Why do we ignore some wonderful people?

Mark with a CIt occurs to me that many of the people I used to work with–computer programmers for the most part–were very literal thinkers. They didn’t endeavor to be assholes, but they often managed the role without much effort. (Some of them were almost normal, outside the office, after a few drinks or a bit of heavy medication.)

I mention the experience because it suggests a range of potential characters who should, in my opinion, become more common in popular fiction: players driven by literal responses to everyday life. As the general population grows, so does the “special” one. This group includes folks with intellectual and developmental issues, but it also includes those on the cusp of “normalcy,” whatever that might be.

From my perspective, the film and television industries have done a better job of incorporating such characters into significant roles than have the producers of written fiction.

A great example is the popular TV series “Big Bang Theory,” which features a handful of lovable social misfits and a gorgeous gal who serves as their foil. The series has often been derided as nothing more than “nerd humor” which simply proves that we’re not all blessed with the same degree of taste. I love the show, and everyone knows [cough] I’m brilliant!

ABC’s new series, “Stumptown,” features a young man with Down’s Syndrome in an important supporting role. He offers wonderful balance to his hard-boiled sister who is the show’s lead character. The stories are based on graphic novels of the same name. (Graphic novels, to me, are comic books on steroids–not quite the same thing as traditional novels.)

“9-1-1” is another entertaining TV show which features a special needs character. This time it’s a boy with cerebral palsy whose father is one of the hunky firemen in the series. The relationship they have is endearing and makes the show even more enjoyable.

In the film “I Am Sam,” Sean Penn portrayed a mentally challenged man struggling to retain custody of his young daughter. Audiences loved his character, and he earned an Academy Award nomination for it. Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” character is a classic, and the picture is included in the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.

There are many more examples including Juliette Lewis in “The Other Sister” and Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.” But when it comes to listing similar offerings from the written world, only two jump immediately to mind (and both were made into extremely popular films): John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The characters of Lenny and Boo Radley have been the subjects of countless term papers, book reports, and even a masters thesis or two.

I’d like to know when we’ll begin to see more such characters in popular fiction. If you’re a writer, and you’re reading this right now, why not give some thought to putting someone “special” into your current or upcoming project. It might be a challenge, but it just might pay off in ways you never considered. Perhaps it would give you an opportunity to spend some time with representatives from that population. And there are more opportunities for interaction than one might think. We need to look no farther than the local Publix or Kroger store to find some warm, wonderful, and yes, even quirky people.

Give it some thought. And, please, let me know what you think of the idea.


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I don’t wanna push it, but…. (Encore)

Getting behind, for me, is inevitable, damn it. I’ve got lots of stuff to do, and when it comes to saying “No!” to new projects, I suck harder than the Atlanta Braves in the postseason–and coming from a die-hard Bravos fan, that’s sayin’ a lot!

Sadly, it’s true. But for those of us seeking a silver lining, it’s also forced me to be productive even when I don’t feel like it. Much as I’d like to sit back and let the Muse deliver a massage, or whatever other tender mercies the ol’ gal has to offer, what I mostly need to do is put my posterior in a chair and my fingers on a keyboard. Typically, the end result is something I can eventually manhandle into usable shape. It might not be pretty, but it’ll be okay enough to do the job. This blog, f’rinstance, is a great example: ugly more often than not, but serviceable.

If there’s a life lesson in here, it’d be, “Learn how to say, ‘No!'”

GuiltI tell myself most folks are just like me when it comes to a decision like this. Instead of thinking only about ourselves, and our need to be timely and productive, our usual hard-as-nails personas get all squishy when we’re asked to do something for someone else. And it’s usually kids. “Think of the poor kids, you miserable  heel!”

Naturally, I do start thinking about those poor kids. They’re legion, fer cryin’ out loud. Why doesn’t someone ever come ’round and ask about homeless strippers or lingerie models? Surely they need some love, too, right? Call on me, dammit!

What I’m driving at–poorly, I admit–is that there are times when we’ve got stuff to write, and very little time in which to do it. Our options are pretty limited. Either we grovel about the unfairness of life; we find someone else to do the work for us, or we cowboy up and write the best stuff we can write as fast as we can write it.

In case you weren’t sure, I’m a big supporter of option #3: shut up and work. If you have time to read it over, then, by all means, read it over. If not, just pray you did the best job you could do in the time available. And then, move on to the next project. The world won’t grind to a halt if you mangle a little punctuation or fail to craft the perfect sentence. I also suspect something will happen that allows you to go back and fix the problems that you didn’t have time to fix earlier. And there are always things to fix. Always.

The Muse is fickle. If you rely on her for inspiration, you’ll be disappointed, unless writing a few hundred words every other year is enough to satisfy you. Sometimes you just have to sit down and work, no matter how you feel or what else you have to do. Sometimes you have to write a LOT in a very short time.

Do the best you can. At the very least, no one can say you didn’t try. And if they do, the people who know you will ignore them for the idiots they are.

Write on!


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What’s a tree? (Encore)

My niece, a medical receptionist, witnessed something inspiring last week in the waiting room at the doctor’s office where she works. There were a number of people waiting to see the doctor, and among them was a little girl about four years old. Bella XmasShe sat quietly beside her mother when she noticed a little boy in the waiting room. The girl asked her mother what was wrong with the boy, and her mother answered that he appeared to be blind.

The little girl didn’t understand what that meant and asked for an explanation which her mother quietly supplied.

At this point, my niece went back to her paperwork. But a short while later she heard the little girl talking again and looked up out of curiosity.

She saw the little blind boy smiling as he held hands with the little girl. She had closed her eyes tight and was doing her best to describe for the boy what a tree looked like.

When things like this happen, it restores my faith in mankind.

It also made me think about how difficult that little girl’s job would be. Can you imagine trying to describe a tree to someone who’d never been able to see anything? Where would you even start?

childs drawing of treeOne of the most powerful tools a writer can employ is sensory presentation–using all the senses to convey information, not just that which can be seen. This means expressing story detail that relies on touch, taste, texture and aroma. How big is a tree? What does it feel like? Does it have a smell?

