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High Plains Holiday

High Plains Holiday


Book excerpt

Prologue

Garden City, KS 1873

Kristina Heitschmidt hurried north along the the rutted wagon tracks beyond the edge of town, where an abandoned soddie doubled as a hideout and clubhouse. I'm so late, she fretted, noting the position of the sun high overhead. I'm always late these days. Jesse's sure to tease. In the last year or so, she'd been unable to drag herself away from the piano and out to play. Allison, her best friend, also took piano lessons, but unlike Kristina, she saw the hours spent slaving on the instrument as a waste of time. Time that could be better spent playing train robbers or cowboys and Indians with Jesse and Wesley. Last year, I felt the same way, but that was before the new pastor came to town. Reverend Miller's wife, an accomplished pianist and organist, began teaching the children. Only Kristina really seemed to have taken to it though. A year later, her enthusiasm hadn't waned a bit. I love playing music as much as I love playing with my friends. How strange.

Beside the remains of a decaying barn, an odd shape loomed on the horizon, like half a massive barrel sunk deep into the soil, the prairie grass growing on the surface. The front door had long since fallen in, and it gaped like an open mouth. Kristina shuddered, even though she knew the interior would be cool on a hot summer's day. A fat black spider scuttled up the doorjamb. Ugh. Be brave, girl. They already think you're a baby. Don't act like one too. She hurried inside and squealed as Jesse grabbed her, pulling her to one side and shoving a pistol made from a bit of bent lead pipe against her temple.

“Kristina!” Allison shrieked, pulling a black bandana down from her face. She wore a handkerchief over her blond pigtails and her blue eyes sparkled with the fun of the game.

“Stop or I shoot,” Jesse hollered, attempting to tip back his oversized hat and accidentally knocking it to the dirt floor of the pioneer home. Kristina heard the soft thump as it landed. Now, she knew, his yellow hair would shine like a beacon, even in the dimness of the room.

“Let her go,” Wesley said in a soft, authoritative voice, stepping carefully into the room in a pair of oversized spurs. One caught on the threshold and he stumbled, falling into Jesse and knocking the smaller boy off balance. The bit of pipe jammed into Kristina's temple with bruising force as the three of them went down in a heap.

“Owwww,” Kristina whined, clutching the side of her head.

“Aw, stop crying, you baby,” Jesse replied curtly.

“I'm going to have a big bruise,” Kristina accused, “and it's all your fault.”

“All Wes's, you mean,” he protested. “He fell, not me. Besides, with all those spots on your face, no one will notice.”

“Shut up,” Kristina said, uttering the foulest word any of them knew. She stuck out a trembling lip.

Wesley sighed in disgust. “A baby and a girl. Maybe you shouldn't play with us anymore.”

“Nuh uh,” Allison protested. “Kristina is my best friend. If she doesn't play, neither do I. Are you okay, sweetie?”

“I guess,” Kristina sulked.

“I thought I was your best friend,” Wesley said, sounding hurt. He pulled himself from the tangle of limbs, accidentally poking Jesse in the arm with one of the spurs.

“Hey, watch it,” the boy protested.

“You are,” Allison replied. “You all are. The four of us will be friends forever.”

Chapter 1

Garden City, KS 1888

“And last but not least, the church.” James Heitschmidt waved a hand towards the steepled structure.

Big church for such a small town, Reverend Cody Williams thought as his gaze traveled up the façade, from the thick stone foundation to the tip of the steeple, where a gleaming wooden cross crowned an open-sided bell tower. He noticed the hefty bell, visible from the street. Maybe a bit too big. Lower down, above the arched doorway, a round stained-glass window bore an image of a green hill, on which three crosses strained towards a blue sky. It was simply rendered, but no less lovely because of it.

A gust of icy wind shot down the street and straight through the young man's thin wool coat into his flesh, chilling him deep. Time to go inside my new place of business. After five years in Galveston's soupy heat, this cold, blustery town will take some getting used to.

Cody mounted the groaning wooden steps and reached for the handle of one of the peaked white doors. At that moment, a blast of sound so loud, it nearly sent him tumbling on his back, reverberated through the building. The low, rumbling vibration made his eardrums feel expanded, as though he had dived deep underwater.

The tone was followed by another, a little higher, and then a third before being replaced by a lilting melody. Now Cody recognized the tune from his required music classes at seminary. 'All My Heart This Night Rejoices' by Johann Sebastian Bach. Looks like the church organist is rehearsing Christmas music, but with the first of December being only a week away, it's hardly surprising. Recovering his balance and composure, Cody grasped the wrought-iron handle and hissed as the frigid metal seemed to burn his bare hand. I need gloves as soon as possible. Of course, my meager savings were spent on getting here, so I'll would have to wait until I begin earning a salary first. I wonder how much they'll pay me. The letters said 'a comfortable living wage' but who knows what that means.

He stepped over the high threshold, making a mental note not to stumble on it. It won't be good for the new pastor to be seen tripping into his own church in front of the local parishioners. James followed, closing the door behind him. The weak November sunshine barely penetrated the stained-glass windows that lined each of the two longer interior walls. One side featured six scenes from the Old Testament: The Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, the Ten Commandments, the walls of Jericho, David and Goliath, and finally, Elijah taking on the prophets of Baal while stones and water burned. Cody glanced across the room to the other side. Just as he suspected, a Nativity Scene, the boy Jesus at the temple, Jesus turning water into wine, the healing of the blind man, a crucifixion, and the scene of the empty tomb. All of Christian faith summed up in twelve simple, rather crudely rendered collections of glass and lead. They were far from works of art, but Cody preferred their simplicity. They felt more real this way, something everyday folk could understand. I just love taking faith out of the pulpit and into the community, out of Sunday and into every moment of life. Lord willing, I'll be able to do the same here.

