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White-washed buildings gleam beneath a blue sky streaked with high clouds. They’re the kind of clouds that don’t do much more than add brush strokes to a painting. No humidity. No heatwave. No black flies. Sunshine rests comfortably on my head as I carry a box of books and my computer to the western garrison.
I’m at Fort Wilkins to give a presentation on how to use flash fiction to explore history.
1844: Fort Wilkins stands to protect the copper. A young nation encroaching further west, the Michigan wilderness known to the fur traders and voyageurs, marks a lucrative spot on territorial maps. From the decks of sea-faring, Great Lakes mariners can trace veins of copper rich ore to the shoreline of the Keweenaw Peninsula. At its tip where land juts into lake like a bent finger, the Pittsburgh & Boston Mining Company stakes its claim. The garrison of soldiers with memories of the War of 1812 forge a fort. Peaceful as a Sunday picnic. No one badgers the copper miners.
Mowed summer grass surrounds the fort grounds as it faces a lake — not Lake Superior, but Lake Fannie Hooe. A small gurgling stream flows from the lake, past the fort and mingles with the greater one in a half-moon cove with pinchers of craggy rock at each point. The John Jacob Astor floundered in 1845 after missing the safety of the harbor.
Champagne doused her prow on the shores of Sault Sainte Marie – the first tall ship built on Lake Superior. The pride of the American Fur Company, she bore the name of its progenitor. Cutting across heaving waves, she carried cargo and passengers. Eight could squeeze around her dinner table. Fully loaded with winter supplies for Fort Wilkins, she sailed for the harbor. Crashed upon the rocks, every man in the garrison soaked by surf and slashing rain fought to release her. No one died, but with supplies lost to the Great Lake, together they faced a winter of rations.
After I set up in the lecture hall, I eagerly head to the harbor. An artist’s rendering superimposes a modern photo of the harbor with the wreck of the John Jacob Astor. It’s part of an interpretive display to explain the shipwreck. The cove seems pleasant, not one that could take down ships, but I’ve seen Superior on high energy days.
It’s neither too cool nor too hot. It’s a perfect spring day, a gift in mid-summer. The greater gift is the death of black flies. Those winged beasts fed upon my blood just a week before when I came to Copper Harbor to hike in the old growth cedar grove. This evening, I’m alone, savoring my time on the rocky beach.
I settle into a seat of warm pebbles to eat bison jerky made with cranberries and seeds. Almonds and dried apple rings finish the light meal. My energy rises before a presentation, and I eat little. Afterward, I’ll be ravenous! Likely the fish and chips will be closed by then, and I’ll make do with organic fig newtons.
For now, I relish the moment of perfection. Life rarely offers such a perfect mingling of nature, anticipation, tasty fare, sunny skies, warm pebbles and lapping water. I watch the Isle Royale Queen approach the harbor and promise myself that one day I will have a writer’s retreat on the island.
It’s a bucket list kind of place — so remote in Lake Superior, it takes six hours to reach.
Wolves sheltered on the dock in crates. Daddy’s expression never changed but I could feel his tension. He didn’t want wolves on his island. This was our third summer on Isle Royale since Daddy became National Park Superintendent. Mother said some zoo in Cleveland wanted to purge its wolves, but they were too used to people to set loose on the lower 48. So, they shipped them to Daddy by boat in crates. That summer, shadows followed me and my sister, but never materialized where we walked or played. If wolves knew of people, they knew to stay away.
Recently I collected the oral histories of two sisters who lived in Ripley but summered on Isle Royale where their father had served as the National Park’s second superintendent. It was happenstance that I met the women. In flood-torn Ripley, of all places. They described their childhood to me, living next door to Cynthia’s house and attending school at what is now an apartment complex next to the fire hall.
99-words is catching on in the Keweenaw. I love its artistry, the form’s ability to distill a story in surprising ways. I love how it births creative moments, solving problems with a constraint. I love how it can be a tool. To the entrepreneur, 99 words are 45 seconds. One 99-word story can express a vision. Eight can launch a compelling pitch. To the historian, 99 words can digest historical facts, fictionalize the gaps and imagine times past.
Fiction lets us question history, to dig deeper than the facts and records. Writing historical fiction is all about asking what if…and why…and how…and who would… We might know when, but we want to know so much more. In my own historical research, I find that these questions drive me to examine the records more closely.
I learn about the mystery of Lake Fannie Hooe. A friend from my veteran spouses group grew up not far from Copper Harbor, spending her summers exploring old mines and logging camps the way I did in my hometown. She told me that legend has it, Fannie was a little girl, perhaps the daughter of an officer, who went missing. As they circled the lake they called, “Fannie…! Fannie, hooe!
They say, they never found her body.
As a story-catcher, I have an affinity for “they say” stories. Usually, they are not accurate historically, but they contain a nugget of humanity. “They say” stories express our fears or need to be entertained. I find “they say” stories fun to research. When I lived in Idaho, I wrote a column for a magazine that explored local history beginning with they say. From there, I tried to match the story to historical records.
Questions help discovery. The night of my presentation, I had planned for attendees to write their own Fort Wilkins flash fiction. I forgot that writing can be intimidating to non-writers. I tried to convince a wide-eyed crowd that they could pencil their own historical fiction. Realizing their trepidation, I led the questioning and did the writing from their responses.
The one prompt they all wanted to explore was, “Who was Fannie Hooe and why did she go missing?” Two historians from the fort sat in on the presentation and knew a great deal about the real Fannie. She was from Virginia and came as a single woman to Fort Wilkins to help her pregnant sister. She was not a girl, but a young lady. They say she went missing, mauled by a bear or murdered by a spurned lover.
Truth is, she returned to Virginia, married and lived a long life.
Flash fiction remains my favorite tool to explore history. It allows me to write quickly from multiple perspectives and test different points of view for my characters. If I don’t like a POV or discover a different path for a character, I’ve only committed a batch of flash fiction to the discovery instead of having to overhaul chapters or revise an entire draft.