It’s possible to stretch the sensory issue even more. Most people have nine senses. In addition to the five listed above, and originally noted by Aristotle, there are also the senses of pain, balance, heat and body awareness–we know where our body parts are without looking at them or touching something. Neurologists have suggested many others, like hunger, thirst, or the sense of danger, senses included in countless narratives.

I have to tip my hat to the little girl in that waiting room. If she managed to get her ideas across, she may have a brilliant future ahead of her as a writer.

For the rest of us, especially the writers? We’d be wise to learn from her. If for no other reason, some of our “readers” will be getting their information from audiobooks.


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Best Damned Squirrel Dog — Part Two

I posted the first half of an old favorite last week. If you missed it, you can catch up here. And now, I’m pleased to present the conclusion of “The Best Damned Squirrel Dog (Ever).” I’d love to hear what you think.

Elinor Thigpen’s hair bore the dual tints of the civil war: blue and gray. She sat behind a vast wooden desk looking like Winston Churchill in drag. Nan knew she’d found the Queen of the Archives.

“Yes?” Ms. Thigpen asked.

“I’m looking into an old case,” Nan said, “I–”

The matron opened a huge ledger. “What’s your badge number?”

“I’m not with the police.”

The ledger closed with the finality of a vault door, and Ms. Thigpen turned away.

“Perhaps you could help me find–”

“I doubt it,” the old woman said. “Good day.”

“You don’t understand,” Nan said, “I’m–”

“I’m not interested in your little project,” Thigpen said, making no attempt to mask her exasperation. “I have my own work to do. The archives are for the use of police and county officials. Do you work for the county?”


“Then that’s it, isn’t it?” She turned away again.

Nan clenched her jaws and her fists, the Cutter stubborn streak flaring as it had never flared before. But, rather than risk angering the matron further, Nan counted silently to ten and used the time to scan the Archive Queen’s lair. She focused on a framed certificate awarded by the Daughters of the Old South in grateful recognition of thirty years of dedicated service.

“As a member of the D.O.S., surely you’d want to see justice done for the memory of a proud band of southern heroes.”

Thigpen turned and squinted at her. “What are you talking about?”

Nan explained her theory about the missing gun crew and why they may have missed the battle. “If I can find the bones, maybe I can figure out what actually happened.”

Elinor Thigpen stood as her intractability evolved into a sense of greater purpose. “Follow me.”

For all her pomp and bluster, Elinor knew her domain. In less than half an hour she’d retrieved a large pasteboard box from a dusty corner of the archives. She broke the seal and set the lid aside. Atop an array of dried bones and several grisly skulls lay a manila file folder. Elinor opened it.

She quickly ran her finger over the first page, stopping halfway down and grunting. “Well! I should’ve known.”

“What is it?”

“For years we had a scoundrel named Smithford as coroner. I’ve lost count of the number of times he botched an investigation or made something up to satisfy the carpetbaggers that put him in office.” Elinor flicked the yellowed page with her finger. “Smithford,” she said, as if it were an expletive.

“How long ago did he leave office?” Nan asked.

“In the forties.”

Nan frowned. “Surely you never worked with him.”

Elinor grimaced. “No, but he was in office a mighty long time. He left his mark. Oh, yes, he left his mark.”

Nan touched the file. “What does it say?”

“Smithford claimed the cause of death was unknown and there were no clues as to the identities of the victims. He left the case open for years, but when no one reported seven people missing, he closed it and sent the file here.”

“But everyone in Little River knows about the missing gun crew!”

“Everyone but Smithford, evidently.”

Nan glanced over the coroner’s report and the statement by the boy who found the bones. Suddenly her heart beat faster. “Look!” she said. “It says the boy found the remains on land owned by Jimmy Ray Hastings. He was my granddaddy!” She dug out the letter and the daguerreotype and put them in Elinor’s hands.

“That letter was written by my great-great-grandmother.” She tapped the photo. “To one of these men: her husband. It was written the same day as the battle, and from what she says it’s plain he came to visit.”

Elinor examined Nan’s evidence with reverence.

The younger woman rubbed her eyes. “But why? Why would he take such a chance and leave his post?”

Elinor shrugged. “Maybe he was lonely.”

“In the company of six men and a dog?”

“You’re right,” Elinor said. “Maybe there’s a clue in these bones, but we’ll need an expert opinion.”

“The Coroner?”

“Nah. He’s hardly any better than Smithford. The man I have in mind is a ranger at the battlefield park. Fella named Swan. I’ve known ‘im for years.” She put her hands on her broad hips. “If these bones turn out to be the missing gun crew, you can count on the Daughters of the Old South to do what’s right by them.”


Though skeptical, Ranger Swan agreed to investigate. Using a pocketknife, he dug a lead slug from a hip bone and examined it with a magnifying glass.

“Well, I’ll be….”

Nan leaned forward and peered through the thick lens. “What is it?”

Swan said nothing but reached for a reference book and thumbed quickly to an entry near the back, read it, and nodded his head. Satisfied, he handed the misshapen lump to Nan. “What you have there is a slug from a Williams Patent Bullet. .58 caliber if I’m not mistaken. It’s pretty messed up, but you can still see the zinc base.”

Nan frowned. “And that means something?”

“Oh, absolutely. Y’see, the zinc was intended to clear residue from a rifle bore, a nicety only the Union could afford. They issued ’em right along with the usual Minié ball cartridges.”

“Then this proves the gun crew didn’t desert,” she said. “They were returning to their posts when Yankees ambushed ’em.” She exhaled wearily. “What a relief to finally clear that up.”

“Hold on now; I’m not so sure,” Swan said. “You don’t really have proof of anything. Those boys may have been the missing gunners, but they died a long way from the battlefield. In my book, that still makes ’em deserters.”

Nan dragged out her great-great-grandmother’s letter and read from a passage near the middle. “‘I hope you’re happy now you’ve made a fool of yourself over your useless, biscuit-eatin’ dog.'” Nan frowned. “No, wait, that’s not it.” She moved her finger to a spot near the end and started reading again. “‘And once you’re back at camp, be nice to young Jeremy, though I doubt you’ll ever get him to swap dogs.'” The letter ended shortly thereafter.

