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Tool Time

Tool TimeEvery trade has its tools. Writers have their favorite set of pens, journals and books, in addition to their computers and events like NaNoWriMo. Using such tools, they take to the page and write about other tools.

No tool is off limits. Writers have penned stories about selfie-sticks and hock-spanners, crochet hooks and levels. Some stories use tools to explore values and the value of a writer.

The following are based on the October 28, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include a tool in a story.


South-Pawed Defiance by Paula Moyer

Frances was nearly 90 years old. Her ouvre: intricately crocheted doilies, afghans, baby jackets and caps. Her left hand and her crochet hooks had done them all.

Swat! Frances grimaced at the memory. Her teacher “catching” her. There she was, writing with the “wrong” hand. Again. “Hold out your left hand, Frances,” the teacher said, smacked it with a ruler.

Crochet, though – she did that at home. A hook and a left hand. They couldn’t see her, couldn’t hurt her.

Her great-granddaughter Jean, also left-handed, called Frances a “crochet artist.” Jean knew – the hook was a tool of resistance.


Future Writer by Jules Paige

“Know full well the full truth that there is value in that light
of the ink that flows from the dark pen.” – JP/dh (2015)

If there were no such thing as a keyboard, fountain or ink
pens, leaded or colored pencils; sticks in dirt, images on
cave walls would still tell stories. Fingers on the ends of
hands would have to do. To etch in the sand even if only
temporary the emotional trials of mankind.

She sat alone, again. At the edge of the lake. They thought
she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.


NaNoWriMo by Ruchira Khanna

Tara was whisking through the aisle of her home while vigorously rubbing the temples of her head, ‘Sheesh! I need to get Victor moving!’ she mumbled.

‘Creativity…where thy gone?’ she shouted in frustration while plopping on the chair and staring at her computer screen.

‘Nanowrimo you are putting me on the edge!’ she moaned in agitation.

Finally! She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

Gradually she could feel herself relax and in a few minutes vigorous tapping of the keyboard could be heard from a distance. Her mind thy tool could get the antidote for Victor.


Tools of the Trade by Ann Edall-Robson

It will help with the pain in your fingers. Use the computer. The keyboard will help stretch your hands while writing.

Nothing but a lot of hooey she thought. The screen just stares back at me with no feeling and my hands sit idle on the keys waiting for inspiration.

I like my notebook and pencil. They have texture. They give my words a keepsake home. The stories come alive with my penmanship. Bold and exquisite as the tale unfolds across the soft inviting sheets bound together as one.

Get rid of my pencil and notebook. I think not!


Relic by Norah Colvin

The family shuffled amongst the haphazard collection of primitive artefacts without attempting to disguise disinterest or disdain. The waiting seemed interminable in this “so-last-century” outpost.

“Haven’s seen one of these before,” they’d been told. “I’ll need to order a specialized tool as well as the part. Shouldn’t take long though. Look around while you wait.”

Confidence in the simpleton’s tools “upstairs”, even if the correct parts arrived, was as low as their interest.

“Hey look!” one called. “Is this …?”

“Can’t be.”

“All destroyed centuries ago.”

“Would be worth a fortune though.’’

They opened it.

“A book!” they gasped.


Choice of Tools by Pat Cummings

From the open garage came a resounding clang, followed by a sharp whistle. Roger called from the threshold, “You okay?”

A shock of sandy hair came into view behind a metal tower, then two wide-set blue eyes. “Hey, can you grab that hock spanner for me? I’d get it myself, but I’m kinda tied up here.”

Roger shook himself. “Sure!” He dropped his bike and scanned the array of tools laid out on the workbench. “So which one is the hog spanner?”

A peal of laughter answered. “HOCK spanner, dummy. It’s on the end next to the ball-peen hammer.”


Samaritan by Pete Fanning

Shep dug in, emptying a corner of casserole onto his plate. “Who fixed the front steps, Ma?”

“Oh, so I stumbled on it again today, and this….handyman offered to help. Had his tool belt and all.”

Shep wiped his mouth. “I told you I’d get to it. How much he charge?”

“I offered but he refused.”

Shame hit Shep like heartburn. Rubbing his chest, he released a burp, eyeing the last supper painting on the wall. “So this guy have a name?”

“You know, he never said.” Then, following her son’s gaze, “but he was much darker than that.”


The Necessary Tools by Sarah Brentyn

“Where’s my level?!”

She crouched in front of her son, “You checked your backpack?”

He trembled. “No! It’s not the 43-511 model! I brought the 1794485 pocket model today!” His hands clenched the fabric of his jeans. “That goes. In. My. Pocket!”

“Breathe,” she searched her purse. “One, two…”

“Do not say three!” He threw his bag to the floor. “We need to go home! I won’t make it…”

She pried his fist open, placing a level in his palm.

“It’s not my 1794485,” he tilted it then looked up. “4 inch? 246-D?”


He bit his lip. “Okay.”


Homework by Luccia Gray

‘Can I go out, mum?’

‘Not till you finish your Spanish homework.’

‘Can’t do it. It’s a six-word flash fiction post on the class blog, about homework. In Spanish!’

‘Six words. Sounds simple to me.’

‘How’s your Spanish?’

‘Rusty. I’ll need Google translator. Let me use your Tablet.’

‘No way. All my private conversations keep popping up.’

‘It’s supposed to be a tool for homework, not socializing!’

‘I can do both.’

‘Homework’s due. Tablet’s gone. Detention’s sure.’

‘You can’t do that!’

‘What about this one: Her only tool, a ballpoint pen’

‘You’re joking!’

‘Tablet’s repossessed. Use your head instead.’


Melbourne Cup: Tools of the Trade by Irene Waters

The cloudless blue sky boded well as the day’s favourite was a dry track runner. But who cared about the horses? This was a day for women to parade alongside the horses displaying all the tools of their trade. From a fascinator on the head, matching lipstick and that head-turning dress. The exquisite shoes were unsuitable for walking around a race track, but most of Australia’s women attended functions, participating in sweeps, fashion parades, fascinator contests then when the nation stopped they too would watch the race on television, too sozzled by now to care who was watching them.


Selfie Stick by Larry LaForge

“A what?” Edna looked incredulous.

“It’s a selfie stick,” Ed explained.

“A what?” Edna repeated.

“It’s just a tool to help us take pictures of ourselves.” Ed was ready to click Place Order on his laptop screen.

“Let me get this straight,” Edna continued. “You want to buy a long stick to carry around so we can take pictures of ourselves?”

“It folds up, Edna.”

“So, we unfold a large stick and take a picture of ourselves in front of everyone?”

“Everybody’s doing it, Edna.”

Edna paused. “Well, Ed, I think the world needs fewer selfie sticks, not more.”


Fishing for the Truth by Geoff Le Pard

Mary sat, holding Katherine’s hand. The woman stroked Mary’s fingers. Jerry and Rupert hung back.

Katherine’s 80 year old mother entered the room with a tea tray. Katherine stopped her stroking and clapped her hands. Mrs Potts explained, ‘She loves giving the cups to visitors. The tea is quite cool because she’ll probably spill a little. It’s a good distraction.’

‘You needn’t.’ Mary hated this.

Mrs Potts smiled. ‘We’ve thought about finding out about her background but assumed, you know, given the way she is. Now, where’s the swab. Katherine, open your mouth. I just want a little wipe.’


Future Prince by Charli Mills

Hickok scooped hay with the pitchfork, favoring his stiff shoulder. Sarah watched from the loft, wondering if he knew she and Cobb were above with Miss Boots and her litter. Cobb set aside a closed-eyed kitten and jumped from the rafters into the hay-pile.