Flash fiction lets me push into the space between the gaps. It lets me crawl under the skin of those the record shows were there. It tolerates my line of questioning with 99-word answers.
July 19, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about Fannie Hooe. Although she is a legend in the Kewenaw, feel free to go where the prompt leads.
Respond by July 24, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.
Grandma Fannie by Charli Mills
Grandma Sarah rocked with restraint as we drank mint water over chipped ice, a luxury in 1870s Virginia, especially after the War. Grandpa Hooe was a Union officer, commissioned in the wilds of Michigan. Grandma told stories about how they met at Fort Wilkins the year she stayed with her sister. She told me how her nickname was the same as mine – Fannie.
“My bonnet blew off, and your grandfather swore he was bedazzled by the sun on my blond hair.”
All the men from the garrison courted her, but she left the wilds with Grandpa as Fannie Hooe.
It’s hard to take silent steps across broken glass. Shards ground into nuggets the size of small peas glitter green, brown, blue and diamond-clear litter the path. In the back of my mind, I acknowledge the oddity of walking on glass, but it’s some Wisconsin recycling measure to pave the trails with glass gravel. Right now. This moment. I’m on the hunt. Shhh…cranes.
Across time many have proposed theories to explain the brain — cranium size and shape, left brain, right brain, synapses firing. These attributes mean something and nothing. Perhaps the final frontier is not the vastness of space, but what is contained in the folds of the mind.
For me, I acknowledge pockets of focus. I put on my thinking cap, or I disappear into my head to read (or write) a good story. Some of my focus might actually be distractions, but I can’t wrap my mind around that quandary at the moment. I know I have Rock Brain and History Brain — oh, look, a squirrel! But most focused/distracting of all is Bird Brain.
I’m in stealth Bird Brain mode.
The gravel crunches beneath my sneakers, and I don’t think I’m sneaking up on any birds. Maybe that’s the actual point of the glass gravel. A sign explained it all, but when one has become a full-fledged member of the International Crane Institute of Baraboo, Wisconsin, one does not stop to read non-bird related signs. I’m hunting the elusive Whooping Crane.
Whoopers remain one of the rarest (and tallest) birds to grace the North American continent. They once nestled on the northern prairies from central Canada as far south as Iowa. In the winter they hung out in Texas and Louisianna. Then settlers, like Cobb McCanles and his family, moved west, and the whoopers disappeared.
By 1941, the Texas wintering flock huddled near extinction with only 15 birds remaining. In 1971, two Cornell University students dreamed of an organization that could protect the world’s 15 species of cranes, including the Whoopers. Serendipity is when you follow your passion, and you find an unexpected gift. It’s a happy chance.
Ornithology students, Ron Sauey and George Archibald, envisioned a place where they could combine research, captive breeding, and reintroduction of cranes to their depopulated habitats. They imagined a place where restoration and education would engage citizens to support a crane-focused organization. The first happy chance came from Wisconsin where a horse rancher offered land to the ornithology students.
The next bit of serendipity came when George accepted an invitation to go on the Johnny Carson Show, a well-viewed late-night program in the 1970s. Part of the appeal to a late-night American audience was the humorous story about how George wooed a Whooper named Tex. She was hatched in captivity and therefore imprinted to humans. To her Bird Brain, George was a potential mate.
Every morning, George walked with Tex, and they danced the crane dance until she readied herself for breeding. While George held her attention, two other biologists artificially inseminated the lovelorn crane. We can all chuckle, but the true heart of the story is that the match yielded a single Whooper from 54 eggs that didn’t make it.
Gee Whiz, George’s crane-son, went on to become the crane that built the Wisconsin flock which now has over 200 of the existing 700 Whooping Cranes today. In a sad twist, the night before George went on the Johnny Carson Show, a marauding raccoon invaded Tex’s pen and killed her.
Everyone laughed about the crane dance between ornithologist and bird, but they put their dollars where their hearts were and that single sad tale on a late-night tv show serendipitously funded the International Crane Foundation. Today, it lives up to its original vision to provide sanctuary for all 15 species of cranes.
I’m hunting the Whoopers in the back pasture by the small pond full of singing spring peepers. But my heart overrides my Bird Brain when a female Gray Crowned Crane begins flirting with my son and husband. With head feathers looking more like thoughts on fire than a crown, I loved the display she puts on like a comedic dancer in a burlesque show.
She shows me what George understood all along — the charisma of cranes.
Whoopers, Black Crowned, Back Necked, Blue, Brolga, Siberian, Wattled, Hooded, Red Crowned, Sarus, White Naped, Gray Crowned, Demoiselle, Eurasian, and Sandhill cranes ignite the imaginations of the world with their compelling attractiveness. We paint them, write poetry of them, and even craft origami after them. Peaceful, graceful, fierce — we fall in love with the charisma of cranes.
A note to the regular Ranch Hands — my trip to the cranes was part of a three-day tour to see our son and visit an orthopedic surgeon at Veteran Affairs to finally get the acknowledgment that the Hub’s knee is as empty as the prairies were of Whoopers in the 1940s. Nothing left to salvage, nothing left to cushion. As the orthopedic explained, “It’s like a bomb went off in your knee.” Finally, a gel shot, and hopefully a replacement.
My technology acted up on the road, and I couldn’t keep up with comments, but the Ranch collection bucket (the form) performed well, and I published the stories when I got back home. I promise to catch up on my comments because that’s an important commitment of mine to give each of you positive feedback on your contributions to the challenge. And I thank the community for commenting, too!
Carrot Ranch Literary Community made the local news. I was not prepared to be recorded and televised, but I was thrilled to share the power of what we do through literary art 99 words at a time. The next morning after our trip, I was invited to present what we do at Carrot Ranch to 1 Million Cups, a national organization with a local chapter in the Keweenaw. I read Pete Fanning’s flash from Vol. 1, “Normandy,” and I read my most recent #CarrotRanchRocks story, “The Girlie Rock.”
