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Sixty miles an hour, windows rolled down, paved highway humming to the spin of tires, and I’m daydreaming about prairie flowers.
My hand rests on the steering wheel while I follow the truck and trailer in front of me. This must have been the view of pioneer women, only the pace much slower and the landscape emptier. No road signs to follow; only wagon ruts cut through the rolling hills. No modern rest stops or gas stations with odd names like Kum & Go; only free fuel for the oxen and skirts for privy privacy. When Mary Green McCanles followed her brother-in-law’s family out to Nebraska Territory, what did she dream during the long drive?
It’s easy to lump “pioneer women” into generic categories like loaves of commercial bread — you can barely discern a difference between white or wheat. In my mind, I recite the different prairie flowers to bloom during my stay in Kansas and focus on color, height and texture. Each one has a different season, grows in different soil and might even have surprising purposes. So it was with the women. My appreciation for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her pioneer years renews. She took the time to cast each character in a unique role. Laura was different from her mother, sisters and peers. Each was her own prairie flower within the settler ecosystem.
When I became interested in telling the Rock Creek event between two historic men, I wondered if I’d have anything new to say about July 12, 1861. James Butler Hickok has been thoroughly investigated by British historian, Joseph Rosa. Often accused of being yet another fancier of Hickok mythology, Rosa had a sharp mind and a ready pen. Best of all, he did due diligence in his research, something his peers and predecessors did not do as thoroughly. When anyone called out Rosa for his disclosures or discoveries on Hickok, he readily responded and editorial battles ensued in western history associations and magazines for all the world to read. And Rosa supplied evidence for his claims or counter-strikes.
However, when it came to David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles, Rosa pulled from the error and gossip filled annuals he corrected for Hickok, but not for Cobb. I understand. Rosa’s lifelong focus was Hickok, and that’s why no one expects anything new to be discovered. At first I felt annoyed that McCanles didn’t receive fair scrutiny. While his grandson attempted to “set the record straight” after seeing his family name besmirched in dime store novels and Hollywood westerns, the result was an over-correction. Who was D.C. McCanles? It depends upon which faction one reads, but each side has gaping holes in documentation.
Early on, I wrote the man as a character in a white hat, then black. But it wasn’t until I picked up on how the women would have seen him that the story came to life.
Like many before me, I first saw the pioneer women of Rock Creek in general terms — the wife, the former mistress and the station manager’s common-law wife. The wife/mistress tension had been played out ad nauseam and the more I wrote into the story, the less it held up as the linchpin to the events of July 12, 1861. I couldn’t find out much about the station manager’s wife. I felt if I could peer into the lives and minds of these women like a botanist scoping prairie flowers, I could understand better what happened that fateful day. I could come up with something new like Rosa had.
Women get lost in the records, often because of name changes. Thankfully Mary (the wife) had sons, and I could track her whereabouts through their names. After all, she did remarry. Sarah Shull also remarried, and other historians discovered her married name and subsequent locations, but they fixated on an imagined love triangle between her, Hickok and Cobb. Because it annoyed me that the lover’s spat angle was cliched and yet another way to diminish the expression of women on the frontier as anything else other than wives or whores, I followed the leads that pointed to Sarah’s profession. The pioneer was an accomplished accountant and store-keep. Given Cobb’s interest to expand his business holdings, it places Sarah in another role.
Jane Holmes was the hardest to research. We know through oral accounts she was the daughter of Joseph Holmes, a frontiersman and carpenter. She is also documented as being the common-law wife of the Pony Express station manager, Horace Wellman. She might be the young unmarried woman with an infant listed in the Joseph Holmes household of the 1860 territorial census. Her name is Nancy J. Nothing can be found of her before or after Rock Creek. Nor can I find a likeness of the sort of woman she might have been among the more proper journals, diaries and scrapbooks of pioneer women. She’s my imagined free spirit.
Research, writing and daydreaming has been my Rock Creek dance. I’m not penning a biography like Rosa did, but I will take a page from his strategy book. While thumbing through the crisp, brown and musty ledgers of the Kansas State Archives, I used Hickok as an entry point once I couldn’t find anything relating to my principal women. That led me to Rosa’s research. I mean, his actual research he himself did at the Kansas State Archives for decades. For 20 years he did all his research from London, writing correspondence with the state historians. After that he traveled to the Midwest annually to research for 30 days, his holiday. Once he began to publish, he stood on solid documentation. Like Rosa, my fiction will stand upon solid research.
Unlike Rosa, I dream the gaps. I drive and daydream of prairie flowers, digesting what I discovered in Rock Creek on this trip.
Mary, deepened in character when I gave her a competitive edge over Sarah to wield like power. Cobb’s father wrote of Mary’s vivaciousness and a photo no historian has ever published in a book about Rock Creek shows her to be a gorgeous young woman at the time of the incident. But what else? Even the prairie rose has more to offer than beauty. I learned several stories, digging into old pioneer accounts about the era after the Rock Creek incident. One, told by her two children Cling and Lizza (as “old-timers”) recounts how they grew up playing with the Otoe-Missouri children near Rock Creek. Cling says his mother traded with them.
In a second account in another book, Mary features in an obscure incident involving the Otoe-Missouri tribe. They often stopped at her ranch, even wounded. Further, the author relates a simple passage: “Mary often walked the trails alone and at night to midwife and doctor folks.” Not only was she not afraid of the “redman” her neighbors often feared, she took care of them as a prairie doctor. This rose suddenly bloomed in my mind, and I daydreamed about Mary and what her life was like and how she became a lone woman on the prairie, doctoring and delivering babies no matter the origins. No wonder many lovingly called her Grandma McCanles in her old age. No wonder proper history overlooked her improper activities.