“Now, look at the date. Don’t you see? The men went to visit and were killed returning to their lines. The letter was addressed care of my great-great-granddaddy’s unit. She wouldn’t have done that if he was running away; she wouldn’t have had to. I imagine the same Yankees who killed those men killed her, too, but they missed her daughter.”

Swan held his hands up in mock surrender. “Okay, I’m convinced! I think you’ve figured it out.”

“Then I can tell Ms. Thigpen to proceed with the funeral ceremony?”

The old ranger nodded. “You might want to alert the next of kin. If you need help finding ’em, I’ve got a friend who can track down just about anyone.”


Nan returned to the earthworks and paused in front of the brass sign. Jeremy and the other ghosts crept close.

“It looks like the Daughters of the Old South will have to come up with a new marker,” she said, “right after the funeral.” Then she turned toward the earthworks. “No more of this deserter nonsense!” She brushed her hair back over her ears. “Too bad we’ll never know why they left here in the first place.” She shrugged and resumed her run.

“Did you hear that?” Gus said. “There’s hope!”

“It’s a miracle,” Jeremy said.

Bart Cutter put his arms around a pair of his ghostly comrades. “At long last–the Final Muster. I’m just sorry it took so long. Y’all deserved better.” He shook his head. “And I’m sorry I got you into this. If I hadn’t been so pig-headed about my dog this never would’ve happened.”

Jeremy frowned and reached for his dog. “I hope they clear ‘Scotch’s name, too.”


Nan couldn’t believe her ears. She faced Elinor in the compact Memorial Hall at the Confederate cemetery. An oak casket with brass handles dominated the little room.

“What are you saying?” she asked.

“No dogs.” Elinor crossed her arms. “I won’t have it! The men buried here are heroes. I won’t sully their memory by buryin’ them with a bunch of dog bones.”

Nan crossed her own arms. “What makes you think the dog wasn’t a hero? Look at the photo–they gave her a medal, too!”

“It’s too silly to even discuss,” Elinor said. “We’ve already made all the arrangements. Since there’s no way to identify specific remains, they’ll be buried together. That’s as much of a compromise as I’m willing to make. No dogs.”


“I won’t hear another word about it.”

Nan frowned. “At least let me have the dog’s remains. I’ll take care of them.”

Elinor waved impatiently at a cardboard box on a chair near the door. “Help yourself.”

Nan slipped the box under her arm, then looked back at the casket, blinking to keep back her tears.


Bart Cutter lifted his head with a jolt, as if something had bitten him. “Lord have mercy!” he gasped, gaining his feet.

“What is it?” Jeremy asked.

“I don’t know, but something’s changed. I can feel it. Hell’s fire, I can see it, too!”

“What’re you jawin’ about?” Gus asked.

“My hands! Look at ’em–they’re glowin’ like hot coals.”

Jeremy frowned. “They look normal to me.”

“I wonder…” Cutter danced to the top of the earthworks and leaned out. All the others watched, speechless, as he toppled down the other side.

“How’d you do that?” Gus gasped, following in his footsteps. But when he reached the top, the invisible barrier had been restored. Gus bounced back toward the cannons.

Another of the men stepped past him. “I feel it, too,” he said, climbing the low wall in two strides. With his arms extended, he ran down the embankment and joined Cutter.

“C’mon, y’all!” Cutter said.

One by one the others tried to escape the gun emplacement, but none succeeded.

“You two best get movin’,” Gus said. “If I had a chance to make the Final Muster, I’d sure as hell take it.”

Cutter protested, but without conviction. The others urged them to go.

Cutter waved goodbye then looked straight at Jeremy. “I was wrong,” he said. “You do have the best damn squirrel dog that ever lived. If I’d just admitted that early on–”

“I know,” Jeremy said. “Hell, Sarge, we all know. Now, git outta here!”

As the two ghostly soldiers loped across the wide battlefield, Jeremy noticed a third runner. “Look who’s here, boys.”

Nan stopped when she reached the marker. She sat on the wall, faced the cannons, and drank water from a plastic bottle.

“It was a nice ceremony,” she said out loud, despite being alone, “but somehow I expected to feel a lot different. Maybe I would have if more family members had shown up.”

As she took a long sip of water, Gus stood up and grinned.

“You, too?” Jeremy asked.

“I sure hope so.” Still beaming, Gus walked right through the young woman to exit the earthworks.

Other than a slight shiver, she gave no sign that she noticed him.

Gus paused before entering the battlefield. “You’ll all have a turn. I’m sure of it. The bodies are in the ground now, so it’s just a matter of time. Have faith. As soon as someone sheds a tear, you’ll be on your way.”


Several days passed, and Gus’ words came true for all of the remaining men except Jeremy. He sat beside Butterscotch.

“Well, girl, it’s just you and me now. Feels kinda funny not having anyone to argue with anymore. He rubbed the phantom dog’s phantom ears. “Cutter was right, y’know.”

As he looked out at the tall grass of the battlefield swaying in the gentle breeze, his skin contracted as if he’d been caught in a blizzard. Alternating waves of hot and cold brought him to his feet. He stared down at his hands and saw the glow so many of the others had described.

“It’s my turn!” he yelled, rushing to the top of the embankment. There was no resistance, and he jumped straight in the air. “Can you believe it, ‘Scotch? Finally, after all this time!”

He leaped from the top of the earthworks and landed lightly on his feet. Turning, he called to the dog still sitting where he’d left her. She wagged her tail but made no attempt to leave.

Jeremy looked back across the field to the monument where all the others had gone before him. He heard a sigh from ‘Scotch and turned in time to see her lay down and put her chin on her paws.

“I’d cry for ya if I could,” he said, “but I ‘spect that ain’t the problem. Folks have odd notions about who gets buried where.”

Butterscotch blinked at him but otherwise didn’t respond.

“It’s my time,” Jeremy explained. “You understand, don’t ya, girl? I’ve gotta go. It’s what we’ve been waitin’ for.”

Butterscotch sighed.

“I’ll never forget you.”

She closed her eyes.

Jeremy paused at the top of the embankment, torn. He looked from the dog to the monument and back again. He felt the unyielding pull of the Final Muster, dragging him out of the gun emplacement where he’d been trapped for 150 years.

He’d earned the right to leave. It was only fair.

