Friday, December 7, 2018

Old Settlers' Picnic

Last fall my husband and I left the suburbs of Chicago and headed west. In a rental car we hit some of the popular sites in South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.
One spot along the way was the Devils Tower in Wyoming. 

Devils Tower (author's photo)

Until this trip, all I knew about the Devils Tower was that it was where the aliens landed in Encounters of a Third Kind, featuring a scene where Richard Dreyfus sculpts its shape into mashed potatoes with his fork.
Nothing prepared me for its magnificence. Set in the Black Hills but surrounded by miles of flat land, it dominates the landscape. We drove and drove and drove and there it was always within sight. In the front window, the side windows, and back window, the rear-view mirror....
It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies, so it stood out as some strange anomaly in the green plains. Then it occurred to me that the plots of land around it were fenced off, because it's surrounded by ranches. 
I had to wonder what it would be like to have a sight like the Devils Tower in your backyard. What did the first people and early settlers make of this monolith?
This place is still sacred to the tribes of the Northern Plains evidenced by the amount of medicine bundles hanging in branches at the base of the tower. They have there own stories of the creation of the Devils Tower you can read about at the visitor's center, which was all very interesting to me.
But something else caught my attention. In one marker as you start to walk around the tower is an old photo of an outdoor gathering labeled Old Settler's Picnic.

Old Settlers' Picnic, Devils Tower, WY., NPS Photo
The Old Settler's Picnic was started in 1932, and this annual event became a way for friends and family to gather together. The picnic went on into the 1960's and was revived in 2006 to celebrate the park's centennial. A picnic lunch is followed by cowboy poetry, live music, and events throughout the day.
While traveling around the west driving from town to town with long, lonely stretches of open land in between, we visited a sod house, a couple of cemeteries, museums, and landmark buildings, so I saw first hand the challenges to survival for the early settlers.  So, hats off to the families who persevered long enough to put down roots.
When I started thinking about my story, Counting Down to Christmas, for the anthology A Christmas Cowboy to Keep, I knew I had to make my cowboy someone who came from a family who would qualify as old settlers. Meet Leland Jennings IV, large animal veterinarian. I didn't put the Devils Tower in his backyard, but instead gave him a ranching family in South Dakota.

Melody Evans, a professional wedding planner, views happily-ever-after endings with a skeptical eye, but she's never lost her childlike enthusiasm for her favorite holiday—Christmas. To veterinarian rancher Leland Jennings IV, Christmas is just for kids. If he could, he'd skip the whole month of December. But he does believe there’s one woman out there for him, and he's holding out for her. Melody revives Leland's Christmas spirit, and he rekindles her heart.

Find Counting Down to Christmas in A Christmas Cowboy to Keep! Seven contemporary western romances sure to bring holiday cheer and warm your heart for only $0.99.
Available at Amazon
Excerpt: Counting Down to Christmas, Chapter One where Leland sees Melody for the first time and she, unbeknownst to him, is stuck in her car with a jammed seat belt.

