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Sails gain minimal height over rolling waves, riders like astronauts flip their bodies to the universe until gravity beats wind. They land, carving a crest of water. Not to be defeated, these wind-&-wave riders reach again and again for stars we can’t see in an overcast sky. Wake boards point to unseen constellations, but fall light years short of any terminus. Like writers, these Argonauts shoot for the moon. We never truly arrive, pointing our sails or words into the wind and leap perpetually.
We live for unexpected landings. Adventure or insights gained from a brutal crash, success and failure meld into multiple attempts that don’t end until we end the ride, pull the sails, clear the screen. Who wants to end when there’s so much wind yet to catch? So many words yet to write? The stars are near. The stories within reach. Type so fast your fingers lay a rooster-tail across the keyboard.
Blonde girls sell red strawberries along the foggy highway.
It’s a riddle to me. The wind-&-wave riders commune with my own seeking, but these girls make me question my location. My time. My space. Where am I? The fog tricks my senses, cloaking the season until my wandering mind marvels at strawberries in winter. No, it’s summer in the western hemisphere. Fog, berries and blondes. If I left Mars, I think I made an unexpected landing on Neptune.
In the southwest, where sand is its own artisan, attempting to blow its own glass with temperatures reaching furnace levels, red Mars is easy to see. Mesas and sandstone, heat and dry arroyos are the closest I’ve come to writing from another planet. Yet, now I find myself in this cool, watery and shrouded world. The blondes tell me its fine berry growing weather. And quarts of luscious sweet summer bites are only $4.95 while they last. Evidently Neptune must grow its own taste of summer because I see nothing else here that acknowledges the heat of Mars or the jungles of Kansas.
After a year and 27 days of wandering in search of home, I’ve found chickens. Look, chickens!
Like ladies in petticoats they run with wings as if to hike up their feathered skirts of buff, brown and red. The cock among them runs like a lady, too and they are charging me as if to respond to my distracted delight with a distraction of their own: Look, people! I cringe upon seeing the spurs, knowing the feel of such talons. I have little memory of the actual rooster attack except for falling to my young knees and covering my head with hands, screaming until my aunt beat the rooster to death with a broom. I don’t remember that it died, but feel bad, as if I caused his early entry to the stew pot, or so the ancient family story goes.
This fella is cheerful, the ladies excitable, and I throw back my head to laugh.
It’s foggy, but through the fine mist I can see twin spires of a Catholic Church bricked in Jacobsville Sandstone. I pause to wonder which group of miners dedicated this towering feature. All around me are chickens and miner’s houses in varying forms of decay. An Elvis poster hangs in a window across the street. Next door the house is neat as a pin, old, but standing tall. The next house is only a remnant of a cobbled rock foundation. Across from the rubble is a house about to go on sale at county auction. It will cost the buyer about $5,000, but no one gets to see inside until after the sale. It can be guts of joists and junk, or a gem in the rough. The house next to it has a malamute fixating on the chickens.
Here’s a look at the green and gray, the twin spires and the miner’s houses. Cue the choir:
The Hub and I fully intended to come to Michigan. It was the half-baked plan after reeling from the loss of home, of Elmira Pond and writing space. But the trailer we had leaked and didn’t pull well. The Hub went into a tactical response and we’ve been our own band of Argonauts ever since, picking cherries in Wallace, Idaho, discovering RV parks and migrant fruit-pickers in central Washington, landing on Mars for winter, taking detours through Pueblo nations, digging into the history of Kansas and Nebraska, passing the Midwest metropolises to arrive at one of the weirdest borders in America.
The Keweenaw was never for the feint of heart. Hard-rock miners from Cornwall and Slovenia, Sweden and Spain, Italy and Ireland, jack-hammered over 9,000 feet below after blue veins of copper for an industrializing nation. The Quincy Mine had 92 levels of darkness, as if to prove Dante wrong. Cemeteries are full of tributes to miners who died in the mines. The land itself is a peninsula poking its finger into the belly of Lake Superior, a fresh water lake capable of snapping an ocean-going steel freighter in two. It’s not connected to the state of Michigan, but is considered its upper peninsula (the U.P., thus naming its residents “yoopers”).
Mostly the Finns remain. Sisu, and all. It’s a Finnish construct for grit. To live on the Keweenaw takes grit. The summers are cool and the winters accumulate over 300 inches of snowfall called Lake Effect. That explains the fog, too. Lake Superior creates its own climate. The locals will tell ya, hey, that it’s da freshest air in the world. If fresh means cool, I’d agree. It does feel fresh as spearmint gum in my mouth. I wonder what the chickens make of winter? The townsfolk of Calumet, the village housing said chickens, has no ordinances and welcomes eccentricities.
This video shows a sunnier side of the village and the coffee shop where you’ll find me writing on occasion:
The chickens and I have an announcement: we are going to be neighbors for a year. The Hub and I are renting a home after homeless wandering, to experience the Sisu it takes to live on the Keweenaw through winter, to meet up with the artist community, and to continue the fine services we’ve encountered in the U.P. for the Hub. Yes, we are going to be yoopers. We don’t know if we’ll stay longer, go back out west or venture to yet another planet. For now, we’re going to take this unexpected landing and yet, keep aiming for the stars like the wind-&-wave riders.
Tonight my future landlord welcomed me to the town that once boasted of 30,000 citizens. I will join the 700 who remain. A new home, a new adventure, new stories to catch.
July 13, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an unexpected landing. It can be acrobatic, an unplanned move or created into a metaphor. Go where the prompt, or chickens, lead.
Respond by July 18, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published July 19). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
The Coming Storm (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Wind gusted and cottonwoods along the creek groaned. A nightfall storm closed in. Sarah hadn’t meant to stay so late in the company of Nancy Jane, but venison stew and friendship offered made Sarah linger. How long since she’d had a friend?
A branch cracked and Sarah screamed, escaping the limb’s descent. A man hollered at her to get out of the trees. Topping the gully, Sarah recognized the young stock-tender who rarely spoke. Hickok led the way as trees began to snap.
Hickok’s dugout provided an unexpected landing from the raging storm. And an unanticipated reaction from Cobb.
Sixty miles an hour, windows rolled down, paved highway humming to the spin of tires, and I’m daydreaming about prairie flowers.
My hand rests on the steering wheel while I follow the truck and trailer in front of me. This must have been the view of pioneer women, only the pace much slower and the landscape emptier. No road signs to follow; only wagon ruts cut through the rolling hills. No modern rest stops or gas stations with odd names like Kum & Go; only free fuel for the oxen and skirts for privy privacy. When Mary Green McCanles followed her brother-in-law’s family out to Nebraska Territory, what did she dream during the long drive?
It’s easy to lump “pioneer women” into generic categories like loaves of commercial bread — you can barely discern a difference between white or wheat. In my mind, I recite the different prairie flowers to bloom during my stay in Kansas and focus on color, height and texture. Each one has a different season, grows in different soil and might even have surprising purposes. So it was with the women. My appreciation for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her pioneer years renews. She took the time to cast each character in a unique role. Laura was different from her mother, sisters and peers. Each was her own prairie flower within the settler ecosystem.
When I became interested in telling the Rock Creek event between two historic men, I wondered if I’d have anything new to say about July 12, 1861. James Butler Hickok has been thoroughly investigated by British historian, Joseph Rosa. Often accused of being yet another fancier of Hickok mythology, Rosa had a sharp mind and a ready pen. Best of all, he did due diligence in his research, something his peers and predecessors did not do as thoroughly. When anyone called out Rosa for his disclosures or discoveries on Hickok, he readily responded and editorial battles ensued in western history associations and magazines for all the world to read. And Rosa supplied evidence for his claims or counter-strikes.
However, when it came to David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles, Rosa pulled from the error and gossip filled annuals he corrected for Hickok, but not for Cobb. I understand. Rosa’s lifelong focus was Hickok, and that’s why no one expects anything new to be discovered. At first I felt annoyed that McCanles didn’t receive fair scrutiny. While his grandson attempted to “set the record straight” after seeing his family name besmirched in dime store novels and Hollywood westerns, the result was an over-correction. Who was D.C. McCanles? It depends upon which faction one reads, but each side has gaping holes in documentation.