He’d paid the price.

It was his time.

And then he sighed and stepped back inside the earthworks.

Butterscotch raised her head, and Jeremy settled down beside her.


It had been a week since Nan last visited the old gun emplacement. The trips just didn’t seem to have the significance they once had. She smiled when she saw the old ranger digging up the brass sign. She called to him, and he set his tools aside as she approached.

“I’m glad I found you here,” she said. “I meant to drop by or call you and apologize.”

“For what?”

“For leaving you with that box of dog bones. I just didn’t know what else to do. I thought maybe you could bury them here or…” Her voice trailed off as he shook his head, and the muscles in her stomach tightened. She knuckled away a tear.

“There’s no need to apologize,” he said. “Shoot, I’ve known Elinor Thigpen since grade school. She never did like dogs, and I never did like arguing with her.”

Nan looked up, puzzled.

“So I didn’t say anything to her when I put the dog bones in the casket with all the others.”

Nan sat back in a mild state of shock.

He smiled. “I thought you’d be pleased.”

“Oh, I am!” She laughed despite the tear tracks on her cheeks. Suddenly, she rubbed her arms.

“What’s wrong?”

“I could’ve sworn I just felt something run past me. On both sides!”

~ End ~

Posted in Historical writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Best Damned Squirrel Dog (Ever)

Editing deadlines are looming; I’ll soon be teaching classes in multiple locations; I’m hip-deep in two new novels, and it’s time to post new material in my blog. Of course, none of this gets me any closer to the end (let alone the middle or the top) of my bride’s To-Do list. <sigh> So, instead of creating something new, I’m offering one of my favorite stories. If it were a wee bit shorter, I’d cram it all into one post. But it’s not, so herewith, part one of two:

“If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.”

~James Thurber

Jeremy grinned at Sergeant Cutter as he paced from one side of the wide gun emplacement to the other, completely ignoring the two great brass cannons which would have barred the way of a living man. Cutter, like the other six humans and the dog who shared the earthworks with him, was a ghost–a decidedly unhappy one.

“It wasn’t a fair test,” Cutter said. He stopped walking when he reached the top of the dirt embankment, turned, and walked back toward the other side.

“You called the time ‘n place,” Jeremy said for what must have been the millionth time.

“Yeah, but I didn’t make it rain.”

Jeremy patted the buttery-brown dog at his side. “Seems to me a little rain wouldn’t slow down the best squirrel dog that ever lived.” He rubbed the dog’s ears. “That’d be you, ‘Scotch. Don’t pay Bart Cutter no mind. He’s just jealous.”

“Damn it all, Jeremy, if–”

“Hey! Look who’s comin’, Sarge.”

Seven of the eight ghosts gave their complete attention to a young woman jogging toward them on the trail through the national battlefield park. With her long brown hair streaming out behind her, the slender runner remained unaware of her appreciative audience.

Jeremy whistled. “I wish gals wore stuff like that when I was alive.”

“There weren’t any gals like that when we were alive,” Cutter said.

“Leastways none that’d look at you, Sarge,” Gus O’Malley said. The oldest of the crew, the one-eyed veteran’s marksmanship had been a legend among the gunners of Mason’s Brigade.

The young woman paused to rest against a large brass historical marker between the path and the earthworks. After checking her watch, she stood, put her hands on her hips and walked in small circles until her breathing returned to normal. Seven pairs of ghostly eyes locked on her fingers as she adjusted her halter top, smoothed her running shorts, and started jogging again.

“She’s the only thing I’ll miss if we ever get outta here,” Cutter said. “She reminds me of my daughter.”

Jeremy laughed. “I don’t recall that skinny little ‘un of yours havin’ the same kind of artillery as that gal.”

Cutter swatted at Jeremy, but his insubstantial hand passed harmlessly through him.

“Y’all oughta put that energy into figurin’ how we’re gonna get outta here,” Gus said. He walked to the top of the embankment and leaned against the invisible wall confining them.

“We only need two things to happen,” Cutter said. He ticked the items off on his fingers. “First, somebody’ll have to bury our bodies–”

“Assumin’ they’re ever found,” Jeremy said.

“–with honors.” Cutter scowled. “Cowards can’t report for the Final Muster.”

Jeremy looked across the long-unused battlefield at a huge granite monument erected to honor the war dead. Two other ghosts roamed the area, unable to traverse the last few yards to the monument.

Jeremy nodded at the forlorn figures. “Their bodies are buried aren’t they?”

“Only so’s they wouldn’t stink up the place,” Gus said.

“Secondly,” Cutter added, “we need someone to mourn us.”

“That’s three things, ain’t it?” Gus asked.

Cutter ignored him and looked at Jeremy. “Tell yer dog to bite him.”

“Wouldn’t do any good,” Jeremy said. “Her teeth ain’t any better’n ours.”


Fresh from a shower, and invigorated by her daily run in the battlefield park, Nan Hastings examined her mail. The only item of interest was a small package from a law firm in town. Setting aside the usual collection of bills and circulars, she tore open the padded brown envelope. A typed note accompanied a plastic bag containing a newspaper clipping, a faded daguerreotype, and an unfinished letter written in pale brown ink on dried and yellowed paper. Nan read the typed note first:

Dear Miss Hastings,

The enclosed items belonged to our client, your late grandmother, Julia Cutter Hastings, and should have been sent to you long ago. Unfortunately, they were misplaced when Mrs. Hastings’ estate was liquidated to pay for her care, and we’ve only recently discovered them.

We sincerely regret any inconvenience this may have caused. If we can be of any further service, kindly do not hesitate to call.


Elton Cantrell, Esq.

“Some service,” Nan muttered as she tossed the note aside and opened the plastic bag. She held the antique photo at an angle to catch the afternoon light. The image consisted of seven war-weary men and a dog gathered around a civil war cannon. They wore a shabby assortment of homespun and government-issue clothing, and while none but the youngest of them smiled for the camera, they all appeared quite proud of the medals each displayed. Even the dog wore one on a string around its neck.

A notation on the back of the photo said simply, “Gun Crew 3, Company A, Mason’s Brigade.”

