Cowboys & Krampus – A Christmas Romance

cowboys-and-krampusSo in honor of the season, I’ve written a sequel to my insane zombie western, Dead-sperado, called Cowboys & Krampus. It’s available here right now from Amazon, and it starts off something like this:

Two days before Christmas, we had been on the run from a bank job for a week and a half. I had expected us to head south toward old Mexico, but Cade had led us straight north. The rest of the gang seemed to know what he was doing and trust him, and I had only been riding with them since Halloween, so I kept my mouth shut. But looking up at the sky, I was pretty sure we were headed straight into a blizzard.

Just as it started to snow, we rode up to a two-story hotel in the literal middle of nowhere. The hotel and its stable were the only buildings in sight in the middle of a flat, open plain surrounded by mountains.

The little round innkeeper came out from behind his desk as soon as we walked in the door. “Mr. Cade,” he said as we huffed and stomped and peeled out of the frozen layers of our coats. “Danke Gott! When we received your telegram, I was afraid you’d be lost on the road.”

“Telegram?” I said, raising an eyebrow. As far as I knew, we’d been riding for our lives. When had he stopped and sent a telegram?

“Of course. We couldn’t just show up without a reservation, Daisy.” The smile on his face made him look like a man I’d never met. Elbert Cade was not a smiler. “That would be rude.”

“But who is this?” the innkeeper said as I unbuttoned my duster. “Daisy? You have brought your young lady?”

“Mr. Bhaer, meet Mrs. Cade,” he said. “Daisy, honey, meet our host, Mr. Bhaer.”

To my credit, I didn’t faint from shock. “Pleased to meet you,” I said, giving Cade a slant-eyed look that should have shaved off one of his sideburns. Rule number one of the gang was never dispute our fearless leader in front of decent folks, so I wouldn’t. But I wasn’t no more Mrs. Cade than I was the queen of Sweden.

Mein Gott!” Bhaer said. “Mother, come quickly! Cade has taken a wife!”

“Uh-oh,” Thomas, Cade’s second-in-command, said with a grin. “Now you’ve done it.”

The swinging doors behind the front desk opened, and people came pouring out, a stout little woman with blonde braids wrapped around her head and half a dozen little tow-headed kids. “You don’t mean it!” the woman exclaimed in the same thick German accent as her husband. “Congratulations!” She kissed Cade on both cheeks, leaving flour in his whiskers. “Papa, look!” She took my hands and beamed at me. “Ain’t she lovely?”

“Daisy,” Bhaer said. “Her name is Daisy.”

“Mr. Cade, are you crazy?” one of the kids asked, a freckle-faced little bruiser with mischief dancing off of him like sparks off an anvil. “Whatcha want to get some stupid girl for?”

“Klaus!” his mother cried, scandalized.

“Well, Klaus, to tell you the truth, I didn’t have much of a choice,” Cade said with a bit of mischief in his own eyes. “I fed her one time, and she followed me home.”

“Klaus, you are a very naughty boy,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Krampus carried you away tomorrow night.” She smacked Cade on the arm. “And you, too.”

“I don’t think Krampus will be traveling tomorrow night,” Mr. Bhaer said. “Not in this storm.”

“But Papa, what about Saint Nicholas?” one of the other kids said, this one a girl barely as tall as her papa’s boots. “Ain’t he coming either?”

“Not to worry, poppy seed,” Thomas said, swinging the little girl up in his arms. “Saint Nick can always make it through.”

“Something surely smells good in the kitchen, Mrs. Bhaer,” said Luis, Cade’s other lieutenant. He’d been all but hopping on one foot since we came in.

“I am baking gingerbread, Mr. Gonzales,” she said. “Or did you mean Clara?” Her husband and all the other men but Luis laughed at her joke. Me, I thought I must have fallen off my horse and hit my head at some point without noticing. This had to be a crazy dream. “She’s been waiting for you all day,” Mrs. Bhaer went on. “You’d better come see her. Papa, get everyone else settled into their rooms. I’m sure Mrs. Cade is exhausted.”

“So how long have you two been married?” Bhaer asked.

“Not long at all,” Cade said.

“No kidding,” I muttered.

“We’re still on our honeymoon,” Cade said, stepping on my foot. I bit back a shriek of pain.