Hickok wobbled, dropping the pitchfork.

“Hey, Duck Bill. Never gonna get those horses fed at that rate.” Cobb pretended to tackle Hickok, and then retrieved the pitchfork to finish the chore with speed and strength.

“One day, my arm’s going to heal.”

“Sure it will, Duck Bill. Then you’ll be prince of the pony dung.”


Author’s Note: Another name for Hickok in later years, and the title of Wilstach’s book was, Prince of Pistoleers.


Unraveled by C. Jai Ferry

Earl rolled his rusted-out Ford to a stop in the overgrown lot. He was not a successful man. He was not a doting father, a hardworking employee, or an affable neighbor. He poured vodka in his beer cans and spent his janitor’s paycheck on Pall Malls, hot dogs, and macaroni and cheese—the orange glue being the only food his youngest would eat. She’d been buying more when it happened.

Don’t think about what he did to her.

Earl slid the pliers from the glovebox, gripping them until his knuckles turned white. All because of that damned orange glue.


To Trap A Werewolf by Sherri Matthews
Full moon rising, but Ethel had a plan.
“Rabbit pie tonight Luv?” Fred yawned, scratching at his chest
“No, it ain’t…come with me …”
Fred gawped at the large cage in the garage.
“What that’s for then?”
“That beast thingy, wot everyone’s muttering on about, I built it, to catch ‘im, get the reward like.”
Moonlight beamed.
“Gawd, I left the toolbox inside, get it for me will yer?”
Fred poked his fangs, ripped his clothes off and bolted.
“Oi, get back ‘ere or I’ll ‘ave yer guts fer garters!” screeched Ethel, with only a distant howl in reply.

October 28: Flash Fiction Challenge

October 28I keep a hammer in my kitchen drawer, among more common utensils like spatulas, tongs and a lemon zester. It might look misplaced, as if I hung a platter on the wall and stuck the hammer in the nearest drawer. Yet, it’s not. It serves a purpose in my kitchen — pounding peppercorns or nuts. Before I lost my apples, I made my favorite apple crisp recipe that calls for candied-ginger and macadamia nuts, well-pounded.

Tools are vital to any trade. Think of a writer and you’d likely think of pen and papers as trade tools. True, I love notebooks and writing pens of a certain ball size and blue ink, although my laptop is the workhorse. On my desk is an array tool-books — The Elements of Style, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, The Associated Press Stylebook, Writer’s Market, Mission-Based Marketing, A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business, The Publicity Handbook, Strengths Finder, The Craft of Revision, Revision & Self-Editing, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster Better, and a tower of historical books.

I’m as proud of my tool-books as the Hub is of his tool-chest full of aviation wrenches and other chrome. Tools are an investment in one’s craft.

This time of year, writers have before them one of the biggest and most gracious tools ever offered in the form of an event — National Novel Writing Month, known as NaNoWriMo. It’s a nonprofit that believes your story matters:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. 

On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.

Many are preparing for this event, and others are eagerly waiting for the start. Grumblings ripple through the writing community with some curmudgeons thinking that “real” writers don’t NaNo. It’s a tool. It’s a choice. It’s like me using a hammer to crack nuts. You might use something different, but that separation of choice doesn’t make one tool superior to the other.

What makes NaNoWriMo an effective writing tool is in how you use it and why. Know your strategy before you decide or are persuaded by the opinions of fans or foes.

I’ll tell you straight up; I’m a fan. I love NaNoWriMo as a drafting tool. Here’s why it works for me:

  1. It’s the right fit for writing a first draft (strategy: finish that novel).
  2. It’s a process that focuses on creation (strategy: turn off the internal editor; turn on the story possibilities).
  3. It has an accountable deadline (strategy: stop procrastination).
  4. It doesn’t matter what the quality of the draft is (strategy: write that “shitty” first draft).
  5. It generates 50,000 +/- words (strategy: generate material to develop and revise).

As a drafting tool, NaNoWriMo can help you develop that story idea, build strong daily writing management skills and get new material in the pipeline. November has worked out for me and even had me thinking that I could do this every year to generate new material. Except…

My priority at this time is to revise my draft of Rock Creek by December 15. If I generate new material, I won’t meet my deadline. I could use the NaNoWriMo framework, but I’d be defeating the organization’s purpose to craft a new story. And revision is a different process than drafting.

What I’ve decided to do is rooted in a trio of inspiration. Last year, Anne Goodwin set course on a non-NaNo project and came up with a fast-draft. She set her own word count goal, which is exactly what one should do when considering any writing tool. Recently, Geoff Le Pard posted his thoughts on how best to use NaNoWriMo this year and dithered over several project ideas which led him to a brilliant NaNothology project. Writers who have participated in NaNoWriMo with encouragement to others on the blogosphere, along with faithful readers and cheerleaders who have waved me on in the past, I can’t help but feel buoyed by your enthusiasm. Check out Ula Humienik’s Ultimate NaNoWriMo Toolkit.

Recognizing that I can adjust the tool, come up with a creative concept to fit my situation and tap into the shared energy of writers and readers, I’m debuting my new tool: NaNoReViSo. Like NaNoWriMo, I’ll begin November 1, but continue up until December 15 when I send off my revised manuscript to beta readers, including my editor (who will assess the manuscript), a few specialized historians and readers of the genre. I’ll also take off a week, November 22-28. And, revision is a different beast from drafting, thus is more than word count, although some days will be dedicated to rewrites. Here’s how I’m seeing NaNoReViSo as my revision tool:

  • 35 days
  • 3 hours a day dedicated to revision
  • 2 hours a day dedicated to reading or reviewing research
  • Compare the story to the historical timeline
  • Complete the hero’s journey arc
  • Figure out what to cut, what to add
  • Post progress on Mondays

My goal is to revise this draft well enough to secure the interested publisher. That draft will follow beta reader feedback. Although I’ve fictionalized the story, I’m presenting a never-before considered theory. It’s plausible, but has a few holes. For now, imagination will have to be the putty. Who can truly prove a 150-year old murder?

With hammer in one hand and a rope in the other, I’ll also be wrangling that anthology project. I’m welcoming a few more writers to the Congress and putting together a project plan based on Rough Writer feedback. I will make an announcement through email once I’ve completed a private group list and heard back from all new invitees. Our project and new inductees will be announced here once all is set.

One tool a historian uses is a body of documents that pertain to an event or a person. Many historians also use first-hand accounts. The former is often incomplete and the latter incorrect. Such is the case with every history book written on the subject of the Rock Creek affair. Some call it a massacre, others a gunfight. Even preeminent historian, Joseph Rosa, relies on accounts that might not be more than opinion or myth. Yet he has been the most thorough researcher of documentation that pertains to Wild Bill Hickok’s role in the shooting at Rock Creek. He points out that the failings of earlier historians has to do with their attempt to appeal to their audiences and acknowledges that many of their accounts are more fiction than fact. I’d like my book to be fiction that is rooted in fact.

Thus at times I feel I need a weed-trimmer to wade through the historical accounts to discern the facts. Documents are dry and sometimes puzzling, but they present interesting considerations. For example, Nebraska State Historical Society has the original document calling for the arrest of those who killed Cobb. It reads:

Territory of Nebraska
County of Gage

The Complainant and informant, Leroy McCanles of the County of Johnson, Territory afforesaid Made before T. M. Coulter Esquire one of the Justices of the Peace in and for Gage County, on the 13th day of July 1861, who being duly sworn on his own oath says that the crime of Murder has been Committed in the County of Jones and that Dutch Bill, Dock and Wellman (thier other names not known) committed the same

Subscribed and
Sworn to before me (signature of) _ L. McCanles
This 13th day of July 1861
T. M. Coulter
Justice of the Peace

In my own family oral tradition, my Grandfather Sonny told me that Wild Bill Hickok shot our kin. He said his grandmother told him that Cobb teased Hickok for the shape of his nose and lip, calling him “Duck Bill.” I read this document and realize several points: Leroy (Cobb’s brother) filed the complaint in Beatrice (Gage County) on July 13 which validates the shooting timeline; a charge of Murder was sought; and Leroy only knew the men’s nicknames. It’s possible that Leory said “Duck Bill” and the Justice of the Peace thought he said “Dutch Bill” because it was common to distinguish men by their heritage (more so than a joke). It’s possible that our family story is true.

