Blog Chain

This post is part of the December 2013 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “250-Word Story Chain, or, The Blog-O-Phone.”

Everyone knows that Mossfallow Wood has the best—free!—Christmas trees around. Everyone knows that once Old Man Wiggins leaves town for the month, it’s time to charge in past the no trespassing signs to claim the perfect pine and drag it home. People even camp out to nab the best shot.

As Wiggins’s F-150 trundled down the road, Cal Ostafinski revved the engine of his pickup. He had a reputation to maintain, after all, as having the largest and most well-decorated tree on his block despite his meager salary working on a Matryoshka doll assembly line.

“OSTAFINSKI TREE BREAKS NEW CITY RECORDS FOR HEIGHT, ELECTRICITY CONSUMPTION” the page-six story had said on a slow news day. Ostafinski meant to keep things that way.

A half-mile away, Beth McHugh twisted the throttle on her snowmobile with attached snowtrailer. Her children’s most recent whining was etched into her consciousness:

“Mom, we want our tree this year! We have ornaments from school that need hanging!”

“Fine, fine, fine! Bring Mommy her chainsaw and climbing spikes.”

On another side road, Alan Nussbaum gunned his Subaru with the roof rack, his conversation with his daughter fresh in his mind:

“I have to go out there early to get a tree big enough to impress everyone on the block, especially those finks Ostafinski and McHugh.”

“But Dad, we’re Jewish.”

“It’s the principle of the thing!”

And so all three charged into Mossfallow Wood, unaware of the others and of what awaited them inside.

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Ralph Pines

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This entry is part of the NaNo Excerpt Blog Chain 2013 at Absolute Write.

“I tell you, it’s criminal, and I know criminal.” Old Man Morrison was pacing back and forth in the dining room of the McNeill Ranch house. “I saw it when your rotten sister tried to tip my cows, I was it when the O’Callahans were rustling my cows, and I see it now.”

“I’m sure,” said Adam McNeill. Seated at his kitchen table, he had been listening to Morrison ramble for nearly an hour about problems in Prosperity Falls. Time was, Adam would have shown the old coot the door with a Remington in his face for his trouble, not least of which because he had an inkling that the Morrison’s Wonky M ranch had been quietly rustling and rebranding his cows for years now.

But in the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that now ran rampant in Prosperity Falls, Morrison was one of the few Adam could talk to without fear of recrimination.

“The militia took another one of my boys yesterday,” Morrison continued. “For ‘questioning’ as an Ide sympathizer and traitor. Jail’s packed to the gills with ’em! Rangers and the militia is doing as they please and not a soul can raise a finger to stop them.”

“I heard that they seized Scroggins’s store yesterday,” Adam added. “Just threw him into the street and took everything he had for their ‘war effort.’ Deerton’s is the only shop on Prosperity Square that’s still open, and that’s only because Marshal Strasser has them making uniforms for her Rangers and her militia.”

“Militia,” spat Morrison. “Bunch of thugs too low to pass the Ranger Trials even with the bar lowered the way Yale left it.”

“Yeah,” Adam said, thinking ruefully of how many of his ranch hands he’d lost to prison and impressment—or fleeing to Dunn’s Crossing. “Or impressed to fight against their will. I’d raise holy hell about it, or gimp downtown to do something myself, but Marshal Strasser has the City Council in her pocket. Bunch of sheep, letting themselves be led around by Sullivan when she’s just on Strasser’s leash all the same. And the woman took over Strasser Smithy and threw her own uncle out on the street—you can’t reason with a creature like that.”

“You sound like you’re about ready to yellow-belly it to Dunn’s Crossing,” said Morrison.

“No. I don’t care if half the town has gone, either. My parents worked hard to build a life here, and I’ve worked hard to keep this ranch going. Nothing’s going to get me squealing out of Prosperity Falls with my tail between my legs.”

“Not even that rotten sister of yours?” Morrison said, arching an eyebrow over one cloudy eye. “Running off to go join up with the Ide, trying to overthrow Prosperity Falls from without even as Strasser breaks it up from within?”

“Don’t you say a word against her, Morrison,” Adam snapped. “Virginia’s got a lot of my parents in her, and they didn’t always think things through either. I love her, and I trust her, and if you so much as suggest that I do things any differently, I’ll rebut you with my Remingtons.”

