Yes, I write short stories
A Child's Christmas
“PAPA, CAN WE go to church tonight?” the girl asked as she and her father walked along, he burdened by a load of firewood he carried on his back.
The girl? Aria Rodriguez, age eight, living in a cave because a hurricane had blown away her home . . . living in a cave with her parents and her baby brother Luis.
What little light that was left in Aria’s father’s face dimmed. “Ari,” he said, “you know the storm destroyed our church, just like it did everything else in our village.”
“But the walls are still standing. Father Bernardo showed me.”
“They could fall, Ari. It is dangerous.”
“Papa, it is the night for the Jesus child. Father Bernardo said so. We should be there.”
Aria’s father found a large rock. He laid his load aside and sat down. After a moment’s rest, he lifted Aria onto his lap. He hugged her. “Ari, we would be the only ones there. You know we have buried many of our neighbors. And those few who survived, they have left. They have gone down the mountain, hoping somewhere to find food and water and someone to help them.”
“But we haven’t left, Papa.”
“No. No, Ari, we have our plot of land, our garden. We have our cow and she has grass in the meadow, so she can survive. And yesterday, yesterday, Ari—” Jose Rodriguez’s eyes brightened. “—yesterday I found a spring at the edge of our meadow where we never had a spring before. God’s gift perhaps. I cleaned it out and lined it with stones, to keep the water clean for you and me and Momma and little Luis and our cow.”
Aria looked up into her father’s face. She let her fingers play over his massive hands, gnarled and scarred from working the soil and cutting wood in the forest. “Father Bernardo says we are blessed. Are we?”
“Father Bernardo says that to everyone, Ari. But maybe we are. Our garden, Ari, we have our root crops. And our seed, it is safe in the cave, so we can replant, grow a new garden, grow new crops of corn and melons and beans. Our neighbors, they didn’t have a cave, so they lost everything.”
Aria cast her gaze down at the straps on her sandals. “I miss Ettien.”
“I miss him, too, and his momma and papa and all their children. But Ettein’s papa told me they had to go down the mountain. He thought maybe he could find work helping rebuild if they could get to Arecibo. Maybe one day they will come back.”
A mongrel dog, tan from the tip of his tail to just shy of his black nose, ventured into the meadow, hesitant. When the dog saw Aria and her father, he broke into a run, whipping his tail as he came, grinning with his lips turned up. The dog slid to a stop at Aria’s father’s feet, wiggling all over.
Aria slipped down. She hugged the dog. “It’s Dario,” she said. “It’s Ettein’s dog. Can we keep him?”
“No, Ari. It would be one more mouth to feed.”
“But he hunts. Ettein said so.”
“Hm, perhaps that could be useful, Ari. If anything survived in the forest, it is the wild pigs. We could hunt them for their meat. What we didn’t eat would be Dario’s.” He riffled his fingers through Aria’s hair. “Ari, you may keep the dog.”
“Thank you, Papa.”
“But you will have to explain this to your momma. She does not like dogs.”
Aria jerked her face up, surprised. “Is that why we never had a dog?”
Her father nodded. “Come, we must get home,” he said as he stood and re-shouldered his burden of firewood.
WHEN THEY NEARED the cave, Dario the dog bristled. He let out a bark. Just one.
Aria turned in the direction the dog stared. “Papa, there’s a man over there by what’s left of Ettein’s house.”
“Yes, I see him.”
“He looks hurt. Maybe we should help him.”
“I don’t know, Ari. He is a stranger.”
“But Father Bernardo says—”
Jose Rodriquez frowned. “Ari, with you it’s always Father Bernardo says this, Father Bernardo says that.” He slung his load of firewood down and took out one stick that he handled like a club. “Just in case,” he said and moved out for the rubble that had once been a house and the man poking through it, as if he were searching for something. Ari and the dog hurried to catch up.
“Hey, there,” Jose Rodriguez called out. “Can my daughter and me help you?”
The man, dressed in little more than rags, his arm in a sling, looked up. At the sight of Jose Rodriguez’s club, he staggered back, tripped and fell among the rubble. “Please, sir,” he said, his voice weak, hardly more than a whisper, “I was just looking for something to eat. I meant no harm.”
Jose Rodriguez threw his stick aside. “Where are you from?”
“The other side of the mountain. My village was all destroyed. I have been with the dead. The way out was blocked, so I came here.”
Aria’s father motioned for her to come with him. Together, they helped the man stand. “We salvaged what little food we could find from the houses of the dead in our village, added it to our own supply. My daughter would be disappointed if we did not share.”
The man, thin as a reed, gazed down at Aria beside him. His haggard face softened. “Bless you,” he whispered.
“Maybe after supper,” Aria said, “you could come to church with us. It’s the night for the Jesus child.”
“The Jesus child, yes, I’d like that.”
ARIA, SWINGING A FLASHLIGHT and with Dario beside her, ran ahead of her father and her mother carrying little Luis, and the stranger limping along with them. She ran across the village square swept free of debris by the storm that had devastated everything else, ran to the church where Father Bernardo stood in the doorway waiting for anyone who might come. “Father Bernardo,” she called out, “we’ve brought a friend with us.”
“Thank you, Ari.” He came down the steps, his arms opened out in greeting. “It is so good to see you, Jose and Maria and little Luis.” He touched the baby’s forehead, and the baby grinned at him.
Father Bernardo looked over at the stranger. “And who do we have here coming to our humble little church tonight?”
“His name is Cristo,” Jose Rodriquez said, “from the village of San Mateo. The only survivor.”
Father Bernardo smiled. “Like us, yes. God does looks out for us, doesn’t He? Come. Come inside.” He helped Cristo up the steps and down the aisle to the front bench. “Since there are so few of us, we may as well all be together.”
The stranger sat down and the Rodriguez family with him. Maria Rodriguez said something to Aria.
Aria set her flashlight on its base on the bench, the flashlight’s beam shooting up into the night’s sky. She took baby Luis from her mother and rocked him in her lap.
Father Bernardo, his back to the altar, a lone candle burning there, faced his tiny congregation. He raised his hands. “I cannot but believe that God is looking down upon us, pleased that we have come to His house on this the night of the Jesus child.”
He turned to the cradle beside him meant to be a manger for a Nativity. “The doll that has been our Jesus child for so many years, it is lost somewhere. Maria, perhaps you would loan us little Luis?”
She motioned for Aria to take the baby to Father Bernardo. He accepted the baby and knelt and laid him in the cradle.
At that moment, a brilliant light shone down from the sky, illuminating the cradle and everything around it.
“The Christmas star,” Father Bernardo said, his voice barely audible. “The Christmas star.”
That was followed by a whup-whup-whup-whup and the light moving to the side and disappearing.
Outside in the square, a swirl of wind and dust swept up and through the door, flickering the candle whose flame Father Bernardo protected, as Aria protected the baby Luis.
Before Father Bernardo or anyone else could gather their words for what they wanted to say, a man in blue coveralls, a flashlight in one hand and a medic’s bag in the other, dashed into the church, followed by a woman dressed as he was.
“We saw your lights,” the man said. “We were flying back to Arecibo, looking for survivors on our way. Can we help you?”
Jose Rodriguez rose and gestured toward the stranger. “We have this man—”
But no one sat where the stranger once did. Only a piece of paper held by a flat stone on one corner, the paper fluttering there on the bench as if it were alive.
Aria went to it. She pulled the paper free and handed it to Father Bernardo as he came to her.
The scrawl on the paper glowed iridescent. “‘In as much as you have done it to the least of God’s children,’” Father Bernardo read aloud, “‘the lost, the hungry, the injured, you have done it unto me. My blessings to you.’”
Aria peered at the note. “And he signed it.”
“Yes,” Father Bernardo said as he put his arm around Aria’s shoulders. “He signed it Cristo, the Everyman.”
Old Roy & The Cincinnati Kid . . . 1943
HE WAS A CITY KID, frustrated because he couldn’t have a horse.
“If we got you a horse,” his dad asked, “where would you keep him?”
“In the garage,” the kid said.
“Oh, I don’t think your mother would go for that. It would poop on the car. And speaking of poop, what would you do with all the piles a horse produces?”
“Umm, fertilize the garden?”
Dad narrowed his eyes. “Do you know how small our garden is?”
“Well, maybe I could start a business and sell it around the neighborhood, to other people who have gardens.”
That stopped Dad. The thought of his son becoming an entrepreneur . . . life lessons and all. But still, there was that ordinance in Cincinnati that said no livestock within the city limits. So he put that out on the floor, figuring that would be the end this discussion.
“But a horse isn’t livestock,” the kid said. “It’s a pet. Like a dog. We’ve got lots of dogs on our street. And each one has a license tag on its collar, so it’s legal.”
Oh boy, my son the lawyer, Dad thought, and he’s only ten.
This was not to be the end of the discussion.
The kid squared his shoulders. “Roy Rogers has a horse,” he said.
“Ah, so that’s it. You want to be a cowboy.”
“Yeah, I already have the two-gun and holster set.”
Indeed he did. He had begged for it for most of a year, so there it was under the Christmas tree, a Roy Rogers-signed set of six shooters–cap guns. The only thing that could have been worse, his mother had concluded after the first week, would have been to have given him a snare drum.
“Did you know,” asked Dad, “that old Roy didn’t have a horse when he was your age?”
The kid became bug-eyed.
“When he was growing up downriver from here,” Dad said, “he had a mule. Actually, it was his father’s. They used it to work the farm outside Duck Run. And he wasn’t Roy Rogers. He was Leonard Slye. The name and the horse didn’t come until he got to Hollywood as an old man of twenty-four. Maybe, son, you should wait until you’re twenty-four.”
Pearl . . . 1941
CLINT BOONE shambled up to the sawhorse barricade. “So,” he said to the policeman standing there, “what do we have here?”
“From yesterday?” Boone took out a notepad and a pencil. “The thing a dud?”
“Dunno. I’ve just been told to keep everybody away until the Army can send someone who’ll figure out what’s next.”
“That’ll take a while, I guess, won’t it? They’re kinda busy.” Boone sorted through his wallet for a calling card, found one, and stuffed it in the cop’s shirt pocket. “I’m INS–International News Service. How about you call my office if anything happens, all right? There’s a fiver in it for you.”
He touched his forehead in a one-finger salute and went on toward a group of people clustered in front of a store, the Kanaloa Apothecary the black lettering on the window said. A speaker over the door blared out the voice of someone reading the war news.
Boone sidled up beside another cop. This one he knew, one of the few Hawaiians on the force, Akoni Kamaka. “Hey, Kammy.”
“What’s going on in the neighborhood?”
“Lotta fear that the Japs will come back.”
“From what happened yesterday, they’re not alone. Did you see the planes?”
“Uh-huh. I was so close, if I’d had a pineapple in my hand, I could have hit one.”
Kamaka rubbed at the pavement with the sole of his brogan. “Six flew over the beach where my cousin and I were setting up for a luau. I caught a cab to the district station, and I’ve been on the street ever since. How about you?”
Boone touched his chest. “Me? I hopped a Jeep with some sailors hell bent for the harbor. We saw their ship go up in a ball of fire–the Shaw. There I was and I had the story of a lifetime with the Shaw’s crewmen. Nobody else did. I’ve been writing and radioing my stories to San Francisco ever since.”
“Well, ’til an hour ago. My editors told me they needed stories about the effects of the attack on civilians. I said I wanted to get out to Opana, that the Army’s got this new thing out there called radar and I’d heard they saw something. Overruled. So here I am, using toothpicks to keep my eyelids from closing.”
A new voice boomed over the speaker. Boone and Kamaka looked up along with everyone else crowded in front of the store.
“This is John Daley, CBS News, New York,” the voice said in stentorian tones. “This just in, a bulletin from Washington, D.C. At four-ten p.m. Eastern time–that’s just minutes ago–President Roosevelt signed the Declaration of War passed by Congress only an hour before. The United States is now at war with Japan. Repeat, the United States is now at war with Japan. God help us.”
Kamaka crossed himself.
Boone stared at him. “You’re Catholic?”
“Baptist, sometimes.” Boone felt something brush against his backside. He twisted around. “Hey,” he called after a boy running away, the boy barefoot and in short pants, the cutoffs frayed, a canvas bag flapping against his side.
Boone slapped his back pocket. “Kammy, he got my wallet.”
Kamaka wheeled and raced after the boy.
Boone kicked himself in gear to catch up.
“Stop him,” Kamaka shouted to the cop at the barricade.
The cop–startled–looked Kamaka’s way, saw the boy and threw himself at him in a flying tackle, missed, and rolled away.
The boy shot under the barricade. He dove into the shell crater.
The bomb exploded, the blast wave flinging Kamaka and Boone onto their backs, debris blown high–dirt and chunks of asphalt–showering down on them. A canvas bag and an arm, too.
Boone crawfished away from the bloody appendage. “What the hell–”
Kamaka rolled up on his knees. He pawed at his ear.
“You know the kid?” Boone asked, his own ears ringing from the blast.
“Yeah.” Kamaka sat back down. He rubbed the heels of his hands into his ears. “Shined shoes in Mahao’s barbershop. Picked pockets sometimes people told me. We could never catch him at it.”
“He have a name?”
Boone grubbed his notepad and pencil out of his shirt pocket. “Looks like I’ve got my story. First American civilian killed in the war. A boy, age–”
“–yeah, ten. This is gonna rip the hearts out of readers, and maybe get me a Pulitzer.”
“ISN’T THIS QUAINT,” I said as I stepped into my grandparents’ church for the first time. “I want to have my wedding here.”
Oil lamps for lighting, a pump organ, a furnace beneath the floor with the one big register for heat in front of the altar platform, bench seats that were . . . well, we’ll put on the invitations “BYOC”. Bring your own cushions.
“AND WHO GIVES this young woman?” the minister asked.
My father, a widower–my mom died ten years ago–jumped up, waving. He slapped my hand into my husband-to-be’s hand. “Marco,” he said in a whisper loud enough to be heard at the back of the church, “you don’t know how long I’ve waited to unload this girl. Hallelujah, and I’ll have a check for ya when this thing’s over.”