The Girlie Rock by Charli Mills
Rex teased Amy about the big pink rock she found on the beach. A gift from Lake Superior days before deployment. He loved her enough that he took that girlie rock with him to Iraq. He placed its cool flat surface against his chest during coughing fits. Smoldering chemical fires seared his lungs. He married Amy and returned her girlie rock. When they drove to the VA for treatment, she rubbed its pink smoothness like some magic genie would emerge and save his life. A pink rock on marble white – in the end, she left it on his grave.
CWW-07-17-24 (Pink feldspar and green epidote)
My head feels a bit like how the crown of a crane looks, all my synapses firing in a bazillion directions, but there is a vision to madness. I hope I can pull off the charisma of cranes and anchor Carrot Ranch and our literary art in the Keweenaw Community which has been so warm and welcoming (despite 304 inches of snow).
Lastly, I’m re-doing my 50th Birthday Party. No offense to the stunning state of New Mexico, but I felt robbed of my milestone birthday celebration stranded and homeless in the Land of Enchantment. You are all invited to Rock the 5.0 with me, snow or sun, at McLain State Park on May 20 with grilled brats, birthday cake, rock picking, WIP-reading, and a Copper Country sunset over Lake Superior. If you are unable to attend, you can send birthday cards to:
Carrot Ranch, PO Box 306, Hancock, MI 49930
Thank you all for your writing and reading patronage! Your individual stories matter, and yet you are also part of a greater, global, artistic calling. A calling to peace like a crane.
May 10, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story defining “the charisma of cranes.” For centuries, cranes have inspired art and philosophy. You can write a crane story or create something new out of the phrase. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by May 15, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.
(I just noticed my bird-brained typo last week; you can still turn in May 3 stories if you thought you had until May 15, but use the May 3 Flash Fiction Challenge Form.)
If you want your story published in the weekly collection, please use this form. If you want to interact with other writers, do so in the comments (yes, that means sharing your story TWICE — once for interaction and once for publication). Rules are here.
The Charisma of Whooping Cranes in 1858 (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Slowly lifting on outstretched angel wings, hundreds of white cranes trumpeted and took flight. Nancy Jane dug her bare heels into the sides of her prairie pony, tail flying as she rode beneath the flock. Sarah clung to the pony’s sides with her legs, catching the rhythm of his galloping paces. Her arms wrapped around Nancy Jane’s waist to grasp handfuls of mane. The cranes landed across the Platte, gracefully perching on long legs. Sarah gawked, mesmerized. Nancy Jane slowed her steady mount, and both women whooped loud as the angels who came to charm them in Nebraska Territory.
We crowd into the lobby, snow nipping at our backs each time a new couple or family enters the oak doors. I wiggle my fingers to diminish the giddiness of a night out to the Calumet Theater. I listen to chatter as people explain who they know in the upcoming performance of Alice in Winterland. One mother laughs when she explains how much green paint her daughter wears as the Grinch. Another confesses how nervous her son is the play Charlie Brown.
It’s a winterland mash-up of familiar American Christmas stories all set to the music and narrative arc of Taichoski’s Nutcracker Ballet. It’s a bit like this take on multiple Christmas songs in one minute:
And all of this creativity in bites to produce one performance also reminds me of the weekly compilation of responses to our flash fiction challenges. It struck me, as I took my seat in the historic gilded and velveted Calumet Theater how much of a ballet mom still resides in my heart, rounding up the stories backstage each week. I want to bring roses to all the writers after a performance.
It’s been too long since I connected with my inner stage-mom. For 15 years I lived in awe of The Nutcracker. Five of those years I eagerly watched from backstage as my eldest daughter and youngest son both performed in a professional ballet troupe from Minneapolis.
Every child in dance dreams of shoes and sugar plum ferries. In ballet, it’s point shoes. After spending $100 on a pair of pink satin slippers with ribbons so fair, my darling daughter would pound the toe-boxes, burn the satin off the point and whip-stitch the ribbons. If it sounds horrific, consider what we writers do to a flash fiction.
We pound stories into sentences, slice words to a perfect 99, and strangle characters with twists so fine.
Between the audience seats and the dancers behind the curtain exists a stage upon which we both suspend belief and let art convey the story. I love dance as much as literary art, but I have no skill for it. I can take classes, just as I learned the craft. But writing is the performance I prefer. I’m content to sit in the audience and watch the dancers.
For years, I helped backstage, learning how to double-pin strands of wayward hair and zip sparking costumes during quick changes. A quick change occurs when a dancer must change costumes for back-to-back dance numbers. My son, one of few boys who even studied classical ballet, was guaranteed to be cast as one of Clara’s brothers and rarely had quick changes in the first half. My daughter danced in the corp, meaning she had numerous changes.
And lucky me, one year I was responsible for the Prince.
The Calumet Theater with its opulence and history reminds me of the Red Wing Theater where The Nutcracker performed on tour. I went with the troupe and taxied my kids to classes, performances, and costume fittings. Each December dreams of sugar plums danced on stage. And then the lights went out.
Children grow up, move on and stage-moms are left with no one to buy roses for or help whip-stitch new ribbons. What a comfort it is to be in a theater again, listening to family chatter, watching former students return for the holidays and sneak backstage to say hello. I sink into my seat, wait for the house lights to dim, knowing that these children performing on stage have received classical ballet instruction from my daughter.
A literary community knows such connectedness, too. I’m stage-mom in the back-wings, watching each of you work at your craft, find joy in the steps and brave the spotlight when it’s your turn to perform. And yet we are a whole, each voice lending to a more powerful dynamic than one alone.
Hold on to that feeling a moment. Two points I want you to own: no matter your solo, no matter your dream and your pain to accomplish it, no matter how many hours you write alone — you are not alone here. Second, we are a part of something bigger, something we call art. And we are champions for literary art, giving voice to unheard stories, even giving voice to the invisible.
If you know some of my journey, you are aware of how I feel about the homeless experience and veteran struggles being invisible among society. They are the unsung songs, the canceled performances, the flash fiction in a journal no one reads. Recently I learned of an organization using another art form to give voice to veterans and their families:
Songwriting With Soldiers operates from a simple principle — pair veterans and active-duty service members with professional songwriters to craft songs about their military experiences.
