I write more short stories
This is my second collection of Christmas short stories, released in 2013.
The three stories in this book are all set in eastern Tennessee, in and around the Smoky Mountains, home territory for defense lawyer AJ Garrison . . . and she is featured in one of the stories.
The lead story, though, features a circuit-riding preacher in 1936. He needs money to build a hospital for tuberculosis victims. The wife of a lumber baron who can provide it wants something in return, for Preacher John Hepsebah Lawless to front a project for her and her husband, the first Santa train . . . to bring Christmas to the poor families in their area of the mountains.
Here's how that story starts:
Word came to the preacher–Preacher John Hepsebah Lawless–that a message waited for him at the bishop’s office.
“Know what it’s about?” he asked a fellow circuit rider who, unlike him, worked the lowland churches out of Pigeon Forge.
“Nary an idee. Might you be in some trouble, John?”
“Lordy, no. Least I don’t think so. Still I’d better get up there and beard the old lion.”
Lawless pushed Sandy, the Belgian work horse that carried the beefy man from one home church to the next in the high back country of the Smoky Mountains, through three-foot deep snowdrifts to Sevierville.
At Wilson’s Livery, he led the exhausted animal into a stall, the building warm from the body heat of a dozen other horses. There was the sweet smell of clover hay. Lawless liked that. He forked a bunch into the feed bunk for Sandy before he toweled her dry.
From the livery, Lawless hoofed it to the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia depot, intent on catching the Number Eleven to Knoxville. An intercity bus service connected the foothills country town to the university city, but most people skipped it in the winter for the never-fail Mountain Hummer, as the ETV&G was known.
Lawless wasn’t much for riding in the Hummer’s passenger cars. The seats were too small for someone who tipped the scale outside the local drugstore at two hundred forty pounds. Lawless could wedge himself in. When he had to, he took an aisle seat so he had somewhere to park his legs. Then people had to step over him, so he preferred to ride in the caboose where he could sprawl out on a bench seat and pass the time with the conductor. And there was coffee, lots of it from the pot the conductor kept on the caboose’s stove. On this short run, Lawless had the end car and the coffee to himself. The conductor stayed forward in the passenger cars.
The hot brew warmed Lawless’s innards. That and the heat from the stove soon placed him in the arms of Morpheus. There Lawless snoozed until a jostling woke him, the Number Eleven rocking through several switches on its way into the Southern rail yard at Knoxville. He roused himself, shook out the kinks, gathered his gear, and took to shank’s mare for the ten blocks to the bishop’s office on Commerce Street.
A tiny woman–tiny compared to Lawless’s mass–answered his knock. She fascinated him every time he came, so bird-like, with the energy of a house wren, forever flitting about the bishop’s offices, twittering on without end.
She smiled up at Lawless, chirping, “Come in, come in, but do be careful not to shake snow all over. Mister Lawless, isn’t it wonderful, this snow we have, just perfect for an old-fashioned Christmas, wouldn’t you say? The bishop’s expecting you, he’s been expecting you for two weeks now, wherever have you been? You didn’t fall in with some Cherokee woman up there in the wilds, did you? The both of us were worried so, when we hadn’t heard from you. You know, Mister Lawless, you really ought to get a telephone–they’re calling it an Ameche now–or the least you could do is write to us once in a while. What is going on up there in the mountains? Have you started any new churches we should put on our list, deacons we should be mailing things to?”
Lawless knew better than to interrupt. He set his saddlebags and bedroll in a corner by the street door where he could retrieve them quickly if he had to make a hurried escape. Then he pulled off his mackinaw and caulk boots. He tossed them in the corner as well, and his striped railroad cap that someone had given him. Next he shook the snow out of the fringes of his hair and his great red beard, creating a small blizzard in the front hallway.
“Are you ever going to get a haircut, Mister Lawless?” the little woman went on. “For as long as the bishop and I have known you, you have looked like the wild man of Borneo. And that beard, really. Methodist ministers just don’t have beards anymore. Beards went out with the tintypes and button shoes. Now you just wait here, and I’ll tell the bishop. And please be careful of the carpeting–your pant legs are dripping.”
Lawless glanced down.
Miss Angelica Smith flitted away, down the hall to a side office. “I just don’t understand what it is about Mister Lawless,” she said to the person inside, “but he never says anything. Leaves it all to me to carry both sides of the conversation.”
“I do share your concern,” came an answering voice, a man’s voice. Lawless recognized it–the bishop, Walter Atherton. “Miss Angelica, please, if you would be so kind, send that raggedy old man in here. I’ll see if I can pry three words out of him. And would you get us a coffee?”
Miss Angelica Smith flitted back up the hallway. “The bishop will see you,” she said and fluttered on to her own office.