There was giggling and chuckling among the audience.
When he sat down, he sat on a whoopie cushion. BYOC. I know he brought it to embarrass me. And this time there was laughter.
And someone guffawed. My dad’s brother, my uncle!
But at least now I knew I was safe.
However, Dad’s cell phone went off during the “I do’s,” the ring tone The March of the Toreadors. “Hello,” he shouted into his cell to be heard, “I can’t talk now. I’m at my daughter’s wedding!”
We made it the rest of the way through the ceremony with no more disasters. The minister pronounced us married, and Marco and I turned and ran down the aisle. Dad stepped out just as we passed him, stepped on my train and the back of my dress ripped out.
My dad did that.
But I got him. As we drove away, I saw him struggling with the handle on the door of his new Tahoe. Before the service, I Gorilla-glued his doors shut–all of four of them and the lift gate, too.
And what’s waiting for him when he finally gets a door open? Stink. Three pounds of Limburger cheese and an open jar of sauerkraut that have been locked in there in the baking sun for two hours.
And when he gets home to watch the Packers game, when he sits down in his La-Z-Boy, when he leans back, the back’s going to fall all the way to the floor because I rejiggered his lounger.
Surely, when my father gets up, he’ll think he’s safe now. But I’ve got one more surprise for him–a snake in his bed. A rubber snake, yes, but he won’t know that until after he beats it to death with the baseball bat he keeps in his closet.
Spring Fantasies . . . in Winter
THE WEATHER outside is not frightful, but the wind nonetheless is piling up drifts in the backyard.
Do I care?
You see, I’m inside, comfortably reclined in my Barcalounger, a mug of hot chocolate on the table by my elbow, and I’m sorting through the latest picture books of dreams that have come in in the morning mail:
Seed Saver Exchange
High Mower Organic
The Cottage Gardener
Ah, Burpee, the good old standard.
Mister Burpee–W.A.–started his business a hundred forty years ago, when he was a 14-year-old kid. He sold baby chicks by mail, only to discover that his customers really wanted seeds . . . for the garden and the fields. So that’s the direction he went, and, by 1915, he was mailing more than one million catalogues to gardeners around the country each year during the depths of winter.
The post office loved him.
One thing that set Mister Burpee apart from his competitors was his plant breeding program. Out of it came a wealth of new varieties including, yes, Iceberg lettuce, Golden Bantam sweet corn, the burpless cucumber, and the Big Boy tomato . . . the first of the really large tomatoes any gardener could grow.
And here it is on page 3, Burpee’s newest, the Burpee Steakhouse Hybrid, produces tomatoes so large that it takes two hands to pick one up. There’s a picture here to prove it. Got to put that on the order sheet.
Anyone can grow patio tomatoes, but here on page 25 are a host of vegetables Burpee developed for the home gardener who doesn’t have any garden space, who intends to grow his or her vegetables in a pot . . . King Harry, Red Cloud, Yukon Gold, and Russian Banana potatoes; a variety of beets, a host of specialty lettuces, Yaya hybrid carrots; salt wort, whatever that is. A note says it’s great in salads and with sushi; radishes, cucumbers, summer squash, eggplant, sweet yellow peppers, and–get this–sweet corn . . . On Deck Hybrid Supersweet Sweet Corn, the first variety ever developed, the catalogue says, that can be grown in a bucket of dirt. Gotta try that. Only $6.95 for a package of seeds.
When I lived in Kentucky, I fought my way through blackberry and raspberry patches, coming out with pails full of berries at the price of torn shirt sleeves and arms bloody from scratches.
Thorns, those blasted thorns.
One year, my mother-in-law had enough. She planted thornless blackberry canes. Prolific with berries bigger than the first joint of your thumb . . . and no scratches.
Made me a believer.
Burpee has its own thornless variety, the Triple Crown Blackberry. Says here on page 44 that it produces fruit over a five-week season. That’s good.
Five bare-root plants for $32.95.
Well, I can buy a lot of Lanacane and band aids for that. But the pain that I’d still have to deal with.
The Triple Crowns go on the order form.
Summer wouldn’t be summer without watermelons. For a period of time, I lived and worked in Kansas and got to know one of the men who worked with the plant breeders at Kansas State University who developed the Crimson Sweet. Went to field days where the melon was served. Oh, that was so good.
Let’s see what Burpee has . . . There it is on page 37, yes, the Crimson Sweet. The fruit, though, comes in at around 25 pounds, good if you’re having a party, but not for two people. Oh, here it is on page 40. No, that’s not it. That’s a Carolina Cross, an heirloom melon that produces fruit weighing 200 pounds. We’d have to have a block party if we grew one of those.
Turn back a page.
This is it.
This is the one I want, the Big Tasty Hybrid. The fruit, it says, is 12 inches around and weighs between six and eight pounds. And no seeds to spit out.
A pack of 10 seeds for $5.95. Ten seeds will produce enough melons for the neighborhood.
Dare I try a pumpkin? My luck in the past as a pumpkin grower was not good. I’ve gone to several state fairs where the championship pumpkins have weighed in at upwards of three-quarters of a ton or more. By the way, the world record is 2,323.7 pounds, that pumpkin grown in Germany two years ago by Beni Meier.
Bidding for seeds from which to grow giant pumpkins–yes, seeds for the best are sold exclusively at auction–frequently starts at $15 and goes up in $5 increments. So you could pay $30 to $40 for a seed, more sometimes if you want a seed from a record holder.
A packet of seeds on page 47 in the Burpee catalogue for Connecticut Field Pumpkins, a standard that commercial growers love, sells for $3.95.
You know what I’m thinking?
I’m thinking I’ll wait until fall and buy my jack-o-lantern pumpkin at the grocery store for, oh say, $4.
A Night for Miracles
JAMES EARLY kicked up snow as he ran for a calf battered by its mother, the cow wanting nothing but to be free of this newborn. He scooped up the small one and, as he did, the cow, a slight, boney Hereford, charged Early. His Newfoundland dog threw himself at her, bit down on the cow’s muzzle, and held on as she bellowed. The cow bolted backwards, shaking her head, trying to rid herself of this creature as angry as she.
Early tore off for his horse. He pitched the calf across the roan’s shoulders, swung into the saddle, and spurred up the side of the ravine. Early let out a piercing whistle, and his dog unloosed himself from the cow. He raced away, she, blood streaming from her nose, hot after him, churning snow only to give up when the blur of black fur disappeared over the lip of the ravine and into the gloom of the evening.
Fifty, maybe a hundred yards on, Early reined in his horse. He studied the calf that laid before him, patches of frozen afterbirth still clinging to its hair. Early worked a gloved hand over the calf’s ribs and legs, feeling for breaks.
“Malleable little critter, aren’tcha?” he said as he rubbed the calf’s face.
The little Hereford flicked its tongue out in a languid attempt to catch Early’s hand, to draw it into its mouth, as if the hand were a teat to be sucked.
“Hungry? Well, we’ll getcha home, get some milk in you. Gonna be a cold ride, though, and you’re already chilled to the bone.”
Early pulled off a glove. That freed the fingers of one hand, and he twisted around and undid the leather laces of the canvas roll behind his saddle. Early shook the canvas out. He swaddled the calf in it as best he could, the cold of the night making steam of his and his horse’s breath as he worked.
Helluva way to spend Christmas Eve, Early thought, riding from haystack, to draw, to grove of scrubby trees, checking cattle, the shadowy presence of his wife with him. But she had died months earlier in an awful accident, and he just minutes away. If only he had been faster –
Two yearlings stranded in deep snow broke him out of his mental stew. Early roped first one, then the other and dragged each out to keep them from becoming coyote food. This little calf faced the same fate had not he stumbled on it and its momma.
Some momma that wild one. Early figured get her fat on grass come summer and ship her to the meat packer. Be rid of her.
He rubbed the calf’s shoulders. This one he’d have to hand raise because he didn’t have a dairy cow to put the calf on.
What are you anyway? Early pulled the calf’s tail up and checked. Uh-huh, a heifer.
He kneed his horse, and she stepped out for home, the Newfoundland trailing behind, shagging along in the horse’s track rather than breaking trail for himself. Sure sign the dog’s tired, Early thought as he glanced back. He looked up, too, at the sky swept clean of clouds by a front that had come through the day before, at the moon a shade above the eastern horizon, the moon a coppery yellow, flattened on top as if it had been a ball of buttery dough slapped by a giant.
If Early had to be out, at least it was a nice night – no wind. As his horse plodded on, he watched stars spangle themselves out in the darker regions of the sky. He could navigate by them. As long as he kept Polaris over his right shoulder, he’d eventually come out at home or nearby, striking the county road that would take him there. Half an hour he figured. Surely not much more.
Ahead, in the light of the guardian of the night, Early saw the spidery form of a cottonwood that grew by one of the two never-fail springs on his ranch. A previous owner had cemented rocks around the spring to form a pool, so the cows wouldn’t muddy the water when they came in to drink. Early also saw a bulky shape in the tree and, when he neared the spring, the shape launched itself into the night – an owl. By its size, Early guessed a Great Horned or perhaps a Snowy that had come south from Canada to where it might better forage for rodents and rabbits.
Early guided his horse up to the pool and found it as he expected, iced over. He stepped down into the snow. Early hammered the ice with his fist. He broke open a hole and pitched the chunks of frozen water away, and drank first. When Early moved back, mopping the sleeve of his mackinaw across his wet chin and droopy mustache coated with ice, his horse pushed up. She drank long. The dog did not. Instead he satisfied whatever thirst he had with mouthfuls of snow.
Early rubbed his horse’s face after she lifted her muzzle from the water. “Road’s just over the rise, old girl. We’ve not far to go.”
With that he swung back into the saddle, and the trio pushed on – quartet if you counted the calf. But the calf, stiff from the cold, lolled where it laid across the shoulders of the horse, barely aware of its surroundings. When they topped the rise, tableland stretched before them, snow-covered bluestem pasture on Early’s side of the county road, wheat and corn fields on the other, silvery in the moonlight. That road came over from State Seventy-Seven to the east and meandered on to Leonardville – a town of no consequence except to the people who lived there – the only things along the road a couple ranchsteads, three farms, and the Worrisome Creek Baptist Church where Early, on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, sat in a back pew listening to Hubert Arnold preach, the man he liked to call the Great Bear of the Plains. Christmas Eve service, he could be preaching now.
A lone pair of headlights came Early’s way from Seventy-Seven. He watched them as his horse walked along, watched them worm their way around two bends, then jerk to the north and go down. Into a ditch? Early wondered. He knew it had to be when he saw billows of steam piling up into the night sky. Early spurred his horse into a gallop. That jarred the calf, but he kept a hand on her back so she couldn’t be pitched off. Early hauled up on the reins when he neared his line fence and the ditch on the other side, the ditch that held an old Hudson captive, snow up to the vehicle’s hood. He bailed from the saddle, jumped the strands of barbed wire, and plunged down, his chaps knee-deep in the snow. Early wallowed his way to the driver’s door and wrenched it open.
In the shadows, he saw two people, a man behind the steering wheel and a woman beyond, she clutching something and whatever it was, it squalled. The man held a hand clamped over his nose, blood discoloring his fingers.
“You all right?” Early asked.
“Busted my beak.”
“Your woman got a baby there?”
“Your baby all right, ma’am?”
The woman leaned forward, rocking something in the blanket, shushing at it, cooing to it. “Just scared,” the woman said. “I held him tight, kept him from hitting anything.”
“You, ma’am, you all right?”
“What you all doing out here?”
The man twisted toward Early. “Going home,” he said.
“And that would be?”
“Where you comin’ from?”
“Manhattan. Mary Elisabet birthed our baby couple days ago at the hospital. They let her out tonight.”
Early leaned down. He peered at the man. “You Joe Davidson?”
“Uh-huh. An’ my wife.”
“Heard you’d had a baby. . . . I’m James Early. You know me. . . . Joe, this isn’t the best night to be out and the worst night to be in the ditch.”
“Hit something or a tie rod broke. I lost it.”
“Not all you lost. That steam? Fella, you busted a radiator. Your car’s dead.”
“We gotta walk then, huh?”
“Well, maybe not too far. Worrisome church is about a half-mile yon way. Service there tonight, so we ought to be able to get someone to drive you all to your place. First, we got to pack that nose of yours, get that bleeding stopped. Come out here in the moonlight.”
Davidson slid off the seat, a big kid in jeans and a short jacket and a fedora that may have seen a lifetime on someone else’s head before it came to him, the kid a couple years out of high school.
Early kicked the car door shut to keep inside whatever heat remained. He motioned Davidson to lean against the fender. Early pulled his gloves off and stuffed them in his coat pocket. When his hand came out, it held a bandana. Early bit the hem and tore a strip away, then a second. After he rolled each strip into a bean shape, he lifted Davidson’s hand from his nose and studied it as he wiped away as much blood as he could.
“Gonna hurt a bit now,” Early said. He pushed one fabric bean into one nostril and the second into the other, Davidson wincing at the touch and the pressure. “You got gloves to keep your hands warm?”
“On the seat by Mary Elisabet,” Davidson said, his voice nasally, stuffed.
“Well, you wash your hands clean as you can in the snow, and I’ll get your gloves, and your wife and baby.”
Early, waving his way through steam and the smell of alcohol anti-freeze boiling away, slogged around to the passenger side of the car, a pre-war job, a coupe. He opened the door.
“Mary Elisabet,” he said as he crouched down, “I got my horse on the other side of the fence. How about you and the baby ride, and Joe and me, we’ll walk until we can get you someone to take you home?”
The woman – a girl, really, now that Early saw her face more clearly – hugged her child to her chest. “I’m afraid of horses.”
“You don’t have to be. Molly’s about as nice as they come, and she likes women and babies. Come on, let me help you to get out.” He caught the girl by the elbow and drew her outside. He reached back in for Davidson’s gloves, yellow work gloves like those Early wore around the barn. But when he rode, he wore fleece-lined leather gloves. Anything less in the cold was begging for trouble.
“You got gloves, ma’am?” he asked.
The girl shivered, giving Early his answer. “Well, here,” he said, “take mine.”
