October 15: Flash Fiction Challenge

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

October 16, 2014

Carrot Ranch Flash FictionCrickets and insects hum like a hidden orchestra tucked away in the dry prairie grass. It’s original grass, the tall feathery stalks that buffalo once grazed. The Oregon Trail is so deep, the ground so compacted that nothing grows in its pale ruts. It cuts across the grass, winds along a muddy creek and opens up to a ranch. Buildings of hewn logs gray in the summer heat and winter wind, held together with chinking. A sturdy wooden bridge traverses the steep gorge of the gurgling waters below, connecting the west ranch to the east.

This is Nebraska in October. The setting is an historical road ranch along the Oregon Trail–the super highway of pioneer wagon trains, Mormon ox carts, gold-seekers on horseback, US Calvary, freighters, stagecoaches and the Pony Express. This is Rock Creek.

Western historian, Joseph Rosa says this about the place:

Rock Creek is situated just six miles from Fairbury, Nebraska. It flows into the Little Blue River from the north. Today, it is little more than a landmark, but in 1861 it was the scene of a quarrel which ended in tragedy–death to three men, and fame to one other. It was here that James Butler Hickok’s legend really started.

No single gunfight, with the possible exception of the Earp-Clanton fight in October, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona, has caused so much controversy as the Hickok-McCanles affair at Rock Creek on the afternoon of Friday, July 12, 1861.

Controversy. That’s putting it mildly. For over 150 years, people still squabble over who was to blame. Clearly, if you’ve studied the event, it has neither heroes nor villains, yet stories attempt to retell that day in black hats and white. Fantastical tales arise from this affair and rob the humanity of the men involved. It came down to tensions, personalities and a clash of righteousness. Women were involved as much as the primary men.

My goal is to stand where Sarah Shull stood as the events unfolded; to stand where Cob bled out in front of the cabin door; to see where Hickok made his daring shot through the curtain and the women in the kitchen. I was disappointed in that regard. The replica cabin is built incomplete.

There’s only one known photograph of Rock Creek Station prior to 1861. While several people, including Cob’s son, Monroe, have drawn diagrams and sketches, the replica is based on what can be seen in the photograph. It only has one door and lacks the common kitchen I had imagined as an alcove off of the main cabin. The interpretive center describes the missing section as a lean-to. The second door in proximity to the curtain and kitchen is crucial, yet omitted.

Expectations often lead us astray. What I expected to see was not there and was the root of my disappointment. Sometimes this is true of writing. We expect the story to go a certain way and it does not. But we can also find gold in those dashed expectations if only we let go enough to see a different view.

One view of Rock Creek was crystal clear–the west cabin where Sarah most likely lived at the time Hickok was tending horses at the east ranch would have afforded the two the perfect view of one another. In an earlier flash fiction, I wrote that Sarah watched Hickok with the horses every morning. From visiting Rock Creek I now know that this a plausible scenario.

What does it mean? I don’t know, yet. I’m preparing to let the research settle and the characters inform the story through the writing process. Once I have a draft, I’ll return to the research and make certain that details are historically accurate and my characters believable. I’ve decided to call my WIP, Rock Creek because the place is key to the characters’ conflicts and ultimate crisis. In preparation for writing, I created a mock-up cover.

Back to expectations. I hadn’t expected to find Mary McCanles buried next to Cob, her grave reading “wife of D.C. McCanles.” I have several new ideas about her–she never stopped loving Cob and she never returned to North Carolina. I encountered a new person, a young girl in the kitchen with Sarah Shull and Jane Wellman the day of the incident. She fabricates a story that makes my blood boil with anger and she earned herself a place in my novel as an antagonistic character who stirs up strife.

I hadn’t expected to feel at peace at Rock Creek. I wonder if Sarah felt that there, or if it was Mary. After all, Mary McCanles was the only one who stayed in the area. Her tea pot and rocking chair from North Carolina reside at the visitor’s center. Maybe Sarah never felt settled after leaving North Carolina.

