.”
The news spread through the room, putting an end to the poker games and stopping men and women who shuffled around on the dance floor.
“I’m telling you,” he continued. “Anyone with a shovel and some jerky oughta git on up there and stake a claim.”
Early the next morning, with dawn just silvering the sky, Rose crawled into bed, her last customer clomping down the stairs. She dreamed of getting out of this place, leaving Deadwood far behind. But how? What to do first?
That evening, she sat at the bar nursing a glass of bourbon when Weldon, a cowboy who’d been a regular with her for a few years, slid up close.
“How about one for the road, Rosie?”
She turned, looked him up and down. “You going somewhere?”
“Yep. Up to Virginia City to stake me a claim. I’m fed up with this place.”
“Could you do me a favor, then?” She wasn’t even sure where the decision came from, but there it was, plain as could be. “See if there’s any place in that town where I could set me up a Hurdy Gurdy house. It oughta do real good in a new town with gold nearby.”
He ran a finger between her breasts that poured from the neckline of her dress. “Let’s go upstairs and talk about this favor.”
When he left much later it was with instructions on what she needed and how much she could pay. “If there’s a bank, the money can be wired to the owner if you find what I’m looking for.”
“Some right smart fella might build you what you want if they ain’t a place available.”
And so a Hurdy Gurdy House she’d christened The Golden Sun came into being along the raw, rutty streets of the growing gold strike town in Virginia City, Montana.
By mid-summer Rose and Maggie, one of the girls from Joe’s, had packed up and boarded the stage coach.
The curtains, though closed, failed to keep out dust roiling up from the horses hooves. Skin covered in a thin coating, perspiration tracking through the grit, Rose held a dainty hanky over her mouth and nose, but that didn’t help much. The merciless trip from Deadwood to Virginia City dragged on and on. Never ending torture. Tasteless food served at endless stops, nowhere to wash up. If they slept it was on the stage. A couple of overnight layovers offered little better fare. All she could do was imagine her destination to help time pass.
True to his word, Weldon had arranged for the building of a rough hewn structure, rooms upstairs and cribs out back. A place of her own at last. A hurdy gurdy house in a town growing because of gold fever should do very well, and she would be its madame. No more following slovenly men to a crib and performing whatever ill-named task they had in mind. She’d need more women, and had left word with Joe she’d be hiring should anyone in Deadwood with enough looks to please a man be interested.
“How much longer do you think?” Maggie asked from behind her own hanky.
“I have no idea, child. But just keep a good thought. We’ll have a bath and a change of clothes and some decent food soon.”
Maggie nodded her pretty head, a few locks of loose dark hair bouncing around her exhausted features.
Beside Maggie sat a tall, thin Englishman who’d introduced himself as Jarrad Lincolnshire. “It shan’t be much longer now,” he said. “Do you have a friend in Virginia City?”
“No,” Rose said, lowering her eyes, loath to tell this handsome gentleman that she was a lady of the night. A soiled dove, some men called her kind. But that wouldn’t be her title anymore, would it?
He lowered his head in her direction. “If you need anything, please let me know. I’m just outside town at the mine. Send someone, those miners are pretty rough. Wouldn’t want a lady like you on site.”
A flush spread across her chest. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d blushed. But being treated so fine brought out the shyness of her forgotten youth.
He touched her arm. “I mean that, Miss Langue.” His dark gaze roamed slowly across her body. “Anything I can do.”
The stage lurched. Her thigh jostled against his and she shivered with desire.
You’d think I’d have had enough of men’s lust to do me a lifetime. But this one, he’s different. He’s a gentleman.
She smiled and made no attempt to move away from the contact. Neither did he. Perhaps once she was settled, she could make one exception at The Golden Sun and invite him into her room for special treatment. That would mean revealing how she’d made her way in the west since her sixteenth year. Daddy ran off with a customer of his mercantile and Mama took to her bed and the store soon went under leaving Rose on her own. She’d had little choice.
No time to be thinking about that long ago past she’d worked so hard to overcome. She was a business woman now, an owner and proprietor.
She turned to Jarrad. “Where have you come from? You don’t sound like an American.”
“I’m over here from London. A businessman, but bored with the dullness of buying and selling antiques. I learned of this new way of mining gold, using water to wash the soil away into troughs where the gold can then be plucked out by the buckets.”
“Oh my, it sounds exciting,” she said and batted her lashes at him.
Stop that, Rose. You should be ashamed, flirting as if you were a cheap calico queen.
Well, she wasn’t that...not anymore. But she’d have to work hard to get away from such a reputation, even when she ran the house. She could only hope Jarrad Lincolnshire wouldn’t give a hoot what she did for a living. Because, on his arm she would be respected, looked up to. And she was determined to be his woman.
When Tressie finds herself alone in Virginia City with a baby to raise, Rose befriends her and becomes a secondary character in the Montana Trilogy books.
Tuesday, November 01, 2011
I'm continuing my How Women Won the West series with this story. Hope you like it. Let me know and share it to Facebook if you'd like.
Prairie heat waves swallowed the horse and rider. Tressie wiped her tears and stared into the distance where Pa had disappeared. Inside the soddie, her mother’s sobs went on and on. She wanted to shout at her to hush up, but knew if she opened her mouth to speak, a great moan would escape and she might never stop. So she pressed her lips together and watched the emptiness until her eyes burned. He wasn’t coming back. Ever.