He stripped his gloves off and snugged the girl’s hands into them.
Early started away, going ahead, kicking and tramping through the deep snow, breaking a path for the girl, but she called him back. “We got a suitcase in the backseat,” she said. “It’s got some things for the baby and a menorah.”
“We could leave that and get it tomorrow.”
“No, it’s important.”
“Well, all right.” Early chewed at his mustache as he worked his way around the girl to the door. He opened it, pulled the front seatback forward, and reached in for a pasteboard suitcase. Next to it, Early found something far more valuable – a blanket. He pulled both out, banged the car door shut, and went on around the front of the crippled car and up to the fence line, the Davidsons struggling along behind him. He set the suitcase and blanket over, in the snow on the other side.
Hands free, Early pushed the top strand of barbed wire down. “Joe, you step across, and I’ll hand your wife over, all right?”
“Yeah, I can do that.”
Davidson eased over the wire. When he turned back, Early swept the girl and her child up in his arms. He passed them across to Davidson, but the hem of the girl’s dress snagged on a barb and ripped.
“Whoa up,” Early said. He caught the fabric and pulled it free of the fence, and he followed across, swinging first one leg over the wire, then the other. Early, with the suitcase and blanket, and Davidson, carrying his wife and baby, pushed on through the snow to where Early’s horse stood waiting, the Newfoundland lying nearby.
Early peered at the calf already on the horse and all the cargo he wanted to put up there. “Not sure how we’re going to do this,” he said.
“What’s in the canvas?” Davidson asked.
“Newborn calf. Her momma didn’t want her. Help your wife up in the saddle, would you?”
Davidson moved up beside the horse. He slipped Mary Elisabet’s foot in a stirrup and helped her lever up, she holding her child tight – helped Mary Elisabet to sit side saddle.
“I don’t like this,” she said as she settled on the seat.
“Hon, you’ll be all right.”
Early held the blanket out to Davidson. “She’s gonna be cold up there. What say you wrap her in this?”
“Yeah, that’s good.” The kid flapped the blanket open. He lifted it at the midpoint of the long side up over his wife’s head.
Early moved around to the other side of his horse. He caught an end of the blanket and, working with Davidson, tucked it around the saddle and brought the end forward, up and around the baby and the canvas-swaddled calf.
Early’s hands felt the bite of the cold. He thrust them deep into his coat pockets and hustled forward. Davidson, toting the suitcase, came up the other side. The two met and moved along. And the horse followed, but the Newfoundland, instead of trailing behind, jumped out. He broke a trail of his own beside Early.
“Miracle for us you were out here,” Davidson said.
“Some of us believe Christmas Eve is a night for miracles.”
“Your wife says you got a menorah in your suitcase. I’m thinking that means you’re not Presbyterian.”
“Jewish, both of us,” Davidson said as he gazed down at the snow he kicked before him. “Tonight’s the first night of Hanukkah. Took the menorah to the hospital so we could celebrate, you know, light the servant candle and the first candle if they didn’t let Mary Elisabet and the baby out, then they did. Know about Hanukkah?”
“The rabbi says it’s one of our lesser holidays, but I like to think it rates right up there with your Christmas. It’s a freedom thing.”
“How’s that?” Early asked.
“Couple thousand years ago, fella named Mattathias and his boy led a revolt so we Jews could worship our God, and they won.”
“Your temple, wasn’t it destroyed in that war? Seems I remember that.”
Davidson chuckled. “You do know something of us.”
“Sometimes Herschel Weichselbaum and I sit in the back of his store. We visit and he takes it on himself to make this poor Gentile knowledgeable on a thing or two.”
“Mister Weichselbaum’s good at that. So he told you we rebuilt the temple?”
“That he did.”
“Yeah, had to be some big effort. Mattathias dedicated the temple to God, and that first night he lit a lamp.” Davidson smiled as he slogged along. Early wondered if it might be a memory.
“A miracle,” Davidson said.
“Yeah. See, it burned ’round the clock for eight days, only our people had little enough oil to keep it going but that first night. Mister Early, Mary Elisabet and me, we wanted to celebrate that miracle, celebrate it at home now that we got a baby.”
“Boy or girl?” Early asked, pushing along.
“Give him a name?”
“Christofer we’re thinking, after my granddad.”
“’At’s a good name.”
“Uh-huh, Christofer Davidson. Custom is to hand the generations down in my family. My granddad says we go back to early Israel days – the House of David.”
“That is something. We Earlys hardly track back to yesterday.”
“Family history is real important, my granddad says.”
“My granddad never talked much of his life and nothing of his parents or brothers and sisters, if he had any. We can date him to the Civil War.”
“He rode with the First Nebraska Cavalry. My dad found a diary from that time tucked away in a trunk.”
They came up on a rise and a gate in the line fence. Early opened the gate. He motioned for Davidson to lead his horse and her burdens through, out onto the county road. In the minutes Early had his hands out of his pockets, the cold made his fingers ache. He fumbled the gate closed and, when he caught up, he asked, “Missus Davidson, you and the baby doing all right up there?”
“As long as I keep a hand on the saddle horn.”
“Well, the Worrisome church is down there by the creek. Lights are on, so people are still there.”
They set out again, easier going walking in tire tracks, the only sound the creak of saddle leather and the crunch of snow under boots. And then they heard it – singing to the accompaniment of an old reed pump organ . . . It came upon a midnight clear / that glorious song of old / of angels bending near the earth . . .
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Early said.
“We won’t be intruding, will we?” Davidson asked.
“Door’s open to everybody.”
The straggly parade turned off at the driveway and made their way to the stoop. Early climbed the steps, stomping the snow from his boots as he went. When he opened the door, a rush of warmth and the smell of a cedar Christmas tree engulfed him, but no one sat in the pews and no one stood in the pulpit. Yet the singing continued . . . Peace on the Earth / good will to men / all Heaven and nature sing . . .
He turned back, eyeing Davidson and the girl. “Not a soul in there,” he said. “Tell you one thing, we’re all gonna get inside out of this cold. We’ll figure it out later. Get your wife, Joe.”
Davidson helped Mary Elisabet out of the saddle and into his arms. He worked his way up the steps and inside as Early pulled the calf off his horse’s shoulders. He cradled the calf and its canvas wrapper and went on up the steps, his dog shagging behind him. After the Newfoundland cleared the door, Early reached back. He pulled the door closed.
The Rural Electric’s lines had not yet reached the Worrisome church, so kerosene lamps illuminated the dozen or so pews and the front, the platform on which stood a wooden manger near the coal stove that warmed the building and, to the far side, a cedar tree decorated with strings of popcorn and chains of yellow and red loops made from construction paper. At the top of the tree resided a cardboard star wrapped imperfectly in aluminum foil.
The tree did not interest Early. He pushed up to the manger and deposited his calf there, in the straw. He worked the canvas loose so the heat from the stove could get to the calf’s hair and skin, the calf so cold Early felt she was less than an hour away from death if he didn’t get her warm. He rubbed and massaged the calf, working the heat into her body.
Near the manger stood a metal folding chair. Davidson hooked a foot around it and drew the chair closer. He lowered his wife onto it. “Feels some better already, doesn’t it?” he said as he helped her open the blanket with which she had wrapped her child.
Mary Elisabet, smiling, gazed at the face of her boy. “Surprising he hasn’t cried, what with all that’s happened.”
“You may have one of those peaceful babies, ma’am,” Early said, “let you sleep through the night.”
“You have children, Mister Early?”
“Little girl, about three months old.”
“Yeah, it is,” he said and rubbed the calf more briskly.
Early’s Newfoundland nosed in. He peered first at the calf, then the baby. As if he were satisfied that all was well, the dog flopped down on the platform midway between the two.
“The people?” Davidson asked.
“All the cars and trucks out there in the side yard, they can’t have gone home.” Early looked up from the calf, his attention drawn by the sound of cooing – Mary Elisabet cooing to her child, the baby with his eyes open, waving a tight fist at the air around him. “Joe, looks like your family’s all right.”
From behind, at the far end of the church, the door swung open, and lyrics of another carol rolled in . . . We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we travel afar . . .
Early twisted around in time to see a burly man in a great coat and an earlapper cap lead a cluster of people inside – the man, Hubert Arnold. They all stopped and gazed at the manger scene, surprise on the faces of some, awe on others.
“Don’t this just look like Christmas in Bethlehem,” Arnold said, waving a hand toward the mother and child, the calf – alert now – the dog, Davidson, and Early, moisture dripping from Early’s mustache as the last of the ice melted away.
“Where you been, Bear?” Early asked.
“Out back, all of us, singing to the Christmas star. Cactus, looks to me like Jesus sent you and your menagerie of friends and livestock to complete our manger scene.”
“Just trying to get warm. Hadn’t thought about it.”
“Is that a baby?” one of the women asked as she peered around the preacher.
“Oh my lands, it is,” another said. She pushed past Arnold. So did a half-dozen other ranch wives. They hustled up the aisle to the platform and clustered around Mary Elisabet and the baby, leaning in, admiring.
One of them took hold of the child’s tiny fist, cooing, “Isn’t she just the prettiest?”
“She’s a he,” Mary Elisabet said, gazing down at her child’s face. “My baby’s a boy.”
“How old is he?”
Arnold made his way up to Early. “Bet we could rustle you and your friends up some gifts you all would appreciate on a cold night like this.”
“Bear,” Early said, “that isn’t necessary.”
“It is in God’s house. It’s Christmas. The wife’s got a thermos of hot chocolate, a couple here’ve brought cookies, and I know in my pocket I’ve got some terrific divinity candy I’m dying to share.”
EARLY SAT on the edge of the platform, his hat on the floor between his feet, his dog lying beside him. Early stroked the great Newfoundland’s face.
“Bear,” he said as Arnold, in the first pew, chewed on a piece of divinity candy, “sure does get quiet when everybody goes home, doesn’t it?”
“Quiet’s good for the soul,” the preacher said. “Lets one commune with God. You been doing that?”
Early shook his head.
“You thinking about Thelma again?”
Early didn’t respond, neither did he lift his gaze from his dog. He just continued stroking the Newfoundland’s muzzle.
“Cactus, her death wasn’t your fault, you know.”
“Sometimes I just get so hateful,” Early words came with a raspiness. “What kind of a god is it that would take her?”
“One who would give you a better gift. Cactus, God gave you Thelma’s child – your child. Like the Christmas child, your little girl is the best gift you could have.”
Early looked up, the mellow light of a low-burning kerosene lantern reflecting in the wet of his eyes. “Yeah,” he said, “she surely is that, isn’t she?”
“THE CHALLENGE, should you choose to accept it, is to create an extreme pizza. Signed: The Great Jimmytown Pizza Bake-off Committee.”
Barb Larson gave off with her most lascivious of smiles as she slid the card in front of John Wads. “You up for it, partner?”
Wads read the card. As he did, he massaged the furrow in his forehead. “If I do this with you, there’s a proviso.”
“And what would that be?”
“It’s got to be a deep-dish pizza. That’s the only way we can pile on the toppings.”
SIX TEAMS of pizza chefs pushed their preparation carts into the high school gym on the appointed day to find that TV cameras and overhead screens had been set up for the audience so they could see every detail that went into making an extreme pizza.
Larson and Wads, in their Team Library shirts and chef’s hats, rolled our their pizza dough, Wads making a show of twirling and tossing the dough, ending with a missed behind-the-back catch. The dough flopped on the floor.
“I can clean it off,” he said as he picked it up.
Larson shot him the evil eye and thrust a finger at a nearby waste can.
While Wads got rid of his less-than-clean-dough, Larson rolled out a new circle. Again, Wads went into his routine of twirling and tossing the dough, and this time he made the catch behind his back.
Wads patted the circle into a deep-dish pan, and Larson came along beside him, flute-edging it. Wads next slathered on the tomato sauce and dusted it with his special mix of Italian seasonings.
“Toppings,” he said, with a jerk of his head toward the assortment Larson had set out. In layers came Gorgonzola cheese, diced tomatoes, black and green olives, Asiago cheese, one pound of taco-seasoned browned hamburger, anchovies, rings of pineapple, shredded seven-year-old cheddar cheese, banana peppers, Vidalia onions, diced salt-cured Italian ham, fire-roasted rosemary potatoes, and pepperoni, all topped off with shredded smoked mozzarella.
Wads brought out his Stanley steel tape. He made a show of measuring the height of the product – three point two-eight inches.
Larson gave him a thumbs-up.
She and Wads then followed the other competitors, carrying their creation to the bank of ovens. When the pizzas came out, Larson and Wads went back to work, Wads laying on two lips made from bananas sliced lengthwise and Larson, eyes and brows – Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for the eyes and coconut curls died green for the brushy eyebrows.
Together, the chefs then created a mop of hair with licorice whips. For their finale, Wads jabbed a habenaro pepper in the center of the pizza for a nose, and Larson placed a witch’s hat to the side and set a mini-broom across the bottom of the pizza.
Larson gazed at it. “Halloween, what say we make one again, serve it at the bar with free beer? Of course, everyone will have to come in an extreme costume.”
A 10-word love story
HE DRANK the poison intended for his fiancé and died.
*Writer’s note: What can I tell you. I write crime stories.
You’ve seen them at auctions, buckets and boxes of stuff – jumble, junk, items that wouldn’t sell by themselves – but there might be a treasure in there, something you could really use and, if you got the whole lot for a buck or two . . . It happened to John Wadkowski. His treasure, an antique Colt .45 that would change his day in a way he could never have anticipated.
JOHN WADKOWSKI STOOD with his knuckles on his hips, weight shifted to one side, staring at the pile of harness, hames, and horse collars. “And you expect me to bid on this?” he asked.
The auctioneer picked a bridle off the top, a bridle for a draft horse. He held it up by the rigging’s gag swivel. “Wads, this stuff, I know it’s not in the best shape, but you clean it up, you can sell it to the Amish–” He pronounced it Aa-mish. “–for a whole lot more than you’re gonna pay for it. You know the sisters said everything has to go, and this is the last lot.”