Beyond my expectations was the owner of the Fairbury Executive Suites. Julia Katz has a gilded touch for interior design and marketing. Her place is a bakery, espresso and wine bar, antique and craft store with suites above the retail center. We stayed in the Manhattan Suite with its red and gold decor, full kitchen, two bedroom with feather beds and cotton robes for each guest. That such a place existed in rural Nebraska, I had no idea!

Julia also put me in contact with a McCandless cousin who is also writing about Rock Creek. He’s an actor, playwright and theater professor in Nebraska. I hadn’t expected that at all. I called him while in Nebraska and he shares my passion for the family, the story and for getting into the minds of the characters to tell it.

Expectations can set up our characters for disappointment or surprise. Expectations can foreshadow, enhance a setting, or create a plot twist. What expectations are lurking in your stories?

October 15, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that has an expectation met or missed. It can be an implied expectation to your reader, or a character’s expectation for an outcome. Think of how expectations can direct a story.

End of the Trail by Charli Mills

In the dark Sarah stood at the embankment, brushy and weedy. She’d never seen grass tall enough to hide prairie wolves or fierce Pawnees. The thought should have pushed her back to the safety of the campfires where Cob sawed an Appalachian reel on his violin. She could hear the thud of men’s boots on the hard-packed ground as they danced and whooped. Cob wanted to buy this road ranch and build a toll bridge across the narrow gorge of Rock Creek. Toiling days and rowdy nights on the Oregon Trail was not a fair exchange for North Carolina.


Cover (3)

West Cabin Across Rock Creek From East Corrals

Rules of Play:

  1. New Flash Fiction challenge issued at Carrot Ranch each Wednesday by noon (PST).
  2. Response is to be 99 words. Exactly. No more. No less.
  3. Response is to include the challenge prompt of the week.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Create community among writers: read and comment as your time permits, keeping it fun-spirited.
  8. Each Tuesday I will post a compilation of the responses for readers.
  9. You can also follow on Carrot Ranch Communications by “liking” the Facebook page.
  10. First-time comments are filtered by Word Press and not posted immediately. I’ll find it (it goes to my email) and make sure it gets posted! After you have commented once, the filter will recognize you for future commenting. Sorry for that inconvenience, but I do get frequent and strange SPAM comments, thus I filter.

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    • Charli Mills

      Howdy Georgia! Thanks for taking time to play! It’s always a pleasure to see your name in the Rough Writer roll call. 🙂 I’m off to read your contribution!

  1. Sarah

    This is a great prompt Charli! I had fun with it. It so often feels like expectations are everywhere! Here’s my entry: http://wp.me/p4Nn5O-1f

    • Charli Mills

      Glad it was a fun prompt! Yes, expectations spring up all around us even when we try not to have them. Thanks for writing…off to read!

    • Pete

      I was going to do one about a blind date. Glad I didn’t because your take was really good. Loved the line about the secrets bleeding out!

      • Sarah

        Thanks! A blind date would be good too. Romance is all about anticipation!

  2. Annecdotist

    Oh, gosh, Charli, you’ve thought about this place so much, it must feel really strange to be there and I’d imagine it couldn’t possibly match your expectations. But what a great way to set off on the adventure of pulling together your own version of the story. What a good idea to pick up that project for Nano; we’ve all been waiting for the non-flash version!
    Fiction, unlike life in my opinion, thrives on thwarted expectations. I’ve just done my flash version and confounded my own expectations with a … better not say to keep up the suspense:

    • Charli Mills

      What a truism: Fiction thrives on thwarted expectations. Actually, I think fiction thrives on many things we might consider unpleasant in real life. We collect thwarted expectations like coloring crayons. And yes, there is something useful in my own disappointment with the cabin at Rock Creek. In a way, I feel released from my own expectations and ready to write. Okay, no more suspense…I need to go read your post!

