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High Plains Holiday

High Plains Holiday

Book excerpt

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. UghBe 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.”

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 lifeLord willingI’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.

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