The sisters–Katy and Anna Jedrysek, eighty and eighty-two respectively, longtime friends of Wads–had decided to sell the family farm where they had lived forever and move to an apartment at the Edgefield Methodist Retirement Manor. Everything had gone under the hammer, everything except for the clothes, family pictures, books, and a couple boxes of memory pieces they planned to take with them.
Wads, Howard Zigman–a sheriff’s detective and friend of Wads–a neighboring farmer by the name of Ollie Dimble, and the auctioneer–Fast Arnie Williston, a squat guy with a cookie-duster mustache–lounged in the tack room of the Jedrysek horse barn, each kicking at stray stems of straw, waiting for someone other than himself to make a decision. Wads tilted his head toward Dimble. “You in on this?”
“Oh, hell, no. I just want to see if you’re dumb enough to buy this junk. Leather’s probably a century old, stuff not used since Katy and Anna’s daddy sold his horses and bought a tractor.”
Wads pulled a breeching strap out of the pile. He snapped the strap between his hands, then ran his fingers over the fancy steel riveting. “Not too bad. They musta kept this gear where it wouldn’t dry out or rot. Amazing after all these years.”
He hunkered down and pawed through the lower part of the pile, separating it for a better look at some of the stuff. “Arnie, there’s a trunk under here. How about that?”
Williston came around. He peered over Wads’s shoulder, then poked at the object with his cane. “Huh.”
“Didn’t know about that. Looks like an M.M. Secor, made in Racine in the Eighteen-nineties. See the brass tag there?”
“Does it go with the pile?”
“What’s your bid?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Williston straightened up. He moved away, thinking, then whacked his cane against a post as he wheeled back to Wads, Zigman, and Dimble. “The trunk goes with the lot. It’s a mystery trunk, I don’t know what’s in it, you don’t know what’s in it, might be nothing, might be something, maybe a rare antique worth a fortune–” He was into his chant and goosing up the tempo. “What am I bid? What am I bid? Who’ll open for a hunnerd dollars, a hunnerd, a hunnerd, a hunnerd, I’ll take a hunnerd-dollar bill, who’ll gimme a hundred?”
Wads sat back on his heels.
Zigman stood with his legs akimbo, his arms crossed.
Dimble leaned against a post, bored.
“Fifty?” Williston asked. “Who’ll bid fifty? I’ll take fifty, fifty, fifty, come on, Wads, gimme fifty.”
Wads shook his head.
“Not even in the treasure trunk?”
“Nope. Last time I bought a pig in a poke, my wife scorched my hide. I’ll not have that again.”
“How about forty-five?”
“I said no.”
Williston pointed his cane at Zigman. “Gimme forty-five?”
Zigman cast his gaze down at his shoes. “Not me. I’m a city guy. I know from nothing about this stuff.”
“So why you here?”
“I’m with Wads.”
Williston aimed his cane at Wads. “It’s you then. Tell you what, I’ll take twenty-five dollars. Twenty-five, twenty-five, twenty-five, come on, gimme twenty-five, twenty-five, a twenty-dollar bill and a little old five to keep it company on the way to the bank.”
Wads stood. He turned away, stuffing his hands in the back pockets of his jeans as he did.
Williston hooked him with the crook end of his cane and hauled him back around. “Ten, then. Gimme ten, gimme ten, gimme ten, Waaaads. Come on, do it for the sisters, gimme a ten-dollar bill.”
Wads raised his trigger finger.
“A buck? One wrinkled-up old George Washington, that’s all you’re gonna do?”
“Arnie, I really don’t want the stuff.”
“Lemme ask ya, do the Amish come into your store there at the Kwik Trip?”
“Sometimes, when the English bring them into the Walmart.”
“You can sell them the harness out of back of your truck, man, and you’ve still got the treasure trunk.”
“Oh yeah. You know it’s empty.”
Williston assumed an indignant pose, his fist jammed against his ample hip. “I do not. If you won’t go ten, at least meet me half way. I have to sell this stuff, I’m begging ya. I’m not gonna haul it to the dump for the sisters. Gimme five, Wads, gimme five, gimme five, gimme five, come on, gimme five, I’ll take five measly dollars, you gonna make me get down on my knees?”
Wads looked over at Dimble. “This I want to see.”
Williston lowered himself to one knee. When Wads didn’t say anything, he got down on both knees, looking pathetic, like a man whose dog had died. “Wads, five. Please? Pleeeese?”
“You take plastic?”
“You don’t have a half a sawbuck in yer wallet?”
Wads pulled a bill from his shirt pocket. He held it out to Williston who snatched it away as he horsed himself up. “Praise Jesus,” he said and held the fiver high, “what I don’t do to get a sale.” To Wads, he said, “Now I suppose you want me to help you load this stuff, too, don’tcha?”
ZIGMAN THREW UP A HAND in a signal to stop to Wads backing his Chevy dually up to the tack room door. He dropped the tailgate and he and Williston pitched the whole pile of horse rigging into the back of Wads’s truck.
That left the trunk now in the open, the trunk unusual in that it had a tin-covered, hip-style roof on it, much like the hip roofs on a lot of Wisconsin dairy barns of generations past.
Wads came strolling back. He flicked his fingers at the lock on the trunk. “Got a key for that?”
Williston cackled. When he stopped laughing, he said, “Of course, there’s no key for it. I didn’t even know the trunk was there. And I doubt the sisters have got a key or they woulda told me.”
“Got a crowbar?”
“You don’t wanna bust that lock, Wads. Undamaged, I’ve seen these trunks go for a couple hunnerd bucks at the right places. You get yerself a locksmith.”
Zigman intervened. He motioned for Wads and Williston to pick the trunk up and set it on the tailgate. After they did, he brought out his lock-pick kit from his inside jacket pocket, took out two picks and went to work twisting and turning them in the lock.
The lock popped.
“I’m a cop,” Zigman said to Williston, gape-mouthed. He waved for Wads to prod around inside.
Not much there. Some old newspapers, one–a yellowed Chicago Tribune–dating back to Eighteen Seventy-six, July. Wads scanned that paper’s front page story, a story about a massacre in an Indian battle in Montana Territory. General Custer and his troops, two hundred eighty-six men, dead. He passed the newspaper to Zigman and went to pawing around some more. At the bottom of the trunk, he unearthed a mahogany presentation case. Wads brought it up. He opened it, revealing a revolver–a single action, no less–with a barrel he thought looked to be some seven, maybe seven and a half inches long.
Williston leaned in. “I’m not much of a handgun man. You know whatcha got there?”
“I have an idea, but Howard’s the expert.” He handed the piece to Zigman.
Zigman brushed his fingers alongside the barrel, revealing COLT SAA and a serial number stamped into the metal. “Barrel as long as this, this is a Cavalry weapon. SAA, single-action Army.”
He flicked the loading gate open and spun the cylinder, eying through the gate. “Empty. Takes six metal cartridges. The serial number suggests black powder. An early weapon, I’d say mid Eighteen Seventies up to Nineteen hundred. Higher serial numbers–later weapons–they used smokeless gun powder in the cartridges to fire the bullets.”
Zigman snapped the loading gate shut and laid the weapon back in the presentation case. “Wads, could be worth something, if it’s the real thing. If it’s a reproduction, maybe you can get enough to buy you a couple burgers.”
Williston horned in again. “Wads, you wanna sell it, maybe I can help ya. Selling’s my business.”
“No thanks.” Wads took out his smart phone. He snapped a picture of the Colt, then commenced to noddling on the screen. After some moments, he shut down his phone and pocketed it. “Arnie, I gotta git. I’m Mister Kwik Trip tonight.”
ZIGMAN LEANED BACK in the comfort of the shotgun seat as Wads rolled his dually over the macadam toward Jimmytown, eating up the miles. “You going to tell me what you found out with your cell that you didn’t want the auctioneer to know?”
Wads waved at an approaching vehicle, a semi with Black Horse Trucking emblazoned on the wind deflector above the cab. “I turned a spider loose in Colt’s records of their service weapons stored at the Army Information Depot in Saint Louis.”
“And that would be why?”
“Remember that newspaper in the trunk, the story about Custer’s Last Stand?”
“I got to wondering if the serial number on our revolver might match one in the batch of SAA’s the Army surely must have issued to the general’s Seventh Cavalry.”
“The spider says it does.”
Zigman gazed out his side window at the passing cornfields, the corn tasseling out. “Are you thinking you’ve got Custer’s sidearm?”
“That’s gonna take a lot more digging, but for the next eight hours I’ve got coffee to make and gas to sell. You?”
“I get the joy of parents yelling at me.”
“I’m umpiring four Little League games tonight.”
THE SECOND HAND on the wall clock in front of Wads’s desk stuttered along on it march toward the minute and hour hands about to touch eleven, a slow time at the Kwik Trip when Wads could catch up on paperwork or, if really slow, read a paperback. Tonight, his gun-cleaning kit laid open on his desk along with the Colt in parts that he was now reassembling. Wads looked up at the closed-circuit TV monitors as he screwed together the base pin assembly, securing the base pin and cylinder in gun’s the frame. There came Zigman into the store, fluttering his fingers at the night clerk, Catherine ‘Cat’ Chow, at the checkout. She appeared to be saying something to him and he something to her in return before he broke away and came swinging down the aisle.
Wads picked up the cleaned barrel and twisted it back into the frame as Zigman opened the door.
Zigman gazed at the declining mess. “Going to have any parts left over?”
“Never know. A couple, maybe.” Wads pieced together the ejector rod and its spring and pressed them into a housing called the tube. This he slid beneath the barrel and secured it there with a screw. After he tightened the screw, Wads spun the cylinder and sighted over the barrel. “All I need now is some ammo.”
Zigman laid a box of cartridges on the desk. “I’ve got a friend in the department who loads his own–black powder–but for a price. He gets to shoot your weapon.”
“Tell him he’s got a deal.” Wads selected a cartridge. He pressed it through the loading gate into the cylinder, twisted the cylinder one click for the next cartridge, and continued loading.
Zigman shook his head. “I wouldn’t have a loaded gun in the store.”
“I wouldn’t, either. Just want to make sure everything works right, then I’ll shuck the shells out.” Wads glanced up at the bank of monitors, at someone in a hoodie making his way into the store. “Isn’t it a little hot for that?” he asked, jerking his head toward the monitors.
Zigman glanced over his shoulder, at that monitor and one for an exterior camera showing a low rider–a ’Sixty-eight Malibu–idling near the front door. “Something hinky here.”
Wads looked up again, at a monitor for the camera behind the checkout, a monitor that showed the man in the hoodie, with a pistol in his hand, grabbing Cat at the coffee station and muscling her toward the checkout. “Oh, shit, we’ve just become a stop-and-rob.”
Zigman unholstered his Smith & Wesson. He jacked a shell into the firing chamber. “I’ll handle this. Call nine-one-one.”
Wads punched the silent alarm button under his desk. Done, he shot out of his chair, his new/old Colt aimed down and to the side. He racked the hammer back. “You take the near aisle. I’ll go up by the coolers.”
“Jeez, Zig, we got a silent alarm. Rings in at dispatch, already done.”
Zigman gave off a look of consternation, then dodged out the door, low and to his left.
Wads followed. He scuttled low and to his right, to the beer coolers and forward. Wads stopped short of the far end. He hazarded a peek around an end-cap display of pastries now twenty-one hours old, at the hooded robber, his back to the main store, his forearm locked around Cat’s throat in a sleeper hold. With his free hand, he was scooping a fistful of bills out of the cash drawer.
Wads heard Zigman, two aisles over, announce in a low, rock-steady voice, “Friend, I’m a sheriff’s detective. Now put your weapon down.”
The robber, hefty and hulking, wheeled around, clutching Cat in front of him. He switched arms around her neck, freeing his gun hand so he could aim his pistol at Zigman–a Glock by its silhouette. “Outta the way or she dies.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Zigman said.
“It does if you don’t want blood in here.”
That voice. That voice, Wads recognized it. “Big Harold, that you?”
“Who dat?” The robber glanced to the side, in the direction of Wads’s voice.
“John Wads. Big Harold, you oughtta know better than to try to rob my store on my sift.”
“But I need the money for my lawyer or I’m goin’ ta jail.”
Wads stepped out. As he did, Harold Bastion, reeking of beer, sweat, and desperation, rammed the muzzle of his Glock into Cat’s ear, she struggling for breath.
“I ain’t above killin’,” he said.
Zigman also stepped out, his arms out straight, hands locked on the grip of his S&W, finger on the trigger, the gun sight dead on Bastion’s forehead. “Wads,” he said through the corner of his mouth, “one shot. I can drop him.”
“My God, don’t do that. A white cop killing a black man, all hell’ll break loose. If anyone shoots him, it’s gonna be me.” Wads straightened himself, taking on the stance of a duelist determined to kill his opponent. He brought his Colt up.
Bastion let off with a silly laugh. “You gonna shoot me wid dat old t’ing? Dat old antique? Does it even work? You even got bullets for it or it that some fancy old cap pistol?”
“Big Harold, no jokin’ here.” Wads let his aim slide down from Bastion’s forehead a bit. “I’m going to count to three. If you don’t release my clerk and put down your gun–one, two–”
Bastion swung his aim away from Zigman to Wads.
Wads jerked his revolver’s trigger. A roar and smoke and Bastion screamed and went to hopping like a crow on a bed of hot rocks.
Cat, free now, brought her heel up hard, hard into Bastion’s crotch, and he dropped, screaming still more between gasps for breath. He writhed in double pain on the tile floor while, outside, the low rider squealed away.
Wads strolled over to Bastion. He kicked the man’s pistol out of his hand, to Zigman who scooped it up.
Wads then knelt beside Bastion. He held his revolver out. “See? It works. But don’t worry, you’ll live to rob another day. I only shot you in the foot.”
All the expectations we pump into Christmas make this season a stressful time. But what if you were a cop or a county sheriff and you were called out on a highway accident in which someone had been killed. That's what happens to James Early in this new Christmas story I have for you.
The Least of These
James Early slogged away from his Jeep, Doc Grafton, the county coroner, humping along beside him, both men with their collars turned up and their hats pulled low against the wind and snow.
Grafton rammed his hands deeper in his overcoat pockets. “Not the best morning to be out, Cactus.”