It’s the possibilities that gets my imagination revved. I write and turn to different tools as I go.

October 28, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include a tool in a story. How can it enhance the character, tension or meaning? It can also be a story about a tool or a character’s obsession for tools. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by November 3, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!


Future Prince by Charli Mills

Hickok scooped hay with the pitchfork, favoring his stiff shoulder. Sarah watched from the loft, wondering if he knew she and Cobb were above with Miss Boots and her litter. Cobb set aside a closed-eyed kitten and jumped from the rafters into the hay-pile.

Hickok wobbled, dropping the pitchfork.

“Hey, Duck Bill. Never gonna get those horses fed at that rate.” Cobb pretended to tackle Hickok, and then retrieved the pitchfork to finish the chore with speed and strength.

“One day, my arm’s going to heal.”

“Sure it will, Duck Bill. Then you’ll be prince of the pony dung.”


Author’s Note: Another name for Hickok in later years, and the title of Wilstach’s book was, Prince of Pistoleers.


October 7: Flash Fiction Challenge

October 7The way he bounds across the fading green grass of my lawn says he’s still a puppy. Yet, he’s well over 100 pounds with long white fur wet with morning frost. His tri-colored face looks like that of a St. Bernard. I just caught him and a chunky Dobernam Pincher lifting legs over my snap dragons.

I’ve never seen these dogs before, but here they are.

Dobie has a collar and I call. A sleepy voice acknowledges the one dog, but not the other. Thirty minutes later and the owner collects her dog. She lives across the highway and train tracks from us, on the hill. I cringe at the thought that these two crossed those deadly paths. Hunk stays behind and sprawls at my feet on the porch as I dial dispatch for the county sheriff.

Someone had reported a missing St. Bernard. Male. The dispatcher asks if my new dog is that gender. If she could see the long hair she might better understand my dilemma in answering! Maybe, I say. Then I remember he lifted his leg on my flowers. Yes! The missing dog was reported to be male, too so she gives me a phone number to call, but no one answers. For Hunk’s safety we house him in the garage with Bootsy. Somehow, the Hub knew he wouldn’t harm the cat. He doesn’t but eats all her morning kibble, then pokes his nose out the cat door.

About the time we — as in the Hub, his brother Gee, sister-in-law the Italian Cowgirl and me — wonder what to do, a truck pulls into our driveway. A small woman climbs out and in a worried tone, asks if we’ve seen a St. Bernard. Hunk’s real name is Doug and he’s only eight months old. He grins like a kid when we let him out and he sees his mama. She was worried he’d been stolen like her last dog. It broke her heart.

Thievery is on the rise in Elmira.

We tell Hunk’s mama that while we were gone a week to Nevada someone stole every last apple from our tree. I was devastated when we came home. No more apple pannekoeken for breakfast; no apple crisp or apple pie; no apples to sauce, dry or cider. We had shared with the bucks who munched nightly on the dropped apples. We gathered up fallen apples before we left and never considered that anyone would steal the entire crop in the tree.

Hunk’s mama tells us that the blueberry farmer on the hill above Elmira lost half her harvest in a night to thieves. Another neighbor has lost all her eggs. Someone is stealing food.

Never would I turn down a hungry person. In fact, I feed people; it’s in my nature. With family who followed us 16 hours from Nevada, the first thing I did when I got home was ready the kitchen. I’d happily share my garden harvests. Most of my neighbors are the giving sort. And most of us work hard to plant, hoe and harvest food. To have that stolen is a deep insult. It’s time and effort none of us can easily get back. It was to save us money and provide a treat for us and visitors in winter. Food is to be shared, neither hoarded nor filched.

The thought of having a dog stolen is just as unsettling. It’s like a family abduction. Most of us wear that worried face we saw on Hunk’s mama when she pulled in to ask about her dog. Missing is hard to take; stolen is unconscionable. When I posted Hunk on Facebook with my phone number, many people said keep him; he’s beautiful. Yes, he is. But he’s no object. Had he been abandoned or abused we would have done something to protect him. Never would I steal another family’s beloved four-paw.

This, of course, takes me to pondering Rock Creek. Thievery is an underlying theme. Cobb McCanles historically was accused of stealing tax-payers’ money in North Carolina and robbing pioneers on the immigrant trail past his ranch. Cobb was sheriff in North Carolina and once he arrived in Nebraska Territory he formally applied to be adjudicator of local crimes. The territorial governor denied his request because the population was too sparse in his county, but like Elmira, his ranch had a major thoroughfare. You never know  who wanders these roads anonymously. In the end, Cobb’s that is, he was the victim of theft. The Pony Express bought his Rock Creek Station without ever paying him. Yet, Sarah Shull returned home to North Carolina as an old woman where family and neighbors believed her to be in possession of “gold and silver” that Cobb had stole earlier.

My research shows that these myths are unfounded, though historians continue to repeat them. During the Civil War, the Watauga County courthouse and all its records burned to the ground. Those who claim that Cobb stole tax-payers’ money also claim that the evidence went up in smoke. Yet, I discovered an interesting way to explore the legal proceedings without court documents. Because Cobb McCanles left the area, any lawsuits or pending crimes had to be published in the legal notices of a newspaper. The only legal notices that mention Cobb relate to the sale of his own property in an elusive manner that avoided a creditor. The creditor is actually the one who scammed locals out of their property by selling big lots with homes used as credit. As sheriff, Cobb had to collect money due or serve notice of default. He could have stolen money had the locals any to take. Instead, he sold his property in succession to several buyers to avoid his creditor’s claim. It’s complicated, and it worked. He defaulted but was not a thief.

Perhaps it is a fine line between needs and wants; earning and taking; survival and thievery.

October 7, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a thief or a theft. Consider motives and repercussions. Is the act a matter of perception? Is it a daring maneuver or a desperate bid for survival? Think about different instances of stealing.

Respond by October 13, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!


Prairie Justice by Charli Mills

Joe’s body crumpled to the ground. Sarah held back Nancy Jane who trembled while they watched Cobb punish Nancy Jane’s father.

“Thieves get the third degree, Joe Holmes. You were caught with stolen goods.” Cobb hauled the old man to the thorny locust tree.

“No!” Nancy Jane screamed and Sarah lost her grip on the woman. She flung herself between her father and Cobb. Sarah flinched.

“This is interesting.” Hickok walked up to Sarah from the barn, arms folded, revolvers resting on both hips.

“Do something,” Sarah pleaded.

“A thief deserves a noose,” he drawled. “Joe’s getting off easy.”



Coffee for WriMos: Day 28

Imagination fills the gaps.

Sometimes I struggle because I want to be right. When writing history, it’s easy to slip up and include an object not yet invented or miss a social cue that today would be non-existent but back then ever so important.

The temptation is to research while writing. Yet that interrupts the flow of the underlying story. In the beginning I wrote a single flash fiction  based on a historical event. It lead me to wonder…why? Then…what if?

Writing flash fiction and reading more about the event was complementary. It allowed me to find the story among the facts.