  3. rllafg

    Draft Dream by Larry LaForge

    Sandy Sapperston expects to become a millionaire tonight. He forfeited his college eligibility for this glorious moment.

    Sandy sits backstage as player names are called in the professional basketball draft.

    Soon he begins to worry. Then he feels panic as the room clears.

    Suddenly he is alone, undrafted, with neither college nor professional options.

    A sudden jolt has Sandy sitting straight up in bed. Sweating profusely, he dabs his eyes with the top sheet and gathers himself.

    Relieved, he looks skyward with templed hands. “Thank you,” he whispers.

    Sandy Sapperston then vows to stay in college for his degree.

    The 100-word version of this story is posted at larrylaforge100words on Flash Fiction Magazine: http://flashfictionmagazine.com/larrylaforge100words/2014/10/18/draft-dream/

    • Charli Mills

      What a frightening gamble that would be to lose out on both. Not only dashed dreams and expectations, but a hard loss to follow. You write this well–I was sweating along side Sandy! Great phrase–“looks skyward with templed hands.”

  4. Pete

    The Sideline

    Sitting on a park bench, Mitch watches the war of wills between mother and toddler. She wipes the boy’s shirt clean and his face dry after a spill, her own face bleary but determined. Once he’s brushed off, the boy teeters only a few steps before plopping down, mouth wide and tears streaming.

    Mitch thinks back to the early days of their relationship. This same park with these same trees— only two rings ago there was joy and peace and passion. Now, there is…

    “Mitch, are you going to just sit there or can you give me a hand?”

    • Charli Mills

      This is powerful, Pete. So much in such a small scene. And it’s not just between parents who war with these expectations. I have not joined the “grandparents club” as many of my friends and family have. They keep telling me how wonderful it is, but honestly, I’m enjoying my relationships with my adult children. I recently experienced this sitting on the sidelines and was relieved not to get called into the game. 😉

    • ruchira

      Loved it!
      Expectations when a kid comes in a relationship, and the constant reminders can be a pest…lol

  5. Sherri

    What a powerful experience this was for you Charli, even more so I suspect because of your dashed expectations on the one hand and the twists and turns on the other. What an incredible adventure for you! Not something you would have considered at first yet the way the disappointment in the cabin replica caused you to question, confirm and discover so much. I felt that I was right there with you in your description of Rock Creek and when you talk about the Oregon Trail I am taken right back to my children’s schooling in California where they learned all about the history. In fact, I remember a popular game they used to love playing on the computer by that very name. Arguing over it, of course 😉 But this is so exciting for you, I can’t wait to read more as your characters and scenarios develop in light of your discoveries. I can just imagine how you felt when you first set eyes on the cabin yet I love how you were able to imagine that Sarah probably did watch Cob every morning…and how she must have felt as I read your excellent flash. So evocative, so troubling, so much more to come. Wonderful! Hope you’ve recovered from your cold and your trip and that you have a nice, restful weekend. See you soon 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      We never know what we will discover, with expectations or not! Yes, it was powerful over all. I’m so ready for the internal adventure to begin. My daughter gifted me with a book (for finishing my first novel) and it’s called Maps of the Imagination, The Writer as Cartographer. It is all about this terrain of discovery and how writers are both explorers and guides. Great read!

      Having been schooled in California I know first-hand all that pioneer history! But I grew up knowing practically nothing about the Midwest or east coast! Funny thing about those regional focuses in school. I recall my kids playing Oregon Trail, and thinking it would be a game I’d like. Seeing the flat spot of land between the two ranches made me realize how many people must have camped there over the duration of the trail. If Sarah was an introvert, as I am thinking she was, that must have felt overwhelming. Cob, on the other hand, as an extrovert to the extreme would have loved the action and new people passing through. But he was industrious, too. i was impressed with how much he built on both ranches and then built others in just three years. That he was a highwayman seems ridiculous–he had no time! He had a wife, a mistress, four or five ranches and nightly entertainment!