“Could be worse. Could be tomorrow. Messed up your Christmas.”
“You wouldn’tna got me.”
“The boss and me, tomorrow morning we’re in Council Grove, she helping Gramma make breakfast and me with my feet propped up by the fire in the kitchen stove.”
“I do hope you get there.”
They pushed on and up beside two men hunched, like horses their backsides to the wind, one–Mose Dickerson, the Riley constable and the area’s mail carrier–stamping his feet, the other–Wilton Brown the undertaker–huffing his breath into his gloved hands. Beyond them, four others pitched snow, shoveling their way through the ditch, toward a wrecked pickup and a busted-off power pole.
Early sidled up beside Dickerson. “What’ve we got here, Mose?”
Dickerson stopped stamping. “Lights along here went out about daybreak, Jimmy. People, they jumped on the party line and finally got through to the R.E.A., to see what the trouble was. That’s why Milty and Gordy are out here.”
“They found the wreck?”
“And the mess with the pole and the power line.”
Dickerson went to stamping his feet again. “I was comin’ by on my mail route, so I stopped. Milty’d already radioed back for a wrecker and Brownie with his meat wagon. An’ you, of course.”
“Dead one, huh?”
“Milty says so.” Dickerson adjusted his ear muffs, the better to keep the skin on the back of his ears from freezing. “I looked in the cab. Gotta agree.”
“Know who it is?”
“Face is busted up, but, yeah. That old truck with no rear fenders, that’s Eldon Treat’s, so that’s gotta be Eldon inside.”
“Do I know him?”
“Not likely, Jimmy. The Treats is new around here, an’ Eldon, he works over in Clay. Probably where he was goin’ when he lost it in the snow.”
Early peered over at the second man. “This weather to your liking, Brownie?”
“Wouldn’t give you a diddly darn for it.”
“Think you can get the body out of that wreck?”
“Not by myself. Milty’s going to cut the door off for me with his torch, maybe the steering wheel post, too. The deader’s pinned in there like a butterfly in a display case.”
“Well, I brought Doc up here to make it official, so–” Early shrugged. He pushed off into the ditch, a gloved hand on his work-stained cattleman’s hat to keep it from blowing away.
Grafton, as he moved along with Early, pitched his muffler over the crown of his fedora. He pulled the ends of his muffler down, making the brim of his hat work like ear flaps.
They hustled on past the shoveling crew–the wrecker drivers and the two R.E.A. linemen–widening their path so they could back the tow truck down into the ditch and up to the crash.
Grafton nudged Early on. “Let’s get this done before I turn into a popsicle.”
They hopped from the end of the hand-dug trail into snow up to their knees.
Early grabbed hold of the side of the truck box and pulled himself along. When he got to the driver’s door, he ran his hand up and over the frame. “It’s pinched in, all right. Impact busted out all the glass, so, Doc, you can reach in there for a pulse.”
Grafton elbowed Early out of the way. He shucked off a glove and stuck his bare hand in the cab, toward the body. He worked his fingertips under a collar, to the carotid artery. Grafton pressed in and held his fingertips there for a moment.
He shook his head. “That’s all she wrote.” Grafton glanced at the face of his watch. “I hereby confirm the obvious at the hour of eight thirty-two in the a.m. This man’s dead. Jimmy, let’s get back to your Jeep. I wanna thaw my fingers.”
Early made an about-face, Grafton with him. They high-stepped back through the deep snow to the ditch and up to Dickerson and Brown, Brown now in the cab of his Black Maria, Dickerson by the door, he again stamping in the snow.
Early rapped on the glass, and Brown rolled the window down. “Brownie, Doc’s made the death official. The body’s yours.”
“You want me to get in touch with the family?”
“I’ll do that. But I’ll tell you it’s the one part of my job I do hate.”
Early spun his pointer finger in a gesture for the undertaker to roll his window up. Next, he guided Dickerson by the elbow to the constable’s car, an old Chevy coupe, a stovebolt six, the paint sun bleached. “So there is a wife?”
“And two little kids. The wife, from the one time I met her at the post office, she’s one sour apple.”
“Where’s the house?”
“Couple miles back into Riley. I can take you there. You wanna follow me?”
Early stopped behind Dickerson’s car. He glanced at Grafton in the buddy seat, then past him to the house. “Not much, is it?”
Grafton cast his gaze that way. “Kind of like the hovel the boss and I had when we first came to Manhattan, three rooms and a path. Wouldn’t want it today for a chicken coop.”
“I remember it. Well, come on.” Early stepped out of the Jeep.
Grafton came out the other side and together they kicked their way through the snow to the front stoop, Dickerson hop-stepping to keep up.
Early rapped on the door frame. When no one answered, he rapped again. This time the door opened a crack, enough that he could see a sliver of a woman on the other side, a woman in a tired house dress, her face, what Early could see of it, deeply lined.
She raised an eyebrow, as if suspicious of something. “Whaddya you want?”
“I’m Sheriff Early. Can my friends and I come in and talk?”
“If this has got somethin’ to do with Eldon, he’s not here.”
“Then it’ll have to wait. He’s at work. Be home tonight.”
“I’m sorry, Missus Treat, he won’t be.”
“You sayin’ somethin’ happened?” Her hand went to her mouth, and she retreated a pace.
Early sensed an advantage and eased the door open. He stepped inside, into a dingy room smelling of coal oil and Vicks VapoRub. He went in far enough that Grafton and Dickerson could slip in behind him. Both snatched off their hats, Dickerson his ear muffs, too.
Early shifted his weight. “Your mailman here tells me you’ve got kids.”
“Two. Not mine so much as Eldon’s.” Missus Treat snuffled. She wiped at her nose with a handkerchief that was hardly more than a rag.
“Where are they?”
“In the kitchen, feedin’ their faces.” She wiped at her nose again. “Don’t you look at me accusing. Breakfast’s kinda late today.”
Early motioned to Grafton, for him to go on to the kitchen. As he left, Early sat down on one of the two hard-backed chairs in the room. Missus Treat, her stare following Grafton, hesitated before she, too, sat down.
Early removed his hat. He glanced around. “I see you’ve not got your Christmas tree up yet?”
“Don’t believe in that stuff.”
“That so? Well–” Early leaned forward, his elbows coming to rest on his knees. “–ma’am, there’s no easy way to put this.”
“Put this what?”
“Your husband, ma’am, he ran off the road on his way to work it looks like, hit an electric pole.”
Missus Treat’s eyes took on the look of a wild animal suddenly boxed it.
He went on. “Wilton Brown–he’s our undertaker in Manhattan–he’s out there. He’ll take care of your husband.”
She choked back what, words? Tears? Early couldn’t be sure which. “Is there any way we can help you, Missus Treat?”
She rose, decidely, firmly. She planted her hand on the back of her chair, the rag of a handkerchief showing between her fingers, a fierceness firing her face. “Help?”
“You kin help, Sheriff. You kin take them children. They’re not mine. Take ’em or I’ll put ’em out on the street. The only reason we got ’em was because Eldon was their only relative nearby when their ma and pa died of the sick they had. You get ’em outta here, and you get ’em outta here now.”
Early, as he drove for home, watched the snow end and the sun break through the clouds. He glanced at the boy in the seat beside him, the boy’s coat and pants too short and cracks showing in the leather of his shoes. “Arland, you say you’re nine?”
The boy fiddled with a thread hanging from the cuff of one sleeve of his coat. “Uh-huh.”
“And your brother?” Early looked up in his mirror at the small boy in the backseat, next to Grafton, Grafton with his arm around him.
“I notice he doesn’t talk. Is that because we’re strangers?”
“What about Ma Treat?”
“She, uhm, she whipped him.”
“He asked for a second potato at supper once.”
“He cried, so she whipped him again, for crying.”
“Wasn’t Mister Treat there?”
Early’s thoughts tumbled. Beating an older kid, he’d known that to happen, but a child? After some moments, he forced out a question, “When was this?”
“Sometime back, after they got us.”
“She ever whip you?”
“She, she’d make me drop my pants, switch my bottom if I wouldn’t do something she wanted.”
Early blew out his breath, his cheeks looking like those of a chipmunk. He turned the Jeep off onto the lane that led to a ranch house and barns. Early again glanced at the boy. “That’s not going to happen to you or Merlie anymore.”
“Mister Early, can I ask you a question?”
“What’s gonna happen to us? My brother and me, we got no home.”
“The home you had wasn’t much.” Early guided the Jeep down a dip and across the ice of a frozen creek that in spring and fall washed across the lane. “Arland, I’m going to work on that. You’ve got my promise. But for now, how about you two fellas spending Christmas with me and the people I live with and my little girl? Would that be all right?”
The boy didn’t look up. He instead stared at his shoes, but Early could see a hint of a smile.
As they neared the buildings, a black dog–a Newfoundland–raced out from one of the barns toward the Jeep, throwing up snow as he ran, the dog flailing his tail.
“That’s Archie,” Early said. “You and Merlie are gonna like him.”
“I had a dog once.”
“When was that?”
“When I was little. Merlie doesn’t remember him.” “Your brother’s of a size I could saddle old Arch and he could ride him.” Early looked to the boy for a laugh, but none came. He swung the Jeep around in the ranch yard and stopped by the front porch of a low-slung house, smoke drifting up from its two chimneys. Archie, outside the passenger’s window, pressed his nose against the plastic, his eyes bright, focused on the boy.
Early stepped out. He came around and slap-patted the dog. Then, with one hand, he held Archie back while, with the other, he opened the door for the boy.
The boy slid off the seat, and the dog broke loose. He danced around, licking at the boy’s face, while the boy, giggling and scrunching up, tried his best to pet Archie.
Early stepped in. He grabbed the dog’s collar and issued the order, “Sit!”
Archie plopped his butt in the snow.
The boy reached out to him, and the dog slobbered on his hand, all the time not lifting his bottom from where he sat, yet the dog worked his tail like a broom, sweeping the snow from side to side.
Early pulled the passenger seat forward to get the smaller boy in the backseat. “Come on, Merlie.”
Grafton handed the boy forward, and Early caught him under the arms and brought him out. He set the boy down on his feet next to Arland. “Merlie, I’d like you to meet Archie. He’s going to be your best buddy while you’re here.”
The boy, like his brother, reached out to the dog and got a bunch of raspy licks on his hand in return. He giggled.
Grafton hauled himself out of the backseat, bumping the horn button as he came. The beep brought Nadine Estes to the door, an apron around her waist and her hands well dusted with flour. She motioned to the boys with their arms wrapped around Archie’s neck. “Looks like we got company here.”
Early pulled a pillowcase out from the back of the Jeep, the pillowcase stuffed with clothes. “For a time, Christmas at least.” He herded Arland and Merlie ahead of him and up onto the porch. Archie came beside them, sworping his tongue at Merlie. “Boys, I want you to kick the snow off your shoes before you go inside. That’s Missus Estes. She looks after my little girl and me.”
Merlie stamped around and Arland raked his shoes against a bootjack, both getting their foot gear somewhat clean. Early, after a wait, pushed them on inside. He then kicked the snow from his boots and Grafton did the same with his galoshes. Following that, they thundered in to find Missus Estes helping the boys out of their coats.
She ruffled Arland’s hair. “I’ve been baking Christmas cookies. How would you two fellers like a couple with milk?”
That brought grins.
She whisked the boys ahead of her and out of the big room well warmed by a fire in the fireplace, the air pungent with the scent of cedar from the Christmas tree in the corner.
Early parked his fanny on the hearth. There he pulled off his boots and gave his toes a vigorous rub through the fabric of his socks. “Doc, if heaven’s like this–a warm house, good friends, a dog like Archie, and my horse–I won’t mind going when it comes my time.”
Grafton, out of his five-bucklers, set his galoshes aside. “You aren’t planning on that soon, are you?”
The boys shuffled back in from the kitchen, Merlie carrying a plate of cookies and Arland two cups of coffee, steam rising from them. With Missus Estes pointing the way, they served Grafton first, then Early. She carried in glasses of milk which she handed to the boys after they settled on the rug in front of the fire.
She dipped her brow to Early. “Did you know these two fine young men are from Nebraska and their last name is Snyder, not Treat?”
Early waved what was left of his cookie. “That I did not. Guess I’m not too good at asking questions, am I?” He squared off to the boys. “Tell me, Mister Arland Snyder and Mister Merlie Snyder, do you have any other family, relatives like Mister Treat?”
Arland, finished with his cookies, peered at another on the plate. When he turned his gaze upward, he saw that Missus Estes was watching him.
“It’s all right,” she said. “Two are never enough.”
With that, Arland helped himself to a third cookie. He passed it to his brother, then took another for himself. This one he balanced on his glass. Arland brushed his fingers on his shirt front, to get the crumbs off them, then reached inside his shirt. He brought out a leather pouch on a cord looped around his neck. From the pouch, Arland excavated an envelope, folded. “We got a sister.”
Early set his coffee cup aside. “Where?”
The boy handed him the envelope.
Early unfolded it and read the return address. “Fort Hood. She in the Army?”
Arland shook his head. “The man she’s married to.”
Early poked his fingers inside the envelope for a letter he knew must be there. He got it, opened it, and scanned down the page. “I see. He’s a sergeant. And here your sister talks about–oh, she’s got a baby.”
“You ever see the baby?”
“Your sister, when did you see her last?”
“When Merlie was little.”
“You like her and the man’s she’s married to?”
Early tapped the envelope and the letter against his fingertips. “You wouldn’t mind if I made a telephone call, would you?”
The boy shook his head.
Early, still tapping the envelope and the letter against his fingertips, got up and went to the kitchen. There he took down the receiver from the wall phone. He gave a long crank on the ringer, then pressed the receiver to his ear.
A voice came through. “This is the operator.”
Early turned to the mouthpiece. “Betts, James Early. I need your help.”
“What can I do for you, Sheriff?”
“Would you place a long-distance call for me? Fort Riley? The adjutant?”
“Do you have a number?”
“Just a minute.” He thumbed through the pages of a notepad he had taken from his shirt pocket. “Here it is. Two-two-one-six.”
“I have an open circuit to Fort Riley.”
