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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.
Sails gain minimal height over rolling waves, riders like astronauts flip their bodies to the universe until gravity beats wind. They land, carving a crest of water. Not to be defeated, these wind-&-wave riders reach again and again for stars we can’t see in an overcast sky. Wake boards point to unseen constellations, but fall light years short of any terminus. Like writers, these Argonauts shoot for the moon. We never truly arrive, pointing our sails or words into the wind and leap perpetually.
We live for unexpected landings. Adventure or insights gained from a brutal crash, success and failure meld into multiple attempts that don’t end until we end the ride, pull the sails, clear the screen. Who wants to end when there’s so much wind yet to catch? So many words yet to write? The stars are near. The stories within reach. Type so fast your fingers lay a rooster-tail across the keyboard.
Blonde girls sell red strawberries along the foggy highway.
It’s a riddle to me. The wind-&-wave riders commune with my own seeking, but these girls make me question my location. My time. My space. Where am I? The fog tricks my senses, cloaking the season until my wandering mind marvels at strawberries in winter. No, it’s summer in the western hemisphere. Fog, berries and blondes. If I left Mars, I think I made an unexpected landing on Neptune.
In the southwest, where sand is its own artisan, attempting to blow its own glass with temperatures reaching furnace levels, red Mars is easy to see. Mesas and sandstone, heat and dry arroyos are the closest I’ve come to writing from another planet. Yet, now I find myself in this cool, watery and shrouded world. The blondes tell me its fine berry growing weather. And quarts of luscious sweet summer bites are only $4.95 while they last. Evidently Neptune must grow its own taste of summer because I see nothing else here that acknowledges the heat of Mars or the jungles of Kansas.
After a year and 27 days of wandering in search of home, I’ve found chickens. Look, chickens!
Like ladies in petticoats they run with wings as if to hike up their feathered skirts of buff, brown and red. The cock among them runs like a lady, too and they are charging me as if to respond to my distracted delight with a distraction of their own: Look, people! I cringe upon seeing the spurs, knowing the feel of such talons. I have little memory of the actual rooster attack except for falling to my young knees and covering my head with hands, screaming until my aunt beat the rooster to death with a broom. I don’t remember that it died, but feel bad, as if I caused his early entry to the stew pot, or so the ancient family story goes.
This fella is cheerful, the ladies excitable, and I throw back my head to laugh.
It’s foggy, but through the fine mist I can see twin spires of a Catholic Church bricked in Jacobsville Sandstone. I pause to wonder which group of miners dedicated this towering feature. All around me are chickens and miner’s houses in varying forms of decay. An Elvis poster hangs in a window across the street. Next door the house is neat as a pin, old, but standing tall. The next house is only a remnant of a cobbled rock foundation. Across from the rubble is a house about to go on sale at county auction. It will cost the buyer about $5,000, but no one gets to see inside until after the sale. It can be guts of joists and junk, or a gem in the rough. The house next to it has a malamute fixating on the chickens.
Here’s a look at the green and gray, the twin spires and the miner’s houses. Cue the choir:
The Hub and I fully intended to come to Michigan. It was the half-baked plan after reeling from the loss of home, of Elmira Pond and writing space. But the trailer we had leaked and didn’t pull well. The Hub went into a tactical response and we’ve been our own band of Argonauts ever since, picking cherries in Wallace, Idaho, discovering RV parks and migrant fruit-pickers in central Washington, landing on Mars for winter, taking detours through Pueblo nations, digging into the history of Kansas and Nebraska, passing the Midwest metropolises to arrive at one of the weirdest borders in America.
The Keweenaw was never for the feint of heart. Hard-rock miners from Cornwall and Slovenia, Sweden and Spain, Italy and Ireland, jack-hammered over 9,000 feet below after blue veins of copper for an industrializing nation. The Quincy Mine had 92 levels of darkness, as if to prove Dante wrong. Cemeteries are full of tributes to miners who died in the mines. The land itself is a peninsula poking its finger into the belly of Lake Superior, a fresh water lake capable of snapping an ocean-going steel freighter in two. It’s not connected to the state of Michigan, but is considered its upper peninsula (the U.P., thus naming its residents “yoopers”).