To me, this is a powerful way to use art to heal, to create empathy for another’s experience, to give voice to those who struggle to articulate that experience. Songwriter, Mary Gauthier, wrote The War After the War (below) with the input from six combat veteran spouses, which is the number of women I share my own experiences with each week. It’s empowering when the invisible are seen and heard.
While I don’t have roses to share with all you who perform on the writing stage at Carrot Ranch, I have a digital gift for the holiday season. If you’ll go to my Canva profile, you can pin or download the Carrot Ranch Seasonal Desktop Wallpaper to add a touch of holiday cheer to your computer. I tried to think of different manifestations like the diversity we have here at the ranch (the squirrels are for the nuts among us who don’t like holiday cheer).
Surrounded by velvet the lights finally go low at the theater. The performance has begun. And I’ll let you get to your own.
December 7, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write that features a performance. You can interpret what is a performance any way the prompt leads you.
Respond by December 12, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published December 13). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Performance Anxiety (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Standing in the darkened wings, Danni stretched her hips. She arched her back, clasping her hands overhead. On the stage, Evelyn prepped the audience.
This was her moment. She couldn’t see faces, just the heavy beam of overhead stage lights. Her professor taught her tricks to overcome performance anxiety when she realized that as an archeologist she’d occasionally have to give public presentations.
The Sandpoint Theater was packed, and Evelyn was already giving introductions. “Without further ado, Dr. Danni Gordon…”
Walking out into the lights, Danni conjured the friendliest face, as if she were performing just for him – Ike.
Essay and flash fiction by Sharon R. Hill, guest writer to Carrot Ranch.
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Death Calls Dr. Whitaker was inspired by the title of a nineteenth-century death notice about an ancestor of mine. The title struck me as unique and I knew that it would make a great title for a short story. I initially did nothing with my idea nor did I know where to begin in framing the story.
History is important to me and is a dominant theme in my literary short fiction. It is a blessing to have such a rich variety of characters in family lore to draw from. For instance, my grandfather, a man I never knew, was a con-artist whose actions were countered by my salt-of-the-earth grandmother who kept the family out of poverty and made certain her children received an outstanding education. This backdrop was the basis for my story Life in Silhouette which was a difficult story to write but also cathartic. I found a means to understand and forgive by writing fiction-based-on-fact about emotional pain and physical hardship.
I have recognized that I am great at historical research but poor with organization. In recognizing this, I am transitioning to an informal outline and character sketches because I desire to become a better and more productive writer. My bellwether moment about changing my writing process came when I was trying fix a short story that I’d been working on for some time. My writing mentor explained to me that I hadn’t connected with my protagonist nor revealed his motivation. My third draft of the story also had the same foundational problem so I decided to move on and circle back to it later. Death Calls Dr. Whitaker came to mind and I decided that I would create my first flash fiction. As I began to write, the story evolved as a first-person narrative with the deathbed scene as the catalyst for the experience. Also in the back of my mind was a desire to channel Virginia Woolf because I had recently read her essay The Death of the Moth and I wondered whether I could replicate the essence of this work.
Death Calls Doctor Whitaker
Death lingers in the bedroom where old Doctor Whitaker sleeps. It infuses the air with dread in a way that only the presence of death can. I think about opening the only window in the room that faces west with a view of the sunset. Like a child, I imagine that this will expel the threat.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock sounds the generations-old grandfather clock, the metered sound is reminiscent of tiny heartbeats. The chimes repeat six times to announce the hour, reminding the living of a bygone day.
Doctor Whitaker is held hostage in a difficult slumber and his eyelids quiver in some erratic timpani, yet they remain shut. I sit by his bed in a stubby, wing-back chair of pale-blue velvet fabric with faded wood armrests. The stiffness of the chair aids me in my duty to stay alert, as I watch for the moment that will complete the outline of a life.
With his wife long dead and the marriage childless, the responsibility of this days’ vigil has fallen to me though I barely know Dr. Whitaker. I accepted this burden because of my fondness for his housekeeper Sally who is expected at her family home today for her parent’s anniversary celebration.
In the silence of all but the ticking clock, verses from a poem lift in my memory to my consciousness “Can you say tonight in parting with the day that’s slipping fast, that you helped a single person of the many that you passed?”
I notice a worn-out leather medical bag tucked in the open square of a simple, dark-oak nightstand. A wall calendar from a Memphis mercantile with a worldwide timetable hangs above to announce the month of May in 1935. In a daydream, I envision Dr. Whitaker as a younger man jogging along an old roadway of dust in his shay offering comfort to the sick. Yet he spends what may be his final hours with a mere acquaintance, even a stranger. I wonder at the absence of visitors, including the children he helped birth and who will now be middle-aged with their own families.
I feel anxious when a pair of whippoorwills’ land on the garden fence as instinct compels their predictive chant.
A trembling left-hand begins an echo in each limb and Dr. Whitaker’s mouth begins to twitch. The thin blanket that covers him from below his neck and is tucked over his feet has shaken loose.
Dr. Whitaker’s face has an anguished expression as though he is in the throes of a struggle with an unseen foe. I understand that the foe he struggles with is time, as his strength of spirit continues the fight for life.
Sharon R. Hill moved from Tampa, Florida to Nashville, Tennessee ten years ago. She is a writer of literary fiction and has been published in The Wilderness House Literary Review, Indiana Voice Journal, TWJ Magazine, and The Bangalore Review. Her story Brown Tobe won TWJ Magazine Best of 2016 for fiction. Sharon enjoys using an historical backdrop to explore moral themes and the complexities of the family dynamic.
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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pipers are calling to blueberries plumping on the bush. Anytime Superior fog rolls in and the air turns cool and smells like rain on bedrock, locals nod and say, “Berry growing weather.” At times the gray coolness confounds my sense of season, and I scoff that berries are growing on the Keweenaw when elsewhere I know temperatures are blasting heat across most of North America, and in Kansas the tomatoes grow visibly in the time it takes to drink a cold bottle of hard cider.