“All right, okay, whatever you say, Adam.” Old Man Morriosn held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Guess you’ve got more than a little of her in yourself.”

“The responsibility of running a ranch tends to bury it deep, as I’m sure you know,” Adam said. He was about to continue when a heavy knock sounded at the door.

“Dale! Jeanette!” Adam cried out to his replacement ranch hands. “Whoever that is, let them in so I can tell them to go to hell for bothering me when I’ve got company!”

Before they could do so, if they even heard the command, the front door splintered inward. Two militiamen—identifiable by their pressboard Ranger badges—entered, guns drawn. Rangers Otto Luther and Shemaiah Talbot followed, their deputy marshal badges glinting in the late-day sunshine. Behind them, Marshal Ellen Strasser. Her outfit was immaculate, and she sported her old Colt Lightning revolvers with new ivory grips and the golden mashal’s badge buffed to a fine shine.

Morrison grasped for his double-barreled shotgun, which he’d left on the kitchen table, but Adam waved him away. “Marshal Strasser,” he said. “I’m honored by your presence. You’ll forgive me if I don’t stand, but I’m sure you know my leg’s no good.”

“Adam McNeill,” Strasser said. “You’ve ignored my requisition order. The people of Prosperity Falls need your head of cattle to feed the punitive expedition the Rangers are planning into Ide country.”

“Oh, I haven’t ignored the order, Marshal Strasser,” said Adam. That much was true; he had torn it up and burned the paper. “I’m afraid I was never properly presented with it is all.”

“And yet you are sitting here, well-fed—and armed—at your table while Rangers and militia go hungry for want of beef,” said Strasser icily. “That, to me, smacks of a lack of civic virtue. Or, to be less generous, conspiracy.”

“Oh, these?” said Adam, nodding at the twin Remington model 1858 revolvers on his table. “They are heirlooms. Belonged to my parents.”

“I’m sure you are aware that the requisition order extends to personal weapons as well,” said Strasser. “Even a pair of antiques like that could be made useful. And yet you’ve chosen to hoard them.”

“I keep them loaded with a blank charge and use them to startle cattle and wake up my sister,” Adam said. “Hardly hoarding, and they’re doing me more good than they would any fool used to cartridge guns instead of cap and ball.”

“Ah yes, your sister,” said Strasser. “Virginia. A name sure to eclipse even that of Jubal Sullivan in traitorous infamy.”

“Don’t you say a word against her,” said Adam, his calm slipping a bit. “I will not have my sister, no matter what she is held to have done, slandered in my own home.”

Strasser raised her eyebrows. “Perhaps your…lethargy…in complying with my lawful requests has something to do with that? Could it be that you, too, are in league with the Ide, plotting the destruction of everything I am sworn to protect?”

“Yes, I’m sure the Ide have great need for antique guns, cattle malnourished from confiscated feed, and fighters with useless legs.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Strasser said. She nodded curtly to her escort, who began to advance with their guns drawn. “Even so, you might be a useful tool in bringing that girl to heel. A useful example to anyone else with your same…recalcitrance… as well.”

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This entry is part of the NaNo Excerpt Blog Chain 2013 at Absolute Write.

“Goddamn yellow journalist,” Virginia cried, throwing down the paper on the bar at Portia’s. “That’s the last time I try to tell my side of the story to someone who made up his own nickname.” She was swaying a little and slurring as she spoke, which was easily explained by the small tower of upended empty shot glasses quietly weeping Madam Daisy-May Portia’s Patented Prosperity Falls Proof Tequila into the wood.

Prissy, seated next to her held up a finger, knocking over her own stack of glasses. “Yes, but imagine the lies that he might have made up if you hadn’t talked to him, Miss McNeill,” she slurred.

“You can stop calling me Miss McNeill,” Virginia said. “No one’s going to call me that unless they hit the bar when they’re aiming for the small of my back.”