Early on, I wrote the man as a character in a white hat, then black. But it wasn’t until I picked up on how the women would have seen him that the story came to life.
Like many before me, I first saw the pioneer women of Rock Creek in general terms — the wife, the former mistress and the station manager’s common-law wife. The wife/mistress tension had been played out ad nauseam and the more I wrote into the story, the less it held up as the linchpin to the events of July 12, 1861. I couldn’t find out much about the station manager’s wife. I felt if I could peer into the lives and minds of these women like a botanist scoping prairie flowers, I could understand better what happened that fateful day. I could come up with something new like Rosa had.
Women get lost in the records, often because of name changes. Thankfully Mary (the wife) had sons, and I could track her whereabouts through their names. After all, she did remarry. Sarah Shull also remarried, and other historians discovered her married name and subsequent locations, but they fixated on an imagined love triangle between her, Hickok and Cobb. Because it annoyed me that the lover’s spat angle was cliched and yet another way to diminish the expression of women on the frontier as anything else other than wives or whores, I followed the leads that pointed to Sarah’s profession. The pioneer was an accomplished accountant and store-keep. Given Cobb’s interest to expand his business holdings, it places Sarah in another role.
Jane Holmes was the hardest to research. We know through oral accounts she was the daughter of Joseph Holmes, a frontiersman and carpenter. She is also documented as being the common-law wife of the Pony Express station manager, Horace Wellman. She might be the young unmarried woman with an infant listed in the Joseph Holmes household of the 1860 territorial census. Her name is Nancy J. Nothing can be found of her before or after Rock Creek. Nor can I find a likeness of the sort of woman she might have been among the more proper journals, diaries and scrapbooks of pioneer women. She’s my imagined free spirit.
Research, writing and daydreaming has been my Rock Creek dance. I’m not penning a biography like Rosa did, but I will take a page from his strategy book. While thumbing through the crisp, brown and musty ledgers of the Kansas State Archives, I used Hickok as an entry point once I couldn’t find anything relating to my principal women. That led me to Rosa’s research. I mean, his actual research he himself did at the Kansas State Archives for decades. For 20 years he did all his research from London, writing correspondence with the state historians. After that he traveled to the Midwest annually to research for 30 days, his holiday. Once he began to publish, he stood on solid documentation. Like Rosa, my fiction will stand upon solid research.
Unlike Rosa, I dream the gaps. I drive and daydream of prairie flowers, digesting what I discovered in Rock Creek on this trip.
Mary, deepened in character when I gave her a competitive edge over Sarah to wield like power. Cobb’s father wrote of Mary’s vivaciousness and a photo no historian has ever published in a book about Rock Creek shows her to be a gorgeous young woman at the time of the incident. But what else? Even the prairie rose has more to offer than beauty. I learned several stories, digging into old pioneer accounts about the era after the Rock Creek incident. One, told by her two children Cling and Lizza (as “old-timers”) recounts how they grew up playing with the Otoe-Missouri children near Rock Creek. Cling says his mother traded with them.
In a second account in another book, Mary features in an obscure incident involving the Otoe-Missouri tribe. They often stopped at her ranch, even wounded. Further, the author relates a simple passage: “Mary often walked the trails alone and at night to midwife and doctor folks.” Not only was she not afraid of the “redman” her neighbors often feared, she took care of them as a prairie doctor. This rose suddenly bloomed in my mind, and I daydreamed about Mary and what her life was like and how she became a lone woman on the prairie, doctoring and delivering babies no matter the origins. No wonder many lovingly called her Grandma McCanles in her old age. No wonder proper history overlooked her improper activities.
A third story related to me by a local historian was that Mary’s second husband divorced her because of infidelity. She said I could find it in the county records. Not that it pertains to the events in my book, but it certainly colors the character of Mary who has only her first name inscribed upon her gravestone above “Wife of D. C. McCanles.” I once thought perhaps she was uncertain of who she was — a Green, a McCanles or a Hughes. No, I think she knew exactly who she was and didn’t require the name of a father or spouse to legitimize her life in death.
Another conclusion I drew from experiencing Rock Creek in person was that Nancy Jane might be missing from the records, but she served an important role in life. She was friend to Sarah Shull, and able to reinvent herself. I suspect her next relationship was that of marriage. The wildest of the three might have assimilated into a proper life. But I like to imagine her racing a horse across the hard-packed earth with hair as wind-whipped as mine while journeying north. She did not fear change. She might have been a bit like Calamity Jane whom Hickok treated kindly later in life. Newspapers and records might have missed their lives, but the women of Rock Creek live on in my dreams.
This week, Rough Writer and author, Ruchira Khanna, has offered a guest prompt. I’d like to pause, near the end of a long journey (or at least a rest stop) to thank everyone at Carrot Ranch for carrying on while I traverse the trails. Especially, I’d like to thank Norah Colvin, D. Avery and Ruchira Khana for stepping up to ranch chores. I’ll catch up with you all once settled on the healing shores of Lake Superior. Keep writing, keep pushing on, and happy trails to you all.
June 22, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves a dream. This action could have happened while awake, such as daydreaming, or make up a dream when asleep. Go where the prompt leads as it could be a nightmare or just fond memories or ambition.
Respond by June 27, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published June 28). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Lost in a Dream (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Young Sally stirred the bean pot and twittered about lace she’d seen in Beatrice. Sarah saw herself as if in a dream, a memory vividly sketched in mind but dormant for years.
“Beans look ready Miss Sarah?”
Her hands, no longer stiff and aged, trembled at what she knew came next. She heard herself repeat words from 70 years ago. “Check one.”
Sally blew on the wooden spoon, a lone pinto perched in thin liquid. Bread cooled next to churned butter and wild plum jam.
Sarah succumbed to the memory of the day. There never was a last supper.
White clouds scud across the blue skies of Kansas. An ocean of green grass spreads out below and I can imagine how the pioneer wagons with white tarps once mirrored the procession of cumulus clouds. In a modern car the going is smooth, but in a wagon the path was not easy. Wagons wore ruts and packed the earth so hard, grass doesn’t grow in some places even today. Ravines and creeks were dangerous, and pioneers often drowned crossing rivers. My idyllic vision of Conestogas crossing the prairie is far from reality.
Yet there’s a reality often overlooked in the western expansion of the US — the perspective from women who came west. Just as I’m driving the car in our mini RV train of sorts, women often managed the reins of the wagons. At the end of the day after traveling, I can still feel the movement of the road. I’m sure the wagon drivers laid down at night feeling the sway and jostle of their conveyances, too. But what’s significant is what’s omitted from the pioneer diaries and accounts. According to one historian, as many as 90 percent of the women who came west were in one phase of pregnancy or another. There were plains so flat and wagons so many, I wonder how women found privacy for the most personal of functions?
A community of women would have been important. They could look after one another and best understand feminine needs. But what about those on the fringes? I often think of Nancy Jane Holmes as a feminine rebellious spirit. But how rebellious could her gender be? Evidence indicates she had a child out of wedlock and later lived with a man as a common-law wife. She grew up on the prairie and I imagine she learned to hunt and fix game for meals. She was more hunter than farmer. Did she ever ride with the buffalo hunters? What did she think of the groups of women who passed through in the wagon trains? What did they think of her, or say to her?
For men, the westward expansion was more adventurous. In their prime, they were not burdened by bodies meant for fertility. They didn’t experience monthly fluxes, pregnancy or nursing an infant. They were free to roam, explore and be independent even with families in tow. If men were single and in a group, often they were pushing longhorns to Kansas from Texas or serving as soldiers in the US Cavalry or frontiersmen who scouted for wagon trains and hunted buffalo.
Driving across the lone prairie, I wonder at how to breakthrough the stereotypes of these past experiences, to acknowledge what was common and likely, yet imagine the unrecorded exceptions. History has documented James Butler Hickok, Wild Bill, to the minute detail. There’s no new evidence of his experiences, yet I think there’s much left to say about them by looking at the other people he interacted with at Rock Creek. Especially the women. Historians have turned wild imaginations toward Sarah Shull, and yet have virtually ignored Nancy Jane Holmes (or Jane Wellman). She was on the fringe of what was typical of pioneer women. She was more of a frontierswoman. And that’s where the story gets interesting.