Evidently blueberries grow in the coolness of Copper Country. Maybe the plants root over lost veins of native copper and beef up on mineral supplements organically occurring in the skim of dirt abandoned by miners. Pans of blueberries cover the kitchen counters, tempting me to pluck “just a few” and go back to writing at my improvised dining room office. They are as real as the tomatoes down south I imagine sliced and sprinkled with lemon pepper. It must be summer nonetheless in the western hemisphere.
My plaid shirt is appropriate — it hides any blueberry stains upon its dark blue and gray weave and makes the piping feel like the song of my soul. I’m not imagining that one — the pipers are truly calling. Every Thursday they practice bagpipes at the fire station a few blocks down the hill. On a rainy day full of the dreary work of a writer — line editing, communicating with designers and setting up phone interviews for client work — I’m whisked away to the magical realm within by the sharp simplicity of berries and music.
There’s a key scene in Rock Creek: Nancy Jane is burying her baby, digging the prairie dirt alone. Her Pa has gone off to borrow a suit. Never mind the suit’s owner wasn’t around; Joseph Holmes is not one to feel obliged to have permission. Whiskey is often the only lens he has on navigating life. Unfortunately he crosses paths with a small group of men on horseback headed to a road station. One is a fiddler from Appalachia, a descendant of ousted Scots-highlanders and a former sheriff. The other is his cousin and the third man is the owner of the suit. Thus Nancy Jane meets Cobb McCanles the day he drags her father across the prairie sod to test the man’s questionable story that he borrowed the suit for his grandson’s funeral.
In the hero’s journey, the structure I use to frame novels, or even in the three-act classic structure, certain scenes act as keystones to the story’s architecture. Some of you might recognize this scene because I’ve played with it in flash fiction previously. As the story takes shape, I revisit this scene and dig deeper. It has an emotion so buried, I must go beneath the prairie roots to untangle it, and bring it to the surface. Why do the women of Rock Creek matter? Because, for so long, their buried (and burying) stories have gone unheard.
Why do we hear pipers calling in our hearts and minds as much as in our ears? It penetrates us deeply; an emotion difficult to articulate; an experience we have and label it life. Life is a simple four-letter word. No embellishments. No tongue-twister. It’s neither harsh nor sweet to hear. It’s easy to say. Difficult to define. The pipers play life notes and berries taste like a moment suspended from life. This is the taste, the feel of the life experience I’m chasing down on the page from the women who came from Scotland in the 1700s to the lone prairie a hundred years later:
If you recognize the song, you’ll understand it is a musical score to represent on of the great American classics in literature: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. He wrote romantic (not Harlequin, classical) histories about American frontiers. I think of my path as parallel, only I’m rewriting the frontiers to include women and their myriad of motives beyond, “I’ll go do the dishes now.” Which brings me to another song that reminds me of women and the West:
I’m looking for Nancy Jane’s prairie song, for Mary’s, for Sarah’s. Where is the John Wayne for women?
Pipes and berries know no gender. Say what you want about traditions but anyone can listen to the pipes and pick berries. We’ve conditioned ourselves to receive male stories of epic adventure and diminish female stories as domestic. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a frontiers woman. Just because she wore braids didn’t mean she only did dishes and poked a needle in some fabric. Heck no, Laura was out running the banks of Plum Creek, chasing her dog Jack and riding her horse at breakneck speeds along the shores of prairie lakes. It’s not surprising that I went from her series of books to Ian Fleming’s. Laura prepared me for adventure and it never occurred to me that only men could be James Bond.
However, it crept into my early writing, focusing on male leads because I wanted to write epic westerns and exciting histories. Now I seek to polish up experiences like Laura’s and present frontier women unfiltered. To me, what remains key is finding those moments that feel like pipers calling to summer berries. Motives. Passion. Regret and revenge. Dreams. Death. Life. Passing on one’s tightly held blueberry of a moment to another. Pipes. End scene.
August 10, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include music and berries. It can be fantastical, such as the music of berries or a story that unfolds about a concert in a berry patch. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by August 15, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published August 16). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Forbidden Fruit (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“Save the seeds,” Nancy Jane said, berry juice running down her chin and cleavage.
“Nah. To make Otoe dice. Fun game.”
A canopy of trees dappled the sun where bluffs and a thicket of buffalo berries barricade this hidden spring. Nancy Jane bathed here. Naked. No wonder she laughed when Sarah protested hiking her skirts to ride horseback astride.
Sarah sank her teeth into the small black fruit with a golden center, wanting to laugh. If she did, Cobb might hear. Perhaps a trick of the mind, but she swore she heard strains of his fiddle nearby.
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.”
“Well, I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona and such a fine sight to see. It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me…” wrote musicians Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey. The song went on to be a classic for the Eagles: “Take it Easy.” That iconic opening was one Jackson Browne struggled with and Glenn Frey assisted by adding the second line as a joke, as a first response. But you know what? Sometimes it’s those unconstrained ideas that jump from our brains to pen that surprise even the writer, yet becomes the right idea.
I’m not standing in Winslow, Arizona, but my feet are planted on the historic Honeymoon Trail that begins there. And it includes a girl, my Lord, and an eventual hoard slow trekking to get married. Between here and there, and beyond me into St. George, Utah expands a vast arid land settled by the Latter Day Saints, the Mormon Pioneers. The Honeymoon Trail led from outlying settlements of the Little Colorado River to the only Temple in town. You see, to obtain an eternal marriage, Mormons must be sealed in the Temple.
Just as I’m not sure what the Hub’s Puritan ancestors would make of the LDS Church posthumously baptizing them all for a greater heaven than they sought in the Colonies, I’m also not sure about sealing. Something mysterious occurs within the grand white Temple that gleams like a lost tooth in a stark red landscape of carved sandstone. I’m not keen on the polygamy, which still exists within the modern FLDS (Fundamental Latter Day Saints) where girls are married to old men and boys are considered competition, thus once of age they are escorted with only a home-school education to St. George and dumped at the Catholic Church social services like a litter of unwanted puppies.