Once I felt the story had a hold of my imagination, I was ready to draft long prose. Yet, that temptation to be right, to be accurate, frequently grabs me. And when I go to look up a fact or better understand a place, I find that the story dwindles.

My discipline has been to use my imagination to write what I don’t know. My strategy is to go back and create a research list for revision. The importance is the story and getting it down. Once a writer has material, then revision is possible and research is refined.

This is why I like NaNoWriMo as a tool for drafting. My imagination gets a full 30 days of play. There is no right or wrong way to do it. It’s just pure writing. And that leads to discovery beyond any research.

Thought for the Day:

“The work is the work itself. If she writes a lot, that’s good. If she revises a lot, that’s even better. She should not only write about what she knows but about what she doesn’t know. It extends the imagination.” ~Toni Morrison

Word Count: 2,900

Excerpt From Rock Creek:

The voices in the hallway drew closer and two men emerged. One was as tall as Hickok but broad as a bull ox. His dark brown hair was thick and she recognized those intense brown eyes. It was Cob McCanles. He wore a linen scarf of black and white around his neck and his billowing white shirt was as bright as fresh snow. His dark brown leather vest was snug as were his close-fitting trousers that were the color of buckskin, but made of that material Sarah called linsey-woolsey. The other man was shorter and rounder like a barrel in a gray suit. His pudgy cheeks were hidden behind a mass of graying facial whiskers and the top of his head was bald and gleaning.

“Mr. Waddel, Mr. McCandles,” Horace greeted.

“Hello, Cob,” said Nancy Jane.

If Cob was surprised to see her, he didn’t reveal it. He merely nodded at her.

“Cob,” said the man Horace had called Mr. Waddel.

“Kin name for David Colbert,” said Cob.

“Ah. So, this miss is your kin?”

“No she is not. A neighbor.”

“I see.”

“I’m a friend of Horace.” Nancy Jane felt that the office was too small for her and these three men.

The round man turned to Horace who was starting to blush once again. “Oh, she’s your friend, Mr. Wellman.”

Horace sputtered. Nothing he said was coherent.

Nancy Jane wasn’t sure what to do, now. “I’m going to go over to the boarding house where Joe Baker is staying with his wife. I’m bunking with him.”

“You know Joe Baker, too? Another employee.”

“And Jim Hickok and Dock Brinks. Most of your freighters. The ones that head into Colorado, that is.”

“Just how do you know all these men? I’m not sure Mr. Majors would approve.” Mr. Waddel looked like that pastor that once told her Pa they were headed to hell.

“Nancy Jane Holmes was a cook at Rock Creek station before Mr. McCandles bought it. Her father has long settled in the Territory and he’s done carpentry jobs for us. Joseph Holmes.” At last Horace found his tongue.

“Holmes, yes, seems I recall hearing that name.”

Cob looked at Nancy Jane. “Carpentry? He didn’t build those hovels I tore down and rebuilt did he?”

Nancy Jane wouldn’t have called them hovels, but she did know that Cob’s work was stouter and more square. “No, fixing spokes mostly.”

“A wheelwright then.”

Nancy Jane shrugged. “He once had a carpentry shop in St. Jo. Used to make fine lady’s boxes.”

“In St. Jo, Missouri! Yes, Joseph Holmes. I remember now. My goodness, I think I bought one of those boxes you speak of. Heavens, I thought his family all died when the typhoid fever swept the place.” Mr. Waddel’s face softened.

“Me and my brother survived. Pa moved us west. Thought it would be healthier.”

“What’s your brother up to these days? I’m always looking for men who know the territory. Does he hunt, scout?”

“I do, Sir.” Maybe she could get a job, just like she kept telling Sarah. These men be damned.

They all laughed like she told a great joke. Even Horace, although halfheartedly. “I hunt near every day and know the lay of the land. I can outrace most your outriders including Dock Brink who they say is your best. I can load and shoot a Hawkins rifle with great accuracy and I ain’t’ afraid of the wide open spaces like most easterners.”

Cob stopped laughing. “Lass, you’d be called a mountain girl back home and expected to be self-sufficient. You aren’t any different from the women I know. And none of them work a man’s job.”

Nancy Jane stuck out her chin. “What of Sarah? She keeps books. That’s a man’s job.”

Cob folded his arms. “Yes, she does keep books. Once for her Da and now for me. Sarah’s kin. No man outside of kin would hire her to keep books.”

“Mr. Waddel, would you hire Sarah Shull to keep books?”

Mr. Waddel raised an eyebrow and shook his head. “I would not hire away the book keeper of a man whom I have business dealings.”

Nancy Jane wondered what business dealings he could have with the company. “What if she wanted a job?”

“The company does not hire women.”

Nancy Jane balled her fists at her  sides. “Fools!”

“Nancy Jane, that is enough.” Horace looked appalled, Mr. Waddel shocked and Cob laughed with mirth.

Cob said, “What do you do, Nancy Jane? I could hire you.”

Mr. Waddel shook his head. “Are you upon hard times Miss Holmes?”

“No Sir. I’m self-sufficient as a mountain girl.”

Cob grinned.

Horace said, “Mr. Waddel. Nancy Jane lost her husband to the border troubles, her brother too. And this past summer her young child died of sickness. Her father is immobilized with his grieving.”

Nancy Jane couldn’t believe Horace would spill out her troubles that were no one’s concerns but hers. She set him straight. “He weren’t my husband.”

Cob said, “And an honest lass.”

Mr. Waddel looked stern. “So you do sleep with men. Is that why my freighters stop by your place?”

“No Sir. They know I hunt and stop by my place for venison and to ask what I might have seen out in the open country. Might say I inform your scouts. Only Horace…”

“Nancy Jane!” Horace flushed his reddest.

Good. Let him suffer.

Mr. Waddel turned to Horace. “Is she you’re common-law wife?”

Horace hesitated. Nancy Jane didn’t know what he meant. “What’s that?”

“It’s a man who has taken a woman out on the frontier. He’s then responsible for protecting her. Watching out for her. Otherwise the woman would just be a common strumpet.”

“Yes, Mr. Waddel. Nancy Jane Holmes is my common-law wife.” He then looked down at his desk.

“Good, then. You’ll see to it that you take care of Mrs. Wellman. David, or perhaps, Cob, it’s a pleasure doing business with you. I look forward to the improvements you’ll be making to the station to prepare it as a stage stop.”

The two men left with Nancy Jane staring at Horace. “Mrs. Wellman? So your wife is here in town?”

“You. He was referring to you as Mrs. Wellman. My common-law wife. And no. My wife is back in Ohio with family. She hates the frontier, and I’m not all that fond of the pressures of Ohio. I feel freer out west.”

Later, when Nancy Jane went to visit Joe Baker to explain her turn of events, she found Joe looking woeful. His wife it seems was not happy to have a house on the prairie unless it was a fine house. She spoke endlessly of Denver and what the ladies were wearing. She yelled at her daughters to be quiet and soon took each girl by the arm and drug them off to bed.

“Maybe Cob could help you build a fine home.”


The two stepped out so Joe could smoke his pipe. Nancy Jane took a few puffs. Hickok saw them when he stepped out of the saloon for fresh air. “Why so long in the face friends?”

Nancy Jane explained that Joe’s wife wasn’t happy to be homesteading after all, and that she was somehow Horace’s common law wife.

Hickok chuckled. “You? A squaw wife?”

“I’m no Pawnee!”

“True. You could probably out ride one. Well, let’s toast to our futures.” Hickok pulled out a whiskey flask and they each took a pull.


Coffee for WriMos: Day Ten

Experience what your characters are experiencing.