In the night she’d listened to them talk about the gold rush.
“Emma, it’s a good way to make things better for you and Tressie and the new one.”
“But what will we do without you?” Ma strained to whisper, but Tressie heard her in the stillness of the night.
“It won’t be that long. Bracken says they’re picking up fist-sized nuggets at Alder Gulch, just laying about on the ground. I’ll come home before fall and we’ll be rich. You can get by till then.”
“But the baby, I want you here when it comes.”
“I can’t be here and there too. I have to do this and you have to be strong, and that’s the end of it.”
Tressie had heard that tone on a few occasions. Pa was a gentle man, but Ma said he never could stay in one place too long. This time his itchy feet had won out over love for her and Ma. He didn’t even care about the baby on its way. The hankering for gold overpowered everything. One final look at the empty horizon and she turned her back on visions of the far off place called Virginia City and went inside the soddie to soothe Ma.
“Hush now, you’ll make yourself sick. Think of the baby.”
Ma sniffed and nodded. Tressie dipped a cloth in cool well water and handed it to her. “Here, clean your face. I’ll fix us something to eat.”
Ma took the rag and mopped at her tear-drenched cheeks. “I’m not hungry.”
“No matter, you have to eat. . .for the baby.”
Fists clenched against the swell of her belly, Ma groaned. “How could he do this?”
“I don’t know, but he swore he’d come back. We can’t give up.”
Ma made a rude noise. “Give up? He’s not coming back. We’re out here in this god forsaken place, no way to get supplies even if we had any money. What happens when we have nothing left to eat? The garden’s burning up, with no rain in sight. The chickens have quit laying. What are we supposed to live on?”
“Chicken, I guess. . .for a while, at any rate.”
“That’s not funny.” Ma chuckled anyway.
“Yeah, you’re right, it’s not funny.” Tressie laughed.
That night they ate chicken and dumplings until their bellies ached. With no way to keep the rest of the meal from spoiling, they fed it to the lanky dog Pa had left behind.
“You’re next,” Tressie said, watching the dog lap up the rich leavings, though she could never even consider such a thing.
That evening Ma sat in one of the three chairs while Tressie cleaned up the dishes.
“I want to show you something,” she said when her daughter dried her hands on a feedsack towel.
“You’re seventeen, a woman grown. You’re going to have to help me have this baby. I’m sorry you have to do this, but there’s no one else.”
Limp with fear, she dragged up a chair and listened intently while Ma explained about how the baby would come, how she should support its head and clear its throat and tie off the cord. The idea sent chills through her.
“What if I do something wrong? What if I hurt it? Or you?”
“Just do as I’ve told you. And once the cord is tied off, wash it with warm water and then you’ll have to clean up the after birth.
“I don’t think I can do this.” A moan of dread shook her till she couldn’t say any more.
“There’s no one else. You have to.”
“I could kill him for doing this to you. . .to us.”
“Little good that would do.” Ma rose wearily and rubbing at her back, shuffled to the bed in one corner of the single room. “You can sleep with me tonight if you want.”
Tressie nodded, stricken mute by what lay ahead.
To keep herself from thinking about deliverying the baby, after Ma fell asleep, she checked the storage bins that served as kitchen cupboards in the corner. Flour and cornmeal, but not a lot; one cone of sugar, some pinto beans she’d shelled out the previous week before the plants died and not much else. It was time to dig the potatoes, but she didn’t expect many because the plants had shriveled from the heat. There might be some under that dusty ground, though.
Early the next morning, before the sun rose to burn its way through the day, she took a fork to the rows of potatoes. Her efforts yielded only small ones. They’d last a while. On her way to the house with two full buckets, she heard Ma cry out.
Heart in her throat, she hurried inside. For a moment she couldn’t see and waited till her vision adjusted to the darkness inside. Ma sat on the edge of the bed in her nightgown.
“The pains began in the middle of the night. It’s getting close.”
Following instructions, Tressie stripped off the good covers and spread an old, ragged quilt for a birthing bed. Grabbing the water bucket she ran to the well to draw water, then hung an iron kettle on the hook over the fireplace, stoked up the fire and filled the pot.
Every few minutes Ma groaned through another contraction. Tressie alternated between holding her hand and bathing her face in cool water. A feeling of helplessness washed over her as the contractions grew closer together. Time moved on, Ma’s pain increased, and Tressie worried something was wrong. Was it supposed to be this bad? Take this long?
After what seemed like hours, a foot appeared where the head was supposed to be.
By that time, Ma was in and out of herself and Tressie had no idea what to do. This was definitely not normal.
She sat beside her mother, holding her hand and whispering to her, until finally, close to dawn of the next day, the awful pains ceased. So did Ma’s breathing.
For a long timeTressie held her mother close, then, dry eyed, she rose and went to the door.
“Damn you to hell, old man. I’ll find you, and when I do you’ll pay for this.”
Then she went to the barn, fetched the shovel and buried her mother and the unborn child on a rise above the soddie. From there she saw a rider coming out of the East.
“You’re too late,” she muttered. “Too late.”
Montana Promises is Tressie’s story. Reed Bannon is the rider in the distance, but he’s been shot for stealing the horse he’s on. You can find it at Amazon Kindle for $2.99.