A third story related to me by a local historian was that Mary’s second husband divorced her because of infidelity. She said I could find it in the county records. Not that it pertains to the events in my book, but it certainly colors the character of Mary who has only her first name inscribed upon her gravestone above “Wife of D. C. McCanles.” I once thought perhaps she was uncertain of who she was — a Green, a McCanles or a Hughes. No, I think she knew exactly who she was and didn’t require the name of a father or spouse to legitimize her life in death.
Another conclusion I drew from experiencing Rock Creek in person was that Nancy Jane might be missing from the records, but she served an important role in life. She was friend to Sarah Shull, and able to reinvent herself. I suspect her next relationship was that of marriage. The wildest of the three might have assimilated into a proper life. But I like to imagine her racing a horse across the hard-packed earth with hair as wind-whipped as mine while journeying north. She did not fear change. She might have been a bit like Calamity Jane whom Hickok treated kindly later in life. Newspapers and records might have missed their lives, but the women of Rock Creek live on in my dreams.
This week, Rough Writer and author, Ruchira Khanna, has offered a guest prompt. I’d like to pause, near the end of a long journey (or at least a rest stop) to thank everyone at Carrot Ranch for carrying on while I traverse the trails. Especially, I’d like to thank Norah Colvin, D. Avery and Ruchira Khana for stepping up to ranch chores. I’ll catch up with you all once settled on the healing shores of Lake Superior. Keep writing, keep pushing on, and happy trails to you all.
June 22, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves a dream. This action could have happened while awake, such as daydreaming, or make up a dream when asleep. Go where the prompt leads as it could be a nightmare or just fond memories or ambition.
Respond by June 27, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published June 28). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Lost in a Dream (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Young Sally stirred the bean pot and twittered about lace she’d seen in Beatrice. Sarah saw herself as if in a dream, a memory vividly sketched in mind but dormant for years.
“Beans look ready Miss Sarah?”
Her hands, no longer stiff and aged, trembled at what she knew came next. She heard herself repeat words from 70 years ago. “Check one.”
Sally blew on the wooden spoon, a lone pinto perched in thin liquid. Bread cooled next to churned butter and wild plum jam.
Sarah succumbed to the memory of the day. There never was a last supper.
White clouds scud across the blue skies of Kansas. An ocean of green grass spreads out below and I can imagine how the pioneer wagons with white tarps once mirrored the procession of cumulus clouds. In a modern car the going is smooth, but in a wagon the path was not easy. Wagons wore ruts and packed the earth so hard, grass doesn’t grow in some places even today. Ravines and creeks were dangerous, and pioneers often drowned crossing rivers. My idyllic vision of Conestogas crossing the prairie is far from reality.
Yet there’s a reality often overlooked in the western expansion of the US — the perspective from women who came west. Just as I’m driving the car in our mini RV train of sorts, women often managed the reins of the wagons. At the end of the day after traveling, I can still feel the movement of the road. I’m sure the wagon drivers laid down at night feeling the sway and jostle of their conveyances, too. But what’s significant is what’s omitted from the pioneer diaries and accounts. According to one historian, as many as 90 percent of the women who came west were in one phase of pregnancy or another. There were plains so flat and wagons so many, I wonder how women found privacy for the most personal of functions?
A community of women would have been important. They could look after one another and best understand feminine needs. But what about those on the fringes? I often think of Nancy Jane Holmes as a feminine rebellious spirit. But how rebellious could her gender be? Evidence indicates she had a child out of wedlock and later lived with a man as a common-law wife. She grew up on the prairie and I imagine she learned to hunt and fix game for meals. She was more hunter than farmer. Did she ever ride with the buffalo hunters? What did she think of the groups of women who passed through in the wagon trains? What did they think of her, or say to her?
For men, the westward expansion was more adventurous. In their prime, they were not burdened by bodies meant for fertility. They didn’t experience monthly fluxes, pregnancy or nursing an infant. They were free to roam, explore and be independent even with families in tow. If men were single and in a group, often they were pushing longhorns to Kansas from Texas or serving as soldiers in the US Cavalry or frontiersmen who scouted for wagon trains and hunted buffalo.
Driving across the lone prairie, I wonder at how to breakthrough the stereotypes of these past experiences, to acknowledge what was common and likely, yet imagine the unrecorded exceptions. History has documented James Butler Hickok, Wild Bill, to the minute detail. There’s no new evidence of his experiences, yet I think there’s much left to say about them by looking at the other people he interacted with at Rock Creek. Especially the women. Historians have turned wild imaginations toward Sarah Shull, and yet have virtually ignored Nancy Jane Holmes (or Jane Wellman). She was on the fringe of what was typical of pioneer women. She was more of a frontierswoman. And that’s where the story gets interesting.
Kansas provides rich history, and tomorrow my research here begins.
For the challenge, I’m thinking about the longhorns who also once spread across the plains. The word longhorns evokes notions of cowboys and cattle, which featured later in Wild Bill Hickok’s life. It’s also the name of western steakhouses, bars, football teams and a type of cheddar cheese. Dig deep enough and you’ll find some obscure term for computer technology. It’s the same idea with history, and I look forward to digging.
May 25, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a that includes the word longhorn. You can go with any of its meanings or make it a name of a person or organization. Cheese or cattle, technology or place, what can you create from the western icon? Go traditional or new; go where the prompt leads.
Respond by May 30, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 31). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Myths of Longhorns (from Rock Creek) by Charli MIlls
“Ever see cowboys riding the trail with their longhorns?” Jesse asked.
Sarah was tucked in a blanket, sitting on Jesse’s porch. Shulls Mill squatted dingy with lumbering dust and brick buildings. Not the crisp colors of the prairie. “No,” she replied.
“But I thought Hickok was Marshall of the biggest cowtown.”
“That was later. I saw plenty of oxen and some had long horns.”