Early heard a ring, then a second ring. A man answered, a high tenor. “Fort Riley switchboard.”
“I have a long distance call for the post adjutant. Two-two-one-six.”
“Cross your fingers, ma’am, it’s the day before Christmas. Putting you through now.”
This time a buzz came out of the receiver, like that of an angry bee. A second buzz, and a third. And a click of a receiver being picked up.
“Adjutant here. By God, this better be important.”
“Long distance call from Leonardville.”
“Who the hell–”
Early shoved his way into the conversation. “Henry, it’s me, James Early.”
“You I’ll talk to. By the way, merry Christmas and may Santa Claus not put a lump of coal in your stocking this year.”
“Coal we can always use. Gets chilly out on the ranch.”
“Why you calling, Cactus?”
“I got two orphan boys here. I’m trying to find their sister and her husband. He’s in the Army.”
“One of my troopers?”
“No. Screaming Eagles at Fort Hood, a Sergeant Thomas Wills. You think you could make a couple calls and find him?”
“Cactus, you don’t ask much.”
“Can you do it?”
Silence. Early imagined the bird colonel was sucking on his pipe, trying to come up with a way to get out of this.
The adjutant’s voice came back. “You’re sure of this?”
“I’m holding a letter from the sister, Janey Wills, dated Twelve September.”
“Where are you?”
“Out at the ranch. Leonardville four-one-four.”
“I’ll make some calls, get back to you within the hour. You know I’m probably going to have to sacrifice my lunch for you.”
“Next time you come to Manhattan, I’ll take you at the Brass Nickel. And I’ll buy.”
“Steak with all the trimmings?”
“If you find the sergeant and his wife, I’ll even put half a peach pie on your plate for dessert.” Early hung the receiver back on the hook.
He slipped the letter back in the envelope and folded it as he strolled back into the front room. Early held the envelope out to Arland. “You’ll be wanting this.”
The boy took it and returned it to his pouch.
Early turned his gaze to Missus Estes. “So where’s Walter and Toot?”
“Jimmy, Walter took your little girl to Manhattan, to the Woolworth, so she can get you something for Christmas. Coming on three years old and buying you a Christmas gift. If I know my Walter, and I do, he’ll see to it it’s a bottle of Old Spice, so you act surprised when you open your present.”
“I can do that.”
“And I’ll do the same when I unwrap the box of chocolate-covered cherries he’ll get for me. He gets ’em so he can eat the most of ’em. Always does.” She grinned as she shook her head. “Well, I better get some lunch ready for these hungry young ’uns. Maybe they’d like to see Molly while I do.”
Arland looked up at Early. “Who’s Molly?”
The boy grabbed hold of his brother’s hand. “Come on, we’re gonna see Mister Early’s horse.”
When Early and the boys clattered back into the house, Grafton stood waiting for them in the doorway to the kitchen, an apron tied up under his arms. “Come on, you Indians, get out of your coats and get your butts in here. Nadine says lunch is ready and she’s not going to wait but a minute more.”
Early helped Merlie and Arland shed their coats, then gave them a push toward the kitchen. Grafton aimed them on, to the sink.
He swung back to Early. “Kind of like those kids, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but I’d sure like to see them get with family for Christmas, a better family than they’ve had.”
“You thinking that sister in Texas?”
“Blood’s a powerful thing.”
“My friend, don’t hang your hat on that one. She’s too far away.”
“You’re probably right.” Early tugged on Grafton’s apron. “Looks like you’ve been cooking.”
“Helping. Nadine says fetch this and I do, she says do that and I get with it. I’m a good hand when I know I’m going to be fed. Better get yourself in here.”
Early went on to the sink already abandoned by the boys drying their hands on two ends of the same towel. He worked the pitcher pump, splashing new water into the sink. He plunged in and scrubbed his face while Missus Estes settled the boys on a bench beside her plank table. She took the bench across from them and motioned Grafton to the chair at the foot of the table. That left the chair at the head. Early slid onto it after he dried his face and hands.
He took hold of Merlie’s hand. “You boys say grace before meals?”
Merlie gave off a questioning look and Arland shook his head.
“We do.” Early reached for Nadine’s hand and she for Grafton’s, and so it went around the table.
Early at last bowed. “Gracious God, this day started hard with You calling home one of Yours. But life goes on, doesn’t it, and we thank You for that. And we thank You, too, for bringing these young men to be with us, to share a meal and maybe Christmas, as well. Bless this food to us now, we do ask it in Your Son’s name. And they all said–” In unison, Early, Missus Estes, and Grafton murmured amen.
A beat behind came a whispered amen from Arland.
Early gazed around the table at the noontime feast. He clapped his hands. “Well, now, what do we have?”
Missus Estes lifted a bowl of mashed potatoes to Grafton and gestured for him to pass it to Arland. “We have mashed potatoes, hot biscuits, a beef roast that I had in the oven, and corn and beans that I canned from my garden.”
The telephone rang, interrupting. Early signaled for all to keep passing the dishes and dig in while he abandoned his chair for the phone. He pressed the receiver to his ear. “James Early.”
“I have a long distance call from Fort Riley.”
“Put it through.”
Several clicks and a hum came across the line, plus, “Fort Riley, I have your party for you. Go ahead.”
Early put his hand on the stem of the mouthpiece. “Henry, I’m here. What did you find out?”
“Well, Sergeant Wills really does exist. I got him through a field phone connection. He and his squad are out on maneuvers.”
“Here’s the good news. The sergeant says he and his wife would like to have the boys.”
“But bad news comes with it.”
“The earliest he can get a pass so they can drive up here is three weeks from now.”
“Henry, that’s not so bad.”
“Well, maybe. Anyway, I made some more calls for you. You remember from your war days, we’ve got the Military Air Transport Service–MATS? They’ve got a bird in the air for Fort Hood that they can divert here. It’s a tight schedule. Can you pack those kids and be at the Manhattan airport in twenty?”
Grafton glanced up from his cutting of a bite of beef.
Early motioned an ‘ignore me’ to him and turned his back to his company, to face full to the wall phone. “Henry, the best I can do is forty and that’s with running my siren which doesn’t work. But how about this? It’s as illegal as all get out, but still–”
“Jimmy, you’d violate the law?”
“Look at your map. Fifteen miles northwest of Manhattan, Seventy-Seven curves and goes due north. From that curve, it runs straight for most of the next ten miles and most of the first part of that road is flat. We block off a mile and make it a runway and have the MATS flight land on it. That curve, it’s only five miles from me.”
“Jimmy, you got the vehicles to pull this off?”
“I can get a couple cars.”
“Not good enough, my friend. Tell you what you need, you need some honkin’ big bruisers, and I’m the man who’s got ’em. Twenty minutes. Get your fanny in gear.”
The adjutant clicked off.
Early hung his receiver back onto its hook. He rubbed his ear, wondering what he’s just committed himself to do. While still considering it, he eased around to find everyone at the table staring at him. Early looked straight at the brothers. “Boys, how would you like to be with your sister and her family in Texas for Christmas?”
A smile lifted Arland’s face. He slipped an arm around his brother’s shoulders and squeezed him. “Merlie, you wanna do it?”
The brother nodded.
Early fired his pointer finger at them. “Then we’ve gotta shake a leg. We’ve got less than twenty minutes to get you to an airplane. Doc, you get the boys in their coats. Nadine, pack some food they can take.”
The brothers scrambled off the bench and, with Grafton pushing them along, hurried away into the front room. Missus Estes, though, latched onto Early’s arm. “You sure you want to do this?”
“But it’d be awful nice to have those tykes here tonight and tomorrow. Been a long time since Walter and me have had little boys in the house at Christmas.”
“I know, but, Nadine, it’s right that they be with their sister and her family. They’re blood. Come on, box up the cookies. Do that at least.”
Early didn’t wait for a response. He dashed for the front room where he hauled on his boots, shagged himself into his sheepskin coat, grabbed his hat, and ran for the Jeep, startling Archie when he burst out of the front door.
The dog jumped up. He swung back when the boys and Grafton came hustling out, bundled for the cold. Archie fell in beside them. He trotted along, his ears up, expecting.
Early helped Arland up and into the backseat, then Merlie.
Missus Estes came along behind. She pushed in and held out a five-pound coffee can to Arland. “No coffee in this, son. It’s cleaned and washed and filled with Christmas cookies, enough that I want you to share with everyone on that airplane and your sister and her family when you get to Texas.”
He took the can and hugged it to his chest.
She touched his cheek. “I’m gonna miss you, Arland, and Merlie, too. Safe trip now, you hear?”
When she pulled away, Grafton, toting the boys’ pillowcase of clothes, stuffed himself into the buddy seat.
Early came in the other side. He fired up the engine and drove the Jeep out, shifting up through second to the road gear when he got away from the buildings. Early held tight to the steering wheel as the Jeep hurtled along toward the county road and highway running down to Seventy-Seven.
Beyond Riley, Early slowed. He motioned ahead and off to the side. “Doc, look at that. Henry’s a man of his word.”
Two command cars–Jeeps with lights flashing and whip antennas flailing the air–burst out of the brush in a far field with two Sherman tanks thundering behind them. The four vehicles fanned out into an attack line and roared on through a snow-filled meadow that separated the military reservation from the civilian world. They flattened a fence, bolted through a ditch, and, as a unit, wheeled right and up onto the highway–a convoy.
Grafton stared across at Early. “Tanks?”
“Henry said we needed big bruisers to block off the highway. Nothing bigger than M-Fours.”
Early idled back as he rolled up behind the last command car. He held what was for him a new and amazingly slow speed, thirty miles an hour, which for the tank drivers was flat-out racing. Two miles on, the convoy wheeled left onto Highway Seventy-Seven. Beyond the curve, the trailing tank stopped, a command car behind it, and Early, too.
He bailed out and ran to the command car while the tank swivelled in place until its bulk laid across both traffic lanes.
Early found the door of the command car open and the driver listening to a transmission on his radio, “. . . ten north of you out of five-thousand, coming down Seventy-Seven. You should be able to see us.”
The driver stepped out of his Jeep, his microphone in hand. He jabbed Early and pointed ahead, just above the horizon.
Early shaded his eyes. He saw movement and gave a thumbs-up.
The driver pressed his transmit button. “Gotcha, MATS Six-Seven-One. No wind. You can land either to the south or the north, your choice.”
“Will land to the north.”
“Roger that.” The driver parked his forearm on Early’s shoulder. “Man, you’ve got some pull.”
“What I’ve got is two little boys who want to be with their sister and her husband, and he’s one of you.”
“That’s what the colonel said when he got me up on the radio.”
“What kind of plane is Six-Seven-One?”
“A Skytrain, a C-Forty-seven in military parlance. You probably know it as a DC-Three. This one’s a medivac flight hauling wounded from Korea. When he passes over us, you skedaddle after him ’cause once the pilot stops, he gonna wait only long enough for you to catch up and get those kids aboard. If that takes more than a couple minutes, he’s already said he’s outta here.”
Early felt the throbbing of the approaching Skytrain’s engines. He watched the aircraft, now winging along off to the left, slide out of the sky and dip into a sweeping turn that would bring it around onto a northbound course for landing.
“Ever want to be up there?” Early asked.
“Not for all the gold in Fort Knox.”
“If I fall, I want to fall no further than from my bed to the floor. I don’t even like getting up on a stepladder to change a light bulb. Too high for me.”
The throbbing changed to a thrum as the air transport passed overhead, flaps out, its tail wheel skimming the tank’s turret.
The driver took a swipe at Early. “Man, get outta here. Get after it.”
Early ran back to his Jeep. He clambered in behind the steering wheel. As he settled, he glanced up in his mirror. “Boys, hang on, this is gonna be a wild ride.”
Arland, clutching the can of cookies, slid closer to his brother.
Early floored the accelerator. He ripped the Jeep around the command car and onto the shoulder of the highway for a fast run past the butt end of the tank. When clear, he jerked the Jeep back onto the macadam, shifted up into third, and raced on after the Skytrain slowing, snow billowing out behind it, swirling, snow kicked up by the wash from the aircraft’s propellers. The transport rolled to a stop a quarter-mile ahead. Early saw a door open out at the top and arc down, the airstairs visible. He slowed, skirted the aircraft’s tail section, and stopped hard beside the door.
Once out, Early yanked his seat forward. He reached for Merlie, caught him under the arms, and lifted him out. Arland came scrambling after, the can of cookies squeezed against his chest.
Grafton, also out, hustled around to the airplane’s door where he handed up the stuffed pillowcase to a nurse in a tan jumpsuit waiting there. She moved away, inside, and someone new stepped into the doorway, someone with a white beard, in a red coat and stocking cap and camouflage trousers.
Merlie stared up at him. After a moment, he mouthed the words ‘Santa Claus.’ He tugged on his brother’s sleeve and pointed and repeated this time aloud, “Santa Claus. Look, it’s Santa Claus.”
Grafton bumped shoulders with Early. “Cactus, I want to know how you got him here.”
Allen Weir, my novel writing prof back when I was in graduate school, one day gave us an assignment to write a short story about a wedding cake in the middle of the road. All of us had different takes on the subject. Here's my story.
Before the postal managers discovered the stopwatch and efficiency studies some fifty years ago, rural mail carriers provided their route patrons with all kinds of services that never appeared in the official Post Office Manual.
An order for ten three-cents stamps – there once were three-cent postage stamps for first class letters – in the Cogdill mailbox might have a note attached that read: “Ernie, I’m canning pickles, and I need more Mason jars than I’ve got. Would you buy me a dozen with lids at the Trademore store and drop them off with tomorrow’s mail? These two one-dollar bills ought to cover it. Thanks. Dorie.”
Or “Ernie, Aunt Eula Mae Short is feeling puny. Would you put this jar of my granny’s home remedy in her box with the mail? You’re a good man. Louise.”
But the oddest request on record came from the Widow Leta McFall down on Star Route Four, Binfield, Tennessee. Normally, Uncle James Stovall drove that route, but this day he was up in Maryville at the eye doctor, being fitted for new glasses. So his nephew, Wild Eddie, took his place.