Kansas provides rich history, and tomorrow my research here begins.
For the challenge, I’m thinking about the longhorns who also once spread across the plains. The word longhorns evokes notions of cowboys and cattle, which featured later in Wild Bill Hickok’s life. It’s also the name of western steakhouses, bars, football teams and a type of cheddar cheese. Dig deep enough and you’ll find some obscure term for computer technology. It’s the same idea with history, and I look forward to digging.
May 25, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a that includes the word longhorn. You can go with any of its meanings or make it a name of a person or organization. Cheese or cattle, technology or place, what can you create from the western icon? Go traditional or new; go where the prompt leads.
Respond by May 30, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 31). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Myths of Longhorns (from Rock Creek) by Charli MIlls
“Ever see cowboys riding the trail with their longhorns?” Jesse asked.
Sarah was tucked in a blanket, sitting on Jesse’s porch. Shulls Mill squatted dingy with lumbering dust and brick buildings. Not the crisp colors of the prairie. “No,” she replied.
“But I thought Hickok was Marshall of the biggest cowtown.”
“That was later. I saw plenty of oxen and some had long horns.”
“I pictured longhorns on the prairies.”
“Buffaloes. I once saw a herd so large the ground shook.”
“Weren’t you afraid of Indians?”
“Jesse, there’s much about the west not in those dime novels you read.”
In my mind, my Aunt Mary McCanles is as stoic as the women painted in pioneer portraits. Grim smile, bun puled taut, knuckles gnarled from the hard work of homesteading folded passively on her lap as she sits in her rocking chair for the camera. The romantic notion that wagons west was the adventure we modern descendants missed, that times were once simpler and more decent is among the big western myths. It’s true, Mary had courage and the wit to survive. She worked hard to raise four sons and an invalid daughter on the vast prairie of Nebraska Territory as a widow.
Maybe it’s because of the romance of the west, or maybe because she was my kin, I find it difficult to access her complexity. She’s human and must have been a woman of dichotomies. Aren’t we all? Life isn’t just about our personalities and the places we live, but it’s the intersection between our worst and best traits on our worst and best days. Add to the mix a harsh land and the reality of migration, and Mary had no chance to be a paper doll from a children’s American West set. She was a flesh and blood, heart and mind, physical and soulful woman.
When I think of stories, I think in terms of what if. To me, that’s where the action unfolds. What if a woman followed her husband and his former mistress out west, migrating to a frontier? What if she left behind a home and family she’d never see again? What if her husband was gunned down one afternoon? What if is the blueprint for the external story.
Internally, motivation becomes a driver. Why would she follow her husband and his former mistress to such a place? How did she cope in a new community? Did his death change her? What about love? Did she love her husband because he was the father of her five children or did she marry out of a sense of duty? The internal story shapes the human triumph or tragedy.
For a work of historical fiction, research collects the facts that detail the story. These details include every day occurrences, such as the life of a pioneer homesteader. They can also give clues to personality through eye-witness accounts or remembrances. Newspaper clippings give tone to decipher attitudes and culture. For example, slavery in the US is unavoidable, reading a southern newspaper from the 1850s. The attitudes of the culture emerge in ads advertising poultry and slave auctions like normal events. They were, for the times.
I’ve talked about the story structure I use to write novels — a W that outlines the hero’s journey. Recently, I heard Matt Damon give an interview about an upcoming movie about the Great Wall in China. He called it a classic hero’s journey. Yet, I think even the tale of a woman on the prairie, sweeping a cracked mud floor and boiling laundry can be a hero’s journey, too. Rock Creek, my historical novel in progress, has five heroes. Two are historically accounted as one hero and one villain. I retell their story through the three perspectives of the women who knew them both and experienced the infamous event at Rock Creek one hot July day in 1861.
Only one character has the full hero’s arc — Sarah Shull. The remaining characters fill in the external or internal stories.
Motives for the two men have been debated over 150 years. I have new ideas on plausible motives to expand the narrow thinking of the men who have written the histories. I also have motives for the women. But Mary’s domestic motive has seemed bland to me — I don’t want to paint her as just another stoic prairie wife. And Sarah Shull, as former mistress, has been given several titillating motives and I didn’t want her to be a mythological soiled dove of the West. Nancy Jane has been vibrant to me because she is what any woman unfettered could have been — capable and feisty.
Writing into Mary’s dark intentions one flash a few weeks ago, I hit on an important plausible motive behind her pursuit of Cobb. It continued to worm its way into my imagination to give more fertile ground to consider motives of Sarah. How might Sarah’s knowledge of Mary’s motives shadow her own? That led to me thinking about Sarah’s friendship with Nancy Jane. After spending a weekend with a McCanles cousin whose research and opinion I respect, I was in a brain churning process. Do you know that feeling? That mind-space where you go over your internal and external stories trying to dig deeper for that coveted surprise you know is there, somewhere between the details?
Then a conversation with a trusted friend who knows the full story (something I protect from historians because it is a bombshell and will rock the Wild Bill World) led to a moment of inspiration. You might say, I had a perfect storm this week. When I sat down to tap out that inspired idea, 5,443 words later I actually had my motives emerge fully and I had my ending. That might sound odd — to find an ending to a historical story where we know how it ends. But of course, who would read it if I told the story from start to finish? That’s why novels are never a straight forward telling of the external story.
My W has been mapped out for Rock Creek. I have worked hard to fill in historical gaps; I scrapped the first half of the book; expanded the Nebraska accounts; and wrote Sarah Shull later in life. However, I’ve been stumped as to how to weave the three women’s perspectives to show the men in action and use Sarah’s reflections in old age. It all came together in this new ending I wrote. What blew me away is that Sarah had one last secret for me — a motive of her own I had never considered. And it would not have come to me if I hadn’t allowed myself to think of Aunt Mary in a darker way.
While breakthroughs seem to abound this month for both my novels in progress, I hoping for a breakthrough in my homeless situation. I have come to enjoy my RV with my little office, couch, kitchen, bedroom, shower and toilet. I don’t feel so “homeless” with such basic needs met, yet we are displaced and have to move on by April because the tourist season at Zion begins in earnest and rates go up beyond my earnings as a writer. The Hub was accepted into a VA vocational program and we continue to battle the stress of his PTSD, he being more stressed than me. Progress is slower than our timeline to move. And we have no way to move our big RV, something we said we’d figure out. Well, we’re still figuring! I’ll hope for some perfect storm of inspiration.
The first anthology is making its way back to our capable and talented Trail Boss & Editor, Sarah Brentyn next week. She and all the Rough Writers have been patient and I appreciate that. The Raw Fiction series is meant to be a platform for our anthologies, expanding the literary community here as one that discusses as well as performs feats of raw literary art. The synergy is evident in what we write individually and collectively among such diverse writers. Once we have Volume 1 under our belts, we’ll invite new Rough Writers to join our core of ranch hands and continue to grow.
With all this movement and wandering (imaginatively) across the plains of Nebraska Territory, I can’t help but think of migration. Immigration dominates world news as refugees seek asylum, countries ponder how to balance humanitarian efforts with safety protocols, and the US slams shut its borders and evicts “illegal” immigrants from our neighbor, Mexico. The announcement of 15,000 new jobs for border control is not one that has many cheering new jobs in America. What would we have done had Trump lived 150 years ago and was chief of the Plains Indians? Would the west have known such a migration as the pioneers? Would we have an Indigenous west, open to Mexico, closed to Americans? And we just discovered 7 new earth-like planets only 39 light years away! What will future global migrations look like?
February 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a migration story. It can imagine the dusty or arctic trails of the frontiers past or look to the travel across the galaxy. What issue about modern migration bans might influence an artistic expression in a flash? Migrate where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 28, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 1). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Leaving for the West (from Rock Creek) by Charli
“Pa? Are you leaving us?”