Mostly the Finns remain. Sisu, and all. It’s a Finnish construct for grit. To live on the Keweenaw takes grit. The summers are cool and the winters accumulate over 300 inches of snowfall called Lake Effect. That explains the fog, too. Lake Superior creates its own climate. The locals will tell ya, hey, that it’s da freshest air in the world. If fresh means cool, I’d agree. It does feel fresh as spearmint gum in my mouth. I wonder what the chickens make of winter? The townsfolk of Calumet, the village housing said chickens, has no ordinances and welcomes eccentricities.
This video shows a sunnier side of the village and the coffee shop where you’ll find me writing on occasion:
The chickens and I have an announcement: we are going to be neighbors for a year. The Hub and I are renting a home after homeless wandering, to experience the Sisu it takes to live on the Keweenaw through winter, to meet up with the artist community, and to continue the fine services we’ve encountered in the U.P. for the Hub. Yes, we are going to be yoopers. We don’t know if we’ll stay longer, go back out west or venture to yet another planet. For now, we’re going to take this unexpected landing and yet, keep aiming for the stars like the wind-&-wave riders.
Tonight my future landlord welcomed me to the town that once boasted of 30,000 citizens. I will join the 700 who remain. A new home, a new adventure, new stories to catch.
July 13, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an unexpected landing. It can be acrobatic, an unplanned move or created into a metaphor. Go where the prompt, or chickens, lead.
Respond by July 18, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published July 19). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
The Coming Storm (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Wind gusted and cottonwoods along the creek groaned. A nightfall storm closed in. Sarah hadn’t meant to stay so late in the company of Nancy Jane, but venison stew and friendship offered made Sarah linger. How long since she’d had a friend?
A branch cracked and Sarah screamed, escaping the limb’s descent. A man hollered at her to get out of the trees. Topping the gully, Sarah recognized the young stock-tender who rarely spoke. Hickok led the way as trees began to snap.
Hickok’s dugout provided an unexpected landing from the raging storm. And an unanticipated reaction from Cobb.
Sixty miles an hour, windows rolled down, paved highway humming to the spin of tires, and I’m daydreaming about prairie flowers.
My hand rests on the steering wheel while I follow the truck and trailer in front of me. This must have been the view of pioneer women, only the pace much slower and the landscape emptier. No road signs to follow; only wagon ruts cut through the rolling hills. No modern rest stops or gas stations with odd names like Kum & Go; only free fuel for the oxen and skirts for privy privacy. When Mary Green McCanles followed her brother-in-law’s family out to Nebraska Territory, what did she dream during the long drive?
It’s easy to lump “pioneer women” into generic categories like loaves of commercial bread — you can barely discern a difference between white or wheat. In my mind, I recite the different prairie flowers to bloom during my stay in Kansas and focus on color, height and texture. Each one has a different season, grows in different soil and might even have surprising purposes. So it was with the women. My appreciation for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her pioneer years renews. She took the time to cast each character in a unique role. Laura was different from her mother, sisters and peers. Each was her own prairie flower within the settler ecosystem.
When I became interested in telling the Rock Creek event between two historic men, I wondered if I’d have anything new to say about July 12, 1861. James Butler Hickok has been thoroughly investigated by British historian, Joseph Rosa. Often accused of being yet another fancier of Hickok mythology, Rosa had a sharp mind and a ready pen. Best of all, he did due diligence in his research, something his peers and predecessors did not do as thoroughly. When anyone called out Rosa for his disclosures or discoveries on Hickok, he readily responded and editorial battles ensued in western history associations and magazines for all the world to read. And Rosa supplied evidence for his claims or counter-strikes.
However, when it came to David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles, Rosa pulled from the error and gossip filled annuals he corrected for Hickok, but not for Cobb. I understand. Rosa’s lifelong focus was Hickok, and that’s why no one expects anything new to be discovered. At first I felt annoyed that McCanles didn’t receive fair scrutiny. While his grandson attempted to “set the record straight” after seeing his family name besmirched in dime store novels and Hollywood westerns, the result was an over-correction. Who was D.C. McCanles? It depends upon which faction one reads, but each side has gaping holes in documentation.