Unless you are killing off characters. Don’t do that. But like a method actor, crawl inside the experience you are writing. You can do this physically–today we drove up the Pack River one last time because the mountains are filling up with snow and soon we’ll need a snowmobile for the Pack. It was cold and I knew I was working on this chill that Sarah gets so I let myself get cold and thought about Sarah. I came home and wrote 2,500 chilly words.

You can also do this vicariously. Never have we had so many incredible resources so readily available to us as writers. I found photos of the Robbins Hotel from the time period when Sarah had returned to North Carolina. It wasn’t the hotel that struck me with ideas, but the fact that the hills had been strip-logged. Vicariously, I stepped into that photo and let Sarah’s character inform me what it was like to see her childhood home so greatly altered.

Music sets a tone for an era. I’ve been listening to Appalachian music, fiddles and ballads. Last night I found a 1930s radio show that told the story of the 1850s pioneers and had music in the background of the story. Isn’t it amazing what we get to experience as we have this glorious time to free write?

Thought for Day Ten:

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” ~Ray Bradbury

Word Count: 2,549

Excerpt From Rock Creek:

“Watch your step, Sarah. It’s crumbly, this rocky trail.”

“Oh, yes.” Sarah looked down at her battered leather boots. These weren’t her boots. That’s right; they belonged to a great grand-nephew or another. Her family begrudgingly provided for her as basically as they could.

Once down the hill, Sarah warmed up in Mrs. Williams’ kitchen. She liked Mrs. Williams, Jesse’s mother. Sarah tried tucking her boy-boots beneath her chair, desperately wishing that her dress were longer. Mrs. Williams looked neat and tidy, her dress ironed, her collar crisp. Sarah always kept herself neat and tidy, but she couldn’t seem to remember where she put her hair pins. ”I’m so sorry. My hair is undone.”

Mrs. Williams smiled and fetched a brush and a tin of hair pins. “Sarah, you have such beautiful thick hair. All snowy white.” She carefully brushed Sarah’s hair. “What color was it, dear?”

“Chestnut brown.” That’s what Cob called it. Like the color of a chestnut horse. But it was Mary’s black, inky locks, her pale skin carefully kept from the sun and her blue eyes that were darker than hers that Cob preferred. Sarah’s eyes were more periwinkle, and Mary’s indigo. She felt like she was washed out in Mary’s shadow. He danced with her that night. By the following February, Cob married 15-year old Mary Greene. He was just 19 and Sarah was only 13, nothing worthy of notice. By the time he was 21, Cob was elected the first sheriff of Watauga County, North Carolina. The Sheriff rode his blood bay Captain everywhere. Sarah still watched him and listened for the pounding hooves. It wasn’t until she was 22 that Sarah caught his attention.

Pinning her hair carefully, Mrs. Williams patted the bun and said, “Done. It’s so thick, even now. I’m sure it was beautiful, all chestnut brown.” She smiled down at Sarah.

Voices from the porch announced Jesse had returned with Luna. Sarah stiffened. Mrs. Williams told her to wait and left the kitchen.

“She wants to be in her cabin.” Sarah could tell by the tone that it was Luna speaking.

Mrs.Williams kept her voice low and even. “That’s not a cabin, it’s a dirty shack and not fit for habitation. Especially in this cold.

“I know your family means well, but you are butting into my family’s business. Aunt Sarah was offered a room in our home and she refused it.”

Sarah heard Jesse ask, “The pantry?”

Luna would not like that she told. She didn’t mean to. Jesse was a clever girl and asked so many questions that Sarah had difficulty keeping track of her answers. Some things she wasn’t to tell. Blood in her hair? She didn’t tell them about the blood in her hair, did she?

“It’s the largest room we have available and the cot fit in there just fine.”

“Well, we have a lovely guest room and we will even take on the expenses of caring for Sarah. When is the last time she’s seen a doctor?”

“Old woman’s healthy as a horse. And no need. She’s our kin and you’d be setting tongues to wagging if you took her in.”

“She has a birthday coming up. She and Jesse share a birthday, you know. She’s going to be 98. She should see a doctor and be kept warm and comfortable.”

“You’re after her money. Well, you can’t have it. She’ll remember where she buried it. By the cabin and that’s our property so don’t be nosing up the mountain with shovels.”

Sarah couldn’t remember the money. Luna kept asking her about it. Threatened to twist her arm even, if she didn’t tell. She had no money. If she had money she would have never returned to this place where the Shulls and the Greenes never forgot her sin.

The kitchen door flung open. It was Luna standing in the door frame, frowning. “Get up, Aunt Sarah. We have a room at the hotel for you.”

Sarah got up and followed Luna out the door. Why was Jesse crying and hugging her mother? She didn’t hear Luna say anything mean. But Luna did have a saber for a tongue. Sarah thanked Mrs. Williams. Did she eat dinner? She couldn’t remember. She followed Luna back to the Robbins Hotel. Instead of going inside, Luna led her to the shed. It was dark but Sarah could see a bed in the back. A chair and a table, too. And there were a few more of those military blankets. How did the soldiers keep warm with those?

“You stay inside. Use the employee bathroom. You do remember where it is?”

Sarah nodded, and sat down on the bed.

“You can eat when we bring you food from the kitchen. Do not go looking for food. Do you understand?”


“You are not to speak to guests, nor wander the property. Remember, you are a blemish on our good family name. Do not embarrass us further.”

Sarah looked down at her hands on her lap. Those hands looked so old. Cob never lived long enough to have old hands. Neither did Hickok. They both had fast hands and died young. Sarah always did have slow hands.

“When you are ready to tell us where you buried the silver, you can have a a room in the hotel.” Luna smiled an ugly smile. “Because then you would have the money to pay for it.”

“What silver?”

“You stupid old fool! The silver Cob stole from the good people here.” Luna turned and slammed the shed door.

So long ago, Cob sold Captain so they could leave. Sarah carefully pulled out her hair pins and set them on the floor by her bed. She laid down and began to shiver again.


Coffee for WriMos: Day Six

Your draft is an ugly baby.

Face it–writing is messy and that first attempt to communicate the dazzling story in your head is not the same as what ends up on the page. Just like not all babies are born looking like a Disney Princess, your first draft is not going to read like Louis L’Amour or Stephen King. Forget being named the next Shakespeare at the end of November.

Ugly babies and first drafts grow up, and like the duckling that became a swan, your first-draft will become a second, third, fourth, fifth or whatever it takes to reach beauty. Think of edits as growing pains. It’s worth the effort in the end. But first you have to have a baby. You need that first draft.

So the point is, don’t fret over your ugly baby. Don’t drag people to the crib and ask them to tell you how gorgeous it is. Expect a dismayed look or two. After all, it doesn’t make you love your baby less. It’s your baby. Give it tender loving care to grow and mature. Today, write and ignore any negative feedback. Don’t ever let that stop you. This is just a phase.

Thought for Day Six:

“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
~Lawrence Block, June 1981

Except don’t tear it up just because it’s an ugly baby. Give it time to grow. Go and write some more. This month is about the writing, not winning a beauty contest.

Day Six: 1,897 words

Excerpt From Rock Creek:

Wild Bill Hickok-McCanles Affair of Rock Creek, NE 1861

“…our honest opinion is that the real facts never will be known.”

~ F.J. Elliot to George Hansen Nov. 26, 1938


“Mrs. De Vald! I know you are in there!”

Sarah ignored the rapping and the yelling. She sat down in the old rocker her brother had let her take from the Robbins Hotel. The seat needed re-thatching and despite her stiff knuckles she managed enough weaves to seat herself comfortably. A handy skill to know, not that she ever used it much, but one that James McCanles taught her long ago so that she could thatch seats for him. It was their fair exchange so that Sarah hadn’t felt like a charity case when he or one of the other McCanleses brought her food to this tiny cabin in the woods. Shunned.