Next, Nan examined the brittle newspaper clipping. It broke in half as she straightened the single fold. Successive layers of headlines in decreasing type sizes told as much of the story as the brief article itself:

Deserters Provide Yankee Victory

Missing Gun Crew Vilified

 Former Heroes Scorned

Union troops under the command of Gen. Horatio Ernhardt breached the Confederate line at Little River Tuesday and dealt Gen. Jonah Mason his harshest defeat of the war. An aide to Gen. Mason explained that Confederate deserters weakened the line and left a flank exposed.

The missing men comprised a crew of Mason’s artillery company and had been decorated for bravery only a month earlier when troops under Mason and Ernhardt first clashed.

Last of all, Nan looked at the unfinished letter. Written on brittle paper in a woman’s graceful hand, one edge bore a dark brown stain Nan assumed was blood. She held the antique missive carefully, not wanting to damage it as she had the clipping.

Much of the writing was too faded to read clearly, though it was evident the author felt considerable affection for the man to whom it was addressed, Sergeant Bart Cutter.

Nan felt something tug at her heart as she read the name. Bart Cutter would have been her great-great-grandfather.


“Rain, or no rain,” Cutter said pointing at Butterscotch, “there’s no way in hell that mutt is a better squirrel dog than mine.”

“She was the day it counted,” Jeremy said. “She found a squirrel and treed it. Yours didn’t do squat.”

“Ya can’t count a hunt in the middle of a thunderstorm.”

“It didn’t bother ‘Scotch none.”

“Well, naturally,” Cutter said. “That dog of yours is deaf as a post. Couldn’t hear a fart in a prayer service.”

Jeremy laughed. “Maybe not, but she could sure smell it. She’d know who fired it and what they used for primer.”

Gus put his hands over his ears. “Can’t y’all give it a rest? You’ve been havin’ the same argument for a hun’erd years.”

“Longer than that,” Jeremy said, “and one day Cutter’s gonna see the light.”

Gus turned away. “Lord God-amighty, I hope so!”


Nan stood outside the glass and stone Visitor Center at the battlefield park. Though she’d lived in the town of Little River all her life, and jogged in the park almost every day, she’d never been inside the Visitor Center. She clutched the plastic bag containing the civil war artifacts. For some reason, she felt nervous, but she couldn’t fathom why.

Before she entered the building, an old man wearing the muted greens and browns of a park ranger nodded to her. “Can I help you, miss?”

Nan smiled into the wrinkled face of the ranger and held up the contents of the package from the attorney. “I was hoping to find a historian who’d look at these.” She glanced at the name tag on his uniform. “Do you know who I might talk to, Mr. Swan?”

The old ranger shook his head. “I don’t make guesses about what such things are worth. Makes me feel like I’m trading on someone’s personal business.”

“I don’t want anything like that,” Nan said. “I was hoping for more information. My great-great-grandmother wrote this letter, and–”

The Ranger squinted at the plastic bag. “That looks like a daguerreotype. May I take a closer look at it?”

Nan opened the bag and handed it to him.

“I’ll be damned,” he said looking at the back of it. “These are the boys who lost the battle of Little River!” He reluctantly handed the image back to her. “I don’t suppose I could talk you into donating that to our museum, could I? I guarantee it’d get a lot of exposure.”

“I’d prefer to hang onto it, at least for now,” Nan said. “But I’m sure I could have a copy made.”

Swan nodded. “Thank you. If you’d like, I can show you where those fellas should have been when the battle started.”

“Thank you,” Nan said. “I’d like that.”

As they walked through the woods separating the upper battlefield from the lower one on which the Visitor Center had been built, the ranger chatted amiably.

“Nobody knows what happened to ’em. My guess is they headed out west. That’s what I would have done. I doubt the locals would’ve had anything to do with ’em.”

Nan shook her head. “That doesn’t make sense. Those men were decorated for bravery. They wouldn’t run away before a battle. Look at the picture! Those aren’t cowards. There has to be another explanation. What if they were captured or killed?”

“There’d be a record of it,” the ranger said. “We know the names of everyone killed or wounded here.”

Every last one?

“This wasn’t a big battle, like Kennesaw Mountain or Gettysburg, but it was important to the people hereabouts. If somebody died here, we’d know their name.”

“But what if they didn’t die here? What if they were captured, or–”

“All I know is they weren’t here when the battle started. If they had been, there’s a good chance the Union troops would never have broken through.” He stopped at the gun emplacement Nan used to mark the half-way point in her daily run.

He tapped the historical marker. “It’s all right here.”

Nan felt a moment of embarrassment. “Y’know, as often as I’ve read this marker, I’ve never believed it. Go figure.”


Jeremy and the others huddled close to hear what the old man and the girl were saying.

“Hush, now,” Cutter said, glaring at his men.

“I don’t know why,” Nan said, “but I’ve been drawn to this spot for years, ever since I took up running.”

Jeremy smiled dreamily at the girl, his hand idly rubbing the sweet spot behind Butterscotch’s ears. The dog pulled her head away.

The old ranger chuckled. “Then you and the men who should’ve been here for the battle have something in common. They were fond of runnin’, too.”

“Where in hell was he durin’ the war?” Gus shouted. “I never ran from anything in my life.”

“Settle down,” Cutter said. “Only fools get angry at other fools.”

“We’re missing something,” Nan said. “I’m sure of it. How far did the battlefield extend?”

“Trust me on this,” the ranger said. “If Union troops managed to ambush a gun crew, there’d have been a note in the records somewhere. There wasn’t, or we’d have found it.”

“He don’t know crap,” Gus muttered, “couldn’t find his backside with a map and compass.”

“Maybe so,” Jeremy said, “but that’s not important. What matters is that gal, and as long as she keeps thinkin’ what she’s thinkin’, we’ve got a chance to get outta here.”


Nan spent the weekend in the library looking through microfiche of the Little River Courier. There was always a chance she’d stumble across something of interest about her family. Besides, Ranger Swan’s willingness to label her great-great-grandfather a deserter had struck a nerve and touched off what her father called the “Cutter stubborn streak.” He’d meant it in jest, but she was quite proud of it.

By late Sunday afternoon, she had worked her way past the turn of the century and was debating whether or not to go any farther when a headline grabbed her attention.

