Tuesday Tidbit: Storm Passing

Something moves in the storm. Or does it?

“Back in, storm’s here, back in,” Rich chanted. Once on his preferred perch, he murmured, “Do not like this, Defender. Someone tried to move the slab. Smelled cigarette smoke in the dirt, person dug in trying to shift the seal. Too heavy for now, don’t like it.”

“For now?” Mike murmured back. He retreated out of the wind, arms folded, as if observing the rain now sheeting straight down.

Tik-Tik wiggled and curled tighter around his neck. “Something answered the person. That’s the black. Do not like. Too many tasty tidbits around, the deaths in the peat. Need to carry our kit.”

Sharp tobacco scent cut through the rain and ozone. Mike rolled his eyes and said, “Why me? Of course that strap would come loose if you pull that way. And I don’t have the repair kit with me.” Irritation and frustration came easily. He added, “Dude, I told you to leave the nice bag alone and not pull on the strap. Now I’ll have to carry my everyday bag.”

“Needed a snack, smelled a snack. I like snacks. Egg? Beef stick? Beef sticks are great!” Chittering replaced words.

Mike sighed at the top of his lungs as he plodded past Zhurovina Turko. The tip of her cigarette glowed red in the dim light in the courtyard niche. He glimpsed a smirk on the Belarussian’s square, flattish face. She wore her hair in a crown over the top of her head, very traditional and completely at odds with her modern, loose-cut suits. “Dude,” he sighed. The smirk grew.

Once back in their room, Mike fed Rich some of his high-protein travel chow, then got ready for bed. Instead of sleeping, mage and Familiar said their evening devotions, alternating Latin and English. I prefer Serbo-Croatian, but not if someone else is listening. Latin meant Catholic, which fit an American. And everyone knew that the 767th would use Latin.

As he tried to ease into sleep, something boomed in the distance. A soft beep from the corner of the room warned that power had gone out for now. “Transformer?” Rich asked around a yawn.

“Who knows.” He rolled over. Not my circus, not my giraffe.

“Wer ist das?” Mike demanded, wide awake in the darkness. Tik-Tik hissed as a shadow moved through the room. Or did it? Mike drew power from his Familiar and waited. The presence dissipated. “Wo war das?” Where was that?

“Other side of the wall, strong, bad, really bad, but didn’t push in,” Tik-Tik reported. He dove off the bed and went to that side of the room. Mike looked at his travel clock. 0430, and very dark still. “Power’s on. Don’t like this. Something icky came past, or someone with an icky overlay, like a slimy cape.”

Mike wrinkled his nose at the mental picture. “Gross, dude. Seriously gross.” He stretched, then eased out of bed. The room felt no physically colder than before, but he shivered even so. A quick, hot shower, then he shaved and dressed. After their morning devotions, he and Rich eased out of the room. Absolute silence surrounded them, heavy and intent, as if the very air listened for something. Holy Lord, I do not like this place at all. We need to load a 737 tanker with holy water and drench the entire mountain, then make a second pass on the bog.

“Daaaaaaaang,” Rich said, completely still as he stared out the courtyard gate. “Stay with you farther, fog thick, something else.” The quiet had followed them outdoors, save for the sound of water dripping. No bird calls disturbed the morning, yet.

He could see a dozen meters or so, if he squinted. “Any smart birds are sleeping in,” Mike said, mostly to hear his own voice. Fog filled every space, held down by low clouds. Torn leaves, twigs, and some small branches littered the ground outside the walls of the castle. The walls seemed darker, the wet turning the stone and plaster grey-black instead of dirty-snow grey. Mike set Rich on the ground at the tourist gate. Rich hurried to do his thing and return. “Worms?”

“On the surface. I’ll get a few later. We need to look farther, Defender.” Rich’s voice sounded deeper in the pre-dawn fog. “Something’s wrong downslope.”

“Not the peat bog. I am not touching that unless we have reinforcements, clergy and otherwise.” Draku needs to deal with this place, if he can. What hadn’t he? Mike followed Rich to the end of the car park, such as it was. More branches littered the ground. Some longer grass in a meadow-like open area showed signs of overland flow, flattened by water. “Wow, it really did rain hard.” The soil here took a lot before rain started running off.

“Not the bog, nopity nope! Just the road.” Rich hurried ahead. Mike followed the silver tail tip in the twilight. “Well, sheeeee-it,” Rich called, sounding just like Sergeant Calhoun.