“Mrs. De Vald. I am he who has corresponded so diligently with you. Just a few questions is all I ask.”

In ignoring the man from New York City, she let her mind drift. Rock Creek gurgling in summer, insects buzzing like fairies alive in the tall grass. The pounding hooves of an approaching express rider, the exchange of the mochilla, the entrance of a swift moving stage or the choking dust of lumbering wagon trains. So different from the quiet pines and endless mountains of her youth.

“Mrs. De Vald. I know you were there.”

Sarah stiffened. Certainly this man couldn’t read her mind. Her hands gripped the scarred arm rests. Walnut oil would polish them up, but she had none. She looked around the small room. A broom was needed. In her mind she remembered living here, just her and baby Martha Allice. She made up stories every night. She had no rocking chair then. She used to pace, not understanding why her baby girl fussed so much. Colicky the doctor said. This room was much cleaner back then, back when she had kindling and quilts. Now there was hardly a sapling to be found in the area with the massive lumbering that made her hometown unrecognizable. That it was a town was an amazement. When she lived here it was her father’s mill and store. Neighbors had houses within walking distance, but the forest made it seem more private. Now she could see all the way down the stump-littered hill to the town they called Shulls Mill. Her father’s mill washed away in a flood in 1861 and was never rebuilt. It was 1925 and the families of her brothers now ran the Robbins Hotel in the shadow of the cotton mill and the bald slopes. It looked like a wasteland. It was never a place she wanted to return. She closed her eyes and could feel the warm Nebraska sun on her cheeks. This room was so cold.

No shouts, just continuous rapping as if a woodpecker was attacking the door. It was thin, not like the thick doors Cob once hewn for the ranches he built out west.

“Please, Mrs. De Vald. I have a deadline with my publisher…please?”

Sarah opened the door a crack. The man looked startled, but quickly recovered his dignity. His sloping forehead was topped with a mound of gray-streaked brown hair and was cropped closely behind each ear. Sarah supposed it was a city-man’s style. It did look dignified but she couldn’t imagine Cob wearing his hair like that. Or maybe. It was the kind of thing he’d do, trying to look important. “Be about your business quickly.”

“You are Sarah Shull De Vald?”

“Yes. I am her.”

“How old are you, Mrs. De Vald?”



Coffee for WriMos: Day One

Welcome to the table at Carrot Ranch. The coffee is hot and you can pull up a chair. It’s November in the year 2014 and this is the month known fondly as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

You write, I write, we all write. That’s the idea.

Each day I’ll post my thoughts or encouragements and welcome yours in return. I’ll post snippets from my daily writing. My project is historical fiction based on a real incident that occurred at Rock Creek Pony Express Station in 1861. History has tried to glorify or vilify the men involved. But I’m telling you, they missed the story by overlooking the women. It’s a new perspective on an old west enigma.

Thought for Day One:

“We start with a blank: a world of possibility.” ~ From Maps of the Imagination by Peter Tutchi

Dare to fill in the blank. Start. Sure, novels have beginnings, but no one says the writer has to start there. Sometimes we have to jump in at a different point to better understand the beginning, to understand the the possibilities. Don’t let the blank page scare you away. You are the one commissioned to fill it. Go write!

Excerpt from Rock Creek WIP. NaNoWriMo Day One: 1,738 words (here’s a few):

Cover 3 Photo by CMThe black cat with the white chest and boots had not pestered her doorstep for at least two weeks. She wasn’t sure where the cat came from, but with all the passing wagons maybe someone left it behind. She had once seen a long-haired orange and white tabby at the Ney Ranch and heard Cob joke that the Neys were now breeding a herd of ginger long-hairs. Maybe her Mr. Boots got lonely and went to live with the Ney herd.

Mr. Boots. Maybe he’d transform into a dashing dance partner. He looked formal, cloaked in black with a snowy white shirt. But his boots were white. She imagined the other dancers snickering at his white leather boots until she walked into the ballroom dressed in her black silk with dazzling stars. She’d dare to don white slippers. Mr. Boots would bow and ask for her hand in this dance. He’d lead her across the marble dance floor and she’d blush as the musicians began a slow waltz. The violin-player winks at her as they waltzed past. It’s Cob and her vision faded. She wouldn’t want to see what he’d do to the dancer in white boots.

Above the gurgling and the soft murmur of distant voices, Sarah heard a meow. She smiled and looked into the darkness, easily spotting the moonlight on the white patches of the cat. “Mr. Boots! There you are.”

The cat sat in the pale road and meowed again. Sarah knelt on the bridge and softly called, “Here, Boots. Come Mr. Boots.” The cat stood, stretched each front leg forward with white paws flexed, then turned and trotted across the empty campground away from Sarah.

“Mr. Boots…come back…” The cat stopped and turned around. Sarah stepped across the bridge and onto the hard-packed road. At least it was neither dusty nor muddy, a rare instance. The cat trotted up the road toward the hill where the east ranch sat with its new barn and bunkhouse.

When Sarah topped the hill she could see several men stooped on log stools circling a low fire in the yard. They had backs to her and she hesitated. Maybe they wouldn’t see her. Mr. Boots looked at her one more time before dashing into the big open barn. Sarah reasoned that she could easily slip through the stick fence and try to swoop up the cat. Cob had warned her against letting it inside her cabin but if he wasn’t going to come around then how would he know. It was a fine evening and she didn’t want to be alone again.

A few horses nickered softly as Sarah bent through the fence, lifting one leg at a time, careful not to snag her skirt. Two curious horses stepped toward her and she darted past them to the barn door. Thinking the company men were all enjoying a rest around the campfire she was surprised to walk into the barn and nearly trip over a man’s leg hidden by shadows. She sucked in air and panicked. Mr. Boots meowed and hopped over a discarded harness before disappearing into a back stall.

“Are we under an Indian attack?” The man slowly stood up aided by a walking stick, his leg held stiff and one arm hung motionless at his side. Yet he was as tall as Cob, thinner though.

“No. No Indians. I was following Mr. Boots.” Sarah stood in the doorway, folding her hands across her skirts.

“Well thank the great Lord. I thought you was an Indian come to attack me.”

“Me? Oh, no. I live here. I mean, I live across the creek.” Sarah silently cursed her fumbling tongue. When she imagined speaking to people, her words flowed like smooth cream, as effortlessly as Cob spoke to others. But when she opened her mouth words splattered.

“Mr. Boots?” The man leaned into his stick as though it pained him to stand.

The man had the slightest flicker of a smile that Sarah wasn’t sure if he was jesting with her or not. Most people were serious so she decided to be as proper as possible although he just caught her sneaking into the company barn by stealth of night. “Mr. Boots is a cat, Sir.”

The man chuckled and his smile spread to his eyes. Even in the moonlight Sarah wasn’t certain if they were blue or gray and his hair was long, tucked behind his ears with curls that girls tried to get with hot irons. Was his hair red or was it a trick of moonlight? “Miss Boots, you mean.”

“Miss?” Sarah didn’t say that Mr. Boots was a dashing dance partner destined for ballrooms. Miss Boots?

“If you’ll go to that middle stall, the one past the harnesses needing repair, you’ll find understanding.”


How did your first day go?

October 22: Flash Fiction Challenge

Hi. My name is Charli. And I like to hang out in cemeteries.

It sounds like the opening to some Anonymous Group I should belong to, but the truth is I don’t want to quit. For me, it’s about history and discovery. Reading a cemetery is like reading an historical record of a family or community.