December 1

So rare.
That feeling of instant connection. Eyes meet, and without even exchanging words, you know something is happening on a level uncommon in most human interactions. Everything else blurs as focus on each other sharpens. You ride that wave of recognition back and forth on invisible wires.  
One minute Leland Jennings IV was leaning against a frigid wall, talking on his phone, and then he lost the thread of the conversation as a compact, white car appeared. In fact, he lost sight of everything when the woman at the wheel, partly obscured behind glass and with her hair covered by a fuzzy, pink cap, turned her gaze in his direction. There wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy about her, but her entrance on the scene plucked a chord deep inside.
The car stopped across the street in front of him before she backed it up into a parking space. A movement on the dashboard caught his attention and he squinted: a bobble headed, grinning cat in a grass skirt doing a hula dance for him. The woman’s lips moved in animated conversation as she glanced back over her shoulder while maneuvering the car into the space. There didn’t appear to be anyone else in the car.
In the building behind her, someone threw open the curtains in a second floor apartment and flicked on one of those electric holiday candles. It flickered directly above the woman in the car.
The cold from the brick wall inched through his jacket to his back. Leland pushed back his hat and rubbed the stubble on his upper lip with his free hand. The smell of his leather glove filled his nostrils in the crisp air as he studied her. He’d never seen the woman before. He was sure of that.
His sister’s voice rattling around in his eardrum brought him back to attention. “Leland! Hello? Are you still there?” Faith asked.
“Yeah, sorry. I got distracted.” He kept his sights fixed on the woman in the parked car. She threw her head back and laughed and then went on talking. Must be on speaker phone.
“So... are you going to answer my question?” Faith asked.
“I forgot the question. Can you repeat that?”
She clicked her tongue. “I asked if you got the list I texted to you?”
The woman in the car looked directly at him. He looked down, overwhelmed with the intense jolt he felt directly to his heart. “What list is that?”
Heavy sigh. “Leland, I swear...I sent you the kids’ Christmas list. I need to know what you’re going to buy them so we don’t duplicate.”
“Oh, yeah. I did see that but I haven’t looked it over yet... Say, why can’t I buy them what I want to?”
“Well, you could.” She spoke to him in the slow way you’d use on an imbecile. “Of course, a single, middle-aged man knows exactly what a three-year old girl and a six-year old boy want. But, I happen to have a list of what they asked Santa for. Why not go with that? Seth and I can’t get them everything on the list. That’s why we’re passing it onto you and Ma. You all can look it over first, tell me what you want to buy, and then we’ll fill in.”
Now, the woman in the car sat still, a pout on her lips.
Leland kept his eyes on her as he talked to his sister. “What ever happened to surprises? They’re little kids. Do they even know what they want, or do they just parrot what they see on TV commercials? And anyway, is it really healthy that they get everything they want? Isn’t there something to be said for having to wait for gratification?”
Their eyes met again and Leland felt such a charge he had to look away.
“Well, I do appreciate your sentiments on the subject, but let me be frank with you. It’s fine for you with your successful practice and lack of responsibilities, but Seth and I are on a budget and Christmas and birthdays are the only times we get to indulge our kids.”
Oh, boy, he sure hated when Faith got her back up. “Point made. I’ll look over the list and tell you what I’m getting for the kids.”
“You do that. And since you’re in town to pick up Ma, why don’t the two of you put your heads together today and let me know ASAP?”
He dared to look across the street again. The woman was moving strangely in her seat. Undulating, really. “Yeah...I’m on it.”
“While we’re on the subject, what do you want for Christmas?”
What was that woman doing? Squirming around behind the wheel with her face contorted.
“Not a thing. Don’t bother with me,” he said.
“Leland, don’t be that way. You are no fun at all. I’m going to get you something anyway, so you might as well give me a hint.”
“This is why I hate Christmas. I buy myself what I want all year as needs arise. It’s silly to get me something I probably don’t need or want.”
“It’s called exchanging gifts, and sometimes gifts are more fun to give than to receive as is common knowledge. Stop ruining everyone else’s fun.”
“Then I’ll have to get you something. And Seth. Christmas should be for kids only. I hate all this pressure to spend money. Consume, consume. At the last minute I get caught up in the frenzy and end up buying any old thing on Christmas Eve so everyone has something. I bet you don’t even remember what I gave you last year.”
She snorted. “I do. You got me a space heater. Seth and I still laugh about it.”
“That’s what I got you? Jeez, that’s an awful gift. I hope I picked out a pretty one. How about we adults stop giving gifts to each other?”
“No. That’s not going to fly. I like Christmas, and I like my gifts. Even if I am surprised to get a space heater. And while we’re talking about it, Seth and I want to host this year.”
He squinted. The woman had ducked down out of view. “What’s wrong with having it at the ranch like we always do?”
“How about we give Ma a break. I’d like to have it at our house, and it’s so much easier on us. We don’t have to drag sleepy, cranky children out in the cold—and besides, they don’t like being pulled away from their new toys.”
“The toys again. When did Christmas become all about presents and spending money foolishly?”
“All right, Ebeneezer Scrooge, you’re starting to bring me down. Can’t you try and enjoy yourself...You can bring a guest if you want.”
He hated that undertone of sympathy creeping in at the last comment of hers. “Thanks, but I’m not seeing anyone at the moment.”
“What happened to the school teacher?”
Across the street the woman popped up again in the car seat and crammed her knitted cap back down on her head. He darted his eyes away again when she looked at him. “That fizzled out.”
“Fizzled out or the glow wore off and you got bored? You got to work at it, little brother. You have some ideal woman in your head—”
“No, it’s not like that. I’m not looking for the perfect woman. I’m looking for my woman. My perfect fit.”
The car door swung open. He held his breath as her legs swung out and her boots hit the ground.
Faith clucked her tongue again. “I don’t know if it works that way.”
He watched her step out of the car. Average height. Hard to judge by the bulky coat she wore but she looked slender. The hair escaping from under the wool cap was light.
“Yes, it does. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work,” he said, in a distracted voice. He didn’t know what it was, but if he believed in reincarnation, he’d swear they shared a past life together.
“Well, maybe in your world, but the rest of us live in a place based in reality. That reminds me. Have you had a chance to think over that other matter?”
The woman shut the car door and opened the back seat. She pulled out a large cardboard box brimming with gift-wrapped boxes.
His throat tightened and his vision blurred with tears as the wind stung his eyes all of a sudden. “What? Oh, you mean….”
With both arms full now, she used her hip to shut the car door. The slamming sound carried across the street on the brittle, cold air. The jolt to her body caused her to totter, and the top layer of presents hit the street. He followed the progress of one present scuttling across a frozen puddle.
In his mind, he leaped to her aid, but in actuality, Leland froze, his heart racing. She gathered the fallen gifts with some difficulty. When she stood up straight again, she fixed her eyes on him. Then, arms still around the box, she crooked her elbow and lifted one fuzzy, pink mittened hand high in the air.
“Leland?” Faith asked in a soft voice. “I asked if you’ve had a chance to think over what we talked about the other day?”
He knit his brows, trying to make out what the woman was doing. “I have, and I still think this is a premature discussion. You’re overreacting.”