Slow footsteps came up behind him. Mike said aloud, “That’s a heck of a scratching post you pulled over.”

“Not me this time!” Rich attacked the oak, clawing at it as if he were a cat. Then he climbed onto the fallen trunk. “Dirt quit.” The roots had been pulled out of the ground. Water stood in the place where the roots had been.

Usually it takes a week or more of rain before that happens. I really do not care for this. He climbed over the trunk, collected Rich and went farther. Rich wiggled, so Mike turned him loose to grub for worms or whatever as he surveyed the damage. One bird called, then fell silent once more. Rich skittered over another tree, having too much fun. A charred streak and shattered stump marked lightning’s work. Mike lowered his shields. Icky seeped from the castle into the air, and from the bog into the fog. This is as rotten as that not-a-mosque, minus the attack sand.

“This is as bad as a movie,” Mike grumbled under his breath as he peered down at the road. The storm, after the heavy rain, had toppled at least three trees across the road. Parts of the pavement had eroded as well, probably undercut farther down the slope.

“Yep, but it works, doesn’t it?” Rich called from atop one of the trees. “Storm was natural, trees are natural, combination feels strange.”

Mike turned left and right as he studied the silent, mist-laden woods around them. “If I hear a chainsaw or banjos, we are running so damn fast.” There was a reason why the regiment kept a library of horror movies and fantasy novels. “We’re not getting a vehicle down that road until it’s cleared and inspected.”

“Agreed.” Rich scratched the surface of the beech with his claws, acting like a cat again, then flowed down and back to his mage. “Creepy, too creepy, fog creeping toward us.”

Something flowed up the road toward them, a dark mass in the mist, like concentrated essence of fog. Mike checked his six and backed away as fast as prudent, Tik-Tik scampering along beside him. The presence stopped at the second tree. Mike retreated farther. He didn’t sense any active malice in whatever it was, but the all-pervasive air of corruption could mask a lot of things. He scooped up his Familiar and hurried toward the relative shelter of the castle. When they reached the parking area, he unleashed the mongoose on the worms. Four proved sufficient. Mike tidied his Familiar’s feet and carried him back to the paved area.

Mr. Custiss waited on the covered portico in the courtyard on the north side of the castle. “How thick’s the fog?” He didn’t bother trying to hide his cigarette.

“Very thick, sir. Visibility might be fifty yards at most, probably less. And several trees blew down in the storm, blocking the road.”

“Well, nuts.” The consul’s aid sounded more resigned than irritated. “I’m sure Mr. Benes has what he needs to get through, or someone from the forest service will clear the road soon.”

“Yes, sir.” He kept one hand on Rich, preventing comment, snarky or otherwise.

“Do you get an itchy feeling from that end of the castle?” Custiss waved his empty hand toward the chapel and cellar entrance.

Mike and Rich both nodded. “Yes, sir,” Rich said. “There’s an esoteric presence, or strong traces of one, under the building. We can’t tell if it was here and then departed, or if it is dormant but present.”

Custiss took a long pull on his smoke. “Good. I’m not imagining things. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sir.”

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Some Days, It Is

Food is not the solution to problems. Dietitians have been saying that for years, cardiologists, counselors and psychiatrists as well. Eating doesn’t solve life’s big problems. OK, it prevents starvation in most cases, but devouring a bunch of steak, or a pound of mashed potatoes, or half a cheesecake, or something like that doesn’t fix relationships or other problems.

But there are days when you come home tired, cold, perhaps wet, and a cup of good hot chocolate, or spicy tea, or a bowl of soup or chili makes the world so much better. It doesn’t end the main problem of the day, but it eases the body and mind enough to give you space, let you relax, and adds a bit of pleasure to the day. You can return to the battle, or face your family without saying something rash.

Some evenings, a thick, messy burger, or a steak, or pot roast, or a small mountain of pasta eaten in the company of friends, or fellow believers, makes the world wonderful. Talk flows around everything and nothing, perhaps a few beers or other drinks are consumed, but in moderation and with fellowship. The food is not fancy but it fills your insides like the talk and laughter fills your soul, both nourishing and soothing. You still have work waiting to be done, but life is better. Perhaps you listen more than you talk, learning, hearing stories about characters gone before, or stories of recent vacations and adventures. All is well, and you leave refreshed as well as fed. A good burger with bacon, cheese, and a little BBQ sauce is soul food when taken in the right company.