I’ve stood in family graveyards where blood of my blood is buried, feeling a strange connection to people long dead before I was ever born. I’ve been to high-desert ghost towns in Nevada, marveling over the marble monuments to those who dared to seek fortunes in remote places. The Radio Geek, now living on the upper peninsula of Michigan, posts photos of old cemeteries to lure me in to visiting.

When I lived in Minnesota, I researched the Hub’s New England family who helped settle the Midwest. I was able to locate the unmarked graves of children lost to the Mills family during times of sickness, Civil War and the Dakota Uprising. Through years of research, I finally found the resting place for a Mills black sheep, reuniting a lost line.

As if my own family research wasn’t enough, I found other excuses to haunt cemeteries. I recorded the names of “lost wives;” the young women who died in childbirth in Dakota County before the 1900s. I looked up the history of every family buried in an old Irish-settlers cemetery near my suburban home.

At my height of cemetery-obsession, I volunteered to do grave look-ups for an organization called, Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. My kids often went with me, and they still tease me about trying to find abandoned cemeteries by locating “cemetery trees.” It’s true; I can spot an old cemetery a mile away.

Earlier this month I got to kneel at Cob’s grave. After Hickok shot him, James Gordon and James Woods, Cob was buried unceremoniously in a common pine box with Woods on the hill behind Rock Creek Station. When the railroad cut a track through the hill, their box was relocated to the Fairbury Cemetery. I wrote about my impression of finding Mary’s grave next to Cob’s over on Elmira Pond Spotter.

Sometimes, creepy and unexplained things have happen when I’ve been researching cemeteries. Since Halloween is next week, I thought I’d share with you a creepy photograph.


This is from the Fairbury Cemetery, looking west from Cob McCanles’s grave. I didn’t notice anything odd while we were there, but these green lights appeared when I was scanning my photos on my SLR Nikon D80. Creepy, but I figured it was just a sun flare or reflection since I was shooting at the sunset through the trees and markers. But it only got creepier when I enlarged the photo.

DSC_0175 - Copy

I dare you to click on the photo. Full-sized, you’ll see it’s a luminous green fog. What the heck? It reminds me of ectoplasm from Ghostbusters! Pretty creepy and not at all why I hang out in cemeteries.

So I returned to collecting historical data. The next day, we stopped at the Fairbury Cemetery on the way to Rock Creek Station, and I took photographs of the graves near the green fog. Here are a few ghostly suspects and bare-bones data that I found in Census records:

Christiana Sigsworth and Henry Beal. A ship’s log for the Hindao records that Henry, a carpenter by trade, left Southampton, England 24 Jun 1876, bound for Nebraska. Immigration records show that Henry arrived earlier in 1871 and Christiana in 1873, the same year they married. Both were from England and are recorded as living in Fairbury by 1880. Nothing unusual other than Christiana was seven years older than Henry, and that she was 43 years old when they married. She had her two sons prior to Mr. Beal. In 1880 one son is living with them and his last name is Beal. The name Sigsworth on the gravestone did not turn up a single clue. Ghostly or otherwise.


Only a few tantalizing hints from the Beals–her headstone reads, “Mother” and his simply reads, “H.B.” Her name is etched in granite as Sigsworth. Was that her previous married name or maiden name? Why list is at all? Other than the 1880 Census, I can find no trace of Mrs. Beal’s sons, yet  in 1900 she claims two have had two births and two living children. Is that enough to be a source of unrest that manifests as green fog? Who knows!

By now you know I’ll be wanting creepy stories from you this week.

October 22, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a creepy story. It can be prompted by the green fog in the photo, an imaginative idea about the Beals or take place in a cemetery. If other creepy ideas take hold, go for it! We’ll all shudder and be in the mood for Halloween–or grateful for its passing.

Respond by October 28 to be included in the weekly compilation.

Unmarked Graves by Charli Mills

Sarah pushed open the heavy wooden door of the cabin. Behind her the baby wailed and Mary snarled, “I hope the Pawnees scalp you!”

Tears flowed and she twisted her ankle in the deep wagon ruts of the hard packed road. She followed a slight trail through the tall grass turned autumn red. It ended at the two graves marked only by letterless river rocks. Sarah sat by Billy’s grave and cried. Not for Billy, the orphan from North Carolina who only lived two weeks in this Nebraska hell.

Mary wanted her dead and Cob fiddled across the creek.


The Unmarked Graves of Rock Creek

The Unmarked Graves of Rock Creek

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.

October 1: Flash Fiction Challenge

Carrot Ranch Flash FictionIt was the second day of the Hearts of Gold Festival, late August when the desert air of Fallon, Nevada felt like the inside of a clay oven. My husband was hawking hearts of gold cantaloupe with a childhood friend who farmed the melons. I was slicing orange-fleshed samples that were as refreshing as sherbert on a hot day. Nearby, our 10-month-old daughter in her Wrangler diaper cover,  red-and-white striped top and straw cowgirl hat was riding green watermelons like a pony.

wild watermelons

Riding Wild Watermelons

Today is the first day of October, yet my mind wanders back to this one in August  a quarter of a century ago. My Wild Watermelon Rider will soon celebrate another autumn birthday and I’m ever so grateful. We almost lost her that day.

Recently, someone who knows us mutually online commented about my daughter, “Is there anything she can’t do?” Modestly, I can reply that Watermelon Rider is a typical first-born, a high-achiever. I could boast in ten thousand words what incredible talent she has with which to line her many achievements. But I’ll spare you a bragging mother, and her some privacy.

I almost missed seeing her her in ballet slippers, arctic parka and wearing her radio producer Muppet-like sound recording gear. On that day long ago, Watermelon Rider disappeared.

Where could a baby–a baby!–dash off to? I was slicing, Todd was hawking, she was gone.

Panic flushed the crowd. This was a close community and one of their own was missing. As people spread out to look, I called her name in sobbing tones. Shortly, the rodeo announcer paged the “parents of a missing three-year-old.” Oh, my God, someone else’s child was missing, too! Was it a serial kidnapper come to prey on a sleepy farm-town festival?

We’d later find out that the announcer couldn’t tell the difference between a 10-month-old and three-year-old. The child he spotted was ours. He was horrified because he could see from his lofty view over the rodeo arena that a tiny tot all alone was ambling to the tug-o-war pit–a wide and deep expanse of water and mud built for one team to drag another through. He was afraid she’d go in and made the hasty announcement.

Her Dad found our wee Watermelon Rider and we were like drunken sailors trying to find our shore legs after that. In retrospect, she wasn’t missing for long but long enough for me to write a series of thrillers out of all the thoughts that battered my imagination. It made me realize that there are worse things than death. The word gone stops my heart.

For the remainder of motherhood–two more joined their sister in giving me frets–I developed a quivering fear that my children would disappear and I would never know what happened. This fear drove me to watch shows like America’s Most Wanted, hosted by a man whose son disappeared in the 1980s; a heartbreaking mystery never resolved. Cold Case Files and Missing tortured my thoughts with fates I swore I couldn’t bare.

Somehow, we all survived their childhood. There’s nothing like in-the-trenches experience to conquer fear and as they matured, I began to let go of that idea of “the worst thing that could happen” and savor the moments I had with each.

Then a morbid thought came to me this past weekend as I worked on the last revision of my novel. I came to a point where I felt satisfied. There’s still work, there’s still the editor and no one has yet picked up my glass slipper and made me a writing princess with a publishing contract. But I’m satisfied to say, “I wrote a novel.” And the queer thought that came to me was, I can die now.

