Walking through the horse pasture in spring, I search for broken glass and know that old footpaths exist beneath the soles of my Keens. I can’t see them for all the new shoots of green grass, but the ground has a way of giving hints to history’s mysteries.
Even here on the slope above Elmira Pond, I can see spotty formations of moss. The pond is actually the remnant of a tamarack peat bog, itself leftover from the retreating forces of glacier activity 50,000 years ago. While not as impressive as glacier-carved lakes and mountain gorges, peat bogs hold old records. Scientists have found ancient pollens preserved in peat from similar bogs.
From this pasture, I can watch the migrations of mergansers, ringed-neck ducks, buffleheads, great blue herons and osprey. Who else has stood where I now stand and watched those same patterns of migratory birds? Watched an osprey fold its wings and drop from the sky to grasp a fish in talons?
According to the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, this beautiful valley dissected north and south by an international highway and railway has always been home to the Kootenai people. I stand upon ground made in covenant with those who stood before me:
” I have created you Kootenai People to look after this beautiful land, to honor and guard and celebrate my Creation here, in this place. As long as you do that, this land will meet all your needs…”
~Kootenai Covenant with the Creator
Yet other boots have trampled by this pond: men stricken with gold fever followed the old Indian trail into the gold fields of British Columbia during the 1864 Wild Horse gold rush. Today, this length of Hwy. 95 is called the Wild Horse Trail.
Iron horses came next. Two railways laid parallel tracks of wood and steel. A small depot in between the two tracks delivered shingles and other locally harvested lumber products to the passing trains. By 1901, railroad workers established a small town. Most were Italian immigrants and they named their new American home, Elmira.
Ranchers also pushed cattle 17 miles from Sandpoint to Elmira, grazing their stock in this valley that settles between the Cabinet Mountains to the east and the Selkirk Mountains to the west. Ranchers must have used the pond for watering livestock and townsfolk mined peat from its edges to use as cooking and heating fuel. Did any pause to look at how pink the sky can get at sunset? Did they uphold the covenant to celebrate creation in this place?
Evidently some celebrated more than others. According to records from the Boundary County Historical Society, Two Gun Hart, the infamous “prohibition cowboy,” busted moonshiners on the very property I call home. Now the broken glass makes sense.
The horse pasture glass is from blue Mason jars, brown whiskey bottles and pottery crocks. Just the sort of containers used by moonshiners who would bottle their wares at the still and bury it at their point of distribution. This was the point of some rowdy celebrations. I hope somebody at least remembered to toast the ducks on the pond.
Every place has stories buried in the dirt or weathering before our eyes. Every person has a past and ancestors who passed down the relay baton to the next generation. Knowing that I have a strength called “context,” I look back to understand the present. Unraveling history’s mysteries is a passion and often the inspiration of stories.
Lately, I’ve been using flash fiction to explore the story of Cobb McCandless, Sarah Shull and Bill Hickok. They are real people. Cobb was the brother of my fourth-great grandmother, Julia McCandless. He left North Carolina in the “company of a woman.” It doesn’t take much digging into old records to know that Sarah was the woman. It is legend that “Wild Bill” Hickok killed the notorious ring-leader, Cobb McCandless and won the affections of Sarah Shull.
Actually, that legend is rubbish. It’s a false tale spread by the killer whom dime-store novels made into a wild west hero. Modern historian Mark Dugan has looked at primary documents and presents a different scenario. Trying to understand what was going on in the lives of these three people, I’m using flash to explore who they are and what their human motives might have been.
Over the generations, Cobb McCandless has been an easy target as the frontier bad guy and Sarah a silent enigma. Hickok got all the glory especially after he took a bullet in the back, gambling cards in Deadwood. There’s an African saying that goes like this:
“Until the lion has his own historian, the hunter will always be the hero.”
As writers, we have opportunities to be the historian to unsung heroes. We can give voice to the voiceless. We can imagine people who came before us and faded away, leaving only hints that they had existed. Our own families may have unsolved mysteries. We might use the perspective of a character to reflect upon an old object, a forgotten war, hidden love letters or describe a setting then and now.
June 25, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that considers history, near or far. Is it an historic account? A character’s reflection upon finding her grandmother’s hidden love poems? A modern family contemplating the ruins of an old structure? An archaeological dig? A classroom discussion of the History Channel? Dig into the past and record what you find. Respond by noon (PST) Tuesday, July 1 to be included in the compilation.
Depreciation Over Time by Charli Mills
Evening fireflies flickered as Sarah padded the worn path to her dugout. Ever since Cobb sold the east ranch to the Pony Express, the station manager and his sour-breath wife lived in the cabin that was hers. She worked as kitchen hand behind the yellow calico curtains she had sewn and hung.
From accountant to cook slave. From cabin to hole in the prairie sod. From mistress to forgotten woman.
At the dugout, Sarah lit a dish of tallow. She sat down on the bed quilt, and pulled out the old poem, reading “Oh mother dear, restrain thy tear…”
Rules of Play:
- New Flash Fiction challenge issued at Carrot Ranch each Wednesday by noon (PST).
- Response is to be 99 words. Exactly. No more. No less.
- Response is to include the challenge prompt of the week.
- Post your response on your blog before the following Tuesday by noon (PST) and share your link in the comments section of the challenge that you are responding to.
- If you don’t have a blog or you don’t want to post your flash fiction response on your blog, you may post your response in the comments of the current challenge post.
- Keep it is business-rated if you do post it here, meaning don’t post anything directly on my blog that you wouldn’t want your boss to read.
- Create community among writers: read and comment as your time permits, keeping it fun-spirited.
- Each Tuesday I will post a compilation of the responses for readers.
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