Certain parts of society seem to have forgotten the importance of little joys, of breaking bread with friends. I’ve been musing off and on about why some people, despite having all the possible material benefits and comforts known to mankind, seem so unhappy. And why they appear to want to spread that unhappiness. Far wiser people than me have spilled ink and pixels on the topic for at least a century or so, and I’m not a psychologist or counselor in any sense of the words. But I wonder if those people ever stop, share a burger and fries with laughter and friendship, or savor anything at all.

We can get so tied up in causes or duties or being good parents that we forget to stop, have a cup of chocolate, or a cup of really good coffee, and watch the clouds go by. We don’t take time for a casual meal with people who just want to chat and enjoy each other’s company without worrying about the Problem of the Day.

But sometimes, hot chocolate or a sloppy burger IS the answer to the trials of the day.

Good Silence and Bad Silence

In the story I just released, the main character muses that he prefers sounds to absolute quiet. The absence of sound – silence – means danger of some kind. For the rest of us, silence is often welcome, at least briefly. But some people cannot tolerate the absence of aural stimulation, and must have a TV, radio, music, conversation, something. Note, I’m not talking about people with tinnitus who need sound to minimize the unending hum.

I alternated editing with shoveling earlier this week. Nothing absorbs sound like snow, and I was the only one out moving the fluffy white blanket off the pavement. No wind blew, and very few cars moved close enough to hear. I heard a faint murmur, perhaps, from the main road near RedQuarters, but none of the usual roars, grumbles, hums, or other sounds. Instead I heard silence, snow quiet, the absence of much sound. The shovel scraped on the pavement, very loud in the stillness. Small birds fluttered and called to each other in the back yard, muted by the white blanket. Two Vs of geese passed overhead, calling encouragement to themselves and the flew toward open water and bare grass somewhere south and west. Otherwise, only the shovel and my own steps disturbed the peace.

This was good silence. I relished it. Oh so faintly, the chimes from the War Memorial came over the distance, marking the hour. Then stillness returned. Snow quiet is calm, a soft hush.

I’ve heard bad silence. When everyone stops speaking and turns against you, eyes hard, casting you out of their company without a word. When what should be heard isn’t, the warning of someone or something else Out There, watching, waiting perhaps for you. When the wind tops, and the birds go quiet, and you turn to see a wall of dirt charging down from the north, or the green sky turns black and the next sounds are a roar like a train and the thudding of hail. The “it’s too quiet” moment before everything erupts into danger or chaos or tears. The silence of bad news that needs no words.

Driveway and sidewalk cleared, I felt good enough to shovel the neighbor lady’s walk as well. Amazing what a year of weight lifting and cardio do to make snow lighter. Every few minutes I stopped, listening to the hush. It’s been so long since I heard true quiet that I savored the moments, basking in the absence of noise.

Saturday Snippet: Permission to Court?

No idea if this will end up in the final story or not. It takes place after Preternaturally Familiar.

Arthur finished his duties after worship and departed the chapel. To his mild surprise, Ladislu Padurowski, the current leader of the Hunters, waited for him. The young man seemed calm, but the scent of trepidation verging on fear surrounded Ladislu as he bowed to Arthur. “Thank you.” As he straightened up, Arthur guessed the reason for the young man’s presence, and swallowed a smile. Instead he feigned ignorance. “Yes?”

“I wish permission to court Mistress Deborah,” Ladislu blurted. He caught himself, not quite cringing back as he tried once more. “Ah, that is, sir, I have spoken with my parents, and I am prepared to support a lady as wife. I seek your permission to ask Mistress Deborah’s parents for permission to ask for her hand in honorable marriage.”

Arthur folded his arms. “Indeed.” He allowed silence to stretch as he inspected his nepatisha’s would-be suitor. “What makes you worthy of this privilege?”

“Nothing, sir. But I wish to try to make myself worthy of her heart.”

Ladislu’s complete honesty caught him by surprise. He recovered quickly. “Good. That is the proper answer.” How badly would this trouble the other Hunters? Not so badly as it once might have. He nodded. “I give you permission to court, should Mistress Deborah favor your suit.”

Were relief visible, the young man would have glowed as a beacon in the night. He bowed once more. “Thank you, sir.”

He straightened to find Arthur’s boot knife not quite touching his chest. “If you hurt her, I will take full measure of her pain from you in return. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Master Saldovado, sir.” To his credit, Ladislu’s voice did not shake, and he held gaze.