Mary glared at her husband. To avoid the new administration’s secession policies, Cobb was leaving his sheriff’s post. Her family and friends no longer visited, political beliefs dividing neighbors and kin. “Answer the boy, Cobb. He’s your son. He deserves your words, not the gossip to come.”
“Monroe, anyone asks, tell them I’m seeking gold with the Georgians.”
“What about our farm, Pa?”
“Sold, son. We’ll have a new farm out west. Uncle Leroy will bring you all out once it’s settled.”
“Out west? Where they sent the Cherokee?”
“Further west, son. The frontier.”
Carrot Ranch is in the middle of a move. Same online home but new office on wheels. Thinking it would go smoothly was optimistic. The new RV Coach is a 2004 Alfa with real oak woodwork, office slide, master bedroom and a beautiful kitchen. It’s wonderful, yet overwhelming. So far, I locked myself out the first night, couldn’t get outlets to work and thought I had no propane. It’s a big learning curve going from a 19 foot camper to a 36 foot home and office on wheels. Thank you for your patience during this transition!
See you from this new space:
Bobo is having a rough adjustment. We had to go back to the vet because she’s not eating and drinking too much water. After numerous tests, she’s not experiencing kidney disease, which is good news. The vet thinks it’s behavioral — she’s grieving Grenny. The move only added stress. She’s on rescue remedy and a natural mood and joint enhancer. I might need to share it with her! She does like her new spot on the couch, though. She has a real couch! Keep her in your thoughts.
As of October 27, I’d say the Hub and I are no longer homeless. I cooked the first breakfast in four months this morning in a working kitchen. When I did the dishes and stuck my hands in hot, soapy water for the first time since leaving Elmira Pond, I cried. This move is proving emotional to me because I’m realizing how much we lost and went without. I feel like someone who held strong during a disaster, and once everything was over and good, my legs started shaking.
What we lived in for four months was not even the size of a studio flat. I now have a bedroom, and no longer have claustrophobic attacks. I have a full bathroom, walk-in closet, dressers, a recliner, a sofa sleeper (for guests!) and even a ridiculously large flat screen television. Once through the transition, I’ll be back in full swing. I have missed so much, and appreciate the support of this community. It’s my turn to come back and serve all you wonderful writers once again. If I could, I’d fix you all breakfast:
Extended Flash Fiction Challenge:
If you didn’t get to write a raptor flash, the deadline is now extended to November 1.
Raptors wheel on currents of air high above the La Verkin Overlook. Wings outstretched overhead, a visual blip on the terrain so vast that raptors seem hummingbirds lost in the vastness. The plateau beneath my feet is but a step to the mesas stretching to the south and the tallest sandstone cliffs and pillars in the world rising to the east. This mid-terrain is known as the Zion Canyon Corridor, part of the Grand Staircase of three national parks, Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon. Below, what the overlook is meant to view, is the Hurricane Valley. To the northwest are the Pine Mountains standing over 10,000 feet in elevation and to the southwest is the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The mantra here is, “Take pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”
Looking up, the raptors soon dive and I find I’m looking down on feathered backs when they swoop past the cliffs and hang in the air over the valley below. It’s surreal and I want to add, “Let your imagination take wing.”
This land is a candy store to me. I want to nibble each chocolate for a taste, not sure which one I really want to devour first. When it comes to westerns, this is iconic and historic country. When it comes to geology, it’s a transition zone geologists call a conundrum. When it comes to raptors, songbirds, migrators, reptiles and more it’s a super highway for many and a unique home for some rare environments. I look up, I look out, I look down and the candy shop is endless. It’s still Mars to me but becoming home more and more. Familiarity is already unfolding.
Because so many western movies were filmed in this area, we all think of the Wild West as being further west than it really was. Granted, the west coast destination of California, Oregon and Washington Territory were west, but much of the activities of heroes like Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickok took place in the “far west” of the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska or the mesa country of Colorado and New Mexico. Despite the implications that Hickok knew this land I stand upon, his far west was Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s almost 600 miles east.
Before the US Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, depending upon which side of the divide one stood) Hickok was still known by his given name, James Butler Hickok. He left his native Illinois for the Kansas Territory as a young man, about 1856 (according to biographer, Joseph Rosa). He would have been 19-years old. That same year, 28-year old David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles was elected a third term as sheriff of Watauga County, North Carolina. In five years, these two men would clash in what is known as the Rock Creek Affair (among other more fiendish titles).
It’s one of the earliest wild west tales, yet far removed from the iconic wild west where I watch raptors soar.
This makes me wonder — does it matter, the sweeping landscape? Does it make a difference if the gunfight occurred atop a mesa or in a lone road station in the Midwestern prairie? Of course, storytellers know the power of a setting to stage a scene or backdrop action. And yet, I once watched a Shakespearean performance of King Leer on a stark stage of gray monoliths. When the story takes flight like the majesty of the raptors, does it matter that they soar and dip among startling terrain or would they hold their own in nothing but blue sky?
I find myself fixated on the wings of the raptors.
Another day, and I’m drinking coffee at River Rock Roasting Company in La Verkin far below the overlook above. Two raptors are engaging in what looks like a dance over the gorge below where the Virgin River has cut a path. The land truly is a series of staircases. And the raptors own the air in between. I find it is the expression of flight that enthralls me most. It could be flat as a prairie and the raptors would still be the focal point. I’m lucky to get to see them, like celebrity visitors to the candy store where I live.
I believe in writing stories as compelling as raptors in flight. What you add or subtract are details that contain the story. Of course, there are many abstract ways to write, too and not all pieces of literature are story-forward. In fact, much of literature is character-driven and some of it is experimental. I’m a proponent of stories because I’m a story-teller. As a marketer I learned that people respond to stories. There’s even science that examines how the brain is hardwired for stories. Naturally I look to the raptors and see stories among pillars of sandstone and gorges of basalt.
October 19, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a raptor. Let your imagination take wing, or dive into natural science. Tell a story about flight, talons or tail-feathers. Create a myth or share a BOTS (based on a true story). Set the raptor in a spectacular place or focus on bird itself. And for clarification, raptors are eagles, hawks, falcons and owls.
EXTENDED! Respond by November 1, 2016 to be included in the compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Side-seat Driver (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Ike, look out!” Danni steadied her travel mug so she wouldn’t spill it. Habit. The mug was empty, but there was a small mass on the faded paved two-lane. Morning sun illuminated feathers Danni didn’t want her husband to hit after fixing the alignment on their truck.
Ike barely swerved, smiled broadly beneath his mousy-brown handlebar mustache and began singing, “There’s a dead…chicken…in the road…a dead…chicken…in—”
“Ike, that’s a hawk.” She leaned back into his chest, his right arm never once moved from her shoulders despite her jostling.
“There’s my side-seat driver. Awake now?”’
“Watch the road, Ike.”
Dreaming of Flight (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Beyond the whispering voices Sarah could hear the pounding of horse hooves. Like a falcon pushing off a fence post, Sarah took flight and could see the prairie stretch below. She was the raptor and Cobb the rider. He ran a blood-red bay with black mane and tail that whipped in the wind like a woman’s unbound tresses. The horse put his entire body into the run. Sarah pushed hers into flight. Together they covered endless buffalo grass until her coughing broke the spell. She was in bed.
Some feared to die. At 98, Sarah feared she never would.
A small child with arms stretched upwards expects to be scooped up by a loving carer. What does the saguaro cactus expect? Standing tall across the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona and western Mexico, an army of these cacti giants reach toward a blue sky. They can grow as tall as 40 to 60 feet in height with as many as 25 arms, like deities with multiple limbs, leaving us to wonder if more arms means a greater reach. Prickly as they are, would they be picked up tenderly?
And so it is with politicians. They stand tall before us, on the television screen, the stadium stage, behind the debater’s podium, and wave multiple arms. One arm waves to the targeted voter segment; another waves off past voting records or experiences best left in the dark; another arm reaches toward sponsors; another closes a door on a segment not deemed worthy of votes. Are the multi-limbed deities of cosmic power expressing protection or danger?
I look at the towering, reaching saguaro cactus where I piddle my dogs, and I know to keep my distance.