“I pictured longhorns on the prairies.”
“Buffaloes. I once saw a herd so large the ground shook.”
“Weren’t you afraid of Indians?”
“Jesse, there’s much about the west not in those dime novels you read.”
In my mind, my Aunt Mary McCanles is as stoic as the women painted in pioneer portraits. Grim smile, bun puled taut, knuckles gnarled from the hard work of homesteading folded passively on her lap as she sits in her rocking chair for the camera. The romantic notion that wagons west was the adventure we modern descendants missed, that times were once simpler and more decent is among the big western myths. It’s true, Mary had courage and the wit to survive. She worked hard to raise four sons and an invalid daughter on the vast prairie of Nebraska Territory as a widow.
Maybe it’s because of the romance of the west, or maybe because she was my kin, I find it difficult to access her complexity. She’s human and must have been a woman of dichotomies. Aren’t we all? Life isn’t just about our personalities and the places we live, but it’s the intersection between our worst and best traits on our worst and best days. Add to the mix a harsh land and the reality of migration, and Mary had no chance to be a paper doll from a children’s American West set. She was a flesh and blood, heart and mind, physical and soulful woman.
When I think of stories, I think in terms of what if. To me, that’s where the action unfolds. What if a woman followed her husband and his former mistress out west, migrating to a frontier? What if she left behind a home and family she’d never see again? What if her husband was gunned down one afternoon? What if is the blueprint for the external story.
Internally, motivation becomes a driver. Why would she follow her husband and his former mistress to such a place? How did she cope in a new community? Did his death change her? What about love? Did she love her husband because he was the father of her five children or did she marry out of a sense of duty? The internal story shapes the human triumph or tragedy.
For a work of historical fiction, research collects the facts that detail the story. These details include every day occurrences, such as the life of a pioneer homesteader. They can also give clues to personality through eye-witness accounts or remembrances. Newspaper clippings give tone to decipher attitudes and culture. For example, slavery in the US is unavoidable, reading a southern newspaper from the 1850s. The attitudes of the culture emerge in ads advertising poultry and slave auctions like normal events. They were, for the times.
I’ve talked about the story structure I use to write novels — a W that outlines the hero’s journey. Recently, I heard Matt Damon give an interview about an upcoming movie about the Great Wall in China. He called it a classic hero’s journey. Yet, I think even the tale of a woman on the prairie, sweeping a cracked mud floor and boiling laundry can be a hero’s journey, too. Rock Creek, my historical novel in progress, has five heroes. Two are historically accounted as one hero and one villain. I retell their story through the three perspectives of the women who knew them both and experienced the infamous event at Rock Creek one hot July day in 1861.
Only one character has the full hero’s arc — Sarah Shull. The remaining characters fill in the external or internal stories.
Motives for the two men have been debated over 150 years. I have new ideas on plausible motives to expand the narrow thinking of the men who have written the histories. I also have motives for the women. But Mary’s domestic motive has seemed bland to me — I don’t want to paint her as just another stoic prairie wife. And Sarah Shull, as former mistress, has been given several titillating motives and I didn’t want her to be a mythological soiled dove of the West. Nancy Jane has been vibrant to me because she is what any woman unfettered could have been — capable and feisty.
Writing into Mary’s dark intentions one flash a few weeks ago, I hit on an important plausible motive behind her pursuit of Cobb. It continued to worm its way into my imagination to give more fertile ground to consider motives of Sarah. How might Sarah’s knowledge of Mary’s motives shadow her own? That led to me thinking about Sarah’s friendship with Nancy Jane. After spending a weekend with a McCanles cousin whose research and opinion I respect, I was in a brain churning process. Do you know that feeling? That mind-space where you go over your internal and external stories trying to dig deeper for that coveted surprise you know is there, somewhere between the details?
Then a conversation with a trusted friend who knows the full story (something I protect from historians because it is a bombshell and will rock the Wild Bill World) led to a moment of inspiration. You might say, I had a perfect storm this week. When I sat down to tap out that inspired idea, 5,443 words later I actually had my motives emerge fully and I had my ending. That might sound odd — to find an ending to a historical story where we know how it ends. But of course, who would read it if I told the story from start to finish? That’s why novels are never a straight forward telling of the external story.
My W has been mapped out for Rock Creek. I have worked hard to fill in historical gaps; I scrapped the first half of the book; expanded the Nebraska accounts; and wrote Sarah Shull later in life. However, I’ve been stumped as to how to weave the three women’s perspectives to show the men in action and use Sarah’s reflections in old age. It all came together in this new ending I wrote. What blew me away is that Sarah had one last secret for me — a motive of her own I had never considered. And it would not have come to me if I hadn’t allowed myself to think of Aunt Mary in a darker way.
While breakthroughs seem to abound this month for both my novels in progress, I hoping for a breakthrough in my homeless situation. I have come to enjoy my RV with my little office, couch, kitchen, bedroom, shower and toilet. I don’t feel so “homeless” with such basic needs met, yet we are displaced and have to move on by April because the tourist season at Zion begins in earnest and rates go up beyond my earnings as a writer. The Hub was accepted into a VA vocational program and we continue to battle the stress of his PTSD, he being more stressed than me. Progress is slower than our timeline to move. And we have no way to move our big RV, something we said we’d figure out. Well, we’re still figuring! I’ll hope for some perfect storm of inspiration.
The first anthology is making its way back to our capable and talented Trail Boss & Editor, Sarah Brentyn next week. She and all the Rough Writers have been patient and I appreciate that. The Raw Fiction series is meant to be a platform for our anthologies, expanding the literary community here as one that discusses as well as performs feats of raw literary art. The synergy is evident in what we write individually and collectively among such diverse writers. Once we have Volume 1 under our belts, we’ll invite new Rough Writers to join our core of ranch hands and continue to grow.