Wunderbar,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “The bridal suite it is. Come, children, help me fetch Mrs. Cade a hot bath.”

“Aw, nuts,” Klaus grumbled, making me laugh. That child was a caution and cute as he could be.

“That’s quite enough from you, young Klaus,” his father said. “Go now and help your mother.”

When we got to the top of the stairs, Cade went so far as to carry me over the threshold. But as soon as Bhaer left us alone, he set me down, and the honeymoon was over.

“What in hell has gotten into you?” I said.

“Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer are good Christian folks,” he said. “They’d be mightily offended if they thought I’d brought some…” He let his thought trail off.

“Some what, Elbert Cade?” I said. “And remember, I have a gun.”

“They ain’t like us, Daisy, he said. “They’re good and kind and peaceful, and they don’t understand that the rest of the world ain’t like that.”

The rest of the world like him and me. “Which makes me wonder how they know you,” I said.

“I got shot up real bad a couple of years ago about twenty miles from here,” he said. “The rest of the gang thought I was going to die, and most of them skinned out and left me. But Thomas and Luis loaded me up on a half-busted wagon and tried to get me to help. Just when they figured it was hopeless, they found this hotel.”

“And these folks took you in?” I said. I was shaking just thinking about him getting hurt so bad, but I’d have sooner died than let him know it. “A wanted outlaw?”

“Thomas told them we were scouts,” he said. “He said we’d been set upon by bandits when we were leading a wagon train west, and that I had fought off half a dozen men single-handed to save the rest of the party.”

“Lord God Almighty.”

“Hey, I had—they just happened to have been a lawful posse.” If I hadn’t been so mad, I might have thought his little grin was charming. “Anyhow,” he said, seeing my frown. “The Bhaers got me a doctor, and when I woke up, I was a hero. And we’ve been coming back here every Christmas since. Luis and the cook even have an understanding to wed.”

“And they don’t know you’re outlaws?” I said.

He at least had the decency to look embarrassed. “Like I said, they’re good people.”

“Stupid people, maybe.” When I had taken up with him, I had known I was giving up any hope of eve being respectable, that I wasn’t ever going to be the nice married lady I had always dreamed I’d be. But I had wanted him so much, I had told myself it didn’t matter, that there were things more important than being respectable. But now here we were, and he expected me to pretend.

“Now don’t be like that,” he said. “I didn’t tell you we were coming here because I wanted it to be a surprise. I thought you’d like it.” He took my hand and tugged me closer, and I let him. “Just think, darling. A clean bed.” He kissed me on the forehead, sweet and soft. “A hot bath.” I couldn’t help but smile, slumping against him. “When was the last time you had a hot bath?”

“It has been a while.” The last time had been in Carson City, and a fine time it had been.

“We can stay here and ride the storm out safe and sound, eating Clara and Mrs. Bhaer’s fine cooking.” I twined an arm around his neck, and he kissed my mouth. “Sleeping as late as we like.”

“That does sound nice.” Getting up before the sun was the thing I hated most about being an outlaw.

“No posse breathing down our necks.” He nibbled the back of my neck. “No Thomas or Luis snoring one bedroll away.” He kissed behind my ear. “No biting my shoulder to the bone, trying to keep quiet.” I giggled, and he kissed me on the mouth. I melted against him, and he walked me backward toward the bed. “And I was thinking,” he said, nuzzling my throat.

“Thinking what?” I untied the bandana at his throat.

“When the storm does break and we do ride out…” He kissed me again, cuddling my head in his hand the way he knew I liked. “…you could stay on here a while.”

I broke the kiss. “Beg pardon?”

“Just for a little while.” He put up his hands like I might have been a sheriff with a shotgun. “Just until the weather warms up and things calm down a bit.”

“You want to just dump me?” I said.

“Of course not.”

“Have I ever once whined or told you I was tired?” I demanded. “Did I ever cry when I got shot at or fail to shoot when I had to?”

“No, honey. I just thought–”

“I ride as good as Thomas and better than Luis.” I had never been so mad at anybody in my life. “If you’re sick of me, Cade, all you’ve got to do is say so. If you’re ready for another piece of–”

“Stop right there!” He didn’t holler at me often, but when he did, it was impressive. “I don’t want no other women, damn it! That’s the gawddamn point! I want you to be safe!”