When it comes to politics, I tend to give a similar wide berth to the subject. I don’t want to stand in the shadow of multiple arms covered in spines. I don’t like the spine-slinging, back-handed slaps of a presidential election year. Commercials fling barbs at opponents in 30 seconds of “approved messages.” Family members shoot poisoned darts at one another on Facebook beneath banners of “Never Her,” or “Never Him.” Mass media skews every word any candidate ever spoke to line up the spines in neat rows like the ribbed saguaro. It’s a prickly season.
Don’t get me wrong; I believe in participation in the democratic process. In 1776, my nation declared independence by democratic vote, but failed to define who could vote. That interpretation was left up to individual states until after the US Civil War. Cobb McCanles was elected first sheriff of Watauga County, North Carolina and he ran on the Whig party ticket in 1852. Each successive two years (the length of term for sheriff in NC at the time), Cobb was sponsored by the same backers, but ran for a different party ticket each time.
My reasoning for this is that the Whig party was crumbling in the 1850s in a similar way to the modern Republican party disintegrating. If you look at that party’s candidate, Donald Trump, you have to scratch your head in wonder how he represents party values. In truth, he represents a desperation for change without critical thought. And that’s what Cobb experienced in his time. In fact, one party ticket he represented was based on not allowing immigrants citizen rights because it was feared the influx of Irish would take jobs. Sound familiar?
Our fears and plights are never new experiences.
Yet, the more fractured small and young counties like Watauga became, the greater the shift of power to those with wealth. Cobb’s backers might have slipped party alliances like snakeskin over a decade, but they were consistently the wealthiest men in the region. When in the antebellum south, how better to express one’s wealth than by owning slaves? A look at the 1850 and 1860 slave census records for Watauga County reveals that each of Cobb’s political partners were slave-owners. Sarah Shull’s father owned slaves; Cobb’s wife’s family all held slaves; and as sheriff, Cobb often had to take custody of slaves as property to offset debts.
None of the McCanles family ever owned slaves in that era. I believe that Cobb’s mother came from one of the large Alexander plantations in Virginia, but her husband was never listed as an owner on a slave schedule and neither were any of their five grown children despite having the means. In fact, this was a point of contention for Cobb in politics — he wanted economic prosperity; opportunities to make a living. I believe this was the driving factor for Cobb and his brother the summer they went west in 1858.
The history of that trip is fuzzy. Family members have letters and oral history that says the two brothers came west together and they use that to “prove” the two came to Rock Creek, Nebraska Territory in 1859. But too many other documented facts show that Cobb came west in February 1859 with Sarah Shull and a few other men, including a receipt for his purchase of Rock Creek Station and a promissory note to Sarah for her services as an accountant. Both are dated the end of March 1859. Leroy brought his and Cobb’s families out in September of 1859.
And Cobb built multiple improvements and ranches, thus gaining that economic prosperity he sought. It came at a price, though. Politically, it ostracized him from the men who once backed him and it created a division so deep between the McCanles and Greene families (his wife’s family and that of his sisters who each married Greene brothers) that Mary could never go home to North Carolina after Cobb’s death. And the remaining McCanles clan had to clear out of the region after the Civil War. This was politics at it’s most barbarous — neighbor against neighbor, but instead of name-calling and Facebook un-friending, they shot and lynched one another.
Racism and sexism are complex fruits of this nation, much like the blossoms that appear upon the spiny saguaro. You can’t easily pluck either without getting poked by the hard truths of their history and legacy in this nation. Voting rights are still not fair in this country, yet most people seem to think we’ve resolved it all back in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act of the 24th Amendment. However, the dilution of voting power for minorities and lack of access for the homeless continue to be real problems in 2017. Because of this, I do not take my voting privilege lightly. I will not be deterred by the barbs I encounter.
It’s a real possibility I have lost my privilege to vote.
While fellow Americans are chasing the multiple-arms of their candidates and trying to chop off those of their opponents, I’m scrambling to meet registration requirements. I may as well be living on Mars as far as official addresses go. The Zion Resort and RV is my official address with the included “Site 82.” However, the US Postal Service does not recognize the physical address as a deliverable one. That is why I have to add the RV park’s PO Box to my address. But a PO Box is not a physical address. You see the conundrum? My physical address does not receive mail and can’t be validated; my PO Box is not a physical address. I can’t use General Delivery, either; that’s also not a valid address. Most full-time RVers use an address of family or friends. However, Todd works in Utah and needs a Utah address for income tax reasons.
Even if we get over this address hurdle and successfully register to vote before the October deadline, we have another hurdle: ID requirements. Getting a Utah Drivers License requires more proof — we need an electricity bill to prove residency (having an address is not enough) and our social security cards. We don’t have an electrical account; the park does. We’ve never needed social security cards in other states and ours are packed away in our Liberty Safe in a storage unit in Sandpoint, Idaho. We don’t have enough time to request new cards. We need to negotiate other ways to prove we live at the RV park and have social security numbers.
Those who are more homeless, living on the streets or in a shelter, are screwed. They are disenfranchised and often criminalized for their lack of housing. Although criminalization laws are unconstitutional, those experiencing homelessness cannot even participate in the voting process to uphold that constitution, change unjust laws or elect officials to represent their interests. To think my veteran husband who suffers service-related disability cannot vote because of a misfortune beyond our control is outrageous. Yet, even if his veteran’s ID were enough to give him access to a federal election, what about me, his wife? I have no Wife-of-Veteran ID. I support, advocate and take my role seriously. Now I know what it must have felt like to be a woman suffragist.
For this reason, I greatly respect Senator Hillary Clinton. Day after day, I see the barbs slung at her simply because she is a woman who has had a career in politics. I admire her reason and calm under fire; her intelligence and preparation; and the fact that she does not crumble beneath bullying tactics. However, she’s not my candidate if I get to vote. And no way, no how is Donald Trump even a consideration! Although, I’ve heard some credible arguments lately as to why people I consider sane and thoughtful are voting for him. My vote is my vote, and another American’s vote is his or hers. Take it seriously.
I also refuse the scare tactic that my third-party vote will have disastrous results. Look, I didn’t put the two-party candidates in their current positions. I’ve been a third-party voter all my registered life. From ages 18 until 46, I voted Independent. At age 47 I registered as a Libertarian. I’ve never voted as a Republican or Democrat, although I have voted for candidates outside my party before.
The only wasted vote is the one not cast. Our political scene is prickly, but like the Sonoran Desert itself, our nation is yet full of life. Despite our history and legacies, there is yet beauty and hope. I looked more carefully at that saguaro this morning and I realized it’s crowned with a thorny heart. Like my America. We are prickly, full of pain and faults, yet there it is — we reach highest with our hearts.
September 28, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a prickly story. Is it the temperament of a character that is prickly or is it a hardship he or she faces? You can write about cacti, rose thorns or other natural elements. Think about how the prickliness conveys the story.
Respond by October 4, 2016 to be included in the compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Liars in Court (From Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“I can’t believe it. She lied,” said Danni.
“Children are capable.” Michael reached for the door.
“Liar!” a woman shouted from behind.
Danni and Michael turned around.
“You’re not a real cop. Go back to the reservation where you belong.” Kyndra Hinkley looked ready to batter them both with her oversized leather purse.
“Where I serve is incidental. Save your words for court,” Michael said.
Kyndra turned on Danni. “Oh, we are through in court. The judge believes my daughter. He’s going to order you to pay full damages and I hope his verdict kills your big ugly dog.”
A Thorny Dilemma (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Nancy Jane muttered while she tended her unconscious father.“He’s gonna get his. He’s gonna pay.”
Sarah handed her friend a fresh basin for dabbing the wounds. The prickly thorns of a locust tree welted the man’s entire body. She turned at the sound of boots on the plank floor of the cabin.
“May I enter?” asked a male voice from behind the calico curtain that hung for privacy of the bedchamber. It was Hickok.
Nancy Jane’s eyes glittered. Sarah knew what she was thinking. If anyone could confront Cobb, it was the young man who wore his pistols backwards.