Lawless, in his stockinged feet, shlepted his way down the hall, wondering whether he was about to have his ears blistered. He tapped on the doorjamb.
Atherton, at his desk, laid his spectacles aside. He massaged the bridge of his nose. “Little John, how are you?”
“Am I in trouble, bish?”
“Could be.” Atherton pulled open a side drawer. He brought out three envelopes, each a pastel blue. “John, what are you doing, getting letters from a married woman? And an Episcopalian?”
Lawless’s brow furrowed.
“Well, speak up, man.”
Atherton held out the envelopes.
Lawless took them. He peered at the back of one, then the next, and the third. Mrs. A.G. King . . . Mrs. A.G. King . . . Mrs. A.G. King . . .
He turned the last one over. It was addressed to him, care of the bishop’s office, he saw it, and in the lower right corner, a single word–‘Urgent.’
Atherton, his triple chins suggesting he had missed few church dinners, settled back in his leather chair. “I know who she is, John. Her husband’s a lumber baron up there in those mountains of yours. He owns a railroad. I almost opened the letters.”
Lawless tore the end off the envelope. He blew into it and, with two fingers, extracted the enclosure. He read it. “Bishop, it says here she’s got something for me at the rail yard. No mention of what it is, just that I got to get it to Townsend before the Twenty-Fourth.”
Lawless stuffed the letter in his pocket. He took a seat on the bishop’s side chair, and it creaked beneath his weight. There Lawless opened the second envelope. As he read, his mouth gaped.
“John, is there a problem?”
Miss Angelica Smith bustled in with a silver tray on which rode not cups of coffee, but two steaming mugs of mulled cider. “Joy of the season,” she said to Lawless as she set one of the mugs on the desk beside him. She held the tray out to the bishop. “Joy of the season.”
“Joy of the season to you, Miss Angelica.” The bishop inhaled the aroma rising from his mug of cider. “It is a joy, and you, Miss Angelica, are a blessing.”
“Oh yes, thank you,” Lawless mumbled while he folded his letter.
“Well, I see you got four words out of him,” the house wren said. She backed out of the office and closed the door.
Atherton drummed his fingers on his desk as he peered at his circuit rider. “Your letter, John?”
Lawless let out a low whistle. “As some of the men in my mountain congregations would say, it’s the damnedest thing.”
The bishop choked. He spit a mouthful of cider back in his mug.
“Bishop, I’m sorry. Let me start over.” Lawless held the letter between his index fingers. He leaned toward Atherton. “It’s a miracle. Missus King says her husband’s going to give us everything we need to build a hospital.”
The bishop choked a second time.
“Your drink a bit hot, bish?”
Atherton dabbed a handkerchief at the driblets of cider on his chins. “No, no, it’s just that–John, what hospital?”
“There’s so much sickness back there deep in the mountains. Missus King was traveling with me, and she saw some of it. I told her what we needed was a hospital. Actually, Doc Schroeder called it a sanatorium because our biggest problem right now is consumption.”
“Just a minute. Back up here just a minute. Have I got this right, John? You were traveling around in those mountains of yours with this married woman?”
“Was her husband with her? With, you know, with the both of you?”
“No sir. Mister King doesn’t get out of Townsend much, except to go up to Pittsburgh on business.”
Atherton set his mug down, his hand trembling. “So now–you–uhmm, ahh–you, a man of the cloth, you were alone with this married woman, traveling together?”
“Yessir, some of the time.”
“John, I’m not sure I want to hear the rest of this unless we were to adjourn and go down the street to Saint Mary’s, and you were to agree to go in for confession.”
“Bishop, what are you talking about?”
“You and this married woman traveling together.”
“But Doc Schroeder was with us. Well, most of the time, anyway.”
“And his wife, she was there, too?”
“Oh no, she lives in Maryville. Never goes up in the mountains.”
Lawless straightened up. “Wait a minute, you think there’s something–”
“What else can I think?”
“Look, bish, this woman’s got money. I figured she might help some of the families her husband had thrown out of work if she could see them. She agreed to if I’d guide her to Rainbow Falls.”
“But you said a hospital. What’s a hospital got to do with helping people out of work?”
“It’s caring for the sick. People out of work, bishop, they’d rather help themselves. They don’t want charity.”
“This sure sounds like charity to me.”
Lawless slapped the letter on the desk. “Good gosh, bishop, our congregation at Fish Camp is going to build it themselves. And the lumber and all, well, maybe that’s just justice. After all, most of these people worked for the lumber companies ’til the companies quit cuttin’ in their areas. Maybe this is–well, call it delayed pay.”
Lawless ripped the end off the third envelope. A small note fluttered to the floor as he pulled out a letter. Lawless opened it. He let his gaze play down the page.
“Hallelujah!” Lawless jumped up and shook the letter in the bishop’s face. “Look at this! Just look at this!”