“Oh, but I have to!” Prissy said, hiccuping. “I have to keep up decorum. And standards. Standards and decorum. As important in speech as in dress. After all, my plan to meet a strong husband in the Rangers is bust, so I must try extra hard to make up for it. With more class than Harvard.” She wobbled on her stool, spilling a shot of amber liquid on her starched white bustle. “Whoops! Good thing I have a line of credit with the tailor, though Daddy’s said that the next suit of clothes he makes me will be the last. I wonder if that’s a threat, or if he’s just doing tough love.”

“Adam says I can come home whenever I want, despite what this piss-yellow newspaper man says,” groaned Virginia. “But I can’t go back. I can’t. Not unless I’m crawling there wearing a potato sack. I have to make it on my own…somehow…to prove them all wrong. Prove that I have what it takes so they’ll beg for me to come back.”

“How long before you…crawl there in that potato sack?” Prissy belched.

“About two weeks,” said Virginia. “Renting a room upstairs is eating through what’s left of my Ranger pay like a starving dog through a dead man’s ass, and doing stable work at the livery is barely paying for Murgatroyd’s upkeep. I might have to send him back to Adam, but without me around, someone’s liable to send him to the glue factory.”

“I need to find something to do with myself, too,” said Prissy, miserably. “Something that’s not beneath my dignity.” She tipped her head forward onto the bar where it landed with a thump. Reynard the rat, eating crumbs from a plate, hoisted his nose at the sound. “Don’t look at me like that,” Prissy added.

“Maisy-Day! More tequila por favor!” cried Virginia, holding out the least dirty of her shot glasses. “The glass wants booze!”

“I think you’ve had enough, sugar,” said Daisy-May, behind the bar, as she very deliberately corked an enormous bottle of the house brew. “I should know, I was a drunkard in another life.”

“The same life you were a jimador?” Virginia grunted.

“No. The jimador was a teetotaler,” said Daisy-May. “And I’m still cutting you off.”

“What about me?” cried Prissy, her head still on the bar. “Can I get some more, or am I too drunk to get another? Gonna cut me off like a bad fingernail, Mrs. Portia?”

Daisy-May squinted at Prissy. “You’re drinking sarsaparilla, child.”

“So is that a yes, or a no?” Prissy slurred.

“Darling, there’s no alcohol in sarsaparilla,” said the proprietress. “It’s for teetotalers, children, mixing with booze, and calming upset stomachs.”

“Well what do you know, I do feel less upset in the stomach area, Mrs. Portia,” said Prissy, still addressing the bar. “Still feel pretty rotten everywhere else. How about a round of sarsa…sarasap…root beer for the whole place? You know I’m good for it.”

Daisy-May looked around her establishment. It was ten-thirty in the morning, and the only customer was an unemployed ranch hand losing at Faro to Daniel Evans the gambler. “Whatever you say, honey.”

Prissy didn’t respond; she had somehow passed out on the bar and had begun snoring loudly. Reynard the rat sniffed at his mistress and climbed up her increasingly stained outfit to her increasingly disheveled hair, where he made a little drey and curled up to sleep as well.

“What am I supposed to drown my sorrows in, if not your tequila?” Virginia moaned.

“Maybe that’s my subtle and ladylike way of telling you that sorrows are like fish, sweetheart,” said Daisy-May. “They can’t be drowned; getting them wet just makes them grow.”

“Ah, but a fish’ll still die if you put it in booze,” grunted Virginia, holding up a finger. “Don’t ask me how I know that. Mr. Rhodes was really sore about his goldfish, and how was I supposed to know that it was swimming in water and not single malt whiskey?”

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This entry is part of the NaNo Excerpt Blog Chain 2013 at Absolute Write.

The High Ide who had been shadowing the party for some time now made their presence known, appearing on either side of the “gate” and the canyon. They were wearing the traditional Ide garments, which the Lower Ide only sported in pieces, and armed with a mixture of bows and arrows and old muzzle-loading rifles. The High Ide who had spoken, though, was armed with a Winchester repeater of older manufacture, and he kept it trained on the group as he spoke.

“You are not welcome here, in the Ide lands or the settlement of Gailebesh,” the High Ide continued. “By order of Kunan, son of Mainagha the High Chief, turn around and leave these lands at once. Your failure to do so will mark you as enemies of the Ide and we will rain down upon you without mercy.”