From her lookout – the window over her kitchen sink – the widow saw a cloud of dust whipping up the road about the time she expected Uncle James, so she gathered up a fancy cake she had baked for the Hansen/Stevens wedding. She hurried out the kitchen door and down to the mailbox with it.
The widow got there just as Eddie slid Uncle James’s old green Studebaker pickup to a stop.
“How-do, Miz McFall, like the tune?!” he bellowed, to make himself heard over Lulabelle and Scotty crooning the chorus to Does the chewing gum lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight? Eddie had rachetted the radio’s volume up so the truck fairly vibrated to the music.
The old woman scrunched up her face. She reached inside her blouse for the control to turn her hearing aid down.
Eddie handed something out the window. “Sorry, got no mail for you today, just this Monkey Ward catalog!”
“That’s all right,” Missus McFall said as she took the new summer issue. “I wasn’t expectin’ anything. But I do need your help.”
The widow pointed to the radio. Eddie twisted the volume knob down a tad.
“I said I need your help.”
“Sure, what kin I do?”
“Little Carol Sue Hansen is gettin’ married tonight down at the Skuppernong church, you know the one, about three miles down the road. Well, I guess Carol Sue’s not so little anymore. She’s of marryin’ age, you know. Anyway, I can’t get there, Eddie. Would you drop off this cake for me as you go by? The preacher’s there.”
“Glad to. Cab’s full of mail, but I kin put it in the back.”
Uncle James kept the back full of old tires and beer bottles that he picked up from the ditches along his mail route, so Eddie lowered the tailgate while he considered the possibilities. With the tailgate down, he saw he had a flat surface. Eddie put the cake in its plastic cover on the tailgate and pulled two busted tires back. These he wedged, one on either side, to keep the cake from sliding.
“How’s that look to you?” he asked.
Widow McFall said nothing. She just crossed her fingers.
Eddie jumped back in the cab. He cranked up the radio’s volume so Red Foley fairly hollered as he sang his latest hit. Eddie stomped on the gas, and the truck fishtailed away.
He made the curve at the end of the McFall farm and raced away to the east, up a rise and down through a dip. He joined in when Foley got to the chorus: Detour! There’s a muddy road ahead, detour –
Lost in the reverie of country music, Eddie never felt the truck thump over a rock nor did he see the wedding cake sail away. He was pounding the steering wheel, laughing and shouting to himself, “Gawd, I ought to be on the Grand Ole Opry!”
Everett Snow, well up in his seventies, shuffled along toward home after a morning of hoeing tobacco. A lop-eared dog, nearly as ancient as he, shambled along beside him. Everett, forlorn, downcast and in the pits, felt forever sorry for himself because his hard-scrabble farm never produced enough that he could buy his wife the fine things he believed she deserved for having put up with him for fifty-three years. As he and the dog topped a rise, something broke through Everett’s mood – a sparkle of sunlight reflecting off something ahead. It drew his eye.
“Damn, Rex,” he said to his four-footed companion as the two got closer, “if that don’t look like a cake cover in the road.”
The dog loped ahead to the object and sniffed his way all around it.
When Everett got there, he knelt down and he, too, examined it. Ever so gently, he lifted the dome and then let out a long, low whistle.
“Look-a that, Rex,” he said as he massaged the old dog’s ears. “I believe them’s black-eyed Susans ringing the base of that cake and, ooo-hoo my, milk-white frosting. And look there on the top – two roses. Must be made of colored frosting. Them stems, Rex, they’re entwined like young lovers.”
The dog had never heard his master speak in such awe and poetry. He sat on his haunches next to Everett, gazing first at the old man and then at the cake while all the time he lazily stirring the dust with his tail. Rex turned once more to his master and sworped a dog-style kiss across Everett’s wizened face.
Everett got out a handkerchief and wiped the dog spit off his whiskers.
“Rex,” he said as he turned his attention back to the cake in the middle of the road, “I don’t know where that come from or how it got here or who it belongs to. But I got me an idea.”
He winked at the dog. “You s’pose that maybe God put that cake there for me to give to Myrtle? I know as a dog you don’t pay attention to such stuff, but today is our weddin’ anniversary.”
I've long felt that Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is the best Halloween story ever written. The Headless Horseman goes riding after Icabod Crane.
One year, when I was the editor of The Montgomery (WV) Herald, a fellow in the neighboring town who loved Halloween and liked to do something spectacular each year, decked himself out as the Headless Horseman and rode through our streets on Trick-or-Treat night, his cape streaming behind him and a jack o lantern in the crook of his arm.
I wasn't fast enough to get a photo.
Well, here's my Halloween story for you.
The House on Humbleberry Lane
His dad called him “my buddy Little Hal.” But the kids in the neighborhood settled on Horrible Harry.
And Little Hal/Horrible Harry liked it that way.
Five-eight and chunky–big for a sixth grader–he finished strapping on his green feet, then admired himself in the mirror. Did a good job with the green face paint, he thought. And the green chest muscles and the tattered clothes, and his hair bunched and shoved around just so, he really did look like The Hulk, his hero.
He stepped out into the hallway where his father surprised him, snapped a photo with his cellphone. “Grammy’s not gonna believe this,” the dad said as he elbowed his wife. “This is a hoot. I’ll text her and send the picture.”
Little Hal’s mother gazed at her boy, her eyes brimming with love. She held out a plastic pumpkin–a trick-or-treat bucket.
The Hulk held up a pillowcase.
“Oh, aren’t you the clever one,” she said. “You want Daddy to go with you this year?”
The Hulk shook his green head and crammed on by and out the door where he melted into the parade of goblins and princesses and miniature Darth Vadars flowing by, the littlest with a mom or dad or an older brother or sister shuffling along with them.
The Hulk pushed a Papa Smurf behind a clump of Rose of Sharon, held his pillowcase open to him. “All your candy in here, kid, or I’ll pound you in the dirt.”
Quaking, the smurf dumped his purple pail of goodies into the pillowcase, and The Hulk shambled back out into the passing crowd. A half block on, where the light from the street corner barely reached, he tripped Spiderman.
“You all right, Spidey?” he asked as he helped the child up. “You dropped your trick-or-treat bucket. Let’s me get that for you.”
He did. Emptied it in his sack, flung the bucket away, and galloped off across the street–cackling–toward the Wade house, famous in the neighborhood for the generosity of the treat offerings there. Mister Wade answered the doorbell in his Cat-in-the-Hat stovepipe hat, bent and dented, of course. He held a tray piled high with Snickers bars and Sour Balls.
Mister Wade studied The Hulk, measured him against the kids crowding behind him. “Aren’t you a little old for this?” he asked.
The Hulk whined. “I’m only twelve.”
“I think you’d better move on.”
“Not fair. Trick-or-treat, mister.” He held his pillowcase open.
“I don’t think so,” Mister Wade said, his Cat-in-the-Hat hat swaying in the negative.
The Hulk stomped on Mister Wade’s foot.
He howled, dropped his tray, and most of the candy fell into The Hulk’s bag.
The Hulk, laughing like a maniac, ran. He slammed the Ice Princess and a gaggle of her entourage out of his way and raced around the block, past the corner of Raven Street and Humbleberry Lane, toward a house he couldn’t remember having seen before–a ramshackle mansion with a weedy yard and a broken fence. A troupe of costumed children danced out the front door waving their goody bags and shouting thank you. They hurried down the front walk and away into the evening mist.
The Hulk studied the house.
Well, why not?
So he hustled up the walk to the porch, the porch’s boards squawling under his weight as he crossed to the front door.
Hmm, no button for the doorbell.
Obvious solution. The Hulk banged on the door. He called out in his best imitation of the voice from that old car commercial he’d seen on You Tube, “I’m Mister Opportunity and I’m knockin’!”
The door creaked open.
In the pallid light stood a witch next to a bubbling cauldron. “Yes?” she asked.
He held out his sack well over half full. “Trick-or-treat.”
She brought out something from beneath her cloak, held it out to him. “How about a nice poisoned apple, sonny?”
“Candy. I want candy.”
“Well, my dear, for that you must come inside.”
The witch stepped out of the way, and The Hulk entered. He stopped when a demonic laugh echoed up from what surely must have been the basement.
The witch planted a boney hand on The Hulk’s shoulder. “Not to worry, sonny. That’s just my cousin, Boris, experimenting with a potion to shrink children like you into dolls. Now you wanted candy. Right this way.”
She gave him a sharp push that sent him stumbling forward into a man with an oversized head and a bolt through his neck. He clamped onto the boy’s arm.
The Hulk croaked out, “Neat costume, mister. Where’d you get it?”
The man grinned, a front tooth missing. “This is not a costume,” he said in the bassiest of bass voices.
He hauled the boy forward, into a circle of people gathered around a coffin in the living room, the coffin open, two candles flickering on stands at either side of the head.
The Hulk peered around the circle. His dad had told him about the old television show, The Addams Family. He’d even seen an episode on TV Land. This must be them.
“To get your treat,” the man with the bolt through his neck said, “reach inside.” He gestured at the casket.
The Hulk went up on his toes, to get a better look. There was candy in there, half covering a body.
Well, if he must–
He reached out, flexing his fingers as he did to make the biggest scoop he could.
A hand thrust up out of the coffin. It grabbed his. And the body sat up, its eyes a blazing red. “Gotcha, kid!”
The Hulk screamed.
He dropped his pillowcase of candy and ran for the front door, ran outside, ran as if a swarm of angry hornets was after him. Behind him came the witch, the man with the bolt in his neck, and the Addams Family. They stopped in the weak light from the fire under the cauldron, the witch calling out, “Did you like our trick, dearie? We have more.”
The story came about from a writing challenge in my writers group: What if your character could tell you what he or she thinks about your writing? Maybe she doesn’t like how you portrayed her, or he hates what you’re doing to his life in the story. Your character’s rant or diatribe is your 250-word challenge piece.
Found in the author’s suggestion box
It was a letter in pencil, on lined paper torn from a Big Chief note pad and addressed to me as “Dear author, sir or ma’am . . .
You have made my life excessively difficult.
Do you remember back in the first book you wrote about me, you had me fall through a rotting step and tear up my shin, then an angry woman hit me in the side of the head with her purse? I had ringing in my right ear for days.
Do you also remember you had me chasing a bank robber at a football game? He went over the top of the stadium and escaped by sliding down a rope. Me? I burned my hands sliding down the same rope after him, ripped the skin away from my palms and fingers.
In the next book, you wanted me to bust my knuckles bashing a hole in a plaster wall. Praise the Lord, your friends in your writers group talked you out of that. Still, you got me up in an airplane, and you know I hate flying. Remember what happened? I threw up all over myself. Later, in another airplane – a cargo plane in winter – you had me sucked out the back and somehow I broke my leg. You did save me by having me fall into a snowdrift, and I thank you for that, but still I was stranded out there for days, trying to get myself found.
Well, Mister, Miss, or Missus Author, in future books you want to write about me, if you intend to continue banging me around, I want major medical and hospital insurance.
Your battered and bruised servant,
sheriff, Riley County, Kansas
This story, too, grew out of a challenge in my writers group: Write a flash fiction piece about gardening.
Jake Sterns, ancient, arthritic, gardener extra ordinaire, hefted a bag of lime into his wheelbarrow, then a sack of fertilizer. He wheeled them out, slowly, ever-so-slowly, from the garage around back to a patch of lawn beside the speckled half-shell bird bath. Over the past two days, he had removed the sod from an area four feet wide by six feet long, for a new rose garden he told Dib Reynolds, his neighbor, who had come over to superintend.
“Tea roses,” Jake said as he spaded the soil up onto a tarp. “Gonna be beauties.”
“But such a big hole.” Reynolds gazed down into a pit more than knee deep.
The old gardener took a break. He leaned on his spade’s handle. “Dumbhead, ya don’t know nuthin’ about gardening.”
“Do to. Grow the best tomaters in the county.”
“Just dumb luck. Look, when yer startin’ a new flower bed, ya gotta dig all that old, hard-packed soil out. Ya gotta work in a whole lot of rotted leaves and grass–humus, ya know–so the worms can get in there an do their thing, aeratin’ soil, or yer deep-rooted plants, they just aren’t gonna thrive. Trust me.”
Reynolds shook his head. “That sour wife of yours here-about, to see the mess you’re making of her yard?”
“She’s off at her sister’s. Don’t know when she’ll be back.”
“Hope she likes roses.”
“That she does. They’re her favorite.”
“You want me to help? I can get my shovel.”
“Dib, I’m fine. I’ll do my garden, you do yers.”
“Well, don’t say I didn’t offer.”
When Jake didn’t answer, but went back to pitching dirt, Reynolds shrugged. He headed for home. There he dragged a lawn chair out, got himself comfortable with a longneck and watched his neighbor work into the night, mixing and spading. Reynolds did admire the roses Jake had gotten from the garden center, all in bloom–peaches and ambers, two yellows as brilliant as the morning sun, and a purplish black, the color of warm night. Shame, he thought, that teas didn’t have any smell to them.
Reynolds retired while his neighbor yet worked, so he didn’t see Jake bring a bundle from the house and place it with great care in the hole.
Now he cut the top away from the lime bag and dumped the contents in. After he folded the bag and laid it in the wheelbarrow, he picked up his spade, ready to shovel the humus-rich soil back into the hole, the soil in which he would plant his one-dozen rose bushes. Jake threw an easy salute to the bundle.
“Rose,” he said, “yer gonna love yer new flower garden.”
The trigger for this story was a challenge in my writers group: Write a story, poem, essay or film scene in which a coffee shop is involved. The coffee shop may be the immediate scene or be nearby or be referred to in some way. You decide.
James Early and his deputy, John Silver Fox, sat hunched over steaming mugs at their regular table in The Brass Nickel, Manhattan’s Grand Coffee and B&L Café – B&L, breakfast and lunch.
Silver Fox blew across his brew to cool it. “You think they’ll really come?”
Early drizzled some sugar in his coffee before he commenced stirring it with his finger. “That’s what K.C. said.”
“They stopped at his grocery and asked where they could find you?”
“Well, then I’m moving up to the table by the door. If they do come in, they’re sure not getting out.”