The organist finished the piece and immediately launched into a lively rendition of 'Joy to the World'. Cody smiled. The man can play really well. The rumbling bass of the foot pedals kept time while fingers plunked out a rolling counterpoint. He heard a soft thump as the musician changed the stops, and the new verse had a different quality than the previous one. From his spot at the back of the church, Cody couldn't see the organ. It stood directly above him, on the balcony, but the pipes wrapped around the upper walls clear to the front, behind his pulpit. Seems odd that a church in such a small town would have such a magnificent organ. Perhaps it was built specifically for this musician. If so, it was worth the exorbitant cost. I hope the man isn't too high strung.

Cody regarded the pulpit again. Unlike the rest of the church, the plain, unadorned brown box for him to set his notes on suited him fine. He felt no need for displays of extravagance. Though I have to admit, it rather spoils the effect created by the rest of the room. On either side of the aisle on which he stood, stretched row after row of gleaming wooden pews, each with a scarlet cushion running its entire length. The wooden arms scrolled into ornate patterns of vines and leaves, which extended onto the backs, decorating racks filled with Bibles and hymnals.

Darker than the pews, the wooden floor shone in a high polish. At the front, a long communion rail with delicate spindles curved around the single step, split in the center by his pulpit. Before each one lay another cushion, also deep red, for people to kneel on while receiving the bread and wine. Overhead, the vaulted ceiling gleamed white, except for the corner in which a potbellied stove provided heat to the room. A ring of soot had gathered around the chimney, he noticed.

The realization drew his eyes to the ceiling, where dozens of mahogany beams crossed each other over and over.

The song ended, and James boomed out, “Stop practicing now, Kristina, and come down here. There's someone I want you to meet.” His Kansas twang still sounded strange to Cody, who had lived his whole life in Texas. Then the words registered.

Kristina? But… that's a woman's name. Who is Kristina and where is she? Why is James calling her?

A clatter of high-heeled boots drew Cody's gaze to the steps, and he turned to see those boots appearing at the top of the twisting staircase. Flashes of dove gray leather, almost hidden under a skirt of the same color, covered a figure that nipped in sharply at the middle, before swelling again to fill a white shirtwaist, buttoned to the neck and covered with a black crocheted shawl. At last, he could see the face, and his own went slack with astonishment. This is the organist? She's not even old. Her braided bun was gold, not silver, and gleamed with hints of red, even in the weak sunlight. The face, though smooth and unlined, made his smile fade.

Kristina was not a lovely girl. Heavy freckles dotted every visible inch of her skin from her short, upturned nose to her firm, stubborn jaw. She rather resembles a bulldog, he realized. On the other hand, her eyes sparkled with turquoise warmth, like the Gulf of Mexico, and her full, pink slips curved into a perfect Cupid's bow.

“Reverend Williams, this is my daughter, Kristina Heitschmidt. Kristina, this is our new pastor, Reverend Cody Williams.”

Kristina gave him a frank, appraising look and extended her hand. He grasped it. She wore no gloves, and her fingers felt nearly as cold as his.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Heitschmidt,” he drawled, wondering how his Texas accent would sound to them.

“Likewise, Reverend. We've heard so much about you.” She smiled, and her face changed from bulldog to appealing puppy. He couldn't help but smile back. “Dad,” Kristina scolded, “you never told me Reverend Williams was so young and handsome. All the young girls will be chasing him.”

Cody colored at the unexpected compliment. He knew he was not a bad looking man. The mirror this morning had shown black hair with a hint of a curl, bright blue eyes, smooth skin, but nothing so handsome as to cause jealousy. I hope that's true. I want to stir up this town, but not in that way. Being chased by a bunch of silly young girls would be a nuisance and a distraction.

“Was that you playing the organ?” Idiot, of course it was. What a stupid question. Something about this woman made him feel slightly off-balance, as though he couldn't quite draw in a full breath.

“Yes,” she replied, lowering her burnished gold eyebrows. The movement caused her short nose to wrinkle.

“Where did you learn to play like that?”

She smiled, though it didn't look altogether convincing. “From the previous pastor's wife. She had no children, so she sort of adopted me when I was six, taught me piano, organ, and voice.”

“Excellent. Well, Miss Heitschmidt, you and I will have to get together soon and discuss the music at this church. I assume you would like to continue playing?”

His graceless question didn't sit well with her, he could see. Her lowered eyebrows drew together until they looked like auburn storm clouds. “Of course. Was that in question?”

Her stern regard made him feel off-kilter. “No, um, naturally not,” he spluttered, “I mean…”

“Do you play the organ, Reverend Williams?” she asked her voice soft in a way that warned him he was on thin ice.

“No.”

“Then I had better continue, don't you think? Unless you've married an organist since we received your letter a month ago?”

Where did that sarcastic tone come from? This girl appeared as high-strung as he'd feared the church musician would be.

“Kristina,” James said, laying a hand on his daughter's arm.

She spared her father a glance, before returning a stern gaze to Cody. How did eyes that resemble the warm ocean suddenly turn to ice?

“I'm unmarried, and I'm hiding no replacement organist in my valise,” he replied, unable to suppress a hint of irritation. “Your playing was lovely, and I would very much like for you to continue as you always have.”

She glared another moment, letting the silence grow strained. At last, she nodded. “Thank you. I plan to do so. It was a pleasure to meet you, Reverend. Now, if you will excuse me, I have dinner to prepare. Dad.” She nodded at James and headed for the door.

“Kristina, set an extra place. The Reverend will be dining with us tonight.”

Keeping Katerina

Keeping Katerina

Devin's Dilemma

Devin's Dilemma