But show me a religion unflawed. We can’t single out one without noting them all.
Belief is powerful. Belief in God is undeniable in those willing to settle the desert and practice the freedom of expression they were denied elsewhere. And how can anyone stand on the Honeymoon Trail as it drifts off into swells and washes beneath a sunset of carnival glass without pondering one’s existence and that of a creator God? When we step off that corner in Winslow, Arizona and try to meet the girl we realize that first-love is no easier to grasp than colors in the sky. Yet, like addicts, once smitten we try to recapture the moment.
My drug of choice is the land. Slowly I inhale dust and sage and sunset. I absorb the wash of magenta-lavender-gold light. The nothingness I hear plays like an orchestra as vast as the horizon, my heart thrumming like water that flows underground in hidden hollows. My eyes blur and ghosts come out to dance lightly among sagebrush and cactus with spines so fresh the plants look fuzzy. The sun dips and my hit subsides but the good vibe lingers. I could stand here on the Honeymoon Trail until coyotes yip and stars out-twinkle a Swarovski tiara.
Alas, my honeymoon is over.
The Hub is agitated and impatient to drive out of this land. If I said nothing, he’d drive and drive and drive. But he married an outspoken woman and unlike those who followed men to the Temple, I protest. Perhaps other women on this trail protested, too. Many believed the promises of Brigham Young, others believed in a better life. Nonetheless they all believed a Temple marriage was worth the hundreds of miles of this trail past poison water, the mouth of the Grand Canyon itself and dangers of the desert. I can’t imagine the Hub persisting across this expanse with a wagon and mule. He’s too impatient, but he’s my impatient partner and he tolerates my quirks and annoyances.
The day he came home and told me his therapist said I was outspoken I snorted and said, “Better than silent.” I don’t believe it was an insult. It was said in context of encouraging the Hub to express his own views separate from mine. Which I see he has no problem expressing. He’s outspoken, too. I’m sure, had we made the Honeymoon Trail trek 150 years ago, the silence of the desert would have echoed our voices from camp to camp. He’s a warrior; I’m a fighter. And we both survive. We do more than that. We laugh raucously and share a love of land, each other and our children.
When do you know the honeymoon is over?
I think of Mary Greene wooing Cobb McCanles in North Carolina where fresh water tumbled coolly over granitic rocks and steep mountains hid beneath a deciduous forest. A fun game it must have been, the excitement of the chase, the power, feeling alive to pursue a man who left the other girls tongue-tied. And they were girls. Mary was 14 when she first saw Cobb shirtless in the glen, riding his steed. Sarah was 13. By the following February, after the harvest dances, Christmas and in time for the early mapling, Mary was 15 and married. At 16, she gave birth to their first son. At 17, her mother died. At 18, she bore a second son, at 19 a third.
The honeymoon was definitely over by the time she was 22, Cobb was elected Sheriff his second term and their fourth son was born. Imagine being 22 years old with no mother, a husband on duty out of the house and often on the trail, and four children under the age of five. And then you hear another is pregnant by your own spouse. Such was Mary’s life in 1856. Counting back the months, Mary forgave Cobb by Christmas. Nine months later she bore a daughter, a difficult birth that nearly killed them both. What might have torn apart other couples, Mary and Cobb seemed agreed on giving their “blue baby” a chance at life. In an age where no one would have questioned the baby dying from a failure to thrive, Mary and Cobb nurtured their daughter who would retain developmental issues and blindness her whole life.
We never achieve the honeymoon again perhaps because it’s a mythical period of expectation exaggerated by a chemical rush of hormones. Maybe the Mormon coupes seeking their eternal marriage forged a stronger foundation for partnership, sharing the arduous journey of the Honeymoon Trail. Maybe they shrugged off the exhaustion of the trail as sunsets offered promise evening after evening until the white Temple rose into view. Maybe they spoke of hopes and dreams. Maybe they held hands and shared each others’ fears. Maybe a few were outspoken. Maybe a few men welcomed a spirited woman, recognizing marraige in such a place would be a daily battle.
March 9, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a honeymoon story. It can be between a couple before, during or after the honeymoon. Or it can refer to a honeymoon period. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by March 14, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 15). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Under a Honey Moon (from Rock Creek) by Charli MIlls
Cobb fiddled for the Christmas festivities, his gaze lingering always on Mary. How long had it been since her husband looked at her like under a couple’s honey moon?
After the final reel, Cobb spoke to his father before joining Mary. James returned with a rocking chair and set it in front of her. Its hickory gleamed dark and gold. James was renowned for his craftsmanship.
“It’s yours,” he said.
“Oh!” Mary sunk into the smooth seat, rocking silently. She smiled up at father and son.
James clapped Cobb’s shoulder. “My son made that for you.”
“Forgive me, Mary?”
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.”
Hygge is Danish cultural phenomenon — that of getting cozy with candles, blankets a drink to warm the belly. The holidays are a natural time to invite moments of hygge because at its heart is getting through seasons like a Danish winter.
What other situations call for getting cozy? That’s what writers explored this week, stories to snuggle. So get comfy and prepare to read what comes of hygge in the hands of writers.
The following are based on December 29, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a cozy story.
And an interesting note: yes, stories are both cozy and cosy because we are a literary community that embraces English (and writers) from around the globe with our variations of spelling. Each writer maintains country of origin spelling at Carrot Ranch.
Happy as a Possum in a Pouch by Norah Colvin
Warm and cosy in mother’s pouch, for months he did no more than suckle and sleep. Lulled by her gentle heartbeat and rhythmic breathing, he barely noticed as she scurried about at night; foraging for food, leaping from branch to branch, avoiding neighbourhood cats, sometimes scouring dogs’ bowls for leftovers, or accepting humans’ sweet titbits. For him, nothing else existed. Until … one night, a strange feeling stirred inside. He poked his whiskery nose outside. Sniff, sniff. The most delicious scent beckoned him out. Mother offered him something red. Zing! His senses ignited. Milk was forgotten, nightly foraging began.
