Crickets 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.
Rules of Play:
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