Early on, I wrote the man as a character in a white hat, then black. But it wasn’t until I picked up on how the women would have seen him that the story came to life.
Like many before me, I first saw the pioneer women of Rock Creek in general terms — the wife, the former mistress and the station manager’s common-law wife. The wife/mistress tension had been played out ad nauseam and the more I wrote into the story, the less it held up as the linchpin to the events of July 12, 1861. I couldn’t find out much about the station manager’s wife. I felt if I could peer into the lives and minds of these women like a botanist scoping prairie flowers, I could understand better what happened that fateful day. I could come up with something new like Rosa had.
Women get lost in the records, often because of name changes. Thankfully Mary (the wife) had sons, and I could track her whereabouts through their names. After all, she did remarry. Sarah Shull also remarried, and other historians discovered her married name and subsequent locations, but they fixated on an imagined love triangle between her, Hickok and Cobb. Because it annoyed me that the lover’s spat angle was cliched and yet another way to diminish the expression of women on the frontier as anything else other than wives or whores, I followed the leads that pointed to Sarah’s profession. The pioneer was an accomplished accountant and store-keep. Given Cobb’s interest to expand his business holdings, it places Sarah in another role.
Jane Holmes was the hardest to research. We know through oral accounts she was the daughter of Joseph Holmes, a frontiersman and carpenter. She is also documented as being the common-law wife of the Pony Express station manager, Horace Wellman. She might be the young unmarried woman with an infant listed in the Joseph Holmes household of the 1860 territorial census. Her name is Nancy J. Nothing can be found of her before or after Rock Creek. Nor can I find a likeness of the sort of woman she might have been among the more proper journals, diaries and scrapbooks of pioneer women. She’s my imagined free spirit.
Research, writing and daydreaming has been my Rock Creek dance. I’m not penning a biography like Rosa did, but I will take a page from his strategy book. While thumbing through the crisp, brown and musty ledgers of the Kansas State Archives, I used Hickok as an entry point once I couldn’t find anything relating to my principal women. That led me to Rosa’s research. I mean, his actual research he himself did at the Kansas State Archives for decades. For 20 years he did all his research from London, writing correspondence with the state historians. After that he traveled to the Midwest annually to research for 30 days, his holiday. Once he began to publish, he stood on solid documentation. Like Rosa, my fiction will stand upon solid research.
Unlike Rosa, I dream the gaps. I drive and daydream of prairie flowers, digesting what I discovered in Rock Creek on this trip.
Mary, deepened in character when I gave her a competitive edge over Sarah to wield like power. Cobb’s father wrote of Mary’s vivaciousness and a photo no historian has ever published in a book about Rock Creek shows her to be a gorgeous young woman at the time of the incident. But what else? Even the prairie rose has more to offer than beauty. I learned several stories, digging into old pioneer accounts about the era after the Rock Creek incident. One, told by her two children Cling and Lizza (as “old-timers”) recounts how they grew up playing with the Otoe-Missouri children near Rock Creek. Cling says his mother traded with them.
In a second account in another book, Mary features in an obscure incident involving the Otoe-Missouri tribe. They often stopped at her ranch, even wounded. Further, the author relates a simple passage: “Mary often walked the trails alone and at night to midwife and doctor folks.” Not only was she not afraid of the “redman” her neighbors often feared, she took care of them as a prairie doctor. This rose suddenly bloomed in my mind, and I daydreamed about Mary and what her life was like and how she became a lone woman on the prairie, doctoring and delivering babies no matter the origins. No wonder many lovingly called her Grandma McCanles in her old age. No wonder proper history overlooked her improper activities.
A third story related to me by a local historian was that Mary’s second husband divorced her because of infidelity. She said I could find it in the county records. Not that it pertains to the events in my book, but it certainly colors the character of Mary who has only her first name inscribed upon her gravestone above “Wife of D. C. McCanles.” I once thought perhaps she was uncertain of who she was — a Green, a McCanles or a Hughes. No, I think she knew exactly who she was and didn’t require the name of a father or spouse to legitimize her life in death.