Virginia understood enough Ide to get the meaning, if not the nuance, of Kunan’s speech. “Kunan? Who we saw with Naquewocsum?” she said, mangling much of the syntax but managing to make herself understood.

“Ah, so you are the enidiiagil I saw in the chief’s tent, insulting him with your presence,” said Kunan. “Do not think that we will tolerate you on behalf of our brothers, and do not think that I will hesitate to kill you now because I did not do so then.”

“Most noble and respected Kunan of the High Ide,” said Dr. Eggebrecht, whose natural faculty with languages and careful study had granted him an impressive mastery of the Ide tongue in a comparatively short space of time. “I am Dr. Dana D. Eggebrecht of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and these are my escorts. We understand and respect your defense of your borders from interlopers, and would ask only a moment of your time that you might listen to what we have to say.”

Virginia pursed her lips. There were a few words in Eggebrecht’s speech she couldn’t make out, but it was clear he was being much more polite—obsequious, even—with the High Ide than he had been with the Rangers risking their lives on his behalf.

“Do not slander us with that title,” sneered Kunan. “There are no High Ide and no Lower Ide, only the true Ide and traitors who consort with murderers, thieves, and tricksters.”

“My most humble and sincere apologies, O Kunan,” Eggebrecht said. “Please forgive my ignorance in using the only term for your noble and mighty people that I have ever known. Will you accept my remorse, and accept my offer of parley?”

“No,” said Kunan. “We of the true Ide do not stoop to parley with those we know to be violent, base, and false. I reiterate my earlier command: leave us at once.”

“Please, O noble Kunan of the True Ide, hear me out,” Eggebrecht, a slightly desperate inflection in his voice. “I seek access to your most noble settlement of Gailebesh not to settle or even to trade, but to observe for a short time your ways that I might educate my own kind, the enidiiagil, how better to respect the True Ide lands and the True Ide ways.”

“No,” Kunan repeated. “Your honeyed words ring hollow, enidiiagil. Observation is but a prelude to invasion, and we of the true Ide have sworn never to let outsiders into our midst. This is our most sacred vow.”

“But…but…I have letters of introduction, O wise Kunan!” Dr. Eggebrecht fumbled through his portmanteau and produced them. “One from the City Council of Prosperity Falls, signed by all, and another from the wise Chief Naquewocsum who is known to you.”

As much as she disliked being at a disadvantage, surrounded by people who did not like her and with weapons trained, Virginia had to admit that she enjoyed seeing Eggebrecht squirm.

Kunan laughed. “What good are your speaking-papers, enidiiagil, to one who cannot read? And what good is the word of a band of treacherous enidiiagil and the false, fallen Ide who, while our brothers, were not strong enough to resist the temptation of the enidiiagil when they came among us sowing destruction and discord?”

“The Smithsonian Institution sent me, can’t you appreciate that?” Eggebrecht cried, the veneer of elaborate politeness in his words beginning to crack. He also slipped into English without realizing it. “I am under orders to preserve your culture and your ways through observation! I have your best interests in mind! Would you rather have nothing left to mark your passing when ignorant enidiiagil like these lunkheads around me massacre you all as ignorant savages?”

Kunan narrowed his eyes, and his lips compressed to a thin line.

“Oh, my apologies!” Eggebrecht said hastily in the Ide language. “I did not mean to-”

“If we cannot defend our ways by our own hand, they are not worth preserving,” Kunan said in clear, if accented and somewhat halting, English. “Your offer does not interest us, Dr. Dana D. Eggebrecht of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. For the fourth and final time I must refuse your request.”

The Smithsonian man could only sputter helplessly, waving his worthless papers and looking to the Rangers as if they had some power to alter the situation.

“Bring the wagon around, Mr. Sullivan, if you please,” said Prissy quietly. “We’re going.”

“What? After coming all this way? Surely even a moron like you must admit that we can’t give up so easily. We can try additional arguments, bribery, something…anything! I simply must be allowed into Gailebesh for the continuance of my studies!”

“Dr. Eggebrecht,” said Jake. “They are losing patience with us, and they have us at a supreme disadvantage. Even with those weapons, they could kill all of us in half a minute flat. You can think up other ways for them to turn you down elsewhere.”

“Your enidiiagil drover speaks wisdom,” Kunan said, again in English. “I would heed him.”