“Then you ought not to have let me come with you in the first place!”

“You think I don’t know that?”

I caught my breath like he had hit me. Truth be told, I wished he had.

Somebody knocked on the door. “Mrs. Cade?” It was Mrs. Bhaer. “We have your bath.”

Cade reached out a hand to me. “Daisy…”

“Get out.” I couldn’t stand for him to see me cry. “Just get out.” I opened the door. “Thank you kindly, Mrs. Bhaer,” I said, putting on a smile. “Elbert was just leaving.”

Check out Cowboys & Krampus and the rest of our holiday stuff at our website, http://lucybluecastle.wixsite.com/littleredhenromance. Merry Christmas! 

 

Insane Potato Casserole

I haven’t posted a recipe in a while, and we ate the hound out of this Halloween night, so I thought I’d share it. I adapted it from a recipe I found on Pinterest for “Crack Potatoes,” but my niece said that just does not sound appetizing, and I suppose she has a point. Whatever you call it, it’s one of those side dishes that people can’t get enough of, great for potlucks, so very not good for you, but delicious. Make sure your heart medication is up to date and eat small portions.

Ingredients:

1 30 oz. bag of frozen shredded hash brown potatoes (I use most of a bigger bag of the cheap discount store brand, and they work just fine)

1 9 oz. bag of real bacon bits (or you could fry up nine ounces of bacon and chop it up if you’re struggling to fill your empty hours)

1  1 lb. bag of finely shredded sharp cheddar cheese (again, feel free to shred your own; in this recipe, I don’t think it’s necessary, but you do you)

2 cups of sour cream (one big container)

2 packets of ranch dressing mix (now honestly, is any recipe with two packets of ranch dressing mix going to be improved by frying fresh bacon and shredding your own cheese?)

2 generous tablespoons of mayonnaise (I refuse to be ashamed)

Spray a 9 x 12-inch casserole dish with cooking spray. In a big bowl, stir together the potatoes (still frozen; they’ll break up nicely as you stir), the bacon bits, and the cheese. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the sour cream, ranch dressing mix, and mayonnaise. Pour the dressing mixture over the other ingredients, stir them together—put your back into it; you want everything evenly distributed.

Spread the resulting glop into the casserole dish. If you’re lucky, you’ve remembered to do this the night before you want to eat, in which case you can cover it all up with foil or plastic wrap and stow it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to bake. This gives your hash browns time to thaw and cuts down on your baking time. But if you aren’t lucky, you aren’t screwed; it’s just going to take your casserole longer to get done.

Bake uncovered in a 425-degree oven for 45-60 minutes if you started early, 75-90 minutes if you didn’t. It’s done when you have a nice, crispy brown edge all the way around and the surface looks cooked all the way across. If you’re using a clear casserole dish, you can do what I do and hold it up over your head to check and see if the bottom is lightly browned all the way across. Just don’t do it in front of your spouse; it makes mine extremely nervous.

Serves at least eight—we had seven people for Halloween and had some leftovers. This freezes well and makes great leftovers from the fridge the next day if you have any. I’ve served mine with pretty much anything I’d serve with mashed potatoes. For Halloween we had it with “mummy dogs,” hot dogs wrapped in strips of crescent roll dough and baked. And trick or treat candy. Lots and lots of trick or treat candy.

We Are Not This: Carolina Writers for Equality – Press Release

small-we-are-not-thisI’m lucky enough to have a story in this–“The Dark Lady” about a transgender actress in the days of Shakespeare. But even if I didn’t, I’d promote the living juice out of it. Much, much great stuff to read, all profits benefiting a magnificent cause. It’s available as an ebook right now from Amazon here, and print copies are on the way. Get a copy, boost the signal, spread the word. HB2 and the hate it represents are NOT North Carolina. 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CHARLOTTE SMALL PRESS RELEASES CHARITY ANTHOLOGY PROTESTING HB2

For Details, contact John G. Hartness
john@falstaffbooks.com

10/25/16

In an “October Surprise” for Governor Pat McCrory and members of the NC General Assembly, Charlotte-based micro-press Falstaff Books today released We Are Not This – Carolina Writers for Equality. The anthology, a collection of 31 short stories, poems, and essays by North Carolina writers or writers who feel a strong tie to the Carolinas, was created as a response to HB2, the divisive “bathroom bill” passed by the NC General Assembly earlier this year.