Local Boy Finds Skeletal Remains

Breathing as rapidly as if she’d just finished a run, Nan hurriedly scanned the article. The bones of an undetermined number of people had been found by a boy hunting squirrels. The police were investigating, but no charges had yet been filed.

Nan printed a copy of the article and called the police where she learned that few of their case files went back more than a decade. Evidence from older unsolved crimes was stored in a warehouse.

“Where is it?” she asked. “Maybe I can go there on my lunch hour tomorrow.”

The man on the phone sounded genuinely sympathetic. After giving her directions he wished her luck with the “Queen of the Archives.”


“Just go to the archives; you’ll find out quick enough.”

Nan called it a day and went home to change into her running clothes.


As usual, Jeremy was the first to spot her gliding down the path. “Here she comes!” he yelled.

Nan halted a few feet away, breathing hard. A trickle of sweat worked its way down her temple and dripped onto the royal blue of her halter top. Jeremy stared at the drop as it spread on her chest.

When she had regained her wind, she stepped inside the earthworks and walked over to one of the cannons. She patted it and smiled. “I don’t know exactly what happened, Gramps, but I think I’ve got a chance to find out.”

The seven ghosts stared at her in shocked silence as she stepped lightly up the embankment and ran off the way she’d come.

“What was that all about?” Gus asked.

Jeremy shrugged. “Durned if I know.”

The others nodded agreement, though an air of hope seemed to swell among them.

Bart Cutter stood a little taller. “Y’all hear that? She called me Gramps!”

Gus laughed out loud. “You think a pretty gal like that’d be related to an old buckethead like you?”

Jeremy looked at his companions. “Hell, boys, they ain’t one of us less’n a hun’erd years older’n she is.”

“But I’m the only one who ever lived around here,” Cutter said. “So she’s most likely kin to me.” He paused for a moment. “She even looks a bit like my Evie.”

Gus grinned. “I thought you said she looked like your daughter.”

“Well, yeah. Makes sense, don’t it?”

~ Stay tuned for the conclusion in next week’s post ~

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A Breed Apart

As we swing into fall, I find myself thinking more and more fancifully. This little tale captures a bit of that. Let me know what you think!

“C’mon now, Lacy,” her father said as he prodded the sow toward his truck, “pigs ain’t pets. They’re livestock. I’ve told you a million times not to get attached to ‘em.”

“But her babies are only two weeks old.”

“They ain’t babies, Lacy. They’re piglets, and before long they’ll be bacon. Speakin’ of which, where are they?”

“In the hog pen,” she said. Most of them, anyway.

“I wanna see ‘em when I get back, y’hear? And I don’t want any arguments. Any of them runts that ain’t perfect won’t be around long.”


“I’ll see you when I get done butcherin’ this old sow. You just see to them piglets and don’t make a big deal outta it. Understand?”

“Yes, Daddy,” she said. Lacy didn’t move as she watched her father drive the sow into his truck, secure the tailgate, and lurch down the rutted dirt track away from their barn. His destination was no secret, and the knowledge brought tears to her eyes. Lacy had been to the slaughterhouse enough times to know she never wanted to go back.

Her unwillingness to eat meat of any kind gave her soul some peace, but not at home where her father harangued her about it, or at school where the other kids labeled her “weird.” Her long-awaited graduation meant freedom from her narrow-minded classmates. Though she’d once dreamed of college, she knew she couldn’t leave the farm. Not yet, if ever.

No longer under her father’s scrutiny, Lacy hurried to the hog pen to check on the little ones. No doubt, some would be struggling, and their lives would be short. But Lacy refused to abandon them, especially the most severely deformed. These she would shower with affection; even if she couldn’t save them, they needed to know some love before her father butchered them, too.

The pen held all but one of the piglets in the farrow. Lacy smiled just thinking of the fancy word. Her father called them a “mess of pigs,” ignoring any and all naming conventions based on the animals’ age.

Of the eight little pigs still in the pen, two had obvious deformities. Not unusual considering her father’s zeal to breed the animals faster, and to force them to market faster still. There were always mutations. That meant nothing to him; he never showed his livestock at county fairs or auctions. He wanted big, fat pigs he could grow and slaughter in the shortest period of time possible.

His obsession for a quick turnaround from mating to meat-eating caused him to conduct wide-ranging experiments. Some came from legitimate experts in animal husbandry; others came from mysterious sources whose expertise was questionable at best. Lacy’s father didn’t care. He tried anything that might speed up the process–potions, proteins, or prayers. It was all the same to him. The less time he spent breeding, fattening, and killing, the faster his profits grew. He wanted only what worked, no matter if it came from science or magic.

Lacy, however, knew the difference. And she took full advantage of it.

After cuddling the two unfortunate piglets for a while, she returned them to the pen and ventured into the woods which separated her father’s business from civilization. The separation was mandated not only by society but by statute. Pig farms have a distinct aroma, one which can cling to the skin, hair, and clothing of those who live on or near them. Lacy had grown used to the smell, but it still offended town folk and nearly everyone in her school. Hence, the border area.

At first, she took great pains to bathe frequently and launder her clothing with strong detergents and “fresheners.” Over time, she realized the futility of her efforts. She was already disliked; dousing herself in perfume wouldn’t change that. If anything, the aroma of pig shit she bore to school every day helped to keep her tormentors at a distance.

Free from interference, she used her school time to advance her knowledge, if not her formal education. She wasn’t preparing for college; she had a greater goal in mind.

Eventually, she reached her oasis, a ramshackle cabin surrounded by crudely fenced pens. Most of the animals in them hurried to greet her, pressing tight enough against the twig and branch enclosures to loosen a feather, a scale, or hair. Lacy modeled her fencing after that of the ancient Celts whom she’d read about in school. She fed the animals with food secretly “liberated” from her father’s stores. Fresh water came from a small stream which ran through the pens and emptied into a swamp close by the piggery.

Lacy entered the structure, more hut than house, and went directly to the latest member of her menagerie, a perfectly formed piglet save for one distinct feature: a pair of wings which grew from between the animal’s shoulders. The piglet wiggled and squealed at her approach, its little snout aquiver. Lacy knelt down, and the tiny, porcine angel leaped into her arms, eager to bathe her in piggy kisses.