“Good.” Arthur stepped back, blade still in hand. “Go with the Lady’s blessing, and may Her Defender guide and protect you on your Hunt.”

A third bow, and Ladislu departed into the cold night. Arthur returned the blade to its proper place, folded his arms once more, and allowed himself to smile. The little one had accidentally revealed Ladislu’s interest, and her willingness to be courted by him. It would be a good match, if the young man had sufficient bride price, and if all parties were willing. He chuckled. Master Lestrang and the child might be harder to persuade. That was also good. A young man who wanted his nepatisha’s hand in marriage needed to earn that privilege. Not that any were worthy of such an honor, but Ladislu came close. Perhaps. Arthur walked with slow dignity down the steps and toward the main house. Perhaps.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

In the Saddle or On the Saddle

It’s a phrase I’ve never, ever really thought about. Why do we say, “back in the saddle” or “swung up into the saddle?” We mount a horse, or get onto a horse, rarely fork a horse (old term, very rarely used today in most places). But saddles are always “into.”

You have to go back to the Middle Ages, and then to the Spanish saddles brought to the New World. Don’t think about a modern English style saddle, which is designed to be light and to allow the rider and horse the greatest sense of contact between them.* Think back to who owned horses and rode them and what most saddles were used for: either stabilizing cargo, or war.

The goal was to keep the rider seated no matter what, especially when you rode with straight, extended legs. The saddles had high pommels and cantles that secured the rider when he was hit from the front or behind. It also helps keep an injured or exhausted rider from sagging and falling backwards or forwards. Sideways is also a bit of a challenge, but you can fall off in any direction if you try. Or the horse helps you.

This is a replica jousting saddle. You get into it, not onto it. Creative Commons fair use. Original source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/406520303850887415/

Here you see a version of the saddle in action, modified for the rider’s armor. http://www.thejoustinglife.com/2014/03/re-creating-medieval-and-renaissance_20.html It’s a great article about the how and why of re-creating a medieval saddle, and the results for horse and rider.

A 15th century saddle for show or parade. However, you can see the height of the pommel and cantle. This one is in the Met Museum. https://dariocaballeros.blogspot.com/2010/08/xv-century-medieval-saddles-from-met.html

These are the type of saddles most writers talked about, unless they described a specific sort of other saddle – pillion pad, or pack saddle, or box saddle, or side-saddle, or . . . These were the sort brought to the Americas by the Spanish, and used on war horses and mountain horses. Below is a Spanish colonial saddle from the late 1700s-early 1800s. It should look familiar.

Source: https://www.santafeartauction.com/auction-lot/spanish-colonial-tooled-leather-and-wood-saddle_F724B3FAAB

To this day, charro saddles and others have higher, more snug pommels (or swell) and cantles than do some other western saddles. Because of this Spanish tradition, it is common in American English to say that you get into the saddle, even if you are riding English style.

Some modern dressage saddles retain the older medieval features if you are doing the Airs Above the Ground (Austria and Portugal, France are about the last places to learn this tradition.) I have a barrel-racing saddle that I love. It has a relatively snug seat, as well as suede on the outside, so the rider fits more snugly for making tight turns and rapid accelerations/decelerations. I got to sit in a replica medieval saddle once, and it really helps lock in your posture and where you put your weight.

And so, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry sang about “Back in the saddle again,” because that’s what vaqueros did, and what modern cowboys do. And reenactors, and advanced dressage, and . . .

*Bareback’s no fun for extended periods, and not stable. For either horse or rider, especially once you shift into the trot or canter.

Who Was Meeting Where?!?

So, some years ago, (like, twenty-five*) I was in Cologne, Germany. The small, family-owned hotel, sat three blocks from the train station and cathedral. It was nice, relatively quiet (backed up to the switching yard, so no wild parties back there) and was convenient. As is my usual habit, I got up very early and went strolling. I got a bite to eat at a stehcafe, a bakery-cafe with shelves for eating off of, but no tables. The name is “standing cafe,” and it was for commuters and working men. I didn’t quite blend in, but everyone ignored me, which was fine. The tea was hot and black and the pastries were fresh.

As I wandered back toward my hotel, I saw a couple guys in leather jackets and pants. Now, the hour being early and Cologne being Cologne, I shrugged. Far me it from me to say anything about people who close the club, then go to a diner until dawn. A few minutes later, some construction guys went by, grumbling about thus and such.