Another conclusion I drew from experiencing Rock Creek in person was that Nancy Jane might be missing from the records, but she served an important role in life. She was friend to Sarah Shull, and able to reinvent herself. I suspect her next relationship was that of marriage. The wildest of the three might have assimilated into a proper life. But I like to imagine her racing a horse across the hard-packed earth with hair as wind-whipped as mine while journeying north. She did not fear change. She might have been a bit like Calamity Jane whom Hickok treated kindly later in life. Newspapers and records might have missed their lives, but the women of Rock Creek live on in my dreams.
This week, Rough Writer and author, Ruchira Khanna, has offered a guest prompt. I’d like to pause, near the end of a long journey (or at least a rest stop) to thank everyone at Carrot Ranch for carrying on while I traverse the trails. Especially, I’d like to thank Norah Colvin, D. Avery and Ruchira Khana for stepping up to ranch chores. I’ll catch up with you all once settled on the healing shores of Lake Superior. Keep writing, keep pushing on, and happy trails to you all.
June 22, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves a dream. This action could have happened while awake, such as daydreaming, or make up a dream when asleep. Go where the prompt leads as it could be a nightmare or just fond memories or ambition.
Respond by June 27, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published June 28). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Lost in a Dream (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Young Sally stirred the bean pot and twittered about lace she’d seen in Beatrice. Sarah saw herself as if in a dream, a memory vividly sketched in mind but dormant for years.
“Beans look ready Miss Sarah?”
Her hands, no longer stiff and aged, trembled at what she knew came next. She heard herself repeat words from 70 years ago. “Check one.”
Sally blew on the wooden spoon, a lone pinto perched in thin liquid. Bread cooled next to churned butter and wild plum jam.
Sarah succumbed to the memory of the day. There never was a last supper.
Woofie runs in mad circles across the lush mowed grass of eastern Kansas. It’s a doggie game — I call his name in a playful pitch, and he responds with the energy of a spunky toddler. He has big brown teddy-bear eyes behind long black fur. His face is like that of a Wookie, and when he drinks water he likes to slop his cold wet beard on someone’s lap or leg. He’s definitely the youngest dog in the pack but not the only one to play games.
My Sis (technically, The Hub’s Sis) is married to the Dog Whisperer of Missouri (DWM). He’s good at teaching old dogs games, like counting to five. Bobo knows her numbers and eagerly plays the game before DWM goes to work. Woofie and Kale have other tricks and games. Kale would play doggie flashlight tag until he dropped. Sis has even come home to find him nested in her bed (her side) with the flashlight lovingly grasped between his front paws.
No one plays games better than The Hub, and often this is to my dismay. His favorite games involve annoying me. Like talking in a monster-truck voice at the grocery store, announcing every item I pull from the shelf. It’s the result of a cooped up extrovert, living in an RV with an introvert. We all know the silent struggles of introverts, but silence can be difficult for extroverts to manage. So The Hub entertains himself with games.
Leaving a down-home coffee cafe, a tetherball gets me thinking of games. I haven’t seen one of these poles set in cement since I was a child. I vaguely recall playing tetherball and it seems a fun, albeit vague memory. Remember the games we once played? Running around, playing tag as exuberantly as a galloping dog? Hopscotch, hide-n-seek, jump-rope. I’m not sure screen games compare, being of the generation who didn’t have screens growing up, nor did my kids. We still like board games and cards. Seeing that tetherball was a remembrance of outdoor recess at school and that joy of having time for games.
Which leads me to time, or a lack of it. I’m so busy playing adult games, I feel like the child who laments the setting sun because it’s time to stop playing and go inside.
In the morning I return to KATP archeology field school to play in the lab. Danni’s scenes, and I have so many, where she’s working were generalized. Now I know what she’d be doing exactly and why she could get lost in her work. I’ve met dedicated archeologists who know what it is to pursue their passion although it will never lead to wealth in the pocketbook. Many professionals are volunteering on this dig and loving every minute of it, gritty with sweat and field dirt, smiles on their faces. One archeologist told me a joke I’m determined to fit into my novel, Miracle of Ducks. I think it resonates with career writers as well:
What’s the difference between an archeologist and a large pizza?
A pizza can feed a family of four!