With all this movement and wandering (imaginatively) across the plains of Nebraska Territory, I can’t help but think of migration. Immigration dominates world news as refugees seek asylum, countries ponder how to balance humanitarian efforts with safety protocols, and the US slams shut its borders and evicts “illegal” immigrants from our neighbor, Mexico. The announcement of 15,000 new jobs for border control is not one that has many cheering new jobs in America. What would we have done had Trump lived 150 years ago and was chief of the Plains Indians? Would the west have known such a migration as the pioneers? Would we have an Indigenous west, open to Mexico, closed to Americans? And we just discovered 7 new earth-like planets only 39 light years away! What will future global migrations look like?
February 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a migration story. It can imagine the dusty or arctic trails of the frontiers past or look to the travel across the galaxy. What issue about modern migration bans might influence an artistic expression in a flash? Migrate where the prompt leads you.
Respond by February 28, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 1). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Leaving for the West (from Rock Creek) by Charli
“Pa? Are you leaving us?”
Mary glared at her husband. To avoid the new administration’s secession policies, Cobb was leaving his sheriff’s post. Her family and friends no longer visited, political beliefs dividing neighbors and kin. “Answer the boy, Cobb. He’s your son. He deserves your words, not the gossip to come.”
“Monroe, anyone asks, tell them I’m seeking gold with the Georgians.”
“What about our farm, Pa?”
“Sold, son. We’ll have a new farm out west. Uncle Leroy will bring you all out once it’s settled.”
“Out west? Where they sent the Cherokee?”
“Further west, son. The frontier.”
Walking across the Higgins Street bridge, I see a gathering of human crows in hooded dry-suits lined up along a small strip of rocks and willows. In Missoula, Montana where the Clark Fork River runs through it, the group looks like Navy Seals on a mission. These are not soldiers, but adventurers with surf boards in hand.
Yes, they surf in Montana.
Landlocked by other western states, it matters not that Montana has no ocean. The Clark Fork pounds over rocks beneath the Higgins Street bridge and a perfect surf of sorts forms at Brennan’s Wave. Conveniently located near a park, below a bridge and just blocks from the University of Montana, this phenomenon attracts the adventurous.
My adventure is to watch from the bridge above.
I’ve had enough adrenaline and drama in my life to feel satisfied to watch others dip into killer waves. Adventure doesn’t always mean having to do the deed oneself. I don’t have to squeeze into a dry-suit, buy a board and a personal flotation device, or listen to the horror stories of others who forgot to wear a helmet. I don’t have to plunge into cold mountain water, experience roiling rapids over my head or wonder how long I can hold my breath. Being witness is an adventure of its own.
This thought has been with me long enough it feels like wisdom. I’ll let others scale the rock cliffs or dangle in acrobatic silks from iron bridges. I’m a witness to adventure. I snap photos and soak up sunshine from my perch. Has this been the way of others before me?
When I was younger and unafraid to tumble off the back of a gelded beast 17 hands tall, I galloped. I was, and remain, terrified of water, yet I river-rafted, sucking in air to my rhythmic hyperventilation until I could control my breathing and not show my fear. I’ve jumped sand dunes on a three-wheeler, plunged skis over a cornice, and gave birth at home in defiance of doctors. Younger Me had an edge of cowboys & Frank Sinatra singing, I Did It My Way.
More Mature Me savors mountain bluebirds on a fence wire, reads books alongside rivers and waves at the surfers. I don’t need to explain my soul or my retirement from adventure to anyone. I witness the adventure of others. It still counts.
In history, I think it’s overlooked that women are as adventurous as men. Women tend to settle into maturity quicker because of maternal instincts, perhaps. Roles dictated by generations of culture and society create a framework that’s difficult to break. Or is it? What if women have always had the capacity to experience extreme sports or elite adventures, but that capacity is hidden within the interior of the imagination?
I think of Sarah Shull, Mary McCanles and Nancy Jane Holmes as I stand on the Higgins Street bridge and watch surfer after surfer take on Brennan’s Wave. Did they find satisfaction in witnessing, as I do? Did they feel the thrill of the Pony Express ride when horse and rider pounded hooves across the hard-packed prairie sod of summer? Could they imagine themselves as part of the great western frontier adventure without having to bare-arm wrestle other men or saddle a snorting bronc?
It’s an omission of the woman’s experience to count her present in the Wild West simply as mother, daughter, wife or whore. Women tend to play supporting roles to every lead man. Thus it was a challenge to take on the story of two swarthy frontiersmen and their highly debated gun battle through the filter of the three women who knew them. It sounds a bit like adding lace to iron. But that’s unfair. Women have capacity for adventure, too. Even if they stand as witness. They watched, engaged and could demonstrate prowess, too
Sarah Shull became a memory box for an important incident; Mary McCanles faced down Pawnee attacks as a mother and widow; and Nancy Jane, well what Nancy Jane did will surprise everyone. These women knew adventure. What adventure calls to you? Has it shifted over time and ability?
March 23, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write an adventure, experienced or witnessed. Explore your own ideas about what makes an adventurous spirit. Is it in the doing? Does standing witness count, and if so, how? Be adventurous!
Respond by March 29, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Showdown by Charli Mills
Hickok grabbed across his hips and spun each revolver like a sideshow performer. He grinned at Sarah and Nancy Jane, both gathering lunch from the garden. “I’ve returned from my adventure,” he announced.
Nancy Jane stood up, brushed dirt off her faded calico skirt and grabbed the garden hoe, twirling it around her body in a similar manner. She rested the implement across her shoulders. Sarah, still kneeling by the peas, laughed.
Hickok frowned. “Well, it doesn’t shoot,” he said.