“Knew I could count on you.” Early sampled his coffee and, after a sip, he grinned. “Archie’s got himself in step with the Kansas Wheat Commission.”
“This coffee, he’s makin’ it with twenty-five percent wheat. Cuts the bite.”
Silver Fox eyed his cup. “I’d rather have the bite.” He pushed up and hiked away, a shotgun in his hand.
Early snapped open his copy of the Manhattan Mercury to the police blotter, to see what the city police had been up to that he didn’t know about. That read, he became engrossed in a story next to the blotter, about a trial in Topeka that involved a legislator accused of taking a bribe from a hotel owner who wanted a law ending the state’s ban on the sale of liquor by the drink. Early didn’t hear the ring of the bell over the Brass Nickel’s door nor did he see the old couple shuffle in.
However, he did look up when he heard someone ask, “You the sheriff?”
A man stood before Early, a man in a battered cowboy hat with a three-day growth of gray stubble on his face, the man listing toward the woman beside him. Early considered for a moment that maybe the fellow’s left leg was bowed either from a bad break that hadn’t healed right or from riding horses too many years. The woman, he noticed, clung to the man’s arm, her right hand in her hand bag.
The man pulled a revolver from his coat pocket. He waved the barrel at Early. “Just want ya to know this is nuthin’ personal, Sheriff, but Pansy an’ me, we been hired to kill ya.”
The woman brought a Saturday night special out of her bag. Her hand trembled as she pointed the gun at Early.
He laid his paper aside. “Mind if I ask you a question?”
“What’s that?” The man wiped his coat sleeve beneath his nose.
“Who hired you?”
“Guess we kin tell ya since you’ll be dead in a minute. Angus Waitley. Told us you arrested his boy, an’ he hung himself in yer jail.”
Early frowned, his eyebrows pinching together. “And you’re doing this why?”
“Pansy an’ me, we’ve hit us a hard patch. We’re about to lose our little place to the bank, so you kin understand we need the money Mister Waitley’s gonna pay us.”
“I see. Would you be open to a suggestion?”
“Might.” The old man pressed his free hand against his pocket.
“If you’ll turn around–” Early flicked his pointer finger toward Silver Fox. “–that big Indian by the door with the shotgun, that’s my deputy. And the table over there at the side, the two men there with revolvers out, one’s a state trooper and the other’s a constable. You shoot me, they’re going to have to shoot you, both of you.”
The old man’s watery-eyed gaze moved from Silver Fox to the two men. After some moments, he patted his wife’s hand. “Mommy, I think it best we put our guns away.” He pocketed his revolver. As he did, he turned more fully to Early. “I don’t s’pose you could fergit this?”
How it started for me
I broke into the book biz as a short story writer.
I was a graduate student at the University of Tennessee at the time. One of my colleagues, William Banks, was the fiction editor for a new literary magazine, eNteLechY. Bill and I were in a short story writing class. He liked one of my pieces, "The Second Wright Brothers", and asked if he could publish it in the magazine's premier issue. That was the spring of 1994.
The next hit came 10 years later when the editors of the Knoxville Writers Guild's anthology, Migrants & Stowaways, selected my story, "The Gimp Club", for inclusion.
That same year, my first two James Early short stories, "The Death Pool" and "Big Dam Foolishness", won honors in the Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave's short story contest. The next year, the Conclave published both stories in its anthology, Manhattan Mysteries.
Bill Boys, a member of the National Amateur Press Association, published two of my stories in his Pennant Bravo booklet. This is 2004 and 2005.
Bill and I had met by email after he had posted a notice with the Knoxville Writers Guild that he was looking for short stories that he might set in type and enter in NAPA competition. I sent him "The Christmas Gift." He liked it and put it out in December 2004. Bill then asked can you give me a story for my January 2005 issue?
That I could. "Bump and The Stranger."
I came back in 2005 with another hit. Ted Olson, the editor of Mercer University Press's anthology, Crossroads, slected my story "End Time" for inclusion.
The idea for the story came from a news story about people who committed suicide by train . . . they would step out on the tracks in from of a freight train.
Of the nearly one hundred short stories I've written to date, I think "End Time" is one of my best. Here it is:
Grinder Morgan pitched up his voice, to make himself heard over the muffled sound of the diesel motors vibrating the Chessie’s cab, the faint oily smell of fuel in the air. “Not like driving a train in the classroom, is it?”
The kid in the right seat turned.
Morgan punched him in the shoulder. “I told you you can’t do that. You watch ahead now all the time. You’re the engineer.”
“Student engineer,” the kid said, his gaze again locked on the tracks that extended to the near horizon. “Grade crossing coming up.”
“You know the rules. Sound your horn.”
The kid–Rod Kelsey, rangy and all of nineteen years old–pressed a button on the panel, and the diesel’s horn wailed a waaaa! Waa-waaaaaa!
Morgan laughed, thirty-one years on the road and a senior engineer, a paunchy man from too many cheeseburgers and Black Cows away from home. “Boy, you got it there. You develop a horn call like that, that’s your call. Rail fans along the line, they’ll learn ya.”
The train, seventy-one cars of mixed freight and cargo containers, rumbled through the grade crossing. Kelsey waved to the driver of a Gardener’s bread truck idling behind the safety gate.
Morgan, in the left seat, settled his back against the cab’s sidewall. “What’s your speed?”
Kelsey glanced at the gauge. “Sixty.”
“Throttle it back. You’re coming up on a fifty zone.”
Kelsey pulled the speed lever toward himself. “You got the track memorized?”
“Five years on this route, you bet I do.”
“Is it true what they taught us in school, that it takes a mile to stop this bugger?”
“That’s the big fat rule of thumb. You got a helluva lot of momentum with all that weight behind you. You made emergency stops in the trainer.”
“How was it?”
“You get all the visuals with the computer images on the screen. And you get the sounds, but you don’t get no feel of it.”
“Well, they tell me the next generation of trainers will do all that, throw you around that fake cab there in the room. Now the trainers the airlines use, they twist and turn and shake about.”
“Maybe I should be flying a Seven-Forty-Seven.” Kelsey rolled his shoulders, working out the tension that comes with sitting too long. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Why’re you an engineer?”
“Same reason as you. My daddy was. . . . Now you got a school comin’ up on your left. Best be lookin’ for some little shaver who’s late, skittering up the embankment, trying to scoot across the tracks ahead of us.”
“Gotcha. That it?”
Morgan glanced through the fireman’s window. Fireman, that’s a hoot, he thought. The line hadn’t had a fireman since before he began driving trains, the last real fireman being laid off when the line retired its last steamer in Nineteen Fifty-Six. “That’s it. Oh God, there come two little tykes.”
Kelsey tensed. He leaned forward, his finger going to the horn button. He mashed it, and the horn wailed.
Morgan blanched. “Kid, she froze. Dump the air. Hit the brakes!”
Kelsey slammed the panic button, and air whooshed from the engine. With both hands, he hauled back on the brake handle, locking the drive wheels and wheels on the trucks of the cars behind. Steel screamed on steel as the train slid, propelled by fifteen hundred tons of freight and rolling stock.
Up the embankment scrambled a boy. He dove at the girl smaller than he, and both flew clear of the engine.
“Holy shit.” Morgan raked a hand down his face.
Kelsey glanced across, ashen. “Let ’er go or stop?”
“Stop, Goddammit. I’m goin’ back and yell at those kids.”
Morgan whipped around to his window. Before the train, a hundred yards on at another grade crossing, a woman stood in the middle of the tracks. “Get outta there, lady, get outta there!”
Kelsey mashed the horn button and mashed it again.
The woman dropped to her knees, crossing herself as she did.
“She’s lookin’ at us. We’re gonna hit!”
Wheels continued their metallic howl, still locked up, speed playing off. A purse flew to the side. Kelsey saw it and turned away. He retched.
A hundred yards on, two hundred yards, the train screeched to a stop. When there was no more motion, no more sound other than the thrumming of the diesel motors at idle and the engine’s bell clanging, Morgan picked up the microphone from the engine’s dash. “Dispatch, Freight Two-Eleven,” he said, his voice hollow.
“Two-Eleven. Go ahead, Grinder.”
“We’re an eighth of a mile north of the grade crossing at County Twelve. Dead stop. We hit something.”
“Person. A woman.”
“Call the sheriff’s department, wouldja, Neddy? We need a coroner’s wagon, too. She’s gonna be dead.”
“I’m on it. Want me to start the paperwork for you?”
“There’s always that, isn’t there?” Morgan dropped the microphone. Moving much as a robot might, he slid the door open on his side of the cab. Morgan threw out a tarp he kept stashed under the fireman’s seat, then handed a bottle of water to his student engineer. “Wash your mouth out, kid. We’re goin’ back to see the damage.”
He stepped out to the ladder. Beyond, a meadowlark perched on a fence post, warbling, basking in the morning’s sun and the country air rich with the fragrance of alfalfa freshly cut. As Morgan let himself down the ladder, he heard the door slide open on the other side of the cab and Kelsey heaving the last remnants of breakfast overboard.
Morgan gathered up the tarp. He tucked it under his arm and turned back in time to steady his student engineer wobbling down the ladder on the his side of the train.
Kelsey, after his shoes touched down on the gravel, coughed and wheezed. “Grinder. I killed her.”
“It’s not that way, kid. It’s a damn suicide.”
“Still I killed her.”
“Yeah, maybe. Come on, let’s go back.”
They walked in silence, the only sound, when they had gone far enough that they could no longer hear the thrum of the diesel, the crunch of gravel beneath their shoes.
“You ever hit anyone, Grinder?”
“Four that I remember. There may have been a couple more, but you learn to shut ’em out or they eat you alive.”
“How do you do that?”
“Some of my buddies drink. Guess I do, too. Been something of a regular at the Ace High since the first one, eighteen years back.”
“What was that?”
“A low-boy. It high centered on a grade crossing. Destroyed the low-boy, the dozer on it, the tractor and the guy in the cab. Dragged the whole mess a half-mile.”
“Mind me asking, you a Jesus man?”
“Not hardly. The nuns beat that out of me in parochial school.”
Morgan and Kelsey cleared the train and kept shambling on. When they neared the crossing, they could see it–a misshapen lump on the ballast between the tracks.
“This is going to be bad, kid.”
“That why you got the tarp?”
“Ever since that first I’ve always carried a tarp in the cab.”
“If it’s all right with you, maybe I’ll hang back.”
Morgan touched Kelsey’s shoulder, then went on, a slow, rolling gait. When he came up to the body, the head and torso a mash of tissue, fabric, blood and bone, he shook out the tarp and draped it over what had ten minutes before been a living, vibrant being.
Done, he mopped the back of his hand beneath one eye, then the other.
The purse. He’d seen it, too. It had flown off to the east side of the tracks. The sheriff would need it, so Morgan went in search of it. He side-hopped down the embankment and swatted his way through the weeds, to the fence line, and there it laid among the burdock, a blood smear across the plastic. Morgan picked the purse up by the strap, one end torn free, and carried the purse with him as he made his way back to the crossing.
On the west side, he saw a Dodge K-car, blue and rust, on the shoulder of the county highway. Kinda familiar, Morgan thought. Those cars, they do run forever. He moved on toward it.
He peered through the glass of the driver’s window and saw a sheet of yellow notepaper on the seat.
Morgan opened the door. He brought the paper out into the light of the sun that refused to pause in its march toward its noontime zenith.
He read down the page, something about a husband buried at the Peekland Cemetery . . . married eleven years . . . the loneliness . . . frustration with a continually sick child . . . emergency room times, getting by on food stamps . . . a name, Shelby Dodds, and the words “Sweetpea, I’m going home to be with Daddy. Do not forget me.”
Morgan crumpled the paper. He turned away, the squareness gone from his shoulders. Shelby Dodds. It came back in a flood, the memories, the prettiest girl. His son had dated her when the two were in high school, Shelby Wills then. She had married another boy, George Dodds or was it Geoffry? George or Geoffry had died last year? Morgan had forgotten that.
He looked up at the sky. “God, You needn’t have taken this one. What are You tryin’ to do, get me into the church house? I’ll make You a deal, if You never let this happen again–”
Morgan’s head dipped forward until his chin rested on his chest.
His hand rose.
It moved in the sign of the cross, and then he murmured the prayer burned into his memory more than half a lifetime ago, not the “Our Father,” but the prayer for the dead.
A Funeral for Petey
Some several years ago, I wrote a short short story about two middle-school kids who had started a lawnmowing business, and their first job was a disaster.
I wrote the story as an essay that kids get assigned to do, you know, "What I did on my summer vacation."
This became the first of a series of Cody & Me stories.
Here's one from last year, "A Funeral for Petey."
Mrs. Engstrom’s class
Marshall Middle School
November 5, 2013
A funeral for Peter Parker
My friend Cody Debbs brought his new pet over the other day, a little tarantula that he had named Petey Parker.
Maybe he should have named it Patty Parker, Cody tells me as we stroked the back of this hairy spider. It could be a girl, he says. There’s no way to tell them apart.
We talked about the fun we could have putting Petey, or Patty, in Mrs. Miller’s desk. She’d open the drawer, see him or her and scream and run out of the room.
We’d never do that to you, Mrs. Engstrom. We saw how you squished that ant that wandered into your classroom last month. We wouldn’t want that to happen to Petey, or Patty.
Anyway, we got to playing Grand Theft Auto and didn’t notice that Petey, or Patty, had climbed out of his box and had gone exploring until Mom called for us to come downstairs. She had women friends over for tea, and they were all sitting around the table staring at Mrs. Tidewater’s cup. “Is that yours?” Mom said, pointing at the cup.
I ventured a peek inside, and I guess I must have sucked in a lungful of air.
“It’s Petey,” I said to Cody.
Petey, or Patty, must have liked tea . . . a lot because it had crawled into Mrs. Tidewater’s cup and must have drank until it drowned.
I picked Petey, or Patty, out, and he was a goner, so we decided to hold a funeral for him in the bathroom. Cody sniffled back a tear as he said some words over the soaked body of his pet, and then we flushed him down the toilet to goldfish heaven where we thought he’d be happy.
Can tarantulas swim?