It was a sweet moment but short-lived. For the first time ever she heard the sound of construction vehicles in the distance. Terrified her hideaway might be uncovered by a roving bulldozer, or worse, by her father, Lacy disentangled herself. She hastily fed all the animals, then hurried back through the woods toward home.

She heard her father’s voice, calling for her, well before he came into view. “Coming,” she yelled back and ran faster.

“Where the hell have you been?” he asked when she finally arrived.

She took a calming breath, then said, “It’s a pretty day. I went for a walk.”

“In the woods?”

She nodded, yes.

“Did ya finish yer chores?”


He stared at her for a moment, then shifted closer. Lacy smelled the essence of dead animals emanating from her father’s dirt and blood-stained coveralls. She backed away, holding her breath.

“We got any losers?” he asked.

“Two,” she said. “But I’ll take care of them.” Not that she would enjoy removing the vestigial wings from the two piglets in the hog pen, but if he did it, their chances of survival would plummet.

“Aw right, then,” he said, turning away. “When yer done, get back in the house. I’m gettin’ hungry.”

“Yessir,” she said again, trying to hide her emotions.

He chuckled. “I want pork chops tonight. If you don’t want yours, I’ll eat ‘em.”

She avoided rolling her eyes with a conscious effort. “Um, Daddy?”


“I heard some heavy machinery while I was taking my walk. Do you know what’s going on?”

“The county’s building a road, right through that useless chunk of woods. I ain’t pleased about it, but they paid me a little something for the right of way. I’ve gotta get somebody to harvest the trees though. Oughta make a buck or two from that.”

Lacy’s heart raced. Hoping her father wouldn’t notice, she hurried to the hog pen to perform the surgeries. From past experience, she knew a local anesthetic would suffice. It was all she had. The law required that her father’s animals meet certain minimum health requirements; the standards were upheld by a local veterinarian. She’d learned a lot from him and even assisted with rudimentary surgery.

She often begged him for something to use on the animals she tended. Because she was both earnest and smart, he gave in and provided her with the simplest of supplies: scalpel, surgical scissors, disinfectant, and suture material. That and the anesthetic were all she needed. Over time, she’d become fairly adept at such procedures. She also became adept at giving herself a five-finger discount on his other supplies, which included a vial of pentobarbital, the very stuff used to put sick animals down. She knew just such an animal.

A full stomach had its usual effect on Lacy’s dad, and he fell asleep watching pro wrestling on TV. He woke briefly in response to the needle’s sharp sting, shouting and rising to his feet, but moments later he succumbed to the drug and dropped to the floor. She managed to get his body back into his easy chair, comfortable in the belief the authorities wouldn’t bother with an autopsy.

Finally free of his overbearing, money-grubbing dominance, Lacy set about moving her collection of evolving animals back into the hog farm from which they’d originally come. The little, winged piglet would join the others of his kind, a whole collection of breeds very definitely apart.

Best of all, Lacy would be able to continue her quest to grow a dragon. But first, pigs must fly.


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Model Homes, a Not-So-Short Story — Part 2

Last week, we left our intrepid dollhouse hunter next to a barn at ground zero of nowhere. Her presence had just been discovered by the man she’d been following, a man she suspects of holding tiny humans captive. (You can read Part 1 here.) Herewith, the conclusion of:

… Karina spun around, her heart racing, an excuse already forming on her lips. “I– It’s not–”

The old man merely held up his hand and shook his head. “Please. Don’t take me for a complete fool. I saw you when you crawled into the back of my truck. I took the long way ‘round so you wouldn’t have an easy time figuring out where I was going.”

“It worked,” she said. “Where in the world are we?”

“This is what we used to call ‘the boondocks’ when I was a kid. That was a long time ago, but it still fits.”

“I meant–”

“I know what you meant, but I’m sure as hell not gonna tell you.” He swept his arm toward the front of the great old barn. “It’s not like it’s a secret anymore. You might as well see the whole thing close up.”

Karina stared hard at him trying to determine if he carried a weapon of some kind, but he merely turned and walked away from her, empty-handed. “You comin’?” he called without looking back.

“Yes!” she replied and scrambled to catch up to him.

Together they walked through the open door into the barn. The upper lofts stood mostly empty, though they could easily have accommodated hundreds of hay bales. The middle loft housed what appeared to be workshops of various kinds, some obvious, like those for metal or woodworking, and others more exotic as if devoted to chemistry, electronics, and other highly technical pursuits.

“This is amazing,” Karina murmured as she turned completely around to take everything in. “It’s an entire community!”

“Actually,” the old man said, “it’s an entire race. The whole nine yards, every last member. They all live, work, and play right here.”

Karina looked into the man’s eyes, emboldened by the weariness she saw there. “How can you live with yourself knowing you’ve kept so many lives locked away in obscurity? How–”

“Stop!” he commanded in a voice heavy with anger. “Who are you to pass judgment on me? What gives you the right to make assumptions about any of this? You’ve taken one look at something I’ve lived with for decades, and suddenly you’re the expert?”

“Well,” Karina began, “it’s obvious–”

The old man shook his head; his slumped shoulders suggested either a very different story or an expression of guilt. Karina couldn’t be sure which. He kept twisting the gold wedding band on his finger, something she’d seen him do in the shop when dealing with an angry customer. She assumed it was merely a nervous habit.

“I’m the prisoner here,” he said wearily. “I have been for many, many years.” He waved his hand at the miniature community crowding the limits of his barn. “They’re the ones in control.”

“What? How is that possible? You’re so much… bigger. How could they ever control you?”

He pointed to the wedding band. “This is my slave collar. When they need me for something, they send a signal here. It itches like crazy, but my knuckles are so swollen I can’t take the damned thing off.” He shook his head and exhaled in resignation. “You have no idea how many times I’ve contemplated just chopping that finger off. But not even that would be enough.”

“I don’t understand,” Karina said.

“They’ve injected me with something, some kind of poison. I have no idea what it is, but if I don’t get a daily dose of the antidote, it’ll kill me. And not in a pleasant fashion.” He closed his eyes and swallowed. A tear formed and slowly traversed his wrinkled cheek. “I saw what it did to my wife, but I didn’t have her courage. She died rather than remain in bondage. I’m not brave enough to do that.”