Nancy Jane swung it off her shoulders and sliced a sunflower stalk in half. “Don’t need to,” she replied.
Today is a cake kind of day. Go on, grab a fork and savor a bite. Settle in for a story.
Carrot Ranch is imaginary. It’s a place where literary writers gather. Like rainbow cake, we are many colors and layers. Some write novels; some short stories. Some write memoirs; some science journals. Some write poetry; some write web content. We write from different places around the world: Australia, UK, Canada, Poland, US, Spain and have welcomed others passing through from Germany, Turkey and India. We’re a mash of genders and generations. We have different views regarding writing, books and publishing.
All those differences are what makes us a tasty layer cake!
The frosting that holds us together is literature. This might surprise you if you expected me to name the frosting flash fiction. That’s certainly what we do here, and flash fiction is common ground. But the original intent of Carrot Ranch as of March 5, 2014 was to create a bully-free zone where writers could learn to access creativity through problem solving (the constraint); write from a unique perspective (diversity); read and discuss the process or prompt (engagement). All those attributes add up to a literary experience.
Literature most commonly refers to works of the creative imagination and includes the responses we create as flash fiction. Often we think of literature possessing artistic merit or lasting value, so how is it that we can claim literary status for works created at an imaginary ranch and constrained to 99 words? It goes back to that literary experience — we are not collecting a canon of trendy flash fiction, but rather using them to explore our ideas, characters, longer works, craft and more. We share what we write. We read a collection each week that speaks to our world experience right here, right now, from multiple perspectives.
Literature is what speaks to us and through flash fiction we are speaking how we observe and interact with the world.
Consider these thoughts:
“It’s in literature that true life can be found. It’s under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth.” ~ Gao Xingjian
“Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people, and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.” ~ Boris Pasternak
“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” ~ C. S. Lewis
But who comes to an imaginary ranch to be constrained and roped into a literary process?
I have a Just One theory. For something to happen, it takes just one to set the spark. On March 5, 2014 just one person bridged people I knew with people I did not. Several writers from social media, Susan Zutautas and Ruchira Khanna, showed up to the first challenge, and I was grateful. My friend and family member, Paula Moyer, also showed up and I felt supported. Yet, from Australia, and only serendipity can say why, Norah Colvin stepped on to Carrot Ranch and took the challenge.
Norah was my Just One. She is the catalyst that got flash rolling. All four writers who showed up that day set the flames of the future in motion. The next week Pete Fanning showed up, followed by Georgia Bell, Sarah Brentyn, Anne Goodwin, Geoff Le Pard, Lisa Reiter, Larry LaForge, Irene Waters, Amber Prince, Jeanne Lombardo, and Sherri Matthews. I don’t know what stars aligned, but it took just one writer to saddle up and here we are. These are the earliest members of the Congress of the Rough Writers, which now consists of 33 writers and more Friends who join us weekly.
Today is our 99th Flash Fiction Challenge. When I compiled all the stories for the anthology manuscript, I narrowed the responses down to the literary group and contained it to our first year. That amounted to 68,706 words or 694 stories. And to think it started with just one!
As a treat to go with cake, I’m going to share with you some “firsts,” including my first McCanles flash fiction. I never thought I’d actually write Rock Creek, yet all it took was just one 99 word story to plant the seed of a novel. It reminds me that I might get 8,000 publishing rejections to wall-paper my office with, but all I need is just one acceptance.
Flash Fiction by Paula Moyer
Jean scrunched her fingers and toes, back and forth. They were all moving, but she was not strong enough to shake off the rubble. There was just too much of it. She was also unable to bat away the sense of shame. It was all her fault. She had known for some time that she needed to clean up her home office – excavate it, to be more precise. But after years of neglect, the once-rectangular stacks had rounded up into piles – and piles. Yet today, right on time with spring, she sneezed while reaching for a pen. Buried herself.
Flash Fiction by Susan Zutautus
As we were racing down the hill I felt a strange and eerie rumbling going on as the earth shook beneath my skis. I looked over at my son who most likely did not hear or feel anything as his music was probably cranked.
Scared to turn my head but feeling I had to; I saw the white cloud approaching behind us. Quickly I motioned to Allan that we were in big trouble. Seeing the look of terror on his face we both knew deep within our souls that this might indeed be the end for both of us.
Repercussions!! by Ruchira Khanna
Sandra is in a cleaning spree cause if mom will find out she is bound to get a time out for goofing around. As she is wiping those stains from the floor, chair, and table she hears footsteps. Her face is red with guilt and is ready to face the music for her actions.
Gets up to face her mom, who surprisingly has a calm expression and is all ears to hear her side of the story before coming to a decision. Startled Sandra explains how the cans came avalanching when she opened the cabinet thus the mess everywhere.
The Avalanche by Norah Colvin
The trickle began; imperceptible, unheeded and ignored.
Needing more attention, the volume swelled and quickened pace.
Still no attention was forthcoming so the surge became more urgent and incessant in its plea.
“Slow down! Stop me!”
To no avail.
The avalanche engulfed her.
Heat flashed through her body, from feet straight to her head.
Heart pounding loudly, “Let me out of here!” it pled.
With reverberations magnified in each and every cell,
the heady swirl became too much –
she trembling choked. “I’m dying?”
B-r-e-a-t-h-e . . .
The panic abates.
Flash Fiction by Pete Fanning
Any other day a ride to the dump would have made my week. The mountains of treasures, stacked far and wide over the rolling hills. Sure, the smell could get thick, nearly visible during those muggy days of summer, but today my nose was too stuffy to smell anything. I wiped my face with the back of my hand, still unable to look back at my old friend, sitting on garbage bags in the bed of the truck. Dad put a gentle hand on my shoulder, his eyes soft.
“Son, I’ll get you another big wheel, this one’s caput.”