“Honored Kunan, we thank you for your patience,” Prissy said loudly. “We will bear your answer back to our people and inform them that you do not wish to be troubled further, if you are willing to grant us safe passage back the way we came.”

“What are you doing, you fool?” Eggebrecht began. “You were put at my disposal, and-”

Prissy reached into her bustle and produced a Sharps Pepperbox, and pointed it so close to the Smithsonian man’s face that it touched his nose. Shocked, Eggebrecht said nothing further that was intelligible.

“Very well. You may leave, and tell any who will listen what you have heard here today,” said Kunan. “My Guardians will track you to make sure you do not renege on your word as is the enidiiagil way.”

“Thank you, O honored Kunan,” Prissy said. “Mr. Sullivan, the wagon.”

“A word of warning: do not expect us to be so accommodating should we meet again,” Kunan said.

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This entry is part of the NaNo Excerpt Blog Chain 2013 at Absolute Write.

“…never even seen a Savage Figure Eight. How do you suppose Caleb Jung found one?” Deputy Marshal Hopkins was saying. “Nobody liked those even when cap-and-ball was state of the art!”

“Probably bought it off a peddler for $5,” Cunningham grunted in return. “Remember the Elgin cutlass pistol he brought last year? After he missed with his first shot, he ran up and stabbed the target?”

“One of the O’Clellan Gang had an Elgin as his backup boot pistol,” Hopkins said. “Wasn’t even good for roasting meat on a spit after we pulled it off his carcass.”

“…still got to work that into every conversation, don’t you?” Cunningham muttered. “So, who have we got here? Miss McNeill, I see!”

“That’s right, Deputy Marshalls,” Virginia said. “I’m here to do my parents proud.”

“I rode with your parents when I was just a rookie Ranger myself,” said Hopkins approvingly. “It’s a shame they were taken from us so soon. I could have used their guns against the O’Clellans.”

Cunningham audibly sighed, and Virginia responded: “I hope to do them justice. I was to wear my mother’s own duster and kit until there was a…washing mishap.”

“Yes, that would have been most fitting,” said Hopkins, glancing at Virginia’s ragged and somewhat tatterdemalion rig with a critical eye. “We’ll have you fitted out properly at the Rangers’ quartermaster if it comes to that.”

Cunningham looked at the revolvers laid out as part of Virginia’s kit. “Most of our candidates are using Peacemakers,” he said with a note of surprise in his voice, “but I see you favor the Model 1875.”

Virginia nodded eagerly, trying to remember the lines Adam had told her to recite at just such a statement. “Yeah. Mr. Remington can go to hell. My parents used a Colt as Prosperity Rangers and that’s what I’ll use now.”

Cunningham and Hopkins looked at one another with meaningful, skeptical glances. “I…see,” Cunningham said. “Recite for us the Prosperity Charter, Miss McNeill. Why, and for what principles, did our forefathers reject the inequity of the east and come to the lands of the Ide in peace and brotherhood?”

“Ah…” Virginia said, pursing her lips. She knew this, she’d learned it in school, Adam had yammered on and on about it while she had daydreamed about rags to riches stories…why hadn’t she paid more attention? Why hadn’t she tried to listen for Talbot’s answer so she could copy it?

“Come on, out with it,” said Hopkins. “As I said before facing down the O’Clellans: he who hesitates is lost.”

“…really?” Cunningham murmured. “Really?”

“Uh…everyone’s equal…ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t matter,” Virginia said, bowdlerizing the concept as best she could.”

“Point the First: All shall be equal before the settlement of Prosperity Falls and before God, regardless of their sex, creed, or color!” barked Cunningham.

“Right, exactly, just like I said.” Virginia’s bullets weren’t all on the table; she was sweating them. “Er…Point the Second…disputes get solved peacefully…no war…no violence!”

“Point the Second: Real men solve their disputes peacefully, and there shall be no war and no recourse to violence save in direst need and then only in defense!” Hopkins cried. “Really, Miss McNeill, if this is a joke it is in exceptionally poor taste.”

Virginia bit her lip. Somehow, being called out for a lie—well, a bowdlerization—didn’t seem as easy to brush off as it had been for the eponymous hero of Alger’s Luke Larkin’s Luck weathering crooked Mr. Coleman. “Point the Third: Respect for the natives…settlers and Ide tribes trade and get along!”