      Thank, I’m recovering and happy to be home sorting out all this new information. Hope everyone is well on your side of the pond, too!

      • Sherri

        What a wonderful book, a lovely gift from your daughter, how fascinating. Also how much you have discovered about Cob and Sarah now that you have been able to visit where they lived and worked and in Cob’s case, played. What an amazing time for your writing with all this to digest, nurture and lovingly develop.
        So glad you are recovering and settling back down. We are moving forward each day, thanks Charli! See you tomorrow 🙂

      • Charli Mills

        I’m digging this book! It’s one of those reads that makes you want to write words on the wind and jump into all kinds of literary adventures. Ah, yes, Cob got to play! I wonder if Sarah ever did? I’ll find out, perhaps! One step, Sherri, and then another. Repeat. Daily. 😀

      • Sherri

        Wonderful…and yes, one step at a time…repeat daily. I like that very much 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      It was good over all and I brought back much to contemplate! Thanks for your contribution–off t0 read!

  6. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Despite your missed expectations there was plenty there that you didn’t expect. Meeting that unanticipated relative must have been great but even better I think was that you felt at peace. If you have the essence of the place it has to make a difference to the outcome. With the house would it be possible with the plans to make a reconstruction (a model) yourself. I can’t wait to read it. Is the idea of the NaMoPo to have it published in the month or just a first draft written. I can’t imagine having something publishable in that timeframe. Love the cover mock-up.
    Well I’m off to ponder expectations and possible stories of fiction for my 99 word contribution. Will be back when done.

    • Charli Mills

      You’re right about having felt the essence of place. I think it would have been a busy place as a road ranch with stage coaches and wagon trails kicking up dust, but the place itself holds a peaceful quality. I’m studying the drawings and consulting with my cousin who also wants to have a clear idea of the cabin. A model recreation is a good idea. It’ll have to be simple (for me)!

      Oh, goodness, I’ll have a draft in a month. Nothing publishable. My idea is to draft something once a year so that I always have “work” for the rest of the year. It took me so long to draft my first novel. Now I know that it works for me to draft and go back and revise. Revision is the next area to master. Thanks–I like the cover mock-up, too. It’s inspiring, although at this point I don’t think I need more inspiration. I had to force myself to go to bed at 3 a.m. the other night because I couldn’t stop researching! It was like being hooked on a television show. 🙂

      Looking forward to where your pondering leads!

    • Charli Mills

      And I have high expectations! 🙂 No pressure…

  7. Sarah Brentyn

    A Mother’s Hope

    “Let me help you with that,” her mother smiled. She clasped the teardrop pendant around her daughter’s neck. “You look…beautiful.”

    Hope played with the sapphire that now hung just above the neckline of her gown. “Thank you, Momma. For this,” she held up the necklace, “for so pretty dress and helping my hair get curls. I never thought me! Me! I could go to this big dance!” Hope grabbed her mother’s hand and pulled her downstairs where they waited for Hope’s prom date together.

    He never came. After Hope fell asleep, a little after ten, her mother finally cried.

    • Charli Mills

      A disappointing let down for such a moment, yet I like the perspective you used–it is the mother who cries. That little twist makes it a tender story. Great flash!

      • Sarah Brentyn

        Thanks. 🙂 I really wanted to write from the perspective of the mother watching and worrying about her delayed daughter. I don’t think I quite got that across in my 99 this week. I couldn’t make it work to show that the “prom date” was a joke on Hope.

      • Charli Mills

        You’ve set a good challenge for yourself. Too overt and it becomes cliche or tactless. You have the right amount of grace, spot on with the mother’s emotion, just needs a little buffing to clarify the daughter and the cruel joke. I’d love to see a revision. Or it might be one you develop beyond 99 words for a contest or publication…

      • Sarah Brentyn

        Exactly. It’s difficult to get just right. Don’t want to hit your readers over the head but don’t want them to completely miss it. Delicate balance. Maybe… I might work with this one. I cried for Hope so that has to mean something.