It’s Just the Wind by Georgia Bell
I pressed my forehead to the window, the cold glass soothing against my flushed skin. How long had I stared down at the sidewalk, waiting for something – for someone – to be the change I couldn’t initiate? How long had I been sitting here, wanting and needing and not acting?
I felt him standing behind me. His silence as loud as the words he wouldn’t say. I didn’t turn, but flinched as the window rattled in the frame.
“It’s just the wind,” he said, and I nodded, closing my eyes, hope burning as hot as the tears on my face.
Dreams and Debris by Sarah Brentyn
Sitting next to the bonfire, I read the words I wrote when I still believed. Better days were ahead. Success awaited me. Love would find me.
Flipping through pages, I watch my handwriting change. Ugly scribbles fill the diary toward the end where I wrote about the things that were lost and the things that were never found. I want to remember, to feel something. But I can’t hold on. Bits of my life flutter in and out of my head and these memories lose their meaning. I toss the book into the flames and walk into the lake.
Virgil Kane is My Name by Charli Mills
I says to my wife, there goes them no-good McCanlesses. Me, I’m out plowing the field them Yankees trampled after murdering Cap’t Morgan. Stoneman’s cavalry. Bah! Bunch of thieving turncoats, I say. “You leave Tennessee,” I shouts at them. Their wagons creak but they say nothin’ to me. Old man Cobb McCanless slumps in his wagon seat. Hope he feels a fool having to flee Tennessee. He was my school teacher once. Old man Cobb. A poet. Virgil Kane is my name and I rode on the Danville train. Until Cobb’s sons came and tore up them tracks again.
Flash Fiction Character Bio by Anne Goodwin
Winning the TV quiz show, Family Challenge, assured me a rosy future. My encyclopaedic knowledge would fuel my teaching career. I hadn’t bargained for a pregnancy midway through the training. When I surrendered my baby for adoption, I lost my sense of purpose too.
Can’t complain, though. I work in a school, albeit in admin. I’m extremely popular on quiz nights down the pub. But, if people ask if I have children, I don’t know what to say.
Everything’s changing again, as Jason has made contact. Given he’s about to become a father, can I call myself Grandma now?
Seth by Lisa Reiter
Stooped and bowed, by both time and hard living, his florid, round
face and rude countenance throw up barriers he wishes were not there
but like a caged animal, knows little else.
Once a traveller, now he only journeys between pub and house – no
longer much of a home since Helen left, except for the loyal, mangy
Skip who barks at every passerby – claiming Seth as his pack.
But he loves that dog and ruffles his coat roughly in greeting. Might
be the only time you’ll see him smile but you’ll get a glimpse of a
once warm man.
Dogged by Geoff Le Pard
Harry dropped his gaze to avoid looking at Sally. No point; she didn’t know he existed. He looked at the dog. Milton looked back; he scratched his ear before lowering himself into a squat.
“No. Christ. Not here.”
Milton held Harry’s gaze as he shat on the pavement.
“Great” Harry stared at the sticky turd. He patted his pocket. No bags.
Harry glanced up, wondering if he could leave it. To his horror, Sally was a few paces away. She held out her crisp packet. “Here.”
As Harry cleared up, Sally rubbed Milton’s head. “Cute dog.”
Bye Bye Betsy by Larry LaForge
He’s struggling with it, but knows he must dump her immediately after graduation.
They had a great ride for four years. He took her everywhere, and she never let him down.
She didn’t come with a manual, so he had to learn everything on the fly. It was rocky at times. Someone more experienced could have kept things running more smoothly.
Her presence at the big job interview was embarrassing. Now that he must impress his uppity colleagues, she just can’t be in the picture.
But deep inside he knows.
That’s the best pickup truck he will ever own.
Vacation Getaway by Amber Prince
Night had fallen like a thick blanket dropped from the sky.
I gripped the steering wheel, drying blood oozing between my fingers. I pressed further down on the gas.
It was too late. Headlights flickered in the rearview mirror.
I turned off my own lights and let off of the gas, not using the brakes. I veered off of the road, flying into the field.
I maneuvered into the backseat, pushing the still warm body over top of me.
My only hope was the dead taxi driver, and my ability to play dead.
Man, I should’ve vacationed in Alaska.
The Wheel Barrow by Irene A Waters
The sound came again. Closer this time. It sounded like a squeaky wheelbarrow. He ran to his mother’s room. She would know what to do. Hugging, they listened to the sound. She rang the police. Arriving quickly they searched outside, returning pronouncing the culprit was a leaking hot water system. The plumber was called and the leak repaired. The next night he was again woken by the sound of a wheelbarrow. Not waking his mother he went to check the hot water. He saw the wheelbarrow when suddenly, a hand over his mouth turned his scream silent.
The Patrick Cat by Jeanne Belisle Lombardo
The rain stopped. She stepped through to the patio, drank in the scent of quenched earth and creosote, then moved to the Palo Verde tree.
Her hand on the smooth, green bark, she looked east. A rainbow crowned Fire Rock Mountain.
Then she noticed it, the chain, hanging free from a bough. The terracotta winged cat that Patrick had given her was gone.
She toed the earth. “Where are you Patrick?” she whispered. “Don’t die on me again.”
A rustle near the rosemary. A cat the color of clay pawed the air. “Meer,” it said. And took flight.
Last Train Home by Sherri Matthews
Settling in for the train journey, Jamie plugged in, metal guitar riffs screaming. An hour in, he turned and saw her.
Dark eyes met his, frozen in disbelief. Turning to her new man, she giggled as they sat down in the seats in front of Jamie.
“That’s Jamie sitting behind us!” They swapped tongues.
Jamie exploded out of his seat, leaping off at the next stop. He caught a glimpse of her staring blankly out of the train window, chewing her nails, looking ugly. Jamie turned away and kept walking. He smiled then. Poor bastard, it’ll be him next.