He opened his eyes wide in disbelief. He wasn’t sure because of the mitten, but it looked like he’d just been given the finger.


Hebby Roman said...

First, thank you to Cowboy Kisses for hosting Patti today and highlighting our anthology.

I loved this blog, Patti, especially your trip back in time to "Close Encounters." It must be a fascinating place to see. I would love to see it, but I can imagine the drive, too. We felt that way, driving around West Texas and Big Bend this summer, we drove and drove and... And we didn't even get close to El Paso. But I would really love to visit the Badlands, too.

Love the excerpt, too, it's a sure-fire winner!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks for stopping by Hebby. Like your Texas trip, you really do get a sense of what those early settlers must have faced. You sure had to be a rugged individual to make it.

Andrea Downing said...

Aha! Well that explains why you used South Dakota in your wonderful story. I always wondered. Thanks for highlighting the anthology, Patti. As always, it was a great pleasure to work with you.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Andi. Always a pleasure to work with you. I just fell in love with South Dakota! All the states we visited really, but there just was so much packed into one area around Custer State Park and Mt Rushmore, I thought it would make a good setting.

Carra Copelin said...

Great post, Patti, and excerpt! I enjoy your stories. Visiting the Dakotas is on my bucket list. Thank you for highlighting our anthology.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thank you Carra! I enjoyed your story too! What a pleasure to work with you for a second time as well as all the other talented authors in this set. There are so many places to see, but I sure did love this trip we took. I'd recommend it!