After official breakfast, I heard a mild commotion outside the hotel, and eased my window open and leaned out. In addition to the leather-clad guys, who now numbered well over a score, and construction workers, there were guys in full American Indian regalia, some in US enlisted sailor suits, a few US highway cops, and cowboys. What on earth?

Then the first chords of very familiar music started, and realization dawned. “Young man, there’s no need to feel down, I said/ Young man, pick yourself off the ground . . .”

And of course, everyone danced along with the chorus.

It was a convention of the German Village People Fan Club. The guys were having a grand old time dancing in the street, the rest of us were having fun watching and cheering, and the locals shrugged. Cologne has always been more mellow than other parts of Germany.

I had no idea that there was an international association for Village People fans. There was, might still be, and the members there finished their opening and headed off to the indoor venue. I went back to museum-prowling, art viewing, and history basking.

I’d forgotten about that until the other night, when I was chaperoning a school dance. One of the songs the kids played was a re-mixed version of “Y.M.C.A.” Another teacher and I grinned, and I called, “Backwards skate!” That brought even more memories, because the song was a staple at skating rinks when I was a kid.

*I do not want to believe that it’s been that long, but it has. SIGH. I miss that Germany.

Tuesday Tidbit: Exploring the Castle

Mike and Rich play tourist, sort of. No one has killed anyone . . . yet. It is the afternoon following the last excerpt, and a cold front is moving in.

“Done. Don’t like the air. Storm coming,” Rich declared. He hurried past his mage and into the shelter of the courtyard. The smokers had moved with the wind. Mike hid a smile. His dad still sometimes smoked a pipe, but only in the backyard or in his home office. The mage followed the mongoose back into the castle proper. “I am pretty, oh so pretty,” Rich warbled, posing under a statue of a weasel holding a heraldic shield. “Let’s go see the chapel. It’s open.”

“Sure.” Mike scooped him up and they went past one of the spiral stone stairs, then walked slowly through the public side of the castle. A few safety lights burned, casting darker shadows than night alone. “It’s tornado resistant at least.”

“Reeeeelaaaaaax,” Rich commanded, whiskers twitching, claws dug into the discreet cut-resistant fabric on Mike’s shoulders. “What could possibly go—”

The large hand over his muzzle silenced the Words Of Doom. Snickers emerged instead. All sound and motion ceased as they rounded the corner and beheld the Czechs and Consul Houser filing into the St. Michael chapel, along with Marija Kaminska, one of the Polish delegates. Mr. Benes, the castle manager, spoke, and Mike heard Ms. Pullman translating for Consul Houser. Mike tuned out the voices, listening instead with magic, sort of. He drew a tiny bit of power from his Familiar, just in case, and bowed as he entered the well-lit space. Nothing reacted. That was good. Perhaps.

The deconsecrated chapel dated to the building of the castle. Traces of the original paintings remained. St. Michael, wings spread, smiled a tranquil smile as he stabbed a heavy spear into a faded and chipped dragon. Bits of the plaster had fallen away, but the images remained in very good condition for frescoes from the 1300s. Especially frescoes in this part of Europe. “As you can see,” Ms. Pullman said for Mr. Benes. “It is traditional to have St. Michael in military chapels, or when there are concerns about demons and other forces of evil.”

Or when building over pagan ruins, or on a high place, Mike recited. The 767th had lessons about which saints were where, and why, and what that could tell a magic worker. Mike gave his patron saint a small salute, then turned to the stranger images. “No, a left-handed figure is out of place, unless it is Judas,” Mr. Benes explained, pointing to the much-faded painting in question. “And Judas would have red hair. This is a female centaur of some kind, or perhaps an overpainting of a horse and rider, although special imaging of the wall does not show that.”

The figure faced left, bow drawn, aiming at something. That looks more like a crossbow, sort of. The background appeared sort of blue-green, as if the person stood in the forest. She aimed at a man, although he’d faded even more. Mike peered over the others’ heads, then shrugged a little. He’d never heard of such in a chapel, unless the figure was a demon in a depiction of fallen sinners in Hell. Which did not fit the image, as best anyone could tell. A second painting of St. Michael, this time weighing souls, stood with his back to the archer. The saints processed on the other side of the chapel, including St. Andrew and the rest of the apostles. The Annunciation appeared on the south-west wall, another slight oddity. Since the chapel wasn’t aligned due east-west, having the start of the story toward the west didn’t really upset liturgical “flow.” Much.