Ouch. But true. Why is it, the pursuits that expand our minds and understanding like literary arts and cultural anthropology, are the ones we value least with money? Funding cuts are slashing deeply across the arts and even sciences in America. What a poor world where books are merely reports and cultures diminished and homogenized. I want vibrancy and diversity. I want time to play tetherball or cards over coffee.
While last week was bitter disappointment at the VA, we may have a ray of hope beating like fireflies at dusk. I’ve picked up the past-time of telling so-called veteran’s organizations what I really think of their fundraising and lack of services. We’ve had such unfortunate experiences reaching out to organizations that don’t help and then claim it’s because they are “not services.” In other words, they collect government money, grants and donations to NOT serve, but merely direct veterans to organizations that do. No kidding, last year at the height of crisis, we went through dozens of organizations that all filtered us to one to another to finally sending us to the same service that didn’t help because of criteria or (ironically) lack of funding.
The blip of hope is that I told off an organization only to be contacted by someone who said I misunderstood. It’s a veteran-led organization that has experienced our same frustrations. After talking to one of the organizers today, I felt…dignified. That may seem an odd reaction but until you’ve experienced what it is to have your human dignity taken away, it’s an empowering feeling to have someone restore it. We’ll know more on Monday, but they may be able to help in practical ways, understanding what barriers we’ve faced and validating that the VA does indeed block transients from care. They know the back alleys, the underground railroad of sorts. And I hope they pull through.
I’m sure you’ve noticed I’ve been away from the Ranch. It’s unintentional but think of me as temporarily away at a rodeo where I may win a purse or at least bring back new tales and stock. Between Rock Creek research (and I get to go visit Rock Creek station next week!) at the Kansas State Archives, archeology field school, beloved family and dogs, a possible new client contract, interviews for future profiles and articles, and trying to cram more time into a day, I’ve been called away. This is temporary, and I greatly appreciate the way the community supports one another in the comments and across individual blogs. Please continue to do so and know I will get caught up with you all over the next few weeks!
If any Rancher is interested in some ranch chores, I could use help wrangling stories from the last prompt and this one. If someone is up to it, I’d also welcome a guest prompt post next week. If not, I may extend the deadline next week, depending upon what happens Monday and when we get to Rock Creek, Nebraska. I’m grateful for this community and appreciate you all showing up and being patient. Think of the ranch challenge as a game, one we enjoying playing like tetherball or other long summer nights on the streets or dirt roads with friends.
And an update on our first Anthology and establishing an imprint — we are halfway there and have enough to start. The cover will be revealed after the Fourth of July. This is going to happen! Thank you to all who shared and contributed. More forthcoming, when I have time to process it all! To our Friends attending the Bloggers Bash, have a blast!
June 8, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves playing an outdoor game, like tetherball, hoops, tag. It can be made up, traditional, cultural or any kind of twist. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by June 13, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published June 14 unless extended). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Games Across Rock Creek (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“Rawr!” Cobb charged his five children on his hands and knees in the cropped grass in front of the west ranch house. Lizzie stood and giggled, blind since birth, she relied on her brothers to get around. Even playing games, the boys guided Lizzie. Cobb gently bumped her with his head and she squealed in delight. Young Charl tried clambering up Cobb’s back. Monroe boosted his youngest brother so he could ride Da’s back like a horse. Laughter carried across Rock Creek.
Sarah watched from the shadows on her side. Away from his precious family. The games they played.
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.”
Julia McCanles, the wizened old woman in the photo, grew so old as to regenerate new teeth. We know this miracle of age through a quirky newspaper report. Perhaps she lost molars and made room for impacted wisdom teeth. Maybe she really did grow new ones, though unlikely. Her shawl is clustered with crocheted pompoms, which says she had the wisdom to not give a wit what she wore, but dressed as she pleased regardless of teeth.
When I am old and gray, I, too will wear crocheted pompoms. Not purple, though. Turquoise.
Like all of us on the journey of life, I hope to indeed grow wise, gray and toothful. I’m making good headway, turning half a century old on Sunday, May 21. It finally sounds like I’ve achieved a dignified age, one that makes others pause. 50 sounds serious.