“Point the Third: The Indians are the original posessors of the land and will be dealt with fairly and respectfully; trade and brotherly harmony shall be our watchwords!” corrected Cunningham. “As I said in the action at Slaughter Gulch, near isn’t nearly good enough.” The Deputy Marshal seemed slightly crushed when his witticism elicited no visible response.

“Point the Fourth: Self-sufficiency: Prosperity Falls makes everything it needs!” Virginia clenched her fists in anticipation of the brutal riposte Hopkins or Cunningham would respond with.

“That’s better,” said Hopkins. “Well recited, if only on that last point.”

Virginia sighed heavily.

“Gather up your kit and meet the others at the firing range,” Cunningham added. The pair then moved on to Jake, who flawlessly belted out the Prosperity Charter with a smug sidelong glance at Virginia.

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This post is part of the November 2013 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “Unicorn droppings.”
Unicorn Droppings

The master Druggists at The Swindley & Co Apothecarium, makers of such fine Products as Phoenix Feather Phlogiston Fixitive & Wyrmscale Worm Whackers bring you & Yours a delectable new Patent Medicine: Horace Swindley’s Unicorn Droppings.

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To Those who Say that consuming the Droppings of any Animal is distasteful, we Remind you that Unicorns subsist solely on Rainbows & Light, with occasional Binges of Children’s Laughter & Sparkles. Therefore, those selfsame Ingredients are the only Items present in Horace Swindley’s Unicorn Droppings save for a Gelatin covering to help them go Down smoothly & etc.

In addition to their fine Taste, suitable as a Candy for the Fancy of Children & Ladies as well as the more Discerning Dandified Gentlemen, Horace Swindley’s Unicorn Droppings offer the following Proven & Patented health Benefits:

-First and Foremost, soothes Coughs, Colds, Hoarseness, and all Afflictions of the Lungs
-Cures all known Diseases & all Unknown ones
-Prolongs Life, even should the Imbiber be near Death
-Promotes a Shiny & Full-Of-Volume appearance in the Hair
-Restores, improves, & promotes Carnal potency, even in Welshmen
-Leaves one’s Breath a most pleasing Odor & fights against Decay of Teeth

In accordance with The Swindley & Co Apothecarium’s stance toward Honesty, & in full Compliance with a ruling from the duly appointed Courts of the Land, The Swindley & Co Apothecarium also offers a full Reckoning of these Minor & Infrequent Side Effects:

-Very occasional Whitening of the Hair (but who does not enjoy such as a Mark of Experience & Respect?)
-Rare but sometimes noteworthy Cravings for Rainbow & Sunshine as Sustenance to the detriment of Weight & Health (but is not excess Weight a thing to be Avoided?)
-Incidental Headaches leading to the Uncommon emergence of a small Horn on the Forehead (but as such Horns are panaceas, is this not but good Fortune in Disguise?)
-Once in a great While, particularly eager Imbibers may Experience an Increase rather than a Decrease in Horseness, by which we Mean full Assumption of a Unicorn’s total Form (but is this not a true Opportunity, as one may sell one’s own Droppings & Blood for Profit, & none are better at the art of attracting Virgins?)

Pick up a special Baker’s Dozen Box of Horace Swindley’s Unicorn Droppings from The Swindley & Co Apothecarium today! On sale wherever fine Patent Medicines, Salves, & Ointments are sold. Look for our Advertisement in Hoe & Plow Monthly for a Halfpenny’s discount when buying 5 Cases or more!

This post incorporates a modified version of this public domain 1853 advertisement from the Library of Congress.

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  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

This entry is part of the NaNo Excerpt Blog Chain 2013 at Absolute Write.

The blast startled the cows, and they began to moo in a frenzy and gallop about the Wonky M Ranch paddock. It was a stampede in the making.

“Oh god, they’re gonna get me! They’re gonna get me! Help!” Jeanette was sprinting headlong under the moonlight with a bevy of bovines in hot pursuit, not towards the fences—at least not directly—but rather toward Virginia.