“We are over the pit and the seal proper,” Mr. Benes said through Ms. Pullman, answering Capt. Sluka’s question. “The upper seal is there, in the center of the floor, below the peak of the ceiling.” Mike glanced up at the simple gothic arches overhead, then down at the brick floor. The square area of well-worn stone might have had words or images on it, but six hundred years of feet and brooms had effaced them. “No, there is a larger seal below us, a true stone.”

Rich shivered. Mike put a comforting hand on him, touching the rough, warm fur. “Don’t like that. Need to see it if we can, don’t like it. Don’t like deconsecration.”


Ms. Pullman frowned and turned toward them. “You have a question?”

“No, ma’am. Rich observed that the paintings remained in excellent condition, given that the chapel was deconsecrated and endured so many years of abandonment.”

She translated for Mr. Benes, and probably the listening Czechs as well. The manager nodded, but did not reply. Instead, he gestured for them to leave. Mike stepped out the door, since he was closest to the door, and cleared the way for the others. As required by the church, nothing aside from roof sat above the chapel. The spiral stairs led up to an adjacent tower and chamber to the side of the upper ceiling, and down to . . . something. The Czechs talked quietly, and Ms. Pullman spoke with Mr. Houser, then Mr. Benes. The manager gestured his agreement, and the group began walking toward a larger staircase. Mike and Rich followed.

They went down. Stone became wood. “This is a wine cellar and occasionally barracks,” Mr. Benes stated. A set of dim lights came on with a thunk as he turned on a heavy metal switch. Stone floor gave way to dirt and gravel, or so it looked. “This does open to the courtyard, yes, via those stairs,” he gestured to a set of wooden steps with twisted wood hand-rails straight out of an illustration of “primitive medieval woodwork.” They did look sturdy, however. Mike approved. He crouched and set Rich on the floor. The mongoose darted into the shadows and came back twice as fast. No one seemed to notice, aside from Capt. Sluka and Marija Kaminska. Kaminska followed Rich with her eyes, and eased closer to them, but said nothing.

“The actual wine cellar is that way,” Benes told them. “It appears that some larger casks were stored here, along with water barrels. Traces of a cistern have been found, or so archaeologists think, in the forecourt outside the  main entry gate. We have a well now, if piped in water ever fails.”

Mr. Houser listened to the translation and made an intrigued sound. Mike echoed him, since officially he didn’t speak much Czech.

Ondra Adamcik, the lead mediator, had been studying the ceiling and walls. “We are not below the chapel, are we?”

“No, sir. We are below the vestry and the private chamber, at the opposite end of the castle from the representative rooms.” Mr. Benes gestured to a deeper, darker passageway off to the left. “The chamber with the portal is that way.” He turned on a few more lights and allowed the Czechs to lead the way. Mike, Sluka, and Kaminska all held back, allowing their superiors to go first. Mr. Benes turned to Mike and pointed up. “Ihre Kopf – niedrigen Decken.” Mind your head, sir, low ceiling.

“Danke Ihnen.” Thank you, sir. Mike stayed low as he followed the ladies. Rich’s tail fluffed and he hissed so quietly that only his mage noticed it. Perhaps. Tik-Tik slithered around the edges of the dimly lit chamber, only the tip of his tail visible in the red-washed shadows. He returned, chittered, then fell silent. Kaminska eased even closer, staying near the door as best she could. Whiffs of abyssal magic burned his senses, nothing strong but . . . Mike eased to the side and held his fingers almost against the gritty sandstones. Traces have soaked in. The stone’s porus to magic. That explains way too much. St. Michael be with us. St. Anthony stand beside us and defend us from demons, St. George strengthen us. Tik-Tik kept one paw on Mike’s boot. Mike bent down and lifted the mongoose onto his shoulder.

“Do not like this, Defender. Look at the seal stone,” Tik-Tik hissed into his ear. Mike, still ducking, eased forward to where the others peered at a flat stone, like a grave marker, and a carefully fenced-off circular well. The well bugged him, but the stone made his hair stand on end. “Near the terp’s shoes.”

What? Mike pretended to be as fascinated with the faint carvings as the others were. The dim light kept him from recognizing the pattern marked into the pale grey slab, but he had a few ideas. At the edge, near where Ms. Pullman stood, he saw marks on the floor, scrapes of stone on stone, oddly deep footprints in the raked dirt. As if someone had tried moving the thing. Did he dare risk it? Mike lowered his shield the tiniest fraction of a bit, shifting his vision as he did. A hint of black, like the thinnest of lines, lurked along that edge of the stone. The pattern shimmered, still unreadable. He eased around to the other side of the stone. No black. A miasma of tainted magic filled the room as if fog had moved in. Mike shifted back to seeing normal life and strengthened his shields once more. A malign awareness shifted, then subsided.