We Are Not This includes stories from NY Times bestselling author A. J. Hartley, noted singer-songwriter David Childers, Bram Stoker Award nominee Jake Bible, Charlotte Observer columnist and longtime educator Kay McSpadden, Hugo-award nominated editor Edmund Schubert, and a host of other writers. The anthology is currently available as an ebook, and will be available in print within the month.

In his introduction, publisher John G. Hartness writes “We understand that people are people, and all people deserve to be protected from discrimination. We understand that insuring equal rights for one group does not take away rights from another group. We understand that laws restricting freedom and taking away someone’s chance for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the opposite of the values that this country was founded upon. We understand that we are stronger together, and that love is love.”

Proceeds from the sale of the anthology will be divided among NC-centric LGBTQ charities, non-profits, and lobbying organizations. The first group of organizations to receive funding will be Time Out Youth, Queen City Theatre Company, and EqualityNC.

Review of News of the World by Paulette Jilles

News of the World is one of those short novels written by a poet where every image and syllable is rife with meaning and symbolic import. Set in Texas in the 1870s, it’s the story of 72-year-old Captain Jefferson Kidd, an old soldier and former owner of a printing press who makes his living reading newspapers aloud in public, and how he transports a ten-year-old white girl who has spent the past four years as a captive of the Kiowa more than seven hundred miles to her surviving white relatives. (If you’re thinking The Searchers, quit—this is more of a late-in-life Paul Newman role with a well-crafted political point of view that’s all the way 2016.) Incidents ensue that all feel true to life, and the conclusion satisfies. But as much as I love westerns and liberal politics and stories about old men and the power of words, I can’t say I loved this. I liked it okay; I admire Jilles’ research and craftsmanship; I agree with all her points. But the story just didn’t move me.

I suspect Jilles’ is a cracking fine poet. There is much here about things being biscuit-colored and the emotional states of rivers. The character of Kidd is a work of art all by himself, specific and original and full of interesting, relatable depths. His biography, delivered in dribs and drabs of memory and flashback, was my favorite part of the book by miles. But this particular journey and the child for whom he takes it just didn’t interest me all that much. In her author’s note, Jilles’ cites a non-fiction book about the psychology of non-Native-American children taken captive by tribes in the Old West, and I don’t doubt that she read it cover to cover, along with plenty of solid primary sources on the Kiowa language, period clothing, the roads in Texas at the time, and late-19th-century printing. And Texas politics—I’m sure there were even more artful parallels drawn between the violent and clueless white folks she creates for her story and the real ones we know today than I recognized, but I don’t have the strength, will, or energy to try to pull them out. All of this stuff is interesting, but the story feels too thin and tenuous to support its weight. I didn’t have any problem finishing the book, but I just couldn’t care about it much; it never engaged my heart. Ultimately it felt more like an essay or a non-fiction article than a novel.

I’m glad I read it, and I will read more from this writer. But I can’t imagine myself ever reading this one again.

Until Death: An Anthology of Twisted Love Stories – new from LRH!

Me and my baby sis are at it again – new scary sexy just in time for Halloween! Get it here from Amazon

until-death-1

True love never dies…
That’s the story that all the fairy tale books are peddling. According to TV producer Dale, that was all it was—a fairy tale. A hustle perpetrated upon our culture by Walt Disney and romance novels. But while filming his hit new zombie show, Dale meets a charming extra who tries to convince him otherwise. She weaves tales of twisted love and obsession: a sinister family secret that comes home to roost, a grieving husband whose sadness gives birth to an all-consuming evil, a woman who forsakes salvation to rescue her greatest love from the cold clutches of death, and the promise of love’s redemption in the afterlife are just a few in her arsenal. But will Dale find himself in the middle of his own love story, or will his mysterious companion be the death of him?