Part and Parcel by Jules Paige
The rocking chair held me, I held him. In the dark, after he woke me screaming because of a nightmare, though
he did not wake. I soothed him until he became molded into my person once again. And then years later his
brother. A part of me that I thought I’d always have. And in memory do.
So when the grandchildren came along, each in their turn – in my arms, in the rocking chair – while they slept
from the exhaustion of play. I let them sleep, while I breathed in slowly, barely moving, enjoying what some
may call Hygge.
Flash Fiction by Sacha Black
I pulled the checked blanket over my shoulders and sunk into the sofa, a deep satisfied smile peeling across my lips. Mark walked into the room.
“What’s up love?” He said sitting next to me and tugging the blanket. I gripped it. Not ready to show him the treasure that lay in my hand.
A flake of ash rose up from the fire, drifted into the living room and landed on the paperwork.
It didn’t matter. We didn’t need the clinic any more.
I handed him the white stick with two pink lines, his smile matched mine.
Living Well By Rambling On by Liz Husebye Hartmann
She flattened the canvas bag for a clearer view out the back windows, smoothing the thick blue rug that had graced the tiny apartments of uncounted siblings and cousins. Smiling, she pushed the car door closed, the fractious rabble dozing within the family home sleeping on.
Her car glided silently down the drive and two blocks more before she started the engine. Cranking down a window, she hung an elbow over the edge, drinking in the summer breeze and sunrise through her opening pores.
She’d left a note on the kitchen table. Finally, it was her turn to ramble.
By the Time I Reach Covington by Elliott Lyngreen
..why am i leaving this note? much as you won’t know why I left No one deserves this or probably noticed til now-
-when i’m crossing the Ohio, reaching Covington, where I may decide which direction will be mine.
But, since new year’s is a time for starting over; here is your chance.
Only one person believed me, but he believes in everything.
You may only believe that I went crazy. So I am leaving that with you, too.
Oh, not that bottle planned for celebrating today.. but here is the cork. Use it for Teddie’s sake.
Warmth by Jane Dougherty
He dodged round the corner to get out of the sleet. In the car park entrance was an air vent. Warm. His face fell. The spot was taken. Two lads raised their heads. He shrank back.
“Room for another,” one of the lads said and elbowed a big black dog. “Shove over, Prince, Bounty, getoutofit.”
He sank gratefully between the two dogs.
“Bounty just had pups so she’s a bit snarly.”
Bounty raised questioning eyes and the boy smiled at her. Bounty smiled back.
He sank into the friendly warmth and Bounty laid her head gently in his lap.
Cord Wood by Anthony Amore
He stumbled in from the wood pile dropping logs loudly, and fed the fire before insinuating himself under his wife’s blanket.
Wood warms you three times – he had read so – when you split it, when you stack it and when you burn it.
“Good god,” his daughter complained, “It’s too hot in here!” The dog snored at the hearth.
“It’s not hot,” his wife said as their daughter tossed her socks, “It’s cozy.”
With cold leaving his body he felt, as if for the first time, true comfort. “And,” he thought, settling in, “it warms you a fourth time.”
Hot & Cozy by Joe Owens
Sophie tossed everything in her arms on a nearby chair as she drug herself in the door. Closing another case was exciting, but also so draining. All she wanted was to fill up her claw foot tub with hot water and soak until all her cares were wiped from her mind. She knew the soak would not erase every bit of stress but it would help quite a lot.
She lit six candles in the room after starting the water, then slowly disrobed and eased into the steaming water. She could feel the tension ebb away as she settled.
The Art of Being Cozy by Florida Borne
As a woman of French-Canadian and Irish heritage, you’d think, “Ah! She must be genetically hardwired for cold weather.”
I’m as cozy in cold weather as a coconut palm on an iceberg. Where those genes were hiding, no one knows.
Forget snuggling next to a warm puppy in front of a fireplace, peacefully watching the snow drifting in front of a window. It’s presently 42F, I’m wearing fleece PJ’s and wrapped in a blanket. If it gets any colder, I’m dusting off the snowsuit.
Cozy is a fan in the window when the weather is 90F with 70% humidity.
Yay, the Party Has Been Cancelled! by Anne Goodwin
“You’re still welcome to come over, but I wouldn’t advise it. The roads are treacherous around here.”
Fog shrouds the window; inside, disappointment burns. Home alone on New Year’s Eve! Ah, well, I could use the time to write that article, scrub the kitchen floor.
In fluffy slippers, jogging pants and the blouse I ironed for the party, I dance between cooker and fridge. I pour a glass of Prosecco; a soup made of leftovers bubbles on the stove. Rolls crisping in the oven, the final challenge looms. Which book to snuggle up to, which chocolates to eat first?
Cozy, At Last by Luccia Gray
‘We’re waiting for you, Sheba.’
‘I’ve got a terrible cold.’ I coughed loudly.
‘Troy’s here. Says he’s sorry.’
‘Battery’s dead,’ I said before switching off my phone.
I returned to my comfy sofa, blazing fireplace, glass of wine, Casablanca on TV, tissues. Misery.
My best friend walked in using the spare key.
‘Any more wine?’
‘Bought you a Christmas present.’
‘It’s 2nd January.’
‘Better late than never.’
I unwrapped a copy of Far From the Madding Crowd.
‘This is cozy. Can I join you?’
I cuddled up. ‘I missed you, Gabriel.’
‘Glad to hear that, at last.’
Nothing Said by Rowena Curtin
“You two look cosy,” Jess smiled, almost spilling champagne over her best friend and her ex-lover. They weren’t holding hands. Yet, she could sense that unmistakable sizzle. Almost convulsing, Jess said nothing. She kept her love life private.
Ouch! That Summer with Will stung like a bee. He’d seen straight through her with those damned blue eyes. Didn’t even need his lens.
That’s why she ran. By then, there was no turning back.
She was too broken.
The two people she loved the most and knew the best. Yet, she kept zipped.
She couldn’t tell him about their son.