Karina reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “I had no idea, Mr. Uh–”

“Danzig,” he said. “Oliver Danzig.”

“Who are they?” Karina asked. “And where did they come from?”

The old man pointed toward the ceiling. “They said they were colonists from another world. I have no idea which one. The name they gave me is meaningless.”

He gestured toward the work areas and sophisticated equipment. “Most of what you see in here came from their ship. Earth wasn’t what they had in mind when they left their homeworld, but it was the nearest one on which they could live when their space vehicle malfunctioned. They spent years trying to fix it, but eventually gave up.”

“And moved in here?”

He nodded. “They needed things they couldn’t make. At least, not at first, that’s why they needed me and my sweet Gerta.” He swallowed hard. “We were happy to help, at first. But their demands grew, and we had no time for our farm. They didn’t care. I don’t know when they poisoned us, but it was long ago.”

Danzig leaned against a stout wooden post which supported a section of loft. “I’m so tired. They finally agreed to let me modify and sell some of the homes they’d built for themselves. Making the changes took little time and generated a great deal of money. Enough to live on. When they needed something special, the funds went to pay for those things, too.” He spat.

“I was their delivery boy, their mule, their robot.” The anger in his voice grew with every word. “I’ve had enough. I’m tired. Done.”

He dug in his pocket and pulled out a set of keys which he handed to her. “Here. Take the truck. Go home.”

Karina looked at the keys then back at Danzig. “How will you get back to–”

“I’m not going anywhere after tonight,” he said.


“Please, just go. Now.” He pushed her gently toward the sliding door in the barn wall.

“Aren’t you worried I’ll tell people what I’ve seen? What you’ve told me?”

He shook his head. “Not anymore.” With a firm hand on her lower back, he guided her toward the exit.

Concerned about what he intended to do, she put on the brakes. “Wait a minute. What are you–”

“What I intend to do is none of your business. I’ve tried to be polite, but perhaps I need to remind you that you’re trespassing on private property. I didn’t invite you here. You have no right to stay.”

“I just don’t want you to do anything rash.”

His expression told her he had no interest in her thoughts or opinions. “Goodbye,” he said as he slid the heavy wooden door shut and barred it from the inside.

Karina stood looking at the big building and pondered its astonishing contents. Eventually, she turned and began the short walk to the truck but stopped when she heard a new noise—not exactly an explosion, more like a profound whump sound. Moments later, smoke and flames appeared through a loft window.

“Oh, my God!” Karina screamed. “He’s going to kill them all.”

She quickly reversed course and raced back to the barn door and put all her weight into an effort to open it. The massive panel wouldn’t budge.

Hurrying around to the back of the building, she paused to take a quick look through the knothole she’d discovered earlier. Flames and more smoke obscured the scene but not the sounds of tiny voices screaming in pain and terror.

Sticking her fingers into the knothole, Karina tried to tear the wooden slat from the wall, but like the door, it didn’t move at all. Abandoning that idea, she continued moving around the outside searching for a way in, or a way to let the victims of the blaze out.

Sadly, there were no other exits.

She circled the building and stood out front, staring up at the loft window she noticed earlier. A tiny figure stood on the sill, clearly terrified. Karina thought it might be a female.

“Jump!” she yelled, moving toward the blaze. “I’ll catch you.”

Instead of jumping forward, the doll-sized victim screamed as the flames swept over her, and she fell backward, out of sight.

Karina dropped to her knees, numbed by shock and grief. The rescue had been so close, so– possible. And just as quickly, it had disappeared.

The heat from the now fully engulfed barn forced her backward, and she began to fear it might set the truck on fire, too. She climbed behind the wheel, started the engine, and moved the vehicle to safety.

Almost as an afterthought, she extracted her cell phone from the pocket of her jeans to dial 911, the local emergency number. The “No Service” indicator on the phone told her the effort was futile. She shook her head knowing that even if she had gotten through to someone, the barn would likely burn to the ground before anyone could get there.

Her heart heavy with remorse, Karina vowed to stay long enough to look for survivors though she had no hope that anyone could have lived through such a massive and all-consuming blaze. She stood outside the truck and leaned back against it, her tears unchecked.

As the first rays of morning touched the eastern sky, Karina crept closer to the smoking ruins. Very little remained recognizable amid the sea of charred wood. Still, she picked her way carefully around the entire site, hoping to find something or someone who had survived. This was an advanced race, she told herself. Surely they had planned something in the event of a catastrophe like this. The smoldering wreckage, however, told a different story.

Turning her steps back toward the truck she almost missed the first sounds of distress coming from the woods a short distance away. Karina squinted but couldn’t make out anything in the shadows.

Soon, other voices joined the first, and a stampede of exceptionally small children emerged from the shadows racing pell‑mell toward the wreckage behind her.

One thought after another tumbled through Karina’s brain as she watched the horrified mob race toward their burned-out home. They hardly slowed down as they swept past her but came to a ragged and hysterical stop when they reached the vast pile of still-smoking cinders arrayed in front of them.

“Oh, you poor dears,” Karina said as she knelt down to get closer. “I’m so sorry.”

The tiny children were dressed in what appeared to be uniforms, their shirts and slacks all matched. The largest of the band, clearly their leader, stepped to the forefront, alternating looks of grief and hatred splayed across her face.

“Did you do this?” she inquired angrily, her finger pointed directly at Karina.

“No! Of course not. I would never–”

She was interrupted by the clamor of the adolescent mob, at least thirty strong, which stood behind their leader. Many of those voices called out for revenge, while others simply wailed for their lost families.

“It was Danzig,” Karina said, “not me. I swear it!”

“Who are you?” their leader asked as she moved closer, all the while motioning to those behind her to hold their place.

As Karina began to explain her presence, she felt the tiniest of pinpricks near her ankle. She reached down to rub it and saw the male version of the diminutive adult with whom she’d been talking. He held some sort of syringe in his hand.

“It’s done,” he said. “She’ll do whatever we need her to do.”

His co-leader looked at him and nodded, her expression grim.

“Or else,” she said.


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