A few years ago I lied a few years to sound older. I was interviewing a potential client who turned out to be young and brash, definitely not wise. He had hired inexperienced writers from to submit content to websites he was developing for Spokane businesses. Now he needed a professional to rewrite the content to grow his business. He wanted a “partner” to do the task. His ad was misleading, and I had only been interested in a local writing gig, not investing my own sweat equity in his business. When my line of questioning irritated him, he asked, “Why does everyone just want to write? I need a business partner.”
Well, that wasn’t compelling at all for me. I answered an ad for a writer and explained perhaps he should advertise for a partner instead. He then proceeded to tell me about his marketing prowess, which by this time I doubted. He then made a strange assumption. He said based on all my questions and obvious reluctance to be his partner that I must be young. As soon as he assured himself I was young he began bragging about how big his web business was going to be.
I interrupted him and said I was 50. He hung up the phone on me! That’s when I knew 50 carried power. Who wants to tangle with a wise woman?
Gallup has changed me. I feel as though I’ve emerged from the wardrobe after living a lifetime in Narnia. We left this morning with a revived transmission. By the time we made the left turn at Albuquerque, north on the old Santa Fe Trail, I felt transformed back to the modern world. We can all learn from Gallup. Living in the moment and acknowledging the human dignity in one another, honoring art and making space for beauty, showing strangers the same kindness you’d show friends, not worrying over material things for they are only things, and connecting to history to future are all part of the Gallup way.
Sunday is a threshold of sorts. A time to reflect. I remember a couple’s retreat Todd and I did before we had children, and how industrious I was back then. We both came out of the hard-working culture of the west. In a class, we were asked to make a list of five goals we had for next week, and another for five goals we’d have if we were told we would die in a year. The idea was that the lists should align. If not, were we wasting time we might not have? Later the instructor pulled me aside. He said life is a stage and we should dare to be on the one that is our own. He said I wasn’t even in the audience watching life, I was in the lobby scrubbing floors.
That had an impact on me. Was I working hard toward something, or was I merely working hard?
From that day forward, I made a pact with myself. No matter if I was scrubbing floors, waiting tables, covering council meetings, raising children or going to school, I would make sure my hard work applied toward something. It put me in a never-ending pattern of writing goals. That was my ultimate dream — to be a writer of historical fiction. Therefore, as a mom of young children, I took them to historical sites. As a waitress at nights, I listened to the stories of elders for insights to the past. As a college student, I pitched an independent project to draft an historical novel. When my advisor would not let me pursue the novel as my honors thesis, I made sure the project he approved would teach me how to be a better historical researcher.
After college graduation, I did not get the sexy jobs a writing major dreams of. Instead I wrote obituaries as assistant editor to a daily newspaper. But I reflected on the history of each person. When I couldn’t get hired as an editor or writer in publications, I took a job selling magazine ads, working my way up to writing advertorials and representing my publisher at national conferences. The terrible year I worked as an independent insurance agent, I used my salary to buy the family a membership to all the state’s historical sites. As the kids got older, we found more interesting research, including cemetery look-ups as volunteer genealogists. Once I landed a marketing communications job, I made sure to become the organization’s lead writer and historian. When I left that job and set my goal on writing my first novel, I made sure it involved history even if it was a modern setting.
Writing evolved, not scrubbing floors.
But I don’t want a stage for soliloquies. I want a vibrant live play with unexpected twists, drama, scares, laughs, insights and poignant moments. I don’t want to be the only actor, the lone writer. That’s why Carrot Ranch is all about building a literary community. I will always write. My blood will pulse to the tempo of understanding the present through the lens of history. I’ll always be interested in taking something good and making it better. All those things come to life at the ranch.
Yet it’s a place that can mean something different for each person who finds the trail here, or passes through. This is not a community for historical fiction writers. It’s better that we have diversity. Different genres, experiences and interests. Writers are welcome to come and go. Of course, as this community has taken shape, I’ve set goals for growth. I have a vision for using creative efforts to form collective projects. In 2014, I went to LA with my polished first novel (Miracle of Ducks) and a collection of shared flash fiction from Carrot Ranch.