Over yonder, where the cliffs diminish and pale in the slanting sun, is where we landed. How we left earth is a mystery. Perhaps it was a moonbeam we followed, thinking it to be a paved road or a path away from political pirates. Maybe some freak fission took place and our souls split to occupy multiple places at once. Like the passengers of Lost, I walk beyond the sand and enter a hatch to another place. I’m convinced I drove from Montana and ended up on Mars.
Montana I can explain clearly now.
Clarity crystallized upon saying goodbye. We said goodbye to new friends in Moses Lake and exchanged phone numbers with promises to meet up in other RV parks. We said goodbye to stuff in storage and I felt completely detached, wondering if this is how the pioneer women who crossed the desert felt upon dumping the hutch and china from the buckboard so the oxen might live another day of trudging sage and sand. We waved goodbye at Laughing Dog closed for remodeling and to Sandpoint friends who were not home. I stopped one last time along the Pack River Delta and whispered goodbye to Lake Pend Oreille and the pyramidal Monarch Mountains. I said goodbye to osprey though I think they left before me.
We parked our trailer on a street in Missoula, Montana and enjoyed porch-side hospitality with our daughter and her housemates. As an introvert, I said goodbye to Missoula Binders via email. Sadness began to flourish like a creeping vine in my heart. Then we traveled to Helena where I once graduated from College and bonded with my best friend. I did not want to say goodbye to her daughters, and I choked on tears as we neared. I had wanted to go to Kate’s grave, but wasn’t ready. M and I clung to one another in her doorway and we cried. Her children made us laugh. We went out to dinner and prolonged the parting. Then I drove to E’s house, hugged her son, hugged her and we left to stay one last night in Missoula with Rock Climber.
Driving along the Clark Fork River the next day to Butte where we turned south and would drive down and away for another 800 miles in tandem, hub with the trailer and me with the dogs, I listened to the epic theme from Man From Snowy River over and over until I purged all tears. I snapped photos of passing mountain ranges, broad valleys and big sky. I could not say goodbye to Montana. And that’s when it hit me — my heart is, always has been, here. I was born in a place, raised in another and have lived in 8 states, most in the western US. What defines the west, and western literature, is place. And my place, my center, my heart, is Montana.
It doesn’t matter where I reside or where I write, I’m from Montana and always will be. The clarity of that realization, the absorption of what is is to be a woman who writes the west, emptied my chest as if my heart fell out along side the road and waved me goodbye until I returned. I stopped crying, breathed deeply and felt…good. I felt settled. Now I was ready for adventure! To all who’ve spoke adventure over my reluctant transience and homelessness, now I welcome it! I’m from Montana damn it all and I can adventure where I please.
Mars? I didn’t expect that, but hey, my chest feels empty now, and I’m ready to fill up on what life brings next.
We followed the western edge of the Rocky Mountains south. By mid-afternoon we crossed over into Idaho again. The Hub called me on his cell phone. “Do you see those pale mountains to the left? Those aren’t clouds; those are the Tetons.” Those craggy peaks rise to an elevation of 13,000 feet and we could see Wyoming from Idaho. We stopped in the dark for the night just over the Idaho border and into Utah. We splurged on a motel room, and I actually missed my trailer. So did the Hub and the dogs. Who would have thought that square leaking beast on mismatched wheels would become home? With my heart beating in Montana, I was okay with living on wheels.
The next morning we headed south again, following the western edge of mountains like a guide. We stopped in Ogden, Utah to see Hub’s second cousin The Historian. He’s my idol, the family Black Sheep of his generation, a Vietnam Vet, and a former history professor. We’ve worked together on Mills genealogy in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and I owe most of my research skills to him. Seeing him always shocks me — he looks more like the Hub than any other family member, just 30 years older. And they are two peas in a pod, two black sheep, two fellow veterans. I love watching them interact. The Historian takes us out for pie and coffee, then we follow him up a steep incline to his home and orchard where we piddle and water the dogs. He tells me to find a drinking friend in Utah and to return with her to visit him. Hub smiles.
South we go again. We pass Salt Lake City, Provo and Spanish Springs. That mountain range never leaves our left side. Valleys rise and dip, thriving cities give way to ranches and towns, and the sky remains similar to my beloved Big Sky. We continue and I’m surprised to find the terrain looks similar to southern Idaho, eastern Montana or northern Nevada. Maybe Utah won’t be so different after all. I simply don’t know what to expect, except I fear it will be hot and barren like Las Vegas, Nevada, which is only 120 miles away from St. George. At Cedar City, I can see red stain in the soil among the vast range of cedar trees. They are short and scrubby in comparison to the tall pines of northern Idaho.
Here we break down. The truck pulling our trailer dies, the engine won’t restart. At this point, I should mention the car has no air conditioning. Somehow, the compressor fell off, who knows where. The Hub suspects it was removed during repairs last fall after we hit a deer. Anyhow, it’s hot and I feel a tad frightened. We are at the mercy of heat and unknowns. The Hub thinks the truck overheated on the last mountain pass so we sit a while, listening to the panting of our dogs. It starts and we head to a shop in town. Turns out our gas filter was dirty and the heat exacerbated the problem. For forty bucks we get a new one installed and head out as the sun is setting. Relieved.
My phone is set to lead us to the only RV park with an opening for four nights. When the Hub got the Great News of his new job in St. George, Utah, I called every RV and camping park within an hour’s drive to find a place to park our trailer. They were all full, even the ones fellow RVers said not to go to. A possible ranch connection was all we had. The new Company was going to set us up in a hotel in St, George but not until Sunday night. The Hub, not wanting to be late for his first day of work, had us showing up four days early. While broke down, I called the best RV park in the region on a fluke of what if (after all, I write fiction and can imagine possibilities). Turns out they had a spot available for four nights due to the small stature of our trailer.
Before we get to St. George it is pitch black. We turn off the road to head to Zion River Resort and I ask Google for a dinner stop. Google directs us to the Stagecoach Grill. To a western writer, that’s a promising name. Inside, the decor emphasizes horses mixed with bold colors. The menu offers fresh food and ice water. Afterwards, I take the lead because I have the phone with our north star installed. Here’s where I think we detoured on a moonbeam, split or fell down a hatch. I do recall feeling woozy, but the road had more curves than Sophia Loren. It felt as sultry, too. Night, yet still blanketed in warmth as if the sun had managed to stay the night. After winding up and down, left and right, my phone died. In a panic, I slowed down and at that moment the Zion River Resort — and no vacancy sign — appeared to the right.
The office was closed but a man with a gray mullet and bright pink shirt greeted us in a golf cart. He pulled up our reservation and we followed him to site #82. “Check in come morning,” he said, waving as he drove off in his cart without a sound. We plugged in the electricity, turned on the AC, watered the dogs and fell fast asleep. The next morning we woke up on Mars. I was not prepared for this red and white, of cliff faces, pinnacles and sandstone taller and larger than the mountain I left. The land is baked and a muddy red river runs through it, bordered with cottonwoods.
My first morning, I stood, staring at a 6,000 foot butte and cliff-face beyond my trailer door. The sun blazed hot, yet felt comforting. Lizards skittered away as I walked past a pool and court yard. Song birds flitted in green trees. Mars is pleasant, I thought. The first thing I saw walking into the office to check in was a large painted sign on faded barn wood that read, Buffalo Bill Cody and the Congress of Rough Riders. I smiled and knew I landed right where I was supposed to be. Let the amazing feats begin.
The hallmark of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show was the “amazing feats” of his Congress of Rough Riders. Here at Carrot Ranch, we play with flash fiction the way musicians jam. There’s no right or wrong to the prompt, but a constraint of 99 words. Here, writers can practice, show off, experiment with new tricks, explore story ideas, develop characters or plot, and have fun writing. If you are pressed for time, add a further constraint of time. You might be amazed at what you accomplish in 99 words. Just as I am amazed by my new home-scape.
September 14, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an amazing feat. What is the accomplishment and why is it amazing? Think small or go over-the-top large. Is it realistic or fantastically exaggerated? Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by September 20, 2016 to be included in the compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
The First Trick (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Bubbie sat, quivering. His brown eyes crossed to gaze at the biscuit perched on his snout. Nostrils flared, and thin drool hung from his lips. Danni backed away and the children in the clearing held still. No one spoke. Then Danni gave a command and Bubbie snatched the biscuit with his darting tongue. The children erupted into cheers.