    • georgiabellbooks

      Oh jeez, Sarah. Way to go for the gut. This is lovely. Respectful of both characters and heart wrenching and…well, true. Hope can hurt like a bitch, huh?

      • Sarah Brentyn

        Oh, thanks Georgia. I have to admit I was crying at the end of this as I wrote. I’m not sure Hope fully understood what happened and that made it all the more devastating for her mother (and me). I need to rework this–clear up some things.

    • Annecdotist

      I loved this and I’m nearly crying too! I think you CAN tell from Hope’s vocabulary and her mother’s slight hesitation before the word beautiful that she is not an ordinary teenager. I didn’t quite get that the other kids have played a trick on her but, rereading, I think it’s there – or poignant enough as it is. You’ve given us so much in so few words.

      • Sarah Brentyn

        Thank you, Anne! You got it. Hope’s vocab and her mother’s hesitation. As I was writing it, I knew the prom “date” wasn’t a real invitation but it’s not really in the 99 words. I thought it might be implied. It’s always tough writing enough but not too much. I truly appreciate your thoughts on this. Geez, it’s amazing how much we can get attached to our characters in under 100 words. O_o

  8. Sherri

    Hi Charil! Got my post out with a minute or two to spare but didn’t get my link over here until now, sorry about that. Got distracted with dinner. I honestly don’t know where the time goes. Also doesn’t help being loaded up with painkillers…but no excuses! Hope you like the next part of http://sherrimatthewsblog.com/2014/10/21/flash-fiction-no-way-out-part-three-godsend/ I went with Bill again, seemed the right thing to do… 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      Ha, ha! Oh, Sherri, I got lost on my way to your blog! Your “ping” showed up and I clicked but got distracted. Story of my days! 😀

      • Sherri


  9. Marlene Swett

    I worked at Rock Creek in the 80’s before the visitor center and east ranch were built. Have you read McCanless’s fathers poems? They say a lot about about the situation and the family. Enjoyed the article.

    • Charli Mills

      Hi Marlene! Thanks for stopping by! Wow–were you there during the archaeological digs, then? Yes, the poems are in my family and they do speak volumes within the verses. Knowing “Mary’s Lament” nearly by heart, it was profound to see her simple grave inscription after outliving D.C. by decades: “Wife of D. C. McCanles.” She always loved him, through good and bad weather. James McCanles was attentive to what was occurring within his family. I imagine that Mary had the choice to stay behind in North Carolina or follow Cob and the woman she wished woe upon to Nebraska. It’s complicated when you look at how split the Green family was over the impending Civil War (referred to as the Awful War because of the divisions it created). If you’ve read James’s poetry, then you’ve read his scathing words regarding the “Home Guard.” Yet one of Mary’s own brothers served in that militia. A McCanles son-in-law shot and killed another of Mary’s brothers during Stoneman’s Raid of Boone, NC. If you look at the 1850 Census for Watauga, North Carolina (of which there were only 3,400 residents in the mountainous region) you’ll find D. C. living with his new wife, Mary, their baby, Monroe, and within walking distance of all the Greens and very close to the Shulls. Yet, by 1860, D.C. and his brother have their families in NE; his two sisters who each married one of Mary’s brothers are in eastern Tennessee; and James McCanles is unaccounted for. Family legend is that the Home Guard burnt him out, tossing him and his elderly wife out into the cold and they had to walk all the way to safety in TN. So whenever I read that Cob (D.C.) was a southern sympathizer or Confederate horse thief, I just think that it’s too simple to judge him on his Carolinian accent. His family suffered greatly for being Unionists in a seceded state. And Mary never did (or could) go back home to NC after he was killed. My novel will focus on the incident, but show all these crazy tensions that led to Rock Creek. I’d love to hear any insights you have from your days there! Thank you!

  10. Charli Mills

    Powerful flash inspired by legend and art!

  11. Charli Mills

    Can’t wait to find out!


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