Mr. Benes pointed to the knee-high slab. “Several hundred pounds, as you can imagine. No one has moved it since the 1930s, when local stories claim that the SS shifted it away from the crack it covers. They put it back, if they moved it.” He sounded less than persuaded. “The well is what leads to hell, supposedly. The ghost that comes in sits there,” he waved at a black iron chair or throne at the end of the room, on the other side of the well.

After Ms. Pullman finished translating, Mr. Houser chuckled. “What castle doesn’t have a ghost? Isn’t it Czesky Krumlov that has a white lady?” He turned and looked to Mike, eyebrows raised.

“Ah,” he hesitated, as if searching his memory. “Yes, sir, that’s one of the best known. The White Lady of Rozembirk, or Rosenberg, I think?” His Czech counterpart, Capt. Sluka, gave him a hard look. Did I get it wrong? Or does she not like me playing dumb GI? All of the above probably.

Mr. Benes slipped one hand in the patch pocket on his jacket. He spoke, drawing the others’ attention again. Mike eased back to the door, one hand on Tik-Tik. The Familiar vibrated. Mr. Benes described the black hooded spirit, then a few ghosts and haunts that had been reported in or around the castle. Once Ms. Pullman finished translating, Mike crept out the doorway, around the edges of the cellar room, and back up the stairs.

Not until he’d put the bulk of the Houska Castle between himself and the portal did Mike relax. He set Rich down once more. The mongoose walked with slow dignity out the gate, then dove for the bushes. Thunder grumbled somewhere, echoing off the world around them. A faint flash to the north and west, purple white. Mike crossed himself. “St. Michael archangel, defend us in battle against the wickedness and snares of the devil,” he whispered. He’d finish the prayer once they got back to their room. A gust of cold wind brought drops of rain.

“Back in, storm’s here, back in,” Rich chanted. Once on his preferred perch, he murmured, “Do not like this, Defender. Someone tried to move the slab. Smelled cigarette smoke in the dirt, person dug in trying to shift the seal. Too heavy for now, don’t like it.”

“For now?” Mike murmured back. He retreated out of the wind, arms folded, as if observing the rain now sheeting straight down.

(C) 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Ian Tyson: In Memorium

This is starting off to be a bad winter for musicians. Granted, Jeff Beck and Ian Tyson were both high mileage as well as mature, but still. Sheesh! I grew up listening to Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Odetta, the New Christy Minstrels, and others, along with classical and some old country and bluegrass. Then somehow, years later, MomRed discovered that Ian Tyson was still recording, now western music.

His father wanted him to have a career at sea, or to do normal, respectable jobs. Ian devoured westerns, books by Will James, and turned his back on the sea. Worse. He became a musician (among other things.)

It was love at first hear. I could sing along with Tyson’s music, since he was a baritone. His songs, love ’em or not love ’em, were melodic and made sense. He told stories, songs about horses and ranches, about love and revenge, about places and the people in them. I have my favorites, but there’s no Ian Tyson song that makes me go, “Ugh!” and race for the shower, ear-bleach, or yes.

So, one of his oldest, and a favorite of many Of a Certain Age: Four Strong Winds.


I also liked this one, a canoing song done at at least four times the original tempo:

“Summer Wages” is the fan favorite among SmallDeadAnimals blog readers. It’s not one that I like as much, but I can see why people (especially guys) appreciate it:

Some days, “Timberline (Fifty Years Ago)” strikes a very strong chord: “Did I hold Juanita yesterday, or was it fifty years ago?” Since the late 1980s seem like yesterday . . .

“Claude Dallas,” “Old House on the Hill,” “Banks of the Mussel Shell” are all ballads or half-ballads, eerie and atmospheric. I can never hear “Claude Dallas” without remembering a day out in Utah when my family and I were looking out over Cathedral Valley in Capital Reef National Park and feeling cold chills from the music. It had nothing to do with the beautiful, empty, landscape below us, and everything to do with the solitude.

“Jaquima to Freno” is about a vaquero, and refers to the tack used in training horses in the old Spanish style. “La Primera, and “Steel Dust Line” are also horse songs*, one about mustangs and one about cutting horses and driving from Canada to Las Vegas in winter. Ian Tyson ranched, and it showed in his music.