It surprised me, the peaceful feeling that came to rest, knowing I could die and not regret ever having written a book. It’s not published, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve finished something I’ve wanted to do since childhood. Instead of being shamed in death by volumes of notes,  journals and incomplete stories–I’d leave behind proof that I did this. It fulfills me. I laughed off the idea that I was ready to meet my maker.

Until I suffered an ocular migraine on Sunday. I have had two in my life, both under extreme duress and within days of each other. I went blind, total darkness. This happened decades ago, when I escaped a bad situation. The terror of escape brought on the migraines and I’ve not had cause to experience one since.

Except that I gave up coffee a week ago. And replaced it with black tea. Caffeine has never left a noticeable calling card for me. I don’t get jittery or headaches. But this new tea–organic, expensive and not my cuppa evidently–caused an eye spasm that triggered an ocular migraine. I’ve since eliminated the tea and have not had a re-occurrence. Back to the safety of coffee.

Knowing that the weird zig-zaggy flashing lights are the first sign of going blind, I panicked. Because I was not even remotely stressed, and hadn’t yet connected it to the tea, I didn’t know why it was happening. I tried to ignore it, but soon I couldn’t read my own writing on the screen.

And that’s when I realized that although I was accepting of death now, the worst thing that could happen to me is to go blind. I’m visual. I write visually. I’m not auditory and when I speak I often say things like, “It’s better in writing.” I’ve come to trust that if I write, I’ll discover the story on the page. But what if I can’t see the page? I depend upon my eyes for my craft.

This week we’re going to poke a stick at our hidden fears–or those of our characters. Anne Goodwin wrote a  review of literary dementia on her blog Annecdotal and recites a masterful passage by author, Michael Ignatieff from his novel Scar Tissue, as he describes a character facing the same deterioration of dementia as he witnessed in his parents.

She challenges anyone to come up with a better description of terror.

Yet fears can be quirky, too and an interesting way to create unique characters. Amber Prince wrote this week that she fears teeth (congratulations, Amber, on your One Lovely Blog Award and thank you for sharing). While it made me chuckle and recall wriggling baby teeth, I also thought it would be a brilliant quirk to give a character. It’s such details that build the story.

October 1, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) show a character confronting something worse than death. It can be a universal fear or something unique to the character. What does this fear reveal about motive? Does it color the tone, deepen the plot or add to absurdity? Go ahead, poke a pencil at fear this week.

It’s an interesting question for me to ask of Sarah Shull. History is vague on what she did after Hickok shot and killed Cob McCanles at Rock Creek July 12, 1861. Legend says that the Pony Express put Sarah on a stage the next day. That Sarah left Rock Creek the next day after the incident is most likely, and historian Mark Dugan suggests she lived with Cob’s brother Leroy at least until August 12, 1861. Sarah faced death at Rock Creek. What more did she fear?

Widows by Charli Mills

“You were fixing to leave again, weren’t you?” Mary climbed the buckboard to sit next to Sarah. “With Cob?”

Sarah stared at buffalo grass on the prairie horizon, waiting for Leroy. He was taking her to his ranch north, but wanted to see his nephew before they left Rock Creek. “Maybe.”

“Why keep running? You afraid I’ll follow?”

“Wasn’t me running this time. I don’t want to be mocked. And I don’t want to be alone.”

“I’ll not go back to Carolina a widow. They shunned me, too, Sarah.”

Sarah shuddered despite the summer sun. Not that. Never again.


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.



September 24: Flash Fiction Challenge

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction“You can call me  ‘spots’,” says the diminutive woman with hair so white and eyes so blue that I don’t notice the spots she’s referring to. She holds out an arm and points to two healing spots where recent moles were removed.

“Oh, well, you can call me ‘freckles’,” I respond, holding out my own arm to hers noting that we both have a generous sprinkling of freckles. Maybe when I’m pushing 80 I’ll have spots, too.

“You seem nice,” she says looking at me. And I’m relieved. She seems nice, too.

The drive from Elmira to western Montana is not long, but the road winds along the bank of the vast Clark Fork River as it cuts through Cabinet Gorge. My husband humors himself by taking the curves, suggesting we should go faster. I’m not humored. I’m nervous. Not because of Todd’s driving, as of this past Friday I have officially endured 27 years of it, but because I’m meeting a woman whom I’ve met online for the first time.

Bobbie is my husband’s third cousin once removed. She’s my father-in-law’s second cousin and just a few years older than he is. We met through a genealogist who was trying to help Bobbie trace her paternal family line. It turns out that Bobbie is a Mills (something she never knew until we met) and she descends from the one black sheep I couldn’t track.

With the help of the genealogist, we were able to repair a broken branch in the family tree. You can read about the story at “Tracking a Black Sheep.” By coincidence, she and her husband like to camp near my home. She also likes history as much as I do.

Sitting on the hulking campground table I spread out my three-ring binders and carefully unwrap a photo album that is over 150 years old. In it is an 1850s photo of her great-grandfather. She tells me she hardly knew her father. He hardly knew his and her grandfather didn’t know the man in the photo album at all. This broken chain fractures each link.

Blue skies. In the fall, the skies seem so deep blue. The sun is not so hot as to feel like it scours everything, washing away color, nor is it icy yet. We sit under these blue skies, repairing the broken links. From Bobbie’s perspective, it’s come at the end of life. She’s uncertain how much longer she will be around, phrases I try to ignore.

When she gets out her notebook and starts writing down her grown children’s names, addresses, emails and even cell phone numbers, I’m struck at how important it is to her that the chain continues. She wants her children to know who they are. I receive the piece of paper as reverently as she holds the photo of her great-grandfather.

We leave, hugging like family, swapping final jabs of humor as if we’ve known each other a lifetime, and drive away. It hits me that I’ll most likely not see this woman again. It was the one meeting of our lifetime. It brings to mind lyrics from the song Promises by local musician John Shipe:

“Blue skies won’t wait for you, blue skies don’t wait for you,

To put you in the mood, to put you in the mood, to put you in the mood,

For sunshine…”

We have to go after those blue skies, go seek our dreams, find missing links and decide to greet another day. Death often stuns us when the rest of the world continues. Each day, each patch of blue sky encourages us in living. We can’t wait to be in the mood for it.

This week’s prompt is a phrase. When I heard the John Shipe song after meeting Bobbie, I thought of Sarah Shull and blue skies. The intent of the song is not to ponder death, nor is that the prompt. But “blue skies won’t wait for you” made me consider all the things Sarah waited for in her life and how they ended abruptly one fateful day at Rock Creek.

I wonder if Bobbie’s great-grandfather waited for the right moment to reunite with the son he left as a baby, only to discover that his son died first.

September 24, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include a story where “blue skies won’t wait for you.” What is your character waiting for? Is it too late or  does the impulse come in time? Maybe blue skies are a calling. Try not to think to deeply, and do a quick free-write. Invite your unconscious mind to the page and see what it makes of the phrase.

I don’t know if I’ve pulled off what I’m feeling inside about Sarah Shull and what it was like for her the day after Hickok shot Cob. What I like about flash fiction is that it challenges me to bring that feeling out without telling you the story of it. But like all practice, we try, try and try again until we get the lines right. This is my first go at it.

The Day After by Charli Mills

“I’m not ready for this.” Sarah had spent the long night alone at the sod house, scrubbing congealed blood from her hair. The stained dress she burned in the woodstove. Several Pony Express riders came by to convince her leave on the morning stage to Denver. Hickok was not one of them.

Leroy settled a trunk with her belongings in the back of the buckboard. “It’s best you come with me, Sarah. Emotions are running hot.”


“He’s dead.”

“I know. But…a funeral?”

“He’s already in the ground.”

“Mama tried to tell me ‘blue skies won’t wait for you.’”


Trip to Missoula (7) - Copy

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.