March 16, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about the idea of “just one.” If all it takes is just one, what is the story? Explore what comes to mind and go where the prompt takes you. Bonus challenge: eat cake while you write, or include cake in your flash.
Respond by March 22, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Thank you to all who come here and add to the literature of our times, joining together to write in fellowship.
Just One to Speak the Truth by Charli Mills
Sarah handed Leroy a cup of cold coffee and the carrot cake his wife had fixed earlier. Five days now since Cobb was gunned down at Rock Creek. She could still smell blood. Hickok, Doc Brink and Nancy Jane’s lover were under arrest for murder in Beatrice.
“Did you find the teamster?”
“Yes.” Leroy downed the coffee and set aside the plate.
Leroy growled. “No. Not one man will speak well of Cobb.”
“Mary’s got to let Roe testify.”
“She won’t. She’s scared.”
“Cobb wasn’t armed. I’ll testify. You need just one witness…”
“…who isn’t a woman.”
It’s dark and the dogs have to pee. With one arm wrapped around the porch post, I lean toward the dark lawn to let Grenny reach as far as he can to pee on leash. No way will I let him cavort in the darkness. He’ll bring back a monster I can’t see.
The Hub calls me the Cowardly Cowgirl. He finds it amusing that I scream over mice and refuse to step a toe across the dark shadows of night. He recently bought me a monster-finder. I think it’s actually called a night scope, but whatever it is the device can pick up eyeballs and heat-shifting forms in the darkness. Like that’s going to make me less afraid of monsters.
I live in North Idaho where monsters are real. A woman new to the area posted on a local social media group about tips for hiking alone. No one mentioned lurking rapists or muggers, but everyone who responded had a story about wild monsters. The woman asked if she need a firearm, bear spray or of her dogs would suffice. The responses? Both, and don’t let your dogs run or they’ll bring back whatever is out there to you.
Yep. I know that. We live in grizzly country. Wolves slather on the fringes of my property and I’ve nearly been trampled by a moose (not nearly, but could have been). Coyotes grow to trickster proportions and in the summers I even dread the pond gang of bull frogs. Monsters and darkness go hand in hand. Give me broad daylight and I’ll pick huckleberries past the clumps of bear hair, read my book on the Pack River while my dogs entice moose or wolves into an attack, and explore remote and unknown places.
I don’t carry bear spray or pack a firearm. But I also don’t stray far from the man who does. I feel safe from monsters in the company of the Hub. After all, he did rescue our meddlesome dog from a grizzly by mere force of voice. Sgt. Mills mode I call it.
At night, though, I get jittery. Even with the Hub leading me to the back pastures to teach me how to use the scope. He seriously thinks that giving me night vision will ease my monster fears. I tolerate the lessons and groan when he says, “Let’s go look at stars and monsters.” For four years this man trudged at night in South American jungles with deadly snakes, spiders the size of eco-cars and guerrilla soldiers with guns. He’s been bit, shot at and drowned three times yet he doesn’t fear the dark.
Instead, he sees darkness in our government, in drug lords and the evil intentions of powerful men.
We all see monsters in one form or another. Call them fears or risk-avoidance. And we don’t agree on the monsters we see. The Hub might think it foolish for a pastor to minister to addicts, felons and the mentally unstable, and was not surprised when Pastor Tim was shot. By a monster, some might say. A crazed monster who himself feared aliens. But Pastor Tim sees hurting and broken people, broken systems, not monsters. His family asked others to pray for the man who shot him.
It’s not monsters that interest me, but rather monster-slayers. And like monsters, we don’t all agree on what needs slaying. It’s perspective. However, it is also a rich human complexity to explore in literature — what are the monsters and who are their slayers? Are monster-slayers heroic or misguided?
James Butler Hickok earned the name “Wild Bill”once the story of his infamous fight with the guerrilla McKandlas and ten of his men became popularized in Harper’s Weekly (think sensational tabloid). And David Colbert “Cobb” McCanles earned the title of monster, although recent historians are satisfied to raise him up to that of a bully. But why is Cobb a bully and Hickok a frontier hero? Again, it’s perspective. Hickok is forgiven any sins because he was a Civil War scout, a plainsman and occasional lawman.
However, Cobb was a lawman consistently for over six years. He was General of Musters for his militia and when he arrived in Rock Creek, he organized the citizens to adjudicate crime. He refused to kill criminals (vigilantes often hung men for lesser crimes or those fabricated). His punishments, which could be harsh, did not result in loss of life. Cobb never killed anyone in the line of duty whereas Hickock killed over 100 men. Cobb is called a bully for punishing people and Hickok is revered for bringing order to the frontier by killing “bad guys” a.k.a monsters of the west. Hickok is a monster-slayer; Cobb a monster.
See how complicated it can be? We all need special goggles to help us see in dark places. Many times, the darkness is within. Some of us write to bring light to stave the darkness and others write the darkness out in order to let light in. In a way, considering all the struggles we have as writers to keep the monsters of doubt at bay, we are all monster-slayers when we persevere to write.
March 9, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a monster story. You can pick any perspective, even that of the monster. It can be literal or symbolic; it can be heroic or realistic. Think about the shifting roles of what is a monster and who is a monster-slayer. Consider how easily we give the label to others or to fears we can’t name.
Respond by March 15, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
A big Gracias to Geoff LePard for the monster photo. Read more about where this monster lurks.
Monster Hunt by Charli Mills
Wilstach patted his mustache with a lace hanky. Sarah, lost in thoughts of Rock Creek, heard her friends speak in her head.
“A fine dandy for lunch, Rosebud,” Cobb said.
Nancy Jane scoffed. “That man for real? Sarah, you need to kick him in the shins.”