That’s where I met with several agents and publishers. A few took my first 50 pages. They all advised me to seek regional publication for an anthology, but they were also intrigued by what we were doing at Carrot Ranch. From that conference I was able to understand key marketing differences between my prior experience in print publications and book publishing. I began crafting articles to explain what a writer’s platform is actually composed of and how to use one’s unique platform strengths to market. The biggest component that stumps us all is defining and reaching our target audiences. I have theories and a potential partnership with a clever business psychologist (who also happens to be my son).
With all these ideas and experiences converging, I started to build regional connections, including relationships with two publishing houses in the Pacific Northwest. That’s when we began working in earnest on our first anthology. I developed a library program called Wrangling Words, began teaching it monthly and also partnered with a spoken word event to read flash fiction. I kept in contact with the LA conference and hosted several regional events for rural writers. I hosted numerous writers from across the US at Elmira Pond and set in motion plans for workshops. In fact, one was held last fall. Without me. And the regional book conferences I was to do Wrangling Words events (and theoretically sell our anthology) went on without me.
Last June we had to leave our rental so it could go one the market. In a rural area with popular summer tourism, there was a rental shortage and we ended up camping on the Coeur D’Alene River until we embarked on this transient lifestyle that took us from the Pacific Northwest to Mars to alien abduction (or our transmission) in Gallup to (hopefully) Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan. It’s not been pleasant and at other times it’s been amazing. It has challenged and grown me in ways I might have avoided. Sometimes I felt like giving up and becoming a hermit writer. But many circled the wagons at Carrot Ranch and we got through rocky times where I had to office in mining town libraries or rip out the back end of a leaking old trailer to build an office. One thing I learned was how to make the community platform work.
50 and homeless was not how I imagined life would be. I still sting over the loss of Elmira Pond and all the little injustices that plague those without an address. But I look for the beauty in the natural world, I never forget to see where history intersects modern understanding, and always I write. Maybe if I had been more of a floor scrubber I’d have my own floors. But I wouldn’t trade it for the dreams of a writer and the chance to lasso the moon. Wisdom? What would Great-Grandma Julia say? She left her home in North Carolina for the frontier. This land I’m about to see tomorrow, she saw. I anticipate its impact, the connection, the living for goals like I might die next year.
For my birthday, I want a book. Not just any book, but the first published anthology. We have the manuscript. If I can raise the funds, I will start an imprint for Carrot Ranch, expand our platform to benefit those who write in this community and seek new ways to inspire and inform other writers beyond the ranch hands. No matter what we have to start with, I will see it through. I’ve failed a few attempts already, but that just clears the way to find what will work. Writers have to persevere. A Patreon is under development and will launch after we get to Wisconsin and Michigan. It will benefit the writers here, as well.
Also, congratulations are in order: Carrot Ranch has been nominated for a Bloggers Bash Award as an inspiring blog. That’s a reflection on each and every one of your who make this a welcoming, fun and safe place to write, learn and explore. I want to thank you all, whether you are here regularly or not. Many of you don’t even write, but generously read and share our collection. Those who do write share diverse perspectives and talents. Thank you! You can vote at the link above, but know that it’s a greater honor to be nominated with you all than it is to win. Kerry E. B. Black gave us a great story last week about Blue Ribbons. Friendships matter more than competition.
What wisdom can you share with a forever-young, always-seeking, no-more-scrubbing-floors, newly-minted 50-year-old?
May 18, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a wise story. It can be about wisdom, expressing wisdom or advice for turning 50! It can be a wise-cracking story, too. Go where wisdom leads you.
Respond by May 23, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 24). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Seeking to Understand (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Does your creative outlet help you, Jen?” asked Danni.
“Does interviewing war widows help you?”
“Feels like I’m doing something,” Danni answered.
“Me, too. Same with the brothers. They want to feel useful. Do something good. Let me ask you, why did you stay?”
“You mean when Ike left for Iraq?”
“Yes. This was new to you. You must have felt deserted. Why did you stay?”
Danni paused, reflecting on all her earlier turmoil. She could have left the day she took Ike to the airport. Had she gained any wisdom? “I stayed to take care of his dogs.”
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.”