He badly damaged his voice in 2006 while trying to finish a concert after the sound equipment failed, and his last three albums reflect that. He was still a heck of writer and poet, and a good singer. He died December 29, 2022, on his ranch in Alberta at age 89.

(I am amused that The Guardian needed to explain that cutting horses “are like sheepdogs” in how they separate cattle from the herd. But then I’m a westerner, and have watched cutting horse contests.)

*Steel Dust is one of the foundation sires of cutting horses. Other lineages are mentioned in the song.

Putting Water Back In the Ground

A lot of people depend on ground water, aquifers, for drinking and irrigation. Some aquifers recharge on their own, and do it pretty quickly, such as the Edwards Aquifer in central Texas, or the Sandhills portion of the Ogallala Aquifer. Others either recharge very, very slowly, or not at all. Those are the ones that tend to get lots and lots of attention, unless Central Texas is dry, and Austonio begins talking about sending a pipeline up to the Panhandle to tap the Ogallala.

A quick note to clarify here, before I go any farther. I’m talking about aquifers in sediment like sand and gravel, not groundwater in bedrock, as is found in New England, Canada, and a few other places. That is a different formation, with different flow patterns, and I know next to nothing about how those “work” other than general theory. If you are in New Hampshire and you have a well drilled into bedrock, please contact a local expert.

How do aquifers recharge? It depends on the material above and below the porous layer. That’s what most aquifers are – a layer of sand and gravel that at one time was exposed to rain and snow, or was a river bed (large swaths of the Ogallala and Equus Beds). Under that layer is a watertight layer, usually a shale or something. Over time, that sand and gravel got buried by other things and now lies below the land surface. A few, like the Edwards in central Texas, have access today through caves and sinkholes, where rain can fall right in, or have a very porous layer above that lets rain and snow melt trickle down pretty quickly. The Nebraska Sandhills are pure sand, and water that falls there soaks in, recharging the Ogallala below. Unless there is an extended drought, recharge is not as much of a concern (over-pumping that draws down the water too fast is a different matter.) Other aquifers, like those in Arizona, coastal Georgia, and most of the Ogallala, would take hundreds to thousands to regain their water, if they can at all. When the aquifer is buried hundreds of feet below the surface and topped with firmly-packed dirt, caliche, and so on, water has a harder time soaking in. These are “fossil” waters, and you just assume they won’t recharge without help. How to help without destroying the formation, is another problem.

First, there has to be water to go back in. Without that, it’s pretty moot. Also, the material in the aquifer layer has to still be loosely-packed enough to accept water. If you draw enough out, the layer compresses, and that’s that. No recharge ever, unless all the surface material erodes away and rain falls directly on the sand and gravel.

Ideas for recharging aquifers all involve “putting the water back in down there,” or at least, giving the water an assist. Drilling a well and pouring water back in . . . has a lot of technical difficulties, including the fear of contaminating the rest of the aquifer if some chemical or biological contaminant seeps in – think fecal coliform, or avian cholera, or . . . So the water would have to be filtered, and dust kept out, and the water released high enough that the layers between the end of the well and the aquifer would filter some of the stuff. Oh, and you have to hope that on the way down, the water won’t pick up salt, gypsum, or dig a hole that causes a sink hole.

Around here, attempts were made to deepen the natural rainwater lakes, punching through the clay layer at the bottom of the shallow depression to allow more water to seep in. It started well, but the clay swells, and sediment filled in the holes, closing them. Also the rate or recharge did not justify the cost of the work, which has to be maintained. And depends on moisture. In a year like 1940-41, when the area got 40″ of rain or more, no problem! In a decade like the 1950s, or 2010-2014? Rain? What rain?

Most aquifers were “laid down” when the local/regional climate was much wetter. The Ogallala was sediment dumped from the Rockies by huge, enormous, massive, gargantuan rivers that wandered back and forth over the region for millions of years. Then things changed. In the case of the Ogallala, the goal in 90% of the region is to balance draw-down over time, so that X% of the current depth will remain in Y years. Some places are changing types of crops, other areas revert to range land, and irrigation is much, much more efficient than it used to be. The down side to better irrigation is that less excess water seeps back in to return to the aquifer.

Eventually, a way might be found to return water to places like the Ogallala, Equus beds, coastal aquifer, and so on. If the stuff has not compacted, and if there is sufficient rain and snow to permit that. And if people are willing to spend the money and time needed to do it.