“What part of scatter don’t you get, you plain fool?” Virginia cried in response, but it was too late. Jeannette was beside her, and they were on the run from a rapidly-growing herd of cattle in addition to old man Morrison, who was huffing behind his prized beasts fumbling for fresh crimped-brass cartridges in the pockets of his overalls.

In the distance, Dale had managed to evade notice by diving into, and apparently rolling around in, the baker’s dozen of cow pies that littered the field like torpedoes in Farragut’s Mobile Bay. His eyes saucer-wide at Virginia and Jeanette’s predicament, he finally found the mental fortitude to make a sloppy, smelly dash for the Wonky M Ranch’s paddock fence. Unfortunately for him, Morrison had put up barbed wire like it was going out of style, and while it had been easy enough to wriggle through on the way in, Dale found himself caught and suspended from his clothes—hung out to dry next to a big red “no trespassing on penalty of shotgunnery” sign, one of many Morrison had hand-painted and erected.

“You…said…this…would…be…easy!” Jeanette panted, giving Virginia as recriminating a look as her velocity and panic allowed.

“And you said you could run if he caught us!” Virginia shot back. She’d just wanted to have some fun at the expense of the old fart and grump who was always chasing kids away from his market stand and yammering on about conspiracies against his person, his cows, and his ranch hands. You couldn’t argue that the unhinged curmudgeon didn’t deserve it.

Both the cows and said coot were gaining. In fact, some of the cows were actually passing Virginia and Jeanette on either side, panicked and stupid as they were. They were close enough to see their brands—and it was no use arguing that the Wonky M Ranch brand wasn’t specially made so it fit perfectly over a McNeill Ranch brand. Just another reason Morrison could stand to have a few cows tipped.

A fresh blast of gunpowder and rock salt lit up the paddock, grazing a few head of cattle and sending them even further down the dark road to stampede. “Dammit, get back here so I can shoot you!” Morrison cried.

“Yeah, I’ll get right on that!” Virginia cawed over her shoulder. The Wonky M fence was just ahead, but there was no way to clear the barbed wire at the full-on clip they were running. The barbed wire was stretched over a wooden framework, leaving a good foot open at the bottom in places. There was nothing for it but to try and slide under the fence like a scoring baseman and hoping that the dewy grass would be slick enough to allow passage rather than an invitation to a fatal trampling.

It worked, after a fashion. The lubrication for Virginia’s slide was less dewy grass, though, than it was an arsenal of cow pies. She came up thoroughly smeared and smelling like a barnyard in July.

For her part, Jeanette took a sharp left at the fence, nowhere near nimble enough to take a similar dive. The cows followed, as did Morrison; when Jeanette reached the far corner, she took it again. She eventually escaped out the same door Morrison had come in by, as the nasty old coot had left it ajar in his haste to apply the liberal shotgunning promised by his signs.

Panting and red, Jeanette appeared at the rally point overlooking the Wonky M from a low hill nearby. Virginia was already there, retching into a bush as the cow pie deluge hadn’t spared any orifice.

“That…wasn’t…as…fun…as…you…said…it’d…be,” panted Jeanette.

“Look,” said Virginia. “Once I join the Rangers tomorrow, there won’t be as much time for fun. We had to go out with a bang.” The words were meant for Jeanette but directed at the unfortunate sagebrush that was now the proud owner of a gumbo mixing Ms. McNeill’s stomach contents with old man Morrison’s cow pies.

“Yeah…I’m sure that will…go down in history…as one of the great pranks…of Prosperity Falls,” Jeanette said with as much acid as she could manage between great gasping gulps of air.

Virginia wobbled to her feet, boots squishing with an unspeakable mixture of different fluids from different species. “At least I tried,” she said. “When I’m a famous Prosperity Ranger, riding the range, you’ll look back on this and smile.”

“I’d have to be looking back on this from an awfully long way to smile,” said Dale. He had appeared unnoticed while the girls had been distracted by talking and other things that were not necessarily language yet still coming out of their mouths.

“Well we…oh God!” Virginia cried, turning away in disgust and heaving anew atop her put-upon friend the sagebrush. “Dale, where the hell are your clothes?”

Dale sighed as Jeanette broke into a fit of giggling. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “Can we just go home? I have to be up in an hour to start milking.”

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