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: a review

For the past few years, I’ve been reading mostly genre fiction. Graduate school and a long string of deathly dull reads had convinced me that the new literary novel was of interest to nobody who didn’t live in New York City and/or worship John Updike (or at least Cormac McCarthy) as a god. But this year, I’ve decided to return to my roots and at least read all the novels that made this year’s long list for the National Book Award. I started with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad because it’s the only one on the shelves at my local library—thanks, Oprah! And reading it has confirmed my faith in the experiment. All kidding and personal prejudice aside, good books are being published every week in every genre, but not so many great ones. The Underground Railroad is great.

I won’t spoil the experience of discovering this story for anybody else by describing any single incident of action—it’s too damned awful and too damned good. It’s an epic saga, a journey of discovery like The Odyssey or Ulysses or Lord of the Rings. The heroine is Cora, an escaped slave who is neither Eliza Harris nor William Styron’s version of Nat Turner but a well-rounded, specific, relatable human being as all great epic heroes are. She moves through the various hellscapes of the 19th-century American “slave states” of the South and Midwest via the Underground Railroad which in this allegorical fantasy is not a metaphor but a literal railway system under the earth and the story’s central symbol. Like all great epics, Cora’s story brims over with poetry; Whitehead uses a clean, caustic prose style and his heroine’s unflinching point of view to create some of the most horrific scenes and incidents I’ve ever read without ever once resorting to sentimentality or melodrama. Again unlike Stowe or Styron, he doesn’t try to tug our heartstrings or even inflame our rage; he’s not arguing a thesis. He’s just telling the horrible truth. The novel is more artful than historical in its structure and approach, but everything that happens to Cora happened to somebody; it’s the history of slavery distilled.

The book directly references Jonathan Swift’s great fantastical allegory, Gulliver’s Travels, and the comparison is apt. I also saw a lot of Dante in Cora’s journey through layers of darkness toward the light. But if I had followed my original career plan and become a lit professor, I’d be assigning my students to read this book alongside Mark Twain’s great contemporary novel of the slave states, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve adored Twain’s book since I first read it as a child, and the recent backlash and charges of racism made against it make me sad. But most of those complaints are aimed directly at the character of Jim, an escaped slave who becomes a father figure to the scrappy, abused, white trash child hero, Huck. Twain has great respect for Jim (his word choice in his naming notwithstanding) and great affection, and Jim is a great character. But he’s not real. Like Eliza and Styron’s Nat, he’s a white man’s fantasy of blackness. With Cora, Whitehead (among other accomplishments entirely unconnected to any other work at all) fills in that gap. He gives us the view from the other side of the raft—or rather, not from a raft rolling down the open air above the mighty Mississippi but from a broken boxcar steaming through a dark hole in the earth. There are also interesting parallels to be drawn between Whitehead’s villain, the slave catcher Ridgeway, and Huck Finn himself, and even Jim’s legal owner, Miss Watson, has her own dark shadow in Whitehead’s tale, a dotty old dear who dies without a will and damns the slaves she leaves behind to hell. A comparison between the two books could make one hell of a paper.

But the point is, it’s a great book. Don’t miss it.

For What It’s Worth

For the past two days, I’ve been trying to think of something to say that isn’t being said better already by somebody else, and what occurs to me is this. Right now and for the next two months, every political party in the US is going to be falling over itself to convince people of color to help them win the election. The so-called “black vote” is one of the holiest of holy grails in the American electoral process. But why should black Americans who aren’t already invested go out of their way to prop up and participate in a system that offers them no protection and has in fact defined them generally and institutionally as a threat?

Regardless of the details of any specific incident (and the undeniable humanity, bravery, and intelligence of most police officers as individual men and women) we can no longer pretend we don’t know one single, horrifying fact: that it has become an accepted truism within the official institutions of this country that black men are inherently dangerous. That the mere presence of a black man even with his hands up is a threat so immediate and so dire it justifies the use of deadly force. That isn’t just racism, folks. That’s genocide. As a people, we have to acknowledge it, and we have to fix it.

And yes, that starts with all of us individual white folks reaching out in empathy and friendship, but the warm fuzzy feelings aren’t enough, not any more. We have to share in the outrage and demand change. We have to risk our own comfort to join the fight for justice. We have to stop waiting for Dr. King to rise from the grave and take selfies with us so we can prove how liberal we are and instead become one nation united in grief and rage and the hope for something better. We have to stand beside our brothers and sisters of color and echo their voices as they shout, “No more!”