“I’d play poker with him. Strip his money and ego in minutes,” added Hickok.
Wilstach repeated a question. She had to snuff the voices, bury secrets with the dead. Lunch was not so tempting that she’d betray them. Her stomach growled in protest.
“Mrs. Devald. Tell me, which one was the real monster?”
Mr. P would ask, “Have you read the Iliad?” I’d shake my head no. If I had my way, I’d have stayed lost in the Little Woods or the Prairie. Eventually I found my way from Laura Ingalls to the diary of a girl who died among the Donner Party. I’d seen wagon ruts, knew about the granite walls where you could still see scrapes from the wagons hoisted up impenetrable box canyons, and I often read my library books in the back of an old Conestoga abandoned along Pleasant Valley Creek.
But Mr. P wasn’t having any of it. He sent me through Greek mythology, introduced me to classics and quizzed me on each book. I couldn’t escape this Apache. Yes, he was Apache–a scholar, a poker player, the husband of one of my school teachers and he worked for the county in a little modular office set up next to the stout library built of rock. He knew how to lure me. “Want to know where you can find arrowheads?” My eyes lit up. Yes! The catch was, read another classic.
And so I did.
For some reason, these books failed to capture my imagination until I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Yet what intrigued me about Dracula was what kept me going back to the library for Laura Ingalls. It wasn’t just the stories, but the authors. I wondered at who Laura was behind the page as much as on it. For some reason I can’t explain, I was curious as to why Bram Stoker would write such a story. So I wrote a story about Bram and how he liked history and mountains and found himself researching Vlad Tepes in Romania.
I was 12 or 13. It was after I discovered writing stories. My first constraints were given to my by my 7th/8th-grade teacher who also made me run long distance for physical education. Where I lagged in running, I excelled in spinning stories. I wrote three pages. He said write five. I wrote five and he said write ten. I suspected he was training me like in PE–run half a mile this week, one mile the next.
In 8th-grade I was running five miles and turning in 15 pages a week. I dropped the running but never the writing.
Fast forward through my life and other mentors flash in and out of memory. I can tell you what each library was like wherever I lived. In St. Paul I discovered the History Center, where a humble library sat upon three levels of historical archives. Here I learned to walk in the shadow of classics that mattered most to me–historical fiction. I secretly dreamed that one day I’d finish a historical novel.
Now it’s the path I walk (not run) out loud. I’m writing historical fiction, revising my first draft, poking at the idea for my second. With my contributions to Go Idaho, I’m firmly set to join Women Write the West. This is my dream and I would not have it if it weren’t for the libraries in my life, and the people who pointed me to them. When was the last time you visited your library?
Libraries are more than a container of books. As writers we should be attached to our libraries like a baby to mama. They comfort and nurture us; they help us grow and learn. The Library in Sandpoint is as amazing as a star. It twinkles among a swath of other diamonds that make up the night sky. I have one, you have one, every community has one. And like stars, each one is worthy of wonder. May we never lose our wonderment for libraries!
Yet, what do you do for your library?
I know what East Bonner County Library District does for me. Books. They have old favorites, new fictions. It was upon The Library shelf I discovered, I Was a Revolutionary by Andrew Malan Milward, a collection of short stories rooted in history and place, weaving in and out of time, genders and ethnic identities. It opened my eyes to threading shorts in a long way. I can check out seeds from my library! Seeds! I can also deposit seeds from my garden.
When I do something for The Library, I get something in return. I became a volunteer and I get supportive and informational monthly meetings with chocolate. I host Wrangling Words and get support for building a local writing community. I put up posters and I meet people and get coffee. I make posters and I get invited to a design workshop. And did I mention, this is all free? I get to grow and learn as I did in school. Learning is life-long at the library.
In 1909, Fairbury Public Library become one of 69 Carnegie libraries in Nebraska 48 years after Cobb’s death, two years after Mary died (in Fairbury) and one year after their son Monroe met Wild Bill Cody. Monroe would tell the western entertainer his version of events at Rock Creek that eventful day when Hickok (Cody’s good friend) shot Monroe’s father. Today, Fairbury Public Library is the repository for genealogy in Jefferson County where Rock Creek was located. And yes, I’ve been to that library. It’s the photo for this week’s challenge.
Appalachians are often thought of as uneducated. Yet, Cobb was highly educated and so were his sisters and brother. His father was a school teacher. Cobb introduced one of Jefferson County’s first schools, paying a teacher out of his own pocket to teach his children and others in the area. I wonder if he would have had a personal library. Sarah was also literate, but Mary and Nancy Jane were not. Literacy didn’t seem to get a woman further in life during these times. And many northerners (Yankees) made poor assumptions upon hearing a southern accent, thinking a slow drawl meant an uneducated mind. How wrong, yet these biases still stick to the annuals of history.
Literacy is a great equalizer, and as Mr. P tried to impress upon me, a foundation of books builds an open mind.
March 2, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a library. You can honor the libraries in your own experience, dream about libraries of the future or explore a community without one. Bonus points for discovering something you didn’t know your library offered. For example, my library offers organic and heirloom seeds.
Respond by March 8, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Northern Assumptions by Charli Mills
The stranger scuffed his boots when he entered Rock Creek Trading Post.
A lanky freighter, Sarah thought. He favored one leg and his left arm hung limp. “Good day. Supplies are low until spring mud recedes.”
“Well, I don’t think you’d have what I need, anyways.” He touched the brim of his hat.
“What’s that, Sir?”
He grinned. “A proper northern library.”
“I see. Follow me.” Sarah opened the backdoor to reveal shelves of books. She grabbed one, handing it to the stranger. “I hope this isn’t beyond your grand intellect.”
It read, Tom Thumb’s Picture Alphabet.