Night Battle (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Danni sloshed her Prosecco the night they set off the M-80s.
Before the first explosion echoed through the river canyon, Ike rose from his sportsman’s chair. He set down his glass, poised for battle. He’d later say this was why he disliked bonfires — he needed night vision. Danni’s desire for marshmallows and warmth wouldn’t persuade Ike to risk night blindness. Her idea of cozy-camping never meshed with his need to stand guard between life and death.
He slipped into the dark. Danni almost felt sorry for the jerks about to get the fire-in-the-hole lecture from a former Army Ranger.
Welcome Home by Sarah Brentyn
“Long day at work?” She brushed some snow off his coat.
He reached for her pinky, lifting it to his lips and kissing her hand. “It was,” he looked past her to the fireplace, “interesting.”
“As always,” she laughed.
“As always, my dear.”
She led him to the fire where she had set a blanket and two glasses of wine.
Curling up in the warmth, he placed his head on her lap. “Perfect,” he murmured.
Stroking his hair, she thought about their love, how easy it all was, how they never discussed the fact her husband was a hitman.
Home Fires by Pensitivity
Stamping our feet to dislodge the snow from our shoes, we let ourselves in through the conservatory where we removed our outdoor clothes.
First stop was the kitchen to put the kettle on, then rummage around in the cupboard for goodies.
The log fire in the lounge was burning merrily in the hearth, casting a rosy glow throughout.
I loved that room with its warm wooden half panelling and uncluttered walls, so homely and welcoming.
What better on a chilly day than to curl up in front of the fire with mugs of steaming hot chocolate and fruit cake?
Fireside Chat by Geoff Le Pard
‘This is nice.’ Mary put down the tray of tea things and smiled at Sarah her cousin, nursing her baby. ‘Penny, can you put your phone away please?’
Penny scowled at her mother.
Sarah snorted. ‘Remember when your dad sent us upstairs because we wouldn’t making a din?’
‘We dismantled the beds and made a den.’
She looked at Penny. ‘I think your grandpa might have liked your phone. Keeps you quiet.’ She patted the seat next to her and Penny moved across. ‘But he mostly liked a good conversation on a cosy afternoon. So who’s your latest boyfriend?’
Aesthetic Semantics (Jane Doe Flash Fiction) by Deborah Lee
Jane grunts, shifts a stack of binders, edges an old printer inches the other way, gaining barely enough to wedge her backpack by her feet. She whomps her head on the underside of the desk, curses. “Who keeps all this crap!”
And straightens to see her new boss. Great.
A thin, lipstick-y smile. “We’re cozy around here.”
Jane’s mind flashes to her library study nest, that couch in the back corner with a hot tea. Or her basement, her mat and sleeping bag, lantern and book, warm dog.
“Cozy’s one word for it,” she says, rubbing her head.
Cosy Yet? By Michael
With the winter wind doing its icy best I huddled, shivering under the blanket she had given me. I had come from the south where it was summer and hot and you needed little in the way of clothing. Here I couldn’t find enough layers to put on. Sensing my discomfort, she came towards me with a steaming cup of hot chocolate, snuggled in against me and wrapped her arm inside mine. As I sipped the warm brew I could feel it warming my insides. She’d rested her head against my shoulder asking me if I was cosy yet.
Homecoming (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Mary swept the hard-packed earthen floor. “Cobb, put my rocker by the hearth.”
“And the trunks, Wife?”
“Porch.” Her skirts flared as if she was dancing across a southern plantation ballroom. Children darted in and out the door, stew simmered on the hearth and Mary unpacked. She hung fresh calico curtains and made beds. By dark, tallow candles and stew in wooden bowls ended the day. It smelled like home. After three months of camping out of a creaking wagon, Mary felt a renewal of hope in her heart.
“Mary! Cobb! The new boys in the barn. They’re sick.”
Playing Hooky by Roger Shipp
“Probably over 100.” Mom held her hand against my beaded forehead.
“When I called, Doc said that if we kept up the cold compresses the fever’d break.”
“We’ll give it till morning.”
I snuggled a wee bit further under Grandma’s wonky star quilt.
Mom sat down near me. “What else can I get for you, Nicholas?”
“Some hot chocolate, please.” I eked out.
“Grand,” Mother said.
“With those tiny marshmallows,” finishing my request.
“Right away.” And Mom was gone.
“Too close, Bethany.” Nicolas said to his older sister. “Better take the hot water bottle. Mom almost sat on it!”
Coziness Danish Style by Jeanine Lebsack
She was chilled to the bone when she put her key in the lock. Her hand was shaking so badly she nearly dropped it. Finally she was inside and desperate for warmth. Hurriedly she got out of her coat and winter boots placing them carefully in the closet. Even though she was frozen to the core her OCD behaviours reared their impertinent head. The fire crackled and outside the wind roared against the window pane. She was safe, warm, and cozy sipping her tea she let out a sigh- hygge. She heard the laughter of her late Danish Grandma.
Tea Cozy by Kerry E. B. Black
Grandma made it from scraps, a perfect patchwork of recycled bits of material sewn to cover the teapot she brought with her from England. She steeped the leaves while I sliced cucumbers thin enough to read newsprint through for our sandwiches.
As I poured Darjeeling one winter morning, she asked me to take it as a symbol of our time together. I searched her expression and found only resolve.
She died before our next luncheon.
I have it now, her tea cozy, an inheritance after her passing, and its homey addition to my tea table adds her familiar comfort.
Cozy Heart by Kate Spencer
Jane’s eyes brimmed with tears. She studied her palsied mother, reclining peacefully in the easy chair, staring into space. It was as if Jane wasn’t even there.
“Hi Mom,” she said reaching into her tote bag. “I brought you someone to keep you company while I’m not here.”
Jane gently placed a golden stuffed puppy on her mother’s lap and waited.
Little by little her mom began to caress the toy and eventually held it very close.
“Cozy heart,” her mom whispered. Jane gasped, recognizing the phrase her mother softly breathed each time she’d hugged her as a child.