Mrs. Gunnerson held up her hand for silence and order returned to the fourth-grade field trip. “Listen up, children. Dr. Gordon and her archaeology dog will lead you to the park petroglyphs.”
Danni exhaled, grateful for the dog that was her ice-breaker.
When He Was Young and Innocent (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Hickok crossed his arms and drew his pistols, shooting the tossed sardine can. Nancy Jane howled with laughter, but Sarah frowned.
“Don’t you like my neat trick,” he asked, feigning hurt.
“I’m studying your grip,” said Sarah.
“Grip? What are y’all serious about now,” asked Nancy Jane.
“Why do you wear your guns backwards?”
Hickok returned each pistol to his red hip scarf, butts facing out. “It’s how I learned to cross draw. Fastest way to sling guns.”
Sarah nodded. “Ever shoot anyone?”
Hickok drew again, twirling the pistols. “Nah,” he said with a smile that reached his eyes.
Cerulean flashes between stands of winter birch, stark and leafless. As the car draws nearer to the water so deeply blue it makes the sky look like faded laundry, my heart rate picks up. Spring is delayed at its shore, the water so cold it can alter seasons. I wonder what the shore will be like beyond the hardwoods?
Before me sprawls the greatest of the Great Lakes, Superior by its cartography name, and I’ve walked its black moonscape on bare bedrock cliffs along Minnesota’s north shore where waves crash endlessly and shatter fishing boats like tossed toys. Gordon Lightfoot sings, “The lake, it s said, never gives up her dead/when the skies of November turn gloomy.” Yet, it is May and this is not Minnesota.
Nor is it Wisconsin where I once lived a full season along the brownstone cliffs and pink quartz beaches of Superior’s Chequamegon Bay. Miracle of Ducks is set in the quaint fishing and sailing village of Bayfield, a place that smells of blueberry blossoms in May and has shallow bays warm enough to swim, yet fierce enough to kayak surf. I drove through Wisconsin’s north woods on the way to this destination and felt a tingle of home. This lake never gives up her living, either.
I’m in Michigan, my first visit to my eldest and SIL’s new home in the Upper Peninsula. They live in Hancock, a small former mining town across the steep hardwood hills that line the canal. On the other side is Houghton where Michigan Tech plugs into the community like life support. It’s remote and underpopulated, the number of residents no longer fill the expanse of brick and mortar. First the indigenous mined here, then in the 1840s the Cornish came followed by Finns; hard-rock miners with strong constitutions.
If you look at a map of Lake Superior and follow the US edge, you’ll see that the lake folds over itself, bending into Minnesota. A stubborn strip of land juts up in to her middle. That’s copper-laden country. That’s Michigan, the UP, the Keewenaw Peninsula. Once the Superior canal cuts across that tip, the land becomes an island, surrounded by lake water and connected to the US by a single lift-bridge.
My first full day here and the kids take me to the lake, mere miles from their house which once belonged to a miner and his family. We follow the canal until we can see the full expanse of the Great Lake. Trees give way to a grassy knoll and the full sapphire of deep waters flash before me as I were touring nature’s favorite crown jewel.
It’s my first glimpse of Gitche Gumee, the name Henry Wadsworth Longfellow shares in his Song of Hiawatha:
“On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Of the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing with her finger westward,
O’er the water pointing westward,
To the purple clouds of sunset.” ~ HW Longfellow
The water laps repeatedly at the sandy knoll, eroding its edge. I’m reminded of photos and a post from the UK that Geoff Le Pard shared in Life’s a Beach. I wonder if his #glorioussuffolk compares to my #gloriouskeewenaw? Erosion is a constant force. It’s obvious in sand and dirt; stunning to consider the Grand Canyon. Over time, over time, over time, it all washes away.
In Calumet, 10 miles out of Hancock, my SIL works for the National Parks Service. The town of 600 once catered to a region of 30,000 people. A cluster of tall churches pointing to God and stars stand empty. The Parks campus is built of Jacobson sandstone and bedrock that once yielded copper. The buildings are stout and dark with age. Downtown is eerie. Big as a city in buildings, but sparsely inhabited. A massive Opera House with intact carriage entry still provides shows. I hear the seats are red velvet inside.
On this day, however, we go to the only open restaurant and have lunch at one of seven tables. Seven tables is enough for a town that still has an Opera House. It boggles the mind. Here, the economy has eroded how people make a living. The Finns stick it out, some living on their family farms in summer, retreating to Calumet in winter to escape the harsh snows. The kids show me a building — a five-story brick structure — collapsed by snow last winter. Even the snow erodes around here.
When we leave the sandwich shop, I ask the man who has been writing in a stack of yellow ledgers, what’s his story? He looks up from his paper and scrawl, blinking eyes as brilliantly blue as the lake. His full head and beard of silver and tough worn skin give him the mark of a man with sisu — a Finn. He pauses so long, I fear he’s found my direct question a rude interruption. But once he starts talking about his novel (I knew it!) he becomes animated and reveals he’s a story-teller.
The man tells me that Keewenaw is Ojibwa for “portage” and that this peninsula has served as a crossroads for many cultures over centuries. His novel is modern and includes the college from where new cultures emerge in this area among the fading Finns, stories of Hiawatha and pasties of the Cornish. This idea of portaging cultures intrigues me, one washing up against another. I think of eroding cultures and how differences can rub.
Across the sea in the UK one finds a polite and full explanation as to the dangers of an eroding edge; in the US we simply state the obvious. Here’s one of my photos and Geoff’s to illustrate:
I rather like the polite explanation, yet I see the practicality in directness. Does one way erase another? Is this why we fear other cultures? Cumin might be replaced by curry; English might be replaced by Arabic; Christianity might be replaced by Buddhism; blue eyes might be replaced by brown. Do we really fear this?
I have an idea — what if we looked at another culture and asked a simple question, “What do you love?” I love my family, my friends, my dogs. I love both cumin and curry and lots of garlic. I love action-adventure movies and long epic novels. I love rocks and Lake Superior. I love north Idaho and Montana. I love people who live in many places and I want to see new land, waters and cultures. I love to cook and I love to eat out. I love to grow food, too. I love birds, ideas, stories, history and writing. I love God. I’m not threatened if you don’t love what I do because I bet I can connect with you on some level the more we rattle off our lists to one another. Maybe I’ll go deep with one person, maybe I won’t get beyond spices or children with another.
We can’t stop the repetitive action of water any more than we can stop the spread of people. Do you think these modern borders have always existed? Do you think our language stagnant? Life itself erodes all we try to not change. Embrace what you love, learn what others love and co-exist in this ever-eroding world.
I didn’t always think of the Civil War in the US as a culture clash, but it was certainly an erosion between different regions, people and their needs. When I read historical newspapers during Cobb’s time in North Carolina, I read inflammatory stories of the likes in modern media. The kind of stories to get people worked up against others. To play on those fears that others’ ideas or values or ways or beliefs or home-cooking might erode theirs. I believe Cobb came west to escape some of those ideals he no longer conformed to. Yet, in a curious posting, Sheriff Cobb McCanles advertised for a “Found Negro Man” and is holding him in the Watauga County jail until the owner “proves property.”
It’s a notice that makes my skin crawl. Reading history books — written by white men — Watauga County, North Carolina holds to a false innocence that it had few slaves in antebellum times. Bull shit. I found the slave records and every single man of means, including Mary’s Greene family and Sarah’s Shull family, owned slaves. Slaves were not even considered people but property. The line, “prove property” sickens me. I’ve wondered what to do with it. Actually, the posting remains a mystery — it’s published six months in advance of Cobb leaving. Despite their position and wealth, none of the McCanles family ever owned slaves. Cobb’s mother came from a wealthy plantation that did and she chose to marry an educated man who didn’t. In part, this is what leads the McCanles clan to be at odds with southern neighbors.