Atherton made a grab for the paper.
“Missus King got the money! One of her friends in Philadelphia says she’ll put up the money to run the hospital. Bishop, this thing isn’t going to cost anybody up there a Lincoln-head penny.”
Lawless paced, his mind in overdrive. “Bishop, God told me this was never to be a district thing. This is His people’s project. This is Jesus’s people doing for themselves, maybe with a little help from an interested soul here and there, but it’s them doing for themselves.”
The bishop’s secretary bustled in. She plucked up the note from the floor. “Mister Lawless, I don’t appreciate you littering our offices. You may live in a pig sty up there, but down here in Knoxville we don’t.”
She slapped the note in his hand and stalked out.
Lawless leaned out the door to apologize, but the house wren had already flown from sight. He gazed at the note, lined paper torn from a child’s writing tablet. Lawless recognized the pencil scrawl. He collapsed on the side chair where he wadded the paper into a ball.
Atherton stared at him.
Lawless threw the balled-up page in the bishop’s wastebasket. “The park won’t give us the land.” He stared out the window, a man lost, empty, as if his heart had been torn from him.
Atherton retrieved the note. He smoothed it on his desk before he pulled his spectacles over and hooked the bows over his ears.
“Who’s this Boggs Kuhfuss?” he asked when he got to the bottom of the lined page.
“My deacon at Fish Camp. He must have sent the note to Missus King, and she put it in with her letter without reading it.”
“And a Mister Hansen?”
“Per Hansen, the park’s assistant warden. Bish, we wanted to lease some land for the hospital. Hansen said he’d take it to the superintendent. You read it. Boggs says we got turned down–all our work, all our prayers, why’d we ever bother?”
Atherton fixed his gaze on his circuit rider. “Superintendent? The park superintendent?”
“John, that’s Henry Wentworth. Don’t you know him?”
Lawless slumped on his chair.
“He’s on the board at our Sevierville church. Of course, you don’t know him. You never visit that church.” Atherton pushed away from his desk. He leaned out into the hallway. “Miss Angelica?”
“Would you get Henry Wentworth on the telephone? He’s at the national park office in Gatlinburg. Tell whoever answers that God’s calling.”
“What are you doing?” Lawless asked.
Atherton shushed him with a wave of his hand.
Small footsteps hurried down the hall, and then the house wren stood perched in the doorway of the bishop’s office, looking most pleased with herself. “Mister Wentworth is on the Ameche.”
“Miss Angelica, you are a miracle worker.” Atherton swept the receiver up from his desk telephone and pressed it to his ear. “Henry? . . . No, this isn’t God,” he said, chuckling. “This is the bishop . . . How’s the wife, Henry?”
Atherton sat down on his leather chair. He leaned back, a hand cupped behind his head. “And the children? . . . Got any snow down there? . . . That’s nice. We’ve got some up here, makes the city look like a Christmas card. Henry, why I’m calling, my minister of missions is here in my office. He works up in your park. . . . Yes, we’ve got a church up there at Fish Camp, and my minister of missions tells me you turned down their request for land for a hospital . . . You didn’t know this was a Methodist thing? Well, your man must have forgotten to tell you . . . Uh-huh, yes, it does have the district’s blessing . . . You say you still can’t authorize a lease for that land? . . . Well, what’s it going to take, Henry? . . . You’d have to buck it to Washington? . . . Henry, those people are up to their eyebrows, fighting this depression. They’re not going to take kindly to being bothered with a small-potatoes thing like this. How do you think this is going to look on your record? . . . That’s not important to you?”
Atherton came forward, fire in his eyes. He planted his elbows on his desk. “Well, Henry, let me ask you, how do you like your job? . . . You like it just fine? I’m glad to hear that because I know the people who got you appointed to that job, and three of them are devout, upstanding Methodists. Now, Henry, I don’t want you to take this as a threat, but a couple telephone calls and you won’t have a job. . . . You say you think you could see your way clear to giving this a second think? . . . Well, that’s mighty Christian of you. Tell me, Henry, when could you give it a second think? . . . Right now? . . . Excellent. Excellent decision. Henry, would you do the paperwork on that lease today and get it on up to our Fish Camp congregation? It’d make a mighty nice Christmas present for them, don’t you think? . . . Yes, yes, God’s speed. I’m praying for you . . . Yes, and you have a good Christmas, too.”
Atherton placed the receiver back on the telephone’s cradle, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Miss Angelica Smith gazed at the bishop, radiant. “It appears you are the miracle worker.”
He gave a modest wave. “How about you refill our mugs?”
She collected the tray and mugs and disappeared.
Atherton, twirling his spectacles by one of their bows, looked at Lawless. “Is it going to be a good Christmas, John?”