They are not abolitionists, but Cobb does a curious thing. He posts this ad for the required 6 months and when it’s time to set the prisoner free, Cobb leaves. If a slave is unclaimed, he’ll simply get claimed by someone else. Even free men of color were wrongfully enslaved after gaining their freedom, or would enslave their own wife and children to protect them from being owned by another. It would be dangerous in the volatile year leading up to the Civil War to have dark skin and no owner. Here’s an interesting thought: Rock Creek was a portage through which many cultures came — French traders, buffalo hunters, Mormons, immigrants, northern pioneers, southern pioneers, and yes, free black men.
History has a weird way of remaining silent, after all it is written by men with prejudice. Read any historical account of Rock Creek and you get the sense of “for” and “against.” Two states even battled in the arena of public opinion regarding who was the real villain, Cobb or Hickok. No one considered they were each men of their times and cultural influences, men with their own hearts and reason. No one considered Jane Wellman or what she was capable of doing. No one considered Mary as being isolated from her southern roots because she followed her Unionist husband west. No one considered Sarah as a business partner to Cobb. And no one considered who James Gordon was.
The shoot-out at Rock Creek left Cobb McCanles, his cousin James Woods and his ranch hand James Gordon dead. I can locate James Woods in historical records; I can’t find James Gordon. In frustration, I wondered if he was secretly female because he is the only person at Rock Creek who is as historically elusive as the three women. Then it struck me, that weirdness about history. History is silent of what it doesn’t approve of. What is so offensive about James Gordon that even today, no one ever bothered to re-inter his grave. Park officials claim his burial site is unknown, yet I found plenty of newspaper accounts of old locals who did know its location. Why did no one ever give an outcry for the wrongful death of James Gordon? Cobb was villainized, and his cousin an associate. Why is James Gordon not in the Census record though he lived in Rock Creek? He wasn’t female; maybe he was black.
That’s my imaginative theory, but it’s plausible and makes sense as for why Gordon was ignored by historians. It also explains what happened to the man in Cobb’s custody. He came west with Cobb and Sarah. He died violently, unfairly, but he did die a free man.
We can’t replace what gets eroded over time, but we can read the records to understand what is missing the way geologists read canyon walls to understand what it once was, what it now is, and how it will further change. Erosion is a process of life. No sense pining for fallen rocks or refusing to budge until the water eats the sand beneath our feet. We can change with the landscape and each day go to the edge with a sense of wonder, goodwill and love.
May 11, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story, using the power of erosion. It can be natural, cultural or something different. Is the force personified or does it add to the overall tone? You can use the word in its variations, or avoid the word and write its action.
Respond by May 17, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Free to Go by Charli Mills
Gordon stood with hat in hand. Cobb sat and ignored the fidgeting young man.
“Cobb,” Gordon said and at his name, he rose, smiling.
“Gordon, sit. Mary, get Gordon a cup. See, quit calling me ‘Sir’ like some knight or slave-owner and I’ll respond.”
Gordon expelled his breath. “Yes, S…Cobb. Am I really free?”
“Nebraska Territory’s not a slave state. I pay you same wage I pay any hand. You bunk with the other hands.”
“But can I leave?”
Cobb leaned forward, holding the man’s worried gaze. “Gordon, you’re free to go, but remember, gold is a hard master.”
It’s dark and the dogs have to pee. With one arm wrapped around the porch post, I lean toward the dark lawn to let Grenny reach as far as he can to pee on leash. No way will I let him cavort in the darkness. He’ll bring back a monster I can’t see.
The Hub calls me the Cowardly Cowgirl. He finds it amusing that I scream over mice and refuse to step a toe across the dark shadows of night. He recently bought me a monster-finder. I think it’s actually called a night scope, but whatever it is the device can pick up eyeballs and heat-shifting forms in the darkness. Like that’s going to make me less afraid of monsters.
I live in North Idaho where monsters are real. A woman new to the area posted on a local social media group about tips for hiking alone. No one mentioned lurking rapists or muggers, but everyone who responded had a story about wild monsters. The woman asked if she need a firearm, bear spray or of her dogs would suffice. The responses? Both, and don’t let your dogs run or they’ll bring back whatever is out there to you.
Yep. I know that. We live in grizzly country. Wolves slather on the fringes of my property and I’ve nearly been trampled by a moose (not nearly, but could have been). Coyotes grow to trickster proportions and in the summers I even dread the pond gang of bull frogs. Monsters and darkness go hand in hand. Give me broad daylight and I’ll pick huckleberries past the clumps of bear hair, read my book on the Pack River while my dogs entice moose or wolves into an attack, and explore remote and unknown places.
I don’t carry bear spray or pack a firearm. But I also don’t stray far from the man who does. I feel safe from monsters in the company of the Hub. After all, he did rescue our meddlesome dog from a grizzly by mere force of voice. Sgt. Mills mode I call it.
At night, though, I get jittery. Even with the Hub leading me to the back pastures to teach me how to use the scope. He seriously thinks that giving me night vision will ease my monster fears. I tolerate the lessons and groan when he says, “Let’s go look at stars and monsters.” For four years this man trudged at night in South American jungles with deadly snakes, spiders the size of eco-cars and guerrilla soldiers with guns. He’s been bit, shot at and drowned three times yet he doesn’t fear the dark.
Instead, he sees darkness in our government, in drug lords and the evil intentions of powerful men.
We all see monsters in one form or another. Call them fears or risk-avoidance. And we don’t agree on the monsters we see. The Hub might think it foolish for a pastor to minister to addicts, felons and the mentally unstable, and was not surprised when Pastor Tim was shot. By a monster, some might say. A crazed monster who himself feared aliens. But Pastor Tim sees hurting and broken people, broken systems, not monsters. His family asked others to pray for the man who shot him.
It’s not monsters that interest me, but rather monster-slayers. And like monsters, we don’t all agree on what needs slaying. It’s perspective. However, it is also a rich human complexity to explore in literature — what are the monsters and who are their slayers? Are monster-slayers heroic or misguided?
James Butler Hickok earned the name “Wild Bill”once the story of his infamous fight with the guerrilla McKandlas and ten of his men became popularized in Harper’s Weekly (think sensational tabloid). And David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles earned the title of monster, although recent historians are satisfied to raise him up to that of a bully. But why is Cobb a bully and Hickok a frontier hero? Again, it’s perspective. Hickok is forgiven any sins because he was a Civil War scout, a plainsman and occasional lawman.
However, Cobb was a lawman consistently for over six years. He was General of Musters for his militia and when he arrived in Rock Creek, he organized the citizens to adjudicate crime. He refused to kill criminals (vigilantes often hung men for lesser crimes or those fabricated). His punishments, which could be harsh, did not result in loss of life. Cobb never killed anyone in the line of duty whereas Hickock killed over 100 men. Cobb is called a bully for punishing people and Hickok is revered for bringing order to the frontier by killing “bad guys” a.k.a monsters of the west. Hickok is a monster-slayer; Cobb a monster.
See how complicated it can be? We all need special goggles to help us see in dark places. Many times, the darkness is within. Some of us write to bring light to stave the darkness and others write the darkness out in order to let light in. In a way, considering all the struggles we have as writers to keep the monsters of doubt at bay, we are all monster-slayers when we persevere to write.
March 9, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a monster story. You can pick any perspective, even that of the monster. It can be literal or symbolic; it can be heroic or realistic. Think about the shifting roles of what is a monster and who is a monster-slayer. Consider how easily we give the label to others or to fears we can’t name.
Respond by March 15, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
A big Gracias to Geoff LePard for the monster photo. Read more about where this monster lurks.
Monster Hunt by Charli Mills
Wilstach patted his mustache with a lace hanky. Sarah, lost in thoughts of Rock Creek, heard her friends speak in her head.
“A fine dandy for lunch, Rosebud,” Cobb said.
Nancy Jane scoffed. “That man for real? Sarah, you need to kick him in the shins.”
“I’d play poker with him. Strip his money and ego in minutes,” added Hickok.
Wilstach repeated a question. She had to snuff the voices, bury secrets with the dead. Lunch was not so tempting that she’d betray them. Her stomach growled in protest.
“Mrs. Devald. Tell me, which one was the real monster?”